The Next Day
Zokalaroo clambered into the disarmed torpedo shell and hunkered down for what he knew was to be a miserable ride. The black-ops team manning the Federation ghost vessel on which he was being transported had prepared him as best they could with hologram simulations but they also assured him that the holo-training didn't do justice to the real thing. Oddly enough, he couldn't find a single team member who had actually done an insertion this way. Those who seemed well-versed on the tactic just smiled knowingly without sharing what that knowledge was.
"OK, Chimp! We are GO in 15 minutes. Star Fleet has managed to clear the way with the planet's authorities so they'll look the other way. That doesn't mean nobody else is watching the skies so we still do it like we planned," confirmed Chief.
This moniker of 'Chief' wasn't a title of rank in his case. Rather, it was his job. He was the top man of the team. Zoka found it awkward, calling people by their tasks rather than names. Beyond awkward to the point of irritating was the team's seeming discomfort with knowing his real identity. That unease went so far as his being tagged 'Chimp' in the initial briefing with Chief and Sniper, who was the second in command. In the end few on board actually knew him as Zokalaroo Goth.
He didn't know exactly why this bothered him so much, but it did. While many previous hosts blathered into his mind about the benefits to be found in this level of anonymity, he eagerly longed to get out of such sterile, cold company. At least where he was going he would be able to interact with real people with real names even if, as he well knew, most of them would prefer to kill him than share those names.
Not aware that Zoka wasn't paying attention, Chief went on with the last minute briefing. "The torpedo is going to enter the atmosphere at an angle, making it look like a simple meteor. As you enter atmo, the shell casing is going to get solar-hot. It may start to glow. You'll be fine encased in a localized force field along with super chilled air. Now that air is going to heat up too, so don't panic when you feel it.
"At 160.93 kilometers up, that's about 100 miles Chimp, the outer casing is going to burn off. There is an inside casing that is designed to slow your entry. Initially you'll be screaming through the sky at around 23 kilometers per second, over 51, 000 miles per hour. Once you've slowed to 800 miles per hour the force field will expand bursting the inner casing. If it all goes according to plan it will look just like a meteor broke in two and both halves incinerated in atmo.
"Once you are in free fall, arch hard! Get stable! Then use your wrist compass to get your bearings and track on an azimuth of 225 degrees. Hold that heading until you reach 10,000 feet. At that point you'll need to flare to slow your descent and to begin to scout your landing site. We reviewed three potential ones but you may have to improvise. Deploy your chute no higher than 700 feet because remember, we are doing this in full day light so you can see where you are going to come down. If our calculations are correct, you will still need to make your way south-west for another twenty or thirty miles after you hit the ground.
"There are no provisions for extraction. I have been made to understand you will make your own…'arrangements.' But are you sure you don't want Commo to fit you up with some device to let us know you landed safely before we leave? We could even hang around cloaked for a day or two?"
"Do you usually do that sort of thing on missions?" asked Zoka well aware that none of this was in the original brief.
"Never! But my operatives usually aren't little kids, either. I've followed my orders up to this point, but I sure as hell argued against them every step of the way."
It was the first and only moment of humanity Zoka had seen from Chief the entire month they spent together. It unnerved him.
"Then no," answered Zoka feeling uncomfortable over the man's emotional gesture suddenly comprehending the cold value of all the anonymity. "Just stick to the plan. Fire the torpedo and immediately break orbit."
"All right, Chimp. It's your call. Good hunting!" Chief wrapped his hard, beefy hand around Zoka's tiny one and gave it a firm shake. He then called over his shoulder, "Tech! Tuck him in and button it up. And don't forget the lullaby!"
Chief winked at Zoka before turning on his heel and leaving the torpedo bay. Tech now squatted beside the torpedo shell holding a small electronic pad in his hand.
"Alright, Chimp. Lie flat. That's it. Now with the force field. Still OK?"
"I'm good," answered Zoka somewhat amused at how the energy shield slightly muffled the noises from outside while inside he sounded as if he were speaking from the bottom of a soup can.
"Next, the chilled air gets beamed in," continued Tech tapping on his pad. "How's that?"
"C-c-cold!" shivered Zoka.
"You'll be plenty warm in a few minutes! Now to seal you in and we're done."
"Hey, Tech! Now that we are GO, I want to ask you something."?"
"What's on you mind, Chimp?"
"Why do people just smile at me when I ask if they'd ever dropped like this?"
"You're kidding, right Chimp?"
Tech looked at Zoka's face and saw he was in earnest. "Didn't anyone tell you this is a prototype? No one's ever done it before outside holo-training. We all assumed you knew you were the test monkey. Seems woe is you, Chimp!" The man stressed the nickname in such a way as to imply Zoka should have figured that out before now.
Without another word Tech slid the cover over the torpedo's opening and ratcheted in the seals. When he was finished Zoka heard a soft knocking on the case.
"That's it, Chimp. You are good to go. Listen. I know you got the skills so when this is over for you, find us and drop a communiqué. We are all pulling for you, so let us know you've made it. Yeah?"
There was another farewell knock followed by silence. Zoka lay inside the torpedo case and despite his best efforts could not prevent himself imagining he was lying in a coffin. Much to his relief he suddenly felt the lifting of the shell and the jostling of it being placed into the torpedo tube. Mere seconds later, he was flattened by an incredible g-force which nearly rendered him unconscious. He knew he had just been fired into open space. As suddenly as it hit him the pressure dissipated and for over a minute he slipped weightless through the void.
The respite was all too brief for Zoka as his canister unnervingly began to rattle as it entered the atmosphere. Just as Chief had described the temperature was climbing drastically. The torpedo's skin did redden, then yellowed, then began to glow so white hot that he had to shut his eyes against the brightness of it.
What began as simple turbulence was now joint jarring violence. He recalled the terror of his crash landing on the moon orbiting Celestus 8 where all this began for him and it was as nothing compared to this. If it were not for the force field encasing him, he would have been beaten to death. Even with its protection he was being slammed mercilessly against the inside of the shell.
A massive and unexpected jolt made his teeth painfully clack together and announced the outer skin had burned off and the speed dampers had engaged. That the drop was thus far going as planned did little to calm his terror. He tried to prepare himself mentally for the next phase, the free fall, but as he had no clue when it would start, it was difficult to maintain his focus on it with so much chaos going on in the interim.
Just as if he had been thrown into a lake before having the chance to take a breath he began gasping and flailing wildly as he suddenly found himself in open air. He arched as hard as he could and after a few tumbling spins settled into a controlled free-fall. From here on, all his movements would need to be made in symmetry otherwise his stable fall would collapse into flat spins or head-over-heels tumbling.
Moving his right arm under his face while offsetting its new position by sliding his left over his head and in toward the center he checked his wrist compass for the direction he was facing and his altitude. He returned to stable falling and slightly leaning his shoulders toward his hip, spun to his right, recovered and rechecked his compass. Having not achieved the desired heading of 225 degrees he repeated the turn in smaller doses until satisfied he stretched himself out in the air with pointed toes and locked joints sending him streaking across the sky.
Despite his wearing goggles his eyes watered as the wind made them sting and his cheeks flapped like the loose skin of an old man. The air blasting past him was slapping him hard and riddled him with small vibrations while roaring in his ears. Below, the ground was rushing in on him at an alarming speed. Twice he felt the need to halt his forward movement and check his altimeter and compass.
Finally the time came when he was to begin searching for a landing zone. As he was traveling over the ground he tried to identify any of the landmark features from the aerial photographs they had gone over in briefings but none of the ground below looked familiar. Just so, now that he was again in a stable arched position he was unable to recognize a single predetermined landing zone. Abandoning the attempt he started to seek any open space large enough to land.
He selected a small rectangular field surrounded by forest. It was obviously manmade and Zoka had no idea what its purpose could have been. It was much too small for farming and yet too big for a personal garden. Whatever its use, he threw his chances in with it and made his way for it.
Once closer to the ground he stopped his maneuvering just over the tree line at the western end and fell flat. Just as he had practiced, he released a small red ribbon which fell faster than he was as it unfurled. Once it was open he noticed its path took it behind him into the trees he had just passed over telling him that the wind was coming across the field towards him.
At 650 feet he popped his parachute and broke free his steering toggles. He held course straight into the wind and with a gentle thump landed neatly on the soft dirt and green grass of the field. Hastily, lest somebody had observed his landing or just happened along, he unharnessed himself from his parachute and stuffed it along with his altimeter-compass into a small duffle bag, the only other piece of equipment he had brought. Once it was all packed inside he broke a seal sewn into the seam of the bag and ran into the wood line. Taking cover behind a large tree he raised himself up just enough to see the bag over its roots.
The bag began to glow and shimmer. A high pitched whine softly began and steadily increased in volume until the bag vanished with a soft popping sound. The only tell tale sign of its ever having existed was the smallest of scorching on the ground where it had once been. Having completed the first stage of his mission he lay back against the trunk of the tree exhausted. The excitement, fear, exertion and beating of the last hour left him spent.
*You gotta move, Zoka,* the voice of Braul said.
"Now you are going to talk to me?" addressed Zoka aloud to all the symbiant's past hosts at once. "where were you all when I needed you? When I was so scared I nearly wet myself falling through the sky like some flaming meteor? No advice then? NO! But now you want to tell me I can't catch my breath?"
*You can't just lay here, Little Soldier,* the General commanded into his mind.
Zoka made an extremely rude reply with his thoughts.
*Tired or not,* an espionage officer named Hailene chimed in, *you have got to keep moving. If you stop, you die.*
In an instant he knew that was exactly how Hailene had died in some war long ago. No waiting for the symbiont to share the details, Zoka forced himself to his feet in resignation and set off on part two of the mission. Cutting through the forest and across the occasional field he felt he was eating up those remaining miles Chief told him about in good time. Occasionally he had to duck out of sight from farm workers or others on the road. Gradually, however, these encounters were becoming more frequent and ultimately it made little sense to keep off the main roads any longer.
He stepped out into the open lane and set out without a single vehicle in sight. It was a pleasant walk through very pastoral countryside. The sun was warm but a gentle breeze kept it from being a misery. For a few brief moments he relaxed and forgot the mission long enough to enjoy the open countryside. It had been a long time since he was just a boy on a walk; a long time since Goth had just let him be.
He walked until he spied a farmhouse in a small valley just above a thin river. There were many smaller buildings scattered near the house and across the river were milk cows, sheep, and open fields. It wasn't quite dusk, but it was not far off either. He could either continue his journey or stop for the night in one of the barns and set out again in the morning. Goth was again silent, meaning the choice was entirely up to him.
Worn out from the adrenaline high he had experienced earlier and the long day of walking besides, he decided he'd done enough. Besides, it would much easier to get settled into a secluded hay bin while he still had some evening light to work by. Of course that meant he'd have to be extra careful because the better he could see, the easier he could be seen.
Cautiously he maneuvered his way up to one of the hay barns and satisfied it was empty ducked inside. Creeping through the shadows brought on by the dying day he clambered over the top of a haystack and once on the backside slope of it burrowed down to pass the night.
Working by sense of feel he pulled a field ration bar out of his pants cargo pocket and peeled back the wrapper. He had just taken a bite when a voice rasped through the darkness from an adjacent hay stack, "You stay where you are kid. I don't mind sharing this barn but if you come near me or my stuff in the night, I'll kill you."
Zoka stopped chewing and listened intensely but the mysterious other had gone silent leaving just his hunkering down into the straw to be heard.
Zoka resumed his chewing. Only being able to stand a quarter of the gritty, mud tasting food bar he rewrapped the remaining chunk to save for his breakfast. He too burrowed deeper into the straw when as an afterthought he called softly over to the other, "Hey!"
"What?" asked the other gruffly.
"If you snore, I'll kill you!"
There came a gentle chuckle in response before silence descended on the barn.
Early in the morning Zoka listened to the soft rustling of the straw as the other slithered his way over to where he had spent the night. An hour earlier Hailene woke him from his sleep and urged him to take position in the rafters above. Moving cautiously, with the former spy's coaching streaming through his brain Zoka soundlessly achieved a perch just over where he had lain the night. Now, he watched smirking as the dark form crept to that very spot.
In the dawning light Zoka discovered the creeper was a wiry teenager, either Romulan or Vulcan. Romulans were fairly sparse this far away from the boundaries of their empire. On the other hand, the behavior he was witnessing clashed garishly against the Vulcan reputation for emotional control and application of logic.
Suddenly the boy stopped and stood straight admitting, "I feel your eyes upon me, Trill!"
"You are lucky you can't feel my knife between your ribs," boasted Zoka.
The boy smirked. It was both an insulting taunt and a challenge.
*Just drop down on his head there and teach 'im to belay that guff,* recommended Plax.
"I was looking for food, not a fight. I am of course willing to pay," the pointy-eared boy cajoled hefting a small bag of coins.
"Sure you were," sniped Zoka as he tossed half his leftover food bar to him.
He snatched the bar out of the air and looking at it momentarily, he broke out in a hearty laugh.
"Guess that answers that," said Zoka as he dropped back to the barn floor taking care to stay well out of the others reach.
"Answers what?" asked the boy.
"You're no Vulcan, laughing like that. So all that remains is to explain what a Romulan kid is doing this side of the neutral zone.
"But I am Vulcan! My name is Gang-Pa."
"I'm Zoka, short for Zokalaroo, and you are lying. No Vulcan would ever bust out laughing like that."
Gang-Pa smiled as he seated himself on the straw and took a bite of the food bar. Zoka squatted on his haunches still warily eying this odd Vulcan, not believing for one second he really was one. Yet, the idea of an unaccompanied Romulan was just as incredulous.
"OK. I'll bite. Just how is it that you are a Vulcan if you obviously give your emotions plenty of room to roam? I mean, doesn't that kill your species or something like that?"
Gang-Pa smiled dryly, "Hardly."
"Well?" demanded Zoka beginning to find the boy's staccato answers irritating.
"Vulcans are famous for being the most arrogant snobs in the universe. Naturally those of us who are unable or, as in my case, unwilling to adopt their strict discipline of logic and stoicism are quickly labeled as mentally defective. It is all about keeping up appearances!
"Those like me are institutionalized as children and are either arrested or ostracized as adults. I had enough of the institutionalization part of that life so decided I'd start the ostracism early."
"I never knew about that," said Zoka unable to hide the disappointment he felt. He had always admired the Vulcans. It never occurred to him that the Vulcans had so much as prisons, let alone mental institutions.
"They don't exactly announce it from the mountain tops. Nobody ever pairs crazies with Vulcan society. Even if they did, they'd leave it to the Vulcans to determine their own diagnosis symptoms and…treatment."
Gang-Pa spat the last word so violently that Zoka got the clear impression that his companion's experiences were unpleasant.
"Where you headed?" Zoka asked, changing the subject.
"Logically, I assume the same place you are." Gang-Pa began to chuckle ten broke out in a hearty laughter. Despite it being unnerving to see a Vulcan behave like this, Zoka found the humorous nature of this particular Vulcan somehow endearing. He obviously was a fun loving guy and the boy in Zoka found it alluring.
"And just where might that be?" asked Zoka chuckling along with his newfound companion.
"Why, to the stronghold of you countryman, Mordan Lot! Surely you must be headed there to make your fortune as one of his gladiators fighting in the Orion Syndicate's circuit just as I am! I may not be a traditional Vulcan, but I'm no fool."
"You're right," confirmed Zoka, seeing no reason to lie about his intentions. "What say we journey together?"
"That would be…logical!" answered Gang-Pa before erupting in raucous laughter.