The Shepherd of Zakhbaal

by Bill Bowler


Chapter 1: Five Hundred Years from Now

synopsis

Omar Jones travels to a distant Earth-like planet where he encounters an alien civilization. He is by nature taciturn in the face of personal conflicts and tragedies, but as he approaches his destination he begins to experience strange sensations and emotions. When he reaches his journey’s end, he finds the one thing he thought he had lost forever.


It happened without warning in the clear sky, one thousand feet above the ground. A bright red, one-seater sport craft banked sharp left without signaling and accelerated rapidly, its engine roaring, just as the family wagon in the middle lane increased altitude. The explosion was deafening. People on the ground ran for cover as bits of burnt metal and charred flesh rained down from the sky.

Emergency vehicles raced to the scene, sirens wailing. A crowd gathered and stared up at the black cloud of smoke that hung in the air. Smoldering debris and body parts lay scattered on the ground.

Omar was in his cubicle decoding the signal from Vulpecula when the police arrived to tell him. Teenage driver. Head-on collision. His wife Mary and their baby were dead. After a moment of disbelief and denial, the pain ripped through Omar, tearing his guts. He wanted to scream, to run and hide, but something cold and hard inside him clamped down and left him numb and hollow.

He got up and walked past the officers, out of the building to the parking lot. He drove home alone in silence, stone-faced, blank-eyed, a leaden pallor on his face, white knuckles gripping the wheel. When he reached home, he started drinking.

* * *

News of the accident spread through the base and Colonel Shepherd drove over to Jones’s house the next day. Shepherd’s personal opinion was that Jones was through, that he wasn’t man enough to withstand the shock, didn’t have the backbone. Shepherd had seen men crumble before. He had serious questions now about Jones’s mental health and stability.

The colonel knocked at Jones’s door. No one answered, but the latch was open and Shepherd let himself in. He found Omar in the kitchen slumped at the table, face down in a brown puddle. The room reeked of whiskey. Shepherd saw the bottle and the overturned glass. “Jones.” Shepherd shook him by the shoulder. “Wake up.”

Omar didn’t move. He was out cold.

Shepherd filled a glass at the sink and poured cold water on Omar’s head. “Jones, wake up. Come on. Get with it.”

Omar moaned, opened his bloodshot eyes and tried to focus. “Well, hello, Colonel.”

Omar’s tongue was thick and his voice slurred. He thought for a moment he was going to throw up on the colonel’s immaculate, clean pressed uniform. Shepherd took a step back. Jones was in even worse shape than he had expected. “Pull yourself together, man.”

Omar groaned and put his head down on his arms. “Not today, Colonel.”

Shepherd looked at Omar with disgust. The colonel had nothing but contempt for weakness. “They’ve gone to a better place. Your falling apart won’t bring them back.”

Omar grabbed the bottle by the neck and poured more booze down his throat.

* * *

Colonel Shepherd sat in General Wolffe’s office. Wolffe leaned back in his leather chair and swiveled to gaze out the window at the busy military airfield. Thick, dull clouds hung low in the sky. Drops of rain beat against the windowpane and streamed down.

“We’ve been patient, General,” said Shepherd.

“What’s his status?”

“Drunk. We ought to bust his ass out of here. It’s tough what happened, but there’s too much at stake. He’s finished.”

The general scratched his chin. “I want him on the mission. He’s the best linguist we’ve got, at least he was the best. He was first to recognize the pulse patterns from Vulpecula were a signal. If we make contact, we’ll need to communicate.”

“Bring enough ammo and there’ll be no trouble communicating. These things, whatever they are, won’t be human.” Shepherd’s voice was devoid of affect. He had the focused, emotionless look of a trained killer.

“Let’s hold Jones’s place but pull him off the project for now,” said Wolffe. “Put him on leave of absence. Give him a chance to put the pieces back together.”

“I think it’s a big mistake,” said Shepherd. “He’s not fit. He could compromise the mission.”

“I didn’t ask what you think,” said Wolffe. “Another thing, Colonel. The program has been fast-tracked and the mission has been redefined.”

“What?”

“This is no longer about the signals. It’s about the planet.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The atmosphere, temperature, gravity — it’s all within range. If the signals mean intelligent life and the planet’s inhabited, then they’ll have to make room,” said the general.

“I’m not sure I follow, sir,” said Shepherd.

“Things are heating up,” said Wolffe. “The T-bomb technology has leaked.”

Shepherd’s mouth was set in a grim line, but his lips curled as if he were amused. “Then we hit them hard, now, before they have a chance to construct a device. We drop one right in their lap and wipe them off the map. It’s them or us, general, their way of life or ours. We live free or we go down fighting.”

“The T-Bomb is a deterrent, Colonel. It’s not deployable. Even a small blast could trigger a chain reaction. We can’t risk a first strike. It’s suicide.”

“We may have to take that chance, sir. The enemy is not sane. Human life means nothing to them.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Wolffe. “But contingency plans are in place. If the unthinkable happens, we’ll have to evacuate Earth, the select leadership, I mean, the ones who are irreplaceable in a worst-case scenario, and their immediate families — in case we have to start over.”

“Yes, sir,” said Shepherd.

The general continued, “The goal of Mission X has been redefined. We’re no longer looking for intelligent alien life forms. We’re testing the procedures for emergency evacuation and relocation of the command structure. We won’t live long enough to see the mission through, but we can get it up and running. We’ll know at least if we can get them off the ground and maybe clear the galaxy. The test is classified, and we will continue to maintain the first contact program as cover for the primary mission. Not even the crew can know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want Jones on the mission. Give him some time to pull his act together. Then you go see him.”

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

They put Omar on leave and he left town. He headed north to his cottage, the place where he and Mary, and then Livy, had spent their summers. As he steered the hovercraft up the skyway, he remembered lying on the beach next to Mary. He remembered holding baby Livy above the waves. They were both dead now. Tears welled in his eyes and the pain flared again, but the inner force clamped down and the numbness returned.

Omar stood near the cabin, on a bluff overlooking the beach. One after another, the azure waves rolled in, sparkling in the sunlight and breaking into white foam. They crashed ashore in a hushed roar and then withdrew with a clacking sound across the pebbles.

Behind the cabin, the forest loomed, a bright green canopy with silent shadows beneath. But now the place seemed haunted by specters from the past. Spirits and memories floated in the air, but Omar blocked them from entering his mind and making their presence known.

The door creaked on its hinge when Omar went in. He threw his things on the floor and looked around the room. The rough, unfinished plank walls were bare. A sink and a food fabricator occupied a corner alcove. Along the opposite wall stood a small table with two chairs and a desk with a comp-term.

Omar saw Mary’s empty chair at the table and realized she would never use it again. He swallowed hard. Maybe it had been a mistake to come here? Too many memories. The wounds were too fresh. He sat at the table, choking down his feelings and poured himself a drink.

The days came and went. They slid past in a blur, a thick haze, trivial and stupid now, a waste of time and energy. Omar threw himself into a deep hole and spiraled down towards the bottom. And each time, when he came to, on the floor, on the grass, on the sand, nauseated from the booze, the emptiness was there waiting for him, grinning at him like an idiot, until...

One morning, Omar regained consciousness lying in the tall grass behind the cabin. Through the dense fog that enveloped his brain, he heard a sound, something whimpering nearby. Omar’s head throbbed and sharp pain drilled through the base of his skull, but he forced his dry eyes open and tried to focus. In the brush at the edge of the woods, he saw a young fox, not much more than a pup, with its leg caught in the jaws of a trap.

Omar got to his feet, rubbed his eyes, and stumbled over to the trap. As he knelt down beside it, the wounded animal lowered its ears and bared its fangs. The trap had almost severed its leg.

Omar heard the low growl from the fox’s throat. And then he felt a terrible pain in his own leg, the pain the fox was feeling. Omar felt steel jaws, tearing his own flesh and grinding his bone. With the physical pain came fear and confusion, but not his own. The sensations and emotions were flooding from the wounded animal directly into Omar’s being, overwhelming him.

Omar struggled to understand what was happening to him. The experience was similar to waking from sleep, when the outer world intrudes into the inner, and the self and not-self begin to reconnect and merge. For the first time in his life, Omar realized there was an open channel between himself and another being. Through the agency of the fox cub’s searing pain, Omar had stumbled upon his mind’s own latent ability to connect directly with other minds, at least with certain other minds, perhaps only those attuned somehow to his own frequency or wavelength. Or perhaps the fox’s less complicated mental organization offered fewer obstacles.

The pain of torn flesh and crushed bone seared again through Omar’s being. He fought to separate his own thoughts and feelings from the animal’s, so that he could function. Omar focused his mind and by an extreme exertion of will he forced the external sensations down below the threshold of consciousness. The paralyzing pain receded, the outside world regained clarity, and Omar reached out his hand.

The fox snapped its jaws. Omar felt the sharp needle-pricks and saw blood on his hand. The fox tried to slink away, but the trap chain was taut and the animal could withdraw no further. It snarled at Omar, its eyes red with fury.

Omar spoke gently. “There, boy. Easy now. Don’t move. I won’t hurt you.”

The growl receded deeper into the animal’s throat. Omar felt a current of hopelessness replace the rage and fear that was seeping through his mental blocks. He breathed again and spoke softly. “Easy, boy. I know it hurts.”

The growling stopped. The fox lowered its belly to the ground and began to whimper quietly. It was young, but brave. Omar still felt, just at the edge of consciousness, the excruciating pain of the steel jaws ripping the flesh of his own leg. With a last effort of will, Omar reached out his hand again and touched the fox. The fox cringed, its eyes flashed, but it lay still. Omar began to stroke the soft fur on its head. “Easy now,” he said quietly. “Don’t move and I’ll get you out of there.”

The fox lowered its head on its forepaws and lay quivering in pain. Within himself, Omar felt the wave of fear subside. His eyes raced over the trap and found the safety latch. Careful not to move or rip the leg, Omar released the safety and the iron jaws popped open. Omar carefully lifted the wounded leg up off the jaws and carried the fox in his arms to the cabin.

* * *

“The Chinese T-bomb facility in Nyingchi has been infiltrated by terrorists. A tachyon device has been stolen.”

Colonel Shepherd’s eyes flashed as he listened to General Wolffe’s report. Shepherd’s look was grim and determined. They should have hit them hard already, before this. It was weakness and incompetence to wait, just playing into their hands.

“We have to move the launch date up,” Wolffe continued. “We’ve got forty-eight hours.”

“The crew is ready, sir,” said Shepherd, “hand-picked and the best of the bunch. They understand this is a one-way trip. None of them expects to be coming back, at least to anything resembling the lives they knew. They’re young and single. None of them are tied to wives or families.”

General Wolffe walked to the window and gazed out. A large cargo transport was coming in for a landing on Runway 2. “What about Jones?”

“Jones is holed up in a cabin up north,” said Shepherd. “He’s not replying to messages. No one has heard from him.”

The general sat back down and lit a cigar. “You better go see him.”

Colonel Shepherd flew north up the coast. He considered it a fool’s errand. Jones had dropped off the map. He’d not been heard from for months. Shepherd had already written him off, and good riddance. Jones was unstable to begin with, unreliable and undisciplined. One bad apple like him on board could disrupt the efficient functioning of the entire crew, with fatal results.

Shepherd touched down on the beach, secured the single-engine military air-Hummer and stood for a moment, surveiling the location. It wouldn’t be difficult to mount a sea-borne assault here. The cliffs sheltered the beachhead and broke the surf. You could take fire from the woods, though. You’d have to drop some ordnance first and clear the cover.

The colonel climbed the bluff and walked to the cabin door. He knocked, heard movement inside and, after a moment, the door opened.

The first things Shepherd saw were the shoulder-length hair, the long, unkempt beard, and the shabby clothes. The colonel was revolted by the slovenliness and angered by the implicit challenge to authority and order. But the eyes, gazing back at the colonel from under the thick mop of hair, the eyes were clear and focused, boring through Shepherd, as if reading his thoughts.

“You need a haircut, Jones. And a shave. And some clean clothes.”

“Hello, Colonel. Come in.”

Omar stepped back and Shepherd entered the cabin. The interior was austere. On a small table, a bunch of flowers, yellow and white on long green stems, had been placed in a whiskey bottle filled with water. In one corner, a thin mattress lay on the floor. Sunlight streamed through the windows onto the bare wood.

“The lap of luxury,” said Shepherd.

“I have everything I need, Colonel. More than I can use.”

“No com devices?”

“No.”

“We’ve been trying to reach you.”

“Here I am.”

Shepherd nodded towards the comp terminal on the desk.

“No power,” said Omar.

Omar had never liked Shepherd. The Colonel seemed just a little too gung-ho, a little too close to the edge. Omar knew Shepherd had seen combat in three wars. You had to respect that, but Omar had also seen Shepherd’s collection of human teeth and ears.

“You still drinking?” asked Shepherd. It was more of a statement than a question.

Omar looked at the daisies in the whiskey bottle and a faint smile crossed his face. Then he looked out the window where a soft cloud hung suspended against the infinite blue. Through the open door, he heard the faint roar of the surf and the cries of the gulls circling the beach.

“I was. A futile attempt to self-medicate. I went pretty deep into the toilet. Nice place to drown. But I heard the flushing sound and pulled out of it. The brain was still working somehow through the fog and booze.”

The colonel said nothing. Omar felt Shepherd’s immense strength of will, his cold steel hostility, and something else, something beneath the facade, buried deep, smoldering at the bottom of Shepherd’s being, a lit fuse, an inner tension stretched to the limit, about to snap.

A red furry face appeared at the cabin door, bared its fangs and growled.

Shepherd glanced at the fox. “Friend of yours?”

“Yes,” said Omar. He knelt down and scratched the animal behind its ears. “What’s wrong, boy? It’s just the colonel.”

The fox snarled one last time at Shepherd, then slunk along the wall and curled up in a ball on Omar’s mattress.

“I pulled him from a trap last spring. He still comes by to say hello.”

Shepherd nodded. “So I see. You should put a muzzle on it.”

“He’s usually friendly. But what brings you here, Colonel?”

“I have a message for you,” Shepherd said, matter-of-factly. “Mission X is a go, manned flight to Vulpecula. We’re at T minus 48 hours and counting. Contact is probable and General Wolffe wants a linguist on board. That’s you, for some reason.”


To be continued...

Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler
with thanks to Tim Simmons

To Challenge 460...


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