The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 3: The Welcome Mat|
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.
Omar was with Mary and Livy. They were walking on the beach near the bluff where their cabin stood.
“I missed you.” Mary let go of Livy’s hand, took Omar in her arms and held him close. Her warm, soft embrace filled Omar with happiness and peace.
“Mommy! Daddy! Look!” Livy was holding up a crab shell. “Look what I found!”
Omar kissed Mary tenderly. “I’ll never leave you again,” he told her, “never.”
“I know,” she said.
Livy shook Omar by the arm. “Daddy, what are you doing? Come and look.”
She shook his arm and pulled him into a soundless explosion of white light.
A shooting pain drilled through Omar’s head. He lay still for a moment, taking regular, deep breaths. He felt completely drained, exhausted, too weak to move. With a supreme effort of will, he forced his eyes open.
He was in the freeze pod, still damp from the cryostatic fluid that had drained. Through the lid, he could see the sleek metallic walls of the interior of the flight deck, and the flashing lights and glowing screens on the control consoles. He struggled to collect his thoughts, to orient himself and retrieve his memories.
His body seemed unreal, remote, disconnected from his mind and self. Gradually, he began to feel the dead weight of lethargy and the dull physical ache of prolonged inactivity. For a moment, he feared he might now be paralyzed, and was relieved to discover he could wiggle his fingers. All ten seemed to be working.
With another huge effort, he moved his arm. Then, with numb, stiff, clumsy fingers, he fumbled with the straps, managed to unhook them, and pull the latch. The lid of the freeze pod hissed open.
Omar turned his head and felt the bones in his neck crack. He swallowed hard, took another breath, and pulled himself out of the pod with a groan. His legs buckled, but he grabbed hold of the handle on the lid to support himself. After a moment, the pins and needles in his limbs began to subside as the blood flowed through. Omar stumbled out of the pod chamber onto the flight deck.
In the other chambers, the pod lids were opening and the crew members were unstrapping themselves and emerging, one by one, weak, red-eyed, bearded and disoriented, their long hair hanging unkempt to their shoulders. The only sound was the hissing of the lids and the low hum of the ship’s artificial gravity.
The pilot, Cruz, was the first to join Omar on the flight deck. “Well, we made it. I feel like hell, but the worst is over.”
“You think it’s downhill from here, Captain?” Omar grinned at the young officer.
“Piece of cake,” said Cruz.
Armstrong and Weld came onto the flight deck. Both men were disheveled and jaundiced.
“I think I’m going to puke,” said Weld.
Armstrong opened a plastic container and distributed pills to the men. “These will help.”
Cruz scanned the monitors and reported all systems stable. The men dispersed to their quarters, showered and shaved, cut their hair, and changed into clean flight suits. They returned to the flight deck, looking once again like a military unit. Only Omar kept his beard, neatly trimmed, and tied his long hair back in a ponytail.
Omar felt his strength returning. Once back on the flight deck, he deactivated the meteorite shield, giving them a direct view through the transparent canopy. The surface of a blue-green planet came into view. Through a thin and broken cloud cover, they could see vast oceans and continental land masses.
For several moments, no one spoke. Armstrong broke the silence. “It looks like Earth.”
“Where are we, Captain?” asked Weld.
Captain Cruz sat down at the navigation panel and gently brushed his fingertips across the screen. The monitor lit up and coordinates started scrolling.
“In stationary orbit above HD 188015b. Planet X.”
“Bullseye,” said Weld. “How much time has passed? What year is it?”
“The questions are only partially meaningful,” said Cruz. He checked the relative chronometer. “Eighteen months have passed on board. There’s a four hundred year differential with Earth reference time.”
“Let’s put our toe in the water,” said Weld. He slid a panel from a wall console and launched an external bio-environment probe.
The crew watched and waited. As the probe dropped through the atmosphere towards the surface, indications were all positive: oxygen-rich atmosphere, moderate temperature range outside the poles, .95 g’s on the surface.
“Just like home,” said Cruz.
“It is home, now,” said Weld. The men fell silent for a moment.
“What about the signal?” asked Armstrong. “That’s why we’re here, after all, to make contact.”
“Let’s see if we can pinpoint the source,” said Omar. He flipped a switch and kept his eyes on a small screen. The screen remained blank. Omar toggled the switch but nothing happened. “Something’s jammed,” he said. “We’ve got power but the dish is not extending.”
“Who wants to take a little stroll?” asked Cruz.
“I’ll go,” said Omar. He left the flight deck and rode the elevator to Deck 16. He was starting to feel human again, and it felt good to work the problem. The elevator came to a silent halt, the doors slid open, and Omar stepped out into the cavernous pod bay where the utility vehicles were secured.
Omar opened a locker near the elevator shaft, pulled on an EVA suit, and took a tool kit from the rack. He crossed a narrow truss that spanned the bay, squeezed into one of the utility pods, and radioed Cruz. “Ready.”
The pod bay doors opened in front of him, revealing a swathe of stars, points of light hanging in the black of space. Omar powered on, disengaged from the stanchion, and flew the service vehicle slowly across the bay and out through the open doors.
The star-filled sky enveloped him. The small bright orb of a sister planet glowed in the foreground. The misted blue-green surface of Planet X spread beneath him, silent, beautiful and awesome. Beyond the rim of the planet, the red sun with its orange corona hung in the blackness.
Omar maneuvered the pod craft along the fuselage of the ship and circled towards the receiver dish array. As he approached, he saw deep scratches, dents, and cracks along the surface of the hull. Near the nose of the ship, Omar came to the edge of a crater in the fuselage, made by the impact of a large object. At the bottom of the crater, the door panels to the dish array antennae were bent and crushed.
“Looks like meteorite damage, Captain,” Omar radioed Cruz. “The dish extender took a direct hit.”
“Think you can jimmy the doors open?”
“Let me go in for a closer look. Maybe we can rig something up.”
Omar swung the pod around towards the damaged receiver. He saw it then, a streak of light coming towards the ship from the planet’s surface. The tip of the streak glowed red as a fast moving object penetrated the atmosphere. Behind the first, Omar saw a second streak of light, and a third.
Omar shouted into the radio microphone, “Incoming!!”
“Roger,” Cruz replied. “We see them. Commencing evasive action.”
Omar backed the utility pod at full speed away from the fuselage as the ship’s engines fired and the massive hulk began slowly to roll and pitch. But it was too late. There was no time to maneuver the vessel. Omar watched through the pod view shield as a streaking missile struck the midsection of the ship and exploded. A second and third missile hit the ship, breaking it in two. The front and rear sections of the hull began to spin, moving in opposite directions.
Omar held the utility pod at full power reverse, trying to avoid the silent rain of debris spraying from the broken ship.
“Captain, do you read me? Captain?”
“Cruz? Are you there!?”
The two halves of the mortally wounded ship wheeled as they moved in opposite directions through space, like pieces of a huge broken tube, equipment and debris streaming out the open ends. The ship’s life support systems were fatally breached.
Omar held the service vehicle stationary and watched the fragments of the spaceship drift and swirl in the blackness. The radio was silent. Omar knew the crew had perished and he was next, if he didn’t do something. Slowly, deliberately, he spun the pod around, dropped the nose and began his descent to the planet’s surface. The vehicle was not designed for it, but it was his only chance.
A profound calmness settled over Omar. The destruction of the ship and the deaths of the crew members after surviving the journey seemed the height of futility, his own survival a matter of chance and little significance. Having lost his wife and child, having left Earth behind, having bent the flow of time and dissolved himself into the vastness of space, Omar no longer cared if he lived or died. His emotions lay dormant, buried under apathy, while his mind raced forward, weighing the odds and seeking solutions to pointless riddles.
He was over the center of a large land mass. As the pod descended, Omar saw that the greenish surface of the planet was covered with dense flora. The region was dotted with numerous sparkling lakes, and silver ribbons of rivers wound and flowed to an inland sea. Along the northern rim of the forest stretched a broad plain, and beyond that, Omar made out a jagged range of snow-capped mountains.
As he streaked downwards through the atmosphere, Omar watched helplessly as the external surface of the pod began to melt. A dozen alarm lights began to flash red on the console. Omar’s EVA suit insulated him as the walls began to radiate heat and the temperature rose inside the pod. The vehicle’s systems were failing. He switched to manual and held course towards the great body of water that spread out beneath him.
As the pod accelerated towards the surface, the friction and heat began to cause critical malfunctions. The view window began to crack as the utility pod screamed through the clouds like a fiery meteor. The interior of the vehicle became a stifling oven. In his suit, Omar was dripping sweat. Through his gloves, he felt the burning surface of the control console. The vehicle shuddered, threatening to break into pieces.
The pod was stressed to the limit. Disintegration was seconds away. Omar played his last card and deployed the parachute. The plummeting craft yanked the cords as the chute opened in the thick atmosphere, almost ripping the lines from the connecting rings, but by some miracle, the parachute engaged and held. The descent slowed, the pod began to swing lazily back and forth, and finally splashed down into the water, which sizzled and boiled, throwing up a cloud of steam.
Omar felt the pod sinking into the water and heard the hiss of boiling water. He checked the gauges only to find them all black and lifeless. He had to move fast. Drenched in sweat, he took off his helmet, unscrewed the hatch, and stuck his head out.
The orange sun was shining low in the sky. Puffs of clouds floated lazily by, indifferent to Omar’s brush with death. He breathed in a draft of cool, oxygen-rich air, and looked around.
The pod was bobbing in gentle waves, not far from the reddish, brown- and gray-streaked shore. Beyond the shore, there was a stretch of long grass or reeds, and then the dark edge of a dense forest. The place seemed oddly familiar. It reminded him of the site where his cabin stood at the edge of the water, back on Earth, a place he would never see again.
Quick shadows darted to and fro beneath the water, and Omar heard an occasional splash as some small creature broke the surface and dove back under. He pulled his head back into the utility pod and began to retrieve what equipment he could carry in his pack while he swam.
The toolbox contained mostly electronics, useless now. Omar pulled out the laser pistol. It was a cutting tool, but it could do some damage.
The emergency kit contained a pup tent and a couple of basic implements that might come in handy: knife, ax, collapsible shovel, hammer and nails, screwdriver and screws.
Omar stripped down to shorts, shirt, and rubber shoes, packed the tools and equipment into a backpack, strapped it on, and pulled himself up out through the hatch. With a quick look around, he plunged into the water. It was frigid and knocked the breath out of him, but was clean and clear, with a greenish tint. His fingers and toes went numb, but Omar swam. Something beneath the surface brushed against his leg. The pack weighed him down, dragging him under, but he stroked and kicked his way towards shore.
When Omar’s feet touched bottom, he stepped gingerly among the sharp rocks. The waves nudged him up on shore, and Omar threw off his pack, and lay on the beach. His body was on fire now, tingling with pins and needles from the frigid water. He breathed deep to catch his wind and, after a moment, he rose and looked back. The utility pod bobbed in the waves offshore. A large shadow, larger than the pod, circled it just below the surface. Omar picked up his pack and made his way across the gravel. Small creatures with segmented legs scuttled from beneath his feet.
As the orange sun on the horizon dipped beneath the waves, Omar set up his pup tent on the grassy bluff just up from the beach, close to a stream that emptied into the sea. He sat cross-legged before the tent entrance and watched the alien sunset.
The clouds turned purple as the sky took on streaks of pink that reflected in the rippling waters of the now purple sea. The large glowing sphere of a sister planet hung low in the darkening sky. Soon the stars twinkled behind the sphere as the heavens grew black.
Omar wondered what quirk of fate had spared his life, since he attached such little value to it himself. He wondered what lay ahead on this alien planet that had offered him such a rude welcome. He heard sounds from the forest behind him, unfamiliar cries and howls. Dark flying forms circled overhead.
Soon the light was entirely gone. Below him, Omar heard the lapping of the waves, but saw nothing in the pitch black. Above him, the stars filled the sky like a sparkling shroud of mist. Omar sat motionless, elbows resting on his knees, in complete darkness and complete tranquility.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler