The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 4: The Forest|
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.
The next morning, when Omar crawled out of the tent into the soft light, the sea was unbroken to the horizon. Nothing bobbed in the waves. The pod was gone. Whether it had drifted in the current, or sunk, or been swallowed whole by some gigantic beast, Omar didn’t know, but he felt his last connection to Earth had been severed.
He sat for a moment in the grass outside his tent. There was no sound except the lapping of the waves on the beach and the rustling of the wind in the forest behind him. Without wanting to, he thought of Mary and Livy, and felt a creeping numbness stealing through his mind and body.
He took several deep breaths. The image of his lost ones faded as other images intruded in his mind: the red-tipped streaks of light, and the two halves of the dead ship spinning in space. Omar’s eyes narrowed and his expression hardened. His anger flared for a moment, and then smoldered and went out.
Omar stood up and stretched his limbs. He was beginning to feel thirsty and hungry. He drank from the nearby stream and took a chance on some large black berries that grew in dense brush along the bank. The berries were juicy and sour and didn’t kill him, but they were not enough to satisfy his hunger.
The stream gave Omar an idea. In the pack he had taken from the utility pod, he found a fine mesh sack full of nuts, bolts and screws. He emptied the sack, sharpened four sticks from the nearby brush, and walked back down to the running water. He drove the stakes into the bank on each side, and tied the mesh sack between them so the water flowed through the sack’s open mouth. He had nothing with which to bait the trap, and trusted to luck.
As he knelt on the bank admiring his handiwork, Omar noticed a path that led from the stream through a break in the underbrush into the woods, a path that had been worn by someone or something. Omar returned to his tent, quickly gathered his knife, axe, shovel, and pistol.
He followed the trail through the brush and found himself beneath a vast arching vault of green. The forest floor was dappled by soft orange light that filtered through the leafy canopy. Great, green-stemmed ferns towered like trees around him, their giant stalks wrapped in a tangle of winding vines that hung from their branches. Small red polka-dot fungus grew in clumps beside the path. Blue and yellow flowers with long drooping petals hung from tall stems that poked out from mossy patches on the forest floor.
A faint sweet fragrance hung in the air. Omar turned towards the source and saw a large, branching bush with yellow leaves, covered with pink flowers that looked like wild roses. White puffs of fluff floated from the bush, some clinging to the leaves. There was not a sound.
The strange, intense beauty of the forest filled Omar with a sense of reverence. He felt connected to the place, protective of it, his new home.
He continued along the path, down a gentle slope, around a bend, and came to a spot where a large dark stain discolored the ground. The stain was still damp, and a trail of drops led across a patch of soft moss into the underbrush. Omar followed the drops, pushed through a thicket, and stopped short. The ground dropped sharply away. The trail of stains led down a steep slope, and at the bottom, in a wide gully, an immense creature lay in a pool of dark liquid.
Omar made his way down the slope and approached the animal. The creature lay completely still. The pool of fluid had streamed from a series of deep puncture wounds in the creature’s soft underbelly. The wounds were deep and penetrated the internal organs. From one puncture, the broken end of a massive spear or shaft protruded.
Omar examined the creature. It looked to be six to eight meters in length. It had a sinewy body and six lateral appendages for locomotion and grasping. The foremost pair, near the head, were hairless tentacles, coiled and covered with suction pads. The middle pair was tipped with a set of large hooked claws concealed in leathery pads. The head was a small, round ball, with a long scaled proboscis extending from the center of a triangle formed by three charcoal black eyes. The jaws were open, revealing a double row of razor-sharp fangs. The creature’s torso was covered with short greenish, faintly striped fur.
Omar became aware of crying and gurgling noises nearby. He looked up and saw, at the end of the gully, the entrance to a cave, partially hidden by underbrush. He took out his pistol, pushed his way past the screen of thickly entwined stalks and thorns, and emerged into a protected space.
In a depression lined with soft leaves and white fluff, Omar discovered a smaller version of the dead creature, this one the size of a tiger. The green striped fur only reinforced the impression. This smaller one had rolled itself into a trembling ball, and wrapped its legs and tentacles around itself. Omar saw the suction cups on the fore tentacles, the long snout, sharp teeth, and the hooked claws on the second set of legs.
The creature ignored Omar’s presence and continued to cry and gurgle, rocking in place on the floor of the cave. Intense feelings of shock, of loss, of blind, desperate fear and longing flowed from the creature and washed over Omar. His heart raced, and he struggled to calm himself and regain control of his sensory input.
After a moment, the panic subsided. Omar’s heartbeat slowed and his breathing grew regular. At the same time, the creature ceased whimpering and trembling, and grew calm. It uncurled itself, stood up on unsteady legs, and gazed at Omar. As Omar looked at its face, so small for its body, and into its three black, unblinking eyes, new emotions flowed from the creature into Omar, feelings of curiosity and wonder, and a sense of something like hope and trust.
Omar extended his hand slowly and touched the animal on the side of its head, where its ears should have been, gently stroking its short, striped fur. The creature wrapped its snout around Omar’s wrist and licked his hand with a long, rough, thin tongue. In its grip, Omar felt the creature’s great physical strength. He could not have pulled his arm free. But a wave of affection and trust flowed into Omar from the creature. It released his wrist, and when Omar stood and backed away towards the mouth of the cave, the creature followed. When Omar pushed his way out past the brambles back into the gully, the creature stayed close behind.
The two beings, human and alien, stood beside the dead creature near the mouth of the cave. The smaller alien extended its snout and touched the tip of the larger one that lay limp and still on the ground. Omar reeled as waves of grief, loss, despair, fear and anger surged from the young creature into his being. He touched the creature again gently at the bridge of its snout, and said, “C’mon, Tiger, let’s go.”
When Omar started up the slope, Tiger followed.
Omar backtracked to the camp. When they reached it, Omar went to the stream to inspect his net, Tiger tagging along every step of the way. Luck was with them. A long, hard-shelled tubular animal with many jointed legs had become entangled in the mesh sack. Omar pulled it from the stream and carried his wriggling prize to the campsite.
He gathered dry chunks of moss, stems, and branches that lay strewn near the wall of brush at the forest edge, and lit a fire with a blast of his laser. He grilled his catch on a long stake over the fire, and then cracked the shell and cut it open. The shell was filled with brown, succulent flesh. Omar was famished, but he first cut a piece and offered it to Tiger. Tiger wrapped his snout around the chunk of meat and sunk his fangs into it, while tearing it to shreds with hooked forepaws. Human and “alien” ate their fill.
After the meal, Omar sat cross-legged before the glowing embers of the dying fire. Tiger stretched out beside him and rested his snout on Omar’s leg. Neither being felt completely alone now. The orange sun dipped low behind the line of the sea, far out at the horizon. The darkening forest behind the camp was coming to nocturnal life with chirps, screeches, and howls echoing from its shadowed depths. Indistinct forms circled and swooped above the tall ferns.
Omar heard the lapping of the waves on the beach below. He breathed deeply, in synch with Tiger, and put his chin on his hands, watching the last faint red glow at the horizon die out, like the embers in the fire.
Memories of Mary and Livy lurked at the edge of consciousness. Omar felt a brief throb that passed again to dull nothing. He thought of Cruz, Armstrong and Weld, dead now, too, and Omar’s anger flared, like a flame in the dying embers. Tiger raised his head and bared his fangs, a low growl in his throat.
The anger, like the grief, dissipated into nothingness. Omar sat calmly, encased in his cocoon, not feeling, simply knowing that he would find whoever had fired the missiles, destroyed the ship and killed the men, whoever had sent the signal and lured them here into the trap. He would find whoever or whatever it was, and settle accounts, one way or the other.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler