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The Shepherd of Zakhbaal

by Bill Bowler

Chapter 7: Attack of the Robot

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.

“Look! Down below!” Vaktar’s sinewy, muscular arm was pointing down from the edge of the plateau.

Not far from the base of the cliff, Omar saw a huge beast grazing in the meadow, in the shadow of a lone fern that towered over the grass. Omar recognized the beast from Svak’s mural on the cave wall.

“Chok. We’ll have a feast this evening,” said Vaktor, brandishing his spear. “Come.”

Vaktor gathered several hunters and led the hunting party down from the high plateau to the foot of the mountain where the broad prairie began. When they reached ground level, they lost sight of the beast in the long grass, but they had marked its location by the towering, ancient fern, and headed in that direction.

A breeze rippled the long grass, and Tiger caught the scent moving towards the river. He veered left and the hunting party followed.

They made their way through the billowing grasses beneath the warmth of the orange sun. There was no sound, until they came close enough to hear the rushing of the water over the rocks.

The Chok had lowered its square mouth into the water and was drinking from the cold stream. The hunters formed a half-circle around the beast and closed in through the tall grass. Tiger had point, and crept forward on his belly, his six legs pulling him silently thru the grass.

A flying creature circled overhead, cried out, and the Chok lifted its head from the water. The hunting party froze. The Chok seemed indecisive for a moment, and then lowered its head to the water again. Vaktar signaled the hunters to hold their position. All waited, spears in hand, for the order to close in.

Then Tiger stood up and looked at the sky. Then Omar heard it, too, an ominous hum in the air, like the buzz of a wasp, faint at first, but growing louder.

Then Vaktar saw it: from the direction of Zakhbaal, the flyer was coming towards them at high speed.

The hunting party lay hidden in the long grass as the flyer approached. The aircraft roared past directly overhead, and from the nose of the ship, Omar saw a red laser beam focused on the plateau. A ball of flame exploded and a tremendous explosion echoed across the plain. The village disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke.

The explosion startled the Chok. The great beast took off through the grass at a speed surprising for its size and bulk. Vaktor leapt to his feet, called to his hunters, and raced back towards the smoking plateau. Omar was with him, and Tiger bounded on ahead.

The ship hovered above the plateau. Omar heard the screams as the red beam crisscrossed the village, turning the rock dwellings into ovens and setting villagers on fire. Omar watched in horror as the craft descended and touched down on the plateau. A door opened in the side of the craft and a large upright cylinder with jawed pincers on extended arms rolled on treads down a ramp, emitting the red laser beam from a top-mounted lens. The robot disappeared into the smoke, flames and dust.

The hunters rushed through the thick grass, cursing themselves for having gone so far from the village. They had just reached the foot of the mountain and started up the path when the flyer lifted back up off the plateau, swung around, and headed away, back towards Zakhbaal.

When the hunting party reached the plateau, nothing was left of the beautiful stone dwellings but charred and smoking piles of rock, cracked and melted in places from the heat. Burned corpses and body parts, old and young, male and female, littered the plateau. The stench of burned flesh was almost unbearable. The hunters spread out, searching for survivors.

Tiger sensed a weak life force emanating from beneath a pile of smoldering rubble. With his powerful proboscis and grasping tentacles, he pulled away the burning hot rock debris. Omar rushed to help him, and they uncovered what was left of Svak, bloodied and buried underneath.

The old man was badly burned. His chest was crushed, his limbs were broken, and fluid ran from his nose and mouth. A sharp rock fragment had left a deep gash in his head.

Svak moaned and opened his eyes. He was dying and knew it. Barely conscious, he recognized Omar. Svak tried to speak, but choked on fluid gurgling in his throat.

“Easy, Svak,” said Omar. “Don’t move. Just lie still. We’ll get you out of here.”

Svak struggled to breathe, and Omar heard a rattling sound from the old man’s chest.

“Lyla,” gasped Svak. Omar’s eyes searched the plateau, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Svak gathered himself and put all of his waning strength into speaking once more. “It took her.”

Omar put his hand gently on the old man’s face. “Lie still, Svak.”

Svak’s eyes were open, but uncomprehending. He had breathed his last.

Omar, Tiger, Vaktor and the hunters searched the ruined village. Amidst the rubble they found a few villagers hiding. Some were barely clinging to life. The females and young were badly wounded and had been left to die by the robot, but they were still alive.

The hunters followed the path up to the hidden cavern. Scorched corpses littered the way, mowed down without mercy as they tried to run. When the hunters entered the cave, they found its interior hot and blackened like the inside of an oven. The space was full of charred corpses and the acrid smell of burned flesh. Svak’s mural on the wall had been obliterated.

The hunters carried the bodies and remains, one by one and piece by piece, down the path to the edge of the plain. There were too many corpses burned beyond recognition, and too many body parts for individual graves. The hunters dug a great pit to serve as a common resting place. They covered the dead with soil and built a small dome with rocks from the plateau to mark the site.

The orange sun had set and risen twice since the attack. Omar, Tiger, and the band of hunters stood at the graveside, silent and grieving. The wounded survivors lay on the ground, some on makeshift stretchers.

Vaktor spoke in his own language, and Omar understood his words.

“The time has come to leave this wretched place. There is nothing left here for us now. The Shepherd and his robot have won. We must put ourselves out of reach of this death and decay that have spread from Zakhbaal. Our only hope is to move far away and start over again.”

The hunters and survivors looked down at the ground. No one said a word.

Then Omar stepped forward and spoke haltingly in low clicks and hisses.

“It’s no use to run and hide, and no life to live in fear. Your enemy will find you. Better to stand and fight than to crawl away. There are ways to defeat a superior force. I can show you.”

“No,” said Vaktor. “The Shepherd is too strong, with his metal guard. A long, quiet life is best, away from them, out of sight and reach.”

“And Lyla?” asked Omar.

“It’s too late. She is one of them anyway. So are you.”

Omar was saddened by Vaktor’s harsh words, but knew they sprang from his grief and frustration. He understood that there was nothing more to be said, that Vaktor’s mind was made up. And Omar’s was, too.

The next morning, Omar wrapped his hooded cloak, Vaktar’s gift, about his shoulder, said good-bye to his friends, and left the ruined village with Tiger. At the base of the cliff, Omar looked back over his shoulder and saw Vaktor standing at the edge of the rock plateau. Rock and ash were still smoldering behind him. Vaktor waved farewell. Omar raised his arm, felt a moment of sadness for what might have been, then turned and entered the long grass with Tiger, heading towards Zakhbaal.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler

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