The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 8: Dramka|
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.
Light and darkness, light and darkness. Omar lost track of how many times the red sun rose and set. Omar stopped often to let Tiger rest. He washed the blood from Tiger’s face and cleaned the gash with the cold water of a shallow, fast-running stream. With each passing day, Tiger’s wounds were healing. His face was no longer swollen. His eyes were clear and his great strength was fast returning.
They kept to the path, through broad meadows, down slopes, along gullies, across streams, uphill again, always towards the gray colossus, Zakhbaal. The mist-shrouded mountain loomed on the horizon and imperceptibly grew in size from day to day until it came to dominate the skyline.
In the shadow of Mt. Zakhbaal, they came upon the wreckage of a spaceship half-buried in a sandy slope. The nose was sunk deep in the sand. The fuselage had been severely damaged on impact. It was now rusted through and was overgrown with tangled vines and thick brush. The wrecked ship had evidently been lying there for many years. On the tail fin, Omar saw the faint remains of a white star on a faded blue background, the emblem of the United Earth Peacekeeping Forces.
Omar stood for a moment, his mind racing. He struggled to understand when and how a ship from Earth could have reached Planet X. It was like a waking dream, and he wondered if he was delirious. Omar cleared the brush away and tried the hatch. It gave way to pressure and creaked open reluctantly. Omar crawled in and searched the ship. It had been stripped empty of all equipment and supplies, but it was from Earth, and it was real.
Unable to put the pieces of the puzzle together, Omar and Tiger moved on. The next day they emerged from the long grass and stood at the spot where the dirt path ended and a cobblestone road began.
Before them, a trestle bridge spanned a broad, slow-flowing river. Boats large and small moved up and down stream, and busy docks jutted into the waters, where squat, pot-bellied humanoids loaded and unloaded goods.
On the far side, beyond the bridge, Omar saw that the road wound up a slope, through an area of closely packed, run-down shacks made of some cracked and rotted material, and led to the gates of a walled city. The gates were open, and a crowd of humanoids filed past a large, upright metallic cylinder on treads, with a single red glowing eye. Omar heard a low growl from Tiger’s throat.
Omar looked beyond the gates and saw rows of shining transparent and metallic structures, chains of spheres and cubes, linked by tubes. Behind an inner wall, nestled in the rock face of Mt. Zakhbaal, rose the twisting luminescent spires and towers of a grand palace. Within the palace walls, atop a great crystal dome, the slender silver needle of a giant broadcast tower pierced the sky.
Omar watched the humanoids passing before him. They were squat and covered with fine fur, with hairless, open faces, indistinguishable from the tribe that had harbored Omar on the rock plateau. But they seemed dead somehow. Omar realized he sensed nothing from them on the emotional plane, not a pang, not a twinge of feeling, none of the cacophony of emotion that normally cascaded from a crowd.
Omar scratched Tiger behind the ears and wished him to remain out of sight in the tall grass. Tiger whimpered, not wanting to leave Omar’s side, but did as Omar wished. Tiger slunk into the reeds, lowered his belly to the ground, wound in his tentacles, and rested his snout on his forelegs.
Omar wrapped his cloak, Vaktar’s gift, tightly about him, pulled the hood low to cover his face, and emerged from the waving grasses onto the path, joining a crowd of humanoids heading towards the bridge. The two males closest to him were conversing in a dialect close to the language spoken by the tribe on the rock plateau.
“The Shepherd has declared a period of rest.”
“He rests every day.”
“You think he should be out digging holes in the ground?”
“Might do him some good...”
After crossing the bridge, the two males, with Omar behind them, walked down a narrow alley lined with hovels towards the robot standing at the entrance gates.
One of the males lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “I’d like to sink that pile of junk in the river.”
“Quiet! It might hear you!”
“It doesn’t hear anything. It senses. Stay calm and it will leave you alone. But one outburst, and you’re cooked for dinner.”
“I’m not afraid of it.”
“Good for you. It picks up fear faster than anything.”
Before reaching the check point, the two humanoids turned off down a side street still outside the wall. Omar moved straight along with the crowd, keeping his head down until he reached the gateway entrance.
He saw that the robot was covered with close-fitting armor plate and was scanning the crowd with a glowing red sensor. Two extendible arms hung from its sides, each tipped with a jawed pincer. A thin flexible hydraulic tube connected the top of the cylinder to a spherical rotating head that housed the sensor. A military assault laser was mounted on the right shoulder.
Omar kept his head down, eyes on the ground, and walked slowly past the robot. The red sensor mounted on its head began to glow as Omar came into range. He was beyond the gate and within the city walls when an image of Lyla crept into his mind and he felt a pang of sadness and anger.
Omar heard the drone of a monotone metallic voice speaking the local dialect. He kept walking.
“You-with-the-hood,” the robot droned again.
Omar stopped, turned, and looked up into the glowing red sphere of a robotic eye.
Omar hesitated for an instant, and then broke into a run. The robot opened fire, and two females and an infant in the crowd were burned to a crisp by the close-quarters laser blast. Omar pushed his way through the panicked crowd and dashed down a side alley near the wall, as the robot rolled in pursuit, firing its laser.
The thing was unstoppable but was not designed for speed. Omar put some distance between them and then ducked into a doorway. He breathed deeply and exerted his will to calm himself. His heartbeat and respiration began to slow.
The robot moved down the alley, its single red spherical eye rotating left and right, scanning the area for emotional activity. Omar sat calmly in its field of vision, but it did not pick up his imprint and rolled past.
The door opened behind him and a voice whispered, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Omar turned to face an old, wrinkled female humanoid, ragged and worn with age, whose yellow eyes stared directly into his.
“My name is Omar. I come from Earth,” Omar hissed and clicked.
“You do, do you?” the old female replied in English.
The skin around the ancient charcoal eyes crinkled as if she were amused at some shared joke. The low hum of an engine grew louder as the robot rolled back up the alley, scanning for a trace of Omar.
“From Earth? Then you’re nothing but trouble. They call me Dramka. Well, come in, come in, before that metal devil decides to cook us both.” Dramka opened the door wider and gestured towards the interior. Omar went in, and she closed the door behind him.
* * *
“The ship from Earth fell not far from here.” Dramka sat cross-legged on the floor across from Omar.
Dramka paused. “When Lyla was a little girl. We pulled the survivors from the wreckage, buried the dead, and nursed the injured back to health.
“Once the Earthmen recovered, they began to quarrel among themselves and took up weapons against each other. The Shepherd controlled the robot and eliminated all his rivals.
“Lyla’s mother wanted to be queen, but she was killed in a cross-fire, in front of Lyla. The poor child was afraid and blamed the Shepherd for her mother’s death. I helped her get away. When the Shepherd found she was gone, he flew into a rage. Of course, he threw me out. I think he may have suspected me, but I don’t know. I suppose I’m lucky to be alive.” Dramka cackled mirthlessly, drooling from her toothless mouth.
“He’s found her now,” said Omar.
Dramka stopped laughing and wiped her lips with her sleeve.
“She was hiding in a village,” Omar continued, “a long way from here. The robot took her back to him.”
Dramka was listening now. Omar went on. “I’ve come for her.”
Dramka said nothing for a moment. There was silence in the room, each of them lost in thought. Then Dramka laughed. “I’ll help you. I know a way into the palace. I’ll tell you where to find her... and him.”
Dramka rose and hobbled to a table in the center of the room. She took a blank sheet of fabric from a container, and with a piece of black stone, she sketched a crude diagram of the palace interior.
“Lyla’s chamber is here.” She pointed to a room at the top of a tower. “And the Shepherd controls the robot from a machine in here.”
Omar studied the sketch.
“You must be careful,” Dramka cautioned. “There are robot eyes in many of the rooms and halls. They sense fear, anger, any strong feeling. If you trip the alarm, the Shepherd will know and the robot will seek you.”
* * *
Dramka lead Omar through a crowded back alley packed with fur-covered denizens of the district. Filthy, rundown shacks and hovels lined both sides of the street. An odor like rotting meat hung in the air.
The crowd thinned as Dramka turned off onto a narrow side street, and the last of the locals was lost from sight as she turned again onto a dead end that branched off a dead end. The clanking, clattering din of the city faded into the background as they made their way towards a high wall that blocked the end of the alley.
As they approached, Omar saw that the wall was made of planks that abutted the rock face of Mt. Zakhbaal. Water dripped down the rock and the planks were completely rotted away at the spot where the fence had once been attached to the cliff, leaving a narrow gap.
Omar looked through the gap and saw a deserted courtyard littered with overflowing garbage cans and strewn with trash. Across the courtyard, Omar saw the rear wall of a palace building.
A door in the palace wall opened, and a small utility bot rolled out carrying garbage in a scoop. The robot dumped the contents of the scoop into one of the overflowing cans, turned, and rolled back through the doorway, leaving the door ajar.
Omar nodded to Dramka, thanked her mentally, and slipped through the gap. She watched as he crept along the wall, past the containers and bins, and disappeared though the half-open door into the rear wing of the palace.
When Dramka turned to go, she was startled to see a large, striped, tentacled beast crouched in the shadows. It was a young one, not grown to full size, but still big enough to tear apart a humanoid. She had never seen one outside the forest. And this one was wounded. A huge gash cut across one side of its head. The powerful beast had been wounded recently.
Dramka froze in fear, thinking the end had come, but the creature ignored her, slunk past on its six legs, and with one tentacle, ripped a rotten plank from the fence.
The creature slipped through the gap and crept across the courtyard towards the open door. Dramka believed it was stalking Omar and was certain his end had come. Discouraged and frightened, she turned and walked quickly away from the wall, back up the alley. When she reached the end of the alley and turned onto the street, she broke into a run.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler