The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 9: The Shepherd of Zakhbaal|
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.
When Omar slipped through the palace door, he found himself in a utility room stacked high with tools and spare parts. He took a breath and felt calmness flow through his body. A trace of Lyla’s aura reached his mind.
Omar crept across the utility room to the opposite door, pushed the button on the panel, and the door slid silently open. Omar stuck his head out into the hall. Mounted in the ceiling corners at each end of the hall were glowing red emotion scanners.
Omar stepped into the hallway and trod lightly towards one end. The scanners picked up nothing. Omar was in a state of tranquility and might as well have been invisible. He turned a bend and saw a barred door at the far end of a bare, dimly lit corridor. Another red lens was mounted over the door, scanning the passageway.
Omar moved quickly down the corridor and tried the bars. They were sunk into the stone floor and were immovable. Omar reached his hand through and tried the door, but it was locked. From Dramka’s sketch, Omar knew this way led to the inner chambers of the palace.
Omar was considering his next move when he heard a whirring sound. A little utility bot was rolling towards him with an empty scoop.
The bot rolled up to the barred door and bleeped. The bars rose and the door slid open. Omar slipped through the door behind the bot, and the door shut behind them. He heard the bars slam back down in place.
The bot rolled off and Omar found himself alone in a large hallway with smooth, paneled walls and a high, vaulted ceiling. He knew he was at the base of the tower. A transparent shaft ran up one wall and an elevator cabin with open doors beckoned to Omar. He entered the elevator and pressed the top button. The car silently rose for several moments, came to a halt, and Omar stepped out into a large anteroom. The elevator doors closed behind him.
The anteroom walls were made of polished stone of beautiful soft pastel greens and blues. Intricate and ornate bas-relief figures of strange creatures and objects, unknown to Omar, were carved along the baseboards. The ceiling was painted in a semblance of the sky with wispy, curling clouds and the red sun at its center.
Emotion detectors scanned the room from all four corners. The lenses of their glowing red eyes focused on Omar. He took a breath, emptied his mind, and walked across the anteroom towards the single door on the opposite wall.
At his approach, the door slid silently open. Omar saw the interior of a comfortable, well-lit living room, a thick carpet, soft chairs, a desk, a table covered with a brightly colored cloth. Across the room, with her back to him, Lyla stood looking out through a large window at the rock face of Mt. Zakhbaal.
Omar felt a rush of affection for her. Longing, love, hope, tenderness, all mixed together for an instant and surged into his consciousness. The sensors locked onto Omar and a high-pitched siren went off. Lyla turned and Omar caught a glimpse of her face streaked with tears as the door to her quarters slid shut and locked.
Omar was trapped in the anteroom. With the alarm siren pulsing, the elevator opened and the Shepherd’s robot rolled out. Omar slammed his shoulder against the door to Lyla’s chamber, but the door was thick metal sunk into deep grooves in the stone doorway.
The robot rolled towards Omar, its red eye focused on him. It extended one arm and a jawed pincer closed on Omar’s upper arm. Omar wrenched himself free, but the serrated jaws ripped the flesh of his arm and he began to bleed. He leapt and kicked the upright cylinder, trying to topple the robot off its treads, but the machine was heavy with a low center of gravity balanced on a spring mechanism. It tilted away from the blow, and sprang back upright.
Omar dove towards the elevator and regained his feet, but the robot swiveled, leveled its laser, and opened fire. A faint red beam shot from the weapon. Omar felt a burning sensation and crumpled to the ground unconscious.
* * *
Omar’s eyes blinked open to strange shapes and odd shadows. Straining to focus, he saw that he was inside a holding cell with rough-hewn stone walls and a single massive metal door. He was groggy from the stun laser, but sensation gradually returned to his limbs. He felt the hard, damp stone floor beneath him. His arm was lacerated and his shoulder ached with a dull throb.
No sound reached the chamber. Omar felt his situation was grim but not hopeless. His best chance to even the odds was to reach the room where the robot-control console was located. Dramka had shown him on her sketch where it was. With access to the console, he could disable the robot.
At the edge of consciousness, in the shadows of his mind, Omar was aware of a faint trace of fear and hate. These lingering sensations were not his own, but external. Barely noticeable, they had never quite been absent from his mind since he had left Tiger in the grass outside the city gates and followed the crowd into Zakhbaal.
The heavy door of the cell began slowly to slide open with loud scraping and creaking. The robot stood in the doorway, its red eye aimed at Omar. It extended a grasping pincer and took hold of Omar by his wounded arm, re-opening the lacerations. Omar’s nerves screamed pain to his brain, but he pulled himself to his feet and focused his mind.
The robot rolled back down the corridor and dragged Omar into a large chamber he had not seen before. The walls of the room were made of some polished stone resembling marble, with veins of red and rose running through the pale white surface. The walls rose to a height of several stories. Along the walls, a series of columns supported transverse beams that arched over the chamber to form a vaulted ceiling.
Through a large window, Omar saw the tall latticed silver needle of a broadcast tower. A battery of surface-to-air missiles bristled at the base of the structure.
The robot forced Omar to his knees and stood beside him with its laser drawn. A large door in the far wall of the chamber slid silently open, and a figure in the pale blue and white uniform of the United Earth Peacekeeping Force entered the chamber.
Omar watched as the figure approached. It was a man. Omar studied his face, creased with age, stubbled with gray whiskers. Dull, lifeless eyes stared blankly at Omar. The face and eyes were somehow familiar.
“Hello, Jones.” The man’s lips formed a cheerless smile. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Who are you?”
“Why, we’re the Shepherd of Zakhbaal, or so the locals have named us.”
“How do you know me?”
“We knew from the records that your ship was en route. My great-great-grandfather was your commanding officer. Your mission went into the history books. You all became heroes. Every child knows your face.”
“Then why did you shoot down our ship?”
“We anticipated your mutiny and took preventive action. What I don’t understand is how you survived.”
“What difference does that make?” said Omar. “But how did you get here? What are you doing here?”
“We escaped. The situation on Earth deteriorated quickly. When intelligence indicated war was imminent, the Peacekeeping Forces launched a pre-emptive defensive strike with long-range missiles equipped with enriched tachyon warheads.
“We neutralized the enemy on a mass basis, but the planet was compromised. When the chain reaction went out of control, the leadership had to be evacuated. We were prepared, on stand-by, fueled and ready to go, when the order came. The atmosphere was disintegrating as we took off.
“This was closest Earthlike planet. With our improved thrust engines, we beat you here. Our ship was equipped to transport a select group of genetically superior males and females for the purpose of breeding a replacement population. The mission called for colonization here and eventual reseeding of the home planet.”
“You mean Earth was not destroyed?”
“The damage is not completely irreversible, but it will take some time to repair. The atmosphere will have to be re-established, perhaps artificially, at first. The know-how was within our grasp...
“I suppose we’ll have to rebuild the human population, Lyla and I.” The Shepherd smiled. “To regain knowledge of the technology will take several generations, no doubt. And we have no vehicle to make the trip back. We’ll have to build one. Yes, a great deal of time will be involved to accomplish the mission. It will be measured in decades or even centuries.”
Omar’s mind was moving fast. He had to find a way to disable the robot and overcome the Shepherd.
The Shepherd turned, faced the window, and continued talking. “When we arrived, we found the indigenous population in a retrograde state. You’ve seen them — dull-witted brutes, barely capable of reasoning. The evidence indicates they may be descendants of a once powerful race that possessed highly advanced technology and weaponry. From what little evidence survives, it seems they may have bombed themselves back into the Stone Age. Ironic, isn’t it?
“But their legacy remains, these missiles, for instance, and the network of scanners that monitor the population. The missiles are particularly beautiful, self-maintaining and autonomous. And of course, there’s the broadcast tower, the one transmitting the recorded signal you were once so anxious to decode. One can’t help but wonder what message they were trying to send, and for how long? A warning perhaps? An SOS?
“I suppose we’ll never know. In any event, it took some time, but we were able to re-establish at least partial control over the systems.”
The Shepherd pressed a button in the wall and a concealed panel slid open, revealing a console and a bank of gauges.
“I have re-programmed the robot. Judging from the design, it may originally have been used for mining. I re-configured the hardware. It takes commands in English now, but only from me, of course.”
The Shepherd gestured towards the console. “Tempting, isn’t it? There were forty of us from Earth, eighteen couples and four children...”
The Shepherd broke off for a moment. Some dim flame flickered in his eyes for a brief moment, and went out. He resumed in a monotone.
“Things have been running smoothly since consolidation of power and cleansing of the corrupted elements. The continual automatic operation of the scanning system along with enforcement by the robot seems to have had the desired effect. The current batch of natives is extremely docile, which suits our purposes.
The Shepherd paused. Lyla had entered the chamber. She stopped short when she saw Omar kneeling on the floor and the robot with its weapon drawn.
“What’s going on here?”
“Nothing that concerns you, dear.”
“Omar, are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“Never been better.” Omar grinned.
Lyla went to Omar and helped his to his feet. The robot released its grip.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this. He’s sick. He murdered them all.”
“It was a cleansing action, my dear. In time, you’ll understand.”
“And what about Mom?!”
“A terrible accident. There was nothing I could have done to prevent it.”
Lyla suddenly turned and grabbed the robot arm with both hands, trying to pull the laser down. The arm was built on a powerful gear and piston mechanism and easily held her weight. Omar slammed his shoulder against the robot’s torso, trying to up-end it, but its pincer closed around his neck as the other arm threw Lyla against the wall like a rag doll. She crumpled to the floor unconscious.
Omar struggled to free himself from the robot’s grasp, but the pincer was constricting his throat and he felt himself blacking out.
“Take him back to the cell, but don’t kill him, yet.” The Shepherd issued the command. The robot lifted Omar and carried him towards the elevator.
The Shepherd went to Lyla, who had regained consciousness and was trying to get back up on her feet.
“That was very foolish of you. You could get seriously injured. The robot defends itself automatically.”
“Leave me alone,” Lyla hissed. “I hate you.”
“The time will come when you’ll thank me.”
The Shepherd helped her to her feet. There was a nasty bruise on the side of her face where she had struck the wall. The Shepherd tried to help her, but she pushed him away and made her way unsteadily back to her chamber.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler