The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
Chapter 10: The End of the Beginning
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 robot returned Omar to his cell with no more effort than an adult escorting an unruly child. The cell door slammed shut with Omar sprawled face-down on the cold stone floor.
It was not long before the robot returned.
It took him in its metallic grasp and dragged him along the stone floor to the elevator. They climbed for long moments, and this time, the doors opened directly into a courtyard filled with a crowd of humanoids from the city. The crowd grew silent as the robot emerged and dragged Omar towards a scaffold erected in the center of the courtyard. The faces on the crowd were blank.
The robot pulled Omar up the scaffold steps and bolted his arms and legs into a cross-shaped post. The gears of a hidden mechanism meshed, and the cross was elevated to display Omar to the humanoid crowd.
From a door hidden in the wall of the fortress that rose on one side of the courtyard, the Shepherd emerged, splendid and imposing in the blue and white dress uniform of the United Earth Peacekeeping Forces. He strode across the courtyard, through the crowd, and up the scaffold steps to Omar, who hung from the cross with his eyes half closed.
“We try to amuse them from time to time,” the Shepherd gestured towards the crowd and spoke softly, so only Omar could hear, “and remind them who they’re dealing with. I’m afraid this will not be painless for you. To achieve the greatest, shall we say, theatrical effect, the spectacle calls first for the amputation of the limbs, and then removal of the beating heart. It’s quite dramatic and we’ve found such a display delivers the best results, from the point of view of crowd control.”
Omar opened his eyes and gazed into the Shepherd’s face. Omar felt hollow and numb, but something lurked in the back of Omar’s mind, had lurked all this time, a sense of anxiety that had grown to fear and anger. The emotions came to Omar from an external source, and they were growing stronger.
Omar noticed for the first time that love and trust and affection were mixed in with the ferocious anger. He breathed deeply as the turbulent emotions surged into his consciousness and coursed through him like electricity.
Humanoids in the crowd turned from the scaffold and pointed up at the high parapet that surrounded the courtyard. A murmur ran through the crowd, and Omar saw Vaktor’s head, and then his body as he clambered over the wall, followed by his band of hunters.
The Shepherd saw them, too. The hunters were making their way towards the flight of stone steps that descended to the courtyard. The docile crowd was beginning to get agitated.
The Shepherd turned quickly towards his robot and pointed towards Omar. “Remove the right arm first, on my command.”
The robot rotated on its axis and leveled its laser in Omar’s direction.
“Now,” said the Shepherd.
There was a low hum. A red beam shot from the robot’s laser and seared through Omar’s flesh, cutting through his arm at the shoulder. The loose arm dropped to the ground and Omar screamed in pain as blood spurted from his severed artery.
The crowd of humanoids at the base of the scaffold began to surge. Vaktor and his hunters, racing down the steps, saw they were too late.
* * *
When Lyla had seen her father in full dress uniform heading towards the courtyard, his face drained and resolute, his eyes blank and emotionless, she knew that he was about to commit some terrible crime. She ran to him, and caught him at the door that opened onto the courtyard.
“Don’t do it, Daddy! I’m begging you!” She grabbed him by the arm and tried to pull him back, but he shoved her violently away and she slammed against the stone wall.
“Stay here. You’ll understand someday, when you’re older.”
“I won’t let you!” Lyla leapt up and swung her leg to kick the Shepherd in the groin, but he blocked the kick and knocked her back to the floor.
“This is absurd,” he said, and turned to go out to the courtyard. Lyla tried to follow him out, but he shoved her back. The door slid shut and she heard the lock click.
Lyla tried to force the door, but it was hopeless. She knew what her father was capable of, and her mind raced, trying to find some way out. Behind her, she heard a low, inhuman growl.
Tiger was crouched in the hallway, mentally focused and intent, and he knew Omar was just beyond the locked door.
Tiger growled low to warn Lyla away. He placed both powerful tentacles against the door and pushed with all his strength, but the door did not budge.
Lyla was frantic. She ran to a storage bin at the end of the hall, searched through a pile of implements, and came back with a a long metal bar curved at both ends. Tiger watched as she tried to wedge the bar into the crack between the wall and door, and understood what she was trying to do.
Tiger crept up to the door, reached out with his middle leg, and extended the bony hook at its tip. He wedged his hook into the groove in the floor, and levered it back. Tiger’s claw snapped off, but the edge of the door slipped out of the groove, and Lyla managed to lever it open using the long bar.
Tiger pushed past Lyla, out the open door to the courtyard, when suddenly a horrific pain cut through the shoulder where his right tentacle was attached to his body. Tiger knew it was Omar’s pain.
A high-pitched howl echoed in the courtyard. Through the bloody veil of shock and torment, Omar knew what it was and who had come. Fear, rage, hate and love flooded through Omar from outside himself, drowning the physical pain.
Tiger stood in the doorway, his face distorted with fury, jaws open, proboscis flailing. He leapt across the courtyard, over the heads of the humanoids, and landed on the scaffold. One tentacle whipped out, wrapped around the robot’s arm, and pulled the laser down, toppling the robot from its treads. The heavy machine crashed to the floor.
The second tentacle shot forth and wrapped around the Shepherd’s neck. A suction cup covered his mouth as it yanked him violently to the floor. The whipping action snapped the Shepherd’s neck. The tentacle unwound, and he lay motionless.
Tiger ran to Omar, who hung from the cross with blood streaming from his shoulder. Tiger crouched, extended one tentacle, and placed one suction cup over the bloody stump where Omar’s arm had been. The suction cup attached itself to the stump, and spread over it, like a living bandage.
Tiger stood up on his two sets of hind legs. With his remaining hook, he slashed his tentacle in two, leaving a section of it dangling from Omar’s shoulder, about the same length as his arm. The color of the tentacle section began to change, becoming flesh-like. Omar felt sensations from the new appendage.
Vaktor ran up onto the scaffold to the cross where Omar was hanging limply, opened the bolts, and lifted Omar down gently in his strong arms. Lyla knelt beside him and cradled his head in her lap. Tiger collapsed to the ground, limp, exhausted, with no strength remaining, and saturated with pain.
* * *
Omar and Lyla stood together in the great vaulted chamber that housed the robot control console. Behind them, through the glass, could be seen the broadcast tower with the missile battery at its base, and the rock face of Mt. Zakhbaal.
A crowd had assembled: Vaktor and his hunters from the plateau, Dramka, and as many of the city dwellers as could squeeze into the chamber, with the rest gathered outside in the courtyard, hoping for even a glimpse of the new Shepherd with his young bride, the true Shepherd who had come to overthrow the false one and assume his rightful place.
Beside the new Shepherd and his bride stood the Sacred Beast, scarred but healing, the creature that had emerged from the forest to battle and defeat the usurper’s killing machine.
Omar’s new arm, his “gift” from Tiger, had grown an internal bone structure and had divided into fingers at the tip, so that it was difficult now to distinguish the new limb from the old. And Tiger’s tentacle, the one he had sliced in two, had regenerated to its original length.
The robot stood motionless at the side of the room, near the console, awaiting Omar’s next command. Omar had disarmed the laser and restored the original mining program. The robot would now labor to provide raw materials and metals for the welfare of the community.
Lyla was shaken by her father’s death despite all that had happened and all he had done. They had buried him in the soft soil near where the river flowed under the bridge. No stone marked the spot. Grass would grow over it.
Omar stepped forward and spoke a few words to the gathered humanoids in their own language. He spoke sadly of the needless deaths and destruction that had occurred, and of the artist and holy man Svaak who the robot had killed. He urged Vaktar and the hunters to return to the plateau and rebuild their village. He encouraged the city dwellers to join forces with the plateau villagers. He told them of his plans for them jointly to build a roadway between the village and Zakhbaal for transport and commerce between them. The reprogrammed robot could be put to great use in a construction project of such magnitude.
After he spoke, the city dwellers and hunters gathered around Omar and Lyla, thanking them for what they had done and what they proposed to do.
When the crowd had gone and the room had emptied, alone in the palace hall with Lyla, Omar could find no words to say. Lyla looked up into his face, kissed him passionately, and Omar was overwhelmed with love. The red emotion scanner at the entrance to the hallway began to blink rapidly, and on the console an alarm went off and the needle on one gauge spun off the dial. Tiger lay at their feet, emitting a sound that greatly resembled purring.
Omar spent the next days disconnecting the scanners and modifying the robot program for civil engineering. Then he dismantled the missile battery for use as scrap metal, and resumed broadcasting signals from the tower, but with a new message. Earth was gone, but Planet X was up and running, and announcing itself to the galaxies, peaceful and welcoming, if anyone was there to listen.
Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler