The Shepherd of Zakhbaal
by Bill Bowler
Chapter 5: Contact
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.
Since his arrival, nowhere in the vicinity of his splashdown or campsite had Omar seen a sign of any intelligence sufficiently advanced to be capable of building a radio transmitter or launching a missile. He had seen no evidence even of an artificially constructed dwelling, nor of a single machine or tool.
But he had splashed down in the general region from which the streaks of light had originated. Omar was determined to find the launch site, and decided to break camp and explore the surrounding forest further than he had yet gone. The next morning, with the orange sun rising in the sky and Tiger watching from a grassy patch where he had stretched out, Omar packed his tools, rolled up his tent, and shouldered his backpack. He sent a thought to Tiger, and the two of them set off to follow the stream to its source.
Tiger wandered off sometimes into the brush, but never strayed far. Even when the creature was out of sight, Omar experienced Tiger’s emotions and from the strength of the sensation, Omar was aware of how near or far Tiger was from him.
For four periods of light and dark, they traveled along the sandy bank, beneath the green vault of towering ferns, amidst the riot of colors that draped and splashed the dense underbrush, when the stream began to broaden and the flora thinned. Omar and Tiger emerged from the dim forest into the orange glow of the noonday sun, shining down and sparkling on the rippling currents of the wide, slow-moving river.
They stood at a bend in the river, on the edge of a vast plain that spread out before them. In the distance, a chain of snow-capped mountains stretched along the horizon. Near the end of the chain, where the earth met the sky, loomed the gray silhouette of a gigantic peak, whose towering summit was hidden in the clouds.
The meadow that stretched before Omar and Tiger seemed alive. Small creatures darted in the tall grass that swayed and rippled in the breeze. The air was filled with chirping and buzzing. High above, a pair of wings soared in the wind currents. The wingspan indicated a creature of enormous size. Omar watched as the flying beast, wings extended to full length, circled the plain slowly.
The path here led down an embankment and through a swamp of long reeds, beyond which Omar saw the placid silver surface of a lake. He wondered who or what had trod this path. Omar set off down the embankment, thinking to pitch his tent near the lake, in the shade of a great fern whose crown leaned out over the water.
Halfway between the edge of the forest and the lake shore, Omar realized the meadow had fallen still and silent. A shadow crossed their path, and Tiger let out a piercing howl. Omar looked up to see a great pair of wings swooping silently down, and a huge, three-fingered claw reaching to take him.
Omar frantically tried to pull the laser from his pocket, but the claw closed around him and the pistol dropped to the ground. As the monster pulled away from the ground, Tiger unfurled his fore tentacles and wound them round the free leg of the flying predator.
The beast screeched and beat its great wings furiously, pulling Omar and Tiger up off the ground. Tiger hooked one of the beast’s wings with the claw of his middle leg, and sank his fangs into the thin, leathery membrane of the wing. A deafening screech filled the air. The beast dropped Omar and flung Tiger to the ground with a reflexive whipping action of its leg.
Tiger’s head struck a rock half-buried in the ground. He lay still in the long grass, dark fluid streaming from a crack in his skull. From that moment, the energy, the curiosity, the need for affection that had pulsated continuously in the back of Omar’s consciousness since he had found Tiger, that energy ceased and the channel went dead.
The flying creature wheeled and swooped down on Omar again. He scrambled towards his laser, which lay on the path near where he had fallen. As he dashed towards the pistol, his foot broke through a thin layer of grass spread on the path, the ground gave way beneath him, and he tumbled head first into blackness.
Omar hit the bottom with a thud. He lay still for a moment, stunned by the blow. His ribs were bruised purple from the crushing grip of the huge claw, and his arm and shoulder ached from the impact of the fall. Omar groaned and climbed unsteadily to his feet. He was at the bottom of a deep pit.
He looked up at the rim, far above his head and out of reach. In the sky above, the great wings circled. From the corner of his eye, Omar had seen Tiger hit the ground and not get up. He cursed himself for not having been more careful, and slammed his fist into the wall of the pit.
The sky grew dark. The stars came out, then faded as the sky grew light again. When the dull red sun had again reached its zenith and shone directly into the pit, casting its dim light along the walls, Omar heard sounds approaching. He looked up and, one by one, a group of figures appeared around the rim of the pit.
Omar saw they were bipedal hominids, somewhat smaller than human, with short pairs of arms and legs, big bellies and stooped shoulders. Their squat bodies were covered with short, coarse hair. Their heads were small. Their faces were hairless, and their large eyes were yellow with no pupils. They brandished long, thick, sturdy staffs with sharpened points, and two of them bore dead animals across their shoulders. Omar recognized the design of the staffs. He had seen the broken end of one still stuck deep in Tiger’s parent’s guts.
Pointing their spears down towards Omar, the hominids communicated among themselves in a language full of clicks and hisses. The largest of them silenced the others, tossed a rope into the hole, and Omar pulled himself up the wall of the pit. As he clambered over the edge, the group surrounded him, holding him at bay with their spear tips.
Omar made a quick move, struck the hunter standing nearest to him and kicked another in the joint of his leg. Both went down, but before Omar could escape the circle, the others quickly closed ranks. Omar felt spear tips puncture his skin, tearing the flesh from his side and back.
They forced him to the ground and bound his arms behind his back with the rope they had used to pull him out. One of his captors put a noose around his neck and yanked it tight.
Omar saw his backpack and laser pistol lying nearby in the grass. The leader of the hominids saw them, too. He picked up the laser, examined it, and slid it behind his belt, which Omar saw was made of hooked claws strung together, claws from a creature like Tiger.
“Ardz, klikh zekst!” the large hominid uttered in a hoarse, rasping voice. The one named Ardz picked up Omar’s backpack and shouldered it awkwardly.
Pulling on the leash and prodding him with bloody spear tips, they dragged Omar back to his feet. He looked around him at the hairless faces. Their yellow eyes burned with hatred, and Omar wondered why. Only their leader seemed aloof.
Omar turned to him and pointed at himself. “My name is Omar.” He tapped his chest. “Omar.”
“Omar Zakhbaal-akh!” hissed the leader, and spat on the ground. The hominid holding Omar’s leash jerked it taut and the noose tightened around Omar’s throat. He stumbled and choked for air as they dragged him away from the pit and the party set off across the plain through the long grasses.
They marched six days, never speaking again to Omar, despite his repeated attempts. Towards evening of the seventh, as the sky faded to gray and then grew dark, and the first stars came out, the landscape began to change. Omar saw that they had reached the end of the grassy plain. The vegetation grew sparse, and the ground, now strewn with rocks and boulders, began to slope gently upwards.
They poked and dragged Omar up the slope, which grew steeper as it rose, and soon arrived at the base of a sheer wall of rock. The group turned and followed the base of the wall for some distance, and came to a narrow stone path cut into the face of the cliff.
Single-file, they climbed the path, clinging to the face of the cliff until, coming around a curve in the mountainside, Omar saw light up ahead of them. The path led to a large plateau that jutted out over the plains far below. At the rear of the plateau, against the rock face, stood a row of dwellings, domes made of carefully placed and piled stones. A fire burned in a great hearth before the largest dwelling in the center of the row.
Old men, women and children — for such in Omar’s mind now were the alien hominids — emerged from the domes, the children carrying small pointed sticks, running and shouting to greet the returning party. The young ones gazed fearfully at Omar as the hunters tied his leash to a post set into the ground not far from the fire. A crowd of villagers gathered around, shouting and chattering.
Amidst the growing din, a silver-haired male, stooped and wrinkled, emerged from the central dwelling. Omar saw that one of the old man’s yellow eyes had been gouged out and a long scar cut across his cheek. His mane of silver hair fell to his shoulders, and he was draped in a cloak of green striped fur. Using his spear as a walking staff, he hobbled towards the post where Omar was bound.
“Vaktar!” the old man cried out.
The leader of the hunting party, with Omar’s laser behind his claw belt, bowed low and uttered the syllable, “Svak.”
Omar understood that Vaktar and Svak were their names.
Svak pointed a gnarled, broken finger at Omar and began to speak. In the stream of alien speech, punctuated by clicks and hisses, Omar heard one word that he had heard before, a word repeated several times, each time with greater contempt: “Zakhbaal.”
The crowd around the fire grew silent. Old silver-haired Svak spat on the ground and glared at Omar.
The flames of the great hearth danced and crackled on the coals. Omar stood tethered to the post, hands bound behind his back, a noose around his neck. And yet, in the back of his mind, there was something, like the faint buzzing of an insect, like static on the line, something insistent, something Omar could no longer ignore. It was growing in strength and approaching.
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Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bowler