The Ballad of Omega Brown:
Omega and the Tellerian Shapeshifter
by Tom Vaine
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
As Omega dashed between the pillars, the irony of his situation was not lost on him. The creature was wounded but it was far from spent, and now Omega found himself hoping to get away with almost the same trick it had used. He moved as quickly as he dared between the pillars, trying in equal measures to stay both quiet and unseen.
When he’d first turned to run, he could feel the thing only steps behind him. The heavy panting he’d followed earlier in the night was angry now, and he was sure he could feel it on the back of his neck. He ducked down instinctively, then rolled to the side as a shower of metal and glass clattered down at him.
Once he was back on his feet, Omega had beat a path through the strange topiary. His size relative to the creature’s turned out to be a blessing. The thing had a harder time manoeuvring between the piles than Omega did. That, and the numerous mortal wounds it sported couldn’t be helping either. After a few minutes, he could hear the monster falling back behind him.
That had been the start of this game of hide and seek. Omega hadn’t seen the creature in some time now, had even begun to lose track of how long he’d been scurrying around. It hadn’t returned to the place they’d first found it. Omega had already circled back there. No, it was seeking him. He just needed to make sure he caught it out first.
* * *
Omega stepped through the portal and into the open air, the village spilling out across the hillside before him. Whereas the trash around his ship had been little more than a gigantic midden heap, he wanted to describe the garbage here as cultivated. Doors and windows appeared in haphazard intervals amongst the piles, the mounds themselves shaped into sunken bungalows. Between them, narrow streets and byways had been plowed into the scrap. These wound throughout the town the way a vine crawls between the bricks of a building.
It was the people which most caught his attention. Wrapped in rags the colour of their surroundings, these generational refugees moved amongst the piles with an assurance born of long habit. Nearby, two villagers wrestled a wagon cobbled together from a storage container. Under a nearby canopy, three others sat laughing and passing a jug that might once have been part of an axle. A little ways off, a green child used a metal rod to shepherd a huge slug through the streets.
Grunting, as if the effort of moving his body was too much for him, Ennis pushed passed Omega and motioned for him to follow. Despite the rickety look, the streets felt quite stable beneath Omega’s feet. Still, he found himself tripping occasionally on the odd ends of scrap which made its surface uneven.
Ennis, noticing his sporadic difficulty, straightened his back somewhat and made the effort to make longer strides. He nodded to the men passing the jug as he passed, and these barked a laugh. Omega could feel his guide’s ridicule even if he couldn’t see it. Hoonra glided across the street as she did everywhere she went. He couldn’t help noticing that nobody laughed at her.
Ennis led them through the twisting streets, past houses and what looked in some cases like little shops. The whole thing reminded Omega of the little villages he’d seen on planets that still held to more feudal forms of government.
“How many of you are there?”
“As I said. Generations. We have built lives here despite the limits to our technology.”
“And you expect to fit everyone onboard my ship?”
“No. Only the Chosen will be leaving. The others accept this.”
“That includes you, I expect?” Ennis didn’t answer, but Omega was sure he could hear the blue man grinding his teeth.
The trio were approaching a low wall with a gate. Ennis nodded to the porter on duty and walked through this as well, motioning once again.
The landscape on the other side of the gate was a stretch of trash spread out flat over a few hundred feet. Beyond this, the scrap seemed to be piled into columns, forming a sort of mockery of a forest. Ennis turned sharply and led the way to a pit a short distance away. He pointed for Omega to see.
The body at the bottom was fresh, the slash wounds across its face and chest clearly visible at a distance. Omega turned away quickly.
“You ought to warn people before you show them something like that.”
“There is a monster among us.” Omega shook his head, his laugh sardonic.
“No kidding? You mean to tell me there are dangerous critters lurking around a planet covered in garbage?”
“Critters? No. Not out beyond the wall. From behind it. One of the faithful has fallen. We moved the body here to stop the spread of panic from getting worse.”
Hoonra had not turned away when Omega had. Instead she had leaned down for a better look. “The cuts are deep and aggressive, but they are not wild, Omega. They were purposeful. Monsters aside, this attack was calculated.”
Ennis nodded. “We do not have the weapons here to kill in this manner. This was done by a claw. One from the congregation has changed. I fear it is after the Dreamer. Kill it. Kill it and take us from here, and you can have your ship and the repairs besides.”
Omega stood still for a minute, considering, before looking to Hoonra. The lizardwoman returned his gaze for a moment, then gave a resigned shrug before looking back at the body.
“Yeah, I think we can do this,” Omega said, “We’ll need a few hours, and access to some of your salvage. Oh, and we want our stuff back, too. Near sundown, call all of your faithful together in front of the medlab. Tell them it’s about the Dreamer. Tell them it’s news about the Chosen, how they’ll be leaving earlier than expected. We’ll be ready.”
* * *
Omega shifted into the shadow of a new column and stood up cautiously, stretching his calves from the walking crouch he’d maintained. He was just about to move when he saw it. Ahead of him, a few meters to the left, one of the columns flexed a claw it shouldn’t own. As his headset latched on to the silhouette, it outlined the shape of the thing, changed yet again. Now its body had become blocky, its arms and legs sprouting irregular growths and protrusions. It stood hunched over, its arms hanging to the ground like fallen struts, the claws splayed like old wire. It was facing away from him, waiting, obviously, for him to walk by carelessly.
Omega stayed totally motionless for a moment, but the creature didn’t move. He hefted his pulsesword, raising the arm into a striking position, biting his tongue at the sound of his flight suit moving. Still the creature didn’t move. Slowly, almost painfully, Omega took a step forward. The sound of his foot falling onto the rusted steel surface of the planet sounded like a landslide in his ears. By some miracle, though, the creature remained still. He took another step. Another.
Omega picked up speed, his footsteps as quiet as he could make them. He remembered the resistance he’d encountered when he cut the thing’s leg. He would need to put all his weight behind this strike if it was going to work. Before his eyes, his headset outlined the nerve cluster below the surface of the creature’s skin. He tensed and moved in.
To Omega’s credit, it did actually occur to him that he was being fooled in exactly the way Hoonra had. Unfortunately, as usual, his timing was not quite good enough. Just as he realized that Hoonra had been about the same distance from the creature when it attacked her, the thing spun around, long talons raking outwards. Omega was, at least, luckier than Hoonra had been. The thing had not expected him to be quite so close. Instead of disemboweling him, the monster’s whole paw caught him. Omega found himself airborne, crashing into a column of garbage much as the Karackian had.
This time it took Omega’s headset more than just a minute to turn back on. When it did, it treated him to a view of the creature up close as it hefted him from the wreckage, and brought him towards open jaws.
* * *
Omega and Hoonra stood in the shade of an awning as, nearby, yet more of the mismatched villagers made their way from their ramshackle homes to the yard in front of the medlab. The crowd had been gathering for about a half an hour now, and they were restless. Ennis stood with two guards by the door to the medlab. He was clearly becoming uncomfortable with this many people packed so closely near the Dreamer.
Hoonra put her weight against the spear shaft she held, testing its strength. She checked the homemade beacon tethered to its end. “So, do you think this will be like that time chasing werebeetles on Arneil?”
“Maybe, but I was sort of more in mind of the week we spent hunting warp-tigers on Chillaar.”
“Ah yes.” The Karakian nodded. “The tracker came in very handy then. Do you think its going to give us that much chase?”
“Only one way to find out.” Omega adjusted his belt and checked the settings on his helmet. “Come on. I think Ennis has stewed long enough. If there really is a fallen pilgrim among the crowd, they’ll make their move anytime, if they haven’t already.”
The pair of them approached the medlab, skirting the shuffling faithful to stand beside Ennis.
“It’s about time.” The Keeper was sounding even grumpier than before. “You told me to gather them here, but you didn’t give me anything to say.”
Omega chuckled. “Sorry Ennis old chum, but you seemed like the kind of person who would be comfortable spouting nonsense to a throng.” Ennis’ blue skin shifted to purple, but he controlled himself.
“Well, we all are ready,” Ennis raised his voice and the crowd began to hush, “and you wanted an audience, did you not? To reveal to the Faithful news of the early departure.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Omega turned to the door guards. “Gentlemen, you didn’t let anyone in, did you?”
Both men looked offended. “Of course not,” the one on the right said. He was so indignant that his lip tentacles quivered. “We would never let anyone unworthy approach the Dreamer.”
The other guard nodded his assent. “Only the feeder has entered. He said that the Keeper wanted our Dreamer to be well nourished for her time with the Faithful.” Omega cocked an eyebrow and turned back to Ennis. It still took the Keeper a full ten seconds before he understood what he had heard.
“But,” Ennis became so excited he stumbled on his words, “I never said anything like that.”
“There we go. One side, please, gentlemen, and follow me. Hoonra, get ready.”
Omega and Hoonra stepped inside, followed closely by Ennis, the guards and any other peasants brave enough to look.
The Dreamer’s tank stood at the back of the medlab as it had before. Beside it, bent over the controls, stood a peasant who turned at their unexpected intrusion. “I’m trying to feed her Holiness. You’re interrupting...” He stopped when he saw Keeper Ennis.
“Just who do you think you are?” the Keeper shouted.
Omega turned to Hoonra: “You’re right, this is a lot like the werebeetles.”
The stranger stood stock still for a moment. Then, as Ennis motioned for the two door guards to move in, the peasant stooped and retrieved a crude metal cudgel. “Chaos take you all!” he yelled, slamming the club down on the Dreamer’s tank. There was a sharp crack and Ennis screamed.
“Now, Hoonra!” Omega motioned, but Hoonra was already moving. The great muscles in her legs propelled her across the room in a flash. With a mighty heave, she thrust the spear right into the peasant’s chest. The man tried to scream but only a whining sound came out. He sank to his knees. The crowd stood in shock.
“Yeah, well done.” Omega clapped slowly turning to regard their slack-jawed faces. “Hoonra, ladies and gentlemen, the scourge of Karackas. Take a bow, Hoonra.”
“I wish you would stop these theatrics, Omega. There is no honour in this kind of bragging.”
“No, maybe not. But a job well done deserves recognition. You really walloped him.”
Hoonra smiled a little at this. “Yes I suppose I did.”
“Look!” Ennis gasped.
Hoonra and Omega turned and could see the peasant clawing his way back to his feet. Omega felt a little impressed, though he could see that Hoonra was not.
“Stay down,” she breathed.
Instead, the thing flexed its hand, the fingers elongating into gigantic claws. It heaved its arm around, slashing through the medlab’s wall and laying the room open to the night air. With one more great effort, the creature lifted itself up and, spear and all, tumbled out through the opening it had made.
“He’ll get away!” babbled Ennis.
This time it was Hoonra’s turn to become cross with the unpleasant man. “Your comments add nothing, Keeper. We can all see it escaping.” Omega wasn’t sure he’d ever heard her so annoyed.
Copyright © 2020 by Tom Vaine