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THE ZARFIN BREEDER
They rotated slowly— swarming together, forming a dark menacing cloud. The power that moved them remained a mystery. Their activity in daylight caused some on Uraami to believe they drew energy from the sun. Others said they drained it from their helpless victims. Small and shiny, they resembled eight-sided drums, narrow at one end, wider at the other. No one knew when they would strike. Their attacks had been more frequent lately and the effects more severe.
Gliding malevolently on the warm air the swarm stalked its prey, a young zarfin. Less than a month old, the zarfin had strayed from its herd. It did not matter to the swarm whether its prey was beast of burden or one of the more intelligent species, to them the results were the same.
Helpless to intervene, Haramun remained in the protection of his shelter. He had witnessed similar scenes many times before. Though fleet of foot, the young zarfin couldn't outrun the swarm. Stamping the ground and squealing in protest, the adults in the group watched as their youngest tried desperately to out manoeuvre its attacker.
Effortlessly the swarm closed in, hovering above the panic-stricken beast. They clicked in unison as they joined together, forming a buzzing inescapable prison. The dark metallic dome of synergetic segments, settled over its prey and there it remained, feeding hungrily on the victim's energy.
Haramun knew the horror of the descending dome― the loud deafening clicking and buzzing as hundreds of small metal feelers emerged, poked and prodded in the darkness. Paralysed and powerless he had lain by a ditch while the swarm had stroked his strength away. He felt for the young zarfin but the creature was strong. There was a good chance it would survive.
Satiated, the dome lifted and began to dissipate. The dark silvery swarm headed for the distant mountains from whence it had come.
Haramun grabbed his bag then ran to check on the young beast. Other members of the herd moved closer. One was more upset than the others. It was the victim's mother. Trusting their owner, the herd stood back as he reached the fallen zarfin. He knelt down and felt its sweaty neck, the pulse weak but steady. Its eyelids flickered. Haramun could see the large eyeball beneath, rolling erratically within the socket.
He swung the bag from his shoulder then took out a small gun. He changed the setting, held the barrel against the zarfin's neck and pulled the trigger.
Haramun rubbed the injection site. The high dose of supplements would soon kick in. The people who had saved his life had been travelling the same road as he and had come across him lying on the verge, unable to move and utterly helpless. They had given him a similar injection then had cared for him till he was strong enough to travel again. He was one of the lucky ones.
Opening its eyes, the young zarfin soon began to thrash wildly. It struggled to stand and called out. Its mother answered. Haramun helped it to its feet before sending it tottering unsteadily towards her.
Its mother sniffed it then curled her top lip at the scent of the swarm, blowing a snort of disgust down her nostrils. She licked and nuzzled the young zarfin encouragingly. It poked a wobbly head between its mother's fore-legs, attached itself to a teat then began to suckle.
Glad the young zarfin would survive, Haramun picked up his bag before heading back to his shelter. He glanced at the remains of the old storm damaged yards as he passed and then at the new covered yards still half finished and then up at the sky. If the swarm stayed away he could finish the roof, at least then his animals would again have shelter in the daytime. He would work hard to get it completed before the meeting this evening. He didn't want to be late.
Haramun shook the water from his coat as he walked into the crowded community hall. Seated along one side of a table on the raised platform at the end of the large assembly room, were soft bodied under dwellers.
Encouraged by the fine turn out, Haramun nodded greetings to friends and neighbours, all hard working rough coats. He sat on the end of the bench next to Marum and his young wife, a couple who worked the soil and lived not far from him.
"Greetings Haramun." Marum, noticed the droplets of water clinging to Haramun's shoulders. "I see it's begun to rain. We planted robi seeds today. The rain will have them sprouting in no time. You're late. The meeting is about to start."
"Yes. One of my best young zarfin was attacked today. I spent the afternoon working on their new shelter." He nodded towards the raised platform. "I see the council are already here."
"Do you really believe we will get any help from the soft bodies tonight?" asked Marum cynically. "We've been troubled for years by the swarm and the council have barely lifted a finger to help."
"We can only hope," replied Haramun grimly. It had been a battle, trying to convince the soft bodies of the danger. They lived underground and were never threatened by the swarm. Admittedly they had helped the rough coats by supplying them with much needed injections but that had done nothing to solve the problem of the swarm itself. Where had it come from? What was its purpose? He was sure the soft bodies knew more than they let on. Rough coats still died if they could not get help quickly enough. The weapons they had to protect themselves from natural predators were totally useless against the swarm.
A metallic jangling brought a hush over the gathering. All eyes focused on the figures at the table. Having gained the audience's attention, one of the soft bodies began to speak.
"I shall now bring this twenty-third meeting of the council of NuGarn to order. Councillor Taric will read the half-yearly report. Councillor Maxil will listen to personal grievances and Councillor Ramov will take your suggestions. Feel free to forward your requests and if you would all kindly have your questions ready, we can perhaps finish on time."
Haramun listened dutifully to Councillor Taric's report. Productivity up five percent; all major building projects completed on time; sales of surplus foodstuffs to neighbouring counties increasing and on it went. Finally question time. Haramun put his hand up and held it there while other questions were answered.
A nod from Councillor Maxil finally allowed him to bring it down. Rubbing his arm, he put forward his question.
"Let it be heard, I am Haramun of Obean. My question is: When is the council going to do something about the swarm? My stock suffered another attack this morning. If I hadn't been there to administer the injection, I would have lost one of my most valuable young zarfin. Might I remind the Councillors a good neighbour of mine was killed by the swarm less than a week ago while working at home. The swarm have become stronger in recent months and I believe their attacks will lead to more unnecessary deaths if they are not stopped."
"I understand your concern Haramun of Obean and I will forward your complaint to the relevant authorities. If you would care to come forward and fill out this form…"
Haramun interrupted. "With respect Councillor Maxil, I have already filled out numerous forms of complaint, as have my neighbours and to date nothing adequate has been done. Who are these relevant authorities? Grant me an audience with them so I may forward my complaint directly."
"I am sorry Haramun of Obean but complaints must go through the proper channels…" Maxil held up the form and waved it at him.
"Keep your proper channels. I am tired of filling out useless forms. I am not leaving until I have a commitment from the council that something definite will be done."
"Sit down Haramun, your question has been answered."
"Not satisfactorily. Something needs to be done about the swarm before more innocent lives are lost."
Expressions of agreement flowed from the crowd.
"Sit down or you will be ejected from the meeting."
Egged on by his fellow farmers, Haramun persisted. "I request an audience with the relevant authorities."
"Guards please escort Haramun of Obean from the hall."
Two armour plated drones glided quickly through the crowded benches then grabbed Haramun by the arms with pincer like appendages. They dragged him bodily from the building, releasing him at the top of the steps. Warning him in mechanical voices not to return, they extended their metallic arms before pushing him backwards out on to the damp road.
From previous experience, Haramun knew drones were not to be trifled with. His arm had been broken in a past struggle. He winced as he remembered the beating he had received over a similar outburst.
There was nothing more he could do. Anger wouldn't help. He had made his feelings known. It was now up to others and the council. He walked up the road to his tethered zarfin. He untied the rope of his beast's simple hackamore and scratched the animal affectionately between the horns along its crest. The large male nuzzled him. Haramun took a titbit from a small pouch attached to the belt of his leather loincloth then offered it to his companion.
"Always happy to see me, eh old fellow?"
The zarfin took the morsel gently with big rubbery lips and crunched it as Haramun leapt onto its back. Moving as one they headed silently towards Haramun's land, the zarfin's soft feet leaving large three toed prints in the mud.
It began to rain again. The night was cool but rather than being a nuisance Haramun found the gentle rain refreshing. Light from the large dappled autumn moon occasionally broke through the clouds and played on the zarfin's shiny wet skin. Haramun stroked the beast's warm neck and relaxed the rope, content in the knowledge his friend would carry him safely home. Even on the darkest night, the zarfin's large nocturnal eyes and keen senses could pick out obstacles or danger in its path.
If he was lucky, his neighbours would continue to question the council on what they intended to do about the swarm. Haramun could remember a time, long ago, before they had to worry about attacks. A time when rough coats and their young could happily and safely go out as a family in the daytime. Now they were forced to keep any social activity to hours of darkness.
Those who worked the land in daylight did so at terrible risk to themselves but it was a case of having to, or go hungry. The soft bodies would not pay credits for produce delivered late.
The swarm had practically made rough coats prisoners on their own land. Strange how the swarm appeared shortly after the soft bodied under dwellers arrival. Haramun had always believed there was a connection but he had never found any one who would take him seriously. They all believed it was pure coincidence. The majority of rough coats were simple peaceful creatures who were happy to eke out an existence on the land, as their forefathers had done for thousands of years. He knew many of his neighbours thought of him as something of an eccentric troublemaker. Even when young he would dare do things others would not. For years he had questioned why the under dwellers should make the rules and the rough coats obey them. But what was one voice amongst hundreds. The apathy of his own kind had become their greatest enemy.
The sky cleared a little, allowing the full moon to light the road ahead. Haramun glanced at the raised vents along the roadside that fed fresh air down to the under dwellers city. What kind of an existence must it be for the soft bodies who lived their entire lives beneath? To never see a sunset in all its glorious colours. To never hear the tree creatures welcoming the new day. To never feel the breeze in one's face as one rode swiftly upon a zarfin. Try as he might he couldn't imagine existing as they did. It must be as death itself.
From what he knew no rough coat had ever willingly ventured beneath and daring as he was, it was something he had no desire to experience. As far as he was concerned the under dwellers lived a polluted and unnatural existence. There was a place to the east where tall chimneys reached high into the air and belched out grey and yellow toxic clouds.
The smell was dreadful and around the stacks the trees refused to grow. It was a place where nothing lived.
Haramun had complained at a council meeting and asked for the site to be cleaned up. He knew they were capable of doing something, yet they did nothing. He caused such a commotion he was ejected as he had been tonight. Only he had fought back then and his arm had been broken in the scuffle.
For all their sciences and new inventions the under dwellers cared little how their lifestyle affected the rough coats. They were happy to use them and help them when it suited but in all things, the needs of the soft bodies came first. What annoyed Haramun the most was the way his people had allowed it to happen.
Suddenly his zarfin stopped and snorted. They had come to the ancient forest that bordered his land. The zarfin eyed the base of the tall trees suspiciously while nodding his large head up and down.
A strange sound, unlike anything Haramun had experienced before, came from just above the trees near a clearing by the roadside.
The grassed area grew strangely bright. Slowly a large descending golden orb appeared before his eyes. It was wider and higher than an Obean dwelling. The zarfin began to tremble but he had been well trained and stood his ground. Haramun rubbed his neck and made reassuring noises.
Haramun stared at the orb. He had never seen such a thing. It was as if the moon had come down from the sky. It hovered just above the ground.
Suddenly a small area on its surface shimmered and a strange face peered through the exterior membrane of the craft as if checking to see if it was safe to emerge. Then more shimmering as the owner of the face stepped out, followed closely by another. Haramun sat still, unsure whether to flee or greet the beings. The creatures were almost the same as the soft bodied under dwellers but these had hair. The taller appeared to be male and had dark wavy hair and the other, a female, had long black hair down to its waist. He had never seen an under dweller with hair. Their features were certainly very similar to under dwellers. It was as though these new larger beings were a cross between soft bodies and rough coats. They wore clothes so Haramun couldn't tell if they had other hair.
His zarfin ceased trembling and settled down, accepting the strangers as friendly. Always a good sign. If there was one thing Haramun had learnt in all his years as a zarfin breeder, it was to trust their peculiar ability to sense danger.
The first stranger stepped on to the road, walked up beside him then patted his zarfin in a friendly fashion.
Haramun felt uneasy. He had never seen an under dweller use such a mode of transport but then he didn't really know how they travelled. Perhaps it was some new invention. They were always inventing things.
Suddenly the first stranger spoke in a strong but soothing male voice. "I am sorry, I hope I didn't give your zarfin a fright. He's a lovely creature. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Drake." The tall well built stranger reached up with his hand and smiled.