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Authors: William Bernhardt

The Black Sentry (17 page)

BOOK: The Black Sentry
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26

 

In the fading light
Daman saw and heard the heavy footsteps of the inhuman Sentrymen. They walked at a slow but steady pace. Their eyeless heads focused straight ahead, never moving.

He
knew what the beams of light coming from those monsters’ arms could do. He did not wish to see it demonstrated again. Especially not on his friends.

“Turn around!” he
shouted. “We’ll go back the other way.”

Brita looked at him as if he had lost his mind
. “Back to Clovis?”

“Better that than the Forest of the Savages.”

She didn’t argue. All their lives they had been taught about the Savages and their filthy, barbaric lifestyle...and their taste for human flesh.

They headed
back toward the village. Unfortunately, they had barely gone two hundred feet when, once again, they saw menacing glints of silver just above the horizon.

Three more Silver Sentrymen
. Coming at them from the other direction.

The
Silver Sentrymen blocked the road on both ends.

There was nowhere they could go
.

The nearest Sentryman
raised its arm. As if targeting them.

“We must leave the r
oad,” the Old Man said.

“What about the Savages?” Brita had the same expression o
n her face as when she first spotted a Creeper.

“We have no choice
. Come on.”

The Silver Sentrymen continued their
steady march, lurching forward with earth-shattering footfalls.

The Sentryman clo
sest to them pivoted, following their movement.

Before, in the Arena, he had noticed
a bright red light in the Sentryman’s hand that glowed just before the deadly blue beam of light emerged. Now he saw the red light again. As soon as it began to shimmer, he dove and rolled close to the ground.

The Sentryman’s deadly
blue beam of light blasted out where he had stood only seconds before. It struck a tree, which instantly burst into flames. He covered his ears, blocking out the sound of the explosion. Smoke billowed up. Large chunks of leaf and bark flew all around him.

He
could feel the heat, even as far away as he was. “Quickly,” he said. “Into the forest.”

This time, his companions did not hesitate
. The Silver Sentrymen fired all at once. Hot beams of blue light crisscrossed all around them. They struck the ground and the trees, sometimes ricocheting in different directions. One beam hit another tree, sending large wood chunks flying through the air. Another beam blasted just over their heads.

He ran
, making sure the Old Man and the others kept pace, never looking back.

Until he heard a sharp cry of pain just behind him.

He whirled.

The Old Man had been hit.

He and Brita ran to the Old Man’s side.

“It wasn’t the blue light
,” the Old Man muttered. Sweat poured from his forehead. “Some of the flying debris—” He gritted his teeth. A hole seared his tunic. Although there was no bleeding, his chest was severely burned.  

He and Xander
lifted the Old Man to his feet. The Sentrymen’s beams were still firing. They couldn’t afford to stop until they were much further away.

Fortunately, although the Silver Sentrymen were lethal and te
rrifying, they did not move that quickly, especially off the road and in the forest, where the ground was not flat and the way was often blocked by trees.

The Old M
an’s eyes were wide and his gasps were short and strained. His hand clutched at his chest. He appeared to be having trouble breathing.

The Silver Sentrymen attempted to pursue, but because of their enormous
size, they were unable to pass through the densest parts of the forest. A few more beams of blue light flew over their heads until finally they were out of range.

The more they ran, the more the
heavy footsteps of the Sentrymen fell behind them, until finally they could not hear the monsters at all.

 

*****

 

Daman carried the Old Man deep into the forest, not resting until the sun set. Once he felt sure they were safe, he gently laid the Old Man down in a bed of leaves. They removed his tunic. Xander poured water from his canteen over the wound. Other than that, there was not much they could do. After a few moments of stillness, the Old Man’s eyes closed and he seemed to rest.

“Do you think he’ll make it?”
Brita asked.

“I have no idea.
We need to get him to a physic. But we can’t go back to Clovis.”

“And the nearest village beyond Clovis is at least two d
ays’ journey.” She held the map in her hand. She had been studying their options.

“I’ve scouted the surrounding area
,” Xander said, “and I saw no trace of the Sentrymen.”

“The Silver Sentrymen may be powerful,” Brita said, “but they are not fast
. And they were not made for trudging through forests.”

Xander nodded
. “Although it may be simply that...they felt they had no need to follow us into the forest.”

They all knew what he meant
. There was no need for the Sentrymen to follow their prey into the forest–because with Savages lurking everywhere, they were already as good as dead.

They heard a weak, tremulous voice behind them
. “Are we safe?”

Brita
ran to the Old Man’s side. “We’re safe. At least, from the Sentrymen.”

He
nodded. Some color returned to his face. He was undoubtedly still in pain. He winced when he spoke. But the brief rest seemed to have done him some good.

“Do you mind...if we talk about the Sentrymen?”
Brita asked.

The Old Man did not show great enthusiasm for the subject
. “If you wish.”

She
hesitated. “They weren’t...
real
, were they?”

“They seemed very real to me.”

“Yes, but–they weren’t…natural, right? They were Constructs.”

The Old Man nodded.

Xander drew in his breath. “If that’s what Constructs were like, I can see why the Sentinel eliminated them.”

“No, no,” the Old Man said
. “Remember what I said before. Constructs are neither good nor evil. They’re tools. Even before the Sentinel, they merely did what those controlling them wished.”

“The controller
s?” Xander asked. “The privileged class?”

The Old Man shook his head
. “In the time of the Ancients, everyone had Constructs.
Machines
. Some more than others, yes, but everyone had them. There were machines that could perform every imaginable task or chore. There were machines that cooked your food, cleaned your house, transported you from one place to another. The Ancients were always thinking up new machines, machines that could do even more than those that preceded them.”

“Was this bad?”

“Not really. But it worried some. Not everyone believed in progress. Some clung to the past, insisting life was better long ago. There are always such people, in any era, who think the time of their youth was the best and the world has deteriorated ever since. But toward the end, just before the Sentinel’s rise, there were more than ever before, because life was changing so quickly. New inventions seemed to arrive on a daily basis, and strange new experiments were constantly increasing knowledge, leading to even more new discoveries. Information was exchanged at lightning speed. With new knowledge came new power. And power in the wrong hands is always dangerous. Some scientists uncovered the fundamental secrets of life itself. People experimented, and of course, some of those experiments went wrong. It was rumored that the Creepers were the result of experiments gone bad.”

“You mean,” he
asked, “the Creepers did not exist in the time of the Ancients?”


No, not until the very end of the time before the Sentinel. At first, there were only a few Creepers, but they proved so unstoppable and reproduced so quickly that they soon spread to every unprotected corner of the continent.”

“And the Savages
? Did they exist in the time of the Ancients?”

“No,” the Old Man
said, but there was an odd expression in his eyes. “The Savages definitely did not plague the Ancients.”

“Were there other experiments?” Brita asked.

“Indeed. Of many different varieties. But the most frightening, perhaps, were those performed on people themselves. Some scientists thought to make humanity better than it was, to improve it. Some of those results were astounding–but the results of others were terrifying. And they remain with us today.”

“But
—” Xander said, “even the slaves had machines?”

“There were no slaves,” the Old Man said
. “Not at the time of the Sentinel’s ascension. The great evil we call slavery had existed for millennia, but the Ancients finally eradicated it. Men and women were free. Until the rule of the Sentinel began.”

“What kind of freedom?” Xander asked
.

“Women could choose
their futures for themselves,” Brita said.

“Everyone could choose
their futures for themselves,” the Old Man said. “They could make virtually every decision themselves. Chart their own future. They could decide where to go and when to go there. They chose their own occupations, their own spouses. They could live anywhere they wanted and move any time they wished.”

Daman
listened with amazement. He still could not conceive of a world with so much freedom of choice. “It must have been wonderful.”

“In many respects,
it was. But sadly enough, it made many powerful people uncomfortable. There were some who disliked having so much freedom, or more accurately, disliked it when others had so much freedom. When humans are free to choose for themselves, inevitably, some choose poorly. That can cause hardship for others, especially those who think the whole world should be a reflection of themselves. They called for stricter rules, a return to the past, more centralized control. Increased ability to monitor the activities of those who were different. And it was only a short step from monitoring activities to dictating activities. ‘Order’ became the watchword of the day.”

“‘Order’
is the watchword of the Sentinel,” he noted.


It certainly is. Order from chaos.” The Old Man took a deep breath. “There was great debate. Opposing forces did a lot of shouting. This went on for years, no one getting anywhere. For every person who wanted stronger controls, there was another who wanted to retain freedom. It was a stalemate. Until the Sentinel came along.”

“And then?”

“The Sentinel took up the banner of those who fought for Order. And unlike the others, he had a means of bringing his vision of the world into reality.”

“By killing the Constructs?” Brita aske
d.

“Yes
. Don’t ask me to explain it. I’m no scientist. It was like he cast a spell over the entire realm–and the Machines stopped working. The Ancients, so unused to doing things for themselves, rapidly fell apart. In the madness and chaos that followed, it was easy for him to seize control. He took over, establishing his Black Sentry as a ruthless police force and himself as indisputable ruler.”

“And suppressing freedom,” Xander said quietly.

“Of course, the Sentinel claims he has not suppressed freedom. He claims that when all people have unlimited freedom no one is free–each is limited by the impositions of others. He claims that by structuring society along stricter lines and guiding citizens in the important decisions that affect the welfare of the entire community, he gives each person the freedom to make their highest and best contributions to society.”

“Do you believe that?”

“No. It’s a lie. A lie told by every despot since the dawn of time. There is no freedom in this world the Sentinel has made. People’s ambitions, their hopes and dreams, their aspirations, all are crushed in his all-controlling grip. That is why we must fight him, even though the odds seem impossible. We must fight him and fight him and never stop fighting him.”

“How can the Sentinel still be alive after so much time?”

“That’s a mystery that has baffled us.”

“And the Silver Sentrymen—
?”

“Are machines
. And somehow they work, even though no one else’s machines will.” His eyes closed. Brita told the two boys to move away and let him get some rest. He would need it, she said, if he was going to endure the next day’s journey.

Xander opened his pack and shared what little food was left
. Some water, some bread, a smidgen of cheese. Obviously, they could not go far unless they found more.

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