The Tribal Protector

The village chief stood at the entrance to the hut, fighting to keep his composure. He gazed into the darkness of the hut’s interior, fighting against his own reluctance to step past the threshold.

His hair was turning gray, and his back now bowed forward slightly, but the chief still trusted his ears. From behind him, he heard the sounds of the nightly fire, in the middle of his small village. His friends, family, laughing and chattering about their day, passing around the coconut filled with ayahuasca, taking small sips of the potent brew. He yearned desperately to return to them, to leave this solitary, small hut on the edge of his village alone.

Instead, he forced one last, deep breath into his lungs. He felt the little pull, the stitch in his side where, many years ago, a boar caught him with its tusks as it charged from the undergrowth.

The chief took a step forward, past the threshold of the hut and inside.

“Protector!” he called out, fighting to keep the wobble from his voice.

For an instant, he heard nothing – and then, in the darkness of the hut, he heard a hiss of movement, of long-unused joints unfolding. He heard slight squeaks and creaks, and although he had rightfully earned the title of chieftain of his tribe by proving, over and over, his lack of fear, he struggled to control the weakness in his loins as the dark shape moved forward.

The Protector emerged into the dimness of the moonlight, holding His weapon.

The chieftain knew many things – how to properly shake a coconut palm to bring down its ripe fruit, which bark to press against burns for soothing relief, where to dig to find the best clay for shaping bowls and jars – but he did not know of a cargo cult. The concept, voiced by men from lands he’d never seen, discussed how some tribes worshipped cargo planes, as these planes brought wondrous supplies and miracles, as befitting the divine.

The chieftain knew not from where the Protector had come. He knew the legends and stories passed down from his fathers, but they were numerous and contradictory, and although he taught them faithfully to his own son, he did not profess to understand.

The Protector had come to their island long ago – or, perhaps, it had always been here, living in a cave with His weapon at the ready. Legends agreed that He had spoken in the past, but the chieftain had never heard him speak. He sometimes made a harsh sound in His throat, but no words came from Him.

But He obeyed, and that was enough to fill the chieftain with fear. What if, possessed by madness one day, he asked the Protector to strike down those that he loved? Would He even hesitate?

Another step forward from the Protector. Now, his eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight, the chief saw the tusks of boar around His neck, the strange metal in different colors that bound every inch of His body and face. Was there a man under there? Had there ever been a man, or was this some god, some spirit, bound to the earth itself and sent to the tribe?

“Protector.” The chief’s voice sounded hoarse; he yearned for even a sip of fiery ayahuasca to give him strength. Yet he knew the danger of speaking when his tongue had been freed, and he remained sober.

The Protector waited. He would wait forever, long after the chief was dead. Always in the darkness, always with His weapon in hand.

“A man of our tribe-” the chief struggled with the words, hating that this was his duty. “He has been taken by the madness, breathed too much of the gas that sometimes stretches towards our shores. He attacked his wife, fled to the recesses of the island. He will come back, filled with madness and the spirits of the dead beyond our waters.”

The Protector said nothing.

“You must-” the chief stopped for a moment, but continued. “You must find him and stop him. He will not recover, but will continue to be a danger in the jungles, if he is not stopped.”

For one long minute, he stared into the dark cavities of the Protector’s eyes, trembling with many emotions. One last word, and he would send forth this god, or demon, or great being, on a mission that could not be stopped. This power was too much for any man, but it was his, a curse upon his shoulders since he became the chief.

His lips formed the word, dry as dust. The Protector stood motionless, a statue in the dim moonlight.

“Activate,” the chief said, awkwardly shaping the unfamiliar word.

He cringed back as the Protector’s eyes filled with fire. He said nothing, but His eyes blazed and burned, lighting the bare interior of the hut. For a moment, the Protector stood there, the god of the hut and the jungle.

And then He turned and strode out of the hut, His weapon held stiffly. Into the jungle He walked, searching for His target.

The chief stood for a long time in the hut, dwelling on what he had done. His shoulders slumped further, burdened with the cost of his duties to his tribe. He would return to the fires, would greet his family, but he could not smile tonight, not after speaking with their god.

The devils sent the mist that sometimes crept across the water towards their island, the mist that induced rabid madness in those whose log canoes passed through it. But the gods, in their wisdom, sent the Protector to defend them from the madness. The chief understood it not, but he obeyed the laws, bending his knee to the teachings of the cargo cult so that his tribe could survive.

And in the darkness of the jungle, the cyborg moved after its target, thermal vision scanning its dark surroundings. It knew nothing, cared nothing, of how long it had been on the island, of the bone tusks that had been placed around its neck, of the strangeness of language used by its commander.

It had an assignment, and it would carry out the job.

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