Synopsis: from the scrolls
Category: Planet of the Apes
Word Count: 49,630
To Pat Ames – Finder of Lost Writers
“Thus does one go to the stars; this is the way to fame and immortality,” – Virgil
“Beware the beast man,for he is the Devil’s pawn.
Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed.
Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land.
Let him not breed in great numbers,
for he will make a desert of his home and yours.
Shun him, for he is the harbinger of death.”
-The Sacred Scrolls
(29th scroll, 6th verse)
“I hate auctions!” Pete Burke hissed through clenched teeth to his partner standing at stiff attention next to him.
“Shhhh!” Alan Virdon cautioned. “Behave yourself or you may end up held over till tomorrow, and we already know what happens to leftovers.”
Undaunted, the dark-haired astronaut scanned the crowd of apes and humans milling below the rickety, wooden platform. “If someone buys us, how’s Galen going to locate us when he gets back? And if they separate us, how are we going to find each other?”
The blond looked thoughtful for a moment. “If we do get separated, first chance you get, meet me back at the river bank where we camped the other night. Galen estimated it’d take more than a week to get back to Central City. Then he had to persuade his father to help draw up a set of ownership papers, and you know how tedious government paperwork can be … besides, Yalu wasn’t exactly one of our biggest fans.”
“Well, I think Galen should’ve thought about getting those damned papers while we were still hiding out at his parents’ house. It wasn’t like he had an awful lot to do, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be here right now if he had,” Burke grumbled. “After all, I was the one stuck in bed the whole time, remember?!”
“Pete,” Alan whispered, dumbfounded by his friend’s insensitivity. “I think Galen just might’ve had other, more pressing, matters on his mind.” The blond man looked pointedly at his younger friend. He saw understanding and remorse appear on the thin, expressive face. Liquid brown eyes met his for a scant second, then looked quickly, defensively away. Virdon was suddenly reminded of one of his wife’s frequent sayings. ‘The eyes are a mirror to the soul.’ His friend, Pete Burke, was a living, breathing example of the truthfulness of that statement.
It had been a little over tow weeks since he and Galen had rescued Pete from Urko’s clutches. Galen’s mother, Ann, had voluntarily risked her life and her husband’s career to bluff their way into the Central City hospital just in the nick of time to save Pete from one of Urko’s ‘special’ operations. Luckily, the three of them had managed to free Burke without suffering irreversible injury to themselves or Yalu’s career.
But Alan wasn’t so sure about his friend. Pete’s physical recuperation from Wanda’s mistreatment was still ongoing. Although the bruises to his torso from the beatings he’d endured between brainwashing sessions were fading, he still suffered periodically from attacks of vertigo. His appetite had returned, but most of what he managed to swallow usually came right back up. He had lost weight, leaving his already slim body and face with a gaunt, malnourished look.
Physically, his recovery was sluggish, but Virdon could see daily progress. However, he was much more concerned with Pete’s mental and emotional well-being. Even before his ordeal, Burke had displayed a rash, impetuous streak, frequently rushing doggedly into dangerous situations before properly evaluating them. But his days and nights in Wanda’’ sadistic hands seemed to have had a detrimental effect on both his disposition and his reasoning abilities. Totally unpredictable in his reactions on a good day, Pete was now downright reckless and irrational on a bad one. For Burke’s sake, and his own, Virdon sincerely hoped that today was not a bad one.
A husky male orangutan paced up and down the auction block, looking at first Burke, then Virdon. He cleared his throat, clasped his hands together behind his back and rocked back and forth thoughtfully on the balls of his feet directly in front of the tall, blond astronaut. “Chon, does this one have any experience in convalescent home or hospital work?”
The auctioneer, a wiry, nervous little ape, came to stand beside his customer. “I don’t know, sir. These two are brand new to my inventory. They were brought in without ownership papers three days ago. I held them for the mandatory 48hours, but the ape who claimed they belonged to him has not yet returned. I’m perfectly within my rights to sell them today.” He wrung his hands, agitated at having to explain the circumstances whereby he came in possession of these two humans. But the large orangutan had already lost interest in the men and moved on to a small human female at the end of the line.
The skittish auctioneer crinkled his nose and frowned testily at both astronauts, then turned his attention to another potential buyer. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m looking for breeding stock, Chon. Let me see that one, and these two.” The old, graying gorilla wiggled a palsied finger toward a tall male at the front of the line and Burke and Virdon.
Chon gestured at the first human, who obediently and automatically stripped off all his clothing.
“Well, what are you two waiting for?” he said sternly to Burke and Virdon, who stood motionless and confused. The little ape tapped his foot impatiently. “Take off your clothes, humans!”
Pete threw Alan a look of open-mouthed dismay, but his friend could only shake his head sympathetically.
“It’s not worth it, Pete!” Virdon whispered, already shrugging out of his shirt. “You know you’re not up to anymore of their disci-line methods.”
Reluctantly, the dark-haired human signed agreement and slowly began to remove his clothes too.
“Whom are you trying to cheat with this merchandise, Chon,” the aged gorilla said angrily, shaking his head and throwing a long, hairy arm into the air for emphasis. “This human has been neutered.”
Disconcerted, Chon wrung his hands. “I don’t understand, sir. That human came from a very reputable dealer. Here,” he gestured towards his new subjects, “these two are in prime condition.”
Burke shot Virdon a sideward glance. “Uh oh,” he groaned under his breath.
The ancient simian limped slowly to the middle of the platform, stopping directly in front of Burke. He stared long and hard at the naked man. “And what form of mutilation is this? Or was he born with this defect?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Chon said worriedly. He was already envisioning a ‘no sale’ day, and every failed transaction had the same two things in common – these new humans. His exasperation was steadily rising, and he turned on Burke. “How did you get this way?” he asked impatiently.
Teeth chattering, Burke shivered in the cool, autumn wind. “My mom signed a consent form when I was born. The doctor did the rest,” he said truthfully
“Lies … always lies and disrespect from these creatures,” the auctioneer shrieked. He drew back his arm and delivered a stinging backhanded slap to Burke’s cheek sending the man toppling to his knees.
“Bah!” the gorilla huffed snidely. “From the looks of him, he’s been disciplined before. Well, some humans just can’t learn. This one seems to be a troublemaker, Chon. I’m not interested in him anymore. Show me those two tall males on the end.” Without even so much as a glance at Virdon, Chon and his customer moved on.
“Pete?” Alan waited until the two apes were well out of hearing range, then jerked his pants up and knelt beside Burke. “Are you okay?”
Trembling with rage, the younger man turned his head toward his friend. “I’ll ‘mutilate’ him!” Burke growled under his breath and attempted to stand.
Alarmed at his friend’s continued, possibly destructive, animosity, Alan gripped Pete’s too-thin shoulders tightly and moved closer so he could look long and hard into the man’s eyes. “You listen to me, and you listen good!” he whispered harshly, “If you want to commit suicide, then do it somewhere where I don’t have to stand by and watch. I know you went through a lot, and I know it’s affected you to the point where you don’t seem to care if you live or die. But I do!” Virdon paused for emphasis, then continued. “And so does Galen! We risked our necks to save your ass and, frankly, I’m not going to just stand idly by while you get yourself killed.”
Speechless at Virdon’s uncharacteristic scolding, Burke dropped his eyes from his friend’s unwavering glare. For a long moment, he stared in stunned silence at the holes in the ancient wooden floor, then he reached purposefully for the ragged blue shirt that lay in a heap on the platform.
“I mean it, Pete. These temper tantrums have got to stop! Do you understand me?”
The reprimand brought Burke’s eyes abruptly back up. His face was an open mask of shock that suddenly crumpled into the Peter Burke patented ‘little boy lost’ look. With the immediate danger averted, Virdon heaved a sign of relief and shoved his heart back down his throat. He released his grip on Burke’s shoulders, noting with some remorse the reddened, telltale finger marks his large hands had left on the dark-haired man’s bruised skin. He hadn’t realized he’d squeezed so hard. Immediately contrite, Alan reached out to help Pete draw the shirt over his bowed head. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to be so rough … but, if anything happened to you, Pete, I don’t think I’d have the strength to keep on going.”
Burke wriggled the rest of the way into his shirt and yanked his pants and his body up carefully. An open apology was in his eyes. He knew Alan didn’t expect him to verbalize it. Instead, he cleared his throat and said casually, “Okay, mom. I’ll behave.”
It was enough for both of them.
Secretly enjoying the timid little chimpanzee’s predicament, Angus found himself smiling absently as he watched the animated customer rant and rave on the auction platform. Just as quickly as it had appeared, he wiped the grin off. It wouldn’t be proper for a mere human to laugh at the misfortune of an ape. But, inside, the smile grew even brighter, and Angus had to bite the interiors of his cheeks to keep it from returning full blown to his face.
A keen sense of self-preservation made him look away, and he stared up at the pitiable lot of humans being offered for sale. Seemingly oblivious to the altercation on his behalf, the first male in line was redressing himself slowly. However, the angular, dark-haired human in the middle of the line huddled red-faced, naked and trembling.
Angus felt a familiar pant of compassion toward the man, and then he looked into the human’s piercing brown eyes. Even at this distance, he could tell that the man was not flushed with embarrassment or merely shaking with cold. He was very obviously enraged and barely managing to contain it.
Now half-dressed, the light-haired, stockier male knelt beside the younger man, speaking to him in low, even tones. So unusual was this display that Angus felt compelled to move nearer for a closer look. After all, Virgil had told him to keep an eye out for all unique humans.
Reaching the base of the auction stand, he ey4ed both men curiously, watching as the tall blond began to help the other dress. And then he noticed the difference in the human.
“Chon … sir … I beg forgiveness for interrupting, but I must have a word with you.”
Unaccustomed to a human intruding, much less speaking in such a forward manner, both apes turned around and stared at Angus in shocked silence.
Undaunted, he scaled the stairs, two at a time, then slowed and approached the old gorilla and chimpanzee cautiously. As he passed the slender human, his heart raced, and another sideward glance confirmed his first conclusion.
“Sir, I am Angus, assistant overseer of Lord Micah’s northern territory.” He saw his master’s name and importance register on Chon’s surprised face. “I believe Lord Micah would be interested in taking these two humans off your hands. I have papers with his seal giving me authorization to purchase slaves for him.”
Completely ignoring his already disgruntled customer, the auctioneer now turned his total attention to Angus. “I am honored and humbled that your master sent you to view my stock. You are interested in these two?”
“Yes, sir. We are in need of several able-bodied humans to help us at harvest time, and I’m certain these two would be perfect. Here are my authorization papers, sir.” Angus removed a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped beads of sweat from his forehead. It was a cool, breezy day, but the thrill of his discovery was making him perspire. He hoped that he didn’t appear too eager.
The slighted old gorilla huffed and turned to leave, then paused in front of Burke. “Well, I just hope your master isn’t looking for breeding stock,” he said offhandedly to Angus. Almost as an afterthought, the large ape reached out, grabbed a handful of Burke’s shirt and effortless and vigorously, shook him. “This one is deformed,” he said matter-of-factly. Abruptly, he released Burke and stalked off the platform.
The slender astronaut swayed on suddenly wobbly legs, and Virdon watched as every trace of color drained from Burke’s face.
“Pete?” he said worriedly, reaching out a steadying arm.
“I … wish …” Burke swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “I wish … he … hadn’t done that.”
“The dizzies again?”
Burke started to nod his head, then thought better of hit.
Virdon saw his friend’s lips press together into a thin, tight line. “Breathe deeply through your nose, Pete. Keep your eyes closed and hang on to me until it passes.”
Concerned by the interchange, the auctioneer steered Angus to the far side of the platform. “Now, I cannot guarantee those two humans, Angus. They are new to my stores, and I have no pedigree on them. However, I wish Lord Micah to know that if something should befall one or both of them within, say … three months, I will be happy to replace them at no extra charge.”
“Sir, is there anything I should know about these humans before we complete this transaction?”
“No, no, no, no!” Chon was almost beside himself. “All my slaves are in relatively good condition. I just want you to make certain that Lord Micah knows these two have been owned before and, as you can see, their treatment has not been the best.”
“Yes, I noticed the bruises, but the human is young and seems in good health otherwise. Now, let’s talk price.”
Chon smiled broadly. Those were words
that played sweet music in his hairy ears.
The late afternoon sun was gray and overcast, and the sun’s disappearance transformed what had only been chilled breezes into icy gusts. Winter was going to be early this year. The assistant overseer tugged his homespun jacket closer around his neck and chin, pushed his long, fair hair away from his face, and turned back to check on his master’s new slaves. For appearance sake, he had been forced to tie them to the rear of the wagon and purposely depart the village at a fast pace, leaving the two of them to either walk quickly, run, or be dragged behind. Angus estimated that they had been traveling for more than an hour, and he knew they had passed their last ape on horseback over thirty minutes ago. Since then, they had seen no one else, man nor ape. Glancing around at the denser vegetation and thicker wood, Angus determined that it was now safe to stop. Vaulting from his wagon seat, he hurried back to check on his humans’ condition and release their bonds.
Alan, the older, blond human, seemed barely winded. He was obviously in good, physical shape and, Angus reasoned, must have spent many months trudging great distances at a high rate of speed. Right now, however, the man seemed preoccupied with is friend, who was hunched over, painfully sucking in great gulps of air.
“I’m sorry,” Angus said as he struggled to untie Burke’s wrists. When the younger man was freed, Angus reached into the wagon and retrieved a bladder canteen. He handed it to the still gasping human and moved on to untie Alan. “I had to make them believe you would be treated as slaves.”
“We have been!” Alan said tersely, rubbing his chafed wrists and moving to aid Burke.
“It was necessary to do so. It was the only way I could rescue you from Chon’s greedy clutches.”
Virdon and Burke exchanged puzzled glances. They had interacted with many different humans since their arrival in this future world nearly six months before, but they had never run into one quite as perplexing as Angus.
The assistant overseer shuffled and maneuvered boxes of supplies and loose hay around in the back of the wagon, making room for the astronauts to climb on board. “I know you must be cold and tired. I hear the auction cages aren’t very comfortable. If you’d like to sleep or rest, please do so. We have a very long way to go before we reach Lord Micah’s territory.”
“Thanks … Angus,” Burke said and meant it. Kindness was not something they bumped into every day.
Virdon helped Pete climb into the tall buckboard and watched as the man snuggled gratefully into the soft, sweet-smelling hay.
“Get some sleep, okay? I’m going to ride up front with Angus and find out about our new owner.”
Without opening his eyes, Burke whispered a quiet affirmation.
Virdon nodded approvingly to himself, then turned to Angus. “Is it permitted to ride with you? I have many questions.”
“You may ride with me if you wish, Alan, but I won’t be able to answer your questions. It is better if you wait until Overseer Virgil can speak with you. He will explain everything you need to know.” Angus jumped into the driver’s seat and waited for Virdon to join him, but the man had returned to the back of the wagon. The assistant overseer watched as the blond human removed his vest and tucked it securely around his already sleeping partner’s shoulders.
“Your friend is not well. I’m sorry I had to make him walk, but I couldn’t afford to raise any suspicions in the village. Lord Micah is very specific in his instructions to our overseer,” Angus said as Virdon joined him.
“Pete was … disciplined … by a former owner. He is recovering, but it will take some time,” Alan explained carefully.
“What did he do?” Angus whistled to the horses, and the wagon moved forward with a sudden jerk.
“He … refused to divulge the names of humans and apes who have helped us,” Virdon said cautiously, watching closely for any reaction.
There was none. Angus merely looked at him and nodded. I understand,” he said and left it at that.
They spent the rest of the afternoon traveling at a rather brisk pace, stopping only at dusk to make a quick camp. After a cold dinner of salt biscuits and dried fruit, Angus curled up in a makeshift tent beneath the wagon. “If you promise me you won’t try to escape, I won’t tether you for the night,” he said, almost as an afterthought.
Virdon was incredulous. “You’ll take our word that we won’t run away?!”
“Of course. Besides, you belong to Lord Micah now. Why would you possibly want to escape?” Angus adopted the same incredulity in his voice.
“All right,” Alan said. “You have my word that we won’t leave tonight.”
Angus nodded his satisfaction and relaxed. “Then good night. I hope you feel better tomorrow, Pete.”
Burke washed his third mouthful of dry bread down with several swigs of tepid water, then made a sour face. “Here,” he said, handling the partly eaten biscuit out to Virdon.
Alan shook his head and pushed the bread back toward Pete. “You need to eat!” he said pointedly.
“Tell that to my stomach,” the younger man said, suddenly rising and bolting to the bushes adjoining their camp. Trembling and several shades paler, he returned a few minutes later.
“Couldn’t keep it down?” Alan asked, worry evident in his voice.
“No,” Pete said hoarsely. He looked down at his still shaking hands. “You know, every time she’d stop the wheel, that sadistic ape-bitch would pour some concoction down my throat. At the time I thought it was just water, but now that I think back,” Burke locked troubled eyes with his friend. “… Alan, maybe it was something more …”
Virdon heard the barely concealed fear in the younger man’s voice. “I don’t think those apes were sophisticated enough to try to poison or drug you, Pete. Do you remember what it tasted like?”
“Water … at the time I thought it was just water …” he repeated, his eyes taking on a vacant, haunted look.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Pete. You’re still in the recovery mode. You know from past experience that it takes a lot of time to get over being sick.”
“I’m not sick, Alan. I was tortured … for days …”
Burke’s expression went bleak again, and Alan felt compelled to steer their conversation away from the past.
“I know,” the blond man whispered. “But, it’s all over now, and looking back serves no useful purpose. Come on, if you can’t bring yourself to eat, at least get some sleep.”
“I slept all day. I’m not tired,” Burke pouted, sliding back into his defensive persona but, at the same time, he reluctantly heaved himself up on unsteady legs and started slowly back toward his warm, comfortable straw bed.
Virdon watched him go, and a vague uneasiness crawled chillingly 8up the length of his spine. What if Pete was right? What if Wanda had found more in her book than mere brainwashing techniques?
Alan sighed tiredly and rubbed at the ache on the bridge of his nose. And what if Galen had thought to get forged ownership papers while they were still staying at his parents’ house?
And what if Angus hadn’t decided to stop at the auction and buy them today?
And what if …. Everything they’d endured in the last six months was really just an ongoing nightmare and, right now, he was really at home, lying in bed next to his wife. At any moment, he would wake up and touch the soft velvet of her warm skin, caress the satin curves of her body, smell the clean scent of her freshly washed hair. If he closed his eyes really tight and concentrated, perhaps when he opened them he would see Sally staring down at him in her own disarming way. She would smile at him and tickle his nose and lips with her long, honey-colored hair.
“Wanna fool around?” He could almost hear her deep, early morning voice whisper into his ear. “Chris is still asleep. I figure we’ve got a whole hour. Think you’re up to it … hmmm?”
Virdon reached out a hand to grab her, pull her to him, meld her body with his ….
“Alan? You okay?”
Pete’s concerned voice reached through the centuries, shattering his dream into a million tiny shards. Reluctantly, he blinked away the fantasy and the unshed tears. Everyone he’d ever cared about had died more than a thousand year ago. Every one …
He felt cool fingers encircle his forearm and squeeze gently, hesitantly, and he turned to look into the troubled face of his friend. ‘No … not everyone …’
“Come on back to the future, Al,” Pete said softly.
Nodding, he let Pete lead him to the buckboard. “Don’t you have this backwards? I’m supposed to be taking care of you.”
“It’s my turn!” Burke said in mock indignation. “You keep telling me to eat! Now I’m telling you to sleep! Your bed is right over there. Now march, Colonel!”
Virdon wiped at his eyes one more time and smiled gratefully. “Yes, sir … Major.”
At just before daybreak, they continued on, but Angus slowed the pace. Traveling in a northerly direction for another four days, the assistant overseer rose at sunrise on the fifth and steered the wagon due east. Finally, just as the sun moved from its daily zenith to warm their backs, he pointed to a grove of stately pines. “Lord Micah’s territory begins there!” he announced.
Rested from languishing four days in a soft bed, Burke sat up and plucked at the bits of straw decorating his abundant, walnut-colored hair. Finding a particularly fat one, he popped it into his mouth and chewed one end thoughtfully. “Geez, talk about your boonies! How much further until we reach ‘home,’ Angus?”
“We’ll be there in time for the evening meal, Pete. Overseer Virgil will be extremely excited to finally meet you.”
“Overseer Virgil? Does he run the place? When do we meet Lord Micah?”
“You probably won’t get to see Lord Micah right away. His greathouse is many more days travel to the north. Virgil is in charge of our sector. He ensures that everything runs smoothly and that we always make or exceed our annual quotas.”
“Is he the ape in charge?” Alan asked.
Angus chuckled, then laughed out loud, a sound so uncommon in the humans of this world that both astronauts exchanged looks of wonder.
“What’s so funny?” Burke asked.
“Never mind, you’ll met him soon enough,” Angus shook his head, still smiling at his private joke.
Alan glanced around at his friend and shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay … I just asked,” Pete grinned, then sobered. He had a whole afternoon to himself before he became the official property of Lord Micah. He glanced around, then patted the hay behind him into a soft pillow and lay back. If he only had a few hours of relative freedom left, he chose to spend it sleeping.
The assistant overseer glanced back and nodded approvingly. “Pete is recovering I think.”
Alan bobbed his head in agreement. “Yes, he’s much better, thanks to you.”
Angus smiled and clicked to the horses to quicken their pace.
“You know, I’ve been wondering about something. We were definitely not the best looking humans standing on that platform. Why did you buy us?”
“Because of Pete,” Angus said honestly.
“I don’t understand.”
“He’s … different. You know, he’s not the same as you or I,” Angus hesitated, as though he were trying to remember something. “There’s a word for it, but I can’t recall it right now. You really should wait until Virgil can explain everything to you. It won’t be much longer.”
The blond human watched as the face of their new friend closed up. The answer was always the same, no matter what the question: ‘Wait! Overseer Virgil will explain it.’ Well, like the man said, it wouldn’t be much longer.
“Pete! Wake up! You’re not going to believe this.”
Alan’s excited voice intruded in his sleep, and Burke cracked one eyelid to find himself the subject of close scrutiny by several pairs of prying eyes. He stared up at the well-scrubbed faces of at least five human children. All seemed content to merely stand and look at him, and he suddenly felt uncomfortable. Stifling a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position. “Whose rugrats?”
Virdon’s face joined the circle of children watching him. “Boy, you are a sleepyhead! Will you open your eyes and look around?”
The dark-haired man scratched his head, stretched grandly and then froze in mid-yawn. His gaze centered on a magnificent, two-story log cabin directly in front of the wagon. Surrounded by tall maples and silver oaks, the structure was nothing like any of the hovels he was used to seeing humans live in. Even those apes he had encountered didn’t have the technology to create such a house.
It was equipped with several fireplaces and a wraparound porch that sported an honest-to-god, cane-back swing. The windows held no glass, but all were equipped with one piece shutters. Mesh screening had been installed to let air in and keep insects and other pests out. And behind the screens hung intricate crocheted curtains.
Burke tore his eyes away from the beautiful house to view the scene behind, but children’s faces blocked his view. He scrambled to his feet and stood in the back of the wagon.
“I don’t believe it.” As far as his eyes could see were less spacious, but similarly designed, one-story log houses.
“Angus!” A petite brunette woman who appeared to be in her late-thirties ran from the porch of the larger cabin and embraced their benefactor in a great hug. They kissed familiarly.
“I was so worried about you.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been. You know I can take care of myself. And look! See what I’ve brought.”
The woman reluctantly pulled away and looked at Pete and Alan. She smiled warmly at them.
“This is my wife, Neva. This is Alan, and this is Pete.”
“Hello. Welcome to Lord Micah’s family.”
“Thank you, Neva. We have Angus to be grateful to. He rescued us from the auction block,” Virdon said.
“He’s always doing something for others. My husband has a good heart.”
“Come,” Angus gestured for the two astronauts to follow him, and he and Neva hurried toward the large house.
Burke jumped agilely from the wagon. “Somebody pinch me. I must be dreaming. Owww!” Pete’s head whipped around. “All right, which one of you little monsters did that?”
The children giggled, a musical sound all on its own. Its merriment infected Burke, who joined them in their laughter.
“Hey, Al, I think I’m gonna like it here.” He hurried to catch up with his friend who had already ascended the steps.
Virdon stopped him with a solemn face. “You know we can’t stay long, Pete. Galen is probably on his way back from Central City by now. He’ll be along in a week or so to ‘claim’ us, and then we’ll have to leave.”
The brown eyes dropped forlornly, and Pete nodded. “You’re right, I guess. Can’t have ol’ Urko up here messing with Angus or his family.”
“If we stay too long, you know that’s exactly what’s going to happen eventually.” Alan looked back at the children who were now engaged in a raucous game of hide ‘n seek. “I wouldn’t want to be the serpent in what appears to be another Garden of Eden on this planet.”
“Come inside,” Neva burst out of the screen door and beckoned to the two men to enter the house. “You must freshen up before dinner and your introduction to Papa Virgil.”
“Papa?” Pete furrowed his brow at Alan, who shrugged.
“That’s what the lady said. Come on.”
Unbelievably, the inside of what they soon learned was Lord Micah’s greathouse was even more splendid than the outside. They were shown to a large, upstairs bathroom and were delighted to discover that the overseer had installed a crude indoor plumbing that featured both a shower and a bathtub with hot and cold running water.
When they had bathed and wrapped themselves in large warm towels, Neva reappeared and showed them to another upstairs room. “This will be yours until Papa Virgil can arrange to have your cabins built. I hope you won’t mind sharing; all other rooms in the greathouse are occupied right now … and I’ve taken your clothing – it needs to be washed, and there were several holes in your shirt,” she said to Pete. “I’ll see to it that it is mended. I’ve laid out clean clothing for you on the bed. Dress quickly. Dinner will be ready soon.”
Again, they were shocked to find the bedroom decorated with beautiful furniture. Although homemade, the full-sized Paul Bunyon log bed featured a thick mattress, la4rge down pillows and a colorful, patchwork quilt. Lacy, crocheted curtains hung from each of the room’s four large windows, and dried flowers kept the look of spring glowing in the decorative window boxes outside.
Virdon toweled his wet hair vigorously. “Well, I’m impressed,” he said, still looking around in awe.
Burke sat on the bed and picked up one of the fleece shirts that had been spread out on the quilt. Soft underwear, undershirts, knitted socks, and gray trousers were also lying ready for their use. “I guess they dress for dinner here,” he said offhandedly, running his hands over the expertly-sewn spread. His fingers touched the fluffy knits and scratchy homespun squares. Triangles of an unusual, smooth white cloth were interspersed on the quilt forming ring-like patterns. He reached out and touched one, frowning at its texture. It didn’t feel like the others; in fact, it didn’t even look homemade. It felt more like ….
“Pete! Come over here.” Alan stood gazing out one of the m8iddle windows.
Distracted from his examination of the quilt material, Burke doffed the towel, pulled on the underwear and grabbed one of the shirts. He shoved his still damp head through the neck opening and joined Alan. “What is it?”
“Want to bet that’s Overseer Virgil down there?”
A glance at the courtyard below showed Angus conversing quietly with a gray-haired man. The older human had his back to the astronauts, but even at a distance, they could discern that he was tall and large in build.
“No bets,” Pete said, returning to the bed and retrieving a pair of hand-knitted socks. He yanked one on his left foot, then stopped, frozen in place by an almost forgotten scent.
He sniffed once, twice, then looked at Alan with wide, wondering eyes. “Is that what I think it is?”
Virdon grinned. “Smells like roast chicken … with sage dressing. And apple pie!”
A knock at the door and Neva’s voice hurried them. They finished dressing quickly, and Angus’ wife showed them downstairs to a spacious dining room already occ8upied by several other humans, including Angus.
Again, the décor was handmade but sophisticated. Alan guessed that the long, polished table was maple. There were lengthy benches on both sides, with two large, ornately carved wooden chairs placed at both ends.
Several roast chickens were spread out sumptuously in a veritable smorgasbord of delicacies the astronauts had neither seen nor eaten in what seemed eons. Cornbread and sage dressing, fresh, steamed vegetables swimming in homemade butter, and bread still warm from the oven lay in abundance on the table, and both men felt their stomachs contract with hunger.
Angus motioned for Alan to join him on the bench nearest the head of the table. He gestured for Pete to sit directly opposite him. The other humans arranged themselves on the benches, leaving both large chairs empty.
“Where’s Trina?” Angus looked around the room, searching for a face that had not yet appeared.
“I haven’t seen her since early this morning,” Neva said. “She’ll show up. She always does.”
“My only daughter,” Angus said in explanation and shook his head. “Seventeen and thinks she’s grown. Do you have any …” The assistant overseer cut himself off as the side door opened.
An old woman entered, and both Pete and Alan stood in respect. Dressed in a flattering, formfitting dress, she appeared to be in her late sixties. Her gray hair had been meticulously caught up and pinned to the back of her head in a neat bun, and she searched the room with animated blue eyes. Settling on Burke, her gaze finally stopped.
He met her unyielding glance head on, but she was intimidating in her stare, and he suddenly felt as though she could see right through him. He squirmed inwardly, uncomfortable in the grip of her gaze, and dropped his eyes. When he looked up again, he saw that her piercing stare now held Virdon in its grasp. Burke saw a flicker of some unrecognizable emotion flash fleetingly across her lined, but still handsome face as she examined Alan with her eyes, but it disappeared before he could discern what it was, and then she continued to her chair at one end of the table.
Angus jumped up. “Let me help you, mother,” he said and took her arm.
“I see our guests haven’t forgotten their manners, Angus. Please be seated,” she said to Burke and Virdon. Then to Angus, “Have you forgotten yours?”
“No, ma’am,” Angus blustered, pulling her chair out and pushing it in as she seated herself. “I thought I’d wait for Papa.”
“I’m here, Angus,” a strong, deep voice said from the front of the room, and Burke and Virdon turned in unison.
Overseer Virgil, his wrinkled face and leathered skin displaying every decade, stood in the doorway. His gray, thinning hair was cropped short, and he sported an equally gray beard and mustache. But age had no touched his body or his voice. He stood tall, well over six feet, with broad, unstooped shoulders and a massive chest. In two long strides, he took his place at the head of the table and looked from the still standing Burke to Virdon.
“Alan,” the old man appeared to have great difficulty saying the name. He swallowed, then coughed once, twice, then again and again until it appeared he couldn’t catch his breath.
Angus and Alan moved together to grab the man’s arms. They tried to help him sit down, but Virgil held up a large hand to signal that he was okay. Still wheezing, he reached for a handkerchief and wiped his streaming eyes. “Forgive me,” he said in a strained voice. “I’m a very old man, and my body sometimes likes to remind me of that fact. Welcome to Lord Micah’s family.” He held out a hand to the blond astronaut.
Virdon took the proffered hand to shake it and, instead, felt himself drawn into a warm, friendly embrace. Marveling at the old man’s strength, he pulled back and stared deeply into Virgil’s faded blue eyes. “Well, thank you, sir. Pete and I are very grateful. However, there is a problem ….”
“None we can’t fix, I assure you,” Virgil said and turned watery eyes to Burke. “And you are Pete. Welcome.”
Again, the hand was extended. Burke shook it cordially, then found himself similarly squeezed.
“I trust you’re feeling better now.”
“Very much, sir. Thank you.”
“Sit down, gentlemen. Let me introduce you to the rest of my family. My wife and partner in life, Charlie,” he said, indicating the older woman at the opposite end of the table.
The old woman smiled at both astronauts. “It’s really Charlotte, but he’s always called me Charlie. You can call me Mama or Charlie or Mama Charlie, whatever’s easiest for you.”
Virgil went on. “To your immediate left, Pete, are my oldest daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Noel. They are responsible for running the northern zones of the sector. And on the end are our youngest, Charla, and her husband, John, who are accountable for the southern districts. On the opposite side are my only son, Angus, and his wife, Neva, both of whom you’ve already met. They are in charge of caring for the residences, the barn, and helping me to oversee all of Lord Micah’s vast estate. Next to Neva is my middle daughter, Arvid, who runs the children’s learning house and assists her mother in caring for the sick. And on the end are my grandson, Andrew, who belongs to Angus and Neva. He’s 15 now and permitted to join the adults for dinner and ….” Virgil stopped and looked at the vacant bench space. “What is Trina?” he looked pointedly at Angus.
“You know the child, Papa. She’s off wandering somewhere in the hills.”
“She’s not a child anymore, Angus. She’ll be eighteen in less than two months. She has chores and responsibilities now, and if I find that she’s gone back to the forbidden territory again, I’ll ….”
“I’m sorry I’m late, Papa Virgil!” An utter whirlwind breezed into the room, slamming the door behind her and plopping unceremoniously into the vacant seat at the table. She was tall and lithe, with auburn hair that fell in waves to her waist.
“And this is Trina, my oldest grandchild,” Virgil finished irritably. “Everyone, this is Alan and Pete. They’ve joined our family today.”
Virdon surveyed each face. All of Virgil’s grown children had varying shades of blond hair with deepset eyes that ranged from brightest blue to murky ocean green. The older two, Angus and Rachel, had darker hair and complexions than their sisters. Charla, the youngest, had waist-length saffron hair and seemed extremely shy. She cast her gaze downward as Virdon looked her way.
But Arvid, the middle daughter, had no such inhibitions. She boldly returned his stare, and Virdon found her open, welcoming smile delightful. He smiled back and nodded, noting the attractive curve of her square jaw and her long, honey-blonde hair.
Reluctantly, he moved his gaze along the rest of the table, finally halting on his friend. He saw Pete with an identical grin on his face, but Burke had eyes only for the lovely young thing who had just joined them.
Virgil motioned for everyone to sit. “Enjoy your meal, gentlemen. We’ll talk more after dessert.”
Sated, warm and comfortably secure for the first time in months, Alan leaned back into the homemade sofa and let his body relax completely. Seated next to him, Pete seemed likewise rested and content. The dinner meal was everything they imagined it would be and more. Dessert had been the expected apple pie served with cool, tangy lemonade and, just when both astronauts knew they couldn’t eat or drink another bite, Virgil and Charlie moved them into another area of the house that seemed to serve as the family room or den.
After helping Neva and his sisters and brothers-in-law clear the table and start the dishes, Angus joined them. Neva followed with a tray laden with more drinks.
“Oh, no … thank you, but I just can’t …” Pete said, shaking his head and holding his stomach.
“You should try some, Pete,” Angus said with a sideward glance and wink at Alan, who already held a glass in his hand.
Curious, the blond man took a tentative sip. Almost immediately, his eyes grew large and moist, and he coughed appreciatively. “It’s beer! Cold and foamy … beer!” He took another sip and grinned at his dark-haired friend. “I don’t believe this.”
Beside him, Burke lifted a mug of the unexpected beverage to his lips. He drank long and deep and heaved a sigh of extreme pleasure. “That … was … wonderful!”
“Take it easy, Pete. Remember, you’re not used to taking in this much food.”
“I feel fine, Alan. Everything’s stayed down for several days now. You can let it go, okay?” Burke said with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Virdon backed off. “Okay,” Alan said placatingly and turned his attention to the faces of his new friends. “All right, Angus. We’re here. Virgil is here. And we have many questions.””
“Yeah, first of all, who are you?” Pete said, wiping foam from his lips. “And how did you manage to make this beer?”
“No,” Virgil said simply and kindly. “First of all … who are you?”
“What do you mean?” Virdon said. “You know who we are.”
“I have a pretty good idea who you are, but I’d prefer it if you’d tell me yourselves.”
Burke and Virdon looked at each other. Mutually indecisive, they turned back to the old man expectantly.
“Angus tells me that Pete is different from other human males.”
Pete looked up. “I don’t know what you mean … ‘different.’ How am I different?”
“You are circumcised, are you not?”
Burke’s face flushed an unexpected crimson. After all, they were sitting in mixed company. Recovering quickly, he shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, so what?”
“Up until today, I thought I was the only circumcised male on the planet,” Virgil said.
“Yeah? Well, you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine,” Burke rankled.
“Pete!” Alan chided. “Don’t you even hear what he’s saying! How is it that you even know about such a procedure, Virgil? And why did you say ‘on the planet’?”
“If I’m not mistaken, circumcision was a fairly common practice for newborn males in the middle and latter part of the 20th century.”
Virdon was aghast. “So, what are you really saying, Virgil? That you were born in the middle of the 20th century?”
The old man smiled. “In 1968 to be exact,” he said.
Beside him, Charlie suddenly stood and walked to the other side of the room. She pulled open the middle drawer of a credenza-like piece of furniture and pulled out a small, round paper-wrapped item. Returning to her seat, she handed the article to Virdon.
Alan peeled back the fragile onionskin paper carefully, and both he and Burke caught their breath. The insignia was old and faded, and the edges were raveling, but the faded letters were unmistakable.
“NASA,” Alan whispered in stunned disbelief. “My God, you were an astronaut too?”
“Charlie and I have been awaiting the arrival of others like us for more than forty years. Now, we have much to discuss, gentlemen, and when we have finished, then you can decide if you wish to stay with us or continue on your way.”
“So, theoretically, you’re saying that if you can find a working computer or the pieces to construct one, the flight data on your disk will tell you exactly what went wrong and, possibly, how to reverse the process. Am I right?” Virgil said, blinking his eyes as the rising sun sent its first glinting rays into the family room.
“Exactly,” Alan said. “Of course, there’s still one more problem – I didn’t have time to remove the computer card with the program to recognize this disk before the apes destroyed our ship. While we already know that there are working models of computers hidden in the ruins of some of the larger cities on earth, we don’t know if any of them will be able to translate this disk into anything recognizable. We found one working computer at what used to be Oakland several months back, but we didn’t have the time to try it out before it was destroyed by Zaius and Urko.”
“I’ve heard of them, but neither has ever bothered to travel this far north.”
“Be thankful!” Burke said sleepily from his reclining position on the couch. “I can guarantee you that if we stay here long enough, Virgil, there’s a good chance you’ll get to meet one or both of them very shortly.”
“And there’s another friend who travels with us … Galen … he’s working on having identity ownership papers forged for us in Central City,” Alan said.
“A human with those kinds of connections?”
“He’s a chimpanzee. It’s a long story, but he saved our lives, and the ape Gestapo has branded him a traitor. Anyway, he should be along to ‘reclaim’ us in a week or so. Do you think there’ll be a problem with Lord Micah?”
Virgil looked suddenly tired. “No,” he said quietly. “I foresee no problems. But until this Galen does come for you, we can spend time together and talk about … where we came from.”
“Yes, I’d like that very much,” Alan said, yawning. For the first time he noticed that it was growing light outside. “I’m sorry, Virgil, I’ve kept you up all night talking about my plans. Please … get some rest.”
The old man eased out of his chair slowly. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. You’ve don’t know how very long I’ve waited to find … to have others like Charlie and me … to talk to. I always suspected there were more like us in this world. Perhaps, working together, we can help you locate a computer.”
“Would you want to go back with us?”
Virgil looked surprised, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Then, “No, I don’t think so. My life is here with Charlie.”
“What about your family back home?”
“My family is here now.”
Virdon nodded. “I understand, sir.”
“All right. We’ll take it one day at a time for now. Tomorrow we’ll tour the sector so I can show you what we’ve accomplished here. After that, I’d like both of you to help out with the preparations for gathering the crops and our Harvest Festival.”
“Once a year, the apes from our precinct arrive to collect our quota. They’re due to show up in two or three weeks. We always throw a big party with lots of food, decorations and dancing. They seem to enjoy it, and it helps relieve some of the obvious tension while they’re here,” the overseer said and turned to exit. He glanced at Burke who had nodded off minutes earlier and now lay sprawled half-on, half-off the sofa. Smiling, the old man said, “I see Pete’s got the right idea already. Get some sleep, Alan. I’ll see you both at lunch.”
“I will, thank you, sir.” Alan watched as Virgil exited the room, then he turned to his sleeping friend. “Pete! Time to wake up.”
“It can’t be … morning already. I just closed my eyes.”
“I know, but it was morning already when you went to sleep. Come on, I’ll help you up the stairs.”
Their third full day on Virgil’s sector broke with the promise of rain. As he awoke, Virdon’s nose caught the familiar, damp scent already hanging in the heavy air. He turned over, snuggling deeper into the warmth of the first comfortable bed he’d slept in in over half a year, and noticed that Burke’s side was already empty.
“Pete?” He pushed himself up on one elbow and glanced around the room. He saw Burke sitting quietly in the window seat. His friend stared mutely outside. “Aren’t you cold?”
Burke didn’t move his head. “No,” he said absently.
“Something wrong, or you just couldn’t take two full nights of these luxurious accommodations?”
Burke took several moments to reply. Finally, he said, “The world’s spinning round and round again, Alan, and I can’t get off the wheel.”
Jesus!’ Virdon was on his feet and across the room in scant seconds. “Let me help you back to bed.”
“Lying down just makes it worse. When I close my eyes, the bed spins like I’ve tied one on for three days. I’ll just stay here until it stops.”
“What can I do to help, Pete?”
Burke sighed tremulously, the tenuous hold he had on his emotions threatening to break. Then, abruptly, he rallied and regained his self-control. “Go downstairs and eat enough of that wonderful smelling breakfast for both of us.”
“I’m not going to leave you up here alone in this condition.”
“I’ve had ‘this condition’ enough to know that it’s temporary. Look, I’ll be okay. You get dressed and go on down to breakfast. As soon as I feel better, I’ll join you, all right?” Burke forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
A knock on their door signaled that others in the upstairs part of the house were up and about. Arvid’s voice called to them from the other side. “Alan! Pete! Breakfast is almost ready. Hurry down, and be sure to dress warmly. Papa says he wants to take you around the sector right after you eat. Are you awake?”
“Yes, Arvid. We’re awake. We’ll be down in a few minutes. Thank you,” Alan replied, then immediately turned his attention back to his friend. “Any better?”
“A little bit,” Burke said, moving to stand. He teetered precariously for a split second, then recovered enough to cross the room and open the chifferobe. “See?” he said triumphantly, pulling a shirt and capelet from the hangers. “I’m already better.”
Still unconvinced, Virdon poked at the still-glowing embers in the bedroom fireplace. “Are you going to be able to eat anything?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try.”
“If you don’t feel up to this little excursion, tell me now. I’ll make your excuses.”
“No, it’s almost gone, Alan. Really.”
Virdon joined Burke at the chifferobe, retrieved a pullover and hooded cape and returned to sit on the bedside. “How long did this one last?”
“Nearly an hour,” Burke estimated. “I think they’re getting shorter, and I know they’re happening farther and farther apart. The last one was four days ago.”
“Maybe that’s a good sign, Pete.”
Burke nodded carefully and, when the vertigo didn’t intensify, he dressed quickly. Slinging the capelet over his shoulder, he was almost fully recovered by the time Alan finished getting his clothing on, and both men hurried down to breakfast.
“October has always been one of my favorite months,” Virgil said over the noise of the squeaking wagon wheels and the protesting oxen.
“How do you know it’s October?” Alan asked. He sat next to the old overseer in the wide front eat of the large utility wagon.
“Well, 37 years ago …” the old man thought for a moment, then nodded to himself, “… no, it was almost 38 years ago, Charlie gave me a son. We named him Angus, and from the day he was born, I began counting each day and week, watching the positions of the sun and the stars and noting the changing of each season. Today is October 17th, give or take a day. I have no idea what year it is.”
“It’s 3025,” Pete said, “give or take a century.”
“Really?” Virgil was aghast. “We came that far into the future?” The old man shook his head in astonished disbelief.
Trina, who’d climbed aboard as a last minute passenger, sat across from Burke in the back of the wagon. She shook her auburn tresses out of her face and smile at the astronaut. “Do you rally think that Alan will find a way to get back to your own time?”
Burke, who had spent most of the morning in quiet, uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, nibbled persistently at a hangnail on his thumb. “Alan and I have a minor difference of opinion on that subject. He believes. I don’t,” he said, spitting the detached nail over the side of the wagon.
The blond man smiled patiently. “I wouldn’t exactly call that a ‘minor’ difference of opinion, Pete.”
“Me neither,” Trina agreed, turning her attention and her ever-changing eyes toward Virdon. “Tell me about your time, Alan. Papa and Mama Charlie have mentioned some fascinating machines that transported people from place to place without oxen to pull them and another strange device that let humans talk to other humans even though they were very far away. Do you know of these machines? Can you tell me about the things you did and the places you saw?”
Burke shot Alan a pair of raised eyebrows. Angus’ daughter was not only captivating, she was also extremely intelligent and openly yearning for knowledge.
“Trina,” Virgil interjected before Virdon could reply. “Pete and Alan may not want to talk about their experiences just yet. Some recollections may still be quite painful for them.”
The old man cast an empathetic, sideward glance at Virdon that made the blond astronaut uncomfortable. It was almost as though Virgil could read his thoughts and was familiar with the ever-present ache in his heart. Alan considered for a moment, but he couldn’t decide whether he should be openly amazed or bothered by the man’s comprehension.
Disappointment showed plainly on Trina’s face, and she cast her eyes down to her folded hands on her lap. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” she said miserably.
“Tell you what, Trina,” Burke said, suddenly perking up, “when we get back to the greathouse, I’ll clue you in on everything you ever wanted to know about the twentieth century – from electricity to television, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter … hey, Virgil, you were still there in the eighties, who won the 1980 election, Carter or Reagan?”
“Reagan,” Virgil said with a huge smile, “and he won the next one too, followed by Bush and Clinton and …”
“What about the hostages in Iran?” Alan interrupted. “They were still being held captive when we left Earth. Were they ever rescued?”
“Not exactly. Carter tried a rescue mission, but it failed miserably. They were finally released the day Reagan took office. Kind of a slap in Carter’s face. But he proved to be a better ex-president when he turned peacemaker in the early nineties.” Virgil reined the oxen in. “Well, here we are at the northwest corner. Over to your right is an apple orchard; they’re in the dormant season. To the left are the late-bearing pear trees. Charlie makes some mouth-watering pies out of them this time of year. And to the east we have the year-round vegetable fields. Right now we’ve got two different kinds of cabbage growing.”
“I didn’t know there was more than one kind,” Burke said in a low voice, and Trina giggled conspiratorially.
Ignoring them, Virgil went on, “And then there are the pumpkin and autumn squash fields toward the south. We store a lot of what we harvest in the surrounding caves.”
“You don’t report all your crops to the apes?” Alan asked.
“No, we stockpile as much as we can for the leaner months. The snows come in December and January. They’re not usually heavy, but they do put a crimp in the growing season.”
“What about Lord Micah? Doesn’t he ever get suspicious?”
Virgil clucked to the oxen and turned them in an easterly direction. “Micah has always trusted me to keep his best interests. I’ve never let him down.”
“Will we ever get to meet him?”
“Perhaps. He doesn’t visit us very often, but there’s a possibility he may pop in for the Harvest Festival.”
“Good,” Alan said, “I think I’d like to meet him. He sounds a lot like our friend Galen.”
“I hope I get to meet your friend one day.”
“I do too. Unless he ran into some trouble, he should be arriving any day now.”
“Well, I have to be honest when I say that I very much look forward to meeting him, but I’m not happy at the prospect of losing two good hands so soon after I’ve acquired them.”
“If you’d like us to stay a little longer and work off the price you paid, we’ll be happy to oblige. I’m sure Galen would pitch in too.”
“That won’t be necessary, Alan,” Virgil said and quickly changed the subject. “Now, you can’t see it just yet, but when we travel a few more miles to the east, the poultry houses that keep us supplied with fresh eggs and low-fat meats will come into view.”
“Chickens,” Burke said in a bored voice. “I can hardly wait.”
“Pete, if you’d rather not finish the sector tour, at this particular location we’re only about an hour’s hike away from the greathouse. I know there are several items of interest along the way that might intrigue you. Trina will be happy to point them out. And when you reach the greathouse, I know Angus and Noel will be more than happy to accept your assistance with the re-assembly of the bandstand for the Harvest Festival.”
Burke shot Virgil an apologetic look, but the old man merely smiled patiently.
“Don’t worry about offending me, Pete. You were probably a city boy, and I’ve never met one yet, man nor ape, who could fake an interest in crop yields or egg production. At least you’re honest.”
“You’re right, Virgil. I’m sorry, but I’m just not a farmer like Virdon. What you’ve accomplished here is to be admired, but it’s right up his alley, not mine. Alan could probably sit up there enthralled all day long.””
“No apology necessary, Pete. You and Trina run along. Tell Charlie that Alan and I will be back in time for dinner.”
“Will do. Come on, Trina.” He reached for the girl’s hand and helped her from the wagon. “Let’s see if between the two of us we can find our way back to Oz.”
“Just follow the yellow brick road, Trina,” her grandfather said with a happy, nostalgic smile.
“Never mind,” Burke said, tugging her along. “I’ll tell you the whole story on the way back.”
Hand-in-hand, the two scurried off toward the south.
Alan watched them go with mixed feelings, and he observed Virgil doing the same.
“If you’d rather Pete not be so attentive to your granddaughter, Virgil, I’ll speak to him.”
The overseer lifted one shaggy, gray eyebrow and grinned crookedly. “You’d have to speak to her too. It’s obviously a mutual thing. But there’s no need to worry, Alan. The rules here are very different from those of our time. You’ve only been in this world a short while, but you’ll find that one must grab pleasure where one can find it, because joy is a rare commodity here. To be frank with you, I’m rather pleased that Trina has at last shown some interest in being a woman. Not that I’m sexist or anything like that, but we must be realistic. As a female, she will be needed to carry on the bloodline and instruct the next generation of our family. And the more we grow, both in number and in wisdom, the more chance we have of surviving this hostile societ6y and, maybe one day, overcoming the inequities and injustices.”
“So is that your ultimate plan, Virgil … to achieve equality with the apes?”
The old man sighed. “Equality won’t happen in my lifetime, but it would be an accomplishment to achieve mutual respect. Once you have the respect of other beings, it’s hard for them to justify discrimination.”
“My goodness,” Virgil exclaimed, “how’d we all of a sudden grow philosophical?”
Virdon grinned in agreement, but it disappeared from his face almost immediately as an overpowering offensive odor suddenly assaulted his nose.
The old overseer shot him a look of pained understanding. “Chicken houses,” he said grimly. “If we could only find a way to bottle that odor, we could rule this world.” He laughed and hurried the oxen into a reluctant trot. “Let’s go, boys. This is one part of the trip we can hurry through.”
As their busy days at the sector turned into a week, then two, the astronauts found themselves caught up in the normal, day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of life on Virgil’s sector.
Alan took to the ranch and farm work like the proverbial duck to water, driving himself to accomplish as much physical work as possible during the steadily decreasing daylight hours of autumn. Evenings found him reminiscing with Virgil and Charlie about life in the twentieth century or savoring spirited roundhouse debates with Angus and Arvid. He also occasionally acted as storyteller to the rapt attention of the younger members of the family, spinning fanciful tales of talking cats in red leather boots and foolish chickens with ludicrous ideas about the sky.
Burke, never one to draw any deep gratification or sense of achievement from manual labor, plodded along good-naturedly beside his blond friend. True to character, he joked sarcastically or complained loudly as he assisted Alan in repairing the rotting back porch steps of the greathouse and mending broken fences in the northern ranch sectors.
However, Pete chose to spend most of his free evening hours in the company of Angus’ auburn-haired daughter. With a ragged deck of homemade cards, he painstakingly taught the girl how to play poker, taking hours of patient instruction to show her each hand, its significance and her options with it. When Trina finally seemed to catch on, Burke suddenly found himself nightly losing hand after hand to their audience and Trina’s absolute delight.
After four days of miserable degradation, Trina finally admitted to her chagrined teacher that she had learned to play the game at her grandfather Virgil’s knee many years before and had long ago been dubbed the unofficial poker champion of the family.
Time continued to rush by and, as the two astronauts worked to ready the sector for the upcoming Harvest Festival, thoughts of their still-absent chimpanzee friend were always present in the backs of their minds.
The day the great apes arrived was fare and unseasonably warm for early November, and the two misplaced humans found themselves busy with several necessary outdoor chores.
Virdon perched haphazardly on the lower right side of the barn roof, repairing one of the many tiny holes and readying the large building to house and protect the smaller domestic animals during the fast-approaching winter season.
Burke balanced on the top rung of the old wobbly, homemade ladder, a bucket of thick, sticky resin poised and ready to coat and finish off the repair work.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” Andrew’s excited adolescent voice announced the impending arrival of three large apes.
Virdon stopped his hammering and, from his vantage, looked out toward the edge of the first clearing. Although partially hidden behind the nearly naked boughs of several bordering pecan trees, he could still make out a pair of mounted gorillas. Following closely behind, a chimpanzee whistled and clicked to the matched pair of white horses pulling a large, heavy-duty farm wagon.
The three apes reached the courtyard quickly, and Virgil, Charlie and an uncharacteristically nervous Angus were ready and waiting when they got there.
“Their serene highnesses, Moe, Larry and Curly,” Burke said scornfully under his breath.
“Shhhh!” Alan cautioned, and both men stopped their labors long enough to watch the drama unfolding below.
“Gunter, welcome to Lord Micah’s northern territory. We wish you a pleasant stay with us.”
“Virgil, it is good to see you again. I understand the crops were near record this growing season.”
“Yes, sir, we have far exceeded Lord Micah’s expectations once more. He bids me to make you welcome and comfortable in his guesthouse. Andrew, John, see to our friends’ horses please.”
Both Virgil’s son-in-law and grandson hurried forward and bowed respectfully. Andrew took possession of the two untethered horses and headed toward the barn with them while John grasp3ed the loose wagon reins. The seated, heavyset chimp snorted at being so soon dislodged from his comfortable berth, but he leaped down anyway, sending a scathing look in John’s direction.
“Come into Lord Micah’s greathouse, sirs. My wife has prepared several vegetable delicacies for your enjoyment.”
“And, I hope, a very large mug of your famous beer,” Gunter said in undisguised anticipation.
“Tall, cool and foamy, just as you like it, sir,” Virgil replied, leading the way up the porch steps and into the greathouse. Gunter and Hector, the second, leaner ape, followed, but the stocky chimpanzee hesitated, lagging behind his fellow simians.
Odiah stood in the courtyard, scrutinizing and examining every inch of the humans’ estate. Intermittently, his bristly brow and pudgy snout wrinkled in stern displeasure as he viewed the scandalous greathouse and many one-family units. He snorted arrogantly at the affluent surroundings and made a mental note to discuss with Gunter this uncommon open display of human wealth and prosperity. He had heard but never really believed the rumors that Lord Micah treated his humans in such a luxuriant manner.
As he turned to enter the greathouse, Odiah felt a vague uneasiness wash over him, as though someone in the courtyard were watching him. His heavy head abruptly shifted around and upward, and he found himself the single object of two curious pairs of human eyes. The two men, one tall and blond, the other lean and dark-haired, stood silently watching him from the roof of the whitewashed barn. He stared back condescendingly, waiting for the two brazen humans to immediately and customarily drop their eyes, but neither seemed the least bit intimidated by his fierce glare. Infuriated at this unexpected disregard for his authority, he growled a low warning and started forward to correct the two impertinent men.
Gunter called to him from the doorway of the greathouse.
“We are guests of Lord Micah, but we are also here on estate business. As the prefect’s territorial accountant, you are needed to figure the total crop yields for this season. Come inside now so we can be done with the work and enjoy the festival they’ve planned in our honor tonight.”
“A moment, sir. There’s a slight obedience problem I must attend to.”
“Whatever it is can wait, Odiah,” the leader said in a no-nonsense voice. “You were employed by the prefect to do this job, and you will do it now!”
“Yes, sir!” Stung and humiliated, Odiah reluctantly turned and strode quickly toward the greathouse. It would be foolish to anger Gunter; it was obvious his leader’s mind was only on the upcoming festivities and not on proper decorum. He bounded the porch stairs, then turned back once again to view the two presumptuous humans.
The blond man had properly turned away from the embarrassing situation and returned his attentions to the tasks as hand. His hammer made reverberating noises, resounding loudly in the now quiet courtyard as he repaired a loose roof board.
However, the other, younger human still watched contemptuously from his ladder perch, he had not correctly turned his back to Odiah’s scolding, and this infuriated the large chimpanzee.
“I will take care of you later, human,” he said under his breath.
“I’m coming, sir,” Odiah said and hurriedly entered the greathouse.
The carnival atmosphere and brightly strung outdoor candlelight made the courtyard a jubilant place to be. Everywhere he went, Alan found smiling human faces, an uncommon sight in this future world. He strolled through the courtyard, greeting each person in turn politely, and hurried to what he had come to know as the ‘Learning House.’ Arvid had dismissed her young charges early today, allowing them to return to their families and ready themselves for the festival tonight, but he knew she had stayed late at the school to clean up.
On the way, he passed the grandstand where Gunter and Hector sat viewing the ongoing activities curiously and with some amusement. He noted that Virgil and Charlie’s chairs had been placed directly at Gunter’s right side, but two feet lower, on ground level. Alan looked around for the third ape, but he was nowhere in sight.
“Looking for me?” Arvid’s soft voice came from directly behind him.
“Not anymore,” he said, smiling as she moved to stand beside him.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“A little. The sun hasn’t been down for long, so it can’t be dinnertime yet.”
“How about a walk? It’s still quite pleasant and not so very warm anymore. We could go to the edge of the clearing.”
“All right,” he said, starting off in that direction. She stayed beside him, her long legs easily keeping pace with his lengthy strides.
They walked in silence for several minutes, and Virdon found himself occasionally glancing sideward at her. She was definitely not what anyone would call beautiful, but there was certain attractiveness in her square face and high cheekbones. Her eyes were the color of the ocean on a cloudy day, her long, straight hair a burnished, unrefined honey. At nearly six feet, she almost met Alan face to face, but she was neither angular nor unfeminine in her height. Alan guessed her age to be about 30, and he wondered at her singleness in the midst of the family-oriented clan.
Almost as if she could read his thoughts, Arvid suddenly spoke up. “I was married to a very fine man named Jared. We lived in one of the houses up there.” She pointed toward the single-family swellings at the top of the adjoining hill. “And we were very happy for many seasons.”
She stopped, as if it was too painful to go on, and Alan said nothing, allowing her to make the decision to continue.
“… then about two seasons … years … ago, he was killed in an accident. One of the storage caves in the western sector collapsed, and he was crushed.”
Virdon waited a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“We had a son,” she whispered mournfully.
“I didn’t know you had a child, Arvid. Where is he?” he asked gently, then regretted it almost immediately for her face grew even more grim.
“With his father,” she said finally. “The shock of losing my husband … well … the baby came into the world much too soon. He lived less than a day. I took him to the cave where Jared rests and laid him there.” She pulled a cloth from her apron pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “I never even gave him a name,” she finished sorrowfully.
Now knowing what else to do, Virdon took her hand and squeezed it. This seemed to calm her for she sniffed and took a deep, ragged breath.
“I know you’ve suffered a recent loss also, Alan,” she said intuitively. “The hurt is still so naked in your eyes.”
“I …” he faltered.
“No, you don’t have to speak of it,” Arvid shook her head and reached for his other hand, squeezing both of them reassuringly, she looked deeply into his eyes. “I know it’s much easier at first to keep the loss to yourself. But, later, when the pain isn’t quite so sharp, you will bring yourself to talk about it with someone close to you, and that person will give you the love and understanding you need to go on with your life.”
Virdon felt his face flush and his eyes go moist as unbidden thoughts of Sally and Christopher flooded his consciousness. He bit his lip and nodded, afraid at first to speak because his voice might break and then afraid not to because the grief and pain were bubbling intensely inside his chest and threatening to burst.
“I lost my wife … and child a little over six months ago,” he heard himself admitting for the first time. “They were my whole life … my …”
“Hopes … and dreams and future happiness …” Arvid finished. “I knew it was something like that. Looking into your eyes was almost like looking into my own. I could see into the darkness of your soul.”
A cold, wet tear trickled down his cheek, and Arvid drew closer, reaching up with her handkerchief to gently wipe it away. Her sympathetic face was suddenly too close, her warm body much too near, and his loss and loneliness had become all at once too overwhelming to bear.
Involuntarily, he reached out and pulled her into an anxious, trembling embrace. She pressed his mouth to hers, taking strength and solace from her nearness and her willingness to share in his pain. She returned the kiss, allowing him full access to her mind and body and her own deep sense of loss.
Virdon pulled his lips away and tried to smother his anguish in the softness of her neck and shoulder and, when his heartache had dissipated to a bearable level, a burning desire raged in its stead. He pulled Arvid closer again, hungrily seeking out the warmth of her mouth. His hand moved of its own accord to caress her full breast. When she didn’t pull away and, instead, seemed to respond favorably to the intensity of his passion, he felt his own body react. And then Sally’s voice called his name ….
Shocked, he jerked backward, stumbling in the abruptness of his movement.
“Alan?” Sally’s voice repeated his name incongruously again, but his eyes told him the lips speaking were Arvid’s.
Dazed, his mind still a whirling jumble of strange sensations, he managed to nod that he had heard. When he had recovered enough to speak, he finally blurted out, “I’m sorry, Arvid. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I don’t know what came over me …”
“I don’t understand, Alan. Forgive what?” she asked, genuinely surprised at his retreat.
Virdon looked around wide-eyed, almost expecting to see the ghost of his dead wife hovering nearby, but there was only the quiet breeze of the early evening and a faint echo of merriment from the courtyard beyond.
“I … I didn’t mean to take advantage of your sympathy, Arvid.”
“Nor I of yours,” she said, still perplexed by his withdrawal. She slipped her hand into his palm tentatively and smiled when he not only allowed the gesture but also gripped her hand firmly and reassuringly with his long fingers. She peered deeply into his eyes, then nodded knowingly.
“Now I understand,” she said at last. “Your wounds are no longer open or bleeding, but they are still bruised and tender. The healing process has begun, Alan.”
Grateful, he gave her a whisper of a smile. “Still friends?”
“For now,” she said perceptively and, still holding on to each other, they headed back to the noisy courtyard.
“Square dancing?” Burke said in an incredulous voice. “Not on your life! There’s no way you’re going to get me out there,” he said insistently, balking as Trina yanked and tugged him toward the courtyard.
“Come on, Pete. It’ll be fun. Don’t be such a party pooper.”
“No! I can’t dance. Don’t ask me!”
From his seat on the porch swing, Alan grinned at the verbal struggle. The grin widened as the blond man turned to greet Arvid, who exited the greathouse holding a mug of beer and a glass of lemonade. She held out the beer for Alan, who took it and gulped down a large, grateful swallow. “Thank you, lovely lady,” he said, making room for her to join him on the swing. He turned back to Burke. “Oh, go on. Dance with the girl, Pete. You might as well give it a try.”
“You give it a try! I haven’t square danced since third grade … come to think of it, I didn’t even do it then. In fact, I seem to recall ol’ Fitzgerald and I exchanged a few choice words over my refusal. That may even have been the first time I ever told him to go to hell. Ah, those were the good ol’ days.”
“Quit changing the subject, Pete, and take the girl dancing.”
“But I don’t wanna square dance,” Burke said with a pained expression on his face.
Trina dropped her eyes, and her lips pursed into a rosebud pout.
“But I …” Burke looked from Trina’s exaggerated sulking to Virdon’s mock accusing to Arvid’s all-knowing smile. Finally, he sighed and shrugged his shoulders in utter surrender. “Oh, all right. I give up.” Shaking his head in resignation, he held out his hands as if he expected to be handcuffed. “Promenade me to the dance floor.”
“Wanna know a secret?” Trina whispered teasingly in his ear as they right-and-left granded around the courtyard. She was gone before he could answer, pulled away by overlapping hands that drew both of them along in opposite directions.
“Meet your lady, swing her ‘round and promenade home,” John sang over the twanging of the strange stringed instruments.
Burke went hands-over-hands hurriedly with several more women before Trina circled around to him again. Following the other dancers’ leads, he swung Trina clumsily around until she was likewise embraced, and the couple played follow-the-leader around the ring of dancers.
“What kind of secret?” he grinned at her as they whirled in place.
“Shhhhh,” she flashed her amazing, technicolor eyes at him. “Not so loud.”
“Okay.” He made a big show of lowering his voice and waited for her to reply.
“Do-si-do. Then bow to your partner; bow to your neighbor; allemande left and go right-and-left grand.”
“Not again,” Pete said with feigned impatience, but Trina and the others tugged him along. On the sidelines he saw Alan and Arvid laughing at his predicament. He flashed Arvid his most devastating smile and, simultaneously, delivered a one-fingered message to Alan behind his back.
Meeting Trina once again, he swung her around and escorted her through half the ring, then ducked down and took a furtive detour to the right. They ended up standing just inside the barn door.
“It’s not finished yet. Oh, Pete, please! Let’s go back!” Trina begged. She tugged at his wrists, and he used the connection to draw her nearer.
“You said something about a secret?” he reminded her.
“Oh, that. I’ve forgotten what it was,” she said with a flirtatious giggle.
“And what can I do to make you remember, hmmmm?” he said, bringing one of her arms up to his mouth. He brushed it lightly with his lips, planting several tickling kisses on the inside of her wrist.
Trina shivered with delight, then laid her index finger against her chin and pretended to be deep in thought. “You might try that somewhere else,” she said boldly.
Burke moved farther into the privacy of the barn and pulled her closer. She snuggled against him, wrapping her long arms around his neck and lifting her face for the expected kiss. She was so lovely and so warm and … so innocent. He pulled up at the sudden reminder.
‘Go easy, Pete,’ he cautioned himself. ‘She’s only seventeen. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’
He loosened her hold on his neck and took a step backward, moving farther apart, then leaned forward and planted a brotherly kiss on her forehead.
“Hmmmm,” she purred, “you’re getting warmer.”
Burke laughed. “We’re both getting much too warm, Trina. Now, come on, let’s go back.”
Trina looked up at him from beneath her gold-tinged lashes. “I know where Papa Virgil’s ship is.”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“Where is it? Take me there.”
“Not tonight. It’s too hard to find, even in the daylight. But we can go there tomorrow, if you like.”
“I like. First thing in the morning?”
“All right. But you can’t tell anyone that I’ve told you about it. Promise me. Not even Alan can know.”
“If you don’t promise, I won’t take you, Pete,” she said in a serious voice.
“It’s in the forbidden territory, isn’t it?”
She looked around to see if anyone else was listening to their conversation, then she nodded. “We’ll have to be extra careful, especially with the apes here for the harvest.” She thought for a moment. “Maybe we should wait until they’ve gone, Pete. If we get caught, there could be a lot of trouble.”
“Then we’ll just make certain that we’re not caught. Okay, I promise I won’t tell anyone, even Alan,” he tossed her a reassuring grin.
She moved closer to him, snaking her arms around his neck again. Turning up her face to stare directly into his eyes, she mouthed the word ‘Okay,’ when she was only a scant inch away. Then her parted lips pressed firmly against his for a long, luscious moment. His resolve melted in an instant as he felt his body responding to hers. He returned the kiss, encircling her waist with his arms and pulling her even closer.
“After breakfast,” she murmured and moved her lips to peck lightly at the tiny cleft in his chin. “Dress warmly, and we’ll make it a picnic. Meet me right here.”
Then suddenly, she was gone, and he was left standing alone, dazed, breathless and very confused.
The bedroom door opened. It creaked slightly, but the stillness of the house magnified the sound, and Alan saw Burke freeze on tiptoe halfway into the room.
“It’s okay, I’m still awake, Pete,” he said quietly.
Burke relaxed and stepped all the way in, then closed the door behind him. “Can’t sleep?” he asked as he moved to his side of the bed and began to undress.
Virdon turned over and propped himself up on one elbow. “Too much on my mind. I’m starting to get worried.”
“Uh huh. It’s been nearly a month, Pete. I’m beginning to think something may have happened to him.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking about him too. This Lord Micah’s a pretty big man … excuse me, ape … in this part of the woods, so it’s not like we didn’t leave an easy trail to follow.”
“Unless the auctioneer wouldn’t tell Galen who bought us or where we went.”
“Now why would he do something like that?” Burke asked, sliding under the covers. Clasping his hands together, he pillowed his head in them and stared up at the bare ceiling.
“Well, monetary reasons for one. He certainly doesn’t want to have to refund Micah’s money.”
“That’s true,” Burke said quietly. “So what do you suggest, Alan?”
“I think our vacation’s almost over, and we need to start making plans on where to go from here.”
Burke’s mood suddenly darkened. “Not vacation, Alan. More like convalescent leave.” The younger man turned his head sideways and looked past Virdon to the other side of the room where the fire flickered warmly. He sighed a weight-of-the-world sigh.
It was Alan’s turn to stare at the blank ceiling. “I know, Pete. These past few weeks haven’t exactly been a picnic for you, but …”
“Picnic! That reminds me,” Burke said, rushing to change the subject. “Trina and I are going on a picnic tomorrow morning. We’ll probably be gone most of the day.”
Virdon raised his eyebrows. “A picnic? In this weather? Does Virgil know about this?”
“Probably not yet. It was Trina’s idea. But by morning Charlie and Neva will square it with him before we get back.”
“You like the girl a lot don’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“She grows on you,” Burke replied in a lighter voice. His black cloud of depression seemed to have lifted with the mention of Trina. “Kinda like jock itch.”
“Yeah, if you leave it alone, it drives you nuts, but when you give it attention, it feels soooo damn good.”
Virdon couldn’t help but smile.
“I notice you’ve got your own mutual admiration society going with Arvid,” Pete said, yawning tiredly.
“Admiration is the perfect word, Pete. She’s an incredibly strong woman with a mind of her own. I’ve discovered that we have an awful lot in common, but there can never be anything between us. I’m not ready to face that yet, not so long as I still have this.” He fingered the silver computer disk he wore around his neck.
Choosing not to get caught up in their ongoing disagreement over the disk and its possibilities or lack of same, Burke merely turned over on his side and stretched his long legs to the very edge of the mattress.
“Besides,” Virdon went on, “I got the feeling tonight that Mama Charlie isn’t exactly thrilled with my budding ‘relationship’ with her daughter.”
“What makes you say that?” Burke asked, genuinely surprised.
“Well, this evening while Arvid and I were sitting on the porch swing holding hands, Charlie came up and made up some lame excuse for Arvid to go into the kitchen with her. When Arvid came back out, she sat across from me and seemed … distant. I also noticed both Virgil and Charlie eyeing us for the rest of the evening.”
“You must be imagining things. Trina’s made no bones about enjoying my company, and no one’s mentioned anything.”
“Well … maybe not to your face …”
Burke swiveled around in the bed. “Who said something?”
“After the two of you left us on the tour the other day, Virgil made it quite plain to me that he’d be very glad to call you grandson.”
“Really?” Pete smiled at the unexpected thought, then sobered. “Hey, I’m not ready for marriage yet. I’m much too young, and I’ve got my career to think about.”
“You’re pushing thirty, Pete. And what career?” Alan teased.
“Not for a couple more months … I think. And I haven’t decided yet,” Pete said. “Let’s see, I’ve failed miserably at gladiating, and I hate the smell and taste of fish so that rules out fishing. Farming is definitely not my calling. Hey, I know … I’d make one heckuva good doctor, don’t you think?”
Virdon’s smile grew strained as a half-forgotten memory suddenly pushed its way to the front of his mind:
He knew he had been shot, had felt the bullet impact, blasting a hole in his side and knocking him off his feet.
For a long while his damaged senses could only provide incomplete data to his brain. All information came in spurts of disjointed, upside-down pictures and disembodied voices. For a moment, his universe trembled, heaving and blackening around him as he fell from the shoulders of his human friend. Hairy paws and long fingers reached out, turning him upright and holding him steady until he reached the uncomfortable cold, hard surface of the cave floor. Within minutes, his world swelled again, but this time when his body touched down, his bedroll cushioned and warmed the floor beneath him. Shadowy faces moved in and out of his limited sight range. One was round and dark, with small, deep-set eyes and a prominent nose and snout. The other, more familiar, was thin and angular with high, well-defined cheekbones and haunted eyes. Both blanched stark against the black background and flickering firelight.
“How’s the pain?” an unemotional, tightly controlled voice asked.
“Not too bad,” he lied. “The bullet must be resting on a nerve.”
There was more conversation, and he forced himself to respond to every question, protesting the insane plans and schemes being hatched by his two friends. But they overruled him on everything, and he could do nothing but lie on the ground and listen as his two best friends plotted their own suicides.
“Galen …” he heard Pete’s voice call the ape’s name, saw his chimpanzee friend pause and look back. But Burke said no more, and then the ape was gone and there was only a frightening silence. He feared he had been left alone until something brought sweet coolness to his forehead and cheeks.
“Easy, Alan. Try to relax and get some sleep. It’ll be a while before Galen can get back.” Pete’s voice began a nonstop, one-sided conversation that he clung desperately to but, after a time, he grew weary. His eyelids shut, and he slept.
When he awoke, only the agony was perpetual. Reality came and went in well-defined spurts of animated pain that paralleled the sharp stabbing in his side. Blackness slowly advanced, taking more and more ground with his every surrender, but he clawed his way back each time. Blades impaled him, cramping, spasming, skewering him to the very marrow, blanking his mind to all, leaving him blind and deaf to everything around him … everything but a disembodied voice that spoke familiarly, unceasingly, comfortingly. A warm hand wrapped around his own, calming, soothing, and after a while, he found that the pain had eased to a tolerable level, and he could focus and listen and drag in one more life-giving breath of air.
Virdon broke out in a cold sweat at the too-real recollection. His friends had gone through hell and risked their freedom and their own lives to save his.
He stared at Pete, who balanced on one elbow, an asinine grin pasted on his handsome face. “I don’t know, Dr. Welby. As I remember it, your bedside manner left something to be desired,” he said lightly, but his eyes were bright with emotion.
“Well, that’s gratitude for you,” the younger man replied. He made a big show of turning over and covering his head. “Night, Alan,” was muffled in a barely stifled yawn.
“Good night, Pete.” Alan absently fingered the disk on his chest. So close and yet so very, very far away. He closed his eyes and forced his body to relax. As he reached that twilight dream state just preceding deep sleep, a voice disturbed him.
On the horizon of slumber, he roused and mumbled a sleepy reply. “Hmmmm?”
“How much longer before we really have to leave here?”
Virdon heard the barely disguised gloom in the younger man’s voice. He thought for a moment before answering. Finally, “We can stay another week, Pete. But if Galen hasn’t arrived by then, we shouldn’t wait any longer. He could be in real trouble … or worse.”
“I know. Okay, seven more days, and if Galen isn’t here, we go hunting. Good night, Alan.”
“Good night, Pete.” Some of the tension seemed to have dissipated, at least temporarily, and Virdon again allowed himself to drift off into a trancelike state.
The blond frowned and cracked one eyelid. Pete’s face emerged through the haze of sleep. “What?” he said. He didn’t even try to conceal the trace of impatience.
Trina stopped just shy of the wide lake and kicked off her shoes. Hopping up and down on alternative legs, she tugged her multi-colored socks from her feet and yanked her oversized trousers down. She stepped out of them, then moved her arms as if to hug herself and pulled her shirt up and over her head. When she had reached the bare minimum of tiny briefs and practically transparent undershirt, she stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Well, come on!”
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Pete said testily. He laid the heavy picnic basket aside and glanced up at the ring of huge boulders surrounding the bowl-shaped crater they now inhabited. Worried that they had been seen when they left the greathouse this morning, Burke had kept a watchful eye for the duration of their forty-five minute hike. He had seen no one, but his honed instincts told him that someone was out there. He felt a presence. He could only hope that it was human.
“… and we have to go into the water to get to the ship,” Trina was saying.
Still wary, he tuned in to her voice.
“If we wear our clothes in, they’ll get wet, and we’ll be very cold walking back to the greathouse. If we take them off now, then they won’t get wet, and we can put them back on when we come out of the water. That way, we won’t catch pneumonia, and we’ll stay much warmer on the way back,” she explained slowly and precisely, as though she were talking to a small child. Satisfied that he now understood her logic, she started tugging at her thin undershirt, but Burke’s hand stopped her.
“It’s too cold for skinny dipping,” he said pointedly, then slipped off his own shoes, socks and outer layer of clothing. Folding them haphazardly, he laid them aside. “Is the ship underwater?”
“No, but in order to get to it, we have to swim almost to the other side and then go under. There are several tunnels beneath that mountain,” she said, indicating the huge pile of boulders that bordered the right edge of the lake. “It’s in a cavern at the end of one of them.”
Burke shivered. “Brrrr, it’s too damn cold to try this. We could get hypothermia.”
“It’s a condition where the body gets too cold and goes into a kind of shock.”
She smiled, moved a little closer and hugged him. “I know ho to keep you warm,” she said, scattering kisses across his bare chest and shoulders.
A flash of metal glinted near the southwest edge of the stone wall, and Burke craned his neck over the girl’s head to get a better look. “Trina … come on … stop that!” he said, irritably shoving her away, but when he finally had an unobstructed view, whatever it was, if anything, had disappeared.
There was an edge to his voice that he’d never used with her before, and, stunned and hurt, Trina stepped back, turning away as though Burke had physically slapped her.
“Trina, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …” Burke reached out a hand to comfort her, but she jerked away from h is grasp and abruptly took off running toward the water. “Trina!”
“Come on,” she yelled and dove in.
“No! Wait!” Caught off guard, Burke sprinted after her and sliced effortlessly into the icy water. They emerged almost simultaneously near the middle of the lake.
Burke spit out a mouthful of water and grimaced. “Salt water … ptui!” he said. He drew in a breath of cold, biting air, held it, and then released it in a gush. “My … God … it’s freezing in here,” he said though chattering teeth. “We can’t stay in this water, Trina. It’s too dangerous. Besides, I think there’s …”
She didn’t wait to hear him finish. She ducked under and began swimming toward the rugged mountain side of the lake.
“Trina! Did you hear me? It’s too … goddamnit, get back here, willya!”
The girl continued swimming as though she couldn’t hear him.
Frustrated, Burke treaded water for several seconds, kicking his frozen legs and keeping his stiffening arms in constant motion. “All right, you win, but when I catch up with you, I’m going to … . to …”
“Why don’t you just spank me,” she threw back at him over her shoulders. “You treat me like a child, you might as well punish me like one.”
“Now that sounds like a darned good idea,” he yelled, just as she disappeared beneath the water. He waited, and when she didn’t reappear after what seemed a very long time, he took a deep breath and followed her down.
The refracted sunlight filtering through the water made it easy to see the eerie world below. Trina swam several yards ahead of him, maneuvering easily with simple, frog-like movements. He caught up with her effortlessly, reaching out to clasp her hand just as she disappeared into a narrow underwater tunnel.
She struggled to pull away again, but he persisted until, finally, with her oxygen almost depleted, she gave up and headed purposefully for the end of the shaft. He paralleled her every inch of the way until, exhausted and coughing, they both dragged themselves from the water and collapsed onto the sandy shore.
When his heart had stopped trying to beat its way out of his chest, and he could take several breaths without gasping, Burke lifted his head and looked around.
The interior of the cavern was reminiscent of a large cathedral with its high, sloping ceiling and elaborate rock formations carved into the walls. Slivers of sunlight filtered through several minute openings above, shining their expanding beacons downward to the sand-covered floor below. The air around them shimmered and danced with tiny lint and dust particles, and Burke was suddenly struck by the eerie beauty of the place.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Trina said in hushed reverence.
“Beautiful!” he said, listening as their vocal descriptions echoed throughout the place. “How’d you find it?”
“By accident. Andrew and I were swimming here a few summers ago, and we decided to see how far the underground tunnels went. This was the only one where I could hold my breath all the way to the end.” She stood and started forward. “Come on, the ship’s over this way.”
He followed, slowly at first, still under the magic spell of the surroundings, then faster as Trina disappeared around a sharp bend in the rocks.
“Why’s it so much warmer in here than outside?” he called after her.
“I don’t know. It’s almost always the same temperature in here. If it’s hot outside, then the cave feels cool. If it’s cold like today, then it’s much warmer in here.”
Burke turned the corner and emerged into a long corridor. He followed Trina slowly down the ever-widening passageway, stopping at intervals to marvel at the varying specimens of smoky gray and milk white quartz inlaid in marble-like patterns throughout the granite walls. Clusters of transparent quartz clumped together on the ceiling, forming miniature crystal chandeliers that grabbed each beam of light and prismed them into flickering rainbows of yellow, orange, blue and violet.
Hypnotized by the spectacular effect, he barely felt Trina’s hand grab his arm and pull him forward.
“Come on, Pete. You haven’t even seen the best part yet.”
Trina’s words were prophetic for the sight that met him at the end of the tunnel took his breath away.
The shaft widened until it was no longer a corridor, but a large, amphitheater-sized chamber. Burke put out his hand to feel a vein of opal at the entranceway, and his fingers froze in mid-air.
With one-third of its fuselage embedded in the heavy granite walls, the aircraft tipped majestically upward toward the dome-shaped ceiling. Although the nosecone still held on to some of the flat, heat-resistant black tiles, and the windows were unbroken, the ship was forever grounded. Its doors had long ago rusted off their hinges, and the landing gear was no longer attached to the bottom. Large rusting holes appeared in the sides and flooring but, in spite of the damage, Discovery II held her noble nose high.
“So, they finally got one to fly,” Burke whispered in an awestruck voice.
Confused, Trina looked up at him, then back at the ship. “What?”
“Alan, Jonesie and I rode the last of the expendables,” he said, already climbing up toward the open doorway. “This baby was meant to fly over and over, again and again. And look at her … just look at her … even in death, she’s gorgeous.”
“She? Her? Pete, who are you talking about?”
“The ship, Trina!” The shuttle! Come on, let’s see what’s inside.”
Scrambling haphazardly up a loose, wobbly pile of stones to the gaping doorway, Burke poked his head into the darkened interior of the ancient spacecraft. Wriggling cautiously around and through the sharp, pointed edges of the rusted opening, he stood and tested the flimsy flooring, then extended a hand to help Trina up and inside. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darker environment, then headed purposefully for the cockpit. The old metal squeaked and protested beneath their feet, and he knew that his planned exploration of the entire shuttle would have to be curtailed. The old girl just wasn’t up to a full examination.
“Careful, Trina,” he said as he sidestepped a large hold and entered the cockpit.
The light was much better in this forward compartment for several of the cascading sunbeams struck the front windows at an angle, fanning out over the enclosed area. In the brighter light, Burke found himself marveling at the sophisticated instrumentation, but another ominous creak beneath his bare feet signaled that his total fascination with the aircraft would have to halt in favor of his original purpose.
Looking around behind the pilot and copilot seats, he found the larger instrument panel on the wall directly adjacent to the copilot’s triangular window. His objective waited inside a tiny cavity near the left edge of the panel, and his hand gently pried open the door. Surprisingly, it opened with unexpected ease, and he closed his fist eagerly around the laser flight disk and pulled it from its slot. Examining it closely, he heaved a relieved sigh. The disk appeared to be undamaged, unblemished, and as perfect as the one Virdon wore religiously around his neck. He pictured his blond friend’s surprise and pleasure at receiving this extra tidbit of hope and, pleased with himself, he smiled surrepticiously. Not that he ever really expected anything to come of either disk. Burke had long ago accepted the truth about their situation; they were stuck in this never-never land of taking apes and subdued humans and, if they could manage to stay out of Urko’s clutches, they would live here for the rest of their natural lives. This was the reality that he, Peter J. Burke, could live with, and his friend, Alan Virdon, could not.
So long as Virdon believed that a tiny, round disk was the way back to his own cherished way of life, then the man would continue to strive for life. And, Burke had decided, if possession of this new disk, along with his first one, would keep Alan’s elusive dream alive for another few months, so be it. It was worth every bit of danger.
Handing his hard-won prize over to Trina’s care, he moved carefully and stealthily to the right to retrieve the second of Alan’s treasures. Struggling to lift the stubborn latch on the drawer to the computer hard drive, he discovered it was stuck tight and, swearing under his breath, he froze as the thinning metal floor beneath them made another, louder protest.
“Trina, take the disk and get out of here!” he ordered suddenly.
When she opened her mouth to protest, he glared at her with his fiercest no-nonsense look. “I’ll be right behind you. I promise,” he forced himself to say in a gentler voice. “Go on. I can’t do this if I have to worry about something happening to you too.”
“All right,” she gave in reluctantly, turning and stepping over the rusting hole. “Don’t be long though, or I’ll come right back in to get you.”
“I won’t,” he said. “Now go!”
He heard, rather than saw, her step out of the ship, then turned his full attention to the task at hand. Something hard bumped his left foot, and he knelt down, feeling blindly around for the pipe-like object. When he finally had it in his grasp, his fingers told him it was a smooth, long piece of metal, and he grabbed it and used it to hammer at the latch on the computer drive.
The drawer opened just as his right foot broke through the flooring. He yelped in pain and surprise as jagged metal sliced open his ankle. He reached out blindly, grabbing the back of the pilot’s chair, hung suspended for a moment, then hauled himself back up and into the cockpit. Ignoring the burning in his ankle, he lost no time in grabbing the program card from the computer drawer.
As it was no larger than the original disk itself, he wrapped his fingers around it, took a quick, nostalgic last look, and limped gingerly to the shuttle doorway.
The thrill of finding another disk and the card to go with it struck full force as his injured foot touched ground in the dome-ceilinged, heavenly cavern. Totally ignoring the pain, Burke whooped with joy, grabbing Trina in a fierce bear hug and whirling her around and around.
“Do you know what this means, Trina? Alan’s gonna bust a gut when I hand these over to him, and it’s all because of you.” He kissed her firmly on the mouth, and when he pulled back, he was breathing hard from the exhilaration of the find.
But Trina stood trembling in front of him, her firm breasts taut against the flimsy material of her undershirt. “Don’t stop,” she begged, pushing her way back into his arms. Her warm, moist lips greedily sought his, holding them captive for a long, delicious moment. All the while her unrestrained hands roamed the angles of his shoulder blades, feather-stroked down the small of his back, and cupped the ample curves of his buttocks.
When her inquiring fingers turned their curious touch to the front of his body, he gasped. “Trina … you shouldn’t … it’s wrong for us to …”
“Why shouldn’t we?” she whispered, “What can be so wrong about something that makes us feel so wonderful?”
“In my world, a man and woman just didn’t …”
“You’re in my world now,” she said simply, resuming her maddening exploration of his body.
Sighing resignedly, he pulled her closer. All the while, a little voice in the back of his head vehemently protested his actions. He ignored it. He was entangled in a web of passion, one of which he hadn’t known in nearly two thousand years, and he was determined to lose himself in the familiar sweetness and elation of the moment.
Each successive kiss pushed the objections and thoughts of flight further into the back of his mind, and when Trina abruptly pulled out of his arms, they were both breathing heavily and quivering with desire.
‘Stop it while you can, Burke,’ he heard the voice inside his mind say. ‘She’s forbidden fruit … Angus’ only daughter. For Christ’s sake, she’s only seventeen years old!’
But he fought a losing battle, for as his mind argued, his eyes raked over the intense and innocent beauty of the girl, and his body reacted accordingly.
She stood in front of him, her entire being bathed provocatively in the beams of light that jutted in heavenly splendor from the ceiling. Her auburn hair glowed with a reddish halo all its own, and her sparkling eyes locked and held his knowingly. When he could finally yank his gaze away from her hypnotic stare, he saw her slowly and seductively begin to remove the last of her two garments.
At last she stood naked and unashamed, and she returned to his arms, pressing her fevered breasts enticingly against his bare chest. When he felt her hand fumbling with the waistband of his still-damp briefs and her other pulling him to the ground, he groaned aloud. And he knew this time there would be no turning back.
“All right, who will volunteer to read his or her assignment to the class,” Arvid said to a roomful of student volunteers. “Daniel, you go first.”
The blond boy of about twelve stood and began to recite a well-written missive on an imagined ‘flight.’
Alan entered the one-room schoolhouse unobtrusively, his arms laden with wood for the fireplace. He stayed near the sidewall, trying not to intrude or interrupt and, bending down on his knees, piled several fresh cut logs on the already blazing fire. Turning to leave, he was stopped by the eerie words of the young boy.
“ … Oh, my father taught me how to fly. On wings of thoughts, higher than high. And he showed me wondrous sights above. White misty clouds and a soaring dove. My father gave to me a dream. So earthbound, I no longer seem.”
Daniel finished and turned his beaming face to his teacher. Arvid smiled back. “That was very imaginative, Daniel. We should all have such beautiful dreams.”
“And high-minded fathers …” Virdon finished in a whisper. He stood and again prepared to leave.
Arvid called to him, and he turned around to find fifteen pre-adolescents grinning at him. He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Arvid. I didn’t mean to disturb your class.”
“You’re not disturbing us. I just thought that if you had a few minutes, you might search your memories and share a poem with the children.” At his look of surprise, Arvid’s large hazel eyes grew even larger, “… that is, if you’re not busy and if you wouldn’t mind …” she stammered, and the children giggled at the two grown-ups’ discomfort.
Alan joined the students, his lips tugging into a crooked grin. “I think I can spare a few minutes of my very valuable time,” he said, striding toward the front of the room and taking a seat next to Arvid. “Now, let’s see, I never was one for fancy poetry, but I do seem to recall an old favorite that Daniel’s verse brought to mind. It’s also about freedom – of thought and gravity – an aviator of long ago write his feelings about being able to really fly.” He searched his memory until the words came back to him. “Now, how did it go … ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and …”
The children sat in spellbound delight, listening to Alan’s soft, hypnotic recitation of the ancient poem.
“’… put out my hand and touched the face of God,’” he finished to complete silence. The hush continued for several uncomfortable moments, and then Arvid drew in a huge breath.
“That was very moving,” she said, dabbing at her eyes, “wasn’t it, class?”
The students all nodded, still entranced by the beauty of the words.
“Would you like to Alan to come back and recite more poetry when he has some free time.”
“Yes, please!” they all begged in unison.
“Well, I’m afraid my repertoire of poetry is quite limited, but I’d be happy to share what I can remember.”
“And Pete, do you think he might be interested in addressing the class with stories or poems?”
Virdon put a hand to his mouth to mask the involuntary smile that threatened. “Arvid, I don’t think you’d want this class exposed to Pete’s rendition of “There was a young girl from Nantucket.”
The blond woman appeared confused, and Alan let the smile come.
“Never mind,” he said, “I’ll ask him if he remembers anything suitable for this age group.”
“Thank you. It would really be a treat for the children.”
Virdon rose to leave, and Arvid stood also. “I’ll walk you to the door. Class, if any of you can remember parts of this lovely poem, please try to write them down before you forget. I’ll return in a moment.”
“You’re very good with them,” he said as he opened the door and stepped outside. Cool air blew in around him, ruffling Arvid’s flaxen hair. A feeling of déjà vu struck him full force as Virgil’s daughter’s face coalesced into that of his long-dead wife.
“Alan?” ‘Sally’ said in Arvid’s voice.
He shook himself and looked away, blinking furiously.
“Alan, how can I help you?” Arvid said worriedly. She reached out to take both his hands in hers.
“I’m … okay,” he said, still dazed by the vision.
“Are you sure? Do you want me to get Mama Charlie? This is the second time this has happened to you. You may be ill.”
Virdon shook his head. “There’s no need, Arvid. Like my dark-haired friend is fond of saying, ‘There’s no medicine for what ails me.’”
At her puzzled expression, Alan touched her warm cheek with his rough, chapped hand. She raised her own soft one to press it closer and closed her eyes. He pulled away reluctantly.
“I’ll be okay. You’d better get back to your class.”
Arvid watched him pull his cloak tighter as he walked a bit unsteadily toward the north field. When he had reached the summit of the hill, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mama Charlie scowling at her from across the courtyard. As she watched, her mother shook her head disapprovingly, turned her back on the scene, and reentered the greathouse. She was dismissed.
Sanity returned abruptly, awakening him with a swift kick to his napping conscience. Startled and momentarily confused, he glanced around the unfamiliar surroundings, striving to orient himself.
The awe-inspiring room had grown dark as he and Trina slept, but he couldn’t be sure if the dismal light was caused by an overhead cloud obliterating the sun or by the passage of time. In the dime light, the sparkling interior had lost its enchantment, and the spell unraveled into stark reality.
Burke stood stiffly, retrieved his briefs and hurriedly stepped into them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Trina’s silent form rise from her prone position and pull her shirt over her head. She moved slowly and deliberately, as if in a daze, and he forced back a monumental sigh of regret.
Now fully clothed, Trina bent down to recover the discarded disks. Shaking the powder-like sand from them, she wiped them clean on her shirt and held them out for Pete’s approval.
“Are they all right? Can Alan still use them?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
Burke numbly took possession of the two items and pretended to inspect them. “I think they’re okay,” he said flatly, absently toying with the small silver disk.
“I know. I know,” Trina’s voice was all at once flirty and musical again, and she smiled at him knowingly in the dark.
“And what do you know?” he forced himself to reply in kind.
“I know that if you really didn’t believe your friend could find a way back to your own time, you never would’ve risked coming here.” She moved closer to him, encircling his waist with her arms and lacing her fingers against the small of his back. Her scent, a blend of sweat, salt and semen, reached his nostrils and made him dizzy with remorse.
“Trina …” he began the apology when a sudden scraping noise from the entrance corridor froze him.
“What …” she started, but his large hand closed over her mouth, and his lips pursed into a silent ‘shhhh.’ Wide-eyed, she closed her mouth and nodded her understanding.
“Come with me,” he whispered, keeping his echoing voice as low as possible, and the two of them moved stealthily to the edge of the entranceway.
“Pete? Trina?” A familiar youthful voice came from the corridor.
“Andrew!” Obviously relieved, Trina stepped forward where she could be seen by her younger brother, and her voice took on a scolding inflection. “What are you doing following us?”
“I had to!” the boy said defensively. “You were seen this morning.”
“By whom?” Pete moved forward to join Trina in the doorway.
“The fat chimp. I eavesdropped when I saw him come into the greathouse all excited. He only saw you, Pete. Not Trina. I guess the barn kept her hidden, but they’re all heading this way on their horses, and they look mad.”
“You say they didn’t mention Trina,” Burke said, already sketching the blueprint of a plan in his mind.
“No, they were only concerned about you being missing. And that wad of blubber called Odiah seemed real happy to report it to his commander.”
“I’ll bet he was,” Burke said tersely. “Does anyone else know? Were you seen?”
Andrew shook his head to both questions. “I don’t think so. Except for Arvid, the children, and the old ones, everyone is out working in the field. The apes wanted the crops loaded and ready to go by the end of the day so Papa Virgil put everyone on that task.”
“Great! And I’ll bet he’s pissed off at me too!” Burke sighed resignedly. “Well, it’s been a while since I aggravated a great ape … might as well do it again …” He turned to Trina and handed her the disks. “No matter what happens, you make certain Alan gets these, okay?”
Trina appeared confused, but she took the two objects. “I … don’t understand. Where will you be?”
“Playing hide-and-seek with the three stooges out there,” he said. “Andrew, promise me you’ll do everything I tell you to do, and the two of you just might make it back to the greathouse.”
“What about you?”
“Never mind me. I’m used to playing kid games with apes. The important things right now are to get you two safely back to your family and deliver those disks to Alan. Now, I’m going to see if I can get those three goofballs to follow me. I’ll lead them on a merry chase, around and around in circles, until they’re lost … that shouldn’t take too long … and then I’ll head back to the greathouse. Okay?”
“Not okay!” Trina said, sounding firm. “I won’t let you sacrifice yourself to save me, not after what we’ve shared.”
Burke grabbed her shoulders and brought her face close to his. “And then your brother won’t let you go alone and the ape will have all of us in custody just minutes after we leave here. And what about your brother?” He indicated Andrew with a sideward nod of his head. “Do you want to risk his life?”
Her chin quivered, and her large eyes filled with unshed tears. “No … but I don’t want you to go by yourself,” she said brokenly, clinging to him.
“I’ll be all right, Trina, I promise. You and Andrew wait until the shadow reaches …” he inwardly calculated how long it would take the sun to move the shadows on the wall, then pointed, “… here … by then it should be safe for you to leave. I’ll go out the same way we came in, find my clothes, and dress. The apes won’t know I know they’re watching me, so when I leave the basin, all three will follow me and you two will be in the clear. Go straight home, but use caution. Keep to the woods or the side of the trail, and stay out of the open fields.” He glanced at Andrew and felt relieved when the boy nodded his understanding, but Trina still clung to him. He disentangled himself from her desperate hold, noting the lost look in her eyes as she stared up at him. Another pang of guilt struck him forcefully, and he bent down to brush her forehead with his lips.
Trina felt the innocent kiss and turned her face up, expecting another, more passionate one to follow, but Burke had already released her and started down the corridor.
“Pete!” she called to his departing form.
Andrew held her back. “You know he’s right, Trina. Stay here with me.”
“They’ll catch him, Andrew, and then they’ll kill him …” she said in a hopeless whisper.
“I know, Trina,” Andrew said simply, “and so does he.”
Burke emerged from the icy lake shaking almost uncontrollably with cold. From the position of the sun, occasionally peeking out from between large, billowing clouds, he estimated the time at mid-afternoon. Glancing upward at the craggy range of rocky hills, ever watchful for any sign that he was being observed, Pete forced himself to nonchalantly retrieve his clothing. He had one limb already inside a leg of his new gray trousers when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the first ape on horseback move into the open and assume an offensive position on the top of the west ridge.
Pretending he was still unaware of the presence, the young astronaut hopped around on one foot, struggling to get his other leg inside his pants.
A gruff voice echoed down from the top of the basin ridge, and Burke swiveled around. All three apes had now moved out into the open. They sat astride their horses, side-by-side-by-side, on the rim of the crater. Burke ordered his chattering teeth to be still and smiled to himself. That none of the apes were schooled in military tactics was obvious; by remaining together, they had failed to do the one thing he had worried about – maneuver him into a crossfire position.
Crouching down quickly and reaching for the much-needed warmth of his shirt, Burke worked feverishly to formulate a plan, but a warning bullet suddenly pinged into the boulder beside him, sending fragments flying everywhere. Several tiny pieces of jagged rock embedded stingingly into the back of his right hand, and he dropped the shirt and dove for cover.
“Come out into the open, human! We will not kill you if you obey.”
When his lungs threatened to burst and his arms and legs were stiff, leaden weights, he surfaced and brought his head, alligator-like, halfway out of the water. The first thing he saw was Odiah’s broad back directly in front of him. He swiveled around, careful not to splash or ripple, and almost fainted with relief. Hector and Gunter were galloping to the opposite side of the lake. Keeping a wary eye on the overweight chimp, he got a toehold in the muddy lake bottom and moved stealthily forward. He now had a plan, but he needed a horse to make it work.
He crept carefully around the wide boulder at the edge of the water, keeping it between his body and the two gorillas across the lake. Hidden from their view, he hunkered down for a moment, readying himself, then vaulted suddenly forward.
As he had prayed, he caught the large, ugly ape off guard, and his momentum carried both of them over the back of the startled, white horse. With a whoosh of exhaled breath, the pudgy chimpanzee landed hard and then lay unmoving on the ground.
With Odiah cushioning his fall, Burke recovered quickly, grabbed the horse’s reins and mounted in one swift movement. Turning the animal toward the basin’s incline, he urged him forward with several nudges, and the horse took off at a gallop.
A report of rifles echoed behind him, and Burke bent his shivering torso forward, assuming a jockey’s pose, and making himself as small a target as possible. He heard an almost spent bullet whiz by his left ear. The sound raised his hopes, and he knew he was only a few moments away from relative safety. His mind whirled ahead, planning his next moves with lightning speed. He would continue farther into the forbidden territory until he was certain the apes had stopped looking for him, then he would return to this site, retrieve his clothing and take shelter somewhere for a few days. Then he would slip back into Virgil’s greathouse, gather Alan and their few belongings and, together, they would continue on their not-so-merry way in search of Galen and an elusive computer.
The horse finally reached the crater summit, and Burke gazed down at the naked woods below. Freedom was only a few yards away. He steered the animal in an easterly direction and had just started to knee him forward when something slammed into his left thigh. His entire leg went numb immediately, refusing to obey his commands and signal the horse to move. His body jerked sideways with the impact and, although he tried frantically to regain his hold, he felt himself slipping and landed hard on the rocky ground. Rolling to his knees, he struggled to stand, to take a step, but his leg folded beneath him. Panting with exertion and shivering with fright and cold, he collapsed again.
“You’re dead, human,” a sinister voice breathed, and he felt the barrel of a rifle press into his pulsing temple.
“No, Odiah! I will deal with him. Lash his hands together, get him to his feet, and tether him to your horse. It’s a long way back, and he’ll have a lot of time to think about what he’s done.”
“But … I have the right to discipline him, Gunter! He should die for his crimes.”
“I agree, but he belongs to Lord Micah, one of the most powerful apes in the world. I’m in charge of this expedition, and I refuse to take the responsibility for executing one of his humans!”
“Why not? Micah’s an ape, just like you and me. Surely, he would agree that the human needs to be punished.”
“Yes, I’m sure he would agree to discipline … but not to death. I have heard stories about other apes who came to Micah’s sector many years ago. They made the mistake of killing one of his humans. Micah sought revenge through the Ape Council, claiming a loss of property that far exceeded the worth of the human. He won, and the apes’ careers and family fortunes were forfeited.”
Odiah was dumbfounded. “Because of humans?” he said in a high voice.
Gunter shook his head. “No, not because of humans. Because they were Lord Micah’s humans,” he said, then turned his full attention to Burke. “Get up! Be thankful that I’m not your owner for, if you were mine, I would kill you now and be done with you, and I would leave your dead carcass for the animals to feast upon.”
Burke struggled to pull himself up, but dizziness and nausea made the effort almost too great. He succeeded in getting to his knees again and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. His leg was dead, and he wasn’t looking forward to its reincarnation. Although the bullet wound had already stopped bleeding, he knew it would hurt like hell when the numbness went away. He doubted if he had the strength left to get to his feet, much less stand on them and walk all the way back to the greathouse but, quaking with cold and shock, he made another feeble attempt to rise.
“Come on, slave!” Odiah said, prodding him with the rifle, and Burke staggered to his feet. Swaying, he took a tentative step and nearly toppled over, but Hector grabbed a handful of his hair and held him upright.
Gunter slid his boot into the stirrup of his saddle and swung his leg over the broad back of his horse. “How is your injury, Odiah?”
“My knee is still hurting,” the fat ape complained
Gunter looked at the injury. It didn’t appear to be serious, but he knew Odiah would whine the entire trip back. “It doesn’t appear to be broken. Virgil’s mate can check it for you when we return. Meanwhile, see to it he doesn’t fall, because if he does, I will not stop, and he will be dragged all the way back to the greathouse.”
Odiah clicked to his horse, and Burke felt his arms almost jerked from their sockets. He forced his freezing good leg into motion, dragging the injured one behind.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
The simple two-step became an unconscious dance of survival as he drove himself to stay upright. An innocent stumble could prove fatal, and he turned blind eyes and deaf ears to all outside stimuli, concentrating only on following the white horse in front of him.
He didn’t react when Odiah dismounted and took up a position on his opposite side, nor did he notice when the surrounding scenery became flat, open grassland. He only became aware that he had made it to the potato fields when startled human voices reached through his clouded brain. He couldn’t afford to take the time to look around; he had to keep up the rhythm.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
His subconscious mind told him to be alert for Virdon. He had to warn his friend not to try and interfere for Alan would be in mortal danger if he tried to stop the apes.
The horse descended the small hillside that separated the potato fields from the sector courtyard, and Burke made the mistake of turning his head. Disoriented, he lost his balance immediately and fell in a heap to the ground, but he was not dragged forward. The lead horse stopped and, from his vantage on the ground, Burke saw Gunter step down from his horse and walk toward him.
“Get up!” the ape said in a low, menacing voice.
Burke tried to move his tortured body, but every bone and muscle refused to obey. Paralyzed, he lay on the ground and did not reply.
“I said get up, human!” Gunter said again and delivered a hard kick to Burke’s mid-section.
Folding over in pain, the dark-haired man gasped like a gutted steer and fought to get another breath. The thin stream of oxygen he managed to drag into his starving lungs wasn’t enough and, for a moment, the world around him faded away. When everything came back into focus, he shook his head to clear away the fuzzies, then curled his body instinctively into a protective ball. He rolled onto his knees, struggling beneath the black wave that threatened to crest and engulf him, and lurched once more to his feet.
‘Alan.’ The name played over and over in his clouded mind like a defective record, but he couldn’t afford to concentrate on anything other than moving one foot in front of the other. He decided to wait until the apes reached the courtyard to locate his friend. Then his brain would function, and he could warn Alan away.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
He started forward again and winced as the first glimmer of feeling returned to his awakening thigh. It was strange; the majority of his body was either numb or frozen, but the skin around the wound was beginning to burn with an intensity that disturbed him. He sighed at the irony and took another faltering step toward the courtyard.
Virdon hurried toward the crowd, apprehension and fear knotting his stomach into a tight ball. What in the hell had Pete gotten himself into this time? He couldn’t leave the guy alone for more than a minute without some kind of trouble reaching out and touching him.
He tripped over a large tree root jutting out of the ground, cursed and righted himself, then continued in hot pursuit of Angus. As he rounded the edge of Virgil’s greathouse, he saw several women hurrying in from the nearby potato fields. They were following close behind the three apes who roughly dragged a limping, shirtless and barefoot Burke behind Odiah’s horse. As Alan watched, his friend stumbled and fell sprawling to the ground. Before the younger man could recover, one of the gorillas dismounted , walked to the helpless man, lifted a heavy, ham-sized foot and kicked him viciously in the abdomen. Alan saw Pete double over in pain.
Anger seized him and, before he could think of the consequences, he heard himself yell. “Stop it!” He was well out of the gorilla’s hearing range, but his outcry brought Angus’ head around, and he saw that the human’s eyes were wide.
“Quiet! You’ll only make it worse for him!” Angus hissed, stopping in his tracks and waiting for Virdon to catch up. Putting a hand on the taller man’s shoulder, he squeezed it. “Papa will take care of it,” he said reassuringly, then his face darkened with anger. “Trina’s been warned at least a dozen times to stay out of the forbidden territory. She knew better than to take Pete there, especially today when the apes were here to collect the autumn crops,” he said angrily. “I believe Papa Virgil will be able to negotiate Pete’s punishment down to house restriction – at least until the apes leave. Gunter is an excitable gorilla, but he’s also usually quite reasonable.”
“And what if he doesn’t decide to be reasonable this time? What then?” Virdon looked directly into the worried blue eyes of the assistant overseer and saw the unspoken answer.
“I can’t accept that, Angus. Less than two months ago, Pete was captured and tortured for days. I don’t think he can take anymore right now without breaking … or worse.”
“I’m sorry, Alan, but if you want to save Pete’s life, you mustn’t interfere. Just let Virgil handle it … please …”
Aware that Angus was no longer merely trying to comfort him but was actually physically restraining him, Alan stopped pushing forward and stood suddenly still. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pete stagger to his feet and take two halting steps before the apes spurred their horses again, yanking him forward. He could now discern that Pete’s limp was from what appeared to be a mid-thigh bullet wound that stained the left side of his pants a dark crimson. Burke’s hands were lashed together tightly, with the leftover rope being used as a leash. They pulled and dragged Pete along until they reached a tall tree stump on the edge of the courtyard. There, the three apes converged together for a short period of time.
Virdon saw Burke looking around, scanning the area. The dark-haired man was still stooped over, favoring his sore mid-section, and Alan could see from the way Pete’s head turned – first left, then right – that Burke’s main concern seemed to be locating the blond astronaut. Virdon started forward again, shoving Angus roughly out of the way.
“Pete!” He called out to his friend and, again, Angus shushed him.
This time Neva, Noel, and Arvid who took up places behind and to the side of him joined the assistant overseer. Arvid slid her hand into his and squeezed it. Alan was suddenly aware that he was being systematically surrounded by Virgil’s family, all seemingly intent on a single purpose – keeping him immobile and silent.
Suddenly, Virgil, Andrew, and a very distressed Trina appeared on the scene.
“Be quiet and, no matter what happens, don’t interfere!” the overseer ordered, staring directly into Alan’s eyes. “Neva, Arvid, get all the women and children to the farthest cabin. Close the shutters and keep everyone inside until I give you the all clear signal. Whatever you do, let no one look out! Andrew, go to the south range as fast as you can. John and several other men are working on the fences in that section. They’re the closest. You know what to do.”
“Yes, sir, Papa Virgil,” the boy said, already turning to go.
“And Andrew … hurry!” the old man said quietly and urgently.
“What are you going to do, Virgil?” Alan was almost beside himself.
Virgil ignored him.
“Papa, please don’t let them hurt him. This is all my fault! I should never have told him about the ship. Please, help him!”
“Go with your mother, Trina,” Angus said in a barely controlled voice. “I’ll deal with you later.”
The girl turned large, tear-filled eyes on Virdon. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But he insisted on going there when I told him about the shuttle. He was so excited when he found another disk for you …”
So that was it. In spite of Burke’s frequent sarcastic remarks about his own hope to decipher their ship’s log disk, Pete had risked death to obtain another for him. Two disks. Twice the possibility of success.
“Damn!” Virdon whispered the expletive. Ignoring both Virgil and Angus, he pulled out of Arvid’s grasp and suddenly surged forward, determined to singlehandedly free Pete from Gunter, but Virgil’s strong arms reached out to hold him back.
“Alan, I think I can prevent this from becoming a death sentence, but only if you don’t antagonize them! If you anger them more, it could sway the apes to punish Pete severely. Do you understand? Don’t make it any worse for him … or for yourself … or for the members of my family.”
Sickened at his own helplessness, Alan glanced back at the enfolding drama. He saw two of the apes slide Burke’s tether into a slit in the top of the jagged tree stump and yank hard. Already unsteady on his feet and completely unprepared, his bound hands and arms were jerked upwards while his body and face slammed forcefully into the rough and flaking bark. When Pete’s head snapped back, Alan could see an angry red scrape on his cheek and a hint of blood at his nose.
At this act, Trina gasped.
“Arvid, take her and go!” Virgil ordered. “Now!”
The few humans still watching the scene went ominously silent and slowly began to disperse. Arvid put her arms around the teenager’s shoulders and led her away. Neither woman looked back.
Alan watched them go, then turned again to watch the enfolding drama in the courtyard. He saw Pete’s thin face peek out from between his outstretched arms. The younger man was still searching for Virdon, seemingly more worried about how his friend would react to the sight of his punishment than about what he was going to endure.
Virgil and Angus started forward, and Virdon followed on their heels. They approached the large gorilla cautiously.
“Gunter, please tell me what this new servant of Lord Micah has done to deserve such treatment.”
“New or old, Virgil, your master’s humans should know the rules. This one was in the forbidden territory and, when we commanded him to stop, he tried to run away.”
“Surely, sir, those two indiscretions can be overlooked this once. Pete is an obedient, hardworking servant who is still learning the ways of our …”
“If those were the only infractions he committed, Virgil, then I could overlook them.” Gunter squinted his black eyes and looked darkly at the three humans. “But he attacked a member of my collection team and knocked him from his horse. We thought Odiah had broken his leg. Conduct of this sort is unforgivable. We must make an example of him. If we allow this attack to go unpunished, then other humans may believe that they, too, have the right to assault apes.”
“I see,” Virgil said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I apologize for his actions, Gunter, and beg for leniency. If you wish, we will send a messenger to the northern sector and ask Lord Micah to come and personally take care of Pete’s punishment.”
“That won’t be necessary, Virgil,” Gunter said hurriedly. “I have already decided to forego the death penalty, but only because I have dealt with you for many years. You are a good human and have always been honest and obedient. Lord Micah is lucky to have you to help him care for this sector.”
“Thank you, sir. May I ask what his punishment will be?”
The gorilla scratched his head and turned to his companion. “Since Odiah was the injured party in this human’s assault, it is up to him to dispense discipline. I will leave it in his hands.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to the rotund ape standing near Burke. His chest puffed suddenly with importance. “Thirty lashes, Gunter. And I will inflict them myself.”
“God …” Virdon breathed the anguished word. From his vantage point, he saw Pete lower his head for a moment, then raise it to glance his way. Their eyes met, azure blue to somber brown and, without speaking, Alan felt his friend’s conveyed worry and fear, heard the silent appeal for him not to interfere. Virdon nodded his understanding and then closed his eyes and looked away.
“Virgil … get him out of here … please …” Burke’s weak voice could barely be heard, but his whispered plea was tinged with undisguised urgency.
“All humans will stay exactly where they are. Everyone here will watch this human receive his punishment. Anyone who tries to intervene will answer to me,” Odiah said, peering into the three humans’ faces for any sign of defiance. Finding what he perceived to be only fear of himself, the overweight simian smiled. It had been a long while since he’d been allowed to render corporal punishment, and he knew he was going to enjoy inflicting it, especially to this human who had not only managed to unseat him from his horse but had embarrassed him as well.
The chimpanzee knew that an overt show of discipline was just what was needed for this village. There was a considerable lack of ape supervision on this sector of Lord Micah’s domain and, without their daily presence to lead and correct, humans grew haughty and independent – like this dark-haired one. Yes, Odiah knew he would enjoy punishing this human. He would make of him an example that some of the others would never forget. And it didn’t matter if Gunter had disapproved the death penalty. He had ‘accidentally’ killed humans with only thirty lashes before. He knew that he would do it again … today. Odiah turned to the unblemished back of his helpless prisoner, unfastening and unwinding the horsewhip he habitually carried at his hip. It was short and thick on the handle end, tapering to a knot with tiny tendrils extending outward on the other. He flicked it once tentatively. It had been over a year since he dispensed discipline, and it would take a few practice strokes before the knack came back to him. After several more attempts, the end cracked expertly as it was snapped. Satisfied that he could now administer punishment to the maximum extent, he turned to his commander and received the nod to begin.
The first stroke of Odiah’s whip caught Burke mid-spine with a force so powerful that his unprepared body was slammed into the rough tree stump. The stinging blow tore into his smooth skin, snatching his breath away. The whip’s tendrils curved around to his side and exposed stomach in an obscene embrace. He bit his lip to keep from crying out and tasted blood. They could whip him, but as long as he could stand it, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of letting them know they were hurting him … not while Virdon stood only a few feet away. He knew that his every reaction was being viewed and registered by his friend. He also knew that Virdon was in as much, if not more, danger than he, because Alan would be driven to attack without thinking of the consequences. And the apes would react — also without thinking — and Virdon could end up dead.
Burke swallowed and shored up his self-control. “One down, twenty-nine to go,” he whispered.
Before he could catch his breath, the lash struck him a second, then a third and fourth time. By the eleventh stroke, he couldn’t hold back a whimper; the fourteenth wrung an involuntary cry from his lips.
“Stop it! That’s enough! You’re going to kill him!”
There was a sudden lull in the steady fall of the lash. Through a haze of constant, roller-coaster pain, Burke heard Odiah swear under his breath and then the sounds of a scuffle.
“Pete … hold on …”
Alan’s voice … muffled … strangled … almost as though someone was holding a gag over his friend’s mouth. He struggled to comprehend another sound, something hard impacting with another equally hard object, but then he heard the barn door creak open and bang shut with a finality that made him shiver.
“Continue, Odiah. There will be no further interruptions,” he heard Gunter say, and the stout chimpanzee followed his commander’s instructions with a vengeance.
Numbers fifteen and sixteen fell lower than the others, striking sharply on Burke’s covered buttocks and giving his screaming back another brief respite, but seventeen was dead center again. He arched defenselessly against the blow, trying without success to fold his body backwards as a shield against further strokes. With Virdon no longer an unwilling audience, Burke didn’t care if the apes knew they were hurting him; they were, and he let his cries of pain fall unrestrained.
By the twenty-third stroke, his surroundings began to swim nauseatingly in front of him. His bladder released, but he took no notice and felt no shame.
Number twenty-four struck fiercely, and he finally collapsed, sagging limply from the bonds holding his numb hands. Reality tilted crazily, looming in and out of focus. And then the torment stopped abruptly, and everything went berserk.
Whoomph! Gurgle! Whoomph! Wheeze!
The strange noises registered in his inner consciousness, but the dreamlike haze of outside pain kept his mind clouded and unable to interpret the sounds.
He hard another spine-tingling scream, followed by another Whoomph! A strangled gurgle and, suddenly he was free and falling. His already scraped and bleeding face crashed into the courtyard dirt, and he moaned, vaguely surprised that anything so minor could cause such agony. Turning his head sideways ground the abrasive dirt deeper into his wounds, but self-preservation forced the attempt to move. Blood and sand combined, effectively clogging his nostrils and mouth and preventing him from taking a full breath. He coughed, then lay back, gasping. It was then that he saw the gorilla.
Only inches away, Gunter’s severed head lay in the dirt, the ape’s lifeless black eyes mirroring the disbelief and abject horror of his own death.
Paralyzed with fear, Burke choked on the scream that rose in his throat, and then Gunter and the rest of the world went far, far away.
Virdon came to abruptly with a crystal clear awareness of where and why he was where he was. Remembering how he had got there, however, took several minutes, for his head pounded with a vengeful fury, and his stomach threatened to spill its contents with every tiny movement on his part. It took several aborted tries, but he finally managed to maneuver himself into a shaky sitting position. Glancing around the interior of the barn, he absently brushed at the hay and dust that clung stubbornly to his clothing and fair hair. He gasped as his grooming efforts accidentally pressed a tender spot at the base of his skull. Closer inspection revealed a golf ball-sized lump that throbbed beneath his fingers and intensified the pain already blazing through his skull.
He paused for a moment, waiting until the blinding headache eased to a more tolerable level, then pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. Staggering out the door, he emerged into the incongruous beauty of the early autumn evening.
Scanning the deserted courtyard, he searched vainly for any sign of life, but there was none. The only movement he could discern was the dancing ends of Burke’s tether swaying in the breeze, mute testimony to what had occurred there.
When his search of the courtyard and surrounding grounds yielded no other living being, he moved determinedly toward the greathouse and burst into the front room. It, too, seemed devoid of life, both human and ape and, undecided on where to go next, he simply stood in the middle of the parlor and waited for his head to clear again. After several moments, a noise from the second floor spurred him to vault the stairs, and he bounded them, taking two and three at a time. He emerged at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadowed figure of a man appear in the doorway of the bedroom he and Pete shared.
“Alan! Thank God! I was just on my way to check on you,” John said, grabbing Virdon’s arm and pulling him into the bedroom. “Hurry, we need your help.”
Alan had known that Burke was grievously injured, but nothing could have prepared him for the grisly scene that met him when he followed John into the room.
Still clothed only in the stained, tattered remains of his gray trousers, Pete sprawled on his back in the middle of the bed, semi-conscious and virtually covered from head to toe with dirt and drying blood. Angus sat on the opposite side; tediously working out the taut knots in a cord that still encircled one of Burke’s swollen wrists.
Hesitating only long enough to get a firm grip on his still queasy stomach, Virdon went immediately to Burke and began to prioritize his actions.
“Got it … finally!” he heard Angus proclaim as his own fingers gripped Pete’s cold chin, the only unscathed part of his friend’s grimy face, and gently turned it toward him. He winced at the scraped cheek and blood-caked nostrils. Burke’s brown eyes were slightly open, but neither focused nor followed with the movement.
Alan hunched closer, trying to put himself into Burke’s direct line of vision, but his “Pete? Can you hear me?” evoked no response.
“He looks awake, Alan, but he’s not really here with us,” John said from the doorway, and Virdon turned his head toward the man momentarily, then almost immediately returned his gaze and attention back to his injured friend.
“Help me turn him on his side, Angus. He shouldn’t be lying flat on his injured back like that,” he said, balancing one knee on the bed and reaching out to grasp Burke’s farthest shoulder. “Damn, he’s cold as ice. John, throw some wood on that fire and get this room warmed up. He’s too hurt to bundle up right now, so we’re going to have to turn this room into an oven.”
John obeyed, tossing several large, dry logs into the sickly fire and stoking it into a hot blaze.
On the other side of the bed, Angus threw the liberated cord to the floor distastefully, then aided Virdon in pulling the young astronaut over.
Pete reacted to the movement with a sudden, sharp intake of breath, followed by a long, shuddering moan.
“Easy … easy, Pete. I’m here with you,” Alan whispered soothingly to his friend, but his calm tone masked the rising panic gripping his insides. He peered over the dark-haired man’s body, striving to examine the damage done by Odiah’s whip, but Angus’s expression of disgust already showed the deplorable condition of his friend’s back. “Where the hell is everyone?” Alan said, his voice intensifying, keeping pace with his steadily growing concern for Burke.
An anxious look passed between the brothers-in-law, and John shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“Papa and the others have gone to escort the apes to the northern border. Virgil gave strict instructions for everyone else to stay inside their homes with their families until he returned,” Angus finally said.
“That’s fine and dandy for him, but Pete needs immediate attention. “Where are the others? Arvid and Charlie …”
Angus put out a sympathetic hand and laid it on Virdon’s rigid shoulder. “They’ll return shortly, Alan. John and I were ordered to bring Pete here, untie him, and make him comfortable until Mama and Arvid could get here. And when you regained consciousness, we were to see to your needs also.” The overseer’s son dropped his eyes guiltily. “I’m sorry I had to hit you, but if I hadn’t, Gunter would surely have done worse.”
“I’m grateful to you,” Virdon snapped sarcastically, then, as his friend continued to stare miserably at the floor, Alan regretted his outburst. “I’m sorry, Angus. I didn’t mean to take my anger and worry out on you,” he said remorsefully, “… it’s just that … Pete’s been through so much already and …”
“I understand, Alan,” the assistant overseer interrupted. He hooked a straying strand of long blond hair behind his ear. “What can we do to help you?”
Alan pondered the situation for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “Well, he said, “the balls on our turf right now, and it looks like it’s up to us to run with it.” He pulled up suddenly, realizing how like Peter Burke the words sounded to his own ears. He sighed sorrowfully, then rifled through his memory for recollections of the first aid classes he and Burke had attended as part of their astronaut training eons ago.
“Okay,” he said, “the most important thing we can do right now is get his body temperature up and clean the wounds. Without antibiotics, we can’t take a chance on infection setting in.” He turned back to Angus. “Does Charlie keep any alcohol around?”
“A clear liquid that stings when you put it on an open wound. “
“I don’t know … wait a minute … yes, now that I think about it, I do seem to recall her using something like that on the children’s scrapes. Charlie keeps her medicines and instruments in a small bag behind her sewing basket. I’ll run down and get it.”
“What can I do to help, Alan?” John asked anxiously.
“I’ll need a basin of water, several clean cloths, and something to make bandages out of. Make that very warm water, John,” Alan said as an afterthought.
When both men had departed, Virdon turned back to Pete and made a clumsy, unsuccessful attempt with his large hands to rip the stiffening trouser material away from the clotting bullet wound. His efforts only succeeded in putting unexpected pressure on the injury, wringing a hoarse yelp of protest from Burke.
“I’m sorry … I’m sorry, Pete. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Alan said, frantically apologetic. “I’ve got to get a better view at this, so bear with me for a minute, okay?”
“No more …” The mumbled plea trailed off into another soft moan.
Virdon’s knife sliced effortlessly through the strong, hand-woven material of the gray trousers. The separated parts, from the hem at Burke’s ankle all the way up to his waistband, yielded to the sharp edge and fell away from Pete’s body.
Alan stared at the ugly, puckered hole in his friend’s leg. Located on the side, midway between Pete’s hip and knee, the wound was already ominously red and inflamed. The only encouraging sign, Virdon thought to himself, was that it was no longer bleeding.
Alan pressed gently around the sides of the wound, carefully kneading the flesh for the telltale lump that would signal the bullet’s location, but his examination revealed nothing. His hands encircled the thigh, delicately probing for an exit hole, but again, the search proved fruitless. His hopes that the bullet had somehow, miraculously, exited from Pete’s body were shattered. It was still inside the thigh and pinpointing its location and removing it wasn’t something he looked forward to.
“Angus, while you’re downstairs, would you put a large pot of water on to boil and throw several short kitchen knives in. Make sure they’re pointed and only get the ones that are extremely sharp,” he said loudly enough to be heard by the assistant overseer in the kitchen. He waited for the reply.
When he had heard an affirmative answer from downstairs, he sagged forlornly beside Burke. The knowledge of what had to be done filled him with dread, and he rested his forehead dejectedly in the palms of his hands. Moving them in a steady, circular motion, he rubbed hard at the nagging ache at his temples, fervently wishing that Charlie would arrive and save him from the unpleasant task at hand.
But he knew that every minute that passed left Pete’s body vulnerable to infection, and penicillin was nonexistent in this new world … unless Charlie had found a way to miraculously grow it.
Alan let go with an ironic snort. It was a ridiculous notion. Besides, even if Charlie had, by some genius, created a mutant strain of the wonder drug, it wouldn’t help his friend. Peter Burke had two allergies annotated on his medical files at Eglin Air Force Base back in the 1980s: one was codeine, the other penicillin.
Sighing, Virdon reached out and took one of Pete’s dirty, swollen hands into his own. Shaking his head, he bit back the threatening flood of emotion. “This isn’t going to be fun for either one of us, my friend,” he said. “I know why you did this, but I just can’t for the life of me figure out what made you do it now! That damned disk had been there for nearly half a centur6y. You didn’t have to risk your life to get it for me. In another day or tow we both could’ve gone there, and no one would ever have known …”
Footsteps resounded on the wooden staircase; Angus and John were returning with the equipment to treat Burke. Alan tightened the tenuous grip he held on his emotions. This was neither the time nor the place to break down. Burke needed someone with a clear head and steady hands to get him through the upcoming ordeal. Later, after Pete was out of danger, there would be plenty of time and solitude to vent his grief and anger.
Sighing, the blond astronaut replaced his friend’s hand back on the bed and waited for the two men to rejoin him. The footsteps stopped near the door entrance, but no one entered.
When his inquiry went unanswered, Alan stood and moved stealthily from the bed toward the door. Just as he reached the threshold, Trina stepped forward.
The girl refused to look up. She stared determinedly at the floor. “It’s just me, Alan. I’ve … I’ve brought you something. Pete gave these to me. He wanted you to have them …”
Alan took the tiny disk and even smaller computer card. He said nothing. His anger and resentment at Trina were still at a high level, and he didn’t trust himself to reply.
Trina sniffed and took a trembling breath. She lifted her red-rimmed eyes. “Is he … going to die?”
“I don’t think so.”
Trina appeared relieved. “Can I see him … just for a minute?”
Afraid to let himself speak again, Virdon merely nodded and stepped aside. As he headed toward the chiffonier, he heard a loud gasp as the girl got her first good look at Burke. He deposited the high-priced disk in the top drawer, then turned back to view the scene.
Trina was on her knees by the bed, sobbing heartbrokenly and gently stroking one of Burke’s abused hands. “… sorry … I’m so sorry! Forgive me … please …”
“Trina! Get out of here now!” Angus suddenly ordered from the doorway. “You’ve done quite enough to Pete and Alan already. I believe both men can do without your presence for a while.”
At this, the girl sobbed louder. Humiliated, she stood and ran blindly from the room, almost colliding with Charlie and Arvid as they arrived on the scene.
“Thank God, you’re here,” Alan said to the women as his knees went suddenly weak with relief.
The overseer’s wife said nothing but went straight to Burke. She checked his skin temperature, glanced approvingly at the blazing fire, then turned her attentions to the younger man’s back and leg. Pressing her hands to Burke’s thigh wound, she clucked her tongue worriedly. “Has he been conscious at all?” she asked, moving to the opposing side of the bed to again view Pete’s abused back.
“No, Mama,” Angus replied. “He only seems to react to pain. He doesn’t speak or answer questions.”
“His body is much too cold,” she said to herself. “Even with the fire heating the room, we must do more. John,” she looked up at her tall son-in-law. “I need you to go fill the bathtub with very warm water.” Holing out her hand for the medicine bag, Angus relinquished it, and she pulled a large container out. “Take this,” she said, handing over the bottle to John, “and put about half of it into the water. Make certain there are plenty of towels available! Then hurry back, I’ll need you to help carry him to the tub.”
“Yes, Mama Charlie,” the man said and departed quickly.
“Arvid, you prepare the bed. Add several more blankets and quilts, then pad and protect the top layer for treatment, and don’t tuck the edges in. They’ll need to be ready for a quick removal when we’re finished. He really shouldn’t be moved any more than absolutely necessary. I want the bed and my instruments ready for immediate use as soon as we get back with him,” the old woman ordered. She turned her attentions back to Pete but addressed her only son. “Angus!”
“Yes, Mama. What do you need me to do?”
Charlie eased the soiled remains of Burke’s trousers from his limp body. The injured man reacted to this new disturbance with a silent grimace.
“You will find Trina and apologize to her,” she ordered, wadding the filthy rags into a ball and tossing them purposefully across the room.
“You heard me, Angus,” she said testily to her son, then turned to Virdon. “Help me get these off him, Alan,” she instructed, struggling to remove the remaining briefs. “Your daughter is very young, son,” she continued speaking to Angus as she and Virdon stripped the final article of clothing from Burke’s body.
Throwing a ragged towel over the injured man’s hips, Charlie continued. “And she made an error in judgment. She can be made to face that mistake if you talk to her and make her understand that every human being blunders on occasion. Unfortunately, innocent people sometimes get hurt because of another’s wrong decision. If Pete gets well, your daughter will remember that you understood and comforted her. If you don’t go to her now, and if Pete should …” the old woman looked up at Alan, then back to Angus, “… if the young man should die, then the guilt she feels right now could destroy her, and we could lose both of them. Go to your daughter, Angus. We don’t need you here.”
“Yes, Mama,” Angus said. He tossed a sympathetic look toward Pete, turned a grim expression to Alan, then walked steadfastly from the room.
“Mama, the water’s almost ready.”
“Thank you, John,” Charlie said. “Now help Alan carry Pete to the tub, and be prepared. His reactions to the medicated water may be violent.” She walked toward a puzzled Virdon. “Taking his large hands into her own small ones, Charlie looked compassionately into the tall astronaut’s blue eyes. “Alan, I must treat the hypothermia and potential infection first. It would take over an hour of agonizing torture to bathe your friend here, so complete immersion will be easier on us and more humane for him, but I must be truthful with you. Pete is badly injured. There may even be internal injuries to his kidneys or spine. The animal who beat him concentrated most of the blows to the middle of his back, but we won’t know for sure if there’s damage for several more days. We’ll monitor him closely for symptoms. The superficial wounds to his body, the cuts and scrapes aren’t serious, and I think they will heal if we keep them clean and medicated. Right now though, I’m worried about his leg. I’ve treated wounds of this type before, an d I’m afraid the bullet was hot when it pierced his skin.”
“Why is that bad?” Alan asked. “Wouldn’t the heat make infection less likely?”
“In most cases, yes. The heat of the bullet would cauterize and cleanse bacteria from the wound and further bleeding would normally remove any foreign matter present, prevention infection. Unfortunately, Pete’s wound stopped bleeding long before he fell into the courtyard dirt, and I don’t have to tell you what kind of poisons are present in that particular soil. However, getting back to the bullet, when soft metal enters the body hot, it can stick to bone or muscle or flesh. I believe from my examination that this bullet flattened on impact and is now attached to your friend’s femur. Getting it out,” she looked pointedly at Pete, then back to Virdon, “… well, let’s just say it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for any of us.”
Virdon looked at Burke’s colorless face, and his brow furrowed. “He doesn’t look like he can take too much more right now, Charlie. What’s the worst that could happen if we left the bullet alone?”
Virgil’s wife appeared thoughtful. Finally, “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing … and then again, he could get blood poisoning or an infection, neither of which we have a cure for, and he could die. Or the infection could develop into gangrene, and then we’d be forced to remove the leg.”
Alan stared long and hard at Burke once more, then turned back to Charlie again. “And if we go ahead and remove it now?” he said in a quiet voice.
“We could break or splinter the bone, possibly crippling him for life, or we could damage an artery, and he could bleed to death. And we will have to cauterize the wound. It’s already showing signs of infection. I’m sorry.” The old woman paused to let her words sink in. Then, “He’s your friend, Alan. You make the decision.”
Virdon hesitated for only a moment. “Let’s take it out.”
There was so much noise in the stadium he could barely hear himself think. Everybody … the crowd of spectators, all the players, the sideline crew … were standing and screaming at him. He was on the 45-yard line; it was fourth down with less than 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter; Michigan was behind by three; and he had just caught a ‘Hail Mary’ pass. He hunched over, tucking the precious pigskin under his elbow, and started toward the goal line. Fifty-five yards, and he would win the game. He dodged one, two, then a third would-be tackler. He was on the 35, the 25, the 10, and then touchdown!
The crowd yelled its appreciation, the cheerleaders flipped enthusiastically, his quarterback was grinning. And then someone hit him illegally, a late tackle. He was struck hard in the thigh and, stunned, he went down on one knee. Time slowed to an interminable crawl. He saw the coach walking toward him … no, it was Alan … why was Alan coaching the Michigan Wolverines?
“Don’t spike it, Pete,” ‘Coach’ Alan was saying as he walked in slow motion toward him. “We can’t afford the penalty. Easy. Just put it down easy, boy.”
Confused, Burke turned to look at the football he held protectively in his arms. It didn’t feel like a rough, dimpled oval anymore. He looked around and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Gunter’s severed, bleeding head gaped up at him from between his own two hands. Terrified, he dropped the horrible object immediately. He tried to stand, but his leg refused to hold him and, groaning, he collapsed where he was and lay prone and spread-eagled between the goal posts. The screams of the crowd echoed in his head, shrieks that all at once muffled and then resounded over and over, rising and falling like the wail of a thousand sirens.
Then, suddenly, the stands were empty, and there was only one voice screaming. He knew it was his own.
The coach was calling to him. He roused, struggling to pull himself up, but he didn’t have the strength. His leg throbbed excruciatingly, and every attempt at movement fanned the flames already scorching his back.
A cup was pressed against his lips, and he was forced to swallow the acrid tasting brew. He gagged at the bitterness, but the liquid continued unabated down his throat.
“That’s right, drink it all down, Pete. Charlie says it’ll cut some of the pain and help you to sleep. We had problems removing the bullet, but it’s all over now. You’re going to be all right. Rest. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
Burke opened his eyes to a familiar face. “Hey, coach,” he croaked, “I don’t think … I want to play … this game … anymore.”
“I know, Pete,” came the choked reply. “Neither do I.”
A single lamp and dancing flames in the fireplace provided all the meager light in the hushed bedroom. Abruptly, Virdon stood and stretched the kinks from his stiff body. He walked to the lightly frosted, mesh ‘windows’ and gazed out. Nothing was visible in the still black courtyard below, and he sighed tiredly. Daylight was still more than an hour away. Rubbing at the overnight growth of stubble on his face, he returned to his watchful position by the bed.
Tucked in the comfort of soft handmade sheets, Burke lay as he had for the past nine or ten hours, propped on his side, unconscious and unmoving. Mercifully, the covers hid most of the obvious damage to his body, but the ugly scrapes on his cheek and the black circles of pain under his eyes were stark reminders of what he had already endured. Virdon knew that without the assistance of modern medicine and painkillers, the road to recovery would be almost as agonizing as the original abuse.
He reached out a hand and laid it gently on his friend’s forehead. At last Pete was warm to the touch, but his battered face was bathed in a thin sheen of sweat. Mildly alarmed, Virdon loosened the cocoon of bedding swaddling Burke and folded back the quilt coverlet to allow cooler air to circulate around the prone body. Wringing excess water from a wet cloth, Alan gently sponged his friend’s face until his attentions elicited a frown and a guttural groan of displeasure.
“I’m sorry, Pete. I didn’t mean to disturb you … just trying to keep you comfortable.”
Burke’s brows knitted together, and his eyes quivered beneath the lids.
Virdon touched the wet cloth to his friend’s parched lips. “Thirsty?”
When words wouldn’t come, Pete merely nodded his head.
“I’ll be right back.” Alan walked hurriedly but cautiously, through the stillness of the darkened greathouse to the kitchen. He selected a small mug, filled it half-full with well water and sped back upstairs to the bedroom. “Here you go,” he said, slipping his hand under Burke’s neck and lifting the curly head ever-so-gently. He dripped several droplets of cool liquid carefully through the dry lips, watching closely for any sign of choking or strangling, but Burke swallowed the water easily and appeared distressed only when Alan moved the cup away.
“More …” he croaked weakly.
“Not just yet, Pete. Let’s see how it stays down, okay?” Alan said, sliding his friend’s head back onto the pillow.
He hated not being able to give Burke more, but Charlie’s instructions before retiring for the evening had been explicit: “Only tiny sips of water when he’s conscious; change his position every hour; clean the wounds twice during the night; don’t let him overheat or get chilled; check for fever hourly; and call me if there’s any change.” He had memorized them and dutifully followed them to the letter.
He retrieved the cloth again, dipped it into the wash basin, wrung it out, and once again dabbed it carefully over Burke’s swollen lips. “Is that a little better?” he asked in a low voice.
“Mmm hmmm,” Pete grunted gratefully. His body relaxed, and he lay so quietly still that Virdon thought he had fallen asleep.
The blond astronaut returned the cloth to the pan, but when he turned back around, he saw that Burke had finally opened his eyes and now set an unwavering stare on Virdon’s every move.
“Still with me?” brought a slight nod, and Alan moved his chair closer to the bed.
“Guess …” Burke gasped out unexpectedly, “I really … screwed up this time.”
Virdon let a faint hint of a smile play on his lips; it didn’t quite reach the pinched sadness of his eyes. “Well, it wasn’t exactly one of your best laid plans,” he agreed, trying to keep his voice light. “How do you feel, Pete?”
“Stupid …” the younger man mumbled, grimacing as he tried to move his throbbing leg. “Very … very stupid.”
Alan ignored the self-reproach. “Can I get you anything else?”
“A … Tylenol might help … but I doubt if any drug stores are … open this time of night …” Burke said haltingly. His face suddenly contorted as daggers drove their cruel, stinging blades unexpectedly into his tender thigh. He recoiled against the mounting pain, but his jerky movements only heightened the intensity, spreading the torment to his already abused back. Cramping muscles tore at his self-control, and he moaned and gnashed his teeth against the onslaught.
“Easy … easy …try to lie still. Don’t fight it so hard Pete, you’ll just make it worse,” Alan soothed, reaching out and taking the trembling hands in his own.
Burke felt himself slipping … sliding …. drowning in a sea of pain and, desperate for a lifeline to hang on to, he vise-gripped Virdon’s hands. A strangled sob escaped through his clenched teeth.
“Relax now … easy … hold on, and I’ll give you something for the pain.” Virdon detached himself from Pete’s death grip and retrieved the cup of Charlie’s magic potion. It was almost empty. Swearing under his breath, he turned a quick, worried glance back at Burke as another rasping groan erupted from the dark-haired man.
“Charlie!” Frantic with worry and unmindful of the time of day, Virdon yelled the old woman’s name and started purposefully toward the door. It opened from the other side before he could reach it.
Clad only in her nightgown, Arvid stepped gingerly into the room. “Alan, what’s the matter?” She took one look at Burke and paled. “How long has he been like this?”
“Too long,” Alan said, returning to Pete’s side and taking the man’s blindly groping hand in his own again. “And we’re all out of Charlie’s pain medicine.”
“There’s more downstairs in the kitchen. I’ll be right back,” Arvid said and left hurriedly.
‘Hold on … hold on, Pete,” the tall blond said as Burke arched helplessly against another onslaught.
“Here it is,” Arvid said, returning and rushing to Virdon’s side.
Virdon took the mug, lifted it to Burke’s lips, but his own shaky hand allowed too much to pour into the slack mouth. The bitter liquid overflowed, dribbling down the sides of the bruised face. Pete strangled and coughed horribly, fighting to get his breath. Virdon cursed his own clumsiness, then made ready to try again when a soft hand reached out to him, touched his shoulder hesitantly.
“Let me do it?” Arvid whispered.
Virdon hesitated for only a moment, then relinquished the medicine. He watched in silence, marveling at the way Arvid tended Pete. She spoke soothingly, telling him everything she was doing before she did it. He saw Pete’s body relax as the young astronaut listened to her hypnotic voice. Arvid fed the medicine, one spoonful at a time, into his injured friend. It took a long time, but when she finished, Burke had swallowed all.
Arvid rested the empty cup on the bed table, retrieved a cloth and tenderly bathed Burke’s ashen face.
“Better now?” Virdon asked in a concerned voice.
Although still visibly fighting pain, Burke managed a curt nod.
“When the last time you cleaned and medicated the wounds, Alan?” Arvid asked quietly.
“I haven’t yet. Why? Is infection setting in?”
“No, and that’s why we need to do it … now … so none of his wounds will become infected,” she said apologetically.
Virdon closed his eyes, sighed despairingly and, although reluctant to disturb his friend again, he acquiesced. “Okay, but let’s get it over with quickly. He’s been through enough hell already.” Positioning himself on the side of the bed, he eased Burke carefully into a sitting position.
“Now what …” Burke asked thickly.
“Take it easy, Pete. Arvid’s going to clean your wounds and change the dressings. Just hold on for a few minutes. This won’t take long.”
“ … torture time … again …” Burke muttered, resting his cheek on Virdon’s shoulder.
Arvid retrieved fresh water and bandages and took her position at the bedside, but her ministrations were interrupted by Charlie’s sudden appearance.
“I’ll take over now, Arvid. You can go downstairs.”
Replacing her daughter, Charlie continued in her no-nonsense voice. “You’re not needed here, Arvid. Get dressed, go downstairs and start breakfast. I’ll tend to Pete.”
“Yes, Mama,” Arvid said, not quite keeping the resentment from her voice. She flashed Alan another apologetic look and quickly left the room.
Charlie acted as though she hadn’t noticed. She examined the young astronaut’s back and shook her head. Meeting Alan’s gaze over her patient’s shoulder, she whispered, “Hold him tightly.” To Burke, she said, “Okay, Pete. Just a few more minutes of discomfort and then you can rest. Hold on now, this may sting a bit.”
Virdon held Burke’s limp body firmly, yet carefully. The apes’ abuse had left so few unscathed places that he could only hope that his gentle embrace didn’t add to his friend’s suffering.
Charlie cleansed Burke’s wounds quickly and efficiently. Even so, Pete reacted to her treatment by stiffening in Virdon’s arms. He flinched and jerked with every touch of the medicated cloth and tried unsuccessfully to smother his misery in Alan’s broad shoulder.
Finally, as the overseer’s wife began to apply a foul-smelling ointment to the young astronaut’s raw flesh, Burke’s body went slack in Virdon’s arms.
“I think he’s passed out, Charlie.”
“Good! He needs the rest. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty in my life, Alan, but this is just about the worst example …” She couldn’t finish and mutely shook her head. “I just don’t understand how any thinking being can do this to another.” She pulled back and wiped her hands on a dry towel. “You can lay him back now. I need to check his leg.”
Alan eased the limp body down, maneuvering Pete gently onto his side. “There’s just one problem with your logic, Charlie. Apes believe that we can’t think or feel. We’re even less than animals to them.”
There was a lull in their conversation as Charlie examined and treated Burke’s thigh. She bathed the wound, then placed a wad of soft cloth on top of it and encircled it with a linen strip.
“There. That should be all right for a little while,” she said. She stood erect, carefully maneuvering her ancient bones into an upright position, then turned her attention to smoothing and straightening Burke’s bedding.
“Is he going to be all right, Charlie?” Alan’s voice was low.
“If he continued as he is and doesn’t get an infection … if his kidneys and his spine are undamaged … then I believe he will fully recover. It’s going to take quite a bit of time …” She raised her gaze and her eyebrows. “That’s the best I can offer you right now.”
Nodding almost to himself, Virdon sucked in a tired breath, held it, and then let it gush out. He was dead dog tired, teetering on the edge of exhaustion. He felt himself swaying and reached out, catching the top of the bedpost just in time.
Charlie rushed to his side. “Are you all right, Alan?”
Virdon closed his eyes and nodded.
“We’ve all been so worried about Pete that we forgot to worry about you. Sit down. I’ll send Neva up with some breakfast. When you’ve eaten every bite, I’ll find you a vacant bedroom and you can get some sleep.”
“But, Charlie, I can’t leave Pete right now. What if he wake sup and asks for me?”
“Then we’ll wake you,” the overseer’s wife said. “Arvid and Trina will care for him until you’ve rested. They’re both quite capable.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly, then exited the room.
It was early afternoon when Virdon roused from his nap. True to her word, Charlie had clucked over him until he had his fill of breakfast. She then steered him to another bedroom and ordered him to lie down. At first he resisted, but Virgil’s wife was a headstrong woman who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. He decided to humor her by lying down for just a few minutes, but when he let his tired body recline on the soft, downy mattress, he fell immediately into an exhausted, dreamless slumber.
Hours later, rested and ravenous again, he awoke and twirled his pasty tongue around the inside of his dry mouth. Personal hygiene and food, he decided, were Priorities Two and Three. Priority One lay in a bed down the hall. He yawned sleepily and hurried to check on Burke’s condition.
He knew something was wrong when he stepped into the silent room. On one side of the bed, Arvid bathed Pete’s bare arms and chest with a wet sponge; on the other, Trina laid a damp compress on his friend’s scraped forehead.
The tall, blond woman didn’t take her eyes from her task. “He’s running a high temperature, Alan,” she said matter of factly. “We’re trying to bring it down.”
Virdon was across the room in two strides of his long legs. He examined him with his eyes. Pete’s skin was dry and taut as a snare drum, his face flushed a deep red. Alan lightly touched Burke’s uninjured shoulder. The simple act told him the young astronaut’s fever was dangerously high.
Ignoring Trina, he retrieved the already warm cloth from Burke’s forehead and replaced it with a fresh, cool one. “Where’s Charlie?” he asked irritably.
Arvid pulled her hair away from her face and sighed wearily. “She’s out with Papa Virgil. There’s a medicinal plant that grows in the woods on the other side of the corn field. It’s sometimes useful with fevers.”
“Why didn’t someone wake me?”
“Grandma told us not to. She said to let you rest because Pete would need you later,” Trina said, replacing Alan’s folded cloth once more.
“Do you know when they’ll be back?” Virdon asked, again reaching to remove the compress.
Trina’s hand stopped him. “I just changed that,” she said, openly annoyed at his continued interference.
Glowering at the girl, Virdon stood his ground.
She returned his unwavering stare with a fierce look of her own.
“Okay, okay … don’t fight …” a very weak voice suddenly said. “There’s … enough of me to … go around …”
Startled, both Trina and Virdon glanced down at Burke. The dark-haired man was visibly fighting to keep his heavy eyelids open. His breaths came in short, labored gasps, yet he managed a wan smile at the ridiculous standoff above him.
Embarrassed, Alan quickly removed his hand from the compress and flashed Trina an open look of remorse. “Truce?”
The girl’s face reddened, and she smiled shyly up at him. “Truce,” she agreed.
Virdon knelt beside the bed and gripped his friend’s scalding hand. “How’re you doing, Pete?”
“… hot, Al … too damned hot …” Burke mumbled, his tenuous grip on consciousness slipping.
“I know, I know,” Virdon said soothingly. “But you’ve got to hang on. Charlie’s out searching for some kind of wonder weed that’ll cut the fever.” Alan glanced up at Arvid who now stood silently beside him. Her eyes were swollen from lack of sleep, and she looked pale and exhausted. On the opposite side of the bed, an equally fatigued Trina again freshened Burke’s compress. “Boy, some guys have all the luck, Pete. You know, I’d trade places with you in a minute. I’d love to be lying there with nothing to do and have two beautiful women waiting on me hand and foot.”
Gathering together the last vestiges of his rapidly dwindling strength, Burke expended it all in one whisper. “No … you wouldn’t …”
They were the last coherent words Virdon heard him say for a long, long time.
The rumors had all been true; it was like an oven in Hell. Smokeless, soundless flames soared around him everywhere, licking hungrily at his bare legs and feet. He squirmed helplessly, trying in vain to move away from their burning touch, but his efforts were to no avail. He stood uncomfortably on tiptoe, bound and helpless. His hands were pulled upward and chained to a tall metal beam. The scene seemed somehow familiar, and he found himself growing increasingly apprehensive.
“So! There you are, human!” a chilling, unrecognizable voice said. “Ready for your punishment?”
Whistling sounds crescendoed into the obscene cracks of a whip, and Burke cringed involuntarily.
“Who are you?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the continuous snapping noises.
“You know who I am, Pete,” the disembodied voice said as the whip grew closer with every successive crack.
“No … I don’t know …” he said, but the rest of his sentence was cut off as the lash finally found its target. The torture was a two-edged sword with agony coming from both sides. He felt the unseen whip bite into his flesh over and over again, and with each ensuing blow, his body was propelled into the white hot metal beam. At last the impacts ceased, and he hung ragdoll limp, his naked torso seared and bleeding. Laughter pierced through the red haze of pain, assaulting his ears with maniacal glee. Someone grabbed his hair and pulled hard, jerking his drooping head backward so abruptly he almost blacked out. His stomach lurched sickeningly, and he tried to swallow but his throat had constricted shut. He drew in a ragged breath and forced his eyes to open and focus on the face in front of him. “Now do you recall my name, Pete?” the blurry face said. “Pete? Can you hear me, Pete?” He struggled with the indistinct visage, blinking furiously until the fuzzy picture coalesced into a familiar, hairy face.
“Galen!” he gasped in stunned surprise. But his simian friend did not react, and the evil smile remained frozen on the terrifying features. Suddenly, the flames surrounding him grew hotter and higher, rising in a crimson tidal wave of encroaching heat. It grew ever closer, reaching out and delivering indiscriminate jabs of torment . He writhed in the burning agony, crying out as the flames reached out to consume him completely. The last thing he heard before Hell disintegrated around him was the malevolent, echoing laughter of Galen. It reverberated around him, growing increasingly in volume until, finally, the sound drowned out everything, and he saw and heard no more.
A week had dragged by since the awful fever vented its all-consuming fury on Burke. Trapped in a nightmarish web of delirium, he hovered on the threshold of life and death for three days and nights; then, on the evening of the fourth day, the fever finally relented, and the household breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Since then, the almost constant pain had dwindled to only an occasional twinge, but the soreness persisted, making any and all body movements extremely uncomfortable. Pete’s appetite was back, boosted by the return of his senses of smell and taste, and his sarcastic streak had been restored completely intact.
Only his energy level lagged behind. A pervading weakness held on, stubbornly frustrating his efforts to walk or stand or even sit for any length of time without tiring. He made headway, improving day-by-day, but his progress, while practically miraculous to Virdon and Virgil’s family, seemed unsatisfactory to his own eyes.
He sulked over his one major accomplishment for the day: hobbling on crutches all the way to the bathroom on his own. The fact that he hadn’t managed to make it all the way back alone dug deeply into his self-esteem. Trina had rescued him and escorted him back to bed where, totally drained, he collapsed and napped the rest of the morning and on into early afternoon.
When Virdon arrived, hungry, cold and tired from his daily outdoor chores, Pete was in a sullen mood.
“So,” the blond man said, yanking off his work gloves and blowing on his frozen fingers. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”
“How would you feel if you couldn’t even walk to and from the bathroom on your own?”
Virdon tugged the crew-neck pullover over his head, folded it, and placed it in the upper drawer of the chiffonier. “I’ve been there once or twice myself. I know how you feel,” he soothed. He sank heavily into Charlie’s comfortable rocker and had started to pull his boots off when there was a faint knock at the door.
“Alan? Pete? It’s Arvid. Can I come in?”
“It’s open,” Pete said, frowning as the tall, blonde woman entered. “Is it torture-time again already?”
Alan rolled his eyes. “Don’t mind him, Arvid. He’s just getting back to his normal, sunshine-filled personality.”
“Still impatient to get well, Pete? Well, I don’t blame you. It’s no fun being sick for so long,” Arvid said with a sympathetic glance. “But I’m here to let you know dinner’s nearly ready, and I’ll be back in a little while to help you with it.”
“I don’t need any help with my dinner, thank you,” Burke said curtly.
“Pete, you don’t have to be rude. Arvid’s done nothing but try to help you.” Virdon interjected. He walked over and stood beside Virgil’s middle daughter. “He didn’t mean it the way it sounded, Arvid.”
“I know he didn’t,” Arvid said patiently. Impulsively, she leaned forward and brushed her lips against Virdon’s mouth. “But, thank you for caring about my feelings anyway.”
Burke watched as Virdon pulled back a little too abruptly from Arvid’s harmless kiss. But she appeared not to notice and merely patted the blond astronaut affectionately on the cheek, then turned her warn smile to Burke.
“Get some rest, Pete. It’ll do wonders for your attitude. I’ll be back in a little while with your dinner. If you need anything before then, just give me a yell.”
“I will,” the younger man said gratefully, “and thank you for understanding.”
She beamed. “And you get some rest too, Alan,” she ordered teasingly. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s been well over a week since you actually slept through the night.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alan said in an amused voice.
Winking at Pete, Arvid headed out the door. Virdon stared after her for a long, silent moment.
“Alan,” Pete struggled to pull his sore body into an upright position, failed in mid-try, and settled for propping himself up on an elbow. “Why don’t you stop fighting it? There’s no harm in letting yourself feel something for Arvid. She’s a warm, lovely person who obviously cares a lot about you.”
“I know, Pete, and I like her very much. Too much to lead her on and end up hurting her. After all, I’m a married man with a family. I can’t afford to get involved with another woman right now.”
Burke sighed wearily and let his arm relax. He sank weakly back into the softness of the thick pillows. “You know, I’m getting pretty tired of the same old tune, Alan. You’re NOT a married man anymore. Whether you want to face the facts or not, you’re a widower now. Sally and Chris have been dead for hundreds … hell, thousands, of years, and I just wish you’d stop deceiving yourself about getting back to them someday. It’s not ever going to happen.”
Although Virdon was used to Burke’s occasional derisive lectures about his own hopes of one day returning to their own time, the stress and worry of the past weeks combined to form an increasing resentment, and Alan found himself wincing inwardly at the hurtful words. Outwardly, he forced himself to maintain an unruffled tolerance of Burke’s ridicule. “You really don’t believe there’s even a remote chance that we’ll ever find a way back to our own time, do you?” he said quietly.
“No, I don’t, and I think it’s kinda silly for you to keep clinging to the fantasy. Come on, Alan, we’ve been here over eight months, and we’re no closer to finding a solution than we were eight minutes after we got here.”
A wisp of a smile played at the blond man’s lips. “If you don’t really believe we’ll ever make it back, Pete, why did you risk you life to get another disk?”
Burke pondered for a moment. “I don’t know really … I suppose it’s because deep down inside of me, there’s this little bitty shred of hope that maybe, just maybe, you might be able to pull it off. It’s kinda like when I was nine hears old, and all the kids at school said there was no Santa Claus. I’d already known for years there wasn’t one, but every Christmas Eve, I’d still leave out the milk and cookies … just in case. Alan, the logical part of me says it’s never going to happen. Can’t you see that too?”
“I see … . but my heart says something else. Even if there’s only a one-in-a-million chance, Pete, I’ll take it. I’ll risk death to get back to Sally and Chris.”
“Then Galen and I will die right along with you,” Burke said bitterly. “Urko and Zaius will win, and all this will have been for nothing.”
Alan began to pace the length of the room, his stone-faced appearance evidence of a growing inner turmoil. Virdon was an easygoing, slow-to-anger man, and Burke knew the ominous signs of impending rage. He ignored them.
“Look, Alan, we’re not ever going to find a working computer to decode either one of those disks. And even if we did, there’s no guarantee we’ll learn how to reverse the process. Besides, who’s going to build an aircraft that can survive what the last one barely made it through? And who’s going to make the rockets to lift it?’ Pete’s voice rose in volume. “Where are we going to process our fuel? And what do we wear for protective head gear … wooden bowls?” Burke raised himself up on two elbows, again struggling to pull his sore body into a sitting position. When he failed in his second attempt, he pounded his fist on the mattress in helpless frustration. Pain shot through his body, lending a cruel inflection to his voice. “What happened to us was a quirk of fate, and it’s not ever going to happen again. We’ve been there, done that, and got the fucking T-shirt! Now, let’s both of us get on with our lives!”
The look of consummate pain cemented in Virdon’s face forced Burke to look away. Instantly contrite and ashamed, he opened his mouth to blurt out an apology, but when he turned back to face the blond astronaut, he was paralyzed, shocked at his own outburst.
“I … I think I’ll run down to the barn and see if there’s anything I can do to help Angus. He’s usually feeding and bedding down the animals this time of day,” Virdon said in a stunned, emotionless voice. He pulled open the chiffonier drawer, grabbed his pullover and shrugged into it again.
“Alan … I …” Pete finally found his voice, but his friend was already heading out the door.
“Call Arvid if you need anything, Pete. I’ll be in the barn.” Virdon threw the words over his shoulder haphazardly, and then he was gone.
The sudden deafening silence only made Burke more acutely aware of the stark void left by his friend’s departure, and he chastised himself for the unnecessary tantrum. Since his brainwashing sessions with Wanda and his physical torment at the hands of Odiah, Burke found himself growing increasingly more and more out of control. He was aware that the underlying cause of his explosions of temper centered on his own feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and suppressed anger, but he also knew there was no excuse for taking these frustrations out on his best friend. Shame and guilt combined to bring the threat of tears to his eyes.
Determined to make amends and using sheer willpower alone, the young astronaut forced his body into a sitting position and edged his legs over the side of the bed. The severe pain and enormous effort brought the threatening tears to fruition, and he felt one slowly trickle down his cheek. Indignant, he swiped at it, then searched fervently for his pants and shoes. None were in plain sight, so he reached for the homemade crutches, hand-whittled and so proudly presented to him only the day before by the man he had just pierced with his sharp words. Again, remorse spurred him on, giving him the strength and incentive to stand on his unsteady, painful legs. Ten minutes later, dressed and covered in sweat and self-satisfaction, Burke quietly made his unobtrusive, torturous way down the stairs and out the door.
The sky was overcast, making the late November afternoon feel cold and biting. He immediately regretted that he hadn’t taken the time to put on his warm mouton cape. Shivering, he limped his way across the courtyard, taking great care to avoid any likelihood of viewing the tree stump where Odiah had whipped him over a week before. Arriving at the double doors of the barn, he rested for a moment against the whitewashed wood, then lifted the latch and fell through the door.
“Pete?” Startled, Alan looked up from his task, his voice filled with alarm and concern.
Panting with exertion and suddenly overcome with a bone-weary weakness, Burke collapsed heavily onto the first available bale of hay.
“What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?” Aghast, Alan hurried to his friend’s side.
Burke wiped at the film of cold, sticky sweat covering his forehead and, when words wouldn’t get past his deep gasps for breath, he closed his eyes tiredly and mutely shook his head.
Virdon pulled off his own crew-neck sweater and tugged it over Pete’s perspiration-soaked hair. “Just look at your back! It’s bleeding again. I swear, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. Sometimes you’re just like a little kid. You never think things through, just go barreling headlong into trouble …” He shook his head in futility as he finished fitting Pete’s lifeless arms through the sleeves of the sweater.
“… and I also have a problem with saying the wrong things … at the wrong time … to good friends.” Pete finally got the words out. He suddenly shivered as the howling wind blew its icy breath through the drafty, old barn. “I’m so sorry, Alan. I said some very hurtful things, and I didn’t mean then.”
“I know you didn’t,” the tall blond said. “And I shouldn’t have gotten upset and left you alone. You’re still weak and sick, and so much has happened in so little time … we’re both having problems dealing with it all. And then there’s Galen. Something has to have happened to him or he would’ve been here long ago.”
“I know,” Pete sniffed and wiped his dripping nose on the back of his hand.
Alan reached into his pocket, retrieved a handkerchief, and handed it to Burke. “Here,” he said, “let’s get you back to the greathouse.”
“Wait a couple of minutes, Alan,” the younger man said. “I really don’t think I’m up to trying to make it back just yet.”
“All right then. You just rest there, and I’ll finish feeding these animals. I sent Angus home; he’s got a devil of a cold and shouldn’t be out in this weather any more than you.” Virdon examined Pete with his eyes and, still worried, he picked up the pitchfork and began to hurriedly fling hay into the stall.
The injured man reached inside himself, willing strength to return to his useless arms and legs but, again, his body turned deaf ears to his orders. He sighed, grudgingly accepting his frailty, and glanced around at the encased farm animals.
All occupants seemed to sense that their dinner meal was forthcoming for raspy baa’s and soft moo’s floated anticipatingly throughout the barn. Behind him, a large gray mare pushed her long, slender nose over the wooden slats and snorted a puff of warm, tickling air at the back of his head.
Burke turned carefully and smiled at the animal. This time when he directed it, his hand obeyed, and he raised it to pet the silken nose. He rubbed gently until the horse, eyeing Virdon’s approach with a bucket of oats, pulled away and trotted to he feed bucket on the other side of the stall.
Energy was slowly returning to his limbs, and Pete turned back around and began to force his sore muscles to pull his body into an erect sitting stance. His hands pushed down on the bale of hay as he scooted his rump backward into a more comfortable position and, when he finished, he felt a mounting sense of accomplishment. Cold air filtered in again, catching him on the nape of the neck and swirling around inside his clothing. He shivered, reaching up to pull Alan’s sweater tighter around his neck. When he did, he noticed several dark smudges on the palm and fingers of his left hand. He stared for a long, thoughtful moment at the discoloration.
Virdon stopped in mid-pour. “You okay?” The older man’s voice held a hint of anxiety.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. Getting my strength back slowly, but there’s a problem here. Take a closer look at that gray mare you’re feeding, will you?”
The tall blond emptied the rest of the oats into the trough and hung the empty bucket on a wooden peg. He examined the horse from front to back. “What about her?”
“Check out the snout, especially around the nose.”
“She’s got it buried in her food … no … now I can see. There’s a smudge of white in the middle of her nostrils.”
“Damn …” Burke whispered the expletive. “I didn’t dream it after all. They did it. they really did it!”
“Did what? Who? What are you taking about?”
“Virgil had them killed, Alan! All three of them!”
“Your solo to the barn must’ve affected more than just your muscles, Pete, because you’re not making any sense at all.”
“All this time, I thought it was just another one of my nightmare,” Burke said with a faraway look in his eyes, “but it wasn’t. Now I know they really did kill them.”
“Will you please tell me what the hell you’re talking about!” Virdon said in a high, exasperated voice.
“Listen to me, Alan,” Burke said excitedly. “I don’t really remember too much of what went on after Angus slugged you and took you into the barn, but I do recall hearing some very strange noises, and then, all of a sudden, the beating stopped, and the apes just … weren’t there anymore. I remember falling and not being able to get a breath. My nose was clogged so I had to turn myself over in order to breathe. It hurt like hell, and I almost lost it right there, but I was lucid enough to know what I saw … and I saw him …” He shuddered in horror at the memory.
“Gunter … or what used to be Gunter. It was just his head, Alan, lying sideways on the ground, and he was staring at me with the most godawful expression on his face. And then I must’ve lost consciousness. Later, when everyone agreed that after the fun and hilarity of beating me, the apes had gone on to Lord Micah’s, I just assumed I’d been hallucinating. But, Alan, if they had really left here on their own, they would’ve taken the same animals that they came here with. And that mare is snow white under all that charcoal.” He pointed to another horse on the opposite side of the barn. “And I’ll bet beneath that dappled gray coat over there, you’ll find another white horse, the same one I was riding when they shot me. Those two animals are the matched set Odiah drove into the courtyard.”
Although Virdon shook his head in disbelief, he still walked determinedly to the second horse, grabbed his handkerchief and rubbed the animal’s side vigorously. The cloth came away soiled a dark gray. “Now why would they do something like that and then try to disguise it? It doesn’t make any sense at all. Virgil would never allow murder.”
“How do you know? Alan, what do we really know about Overseer Virgil except what he and his family have told us?”
“Well, it’s obvious he’s a good, caring man, Pete, a man of integrity and scruples, and he and Charlie keep this place running like a well-oiled military machine, with Lord Micah as the commanding general.
“Well, since you brought it up, don’t you think it’s a little bit weird that we’ve been here nearly tow months, and we’ve never even laid eyes on that gentle-ape? What kind of all-powerful ape master leaves this much land and everything on it in control of one human slave? Don’t you think he’d at least send a lieutenant or an assistant to check on things every once in a while.”
Virdon shrugged. “I have to admit I’ve wondered about it myself. But, Pete, even the auctioneer and the villagers seemed familiar with Lord Micah. And Gunter acted as though he’d met him before. I just don’t know. Virgil seems so convincing in everything he says and does. Are you absolutely sure about what you saw?”
“Positive. While you snoozed in the barn and I was … otherwise occupied … Virgil and his family murdered those three apes and got rid of their bodies. But they wouldn’t dispose of the horses. They’re valuable property.” Burke sniffed and wiped his nose again. “You know, I think this cold air hasn’t just cleared my sinuses. It’s blowing away most of the fuzzies too. I think I’m actually beginning to see the whole picture now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just don’t buy this lord Micah baloney anymore. Do you?”
Alan met Burke’s gaze knowingly, then nodded. “I agree with you. If we put all the evidence together, it all points to just one very obvious conclusion: This place is owned and operated by Virgil, Charlie and company.”
“And I’ll bet there never even was a Lord Micah. That sly old geezer … Virgil’s been screwing the entire ape population for nearly half a century, and they’ve been thanking him for it. Hey, I’m impressed! How come we didn’t think of something like that?”
“Ours was the ‘second coming’ and we were announced! I’ll bet when Virgil and Charlie landed here, they crashed in a deserted area, and no one ever saw them arrive. All they had to do was blend in for a while, learn how the system worked, and after that it was probably pretty simple for them to lay the groundwork for something like this.”
“Amazing!” Burke said with a grin. “But, now that we know, what do we do about it?”
“What would you want to do? Expose him?”
“No, I’d never do anything to harm Virgil or his family, not after all they’ve done for us.”
Virdon returned to his hay pitching and tossed a load into another nearby stall.
“Would you say that Virgil killed those three apes to save my life?”
“I can’t think of any other reason.”
“Well, there are no other apes anywhere around here, right? And the auctioneer and villages didn’t seem to want to ever come near this place. Do you think it might be standard operating procedure for Virgil and his family to kill off any apes that happen to wander onto the sector?”
“What are you getting at, Pete?”
The tall astronaut stopped in mid-toss. “What about him?”
Burke hurried on. “Well, just follow my line of thinking on this, Al. Galen should’ve been here weeks ago, right?”
“And every time you’ve mentioned leaving this place, Virgil has either changed the subject or he clams up and won’t discuss it further. What if Galen did show up here and … what if Virgil wasn’t ready to part with us … and what if Virgil already fixed it so he wouldn’t have to …”
“I don’t like what you’re inferring, Pete.”
“Neither do I. So what do we do about it?”
“What can we do? You have to get well before we can leave here.” Virdon said, thrusting the pitchfork into a nearby haystack. He stood for a moment, both hands resting on his hips, and rocked back and forth on the heels of his boots. “Think you can make it back across the courtyard yet?”
“I’m still a little shaky, but I feel stronger now.”
“Okay,” Virdon said, offering his arm. “I’ll get you settled back into bed at the greathouse, and then I think it’s time both of us had a little heart-to-heart with our fellow astronauts.
Burke accepted his friend’s help and pushed himself into a standing position. He hung onto Alan’s arm, steadying his wobbly legs and balancing on a single crutch. He retrieved the second crutch and, together, the two astronauts made maddeningly slow progress across the courtyard.
As they entered the greathouse, Arvid met them in the parlor. She chastised Pete for jeopardizing his recovery and scolded Virdon for allowing Burke to leave the house, then helped the tall blond maneuver the exhausted man back upstairs and into bed.
Shivering with cold and debilitating weakness, Burke began coughing so forcefully that Arvid raced to the kitchen for warm chamomile tea. She returned with two steaming cups, watching closely as Burke managed to gulp down a few swallows and, both she and Virdon relaxed only when the younger man slid into a fretful sleep.
Collapsing in the comfortable rocking chair, Alan sipped the warm tea and watched silently as Arvid fussed over Pete’s bedding. She fluffed the pillows, smoothed the wrinkled sheets, and shoved the guilt ends under the mattress. Straightening from her task, she picked up Pete’s barely touched cup of tea and prepared to leave.
“Dinner’s almost ready, Alan, if you want to wash up now. I guess it’ll be a while before Pete’s ready to eat. Can I get you anything else?”
“How about some answers,” Virdon said, placing the teacup on the nightstand and folding his hands together in his lap.
Curious, Arvid paused and looked pointedly at Virdon. “What kind of answers?” she asked.
“Well, for one, where did Gunter and his two compadres really go when they left here?”
There was a pause as Arvid seemed taken aback, then the woman laughed nervously. “Well, they went on to Lord Micah’s, of course, like Papa Virgil said. Why do you ask?”
Virdon ignored her question and forged on. “Well, how about this Lord Micah? Does he really exist or is he just a figment of your father’s creative genius?”
“I don’t understand what you mean, Alan. Why are you asking these question?”
“No more. You really shouldn’t speak of such things,” she said, moving for the door. “If you have any more questions, ask my father. Now wash up and hurry down to dinner,” she called back from the hallway. Then she was gone.
“Think it was something you said?” Burke mumbled from his prone position.
“Probably,” Virdon replied, sluggishly pulling off his work boots. “And why are you eavesdropping when you should be asleep?”
“Who could sleep with the two of you chattering like a couple of chimpanzees!”
“Sorry. I’m leaving now. Get some rest, and we’ll both take this subject up with Charlie and Virgil in the morning.”
“’kay,” Burke grunted, almost unintelligibly.
On impulse, Virdon checked his friend’s forehead, nodded to himself in satisfaction. Burke was cool to the touch with no sign of the fever’s return. He pulled the quilt up, tucking it firmly around Pete’s shoulders, and then headed down to dinner.
Virdon and most of Virgil’s family had just sat down at the table when an excited Andrew burst through the kitchen door. “Apes!” he shouted.
Angus and Virdon were already bolting from their seats when Virgil held up his hands and motioned for calm. Both men sat back down but maintained their alert positions.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Virgil said collectedly. “How many, Andrew? Gorillas, chimps or orangutans? Were they on foot or horseback?”
“Foot,” the teenager said, reaching to catch his breath. “Gorillas, I think. And I’m not sure how many.”
“Well, how many did you see, son?” Angus asked, trying to be patient and failing.
“I think two, but I could be wrong. The light’s getting pretty back outside, and the shadows are mixing together.”
“All right then, we’ll plan for at least two.”
The women began to slowly gather the untouched food from the table. Neva revived the fire in the stove, placed warming plates on the hood and moved those items that could be salvaged to the top of the stove. Arvid covered the perishables, while Trina restocked the condiments on the shelves.
“Alan, you’re with me,” Mama Charlie said, opening a secret door and collecting two rifles and a container of ammunition. She handed a loaded gun to Virdon, who shot Virgil a questioning look.
“You’re with Charlie,” the old man concurred, nodding his head. “If they’re here searching for Gunter and his party, then we can handle it down here by ourselves. If they’re looking for you and Pete … well, it’s better if you’re not in plain sight.”
“Agreed,” Alan acquiesced and hurried after Charlie.
Exhausted from his haunt to the barn, Burke was sleeping soundly and, careful not to wake him, Charlie and Alan tiptoed into the bedroom. Virdon extinguished one of the larger wall lanterns and lowered the flame in the table lamp to a weak flicker. The room grew eerily dark.
The old woman seated herself in the bentwood rocking chair near the window. With a full view of the front courtyard, she settled back and began to rock slowly.
Placing himself in a defensive position on the opposite side of the bed, Virdon quietly drew up a straight chair near to his sleeping friend and faced the door. He laid the rifle across his lap, locked his eyes on the door handle and waited.
Except for the rhythmic creaks of Charlie’s steady rocking and Burke’s nasal breathing, the interminably long wait passed in silence. When the weak autumn sun dropped below the horizon and the room grew even darker, Virdon found himself nervously fidgeting. The first floor of the house remained ominously quiet and, as his anxiety intensified, the blond astronaut could hear the sound of his own heart slamming in his ears.
When footsteps echoed from the end of the hallway, Virdon reacted immediately, flinging a light coverlet over Burke’s head to mask his identity and readying the gun to fire at the first sign of trouble. To his right, Charlie continued her incessant rocking, but her body tensed, and Virdon saw her cock the rifle and put her finger on the trigger.
“Charlie!” Virgil’s voice called from the other side of the door.
“Yes, Virgil,” his wife answered calmly.
“Everything’s all right. We’re coming in now.”
Charlie threw a relieved glance over at a still edgy Alan. “Okay, come ahead.”
The heavy door swung wide to reveal Virgil standing next to a thin, haggard-looking chimpanzee. It took a moment for Virdon to recognize the dirty, ragged ape. “Galen?” he asked tentatively, examining the strange, yet somehow familiar, face. Then, “Galen!”
Virdon’s voice was a catalyst, and the chimpanzee rushed forward. The two hugged fiercely, then drew apart. Staring at each other for a long moment, they both suddenly laughed and hugged once more.
“Where have you been?” the blond astronaut questioned. “We were worried to death something terrible had happened to you. We even thought …” He stopped in mid-sentence and set his gaze on the old overseer.
Virgil’s approving smile changed to a puzzled frown. “I take it this is the friend you told me about?”
“Yes, this is Galen. Galen, this is Overseer Virgil, head of Lord Micah’s northern territory. His son, Angus, bought us from the auction the day after you left.” Virdon paused to catch his breath. “And this is his wife, Charlie … Charlotte …”
“Charlie will do, Alan. How do you do, Galen? I’m very glad to finally meet you.”
Galen nodded his head cordially at the old woman. “And Pete … where’s Pete?” he asked excitedly.
“Oh …” Virdon was suddenly contrite. “I forgot.” He moved to the bed and lifted the covers. “Pete … you awake under there?”
“I am now,” the dark-haired man grumbled. “What’s going on?”
“We have a visitor,” Alan said, moving aside.
At the first view of his frail-looking friend, Galen sent a look of purest shock in Virdon’s direction, but the blond astronaut clandestinely shook his head and mouthed the word “later” to the young ape.
Still groggy from his short nap, Burke opened his sleep-filled eyes and focused on the face of a nightmare come to life. Demonic ape features peered menacingly down at him, and he recoiled in heart-stopping terror.
“Pete? It’s Galen. Don’t you recognize me?”
The human swallowed convulsively and forced his gasps for breath to slow. “Galen? Galen!” he whispered in disbelief. A hairy paw reached out to tap his shoulder affectionately; Burke cringed away, and Galen’s hand froze in mid-air.
Pete looked up at the chimpanzee’s face, then turned away quickly. He couldn’t seem to make himself meet his friend’s eyes. “Galen … I’m sorry … you startled me,” he said, still having to reach for breaths.
“It’s all right. I know I must look a sight. I’d scare my own mother looking like this,” Galen said, pulling his hand back and tossing another perplexed glance toward Alan.
The blond man met his gaze with concerned blue eyes and was about to speak when Angus’ daughter unexpectedly arrived with a tray of warm food.
“Trina!” There was obvious relief in Burke’s voice. “Thank goodness. I’m starving.”
The girl looked around at the overpopulated room. “Arvid and Neva have set the table and reheated the food,” she announced, placing the tray on the nightstand. Retrieving a chair, she fixed it beside Burke’s bed and began to arrange the utensils.
During the uncomfortable silence that followed, Virgil suddenly stepped forward. “Of course you will join us for dinner, Galen. We have many dishes I’m sure an ape would find appetizing.”
The young chimpanzee shot another troubled glance in Burke’s direction, but his empty stomach rumbled at the delicious smells drifting up from the kitchen. “I’d be happy to,” he said, turning away and following Virgil and Charlie out the door. “Enjoy your meal, Pete. We’ll get caught up after dinner.”
“Yes … we’ll do that,” the dark-haired man said, struggling to sit up.
Alan helped his friend into a sitting position. “Pete? What’s wrong?”
Burke raked a shaky hand through his dark curls and sighed. “I … I’m not sure, Alan. I .. he … he just scared the living hell out of me.”
Virdon forced a relieved laugh. “Well, that’s my fault. I’m sorry, but I was just so happy to see him alive that I didn’t think what your reaction would be. Listen, I’m going to run down and eat with the family and find out where Galen’s been all this time. Then we’ll get together with Virgil and Charlie to finish that little discussion we had in the barn.”
“I’d like to be in on that one, Alan,” Burke said. “Trina can help me down to the den when I’m finished here.”
“Unh unh,” Virdon shook his head emphatically. “No, you’ve already overdone it for one day. You stay put, and I’ll get everyone to bring their desserts up here. Okay?”
“Okay,” Burke agreed.
“I’ll be back up in a little while,” Virdon said as he headed out the door. “Trina, see to it he eats every bite. We have to fatten him up quickly. Now that Galen’s here, we’ll be on our way just as soon as Pete’s able to travel.”
When the sound of Virdon’s footsteps had dissipated, Angus’ auburn-haired daughter offered a cup of rich goat’s milk to the young astronaut. She watched silently as Burke drained it in one quick gulp. “Pete, are you really going away with Alan and that … ape?” she asked in a small voice.
Calmer now, Burke handed the empty glass back to the girl and absently wiped away the milk mustache on his upper lip. “I have to, Trina. They both need me.”
“I need you too,” Trina said, her small voice wavering with emotion.
“You’ve got your entire family here, Trina, a whole built-in support system, while Virdon and Galen have pretty much lost everyone and everything they’ve ever cared about. I have to go with them.”
“But what about your needs and your losses, Pete?” She reached out her hand, tenderly finger-combed a stubborn curl from his forehead. “After … what happened in the cave … I thought we had a future,” she said sadly.
Burke stiffened and shifted his position uncomfortably on the bed. He searched vainly for the right words. “Trina,” he finally began. “I should never have allowed us to go that far. I’m a lot older than you are, and it was my responsibility to control the situation. But I didn’t. And as much as I’d like to, I can’t go back and change what happened between us.” He reached out, took her hand in his, and stared directly into her eyes. “I do care very much for you, but there can be no future for the two of us. I can’t stay here. When Alan and Galen leave, I’ll go with them. I hope you’ll understand and maybe forgive me someday.”
Her lower lip began to tremble, and she cast her eyes downward, staring pointedly at their intertwined fingers.
Burke heard her take a deep breath, felt her pull away from his grasp. He readied himself for a torrent of tears and anger. They never came.
“Here,” she said calmly, holding out the spoon and bowl. “Your onion soup is getting cold. If you’re determined to go with them, the least I can do is make certain you’re healthy.” She smiled at him through her tear-glistening eyes. “And who knows? Maybe you won’t find what you’re looking for anywhere else, and you’ll come back here. Then I won’t let you get away so easy.”
He grabbed a roll, dipped it into the warm broth, and brought it to his lips. “You’re an amazing young woman, Trina, do you know that?”
The girl straightened in her seat and lifted her chin. “I’m told I take after my great-grandfather,” she said.
“I don’t understand, Alan,” Galen said between bites of a scrumptious sweet potato casserole. “Pete was practically well when I left you at the auction, but now he looks terrible. Positively awful.”
“It’s a long story, Galen, one I’ll delve into as soon as we’ve finished our dinner,” Alan said.
The young ape reached for another portion of baked apple, savoring it for a time before swallowing.
Virdon smiled, remembering his first dinner at the greathouse. “I’ll tell you about Pete later, Galen, but I’m very curious as to what kept you. We’ve been nearly out of our minds with worry. Except for Pete’s condition, we’d have been out looking for you weeks ago.”
Galen tossed a guarded look at his astronaut friend.
“There’s no need to hold anything back. Virgil and his family know everything about us – who we are – where we came from – where we’re going,” Virdon said reassuringly.
Galen nodded. If, after all this time, Alan felt he could trust this man with their secrets, he could too. He wiped his mouth with a homespun napkin, swigged down a gulp of warm, herb tea. Signing with intense pleasure, he began. “It took much longer than I expected to get back to my parents’ house. Urko’s soldiers seemed to be everywhere, and I had to bypass two or three divisions and go out of my way more than once.”
He bit into an ear of richly buttered corn, chewed contentedly for a while, then continued. “When I got home, I learned my father had become very ill shortly after we left, and mother asked me to stay a while until he recovered. Since he couldn’t arrange for the ownership papers until he returned to work, I had no choice but to remain hidden in the house until his condition improved. That was another two weeks, and it took several more days after that to get the paperwork done. Then I started back, again having to make detours to avoid Urko’s traps, but when I got to the auction and showed Chon my papers, he couldn’t seem to recall who had purchased my two ‘slaves.’ Anyway, when he wouldn’t let me see his records, I sought out the village ape council and filed a formal complaint against him. That’s when he finally admitted that he’d sold you and Pete to Lord Micah. Well, that particular piece of information seemed to cause even more of an uproar than my return with the ownership papers. The ape council, the auctioneer and most of the apes in that village seemed scared to death that my repossession of you and Pete would upset Lord Micah, and he would swoop down on the entire village and destroy them. Anyway, it took another three weeks to find this place because I couldn’t get anyone to give me directions. But here I am, at last.” He grinned at Alan and Virgil’s family. “I’d think I’d like to meet your Lord Micah one day. He sounds like a very interesting ape.”
“So would we,” Alan said and cast a pointed look in Virgil’s direction. “But, to be frank, I don’t think he exists. Does he, Virgil?”
A thick silence fell on the room. All eyes turned to the overseer.
Virgil seemed reflective, as though he was turning a decision over and over in his mind. He glanced at Galen for a moment, considered, then seemed to come to a conclusion. “Micah was a real ape. You see, when Charlie and I landed here, we both were badly injured. An old chimpanzee found us, cared for us, and hid us from the local ape population so no one would know where we came from or how we got here. Micah was a loner, someone we would’ve dubbed a hobo or tramp in our own time.”
At this, Galen stopped eating. “’Landed here … our own time …’? Alan, what is he talking about?”
“Virgil and Charlie were astronauts, just like Pete and me. Except they left earth seventeen years after we did and arrived here forty years before us.”
The young ape’s mouth gaped in awe and disbelief.
Virdon turned back to the overseer. “You’re speaking of Micah in the past tense, Virgil. Why?”
The gray-haired man stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“Virgil …” Charlie started a warning, but her husband shook his head.
“There’s no danger in Alan or Galen knowing the truth, Charlie. They’ll keep our secret, won’t you?”
Alan nodded. “You know I’d never knowingly endanger your family, Virgil. Nor would Pete or Galen.”
“Yes, I do know that,” the old man said. “Basically, Micah understood that we were different from the humans of this world and, during our first few years together, he watched us work and build and saw that our knowledge far exceeded his. We constructed this entire sector in just five years, and he allowed us to run it for him while he posed as the great and all-powerful Lord Micah. As the years went by, we added more humans to the ‘family’ and expanded our borders until he was, indeed, the most powerful and richest ape in the known world. When there was a problem we couldn’t solve because we were human, Micah stepped in and remedied the situation. We played this charade successfully for nearly thirty years.”
“And then what happened?”
Virgil appeared grieved. “One day, just like all old apes and old humans, Micah died.”
“But, if I understand you correctly, that was over a decade ago. You’ve managed to pretend he’s still alive all these years?”
Virgil nodded. “I’ve used the threat of his power to keep other apes from coming here and taking away everything we’ve built.”
“How? By killing them like you did Gunter and Odiah?”
The overseer shook his head. He glanced knowingly at his wife. “Guess we’re not as smart as we thought we were, Charlie. Alan’s been here only a little while, yet he’s already seen through most all of our secrets.”
“Then you have been killing the apes who come here?” Alan went on.
Across the table a troubled Galen started to speak, but Virgil continued.
“No, we do NOT kill all apes who come here. We welcome them with open arms. We wine them and dine them and throw parties for them and, when they leave us, they’re well fed and happy … and very much alive. And they depart with the impression that Lord Micah is one lucky ape to have us here to serve him. But, in the ten years since Micah died, there have been only two incidents where we’ve actually had to kill in order to keep what we have or protect our own.”
“Then you did kill those three apes.”
“Yes,” Virgil said regretfully. “It was unavoidable, Alan. If we had allowed Odiah to continue beating Pete, our young friend would’ve died right there in the courtyard. I couldn’t just stand idly by and allow it to happen, not to … not to Pete.”
“I understand,” Alan said quietly. “Galen and I would’ve done the same thing. But won’t their sudden disappearance bring more apes to the sector?”
“Probably. But we’ve got our story ready. We escorted three well-fed, healthy apes off the sector and pointed them toward Lord Micah’s larger greathouse to the north. And that’s the last we saw of them. Most local apes are unwilling to follow up any story that ends with Lord Micah. It’s safer and simpler for them to just believe that their fellow apes got lost or joined Lord Micah’s family or disappeared into thin air.”
Virgil stared directly into Alan’s eyes, and the blond astronaut was overcome again with a discomfiting feeling. Virgil’s eyes penetrated into his very soul, scanning every detail of his past, sharing every emotion of his present. He squirmed uncomfortably and was thankful when Trina’s entrance into the room broke the stare.
“I couldn’t get him to take much,” the girl said, placing a tray of half-eaten food on the counter.
“I think I upset him,” Galen said, wiping his snout with the napkin and pushing his plate away. “Thank you for this lovely dinner, Charlie. It’s the best food I’ve had in a long, long time. I believe I’ll go back upstairs now and talk to Pete. I’d like to make …”
“No!” Trina’s voice was emphatic, and all eyes turned to her in shocked surprise. “I mean,” she stammered, obviously searching for words. “He’s … asleep right now. He shouldn’t be disturbed.”
“I see,” Galen said intuitively and turned his eyes on Virdon.
“How about some dessert?” Charlie said quickly, changing the direction of the conversation.
Alan pulled away from the table, stretched languidly, and rubbed his long legs. “I think I’ll forego dessert tonight, Charlie. I’ve eaten enough food for two people.” He turned to his chimpanzee friend. “Galen? How about it? Charlie makes a mean pear pie.”
The young ape bounced puzzled looks from Virdon to the overseer’s wife and then back to his human friend. He seemed unsure of himself. Finally, he said, “Alan, I’m not really familiar with that kind of fruit. Tell me, what are ‘mean pears’?”
Virdon smiled at the expected response. “It’s just an expression, Galen. It means her pear pies taste wonderful.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say so,” Galen said, picking up on the game he had sorely missed playing. He beamed at Charlie. “Of course, I’d love a nice, large piece. Thank you.”
“Alan, I’m sure the three of you have an awful lot of catching up to do, so the family will leave you to yourselves this evening. I know Pete’s still bedridden so, if you’d like, Arvid can serve dessert in your room.”
Again, Virdon felt the familiar discomfort rising as Virgil’s intuitiveness struck a nerve. He quelled his uneasiness, forced himself to reply in a natural voice. “Thank you, Virgil. We’re very grateful to you.”
“No need for gratitude, Alan. It’s enough just having you here,” the old man said, his eyes suddenly bright with emotion.
“Well,” Charlie said, pushing back noisily from the table, “I’ll go make Galen’s room ready for him. I think we’ll put you right next door to Pete and Alan, if that’s all right with you.”
Galen laughed self-consciously. “Considering where I’ve been sleeping these past few weeks, any place inside, out of the cold weather, will be wonderful.”
The young ape stood, joined Virdon, and both exited through the parlor door.
Virgil stepped into the sitting room and watched with mixed emotions as the ape and human ascended the stairs. Unexpectedly, an arm encircled his waist, startling him momentarily. His wife squeezed him affectionately, and he reciprocated, pulling her into a gentle embrace. “I guess they’ll be leaving us now, Charlie, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.”
“You knew it had to end like this, Virgil. As much as we want it, they can’t stay here. Alan’s already discovered the more obvious deceptions. It wouldn’t take much more time before he’d find out the truth about us. They have to leave … and soon! It’s just much too dangerous for all of us if they stay.”
“I know,” the old man said morosely, “but it’s been such a very short visit. And after what happened to Pete, I … I just wish I could …”
“Well, you can’t,” his wife said, abruptly pulling out of the embrace and staring pointedly up at her husband. She put her small fists on her hips. “Did you know that your daughter’s in love with him?”
Virgil looked away, gazing back at the parlor door. “I suspected as much, but I’ve also noticed he doesn’t seem to return her affection.”
“He’s still grieving over his losses but, they share many things, Virgil, and you know if he stayed, it would only be a matter of time before they would … go too far. We can’t allow that to happen.”
“I know,” the old overseer’s voice sounded hollow in the vacant kitchen. “But now, with their friend’s arrival, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll leave.”
“We’ll make the most of it,” Charlie said, hugging him once more. “Now, come on! I’ll give you a big piece of my … what did Alan call it? ‘Mean pear pie.’”
Virgil smiled and followed her back into the kitchen.
It took nearly an hour for Alan to report the dinner conversation to Burke and fill Galen in on everything that had happened since their separation. The young ape sat spellbound throughout the entire narrative, reacting to each revelation with a wrinkle of his snout or a furrow of his brow. When Virdon launched into a description of Pete’s beating and resulting illness, the chimpanzee’s eyes glistened with unshed tears, and he periodically cast furtive sympathetic glances toward his dark-haired friend.
Burke, wrapped in a robe three sizes too large for him, sat steadfastly silent in Charlie’s chair, absently rocking back and forth. At first, attentive and alert while listening to the information gleaned from Virgil, he grew seemingly ill at ease when Virdon turned the narrative to his own punishment by Odiah. He visibly paled at Alan’s account of his ordeal and ignored the dessert plate delivered by Arvid.
“… and we had just about decided erroneously, that our friend, Virgil, had done away with you when you finally showed up here. So, that’s basically what’s happened to us since we last laid eyes on you,” Alan finished.
Shaking his head, Galen drew in a deep breath and let it whoosh out. “It’s amazing to think that there are really others just like you here, and that they’ve been here longer than I’ve been alive. It’s even more amazing to see what they’ve accomplished. I find Virgil and his family fascinating. I hope I’ll have time to talk with them all and see this place before we leave.”
“I’ll ask Virgil to give you the royal tour. I think you’ll find it as fascinating as Pete and I did.”
“I don’t remember being that fascinated, Burke said quietly. He reached for the mug of tea Arvid had left sitting on the night table.
“Here, Pete, let me help you,” Galen said, also reaching out to grasp the mug. The ape’s hairy fingers accidentally brushed against Burke’s hand, and the man flinched, pulling immediately away from the touch and knocking Galen’s hand sideways into the mug. It crashed loudly to the floor, spilling lukewarm tea in all directions and exploding into a hundred tiny pieces.
“I’m … I’m sorry, Pete. How clumsy of me,” the chimpanzee said, falling to his knees.
Burke leaned back into the chair, breathing quickly, anxiety evident in his face and stance.
Concerned, Alan drew closer. “Pete, what’s wrong.”
“I …” Burke stopped, cleared his throat and continued. “I don’t know why I did that, Galen. I’m sorry, I didn’t …” Embarrassed, his voice trailed off into silence.
“Perhaps I should let you rest. It’s getting late, and I know you’re very tired.”
“Yes, I’m … quite tired …”
Holding on to several broken pieces of the mug, Galen looked around for a place to deposit them.
“The trash can is in the corner, Galen,” Alan said, mopping up the tea with a clean towel. “I’ll show you where you can wash up.”
Galen deposited the broken mug and started to follow Virdon out the door. He paused, cast a sideward glance at the young astronaut. “Good night, Pete. I hope you’ll feel better in the morning.”
Burke couldn’t bring himself to raise his eyes. “Good night, Galen. It’s good to have you back with us.” It was obvious he was forcing the words.
Galen followed Alan into the bathroom and viewed the unusual system of indoor plumbing with mounting curiosity. Listening to Virdon’s explanation of each appliances use, he displayed proper astonishment over Virgil’s implementation of a sophisticated displacement design. He toyed with the faucets and marveled at the hot and cold running water but, beneath the façade of fascination, Virdon could see his ape friend was preoccupied with other thoughts.
“Alan,” Galen finally said, almost in a whisper. “What’s wrong with Pete?”
Virdon wrung out the tea-stained towel and hung it up to dry. “I don’t know for sure, Galen,” he began carefully. “But I’m beginning to have a theory. I believe it may have something to do with the fact that the ape who abused Pete was a chimpanzee. And before that he was tortured by Wanda, another chimpanzee.” He paused at the crestfallen look that suddenly dominated the ape’s face. “You know it’s not you personally, Galen.”
“Yes, I can understand that,” the ape said in a small voice. “But it IS me collectively and, if Pete can’t even stand the sight of me, then how can we hope to continue on together. I must find some way to rebuild his trust.”
“Give him time to work it out, Galen. Pete’s a strong man, inside and out. He’ll be okay.”
“But he can’t do it alone, Alan. I’ll have to help him.”
Virdon put a comforting hand on the young ape’s shoulder. “We’ll both help him,” he said with a reassuring smile.
November passed away quietly and, with the teasing snowflakes of early December hinting at a long, dangerously cold winter, Virgil’s family, along with Alan, Galen, and later Pete, worked even harder at readying the sector for what was to come. The shorter days were filled with the many monotonous tasks that, in the long run, would spell the difference between extinction and survival.
By day, the able-bodied men and women chopped and gathered wood, piling the neatly split logs in tall, evenly spaced stacks. All human and animal dwellings were checked for leaks and drafts, with windows and doors sealed for protection against the elements. The more delicate farm animals were rounded up and deposited in various barns and corrals. Other, hardier animals were driven south and set free to fend for themselves until spring thaw.
Inside the greathouse, Charlie’s stove burned unceasingly, filling the rooms with mouth-watering smells as the women readied fruits, vegetables and meats for storage in the caves and underground burrows surrounding the sector. Behind the large structure, two other fires were tended round the clock. Long strips of lean beef, plump turkeys and gutted fish hung from well-placed hooks on the ceilings of twin smokehouses. It would take several days and nights of almost constant care, but the resulting slow-cooked , flavorful meats would feed the sector population for a very long time.
Evenings again found the family and their guests in the warmth of the bright parlor. While the women busied themselves at mending torn and frayed garments or constructing new ones, Virgil, Angus, the two astronauts, and Galen, spent their time mapping out the surrounding territory for their upcoming journey.
“I believe this location used to be either the northern tip of California or southeastern Oregon. Of course, I can’t be exact what with the subtle change of star positions and the differing climate and vegetation, but that’s as close as I can come to determining our position,” Virgil said, drawing unintelligible lines on a large sheet of paper.
Galen and Alan hunkered around the long sofa table, while an almost recovered Burke sat, long legs folded indian-style, on the opposite side. Virgil and Angus had taken up positions at both ends.
“So, when we leave next week, we need to keep a northwesterly direction, and that should lead us straight to Seattle.”
The overseer nodded and fingered his beard thoughtfully. “The only real obstacle I’m aware of is a mountain range directly to the north of us,” he said, drawing a crude, zigzag line across the middle of the developing map. “It seems to go on forever, and I’m not certain just how large it really is. Then, there are several bodies of water to the south and southeast of the mountain range.” He drew a large crescent that took up most of the top and right side of the paper. “I believe they may have been part of Oregon’s Crater Lakes, but I can’t be certain. You swam in one of them when you and Trina went looking for the shuttle, Pete.”
Burke shook his curly head from side to side. “Then it couldn’t have been Crater Lake, Virgil,” Pete said, his eyes scanning the crudely drawn map. He laid his finger on the site and continued. “Because if it is, someone dumped a shitload of salt in it.”
“Salt water? This far inland?” Virdon said anxiously. “Could you possibly be a few hundred kilometers off on your location, Virgil?”
“No. I know what you’re thinking, Alan, but I don’t believe that’s the Great Salt Lake out there. I’m pretty sure they’re what’s left of those inland lakes. When Charlie and I landed here, the particular section was nothing but dry, desert-like terrain. Now, after four decades of wind, storms and continual earthquakes, my shuttle’s embedded in a mountain of boulders and surrounded by a moat of salt water. Some of the soil in this area has a very heavy concentration of natural salt in it, so that could explain the contents. Either that, or the ancient soothsayers were wrong when they predicted that California would fall into the sea. If that’s the Atlantic Ocean out there, then everything else fell in except California.” Virgil smiled and went back to drawing the map.
From his position on the floor, Pete suddenly brought a hand up to stifle a huge yawn. Although almost fully recovered, he still tired easily, and it had been a lengthy day. He yawned again and slowly began to disentangle his long legs. “Well, it’s been fun, boys and girls … and chimp … but I think it’s time for this poor abused body to retire for the evening. If you two actually expect me to try to make it all the way to Seattle without a trail bike, then I’m going to need my beauty sleep,” he said, struggling to get to his feet.
The chimpanzee was beside him in an instant. Galen held out a hairy paw, and Burke’s momentary hesitation and split-second flinch were apparent to no one in the room but Virdon. Reaching out, the dark-haired astronaut forced himself to take the ape’s hand in his own, allowing Galen to pull him into an upright position.
The young ape relinquished his human friend’s hand almost immediately, but his intuitive action backfired. Wobbly from remaining in a fixed seated position, Burke took a single step forward and staggered. Both Virdon and Angus moved to catch him, but Galen was already there. Grabbing Burke, he encircled the man’s slender hips with a long, hairy arm, gripped the reluctant hand again, and led him firmly and purposefully toward the stairs.
Burke opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it when Alan winked and shot him an encouraging grin. Sighing, he allowed himself to lean on the muscular chimpanzee and be half-dragged, half-carried up the stairs.
Once inside the darkened upstairs bedroom, Galen withdrew his support and busied himself turning up the flames in each of the wall lanterns.
Now steady on his feet, Burke crossed the floor to the chest of drawers, grabbed a fresh nightshirt, and threw it over the bedpost. With his back to the ape, he began to undress, tugging at the sweater and makeshift undershirt. They tangled together as he struggled ineffectually to pull them over his head.
“Here, let me help you,” the chimpanzee said, crossing the room and reaching out to yank the tails of both sweater and shirt upwards. As he did, he got his first look at the astronaut’s ravaged back. Ugly pink scars crisscrossed deeply across the young human’s back, and Galen stood, stunned and sickened, frozen to the spot.
“Thanks for the assist, Galen. I probably could’ve gotten them off on my own, but I’m still a bit sore so … I appreciate it,” Burke said offhandedly, reaching for the nightshirt. As he did, he felt a hairy hand tentatively touch his naked back. Startled, he jerked away and swiveled around.
Galen stood directly in front of him, his arm still poised in mid-air, an expression of shock and horror on his face. “Pete …” The open anguish in the single spoken word hung heavily in the room. “ … I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how very badly you had been lashed. I’m so … ashamed … that one of my own kind could do such a thing.”
Burke hurriedly shrugged into the nightshirt and pulled it down quickly to cover his scarred back. Not knowing what else to say, he finally stammered out, “It’s okay, Galen. I’m all right now.”
The chimpanzee looked up at him with somber, dark brown eyes. “Are you, Pete? Are you really?” he said sadly, then turned away and shuffled slowly out the door.
At the ape’s departure, an immense relief crested over him , and Burke felt his body relax. Although it was still an effort to control his involuntary repulsion of the chimpanzee, he knew he was mastering it. He no longer automatically recoiled at Galen’s approach or cringed away from his touch. His heart occasionally skipped a beat if the ape showed up unexpectedly, but even that reaction had been alleviated by Galen’s intuitive understanding of the situation. Rather than appearing all of a sudden, the ape would vocally announce himself before his arrival.
It was going to take time and effort to get over the abuse he had endured. But he also knew he had the support and encouragement of his two friends to help him.
‘No, Galen,’ he said to himself, ‘I’m not all right. But I’m getting better every day.’
He smiled inwardly, extinguished all the wall lanterns, and climbed into bed.
Galen’s requested tour of Virgil’s sector and the already planned departure of the three friends were delayed for two additional weeks by inclement weather. Freezing rain and snow fell intermittently from the heavy, dark clouds that habitually covered the sky. But by mid-December of Virgil’s calendar, scant days away from what would have been the official beginning of winter, the cloud, precipitation and cold finally relented.
The dawn of a cloudless near spring-like day brought the family and villagers scurrying from the forced confinement of their houses. Charlie, Arvid and several other women ventured out, trekking to the nearby caves and underground burrows to collect food supplies, while Angus and John led an expedition of men south to check on the herds of larger animals and repair any damage to fences or buildings.
With Arvid taking a much-needed day off from her learning house, Virgil had no trouble finding eager, young family members afflicted with cabin fever to accompany the three of them on the planned day-long tour and picnic.
Rising late, Burke stepped out onto the large porch and squinted his eyes against the unaccustomed brightness of the winter sun. He stood watching the bustling activity below and nibbled absently on a cold fruit pie.
“Come on, Pete,” Alan yelled, gesturing for his friend to join them. “Climb in! We’ll make room.”
“You know I hate reruns,” the dark-haired man replied, vehemently shaking his head.
Virdon waved both hands at him, feigning exasperation, then both he and Galen clutched at their seats as Virgil called to the oxen. The strong, husky animals abruptly lurched forward, and Burke grinned and waved cheerfully.
“Why don’t you go with them, Pete?” Trina said suddenly from behind him.
Startled at her presence, the dark-haired man swiveled around. Trina smiled up at him from her comfortable position on the porch swing and continued clicking her knitting needles rapidly together.
“You know Virdon’s the farmer, Trina, not me,” he said, smiling back and moving to sit beside her. He watched intently as she yanked and stretched the nubby wool yawn to fit the gauge of her planned garment.
“What are you making this time?”
“A sweater for you.”
“Another one?” Pete said in a pleased, but puzzled voice.
“Of course. You’ll need at lest two – a thick one for winter and a thinner one for spring. Even when the snows have melted, it’s still quite cool and, after tomorrow, you won’t have the greathouse fires to come home to anymore.” She stilled her frantic finger movements, laid the unfinished garment in her lap, and looked Burke directly in the eyes. “Unless you’ve dome to your senses and decided to stay here with … us.”
At this, Burke looked at the porch ceiling and sighed heavily. “You still don’t understand, do you, Trina? More than anything else in the world, I’d love to stay here with you and your family … if nothing else, for the good food. But Virdon’s got an itch that’s driving him nuts, and I’m the only person in this world who can help him scratch it.”
“He has Galen,” the girl said, maneuvering the yarn and beginning a new row.
At this, Burke grew thoughtful for a moment. Finally, he said, “And he has me … until he comes to his senses.”
“Or until the apes finally catch you and kills you,” Trina said defeatedly.
“That too,” Burke said honestly.
“Oh, Pete, why do you follow your friend’s empty dream? Don’t you have dreams of your own?”
“The only dream I ever had was to get the hell out of Jersey City and become an astronaut. And, thanks to Alan, I did. He was there for me when I needed him and, as I see it, I’m just returning the favor. Trina, don’t you see? It’s not an empty dream to Virdon. The hope of finding his way back to his wife and son is the only thing keeping him going. If he lost that … I don’t think he’d want to live. He’s in a transition period right now, hovering between acceptance and denial.. He can’t be rushed from one to the other without something important giving way.”
“So, you’ll follow him until he finally gives up. For how long, Pete?”
“However long its takes.”
It was just before lunch when two apes on horseback unexpectedly arrived at the sector. They galloped determinedly into the courtyard, stopping abruptly at the base of the porch. Dismounting, they scanned the area, noting the absence of any working humans or supervising apes; then, without knocking, they barged into the greathouse. Finding the parlor empty, the two gorillas continued through the large room and barreled into the kitchen.
Startled by this sudden intrusion, Trina dropped the spoon with which she had been stirring a boiling pot of chicken stew.”
“Human, where is your overseer?” Junot, the larger of the two gorillas asked.
It took a moment for her to compose herself and, as she bent down to retrieve the spoon, the smaller ape, Herand, grabbed her by the hair and yanked her upwards into a standing position.
“Junot asked you a question, girl. Where is your overseer?”
Trina pasted a sick smile on her face and swallowed. “Good morning, sirs,” she said in a shaky voice. “Overseer Virgil has gone to one of the far fields this day. May I be of service?”
The apes scanned the interior of the greathouse kitchen with their little black eyes, registering the beauty and unexpected sophistication of the room. The smaller gorilla turned his gaze back on Trina. “We seek three members of our collection crew who are overdue to return. Two gorillas, Gunter and Hector, and Odiah, a chimpanzee accountant.”
“They were here, sir, and left … several weeks ago.”
“You say they left?” the larger gorilla sniffed and wiped at his runny nose with the back of his hairy hand.
“You lie, girl! If our friends had left your sector that long ago, they would’ve returned to their homes and families by now. Hector’s wife is expecting a child, and he would be there to welcome his new son. Now, where are they?”
The second gorilla started forward threateningly, but the first one motioned for him to wait.
“This is your last chance, human. Tell us where our friends have gone.”
Trina tried to retreat a couple of steps, but the strong hand holding her hair yanked her back to her original position. “I’m … I’m sorry, but I can’t be of any more …”
“What the girl says is the truth!” A stern-faced Burke suddenly appeared outside the screen door. He entered the kitchen, haphazardly tossing the load of wood he’d retrieved into a bucket near the stove, and moved to stand protectively beside Trina. “The apes came for the harvest crops, collected them, and departed for Lord Micah’s northernmost sector over thirty days ago. If you leave now and return to your village, you will probably find them there waiting for you.” The young astronaut’s voice was strong, belying his shaking knees. His stomach contracted painfully into tight knots of unaccustomed fear, but he forced himself to stand his ground.
“I don’t think I like you, human,” the flanking gorilla growled, starting toward Burke.
Rising terror at the mere presence of these apes in the same room made him hesitate but only for a moment. A strong surge of self-directed anger, aimed at his own perceived weakness, brought a characteristically flippant reply. “I seem to have that effect on a lot of apes. Maybe it’s my deodorant. I’d ask you to recommend a new brand, but I see you’re having the same problem.”
“I don’t understand the meaning of your words, human,” the smaller gorilla said in a too-quiet voice. “Perhaps I can persuade you to translate them to me.”
Burke’s mouth went dry and cottony, and he felt his body tense; his hands automatically closed into fists for what he knew would be an abbreviated skirmish. They were going to beat the hell out of him … again … and the thoughts of those large, hairy fists pummeling his body terrified him. Involuntarily, he backed up a step, then felt his cheeks flame with humiliation.
“Sir … please … he didn’t mean to …” Trina began, but a heavy-handed slap stifled the rest of her plea. Her body was propelled backward, and she landed hard on her behind on the rough, plank flooring. Her shoulder impacted with the corner of the hot stove, and she helped in pain. As she recovered and began to get to her feet, out of the corner of her eye, Trina saw Burke’s retreat become an abrupt advance. He moved forward threateningly as if to pounce on one of the gorillas. “Pete! No!” she screamed.
Her warning came too late. Both gorillas had already noted Burke’s aggressive stance, and they reacted similarly. Junot struck first, kicking out with a heavy, booted foot that impacted solidly in Pete’s groin.
Burke’s breath left his body in a whistling gush of agonized air. His knees buckled and, in slow motion, he went down, hunkering over into a protective posture. He huddled on the floor, paralyzed with pain, fighting for breath, and when the larger ape pulled him up by his elbows and pinned his arms painfully behind his back, he didn’t have the strength to protest.
“Teach this one a lesson, Herand, but don’t kill him. We certainly don’t want to offend Lord Micah.”
The smaller gorilla grinned and enthusiastically buried his fist in the middle of Burke’s torso; a second blow connected with the young astronaut’s jaw. He continu4ed battering the semi-conscious astronaut until the larger ape grew tired.
“Enough!” Junot roared, abruptly releasing the sagging human.
Burke slid heavily to the floor and lay unmoving.
“Pete!” Trina whispered, crawling forward until she reached the unconscious man. She draped her slim body protectively over his. “Please,” she begged tearfully, staring up at them with large, frightened eyes. “We can tell you nothing more of your friends.”
They had forgotten about her, but her words reminded them of her presence. Both turned their malevolent eyes and attentions toward Trina and, they had begun to advance on her, when an authoritative voice came from the parlor door.
“What’s going on here?” Galen, a fierce expression dominating his face, stood at the entrance to the kitchen. Directly behind him stood an ashen-faced Virdon. At the chimpanzee’s question, all occupants froze in their respective positions.
“Ah, a fellow ape in this sea of humans!” The larger gorilla nodded cordially toward Galen. “I am Junot, this is Herand. We are in search of our friends, Hector and Gunter, two gorillas, and their accountant, Odiah, a chimpanzee. We have followed their collection trail to this sector. These two humans lied, telling us that they left here many weeks ago but, if they did, they would surely have returned home by now.”
“And you do not believe my humans?”
“Your humans? Your … humans?” Junot, the larger gorilla, said. His voice was laced with suspicion and shock. The other ape seemed anxious and, as the two whispered between themselves, Junot’s expression changed from doubt to apprehension.
While the two discussed his sudden appearance on the scene, Galen’s mind sifted frantically through his memory of Virgil’s account of Lord Micah.
Behind him, a concerned Virdon tried to move around the chimpanzee to go into the kitchen, but Galen stopped him with a curt shake of his head.
“But, Pete’s …”
“Hush, human!” Galen said harshly. He ignored the flash of anger that flared and died in an instant on Alan’s face. His mind was whirling, and he continued to glare intensely at the now nervous simians. He turned his back on Virdon, dismissing him with his voice and his stance, and finally said, “Well, technically, they belong to my father, Lord Micah. I am his eldest son, Seth.” He threw both gorillas a look of contempt.
“Oh,” the large gorilla said, obviously relieved. “I apologize for my rudeness to you, sir, but there is great distress among the families of these apes.”
“I can understand their concern, but that doesn’t give you the right to enter my father’s house and damage his property.”
“They were insolent!” Junot said, defensively. “We took care not to permanently injure them. The punishment was designed to hurt, not maim.”
“If either of them are harmed, my father will seek you out himself for retribution. Lord Micah spent a lot of money and time on these slaves, and he doesn’t like to see any of it wasted.” Galen moved aside and gestured for Virdon to enter. “Take care of them, Alan.”
Keeping his head lowered and eyes focused only on Burke and Trina, Virdon hurried past the gorillas to the inert Pete and still shaken teenager.
“Are you all right, Trina?” Virdon threw the whispered question over his shoulder as he scanned his friends for wounds.
“Only bruised,” she whispered back. She cradled Burke’s head on her lap, gently stroking his hair. “Is he hurt badly?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said, not lifting his head from his continuing examination.
The nervous gorillas watched Virdon’s movements anxiously, then Herand turned to Seth/Galen. “Sir, we didn’t mean to harm your father’s humans. We were careful in our discipline. We only came to check on the whereabouts of our friends. If you can help us, we will be on our way.”
The young chimpanzee narrowed his eyes. “It is as my humans stated. Your three friends left here for my father’s house weeks ago. Where they roamed after that, I can’t say. If you wish, I can have one of my humans guide you to Lord Micah’s greathouse. I’m sorry I can’t spare more, but my father is in a foul mood. These humans didn’t exceed the quota this year, and I’ve been sent to see to it that they don’t shirk their responsibilities this next growing season.”
“Yes, I can understand how he would want you to provide the proper guidance and motivation,” Junot agreed, obviously delighted at the sudden turn of the conversation. He turned his head, held another quick discussion with his companion, and returned his attention to Seth/Galen. “It will not be necessary for one of your humans to accompany us to your father’s house. Gunter and his team surely have already arrived home by now. We apologize again for the damage to your father’s humans and for interrupting their work, Seth.”
Galen thrust his chin out and nodded. He suddenly clapped his hands furiously and shouted at Trina. “Go on, back to work you lazy, good-for-nothing girl. Alan will care for Pete.” Turning away from the scene, he gestured to the two gorillas. “I’ll see you to your horses,” he said, as a way of dismissing the two apes quickly. He stepped aside to let them precede him into the parlor, then glanced back at the three humans.
Still shaken by the experience, Trina bit back tears and used her shirt to dab at a trickle of blood at Burke’s mouth.
“Is he all right?” Galen asked clandestinely, eyeing the front door as the two gorillas exited the greathouse.
“I don’t know yet, Galen. I can’t find any broken bones, but we’ll have to wait until he come around to know for certain.”
“They beat him and kicked him,” Trina sobbed.
“I’ll make certain they leave, then I’ll be back to help,” Galen said, disappearing into the parlor.
Burke suddenly stirred. As consciousness returned, his face contorted into a pained expression. “Ohhhh, God,” he breathed.
“Easy, Pete. Try to lie still, and just tell me where it hurts so I can check you over.”
The dark-haired man obeyed gratefully. “It’d be easier to tell you where it doesn’t,” he whispered, letting his head sink back onto Trina’s lap. He stared up into her wide, concerned eyes. “Trina, you okay?”
She nodded, then bit her bottom lip to halt its trembling. “I didn’t want them to hurt you again.”
“It’s all right. It’s not your fault,” Burke said soothingly. He gasped as Alan’s probing fingers touched a sore spot. “That’s definitely … one of the places,” he said through clenched teeth.
Virdon shook his head sympathetically. “What did you do to antagonize them, Pete?”
“Who knows?” Burke said tiredly. “Just remind me not to deal with another gorilla until I take a short course in tact and ape diplomacy.”
“Think you can sit up?”
“I’ll try,” Pete said, allowing Alan to pull him into a sitting position. He swayed for a moment, recovered his balance, then looked quizzically at his friend. “What are you doing back here already? I thought you’d be gone the whole day.”
“Lucky for you, one of the wagon wheels broke. Galen and I jogged back to fetch another one.”
“Yeah … lucky me,” Burke said. He heaved himself into a wobbly, standing position, took a tentative step, straightened painfully, then hobbled toward the parlor entrance.
Trina stood and hurried toward Burke. She draped one of his arms around her shoulder and encircled his waist with her own arm. “Let me help you.”
The dark-haired man smiled gratefully, turned and flashed Virdon an amused grain. “I’m okay, Trina. I think I can make it by myself,” he said, working to disentangle himself from her motherly grasp. He swiveled sideways, then turned back toward the parlor. As he swung around, a brown-and-green blur barreled into the kitchen, knocking Burke and Trina unceremoniously to the floor.
“Oh, Pete! Trina! I’m so sorry.” Appalled, Galen regained his own balance and reached out a hairy paw to help the young astronaut up. J”I just now managed to get rid of those two nasty gorillas, and I was trying to get back here to see if …” He stopped in mid-sentence and viewed Burke’s face curiously. The dark-haired man was staring up at him, his brown eyes wide and frightened. “Pete? Are you all right?”
“Alan?” Burke sought his blond friend with his eyes. “Get him away from me. Please! Get him away. Now!”
Before Virdon could react, Trina surged forward and attacked the chimpanzee. She flailed her long arms, battering Galen’s face and torso and kicking out with her legs. “Don’t you touch him! He’s had enough of your kind. Why don’t you just go away and leave us alone!”
“Trina!” Alan yelled her name, but she ignored him and continued to beat her fists against the young chimpanzee’s raised paws.
Galen staggered backwards, retreating from the steady rain of fists and feet.
Then, just as abruptly as the storm had begun, it ended. The girl stood still, her arms hung limply at her sides.
Burke forced himself to his feet again and moved to stand behind her. He placed a tentative hand on her shoulder, and she reacted by turning immediately and burying her face in his chest.
“Don’t go with them tomorrow! You’ll die out there. Stay with me, Pete. I don’t want you to go. Please! Please!!” Her voice broke into heartwrenching sobs, and her arms clung to him fiercely, protectively.
“Trina.” He whispered her name softly, caressing the two syllables.
The girl only sobbed harder. “Don’t leave me, Pete. I don’t want you to die. Stay, please! I love you. I’ll work the rest of my life to be a good wife. You could be happy here with me. Why do you want to leave here? It’s certain death if you go with them. You know it. YOU KNOW IT!”
They stood in the same position for what seemed a very long time, with Trina crying softly and clinging tightly to Burke. The young astronaut stroked her long hair, holding her firmly to him.
“Trina …” he began again, but she shook her head, dismissing the unwanted words.
“With them is only death. Grow old with me,” she whispered, moving her lips to his neck and kissing him lightly. She pulled back and let her eyes bore into his.
Burke stared intently into her tear-streaked face. He didn’t look away; he knew if he chanced to meet Virdon’s gaze, his resolution would waver. And there was another whose eyes he couldn’t even force himself to look into anymore.
Trina was the first to see and feel the change. As peace of mind descended on the man to whom she clung desperately, she felt his muscles relax. Loosening her grip, she stepped backward and allowed a hint of a smile to trace her lips. “Grandpa Virgil says sometimes the eyes are a mirror to the soul and, right now, I can see all the way down into yours, Peter Burke. You’re going to stay with me and become one of our family, aren’t you?”
Burke couldn’t break the hypnotic grip of her moist, amber eyes. He said simply, “I’ll stay.”
With a squeal of delight, Trina pushed back into his arms and turned her face upward. She pressed her lips to his, and he returned the kiss, pulling her closer. All the anguish and guilt of his decision flowed into the embrace, and when Burke released her, Trina staggered with the intensity of his emotions.
“Come on,” she said, victoriously, totally ignoring Galen and Virdon. “I’ll take you upstairs to rest.”
Leaning heavily on the girl, Burke passed the blond astronaut with lowered lids. He forced himself to lift his eyes once, and he found himself face-to-face with his human friend. Virdon’s expression spoke volumes of disappointment, grief, indecision, yet Alan still managed an encouraging nod and a grim smile.
Burke compelled his lips to turn slightly upwards, but he couldn’t manage even a half-grin. He aimed his eyes back toward the floor, eased around the rigid, silent chimpanzee, and allowed himself to be led from the room.
It was early evening when a hesitant Galen knocked softly on the already opened door and peered into the darkness of the hushed bedroom. “Pete, may I come in?”
“Come ahead,” a voice said from the left side of the room. “Just don’t turn up the lights. I like it dark like this.”
The young ape ventured in. The shadowed silhouette of his human friend bent over the windowsill. “And that way you won’t have to look at me.”
There was a poignant silence. “I’m sorry, Galen,” Burke said at last, “but I can’t seem to help how I feel. I’ve tried to fight it, but everything’s just so damned screwed up in my mind right now.”
“And how does Alan feel about this?”
“I’ve already spoken to him at length this afternoon. He’s accepted my decision. Why can’t you?”
“Because your reasoning doesn’t quite ring true, my friend. I’ve spoken to Alan too. He’s very patiently explained to me that you’ve found happiness here, and you’re going to stay behind, marry Trina, and make a new life for yourself as a farmer.”
“That is my decision,” Burke said the words without inflection.
“Pete, you’ve taught me many things over the last few months, and one of them is a word that seems to sum up this entire situation.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“I believe if our situations were reversed you would say to me, ‘Bullshit!’” Galen waited for a reaction and, when he received none, he plunged on. “You know as well as I do that becoming a farmer isn’t something that would make the Peter Burke I’ve dome to know live happily ever after.”
“Maybe the Peter Burke you knew doesn’t exist anymore.” Burke’s voice rose in volume, but he still maintained control of his emotions.
Galen tried again. “Oh, he still exists. He’s just buried himself beneath several layers of fear and self-pity. You see, it’s much easier to hide here with a fictional Lord Micah as protector than it is to accompany Alan and me back into what would be certain danger again. Come on, Pete, we’re just as tired of running as you. I just can’t understand how you can abandon us now, when Alan feels he’s so close to finding the answers.
“Virdon will never find the right answer, Galen, and he’ll still be searching for it on the day Urko finally kills him. If you were truly his friend, you’d talk him into staying here with me. Arvid is already in love with him; she’d make him a good wife. We could have a life here. Out there is … only death.”
“You don’t know that for certain, Pete. And what about me? Since you’ve got your own life and Alan’s already mapped out, what would you suggest I do for the rest of my days? There’s nothing for me here.”
“Sure there is,” the younger man said with a growing enthusiasm. “Alan told me you’ve already played the part to perfection. You could stay here and run the place as Micah’s son. I’m sure Virgil would agree to it. You’d be the richest, most powerful chimpanzee in the world.”
“And an empty figurehead,” Galen said in a hollow voice. “Is that truly your wish for me, Pete? You know I could never live a lie. When you and Alan showed me the truth about humans and apes, I knew it was impossible for me to stay behind and pretend I didn’t know. That’s when I decided I had to go with you and Alan to learn more about myself and to teach others, both humans and apes, the truths I’d learned.” He stopped for a moment, watching as the dark figure shifted position uncomfortably. The handsome profile turned away. “And I don’t think you can live a lie either.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Galen.”
“Yes, you do. I’ve never once heard you say you love the girl, Pete. That’s the single element completely missing from all your accounts of this wonderful new life you’ve mapped out.”
“Trina is very special to me, Galen.”
“I know she is, but are you in love with her, Pete?”
“I care very much for her,” the young astronaut responded.
“That’s now what I asked.”
Burke sighed tiredly and cleared his throat. “I think I’d rather be alone right now, if you don’t mind.”
“All right. I’ve leave. Alan and I still plan to depart first thing tomorrow morning. If you should happen to change your mind later, Alan says to tell you our plans have changed a bit. We’re traveling first to a city Alan says was once called Portland, and then we’ll move on to Seattle. He wants to check the first place out for a knowledge respository.” Galen waited a moment to see if Burke would reply but, when there was no further response, he walked through the dim light and stood directly in front of his friend. Knuckling the man’s chest fondly, he smiled. “I wish you well, Pete. Have a happy life.” With that, he turned, left the room, and closed the door quietly behind him.
Burke stared after him for a long while. When he finally tried to move, his nearly- healed leg protested. He stretched it, carefully bending the knee and tentatively lifting his thigh. It ached, but so did his heart.
He mulled over the chimpanzee’s intuitive words, recalling his earlier conversation with Alan. His human friend was much too close to the situation; Virdon had loved and lost tragically … recently … and because he still wasn’t over the pain of that loss, Pete had been able to use that fact to both fool him and create empathy. When he finished his explanation to Alan, he had felt guilty at his own deceit. But Galen’s intuitiveness had made his thin charade transparent, and that fact both saddened and infuriated him at the same time.
Another knock at the door disturbed his thoughts. “Yes,” he said. The single syllable sounded harsh to his own ears, and he forced himself to relax. “Yes,” he tried again, and this time his voice was softer, warmer.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Pete, but Virgil wants to talk to you. He says it’s urgent,” Alan said.
He met his best friend’s eyes, ripped his gaze away immediately. If he was transparent to Galen, he knew it wouldn’t be long before Alan, too, would be able to see through his own pain and discern the truth. “What does he want?” he said, busying himself with the wall lantern.
“I don’t know, but it sounded important. He’s waiting for you in the den.”
“All right. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“I’ll tell him,” the blond said. He turned toward the door, then hesitated, as though he wanted to say more.
‘Please don’t say it. I don’t think I could stand it if you asked me to come with you,’ the young astronaut thought.
“Don’t let yourself feel guilty about your decision to stay. If I thought for a minute that you’d come to regret it or that you’d be unhappy here with Trina and Virgil’s family, I’d talk myself blue in the face trying to get you to change your mind and come with us. To tell you the truth, I envy you; if my own situation were different, I’d probably be doing the same thing. I promise you this, if and when I decode the disks, I’ll come back and let you know. Deal?”
Burke stared at the floor. He didn’t trust himself to look anywhere else. He cleared his throat. “Deal!” he finally said.
A hand squeezed his shoulder familiarly, carefully patted his healed back.
“Alan … thanks for understanding.”
“You’re welcome. And thanks for all your help these past few months. I’m going to miss your stupid jokes and your unpredictability. If nothing else you always made it interesting.” Virdon saw the curly head bow further. “Don’t keep Virgil waiting,” he said in a lighter tone. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Burke listened as the sound of Virdon’s footsteps faded away. When he couldn’t hear them anymore, he forced down the sudden torrent of emotion that threatened to overcome him, slid his bare feet into warm, fur-lined slippers, and headed downstairs.
“Come in, Pete,” came from the other side of the door, and Burke entered the family room.
The curtains had been drawn, the windows shuttered, and the old man sat, waiting despondently, in the tall-backed, cushioned chair. He held what appeared to be an old book in his lap, and he stroked it absently.
“Sit down. We have to talk about Alan,” he began.
“What about him?” Burke asked suspiciously as he took a seat on the sofa adjacent to the overseer.
“You can’t let him go on alone tomorrow.”
Pete sighed irritably. “I’ve already been through this once today.”
“No, with Galen. Look, Virdon’s a big boy now, Virgil. Besides, he won’t be alone. Galen’s going with him.”
“That’s not what I mean, Pete. You’re his only living link to where he comes from and where he may one day return.”
“You don’t really believe that he’ll ever find a way back.”
“I don’t know what the future holds … except death,” the old man snapped. “None of us do. And if there’s not one ounce of hope inside you, you would never have risked your own life to obtain another disk.”
Taken aback, Burke stammered, “I … did it … because …”
“You did it for him! I know that, he knows that, and so do you I’ve seen the two of you together. I know how close you are, how close you’ve always been. How can you let him just walk away without you. He needs you. And you need him.”
Pete rubbed his face tiredly with both hands. “I know,” he said dismally. “But, Virgil, maybe if I don’t go with him, he’ll come to his senses sooner and realize that he’s following an empty dream. I’ve found someone here, someone I can share the rest of my life with, and I don’t have to worry where my next meal is coming from, or if Urko’s around the next corner, or even if I’ll be alive next week. Maybe … just maybe … if I stay, Alan will find hi way back here one day. He’s grown quite fond of Arvid. She would be good for him. She could help him forget what he’s lost, make him happy again.”
“That’s out of the question, Pete,” the overseer said firmly.
“Why is it out of the question? Why is it okay for me to care for Trina, but not for Alan to love Arvid? I don’t understand you and Charlie! Virdon’s a good man. With just a little encouragement from you, he could put Sally behind him. Oh, I’m not saying he’ll ever forget her or their son, but he could make another life here for himself. He could be happy again.”
“He can never marry Arvid, Pete. I can’t allow it.”
The old man’s lined face crumpled with indecision. Virgil closed his eyes as if he were in pain and drew in a shuddering breath. Finally, he answered. “Because Arvid is Alan’s granddaughter.”
There was a long pause in the conversation as Burke’s eyes went wide with shock. He shook his head in disbelief and laughed incredulously. “What?” he said in a shrill voice.
Virgil smiled sadly and mutely handed Pete the book he held in his lap.
Burke took the diary-sized book, opened it, and stared at the tattered, old photograph pasted haphazardly on the inside front page. He squinted at it in the darkness, but the light was too dim to make out the four people standing side-by-side in the photo. He stood stiffly, stretched his still aching leg, walked awkwardly across the room and held the book close to the table lantern. He could now make out the group of tow men and two women standing in front of a NASA space shuttle. There was a petite woman of Asian descent standing next to an African-American male; both beamed in their white NASA-issue uniforms. The remaining two astronauts, a short, brunette woman and tall, blond male, held hands and smiled toothily at the photographer.
“It’s Alan, taken sometime before I met him. I don’t know the other three.”
“That picture was taken in 1997, Pete.”
“But we left Earth in 1980. He couldn’t have been … does this mean … he got back home?”
Virgil shook his head. “Read the names. They’re on the second page.”
Burke turned the delicate page and looked at the faded ink inscription. He read aloud, “Discovery II Crew, 21 October 1997, left to right: Brenda Ito, Virgil Davidson, Charlotte Weston, and Chris Virdon.” The dark-haired astronaut’s head snapped up. “Chris Virdon? Christopher Virdon!”
“Hello, Uncle Pete. Long time no see.”
Blood roared in his hears, the light around him flickered, and Burke stretched a trembling hand to grab at something … anything … to keep himself upright.
Virgil jumped up and hurried across the room. He helped Burke back to his seat on the sofa and pushed the man’s head down between his knees. “I’m sorry, Pete. I never meant for you to find out. It was enough just to see you and my father again.”
Several moments passed before Pete managed to sit upright again.
Virgil watched him worriedly. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay. I don’t believe any of this. You can’t be Chris Virdon. You told us you were Virgil Davison.”
“Virgil died two days after we arrived here. He had massive internal injuries. He’s buried under a conjoined pine tree. Micah never could pronounce Christopher, and he kept confusing my last name with Davidson’s first name, so I just let him call me that. I didn’t mind. It’s kind of kept Virgil alive and with us all these years. As for Brenda, she died in childbirth, along with her child, many, many years ago.”
“But … how … I don’t understand …”
“I didn’t either, at first. We left Canaveral on a gorgeous autumn day in 1997. We ran into some kind of turbulence three weeks into the mission that knocked us off course and sent us barreling toward Alpha Centauri at a speed the shuttle couldn’t possibly handle. The next thing we knew, we were here. You know the rest – Micah found us and took us in. I finally surmised that since both our ships were pretty much on the same course when we entered the time warp that what happened to us also probably happened to you and my dad. I never stopped looking for you. Then, several years ago, Charlie and I concluded that if we both were caught up in a time line, then we must’ve followed a different one, meaning you and dad could’ve arrived here much earlier or much later than we did. Of course, there was always the possibility that the apes got to you or the crash finished you off, so we had about given up hope when six months ago we heard rumors of two strangers who dropped out of the sky and pissed off the ape hierarchy. I figured that had to be the two of you, so I started sending Angus out to slave auctions to look for unique humans. It was dangerous for him to venture too far from Lord Micah’s protection, but I had to be sure it was really you.”
Still overwhelmed, Burke shook his head in amazement. “You’ve been waiting for us for over 40 years.”
Virgil/Chris nodded, and great tears suddenly streamed unhindered down his wrinkled cheeks.
Burke wiped absently at his own wet face. “We can’t ever let Alan find out, can we?” he said, bowing his head.
“No, he must never know …”
“Sally? Whatever happened to your mother, Chris?”
“She was alive and well when I stepped into the space shuttle in 1997. She never married again and never tried to interfere in my choice of careers, even though I knew she would’ve preferred a doctor or lawyer to another astronaut in the family. I think mother always thought that someday dad would come home to her.”
Burke nodded. “There really is no way I can stay here now, is there.”
It wasn’t a question.
“If I do, Alan will definitely return one day and when he does, eventually, he’ll become suspicious. I know him. Sometimes he’s just like a dog with only one bone to chew, and he’ll gnaw it until he gets all the way down to the truth.”
“You know yourself he couldn’t live with the knowledge. I’ve seen that the hope of finding a way back is the only thing keeping him alive right now. “That … and having you with him.”
The tears suddenly returned unabated and, this time, Burke ignored them, letting them roll down his cheeks. “I know.” He stood and handed the log book out to Virgil/Chris. “I won’t be needing this where I’m going. It just might fall into the wrong hands.””
“No, I want you to keep it. Read it. There’s information, coordinates, settings, that you can Alan may find useful if … when … you find a working computer and run the two disks through. Memorize them all and then destroy the book.”
“What’ll I tell Alan … or Trina? Neither one of them is going to accept my sudden change of heart.”
“Tell them as much of the truth as you can. You’ve thought it over and decided that the best thing for everyone is to go on with Alan and Galen. Don’t worry about Trina. We’ll take good care of her.”
“She won’t understand,” Burke said with a faraway look in his eyes.
“But isn’t it better to leave now while you still feel warm toward her. I know that, in your own way, you do care very much for my granddaughter, but you’re not ‘in love’ with her. I would hate to see the both of you grow old and miserable together because of your guilty conscience.”
Startled, Burke looked up.
“Andrew was in the cave a lot longer than either of you suspected. You see, I saw you both sneak out after breakfast, and I sent him to bring you back. Unfortunately, the apes saw you too. Andrew … told me everything.” Virgil paused for a long, thought-filled moment. “Guilt isn’t a very good foundation to build a relationship on, Pete.”
“I know … I … just thought …”
The old man stood and moved determinedly toward Burke. He reached out his arms, and Pete stepped forward, allowing himself to be enfolded into the soft misery of the embrace.
“I missed you, Uncle Pete,” the old man said. “Thank you for taking such good care of my dad.”
It was too much for Burke. Overwhelmed, he buried his face in the sagging neck of his best friend’s only son and let emotions he’d held in check for months spill over. Breaking down completely, he sobbed heartbrokenly for several minutes.
“I’m … sorry, Chris,” he sniffed, lifting his head from the overseer’s broad shoulder.
“It’s Virgil, Pete,” the old man said, returning to that personification. “Christopher Virdon died over a thousand years ago. Okay?”
Burke wiped his stinging eyes with the heels of his hands and nodded. “Okay,” he said soggily.
“Promise me he’ll never find out. Promise!”
“I promise … Virgil. I won’t ever tell him.”
“And you’ll destroy the book.”
“I’ll destroy it.”
Satisfied, Virgil nodded. “It’s almost time for dinner. Wash your face and go get cleaned up. Charlie’ll have a fit if you show up at her table looking like that.”
The dark-haired astronaut smiled. “That’s right. I forgot. You dress for dinner here.”
The campfire hissed and crackled, protesting its meager fuel of damp logs, leaves and sodden twigs. Galen had nursed it to partial fruition, but it had still taken nearly forty-five minutes to catch, and the warmth and light it exuded were minimal.
“Why don’t you give up, Galen. I don’t think it’s ever going to warm this cave,” Virdon said, shivering and pulling his cape closer around him.
“It’s not so much for the warmth, Alan, but for the light.” He indicated Burke across the shadowy cave. Their friend was rereading the letter Virgil had pressed into his hand ten days ago. The old man had made him promise not to open the letter until the morning of the tenth day. Pete had been standoffish and uncharacteristically quiet the first nine days of their journey, but today, the day he’d opened the letter, had been the worst of all. He not only refused to initiate conversation but responded only in monosyllables to any questions about the contents.
Virdon turned his head toward the solitary figure huddled in the corner. He sympathized with his friend’s feelings, but every overt gesture to comfort him had been met with stony silence or even more withdrawal. Sooner or later, someone had to take the initiative to draw the man out of his depression, and Virdon decided that sooner was much better than later. He stood and prepared to cross the cave when he saw Burke’s shoulders slump and the curly head bow down.
Concerned, Alan hesitated. He waited and watched as Burke finally drew out of his hunched position, walked purposefully toward the dismal fire and dropped the wadded letter into it. The dry paper caught immediately, blazed magnificently once, then fell apart to mingle with the glowing embers.
The naked grief reflected in the young human’s brown eyes was almost too painful to view and, feeling suddenly like an intruder, Virdon dropped his gaze. “Is there anything we can do?” he whispered.
Burke mutely shook his head.
“Do you want us to take you back, Pete?” Galen asked quietly from across the cave.
“No, I made my decision, and it’s the right one for everyone concerned. I just need some time. I’m sorry I haven’t been very good company for the past few days, but my mind has been somewhere else.”
Virdon quickly crossed the distance separating them and placed a comforting hand on Burke’s shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Maybe … someday. Not now.”
“All right, but when you’re ready, we’ll be here. Remember, Pete, I cope with the same kind of loss every day. I know it’s hard to believe right now, but eventually, there’ll come a day when your every waking moment isn’t filled with her face and her voice.”
Burke’s expression became blank.
Unmindful, Virdon continued, “Just be thankful that you didn’t leave a child behind. That’s the worst part of it, Pete. Knowing that your own flesh and blood is growing up without you.” Alan stopped abruptly. The course of the conversation was growing maudlin. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep now. You’re not completely recovered yet, and I think we can hold up here for a few days to wait out this snowstorm. Thanks to Charlie, we’ve still got plenty of rations and what used to pass for Portland can wait a few weeks longer.”
“Okay … I’ll get some rest,” Burke said, but his voice still sounded lackluster.
The chimpanzee, who’d been silently viewing the exchange between the two astronauts, grinned encouragingly up at both men. He was already entrenched in his warm bedroll. “Then good night to both of you,” he said and curled into the covers.
Still standing forlornly by the fire, Burke watched as Alan located his own bedroll and slid into its warmth.
The blond astronaut turned back one last time. “I promise you, Pete, it gets better.” Slithering farther into the covers, Virdon paused as an idea suddenly came into his mind. “Listen, when we’re finished with Portland and move up to Seattle, it should be … at least early summer. How would you feel if we planned a little vacation at the sector afterwards? You could see Trina again.”
Burke felt anticipation growing inside, but he forced himself to squelch it. “I don’t know, Alan. Maybe … I just don’t know.”
“All right, but keep it in mind, okay? Late summer at Virgil’s would mean cold beer and lemonade and Charlie’s pear pies, not to mention good company and good conversation.”
“I’ll think about it,” Burke said and forced a weak smile.
Alan appeared relieved. “I’m glad. Get some rest. Tomorrow’ll be a better day.”
Burke sighed and turned back to his chilly, lonely corner. He tugged on the angora-lined mittens Trina had knit for him, yanked the matching hat over his thatch of unruly hair, and wrapped his bedroll around him.
‘Just be thankful that you didn’t leave a child behind. That’s the worst part of it, Pete. Knowing that your own flesh and blood is growing up without you.’ His friend’s words echoed again in his mind, mingling with the unexpected shock he’d received in the overseer’s short note.
Virdon had said ‘late summer.’ He figured quickly in his head. Yes, that would be about the time Trina would deliver Alan’s great-great grandchild.
Burke sighed. Alan’s ancient son and his own first born would live out their lives fatherless on this godforsaken planet of the apes. He reached deeply inside himself, praying for some kind of release from the mounting despair but, he was drained dry, hollow, an empty shell, and even an ocean of tears could not liberate him from himself.
Late summer at Virgil’s greathouse could never come for either of them. After Seattle, he knew he would have to make up some kind of excuse not to return to the sector this year. And he would continue making excuses the following year, and the next, and even the next. going back would mean having to see their child, Trina’s and his, and he knew he wouldn’t have the strength to make himself leave a second time. And, their return would also bring Alan dangerously close to a truth he knew his friend couldn’t bear to live with.
It might take a decade – or two – for Virdon to understand that he would never return to the sector and, by that time, his own child would be grown, and Virdon’s son would be ….
He stopped his train of thought as across the cave the overture to Virdon’s nightly symphony of snores began. On his right, Galen growled softly in his sleep, and Burke managed a wan smile in the dark. His friends were concerned about him, and he vowed to make an effort to return to his old self.
The fire spat and hissed one final time as it reluctantly surrendered to death, and the cave suddenly went pitch black.
Sighing to himself, Peter Burke settled back into the warmth of his homemade bedroll, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.