They couldn't afford to rest. They were running from Urko and had been for weeks, off and on. Every time they lost him, he'd somehow managed to pick up their trail. They were exhausted, dirty and hungry.
“Round and round we go,” muttered Burke, and at Alan’s questioning look, he sighed. “We crash-landed … " he paused, hands on his hips, thinking. "How long ago was it?"
"One year, thirty-seven days," Alan said, moving ahead. "C'mon, no lagging."
"A regular calendar you are, Alan. And once a Colonel, always a Colonel," Pete muttered, and started trudging again. "So, a year plus. And every single time we get far enough away from Central City that the spot in between my shoulders that Urko’s gonna shoot a hole through finally stops itching, we turn around and head back toward him. There's a village full of sick people, or farmers being unfairly taxed, or we're looking for technology in San Fran—or my least personal favorite, we get captured—something always brings us back. It’s a merry-go-round and we can’t get off.”
"You agreed to go back last time," Alan said.
Burke held his hand up. "No argument from me. I'm just talking about the fact that yet again, we've got Urko on our butts. And is he getting better at chasing us, or are we getting worse at running?"
“What's a merry-go-round?” Galen asked, wrinkling his nose.
“A ride that went round and round back home. For fun,” Alan said absently.
"Sounds dizzying. I don’t know why you’d think that was fun.” Galen shook his head, perplexed.
“Merry-go-rounds were the least of it. We had carnival rides that’d make you puke on your shoes,” Burke said, and grinned when Galen closed his eyes. “Good times.”
“I’m sure,” Galen said.
"Never doubt me."
"Me? Doubt you?" Galen said, tilting his head. Burke laughed.
Alan turned around and smiled at them. "You two are slowing me down."
"We're traveling the same places. It's a circle—no beginning, no end, so why hurry?"
Alan jabbed a thumb behind them and gave Pete a humorous look. "Well, Mr. Philosophic, there's the small matter of a gorilla on our tail."
Pete wasn't diverted. "There is that. Not what I'm talking about."
Alan spread his hands wide. "So what do you want to do about it?"
Burke squinted at him, thinking. He shrugged, then lifted up his hands and smacked one against the other, as if one were rebounding off and away. "If we get away, maybe this time we keep walking, strike out for parts unknown. We don't come back."
"But what about my parents? The friends we've made?" Galen said.
"What about our safety, our lives?" Burke retorted. He sighed and flapped at hand at Galen, who stared at him, wide-eyed. "Nah, nah, I know."
Galen sighed. "I suppose it is a little late to think I can come and go whenever my parents need me."
"The apes think there's only wilderness beyond their maps," Alan said.
"You said it. According to the apes."
"We're not simpletons," Galen snapped.
"That's not what I meant," Burke protested.
Virdon clapped Burke on the back and started walking again. "Hey, sometimes we stop the merry-go-round. We get off. There's always detours, some of them pretty interesting."
"Whatever keeps you going." Pete looked around him as he walked, wiping his brow. "I appreciate all the vegetation, I do. It provides coverage—"
"—and shade," Alan supplied helpfully.
"—but Urko could be right there, see?" He pointed. "Behind that bush. Or that one, or that one. We wouldn't know, because we have zero visibility. It's just ridiculously overgrown."
"The place needs a good landscaping," Alan agreed, panting slightly. "Which is why we're climbing this hill. Hopefully we'll be able to see more at the top."
"You two are going to be the death of me," Galen puffed from behind them.
"Nah, we're keeping you in shape," Pete said. "We're insuring your very survival, actually."
"Because you're my friends, and you care about me," Galen said.
"Aw, that's right. That's what I like about you, Galen—always able to root out the intent and meaning behind—"
"—your babbling, sarcastic meanderings," Galen supplied.
Burke looked hurt. "—my cool facade."
"You're in fine form today, Pete," Alan said, stopping at last.
"Yeah, well, the pretty lady chasing me around the fields in that last village perked me up."
"I saw how fast you ran from her," Alan said dryly. He shielded his eyes, surveying the endless rolling hills below. He pointed. "Do you see what I'm seeing?"
"Is that a village?" Burke asked.
"It is, unless it's deserted," Galen said. "I can't see many houses. They seem to be spread out."
"So we'll move on a few miles, lay a false track to divert Urko. If it works, we can check this place out." Alan nodded at Pete and Galen. "Ready?"
Pete stretched out his arms, popping a shoulder.
"That sounds like it hurt," Galen said.
"Are you kidding me, that was the sound of heaven," Pete said, and rolled his eyes when Galen looked at him inquisitively. "C'mon, apes have a heaven, right?"
They laid a false trail leading into a small stream some distance beyond the settlement. Galen and Virdon doubled back to the settlement while Burke stayed, hiding in a tree by the water. Finally Urko and his troops came, stopping at the stream, grumbling back and forth in a cloud of dust and creaking saddles. Burke made himself stay another hour to ensure that the ruse had worked before heading back.
Alan waited for him on a twisting trail hard to distinguish from the overgrown woods. They followed it as it straightened out gradually and widened into a dusty road. Small, poor homes began to appear on either side of it, sitting on small plots of cleared farmland. The forest pressed close all around.
All along the road, the people working the plots looked up, curiosity and wariness on their faces. Some began walking toward the fugitives on the path.
"Here's the welcome wagon," Burke murmured.
"Hello," Galen called out. "We don't mean any harm. We're travelers. We saw your village from the hills."
A short man in dusty blue pants and shirt that hung loosely over his thin body stepped onto the trail. ""Is there something I can help with, sir?"
headed for the
"I'd be surprised if you did—it's very far away. Tell me, are there any apes that live here?"
"Only three, sir. A scientist and two assistants. They live inside the forest, by the stream." the man answered. A woman with blond, near-white hair stepped closer, following the man. A little girl with the same white hair, curled instead of straight, gripped the woman's hand tightly.
"A scientist? Why on earth would a scientist live out here?" Galen said.
The man hesitated before answering. "It's said they came on the orders of someone high up, but no one really knows for sure. They seem to prefer the isolation."
"They're not very nice," the little girl added, her round cheeks creased with a frown.
"That'll do, Kimey," said the woman, pushing the girl gently behind her.
Galen laughed. "How interesting. Perhaps we can visit them later—" he knelt and touched Kimey's nose with the tip of his finger. "Hopefully they'll be nicer than you think." He straightened. "My name is Osari, and these are my servants, Patros and Aran. Is there a place we can stay overnight? We've come a long way and we're very tired."
man nodded, smiling. "You are welcome." A fleeting unease crossed
his face. "I could ask the apes first, if you prefer to stay with them.
Or if you don't mind our small home, you can stay with us. My name is Kal, and this is my wife, Ana and my daughter, Kimey." He gestured at the dozen or so people behind
him who'd stopped work to see the visitors. "And this is the
"Small, but hospitable," Galen said, beaming. "We accept your offer with thanks. Don't worry—my servants can sleep anywhere. They're very adaptable." He ignored the raised brows and glances Burke and Virdon exchanged, sweeping by to follow Kal to his home.
Kal and Ana's cottage had two main rooms with dirt floors and low ceilings. Kal insisted that Galen take Kimey's cot for the evening, bringing out an extra blanket for Kimey to sleep on the floor. Pete and Alan were given floor space closer to the door.
Ana started dinner, bringing a pot of water to boil over the fire, then selecting bunches of dried vegetables from their stores, adding salt and pinches of spices. Despite the window openings, the heat began to build inside the house. Alan and Pete stepped outside to escape it, blinking again in the brighter light.
Ana came out after them, face flushed and hair frizzed from the heat. "Just follow the road and you'll find the village well. You can clean up and cool down." She held out a bucket. "If you don't mind, bring more water back?"
"We'd be happy to, thanks," Alan said, smiling. He reached for the bucket and walked down the road with Pete, dust rising with their steps. The sun was low on the horizon, but still very warm. Farmers paused in their work to stare at them curiously, and Pete and Alan waved as they passed.
A man already stood by the well, drinking deeply from a dipper. He wiped his chin and looked at them as they approached. "Hello," he said, smiling. "We don't get many strangers around here."
"Hi," Pete answered. "Your village seems pretty friendly."
"No reason not to be. My name's Cord," the fellow said. He was young, barely out of his teens, and impressively muscular. He filled the dipper from a bucket in front of the well and held it out. "Have some." Alan took a few swallows and passed it to Pete.
"Will you being staying in Cartaras long?" Cord asked.
Alan shook his head. "No, just overnight, I think. Our master is traveling to Torva."
Pete blinked at Alan a moment as if to say oh really? before turning to Cord. "This is a human village, right?"
"Until last year. Now we have three apes living with us," Cord said.
"Is one of them your Prefect?"
Cord shrugged. "No, they have no interest in what we do, for the most part. They mostly keep to themselves. One of them makes medicines, so we have to gather herbs and plants from the woods for them. We had an outbreak of sickness six months ago, and the ape was able to cure us. I think they're doing research for something." He made a face. "Sometimes we're made to test them. That's the worst part."
"What do the medicines do to you?" Pete asked.
Cord shrugged. "Nothing much."
"It sounds … mysterious," Alan said.
"It could be worse. As I said, the apes mostly keep to themselves." Cord took the ladle back and dipped more water, pouring it over his head. He grinned at them, water dripping from the ends of his hair. "Ah, that's better. So, you think you'll have time to come visit before you leave tomorrow? My sister loves company."
Burke nodded. "Sure, we'll be there."
Cord nodded, starting off home.
"I thought you had enough of the ladies chasing you in the last village," Alan said, speaking low.
"Are you kidding me? There can never be enough," Pete said solemnly. "I think I'm gonna like this place, what do you think? The apes don't seem like much of a threat."
"There's more to them than we know," Alan warned.
"Cord's friendly—we can pump him for more information. We'll talk to Kal and Ana tonight and see what we find out, too. If it looks good, maybe we can stay longer than a night."
"Too risky," Alan said. "Urko could catch on at any time and head back."
"So you and Galen scout the area past where we laid the trail again tomorrow, and I'll go visit Cord and his sister," Burke said. "It'd be worth it if we get to rest up a few days. I mean, we gotta do something—poor Galen's exhausted."
"Galen, huh?" Alan raised a brow at Pete.
Pete smirked. "Don't forget Ana's water."
"And why am I the one getting it?" Alan asked.
"She gave you the bucket, didn’t she?"
The next morning, after Ana and Kal fed them breakfast, the fugitives split up. Galen told Kal he'd lost something of value on the road the day before, and that he and Alan were going to retrace their steps to try and find it. Kal looked curious, but restrained himself from asking more. Alan and Galen took off on foot shortly after, while Pete went outside with Kal and Ana to work their piece of ground, tilling, weeding and picking the vegetables that had ripened.
In the early afternoon, Pete went searching for Cord, finding his place a mile down the road. Cord was on the roof, repairing a hole, and he waved as Burke approached.
"Need any help?" Pete called.
"I wouldn't turn it down," Cord said. He pointed at the ladder propped against the side of the house.
The door opened and a woman in her early twenties stepped out, dark hair sweeping over her back as she moved. "You help him once, you'll never be free," she called, shielding her eyes from the sun.
"It's your roof, too, remember that, Amilea," Cord said. "As you can probably tell, that's my sister." He gestured at Burke." "Come on up."
"Good to meet you, I'm Patros." Pete smiled at Amilea.
"I'll have some tea for you when you get down. I brewed it strong and mixed it with cold well water just a minute ago," Amilea said. Pete swung himself up on the ladder as Amilea went back inside. He climbed to the roof, hunkering down beside Cord.
They nailed the thick square of wood down, then covered it with thatch. In no time, they were back on the ground, heading inside.
The interior looked similar to Kal and Ana's place, with simple wooden furniture. There was a table in the corner, three shelves running down the wall behind it.
"Are you hungry?" Amilea asked Pete.
"No, I just ate. If you haven't, help yourselves."
"We just had lunch. We weren't sure you were coming. Aran couldn't come with you?" Cord asked. He sat down on the bench in front of the table, pushing up his sleeves.
Pete sat across from him and shook his head. "Osari had a job for him."
"Sorry he missed us, since you'll be leaving soon."
"Actually, we may be able to stay a while longer," Burke said, rubbing his hands together in an unconscious gesture. Amilea grabbed a pitcher off the shelf behind them, poured them all cups of cool tea and handed it out. Pete took a long draught. It was cool and tasted a little sweet. "It's delicious," he said, tipping his cup at Amilea.
Amilea looked at him but didn't smile. "More?"
Pete looked at her, puzzled. "Uh, sure. Thanks." He took another sip when Amilea handed his cup back. "So how many people do you have here?"
"Twenty-three," Cord said. "That's down from our high of thirty-seven ten years ago. Mother used to tell us we'd be a big town one day." He looked into his cup. "It didn't turn out that way."
"Is your mother … " Burke started, then fell silent at the look on Amilea and Cord's faces. "I'm sorry."
"Our parents died this winter past," Amilea said softly. "Cord told me you'd been asking about the apes. They had a cure, actually. They saved a lot of people, but it was too late for my parents. They were too sick, and too old."
Cord looked at him closely, then nodded and slumped back on the bench as if all the air had left his body. "Tired?"
Pete smothered the yawn behind his hand. "Sorry, we've been traveling for days. It catches up to you."
Cord put his cup down on the table. "I've never traveled, but I think I know what you mean. That's how it is after you've worked hard for days with not enough rest. You sit down and you don't feel like getting back up."
"No, this is more … what's in the tea, Cord? Amilea?" Burke blinked and carefully placed his hands palm down on the table. The table still shifted beneath his fingers. He looked at Cord and Amilea's cups, seeing they were still full, then up at their faces. Cord refused to look at him. Amilea's face was pale.
Burke tried to focus. "Amilea, tell me. What have you given me?" The room was spinning.
"It won't hurt you, I promise. Wanda said it'll only make you sleep," Amilea said, looking guilty.
"Wanda?" Burke slapped his hands on the table, standing bolt upright. He staggered and crashed into the shelves behind him, starting to slip to the floor. "Wanda? Not—"
"I'm sorry. She made us do this," Cord said, gripping Burke's arm, trying to keep him upright.
"I thought we were friends," Burke said. The world descended around him, heavy and swirling. He fell to the floor.
He wasn't hot anymore. He shivered. His shirt was gone, and he was lying on a hard surface. The inside of his mouth was bone dry.
He realized his eyes were shut and opened them. His greatest nightmare stood there before him. Childishly, he screwed his eyes shut again.
Wanda slapped his face until he opened his eyes again. Everything about her was the same, but diminished, withered. Her blue dress, the brown sheath beneath it, faded and stained. Glasses low on her nose, and brown, rheumy eyes, fixed on his, fury in them. "You remember, of course you do." She leaned over him, mouth twitching in a parody of a smile. The room behind her was dim, spinning in his vision. For a moment he thought he was back at the caves outside of Central City, spinning on the table. His stomach tried to rise into his throat.
"Urko had me sent away," she said. Her lips pulled back from her teeth, exposing yellowed teeth. "Oh, I tried to contact Zaius, ask him for help, ask him to reassign me elsewhere, anywhere else, but he never replied."
Burke tried to sit up, but his arms jerked in their sockets, tied somewhere above his head. He panicked, thrashing against the ropes. The drugs in his system made him transparent. He couldn't hide from her—not his feelings, his fear. Nothing was his anymore.
"The assignment was a joke, of course—one of Urko's better ones, I imagine. I made the most of it. He allowed me two assistants, so I have help. I brought my books with me, so I could continue to research in the vein in which I had started with you, Burke. I'm convinced I can still succeed with you, or with anyone we need to extract information from. I was missing a vital piece. Do you know what that was?"
"I don't care," he whispered. His lips felt alien, dry and cracked and not his own. He couldn't even wet them. "It's too late. There's nothing you can get by doing this."
"When they see what I can accomplish with you, I'll get everything back that I lost and more."
Burke made himself laugh. "You're crazy. You failed. You think Urko will give you a second chance? He detests you."
Wanda moved backwards, pacing the low, dark room. "Results matter to Zaius. After more reading and research, I decided that the aid of certain medicines would help me get prisoners to cooperate. I've tested them on some of the humans in the village, administered the medicines and exposed them to certain … techniques before questioning them. Nothing too rigorous—I didn't want them to remember and become afraid of me. To that end, I helped them on occasion. And it worked, all of it. They trust me, and the subjects of my experiment told me whatever I wanted." She thrust her face closer. "But they aren't enemies of the state, Burke. You are. And with you, I don't have to be cautious, do I? I only have to achieve my goals, so that I can report the results to Zaius. My success will award me my old position in Central City. All you have to do is … talk. Tell me what I want to know, and please remember that this time there is no escape for you, no mercy. You will talk or you will die, it's that simple." She looked across the room to someone behind Burke. "Xolan, bring me the drug."
"No, listen, listen—if you give me too much I'll sleep, not talk, that's not what you want." He pulled at his hands again, straining to look back over his head at them. He was lying on a cot, his hands tied tight, the long rope trailing from his wrists and tied to the leg of a heavy table.
"You're more afraid of the drugs than you are of me. They make you feel vulnerable, don't they?" Wanda whispered. "It's a convenience to me, incapacitating you. I don't have to worry that you'll run. But it isn't enough. There are other conditions I need to fulfill to get you to talk."
A large gorilla crossed into Burke's vision, wearing a soldier's uniform and carrying a tray. He handed it to Wanda.
"Thank you, Xolan," she said. She pulled a needle from it, holding it up and looking satisfied. "This is what I was missing. You will answer everything I ask you, Burke."
"How did you know we were here? How did you know it was me?"
Wanda paused. "There was no magic to it. Two humans, one light-haired, one dark, arrived in the village together with an ape. Shortly after, Urko's troops rode by." She leaned over Burke and injected him with the drug, then nodded at Xolan. "Hoist him up."
Xolan leaned over Burke's cot. He grabbed both sides and rattled it, laughing when Burke shrank away from him.
Xolan pushed the cot to the middle of the room, grabbed the rope around Burke's wrists and untied it from the table. He slung it over the center beam running across the ceiling, then yanked it brutally tight. Burke's body lifted off the cot as the gorilla tugged on the rope, hoisting him high in the air, kicking and struggling, arms feeling as if they were coming out of their sockets.
"Damn you, you bitch!" he screamed hoarsely at Wanda.
Wanda's nostrils flared. "What humans have helped you since you arrived on the planet?"
Burke's head dropped to his chest. His body swung, unresisting, from the rope.
"Shoot him." He remembered Wanda saying that. The gorilla had pointed a gun at him. The ring tapped and his girlfriend wore a bright pink dress on their picnic; he wore a brown turtleneck. He never talked about himself—conversations with him were a one-way street. Had Wanda said that?
He remembered Wanda neatening the ruff at her neck. I love you. The ring tapped, tapped, and the gongs and bells sounded. They never let him sleep.
He remembered four gorillas on horses, chasing him, taking him down.
He opened his eyes. Moss grew on the roof of the cabin, and there was a small pen built on the side. A small, smoldering fire flickered close to where Burke lay. Wanda was right there, and still so far away. Miles away, towering above him. Her ring glinted.
"Who helped you?" Wanda's voice was strident. The voice of an old ape. She kicked him in the side, a little, dusty gnome, a weathered crone. Burke laughed but no sound came out.
They'd staked him, spread-eagled, on the ground. Water poured from a bucket onto his forehead. Trickle, trickle, stop. His nose was full of water and he couldn't breathe. The sky looked green, leaves on the trees blurring with the water in his eyes and the drugs in his system.
"You still have it on," he choked.
She saw the direction he looked in and raised her hand. "You remember the ring?"
He laughed, this time a wet, coughing sound. "I remember all of it."
She moved her hand, tilting it from side to side. "It reminds me, Burke. Of the mistakes I made, so that I'll never make them again."
"How did you know that it was me?" Burke hated how his voice slurred.
She got on her knees, looking directly into his eyes. She held his hand. "I will always know you, Burke."
The muscles in Pete's back trembled. "Four gorillas," he said, and Wanda cocked her head at his nonsense.
Wanda gave Xolan her ring. Her other assistant, Amol, stood some distance away, rifle at the ready. Guarding them. Xolan put Wanda's ring on the end of a long knife and stuck it in the fire. Then he pressed the ring into Burke's chest and stomach.
No matter how much Burke screamed, no more sound came out.
It was almost dark when Amol's rifle went off. Burke raised his head. Something thudded to the ground. The bucket Xolan held crashed against his head, and Xolan fell.
Alan was there, panting, crouched and looking in every direction around him, all focus and willpower.
Galen stood beside him. "Wanda." He said her name like a curse. He held Amol's rifle aimed at her chest.
Burke looked up, murmured Alan's name. He was surprised to hear his voice working again. Alan fell to his knees and grabbed Burke's hand.
"I didn't tell her, I didn't, Alan—"
"Oh, Pete," Galen said.
Alan's hand on Pete's tightened. "It's okay, it's okay," he said, kept saying it until Burke stilled.
They'd left the three apes tied up in the cabin. Alan cleaned Burke's burns with the water from the stream. They'd left in the dead of night after Alan and Galen lashed together a travois to transport Burke away from Cartaran. They traveled at a snail's pace in the dark, over the rolling hills of the area. The good news was that Urko had been fooled by their diversion at the stream. They didn't have to fear him finding them while they were at a disadvantage.
Burke insisted on walking as dawn approached, and was humiliated to find himself back in the travois before an hour had passed. By late afternoon, he managed to get out of it for good. Finally, early in the evening, the three of them found a clear, flat area to camp. All of them were exhausted, but Alan and Galen managed to find some berries for them to eat before collapsing for the night.
The next morning dawned with a clear sky and a cool wind blowing mildly through the clearing. Pete hadn't spoken much since they'd left Cataran. He sat on a rock, staring out at nothing.
On impulse, Alan reached out, touching his shoulder. "It's over, you hear me?"
Pete looked at him, smiling faintly. "I hear you."
"What can I do to make you believe it?"
Pete thought about it. "You can't, not until she's dead." He looked Alan in the eyes. "Wanda's gone crazy, you know."
"I could tell." Alan shook his head, looking down at his hands. "I'll tell you something—I wanted to kill her. For just a minute, I thought maybe I would."
"Yeah," Burke said. "As drugged as I was, I remember the look on your face."
Alan leaned back on his hand and sighed. "I've been thinking about the merry-go-round you say we're on." He looked at Galen, making sure to include him, and then shrugged. "Maybe the way we've been going is aimless, I don't know. I … haven't found anything that's gotten me any closer to home, to Sally and Chris." He held out a hand. "I know, it's pretty crazy to think about it at all, but I couldn't let it go. But I also know you shouldn't have had to relive all this with Wanda."
Burke nodded. "So what do you think we should do?"
"I don't know. We'll have to think about it and talk some more. One thing I'm certain of is that I don't want to see you go through anything like this again."
"That makes two of us," Burke retorted, showing a little of his old fire. "Hate to break it to you but I don't think you can guarantee it. Man, I wish you could. But if wishes made a difference, you and I would be back on Earth, right?" He sighed.
Alan picked at a blade of grass. "I haven't found a mission to replace the one that keeps me trying to get home." He looked up at them. "I still don't know if I can."
Pete nodded, looking off across the clearing. "Well, whatever we decide, here's what you can do for me—just keep hanging in, okay?"
"I got it covered," Alan said. He nodded at Pete and Galen, unsmiling.
"Just you remember, you have family right here with us," Galen said.
Alan looked at them both thoughtfully. "It's mutual."
"As if you needed to tell us that," Pete scoffed, and Galen nodded, his muzzle wrinkling.