Echoes From the Past
Aldar squinted up at the sun and wiped his forehead, sighing. It was another hot afternoon, and he’d gotten out late to the field again. At first light he’d stepped outdoors to find his neighbor waiting outside - a big burly fellow named Caleb. His pig had inexplicably lost its appetite, and he needed Aldar’s advice.
Aldar cocked his brow in amusement and struggled to hide a smile. There was a first time for everything, he guessed, and this was a definite first. He trudged the several miles to Caleb’s and examined the pig, lying listless in its pen. Aldar noted the slight darkening of the animal’s skin.
He coughed, hiding another smile. “Caleb… you know how hot it’s been. This pig needs more shade. And the wallow’s almost dry.”
Caleb looked at him doubtfully. He was a good man and a helpful neighbor, but lamentably lacking in the brain department. Aldar’s expression turned serious. “If you don’t get him water and shade soon, you’re not going to have to worry about it. He’s suffering from the heat.” He paused, meeting the man’s eyes. “This pig has a sunburn.”
Aldar shook his head. He’d never intended to become vet to the village farm animals, but he couldn’t refuse to help when asked. Oft times it was a matter of common sense. Aldar had been raised on a farm and was familiar with some of the more common ills suffered by the stock. Whether or not it was treatable was another matter entirely, with an almost total lack of medicinal support, but he did know of some herbs and plants that aided in the case of mild ailments.
Aldar surveyed the field, then looked up at the sky. Thank God it looked like rain - his small plot was parched. The scorching sun and hot, dry days had made it hard on the crop (and apparently, on some porcine species) this season, but it looked as if once again they were going to scrape through. He and Dannoc worked hard on this plot - this year and every year, while gradually utilizing some of the techniques brought from their world. They were cautious, though - the changes were slight. They didn’t want to draw attention by differing radically from the norm.
He ran a hand back through his blond hair, shot through with silver. That and his darkened skin - a result of time spent out in the field -brought out the blue of his eyes more than ever. A man of near fifty years, Aldar carried his age with a quiet authority not often challenged in this village. He was respected. People relied on his quiet strength.
The one man who could be counted on - with monotonous regularity - to challenge everything around him was also his best friend. To be fair, Aldar knew it merely to be an intrinsic part of the man’s nature. Dannoc was almost forty, dark-haired and slim with an impetuous temperament brought somewhat under control by the passing of years.
Together they farmed this small plot, although truthfully Aldar shouldered the bulk of the work. It wasn’t that Dannoc was unwilling to work the field (unenthused might be a better word). He was well aware of the importance of the crop, and he did his best. It was rather a matter that he didn’t have a feel for farming. Luckily Aldar had green thumb enough for the both of them.
And altogether, with Dannoc’s wood working skills and Aldar’s healing and farming talents, they managed quite well here on the outskirts of Edria, a remote village set far east and south of Central City. They’d been here going on 7 years now with little interference from Hernos, the only ape village nearby. Oh, there was the occasional patrol of gorillas - this was, after all, a village of humans and thus kept under watch - but Edria had thus far managed quite nicely at avoiding confrontation with their masters. The citizens contributed a share of their crops to Hernos of course, and obeyed without question whenever labor was required of them. But luckily, the prefect of said village was a fair chimp named Zandor. Zandor did not allow greed to overcome the standard tribute demands.
The clouds opened up and a sudden downpour soaked Aldar. He tilted his head up, relishing the rain on his face, then made his way back to his small home. By the time he reached the door, his shoes were muddy and squelching.
Once inside, he pulled off his shoes and then went around the room, pulling the window coverings aside to allow the now cooler air to circulate. If the rain came in as well, so be it. He had no one to answer to but himself. One of the perks of living alone. He got a rough cloth to dry himself with.
It had quickly become apparent to the citizens of Edria that Aldar was a confirmed bachelor. As such, he arranged his home to suit himself. He had come to enjoy the quiet. Besides, he rarely got a chance to feel lonesome. At Tamar’s insistence, Aldar joined Dannoc and his family at dinner most evenings. He felt at home there, especially with Dannoc’s son Tarron calling him “Uncle Al”. Tarron adored him with a five year-old’s single-minded devotion, and Aldar would do anything for the boy.
Aldar’s mind wandered back into the past, when they’d first arrived at this small, isolated village. He, Dannoc and Galen - no, no, Cornelius now - had decided to get as far away from Urko, Zaius and Central City as possible. Three months of traveling had brought them close in to Hernos and a small party of idly patrolling gorillas. The fugitives knew that two humans and a chimpanzee traveling through the outskirts of a remote settlement such as this might arouse suspicion, so they’d scattered before they were noticed. Cornelius and Aldar had removed themselves from the presence of the gorillas with no trouble.
Dannoc was not quite so lucky. In a nightmare play of events, it seemed that no matter what way he went, the gorillas followed. Twice he’d gotten safely out of their path, so he thought, only to hear the sound of horses approaching again. He’d nearly panicked - surely they knew of his presence, and were pursuing him - but apparently they were on routine patrol, retracing their steps. By the time he’d finally evaded them, he had no idea where his friends were.
The next couple of days were a continuation of the nightmare begun with the patrolling gorillas. He’d snuck into Hernos, quickly determining that it was a predominately ape settlement with the usual human labor force. He didn’t dare try to wait for his friends there - not a lone human.
All of Dannoc’s search efforts failed to uncover his friends. What little food he’d managed to purvey was taken at great risk to himself, but the greatest danger posed was a lack of water. As his unease mounted, his search efforts led him further afield of Hernos. The final piece of bad luck clicked firmly into place when Dannoc injured his leg climbing over a stony hillside somewhere in between Hernos and Edria. He knew it wasn’t a serious injury, and forced himself onward, but it was a slow and painful struggle. Finally, he’d become dehydrated and collapsed on the outskirts of Edria. Some twelve hours later, half-dead, he’d been discovered by Tamar, who quickly went for help.
Aldar smiled to himself. Once Dannoc had met Tamar, he’d never had a chance. He who’d spent years successfully avoiding intimacy suddenly found himself fighting a grim battle within. His usual emotional reticence mysteriously evaporated, and he was left scrambling. The worst part was, to his mind, that Tamar hadn’t challenged his formidable defenses - she hadn’t even tried. She just was.
She was quick-witted, and kind, she laughed at him and with him, and worst of all, she didn’t react to his provocations. She held her own. Unlike him, she had her temper firmly under control and would gaze at him with cool eyes when he enacted outbursts designed to drive her away.
Obviously he’d failed. Aldar smirked at the ease at which he’d fallen. Pitiful, really.
By the time Aldar and Cornelius discovered his whereabouts, it was all over. Dannoc didn’t realize it, but the fat lady had sung. Long and loud.
With Cornelius and Aldar reluctantly accompanying him, he’d fled the village. He’d made it for nearly two months, putting himself and his companions through Hell in the meantime. How many times had they heard the arguments about the danger he posed to her, the insanity of trying to make a life together? It would be a disaster. He didn’t know how to settle down. He was definitely not the marrying kind. He was going to put this behind him, put her behind him.
Except he couldn’t.
Aldar listened silently for the most part. He knew Dannoc had to decide for himself. The only thing that would help his stubborn friend was time. And if that didn’t work, he was going to knock him over the head. Soon.
Cornelius, on the other hand, finally broke. His outburst was long and loud. Either grab the chance to be happy, be willing to take the risk, or shut up and get on with it. Before he drove them all absolutely insane.
Aldar grinned again, remembering, then jerked upright at the pounding at the door. Whoever they were, they’d gotten soaked.
He opened the door to find Kamala on his doorstep and as he’d surmised, she was indeed very wet. She looked up, her small form huddled close to the doorway as he opened it.
"Kamala," he said, smiling down at her and handing her a cloth to dry on. "You’re soaked! Storm take you by surprise?"
"No, I knew it was coming, but I had something important to do. I’d hoped to get here before it started," she said, toweling off her dark hair. She handed the cloth back to him. "Looks like you got caught out, as well." Kamala looked around the home approvingly. Neat, but a little bare.
"Important… will I need to sit down?" he said, quirking a smile at her. He gestured for Kamala to sit beside him.
"No, I don’t think you do, unless you’re afraid of my cooking," she replied. "I’ve come to ask you to dinner tomorrow. To thank you for all your help."
"I might think my stomach is important enough to risk getting soaked over, but I didn’t think anyone else did," Aldar joked.
"It’s not your stomach I’m looking forward to seeing across the table from me," she said, and he laughed, surprised.
Kamala kept her eyes on him. He’d been wonderful to her and the children, helping with her small plot of vegetables and repairs around the home, and her opinion of him had only risen as time went on. Aldar was a kind, strong man and she sensed that he was attracted to her. But something held him back. She was determined to find out what.
Aldar thought Kamala was a lovely woman and a good mother, and she’d done her best since her husband died in an accident a year ago. Summoned by Zandor for a building project on a new ape settlement a good week’s walk to the east, Martin had been crushed as the laborers lost control of a stone slab they were attempting to position.
Kamala moved closer and placed her hand on Aldar’s leg, staring up into his eyes. Impulsively he bent down to her. Her lips were soft and welcoming, and he felt a sudden rush of desire. Her arms came around his back, and they clung together.
It had been a long and lonely journey since he and Dannoc had found themselves here. For years, Aldar pursued the faint hope of returning home to Sally and Chris, but found himself blocked at every step by Urko and Zaius with their obsessive, relentless search for the fugitives. Had the fate of the astronauts been sealed by the apes? He’d never know. He’d never really gotten the chance to know. Every discovery of technology, every possible lead had been crushed by the gorillas. And they'd never been able to find humans more advanced than those they'd first encountered on this strange world.
Aldar’s thoughts of Sally and Chris were unsettling and he reluctantly pulled away from Kamala. Her eyes opened wide, questioning, and he turned from her, confused.
He’d held onto his hopes, to thoughts of his wife and son for a long, long time. They would forever be a part of him. "I’m sorry, Kam," he muttered, then looked at her worried face. "Everything’s fine," he said, and smiled with an effort.
Wasn’t it really, finally time to put the past behind him? he thought, then wondered if he could actually do it.
Only one way to find out. "I’ll be there… tomorrow," he promised. Kam’s face lit up, and he was surprised at the warmth he felt, looking at her expression.
When Dannoc had made his fateful decision to stay with Tamar, Aldar stayed with him, to the great relief of his friend. If they were ever going to try and settle somewhere, to attempt a half-way normal life, he guessed that this was as good a place as any. For three years, the fugitives had risked their lives again and again on the move. Dannoc had stayed by his side during their long run, as had Cornelius. There had come a time when they were all tired of running - sick to death of it. Fatigue dogged their every move. Hope had run out. The closest thing they had to home was each other, and they decided to keep it that way as best they knew how. As a result, Cornelius now resided in Hernos with his wife, Ezri and their two young chimps. They saw each other as often as they could make it.
And now, here in Edria, he’d met Kamala and her children. He wondered if that was fate, as well.
Time would tell.
Aldar walked towards the humble abode, the only residence within a mile of his own. Dannoc awaited him as usual, long legs pacing up and down the front of the house. Aldar’s brow wrinkled, picking up on his friend's restlessness.
"Tamar okay?" he called as he approached. He handed a cloth sack full of vegetables to Dannoc. "Gonna be another mouth to feed soon, you know. Be careful of that, by the way. There’s something in there for Tarron’s birthday, too. "
Dannoc’s dark head turned towards him and he smiled briefly. "She’s okay. I’m a little worried about her, though -she’s so emotional." He took the sack from his friend, peering inside. "Hey, he’ll love that,” he said, looking at Tarron’s present. “I don’t think our newest addition is gonna be eating carrots anytime soon after he’s born, though."
Aldar smiled back. "Him, huh? As far as Tamar being emotional, you oughta know the routine by now. You’ve done this before. It’s perfectly normal."
Dannoc sighed and raked his unruly hair back from his forehead. "Yeah, yeah, I know." He sighed again and cocked his head at Al. "Remember when she used to be calm?" he asked, nostalgically. He stared off into space. Aldar nodded his head, grinning. "I miss those days…" he added, trailing off. Aldar laughed and clapped him on the back.
"You know this isn’t forever. She’ll be back to ordering you around in that sweet commando voice of hers in no time."
"You’d better pipe down, there, buddy," Dan said in a hushed voice. "You want her to hear? You don’t want to get on her bad side. And she doesn’t order me around."
"I won’t get on her bad side. Tamar’s crazy about me. And she orders you around all the time. She’s got you wrapped around her little finger," said Aldar.
"I am concerned, though," Dannoc replied, ignoring Aldar’s last statement. "God, she feels bad, thinks she looks bad. I can’t take the crying, Al," he shook his head, morose. "You know I can’t." Aldar nodded solemnly, sympathetic.
"Heard anything new, by the way?" Aldar asked. Every evening, it had become a habit of theirs to meet outside and discuss any new developments of concern. After all these years, their status as fugitives still weighed heavily upon them. They took nothing for granted.
"No, but Cornelius should be here in a couple of days. He might have heard something." It had been a long time since they’d heard anything coming out of Central City. Not since Zaius had keeled over in the Council Hall with a heart-attack at the grand old age of seventy-five.
"Good. I hope the news is good," said Aldar.
"It will be. A lot of time has passed, Al."
"Yeah…" Aldar trailed off with a far-away look. He missed the interest widening his friend’s brown eyes.
Dannoc casually cleared his throat. "So… seen the widow, lately?"
Aldar looked at him sharply. "As a matter of fact, yes. Which reminds me, I won’t be here for dinner tomorrow." He ignored the grin plastered over his friend’s face, and turned to go inside.
"Dinner with the widow, huh?" came Dannoc’s voice, interrupted by the small torpedo that was his son, barreling into Aldar’s knees.
"Uncle Al!" exclaimed Tarron. He had curly dark hair and brown eyes. A miniature Dannoc. Just what the world needs, Aldar mused fondly. He staggered at the impact the boy made.
"Hey there, Tarron," Aldar greeted him, a twinkle in his eyes. "You’re a chip off the old block, anybody ever tell you that?" The boy looked at him, wide brown eyes puzzled. "That means you're just like your old Dad." Dannoc frowned at the use of ‘old’.
The boy puffed out his chest. "I’m growing up, too. I’ll be five tomorrow."
Aldar laughed and hugged him. "You bet. You’ll be grown before you know it." He straightened up to look at Dannoc’s wife. "How are you, Tamar?"
She pushed honey-colored hair off her forehead. "Fine, Al, just fine. Maybe a little tired." She smiled at him.
"You don’t look it. You’re glowing," Aldar said. Dannoc shot him a look, and Tamar looked at him wryly.
"Dan told you, huh?"
"Well… he said you’re not feeling your best," Aldar hedged. She reached up and smacked her husband lightly on the back of the head.
"I’m fine, really. Just the heat. Seems like it was cooler the year Tarron was born, you know?" Her eyes, a golden brown, suddenly watered.
"It’ll be over soon, now. Don’t you worry," said Aldar, comforting her. "We’ll take good care of you." Dannoc reached for her hand.
"I know," she said, and nodded. "I just can’t remember the last time I saw my feet."
"I can still see them, Momma," piped Tarron helpfully. She grinned down at her son, wiping her eyes.
"Oh… well then, do they look okay to you? I didn’t grow any extra toes or anything, did I?" she asked him, ignoring the men trying to smother their smiles.
Tarron shrugged doubtfully. "I guess not."
"Well, then, that’s fine. What do you say we sit down and have some dinner?" She shot a look at the two men, and the foursome moved to the table, already set, with bowls of steaming vegetables and bread heaped upon serving plates in the middle. They started to help themselves.
"By the way, Al can’t make it to dinner tomorrow," said Dannoc with a grin.
"Oh?" said Tamar, looking expectantly at Aldar.
"I have plans," Aldar replied, uncomfortably.
Dannoc grinned even more, and Tamar’s brow crooked, interested. "What plans?" she prompted gently.
"I’m having, er.. dinner with Kamala, tomorrow," said Aldar, not sure why he was feeling embarrassed. For God’s sake, he was a grown man! These were his friends. What was the trouble, exactly?
Tamar smiled warmly. "Kamala… she’s such a nice woman. Perfect."
Aldar looked at her, unsure. He was beginning to get a little irritated, in self-defense, mostly. "Perfect?" he questioned, with an edge to his voice. He wanted slap the grin off Dannoc’s cock-sure face.
"I just meant she’s a wonderful person. Wouldn’t you agree?" questioned Tamar innocently, scooping food up for Tarron.
"Dannoc! Can’t you wipe that grin off your face?" Aldar erupted, unable to bear it any more. He glared at Dan.
"Look, Al, it’s about time you got on with your life. You can’t live like a monk forever. Take the robes off and live a little," countered Dannoc firmly. "You know I'm right," he said, and turned his attention to his food.
"A monk?" questioned Tamar. There was silence at the table, and she sighed. This wouldn’t be the last time those two made some obscure reference in front of her.
"It’s just a kind of religious person. Back where we come from," said Aldar, after a moment. Tamar nodded. She was curious about the strange words and references to things she’d never heard of that frequently came from the two men, but she'd gotten used to it, to a point. It was just one more thing that made them so different from any other men she’d ever met.
"Besides," said Dannoc, slyly, watching Aldar tuck into the food, "maybe you'll get lucky." Aldar coughed and grabbed for his cup of water.
When he finally stopped choking, he glared across the table at Dan with watery eyes. That smug face of his was just too much. He grabbed a roll of bread and lobbed it at his face.
"Mom," said Tarron, frowning, "sometimes they act just like a couple of kids."
Aldar pushed his hair back one last time. In the two miles he’d traveled to get to Kamala’s, he worked up quite a sweat. Now he felt grungy. Damn. Nothing to do about it now, though. He looked the vegetable plot over approvingly. The rain had done it good. He wiped his forehead nervously and knocked at the front door of the pleasant little home.
Kamala answered shortly with a welcoming smile. He entered and looked around, confused. “Where are the kids?” he asked.
Kamala smiled. “I sent them to my sister’s,” she replied, looking him in the eyes. Aldar felt the nervous sweat return. He guessed there were some things he’d been avoiding regarding his relationship with Kamala that he was about to face in a hurry. Ready or not. “Dinner’s almost ready. You want to wash up at the well?” He smiled at her gratefully and stepped back outside. Pulling up water in a bucket, he washed his face and arms thoroughly, even dampening his hair a bit. He had no wish to look like a drowned rat, but damned if he was going in there to face this woman with a itchy, sweaty scalp.
Aldar stepped inside once again, smiling at Kamala. Get hold of yourself – you’re still a colonel, he reminded himself sternly, and colonels don’t act like scared puppies with their tails tucked between their legs. Except, he thought, wryly, his duties never included fraternizing with good-hearted, beautiful widows with nothing on their minds but getting to know you better.
He shook his head. My God, was Dannoc living in his head now? He was going to have to spend a little less time with that family.
“Are you all right?” asked Kamala solicitously, and Aldar smiled again, embarrassed. He decided to put his cards on the table straight away and end all the nonsense.
“Kam, I… it’s been a long time since I’ve had dinner with a woman alone,” he confessed. “I didn’t really expect it would be this evening, either.”
Now it was Kamala’s turn to be embarrassed. “I…uh, well, I thought it would be nice to have dinner alone. If that’s not all right….”
“No, no, it’s all right. I mean, I think it is. What I mean is… oh, hell…” he swore, and then her mouth was suddenly on his. His arms wrapped around her of their own accord as the kiss deepened. She felt so good in his arms. It had been so damned long.
At the back of his mind came that familiar tug, that yearning
for his wife and son. It was like an old but familiar song, echoing from the
past. His lips grew still against hers. She felt the withdrawal and pulled
back, questioning him with her eyes.
Aldar touched her arm. “Don’t be sorry, Kam. I’m not.” Was that true? He didn’t know, yet. But he knew he had feelings for this woman. It was time to tell her the truth. He owed her that, at least.
She got up and went to the fire, stirring a bubbling pot. “Dinner’s ready,” she said brightly, refusing to meet his eyes. He got up and stood beside her.
“There’s something I need to tell you, Kam. Can dinner wait?” he asked her gently, and she nodded, turning to him. “I was married, years ago,” he began, hesitantly, after a slight pause. He looked away, eyes unfocused. “We had a son. The two of them meant the world to me,” he said, reflecting.
“What happened?” she asked, concern in her gray eyes.
“They… they were taken from me,” he answered, groping for a truthful explanation.
“Taken?” she repeated.
“We were separated. By the apes. And I’ve never known what happened to her… or to my son.”
“So they’re still alive?” she asked hesitantly, taking his hand in hers. He looked down briefly at the hand covering his, then away again.
“No, no. They’re… they’re gone now. I couldn’t get back to them. But I don’t know how they managed, after I was gone… I don’t know if my son had a good life. I’ve been wondering for years about them, and hoping…” he confessed tightly.
“Hoping what, Aldar?” Kamala asked him gently.
He smiled a little, blue eyes sad. “Just wishing that somehow, there was a way back to them. To what was.” He rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I know it may seem foolish to you…” he trailed off.
“No,” she said. He stared at her in surprise. “Why would I think it foolish? When my husband died, I didn’t suffer with the uncertainty that you did… but he did not die pleasantly.” She shuddered. “It’s haunted me a long while, now.”
Aldar looked at her, considering. “I’m sorry, Kam… I know it’s been rough on you and the children.” His arms enfolded her, and it felt as if she belonged there. If only he could let go of the guilt he felt!
“Did you mean to leave them behind?” she asked abruptly. Aldar stiffened, pulling away from her.
“Not intentionally, no, of course not,” he whispered, shaken, staring down at her.
“Then why act as if you did?” she asked, gray eyes probing his, then flushed again. “I’m sorry, it’s not my business…” she trailed off. Again she rose and went to the bubbling pot of vegetables.
He sat down, unmindful of Kamala. Was that what he’d been doing all these years… laying blame? Punishing himself?
It’s true, if he hadn’t accepted this mission, he’d have lived out his life with them. But he was an astronaut, it was in his blood… Sally knew it, and accepted it. He felt a pang of sorrow at the thought of Chris. He’d had no choice but to accept what his father did. As did all children.
God knows he loved them. He’d loved them for years. He always would.
But did it mean he was condemned to living out his life alone, such as it was? He knew, suddenly, without a doubt that they wouldn’t have wanted this for him, being a by-stander to his own life, watching it pass him by. He stood and walked to Kamala, ladling vegetables out into their plates. He grasped her arm and she straightened, slowly. He leaned over and kissed her thoroughly, longingly.
It felt wonderful.
The chimpanzee shut the door quietly behind him and walked away from the school. Today had been a good day with the young scamps. This year he had not one, but two students in his class that clearly stood out from the others: extremely bright, eager to learn, with an insatiable curiosity. He chuckled quietly to himself as he began the short walk home. Also, one of the two was quite a handful. But no matter. He dealt with her in his usual half-playful, half-stern manner, and it worked.
He made the same detour he always made to the babysitter’s house whenever Ezri was working to pick up his two young children, Talia and Mikal. Talia was four years old, and to put it in the words of his human friends, a “hell-raiser”. Mikal, two, was very jolly but prone to fits of temper.
At his knock, a smiling Xella answered the door. He always wondered if she smiled because she was glad to see him or because he was taking the children and leaving her to some peace and quiet. He knelt, holding precariously onto his balance as the children slammed into him, both talking at once.
“How were they today, Xella?” he asked, looking up over the children’s heads.
“Good, good. They ate well. Had the usual fights over toys, but nothing of consequence,” replied Xella, nodding her head cheerfully.
“Anything they need for tomorrow?” he inquired, as usual. Xella shook her head no as the young chimps prepared to leave. Cornelius helped Mikal put his shoes on. At four, Talia would just be insulted if either grown-up offered their help. “Very well - we’re off,” he continued, nodding agreeably. He walked to the door with his children.
Ten minutes travel down the road and he and the chimps were walking in the front door of his own rather spacious home. The ceilings were high, allowing heat to escape, with muted light nourishing the scattered tropicals. Fur throw rugs accented the living room with its comfortable chairs, massive bookshelf and corner play area. Cornelius sighed, eyeing the usual clutter of toys and books that refused to confine themselves to the play area before continuing on into the kitchen. There he settled the children with a snack and pulled out some test papers to grade.
He couldn’t concentrate. His thoughts were taken up with the upcoming visit with his friends. His human friends - Aldar and Dannoc.
They were always glad to see him, even though he knew they worried about him. He took all possible precautions, usually traveling early before many apes were about. His teaching job was a shared position with another instructor, so he didn’t have to take time off.
As for himself, he was a natural worrier, but it was something he’d tried to overcome in the ensuing years. It didn’t seem to help matters. And besides, Zaius was dead now, and Urko a disgrace - his fall from power precipitated by his failure to capture two mere humans (even if of mysterious origins) and a lone chimpanzee. The last Cornelius had heard of Urko, he’d been dismissed to a minor post far to the north. There had been no news of him for several years.
It seemed entirely possible as the years rolled on that there was no one left in Central City who cared about the status of the renegades.
He and his friends had been through too much to completely cut off contact with one another. The fugitives had taken many risks over years together in the name of their beliefs, and they’d decided that, in the end, this was just another risk worth taking. A bit harder to reconcile now that two of them had families, admittedly. But things had been going along smoothly for years now.
The chimp’s thoughts switched to Aldar and Dannoc. It would be good to see them again - it had been too long. He was looking forward to it. He smiled to himself - who would have dreamed the two best friends he’d ever have were of the human variety?
Cornelius was startled out of his reverie by the sound of the front door. The children jumped up, calling out to their mother, rushing to meet her. He heard Ezri’s voice as he rounded the corner. She knelt to their children, distributing kisses.
“Is there one for me?” he asked, smiling.
She stood and smiled back. “I always save one, you know,” she said, giving him a kiss. She was a tall, thin chimpanzee, with an elegant face and warm blue eyes.
“And how was your day?” he asked, as she followed him into the living room.
“Well, I didn’t have to deliver any bad news, so I guess that makes it a good one,” she said, smiling briefly at him before plopping down into the nearest chair. Tiredly she propped her feet up on the footstool.
Ezri was a doctor - a fact that Cornelius found ironic in no small part because the only other ape he’d ever loved was also a physician. Kira was a surgeon in Central City, and while both she and Ezri were intelligent and strong-willed, his wife was possessed of a humorous touch that Kira lacked. Of course, Cornelius was of the mind that you’d have to have a sense of humor in this household - that, or go insane. The two little ones were quite a handful for the two working parents.
Ezri maintained a practice with three other physicians - the biggest doctor’s office this remote little town had to offer. She and Cornelius had met through Zandor, the prefect of Hernos.
Cornelius smiled, remembering when he’d first told Al and Dannoc about his relationship with Zandor - they’d been distinctly uneasy about it. But as he’d pointed out, there was no better way to find out what was going on in the ape world at large than by befriending a local politician.
He didn’t want to make matters worse by disclosing that he and Zandor were actually grown close. No sense in worrying them further. As a matter of fact, he planned on stopping in at Zandor’s office before leaving town in the morning - he wanted to see if there was any news to be had before he left.
“You’re certainly distracted, aren’t you dear?” asked Ezri, eyeing her husband. Cornelius blinked and looked down at her. “Every time you go on one of these trips, you become positively addle-pated,” she continued, patting the seat beside her.
“Surely you must know by now that you only have to walk through that door to put me in such a state,” he said mischievously, and she laughed at him and rolled her eyes as he sat beside her.
“Cornelius, really, my presence still strikes you so that you can no longer function?” she said, her eyes twinkling. “It’s understandable, I suppose…” she said, trailing off. “As soon as you recover, you might tell me what it is you’ve planned for dinner,” she continued in a wry tone.
“What I have planned… “ he started.
Ezri sighed. “I see. Evidently, I’m not dazzling enough to stop you from supposing I’ll prepare dinner for you commoners,” she said, and headed for the kitchen.
“Am I am commoner, mom?” asked Talia, tagging along, and Ezri laughed. Cornelius shook his head fondly and followed.
Later that evening, the children abed, Ezri and Cornelius tried to relax. As always the night before one of his trips, tension permeated the atmosphere. Ezri was, on the whole, very understanding of his apparent idiosyncrasies, but the trips were sometimes a bit much for her to swallow. Nevertheless, he’d been going on them since they’d first met and before.
Cornelius held a book before him, the print blurring before his unfocused eyes. He remembered what had led to all this. Who could have known?
Dannoc, fleeing from his feelings, as usual. Aldar and himself trying to help. Aldar was as understanding as anyone could have wished. Cornelius however, was a bit impatient.
All right, very impatient. But it had been ferociously hot, and the area was remote, made all the more dangerous by the difficulty the fugitives had obtaining food and water. It occupied most of their time, just trying to survive. As if that weren’t bad enough, Dan was moody, sullen, wallowing in self-pity, and trying his best to squirm away from the intense feelings he’d so quickly (not to mention unexpectedly) developed towards Tamar.
He shook his head, remembering the final, horrible event contributing to his almost inevitable outburst. They’d been meandering further southward and here and there, far apart were scattered lone human families settled into small, impoverished homes. Cornelius wondered why anyone would try to live in such areas alone, and if some of them were fugitives, too. But in his experience most humans who were wanted by the gorillas were quickly caught.
Excepting his friends, of course, but they were more intelligent than most. And they’d been captured by the apes more than once, too - and escaped. Most did not.
The trio had come down the side of a sandy hill and caught sight of a house in the near distance. Anticipating a ration of water, the trio tramped as quickly as possible towards the small, crudely built house. As they came closer, Dan let forth with a shout, not wanting to alarm the family by coming upon them suddenly. He was answered only with silence.
The three looked at each other. Perhaps the place was abandoned? Cornelius, in the lead, stopped abruptly, making a peculiar noise in his throat. Both the astronauts went on instant alert. It was immediately obvious that something was badly wrong with their friend.
As they drew abreast, their eyes followed the chimpanzee’s, and they found out why.
A small boy lay under the shade of a scraggly, misshapen tree. He sprawled there in the dirt, arms flung akimbo. There was a neat bullet hole through his forehead. His plump little face stared up into the branches.
He hadn’t been dead long. Perhaps only hours. There was no decomposition, and only a little evidence of animals having been at the corpse.
They found three more bodies in the home. Probably the boy’s parents and sister. All shot, except for the father. He’d been gutted. It was a gruesome sight.
To this day, Cornelius wondered what the humans did that they should have been slaughtered in such a manner. Or had they done anything at all? He was haunted by that thought.
He remembered Aldar and Dannoc checking the humans over, as if there was any possibility that they could still be alive. Both of the men’s faces were grim masks. They’d stayed overnight to bury the dead, and Dannoc had seemed to go into a peculiar, almost trance-like state, one he couldn’t seem to shake off. It frightened Cornelius. That, with the visions of the blood and the death playing constantly behind his eyes had finally caused him to erupt later on in the day after they’d completed the burials.
Vaguely, he remembered shouting, pointing back to the slaughter behind them. You have a choice, Pete. Either go back to her, or continue on like we are now. Either way, maybe all we’ve got to look forward to is that - and he gestured again, back to the scene of the slaughter. Maybe it will be you next, or me, or Alan… maybe tomorrow, even. Maybe we all live on borrowed time.
He’d been so sick of traveling, of moving, never resting. All he wanted was to stop.
And stop they did. Cornelius would never have dreamt it, but Dannoc turned back. And Cornelius believed he’d figured out why.
It was simple, really. Dannoc was both generous and selfish, big-hearted and arrogant, brave yet pessimistic. He was, in a word, the most extreme member of their little group. Cornelius figured that’s what was needed, in the end, to be the first to take the plunge. To risk it all.
Funny, really. He’d never have bet Dan would go through with it.
Cornelius snorted. Humans, he thought, then looked up to find his wife staring at him quizzically. He grinned weakly at her and buried his nose in the book.
That same evening, Dannoc and Tamar were cleaning up after dinner. Dan tried to keep silent at his wife’s slow, shuffling pace. He knew that the further along her pregnancy progressed, the more impatient she became with herself.
He wanted her to rest. Tamar straightened up, placing her hand at the small of her back and Dannoc could no longer contain himself.
“Look, why don’t you put your feet up, relax?” he said. Tamar looked at him without expression, and he sighed, attempting to soften his tone. “Yes, you’re perfectly capable of finishing up, we both know that. But why not let me do it? Then I’ll put Tarron to bed.” He moved closer to her, rubbing her lower back gently. “I don’t make an offer like this everyday, you know. Go lie down.”
Tamar looked up into Dan’s eyes. She seemed exhausted. “Actually, sweetheart, you do, lately. But this time I’ll take you up on it.”
“Now you’re talking,” he said, and smiled warmly down at his wife. He kissed her, trying to hide his worry. “Guess I’ll have to give you credit for good sense, after all.” He yelped as she pinched him, and turned to his son. “Tarron, go wash up, okay? I’ll be there in a minute.”
Dannoc quickly cleaned up the dinner dishes and went out to the living room. It was dark outside. He strode to the front door. He’d rigged a couple of locks on it. After all these years, and even in so remote an area, he couldn’t leave his family unprotected.
Dannoc stepped outside and looked around his home. All was silent. The only light was that which streamed from the windows, set high in the walls of his house, and the dim light of the starry sky. He didn’t stay outside long. Tamar considered his lock-up ritual unnecessary. She was of the mind that if someone wanted in, they’d get in. They had few defenses, but Edria had never had problems of the sort that Dan seemed to fear. Particularly of late, his nightly ritual seemed to unnerve Tamar.
Dan stepped back into the house and headed to Tarron’s room. It was small but cozy, replete with homemade toys and furnishings. He was sitting up in bed, clutching the glider that his Uncle Al had given him for his birthday. Dannoc smiled. “You’re growing up on me, kid. Five years old. Almost a man, huh?”
“Yep. Pretty soon I’ll be all growed up, and then I can help you and Uncle Al,” said Tarron confidently.
Dannoc hugged his son. “You already do help, little man. You watch over your mom, right? And she’s going to need your help, more than ever.” He bent his dark head to his son’s, touching noses. “You’re going to have a new brother or sister very soon.”
Tarron made a face. “I want to help you out in the field. And make things from wood. Not take care of babies,” he protested.
Dannoc laughed. “Well then, I’ll let you help me more. It’s time you started learning how to take care of this family. But what’s wrong with a baby?”
“All they do is cry, Dad,” he said, shaking his head vehemently. His dark curls bobbed with emphasis.
“You know what?” asked Dannoc, confidentially. “They do cry a lot. But they’re kinda neat, too. You’ll see. And they grow up in no time. Like you did,” he said, cocking his eyebrow solemnly at his son. He clapped him on the shoulder. “Then you’ll have somebody to play with. And boss around. But in the meantime, you gotta help your Mom. That’s part of taking care of the family, okay?” Dannoc eyed the glider. “Like that, huh?”
Tarron’s face lit up. “It’s great, Dad. I’ve never seen anything fly before, besides a bird.”
“Yeah, its great,” Dannoc said, his eyes far away. He looked down at his son, clearing his throat. “Time to sleep.” He tucked him in under the covers, and leaned over to kiss him goodnight. Tarron clutched his neck, and Dannoc hugged him, smiling. “Sleep tight.”
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” added Tarron.
Dannoc headed to the front door for a final check outside but stopped in mid-stride as Tamar called his name. His heartbeat quickened, and he rushed to their room. He’d been on pins and needles for weeks now. Having a baby was no longer the sanitized, fairly safe routine it used to be. Here in the future, it was a dangerous business. His worry gnawed at him uncomfortably, but he did his best to hide it from his wife. Thank God for Aldar. He was here for Tarron’s birth, along with the village mid-wife.
Aldar’s having been raised on a farm was Dannoc and Tamar’s good fortune. He was confident that should circumstances call for it, Aldar could help when even the mid-wife could not. Dan remembered the twin calves Aldar had delivered long ago on Polar’s farm. Impressive.
If Tamar knew Dan had thought of her baby’s birth and that of a calf’s in the same breath, he’d have to leave home. He’d never hear the end of it. He winced… then couldn’t help but grin, even in the middle of his anxiety.
“You okay?” he asked. Tamar looked at him oddly, and Dan realized he was still grinning.
“Maybe I should ask you that?” she said, raising her brow. “Just wanted to know if Tarron’s in bed.”
“Yeah, I’ll be in in a minute,” Dannoc promised, jerking his thumb towards the front of the house.
Tamar frowned as he left the room. Every night, without fail, Dannoc peered around outside, locked the house up, and checked on Tarron at least twice before coming to bed. He’d been doing it for years, but lately it bothered her. It bothered her a lot.
She supposed it was the usual pre-birth jitters, but it didn’t seem to matter what brought it on. It was making her crazy. Tamar knew Dannoc loved her and Tarron more than anything, but she also knew there were many things about him held in reserve. She knew, too, that he and Aldar were fugitives from trouble of some sort - along with their friend, Cornelius. What humans ever had an ape for a friend before?
But there was more to Dannoc than his troubled past. She’d made her peace with it, long ago - his odd way with words, his knowledge of some things that, she thought, even apes had no knowledge of. But sometimes she DID wonder. Where did he come from? She suspected the answer was incomprehensible.
Dan’s past haunted him, and manifested itself in this compulsive nightly ritual. As though he were desperate to ward off trouble. Over the years, she’d gotten used to it, but no more. Now it worried her. She wasn’t sure what had changed.
The whole thing was baffling, but she knew that Dannoc’s peace, such as it was, had been hard-won. She wouldn’t disrupt it. Besides, even if she had all the details, it made no difference. She’d never leave him. She loved him with everything she had. She had almost since the beginning, when he’d shown up half-dead on the out-skirts of Edria.
She remembered nursing him back to health. He’d been dehydrated to the point where he’d very nearly died. She’d sponged him down, and fed him, listened to his strange ramblings, and fallen in love. Simple as that. Then when he’d recovered, telling her he was leaving, but making excuses to stay, she’d known he returned her feelings. But he couldn’t face them.
He’d never admit it, but he was afraid. Afraid of his feelings, afraid of her, afraid for her. But she didn’t give a damn. She knew what she wanted. She’d told him, right before he left, calmly and evenly, “I’m not a fool, Dan. I know it’s dangerous, being with you. But it’s my choice. Don’t take it from me.”
He left, but somehow found the courage to come back. But that didn’t mean his fears were gone. She knew better than that.
Her reverie was interrupted by Dan’s entrance into their bedroom. Swiftly he pulled off his clothes and came to bed. She watched him, admiring his lean good looks, then looked down at her own swollen, bloated figure. Suddenly she felt like crying. She struggled to keep it from her expression as he came to wrap himself around her.
“Wonder how far old Al is getting with… er, how Al’s date with the widow is doing?” he said, smugly, into her neck. She smacked him lightly and he laughed.
“I’m sure it’s going well. It’s about time Al had… a date,” she replied.
“Ah hah! Don’t think I don’t know what you meant,” Dannoc exclaimed, and she turned to face him.
“Okay, well… he’s been alone too long, Dan. He needs companionship.”
“He needs more than companionship,” he snorted. “I think I feel sorry for Kam. Won’t be nothing left of her.”
Tamar grinned. “Think you’re funny, do you?” His brown eyes crinkled with amusement, looking down at her. He rubbed her belly gently.
“Wonder what the little one looks like?” he said softly. Tamar’s eyes teared. “What’d I say?” he asked, protesting.
“Nothing. You didn’t say anything wrong,” she said, her amber eyes watering. She sniffed.
He grasped her chin gently. “Tell me.”
“Other than the fact that I’m so huge I can barely get up on my own? Other than the fact that I’m so tired all day, all the time? I don’t even know how you can love me anymore!” she exclaimed. Tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
“It’s your cooking, honey. It’s always been your cooking,” he said gently, wiping her eyes. She glared at him, and he grinned. “Okay, okay, ” he said. “Turn over, and I’ll rub your back.”
She did so, sighing as his hands worked their soothing magic. “Tamar, you know I love you.”
“But look at me,” she wailed, and the tears ran down her face in earnest.
Dannoc wrapped his arms around her. “You’re beautiful. Don’t you know that? You’ve always been beautiful,” he whispered into her ear.
“Really?” she said, and sniffed.
“Absolutely,” he affirmed seriously.
I have this feeling, Dan… it’s all too perfect. I’m afraid something is going to come along and ruin it, you know?”
“Nothing’s going to ruin it. We’ve haven’t had any problems, yet,” he said, and she knew he was alluding to his past. It was as close as he ever came to admitting anything was wrong. “Besides, I won’t let anything happen. I’m going to take care of you, and Tarron, and our new little guy.”
“Guy? What if it’s a girl?” Tamar said, craning her neck to look at him.
“I hope not. I know what kind of men she’ll have to deal with when she grows up. Men like me,” he said, leering at Tamar. “Ah, I’d love a girl, too,” he continued, nuzzling into her neck. “I just have a feeling…”
“Well, I think it’s a girl,” she said. “Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, hoping I won’t be outnumbered in my own home.”
“I almost feel sorry for you,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. Tamar made a face at him, then yawned. He kissed the side of her neck. “Get some rest,” he said quietly.
She turned to look at him. “If you still think I’m beautiful… prove it,” she said.
“Everything should be this difficult,” he answered, covering her lips with his.
He was in a dream. He knew it was a dream, because he’d had it
many times before, back in
It never changed, but this time, it did. Suddenly before him was the slain family they’d seen outside of Edria, years ago. The little boy, staring blankly up at the sky. The sister. The mother and father, inside the house… the father, with blood everywhere around him, and he with his hands to his abdomen, as if that would do any good. Suddenly the father turned to him, opening his eyes. Dan thought his heart would burst. The man said, speaking in a reasonable, rational tone of voice, as though his guts weren’t hanging out of his stomach, “You have a choice, Pete. Either go back, or continue on. All we’ve got to look forward to is this,” and he slowly pulled his hands from his stomach, exposing the bare, snaking intestines. “Maybe it will be you next…maybe tomorrow. Maybe we all live on borrowed time. What do you say, Pete?”
Dannoc struggled, panicked, trying to get out of the damned dream, gasping, chest heaving, and suddenly he was awake. He’d made it out. God. He hadn’t had that dream for a long time. Not since they’d found that family in the dead dry heat of the day years ago. And now they’d become part of the dream.
He wiped his eyes, staring up blindly, and remembered his Uncle’s house again. Remembered screaming from the intensity of the dream, remembered his Aunt and Uncle rushing into his room, and how they hadn’t been able to comfort him, even though they tried.
He wasn’t a part of them and he knew it.
At the end of the dream, the dead man had spoken almost the exact same words Cornelius had said to him years ago. He’d never forget them.
Yeah, I had a choice. Tamar had a choice. And we made it, we chose to be together, to risk everything. The trouble is, our children don’t have a choice. They never will. I am their father. It’s the hand they’ve been dealt.
I hope to God they never have to pay for my past.
He rolled over, waiting for the dawn.
Zandor was at his office just after daylight. The prefect had always been an early riser, and enjoyed the bit of solitude at the beginning of each day before tackling his duties. And today he expected Cornelius for a short visit before his mysterious "trip".
Still, he was somewhat surprised at the knock on his office door a mere 20 minutes into his morning. It was his assistant, Mirim. "Prefect, we have a surprise visitor," said the elderly chimp, a hint of displeasure on his face. "A new prefect, apparently, from the next village out. Says he’s just arriving at his post, and wants to make inquiries of you."
Zandor frowned. There was a protocol to be followed here that the new prefect was either in ignorance of or did not care to follow. Ordinarily, Zandor would have been well prepared for a new arrival in the district hierarchy. He sighed. Regardless, he’d give his fellow prefect a courteous welcome. Because that was the way things were done.
Zandor nodded at his assistant, and Mirim took a step closer, an odd look on his face. "Prefect, there’s something I think you should be prepared for," he said, in a low voice.
"Yes?" Zandor said, brow raised.
"Well," the chimp replied, "the new arrival… he’s not what you’d expect."
Zandor was becoming impatient. "What exactly are you talking about, Mirim? And what’s his name, by the…..?"
He was interrupted by the door swinging open, and a powerful gorilla of middling years strode into the room. He was dressed in a simple leather collar sewn to a gray cloth shirt. Not a standard government official uniform by any means. But then, he’d seen precious few gorillas in the political arena. "Prefect Zandor, then?" the gorilla asked, reaching out to shake a hand. His voice was loud in the small office.
"And you would be?" asked Zandor politely, shaking the gorilla’s proffered hand and hiding his surprise. Prefects in charge of the villages were almost always chimpanzees, or the odd orang or two. Gorillas were normally police officials or army personnel.
"I’m the new prefect of Xardis," the gorilla answered.
"Yes, I know it well," answered Zandor. "Hernos played a great part in the building of that village. I’m surprised I wasn’t alerted in regards to your appointment."
The gorilla grunted. "The prefect there will be relieved of his duties when I arrive. He has been demoted."
"Really," murmured Zandor. "May I ask why?"
"Xardis is stagnant. There’s been no perceptible growth in the area, with little to no trade profit. That’s about to change," stated the gorilla, looking Zandor in the eye. Zandor kept his thoughts to himself. Xardis would be hard put to do better than it did now. It was a poor and remote village. "I’d like some assistance." The request was more of a command.
"Certainly, in what manner?" inquired Zandor.
"My accompaniment was left behind two weeks ago. Our horses became ill and died within 24 hours from some strange affliction out in this damnable desert. We barely made it to a human settlement. I took their sole work horse, but my soldiers remain stranded."
"I’ll be happy to take care of it," replied Zandor. "Is there anything else?"
"I’d like a soldier from Hernos, in the meantime, and fresh horses."
"Of course, of course," said Zandor. "I hope you’ll enjoy your new post." The gorilla snorted with derision, and Zandor smiled. "One thing, if you don’t mind," he added. "I’d like to see your appointment papers. One can never be too careful, out here in the ‘wilderness’, as you put it."
The gorilla stared at Zandor, measuring him with clear brown eyes, then nodded slowly and produced a scroll from a pouch on his belt. Zandor unrolled it, taking his time, trying to shake off the aura of menace surrounding this gorilla.
The appointee’s name was Urko.
Cornelius stepped into Zandor’s office minutes after Urko left, greeting the prefect warmly. Zandor stood with his back to the door, unmoving.
Cornelius walked to Zandor’s side. "Zandor? Is something wrong?" he said, and reached out for his arm.
"It seems we have a new prefect in Xardis, Cornelius. A gorilla, of all things… named Urko. He just left."
Cornelius’s heart leapt in his chest. He gripped the back of Zandor’s chair, struggling to keep his emotions in check, and tried to sound nonchalant: "Oh? What happened to the previous prefect?"
"Demoted," said Zandor flatly, turning at last to face his friend.
Cornelius nodded and said, outwardly calm, "It seems I have some things to take care of before leaving town, Zandor. I do hope you’ll excuse me." His legs were trembling. He hoped Zandor couldn’t see.
Zandor regarded him narrowly. "I thought as much." Cornelius turned to leave. "Cornelius…" added Zandor. He sighed. "We’ll talk more soon."
It wasn’t a question. Cornelius nodded slowly, seeming almost dazed, and exited the room.
What had happened? How had Urko gotten so close, and none of them had known? Cornelius walked quickly back to his home, peering cautiously all around him as he went. His heart pounded in his chest, and he tried to stop the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. There was so much to think of, now.
One thing was sure. Their false sense of security was shattered forevermore. Nothing would ever be the same. For any of them.
Cornelius hurried back home. The first thing he had to do was get his family to safety. He burst inside the front door just as Ezri was about to open it, children beside her. They were headed to Xella’s.
He greeted the children, giving his wife a forestalling look, and sent them to the kitchen. He picked up Ezri’s hand in his own and led her to sit with him.
“Cornelius?” she said, her tone wondering.
“Ezri, sweetheart. You know I’ve had some… troubles in the past,” he said. She nodded, a worried look on her face. “It appears that they’ve finally caught up with me,” he said slowly, then looked away.
“Are we in danger, Cornelius?” his wife asked, after a long pause.
Cornelius could hardly bear it. The nightmare he’d tried to banish for years had finally come back to haunt him. “Yes,” he said softly, looking directly into her eyes.
Ezri got up and took a few steps in the direction of the kitchen. Then she stopped, her back to him. “What are we to do, Cornelius? Is there anything?”
“I won’t let anything happen to you or the children, Ezri… but you’ll have to leave work for a bit. Can you arrange it?”
She turned, her blue eyes somber. “I have no choice, do I?”
He gazed back at her steadily. “No.” She nodded and Cornelius exhaled, relieved. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. “You and the children will need to stay with Anton for a bit,” he said, and held up a hand to her questioning look. “Temporarily, dear.”
“Great-Uncle Anton? Why him?”
“Ezri, he’s alone, he doesn’t live in town, and he’d protect you and the children with his life. He’s the best choice for now.” He stepped closer to his wife and placed a finger upon her lips. “It’s temporary. I have to make sure you and the children are all right before I—“
“Before you what?” she asked, staring at him. He looked helplessly back at her. “You’re not going to those humans, are you?” She saw the answer in his eyes. “Why, Cornelius?” she whispered. “We’re your family…”
He grabbed her hand. “Don’t you think I know that? I love you with everything I have. But I must warn them. Otherwise they haven’t a chance. Don’t you understand?”
“I understand,” she said, eyes shuttered. “You’re leaving us.”
Cornelius closed his eyes momentarily. He felt sick. Is that what he was doing? He opened his eyes to look directly into Ezri’s gaze. “I’m doing what I must. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” He put his other hand around hers, enveloping it. “Please, Ezri. Trust me.”
She looked at him a long moment, then nodded her head. They went to the children together.
Urko left the garrison command and headed for his horse. Behind him trailed a lone gorilla soldier named Lohnar, assigned as Urko’s temporary aide.
Urko approved of the garrison. The soldiers there seemed professional enough. He’d enjoyed his brief foray into their world. Brought back the old days, when he had power. Soldiers had jumped to do his bidding, then. Of course, most of them still did. It was all in your attitude. And Urko’s hadn’t changed much. He was a general, born and bred. Regardless if his title had been stripped.
“Tell me about Zandor,” said Urko. “About this place.” Urko wanted to know as much as he could about the town that would be his closest neighbor.
“He’s a good prefect, sir,” answered Lohnar. “The citizens are loyal to him.”
“The humans? Are they well under control?” Urko queried.
“Yes. It’s very quiet here.” Lohnar frowned.
Urko laughed. “Yes, I know. Gorilla soldiers prefer a little action. I do myself. But we do our duty, regardless.” He paused, regarding the soldier. “What is it, Lohnar? What’s on your mind?” asked Urko, catching something else in Lohnar’s expression. He mounted his horse.
Lohnar looked startled, then a little abashed. He swung onto the back of his horse. “I think, sometimes….” He hesitated, wishing he knew how to extricate himself from this.
“What is it, soldier? Speak!” Urko commanded. Lohnar straightened in his saddle. “Like I said, Zandor is a wonderful prefect. But in my opinion, he’s too lenient with the humans. Not that there’s been any real trouble yet, but…”
Urko was becoming impatient. “What, then?” he barked irritably.
“There’s a chimp named Cornelius.”
“And?” said Urko, sounding more menacing by the moment.
“He’s at Zandor’s office a lot. He’s a bleeding-heart human lover,” said Lohnar, almost snarling. “Once every month or so, he goes to Edria. Peculiar.”
“And why is that peculiar, Lohnar?” asked Urko, feigning patience. This was starting to sound interesting.
“Well, sir… Edria is a human settlement.”
Urko sat back in his saddle thoughtfully. Why would an ape go to a human settlement on a regular basis? “Does he bring back laborers?” he asked.
“No, sir. Nothing. He’s gone for a few days… and then he’s back.”
Urko’s eyes narrowed. A chimp. Visiting humans? More and more interesting. He considered going to see Zandor, asking him a few questions, then dismissed the idea. Better not to get on the bad side of the prefect. Damnable politics! But Urko had learned a few things, over the years.
Urko motioned to his new aide. “Take me to see this Cornelius.” He’d see what the chimp had to say for himself.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” Dannoc asked his wife, concerned. He was to meet Aldar at his place and work the plot while they waited for Cornelius to show.
“Of course I’m sure. You’ll only be at Aldar’s. I’d like some quiet time.” They were interrupted by a knock on the door, and Dannoc went to answer it. “Hi, Kam,” said Tamar warmly, as her friend entered. The two had become quite close. Tamar turned in the direction of the kitchen, one hand to her back. “Tarron!” she called.
“The little one looks to be coming along any day now,” said Kamala, smiling. “How do you feel?”
“Good, really good. Ready for it to be done with, I will say. And terribly thankful that you’ve come to the rescue today,” answered Tamar, with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s nothing. I had to go into town anyway.” Tarron entered the room.
“Where are the kids?” inquired Tamar, as Tarron greeted Kamala.
“Outside. They’ll be coming with us.”
“You’re sure it’s not too much trouble? That’s quite a handful you’ve got,” said Tamar, looking concerned.
“What are you trying to do, honey, knock yourself out of some quiet time? That you desperately need?” Dannoc said, looking first at his wife and then at Kamala for emphasis.
Tamar sighed. “And he thinks he’s subtle.”
Kamala laughed. “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.” She leaned forward to Dannoc. “I wouldn’t dream of letting your wife down.”
He raised his brow at her, then quirked a smile. “See? Good friends. You can’t place a value on ‘em.”
Tamar leaned over and gave him a kiss. “Speaking of friends… go forth. Work.”
“Nag, nag…” said Dan playfully. Tamar swatted at him. He turned serious. “I’ll try not to be gone long, okay?”
“Don’t worry, Dan. As a matter of fact, don’t take this wrong, but I can’t wait for all of you to be gone.”
“Oh, Mom,” said Tarron, rolling his eyes.
“Subtlety. My wife’s middle name is subtlety.”
“Don’t take this wrong, Dan…” said Kam, imitating Tamar. “But you can go now.” Tamar laughed delightedly, and Dannoc stared at Kam.
“In my own home, she says that,” he muttered, and walked out the door, the laughter of the women following him.
“Ready to go, Tarron?” asked Kamala, tousling his head. “The boys are outside.”
Tarron’s eyes widened. “Great!” he said, then turned back to grab the glider Aldar had made. “Wait’ll they see this!” He flew out the door.
Tamar smiled at his retreating back, then sighed and flopped down in the nearest chair. She closed her eyes. “Ah, wonderful.” She opened her eyes as Kam brought her a stool to prop her feet on. “You’re wonderful.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Kam, smiling.
Tamar laughed again. “Seriously, I appreciate it.”
“You just relax. Enjoy the time alone,” said her friend.
“Okay,” murmured Tamar drowsily. “See you later.” Kamala watched her friend, sympathizing. The last stages of pregnancy were always trying. So heavy and hot and awkward. Tamar seemed worried about this one, though she tried to hide it.
Kamala started to say something, then stopped. Tamar was asleep. She smiled and slipped out the door.
It didn’t take Urko and Lohnar long to arrive at Cornelius’s home. But it was deserted. Quickly, Urko dispatched Lohnar to the doctor’s clinic where Ezri worked, while he himself visited the lone school in town.
Cornelius and his family were not to be found. It was as if they’d fled.
There was something here… something big. In the back of Urko’s mind, the past was stirring. His thoughts were almost too much to bear. After all this time… could it be possible? Could it?
He looked at Lohnar. His excitement was building, and he tried to suppress it. He had to stay calm. This was too important. “We’re going to Edria.”
Urko and Lohnar made their way across the forbidding territory separating Edria from Hernos. The trip was made in almost total silence. Urko’s memories were surfacing. They were thoughts he’d never learned to shut off completely, but had managed to control.
Not in the beginning, when he’d been demoted. The thoughts of Virdon, Burke and Galen had nearly driven him mad. The fugitives had never been found. Never been made to pay for what they’d done – to him, to his career. He thought obsessively of revenge. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. But for Urko, it truly was the end of the line. Stripped of his power, he’d had no further opportunity to search for the outlaws. No troops to follow his command without question. His own helplessness had burned into his soul.
It had been a long, dark period in his life, but he’d finally managed to wrestle the demons of the past into submission. Not before losing his wife in the process, however. Elta had left him to his disgrace and dark temper, going back to her family.
Now suddenly, things had changed after he’d long given up hope. He felt more like his old self than he had in years. Crafty, in command. Alive.
Immediately upon entering the small hub that was the heart of Edria, he and Lohnar had split up, questioning some of the workers there. It was composed of the usual humble shops and homes, but it was well maintained, for a human village. And clean.
Urko had so far questioned a grocer, a feed store worker and was now exiting the town’s only smithy. Truth to tell, there wasn’t much need for a blacksmith in Edria, except for meeting the needs of the patrolling soldiers that frequented the town. After all, humans weren’t allowed to ride horses. The smithy supplemented his work by making farming equipment and tools.
Urko had drawn a blank here as well. No one had heard of a chimpanzee coming to visit Edria with any regularity. The gorilla was frustrated but single-minded. This only meant the chimpanzee wasn’t foolish enough to frequent the town when he came to call. And it followed that the astronauts, if they were here, lived in a remote area of the town, perhaps on the outskirts. Otherwise, a chimpanzee visitor would have been widespread knowledge.
But someone here knew about an ape’s visits to a human settlement. And even with every precaution upheld, it was extremely unlikely that the astronauts had blended in perfectly with the human denizens of this village. Urko was determined to find someone who could tell him what he needed to know.
The demotion of the prefect of Xardis would wait.
Urko felt the last ten years slip from his back and his brow. Suddenly he was hungry again. Not for power. For revenge.
Kam, Tarron and the boys arrived in town, with Kam promptly dispatching her boys off to the feed store. She and Tarron were heading to the grocer’s, the boy idly swooping his precious glider through the air. She’d tried to get him to leave it at home, but he refused. He’d wanted to show it off. Tarron grinned, wondering how Uncle Al was going to feel about a request for three more gliders – Kam’s boys had been suitably impressed.
Urko stood in the doorway of the smithy, eyes squinted towards the woman and the small boy heading down the dusty road towards him. Both of them had dark hair. He presumed they were mother and son.
Urko’s attention was drawn to the strange object the boy held, sailing it around in great loops with his arm. His gaze narrowed. The thing was bizarre.. it looked like it was meant to fly. No one had toys like that.
Except….suddenly he was transported back in time. Virdon, being held prisoner in the ruins of the city with a woman and boy. Zaius’s idea, he remembered. Zaius had thought Virdon would become attached to the boy and woman, identify them in his mind with his wife and son back home. He’d thought Virdon would be vulnerable once he’d come to care for those two.
Urko’s lip curled in contempt. Another opportunity, wasted. Thanks to Zaius. Well, at least he was dead now.
But Urko remembered… Virdon had crafted a strange object for the boy. The gorilla’s heart began to gallop. His expression was terrifying – nostrils flared, eyes darkly lit, a scowl upon his brow.
The object Virdon had fashioned so long ago was just like the one the boy before him played with now.
Urko climbed upon his horse and belying his emotions, headed leisurely for the woman and the boy.
Kam had seen the gorilla emerge from the smithy’s, and instantly her back stiffened. She, like most humans, was terrified of gorillas, more so than ever since they’d come to take her husband to work in Xardis. He’d never returned.
All gorillas were swaggering, brutal beasts, and this one no different. He was exceptionally tall and strong looking, with a tinge of gray through his coal black fur. His dark face was proud and arrogant, his bearing that of one who was sure his commands were obeyed. At the moment his eyes met hers, ice ran through her blood. Quickly she lowered her gaze, and felt her knees weaken for an instant. His expression burned her with its malice.
She grabbed Tarron’s hand, heading for the grocer, and the boy looked questioningly upwards, brown eyes wide. She smiled, trying to hide her fear, and that’s when the gorilla addressed Tarron. She whipped her head up, meeting the gorilla’s gaze.
“What have you got there, boy?” asked the gorilla, astride his horse. He leaned over a bit, and the saddle leather creaked.
Tarron’s eyes flew to Kamala’s, and she tried to smile again, reassuringly. Her face felt like a mask. Tarron’s dark eyes went to the gorilla’s, and he said, hesitantly, “It’s a glider.”
The gorilla smiled slowly. “A glider? What does it do? Surely it doesn’t fly?”
Tarron nodded, his fear momentarily forgotten in the heat of his enthusiasm. “Does too! Wanna see?” He watched the gorilla expectantly. Kam squeezed his hand, trying to warn him.
The gorilla nodded amiably, but the dark eyes still menaced. Kamala shivered as Tarron drew back his arm and released the glider to float smoothly over the air. The gorilla’s brows raised appreciatively.
“I’ve never seen such a toy before! Truly amazing. Where did you get this?” The gorilla said, encouraging the youngster.
“My Uncle Al made it for my birthday,” the boy piped up, and Urko’s heart stopped in his chest.
Kam’s hand squeezed Tarron’s, hard, and he yelped. Urko’s eyes traced the boy’s features. A Burke in miniature. He felt his gorge rise at the thought.
“Where do you live?” asked Urko, keeping his voice pleasant. Another gorilla on horseback rode up beside the first, looking inquiringly between the humans and his companion.
Tarron pointed in the direction of his home. “That way. So does my Uncle,” He said, so innocently that it broke Kam’s heart. He was trying to be helpful.
She didn’t know why, but their lives were in danger. She was sure of it.
The gorilla who’d just approached said something in a low voice to the first gorilla, and Kam understood that he’d had no luck in his quest, whatever it had been.
Again Kamala squeezed Tarron’s hand. “Don’t lie to the gorilla, Tarron. You never lie to the apes,” she said, and brought her gaze up to meet Urko’s, fighting to look casual.
“I’m not lying,” protested the young boy, dark curls bobbing as he shook his head emphatically. He looked insulted.
“Look, Tarron, that’s not the way to your house and you know it. They’ve got much more important things to do than to play silly human games,” said Kam, trying to sound disgusted. She cast a look Urko’s way, as if to say, kids.
Urko sat in silence, regarding her with an expression that sent another shiver up her spine.
Finally he gestured to the second gorilla, eyes still upon the human female. “Lohnar, take the woman. Let her show you where the boy lives. I’ll take the boy. We’ll meet back here, is that clear?” He paused a moment, thoughtfully. “ I’ll kill the one who’s lying.”
Lohnar climbed down off his horse and grabbed the female, but not before she’d wrapped her arms around the boy’s shoulders. Tarron clung to her ferociously The gorilla grabbed her long dark locks and yanked brutally. She cried out, but did not let go of the boy.
Urko leaned down towards the boy, intent. “If you want her to live, you’ll let her go. Now.” The boy looked up, angry and confused. His eyes locked with the gorilla’s for a long moment, seeing the reality of the threat in Urko’s eyes. Reluctantly he released his hold on Kamala. Kam’s hands stretched out futilely to Tarron as she was dragged onto Lohnar’s horse.
“Don’t worry,” she said, trying to stay calm. “We’ll be all right, Tarron. Just be brave. I’ll see you soon.” She wondered if the lie was as transparent as she thought. Tarron nodded, his pale face expressionless. “So young!” she thought, feeling the sorrow arrow through her. She smiled encouragingly one last time before Lohnar rode off.
Urko looked down at the boy and extended his hand. “Do I have to come down and get you?” he asked gently when Tarron didn’t move. His tone was harrowing. Tarron blinked rapidly, looking up into the gorilla’s face, then shook his head slowly. He took the hand the gorilla offered and swung up into the saddle. The gorilla was even more intimidating up close.
“Now. Show me where you live,” said Urko.
A dusty figure walked down the main street of Edria, leading his horse. It was Cornelius— his horse had thrown a shoe. Ordinarily he never came into town, it was too dangerous. But he had no choice. He had to get to his friends and warn them of Urko’s presence. He just hoped that this wasn’t a fatal mistake. But there wasn’t time to second-guess his decision.
The smithy immediately set to work. Galen stood next to him, arms crossed, mentally urging the blacksmith on and having no idea that Urko had been here less than an hour ago. He’d have been even more agitated to realize that he’d been less than 20 minutes off Urko’s tail on the trip from Hernos until slowed by his horse’s irregular gait.
To the blacksmith’s mind, the situation had a very bad to feel to it. He hoped Urko didn’t hear of the chimp’s stop at the smithy’s. He knew he’d somehow be made to pay for the coincidence. Humans always did.
He worked swiftly and quietly, fear lodged in his throat, hoping to get Galen on his way and avoid trouble.
Aldar and Dannoc toiled in the plot behind Aldar’s home, weeding it and picking vegetables ready for harvest. The sun blazed down on the two and they’d taken their shirts off in a futile attempt to cool off. They’d been working the plot for several hours.
As usual, Dannoc was the first to start complaining. He straightened his back, grimacing. “Al, we ain’t getting any younger.” Sweat trickled down his lean chest.
“Speak for yourself,” Aldar grunted. Dannoc looked down at this friend on his knees in the dirt. He slapped Al sharply on the back. “Ouch! What was that for?” Aldar twisted around to glare up at Dan.
“Take it easy… mosquito,” said Dannoc, holding out his palm. “Or whatever passes for mosquitoes now. These look bigger than the ones back home.”
“Yeah,” Al replied, looking dubiously at Dan for a moment. He turned back to his work.
“Al…” Dan started. Aldar sighed. “You gonna tell me how it went with the widow or not?”
“Not,” Aldar said shortly.
“Uh huh. Went good, didn’t it?”
“Are we gonna get any work done before Cornelius gets here or not?” asked Aldar, shooting a hard look at his friend.
“Not ‘til you spill the beans,” Dan replied. He swiped an arm over his sweaty forehead.
Aldar sighed again. Dan grinned as Al clambered stiffly onto his feet. “Yep, you’re as young as you feel. And that’s not saying a lot.”
Aldar looked at Dan, exasperated. “Anybody ever tell you how irritating you are? Of course they have. Never mind.”
“It’s a gift. Now how did it go?” persisted his friend.
Aldar looked off into the distance, blue eyes softening. Dan almost chuckled, but silenced himself with an effort. “It went… good.”
“Yeah? Did you…..” Dan started. Aldar turned grim eyes in his direction. Dan sighed, raking fingers impatiently through his dark hair.
“Do you have a point?” Aldar queried, steel in his voice.
“Come on, Al. You like her, don’t you?” his nosy friend persisted.
“So what’s the big secret? Tamar and I just want you to be happy,” Dan said sincerely.
Aldar put his hands on his hips and regarded Dan solemnly. “So you want to know if we had, uh… relations. Right?”
“Well, now that you mention it…”
“None of your business.”
Dan studied Aldar a moment. “You did, didn’t you?”
Aldar rolled his eyes in disgust. “If I tell you I did, will you shut up?” Dan nodded happily, and his friend shrugged. “All right. I did.”
“I knew it!” crowed Dan, flashing a smile.
“Maybe I did,” Al amended.
It was Dan’s turn to look disgusted. Aldar slapped him on the back. “Ouch!” Dan exclaimed, and Al threw him an innocent look.
“Sorry. Mosquito. Let’s get back to work.”
Lohnar had never met an ape with such a commanding air, such presence. But he’d never met a legend until now. The great General Urko, commander over all the ape militia until his demotion, years ago.
This was the Urko of legend. He was sure of it.
Lohnar was agitated. This was his first and perhaps last chance he’d ever get to prove himself. For years, he’d been a part of the Hernos guard. For years, he’d suffered boredom. As had the other gorillas. Zandor believed in the peaceable resolution to problems, even those involving humans whenever possible. Lohnar’s commander had found the prefect surprisingly iron-fisted when it came to maintaining discipline in the manner he saw fit. A gorilla who couldn’t act with restraint soon found himself booted from his position.
Or at least, one who couldn’t cover their tracks afterwards. Lohnar smiled at the thought.
Yet Zandor had succeeded in dismissing those gorilla soldiers who didn’t control their violent tendencies – or who made the mistake of questioning his authority. Zandor was far from Central City. Somehow he got away with it.
The human female sitting in front of Lohnar was silent except when addressed. It wasn’t difficult to see she was probably lying about the location of the boy’s home. Lohnar chafed at the thought. He wanted to be with Urko – to be part of the action he was sure would ensue.
Still, Urko depended on him to explore all leads. If this woman led him to the boy’s home, Urko would regard him with favor. If she were lying… the gorilla’s lips pulled back in a grimace. She wouldn’t be alive long. He hoped Urko would let him do the killing.
For her part, Kamala knew she was in a desperate situation. She’d tried her best to keep the gorillas from Tamar’s family. Anytime a gorilla had an interest in a human, it meant trouble. Usually fatal. And she was terribly afraid they were all going to die. For what, she didn’t know. It didn’t matter, really. Humans were expendable.
She’d failed. Now Tarron was alone with Urko, and she couldn’t lead this gorilla on forever. Then she’d suffer the consequences. She thought of her boys, alone, and grief threatened to overcome her.
She straightened her shoulders. The apes had nearly ruined her life before. Her husband had died because of them. But she and her boys had held on. They’d worked hard to keep food on the table and avoid becoming a liability the apes of Hernos would notice. Now she needed to be alert to any opportunity for escape that might present itself. If there was a way out of this, she’d find it. Somehow.
She’d seen the baby’s face in her dreams. A girl, with angelic dark curls and wide brown eyes. Tamar awakened with a smile on her face, opening her eyes. Her heart thudded loudly in her chest, and automatically her hands flew to her rounded stomach as she looked up, disbelieving. A gorilla loomed over her. He was enormous, with a face dark and grim. The expression in his eyes sent helpless chills shivering down her spine. His eyes promised death.
But the worst part of all was that he held her son’s small hand in his own.
Another hour passed as the two men tended the plot. Finally Dan straightened abruptly. His mouth was tight. "Something’s wrong. Cornelius is always here before now." He didn’t add that he didn’t like leaving Tamar alone for long in her condition, but he didn’t have to.
"Take it easy, Dan. Something probably just came up. Tell you what, you go check on Tamar, okay? I’ll wait for Cornelius," Aldar said and Dan nodded, shooting Al a small look of gratitude.
"See you soon," said Dannoc, throwing his shirt hastily over his head. "And when Cornelius gets here, you be sure and tell him I said he’s a pain in the ass. Making us wait all day for His Highness."
Aldar smiled and waved him on.
Dan quickly walked the half-mile back towards town to his home, long legs eating up the distance. He was afraid something had happened to Cornelius, and his anxiety spread quickly to include his wife. He should never have left her alone.
He gave himself a mental shake. He knew better than anyone how important it was not to let fear overwhelm you. He and his friends had survived because they’d been able to out-think the apes. But Tamar’s pregnancies had the power to overcome his logic.
He walked up through the dusty yard. The house was silent. He wondered if Tamar was still resting. She’d had a hard time of it, these last few weeks.
Opening the door, he strode into the room. He just needed to make sure she was okay.
The voice he heard next was an impossibility -- a nightmare from out of the past. It sent ice flooding through his veins.
"Burke… I always knew we’d meet again."
The blood drained from Dan’s face. His respiration doubled. It couldn’t be, he knew it could not be and yet…in his darkest heart of hearts he’d awaited this day for years.
His eyes flew to his son and wife, standing to one side of Urko in the corner of the living room. Tamar was pale, one hand wrapped around that of her son’s. She attempted a smile. He looked down at Tarron, who had difficulty meeting Dan’s eyes. "Daddy…" he whispered. "He wanted to see the glider. I didn’t know he wanted to hurt us."
It felt as if a fist squeezed Dan’s heart as his son spoke. He took the goddamned glider to town with him. That was it, the one careless mistake he’d let happen, and it doomed them. His burning eyes settled upon Urko. The gorilla had aged a bit, gotten a little thinner and grayer, but was still a powerhouse. Dan waited for him to make a move but he remained motionless, dark eyes holding his own.
Dannoc squatted down next to Tarron. "Hey, no, little guy… you didn’t do anything wrong," he said softly. He son wrapped his arms around him, hugging him fiercely. Dan reached a hand out to Tamar. "You okay?" he asked quietly, and she nodded. He swallowed his fear, trying not to think of his family’s chances of getting out of this in one piece. He’d do anything it took, anything at all.
He stood and faced the gorilla, who trained a gun on him as he rose. "What do you want, Urko?" he asked, voice flat.
The gorilla laughed and Dan flushed with anger. "What do I want? After all the years I wasted, hunting for you and your friends? And now I’ve found you at last," and the gorilla’s voice was filled with unutterable satisfaction. "Why, I want to see you die." Tamar’s face became whiter still and Tarron’s eyes widened. His fists doubled up and he stepped towards the ape.
Dan bent down and held Tarron’s shoulders. "You let me worry about Urko, will you?" he said, ignoring the gorilla’s snort. "You need to take care of your mom. I’ll do everything I can to make this right. Just trust your ol’ dad, okay?" Tarron nodded, eyes fastened upon his father’s. Moisture trembled in their depths and he tried manfully to hold back the tears. Dan smiled lovingly at him and tousled his hair. He looked up at Urko.
"They’ve got nothing to do with this. I’ll do what you want. Just let them go." He tried to keep his voice even for his family’s sake.
The gorilla’s eyes narrowed. He was enjoying himself. "I can’t do that, Burke. They have a part to play."
Dan found the irony in Urko’s tone unbearable. "What part, damn you! Look…" he said, trying to remain in control. He took a deep breath, brown eyes probing Urko’s, looking for options. "Just tell me what you want me to do."
Urko studied him, dark eyes scornful. "I want you to go after your friends and bring them back here. Do that and I’ll set your family free."
"Dannoc, you can’t do that. You know what he’ll do to you – to all of you," said Tamar. Urko turned his face to her. He growled, a low, menacing sound. Dan felt his own tenuous grip on his emotions weaken. If the gorilla touched her, it was over. Tamar starred at Urko evenly.
"I don’t even know where Cor… Galen is. What do you want me to do, pull him out of a hat?" shouted Dannoc.
"All these years, Burke, I’ve remembered what you sound like. What you look like. And you haven’t changed." A bitter expression crossed the gorilla’s dark face. "I’ve dreamed of killing you so many times." Then he shrugged. "Better late than never, isn’t that right?"
Tarron shouted, "You leave my father alone!" He curled his fists up again, but caught himself and lowered them.
Urko smiled down at the boy and then said, smile fading, "You’re the image of your father."
Dan strode forward, the gun following his path. He ignored it, eyes hard, walking until the barrel nudged his chest. "Get one thing straight, Urko. You lay a hand on either of them and the game’s up. You’ll never live to see Virdon or Galen."
Urko chuckled. “The first thing I’ll do if you and your friends get any ideas – the very first thing, Burke – is to shoot the boy.” Dan’s gaze met Tamar’s. He saw her quick intake of breath.
Urko paused, then nodded his head. "Get me what I want. And no tricks if you want your family to remain safe."
Dan couldn’t take his eyes from the gorilla. Hatred and fear blurred his vision. Get yourself under control, Burke, he thought to himself, and somehow the use of his former name served to calm him. It brought back the old mind-set of when he was on the run, constantly trying to out-wit the apes and escape Urko’s clutches.
"I told you, I don’t know where Galen is. He was supposed to meet us earlier, but he never made it." Dannoc said, finding his voice yet too desperate to lie. He stepped back and Urko relaxed.
"He was running. He’ll be here soon, if not already. He’ll want to warn you of my presence. Go back to your meeting place and bring them here."
"Cornelius knew?" whispered Dannoc.
"He found out I was in Hernos. He’d fled by the time I discovered his identity." Urko took a step forward, again jamming the gun into Dan’s temple. "I’m tired of explanations, Burke," he said, threatening, staring into Dan’s wide eyes. "I'm tempted to shoot you now." The sound of a scuffle from behind them told the two that Tamar restrained her son with an effort. Urko stepped back. "Go."
He stared at his family, torn. Tamar’s pale face was expressionless and Tarron’s eyes were red and puffy. Dan knew he had to leave them but he couldn’t make his legs cooperate.
Dimly, he recognized he was on thin ice. If he didn’t walk out the door he’d do something crazy.
Kamala directed the gorilla east of the village past increasingly isolated homes. Her stomach tightened the further they went. It was as if each step taken by the horse counted down what remained of her life. It got shorter by the minute.
Lohnar reined in the horse after they’d traveled fifteen minutes without passing another home. He pressed the barrel of his rifle in under her breasts and pulled back with powerful arms, cutting off her breath.
“There’s no one living out here, is there?” the gorilla asked in low tones. The feel of his powerful chest against her back and his arms around her made her cringe. She was terrified and furious at the same time.
“Urko wants the humans because they’re fugitives. They wouldn’t live close in to town,” Kamala improvised, having no idea she’d hit squarely upon the truth. Behind her, she heard Lohnar snort, disbelieving, in her ear. After a long moment, he released his hold on her and once again urged the horse forward.
Kamala took in a great gulp of air as the gorilla pulled the rifle away. Her pulse pounded in her ears. Time was running out.
“Urko was once a great and powerful leader. His fame extended over all of the ape world,” Lohnar said, surprising Kam.
“The gorilla who was with you in town? Surely he’s not the same ape,” murmured Kamala, feigning interest. Anything to divert him.
“He is. I’m sure of it. He’s going to run these villages the way they were meant to be. And Zandor and his human-loving laws will be swept aside at last. The militia will capture the glory it was meant to have,” said Lohnar, exulting. He reached down, patting Kamala’s thigh and she jerked away, startled. His breathe was hot in her ear. “The time for coddling humans is over. Your kind will learn to live as you were meant. Or die.”
A bitter laugh escaped her and he reacted, fist ramming down hard into her thigh. Kamala gasped, unprepared for the blow. Her leg went numb, then began a dull ache. She doubled forward in the saddle and was suddenly jerked back by the rifle again pressing against her ribs. Her back slammed into Lohnar’s chest, breath leaving her completely at the sudden pressure.
Frantically she pulled in a breath and coughed. Kam felt the gorilla’s chest rumble against her back and realized he was amused. Suddenly she was furious again – more furious than she’d ever been in her life. Her family’s life-long obeisance to the apes’ every command had gotten them exactly nowhere. Martin was dead, and they were left to fend for themselves.
Ever since she was a child, she’d been taught to fear the simian masters. It made her feel resigned and hopeless. How many times had she bowed down before the will of the apes, hoping against hope they’d leave her and her family in peace?
She was through with groveling, heedless of the consequence.
“You bastard,” she choked out. The gorilla snorted derisively.
“Zandor’s favored pets no longer remember what it means to respect their masters. But they will. Oh yes, they’ll learn,” said the gorilla, satisfaction in his voice. His grip on the rifle loosened a fraction.
“My husband did everything the apes ever asked of him and still he was killed when Xardis was built. Is that how you intend to teach us?” asked Kamala, fighting to draw breath.
The gorilla laughed, surprised. “I oversaw many humans at the Xardis construction.”
The blood left Kamala’s face in a rush. Her ears began to ring, a faint, far-away buzzing as her sense of unreality mounted. “He… was crushed. One of the stone slabs… the workers lost control of it,” she said through lips gone numb.
Again Lohnar laughed, this time loudly and long. “Ah, yes. I remember. The humans lost control of the slab, true enough, but no one was hurt. Worthless weaklings. I shot them as an example. I told that miserable Zandor the workers were crushed to protect myself.” Again the rifle tightened against her chest.
At first Kamala couldn’t comprehend what he’d said. When she absorbed the meaning of Lohnar’s words, her fury became as sharp and spiraling as the pain in her ribs. She couldn’t support it. This monster killed her husband, and now he was going to kill her. In an instant her life and everything she cared for was rendered worthless by a single brutal gorilla.
“The boy’s family doesn’t live out here. You’ve been lying all along ,” said Lohnar, hitching the rifle tighter yet. “You’ll pay with your life. Just like your husband.”
Black dots swirled before Kamala’s wavering vision. Abruptly she lifted her arm and wrenched herself at the waist towards the gorilla with all her strength. Her elbow drove into his temple.
Lohnar straightened his back in surprise at the blinding pain. Even accounting for her insolence, he’d never considered this human would dare fight back. His grip loosened on the rifle and Kam pulled in another pained, gasping breath.
The gorilla fell off the horse onto the dusty ground below.
Kam shrieked, a wordless sound of rage, and flung herself down after him. This was it, right now, the end of it all. She reached for the rifle Lohnar dropped. She nearly fell, her legs were so weak, but she staggered aright and aimed at the figure still lying on the ground.
She saw his arm move as she fired point-blank into his eyes. Her last thought before the rock crashed into the side of her skull was how good it felt to pull the trigger.
In the beginning, as Dannoc walked away from his family, it felt as if a magnet pulled him back towards them. He struggled with each step. As he came to the midway point between his home and Aldar’s, the going was easier. It was as if he recognized subconsciously this was the point of no return.
He broke out into a hurried jog. Now he couldn’t go fast enough. His thoughts were jumbled and very nearly incoherent. He had no idea what he was going to say to Aldar. Thoughts of his wife and son alone with Urko made him frantic. He hoped fervently that Cornelius had arrived.
He approached Aldar’s home as if in a dream, trying to catch his breath, and forced himself to slow down. For God’s sake, how was he to handle this? He couldn’t think.
He opened the front door and rushed in, not bothering to knock, nearly knocking Cornelius off his feet. The ape grabbed him. "Thank the gods! We were just coming after you." Cornelius smiled, relieved at his sudden appearance.
Thank God thank God thank God he’s here, Dan thought, over and over. He couldn’t speak.
Aldar looked at him with concern. His friend was breathless and sweaty. The news of Urko’s presence didn’t seem to faze him, and there was a strange, numb expression over his face. Almost as if he were in shock. "Dan, what is it?" he asked urgently. Dannoc opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
"Oh God," Aldar said, blue eyes sharpening. "Tamar. Is Tamar in labor?" he asked.
Dannoc stared at him, his thoughts a chaotic whirl. He’d never felt this afraid, not even years ago when he’d been tortured by Wanda, the sadistic female chimpanzee in cahoots with Zaius.
But then he’d never seen Urko in the same room with his pregnant wife and son, threatening them with a gun. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Sweat trickled down his forehead.
Dan was sure Aldar would come with him, even knowing what awaited. Cornelius? He had children of his own. Dan was almost sure he could count on the chimpanzee, but… what if he was wrong?
"Dan?" asked Cornelius gently.
"Yeah," Dan rasped. He swallowed and looked away. "The baby."
Aldar smiled, slapping Dan on the back. "Come on, let’s go."
"But what about Urko?" asked Cornelius.
"Urko doesn’t know we’re here, does he? At least, not yet," Aldar said firmly, trying not to sound concerned. "We’ve got a baby to deliver."
"We?" repeated Cornelius, looking somewhat alarmed. "Uh… of course I’ll help," he said, trying not to sound hesitant. Aldar looked at him and chuckled. Dan watched the two of them, brown eyes expressionless. He walked out the door. His friends followed.
It was only half a mile, but it seemed to take forever. Dannoc tried to brush aside images of Tamar and Tarron, lifeless and bleeding on the ground before a towering Urko. Panic surged in his chest. He felt like throwing up.
"Relax, Dan. You’ve been through this once before," said Aldar. "Besides, your family is depending on you."
He’s right. You have to think, Dan thought, and it was as if someone had splashed cold water over him. He looked gratefully at Aldar, who threw him a reassuring grin.
"You’ll see, everything will be fine," added Cornelius.
Dan bowed his head and Cornelius stopped short, brow wrinkling. Something was wrong. Badly wrong. The look he’d caught on Dan’s face was almost…anguished. Cornelius stopped.
"What aren’t you telling us, Dan?" he asked quietly. Dannoc looked away to his house, visible in the clearing ahead. He didn’t answer.
Aldar stopped abruptly in his tracks, an impatient look flashing across his face. "Cornelius, the baby won’t wait," he urged.
"Something’s wrong, Aldar," replied the ape, gesturing at Dannoc.
Aldar looked at Dannoc and felt a sudden shock. Cornelius was right. In his haste to get to Tamar, he’d missed the obvious.
"We don’t have time for this!" Dannoc said in a hushed yet angry voice.
"We need to know what we’re getting into," Aldar said firmly.
"Look…" Dannoc said. He cleared his throat, but the words wouldn’t come. He gave the two a hopeless look. "I’ve gotta go, understand?" He turned and took a step away.
Aldar grabbed his arm and stopped him. "It’s Urko, isn’t it," he said as the pieces fell into place in his mind.
Dannoc’s gaze flew from Aldar to Cornelius, then back. He raked a hand through his hair, then stilled himself and nodded.
"What the hell were you thinking, Dan?" Aldar hissed, shaken.
Cornelius’s eyes never left Dannoc’s. "He thought I wouldn’t come," he said slowly, staring at the fear and agitation stamped over his friend’s features.
Dannoc met Cornelius’s stony eyes. "I’m sorry," he whispered. The chimpanzee’s gaze softened, muzzle wrinkling. Slowly he nodded.
Dan turned to go and this time Cornelius stopped him. "You’re not going anywhere without us," he said, finality in his tone.
"If you come with me, understand we’ll be turning ourselves over to Urko. If we find a way to get out of this, great. But my family comes first," Dan said, finally calm. He looked at Cornelius, then Aldar.
Aldar nodded slowly. "It’s time we took care of the past." A look of mutual understanding passed between the three. They turned and walked towards the house.
Kamala awakened. She turned her face away from the ground, coughing. Immediately her head began to pound. Weakly she sat up, fingers exploring the side of her skull. Her fingers came away wet and red.
She swung around and caught sight of the gorilla lying prone beside her. Her head swam and she clutched at it, staring at the dusty, motionless figure on the ground. It all came back, rushing over her. In a panic, she stumbled up.
Silence. All around her was silence. She was alone except for Lohnar’s horse, grazing peacefully amongst the meager grass offered up by the dry surrounding ground. She stood hesitantly next to the gorilla. He still had not moved, yet her heart pounded. When her vision cleared a bit, she realized that the gorilla wasn’t ever going to move again.
I’ve killed an ape, she thought, suddenly terrified. It’s all over. She stared down at him. Now she heard a noise, faint but unmistakable. Flies buzzed busily over what remained of Lohnar’s face.
She couldn’t be sorry. She knew what he was. Kamala’s shoulder’s straightened.
How much time had passed? The sky was lowering into the first stages of dusk. She wondered suddenly about Tarron. Was the boy still alive? What about his family? She had to find out.
She winced at a sudden shaft of pain in her skull. Aldar, she thought suddenly. Of course. He’d help. She had to get to him. But how?
She looked at the horse. She’d never ridden in her life, aside from her trip here with Lohnar. Humans were forbidden to ride horses. The penalty was death.
She smiled without humor. They can only kill me once. She thought of the huge gorilla, holding the small boy captive, and felt a surge of anger. Looking at the rifle, lying on the dusty ground, she thought, You can’t go back. She picked it up.
She’d ride in a loop surrounding the outskirts of Edria. There was a good chance she wouldn’t be spotted, seeing as how both Aldar and Dannoc lived away from the center of town.
Now if only she could get up on the horse. She searched the surrounding area and picked some of the tough and weedy grass to feed the animal. Slowly she approached it. The horse paid her no attention whatsoever.
Kamala spoke in what she hoped was a soothing voice, holding out her offering. Quickly she flattened her palm as the horse snorted, looking at her. She smiled as the animal took the grass. The sensation of his lips against her palm tickled. She reached out to rub his head.
Good so far. She moved to the right side of the horse. He stepped away from her, wickering. Try from the other side, she thought. She stepped around the horse, avoiding his back hooves.
The horse didn’t move. She gathered the reins, hanging down from the head of the horse. This is it, Kamala thought. Swiftly she placed her foot in the stirrup. Surprising herself, she swung easily astride the horse, then clung to him motionless, waiting for the spinning in her head to slow.
The three fugitives approached the house quickly. Aldar’s mind worked furiously, trying to conceive of a plan. He agreed with Dan completely in that his family was first priority, but he was a long way from giving up. There had to be a way out of this. They just had to figure it out before it was too late.
They were near the door when suddenly there was a scream. Dannoc began to run.. Aldar and Cornelius exchanged quick glances and followed their friend. The door banged against the inside wall as Dannoc ran inside. Tamar reclined on the sofa, clutching her swollen belly. Sweat ran down her brow and her eyes were closed. Urko bent down over her.
“Tamar!” Dan shouted, rushing to his wife.
Urko heard the door bang and saw Burke racing towards him, followed by Alan and Galen.
“Stay where you are,” the gorilla said, warning. His eyes were burning coals. He raised the gun. Tamar’s eyes flew open. Tarron’s eyes were fixed on his father’s. He held his mother’s hand in his own, kneeling opposite Urko.
Aldar and Cornelius stopped. Dannoc did not.
Urko fired. The bullet spun Dan in his tracks before he dropped to the ground. He heard Cornelius shouting at Urko.
At first, Dannoc felt only the force of the blow. It hammered his shoulder and sent him spinning. Then a moment later came the pain. It hit with the force of a freight train, radiating outwards, sharp and agonizing. Sweat popped out on his brow and upper lip, and he grimaced. Struggling to sit up, he found he could not.
His son rushed over to him, screaming his name. He looked up into the boy’s eyes, tightening his lips into a thin white line, trying to suppress the pain. This was all going to hell in a hand basket so very, very fast. His eyes met his wife’s. She was pale, and she looked terrified. But he saw something else in her face, too, something that the years had well acquainted him with.
Determination. She wasn’t ready to quit, not by a long shot. It made him feel better, until he saw her double over. Damn it to hell. She was in labor. Just like he’d told Aldar. Earlier, at the sound of his wife’s scream, he thought Urko had hurt her. But it was a contraction. Again he tried to sit up, but the pain was like a knife. He felt light-headed.
Then Aldar was there, pressing a cloth against the wound, hard, and speaking to him in a low voice. "You still with us, Dan?" he said, as he pulled the shirt off, wincing at the bits of cloth he saw, intermixed in the bloody wound. He’d have to get it cleaned out. The bullet had passed through the meat of the shoulder. Not fatal, unless it became infected –always a danger in this time.
The sound of Aldar’s dry, understated voice brought forth a weak grin to Dannoc’s face. "Get your butt over there to my wife. There’s gonna be a new addition to the Burke family before long," he answered, struggling to sound casual. Odd. He hadn’t said that name in so long, hadn’t even allowed himself to think it. It just popped out.
"You hear, Tarron? Same old dad. He’ll be okay, I promise," Aldar continued, blue eyes steady on the boy. "You got it?"
"I’m not going anywhere," Dan added, and Tarron’s tears overflowed. Quickly he wiped his face and nodded.
"We’ll get through this, Dan," Aldar added in a firm voice. It made Dan want to laugh and he would have, if not for the pain. Same old Al, after all these years.
Through it all, Urko stood by Tamar, strangely motionless. He wasn’t concerned what the others did, once he’d stopped Burke – he had the pregnant female, after all. Cornelius shouted at him, advancing, and almost idly he turned the weapon towards him. The sight of the three fugitives after all these years brought a profound and savage satisfaction deep in the pit of his stomach.
Very soon, he would savor their deaths.
"The three of you together… can you understand what it means to me?" asked Urko.
"Seeing as you’ve shot one of my friends, his wife is in labor, and our future is looking rather doubtful, Urko, I really can’t say I care," Cornelius spat. He looked down at Tamar with concern.
Urko laughed. "You haven’t changed, Galen."
"Tamar needs help," said Cornelius, looking at the gorilla. "Will you let Aldar help her?"
"Why of course, of course," answered Urko, sounding jovial. "Virdon! Come here. This woman needs your help," he said, gesturing. "It’s too bad she’s birthing another of Burke’s offspring. I’d be doing the world a favor to get rid of it… don’t you think?"
Tamar looked at him fearfully. "You’d do us all a favor by leaving," she said, recovering her composure. Her brow furrowed as a contraction began to build.
Urko knelt next to her. "Oh, but I can’t do that. For years I’ve waited for this day. I’d almost given up hope, but finally the gods smiled upon me." He leaned closer to her, his dark face filled with something she couldn’t quite name. She only knew it promised her harm. Tamar gritted her teeth, suppressing the insane urge to spit in his face. "Perhaps I’ll take you and your children with me when I’m through here," he said, and smiled. "Burke’s offspring… my slaves. Perfect."
"Let me help her, would you?" Aldar interrupted impatiently, trying to ignore the anger he felt at Urko’s taunts and focus on the birth. Urko stared at him, then moved aside. Aldar knelt, grabbing Tamar’s hand. "Easy, easy… you’ve done this before," he said, looking into Tamar’s gold-flecked eyes.
"Dan?" she asked, between pants, her face tightening as the contraction strengthened. "Will he be all right?"
"He’s hurt, but he’ll be okay. Tarron’s with him," Aldar replied, adding mentally, I hope. If we can get him out of here. "Now I want you to concentrate on having this baby, all right?" Tamar nodded, but her eyes were fixed on her husband and son.
"Cornelius. Get me a straw matt from the bedroom, would you? And pillows… something comfortable to prop Tamar against," Aldar said. Urko didn’t speak, but looked at Cornelius through narrowed eyes. The chimpanzee got the message, loud and clear. Try anything and the humans were dead.
Cornelius soon came back with the mattress, which he laid on the floor. Aldar moved Tamar onto the matt, back against numerous rough pillows braced against the wall.
"Aldar, tell me who he is. Why he’s here," Tamar said, as the contraction faded.
The blond man turned his head away for a moment, thinking. "Listen to me," Tamar said, grabbing his hand, forcing him to look at her. "I’ve known you weren’t like other men, right from the start. Dan doesn’t talk about it… he wants to protect me. It gives him some peace of mind, so I let it alone. But now the past has caught up with us all. The time for secrets is over."
Aldar looked at her wan face and felt a pang of remorse. She’d always known they were in trouble, and serious trouble, right from the moment when she’d found Dan unconscious on the outskirts of the village, years ago. She knew, somehow, and yet she’d made a choice… to be with Dan. But could she ever have guessed what it would lead to, down the road? Could any of them?
With an effort, he said, "Yeah, it is, Tamar… but I think you and Dan should be having this talk."
"Dan’s in no condition, you know that," she answered.
"We’re gonna get out of this, you know," Aldar said, looking into Tamar’s golden eyes. She stared up at him, saying nothing, then closed her eyes briefly. "How do you feel?"
"Not bad, how about yourself," Tamar snapped, then opened her eyes and smiled faintly. "Aldar, talk. I need to know. You’re the only one I can ask.."
"Tamar, the only thing you need to know from me now is what you’ve already known for a long time," he answered after a pause. "We’re… fugitives, Dan and I. Cornelius. Not for anything we’ve done, really, but for what we know. In mine and Dan’s case, for what we are. Urko has been after us from the very beginning, even caught us before, but we’ve always gotten away. And we’ll do it again," he assured her, masking his uncertainty. She smiled at him, a touch sadly.
Protectiveness surged up in him at the look. I have to get them out of here, he thought. I have to.
Urko watched Aldar and the woman. His muzzle lifted in disgust. A human birth. Another piece of human filth for the apes to manage, normally. But the gorilla’s unthinking threat to the woman, earlier, was beginning to take hold in his mind. Burke’s family… his slaves! Think of it. Of course he’d kill Galen, Burke and Virdon, but the family… think of Burke’s agony, dying, knowing that Urko owned his wife, his son, and the new baby…Virdon’s guilt, knowing he couldn’t save them, or his friends. And what of Galen, would he finally see the light as he died – would he hate as Urko did, realizing everything he could have been, could have done, was lost because of the astronauts?
Why, Urko could do anything he wanted with his new slaves. Beat them, kill them in an instant, if he so desired… the gorilla smiled.
If his family were still intact, perhaps things would be different. Perhaps he’d have killed the fugitives and their families outright, and have done with it. But he had no family, not anymore, nor career. He had nothing, nothing but age, sneaking over him, overtaking his body, no matter how he fought it. Nothing but revenge and obsessive, embittered thoughts… hatred, pure and clear as the venom of a snake.
It would have to do.
Al turned to step back to Dan’s side, then froze at the sound of a gun being cocked just behind his ear. Eyes widening, he swung slowly around to face Urko, the gun looming large in his vision. Uncharacteristically, a blinding fury swept over him and he contemplated going for the huge gorilla.
Were they never to be free from persecution? The trio had been Urko’s obsession for years, and every time they’d successfully evaded him, the obsession had grown still more. If there had ever been any chance of Aldar’s finding a way home to his family, the gorilla’s single-minded determination had quashed it. And now the existence of most of the people he cared about in this world was threatened because of Urko.
Aldar’s fingers trembled with the desire to strike out. Urko was the most dangerous threat to them all. The only major threat from their past, anymore. They’d tried for years to lay low and stay quiet. For this?
The sight of Tarron, frozen, staring at Urko, was the only thing that cleared the red fury from his vision. Steady, steady, he thought to himself. The family was what mattered. The children. He’d find an opportunity.
His throat was tight as he stared at the gorilla. "I’m going to check on Dan," he forced out, anger making his voice roughen.
"No need. You’re all going to die," said Urko. An odd flicker of glee danced over his expression, and Aldar’s anger rose again, threatening his composure.
"Until that time, Aldar may be able to help him," Cornelius rapped out. "Apes are not beasts! Let him see to his friend."
Urko looked around, pointing the gun at Cornelius’s head. "Apes are not beasts… and yet you’ve ran with beasts… for years. Would you like to die first, Galen?"
Cornelius stared down the gun barrel looming up at him. He thought of Ezri, and hoped she’d forgive him. The children. He said nothing.
Aldar’s heart raced at the sight of the gun pointed at his friend’s face. Urko was on a razor-thin edge, he sensed it. He didn’t move. Eerily, it seemed as if there were no distance at all separating the fugitives from their past. As if the last ten years had never happened.
Urko glanced at Aldar, then back at Cornelius. "Soon," he promised the chimpanzee, breaking the silence and stood, lowering the weapon. "Very soon. We have some catching up to do first."
Urko looked at Aldar, shrugging. "There’s nothing you can do for Burke. However, if you think you can prolong his pain… I won’t refuse you." He smiled, but there was no humor in it. He gestured with the gun.
Interesting, thought the blond human. Urko was trembling.
Squatting next to Dannoc, Aldar asked, "How you doing, buddy?" Tarron wiped his father’s forehead with a damp cloth and looked at Aldar silently, appealing with his eyes. Aldar smiled at him briefly, encouraging.
"I’ve had better days," Dannoc answered, finally. Aldar exchanged concerned glances with Cornelius. Dan’s face was pale and his reaction slow.
"Get him a blanket," Aldar directed. Dannoc blinked up at his friend, trying to focus, as Cornelius fetched a throw.
"The bleeding has slowed. That’s good, isn’t it?" Cornelius said hopefully.
"You just worry about Tamar and the baby, okay?" interrupted Dannoc. His brown eyes were glassy, and sweat gleamed on his brow, dampening his dark, curly hair.
"She’s well on her way to delivery. It’s going fast," Aldar confirmed, smiling and laying a hand gently on his friend’s uninjured shoulder. "Sometimes it does after the first one."
Dan’s eyes widened, and he struggled to sit up. A groan escaped him, and Cornelius laid a restraining hand upon his chest.
"What are you doing?" Aldar asked severely. "Don’t even think you’re going over there."
"I don’t remember you being in the room when we made this baby," grumbled Dannoc in a hoarse voice.
Cornelius grimaced in distaste.
"I may not be the father, but I am the Uncle," Aldar reminded his friend. "Just ask Tarron. And I need you to cooperate so I can help Tamar to the best of my ability. I can’t do that if I’m worried about you."
"I have to know she’s okay," protested Dannoc. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes.
"I understand. And you understand me, all right?" Aldar’s blue eyes fixed on his friend’s. After a long moment, Dannoc nodded, nearly imperceptibly. "Give me a little credit, Dan."
"The kids and Tamar come first, you got it?" Dan said, echoing what he’d said just before they entered the house. He looked first at Aldar, then Cornelius.
"It doesn’t need to be said, " answered Cornelius, quietly. In the chimpanzee’s steady gaze, Dannoc saw only understanding. Satisfied, he closed his eyes wearily.
Aldar saw Tarron’s eyes widen, looking up, and the back of Aldar’s neck prickled. Urko. For awhile, after they’d entered the room and Dan had been shot, Urko seemed to be in a trance-like state, almost unbelieving.
But now it was over, Aldar realized when his eyes met the gorilla’s dark gaze. Briefly, he wondered if he should have tried to take advantage of Urko’s inaction. But Tamar and Dan needed him.
"I see you took care to settle far from Central City," said Urko, staring down at the two. "How long have you been in Edria?"
Dannoc’s eyes opened, and he squinted up at the gorilla. “What is this, a social call?" he muttered. Urko’s dark eyes met the injured man’s. With a sudden movement the ape’s foot swept forward, towards Dannoc’s wounded shoulder…and was blocked by Aldar’s strong grip around his boot. Quickly Aldar yanked at the gorilla’s leg, trying to unbalance him. Urko staggered back, but did not fall. He swung his weapon down to point at the blond man.
The gorilla’s thoughts were swept away in a white rage as Aldar grabbed his leg, followed swiftly by an old, nightmarish feeling he’d thought never to feel again: failure. He was going to lose, again – the thought raced through his head as he stumbled backwards. It was mere luck that he regained his equilibrium. If he’d went down it would have ended, right then. Virdon and Galen would have been on him swiftly. Urko’s gun inched up to aim at the astronaut’s forehead, finger itching to pull the trigger.
The gorilla listened as a voice rose, unbidden, in his mind: what about the baby? He certainly wasn’t going to help the woman deliver her child. If he wanted the family for slaves, then he needed Aldar to assist in the birth, didn’t he?
He clubbed Aldar with the gun, the force of the blow swinging the blond man’s head to one side. The human made a low noise and then was still a moment before slowly raising his eyes to meet that of the gorilla’s.
Aldar’s lips moved, but Urko didn’t hear. He was staring at the man’s eyes - icy blue. Contemptuous.
Urko lowered the weapon and backed silently away from the hated astronauts.
This is it, thought Aldar, just before the barrel of the gun slammed into his cheekbone. He couldn’t prevent a grunt of pain at the unexpected impact. His mind flashed back to when they had first found themselves marooned on this nightmare planet: Urko, taking them both captive at the crash site. Pete, yelling - you can’t just let Farrow die. Urko’s answering blow nearly knocked him from the horse.
Slowly, Al straightened to stare up at the gorilla. "We’ve been here for years –what does it matter?" he asked angrily. "You’ve found us. Isn’t that enough?"
Urko’s dark face twitched, staring grimly at the humans. Aldar watched as the gun rose again, pointed straight at him. He fought against fear, concentrating on the gorilla, and again noticed the tremor in Urko’s hands. It was important, he knew it, but he didn’t know why. He was missing something.
Silently the gorilla turned away, leaving Aldar relieved and disturbed. What just happened? he thought. Eyes on Urko, he went back to Tamar’s side.
Dannoc sagged back against the floor, limp with relief. He’d screwed up, letting his mouth run away with him. When it came to Urko, it seemed he’d never learn. The flip attitude, the sarcasm… and the fact that he’d escaped from Urko more than once, when it seemed there was no escape – just made Urko hate him more.
He shifted, trying to get more comfortable, then narrowed his eyes in pain as the movement caused a line of fire to lance through his shoulder. The burning sensation radiated outwards until his chest felt as if it were on fire. He closed his eyes against it, trying to hide his reaction. He felt dizzy. White fire… spreading….a voice. His own?
You should have left her here, safe, years ago. Tamar thought she chose you over the danger… but she couldn’t know the consequences. She couldn’t have imagined what the decision would bring home to her. She could only have faith in you. And that was a mistake.
Don’t you know what Urko will do to her? To the kids?
NO! His eyes flew open, and he barely avoided screaming his denial out to the room. With an effort, he remained motionless.
As if she sensed his turmoil, Tamar looked over at her husband. When he opened his eyes, she was there, watching him silently. What did she see, at this moment? he wondered. Someone she loved… or someone who brought her and her children to this?
"Are you all right?" she asked. His throat closed up in a rush of emotion. When Aldar had earlier tried to position the two closer together, Urko had refused him. Dan figured he didn’t want them all together, planning… obscuring his view of what was going on.
Plus he might want a clean shot.
Dan’s eyes opened wide as another contraction gripped his wife, hard. But Aldar was there.
Cornelius sat next to Tarron, concerned at the boy’s continuing silence. He wondered what, if anything, he could say to help ease the boy’s fears.
"Cornelius… why does the gorilla call you ‘Galen’?" asked the boy, taking the chimpanzee off guard.
"Your father and I – and Aldar – have known each other for years," answered Cornelius after a moment, groping for an explanation. "All of us were born far away from Edria. We had different lives entirely, Tarron. And in that life, long ago, we had names that are different from those we use now."
Tarron thought a moment. "People don’t change their names."
The chimpanzee nodded, smiling into the boy’s eyes. "Not ordinarily. Neither do apes. But we found it necessary." Tarron stared back at him, bewildered.
"Your father and Aldar and I have been friends for a long time now," Cornelius said, covering the boy’s small hand with his own, hairy one, "but most do not believe it possible for human and ape to care for one another."
Tarron smiled. "You’ve always been friends." His fingers curled tightly around the chimpanzee’s.
Cornelius swallowed. "Yes," he said, quietly. "We always will be."
Jonal, Kam’s eldest son, walked swiftly. He had to find his mother and Tarron. He ignored the unease that prickled his scalp and walked still faster, intent on arriving at Tarron’s house.
Earlier, when he and his brothers had stepped from the feedstore to find Tarron and Kamala missing, he’d waited, then finally inquired about them at the stores running down the small main street of the village center. No one had seen them. Strangely enough, however, one of the shop owners had refused to answer his questions. Instead he’d merely shook his head, lips tightening. Jonal exited the store bewildered, and finally had a small measure of luck with the smithy, whose terse reply frightened him: “There’s apes about, boy. Nothing you can do. Go home.”
Jonal took the two younger boys to his Aunt’s house and told them to stay put until he got back, brushing aside their objections and his aunt’s questions. And now here he was, approaching Tarron’s home. He wondered for a moment if Tamar was giving birth. That would explain the swift exit from town - Kamala would go to her as soon as she was alerted. But she’d never abandon her boys with no word.
And then there was the warning words of the smithy. Jonal was determined to get to the bottom of this. He approached the house and raised his hand to knock on the door. And hesitated – why, he never knew. He only knew something wasn’t right. The boy peered in the window instead. What he saw made his blood run cold: a gorilla, holding a gun on Dan’s family and Aldar. A strange chimpanzee. He barely stopped himself from shrieking out loud.
His mother was nowhere in sight.
He set off for home at a run, hoping against hope that she was back. He didn’t know where else to look. But he had to find her. She’d know what to do.
Aldar stood beside Tamar, arching his spine gratefully. The contractions came closer together now. The birthing process was going swiftly this time around. All they could do is wait, and try to keep Tamar as comfortable as possible.
"I'm gonna need boiled water," Aldar stated, looking at their captor.
"Water," said Urko, and frowned.
"I know you realize that birthing is a messy business," Aldar said, looking calmly at the gorilla and ignoring Tamar’s scowl.
"Helps kill ger... boiled water is cleaner. Haven't you ever boiled water to make it drinkable?"
Urko snorted. "This is a trick. You must think I'm a fool."
"Not a trick, I'm telling you... trust me on this."
Urko smiled mirthlessly. "I'll let Galen go to the well for water..." he said, and looked at the chimp. "You know what will happen if--"
"Yes, yes," Cornelius snapped. "I won't endanger my friends, Urko."
The gorilla nodded. "But no fire." He motioned Cornelius to the door.
Tamar’s teeth clamped together lest she scream as another contraction came. The pain grew and spread, taking her breath away. They’d come hard and sharp in the past three hours.
"Don’t push," Aldar’s quiet voice reminded her. "Breathe. You’re not ready yet." He glanced over at Urko. The gorilla’s grim face made the tension knot in his shoulders.
Tamar glared at Aldar, positioned between her legs. "I don’t remember you ordering me around this much last time," she ground out.
He smiled at her. "Sorry. The circumstances are a little different now."
She looked at him with cold eyes before closing them. "Don’t remind me. God, I wish this was over," she said in a shaky voice. She fought against the need to bear down.
"You’ll be able to push soon," he answered, reassuring. "You’re almost there." And then what? he thought, and moved to her side, holding her hand. She gripped his hand with an intensity that made him wince.
Minutes passed, and the contraction eased. Tamar let her head fall back against the wall. "Aldar… this..this Urko?" she questioned, as Aldar nodded, "…threatened to take me and the children with him when this is…is over," she said, forcing the words from her lips. Aldar nodded reluctantly.
Suddenly Tamar’s face wrenched. A tear slipped down her cheek. "They’re just children, my children…" Unconsciously, her hand rubbed her belly. "Dan has lived with fear for so long." Her face became still, watching his. "As we all have… one way or another. Now it’s here, and we’ve got to do something, Aldar. It can’t end this way. It can’t."
Aldar’s face tightened, and he brushed the tear from her face. "We wait. We take care of you, and the baby. And then we find an opening… a chance."
Tamar’s eyes held his own, gathering strength for the coming hours in what she saw there. After a moment, she nodded. "I’m okay. Go check on Dan, would you?"
His eyes searched hers until satisfied she told the truth. Then he went to Dannoc.
Dan struggled against shutting his eyes as his body tried to retreat from pain. Gradually he lost the fight. His mind receded down, down…
to a time when he and his friends discovered the bodies of a family settled outside of Edria…to a little boy, staring up at the blue expanse overhead with eyes that would never see again. To the boy’s mother and sister, also dead. And the father, on his knees.
That was wrong. The whole family was dead, including the father. Still, Dan watched him trying to hold in his own guts with hands splayed across his abdomen. No use - they slipped through his fingers, roping to the floor. The man gathered them patiently, only to have them slide once again from his grasp. And suddenly Dannoc understood just why the man couldn’t let go.
He was a father, and that was his son lying out there in the dirt. His daughter. His wife. There was no way in the world to lie down and find peace.
"Daddy?" said his son, and the dark-haired man’s eyes flew open, staring first into the concerned gazes of Tarron and Al, then turning for a moment to Cornelius, sitting by his side.
"How are you holding up?" said Aldar.
"Tell me how far along Tamar is. Nothing’s wrong, is it?" asked Dan, ignoring the question. He reached out and grasped his son’s hand. "Go check on Mom, will you?" Tarron nodded and crossed the room.
"She’s doing great, especially considering the circumstances," answered Aldar. "She’ll be ready to push soon. That woman is amazing."
"Tell me something I don’t know," said Dannoc, a faint smile appearing on his face. "Listen, Al… sorry about my big mouth. Almost got us in trouble… well, bigger trouble."
Surprising Dan, Aldar chuckled. "You’re just figuring out your mouth gets you in hot water? I bet it’s snowing in hell right now."
Dan threw a wry look at him. "That’s dirty pool, insulting me when I can’t get up and clobber you."
"I takes it where I gets it," said Aldar, and the grin faded. "So… you gonna make it?"
"I’ll make it. Concentrate on my family."
"I am. If I don’t take care of you, then your wife and son are gonna make me wish I had." Aldar gently pulled away the cloth binding the wound. It was raw and ugly. Dannoc narrowed his eyes and swallowed, but didn’t make a sound.
After a moment, the dark-haired man spoke in a low voice. "Not looking too good, is it?"
"Nah, you’ll be okay. I have to-" started Aldar.
Dan interrupted. "I don’t mean me." His brown eyes probed his friend’s face. Aldar didn’t answer. "Remember the family we discovered when we first came to Edria?" he said. Aldar nodded. "We never knew what happened to them, or why… just that they were killed. I don’t want my family to end up like that, Al… just a pile of carcasses for someone to stumble upon."
"It won’t happen. I’ll find a way," said Aldar. He changed the subject. "I found your stash," and he held up a bottle of clear liquid. "I’m going to have to use it on your shoulder."
"Shit. If that stuff burns like it does going down the hatch, I’m in a lot of trouble," protested Dan.
"You’re in a lot of trouble if I don’t disinfect the wound. You know that." He turned to Cornelius, still sitting on the ground beside Dannoc, following their conversation. "Make sure Tamar doesn’t need me yet?" The chimpanzee nodded and got up to join Tamar and Tarron.
"It’s gonna hurt, but it’ll be over soon. Are you ready?" Aldar asked Dan, looking steadily into his eyes.
Dan snorted. "Hell no. What are you waiting for?"
Aldar kept his face straight with an effort as he poured the first splash of liquid on Dan’s shoulder. Almost immediately, Dan’s face tightened, then flushed. Reluctantly Aldar turned his friend’s shoulder and poured alcohol on the exit wound. Dannoc’s eyes watered, and he wiped them with the back of his hand, breathing heavily. Al knew his friend would’ve yelled to high heaven if not for his family.
Damn. Aldar knew what he’d done was necessary, but that didn’t make it feel good, seeing the pain on Dan’s face. He stared down, not really seeing, then jerked up at Cornelius’s quiet comment: "I think you might be needed over here." Aldar pointed to the strips of cloth lying on the table. Cornelius nodded.
Aldar washed up, then went to Tamar. Tarron stood next to her, holding her hand. Al looked into her eyes, her pale, set face.
"The contractions never seem to end," she said, in a whisper. "It won’t be long, I know it."
Al moved to examine her, then stood and glared at Urko, approaching. "Can you give her some space?"
The gorilla stared at Aldar before speaking. "How much longer?"
"That’s what I’m trying to find out," Al answered evenly, masking his unease over the question. Urko was getting impatient.
The gorilla moved back a few steps and Aldar knelt down. Finally, he looked up. "Tamar… very soon, you’ll be able to push."
"Very soon, I’ll push whether or not you want me to," she answered, in between pants. Her face screwed up as a contraction heightened, lips pursing tightly together. Al moved to Tamar’s side and gave her a tiny sip of water.
"How long?" Urko repeated, behind him. Aldar’s flesh crawled at the menace in his tone.
"Not much more," he answered, not bothering to turn around. He flinched as the gorilla’s gun pressed into his back. "I don’t know for sure," he said, without expression. "You can’t time something like this, okay?"
Urko removed the gun from his back, and Aldar caught sight of him from the corner of his eye as he strode to where Cornelius sat, next to Dan.
"Burke," he said. "Ah Burke, you look to be in some pain. Your wife will make you a proud father, very soon. What do you think of that?"
Dan’s eyes opened, looking at Urko with resignation. "What do you want?" he said.
The gorilla looked at him with a glint in his eye. He’s enjoying this, thought Dan.
"I have a problem. I thought perhaps you could help me," answered Urko. Alarm bells rang in Dan’s mind. He kept silent but struggled to sit up, shrugging off Cornelius’s grip on his good shoulder.
"I had thought to come here and kill you and Virdon, then go after Galen. Simple. But here you are with a family, complicating matters. And that poses a new question for me. What to do with them?" The gorilla smiled. "What do you think?" he added, appearing contemplative.
A shiver ran up Dannoc’s spine. He stared at Urko. What does he want me to say? he wondered, bitterly. Is there anything that will make a difference? Think!
"They haven’t hurt you. You’ve never even seen them until today," he said, trying to stay calm.
"Urko, none of this will change the past. Can’t you see that it's over?" added Cornelius. His hand dropped from Dannoc’s shoulder.
"It’s over? I was commander of all the armies of the world! I’ve lost my wife, my family… everything! It isn’t over until I say it’s over, Galen, and that will be when the three of you are dead. And your families."
"They mean nothing to you!" Dan exclaimed.
"And then? What will you be left with, Urko?" answered Cornelius, quietly.
In the gorilla’s mind, there was a sudden flash of doubt. His hands shook. What would he be left with?
Nothing. Nothing at all. The same as now. But it doesn’t matter. Why should they live, when what you were died so long ago?
"You have two choices, Burke. Either I kill your wife and children… or they come with me. As my slaves. Do you have a preference?"
Dan watched the gorilla. There were voices in the room, but he could no longer understand them. They were a meaningless buzz behind the roaring in his ears. We should have killed him, years ago. We had the opportunity.
Dan gained his feet in a fluid movement. He ignored the pain - almost, he couldn’t feel it buried beneath the strength of fear and rage. He launched himself at the gorilla, a wordless howl leaving his throat.
Urko laughed and slammed his fist into Dan’s injury. His shoulder erupted in agony and he crumpled to the ground.
"Dan!" Tamar yelled. Tarron started towards his father, but Aldar laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.
Urko watched them all, bringing his gun swiftly up. There was silence. The gorilla looked at the man at his feet. His foot lashed out and he kicked Dannoc. The man’s answering groan sounded loudly in the quiet. Tarron’s face wrenched, and he began to cry.
Cornelius looked steadily at the gorilla. "You’ve proven you can best an injured human. How does it feel?"
Urko aimed the gun at the chimpanzee. Corelius’s eyes widened in fear, seeing the deadly intent on the gorilla's face.
Aldar leaped at Urko, reaching him a split second before the gun fired. The shot went wild and the gorilla recoiled, slamming his gun arm back into Aldar’s face. Flung backwards by the force of the blow, Aldar fell to his knees, breathing heavily, and waited there for a shot that never came.
Slowly he looked up.
"Get back to the woman," Urko said, harshly. He gestured with the gun.
Cornelius waved Tarron over. “I need your help. You think you can do this?” he said, pointing at the boy’s father. “First we clean the wound, then bandage it.”
Tarron’s nodded, face pale. He’d promised his dad he would act like a man. He’d promised.
A new freshet of blood spread over the bindings. Of course, after what had just happened, Cornelius expected nothing less. Still he winced, unwrapping the wound. Tarron remained silent, but his eyes were fixed on the bloody injury, and the chimpanzee wondered if he’d done the right thing, utilizing Tarron’s help. Dan appeared unresponsive, even when he poured more alcohol over the wound. He guessed there was something to be thankful for, anyway. Cornelius thought of Ezri - she would know what to do for Dannoc.
He allowed Tarron to apply pressure on the wound until the bleeding slowed once again, then pat the area gently dry and clean the blood from his father’s chest. The boy was doing well. Even little ones needed to feel useful.
Dannoc’s eyes opened, uncomprehending, as they wrapped the injury again. He did not respond to his son’s hopeful inquiry, instead sinking back into unconsciousness, his face bathed in sweat.
it’s hot. Shouldn’t be hot, not this time of the year, Christmas in
Sitting in the back seat always made him feel like a little kid. He stared restlessly out at the snow, falling thickly. The holidays. Always, the traditional family gathering, stuffing themselves with turkey and ham, accompanied by scintillating conversation -- Uncle Tony’s new job (the hours were killing him), Cousin Jim’s latest gout occurrence, and new niece Emily’s seeming inability to keep anything in her stomach without expelling vast quantities of "spit-up".
There came a crash, flinging him about within the confines of his seat belt. A noise, inhuman, huge, sounds of shrieking metal filling his ears. The car skidded, no FLEW, over the blacktop, rubber squealing in protest. The vehicle flipped and he hit his head, hard. A soda can flew through the air, spewing; a map, fluttering wildly. The car left the road, bumping over the grass and rolling upright. Another impact, slamming into them from the right. The side of the car caved as if tin. His heart pounded crazily from the burst of adrenalin. Then his face slammed into the window, and it was as if a bomb ignited in his vision: a bright white blast, and brilliant colors exploding from the center. Then blackness.
He never knew how much he took for granted, until it was too late.
Tamar’s eyes were shut, her brow furrowed. Her arm lay over her forehead. Aldar noticed her fingers curled in a fist. He wished there was something he could do to help her with the pain.
“Is there anything-“ he started to ask, but she shook her head no. She kept her eyes closed.
Aldar stared at Tamar, lost in thought. The birthing was going well, thank God. Kamala had wanted to be with her friend when she delivered. Tarron’s story of what happened to Kamala and himself made Aldar terribly afraid. Where had the other gorilla - Tarron called him ‘Lohnar’ - taken her? Was she dead? He closed his eyes at the thought.
One thing. If he got through this, and by some miracle, she was still alive, he was going to tell her how much he cared for her.
He loved her. If only he’d said something. But maybe there was still a chance for them both. A slim one, he knew.
What chance did any of them have, really? Urko watched them with the eyes of a hawk. Dan was seriously injured, and there was a new baby on the way. They were effectively helpless.
He had to do something. It was up to him.
As soon as the baby arrives. There has to be a way.
A groan escaped Tamar’s lips, and Aldar turned his attention to her quickly, examining her, already fairly certain of what he’d find. “You’re fully dilated. It’s time.”
Tamar struggled to sit in more of an upright position, grabbing Aldar’s arm to pull herself up. A rolling contraction pressed down on her abdomen. The pressure was enormous, the pain, burning. She bore down. Again. Pushing brought relief, gave her a way to deal with this pain. The baby would be here soon. She refused to think beyond that. She wanted to scream, had BEEN wanting to cry out for some time. To release some of the anxiety and the hurt. But Dan… she couldn’t make it worse for him.
So she cursed instead. Fluidly, monotonously. On and on. At first, Aldar’s eyebrows almost met his hairline, he was so incredulous. He smothered a grin.
He looked up to see Cornelius staring their way, a quizzical expression in his eyes. Aldar sobered, slowly nodding confirmation. The baby would be here soon.
Cornelius knelt down closely to Dan. “Can you hear me? Dan?” he said, softly. Tarron watched in silence. “Your little one will soon arrive…” he said, and trailed off. It was no use. His heart heavy, the chimpanzee tried to mask his fear for Tarron’s sake.
The other driver had lost control of his vehicle in the snow, veering into the oncoming lanes. He’d died. Everyone had died, except for Pete….
He tried to open his eyes. The right one opened all right, but all was white and grainy. Gradually his surroundings took on shape and color, and he remembered. He was in the back of the car, the right side of it obliterated upon impact with a huge oak standing some 30 yards off the road. Pete touched his forehead in confusion, and his fingers came away red. Blood ran over his left eye, obscuring his vision, and he swiped at it.
The right side of the car. Mom?
His eyes moved to the passenger front seat. Or rather, what had been the passenger side. His mother was hopelessly entangled in the crushed wreckage, head jutting grotesquely out of the mess, blood-encrusted, bloated. He began to hyperventilate at the impossible image before him. No, no, no.
But it was true. She was dead.
Kamala rode on, the horse’s hooves marring the quiet as she skirted the village. She wanted to hurry, to make the horse go faster, but if she fell off, she didn’t know if she could get the horse back. Or get back on, for that matter.
So far, so good. She’d ridden far enough outside of the village to avoid any encounter. She’d be shot on sight if an ape saw her astride a horse.
Her thighs ached, unaccustomed to riding. The blood had dried on her temple from the gorilla’s blow some time ago, but the jolting ride made her head throb.
As the sun descended in the western sky, she wondered how long she’d lain unconscious besides the slain gorilla. Evidently quite a while. She shuddered, thinking of Lohnar and what would happen if she’d been found lying next to the body. How long before he was discovered? How much time did she have before they came after her?
Not now, she counseled herself. You have to get help for Tarron. She wondered what her boys had done when, finished inside the feed store, they came outside and found themselves abandoned. She knew how worried they’d be. As it turned out, their fears were well justified.
She craned her neck. Finally. She could see Aldar’s small home, just a dot on the horizon. Praise the gods. If anyone could help, or would, it was he. She’d never met a man so competent, so…good. He was a good man. A wonderful man.
She urged the horse onwards and was startled when he broke out in a rough trot. Her head pounded but she focused on the house before her, the small, neat field behind it, growing surely larger in her vision, and before long found herself at Aldar’s door.
Kamala flung herself off the horse and knocked urgently. Again. No answer. She flung the door open and strode in. The home was dim and silent, the earthen floor damping the sound of her own rushed footsteps as she searched the small dwelling.
Empty. She nearly cried in frustration. What next? Only one thing left to do, wasn’t there? She wasn’t going to slink home now.
Kamala climbed back on the horse and pulled the reins, urging him in the direction of Tamar’s house.
One on top of the other, contraction piling upon contraction. No time to breathe. The baby was coming. Her whole world was pain. She grabbed Aldar’s hand, fingernails digging into the flesh of his palm. “Dan, where are you?” she called out before regaining her control.
Dannoc heard her across the room, a faint echo in his mind, but urgent. His eyes opened groggily, and he was immediately hammered with pain radiating out of his shoulder. He tried to sit up, ignoring Cornelius’s concerned, scolding tones. His son grasped his hand.
“I’ll be okay…” he said, looking into his son’s worried face, and collapsed, sinking back into the hateful dream.
From Pete’s vantage point, he could see little besides the back of his father’s head. “Dad,” he called, but nothing came out of his throat but a whisper. He struggled to release the seat belt. It was stuck. His fingers were shaking, and he couldn’t get the mechanism to click open. He concentrated on the small square of metal, ignoring the smeared blood on his fingers and the spatters in his lap. No good. He cursed and then, succeeding this time in finding his voice, called his father again. But his father didn’t move.
Pete began to sob. At the sound, his father turned his head slowly in his direction. His eyes were stunned and blank, stopping at the sight of his wife’s crushed body. “Mary!” he screamed. For the rest of his life, Pete would be haunted by that scream.
He looked at the body that used to be his mother. “I know, Dad, I know,” he said, his voice breaking. His father looked down, his face going blank. Pete’s heart sank like a stone. Somehow he understood then. The worst wasn’t over.
Fingers resuming their frantic fumbling, he suddenly found himself free. He bolted from the seat to reach out for his father.
And then he saw it. His father’s chest, punched far back into the seat. Too far. The steering column…blood. So much of it.
“The baby’s coming!” said Aldar, glancing quickly at Tamar’s tear-stained face. “Another push, another good one, Tamar, that’s all you need.”
“You push, damn you,” she said, her voice breaking.
“The head’s out, sweetheart, just one last push. You’ll be holding your little one in a moment, this will be over, I promise,” said Al, eyes intent on her.
She nodded weakly and pushed down, one last mighty push, a high, strangled noise coming from her throat that she couldn’t stop. Ah she couldn’t bear this, she was splitting in two…. until suddenly the baby left her body with a rush.
Urko stepped closer to Tamar, and Aldar threw a warning look his way as the tiny infant opened its mouth, wailing out a first cry. Surprised, Urko stopped, then flushed lest someone notice his discomfort.
Tarron ran to his mother and hugged her, then turned his attention to the new baby.
“It’s a girl…” Aldar smiled. “A beautiful, dark-haired little girl.” He handed the baby gently to its mother.
The gorilla stepped still closer. Tarron whirled to watch Urko. “Don’t you touch her! Leave us alone,” he yelled. His fists trembled, clenched at his sides.
“And what will you do to stop me?” Urko asked, studying him. The corner of his mouth twitched.
“I… I won’t let you,” returned the boy angrily, with a hint of fear.
“Tarron…” Aldar said, warning, then looked disgusted at the gorilla, who waved his arm through the air in a curt, dismissive motion. “Pick on someone your own size, Urko,” said Aldar, but the ape ignored him.
“What will you do?” the gorilla repeated, bending down. The dark face loomed grimly over the boy, who squared his shoulders.
Tarron looked to his father, but his father wasn’t seeing him or anyone else, now. Tarron’s large, dark eyes stilled and fixed on the gorilla. He said nothing… but still, Urko smiled.
There it was. The hatred. Perhaps a fledgling hatred, but a hatred startling in its intensity, especially in one so young. The hatred that Urko knew all humans carried for their ape masters… simply because they were inferior, flawed, incapable of making intelligent decisions. They had to be guarded at all times, because they were nothing more than dangerous animals. Worthless.
Perhaps, he mused, he’d made a mistake, thinking to keep this family for slaves. Of course, he’d like nothing better than to make them pay. Slowly. Break their spirits, teach them how to obey without an instant’s hesitation. The way all humans should be trained. But if this boy was anything like his father, he was a threat.
Urko leaned still closer. The little boy stared back, eyes round and dark. Humans smelled, no matter what their size. He thought it was inherent… perhaps by their very nature, they were simply repellent. Good for nothing but labor. He brought his muzzle still closer. Brown, curly hair, a thin, mobile face, brown eyes… the gorilla felt a swell of disgust, almost nauseating. Just like his father… his father and his friends, who’d ruined Urko’s life. Because of them, he’d lost his position of power within the council… he’d lost his wife. His self-respect.
But perhaps the last was something he could still retrieve. If he could finally put this to rest, crush those who’d brought him low, maybe there was something still to be gained.
Just kill them, the voice said in his mind. Let it be over with. When they’re gone, you can begin again. But only when you’ve finally rid the planet of this pestilence.
And their spawn.
He’d have to go back, find Galen’s wife and children. He felt sure it wouldn’t prove too difficult.
And yet, he really held nothing personal against the young boy, standing here so desperately afraid, yet standing against him nevertheless. Except for the fact that the blood running in his veins was the same as his father’s… except for the unfortunate resemblance. But Urko felt no sympathy for him, either, no matter how young.
The idea was ridiculous.
“Dan!” hissed Cornelius, bending down. His friend was pasty white, stirring restlessly. Suddenly his eyes flew open. He murmured something unintelligible, and Cornelius leaned closer in an effort to hear.
“No!” Pete screamed at the top of his lungs, over and over, and he knew he had to stop, but he couldn’t. His father’s gaze settled on his face. The stunned look had deepened, as if he were separated from the pain and what was happening to him. He was floating away, away from his son, no matter how much the boy did not want it. Pete’s arms went around his father’s neck.
The older man’s eyes opened, sluggishly, trying to focus on Pete’s tear-stricken face. “ I don’t have a choice, son. Tell your mother I love her.”
And Pete knew then there was nothing he could do to save his dad. He looked away, unable to bear the sight. When he looked again, Galen was in the seat instead of his father, pinned by the steering wheel. The chimpanzee spoke: “You have a choice, Pete. Go back, or walk away.”
Galen vanished, and in his place sat Tamar. “I want to be with you, Dan. Don’t take the choice from me.” He stared at her, horrified. It couldn’t be her dying before his eyes. Never her.
You wanted her even knowing all along what would come, he thought. That HE would come after you.
Dannoc’s submerged conscious heaved desperately away from the jumbled nightmare… one he’d suffered through in some form or another since the accident, living with his Aunt and Uncle, knowing all the while what a burden he was. Knowing he’d never belong there, no matter how much he tried… or they tried.
Dannoc’s eyes opened as Urko grabbed Tarron’s shirt. The gorilla pulled him nose to nose.
“Answer me - how can you hope to prevail against your masters?” Urko whispered to the boy. Tarron didn’t answer, but neither did he back down, though he wanted to, very much. He was petrified but determined. In a quick movement, Urko encircled the boy’s neck in the crook of his arm.
“So easy for me,” Urko murmured.
“Leave him alone!” Aldar shouted. Cornelius waved him back.
“Why now, Urko?” the chimpanzee asked quietly. “Why him? He has no part in this.”
Urko snorted. “He has Burke’s blood in him –all the reason I need.”
“Take them for.. take them with you,” said a weak voice. It was Dan. “You said I had a choice. I’m making it.” The words fell from his lips like bitter doom.
Urko released Tarron and straightened. Surprised, the boy staggered back, and the gorilla moved over to Tamar, cradling the new baby on her chest. Urko reached down a massive hand to the child and Tamar’s fingers moved, intercepting the gorilla’s. Their eyes met.
So much hate, Urko mused. The only thing I understand clearly anymore.
“Everything that happened to you was your own doing, Urko, ” Cornelius spoke rapidly, hoping to focus the gorilla’s hostility on himself. The chimpanzee knew something had changed within the former general. He’d made a decision. The very air was thick with the menace emanating from the gorilla, and whatever he’d decided, it was not in favor of the fugitives.
“You lost it all, Urko. You are the failure. After all, these two are mere humans. How could they be responsible for your life?”
Urko looked down at the baby girl. Helpless. He loathed its hairless pink skin. The child could not focus, the same as the ape children. Their eyes were vague, wandering… defenseless. So utterly unaware of the surroundings. Unaware of the death that hovered so near.
Galen was wrong! But could he kill this infant lying in the arms of a mother? Even if they were all dead -- could it ever be over for him?
His career was gone, his time of glory long past. Nothing left to gain.
Did he still believe the astronauts were a danger, after so many years? Did he really care if they destroyed the very civilization that castigated him after he’d given his life protecting it?
Would this relieve the empty sameness of each day, or had the bitterness of the passing years so festered inside him that he could no longer see?
He stood over the child, undecided.
Aldar watched Urko hesitate, and a sudden kaleidoscope of memories came crashing down over his head. The look on Sally’s face when he said goodbye, never dreaming it would be the last time. The young, untroubled face of Chris, excited to see his dad off on a mission…. and then the spaceship, the crash landing. Then the realization which came so slowly, so damned painfully, that his family was lost to him.
Dannoc’s family was here, in this world. Maybe Aldar couldn’t change the past… but he was damned if he was going to watch his friend lose what he’d already lost.
The blackness of the dream lapped around Dannoc, threatening to submerge him in its depths once again. Fight it! He commanded himself. Tamar chose, I chose, but my children never did. Get up!
It’s the hand they’ve been dealt, a calm voice in his head reminded him, awful in its conviction. His reaction came from deep within, surprising in its strength: We couldn’t be wrong, we were worth the risk! We were worth everything!
Dannoc sat up, struggling. The room wobbled alarmingly. He looked at Aldar, tears in his eyes. “ALAN!”
Years had passed since he’d heard his real name. It stunned Aldar for a moment, then galvanized him to action. He took two swift steps to Urko, still standing over the child. The gorilla’s gun rose to fix on his face. Just get him away from the baby. Nothing else matters.
Urko’s eyes turned to the entrance. Shock dulled the ape’s expression, followed swiftly by…acceptance?
Kamala was there, standing just inside the doorway, and between the old, tired former general and the woman’s determined, steady gaze Aldar witnessed a perfect meeting of minds. He’s ready for it to end. And she’s going to end it.
Kamala stepped closer, hefting the rifle clumsily in the dying light of the day. Urko’s hands darted down for the newborn and Kam took a quick step forward and fired, the bullet smashing into the gorilla’s upper chest. At the thundering sound, the newborn began to shriek. Tamar sobbed, holding the baby to her, eyes fixed on the blood running down Urko’s gray tunic. He toppled to the ground.
Kamala turned to Cornelius next, squinting down the rifle barrel as she watched the chimpanzee.
“No, Kam,” said Tamar, looking up at her friend with reddened eyes. Kamala seemed almost not to hear.
“Kam, stop! He’s our friend!” Aldar shouted.
Kamala stared at him, a stunned expression spreading over her face. “How can an ape be your friend?” she whispered. The word ‘ape’ sounded like a curse.
“I know it’s hard to understand, but it’s true. He’s saved our lives more than once,” Aldar replied firmly.
“As they have saved mine,” the chimpanzee added quietly.
Slowly Kam lowered the weapon. It slipped from her fingers to the dirt floor. Aldar went to Kamala and pulled her close. “What happened to you?” he whispered.
She shook her head wordlessly, then looked up. “The baby…” Kam breathed as the infant cried out. She rushed to Tamar, holding both of her children to her. Kamala reached down and stroked Tarron’s hair.
The boy rubbed his eyes quickly, trying to erase the signs of tears. “Did he hurt you?” Tarron asked, and Kam realized the boy was talking about Lohnar.
“I’m fine, Tarron, don’t worry. Now tell me, is that a little brother or a little sister you have there?” she replied, smiling.
“A sister,” he said, looking over at his new sibling.
Kam reached down to hug Tamar. “She’s beautiful,” she said in a soft tone. She made cooing noises at the baby, touching her soft cheek, and a smile came over Tamar’s tired face.
Aldar knelt to the fallen gorilla’s body. Urko eyes were closed to slits. His chest shuddered upwards as he struggled for breath.
“You weren’t going to kill her,” Aldar stated.
A gurgling rasp issued from the gorilla’s throat, and Al realized Urko was trying to laugh. “You’ll never know, will you?” he whispered. His head fell to one side, and his chest ceased to move.
Aldar stared at the gorilla’s lifeless body.
“Is he dead?” asked Cornelius quietly, breaking into his reverie. Aldar nodded and moved to start a fire in the hearth. The room was dimming quickly.
“I killed the gorilla who took me from Tarron,” said Kamala, flatly. Surprising her, Aldar merely nodded. He’d figured something of the sort. She’d arrived with a weapon. There could be only one explanation.
“Where’s the body?” Cornelius asked Kamala.
Kamala stared at him without answering.
“I want to help,” Cornelius said, understanding her indecision.
There was a pause. “On the western outskirts of town,” she answered, finally.
“So it’s possible no one has discovered it,” said the chimpanzee, musing.
“I’d be surprised if it has been, yet. But it’s a matter of time,” answered Kam. Tamar motioned to her, and Kam moved to respond.
“I’ll go after Ezri. She can help Dan and Tamar,” said Cornelius.
“Will she is the question,” said Aldar. Having successfully started a fire, he now began lighting torches around the dusky room.
“She will. I’m certain of it,” answered the chimpanzee, turning from Aldar’s quizzical gaze.
“Hmm… “ Aldar said, eyeing Cornelius. He had a sudden, sinking feeling that Ezri knew a lot more about the astronauts than they’d been led to believe. Of course she did. He should have realized.
Again his thoughts were interrupted, this time by Tamar, shuffling slowly across the room with Kamala’s help. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” He rushed to her side.
“Dan’s going to see our child,” Tamar countered firmly, looking down at the newborn nestled at her neck. “And I’m going to be with him.” She settled painfully next to her husband. Upon seeing the blood soaking through the make-shift bandage, her eyes widened, then watered. .
“Sweetheart?” Tamar murmured. Dannoc opened his eyes at her voice, and his fingers wrapped around hers. He tried to smile.
“Aldar, we’ve got to find a way out of this mess,” Cornelius said, watching as Kamala positioned the new baby in the crook of Dan’s uninjured shoulder. The look on Dannoc’s face was indescribable, and the chimpanzee smiled before returning his gaze to Aldar. “Tamar and Dan can’t travel.”
“We can’t stay here,” protested Dan, faintly.
“You can’t stand up, much less go anywhere,” Cornelius pointed out. “Not to mention the danger to the baby.”
Aldar looked at Cornelius. “We can’t wait for the apes to come after us, either.”
“You’ll have to hide. At least until you can decide what to do next,” answered the chimpanzee decisively.
“Don’t you think we would if there was somewhere to go?” Aldar asked in pointed tones.
“Tut, tut….after all these years, you have so little faith in me!” said Cornelius, wagging his finger. “I’ll find a place. Somewhere. Now I’m going to get Ezri. Don’t worry -- I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he added, and went out the door.
“Be careful,” Aldar called after him and sat next to Dannoc. The man’s face was pale and strained, but at least he was conscious.
“I get real worried whenever Cornelius is full of himself,” Dan muttered.
Aldar grinned. “Be nice. He might just save our hide,” answered the blond. “Hang in there, okay?”
“Not going anywhere,” Dan replied, and lifted a brow. “See this gorgeous daughter of mine? I’m gonna have to fight the boys off with a stick.” Al laughed and patted his friend’s arm.
“Aldar…” came Kamala’s voice.
Aldar turned to her, taking in her expression. “Be right back.”
Dan’s expression turned sly. “Take your time there, buddy,” Dan said. Aldar shook his head. Even injured, the man would have the last word.
“I want to know why those gorillas were after you and Dan,” Kamala said immediately, as Al turned a quizzical gaze in her direction. “And why the chimpanzee was here. Who is he?” Her gray eyes were piercing.
Aldar started to open his mouth. How to explain?
“When the apes find out what I’ve done….” she said, trailing off. Her mouth twisted suddenly. “One already knows, and he just walked out the door. I have children who need me. What will happen to them? I’ve got to make sure they’re all right.”
Aldar stared at her. How in God’s name was it possible to keep all of them free from the clutches of the apes? “Cornelius is... I know this will sound incredible, but he’s our friend. Mine and Dannoc’s. He won’t betray your secret. He’s trying to help us.”
“That’s not possible. Humans are the slaves of apes,” Kamala said heatedly.
“He’s our friend,” Aldar repeated firmly. “Tamar’s known of it for years, even if she’s never understood it. And as for everything else… Dan and I will tell you all about it. Soon,” he said. No more secrets. He just hoped the women wouldn’t think they were stark raving crazy.
Assuming they lived through this.
Kamala stared at him. “I’ve got to go home, now. The boys will be worried.”
“Give me a few minutes, Kamala. Let me think.”
Al moved to the front door and looked outside in the darkness. Cornelius had of course taken his horse back on the journey to Hernos, and Urko’s horse stood patiently grazing at the edge of the light thrown from the windows. Lohnar’s mount was nowhere to be seen. Aldar went outside and got water from the well, rubbing the flanks of the animal absent-mindedly as the horse drank thirstily. He watched as Kam stepped outside and walked towards him.
“Do you trust me?” Aldar questioned abruptly.
Kamala stopped in her tracks. Perhaps she should question her faith in Aldar, considering all that happened… and yet found that she did, indeed still believe in him. She trusted her instincts. Kam looked at Al and nodded.
“Then tell me where Lohnar’s body is,” he said.
She stared at him. “You’ve helped my family in so many ways… we’ll never be able to repay you. I killed the gorillas, Aldar, nobody else. Now I’m going to go get my boys and let them know I’m… all right.” The words stuck in her throat.
“All right? You and every other human in this village won’t be ‘all right’ once the apes find Lohnar’s body. Who do you think they were coming after, anyway? They were coming after us, Kam. Dan and I. Now I’ve got to move that body before it’s discovered!”
“Why bother? You can’t cover the fact they’re dead,” said Kamala, trying to hide her misery. She was right to trust her instincts - he was a good man, and still trying to protect her. But it didn’t make sense. There was nothing they could do.
“Kam, stop thinking like all the others! If you give up now, it’s over before we try, understand?” Kamala looked down at the ground. Aldar moved closer, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Kamala… there might be a way out of this, somehow.” Then, in a softer voice, “Is it too much to hope we might have a future together?”
Kam’s eyes probed his own, startled. Was it possible? Was there a way? She didn’t believe it. But he did. She watched him soberly, thinking.
What did she or her children or any of them have to lose by trying?
Aldar’s lips came down on hers, and Kamala responded feverishly. This man was different. He was a fighter, and Kam couldn’t go back to whom she’d been. She didn’t want to.
They broke their kiss, still clinging to each other. Kam buried her head in Aldar’s shoulder, savoring their closeness, and spoke. “Will you check on my children when you go?”
He smiled down at her tenderly. “Did you really think I wouldn’t?”
She gave him directions, then watched with wide eyes as the blond man mounted the horse with fluid ease. Another mystery - where did a human learn to ride? “Good luck,” she whispered. But Aldar was already gone, with only the light of the moon to guide him.
Kamala paced the floors while he was gone. She stayed close to Dan and Tamar, watching over them, unable to rest. She comforted Tarron, thinking with longing of her own boys. Sometime during the night Lohnar’s horse re-appeared in the glow of the light from the windows. She tied him out at the well, not wanting him to wander again, and gave him water.
An hour before dawn Aldar came back, the body of the gorilla hanging over the horse’s side. Kam heard him approach and ran outside to greet him, hugging him fiercely to her.
“The boys?” she asked.
“They’re okay. Apparently Jonal left the younger boys with your sister and came here, looking for you. When he saw the apes, he took off and went back to the house. He headed back to your sister’s when you didn’t show up. She suspected trouble and wouldn’t let him leave again – so naturally he snuck off in the middle of the night. I found him back at your house.”
“Thank the gods he wasn’t spotted by the gorillas!” said Kamala, her face draining of color.
“He was lucky,” agreed Aldar soberly. “I told him everything’s under control, and that Tamar needs you. I don’t think he believes me, but he agreed to go back to your sister’s and wait.”
Kamala kissed him. He held her in his arms. If nothing else went right, at least he’d managed to let her know his feelings for her.
When Kam went back inside, Aldar lugged the bodies of the two apes behind the house and covered them with brush. Briefly he considered burying them. Of course then there would be a massive search when the two were discovered missing. If they hadn’t already.
Next he took the horses out back so they wouldn’t be immediately spotted if someone approached. Walking back into the house, Aldar sat down beside Dan, sleeping uneasily. Reluctantly he began to unwrap the injured shoulder in order to clean it. He didn’t want to wake his friend but if proper care weren’t taken it might get infected. Tamar sat silently beside her husband, nursing the baby.
“Have you decided on a name?” Aldar asked softly. Dan mumbled incoherently and flung an arm out. The blond man grabbed his arm and laid it gently back by his side.
“Not yet,” Tamar answered quietly. “Dan was so sure she was a boy.” She looked at Al. “We have to leave here, don’t we?”
“I don’t see what else we can do,” Aldar answered. “But let’s wait until Cornelius gets back, okay?”
Dawn broke, sending streaks of reddish light across the gradually lightening sky as a tired Cornelius helped Ezri dismount from the horse, then followed. Both walked to the door before them and knocked.
The prefect’s assistant answered the knock, his face relaxing when he saw who was before him. “Ezri! Cornelius! Zandor will be so happy to see you,” Mirim exclaimed warmly, and opened the door to the office wide.
With great trepidation, the couple told Zandor of the events that had transpired. Zandor was thunderstruck and angry to learn of the deaths of Urko and especially Lohnar, a soldier of his own village. For a time, it seemed as if Cornelius’s request for help would be refused. Indeed, the Prefect stormed out of the office and remained absent for a period of time. However, when he returned, it seemed his emotions were under some vestige of control.
“I don’t know any of these humans of which you speak of,” he said to them. “And I won’t stand by when two apes are dead. Understand that I won’t help your friends if you don’t agree to the woman being accountable for what she’s done.”
“I’d be dead if it weren’t for Kamala.” Cornelius looked Zandor in the eye, waiting. “I’ll bring her here to answer your questions, if you like. Once you’ve talked with her, you’ll understand she had no choice. She saved us. I won’t betray her.”
Zandor looked at his son-in-law thoughtfully. “We shall see.”
Two hours later, the three chimps had hatched a risky plan. “Words aren’t enough to express my gratitude,” said Cornelius humbly.
Zandor stared at him, expression stiff with disapproval. Taking in the younger male’s demeanor, he gradually seemed to unbend. At last he said, sounding reflective, “You’ve proven yourself a good husband and father, Cornelius. When you first told me of your past, years ago, I frankly considered turning you in to the authorities. However, my daughter can be very persuasive, as you well know. I confess, over the years some of Ezri’s liberal ideas have influenced my government of the two villages, and the results have proven beneficial. Hernos has a remarkably peaceful and productive co-existence with Edria,” Zandor said, then sighed and clapped Cornelius on the back. “You’re both very persuasive. And you’ve a good heart. A rarity, nowadays.”
“And dare I say, a good influence on the prefect of Hernos as well?” asked Ezri, eyes twinkling.
“Could I stop you from saying anything you wish?” countered Ezri’s father, smiling. Then the smile faded. “Both of you must realize the stakes involved in this deception.”
“Father, if they are discovered, then our family will no longer be safe,” answered Ezri implacably. “I’ve grown to tolerate if not welcome Cornelius’s strange association with his friends. I must, if I truly believe the ideals I’ve embraced.” She sighed. “I only wish we didn’t have to involve you.”
Zandor cocked an eyebrow. “I’m extremely displeased to find my family in this position…but I’ll help. I’ve grand-children to think of.”
“Yes, and you’ll lose everything if your part in this is ever found out,” said Cornelius, miserably.
“Quite honestly, I must tell you that the concept of friendship with humans is outlandish. No, no,” said Zandor, shaking his hand at Cornelius, who opened his mouth to reply. “You already know how I feel about this. We’ll save the ongoing debate for another day. However, I can’t be sorry that you ever confided in me. At least I’ve had time to get used to this madness.”
“Let’s just hope that all goes according to plan,” said Ezri.
Zandor nodded. ”We wait for cover of darkness,” the Prefect said, and again held up a hand as Cornelius started to speak. “I realize your friends urgently need help. Now you realize what can happen if, in your haste, this plan fails.” After a moment, Cornelius looked away.
“Don’t worry,” Ezri said, reaching out her hand and grasping her husband’s. She hid her own doubt. She wasn’t a veterinarian, after all.
Hours later, long after night had fallen again, Aldar heard the faint but unmistakable approach of a horse and wagon. He grabbed the rifle and peered through a front window, then sagged back against the wall with a sigh of relief. It was who he’d hoped - Cornelius and Ezri. They’d gotten far too close for comfort before Aldar could identify who approached.
He sprinted to the door. “I was starting to worry!” he said, as the chimpanzees approached, and clapped Cornelius on the back.
“We waited for nightfall before leaving Hernos. A precaution,” Cornelius replied.
Ezri spoke. “It was the most sensible thing, considering the risks involved.” Her eyes were fastened on Aldar’s, and her nostrils seemed to flare.
“Aldar, may I present the Honorable Dr. Ezri. My wife,” Cornelius said, with a sweeping bow.
Aldar smiled and extended his hand. “I’m glad to meet you, finally.” Ezri hesitated, then offered her own in return.
“Cornelius thinks very highly of you, and I must admit I’m fascinated by your relationship,” she replied.
“If you don’t mind me cutting this short, there's a couple of people who need your help as soon as possible,” said Al, trying hard not to show his impatience. Cornelius had always brushed aside their concern at his visits. Part of the reason, he saw now, was that his wife knew of the fugitives.
Ezri nodded and knelt next to Dan, beginning to unwrap the bandages. Dannoc’s eyes fluttered open and as he became cognizant of his surroundings, widened in fear. He grabbed the female chimp’s hands, preventing her from examining his injury. “Hold on!” He glared up at her.
“Calm down. This is Dr. Ezri… Cornelius’s wife,” Aldar spoke urgently to his friend.
Dannoc let go of Ezri as he stared. “This is Ezri? What do you know about us?”
“I’m guessing everything,” shrugged Aldar.
“She’s here to help – be civil!” exclaimed Cornelius to the two. Ezri threw a quieting look at her husband.
“I do know about you,” Ezri replied calmly. “And though I find it impossible to believe all that my husband says you are, I respect his ties to you… however inexplicable. Now please,” she continued, addressing Dannoc, “be still and let me do what I came for!”
Aldar grinned at Dan’s expression - a look that quickly changed to concern as Dan winced in pain at Ezri’s efficient prodding. She looked down at the human.
“It’s a dangerous wound,” she stated crisply. “The bullet went through the shoulder, and I can’t say that you’ll recover full range of motion even if it doesn’t become infected – which is by far the main concern. It must be kept very clean. The bandages must be changed frequently. I’ll need to keep a very close eye on it over the course of your recovery.”
“Well that’s out,” Dan said flatly, then closed his eyes.
“Actually it’s not ‘out’, as you put it – not at all,” said Cornelius. Dan’s eyes opened, watching him. “It’s part of the plan.”
“Care to share the details?” asked Aldar, a trifle exasperated.
“First, we have to retrieve the gorilla soldier’s body—“ Cornelius began.
“You don’t have to. It’s out back with our other friend,” Aldar answered.
“It is?” asked Cornelius, astounded.
“Yeah. I took care of it last night.”
Cornelius looked relieved. “That’s one obstacle out of the way, anyway. We’ll dispose of the bodies in Hernos, and take the horses back, too,” said the chimpanzee, rushing on as Aldar opened his mouth to speak. “As Prefect with jurisdiction over Edria, Zandor will not communicate any rumors to Central City about Lohnar and Urko’s trip here. If there’s any reason to investigate Edria, they’ll find the gorillas were asking questions about you. We’ll have to run – all of us.”
“The bodies… almost as if they were of no consequence…” mused Aldar, eyes far-away.
“They may yet be of great consequence. And if we get through this, Zandor wants to question your friend who shot the gorillas,” said Ezri soberly. “Otherwise he won’t cooperate.”
“That isn’t going to happen,” said Aldar shortly.
“Zandor is a fair ape. If he finds that Kamala was taken against her will, he’ll listen,” said Cornelius firmly. “Dannoc’s family will come with us to Hernos tonight. I’ve arranged for them to stay with Uncle Anton. Ezri can treat Dan, and I’ll be nearby if things don’t go according to plan.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute –“ said Dan. His skin was flushed, and he was plainly agitated. Tamar eyed him with concern. “ none of this makes sense. Who the hell is Anton and why would he take us in?”
“Ezri’s Great-Uncle Anton - she and the children stayed with him when I found that Urko was in Hernos. He’s a rabble-rouser from way back. When Zandor first went into politics, many thought that Anton’s reputation would ruin his career before it ever started. Why, he was the president of the League Against Cruelty to Humans for years…”
“Sounds like my kind of ape,” Dan said, staring at Cornelius. “So Zandor’s related to Great-Uncle Anton… who’s related….”
“You better start talking fast, Cornelius,” Aldar said with a grim expression. Dannoc closed his eyes, exhausted, and Tamar put her hand to his face. He patted her hand, trying to reassure her.
Cornelius faced Aldar slowly, but Ezri spoke. “Zandor’s my father.” The room fell silent.
“Well if that just don’t take the cake,” muttered Dannoc.
“Of all the –“ started Aldar hotly, then looked away. He shook it off with an effort. “We’ll talk later. For now, I’ll stay in Edria with Kam and the boys,” he said, looking to Kamala for verification. She nodded slowly. “Spread rumors about some rogue gorilla soldiers that might placate our neighbors.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t stay here!” said Dannoc.
“Listen to me,” said Cornelius, looking urgently at his friends. “It’s been ten years. Zaius is dead, and now so is Urko. There’s no one else left who wants us so badly. There may be no one left who cares at all. I’m trying to save my family. Zandor, Anton, Ezri, my children – they’re all at risk. And I’m trying to save my friends from running out in the middle of a desert with a new-born and a injured man in tow. You’ll die out there!” said Cornelius, fiercely, then in a softer tone: “If Central City decides things are suspicious, Zandor will be the first to know, and I the second. We’ll leave if it comes to that, although where in the name of the gods we’ll go…”
The room was again silent and the two men looked at each other, weighing their reactions. Cornelius added softly, “I know I should have told you about Zandor. I worried you’d think I betrayed you, but I trust him with my life. There are good apes – and people – who will help us, if we let them.”
“So you placed our lives in his hands without telling us,” said Dan tiredly.
“Yes.” There was silence, then: “Sometimes it’s a greater risk to trust no one at all,” said Cornelius, a sad understanding in his eyes. “Hernos is my home now. I’d like it to remain that way, if at all possible.”
Tarron looked at Cornelius, then his father. “He’s our friend, Dad… right?”
Al exchanged looks with Dan. “Yeah… he is,” Dan replied, his tone soft.
“All right, then,” said Aldar and nodded to the chimpanzees.
“What did you say?” asked Cornelius cautiously, hardly daring to believe his ears.
“I said okay. We need to hurry if you’re going to get back to Hernos before dawn,” Aldar continued, looking steadily at him.
The wagon was loaded and the extra horses hitched. Tarron was in the back with a grumbling Dannoc. The last thing in the world he wanted was for his family to share a wagon with two dead apes.
Aldar stared at the bodies in the moonlight. Indistinct lumps by the looks of it, covered by blankets. It was hard to believe that Urko was dead. He knew that by all rights he and Dan should be dead, instead of the gorillas. But something vital had been lost in Urko over the years – his sureness, his confidence… his sense of righteousness. He’d found nothing to replace it. It was his undoing.
And yet, a question haunted the blond man: was it possible to have escaped without harming the wizened yet still powerful gorilla?
As if she read his mind, Tamar’s hand encircled his arm firmly. “No,” she said, and in her eyes he saw no compromise. “What’s done is done.”
Aldar stared down at her, then offered his hand, helping her and the baby into the wagon. “Look… be careful, okay?” Dannoc said to Al, groping for words.
“We’ll make it, Dan. The past is done,” he said, looking in the eyes of the man who’d been his best friend for so long. Dannoc smiled faintly and looked away. Aldar patted his good shoulder. “See you soon. Take care of yourself.” The dark-haired man nodded wordlessly, eyes fixed on the horizon.
Suddenly Dan looked back at him. “I’m the best man, right?”
“At the wedding. Cornelius can be ‘best chimp’,” he said airily. “Hey, that means we get to throw a bachelor party! I’ll check around for strippers when I get back.” Aldar shook his head and laughed.
Then he went to Kamala.
The following day in Hernos, a massive drift of lazy black smoke hovered in the still air. Apes chattered excitedly, pointing at the blazing home of Lohnar, one of the soldiers of Hernos. The citizens pitched in, throwing bucket after bucket of well water over the blaze, but still the roof collapsed in with a roar. By the time the fire was extinguished, only one side of the dwelling remained intact. There were no survivors, and very little remained of the inhabitants.
Not long after, two horses were found nearby, one being Lohnar’s mount. The other was identifed by Zandor as the horse given to the new Prefect of Xardis.
The blaze was the biggest news of the year in Hernos, and it set the whole town abuzz. That same afternoon, a messenger galloped away on horseback. He had a long journey before him, carrying a message to Central City: The great general Urko of years past was dead, along with one of their village guards. Killed in a fire, apparently accidental – it was well known that the area currently endured intense drought.
The death certificates were signed by a reputable chimpanzee physician –the daughter of Hernos’s Prefect.
Central City, four weeks later:
From a remote village, far from the hub of ape civilization, a message arrived. Dr. Andor, President of the Council, opened the message in his office and read it, lost in thought.
So Urko was dead. After all these years.
Should someone be sent to investigate? The former general had for a time been one of the most powerful apes the world had known. But it seemed there was no evidence that would brand his death as anything other than an unfortunate accident. And Urko had long since been labeled a disgrace to the City in light of his failure to best the astro… the astro-nauts, was it? Yes, and their chimpanzee companion.
Dr. Andor had been charged with keeping the secrets of ape and human history, like his predecessors before him. As such, he was well versed in the lore of the astronauts who arrived from the past, when humanity still ruled the planet. But there had been no more incidents in all the long years after the arrival of Burke, Virdon and the shipmate who’d died.
The two humans hadn’t been seen or heard from in years, and were presumed dead. It had even been rumored that none other than Urko himself had finally caught up with them after his dismissal. At any rate, the overthrow of the apes so direly prophesied by Zaius had not come to pass. Indeed, the last problem that threatened had been the student riots, years ago, and it was brutally crushed at the hands of Zaius and Urko.
No, the threat that Virdon and Burke posed was long dead and with Urko’s death, the last tie to that era gone. Decisively he threw the message in the waste basket and made a mental note to announce the news of the former general’s death at the next Council meeting.
Three months later in Edria, thanks to a friendship that existed against all odds between human and ape, the past was finally put to bed in the form of a bachelor party like none seen in over half a millennium –at least for a human. The men of the village were delighted… the women, not so much. But Kamala generously forgave Dannoc his part in the debacle by the time the wedding rolled around.
Tamar was another story.