First Step to Freedom
Peter Burke studied the
sparse landscape carefully but nothing stirred. The courtyard of the
“All clear,” he said to Travin, human overseer at the center. They stepped cautiously into the yard carrying a stretcher between them. A young girl of about eighteen, Travin's daughter, followed close behind. Burke stumbled slightly, losing his footing. The man on the stretcher grimaced, clutching at his bandaged side. “Sorry, Alan,” the dark-haired man apologized. “You okay?”
Alan Virdon opened his eyes. “I'm fine,” he managed.
Alan gritted his teeth and nodded grimly, not trusting himself to speak. Four days after having a bullet removed from his side, he still felt weak and drained. The movement of the stretcher, together with the effort of talking, caused sweating to break out. Alan held his breath until the spasm of pain passed and closed his eyes once more.
Two more figures
emerged from the doorway: Galen, Virdon and Burke's chimpanzee friend and
fellow fugitive, and Kira, chief ape surgeon at the
Travin looked down fondly at his daughter. “Tell him,” he encouraged her. A tentative smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“My name is Arna,” she told Alan shyly.
“Arna…” ” Alan nodded gratefully. “Thank you, Arna.”
Pete leaned towards the girl with a protective affection. He placed an arm gently around her waist.
“Bye,” he told her quietly.
Three years earlier, she had given blood to her brother in an experimental transfusion, and he'd died because of their incompatible blood types. Convinced of the girl's 'evil blood', Arna had been stripped of her name and pronounced 'dead' by her family. Then Burke managed to convince the girl that she could save Virdon's life...by giving him her blood.
Alan glanced up at
the red flag tied to the medical cart, emblazoned with a black cross and
skull bones. “Welcome to the 'Plague Express',” he joked to Pete as the
man climbed aboard. Pete chuckled at Virdon's words. The flag,
which signaled 'Black Death', had been utilized to keep Urko from breaking
'quarantine' at the
Pete moved to the back of the cart and lay down beside his friend. “I told you...we travel first-class,” he laughed.
Travin helped Pete pull a tarpaulin over Virdon and himself, before turning to his daughter. Grasping her firmly by the shoulders he made her a promise: “When I come back, Arna...well, you know it will be different. In every way I can make it so.”
Arna gazed into the eyes of her father, lost to her for so long. “I know,” she replied. The girl swung round to Galen for confirmation. “He will come back?”
Galen nodded quickly. “Oh, believe me, he will. The last thing I need in the world is another human!”
Kira observed the mist beginning to lift. “It's clearing,” she said to Galen. “You'd better go now.”
Galen struggled to put his gratitude into words. “What do I say?” he gestured.
“Well, if you're asking my opinion,” Kira replied gruffly, “I'd say goodbye.”
“And no thanks to you?” Galen queried with a shake of his head.
Kira shrugged. “I helped your friends,” she conceded.
Her mind went back to a week earlier when Galen had arrived at the center, seeking her help in treating Virdon. Once, he and Kira had contemplated marriage, and although she'd moved on to a new relationship with Leander, the sight of him had brought back bittersweet memories. Outraged at the path Galen had chosen to follow, and shaken by the suddenness of his appearance, she had asked him how a decent law-abiding ape could openly choose to live amongst humans as their equal. Kira now repeated his answer back to him.
“But they helped me...have an accident.” Galen looked momentarily confused. “To collide with the truth about humans,” she finished.
His face cleared and he nodded his head wisely in agreement. “It does permanent injury to one's beliefs.”
“I've begun to see the effects already, even on Leander.” She laughed in wonder at the thought.
“I like him.” There was a note of approval in Galen's voice.
“So do I,” agreed Kira. Saying goodbye to Galen again was painful, but inevitable. Galen was her past, Leander her future. She took a deep breath. “Goodbye, Galen,” she said firmly, finality in her tone.
Galen hesitated. He grasped Kira's hand and brought it gently to his mouth. “Goodbye...” He tightened his grip for a moment and then patted her hand in farewell, “...and thank you.” He looked at Kira one last time before climbing into the seat alongside Travin.
The overseer flicked at the reins, urging the horse forward. Kira raised an arm in farewell. She paused for a long moment, and then turned to go inside. The twitching of a curtain at one of the windows caught her attention. She looked up to see Leander staring after the disappearing cart, an unreadable _expression on his face. With a heavy heart she walked through the doorway.
Leander, Kira's new love interest and immediate superior at the hospital, pushed aside the curtain of his study window and gazed down to the courtyard where the fugitives were preparing to leave. As he watched, the dark one called Burke climbed into the back of the cart. He was laughing in amusement as he spoke to his fair-haired companion.
Leander had always believed humans at best were useful animals, good for laborers, farmers and servants. At worst, they were carriers of hatred and destruction. Virdon and Burke were a contradiction: intelligent, loyal, courageous and possessing a keen sense of humor. The knowledge that these two humans could be his equals challenged every truth, every belief he had ever held.
Galen and Kira stood together as Travin pulled a tarpaulin over the two humans. A stab of jealousy hit Leander as Galen lifted Kira's hand to his mouth and kissed it gently. Despite Kira's denials that Galen was no longer a part of her life, their strong feelings of loyalty would always serve to bind them together.
The cart finally pulled away from the compound. He felt an immense relief. The danger they posed to him, and more importantly to Kira, increased with every day they remained. Discovery would have meant certain death for them all. He held his breath as Kira waved farewell then turned to go inside. She glanced over and spotted him standing there. For a few moments their eyes locked, and then she disappeared through the doorway.
Leander walked over to his desk and sat down wearily. His eyes dropped to the medical book lying there. He picked it up and slowly traced a finger over the title: “Principles of Surgery”. Flicking through the book from cover to cover, he marveled again at the knowledge found within its pages: circulatory systems, diagrams, surgical procedures and medical knowledge far beyond his comprehension. A book written by humans.
It could only mean one thing. He could no longer ignore the truth. Virdon and Burke hadn't been lying. They did come from another time....another world. A world where humans somehow possessed more knowledge than the apes. How long had Zaius and the High Council chosen to keep this information from the rest of civilization? And, more puzzlingly, for what possible reason?
He needed time to think. Time to come to terms with these strange new concepts. Time to decide what, if anything, he intended to do with this incredible discovery. He remained closeted in his study for the rest of the day and far into the night, totally absorbed in the book.
They traveled south, determined to put as much distance between themselves and Urko as possible. Hampered by Virdon's weakened condition, their journey was slow and arduous. Every jolt of the cart as it bounced along the rough roads brought a fresh stab of agony to the raw wounds in his side. The intense pain dulled his mind, and for a brief period he slept.
Several miles past the outskirts of the city, Galen spotted two mounted soldiers approaching the cart. He banged urgently on the seat behind him.
“Alan! Pete! We have company!”
Drifting back to consciousness, Virdon woke to something pressing down hard against his face. He fought to remove the smothering sensation.
“Alan...quiet! Apes!” Burke hissed in his ear. Virdon stopped struggling and lay still. Pete slowly removed his hand and groped behind him for the knife he carried in his waistband, grasping it tightly in readiness. His stomach tensed as he strained to listen.
Galen and Travin watched in apprehension as two armed gorillas reined in their mounts, studying the cart suspiciously.
“You!” One of the troopers pointed to Galen. “Who are you? Where are you traveling to?”
Galen squared his shoulders and huffed importantly: “I, my good fellow, am Doctor Adrian. I'm traveling home from important business at the Medical Center near Central City.”
“And what important business is that?” the trooper demanded to know.
“As you no doubt are aware, there has been an outbreak of the Black Death near the Medical Center. I have been there this past week helping to treat patients. Sadly, there have been many deaths already.” Galen said, indicating the red flag behind him.
“What's in the cart?”
“We're removing some of the human bodies for burial.” Galen shuddered. “Who knows what contagious and horrible contamination they carry - even in death?” He studied the reaction of the trooper closely. “Of course, you are most welcome to check.”
The gorilla wrinkled his muzzle in disgust. He wasn't about to place his life in jeopardy by checking the cart for the plague-ridden bodies of filthy humans. He hesitated for a moment before reaching a decision.
“You may continue,” he informed them with an impatient wave of his arm. “Be on your way.”
“Thank you,” Galen nodded, signaling to Travin. The overseer flicked the horse forward, relief flooding his face. He drove on for several miles before checking over his shoulder for any sign of the soldiers. With nothing but empty road behind, he directed the cart into a small clearing. Galen rapped his knuckles on the backboard.
“Pete! They're gone! It's safe to come out.”
Pete's tousled head emerged from under the tarpaulin.
“Man, that was close!” he exclaimed. He pulled the cover away from Alan's flushed face. “You okay, Al?”
Alan nodded weakly. “Yeah...I think so.”
Pete carefully lifted Alan's head and wiped away the sweat beading on his forehead and upper lip. He held a canteen to the man's mouth, forcing him to take several sips of the cool water before he was satisfied. After wiping the canteen, he passed it to the others, and then drew a long swig for himself.
“Hey, Galen,” Pete turned to the chimp in genuine admiration. “You've got this acting thing down to a fine art. That was an academy award performance!”
Galen cocked his head questioningly at the human.
“Hmmm?” he asked, puzzled.
Pete shook his head and grinned. “Never mind, Galen,” he said, replacing the stopper in the neck of the bladder and reluctantly lying down on the hard floor again. “Come on. Let's get outa here before anyone else comes along looking for an audition!”
Galen pulled the tarpaulin over the two humans before climbing alongside Travin again. “You heard the man, my dear fellow,” he said in his most impressive Dr Adrian voice. “Drive on!”
Travin headed for the village of Dumia, where his brother Arnold lived as headman of the remote hamlet. Nestled in the foothill ranges to the southeast of Central City, it consisted of nothing more than a scattering of humble dwellings, too small to warrant a prefect in its midst. Arnold carried a burning hatred for the ape authorities. The previous year, his beloved wife Jenna had been killed; shot by a stray bullet from the gun of a gorilla soldier, who had been hunting in the woods near the village. Travin was confident his brother would hide the fugitives until Virdon was fit to travel again.
Pete was uneasy about the whole deal but neither he nor Galen had been able to come up with an alternative plan. Virdon needed somewhere safe to recuperate. And since Pete had already ruled out phoning ahead with news of their impending arrival, they would just have to trust Travin's judgment. He tried not to dwell on the disturbing possibility of being turned away.
They arrived at their destination two days later, weary and disheveled. Arnold, a taller, leaner version of his brother, greeted Travin warmly. Pete jumped down from the back of the cart and watched anxiously as Travin drew his brother aside and began to talk in earnest. Whatever Travin was saying seemed to be having the desired effect. Arnold began to bob his head up and down in agreement. The headman moved to the back of the hospital cart to study Virdon for himself before rejoining the others.
“You are welcome to stay here in our village while your friend recovers from his wounds.”
Pete and Galen nodded in appreciation, fully aware of the enormous risk this man was willing to undertake on their behalf. Anyone found harboring enemies of the state was certain to meet with a swift and brutal death.
“My brother has told me of what has happened to bring you here. It would be best if we simply made it known that your friend has met with an accident. And that you are in need of a place to stay. You will be provided with food and shelter for as long as you require it. In return, I ask that you respect my wishes in this matter and tell no-one else here of your...identities.”
“We appreciate everything you're doing for us, and of course we'll do as you ask.” Galen was grateful to this human. “It's more than we ever could have hoped for, isn't it Pete?”
“Yeah, we're indebted to you, Arnold. Thank you.”
Arnold looked at Galen curiously. It was hard to understand that these two humans were the friends of this chimpanzee and not his servants. Almost as if they were equals. In his forty long years he had never heard of such a thing. The headman gestured towards Virdon.
“Bring your friend inside, away from the elements. This way.”
Burke and Galen removed Alan from the cart and settled him into the small hut put aside for their use, before Pete returned outside to where Travin waited.
“I must return to Central City,” the overseer began. “I'm pleased my brother has agreed to shelter you, Burke. You'll be safe here while Virdon recovers but after that you must move on.”
Pete nodded and placed a hand on the man's shoulder. “Don't worry - we'll be gone just as soon as Virdon can travel. I can't thank you enough for what you've done for Alan. For all of us. We're in your debt. Thank you, Travin.”
“The debt has already been repaid. You have returned my daughter to me. You brought Arna back to us from the dead.”
Pete smiled his acknowledgement.
“I wish you and your friends well. Goodbye, Burke. I'm honored to have known you.”
“Safe journey, Travin. Be careful.”
“I will. Goodbye.”
“'Bye.” Pete watched until Travin disappeared from view before casting a quick eye around the village. The place lay quiet and undisturbed, but staying here still gave him an unshakable feeling of vulnerability. He knew they had little choice in the matter, though. Virdon needed somewhere warm and dry to recuperate before he was well enough to travel again. With any luck they would be long gone by the time Urko realized the trail had gone cold. Pete took one last glance around before making his way inside the hut.
“How's the patient?” he asked Galen, who hovered nervously near the window.
“The patient's fine,” Virdon replied from his bed in the far corner of the room. “Just a little sore and tired, that's all.”
“Yeah, well here's to a speedy recovery with no complications, 'cause Dr Kildaire, I ain't. I think I've had my fill of operating rooms. How about you, Galen, or should I say, Dr Adrian?”
“Sorry, Pete. What did you say?” Galen was a million miles away.
“What's up, Galen? Anything the matter?” Pete asked, concern on his face.
“No. Well...yes. I was just wondering where Urko might be. You know he's out there somewhere looking for us.”
“Galen's right, Pete.” Alan struggled to sit up. “How safe can it be for us to stay here? If Urko picks up our trail and finds the villagers harboring us...”
“I know, Alan, but what other choice do we have? You're not strong enough to travel for another three or four days at least. Urko's off on some wild goose chase. That should buy us a bit of time.”
“I hope you're right, Pete,” Alan sighed, lying back down again.
“Well, don't you worry about it. Just leave the worrying up to Galen and me. All you need do is concentrate on getting well again, so we can get the hell outa here. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Alan reluctantly agreed.
“This way!” The girl darted into the tangled undergrowth to the side of the well-worn path. Before he could catch her, she had disappeared. A quick glimpse of bare, sun-tanned leg and she was gone. Following the trail of crushed vegetation he dived after her, calling her name. From somewhere behind him came the sound of a stifled giggle and he pivoted around quickly. She stood leaning against a tree, the laughing green eyes regarding him in frank amusement. Pete lowered the heavy basket he was carrying to the ground and threw himself down alongside in relief.
“Time to stop and rest,” he declared. “I'm beat!”
The forest was quiet and still in the heat of the day. He shrugged off his shirt and folded it into a makeshift pillow. Lying down, he tucked it firmly behind his head.
The three fugitives had been forced to remain hidden in the small village for nearly a week now, Virdon's convalescence a slow, gradual process. Alan had spent much of the time confined to bed, his recovery punctuated by long bouts of sleeping. Two days earlier, Burke had carefully removed the stitches and the wounds were healing well with no signs of infection. In his opinion though, Alan had not yet been strong enough to stand up to the rigors of traveling. Against his better judgment he had overridden Galen and made the decision to stay on at Dumia longer than planned. A decision he knew was making the chimpanzee increasingly nervous and disagreeable.
Stifled by the strained atmosphere that had sprung up between himself and Galen, Pete had sought out the girl more and more, a welcome distraction from the tension of the past couple of weeks. Oldest daughter of Arnold, Kayla was intelligent, spirited and definitely easy on the eye.
Pete squinted up at the girl, shifting restlessly above him.
“Just stand still a minute and relax, will ya?” he teased gently, patting the ground beside him. Reaching for her hand, he pulled her towards him.
“Only if you tell me another one of your stories.”
He groaned in despair. “No more stories! I'm all storied out!”
“Please, Pete! Just a short one!” Mercilessly, she began to tickle him under the ribs.
“Okay! Okay!” He raised his hands in surrender. “Give a guy a break!”
She giggled. The strange way he talked made her laugh.
“Tell you what,” he negotiated. “I'll make you a deal...”
Pete considered for a moment. “It's where two people make an agreement, a bargain between them.”
She nodded, understanding on her face. Reaching out to pluck a single wildflower growing in the ground beside him, Pete leaned towards the girl. He pushed aside the loose strands of blonde hair and tucked the flower behind her ear. She colored slightly, causing the light dusting of freckles across her face to stand out. Funny how he'd never really noticed them before. Then again, there was a lot about this young woman he was starting to take note of. Awkwardly, he withdrew his hand. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to come here, but he enjoyed her company. He couldn't remember the last time he'd allowed himself to feel this relaxed. He lay back down again and closed his eyes.
“You let me sleep for a while and when I wake up I'll tell you a story. Okay?”
She looked at him boldly. “Is that a promise?”
Pete cracked an eyelid open to study her. Damned if she wasn't flirting with him - the little minx. He held up three fingers in salute.
“Scout's Honor. Now rest!”
Obediently she lay down next to him, snuggling into the broad warmth of his shoulder. Pete placed an arm around her and stretched out, yawning. Through the canopy of trees overhead, the dappled sunlight filtered down to warm his face, making him drowsy. He yawned again and allowed himself to drift.
He woke sometime later to a feathery light touch gently stroking his chest, so soft that at first he thought he was dreaming. The caresses moved to his hair, smoothing back the dark curls that strayed across his face. A fingertip trailed lightly across his forehead, then down along the bridge of his nose. Eyes closed, he lay quietly, willing her not to stop. She sketched the outline of his mouth and his lips parted slightly as he sucked on her finger, nibbling at it gently between his teeth.
Kayla lowered her body towards his, her mouth brushing his chest, covering the smooth skin with hot, moist kisses. His reaction to her touch was intoxicating. She watched in delight as he arched beneath her, arms flung above his head, eyes closed in rapt concentration. Pete groaned and gave himself up to the familiar warmth spreading through him.
Her kisses grew more insistent as her tongue flickered in small circles, traveling slowly, maddeningly down the length of his body, sending tiny pinpricks of pleasure shooting along his spine. The muscles of his stomach tensed slightly as she reached the line of dark hair that began there, tracing it with her mouth until it disappeared into the waistband of his pants.
She hesitated, unsure of what to do next. Pete felt himself hardening. He wanted her. He wanted her badly. All coherent thought gone, he reached out blindly, fingers entwining the girl's hair. Pulling her to him, he hurriedly sought her mouth with his own. She flattened her body against his, returning his kisses tentatively at first, then with a growing abandonment. The tip of his tongue probed her lips and she parted them willingly, enjoying the strange sensation as he hungrily explored the depths of her mouth.
Pete raised himself slightly from the ground and buried his face in the side of her neck. He inhaled the scent of her - a sweet mixture of soap and lavender. God, she smelt good. His lips moved to kiss the tender skin of her throat and Kayla moaned in pleasure. Greedy for the feel of him again, she pushed him back to the ground, letting her hands roam over the hard lean muscles of his arms and shoulders. A tingling sensation was forming deep in her groin and she began to grind herself against his hip in fevered response.
Panting now, she took one of his hands in hers, guiding it towards her. The sharp intake of her breath as his hand closed around her breast brought Pete reeling to his senses. He groaned and rolled away abruptly. Cursing under his breath, he lay with his back to her, breathing hard. Oh Christ. What had he done?
“Did I do something wrong?” gasped a small voice from behind.
He sat up slowly and turned to face her.
“No! God no...” he denied hoarsely, torn between his desire for her and the need to prevent them from going any further.
“Then why did you stop?” The humiliation was plainly visible on her face. “Don't you like me?”
“Of course I like you!” Pete protested weakly.
She shook her head miserably. “I don't believe you!”
A sick feeling in his gut, Pete forced himself to meet her accusing eyes. Why had he ever let her bring him here? Of course, the girl's attention had been flattering. He'd encouraged it on a certain level if he was honest with himself. Stupidly, he'd lowered his guard and allowed his growing attraction to her trigger emotions that had lain dormant, suppressed in him, for longer than he cared to remember. Now Kayla had taken their act of intimacy as a sign of his commitment to her and here he was, not ten minutes later, trying to back away. Good one, Pete.
There was a time when he would have seized an opportunity like this without regret. But that was another world ago. Then the stakes had been different. He'd been different. Now every decision he made affected not just him, but everyone around him. Lives could be lost from a single, lousy mistake. A mistake he couldn't afford to make.
It was time to face the consequences.
“Look, Kayla. I think you're lovely. Truly I do. But you know my friends and I have to leave here in a day or two. Don't you see? I haven't anything to offer you. We shouldn't even be together - alone like this. It's not right.”
“Why shouldn't we be alone?” Kayla cried, throwing her arms around his neck. “I don't care what anyone else thinks.”
“No!” Pete snapped, removing her hands and pushing her back. “This is crazy! You hardly know me.” He was handling things badly, he knew. But how could he explain it to her, make her understand, without giving the game away completely. He took a deep breath. “Kayla. There are things about me you don't know. In fact, the less you do know, the safer it is for you.”
The girl paled visibly. “What is so terrible about you that you can't stay? Or is it that you will not stay?”
Through the haze of tears she searched his troubled face for the answer.
“You're wanted by the authorities.” It was a statement. “I overheard something my father said to your friend, Galen.”
His continuing silence confirmed her suspicions.
“I don't care what you may have done. It doesn't matter. Stay here and live with us.”
Pete groaned and shook his head.
“If I stayed, you'd be asking me to sign a death warrant for every person in your village! That's why we have to leave.”
“Then take me with you,” she implored.
Pete smiled tiredly. “You know I can't do that.”
“For the same reason I can't stay. It's too dangerous for you. Besides, it's no kind of life on the run. Always looking over your shoulder. Trust me, I know!” He laughed, a bitter, hollow laugh.
“But what about us?”
“Us? There is no us, Kayla. Nor can there ever be.” Guilt and frustration made his voice harsher than he'd intended. The girl shrank from him. Pete looked at her in despair. “Please don't ask me for something I can't give.”
Tears reformed in her eyes. She turned away to hide them. Pete stood up wretchedly and pulled the shirt over his head.
“Come on,” he said quietly. “It's getting late. We'd better get back before they send out a search party to find us.” For a moment she refused to look at him. “Kayla...please?”
Slowly, she raised her eyes to his as he held out his hand. She grasped it reluctantly, allowing him to pull her lightly to her feet. Part of him desperately wanted to reach out and wipe away the unshed tears threatening to spill; tell her everything would be all right. But he knew he couldn't promise that. Instead, he began to push his way through the undergrowth until they reached the familiar path winding its way back to the village. They headed slowly homewards in uneasy silence.
Virdon sat looking through the window at the quiet scene outside. From his vantage point he watched as two small children huddled in the communal courtyard, their blonde heads bowed together in concentration, playing some kind of game in the dirt. Something about the older child was faintly disturbing. It slowly dawned on him how similar to his son Chris the boy looked. He tore his gaze away from the children and stood up abruptly.
“Pete, you know we gotta leave here tomorrow. We've risked too many lives as it is already.”
Burke looked up from where he was preparing dinner.
“Yeah...I know,” he agreed. Virdon detected the note of relief in Burke's voice. He swung his head up in surprise, trying to interpret the flicker of emotion that registered on Pete's face. Guilt? Regret, perhaps. He couldn't be sure. What could possibly have changed Pete's mind so quickly about their departure? This morning he had been reluctant to discuss it, yet now he seemed eager for them to be on their way.
“You sure you feel up to traveling, Alan?” Burke asked.
“I feel pretty good, considering. Just a bit tender when I forget and stretch too quickly!” Virdon smiled ruefully, his hand subconsciously moving towards his favored side.
Burke nodded, relieved the decision to leave had been made. “We're getting too soft anyway,” he observed. “What...with a roof over our heads, all this good food. Ya know I think I'm starting to put on a little weight.” He patted his stomach for emphasis. Virdon looked at Pete's lean frame skeptically. He couldn't picture it somehow. He'd never met anyone who could pack away so much food and still not put on a single ounce.
Pete picked up the knife again, brows knitted together in concentration. The hardest thing, he'd discovered, was trying not to amputate his fingers in the process of chopping everything into pieces. Alan watched as Pete began to slice the vegetables and add them to the rapidly boiling stock. This domestic side of Burke was faintly disturbing, not to mention potentially hazardous to their stomach linings. Culinary disasters of the past had put a damper on tasting too many of Pete's concoctions.
A recent spell as fishermen in a forced labor camp had cured the two humans of a desire to eat seafood of any kind for the moment. Given that Galen was a strict vegetarian their food options were rapidly dwindling. Whatever happened to roast chicken smothered in homemade gravy, thick slices of juicy steak, and rashers of streaky bacon dripping with good old-fashioned artery clogging fat...
Pete's eyes began to water furiously.
“Hey Galen. What is this?” He held up the vegetable he had been cutting into for the chimpanzee to inspect.
“It's a curdong. They're very good you know.”
Yeah, well whatever name it went by, it had the same potency as a bag of overripe onions. He gingerly held the vegetable away from himself as he continued to dice it into small pieces. Dropping it into the pot, he wiped a hand across his eyes in relief.
“What are you making?” asked Galen, interest at last piqued.
“It's an old family recipe, handed down through the generations,” Pete informed him.
“I don't suppose it would belong to the family of the lovely Kayla?” Alan asked slyly. “She's taken quite the shine to you, Pete!”
Burke stopped short, flushing. Kayla's reaction to his leaving still weighed heavily on his conscience. “We may have exchanged the odd culinary delight,” he admitted.
“Why, Pete,” Galen chortled. “If I didn't know better, I'd say you were blushing!” The chimpanzee derived an almost guilty pleasure from the look of discomfort on his friend's face. It wasn't often he was able to make Pete squirm like this. The gods must indeed be smiling down on him today.
“Yes.... your face is definitely turning a nice shade of red,” he finished, prolonging the agony for as long as he dared.
“Funny...very funny,” Pete grumbled darkly, seriously contemplating emptying the contents of the cooking pot over the heads of his two friends. “It's getting so a guy can't take a leak around here without someone watching over his shoulder,” he complained, turning his back on them in a gesture of injured pride. He picked up a spoon and began to stir the stew, ignoring their best efforts not to laugh out loud.
“Galen?” Virdon prodded gently. “What's wrong? You've hardly touched your food.”
Galen picked up a spoon and began to ladle some of the stew into his mouth.
“It's delicious,” he said quickly, not wishing to offend.
“You don't have to look quite so surprised,” scowled Pete, well aware of his friends' lack of faith in his cooking ability.
“Galen?” Alan prompted again.
“Yeah, what's the story, pal?” Pete demanded. “You still pissed at me or something? You've been like a bear with a sore head these past few days.”
Alan smiled quietly to himself. Subtlety was not a word to feature in the Burke dictionary.
Galen fixed Pete with a withering glare. The man shrugged in mock apology.
“Okay, then! Like a chimp with a...a sore tail...” he finished lamely.
Galen moaned in protest. “How many times do I have to tell you, Pete? Chimpanzees do not have tails!”
Alan cleared his throat loudly, keen to prevent a full-scale argument on the simian anatomy from erupting.
“I'm sorry,” Galen apologized. “I know I've been rather pre-occupied this past week.”
Alan shot Pete a warning glance before the thought had barely formed in his head.
“No, it's not you, Pete.” Galen paused, deep in thought. “It's just that....seeing Kira again...well I guess it stirred up a lot of old memories I've tried so hard to forget these past months. Sitting around the table like this, sharing a home-cooked meal...it reminds me so much of my family and friends back home in Central City. How much I miss them all.”
Galen looked up in time to see Alan's face fall. Guilt stabbed at him.
“I'm sorry, Alan,” he apologized again. “I shouldn't have said anything. I sometimes forget how hard it must be for the two of you to be separated from your loved ones in a totally strange world. I'm sorry.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Pete replied. “I'm getting used to the idea of having my ass chased all over the place by a bunch of talking gorillas.”
Virdon's foot connected with something solid under the table. An ankle by the feel.
“Hey! What the....”
Alan glared at Burke in frustration. One more word and he was personally going to drag Pete outside, stake him to the nearest ants' nest and leave him there.
“It's all right, Galen. No apology necessary. It's hard on all of us. Maybe memories are all we have right now to keep us going.”
All traces of their
past had been destroyed when abandoning their crashed spaceship, Alan taking
only a crumpled photo of himself, his wife and son, snapped a week before he
left on the mission. Zaius had confiscated even that after he was taken
prisoner in the ruined city of
Galen watched Alan's face soften. The blond human often talked of his wife Sally and their son Christopher with pride and affection, but Galen couldn't ever remember Pete mentioning any of his family.
“What about you, Pete? Surely you must have family waiting for you, back in your time?”
“Nope,” Pete said firmly, refusing to be drawn any further into the conversation. A large family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents made it impossible for Galen to comprehend a life without numerous relations.
“Not anyone?” he persisted in disbelief.
“I said there's no-one, Galen!” There was a cold, stubborn note to his voice Galen recognized only too well. Pete stood abruptly and began to clear the dishes from the table.
Galen caught Alan's imperceptible shake of the head. He clamped his lips together to prevent any more questions from escaping. Pete usually radiated warmth and fun, but when pushed too far the wrong way, he was capable of withdrawing into hours of moody silence. Galen realized now was not the time to pursue the subject any further. There was a strained silence before Galen and Alan both rushed to speak at once:
“Great dinner, Pete...”
“Here, let me give you a hand to clean up...”
Pete shook his head. “I think I can manage to clear up three bowls by myself,” he muttered, exasperated at their clumsy attempts to lighten the mood.
In one way or another, Burke had been on the run for most of his adult life. His first instinct had always been to run as fast and as far as possible. Home, family, the responsibilities and commitment they entailed, were everything he had so far managed to avoid. He'd never really looked further ahead than the next week, forming no real attachments. He did not care to plan out his life, preferring instead to just let it happen. Take each day as it came.
Since landing on this crazy planet, he had been forced into a running of a different kind. That the pull of putting down roots somewhere seemed mighty tempting to him at the moment was cruelly ironic. It was true what they said after all: The grass was always greener...
Sighing, he grabbed a bucket from beside the door and stalked outside. Returning a few minutes later with clean water drawn from the well, he dumped the dirty bowls into the bucket and began to wash up.
“Kayla not coming to say goodbye?” Virdon asked quietly.
“I guess not,” Pete mumbled, unable to meet Alan's eyes. Earlier that morning he'd tried to seek Kayla out, to say a final goodbye, but she'd refused to see him. Well, it was probably for the best. He'd done enough damage already.
“I gather she didn't take the news of your leaving too well?”
“Not really.” Let Alan believe what he liked. Right now, he was too ashamed to admit the whole truth.
“It's probably for the best you know, Pete. She did seem to be getting rather attached to you.” Alan placed a hand on Burke's arm.
Pete nodded briefly, keen for them to be gone. Alan had cautioned him against the dangers of getting too involved with the girl and he had stupidly chosen to ignore the warning. One day he might wise up and learn to listen. Yeah, right.
“Let's just get going...huh?” Long protracted goodbyes were not in his repertoire. All he wanted was to put some distance between himself and this place.
It was a beautiful clear day. The sun shone down from a lazy blue sky, bringing with it the last of the summer heat. Alan basked in the feel of the warm sunshine on his face. After weeks of being cooped up indoors it felt good to be out in the open and on the move again.
They couldn't have asked for better traveling weather either. The only cloud on the horizon was the worry of the coming cooler months - and the new set of problems it would bring with it. Then winter. Alan put the disturbing thought to the back of his mind. More immediately troubling was the fact that they were no further away from Central City than two weeks ago. He was under no illusion as to their fate if captured.
He glanced over to Pete who strode out in silence beside him. Silence? That's what was wrong. The god awful silence. Pete had somehow managed to let a whole morning slide by without bestowing a single sarcastic crack or insult on either of his companions. Virdon nudged the man's shoulder.
“Something up, Pete?”
Burke was shaken from his reverie.
“I said, is anything wrong? You're awful quiet this morning.”
“No. Everything's fine. I'm fine.”
Virdon knew there was more to this than Burke was willing to admit. Something to do with Kayla, he suspected. But what?
“Still worried about Kayla?” he probed gently.
“What makes you say that?” Pete replied matter-of-factly, but there was an uneasy edge to his voice.
“Oh, I don't know. Maybe the fact that she didn't come to say goodbye when you've practically been inseparable since the day we arrived at Dumia. Maybe the fact that you haven't said one damn word since the moment we left there this morning.”
Before Burke had a chance to reply, Galen pulled Virdon roughly to the ground.
Alan turned to the chimp in shock. Pete instinctively ducked below the line of rocks standing between him and the edge of the hill they were climbing.
“Gorillas?” he gasped.
Galen nodded quickly. “Soldiers by the looks. Maybe six or seven.”
Pete raised an eyebrow at the others and shook his head in disgust. “Oh, terrific! And just when you think things are starting to look up.”
“Coincidence? Or are they looking for us?” Alan wanted to know. He turned to the chimp urgently.
Galen intercepted the question in Virdon's eyes.
“I didn't have time to see if Urko was with them.”
“You think they spotted us?”
Alan moved cautiously to the edge of the rocks and stole a look down the mountainside. His heart sank as he made out the distant figures of mounted soldiers gathered at the bottom of the slope. Seven in all, he counted. He crawled back to the others.
“Looks like they've stopped for the moment. Hard to tell which direction they're headed.”
“Could you see Urko?”
“No, but that doesn't mean he isn't lurking around here somewhere.”
“What now?” Galen was almost afraid to ask.
Alan shook his head. “I'm not sure, but we haven't got long before they could reach us.”
“Perhaps we can hide out somewhere until they pass, then double-back the way we came?” Galen suggested.
Pete shook his head adamantly. “Uh-uh...what if there are more soldiers left behind? Then what?”
Virdon chewed his lip indecisively for a moment. There was merit in Galen's suggestion to double-back but his gut instinct was to keep moving.
Alan nodded briefly. “We stand a better chance if we keep going.”
Pete resignedly rose to a crouch. “Well, let's not hang around here arguing about it, huh? Returning to Central City with a gun to my head is not in my game plan. I vote we get moving. Now!” The nervous tension he perpetually lived with churned uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach.
“Well, much as I hate to pass up the chance of a touching reunion with our friend Urko, I'm with you, Pete. I have the distinct feeling he thinks there is some unfinished business between us.”
“Tell me something I don't already know, Al. Let's just haul ass!”
Alan managed a small smile. “Let's go, troops.”
For two days and nights Virdon, Burke and Galen were relentlessly pursued by Urko and his gorilla soldiers. They avoided contact with any villages for fear of reprisals. Instead they trekked through thick, rugged countryside as they headed deeper into the surrounding mountains.
For much of the second day they followed a river twisting and snaking its way through the dense vegetation. Occasionally, much to Galen's disgust, they waded through the cold waters, hoping to confuse the mounted patrol following behind. The chimpanzee's natural dislike of water was inbred, but he gritted his teeth and plunged on regardless.
Whenever possible, the three friends snatched a few hours sleep, taking it in turns to keep an eye out for their pursuers. Late on the third day, Virdon called a halt, deciding to camp within a thick copse of bushes. They could go no further without food and rest. Galen looked exhausted and Pete dropped dispiritedly to the ground with his back to a tree.
“You okay?” Alan asked. Burke nodded briefly, trying to get his breath back under control. He began to remove one shoe, tugging impatiently at the sock beneath.
“Blisters,” he said in answer to Virdon's questioning look. “See what a week of easy living does to you?” he lamented, as he inspected the red patch of skin on his heel, rubbed raw from the constant chafing.
“How is it?”
“It's okay. More importantly, how are you holding up?”
“Me? I'm good,” Alan confirmed. “No real pain or anything.”
Virdon pulled the last of their food from his knapsack and divided it into three piles.
Galen accepted the food Alan handed him, but Pete shook his head moodily. “I'm not hungry, Al,” he muttered. “You and Galen have mine.” Reluctantly, he pulled the sock back over his foot and re-laced the boot. Maybe he could cushion his heel somehow before they left again. Right now he was too tired to care. Alan studied the narrow face, noticing the weariness etched there.
“You have to eat something, Pete,” he persisted. “We don't know what we might be up against tomorrow.”
“I said I wasn't hungry!” Tiredness and frustration made Pete sound angrier than he felt. “Just let it go, will ya?” He closed his eyes and leaned his head back in exhaustion.
Alan knew by the stubborn set of his friend's jaw there was little point in arguing. Galen listened worriedly to the exchange between the two humans. Nerves were stretched to breaking point. The last thing they needed was to start fighting amongst themselves. Hoping to change the subject, Galen leaned towards Alan and asked in a low voice, “How close behind do you suppose Urko and his gorillas really are?”
Alan shrugged his shoulders wearily. He had been wondering the very same thing. “I think we bought ourselves a bit of time today. At least I hope so. What do you think, Pete?”
Alan and Galen both glanced over to Pete then grinned at each other in wry amusement. He slept where he sat, head still resting against the tree, mouth open, snoring quietly.
“I guess this means I take first watch, Galen,” volunteered Alan. “I'll wake you in a few hours and you can take over. We'll let Sleeping Beauty get some rest while he can.”
“Who is Sleeping Beauty?” a confused Galen wanted to know. Sometimes he despaired of the strange comments his two human friends made.
“Never mind, Galen. Get some sleep like our friend Pete over there. Don't worry,” Alan assured him. “I'll wake you in a few hours.”
Galen nodded in agreement and lay down. Not even the hard ground digging into his side could keep him awake tonight. He was asleep within minutes.
Alan stood up and went to squat beside Burke. Gently, he eased Pete's body away from the tree and laid him down on the ground. Pete murmured something indecipherable but didn't wake.
“Sleep well, buddy,” Alan said softly. “God knows what's waiting out there tomorrow.”
Virdon busied himself repacking their knapsacks, checking their belongings were ready to go at a moment's notice. He settled himself down on the ground slightly away from the others and tried to attune his senses to the surrounding area. He sighed tiredly...it was going to be a long night.
The night sky began to turn slowly from an inky black to a pre-dawn gray. It would soon be light. Galen glanced over to where Virdon and Burke lay curled up asleep and felt a paternal stirring. Who would have believed he could become so fond of these two humans? He debated whether to wake them, and then his stomach rumbled, deciding the matter for him. First, he would forage for some food to eat. Grabbing a burlap bag from his knapsack he wandered off into the undergrowth and began his search.
Burke woke with a start and grudgingly opened his eyes. He tried to focus but it was still dark - though judging by the lightening sky, dawn wasn't too far away. Burke sighed to himself. Just another early morning in paradise. Getting stiffly to his feet, he stretched his arms above his head, yawning. Gingerly, he tested his full weight on the sore heel but it seemed much better today. Maybe it was a good omen.
Glancing up, he spotted Galen walking carefully back into camp.
“Look what I found for breakfast!” crowed the chimp, proudly holding up a heavy bag for inspection.
“Let me guess,” Pete pouted. “You managed to find fruit, fruit and more fruit!” Distaste showed on his face.
“Well, at least it is food,” Galen said with a crestfallen look.
“Just for once, I want a plateful of scrambled eggs and crispy bacon, a side order of pancakes smothered in maple syrup, washed down with a mug of strong black coffee...”
“Dream on, Pete!” Virdon's voice, thick with sleep, interrupted the exchange of words.
Burke pulled a sour face in the direction of his partner. “Nice of you to join the land of the living, Alan. You're just in time to try some of Gourmet Galen's fruit salad surprise!”
Galen, stung by Pete's sarcasm, retorted hotly, “Well, at least I bothered to get us something to eat. Unlike you, Pete. All you managed to do was sleep away most of last night.”
Guilt stabbed at Burke's conscience. “Yeah...how come no-one bothered to wake me up, by the way?”
Virdon swore softly under his breath. Only Pete could manage to provoke an argument before the sun had risen.
“Galen and I took it in turns to keep watch last night,” he explained, keeping his voice casual. “You looked like you needed the sleep, that's all. No big deal.”
“Well, you should've woken me anyway.”
Alan glared at Pete in growing exasperation. “Why do you always have to be such a hard-headed son-of-a....”
“Uh-uh now, Colonel...” Pete admonished with a wag of his finger. “Temper...temper!”
Alan caught the teasing tone in his friend's voice. Picking up a small pebble from the ground beside him, he threw it at Burke, hitting him squarely in the head.
“Ow!” Burke yelped, rubbing at the tender spot indignantly. “Not fair!”
Pete scooped up a handful of the small stones for himself and dashed for cover. A series of well-aimed projectiles rained down mercilessly on Virdon's head and shoulders. The tension of the last few days released, Alan sought to find some more ammunition of his own. Galen watched in bewilderment as the two humans dashed through the undergrowth, dodging and throwing pebbles at each other. He shook his head in disgust. Sometimes they were no better behaved than a couple of disobedient young chimpanzees.
Out of ammunition, Burke changed tactics. Ignoring the sting of missiles to his body, he charged towards Virdon, his tackle bringing them both crashing to the ground. Catching Alan off guard, he wrapped an arm around the older man's neck in a tight headlock.
“Give up?” he taunted. Alan shook his head stubbornly. Pete tightened his grip slightly. “Say uncle.”
Alan wriggled harder, managing to break free. A scuffle broke out and Galen watched them in growing alarm.
“Come on, you two!” he growled at them. “Cut it out!” Caught up in the game, the two men ignored the chimp.
“Alan! Pete!” Galen hissed louder. “Will you please keep the noise down? You're going to alert every gorilla within a ten mile radius.”
Virdon and Burke stared up at Galen as he stood over them, glowering. Virdon relinquished his hold on Burke's shirt and sat back, slightly abashed.
“Spoil sport,” Pete muttered at Galen, struggling to sit up.
“Well, someone has to be, with you two carrying on like that.”
Alan and Pete managed to look suitably repentant for a moment, before dissolving into laughter again.
“Sorry, Galen,” Alan managed. “You're right, of course.” He rounded on Burke. “Major! No more fighting. That's an order!”
“Yessir!” Pete gave a mock salute and fell back, snickering.
“Oh, you are impossible!” Galen threw the bag of food he was carrying to the ground and stormed away in disgust.
“Shit!” Burke tutted and rolled his eyes. “Now what did I say?”
“I s'pose someone better go see if he's all right,” Alan hinted.
“I'll go.” Burke stood up and brushed himself off. Walking over to where Galen sat miserably with his back to them, Pete squatted quietly beside the chimp for a few moments. “Galen...” he began. “Look, I'm sorry if I upset you just now.”
Galen remained silent, refusing to turn his head towards the human. Pete sighed. He could see his friend wasn't going to make this any easier for him. Taking a deep breath he tried again. “Galen, I said I was sorry. I was just blowing off some steam, that's all. I didn't mean anything by it.”
Galen shrugged stiffly. “You never do mean anything by it, Pete.”
Pete immediately looked contrite. “You're right, Galen. Put it down to human error. Tell me what I can do to make things right again, huh? Swing from a tree? Eat nothing but fruit for a week? Tell me and I'll do it.”
Galen exhaled loudly in anger. He loved Pete like a brother, but at moments like this, he could quite cheerfully strangle this exasperating human without a second thought. The chimp tried to quash the feeling, tempting though it was.
“There you go again. Turning everything into a joke. I don't understand you, Pete. Why do you always do that?” Galen searched Burke's face for an answer. Pete shifted uncomfortably under the monkey's relentless gaze.
“I dunno,” he admitted quietly. “Just my stupid way of coping with things, I guess.” Guilt and remorse were written all over him. “I am sorry, Galen. I really didn't mean it. Forgive me?”
One glance at that forlorn face reminded Galen of a small child begging for a second chance. He tried to stay angry with his human friend, but failed.
“Well...” He pretended to consider the matter sternly. “I suppose so. Yes...I think I can forgive you.”
Burke grinned in relief, the awkward moment over. He pushed himself upright and held out a hand to Galen. “Come on. Let's eat. I'm starved!”
Urko reined in his mount impatiently before pulling the canteen from his saddle and downing the remaining water in a few greedy gulps. Since early morning they had been in heavy pursuit of Virdon, Burke and Galen, yet somehow, the trio had still managed to elude them. But he knew they were out there somewhere. They couldn't hide forever.
The shooting of
Virdon had brought the fugitives to within a whisker of being recaptured in
Central City. He shook his head in disbelief that Burke and Galen had
so brazenly brought the injured Virdon back for treatment. Right under
their very noses. Then the
Urko had his
suspicions, he just needed the proof. And given time, he would get it.
Zaius had given him no support, refusing to allow him to question those
In frustration, Urko had concentrated his search in the opposite direction. His hunch had paid off. Several reports of strangers in the area had come to his attention, but the one that interested him most was from a detachment of gorilla soldiers returned from a routine patrol. A chimpanzee and two humans had been spotted avoiding the patrol in a mountainous area to the southeast. He had marshaled his troops, set off for the last known sighting, and picked up the trail within hours.
“General!” Tarik, Urko's second-in-command, pulled to a halt a few feet from his commander. “The renegades have been spotted again!”
“Are you certain?” Urko demanded harshly. By all the gods let it be them!
“Yes, sir. The two humans and Galen.”
“What are you waiting for, then? Go after them!”
It looked like his fortunes were changing. For three days they had been chasing the renegades, so tantalizingly close, yet not in his grasp. But today was going to be different. Today they would finally be caught. He could almost taste victory. This time there would be no mistakes, no excuses. He would not go back and face the wrath of the Council empty-handed again. And no swift, easy death for Galen and the humans. They would pay dearly for making a fool of him one time too many.
Remorselessly, the gorilla sank his heels into the flanks of his exhausted horse and drove it in the direction of Tarik's rapidly disappearing back. As he urged the animal to greater speed, a smile broke out over his face. Yes, it was going to be a good day after all!
Virdon collapsed behind the tree, doubled up, gasping. He strained to listen over the ragged sound of his own breathing. Nothing. Just the eerie silence of the woods around him. Had he managed to shake his pursuers? Cautiously, he emerged from his hiding place, keeping to the shadowy outcrops of rock as he worked his way down the slope. Where the hell were Galen and Pete?
The stillness of the day was shattered by a discharging rifle. His senses quickened. Which direction had the shot come from? He couldn't tell. Desperately, he searched for somewhere to hide. A rustling movement caused his heart to skip a beat.
“Alan! Quick! In here...” He turned to see Galen's face peering anxiously from a thick screen of gorse bush. Ignoring the thorns that tore wildly at his face, arms and clothing, he forced his way through the unyielding branches until he reached Galen, before wedging himself into the small space the chimp had manage to hollow out.
“You seen Pete?” he whispered urgently.
Galen shook his head. “No. The last time I saw him he was just behind you, and then I lost sight of him.”
“God, I hope...”
“Ssshhh....” Galen stiffened and gripped Virdon tightly. Alan fell silent at the sound of approaching footsteps. He held his breath, as the heavy trample of boots passed within a few feet of him.
“Did you see which way the fugitives came?” The gorilla soldier was close, so close that Alan could almost stretch out a hand and touch him.
“I'm sure the chimpanzee and one of the humans came in this direction!”
“What of the other human?”
“I don't know, sir. When the renegades split up, Palo and three others went after the other human. Don't worry. They'll catch him. He won't get far on foot.”
“Keep up the search for the other two. They're around here somewhere.”
The voices faded away as the gorillas moved further down the slope. Heart still hammering loudly in his chest, Galen relaxed his death grip on Virdon's shoulder and slowly exhaled.
“What now?” he whispered in Alan's ear.
“We wait, Galen.”
They remained crouched uncomfortably in the bush long after the gorillas had gone.
The net was tightening. Burke concentrated hard to get his bearings, studying the rugged terrain ahead as he ran. A single shot fired from somewhere behind and Pete automatically ducked his head before adopting a weaving pattern as he charged down the slope. Sweat dripped from his body and the straps of his heavy knapsack dug into his shoulders. Hurriedly, he pulled the pack off and flung it aside in a bid to move faster. The gorilla soldiers crashed loudly through the scrub in pursuit but he dared not take the time to turn and see how close they were. Every second counted. His heart hammered loudly in his chest and it was growing increasingly hard to suck fresh oxygen into his lungs. His right foot slipped on a loose rock, causing his knee to wrench painfully. Pete fell heavily to the ground.
For a few precious seconds he lay there gasping for breath, but the pounding of hooves and the urgent calling of voices spurred him on. Painfully, he struggled to his feet, putting most of his weight on his left leg. He set off again, adrenalin still pumping. Any chance of escape lay with losing himself in the adjacent woods, forcing the gorillas to abandon their mounts and follow on foot. Ignoring the flare of pain to his knee, he swerved to his left. He offered up a quick prayer of thanks as the safety of the trees loomed closer. Just a few moments more....
The ground dipped unexpectedly and his feet stumbled against the jagged rock beneath him. He tried cushioning the fall with his hands, but was unable to prevent his head from striking the ground with a dull thud. Pete's mouth filled with the warm, salty taste of blood as his teeth slammed together, biting the inside of his cheek. Everything went black for a moment. He tried scrambling to his feet but for some reason his legs refused to cooperate.
“Don't move!” Pete flinched as the muzzle of a gun pressed against the side of his neck. He groaned and pushed his arms slowly above his head. He felt hands exploring his body and he was relieved of his knife. One of the gorillas rolled him onto his back to complete the search, before grabbing a handful of hair and yanking him to his feet. With brutal efficiency he was seized from either side and his arms twisted behind his back.
“It's the one called Burke,” a trooper confirmed to the others. Urko would be pleased. For some reason, the very mention of this particular human's name was liable to send his commander flying into a towering rage.
“How do you know it's Burke?”
“It's him. The other one, Virdon, has light hair.”
Burke favored the trooper with a smirk. “Take me to your leader!” He allowed himself a grim moment of gratification at the look of confusion on the gorilla's face. The troopers tightened their grip and forced him in the direction of the waiting horses. Pete looked up in time to see Urko dismount and step towards him.
“So, Burke,” Urko thrust his face closer to this hated human, “we meet again.”
“Yeah, well, the pleasure's all yours, Urko. I can assure you.”
“Enough of your insolence.” Urko's fist smashed into the side of Burke's face. Pete's head snapped back from the force of the punch. Urko turned to his second-in-command. “Any sign of the other fugitives?”
“No, General. This one was alone.”
“Where are Virdon and Galen?” Urko demanded. Burke flexed his jaw ruefully before adopting a look of total surprise.
“Virdon? Last I
heard he'd won an all-expense paid trip for two to
A glove sank deep into Burke's midriff. As the wind rushed from his body, he slumped between the two troopers still holding him. The gorillas released their grip and he dropped to his knees.
“Get up, Burke,” Urko ordered, impatiently waving the troopers aside as they moved to pull the human to his feet again.
Burke held his stomach, struggling to catch his breath.
“I said get up, Burke. Now!”
Pete dragged himself upright, eying the angry gorilla warily.
“One last time. Where are the traitor Galen and your friend Virdon?”
Pete shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, his bravado masking the alarm gnawing at his insides. Urko drew his revolver and leveled it at Burke's stomach.
“Still the same defiant Burke,” he sneered disdainfully. The gun traveled slowly upwards until it came to rest against Pete's temple. Urko grunted with satisfaction as Burke's eyes widened apprehensively.
“What do you have to say for yourself now?”
Pete felt a cold trickle of sweat slide slowly between his shoulders blades. He remained silent, eyes locked on Urko, not daring to risk upsetting the angry gorilla any further.
“Don't worry. We'll soon loosen that tongue of yours for you.” Urko gestured to his troops. “You.... and you.... fetch some rope and tie him up.”
The gorillas jumped to obey. Burke's wrists were bound tightly together and he was hauled towards a waiting horse. Pete dug in his heels and tried to twist out of their grasp but was rewarded with a cuff to the head for his efforts. He ceased to struggle and stole a furtive glance over his shoulder. If Galen and Virdon were out there somewhere, he prayed they had the good sense to stay well hidden.
Another rope was tied around Pete's waist and he was hoisted across the saddle, the excess rope lashing him firmly in place. For the final indignity, his knees and ankles were also bound. Pete hoped the horse beneath him wasn't prone to sudden fits of bolting. As a city boy, born and bred, he knew the natural mistrust he held for these four-legged creatures was well justified.
Urko re-holstered his weapon.
“Tarik. Take five troopers with you and keep looking for the others. They're hiding around here somewhere. These fugitives stick together like fleas on a mongrel dog. The rest of you, come with me. Move out!”
Pete's stomach lurched as the horse broke into a trot. The ground rushed past his head and he was forced to seek refuge against the dizzying blur by closing his eyes to it. His stomach threatened to heave at any moment but he wasn't sure whether the nausea was due to swinging upside down from a moving horse or from the unpleasant prospect of a showdown with Urko. A little of both, he suspected. As the hard leather of the saddle continued to stab into his rib cage with rhythmic monotony, Pete fervently hoped their destination wasn't too far away.
The gorillas brought the horses to a slow trot as the unmistakable signs of village life began to spring up around them. Pete strained to get a better view of his surroundings. He felt the curious stares of several on-lookers disturbed by the commotion of the soldiers. The troop came to a halt and Pete groaned in relief. His bruised ribs made breathing painful and his shoulders ached from the constant jarring of his restrained arms.
“Bring him to the barracks,” Urko ordered, as he dismounted and headed for the stone building nearby. The gorilla made his way inside, demanding to see the garrison leader. Within two minutes he had commandeered a comfortable office and sleeping quarters for himself as well as installed his own guards in and around the prison. He didn't trust these country bumpkins as far as he could kick them.
He would base himself here for a few days while his soldiers continued the search for Virdon and Galen. They were sure to be in close proximity. Wherever Burke was, they were never far behind. He struggled to comprehend the recklessness already displayed when trying to rescue their friend in the past. Well, let them come. He was ready.
Meanwhile, he would
make good use of his time. There were questions to be answered - about
Burke was cut loose from the horse and set roughly on his feet. The circulation had long been cut off in his hands and feet, leaving them numb and frozen. He swayed drunkenly between two guards before being dragged inside the prison barracks, his legs trailing uselessly behind. The soldiers dumped him onto the dirt floor of the nearest jail cell and swung the door shut before relocking it.
Pete rolled awkwardly onto his side and studied the prison cell in despair. It was nothing more than a small empty box with a dirt floor, dimly lit by a single, barred window.
“Nice place you have here,” he complimented the guards. “Remind me to get the name of your decorator.”
They ignored him. He tried again.
“What kind of luncheon menu d'ya have? Personally, I could go for a juicy steak and a cold beer right now.”
“Quiet!” roared Urko, as he re-entered the main prison area.
“What's wrong, Urko? Is it the chef's day off or did you have him shot for insubordination?”
“I said be quiet, human.” Urko didn't understand Burke's words but he knew the prisoner was mocking him. “Give me the key to the cell,” he ordered the guard. “I think it's time I taught you a lesson you won't easily forget, Burke.”
A flicker of fear leaped across Burke's face and he struggled to suppress it. Urko stomped to the cell door and unlocked it with the large key. Crossing the room in two massive strides, the gorilla aimed a sharp kick at the prisoner's midriff. Pete felt the air rush from his lungs and then the pain hit. Another boot sunk into Pete's ribs. He tried pulling his knees up protectively. “I see...your idea of hospitality is still...somewhat lacking...Urko,” he spat, through clenched teeth.
Urko grunted in fury and resumed his attack. Heavy blows pounded Pete's ribs, stomach and back; anywhere his attacker could reach. In vain, he tried to roll out of Urko's reach. A well-aimed kick, with the force of a sledgehammer, slammed into the back of his skull. There was a sickening crunch as Pete's head snapped back. A searing white light filled his vision before exploding into a million blinding fragments. He could feel himself plunging helplessly into an endless black vortex, spinning further and further down towards the darkness... away from the light...away from the excruciating pain... and then blissfully, he knew no more.
“Is he dead, General?” A voice from outside the cell spoke.
Urko paused momentarily to check the prisoner for signs of life. “No,” he growled back at the guard. “He's still alive.... for now.”
Alan Virdon lay on his stomach intently studying the small town below. Hidden from view by a screen of dense vegetation, his position was virtually impenetrable to anyone chancing to look upwards. He scanned the surrounding landscape one more time before shifting his attention back to the main street. It was all but deserted. No sign of Urko or any of his goons. He watched as a lone mounted gorilla rode his horse through the center of town, his two human servants trotting obediently alongside.
At one end of the main thoroughfare the garrison stood slightly apart from the rest of the town. He focused his attention on the gray stone building partially carved into the side of the hill. Pete could be imprisoned there, so close and yet.... Where the hell was Galen? He should've been back by now. Virdon's fingers beat a ceaseless tattoo on the hard ground beside him. He would give the chimpanzee five more minutes, before going down to investigate for himself.
The slight scraping of boot on rock caught his attention and he instinctively sprang to a crouch, struggling to identify the source of the sound.
“Alan?” a voice hissed. “It's me....Galen.”
Alan heaved a sigh of relief as Galen's head appeared from the slope below. “Galen! Where the hell have you been? I've been worried sick. Did you manage to find out anything?”
Galen held up his hand. “Give me a moment,” he wheezed breathlessly. “It's a long climb you know!”
Alan waited impatiently. “Well, Galen? Any sign of Pete?”
The monkey shook his head sorrowfully, hating to see the naked disappointment flooding his friend's face. “What do you plan to do, Alan?” he asked wearily. “Go from village to village checking every garrison, every prison cell in the entire area?”
“If that's what it takes. By now, Pete must be in Urko's hands and you know what that means. We have to get to him while he's still alive.”
“If he's still alive...” Galen wilted slightly under Alan's intense stare. He hadn't intended for the words to come out so bluntly, but it was an unpleasant reality they both must be prepared to face. Each passing day lessened the likelihood of Pete's survival. Since finding the abandoned knapsack they had been on a desperate search to find any trace of their friend. Virdon was becoming increasingly more agitated at each place they drew a blank.
Galen shook his head in exasperation. “You're not thinking clearly, Alan. How long do you suppose it will be before our luck runs out and someone figures out who we are? What use will we be to Pete if we're captured too?”
Alan knew Galen spoke the truth but he stubbornly refused to acknowledge it out loud. “What else do you suggest we do then?” he complained angrily.
“I don't know. But there has to be a better way.” Galen paused, thinking hard. “I believe we have two choices. One, we keep on moving around from place to place hoping to discover where they are holding Pete...”
“Make our way back to Central City.”
“Central City? What makes you so sure Urko would have returned there already? It makes more sense he would hole up somewhere while he keeps up the search for us.”
“Think about it, Alan. The only thing preventing Urko from killing Pete already would be to use him as bait to try and catch us or, failing that...” He shuddered at the look of anguish Alan threw him, “...maybe take Pete back to Central City for execution. It's been two days already and he hasn't caught us yet. My guess is that he'll leave some of his soldiers behind to continue the search for us while he takes Pete back with him.” Galen could see Alan remained unconvinced.
“Right now, Urko is desperate to get back any creditability after letting us escape the last time. In his mind he would still at least have Burke. What is your human saying? A bird on the arm is worth…” ”
“A bird in the hand, Galen.” Alan smiled slightly. “Either way, I guess things don't look good for Pete, do they?”
“We can't afford to think like that right now. Surely we have to decide what our best option is.”
“Well, it's obvious what you think we should do.”
Galen placed a sympathetic hand on his friend's shoulder.
“It makes sense to return to Central City. There are people there who might know something, or could find out - Leander for one. Maybe I can appeal to my father for help on Pete's whereabouts.” He paused. “What do you want to do, Alan?”
Alan sucked in his breath sharply, suddenly making up his mind. He bent down to retrieve his knapsack and hoisted it onto his back. “You win, Galen. Central City it is.”
He drifted in and out of consciousness. Dimly aware of distant voices and shadowy movement, he was unable to penetrate the thick fog engulfing his mind. Later, he felt hands lift his aching head. Someone moaned loudly, probably himself, but he couldn't be sure. Part of his mind tried to drag him back to reality but instead he chose to stay in that vague half-world where the pain was less.
Twenty-four hours later, Pete woke drowsily. He shifted his head slightly and groaned. He tried to sleep again but the pain was too insistent. A hammer banged viciously at his temples and he reluctantly opened his eyes. The room around him sharpened into focus and he remembered where he was. He had been untied at some point, and touched a hand tentatively to the swelling at the back of his head. Congealed blood served as an unwelcome reminder of the damage caused by Urko's foot.
Slowly, he rolled onto one side and tried pushing himself upwards. At the third attempt he managed to sit up, and leaned weakly against the cell wall. He couldn't decide what hurt more: his head, his stomach or his ribs. After careful consideration he decided to award a three-way tie.
He had no idea why he was still alive. No doubt Urko was using him as bait to lure Galen and Virdon into a trap. Or planning to extract information from him. So many lives hinged on him keeping his mouth shut. He hoped he would be strong enough when the time came.
It wasn't so much that he was afraid of dying - he had faced that possibility many times in the last six months. What scared him more was the thought of suffering. The enormity of the pain sure to come his way seemed far worse to him than death. He didn't even want to imagine what horrors Urko was capable of inflicting on him. He shivered, despite the warm day.
And if they did prolong the agony and take him back to Central City, an unpleasant and violent death waited for him at the end of the road. Well, no way would he give Urko the pleasure of putting a bullet in his head. Or watch his neck being stretched at the end of a rope. He would escape somehow - or die in the attempt.
Pete tried to massage away the tight band gripping his temples. Christ, he wasn't up to facing any of this! Right now, he would sell his soul for a hot bath, clean clothes, a comfortable bed and a handful of strong painkillers. He rubbed a hand across his eyes and thought about Virdon and Galen. He wondered where they were hiding out - what their plans were. A wave of depression swamped him and he lay down on the makeshift mattress again. His eyelids began to droop. As he drifted slowly back to sleep, plans of escape and freedom played tantalizingly on his mind.
They came for him next morning. Burke vaguely heard the cell door unlock, felt rough arms jerking him to his feet. The sudden jarring of his body sent shockwaves of pain coursing through him and he groaned. In a moment of defiance, he kicked out at one of the guards, managing to pull an arm free, but before he could form a fist, cold steel jammed against his head.
“Don't do anything stupid,” he was told, and the gun barrel gouged deeper into his temple. He stood still, not daring to move.
“Put your hands out in front,” the guard ordered. “Now!” His mouth twisting with frustration and anger, Burke obeyed.
He watched resentfully as the guards tied his wrists together and secured the remainder of the rope around his waist. They marched him down a gloomy passageway leading away from the main prison area. Pausing outside a solid wooden door set into the wall, one of the soldiers knocked loudly. A muffled voice answered:
Pete was pushed into the room. His heart skipped a beat as he spotted Urko looking up in expectation. Boy, this day just kept on getting better.
“Ah...Burke,” the gorilla said pleasantly. “Good of you to come join us.”
Pete eyed Urko suspiciously. If he didn't know better, he could've sworn Urko sounded almost...jovial?
“Well...ah...if I'd known you were holding a party in my honor, I'd a been here earlier.” His cocky grin belied the nervous knots churning away in his stomach.
“Sit down, Burke,” Urko continued in the same friendly vein. “I believe you and I have a few things to talk about.”
“Well, since you brought it up, I'd like to discuss the distinct lack of facilities you provide for your guests.”
Urko exhaled loudly, annoyance creeping into his voice. “I said, sit down.”
Pete glanced back to where the two guards stood. “If you insist.” He shrugged his shoulders and reluctantly sat down.
Urko motioned to the soldiers. “Tie him to the chair.”
Burke had an annoying habit of escaping. Urko wasn't about to take any chances. Pete fought the rising panic as one guard held him down and the other bound him securely to the seat. Satisfied, Urko stood up. His pulse quickened as he swaggered around to the other side of the table. He'd been looking forward to this moment. Pete squirmed, tugging at the tight ropes restraining him. The knots in his stomach began to perform a nasty series of back-flips as Urko closed the gap between them. He didn't know what the ape had in mind, just a distinct hunch he wasn't going to enjoy it very much.
“Now, Burke...” Urko was saying, “We can begin.”
He stubbornly refused to answer Urko's questions, each probe bringing a mute shake of his head, as the gorilla hovered impatiently beside him.
“Answer my questions, Burke and it will go easier for you.”
Pete doubted that. He knew Urko was itching to teach him a lesson in good manners. How many ribs were there in the human body anyway, just waiting to be broken? He had an uneasy feeling it wouldn't be long before he knew the answer.
“Where are Galen and Virdon hiding?” Silence.
“Who has been helping you? What are their names?” More silence.
Urko was getting bored. He reached out and backhanded Burke across the head. The side of Pete's face went numb. The man turned away to hide his growing fear.
“Answer me, Burke! We know one of you was wounded. It was Virdon, wasn't it?”
As the numbness went, Pete's head began to throb.
“The soldier who fired at you found blood, so we know someone was hit.” Urko seized the front of Burke's shirt, shaking him roughly. “Answer the question, Burke! Was…itit...Virdon?”
Pete spoke for the first time. “Why bother to ask me if you're so convinced you know already?”
Urko exhaled in
anger. He fought the urge to place his hands around Burke's neck and
squeeze. “We know you and Galen took Virdon to the
Burke's heart sank. He didn't like the direction this line of questioning was taking. How much did Urko already know? Pete was gripped by a single, obsessive thought: protect Kira, Leander and the others at any cost. He shook his head vehemently.
“No-one helped us. Yeah, we took Virdon there,” he acknowledged, “but we were turned away. They refused to help us and we were told to leave.”
Urko looked skeptically at the prisoner. He didn't believe a word.
“Don't test my patience. Give me the names of those who aided you.”
“There aren't any names to give you. I'm telling you, no-one helped us!”
Urko was scornful. “You expect me to believe you took Virdon all the way to Central City for treatment and just left again without receiving help from anyone?”
Pete hesitated a fraction too long. “Believe it or not, it's the truth, Urko”
Urko grabbed a handful of the astronaut's hair, forcing his head back sharply. Burke grimaced. The gorilla thrust his face closer, eyes filled with loathing. “I know you're lying. All humans lie. But believe me, Burke, by the time we're finished, you will tell me the truth.”
Pete believed him. His mind raced, trying to stay one step ahead.
“I am telling you the truth Urko,” he panted. “We took Virdon there for treatment, but they turned us away.”
Unconvinced, Urko challenged him. ”Let me get this right. They turned you away. Why?”
“There was ah...some kind of quarantine on the place. The 'Black Death' they called it. People getting sick and dying from the plague. So we left.”
“What about the book?”
“Book? What book?” Pete tried to feign surprise.
Urko tightened his grip on Burke's hair and tugged harder. Pete groaned, his mouth tightening in pain.
“You know which book I mean. You'd be wise not to treat me like a fool. Where is the book you and Galen took from Zaius' study?”
“I...” Pete stopped abruptly, afraid to say the wrong thing. There was a nasty silence as he tried to form a suitable answer.
“I'm waiting, Burke.”
“Okay! Okay!” he admitted quickly. “You're right. We took the book. We thought it might help us to treat Virdon, but it was no use to us.”
“Of no use? Why not?”
“We couldn't understand anything in it, so we ditched it.”
“Ditched it. What does this mean...ditched it?”
“Ditched it...you know. Threw it away. Got rid of it. Capiche?”
Urko was growing angrier by the minute. He hated it when Burke used words he didn't understand. He had a sneaking suspicion the astronaut did it on purpose.
“What.... you don't believe me, Urko? Now why would we be stupid enough to carry a heavy useless book around with us?”
“So where did you 'ditch' the book then?”
“Somewhere outside of the city I guess. I didn't take too much notice at the time.”
“Where outside the city?”
Pete forced a look of exasperation onto his face.
“I dunno! If I'd known Zaius was expecting the damn thing back I woulda made sure to stop and mark the spot.”
Burke flinched as Urko raised his fist to strike, bracing himself for the inevitable blow to follow. The gorilla's eyes widened as he read the invitation in Burke's eyes. Well, well...so that was it! Burke was purposely goading him to anger. Willing for some reason to take a beating. No doubt in a feeble attempt to avoid the questions that remained unanswered. He'd seriously under-estimated how crafty this human could be.
Well, he wouldn't disappoint Burke for too much longer. Soon, he would be disciplined in the manner he so richly deserved. There would come a time when Burke would beg him for mercy, beg to be allowed to die. But for now, he wanted the prisoner conscious and capable of telling him the information he needed to know. He lowered his arm to his side, satisfied at the glimmer of disappointment on Burke's face. Was this the first chink in the Burke armor he'd just witnessed?
“Let's say I believe your little story, Burke,” Urko continued smoothly, willing to go along with the charade. It amused him to see the prisoner becoming more and more entangled in his own web of lies. “You say the book was of no use so you got rid of it. If so, where did you go to get the bullet removed?”
They'd been over this
ground already. As far as Urko could see, all roads led back to the
“Nowhere.” Burke suddenly seemed less sure of himself. “In the end I took the bullet out myself.”
Urko laughed harshly. “You expect me to believe you were able to remove the bullet yourself?”
“That's what happened. Whether you choose to believe it or not is your problem.”
“You're lying! Tell me the truth!”
“Dammit, Urko, I am telling you the truth. You have my word!”
Urko smelled a rat. A large annoying human rat who couldn't be trusted to tell him a single truth.
The gorilla's face contorted with rage. “Your word, Burke?” He spat contemptuously. “You really expect me to believe your word! How many times in the past have your lied to me before?”
Urko tried to suppress the rage building within him. Burke was hiding something. He could feel it. He just had to find a way to extract it. He released his grip on Burke's hair and moved behind him. Pete craned his neck, desperately trying to keep Urko in his line of vision.
“I'm going to ask you once more, Burke and this time don't lie. Who helped you? Where is that book? What did you do with it? Answer the question!”
“That's three questions, Urko. Which one do you want me to answer first?” Pete saw a blur out of the corner of his eye but was too slow to react. Urko's fist smashed into the side of his head. Stars began to dance before his eyes and a roaring sound rushed to fill his ears. The gorilla reached out and hit him again. Harder this time. Pete nearly fainted with the pain.
“You're a bigger fool than I thought, Burke,” Urko taunted him. “Why not make it easier on yourself? Just tell me what really happened.”
Pete shook his head, trying to rid himself of the ringing in his ears. The room was beginning to spin around at an alarming rate. He closed his eyes and tried not to throw up. Urko was saying something but the pounding in his head made it difficult to concentrate. He forced his eyes open again. A blurry image of Urko swam before him, a cruel smirk on the gorilla's face.
Urko gained much satisfaction from his work. Disciplining this human, the cause of so much humiliation and frustration, was bringing him great pleasure. Burke was proving to be an unexpected challenge. He was tougher than anyone else the ape had interrogated, but there were many interesting ways of breaking him down. It was only a matter of time.
“I said, are you ready to tell me the truth now, Burke?”
Pete stared defiantly at Urko. “I've told you everything I know. There's nothing more to say.”
“Oh, there's plenty more to say, and before we're finished, you will tell me everything I need to know. Make no mistake about that.”
Peter's stomach contracted with fear. The thought of what lay ahead filled him with trepidation. But betraying Leander and the others would mean a death sentence for them all. Fear turned to anger, hardening his resolve. “Go to hell, you fucking bastard.” He spat into the gorilla's face.
Urko roared with rage and launched himself at Burke. The chair toppled and Burke fell backwards, the momentum of Urko's bulk sending them both crashing to the ground. Urko's hands closed around Pete's throat and he began to shake the man's head from side to side. Pete tried sucking in gulps of air but the pressure was tightening, making it impossible for him to breathe. Coughing and spluttering, he struggled against the panic and suffocation one last time. He was floating along a tunnel of light-headiness, consciousness lapping and then receding. The effort was too much. Someone called Urko's name and then everything became dark and silent.
Through the red mist of rage, Urko heard the sound of his own name. Something tugging persistently at his shoulder. He turned to find a guard trying to pry him away from Burke. The body went limp beneath him and he reluctantly loosened his grip on the human's throat. Burke made a choking sound, and then his head lolled back. He lay still. Urko held a hand to the prisoner's mouth, feeling the breath, faint but steady. He vented his anger on the guard.
“Don't panic, you worthless idiot! He's still alive. Just weak, that's all.”
Urko considered what to do next. Burke was hiding something but his resolve was weakening, his reactions to the questioning noticeably slower and more confused. Before too long he would have Burke right where he wanted him - exposed and vulnerable, ready to tell him everything he needed to know. It was important to keep the astronaut alive. For now.
“Take him back to his cell. Leave him tied up and give him no food and water. We'll start the interrogation again when he comes around.”
For their next encounter, he would need to start employing different, more painful methods to extract the information he needed. He looked forward to it with increasing expectation.
The garrison leader regarded the human prisoner who lay battered and bruised in his jail. Unlike other humans he had come into contact with, this one refused to avert his eyes in the correct manner when spoken to. Instead, he treated the guards with open defiance.
There were rumors circulating that he and his friend Virdon, the other human fugitive still remaining free, called themselves astro.... astronauts and claimed to come from another time. A time where man flew through the air in strange machines and created huge buildings and cities. He knew it was lies, all lies. Total blasphemy.
Yet, there was something disturbingly different about this human. Something he didn't understand. Something he instinctively feared. He would be glad when Urko took the prisoner back to Central City. Away from his garrison. Life could perhaps return to normal.
Urko made his way outside to the main prison area, pausing in front of Burke's cell. The man was sprawled awkwardly on the floor, bound and unconscious. It was taking far too long for him to come to his senses. Urko was impatient to resume his questioning. Now Burke had lost some of his annoying defiance, there was a certain vulnerability to him the gorilla was keen to exploit. It was important to keep the pressure on.
One of the guards interrupted his chain of thought and handed him a rolled up paper.
“General, this message just arrived for you from Central City.”
Urko snatched the scroll from him and impatiently scanned the contents. It was from Zaius, ordering him to return to Central City immediately to attend a special meeting of the High Council. He dared not disobey. After his latest bungle with the fugitives at the Medical Center, his ability as military commander had come under question; his authority undermined by certain factions within the Council. Another mistake could cost him his command. And that, he must never allow. Still, the news of Burke's capture would go a long way towards appeasing the Council.
“How long ago did you leave Central City?” he demanded of the exhausted messenger.
“Three days, General.”
Urko consulted the message again. That meant the meeting would take place in four days. He needed to depart as soon as possible. If he left in the morning he should make it back in time. It had been his plan to return to Central City in triumph, dragging Burke back with him, but at the moment it was out of the question. The human's weakened state would only slow him down. Besides, he wasn't prepared to risk Burke's dying on the trip back. There were too many unanswered questions. Far better to have him brought back in a day or two when he was strong enough to travel. Urko looked forward to that reunion with more than a little pleasure.
The gorilla sat down to compose a message to Zaius to send ahead. A single wagon with a small force of his best soldiers would return with Burke along the quiet back roads, drawing little attention. The rest of his troop would remain behind to continue the search for Galen and Virdon. Satisfied he had covered all contingencies, he lowered his pen.
Urko rose to his feet, anger resurfacing. .He'd been gone from Central City less than a week. Why call this meeting now? Damn the Council! No doubt the place had fallen into chaos during his short absence.
As he summoned his second-in-command, his raised voice echoed throughout the entire garrison.
Burke could see them getting closer. They had almost reached him. Galen led the way down the grassy embankment, Virdon close behind. The sharp crack of a rifle shattered the silence. The ground between Galen and Virdon exploded in a puff of dirt.
“Run!” Burke screamed out a warning. From somewhere in the nearby stand of trees a muzzle flashed and the whine of a second bullet rang out. Again, he screamed, “Run!” Why couldn't they hear him?
Virdon stumbled slightly, clutching at his side. Pete tried to reach him but it was as though his legs were trapped in quicksand. Everything turned to slow motion. Alan held out his hands in mute appeal but Pete could only watch on in horror as a vivid red stain spread slowly across his friend's shirt. No!
“Pete! Help me!” Alan began to fall. Pete stretched out his arms to catch Virdon but his body was too sluggish...he couldn't move.
Out of nowhere, Urko appeared. He held a pistol to Alan's head.
“Shoot him, Pete!” Galen implored. “Shoot Urko!”
Pete looked down in confusion. Somehow, he had a rifle in his hands. It was cumbersome and he struggled to lift it to his shoulder. Pete closed one eye, trying to line up the sight on the gun.
“Shoot him, Pete! Now!” There was a desperate urgency to Galen's voice.
His fingers closed around the trigger, squeezing gently. Nothing happened. He tried pulling the trigger harder but his numb hand refused to obey. In desperation, he threw the rifle at Urko's head. It missed. Urko dropped Alan to the ground and charged towards Burke. They fell down together in a tumble of arms and legs.
Pete fought to push Urko from him but the gorilla's massive body was too heavy. Strong hands clawed at his throat, tightening into a stranglehold. He couldn't breathe. Panicking, he struggled again to push Urko away. As the pressure increased, he began to weaken. His struggles grew quieter and, in a moment of startling clarity, he knew he was going to die. His head grew light and fuzzy. It wouldn't be long.
He was being drawn along a tunnel of white light and he willingly gave himself up to the floating sensation...
Pete woke with a jolt, his heart pounding wildly in his chest, sweat pouring from his body. He tried to focus, without success. It took a minute for him to register it was nightfall. A few feet away he could vaguely make out the shadowy recesses of the cell wall and he remembered where he was. For a moment he relived the choking sensation of Urko's paws around his throat, cutting off his air supply. He slowly exhaled, forcing himself to take deep breaths in and out, until the panic subsided. Calmer, he tried to gather his thoughts.
He'd come through the interrogation so far, relatively unscathed. Urko had failed to get much from him, but he could feel his resistance slowly eroding. Hunger, fatigue and pain were combining to reduce his reality to a confusing blur. How much longer could he hold on? He had the unsettling feeling he wouldn't be so fortunate when the bell sounded for round two.
Thirst nagged him. He licked his lips, trying to ignore the dryness in his swollen throat. A new, more pressing thought occurred to him - he needed to relieve himself. Pete struggled briefly to free his hands, but the rope binding them behind his back only bit deeper into the open wounds on his wrists. He laid still again, any movement increasing the agony. Despondent, he speculated how long before they came for him.
Pete sat alone in his cell. The guards had released him from his restraints. He tried to quiz them about Urko's absence but they refused to tell him anything. For the first time in two days he was given food and he devoured it ravenously, not sure how long before they would let him eat again. For the rest of the afternoon and that night he slept from sheer exhaustion.
Early next morning he woke stiff and cold, but without a blinding headache to greet him; his first thoughts not consumed by how much agony he was in. His body was still sore and tender, but the pain had lessened to a more tolerable level. That, he could live with.
A guard walked past the cell door and Pete peered at him expectantly.
“Hey, you!” He turned at the sound of Burke's voice. “Yeah, you with the facial hair problem. How about something to eat? A man could die of starvation around here.”
The gorilla regarded him as though something rather unpleasant to be scraped from the bottom of his boot before walking away again. Burke gave up in disgust. He had to admit though, the guard had a point - he did smell pretty bad. His clothes were soiled by dirt, sweat and urine and he was itchy all over. Idly, he wondered what time it was. Not that it mattered. Time had no real meaning in this place. The only thing that punctuated the long endless hours of daylight was mealtimes. He took perverse pleasure in the opportunity it afforded him to bait the guards. Even though his insults usually went straight over their heads, it gave him a few brief moments of satisfaction to savor later on.
God, he hated it here - imprisoned, trapped like some goddamn animal. He got to his feet and impatiently moved back and forth across the tiny cell. Focus, Pete. Focus. He would never be physically capable of escape if he didn't snap out of this lethargy soon.
Ten minutes of frantic pacing and he began to tire, his wobbly legs forcing him to reluctantly admit defeat. Pete lay down on the floor and linked his hands behind his head. He tried to ignore the hunger gnawing at his stomach as he studied the ceiling above him. It seemed that each crack, every imperfection, was as familiar to him as the back of his own hand. Loneliness engulfed him. He just wanted to close his eyes and sleep, then wake to discover it had all been a bad dream. This continual isolation was wearing him down like nothing else could. He desperately missed the easy companionship of Virdon and Galen.
His thoughts began to
wander. So much had happened in the weeks leading up to his capture:
Alan being shot, the journey back to Central City to enlist Kira's
help, the uncertainty of not knowing whether Virdon would live, their
subsequent escape to Dumia. And then there was
Funny how he had experienced an alien feeling of contentment at Dumia. For a few blissful days he had managed to relax enough to put their time on the run to the back of his mind. And Kayla. For the first time he allowed himself to think of Kayla. Her green eyes always full of fun and mischief, the impatient flick of the blonde hair that continually fell across her face. The way her brow creased into puzzlement at his use of unfamiliar words in order to tease her.
And that day he and Kayla had been alone in the woods - he'd wanted her so badly. He'd given in to his raging hormones like a lovesick teenager - only to pull away again without proper explanation. Coward. Why hadn't he found a better way to handle things? He'd hurt and humiliated her and then run from her as quickly as possible. Run from his feelings. Screwed everything up. Story of his life.
He turned miserably from the memory. However much he might want it, he could never get that time back again to make amends. This was his reality now. A small barred prison cell with armed guards outside was his reality now. And unless he found a way to escape, his death was going to be a reality too. He needed something to distract him - anything to take away the pain of thinking and help occupy the long day that stretched endlessly ahead. Pete started with the times tables.
“1 X 1 is 1, 1 X 2 is 2, 1 X 3 is…” ” He reached the twelve times before growing bored, and switched to naming states.
But no matter how many times he went through the list, at least five states appeared to have been completely axed from the union. Well, geography had never been his strongest subject. Time to resort to his limerick repertoire. In a raised voice he recited:
was a young man from
Whose balls were constructed of brass
When jangled together
They played “Stormy Weather”
And lightning shot out of his ass”
The guards didn't look particularly impressed but Pete was confident they would appreciate one of Virdon's favorites:
“There once was a girl from
Who crossed the sea in a bucket
And when she got there
They asked for a fare
And she pulled up her dress and said….”.”
“Quiet, Burke,” an annoyed voice yelled. Pete grinned. At least he had someone's attention now. His loud and tuneless rendition of 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling' was met with stony silence. As he searched for another song to win over his unappreciative audience, he began to hum a few bars of an old favorite before the words came back to him:
“Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don't fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, don't fence me in.”
The next line of the song eluded him. He started over.
“Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don't fence me in.”
The guard banged against the cell bars in exasperation.
“This is your last warning. Be quiet!” Pete had to admire the gorilla's restraint - Virdon and Galen usually only endured ten minutes of his impromptu concerts before resorting to violence. He lifted the volume another notch.
“LET ME RIDE THROUGH THE WIDE OPEN COUNTRY THAT I LOVE, DON'T FENCE ME….”.”
The unlocking of the cell door interrupted his performance. Pete scrambled to his feet and took a step backwards. He spread his hands wide.
“I uh…dodon't suppose you guys would care to discuss this over a drink?” He backed against the wall as two angry gorillas closed in.
“Didn't think so…” ” A brief, one-sided exchange quickly followed, with him struggling to land a single punch. The guards left him doubled over, gasping, and relocked the cell. Ruefully, he lifted his shirt to inspect the damage. An impressive array of bruises was building up across his torso, but this time it had almost been worth the beating. Not a physical victory, but definitely a moral one. Goading his captors was the one way left to fight back. Honor satisfied, he slid down the wall until he came to rest on the ground. One watchful eye on the guards, he began to hum softly under his breath.
It was well after before someone finally brought him some food and water.
“Well, it's about time,” Pete grumbled, bolting down the meal. He swallowed the tepid water in the cup before holding it out for more. The guard shook his head and snatched the cup back through the bars. Pete resisted a childish urge to poke out his tongue, settling instead on a one-fingered salute at the gorilla's retreating back.
The afternoon dragged on as heat built up in the small cell. Burke tried to relieve the suffocating feeling with a couple of deep breaths and then rather wished he hadn't. He gagged as the acrid stench of stale sweat and urine flooded his nostrils. A violent bout of retching gripped him and he staggered to the far corner of the cell as a thick trail of vomit streamed out onto the floor beside him. Afterwards, he rested miserably with his head between his knees until the faintness passed.
He looked up to see one of the guards watching on in amusement. Pete spat on the ground in contempt before turning bitterly away. It topped the humiliation, the indignity and the sheer futility of it all. And for the first time, he began to loathe his captors implacably.
Burke lay on the floor of the cell, head cradled in his arms, dozing fitfully. Reality rudely interrupted his dreams as one of the guards rattled the barrel of his rifle loudly against the bars of the cell.
“You! Human!” Startled, Burke tried to rouse himself. He looked questioningly at the guard waving the gun in his direction. “Move away from the door.”
Burke backed away slowly on all fours as the gorilla unlocked the cell door and swung it wide open.
Burke eyed the rifle trained on him. “Okay! Okay!” he replied hastily. “No need to get your loincloth in a twist! I'm hurrying.”
He retrieved his shirt from the floor and struggled to his feet. Quickly, he pulled the garment over his head before stepping warily into the open prison area where two more armed guards waited. Pete could feel the charged tension in the room. Something told him the time had come to get this show on the road. He was being taken back to Central City.
“Face the wall,” the first guard ordered. Pete's knees buckled. For a moment he was possessed by blind panic. Christ! What if he had got it horribly wrong? But surely to God they weren't about to shoot him here in....
“Move!” He staggered as something hit him in the middle of his back, pitching him forwards. His cheek grazed the wall as he cannoned into it. Pete squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself. Instead of the half-expected impact of a bullet, his hands were yanked behind him and bound with rope, and then a blindfold tied across his eyes. Strong arms gripped him from either side and hauled him outside. Disorientated, he stumbled between the guards, all sense of direction gone.
An unmistakable nickering of horses caught Pete's attention. He swung his head towards the sound. The guards stopped suddenly and manhandled him upwards across a wooden floor of some kind. A cart, he guessed. Someone forced him down onto his side before grasping his feet and securing them with more rope. There was the scuffling of boots as another soldier climbed alongside, then everything became muffled as a heavy cover was thrown over him.
“Move out!” came the order.
The cart lurch forward and his heart sank. With sickening certainty he knew he could no longer pretend Virdon and Galen were coming for him. He was in this alone. The only chance left was to lull the soldiers into a false sense of security; somehow get them to relax their guard and make a mistake. It was up to him to be ready. A desperate hope he knew, but it was the only thing he had left to cling to.
Leander rubbed his eyes wearily. It was late. Time for him to retire. A sudden knocking at the door startled him and he put down the medical text he'd been studying.
“Come in,” he barked, wondering who on earth it could be at such a late hour.
A young human orderly stood hesitantly in the doorway. He was new to the Center but had quickly discovered just how much Dr Leander hated to be interrupted at night.
“Yes, Darius. What is it?”
“I'm sorry to disturb you, sir...but there is someone asking for you. I told him to come back in the morning but he insisted on seeing you tonight.”
“Who is it?” Leander asked impatiently.
“I don't know, sir. He didn't give his name. Just that he was an old friend. He and his servant are waiting outside. Do you want me to send them away?”
Leander shook his head. “No. No... I'll see him. Show him in please, Darius.”
“Very well, sir.” Darius left the room to return a few minutes later with Leander's visitors. The ape looked up in shock to see Galen and Virdon standing quietly in the doorway. He recovered quickly, noticing the look of curiosity on the orderly's face.
“Dr Adrian,” Leander stammered. “How good to see you again. What brings you back here so soon after your last visit?” He dismissed Darius with a curt nod of his head. “That will be all, thank you. You may go to bed, Darius. I will attend to our guest.”
“Yes, Doctor. Goodnight.” Darius backed out of the room, closing the door respectfully behind him.
Leander held up his hand, listening to the retreating footsteps for a few moments before speaking.
“Galen...Virdon! What are you doing here? Don't you realize how dangerous it is?”
“I know,” Virdon apologized. “And I'm sorry, but it couldn't be helped. We waited 'til after dark to make sure no-one saw us arriving.”
“We need your help, Leander,” Galen continued. “We've nowhere else to turn.”
“It's about your friend, Burke, isn't it?”
“You know about Pete? That Urko caught him?” Alan demanded harshly. “Is he still alive? Did they bring him here to Central City?”
“Alan,” Galen cautioned. “Give him a chance.”
Leander studied Virdon curiously. He couldn't quite comprehend the depth of loyalty bonding Virdon and Burke so closely together. Was it really possible for all humans to be capable of such allegiance to one another? So much had happened recently to turn his safe little world upside down, he now found himself questioning everything he'd ever believed in
From the time he'd walked into that operating room and found Kira voluntarily giving treatment to Virdon, his life had changed forever. His first thought was that Kira had somehow been coerced into performing the operation. Or that she was acting out of misplaced loyalty to Galen. Then he'd spotted the medical text Burke had tried to hide from him and demanded to see it. At first he'd refused to believe the book had been written by humans, many hundreds of years ago. Nor the fact that Burke understood why the blood transfer they'd previously tried had failed.
When Virdon had gone
into cardiac arrest, Leander made a split second decision. Whether this
patient was a fugitive or not, whether he was ape or human, he was still a
life that needed saving. His training as a doctor had taken over and
Virdon had survived. When Urko arrived at the
A few days later Virdon, Burke and Galen had gone, but the medical text remained behind. With him. He knew the dangers of having the book in his possession, but there was too much valuable knowledge within its pages for him to contemplate parting with it.
It was the medical text that had been directly responsible for getting him involved with Zoran. Late one night he'd been studying the book and stupidly left his door unlocked. Zoran had walked in unannounced. Leander casually placed the book on the desk but it was too late.
Zoran had reached over and picked up the text, leafing quickly through its pages. Leander's heart sank. How did he explain the book to Zoran? There was no possible explanation without the truth emerging. But instead of anger on Zoran's face, there was just excitement and…wawas that approval he saw there too? Leander had been prepared for anything but that. Instead of talking his way out of trouble, it was Zoran who did the talking, while he listened in stunned silence. Listened as his superior told him of a resistance group, still in its infancy, but growing in numbers daily. A group whose members knew and disapproved of the dealings of the High Council. And were prepared to do something about it.
Leander had agonized for days over what to do about the book, and now he knew. Thanks to Zoran. It was dangerous. It was treason. It was punishable by death. But the way was clear. There was no other choice. He was going to join them.
Leander pulled himself back to the present.
“As far as I know, Burke is still alive, but he hasn't been brought back to Central City yet. Don't ask me where I got this information from. Let's just say it came from an impeccable source. I'm not in a position to divulge anything beyond that.”
“Leander, we wouldn't have come here except as a last resort,” Galen said quickly. “We need your help. To save Pete. It's as simple as that. You know what will happen once they have him back here in the city. Surely you don't want his death on your conscience? What are the chances we can use this 'source' of yours to find out more?”
Leander hesitated. Hours earlier, Zoran had returned from Perdu with news of Burke's capture. A lone gorilla, thought to be carrying information valuable to the resistance group, had been intercepted with a dispatch from Urko. Intended for Zaius' eyes only, the message had been passed on to Zoran. First thing in the morning Leander would inform Zoran of Galen and Virdon's arrival. He would know what to do.
“For tonight I can offer you food to eat and a place to sleep. I make no promises, but tomorrow I will find out what can be done.”
Alan and Galen both nodded tiredly. The prospect of food in their bellies and a warm bed was irresistible. Even though the journey back to Central City had been shortened through hitching a lift with a compliant ape farmer delivering grain, two hard days of traveling had left them hungry and exhausted. Leander was right - there was nothing more to be done tonight. Tomorrow they would find out where Pete was being held and make plans for his rescue. Tonight…ththey would sleep.
Zoran listened for the faint click of the front door as his early morning visitor let himself out. He watched from the safety of his window as Leander hurried down the street. Burke's capture had caused a much unwanted complication. The human knew too much. What if he had talked already?
And now his friends
were at the
Since crossing paths with the three fugitives at Trion months earlier, Zoran had grappled with his conscience. He'd never even heard of the remote village until a mysterious plague had broken out amongst the human inhabitants there. Frightened of the disease spreading to other villages, the High Council had placed Trion under strict quarantine and sent Zoran to conduct an experimental cure. Upon his arrival he had encountered Virdon and Burke, claiming to know how to treat the disease. At first he had brushed their claims aside. How could humans have such medical knowledge? It was ridiculous. But Galen had convinced him they spoke the truth. He had allowed them to manufacture medicine and begin treating the sick villagers.
As they waited for the medicine to take effect Zoran had been forced to witness human suffering close up. To study the faces of anguished family members, helpless to do anything but pray for their loved ones. Given just twenty four hours by the Council to affect a cure, he found himself willing these humans to recover. And not just because his reputation was at stake. It had been more than that. It had become a matter of professional pride.
For the first time in many years he recalled his motive for becoming a doctor - to be able to make some kind of difference. What had happened to that eager young student, out to change the world? When had his ideals been pushed aside, replaced by ambition and greed? Compromised by the lure of prestige and position?
When one of Urko's troopers, Kava, was struck down with the disease, Virdon broke the quarantine boundary to give the gorilla a dose of the medicine. Risked his own life to save that of an ape, whose job it was to hunt down and kill him and his fellow outlaws. The humans and Kava had recovered, and the burning of the village and its inhabitants averted.
Given the circumstances, Zoran took credit for the cure and accepted his reward. His promotion to the High Council should have been the pinnacle of his career, yet he gained little satisfaction from it. More and more, he found himself questioning Zaius' motives and his ability to bend the Council at will.
A chance meeting with Vareck, a fellow student from his college days and now residing at Perdu had triggered a startling chain of events. An invitation to dinner, too many glasses of mulberry wine…hehe'd woken next morning with a blinding headache and a vague recollection of having said too much. For days after his return to Central City he remained on tenterhooks, awaiting the moment of his arrest. But nothing happened - no dreaded knock at the door.
A week later, he received a visitor to his home - Vareck, bringing news of a resistance group, dedicated to the overthrow of Zaius and the Council. And issuing him an invitation to join their ranks. Instinct told him he would not live to see morning if the two large gorillas accompanying Vareck had the slightest doubt over his allegiance.
Zoran stumbled momentarily before the words began to flow. He told of his encounter with Virdon and Burke at Trion, his disillusionment with Zaius and the High Council and, most damning of all, the discovery of books hidden in Zaius' study written by humans many hundreds of years ago.
He'd been recruited into the group and his life irrevocably changed.
Zoran drew a deep
breath as he slipped outside into the street. He glanced briefly over
his shoulder, an acquired habit of late. Head down, he increased his
pace as he set off for the
“Zoran!” Virdon and Galen spoke as one.
“We meet again.” The chimpanzee greeted the fugitives, smiling slightly at their joint shock. “From the looks on your faces, I'm not the one you were expecting.”
When Leander's source within the High Council had agreed to meet with them, they'd speculated on who it might be, but neither had guessed correctly.
“Zoran. It's good to see you again,” Galen replied, recovering his composure first. “And you are correct. We didn't expect it to be you. When we last met, you made your feelings of loyalty to Zaius perfectly clear.”
Zoran sighed. “A lot has happened since my promotion to the High Council.”
“What are you saying, Zoran?”
“Zaius and I have been colleagues…anand friends for many years, Galen. Which only makes…alall this…soso much harder. But there have been incidents…ininjustices sanctified by the Council at Zaius' insistence that I could no longer ignore. And I'm not alone in my convictions. There are others who feel as I do, both from within the Council and outside. Others who are willing to risk their lives to expose the truth - in the name of justice.”
“Justice for the apes I take it.” The scorn on Alan's face was evident. “What about some kind of justice for humans? Or doesn't that figure into your plans?”
“It's not easy to change a lifetime of habit and beliefs overnight. You must understand, until I met you and your friend Burke, I had not come across any humans I judged intelligent.”
“Damn it, Zoran! Open your eyes. Look around. There are thinking, intelligent humans everywhere. But they are too oppressed by the apes to show it. Take away a man's freedom, deny him education or hope for a better future - how do you expect him to act?”
“I don't know. I've never really given it much thought.”
“And that justifies turning a blind eye to what goes on around you? You're a doctor and yet the taking of innocent human lives doesn't seem to trouble your conscience too heavily.”
Virdon was right. Until Trion, he'd never even considered the plight of humans. “The controlling and disciplining of humans has always been the responsibility of the military.”
“And God forbid, someone should buck the system and start to think for themselves,” Virdon muttered angrily. “Well, trust me, Zoran - humans are far more capable than you think. And there may come a day when they will have had enough and decide to fight back. I only hope I'm there to witness it.”
“But what will that lead to other than more violence and killing? Surely you would prefer apes and humans to live together in some kind of compromise?”
“Of course - anything would be better than this…ththis sub-life they are forced to live now. But I'm not holding my breath.”
Alan interpreted the questioning look Zoran threw Leander.
“It's a bit late to be wondering if you can trust us, isn't it?” he asked in exasperation. “The lives of Leander and Kira and others already depend on Burke's silence. Seems to me you have to trust us whether you like it or not.”
Zoran nodded as he came to a decision.
“As I've said, there are others who feel as I do. It's a dangerous process approaching those we believe to be sympathetic to our cause. It must be done cautiously. Our eventual aim is to overthrow the High Council and form a new government. Zaius has single-handedly held the balance of power for too long.”
“And just what do you intend for the other members of the High Council?” Galen demanded. “What of my father?”
“There will soon come a day when everyone must choose sides. You must hope that Yalu makes the right decision.”
“Zoran, I commend you on your belief in this cause but why are you telling us all this? What exactly does it have to do with Burke?”
“Ah.... your friend, Pete Burke.”
Alan stepped eagerly towards the chimpanzee, hope pinned on his face. “You do know where they're holding Pete!”
Zoran eyed the human speculatively. What Zaius perceived as a direct threat to ape society, he judged to be the possibility of a better future. Virdon and Burke had already displayed a superior knowledge of science and medicine to that of many of his esteemed colleagues. What else were these humans capable of teaching them? He didn't know, but he would do everything within his means to find out.
“It seems we both have something the other wants. Perhaps we can be of mutual benefit to one another? Come to our next meeting. Help me expose Zaius for what he really is. What he has become. You've witnessed his deception as much as anyone. Even more so. In return, I will give you details of how Burke is to be brought back to Central City.”
Alan couldn't believe his ears. “You want to bargain for Pete's life to further your cause?” He laughed bitterly. “Oh, I forgot. It's only a human life we're talking about here, isn't it?”
“You think me mercenary for even suggesting this, but I see no other way to persuade you to come.”
Galen pulled Virdon aside. “Alan, we should at least consider what Zoran has to say.”
“You really think we should risk going to this meeting, Galen?”
“If we do go we can take certain precautions to reduce the risk, but if it means finding out where Pete is…hohow we can afford not to listen. At least hear what Zoran has to propose.”
Virdon nodded slowly. Galen was right. And if it helped save Burke's life he was prepared to listen to just about anything right now.
“All right,” he relented, turning back to Zoran. “I'm willing to hear more. But first tell me what you really hope to achieve by having us there?”
“You know of these human books Zaius has kept hidden. They come from your time - irrefutable evidence you speak the truth. You can tell of the scientific and medical discoveries of your time…exexplain how they benefited the people of your world. I've seen the medical text taken from Zaius' study - it alone contains enough knowledge to benefit and save hundreds, possibly thousands of lives. It was instrumental in helping Leander and Kira save your life.”
“Why should anyone listen to what I have to say? It was made clear during our “trial” we're considered to be dangerous humans, capable of nothing but death and destruction.”
“There were those who believed you should not have been sentenced to death, but they were too afraid to oppose Zaius. When you killed one of the guards and made your escape with Galen, it proved Zaius had been right about you all along.”
“Except for one small detail, Zoran,” Galen chimed in. “Alan and Pete were set up. Urko arranged for the cell door to be left unlocked and had an armed guard waiting outside. What else could they do under the circumstances but make a run for it?”
“Urko!” Zoran spat out the words. “His ignorance makes him a danger - not only to humans - but a threat to his own kind. He must be stopped as well.”
“It seems we're all in agreement about Urko. Anyway, I returned to the prison that evening and spotted the guard about to shoot Alan and Pete in cold blood. I tried wrestling the gun away but it went off, killing him.”
“Galen, you were once a highly respected young student here. Come to the meeting. Tell them what you've told me. Many of those attending are scholars of science and medicine. They are reasonable - they will listen to what you have to say.”
“And is Zaius not of a scientific mind?” Galen demanded. “Yet how reasonable is he?”
“Yes,” Zoran conceded. “But being in a position of total authority for so long has caused him to lose sight of what is important. The things he has kept hidden from the rest of society, whatever his motives, cannot be justified. He must be removed.”
“You know what you are proposing is treason, Zoran? If Zaius discovers what you are planning, you will lose everything - your position, your family…yoyour life. Is this cause worth dying for? Because that's what it might come down to.”
“Galen, I've thought long and hard about what we are doing, and yes, I believe I'm willing to do what is necessary.”
Zoran fixed his gaze on Virdon.
“You spoke before of how the humans of this world are enslaved because they know of no other way of life. Well, it is the same for the apes. Are we not all conditioned to follow the chosen path of our ancestors? Until I met you, I was as guilty as anyone of not questioning what has always been.”
Virdon shot him a skeptical look.
“You have every reason to doubt my word, but I'm offering you this chance anyway. Come to the meeting! Prove you have something to offer.” Of course, it was unthinkable for apes and humans to exist on an equal footing, but Zoran knew now there had to be a better way. A workable compromise. And if his colleagues didn't allow their 'ego' as Virdon called it, to get in the way of the truth, they would come to realize it too. “I can't promise you what will come of all this, but how will you know if you don't try? Perhaps we can learn to live with a higher level of tolerance.”
“There are a lot of apes out there to convert, Zoran.”
“Then we'll change their minds, one by one. You've managed to make others face the truth - Galen...Kira.... me.” Zoran nodded towards Leander. “Even my learned friend over there can no longer deny what is in front of him.”
“Where and when is the meeting to take place?”
Zoran hesitated fractionally.
“I cannot give you the full details. If, for some reason you are captured trying to rescue Burke…wewell, you understand I cannot take the risk of your knowing too much. There are other lives at stake.”
“Okay, so what do you suggest?”
Leander spoke for the first time.
“If you manage to reach Burke and free him, make your way to Dumia. We'll arrange for a message to be left there with the address of a safe house in Perdu. Further details of the meeting will be given to you then, should you succeed. Do you agree, Zoran?”
Zoran nodded, satisfied. “That is what we'll do.”
Alan reached his decision. He had no other choice. “You have my word. Help us get to Burke and I'll attend this meeting.” He held out a hand to Zoran. The ape clasped it firmly in his own.
Virdon sat down in a chair opposite Leander and indicated for the others to do likewise. “Have a seat. We've a lot to talk about.”
Travin gave a gentle
slap of the reins and urged the horse forward. Zoran watched as the
overseer pulled away from the
Zoran hurried back to his office, mind racing. There were still endless details to take care of before he left for Perdu. But first he had to make it through the emergency council meeting scheduled for tomorrow evening. No one knew why a meeting had been called, but Zoran had his suspicions. Urko's recall to Central City pointed towards one thing - trouble. Or maybe he was being paranoid. How much did Zaius know or suspect, anyway? There had been no whispered rumors, no arrests. Those recruited knew of the dangers involved, but all it took was one careless slip for the fragile house of cards to come crashing down.
Urko had made no
mention of Leander, Kira or the
For perhaps the hundredth time, Zoran questioned what insanity drove him. He knew he risked losing everything - that the plan he'd helped engineer was treason. It was utter madness and the odds were against them. But the wheels were in motion. Everything had been put in place. Too late for a last minute change of heart. There was no turning back.
For three long days they had traveled a series of rough, rutted roads on their journey back to Central City. Much of the time passed with Burke bound and blindfolded in the back of the wagon, the cover pressed against his face, allowing him no room to move or breathe. The thin layer of straw scattered beneath him did little to soften the battering of the wooden floor. Before long his entire body was shaken from the constant pounding - every joint, every muscle on edge. Rest became impossible.
The only time he was able to find solace was at night, when they would finally stop to make camp. Burke began to long for the respite of the evening routine, when, for a brief period the apes removed the blindfold and ropes, allowing him to relieve himself and have something to eat. There had been no opening for escape - he was too closely guarded. He dreaded the finishing of his nightly meal, knowing he'd be tied up again. Along with the rest of the friggin' animals, he thought bitterly.
At the end of the third day, the wagon drew to a halt and the cover was lifted. Hands dragged Pete from his prison, depositing him on the ground. A guard untied him and removed the hated blindfold. Pete squinted, trying to adjust his eyes to the fading light, as he watched the gorillas unload supplies from the wagon and tend the horses. One of the guards indicated he stand. Gingerly, he rose to his feet, forcing his stiff limbs into unwilling movement.
He was going to make a break for it. This morning he'd overheard two of the guards talking. They were due to rendezvous with more soldiers dispatched from Central City. So far there was no sign of the escort but time was running out. He had to escape. Now. Weakened by a lack of food and exercise, he knew the odds were stacked heavily against him. But still, he had to try. Even the prospect of a bullet in the back seemed preferable to a one-way ticket to what awaited him in Central City.
The gorillas led Pete to some bushes adjoining the camp, where he turned his back on them, emptying his bladder in relief. He stretched out the moment as long as he dared until the circulation returned to his legs. The tip of a rifle prodded him in the back.
Pete began to whistle tunelessly, making a show of shaking himself off and hitching his pants up. He shifted his weight forward slightly as he screwed up the courage to flee. Heart pounding, a rush of pure adrenalin shot through him, giving him strength. It was now or never. Run!
A rifle bolt clicked home and he froze mid-stride; the instinct for survival too strong.
“Don't be stupid, Burke. You wouldn't get five feet.” Urko's orders had been perfectly clear. If the prisoner attempted to escape: shoot to kill.
Burke forced himself to turn and face his captors, the bitter taste of humiliation strong in his mouth. Silently, he cursed himself. That had been his final play. His last real chance. And when it came to the crunch he hadn't been able to go through with it. It was over. His fate was sealed.
Back in camp, his feet were bound and he was handed a meal of dry bread and fruit. Pete sat miserably, barely able to swallow the food in front of him. When he had finished eating, his arms were retied behind his back. As added security, the apes ran an extra length of rope from wrist to ankle, pulling his legs up uncomfortably behind him. The blindfold was secured in place, plunging his world into darkness once again.
He'd all but lost the will to fight the nightmare of loneliness and despair that gripped him, dragging him down to a place he didn't have the strength left to claw his way back from. He just didn't care any more.
The temperature began to drop and Burke shivered. The worn, tattered shirt he wore offered little protection against the biting wind that blew through the camp. His body was seized by a fit of coughing, sending pain shooting through his sore midriff. One of the guards stood up and disappeared briefly, returning with a blanket from the wagon. He knelt beside Burke to check his bonds were secure before pulling the blanket over him. Burke voiced his thanks to the gorilla awkwardly, deeply touched somehow by this simple act of kindness. It was the first glimmer of decency anyone had shown him during his entire captivity.
Pete snuggled under the warmth of the blanket trying to maneuver his cramped body into a more comfortable position. He sighed tiredly, trying to ignore the damp chill of the earth seeping into his side. Briefly, he tested his hands but could feel no give in the tightly knotted rope. He gave up the struggle. It was only a few minutes before exhaustion overtook him and he finally escaped to the sanctuary of sleep.
They edged their way closer, Virdon in the lead, taking great care to avoid triggering any sudden movement. Alan gripped the rifle he was carrying tightly. It was his intention to take out the guards without resorting to gunfire. They stood a far better chance of success with the element of surprise. Still, if it came to the crunch, he would do what was necessary.
Yesterday, Travin had driven them to within a few miles of Devil's Canyon before setting off in the direction of Dumia. There was only one route leading to the canyon. It was simply a question of how much time would pass before the wagon reached them. All they could do was hole up somewhere and wait. And hope that Urko had not yet reached Central City. So much hinged on luck.
Then, while scouting for a suitable location to wait for the wagon, Virdon had discovered the soldiers. Only the warning sound of voices had prevented him from stumbling into their campsite. He'd immediately gone to ground, but not before recognizing Tarik, Urko's second-in-command, tending the horses. Although he had been unable to get close enough to spot Pete, he knew it had to be them. Carefully, he had backed away and gone to fetch Galen.
With infinite patience they had staked out an area near to the camp, and settled down to wait. It was late into the night before they finally made their move. Nothing had stirred for hours. They began to edge their way closer, painstakingly reaching the protection of the bushes surrounding the encampment. Alan carefully parted the branches in front of him. He was immediately drawn to the remains of a smoldering fire; its dying embers glowing dully in the darkness. Near the campfire he could make out the still forms of two sleeping gorillas. His eyes swept the rest of the area, trying to pinpoint the location of the other guards. Another body lay huddled under a blanket - with the dark hair of a human. Pete! He was alive! It looked as if a bandage wrapped around his head. Virdon prayed he was all right.
With a growing sense of excitement, Alan continued to scout for the other soldiers and spotted a third guard sitting with his back to a tree, dozing peacefully, unaware of their presence. A rifle lay unattended in his lap. Zoran had told them of four guards. They would have to trust the information to be correct. Galen tapped Virdon on the shoulder. He swiveled his eyes in the direction of Galen's pointing finger. At first he saw nothing. Then a dark shadow, moving. Leaning against the wagon, was a fourth gorilla, about thirty feet away. They'd take him out first.
Galen nodded briefly at Alan's signal before moving to his left to circle the perimeter of the camp. Alan shifted to his right and advanced silently into position, waiting for Galen to reach the wagon from behind. A twig snapped audibly and Alan's heart pounded in his chest. His eyes registered the soldier's rifle barrel rising as the gorilla turned towards the source of the sound. Alan dropped his own weapon and uncoiled from a crouch as he dived for the gorilla. His head sank deep into the stomach of the soldier who fell to his knees, dragging Alan down with him. They wrestled for possession of the gun. Alan drove an elbow hard into the soldier's face and was rewarded with a satisfying yelp of pain. The soldier's grip on his rifle loosened. Alan managed to pull it free and lifted the weapon high above him before smashing the butt downwards. The gorilla collapsed, out cold.
Galen emerged from the bushes and crouched beside Virdon.
“Did anyone ever tell you your timing is lousy?” Virdon whispered in the chimpanzee's ear. Galen grinned as he leaned down to secure the arms and legs of the unconscious guard. One down, three to go.
They made their way silently to the other side of the clearing, Virdon clutching the rifle to his chest. The guard sitting against the tree continued to snore, oblivious to anything around him. As they approached the soldier Alan handed the rifle to Galen and pointed to the two sleeping forms next to the smoking fire. Galen nodded, understanding. Alan continued to move steadily towards the snoring gorilla until he stood beside him.
Suddenly, the gorilla came to life, rolling to one side and springing to his feet in a single, fluid movement. With equal speed, Virdon swung out a foot and connected with something hard. The soldier fell backwards and Alan was on top of him, propelling his fist into the unprotected face. With a grunt, the gorilla wrapped his arms around his attacker and tightened his hold. In desperation, Alan drove his left knee between the soldier's legs and felt the grip loosen. He pushed himself away from the gorilla, now writhing in pain, and flung a hand towards the weapon lying nearby. For the second time that night Alan used a rifle to render his victim unconscious, before tying him securely to a tree.
“How come I get to do all the dirty work while you stand there watching?” Alan complained to Galen, who stood guard over the two remaining soldiers waking up in sleepy confusion.
“Luck of the draw, pardner,” Galen drawled, amusement on his face.
“Christ, you've been listening to Burke too much!” Alan rolled the soldiers onto their stomachs and proceeded to tie them up. “Make sure these goons aren't gonna make any noise will ya, Galen? I'll see to Pete.”
As Pete emerged from a deep, troubled sleep, his brain registered a series of dull thuds and then the faint murmur of muffled voices, but he was too disorientated to make any sense of it. He shrank from the sound of approaching footsteps. A hand touched his shoulder and he flinched.
“It's all right, Pete. It's me, Alan.”
“Alan?” he asked incredulously, unable to make out anything but blurry shadows as the blindfold was removed. “That really you? How did...?”
“I'll explain later. Right now let's get you untied and out of here. You all right?”
“I've been better.”
Alan pulled a knife from his belt to cut Pete's bonds, baulking momentarily at the condition of his friend's wrists, rubbed raw from the constant chafing of the ropes. He freed Pete's hands, and then sliced through the ropes binding his friend's feet.
“Here.” Alan tried to support Burke into a sitting position. Pete stiffened, exhaling sharply in pain.
“What, Pete? Where does it hurt?”
Burke clamped his mouth shut and shook his head.
“It's okay,” he tried to reassure Alan as he lay back in momentary defeat. “Urko decided to leave his calling card.”
Alan was stirred to anger. “Let me see,” he demanded. Before Pete could stop him, Virdon pulled up the man's shirt to reveal the livid pattern of bruising covering his chest and stomach.
“My God, Pete. What did that bastard do to you?” Alan snapped, horrified at the damage. For the first time he noticed dark smudges of fatigue rimming Pete's eyes and the sunken hollows of his pale face. The dark stubble of beard failed to hide the swelling around his bruised mouth and an angry red scrape that ran the length of one cheek.
“Anything broken, d'ya think?” Virdon asked anxiously. If Burke couldn't walk, they were in serious trouble. He picked up one of Pete's frozen hands in his and gently began to massage it between his fingers.
“I don't think so. Hurts like hell to breathe though!” Pete tried to grin, but failed. Alan moved on to Pete's other hand.
Galen finished gagging the last soldier and hurried over to Virdon and Burke.
“Pete!” he said, thrilled to clap eyes on his friend again. Galen moved in closer. “You look awful!”
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy. It's good to see you too!”
Galen's muzzle wrinkled furiously as he watched Alan work on Pete's legs.
Pete grimaced at the chimpanzee. “Relax, Galen. If you stay far enough downwind the smell ain't so bad.” He'd gotten used to it himself.
“Any time you two are finished getting re-acquainted.” Alan put one arm beneath Pete's head and gently lifted his shoulders. He signaled for Galen to take the other side.
“Ready to try again, Pete?”
Pete nodded grimly and braced himself. He held his breath as they pulled him to his feet.
“How's that feel?” Alan questioned him.
“Okay. At least I can almost feel my feet again!” Pete wrapped an arm protectively around his middle, hunching over slightly in an effort to relieve the stabbing sensation dancing across his ribcage. He looked from Virdon to Galen. “So, what kept you guys anyway? I was beginning to think you weren't gonna show.” The haunted look on his face told Virdon he was wasn't joking.
“Sorry about that but we were forced to take a slight detour.” Alan smiled and touched a hand to Pete's shoulder. “You up to walking?”
“Well,” Burke speculated. “Considering the alternative...”
“Alan, why don't we just take the cart?” Galen suggested.
“No, Galen. Then we'd have to stick to the roads and this place is gonna be crawling with soldiers before long. Besides, if the gorillas find the cart again, they'll know which direction we're headed.”
Galen nodded slowly in agreement.
“Okay, Pete? Let's go.”
Supporting Burke between them, the three fugitives set off.
The orangutan slumped low in his chair. He hadn't bothered to light the candles. Instead, he welcomed the darkness. In half an hour he was due to stand before his colleagues. He dreaded the thought. Over the years he'd established a network of informants to act as his eyes and ears. In the past few weeks, disturbing rumors had begun to surface. Nothing definitive, but enough to start alarm bells ringing. Rumblings of possible unrest - perhaps from within his trusted inner circle. Hence the necessity for the emergency meeting. And the recalling of his military commander.
Within minutes of his return to the city, Urko had stormed into his study demanding to know when the soldiers had been dispatched to Devil's Canyon. Zaius had looked at him in blank confusion. He knew nothing of Burke's capture. No communication had ever reached him. Either the messenger had been delayed or there were more sinister implications. Deep down, Zaius knew the truth.
He knew now there were those who dared question his motives; sought to challenge his very authority. Everything was slipping from his control. He couldn't comprehend it. Every decision he'd ever undertaken had been solely for the benefit of his kind. He'd only been protecting his world from the same dangers that had befallen this planet in the past.
He'd been wrong to keep Virdon and Burke alive in the hope of learning how they differed from the humans of this world. He should have listened to Urko and ordered their deaths. Immediately. Just as he had arranged the executions of those who had come before them. The two astronauts had escaped, and already their heresy was beginning to spread its infection. No compromise was possible between apes and humans. Humans were not to be trusted. They had enslaved his kind before and then destroyed their own civilization. They must never be given the chance to do so again.
He had been counting on Urko's presence to provide a stabilizing force within the city, but the General had disobeyed a direct order and departed the city, taking with him a contingent of soldiers. Zaius could trust no one. For the first time in his life the years were closing in on him. He felt old. Tired. And alone. Unable to go on. He laid his head in his arms and wept.
Alan had pushed Pete as hard as he dared, wanting to put as much distance between themselves and Urko's soldiers as possible, but the going had been agonizingly slow. They'd lost too much time already. At first, Burke had reveled in the feeling of freedom, but his weakened body began to betray him. Alan and Galen could only watch on helplessly as he stumbled along, his face white with pain. Increasingly, they were forced to stop as Pete was overcome by muscle cramps in his legs, unable to do anything but wait until the spasms subsided and he was able to move again.
Before long Burke retreated to a place deep within his mind - only the simple need to place one foot in front of the other mattered. Virdon and Galen learned not to help him up or steady him on his feet, recognizing his need to fight the internal battle alone. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, soaking his body and clothes. He knew he was slowing them down, yet his stubborn pride made asking for help unbearable.
He drew on his remaining strength and stood up again. A great wave of tiredness swept over him and his surroundings began to blur. He teetered on the edge of the precipice, trying to prevent himself from falling into the abyss below. The earth shifted momentarily beneath his feet - tilting, sliding, as the ground came rushing up to greet him. Arms gripped his shoulder and through the haze he could hear a voice from a great distance.
“We've gone as far as we can, Pete,” Virdon was telling him. Burke looked at Alan in blank confusion, then closed his eyes in relief. He wouldn't argue.
“We'll stay here for the night. Don't worry, Pete. You just need to rest. You'll feel stronger in the morning, I promise.”
Pete pushed back the damp hair that clung to his forehead. Maybe Virdon was right - he just needed to rest. It was a comforting thought. As Alan lowered him to the ground, consciousness gave way to a blessed oblivion.
Virdon rifled through his pack to produce a bundle of clean linens and strips of cloth for bandages. He lifted Pete's sodden shirt away from his body and began to cut the material with his knife. It parted easily beneath the sharp blade. Alan peeled away the filthy rag and sucked in his breath at the blotchy purple and black bruising standing out starkly against the pale skin of Pete's neck and chest. He lifted the man's hips slightly before tugging the tattered trousers free as well. With infinite care, he inspected the injuries - gently testing and prodding with his fingers - but could feel no broken bones or damaged organs.
Alan pushed the matted hair back from Pete's face and removed as much of the crusted blood and dirt as he could. He paid close attention to a deep cut on the man's forehead and the raw scraped skin of one cheekbone. Taking a dry cloth, he patted it gently against the wounds before applying a salve. He dampened a fresh linen and continued to work his way downwards, trying not to speculate on the bruises encircling the base of Pete's neck and throat. God only knew what Urko had put him through. It was a miracle he was still in one piece. The crude bath over, he straightened up gratefully. Tomorrow they would find a stream to finish the job properly.
“Here, Galen. Hold Pete upright, would you, while I bind those ribs. There's nothing broken but at least it will make him more comfortable.”
The chimpanzee slipped a hand under Pete's head and eased him into a sitting position while Alan wound strips of cloth firmly around the man's midriff. Gently, they lowered him back to the ground. Alan turned his attention to cleaning and dressing the abrasions on Pete's wrists. Through it all, Pete remained unresponsive. Thank God for small mercies, Virdon thought.
“Will he be all right, Alan?” Galen questioned anxiously.
“He'll be fine. Most of the damage is superficial - cuts and bruises. Nothing that won't heal, given time.”
He couldn't say with the same degree of certainty, about the state of Burke's mental condition, though. Galen spread a clean blanket on the ground and helped Alan lift Pete's limp body onto it. Pete stirred, moaning softly.
“Ssshh. It's all right, Pete. We're here. Go back to sleep.”
Pete obediently closed his eyes. Alan draped a second blanket over his friend and tucked it firmly around his shoulders. Pete had drifted off again. He tore his gaze away, catching Galen's sympathetic wince as the chimp studied Burke's battered and swollen face. Ministrations finished, Alan rose stiffly to his feet. Galen gathered the discarded linens and clothing together for disposal, watching silently as Alan began to pace up and down, slamming one fist impotently into his other hand.
“If I could get my hands on Urko right now, I wouldn't be accountable for what I might do.”
“What is it, Alan?” Galen asked quietly. “You look as if you think only apes could be capable of such brutality...and we both know that's not the truth, don't we?”
Virdon turned to the chimp ruefully.
“You're right of course, Galen. I'm sorry. It's just that....” He glanced over to where Burke lay.
“I know, Alan,” Galen gently admonished him. “But right now, Pete doesn't need to be avenged. He needs to know he can count on his friends to be there. Let it go. Don't allow your judgment to become clouded. We've more pressing matters to attend to.”
“When did you get to be so wise?” Alan regarded Galen sheepishly, a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Galen shrugged. “It's a gift!” he replied modestly. They sat for a few minutes, each immersed in his own thoughts.
“When are you going to tell Pete?”
Alan looked at Galen questioningly. “About the meeting you mean?”
Galen nodded doubtfully.
“Soon... tomorrow.... I promise. I just want to pick the right time. Let's wait before we talk it over with him.”
“I'll leave it in your hands, Alan.”
“Thank you, Galen. Now get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a long day.”
Urko was leaning over him, hands wrapped around his throat. Pete struggled in vain, unable to escape the iron band that held him, pinioned to the floor. Urko thrust his face closer, until Pete could feel the gorilla's hot breath.
“Your friends aren't coming for you, Burke. No one can save you this time.”
The gorilla squeezed tighter, increasing the pressure. Blood pounded savagely in Pete's ears and his head threatened to explode. He choked, lungs starved for air.
God, he couldn't breathe...
“Alan? Where are you? Why aren't you here, dammit?” Pete tried to scream the words aloud. He thrashed his body from side to side, kicking and clawing, frantically trying to shake free.
Urko was laughing at him now, a brutal, leering sound that vibrated through his head.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind someone called his name…PePete…PePete… b but he was too panicked to tell where it was coming from.
Urko's face began to swim in and out of focus, to be replaced by an encroaching darkness that threatened to swallow him up… i it was too late… i it was much too late…
Pete woke up gasping, eyes flying open to see Alan crouched anxiously over him.
“Pete…PePete, it's all right.” The voice was gentle and soothing. “You were just having a bad dream.”
He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. A bad dream? But it had been so real...so close. He forced his eyes back open and struggled to a sitting position, ignoring his aching ribs.
“Y'okay?” Alan asked.
Pete nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He swung his head around to take in his surroundings. For a moment his mind was blank. Where was he? How had they gotten here? Flashing images slowly began to filter through the confusion. The campsite… h he remembered the campsite…anand then Alan's face appearing suddenly in the darkness…vavague scraps of an endless journey and then he remembered no more. Afterwards was a complete blank.
“How long have I been out of it?” he asked Alan, still struggling to shrug off the horror of the dream.
“Eight to ten hours, I guess. D'you remember much of yesterday at all?”
“Not really,” Pete admitted.
“Thought not. You were pretty much down for the count last night,” Alan observed. “Feeling any better today? How are the ribs?”
“They're okay, I guess.” Pete put a hand to his chest, registering the bandage wrapped around his midriff.
“You want me to redo the bandage?” Alan offered.
“No, it's fine.” Pete pulled the blanket aside. “What happened to my clothes?”
“Sorry, but if you want them back you'll have to get Galen to show you where he buried them.”
“Thanks, but I'll pass.” He cleared his throat loudly. “While I deeply appreciate you guys arranging a decent burial and all, don't you think I might stand out a bit running round the countryside butt naked?”
“Don't worry, I might just have something in your size.” Alan rummaged through his pack and produced a clean pair of trousers and a shirt. He tossed them to Pete who caught them gratefully. Standing, he pulled the trousers on, then tugged the shirt clumsily over his head.
“Or maybe not.” Alan regarded the flapping sleeves, which hung well below Pete's bandaged wrists. “Here.” Laughing, he rolled the sleeves up and stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Well, at least there's plenty of room for growth.”
“Maybe you should consider changing tailors, Pete,” Galen offered helpfully.
“Everybody thinks they're a comedian,” Pete groaned, pulling a face in the chimp's direction. “Hey Al, don't s'pose you happen to have any Ban roll-on in your magic bag of tricks, do ya?”
“Nope. 'Fraid not.”
Pete sniffed the air cautiously. Well, at least he wasn't as ripe as yesterday.
“If there's something to eat beside Opers - count me in.”
Galen allowed the taunt about his favorite fruit to pass unchallenged, grateful to have Pete sounding more like his normal self.
“As a matter of fact…” ”
Pete's eyes lit up in anticipation as Galen produced a meal of bread, biscuits, fruit and cheese. He tucked into the food with gusto, marveling at how good everything tasted.
“Who wants the last of the cheese? Pete?”
“Sure, if no one else does.” His stomach was on overload but he was determined not to let that beat him. He washed down the last of his meal with a mouthful of water and smacked his lips appreciatively.
“Now Galen, that's what I call a good breakfast.”
“I see prison hasn't interfered with your appetite,” Alan observed.
“Hey, I got a lot of catching up to do. They don't exactly provide three square meals a day there, y'know.”
Virdon believed him. Pete had dropped far too much weight in the short time he'd been gone.
“Talking of prison, d'ya feel up to telling us what happened with Urko?” Alan tried to broach the subject casually.
Pete drew back defensively. “Don't worry, Alan. I didn't tell him anything about Leander and Kira, if that's what you're thinking.”
“No, that's not what I'm thinking at all.”
“Sorry,” Pete muttered. “Just wanted to make that clear, okay?”
“Sure, Pete,” Alan tried to reassure his friend. “Is that what he questioned you about then?”
They took me to some garrison about half a day's ride from where we got
separated. Urko already knew you'd been shot and that we went to the
“So what did you tell him?”
“That we took the book but we couldn't understand it. I spun him some story about taking the bullet out myself and later dumping the book when we left Central City. That's when he really started to lose the plot.”
“Urko didn't believe you.”
“Would you? Anyway, I told him to go to hell and he got rather pissed off at that. The next thing I know - he's trying to strangle me.” Pete gave a brittle laugh as his hand rubbed tenderly at his throat. “Guess I musta passed out again. When I came to, Urko was gone - disappeared. It was really weird. No one would tell me anything, so I guess he returned to Central City. Apart from tossing the odd bone through the bars they pretty much left me alone after that.”
Pete intercepted the look that flashed between Alan and Galen.
“What? You guys know something I don't? Just how did you manage to find me, anyway? You still haven't told me.”
“Well, after we were separated, I was lucky enough to find Galen again - or rather he found me. Then we hid from the gorillas and overheard they were after you. When they left, we found your knapsack and then horse tracks nearby so we figured the worst - that you'd been captured. We spent the next two days going from village to village looking for you but it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. And I guess it would've only been a matter of time before someone figured out who we were.”
Pete nodded, well aware of the risk they had taken to find him. Galen took up the story:
“Alan wanted to keep up the search for you but I thought it made sense for Urko to have taken you back to Central City.”
“He probably would've if he hadn't decided to use my head for a football. So you went back to Central City?”
“Well, it was the
best choice, considering. We took the risk of going back to the
“I take it Leander knew where they were holding me.” Pete was confused. “But how? And how did you know where to ambush the guards?”
“Leander managed to find out which route they were bringing you back by - through a source in the High Council. We found out where they were to meet reinforcements, sent to escort you back to Central City. It was a matter of ambushing the guards at the rendezvous point.”
“What about the reinforcements sent to meet the wagon? Surely they can't be too far behind? They're gonna be swarming all over the place looking for us.”
“Relax, Pete. The gorilla carrying the message to Zaius never made it back to Central City. But it's likely Urko's returned by now so we'd better make some tracks.”
“Count me in. I'm all for getting away from Urko, Zaius and Central City.” Pete missed the questioning look Galen shot Virdon and the answering shake of his head. Alan had yet to decide on the best way to tell Burke the truth. He was just grateful Pete had accepted the story of his rescue without too many questions, though there were obvious inconsistencies he was bound to pick up on before long. But for now, it was time to get moving. They had a long journey ahead if they were to reach Dumia by nightfall.
Alan listened as Burke teased Galen he expected a breakfast like the one they had just consumed every morning. No excuses. He frowned. It was as if Pete was trying to be too bright, too upbeat. Alan sensed a troubling turmoil Pete seemed hell-bent on hiding from them - maybe even from himself. But there wasn't time to get into it now. Once they reached Dumia there would be the chance to sort things out - get everything into the open. At Dumia he would find the right way to explain the situation to Pete.
His mind made up, Alan began to pack.
The three fugitives had been moving steadily for the best part of a day, stopping only for a few brief intervals to allow Pete to catch his breath. So far, they had detected no sign of pursuers. Virdon studied Burke silently. There was a hint of color in the man's face again, but he looked exhausted. Not that Pete would admit to it, of course. Burke caught Virdon's sidelong glance before he had time to turn guiltily away. Pete started. Something was wrong. He just couldn't quite place a finger on it.
And another thing. For some reason he couldn't quite fathom, they were traveling south again. Until a short while ago he had taken little notice of which direction they were headed, intent upon the need to keep moving. But now it dawned on him they were moving in exactly the same direction as before his capture. Pete tried to quiz the others about it.
“Where are we going?” he asked, totally mystified. There was a long silence. “And how come we're traveling south again?” It made no sense.
When Virdon failed to answer, Pete turned to stare at him, anger bubbling to the surface.
“Alan? I asked you a question! Where the hell are we going?”
Alan hesitated slightly. “Dumia.”
“Dumia!” Of all places, this was the last destination he'd expected. “Why Dumia?”
“Because we can count on their help…fofood to eat, a roof over our heads. We should be there by nightfall. Think you can make it that far?”
Burke ignored the question. Virdon was holding something else back.
“What aren't you telling me, Al?”
“We'll talk about it when we get there,” Alan said evasively. “Now's not the time. Okay?”
“No, it's not okay! I'm not taking another step until somebody tells me what's up.”
“I said, we'll talk later.” They still had another three hours of hard traveling before they reached the comparative safety of Dumia. There would be time enough for explanations when they arrived. Virdon hesitated fractionally. The hurt and bewilderment on Pete's face was hard to bear. He hated pulling rank but it was the only thing he could think of to deflect the questions Burke continued to throw at him. “For now we need to keep going. That's an order, Pete.”
Pete held Alan's eyes accusingly for a long moment before turning away. For the rest of the afternoon Burke kept to himself, avoiding eye contact with the others and refusing to talk.
The sun had dipped
below the mountain ridges as they approached the familiar territory marking
their return to Dumia. The peaceful village lay shadowed in the early
evening light. Headman
The earth floor had been swept clean and fresh straw arranged for bedding. Stacked kindling lay in the open grate. Pete took in the preparations silently. Obviously they had been expected. But why wouldn't Virdon and Galen tell him the reason for coming back here? Didn't they trust him?
“Well, well...if it ain't home sweet home - again,” he mumbled to Galen as the chimp followed him into the room. Pete pulled out a chair and sat down, far more exhausted than he would ever let on.
Galen dumped his heavy knapsack on the ground. “At least it's warm and dry.”
“Yeah, I know,” Pete acknowledged moodily.
One of the villagers fetched a meal of vegetable stew, which smelled surprisingly good. Galen began to eat hungrily. Burke chewed slowly on a piece of bread, his eyes fixed on Alan as he appeared in the doorway.
“So.” Pete broke the strained silence first. “You gonna tell me what the hell is going on now?”
There was a look in Pete's eyes Virdon couldn't quite define that made him increasingly uneasy.
“Eat first. Then we can talk,” Alan instructed quietly.
Pete pushed his untouched meal aside and shot to his feet.
“I don't want to eat, Alan. I want to know what this is all about. Now!” He looked from Virdon to Galen in growing frustration. “Galen? You gonna tell me?”
Galen looked at Pete's face, pale with anger, and shrugged his shoulders reluctantly in deference to Alan.
“Pete, sit down,” Alan said quietly.
Pete opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it again. He sat back down heavily. “Well?”
Burke listened wordlessly as Virdon outlined the events of the past few days, starting with their trip to Central City and concluding with the proposed meeting with Leander, Zoran and colleagues. He chose to omit the details of his bargain with Zoran for the moment, not wanting Burke to be influenced by a sense of guilt before he'd been given the chance to absorb everything. Pete could no longer keep his anger in check.
“So you agreed to this meeting, just like that?” he exploded, eyes wide in disbelief.
“Just think, Pete! What if we can convince some of these apes we are speaking the truth? Maybe it's time we invested a little blind faith.”
“Jesus, Alan! This makes no sense.” Pete rubbed at the side of his head in frustration. The familiar hammering was back, pounding away at his temples. “I hate to be the one to put a dent in your master plan, but just how were you counting on getting to this so-called meeting? You think we can go straight back to Central City, waltz up to Zaius and say: Hey! Don't mind us; we're just here to start a revolution?”
“Of course not!” Alan exclaimed, his temper rising. “Anyway, the meeting is nowhere near Zaius and the High Council. It's being held at Perdu, about a day's travel from here.”
Burke looked at Alan in silence before turning to the chimpanzee. “What about you, Galen? Just where do you stand with all this?”
“I'm sorry, Pete, but I have to agree with Alan.”
Burke spun back to Virdon with unconcealed suspicion on his face. “And just when were you two planning on telling me about this? Don't you think I deserve a say in what goes on too? No! You just thought: good ol' Pete. He'll go along for the ride, just like always.”
Hands on hip, Burke began to pace back and forth across the small room in agitation.
“That's not fair, Pete. You weren't there and a decision had to be made. Arrangements put in place.”
“You know, Alan, ever since we crashed here, I've backed you one hundred percent in this insane mission of yours to find a way back home. Followed you around blindly from place to place. Not this time! Do me a favor, Al. From now on, don't do my thinking for me. Okay?”
A shadow of pain crossed Alan's face and his mouth tightened. He put up a hand but there was no stopping Pete.
“One more thing. How do you know this whole thing isn't a trap? That Urko and his sidekicks won't be waiting for us with open arms?”
“Because Leander and Zoran gave me their word.”
“Their word!” Pete spat contemptuously. “And why should we trust the word of an ape?” Galen made a noise of protest but Pete ignored him.
Alan's voice took on a weary patience. “Because Leander saved my life, Pete. He saved all our lives, if you remember.”
“Well, forgive me if I don't feel the same as you about this. For some strange reason, time spent in the company of Urko tends to affect you that way.” The defiant _expression lapsed into sullenness. Burke crossed to the far side of the room, propelled by the need to separate from the others. A growing sense of isolation was taking root.
Alan appealed to Galen for support. “Galen. Tell him what this could mean. For all of us!”
“Pete...” Galen walked over to where Burke stood with his back to them. He placed his hands on Pete's shoulders, forcing the human to turn and face him. “Pete...” he said again, choosing his words carefully. “We've been on the run together for six months now, and during that time, you and Alan have become closer to me than brothers. Before I met you, treating any human as an equal was inconceivable - yet here we are today. I never would have believed it.” He held Pete's gaze, trying to penetrate the stony wall of silence. “I'd give my life for you and, if I'm not mistaken, I think you would do the same for me - even though I'm an ape.”
Pete shifted uncomfortably. “Galen, you know I didn't mean what I said about not trusting all....” his voice trailed off miserably.
“It's all right, Pete. I know you've been through hell this past week.” Galen shuddered at the look of anguish on Pete's face. That another of his species could treat any living being with such cruelty and callousness was beyond his imagining. “I'm ashamed to think my kind is capable of that degree of brutality, but not all apes are as ruthless and cruel as Zaius and Urko. Most are loyal, trustworthy and decent. Like Leander and Kira.”
“We're talking about two apes out of how many?” Pete wanted to know.
“You and Alan managed to change our minds about humans,” Galen reasoned. “Why not other apes?”
Pete regarded Galen skeptically, not trusting himself to answer.
“I lost my family, my friends, my way of life when I was forced on the run. All these months we've been hunted, beaten, imprisoned...I want the chance to get my life back. I want to be able to live in peace and not have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my days. If, by going to this meeting, there's the remotest chance of that happening, I'm willing to take the risk. It's time to stop running. It's time to take a stand and fight. Aren't you tired of running too, Pete? Come with us tomorrow. Please!”
“Yes, Pete,” Alan chimed in. “Come with us!”
A frisson of fear stirred deep within Burke. He faltered and gave Alan a sharp look. He tried to bite back the bitter retort on his tongue but failed. “Is that an order, Alan?” His voice had become dangerously quiet.
“Of course not!” Alan denied hotly. “This is something you have to commit to on your own. No-one else is going to make that decision for you.”
A tense silence filled the room, stretching out into an invisible barrier. Alan felt the divide as it opened up between them. He searched Pete's face, wincing at the inner turmoil in the brown eyes. He paused for a moment before plunging on ruthlessly:
“Galen and I are leaving in the morning. I hope you decide to come with us.”
Burke shook his head in bewilderment. It was all happening too fast.
“This is bullshit, Alan. I can't believe you blindly committed to... to all this. Why should we risk our necks for a bunch of gorillas who, six months ago were climbing over each other in their eagerness to have us put to death?”
Galen looked at the two humans in dismay.
“Pete. There's more to this than Alan is willing to admit.” The chimpanzee ignored the look Virdon threw him. “No, Alan. This needs to be said. Pete has to know the whole truth before he makes his decision. Alan committed to this meeting because of you.”
“Because of me?” Pete swung round to Alan in confusion. “What's he talking about?”
Alan shook his head wearily.
“Well, if Alan won't tell you, I will,” Galen declared. “Alan gave his word... in exchange for Zoran giving us the information on your whereabouts.”
“Zoran! That self-serving....I knew there was a hidden agenda there somewhere. The only reason he didn't turn us in at Trion was his fear of being exposed to Zaius.”
“Maybe. But like it or not, we're aligned on the same side now. I gave him my word and I can't go back on it.”
“Come off it, Alan! Don't pull that crap with me! There's no real reason to attend this meeting at all, unless…ununless. Oh my god!” Pete's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper as realization slowly dawned. “I can't believe I'm hearing this! It's not the fact you gave your word, is it? Or that you're doing this out of misplaced loyalty to Zoran for saving my ass? That, I could understand.” His finger jabbed accusingly at Virdon's chest. “But this? No! You actually believe there's some merit to this goddamn meeting, don't you? After all we've been through, you really think you're gonna be allowed your say!” Pete turned away in disgust. He didn't want to hear any more.
“Listen to me, Pete. At first, I agreed to this whole thing solely to get to you. But now I've had time to think about it. What if something were to come of this meeting? And what if this resistance group really does manage to overthrow the Council and come to power themselves? Don't you think we stand a far better chance of gaining our freedom if we co-operate?”
“You're crazy, Al.” Virdon could feel Burke withdrawing, the shutters closing down. Come on, Pete, he begged silently. Don't do this. Don't turn away now.
“And what if we never get home?”
Burke looked up in shock at Virdon's words. It was the first time his friend had ever voiced the thought out loud. Admitted even the remotest possibility existed they might not make it home.
“Do you really want to spend the rest of your days running....being hunted down like a dog? Never put down roots or live a normal life? Think about it, Pete. This might be our one chance to make a difference, not just for us, but for every other human on this planet.”
“How can you trust Zoran? He's only looking out for number one, and you know it.”
“Whatever his motives, Zoran has offered us this chance. I don't know if a compromise can ever be reached between human and ape. No one does. But we won't find out until we're willing to take that first step. Even you have to stop running one day, Pete.”
For a moment Alan thought he detected a slight softening in Pete, then the man's face closed again, his _expression unreadable.
“I don't know what to think. I need some air.” Pete edged blindly past Alan and slammed outside. Galen started to follow but Alan placed a restraining arm on the chimp's shoulder.
“Wait, Galen,” he cautioned. Going after Pete would only serve to push him further away. “Let Pete go. He needs to think this through for himself. Don't worry - he'll come around.”
Galen couldn't shake the terrible sense of foreboding gripping him.
“I hope you're right, Alan. I hope you're right.”
Burke stumbled outside into the night, drawing in deep breaths of fresh air. Conflicting emotions surged through him. Hurt? Anger? Fear? He didn't know. All he recognized was the overwhelming need to get away and try to make some sense of this crazy nonsense. Alone. There was hollowness in the pit of his stomach at the guilt he felt over Alan committing himself to Zoran.
He walked briskly from the hut until he reached the outskirts of the village. The cool night air helped clear the pounding in his head. Pausing for breath, he crouched down on his haunches, running a hand through his dark hair in frustration. It was difficult to think rationally under the circumstances. Was he was really so adverse to the idea of the meeting or was he simply allowing this feeling of isolation to interfere with his judgment? How could Alan expect him to go to Perdu and risk being recaptured? But how could he walk away, knowing the risks his friends were taking? He was cornered either way.
He looked up and studied the night sky. It had always calmed him, even as a child. A million stars seemed to be winking back down at him. His anger evaporated, leaving him with an emptiness he couldn't quite define. He let his thoughts drift as a dozen memories replayed in his mind: accompanying Alan and Christopher to the boy's first baseball game; the exhilaration of being named to fly in his first away-mission. Sally admonishing Virdon and himself, staggering in after a drunken celebration at four in the morning. He smiled to himself, remembering the first time he had met Alan. It was as clear to him as though it were yesterday.
Pete looked at his watch. It was a little after 7.30. Five minutes after the last time he'd checked. He glanced impatiently around the room again, nodding briefly to a few familiar faces. Where the hell was Harry? They'd arranged to meet here well over an hour ago and there was still no sign of the bastard. Punctuality didn't seem to rate very highly on the man's list of priorities. Pete sighed. At his friend's insistence, he'd passed up the chance of a date with a cute little blonde by the name of Jeannie, to come to the party of someone he didn't even know. Shit! He cursed Harry under his breath for the twentieth time.
He drained his glass
before pushing his way back through the milling throng of people. He
needed another drink. Badly. Leaning against the counter, he
waited for the harassed barman to make a pass in his direction. One
thing for sure: there was no apparent shortage of alcohol in the state of
“Another tequila, thanks,” he nodded.
Armed with a full tumbler, he took a grateful swallow and went to move back into the fray. From the other side of the room he noticed a rather attractive young woman beckoning to someone. He turned with envy to the fortunate guy but no one else was there. Apparently it was going to be his lucky night after all. She raised her glass to him and he lifted his cheerfully in return. From where he stood she appeared to be quite the looker. He fancied the view would be even better up close.
He took a step in the girl's direction when a heavy hand clapped him on the back and the loud piercing voice of Harry Madlock stopped him in his tracks.
“Pete! There you are. I've been looking everywhere for you, buddy. Where've ya been?”
Add bad timing to the growing list of Harry's less endearing qualities. Right up there alongside tardiness.
“Did ya have any trouble finding the place?”
Pete looked at Harry in disbelief. Trouble finding the place? The blast of loud music and noisy revelers had hit him from a block away.
“No...not really,” he acknowledged, hiding a smile.
Harry was saying something else to him and he leaned in closer to catch the man's words. Out of the corner of his eye Pete spotted someone else trying to zero in on his girl.
“.... wait here while I get me another drink. I'll be right back.”
Pete nodded his agreement before scanning the room for any sign of her but she had completely disappeared. Damn! Still, the evening might not be a total waste. If he could just get to a phone. There might still be time to give Jeannie a ring.
Harry was back by his side again.
“C'mon, Pete. I want you to meet someone.”
Pete reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged across the room.
“Pete. This ugly mug belongs to your host....Alan Virdon. That's Colonel Alan Virdon to the likes of you and me. Al...this is the new guy we've all heard so much about.... Peter Burke.”
A blond man in his mid-thirties smiled warmly at Pete. He was tall, well-built, standing over six feet tall. He and Pete stood eye to eye. Pete had the unsettling feeling Virdon was sizing him up.
Virdon grasped Pete's hand in a strong, firm grip. “Pleased to finally meet you, Pete.”
“Hey, Pete. Will you be all right here?” Harry nodded in the direction of Virdon. “He may be a colonel but don't let that put you off! He's not such a bad guy once you get to know him. I gotta go find me some action.... if you know what I mean! Catch ya later, ace.” Harry winked conspiratorially at him and was gone again, swallowed up in the crush.
Pete turned to his host.
“It's a...a great party,” he said awkwardly, not much in the mood for small talk.
Alan laughed easily.
“Don't worry. It's not usually like this around here. But somehow word got out and that was that.”
“Word got out?” Pete had no idea what the man was talking about.
“That it was mine and Sally's tenth wedding anniversary,” Alan explained. “Things got a bit outa hand, I guess.”
Virdon had the happy knack of being at ease with people, Pete noticed.
“Oh...I see. Well, congratulations!” he enthused. God. Ten years! A man got less than that for murder these days. He couldn't even get his head around the notion of staying with a girl for ten days, let alone ten years. Either this Virdon was a saint or his wife was a real honey.
“So. How are you settling in? Finding your way around? Word has it that you're one hell of a pilot.”
“You shouldn't believe everything you hear, ya know.” His flying record spoke for itself. He didn't need anybody's approval.
Virdon drew Pete aside. “Let's go outside where there's less noise.”
They reached the relative quiet of the patio before Virdon asked:
“Mind if I give you a word of advice, Pete?”
Pete started, still pre-occupied by his rapidly diminishing chances of getting laid tonight. Here it comes. The boring lecture: so predictable. Who did this Colonel Virdon think he was for crissakes?
For a moment, Pete was sorely tempted to tell Virdon where to go, but it probably wouldn't be the greatest career move right now to be pissing off a senior officer. Not in his first week anyway.
“Sure. Go right ahead.... sir,” he drawled, not even bothering to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
Virdon went on talking as though he hadn't even noticed.
“Take it from someone who has been around a while,” Virdon cautioned. “You're in the big leagues now, competing with other guys who were chosen because they're the best of the best. Whatever you do, don't ever make the mistake of selling yourself short.”
Surprised, Pete nodded appreciatively.
“I think you've got what it takes to go all the way, Pete. The question is....are you up to the challenge?” The blue eyes drilled into his, warm but serious. Pete looked at Virdon with grudging respect as he considered his answer.
“Yes, sir....I think I am.”
“Good....And one more thing.”
Uh-oh, what now? Pete wondered.
“While you're a guest in my house the name is Alan. Okay? Call me sir again and I'll have you demoted so fast your head will spin. Is that clear?”
Pete relaxed, grinning at Virdon wickedly.
Virdon had his full attention now. The hapless Jeannie forgotten, Pete sat down to listen as the man began to talk some more. Colonel or not, he had the feeling this guy wasn't so bad after all.
Yeah, he and Alan shared a history together. If you were gonna crash land a thousand or more years into the future on a planet ruled by human-hating apes, Alan Virdon was a pretty handy guy to have in your corner. And then there was Galen. The chimpanzee had been speaking the truth when he said he would lay down his life for his friends. Without hesitation.
Crashing here had plunged them all into a deadly game of survival - driven to move from place to place in search of food and shelter. And the running - always the endless running. Yet, they had known there would come a day when they could run no more. Had that time finally come? Had Alan and Galen reached that point? Had he?
Of the three of them,
it was he who had successfully managed to stop thinking of home too often.
He was a past master at cutting himself from his true feelings.
Anything requiring more than the fleetest commitment had simply been
left behind. His life and family in
Unlike Alan and Galen, no one waited endlessly at home praying for his safe return. With the death of his mother during his last year of college, there was no family left to mourn him. Yet, since coming to Dumia, he'd allowed his emotions to count again. He could finally admit it. He'd allowed himself to care, to know that other people cared what happened to him. Suddenly, it was important to curb the recklessness governing his life on a daily basis.
And this meeting. Pete didn't believe there was a hope in hell of it affecting the power of balance on this planet - but Alan did. And what, if by some remote chance, Alan was right. Maybe they owed it to themselves, owed it to other humans forced to live under ape rule, to take the risk and go? Pete trusted Leander and Kira, or he wouldn't have fought so hard to protect them from Urko. But Zoran? Zoran was an unknown quantity. Alan seemed to think he could be trusted - and that there was room for some kind of compromise.
Time to face the truth. What did this decision really boil down to? Putting aside the risks involved in going to Perdu, he had to make a choice about friendship. A choice of whether to support Galen and Virdon in the decision to attend the meeting or turn his back and leave. There could be no halfway.
He laughed suddenly. There was no decision to be made. Whatever the risk, whatever the outcome, they would do this together. It was no more possible for him to turn his back on his friends than fly to the moon. Well, these days anyway. He felt a sense of calm wash over him and the beginnings of immeasurable relief. It was time to go back and tell the others. He had no idea how long he might have been gone. Maybe an hour...maybe several.
He made his way back to the hut. It was dark inside. Virdon and Galen were asleep. He debated whether or not to wake them, but decided against it. It would wait until morning.
God, how tired he was. Pete lay down, exhaustion consuming him. He closed his eyes and within seconds was asleep.
Virdon feigned sleep upon Burke's return to the hut. He'd heard soft footfalls across the floor and watched silently as Burke spread his bedroll in a far corner of the room.
By the deep, measured breathing he knew Pete was asleep. Alan lay awake far into the night. He felt the burden of leadership weighing heavily as the strain of the past few days took its toll, but he dared not voice his doubts to the others. He glanced uneasily to where Burke lay with his back to him. Once or twice Pete called out loud. Yet, for all his tossing and turning he didn't wake. Nightmares, Alan guessed. Even in sleep, it seemed, Pete was unable to find release from his torments.
Virdon could understand Pete's anger and confusion. He'd endured so much over the past week. It was little wonder he was so opposed to going to Perdu. If only he could wipe away his friend's pain, but he guessed it would take much longer for Burke's mental recovery than for the physical scars to fade. They would have to be patient and take it one day at a time. Pete would come through at the other end. He was a survivor.
The more Alan thought about this meeting, the more determined he was to attend. With or without Pete. What if by some miracle the fugitive status hanging over their heads could eventually be removed? It would free them to search for a possible way back home. Home to Sally. Home to Christopher. His family. His life. And the dream of getting back to his own time was the one thing keeping him going. To keep searching. To keep looking for answers.
During the day there was little time to think, but at night he was confronted by haunting memories of his family. The worst part was the not knowing. Not knowing if Sally had been able to go on with her life. Had she found happiness with someone else? And what of Christopher? What if he never got to share in seeing their son grow up, leave for college, become a man? What if he were never to know what became of them?
Alan dragged his mind away and tried to focus on the good times. The hiking trip he and Sally had made at Lake Tahoe for their honeymoon; Sally's delight at finding herself pregnant after two heartbreaking years of trying to conceive. The joint pride of watching Christopher attend his first day of school. Their tenth wedding anniversary. A simple cookout for family and friends that had somehow blown out into the party to end all parties. It had also been the first time he had met Pete.
“C'mon, Chris. Time to hit the road.” Alan reached down to scoop up his son.
“But Daddy,” Christopher wailed. “I wanna stay up longer. Please?”
Alan looked at Chris fondly. “Sorry kiddo, but it's adults only from now on.” The boy squealed as Alan swung him high above his head and then caught him in his arms. Chris dropped his head against his father's chest, stifling a yawn.
“But I'm big now. I'm not even tired.” He yawned again, rubbing at his eyes furiously.
Alan pretended to be stern. “Well, that's just too bad young man, because it's past your bedtime.”
Chris snuggled closer, his eyelids beginning to droop.
“Will you read me a story, Daddy?”
Alan carried Christopher upstairs to his room and laid him on the bed. The boy was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Alan smiled affectionately at his son and tucked the covers around the small body, before kissing him softly on the cheek. He dimmed the light and shut the door quietly. Despite Chris' declarations of being a 'big boy now', he still refused to sleep without a night light. Still, it didn't hurt to indulge him - he was growing up too quickly as it was. Alan couldn't believe how fast the years had flown by. Only yesterday, Christopher had been crawling around the floor in nappies.
Alan made his way across the landing and down the stairs again, bracing himself for the din below. Someone had pumped up the music another decibel or two. He shook his head tolerantly and glanced around the room for Sally. She was nowhere to be seen. It was their wedding anniversary - she should be out here relaxing and enjoying herself. Instead, she was probably in the kitchen with her small band of helpers, trying to keep the food supply up to a never-ending stream of hungry people. But that was Sally. She thrived on making sure everyone else was having a good time.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alan spotted Harry Madlock steaming across the room towards him, towing a tall, athletic-looking man in his wake. He sighed. Harry was harmless enough but with a few drinks in him, he was impossible to shake. Alan looked around for a line of escape, but he was trapped, hemmed in by jostling bodies. There would be no evading the guy tonight. He would just have to grin and bear it.
Alan didn't recognize
the man with Madlock, but then again, half of
“…. . this is the new guy...Peter Burke.” So this was Peter Burke! The new recruit on everybody's lips. Alan had read Burke's file with a great deal of interest. A meteoric rise in the air force within the space of a few short years...a reputation as a brilliant pilot, but with a record hinting at contempt of authority. Headstrong, but added to the mix, plucky and resourceful. Just the kind of recruit NASA was looking for. It remained to be seen whether or not he made the cut.
Alan stuck out a hand and introduced himself. Burke grasped it with a slight nod. He seemed preoccupied with his watch, glancing at it frequently. Harry made some wiseass crack to Burke about colonels and was gone. Burke struggled for something to say.
“...great party.” If so, he didn't appear to be enjoying himself.
Alan tried putting the man at ease but the going was tough. Burke seemed momentarily confused when Alan mentioned his tenth wedding anniversary, as though he hadn't even known the reason for the party. He recovered quickly and congratulated him, but the brown eyes remained cool, almost distant. Just what did it take to loosen this guy up? A change of tactics was needed.
“Word has it you're one hell of a pilot,” Alan said, hoping to touch on common ground.
A smirk broke out over Burke's face.
“You shouldn't believe everything you hear, you know.” The look Burke gave Alan suggested he didn't really need anyone to tell him how well he could fly. He already knew. Alan smiled to himself in amusement. Why did he suspect that Captain Peter Burke might have already pushed more than one of his commanding officers into contemplating the merits of an early retirement?
Alan laid an arm on Burke's shoulder.
“Let's go outside.”
The music was giving him a headache. Besides, he was keen to find out what made this rather brusque young man tick. Burke looked at him a moment before nodding in agreement. Alan shouldered his way through the crowd, breathing a sigh of relief as he reached the patio door. Thank God. Now he might be able to hear himself think!
Burke stood beside him, checking the time again. Alan sighed in exasperation. If the man looked at that damn watch once more…HoHow the hell did he get Burke's attention? He sensed a hidden depth buried somewhere beneath that cocky exterior of his - if only he could find a way to reach it. Had he really been that brash and confident himself once? He couldn't remember. Looking back, it all seemed so long ago now...
“Mind if I give you a word of advice, Pete?”
It was immaterial whether Burke minded or not. Alan would have his say. No lectures, just the plain facts. Burke hesitated for a moment before giving permission with that lopsided smirk of his. Alan chose to ignore the mocking edge to the younger man's voice. Ah the arrogance of youth! How old could this guy standing in front of him really be? 25? 26? NASA seemed to be recruiting them younger and younger.
Alan plunged straight in, trying to impress upon Burke the importance of not blowing this incredible opportunity he'd been given. The stakes were high but the rewards indescribable. For Burke, the sky was the limit...literally. Alan was suddenly doubtful anything he was saying had gotten through.
“I think you've got what it takes to go all the way, Pete. The question is.... are you up to the challenge?”
Burke had stopped pacing around like a caged animal. He turned to Alan with what could almost pass for respect on his face.
“Yes, sir.... I think I am.”
Gotcha, thought Alan. Finally. The only thing left to do now was to stop Burke from calling him sir one more time. It was driving them both crazy. Threatening him with instant demotion seemed to do the trick quite nicely. Burke suddenly grinned at him and this time the reserve was gone; a measure of warmth reached the cynical brown eyes. Alan grinned back, realizing he'd managed to pass some kind of test. He gestured for Burke to sit down and, grabbing the opening, he ran with it.
Quietly he had taken Pete under his wing and shown him the ropes; included him in his tightly knit circle of family and friends. What started out as mutual respect for each other's ability as a pilot had swiftly developed into a close and binding friendship that had seen them through some testing times.
And Galen. The chimpanzee had alienated himself from his family and friends, his own species, when he had taken the fateful step of choosing to side with them. They owed their lives to him. Over the past six months the three of them had come to trust and rely on each other implicitly. Alan refused to believe that the bonds forged between them could now be broken. It was inconceivable. No, Pete would come with them tomorrow. He had to…. .
Burke was awake before the sun. For a few minutes he closed his eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. Finally, as the first rays of light began to seep into the room he got up. He moved silently past Virdon and Galen, pocketing some of the fruit that lay on the table. Outside, the dawn peaked cold and grey. A layer of fog covered the entire valley, silhouetting the hills beyond in the pale mist. Pete found a front row seat and watched the morning begin to unfold.
He fished a piece of fruit from his pocket and bit into the juicy flesh. Vaguely, he wondered why he was so hungry before remembering he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. Taking a last bite of his second oper he wiped a hand across his chin and stood up. Pete threw the remains of the fruit into the brush and began to make his way through the village, undisturbed by any other signs of life.
He paused as he reached the edge of the settlement. It was time to get back before Virdon and Galen woke and wondered where he was - he hadn't meant to wander this far. Pete shook his head in disbelief. Who was he kidding? He took a deep breath and stepped towards the door of the lone hut standing slightly apart from the rest of the village. He was exactly where he'd planned to be since waking up this morning. He was going to see Kayla.
The girl spent a
restless night, barely able to sleep. Warned by
Pete stood hesitantly in the open doorway.
“Arnold…I I know I'm probably the last person you want here, but I have to see Kayla.”
“I won't be long,” she promised her father firmly.
Pete seemed tired and drawn, but there had been no doubting his pleasure at seeing her again. Once outside, Kayla tried unsuccessfully to hide her shock at his battered face, the bandaged wrists.
“Oh, Pete, I missed you so much.” Impulsively, she reached up to hug him, then drew back in alarm at his yelp of pain. “What is it? Where are you hurt?”
“It's okay - honest.” Pete smiled as she fussed over his cuts and bruises with maternal care. “It looks a lot worse than it really is.”
She listened to his reassurances in silence - allowing him the illusion with a wisdom beyond her years.
“D'ya mind if we walk
for a bit?” he asked, eager to be away from under the watchful eye of
Pete cleared his
throat. He honestly didn't know where to begin, or how much
“It's not fair of me to ask to see you, but I had to come anyway.”
“What I wanted to tell you is…ththat day in the woods…ththe day we…KaKayla, what I'm trying to say is - I know I handled things badly. You deserved a better explanation and I didn't give it to you. I tried to excuse what happened by convincing myself I was protecting you but we both know better. I guess I have a habit of doing that to people I care about.”
Pete stopped walking and turned to face her.
“That day meant something to me…yoyou mean something to me. I know I hurt you and I'm sorry - guess I couldn't leave here a second time without telling you that.” He paused, trying to interpret her silence. “Help me out…I’I'm dying here…sasay something will ya, Kayla?”
She finally spoke, the green eyes regarding him in mock dismay.
“I've managed to convince my father to stop treating me like a child. Do I now have to do the same with you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was just as responsible for what happened. I was there too, remember Pete? I was the one who took us there. I wanted what happened between us - even though I knew you had to leave. And if I had that time over again, I would still do it all the same way.”
For a moment, Pete was speechless.
“Kayla,” he began. “You know things haven't changed, don't you? That I still have to leave again - today?
“I know, Pete. My father has told me.
“If things had been different, I would have stayed on…anand I know I can't ask you to wait for me to come back because I don't know what's gonna happen. I can't promise…” ”
Kayla touched a finger to his lips. “Then don't.”
Pete captured her hand in his own and drew her closer. Kayla tried to quell the fluttering in her stomach. He still had the power to affect her that way. The guilt she had endured at refusing to say goodbye to him the last time had tortured her endlessly. Well, she wouldn't deny him or herself that moment twice. He hugged her to him, leaning down to kiss her mouth for a long moment before stepping back to hold her at arm's length. Kayla read his need for her to understand - that this was all he had to offer. This was how it must be. She pulled away. If she stayed a moment longer she would never let go.
“I must get back. My father is waiting for me.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Goodbye, Pete Burke.”
She turned to walk along the pathway home and didn't look back.
Galen woke with a start. He opened his eyes and instinctively looked to where Pete lay, but the corner was empty, the bedroll gone. Alan sat calmly in a chair fiddling with the straps of his knapsack.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” he teased. “'Bout time you surfaced.”
“Where's Pete?” Galen brushed Alan's words aside and stood up quickly.
“Don't worry, Galen. He's outside. I checked.”
“Oh Alan...for a moment I thought...”
“I know. I thought the same thing too when I woke up and found him gone. I guess we can't get rid of him that easily!”
“Come on, you two,” Pete banged through the doorway bursting with energy. “What's the hold-up? I've been ready to go for hours.”
Galen clapped his hands together happily. “Then you'll come with us?” he asked. Pete smiled at the chimp, his brown eyes dancing merrily.
“I must be certifiable. I still think this is nuts.... we're nuts!” He sighed dramatically. “But the way I see it is, someone has to be there to keep you two out of trouble. Besides...who am I to be the one to break up the three musketeers?”
Alan gave his first genuine laugh of pleasure in days. Pete took a hesitant step towards him.
“Alan...” he began awkwardly. “About last night. I said some things...”
Virdon halted Burke mid-sentence. “Pete, we both said some things last night that...well...the important thing is you're coming with us.” He paused, knowing how much it had taken for Pete to put the past week aside and agree to come. How much it cost this man to admit to any kind of weakness or vulnerability. He placed a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. A look of mutual understanding passed between the two men. No more words were necessary.
“Besides, Pete...” Alan continued, striving to keep the moment light, “...you're right, you know. You are the only one who can keep Galen in line!”
“Hey!” Galen swung round indignantly. “I resent that! Just who has to keep who in line?”
Alan retrieved his pack from the table and gestured to Pete. “Ready to go when you are, d'Artagnan!”
“Come on, Galen. Grab your stuff and let's go. One for all and all for one and all that crap!” Pete laughed again, his gaiety infecting the others.
Galen didn't understand the words, but for once he didn't care. All he knew was the void opened up between the two men the night before had miraculously been bridged. Quickly, he folded his bedroll and stuffed it into his bag, before joining his friends outside.
Pete fell into step beside Galen and draped his arm firmly around the chimpanzee's shoulder. “Hey.... did I ever tell you about the time Virdon and I...” Galen rolled his eyes at Virdon in silent appeal. Alan listened on in amusement as Pete launched into one of his long and complicated stories.
It was good to be on the move again. Alan felt alive, more alive than he could remember feeling in months. There was a sense of purpose to him; choices to be made and possibilities stretching ahead. He prayed the decision to attend this meeting was the right one. The risks were enormous. The outcome unknown. But Galen had spoken the truth last night. It was time to stop running. Time to stop running and take a stand. Whatever the outcome, they were in it together...for the long haul.
Funny, he'd never pictured himself as a revolutionary. Still, it would make an interesting bedtime story to tell the grandkids one day if he ever returned to his own time. He corrected himself quickly.... when he returned to his own time. Alan felt a renewed optimism, missing to him for a long time. Buoyed with enthusiasm, he adjusted his knapsack to fit more snugly on his shoulders and hurried to catch up to the others.
The girl watched from the window as the sun began to arc higher overhead. In the distance she could see the three travelers making their way down the mountainside, away from Dumia, away from her. Pete had his arm around the shoulder of the chimpanzee, Galen, his animated face deep in conversation. Alan followed some distance behind, stretching out to catch up to the others. She remained huddled there long after they had disappeared from sight.
Kayla wrapped her arms tightly about her and closed her eyes. Nothing had been resolved between them. It was not possible for him to make her promises for any kind of future together. She knew and understood that. Finally. Yet, this time she dared to allow herself the belief that he might come back again. That one day he would be free to return to her. One day. After all, it wasn't so wrong to live in hope, was it?