Killer Instinct

Dave Ballard

 

 

 

ONE

"Look out!" cried Galen.

Pete Burke's reaction to this urgent warning was just an instant too slow and the Chimpanzee screwed himself up tight, hissing with empathy as Burke's legs were swept out from underneath him, sending the young astronaut sprawling onto the grass, grunting with surprise and irritation.

In an instant, Burke had lifted his legs into the air and drawn them back sharply, flipping himself smoothly onto his feet and back into a steady, fighting stance.

His opponent hesitated briefly, in part due to confusion but more so in admiration and the momentary distraction was more than enough. Burke leapt forward jamming the heel of his foot into the other mans stomach, he allowed himself to topple backward, catching his adversary's wrists and bringing him down along with him as he did so.

Making full use of the momentum he managed to lift the bigger man completely over his own body and sent him sailing through the air.

Galen instinctively cheered the manoeuvre and then caught himself and began instead to encourage Burke's opponent to get back on his feet. "Come on Alan, don't let him win, we'll never hear the end of it if he gets the better of you."

Virdon lay on his back panting, winded and sweating from both heat and exertion. "Give me a break Galen... maybe you... wanna have a try?"

Burke walked over to the fallen Virdon, his unexpected victory lending his gait a cocky swagger. He stretched out his hand, grinning. "Yeah, c'mon Galen, you never know when a little `Burke-Fu' might do you some good."

Virdon took the proffered hand, hauled himself upright but held on tightly, twisting Burke around into a Half Nelson. "Never take your mind off a fight until you're sure it's over," he cautioned.

Hopping from one foot to the other, Galen hooted with joy. Seeing his verbal sparring partner taken down a peg or two was always a guilty pleasure.

"I thought it was!" squeaked Burke, the vice-like pressure around his neck causing him to gasp for air.

Virdon released him immediately and slapped him on the back. "Not `till the fat lady sings." He laughed, then collapsed on the grass with a sigh. "Enough for today, I'm bushed."

Burke rubbed his throat and eyed Galen playfully. "So c'mon Galen, you wanna try, you think you can take me?"

Galen rolled his eyes. "I don't believe I'd ever want to `take' you anywhere," he informed Burke, less than kindly. "But if I understand you correctly, and you are offering me an opportunity to roll around in the dust for an hour or two, just so I can pointlessly demonstrate the inherent strength of an adult Chimpanzee over that of a lowly human... a lowly foolish human I might add... Then I really must decline."

"Jeez Galen if you're scared just say so."

"Unlike that inferior species known as `homo-astronautus' I choose not to demonstrate my virility by beating the brains out of my kindred."

Burke pulled a face, turned to look down at Virdon and jerked his thumb in Galen's direction. `Scared,' he mouthed.

Galen shook his head and grinned. He'd let it go... again.

Burke always had to have the final word in any argument, anything after would be considered the beginning of a new one.

"Come on people," urged Virdon, climbing to his feet and moving on to more pressing

matters. "Let's find somewhere warm and cozy to spend the night."

The three gathered up their backpacks and slinging them over their shoulders continued their long walk to who-knew-where.

They journeyed for an hour through wild, untamed countryside, eventually pausing to pick some delicious sweet berries from an overgrown, prickly bush. Virdon crammed a handful into his mouth, relishing the explosion of rich sweetness as they burst inside. "It's gonna get dark soon," he observed, studying the sky. "Let's see if we can pick up the pace a little."

It was Galen who saw her first.

So preoccupied were all three that they failed to notice the girl who had been watching them from the fallen trunk of a nearby tree.

"We have company," he said quietly, not wanting to alarm either the astronauts or the girl. Virdon and Burke stopped chewing and slowly turned in her direction. She continued to watch them carefully, not obviously afraid but the fugitives were all too aware of how shy and given to sudden flight `wild' humans could be.

"Well, hello," called Virdon softly, smiling without showing his teeth. They'd meet some humans who considered a toothy smile an act of aggression. "Would you care for some berries? They're really sweet n' juicy."

The girl, who looked to be about eight years old, cocked her head to one side and then hopped down off the trunk, approaching them fearlessly. Almost imperceptibly Burke and Galen backed away so as not to crowd the kid while Virdon, still smiling, pulled off another handful of berries and held them out. The youngster reached out and took them, cramming them into her mouth and sighing with pleasure.

"That good huh?" said Burke. The youngster ignored him and started to help herself to more. While she ate the three took the opportunity to study her a little closer. Like all the human kids of this time she was as scrawny as hell, her dark brown hair had been hacked to shoulder length without finesse, curling at the ends, the way Burke's own tended to. Her bare feet were almost black with grime, she would never grow up to be a pretty girl, she was like some fairy tale urchin, a character Charles Dicken's might have discarded for being too pathetic and unbelievable.

"I'm Alan," said Virdon. "This is Pete and Galen. Do you have a name?"

"Lanya" said the girl and carried on eating.

"Well... Lanya, we're all pleased to meet you." Virdon held out his hand, poised to shake. Lanya stared at it for a second or two, plucked some more berries off the bush and dumped them into the outstretched palm.

Virdon laughed. "Well, you were supposed to shake but... I think your way is better."

"Shake?" asked the girl, "Why should I shake? I am not cold or afraid..."

"Say Lanya, do you live nearby?" asked Burke, stifling his laughter. It wouldn't do for the girl to think they were mocking her. She jerked her head backward over her shoulder. "Over the river," she said.

"A village?" asked Galen.

Lanya stared at the Chimpanzee, curious rather than fearful. "Are they your slaves?" She asked, indicating the two men.

Galen pulled a doubtful face. `Hmm? Well... sometimes I suppose... when it suits them." He answered truthfully. The girl nodded as if understanding perfectly.

"So Lanya, is your village nearby?" Burke repeated, daring himself to look forward to a hot meal.

"I just told you, it's just over the river."

"Would you show us the way."

The girl shrugged, turned around and started to walk in the direction she'd indicated. The three fugitives quickly gathered their belongings, eager to follow before she turned on some unseen path and vanished from sight.

"Say, I bet you could sure use a piggy back" suggested Virdon, jogging to make up the distance between them.

The girl stopped walking, turned and looked at him blankly. "Why would I want a back like a pig?" she asked after considering the words.

"He means would you like one of us to carry you?" Galen explained as he and Burke drew closer.

"An ape? Carry a human?" The girl said.

"Well, I suppose I could make an exception just this once." Galen winked, "provided you don't tell anyone that is."

The girl rubbed her dirt-smudged chin considering the proposal, looking for all the world as though the outcome of her decision might alter the fate of the planet. "Can one of your slaves carry me?" she asked at last.

Galen slowly grinned. Oh, this was going to be priceless! This was going to be inspired!   This would furnish ammunition for many an evening of Burke-taunting to come. "Of course," he answered with undisguised glee. "Just choose one."

The girl studied the two men who stood helplessly, shooting withering glares in Galen's direction. "This one will do," she said kicking Burke lightly in the shin.

"Well saddle up ol' hoss." Burke sang cheerfully. "And buckle up tight, cuz yer going for a ride!"

The girl laughed as Burke lifted her into the air, swinging her onto his back. "This one's funny," she said to Galen.

"Oh Yes," the chimp agreed. "With him around, often all I can do to stifle my laughter."

*****

Lanya led the three fugitives to yet another, typical, small village, hardly any different from any of the dozens of others they had passed through on their long journey. If anything this was smaller and even more decrepit than most.

"Are their Apes in this village?" Galen asked. Peering down from where she was comfortably perched on Burke's shoulders Lanya shook her head.

Almost immediately villagers began to appear, surrounding the strangers in their midst, their manner, although not openly hostile, was far from friendly.

"Lanya! Get down from there!' a squat, balding, powerful looking man cried, approaching the fugitives swiftly. Burke felt the girl tremble right through his shoulders and he reached up lifting her off and down in one smooth movement. "There you go m'darling, go see your Pa."

"They were lost in the woods." Lanya explained.

"Get inside," said the man gruffly.

"They asked me to bring them here."

The man's hand whipped out and cuffed the girl around the face.

Both Virdon and Burke started, ready to intervene but experience had taught them to keep such instincts on a tight leash. They strained to keep their emotions in check and outwardly at least, remained calm. Lanya rubbed her reddening cheek and with a final, darting glance at Burke scurried away.

"Hey, she didn't do anything," Burke snapped, sounding a lot more aggressive than he meant to.

"Who are you? What do you want?" demanded the burly man, evidently the village leader, or at least spokesman.

Galen, who, until now had been partially hidden by his two friends pushed his way through to the front. His effect on the assembled villagers was dramatic, visible and immediate.

"My name is... Parrin, I'm here on official business from Central City. My... slaves and I are surveying the surrounding hills for valuable mineral deposits. The girl found us after we had lost our way, we are very grateful to her."

Faced with Galen, the squat burly villager quickly seemed to lose any authority he once possessed. "I apologize sir, I meant no disrespect. You are welcome here, whatever we have is yours to share."

Galen nodded imperiously. "I want nothing you cannot spare," he said kindly and felt a wave of relief sweep through the crowd as they visibly relaxed. "Although a bed and perhaps a hot meal would be very welcome," he quickly added.

"Of course sir," agreed the man, obviously eager to avoid the wrath of an Ape. "I am called Farron." The man called Farron swept his arm in the direction of a rough looking wooden hut. "My home is yours for however long you require it."

Galen nodded again, eyeing the shabby looking construction with something he hoped resembled enthusiasm.

Farron then appraised Virdon and Burke. "Your slaves may sleep in the village barn," he said, although obviously none too happy about the idea.

"That would be most acceptable," agreed Galen with smug superiority.

TWO

Virdon and Burke ditched their backpacks onto the straw littered, dirt floor of the barn, disturbing some of the chickens that had been deeply meditating on all things poultry.

"Can you believe that hairy schyster," Burke complained with mock indignation. "He gets the penthouse suite while we get what amounts to a cardboard box in the alley!"

Virdon nodded, trying to at least look outraged. "And did you see how deeply upset he was about it?" he shook his head, all pretence at resentment dissolving with a quiet chuckle. He stripped of his shirt and sniffed, screwing up his face in self - revulsion. "Wow! That's potent! I'm gonna hit the amenities first," he said, nodding toward a primitive water trough. "That okay with you?"

"And if it's not?" Asked Burke out of curiosity.

"Then I guess you'll give me no option but to pull rank."

Burke nodded pulling an I-thought-as-much face. "Go ahead... Colonel. I wanna go check on the kid anyway."

"Lanya?"

"Yeah, her old man caught her a good one, I just wanna make sure she's okay."

"Fine, just don't go stirring up any trouble."

Burke looked theatrically shocked at the accusation. "Ma Burke's boy? Causing trouble? I wouldn't know how."

Virdon grinned and turned to face the trough of cold water.

*****

The village was hardly a metropolis and even after nightfall, it didn't take Burke too long to find the girl. She was behind Farron's hut chopping wood. It was obvious she hadn't seen or heard him approach and he held himself still, taking a moment to study her more carefully.

"Hey Lanya," he called in greeting.

The girl looked up, her deep brown eyes widening with... With what?

What the hell was that? Fear, surprise...? And then he saw the purple bruise on the side of her jaw.

No daddy no!

Burke momentarily blanked out, even forgot what he was going to say and instinctively reached out to touch the girl's face. Lanya jerked her head away and eyed him warily.

"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice heavy with concern.

"Yes." The girl answered and continued to chop wood. Not an activity for a youngster, thought the astronaut. She looked as though she could barely lift the axe, let alone trouble the wood with it.

"I'm sorry if we got you into trouble Lanya."

No reply.

"Say... You wanna hand with that. I chop, you stack."

"I can do it," she said.

Burke nodded, unsure as to whether she was sulking or just being stubborn. His instincts told him to just say goodbye, turn around and walk away but suddenly there was something about this girl, an elusive bond between them that, for his own peace of mind he felt he needed to define.

"I know you can, I just thought if I lent you a hand you could get it done that much quicker and then go do something else, something that maybe you want to do."

The girl stopped chopping and eyed Burke suspiciously.

"What's going on here?"

Burke turned and found Farron standing behind him, eyeing him with open hostility. Lanya quickly turned back to chopping wood. "The girl has work to do, she has no time to talk to strangers."

"I... was just thanking her for helping us out today," explained Burke.

"You have thanked her then... now you can leave."

Just don't go stirring up any trouble. Alan's voice echoed in Burke's mind. He weighed up the situation and reluctantly nodded, choking a curious desire to stay and not just argue but pick a fight!

What the hell am I thinking?

"No problem, I'm leaving." He waved to the girl. "Thanks again Lanya, I'll catch you later."

"You'll stay away from my daughter." Farron warned.

Burke met Farron's stare and felt a sudden rush of overwhelming certainty that he had met the man before.

You wanna be a what? An astronaut? You can't even wipe your own ass!

Burke shook himself. Impossible, he'd never forget someone that ugly. He dropped his gaze, turned and walked away.

*****

"Everything okay?" asked Virdon. "How's the kid?"

Burke scratched his head, looking deeply troubled. "I think she's got a problem." He answered morosely, stripping off his shirt.

Virdon nodded slowly in sympathy. "It's a different world Pete, different rules, try not to let it get to you okay?"

Burke nodded, it might be a different world but it had the same old problems. He ducked his head into the trough, relishing the chilly embrace of the water as it clamped around his skull. He pulled his head out and flicked his hair from side to side sending cascades of droplets soaring through the air.

It hadn't helped.

He washed himself as best he could, dried off and redressed. "Man, I could eat a horse." He told Virdon.

His blonde friend nodded in full agreement. "Then let's go find Galen and see what's on the menu."

THREE

Together they walked back towards Farron's hut trying hard not to react to the wary and often hostile stares they received from the villagers.

"Is it me" whispered Virdon, sniffing his underarm. "I washed as best I could!"

Burke shrugged irritably. "Who cares, let's get some food, a good nights sleep and just leave this cesspool behind."

Virdon nodded, beginning to share the sentiment. They'd spent many a night in many a village, sometimes friendly but mostly indifferent. Having Galen with them generally ensured that they at least had a roof over their heads, without him they would have certainly been driven off from more places than they had been allowed to stay. Usually it was just a simple matter of not being willing, or not being able to share food, too many of these villages existed in miserable poverty. Their crops, livestock and sometimes, even their families could be snatched away at any given moment, subject to the whims of some far off, unseen, simian bureaucrat.

It was no way for men to live and if he could have, Virdon would have changed it - but finding a way home came first.

Most villages had an authorotive Simian presence but there were a few, like this one, that might be classified a `human village' but that didn't mean they were outside the law, no doubt a policeman or prefect paid regular visits and ensured the population were kept miserable.

It wasn't a happy world, not for humans, but it was all they knew.

"Hey Alan... check that out." Virdon snapped out of his private musings and looked at Burke, then up into the air where he was pointing. "You see it? About eleven `o clock... what is that?" He tilted back his head, studying the clear, starry sky. He half expected to see strange lights, flickering in the sky but this time he spied a ball of light, much brighter than any star and moving in a descending arc.

"It's moving pretty fast... still too slow for a meteor though."

"Well, whatever it is, it looks like it's coming our way," Burke said, his voice tinged the faintest trace of unease.

They continued to watch the ball of light, now joined by many of the villagers. "What is that?" demanded one of them, a tall, gangly chicken farmer named, Stafford. "What evil do you bring to our village?"

"It's coming down," noted Burke, ignoring the superstitious yokel. "And fast!

Virdon turned to the murmuring crowd, sensitive to their fears. He raised his hands, patting the empty air in pacifying and soothing gestures. "Relax everyone, it's probably just a fragment from a meteor or maybe a just a old satellite burning up."

Could some satellites even still be orbiting after a thousand years, he wondered, it didn't really matter, the villagers had no conception of what he was talking about anyway.

"They bring misfortune with them," shouted a scruffy old woman, pointing at the two astronauts. "Just like the others."

Burke tilted his head and spoke from the corner of his mouth as the villagers began to draw uncomfortably closer. "Alan, help me out here... did we somehow walk into a Salem witch hunt?"

Virdon turned back to the glowing orb in the sky, already twice as large as when they first saw it. "It's nothing evil, it's not a bad omen," he insisted. "It's just something falling, a rock, a chunk of metal or..."

The two astronauts traded impromptu, urgent looks, instantly reading each other's thoughts.

"A ship?" whispered Burke, not daring to believe.

"A rescue!" gasped Virdon, equally hesitant.

"Whatever it is, we're gonna find out in about one minute!"

The object was now growing in size even as they watched and as Burke had already observed it was coming down fast, much to fast to be a controlled descent. The whine of straining engines could now be heard, screaming in protest. The object was aflame, lighting up the sky like a pistol-flare, creating false day all around. It passed overhead, streaking across the village causing the village population to scatter in powerful wake of its back draft.

Virdon and Burke, the only ones brave enough to hold their ground, instinctively crouched and covered their ears, their heads panning from right to left, their faces bathed in a soft red glow as the screaming object passed by.

Goats bleated in fear and charged their pens, pigs squealed chickens clucked and scattered. Alerted by all this commotion Galen and Farron came marching out of his hut, faces searching the sky in confusion The human took one look at the fiery ball and fled back inside his hut. Galen hesitated, his jaw dropping in wonder and then ran to stand beside his human friends. "What is it?" he shouted, his words lost in a roar of sound as the object overshot the forest, bending and setting fire to the treetops.

It disappeared from sight and then landed with an ear splitting crash somewhere in the beyond.

"Come on!" commanded Virdon, grabbing Burke's arm and setting off at a sprint in the direction of the crash. Burke didn't need to be asked twice and they both quickly disappeared into the dark woods.

Slack-jawed, Galen watched them go. Over in the distance, in the direction of the crash he could see the sky glowing a fiery reddish-orange as though the sun was struggling to rise several hours too early.

"Be careful," he shouted after them.

FOUR

It wasn't difficult to follow the path of the mysterious object. All they had to do was look up from time to time and mark the damage to the treetops, some of which were still burning fiercely. All around, glowing embers floated down like some hellish vision of snow.

The apparent nearness of the impact site had been deceiving, the thing had travelled a good mile and a half beyond the village, much further than they had at first assumed.

They came upon it suddenly. One moment the area was thick with trees and the next it was clear, levelled by the impact. Virdon and Burke picked their way forward, carefully avoiding burning shrubs and bushes. They found a long, ugly trench, gouged out of the earth, littered with a trail of smouldering wreckage. Virdon flipped a charred piece of buckled metal over and found part of a serial number.

At the far end of the trench, cooling, hissing and clicking was something neither of them thought they would ever see again.

A starship!

They both stopped and stared, absorbing the sight, breathing heavy from their exertions. Virdon moved closer, the heat from the fallen ship forcing him to keep his distance. It was obviously a ruin. Shattered wings, torn fuselage, broken and melted pieces of metal, glass and plastic everywhere.

Expectation, optimism, longing and desire. All the brief stirrings of hope that had dared flicker in his heart now slipped away... There was no way home to be found here.

But perhaps, something else.

"The cockpit!" he called. "We've got to reach the cockpit!"

The ship was of no familiar design, not one of NASA's and certainly nothing like the one they'd ever flown. This was shaped like a missile. Virdon instantly dismissed fanciful notions of alien ships, more likely it was foreign, Russian or maybe Chinese.

The heat was intense, their eyes watered from smoke and fumes but neither of the astronauts abandoned their attempts to reach the possible pilots.

At last they reached their goal. The remaining protective heat shields burned black and peeling away. Burke found a door and tried to haul open the lever, jerking his burned fingers back and jamming them into his mouth. "It's too hot! Can't even touch it!" he hissed.

Virdon pulled the sleeves of his shirt over his hands to fashion makeshift mittens. He fumbled with the locking mechanism eventually managing to dis-engage it.

A door at the side of the ship slid smoothly open.

He leapt forward jamming his head into the opening. "There's two of them!" He called over his shoulder. "Give me a hand." He climbed inside the cabin, already uncomfortably warm but bearable. Virdon fumbled with safety belts and harnesses, tearing them free as quickly as he could. Black, choking smoke was beginning to snake into the cabin, he wiped his streaming eyes and coughed. He had to get this done and quickly.

"Hurry up Alan" cautioned Burke. "This thing is just one big Molatov cocktail waiting to happen."

The first pilot was pulled roughly out of his seat and dragged him over to the hatchway where Burke caught hold and dragged him away to a safe distance. "Alan! C'mon, let's hurry, I think it's gonna blow!"

Virdon clawed at the straps and webbing holding the second pilot firmly into his chair as the thickening smoke made conditions intolerable.

"Alan Come on! Get the hell out of there!" Burke called from outside.

The harnesses were tangled, the buckles bent and distorted. Now coughing uncontrollably, Virdon reached into his pouch and drew out his small knife. Burke's head appeared in the hatchway. "Alan, I said MOVE - NOW!"

Virdon shook his head. "Another minute! That's all I need. Burke reached in and grabbed Virdon's forearm beginning to haul him out.

"We don't have a minute, it's too late, we can't help him! Now come on."

Reluctantly Virdon saw that it was true, with a cry of hopelessness he was about to wrench himself away when the trapped pilot suddenly reached out and grabbed his wrist. Startled, Virdon turned back and found his own horrified face reflected in the dark, smoked-glass visor of the pilot's helmet.

For a moment he was the victim of some ghastly tug-o-war, Burke on one side, the trapped pilot on the other. He shook himself free of Burke and began to hack away at the twisted straps.

Having none of it, Burke leaned in and curled his arms around Virdon's waist, physically hauling him out of the ship. He fought to get back to the pilot but leverage was on Burke's side. Virdon screamed something unintelligible, a cry primitive man may have used before the discovery of language. He ceased struggling and allowed himself to be dragged away until, reaching the cover of some trees, they threw themselves down just as the ship exploded behind them, raining hot debris around.

*****

Only when they were sure it was safe did they roll over onto their backs, sit up and look back at the devastated ship. Burke glanced at his friend - whose life he had no doubt just saved - and expected the worst but the blond astronaut was just sitting, mouth open in horror. "You couldn't have saved him Alan," he said quietly. "Another few seconds...we'd all been dead."

Virdon turned his head and stared at Burke, finally, slowly, thankfully, he nodded his agreement. "He was conscious, Pete," he murmured. "He knew what was happening."

Virdon's words slammed into Burke like a freight train, he felt a sudden rush of nausea, bent his head and covered his eyes. Yet, even in his own distress he knew Virdon would be feeling a lot worse and there was nothing he could do or say now that would make things any better. This was a lethal planet, death came easy but that didn't make it any easier. When the time came that they could shrug their shoulders and not be affected... then everything the apes feared about them would have come to be.

"How's the other one?" Burke suddenly remembered, his head snapping up and looking around. "The one we did save." They quickly scrambled to their feet and hurried over to where they'd left the other pilot.

He was as Burke had left him, sprawled awkwardly on the dirt, not moving. Virdon knelt by his side and pulled off one of the padded gloves, strangely relieved to find a human hand underneath. He found a strong, steady pulse and nodded to Burke who breathed a sigh of relief.

Virdon snapped the catches on the dark helmet and lifted it off. Hardly more than a boy, he thought, nineteen, maybe twenty years old, light brown hair, handsome, the fuzz of a young beard, struggling to assert itself, around his chin. He looked more like a Californian, surf-bum than an astronaut.

The stranger groaned.

"He's okay," said Virdon. "He's coming `round."

The stranger opened his deep, emerald green, eyes, fluttering his lashes in an almost flirtatious manner. He focused on Virdon who had to restrain him as he tried to sit up. "Easy fella, take your time."

The green eyes regarded the two men looking over him with curiosity. "I'm okay," he assured them and with some effort managed to sit. Burke and Virdon glanced at each other. The stranger spoke English, even had an American accent, though none either could place.

The pilot grew still as he saw the burning wreckage of his ship and shook his head. "Whoa... wipeout."

Again that fleeting impression of a surfer crossed Virdon's mind.

"We... I... I'm afraid I couldn't save your friend." Virdon said, painfully. "I tried... so hard - but I just couldn't...I'm so very sorry." Virdon bowed his head, like a confessor waiting for the forgiveness of a Priest.

The stranger focused again and regarded Virdon with renewed interest.

"Sharkey bought it?" he breathed, sounding more surprised than hurt. Virdon closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable cries of anguish, the tirade of accusations, the name-calling and the angry denials. "That's a shame... Still... rather him than me."

Virdon's head jerked up with surprise, startled he looked at Burke.

`Shock'. He mouthed, silently.

The stranger struggled to his feet and began to check himself over, evidently quite satisfied with what he found. He seemed okay, at least physically so Burke decided to push for some information. "Say... err, I'm real sorry about your buddy and all, but, you got a name?"

The stranger looked at Burke, weighing him up, appraising his appearance, apparently at ease with what he encountered.

"Lieutenant William Swann. Affiliated Military Space Administration. Serial number Oh seven nine...."

"Whoa!" interrupted Burke. "A name's just fine."

"Then call me Will," invited the pilot.

Virdon stood and laid a hand on Swann's elbow. "Will... I know you must have a thousand questions - as do we - but I need you to understand that this isn't the safest place we could be right now."

"Hostiles?" asked Swann, his head panning left and right.

"Kind of... how about Pete and I take you to a place of relative safety and then we can bring each other up to speed?"

Again that penetrating look and this time it was Virdon who felt himself being weighed, appraised, tried, judged and maybe sentenced. "You military?" Swann asked.

"Air force," answered Virdon, smiling "I'm Colonel Alan Virdon, the ugly, troll-like being over there is Major Peter Burke and anything else must really wait `til later... You coming?"

Swann considered his options, he glanced at the burning fragments of his ship then back at the two men who had found him. "One question Colonel and then you can lead the way."

"Shoot," invited Virdon.

"What's an air force?"

******

Galen had waited until it was almost dawn but still there was no sign or word of his absent friends. Growing more anxious with each passing second he could do nothing but pace up and down the village strip.

The door to Farron's hut swung open and the young human girl, Lanya, stepped out carrying an empty wooden bucket. Galen watched her walk over to a well and fill the bucket with water.

Sometimes, especially since he had met the two astronauts, he'd wondered what it might have been like to have been born human but had never once considered how it might feel to be a human child.

He couldn't tell how old the girl was, he had no frame of reference. Apes matured faster than humans - but her lack of height would infer that she was very young. He fondly remembered how things had once been. The love of his parents, the joy of going to school, cooked meals, warm clothes. He could never once recall having to leave his comfortable bed while it was still dark in order to fetch water.

"Hello Lanya," he called softly in greeting.

The girl stopped in her tracks, startled, saw it was Galen and relaxed a little. "Good morning sir," she answered politely.

Galen wrinkled his snout and cocked his head to one side. Her demeanour seemed at odds with the fearless youngster they had met only yesterday.

Lanya tried to lift the full bucket, grunting with exertion and putting it back down. She tipped out some water and tried again.

"Here," said Galen. "Allow me." He took the bucket from her, It weighed nothing at all. Of course Galen was aware that Apes were the far stronger species but even so, an ape child would have found the load negligible. Human children were so frail it was a wonder they ever reached adulthood.

"Thank you Sir, but if my father see's I might get into trouble."

"Oh... and why is that?"

"My Father says that humans must serve Apes, be respectful at all times."

"Your father is quite correct but respect should be earned, not taken for granted, not even by apes."

Lanya screwed up her face, puzzled. Galen smiled. "Come, where would you have me carry this and don't worry about your father... I'll take full responsibility."

Not entirely comfortable with the arrangement she nevertheless led Galen back to the hut. "Where are your slaves?" she asked. "Shouldn't they be carrying the water?"

"Oh, I've sent them on an errand," replied Galen with a casual lightness he didn't feel. "I'm sure they'll be back soon." He looked over his shoulder, into the woods. "I'm sure they will." He added for his own peace of mind.

FIVE

They found a small cave and Lieutenant William Swann quickly shed the bulky, padded flight suit that, along with Virdon, had probably saved his life. Underneath he wore only a white vest and shorts revealing a slim but well-defined and muscled frame.

"So... where am I?"

Virdon and Burke glanced awkwardly at each other.

"Well..." began Virdon, this was going to be so tough on the kid.

"The good news is that you're back on planet Earth," said Burke impulsively, earning a disapproving frown from Virdon

"And the bad?"

"As near as we can figure it, it's the year 3086."

Swann whistled. "Wow!" he said, oddly calm, "I knew we hit some kind of disturbance, the computers didn't tell us diddly-quat... But a temporal rift! Wow!"

Virdon had an idea. "Will, tell me, what was your mission launch date?"

Swann hesitated, quickly evaluating whether to volunteer what might be classified information. He shrugged, these people were a little weird but evidently friendly, he sensed they meant him no harm, besides, a date couldn't hurt. "March sixteenth,

Twenty One Oh-Three."

Virdon nodded, one hundred and twenty three years after theirs, it helped explain a lot.

"How about you guys?"

"Nineteen Eighty," answered Burke.

Swann did some quick mental arithmetic and grinned. "Jeez! You're a coupla old fossils aren't you?"

Virdon snorted, amused and insulted in equal measure, the man was certainly not shy about speaking his mind.

"Will, it's important you understand that the world has changed a great deal in all the time you've been away... and not for the better," he remembered his own return to consciousness in the presence of Farrow. The old man had tried to explain many things, none of which the navve astronauts were inclined to believe. Educating Swann wasn't going to be any easier.

"Something happened after we left, there was some kind of global holocaust..."

Swann stood to attention, now hanging on every word. "A war?"

"We don't know. Whatever it was... changed things, tipped the balance and mankind, was... overthrown."

Swann narrowed his eyes. "I don't understand... Overthrown... by who? "

Virdon took a deep breath, there was no easy way to say it.

"Apes," chimed in Burke, saving him the trouble.

Swann blinked. "Apes?" he repeated, confused.

"Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Orang-utans," Virdon elaborated. "Only they're not like our apes, they think, they feel... They talk. Humans here are just... cattle."

Swann assimilated the information quietly. He analysed the astronaut's facial expressions and body language, there was no involuntary widening of the eyes or flaring of the nostrils. No sudden urge to scratch parts of their body or tug their earlobes. Nothing at all to indicate they might be lying. At the very least they believed they were telling the truth.

"I see," he said at length.

That's it! Thought Virdon, no laughter, no hysterics... just `I see'

"Will... you do understand what we're telling you?"

"Yes sir, temporal rift, human race fallen, world destroyed, Apes rule."

"You seem to be taking it pretty well." commented Burke, remembering uneasily the casual way Swann had greeted news of the death of his co-pilot.

Swann cocked his head, detecting a note of sarcasm in Burke's statement. "How should I `take it', Major?"

"Well... maybe a little emotion wouldn't go amiss"

Swann looked offended. "Emotions are for civilians Major... I'm a soldier, born, bred and augmented."

"Augmented?" asked Virdon.

Swann stared, once again studying Virdon with uncomfortable intensity. "From the look on your face I guess you didn't have that in your time."

"Have what?" asked Burke.

"G-splicing? Enhancive chromology?" Virdon and Burke stared back, their faces vacant. Swann grinned. "I guess things are done kinda differently in the twenty second," He explained for their benefit. "In my time, your...purpose, in society is selected for you before you're even born, then, any potential tendencies that may possibly interfere with that function can then be weeded out. Everything else, whatever is left, can be refined."

Virdon and Burke fell silent, each absorbing this new information in their own way. "That's... horrible," whispered Virdon.

Swann looked momentarily confused. "It's the way things are Colonel sir, I'm stronger and faster than any civilian, I've been tweaked to quickly adapt to any given situation. I can function..."

"Function!" scoffed Burke. "You sound like a robot!"

"Robots have their place too in the twenty second Major... and I can run rings around the best of them."

Virdon held up his hands. "Look, Will... I guess we all have a lot of new things to get used too... How about we start by finding you some suitable clothes and maybe something to eat."

Swann stared, looked at Burke, then back to Virdon and nodded. "Yes Sir,"

******

A cry went up, demanding Galen's attention. He looked over at the borders of the forest and there, just emerging, were Virdon and Burke and another, a half-naked stranger.

Galen sighed, mostly with relief but also resignation, Only Virdon and Burke could wander into an apple orchid and return with a naked outsider. He hurried over to meet them.

They halted at the edge of the village, Burke remained with Swann while Virdon walked ahead, meeting Galen half way and restraining him from getting closer, he caught hold of Galen's arm and gently directed him to one side.

"Who's that?" Asked the Chimp, peering inquisitively over Virdon's shoulder.

"His name's William Swann... He's like us Galen, an astronaut!"

Galen did a double take. "An astronaut!" He repeated.

"Yeah, listen, we've tried telling him what's what but I'm not so sure he understands. It might be shock, but it may be... something else anyhow, until he's settled in maybe you could, y'know, keep your distance?"

Galen looked away from Swann and into the eyes of his friend, finding everything he needed to know about the situation right there. "Very well, if you think it best."

"Thank you Galen."

The Chimp nodded. "Alan, I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but that... thing that fell from the sky last night would have been seen for miles around."

Virdon nodded, he'd already considered it. "It was a ship, similar to ours."

"Well, whatever it was, patrols have certainly already started looking for it."

Virdon slapped Galen's back reassuringly. "Don't worry about it. We'll be long gone before they get here."

*****

"Is that one of them?" Asked Swann, nodding his head in Galen's direction.

"One what?" replied Burke.

"One of the talking monkeys."

Burke winced. "That's Galen, a good guy - and a word of advice, don't let him hear you call him a monkey, he'd rip you a whole new butt hole."

Swann considered that carefully and thought it wise to say nothing.

*****

Virdon called them over and together they commandeered Farron's house while Galen insisted that the villagers provide some clothes for the stranger and something to eat. He didn't like to impose himself but the circumstances were exceptional. He'd see to it later that they were repaid in some fashion.

The three astronauts sat around a rickety, wooden table while Lanya brought them bread, cheese and a fermented beverage made from the local apples.

"Hey Lanya, you wanna sit with us?" invited Burke laying his hand affectionately on the girl's shoulder. Lanya winced, jerked away and hurried back to the kitchen leaving him confused and a little bewildered. "Just a minute guys," he said rising from the table.

"Pete." Virdon warned.

It was just one word, but within was contained a wealth of wisdom and judgement. They well knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. Burke hesitated, meeting and holding Virdon's look of concern.

"I know, `different world, different rules', I won't be a second."

Watched by the other two men he left the table and found Lanya in the kitchen, eating bread and cheese.

"You okay?" he asked.

Lanya looked at him blankly, turned back to her food and carried on eating.

"Lanya... is something wrong? Did you hurt your shoulder?"

Lanya's jaw stopped working the food in her mouth. "It's nothing." She said, but watched him carefully.

Burke felt it again, the here and now slipping away, to be replaced by hazy, elusive recognition. Sights, sounds and smells... all belonging to some place, some... `when' else.

Another time

Chalk scraping on a blackboard

A bell ringing

Chair legs scraping on wooden floors

A classroom?

A School?

"It's nothing Ma'am"

Burke's face drew taut. Where? Where had he heard that before?

He reached out and Lanya suddenly stood and edged toward the back door. "It's okay!" he said softly, "I'm not going to hurt you, I promise." He reached out again. The girl eyed the door, weighing up her chances of making it, realized there was none and gave in to the inevitable. Burke nodded and very gently peeled back the collar of Lanya's rough, grey dress.

A large, old bruise covered the girl's shoulder, yellow around the edges darkening to grey in the center.

"What happened Lanya?' he asked, voice low and menacing.

"Nothing... I fell... Off a fence."

Horned rim glasses.

Perfume.

A teacher?

No...A councillor?

"What happened, Petey?"

"Nothing Miss... I fell... off my bike."

Burke grunted and closed his eyes, forcing the images away. Back down to wherever they came from.

Different world, different rules, Alan had said. He withdrew his hand, carefully arranging the dress back over Lanya's shoulder.

"You tell that fence... " Burke swallowed, aware his voice was thick with repressed emotion. "If it happens again, I'm gonna rip it apart, I'm gonna tear it down and hack it into firewood."

Lanya looked up and frowned, she seemed about to say something but thought better of it. Instead she just went back to eating her food. Burke nodded and went back outside to where the others waited.

SIX:

Virdon could tell he was far from happy, you didn't even have to be his best friend to see it. "Everything okay?" He asked cautiously, thinking it less invasive than, `What's wrong?'

"Fine." Burke muttered, pulling up a wooden stool and collapsing upon it wearily.

"Jesus man! You look like your gonna cry or something," Swann said with his usual lack of finesse.

Burke glared. "I said I'm fine, now just drop it okay!"

Virdon decided not to press the matter, he was pretty sure he knew what the problem was, although why Burke should be taking it so personally mystified him. On their travels they'd seen many examples of behaviour that might not have been acceptable in their own time but applying Twentieth century values to those that lived in the Thirty-first was both futile and unfair.

If he wanted to talk about it they'd do so when he was ready.

"So, do you guys run this place?" asked Swann.

"What do you mean?" Virdon replied, puzzled by the question but grateful for the distraction.

"I mean, even if you are walking museum pieces you're still holding a full charge... unlike these losers." Swann waved his arm to cover the entire village, if not the planet. "My guess is you've set yourself up, somewhere better than this. I bet you're having a sweet old time of it all." He broke of a piece of bread and chewed on it enthusiastically.

"Not quite," Virdon chuckled, marvelling at the absurdity of the idea.

"Oh come on Colonel, you can tell me. What's the real deal? Every whim catered for, your pick of the women. A little love shack somewhere up in the hills with your own personal harem where you can-"

"I'm married Will - and as for that other nonsense, remember there are other factors at work," Virdon explained patiently.

"Other factors? Oh yeah... the Apes!" snorted Swann, not bothering to hide the scorn in his voice.

"They make the rules, not us," added Burke.

"Then change `em."

"Can't, they have the upper hand."

"Then stamp on it, break every bone in its fingers."

"Jesus Will, it's not quite that easy."

"Why?"

Virdon and Burke looked at each other. "Look Will, we'd like to change the way things are, believe me... but violence isn't the way to do it. If we're to change these peoples lives we have to do so by setting an example, not by encouraging any violent confrontations."

Swann began to laugh. "Holy Christ! Are you guys queer or something?"

Virdon anger surfaced momentarily, he banged his fist on the table causing the dishes to rattle noisily. A suitably offensive retort formed on his lips and then he remembered just how new Swann was to all this. How confused and disorientated he must be, how grieved over the loss of his partner and maybe... maybe...

A family.

"Look Colonel", continued Swann, seeing Virdon was getting his panties in a bunch. "All I'm saying is, this tree-hugging, hippie, touchy feely crap isn't going to change a thing. Talking around tables never did any good. If you want to take over and liberate these people you're gonna have to face it, violence is gonna be your best friend."

"And how would you go about applying such violence?" Asked Galen, stepping inside the hut.

Swann's mouth formed an O of surprise at hearing Galen talk. "Jesus!" He said with childlike wonder. "It's true."

Galen sat down and studied the new comer. "You haven't answered my question, Mr. Swann."

Swann shrugged as if the answer were so simple it didn't need explaining. "You just have to find a way to tip the scales, alter the balance of power."

Galen cocked his head and wrinkled his muzzle, then shook his head wearily. "So, if a gorilla were to march in here and give you an explicit order - at gunpoint - you would what? How would you `alter the balance of power' in that situation?"

Swann rolled his eyes. "I'd take the rifle, dummy!"

Virdon Burke and Galen exchanged glances, half amused, half worried.

Swann continued. "Look, you take the rifle and then it just becomes a simple equation. One rifle holds... what - Ten bullets? Let's say eight. Eight bullets gives you eight more dead gorillas, which equals eight more rifles... equals eight times eight... and so on."

Burke managed an embarrassed grin and massaged his forehead, there was so much Swann didn't understand, not least of which was who was going to use those rifles. The vast majority of the humans of this time period certainly weren't up to the task. Galen however felt the beginnings of something cold tightening its steely grip around his heart. He stared at the newcomer, trying to read what lay in the eyes.

He found nothing. They were as dead as the eyes of a shark.

"I think you might need to re-evaluate your position on this planet Mr. Swann... and quickly, or you are going to wind up very, very dead."

Swann blew a noisy puff of air. "Whatever," he said obviously dismissing Galen's advice.

Virdon decided to take control of the conversation and steer it in a new direction before it grew any more unpleasant. `Look Will, you've got it all wrong. We're not interested in ruling this world or `liberating' these people, not in the way you describe. Even if we could take control using brute force we wouldn't want to, because then the balance between Ape and Man just gets reversed... We need to bring them together, to live as equals."

"Yeah," agreed Burke. "We know it's gonna get a little messy here and there, but all out war? Uh-uh, been there, done that... It's what got us into this mess in the first place."

Swann looked from Virdon to Burke and back again, unsure as to whether or not they were joking. "You guys are freaking me out," he said at last.

Virdon laughed softly. "Then how about we change the subject?

Tell me about yourself... your time... tell me about your partner, Sharkey? Were the two of you buddies?"

Burke's eyes narrowed, what the hell was Alan doing now? Why probe for personal details of a man they hadn't been able to save?

"Buddies?" asked Swann, momentarily confused, trying to classify the word. "We were comrades if that's what you mean."

"Tell me about him," urged Virdon, morbid curiosity demanding that he learn as much as he could about the man he had failed. The man he had abandoned to die horribly in a blazing inferno. "Did he have a wife? Kids?

Burke turned his head away from the table so Virdon wouldn't see the expression of disapproval that flickered over his face. He's feeling guilty! He realized, astonished! The very same way he had felt about Jonesy It was happening all over again!

"Sharkey's dead," said Swann, matter-of-fact. "What else matters?"

Virdon's expression of sympathy froze and his face twitched as a variety of conflicting emotions played across it. Finally he just nodded to himself.

"I've got a better idea," suggested Burke, yawning. "How about we get some sleep? I didn't get a wink last night and it's been one helluva day."

Virdon caught Burke's look, he wasn't suggesting sleep, he was suggesting they get Swann out of the way for awhile so they could better discuss the new developments.

"Sounds good to me," Swann agreed.

Lanya entered the room and began to clear the table.

"There's a barn at the end of the village... Say Lanya, would you show Will the way," asked Burke.

Lanya looked doubtful. "But I must clear the room," she said.

"We'll do that," assured Galen "You run along, that's an order," he cautioned her, smiling.

Lanya looked at each of them in turn and finally nodded. "This way," she said, gesturing for Swann to follow.

"We're gonna clear up Will, we'll be there in just a few minutes."

Swann hesitated, quickly calculating a 98% possibility that they wanted to talk about him behind his back, he smiled knowingly, "Sure thing Colonel, you and your... buddies'... just take all the time you need."

*****

The three friends waited for a moment or two and then released synchronised, long held breaths.

"Oh Man!" exclaimed Burke. `Someone needs to wake up and smell the coffee."

Galen frowned, he'd heard both astronauts' use this expression before and he still had no idea what it meant, he promised himself to ask them one day. "I don't like him," he stated resolutely. "I don't like him at all."

Virdon pulled a face. "C'mon Galen give the guy a break... he crashes on a strange planet, finds out it's run by apes, his partner is left... his partner dies. He's bound to be a little difficult."

"He's trouble," insisted Galen. "He's going to get himself killed - and us too if we're not careful."

Virdon looked shocked.

"Spit it out pal, let's hear what you've got to say," from Burke.

Galen sighed and studied his hands folded upon the tabletop. "Oh I don't know... There just something about him, something ... to do with..." Galen gave up and shook his head in defeat.

"Look Galen," pleaded Burke, "Put yourself in his position, the guys all messed up, just give him a chance okay."

"In the meantime I promise we'll be watching him very closely," assured Virdon.

The Chimpanzee nodded, not entirely happy with the decision but allowed that his judgements were maybe a little harsh and premature.

The curtain was pulled aside and Farron entered, bowing slightly toward Galen. Before it fell back into place Virdon caught a glimpse of a small crowd of villagers waiting outside.

"Excuse me sir," Farron began with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. "But may I ask, when do you intend to leave?"

Galen glanced at his two friends before answering. "Soon," he answered truthfully.

"The other one, your... friend... may I ask... Is it true that he fell from the sky?"

"Why would you think that?" asked Virdon.

Farron met Virdon's inquiring gaze but didn't answer.

"Tell your people that he's just another, ordinary human," advised Galen wearily. "And that we'll all be leaving you to your apples very soon."

Farron nodded, obviously relieved and went to convey the news to the others.

"And for what it's worth that's my advice to us too." Galen continued once the man had left. "That ship would have been seen for miles around, patrols will be this way any time now looking for answers. I'd suggest that we move on before they get here."

The astronauts nodded their agreement. "Okay," said Virdon, let's just grab a few hours sleep and we'll move on later this afternoon."

They all rose, signaling the meeting was at an end.

*****

He's not here!" said Virdon.

"Then where is he?" asked Galen.

"How the hell do I know?" Virdon snapped, irritated. Was he supposed to know everything? He shook his head, disappointed with himself. "I'm sorry Galen, I'm just tired, not thinking straight."

"Where do you think he'd go? Burke asked. "Back to his ship?"

"Can't think why, there was nothing left." Virdon scratched his head. "We can't leave him out there on his own, he might run into a patrol, with no idea of how things work around here, he could get himself in a whole heap of trouble." He turned to Galen.

"Galen, you remain here in case he comes back, see if you can find the girl, maybe she saw where he went. Pete and I will look around, he couldn't have gotten far."

"Be careful," warned the chimp, painfully aware of how many times he kept saying the same old thing.

Virdon slapped Galen on the back and at a steady jog the two men trotted out of the village.

Galen frowned. He'd predicted trouble and it had come far sooner than even he had expected. Now, if he could only shake off his growing certainty things were about to get a lot worse.

SEVEN

Galen tried to occupy his mind with other matters but failed spectacularly and found himself once again pacing up and down the dry, dusty path that formed, what was, for want of a better word, the main `road' of the village. The locals watched him, maintaining a respectful distance, keeping themselves to themselves.

Suddenly there was a shout.

"Gorillas!"

Galen's head whipped around and there, just turning into the path that led down into the village was a lone, mounted Gorilla.

As if by magic the inhabitants disappeared and suddenly he was alone in what appeared to be a ghost town. He swallowed nervously, he couldn't afford to be noticed, there would be too many questions and so, hoping the gorilla hadn't already seen him he ducked and slipped through the window of the nearest hut.

There followed no shouts or warning shots above his head and so Galen concluded he was safe. He risked a glance out of the window, hoping the deep shadows would hide him from view.

The horse trotted lazily through the village until it's rider reigned it to a halt. The gorilla peered around, searching for a sign of life.

"I am Chilo," he called. "Come out, I know you are hiding, reveal yourselves or I will give you something to fear."

His words had no effect and Galen wondered what atrocity might have once befallen this village for it to be so afraid of apes.

Chilo sighed impatiently and reached down, un-slinging his rifle from its holster. He raised it above his head so any hidden observer could not fail to see. "There is nothing to fear... yet." he warned his concealed audience. "You have no cause to hide. I seek only information regarding a strange object seen last night in the sky. Come out... now... or there will be trouble."

Galen peered around and now, at last, one villager, braver than all the others, was marching forward to meet the gorilla. Was it Farron?

Galen squinted, his blood freezing as the human strode into full view.

It was Swann.

*****

Chilo grunted and spurred his horse forward to meet the approaching human. Despite his promise not to cause trouble he was already irritated and more than ready to start right away. He hoped this human had the answers he sought or it might go badly... for him.

*****

Swann took the last bite from the apple he had stolen and flung the core away, he looked up as a shadow loomed over him, fearlessly meeting the gaze of a very unhappy looking gorilla. He held it - and then stepped around the horse that blocked his path and continued on his way.

"Halt!" barked the gorilla.

Swann looked over his shoulder, decided to ignore the order and carried on walking.

Chilo's muzzle twitched spasmodically as he rapidly went from irritated to downright angry. He swung his leg over his saddle and slid off the horse, still clutching his rifle. "I said stop!"

Swann froze. It wasn't the order, it was the unmistakable sound of a rifle safety catch being clicked to `off.' He turned slowly and faced the gorilla. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

Chilo's nostrils flared as he sniffed the human. There was something strange about this one. It lacked respect. It lacked... fear. It didn't matter, both could be taught with ease. He held his rifle out before him.

"Why do you not stop when I order you?" He barked.

Swann shrugged. "I didn't realize you were talking to me."

Chilo snorted, becoming agitated at the human's impudence. "I AM talking to you!" he snarled, jabbing the muzzle of the rifle into Swann's shoulder.

A subtle change came over Swann, his emerald green eyes seemed to darken, the pupils widening like spreading pools of ink until even the iris appeared pure black. His almost perpetual half-smile slipped away as his gaze became sharper and focused.

"Alright, that's enough," he warned, voice low and menacing. "It's been a long day, the last thing I need right now is Donkey Kong's kid brother giving me a hard time."

Chilo screwed up his face. By Aldo! Just what was this animal jabbering about? He didn't understand the words but he did not care for the attitude in which they were spoken. He jabbed Swann in the shoulder a second time.

"Be silent!"

"Last warning." Swann said tightly. "Just turn around and go back the way you came... while you still can."

Chilo stiffened, his eyes growing wide with dawning realization. Was the human threatening him? With a growl he lifted the rifle and sighted down the barrel.

Swann moved.

He moved so fast, Chilo didn't even see him.

Something that felt like an iron bar crashed into the side of his head, he felt his rifle snatched out of his hands and suddenly he was staring down the muzzle of his own gun.

Before he could react to this startling new development Swann snapped the butt of the rifle forward, slamming it into Chilo's jaw, the gorilla dropped like a stone and lay in the dust, stunned.

Swann twirled the rifle around in a slick, stylish, gun-fighters movement that only came with many years of practice and pointed the barrel down at the fallen gorilla's head. His finger was already whitening on the trigger when from out of nowhere something slammed into him.

The rifle fired, blowing a fleshy chunk off one of Chilo's ears.

Swann recovered with almost supernatural speed, adjusted his aim and realized he was now pointing the rifle at Galen.

"What do you think your doing? You can't kill a gorilla!" The Chimp was shouting in his face.

Swann weighed the situation, measuring the threat Galen posed, calculating eighty-seven percent likelihood that he could do nothing at all. "Why the hell not?"

"Because... you can't! There'll be reprisals, kill him and by this time tomorrow this place will be swarming with hundreds more, all baying for blood!"

"I'll be gone by then."

At the end of the village Virdon and Burke returned at a sprint, running up to the scene of the confrontation and skidding to a halt.

"What the hell's going on," demanded Virdon, knocking aside the rifle and taking in the scene with horror.

"We heard a shot!" Said Burke, panicky, "was anyone...." He looked down and saw the fallen, bleeding gorilla. "Jesus Christ!

What happened?"

"Your... friend... was about to commit his first murder," hissed Galen, staring down Swann in fearless anger. "I believe - before your timely arrival interrupted him - that he was already contemplating another."

"Alright, everybody just calm down!" shouted Virdon. "Will! Give me the rifle!"

"They started it Colonel," explained Swann. "I was just minding my own business, I didn't want any trouble... They started it."

"Will! The rifle!" barked Virdon stretching out his hand.

Swann took his eyes of Galen and flicked them over Virdon, then Burke. Weighing, measuring, judging.

"The rifle lieutenant! Now!" commanded Virdon.

Swann gave in and tossed the rifle to Virdon who caught it. Burke heaved a sigh of relief as Galen knelt down to tend the wounded Gorilla.

"Is he...? Asked Burke, fearfully.

"He's fine... the bullet nicked his ear, he's coming around. You better get out of here." Galen replied, obviously furious.

"You too Galen, let's go," ordered Virdon.

"No... I'll stay with him, see if I can salvage something. With luck maybe we can avoid any more... attempted slaughter."

"He was gonna shoot me," whined Swann.

Galen stood and turned on Swann. He stared furiously into the newcomer's cold, black eyes but spoke to Virdon. "Get him out of here... now, before he causes any more trouble."

"Hey Galen," said Burke, trying to soothe the situation. "Go easy, he couldn't know..."

"NOW!" Shouted Galen into Burke's face causing the dark haired astronauts mouth to snap shut in surprise.

"C'mon Pete, let's do as he says." Virdon said, taking Burke's arm and pulling him away. "You too, Will, fall in and follow me."

Swann met Galen's angry stare and held it for long moments, his eyes shifting colors, black to emerald green.

The change didn't go un-noticed, Galen shivered, feeling the hairs on the nape of his neck rise in almost supernatural fear.

And then Swann smiled.

The expression was cruel, totally devoid of any humor and Galen was certain, meant for him alone. Mercifully Swann then allowed himself to be pulled away and the Chimpanzee could only watch them leave, shaken by his brief glimpse of the emptiness in Swann's soul.

A moan from Chilo snatched him from his trance like state. He glanced down, remembering what he had to do. "Fetch me some bandages and hot water," he called aloud, expecting and receiving no answer. "Unless you want to see your village burned to the ground."

Somewhere a door creaked open and an old woman, the one who had accused the astronauts of being the bearers of bad luck approached, carrying the requested items. She handed them over and scurried away. Galen dipped the cloth into the water and tended the gorilla.

Chilo's head thrashed from side to side and then he sat up suddenly, groaning from the pain in his jaw where Swann had struck him with the rifle.

"Easy," warned Galen. "You were lucky, we've been tracking that rabid human for days, thank goodness he didn't bite you."

Chilo frowned. "What? Who are you?

"I'm Parrin, I'm a geologist from Central City studying mineral deposits around here, I've been using this village as my base, lately we've been plagued by a wild human... with whom you seem to have had an encounter."

Chilo reached up and gingerly felt his ear. "He shot my ear off!" he wailed.

Galen nodded sympathetically and held out the damp cloth. "Thank goodness the humans of this village were able to fetch me in time, why if I hadn't of been able to chase him away heaven knows what might have happened."

Chilo shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. "I... am grateful to you... I think." He managed.

"Oh don't thank me, thank the people of this village," insisted Galen, laying it on nice and thick, hammering the point home.

Chilo grumbled something under his breath and got to his feet. "My Rifle?"

Galen smiled. "I have it, it's safe, the beast tried to make off with it but the head man of the village, Farron is his name, was able to wrestle it from him."

The gorilla tugged down his tunic and patted the dust off his uniform.

"You should really let one of the women take a look at that." Galen suggested, pointing to Chilo's missing earlobe.

"I must go at once and report this." The gorilla growled, holding the strip of cloth to his head. In truth he didn't want a stinking human anywhere near an open wound.

"Very well then," said Galen. "But you do understand these people were not to blame?"

Chilo looked up and met Galen's demanding gaze, he grunted but said nothing. He retrieved his fallen rifle, checking it over for damage and satisfied, reached for his horse. He swung himself up into the saddle, swaying dangerously. For a moment Galen was sure he would fall but he recovered quickly, shook his head and dug in his spurs, galloping away from the village.

Now, at last the villagers began to appear from their hiding places and once they too were sure the gorilla had indeed left, Virdon, Burke and Swann re-entered the village.

"You are not welcome here," called Farron, quickly stepping forward to block their path.

Alan held out a restraining arm, stopping the other two astronauts in their tracks. "Farron?" Virdon began. "I regret what happened here but it was an accident, a misunderstanding. If there's anything we can do to make things better."

"You can leave." Said the squat, burly headman. "Lanya, fetch their things so they may go."

The little girl scurried away eager to do as she was told.

"They might come back," warned Burke. "You might need us Farron."

"What we need is for you to leave, so go! Now!"

"Well, how about we hang around just in case, Galen can be a pretty good ally, if things get rough."

"The Chimpanzee is welcome to remain," said Farron, although it was clear he didn't relish the idea. "You are not, if you attempt to enter the village again we will use force against you."

"Like you do on your kid." Burke suggested, earning a puzzled look from both Farron and Virdon.

"Lanya is no concern of yours." Farron warned, clenching his fists.

"Okay! Okay!" cried Virdon. "I think maybe we all just better cool our jets. All right Farron, we're going, for now - but we'll be nearby if you need us. Pete, Will, Galen, C'mon we're outta here."

Lanya returned and handed over Virdon and Burke's rucksacks. Burke took his and smiled down tenderly into the small girls bewildered brown eyes. He reached down and ruffled her hair. "You take care Lanya, I won't be too far away, okay." He shot a meaningful look in Farron's direction.

The three astronauts turned around and joined by Galen left the village.

Only Lanya waved goodbye.

EIGHT

The three astronauts and Galen made their way back to the cave where Swann had previously ditched his spacesuit. Virdon and Burke busied themselves, going about the business of making camp, trying to find anything that might keep them occupied and so discourage further conversation with their new companion.

Swann sensing this conflict had drifted away, finding himself a comfortable spot and settled down into a lotus position. He had been this way, unmoving for over an hour.

Burke managed to start a small fire while Virdon prepared the makings of a feeble vegetable and herb soup. Both of them continuously shot discreet glances in Galen's direction, where he sat alone on a conveniently smooth rock, chin resting on his hands, as far away from the newcomer as he could be. When the meal was ready the two astronauts hunkered down over a small fire, drinking the weak, broth.

"So? What do you think?" Burke whispered, keen not to be overheard by Galen or Swann.

Virdon shrugged. "He just messed up Pete, I'm sure he knows that now. We're just gonna have to watch him more carefully and make sure he doesn't get the chance to do it again."

Burke frowned, unconvinced and stared down at the shrivelled vegetables floating in his bowl. "We can't watch him all the time Alan and how the hell did he get the drop on a gorilla anyhow?"

"He's been `augmented' remember."

"And just what does that mean, exactly?" asked Burke. "He's some kinda Superman?"

Virdon shook his head. He just didn't have the answers Pete needed.

"Alan, if he's, y'know... augmented or whatever..." Burke didn't want to continue but it had to be said by one of them, it had to. "Then, if it comes to it, how the hell do we stop him?"

"I'm sure we won't need too." Virdon answered with a conviction he didn't feel.

Galen finally wandered over to join them.

"Galen? You okay?" asked Burke taking a sip from his own soup and pouring out another cup for his simian friend.

Galen smiled and took the steaming cup. No way was he going to drink it but he appreciated the gesture. "Yes, I think so, I'm sorry I lost my temper back there but I was just so angry."

Burke nodded. "Don't worry about it, we're all concerned."

"Good, I think we should be. So what's to be done about Swann? Have you decided anything?"

Virdon cleared his throat and answered. "We'll watch him, all the time, until he understands the way things work around here, it's up to us to make sure he doesn't cause any more trouble."

Galen pulled a face. "I was watching him Alan and I didn't even see him move, he was that fast. If he wants to cause trouble I doubt anybody here can stop him."

"Cut him some slack Galen, he's only been her a couple of days... I'm sure once he..."

"How much `slack' should I `cut' him? Alan," Galen interrupted. "He was about to murder that gorilla... how many must he actually kill before you admit to yourself there's something wrong... how much slack would you be prepared to give if it were humans being threatened?"

"Galen!" gasped Virdon, dismayed at what was being inferred.

"I'm sorry," apologized the ape, "But I'm in no mood to beat around the bush. You heard what he said... Take a rifle and use it to kill, take their rifles and use them to kill. He's not a soldier Alan, not the way I understand you to be... He lack's... honor, he's a killer, why won't accept that?"

Virdon sighed heavily. "Galen... We don't know the first thing about him."

"His eyes change color." The two humans looked at each other unable to hide their scepticism. "I've seen it, when he gets angry they go as black as coal and when they look at you," The Chimp shuddered at the memory. "It's like you're already dead."

Virdon considered his friend's words carefully. "Galen, I don't know what you saw but Swann's just a man and we can't go making judgements about him based on behaviour that's probably just governed by shock. Give him another chance... please."

Galen shrugged. "What about the villagers? How do you rate their chances?"

"What do you mean?" asked Burke alarmed at the tone of Galen's voice.

"When that gorilla makes his report he - and no doubt his commanding officer are going to demand some kind of retribution. You can't rely on him telling my version of the truth about what happened. I assure you, there are going to be reprisals."

"But that's not fair!" gasped Burke, thinking of Lanya. "They didn't do anything!"

"The gorillas won't care!" warned Galen. "They won't be interested in playing fair, they'll want blood for blood, they'll have it in their thick skulls to set an example for every other human for miles around. They'll be back, mark my words and it'll get ugly."

"Then we have to convince those people to move, to get away before anything can happen," suggested Virdon.

"They don't strike me as the listening type," Burke argued.

Galen shrugged. "Maybe I could speak up for them, try to convince the authorities that it's all been one huge misunderstanding."

The three fell into a troubled silence.

Virdon hated the awkward atmosphere between them and eventually could bare it no longer. He stood, "I'm gonna check on Swann, make sure he hasn't wandered off again, you never know he might be out there arm-wrestling a grizzly or something."

"My money's on Swann." Burke offered weakly.

Virdon managed a tired grin and wandered away.

Burke scratched his head. "Say err Galen, there's something I've been meaning to ask you."

"Ask away," invited the Chimp. "I would welcome the distraction."

Burke pursed his lips. "These isolated, out of the way villages, who actually governs them?"

"In what way?"

"I mean, like a local authority, a police force, that kind of thing"

Galen shrugged. "They'd be mostly self governed, any minor disputes would be settled internally, amongst themselves. There would be a prefect somewhere, almost certainly a Chimpanzee - and probably a relation of mine - he would settle any major disputes, murder, cattle theft..."

Burke nodded slowly. `What about... domestic disputes?"

"I'm sorry, quizzed Galen, "I'm not sure I understand."

"Family issues, you know?"

Galen cocked his head and studied Burke intently. "Is this about the girl?" he asked at length.

Burke blew out a long breath. "Am I that transparent?"

Galen smiled, "One can hardly fail to have noticed a... shall we say, personal interest?"

"I think her father mistreats her."

Galen continued to stare, nodding almost imperceptibly then looked away, unable to look into his friend's face, knowing that what he was about to say wasn't going to be what Burke wanted to hear. "Pete... you must understand... First you have apes, then you have horses, beneath them you have cattle, cows, chickens, that kind of thing." Galen closed his eyes, he hated to do this but Burke had to understand. "Beneath the animals you have humans and, in the eyes of an ape there is only one thing worth less than a human..."

Burke's face grew hard. "A human child... Great."

"I'm sorry Pete, there's really nothing you can do, this is a different world from the one you knew."

Burke stared at the fire and realized with some fascination that he couldn't hear it. He looked up at Galen, saw the Chimps mouth working but heard no words.

But somewhere, somebody was knocking on a door!

A visitor

A flicker of hope

"Stay out of our business you nosey bitch... he's my kid and there's nothing you can do `bout it"

"Not that different." Burke growled, remembering.

Galen frowned, alarmed at the burning resentment in his friend's voice. He looked away, feeling uncomfortable. "I suppose I could talk to him?" he suggested, "Farron, I mean." But Galen's words came from somewhere far beyond the place Burke now occupied.

He felt a wave of icy panic crash into him without warning, stripping away his usual confidence, leaving him terribly afraid.

"Petey? Would you like me to talk to him?"

"No Miss! Please no!... It will..."

"... Only make things worse," Burke moaned aloud.

Galen cocked his head uneasily. Something very strange was going on. Were his friend's words even being directed toward him?

*****

Virdon approached Swann, still sitting in the lotus position, legs folded beneath him, and palms outstretched. He looked at peace with the world, nothing like the dangerous, psycho, killing- machine that Galen had speculated he might be.

"Colonel." Swann said without moving, without even opening his eyes.

Virdon froze, surprised. He'd thought that he hadn't made a sound. "Will." He greeted, feeling strangely embarrassed, like the time when he'd been fourteen years old and his Father had caught him trying to peek through a local cheer leaders window with his brand new telescope.

"Have you come to bawl me out sir? Read me the riot act?"

Virdon considered the question, remembering his Father's words on that long ago occasion and smiled. "No Will, but we do need to talk."

"More talk? But I've told you where that leads... Nowhere."

Virdon sat down. "What is it you want Will? What are your plans? Where do you want to go from here?"

"I just want to survive is all."

"Then you had better start being a little more careful. If you insist on taking on the whole world you're not going to survive for long, I guarantee it."

Swann's eyes snapped open and fixed Virdon with a cold stare. "With respect Colonel, you don't know a thing about me Sir."

"Maybe not, but I do know you're headed for trouble, deadly trouble. Let the past go Will, you don't have to hold to it anymore." And you're a fine one to talk, he told himself. Wasn't that the only reason he got up every morning? The hope that each new day might bring with it a way of somehow recapturing his own past?

"I don't have a choice in the matter Sir, it's all I know, I told you, it's what I was designed to do."

"Will, just tell me you're not seriously thinking of provoking some kind of... resistance against the apes If you are a lot of innocent people are going to die, I can't just stand by and let that happen."

"You'd try and stop me, Sir?" Swann asked, now studying Virdon intently.

Virdon laid a reassuring hand on Swann's shoulder, the way his Father had done all those years ago. "I don't believe it will ever come to that, son." He answered carefully.

Swann regarded him with his predatory, shark-like stare. "I'm not your son Colonel, your son's dust, he died a long time ago."

Virdon's face grew taught and he willed himself to hold his emotions in check. "You're a hard man to like Will." He said evenly, withdrawing his hand, repressing the urge to wipe it on his trousers.

"Swann smiled. "I'm not looking for people to like me. All I ask is that they stand by me. If they can't...then they'd be wise to stay the hell out of my way."

Virdon said nothing feeling more troubled than he'd ever known. "Sleep on it Will," he advised "I just hope you can change your mind."

*****

Swann watched Virdon leave. The idea of leading a resistance against the monkeys had never occurred to him but it was a damn good one. Except it couldn't be a pathetic resistance... It would have to be an army, an army capable of sweeping across a planet.

An army such as that would need a strong leader.

It was a shame that the Colonel clearly wasn't up to the task.

Then how about the Major?

He seemed a little more headstrong, more willing to stand and pick a fight but with the Colonel around he'd always be a pussy... No... Make that a puppy held tight on a leash.

Swann closed his eyes and meditated.

So, their `pet' was anticipating the arrival of more armed monkeys.

He should have held on to the rifle.

No matter, he could always help himself to another.

NINE

Early the following morning the four companions arrived at the borders of a village so worthless, that it didn't even have a name.

Virdon, Burke and Swann remained concealed on the outskirts while Galen ventured forward, ready to plead on the villager's behalf should the anticipated arrival of any gorillas prove troublesome. Galen was greeted politely if unenthusiastically, the villagers seemed to realize and appreciate that he was there to help but they were also aware that if he and his friends hadn't been there in the first place, then the problem would never had arisen.

Burke saw Lanya going about her chores and wondered if she sported any new bruises today? He heard Farron call to her and the little girl went running to him. Burke gritted his teeth, unaware that down by his sides, his hands had curled into fists.

The morning was lazy, hot and humid. The villagers went about their business when, at around eleven-o clock, they heard the inevitable cry that they had all been dreading.

"Patrol!"

A party of six soldiers rode into the village, Chilo among them and this time rifles were already drawn. An officer, denoted by white stripes across his tunic led them. His five troopers broke away, each separating; choosing a strategic position, keeping their distance from each other and managing to keep the entire village in sight at all times. The leader rode forward, supremely confident, reigning in his horse and raising a cloud of choking dust that drifted across the village. When it cleared, there was Galen, standing alone.

The leader dismounted, approaching Galen with obvious disdain. "You are Parrin," he stated. Galen trotted forward and held out his paw. The gorilla leader ignored it. "I am Juba, district enforcer for human affairs."

"And may I say how refreshing it is to find a gorilla in such a distinguished position." Galen complemented. "Tell me, what brings you here."

Juba fixed the Chimp with a contemptuous stare. "You know what brings me here, I've come to settle an account."

Galen grew apprehensive, he would have preferred to deal with a fellow Chimpanzee, this thuggish, bull-headed gorilla seemed to have already made up his mind regarding the fate of the village.

"But I thought that matter was settled? These people have done nothing wrong, the cause of the incident was a wandering stranger, a rabid human, he is the one you should punish."

"And punish him we will," promised Juba. "But we have yet to catch him, in the meantime a clear lesson must be taught, one that even your precious humans can understand... and one that I've tried to teach them before."

Galen's eyes narrowed, so there was a history here, whatever had happened, whatever the cause of that habitual resentment toward strangers, Juba had been a part of it.

"You should pack your things now and go," the gorilla advised.

Galen shook his head, "But Juba, Sir, these are hard working humans, it would be such a waste of natural recourses."

Juba snorted with contempt and looked around at the seemingly deserted village. The stench of humans and their fear offended his wide, flaring nostrils - By Aldo! He hated this village. It was just an ugly stain on the map, one that he was looking forward to erasing forever. "There are plenty more to take their place, I assure you," he turned to his men. "Burn it! Leave nothing!"

"Wait! Wait!" Galen pleaded. "Tell me, uhm... did you know the humans of this village produce an excellent beverage made from fermented apple juice?"

"Of course I know," growled Juba. "It's the only reason we suffer them to live."

"Then surely it would be a shame to destroy that too, especially on such a hot day, after such a long ride?"

Juba paused, leaned back in his saddle and licked his lips. He eyes fell to his canteen, which he knew contained nothing but brackish, metallic-tasting, lukewarm water. "Fermented apple juice huh?" he repeated wiping his fingers over a suddenly bone dry mouth.

Galen nodded. "And packed in straw too! Keeps it ice cold."

Juba's men fidgeted with anticipation, collectively willing their leader to make the proper choice and were relieved when he finally gave the nod "Very well then, as you say it would be a shame to waste it... Lead on."

******

Later, six very drunken gorillas somehow managed to climb into their saddles and made their erratic way, away from the village.

******

In twos and threes the villagers reappeared, and slowly resumed their day to day chores.

"Well, don't all cheer at once," grumbled Galen, more than a little put out by the disappointing lack of gratitude for his efforts. He spied his friends signalling from the trees and made his way over.

Virdon clapped him on the back and Burke pumped his hand vigorously.

"Well done Galen, you hairy little genius you!"

"You see Will," said Virdon proudly. "It doesn't always take a bullet to solve your problems."

Swann pulled a face. Big deal, he thought. So you got a bunch of monkeys drunk.

But then again?

Galen had prevented bloodshed... and all without raising so much as a finger. He would have calculated the chances of that happening at around seven percent.

Swann frowned. Could the Colonel's way possibly be better? He didn't like that idea, he didn't like it one bit. It felt uncomfortable, it invited more of the same, some of which had already invaded his mind and now floated around inside his head.

They were so alien, so contradictory to what he had been taught.

He watched Galen slap Burke a respectable `high five'.

Could these three misfits, two prehistoric astronauts and a talking monkey, be somehow turning into my `buddies' he wondered - and despite himself, he began to smile.

*****

Galen and the three men approached the village and almost immediately found themselves surrounded by a hostile circle of resentment.

"Your slaves are not welcome here, Sir," insisted Farron.

Galen nodded. "We just want to tell you that we are moving on, you will not see us again."

Farron nodded. "Then be on you way," he said coldly.

"Is Lanya around?" asked Burke. "I'd like to say goodbye."

Farron's brows knitted together in a deep frown. "She is busy, I said be on your way."

Virdon touched Burke's arm. "C'mon Pete, she'll be fine."

With a final parting glare at Farron, Burke and his companions turned and left the way they had come.

*****

Juba swayed to and fro in his saddle wishing his damn horse and the rest of the world would stop moving around so much. He belched, causing a rush of burning, acid bile to bubble up in his throat. Groaning, he gently touching his fingers to his temple, massaging the furious pounding ache that had taken up permanent residence there.

"Ohhh, Barro, what the hell happened?" he asked one of the other soldiers.

Barro groaned, equally hungover "I think our horses must have been ridden over our heads sir."

Juba grunted. He couldn't remember what it was they had set out to do, let alone if they had actually done it. The effort of trying to recall hurt too much, so he leaned over in his saddle and threw up instead.

"Company... Halt," he commanded, already feeling infinitely better.

The company of gorillas pulled up.

"Chilo, tell me, did we actually kill anything today?"

Chilo shook his head. "I... don't think so sir, that is... I can't remember."

"Does anyone? Did we even torch the village?" Juba twisted in his saddle, eyeing the company one by one, met each time with doubtful, shaking heads.

"The humans tricked us," complained one. "They filled our bellies with their foul, poisoned brew."

Odd, thought Juba, it hadn't tasted that foul while they'd been gulping it down. He considered his options, to go home, hung over and wait for another inevitable outbreak of human rebellion, or to turn around, wipe the village off the map and set an example for years to come.

"Company... about face!" he cried.

TEN

Virdon, Burke, Galen and Swann returned to the small cave in which they'd made their temporary home in order to retrieve their stashed belongings and be on their way.

Swann, still very much impressed by Galen's courage and resourcefulness seemed more at ease with himself and by extension, more amiable, which lent weight to Virdon and Burke's suspicions that he had been suffering all along from crash induced shock. Even Galen seemed to have thawed somewhat in his behaviour toward their new companion and Virdon dared allow himself to believe that things might turn out okay after all.

"Okay people, are we ready to move on? You ready Will? There's a whole world out there, just waiting to be explored. I think it's time we introduced you."

The four companions began to march.

Virdon's renewed high spirits were a welcome relief after the worry of the past few days. He wanted to get away. To put as much distance between them and this village as quickly as possible before the misery of the place could drag him down and suck every last trace of vitality from his body.

It was the dawn of a new era... Now they were four!

Galen paused in his stride, cocked his head and sniffed the wind.

Virdon and Burke, well used to this type of interruption paused along with him, leaving Swann to march on ahead before realizing he was the only one doing so. Galen's keen senses had saved their hide's innumerable times before, far too often to ever be ignored. They stood and waited for him to tell them what had caught his attention.

"Smoke," he said and a split second later the peace of the forest was shattered from the sharp report of a rifle.

Virdon's optimism evaporated as quickly as a single drop of water in a blazing desert.

The four exchanged fearful and knowing looks, each reading the same conclusion on the face of the other. Swann's genuine smile faded, replaced by his frigid, emotionless sneer as he spat into the grass at their feet.

"I warned you Colonel, I warned you all... nothing ever comes of talking."

Virdon glanced at Burke and Galen and as one the three set off at a run, back towards the direction of the village.

Swann stood alone, watching them go. Weighing, judging, formulating scenarios along with all possible outcomes... and then he followed.

*****

Heavy smoke coiled through the trees as they approached, they could feel the heat of the flames and smell the choking stench of charred flesh even this far away. Virdon felt someone, Burke probably, grab his collar and haul him back into the safety of concealment as a mounted gorilla soldier thundered by.

Gunshots cracked intermittently and occasionally the breeze swept aside the smoke, just long enough to allow a cruel, brief glimpse of a fallen body, one of many that now littered the village road. Pigs squealed in terror, still trapped in their pens as fires raged all around.

"Oh my God," moaned Virdon, horrified by what he was being forced to witness. A sense of horrific djj v vu came upon him, dragging back memories he'd tried so hard to forget. Images of Southeast Asia, of villages burning and of people dying.

Burke suddenly crashed to the ground next to him. "Jesus, Alan, it's a bloody slaughterhouse!"

A high pitched scream cut through the chaos and Lanya ran by, direction-less, mindless with fear. Without a moments thought Burke was on his feet and away, leaving Virdon's fingers clutching at empty air. He headed straight for her, like a quarterback at full pelt, scooped her up in his arms and carried on running to be swallowed by the smoke on the other side of the village.

Virdon jumped, startled as more gunshots rang out, Not M16's or the clatter of the Vietnamese favoured AK-47's, not this time - but the results were astonishingly the same. Shouts of pain, barked, orders, cries of anguish and brutal laughter. It was a madhouse, a horribly familiar madhouse.

He looked around and spied Galen, hiding not too far away. He heard the thunder of heavy hoof beats closing in at a gallop and withdrew himself further into the brush. Another soldier charged by, oblivious to his presence. Virdon watched him pass and his breath caught in his throat as Swann appeared from nowhere running alongside the horse.

No one's that fast! thought Virdon, as he watched in awe. Swann leapt up, grabbed the gorilla's bandoleer and pulled him right out of the saddle. The horse veered away - now without a rider as both Swann and the gorilla disappeared into the underbrush.

Virdon was about to break cover when a moment later Swann re-appeared, alone and clutching the soldiers rifle.

Virdon caught Galen's eye seeing he too had witnessed the astonishing attack. They were both helpless to intervene, right or wrong, Virdon no longer knew, but Swann was on his own.

Galen crept over, slinking through the undergrowth. "Now what's he doing?" he demanded.

"What he was bred for," answered Virdon grimly.

"We have to stop him!" Galen hissed.

Virdon looked around at the burning village, smelt the acrid smoke, heard the cries of the terrified humans. His face a mask of pain and anguish, he looked Galen in the eye.

"Why?" He asked.

*******

Burke found his route back to where he had left Virdon and Galen impossible to retrace. Fires raged all around and as if that wasn't enough, the Apes were taking deadly pot-shots at anything that dared show itself. He cupped one hand around Lanya's head and pulled her further into the protection of his own body as he prepared for another sprint, but this time in the opposite direction of where he wanted to be.

He'd head back out into the forest on the opposite side of the village and circle back, if the others weren't there already - he'd meet them back at the cave. One thing was absolutely sure, he couldn't stay here.

"Hang on sweetheart," he advised the little girl, tucked into his side.

He ran, if anyone or anything blocked his way he intended to go right through them. It was a good plan and he almost made it when a gorilla foot soldier loomed out of the smoke, catching him a glancing blow. Burke slipped, lost his grip and Lanya went sailing from his arms. One quick glance to make sure she was okay was all he could spare and even this tiny extravagance nearly cost him his life. The blade of a large hunting knife slammed into the rough, clay wall by his head, slicing through several locks of his dark, unruly hair.

Acting on pure reflex, Burke jerked his head to one side and rolled out of the way just as the gorilla tugged the knife free, ready for a second lunge. Burke sprang to his feet, easing into a crouch, he had to make this quick, he couldn't afford to let the gorilla delay him.

Then suddenly, Swann was between them.

The gorilla blinked startled.

"Here" shouted Swann and tossed a rifle. Burke caught it instinctively, nearly dropping it like a hot coal once he realized what it was.

Swann turned and faced an angry gorilla, now recovered from any surprise and already bearing down upon him. He stepped out of the way easily, slapping the knife from the gorilla's hand as he hurtled by, The soldier roared in frustration, pulled up short and turned to charge again. This time Swann became a blur of movement, spinning, leaping, kicking and punching.

The gorilla went down.

Mesmerised, Burke could only watch and witness as Swann leapt on the fallen ape. He locked his arms around the thick, shaggy head and gave a savage twist. Burke winced at the sound, the neck vertebrae cracking as loud as a pistol shot. The gorilla's eyes rolled up into the back of his head and it fell, lifeless.

Swann stood and grinned, offering Burke the universal `OK' sign with his fingers. He nodded toward Lanya. "Better get your girlfriend out of here," he advised, scooping up yet another rifle... and was gone.

Burke considered his options, quickly deciding Lanya's safety was his first priority. He would continue with his original plan, he gazed at the lifeless gorilla and then at the rifle in his hand, instinct telling him to throw it away but the sobering sight of a dead villager, only a few yards away, changed his mind.

*****

Over the noise and confusion Juba called to Barro. "Assemble the company," he barked. "We're done here." Barro moved to obey. There was the sound of another gunshot, nothing unusual about that - not today. Another dead human, Juba thought with malicious satisfaction.

Barro jerked violently in his saddle and pitched sideways, his upper body hitting the ground while one boot remained tangled in the stirrups.

Juba's jaw dropped in confusion. "What the hell?" he gasped, staring stupidly.

Another shot was fired and he actually heard the whine of the bullet, like an angry insect, then felt it part his hair.

"What the hell?" he said again, confusion dulling his instincts and reactions.

Another shot and this time a bullet thunked into his canteen, punching a hole, the water within spurting forth like blood from a ruptured artery.

"WHAT THE HELL?" He demanded, finally spurring his horse into action and quickly galloping away to the relative safety of the forest.

*****

Swann laughed as he watched Juba flee as if every demon in hell pursued him. If he'd wanted him dead he would be but alive?

Alive he could bring back others.

He looked down at another ape soldier, lying dead at his feet, a blade through its throat impaling the neck to the ground.

Sneering in contempt he spat upon it. Five dead monkeys, he thought, not a bad body count, not bad at all. Swann watched the village burn and glanced over the ungainly forms of several bodies littering the street. He noted with some satisfaction that there were women among them even a child!

Excellent!

That should rile up the men folk nicely. It was far easier and more efficient to build an army forged from volunteers.

He'd just sent the last of the monkeys scurrying away with it's tail between it's legs... did monkeys have tails? Who cared?  Anyway, it meant there were no more to worry about right now.

Unseen by any observer the pupils of his eyes contracted, the iris's altering from black to green.

He retraced his steps, quickly locating each of the dead soldiers. He wasn't planning on burying them, just wanted more rifles and ammo for his collection. If you were intending to build an army you had to be able to furnish them with weapons. He could quickly teach the men of this village guerrilla tactics...

Guerrilla tactics! Swann laughed at the irony of it.

They could begin straight away, small raids, inflicting casualties where they could and increasing their stockpile of weapons. They'd start by ambushing lone patrols, small war parties and when they were ready, they could attack remote settlements, looting, taking on more recruits all the time getting bigger and more formidable with each passing day.

At last Swann was happy, it was a shitty world he'd landed on but he now knew he could force it to make sense and bring about a new order. It just took time. He walked boldly over to where the dead body of Barro still hung from his horse and went through his supplies, helping himself to anything that might prove even remotely useful.

*****

When they were reasonably sure they had a chance at survival, Virdon and Galen came out of hiding, prepared to do whatever they could to alleviate the suffering of the surviving villagers. Wary that they might be received in a less than friendly manner they were relieved to find that no one even questioned their presence at all, taking their help, where needed with mute acceptance. No doubt the recriminations would come later but until such time Virdon had no intention of leaving these people to suffer alone.

Galen discovered the body of one of the dead soldiers, the one with the blade through his throat and sank to his knees, shaking his head in a slow burning blend of anger and despair.

Virdon joined him, hoping there might be something, anything he could do and was met with a gaze both comfortless and accusatory.

"I warned you," snarled Galen, more harshly than he intended, but anger ruled the moment, not logic. "I told you what he was capable of."

Virdon could only stand and listen, unable to argue or plead, confused even by his own feelings. Of course he regretted this loss of Simian life - but was Galen blind to what had gone on around him?

"Galen... There are dead humans here too."

Galen nodded. "And why is that do you suppose? I tell you... because of just one man."

"He'd disagree, he'd argue that the gorillas started this."

Galen looked distraught. "The gorillas acted in a manner that was abhorrent... they always do."

"And you think that makes it right?" argued Virdon in Swann's defence.

"Of course it isn't right!' shouted Galen, attracting the attention of the survivors. "But this isn't about what's right! This isn't about justice! This is about how things are!  Galen's eyes blazed as he poured all his pent up fury into one, desperate, unthinking rush. "All he had to do was walk away, all he had to do was tolerate a lesser evil and prevent this greater one." He stood and jabbed his finger at Virdon's distraught face. "I told you there would be reprisals Alan and what we've witnessed today is nothing. It was a skirmish, a playground scuffle. When word of this spreads they'll be slaughter the likes of which you can't possibly imagine!"

Virdon looked away, anger giving way to shame. Galen was right, justice had no place here... for humans. He bowed his head. Despite the horror of it all, violence was never the way. A part of him stubbornly sided with Swann, the part that wanted to stop running - just for a moment - and kick back, but the human race had travelled that deadly road before. It was why things were the way they were. Could he really put his hand on his heart and say the way of the ape wasn't better?

It was a different world with different rules, Man was the animal here, but did the ape slaughter them by the thousands? Did they drive them to the brink of extinction the way his kind had done with dolphins, with buffalo and God knew how many other species.

They had to learn to live together... Had to!

Or not at all.

"I'll stop him Galen, I swear it."

Galen turned back to the dead gorilla, scanning the ground, searching. "How Alan? How are you going to stop him?"

"I'll talk to him. Somehow... make him realize..."

"Another rifle is missing, I'd say he's beyond talking too."

Virdon felt ill, "Then what can I do?"

"I once likened Swann to a rabid beast, maybe I wasn't too far from the truth. There's only one way to deal with a rabid animal Alan."

Virdon struggled for an answer shaking his head, denying the truth of what Galen was saying. He experienced a sudden bolt from nowhere, a surge of total recall, a brutal memory of a doomed pilot in a burning ship. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "I've already killed one of them Galen... I have to save the other."

Galen's fury was slapped aside and suddenly he had nothing more to say. He quietly absorbed the unexpected nature of his friends dilemma, sympathetic but unable to be supportive. Right now there was only one thing he could do.

He walked away.

Virdon stood alone, in the middle of a smouldering, devastated village. Sick, afraid, appalled - and the closest to home he'd ever felt since landing on this nightmare world.

ELEVEN

Burke made his way back to the cave, his progress slow, still hampered by the girl, Lanya. Outwardly he showed no sign of his frustration and spoke to her gently, offering encouragement and praise - but for all his efforts she was totally non-responsive. She said nothing, reacted to nothing and perhaps most worrisome of all - didn't even cry.

Burke's assumption was that she had been traumatised by recent events and who could blame her? What sights had she seen? Friends and family gunned down? Perhaps even her own father?

Well maybe that wasn't such a bad thing?

He stopped in his tracks - appalled that he could even be capable of such a thought, yet despite himself he couldn't quite manage to feel guilty about it. Thoughts aren't immoral, he convinced himself before moving on - actions are.

He approached the cave, placing a finger on Lanya's lips to indicate they should both remain silent. Predictably the girl showed no response and so he moved forward regardless.

The muzzle of a rifle was laid against the side of his head and he heard the hammer click.

"Freeze."

"Swann?" asked Burke, recognising the voice immediately and feeling the barrel lifted away. Burke stood and turned, facing Swann, spying a small group of refugees from the village standing nearby, watching with interest.

"Major Burke! What are you doing skulking around? I nearly blew your head off."

"I believe you, I couldn't help but notice you have a talent for that kind of thing," he said dryly.

"They had it coming Major, surely you're not gonna argue with that."

"We've all got it coming Will... even you." Burke nodded toward the motley band of villagers, about fifteen in all. "Your fan club?"

Swann glanced over in their direction, "My officers, the first of many, a little training, some weapons, they'll go far."

Straight to hell, thought Burke. "Have you seen Farron?"

"Who?"

"The girls father, have you seen him?"

Swann looked down noticing Lanya for the first time. He snorted laughter. "Jesus Major!" He reached down, curled a hand under each of the girl's arms and lifted her into the air. "You been carrying the rug rat all this time?"

Burke frowned, "What would you have done Will? Given her a rifle? A little military training and sent on her on her way?"

"Lanya!" The shout came from behind them and both Burke and Swann twisted around to see Farron, breaking from the group of villagers and striding towards them. He reached out his hands and Swann happily handed the girl over.

Farron bent down to check her over, his movements rough and brisk. "Why did you run?" He demanded, too curtly for Burke's liking and receiving no answer he decided to shake one out of her.

"Hey!" cried Burke, giving Farron cause to notice him.

"What have you done to her?'

"Nothing, unless you include saving her life, the kid's in shock so go easy."

Farron glared, stood, tucked his daughter in the crook of one arm and carried her away.

"C'mon," interrupted Swann, obviously impatient. "Let's get going."

"Going? Where are we going?"

"They tell me there's a place up in the hills, an abandoned camp. Easy to defend, a good place to initiate Operation Spartacus."

Burke screwed up his face and couldn't help but be amused. "Excuse me?"

"Spartacus... He was a slave, built himself an army of slaves and took on the might of the Roman Empire." Swann explained.

"Yeah, I saw the movie," Burke said dismissively. "And I seem to remember he got himself crucified at the end."

Don't worry Major, that won't happen to me, I've got moves Spartacus never dreamed of."

This guy's a raving psycho! Burke realized. When the hell did this happen? Where had he been? Had he not been paying attention? He nodded, humouring the man. "I see... Well, I guess you've got it all figured out then."

"It's what I was born for Major. I keep telling you."

"Yeah, whatever. Well look, I err, guess I'll be along later okay, I need to hook up with Virdon and Galen first.

Their eyes locked and Burke felt himself grow transparent under Swann's piercing gaze. He was being weighed and measured again, just as uncomfortably intense as ever.

"You mind me giving you some advice Major? Swann asked. "You should ditch the Colonel. He's a has-been, a hopeless dreamer. He's never going to amount to anything on this world."

Burke's look of vague bemusement faded, replaced by something darker and more intense.

"What's he got you doing anyway? Walking from one shit- hole to another. Why? What is it you're supposed to be looking for?"

"A way home." Burke whispered, hating the way it sounded. So ridiculous! Even to his own ears.

"A way home" Swann mimicked. "You know it ain't ever gonna happen Major, ditch him - the monkey too. You and me, we could rule this world, start over, do it right this time."

Burke dropped his eyes, appearing to think it over. He scratched his head, maybe Swann was right.

He looked back up. "Thanks for the advice Will... now do you mind if I give you some?"

"Go ahead," invited Swann.

"Find yourself a decent shrink - because I think you're crazier than a shit-house rat!"

Swann's mock-friendly grin suddenly dropped away. "And don't go underestimating Virdon, he'd stamp out a punk like you - and leave just a nasty brown stain behind."

Swann nodded, regaining his composure quickly and smiled. As insults went that had been a pretty good one. It showed his opinion about Burke had been right all along.

But he couldn't let it go unpunished.

Suddenly Burke was on his back!

He hadn't seen it coming, one second he was standing, feeling pretty damn proud of himself and the next he was staring at the sky with Swann's boot on his throat, holding him down.

"Cute Major, real cute and if I'm as crazy as you say, then maybe you should watch that smart mouth of yours."

Burke tried to answer but with the pressure on his throat all he could manage was an unintelligible squawk. He looked up into Swann's eyes - And what the hell was going on there! He marvelled, seeing the emerald, green flicker and shift. `His eyes change colour,' He remembered Galen saying - and they hadn't listened.

"Don't worry Major, I won't kill you, not this time but from now on... you stay out of my way. You hear? You, the Colonel and especially the monkey."

Swann removed his foot and Burke reached up, gingerly rubbing his throat. With a curt nod Swann headed off, closely followed by his motley band of followers.

Burke sank back on the ground, gazing at the treetops and let out a pent up breath - the guy was totally out of control. Someone had to stop him and they'd have to do it soon.

*****

Virdon and Galen returned a few hours later, black with soot and stinking of wood smoke, looking drawn and exhausted. Both could have used a wash but with the nearest fresh water a mile or so away it would have to wait.

Burke felt as though the atmosphere between them could have been cut with a knife. The only thing they seemed to have in common right now, was their obvious relief at finding each other alive and un-harmed, after the initial greetings the three settled into an awkward silence.

"We have to talk." Galen said finally, unable to bear the tension any longer.

"About Swann? What's to say? He's lost it," added Burke. "He's setting himself for `Operation Spartacus'. He's getting ready to tear this world apart."

Galen was hunched over the makings of a small campfire, blowing gently on some tinder he'd only just managed to ignite, he said nothing but glanced meaningfully at Virdon.

The blond astronaut caught the look, his expression growing even more drawn than it already was. He sighed and sat down, drawing his legs beneath him. "Alright, then let's talk..."

"We have to stop him," stated Burke, without elaboration. "The only real question seems to be how."

"Galen is all for killing him." Virdon muttered, ignoring the look of angry protest from the Chimp. "I say there must be another way."

"I am not `all for killing him'," Galen protested, clearly offended. "I just can't see any `other way'. If there is, then I, am all for it."

Virdon stared at a patch of dirt just a few inches in front of him yet his eyes were focused on something else, something far away.

"I stood in the middle of a burning village today," He told them. "I saw people dead and dying all around. I've seen enough of that kind of thing to last me a thousand lifetimes and I don't want to ever see it again, so the killing stops Galen... The killing stops... Now..."

Burke frowned, usually it was Virdon who played mediator and now it looked as though the responsibility had fallen to him. "Okay, then I guess that leaves the ball in your court Alan."

Virdon thought carefully for a long time, choosing his words carefully. "The humans of this world will never make good soldiers, they'll certainly fall far short of Swann's expectations. They're not naturally aggressive but they are impressionable, easily led..."

Burke listened carefully, this wasn't a plan at all, just Virdon thinking out loud.

"That's why they'll follow him, he's created an image, that of an invincible warrior, one that can't be beaten." Virdon looked at Burke and Galen, "If we show them that he can, then he becomes just another man... nothing special at all, just another foolish human with hopeless dreams of a better world."

"Like us, you mean?"

Virdon managed a tired smile.

"So you're suggesting a knock-out brawl in front of a home crowd?" Burke asked, shaking his head. "Alan I've seen what he can do, I can hold my own against anybody but this guy? He had me flat on my back in a heartbeat. He's not... human. He's..."

"Augmented," interrupted Virdon. "I know."

"You wouldn't stand a chance, there's no way you can beat him."

Virdon nodded, "but I wouldn't have to beat him Pete, just keep up, hold my own long enough to prove that he's not invincible, make him bleed, show them that he can be hurt."

"Who do you think you are! Rocky Balboa? - Alan, let's make this crystal clear, if you go up against him without one of these..." Burke patted the rifle that lay on the grass. "He'll kill you, it's as simple as that."

"I think I can do it... long enough to get the job done anyway."

"Then I think you're out of your mind."

"So what then!" Virdon asked, frustrated by the lack of agreement. "What's your answer Pete, A sniper's bullet from your new toy there? Cold blooded murder all nicely gift wrapped with a bow to make it more palatable?"

Burke fell silent and chewed his lower lip thoughtfully.

"No more killing," insisted Virdon.

"Then let's just walk away," suggested Burke, neutrally. "Let them kill each other, let them tear this world apart."

"My world." Galen reminded him.

"Our world now." Virdon added. "And I think it's about time we set about making it a better one."

Burke nodded, of course he hadn't meant what he'd said. He just didn't want Alan going up, against Swann.

With their list of options exhausted the three fell back into silence. Virdon waited, praying one of them would come up with a better idea, but none was forthcoming.

It was decided then.

"First thing tomorrow, I'll find his camp, I'll go up there and I'll finish this... my way. You still think I'm out of my mind?"

Burke considered the question carefully. "Yes," he answered truthfully. "But... I'll tell you what else," He jerked his thumb at Galen. "I can't speak for Chuckles here, but I'm gonna do exactly what you say. Not because I think you're right, but because you're the man in charge. This whole world's been against us from day one. By rights we should all be dead and if I'd been put in charge of this sorry bunch, I'm sure we would be."

Galen bowed his head in deference to the truth of the younger astronaut's words. But Burke wasn't finished.

"Alan Virdon is my best friend, it's his leadership, his instincts and his judgement, that's kept all three us alive, all this time. If he thinks the only way is to march right into the mouth of Hell... Then Major Peter Burke is ready to fall in, right behind."

Something caught in Virdon's throat, he didn't trust himself to speak. He couldn't even manage to swallow. All he could manage right now, was a simple nod.

"Way, way, way behind," Burke added, grinning.

*****

Juba checked the action of his rifle one last time and slid it back into the holster that hung from his horse's saddle.

He'd panicked. He was a disgrace.

He knew and accepted that now. He'd expected no resistance, why should he? Humans never resisted, they just stood there and waited for you to shoot them.

These humans, or some of them, were different.

His first instinct had been to ride back to his garrison and gather reinforcements. He'd been well on his way to doing so before he reigned his horse in and began to wonder... Did he really want to report that he'd lost five troopers to a village of humans?

Juba turned his horse around.

He would save face somehow. He would hunt down any refugees from the village, every last miserable one of them. He'd kill them all and take their stinking, bloody scalps back as proof.

He grinned to himself, His fangs glinting in the dappled sunlight of the forest. He was much happier with this alternate plan. He jabbed his spurs into the horse's flanks and galloped back the way he'd come.

T

TWELVE

Virdon woke early, it was still dark but enough light was already filtering through to cause immediate disorientation. Sitting up he looked around, uncertain. He reached down and picked up a handful of straw, crushing it in his hand, feeling the texture. He saw rough wooden walls and still sleeping chickens.

He was back in the village barn?

Looking over at Burke, he found him still sleeping peacefully and snoring, Virdon smiled as a warm tide of affection settled over him. Even when asleep Pete had to make a noise. Of Galen there was no sign, so he was probably still living it up in Farron's home.

Except... Didn't Farron's home burn, along with all the others?

Virdon frowned not understanding much of anything at all. He stood up and wandered over to the water trough, maybe the brutal application of some ice-cold water could shock everything back into making sense again.

He paused and stared down into the trough, the water had gone, in its place was thick, black, shiny oil, the same colour as the smoked glass visor of an astronauts helmet.

Two eyes suddenly opened in the middle, their whites in stark contrast against the inky blackness. Virdon tried to back away but his feet seemed to have taken root, his upper body worked fine but he couldn't move his legs. He sniffed, was that smoke he could smell?

Reluctantly he found his gazed pulled down to the two terrible eyes and they stared right back, full of hatred and accusation. A pair of lips appeared in the oil, floating to the top like two dead fish and began to speak. "You left me to die."

"Sharkey?" asked Virdon, somehow knowing. "Is that you?" The smell of smoke grew stronger. He could even hear the crackle and snapping of flames from somewhere behind. "Sharkey, what are you doing in the water trough?"

"I'm trapped." The eyes and mouth were definitely Sharkey's, but that voice?

Jonesy! The voice was Jonesey's.

Virdon looked around at the barn, seeing an orange-red glow in one corner. This place was as dry as a tinderbox... they didn't have much time. "Sharkey... Jonesy, whoever you are... you've got to come out of there, this place is gonna burn real quick."

"Oh don't bother saving me," Sharkey answered with Jonesy's voice. "You just worry about Swann, I'll be fine... I'm augmented."

The flames had now caught hold, creating an impenetrable barrier between one side of the barn and the other. Burke woke up and found himself trapped.

Virdon struggled to free his legs, looking down he was horrified to see Swann's face grafted onto the body of a serpent, coiled around his ankles. He tried to kick him off but Swann held on tight like some obscene boa constrictor.

"Alan! Burke cried from behind the flames.

"Pete! I'm stuck! I can't get to you!" He became aware of the presence of others and looked over his shoulder. Galen was there, with Lanya sitting on his shoulders.

"Would you like a piggy back?" the Chimp asked.

"Galen please, you've got to help us."

"Just kill the snake Alan," advised Galen. "I think it might be rabid."

*****

In the early hours of the morning, Galen sat in the dark of the cave and watched Virdon tossing and turning restlessly. He'd tried to sleep but found it stubbornly eluded him. He was troubled. Deeply concerned with the responsibility he had dumped upon the shoulders of his human friends.

Swann's behaviour wasn't Alan's fault, nor was the destruction of the village, nor the death of any Ape or human.

It was Swann. Only Swann.

Galen wanted something done about it, something immediate, something effective, something... final and that was - if not acceptable - then at least understandable. But what was harder to reconcile and the reason he now sat wide-awake, was his arrogant readiness to leave such actions to others.

Burke had a phrase for it, he always did, Galen didn't want `to get his hands dirty'.

He'd leave that to Virdon.

The whole thing was distasteful, ugly and disturbing. The murder (Galen had tried other words for it, disposal, removal, elimination- but it really boiled down to good old-fashioned murder) was something unbecoming of an ape, yet he'd had no qualms in suggesting that a human be capable of carrying out such a deed.

Some friend, he thought, closing his eyes and bowing his head in shame as, in his sleep Virdon whimpered his name once more.

*****

The human Stafford limped painfully along the forest trail, not even truly knowing where he was headed. The Apes had destroyed his village, killed his beloved chickens, everything he had ever owned was gone. All he now wanted in this miserable life was to get away. To be... somewhere else.

He got his wish.

The crack of a rifle tore apart the tranquillity of the forest and Stafford pitched forward onto his face, twitched spasmodically, then lay dead.

Juba stepped out from behind the trunk of a tree, smoke curling from the barrel of his rifle.

"That's one." He growled, drawing his razor-sharp, hunting knife from its sheath.

*****

Virdon woke early, quickly checked that this time it was for real and then wandered over to a place where he could watch the sun rise in private. His nightmare was already a vague and distant memory slipping away like smoke in a hurricane.

The sun was rising, a huge, red orb, it's colour the colour of blood.

This future Earth might well be upside down and inside out but still, each dawn managed to bring with it the prospect of a new beginning.

The first gentle waves of early morning sunshine reached his face, bathing his rugged features in a warm golden glow and Virdon sighed from the simple pleasure of it. Just because miracles happen every day never makes them any less of a miracle.

Since Pete and he had crashed onto this nightmare world his first priority had always been to find his way back to his Family. It drove him, gave him hope, gave him the edge he needed to stay alive and was a factor in almost every decision he'd made since. Some... Pete for instance, might even say it consumed him but lately Virdon had realized something had changed.

He'd moved on.

He wasn't sure when or why, he couldn't pin it down to a specific event but somewhere along the line - the line that led from there to here - it had happened.

The disc just didn't seem as important as it once did.

He fished into his pocket and brought it out into the light, studying it as if seeing it for the first time.

Why do I bother?

First of all he had to find a working computer... How unlikely was that?

He had to find a working computer that would be able to read a disc from the 20th century. Surely even more unlikely! Only a dedicated NASA computer could have read the disc, even in his time!

Then of course they had to build a working spaceship - complete with a fully functional Hasslien Drive - using nothing but stone-age tools...

Pete was right, he was out of his mind.

Once, the disc had meant so much, now... he hadn't even thought about it in over a week. He still missed his Family but they were with him, always in his heart and sometimes, in those fleeting moments between being asleep and being awake, in his arms too. They'd never be dust - not in the way Swann had condemned them - they were always alive and out there amid the stars, out of reach but potentially reachable...

Maybe.

He wasn't quite so sure anymore, these days his mind was often elsewhere, musing over different questions and different ideas.

Could two men alter the course of an entire planet?

Swann certainly thought so, for him one man could do the job just as well. But Swann had the advantage, because to destroy was so much easier than to create.

Virdon closed his fingers around the disc. Was it the one thing that held the key to the past - or was it a ball and chain, preventing him from reaching the future?

Maybe it was time to turn his back on what he'd lost... at least for awhile. Maybe the way home couldn't be found... Not until he'd done what fate had brought them here to do?

He drew back his arm. He could easily pitch the disc a fair distance into the forest, far enough so that he'd never find it again - and if he did it would certainly have suffered irreparable damage.

Let it go Alan.

"Alan!"

Burke's shout roused him from his musings. Blinking as though waking from a trance he relaxed his arm and quickly tucked the disc back into his pocket. "Over here." He called. Burke came up at a run, his face etched with concern. "What now?" Virdon demanded.

"Galen... he's gone... the rifle too."

THIRTEEN

Enjoying the welcome shade of a large tree, William Swann sat meditating on a patch of soft, green grass. A butterfly fluttered around his head, landing inquisitively on one shoulder adding to the appearance of a man at peace but Swann's calm and serene appearance was in direct contrast to the turmoil that raged within.

Visions of guns, blood and burning played out on the theatre screen of his mind. They didn't disturb him at all, far from it, they were like old friends and always most welcome.

The attack on the village had been a blessing in disguise. It had made things so perfectly clear; it had swept aside all the perverse, sick and twisted morality that had been seeded into his mind by the two walking fossils that had found him. It was shame they'd never join him, they were backward in so many ways but infinitely preferable to the brainless idiots who followed him now.

He shrugged mentally, perhaps less brains was better. Idiots followed orders without question, they would be happy to point their rifles and shoot at whatever he told them too.

Leadership, that was the key. Charisma, vision and courage, that's what the human's of this world needed.

It was what he had been born for, he realized that now. All the painful childhood surgery, the injections, the implants, the bone grafts, the endless, ruthless training... It had all been for one thing.

It was up to him to lead them through a sea of simian blood and out into a better world. Who could stop him? He was the stuff of legend, he was mythology in the making.

He heard a stealthy footfall behind him, someone creeping up! A quick mental calculation and he chuckled. "I'm glad you didn't disappoint me Colonel. I wasn't sure if you had the balls."

More footsteps - but no answer, Swann frowned. "Colonel?" He opened his eyes and turned slowly around to find himself staring down the muzzle of a rifle. Calmly he looked beyond the gun and up into deep, brown eyes.

"Galen?"

"You gave Burke a message," said the Chimp evenly. "Now I have one for you."

Swann heard the stress in the Apes voice, despite his desperation to appear calm and in control the Chimp was scared. "I'm listening," Swann prompted.

"Stand up." The chimp ordered, taking a step back and jerking the barrel of the rifle up in the air.

Swann glanced around, so much for posting sentries, he thought. The Chimp had probably just ordered them to stand aside. He sighed and got to his feet. "You gonna shoot me Galen? You gonna pull the trigger? Have you got what it takes? Have you got that old killer instinct?" Swann shook his head. "I don't think so, you don't have the nerve for something like that."

Galen sneered. "Oh that's so typical of you Swann, I wonder... could someone like you ever understand it's not that I can't pull this trigger? Pulling a trigger is so easy, the work of a thoughtless instant - an animal could do it."

Swann laughed, "That's a glorious excuse for a sorry lack of courage."

"Really? Then how about a demonstration of courage Mr. Swann?" Galen tossed the rifle to one side and Swann watched it sail through the air, landing out of sight in a tangle of bushes. He noted its position then turned back to Galen clearly puzzled.

"That's the difference between you and me Mr Swann," Galen explained "I can choose not to pull a trigger... and do you know why? It's not because I'm less than you, it's because I'm so much more."

Swann nodded patronisingly. "Impressive, but I don't get it, if you're not here to kill me then why? You know the only way I'm ever gonna stop is if I'm dead."

"Yes... That I know," agreed Galen sadly - and swung his fist towards Swann's head.

*****

Juba pulled the trigger and the rifle bucked reassuringly in his hand, the report sending a flock of birds into terrified flight, but he wasn't watching the birds, he was watching the human two hundred feet away running along a forest path.

The man's name was Drew and until this morning he had been as happy as a human could ever expect to be. His had been the responsibility of choosing which apples to press and ferment and which to eat. It had been a simple and monotonous job but he had enjoyed it nonetheless.

And then, as always the apes had come.

Something punched into his back. The bullet had ripped through his body, turned inside and exited in a spray of blood before his mind had even registered the impact. The wound itself wasn't fatal, the slug had missed any vital organs but the devastating shock waves that now coursed through his body were enough to stop his heart.

Drew's body, not yet realising it had just been killed, ran on a few more steps and then stopped, slowing to a walk.

Juba frowned, it looked like his aim was off. He raised the rifle again, centering the front sight on the human's back. As he squinted to fire the human suddenly sank to his knees. Juba grunted and lowered his rifle as the far off man fell backwards and lay looking up into the sky.

Evidently his aim was just fine. "That's two," he muttered.

*****

Galen's fist crashed into Swann's ear sending him staggering back. "Jesus Christ!" Swann gasped, dazed by the totally unexpected move. He quickly grew furious, there was no way that should of happened! He was getting soft, he should have anticipated any number of potential attacks and compensated for them immediately. Galen swung again but this time Swann twisted his body to one side and the blow sailed through empty air.

Swann rubbed his throbbing ear. "Christ Galen!

And again the Chimpanzee was coming right at him!

He dipped to one side, stuck out his foot and watched Galen trip and go crashing to the earth. "Stay down Galen, I really don't wanna do this right now."

But incredibly the monkey was getting to his feet and charging once again. Swann shook his head in bewilderment. Galen had about as much finesse and style as a drunken duck, what the hell was he trying to do?

"Oh man, have you got it coming," he warned the ape. Swann's eyes grew black as his instincts began to take control. He dropped to one knee and drove his elbow into Galen's stomach. As the Ape doubled over, the wind bursting out of him in a loud whoosh of air, Swann swung his clenched fist, driving it into Galen's jaw. Had Swann been a normal man the blow might not have had any visible effect - but he was far from normal, he was the end product of extensive surgical, genetic and psychological tampering.

Galen's head snapped backward and he staggered a few steps, wobbled, unsteady on his feet but remained standing. He shook himself trying to clear the stars that blurred his vision. He couldn't fall, now! He had to finish this, Virdon and Burke didn't stand a chance against this terrible creature that masqueraded as a man. He knew Swann was as strong as an ox but had hoped not as strong as an ape. The gorillas in the village had been surprised, caught off guard. Galen was forewarned, he already knew what Swann was capable of and ready for it.

He drew back his lips revealing his fangs and charged.

*****

Virdon and Burke found the camp and marched right in. Immediately Farron came running towards them a rifle held awkwardly in one hand. "Stop!" He yelled bringing the rifle up and pointing it half-heartedly in their direction.

"Take him out Pete," snapped Alan.

Burke nodded once as Virdon took off to find Swann and let Farron get just close enough. Whipping out his palm, he pushed the rifle muzzle in the air and using the villager's own momentum, placed the flat of his other hand in the middle of Farron's back. One firm push sent the burly man sprawling into the dirt.

Burke examined the rifle, checking the load and the action, clicking off the safety. Galen might be dead already and Virdon's plan was surely doomed to failure. There was only one way to stop Swann and it was right here in his hands.

Farron staggered to his feet and glared at Burke, wary of the rifle. "You fear to face him without a weapon." He spat in disgust. Burke rolled his eyes. He didn't have time for this; he turned and began to run after Virdon. "You think you're better than us," Shouted Farron after him. "But without a rifle you're nothing."

Burke froze in his steps.

He'd been so proud.

A sheet of paper. Crumpled in anger, thrown at the wall.

"You think being accepted in the army makes you better than me? You think a piece of paper makes you special? You're nothing, you came from nothing you'll always be nothing."

He turned around momentarily confused. "Air force, not the army." He told a confused Farron.

"You're just a punk and that's all you'll ever be."

Burke shook himself back into the present, Virdon! He had to get to Virdon! He turned back to where he'd seen him last.

"Run then." Sneered Farron

"Go on then! Get the hell out and don't ever come back! You're not my son you hear me, you're not my son, you ungrateful little turd!"

Rough hands slamming him against the door.

Thrown onto the street, knees and elbows grazing the road.

A suitcase flying through a doorway, bursting open as it hits the street, pathetic contents displayed in the middle of the road for all to see.

Burke closed his eyes, as confusing images began to flash past in his mind.

A young boy's face in a mirror, his fingers carefully nursing a cut lip.

A bull of a man, stinking of booze and sweat, shaking him roughly.

A large hand swiping across the smooth flesh of a child.

He squeezed his eyes tighter, his breath hitching. The images kept coming. Faster and clearer now, each more potent than the last.

His favourite toy lying broken, shattered in a fit of rage Hiding in a corner, arms raised protectively over his head Tearing frantically at a locked door because he needed so desperately to pee terrified, remembering what had happened the last time he'd soiled himself.

Farron cocked his head, confused. What was wrong with the stranger? He looked as though he were struggling with some invisible attacker. Taking advantage of Burke's distress he ran forward and backhanded him across the cheek.

"Take that you little bastard!"

Burke head snapped back and his eyes flew open wide with fear.

"What's that punk? You're gonna what?"

And then he remembered.

He'd done it. He'd really done it.

His own Father!

"I said touch me again and I'll fucking..."

"Kill you!" yelled Burke, bringing back his fist and driving it, piston-like into Farron's face. The burly villager grunted feeling his nose crunch and blood squirt from the blow. He raised his hands protectively but it was already far too late.

The gates of hell were open and Burke's demons were set free.

FOURTEEN

He simply brushed Farron's weak defences aside. He threw another punch and the man's lip burst open, spraying blood into the air. Another, this time, closing one eye. Another punch and another then another then another.

Farron screamed and called for help.

A Policeman.

Hands cuffed behind his back.

"Well aren't you the big hero, doing that to an old man."

"Not a man, a monster!" cried Burke, and brought his knee up into Farron's belly. The villager doubled up and collapsed on the ground, winded and gasping for breath. Burke drew back his leg and kicked him savagely in the kidneys.

"Fatherrrrr!"

The scream smashed through Burke's rage like a brick through a plate glass window. He hesitated mid-kick and whirled around as Lanya came rushing forward, the sight of the assault wrenching her from the cataleptic state. She threw herself over the Farron's fallen twitching body.

"Get away from him!" She yelled up at Burke, her voice shrill with hysteria. "Leave him alone, leave him alone, leave him alone."

Burke blinked confused. "Lanya?"

"Get away from us!" The girl screamed, now quite hysterical.

"Lanya? I... I..." He reached out his hand to touch the girl, to both offer and seek comfort. Like a wild animal she snapped her head forward and sank her teeth into the heel of his palm. He yelled, jerking his hand away and staggered back drunkenly. His eyes fell on her beaten father who even now was struggling to push her behind him, behind the relative safety of his own body. Away from the threat of the madman.

Who could have done that to him?

He looked at the girl... Didn't she know what Farron was?

Their eyes met - and there it was. That look. Total abject fear. The way he'd looked for too many years. Only it wasn't him gazing at the face of his father.

It was Lanya looking at him!

"You're a monster!" screamed the girl, breaking free of Farron's weak grasp, darting forward and kicking Burke as hard as She could.

"How could you Petey, your own father? What kind of a monster does that to an old man?

A monster...Him? No, no that was all wrong. It was his Father. No... Farron... Farron was the monster. Wasn't he?

"What have you done Petey?"

He backed away, shaking his head and then a pistol shot startled him.

A pistol?

Another shot and then three more

Alan!

He scooped up the rifle, turned and ran.

*****

Swann leaned over Galen, holding the battered, semi-conscious, Chimpanzee by the front of his bloody green, tunic. He drew back his fist and hit him again, this time feeling a tooth crack. "God damn monkey." He snarled, drawing back his fist again. He hesitated, he was wasting time... this world was getting to him, he was enjoying himself ... and that wasn't efficient at all.

A pistol shot startled him. The fossils must be closing in.

Another shot and then three more.

Time to end it.

He extended two fingers and focused on the soft center of Galen's throat. He didn't know if apes had the same weak spots as humans, those same places where you could strike hard for a certain, instant kill...But he was about to find out.

Swann took a breath and prepared to strike.

*****

Juba, the gorilla dropped from the lower branches of a huge, ancient tree and knocked the two humans to the ground. He pulled out his pistol and executed one of them on the spot. "That's three." He muttered and turned to face the second who had since gotten to his feet and was now running full pelt through the forest.

By the lawgiver he was carrying a rifle!

Juba's jaw dropped in shock.

The human scum had stolen a rifle from one of his soldiers! Feeling a rage he'd never known before take complete control Juba aimed the pistol and fired, the bullet caught the running man in the shoulder. He staggered, slipped on a fallen branch and continued on. Juba fired again and missed.

Damn pistols.

He pulled his knife from its scabbard and sighted along its blade, drew back his arm and sent it spinning through the air. The human jerked and tried to reach the place where the knife had embedded itself in his back. He turned around swaying and faced the merciless gorilla.

Juba shot him twice.

"That's four," he snarled.

*****

Swann drove his extended fingers forward, toward Galen's throat when something barrelled into him knocking him to one side. Startled he nevertheless allowed himself to be swept along and then rolled back onto his feet to face this new, unexpected opponent.

"Well, well, I was wondering if you'd ever get here..."

Virdon hunched down into a protective crouch, his hands held close to his chest, fingers splayed like the claws of a cat. The two men circled each other warily, Virdon tense, Swann loose and easy. Virdon flashed a glance at Galen but he wasn't moving. Every instinct screamed at him to reach out but he knew Swann would never let him even get close.

"I'm surprised Colonel, and that's not an easy thing for me to admit. I'm supposed to be able to analyse any given military situation and predict an outcome with accuracy."

Still the two men circled. It seemed Swann wanted to talk, or was that just to lull Virdon into a false sense of security? "So, where's the Major? - I'll tell you, you've probably got him stashed away somewhere pointing a rifle at my head."

"Forget Burke," Virdon said, "Forget Galen, forget them." He jerked his head in the direction of one or two villagers that were gathering to watch. "It's just you and me Swann... You and me."

Swann moved, Virdon sensed rather than saw it. He jerked his head to one side feeling the back draft of Swann's punch ruffle his hair.

Christ he was fast!

Virdon retaliated with a snap kick but Swann danced out of the way easily.

"You can't beat me Colonel... You do know that don't...!"

Virdon swung around in a complete circle sweeping his leg around hoping to bring Swann down. The other astronaut leapt in to the air and landed awkwardly. Another surprise, thought Virdon, perhaps I do have a chance.

Then something hit him in the stomach and he doubled up gasping from both the pain and the surprise of the blow. Another strike to the back of his neck and Virdon hit the dirt. Swann danced lithely away.

Virdon shook himself, lifted his legs into the air and drew them back sharply, flipping himself smoothly back onto his feet and back into a steady, fighting stance. His opponent hesitated briefly and the momentary distraction was more than enough. Virdon leapt forward jamming his foot into the other mans chest, he allowed himself to topple backward, catching his adversary's wrists and bringing him down with him as he did so. Making full use of the momentum he lifted the younger man completely over his own body and sent him sailing through the air.

Swann grunted with irritation as he crashed into the dirt, rough stones scraping the skin away from his knees and elbows. "What the fuck kind of move was that?" he complained, flat on his back.

"We call it Burke-Fu," snarled Virdon. "It's a little before your time, but you never know when it might come in handy."

Suddenly, unbelievably Swann was on him, all feet, fists and elbows. Virdon reeled from the attack, flailing his arms desperately, trying to block blows that had already found their mark. Swann stepped behind and drove the heel of his foot into the back of Virdon's knee. A sharp lancing pain exploded in his leg and he fell.

"That's more like it Colonel, on your knees, you're beginning to get the idea and I like that, I like it a lot." Virdon tried to stand but his leg wouldn't take his weight. Swann darted forward, smashing his knee into the older man's jaw. Virdon's field of vision detonated in an explosion of bright colors and he toppled backwards, momentarily stunned beyond all sense.

GET UP! Screamed a voice in his head.

"You can't beat me Colonel, I've been..."

"Diminished," whispered the downed astronaut.

"What?"

Virdon struggled to remain conscious. "You haven't been augmented Will, you're not more than human... you're less. They didn't take away your weaknesses, they took away your soul. You're nothing. You can't feel, you can't love, you've no passion, you can't even hate... all you can do is crush whatever crosses your path - you don't even know the reason why."

Swann's eyes flickered from black to green and back again. "You don't know me," he sneered.

"I don't want to, you're everything the apes fear in us, everything we hate in ourselves, everything vile about what are wrapped up in one ugly little parcel. If you're what we became, then thank the Lord we wiped ourselves out."

Swann considered Virdon's words and for the barest, fleeting moment looked ashamed. Then his eyes lost their colour again, replaced by that lifeless, blank stare.

"The part of me you're trying to appeal to was cut out before I was born. I can't help what I am Colonel, I had no say in what I was bred for. I can't help it, that's what I was designed to be - so excuse me if I don't feel too bad about it."

Galen groaned and rolled over onto his side, his eyelids fluttering weakly. Swann turned his head, the Chimp's movements reminding him of unfinished business.

"Tell you what Colonel, how about I demonstrate, just for your viewing pleasure, what I am good at, first the monkey, then you and then I'll go find the Major and do him too." Swann turned his back on the beaten Virdon and ambled over to Galen, he squatted down and tilted the ape's head back, exposing the throat. His fingers bunched forming a fist and he drew back his hand.

FIFTEEN

Burke ran swiftly through the encampment and any villagers he encountered along the way simply stepped aside, offering no resistance. From a distance he espied Virdon and Swann duelling frantically, off to one side was a discarded heap of clothes.

Dear God, was that Galen!

The thought had barely registered when he saw Swann attack, Virdon fell and didn't look as though he'd be getting up any time real soon.

So this was it then... it was all down to him.

Mercifully Swann stepped away from Virdon, sparing him further punishment but then Burke realised he was headed for Galen. He knelt down and steadied the rifle. He was a long way off, further than he would have liked, he didn't know how accurate the weapon might be but there was no time to get any closer. He centred the front sight on Swann's back and took a deep breath.

*****

"How should I do it Colonel," Swann asked, his back turned contemptuously to Virdon. "You be the one to choose. Should I drive shards of bone up into his brain? Crush his throat? How about I punch my fingers through his eyes. That's always good for a giggle."

A shadow fell over him and he turned quickly, he was still fast, un-naturally fast... but this time, not quite fast enough.

Virdon was miraculously back on his feet and his fist drove into Swann's nose, the crunch of breaking bone evident across the small clearing. Swann flew backward clutching his mashed face, blood dripping through his fingers. "My nose! You broke my nose!" He wailed.

The villagers murmured amongst themselves, obviously disturbed to see their new leader hurt and bleeding.

Job done, thought Virdon, now all he had to do was stay alive.

"Never take your mind off a fight until you're sure it's over." Virdon kicked out his foot, swinging it around and caught Swann on the side of his head. The younger man grunted with pain and sprawled sideways, his fingers gouging small trenches in the earth as Virdon watched him struggle to rise.

HIT HIM! Screamed that persistent voice, back in control of his mind again.

He did so.

HE'S GETTING UP! HIT HIM AGAIN!

He did so again and again and again, never giving Swann a chance to recover until at last the man lay beaten and gasping for air.

KILL HIM! NOW!

He stood above him, foot raised, nearly blacking out as bright fresh pain whiplashed through his supporting leg. His foot wavered over Swann's forehead.

DO IT NOW! BEFORE HE RECOVERS!

All he had to do was stamp down hard, crush Swann's skull and the threat was eliminated forever.

KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM! The voice screamed over and over.

Virdon drove down with all is might, the heel of his foot impacting in the dirt an inch from Swann's skull.

"No... more... KILLING!" He screamed at the sky.

The villagers drew back, afraid of this madman in their midst and Virdon watched them, seeing the realisation in their faces. He done it, he'd done what he came to do and most important of all... he'd done it his way.

He sank to his knees, exhausted and breathing hard and realized he'd been mistaken... That voice screaming in his mind wasn't his at all. Once maybe, but that part of him had died long ago, somewhere far away in a burning village. It was the voice of a Colonel, not that of Alan Virdon's.

He forced himself to crawl forward, eager to help Galen and leaving Swann lying beaten and still in the dust.

*****

Burke breathed a sigh of relief, pulled his finger from the trigger and lowered the rifle. He watched Virdon turn away and crawl over to tend their injured friend. There was a moment there... He'd nearly fired, just catching Virdon regaining his feet at the corner of his eye. Holding his breath, keeping Swann in his sights at all times; he'd watched his best friend somehow turn the fight around.

Sighing with relief he lowered the rifle

And froze.

Swann was getting up!

*****

Juba rode into the encampment and jerked his horse to a full stop. He remembered this place, it had been abandoned for years. Like everything else that belonged to the apes it was now infested with the human parasites. He turned his shaggy head in a full circle, seeking signs that would reveal traces of prey.

*****

There was a sound behind him. The barest scraping of leather on soil. His heart leapt to his throat, his eyes flared wide with momentary panic and then he relaxed, surrendering to the inevitable.

He'd made a fatal mistake.

The fat lady hadn't sung.

He turned his head wearily to meet the murderous gaze of a bloodied, furious Swann.

"My turn." The dreadful apparition promised.

*****

Burke raised the rifle again, centering the front sight on the back of Swann's head. This time he really had no choice.

*****

The whip crack of a rifle shot shattered the relative silence.

Swann drew back his fist and then jerked violently, his body tensed as he looked both surprised and disappointed. His eyes locked with Virdon's, shifting from black to emerald green. "What?" he said. His expression one of bewilderment and betrayal. He took one step forward, swayed and fell forward, hitting the ground with a heavy, solid thud.

*****

"That's five," snarled Juba, holstering the smoking rifle and riding toward the centre encampment.

SIXTEEN

Numb with surprise, Virdon stared at the corpse laying in the dirt before him. Delicate threads of dark blood were already seeping out into the dust, forming small pools as he watched. Frenzied insects were buzzing around, landing, tasting and then flying off again to spread the word about an unexpected banquet that had once been William Swann.

Virdon crawled over and touched his fingers to Swann's throat.

"Is he?" croaked Galen with effort.

Virdon nodded. He twisted around and resumed administering aid to the brave and foolish Chimpanzee. "How many fingers Galen?" He asked, concerned about concussion.

"Fifty? One Hundred" the Chimp grinned wearily as his human friend checked for broken bones. Virdon tried to stand and grunted as fresh, bright pain lanced through his leg. He sank back down shaking his head and all he could do was chuckle.

"What a fine pair we make." He looked at Galen. "This is all my fault. I'm supposed to be a Colonel. I forgot the rules of combat, you try to keep one person alive, you get everybody killed."

Galen nodded, and laid his hairy hand over Virdon's smooth. "My plan, bad as it was, was to spare you such memories - It is I who should apologize, in my arrogance I never dreamed a mere... human... could be so strong. I thought... I thought I could..."

"Kill him?"

Galen bowed his head, humiliated.

"You lack a killer instinct Galen..." Virdon told him. "If only more could be like you."

The sound of approaching hoof-beats disturbed their conversation and the two friends looked up to see Juba closing in fast. Virdon sighed, it wasn't over yet. Supporting each other he and Galen managed to stand to meet the approaching gorilla.

Juba pulled on the reigns and his horse reared up, skidding to a halt. He took in his surroundings quickly: Some villagers running, the human he'd just shot lying dead in the dust but what was this? The Chimpanzee from the village and a human looking as though they had been through a war, together!  Supporting each other!

"What is this?" He demanded.

"You saved our lives," answered Galen, feigning gratitude. He nodded toward the body of Swann. "That was the rabid human of which I spoke, the one who killed your soldiers."

"We knew the only way to save what remains of our people from your... righteous anger." added Virdon, "Was to capture the madman ourselves and deliver him to you."

Juba snorted. "Well... I'd hazard a guess and say you failed."

"We did, and thank the Lawgiver you were here to protect us," said Galen.

Juba cocked his head, unconvinced. There was a lot more here than met the eye. "I do not think I believe you."

"Then you better believe this," called Burke stepping out from behind cover and levelling the rifle at the mounted gorilla. "Off the horse buddy and keep your hands where I can see `em." Juba studied Burke calmly, evidently this human actually knew how to hold a rifle it therefore followed he knew how to use it. He swung a leg over his saddle and slid to the ground, patting his horse on the rump, sending it away from danger.

Upon seeing the balance of power had shifted yet again some of the villagers came out of hiding and watched timidly.

Galen had no love for Juba but was now concerned for the gorilla's safety. "It doesn't matter if you don't believe us." He told him. "What matters is that your Commanding Officer will...Isn't our version of the truth more... favourable than yours? We'll tell them Juba. Well tell them how you led your entire command into a human village and they were slaughtered... by just one man! All that is except for you who managed to run away?"

Juba's brows knitted together. He had to admit that wouldn't look too good on his report. His own version included such details as a whole village full of the wild humans and a brave last stand where he, the only one brave enough to fight, had pleaded with his outnumbered and cowardly troops not to dessert him.

"Think about it Juba," Virdon urged, not giving the gorilla time to think. "You could walk away from this not just alive - but a hero!"

"No!" cried Farron, limping forward. "The gorilla is a killer, he and his kind have been plaguing our village, killing since before I was born. Use the rifle and rid us of this evil."

Virdon's heart sank. And so it went on - killing, killing, killing...did it never end? Would they never learn?

"Kill the ape!" another villager demanded.

Virdon had little choice, there was only one possible thing he could do in a situation like this. He caught Burke's attention and shrugged wearily, nodding toward the rifle. "Pete you know what you have to do."

Burke looked him in the eye, seeking some kind of confirmation.

"Alan?" begged Galen, alarmed at this new twist of events.

"That's an order Major."

Burke sighed, took his eye off the sight and let his finger off the trigger. He lifted the rifle and tossed it to the gorilla, who caught it as surprised as anyone else.

"No more killing!' Virdon pleaded. He looked at Galen and smiled fondly, remembering the Chimp's own advice. "Please, you must try and tolerate this lesser evil to prevent a greater one otherwise where does it end?"

"It doesn't..." answered Galen, addressing the crowd but returning Virdon's look. "It all just becomes a simple mathematical equation... at least, that's what he believed," He jerked his head at the body of Swann.

All eyes turned to Juba.

"It's your move," invited Virdon.

Juba studied the rifle in his hands, the Chimpanzee and the rag tag band of assorted humans. He could kill them. He could kill them all and still ride back a hero. He looked at Burke and wondered what had possessed the human to give up his weapon.

All this talk of peace and living with one another was nonsense, idiots babbling amongst themselves about things they could never hope to understand.

No, there was another reason, there had to be. It was some kind of test, an attempt to goad him into an act of violence so they could murder him with some justification. He glanced around, taking in his surroundings. So many places to hide, so many opportunities for a sniper to strike without warning.

Yes! That was it. They must think him a fool.

"Very well... I am prepared to end this." Juba offered. "Provided you surrender your arms and give me your assurance there will be no more... trouble."

Farron began to protest but Galen cut him off. "You have my word," he pledged.

Juba nodded and waited as the villagers that held Swann's stolen weapons handed them over, relieved to be rid of them.

Burke moved over to check Virdon and Galen's injuries keeping one eye on Juba as the gorilla lashed the weapons to his horse's saddle and mounted up. He geed his horse closer to the three fugitives.

"And I must have your word you will not speak against me."

Galen nodded, eager to just be rid of the gorilla.

Satisfied, at least for now, Juba nodded, dug in his spurs and galloped away.

"He'll be back," warned Galen. "He'll wait for us to move on and return to slaughter the remaining villagers. Not today, not tomorrow but he will come back, his kind always do."

"We will be gone by the time he does." promised Farron and turned away to converse with the others.

SEVENTEEN

The next day the three friends felt ready to move on. Galen wore several bandages and kept his arm tucked neatly against his side, bound in a sling. His face was puffy and bruised but he looked positively glowing when stood next to Virdon.

The blond astronaut walked with the aid of a makeshift crutch, his lower right leg wrapped in bandages and a wooden splint. An ugly black and purple bruise surrounded one eye, the skin around it swollen almost to the point where he couldn't see. A broken finger and a wealth of cuts and scratches completed this picture of less than perfect health.

"Race you both three times around the camp." Burke teased earning reproachful glares from his two friends.

"When I've finished with this crutch I'll be looking for a place to shove it." Virdon warned.

"Can we please save the comedy routine until later and just go," begged their simian companion. Virdon grinned, gave the nod and they were about to set off when they spied Farron and Lanya approaching.

"Oh dear, it looks to me like we might have some unfinished business after all,' the chimpanzee said. They halted in their tracks as Father and daughter approached.

Burke took a deep breath, shuffled his feet but held his ground, he'd wanted to say goodbye to the girl, to try and explain things even he didn't truly understand - but hadn't had the nerve.

Besides, it was so much easier to just run from what he had done rather than analyse and dissect it in public for all to see.

At least...it had worked that way once before.

Farron stopped, holding his daughter against his side. He looked uncomfortable, obviously wanting this confrontation no more than Burke did. But he was here now and he would say what he had to say. "There is something we must settle before you leave."

Galen cleared his throat. "Lanya, why don't you come with me for awhile, your father needs to talk to my friends?" he gently took the girls arm and tried to pull her away but she held on to Farron's hand until he nodded.

They waited until Galen and the girl were out of earshot and then Farron began, addressing Burke.

"You seem to hate me, I don't care... I have no like for you either. Yet you hated me from the beginning and I wonder why. For before you came to my village we had never met..." Burke began to respond, feeling his loathing and disgust for what the man represented rising up all over again, choking all senses, stifling all logic - but Farron held up a hand silencing him. "I believe that it is not I you hate, but someone of whom I remind you."

Virdon studied Burke's face, that last comment had hit home, he could see it in his eyes, they'd been through too much not to recognise subtle give-aways to what they were really thinking. This skill, this almost intimate knowledge of the others inner workings had saved their lives before and would no doubt do so again.

But this time he was an outsider, until Pete was ready to invite him in he wasn't a part of this. So he stood and watched, not interfering.

"I care about none of this," continued Farron "But you also think I am cruel to my daughter and for this... I am concerned."

"You hit her Farron, I've seen the bruises, I know what's been happening." Burke growled.

"I teach her respect." Farron responded with finality.

"By beating it into her?" Burke spat contemptuously.

"I need not explain my ways to you." Farron insisted and then frowned, uncertain, for this was why he was here. "But I would - not for the peace it will bring my mind - but for yours."

Virdon watched, of course there were still things they didn't know about each other, Pete didn't know about that time he'd tried to spy on that girl with his new telescope but somehow he doubted that which his friend had kept hidden was as insignificant. Pete's secrets were darker, ugly even. So repulsive he'd tried to forget about them himself.

"I think you harbour an old wound," Farron suggested. "One that time will never fully heal, I think it blinds you, I think because of it you are unable to find your way... It weighs you down, it is a heavy burden that you carry with you." Burke's lips had formed a thin line as though he were forcing himself to listen. Could it be? Virdon wondered, that for once he had nothing to say? Could it be that this was something he wanted to hear? "I speak because my words may help ease that burden." Farron waited to see if either Virdon or Burke had anything to say before he continued. They did not.

"Many years ago, before the girl could even say her name, when She was that young she depended on her mother for all things, some men came to our village. They were like you, strangers, with strange ideas and strange names. We made them welcome, they stayed for just two days and we never saw them again." Farron's eyes grew distant and troubled with the memories. "A day later, Juba rode into our village searching for these men. I was out in the orchids so I did not witness this, but they told me after what had happened."

Virdon took a deep breath, his instincts warning him what was to come. He looked away, not wishing to witness the growing despair in Farron's eyes.

"Juba and his Apes rode into the village, back then nobody hid, we had no reason to. My wife, Neesa, Lanya's mother, was across the street fetching water. The girl... just a baby, awoke and found herself alone, she began to cry... Neesa could not bear the sound of it and so she crossed the street to tend her needs."

Burke frowned, somehow Farron appeared to have physically altered in appearance. He'd gone from a burly, dangerous opponent to a deflated, tired old man in just a few seconds.

"Juba stopped her, asked her questions, he knew she was lying. He warned the village never to give shelter to strangers again. He told them he would hear of it if they did - he would know and return. He taunted Neesa and ordered her to fetch him water. She explained she could not... Her child was calling..."

Farron voice faltered, he covered his eyes and fell silent.

"Farron... You don't have to continue." Virdon said, reaching out.

Farron shrugged the offered comfort away. "For her impudence and as a lesson to us all, he shot her, he rode over her corpse and then left."

Burke closed his eyes, so the man had experienced tragedy, he sympathised but it was still no excuse. "I'm sorry Farron," he said. "I really am, but you can't blame Lanya for..."

"Blame her!" cried Farron, dismayed. "Of course I do not blame her... It was Neesa! She was to blame! If she hadn't argued, if she'd done what they asked, without thought for the needs of others!"

Virdon jaw clenched as a familiar, slow burning fury welled up inside of him. This wasn't a happy world... for Men, but it was all they knew. Somehow, before he went home, he was going to find a way to change that.

Farron appealed to them both. "This is what I teach Lanya, to respect them, to obey all commands, instantly, with no regard of others... and then... only then she might reach an age greater than that of her mother."

Farron's words had reduced Burke to cauldron of boiling emotions. He sympathised, he despised, and he wanted to comfort and strike out at the same time. He now understood how terrible misfortune had so confused what Farron perceived as logic but he'd be damned if he'd just walk away from this one.

"You're not teaching her... respect!' he cried. "By hitting her you're just teaching fear. Jesus Farron! That child loves you and you're just strangling it... you're killing it... and one day soon, that love is gonna dry up and turn into a burning everlasting hate."

"NO!" Insisted Farron, shaking his head stubbornly. "She is but a child but she understands, I teach her only to fear the apes! This she knows."

Burke reached out and hesitated, feeling shame as the man flinched, fearing another attack but then he grabbed Farron's collar anyway, forcibly spinning him around so he could see Lanya and Galen.

The Chimpanzee was on his knees, while the girl, laughing, rode him like a horse.

"She's not learning to fear apes Farron, She learning to fear YOU... and take it from someone who knows, that fear is going to drive her away and you'll lose her forever... Just like Neesa."

Farron shook his head furiously denying the accusations.

"Lanya!" Shouted Burke. "Your father is angry, how dare you play with the ape, have you forgotten everything he's taught you?"

They watched as the girl grew tense with the realisation, her eyes growing wide. She leapt off Galen's back and stepped away a respectful distance. Confused, the chimpanzee got to his feet, looking from the girl to the group of humans for some kind of clue as to what was going on.

Across the distance Lanya's eyes met with those of her father.

And there it was - everything Burke had said, etched upon her face in stark lines of terror.

"NO!" wailed Farron.

Lanya backed further away, now ready to run at a moments notice.

"You can't insist on respect Farron," said Virdon, sadly. "Not for you not for anyone or anything. It can only be earned - but you can teach by example. You can show her wisdom, patience, compassion, tenderness and affection... and then the respect will come. It will just flow of it's own accord... like love."

Farron continued to shake his head in furious denial but suddenly, without warning sank to his knees. His daughter stopped backing away and hesitated. Had Burke attacked him again?

A doubtful step forward.

"Father?" she called, her voice shaky with concern.

Farron opened his arms and She instantly ran forward, colliding with him as he folded them around her, clutching her to him.

Experiencing a rising swell of emotion that made him uneasy, Burke could only watch and witness this resolution - one he could never have. He turned away quickly, it threatened to expose parts of him he didn't want to know, parts that he'd prefer to keep hidden away. He couldn't let the others to see him like this. He covered his eyes, catching Virdon watching with concern.

"Dust." He muttered.

Virdon nodded as if understanding perfectly and jerked his head indicating it was time to go. Discreetly they shuffled along. "Are you okay?" he asked, not turning to look, just in case there were still things he wasn't supposed to see.

"I'm not the one wearing about forty pounds worth of bandages." Burke pointed out in his usual manner.

"I know... but I was thinking, maybe your wounds aren't so visible." Burke fell silent. "Does that girl remind you of someone Pete?

He chewed it over. "I guess, perhaps someone from long ago... but he's gonna be okay... I think... that is... maybe."

They cleared the camp and paused for a time, to gaze upon a freshly filled grave.

"So long Swann," mumbled Burke, he looked at Virdon. "Alan... are YOU okay?"

Virdon nodded absently, thinking deep and silent. At length he looked up. "I don't want to be buried here Pete... It's not that I'm afraid to die... but I don't want to be buried here, not like this, in an unmarked grave so far from home."

Burke nodded, "Then let's be on our way, see if we can find a way to make sure you don't."

Virdon shook his head, not moving. "No... not until I'm sure I know where it is we're going." He looked from one to the other. "We just walk from one village to another, doing nothing but get people killed... Is that the best we can ever hope for?"

"Alan..."

"How many bodies am I leaving behind this time? I should have just left him - to burn in hell"

"You couldn't have known, besides... you think you're the only one allowed to make a mistake? I beat an old man nearly to death why? Because he reminded me of someone, someone from over a thousand years ago!"

"That isn't why you fought, you held back all this time Pete, it was only when HE attacked YOU, that you cut loose."

"And boy did I cut loose." Burke spat, disgusted with himself. "You told me all along, `different world, different rules' but I wasn't really listening. No, I thought I had it all figured out, I screwed up, messed up and nearly killed someone because of it."

"We all saw the same things Pete, we all reached the same conclusions, we all got it wrong... but unlike my mistakes, yours were never lethal."

"Oh this is just wonderful." Galen mocked. "Come on everybody, roll up, come and see the men from the past torturing each other on things over which they had no control."

"Your point?" Virdon asked the Chimp irritably.

"My `point' is that all you did, all you ever do - all you could have done - is what you always do... What you thought was right... unlike Mr. Swann here, who could only do what he knew was wrong. So tell me this you lunk-head... what else can anyone ask of themselves?"

The two men looked at each other quizzically.

"Lunk-head?" asked Burke sceptically - Where the hell did you get `lunk-head'?"

"From you, you `jerk'" Galen grinned, then winced from the pain the movement provoked. "And I got that one from him," he said pointing his finger in Virdon's direction.

Virdon and Burke tried so hard, but broke into soft, reluctant laughter.

Galen smiled, grimacing again. "You ask, `what are we doing?' I'll tell you...We're making a difference, not in any noticeable or grand way... just one person at a time. We're changing things our way, because that's the only way we can live with. So let's keep on moving, keep on living and keep on teaching, wherever we can, to whoever will listen."

Burke shook his head, swayed but unconvinced. "But Galen, is it worth it?

Galen shook his head irritably. "You two... you look behind and all you see is a world without hope."

Virdon winced.

"I look ahead and because of you...all I see is the promise of a better one." He studied his two friends, seeing they still remained sceptical. "Are you doing any good? Are you making a difference? Is it all worth it?" He mimicked, sarcastically. "Turn around, look behind you - and you tell me."

They looked first at each other and then did as he had asked, turning around to face back the way they had come, back towards the camp.

And they saw.

There, for the first time in far too long a father was giving his giggling daughter a ride on his back.

And for Burke, it almost made things right again.

EPILOGUE

"Enter!"

The Gorilla soldier composed himself, counted to three and tugged down the front of his leather tunic before entering. He reached out, twisted the door handle and stepped into the room.

And there was Urko, huge and hulking behind his desk of chiseled stone, hunched over like some ogre mothers invented to scare unruly children. The Generals brows were knitted together in painful concentration as he labored over reports and dispatches from all over the known world. The words and handwriting were always different but in each and every case the message was the same.

Nobody knew where the fugitives were.

Urko looked up, the gorilla standing before him snapping to attention. "I'm am not particularly famous for having limitless patience." The General rumbled. "So please do not waste what little time I have. Tell me everything and tell me quickly - and then I can have you shot without further delay."

The gorilla soldier licked his lips nervously. "I have already told everything Sir, I had no way of knowing they were the fugitives that you pursue."

Urko slammed his bunched fist on the surface of his desk causing everything upon it to jump into the air. "How? He demanded, "How could you NOT have known? Two humans and a chimpanzee! Virdon, Burke and Galen..."

The gorilla dared to interrupt "But the Chimpanzee was not called Galen, he said his name was Parrin, he said he was a surveyor...

Urko's jaw dropped as he looked theatrically astonished. "By the lawgiver... he gasped. "Is it possible? Could it be? Tell me Juba... Do you think he may have possibly lied to you? Surely not."

The gorilla nodded slowly. "No doubt about it sir, I -" he stopped himself short and studied the General through narrowing eyes. Was the Supreme Commander mocking him?

"I'll be sure to add telling Fairy tales to the list of charges against them." Urko promised, his deep voice heavy with unmistakable sarcasm. "Once the council finds out they'll have no choice but to impose the death penalty!" Juba thought it wise to say nothing and cast his eyes down toward the floor. "You're an idiot Juba, you're a disgrace to that uniform and by Aldo I will see that you wear it no longer."

"Sir?"

You're dismissed Juba, get out of my office, get out of my sight and get out of my army."

But Sir... what am I supposed..."

"I don't care! Urko shouted. "Grow flowers, farm pigs - just don't pretend you're a soldier any more."

Sir please, you can't do this! The army is all I know, all I've ever known."

"Then it's obvious you know nothing at all... You had them Juba, you had them right in the palm of your hand - and then you lost not only them... but your entire command as well!"

"It was a village of rabid Humans sir... I burned it - and them - to the ground."

"Did you? Did you indeed, then where were all the bodies Juba? We counted just sixteen humans, not exactly over-crowded, was it?"

Juba swallowed, and then he caved in, there was no fooling Urko, the gorilla General could not have known what had truly happened but he did know the official story was mostly nonsense.

"What must I do?' he asked desperately

"What? What's that you say?

"To remain in the army, just tell me what I must do."

Urko nodded slowly. "You want back in? Then there is only one thing you can do. Bring me the fugitives Juba, bring me their heads on sticks."

"But they are wanted alive..."

"What's this now? Did I suddenly sprout orange hair in the middle of the night? Did I somehow wake up a politician and not a soldier?"

"Of course not sir, but - "

"Good...That must mean I'm still Urko and didn't turn into an orangutan." Urko rose from his chair and leaned forward over his desk, jabbing his finger to punctuate his words. "I don't care if they're dead Juba, just bring them to me... and then we'll talk."

Juba took a deep breath and nodded. "I will not fail you Sir."

The General pulled a doubtful face and impatiently waved him away, the audience was over. Juba turned to leave. "Make sure you surrender your uniform, your weapons and your horse before you leave," he added.

Juba frowned, "But Sir... How am I supposed to carry out my mission without -"

"First you mistake me for Zaius and now you mistake me for someone who cares," Urko growled, returning to his paperwork. "Get out Juba and don't dare come back... Not unless you have what I want." Juba stood, lost for words until Urko looked up again, Eyebrows raised questionably. "Are you still here?"

Juba forced a salute and made his body turn around, leaving the office and closing the door behind him.

*****

Outside Juba leaned back against the door and closed his eyes. He reviewed the conversation, shaking with suppressed rage and one sentence rose above them all. One image filled his mind and he found that if he focused upon it, held on to it, it could make him smile and feel a little better. "Bring me the fugitives Juba, bring me their heads on sticks."

"It will be my pleasure." Juba snarled.

 

 

POTA: Killer Instinct

THE END