The Price of the Ride
From the author: the usual disclaimers apply – the copyrights belong to 20th Century-Fox and the relevant other parties. This is a work by a fan for the enjoyment of other fans, and no financial profit is being made. Please don’t post the story on other sites without asking permission. As always, feedback is welcome and encouraged, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Greg, who wanted more talk about heroes; and in memory of the real Pete-the-astronaut [Conrad], for whom it was also “all about the ride.”
“Funny,” Pete Burke said softly.
His two companions, one a fellow human and one a chimpanzee, looked at him with almost matching expressions of inquiry. Burke didn’t answer right away; instead, he rested back on his elbows and looked out across the calm blue water of the Pacific toward the horizon. A few yards past his bare feet, waves feathered onto the shore. The breeze, which up until a short time ago had ruffled his dark hair, had gone still.
Letting out a long breath, Burke turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes. He listened to the whisper of the surf that way for a while, then opened his eyes again and offered a flickering smile to his friends.
“Seems funny,” he repeated.
“Nobody on the beach. If this was
“A beach. I used to go there when I was a kid, in the summer.”
To say Galen was less than fond of sitting near the rolling surf would have been an exercise in understatement. He considered the water for a moment, then grimaced. Burke caught the look and chuckled.
Alan Virdon, sitting a couple of paces away with his arms propped on his knees, told the chimpanzee, “I spent a lot of time at the beach with my family, Galen. My son always loved walking up and down the sand, looking for seashells.”
“Why?” Galen asked.
A minute of poking in the sand located a small, nearly intact shell for the older of the two men. Holding it out to the chimp, he explained, “He liked to collect them. He had a whole basket full of different kinds.”
Galen took the tiny object and turned it over and over in his long fingers to examine it. To him, this was simply one more aspect of the unfathomable mystery of humans: that they would not only collect something that came out of an enormous body of water, but would actually venture into the water to collect it. Although, he had to admit (without actually voicing the admission) that the little thing was pretty. Its interior, of some glossy material he had never seen before, glistened in a dozen different colors in the afternoon sunlight.
Burke’s gaze had drifted toward the sky. “No contrails,” he pointed out. “No ships on the horizon. You could almost believe there’s nobody else in the world.”
“I wouldn’t mind there being no gorillas, at least for a short while,” Galen replied with a sigh.
The three of them had spent most of the last several days at a forced labor camp some twenty miles up the coast, after Virdon and Burke had been captured by the local guards and forced into service as fishermen. Their own guile had allowed them to escape—over water, to Galen’s dismay—and though none of the guards had seen fit to follow, each of them still expected a gorilla to pop up, rifle in hand, and demand that they return.
“I’ll second that,” Virdon agreed.
Galen turned a little and peered at him. “You did a good thing, back there. For the humans.”
“That’s us,” Burke said. “We stumble in, get taken prisoner, fix a few things, then run like hell. Yessir, it’s a fine life.”
“I mean it. You saved Gahto.”
“Well, we couldn’t just leave the old geezer drifting out there.”
Galen made a face. “For a while, I wished you had left him drifting out there. He was a terrible nuisance to keep track of, the way he kept wandering off.”
Snorting, Burke scooped up a handful of sand and pitched it in the chimpanzee’s direction. “Forgive me for not acknowledging the depths of your suffering, pal. Poor you, running around after an old guy who kept wandering down the beach, while Alan and I had to just swim under fire, get chased by sharks, and, oh yeah, get threatened with immediate death a couple times. I can see where you really went through the wringer, there, by comparison.”
“You know what I mean,” Galen said indignantly.
Burke scoffed at him again.
Flustered, Galen turned to Virdon. “Seriously—I think we did something good for those humans. The fishing will certainly be easier for them, with that net you gave them.”
“Let’s hope so, Galen,” Virdon smiled.
The chimpanzee preened a bit. “You could even say—”
Burke cut him off. “Let’s not.”
“Say that ‘H’ word,” Burke said firmly.
Galen’s face scrunched up in confusion. Rather than explain, Burke got up from the sand and walked toward the water’s edge, smiling with pleasure when the cool surf lapped up over his feet. They’d traveled a lot of miles since sunup this morning, and taking a little time to relax here by the shore was a treat. On a good many other days since he and Virdon had landed here, the feel of the sun on his head and shoulders had been something to endure; today, with the temperature mild enough to be comfortable, he was soaking it up with a smile. Leaving his friends to sit where it was dry, he waded further into the water and bent down to pick up a small piece of driftwood, considered it for a moment, then sent it sailing out toward the horizon. A minute later it was back, bobbing up and down in the waves.
“The ‘H’ word?” Galen said to Virdon.
Virdon, shading his eyes with his hand, watched the younger man walk into the waves, much as the old man Gahto had tried to do a few days ago. “Hero,” he explained. “Pete has kind of a prickly history with that word.”
Burke could hear them perfectly well. “Because,” he said without turning. “Back home, you got to be a hero by playing a decent game of football. And I think that’s a load of crap.” Before either of the others could answer him, he had walked back toward them, arms folded over his chest, his forehead crinkled into a frown. “They called guys heroes because they stayed alive for a few days after they got shot down by the enemy. Or after they got lost in the woods. I don’t call that being a hero. I call that doing what nature intended you to do: save your own ass. If you catch an animal in a trap, it’ll chew its own leg off to get free. Nobody calls it a hero for doing that. You get what I’m saying?” he asked Galen. “We like to fling words around.”
Then he walked off again, down the beach, intermittently stopping long enough to pick up a pebble or some other small object off the sand and fling it out over the water.
To his relief, neither Virdon nor Galen followed him, and after a few minutes he was far enough away to believe he was alone. The surf continued to roll in, breaking around his feet, and he was very much aware that the waves were erasing his footprints only seconds after he made them.
“You that astronaut?”
He’d been asked that
question a thousand years ago, by a small boy standing alongside a swimming
Burke had expected something along the lines of, “Wow, Mister, could I have your autograph?” Or perhaps a minute of open-mouthed awe.
Something other than “Huh.”
The boy had been six years old, or thereabouts. Just an everyday kid in cutoff shorts and a t-shirt. The kind of kid who by rights should have been impressed by a real live astronaut. Maybe it was the sight of the astronaut in swim trunks instead of a space suit, dripping chlorinated water onto the pool deck, that killed the awe. Or maybe the kid simply had more good sense than most people.
“Huh,” Burke murmured.
They’d been on the covers of dozens of magazines, he and Virdon and Jonesy—poor Jonesy, who’d never had a chance to try out life in this crazy, mixed-up world a thousand years in the future—and after the first few, the novelty had worn off. The first one was a doozy: Time magazine. Burke bought six copies of that one and laid them out in a row on the battered coffee table in his apartment, just so he could admire his own face underneath the magazine’s classic logo. But by the time he found his mug staring back at him from the fronts of a couple of tabloids and, God help him, Tiger Beat, the thrill was long since gone.
“Are you all right?”
That was Galen, who had caught up with him without his noticing. Burke shrugged, stuck his hands in the pockets of his homespun trousers, and kept walking, with the chimpanzee trotting alongside.
“I’m sorry if I said something that upset you.”
Burke shrugged again. “You didn’t upset me.” After another dozen steps, a thought occurred to him. “We never told you, did we? The first American in space was a chimp.”
“Now, that’s not true.”
“It is. His name was Ham. The press called him a chimponaut.”
Burke met Galen’s gaze for
a moment. The simian seemed to understand, without being told, that Ham the chimponaut was not a graduate of any training academy,
and had not volunteered to become a part of the space program. “He rode the
rocket,” Burke said. “Went up into space. Pushed all the right buttons, and
splashed down safe and sound. They retired him someplace, and he met a pretty
lady chimp. They’ve got a nice monument to him at the Space Hall of Fame in
“I take it you’d rather be
About to reply, Burke cut himself off, smiled fleetingly, then shook his head. “Nah.”
“You did a good thing, Pete.”
“Yeah, I know. I just don’t—I don’t want to oversell it.”
The glum look on the man’s face made Galen want to cheer him up, although a Pete Burke bursting with good cheer was sometimes not a desirable thing, either. Something occurred to him, and he let out the word “Maybe—” before the thought became fully formed and he realized that it was the wrong thing to express out loud.
Without any more clues, Burke understood what the chimp had been about to say. “Maybe there’s a monument to me somewhere? That what you were gonna tell me?” He snorted loudly and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s a laugh. A statue of me in some park someplace. Maybe the one out behind my old grade school. Old Miss Harkins would’ve cut her own throat if she saw that.” Burke allowed himself a moment to consider the idea, then an eyebrow went up and he grinned slyly at Galen. “Maybe they named the whole school for me. Burke Elementary. Now, there’s a thought.”
The humor lasted only a few seconds. Then Burke’s face fell again and he kicked at the rolling water with some annoyance.
“It’s possible,” Galen offered.
“Nah. If they named a school for anybody, it’d be him.” Burke tipped his head in the direction from which they’d come, and was mildly surprised to see Virdon trudging along the water’s edge, carrying all of their belongings. Without any pleasure at all he waited for the older man to catch up with them, then turned and began walking southward again, with Galen keeping pace a couple of steps inland and Virdon trailing along behind. The day was no less pleasant than it had been ten minutes ago, and there still was no sign of gorilla police in any direction, but a weight had settled onto Burke’s shoulders, one less easy to ignore than the backpack Virdon was presently toting for him.
“You that astronaut?”
He remembered the first time a stranger had recognized him: a kid of about seventeen sitting behind the counter at a 7-Eleven. The kid’s hair had enough oil in it to lube an engine, and a pitiful case of acne was scattered over his face and down his neck, disappearing underneath the dark blue t-shirt he wore. After Burke scribbled his name on a credit card slip, the kid compared the signature to the one on the back of the card. He was about to shove the slip into the drawer of the register when something occurred to him and he took another long look at the slip, then the card, then Burke’s face. With a frown knotted into the middle of his pimple-strewn forehead, he asked quietly, “Peter Burke? Are you…the NASA Peter Burke?”
He seemed to be telling himself “no” already, resigned to slouching back down into the air-conditioned dullness of his afternoon.
But Burke shrugged, just a little, and admitted, “Yeah.”
The kid’s mouth lolled open.
Burke was about to collect the sackful of beer and snacks he’d just purchased and go on his way, but the wonderment that was creeping onto the kid’s face kept him rooted in front of the register. The directness (and unblinkingness) of the kid’s stare made Burke twitch a little, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be anything less than polite. Not that many years ago, he reminded himself, he’d lived in a place like this: a place where people shuffled off to monotonous jobs every morning, came home in the evening, watched TV, got drunk, got laid, maybe neither of those, crawled onto a swaybacked mattress like an animal hiding in a hole and sank into the oblivion of sleep. Then, when morning showed up, repeated the process. He looked past the kid to the nook behind the counter where the kid’s jacket and schoolbooks were untidily heaped. Hanging out of the mess was a corner of a magazine Burke could easily identify as Scientific American.
Five or six hours seemed to go by as the kid stared at him. For an instant, in the middle of that, Burke thought the kid might cry.
Finally, the kid’s hand inched forward.
Burke extended his own right hand, grasped the kid’s—which was surprisingly warm—held onto it for a second, then shook it. The kid made a noise that was mostly a hiccup, and Burke smiled at him, then took a closer look at the nametag pinned to the blue t-shirt. HENRY T., it said. “Nice ta meetcha, Henry,” Burke offered.
“Jesus,” Henry said.
It probably wasn’t a comparison, but it made Burke roll his eyes a little. Henry didn’t notice; he had already begun to scuttle out from behind the counter. In a matter of seconds the kid had appropriated one of the cheap cameras hanging from a display hook in the second aisle over, stripped it of its packaging, and corralled the only other customer in the store to serve as photographer. By the time he finally allowed Burke to go on his way, Henry was the proud owner of three soon-to-be-developed pictures of himself with NASA-Pete-Burke, two autographed sheets of notebook paper, and the ballpoint pen Burke had used to write his name.
“A school,” Burke scoffed now, to Galen. “For what? Because they figure I’m dead?”
He didn’t bother to sort out the verb tenses—the was, the should be, the is, the what was a year ago versus what was a thousand years ago. When he tried to do that, a headache would begin to gather like storm clouds in a place somewhere in his sinuses.
“Because you were an explorer?” Galen suggested.
Burke shook his head. “I’m not an explorer, buddy. I’m a pilot. See…it’s all about the ride.”
Virdon moved up a few steps, close enough to address his two companions without raising his voice. “The faster, the better.”
“Now I walk,” Burke said.
“The ultimate irony.” Smiling a little, Virdon handed over Burke’s backpack. Without comment and without breaking stride the younger man slid his arms through the straps and settled the pack into place.
“And you, Alan?” Galen asked.
“He’s the explorer,” Burke replied. “Wanted to see the stars for himself.”
Murmuring the soft sounds that meant he was mulling something over, Galen peered up at the sky: mostly blue, scattered with clusters of clouds, some of them almost blindingly white, some touched with smudges of gray. “I don’t think I would want to do that,” he decided aloud. “That’s—the very thought of it makes me nervous. To go out there, so very far, in something as small as your ship—that seems dreadfully risky to me.”
“You don’t learn anything without some risk, Galen,” Virdon said.
Galen objected with a waggling forefinger to illustrate his point. “I’ve learned a good many things in my life, without any risk whatsoever.”
“And you call yourself curious,” Burke scoffed.
“I am curious.”
“Hundreds of years ago—okay, a thousand and hundreds of years ago, people got on board ships and set sail out there.” The younger astronaut pointed out across the water, toward the horizon. “Some of ’em knew what they were aiming for, and some of ’em didn’t. The people who paid for the ships wanted to make a profit, but the guys who captained ’em wanted to see what was out there. They sailed thousands of miles, out across the w-a-t-e-r.” A hint of mischief crept into Burke’s expression, turning a little more smug when he got the reaction he expected from Galen. “Alan and me, we went millions of miles.”
Virdon’s gaze drifted oceanward. “…And miles to go before I sleep,” he quoted softly.
“See, Galen,” Burke went
on, “when you let your curiosity outweigh your common sense—when you let
yourself be kinda stupid about the whole thing, you
climb into little ships and slam the door and hit those buttons, and whoosh! Off you go.” With a sigh he
craned his head back and stared up at the sky. “Used to be, I was happier
than a pig in a wallow just to fly one of those two-seater jobs. Take ’er up and ride the currents for a couple hours. Or take
the road to Vegas. That whole stretch past
Galen had understood about half of that, enough to ask, “And you? How fast did you go?”
Burke thought it over. “In the Porsche, hundred and thirty-one. But that’s nothing compared to strapping into a jet. You light one of those babies up and ZOOM!”
“I think not,” Galen replied.
They walked on for another fifteen or twenty minutes, each of them lost in his own thoughts. Then Burke asked abruptly, “You don’t build boats at all, huh?”
The chimp shuddered. “No.”
“Not for any reason? Not even for humans to crew?”
As he had done a number of times in the past, Galen groaned at the thick-headedness of his friend. “Why would we do that? Allow a group of humans to sail a boat off to heaven knows where? That’s a fine way to allow your servants to run off and never come back.”
“So if there was an island out there a ways, there wouldn’t be any apes on it.”
Galen looked to Virdon for some clarification but got none, just a shrug that suggested Galen settle for picking information out of Burke a smidgen at a time. “No,” Galen sighed. “If there were an island ‘out there a ways,’ there likely wouldn’t be any apes living on it. I can’t imagine how they would have gotten out there.”
“There we go, then,” Burke grinned.
“To an island?”
Virdon chuckled at that, shifted his backpack to a slightly more comfortable location, and moved up to walk abreast of the other two. “Catalina, huh?”
“If there’s nobody out there, now, that’d be the life. No Urko to worry about.”
“And how far is it, to this Catalina place?” Galen asked.
Burke told him, “Twenty miles or so off the coast. We could find it, with Alan’s compass. If we knew where we were starting out from.”
“You’d want to live there alone?”
That made the dark-haired man fall silent again. He walked along the waterline slowly, shifting between studying the indentations his feet made in the wet sand and glancing out across the silver-flecked surface of the ocean.
“Where are you going?”
“I thought we were going to sit and read. It’s pouring outside.”
“I know. I’m going out.”
The thought of being well out of Urko’s grasp, of being able to build something—a house, a shelter, a refuge, a life—and spend time there without waiting for the bark of a gorilla’s voice or the peculiar, heavy click of a weapon being cocked as if it were the proverbial other shoe being dropped, tempted him the way a spilling heap of gifts under a Christmas tree once had. Long ago, and not long ago, he’d spent four days on Catalina, piloting a rented cart up and down the narrow streets; steering a rented boat along the rocky coast to the grunted but musical accompaniment of sun-basking sea lions; muzzily and contentedly enjoying an entirely different kind of journey with the girl who had brought him to the island, then lying sweat-slicked and sleepy with his head burrowed into her shoulder.
“Pete, you don’t have an umbrella. You’ll get soaked.”
“Maybe I’ll retire there,” he said to Galen.
“A boat isn’t a bad idea,” Virdon commented. “A nice fifty-footer. How far to the nearest shipyard, Galen?”
The chimp ignored both of them.
After a while they stopped again, at a small cove at the foot of a steep hillside blanketed with white and yellow wildflowers. They had eaten lunch at midday, but the fresh sea air had made all three of them hungry, and after a careful scan of their surroundings they each picked out a relatively flat rock and sat down to nibble on what remained of the berries they had gathered early that morning.
The fruit was almost gone when Burke noticed a seagull earnestly, and noisily, wrestling with something embedded in the sand. Other gulls were circling overhead, and when Burke moved toward the bird they shrieked out a commentary that was certainly not supportive. The bird let Burke get a couple of feet away, then surrendered its prize and swooped into the air with a final, angry cry. It took him only a moment of effort to pry the gull’s treasure loose from the sand.
“What is it?” Virdon asked as Burke straightened up with the object in his hand.
The younger man took a moment to wash his prize off in the waves, then carried it over to Virdon and displayed it in his palm: a gold chain, missing half of its clasp and whatever might have once dangled from it. When Virdon displayed no particular interest, Burke curled his fingers around it and drew his arm back, intending to pitch the chain into the sea, but before he could complete the motion, Virdon told him quietly, “No, wait,” and held out his hand. With a shrug Burke passed it to him, then returned to his seat on the rock.
“Gold?” Galen asked.
Virdon held the chain up so the chimpanzee could see it. “Gold.”
Galen was impressed. “We don’t have anything like that. The links are so tiny. Was something like that easy to find in your time?”
“Very easy. And not expensive.”
The breeze had picked up a little, creating tufts of white foam at the edges of the waves. Burke turned his face to it and closed his eyes.
“Pete?” Galen said.
The astronaut didn’t bother to look. “Hmm.”
“You did a good thing. You and Alan.”
Burke’s forehead wrinkled, though his eyes remained closed. “I sat in a seat and pushed buttons. They thought—” Suddenly flustered, he got up from the rock and strode down the sand and into the water. He’d gone out a few yards, with waves lapping up to his knees, before he stopped. Still agitated, he shoved a hand into his hair and pushed it back from his face.
There’d been a couple of talking heads on the TV, about two weeks before the launch. Both of them in suits, neckties neatly knotted, hair perfectly coiffed.
“They’re venturing out farther than man has ever gone, except in science fiction,” one of them pontificated.
“Well, George,” the other one said. “Let’s see if they come back. Then…”
Let’s see if they come back.
Yeah, George, Burke thought. Let’s see if they come back and manage not to be dead. Then you can throw us the damn tickertape parade.
That kid, Henry, had looked at him one last time as he went out the door of the 7-Eleven, the sack of beer and munchies held against his chest. He caught Henry’s reflection in the glass of the door as he pushed it open, and saw in it much the same wonder and admiration Chris Virdon’s eyes held when Chris looked at his father.
“Are you scared?” Henry had asked him.
He’d shrugged, one eye on the six-pack of beer sitting on the counter, watching it slowly sweat down to room temperature. Two dark spots had hovered in his vision, the results of the flash on the cheap camera. “Nah,” he said. “You don’t think about that. You just do it.”
You just do it…
…And you lost their billion-dollar ship. And you lost Jonesy. Fuck it all, you lost Jonesy. You don’t even know what happened to him.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder and tightened a bit. “You okay, Pete?” Virdon asked.
“Peachy,” Burke said.
“Galen thinks there’s a village a couple of miles inland from here. Sounds like a good place to aim for.”
“As opposed to what?”
“Well—it’s a long swim to Catalina, if that was your plan.”
Burke stood looking at his friend—his commanding officer—for a long moment, then laughed softly. “With my luck, it’d turn out to be some kind of ape resort.”
“Galen’s right, you know. We accomplished something back there.”
The younger man grimaced. “Alan, I’m just not—”
After a pause, Virdon replied, “I don’t think anyone ever really thinks they are. Come on, huh? Maybe they’ll be taking some nice fresh bread out of the oven.” He began to wade back toward the shore, then stopped and said quietly, “Ride’s not over, Pete.”
Burke, with a single nod, followed him to shore.