A Planet Of The Apes (Tv Series) Novelette
by Theresa Karle
DISCLAIMER: The following story is a work of fanfiction, not intended to infringe on any Planet of the Apes copyrights. No profit is being made.
(Author’s Note: This story takes place following the aired episode, The Interrogation.)
“I hate auctions!” Pete Burke hissed through clenched teeth to his partner standing at stiff attention next to him.
“Shhhh!” Alan Virdon cautioned. “Behave yourself or you may end up held over till tomorrow, and we already know what happens to leftovers.”
Undaunted, the dark-haired astronaut scanned the crowd of apes and humans milling below the rickety, wooden platform. “If someone buys us, how’s Galen going to locate us when he gets back? And if they separate us, how are we going to find each other?”
The blond looked thoughtful for a moment. “If we do get separated, first chance you get, meet me back at the river bank where we camped the other night. Galen estimated it’d take more than a week to get back to Central City. Then he had to persuade his father to help draw up a set of ownership papers, and you know how tedious government paperwork can be … besides, Yalu wasn’t exactly one of our biggest fans.”
“Well, I think Galen should’ve thought about getting those damned papers while we were still hiding out at his parents’ house. It wasn’t like he had an awful lot to do, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be here right now if he had,” Burke grumbled. “After all, I was the one stuck in bed the whole time, remember?!”
“Pete,” Alan whispered, dumbfounded by his friend’s insensitivity. “I think Galen just might’ve had other, more pressing, matters on his mind.” The blond man looked pointedly at his younger friend. He saw understanding and remorse appear on the thin, expressive face. Liquid brown eyes met his for a scant second, then looked quickly, defensively away. Virdon was suddenly reminded of one of his wife’s frequent sayings. ‘The eyes are a mirror to the soul.’ His friend, Pete Burke, was a living, breathing example of the truthfulness of that statement.
It had been a little over two weeks since he and Galen had rescued Pete from Urko’s clutches. Galen’s mother, Ann, had voluntarily risked her life and her husband’s career to bluff their way into the Central City hospital just in the nick of time to save Pete from one of Urko’s ‘special’ operations. Luckily, the three of them had managed to free Burke without suffering irreversible injury to themselves or Yalu’s career.
But Alan wasn’t so sure about his friend. Pete’s physical recuperation from Wanda’s mistreatment was still ongoing. Although the bruises to his torso from the beatings he’d endured between brainwashing sessions were fading, he still suffered periodically from attacks of vertigo. His appetite had returned, but most of what he managed to swallow usually came right back up. He had lost weight, leaving his already slim body and face with a gaunt, malnourished look.
Physically, his recovery was sluggish, but Virdon could see daily progress. However, he was much more concerned with Pete’s mental and emotional well-being. Even before his ordeal, Burke had displayed a rash, impetuous streak, frequently rushing doggedly into dangerous situations before properly evaluating them. But his days and nights in Wanda’s sadistic hands seemed to have had a detrimental effect on both his disposition and his reasoning abilities. Totally unpredictable in his reactions on a good day, Pete was now downright reckless and irrational on a bad one. For Burke’s sake, and his own, Virdon sincerely hoped that today was not a bad one.
A husky male orangutan paced up and down the auction block, looking first at Burke, then Virdon. He cleared his throat, clasped his hands together behind his back and rocked back and forth thoughtfully on the balls of his feet directly in front of the tall, blond astronaut. “Chon, does this one have any experience in convalescent home or hospital work?”
The auctioneer, a wiry, nervous little ape, came to stand beside his customer. “I don’t know, sir. These two are brand new to my inventory. They were brought in without ownership papers three days ago. I held them for the mandatory 48hours, but the ape who claimed they belonged to him has not yet returned. I’m perfectly within my rights to sell them today.” He wrung his hands, agitated at having to explain the circumstances whereby he came in possession of these two humans. But the large orangutan had already lost interest in the men and moved on to a small human female at the end of the line.
The skittish auctioneer crinkled his nose and frowned testily at both astronauts, then turned his attention to another potential buyer. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m looking for breeding stock, Chon. Let me see that one, and these two.” The old, graying gorilla wiggled a palsied finger toward a tall male at the front of the line and Burke and Virdon.
Chon gestured at the first human, who obediently and automatically stripped off all his clothing.
“Well, what are you two waiting for?” he said sternly to Burke and Virdon, who stood motionless and confused. The little ape tapped his foot impatiently. “Take off your clothes, humans!”
Pete threw Alan a look of open-mouthed dismay, but his friend could only shake his head sympathetically.
“It’s not worth it, Pete!” Virdon whispered, already shrugging out of his shirt. “You know you’re not up to anymore of their discipline methods.”
Reluctantly, the dark-haired human signed agreement and slowly began to remove his clothes too.
“Whom are you trying to cheat with this merchandise, Chon,” the aged gorilla said angrily, shaking his head and throwing a long, hairy arm into the air for emphasis. “This human has been neutered.”
Disconcerted, Chon wrung his hands. “I don’t understand, sir. That human came from a very reputable dealer. Here,” he gestured towards his new subjects, “these two are in prime condition.”
Burke shot Virdon a sideward glance. “Uh oh,” he groaned under his breath.
The ancient simian limped slowly to the middle of the platform, stopping directly in front of Burke. He stared long and hard at the naked man. “And what form of mutilation is this? Or was he born with this defect?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Chon said worriedly. He was already envisioning a ‘no sale’ day, and every failed transaction had the same two things in common - these new humans. His exasperation was steadily rising, and he turned on Burke. “How did you get this way?” he asked impatiently.
Teeth chattering, Burke shivered in the cool, autumn wind. “My mom signed a consent form when I was born. The doctor did the rest,” he said truthfully.
“Lies … always lies and disrespect from these creatures,” the auctioneer shrieked. He drew back his arm and delivered a stinging backhanded slap to Burke’s cheek sending the man toppling to his knees.
“Bah!” the gorilla huffed snidely. “From the looks of him, he’s been disciplined before. Well, some humans just can’t learn. This one seems to be a troublemaker, Chon. I’m not interested in him anymore. Show me those two tall males on the end.” Without even so much as a glance at Virdon, Chon and his customer moved on.
“Pete?” Alan waited until the two apes were well out of hearing range, then jerked his pants up and knelt beside Burke. “Are you okay?”
Trembling with rage, the younger man turned his head toward his friend. “I’ll ‘mutilate’ him!” Burke growled under his breath and attempted to stand.
Alarmed at his friend’s continued, possibly destructive, animosity, Alan gripped Pete’s too-thin shoulders tightly and moved closer so he could look long and hard into the man’s eyes. “You listen to me, and you listen good!” he whispered harshly, “If you want to commit suicide, then do it somewhere where I don’t have to stand by and watch. I know you went through a lot, and I know it’s affected you to the point where you don’t seem to care if you live or die. But I do!” Virdon paused for emphasis, then continued. “And so does Galen! We risked our necks to save your ass and, frankly, I’m not going to just stand idly by while you get yourself killed.”
Speechless at Virdon’s uncharacteristic scolding, Burke dropped his eyes from his friend’s unwavering glare. For a long moment, he stared in stunned silence at the holes in the ancient wooden floor, then he reached purposefully for the ragged blue shirt that lay in a heap on the platform.
“I mean it, Pete. These temper tantrums have got to stop! Do you understand me?”
The reprimand brought Burke’s eyes abruptly back up. His face was an open mask of shock that suddenly crumpled into the Peter Burke patented ‘little boy lost’ look. With the immediate danger averted, Virdon heaved a sigh of relief and shoved his heart back down his throat. He released his grip on Burke’s shoulders, noting with some remorse the reddened, telltale finger marks his large hands had left on the dark-haired man’s bruised skin. He hadn’t realized he’d squeezed so hard. Immediately contrite, Alan reached out to help Pete draw the shirt over his bowed head. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to be so rough … but, if anything happened to you, Pete, I don’t think I’d have the strength to keep on going.”
Burke wriggled the rest of the way into his shirt and yanked his pants and his body up carefully. An open apology was in his eyes. He knew Alan didn’t expect him to verbalize it. Instead, he cleared his throat and said casually, “Okay, mom. I’ll behave.”
It was enough for both of them.
Secretly enjoying the timid little chimpanzee’s predicament, Angus found himself smiling absently as he watched the animated customer rant and rave on the auction platform. Just as quickly as it had appeared, he wiped the grin off. It wouldn’t be proper for a mere human to laugh at the misfortune of an ape. But, inside, the smile grew even brighter, and Angus had to bite the interiors of his cheeks to keep it from returning full-blown to his face.
A keen sense of self-preservation made him look away, and he stared up at the pitiable lot of humans being offered for sale. Seemingly oblivious to the altercation on his behalf, the first male in line was redressing himself slowly. However, the angular, dark-haired human in the middle of the line huddled red-faced, naked and trembling.
Angus felt a familiar pant of compassion toward the man, and then he looked into the human’s piercing brown eyes. Even at this distance, he could tell that the man was not flushed with embarrassment or merely shaking with cold. He was very obviously enraged and barely managing to contain it.
Now half-dressed, the light-haired, stockier male knelt beside the younger man, speaking to him in low, even tones. So unusual was this display that Angus felt compelled to move nearer for a closer look. After all, Virgil had told him to keep an eye out for all unique humans.
Reaching the base of the auction stand, he eyed both men curiously, watching as the tall blond began to help the other dress. And then he noticed the difference in the human.
“Chon … sir … I beg forgiveness for interrupting, but I must have a word with you.”
Unaccustomed to a human intruding, much less speaking in such a forward manner, both apes turned around and stared at Angus in shocked silence.
Undaunted, he scaled the stairs, two at a time, then slowed and approached the old gorilla and chimpanzee cautiously. As he passed the slender human, his heart raced, and another sideward glance confirmed his first conclusion.
“Sir, I am Angus, assistant overseer of Lord Micah’s
Completely ignoring his already disgruntled customer, the auctioneer now turned his total attention to Angus. “I am honored and humbled that your master sent you to view my stock. You are interested in these two?”
“Yes, sir. We are in need of several able-bodied humans to help us at harvest time, and I’m certain these two would be perfect. Here are my authorization papers, sir.” Angus removed a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped beads of sweat from his forehead. It was a cool, breezy day, but the thrill of his discovery was making him perspire. He hoped that he didn’t appear too eager.
The slighted old gorilla huffed and turned to leave, then paused in front of Burke. “Well, I just hope your master isn’t looking for breeding stock,” he said offhandedly to Angus. Almost as an afterthought, the large ape reached out, grabbed a handful of Burke’s shirt and effortless and vigorously, shook him. “This one is deformed,” he said matter-of-factly. Abruptly, he released Burke and stalked off the platform.
The slender astronaut swayed on suddenly wobbly legs, and Virdon watched as every trace of color drained from Burke’s face.
“Pete?” he said worriedly, reaching out a steadying arm.
“I … wish …” Burke swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “I wish … he … hadn’t done that.”
“The dizzies again?”
Burke started to nod his head, then thought better of it.
Virdon saw his friend’s lips press together into a thin, tight line. “Breathe deeply through your nose, Pete. Keep your eyes closed and hang on to me until it passes.”
Concerned by the interchange, the auctioneer steered Angus to the far side of the platform. “Now, I cannot guarantee those two humans, Angus. They are new to my stores, and I have no pedigree on them. However, I wish Lord Micah to know that if something should befall one or both of them within, say … three months, I will be happy to replace them at no extra charge.”
“Sir, is there anything I should know about these humans before we complete this transaction?”
“No, no, no, no!” Chon was almost beside himself. “All my slaves are in relatively good condition. I just want you to make certain that Lord Micah knows these two have been owned before and, as you can see, their treatment has not been the best.”
“Yes, I noticed the bruises, but the human is young and seems in good health otherwise. Now, let’s talk price.”
Chon smiled broadly. Those were words that played sweet music in his hairy ears.
The late afternoon sky was gray and overcast, and the sun’s disappearance transformed what had only been chilled breezes into icy gusts. Winter was going to be early this year. The assistant overseer tugged his homespun jacket closer around his neck and chin, pushed his long fair hair away from his face, and turned back to check on his master’s new slaves. For appearance sake, he had been forced to tie them to the rear of the wagon and purposely depart the village at a fast pace, leaving the two of them to either walk quickly, run, or be dragged behind. Angus estimated that they had been traveling for more than an hour, and he knew they had passed their last ape on horseback over thirty minutes ago. Since then, they had seen no one else, man nor ape. Glancing around at the denser vegetation and thicker wood, Angus determined that it was now safe to stop. Vaulting from his wagon seat, he hurried back to check on his humans’ condition and release their bonds.
Alan, the older, blond human, seemed barely winded. He was obviously in good, physical shape and, Angus reasoned, must have spent many months trudging great distances at a high rate of speed. Right now, however, the man seemed preoccupied with his friend, who was hunched over, painfully sucking in great gulps of air.
“I’m sorry,” Angus said as he struggled to untie Burke’s wrists. When the younger man was freed, Angus reached into the wagon and retrieved a bladder canteen. He handed it to the still gasping human and moved on to untie Alan. “I had to make them believe you would be treated as slaves.”
“We have been!” Alan said tersely, rubbing his chafed wrists and moving to aid Burke.
“It was necessary to do so. It was the only way I could rescue you from Chon’s greedy clutches.”
Virdon and Burke exchanged puzzled glances. They had interacted with many different humans since their arrival in this future world nearly six months before, but they had never run into one quite as perplexing as Angus.
The assistant overseer shuffled and maneuvered boxes of supplies and loose hay around in the back of the wagon, making room for the astronauts to climb on board. “I know you must be cold and tired. I hear the auction cages aren’t very comfortable. If you’d like to sleep or rest, please do so. We have a very long way to go before we reach Lord Micah’s territory.”
“Thanks … Angus,” Burke said and meant it. Kindness was not something they bumped into every day.
Virdon helped Pete climb into the tall buckboard and watched as the man snuggled gratefully into the soft, sweet-smelling hay.
“Get some sleep, okay? I’m going to ride up front with Angus and find out about our new owner.”
Without opening his eyes, Burke whispered a quiet affirmation.
Virdon nodded approvingly to himself, then turned to Angus. “Is it permitted to sit with you? I have many questions.”
“You may ride with me if you wish, Alan, but I won’t be able to answer your questions. It is better if you wait until Overseer Virgil can speak with you. He will explain everything you need to know.” Angus jumped into the driver’s seat and waited for Virdon to join him, but the man had returned to the back of the wagon. The assistant overseer watched as the blond human removed his vest and tucked it securely around his already sleeping partner’s shoulders.
“Your friend is not well. I’m sorry I had to make him walk, but I couldn’t afford to raise any suspicions in the village. Lord Micah is very specific in his instructions to our overseer,” Angus said as Virdon joined him.
“Pete was … disciplined … by a former owner. He is recovering, but it will take some time,” Alan explained carefully.
“What did he do?” Angus whistled to the horses, and the wagon moved forward with a sudden jerk.
“He … refused to divulge the names of humans and apes who have helped us,” Virdon said cautiously, watching closely for any reaction.
There was none. Angus merely looked at him and nodded. I understand,” he said and left it at that.
They spent the rest of the afternoon traveling at a rather brisk pace, stopping only at dusk to make a quick camp. After a cold dinner of salt biscuits and dried fruit, Angus curled up in a makeshift tent beneath the wagon. “If you promise me you won’t try to escape, I won’t tether you for the night,” he said, almost as an afterthought.
Virdon was incredulous. “You’ll take our word that we won’t run away?!”
“Of course. Besides, you belong to Lord Micah now. Why would you possibly want to escape?” Angus adopted the same incredulity in his voice.
“All right,” Alan said. “You have my word that we won’t leave tonight.”
Angus nodded his satisfaction and relaxed. “Then good night. I hope you feel better tomorrow, Pete.”
Burke washed his third mouthful of dry bread down with several swigs of tepid water, then made a sour face. “Here,” he said, handling the partly eaten biscuit out to Virdon.
Alan shook his head and pushed the bread back toward Pete. “You need to eat!” he said pointedly.
“Tell that to my stomach,” the younger man said, suddenly rising and bolting to the bushes adjoining their camp. Trembling and several shades paler, he returned a few minutes later.
“Couldn’t keep it down?” Alan asked, worry evident in his voice.
“No,” Pete said hoarsely. He looked down at his still shaking hands. “You know, every time she’d stop the wheel, that sadistic ape-bitch would pour some concoction down my throat. At the time I thought it was just water, but now that I think back,” Burke locked troubled eyes with his friend. “… Alan, maybe it was something more …”
Virdon heard the barely concealed fear in the younger man’s voice. “I don’t think those apes were sophisticated enough to try to poison or drug you, Pete. Do you remember what it tasted like?”
“Water … at the time I thought it was just water …” he repeated, his eyes taking on a vacant, haunted look.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Pete. You’re still in the recovery mode. You know from past experience that it takes a lot of time to get over being sick.”
“I’m not sick, Alan. I was tortured … for days …”
Burke’s expression went bleak again, and Alan felt compelled to steer their conversation away from the past.
“I know,” the blond man whispered. “But, it’s all over now, and looking back serves no useful purpose. Come on, if you can’t bring yourself to eat, at least get some sleep.”
“I slept all day. I’m not tired,” Burke pouted, sliding back into his defensive persona but, at the same time, he reluctantly heaved himself up on unsteady legs and started slowly back toward his warm, comfortable straw bed.
Virdon watched him go, and a vague uneasiness crawled chillingly up the length of his spine. What if Pete was right? What if Wanda had found more in her book than mere brainwashing techniques?
Alan sighed tiredly and rubbed at the ache on the bridge of his nose. And what if Galen had thought to get forged ownership papers while they were still staying at his parents’ house?
And what if Angus hadn’t decided to stop at the auction and buy them today?
And what if …. everything they’d endured in the last six months was really just an ongoing nightmare and, right now, he was really at home, lying in bed next to his wife. At any moment, he would wake up and touch the soft velvet of her warm skin, caress the satin curves of her body, smell the clean scent of her freshly washed hair. If he closed his eyes really tight and concentrated, perhaps when he opened them he would see Sally staring down at him in her own disarming way. She would smile at him and tickle his nose and lips with her long, honey-colored hair.
“Wanna fool around?” He could almost hear her deep, early morning voice whisper into his ear. “Chris is still asleep. I figure we’ve got a whole hour. Think you’re up to it … hmmm?”
Virdon reached out a hand to grab her, pull her to him, meld her body with his ….
“Alan? You okay?”
Pete’s concerned voice reached through the centuries, shattering his dream into a million tiny shards. Reluctantly, he blinked away the fantasy and the unshed tears. Everyone he’d ever cared about had died more than a thousand year ago. Every one …
He felt cool fingers encircle his forearm and squeeze gently, hesitantly, and he turned to look into the troubled face of his friend. ‘No … not everyone …’
“Come on back to the future, Al,” Pete said softly.
Nodding, he let Pete lead him to the buckboard. “Don’t you have this backwards? I’m supposed to be taking care of you.”
“It’s my turn!” Burke said in mock indignation. “You keep telling me to eat! Now I’m telling you to sleep! Your bed is right over there. Now march, Colonel!”
Virdon wiped at his eyes one more time and smiled gratefully. “Yes, sir … Major.”
At just before daybreak, they continued on, but Angus slowed the pace. Traveling in a northerly direction for another four days, the assistant overseer rose at sunrise on the fifth and steered the wagon due east. Finally, just as the sun moved from its daily zenith to warm their backs, he pointed to a grove of stately pines. “Lord Micah’s territory begins there!” he announced.
Rested from languishing four days in a soft bed, Burke sat up and plucked at the bits of straw decorating his abundant, walnut-colored hair. Finding a particularly fat one, he popped it into his mouth and chewed one end thoughtfully. “Geez, talk about your boonies! How much further until we reach ‘home,’ Angus?”
“We’ll be there in time for the evening meal, Pete. Overseer Virgil will be extremely excited to finally meet you.”
“Overseer Virgil? Does he run the place? When do we meet Lord Micah?”
“You probably won’t get to see Lord Micah right away. His greathouse is many more days travel to the north. Virgil is in charge of our sector. He ensures that everything runs smoothly and that we always make or exceed our annual quotas.”
“Is he the ape in charge?” Alan asked.
Angus chuckled, then laughed out loud, a sound so uncommon in the humans of this world that both astronauts exchanged looks of wonder.
“What’s so funny?” Burke asked.
“Never mind, you’ll met him soon enough,” Angus shook his head, still smiling at his private joke.
Alan glanced around at his friend and shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay … I just asked,” Pete grinned, then sobered. He had a whole afternoon to himself before he became the official property of Lord Micah. He glanced around, then patted the hay behind him into a soft pillow and lay back. If he only had a few hours of relative freedom left, he chose to spend it sleeping.
The assistant overseer glanced back and nodded approvingly. “Pete is recovering I think.”
Alan bobbed his head in agreement. “Yes, he’s much better, thanks to you.”
Angus smiled and clicked to the horses to quicken their pace.
“You know, I’ve been wondering about something. We were definitely not the best looking humans standing on that platform. Why did you buy us?”
“Because of Pete,” Angus said honestly.
“I don’t understand.”
“He’s … different. You know, he’s not the same as you or I,” Angus hesitated, as though he were trying to remember something. “There’s a word for it, but I can’t recall it right now. You really should wait until Virgil can explain everything to you. It won’t be much longer.”
The blond human watched as the face of their new friend closed up. The answer was always the same, no matter what the question: ‘Wait! Overseer Virgil will explain it.’ Well, like the man said, it wouldn’t be much longer.
“Pete! Wake up! You’re not going to believe this.”
Alan’s excited voice intruded in his sleep, and Burke cracked one eyelid to find himself the subject of close scrutiny by several pairs of prying eyes. He stared up at the well-scrubbed faces of at least five human children. All seemed content to merely stand and look at him, and he suddenly felt uncomfortable. Stifling a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position. “Whose rugrats?”
Virdon’s face joined the circle of children watching him. “Boy, you are a sleepyhead! Will you open your eyes and look around?”
The dark-haired man scratched his head, stretched grandly and then froze in mid-yawn. His gaze centered on a magnificent, two-story log cabin directly in front of the wagon. Surrounded by tall maples and silver oaks, the structure was nothing like any of the hovels he was used to seeing humans live in. Even those apes he had encountered didn’t have the technology to create such a house.
It was equipped with several fireplaces and a wraparound porch that sported an honest-to-god, cane-back swing. The windows held no glass, but all were equipped with one-piece shutters. Mesh screening had been installed to let air in and keep insects and other pests out. And behind the screens hung intricate crocheted curtains.
Burke tore his eyes away from the beautiful house to view the scene behind, but children’s faces blocked his view. He scrambled to his feet and stood in the back of the wagon.
“I don’t believe it.” As far as his eyes could see were less spacious, but similarly designed, one-story log houses.
“Angus!” A petite brunette woman who appeared to be in her late-thirties ran from the porch of the larger cabin and embraced their benefactor in a great hug. They kissed familiarly.
“I was so worried about you.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been. You know I can take care of myself. And look! See what I’ve brought.”
The woman reluctantly pulled away and looked at Pete and Alan. She smiled warmly at them.
“This is my wife,
“Hello. Welcome to Lord Micah’s family.”
“He’s always doing something for others. My husband has a good heart.”
“Come,” Angus gestured for the two astronauts to follow him,
and he and
Burke jumped agilely from the wagon. “Somebody pinch me. I must be dreaming. Owww!” Pete’s head whipped around. “All right, which one of you little monsters did that?”
The children giggled, a musical sound all on its own. Its merriment infected Burke, who joined them in their laughter.
“Hey, Al, I think I’m gonna like it here.” He hurried to catch up with his friend who had already ascended the steps.
Virdon stopped him with a solemn face. “You know we can’t stay long, Pete. Galen is probably on his way back from Central City by now. He’ll be along in a week or so to ‘claim’ us, and then we’ll have to leave.”
The brown eyes dropped forlornly, and Pete nodded. “You’re right, I guess. Can’t have ol’ Urko up here messing with Angus or his family.”
“If we stay too long, you know that’s exactly what’s going to happen eventually.” Alan looked back at the children who were now engaged in a raucous game of hide ‘n seek. “I wouldn’t want to be the serpent in what appears to be another Garden of Eden on this planet.”
“Papa?” Pete furrowed his brow at Alan, who shrugged.
“That’s what the lady said. Come on.”
Unbelievably, the inside of what they soon learned was Lord Micah’s greathouse was even more splendid than the outside. They were shown to a large, upstairs bathroom and were delighted to discover that the overseer had installed a crude indoor plumbing that featured both a shower and a bathtub with hot and cold running water.
When they had both bathed and wrapped themselves in large warm
Again, they were shocked to find the bedroom decorated with beautiful furniture. Although homemade, the full-sized Paul Bunyon log bed featured a thick mattress, large down pillows and a colorful, patchwork quilt. Lacy, crocheted curtains hung from each of the room’s four large windows, and dried flowers kept the look of spring glowing in the decorative window boxes outside.
Virdon toweled his wet hair vigorously. “Well, I’m impressed,” he said, still looking around in awe.
Burke sat on the bed and picked up one of the fleece shirts that had been spread out on the quilt. Soft underwear, undershirts, knitted socks, and gray trousers were also lying ready for their use. “I guess they dress for dinner here,” he said offhandedly, running his hands over the expertly-sewn spread. His fingers touched the fluffy knits and scratchy homespun squares. Triangles of an unusual, smooth white cloth were interspersed on the quilt forming ring-like patterns. He reached out and touched one, frowning at its texture. It didn’t feel like the others; in fact, it didn’t even look homemade. It felt more like ….
“Pete! Come over here.” Alan stood gazing out one of the middle windows.
Distracted from his examination of the quilt material, Burke doffed the towel, pulled on the underwear and grabbed one of the shirts. He shoved his still damp head through the neck opening and joined Alan. “What is it?”
“Want to bet that’s Overseer Virgil down there?”
A glance at the courtyard below showed Angus conversing quietly with a gray-haired man. The older human had his back to the astronauts, but even at a distance, they could discern that he was tall and large in build.
“No bets,” Pete said, returning to the bed and retrieving a pair of hand-knitted socks. He yanked one on his left foot, then stopped, frozen in place by an almost forgotten scent.
He sniffed once, twice, then looked at Alan with wide, wondering eyes. “Is that what I think it is?”
Virdon grinned. “Smells like roast chicken … with sage dressing. And apple pie!”
A knock at the door and
Again, the décor was handmade but sophisticated. Alan guessed that the long, polished table was maple. There were lengthy benches on both sides, with two large, ornately carved wooden chairs placed at both ends.
Several roast chickens were spread out sumptuously in a veritable smorgasbord of delicacies the astronauts had neither seen nor eaten in what seemed eons. Cornbread and sage dressing, fresh, steamed vegetables swimming in homemade butter, and bread still warm from the oven lay in abundance on the table, and both men felt their stomachs contract with hunger.
Angus motioned for Alan to join him on the bench nearest the head of the table. He gestured for Pete to sit directly opposite him. The other humans arranged themselves on the benches, leaving both large chairs empty.
“Where’s Trina?” Angus looked around the room, searching for a face that had not yet appeared.
“I haven’t seen her since early this morning,”
“My only daughter,” Angus said in explanation and shook his head. “Seventeen and thinks she’s grown. Do you have any …” The assistant overseer cut himself off as the side door opened.
An old woman entered, and both Pete and Alan stood in respect. Dressed in a flattering, formfitting dress, she appeared to be in her late sixties. Her gray hair had been meticulously caught up and pinned to the back of her head in a neat bun, and she searched the room with animated blue eyes. Settling on Burke, her gaze finally stopped.
He met her unyielding glance head on, but she was intimidating in her stare, and he suddenly felt as though she could see right through him. He squirmed inwardly, uncomfortable in the grip of her gaze, and dropped his eyes. When he looked up again, he saw that her piercing stare now held Virdon in its grasp. Burke saw a flicker of some unrecognizable emotion flash fleetingly across her lined, but still handsome face as she examined Alan with her eyes, but it disappeared before he could discern what it was, and then she continued to her chair at one end of the table.
Angus jumped up. “Let me help you, mother,” he said and took her arm.
“I see our guests haven’t forgotten their manners, Angus. Please be seated,” she said to Burke and Virdon. Then to Angus, “Have you forgotten yours?”
“No, ma’am,” Angus blustered, pulling her chair out and pushing it in as she seated herself. “I thought I’d wait for Papa.”
“I’m here, Angus,” a strong, deep voice said from the front of the room, and Burke and Virdon turned in unison.
Overseer Virgil, his wrinkled face and leathered skin displaying every decade, stood in the doorway. His gray, thinning hair was cropped short, and he sported an equally gray beard and mustache. But age had not touched his body or his voice. He stood tall, well over six feet, with broad, unstooped shoulders and a massive chest. In two long strides, he took his place at the head of the table and looked from the still standing Burke to Virdon.
“Alan,” the old man appeared to have great difficulty saying the name. He swallowed, then coughed once, twice, then again and again until it appeared he couldn’t catch his breath.
Angus and Alan moved together to grab the man’s arms. They tried to help him sit down, but Virgil held up a large hand to signal that he was okay. Still wheezing, he reached for a handkerchief and wiped his streaming eyes. “Forgive me,” he said in a strained voice. “I’m a very old man, and my body sometimes likes to remind me of that fact. Welcome to Lord Micah’s family.” He held out a hand to the blond astronaut.
Virdon took the proffered hand to shake it and, instead, felt himself drawn into a warm, friendly embrace. Marveling at the old man’s strength, he pulled back and stared deeply into Virgil’s faded blue eyes. “Well, thank you, sir. Pete and I are very grateful. However, there is a problem ….”
“None we can’t fix, I assure you,” Virgil said and turned watery eyes to Burke. “And you are Pete. Welcome.”
Again, the hand was extended. Burke shook it cordially, then found himself similarly squeezed.
“I trust you’re feeling better now.”
“Very much, sir. Thank you.”
“Sit down, gentlemen. Let me introduce you to the rest of my family. My wife and partner in life, Charlie,” he said, indicating the older woman at the opposite end of the table.
The old woman smiled at both astronauts. “It’s really
Virgil went on. “To
your immediate left, Pete, are my oldest daughter, Rachel, and her husband,
Noel. They are responsible for running
the northern zones of the sector. And
on the end are our youngest, Charla, and her
husband, John, who are accountable for the southern districts. On the opposite side are my only son,
Angus, and his wife,
“You know the child, Papa. She’s off wandering somewhere in the hills.”
“She’s not a child anymore, Angus. She’ll be eighteen in less than two months. She has chores and responsibilities now, and if I find that she’s gone back to the forbidden territory again, I’ll ….”
“I’m sorry I’m late, Papa Virgil!” An utter whirlwind breezed into the room, slamming the door behind her and plopping unceremoniously into the vacant seat at the table. She was tall and lithe, with auburn hair that fell in waves to her waist.
“And this is Trina, my oldest grandchild,” Virgil finished irritably. “Everyone, this is Alan and Pete. They’ve joined our family today.”
Virdon surveyed each face. All of Virgil’s grown children had varying shades of blond hair with deep-set eyes that ranged from brightest blue to murky ocean green. The older two, Angus and Rachel, had darker hair and complexions than their sisters. Charla, the youngest, had waist-length saffron hair and seemed extremely shy. She cast her gaze downward as Virdon looked her way.
But Arvid, the middle daughter, had no such inhibitions. She boldly returned his stare, and Virdon found her open, welcoming smile delightful. He smiled back and nodded, noting the attractive curve of her square jaw and her long, honey-blonde hair.
Reluctantly, he moved his gaze along the rest of the table, finally halting on his friend. He saw Pete with an identical grin on his face, but Burke had eyes only for the lovely young thing who had just joined them.
Virgil motioned for everyone to sit. “Enjoy your meal, gentlemen. We’ll talk more after dessert.”
Sated, warm and comfortably secure for the first time in months, Alan leaned back into the homemade sofa and let his body relax completely. Seated next to him, Pete seemed likewise rested and content. The dinner meal was everything they imagined it would be and more. Dessert had been the expected apple pie served with cool, tangy lemonade and, just when both astronauts knew they couldn’t eat or drink another bite, Virgil and Charlie moved them into another area of the house that seemed to serve as the family room or den.
“Oh, no … thank you, but I just can’t …” Pete said, shaking his head and holding his stomach.
“You should try some, Pete,” Angus said with a sideward glance and wink at Alan, who already held a glass in his hand.
Curious, the blond man took a tentative sip. Almost immediately, his eyes grew large and moist, and he coughed appreciatively. “It’s beer! Cold and foamy … beer!” He took another sip and grinned at his dark-haired friend. “I don’t believe this.”
Beside him, Burke lifted a mug of the unexpected beverage to his lips. He drank long and deep and heaved a sigh of extreme pleasure. “That … was … wonderful!”
“Take it easy, Pete. Remember, you’re not used to taking in this much food.”
“I feel fine, Alan. Everything’s stayed down for several days now. You can let it go, okay?” Burke said with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Virdon backed off. “Okay,” Alan said placatingly and turned his attention to the faces of his new friends. “All right, Angus. We’re here. Virgil is here. And we have many questions."”
“Yeah, first of all, who are you?” Pete said, wiping foam from his lips. “And how did you manage to make this beer?”
“No,” Virgil said simply and kindly. “First of all … who are you?”
“What do you mean?” Virdon said. “You know who we are.”
“I have a pretty good idea who you are, but I’d prefer it if you’d tell me yourselves.”
Burke and Virdon looked at each other. Mutually indecisive, they turned back to the old man expectantly.
“Angus tells me that Pete is different from other human males.”
Pete looked up. “I don’t know what you mean … ‘different.’ How am I different?”
“You are circumcised, are you not?”
Burke’s face flushed an unexpected crimson. After all, they were sitting in mixed company. Recovering quickly, he shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, so what?”
“Up until today, I thought I was the only circumcised male on the planet,” Virgil said.
“Yeah? Well, you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine,” Burke rankled.
“Pete!” Alan chided. “Don’t you even hear what he’s saying! How is it that you even know about such a procedure, Virgil? And why did you say ‘on the planet’?”
“If I’m not mistaken, circumcision was a fairly common practice for newborn males in the middle and latter part of the 20th century.”
Virdon was aghast. “So, what are you really saying, Virgil? That you were born in the middle of the 20th century?”
The old man smiled. “In 1968 to be exact,” he said.
Beside him, Charlie suddenly stood and walked to the other side of the room. She pulled open the middle drawer of a credenza-like piece of furniture and pulled out a small, round paper-wrapped item. Returning to her seat, she handed the article to Virdon.
Alan peeled back the fragile onionskin paper carefully, and both he and Burke caught their breath. The insignia was old and faded, and the edges were raveling, but the faded letters were unmistakable.
“NASA,” Alan whispered in stunned disbelief. “My God, you were an astronaut too?”
“Charlie and I have been awaiting the arrival of others like us for more than forty years. Now, we have much to discuss, gentlemen, and when we have finished, then you can decide if you wish to stay with us or continue on your way.”
“So, theoretically, you’re saying that if you can find a working computer or the pieces to construct one, the flight data on your disk will tell you exactly what went wrong and possibly how to reverse the process. Am I right?” Virgil said, blinking his eyes as the rising sun sent its first glinting rays into the family room.
“Exactly,” Alan said.
“Of course, there’s still one more problem - I didn’t have time to
remove the computer card with the program to recognize this disk before the
apes destroyed our ship. While we
already know that there are working models of computers hidden in the ruins
of some of the larger cities on earth, we don’t know if any of them will be
able to translate this disk into anything recognizable. We found one working computer at what used
“I’ve heard of them, but neither has ever bothered to travel this far north.”
“Be thankful!” Burke said sleepily from his reclining position on the couch. “I can guarantee you that if we stay here long enough, Virgil, there’s a good chance you’ll get to meet one or both of them very shortly.”
“And there’s another friend who travels with us … Galen … he’s working on having identity ownership papers forged for us in Central City,” Alan said.
“A human with those kinds of connections?”
“He’s a chimpanzee. It’s a long story, but he saved our lives, and the ape Gestapo has branded him a traitor. Anyway, he should be along to ‘reclaim’ us in a week or so. Do you think there’ll be a problem with Lord Micah?”
Virgil looked suddenly tired. “No,” he said quietly. “I foresee no problems. But until this Galen does come for you, we can spend time together and talk about … where we came from.”
“Yes, I’d like that very much,” Alan said, yawning. For the first time he noticed that it was growing light outside. “I’m sorry, Virgil, I’ve kept you up all night talking about my plans. Please … get some rest.”
The old man eased out of his chair slowly. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. You’ve don’t know how very long I’ve waited to find … to have others like Charlie and me … to talk to. I always suspected there were more like us in this world. Perhaps, working together, we can help you locate a computer.”
“Would you want to go back with us?”
Virgil looked surprised, as if the thought had never occurred to him. Then, “No, I don’t think so. My life is here with Charlie.”
“What about your family back home?”
“My family is here now.”
Virdon nodded. “I understand, sir.”
“All right. We’ll take it one day at a time for now. Tomorrow we’ll tour the sector so I can show you what we’ve accomplished here. After that, I’d like both of you to help out with the preparations for gathering the crops and our Harvest Festival.”
“Once a year, the apes from our precinct arrive to collect our quota. They’re due to show up in two or three weeks. We always throw a big party with lots of food, decorations and dancing. They seem to enjoy it, and it helps relieve some of the obvious tension while they’re here,” the overseer said and turned to exit. He glanced at Burke who had nodded off minutes earlier and now lay sprawled half-on, half-off the sofa. Smiling, the old man said, “I see Pete’s got the right idea already. Get some sleep, Alan. I’ll see you both at lunch.”
“I will. Thank you, sir.” Alan watched as Virgil exited the room, then he turned to his sleeping friend. “Pete! Time to wake up.”
“It can’t be … morning already. I just closed my eyes.”
“I know, but it was morning already when you went to sleep. Come on, I’ll help you up the stairs.”
Their third full day on Virgil’s sector broke with the promise of rain. As he awoke, Virdon’s nose caught the familiar, damp scent already hanging in the heavy air. He turned over, snuggling deeper into the warmth of the first comfortable bed he’d slept in in over half a year, and noticed that Burke’s side was already empty.
“Pete?” He pushed himself up on one elbow and glanced around the room. He saw Burke sitting quietly in the window seat. His friend stared mutely outside. “Aren’t you cold?”
Burke didn’t move his head. “No,” he said absently.
“Something wrong, or you just couldn’t take two full nights of these luxurious accommodations?”
Burke took several moments to reply. Finally, he said, “The world’s spinning round and round again, Alan, and I can’t get off the wheel.”
‘Jesus!’ Virdon was on his feet and across the room in scant seconds. “Let me help you back to bed.”
“Lying down just makes it worse. When I close my eyes, the bed spins like I’ve tied one on for three days. I’ll just stay here until it stops.”
“What can I do to help, Pete?”
Burke sighed tremulously, the tenuous hold he had on his emotions threatening to break. Then, abruptly, he rallied and regained his self-control. “Go downstairs and eat enough of that wonderful smelling breakfast for both of us.”
“I’m not going to leave you up here alone in this condition.”
“I’ve had ‘this condition’ enough to know that it’s temporary. Look, I’ll be okay. You get dressed and go on down to breakfast. As soon as I feel better, I’ll join you, all right?” Burke forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
A knock on their door signaled that others in the upstairs part of the house were up and about. Arvid’s voice called to them from the other side. “Alan! Pete! Breakfast is almost ready. Hurry down, and be sure to dress warmly. Papa says he wants to take you around the sector right after you eat. Are you awake?”
“Yes, Arvid. We’re awake. We’ll be down in a few minutes. Thank you,” Alan replied, then immediately turned his attention back to his friend. “Any better?”
“A little bit,” Burke said, moving to stand. He teetered precariously for a split second, then recovered enough to cross the room and open the chifferobe. “See?” he said triumphantly, pulling a shirt and capelet from the hangers. “I’m already better.”
Still unconvinced, Virdon poked at the still-glowing embers in the bedroom fireplace. “Are you going to be able to eat anything?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try.”
“If you don’t feel up to this little excursion, tell me now. I’ll make your excuses.”
“No, it’s almost gone, Alan. Really.”
Virdon joined Burke at the chifferobe, retrieved a pullover and hooded cape and returned to sit on the bedside. “How long did this one last?”
“Nearly an hour,” Burke estimated. “I think they’re getting shorter, and I know they’re happening farther and farther apart. The last one was four days ago.”
“Maybe that’s a good sign, Pete.”
Burke nodded carefully and, when the vertigo didn’t intensify, he dressed quickly. Slinging the capelet over his shoulder, he was almost fully recovered by the time Alan finished getting his clothing on, and both men hurried down to breakfast.
“October has always been one of my favorite months,” Virgil said over the noise of the squeaking wagon wheels and the protesting oxen.
“How do you know it’s October?” Alan asked. He sat next to the old overseer in the wide front eat of the large utility wagon.
“Well, 37 years ago …” the old man thought for a moment, then nodded to himself, “… no, it was almost 38 years ago, Charlie gave me a son. We named him Angus, and from the day he was born, I began counting each day and week, watching the positions of the sun and the stars and noting the changing of each season. Today is October 17th, give or take a day. I have no idea what year it is.”
“It’s 3025,” Pete said, “give or take a century.”
“Really?” Virgil was aghast. “We came that far into the future?” The old man shook his head in astonished disbelief.
Trina, who’d climbed aboard as a last minute passenger, sat across from Burke in the back of the wagon. She shook her auburn tresses out of her face and smile at the astronaut. “Do you rally think that Alan will find a way to get back to your own time?”
Burke, who had spent most of the morning in quiet, uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, nibbled persistently at a hangnail on his thumb. “Alan and I have a minor difference of opinion on that subject. He believes. I don’t,” he said, spitting the detached nail over the side of the wagon.
The blond man smiled patiently. “I wouldn’t exactly call that a ‘minor’ difference of opinion, Pete.”
“Me neither,” Trina agreed, turning her attention and her ever-changing eyes toward Virdon. “Tell me about your time, Alan. Papa and Mama Charlie have mentioned some fascinating machines that transported people from place to place without oxen to pull them and another strange device that let humans talk to other humans even though they were very far away. Do you know of these machines? Can you tell me about the things you did and the places you saw?”
Burke shot Alan a pair of raised eyebrows. Angus’ daughter was not only captivating, she was also extremely intelligent and openly yearning for knowledge.
“Trina,” Virgil interjected before Virdon could reply. “Pete and Alan may not want to talk about their experiences just yet. Some recollections may still be quite painful for them.”
The old man cast an empathetic, sideward glance at Virdon that made the blond astronaut uncomfortable. It was almost as though Virgil could read his thoughts and was familiar with the ever-present ache in his heart. Alan considered for a moment, but he couldn’t decide whether he should be openly amazed or bothered by the man’s comprehension.
Disappointment showed plainly on Trina’s face, and she cast her eyes down to her folded hands on her lap. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” she said miserably.
“Tell you what, Trina,” Burke said, suddenly perking up, “when we get back to the greathouse, I’ll clue you in on everything you ever wanted to know about the twentieth century - from electricity to television, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter … hey, Virgil, you were still there in the eighties, who won the 1980 election, Carter or Reagan?"
“Reagan,” Virgil said with a huge smile, “and he won the next one too, followed by Bush and Clinton and …”
“What about the hostages in
“Not exactly. Carter tried a rescue mission, but it failed miserably. They were finally released the day Reagan took office. Kind of a slap in Carter’s face. But he proved to be a better ex-president when he turned peacemaker in the early nineties.” Virgil reined the oxen in. “Well, here we are at the northwest corner. Over to your right is an apple orchard; they’re in the dormant season. To the left are the late-bearing pear trees. Charlie makes some mouth-watering pies out of them this time of year. And to the east we have the year-round vegetable fields. Right now we’ve got two different kinds of cabbage growing.”
“I didn’t know there was more than one kind,” Burke said in a low voice, and Trina giggled conspiratorially.
Ignoring them, Virgil went on, “And then there are the pumpkin and autumn squash fields toward the south. We store a lot of what we harvest in the surrounding caves.”
“You don’t report all your crops to the apes?” Alan asked.
“No, we stockpile as much as we can for the leaner months. The snows come in December and January. They’re not usually heavy, but they do put a crimp in the growing season.”
“What about Lord Micah? Doesn’t he ever get suspicious?”
Virgil clucked to the oxen and turned them in an easterly direction. “Micah has always trusted me to keep his best interests. I’ve never let him down.”
“Will we ever get to meet him?”
“Perhaps. He doesn’t visit us very often, but there’s a possibility he may pop in for the Harvest Festival.”
“Good,” Alan said, “I think I’d like to meet him. He sounds a lot like our friend Galen.”
“I hope I get to meet your friend one day.”
“I do too. Unless he ran into some trouble, he should be arriving any day now.”
“Well, I have to be honest when I say that I very much look forward to meeting him, but I’m not happy at the prospect of losing two good hands so soon after I’ve acquired them.”
“If you’d like us to stay a little longer and work off the price you paid, we’ll be happy to oblige. I’m sure Galen would pitch in too.”
“That won’t be necessary, Alan,” Virgil said and quickly changed the subject. “Now, you can’t see it just yet, but when we travel a few more miles to the east, the poultry houses that keep us supplied with fresh eggs and low-fat meats will come into view.”
“Chickens,” Burke said in a bored voice. “I can hardly wait.”
“Pete, if you’d rather not finish the sector tour, at this particular location we’re only about an hour’s hike away from the greathouse. I know there are several items of interest along the way that might intrigue you. Trina will be happy to point them out. And when you reach the greathouse, I know Angus and Noel will be more than happy to accept your assistance with the reassembly of the bandstand for the Harvest Festival.”
Burke shot Virgil an apologetic look, but the old man merely smiled patiently.
“Don’t worry about offending me, Pete. You were probably a city boy, and I’ve never met one yet, man nor ape, who could fake an interest in crop yields or egg production. At least you’re honest.”
“You’re right, Virgil. I’m sorry, but I’m just not a farmer like Virdon. What you’ve accomplished here is to be admired, but it’s right up his alley, not mine. Alan could probably sit up there enthralled all day long."”
“No apology necessary, Pete. You and Trina run along. Tell Charlie that Alan and I will be back in time for dinner.”
“Will do. Come on, Trina.” He reached for the girl’s hand and helped her from the wagon. “Let’s see if between the two of us we can find our way back to Oz.”
“Just follow the yellow brick road, Trina,” her grandfather said with a happy, nostalgic smile.
“Never mind,” Burke said, tugging her along. “I’ll tell you the whole story on the way back.”
Hand-in-hand, the two scurried off toward the south.
Alan watched them go with mixed feelings, and he observed Virgil doing the same.
“If you’d rather Pete not be so attentive to your granddaughter, Virgil, I’ll speak to him.”
The overseer lifted one shaggy, gray eyebrow and grinned crookedly. “You’d have to speak to her too. It’s obviously a mutual thing. But there’s no need to worry, Alan. The rules here are very different from those of our time. You’ve only been in this world a short while, but you’ll find that one must grab pleasure where one can find it, because joy is a rare commodity here. To be frank with you, I’m rather pleased that Trina has at last shown some interest in being a woman. Not that I’m sexist or anything like that, but we must be realistic. As a female, she will be needed to carry on the bloodline and instruct the next generation of our family. And the more we grow, both in number and in wisdom, the more chance we have of surviving this hostile society and, maybe one day, overcoming the inequities and injustices.”
“So is that your ultimate plan, Virgil … to achieve equality with the apes?”
The old man sighed. “Equality won’t happen in my lifetime, but it would be an accomplishment to achieve mutual respect. Once you have the respect of other beings, it’s hard for them to justify discrimination.”
“My goodness,” Virgil exclaimed, “how’d we all of a sudden grow so philosophical?”
Virdon grinned in agreement, but it disappeared from his face almost immediately as an overpowering offensive odor suddenly assaulted his nose.
The old overseer shot him a look of pained understanding. “Chicken houses,” he said grimly. “If we could only find a way to bottle that odor, we could rule this world.” He laughed and hurried the oxen into a reluctant trot. “Let’s go, boys. This is one part of the trip we can hurry through.”
As their busy days at the sector turned into a week, then two, the astronauts found themselves caught up in the normal, day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of life on Virgil’s sector.
Alan took to the ranch and farm work like the proverbial duck to water, driving himself to accomplish as much physical work as possible during the steadily decreasing daylight hours of autumn. Evenings found him reminiscing with Virgil and Charlie about life in the twentieth century or savoring spirited roundhouse debates with Angus and Arvid. He also occasionally acted as storyteller to the rapt attention of the younger members of the family, spinning fanciful tales of talking cats in red leather boots and foolish chickens with ludicrous ideas about the sky.
Burke, never one to draw any deep gratification or sense of achievement from manual labor, plodded along good-naturedly beside his blond friend. True to character, he joked sarcastically or complained loudly as he assisted Alan in repairing the rotting back porch steps of the greathouse and mending broken fences in the northern ranch sectors.
However, Pete chose to spend most of his free evening hours in the company of Angus’ auburn-haired daughter. With a ragged deck of homemade cards, he painstakingly taught the girl how to play poker, taking hours of patient instruction to show her each hand, its significance and her options with it. When Trina finally seemed to catch on, Burke suddenly found himself nightly losing hand after hand to their audience and Trina’s absolute delight.
After four days of miserable degradation, Trina finally admitted to her chagrined teacher that she had learned to play the game at her grandfather Virgil’s knee many years before and had long ago been dubbed the unofficial poker champion of the family.
Time continued to rush by and, as the two astronauts worked to ready the sector for the upcoming Harvest Festival, thoughts of their still-absent chimpanzee friend were always present in the backs of their minds.
The day the great apes arrived was fair and unseasonably warm for early November, and the two misplaced humans found themselves busy with several necessary outdoor chores.
Virdon perched haphazardly on the lower right side of the barn roof, repairing one of the many tiny holes and readying the large building to house and protect the smaller domestic animals during the fast-approaching winter season.
Burke balanced on the top rung of the old wobbly, homemade ladder, a bucket of thick, sticky resin poised and ready to coat and finish off the repair work.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” Andrew’s excited adolescent voice announced the impending arrival of three large apes.
Virdon stopped his hammering and, from his vantage, looked out toward the edge of the first clearing. Although partially hidden behind the nearly naked boughs of several bordering pecan trees, he could still make out a pair of mounted gorillas. Following closely behind, a chimpanzee whistled and clicked to the matched pair of white horses pulling a large, heavy-duty farm wagon.
The three apes reached the courtyard quickly, and Virgil, Charlie and an uncharacteristically nervous Angus were ready and waiting when they got there.
“Their serene highnesses, Moe, Larry and Curly,” Burke said scornfully under his breath.
“Shhhh!” Alan cautioned, and both men stopped their labors long enough to watch the drama unfolding below.
“Gunter, welcome to Lord Micah’s
“Virgil, it is good to see you again. I understand the crops were near record this growing season.”
“Yes, sir, we have far exceeded Lord Micah’s expectations once more. He bids me to make you welcome and comfortable in his guesthouse. Andrew, John, see to our friends’ horses please.”
Both Virgil’s son-in-law and grandson hurried forward and bowed respectfully. Andrew took possession of the two untethered horses and headed toward the barn with them while John grasped the loose wagon reins. The seated, heavyset chimp snorted at being so soon dislodged from his comfortable berth, but he leaped down anyway, sending a scathing look in John’s direction.
“Come into Lord Micah’s greathouse, sirs. My wife has prepared several vegetable delicacies for your enjoyment.”
“And, I hope, a very large mug of your famous beer,” Gunter said in undisguised anticipation.
“Tall, cool and foamy, just as you like it, sir,” Virgil replied, leading the way up the porch steps and into the greathouse. Gunter and Hector, the second, leaner ape, followed, but the stocky chimpanzee hesitated, lagging behind his fellow simians.
Odiah stood in the courtyard, scrutinizing and examining every inch of the humans’ estate. Intermittently, his bristly brow and pudgy snout wrinkled in stern displeasure as he viewed the scandalous greathouse and many one-family units. He snorted arrogantly at the affluent surroundings and made a mental note to discuss with Gunter this uncommon open display of human wealth and prosperity. He had heard but never really believed the rumors that Lord Micah treated his humans in such a luxuriant manner.
As he turned to enter the greathouse, Odiah felt a vague uneasiness wash over him, as though someone in the courtyard were watching him. His heavy head abruptly shifted around and upward, and he found himself the single object of two curious pairs of human eyes. The two men, one tall and blond, the other lean and dark-haired, stood silently watching him from the roof of the whitewashed barn. He stared back condescendingly, waiting for the two brazen humans to immediately and customarily drop their eyes, but neither seemed the least bit intimidated by his fierce glare. Infuriated at this unexpected disregard for his authority, he growled a low warning and started forward to correct the two impertinent men.
Gunter called to him from the doorway of the greathouse.
“We are guests of Lord Micah, but we are also here on estate business. As the prefect’s territorial accountant, you are needed to figure the total crop yields for this season. Come inside now so we can be done with the work and enjoy the festival they’ve planned in our honor tonight.”
“A moment, sir. There’s a slight obedience problem I must attend to.”
“Whatever it is can wait, Odiah,” the leader said in a no-nonsense voice. “You were employed by the prefect to do this job, and you will do it now!”
“Yes, sir!” Stung and humiliated, Odiah reluctantly turned and strode quickly toward the greathouse. It would be foolish to anger Gunter; it was obvious his leader’s mind was only on the upcoming festivities and not on proper decorum. He bounded the porch stairs, then turned back once again to view the two presumptuous humans.
The blond man had properly turned away from the embarrassing situation and returned his attentions to the tasks as hand. His hammer made reverberating noises, resounding loudly in the now quiet courtyard as he repaired a loose roof board.
However, the other, younger human still watched contemptuously from his ladder perch; he had not correctly turned his back to Odiah’s scolding, and this infuriated the large chimpanzee.
“I will take care of you later, human,” he said under his breath.
“I’m coming, sir,” Odiah said and hurriedly entered the greathouse.
The carnival atmosphere and brightly strung outdoor candlelight made the courtyard a jubilant place to be. Everywhere he went, Alan found smiling human faces, an uncommon sight in this future world. He strolled through the courtyard, greeting each person in turn politely, and hurried to what he had come to know as the ‘Learning House.’ Arvid had dismissed her young charges early today, allowing them to return to their families and ready themselves for the festival tonight, but he knew she had stayed late at the school to clean up.
On the way, he passed the grandstand where Gunter and Hector sat viewing the ongoing activities curiously and with some amusement. He noted that Virgil and Charlie’s chairs had been placed directly at Gunter’s right side, but two feet lower, on ground level. Alan looked around for the third ape, but he was nowhere in sight.
“Looking for me?” Arvid’s soft voice came from directly behind him.
“Not anymore,” he said, smiling as she moved to stand beside him.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“A little. The sun hasn’t been down for long, so it can’t be dinnertime yet.”
“How about a walk? It’s still quite pleasant and not so very warm anymore. We could go to the edge of the clearing.”
“All right,” he said, starting off in that direction. She stayed beside him, her long legs easily keeping pace with his lengthy strides.
They walked in silence for several minutes, and Virdon found himself occasionally glancing sideward at her. She was definitely not what anyone would call beautiful, but there was a certain attractiveness in her square face and high cheekbones. Her eyes were the color of the ocean on a cloudy day, her long, straight hair a burnished, unrefined honey. At nearly six feet, she almost met Alan face to face, but she was neither angular nor unfeminine in her height. Alan guessed her age to be about 30, and he wondered at her singleness in the midst of the family-oriented clan.
Almost as if she could read his thoughts, Arvid suddenly spoke up. “I was married to a very fine man named Jared. We lived in one of the houses up there.” She pointed toward the single-family swellings at the top of the adjoining hill. “And we were very happy for many seasons.”
She stopped, as if it was too painful to go on, and Alan said nothing, allowing her to make the decision to continue.
“… then about two seasons … years … ago, he was killed in an accident. One of the storage caves in the western sector collapsed, and he was crushed.”
Virdon waited a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“We had a son,” she whispered mournfully.
“I didn’t know you had a child, Arvid. Where is he?” he asked gently, then regretted it almost immediately for her face grew even more grim.
“With his father,” she said finally. “The shock of losing my husband … well … the baby came into the world much too soon. He lived less than a day. I took him to the cave where Jared rests and laid him there.” She pulled a cloth from her apron pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “I never even gave him a name,” she finished sorrowfully.
Not knowing what else to do, Virdon took her hand and squeezed it. This seemed to calm her for she sniffed and took a deep, ragged breath.
“I know you’ve suffered a recent loss also, Alan,” she said intuitively. “The hurt is still so naked in your eyes.”
“I …” he faltered.
“No, you don’t have to speak of it,” Arvid shook her head and reached for his other hand. Squeezing both of them reassuringly, she looked deeply into his eyes. “I know it’s much easier at first to keep the loss to yourself. But, later, when the pain isn’t quite so sharp, you will bring yourself to talk about it with someone close to you, and that person will give you the love and understanding you need to go on with your life.”
Virdon felt his face flush and his eyes go moist as unbidden thoughts of Sally and Christopher flooded his consciousness. He bit his lip and nodded, afraid at first to speak because his voice might break and then afraid not to because the grief and pain were bubbling intensely inside his chest and threatening to burst.
“I lost my wife … and child a little over six months ago,” he heard himself admitting for the first time. “They were my whole life … my …”
“Hopes … and dreams and future happiness …” Arvid finished. “I knew it was something like that. Looking into your eyes was almost like looking into my own. I could see into the darkness of your soul.”
A cold, wet tear trickled down his cheek, and Arvid drew closer, reaching up with her handkerchief to gently wipe it away. Her sympathetic face was suddenly too close, her warm body much too near, and his loss and loneliness had become all at once too overwhelming to bear.
Involuntarily, he reached out and pulled her into an anxious, trembling embrace. He pressed his mouth to hers, taking strength and solace from her nearness and her willingness to share in his pain. She returned the kiss, allowing him full access to her mind and body and her own deep sense of loss.
Virdon pulled his lips away and tried to smother his anguish in the softness of her neck and shoulder and, when his heartache had dissipated to a bearable level, a burning desire raged in its stead. He pulled Arvid closer again, hungrily seeking out the warmth of her mouth. His hand moved of its own accord to caress her full breast. When she didn’t pull away and, instead, seemed to respond favorably to the intensity of his passion, he felt his own body react.
And then Sally’s voice called his name ….
Shocked, he jerked backward, stumbling in the abruptness of his movement.
“Alan?” Sally’s voice repeated his name incongruously again, but his eyes told him the lips speaking were Arvid’s.
Dazed, his mind still a whirling jumble of strange sensations, he managed to nod that he had heard. When he had recovered enough to speak, he finally blurted out, “I’m sorry, Arvid. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I don’t know what came over me …”
“I don’t understand, Alan. Forgive what?” she asked, genuinely surprised at his retreat.
Virdon looked around wide-eyed, almost expecting to see the ghost of his dead wife hovering nearby, but there was only the quiet breeze of the early evening and a faint echo of merriment from the courtyard beyond.
“I … I didn’t mean to take advantage of your sympathy, Arvid.”
“Nor I of yours,” she said, still perplexed by his withdrawal. She slipped her hand into his palm tentatively and smiled when he not only allowed the gesture but also gripped her hand firmly and reassuringly with his long fingers. She peered deeply into his eyes, then nodded knowingly.
“Now I understand,” she said at last. “Your wounds are no longer open or bleeding, but they are still bruised and tender. The healing process has begun, Alan.”
Grateful, he gave her a whisper of a smile. “Still friends?”
“For now,” she said perceptively and, still holding on to each other, they headed back to the noisy courtyard.
"Square dancing?” Burke said in an incredulous voice. “Not on your life! There’s no way you’re going to get me out there,” he said insistently, balking as Trina yanked and tugged him toward the courtyard.
“Come on, Pete. It’ll be fun. Don’t be such a party pooper.”
“No! I can’t dance. Don’t ask me!”
From his seat on the porch swing, Alan grinned at the verbal struggle. The grin widened as the blond man turned to greet Arvid, who exited the greathouse holding a mug of beer and a glass of lemonade. She held out the beer for Alan, who took it and gulped down a large, grateful swallow. “Thank you, lovely lady,” he said, making room for her to join him on the swing. He turned back to Burke. “Oh, go on. Dance with the girl, Pete. You might as well give it a try.”
“You give it a try! I haven’t square danced since third grade … come to think of it, I didn’t even do it then. In fact, I seem to recall ol’ Fitzgerald and I exchanged a few choice words over my refusal. That may even have been the first time I ever told him to go to hell. Ah, those were the good ol’ days.”
“Quit changing the subject, Pete, and take the girl dancing.”
“But I don’t wanna square dance,” Burke said with a pained expression on his face.
Trina dropped her eyes, and her lips pursed into a rosebud pout.
“But I …” Burke looked from Trina’s exaggerated sulking to Virdon’s mock accusing to Arvid’s all-knowing smile. Finally, he sighed and shrugged his shoulders in utter surrender. “Oh, all right. I give up.” Shaking his head in resignation, he held out his hands as if he expected to be handcuffed. “Promenade me to the dance floor.”
“Wanna know a secret?” Trina whispered teasingly in his ear as they right-and-left granded around the courtyard. She was gone before he could answer, pulled away by overlapping hands that drew both of them along in opposite directions.
“Meet your lady, swing her ‘round and promenade home,” John sang over the twanging of the strange stringed instruments.
Burke went hands-over-hands hurriedly with several more women before Trina circled around to him again. Following the other dancers’ leads, he swung Trina clumsily around until she was likewise embraced, and the couple played follow-the-leader around the ring of dancers.
“What kind of secret?” he grinned at her as they whirled in place.
“Shhhhh,” she flashed her amazing, technicolor eyes at him. “Not so loud.”
“Okay.” He made a big show of lowering his voice and waited for her to reply.
“Do-si-do. Then bow to your partner; bow to your neighbor; allemande left and go right-and-left grand.”
“Not again,” Pete said with feigned impatience, but Trina and the others tugged him along. On the sidelines he saw Alan and Arvid laughing at his predicament. He flashed Arvid his most devastating smile and, simultaneously, delivered a one-fingered message to Alan behind his back.
Meeting Trina once again, he swung her around and escorted her through half the ring, then ducked down and took a furtive detour to the right. They ended up standing just inside the barn door.
“It’s not finished yet. Oh, Pete, please! Let’s go back!” Trina begged. She tugged at his wrists, and he used the connection to draw her nearer.
“You said something about a secret?” he reminded her.
“Oh, that. I’ve forgotten what it was,” she said with a flirtatious giggle.
“And what can I do to make you remember, hmmmm?” he said, bringing one of her arms up to his mouth. He brushed it lightly with his lips, planting several tickling kisses on the inside of her wrist.
Trina shivered with delight, then laid her index finger against her chin and pretended to be deep in thought. “You might try that somewhere else,” she said boldly.
Burke moved farther into the privacy of the barn and pulled her closer. She snuggled against him, wrapping her long arms around his neck and lifting her face for the expected kiss. She was so lovely and so warm and … so innocent. He pulled up at the sudden reminder.
‘Go easy, Pete,’ he cautioned himself. ‘She’s only seventeen. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’
He loosened her hold on his neck and took a step backward, moving farther apart, then leaned forward and planted a brotherly kiss on her forehead.
“Hmmmm,” she purred, “you’re getting warmer.”
Burke laughed. “We’re both getting much too warm, Trina. Now, come on, let’s go back.”
Trina looked up at him from beneath her gold-tinged lashes. “I know where Papa Virgil’s ship is.”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“Where is it? Take me there.”
“Not tonight. It’s too hard to find, even in the daylight. But we can go there tomorrow, if you like.”
“I like. First thing in the morning?”
“All right. But you can’t tell anyone that I’ve told you about it. Promise me. Not even Alan can know.”
“If you don’t promise, I won’t take you, Pete,” she said in a serious voice.
“It’s in the forbidden territory, isn’t it?”
She looked around to see if anyone else was listening to their conversation, then she nodded. “We’ll have to be extra careful, especially with the apes here for the harvest.” She thought for a moment. “Maybe we should wait until they’ve gone, Pete. If we get caught, there could be a lot of trouble.”
“Then we’ll just make certain that we’re not caught. Okay, I promise I won’t tell anyone, even Alan,” he tossed her a reassuring grin.
She moved closer to him, snaking her arms around his neck again. Turning up her face to stare directly into his eyes, she mouthed the word ‘Okay,’ when she was only a scant inch away. Then her parted lips pressed firmly against his for a long, luscious moment. His resolve melted in an instant as he felt his body responding to hers. He returned the kiss, encircling her waist with his arms and pulling her even closer.
“After breakfast,” she murmured and moved her lips to peck lightly at the tiny cleft in his chin. “Dress warmly, and we’ll make it a picnic. Meet me right here.”
Then suddenly, she was gone, and he was left standing alone, dazed, breathless and very confused.
The bedroom door opened. It creaked slightly, but the stillness of the house magnified the sound, and Alan saw Burke freeze on tiptoe halfway into the room.
“It’s okay, I’m still awake, Pete,” he said quietly.
Burke relaxed and stepped all the way in, then closed the door behind him. “Can’t sleep?” he asked as he moved to his side of the bed and began to undress.
Virdon turned over and propped himself up on one elbow. “Too much on my mind. I’m starting to get worried.”
“Uh huh. It’s been nearly a month, Pete. I’m beginning to think something may have happened to him.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking about him too. This Lord Micah’s a pretty big man … excuse me, ape … in this part of the woods, so it’s not like we didn’t leave an easy trail to follow.”
“Unless the auctioneer wouldn’t tell Galen who bought us or where we went.”
“Now why would he do something like that?” Burke asked, sliding under the covers. Clasping his hands together, he pillowed his head in them and stared up at the bare ceiling.
“Well, monetary reasons for one. He certainly doesn’t want to have to refund Micah’s money.”
“That’s true,” Burke said quietly. “So what do you suggest, Alan?”
“I think our vacation’s almost over, and we need to start making plans on where to go from here.”
Burke’s mood suddenly darkened. “Not vacation, Alan. More like convalescent leave.” The younger man turned his head sideways and looked past Virdon to the other side of the room where the fire flickered warmly. He sighed a weight-of-the-world sigh.
It was Alan’s turn to stare at the blank ceiling. “I know, Pete. These past few weeks haven’t exactly been a picnic for you, but …”
“Picnic! That reminds me,” Burke said, rushing to change the subject. “Trina and I are going on a picnic tomorrow morning. We’ll probably be gone most of the day.”
Virdon raised his eyebrows. “A picnic? In this weather? Does Virgil know about this?”
“Probably not yet. It
was Trina’s idea. But by morning
“You like the girl a lot don’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“She grows on you,” Burke replied in a lighter voice. His black cloud of depression seemed to have lifted with the mention of Trina. “Kinda like jock itch.”
“Yeah, if you leave it alone, it drives you nuts, but when you give it attention, it feels soooo damn good.”
Virdon couldn’t help but smile.
“I notice you’ve got your own mutual admiration society going with Arvid,” Pete said, yawning tiredly.
“Admiration is the perfect word, Pete. She’s an incredibly strong woman with a mind of her own. I’ve discovered that we have an awful lot in common, but there can never be anything between us. I’m not ready to face that yet, not so long as I still have this.” He fingered the silver computer disk he wore around his neck.
Choosing not to get caught up in their ongoing disagreement over the disk and its possibilities or lack of same, Burke merely turned over on his side and stretched his long legs to the very edge of the mattress.
“Besides,” Virdon went on, “I got the feeling tonight that Mama Charlie isn’t exactly thrilled with my budding ‘relationship’ with her daughter.”
“What makes you say that?” Burke asked, genuinely surprised.
“Well, this evening while Arvid and I were sitting on the porch swing holding hands, Charlie came up and made up some lame excuse for Arvid to go into the kitchen with her. When Arvid came back out, she sat across from me and seemed … distant. I also noticed both Virgil and Charlie eyeing us for the rest of the evening.”
“You must be imagining things. Trina’s made no bones about enjoying my company, and no one’s mentioned anything.”
“Well … maybe not to your face …”
Burke swiveled around in the bed. “Who said something?”
“After the two of you left us on the tour the other day, Virgil made it quite plain to me that he’d be very glad to call you grandson.”
“Really?” Pete smiled at the unexpected thought, then sobered. “Hey, I’m not ready for marriage yet. I’m much too young, and I’ve got my career to think about.”
“You’re pushing thirty, Pete. And what career?” Alan teased.
“Not for a couple more months … I think. And I haven’t decided yet,” Pete said. “Let’s see, I’ve failed miserably at gladiating, and I hate the smell and taste of fish so that rules out fishing. Farming is definitely not my calling. Hey, I know … I’d make one heckuva good doctor, don’t you think?”
Virdon’s smile grew strained as a half-forgotten memory suddenly pushed its way to the front of his mind:
He knew he had been shot, had felt the bullet impact, blasting a hole in his side and knocking him off his feet.
For a long while his damaged senses could only provide incomplete data to his brain. All information came in spurts of disjointed, upside-down pictures and disembodied voices. For a moment, his universe trembled, heaving and blackening around him as he fell from the shoulders of his human friend. Hairy paws and long fingers reached out, turning him upright and holding him steady until he reached the uncomfortable cold, hard surface of the cave floor. Within minutes, his world swelled again, but this time when his body touched down, his bedroll cushioned and warmed the floor beneath him. Shadowy faces moved in and out of his limited sight range. One was round and dark, with small, deep-set eyes and a prominent nose and snout. The other, more familiar, was thin and angular with high, well-defined cheekbones and haunted eyes. Both blanched stark against the black background and flickering firelight.
“How’s the pain?” an unemotional, tightly controlled voice asked.
“Not too bad,” he lied. “The bullet must be resting on a nerve.”
There was more conversation, and he forced himself to respond to every question, protesting the insane plans and schemes being hatched by his two friends. But they overruled him on everything, and he could do nothing but lie on the ground and listen as his two best friends plotted their own suicides.
“Galen …” he heard Pete’s voice call the ape’s name, saw his chimpanzee friend pause and look back. But Burke said no more, and then the ape was gone and there was only a frightening silence. He feared he had been left alone until something brought sweet coolness to his forehead and cheeks.
“Easy, Alan. Try to relax and get some sleep. It’ll be a while before Galen can get back.” Pete’s voice began a nonstop, one-sided conversation which he clung desperately to, but after a time, he grew weary. His eyelids shut, and he slept.
When he awoke, only the agony was perpetual. Reality came and went in well-defined spurts of animated pain that paralleled the sharp stabbing in his side. Blackness slowly advanced, taking more and more ground with his every surrender, but he clawed his way back each time. Blades impaled him, cramping, spasming, skewering him to the very marrow, blanking his mind to all, leaving him blind and deaf to everything around him … everything but a disembodied voice that spoke familiarly, unceasingly, comfortingly. A warm hand wrapped around his own, calming, soothing, and after a while, he found that the pain had eased to a tolerable level, and he could focus and listen and drag in one more life-giving breath of air.
Virdon broke out in a cold sweat at the too-real recollection. His friends had gone through hell and risked their freedom and their own lives to save his.
He stared at Pete, who balanced on one elbow, an asinine grin pasted on his handsome face. “I don’t know, Dr. Welby. As I remember it, your bedside manner left something to be desired,” he said lightly, but his eyes were bright with emotion.
“Well, that’s gratitude for you,” the younger man replied. He made a big show of turning over and covering his head. “Night, Alan,” was muffled in a barely stifled yawn.
“Good night, Pete.” Alan absently fingered the disk on his chest. So close and yet so very, very far away. He closed his eyes and forced his body to relax. As he reached that twilight dream state just preceding deep sleep, a voice disturbed him.
On the horizon of slumber, he roused and mumbled a sleepy reply. “Hmmmm?”
“How much longer before we really have to leave here?”
Virdon heard the barely disguised gloom in the younger man’s voice. He thought for a moment before answering. Finally, “We can stay another week, Pete. But if Galen hasn’t arrived by then, we shouldn’t wait any longer. He could be in real trouble … or worse.”
“I know. Okay, seven more days, and if Galen isn’t here, we go hunting. Good night, Alan.”
“Good night, Pete.” Some of the tension seemed to have dissipated, at least temporarily, and Virdon again allowed himself to drift off into a trancelike state.
The blond frowned and cracked one eyelid. Pete’s face emerged through the haze of sleep. “What?” he said. He didn’t even try to conceal the trace of impatience.
Trina stopped just shy of the wide lake and kicked off her shoes. Hopping up and down on alternative legs, she tugged her multi-colored socks from her feet and yanked her oversized trousers down. She stepped out of them, then moved her arms as if to hug herself and pulled her shirt up and over her head. When she had reached the bare minimum of tiny briefs and practically transparent undershirt, she stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Well, come on!”
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Pete said testily. He laid the heavy picnic basket aside and glanced up at the ring of huge boulders surrounding the bowl-shaped crater they now inhabited. Worried that they had been seen when they left the greathouse this morning, Burke had kept a watchful eye for the duration of their forty-five minute hike. He had seen no one, but his honed instincts told him that someone was out there. He felt a presence. He could only hope that it was human.
“… and we have to go into the water to get to the ship,” Trina was saying.
Still wary, he tuned in to her voice.
“If we wear our clothes in, they’ll get wet, and we’ll be very cold walking back to the greathouse. If we take them off now, then they won’t get wet, and we can put them back on when we come out of the water. That way, we won’t catch pneumonia, and we’ll stay much warmer on the way back,” she explained slowly and precisely, as though she were talking to a small child. Satisfied that he now understood her logic, she started tugging at her thin undershirt, but Burke’s hand stopped her.
“It’s too cold for skinny dipping,” he said pointedly, then slipped off his own shoes, socks and outer layer of clothing. Folding them haphazardly, he laid them aside. “Is the ship underwater?”
“No, but in order to get to it, we have to swim almost to the other side and then go under. There are several tunnels beneath that mountain,” she said, indicating the huge pile of boulders that bordered the right edge of the lake. “It’s in a cavern at the end of one of them.”
Burke shivered. “Brrrr, it’s too damn cold to try this. We could get hypothermia.”
“It’s a condition where the body gets too cold and goes into a kind of shock.”
She smiled, moved a little closer and hugged him. “I know how to keep you warm,” she said, scattering kisses across his bare chest and shoulders.
A flash of metal glinted near the southwest edge of the stone wall, and Burke craned his neck over the girl’s head to get a better look. “Trina … come on … stop that!” he said, irritably shoving her away, but when he finally had an unobstructed view, whatever it was, if anything, had disappeared.
There was an edge to his voice that he’d never used with her before, and stunned and hurt, Trina stepped back, turning away as though Burke had physically slapped her.
“Trina, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …” Burke reached out a hand to comfort her, but she jerked away from h is grasp and abruptly took off running toward the water. “Trina!”
“Come on,” she yelled and dove in.
“No! Wait!” Caught off guard, Burke sprinted after her and sliced effortlessly into the icy water. They emerged almost simultaneously near the middle of the lake.
Burke spit out a mouthful of water and grimaced. “Salt water … ptui!” he said. He drew in a breath of cold, biting air, held it, and then released it in a gush. “My … God … it’s freezing in here,” he said through chattering teeth. “We can’t stay in this water, Trina. It’s too dangerous. Besides, I think there’s …”
She didn’t wait to hear him finish. She ducked under and began swimming toward the rugged mountain side of the lake.
“Trina! Did you hear me? It’s too … goddamnit, get back here, willya!”
The girl continued swimming as though she couldn’t hear him.
Frustrated, Burke treaded water for several seconds, kicking his frozen legs and keeping his stiffening arms in constant motion. “All right, you win, but when I catch up with you, I’m going to … . to …”
“Why don’t you just spank me,” she threw back at him over her shoulders. “You treat me like a child, you might as well punish me like one.”
“Now that sounds like a darned good idea,” he yelled, just as she disappeared beneath the water. He waited, and when she didn’t reappear after what seemed a very long time, he took a deep breath and followed her down.
The refracted sunlight filtering through the water made it easy to see the eerie world below. Trina swam several yards ahead of him, maneuvering easily with simple, frog-like movements. He caught up with her effortlessly, reaching out to clasp her hand just as she disappeared into a narrow underwater tunnel.
She struggled to pull away again, but he persisted until finally, with her oxygen almost depleted, she gave up and headed purposefully for the end of the shaft. He paralleled her every inch of the way until, exhausted and coughing, they both dragged themselves from the water and collapsed onto the sandy shore.
When his heart had stopped trying to beat its way out of his chest, and he could take several breaths without gasping, Burke lifted his head and looked around.
The interior of the cavern was reminiscent of a large cathedral with its high, sloping ceiling and elaborate rock formations carved into the walls. Slivers of sunlight filtered through several minute openings above, shining their expanding beacons downward to the sand-covered floor below. The air around them shimmered and danced with tiny lint and dust particles, and Burke was suddenly struck by the eerie beauty of the place.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Trina said in hushed reverence.
“Beautiful!” he said, listening as their vocal descriptions echoed throughout the place. “How’d you find it?”
“By accident. Andrew and I were swimming here a few summers ago, and we decided to see how far the underground tunnels went. This was the only one where I could hold my breath all the way to the end.” She stood and started forward. “Come on, the ship’s over this way.”
He followed, slowly at first, still under the magic spell of the surroundings, then faster as Trina disappeared around a sharp bend in the rocks.
“Why’s it so much warmer in here than outside?” he called after her.
“I don’t know. It’s almost always the same temperature in here. If it’s hot outside, then the cave feels cool. If it’s cold like today, then it’s much warmer in here.”
Burke turned the corner and emerged into a long corridor. He followed Trina slowly down the ever-widening passageway, stopping at intervals to marvel at the varying specimens of smoky gray and milk white quartz inlaid in marble-like patterns throughout the granite walls. Clusters of transparent quartz clumped together on the ceiling, forming miniature crystal chandeliers that grabbed each beam of light and prismed them into flickering rainbows of yellow, orange, blue and violet.
Hypnotized by the spectacular effect, he barely felt Trina’s hand encircle his arm and pull him forward.
“Come on, Pete. You haven’t even seen the best part yet.”
Trina’s words were prophetic for the sight that met him at the end of the tunnel took his breath away.
The shaft widened until it was no longer a corridor, but a large, amphitheater-sized chamber. Burke put out his hand to feel a vein of opal at the entranceway, and his fingers froze in mid-air.
With one-third of its fuselage embedded in the heavy granite walls, the aircraft tipped majestically upward toward the dome-shaped ceiling. Although the nosecone still held on to some of the flat, heat-resistant black tiles and the windows were unbroken, the ship was forever grounded. Its doors had long ago rusted off their hinges, and the landing gear was no longer attached to the bottom. Large rusting holes appeared in the sides and flooring but in spite of the damage, Discovery II held her noble nose high.
“So, they finally got one to fly,” Burke whispered in an awestruck voice.
Confused, Trina looked up at him, then back at the ship. “What?”
“Alan, Jonesie and I rode the last of the expendables,” he said, already climbing up toward the open doorway. “This baby was meant to fly over and over, again and again. And look at her … just look at her … even in death, she’s gorgeous.”
“She? Her? Pete, who are you talking about?”
“The ship, Trina!” The shuttle! Come on, let’s see what’s inside.”
Scrambling haphazardly up a loose, wobbly pile of stones to the gaping doorway, Burke poked his head into the darkened interior of the ancient spacecraft. Wriggling cautiously around and through the sharp, pointed edges of the rusted opening, he stood and tested the flimsy flooring, then extended a hand to help Trina up and inside. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darker environment, then headed purposefully for the cockpit. The old metal squeaked and protested beneath their feet, and he knew that his planned exploration of the entire shuttle would have to be curtailed. The old girl just wasn’t up to a full examination.
“Careful, Trina,” he said as he sidestepped a large hold and entered the cockpit.
The light was much better in this forward compartment for several of the cascading sunbeams struck the front windows at an angle, fanning out over the enclosed area. In the brighter light, Burke found himself marveling at the sophisticated instrumentation, but another ominous creak beneath his bare feet signaled that his total fascination with the aircraft would have to halt in favor of his original purpose.
Looking around behind the pilot and copilot seats, he found the larger instrument panel on the wall directly adjacent to the copilot’s triangular window. His objective waited inside a tiny cavity near the left edge of the panel, and his hand gently pried open the door. Surprisingly, it opened with unexpected ease, and he closed his fist eagerly around the laser flight disk and pulled it from its slot. Examining it closely, he heaved a relieved sigh. The disk appeared to be undamaged and as perfect as the one Virdon wore religiously around his neck. He pictured his blond friend’s surprise and pleasure at receiving this extra tidbit of hope and, pleased with himself, he smiled surreptitiously. Not that he ever really expected anything to come of either disk. Burke had long ago accepted the truth about their situation; they were stuck in this never-never land of talking apes and subdued humans and, if they could manage to stay out of Urko’s clutches, they would live here for the rest of their natural lives. This was the reality that he, Peter J. Burke, could live with, and his friend, Alan Virdon, could not.
So long as Virdon believed that a tiny, round disk was the way back to his own cherished way of life, then the man would continue to strive for life. And, Burke had decided, if possession of this new disk, along with his first one, would keep Alan’s elusive dream alive for another few months, so be it. It was worth every bit of danger.
Handing his hard-won prize over to Trina’s care, he moved carefully and stealthily to the right to retrieve the second of Alan’s treasures. Struggling to lift the stubborn latch on the drawer to the computer hard drive, he discovered it was stuck tight and, swearing under his breath, he froze as the thinning metal floor beneath them made another, louder protest.
“Trina, take the disk and get out of here!” he ordered suddenly.
When she opened her mouth to protest, he glared at her with his fiercest no-nonsense look. “I’ll be right behind you. I promise,” he forced himself to say in a gentler voice. “Go on. I can’t do this if I have to worry about something happening to you too.”
“All right,” she gave in reluctantly, turning and stepping over the rusting hole. “Don’t be long though, or I’ll come right back in to get you.”
“I won’t,” he said. “Now go!”
He heard, rather than saw, her step out of the ship, then turned his full attention to the task at hand. Something hard bumped his left foot, and he knelt down, feeling blindly around for the pipe-like object. When he finally had it in his grasp, his fingers told him it was a smooth, long piece of metal, and he grabbed it and used it to hammer at the latch on the computer drive.
The drawer opened just as his right foot broke through the flooring. He yelped in pain and surprise as jagged metal sliced open his ankle. He reached out blindly, grabbing the back of the pilot’s chair, hung suspended for a moment, then hauled himself back up and into the cockpit. Ignoring the burning in his ankle, he lost no time in grabbing the program card from the computer drawer.
As it was no larger than the original disk itself, he wrapped his fingers around it, took a quick, nostalgic last look, and limped gingerly to the shuttle doorway.
The thrill of finding another disk and the card to go with it struck full force as his injured foot touched ground in the dome-ceilinged, heavenly cavern. Totally ignoring the pain, Burke whooped with joy, grabbing Trina in a fierce bear hug and whirling her around and around.
“Do you know what this means, Trina? Alan’s gonna bust a gut when I hand these over to him, and it’s all because of you.” He kissed her firmly on the mouth, and when he pulled back, he was breathing hard from the exhilaration of the find.
But Trina stood trembling in front of him, her firm breasts taut against the flimsy material of her undershirt. “Don’t stop,” she begged, pushing her way back into his arms. Her warm, moist lips greedily sought his, holding them captive for a long, delicious moment. All the while her unrestrained hands roamed the angles of his shoulder blades, feather-stroked down the small of his back, and cupped the ample curves of his buttocks.
When her inquiring fingers turned their curious touch to the front of his body, he gasped. “Trina … you shouldn’t … it’s wrong for us to …”
“Why shouldn’t we?” she whispered, “What can be so wrong about something that makes us feel so wonderful?”
“In my world, a man and woman just didn’t …”
“You’re in my world now,” she said simply, resuming her maddening exploration of his body.
Sighing resignedly, he pulled her closer. All the while, a little voice in the back of his head vehemently protested his actions. He ignored it. He was entangled in a web of passion, one of which he hadn’t known in nearly two thousand years, and he was determined to lose himself in the familiar sweetness and elation of the moment.
Each successive kiss pushed the objections and thoughts of flight further into the back of his mind, and when Trina abruptly pulled out of his arms, they were both breathing heavily and quivering with desire.
‘Stop it while you can, Burke,’ he heard the voice inside his mind say. ‘She’s forbidden fruit … Angus’ only daughter. For Christ’s sake, she’s only seventeen years old!’
But he fought a losing battle, for as his mind argued, his eyes raked over the intense and innocent beauty of the girl, and his body reacted accordingly.
She stood in front of him, her entire being bathed provocatively in the beams of light that jutted in heavenly splendor from the ceiling. Her auburn hair glowed with a reddish halo all its own, and her sparkling eyes locked and held his knowingly. When he could finally yank his gaze away from her hypnotic stare, he saw her slowly and seductively begin to remove the last of her two garments.
At last she stood naked and unashamed, and she returned to his arms, pressing her fevered breasts enticingly against his bare chest. When he felt her hand fumbling with the waistband of his still-damp briefs and her other pulling him to the ground, he groaned aloud. And he knew this time there would be no turning back.
“All right, who will volunteer to read his or her assignment to the class,” Arvid said to a roomful of student volunteers. “Daniel, you go first.”
The blond boy of about twelve stood and began to recite a well-written missive on an imagined ‘flight.’
Alan entered the one-room schoolhouse unobtrusively, his arms laden with wood for the fireplace. He stayed near the sidewall, trying not to intrude or interrupt and, bending down on his knees, piled several fresh cut logs on the already blazing fire. Turning to leave, he was stopped by the eerie words of the young boy.
“ … Oh, my father taught me how to fly. On wings of thoughts, higher than high. And he showed me wondrous sights above. White misty clouds and a soaring dove. My father gave to me a dream. So earthbound, I no longer seem.”
Daniel finished and turned his beaming face to his teacher. Arvid smiled back. “That was very imaginative, Daniel. We should all have such beautiful dreams.”
“And high-minded fathers …” Virdon finished in a whisper. He stood and again prepared to leave.
Arvid called to him, and he turned around to find fifteen pre-adolescents grinning at him. He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Arvid. I didn’t mean to disturb your class.”
“You’re not disturbing us. I just thought that if you had a few minutes, you might search your memories and share a poem with the children.” At his look of surprise, Arvid’s large hazel eyes grew even larger, “… that is, if you’re not busy and if you wouldn’t mind …” she stammered, and the children giggled at the two grown-ups’ discomfort.
Alan joined the students, his lips tugging into a crooked grin. “I think I can spare a few minutes of my very valuable time,” he said, striding toward the front of the room and taking a seat next to Arvid. “Now, let’s see, I never was one for fancy poetry, but I do seem to recall an old favorite that Daniel’s verse brought to mind. It’s also about freedom - of thought and gravity - an aviator of long ago write his feelings about being able to really fly.” He searched his memory until the words came back to him. “Now, how did it go … ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and …’”
The children sat in spellbound delight listening to Alan’s soft, hypnotic recitation of the ancient poem.
“’… put out my hand and touched the face of God,’” he finished to complete silence. The hush continued for several uncomfortable moments, and then Arvid drew in a huge breath.
“That was very moving,” she said, dabbing at her eyes, “wasn’t it, class?”
The students all nodded, still entranced by the beauty of the words.
“Would you like Alan to come back and recite more poetry when he has some free time.”
“Yes, please!” they all begged in unison.
“Well, I’m afraid my repertoire of poetry is quite limited, but I’d be happy to share what I can remember.”
“And Pete, do you think he might be interested in addressing the class with stories or poems?”
Virdon put a hand to his
mouth to mask the involuntary smile that threatened. “Arvid, I don’t
think you’d want this class exposed to Pete’s rendition of “There was a young
The blond woman appeared confused, and Alan let the smile come.
“Never mind,” he said, “I’ll ask him if he remembers anything suitable for this age group.”
“Thank you. It would really be a treat for the children.”
Virdon rose to leave, and Arvid stood also. “I’ll walk you to the door. Class, if any of you can remember parts of this lovely poem, please try to write them down before you forget. I’ll return in a moment.”
“You’re very good with them,” he said as he opened the door and stepped outside. Cool air blew in around him, ruffling Arvid’s flaxen hair. A feeling of déjà vu struck him full force as Virgil’s daughter’s face coalesced into that of his long-dead wife.
“Alan?” ‘Sally’ said in Arvid’s voice.
He shook himself and looked away, blinking furiously.
“Alan, how can I help you?” Arvid said worriedly. She reached out to take both his hands in hers.
“I’m … okay,” he said, still dazed by the vision.
“Are you sure? Do you want me to get Mama Charlie? This is the second time this has happened to you. You may be ill.”
Virdon shook his head. “There’s no need, Arvid. Like my dark-haired friend is fond of saying, ‘There’s no medicine for what ails me.’”
At her puzzled expression, Alan touched her warm cheek with his rough, chapped hand. She raised her own soft one to press it closer and closed her eyes. He pulled away reluctantly.
“I’ll be okay. You’d better get back to your class.”
Arvid watched him pull his cloak tighter as he walked a bit unsteadily toward the north field. When he had reached the summit of the hill, out of the corner of her eye she saw Mama Charlie scowling at her from across the courtyard. As she watched, her mother shook her head disapprovingly, turned her back on the scene, and reentered the greathouse. She was dismissed.
Sanity returned abruptly, awakening him with a swift kick to his napping conscience. Startled and momentarily confused, he glanced around the unfamiliar surroundings, striving to orient himself.
The awe-inspiring room had grown dark as he and Trina slept, but he couldn’t be sure if the dismal light was caused by an overhead cloud obliterating the sun or by the passage of time. In the dim light, the sparkling interior had lost its enchantment, and the spell unraveled into stark reality.
Burke stood stiffly, retrieved his briefs and hurriedly stepped into them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Trina’s silent form rise from her prone position and pull her shirt over her head. She moved slowly and deliberately, as if in a daze, and he forced back a monumental sigh of regret.
Now fully clothed, Trina bent down to recover the discarded disks. Shaking the powder-like sand from them, she wiped them clean on her shirt and held them out for Pete’s approval.
“Are they all right? Can Alan still use them?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
Burke numbly took possession of the two items and pretended to inspect them. “I think they’re okay,” he said flatly, absently toying with the small silver disk.
“I know. I know,” Trina’s voice was all at once flirty and musical again, and she smiled at him knowingly in the dark.
“And what do you know?” he forced himself to reply in kind.
“I know that if you really didn’t believe your friend could find a way back to your own time, you never would’ve risked coming here.” She moved closer to him, encircling his waist with her arms and lacing her fingers against the small of his back. Her scent, a blend of sweat, salt and semen, reached his nostrils and made him dizzy with remorse.
“Trina …” he began the apology when a sudden scraping noise from the entrance corridor froze him.
“What …” she started, but his large hand closed over her mouth, and his lips pursed into a silent ‘shhhh.’ Wide-eyed, she closed her mouth and nodded her understanding.
“Come with me,” he whispered, keeping his echoing voice as low as possible, and the two of them moved stealthily to the edge of the entranceway.
“Pete? Trina?” A familiar youthful voice came from the corridor.
“Andrew!” Obviously relieved, Trina stepped forward where she could be seen by her younger brother, and her voice took on a scolding inflection. “What are you doing following us?”
“I had to!” the boy said defensively. “You were seen this morning.”
“By whom?” Pete moved forward to join Trina in the doorway.
“The fat chimp. I eavesdropped when I saw him come into the greathouse all excited. He only saw you, Pete. Not Trina. I guess the barn kept her hidden, but they’re all heading this way on their horses, and they look mad.”
“You say they didn’t mention Trina,” Burke said, already sketching the blueprint of a plan in his mind.
“No, they were only concerned about you being missing. And that wad of blubber called Odiah seemed real happy to report it to his commander.”
“I’ll bet he was,” Burke said tersely. “Does anyone else know? Were you seen?”
Andrew shook his head to both questions. “I don’t think so. Except for Arvid, the children, and the old ones, everyone is out working in the field. The apes wanted the crops loaded and ready to go by the end of the day so Papa Virgil put everyone on that task.”
“Great! And I’ll bet he’s pissed off at me too!” Burke sighed resignedly. “Well, it’s been a while since I aggravated a great ape … might as well do it again …” He turned to Trina and handed her the disks. “No matter what happens, you make certain Alan gets these, okay?”
Trina appeared confused, but she took the two objects. “I … don’t understand. Where will you be?”
“Playing hide-and-seek with the three stooges out there,” he said. “Andrew, promise me you’ll do everything I tell you to do, and the two of you just might make it back to the greathouse.”
“What about you?”
“Never mind me. I’m used to playing kid games with apes. The important things right now are to get you two safely back to your family and deliver those disks to Alan. Now, I’m going to see if I can get those three goofballs to follow me. I’ll lead them on a merry chase, around and around in circles, until they’re lost … that shouldn’t take too long … and then I’ll head back to the greathouse. Okay?”
“Not okay!” Trina said, sounding firm. “I won’t let you sacrifice yourself to save me, not after what we’ve shared.”
Burke grabbed her shoulders and brought her face close to his. “And then your brother won’t let you go alone and the apes will have all of us in custody just minutes after we leave here. And what about your brother?” He indicated Andrew with a sideward nod of his head. “Do you want to risk his life?”
Her chin quivered, and her large eyes filled with unshed tears. “No … but I don’t want you to go by yourself,” she said brokenly, clinging to him.
“I’ll be all right, Trina, I promise. You and Andrew wait until the shadow reaches …” he inwardly calculated how long it would take the sun to move the shadows on the wall, then pointed, “… here … by then it should be safe for you to leave. I’ll go out the same way we came in, find my clothes, and dress. The apes won’t know I know they’re watching me, so when I leave the basin, all three will follow me and you two will be in the clear. Go straight home, but use caution. Keep to the woods or the side of the trail, and stay out of the open fields.” He glanced at Andrew and felt relieved when the boy nodded his understanding, but Trina still clung to him. He disentangled himself from her desperate hold, noting the lost look in her eyes as she stared up at him. Another pang of guilt struck him forcefully, and he bent down to brush her forehead with his lips.
Trina felt the innocent kiss and turned her face up, expecting another more passionate one to follow, but Burke had already released her and started down the corridor.
“Pete!” she called to his departing form.
Andrew held her back. “You know he’s right, Trina. Stay here with me.”
“They’ll catch him, Andrew, and then they’ll kill him …” she said in a hopeless whisper.
“I know, Trina,” Andrew said simply, “and so does he.”
Burke emerged from the icy lake shaking almost uncontrollably with cold. From the position of the sun, occasionally peeking out from between large, billowing clouds, he estimated the time at mid-afternoon. Glancing upward at the craggy range of rocky hills, ever watchful for any sign that he was being observed, Pete forced himself to nonchalantly retrieve his clothing. He had one limb already inside a leg of his new gray trousers when out of the corner of his eye he saw the first ape on horseback move into the open and assume an offensive position on the top of the west ridge.
Pretending he was still unaware of the presence, the young astronaut hopped around on one foot, struggling to get his other leg inside his pants.
A gruff voice echoed down from the top of the basin ridge, and Burke swiveled around. All three apes had now moved out into the open. They sat astride their horses, side-by-side-by-side, on the rim of the crater. Burke ordered his chattering teeth to be still and smiled to himself. That none of the apes were schooled in military tactics was obvious; by remaining together, they had failed to do the one thing he had worried about - maneuver him into a crossfire position.
Crouching down quickly and reaching for the much-needed warmth of his shirt, Burke worked feverishly to formulate a plan, but a warning bullet suddenly pinged into the boulder beside him, sending fragments flying everywhere. Several tiny pieces of jagged rock embedded stingingly into the back of his right hand, and he dropped the shirt and dove back into the water for cover.
“Come out in the open, human! We will not kill you if you obey.”
When his lungs threatened to burst and his arms and legs were stiff, leaden weights, he surfaced and brought his head, alligator-like, halfway out of the water. The first thing he saw was Odiah’s broad back directly in front of him. He swiveled around, careful not to splash or ripple, and almost fainted with relief. Hector and Gunter were galloping to the opposite side of the lake. Keeping a wary eye on the overweight chimp, he got a toehold in the muddy lake bottom and moved stealthily forward. He now had a plan, but he needed a horse to make it work.
He crept carefully around the wide boulder at the edge of the water, keeping it between his body and the two gorillas across the lake. Hidden from their view, he hunkered down for a moment, readying himself, then vaulted suddenly forward.
As he had prayed, he caught the large, ugly ape off guard, and his momentum carried both of them over the back of the startled, white horse. With a whoosh of exhaled breath, the pudgy chimpanzee landed hard and then lay unmoving on the ground.
With Odiah cushioning his fall, Burke recovered quickly, grabbed the horse’s reins and mounted in one swift movement. Turning the animal toward the basin’s incline, he urged him forward with several nudges, and the horse took off at a gallop.
A report of rifles echoed behind him, and Burke bent his shivering torso forward, assuming a jockey’s pose, and making himself as small a target as possible. He heard an almost spent bullet whiz by his left ear. The sound raised his hopes, and he knew he was only a few moments away from relative safety. His mind whirled ahead, planning his next moves with lightning speed. He would continue farther into the forbidden territory until he was certain the apes had stopped looking for him, then he would return to this site, retrieve his clothing and take shelter somewhere for a few days. Then he would slip back into Virgil’s greathouse, gather Alan and their few belongings and, together, they would continue on their not-so-merry way in search of Galen and an elusive computer.
The horse finally reached the crater summit, and Burke gazed down at the naked woods below. Freedom was only a few yards away. He steered the animal in an easterly direction and had just started to knee him forward when something slammed into his left thigh. His entire leg went numb immediately, refusing to obey his commands and signal the horse to move. His body jerked sideways with the impact and, although he tried frantically to regain his hold, he felt himself slipping and landed hard on the rocky ground. Rolling to his knees, he struggled to stand, to take a step, but his leg folded beneath him. Panting with exertion and shivering with fright and cold, he collapsed again.
“You’re dead, human,” a sinister voice breathed, and he felt the barrel of a rifle press into his pulsing temple.
“No, Odiah! I will deal with him. Lash his hands together, get him to his feet, and tether him to your horse. It’s a long way back, and he’ll have a lot of time to think about what he’s done.”
“But … I have the right to discipline him, Gunter! He should die for his crimes.”
“I agree, but he belongs to Lord Micah, one of the most powerful apes in the world. I’m in charge of this expedition, and I refuse to take the responsibility for executing one of his humans!”
“Why not? Micah’s an ape, just like you and me. Surely, he would agree that the human needs to be punished.”
“Yes, I’m sure he would agree to discipline … but not to death. I have heard stories about other apes who came to Micah’s sector many years ago. They made the mistake of killing one of his humans. Micah sought revenge through the Ape Council, claiming a loss of property that far exceeded the worth of the human. He won, and the apes’ careers and family fortunes were forfeited.”
Odiah was dumbfounded. “Because of humans?” he said in a high voice.
Gunter shook his head. “No, not because of humans. Because they were Lord Micah’s humans,” he said, then turned his full attention to Burke. “Get up! Be thankful that I’m not your owner for, if you were mine, I would kill you now and be done with you, and I would leave your dead carcass for the animals to feast upon.”
Burke struggled to pull himself up, but dizziness and nausea made the effort almost too great. He succeeded in getting to his knees again and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. His leg was dead, and he wasn’t looking forward to its reincarnation. Although the bullet wound had already stopped bleeding, he knew it would hurt like hell when the numbness went away. He doubted if he had the strength left to get to his feet, much less stand on them and walk all the way back to the greathouse but, quaking with cold and shock, he made another feeble attempt to rise.
“Come on, slave!” Odiah said, prodding him with the rifle, and Burke staggered to his feet. Swaying, he took a tentative step and nearly toppled over, but Hector grabbed a handful of his hair and held him upright.
Gunter slid his boot into the stirrup of his saddle and swung his leg over the broad back of his horse. “How is your injury, Odiah?”
“My knee is still hurting,” the fat ape complained
Gunter looked at the injury. It didn’t appear to be serious, but he knew Odiah would whine the entire trip back. “I don’t think it’s broken. Virgil’s mate can check it for you when we return. Meanwhile, see to it he doesn’t fall, because if he does, I will not stop, and he will be dragged all the way back to the greathouse.”
Odiah clicked to his horse, and Burke felt his arms almost jerked from their sockets. He forced his freezing good leg into motion, dragging the injured one behind.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
The simple two-step became an unconscious dance of survival as he drove himself to stay upright. An innocent stumble could prove fatal, and he turned blind eyes and deaf ears to all outside stimuli, concentrating only on following the white horse in front of him.
He didn’t react when Odiah dismounted and took up a position on his opposite side, nor did he notice when the surrounding scenery became flat, open grassland. He only became aware that he had made it to the potato fields when startled human voices reached through his clouded brain. He couldn’t afford to take the time to look around; he had to keep up the rhythm.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
His subconscious mind told him to be alert for Virdon. He had to warn his friend not to try and interfere for Alan would be in mortal danger if he tried to stop the apes.
The horse descended the small hillside that separated the potato fields from the sector courtyard, and Burke made the mistake of turning his head. Disoriented, he lost his balance immediately and fell in a heap to the ground, but he was not dragged forward. The lead horse stopped and, from his vantage on the ground, Burke saw Gunter step down from his horse and walk toward him.
“Get up!” the ape said in a low, menacing voice.
Burke tried to move his tortured body, but every bone and muscle refused to obey. Paralyzed, he lay on the ground and did not reply.
“I said get up, human!” Gunter said again and delivered a hard kick to Burke’s mid-section.
Folding over in pain, the dark-haired man gasped like a gutted steer and fought to get another breath. The thin stream of oxygen he managed to drag into his starving lungs wasn’t enough and, for a moment, the world around him faded away. When everything came back into focus, he shook his head to clear away the fuzzies, then curled his body instinctively into a protective ball. He rolled onto his knees, struggling beneath the black wave that threatened to crest and engulf him, and lurched once more to his feet.
‘Alan.’ The name played over and over in his clouded mind like a defective record, but he couldn’t afford to concentrate on anything other than moving one foot in front of the other. He decided to wait until the apes reached the courtyard to locate his friend. Then his brain would function, and he could warn Alan away.
Limp … drag … limp … drag …
He started forward again and winced as the first glimmer of feeling returned to his awakening thigh. It was strange; the majority of his body was either numb or frozen, but the skin around the wound was beginning to burn with an intensity that disturbed him. He sighed at the irony and took another faltering step toward the courtyard.
Virdon hurried toward the crowd, apprehension and fear knotting his stomach into a tight ball. What in the hell had Pete gotten himself into this time? He couldn’t leave the guy alone for more than a minute without some kind of trouble reaching out and touching him.
He tripped over a large tree root jutting out of the ground, cursed and righted himself, then continued in hot pursuit of Angus. As he rounded the edge of Virgil’s greathouse, he saw several women hurrying in from the nearby potato fields. They were following close behind the three apes who roughly dragged a limping, shirtless and barefoot Burke behind Odiah’s horse. As Alan watched, his friend stumbled and fell sprawling to the ground. Before the younger man could recover, one of the gorillas dismounted , walked to the helpless man, lifted a heavy, ham-sized foot and kicked him viciously in the abdomen. Alan saw Pete double over in pain.
Anger seized him and, before he could think of the consequences, he heard himself yell. “Stop it!” He was well out of the gorilla’s hearing range, but his outcry brought Angus’ head around, and he saw that the human’s eyes were wide.
“Quiet! You’ll only make it worse for him!” Angus hissed, stopping in his tracks and waiting for Virdon to catch up. Putting a hand on the taller man’s shoulder, he squeezed it. “Papa will take care of it,” he said reassuringly, then his face darkened with anger. “Trina’s been warned at least a dozen times to stay out of the forbidden territory. She knew better than to take Pete there, especially today when the apes were here to collect the autumn crops,” he said angrily. “I believe Papa Virgil will be able to negotiate Pete’s punishment down to house restriction - at least until the apes leave. Gunter is an excitable gorilla, but he’s also usually quite reasonable.”
“And what if he doesn’t decide to be reasonable this time? What then?” Virdon looked directly into the worried blue eyes of the assistant overseer and saw the unspoken answer.
“I can’t accept that, Angus. Less than two months ago, Pete was captured and tortured for days. I don’t think he can take anymore right now without breaking … or worse.”
“I’m sorry, Alan, but if you want to save Pete’s life, you mustn’t interfere. Just let Virgil handle it … please …”
Aware that Angus was no longer merely trying to comfort him but was actually physically restraining him, Alan stopped pushing forward and stood suddenly still. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pete stagger to his feet and take two halting steps before the apes spurred their horses again, yanking him forward. He could now discern that Pete’s limp was from what appeared to be a mid-thigh bullet wound that stained the left side of his pants a dark crimson. Burke’s hands were lashed together tightly with the leftover rope being used as a leash. They pulled and dragged Pete along until they reached a tall tree stump on the edge of the courtyard. There, the three apes converged together for a short period of time.
Virdon saw Burke looking around, scanning the area. The dark-haired man was still stooped over, favoring his sore mid-section, and Alan could see from the way Pete’s head turned - first left, then right - that Burke’s main concern seemed to be locating the blond astronaut. Virdon started forward again, shoving Angus roughly out of the way.
“Pete!” He called out to his friend and, again, Angus shushed him.
Suddenly, Virgil, Andrew, and a very distressed Trina appeared on the scene.
“Be quiet and, no matter what happens, don’t interfere!” the
overseer ordered, staring directly into Alan’s eyes. “
“Yes, sir, Papa Virgil,” the boy said, already turning to go.
“And Andrew … hurry!” the old man said quietly and urgently.
“What are you going to do, Virgil?” Alan was almost beside himself.
Virgil ignored him.
“Papa, please don’t let them hurt him. This is all my fault! I should never have told him about the ship. Please, help him!”
“Go with your mother, Trina,” Angus said in a barely controlled voice. “I’ll deal with you later.”
The girl turned large, tear-filled eyes on Virdon. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But he insisted on going there when I told him about the shuttle. He was so excited when he found another disk for you …”
So that was it. In spite of Burke’s frequent sarcastic remarks about his own hope to decipher their ship’s log disk, Pete had risked death to obtain another for him. Two disks. Twice the possibility of success.
“Damn!” Virdon whispered the expletive. Ignoring both Virgil and Angus, he pulled out of Arvid’s grasp and suddenly surged forward, determined to single-handedly free Pete from Gunter, but Virgil’s strong arms reached out to hold him back.
“Alan, I think I can prevent this from becoming a death sentence, but only if you don’t antagonize them! If you anger them more, it could sway the apes to punish Pete severely. Do you understand? Don’t make it any worse for him … for yourself … or for the members of my family.”
Sickened at his own helplessness, Alan glanced back at the enfolding drama. He saw two of the apes slide Burke’s tether into a slit in the top of the jagged tree stump and yank hard. Already unsteady on his feet and completely unprepared, his bound hands and arms were jerked upwards while his body and face slammed forcefully into the rough and flaking bark. When Pete’s head snapped back, Alan could see an angry red scrape on his cheek and a hint of blood at his nose.
At this act, Trina gasped.
“Arvid, take her and go!” Virgil ordered. “Now!”
The few humans still watching the scene went ominously silent and slowly began to disperse. Arvid put her arms around the teenager’s shoulders and led her away. Neither woman looked back.
Alan watched them go, then turned again to watch the enfolding drama in the courtyard. He saw Pete’s thin face peek out from between his outstretched arms. The younger man was still searching for Virdon, seemingly more worried about how his friend would react to the sight of his punishment than about what he was going to endure.
Virgil and Angus started forward, and Virdon followed on their heels. They approached the large gorilla cautiously.
“Gunter, please tell me what this new servant of Lord Micah has done to deserve such treatment.”
“New or old, Virgil, your master’s humans should know the rules. This one was in the forbidden territory and, when we commanded him to stop, he tried to run away.”
“Surely, sir, those two indiscretions can be overlooked this once. Pete is an obedient, hardworking servant who is still learning the ways of our …”
“If those were the only infractions he committed, Virgil, then I could overlook them.” Gunter squinted his black eyes and looked darkly at the three humans. “But he attacked a member of my collection team and knocked him from his horse. We thought Odiah had broken his leg. Conduct of this sort is unforgivable. We must make an example of him. If we allow this attack to go unpunished, then other humans may believe that they, too, have the right to assault apes.”
“I see,” Virgil said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I apologize for his actions, Gunter, and beg for leniency. If you wish, we will send a messenger to the northern sector and ask Lord Micah to come and personally take care of Pete’s punishment.”
“That won’t be necessary, Virgil,” Gunter said hurriedly. “I have already decided to forego the death penalty, but only because I have dealt with you for many years. You are a good human and have always been honest and obedient. Lord Micah is lucky to have you to help him care for this sector.”
“Thank you, sir. May I ask what his punishment will be?”
The gorilla scratched his head and turned to his companion. “Since Odiah was the injured party in this human’s assault, it is up to him to dispense discipline. I will leave it in his hands.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to the rotund ape standing near Burke. His chest puffed suddenly with importance. “Thirty lashes, Gunter. And I will inflict them myself.”
“God …” Virdon breathed the anguished word. From his vantage point, he saw Pete lower his head for a moment, then raise it to glance his way. Their eyes met, azure blue to somber brown and, without speaking, Alan felt his friend’s conveyed worry and fear, heard the silent appeal for him not to interfere. Virdon nodded his understanding and then closed his eyes and looked away.
“Virgil … get him out of here … please …” Burke’s weak voice could barely be heard, but his whispered plea was tinged with undisguised urgency.
“All humans will stay exactly where they are. Everyone here will watch this human receive his punishment. Anyone who tries to intervene will answer to me,” Odiah said, peering into the three humans’ faces for any sign of defiance. Finding what he perceived to be only fear of himself, the overweight simian smiled. It had been a long while since he’d been allowed to render corporal punishment, and he knew he was going to enjoy inflicting it, especially to this human who had not only managed to unseat him from his horse but had embarrassed him as well.
The chimpanzee knew that an overt show of discipline was just what was needed for this village. There was a considerable lack of ape supervision on this sector of Lord Micah’s domain and, without their daily presence to lead and correct, humans grew haughty and independent - like this dark-haired one. Yes, Odiah knew he would enjoy punishing this human. He would make of him an example that some of the others would never forget. And it didn’t matter if Gunter had disapproved the death penalty. He had ‘accidentally’ killed humans with only thirty lashes before. He knew that he would do it again … today. Odiah turned to the unblemished back of his helpless prisoner, unfastening and unwinding the horsewhip he habitually carried at his hip. It was short and thick on the handle end, tapering to a knot with tiny tendrils extending outward on the other. He flicked it once tentatively. It had been over a year since he dispensed discipline, and it would take a few practice strokes before the knack came back to him. After several more attempts, the end cracked expertly as it was snapped. Satisfied that he could now administer punishment to the maximum extent, he turned to his commander and received the nod to begin.
The first stroke of Odiah’s whip caught Burke mid-spine with a force so powerful that his unprepared body was slammed into the rough tree stump. The stinging blow tore into his smooth skin, snatching his breath away. The whip’s tendrils curved around to his side and exposed stomach in an obscene embrace. He bit his lip to keep from crying out and tasted blood. They could whip him, but as long as he could stand it, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of letting them know they were hurting him … not while Virdon stood only a few feet away. He knew that his every reaction was being viewed and registered by his friend. He also knew that Virdon was in as much, if not more, danger than he, because Alan would be driven to attack without thinking of the consequences. And the apes would react -- also without thinking -- and Virdon could end up dead.
Burke swallowed and shored up his self-control. “One down, twenty-nine to go,” he whispered.
Before he could catch his breath, the lash struck him a second, then a third and fourth time. By the eleventh stroke, he couldn’t hold back a whimper; the fourteenth wrung an involuntary cry from his lips.
“Stop it! That’s enough! You’re going to kill him!”
There was a sudden lull in the steady fall of the lash. Through a haze of constant, roller-coaster pain, Burke heard Odiah swear under his breath and then the sounds of a scuffle.
“Pete … hold on …”
Alan’s voice … muffled … strangled … almost as though someone was holding a gag over his friend’s mouth. He struggled to comprehend another sound, something hard impacting with another equally hard object, but then he heard the barn door creak open and bang shut with a finality that made him shiver.
“Continue, Odiah. There will be no further interruptions,” he heard Gunter say, and the stout chimpanzee followed his commander’s instructions with a vengeance.
Numbers fifteen and sixteen fell lower than the others, striking sharply on Burke’s covered buttocks and giving his screaming back another brief respite, but seventeen was dead center again. He arched defenselessly against the blow, trying without success to fold his body backwards as a shield against further strokes. With Virdon no longer an unwilling audience, Burke didn’t care if the apes knew they were hurting him; they were, and he let his cries of pain fall unrestrained.
By the twenty-third stroke, his surroundings began to swim nauseatingly in front of him. His bladder released, but he took no notice and felt no shame.
Number twenty-four struck fiercely, and he finally collapsed, sagging limply from the bonds holding his numb hands. Reality tilted crazily, looming in and out of focus. And then the torment stopped abruptly, and everything went berserk.
Whoomph! Gurgle! Whoomph! Wheeze!
The strange noises registered in his inner consciousness, but the dreamlike haze of outside pain kept his mind clouded and unable to interpret the sounds.
He heard another spine-tingling scream, followed by another Whoomph! A strangled gurgle and, suddenly he was free and falling. His already scraped and bleeding face crashed into the courtyard dirt, and he moaned, vaguely surprised that anything so minor could cause such agony. Turning his head sideways ground the abrasive dirt deeper into his wounds, but self-preservation forced the attempt to move. Blood and sand combined, effectively clogging his nostrils and mouth and preventing him from taking a full breath. He coughed, then lay back, gasping. It was then that he saw the gorilla.
Only inches away, Gunter’s severed head lay in the dirt, the ape’s lifeless black eyes mirroring the disbelief and abject horror of his own death.
Paralyzed with fear, Burke choked on the scream that rose in his throat, and then Gunter and the rest of the world went far, far away.
Virdon came to abruptly with a crystal clear awareness of where and why he was where he was. Remembering how he had got there, however, took several minutes, for his head pounded with a vengeful fury, and his stomach threatened to spill its contents with every tiny movement on his part. It took several aborted tries, but he finally managed to maneuver himself into a shaky sitting position. Glancing around the interior of the barn, he absently brushed at the hay and dust that clung stubbornly to his clothing and fair hair. He gasped as his grooming efforts accidentally pressed a tender spot at the base of his skull. Closer inspection revealed a golf ball-sized lump that throbbed beneath his fingers and intensified the pain already blazing through his skull.
He paused for a moment, waiting until the blinding headache eased to a more tolerable level, then pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. Staggering out the door, he emerged into the incongruous beauty of the early autumn evening.
Scanning the deserted courtyard, he searched vainly for any sign of life, but there was none. The only movement he could discern was the dancing ends of Burke’s tether swaying in the breeze, mute testimony to what had occurred there.
When his search of the courtyard and surrounding grounds yielded no other living being, he moved determinedly toward the greathouse and burst into the front room. It, too, seemed devoid of life, both human and ape, and undecided on where to go next, he simply stood in the middle of the parlor and waited for his head to clear again. After several moments, a noise from the second floor spurred him to vault the stairs, and he bounded them, taking two and three at a time. He emerged at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadowed figure of a man appear in the doorway of the bedroom he and Pete shared.
“Alan! Thank God! I was just on my way to check on you,” John said, grabbing Virdon’s arm and pulling him into the bedroom. “Hurry, we need your help.”
Alan had known that Burke was grievously injured, but nothing could have prepared him for the grisly scene that met him when he followed John into the room.
Still clothed only in the stained, tattered remains of his gray trousers, Pete sprawled on his back in the middle of the bed, semi-conscious and virtually covered from head to toe with dirt and drying blood. Angus sat on the opposite side; tediously working out the taut knots in a cord that still encircled one of Burke’s swollen wrists.
Hesitating only long enough to get a firm grip on his still queasy stomach, Virdon went immediately to Burke and began to prioritize his actions.
“Got it … finally!” he heard Angus proclaim as his own fingers gripped Pete’s cold chin, the only unscathed part of his friend’s grimy face, and gently turned it toward him. He winced at the scraped cheek and blood-caked nostrils. Burke’s brown eyes were slightly open, but neither focused nor followed with the movement.
Alan hunched closer, trying to put himself into Burke’s direct line of vision, but his “Pete? Can you hear me?” evoked no response.
“He looks awake, Alan, but he’s not really here with us,” John said from the doorway, and Virdon turned his head toward the man momentarily, then almost immediately returned his gaze and attention back to his injured friend.
“Help me turn him on his side, Angus. He shouldn’t be lying flat on his injured back like that,” he said, balancing one knee on the bed and reaching out to grasp Burke’s farthest shoulder. “Damn, he’s cold as ice. John, throw some wood on that fire and get this room warmed up. He’s too hurt to bundle up right now, so we’re going to have to turn this room into an oven.”
John obeyed, tossing several large, dry logs into the sickly fire and stoking it into a hot blaze.
On the other side of the bed, Angus threw the liberated cord to the floor distastefully, then aided Virdon in pulling the young astronaut over.
Pete reacted to the movement with a sudden, sharp intake of breath, followed by a long, shuddering moan.
“Easy … easy, Pete. I’m here with you,” Alan whispered soothingly to his friend, but his calm tone masked the rising panic gripping his insides. He peered over the dark-haired man’s body, striving to examine the damage done by Odiah’s whip, but Angus’s expression of disgust already showed the deplorable condition of his friend’s back. “Where the hell is everyone?” Alan said, his voice intensifying, keeping pace with his steadily growing concern for Burke.
An anxious look passed between the brothers-in-law, and John shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“Papa and the others have gone to escort the apes to the northern border. Virgil gave strict instructions for everyone else to stay inside their homes with their families until he returned,” Angus finally said.
“That’s fine and dandy for him, but Pete needs immediate attention. “Where are the others? Arvid and Charlie …”
Angus put out a sympathetic hand and laid it on Virdon’s rigid shoulder. “They’ll return shortly, Alan. John and I were ordered to bring Pete here, untie him, and make him comfortable until Mama and Arvid could get here. And when you regained consciousness, we were to see to your needs also.” The overseer’s son dropped his eyes guiltily. “I’m sorry I had to hit you, but if I hadn’t, Gunter would surely have done worse.”
“I’m grateful to you,” Virdon snapped sarcastically, then, as his friend continued to stare miserably at the floor, Alan regretted his outburst. “I’m sorry, Angus. I didn’t mean to take my anger and worry out on you,” he said remorsefully, “… it’s just that … Pete’s been through so much already and …”
“I understand, Alan,” the assistant overseer interrupted. He hooked a straying strand of long blond hair behind his ear. “What can we do to help you?”
Alan pondered the situation for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “Well, he said, “the balls on our turf right now, and it looks like it’s up to us to run with it.” He pulled up suddenly, realizing how like Peter Burke the words sounded to his own ears. He sighed sorrowfully, then rifled through his memory for recollections of the first aid classes he and Burke had attended as part of their astronaut training eons ago.
“Okay,” he said, “the most important thing we can do right now is get his body temperature up and clean the wounds. Without antibiotics, we can’t take a chance on infection setting in.” He turned back to Angus. “Does Charlie keep any alcohol around?”
“A clear liquid that stings when you put it on an open wound. “
“I don’t know … wait a minute … yes, now that I think about it, I do seem to recall her using something like that on the children’s scrapes. Charlie keeps her medicines and instruments in a small bag behind her sewing basket. I’ll run down and get it.”
“What can I do to help, Alan?” John asked anxiously.
“I’ll need a basin of water, several clean cloths, and something to make bandages out of. Make that very warm water, John,” Alan said as an afterthought.
When both men had departed, Virdon turned back to Pete and made a clumsy, unsuccessful attempt with his large hands to rip the stiffening trouser material away from the clotting bullet wound. His efforts only succeeded in putting unexpected pressure on the injury, wringing a hoarse yelp of protest from Burke.
“I’m sorry … I’m sorry, Pete. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Alan said, frantically apologetic. “I’ve got to get a better view at this, so bear with me for a minute, okay?”
“No more …” The mumbled plea trailed off into another soft moan.
Virdon’s knife sliced effortlessly through the strong, hand-woven material of the gray trousers. The separated parts, from the hem at Burke’s ankle all the way up to his waistband, yielded to the sharp edge and fell away from Pete’s body.
Alan stared at the ugly, puckered hole in his friend’s leg. Located on the side, midway between Pete’s hip and knee, the wound was already ominously red and inflamed. The only encouraging sign, Virdon thought to himself, was that it was no longer bleeding.
Alan pressed gently around the sides of the wound, carefully kneading the flesh for the telltale lump that would signal the bullet’s location, but his examination revealed nothing. His hands encircled the thigh, delicately probing for an exit hole, but again, the search proved fruitless. His hopes that the bullet had somehow, miraculously, exited from Pete’s body were shattered. It was still inside the thigh and pinpointing its location and removing it wasn’t something he looked forward to.
“Angus, while you’re downstairs, would you put a large pot of water on to boil and throw several short kitchen knives in. Make sure they’re pointed and only get the ones that are extremely sharp,” he said loudly enough to be heard by the assistant overseer in the kitchen. He waited for the reply.
When he had heard an affirmative answer from downstairs, he sagged forlornly beside Burke. The knowledge of what had to be done filled him with dread, and he rested his forehead dejectedly in the palms of his hands. Moving them in a steady, circular motion, he rubbed hard at the nagging ache at his temples, fervently wishing that Charlie would arrive and save him from the unpleasant task at hand.
But he knew that every minute that passed left Pete’s body vulnerable to infection, and penicillin was nonexistent in this new world … unless Charlie had found a way to miraculously grow it.
Alan let go with an ironic snort. It was a ridiculous notion. Besides, even if Charlie had, by some genius, created a mutant strain of the wonder drug, it wouldn’t help his friend. Peter Burke had two allergies annotated on his medical files at Eglin Air Force Base back in the 1980s: one was codeine, the other penicillin.
Sighing, Virdon reached out and took one of Pete’s dirty, swollen hands into his own. Shaking his head, he bit back the threatening flood of emotion. “This isn’t going to be fun for either one of us, my friend,” he said. “I know why you did this, but I just can’t for the life of me figure out what made you do it now! That damned disk had been there for nearly half a century. You didn’t have to risk your life to get it for me. In another day or two we both could’ve gone there, and no one would ever have known …”
Footsteps resounded on the wooden staircase; Angus and John were returning with the equipment to treat Burke. Alan tightened the tenuous grip he held on his emotions. This was neither the time nor the place to break down. Burke needed someone with a clear head and steady hands to get him through the upcoming ordeal. Later, after Pete was out of danger, there would be plenty of time and solitude to vent his grief and anger.
Sighing, the blond astronaut replaced his friend’s hand back on the bed and waited for the two men to rejoin him. The footsteps stopped near the door entrance, but no one entered.
When his inquiry went unanswered, Alan stood and moved stealthily from the bed toward the door. Just as he reached the threshold, Trina stepped forward.
The girl refused to look up. She stared determinedly at the floor. “It’s just me, Alan. I’ve … I’ve brought you something. Pete gave these to me. He wanted you to have them …”
Alan took the tiny disk and even smaller computer card. He said nothing. His anger and resentment at Trina were still at a high level, and he didn’t trust himself to reply.
Trina sniffed and took a trembling breath. She lifted her red-rimmed eyes. “Is he … going to die?”
“I don’t think so.”
Trina appeared relieved. “Can I see him … just for a minute?”
Afraid to let himself speak again, Virdon merely nodded and stepped aside. As he headed toward the chiffonier, he heard a loud gasp when the girl got her first good look at Burke. He deposited the high-priced disk in the top drawer, then turned back to view the scene.
Trina was on her knees by the bed, sobbing heartbrokenly and gently stroking one of Burke’s abused hands. “… sorry … I’m so sorry! Forgive me … please …”
“Trina! Get out of here now!” Angus suddenly ordered from the doorway. “You’ve done quite enough to Pete and Alan already. I believe both men can do without your presence for a while.”
At this, the girl sobbed louder. Humiliated, she stood and ran blindly from the room, almost colliding with Charlie and Arvid as they arrived on the scene.
“Thank God, you’re here,” Alan said to the women as his knees went suddenly weak with relief.
The overseer’s wife said nothing but went straight to Burke. She checked his skin temperature, glanced approvingly at the blazing fire, then turned her attentions to the younger man’s back and leg. Pressing her hands to Burke’s thigh wound, she clucked her tongue worriedly. “Has he been conscious at all?” she asked, moving to the opposing side of the bed to again view Pete’s abused back.
“No, Mama,” Angus replied. “He only seems to react to pain. He doesn’t speak or answer questions.”
“His body is much too cold,” she said to herself. “Even with the fire heating the room, we must do more. John,” she looked up at her tall son-in-law. “I need you to go fill the bathtub with very warm water.” Holding out her hand for the medicine bag, Angus relinquished it, and she pulled a large container out. “Take this,” she said, handing over the bottle to John, “and put about half of it into the water. Make certain there are plenty of towels available! Then hurry back, I’ll need you to help carry him to the tub.”
“Yes, Mama Charlie,” the man said and departed quickly.
“Arvid, you prepare the bed. Add several more blankets and quilts, then pad and protect the top layer for treatment, and don’t tuck the edges in. They’ll need to be ready for a quick removal when we’re finished. He really shouldn’t be moved any more than absolutely necessary. I want the bed and my instruments ready for immediate use as soon as we get back with him,” the old woman ordered. She turned her attentions back to Pete but addressed her only son. “Angus!”
“Yes, Mama. What do you need me to do?”
Charlie eased the soiled remains of Burke’s trousers from his limp body. The injured man reacted to this new disturbance with a silent grimace.
“You will find Trina and apologize to her,” she ordered, wadding the filthy rags into a ball and tossing them purposefully across the room.
“You heard me, Angus,” she said testily to her son, then turned to Virdon. “Help me get these off him, Alan,” she instructed, struggling to remove the remaining briefs. “Your daughter is very young, son,” she continued speaking to Angus as she and Virdon stripped the final article of clothing from Burke’s body.
Throwing a ragged towel over the injured man’s hips, Charlie continued. “And she made an error in judgment. She can be made to face that mistake if you talk to her and make her understand that every human being blunders on occasion. Unfortunately, innocent people sometimes get hurt because of another’s wrong decision. If Pete gets well, your daughter will remember that you understood and comforted her. If you don’t go to her now, and if Pete should …” the old woman looked up at Alan, then back to Angus, “… if the young man should die, then the guilt she feels right now could destroy her, and we could lose both of them. Go to your daughter, Angus. We don’t need you here.”
“Yes, Mama,” Angus said. He tossed a sympathetic look toward Pete, turned a grim expression to Alan, then walked steadfastly from the room.
“Mama, the water’s almost ready.”
“Thank you, John,” Charlie said. “Now help Alan carry Pete to the tub, and be prepared. His reactions to the medicated water may be violent.” She walked toward a puzzled Virdon. “Taking his large hands into her own small ones, Charlie looked compassionately into the tall astronaut’s blue eyes. “Alan, I must treat the hypothermia and potential infection first. It would take over an hour of agonizing torture to bathe your friend here, so complete immersion will be easier on us and more humane for him, but I must be truthful with you. Pete is badly injured. There may even be internal injuries to his kidneys or spine. The animal who beat him concentrated most of the blows to the middle of his back, but we won’t know for sure if there’s damage for several more days. We’ll monitor him closely for symptoms. The superficial wounds to his body, the cuts and scrapes aren’t serious, and I think they will heal if we keep them clean and medicated. Right now though, I’m worried about his leg. I’ve treated wounds of this type before, and I’m afraid the bullet was hot when it pierced his skin.”
“Why is that bad?” Alan asked. “Wouldn’t the heat make infection less likely?”
“In most cases, yes. The heat of the bullet would cauterize and cleanse bacteria from the wound and further bleeding would normally remove any foreign matter present, preventing infection. Unfortunately, Pete’s wound stopped bleeding long before he fell into the courtyard dirt, and I don’t have to tell you what kind of poisons are present in that particular soil. However, getting back to the bullet, when soft metal enters the body hot, it can stick to bone or muscle or flesh. I believe from my examination that this bullet flattened on impact and is now attached to your friend’s femur. Getting it out,” she looked pointedly at Pete, then back to Virdon, “… well, let’s just say it’s not going to be a pleasant experience for any of us.”
Virdon looked at Burke’s colorless face, and his brow furrowed. “He doesn’t look like he can take too much more right now, Charlie. What’s the worst that could happen if we left the bullet alone?”
Virgil’s wife appeared thoughtful. Finally, “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing … and then again, he could get blood poisoning or an infection, neither of which we have a cure for, and he could die. Or the infection could develop into gangrene, and then we’d be forced to remove the leg.”
Alan stared long and hard at Burke once more, then turned back to Charlie again. “And if we go ahead and remove it now?” he said in a quiet voice.
“We could break or splinter the bone, possibly crippling him for life, or we could damage an artery, and he could bleed to death. And we will have to cauterize the wound. It’s already showing signs of infection. I’m sorry.” The old woman paused to let her words sink in. Then, “He’s your friend, Alan. You make the decision.”
Virdon hesitated for only a moment. “Let’s take it out.”
There was so much noise in the stadium he could barely hear
himself think. Everybody … the crowd
of spectators, all the players, the sideline crew …
were standing and screaming at him. He
was on the 45-yard line; it was fourth down with less than 10 seconds to go
in the fourth quarter;
The crowd yelled its appreciation, the cheerleaders flipped enthusiastically, his quarterback was grinning. And then someone hit him illegally, a late tackle. He was struck hard in the thigh and, stunned, he went down on one knee. Time slowed to an interminable crawl. He saw the coach walking toward him … no, it was Alan … why was Alan coaching the Michigan Wolverines?
“Don’t spike it, Pete,” ‘Coach’ Alan was saying as he walked in slow motion toward him. “We can’t afford the penalty. Easy. Just put it down easy, boy.”
Confused, Burke turned to look at the football he held protectively in his arms. It didn’t feel like a rough, dimpled oval anymore. He looked around and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Gunter’s severed, bleeding head gaped up at him from between his own two hands. Terrified, he dropped the horrible object immediately. He tried to stand, but his leg refused to hold him and, groaning, he collapsed where he was and lay prone and spread-eagled between the goal posts. The screams of the crowd echoed in his head, shrieks that all at once muffled and then resounded over and over, rising and falling like the wail of a thousand sirens.
Then, suddenly, the stands were empty, and there was only one voice screaming. He knew it was his own.
The coach was calling to him. He roused, struggling to pull himself up, but he didn’t have the strength. His leg throbbed excruciatingly, and every attempt at movement fanned the flames already scorching his back.
A cup was pressed against his lips, and he was forced to swallow the acrid tasting brew. He gagged at the bitterness, but the liquid continued unabated down his throat.
“That’s right, drink it all down, Pete. Charlie says it’ll cut some of the pain and help you to sleep. We had problems removing the bullet, but it’s all over now. You’re going to be all right. Rest. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
Burke opened his eyes to a familiar face. “Hey, coach,” he croaked, “I don’t think … I want to play … this game … anymore.”
“I know, Pete,” came the choked reply. “Neither do I.”
A single lamp and dancing flames in the fireplace provided all the meager light in the hushed bedroom. Abruptly, Virdon stood and stretched the kinks from his stiff body. He walked to the lightly frosted, mesh ‘windows’ and gazed out. Nothing was visible in the still black courtyard below, and he sighed tiredly. Daylight was still more than an hour away. Rubbing at the overnight growth of stubble on his face, he returned to his watchful position by the bed.
Tucked in the comfort of soft handmade sheets, Burke lay as he had for the past nine or ten hours, propped on his side, unconscious and unmoving. Mercifully, the covers hid most of the obvious damage to his body, but the ugly scrapes on his cheek and the black circles of pain under his eyes were stark reminders of what he had already endured. Virdon knew that without the assistance of modern medicine and painkillers, the road to recovery would be almost as agonizing as the original abuse.
He reached out a hand and laid it gently on his friend’s forehead. At last Pete was warm to the touch, but his battered face was bathed in a thin sheen of sweat. Mildly alarmed, Virdon loosened the cocoon of bedding swaddling Burke and folded back the quilt coverlet to allow cooler air to circulate around the prone body. Wringing excess water from a wet cloth, Alan gently sponged his friend’s face until his attentions elicited a frown and a guttural groan of displeasure.
“I’m sorry, Pete. I didn’t mean to disturb you … just trying to keep you comfortable.”
Burke’s brows knitted together, and his eyes quivered beneath the lids.
Virdon touched the wet cloth to his friend’s parched lips. “Thirsty?”
When words wouldn’t come, Pete merely nodded his head.
“I’ll be right back.” Alan walked hurriedly but cautiously, through the stillness of the darkened greathouse to the kitchen. He selected a small mug, filled it half-full with well water and sped back upstairs to the bedroom. “Here you go,” he said, slipping his hand under Burke’s neck and lifting the curly head ever-so-gently. He dripped several droplets of cool liquid carefully through the dry lips, watching closely for any sign of choking or strangling, but Burke swallowed the water easily and appeared distressed only when Alan moved the cup away.
“More …” he croaked weakly.
“Not just yet, Pete. Let’s see how it stays down, okay?” Alan said, sliding his friend’s head back onto the pillow.
He hated not being able to give Burke more, but Charlie’s instructions before retiring for the evening had been explicit: “Only tiny sips of water when he’s conscious; change his position every hour; clean the wounds twice during the night; don’t let him overheat or get chilled; check for fever hourly; and call me if there’s any change.” He had memorized them and dutifully followed them to the letter.
He retrieved the cloth again, dipped it into the wash basin, wrung it out, and once again dabbed it carefully over Burke’s swollen lips. “Is that a little better?” he asked in a low voice.
“Mmm hmmm,” Pete grunted gratefully. His body relaxed, and he lay so quietly still that Virdon thought he had fallen asleep.
The blond astronaut returned the cloth to the pan, but when he turned back around, he saw that Burke had finally opened his eyes and now set an unwavering stare on Virdon’s every move.
“Still with me?” brought a slight nod, and Alan moved his chair closer to the bed.
“Guess …” Burke gasped out unexpectedly, “I really … screwed up this time.”
Virdon let a faint hint of a smile play on his lips; it didn’t quite reach the pinched sadness of his eyes. “Well, it wasn’t exactly one of your best laid plans,” he agreed, trying to keep his voice light. “How do you feel, Pete?”
“Stupid …” the younger man mumbled, grimacing as he tried to move his throbbing leg. “Very … very stupid.”
Alan ignored the self-reproach. “Can I get you anything else?”
“A … Tylenol might help … but I doubt if any drug stores are … open this time of night …” Burke said haltingly. His face suddenly contorted as daggers drove their cruel, stinging blades unexpectedly into his tender thigh. He recoiled against the mounting pain, but his jerky movements only heightened the intensity, spreading the torment to his already abused back. Cramping muscles tore at his self-control, and he moaned and gnashed his teeth against the onslaught.
“Easy … easy …try to lie still. Don’t fight it so hard Pete, you’ll just make it worse,” Alan soothed, reaching out and taking the trembling hands in his own.
Burke felt himself slipping … sliding …. drowning in a sea of pain and, desperate for a lifeline to hang on to, he vise-gripped Virdon’s hands. A strangled sob escaped through his clenched teeth.
“Relax now … easy … hold on, and I’ll give you something for the pain.” Virdon detached himself from Pete’s death grip and retrieved the cup of Charlie’s magic potion. It was almost empty. Swearing under his breath, he turned a quick, worried glance back at Burke as another rasping groan erupted from the dark-haired man.
“Charlie!” Frantic with worry and unmindful of the time of day, Virdon yelled the old woman’s name and started purposefully toward the door. It opened from the other side before he could reach it.
Clad only in her nightgown, Arvid stepped gingerly into the room. “Alan, what’s the matter?” She took one look at Burke and paled. “How long has he been like this?”
“Too long,” Alan said, returning to Pete’s side and taking the man’s blindly groping hand in his own again. “And we’re all out of Charlie’s pain medicine.”
“There’s more downstairs in the kitchen. I’ll be right back,” Arvid said and left hurriedly.
“Hold on … hold on, Pete,” the tall blond said as Burke arched helplessly against another onslaught.
“Here it is,” Arvid said, returning and rushing to Virdon’s side.
Virdon took the mug, lifted it to Burke’s lips, but his own shaky hand allowed too much to pour into the slack mouth. The bitter liquid overflowed, dribbling down the sides of the bruised face. Pete strangled and coughed horribly, fighting to get his breath. Virdon cursed his own clumsiness, then made ready to try again when a soft hand reached out to him, touched his shoulder hesitantly.
“Let me do it?” Arvid whispered.
Virdon hesitated for only a moment, then relinquished the medicine. He watched in silence, marveling at the way Arvid tended Pete. She spoke soothingly, telling him everything she was doing before she did it. He saw Pete’s body relax as the young astronaut listened to her hypnotic voice. Arvid fed the medicine, one spoonful at a time, into his injured friend. It took a long time, but when she finished, Burke had swallowed all.
Arvid rested the empty cup on the bed table, retrieved a cloth and tenderly bathed Burke’s ashen face.
“Better now?” Virdon asked in a concerned voice.
Although still visibly fighting pain, Burke managed a curt nod.
“When’s the last time you cleaned and medicated the wounds, Alan?” Arvid asked quietly.
“I haven’t yet. Why? Is infection setting in?”
“No, and that’s why we need to do it … now … so none of his wounds will become infected,” she said apologetically.
Virdon closed his eyes, sighed despairingly and, although reluctant to disturb his friend again, he acquiesced. “Okay, but let’s get it over with quickly. He’s been through enough hell already.” Positioning himself on the side of the bed, he eased Burke carefully into a sitting position.
“Now what …” Burke asked thickly.
“Take it easy, Pete. Arvid’s going to clean your wounds and change the dressings. Just hold on for a few minutes. This won’t take long.”
“ … torture time … again …” Burke muttered, resting his cheek on Virdon’s shoulder.
Arvid retrieved fresh water and bandages and took her position at the bedside, but her ministrations were interrupted by Charlie’s sudden appearance.
“I’ll take over now, Arvid. You can go downstairs.”
Replacing her daughter, Charlie continued in her no-nonsense voice. “You’re not needed here, Arvid. Get dressed, go downstairs and start breakfast. I’ll tend to Pete.”
“Yes, Mama,” Arvid said, not quite keeping the resentment from her voice. She flashed Alan another apologetic look and quickly left the room.
Charlie acted as though she hadn’t noticed. She examined the young astronaut’s back and shook her head. Meeting Alan’s gaze over her patient’s shoulder, she whispered, “Hold him tightly.” To Burke, she said, “Okay, Pete. Just a few more minutes of discomfort and then you can rest. Hold on now, this may sting a bit.”
Virdon held Burke’s limp body firmly, yet carefully. The apes’ abuse had left so few unscathed places that he could only hope that his gentle embrace didn’t add to his friend’s suffering.
Charlie cleansed Burke’s wounds quickly and efficiently. Even so, Pete reacted to her treatment by stiffening in Virdon’s arms. He flinched and jerked with every touch of the medicated cloth and tried unsuccessfully to smother his misery in Alan’s broad shoulder.
Finally, as the overseer’s wife began to apply a foul-smelling ointment to the young astronaut’s raw flesh, Burke’s body went slack in Virdon’s arms.
“I think he’s passed out, Charlie.”
“Good! He needs the rest. I’ve seen a lot of cruelty in my life, Alan, but this is just about the worst example …” She couldn’t finish and mutely shook her head. “I just don’t understand how any thinking being can do this to another.” She pulled back and wiped her hands on a dry towel. “You can lay him back now. I need to check his leg.”
Alan eased the limp body down, maneuvering Pete gently onto his side. “There’s just one problem with your logic, Charlie. Apes believe that we can’t think or feel. We’re even less than animals to them.”
There was a lull in their conversation as Charlie examined and treated Burke’s thigh. She bathed the wound, then placed a wad of soft cloth on top of it and encircled it with a linen strip.
“There. That should be all right for a little while,” she said. She stood erect, carefully maneuvering her ancient bones into an upright position, then turned her attention to smoothing and straightening Burke’s bedding.
“Is he going to be all right, Charlie?” Alan’s voice was low.
“If he continues as he is and doesn’t get an infection … if his kidneys and his spine are undamaged … then I believe he will fully recover. It’s going to take quite a bit of time …” She raised her gaze and her eyebrows. “That’s the best I can offer you right now.”
Nodding almost to himself, Virdon sucked in a tired breath, held it, and then let it gush out. He was dead dog tired, teetering on the edge of exhaustion. He felt himself swaying and reached out, catching the top of the bedpost just in time.
Charlie rushed to his side. “Are you all right, Alan?”
Virdon closed his eyes and nodded.
“We’ve all been so worried about Pete that we forgot to worry
about you. Sit down. I’ll send
“But, Charlie, I can’t leave Pete right now. What if he wakes up and asks for me?”
“Then we’ll wake you,” the overseer’s wife said. “Arvid and Trina will care for him until you’ve rested. They’re both quite capable.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly, then exited the room.
It was early afternoon when Virdon roused from his nap. True to her word, Charlie had clucked over him until he had his fill of breakfast. She then steered him to another bedroom and ordered him to lie down. At first he resisted, but Virgil’s wife was a headstrong woman who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. He decided to humor her by lying down for just a few minutes, but when he let his tired body recline on the soft, downy mattress, he fell immediately into an exhausted, dreamless slumber.
Hours later, rested and ravenous again, he awoke and twirled his pasty tongue around the inside of his dry mouth. Personal hygiene and food, he decided, were Priorities Two and Three. Priority One lay in a bed down the hall. He yawned sleepily and hurried to check on Burke’s condition.
He knew something was wrong when he stepped into the silent room. On one side of the bed, Arvid bathed Pete’s bare arms and chest with a wet sponge; on the other, Trina laid a damp compress on his friend’s scraped forehead.
The tall, blond woman didn’t take her eyes from her task. “He’s running a high temperature, Alan,” she said matter of factly. “We’re trying to bring it down.”
Virdon was across the room in two strides of his long legs. He examined him with his eyes. Pete’s skin was dry and taut as a snare drum, his face flushed a deep red. Alan lightly touched Burke’s uninjured shoulder. The simple act told him the young astronaut’s fever was dangerously high.
Ignoring Trina, he retrieved the already warm cloth from Burke’s forehead and replaced it with a fresh, cool one. “Where’s Charlie?” he asked irritably.
Arvid pulled her hair away from her face and sighed wearily. “She’s out with Papa Virgil. There’s a medicinal plant that grows in the woods on the other side of the corn field. It’s sometimes useful with fevers.”
“Why didn’t someone wake me?”
“Grandma told us not to. She said to let you rest because Pete would need you later,” Trina said, replacing Alan’s folded cloth once more.
“Do you know when they’ll be back?” Virdon asked, again reaching to remove the compress.
Trina’s hand stopped him. “I just changed that,” she said, openly annoyed at his continued interference.
Glowering at the girl, Virdon stood his ground.
She returned his unwavering stare with a fierce look of her own.
“Okay, okay … don’t fight …” a very weak voice suddenly said. “There’s … enough of me to … go around …”
Startled, both Trina and Virdon glanced down at Burke. The dark-haired man was visibly fighting to keep his heavy eyelids open. His breaths came in short, labored gasps, yet he managed a wan smile at the ridiculous standoff above him.
Embarrassed, Alan quickly removed his hand from the compress and flashed Trina an open look of remorse. “Truce?”
The girl’s face reddened, and she smiled shyly up at him. “Truce,” she agreed.
Virdon knelt beside the bed and gripped his friend’s scalding hand. “How’re you doing, Pete?”
“… hot, Al … too damned hot …” Burke mumbled, his tenuous grip on consciousness slipping.
“I know, I know,” Virdon said soothingly. “But you’ve got to hang on. Charlie’s out searching for some kind of wonder weed that’ll cut the fever.” Alan glanced up at Arvid who now stood silently beside him. Her eyes were swollen from lack of sleep, and she looked pale and exhausted. On the opposite side of the bed, an equally fatigued Trina again freshened Burke’s compress. “Boy, some guys have all the luck, Pete. You know, I’d trade places with you in a minute. I’d love to be lying there with nothing to do and have two beautiful women waiting on me hand and foot.”
Gathering together the last vestiges of his rapidly dwindling strength, Burke expended it all in one whisper. “No … you wouldn’t …”
They were the last coherent words Virdon heard him say for a long, long time.
The rumors had all been true; it was like an oven in Hell. Smokeless, soundless flames soared around him everywhere, licking hungrily at his bare legs and feet. He squirmed helplessly, trying in vain to move away from their burning touch, but his efforts were to no avail. He stood uncomfortably on tiptoe, bound and helpless. His hands were pulled upward and chained to a tall metal beam. The scene seemed somehow familiar, and he found himself growing increasingly apprehensive.
"So! There you are, hum