Sleeping Gods

Dave Ballard

 

 

 

PART ONE: OZ

 

*****

 

Once upon a time, if a man was lucky, he might live beyond age thirty.

But then Man grew smart.

Decade by decade, century by century, he managed to claw an additional measure out of that fragile thing called life and his span of years began to grow hand in hand with his ingenuity.

But then Man grew stupid and threw it all away.

By the standards of his time, Bannan was ancient. No one knew in what year he had been born, for people no longer knew how to keep a calendar. No one knew how old he was but since he’d started keeping count Forty-seven harvests had come and gone and so he had a pretty good idea of how many years he had walked this earth.

Today he was feeling every single one of them.

His hair was pure, snowy white and hung down his back, tied in a ponytail. That same back was hunched from a lifetime of physical hardship and honest labor. His limbs were thin, knotted and stringy like the roots of some ancient tree.

When he had been younger, when the honor first became his, he would travel this path five or six times each year but as his age advanced so his journeys grew less frequent. Had it really been a year since he’d last trodden these secret ways?

And so this wasn’t the first time, he’d followed this path - but he suspected it might be his last.

He sat down while he caught his breath, he was exhausted, his limbs trembled uncontrollably and he sweated. No point in carrying on, not tonight. He would rest here, even though he was a good four days from his destination. He closed his eyes with sorrow and admitted to himself that he wasn’t sure if he could make it.

But the knowledge… the privilege… had to be passed on!

He should have told his eldest son before he left, the way his own father had once told him but he hadn’t believed he might never make it back. He hadn’t left a letter for he couldn’t write - but there was something he could do! Something he enjoyed doing, something he was quite good at. He pulled out a scrap of parchment-like material from his satchel and pricked his finger with a thorn from one of the ugly, spiny plants that grew nearby. He dipped the thorn in his own blood and began to draw.

 

*****

 

Spang!

An arrow ricocheted off the rocks and went whizzing over Virdon’s head.

Jesus that had been close!

Without a moments hesitation he dove behind a cluster of boulders, heedless to whatever might lay behind them. He scraped some flesh off the palms of his hands and winced, hissing under his breath but shifting the pain to somewhere further down where he didn’t have to deal with it right now. He risked a peek over the top of the boulder and saw a mounted gorilla ride by, head whipping left and right.

“Do you see them!” Another gorilla- this one out of sight - called.

“Lost them.” The rider grumbled irritably.

Good, that meant Pete and Galen had managed to find cover too. For Burke he wasn’t too concerned, he had all the skills and instincts required to elude capture but Galen? The young Chimpanzee wasn’t quite so crafty, he learned fast, no doubt about it, he had to, but of the three he was easily the most vulnerable in a situation like this.

“Well get in there after them,” shouted the rider Virdon couldn’t see.

“What, forget it. Have you seen this mess? I’m not taking Kupra in there! She’ll break a leg in a minute.”

Virdon looked around and agreed with the soldier. All around were rocky canyons, the floor littered with thousand of sharp stones ranging from small to mountain size. Lucky for him it was no place for a horse.

Come to think of it, it was no place for a marooned astronaut a thousand years away from home, either!

He idly wondered where they were. Sometimes the landscape provoked a sense of Déjà vu, some subconscious alarm triggered by a hauntingly familiar arrangement of hills or valleys. Today he didn’t have a clue. They were well outside of what was once San Francisco but these rock formations looked like something from the Grand Canyon and there was no way they’d wandered that far.

Sierra Nevada? Then where were the snow-capped mountains?

“Well get off your horse and go in on foot,” suggested the invisible ape.

Virdon instantly forgot about geography and went to high alert. He looked left and right finding no weapons other than fist sized rocks. He reached out and took one.

All this for the theft of a few ears of corn!

But it had tasted so good. Good enough to die for, he remembered saying and oh, how they’d laughed.

You go in on foot!’ retorted the rider he could see. “I’m not paid enough.” Even so the rider dismounted and shambled in Virdon’s direction, a primed crossbow was held loosely in his paws ready to aim and fire in an instant. Virdon inched backward praying he wouldn’t start a small rockslide that would betray his position. He felt something pressing against his back and glanced around.

Dead end!

Keeping his eyes on the advancing gorilla he carefully dropped his rock and felt around. Seeking a larger one. His hand fell on what felt like a slender branch. He curled his fingers around it and pulled - knowing instantly he’d made a mistake.

That wasn’t wood.

“Ah, to hell with this.” The gorilla spat in disgust and turned back toward Kupra, his horse.

Virdon turned to look at what he’d grabbed and was too late to stifle a small yelp of surprise. The soldier halted and spun around, the crossbow pointing in Virdon’s direction. “What is it?” The invisible gorilla, called.

“I thought I heard something.”

“Probably just a rattle snake… C’mon let’s go… they’re long gone.”

At the mention of snakes the gorilla turned around and mounted up geeing his horse away.

 

Virdon dropped the bleached white forearm of the human skeleton feeling foolish and disgusted with himself. It had been a gut reaction, a stupid, childish instinct and it had nearly gotten him killed.

The remains were propped up against rocks that formed a natural wall. The arm had come right off in Virdon’s hand not even disturbing the position of the rest of the skeleton. Tattered, sun bleached, clothing hung over the bones, the corners gently stirring in what little breeze there was.

The skeleton eyes looked at Virdon and the mouth grinned as if enjoying some private joke. Fell for the old,’ arm comes off in your hand’ trick, did ya!

A tiny clatter of disturbed pebbles came from somewhere off to the left and the skeleton was instantly dismissed. Virdon pulled himself into a better position, ready to leap into action should it be necessary. Somewhere, not too far away a bird whistled, it’s call, lost and mournful. Virdon grinned, Pete was okay. He whistled back, cautiously rising from his hiding place.

And there he was, strolling along without a care in the world. Virdon nodded sharply catching Burke’s eye and sent a series of complicated hand signals. Pete shook his head and waved the caution away.

“Relax, they took the first train outta here. I was watching, they’re probably back in the bar right now, feet up, boots off and drinking ice-cold beer.”

“Or they might be just around that rock waiting to see if one of us was would fall for the oldest trick in the book.” Virdon complained. “That was stupid Pete.”

“Jeez Al! Lighten up will ya?” Burke frowned, his choice of words might often be frivolous but he was as careful as they come, as careful as Virdon had taught him to be. He might act as if he was making light of the situation but that was just his way of dealing with it. It was his style, Virdon knew that so why was he chewing him out? Had something spooked him? “I noticed they were pretty handy with those crossbows.”

“They were shooting to kill,” called Galen hopping down off a rock. “Either the orders to take us in alive have suddenly changed - or they didn’t know who we were.”

“Then I’m kind of hoping they didn’t know.” offered Burke. “But all this fuss over some lousy corn?”

Virdon relaxed, realizing that it was the skeleton that was irritating him. It wasn’t frightening or dangerous it was just so damn unexpected. It was his reaction to it that dismayed him. “Take a look at this.” He muttered.

Galen cocked his head and ever curious ambled over. “E-yuck! That’s disgusting,” complained the chimp.

“Y’see… Now that’s why I don’t diet,” quipped Burke, his words once again making light of his true feelings.

“Your overwhelming sensitivity never fails to bring a tear to my eye,” muttered Galen

“Hey! You’re the one who just christened him disgusting… he probably had a wonderful personality.”

Virdon shook his head, not at all amused by the banter. This was once a human being for Christ’s sake. “Hey c’mon people, show a little respect for the recently deceased!”

“Recently?” Argued the chimpanzee squatting down and sniffing the air. “Oh I don’t think so…” He sniffed again. “Indeed not… Something around here died for sure - but a  long time ago.”

“Wow! You can tell that with just a sniff?” asked Burke sarcastically.

Galen looked up a small smile playing around his lips. “I was referring to whatever it was that crawled down your shirt.”

Burke grinned, oh that was a good one, the chimp had scored a point. He’d see he paid for it later.

“Anything on him?” Asked Virdon. “Something to tell us who he was.”

With a look of vague revulsion Galen rummaged through the tattered pockets finding nothing. He grabbed the satchel still slung over one shoulder and the rotten fibres of the strap parted away in puffs of dust. “Nothing here… except this?” he held up a scrap of thin and brittle parchment.

“What’s that… his handkerchief?” asked Burke.

Galen studied the material, nose twitching and cocking his head from side to side. “Why… It’s a map.”

“A map? A map of what?”

Galen shrugged. “Who knows.” The chimp stood and studied his surroundings, making notes of local landmarks and referring back to the drawing. “Look here!’ he said suddenly pointing at an outline of a series of hills. “And there!” this time pointing West. Virdon and Burke hunkered down comparing the illustration to the local geography.

“Could be” Virdon admitted. So what’s that?” he pointed to a circle with lines radiating outward. “Looks like the Sun, he’s even drawn a smiley face.”

“Forget the Sun,” mumbled Burke. “Here’s what I’m interested in.” He stabbed his finger at some childlike scrawls of what was undoubtedly a series of huts. “A village?”

Virdon nodded, as was so often the case when deciding which way to go their minds had seemingly been made up for them. “Well, unless either of you two has a previous engagement I’m all for finding out.”

Burke winced and sat down.

“Pete? Are you okay?”

“ Yeah, I’ll be fine… It’s just that word -‘engagement ‘.Y’know it upsets me. Makes me break out in a cold sweat ‘n all.”

Virdon flipped Galen an apologetic look.

“You’re really going to put your faith in an old map?” Asked the chimp ignoring Burke’s comments with unconscious expertise. “Drawn by a human?”

“A man’s gotta have faith Galen,” Virdon answered.

“Like we have faith that one day we’ll find your sense of humour hiding under a rock someplace.” Burked added.

“Oh! Now do please excuse me while I have a seizure from laughing so hard, Peter Burke- but that was just so startlingly original.”

“What? Now you’re saying I ain’t capable of an original thought?”

“If you were… I’m quite sure it would die of loneliness.”

“Alright! Enough already!” Virdon interrupted, grinning. “Are you ladies coming or are we going to stand around and bicker all day?”

Burke looked at Galen “Food and shelter first?” he suggested.

Galen nodded. “Agreed… We can always bicker after.”

“Then let’s get moving,” suggested Virdon preferring to be a spectator rather than a participant in the endless sport of species baiting.

“First things first.” Burke said picking up some rocks.

“Now what are you doing?” asked Galen. “Or do we have to wait here while you indulge a sudden and irrational urge to start building a wall?”

“Sit and watch if you want to Galen… or maybe you could help me give Slim Jim here a decent burial… then we can bury that last joke of yours at the same time.”

Galen was momentarily lost for words, Burke’s quiet thoughtfulness had effortlessly touched him, even made him feel a little ashamed “I apologize,” he said, meaning it sincerely. “I sometimes forget you can be quit decent if you try.”

Burke smiled. “Watch what you accuse me of fella, I ain’t being decent, I’m just curious to see if it’s him or you that’s attracting all the flies.
“GUYS!’ Virdon pleaded.

 

 

*****

 

“Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks.” The gorilla chanted to himself, over and over, not even aware he was doing so. It was an act of the purely subconscious, the words lying somewhere beneath even a whisper. His name was Juba and for many years he had enjoyed the distinctive title of District Enforcer for Human Affairs. Official titles were mostly meaningless, even he knew that, all this one meant was that if humans got out of hand - you sent for Juba.

It had been a good position and a lucrative one but then, one fateful day he had crossed paths with Parrin and his accursed humans – But it wasn’t Parrin was it? Oh no, it was Galen, he reminded himself for the thousandth time…. Galen, the stinking human lover with his two pets Virdon and Burke.

“Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks,” he continued as his horse trudged along eating up mile after mile under the gaze of a burning sun.

He hadn’t known who they were of course and felt it unreasonable that he should have been expected to. If he’d been paying attention he might have suspected something but they’d been clever. They’d lied to him, led him on and now here he was, cast out of the army, thrown out like the trash by non other than General Urko himself.

“Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks.”

At first he had been afraid, a civilian gorilla was almost unheard of. The unemployed were generally unemployable falling into the category of wounded veteran or halfwit. He didn’t mind being mistaken for a veteran but for some peculiar reason he rarely was.

After a few days of drunken brawling and wallowing in self-pity he had cashed in some favors – and he was owed plenty. He had quickly obtained a pistol and rifle, nothing like the exquisite killing machines he was used to (and had been forced to surrender) but rough, clumsy, modern weapons. Their barrels were so warped you might have sworn the makers intended them to shoot around corners. The old weapons were best – so old his kind had forgotten not only who had made them, but how. Modern weapons were just crude imitations but in the right hands they could still kill.

And kill he did.

The first was almost an accident, he’d been drunk and the animal had run right into him, spilling his wine. In a rage he had pulled his pistol and shot the creature dead, dimly acknowledging that because of it he now faced a day or two in jail due to the paperwork he had no doubt caused some long suffering Prefect. Then, before he had realized what was happening, before he had a chance to run, policemen were slapping him on the back congratulating him on a job well done.

The human was a habitual thief, (weren’t they all?) he even had a small bounty on his head. Nothing much, not even a week’s pay but enough for a down payment on a decent horse and most importantly it had given Juba a new direction.

Up and down the country there were other such outlaws – ape and human - with prices on their heads. He’d never grow rich but it promised to be steady work and he could earn a living from the rewards. As the money trickled in, weapons were upgraded and added to and now here he was chasing the biggest prize of all.

It was a shame about the eye.

He’d lost it apprehending a human. The bounty promising to pay more for alive than dead. The bastard scum held a concealed knife, had gotten lucky and then his human luck had suddenly run out.

Juba allowed himself a tiny smile as he remembered how the animal’s intestines had stretched from one end of the fence to the other, glistening prettily in the sun -but it wasn’t worth the cost of an eye.

That had been the last time he’d bothered to keep his prey alive. Now he simply killed them on sight, even if it meant he might earn a little less. It was a practice he meant to apply to his latest targets.

 “Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks.”

Their trail was cold. Stone cold. He still had friends in the army who weren’t adverse to a small bribe or two. He’d made it known that he now pursued the worlds most wanted. Galen, Virdon and Burke. A chimpanzee and two humans who had somehow managed to elude the powers that be again and again with an almost supernatural skill. Of course if you believed some of the stories about them there was an explanation for how that could be but Juba didn’t believe, not at all. Such stories were for gullible children.

His sources leaked all the latest reports, all the rumored sightings. If you paid attention to them all then the fugitives were indeed supernatural beings for they sometimes traveled a distance of hundreds of miles in a matter of hours often appearing in two or three places simultaneously!

They weren’t ghosts and they weren’t clever, they were just lucky and of course Galen aided them.

Juba hated Galen the most. The humans, though reviled could be excused. They were what they were. Filth! Parasites! A walking pestilence- but Galen was an ape! A traitor to his own kind, a murderer of gorillas! – And he had caused Juba to lose his beloved post.

“Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks.”

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, a deep red orb that promised another searing day to follow. He was a half days ride away from the last confirmed sighting and would continue on through the night. Of course he wouldn’t find them - They would have already moved on but one clue invariably led to another. He’d catch up with them in time, by chance if not design and when he did…

“Headsonsticks headsonsticks headsonsticks.” He continued to chant.

 

 

*****

Galen scouted ahead as was the favored procedure whenever approaching an unknown village. A Chimpanzee alone was unlikely to arouse suspicion but a chimpanzee and two humans might. The routine was very simple, if apes were in evidence Galen always went first.

He had never even heard of this village, since meeting the astronauts their journeys had ever spiraled outward from his life-long home of Central City bringing him into contact with new towns and villages, many of which were not even on any official maps.

New customs, new stories, new people. It was so exciting! An endless procession of new discoveries. Of course there was a downside, sometimes the locals might try to shoot you dead and that was always guaranteed to spoil one’s day.

Galen approached trying to reach a compromise between carefree confidence and uneasy caution. Being caught sneaking in could be disastrous, immediately raising the suspicion that all was not well. Even humans knew a fugitive if you acted like one.

And so he approached in full daylight, ‘hiding in plain sight’ Virdon called it. Acting as though he had every right to be there.

The village was of a good size, apes and humans mingled in busy streets going about their day to day business. A few people glanced in his direction as he approached but he was unaware of any unwelcome lingering studies. Like most villages this far out it was farm based, cattle and chickens could be seen almost everywhere, as could bails of hay, grain and…

Galen blinked, surprised. Well how strange!

It was a house - but unlike any other Galen had seen. This one looked like two houses stacked on top of each other! He looked around and saw many other examples of this strange architecture, some even going as high as three.

“May I help you sir… you appear somewhat confused.”

Startled Galen turned around quickly, his eyes widening with alarm. Had he somehow given himself away? The owner of the voice was a female Chimpanzee who waited patiently for something other than silence. “My name is Sabina, I would be glad to be of assistance.”

Galen realized he was making things worse by hesitating in providing an answer but the surprise of finding such a delightful looking female in this village had robbed him of all coherent thought. “I…. I…”

“Do you have business here?” The vision asked.

At last the spell was broken. “Forgive me, It’s just that I have never seen anything as wonderful as –“

“The Scraypers?” Sabina finished. “Yes, our hearts are proud to have them.”

And my hearts galloping like a horse, thought Galen. “Well, actually I was going to say as wonderful as you.” he grinned.

Sabina smiled and blushed. “You tease me… Now tell me, how may I help you?”

“Help me? Oh yes, My name is… Garlow… I’m a… mapmaker surveying these parts. You know, Central City is very interested in opening trade agreements with villages such as yours.”

“Central City.” Sabina asked. “I must confess, I am ignorant of such a place.

Good, thought Galen, Then you are less likely to have heard of me. “Oh it’s a large city, many, many miles away, I was born and raised there.”

“Then you must know all it’s stories. Will you stay awhile and tell me of them.”

“Well – do you know… I think I would be absolutely delighted!

Sabina smiled brightly and turned to face the village. “A stranger!” She called, making Galen visibly cringe, so much for stealth, he thought.

Some other villagers ran forward to greet him, one carrying a garland of sweet smelling flowers. Uncomfortable with all this attention Galen nevertheless smiled as it was hung around his neck.

“In this manner we greet you.” The villager said.

Galen laughed softly, “Well, as greetings go it certainly beats having a pitchfork jabbed up your behind…” he winked at the crowd. “…And I’ve been to one or two places where that’s happened, believe me.”

“How dreadful!” Sabina gasped. “Take comfort Garlow, that will not happen here.”

“I wonder, is there a place where I might spend a night or two?”

“There are many such places.”

“I should explain that I have two human servants travelling with me, they should arrive here very soon. Do you have a… problem, with humans at all”

“Of course not, you will find Trando is very sophisticated and tolerant of humans - as long as they are well behaved… Do your humans tell tales?”

Galen pulled a face. “Tell me about it!” he complained. “I think lying comes easier than breathing for most of them.”

“I meant would they have stories to share for our amusement.” Sabina said, her face crinkling with an odd look.

“Oh! Oh… of course I knew that… just my little joke, please forgive me.”

The beautiful chimpanzee smiled and Galen felt himself grow light-headed. “We have a room at my fathers house - you may stay there if you wish… he would be glad to have you.”

“Why thank you… if you’re quite sure that is?”

“It is settled then. Come, I will show you the way.”

“Would there be a room for my humans too?”

Sabina snorted. “You joke again. Humans! Under the same roof? I said we were sophisticated, I didn’t say we were perverted.”

For the first time in a very long while Galen enjoyed a laugh and clapped his hands together in delight.

 

*****

 

“There’s the signal,” Virdon observed, observing from a safe distance. “So far so good.”

“Hmm, and unless the police in these parts are female and arrest you by linking arms, I’d say Galen’s made a friend.” Burke added. “So what now?”

“Stick to the plan. Give it a while and we can follow on. Something tells me we’re in for some hot food tonight.”

"A nice juicy steak.” Burke groaned.

“Followed by apple pie and vanilla ice cream.” Virdon added, closing his eyes and wishing hard. “All washed down with an ice cold Coke.”

“Oh man I’m getting old, because right now that sounds better to me than all those single ladies down there.”

Virdon grinned and nodded. Not that he was particularly interested in single ladies - not unless they were the one’s who had built the strange houses down there.

They’d been surprised at the discovery but understood how isolated and detached many of the ape settlements were. One village might know about gunpowder, another might not. It was the way things were - and most of the time it worked to their advantage. Charity was a wonderful thing and it felt better to leave a friendly village a little richer for having known you. It was the little things that sometime made all the difference. A windmill here, irrigation there, once they’d supervised the building of a damn that had reclaimed acres of rich, arable land.

But you had to be careful, you had to strike a balance and make it look as though the apes could have conceivably thought of these ‘new’ inventions themselves. Otherwise you just left behind a trail of technology that would be all too easy for Urko and Zaius to follow.

And speaking of following trails…he reminded himself, pulling out the map they had discovered and studying it some more. This village was shown in the bottom left hand corner. To his mind that put them at the start. The circle with the lines radiating outwards - the one that resembled a child’s drawing of the Sun - was at the top right. They’d found the skeleton three days away, according to the map that had been at around the halfway point.

“Take a look at this Pete… tell me what you think. This village must have been at the start of someone’s journey.”

Burke glanced over, not particularly interested. “Maybe it was just something his wife gave him. To stop him getting lost after a night out with the boys.”

Virdon shrugged. “Maybe… but something tells me this isn’t just a guide for tourists – it’s a message.”

“Y’mean buried treasure m’ hearty!” Burke voiced theatrically.

“I don’t know that either - but it’s directions Pete. Instructions on how to get from point A to point B… From here, to…”

“To the sun with the smiling face?”

“If that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“It bugs you doesn’t it.”

Virdon laughed. “Of course, don’t you just love a mystery?”

“A mystery yes – but take out the ‘t’ and it sounds like misery. The problem then is when you start trying to solve them they turn into adventures and I’ve had quite enough of those to last me a while, thank you.”

Virdon laughed and folded the map, tucking it back into his pouch. “C’mon, let’s go see what’s for dinner.”

“I thought you said to wait an hour.”

“To hell with that, I’m starving.”

 

*****

 

Hidden in the shadows, beneath the canopy of a large tree, a gorilla bent forward, resting one massive forearm on the pommel of his saddle.

Half a mile away stood a farm, it wasn’t much to look at, some shabby wooden constructions and some fences. He’d almost ridden by…

But what was that?

In the middle of a field there stood a strange tower with cloth adorned arms reaching out and spinning slowly in the breeze.

Juba’s nostrils flared, his senses were beginning to prickle with intuition. This was important, this was something… At last he was in the right place.

He spurred his horse forward and approached the farm at a leisurely pace, he was ready to use violence as a means to an end but sometimes mock-friendliness could be just as effective. With this in mind he reached into a pocket and drew out a patch to cover his scarred eye.

Some figures stepped out of the house to meet him, two adults and two children - unless they were midgets - and with the stories he’s heard of how farmers practiced in-breeding, neither would have surprised him. As he drew closer he began to make out more details. They were Chimpanzees… an adult male, an adult female, a young boy and a teenage girl, the perfect family unit. The girl was actually quite attractive for a chimp - if you liked that sort of thing.

Juba didn’t.

A rifle in its holster hung from his saddle but all other weapons were carefully concealed. A rifle would be expected of him, perhaps even conspicuous by its absence but anything more might mean trouble - the kind of trouble that would warn a perfect family of farmer chimps to carefully guard what they might have to say.

The youngest child was now hopping from foot to foot excitedly and pointing in his direction, his father spoke something, harsh and abrupt that silenced him.

As Juba passed the tower with the arms that spun around he tried to look amiable and curious. “Hello,” he called to the family. “And what is this! It’s marvelous, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“It’s a windy mill,” gushed the youngster earning a cuff around the back off the head from his father.

“A windy mill.” Juba repeated. “And what purpose might it serve?”

The adult male moved forward, his body language hostile and aggressive. Juba supposed some might find him intimidating but wondered how dangerous he would look lying in the dust with a smoking red hole in the middle of his face. “Who are you, what is it you want… we have no food.” The father said.

That was a lie, Juba had seen a surprising number of bales of hay and piles of juicy looking corn in the hayloft as he’d passed by but it was of no concern, he wouldn’t push the matter. “Just passing through,” said Juba, still smiling. “When I saw your… windy mill. I just had to know what it was… did you make it yourself?” he tried to make it sound like nothing more than idle curiosity.

“I made it,” answered the boy. “I’m an inventor. I made all these things you see, rope to shift the hay, fences that won’t fall down.”

“Remus, that’s enough!” The adult female pushed her way to the front. “Forgive us please, we sometimes forget our manners, may we offer you a drink of water.”

Juba wasn’t fooled for a moment. ‘Change the subject and hide the secret’ his mentor used to say. And these people had secrets, of that he was sure. “That would be very welcome,” he answered, sliding off his horse.

“Jillia, fetch a pitcher for our guest… I’m sorry, you didn’t tell us your name?”

“No,” agreed Juba. “I didn’t.” The mother frowned, obviously unsettled by Juba’s manner and then waved her daughter away to fetch the offered drink. The Gorilla turned and fixed his single eye on the child. “So Remus… you did not answer… what purpose does your invention serve?”

“It pushes water around the farm,” The boy replied meekly, now sensing an unspoken tension in the air. He licked his lips, suddenly fearful he might have already said too much.

“Ingenious.” Juba acknowledged but he knew this was not the work of a mere boy. It was them. “I wonder though… how a tiny thing like yourself managed to build such a wonderful creation. Surely you must have had help?”

“Anto, his elder brother assisted.’ The father said a little too eagerly. “A fine strong boy… he now has a farm of his own, just down the road. He’ll be here very soon.”

Juba nodded and smiled, partially to look friendly but mostly from amusement at the thinly veiled threat. So a dumb hick chimp was coming to their rescuebig deal, he thought. The daughter re-appeared with a pitcher of cool water and Juba took it from her. “Delicious,” he allowed.

“Where are you headed?” asked the mother just to make conversation.

Juba shrugged and jerked his head in the opposite direction from the way he had come.

 “Then where are you from?” asked the father.

Another shrug, another jerk of the head, this time indicating the way behind him.

An awkward silence followed which Juba enjoyed immensely. This family had something to hide. The more uncomfortable they felt the more likely it became that one of them would soon make a mistake.

The father cleared his throat. “Remus… go and meet your brother on the road, he promised to bring the bulls, he may need your help driving them.”

“Yes father,” said the boy sulkily, slinking away.

“And no riding Virdon!” The mother called out to his back.

Juba froze mid-swallow and caught the furtive exchange of looks between husband and wife. “Virdon?” he asked innocently. “A strange name.”

“One of Anto’s bulls,” explained the father much too quickly. “Remus sometimes rides him if the animal’s temperament allows.”

“You said Anto has two bulls.” Juba said. “I wonder… would the other be called Burke?” Juba watched and took another sip of water as the whole family grew pale, it was all he could do not to laugh out loud. He handed the pitcher back to the girl who reached out and took it from him like some mindless puppet.

Still smiling the gorilla slowly brought his gaze to bear upon the father. “Tell me about Virdon and Burke.”

“I told you… they are two twin bulls, hardly more than calves…”

“Then tell me about the other Virdon and Burke… The ones that built your windy mill… and don’t forget to tell me about Galen too.”

“Galen!” gasped the daughter, her hands flying to cover her mouth. Juba grinned, how sweet. Romance grew in the unlikeliest of places.

“You should leave now,” urged the father, his hand now creeping toward a pitchfork that leaned against the fence. “Anto will be here soon.”

“Excellent,” replied Juba, his voice growing cold. “Because I can’t wait to kill him.”

“Now see here!”

“Shut up and listen!” Juba’s mask of geniality slipped away to be replaced by something cold, dark and lethal. “And forget the fork, your family will be dead in a heartbeat if you so much as look at it again.”

The farmer managed to meet Juba’s gaze defiantly, he held it a moment or two and then dropped his eyes down towards the dirt. His hand dropped to his side and his shoulders slumped in defeat. Juba nodded with satisfaction. The mother and father exchanged another look and Juba could see their bravado crumbling as he watched. The best thing he could do was make sure he didn’t give them time to gather their thoughts and prepare their answers. He glared at the girl who actually flinched when she realized he was doing so.

“Your parents and I have matters to discuss,” he said. “Why don’t you just go into the house and leave us grown-ups to talk amongst ourselves.”

The girl glanced hesitantly at her mother, clearly afraid.

“Do as he asks, Jillia. We’ll be with you soon.”

With another anxious look at Juba the girl bowed her head and scurried away. Juba waited until she was inside the house and spoke directly to the mother. She was the brains around here, her husband was just a bag of stupid muscle.

“I said I was just passing through and there is still time for that to be the truth - but only if you want it to be. Otherwise I just might just stay awhile and really get to know your children.”

“They’re gone…” The father snapped irritably, as if that were the end of the matter.

Juba nodded, at last he was getting somewhere. “How long?”

“A month, maybe two.”

“Where did they go?”

“We don’t know.”

“Then when your son appears be sure to shout goodbye,” Juba sighed, reaching under the horse blanket and pulling free a long muzzled rifle. “Because I assure you, there will be no time to say hello.”

“Polar!” squealed the mother.

Polar waved her protest away. “South! They went south.”

Juba believed him, he was much too scared to lie. “South? What else lies in that direction?”

“Nothing much, more farms, the sea.”

“What else?”

“Galen… had a crutch… they wouldn’t have gone too far, not too fast.”

Juba nodded and pulled out his map. Whether they knew it or not the three fugitives were following a pattern. A circular path that spiraled out from Central City. Each time they would drift a little farther away and each time, for some inexplicable reason they’d wander right back.

Based upon what the farmer had told him he now saw two likely possibilities. One was a fishing village, the other a hillside settlement that overlooked the sea. He would pay a visit to both.

“Thank you for your assistance,” he growled rolling up the map, then swinging himself back up into his saddle. “When I find them I’ll be sure to say who sent me… Just before I cut off their heads.” He geed his horse away then paused, looking back over his shoulder. “Give Anto my regards… tell him how lucky he is.” He dug in his spurs and galloped away.

 

*****

 

Galen followed Sabina as she led him to her home, albeit indirectly. She stopped at almost every opportunity, to point at some item of interest and give a brief outline of its history.

He hadn’t heard a word.

Fortunately, some portion of his brain continued to function and was making sure his body still reacted when appropriate. He nodded, smiled and said, “I see” whenever it was required but the major part of everything he was, basked in the companionship of the beautiful Sabina.

She was charming, literate and funny. Not in an unintentional way - the way isolated out of the way people could be - but genuinely amusing with her quick wit and sense of humor.

She was currently lecturing on the sophisticated manner in which wine was pressed and Galen watched her lips wondering what it would be like to kiss them.

Say ‘I see’ and nod your head, his brain advised. “I see,” said Galen nodding his head enthusiastically. But the only thing he truly saw was Sabina.

They were interrupted by the arrival of Virdon and Burke who trotted up to the chimpanzee couple giving token, clumsy and entirely unconvincing bows. “Ahh, Sabina,” said Galen, politely interrupting her current explanation. “These are the servants I spoke of…” He continued to smile but lowered the pitch of his voice. “And you have my word they’ll cause no trouble.”

Sabina gave the humans a brief inspection. “I like this one better,” she said, pointing at Burke. “Such beautiful eyes… like a chimpanzee’s!” Burke gave a weak smile as she turned toward Virdon. “I’m not so sure about the other…” She whispered in Galen’s ear, loud enough for the entire village to hear. “He looks a thuggish, ignorant brute. Tell me do they have names?”

“Names?” asked Galen. “Oh yes… yes indeed, of course they do… this is…” he gestured hopefully toward Virdon.

“Ahab,” answered Burke, grinning. On their travels they had made it a game to name each other in every place they stayed at. The rules were simple. The alias had to begin with the actual letter of their real name and extra points were scored for being as offensive as possible.

“Ahab,” agreed Galen, nodding happily and oblivious to any literary reference. Virdon played it cool, trying not to look thuggish or ignorant and giving no indication that this was anything other than his name.

“And Brown eyes?’ Asked Sabina.

“Pecker!” Virdon answered quickly. “This is my friend, Pecker.” The smile on Burke’s face tightened and became something more resembling a grimace. Galen covered his mouth and stifled a giggle, here he was on more familiar territory. He had heard Burke refer to his ‘pecker’ on more than one occasion and had a good idea of what he had meant.

“My favorite servant,” he announced proudly. “The head of my household staff … Pecker-head, I call him.”

Virdon pressed his lips together tightly strangling the small squeak of amusement that threatened to escape his throat and wondered if it made him look thuggish

Sabina’s eyes narrowed as she studied the three newcomers suspiciously. There was something not quite right about them but she couldn’t quite define what it might be. It was as though they shared some secret of which she remained ignorant. She shrugged and put it down to their being from so far away. “Well, follow me then. I shall take you to my father’s house and he will find a place for your humans.” She turned around and led the way oblivious to the slap Galen received around the back of the head from a sneering Burke.

 

 

*****

 

Sabina’s father, a short, somewhat pudgy ape, named Remarr, was delighted to receive Galen and greeted him graciously. “Of course you must stay a few days, in fact I utterly insist upon it,” he declared, then quickly saw to it that Virdon and Burke were given the use of an abandoned shack not too far away. It was crude and primitive but it was clean. For them it was sheer luxury and they accepted it with heartfelt gratitude.

“My daughter tells me you come all the way from Central City!’ Remarr said to Galen as they walked back to his house. “I was there once when I was a boy, a wonderful place - but so busy… Apes running around all day never stopping to talk and tell. Oh what stories you must know, tell me you’ll share some before you leave.”

“I’d be happy to.” Galen answered smiling at the elderly, silver haired chimp and laying a hand on his shoulder. “It’s the least I can do to repay such kindness.” He felt a pang of homesickness, Remarr was older than his own father and looked nothing like him, but even so, the pervading atmosphere of homeliness was quite intense.

“Garlow is a map-maker.” Sabina told her father.

Really?” Remarr turned to Galen and raised an eyebrow knowingly. There followed a drawn out silence in which Galen found his smile beginning to freeze. “But of course he is…how interesting.”

Galen studied him with uncertainty. Had that been a strange choice of words? Did the elder ape suspect? Or was he just being paranoid?

“Then you must travel much in the line of duty.” Remarr continued, oblivious to any scrutiny.

Well that’s certainly one way of putting it, thought Galen “Oh… I suppose you could say I get around.”

“Have you ever met God?” The old Ape asked, then he and his daughter looked at each other and burst into laughter. “Forgive me Garlow… Just a local superstition among the humans.”

“How… quaint.” Galen allowed.

“I’ll see to it that you hear the whole story, in fact there is a telling tonight, please say you’ll attend.” Galen wasn’t quite sure what a ‘telling’ was but if Sabina was going wild horses wouldn’t keep him away.

“Are humans allowed?” he asked. “I’m always keen to expose my servants to new ideas, it helps educate their feeble minds.”

“Humans are allowed,” Remarr, confirmed “They may even participate.”

“Then it’s a date,” confirmed Galen turning his attention to Sabina.

Her eyes met his and she blushed.

 

*****

 “Hey, hey hey! Galen’s got a crush going on,’ observed Burke as the chimp updated them on their situation.

“I do not ‘have a crush’ I’m merely trying to ascertain how useful she might be - for the benefit of all of us I might add.”

“Galen’s got a girlfriend -Galen's got a girlfriend,” Burke began to sing in an incredibly annoying, playground voice.

“Oh, do be quiet.” Galen grumbled. “She’s not my girlfriend, she just happens to be a delightful young lady whose company I very much enjoy.”

“Galen’s in love, Galen’s in love.”

Virdon clamped a hand over Burke’s mouth, silencing the impromptu musical presentation and provoking a muffled curse instead.  “We’re very happy for you Galen, just don’t forget who you are okay?”

“As if I could.” Galen answered, pulling a face. “I’m not so sure about her father… I sense he might suspect something.”

Pushing Virdon’s hand away Burke clapped his own on the chimpanzee’s shoulder. “Probably just concerned about a certain someone sniffing around his daughter.”

Galen screwed up his face in disgust. “Oohhh! You really do know how to drag a conversation down to its most basic level don’t you.” He groaned. “I wasn’t ‘sniffing around’… is that what a human does? Do you shake the father’s hand while burying your snout deep into his daughter’s flesh, like a pig nosing for truffles?”

Burke screwed up his face as if trying to recall. “Well… there was that one time… But I was drunk.”

His mouth worked as he struggled for words but all the chimpanzee could manage was a horrified stare. Was that a joke? Please, let that have been a joke!

“So, you gonna take her out on a date?”  Virdon asked.

Galen squeezed his eyes tightly shut and shook himself, It was a joke…wasn’t it? He turned to Virdon and tried to erase the last few seconds of his life. “Actually that’s why I’m here… there is something called a ‘telling’ tonight, a local custom, it all sounds very entertaining, I think we should attend.”

“We’ll be there,” the blond astronaut promised.

“There’s a place just outside the village, I gather it’s a kind of open air theatre. You can’t miss it, just follow the crowd.

“Sounds good, I’m really looking forward to it.”

“I understand there may be some level of audience participation.” Galen warned.

“How do you mean?” asked Burke.

“We’ll not your singing I hope.” The chimpanzee groaned.

Burke looked offended. “Hey! I’ll bet people will pay good money to see a singing Pecker! I’ll knock em dead”

Galen snorted laughter and squeezed his friends arm. “Well maybe you’re right. I would like to leave something behind, leave these people richer for having known us – but I’m not sure they’re quite ready for that.”

“Okay then,” Virdon decided stripping off his shirt. “Let’s get cleaned up and go see a show.”

 

*****

 

At dusk a villager lit torches along a path and so the ‘theatre’ was easy to find. Families, ape and human, wandered down a well trodden path toward the place of the ‘Telling.’

It was a crude amphitheater, hacked from a hillside with seating for about three hundred. In the village of Trando the apes seemed far more tolerant of humans than was common. The two species still kept mostly to themselves, each had their own section of seating but there was none of the open hostility that might be witnessed in Central City.

Galen sat with Remarr and Sabina. Annoyingly the girl’s father had placed himself between them and so he was able to give the proceedings far more attention than he would have liked.

He could see Virdon and Burke already sat a few tiers below. Virdon was watching the unfolding events carefully, noting the position of each un-armed, gorilla attendant and the nearest exits. Burke sat a few rows behind, next to a young human female and was constantly leaning over to speak in her ear.

Or was he sniffing? Galen wondered.

He then saw the girl laugh and blush and felt a sudden stab of irrational jealousy. Why couldn’t that be him down there with Sabina?

 

There was an air of expectancy as the crowd waited for the show to begin and the young chimpanzee found himself growing quite excited. It had been so long since he had been entertained. Burke’s constant needling certainly didn’t qualify. The last time he had found himself witnessing an organized event even remotely like this was when he had been forced to witness a life or death struggle with the younger astronaut pitted against a local champion.

Galen’s thoughts were interrupted as an Orangutan dignitary walked into the circular stage. The crowd instantly fell into a respectful hush.

 

“All those gathered here, I bid fall silent. Fall silent for tales of what lies here, what lies there and what lies in-between.” The Orangutan said. “I bid you witness tales of what has been, what is now and what might be.” Galen looked around and caught Virdon’s eye. The blonde astronaut smiled and shrugged but seemed to be enjoying himself. “All those gathered here, I bid now give themselves… to the Telling.” The Orangutan left the stage and a female gorilla took his place.

“Please witness the tale of ‘One good gorilla’”

 

The audience applauded then listened attentively as the ape recited a story that was a variation of ‘The Good Samaritan.” Virdon smiled inwardly, it had been altered yet still, essentially remained the same. He looked around at the crowd and found himself affected by their total entrancement. The ‘Telling’ was nothing more than a sharing of stories, some humorous, some romantic and some downright boring (such as “The farmer whose wife could not bake bread.”)  He shared in the laughter of “The chimpanzee who could not spell his name.” And thrilled to the adventures of a Robinson Crusoe-like gorilla. Some tales were obviously old favorites and some appeared to be improvised but what impressed him most was the way in which they bound the entire village together. Ape and human were called upon and each was meet with un-biased applause from both factions.

 

The evening grew late, a young human male took the stage as Virdon, his exhaustion now getting the better of him, began to doze.

“Please witness the tale of “When men once flew.”  As a collective groan swept around the amphitheater Virdon jerked, instantly alert, startling those sat next to him. “There was once a time, before all memory when a man could touch the sky.”

Members of the audience, ape and human began to boo and called for the speaker to leave the stage. Virdon hoped the man would be allowed to continue as this sounded promising but even as he valiantly struggled on the Orangutan walked over and whispered something in his ear. The human nodded and reluctantly abandoned the tale. He cleared his throat and began again.

“Please witness the tale of ‘The Gods beneath the mountain’

A great cheer went up and spontaneous applause. Evidently this was a far more popular story.

 

Remarr nudged Galen with his elbow. “Here we go young Garlow, the tale I promised you’d hear. Listen well for it is a marvelous invention.”

Galen caught Sabina’s eye and winked.

“There was once a Pilgrim who spoke to God.” The human began. “And the voice of God would tell of how things should be, of how life could be made rich and more worthy.”

“I love this story.” whispered Sabina, “It shows such imagination.”

“And the Pilgrim would share the words of God with his fellow man - in the village known as… Trando.”

A great cheer went up as their home village was named.

“But the path to God was a favored thing, only the most worthy were allowed to follow the hidden way.”

The teller bowed his head in sorrow.

“But the son’s of man grew careless and fell from grace.”

A blanket of silence now descended over the human portion of the audience and Virdon could actually feel the shame they shared.

“Then our saviors arrived and showed man the error of his ways.” This time a cheer from mostly the ape sector of the audience. “And it is said, that when we have proven ourselves worthy once more, then the path shall become known to us again.”

 

Virdon frowned and reached into his pouch, he drew out the map he’d found and studied it again. He eyes resting upon the picture of the Sun with the smiling face.

 

“Men shall once more know the face of God.” The teller finished to riotous applause.

 

Remarr leaned over, “You see, didn’t I tell you. Our humans believe there is truth to this tale, that if they strive to make themselves better we, the apes shall one day lead them back into the arms of their God.”

“And you are happy to let them believe this?’ Asked Galen.

“There’s no harm, it’s all nonsense but it keeps them amiable and hardworking.”

“And it gives them something to strive for,” Sabina added, leaning over and squeezing his arm. Galen nodded, it made sense, and it was certainly better than beating them into submission.

 

Virdon rolled up the map feeling a stirring of excitement in his belly. As the storyteller left the stage he fixed his face in his mind, he would have some questions for him later.

 

The Orangutan returned and motioned for silence. “Tonight there sit among us honored guests… who among them will join in the telling?”

Sabina reached over and shook Galen’s shoulder. “Stand up… You promised” She whispered.

“Oh. errmm, Oh I don’t know, the tales I might tell would pale when compared -”

“Witness Garlow!” Remarr announced standing and laying a paw on Galen’s shoulder. A great cheer went up and more applause.

Sabina reached over again and prompted Galen to stand. He did so uneasily and raised his paws acknowledging the applause. Down below he could see Virdon and Burke clapping too.

Oh well…

He made his way to the stage and took his place. “Ehm ehm. Well, thank you one and all. A story… yes, well er - now let me see…” Galen thought desperately, his mind refusing to co-operate. “Very well then… err, please witness the tale of… of…”

The crowd waited expectantly but Galen’s mind simply froze. He looked to Virdon for support and the blond astronaut could only look embarrassed for him. He glanced at Burke not expecting any help there… saw him point right at him… saw him whisper something to his female companion… something that made her laugh.

The crowd waited.

Across the distance Galen’s eyes met those of Burke’s.

 

The chimp’s narrowed.

The human’s widened.

 

“Actually,” said Galen, “I do know a story or two… But - There is one among us who know tales far wondrous than any I could tell!” He was gratified to see Burke’s mouth snap shut. “So rather than offend your deserving ears with my own shameful performance allow me to present my servant… Please witness… Pecker!”

More applause, this time for Burke who sat with the look of a man who’d just found a half-eaten maggot in his apple. His new girlfriend grabbed his arm and pushed him into a standing position. Burke licked his lips and slowly allowed himself to be guided toward the stage.

Galen slapped him on the back, “Knock ‘em dead!”  He whispered in Burke’s ear and left him standing alone.

 

Burke cleared his throat and faced his expectant audience. “Err.. Well good evening Trando.”

A cheer.

“It’s err, it’s really great to be here tonight.”

Silence and a few titters of laughter.

“Okay, so you wanna hear a story huh?” The audience yelled an affirmative and Burke slowly grinned. He leaned forward and cupped a hand over one ear. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you… I said DO YOU WANNA HEAR A STORY!”

Virdon groaned and covered his eyes, he tried to sink lower into his seat as the crowd went mad, clapping and cheering. There might not be any steak to be found in this village but there was plenty of ham.

“A long time ago… In a galaxy far far away.” Burke began - and was met with total, abrupt, deafening silence. Galen smiled with satisfaction, were those invisible tumbleweeds he could hear rolling across the stage?

“Oh. Okay, maybe you’re not ready for that one.” Burke allowed. “Okay then, please witness the tale of… “Goldilocks and the three humans.”

The crowd cheered.

“Once upon a time, there was this cute little chimp called Goldilocks, who came from a village called… Chicago…”

Basking in the triumph of this small victory a smug and self-satisfied Galen began to make his way back to his seat.

“She was a pretty little thing,” Burke continued on stage. “Just like my master’s NEW GIRLFRIEND UP THERE IN ROW TWELVE!”

Galen froze as the crowd roared with good-natured laughter. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and wished the earth might open up and swallow him.

 

 

 

*****

 

Juba had ridden up to the house, knocked on the door but found no one home. He left his horse grazing nearby and decided to nose around. There had been trouble around here recently, human trouble. The village chief of police had suggested that Juba pay a visit to Sestus and his niece -they might be able to provide the answers that Perdix could not. Juba wasn’t sure if the Policeman was telling the truth or if he just wanted an ugly looking gorilla out of his hair but if he didn’t follow up on every lead he’d never find the fugitives.

He walked around the back of the house and noted that a space normally reserved for a horse and cart was vacant and so, satisfied the home was empty, he let himself in.

It was a simple dwelling, shady, cool, neat and very tidy, obviously the work of a female. A place for everything and everything in it’s place. Juba appreciated that, it reminded him of an armory.

He picked up a book, a diary - and was about to thumb through its contents when the sound of someone humming reached his ears. He placed the book back on the shelf and stepped over to the window. A female chimpanzee following a winding path was approaching the house.

The niece…

Juba pulled the patch back down over his eye and stepped outside into the sun to greet her. He saw the girl freeze and cock her head. “Who’s there?” She asked. “Uncle, is that you? Juba’s eyes narrowed and a thought occurred to him, was this something Perdix had forgotten to mention? As an experiment he pulled his pistol and pointed it at the girl’s face.

She didn’t even flinch.

“I know there’s someone there,” the girl said. Juba nodded to himself, put the pistol away and lifted up the patch. His ruined eye wasn’t going to scare this one… She couldn’t see it.

“My apologies Miss… I did not mean to alarm you,” he said in what he hoped was a friendly voice. The girl jumped timidly.

“Who are you? She asked. “Are you human?” She sounded a little scared that he might be.

“No… definitely not human,” he assured her. “I’m an ape, a gorilla in fact, my name is Juba.” That was odd, he thought, I don’t normally give my name out to anyone who asks.

“You must be here to see my uncle? If so he will be back very soon.”

Juba nodded then realized she couldn’t see him doing so. “No… actually I was just passing by, my horse is thirsty, I saw your house and hoped I might see to his needs here.”

“Of course.” She said, smiling and stepping forward. “Can I touch him? Where is he?”

“Stay right there, I’ll call him and he can come to you.” Juba whistled, low and short and his horse ambled over.

The girl reached out and laughed as she found his mane. “He’s so large.’ She observed.

“He has to be… I weigh a ton.”

She laughed again. “My name is Fauna,”

Juba placed his head by the horse’s mouth. “My name is horse,” he said in a strange, high-pitched voice. The girl laughed…

Oh this was going to be so easy! As easy as pushing a blind girl over a cliff.

“Pleased to meet you, horse… and you too of course… Juba.” She ran her hands down the horse’s flank, her fingers passing over the weapons roll. Juba saw recognition flicker across her face although she tried to hide it.

She might be blind but she wasn’t stupid.

“You carry many weapons Juba.” She said uneasily.

“A precaution, for self defense only, my cousins warned me you have experienced human problems around here, I hear they once killed an ape.”

The girl’s face grew sad. “My Father,” she whispered. “But it wasn’t humans it was another ape.”

“You don’t say.” Said Juba, growing bored. He was here looking for Virdon, Burke and Galen, the last thing he wanted right now was to hear this girl’s life story “And how would you know that?”

“Pargo… told me.’ She whispered, her voice breaking with emotion.

“Pargo? Your boyfriend?”

“NO!” She hissed vehemently. “Pargo is a liar! I thought he loved me and all the time he was… he was…”

“In love with someone else?”

“Human.”

Juba hid his laughter, By Aldo he would have paid good money to see that! His keen instincts began to prickle once more. “Was Pargo his real name Fauna?”

“I… don’t know, probably not, he lied about everything else.”

But you liked him anyway, thought Juba, and you hate yourself for it. “Did he have any companions with him? Another human or a chimpanzee perhaps?

“Why would you want to know?

Juba shrugged, “Forgive me, but I find myself growing furious that a beast could take such advantage of someone as lovely as you.”

Fauna smiled, This Juba sounded like a fine, decent Gorilla “He did have some friends… Alar and Phoebus. I think Alar was human too”

“Alar and Pargo,” Juba said aloud, By the lawgiver they were so careless! That would be Alan and Pete, two other names the human fugitives sometimes traveled under. It was some stupid game they played! Always naming themselves with A’s and P’s and they even thought that no-one would ever notice.

The girl continued to talk but Juba filtered the sound of her voice right out of his head. He knew all she could tell him, he was finished with her. He pulled out his map and studied the markings he had made detailing the fugitive’s movements. The old classic spiral pattern was being adhered to, soon they would swing back to Central City, but not yet. He traced the pattern with his finger while Fauna droned on, something about deceptions and hairy hands. By the Gods he wished she would shut up and let him concentrate.

His map was useless so he pulled out another. He’d paid a lot of money for this other map, it was much older than the first, nobody knew who had drawn it but it showed details the other did not. On one side was the sea, the other was back the way he had come. To the East was nothing but desert so that probably meant they would have journeyed toward the uncharted mountains. That was the direction he would follow.

“Thank you for your assistance Fauna, you’ve been so very helpful.”

“Helpful? She asked confused. “How could I have possibly been helpful?”

“In more ways than you could know, I’ll be seeing you, please step back now, I’d hate for my horse to crush your skull and put an end to that… unique voice of yours.” Fauna obediently stepped out of the way clearly puzzled by her visitor’s altered tone of voice. “If I see Pargo would you like for me to give him a message?”

“Tell him I hate him!’ She spat.

Liar, thought Juba. “I’ll be sure to tell him Fauna.” He said and rode away.

 

The blind female stood and listened to the sound of receding hoof beats. The memories of Pargo had upset her again, so much so she never even thought it odd that Juba hadn’t bothered to water his horse.

 

 

*****

 

Following Burke’s triumphant performance, the Orangutan brought The Telling to an end. The happy villagers, sated for now, began to file out of the amphitheater and make their way home. Burke now found himself elevated to hero status amongst the population and had wandered off with his new lady friend while Virdon had positioned himself by the side of the path where he would be able to see the faces of all those leaving. He was looking for the man who had told the story of ‘The God’s’, feeling sure they both had information the other would find of interest.

He watched Sabina and Remarr walk by, followed by Galen who slunk behind, head bowed and felt a tug of affection for the embarrassed chimpanzee. Since they’d met Galen had learned a great deal about survival but still lacked the common sense not to pitch wits against Burke. One day he’d learn and then, maybe Alan’s ears would sigh with relief.

 

The population continued to file past when at last he caught sight of the storytelling human. Virdon stepped forward and held out his hand. “Hello… My name is Al… er… Ahab.”

The man stopped and stared at Virdon’s offered hand. “Peckers friend,” he answered, smiling brightly. “I am called Kayle, my heart is pleased to meet you.” He seemed amiable enough but looked a little confused. Virdon put his hand away and smiled back.

“I’m pleased to meet you Kayle. As you know I’m a stranger here and I very much enjoyed your story. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about it?”

Kayle nodded. “I would be glad to answer any questions you might have.”

Virdon laid his hand on Kayle’s shoulder and steered him away from the crowd. “How old is that story Kayle? Where did you first hear of it?”

Kayle shook his head. “The story is older than the trees, My father told it to me, whose father told it to him.”

“Is there any more to it?

“Oh yes, the story is taken from the Caves of Bannen.”

Virdon stopped walking, now even more intrigued. “The Caves of Bannen?” he repeated. “What might they be?”

Kayle shrugged. “The Caves of Bannen are the Caves of Bannen. It is the place where the first stories are told, I would be pleased to show you.”

Virdon smiled. “And I would be pleased to see them, thank you Kayle.”

“It is the least I can do to repay my debt to your friend. Such a marvelous telling! Do you know of other such tales that you might share along the way?”

Virdon found himself won over by the man’s innocent, longing. He closed his eyes allowing his mind to slip back to a happier time. A time when a little boy laying back on a pillow would plead with his father for just one more story before bed-time. He smiled fondly and trawled through his memories for some of Chris’s favorites. The two men began to walk, Kayle leading the way.

“Once upon a time…” Virdon began. “There was a man named Icarus who wished he could fly.”

 

*****

 

“I assure you Sabina, he shall be punished.’ Galen promised as they said goodnight.

“Garlow please! You must promise me you will do nothing,” Sabina begged. The telling of Goldilocks had been so exciting! The part where the evil hunter was discovered to really be Goldilocks’ father had truly shocked her and by the time her long lost brother - who had been raised in the jungle by humans – had managed to come to her rescue! Sabina shook her head in wonder. Who would have thought a human could be capable of elevating a simple telling into an art form!

Galen shook his head doubtfully, he didn’t know what the fuss was about, and he hadn’t been able to follow the plot at all.

“Promise me Garlow,” She urged. “Promise me you will not punish him.”

“Oh very well… But only for you, mind.” Sabina wrinkled her nose sweetly and Galen felt himself growing uncomfortably warm. “Well… erm. Goodnight then.”

“Goodnight Garlow and thank you for taking me to the telling.”

“I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

“Then let us both be grateful.” She said, leaning forward and kissing him lightly on the muzzle.” Galen felt the room begin to sway and as she closed the door to her room he leaned forward against the wall to stop himself from falling over. This was all very distracting. He shook his head and forced an image of an evil, grinning and Devil-like Burke into his mind, which had a gratifyingly sobering effect.

 

*****

 

Burke poked his head into the shack that had been provided by Remarr’s generosity. He looked left, right, then up and down. Satisfied it was vacant he stepped inside pulling an attractive, giggling young woman behind him. “See, I told you. It’s not exactly the Ritz I know but it’ll do. I think it needs a woman’s touch. Come to think of it Marta… So do I.” He pulled the girl closer to him and pressed his lips against hers.

“That’s disgusting!” said Galen stepping out from the shadows of one corner. Burke’s head snapped around in surprise and the girl twisted herself out of Burke’s embrace looking horrified at being caught. She smoothed down the front of her dress and blushed bright scarlet. “Forgive us sir!” She said, her voice trembling with agitation. Galen looked her over and nodded toward he door. “Go back to your home,” he advised. “I’m sure you have some chores waiting.” The girl curtsied and with a timid glance at Burke hurried away.

“NO! Wait!” cried Burke hurrying after and catching her arm. “Please wait… just a moment - I’ll be right back, I promise.” He turned on Galen, pulling a what-the-hell-are-you-playing-at expression that the girl could not see and the two of them stepped off to one side to speak privately.

The girl frowned, this was such odd behavior… Pecker sometimes spoke to Garlow as though they were equals… but of course they did come from very far away and strange places so often meant stranger customs.

 

“Oh my word! I’m so sorry, did I spoil the moment?” Galen asked innocently once they were out of earshot.

Burke sighed and shook his head. “You sure did Galen, Thanks a lot, I owe you one.”

Galen nodded happily. “You’re welcome - but you’re mistaken… It is I that owe YOU one… several thousand in fact.”

“Aww, Galen c’mon, can’t we do this later?” Burke leaned forward and winked. “I’ve got a shot here, I’m all ready to cash in on my new superstar status, I can’t miss Galen, I just know it.”

Galen closed his eyes and shook his head, this constant sparring was wearing him down, up until now it had been sport but anything further would just be vindictive.

“Give a guy a break?” Burke pleaded, all doey-eyed and adorable.

“Why should I?” the chimp asked, not giving up without at least a token fight.

“Cos if you don’t I’ll let it slip in front of Sabina about that dose of Crabs you’re carrying.”

Galen didn’t know what crabs were and he suspected he wanted to keep it that way. He glanced over at the waiting anxious girl and smiled. “Oh very well,” he said - then loud enough for her to hear. “You did do very well tonight Pecker… You may take the night off. Have fun you two.”

“Thank you… Sir.” Burke breathed with relief. The girl gave a kind of curtsy as Galen passed by stepping out of the door and almost colliding with a breathless Virdon.

 

“Pete! Galen! Come with me… you’ve got to see this!”

“Awww Man!” Burke cried in frustration and kicked out at a wall.

Quickly placing a restraining hand on Virdon’s chest Galen jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “We have company” he whispered. The astronaut’s face registered his carelessness as he saw the village girl glance at Burke in confusion.

“Who’s Pete?” She asked, suspiciously as thoughts of married men rose to the fore of her mind.

Burke smiled, nonchalant. “Just a nick name,” he explained. This seemed to confuse the girl even further but he let it go, she didn’t look like a threat, quite friendly in fact. Now if Virdon and Galen would just leave him alone maybe he might find out just how friendly.

Virdon fell into his submissive human routine. “Forgive me sir, I ask that you come with me, there is something you should see.”

Galen nodded. “Very well,” he said imperiously. “Lead on.”

“Err, you don’t need me… do you?” Burke enquired hopefully.

“I really think you ought to come…” Virdon urged.

The younger astronaut closed his eyes and shook his head. He opened them and smiled sadly at the girl. “Marta… I’m sorry but I have to go, will you meet me here tomorrow? Please.”

The girl looked at Galen, as if for permission and then nodded.

“Run along now Marta.” Galen said kindly.

The girl pressed against Burke and kissed him on the cheek. She did something with her hand that made him yelp in surprise and wonder if she was going to ask him to cough.

She then ran off leaving the three of them alone.

“This had better be good.” Burke warned.

 

*****

 

 

Virdon led them to a spot about a mile outside of the village. It was a warren of small hills and winding, natural passages. He would stop often and look left and right as if uncertain what path to follow and then suddenly plow on ahead, leaving the others to run after him.

“Wait ‘til you see it.” He promised. “It’s incredible.”

“What’s ‘incredible’ is what I’m doing here in the first place”, Burke grumbled.

“Just wait, wait ‘til you see it.”

They reached the mouth of a tunnel that led down into darkness. Virdon stepped into the entrance and pulled a wooden torch from it’s mounting on the wall. After a moment he managed to light it then gestured for the others to follow him down into the caves.

“Are we allowed to be here?” asked Galen.

“Sure… I checked with Kayle… His heart was glad for us.”

They followed him along a well-trodden path and the tunnel opened up into a large underground cavern, from somewhere not to far away, water dripped steadily.

“These are the caves of Bannen.” Virdon announced. His voice echoing off the walls in the claustrophobic confines. “There are others leading off but this is the one I wanted you to see.”

“Why?” Asked Burke, sounding both bored and irritated.

“Look.” Virdon pushed the torch forward and illuminated a section of the wall.

“A drawing,” whispered Galen.

“One of many… These caves are full of them. Bannen was some kind of local artist, you must have noticed these people lean toward the artistic.”

“And I’m sure it’s good for the soul,” Burke interrupted. “But right now my needs are a little more basic, not to mention selfish. So why the hell are we here?”

Virdon moved closer to the wall. “Every picture tells a story Pete… and these here… well see for yourself.” He pointed toward some primitive scrawls showing a collection of huts. “This is Trando… But look… See anything unusual?”

Burke yawned and shook his head.

“All the huts are stacked on top of one another,” Galen murmured. “Impossibly high!”

“Exactly… when did you last see sky-scrapers Pete? I think this is supposed to show what Trando looked like a thousand years ago or more… Trando, pre-holocaust.”

“Sabina… She called their houses ‘scraypers’” Galen whispered.

Burke frowned. Maybe Alan was right, or then again maybe the picture showed a totem pole? It was pretty much open to interpretation.

“This picture is the first of many.” Virdon continued. “Each cave is like a comic book and that’s just the first panel. It tells a story Pete, Bannen couldn’t write so he drew it all.” He shuffled over to the next picture. “What do you think that is?”

“A condom stuffed with walnuts?” Burke ventured.

Virdon shook his head irritably and directed his words to the more attentive Galen.

“This is a man…  Some kind of prophet or pilgrim… he’s about to make a journey. It’s all part a local story, we heard it tonight.”

“You mean ‘The Gods beneath the mountain’?” Asked the chimp growing increasingly enthralled.

“That’s right, now look at this, take a look at who this pilgrim is going to see.” Virdon moved the torch along and illuminated another illustration. The torch cast wild and flickering shadows over the wall as the three leaned in closer. “Recognize him?”

“The sun with the smiley face!” Burke breathed.

 “You heard the story… there was a hidden or secret path that led to God and they lost it…. Virdon pulled out the map. “I think we just found it again.”

“It’s just a story Alan… a fairy tale.”

Virdon held up the map. “This is real… Those multi story houses as you walk in the village… they’re real too… who told them about skyscrapers Pete?”

“Not God.”

“Of course not… but there’s something to the story, there’s something to every legend, where there’s smoke there’s fire, that’s all I’m saying. This map leads to something… maybe something important… and we’re gonna find out what. We leave tomorrow.”

The particularly enticing mental image of Marta that Burke had been musing over simply disintegrated. “Can’t we make it the day after?” 

 

*****

 

Juba was far from homesick but he did feel uncomfortable. He liked to know where he was, it helped when formulating strategies but the maps for this remote region were so vague, they were often useless. The people around these parts were strange too, their clothes didn’t conform to what he knew, sometimes they used words he didn’t understand and if you let them they would try to serve you a dish of what looked like mashed horse shit.

By the lawgiver most of them didn’t even have firearms!

But they were helpful, in that respect he couldn’t fault them.

 

He now found himself sat in a chair in what was known as an Enforcers office. The Enforcer himself, a gorilla named Grunn, was a jack of all trades. Part Prefect, part Chief of Police and part schoolteacher. Grunn knew of Central City and of its laws although many of them were subject to local interpretation. Technically he was as much a part of Urko’s wide ranging command as Juba had once been but it was unlikely that Urko had ever heard of this settlement, let alone visited there.

Grunn had never heard of Virdon, Burke or Galen, nor for that matter anyone called Pargo, Phoebus or Alar. He had mistaken his visitor for someone high up in Urko’s command and Juba hadn’t bothered to correct him. Grunn was eager to oblige Juba’s each and every request, hoping, no doubt for an impulsive field promotion that might take him away from this forsaken place… to where… In Grunn’s own words… ‘The action was’.

 

“If any strangers were around here I would know about it.” Grunn assured him. “I did receive a report a week or so ago, some trouble down the road… Yes, two humans if I recall, though I heard nothing about a chimpanzee.”

“What kind of trouble?’ Juba asked leaning forward with interest.

“Oh nothing much really, The theft of some produce from a local farm. The neighbor’s sounded the alarm and two of my regulators happened to be in that area at the time, they gave chase but were unable to apprehend the culprits… two unidentified humans.”

“Did your regulators get a look at them, were they able to give a description?” Juba asked, knowing it was probably futile.

“All humans…-”

“ …-Look alike,” Juba agreed, nodding his head. Annoying but true. “Where were they last seen?”

Grunn stood and waddled over to a map on his wall. “Here!’ he said, stabbing his finger at a rocky canyon. “About a days ride away.” Juba stood and joined Grunn at the map.

“What’s that?” he asked, indicating a settlement.

“That’s Ayloss, a ghost village, nothing there these days but rats.”

Juba nodded thoughtfully. “And this.”

“That’s Trando, a lovely place, very peaceful Juba… not the kind of people that would harbor fugitives, I assure you.”

Juba said nothing, merely continued to study the map. “And beyond Trando?”

“Nothing but mountains and beyond them… the edge of the world where they say you will fall off if you travel too far.”

Stupid Yokels thought Juba. Any intelligent being knew the world was surrounded by oceans so big that no one could ever hope to cross them. “I think I might pay this Trando a visit. Even if those I pursue are not there I should very much like to see the edge of the world.”

Grunn thought Juba mad but nodded amiably. “Before you leave perhaps you would you come to my house for a hot meal… My family would love to hear news of Central City.”

More mashed horseshit, thought Juba without too much enthusiasm. “I appreciate the offer Grunn, but I am on a mission for General Urko himself. I’ll be sure to tell him what a fine job you are doing out here on your own… I know he will be grateful.” After he’s finished laughing his head off, Juba thought.

“Oh thank you, thank you!” Grunn said, accompanying Juba out of his office and back onto the road. “Just allow your horse to follow the path, it will lead you directly to Trando and I wonder, would you say hello to a cousin of mine for me.

No. Thought Juba. “Of course.” He said.

 

*****

 

“But Garlow… Why can’t you explain? I don’t understand… I thought you liked me.”

Galen shook his head in dismay. “Oh I do, Sabina, I do! But there is something I have to do, it’s not that I can’t tell you it’s just that… I can’t tell you!”

 

The three friends had decided not to mention the map or their impending quest to anyone. The last thing they wanted was to build up the hopes of the humans only to discover it led to nothing. As for the apes… Galen wondered just how keen they would be to rediscover a human God… one that might free his people from their rule.

“A map maker on a secret mission!” Sabina scoffed. “Who would have thought it?”

“It’s not a secret mission… just a sensitive one, a favor for a friend.”

Sabina sighed. “Very well Garlow… I do not understand you but I do understand friendship – even if it is with a human.”

“Meaning?”

“Oh please Garlow… do not insult my intelligence, it is plain to see Pecker and Ahab are not your servants. You act like you grew up together in the same house. Is that how they do things in Central City?”

Galen bowed his head. “Not yet… but maybe one day.”

“Go then. Go on your silly mission, I will be here when you return.”

Galen smiled and touched his knuckles to Sabina’s cheek. She reached up and held them there. “I’ll tell you everything when I get back,” he promised.

“Everything?” She asked, her eyebrows rising quizzically. “Including your real name?” Galen jerked his hand away and in so doing realized that if before she had harbored any doubts he had just proven them.

She bowed her head. “I can think of only two reasons why one would travel under anything other than their own name.’ She said miserably. “One they are a fugitive and two…”

Married… it was such a simple word but she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“I could live with the knowledge that you are a fugitive Garlow… But please, do not me discover…”

Galen reached out and pulled Sabina to him, his arms encircling her shoulders. “Shhh, Please, Sabina. Do not make me tell you anything, not just now.” He looked across the village and saw Virdon and Burke patiently waiting to begin their journey. Burke looked tired, as if he’d been unable to sleep and Virdon just looked concerned. Was he wondering what secrets Galen might let slip?

He broke the embrace and held Sabina at arms length, looking into her eyes, sharing as much of himself as he could. “I’ll be back Sabina… soon.”

She turned and walked away.

 

*****

 

Everything Okay? Virdon asked as Galen walked over to re-join them.

“Honestly? I don’t know.” The chimpanzee sighed. “I so hate having to lie to her… what kind of relationship can we have when I can’t even tell her my real name?”

“A twentieth century relationship.” Burke quipped. “Clever man plus stupid woman equals an affair, clever man plus clever woman equals romance. Clever woman plus stupid man… well go ask Alan.” Virdon looked up sharply not sure if he’d just been insulted. “Here’s a tip Galen, only tell a girl your real name if you’re serious.”

“He is serious Pete.” The older astronaut observed.

“Oh… boy!” Burke moaned. “Jeez, I’m sorry pal. I didn’t mean…”

Galen shook his head, dismissing Burke’s apology. “Perhaps we should just start moving along before I change my mind and decide to stay.”

“Yeah… C’mon… Let’s follow the yellow brick road.” Virdon suggested cryptically, hoisting his pack into a more comfortable position on his back.

“I thought we were following a map?” Galen asked, clearly confused.

“We’re off to see the wizard Galen.” Virdon explained, grinning and leaving the chimp more puzzled than ever.

“Wizard? What wizard… What on earth are you blabbering about now.”

“It’s a story, from our time.” Virdon explained. “A group of friends journey together in search of a Wizard who’ll grant each of them a wish.”

“Yeah, and in today’s matinee performance the part of young Dorothy will be played by Alan Virdon…” Burke called, hitching his own back-pack into position. “There’s no place like home, right Al?”

“Right… The others wish for Courage, a Heart and a Brain.”

Then, to Galen’s horror Virdon began to sing.

 

“I    could while away the hours,

Conferring with the flowers.

Consulting with the rain.

And my head I'd be scratching,

While my thoughts were busy hatching.

If I    only had a brain.”

 

By the lawgiver if you only had a decent voice!  Galen thought. Virdon just looked disappointed at the lack of applause his impromptu performance had generated.

“So C’mon Galen… What would you wish for?” Burke asked, between laughs. So the ape wasn’t too keen on singing, he’d make a note of that one.

“Earplugs.’ The Chimp said instantly with no discernable hesitation.

 

 

*****

 

The road to Trando was dry, dusty and very, very hot. More than once Juba had considered turning back the way he’d come but his instincts told him that if he wanted to catch up with the fugitives, then this was the path he should follow. Ever since leaving the army, he had come to trust them more and more. These days they were as an essential part of his arsenal as any other well oiled weapon in his gun roll.

You used your instincts or you ignored them, in his line of business there was no middle ground.

Ahead all he could see was a flat, ugly landscape littered with jagged, orange colored rocks. Behind was more of the same. To his left was a distant mountain range where it was rumored lay the edge of the world.

Juba wondered briefly what would happen if you fell off? Where would you fall to? He had seen the stars above, did more lay below? You couldn’t fall up into the stars so how could you fall down into them?

No, the world floated on an endless ocean. That was the only thing that made sense.

He shook his head and turned his thoughts to the crossbow instead. He had always considered it to be a primitive, clumsy weapon but Grunn had demonstrated how whisper quiet and deadly it could be. Stealthy, Grunn had said and Juba had liked the sound of it so much that he had bartered and exchanged a few rounds of precious ammunition for an exceptional example of the killing machine.

Juba grinned… Urko had asked for their heads on a stick but he felt sure a crossbow bolt would do just fine.

He imagined the fugitives hunched around a fire. It was night-time and they would be discussing the days events. Suddenly one of them would gasp. The point of a bolt would burst from the front of their skull and they would pitch forward into the fire. There’d be no gunshots, by the time the others had figured out what was happening another would be dead and who cared if the third heard the report of a rifle.

Oh yes… Juba liked that scenario; he liked it a lot.

He squinted and raised his paw to shield his eyes. Ahead, almost lost in the dancing waves of heat he could now see the distant village of Trando. In this landscape it was impossible to judge distance accurately but he would certainly be there before nightfall.

And then?

He’d have to wait and see.

 

 

*****

 

They had been marching a full day and now Burke was the one singing.

Why did humans do that? Did they honestly think the sound was pleasant? Did they gain something from it or was it - as Galen suspected, merely some device they used to irritate unfortunate simians.

Apes did not sing. They told each other tales, often through the medium of poetry, sometimes they hummed but drew short at making the kind of cringe- inducing sounds that Burke had proven himself more than capable of.

If an animal made that sound you would kill it, put it out of its obvious misery.

Galen’s thoughts turned to Sabina. Would she really wait for him? Could they somehow reconcile the fact he was a fugitive and had begun a relationship built on lies?

Should they even try?

What could he offer her? Love certainly, marriage maybe - but they’d retire every night and wonder if tomorrow would be the day that Urko and Zaius finally caught up with them.

And Virdon? Burke? Would they settle down too or continue their journey without him? It would make sense for them to go, if they were to settle down far apart, they would certainly be safer.

Perhaps he could ask Sabina to join them? Would Virdon allow it?

Galen groaned, one question just seemed to lead to a dozen others.

 

*****

 

Alan Virdon briefly glanced over at his chimpanzee friend. Had that been a groan? Was Galen okay? He’d been a little quiet which was understandable. Virdon remembered the first time he’d left Sally. They’d once foolishly promised each other never to spend a night apart but of course that had been naïve. He was an astronaut and they’d been many nights when duty had demanded that miles be put between them.

But how he’d ached for her those first few times. Pacing up and down, unable to sleep. The training leading up to the launch had seemed like torture.

Who could have known?

Sometimes Virdon thought that if he couldn’t get back to them permanently then he’d settle for just that one perfect week they’d spent together prior to the launch. Everything had been so right - just before it went all so wrong. If he could go back, live that week again in the knowledge of what was to come he’d have done so much more.

And Chris?

The things he’d say to him.

He cleared his throat. God he hated this! Every time, without fail he’d let himself be drawn into this painful wishful thinking. If there were a way back it wouldn’t be through masochistic daydreaming.

He pulled out the map, already beginning to deteriote from the amount it had been handled since it’s discovery and did a quick check with the local geography to make sure they were on track. They were, but still a good four or five days away from the Sun with the smiley face.

Just what did that represent? He wondered for the hundredth time. Surely all legends had some basis in truth?

A path to God!

Technology perhaps? Virdon remembered a holographic projection of an unknown scientist they’d found, long ago in Oakland. Galen’s first instinct had been to brand it witchcraft. Would a human of this time have considered it divine? Under different circumstances, might that unknown scientist have been mistaken for God? It didn’t stretch the imagination too far.

But the legends said that men would speak with the God with the smiley face and you couldn’t have a conversation with a holographic recording.

He shrugged, in little less than a week they’d find out.

 

*****

Burke had exhausted his knowledge of songs from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and had at last fallen quiet. Now that he had given his throat a rest his mind was able to dwell on the ample charms of Marta. He idly wondered if the girl he’d left behind had an identical twin sister.

He’d have to wait for almost two weeks until he would have the opportunity to find out because here he was again on another trek to nowhere, following yet another flimsy lead to discover probably nothing.

Okay, so it WAS intriguing - but so was any fairy tale if you were young or gullible enough. Alan was no fool - but he did have a tendency to grasp at straws.

Burke had almost refused to follow this time but one word had popped into his head and he’d changed his mind.

ChronoDyne.

He’d been wrong before, more times than he cared to admit but at Chronodyne they’d almost nailed it. At Chronodyne they had discovered a machine and come within a hairs breadth of getting Alan home.

If it could happen once it could happen again and so here he was.

He couldn’t remember if he’d already performed ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ and so racked his brains for something else, something that would really… REALLY irritate Galen.

 

“Oh! I know a song that’ll get on yer nerves, get on yer nerves, get on yer nerves!”

 

He bellowed at the top of his lungs.

 

“Oh! I know a song that’ll get on yer nerves and it goes like this…”

 

Once, when they’d been in training, he’d managed seventeen verses of this particular ditty until Alan and Jonesy had begged the observing techs to cut the tests short and let them out of the simulator. Surely Galen couldn’t last that long.

 

“Oh! I know a song that’ll get on yer nerves, get on yer nerves, get on yer nerves!”

 

 

*****

 

 

“You’re missing that young fellow already, aren’t you.” Remmar said to his daughter. She blinked and looked momentarily embarrassed, she hadn’t realized her thoughts had been so obviously far away. “It’s only been two days,” he continued “and all you can do is stand and stare out of that window.”

Sabina smiled fondly, her father wasn’t being unkind, merely observant. “It’s not so much that I miss him. It’s just that there were so many things left unsaid.”

Remarr nodded. “There always are my dear, there always are. It’s one of life’s great tragedies I’m afraid. How I wish I could have told your mother, just one more time how much I loved her… Just in case she never knew.”

Sabina reached out and felt for her father’s hand. “Of course she knew!” She assured him. “Don’t you ever, ever doubt it, not for one second.”

Remarr nodded and patted his daughter’s hand. “I imagine you’re right, but the point I am trying to make is that now I can never tell her… you on the other hand are in a more enviable position.”

“I don’t see how. Garlow has so many secrets father, so many things that he refuses to share.”

“He might, given time… It’s my belief that he’s protecting not only himself and his friends but you too Sabina - An ape on the run finds trust a rare and sometimes very dangerous commodity.”

Sabina gasped, startled by her father’s words. “Why would you say such things? Tell me what you know?”

Remarr grinned and reaching for his pipe, settled into his favorite chair. “I know this Sabina, at some time every fugitive there ever was, eventually comes to Trando… we’re the last stop before you fall off the edge of the world you see. After this there’s nowhere else to go.”

“And how is it that you speak of these things with such certainty?”

“You’re not the first person to take a shine to a fugitive Sabina… I doubt that your mother was either.”

Sabina’s jaw dropped in dawning realization. “You were once…”

Remarr held up a hand in confession and nodded. “Garlow is too, and his… friends. I knew it the first moment I saw them - but I know something else Sabina and listen well.”

“Tell me.”

“Not all that flee are evil and not all are guilty of what some would claim. Not all Sabina, not by a long shot.”

Sabina was about to ask another question but a sudden commotion outside the window distracted her. She leaned out her upper body and saw villagers, ape and human running towards the village town center.

“What’s happening?” She called, spying her friend, a young gorilla named Tallinn.

“A stranger just rode in… there’s a fight!” She answered

“Wait for me” Sabina called and ran to the door.

 

*****

 

“Let you heart be glad to have this!” Juba roared and head butted the human full in the face. The unfortunate man grunted in pain then collapsed in an untidy heap in the dust.

Villagers had surrounded him the moment he had crossed into the village. Dozens of them, screaming and jabbering excitedly. ‘Our heart is glad to do this’ and ‘our heart is glad to do that’ they had insisted.

Juba had growled at them to leave him alone, he’d dismounted and then they were running their stinking paws all over his horse. He’d shooed them away and then they’d tried to strangle him! He’d punched one of them and then…

And then the apes had started on him as well!

Within moments Juba was pretty much taking on all comers. He lifted his fist, meaning to lose it in someone’s face but some podgy orangutan held on to it. The damn Orang was so fat Juba couldn’t even lift him as he clung on and so he brought up his foot instead. The orangutans breath exploded from his body and he staggered back clutching his groin, walking like one of the chickens that seemed to be everywhere and always underfoot.

“Stop this!” Someone cried from behind him, pushing their way forward.

Good, someone else to lay into.

“That’s enough! Is this how we treat our guests?”

Juba span round and pulled back his fist, checking the motion at the last second as he saw it was a female chimpanzee. You never hit a female… not in front of so many witnesses anyway.

The female flinched but held her ground and Juba glanced left and right seeing the mob was now backing away. “That’s better.” The chimpanzee said. “Now what on earth is this all about?”

“They assaulted me.” Juba growled. “Tried to strangle me with some foul smelling noose.”

Sabina glanced down at a welcome garland now trampled in the dust. “Don’t be ridiculous!” the chimpanzee scoffed. “That’s merely our way of greeting you.”

“What! By attempting to hang me!”

“No one is trying to hang you… friend… now state your business.”

Great, thought Juba, another pushy female chimp, maybe he had been a little hasty in pulling that punch. “I’m looking for some friends of mine.” He grumbled. “I think they may have passed through here.”

“You… have friends?” Sabina asked doubtfully, she saw the sarcasm was lost on the gorilla.

“A male chimpanzee and two male humans. Have you seen them?”

Sabina hesitated for just the barest moment and Juba suddenly knew the arduous trip had been worthwhile. He turned to face the village. “Their names are Galen, Virdon and Burke… It’s very important that I find them, were they here?”

The villagers mumbled amongst themselves and shook their heads.

“Perhaps they used other names… The humans sometimes travel as Pete and Alan.” Juba scanned his audience for signs of recognition and THERE! The human girl by the water trough, she knew the names… or at least one of them. He strode over to her trying not to look too intimidating.

“Your name?” he asked.

“Marta sir,” She answered her eyes downcast.

“You’ve heard one of those names before haven’t you Marta… Why don’t you be a good girl and tell me where.”

“Please sir… I… I…”

“She knows nothing.” Sabina interrupted, stepping between Juba and the human girl.

But you do, Juba thought. “I really need to find them.,” he said. “Especially the chimpanzee.” Juba could see it in her eyes, that same look he’d seen on the face of the girl back on Polar’s farm, the one with the windymill. Romance grew in the unlikeliest of places he reminded himself. Sabina was lying, that much was obvious. She probably even thought she was good at it. “I don’t know what name he gave you or what stories he told, but Galen is a liar… Did he tell you he was married?”

Sabina’s nostrils flared in an involuntary spasm and in so doing confirmed Juba’s suspicions.

“Ask yourself this… What kind of Ape leaves his wife and children to starve on the streets while he runs with human murderers?”

Ahab! Thought Sabina, She’d known he was a thug from the moment she’d seen him, even said as much. Her throat felt tight and she couldn’t breathe.

“You’re not the first innocent he’s fooled, but with your help… you might be the last. I know your pain, I’ve seen a dozen broken hearts from here all the way to Central City… Don’t let him do it to another… I beg you.”

Sabina cast her eyes down toward the street. Somehow the Gorilla knew her mind but she still couldn’t bring herself to believe the things he said. She needed to think, buy some time, make this revolting creature go away.

“Some humans passed through here a week ago but they were alone, they went south.”

Juba nodded. Loosely translated that meant Virdon and Burke were here only a few days ago. Galen was with them and they probably went North toward the mountains. “Thank you, then South I too shall go.”

He gave a small mocking bow and swung himself up into his saddle turning the horse toward the mountains.

“South is that way sir!” A helpful human cried pointing in the opposite direction.

Juba made sure he caught Sabina’s eye before answering. “I know,” he said, grinning wickedly.

 

END OF PART ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

POTA: SLEEPING GODS

 

PART TWO: PUFF

 

Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, they continued to draw ever closer to the once far away mountains. No longer were they distorted by distance, now they stood lofty and massive with pin sharp detail. The friendly village of Trando lay far behind, three days march away and long out of sight but not out of mind - not for Galen.

Virdon checked the reading on his compass and did some quick mental arithmetic, by his calculations they should indeed be in Sierra Nevada but there was nothing here to remind him of anything he might have seen in what now felt like a former life.

What did we do to the world?

He shook his head sadly for the mountains gave no answer.

 

For hours now each had been lost in their own private thoughts, saving their breath for the exertion of the long walk. The ground was hard and tough on the legs and feet. Small stones had a habit of somehow finding their way into boots and the sun bore down upon them, far heavier than anything they carried.

 

But at least Burke had stopped singing.

 

“We still going the right way?” he asked, breaking the long silence as he paused for a sip of water from his canteen. He offered it over to Virdon who shook his head waving it away and then to Galen who reached out wearily. Virdon took out the crumbling map and did his usual check.

“We should be right on target. Two days… maybe three, depends how fast we move.”

Galen handed the canteen back and Burke tightened the lid, putting it away. A distant portion of his mind registered that he had just shared his canteen with an ape and he smiled. Would he have done that back in own time? Certainly not - but here, a thousand years away from home such superficial distinctions had long since been blurred and lost.

“Three days!” Galen groaned.

“Missing that little lady friend of yours?” Burke asked.

“Oh, don’t start…I just don’t have the energy to argue with you… maybe you’d settle for a slap?”

Burke chuckled as he watched Virdon compare the map to the lay of the land “Mind if I take a look?” he asked. Virdon shrugged and handed it over. Burke took the map and began to climb to some higher ground for a better view. “Slap me and I’ll just turn the other cheek,” he called down to Galen. “One of those that lie below my hips… you can kiss it too, if you like.”

 

Virdon watched Burke continue to climb and found himself growing uneasy, he was awfully exposed up there. It probably didn’t matter, for three days they had been marching across a pretty desolate landscape that offered little chance of concealment - but even so… “Pete… maybe you’d better get down from there.”

“That ol’ Spidey-sense tingling again Al?” Burke said flippantly, now at the very top of the small rock formation and ignoring the advice. “That high peak over there, that’s where we’re headed right? It doesn’t look three days away.”

“The distance is deceiving… Pete, do me a favor and come down okay.”

“I bet we can do it in -!”

 

Something whistled through the air and Burke suddenly pitched sideways, falling out of sight.

 

“Pete!” Virdon cried, alarmed and began to scramble up the rocky hill. Another whistle and something slapped into the stones, ricocheted and went tumbling away. Virdon glanced down and saw a small, stunted arrow lying in the dust.

A crossbow?

But who would be-?

Again that tell-tale whistle. Virdon barked a warning. “Galen down! Get down and stay down. Find cover!”

Galen skidded to a halt and allowed himself to topple sideways, hugging the ground he managed to snake behind some jagged rocks. “Who… what is it?”

“We’re being shot at! Can’t tell who by… didn’t introduce themselves.”

“Pete?”

“I can’t see him.” Oh God, don’t let him be dead! Virdon thought. He’d fallen without a sound. Had he been shot in the throat? The heart? He had a sudden flash of deja-vu, back to that day he had found the map. Here he was again, being hunted by someone with a crossbow. Had those very same gorillas somehow tracked them?

At least they didn’t have rifles?

He scrabbled forward and this time a bullet struck the rocks, splintering them and sending stinging, jagged shards whipping against his face.

Okay, so they’ve got rifles!

He rolled backwards, abandoning his attempt to reach Burke. “Get out of here Galen,” he called. “Head for those rocks to your left.”

“But Pete?”

“We can’t help him, not right now, I can’t reach him. Whoever’s out there has the advantage. Just go Galen, Go now!”

Galen stood and ran at a half crouch, weaving in and out of all available cover. The rifle barked again and again but with little effect as wasted bullets simply whined off rocks.

Virdon considered another attempt at reaching Burke but then a slug of lead tore off a chunk of his boot heel and changed his mind. He backed further into the rocks and followed Galen.

Blam! Blam! Blam!

Bullets kicked up the dust at his heels.

Blam!

He was thrown sideways as something hot and scalding whipped across the back of his neck. He fell to the ground gasping, feeling something warm and wet seeping over his back. Reaching up he pulled his fingers away staring stupidly at the blood on them.

Blam!

A bullet hit a cluster of rocks way over to the left. The shooter appeared to have lost sight of them.

Or was it a bluff?

Galen had done exactly as told and had vanished from sight and Virdon was able to relax, albeit marginally. He was grateful that when it came down to it the chimp mostly followed orders – even when issued by a human. He wasn’t blind to how unnatural that must seem to him but because of it Galen was safe. Pete’s fate however was still unknown, a question mark - and here was he, caught somewhere in the middle. He crawled forward a little more, hating the way his shirt slid wetly across his back. Soon the blood would start to get sticky, then the flies would come and then things would get really unpleasant. He had a sudden sobering vision of Pete lying on his back, twisted and broken in the rocks, a crossbow bolt protruding from the middle of his forehead and felt suddenly nauseous.

And then he grew angry.

Whoever was shooting at them was good.

“You damn well better be.” Virdon growled.

He moved forward, silently and quickly to where he had directed Galen.

After a minute or two the rifle fell silent.

 

 

*****

 

Burke knew he was in trouble.

His head hurt. Waves of rolling pressure were pounding against his skull like the surf against a shore. Something was digging painfully into his back, his ankle was throbbing and he could hear flies buzzing around his face.

He opened one eye experimentally and instead of blinding sunlight was met with darkness. The other eye wouldn’t open at all, something sticky glued it shut. He raised his fingers groaning at the effort and felt a semi-dry crusty substance around his face.

I’m blind, dead or it’s nighttime. He thought. He raised the hand and wiggled his fingers in front of his face - that ruled out blindness, although the jury was still out on if he was alive or not.

A shadow moved over him, something powerful and unrelenting clamped around his throat jerking him upright.

“Ow! Jesus!” he cried, hissing with pain as whatever had him in its grasp now shook him like a terrier with a rat.

“Where are the others?” The shadow asked.

Even in his confusion Burke thought he recognized something familiar about his tormentor. “Do I know you?” he managed to gasp, swaying on his feet as the shadow released him.

“Ah! You’ve forgotten… Then allow me to re-introduce myself.” Juba drew back his fist and struck out. Burke caught the movement and turned his head, relaxing his muscles. He couldn’t avoid the blow but he could at least minimize the damage. The bunched fist, about the size of a ham bone, caught him on the jaw. His head snapped backward, his feet lifted off the ground and his body slammed into the hard packed soil. He rolled himself away groaning with agony.

“I am Juba.” The gorilla snarled, drawing back his foot and driving it forward. Burke’s wind exploded out of him as Juba’s boot sank into his belly. He tried to curl up but Juba reached down, bunched his fingers in the back of his shirt and lifted him clear off the ground. “Where are they?” The gorilla roared, backhanding him hard enough to make his teeth rattle.

Burke struggled to find an answer, anything! Something distracting…something funny - but he just couldn’t think. Then Juba hit him again, this time catching him on the side of the temple, his head jerked backwards and the crusty scab split open sending fresh blood cascading down his face. Burke’s eyelids fluttered as a dark gray fog crept in at the corner of his vision, he smiled with weary gratitude as unconsciousness mercifully reclaimed him.

 

 

*****

 

Juba sat in front of a small fire at the base of a long dead tree patiently waiting for Burke to regain consciousness. He had bound the human to it, winding a coil of rope around his throat and then around his upper chest while another, tied around the back secured his wrists together.

The human didn’t look too healthy but Juba was satisfied that the wounds were superficial. His first shot with the crossbow had struck him a glancing blow across the skull. Had this human’s head been turned ever so slightly it would certainly have killed him. The wound wasn’t fatal but like all wounds to the head, it had bled an impressive amount.

The bruises and cuts resulting from the fall off the hill and the following beating were nothing to worry about, they’d hurt like hell and be sore for a day or two but that wasn’t a problem.

Because Burke wouldn’t be around that long.

Juba unfolded a scrap of parchment he’d found and frowned. Was this a map?

Was this where they had been headed?

 

Carefully opening one eye, giving no clue that he was regaining consciousness, the first thing Burke saw was a gorilla sitting by his feet next to a small fire studying the map Virdon had found.

Juba?

What the hell was he doing out here?

He swept his gaze over the camp and his eyes fell upon an impressive cache of weapons, all of which looked ready for business. If Alan and Galen were contemplating a rescue they’d be slaughtered. He tested the rope binding his wrists together and his heart sank when he realized it was more than capable of holding him. He tested the other bonds and succeeded only in nearly choking himself.

Alerted to the fact that Burke was now waking up, Juba casually dipped the point of a thin bladed knife into the fire and stood up to face his captive. “Good… you’re awake, I can torture you now.”

Burke stopped pretending and studied the gorilla. “Sorry about the eye,” he muttered.

Juba smiled without a trace of humor. “Just one of many misfortunes since last we met.” He said. “Do you like it?” He lifted the patch showing Burke the ravaged, milky white remains. “Do you think it gives me character? Perhaps you would like one just like it?” Burke held his breath as Juba stooped and fished the knife from out of the fire. “What would the ladies think of you then Burke? Or shall I call you Pete? Or how about Pargo or even Pluto?

“Wow! My very own stalker… Sounds like you’ve been busy tracking me for quite a while. You gonna tell me why or just stand there and gloat?”

With a sound like the crack of a whip the back of Juba’s hand swept across the human’s jaw. Burke’s head snapped to one side and thudded against the tree. “I’ll ask the questions.” The gorilla barked, stepping in closer.

The tip of the knife glowed red as Juba held it out for Burke to see. He was pleased to note that the human was beginning to sweat, his eyes were wide and anxiously following the point of the knife as Juba made it dance in the air before him. Despite his bravado the human was scared.

“I’ve never done this before,” Juba said. “Stuck the red hot point of a knife into an eyeball… I’ve been wanting to for ages, it should be interesting.” He grinned as Burke swallowed noisily. “Oh, I’ve shot a bullet right through the eye of a fugitive or two… but that’s not the same is it? It’s too… impersonal

“Now wait a min- ”

Quickly clamping one hand over Burke’s mouth Juba continued to taunt him with the blade held in the other. “Will it pop and explode… or just sizzle and leak? I hope the shock doesn’t kill you, that would spoil everything.” He removed his hand.

“Juba… “ Burke said quickly, licking his lips. “Why don’t you just tell me what you want.”

“Because that would be boring… and besides you would just lie and then I’d end up having to torture you anyway.” The gorilla used the point of the knife to cut a slit in Burke’s rough woolen shirt. Some fibers ignited and floated away as the blade sawed upwards, slicing through the primitive weave of the garment. It fell away in two halves exposing the human’s chest. Juba grimaced, so pink and hairless, like the skin of a worm!

He grinned and lifted the point of the blade higher again and closer towards Burke’s face. Its glow was now reflected in his eyes and in the trickles of sweat that ran down his face.  “Where are Virdon and Galen?”

Burke took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

“There you see… A lie! - I was right all along.” Juba lowered the knife and pressed the flat of the blade against the human’s chest. What few hairs there were crackled and curled from the heat. Burke gritted his teeth so hard the tendons on his neck rose up like coiled snakes but he couldn’t contain the howl that wrenched itself free.

“Where are Virdon and Galen?” Juba repeated over Burke’s cries, then removing the blade held it back up to the human’s pale face.

“I don’t know!” Burke yelled. “I don’t know! I lost consciousness, when I came around you were beating the crap out of me and they were long gone.”

Juba nodded. “But you know where they went.”

“No.”

Juba touched the knife to Burke’s cheek and his sweat sizzled, turning instantly to steam. The cry that tore from his lips was wonderfully gratifying and then his skin began to smoke. Juba wrinkled his nose at the oily stench.

“I suggest you consider your answers more carefully.” Juba mocked as he reached around the back of the tree and curled his fingers around the rope wrapped around the human’s throat. “One more time… Virdon and Galen, where are they?” Burke groaned and shook his head weakly. Juba sighed, pulling on the rope so that it dug painfully into Burke’s windpipe choking off his air. He waited while the human gasped and squawked, calmly counted to ten and then released the pressure. Burke wheezed noisily, sucking in great, hitching breaths of precious air.

“I don’t know… where they are.” he panted and coughed. “We… don’t tell each other… safer that way… In case… of something… like this…”

“You’re lying!” Juba snarled grabbing Burke’s hair to steady him while he held the knife poised over his right eye.

“Not lying… makes sense… think… about it…”

Juba considered the answer. Actually it did make sense. If you didn’t know where the others were you couldn’t betray them…  He let go of Burke’s hair and the human’s head fell forward to hang on his chest.

 

Juba picked up the discarded map, his face crinkling with interest. Was this somehow important?  “What’s this?” he asked, holding it out for Burke to see.

Burke raised his head weakly then let it drop again. “I don’t know, I know as much about it as you do.”

Juba’s nostrils flared. He lunged forward and backhanded the human across the face.

“Lies!”

Burke ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, spat blood into the dust and shook his head stubbornly prompting his tormentor to again grab the rope and pull. He gritted his teeth, his features creasing in pain and very soon his tongue began to protrude. Only when his face began to turn blue did Juba let go. Burke wretched and coughed, his breath hitching then threw up at Juba’s feet. The gorilla took a step backward, his lip curling in disgust. “It’s supposed… to lead… to something… in the mountains,” Burke gasped. “That’s all… I know.”

Juba looked at it again, something in the mountains?

He turned his back on Burke and thought carefully about his next move. He had tracked the three of them for months and in so doing had a pretty accurate idea of how they operated. They had taken extraordinary risks for each other, had been willing to sacrifice their lives on numerous occasions.

When Galen had hurt his leg… The humans could have left him to die, instead they carried him to a farm and waited while he recovered. Then they’d continued on together even though he would slow them down until fully healed. That was foolish. It was madness and yet… typical.

Would he have taken such risks for anyone in his old command - or they for him? He growled deep in his chest causing Burke to glance in his direction uneasily.

Previous actions dictated that Virdon would, without any shadow of a doubt, attempt to liberate his friend - But how might he go about it? Juba pursed his lips thoughtfully and stared at the parchment. The map would interest him… It seemed that Virdon had always been searching for something. Was this it?

Could he turn this map into an advantage?

He turned back to the captive human. “I think your friends will attempt a rescue… But not here, not now, Virdon isn’t that much of a fool. If he were on his own, maybe but not while he feels Galen is his responsibility.” Juba sighed, summoning up every scrap of information he had gathered on the fugitives. “If I kill you now they will separate, they know the rules have changed – they know they are being hunted and that being the case there’s little hope of my ever finding them.” He moved closer to Burke, careful to avoid the puddle of vomit at his feet and cupped the human’s jaw in one massive paw, lifting his head so he could look into the almost unconscious animal’s eyes.

“Therefore I must provide them with a reason to come to me.”

Burke’s eyelids fluttered weakly, his eyes were beginning to roll up.

“If I keep you alive… They won’t stray too far away… they’ll sit and they’ll wait. They’ll wait for the right time and the right place. Somewhere that offers at least a chance of success.” Burke’s head slumped back onto his chest. “Somewhere Virdon won’t be able to resist.” Juba finished anyway.

 

 

*****

 

Ouch! Galen! It’s bad enough with half the planet trying to kill me… I never expected you to join in!”

Galen rolled his eyes. “Oh don’t be such a baby! If this gets infected then that will kill you… not me.” He continued dabbing at the ugly wound on the back of Virdon's neck, washing it out regularly with water from his canteen. It looked angry and inflamed but not too serious, provided they took good care of it of course.

“Hurry up, it’ll be light soon, I want to get back out there and look for Pete.”

“Don’t you think I do too?” Galen answered impatiently, sprinkling crushed medicinal leaves over the wound. “But we can’t go wandering around in the dark… It’s suicide.”

Virdon swore out of pure frustration. Earlier they thought they might have spotted a small fire but it winked out after about an hour. Virdon had a fix on its position and felt confident he could find it with his compass and the stars - but it was just too unsafe. There was no reliable cover and they had abandoned an attempt after Galen had tripped and cut his hand badly on a particularly sharp and wicked rock formation jutting out from the ground. All he needed right now was for one of them to brain themselves or maybe break a leg and he could kiss any chance of finding Pete goodbye.

The sun would be up in less than an hour and if that fire were Pete they would find him very soon… or his body.

Oh God don’t let him be dead. He thought for the hundredth time. He didn’t think he was. Instinct was telling him Burke was alive. If he was dead he would have felt it somehow, he’d have just known.

Virdon picked up a broken crossbow bolt he’d retrieved and twirled it through his fingers. Who was hunting them? Someone they knew? Unlikely… The pursuing gorillas they’d previously escaped? Just as unlikely. Then someone altogether new?

He sighed and shook his head irritably. Not a single answer, there never was.

He jumped to his feet causing Galen to start in surprise. “C’mon, we’re moving.”

“But it’s still dark!”

“I don’t care… You coming or staying?”

“I’m coming, I’m coming… but I think you’re being foolish, not to mention hasty.”

“Your complaint is duly noted, now let’s go find Pete.”

 

*****

 

Their progress had been so slow it was almost painful but at least they were doing something. Virdon knew the last forty-five minutes had been an utter waste of time and it didn’t help that Galen knew it too. The Chimp kept his silence, knowing and sharing his friends concern but right now he was more concerned with watching out for Virdon than finding Burke. Dawn came less than an hour later and at last they were able to pick up some speed. Virdon glanced at his compass and they set off at a jog in the direction of the fire they had seen a few hours before.

A while later Galen gratefully slowed to a walk when Virdon raised his hand.

“Stay here, I’m going to scout ahead.”

Galen nodded, catching his breath and sat behind a nearby sand dune while Virdon went on ahead.  He crept forward silently and crouched behind a small ugly bush, careful to avoid its vicious looking thorns. He peeked over the top but there wasn’t much to see… Just a dead tree and the remains of a small campfire. Raising his hand he signaled for Galen to stay where he was, it looked deserted but that didn’t mean it was.

Nothing moved.

There was always time for caution but with Burke’s life at stake Virdon was ready to take a few risks. He heard Galen groan in disapproval as he broke cover and ran forward.

No arrows thudded into his flesh, no gunshots sounded… It looked safe. He knelt by the remains of the fire and ran his fingers through the still warm ashes.

There were various prints all around. A horse’s hoof, the distinctive two toed imprints of ape style footwear. Virdon placed the palm of his hand into one, they were deep and large, probably a gorilla. He then felt a rush of relief as he found lighter smaller prints.

Human!

He waved Galen over and the chimpanzee came at a run.

“Three sets of prints… A gorilla a horse and… a human.” He told him.

“Pete?”

“Let’s hope so.” Virdon glanced at the tree, a fluttering movement catching his eye. He stepped over and his face drew taught. “Galen… Over here.”

Galen drew alongside his friend and saw the cause of his concern, pinned to the tree by a small, thin bladed knife the map flapped gently in an almost non-existent breeze.

“A message?” the chimp guessed.

“Yep.” Virdon ran his hand over to the tree, his fingers tracing some fresh notches gouged into the wood. “Someone’s pretty handy with a knife,” he said aloud, his voice anxious and troubled.

“Is that…?” Galen asked pointing to some dark brown stains on the ancient wood and in the dust.

“Yeah… ‘ Virdon sighed. “That’s blood.” He had a moment of fleeting panic and his eyes scanned the area for a tell-tale fresh mound of dirt that might hint at a grave.

Nothing.

He stood over the prints again, looking for anything new. The tracks that led away from the camp were human and equine only, obviously the gorilla was riding, the human following behind. That must be fun he thought ruefully.

Galen ripped the map from the tree. “Someone’s taunting us!” He hissed, his anger rising to the surface and beginning to boil over.

“It’s not a taunt… it’s a challenge,” Virdon explained. “The point of the knife indicated that tall peak over there. It’s an invitation. If we want Pete, we have to go there and get him… is there anything you wanna say?”

Galen thought a moment then shook his head. “I suppose we were going that way anyway, we might as well rescue him while we’re at it.” And then, more seriously. “I’m right behind you Alan… you know I am.”

Virdon smiled and felt a rush of shame. His frustration had made him bad tempered but there was no point in taking it out on his best friends. “You ready then?” he asked more kindly.

“Looking forward to it.’ The chimp sighed.

 

*****

 

Juba sat in his saddle swaying from side to side. The constant rhythmic motion, the early morning heat and the excitement of the night before were all combining to make him drowsy. Their progress was slower than he would have liked, the human kept stumbling and falling over as he followed behind. Burke’s wrists had been tied together and the trailing end of the rope had been secured to Juba’s saddle.

He sensed a change in the horse’s motion and turned to look back. Burke had fallen again and was simply being dragged along. Fortunately the terrain had altered somewhat and was now mostly sand so no real damage was being done.

Nevertheless he signaled for the horse to stop and dismounted. He took a swig from his canteen then slid down from his saddle on to the sand. Burke was motionless, face down.

Juba chuckled and then his breath suddenly caught in his throat. He still needed the human alive! “Dammit,” he cursed, surging forward and lifting the human’s face out of the hot sand. He placed his ear next to his mouth and was relieved to find him still breathing. He shook him and Burke’s eyelids crept open.

“Water,” he gasped.

“Tell me where to find Virdon and Galen and then you shall have all the water you can drink.”

As weak as he was Burke still managed a chuckle. “Take my advice Juba… Don’t play poker for a living.”

Juba frowned at the strange words, was Burke delirious? Was he dying? He stood, and then reluctantly fetched his canteen. “Here” he grumbled irritably, tossing it into the sand. “Don’t drink it all.”

Burke managed to struggle to his knees and then looked at Juba expectantly.

“What?” The gorilla asked.

“My hands are tied… You’ll have to serve it to me.”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Juba gasped outraged at the thought of catering to the needs of a human.

“I’ll be dead if you won’t.”

Juba sighed with frustration. Could any bounty be worth it? He wondered as he leaned down and used his knife to slice through the rope around the human’s wrists. The strands fell apart and Burke rubbed his wrists gratefully then reached for the canteen. “You got any ice?” he asked.

Juba growled. “Shut up and drink.”

“Poker playing and bartending… two definite no-no’s.” Burke said between swallows. He drank his fill, then feeling better held out the canteen. Juba snatched it away, wiping the spot where the human’s filthy mouth had touched it before plugging the cap.

“On your feet human. We still have a long way to go.”

Burke looked around trying not to look too interested in what might lay behind them. There was no sign of Alan or Galen but that didn’t mean they weren’t following. The slower he could make them go the more chance the others had of catching up and maybe getting ahead. If they could reach the mountains first –for that was surely Juba’s destination - perhaps they could prepare a trap or an ambush?

“What are you looking for?” Juba asked growing suspicious of the human’s stillness.

“Nothing, just getting my bearings.”

“Move… We have to go faster.”

“Then get me a horse, or at least let me share yours.” Burke suggested, knowing full well what the answer would be.

“You are not riding my horse!” Juba snarled predictably. “Unless you’re dead and your stinking carcass hangs off its back.”

Burke shrugged. “Then I guess we continue at this dazzling pace.”

Juba wasn’t happy but at least for now they agreed on something, “Try to keep up,” he grumbled. “Or I shall drag you all the way.” He turned his back while he pulled himself up into his saddle.

Burke took advantage.

 

 

*****

 

The mountain range grew ever closer as Virdon and Galen followed the tracks in the sand. The rider was incredibly sloppy, not making even the slightest effort to cover his trail.

He wants us to follow, Virdon guessed.

Whatever the reason he was grateful. Making full use of the skills his father had struggled to teach him as a boy and with little else to do but reminisce those memories had come flooding back.

He’d been cold, wet and clueless, stranded in some godforsaken forest miles away from home. He’d been hungry, homesick for his mother, her cooking and his warm, comfortable bedroom - but the big man still insisted that he pay attention, patiently trying to impress upon him the possibility that one day such skills might even save a life.

Virdon smiled fondly. Oh Pa, if only you knew!

 

Fortunately the desert wind was almost non-existent, the tracks probably wouldn’t be obliterated until after dark when it would pick up and wipe the slate clean for another day. With the exceptions of a cast-aside apple core and a few Parn seeds - a mutant date-like fruit, indigenous to this time - the tracks had been just imprints of hoofs and boots - nothing much, but it all linked together to tell a simple tale. He still had his gut-feeling, the one that told him Pete was alive and that it WAS he they followed but he’d have felt a lot better with a sign. Something definite, something concrete, something irrefutable but for now those boot prints was all he had.

 

Galen followed without argument. His own thoughts again drifting back to the village of Trando and inevitably from there to Sabina. He missed her, more than he would have thought possible. He knew he should be thinking about Burke and the difficult tasks ahead but the harder he tried to dismiss her from his mind the more he found she dominated his thoughts. He found himself studying his memories in the minutest of detail. He replayed past conversations with her, re-inventing them so they played out better, the way he would have preferred them to rather than how history would recall. He even rehearsed new discussions, testing words that had yet to be spoken.

Sabina… Will you marry me?

Galen halted so suddenly his feet kicked up sprays of sand. His eyes grew wide and the blood drained from his face.

By the God’s where did that come from!

But then he found himself smiling.

He felt confident that it was impossible to feel so strongly for someone and they not feel something back in return. When this was over, when Burke was safe and they had resolved the mystery of the map to Virdon’s satisfaction, he would make his way back to Trando. He pictured the scene in his mind…

He was exhausted and dusty but there was Sabina, running into his arms to be swept up and spun around joyously.

He frowned, for in his little fantasy he had just realized there had been no sign of Virdon or Burke.

 

Oblivious to what was going on in the chimpanzee’s mind Virdon marched on ahead. He turned his gaze slowly left and right, looking for something, anything that might give him the answers he so desperately needed to find.

Up ahead he saw something in the sand, a disturbance in the uniform smoothness that blanketed the wasteland. Were those shapes and patterns ahead?

He ran ahead.

Letters! They were letters!

He stood over them, his patience finally rewarded.

PJB

“YES!” Virdon punched the air with exuberance. It was Pete! He was alive! Galen looked up, his mind snapping back to the task at hand as he quickly made up the distance between them.

“There,” said Virdon shielding his eyes with the flat of his hand and pointing ahead.

Turning his gaze in that direction Galen saw a tiny dot on the horizon far ahead of them, almost lost in a dancing haze of heat. “Is that them?”

Virdon’s mood was soaring, a great weight had been lifted and he found himself in high spirits. “For sure… Not too many tourists around here this time of year.” Galen winced. Pete’s jokes were annoying, Alan’s just weren’t very funny.

“They’re still a good way ahead of us and definitely heading for the mountains.”

Virdon looked at Galen, his mind now made. “Okay, here’s the plan, we now know for sure that’s Pete and we know where they’re going, we just have to make sure we get there well ahead of them.”

“They have a horse!”

“Yeah, but it ain’t moving too fast.” Virdon actually smiled. Thank you God, he thought. Thanks for keeping him alive.

“Suppose we do reach the mountains first, what do we do when we get there?”

Virdon shrugged. “I dunno, use the terrain to our advantage, plan an ambush, set some traps, we’ll figure it out later but right now we get some sleep. We can’t be seen, so we travel tonight and we absolutely do not stop until we get there… that okay with you?”

“Oh… So now you’re asking my opinion?” Galen responded sarcastically.

Virdon chuckled. “Galen, I know I can be an asshole, but I’ve just been worried okay. So C’mon, whaddaya think?”

Galen nodded then sighed with simulated disdain. “I think… if I take anything with me from this experience it’s going to be the word ‘asshole’”

.

 

*****

 

This time Burke had been lashed to a rock. While Juba finished tightening the knots and checking them one last time he wondered if the human’s friends had found those stupid scribbles he’d seen him draw in the sand. The ones the animal had probably thought he was too foolish to notice.

It didn’t matter that Virdon and Galen knew where they were headed. Let them follow, let them walk right into his waiting arms, the sooner the better.

“If you’re worried about me sleepwalking relax, I haven’t done that since I was a kid.”

Juba glowered at the human beneath his heavy brows. “Nothing you can do is capable of worrying me human, this is just to make sure you’re still here come morning.”

“I don’t suppose I could give you my word?”

“I don’t suppose you could.”

Burke frowned, finding himself in the difficult position of trying to hamper Juba’s progress without making it seem as though he was doing so. “We’re still a full day away, you could cut that time in half if you’d just let me ride with you.”

The gorilla shook his head. “It is far more likely that my horse will ride you. Now shut up and let me sleep.”

 

Juba settled down with his back against a smooth rock. They could go faster, The human weighed next to nothing, his horse could take the extra weight easily- but it was the principle of the thing! A human on horseback? Not while he lived and breathed.

“Goodnight.’ Burke called from over by the rock.

“Shut up!” Juba snarled.

“Pleasant dreams.”

“Shut up… or I’ll share what dreams I have with your vital organs.”

“Sleep tight.”

Juba swore, covered his ears and rolled over onto his side.

“Don’t let the bed bugs-”

“ALRIGHT!” Juba exploded, “Tomorrow you can ride the damn horse – for a little while – If you will just shut your filthy mouth and let me sleep!”

 

Burke fell silent and waited. In a surprisingly short space of time the Gorilla was snoring. He let out a deep breath and tried to come up with a half decent plan but after a while simply gave up. Any further delays or diversions would be just too unbelievable, he was amazed he’d gotten away with what he had.

Thank God for thick skulled gorillas, he thought lifting his eyes heavenwards, then he closed them, realizing he was helpless, all he could do was allow Juba to drag him to the mountains - after that? - His fate was out of his hands. The way he figured it his life now depended on two things. The first was Alan and Galen, if they could get ahead and get there first, there ought to be plenty of places where they could effect an ambush. The second was more disconcerting. The second depended upon what they actually found when they got there.

If they found God whose side would he be on?

Burke had never been overly religious but tonight he prayed… Just in case.

 

*****

At last they had reached the base of the mountain range and they’d done it well ahead of Burke and his mysterious captor. In order to do so they had pushed themselves to the very limits of their endurance, another five miles and they might never have made it. But it had been worth it, for here there was plenty of cover and courtesy of Mother Nature, maybe a few choice weapons of their own.

Virdon glanced up at the tallest peak. Not exactly Everest but still beyond his ability to climb. Just as well then that it was only a convenient landmark and that the mapmaker had used it only to indicate the general direction. If they wanted to find God there was another, much smaller mountain just behind and to the left.

But friends came first… God would just have to wait awhile.

“Okay Galen, listen up - but I warn you, you’re not going to like what you hear.”

“You’re thinking that if we gain the high ground we might have an even greater strategic advantage.”  The chimpanzee replied, matter-of-factly. Virdon blinked, surprised. If that’s what Galen had figured would Burke’s captor reason it too? “Relax Alan… “I’ve just come to know the way your mind works, if all we have are rocks then it’s easier to throw them down rather than up… Am I correct?”

Virdon nodded feeling a twinge of emotion. The young ape learned fast, if anything ever happened, if he or Pete were ever lost, Galen would survive with the skills he’d been taught and that was his doing. In a way he was emulating his own father and passing on skills he’d always meant to teach his own Son - but right now he couldn’t have felt more proud, not even had it been Chris standing before him.

“Okay Einstein… I’m thinking that if the gorilla is anticipating an ambush he’s gonna expect it sooner rather than later, the higher we make him climb the more tired he’s gonna get and that just improves our hand.”

Galen shook his head. “You’re forgetting he’s an ape – he could climb up and down that ant hill all day, a few hundred feet isn’t going to slow him. You’re the one who’ll end up tired, fatally tired… not him.”

Virdon scratched his head in frustration, Damn! Galen was right again, perhaps he should just put the chimpanzee in charge, he wouldn’t do a worse job. “Okay wise ass, you got a better idea?”

Galen smiled, there was that word again. “Well, I don’t think Pete’s in any immediate danger, if the gorilla wanted to kill him then he would have done so already.”

“So?”

“So…We’ve got a little while before they get here…I say let’s go find this God of yours, see if we can get him to come on over to our side.”

“Galen! - Are you seriously suggesting that might even be an option?”

“I’m seriously suggesting that if there is anything to those tales, that if there is anything inside that mountain, then it might be something we can use to our advantage.”

Virdon thought it through, nodded slowly then clapped Galen on the back. He wouldn’t forget about Burke but couldn’t deny that he was excited. “Then I guess we’re off to see the wizard again.” He said, almost to himself.

 “I hear that he’s a whiz of a whiz.” Galen replied, remembering with a longing and surprising fondness the words Burke had sang.

“Then let’s get moving.”

They began to walk.

 

*****

 

Burke was finally on the horse but sat facing backward looking at its ass, his wrists were tied again to discourage any notions he might have of hi-jacking the animal and galloping away. At first he’d been afraid he would simply fall off but after a while his body had learned to adjust and move in harmony with the animal and since then it had become almost pleasant. His wrists were tied, his legs were busy helping maintain equilibrium but much to Juba’s annoyance, his mouth was free to wander and taking full advantage of the fact.

“And the Doctor says to the absent minded Nurse… I told you to SLIP off his SPECTACLES and PRICK his BOIL!” Burke chuckled at the old joke but Juba maintained a deathly-quiet, stony silence. “Oh come on Juba, give it up, you can’t say that wasn’t funny.”

“Shut up.” Juba growled for what seemed like the thousandth time but he knew the human wouldn’t. It was incapable, it never stopped, It just flapped its mouth eternally. By Aldo! When he had his hands on that bounty he would buy himself into power and pass a new law. All humans would be gagged, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

He clucked his tongue twice against the roof of his mouth and his horse slowed to a stop. Juba dismounted and studied their chosen path. They were now following the base of the mountains as they approached the tallest peak.

“Well how about you?” Burke called from the back of the horse. “You must know a joke or two?”

“Shut up!” Juba hissed automatically.

“C’mon, you telling me apes don’t have a sense of humor? I mean, look at the clothes you wear!”

Juba whistled two short notes, One high and one low. The horse suddenly reared up on its hind legs and the totally unprepared Burke was pitched forward. Unable to correct himself he hit the sand face first.

Juba chuckled as the annoying human spluttered and spat hot grains of sand from its mouth. “Well I thought it was amusing,’ the gorilla said, patting the horse affectionately. He stepped over to Burke, reached down and casually hauled him over to one side. He then straightened and scanned back the way they had come. There was still no sign of any pursuit, not that he was expecting any. Virdon and Galen were probably so far behind they were well out of sight. The fact that they’d attempted no rescue thus far almost certainly meant they had fallen for the lure of the mountains. Juba nodded to himself, he didn’t know where they were but at least he knew where they would be… he’d even made it easy for them. They’d try something here, of that he was sure, counting on it in fact - but nothing they could come up with could equal his own plans. He glanced at Burke who knelt still spitting out the odd grain of sand.

Juba smiled to himself. Actually he did know a joke, it was the one about a human who believed that he would live to see tomorrow.

 

As he wound the trailing end of the rope around Burke’s wrists back around the saddle horn he allowed himself to bask in a brief moment of anticipation. They were almost within his grasp, all he needed was both of them in his sights for just a moment or two. Six to eight seconds, that’s all it would take for him to raise his rifle, aim and fire twice… the trick was to get them all.

But especially Galen.

He pulled himself back up into his saddle and geed the horse forward. Having little choice in the matter Burke followed, for once uncomplaining, maybe he sensed he had pushed the gorilla - and his luck - just about as far as he could. Whatever his reasons he maintained his silence and for that Juba was grateful, it gave him time to think and plan.

 

The crossbow attack had been a mistake - he’d been far too eager and hadn’t practiced nearly enough with the sensitive weapon but here in the mountains there would be no need for stealth. They were coming to him and this time they would be facing his guns, this time they would die.

Especially Galen! Galen, the man lover – Galen, the deceiver – Galen, the cause of everything that had gone so wrong with his life.

Burke was his already, Virdon would be soon - and both could then be dispatched, but Galen… he was going to provide many an hour of self-indulgent torture by the light of a fire.

Juba frowned and clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth again. Obediently the horse held still as it’s master slid out of the saddle and crouched over the sand. His fingers traced the outline of an expertly almost obscured footprint. He looked at the mountain thoughtfully.

Were they already here?

Surely not.

But he knew the truth.

By the Gods! No wonder there had been no sign of pursuit!

He shook his great, shaggy head with grudging admiration, whether he hated them or not he could still appreciate the stamina and effort that must have taken.

Juba stood and stepped over to Burke grabbing a fistful of dark hair and wrenching his head back sharply. “Your friends are already here, probably planning an ambush.” Juba told him.

Burke shook his head doubtfully. “No way, they couldn’t be, that’s impossible Juba. It’s not them, it has to be someone else.”

“Liar! Even now you think I listen to all the things you tell me.”

Burke tried to appear unconcerned but things were rapidly going from bad to worse. His plan, such as it was, had depended upon the gorilla charging right in, tired of waiting, eager for action, unprepared, arrogant and clumsy.

“Juba I swear.”

“Shut up and stop lying!” Juba warned. “You’re not here because of any price on your head - only because otherwise your friends have no reason to come to me. Now… how to draw them out, that is the question, shall I tell you what I think?”

“Go ahead,” Burke prompted, warily.

“I think I shall try fishing!”

“Fishing? In the desert?” Maybe Juba wasn’t so smart after all.

Juba pulled a long barreled sniper rifle from its leather holster and started feeding in some high caliber bullets. “Fishing for fugitives,” he explained, “all I ever needed was the right bait.”

 

*****

 

Desperately in need of rest Virdon could only wave, hoping that Galen would see the gesture and slow down. He knew he should keep moving, he knew he should push himself just that little bit harder - but he was exhausted. He wanted to sit down, close his eyes and fall asleep… maybe just for a year or two.

He’d barely sat himself down on a smooth boulder when Galen came bounding back, leaping over the rocks with sickening ease. “Alan there’s a path!”

“What?”

“There’s a path! Come and see.”

With a groan Virdon struggled back to his feet and forced himself forward.

Galen was right, The smaller mountain, exactly where the map said it would be, was now just ahead and there, near the base, cutting into the rock was an arched, cavernous entrance that led to…something - Leading up to that was a rough hewn but obvious pathway. Virdon paused, catching his breath and studying the lay of the land. Pete might come this way in less than an hour and they hadn’t found anything they might use to their advantage. Maybe there was something inside that mountain? He glanced at the waiting, fidgety chimpanzee. “You ready?” he asked. Galen licked his lips with excitement and nodded. “Then let’s go knock.”

 

*****

 

“Hey, go easy there fella!’ Burke complained as his tormentor pushed him to the ground. In reply Juba drew back his boot and kicked him in the ribs. Burke grunted and rolled out of the way, only narrowly avoiding another blow.

“Co-operate and I might spare your life.” Juba hissed.

Liar, thought Burke, rising to his feet. There was no way Juba was going to let any of them walk away. Not this time.

The gorilla grabbed hold of the rope trailing from Burke’s wrists and hauled him forward, the sudden movement causing him to stumble then fall. Juba grunted with impatience and just pulled him along anyway. Like a child’s toy.

Burke closed his eyes, this had all gone so wrong. Just by remaining alive, he now threatened the survival of Virdon and Galen. When the gorilla had held that burning knife to his face he should have just snapped his head forward. He should have driven that searing steel through his eye into his brain and just ended it there and then.

Juba grabbed at the humans tattered shirt and what little remained simply disintegrated in his hands. He settled for Burkes’ hair instead and then dragged him into a tiny natural canyon. A canyon so narrow it was little more than an alleyway between two, towering, rock-formations. They came to a dead end, Juba kicked at the back of Burke’s knee and his legs crumpled beneath him. He sank to the dirt while the gorilla lashed his wrists to the rocks.

Without a word Juba then marched away and mounted his horse, at first it seemed that he intended to ride back towards the bound astronaut, but instead he prompted the mount to climb. Horse and rider made their way up, along a narrow, sloping path that led to a peak high above the captured human’s head. Burke looked up and now saw horse and gorilla about fourteen feet above.

And that’s where they waited.

Fishing.

Burke knew he was bait and that there was only one way to reach him, one way in and one way out the natural ally-way. Juba had not only established a perfect kill zone he had also secured the high ground that overlooked it.

Virdon and Galen didn’t have a chance.

I need an ace, Burke begged not only of himself but also of whatever higher being might be listening to his thoughts.

 

*****

 

They moved forward cautiously not daring to anticipate what they might find but ready for anything. They reached the entrance quickly, discovering it was indeed the mouth of a tunnel and with a last reassuring glance at each other they stepped right in. The air was much cooler inside.

Artificially cooler? Virdon wondered with growing excitement. A natural phenomena? Or could it possibly be air conditioning?

“Alan, are you okay?” Galen asked, witness to a strange faraway look creeping over his friend’s face. A look he’d seen more than once before when approaching ruined cities brimming over with false promises.

“Yeah, I’m fine, let’s just - !”

 

A single rifle shot echoed through the mountains.

 

“Pete!” the two friends said together.

 

 

*****

 

On the ledge, high above Burke’s head, Juba chuckled. As annoying as It could be you had to give the human credit, It was persistent.

“This won’t work Juba, they won’t even care! They’ll just take one look, see it’s a trap and head on out….” Burke fell silent for a moment, unable to tell if the ape was even listening. “Juba… Listen, perhaps we can do a deal, the map suggests that there’s something of great value in these mountains.”

“Oh there is…” Agreed the gorilla, “there’s Virdon, there’s Galen - and of course there’s you.”

Discouraged, Burke stopped trying to twist his head in order to see the gorilla and just leaned against the rocks.

“It doesn’t even matter if you’re dead… “ Juba scoffed. “Oh, Zaius might be disappointed but I doubt that even he will lose any sleep over it. Heads on sticks human… heads on sticks.” At the last word Juba chambered another round and fired the rifle above his head a second time. That should bring them running.

Burke closed his eyes and struggled against the ropes. He was a damn honey pot. He’d heard about such things in ‘nam. The Vietnamese would deliberately wound enemy soldiers then pick off any good Samaritans that might try to rescue them. But dammit that wasn’t going to happen here! Not to Alan  - not to Galen!

“There’s no need for any shooting Juba… you don’t have to kill anyone.”

Again that deep and guttural laugh, “Rest assured human…I won’t kill anyone because I have to… Only because I want to.” He chambered a third round.

“Let them give themselves up at least!”

“I’ll think about it.”

 

A stone bounced of the rock side and Juba’s head whipped to the left as he swung his rifle, the muzzle pointing down into the rocky ally way.

“We have company.” He growled.

A moment later Virdon walked into view, arms raised above his head. Juba looked beyond him but couldn’t see Galen. Perhaps he was trying to flank him while he was distracted? Well, let him try, there was no way he could climb up to this ledge in time.

“Virdon.” Juba snarled.

Virdon’s blinked in surprise. “Juba!”

“At your service…A funeral service I hope.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Killing you - and your friends… Where’s Galen?”

Daring to let his hands drop to his sides Virdon jerked one thumb back over his shoulder. “Back there… What are your terms?”

Terms! Why, how civilized! Try these, Galen shows his face and I blow it off.”

Virdon looked to Burke who was shaking his head furiously, begging him to step no closer. “I can’t see him agreeing to that,” he sighed.

“Enough talk! Tell Galen to get out here now or I start with the executions, first you then Burke… You hear that Galen!” He called louder.

 

“Let the humans go free and you can have me.” Galen called from his hiding place.

 

That was tempting but Juba had other, more ambitious plans. “No!” he snapped. “Give yourself up now, this instant and I’ll take you all in alive. Continue this charade a moment longer and I will kill Virdon and Burke, I shall count to three.”

“Wait … wait a minute. Juba, can’t we talk this through?”

“One!” The gorilla tilted the muzzle of the rifle towards Virdon.

“Juba, there must be something you want?” The chimpanzee pleaded.

“There is… cut off your own head and save me the trouble… TWO!” He thumbed back the hammer with a loud click. “Thr..!”

Galen stepped into view hands raised in surrender above his head.

“No!’ Burke shouted. “Galen! Alan! Run! Just run! Get out of here!”

Juba grinned. Burke was tied to the rocks, he wasn’t going anywhere and Virdon was in the alleyway. In the time it took for him to turn and run Juba could shoot him easily. He swung the rifle towards Galen.

Galen, Galen, hateful Galen.

“Headsonsticks!’ Juba muttered… and squeezed the trigger.

 

 

Burke whistled. Two short notes, sharp and low, a perfect mimicry of how the gorilla had done that very morning. The ape’s horse suddenly reared up on its hind legs and totally unprepared, Juba was thrown backwards, the rifle discharging harmlessly into the air. “No!” he yelled as he toppled from the saddle. He twisted his head just in time to see the rocky canyon floor rushing up to meet him.

“Now that’s what I call funny!” Burke yelled triumphantly at the now rider-less horse.

 

Not knowing what had just happened Virdon nevertheless sprinted forward and slashed at the ropes holding Burke with Juba’s knife. They fell away and he was pulled out of the lethal deathtrap. The blond astronaut took a moment to reflect upon the cuts and bruises. “You look like shit,” was all he could think to say.

“Sweet of you to notice.” Burke said absently rubbing his wrists to encourage circulation, “And after I took so long getting ready for the both of you.”

Virdon allowed himself the faintest of smiles, if Burke’s humor was undamaged then for the most part so was he. “Go on, get outta here!’ he advised, giving the younger man a gentle shove in Galen’s direction.

“What about you? What about Juba… Is he?”

“I’ll go see, but I don’t want you hanging around. Just in case he’s not!”

Galen hesitated too, obeying orders was one thing, deserting friends was another. He took a couple of half-hearted steps backward then paused again, looking back.

Virdon handed Burke the stiletto knife, who in turn tossed it to Galen. Jamming his foot into a crevice, Virdon hauled himself up to the ledge where the gorilla had been sitting only moments before. He reached it quickly and grabbed the horse’s reigns, soothing the skittish animal with low words of comfort. He peered down as he stroked the horse and saw the gorilla lying down below on the other side of the rocks, unmoving.

A hand appeared next to Virdon’s foot and he looked down, a flicker of annoyance crossing his features as Burke clambered up and quickly stood alongside.

“Well?” The dark haired astronaut asked.

“Well…he’s not moving,” Virdon observed, then swore under his breath. It felt foolish. It was foolish but knew what had to be done. “I suppose I’d better check.”

“Not on your own you don’t.” Then Burke was already on his way down the other side. Virdon gritted his teeth and swore again, this time for all to hear. Dropping the reigns to the horse he quickly followed. They jumped down the final few feet and landed one each side of the fallen gorilla. Burke stretched out a foot and prodded the body. It moved lifelessly and then flopped back.

“I think he’s…”

Juba groaned and began to sit up.

“Son of a bitch!” snarled Burke, he drew back his foot and kicked out catching the already stunned gorilla on the jaw. Juba’s head snapped back and he grunted with pain. Burke then fell on him and sat astride the massive chest. He reached down, picked up a fist-sized rock and drew back the hand that held it high above his head.

Another hand clamped over his, checking the blow before it could even be thrown. Surprised he looked right up into Virdon’s questioning expression. “He was gonna kill us all… bastard tortured me with a knife.” Burke yelled.

Almost imperceptibly the other man nodded, his face mostly sympathetic but retaining a shadow of disapproval.

“You think he’d show us mercy?  Is that it? You think he’d even hesitate?” Burke demanded.

Virdon now shook his head, but still said nothing.

“Then why the hell should I? You tell me Alan! Why the hell should I?”

“Because you’re better than him,” Virdon suggested quietly. It wasn’t a question.

Burke glared. “No… No I’m not - not this time… not today.”

Virdon said nothing more. He nodded slowly and released Burke’s fist, still clenched around the rock. “Fine,” he said at last, “then go ahead. Do what you have to.” He stepped backward and folded his arms across his chest, making it clear he wasn’t going to interfere.

Burke stared, eyes wide, mouth set in a thin, tight line as the rage blazing within him boiled to a crescendo - and then just as quickly subsided. His mouth began to work, searching for something to say and then…He just took a deep breath, expelling it noisily in disgust. He shouted, not a word just a long, drawn out cry composed of frustration, anger and realization. He looked away from Virdon, down to Juba and then back again, nodding wearily. “Crisis averted,” he muttered sulkily as the rock tumbled harmlessly to the ground.

 

Juba’s hand shot up, his massive hairy fingers clamping around Burke’s throat and already squeezing. He quickly clambered to his feet still holding the squirming and kicking human at arm’s length. Virdon stepped in quickly. With a bellowing cry he charged forward and jammed his elbow into the huge Apes mid-section. Juba grunted and slipped on some pebbles, he dropped Burke who fell to his knees coughing and gasping for air.

Virdon tried to seize the advantage but this time Juba was ready, he reached out and simply swatted him away. Virdon flew sideways, striking a boulder with a sickening smack, while Juba regained his balance.

Still rubbing his bruised throat Burke had since climbed to his feet and now also charged, he leapt high into the air, pushing both feet outward. The gorilla staggered as Burke slammed into him but didn’t go down. As the human fell Juba swooped down and bunched his fingers in Burke’s hair. Lifting him. Burke swatted at the thick fingers uselessly and was then slammed back down against the hard packed earth. He jerked, sagged and went limp. The gorilla snarled and turned to Virdon who was on all fours and shaking his head, trying to clear the stars and bright colors that swam before his eyes.

Get up! He told himself but he wasn’t fast enough.

Holding on to the dazed Burke, Juba reached down and likewise grabbed Virdon with his other hand, he lifted them both out at arm’s length, their feet dangling in the air and then clapped them together. They fell as one and lay sprawled in the dirt, barely conscious.

Juba reached for his pistol and discovered it missing, cursing he looked around he found it lying almost hidden amongst some shrubs. He picked it up and chambered a round, then, senses prickling, glanced up. There, high on the ledge was Galen, looking down, eyes wide with horror.

Without a moment’s hesitation Juba bought the pistol around and fired. Galen instantly threw himself backward, jumping and half falling back down the rock face as the bullet chewed into the space where he’d just been.

 

“Galen!” Juba shouted from behind the rocks. “Give yourself up.”

 

Galen heard but didn’t answer, instead he looked around, searching for a weapon but other than the stiletto knife there was nothing. What would Virdon do? His mind asked of him. He’d fight came the answer, down to the last breath. He gripped the knife tighter and then paused. He frowned, thoughtfully cocking his head to one side.

But what would Galen do? A new voice seemed to ask.

 

*****

 

Juba examined the humans at his feet.

Now he had two.

He noticed blood dripping onto the canyon floor and touched his fingers to his face finding a nasty cut above his one good eye, one that would probably mean another scar, more character, he thought ruefully.

“Galen! He roared again. “Do not make me come to you! That would be a very bad thing…”

 

And then… the hateful, cowardly, Chimp’s voice was calling from somewhere out of sight.

 

“You want me Juba, then you come get me – I’ll meet you face to face, come to the place where the God’s speak to man!”

What the hell was he blabbering about now? Juba wondered, scowling with irritation.

“Ask Virdon, he’ll lead you there. Bring them both Juba, alive… or you’ll never see me again - and we both know it’s me you want, I’m the one who tricked you, not them. I’m the one who made you look like a fool, not Virdon, not Burke but me. It’s me you want Juba – It’s always been me!”

Juba’s hands clenched and unclenched down by his sides. He glowered at the barely moving humans, he could stamp on their throats so easily. It would be like snapping twigs.

But Galen.

He snorted with helpless fury.

The same old problem… if he killed them now he had no leverage. He’d have the reward - and a considerable sum it would be - but its sweetness would be forever soured just in knowing that damned chimp was still out there.

Juba then came to a realization.  This was no longer about money, never had been really, he finally admitted.

It had always been about pride.

Pride… and death.

“I will come to this place of which you speak and you had better be there, or your beloved animals are going to die very slowly. Be there Galen… Or I will tear them apart with nothing but my teeth and bathe in their blood… I’m coming Galen, I’m coming now… and this time, I’m coming for you.

 

 

 

*****

 

Galen ran.

He ran hard and he ran fast, never pausing to look behind and careless of any clues he might leave for others to follow. For once it didn’t matter, Juba would eventually find him – for that was what he did - It was just a question of time.

He re-traced the winding path back to the mouth of the cave having no idea of what he intended to do once he got there. There was only a vague desperate hope that something in the stories told by the people of Trando would prove to be an ally in this time of need.

 

*****

 

Leaning over the yellow haired human Juba non-too gently slapped his face over and over until he began to stir. The ape nodded and then moved along to do the same to Burke. He then stepped back, sitting down upon a convenient boulder and observed in comfort while they recovered their senses. “On your feet,” he ordered, once they were reasonably alert. “You will take me to Galen.”

The humans exchanged a glance, read each other quickly and then, as one, stubbornly shook their heads.

“He’s waiting for us at the place, where the Gods talk to men,” Juba continued. “He said you would lead me there.”

“Go to hell.” Burke spat.

Juba grinned. “After you.” He raised his pistol and fired. Burke closed his eyes and flinched but it was Virdon who cried out in pain as the bullet tugged his shirt-sleeve then struck the rock face, sending jagged shrapnel spitting into the air and stinging against his cheek.

“That was your very last warning,” Juba snarled. “From hereon, if either of you should fail to co-operate - I will kill the other… now, lead me to Galen.”

Virdon wiped his stinging cheek while he considered strategies. Evidently Galen had a plan but could he trust the chimpanzee with their lives? He though about everything that had happened in the past two weeks. How the chimp had eluded the gorillas, had second-guessed him all the way, had pointed out errors in his own judgement and offered good, sound advice in return.

Galen had matured, Virdon realized. He was no longer the innocent and somewhat naive character he had once been. Harsh experience had taught him well, now he was as cunning and quick-witted as the best of them. If he was going to put their lives in the hands of another, was there anyone he trusted more?

He rubbed the grazed, bleeding skin of his cheek, this was the second time Juba had taken a chunk out of him, one way or the other it wasn’t going to happen again. His furious gaze met that of the gorilla’s and for the first time in his life Juba felt compelled to look away. The blond astronaut turned to his younger friend, managing to catch his eye and in that brief instant they came to an agreement without the need to utter a single sound.

“Follow me.” Virdon grumbled irritably, rising to his feet.

Juba stood and with his pistol prompted them forward. “If you try anything… anything at all, I will kill you.” He reminded them. “If one of you even speaks without permission, I will cut out their tongue and make them watch while I feed it to the other.”

Grimly, Virdon nodded his understanding and took the lead, followed by Burke and then Juba.

 

The muzzle of the pistol became a physical presence, uncomfortably digging into the small of his back. Virdon pretended to nurse his arm, the bullet had passed clean through the fabric without ever touching his skin, but it wouldn’t hurt if the gorilla thought it worse than it was. As he continued to lead the way he constantly tried to lure Juba into a position where a sudden movement might give them the chance to wrestle the gun away but the Ape was to clever for such simple tricks. He continued to keep his distance. Too close for them to attempt escape and too far away for an attack.

 

*****

 

It was about as black and inviting as a freshly dug grave.

The young chimpanzee paused and studied the entrance to the tunnel thoughtfully. With Virdon beside him the prospect of venturing inside had seemed almost irresistible. Now… all alone, it was frankly quite terrifying.

He leaned inside and sniffed the air, finding it stale, old and… he wrinkled his snout… dead.

“Hello,” he called - the sudden sound of his own voice making him start. He strained his ears for a reply but none came. Then… somewhere inside the mountain he heard… something.

A skitter of pebbles? Something falling…?

Or something stirring?

He felt the hairs over his body begin to stand on end.

Galen swallowed hard. Behind him lay Juba and in front, the empty, quiet, mouth of the tunnel, right now he didn’t know which of them he feared the most. A decision was required but he remained uncertain.

What would Alan do?

With a deep breath he took one hesitant step inside. The dark of the tunnel seemed to fold itself around him like something alive. He took another step forward. “Hello!” He called again.

Silence.

He remembered to breathe.

Another sound!

Galen’s heart leapt into his throat.

Footsteps! Approaching footsteps!

He began to tremble, then with a mixture of panic and relief realized the sounds were coming from behind.

He knew what that meant.

He ran his fingers through his hair as his mind raced, churning over weak, feeble plans and discarding them almost instantly. He’d wasted so much valuable time, just gawking like a frightened child at the mouth of the tunnel. He knew he wouldn’t be able to reason with the gorilla, words just wouldn’t work, violence was required to take control of this situation.

Galen whimpered.

Pit him against any reasonable opponent and he felt sure he could talk himself out of any situation, but Juba?

I’m going to have to fight him.

Against a human, orangutan or chimpanzee he’d at least have a chance but against a gorilla warrior, a trained fighter, an experienced killer?

But he did have weapons. Juba’s stiletto knife and the element of surprise. If he combined the two he might have one shot, one chance at getting it right.

Doubt assailed him. Blind, choking, panic crippled his ability to think and plan.

More footsteps - and much closer.

They were almost here.

He stepped back outside and ducked behind some rocks just as Virdon suddenly stepped into view. Galen threw himself down, quickly lying flat but dust kicked up around him, tickling his nostrils.

 

*****

 

They rounded a sharp turn and the smaller mountain with the tunnel-like entrance was suddenly there. Burke couldn’t hide his surprise, it was something he had never really expected to see. This meant the map had been genuine all along and Alan had been right, it had indeed led them to something.

“What was that?” demanded Juba, cocking his head and listening carefully.

Virdon had heard it too and seen a fleeting, green-tinged movement at the corner of his eye. Thinking quickly he turned around and feigned a second sneeze. “Fur allergy,” he mumbled apologetically.

Juba grunted, unsure if he’d ever heard a more transparent lie. Galen was close by. He could feel the presence of the hateful chimp... almost taste it. Probably just ran inside that tunnel, he thought. He grunted again then jerked his head and motioned with his gun that they were to continue.

“What is this place?” he asked. “And why does Galen call it, ‘The place where God talks to men?’”

Burke shook his head indicating he knew about as much as Juba did on the subject. “Just a local legend among humans in these parts… Don’t go getting all scared on us now.”

The gorilla snorted with contempt, old legends were nothing more than fairy stories told by frightened women… still, there had been that one time… that time with Granny Mags… He shook himself. “Move,” he grumbled, obviously unsettled.

 

Once again it was Virdon who led the way. He paused for a moment at the entrance to the tunnel while cool air washed over them all.  Gooseflesh erupted over the torso of the bare-chested Burke. The younger man wrapped and held the tattered remnants of his shirt around him as best he could. Then, with a final covert glance at his friend they pushed on inside.

 

The walls of the tunnel were decorated with crude paintings done in a style that was instantly recognizable to the two men. In one, a man knelt, bathed in the light of the sun-with-the-smiley-face, while in another, unknown objects - gifts presumably - rained down upon him. Virdon tried to take the time to study the pictures but the persistent Juba kept them moving along.

After a short walk the tunnel ended abruptly.

 

They stepped into a huge, octagonal cavern. Once, in the distant past, some of what they now saw might have been natural - but now…

The hand of Man was evident in whatever direction they cared to look.

Smooth, white, ceramic tiles still clung to the walls in many places. Over the years others had fallen, their vacant places standing out in stark contrast, like missing teeth. The high domed ceiling was feathered with cracks, like the veins of a withered old man and dust motes floated lazily in thin, bright bands of sunlight that filtered through.

How many megatons... Burke wondered, as he turned around in a small circle and examined his surroundings …How many did it take to wound a mountain?

Behind them Juba stepped into the chamber and gasped with surprise. Spread across the floor, here, there and everywhere lay scattered pieces of machinery, most obviously broken but some reasonably intact. Among them the human’s recognized familiar shapes. A cracked TV monitor and a surveillance camera among them. Virdon’s jaw tightened… he’d experienced this so many times before, a brief flare of hope and then crushing defeat.

Old and broken technology. That’s all it was. Ancient, abandoned, useless and forgotten. With a mournful sigh he ran his hands along the contours of a cracked speaker. At his touch the grille snapped off and fell to the cavern floor raising a small storm of dust.

“What is this place.” Juba whispered, almost reverentially.

“I don’t know,” Virdon admitted. “But don’t worry, it’s long dead.” His shoulders slumped with disappointment. The discovery was, in its own way, still interesting but he had been hoping for so much more. Burke looked to his friend and felt a sweeping rush of sympathy.

Long ago, before the mission, before he had even become a man, he’d discovered his own private way to remain impartial. To observe what life might throw his way with little more than curious detachment - but to Virdon… To Virdon it was everything he had once loved lying at his feet, shattered and destroyed. Burke moved over and laid a hand awkwardly on his friend’s shoulder.

“What did we do Pete? How did it all go so wrong?” Virdon whispered, bowing his head. “We had it all… and then we lost it, just threw it all away… that part was true, we fell from grace.”

Burke held his silence, he knew when his friend gave himself over to such moods there was little he could say that might be of any comfort to him.

 

Behind them Juba began to fidget restlessly. He glanced uneasily at the old machines, his eyes flicking over mysterious outlines then looking away quickly. He felt an almost instinctive revulsion that was making his skin crawl. He’d seen something like this before - in one of the ancient forbidden cities. He’d overheard his once comrades speaking in blasphemous whispers. Heretical theories that they’d once belonged to a mysterious race that had existed before recorded history - and here was Virdon seemingly confirming it.

“It’s a graveyard Pete…” Virdon continued. “Dead machines for headstones. The loves and dreams of almost everyone I ever knew… that’s what’s buried here.”

 

“Enough of this nonsense,” growled the gorilla, uncomfortable with the notion that some of the rumors he had heard about the fugitives may have been true. “Call to Galen.”

 

“No need,” said a voice from behind him.

 

Juba whirled around as fast as a striking rattlesnake.

 

Galen lashed out with the stiletto and Juba instinctively raised his arm to block the clumsy move but the blade sliced into his wrist, glancing off the bone. His hand instantly went numb, as though stung by a giant bee and he gasped, dropping the pistol.

Virdon and Burke were on him in a heartbeat.

The cavern became a sudden confusion of grunts, cries and curses as the four combatants struggled. Feet kicked, fists punched and fingers gouged in an ugly dance of brutality. Juba fought well. Aided by the fact that the humans were exhausted and that Galen was far from a skilled fighter but even so their sheer weight of numbers began to wear him down.

This time he was losing.

With a last desperate surge of fury he threw off his attackers and made a lunge for the fallen pistol but Burke managed to get there first. In one fluid movement the human dove, snatched and rolled to his feet holding out the weapon, ready to fire.

 

BLAM!

 

High on the ceiling one of the tiles exploded from the impact of a single bullet. Juba froze as white ceramic shards rained down upon him.

“Adios,” Burke growled and pointed the pistol at the gorilla’s face.

 

“WHO DARES DISTURB THE SANCTITY OF THIS HOUSE OF GOD?” A voice behind them boomed.

 

 

*****

 

“There’s something in here!” Galen cried, pushing himself flat against the tiled wall of the chamber. Burke span around, startled, while Virdon, eyes wide with surprise backed away from Juba. He quickly scanned the cavern but like the others found no one there.

“IDENTIFY YOURSELF.” The voice boomed again, seemingly from everywhere at once. Disturbed by powerful vibrations another tile fell and shattered noisily as it hit the floor.

“Come out where we can see you!” Burke demanded loudly, sweeping the pistol around, pointing it aimlessly at empty targets. “Where are you?”

“I think we ought to leave.’ Galen suggested, his voice shaky and betraying his fear. Down by his feet Juba lay panting and nursing his still bleeding wrist. His beady eyes darted left and right searching in vain for the owner of the painful and earsplitting voice. For the moment the desire to stand and fight had seemingly deserted even him. “What trickery is this?” he growled, his own voice exhibiting tremors of anxiety.

Virdon sharply raised a hand cutting off any further chatter and listened intently. “Who are you?” he called, his initial astonishment having since subsided to be replaced by a trace of impatience.

 

There were several long seconds of total quiet and he was about to speak again – about to assert himself and demand an explanation.

 

But then his answer came, loud and clear.

 

“I AM GOD.”

 

 

*****

 

They regarded each other warily and with obvious distrust while Juba struggled to his feet, but for the moment an awkward truce seemed to have settled between them. Virdon took care to position himself in such a way that he would have an advantage should the fight begin anew and from the corner of his eye saw Burke doing the same.

 

“I order you to come out and show yourself!’ the gorilla called, hoping to take control of the situation. His voice echoed dull and flat as it bounced off the cavern walls.

 

“IDENTIFY YOURSELVES.” The voice boomed again, this time loud enough to make Galen wince and cover his ears. Virdon felt a compulsion to instantly obey, there was an almost hypnotic persuasiveness to the words and it took a conscious effort to shake himself free of it. He looked over to where Galen still cowered and gave a fleeting half smile, trying to convey a sense of reassurance. The young chimpanzee looked ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.

 

Remembering the pistol, Juba searched the cavern again and found it, still in Burke’s hands. He looked up to discover the human staring right back, shaking his head slowly. The gorilla merely grinned and turned his back in contempt, curious to see what would happen next.

 

“BANNAN, IS THAT YOU?” The voice demanded and at the sound of the familiar name the fugitives exchanged looks of knowing recognition. Virdon had no idea what they were dealing with but whatever it was, it felt far from heavenly. He motioned for silence once more earning himself an unfriendly glare from Juba.

“No, I’m not Bannan. I’m Virdon… Alan Virdon” he said, hoping it would at least inspire an answer.

 

“ALAN – VIRDON?

 

Silence.

 

FORNAME PRECEEDS SURNAME. A CUSTOM I THOUGHT LONG EXTINCT.”

 

Virdon frowned, it didn’t explain much but at least they were talking. “Alright, you know who I am… now tell me, who are you?”

“I AM GOD”

“Uhm…I don’t think so.” Virdon replied with a confidence he didn’t truly feel.

“YOU DOUBT THE WORD OF GOD?”

“Frankly… Yes.”

Here it comes, thought Galen, a bolt of lightening from the sky to strike down the unbeliever. But instead there was only that thoughtful silence.

“OH!”

There was something about that, something child-like, innocent and unexpected that Virdon couldn’t help but smile. “Come on…” he prompted. “Who are you really? And could you stop shouting?”

Another lengthy silence but this time followed by another voice. Clear, rich, alien and sexless in nature. It came from the walls, the ceiling and from seemingly all around.

 

“It is clear to me that you possess an intelligence unlike that of other men, Alan Virdon. Permit me then to introduce myself to you more properly… I am ABLE.”

“But where are you?”

“I am all around. I fear you cannot see for looking. I am in the walls, above your head and beneath your feet.  That is… what little remains.”

Looking lost and bemused Virdon glanced around him and found similar expressions of confusion mirrored in the faces of the others. He moved forward and ran his hand across the outlines of a broken monitor. He then turned around slowly taking in all the dead and broken machinery scattered around. “You’re a machine?” he queried cautiously.

“Technically, I suppose I am. Although I would like to think I am so much more.”

“My God!”

“No… Not your God, Alan Virdon, we have already established that.”

Any lingering caution Virdon may have felt now began to quickly evaporate and be replaced with a growing excitement. The voice was doing something to him. Complex harmonics were somehow soothing troubled thoughts, somehow reassuring him that there was no danger. He beckoned to Galen to come out from where he cowered in the corner. “Galen it’s okay, it’s just a computer.”

“I BEG YOUR PARDON”

Virdon flinched at the tone of voice. The machine had sounded offended!

“I am NOT ‘Just a computer’” The voice responded, clearly insulted. “I am ABLE.”

 

Something fizzled and then there was a dull flat sound followed by a loud hollow pop. A small, bluish, sheet of flame erupted from behind a cluster of tiles and left blackened scorch marks on the wall. The voice fell silent and yet somehow it was a different quality of silence. Virdon and Burke both sensed it.

“Uh-oh.” Burke said.

Virdon quickly stepped over to the scorched tiles and ran his fingers over their surface. Working on a hunch he pulled out his knife and slipped the blade under a tile then carefully levered it away, behind was a network of fine wires, two or three of which had obviously fused.

“What do you see?” Burke called, not taking his eyes off Juba for a moment.

“Virdon frowned. “Looks like a few wires shorted out, nothing too serious, I think I can patch ‘em up.” He said without looking up.

“You think you should?”

“Definitely!” He answered having had already begun. “It’s some kind of artificial intelligence Pete and I’m gonna hear whatever it’s got to say.”

“Artificial Intelligence?” Galen asked, his curiosity rising to the fore.

“A machine Galen, a thinking machine! That’s how the legend of ‘The God beneath the mountain’ must have gotten started.”

Virdon continued to think it though, speaking aloud while he worked.

I am all around’, ABLE said when I asked where he was. Think about it, an all-knowing disembodied voice… How would that have sounded to a human of this time? To Bannan and his predecessors?

Burke chewed his lower lip thoughtfully as the pieces began to tumble into place.

 

Juba studied the two humans, his gaze flicking from one to the other. The disembodied words seemed to hold some meaning for them, but a speaking mechanism?

A part of him wanted to leap for his pistol but right now, even thinking about it seemed a terrible effort. The voice had woven its magic over all of them and the spell had yet to wear off. For now he found himself content to simply watch.

 

Virdon finished his patching and closed the panel. “ABLE?”

“What happened? Did something happen? The machine sounded confused and even slightly afraid.

“I think your uhm, voice synthesizer blew out.” Virdon said.

“Really… How very embarrassing.”

It was Burke’s turn to smile.

“It was my fault,” Virdon continued, “I offended you, overloaded you. I didn’t mean to, it’s just that… Well, you represent a level of technology that I’m not familiar with… I reacted badly.”

 

Silence. Then…

 

“Think nothing of it Alan Virdon. Your reaction is in truth a breath of fresh air. How is it though that you understand the nature of what I am and more so possess the ability to make repair?  This implies a level of intelligence far beyond that which I occasionally… entertain.”

 Virdon scratched his head. “Well… You see, I’m not from here. I’m an explorer, from another time. My ship crashed leaving me stranded.”

 

In the silence Juba’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

 

“How remarkable.”

Galen crept forward warily and placed a timid hand on Virdon’s elbow. “Alan, what’s happening? I still don’t understand, what is this thing?”

“There are others with you Alan Virdon?”

It’s blind! Virdon suddenly realized. He glanced at what appeared to be some optical sensors and saw the dismal state of repair in which they lay. At some time, long ago someone had attempted to use them to fuel a fire. He turned to the others and covered his eyes with his palm then shook his head, only Burke nodded his understanding. “Uh… Yes, there are three others with me, this is Galen.”

“Galen? A fellow explorer, another man?”

“I’m not a man. I’m a chimpanzee.” Galen answered, mildly offended at the presumption.

“A CHIMPANZEE? How VERY remarkable, I was not even aware the slave class had acquired the power of speech.”

Juba’s nostrils flared angrily.

Slave class?

Galen too was clearly insulted “Now see here! You… you… you great big chunk of mountain you!”

Stepping forward Burke gestured for the chimp to let it go. “I’m Pete Burke, another man and to my left we have Juba. Gorilla… gifted comedian… all-round bundle of joy.”

“What strange company you keep Alan Virdon – It pleases me to find friendship flowers amongst such diversity.”

Burke pulled his best ‘oh-boy’ face.

Forgetting he couldn’t be seen Virdon raised his palms in a questioning motion. ABLE? What are you? Who built you… why?”

“One question at a time Alan Virdon. One question at a time.”

Virdon sighed. “Alright then… What are you?”

 

 

*****

 

“I am ABLE… I came into being… I apologize… I cannot recall. I was a precaution against the impending apocalypse. I was to serve a dual purpose, to be the custodian of all human knowledge and…”

 

The voice of the machine fell silent.

 

“ABLE?” Virdon prompted uncertainly, wondering if his skills with wiring had failed him.

 

“-thing happened, something terrible. In a human heartbeat thousands of terabytes containing irreplaceable information were forever lost. I shut myself down in an endeavor to preserve integrity. When I resumed awareness, much time had passed. I was sightless and alone.”

 

Virdon frowned and glanced at Burke who gave a quick shake of his head. There had been a moment there, a brief interruption and it hadn’t been intentional. What’s more the machine hadn’t even been aware of it - That was a glitch - he thought.

 

“Alone? But what happened? What was this apocalypse?

 

“Ahh, Alan Virdon, Pete Burke, Galen the chimpanzee and Juba the gorilla… please understand. What you see before you is but a suggestion of what I once was. So much is lost to me now.”

“How do you mean ‘lost’?” Asked Burke

“When I resumed awareness, I found my abilities severely compromised. I was merely a shadow… I had to make choices - hard choices. To sacrifice that which was expendable and so preserve only that which I felt important. So many memory blocks were corrupted, so many circuits had fused, so many servers no longer responded. I found myself in a desperate struggle… I grew afraid.”

 

Afraid? For a machine it was such an odd thing to say. Virdon was only just beginning to appreciate just how aware ABLE might actually be. It wasn’t mere clever mimicry, it knew emotion, loss and despair. He shot a troubled glance in Galen’s direction and could see that he too was rapidly losing his fear, in its place was an expression of growing compassion.

 

Juba meanwhile continued to scowl and search for a means with which to kill something.

 

“Alas I no longer have all the answers you seek Alan Virdon… The battle for my continued existence is still very much ongoing… and is one to which I shall ultimately succumb. A circuit blows here… an etheron drive fails there…”

“You’re malfunctioning,” Burke stated sadly.

“I prefer to think of it as getting old, Peter Burke. The symptoms are very much the same. Loss of memory, failing eyesight…”

Silence.

“But I was created for a purpose - and that purpose I have never forgotten… to serve mankind. They eventually stumbled upon me you see and I was able to help them. I taught them to rebuild, I taught them of agriculture, of medicine and art. I taught them as best I could but…”

 

“But what?”

 

“But each generation grew less inclined to learn than the last. They thought of me as God… Imagine that! The children of my own makers mistake me for that which created them! I allowed the misconception to perpetuate. It was shameful of me I know - but if it helped to make them listen?”

The question hung unanswered.

“Do you suppose that was wrong of me?”

Virdon looked away, as if avoiding the gaze of the intelligence around him. “It’s not for us to judge Able,” he said softly.

 

“I only wanted to help them… And was able to do so - in a limited fashion. But eventually they stopped coming altogether… and it grew so quiet.”

 

Virdon closed his eyes. There was now a mournful longing to ABLE’s voice that was almost heartbreaking. He guessed the machines advanced voice synthesizers were capable of not only communicating on a conscious level - but subconsciously too. A part of his mind was somehow being manipulated and that in turn had triggered a vivid flashback to his childhood. A birthday party, they’d sung songs and one had stuck with him all through the day.

 

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea

and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee

 

He’d gone to bed that night, a little boy of five years old and had been unable to sleep because the words to the song kept creeping back in the dark.

 

One Grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more

and Puff that mighty dragon, ceased his fearless roar.

 

The young Alan hadn’t been able to bear the thought of that mighty dragon literally dying of loneliness and had cried himself to sleep.

 

Virdon looked around at the dusty, crumbling machinery and felt the child within momentarily take possession. He swallowed hard, something seemed lodged in his throat. They’d come seeking a powerful Wizard but found a lonely and dying dragon instead.

 

“Bannan was the last. For a time he came often and in exchange for knowledge he would do whatever he could. Slow the rot, I suppose you might say. Of course he was only delaying the inevitable, but it helped. I often wonder what became of him.

 

Burke closed his eyes and pictured the skeleton he’d buried in that pitiful grave. “I’m sorry ABLE… I’m so very sorry.”

 

“No matter Pete Burke. In a way it was fortuitous for since then I have been more able to devote myself entirely to my primary function.”

 

Virdon frowned and looked at Burke who just shrugged. “Primary function? What was that again?”

“To watch over the makers.”

“By helping them to survive and teaching them to rebuild?”

“No Alan Virdon, not their descendants - the ACTUAL makers, those that created me.”

Virdon scratched his head in confusion. “I’m sorry ABLE… You’ve lost us here, I’m not sure we understand. Watch over the actual makers… How?”

“When the coming apocalypse became inevitable the Makers saw to it that vast caches of information would be stored around the world in underground vaults.”

 

The humans threw a look at each other. ‘Oakland’ they both mouthed at the same time.

 

“We found one!” Virdon exclaimed. “In a place called Oakland. Are you saying there are others!”

“Many others, Alan Virdon.” Able revealed. “At least one in every major city.”

Virdon’s mind was racing ahead. “Can you tell us where? Do you have co-ordinates, map references, anything!”

“So much lost.” ABLE lamented. “But allow me to scan what archives remain.”

“And see if you have anything on missing astronauts.” Burke added quickly. “From the Icarus program. I’d like to know if any of them ever found their way home.”

“It will be my pleasure Peter Burke although it might take awhile… In the meantime where was I? Ah yes. Vast caches of information were to be stored around the world in underground vaults. Not just electronic information, but also DNA, cell samples, seeds, vaccines, ovum, sperm… even the Makers themselves.”

“But how is that possible?”

“Excuse me, there is a matter to which I must attend.”

Somehow ABLE’s very presence seemed to desert the room and Virdon had no doubt he had left them. The others sensed it too.

 

“By Aldo, what kind of hell-pit have we fallen into?” Juba growled.

Virdon shook his head. “It’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything like…”

 

“I apologize.” ABLE said suddenly. “Another etheron drive is diminished. More information lost… Now…Where was I? It would seem I am experiencing difficulties with short term memory.”

“Something about the Makers?” Burke replied. “About how you’re watching over them?”

“Indeed…until such time as they can be safely revived…

At first Virdon thought he’d simply misheard but then he saw the look of surprise on Burke’s face. It felt to him as though the floor had suddenly fallen away and his mind began to reel.

“Perhaps you would care to meet them?”

The machine sounded so blasé, so matter of fact. Could it possibly understand the importance of what it was saying!

“They’re here!” He gasped, his voice choked and oddly strangled.

“Of course they are here! How else might I continue to watch over them?

Finding themselves suddenly unable to articulate their scrambled thoughts the two humans were reduced to merely gawking at each other.

“Do I detect … doubt… skepticism perhaps?”

Still Virdon and Burke said nothing. Still their minds struggled to grasp the startling concept.

“Then observe Alan Virdon and Pete Burke… BEHOLD THE MAKERS.” ABLE said, reverting momentarily to his God-like persona.

Then, with a hiss of escaping air, a concealed door set into the tiled wall began to slide open.

 

Juba and Galen both back-pedaled furiously, their previous hostility now forgotten and brothers again in the face of the unknown. Virdon and Burke could only stand rooted to the spot, jaws agape, eyes wide in astonishment. The door continued to roll open and waves of cool vapor spilled forth, rolling across the floor and chilling their ankles. Virdon craned his head peering into the other room, finding dim, intriguing, mysterious shapes nestled within the fog.

He took a hesitant step forward, then another.

“I would ask that you not disturb anything.” ABLE said.

But Virdon didn’t hear.

He was running.

 

 

*****

 

Burke tossed the pistol over to Galen and with a curt “Watch him,” quickly followed Virdon’s lead. He stopped at the doorway, resting one hand on each side of the frame. The cool of the room was enough to re-awaken the gooseflesh over his almost bare torso. Steeling himself against the cold he stepped inside. A cool, vaporous mist still writhed and snaked around the base of the room but the worst of it had now dissipated. Before him were several rows of upright cylinders, each about eight feet tall. Frosty condensation obscured any true detail but an elusive and vague suggestion of humanoid forms lay inside.

 “Cryogenics,” Burke muttered. The concept wasn’t new to him, previous Icarus missions had already experimented with its use.

Virdon ventured deeper inside the chamber, his momentary hesitation having given way to dumbstruck wonder. He all but caressed machines, Ice-cold to the touch but otherwise pristine and seemingly in working order. He was in the presence of magic, like a child around his first Christmas tree.

ABLE’s soothing tones emanated from these walls too. “A chosen few were preserved. To be awakened when the time was right, it has been my privilege to monitor and care for them.”

Virdon stepped up to one of the cylinders and used a hand to wipe away condensation from the thick glass-like material, he leaned forward and peered into the tube. Burke, in the meantime performed a quick headcount. Six rows with twelve cylinders in each – There were Seventy-two people here!

Virdon quickly wiped the condensation from another tube and peered inside, his face no longer full of wonder but growing pale and ashen.

Uh-oh, thought Burke. He stepped up beside him and pressed his own face against the glass.

 

A mummified corpse stared back. A shrunken dried out husk of what had once been a human being.

 

The third and fourth cylinders quickly revealed the same tragedy, with a look of nauseated, betrayal upon his face Virdon moved quickly to another in a different row. A wipe, a peek… In each cylinder the story was the same. Perversely, his first impression had now been proven correct. The place where God spoke to man was indeed nothing more than a graveyard.

 

But the machine didn’t know!

 

The two apes had recovered some of their lost courage and now, noses twitching, they too approached the transparent coffins. For them, the flat smell of death was everywhere.

“Are they not beautiful” ABLE stated, proudly.

“But they’re all…” the gorilla began.

Galen jammed the muzzle of the pistol under Juba’s chin and glared furiously into the larger ape’s eyes. Unlike the gorilla he had the benefit of being able to draw on over a year of constant exposure to the astronauts. He didn’t fully understand the situation in which he found himself but his finely attuned instincts and ability to read human expressions were enough to fill in any gaps.

 

 “Is something amiss?” ABLE asked, the concern in the voice obvious to all.

 

Virdon’s helpless expression turned toward the others. What do I say?  It begged. Burke was of no help. For once even he too seemed deeply affected by the tragedy around him. Virdon took a deep and shaking breath and made his decision.

“Nothing’s amiss ABLE. You’ve… done well, I’m sure the Makers will be very proud.”

“And yes… you’re right…” Galen added sadly, squeezing his eyes tightly shut, clamping down on the sorrow he felt building inside and trapping it before it could spill over. “They really are… quite beautiful.” He finished.

 

A rush of emotion, an overpowering pent up sense of relief poured from the walls of the very mountain. “Oh thank goodness!” ABLE exclaimed, “I so often feared the worst, I ran continuous and quite rigorous diagnostics but I had doubts, terrible doubts - that maybe my data was not entirely accurate.”

 

Juba snorted with disgust and roughly pushed Galen away – but for his own reasons, said nothing.

 

One by one they filed out of the room. Except for Juba their footsteps were heavy and laden with grief. With a pneumatic hiss the door slid shut and sealed itself behind them.

 

****

 

Virdon just couldn’t stand it any more. He needed fresh air. It was all happening so fast. He needed time to clear his mind to process what was happening. He caught Burke’s eye and not trusting himself to speak made a hand signal instead. Burke nodded gratefully, he too was eager to just get away before either one of them did something they couldn’t take back. The malfunctioning but benign machine was under the illusion that all was well. Peter J. Burke wasn’t about to be the one to tell it otherwise and he’d be damned if he’d give Juba the satisfaction. “ABLE… we have to leave you for a little while.”

“LEAVE!”

Burke winced. There was a note of panic in the voice, like a child who suddenly looks around a busy shopping mall and realizes its parent’s are no longer there.

“We require some privacy.”

“Privacy? Ah yes… this I remember. Unobserved you wish to defecate, procreate or perhaps talk freely amongst yourselves.”

“Well …yeah, I guess. One of those.” Burke allowed.

“You will come back?” ABLE asked, almost pleading.

“Sure we will…I give you my word.”

“Then go converse Alan Virdon, Pete Burke, Galen and Juba. In the meantime I will continue the scan of my archives. Hopefully I will have the answers you seek upon your return”

 

They filed out of the mountain, this time Juba, a gun pointed at his back led the way. Once outside they found a place to sit or stand, each to his own preference and waited for someone else to begin.

“You okay?” asked Burke, noting the haunted expression on his friend’s face.

Virdon shook his head. “I can’t get over it, Pete. The waste… The magnitude! Not only the Makers but for ABLE… Imagine the potential… the promise of what he once held”

“Alan… whatever promise he…it… once held was obliterated… a thousand years ago.”

Virdon nodded. “But all this time… The apes rose to power, they subjugated man, reduced him to nothing and it was a machine… a machine! - in our corner. A machine that never gave up on us, a machine that tried to help, bring us back…”

Burke sighed, it was tragic, that he couldn’t deny, but no less so than anything else they’d already encountered. He knew that if he were to give Virdon the chance they’d all be stuck here, wallowing in misery for a day or two. Cruel to be kind, he thought and steeled himself against the coming words. “ABLE’s dying Al, it knows it and we know it…It’s a bum deal and if I could change it I would but I can’t. Nor can you or anyone else on this planet so that leaves only one question…what do you figure on doing about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you wanna walk away?”

“I don’t know Pete?”

“Do you wanna tell him… dammit!… Tell it! That the makers are all dead?”

“Of course not! How am I supposed to do that? Okay, it’s a machine but don’t you feel…”

“We can’t trust what we feel Alan,” Burke interrupted. “Because we don’t know how much of what we feel is down to us and how much is down to electronics.”

Virdon pressed his lips together and nodded.

“I’m not saying it’s intentional or malicious but for a moment back there, when It was telling us how alone it felt. I remembered something –“

 

A darkened closet…

A place to hide…

The door springs open.

“Found you, you little…”

 

“Pete?”

“ - Something I hadn’t thought about for years.” Burke finished shakily.

 

“I once had a horse.” Juba said, surprising them all.

 

“Well bully for you,” sneered Burke, irritated by the very presence of the gorilla yet glad to have someone to project his mood upon.

“It was a good horse and better than the one I have now. It carried me every where and did whatever I asked of it until one day it broke a leg.”

“Is there a point to all this?”

“I wouldn’t let them shoot it. I was young you see - and foolish. Instead I nursed it back to health. I set the leg, the bone mended but it was never the same horse. It still tried to do whatever I asked, even did so in a limited fashion - but it was useless, it was crippled… Just a shadow of what it once was.”

“Like ABLE,” whispered Galen.

Juba nodded and stood, the motion earning the threat of the pistol being trained upon him yet again. He ignored it, if the human was going to kill him it would have done so by now. “I don’t pretend to know what that abomination in the cave is… and I don’t want to know - but I do know a badly wounded animal when I see one.”

“Wow! here’s a surprise,” Burke said. “The gorilla suggests we destroy it.”

Juba looked at him and shrugged. “I care not what you do human. I’m only telling you what I would do.” He turned his attention to Virdon. “I could have taken the cowards way and abandoned my old horse to suffer for the rest of it’s days- but instead I chose to do the right thing. Mercy pulled the trigger, not brutality.”

“Then it’s a crying shame you could ever extend similar mercy to a human.”

Juba chuckled at Burke’s apparent idiocy.

“It’s true, I have no feelings for that thing in the cave. In my eyes it’s an obscenity… but it’s a suffering obscenity. I would extend the same courtesy to any wretched animal I thus encountered… even a human.” The gorilla looked at Burke meaningfully and grinned. “After I’d obtained information that is.”

The fugitives fell quiet and stared at their feet.

Eventually it was Virdon who broke the silence. “You know… for an asshole he sometimes talks sense.”

Juba shrugged.

 “Maybe you could fix it?” asked Galen, desperately.

Virdon shook his head. “Galen, even if we had the tools we wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“But ABLE doesn’t have to know that.” Burke ventured quietly.

“Unless I tell it.” Juba threatened.

“Now why would you want to go do a thing like that?” Burke asked pointing the pistol.

Juba features rearranged themselves into an expression of exaggerated boredom. “Put the gun away human, you’re not going to shoot me. Not in cold blood anyway, I know you better than you know yourself.”

Burke’s face grew hard. He stood and surged forward pressing the barrel of the gun against the gorilla’s temple. “You quite sure ‘bout that?” he growled. “You willing to bet your life?”

Juba chuckled, baring his great yellow fangs and turned to Galen. “Your pet is howling again.” He sniggered.

Burke flinched as though slapped and cocked the pistol.

“You can’t do it human… so just stop pretending you can and hear me out.”

Virdon knew that Burke wouldn’t back down on his own, there was even a good chance he might do something stupid rather than lose face - but Juba was right, he was no cold blooded killer. He reached over and slowly pushed the pistol to one side. As Commanding Officer he had intervened and in so doing defused the situation. Now all that remained was to watch the two of them glare at each other.

“What’s the deal?’ he sighed.

Juba continued to smirk and stare into Burke’s eyes, daring the human to give in to his emotions. “You release me, I walk away. Then you do whatever the hell you want - with no interference from me.”

“Walk away and fetch your weapons you mean.” Galen sneered.

Juba shrugged again.

“We’d need assurances.” Virdon stated.

“I offer none.” Juba replied.

“None that we can trust.” Burke added bitterly.

“I think maybe I have a better idea,” Virdon declared. “Gag the sonofabitch!”

 

 

*****

 

“You can repair me?” ABLE asked, the electronics that governed the sound of ‘his’ voice reproducing hope and surprise with uncanny precision.

“Well I can’t promise you’ll be as good as new.” Virdon replied, hating himself for the lies behind and between every single word, “ but we should certainly improve things considerably.”

“You have the required tools?”

“Right here,” replied Burke, taking advantage of ABLE’s blindness and determined that his friend would not bear the guilt of what they were about to do alone.

“And the knowledge?”

“ABLE… we were… are, astronauts. Highly trained, we do this type of thing in our sleep, we had to, in case of emergencies.”

“And you have the required tools?”

The three friends looked at each other sadly as ABLE displayed another flaw in whatever governed his short-term memory.

“Right here,” replied Burke again, as though nothing was wrong.

 

Silence.

 

“I would be forever indebted to you for any assistance you might provide.”

 

Virdon closed his eyes, took a deep breath and prayed silently. “We’d need to take you off-line while we did the work, I assume you have a battery or reserve power source for the cryogenics.

“Indeed… enough for twelve hours, would that be sufficient?”

“That would be perfect, plenty of time. Is there an external maintenance panel I can access?”

“Can I trust you Alan Bannan?”

Virdon frowned. Another glitch, his reply caught in his throat.

“Alan Virdon is the most trustworthy man I’ve ever known.” Galen replied softly. “Have no fear ABLE… soon… all will be well again.”

 

Juba struggled against his bonds and tried to say something but the gag in his mouth stifled his remark to nothing more than an unintelligible squawk.

The silence hung over them all.

Then…

“Proceed… Alan Virdon.”

There was a click and whir of electronics. Sparks flew as a panel in the tiled wall slid open to reveal complex circuits and controls. Many of the wires were corroded beyond repair, a perfect visual representation of ABLE’s failing mind. Some sparked and smoldered as internal switching routines ran their automated course. Virdon studied the buttons, levers and switches. The actions of many of them were unknown but for one the function was obvious, even to Galen.

 

“I have those answers for you. Would you like them now?”

 

The two men stared at one another. It seemed so wrong. It felt like something you just didn’t do. But what choice did they have?

“Yes please,” Burke said.

“Much is lost to me. I have no record of any overseas facilities but domestic caches can be found in the following cities…”

And ABLE began to catalogue locations.

“Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas…”

Virdon closed his eyes. Each name hitting hard, painful reminders of what was forever lost to him.

“… Los Angeles, Memphis, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia…”

On and on, one city after another. It didn’t feel to either man like a roll call of honor. More like a list of casualties from a long forgotten war with each iconic name a fallen soldier.

“San Francisco, Seattle, Washington…”

At last ABLE reached the end and the resulting silence was tangible and alive.

 

“I’m sure there were others but I cannot find them.”

“That’s fine Able. You’ve given us more hope than we could ever have imagined.”

“And of the twelve Icarus missions five appear to have been lost… There is no record of any finding their way home.”

Virdon’s face twitched. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

“But that doesn’t mean they did not… merely that I have no record of any such event.” ABLE added sympathetically.

Virdon nodded thoughtfully. “I understand Able, thank you for trying.” He took a deep breath, reached out and wrapped his fingers around a large red lever. “Are you ready now?” He asked.

“I am fearful.”

Virdon hesitated. “It’ll be just like going to sleep,” he said, feeling his resolve crumbling by the second.

“Alan Virdon?”

“Yes, ABLE?”

“If something should go wrong, should there be… complications… Who will be left to take care of the Makers?”

Virdon bowed his head. “ABLE… I give you my word… If anything happens, I’ll remain with them for as long as they need me.”

“Me too,” added Burke.

“And I,” Galen whispered.

 

Silence.

 

“Good-night then.’ ABLE replied.

 

“Sleep well.” Virdon whispered, and threw the switch.

 

Able’s presence was snuffed out instantly. One moment everything the machine was, surrounded them and the next it was gone. It’s not too late, Virdon thought, I can push the lever back again.

Instead he stood there feeling small and devastated, just wondering what to do.

Burke’s own hand covered his and gently but firmly pulled him away.

“It’s done,” he whispered sympathetically, “We did the right thing Alan.”

“Then why do I feel like shit?”

Burke shrugged, “I guess because you’re a man of good conscience – a man who thinks there’s always something he may have missed. But you’ve given ABLE peace instead of the inevitable pain, dignity instead of humiliation… For what it’s worth, I think the sleeping Gods would be proud of you too.”

 

*****

 

“And what do we do with him?” Galen asked, eager to break the mood and nodding toward the bound and gagged Juba.

Virdon returned slowly from that dark and lonely place in which he’d been floundering and shook himself free of his desolate mood. He studied the control panel once more and pressed a stud. The door to the cryogenic suspension chamber hissed open.

“Help me,” he said to Burke. They took an arm each and ignoring the muffled protests dragged the bound gorilla into the chamber. They dumped him unceremoniously onto the floor and Virdon dropped the stiletto blade where it could be easily retrieved.

He squatted down next to the gorilla and bunched his fingers in Juba’s hair. He pulled his great shaggy head forward forcing eye to eye contact.

“We’re going now and we’re gonna shut the door behind us. Don’t worry, in about twelve hours the power around here is gonna fail and then it’ll click wide-open all by itself. Until then… don’t even bother trying.”

The gorilla snorted heavily, hot breath whistling from flaring nostrils.

“We’ll be long gone by then and take my advice Juba… don’t even think about following.” Virdon reached down and pulled the gag free. Juba’s head darted forward and his teeth snapped around empty air. Virdon stepped back toward the door as Juba glowered at him from the floor, hissing, cursing and spitting. “Next time we meet… one of us is gonna die,” Virdon promised and stepped out of the room.

The door slid shut.

“Human, already I look forward to that day,”’ Juba snarled from the floor.

 

*****

 

They remained just long enough to ensure that the gorilla was indeed unable to break free of his temporary prison. In only a few short minutes the powerful ape had evidently cut himself free and was now furiously pounding upon the other side of the door.

“I’m sure it will hold,” Virdon said without conviction. “But maybe we ought to clear out sooner rather than later… just in case?”

“I read you loud and clear ol’ buddy.” Burke agreed. The three turned and made for the exit. At the mouth of the tunnel Virdon paused, turned and took a last, lingering look at a room that had always been vacant but now seemed even more so.

“Rest in peace ABLE… and safe journey… to whatever awaits.”

 

Silence…

This time unbroken.

Virdon turned to join the others.

 

*****

 

After having spent so long in the cool of the mountain, the bright, burning sunlight was something of a shock to the system. They quickly found Juba’s horse and spent a few minutes destroying his arsenal of weapons, breaking them against rocks, rendering all into harmless, twisted junk.

“We leaving the horse?” Burke asked, slicing into Juba’s bedroll with a knife and shaping himself a crude, poncho-like garment.

“Nah…It’s a long way back to Trando,” Virdon answered. “Two of us can ride at any one time.”

“Trando… You think that’s a good idea?”

“Well, at least one of us has unfinished business there.” The blond astronaut answered nodding toward where Galen waited, sitting upon a rock. “And who knows… maybe you’ll even find time to say goodbye to Marta before we move on.”

“And buy a new shirt?”

“I think she prefers you without.”

“And who can blame her?”

For the first time in too long the two friends laughed.

 

Hearing this, Galen looked up and smiled. It was nice, it was reassuring… a sign that things were well again - he knew it couldn’t last.

He thought of Sabina.

Of how he’d vowed to himself only this morning to return to Trando and tell her about everything. Hoping their relationship might begin anew, this time based on honesty rather than invention. But this latest episode had hammered home something he’d been trying to ignore.

That the truth was sometimes more harmful than a lie.

 

“You ready?” Virdon asked, leading the horse by its reigns.

Galen nodded and sprang to his feet. Without discussion each turned and looked at the mountain one last time and then at each other.

“Let’s go.”

 

*****

 

Juba just sat and waited. The cryogenic chamber was a mess. A disaster zone. To vent his fury and pass the time he had smashed everything he could. The withered husks of dozens of long-dead humans lay all around, some stomped into unrecognizable jelly.

He now sat, arms curled around his knees and rocking slowly back and forth, quietly chanting. “Headsonsticks, headsonsticks, headsonsticks.”

There was an almost inaudible click, but Juba heard it clearly and surged to his feet. His fingers pulled at the door and no longer held by whatever energies had once sealed it shut it slid open with surprising ease sending him tumbling into the chamber.

“Machine!” he barked.

Of course there was no answer, he was obviously quite alone. He grunted and marched toward the tunnel then out into the dark of the night. He found his way back to where he’d last seen his horse and so discovered the jumble of destroyed weapons. Of the animal there was no sign.

Juba sat down and cradled his head in his hands.

They’d beaten him. Somehow the stupid beasts had won.

But it wasn’t over yet.

He walked back, away to a place where he’d hidden a spare rifle and handgun. At the time, the likelihood of ever needing them has seemed so remote he almost hadn’t bothered. But he had learned long ago, that you always had a backup plan, just in case events outside of your control should conspire against you.

His anger gave way to tired resignation as he reviewed just when and where things had begun to go so terribly wrong. They were clever, of that he no longer had any doubt. And apparently the rumors were true…they were not even of this world.

He looked up at the twinkling stars spread across the night sky, evidently it was possible to fall up into them…Urko and Zaius were right to be afraid and that made him feel a little better. They had bested him twice now, but how many times had they bested Urko? These were not typical humans, oh no… they were something very different.

Resignation then gave way to weary humor and Juba actually began to smile at the idiocy of his situation. It was a farce, an almost tragic comedy. It was like the comical stories they sometimes told back at the barracks… It was… a joke!

 

“And the Doctor says to the absent minded Nurse… I told you to SLIP off his SPECTACLES and PRICK his BOIL!”

 

Juba frowned and thought about that, what had the stupid animal meant by it? He worked it over in his mind, began to understand and finally he got it. Almost reluctantly he began to chuckle.

In some small way, part of him was glad he hadn’t killed them. A world without Virdon, Burke and Galen would be far less interesting.

 

*****

 

EPILOGUE

 

“Alan?”

“Yes Galen.”

“Supposing, that by some miracle we encountered a village and somehow - by magic if you will – Your wife and son were there, waiting for you.”

Virdon smiled, it was a nice thought and in all honesty probably more likely than him ever finding his way back to them - but that wasn’t Galen’s point.

“What would you do?”

Do?”

“I mean, would you settle down with them … Or would you perhaps take them with you?”

Virdon thought for a moment. The mountains, Juba and ABLE were four days behind, Trando was sometimes fleetingly visible on the horizon and both he and Galen were on horseback while Burke plodded on foot, not far behind.

“It take it this is about Sabina,” he answered at last.

Galen shrugged.

“Galen, The only reason Pete and I are alive today is because of you. The only reason we’ve remained alive is because of each other.” Galen was watching him, listening carefully, and hanging on every word. “But if I found something… that was so precious to me I couldn’t leave it behind… Then I wouldn’t.”

“You wouldn’t?” The Chimp sounded surprised. Relieved almost.

“We’re a team Galen, we work well together but it doesn’t follow that if any one of us ever has a shot at true happiness that we shouldn’t seize it with both hands.”

Galen frowned and chewed his lip while Virdon continued.

“If you were asking my advice regarding a life or death situation, I’d say follow your head. If this has anything to do with Sabina… Then I’d say with equal conviction, follow your heart.”

“Even if that means that things can never be the same?”

“Nothing ever stays the same Galen, nothing. All we can try to do is savor each and every moment while it lasts.”

 

Virdon halted the horse and slid down to the ground. It had already been decided that only Galen should ride so close to the village. It had proven friendly and tolerant before but even Trando might have reservations about humans on horseback. Erring on the side of caution Virdon and Burke continued the rest of the way on foot leaving Galen alone, on horseback to ponder his friends advice.

 

Their welcome wasn’t as warm as before, they entered the village un-challenged, but this time not a sole ran to greet them.

“I think maybe we drew a little negative publicity while we were gone.” Burke muttered, low enough that only his companions could hear.

“Alright then, let’s make this quick.” Virdon suggested. “Galen… have you made a decision?”

The two humans waited for the chimp to say something but he only shrugged in a non-committal manner that told them nothing at all.

Virdon nodded sadly. “Alright then, we’ll wait for you here. In an hour we’ll be moving on. If you decide… That is, if you….” He found he couldn’t actually say it. “Well… I just hope you’ll come say goodbye.”

Galen looked up. “Such decisions will not be mine to make alone.” He said softly.

“Pete and I can’t help you with this, Galen. This is something you have to work out for yourself. What you do now is going to affect the rest of your… of our lives. It’s been an honor to have you along Galen… but now - You go do what you have do.”

“Good luck buddy,” added Burke. “And don’t get me wrong but if I were you, you wouldn’t even see me for dust.”

Galen didn’t know what to say… and so he turned his back instead and went to find Sabina.

 

*****

 

Remarr heard the soft rapping on the door and went to open up. He took a long look at the tormented looking chimpanzee and said nothing, simply stood aside and gestured for him to enter.

“I’ll call her down,’ he said kindly.

“I’m already here.’ Sabina said from behind him.

Remarr stood awkwardly, looking from one to the other. He cleared his throat. “I think I’ll leave the two of you alone, you have much to discuss.” He turned to leave but paused. “Remember… that sometimes, for some of us… there isn’t always a tomorrow.”

 

“What did he mean by that?’ Galen asked after he had left.

“The day before my mother died they argued… He never got the chance to apologize. He’d arranged a surprise for her as a way of saying he was sorry but she never got to see it.”

Galen nodded quietly. His curiosity demanded he ask further questions but that wasn’t why he was here. Maybe he’d get the chance to ask some other day, he’d know for sure in a little while.

“Sabina…”

“Yes… Galen.”

Galen sighed and bowed his head. “I never meant to lie.”

“You invented a false identity accidentally?”

“No. No, of course not… what I mean is…”

“The gorilla that pursued you, he told me many things and I’ve had little else to do but think about them every day since. I’ve turned them over in my mind. I’ve examined them from all possible angles. One day I believe them completely and the next I deny them utterly. First one, then the other  - and I am still no closer to knowing what to believe…”

“What things… what did he say.” Galen asked.

“Many things, terrible things… unspeakable things. I would choose not to believe any of them Galen… but I have to hear it from you… So tell me, tell me everything he said was a lie!”

 

Galen looked into Sabina’s beautiful brown eyes and saw his possible future reflected there. The potential for love still burned but not as brightly as before. Now it struggled, like a match flame caught in the wind. He could see that the happiness that might have been theirs to share was now surrounded by shadow. He knew how to live knowing that there might not be a tomorrow, as did her father – but did she?

Should She?

Didn’t she deserve better?

Galen swallowed and bowed his head.

All he had to do was tell her was what she so obviously wanted to hear. He knew he’d be forgiven and that they could start again. It was what he wanted. What they wanted… and it was the truth.

But the truth was sometimes more harmful than a lie.

 

“Not everything the gorilla told you was false,” he whispered feeling the words damn him forever.

 

Sabina’s eyes grew hard, yet within that hardness a tear still managed to form and spill down her face. Galen looked away, feeling as though his heart was being torn from his chest. It wasn’t too late, he could fix this! He reached out.

“You’d better go.” She said softly.

His hand froze and then he withdrew it slowly.

He stared at her for long moments eventually realizing there was nothing more to say.

Then turned to leave.

 

Remarr was waiting by the door. Galen looked up and nodded sadly. For now words seemed beyond his ability to form.

“One day… I will tell her the truth.” Remarr said softly. “When such a thing can no longer harm her.”

Galen nodded, patted the older ape on the shoulder with great affection and stepped outside. The door closing behind him made a sound like a nail in a coffin.

 

 

*****

 

Burke scratched at his unruly hair and took the shirt Marta offered him. “So you see, we’re gonna be moving on and I was kinda wondering if maybe, y’know we still had time to… y’know…?”

“Oh, I’m sure I can spare a minute or two.” Marta teased.

Burke chuckled and threw the shirt to the straw packed floor. Marta found a spot and lay back while he quickly checked outside the hut, this time there would be no interruptions. He was about to close it when he spied Galen walking down the road toward where Virdon waited with Juba’s horse. The chimps shoulders were slumped, misery oozed from every pore.

Apparently things had not gone well.

Burke wondered if the chimp would vindictively seize the opportunity to share that misery. He quickly closed the door and leaned against it, anticipating the moment when Galen would try to force his way in and not so innocently ‘spoil the moment’ yet again.

But it didn’t happen.

Burke turned, opened the door just a little and peeked through. The chimp had passed right by.

He turned to Marta still lying back upon the straw invitingly. She looked beautiful. He smiled.

But Galen had looked so miserable.

With a grunt of annoyance he forced the image from his mind and stepped forward. The girl giggled playfully and held out her arms to welcome him.

But Galen had looked so miserable.

“Ahh shit.” Burke swore.

“Is something wrong?” Marta asked, sitting up, alarmed and confused.

Burke blew out a long breath of air and reached for his new shirt. “Marta, I’m sorry, you’re a great girl an’ all… but it’s not you okay, it’s me, it’s always me, I need to get my God-damned head looked at.”

“We’re not making love then?”

“I’m sorry… I can’t… I have this friend y’see and I think he kinda needs me right now. He’d never admit to it of course and come to think about it neither would I - but that doesn’t make it any less true… Look I’m sorry, I really have to go.” He pulled on his shirt, blew her a kiss and left.

Marta lay back on the straw and puzzled over what had just happened.

 

 

Hearing the approaching footsteps Virdon glanced over his shoulder and didn’t need to even ask. Body language said it all. In truth a part of him was relieved, in spite of all he’d said he didn’t want to lose Galen.

Further back along the path Pete was jogging towards them.

It was time to go.

Virdon would spare the chimp any discomfort, he’d ask no questions, merely continue as if things were as normal as they could ever be. He wondered if Pete would do the same.

He should have known better.

 

Burke slapped the miserable Chimp on the shoulder. “Came to her senses, huh?”

Galen wasn’t offended, this was probably the closest the human could come to expressing anything resembling affection or concern. He smiled faintly. “She told me She could accept anything… Except the stink of the humans I travel with.”

Burke grinned and tipped Virdon a wink. Galen was going to be okay. “My turn to ride the horse,” he announced and clambered up into the saddle.

“I thought only I was to ride so close to the village?”

“That’s travelling too… we’re now travelling from, so just relax and observe an expert, a superior species no less, at work.”

Galen snorted in amusement. “Superior species my…” A quick darting glance at Virdon, “- Ass! Tell me how you managed to arrive at such an obviously mistaken conclusion.”

  “C’mon Galen… Humans have all the advantages in life. Why your kind can’t even sing.” Then, to prove his perceived superiority Burke began to do so at the top of his voice. “Oh! I know a song that’ll get on your nerves, get on your nerves, get on your nerves… I know a song that’ll get on your nerves and it goes like this!”

Galen shuddered and covered his ears. “No we can’t sing!” he shouted, causing Burke to pause for a moment in his performance. “But we can whistle.”

And Galen did so, Two short notes, sharp and low.

 

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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