I’ve never made acknowledgements before but for ‘The Unquiet’ it seems criminal not to. First, I must thank the following three people, Kass, Greg and John all of whom offered the kind of selfless help that money can’t buy.
Second, the character, Burke experiences two flashbacks within this story. The first is taken from an unfilmed sequence from the script ‘The Interrogation’ by Richard Collins. Out of respect of the author I resisted the temptation to alter it beyond what I had to. The second is taken from the exemplary Fan Fiction “Echoes from the past’ by Kassidy Rae. If you want to experience how fan fic should be written, I urge you to go read it now.
Had that been a cry of anguish?
Lucian strained and focused all of his attention, but all he heard was the sound of his own blood rushing in his ears. There was nothing else, nothing at all, and so he continued to toll the bell. It wasn’t the most pleasant of duties, but as the elder it was the least he could do. It was a sign of respect, a sign of how much he loved his brother.
And his poor, poor wife.
He’d never married himself, he just wasn’t the marrying kind. He remembered that far off day when he’d first been introduced to the young bride-to-be. Lucian hadn’t offered her the warmest of welcomes. He thought his younger brother was being foolish and reckless, but the marriage had gone ahead anyway. In time he’d grown to love her too. She was both the sister he’d never had and a friend he’d never expected.
That was a cry… That was definitely a cry!
Again he ceased the tolling and listened intently. Had the moment they had all been dreading finally arrived?
Words of hushed comfort.
Lucian swallowed, feeling something spreading dark, amorphous wings inside of him. That was death! He thought with a shudder. Death just passed me by. It went right through me but was too busy to stop. It was on its path to somewhere else…
A rushing sensation closed in around him. The world began to retreat. Sounds became distorted, sights blurred and then grew faint.
And then it all came slamming back, like a horse driven carriage.
Lucian staggered and leaned against the wall for support. He was dimly aware of a door opening. His sister in law’s, younger brother, Dominic stepped out into the pebbled courtyard. His shaggy head was bowed as though he was somehow personally responsible for the ill tidings he had to bear. Lucian waited. A part of him knew he should spare Dominic this awful burden, but a greater part was stunned into helpless, frozen immobility.
Dominic looked up at last, his message written plainly across his face. “Lucian...”
No answering words would come. He was a sixty, year-old chimpanzee but suddenly he felt a fraction of his true age. The sound of his name spoken in so melancholy a fashion had reduced him to a frightened child. Tears welled in his eyes. He felt cold and began to tremble.
His brother was dead.
“Galen? Are you okay?”
The Chimpanzee continued to stare ahead into the hazy distance, seemingly focused on something that no one else could see.
Alan Virdon looked at Peter Burke, a worried frown creasing his rugged features. Burke, younger of the two and equally baffled, waved his hand in front of the chimp’s eyes.
“Earth to Galen… Earth to Galen… Are you receiving me? Over.”
The ape blinked several times and visibly shook himself free of whatever spell had held him. “I’m sorry… did you grunt something?’
Virdon and Burke looked at each other, concerned, puzzled and relieved all at the same time.
“Well, I don’t know where you went to buddy, but tell me - did they serve cold beer?”
Virdon smiled. “You kind of phased out there for a moment, Galen… Are you sure you’re okay?”
Galen shook his head, as puzzled by the term ‘phased out’ as he was by whatever had just happened. He became aware his two human friends were staring, no doubt waiting for some kind of reassuring response. “Yes… I’m sorry, I don’t quite know what happened. I just suddenly had this awful feeling…”
“Oh no, they blew up Alderaan!” Burke gasped theatrically.
“What! Who did? Where!” The chimp twisted his shaggy head left and right in alarm.
“Relax Galen, just a little twentieth century humor courtesy of the young Major.” Virdon assured him.
“Oh, well yes, I’m fine. It was probably just the heat. Come on, let’s keep moving, no dawdling now. I really am so looking forward to seeing Felix again.” Galen took off quickly leaving his two friends lagging behind.
“Hey wait up! Where’s the fire… save us a seat when you get there.” Burke called out, hurrying after him.
“One, I don’t want to wait for any slow-coaches,” Galen called back over his shoulder. “Two, there is no fire that I am aware of - and three…” Galen stopped and turned to face Burke. “Three, if there are any seats available it’ll be through the kindness and courtesy of my old school friend, Prefect Felix.”
“An orangutan?” Virdon said meaningfully.
“Is that a problem?”
“I hope not… I just can’t help but wonder where his loyalties lie.”
“Felix and I go way back. Much too far for loyalties to even be an issue. Don’t worry, he might not be able to offer much in the way of practical help, but he won’t turn us in. You have my word.”
“So what’s the deal? Din’tcha get along with all the other little chimplings?
Galen groaned inside. Here it comes, he thought. Burke was looking for a chink in his armor and gearing up for another quarrel. “There’s no such word as ‘Chimplings’ nor for that matter ‘Chimpettes’ or ‘Chimp-a-reenos,’ Galen complained, “and for your information, I get on perfectly well with almost everybody, thank you… The exact opposite of you, I’d imagine.”
“Yeah but an Orangutan? Talk about class separation.”
“Apes do not separate each other by class. I believe all thinking beings are created equal Pete, except you of course – When they made you they broke the mold… and I suspect, your skull. Why, whether or not you even possess a brain is still a matter of furious, late-night debate between Alan and myself. He insists there is something between your ears – I’ve suggested, maybe it’s a turnip?”
Burke smiled and shrugged off Virdon’s soft laughter, totally un-offended by the unusually elaborate series of insults. “Well I just hope this is worth the trip, that’s all I’m saying. Six days on the road is one hell of an investment.”
“And three still to go,” Virdon added. “Which will ultimately bring us to within less than nine miles from Central City.”
Galen pulled a face. It was a risk being so close to the City, but he doubted that anyone would expect them to be hiding so close to those that pursued them. Besides, they had never visited Felix’s village before. Why should anyone expect them to do so now? As long as they were careful he doubted there would be a problem. “Hot food, warm beds and fresh clothing… Surely that’s worth a little stroll in the woods,” he suggested light-heartedly.
Galen, these woods are the size of
“Then allow me to offer a fascinating notion that you might like to contemplate,” the chimp offered.
“Yeah, I’m listening.”
“Why don’t you take some of that abundant energy that flows towards your mouth and channel it down towards your feet.”
Burke stopped abruptly looking shocked and Virdon clapped him on the shoulder as he passed by. “Gotta admit it Pete… Sir Chimp-A-Lot gives sound advice.”
Three days further down the road found the fugitives hunched and concealed behind a thicket of dense undergrowth.
“So that’s Aymar huh?” Burke said, unimpressed.
“That it is,” confirmed Galen. “I see no sign of heightened security. Shall I proceed?”
Virdon nodded. Security did seem non-existent. A year ago and any village this close to the City would have been swarming with extra police. Perhaps it was a sign that the measures to ensure their capture had been relaxed. “Okay, go ahead. Just watch your back.”
“And how do you propose I do that without bumping into something.”
“Enough already wise guy, you know what I’m saying.”
“I know what you’re saying.” Galen assured the big, blond man. “Wait here, I won’t be long.” He moved off quickly and silently.
Away from the humans, Galen could move faster and with more confidence. He reached the perimeter of the village and quickly satisfied himself that no police patrolled its borders. He ventured in and gestured to the first person he happened across, a human female. He beckoned her over and she obediently came to him.
“Sir?” She asked in that wary, anxious manner adopted by all humans when addressing their masters.
“I seek the dwelling of Prefect Felix. Are you able to direct me?”
The woman nodded, grateful that she hadn’t found herself in any kind of trouble. “The Prefect’s house? Yes Sir. Continue along this path until you reach the market. There you will see a large, white, house, the Prefect’s banner hangs from every window.”
Galen nodded. “Thank you, now run along and be about your business.”
The woman gave him an odd look, nodded and scampered away. Galen frowned and realized that he shouldn’t have thanked her. Apes never thanked humans. From here on he would need to be more careful.
He followed the path finding it difficult not to break into a run. He was about to see his old friend Felix! How many years had it been? Eight… Nine… No not nine, surely not nine!
He found the marketplace, still bustling with activity even this late in the day. Vendors sold their wares, humans scurried to and fro on errands for their ape masters. Voices were raised as each seller competed with the next to attract attention. This was more like it, thought Galen. This place was alive! It was a fact of life that villages grew larger and more prosperous the closer they were to Central City. For so long the three fugitives had drifted ever further away, wandering from one miserable example to the next.
A vendor offered him a free sample of a lango and Galen took the fruit gratefully. He peeled back the tough, spiky, skin and bit into the juicy pulp, finding it sweet and delicious. When was the last time he had even seen a lango? Had there been one in Zaius’s office on that fateful day he had first heard the term ‘astronauts’?
A fluttering banner caught his eye and he paused at the doorway to the Prefect’s house. He finished the lango fruit in three hurried bites and wiped his sticky fingers on his trousers. No doubt he smelled as bad as he looked, but Felix wouldn’t mind.
He knocked on the door and it was opened by a female Orangutan. This was a sure sign that Felix was here. Where most would settle for a human servant, Felix enjoyed his harem of ‘secretaries.’ It had been rumored that on occasion some of them actually did something useful.
“Yes” The young Orangutan, asked.
“May I see the Prefect please.” Galen answered.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes indeed, please tell him that Smokey is here on a serious matter concerning the willful destruction of school property.”
The Orangutan looked confused but held back the door and allowed him to enter. She couldn’t hide the involuntary flaring of her nostrils as she caught a whiff of his unwashed clothes. “Please wait here,” She said snootily. “I shall inform the Prefect.”
She trotted off and Galen waited.
But not for long.
The door to the Prefect’s office flew open and a young Orangutan bounded out. “By the Gods! Galen! Galen, is it really you!” He cried, doing an odd little jig of excitement.
Galen jumped to his feet and held out his arms. “Felix Firebug!’ he exclaimed laughing.
They embraced enthusiastically and danced around merrily, leaving the secretary somewhat confused and not a little frightened.
“Smokey!” laughed Felix. “Tell me, do you still go around stealing fruit that doesn’t belong to you?”
“And do you still willfully burn down school property?” Galen asked.
“That was as much your fault as it was mine.” Felix answered indignantly. “Besides, they never managed to prove a thing.”
“Ahh Felix, it does my heart good to see you.”
“And you too, old friend, but may I ask a question?”
“Tell me… what is that awful smell?”
“Ah… that would be me… Life can be very… aromatic, whilst on the run.”
The laughter suddenly dried as the fond memories of the past were dissolved by a less pleasant awareness of the now.
Felix nodded to himself and looked away. “You have brought them with you?” He asked in a tone that Galen had never heard him use before.
“They’re just outside of town. They felt they required some added assurance that you would not betray us.”
Felix whirled around and peered into Galen’s eyes intently. “And you Galen… Do you require such assurance?”
Galen smiled and spread his hands, palms up. “I’m here… am I not?”
Felix nodded again and then slowly the huge, jaw-breaking smile crept back upon his face. “Bring them… Tell them they have nothing to fear… Not from me at least.”
“Thank you, Felix.”
The smile faltered on the Orangutans face as he remembered something else. “Galen, it is truly marvelous to see you again, old friend. Please believe me when I say how I wish it could have been under happier circumstances.”
Galen continued to smile. “Oh, it’s not so bad, being branded an outlaw is not such an unhappy existence as one might expect.”
Felix screwed up his face and made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “No, no, not that… I mean that I’m sorry Galen… Truly sorry, please accept my condolences.”
Galen’s smile froze upon his face, so tightly it actually hurt. “What?”
Felix looked into Galen’s eyes, saw the confusion there and realized his mistake. The color quickly drained from his face. “By the Lawgiver… You don’t know?!”
The lango fruit seemed to curdle in Galen’s stomach and he felt suddenly nauseous. Something bad was coming. He remembered back three days before and that feeling of awful premonition he’d experienced in the woods.
“Know what?” he whispered, his voice barely audible. He didn’t know, he didn’t want to know. Please Felix, his mind begged, please don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything bad.
Felix staggered over to his chair and collapsed into it. He covered his eyes with his hands and shook his head utterly distraught. “Oh Galen, my old friend. I’m so very sorry.” He looked up. “It’s Councilor Yalu… Your father.”
Jada shrieked as a bird exploded from the undergrowth in a bright, thunderous explosion of feathers and leaves.
No job was worth this!
She couldn’t believe what she was doing, nor why. “Astra-nuts,” she hissed, trying to remain quiet yet shout the unfamiliar word at the same time. “Astra-nuts.”
This was so stupid. So what if Prefect Felix was rich and influential. So what if her job was easy and lucrative. It wasn’t worth this.
“Astra-nuts,” she growled, growing impatient. She looked up at the sky. It was growing dark and she was growing scared. She was a city girl, the dark of the woods held little attraction for her. Only fear.
“Astra - !” her heart caught in her throat as she sensed there was something behind her. She whirled around and a hand clamped over her mouth stifling her scream before it could even begin. Something had hold of her, something huge, terrible and fierce!
“Easy now! Relax!” A voice whispered in her ear. By the stink of its breath she could tell it was human. The realization did little to calm her down. “I’m gonna take my hand away and you’re not going to scream… Okay?”
She struggled in its grip of steel but couldn’t break free. That shouldn’t be, she thought. It was only a human. But it wasn’t the strength of its arms, she realized, it was the way it held her.
“Okay?” It asked again. She forced herself to hold still and nodded. The hand was slowly withdrawn and she fought the urge to scream. She turned around and one of them stood before her.
“Please don’t kill me.” She whimpered. “I promise I’ll never be unkind to humans again.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” the apparition promised. “I just want to know why you’re creeping around in the woods and calling out for as-tro-nauts.”
“I’m Jada,” she managed. “I’m employed by Prefect Felix, he sent me to find some humans hiding out here in the woods… I have a message to deliver. Are you one of them?”
“ That depends,” said another voice, this time from behind her. She yelped and spun around and there was another one. This was it then. She was about to die.
“Easy Pete, she’s just a kid.”
The other nodded and bared its teeth. The sight was truly terrifying.
“We’re not going to hurt you Jada - and yes, we’re probably the ones you’re looking for.” Burke continued to display his most winning smile, blissfully unaware of the terror it instilled into the young, gorilla female. He spread his hands to show they were empty of weapons. “So what’s the message.”
“Your friend needs you urgently. Prefect Felix says you should come to him without delay.” She blurted, averting her gaze from those terrible teeth.
The two animals exchanged suspicious glances. “Why couldn’t our friend come tell us this himself?” The bigger one asked.
“I am not sure, he was unharmed but seemed very upset… and he was crying.”
“He was what?”
She twisted and faced the smaller one again. Had she made it angry? “He was crying… he was very upset… please don’t hurt me.”
The big one rested a hand on her shoulder and she almost died of fright, right there on the spot. “Jada, believe me, we would never hurt you… we’re not like that, not like that at all. Now please, just tell us all you know.”
“I already have… You should come, I can show you the way.”
Again the two men regarded each other. “Whaddaya think?” asked the smaller one.
“It doesn’t sound like a trap,” said the other. “Perhaps if just one of us goes.”
“But Galen crying? What the hell is that all about?”
“I don’t know Pete, I just don’t know.”
Jada’s head turned from one to the other as she followed the conversation. Nothing they said sounded threatening and she began to slowly relax. In daylight, in the village, the humans seemed so docile. Here in the woods, in the dark they frightened the life out of her.
“Alan… this doesn’t smell like trouble. Not Urko scented, that is.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. All right then, I’ll go on ahead, you hang behind. Look for my signal, if you don’t see it, just get the hell out of here.”
The big one turned his attention to her. “Jada… would you please show me the way?”
The young gorilla girl practically sagged with relief. Maybe she would get out of this alive after all. “Follow me.” She said quickly before they could change their mind.
Burke trailed behind, keeping out of sight while Virdon followed the lead of the young gorilla girl, and so eventually they came to the home of Prefect Felix. His mind was a mixture of conflicting emotions. Instinct told him that this was not a trap, but training prepared him for one regardless. The most disturbing aspect about it all was that Galen had been reported to have been seen crying. In the past he’d seen the chimpanzee angry and moved but he’d never seen him cry. If the girl was telling the truth he couldn’t even begin to imagine what circumstances might have caused such a thing.
The girl rapped upon a heavy wooden door and Virdon stepped to one side so that he wouldn’t be immediately visible to whoever opened it. To see him they would need to step outside and that might give him all the advantage he would need. The door opened.
“Did you find them?” Someone asked from inside.
Virdon saw the girl’s eyes glance in his direction and then a young orangutan stepped out of the doorway to stand before him. The orange-haired ape barely came up to his chest. He watched his eyes take in his facial appearance, then move up and linger for a moment on his hair. “You must be Virdon,’ he stated.
“Where’s Galen?” Virdon demanded. “What’s going on around here.”
“Please, come in, he’s right inside. Have no fear, human. I will do whatever I must for Galen in this, his hour of need.”
Virdon frowned. He hated the pseudo old English the orangutans were prone to use. It made him feel as though he were in the company of a troupe of bad actors. He pushed his way inside the house and the first thing he saw was Galen’s back as the young chimp sat facing away, staring into a healthy log fire.
“Galen?” he asked.
The chimp turned around and Virdon felt himself react to the sight of his friend. Galen’s eyes were red and puffy, an expression of abject misery on his face. “Galen! What is it? What’s going on here?”
The chimp sniffed and turned back toward the fire.
“It’s my father… Alan…He’s… dead.”
Virdon was stunned. His usual alert awareness of any given situation deserted him utterly. He looked to the Orangutan and received a sad, brief nod of confirmation.
“What! When? How?”
The Orangutan raised his hands and somewhat reluctantly patted Virdon on the shoulder. “Perhaps you should sit… and maybe tell your other friend it is safe to approach.”
Feeling shaken, disorientated and inexplicably guilty Virdon nodded and leaned his head outside of the door. He whistled once and stepped back inside. Within just a few seconds Burke joined him in the room.
“So what’s going on?” Burke demanded instantly. “Christ!” he exclaimed as he saw Galen for the first time. Virdon laid a restraining hand on Burke’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, something in low tones that no one else could hear. Burke’s face registered the impact of the news much as Virdon’s had done and he stared at Galen, his face a mixture of sympathy, shock and helplessness. He nodded to Virdon, then quickly moved over to stand by the young chimpanzee.
Virdon turned to Felix. “Please, just tell me all you know.”
Felix shrugged and went to fetch a roll of parchment. He unrolled it and held it out for Virdon to see. “You can read?” he asked as an afterthought. Virdon didn’t bother to answer and took the scroll reading the dispatch with its news of Councilor Yalu’s passing away.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“You okay?” Burke asked and screwed up his face, feeling disbelief that he could even ask such a spectacularly stupid question. “What I meant is… aww gee, I’m sorry Galen.”
A horrible silence hung between them.
“When did this happen?” Burke asked, feeling the need to say something.
“Three days ago.” Galen answered in a voice barely above a whisper. “It happened while I was hiking through the countryside, laughing and joking with my friends.”
Burke said nothing, it wasn’t a personal attack, and he knew that.
“These past few months while I’ve wandered idly from one miserable hovel to the next, my Father lay ill in bed, slowly dying.”
Burke chewed his lip and for one of the very few times in his life thought carefully about what he might say before he said it. “It’s nobody’s fault, Galen,” and then he had a horrible thought.
Or was it?
He jerked his gaze toward Virdon and received a shake of the blond man’s head. He’d been thinking it too. “It’s nobody’s fault,” he repeated with a little more conviction.
“But I should have been there, Pete. Not traipsing through the countryside.”
“You couldn’t have been there and you couldn’t have known and you weren’t traipsing, you were running for your life.”
“I have to see my mother.”
“NO,” said Virdon, firmly.
Felix blinked, looked startled and took an involuntary step backward. Had this impudent human really just said no to a chimpanzee!
Galen turned toward Virdon. “I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling you what I have to do.”
Virdon shook his head. “It’s out of the question. Galen, the moment your father passed away, security would have been at the very least tripled around your home. Urko and Zaius know that the moment you hear of this, your first instinct will be to go and comfort your Mother. They’re waiting for you, Galen, I guarantee it. I’m sorry, I can’t allow it.”
Felix’s jaw dropped. He was so astonished he almost laughed. “Disregarding the fact that this human is quite correct, I nevertheless find myself astounded that you allow him to speak to you in such a manner,” he gasped.
Virdon shot him an irritated look. “Save your lessons in etiquette ‘till later,’ he mumbled.
Galen ignored the exchange. “Alan… I have to go. I don’t care about Urko or Zaius. I care about my mother. I have to be there.”
“Galen, maybe you didn’t hear me. If you go, you’re dead. You’ll just be walking into a trap.”
“Oh come on Alan, knock it off, will ya, ” complained Burke.
Virdon blinked in surprise. “What did you say?”
Burke stood and approached him. “I said put a sock in it. It’s his parents for God’s sake. You don’t really expect him to just sit here and do nothing, do you?”
“Excuse me, maybe I missed something. Did someone just put you in charge?” Virdon asked.
“I ain’t in charge, which is probably why I’m seeing this situation a lot clearer than you. His father is dead. His father, Alan. So unless you come up with something real quick he’s gonna walk right in there… and I’m probably gonna hafta go with him.”
Virdon threw up his hands, turned and stalked away.
Felix looked from one fugitive to the other. “This, I take it, is the key then to your continued success?” he observed sarcastically. “You bicker and argue amongst yourselves? My, how enlightened you all are. I see now the error of my ways. I am truly humbled.”
Virdon sighed and massaged his temples. “Look Galen,” he said more softly. “You know it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it’s my responsibility to keep all of us safe from harm.”
“Then I relieve you of any such responsibilities toward myself,” Galen said wearily.
“You can’t do that any more than you can relieve me of our friendship,” Virdon assured him. “Look, we’ll sleep on it tonight okay. Promise me you’ll let me think about it, see if I can work something out.”
Galen nodded. “I appreciate your friendship, Alan, but I must tell you this. Come first light I am leaving for Central City. If you can help I will be forever in your debt. If you can’t… I’m going anyway.”
“No pressure then?” said Burke.
Nobody even so much as smiled.
Galen excused himself and retired to a room Felix had set aside for him. The others watched him leave in silence as if waiting for him to depart before daring to speak.
“Poor Galen,” murmured Felix, shaking his head sadly. As a childhood friend to the chimp he had spent many a playful hour in the home of Councilor Yalu and his wife Ann. Galen’s loss was his own, despite the difference in species, Yalu had been as an uncle to him.
Virdon silently re-appraised the Orangutan. His hair was a bright, reddish-orange. No signs yet of the threads of white that he was more used to seeing. Felix too was slimmer than most and stood straighter. The only thing he had in common with Zaius was the keen intelligence that shone brightly in his eyes. “Look, er… Prefect Felix. I know we haven’t really shown it up till now but Pete and I are grateful for all you’ve done. This has all been something of a shock for all us.”
The Orangutan eyes narrowed as he mulled over the strange human’s words. “You truly care for Galen’s well-being?” he asked.
Virdon looked surprised. “Of course! “
“Why wouldn’t we?” asked Burke.
Felix nodded. “A strange situation to be sure. I vividly recall a conversation where I once remarked, in all sincerity, that any friend of Galen’s would be a friend of mine. I must confess that at that time I did not expect to extend such courtesies to a human. But… extend them I must, or I would be less of a friend to him than you.”
Virdon nodded. “We appreciate that, Prefect, we really do.”
will not attempt to hide the fact that you will take some getting used to,”
the Orangutan stated. “On my part that is; if the stories are to be believed
peculiar humans are not such a novelty to the
Virdon and Burke glanced at each other. “What do you mean by that?’ Burke asked.
“Others like you have been here before… if you believe the drunken ramblings of Doctor Janus our distinguished veterinarian.”
“Like us? What do you mean…? ‘Like us’?”
Felix shook his head. “I’m really not the one to ask, nor is this the proper time. Let us instead turn our minds to poor Galen and discuss what is to be done for him.”
Burke scratched his hair. “Is there any way you think you can be of help?”
Felix shook his head. “The Lawgiver himself might offer to lend his aid - but step one foot inside that City and it would be beyond even his powers to prevent you from being caught.” The Orangutan ambled over to his wall-mounted map that showed the known world according to a local artist. He tapped the icon of the Ape capital. “As you rightly suggest, even if you were to infiltrate the City borders, guards are sure to be watching the home of Councilor Yalu night and day. No stranger can approach unchallenged. It is folly to even try.”
Virdon pulled a face. “Maybe you can explain that to Galen.”
“I fear he is not of a mind to be deterred from his chosen path. It is up to us then to find him another way.”
“Who has the power to relieve the guards of duty.”
“What about Zaius?”
“Zaius is the public face and voice of the council. If he were to issue the order, backed by the council, Urko would have no choice but to obey… but why would he?”
“Felix, exactly how close were Galen and Zaius? Didn’t they used to be friends?”
“Before you came along you mean?” Felix answered.
Virdon pulled a face. “If you like, but they were pretty close… weren’t they?”
“You clutch at straws blown in a very high wind,” Felix observed.
“Straws are all I ever seem to have…” Virdon answered.
Felix nodded slowly, He realized with detached curiosity that the ways of this man were winning him over. “I will speak with him,” he suddenly announced. “I’m sure he will at least grant me an audience.”
Virdon shook his head. “Sorry Felix, we can’t let you do that. Even if Zaius listened to what you had to say you’d be arrested for treason right after.”
“But Galen is my friend, would you have me just stand by and do nothing?”
“He’s our friend too and we don’t have anywhere near as much to lose as you. We appreciate the sentiment but you’ve done enough. How long to Central City?”
“Two days on foot.”
“Do you own a horse?”
“Several, I am the Prefect.”
“Mind if I steal one?”
“You can ride?” Felix asked skeptically.
“Trust him,” Burke grinned.
“Very well then, supposing that you reach Central City unchallenged and manage to steal across it’s borders unseen. How would you then hope to gain entry to the office of Zaius?
“He’s got a window don’t he?”
By the time Zaius had shuffled into his office, outside it had already grown dark. Most apes would be home by now, relaxing in the arms of their families but such privileges were not for Zaius to enjoy. His duties continued long after darkness fell.
He closed the door behind him, made his way over to an oil lamp mounted upon the wall and turned up the flame. Warm, yellow light spilled out into the room, illuminating not only once dark corners, but also a shadowy figure seated behind the Orangutan’s desk.
Zaius’s nose twitched, the scent identified the intruder as human. He stifled the urge to cry out for assistance. It would never do to allow a mere human to suppose that it might be capable of instilling fear into one of its ape masters. He would show he was unconcerned. “Who are you?” he asked calmly. “What do you want. The guards are but a single cry away.”
The dark figure stood and leaned forward into the pool of light.
“Virdon!” Zaius gasped. This was insane! For years they had pursued this man and now he was here, in this very office! The urge to cry out for assistance grew ever harder to resist.
“I’m surprised you even recognized me, I thought all humans looked alike.”
Zaius nodded in partial agreement. “Most humans look alike,” he corrected. “Your particular features are etched into my nightmares. I’m not likely to forget them in a hurry.”
Virdon sighed in resignation. Here we go again, he thought. “Zaius, I didn’t come here to argue with you.”
“Then why did you come? You must be insane! You know that guards patrol these walls night and day.”
Virdon shrugged as if such a thing was of no concern to him. “I’ve noticed you haven’t called for them.”
The ape’s eyes narrowed and he nodded carefully. “Not yet… I must admit to a certain level of curiosity. Once that has been appeased, be assured… the guards will come. So speak then, what is so important that you throw away your liberty in such casual a manner?”
“I need to ask a favor.”
Zaius blinked several times and leaned backward in surprise. He stared at the human with great deliberation and then began to laugh. Quietly at first, but then with abandon. Virdon had expected nothing less and waited patiently. The elderly ape was forced to dab at his streaming eyes. “A favor no less! You must excuse me, not often am I entertained in this manner. I confess, a small part of me will miss you, Virdon… after your execution.” Zaius laughed a little more and then shook his head in wonder. “Explain to me then, why it is I should even consider such a thing for the likes of you?”
The big man stepped out from behind the desk and folding his arms across his chest, leant back on one corner. “It’s not for ‘the likes of me’.”
Zaius frowned. What had happened in recent days that might prompt the taking of such risks? He thought quickly. Why the death of Councilor Yalu, of course. “Galen,” he said, matter of fact.
“You were friends once.”
Zaius waved the notion away. “We were never friends,” he snapped. “He almost entered into my employ, that is all.”
“But you liked him.”
“I like opars,” the wily old orangutan retorted. “It does not follow that I would betray my principals for a bite of one!” Zaius began to pace, shaking his head. “He once showed potential, that I will allow,” his face grew hard. “But he abandoned everything, Virdon. Instead he chose to embrace blasphemy and heresy. Those are his chosen companions now.”
Virdon leaned off the desk and took two steps forward. “Blasphemy and heresy!” he growled in disgust. “You know that what he believes in is the truth!”
Zaius nodded seemingly unflustered. “What I know in private I can never admit to in public – it would be the ruin of us all.”
Virdon shook his head with dismay. The two of them could go at this all night yet the old ape would never be swayed. Right now he didn’t have the time, he was here for a different reason. He raised his hands in surrender.
“Okay, whatever. The fact remains that Galen needs your help. He’s grieving, he needs to resolve things. Most of all he needs to say farewell. I was hoping that for the sake of whatever feelings you might once have had...”
“For old times sake?” Zaius asked, incredulous.
“If you like.”
“Then you were gravely mistaken. Is there any other reason, other than pity, that you suppose I might help him?”
“Yeah… because you claim to be superior to Man.”
Zaius grunted. “We are… In every way that matters.”
Virdon nodded. “But Man is capable of compassion, Zaius. Does that matter? I was hoping the same might be true of you.” Virdon turned to the window by which he’d broken in and made to leave. “I see I was mistaken. I’ll be leaving now.” He lifted himself up into the open window and still, Zaius did not call for aid.
“Wait,” the orangutan called. Virdon hesitated and turned. The old ape now seemed troubled and would no longer meet the human’s eye. “I would continue this nonsense a while longer. It amuses me. Supposing I was to lend you aid. Just what is it you would have me do?”
Virdon felt hope flicker in his chest, maybe the old bastard could be swayed after all. It was at least worth another try. He allowed himself to slide back down into the office. “We need to get Galen into the city. Security is way too tight right now. Scale it down, just for a day or so.”
Zaius shook his head and snorted in amusement. “Out of the question!’ he barked. “Impossible.”
“Then I’ve wasted your time.”
“Okay that’s it… I’m going. Thanks for nothing Zaius. When you go to bed tonight take awhile to remember the face of your own father… just for a minute or two.”
The Orangutan muttered something under his breath and suddenly looked for all the world like a very tired and very old man.” “An hour.” He sighed.
Virdon’s eyes grew wide in surprise. “Can you make it two.”
“Very well… and I warn you, this releases me from any obligations you feel might be exploited.”
Virdon nodded. “I’ll never ask a thing of you again, on that you have my word.”
“The word of a human.” Zaius chuckled.
“The word of a human.” Virdon confirmed.
“Go… get out… Leave before I change my mind. You shall have your window by which to enter the city. Look for it the day after tomorrow. Now be gone.”
“Thank you Zaius.”
“I said be gone!”
“One moment!” Zaius called again.
Virdon froze. He’d hesitated too long, pushed his luck too far. The old Orangutan had changed his mind. It was all about to come crashing down around his ears. He turned warily, wondering if he could reach and overpower the ape before he called for the guards.
Zaius shuffled over to a cabinet, opened a drawer and removed something small. He held it out for Virdon to accept. “Should you ever again doubt my ability for compassion.”
Virdon reached out and closed his fingers around a small rectangle of paper. He held it before his eyes and felt his jaw grow slack. It was a photograph, Sally, Chris and he. Posing in front of a tree, without a care in the world.
“It is of no further use…” Zaius grumbled irritably, “to me.”
Virdon felt a lump rise in his throat. “You know what this means to me?”
“I can imagine.”
“Thank you…” he whispered. “… Sir.”
“Don’t thank me… and don’t call me sir… and don’t feel that this in some way makes us friends. I hate you Virdon. I hate what you represent… but I’ll have you know I can do so with compassion. I know you can’t help what you are, but that doesn’t make you any less dangerous.” Zaius grunted then gestured to the window. “Now get out of my office.”
Virdon knew when not to push his luck and did just that.
“Fool,” Zaius hissed once he was sure the human had gone.
“You wished to see me?” The huge gorilla, whose shoulders were currently wedged tight within the doorframe, asked.
Zaius nodded and with a wave of his hand invited Urko inside his office. The Chief of Security forced himself through and swaggered into the room, removed his helmet and placed it on one corner of the big stone desk. Without waiting to be invited he then sat down and helped himself to a carrot from Zaius’ bowl.
The old orangutan closed the door firmly and shuffled over to sit behind his desk. “Help yourself,” he said dryly, nodding toward the bowl of mixed fruit and vegetables. The gorilla grinned without humor, raised the carrot in salute and continued to eat. Zaius shrugged… same old Urko. Would he be so arrogant if he knew that only a few hours before Virdon had occupied almost the very same space in which he now sat? He would have his answer soon enough. “I had a visitor last night, a mutual acquaintance one might say.”
“Really,” Urko replied, supremely bored.
“It was one of the astronauts… Virdon, to be precise.”
For all his size Urko could move incredibly fast when he needed to. He was on his feet in an instant sending the very heavy stone table sliding out of his way with effortless ease. “Virdon! Why wasn’t I told? What is the meaning of this Zaius? I demand an explanation. Why wasn’t he arrested?”
“Because he was alone!” The orangutan said carefully.
A rumbling growl rose from somewhere deep inside the gorilla’s massive, barrel chest. “So...? One dead fugitive is still better than three live ones.”
“Three dead fugitives are better than two live ones.” Zaius countered calmly.
“So you let him go!” Urko gasped, incredulous.
Zaius waved his hand in the air trying to placate the gorilla’s mounting sense of outrage. “Merely a temporary measure I assure you. We came to an arrangement you see.”
Urko’s eyes now began to bulge and dark throbbing veins pulsed upon his forehead. He was so tense Zaius grew fearful he might explode. He hoped that wouldn’t happen, he’d just re-decorated.
“An arrangement! “ Urko shouted. “Since when do we come to arrangements with our enemies!” He slammed his fists onto the table sending the fruit bowl sky-rocketing upwards scattering its contents all over the room. He ignored the rain of fruit and nuts and leaned over the table bringing his own furious face closer to that of Zaius’s. “You had better start talking quickly, Zaius. Or it is within my power to have even you arrested and held accountable for your actions.”
Zaius chuckled and calmly brushed a stray berry off of his arm, in a carefree manner that he knew would infuriate the dark, hulking, gorilla all the more. “Urko - hear me out. I am not in league with the humans - although I would like to believe that is what they may think. The astronaut Virdon merely asked me for a favor.”
“A favor, and hear me well, for I believe it lies in our best interests to bestow it upon him.”
Urko, stood and fumed, his bloodshot eyes glowering from beneath his heavy brows. Slowly his breathing slowed and his calm returned. He resumed his seat, pacified for now but far from happy. He would not meet the orangutan’s gaze, not trusting himself to be able to restrain the urge to reach out and rip the old fool’s head from his shoulders if he saw even so much as a hint of that mocking, smug superiority that was often found there. “I’m listening,” he growled through clenched teeth.
“Galen wishes to see his mother.” Zaius continued, once he was sure the crisis had been averted.
“He’s more than welcome,” Urko sneered. “In fact I would encourage it.”
“I know you would - and so does he… and that is our problem. Virdon has seen fit to try and appeal to my better nature. He has asked that I somehow withdraw security for just long enough to allow he and the others to enter the city unchallenged.”
Urko shook his great shaggy head. This was growing more preposterous by the second. As Chief of Security there was always a very real threat of political machinations to oust him from power. He knew Zaius and the other Orangutans would be much happier with a gorilla they could more easily control. However, this didn’t feel like any plot they might hatch. “You refused of course,” he growled.
“On the contrary I gave him my word that I would do everything in my power to provide him with just such an opportunity.”
“Are you insane?”
“Think Urko!” Zaius pleaded. “I merely gave him my word I would allow him to enter the city unchallenged. I said nothing about allowing him to leave in the same manner.” The elderly Orangutan watched as his words sank into the thick, dense skull of the gorilla warrior. It wasn’t the most thrilling of sights but it was in its own manner quite entertaining. He could almost see the thoughts and connections struggling to form into coherent patterns that even the mighty Urko could decipher.
“A trap,” the silverback grunted sulkily and looked for his unfinished carrot.
Zaius nodded. “You’ll be happy to hear that the council is most pleased with the efforts of yourself and those under your command in this past year.”
Urko stopped munching and regarded the Orangutan with no small measure of disbelief. “What - by the Lawgiver - are you talking about now!” he exclaimed.
“There is some concern however that maybe you drive your underlings too hard. That they can handle the pressure is not in dispute. Our concern is that with no reward or recognition they might not be as enthusiastic of their duties as they could be.”
Urko shook his head and sighed. “Did I miss something? Were we, or were we not, discussing the apprehension of the fugitives, Galen, Virdon and Burke? What does this nonsense about recognition of duty have to do with anything?”
Zaius smiled, spread his hands and persevered. “Even the best trained soldier will perform his duty better if he feels appreciated. What I’m suggesting, Urko, is that your soldiers deserve some acknowledgment for the fine job they have been doing. A public ceremony perhaps, a procession. An official show of the appreciation and pride felt by the citizens of this city toward those that tirelessly protect it.” The Orangutan let the idea hang between them, giving the gorilla time to absorb the notion before continuing.
“A parade?” Urko asked hesitantly.
Zaius nodded slowly, he was beginning to get the idea. “A celebration that will leave our borders unguarded… Why, anyone would be able to just walk right in.”
Urko thought it over. “I can see that the lack of security might prove tempting to certain… individuals.”
Zaius nodded once and reached for the door. “Perhaps if we open the doors wide enough, those individuals might indeed be tempted to enter the city. All we would then have to do is close them again, more tightly than ever before.” He smiled and nodded. Things had worked out nicely. He could actually keep his word to Virdon and give Galen his opportunity. If Urko made plans of his own… well such things could scarcely be attributable to him. “I think at last we understand each other, I will leave all the arrangements up to you… Good day.” Urko stood, made as if to say something but changed his mind. His head hurt, he had already done too much thinking for one day and so he merely nodded and marched away.
“Well I never… Felix Firebug!’
Ann clapped her hands together in delight and ushered the young Orangutan into the house.
“That was as much the fault of that wayward son of yours as mine.” Felix protested. “He was a despicable influence upon me and besides… they were never able to prove a thing.” Ann laughed, something she hadn’t done much of lately and embraced her son’s old childhood friend in a tight, fierce hug. Felix cleared is throat, a little surprised and a little self-conscious from this unbridled show of affection. Well, that was a chimpanzee for you.
“Madame Ann, please accept my heart felt condolences at this difficult time.”
Ann’s smile faltered momentarily and was replaced with something more formal. “Thank you Felix, but please, tell me that isn’t why you’re here.”
Their eyes locked and she saw the guarded way in which he looked around her home. “Speak freely,” she said. “Urko’s thugs are not permitted to step foot on this property – not unless they feel they have very good reason… Now, what news of my son.”
Felix sighed, still not entirely comfortable. “He is safe… and… not a million miles away.”
Ann looked angry. “Then he is a fool,” she snapped. “The number of Urko’s spies quadrupled the moment my husband passed away. If he sets one foot in this city he will be captured.”
Felix nodded and pulled a face. “That’s what we keep telling him,” he admitted. “One of his friends has a plan however.”
Ann smiled ruefully to herself. “Virdon? He always does, when he’s not busy getting himself shot.”
Felix frowned, he didn’t like the sound of that, not at all.
“Zaius and Urko expect Galen and his two humans to take advantage of a forthcoming opportunity to enter the city undetected.”
“And will they?” Ann asked, alarmed.
“Of course not… They merely want all eyes looking in the wrong direction. The trick, Madame Ann, lies in not getting them in without anyone knowing… but getting you out. To a place where you can safely rendezvous with Galen.”
“But I am already free to come and go as I will.”
“Of that I have no doubt, but even less doubt that you are watched as you do so – we must do nothing to arouse suspicion. You must go nowhere where you would not ordinarily go and at no time that you would not otherwise commute… Is there any such place beyond the borders of this city?
Ann smiled after a moments thought. “Granny Mags,” she said triumphantly.
Felix looked surprised. “Granny Mags! Is she still alive!”
Ann nodded happily. “Very much so, I have seen much of her these past few weeks… since Yalu….”
Felix stared at the mother of his friend intently. “I don’t understand,” he said carefully. “What business would a Councilor’s widow have with an old witch? Why would you want to visit her?
Ann smiled brightly. “To speak with my husband.’ She answered happily.
Virdon crouched behind a rock while Burke leaned with his back against a tree holding on to a stout branch. They both relaxed and came out of hiding as Felix very badly whistled the four-note code.
“Over here, Felix,” Virdon called.
The young Orangutan bounded out of the darkness and into the midst of their makeshift camp.
“Did you manage to see my mother?” Galen asked impatiently.
Felix nodded. “Yes, yes. She’s fine, Galen… I think.”
“Were you seen?” Virdon asked urgently.
“Definitely, there are more spies around that house than there are flies on a fugitive. But not to worry, they had no interest in a solitary Orangutan come to pay his respects.”
“My mother,” Galen interrupted again, “what did she have to say? “
Felix looked at Galen sternly. “Only what we’ve been telling you all along… That you are a fool for even being here.” Galen bowed his head and looked crestfallen. So much so that Felix cursed his own harshness silently. “And that she looks forward to meeting you tomorrow,” he added in a warmer tone.
The chimp looked up sharply, relief and gratitude welling in his eyes.
“You’ve found somewhere safe?” Virdon asked.
“I believe so, there is a hut on the edge of town, pretty isolated, no one goes there - unless they have to.”
“Granny Mags?” Galen hissed, incredulously.
“That’s the one.” Felix confirmed.
“She’s still alive?”
“Evidently… Your mother has agreed to meet you there. In fact… If what she says is to be believed, it might turn out to be something of a family reunion.”
Galen’s eyes narrowed and he cocked his head to one side as he peered at Felix’s troubled face. “What do you mean?”
“Galen… Your mother is deeply and quite understandably upset. I fear in her grief she has taken to availing herself of Granny Mags’ skills.”
Galen absorbed the news quietly saying nothing.
“Whoa there Nellie,” Burke interjected. “Does someone want to fill us in. Who’s Granny Mags and what does she have to do with anything?”
Galen held still, his gaze unblinking as he lost himself to deepest thought and so Felix answered on his behalf.
“Granny Mags… Maggia, more properly, is a very, very old Ape who lives on her own outside of town. A hermit I suppose one might call her. There are many stories about her. Some say she isn’t quite Chimpanzee nor quite Gorilla but the result of some unspoken and unholy union between the two.”
Virdon shook his head. “But that’s not possible… is it?”
Felix shrugged. “I do not know and it may shock and astound you to discover that I have never really felt the inclination to find out - but some say that this ‘peculiarity’ lends her unusual… abilities.”
“Ohhhhhh Boy!” Burked groaned. “The local witch… No self respecting community should be without one.”
“And what business would she have with Ann?” Virdon asked uneasily.
Felix took a deep breath. “Well, you see… There are some that say she possesses the ability to converse with the dead,” he answered.
The two humans stared in wordless silence, first at the orangutan and then at each other. Felix shrugged apologetically and glanced over to where Galen sat, cross-legged in front of a small, smokeless fire. “Of course… not everyone believes it.” He added lamely.
“You’d be surprised what people will believe when their defenses are down.” Burke said quietly. He chewed his lower lip and felt the old familiar outrage rising from within. He’d tried, but could never forget the things that even he had come to believe at the hands of that hairy bitch, Wanda.
“What do you believe. Felix?” Virdon asked thoughtfully, “About this person and the stories they tell?”
Felix sighed and shook his head. “I believe that she is most certainly… talented, in certain fields of ... expertise…”
“So you believe it too,’ Burke said, sparing Felix from any further discomfort.
“Granny Mags is nothing less than a legend.” Galen said from over by the fire. “In the daylight not many even care to acknowledge her existence… but after dark I’d defy you to find a single one that hasn’t imagined, at some point in their lives, her presence, hiding in the shadows.”
Felix nodded, “As children we were told to look out for her if we didn’t behave – as adults… I suppose many of us still do.”
Burke nodded, “So this Granny Mags… she has ‘powers’ right. She talks to the dead, probably casts spells and, if you get on the wrong side of her, will turn you into something even more unpleasant than an orangutan?”
Felix and Galen exchanged a look and nodded slowly. “That’s what they say.” Galen confirmed.
“Except the part about the orangutan,” added Felix.
“Then I guess we better go see her,” said Virdon.
“The last time Felix and I did this together was on a dare,” Galen whispered from within the concealment of some bushes. Virdon said nothing but continued to scrutinize the dilapidated shack that served as home to the mysterious being known as Granny Mags.
“Oh, and how I remember,” Felix confirmed. “We had to knock on her door and run away before she could answer.”
Burke grinned. “Jeez Felix, you were like, public enemy number one back then, weren’t you. Knocking on peoples doors huh… Good thing you never knocked over a garbage can. I hear that still carries the death penalty?”
“Keep it down,” Virdon warned without looking back.
Still somewhat resentful of taking orders from a human, Felix only marginally lowered his voice. “Believe me Burke, it was considered an act of quite significant daring,” he whispered. “Even gorilla children would think twice before attempting such a thing.”
Virdon finished his analysis and turned around. “Can’t see any signs of life. If she’s as shunned as you suggest then I agree, this is a good a place as any to meet with Ann.”
Burke shook his head. “I don’t get it, a couple of school kids playing trick or treat I understand. But Galen, your mother never struck me as the type that would buy into this kind of hooey.”
Galen recognized the look of utter incomprehension on the face of his orangutan friend. He’d worn it himself for many, many months and still frequently did so on occasion. Burke’s manner of speech was often indecipherable to those that didn’t know him. “You’ve already said it yourself Pete, I guess her defenses are down. It can happen to the best of us you know.”
Something dark flickered across Burke’s features and Galen realized what he had just said. “I didn’t mean…”
Burke nodded and turned away.
“Pete,” Galen said, awkwardly.
“I know what you meant… just relax okay.” Burke assured the chimpanzee. Didn’t mean what? Said an ugly little voice that lurked somewhere in the back of his mind. That I should never forget it happened to me. That I once came within a hair’s breadth of betraying everything and everyone… thanks Galen, thanks a lot, I really needed that pleasant, little reminder.
But of course that wasn’t what he’d meant at all and Burke knew it. He forced the snarling voice away, somewhere quiet, but his now ruined mood refused to lighten.
“Okay,” Virdon decided. “The plan is approved, Felix, go back to the city and make the arrangements. It has to happen tomorrow when Urko’s spies will be too busy watching for people coming into the City to take much notice of those going out.” He turned to Galen. “You and Pete will wait nearby, when your mother arrives I’ll make the initial contact and make sure she hasn’t been followed. Virdon looked at Galen meaningfully. “You don’t show yourself until I say so… is that clear!”
“Alright then, let’s get some sleep while we can… unless there’s any questions?”
“Just one,” said a shockingly unfamiliar voice.
The small group jumped as one at the sound and turned in thinly disguised panic. Behind them a tiny ape, so ancient she appeared almost mummified, stood pointing an ancient but deadly looking blunderbuss in their direction.
“Just what the hell are two humans and a coupla ex-arsonists doing on my property?”
“No one has ever proven a thing!” Felix suddenly blurted and then swallowed noisily as he realized what he’d said.
“Felix Firebug,” The apparition acknowledged. “You here to knock on my door and run away again?” She grinned a toothless smile that if anything made her look even more unpleasant. “Or did you come to burn me out of house and home this time?”
Felix looked shocked. “You remember me?”
Virdon thought quickly and interrupted. “You must be Granny Mags,” he said in what he hoped was an easy going and non-threatening voice. At the corner of his eye, he noticed both Galen and Felix shrinking into themselves.
“One doesn’t call her that to her face.” Galen whispered urgently from the corner of his mouth, the blood draining from his features. “It’s Maggia.” He pronounced the name Ma-jee-ah.
Felix meanwhile had screwed his eyes tightly shut and appeared to be awaiting immediate execution.
“I don’t recall asking no humans to come round visiting either.” The old ape snapped. “State your business or get you gone.”
Burke pushed his way forward and earned a gun pointed at his belly for his trouble. “Ma’am, we sure didn’t mean to cause you any alarm, it’s just that the… masters… here were kind of afraid of how you might react to unannounced visitors.”
Granny Mags cocked her head and regarded Burke with something close to amusement. “My, my, ain’t you a silver tongued one – your guts as pretty as your words, human? What say we take a look?” The tiny figure hitched the blunderbuss up a notch and thumbed back the hammer.
Desperate to avert a disaster, Galen stepped forward, courageously placing himself between the muzzle of the old weapon and Burke. Using just the tip of one finger, he delicately pushed the wide, funnel-mouth of the gun to one side, holding his breath all the time as if that alone might just be enough to stop it going off in his face. “My name is Galen, I’m the son of -”
“I know who you are boy, just as I know the old Firebug wetting his pants next to you – what I don’t know is why I don’t just shoot the whole lot of ya for trespassing.”
“Ma’am, please, we need your help.” Virdon pleaded.
“Then you get yourself to hell ‘cause I ain’t helping no humans.” The old woman gathered up a huge wad of spit and let it fly in Virdon’s direction. By chance or design, it fell short. “I don’t want you here, come stirring things up.”
“But they’re only here because of me.” Galen said loudly enough to cut through the conversation. “And it is I who needs your help.”
The old, withered figure ran the tip of her tongue around where her teeth used to be. She cocked her head to one side and appeared for just a moment to be listening to something no one else could hear. She nodded to herself. “Well then… since you be Galen I figure you be here concerning yer mother.”
The old ape abruptly slung the ancient firearm over one hunched shoulder. “I s’pose you’d better come on in. Sounds like we might have something to talk about after all.”
Without another word she brushed past them and began to head for the shack. Virdon cursed himself, irritated that he’d allowed this old creature to so easily creep up upon them. “Felix,” he whispered at the corner of his mouth. “Go see Ann. Get that meeting fixed for tomorrow. Meanwhile, perhaps the three of us had best get to know more about our host.”
Felix pulled a face , “remember,” he whispered to Virdon. “She is rumored to possess many strange talents.” He glanced over his shoulder relieved to see the old ape now disappearing into her home.
Be careful, he mouthed silently.
“You be careful too, Firebug.” Granny Mags called out from somewhere inside the shack and then cackled in amusement.
Gratefully, a shaken Felix left to pursue his mission, leaving the three companions to approach and enter the shack that Maggia called home. Inside they found it to be dimly lit but surprisingly clean and homely.
“Shut the door, or was you raised in a barn.” She called out from somewhere unseen. Burke pulled the door shut after him and looped a piece of rope over a simple hook. It was hardly secure but somehow he doubted that Granny Mags had too much of a problem with would-be intruders. He noticed the blunderbuss, now hanging on a hook by the side of the door. A quick glance was all it took to confirm the ancient weapon was junk. It didn’t even have a firing pin. They’d never been in any real danger, not from being shot, anyhow.
“I’m making some tea… who wants to share?” She called again from what was presumably the kitchen.
“Uh… sure, I guess.” Virdon answered.
“Then find a place to squat, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Galen found himself an ancient chair while the two men sat cross-legged on the floor before a healthy log fire. True to her word, moments later Granny Mags came back carrying a tray.
Virdon surged to his feet and made to take it. “Here. Let me get that for you,” he offered, noting the way the old creature seemed to shy away from him. She acted tough, but she was scared. Now he knew, he would make it a point not to alarm her by sudden moves or raised voice. He gently took the tray, placed it on a wooden table and sat back down while the ancient female poured the tea into home-made clay mugs. Taking the opportunity to study the old ape in more detail, Virdon could see where rumors of cross-breeding might have gotten started. Her hair was as white as snow, yet here and there were thin streaks of blazing orange. Fire and ice, the artist inside of him whispered. Her nose wasn’t as broad or flared as that of a gorilla, nor was it as small and pinched as that of a chimpanzee. Her eyes were a very, pale-blue, so pale they were almost colorless. Didn’t all apes have brown eyes? Virdon ceased to speculate; he didn’t know what the hell she was.
The four sipped in silence, each waiting for another to say something.
“I take it I’ve got your momma paying me another visit then?” Mags asked Galen. “Seen a lot of her lately I have, yes indeed.”
Galen frowned. “So I’ve heard. And might I inquire as to what business the two of you have together?”
Granny Mags grinned and reached for a clay pipe that hung over her mantle. She stuffed it with some leafy mulch and lit it with a burning twig. Soon aromatic smoke began to gather in the confines of the small room. “Unfinished business,” Mags stated once the pipe was lit to her satisfaction.
“Between whom?” Galen asked, dreading the answer.
“The Galen I remember was never that stupid.”
Despite the awe in which he held her, Galen flushed, anger rising in his chest. “My mother was never a believer in that… you must have done something to her – something to convince her otherwise?”
“It’s called brainwashing,” Burke muttered with undisguised loathing.
The old ape smiled. “Didn’t have to wash no brains, didn’t have to do nuthing. She came to me Galen, not the other way round.”
“I can’t believe she would do that!”
“Suit yourself, it don’t go making it any less true.”
Galen’s nostrils flared and Virdon felt he ought to say something before things turned sour and the three of them got thrown out – or shot. “Ma’am, you’ll have to forgive me but seeing as how I’m just a human I was –“
“You’re about just as much a human as I am just an ape.” Mags interrupted. “I’ll warn you just this once I don’t take kindly to being patronized. So talk straight or don’t talk at all.”
Virdon nodded. “Fair enough,” he agreed.
“So what’s all this crap about you talking to Galen’s father?” Burke asked, obviously eager and hoping to cause offense.
Mags chuckled. “Now that’s more like it,” she said, nodding with approval.
“Is that truly why my mother visits you – to contact my father?”
Mags nodded and puffed on her pipe.
“And what do you get out of taking advantage of her like that?” Burke asked.
Mags cackled again. “Yer servants are getting real uppity, Galen,” she replied, leaning forward and tapping out the bowl of her pipe against the hearth. “But since yer asking, I don’t do nuthing folk don’t ask me to do.”
Virdon had been watching Burke and the old woman quietly. He understood his friend’s instinctive hostility toward her. She messed with people’s minds. Her methods and objectives might have been a world apart from those of the interrogator, Wanda, but when you got right down to it both of them manipulated what others believed to be true and Burke, having once been Wanda’s unwilling guinea pig, had experience of it first hand. He understood all right but he couldn’t let personal feelings jeopardize their position.
“But this comfort you give, it can’t be real, it can’t be lasting,” suggested Galen.
“Says who?” Maggia asked.
“Says me,” Burke said with conviction, earning himself a flashed look of caution from his friend. “It’s rigged – a shell game, Galen, it’s no more real than the threat of being shot by that old gun hanging over by the door.”
“Well, I guess that settles it then.” Maggia answered with good-natured sarcasm.
The conversation died as each mulled over what the others had said and the only sound was the crackle of the fire and the chink of pottery.
Galen stared into the flames, his faced bathed in a warm, orange glow. “So have you?” he asked suddenly, turning his head to look Maggia in the eye. “Spoken with my father?”
“Galen?” Burke moaned, wary of where the question might lead.
The three fugitives all looked at one another, surprised.
“Did you say no?” Burke asked. He’d been expecting another rush of lies. Skillfully crafted deceptions designed to hook Galen into a scam that would ultimately lead to Maggia reaping some reward for her services. He grunted in grudging respect. The ape was old but still as sharp as a razor. She had obviously and quickly realized that she didn’t stand much chance of snaring Galen while his two friends watched over him. It would serve her better then to give the illusion that she possessed something resembling integrity.
“Why not?” Galen added.
Mags leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “I ain’t spoke with him because he ain’t got nothing to say.” She answered in a softer tone of voice than they had heard her use so far. “Not to me, not to Ann, not to anyone. Which means that wherever he is, he’s at rest. He don’t have no need to come back here bothering the living, only those with unfinished concerns go doing that.”
“You and your mother are the only ones with things to say, Galen. You’re all burning up inside ‘cause you think you didn’t say them properly when Yalu was alive.”
Virdon frowned as Maggia’s words washed over him. There was something new in the tone of her voice, an odd resonance that demanded his attention. Oddly enough, it didn’t seem to bother him at all. It was… nice. It felt warm and comforting. Like when his mother would sing him lullabies when he was just a baby
But - how would he even remember that?
He looked at Burke and saw him shake his head as if trying to discourage a bothersome insect. Evidently he was feeling something too. He briefly wondered if the tea had been drugged, or maybe the smoke from her pipe was mildly hallucinogenic - but found he didn’t really care. He just wanted to hear what she had to say. He smiled lazily and turned his full attention back to the old Ape.
“Not everything that needs saying can be said using words. A baby doesn’t need to tell its momma it loves her… she already knows. Your father knew he was loved Galen, he knew, and he took that knowing with him. It’s that knowing, of having once been cherished that made his passing over into the next world possible.”
Burke glanced at Galen and saw the chimp swallow hard. His eyes filled with tears, but none fell. Burke clenched his hands into fists, nails digging into his palm. Whatever the old witch was doing he wanted none of it. He abruptly stood and made his way to the door. “I need some air,” he grunted hoarsely and rose to his feet. Nobody seemed to take any notice and with more than a little irritation he stepped away and out into the chill of the night.
“Fetch a pitcher of water while you’re out there, would you?” Maggia called after him. Burke’s lips moved but even her exceptional hearing couldn’t pick up what he said. She turned back to Galen and continued to talk softly, her words barely above a whisper. Both Virdon and Galen leaned forward, entranced by the things she had to say.
“Everything you regret never having said - he already knew. It’s you Galen, you and your mother. You be the one’s that need to hear yourselves say these things.”
“But my mother?”
“I’ve told your mother the same things I’m telling you. Your father has passed on and he’s at rest. He’s out of reach of the hurts of this world… he’s at peace.”
Suddenly the fearsome creature Galen had only ever known as Granny Mags was leaning forward and resting her hands on his shoulders. Galen blinked, he hadn’t seen her move but somehow her face was now only inches from his own. Rather than flinch and draw back with revulsion, he felt reassured and welcomed her nearness. He looked into her face, old, lined with untold years but saw with surprise that she was actually quite beautiful.
“If he did have a message for you, it would be this… that you just get on with your life and be happy. Your Momma can’t accept that - feels guilty I guess. Guilty that he’s gone and she’s still moping around. Folk do that a lot and that’s why she keeps coming to me - and each time she does I tell her the same damn thing over and over. I ‘spose she’s hoping one day I’m gonna tell her something different.”
Like a rubber band, reality seemed to snap back into place and both Virdon and Galen jerked in confusion. They looked at each other and saw the same disorientation reflected in each other’s face. Then they turned to Granny Mags.
She was gone.
Burke peered down into the inky depths of the well. He dropped a pebble and heard the splash a few seconds later. He deduced from the echoes that there was probably an underground stream running through a small cavern. Mags had lucked out and built her well over the top – or maybe she used one of those divining rods he remembered seeing on TV. A twig held out straight that detected the presence of water.
Rusty, metal climbing pegs, driven into the sides of the wall gave some hint to its past construction and Burke was careful not to snag himself upon one. It would be ironic indeed to survive Urko for all this time and then die for lack of a tetanus shot.
He drew up a bucket of water and tilted it, pouring some of its contents into a clay pitcher. He then sat himself on the low wall that surrounded the well and waited. He didn’t want to go back inside, not yet. He’d give it a little longer. He shivered - the nights were beginning to get colder.
He didn’t know if Maggia’s words were helping Galen or not but oddly enough he had begun to feel them having an affect on his own mind. He felt more at peace with himself than he had for years. He didn’t have an answer as to why that might be and it therefore irritated the hell out him. She was a charlatan, of that he had no doubt, but he was damned if he could figure out why.
Usually these people relied on willingness to ensure their success but he was a long, long way from being amenable.
Maybe he was just naturally susceptible, maybe that was why Wanda had done such a terrific, bang up, job on him. How long had he lasted before he was about ready to tell whatever she wanted to know?
Almost a day!
Wow! Great going Pete!
Or maybe he was just looking for a way to excuse his obvious weaknesses. He sighed and rubbed his temple with the heel of one hand and allowed himself to drift back in time.
Holding up his hand in front of his eyes, trying to shield them from the bright electric lights. A faceless apparition leans forward. Placing a revolver on the table before him. A voice floats out of nowhere.
“I’ve never lost a man yet – I’ve never failed to obtain my objectives – and I’ve had them tougher than you.”
The apparition, a blurred silhouette, surrounded by bright, burning, lights pauses to light a cigarette. “Admit the name of your battle group commander was Colonel Perry – That your company commander was Captain Logan.”
He remembers shaking his head, the movement causing droplets of sweat to spray from his soaking hair. A fist banging on the table makes him jump.
“Burke, Peter J. Major – Service number D39046375…”
“Geneva convention,” The voice sneers. “Those rules don’t apply here. You’ll learn that. Stupid. Stupid dog. I’m going to treat you like a dog…”
He’d scraped though the harsh examination by the skin of his teeth. Only his exceptional high marks elsewhere had saved him from humiliation and shame. But he’d known then - and he knew it now.
He was weak.
He heard the shack door swing open and turned in time to see the old hag approaching. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for the coming encounter. With a little luck she’d pass right by. He tilted back his head and saw that the night was cloudy, with not a star in sight.
“Storm coming,” Maggia said.
“Nahhhh,” Burke answered still eyeing the sky. “It never rains here, a perfect holiday hot-spot if you ask me. ‘Cept the natives have a tendency to keep trying to kill you… or worse.” He turned to look at the old creature.
“Thought you’d be needing this,” she said holding out a rough, woven blanket. “That is if yer planning on spending the night out here. I’ve told your friends they can sleep in the back room. You can do so too, if you can bring yerself.”
Burke paused, not sure what to say to this ancient presence, but he knew kindness when he saw it. He politely half-smiled as he took the blanket.
“Thanks… But I’d have figured, what with you reading minds and all, you’d already know all about my plans for the evening.”
To his surprise the old ape smiled, showing him again her impressive lack of teeth. She shook her head. “Don’t work that way, nor would I want it to. Fact is I know more about most folk than I care to already. All their troubles and woes trying to barge their way out front and make themselves known. Why do you think I live all the way out here, away from all that?”
Burke nodded, “Then why do it Maggia? If you don’t want people bothering you, why bring attention to yourself by going through this pretense of being able to help them?”
The old ape stared at the human long and hard before answering. “It ain’t never been about what I want. I know you don’t believe that - but others do - and they ain’t all living neither.” Burke sighed, uncomfortable with coming straight out and calling such a frail and elderly creature a liar. “It ain’t about you or me, it’s about them… it’s always about them.”
He considered the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. Perhaps he was being harsh in his judgment of her. She appeared well meaning, but she was obviously deluded. He grunted with an effort.
Dammit she was doing it to him again!
“You’re right Maggia,” he said through clenched teeth. “I don’t believe in any of those things you say you can do and what’s more I’m damn sure you don’t either - so you can just drop the spook show. You’re not gonna win me over, so stop trying.”
The old ape waved her hand as if she’d heard it all so many times before. “I’m not trying to win you over, Pete… but you really ought to open your eyes now and again. It’s a much bigger world than you’d care to admit.”
Burke stared, his usual confidence momentarily faltering. “What did you just call me?” he whispered.
Maggia shrugged. “I can’t recall, what did I just call ya?”
Burke stood. She overheard us, he thought. When she crept up on us in the brush. That’s what they did, they overheard small details and used them against you.
“Maggia, on the ship that brought me here, every centimeter of space had to be accounted for and believe me, there wasn’t a whole lot of room left over for ghost stories.” He surprised himself at the harshness of his tone but continued nevertheless. “My eyes are open, wide enough - and I guess that makes you edgy ‘cause I’m seeing things a lot more clearly than you’re comfortable with.” With that he handed back the blanket and made to rejoin the others.
Maggia moved in front of him obstructing his way. “Well that told me, now let me tell you.”
“Would you step aside please,” Burke asked, but it was obvious that Maggia had no intention of doing so. He sighed, “Go ahead, say it.”
Granny Mags wagged her finger accusingly. “You know why you’re so dead set against me? ‘Cause you’re afraid… you’re afraid I can help you too… and…” She peered into the human’s eyes, seemingly searching for something that lay behind them. “And - you don’t wanna be helped, do you?”
Burke’s face grew hard. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” he muttered.
“You think… you need your fear. You think… that’s what gives you your… edge.” The old hermit continued to stare hard into his eyes and Burke felt something at the back of his neck tingling, felt memories stirring into life somewhere deep inside. “Galen ain’t the only one with issues… that’s what I’m talking about,” She observed as thunder rolled somewhere away to the East.
She blinked and looked away and Burke felt a flood of irrational, blessed, relief. “Better get yerself inside,” she said, shuffling past him and making her slow, arduous way back to the shack.
The first raindrops began to fall.
But it never rains here.
Burke watched her go and hoped she wouldn’t turn around. And then with shocking suddenness he was standing in the middle of a downpour.
In the small room that Granny Mags had given over for their use, Galen was already sleeping and doing so more soundly than in days. Virdon too was lying down, but he found himself wide-awake. His hands were cupped behind his head staring at the ceiling, watching a tiny spider spin its tiny web. He was reflecting quietly on things unsaid and opportunities missed.
It was then that Burke marched in and proceeded to silently peel off his sopping wet clothes, arranging them before the fire so they would be dry come morning.
“So what do you think?” Virdon asked without averting his gazing from the spider.
“ ‘bout what?” Burke grunted.
Virdon turned to look at his friend who now stood buck-naked and was staring into the burning logs. “About Maggia…”
“What about her?”
Virdon frowned and sat up in his cot. “Pete? – Is something wrong?”
Burke said nothing and continued to stare into the embers.
Virdon nodded to himself. “Okay, I get it. Pete Burke ain’t talking, so I guess that just leaves me. Alright then, I was busy wondering if Granny Mags might just be what Ann needs right now.”
Burke turned his head and looked at his friend. “Why would you think that?” he asked.
“Just take a look around you, Pete. When was the last time you saw Galen sleeping that peacefully? I know his cries in the night have woken you too. You know what I’m talking about.”
Burke nodded slowly, he knew all right. He sighed and went to lie on his own cot. His skin tingled and glowed from the heat absorbed from the fire. In a moment it would cool and he would be forced to crawl under the single blanket the old ape had provided for him. Until then he would just enjoy the feel of air circulating over naked skin.
Virdon continued, thinking aloud. “When Ann arrives tomorrow I think it might actually be good idea to get her, Galen and Maggia all in the same room together. I don’t know quite what she does - or how she does it - but she seems to have a definite gift for… soothing.”
“She’s just messing with your mind, making you doubt what you know to be true,” Burke answered, sullenly. “Sounds like she’s doing a pretty good job too.”
Virdon winced. “I don’t believe she’s evil Pete, not like…”
“Wanda? Maybe not, maybe her intentions are good but her methods - they never can be. Some things you just don’t mess with, ever - and people’s minds are top of the list. I’m not happy about any of this Alan. I’m not happy about any of this at all.”
The aroma of frying eggs somehow found it’s way into his dream of a life now lost. Virdon awoke disorientated, sure for just those few fleeting seconds that he was back on his parent’s farm. His dream then gave way to reality and he sniffed the air. The memory of home was just an unfettered mind keeping itself sane by conjuring forth random and fragmented memories - but the smell of cooking was very real.
He sat up, stretched and after glancing at his two, still sleeping companions decided to follow his nose. He dressed quickly and found Granny Mags in her tiny kitchen, frying eggs in a metal skillet over a small, smokeless fire.
“Ain’t no-one here by that name.” The wizened old ape said aloud. Virdon tensed and quickly scanned the small room. There was no one else there and so he assumed the old ape was merely talking to herself.
Big, rough looking chunks of yellow tinged bread sat on a table and his stomach duly betrayed his presence, growling loudly in appreciation of the sight.
“Belly won’t let yer lie, huh?” Granny Mags asked with a chuckle and without even bothering to turn around. Virdon grinned right back. Despite Pete’s hostility, he was finding her increasingly difficult not to like.
“Guess not,” he admitted. “I usually wake up to the sound of bullets flying past my ears. After giving it careful consideration I think the sound of breakfast cooking is better.”
“Hmph, So it’s true then… what they say ‘bout humans,” Maggia observed.
“That’cha brains start working the moment you open your eyes - and don’t stop ‘till the moment you open your mouth.”
Virdon grinned. That was one he would have to remember and gleefully donate to Galen the next time Pete required some needling “Can I help?”
“Help cook… or help eat?” Mags asked.
“The first, maybe, the second… definitely.”
“Y’know how to milk a goat?”
Virdon smiled again, this time with fond nostalgia. “I think maybe I could muddle my way through.”
“Then you’ll find one out back. Mean tempered bitch so watch yerself.” The old ape made to pick up a wooden pail but Virdon intervened and reached it first.
“It’s okay, I’ve got it.” He almost laid his hand over Granny Mags’ own but noted again how she shied away from his touch. All he had meant to do was to show his good intentions. He reconsidered and touched her bare arm instead.
And she shifted.
Maggia blinked, he’d touched her. The damn fool didn’t know better of course but he’d gone and pulled the trigger just all the same. She didn’t care for the minds of humans. They were like boiling cauldrons of seething emotion. Dark, sweaty places where someone less disciplined could easily get lost. It always felt like wading through a thick bog and if you managed to make it through to the other side you’d have to spend awhile cleaning off any filth and pollution you’d picked up along the way.
She looked around, trying to determine where and when she might be. It was a room, cold and sterile. A stench hung in the air, so sharp it stung her nostrils. Over in one corner a man waited, sat slumped in a chair that was too small for his large frame.
He was frightened… The labor had gone on too long, the unborn child was growing weary, dangerously so and no one was telling him a thing. The doctor had made the decision. ‘Caesarian’ he’d heard whispered and Sally had been wheeled away within minutes, leaving him to pace the room alone.
He’d waited, anxious, helpless and scared and eventually they’d brought her back, still asleep on her wheeled cot.
“Everything went smoothly.” A woman (a midwife?) re-assured him. “Would you like to see the baby?
He shook his head and reached for the hand of his sleeping wife. He held on to it lovingly in his. “Not yet,” he whispered, voice choking back emotion. “We’ll say hello together.”
The midwife smiled and nodded and left them alone.
But they’d brought him anyway, a tiny, sleeping, wrinkled thing. He refused to look at first, just stealing the odd glance, reassuring himself the newborn child was still breathing - and then she’d woken up.
“Is the baby okay?” Was the first thing she’d asked, her voice cracked and groggy with the last remaining bonds of anesthesia.
“Everything is perfect”, he’d replied and wheeled the plastic crib over to where she could see. She took one, tiny hand in hers and he the other in his. The baby slept right on between them.
“We have a son.” Sally said, tears sliding down her cheeks.
Maggia steeled herself. She didn’t want to know any of this and with a determined effort she wrenched herself away
The real world flooded over her and she was back in her kitchen. The human, an older version of the man whose experience she had shared was peering at her intently, his brow creased with concern.
“Maggia… are you okay?” Virdon was worried, for a second or two he thought the old ape was having some kind of stroke.
Ignoring his concern she felt a tear slide down her face brushed it angrily away. “Weren’t you s’posed to be getting the milk?” She asked through gritted teeth and with obvious effort.
“Then go get it,” she snapped.
“Only after you assure me you’re all right.”
Virdon stared some more and then gave in. If she didn’t want to share, then nothing he could say was going to sway her otherwise. With a look that clearly indicated that he was neither convinced nor happy about the situation he left the kitchen in search of an ill-mannered goat.
Maggia watched him leave and only then let out a long pent up breath. She didn’t know quite what she had almost fallen into but it was like nothing she’d previously experienced. It had left her disorientated and unsettled in a manner such as she had never known.
The word just sprang to mind.
That place had been alien.
She knew Virdon was an outcast and now she began to appreciate why.
Miles away, the Simian capital of Central City was busy in preparation for the coming celebration. Zaius sat on an imposing, carved seat, set upon a high balcony where he could benefit from a clear view of all that transpired. Urko was elsewhere, busy inspecting those under his command while they stood to attention, smart and gleaming in their dress uniforms. Street musicians tuned their instruments, vendors set up stalls for the selling of snacks and refreshments to an already expanding crowd and all around, entertainers juggled and performed stunts for the spare coins in the pockets of any passers by.
Despite the gaiety of the population, Zaius was far from happy. He was still disturbed by the casual manner in which he had allowed the human, Virdon, to escape. Of course he was able to justify his actions. To allow the fugitives to enter the city - and then do all in his power to prevent them from leaving - had been his intention all along.
For a moment there, Virdon had almost persuaded him.
He sneered, that was their power. That was the danger. If their words could begin to sway even he - then what chance did others stand?
Yes, they would be executed - but not before he knew all there was to know of their nature.
And then there was Galen.
Zaius grunted in annoyance. For the humans he cared not at all but the chimpanzee’s only crime had been to stumble upon a shocking and brutal reality. No, that wasn’t a crime - That was just an accident - what came after, that was the crime. Galen was not of a type who could turn his back on the truth. He was far too headstrong and principled and for that Zaius privately admired him. It was most unfortunate then that publicly his duty was to hunt the renegade down.
Nevertheless, there still remained a part of him that hoped he would never actually manage to apprehend the fugitive chimpanzee – for then he would be obliged to execute him along with his companions.
It was for the good of the planet.
Perhaps Virdon might have an alternate plan that would somehow ensure that Galen alone would escape the snare.
Did the human really expect him to honor this foolish agreement? Would he really walk into the city, confident that neither he nor Urko, nor any one of the hundreds of guards, would attempt to apprehend them?
And the answer came, clear and simple.
Of course not.
So what then was his counter plan?
Zaius rubbed the bridge of his snout between his thumb and forefinger. He signaled to a gorilla captain and gestured the powerful ape over.
“Sir?” the captain barked, snapping to attention.
“Have all the guards been withdrawn?”
“Yes Sir, as ordered.”
Zaius nodded. “Yet they still remain about the Councilor’s home.”
“Only one sir?”
The orangutans world-weary gaze snapped up to fix the gorilla with a penetrating stare. “Only one? Why only one? Who gave the order for the others to withdraw.”
“Urko sir,” a suddenly uncomfortable soldier replied.
“I left clear instructions that those guards were to remain. Did you not understand them?”
“No sir, I mean… yes Sir. Should anyone matching the profile attempt to see the widow they were to be apprehended immediately. Sir, your orders were clearly understood - but no one will attempt to see her - not today sir.”
“Explain yourself and quickly.”
“The widow is not home, she left this morning.”
Zaius snorted and absorbed the new information quickly. Not home? Why, all that meant was that she was probably attending the celebrations like any other citizen. “But she remains within the city?” He asked an increasingly agitated captain.
“No sir, as is her custom she left for the northern woods. There is nothing suspicious about this activity Sir, nothing suspicious at all. She makes the trip at least twice a week.”
The corner of Zaius’s right eye began to twitch, the only visible outward sign of what he might be thinking. Of course… he realized. He never had any intention of entering the City, unguarded or not. “Fetch Urko… NOW!” He commanded.
The friends and fugitives had jammed themselves tightly around a small, log table and along with Granny Mags were enjoying the most sumptuous breakfast that any of them could remember. The fresh, goats-milk was well worth the bruises that Virdon had paid to secure it. The freshly-baked corn bread was soft, still warm and delicious. The eggs, cheese, berries and nuts were the freshest and tastiest any of them could remember and they all stuffed themselves far more than felt comfortable.
Galen groaned and rubbing his taut belly leaned back from the table, wondering if, due to sudden and devastating weight gain, the rickety chair upon which he sat might suddenly disintegrate beneath him. It didn’t, although it did creak alarmingly.
“I wonder what time Felix will arrive?” He said aloud - but of course his two human friends knew it was not Felix that he was so eager to see.
Virdon pursed his lips thoughtfully. From Felix they had learned of the plans for the parade along the streets of Central City. Zaius seemed to have come through for them - but if you wanted to stay alive on this world, how things seemed were never enough. He was far from ready to trust their lives to what might just be a fleeting weakness in the old boy’s resolve. His real plan was a double bluff and he knew Zaius would be livid should he ever discover it.
With luck, that wouldn’t happen at all but if it did – then hopefully it would be too late. He doubted that Zaius would view the human condition any more favorably after this, but he wasn’t about to lose any sleep over it.
“About mid-day I’d guess. Virdon said, answering Galen’s question. He’ll wait until the celebrations get underway. The less that see him leave the better, he knows that.”
“And what do we do when they get here?” Burke added. “I’m all for giving mother and son a little quality time together but Alan’s got other ideas, isn’t that right Al?”
Galen cocked his head at Virdon. “Really… And were you going to let me in on these ‘other ideas’ of yours?”
Virdon gave a lop-sided smile. The chimp was acting more like his old self. “Galen, I’m gonna try and say this in the nicest way I know how, but you’ll have to forgive me if things don’t come out quite right.”
“Go on.” The chimp replied, intrigued and folding his arms across his chest.
“Your father was taken away from you, very suddenly - and you’ve been lost ever since. Now multiply that a hundred-fold and you reach the place where your Mother is at. Your were right all along, the two of you need to get together, to mourn, to tend each other’s wounds… and heal.”
“I feel there is a ‘but’ coming.”
“But… It seems that with no one around to help, Ann’s reaction to her loss has been… unusual.”
“I don’t understand, are you saying there’s something wrong with my mother? ”
“I’m saying, there’s some things you just can’t do on your own.”
“But that’s why I’m here.”
“I know… and that’s good - but even so, I think Granny Mags can be of enormous help to you both. I think, if she’s willing, she can help both of you come to terms with what has happened…”
“Help us do what… forget?”
“Of course not… but maybe help you… accept.”
Galen frowned. “I don’t really think she should be involved in this any more than she already is. This isn’t really any of her business.”
Virdon nodded. “And I’m sure she feels the same way. But your mother went and made it her business and that already being the case… I think she can help you Galen, I really do.”
Galen looked down at the floor and took a deep breath expelling it slowly. The chimpanzee then looked up and caught Burke’s eye. “I take it you disagree?”
“Me?” Burke looked surprised. “I wouldn’t let her near me with a barge pole.”
“A very long stick Galen. There’s more to her than meets the eye, I grant you that - but whatever she’s got, no good will ever come of it.”
Galen smiled. “You sound like Felix.”
Burke shrugged. “Felix has his head screwed on… for an orangutan.”
Galen frowned trying to decipher the puzzling comment and gave up. “I’m really not comfortable about attempting to raise the dead,” he said firmly.
“Forget about it, that’s absolutely not gonna happen,” Virdon assured him. “And because it’s not gonna happen then it’s best it doesn’t happen with you right beside her.”
“Oh boy!” Burked breathed, pushing himself away from the table.
“No wait! Hear me out. Maggia has already come right out and said that there’s nothing to be gained from any of this but that’s not what Ann wants to hear. Maybe she will accept it easier if she were to just hear it along with others.
“She’s more gullible alone you mean.” Burke stated.
“Not gullible Pete… desperate, she’s clutching at phantoms because there’s no one living and breathing to stand by her side. That’s where Galen comes in, that’s where we come in. If she sees us accepting things for how they really are then maybe she will too.”
“So what’s it gonna be… A seance?” Burke’s eyebrows climbed higher.
“A what?” asked Galen again.
“A ritual Galen, for communicating with…”
“The dead.” Galen whispered.
“Count me out,” Burke said flatly.
“Fine, then you can stand guard outside,” Virdon replied irritably.
“But what if….” Galen’s unfinished question trailed away into nothing. Virdon’s logic was always dependable but it was also based on one thing. That Granny Mags couldn’t do the things she claimed.
What if she could?
As much as Galen loved his father the thought of speaking to his spirit filled him with mortal dread. In his opinion the dead should stay dead and keep politely quiet about it. But what if his father decided to be unquiet?
He swallowed hard and noisily.
He didn’t believe in ghosts.
He didn’t believe in witches.
So why then, was he so apprehensive?
“Nothing’s gonna happen Galen… trust me,” Virdon assured him.
Galen did trust him… but found on this occasion it wasn’t helping.
“You withdrew the guards from the widow’s house” Zaius accused.
Urko shrugged, “All but one, what of it?”
“WHY? The Orangutan demanded.
“Because she’s not there and I need the extra security - now, more than ever. My guards can and will be put to better use re-enforcing the perimeter of the City. If the fugitives take the bait I intend to catch them.”
Zaius fumed, what was so wrong with the Head of Security that he was quite unable to arrive at even the simplest of conclusions without aid?
“Is there a problem?’ Urko asked. “You seem a little upset,” he added with a measure of personal satisfaction.
Zaius sighed. “I still believe there is the distinct possibility that Virdon, Burke and Galen might take advantage of the celebrations and enter the city.”
Urko shrugged. “Don’t concern yourself, just leave it to me. The guards are still in place, only the uniforms have been relieved of duty.”
Zaius nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, yes, a highly commendable strategy but we both know that Virdon is far from stupid.”
“Even the wily fox can make a mistake.”
“The fugitives know the risks, Urko. Even with security seemingly at the lowest it has ever been.”
“But what other choice do they have… If they want to see the widow they…”
Zaius glanced at the dark skinned ape. That’s it Urko… think it through, you’ll get there in the end. “But the widow is not there… Is she?” He prompted. Urko frowned, it was painful to watch. “A coincidence?” He asked at last. At least the gorilla didn’t need that one answering for him. He span around and called over his captain.
“Sir.” The trooper asked snapping to attention and saluting.
“Did the widow receive any visitors this morning?”
“Yes sir, but none of them matched the profile.”
“Who were they?” Asked Zaius.
The trooper struggled to recall. “Why… err… a vendor of flowers, a human came to repair a faulty door hinge… and an orangutan – ”
Zaius was all attention. “This orangutan? Has he a name?”
“I should imagine so sir.”
Zaius waited and then realized with dismay that was the only answer he was ever going to get. He sighed and tried a different approach. “What business did he have with the widow?”
“Unknown, Sir, our instructions have always been never to harass anyone that does not match the description of the fugitives.”
“Yalu insisted upon it,” Urko added irritably, “You and the Council agreed to it.”
Zaius stared at nothing, reviewing all possible scenarios. “He is their messenger,” he said to himself. “What lies in this place she has gone to visit, these northern woods?”
Urko shrugged, “Not much, mostly swampland… and the old witch.”
Zaius looked up, surprised to see both Urko and his captain visibly unsettled by talk of the hermit. “Granny Mags? Is she still alive?”
The gorilla captain nodded, cautiously. “Very much so sir, the widow visits her frequently. My troopers are not required to follow.”
Perhaps under other circumstances the mighty Urko might have demanded why but today he kept his silence and simply looked awkward.
Zaius snorted irritably at this stupid, superstitious nonsense. “Well today they have no choice but to follow. Assemble your guard – we too will pay this hermit a visit.”
Zaius strode off to fetch his own horse leaving the two gorillas to glance at each other with unease.
“Assemble the troops.” Urko grumbled with no discernable enthusiasm.
Felix appeared first announcing himself proudly with the covert whistle he had finally managed to master. Once Virdon had satisfied himself that all was well he waved Ann forward and Galen’s widowed mother stepped into view.
Mother and Son gazed at each other across the small dirt packed clearing that served as Granny Mags's yard. Neither knew what to say – both knew what to do. They rushed towards each other and Galen swept her up in his arms, crushing her to him. He had come to help, to make things better, to re-assure and comfort.
He failed spectacularly.
Everything he had kept bottled up inside came out in a great flood of emotion. The hardened fugitive was gone and in his place was a small lost and lonely child. The very same child that had once run to his mother with a cut finger or bruised shin.
He cried. A great, shuddering burst of pure, raw heartbreak that no words could ever express. His tears quickly soaked into his mother’s dress marking the deep, green, material with damp spreading stains of grief.
Ann swallowed hard not trusting herself to speak.
Her own eyes brimmed with tears and she squeezed them shut, trapping the moisture behind the lids. Words would come, the time for talking would follow – but right now all that mattered was that they were here for each other. Her boy, her beautiful boy was in her arms and needed her at this desperate time. She would not fail him nor make him talk at a time when words were redundant. Instead she held on, stroking his glossy black hair and absorbing his hitching sobs into her comforting embrace.
Felix dabbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. This was too painful to observe and so he turned away wondering where there was in this world that he might possibly go. He wasn’t a part of this, he wasn’t real family and didn’t really belong. He felt lost, choked, and in desperate need of some direction.
And then a smooth, mostly hairless, brawny arm fell across his shoulder and the tall, fair-haired human gently led him to one side where Burke also waited. He felt none of the revulsion or contempt he had once felt for these strange companions. He was now quite glad of their presence and welcomed the camaraderie. They said nothing, spoke no words, just walked out of sight and waited together beneath spreading the branches of an ancient tree.
The worst of it had passed. Galen felt shaky and oddly numb, but somehow all the better for having given in to his grief. For a while longer his mother continued to gently stroke his hair but at last, the time for words had come. With a final sniffle, Galen wiped his nose with the back of one hand and his eyes with the other. He gently pulled away from his mother’s arms, not quite ready to look her in the eye.
“What happened?” he asked quietly, with bowed head.
Ann sighed, “A disease of the blood,” she answered sadly. ‘The Doctors had no cure, not even Kira or Leander were able to help... and they tried so hard.”
“Did he suffer?”
Ann shook her head. “At first he was afraid, he refused to accept he might even be ill. Then… he grew weaker with each passing day, but no… no, I don’t think he suffered.”
“I wish I could have been there… There was so much between us left unsaid. I should have been there… to comfort him – instead I just added to his hurt.”
Anne shook her head. “Galen, the sickness that took your father will forever remain a mystery… His great pride and unconditional love for his son will not. In those final days, his greatest fear was only that you might endanger yourself by coming forward.
Galen felt the tears welling up again, he gulped noisily and looked away.
“As for things left unsaid… For that I believe I may have found a solution.”
“I’ve done told you, it’s a waste of time cause he don’t have nothing to say!”
The wizened old creature known to most as Granny Mags threw up her spindly arms in frustration as she found herself now cornered by three determined apes and two stubborn humans. “Why won’t you listen to me girl! You’re husband is at peace, best you be leaving him that way.”
A misty-eyed Galen pushed his way to the front. “Maggia, we’ve spoken about it, this will be the last time, I promise you. Mother has agreed that if you are unable to make… contact… then we will let the matter lie.” He turned his head and fixed Ann with a knowing look. “Is that not correct, mother?”
Ann bowed her head and nodded slowly. This decision had obviously not been hers. “It is now my belief that my husband did not wish to make himself known until all those that he loved were present.”
you think that includes two brainless humans and an equally hopeless ball of
orange fluff.” Mags spat. Burke snorted with amusement at the indignant
expression on the face of their new orangutan friend. As humans they were
used to insults flying thick and fast. For the dignified prefect of the
Maggia stood in the corner of her kitchen staring at her floor, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. “It don’t do no good keep stirring up things that best be left alone.” She grumbled.
“One more time and that’s it.” Virdon urged.
“You ain’t got no say in this.” Granny Mags shot back vehemently. “Don’t want none of your kind around if I go calling, don’t want none of them other’uns come answering.”
“Don’t want us to see any trade-secrets either huh?” Burke added earning a stabbing glance from the old ape that would not only curdle milk but shatter any pots that contained it.
“Ain’t got no secrets.” Mags answered. “Which is more than I can say for some around these parts.”
Burke’s cocky grin faltered momentarily and he fell silent.
“I would like all my friends present.” Galen added, bringing the conversation back into focus. “Whatever species they happen to be.”
Burke shook his head firmly. “I told you Galen, I don’t want any part of this.”
“Look,” Virdon cut in quickly. “Pete will wait outside and keep watch - that’s not a problem. I’ll be in here as an observer, I won’t take part I’ll just be off to one side watching out.”
“For my friends.” Virdon answered carefully.
Mags stared awhile and then sighed wearily. “I guess none of you are going to leave me be till I give you what you want.” She complained.
Virdon grinned. “Guess not.”
“I’ll need to prepare some things.”
“Yeah, I bet you do!”
Virdon shot a look of irritation at Burke. “How about you just keep watch outside huh?”
Not even trying to hide the disgust on his face, Burke shook his head, turned and stepped out into the yard.
“Can we help?” The blond astronaut asked.
“Nope… “ Mags replied. “Been doing this since before you were born.”
Virdon smiled. Well that clinched it – she didn’t know everything.
“I don’t normally do this on my own… I usually get Jessica to help me.”
Jessica was the closest thing Maggia had to a friend. The old Ape had done something for the orangutan’s family in the past, something magical by all accounts and ever since Jessica would come by once, maybe twice each week to see if Mags ever required anything of her. Jessica was always present at what Mags referred to as her ‘beck-nins’.’
“Perhaps I may serve in her stead?” Felix offered.
“Or would you like my son to go fetch her?” Ann asked.
“No time.” Mags grunted irritably. “We just gonna have to muddle through on our own.” She reached into the fire and pulled out a burning twig then used it to light a small pot filled with what looked like kindling. Smoke began curling out in thin wisps and Virdon sniffed cautiously, not recognizing the scent.
“Sit yerselves around the table.” Mags invited, and her four ‘guests’ made to do so. “Not you!” the old female spat at the sole human in the room. “You go get yerself well out of the way of any mischief yer liable to cause.” Virdon glanced at Galen and shrugged helplessly, stepping back toward the window. From there he found he could both watch the proceedings and see Burke pacing up and down outside in the yard.
“We all ready?” Maggia asked. Ann nodded and squeezed Galen’s hand, which was held in her own. “Then all join hands.” Mags instructed. She took Galen’s with her right and Felix’s with her left. Between them sat Ann completing the circle.
Mags closed her eyes and fell very still.
Galen’s heart was thudding so painfully in his chest he fully expected someone to demand he keep the noise down. His mouth was dry and he licked his lips nervously. Nothing will happen, he reminded himself without conviction. Over by the window he could see Virdon continuing to carefully observe and for that the young chimpanzee was immeasurably grateful.
Granny Mags grunted and jerked her head to one side causing even Virdon to start. He grinned sheepishly and Galen realized that he too was feeling the tension.
“I feel ya drawing close,” Mags said suddenly. “Like crows gathering in the branches of a tree… but I ain’t got time nor inclination to talk to yer all.”
Virdon’s eyes narrowed, the old ape wasn’t talking to anyone he could see. It was clear that she had no assistant to help perform any ‘tricks’ nor had he seen her prepare anything beforehand. If she were planning to attempt anything deceitful he was curious to see how she hoped to pull it off. Talking to people no one could see proved nothing. Even he could do that.
He shivered and then frowned. Was it getting colder? He saw Galen purse his lips and exhale gently, marveling as whirls of condensed air were blown from his mouth.
What the hell?
“I’m calling on Yalu, husband to Ann and father to Galen. They are here and would hear what he has to say… Is Yalu one of those among you?”
Despite everything that Virdon knew to be true he felt the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to prickle. Even with the benefit of millions of years of evolution, the primordial fear of the unknown was never far away.
“Yalu…” Mags persisted. “Your kin are here… is there nothing that you would say to them - just to give them peace?” Galen glanced at his mother and saw her staring unblinking, captivated by the performance of the old female. His own heart continued to race and he looked over at Virdon again, continuing to draw an additional measure of courage from the mere presence of his human friend. “Come forth Yalu… I urge you. Come forth and make yourself known to those dearest to you.”
Mags stopped speaking, took a deep breath and went very still.
Felix felt a curious but not unpleasant tingling in his fingertips and looked down at the table. He was startled to see small blue and white filaments of light, flitting around their clasped hands like tiny fish. His nostrils flared in and out as he shot a look at Ann who, unperturbed, merely nodded, and smiled reassuringly.
Then Virdon saw it too. His brows creased together in a puzzled frown and he leaned forward for a better look.
Was that it?
How was she doing that? “
“Janus you ollllllld wrrrrrrrrretch!” Mags suddenly blurted in a totally unfamiliar voice, making all those present jerk back noisily in their seats. “Why can’t I see you?” The old women tilted back her head and clenched her teeth.
“Ahhhhh, you ain’t Yalu…” she admonished, this time in her own recognizable tones. “Stand aside, yer turn will come. It’s Yalu and only Yalu that we seek this beck’nin.”
Felix couldn’t help himself. He glanced down at his crotch anxious to discover if, as he suspected, he had just soiled himself. He strongly suspected his relief at finding he hadn’t would be very short lived.
Maggia’s eyes suddenly snapped open and she fixed Felix with a mad eyed stare that he found quite unnerving. Her eyes swiveled in their sockets as she stared equally aghast at first Ann and then Galen.
“HOLY CHRIST! - THEY’RE APES!” She suddenly bellowed at the top of her lungs.
Burke twisted his head as he heard the commotion from within the hut. It sounded like Granny Mags was pulling out all the stops and putting on one hell of a show. Giving ‘em their money’s worth he thought ruefully. He had no time for any of this. All they were doing was trying to hold on to the past and what was the point in that? It just couldn’t be done. Life was all about moving on.
Things changed… shit happens…
It didn’t pay to go getting attached to anyone or anything in this world because inevitably it was always going to be ripped away from you one way or another. Virdon of all people should have known that but there he was, right in the thick of it. Burke half suspected that maybe his old friend was secretly hoping for a personal message all of his own.
He didn’t approve but he couldn’t resist taking a peek and wandered over to the small window, He cupped his hands over the frame and was about to peer through when a new sound caught his ear. He paused, cocked his head and listened carefully.
“Shit.” He hissed, heading for the door and breaking into a run. “Heads up! We’ve got company!”
Granny Mags jerked so violently in her seat, one of the legs cracked noisily and splintered away. Somehow she didn’t topple over but she lost her grip on Felix and Galen thereby breaking the circle. Virdon surged forward to help support the old female.
“What’s happening!” Galen demanded, standing back from the table. “What’s wrong with her?”
“It appears to be some form of seizure,” Felix observed quite helplessly. “A convulsion of the brain.”
Mags suddenly yelled in a shrill but nonetheless, definitely male voice. “THEY’RE HERE! WE HAVE TO RUN, HIDE! WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF THE CITY!”
“What? What city?” Felix asked his companions, “Central City? Is there something amiss with Central City?”
Ann covered her mouth with horror and could only watched as Mags continued to scream warnings and protests in what was beginning to sound like a dozen different voices. She covered her ears only partially drowning out the awful din.
Outside Burke was shouting warnings of his own.
“We have to go… Now!” he yelled through the window.
Virdon managed to keep his hands on Mags’ shoulders but try as he might he could not prevent her body from thrashing around in her chair.
“JESUS CHRIST THEY”VE DROPPED A BOMB!” She wailed.
“IT’S GONE… IT’S GONE… COMPLETELY GONE!”
Burke burst into the room and was now hustling Felix and Ann back out through the door. “Just run, head for the trees and split up, don’t stay together… go now.” he whirled around and for the first time truly took in the sight before him. The old ape was in her chair spasmodically jerking in all directions at once. Virdon stood above her, hands outstretched but no longer touching. Galen knelt by her side, holding one paw and patting it with concern. On both their faces were expressions of horror and awe.
“My God, Pete!”
“HOW!” Mags bellowed. “HOW CAN THEY? THEY”RE ANIMALS, THEY”RE JUST ANIMALS!”
Burke felt his skin crawl and for a moment or two he too was frozen by the sight. Then he remembered why he was there. He forced the urge to stop and stare and grabbed Virdon’s forearm instead. “C’mon, we have to go! Just leave her Alan, she’ll be fine.” Of course he had no idea if that might be true but right now it was a choice between her or them.
“But those voices Pete, listen! Those ‘other’uns’ she mentioned before. The ones she didn’t want bothering her… they’re not apes… they’re human!”
“Whatever.” Burke allowed. “Look, we’ll discuss it later, okay. Now let’s move.” He glanced over his shoulder and out of the door. At the edge of the clearing a troop of mounted apes were just riding into view. The noise they made was like a slap to Virdon’s face and more than enough to snap him out of shock. The spell was broken, Urko and his four troopers had already dismounted and were headed their way. The blond haired fugitive frantically searched for a means of escape, finding only one.
“The back window! Let’s go!”
Burke gripped the table, lifted it and smashed it back down. “You’re the nearest – what are you waiting for?” he yelled, wrenching one of the loosened legs free for use as a club.
There was absolutely no time to argue - Virdon threw himself through the opening, headfirst. He hit the ground in a roll and managed to find his feet. He crouched warily, relieved to discover his actions had only one observer… Zaius.
The orangutan sat motionless upon his horse, apparently waiting for the all clear from Urko. His nostrils flared as he locked eyes with his human adversary across the clearing and silently condemned him for the lack of trust that had led to this moment.
A mutual lack of trust he realized and dismissed the bothersome notion instantly.
All this happened in barely a heartbeat.
“Urko!” Zaius shouted, “They’re escaping through the window!”
Virdon swore and called over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off the watchful orangutan. “Pete, Galen, C’mon!” He hissed.
Barely glancing at Maggia, who now sat unmoving and slumped forward in her seat, Burke hauled Galen to his feet and pushed him without ceremony toward the window – simultaneously, the first of the gorillas rushed through he open doorway. Burke caught Virdon’s eye and something passed between them, a shared realization that the situation was lost. His lip curling in contempt Burke shoved Galen out of harm’s way. He spun around to swing the table leg with all his might, catching the lead ape a good one around the side of the head. The gorilla grunted, dropped his weapon and crumpled in an untidy heap.
And then they were all over him.
Virdon could only watch as his friends were quickly overwhelmed. He took a step forward - insanely poised to climb back in and go to their aid - when part of the window frame exploded under the impact of a bullet. He threw himself to the ground when another bullet slammed into the side of the hut where he had just been standing. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, stumbled, and then launched himself into a sprint heading for the cover of the scrub. Behind him there were more gunshots. He pushed himself harder, faster - while all around, whining bullets cut whiplash trails through leaf and bush.
Urko pushed his way into the hut and appraised the situation quickly. The towering gorilla glanced uneasily at the old witch slumped forward in her chair. Dead, perhaps? He hoped so, and quickly forgot all about her. For there, kneeling on the floor, hands on heads were Burke and Galen. Urko took a deep breath and savored the moment, smelling the air like it had been scented with freshly, fermented fruit juice. He wanted this moment etched upon his mind so in his retirement he could sit and remember every tiny detail.
Zaius came up behind him and the gloating Commander stepped aside to allow him through.
“Virdon has eluded us,” the orangutan complained bitterly and Urko sneered. He should have known better than to expect the Orangutan leader to be pleased with his catch. Zaius’s gaze fell upon the kneeling Galen and he struggled to hide the mixed emotions he felt. He would have much preferred it had Galen been the one to escape but the matter was now out of his hands.
“BASTARDS!” Mags screamed suddenly causing them all to jump and the gorillas to falter in their aim. GODDAMN MONKEYS. BELONG IN A ZOO THE WHOLE LOT OF YOU!”
While the troopers looked at each other fearfully Urko and Zaius traded private glances of their own. “Zaius… What’s that she’s saying?” Urko asked.
“IT’S THE END… THE END OF THE WORLD… IT’S BECOMING A PLANET OF APES!”
The ape soldiers began to whisper fearfully among themselves. There wasn’t a gorilla among them that didn’t know - or fear - the legend of Granny Mags. Zaius raised his hand and curtly silenced the chatter.
“IT”S NOT FAIR! THIS IS OUR WORLD… NOT THEIRS… WE WERE HERE FIRST… NOT THEM!”
Urko saw Zaius grow pale even as he watched. Ordinarily he would have found great satisfaction in such a sight but this time it only added to his own feelings of unease. He drew his pistol, he didn’t quite know why but it felt better just having it in hand.
Zaius felt his flesh creep, it was a horrible sensation over which he had no control. The Orangutan barely managed to hold his own anxiety in check. He had no idea what it was he witnessed - but he knew it was not for casual eyes to also observe. “Urko… order your soldiers out of here! All of them… NOW!”
Urko hesitated for only a moment, he never took kindly to being given orders but this time obeyed. He barked a harsh string of commands at his soldiers and they certainly didn’t need telling twice.
“Take them with you,” Zaius ordered, pointing at Galen and Burke. The prisoners were hauled to their feet to be dragged away. “And guard them well!”
The room was now empty, save for Zaius, Urko and, and the ancient being known as Granny Mags. She had fallen quiet again but who knew how long that might last?
“What is this Zaius… Sorcery? Is it true then, what they say, is she a witch?”
Zaius chewed his lower lip. He knew the stories concerning this ancient creature but had regarded them as mere superstition. He reached out warily and pushed her head backward, exposing her face to the light. Urko grunted, a mixture of disgust and trepidation. There was something odd about her - which was plain for all to see. Her face carried features that were found in all species of ape - but never at the same time.
Zaius grunted in annoyance. That was impossible…
Yes… but if the conception were aided by magic?
NO! That’s enough!
He was a firm believer in faith and science – not childish fairy tales. He was losing focus, the only thing that really mattered here was that this creature had knowledge of something she should not. That was something he could not ignore.
“Sorcery of the darkest kind,” he informed Urko, choosing an answer that he knew would influence and satisfy the gorilla most. “Sorcery that might tear this world apart if it were allowed to go unchecked.”
“Shall I shoot her?”
Yes! Thought the old orangutan but he shook his head slowly. “No, she will be disposed of along with the others. It will serve as a lesson to any that would unite themselves with blasphemy.”
“Virdon, over here.”
The blond human turned his head toward the sound and saw an orange furred paw beckoning him from the cover of the trees. He ran forward to find Felix and Ann crouched among the abundant shelter.
“Where is Galen, have you seen him?” Ann pleaded breathlessly. Virdon didn’t know quite what to say but his expression told her all she needed to know. She covered her muzzle with her paws and grew pale.
“And Burke?” Asked an equally shaken Felix.
“Yeah, Burke too.” The human reluctantly admitted.
“Then we must attempt to liberate them – and without delay.” Felix began to search for a weapon of any sort while Virdon held up his hands.
“Wait Felix, wait, we need to think this through.”
“Virdon… Urko does not think… he acts - swiftly and decisively. While we are here making plans he will… “Felix glanced at Ann and allowed his sentence to go unfinished.
“Zaius was there too, Urko won’t be allowed to give free rein to his instincts. Take my word for it, they’re both alive…”
For now, he thought.
“Please tell me you have a plan.” Ann begged. “You always have a plan, please tell me you have one now.”
Virdon grimaced and tried to look everywhere but at the face of Galen’s mother. “I need time to think,” he muttered. These were the times he hated most, when it was all down to him. He was not the wade-right-in-and-see-what-happens, type that Burke so often was. He was a planner, a strategist. He would wait for something to happen and then take advantage of it.
And if nothing did?
No, he would not allow himself to think like that.
This was his fault. Had he been a stronger, wiser and more decisive leader, none of this would ever have happened. He felt someone touching his hand and looked up to see Ann searching his face.
“This isn’t your fault.” She said softly. “Felix told me how you tried to prevent Galen from coming here.”
Virdon dropped his gaze and stared at his fingers wrapped in hers. “I’ll get them back ma’am. Right now, I’m just not sure how.”
“What of Maggia?” Felix asked. “And would you care to explain in words that even I can understand just what the devil happened in that room?”
Images of the old ape thrashing in her seat flooded Virdon’s mind. Good point Felix, he thought. Just what the devil did happen?
“Look, Felix, Ann. The truth is I don’t know much about anything right now. Galen is with Pete and Pete knows how to look out for them both so that’s a kind of plus. As for Maggia, I don’t know. All I know is I have to get back and find out.”
“Then what are we waiting for, lead on,” Felix answered.
“No! - Look… I’m an old hand at this. You two aren’t in any trouble. No one saw you, no one knows you were there. Felix, take Ann home and leave this to me okay.
“NO!’ The two apes both chorused.
“Please, the both of you. If you want this to end well then let me just do what it is I do. We’ve gotten each other out of worse scrapes than this but I can’t afford to be distracted by looking out for either of you. Felix, take her home and wait for word that we’re okay.”
Felix bowed his head, annoyed that the human was so probably right. He wandered off to the side mumbling curses under his breath. Ann stepped forward.
trusts you. You might like to know that his father trusted you too… and
therefore, so shall I.” She leaned forward and lightly kissed a startled
Virdon on the forehead. “Go with God, Virdon, that’s an old expression. I
think it’s meant for both Ape and
Virdon didn’t know quite how to respond and so he just nodded.
Felix ambled over and awkwardly punched Virdon lightly on the arm. “Numerous swamps and bogs litter these woods. During these hours of darkness, it would be a risky undertaking indeed to even attempt to lead horses back to the city.” The orangutan smiled weakly. “I would say, without wishing to sound at all theatrical, that you have at least until dawn.”
Felix turned and took Ann’s arm and led her away. As he watched the two apes move off back towards the direction of their home, Virdon hoped their trust in him wasn’t misplaced.
Moving swiftly and silently, he made his way through the dense trees. Back to the place Granny Mags had called home for many years. After the rainfall of the previous night the day had been blisteringly hot and for that he was grateful. The ground was dry, the humidity long gone and replaced with a dry, parched heat. It made his exertions easier. He stopped behind a tall, thick, hardwood tree and crouched down beneath its shelter to observe. He was able to see for a fair distance – and able to see exactly what he didn’t want to.
A small makeshift camp had been pitched outside of Maggia’s home. Even though her hut offered shelter the generally bold gorillas had no intention of spending a night under that particular roof. A part of Virdon thought this might be good news although he had no clue exactly why, or how he might take advantage of it. Back in the city he knew he would have no chance of helping his friends, out here in the woods there was at least a vague possibility of doing something useful. He pulled a reed of dry grass and set to some deep thinking while he chewed upon it thoughtfully.
He could see that Galen and Burke were tied, sitting down with their backs against the trunk of a tree. For a moment Virdon experienced a dizzying rush of déjà vu as he remembered another night, when two strange visitors, bound in a similar fashion, had been approached by an over inquisitive chimpanzee, eager to ask questions about an unusual book.
A lone guard sat and watched over them, his rifle hanging loosely over his thighs while another patrolled the perimeter of the camp. Two more lay sleeping, until such time as they would be called upon for their shift. Urko and Zaius sat far off to one side, speaking in hushed whispers.
That left only one unaccounted for.
He spied Maggia sitting with her back against a tree all of her own. Her hands were untied but a length of rope had been knotted around one ankle, the other end of which was fastened to a metal spike driven deep into the ground. She was evidently not considered a high risk and although the guards gave her a wide berth they could continue to watch over her.
Virdon supposed it might just be possible, while the gorillas were changing shifts to sneak in, free his friends and be away… but what about Maggia? They were the ones who had come knocking on her door and dragged her into their business. Had they left her alone then she would still be enjoying her preferred life of peace and isolation.
Why was she a prisoner anyway? Was it because she had attempted to help them in some fashion? That she had been found in the company of fugitives?
Of course not.
It was because of the ‘uvver’un’s’…
The ‘other ones’
And of the things of which they’d spoken.
“Maggia… Maggia, can you hear me?” Galen whispered.
“Keep quiet! No Talking!” The guard barked across the clearing. Galen took no notice. After all, what could they do? Execute him?
“Maggia, are you okay?”
The old female stirred, the first definite sign of life they had seen since the incident in the house and the chimpanzee’s breath escaped him in a rush of relief.
“She’s alive,’ he said for the benefit of Burke who couldn’t see in that direction.
“For a lot longer than we’re gonna be I hope.” Burke replied. He hadn’t said much since the capture, If only they’d moved when he’d said then they would probably still be free - but Virdon had been too busy with other issues.
Shit happens, Burke thought with a sigh.
“Maggia, can you hear me?” Galen asked again.
“What happened?” The old ape asked. “Them go stirring things up again?”
Galen smiled, relieved she was okay.” Well, there was certainly a commotion.” He allowed. “What happened in there, Maggia? All those voices… do you know what they were?”
Maggia examined the rope around her ankle and smacked her gums together in disgust. “Damn uvver’uns that’s who… always the same, never nothing but trouble.”
“But who are they Maggia? What do they want?”
“What they all want.” She answered. “To be heard… and they got plenty to say - but they get kinda rowdy ‘cause there ain’t no one around who knows what the hell they be yapping about…” She glanced meaningfully at Burke. “That is… ‘Till now, I guess”.
Burke had been listening to the exchange and was impressed by the accuracy of the old ape’s intuition. He leaned back against the tree to which he was bound and thought it through. Maybe she did overhear Alan speak his name and maybe she was smoking drugs that lulled her victims into a suggestive state of mind. But that performance in the hut... Those voices… The things she had said - things she couldn’t possibly have known.
What could he say? When you’re wrong, you’re wrong - and she’d proven it without a doubt. It wasn’t an act. It was real.
grimaced and snorted with derision.
Except this time it wasn’t. This time there were more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy. And… If he had been wrong about her, had he been wrong about other things too?
“How do you do it Maggia?” he asked her quietly.
“Don’t know.” The answer came floating back across the darkness, somewhere behind. “Just always could, that’s all.”
“And the other stuff, that’s real too? It’s not just cheap tricks used to lure some poor sucker into a scam”
“What other stuff?”
“Y’know, all those stories about you. Seeing into the future, turning people into toads, reading their auras…”
Maggia chuckled, “Now and again, when folks go grabbing hold of me uninvited, I sometimes catch me a glimpse of their… key.”
“Their key?” Asked Galen.
“Well, that’s what I call it anyways. ‘Cause it’s like a key, ‘cause it helps unlock what yer all about. It’s like a single moment in our lives that defines who and what we are. Sometimes you might find in the future. Most times it’s hidden in the past.”
Burke said nothing.
Granny Mags stood and shuffled over to as close to Burke and Galen as her tether would allow. The guard watched carefully, his fingers creeping down toward the stock of the rifle resting in his lap. Satisfied she wasn’t about to do anything unnatural and disturbing he relaxed, letting his gloved paw slip away. He was obviously nervous around the so-called witch and his state of mind didn’t improve when he saw her point in his direction.
“As for turning folk into toads and such, if that were true you think he’d be sitting there petting his gun - or hopping off down to the nearest pond?”
Burke smiled. “Sure you ain’t just holding back?” he asked lightly, enjoying the watching gorilla’s obvious discomfort. He was discovering that now he’d admitted to himself that Maggia was genuine it was becoming easier to like her by the minute. And even if it was a trick, what the hell did it matter now?
She got the joke and chuckled. “As for reading ‘orr-uzz,’” she continued. “Can’t say as I know what yer talking about! Like to hear ‘bout it though, kinda sounds like something I can use on the next poor ‘sucka’”
Despite his situation Burke laughed out loud, attracting again the unwelcome attention of their captors. Galen could only look at Mags and his friend and silently wonder, given their circumstances, what might possibly be funny.
“An aura is supposedly an invisible field of energy that they say surrounds all living things.” Burke explained. He could now see Urko and Zaius approaching and hastened to complete his definition. “Only those gifted - like yourself - can see this energy. I think you’re supposed to be able to tell someone’s state of health and stuff like that.”
There were several long seconds of silence while Mags digested this information.
“And you thought I was crazy?” She asked.
Zaius and Urko drew close. Urko held back, standing slightly to one side, his pistol inexplicably drawn and vaguely pointing in Maggia’s direction.
“No more talking.” Zaius ordered.
Galen looked up from where he sat bound to the tree. “Why, Zaius? Are you afraid someone might overhear what we have to say?” he asked him carefully.
“I am afraid that if you persist in speaking of things you should not then I must ask Urko to see to it that you are silenced.”
“Figured you’ll be hoping for that sooner or later anyway.” Burke added.
“Sooner or later, yes.” Zaius agreed. “But which one, I will leave up to you.”
Burke shifted trying to get comfortable. “So what’s the plan? You gonna lynch us out here or do it in style, back home.”
“The manner of your execution, Burke, will be carried out justly and well within the law.”
“And what about Granny Mags?” Galen accused. “Why is she held captive?” The chimp didn’t even bother to hide the contempt in his voice. “She’s just an old hermit. What possible threat is she to that illusion of truth to which you so desperately cling.”
Zaius glanced around the campsite reassuring him self that none of Urko’s troops were within ear-shot. “That ‘illusion’ that you would so readily subvert, is all that stands between us and the abyss. Galen, I tried to warn you once that these men are an infection. Instead of shunning them you chose to embrace their disease - and furthermore you would do all in your power to spread it amongst the pure.” Zaius glanced at Maggia but was careful not to meet her gaze. “It is unfortunate then, that the solution for plague is so often fire.”
“So you’re gonna burn her at the stake!” Burke mocked. “Congratulations, Zaius, how enlightened is that?”
Zaius retorted. “Not literally you fool and remember, it is because of you that I do what I must. I cannot be held accountable for the corruption inflicted upon everything you touch.”
“So you’re taking us back to the City,” Galen asked. “Are we there to expect a fair trial?”
“You’ve already been tried.” Zaius told him. “The City is merely where you will confront the consequences of your crimes against the state.”
“Better to just shoot us now,” Burke suggested.
Urko grew quite animated. “At last, Burke… I would not have believed it possible but there is something on which we can agree.” He gestured with his pistol and looked at Zaius hopefully.
“No Urko, stay your hand. They will meet with their fate soon enough, but when they hang, all of Central City will be there to witness it.” The gorilla greeted this news with obvious disappointment but little surprise. He turned away from the captives and faced the dark of the woods instead. “Very well then, once again Zaius, we will do things your way. They will pay for their crimes and soon enough, but know this.” He continued to speak into the dark but no longer was he was speaking to the orangutan. “If anyone attempts to rescue them, my soldiers have orders to shoot to kill. Is that clear… Zaius?”
Zaius looked out into the dark knowing the gorilla wasn’t truly speaking to him. “Perfectly clear,” he confirmed.
Virdon crept a little closer. He’d heard Urko’s threat and knew for whom it was meant. He knew the risk he was taking but he needed to get a signal to Burke. The guards were on high alert, foiling every attempt he made to draw closer. He considered birdcalls and owl hoots but knew none would be deceived. He had to think… He just didn’t have time.
“Pete!” Galen whispered urgently.
“Look, over there! A knife! One of the gorillas must have dropped it!” Burke twisted himself around. It hurt but it was worth it, for there, just a few feet away a thin bladed knife lay in the dust. Hope flared in his chest.
And died a moment later.
“I think I can reach it with my foot.” Galen whispered.
Burke cast his mind back to a time when two strangers in a strange land sat huddled in a jail, awaiting death and found the door to their cell miraculously left open. “Forget it.” He warned.
“No really I think I might be able to –”
“It’s a trap Galen… Urko is up to his old tricks again. He wants us to try and escape, then he can justify shooting us.”
Galen paused in his attempt to reach the knife and shook his head in dismay.
Stupid- stupid- stupid
“I’m sorry, Pete, I wasn’t thinking.”
Burke shrugged. “What would you do without me huh?”
Galen smiled. “Laugh now and again?”
Maggia tested the range of her rope and found she could sit much closer to Galen and Burke making any conversation easier.
“Care to take a stab at my future now?” Burke invited.
“Maggia shrugged. “yer friend’s out there, everybody here knows that, I reckon.”
“Then he should get the hell away!” Burke called aloud, much louder than appeared necessary.
“He ain’t that type.” Mags answered.
“Nah, probably not. But what about me Maggia, what type am I?” Burke asked softly.
“Thought yer didn’t want to know.” Mags responded.
“That was then, this is now. You ain’t no Wanda, I can see that now. I’m sorry for that okay. I judged you unfairly and I was wrong. But I am curious, what do you see when you look at me?”
Mags snickered. “One damned ugly human, that’s what I see.”
Burke smiled and nodded. “Anything else? How did you know my first name was Pete”
“Cuz yer friend has got a big mouth. Even when he whispers every critter in the woods can hear his lips flapping.”
Burke smiled again. Feeling a little less awkward now knowing that she might be the real McCoy but smoke and mirrors were still a big help. “And our little chat by the well - You said I was afraid you might help me - what did you mean by that?
“You got something dark hidden inside of you, that’s plain t’see. You want me to find it and pull it out, yer gotta be willin.”
“And the reason you’ve spent yer whole life runnin.”
“He has to run,” Galen answered, “otherwise Urko would kill him. Even I am able to deduce that.”
“Not just this life,” Mags answered cryptically. “But the one before too, I reckon.”
“I’m not running from anything Maggia.” Burke assured her. You’re good, but about this you’re wrong. Trust me on that one.”
“I beg to differ.” Granny Mags insisted. “You the type that think by running your whole life it keeps you strong. It’s the roots of a tree that make it strong, boy, not how far it reaches into the sky.”
“Something wrong with my roots?”
Granny Mags snorted. “That other life Burke – ‘ya have many friends?” Maggia asked. “Real friends, true friends like the ones you have now? Ones yer’d die for and ones that’d die for you.”
“How ‘bout family? Aunt’s, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and the like.”
“See ‘em much?”
“Well… it’s a little awkward right now.”
“What about afore it got awkward.”
Burke hesitated. He didn’t like to talk family, not with total strangers.
Not even with best friends.
“No.” he answered eventually.
Granny Mags closed her eyes and tilted her head to one side. Her eyes were shut but still she appeared to be searching. She found what she was looking for and began to recite. “It don’t pay to go getting attached to anyone or anything in this world. Because inevitably it’s always going get ripped away from you one way or another.”
Burke started, his eyes growing wide. Outside the hut, during the seance… he’d said that very same thing! “Jesus! Just how the hell did you manage to…”
But she hadn’t overheard…
Because he hadn’t even said it out loud.
The old ape opened her eyes and searched the human’s face. “Why you running Burke? That’s your key. If you want, I can help you find it.”
“I’ll think about it.” Burke answered, wrenching himself away from her penetrating stare.
“Don’t think too long… ‘cuz something big is coming.” She struggled to her feet and moved away to sit once more and stare into the dark.
Virdon had a plan. It was desperate and it was stupid but right now it was all he had. He crouched and watched the guard that paced the border of the camp. He would walk in a slow circle and once, in every four hundred and fifty two seconds, he would vanish under the deep shadow of an Oak for about seven seconds. It was during that seven seconds Virdon would make his move. He would overpower the guard, seize the rifle and use it to liberate his friends. The chances of success were dismal.
Nevertheless he crouched and counted.
Four hundred and two, four hundred and three. The guard began his approach into the shadows where Virdon now hid.
And then a hand fell on his shoulder.
Startled, he whirled in fear to find Felix motioning him to silence. The guard passed by, blissfully unaware and then both the human and orangutan drew back deeper into the woods.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Virdon demanded angrily.
“Try as I might, I could not abandon you. I made sure Madame Ann was safe and I turned back to assist. Your deeply moving gratitude has not passed unnoticed.”
“Did you bring an army with you, ‘cos otherwise I don’t see how you’re gonna be much help.”
“Alas, I was unable to persuade them to come. Instead I thought I might supply a diversion?”
“Leave that to me. Be ready Virdon.’ And with that he drew back into the darkness and was gone.
Granny Mags nodded and smiled, as though someone invisible had just whispered something amusing in her ear. “Ahh Felix…” she chuckled softly. Then, with more than a little effort she rose to her feet and shambled over towards the guard that dutifully watched over them. It was the very same gorilla that Burke had managed to floor with the broken table leg and he was still occupied with nursing the resulting headache. With dawning horror the gorilla ceased the gentle massage of his throbbing temple and leveled his rifle as he realized he was being approached.
“Stay back witch!’ he cautioned.
“Why Muco… That ain’t no way to talk to yer elders, now, is it?”
“How did you know -”
“Yer name… Oh, I know lots of things about you Muco. The kinds of things yer’d never want yer friends to know ‘bout.”
Burke and Galen stirred, realizing something was happening. Burke turned his head and saw Maggia, standing with her back to him - and a little further away, the gorilla Guard. The ape looked scared. Burke grew concerned, a frightened gorilla, armed with a rifle was a very volatile thing to be around.
“Stop talking to me! Just turn around and sit back down,” Muco pleaded.
Granny Mags sneered in contempt. “I don’t think I’m of a mind to be taking orders from no meat-eater!” She spat.
The gorilla went white. Galen had heard of such things but had never seen it happen. You could literally observe the blood draining from the face.
“Meat…! But how could… how…” The ape stammered.
“I can see it in yer… Oar-Ra,” Mags informed him.
His jaw dropped in surprise - and then Burke grinned. He settled his back against the tree and prepared himself to be both witness and party to a poor sucker being lured into a scam.
“My Oar Ra!” The guard groaned, horror struck. He didn’t know what that was but it sounded terrifying.
“Now you listen close and you do exactly what I tell you to, meat-eater - or I will shred your Oar-ra apart like you’d rip into a chicken.”
Galen pulled a face. He knew some apes experimented with meat but it was not something you discussed in public. It was taboo, indecent and quite revolting.
“What would you have me do?” The guard now whimpered.
“Go see yer pals, wake ‘em all up and tell ‘em… You tell ‘em hell is gonna be getting up close and personal with every one of ‘em real soon. You tell ‘em to run when they see it and don’t dare look back.” Maggia drew herself up straight, puffed out her chest and pointed one gnarly finger at the wide-eyed, Muco. “For he who looks into the face of hell shall be condemned to spend eternity therein.”
Bravo! Thought Burke, and had he been able to, he would have stood and applauded.
“Go now!” Mags spat.
The guard yelped and staggered backward, turning to run and deliver his message.
“Impressive,” Burke allowed. “But exactly what good did it do us?”
Mags sniffed the air. “Reckon yer ‘bout to find out.”
Urko’s heavy gauntleted paw slapped Muco’s face. “Compose yourself soldier!” he roared. “Now tell us again and slowly, what are you babbling about!” Zaius was looking on in equal confusion while, disturbed by the commotion, the two soldiers that had been sleeping now got to their feet and shuffled over.
“The witch!” babbled, Muco, “she’s going to bring down hell upon us. We have to leave this place!”
Urko reached across, grabbed the unfortunate’s vest and pulled him close. “You don’t know the meaning of hell,” he growled into Muco’s face, “but you soon will, if you don’t start making sense!”
Zaius glanced at the two guards that had now joined them and then saw to his concern that the perimeter guard was also approaching. “The prisoners!” he snapped. “Who watches over them?"
“Idiot!” Roared, Urko, sending Muco spiraling away to land in the dust. “All of you arm yourselves and follow me.”
He had watched the exchange between Maggia and the gorilla but Virdon had been too far away to make out any words. He could tell by posture and body language that the guard had been growing increasingly agitated. He turned his head and saw the one that paced the perimeter still going about his business when the first suddenly bolted away leaving Pete, Galen and Maggia shockingly unguarded.
He quickly sought out the two sleeping gorillas and found them both still snoozing.
He was about to move when he heard shouting. He froze and ducked back into the shadows. The two sleeping guards began to stir, disturbed by the noise. Groggily they grabbed their rifles and shuffled away to join the mayhem. Virdon tensed as they passed by within just a few feet but he remained undetected. The border guard too was now abandoning his duty.
This was it.
‘Hurry.” Mags whispered.
Virdon dashed forward, drew his own knife and slashed at the ropes holding Burke and Galen captive. They fell away and the two ex-captives climbed to their feet wincing in pain from the sudden rush of returning circulation in their limbs. “Get out, go!’ Virdon hissed.
“Granny Mags?” Galen reminded him.
“I’m on it - just go!”
Burke pulled the chimpanzee away. “C’mon Galen, just do as he says!” They managed to take three steps and then pulled up short. Urko and four armed gorillas were rushing forward, closing fast. “Dammit,” Burke hissed.
Virdon’s knife had already sliced through the rope around Maggia’s ankle. He was about to lend her support when he was surprised to find himself elbowed firmly to one side. Granny Mags strode past him, directly toward Urko and the approaching mob.
“Maggia no! Back this way, come on!”
She ignored him and deliberately placed herself in a position directly between the soldiers and the fugitives. She raised her arms and Urko and his gorillas slowed to a walk.
“Shoot her!” barked Zaius, standing just behind.
Urko, the only one brave enough to do so, raised his pistol and took aim.
“No!” cried Burke moving to force himself between Mags and the inevitable bullet. The old ape smiled and placed a withered hand on his shoulder.
And she shifted.
There came a crash, flinging him about within the confines of his seat belt. A noise, inhuman, huge, sounds of shrieking metal filling his ears. The car skidded, no FLEW, over the blacktop, rubber squealing in protest. The vehicle flipped and he hit his head, hard. A soda can flew through the air, spewing a map, fluttering wildly. The car left the road, bumping over the grass and rolling upright. Another impact, slamming into them from the right. The side of the car caved as if tin. His heart pounded crazily from the burst of adrenalin. Then his face slammed into the window, and it was as if a bomb ignited in his vision: a bright white blast, and brilliant colors exploding from the center. Then blackness.
Burke could feel it. It was like when he had been a kid and had put his tongue on the contacts of a toy’s battery - except this was all over.
Maggia blinked in surprise and momentary confusion. Then she gathered herself and irritably pushed him to one side. For someone so small she was surprisingly strong. She stood her ground and pointed to something behind the gang of apes.
“Hell’s coming!” She warned them.
Urko turned slowly, half expecting the oldest trick in the book, but instead he grunted in surprise… and fear. This sound, one never before heard on the planet of the apes, caused the other gorillas to turn also and see what had so unsettled their leader.
In the distance, approaching with the speed of a charging horse, a wall of fire was sweeping through the dry, parched trees.
“Good Lord,” gasped Virdon.
It was the face of hell
Muco dropped his rifle and screamed! “Run! Run and don’t look back!” The others needed little convincing for the witch had already warned them of this. Their frayed nerves had reached breaking point and snapped almost audibly. They forgot their duties and dashed for the horses.
“Come back!” Zaius hollered after them.
Thick choking smoke marched well ahead of the crackling flames and billowed out from the trees. Urko cursed, raised his pistol and centered on Virdon, his finger already tightening on the trigger. A cloud of smoke momentarily obscured his view and when it passed the fugitive was gone.
The gorilla roared in fury, his great shaggy head whipping in all directions at once as he searched for the others. His eyes began to tear. He saw movement in the smoke, pointed the pistol and fired.
“Urko! Stop firing! It’s me!” Zaius shouted.
The gorilla swore again and in an impotent rage hurled his pistol at the direction of the roaring inferno. Raw, wordless fury poured from him in a string of spittle-laced expletives as he screamed into the face of the approaching flames.
He barely saw Zaius ride by, trailing another horse by its reigns. The orangutan slowed for only a moment. “You can stand there and burn - or you can ride with me to safety. Excuse me, but I do not intend to wait around while you make up your mind.” Zaius dropped the reigns to the spare horse and spurred his own away.
Virdon coughed and tried to wipe thick, coiling smoke away from his tearing eyes. This was bad - and getting worse by the moment. The very thing that had saved him was now about to take his life.
He coughed again. That was Pete, he tried to call out but smoke filled his mouth and throat and he could only splutter. He tripped on a knotted cluster of roots and pitched forward, falling to his knees.
Not like this, he moaned to himself.
Then someone gripped his arm and he was pulled back to his feet.
“This way,” Burke gasped.
He half-led, half-dragged Virdon over to the well and practically threw him in. Virdon’s hands instinctively fumbled before him and by chance more than design, fisted over one of the iron rungs embedded into the walls. He righted himself and began to descend, closely followed by Burke.
Above their heads the wall of flame swept its way across the dry grass, eagerly snatching and consuming every thing in its path leaving precious little in its wake. Granny Mags’ shack began to smolder and then ignite. First the thatched roof exploded in a puff of orange flame and then the wooden walls began to catch, before collapsing inwards. Like a ravenous animal, whose appetite remained unsatisfied the inferno searched for more to consume. Flowers wilted and blackened, grass curled and bubbled - and trees, some older even than Granny Mags fell screaming into the embrace of the merciless fury of the firestorm.
Moisture from the bark vaporized and escaped as whistling steam. Branches buckled and fell crashing to the scorched earth. The sound of countless leaves hissing in flaming ruin united to create a symphony of flaming devastation.
Now, still clinging to the rungs and safely deep enough underground Virdon looked below him and saw the flickering lights of candles beneath his feet. The chimney-like wall of the well opened up into a bell shaped cavern, through which a lively but narrow underground stream cut through two dry banks before disappearing deep into the earth.
Virdon allowed himself to drop the final few feet and landed awkwardly, one foot on a dry sandy bank and the other in the ice-cold stream. He moved to one side and heard Burke drop down behind him. Both men continued to cough, trying to empty their irritated throats of the scratchy taste of smoke while Galen and Granny Mags dipped rags into the water and help clean the soot away from their eyes.
“Was… that… fire… your idea?’ Virdon asked Maggia between coughs.
“No, it was mine.” Felix admitted stepping into the small pool of light and holding out two earthenware mug filled with clean water. Virdon and Burke gratefully took the offered drinks and swallowed them down.
“You set fire… to the whole Goddamn woods!” Burke accused.
“You can’t prove anything.” Felix blurted defensively.
“You knew this well was here, right? Virdon asked. “You knew we were never in any danger?”
Felix licked his lips and considered his answer carefully. ‘Of course.” He said after too long a hesitation. The two humans looked at each other and shook their heads.
“Mags, Galen… You two okay?” Virdon asked.
“I didn’t think it was possible that I could ever smell any worse,” Galen announced by way of reply. “It turns out that I was unequivocally wrong.”
“And I just knew from the moment I first saw him that the damn firebug would end up burning me out of house and home.” Mags added in a told-you-so voice.
The inferno swept by and at a last finding nothing left to consume began to falter in its ferocity and slowly die. When he considered it safe to do so, Virdon climbed the ladder first, poking his head into a smoldering world of soot and ash. Columns of smoke rose into the air in more places than he could count. The black, carbonized remains of once noble trees stood charred and steaming. The ground was still hot to the touch, but not so much that you couldn’t walk on it.
“Wow!’ Burke gasped as he climbed out from the well just behind him. Everything of color had gone and only the harsh shades between black and white remained.
The smell of wood smoke was still thick in the air, permeating everything.
Granny Mags climbed out next and said nothing; just staring at the white and black cinders of the place she had once called home. Galen and finally Felix climbed out along side her and all five stood in silence surveying the devastation all around.
“Could it have spread to the City?” Virdon asked.
Galen shook his head. “Only the smoke. The woods end a good way before the City starts. Though I feel sorry for anyone who may have hung their washing out to dry.”
It was kind of funny but nobody felt like laughing.
Granny Mags was walking around the area poking at this and that with her feet.
Felix stepped forward. “Maggia, words cannot express how sorry I am. This is all entirely my fault.”
“Damn right it is,” Mags grumbled, “ya useless ball of orange fluff!” The orangutan bowed his head in shame while the old ape continued to survey the damage, tut-tutting and grumbling all the time. “Come on,” she sighed eventually. “We need to git moving. It won’t be long before your friends come riding back to see what’s left of yer.”
“But where can we go?” Asked Galen.
“Somewhere nice and peaceful.” Mags answered
Sunlight filtered down through the leaves and branches of a small wooded glade. It was the very antithesis of the place they had left behind. Instead of dry black there were rich greens and vibrant browns. Instead of the acrid stench of smoke there was the fragrant scent of growing flowers and verdant grass. Instead of the snaps and pops of charcoaled remains there was the carefree song of birds and the buzz of bees collecting pollen.
And then there were the headstones.
One of the most recent bore the Epitaph:
Here lies Yalu
Devoted husband and beloved father
“You sure it’s safe for us to be here?” whispered Burke to his blond friend.
“No,” Virdon answered softly while continuing to keep watch. “But for once, I don’t care.”
Burke thought about it for a moment and nodded. He turned to see Galen, Maggia and Ann as they stood by the side of Yalu’s grave.
“Why have you brought us here?” Galen asked, his voice thick with emotion.
Maggia smiled, insulated herself and touched his arm. “You’ve both been wanting to talk with yer father… well, now’s yer chance.” The wizened old female touched her knuckles to the young chimps forehead and Galen reached up to hold them there for a few seconds longer. Maggia nodded and left them alone.
“They gonna be okay?” Burke asked as she passed him by.
“Who knows” Maggia answered, “Yer’d be needing someone who can see into the future to be able to answer that.”
“And Ann? I don’t suppose you’d care to fill me in on how she knew we’d be here?”
The old Ape smiled mysteriously. “Maybe her orr-rah led her.”
Burke smiled warmly and let the old female pass him by. She almost did but stopped for just a moment. She did a quarter turn, and looked at him over her shoulder. “Don’t ferget yer Pee-Jays, Pee jay,” she said, softly, almost inaudibly.
The smile froze on his lips and melted away.
He stared in silence and felt something shift inside of him, almost like a key turning in a lock. He was quite lost for words as his throat grew blocked with a strange swelling sensation.
Maggia winked and moved on.
Burke bowed his head and touched one finger to the corner of one eye, grateful to find no tears actually leaking out. He sniffed and blinked rapidly and then for some stupid reason pretended to sneeze. If anyone cared to look that would at least explain his condition.
He turned again and saw Galen and his mother standing by Yalu’s grave. Suddenly he wanted to join them.
“Goodbye Felix, be sure to take good care of Maggia.” Virdon said. “I’m glad she agreed to go with you.”
Felix shrugged, “It is well within my power as Prefect to provide her a home as far away from Aymar as she might like.”
“As far away from you as I’d like, I think you mean,” Mags grumbled. “Serve you damn well right if I upped and moved right in with you, now wouldn’t it?” Felix winced and bowed his head. “Sure you don’t mean for me to be lookin’ out for him,” Maggia shot at Virdon.
“Tell you what… How about you look out for each other.” The two apes regarded each other and then both reluctantly nodded.
“A most agreeable solution,” Felix agreed and then held out his paw. “ Farewell Alan Virdon, it has been a revelation.” The fair-haired human took the offered hand and pumped it enthusiastically. “Stay well Felix.”
“Are you quite sure I should not stay and accompany Madame Ann back to her home?”
Virdon shook his head. “Too risky I’m afraid. But don’t worry, she’s not implicated in any of this - and even if they do suspect -”
“No one can prove a thing.” The orangutan added with a grin. Felix turned to Maggia indicating he was ready to leave.
“Maggia?” Virdon offered warily.
“You know I don’t like being touched.” The old female said.
“I didn’t… But I do now.”
Virdon smiled and nodded. “I understand.”
Maggia nodded once and she and Felix moved on. They took a few paces and she stopped. “Aww hell,” she grumbled. She turned around, did her best to insulate herself and held out her withered paw.
Virdon stared for a few moments, smiled and shook it.
Maggia swayed unsteadily stared at the human hand held in hers and then up at the curious smooth face that watched her carefully.
“What did you see?” Virdon asked her.
She shook her head. “nuthin,” she replied and then turned and left.
An unconvinced Virdon watched her go.
“How you doing?” Burke asked the silently grieving mother and son who stood side by side with slumped shoulders and bowed heads - but as he expected there was no answer. This was family business, if they didn’t want to share then he - more than anyone - understood.
“You know, you’re lucky,” he said softly.
They both looked up at that, slightly surprised, slightly hurt. Galen was in no mood for any of Burke’s teasing. He saw the human peering at him with concern. Saw the moistness in his eyes…
Saw something had changed.
“Burke… are you feeling alright?” Ann asked.
He gave a lop-sided smile, fooling no one. “Yeah, sure. I’m fine. Maybe a cold coming on, that’s all.”
Ann stared a little longer and then nodded, deciding to let it slide. “ Then why are we so lucky? What do we have that anyone else could possibly want?”
“Memories,” Burke whispered.
“Pete… what are you talking about?” Galen sighed.
Burke said nothing so Galen waited, resisting the urge to push for more information. He knew that wouldn’t work, not with Pete. In all likelihood it would just have the opposite effect and he’d refuse to talk about anything.
He knew the human well and knew that here was a man who didn’t take kindly to questions of a personal nature. At the beginning of their relationship he had asked about family and all the other questions you ask when getting to know someone, but he’d soon realized they were rarely answered and most definitely unwelcome. Burke very rarely spoke of his past and if you wanted to be his friend then neither did you. Galen knew when to back away.
Predictably, Burke had fallen silent. Well that’s that, thought Galen - but then the human surprised him and began to talk again.
“My parents died when I was very young, I can’t remember much about them, I never kept any photos. I can’t remember what they looked like or the sound of their voices. All I remember was being happy when they were alive and miserable after they’d gone.”
Galen thoughtfully looked away, allowing his friend could talk more freely without the uncomfortable burden of knowing he was being observed.
“They were gone and grieving wasn’t gonna bring ‘em back. So I moved on. Since then I’ve kept moving on. I’ve never been big on dwelling on the past. I’ve always tried my best to forget it. Became pretty damn good at it actually…”
The Chimpanzee nodded with sympathy and comprehension, it explained Pete’s casual acceptance of the here and now and why he had never been as dedicated to returning to his own time as Alan.
“So what just happened?” Ann whispered.
Burke confirmed her suspicions simply by turning his head to gaze at the about-to-depart figures of Granny Mags and Felix, who stood waving their goodbyes. “Don’t rightly know…” He replied, waving back. “Someone found a key I guess. They found a key and opened a door - and things I’d thought I’d forever put away all came back in a rush.”
“She said something?” Galen asked.
“Oh yeah… she said something. I’d forgotten, you see, how my mother looked, how she smelt. How she talked and how she laughed. I mean that Galen, seriously, I’d honestly forgotten it all.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “And what she’d say to me every night, right after she’d send me up to bed… She’d say ‘Don’t forget your Pee-Jays Pee Jay’”!
Galen nodded, not too sure of what his friend was talking about. Maybe it was relevant to his own loss but he couldn’t see how. He turned back to his father’s grave and felt Burke’s hand on his shoulder.
“Galen… What I’ve been trying to say is that no one is ever really gone unless you forget them. Believe me, I’ve tried… but with Yalu… that isn’t going to happen. He’ll always be there, in your heart, in your memories. He’ll always be there when you need him.”
Galen stared at Pete again. Something had changed all right, something behind the eyes. He nodded and gave his human friend a small smile. “Thank you, Pete. May we have a moment alone please? I promise we won’t be long.”
Burke nodded and went off to join Virdon, leaving Galen alone with his parents.
“Such words… and from the mouth of a human. It takes some getting used to.” Ann confessed as she watched Burke walk away.
Her son nodded. “Yes, it does, but then Pete Burke has always taken some getting used to.”
“Do you wonder about them?” Ann asked suddenly. “No, not you’re friends… I mean the un-quiet. Do you wonder who they were, what they wanted?”
Galen pressed his lips together. He had wondered of course, who wouldn’t, but he hadn’t had the time to form any satisfactory answers. “Who were they? Simian… Human… it doesn’t matter… and what they wanted?” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps they just need someone to listen.” He paused considering Pete’s words. “Or perhaps they were just afraid of being forgotten.”
Galen looked up and caught a subtle nod of the head from Virdon. It was time to move on. He tilted his own head in reply and saw Virdon wink. Galen knew his blond friend was loath to suggest he rush but they were pushing their luck.
He turned his full attention back to his mother.
“When I find myself thinking of them I tell myself that perhaps it’s best not to – for all that matters to me is that Father is not among them. For that I am truly joyful.” He pressed his knuckles to her temple. “Will you be all right, would you like me to stay around a little longer?”
Ann smiled lovingly at Galen. So tall, so wise… and so like his father. The human was right, she thought. Yalu was far from being forever gone from their lives. A measureless part of what he had been now stood before her. The thought gave her comfort.
“I’ll be fine.” She said - and for the first time since the death of her husband, she actually believed it.
For Roy and Les