Memory moves us past each other
Time is a ribbon without end
Love is the lesson we keep learning
Death but a moment we must spend
Alan Virdon shielded his eyes as he looked out over the stretch of sand. Behind him, his companions—a dark-haired human and a chimpanzee—knelt by a stream filling water skins. After two days of hiking through the trees and dense undergrowth, the lush vegetation had stopped abruptly. A few dozen yards beyond the stream, the soil under foot turned sandy, and for as far as Virdon could see, the dunes rippled beneath wind and sun, dotted periodically by rocky upwellings.
The other human came forward to stand next to his blond friend. He raised his hand to his forehead and also gazed at the wasteland ahead. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. Even under the shelter of the forest’s edge, the temperature was climbing.
“I don’t know, Pete.” Alan brought his hand to his chin and absently rubbed it. “Could be the Mojave, maybe Death Valley. Or it could be that the climatic changes over the last thousand and some years have created deserts where there were once cities or forests. I’m not exactly sure how far we are inland, so who knows. We’re a long way from Central City and the coast, that’s for sure.”
“So what do we do, turn back?” After months of running from the apes that controlled the area where their ship had crashed, Pete Burke still deferred to the decisions of his commanding officer. Even their chimpanzee companion Galen tacitly agreed to the leadership of a mere human. Virdon pushed them ever onward in his own quest to find a way for him and his fellow astronaut to return to their own world—this world, only over a thousand years in the past.
“We will, if we know what’s good for us,” Galen interjected cryptically. The chimp had been acting more and more nervous over the last couple of days, and it was beginning to wear on Burke’s last nerve.
“Ok, Galen, something’s been eating you. Spill it.” Burke turned toward the chimp, hands on hips.
“Nothing is ‘eating me,’ although if we go in there,” he gestured toward the sandy expanse, “that could change.” Both humans were now giving him quizzical looks. “This is the Forbidden Zone. Nobody goes in there. At least, not if they expect to come back out.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean, Galen? Remember, we’re not from around here,” Burke pressed.
Galen sighed in exasperation. “There are legends. Horror stories used to frighten children. But Zaius told me that long ago, expeditions of apes were sent to explore. Most of them never returned. The few who did talked about being attacked by monsters that killed and ate apes. No one has gone back there in a long, long time.”
Virdon pursed his lips and cocked his head, as if listening to some sound that only he could hear. He knelt in the sandy soil and picked up a handful, letting it trickle back out between his fingers. “Well,” he said, standing up abruptly, “if we wanted to go on, we would need supplies to take with us. Water at least, and more than we can carry in these small bags. My suggestion would be to camp here tonight. Maybe try to skirt the edge heading north and see if we can go around. Unless something interesting presents itself. But right now, it just looks like endless sand.”
Galen scowled, “Are you telling me you seriously want to consider going in there? Haven’t you listened to a word I said?”
“Galen, I hear you. But somewhere out there,” he pointed straight ahead across the expanse, “is Houston, that I’m sure of. I seem to remember from the map in the Council chamber that there are settlements running just north of the Forbidden Zone that stretch pretty far east. Look, I agree that we don’t want to try our luck in a desert when we aren’t sure how far it extends. So if we go around it, will that satisfy you?” Galen gave a small nod of concession. Virdon turned back to squint across the sand again, as if he could see his destination in the distance. “Man, what I wouldn’t give for a couple of camels, huh, Pete?”
Burke smirked, “Yeah, just be careful what you wish for. I hear they spit worse than a gorilla.” He glanced surreptitiously behind him at Galen, who was wrinkling up his muzzle at the astronaut’s imagery.
“Apes do not spit. Not even gorillas,” the chimp growled. “That is a nasty human habit.”
Darkness came quickly to the desert, with no real twilight over the sandy reaches. And with the darkness, the temperature dropped. The fugitives decided to chance a fire, a rare luxury when they were trying to avoid detection by patrolling gorillas. They had made several trips back into the wooded area before dark to gather wood and food. They found some large waxy leaves that they could use to wrap extra food for their packs in case supplies became scarcer further along.
Alan took the first watch, as usual, while the others got some much-needed rest. The sky above the desert was crystal clear, and he passed the time looking at the stars, trying to imagine how all the old constellations from Earth’s past would look now. Was that cluster of five stars Cassiopeia? It was shaped a little more like an X than a W, and who knew how the wobbling of the Earth’s rotational axis would affect the positions of the stars in the celestial sphere, assuming he was even right about the date.
The landscape stretched out before him, the shadows of the rippling dunes seeming to move and dance in the flickering light of the fire. The desert could definitely play tricks on the mind—that much he remembered from trips to the Salt Flats in Nevada to train for missions. But here and now, it was peaceful. And quiet. Aside from the occasional snoring from one of his companions, the only sounds were the soft susurrations of small animals moving through the sand in front of him or through the underbrush of the forest behind him.
And eventually, his thoughts turned to his family as they did almost every night during his watch, especially when it was as uneventful as this one. A thousand years ago, had Chris looked at these same stars through the telescope he'd gotten for Christmas? To him, they would always be frozen in time just as they were on the day he left. Chris would always be ten years old; Sally would always be his beautiful wife just starting to experience the passage of her middle years. He couldn’t bring himself to think of them aging, living their lives without him, eventually dying, and turning to dust. No. Best not go there.
He was just getting a bit maudlin when he heard stirring behind him, shuffling footfalls. A hairy hand came to rest on his shoulder.
“Alan,” Galen spoke his name quietly. “Why don’t you go ahead and get some rest? I’m up now, and it’s too cold to get back to sleep right away. I’ll watch and wake Pete when I get tired again.”
Virdon turned his head toward his friend with a small nod of thanks. Sometimes Sally came to him in his dreams. Maybe tonight would be one of those nights.
They started out the next day trudging through the scrubby underbrush along the margin of the desert. A few stunted trees provided a pittance of shade, but that didn’t prevent the arid breeze from making them hot and uncomfortable. Just as the sun was reaching its zenith, they came to a small sheltered gulch that gave more shade. They stopped and ate a quick lunch from their packs.
Virdon was reshouldering his pack when Galen spotted the four figures on horseback silhouetted against the high sun, as they reined in on the rise the fugitives had just walked down that morning. Gorillas, and one of them wore a familiar helmet signifying a general.
Urko! Virdon had been sure that they had left the ape commander far behind. They hadn’t seen a gorilla soldier in weeks, and he figured they had finally traveled too far east for Urko to follow. And now he turned up again like a specter from the past, still dogging their trail.
Without any signal, the three fugitives began to flee, running for the cover of the trees beyond the scrub. The ring of thick vegetation that surrounded the Forbidden Zone would make pursuit on horseback difficult and provide ample hiding places for the three to hole up if they could get far enough ahead of the gorillas to disappear. As they ran beneath the first real trees, they heard the exclamations of the gorillas. They were spotted. The sound of hoof beats followed them into the broken quiet of the forest.
They crashed through the thick undergrowth, Burke in the lead, being the most long-legged and nimble. Virdon held back to stay with Galen, who had more difficulty running over the uneven terrain. Burke’s head swung back and forth scanning for the best and easiest route through vegetation. Occasionally, he glanced back over his shoulder to make sure he didn’t get too far ahead of his friends.
The three fugitives broke through the trees into a clearing, unprepared for the sight they found there. Across the grassy ground lay a tumble of cut stone blocks. They could see even from this distance that they were engraved with large letters.
“V E G – A L B E R Q U H Y R T U B E”
Burke skidded to a halt, pointing to the stones with one hand, the other stopping his blond friend. “Alan, look!”
“Not now!” Virdon looked back over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of their pursuers. Galen pulled up on the other side of Burke.
“What?” the chimp asked, then followed his friend’s outstretched hand. “Oh!”
“No time now, we’ll have to come back,” Virdon ordered, disappointment heavy in his voice. He clapped Burke on the shoulder and started forward again. The other two followed.
About halfway across the clearing, the world dissolved into chaos.
Before he even opened his eyes, Virdon felt the pain of a heavy weight pressing on his legs. He tried to take a deep breath, but instead his mouth filled with dirt that set him coughing. When he reached up to brush the dirt from his eyes, he realized he was on his stomach, his face half buried in soft earth. It wasn’t until he tried to roll over that he remembered the pressure on his legs. He levered himself up on his elbows enough to look over his shoulder at the pile of loose debris covering part of his lower extremities.
“Pete? Galen?” he called. No answer.
Slowly, he pulled each leg free and considered himself lucky that neither snagged on anything sharp or jagged. Miraculously, other than a general ache that reached a crescendo in his head, he seemed uninjured. Looking up at the daylight slanting down through the ragged opening above, he estimated that he must have fallen at least twenty feet into… wherever this was. The crumbling brick and concrete walls curved as they rose, suggesting a vaulted ceiling where there was now a gaping hole.
“Pete! Galen!” he called again.
A couple of yards away was another larger pile of rubble—big blocks of concrete with rebar rods tangled and twisted, now partially covered with a layer of broken bricks and dirt. It wasn’t until he got closer that he saw the human form lying among the wreckage. He hurried over to his fellow astronaut, panic tight in his throat. He reached for the outstretched arm, gripping the unresponsive hand and feeling at the wrist for a pulse. So much blood, spreading a crimson stain across the lower right half of the blue shirt, a piece of broken rebar protruding from its center like an arrow in a bull’s eye. Another patch grew around a shorter piece of ribbed metal jutting from Burke’s left shoulder. His head lolled to one side, inclined lower than the wounds on the slanted rubble.
There. A flutter of a pulse.
“Alan?” Virdon heard Galen call weakly. He skirted around the mound where Burke was impaled and found the chimpanzee a short distance away, slowly climbing to his feet, covered in dirt and dust.
“Are you all right?” Virdon asked urgently as he helped pull Galen upright.
The chimp put a hand to his head, his other arm held close to his body. “I… I think so. Where’s Pete?”
“He’s hurt. Come on.”
When they got to Burke’s side, he moaned softly, his right hand swinging over to press protectively around the metal rod impaling his flank.
“Pete,” Virdon urged, “open your eyes, buddy.” He shucked off his vest and put a hand under the dark head to slip the padding in place. It also gave him a chance to check Burke for any head injuries. Like that’s really going to matter. The thought came to his mind unbidden, and he dismissed it quickly. Galen stood to one side, a hand on over his mouth to stifle the whimpering noise that was his first reaction to the grisly sight.
Burke’s eyes opened slowly as another moan escaped him. His gaze roamed over the metal protruding from his body and the bloody smear when he lifted his own hand, to eventually focus on Virdon. As blue eyes locked with brown, the awful revelation passed between them unspoken.
He was going to die, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of them could do about it.
Urko maneuvered his horse through the trees, pushing the animal as fast as it could safely trot through the low hanging branches. Three mounted gorillas followed in his wake. He had not glimpsed the fugitives since he had watched from the hillside as they fled into these woods. They had to be here somewhere, nearby.
The three soldiers were handpicked for their loyalty to him. Zaius and the High Council had warned Urko that he was not to pursue the fugitives past the eastern borders of the territory they controlled. When he reached those limits, he had planned to stop and go home.
But in the village of Nimar, he heard rumors of an ape and two humans who fit their description. And they had passed through only a week before. That was two months ago. By the time he realized he’d lost their trail again, he was well past the limit the Council had set. He sent back most of the patrol and kept only the three gorillas he trusted the most, then continued on his search. And now he had found the fugitives again. This time, they would not get away.
“Alan, we have to do something,” Galen insisted in hushed tones as he pulled his friend a few feet away from Burke. “We can’t just leave him there.”
“There’s nothing we can do, Galen. We can't get that bar out of his side, it's too long. Even if we could, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’s bleeding internally, and we have no way to stop it or repair the damage. Trying to move him would just cause him more pain.”
“So that’s just it? All your advanced knowledge, all your cleverness and ingenuity, and there’s nothing you can do?” The bitterness in Galen’s tone shocked Virdon.
“Not a thing except to try to make him as comfortable as we can.” His shoulders slumped in defeat, making Galen regret his outburst.
“Oh, Alan, I’m sorry. It’s just—“ his voice broke. “How long does he have?”
Virdon rubbed a hand over his face, trying hard to not let all the emotion he felt show. “I don’t know. Maybe an hour or two.”
“Al?” Burke’s voice quavered.
Virdon returned to Burke’s side, grasping the outstretched hand. “I’m here, Pete.”
“Thirsty,” he rasped. Virdon took the waterskin from around his neck and lifted his friend’s head so he could drink a little.
“Not too much.” After a few sips, Burke nodded that he was done. Virdon wet a scrap of cloth and wiped down his pale face. “How bad is the pain?”
“Oh, y’know, I’ve had hangnails that were worse.” But he winced as a spasm forced a pained moan from him. He gripped Alan’s hand again and squeezed hard. “Distract me, Al. Where the hell are we?”
Virdon looked around and saw Galen poking aimlessly amid the ruins, trying to find something, anything that they could use to help their friend. The main area that they were in looked like a waiting area with the shadow of a stairway leading upward, half blocked by a pile of rubble. A small tree on the edge of the clearing had tipped over in the cave-in and now rested on the other side of the room. They could easily climb out if they wanted to escape. The remaining wall was the only one that wasn’t stone; it was metal with a small line that ran up the center. Obviously a set of doors, but how they opened was a complete mystery.
“It looks like a subway station, but I’m willing to bet whatever ran through here wasn’t anything we’d recognize. I’m guessing the inscription topside said Vegas to Albuquerque and some sort of tube. That’s a hell of a long way for something to run underground.” Virdon looked around again, wondering what century they had tumbled into the middle of now.
“Yeah, but if the tunnel is intact, you could follow it all the way to Albuquerque. That’s be fantastic, Al. That’d get you under this desert.” You. Not we. Not us.
Galen returned and laid a hand on Burke’s uninjured shoulder. The chimp looked lost.
“Hey, Galen, find anything good?” the younger astronaut asked.
“No. The stairway is blocked and what I can see beyond it doesn’t look any better.” Galen’s voice was subdued. “Pete, I—I’m sorry, I was hoping I’d find something to cut this metal with, at least, so we could—“
“S’okay, Galen,” Burke interrupted him. “I know, I know.” He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them wide in alarm as he grabbed Virdon’s arm. “Urko! Damn, Al, I almost forgot about Urko. He couldn’t have been far behind us. What if he finds this place?”
“Yeah,” Virdon looked sheepish. “I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about that, but I haven’t come up with any ideas yet.”
“I could climb up and keep a lookout,” Galen offered, gesturing toward the tree. He needed to feel like he was doing something useful.
“Doesn’t matter,” Virdon said grimly. “We can’t move Pete. If Urko comes, he comes.”
Burke’s brows knit together. “No, you have to leave!”
“You can’t be serious, Pete. I’m not going to abandon you here.” Virdon turned toward the chimp. “Galen, if you want to go, I’ll understand, but I’m staying here.”
“But if Urko finds you here, Alan, he’ll…” Galen couldn’t finish the thought.
“Al, listen to him.” Burke insisted. “There’s nothing you can do here, except get yourself captured, or… worse. I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself, especially when it’s not going to make any…difference.” His breathing grew more ragged. “Promise me, Alan Virdon, that you will leave if Urko comes. I don’t want the last thing I see to be you getting yourself killed.”
He fisted a handful of Virdon’s shirt and pulled him closer with surprising strength. “Promise me!” Burke’s head dropped back, his eyes squeezed tight from the grimace of pain that the exertion cost him.
“Okay, okay,” Virdon snatched Burke’s hand as it dropped limply and pressed it tightly between both of his. “I promise.”
When Virdon raised his face to look at Galen, his eyes were shiny, but the chimp saw something else through the misery—a touch of defiance.
“I’ll be right back, Pete.”
Burke nodded, his eyes still closed.
Virdon drew Galen toward the downed tree, out of the other man’s hearing. “Galen, go keep a lookout. But if the gorillas come, we’re going to hide in that stairwell. You said it was blocked further up. Is there enough room for us to squeeze in?”
Galen blinked, confused. “Well, yes, there’s room. But—“
“I’m not leaving him, Galen. I don’t care what he made me promise. We’ll hide if the gorillas come, but when they leave, when he’s—“ Virdon’s voice hitched. “I’m not going to leave him for whoever or whatever might come along. I have to make sure he’s taken care of properly.”
“I understand.” Galen knuckled Virdon’s chest. “We’ll take care of it together.” He turned and started climbing through the branches toward the sky.
Virdon turned back to hold vigil over Burke while he could, try to offer some cold comfort. What could he say to his best friend, knowing he had a very limited amount of time left? How should he say goodbye?
Burke’s skin had grown paler, and his breathing more rapid. The blood trailed rivulets down the side of the concrete, thin scarlet lines that dripped slowly into the dirt. Virdon wet the cloth again and wiped down his friend’s face, noting the blueness of his lips. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Pete, I’m sorry,” Virdon began, hoping to ground Burke with the sound of his voice. He cleared his throat, trying to swallow past the constriction he felt. “I’m sorry that we got into this mess—the whole mission. I was in charge. And if I hadn’t dragged you all over the countryside, maybe this never would have happened.”
“S’okay,” Burke muttered, his speech slurred. “Follow you anywhere.”
Alan could feel wetness on his cheeks but pushed on regardless. “You’ve been my best friend, Pete. I’ve been proud to know you and honored to serve with you. If I ever make it back, I’m going to make sure they all know what a hero you are.”
“Jus’ make sure statue shows m’good side, ‘kay?”
Oh god, I can’t do this. “You bet, pal.”
He wasn’t sure how long he sat with his face buried in one hand while holding onto Pete with the other, but he knew what it meant when Galen appeared beside him, agitated and out of breath.
“Alan,” Galen said gently, “horses coming. I’m sorry, Pete.”
Burke opened his eyes, rallying for the moment, and reached over to give the chimp’s hand a quick squeeze. “Thanks for everything, Galen. You’ve been the best.”
“Pete, I can’t—“ Virdon began, misery etched all over his face.
“Yes. Yes, you can, Al. You promised.” Burke’s eyes locked with Virdon’s, and everything unspoken passed between them. “We’re good t'go, you an' me. Now get'm outta here, Galen.” He released Virdon’s hand and laid his arm across his eyes.
Through blurry vision, Galen pulled on Virdon, worried for a moment that he was going to have to overpower the human to get him to move. But after one last look at his best friend and junior officer, Virdon bent to pick up his pack and let Galen lead him away.