Could you please explain? Why do I feel pain?
Why do I care what these humans do?
And how could they mean so damn much to you?
“Caleb!” The young woman who poked her head through the doorway was agitated and breathless. “Forgive me sir, but you must come quickly!”
Galen looked up from the tea he was brewing for Virdon. “What’s happened?” He’d dropped the “Doctor Adrian” alias he’d used while at the medical center in Central City, just in case any of the human servants there talked to the gorilla soldiers. So far, their luck had held true; neither Urko nor any other gorillas had come to the village looking for a chimpanzee and two humans.
“It’s your servant, Brokk. He’s been arrested!” She wrung her hands nervously. “The Prefect says you have to come right away.”
Galen glanced through the curtained doorway to the sleeping area where Virdon rested, trying not to let his panic show on his face. What kind of trouble has he gotten into now? Burke’s impetuous nature had gotten them into sticky situations in the past. It sounded like it was going to take all of Galen’s considerable charm to get his friend out of trouble again.
“Just a moment,” he told the girl. He shuffled over and ducked through the curtain. Virdon was sleeping. Hopefully he would be back before the man woke. He returned to the main living area and the waiting girl. Holding out a hand to indicate she should proceed, he followed her out the door.
“Do you know what happened? What did Brokk do?” Galen asked. The girl probably didn’t know anything, but he hated going into situations blindly.
“He struck Overseer Solan,” she told him in anguished whisper.
Galen’s steps faltered as he felt the blood drain from his face. Overseer Solan was an ape. The penalty for a human striking an ape was death.
Oh Pete, what have you done!
Three weeks earlier
Alan Virdon tried to let the swaying of the cart lull him into sleep, but every time one of the wooden wheels hit a rock—and the road seemed to be made of nothing but rocks—the sudden lurch made his side twinge. He turned his head to look across the gloomy interior of the covered wagon bed at the man lying next to him. Pete Burke rested his head on one of their backpacks with his arms folded across his chest. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed. Sleep was the only refuge they had against the boredom of the long trip. They didn’t even have the luxury of watching the landscape go by or making small talk. With Galen still in his doctor disguise riding in the driver’s box with Travin, the orderly from the medical center they had just left, the two astronauts were relegated to hiding in the back under a tarp. The plague flag that flew in warning from the front was a great deterrent to anyone investigating further, implying they would find only disease-riddled corpses being transported to a burial site. But to maintain the pretense, Burke and Virdon had to stay still and quiet until they were well outside the city limits.
Virdon pressed his hand against his bandaged abdomen as the cart jolted over another rock. Two days ago, he’d undergone surgery to remove a bullet from a wound he’d received from a soldier’s rifle. Even with the skill of Galen’s surgeon friend Kira, they’d had to steal a book on human anatomy from the private library of Zaius, head of the High Council. Ape doctors simply didn’t study human anatomy. And even with the book, the position of the bullet had proven tricky. Virdon had almost died on the table.
Travin’s brother lived in a village a day and a half by horse from Central City. Close enough that they could risk moving Virdon in a wagon, but far enough to buy them some time before General Urko picked up their trail again. Time for Virdon to recover so he could travel on foot and even run, if necessary, to evade pursuit. The three fugitives rarely had more than a couple of weeks when they didn’t run afoul of Urko’s gorilla patrols.
The next heave of the cart sent a sharp pain shooting across Virdon’s stomach. He groaned and reached over to grab Burke’s arm.
“Pete,” Virdon gasped. Burke rolled up onto his elbow, instantly alert to his friend’s distress. “How soon… until we’re there?” He winced in pain, pressing the palm of his hand down harder. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and clung to his upper lip.
“I don’t know.” Burke’s brows furrowed together with concern. “Let me check with Galen. Maybe we can take a break, okay? Just hang on.”
Burke knocked on the wood panel separating the back of the cart from the driver’s box. The end of the tarp lifted as Galen peered through the opening.
“What is it, Pete?”
“Can we stop for a while? Alan needs a rest.”
Galen’s face disappeared, and Burke heard him talking to Travin. The cart slowed and rocked as it turned off the road. Galen pulled the tarp up further. “The coast is clear for now. Travin says we should be able to stop here for a bit. We’re just going to pull off the road a little more.”
Burke nodded then turned his attention back to Virdon, whose eyes were shut tight against the pain. “We’re stopping for a while, Al.” He touched the back of his hand to Virdon’s forehead. Cool, if a little clammy. But no sign of fever.
The cart rolled to a stop then creaked and shifted as Galen and Travin climbed down. When the tarp was thrown back, Burke squinted into the sudden bright light. He held out a hand to Galen. “Give me your canteen, would you?” He poured some of the water onto a scrap of fabric and wiped down Virdon’s face. Virdon opened his eyes, but Burke could see the misery in them. He reached over to lift Virdon’s hand from his abdomen. “I’m just gonna check your stitches, okay?”
Burke winced when he lifted Virdon’s shirt and got a look at the bandage swaddled around his torso. A yellowish-orange fluid soaked through the gauze pad, with dots of bright red across it in a line. Damn it, Burke thought. Not good, not good at all.
“How’s it look?” Virdon asked. He started to raise his head to peer down at the wound then dropped it back to the makeshift pillow with a groan.
“I need to change the dressing,” he told Virdon. “You’ve got some drainage.”
He pulled over the bag of supplies that Kira had packed for them—fresh bandages, a bottle of some sort of sharp smelling disinfectant, and even some suturing material in case the stitches pulled out. He peeled the soiled dressing off the wound; Virdon hissed when it snagged on the sutures. Burke tried to keep a frown off his face as he examined the ragged incision and the blood-tinged discharge that oozed from it.
He poured the disinfectant onto the wound, cringing as Virdon yelled from the pain. “Sorry, Al.” Virdon pounded on the floor of the wagon with his fist until the sting abated. After soaking up the excess liquid, Burke put a new dressing in place. He wiped Virdon’s face again with the moist cloth. “Try to get some rest. I’m gonna go talk to Galen.”
He gingerly lowered himself from the end of the cart, trying not to jar his friend again. Nodding to the chimp to follow him, he walked beyond where Travin was feeding and watering the horse, out of Virdon’s hearing.
“Alan doesn’t look so good,” began Galen.
“Yeah, this trip is a lot harder on him than I anticipated. We’re going to have to stop more often, let him rest. How much longer until we get to this village?”
“Travin says if we keep going at this pace, we’ll be there by midday tomorrow.”
“Well, we may have to slow down and get there a little later. I don’t want Alan in that cart any longer than necessary, but he can’t take the pace we’ve been pushing,” Burke reasoned.
When Burke went back to check on Virdon, the injured man was finally asleep. The rest of them had a quick, meager meal from the provisions that had been packed for them. Galen helped Burke arrange the covering over the back of the cart, and they started off again.
Virdon slept fitfully through the rest of the afternoon, waking a couple of times when the cart hit a bad bump. Burke lay on his side facing his friend but was too worried to close his eyes again; instead, he watched the regular rise and fall of Virdon’s chest.
When they stopped for the night, Burke coaxed Virdon to eat a little bread and drink some water. The temperature dropped after the sun set, so Burke slept with his back pressed against Virdon’s side, a blanket draped over them both. He was stiff as hell in the morning from being in the same position all night, but he hadn’t wanted to move away and risk Virdon getting chilled.
The next day was a little better. They decided they were far enough from Central City that they could ditch the plague flag and Galen’s medical disguise to ride in the open air and sunshine. Although Burke had to change the bandage two more times when it soaked through—what he wouldn’t give for a modern surgical drain—at least the fluid remained clear, with no sign of bleeding or infection. Could be much worse, he told himself, could be a chest wound. But when they finally rolled into the village of Dagon a little before sunset, he felt like he’d never been so happy to see mud-daubed huts and thatched roofs in his life.
“Hey Alan, I’ll be right back,” Burke reassured his friend then hopped down from the cart. An older man emerged from one of the huts. His salt and pepper hair was cut short, and Burke could see the similarity in facial features between him and Travin.
“Fergus!” Travin strode up to the older man, pulled him into a rough embrace, and thumped him on the back.
“Travin, what are you doing here?” Fergus pulled back in surprise but held onto his brother’s arms. “Who is this?” He indicated Galen with a small obeisance. “Is he one of the doctors?”
Galen stepped forward before Travin could answer. “I’m Caleb,” he said, giving the new alias they’d agreed on. “My servant Ansem was treated for an injury at the medical center. Your brother said this might be a good place for us to stay while he recovered.”
Travin leaned in and spoke softly to Fergus. “They need to avoid notice.”
“Ahh.” Fergus nodded knowingly. “Well, Dagon is a very quiet village. The apes here mostly leave us alone, as long as we work the fields for our keep. Prefect Korbo will want to meet you. But he’s a fair and understanding ape. He treats us well.”
Galen nodded. “I’ll go see him first thing in the morning. This is Brokk,” he gestured to Burke. “If you show us where we’ll be staying, we’d like to get Ansem settled in.”
Fergus showed them to an empty hut. It was small and primitive, but it had a fireplace for cooking and warmth and a couple of rough beds. Travin helped Burke carry Virdon’s stretcher into the back room and get him transferred to the bed. When the orderly turned to leave, Virdon grasped his arm.
“Thank you, Travin. For everything. I owe you and your family my life.”
“I think I understand how hard it must be to live as outlaws. But you owe me no debt. You gave me back my daughter.“ Travin closed his other hand over Virdon’s for a moment. “I wish you good luck.”
In the morning, Galen and Burke walked the half-mile to the Prefect’s house with Fergus. Fields lined the road on both sides, tall stalks of corn waving gently in the breeze. Every now and then between the corn rows, Burke caught sight of humans with baskets moving among the stalks, picking ears of corn by hand. Medieval serfdom at its finest, he thought. If the apes would just learn some more advanced farming techniques, humans wouldn’t have to work so hard. Fergus pointed out their destination to Galen then ambled off to begin his daily work in the fields.
Galen knocked on the door to Prefect Korbo’s house, while Burke waited a respectful distance behind him. The door was opened by an older chimpanzee wearing a red Prefect’s collar over his brown tunic. “Yes? Can I help you?”
“Prefect Korbo?” Galen asked. When the Prefect nodded, he continued, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Caleb, and this is my servant Brokk—”
“Well, come in, come in! It’s so nice to have a visitor!” Korbo opened the door wider and stepped back to allow Galen to enter.
Galen turned to Burke. “Wait here,” he told him, falling into their assumed roles easily.
“Yes, sir,” Burke replied with a trace of sarcasm in his voice. Sometimes he got so very tired of playing the dumb human servant. Galen frowned, giving his friend a reproachful look before returning his attention to Korbo.
“Thank you, Prefect.” Galen stepped into the house. “Such wonderful hospitality you have!” Burke heard as the door closed. He leaned against the house and crossed his arms to wait patiently.
Inside the house, the two chimps sat and shared a drink of fruit juice while Galen gave Korbo the carefully crafted story he and his friends had created the night before: he was a traveling scientist whose servant had been injured defending his master from a wild boar. And although the servant was expected to recover, they couldn’t continue traveling until he did.
“Well, you are certainly welcome to stay in Dagon while he recovers. I understand how hard well-trained servants are to replace. What did you say his name was again?”
“Ansem. He’s resting in a hut that Fergus said we could use while we stayed here.” Galen had a sudden pang of anxiety that he may have overstepped what was permissible. “I…I hope that’s all right. Fergus said the hut was unoccupied.”
Korbo waved a dismissive hand at Galen. “Of course, of course. You are welcome to stay in the hut as long as you need. I wish I had better accommodations to offer you, but it sounds as though you need to keep a close eye on your servant.” He cleared his throat and lowered his gaze as if embarrassed. “But, ah, if you are going to be staying more than a day or two, you will need to provide someone to labor in the fields, as payment for your food. Perhaps your other servant? Brokk is his name?”
“Yes. Yes, that will be fine.”
“He looks like he is strong and fit. Is he a good worker? He seemed a little… impertinent.” Korbo ran a hand over his chin. “We allow the humans here a lot of leeway, provided they do their share of the work and show proper respect for their betters. As long as they do, they are treated well. I think we are very progressive in that respect.”
“Oh, Brokk is just nervous being in a strange place. I’m sure he won’t give you any trouble.” Galen smiled at Korbo, genuinely warming up to the older chimpanzee. “I think I like your progressive ways. I do admit to feeling a certain amount of… fondness for Brokk and Ansem.”
“Well, it’s settled then. Take Brokk to Overseer Solan. He’s in charge of the fields here. He’s a gorilla, but he is efficient and motivates the workers. We’ve had no problem exceeding our quotas for the last three seasons,” Korbo bragged, vainly preening the fur around his neck. “Now, I’d be pleased if you’d join me for the evening meal, and tell me all about your travels. It’s a rare thing for a country ape to talk science and philosophy with someone as learned as yourself.”
“Of course! I’d be honored.” Galen clasped the proffered hand before turning to the door. “And thank you. I think we are going to really enjoy our stay here.”
“Great, just great,” Burke groused as they retraced their steps on the dusty road to the small building Fergus had entered when he left them earlier. “So I get to play Farmer John? Alan’s the farm boy, not me, remember?” He cocked a thumb at his own chest. “City boy, born and bred—ringing any bells?”
“I don’t hear bells!” Galen exclaimed, looking around them in momentary confusion. “Oh, if I could have volunteered to do it myself, I would have. But you know I can’t do that! Besides, someone needs to tend to Alan.”
Burke raked his hands through his hair and blew out a gusty sigh. “I know, I know. Just, last time I tried farming, I almost got stuck with a pitchfork. But someone has to work for our keep, and I guess I drew the short straw this time. Except in this world, all they have are short straws.”
Galen made a sympathetic simpering noise. Hopefully once Burke saw how well humans were treated here, relatively speaking, he would stop complaining. Their situation could be much worse.
When they arrived at the Overseer’s office, they found the building empty. Galen looked down the cultivated rows at a human woman kneeling in the dirt. Galen had seen his mother do enough gardening to recognize someone pulling weeds. Looking at the narrow space between the plants, he didn’t think he could walk over to her without stepping on something important. Instead, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called, “Excuse me! I’m looking for the Overseer!”
The woman stood and wiped her hands on her apron. She walked heel to toe through the dirt, her hands held out for balance. When she got to the end of the row, she sketched a small bow toward Galen. “The Overseer will be in the corn field today, sir, for the harvest. I’ll show you the way.”
Galen and Burke followed the barefooted woman past a few plots verdant with a variety of crops. Burke heard a deep voice bellowing before they turned into an empty field. A wagon waited on top of trampled corn stalks, as humans with baskets walked over and dumped their loads of corn ears into it. The gorilla Solan stood by the end of the wagon, dressed in a light-colored homespun tunic and pants. He shouted instructions to the humans as they left with their empty baskets, directing the entire operation.
“Overseer Solan?” Galen began when they got close. “I am Caleb. I just came from seeing Prefect Korbo. We are going to be staying in the village for a while, and he instructed me to bring you my servant to work for our keep. This is Brokk.” He gestured to Burke.
Solan looked Galen up and down. “Does he have any experience farming?” he asked, a hint of a sneer curling his lip.
“A bit. He worked for another farmer a while ago.” Galen felt Burke bristling next to him at being talked about instead of being talked to directly. “But he’s a quick learner. And very clever with his hands.” He hoped the compliments would soothe Burke’s ego.
“I don’t need clever humans. I need humans with strong backs who know how to steer a plow or swing a scythe,” growled Solan.
Burke opened his mouth to reply, but Galen cut him off before he could say something that would get him in trouble. “Oh, he’s very strong. And if you show him how to do those things, I’m sure he could—”
“Well, he looks strong enough.” Solan had finally turned his attention to Burke, walking around him like he was inspecting a horse before purchase. “Does he know how to swing an axe? We have a new field we’re clearing, and all the trees on it need to be cut down and chopped up into useable wood.”
“Yes,” Burke hissed, finally interrupting. “I know how to chop wood.” He swallowed hard at the glare Solan turned on him and added belatedly, “Sir.”
Solan pinned Burke with a narrow-eyed stare, but his words were for Galen. “We finish working for the day when we lose the light. Do you need to come collect him, or can he find his own way back to you?”
Burke tried to keep his expression bland, but he could feel the flush rising in his face as he boiled inside. Galen made a tutting noise on his behalf. “He’s quite capable of finding his own way.”
“Good.” The gorilla turned his back on both of them, the conversation obviously over as far as he was concerned.
“I’ll see you tonight. Be careful, okay?” Galen cautioned, as he frowned at Solan’s broad back.
“Thanks. You too.”
A couple of days later when Solan hit him for the first time, Burke was so startled that he went down like a sack of grain. He was helping one of the women carry a basket of corn. He’d learned the day before that her name was Lyla, and he’d seen her struggling with the heavy burden as he unloaded chopped wood from the wagon into the woodshed. He quickly put down his armful of logs and grabbed one of the handles of the basket just as it slipped from her grip.
“Here, let me help you with that.” He flashed her a charming grin as he reached over and took the other handle, brushing her hand with his.
She returned a shy smile, ducking her head. Strands of long, blonde hair fell across her face where they had escaped the thong tying it back. “Thank you.”
He hoisted the basket up on the bed of the corn wagon and dumped the ears into the pile. Handing the basket back to Lyla, he caught a glimpse of her eyes going wide with fear before the blow fell across his shoulder blade.
The force of it pitched him forward, and he was able to twist just enough at the last second not to land face first in the dirt. A curse slipped out, as much from surprise and embarrassment as pain. He squinted up into the sun at Solan standing over him with clenched fists. The gorilla reached down and grabbed a handful of Burke’s shirt, hauling him back to his feet.
“Do your own work!” Solan growled, his muzzle inches from Burke’s face. Out of the corner of his eye, Burke saw Lyla snatch up her basket and scurry away. He didn’t blame her. He could feel the heat rising in his face, a sarcastic retort forming on his lips. Then he remembered that Alan and Galen were counting on him. He couldn’t afford to screw this up.
“Yes, sir,” he ground out. “I was just trying to help her.”
“She doesn’t need your help.” Solan gave him a little shake then released him. “Get back to your own task.”
“Yes, sir!” Burke responded, his hand twitching as he suppressed an urge to snap a salute. He walked back to the wagon for another load of wood, swinging his arm to get the feeling back in his shoulder.
He could do this. It was just like being back in officer training school. Drill instructors shouting mindless orders, handing out verbal abuse, and the answer to everything was “Sir! Yes, sir!” He’d survived OTS—mostly, since he had spent a fair amount of his time on extra duty or restricted to base—and he could survive this. Because Virdon needed him to.
When Burke returned to the hut that evening, Virdon was walking slowly into the outer room. He leaned heavily on Galen with an arm draped over the chimp’s shoulders.
“Hey! You’re up! That’s fantastic.” Burke smiled enthusiastically, his earlier confrontation with Solan forgotten. He snagged a chair from the table and pulled it out, grabbing Virdon’s other arm gently but firmly to help lower him to the seat.
“Yeah.” Virdon was breathing heavily and pressed his hand against his side, but he didn’t look like he was in much pain. “Kira said I should get up as soon as I felt able. I’m not ready to run any races yet, but I figure I can make it ten feet to sit and eat dinner with you two.” He smiled wanly at both of them.
Burke pulled a face and waved a finger at Virdon. “Just don’t go pulling out those stitches. If I have to stitch you up again, my sewing isn’t nearly as pretty as Kira’s.” He rubbed his hands together. “So what’s on the menu tonight, Galen? I’m starving.”
“Well, you are having turnip and parsnip stew, with corn bread.” Hannah, Fergus’s wife, had offered to cook the food that Burke had earned. “I’ve been invited to have dinner with the Prefect.” Galen puffed out his chest and stroked the fur on his chin with feigned pride.
“Again? My, my, aren’t you moving up in the world?” Burke mocked.
“I have to admit, it is nice to spend time talking to another ape in such a friendly way. Not that you two,” he added hastily, “don’t provide stimulating conversation, but I do miss the company of my own kind.”
“We understand, Galen,” Virdon replied with a smile. “Enjoy it while you can.”
After Galen left, Burke dished out bowls of stew. Virdon’s appetite hadn’t yet returned completely, but he was able to eat most of a bowlful. Burke went back for seconds.
“Galen says they have you working to clear a new field for planting,” Virdon began. “How’s that going?”
Burke leaned back in his chair and stretched out his sore back and shoulders. “Yeah, chopping and hauling wood all day. It’s no worse than calisthenics and five-mile hikes with a full pack.” He favored Virdon with a tired smile. “One thing I’ll say about this planet, it sure does save on all those expensive gym fees.”
“Well, I wish I could help,” Virdon said a little sheepishly. “You shouldn’t have to do all the work.”
“Are you kidding me?” Burke had a sly look in his eyes. “You’ve got the hard job here—you have to let that hairy little nurse give you sponge baths. If I’m gonna have a sponge bath, I want a nurse who’s got some curves to her.” He sketched a wavy outline in the air with both hands. “Maybe a nice little red-head who’s easy on the eyes.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“You would.” Virdon chuckled. “Galen says they treat the humans around here pretty well, that the Prefect is very progressive in his attitudes. Sounds like paradise compared to the rest of the area.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” Burke agreed, trying to sound enthused instead of remembering Solan’s hands bunched in his shirt. “A real paradise.”
Galen first saw Burke’s collection of bruises when the chimp accidently walked in on him while he was using the washbasin after a long day of working in the fields. A patchwork of mottled colors decorated his torso. The worst was a fresh streak of dark purple that spread across his right side from his armpit toward the center of his chest.
Burke turned with a panicked look at Galen’s exclamation and snatched his shirt from the back of the chair.
“Hey! What happened to privacy, huh?” he demanded. He quickly jerked the shirt over his head. The accompanying grimace and pain-filled grunt did not escape Galen’s notice.
Burke turned away from Galen, tight-lipped and fuming, and started to lift the basin to take it outside. But his right arm wouldn’t cooperate, and the basin slipped back to the table as water sloshed over the side. Galen surged forward and laid a gentle hand on Burke’s wrist.
“Pete—” he began, concerned.
“I’m fine, Galen,” Burke hissed, flinching away from Galen’s touch. “Just tired and hungry. I hope there’s something to eat.”
But Galen was not going to be deflected. “You are most certainly not fine. What happened to you?”
“Nothing. Just drop it, Galen. How’s Alan doing?” He decided that the stupid water basin could wait until later to be emptied. Instead, he grabbed a bowl and went over to the fire to see what was cooking in the pot.
Galen followed Burke’s movements with a look that was equal parts astonishment and annoyance. “Alan is sleeping. But maybe I should wake him up and see if he knows why you look like you’ve been run over by a horse. Several times.”
Dropping the bowl on the hearth, Burke stalked back over to Galen. “Don’t you dare.”
“Then tell me what happened.”
Burke’s shoulders slumped in defeat as he slowly lowered himself into one of the chairs. “Solan,” he admitted quietly. “Everything I do seems to piss him off. And I’m trying, I really am, to not be my usual charming self. But no matter what I do, he finds some excuse to smack me around.”
Galen sat in the other chair. “Does he hit the other workers?” he asked.
Burke stared at the table. “Sometimes. But not very often. He seems to have taken a special liking to me.” He reached around and rubbed a hand gingerly over the bruise on his side. “I think this time… I think he cracked a rib.”
“Well, this is simply unacceptable,” Galen stated, angry and indignant. “Solan thinks you are my servant. If you need discipline, he should be coming to me, not taking matters into his own hands.”
“Gee, thanks, Galen.” Burke’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “So sorry that he’s stepping on your toes.”
Galen frowned. “I didn’t mean it like that, Pete. I mean that I should be able to go to Prefect Korbo and complain about your treatment, get it stopped. Solan is overstepping his authority.”
“That’s a fine idea in theory, Galen, but I’m worried about the repercussions. Korbo and Solan seem pretty cozy. If you go and lodge a complaint about the guy who gets things done, who makes sure everyone gets fed, that might not go down too well.”
“You think he’d take Solan’s side?”
“He might. Or he might decide that Solan is in the wrong, but that we caused the problem. He could tell us to leave.” He glanced at the curtained door that led to the sleeping area and lowered his voice. “And we can’t leave. Alan can’t handle riding in a wagon again right now, never mind walking out of here. If he starts bleeding internally or gets an infection, that’s gonna be all she wrote. He needs at least another week of rest before he’s able to travel.”
Galen whimpered in the back of his throat. “Can you deal with another week, Pete?”
“Yeah. I’ll survive. I’ve survived worse,” he added cryptically. “Just don’t tell Alan about this, okay? He’ll get it in his fool head that there’s something he should do about it.”
Burke returned to the wagon for another load of wood to put in the shed. The stacks lining the back wall came up to his waist now. The village would certainly have plenty of wood for cooking and heating in the coming colder months.
He was pretty proud of himself for making the piles neater and more stable than what he’d found in the shed previously. The older stacks had the split logs all facing the same direction, so they had a tendency to roll and shift when some of them were removed. By alternating the layers perpendicular to each other, the wood didn’t lean precariously away from the wall, either.
Two more days. Two more days, and they would be leaving Dagon. They’d started stockpiling food for travelling as well as gathering other supplies that would be helpful on the road. Burke was going to be happy to shake the dust of this village off his heels. But he would miss the humans who had been friendly to them. Fergus and his family. Lyla with her sweet, shy flirting.
His smile quickly faded as Solan strode up to him with a stormy look.
“You stupid human!” Solan backhanded Burke across the face, sending him flying to the ground.
Burke slowly pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and spit a gob of blood into the dirt. He stayed there for a minute, trying to breathe evenly and get his murderous impulses under control.
“Can’t you do anything right?” Solan stood over the prone human with his hands on his hips. “Stupid, lazy, good for nothing—”
As the gorilla continued to rail, Burke forced himself back into a crouch. He watched as if from a distance as his hands curled into fists. He could barely hear what Solan was saying over the pounding of his galloping heart and the roar of his breath moving in and out of his lungs. Then Solan drew back his fist to deliver another blow.
With a guttural howl, Burke launched himself off the ground and slammed a shoulder into Solan’s midsection.
They both landed on the ground in a heap with Burke on top. He surged upward so he was straddling the gorilla. In his mind, he could already hear the satisfying crunch and see the blood and spittle flying from Solan’s muzzle as his fist drew back next to his head. But before he could throw the punch, he was seized by two sets of human hands and hauled off the struggling ape.
“Brokk, what have you done?” Fergus hissed in his ear, cutting through the red haze. Burke tried to shrug off the two men holding him, but years of manual labor had turned their grips into steel bands. A moment later, another strong forearm pressed against his throat from behind and any chance of resistance or escape died.
Solan climbed slowly to his feet, but instead of the bloodthirsty expression that Burke expected, the gorilla’s face was cold and calculating. “Bind his arms behind his back,” he ordered. He walked over to the wagon and retrieved a heavy coil of the thick rope they used to haul downed trees. He cut off a length and tossed it to Fergus.
Burke’s arms were yanked roughly behind him. “I’m sorry,” Fergus whispered in his ear as he felt his wrists being lashed together tightly.
Meanwhile, Solan took the rest of the rope and walked over to one of the trees edging the field. He threw the rope over a low hanging branch, pulling both ends down to test the strength of the branch. He began to tie a slip knot in one end.
Burke’s eyes grew wide. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. “Listen, Solan, sir, I’m sorry. I… I shouldn’t have done that. Temporary insanity. Hey, don’t I at least get a trial or something?” He knew he was babbling, but as he watched Solan draw the circle of the noose large enough to fit over his head, he didn’t care how he sounded.
“Bring him here,” Solan barked.
Burke dug his heels into the dirt and struggled vainly as the two men dragged him over to where Solan waited. He continued a steady stream of pleas.
“Shut up!” Solan bellowed. He slipped the noose around Burke’s neck and pulled it snug. The other humans stood in a wide semi-circle around them. Some of the women clung to the men, their mouths agape at the horrific scene unfolding before them.
With a menacing smile, Solan heaved on the other end of the rope, hauling hand over hand until Burke dangled several feet off the ground.
When the rope tightened cutting off his air supply, Burke started to thrash and kick, his eyes bulging. His face turned red then purple as the oxygen leeched out of his burning lungs.
“Put that human down!” Prefect Korbo’s voice cut through the crowd, and they parted as he hurried over to Solan. Lyla trailed behind him, her chest heaving from having run as fast as she could. “Let the rope go, Solan!”
Solan glared at Korbo. A silent battle of wills raged between them. Then he dropped the rope.
Burke’s vision was graying around the edges when he crashed to the ground. The rope was still tight on his neck, but a minute amount of air whistled into his lungs when he gasped. Fergus and Lyla both rushed to his aid. Fergus pulled the knot where it dug into Burke’s flesh and loosened the constriction further.
Burke coughed, sucking in whooping gulps of air between the spasms. He curled into a ball, arms still bound behind his back. He tried desperately to get enough air past his abused throat.
Above him, Solan and Korbo continued to argue.
“This human assaulted me. I’m within my rights to execute him on the spot!” Solan insisted, pointing an accusing finger at Burke.
Korbo shook his head. “If he was one of our humans, yes, you would have that right.” He looked down at Burke with a mixture of pity and disgust. “But this one has another master. And that master must be consulted before punishment can be carried out.”
“Then someone better fetch his master. Now,” Solan snarled. “I want this… animal dead before the sun sets.”
Korbo reached down and touched Lyla on the arm. “Go fetch Caleb, child. Tell him to come quickly.” He straightened and nodded at Fergus. “Meanwhile, bring him to my office. I’ll make sure he doesn’t run off while we sort this all out.”
Fergus and another man half-carried the stumbling Burke along behind the Prefect and Overseer Solan the short distance to Korbo’s office. They put him in a storage room, one of the few places in the village that had a locked door and no windows. Before the door closed and plunged him into total darkness, Burke got a fleeting glimpse at a couple of wooden barrels and a set of shelves. He shuffled slowly to one side until his shoulder bumped into the wall, then turned and slid down it to the floor.
He knew he was in deep, deep trouble this time. Over his head deep. Solan was not going to be satisfied with anything less than his death. His prospects of escape at this point were slim to none. Even if he could run, he’d be leaving Virdon and Galen behind and didn’t want to even consider what retaliation they might face. No, his only hope was that Galen could use his nascent friendship with Korbo to convince the Prefect not to have him executed.
He tried to take a deep breath to clear his head, but the air across his raw throat set off more coughing. He felt like he’d swallowed a bundle of steel wool. Poking his tongue gingerly at his lip, he tasted the metallic tang of blood where it had split open. Or could be from the blood oozing slowly out his nose. The entire left side of his face felt tight and swollen, with a hot blossom of pain centered on his cheekbone.
Sometime later—it was hard to judge time when sitting in the dark contemplating one’s execution—the door opened again. Burke squinted against the light and ducked his head.
“Oh!” came a familiar startled exclamation. “Oh, Brokk.” Galen shuffled over to him and knelt. “What happened?” he asked when Burke finally raised his face to look at him.
“I—” Burke rasped then tried to swallow, but his tongue felt like it was swaddled in cotton.
Galen turned to Korbo standing in the doorway. “Can I have some water for him, please?” Korbo gestured to Fergus, who waited anxiously behind him. Galen gently lifted Burke’s chin with one hand, tilting his face first one way and then the other to survey the damage. He hissed when he saw the red, swollen circle around his neck.
Fergus sidled past Korbo and pressed a cup into Galen’s hand. Galen tilted the cup against Burke’s lips, and the man drank greedily. The cool water felt like a balm as it slid down his throat.
“Better?” Galen asked as he pulled the cup away. Burke nodded.
“He hit me.” Burke grimaced at the sound of his own voice, hoarse and barely audible. He decided brevity was best. “I shoved him.” Galen knew exactly who he was.
“Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, Overseer Solan forgot that Brokk was not from our village. He attempted to mete out punishment immediately. I was able to intercede and remind him that this human belonged to you,” Korbo explained. He sighed sadly. “However, I’m afraid the laws are quite clear in this regard. The penalty for a human assaulting an ape is death.”
Galen saw fear in Burke’s brown eyes. Justified fear.
“Prefect.” Galen stood and turned toward Korbo. “Is it not also against the rules of your village for apes to brutalize humans, especially when that human belongs to someone else?”
“Well, yes,” Korbo admitted hesitantly, unsure where Galen was trying to lead him. “We do not allow humans to be abused. They are punished for breaking the rules, but the punishment must be moderated by reason.”
“That’s what I thought.” Galen bent down and grasped Burke’s upper arm. “Get up,” When Burke struggled to get his feet under him, Fergus took his other arm and helped lift him. “Does this look like moderation? Or reason?” Galen reached for the hem of Burke’s shirt, but the other man flinched away, shaking his head.
“Don’t. Please,” Burke whispered.
Galen leaned closer and spoke softly in his ear. “I have to. They’ll kill you if I can’t convince him that there are extenuating circumstances.”
Burke closed his eyes and nodded.
Galen pulled the shirt up to reveal the aging bruises scattered over Burke’s chest and abdomen. Some of them had faded to sickly yellow and green, but some were still dark purple outlined in red.
“I discovered these a few days ago, but Brokk asked me not to say anything. He didn’t want to cause any trouble with the Overseer.” The irony in Galen’s tone was sharp and angry.
Korbo made a humming noise and stepped closer—hesitantly, like he was approaching a dangerous animal that might turn and bite him at any second. Which in his mind was exactly what Burke was. He peered at the contusions, reaching out a finger to almost touch them, as if he wasn’t sure they were real.
“And you heard him yourself. He was being beaten. He was simply defending himself. Look at his face. Surely under such traumatic conditions, some allowances can be made,” Galen reasoned. “I’m not saying that his actions don’t deserve punishment, but perhaps a lesser penalty would be more… reasonable.” He held his breath. Burke’s only chance to escape execution hinged on this appeal.
Korbo considered, tapping a finger on his chin. “Let’s discuss this with Solan. I want to hear his version before I make any decision.” He turned to stand outside the door. “Come, Fergus, you are a witness to what went on, I’d like to hear what you saw, too.”
Fergus gave the Prefect a startled look and followed him out the door. Galen patted Burke on the shoulder reassuringly, only letting his apprehension show after he’d watched the meager wedge of light shining on his friend shrink to nothing. The door closed with a heavy and ominous thud.
Solan lounged in one of the high-backed wooden chairs that dotted Korbo’s office. Galen took the other seat across from the desk. Korbo made sure his guests were comfortable with cool drinks before settling behind the desk. Fergus stood to one side, trying to blend into the stone wall.
Galen frowned at the conviviality, as if they were about to discuss the latest scroll from Central City instead of deciding on the fate of a man’s life.
“Well,” Solan began leisurely, “when can we finish this nasty business? I have work to do in the fields.”
Before Galen could open his mouth, Korbo interceded. “Caleb has brought some new information to light. The human Brokk appears to have been harshly beaten, and, judging from the bruises, it’s been going on since their arrival. Caleb believes that you have been unduly cruel to Brokk.”
Solan’s mouth worked up and down soundlessly a few times before he roared, “What?” The icy glower he turned on Galen could have frozen a lava flow. “Are you telling me that you believe the word of that human?” he spat the word. “He would say anything to save his own neck.”
Galen could feel his own anger starting to boil over. “He wouldn’t lie.” Sitting forward on the edge of the chair, Galen jabbed an accusing finger at the gorilla. “And I saw the evidence myself. If you haven’t been hitting him, where did he get those all those bruises?”
“I am permitted to discipline the workers when they are disobedient or lazy. Is this not true, Prefect?” Solan turned to Korbo for support.
“Yes, yes, you can discipline workers. Although if there was a problem with Brokk’s work, Caleb should have been advised. Was Caleb ever told that there was a problem with Brokk?”
“No!” Galen barked. “I most certainly was not.”
“Like he would have done anything,” Solan persisted. He pointed toward where Burke was locked away. “You’ve seen the way he dotes on his humans. He lets that one talk to him disrespectfully, lets him act like he’s equal to an ape. No wonder he acts up—”
“How Caleb treats his servants is his own business,” Korbo interrupted. “What was the nature of the problem with Brokk that required such frequent discipline?”
“He is lazy! And stupid!” Solan sat back with a wave of his hand, as if the problem should have been obvious to everyone.
“I’ve never had any problem with him. He’s anything but stupid, and he works very hard!” Galen tried to keep his temper under control. Something about Solan’s attitude nagged at the edges of his mind, and he needed to focus on that if he was going to save his friend. “What exactly were the circumstances that prompted you to hit him?”
“I don’t remember! He’s a human. He does things wrong. He didn’t do the work he was supposed to be doing.”
“Begging your pardon, Prefect,” Fergus spoke quietly, stepping forward with a fearful expression.
“Yes, Fergus?” Korbo replied encouragingly.
“If I can help refresh the Overseer’s memory?” He stopped again, obviously worried about saying the wrong thing.
“One time that the Overseer… disciplined Brokk, I saw what happened.” He glanced at the sour expression on Solan’s face but pushed ahead anyway. “Kenric cut his leg with one of the axes that we were using to chop down the trees. Brokk stopped what he was doing to bind the wound, because Kenric was bleeding so badly. When the Overseer saw Brokk sitting with Kenric, he hit him on the chest, knocked him off of the log where they were sitting.”
“So because he stopped what he was doing to bind a wound, he is lazy?” Galen asked, incredulous.
“We have others whose job it is to take care of injuries. He doesn’t listen! He was told to do his own work, not spend time helping other workers!” Solan insisted, raising his voice.
“And what heinous offense did he commit today, to warrant being bashed in the face? Save a small child from being run over by a wagon?” Galen’s voice was rising to match Solan’s.
“No!” Solan adopted an air of smug indignation. “He stacked the wood wrong. It’s supposed to be put in a pile with all the ends facing the same way. He stacked it with some of the pieces turned the wrong way! How can we count the pieces if we can’t see all the ends?” he finished, surging to his feet and looking toward Korbo for support.
“Well, by the Lawgiver,” Galen yelled back, standing so he was muzzle to muzzle with the gorilla, “how absolutely awful!” His voiced dripped disdain. “Prefect, I must object to this entire situation. Solan has been terrorizing Brokk; no wonder the poor man snapped. He is my servant, and Solan has been usurping my authority all this time.”
“All right, all right.” Korbo stepped between the two of them, a hand on each of their chests to separate them. “Let’s sit down and discuss this in a civilized way.” He waited until they both returned to their seats. “Solan, your treatment of Brokk has perhaps precipitated this crisis. But Caleb, I cannot allow this assault on Solan to go unpunished. So,” he held out his hands, supplicating both of them, “how do we solve this?”
The corners of Solan’s lips turned up in an expression that made Galen’s blood run cold. “I have a suggestion.”
Korbo unlocked the door then tucked the key back away in the depths of his tunic. He pulled on the heavy iron ring to swing the door open. Burke looked up from his spot on the floor, squinting into the sudden light.
“I’d like to speak to him alone, Prefect,” Galen told the older chimp. A frown ghosted across Korbo’s face, but he held a hand out indicating Galen should enter. Galen carried a lantern in one hand and a bowl of water in the other. A clean cloth was draped over his arm. Galen turned to watch the door close, and once he heard the snick of the key in the lock, he put the items down on a barrel and knelt in front of Burke.
“How’s it going?” Burke asked, his voice still rough and quiet.
“Turn around so I can untie your hands.” When Burke scooted away from the wall to present his hands, Galen began to work the knots loose. “Well, I’ve gotten them to agree not to execute you.”
Burke let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. “Thanks. Galen, I—” His voice suddenly dried up. “I’m sorry,” he finished in a whisper.
Now it was Galen’s turn to sigh. He tugged at a particularly tight section of knot. “I feel as though I am partially to blame here. I should have insisted on talking to Korbo when I first saw your injuries. Or figured out how to get Alan out of here safely, so we could all leave.”
The ropes finally let go, and Burke rubbed his chafed, reddened wrists. “Not your fault,” he croaked.
“Well,” Galen drew out the word, wishing he could avoid what he had to say next, “you aren’t completely in the clear yet. You will have to be punished, I’m afraid.”
“Solan agreed to a lesser punishment,” divulged Galen. Burke nodded, steeling himself. Some of what apes considered “lesser punishments” for humans could still be pretty appalling. “You are to receive ten strokes across the shoulders with a cane.” At the fallen look on Burke’s face, Galen added hastily, “It… it could be worse, I suppose. At least it’s not a whip.”
Burke leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He’d heard stories. Guys who’d spent time stationed in Southeast Asia talked sometimes about the practice of caning as a criminal punishment. He wasn’t sure if he believed that it could be as bad as some of them implied.
Galen ignored the sarcasm. He took a deep breath. “There’s more. Solan’s condition is that I administer the punishment.”
Burke’s eyes snapped open. “What?” he snarled, then winced. He rubbed at his battered neck.
“Evidently this is to be as much an object lesson for me as for you, to teach me to ‘properly control my servants.’ So that’s his condition. Either I do it, or he will.”
“You,” Burke replied without hesitation.
Galen looked aghast. “Pete, I can’t—” Galen’s mouth worked for a moment but no sound came out. “I can’t… I can’t beat you!” He laid a hand on Burke’s arm. “If I do this, I’m no better than Urko, or Zaius, or… or… or Solan! Solan isn’t going to let me get away with taking it easy on you. He’s already said that if I don’t do it properly, he’ll take over and give you twice as many blows!” Galen squeezed his eyes shut, his voice dropped to an anguished whisper. “I just can’t.”
“It’s different,” Burke grated out. All this talking was robbing him of his voice, but he needed to make Galen understand. “Rather have it from you. Said it yourself. You or him. I pick you.” When Galen raised his head, Burke looked him straight in the eyes. “My choice. Please.” Please understand, Galen. He tried to will Galen to get the message. It’s the only thing I can control about this situation. Because if that bastard does it, he’s going to enjoy every minute of it.
Galen held his friend’s gaze for a few moments as the silence stretched out. “All right.”
Burke nodded. “When?”
“Tomorrow morning. Korbo wants the entire village to witness it. As a message to the other humans.”
“Alan?” Burke frowned. He was worried about how Virdon would react.
“Yes, he’ll have to be there, too.” Galen retrieved the bowl of water and the cloth. “Here, you can get your face cleaned up at least. You’ll have to stay here tonight, but Korbo is going to allow me to come back later to bring you something to eat. And I’ll bring Alan so you can talk to him.”
“Yeah.” Burke dipped the cloth in the water and started gingerly wiping the blood caked around his nose and mouth. “And in case I don’t say it later,” he cocked an eyebrow ruefully, “thanks.”
“What’s going on?” Virdon demanded of Galen the moment he walked into the hut they shared. He’d been pacing in front of the fireplace.
“Jenna came over and told me. Fergus sent her home when the trouble started.” Fergus’s oldest daughter was not the only young woman in the village who hovered around Burke like a moth around a flame.
Virdon searched Galen’s face, saw the fear there. “Pete’s in trouble,” Galen admitted with slumped shoulders. “There…there was a scuffle with the ape Overseer, and Pete was taken into custody.”
“Damn it!” Virdon swore, throwing his hands in the air. “We were almost clear. All he had to do was keep his cool for two more days. I know he hasn’t been happy about having to do all this work, but I didn’t think he’d be foolish enough to take a swing at an ape!” Sometimes Virdon wished there was a brig handy for him to throw Burke into when his impulsive and hot-headed nature got the better of him. He had a much harder time cow-towing and scraping to apes, pretending to be stupid and servile, than Virdon did. And lately he’d been downright surly in the evenings when he returned from his daily work in the fields.
“So now we have to bust him out and make a run for it. And then who knows—”
“No.” Galen’s simple denial stopped Virdon cold.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Virdon snapped. “I know what the punishment is for a human who hits an ape, Galen. And no matter how much of an irresponsible jerk he’s been, we aren’t going to let them—”
“No,” Galen interrupted him again. “No, it wasn’t his fault. No, they aren’t going to execute him, but he will be punished. And no, we aren’t going to bust him out. He refuses to even try to escape.”
“What?” Virdon exclaimed. “Why would he—”
“Will you be quiet and listen to me?” Galen shouted Virdon into silence. “It wasn’t his fault, Alan! That gorilla, Solan, has been making Pete’s life miserable for the last three weeks. He didn’t mind the work! What he minded was the abuse that he had to put up with!”
“What?” Virdon asked quietly as he sank into a chair. “What do you mean?”
“Solan’s been beating Pete—frequently. Pete’s been hiding the bruises. He didn’t want anyone to know.”
Virdon’s brows creased together as he tried to understand. “Hiding?”
“Yes. Didn’t you wonder why he’s been unwilling to take off his shirt lately? I only found out because I walked in on him one day when he was washing.”
“Why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Galen sighed and slid into the chair opposite Virdon. “He asked me not to. Practically begged me. And before you ask, he also made me swear not to go to Korbo and complain. He was afraid of causing trouble. He… he didn’t think you would be able to travel if we were asked to leave.”
“Oh, god,” Virdon whispered. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, wishing he could take back some of the ribbing he’d subjected Burke to over the last few days. He raked a hand through his hair in frustration. He’d imagined all sorts of reasons for Burke’s bad moods, and none of them had been kind or favorable. And he’d not even considered what Burke might be sacrificing for him, because he was already struggling with being so useless while he recovered. He’d been wallowing in fear and guilt for weeks now over the fact that his friends were putting themselves in danger for him, and the feelings were hard to shake.
Snap out of it, Virdon, he chastised himself. Time to get the situation back under control. Pete is your responsibility.
“All right. Galen, you’d better tell me everything.”
“C’mon, how bad can it be?” Burke gave Virdon a half-hearted smirk. “When I was a kid in school, Sister Mary Francis used to smack me on the knuckles all the time with one of those long wooden pointers. I figure she was a pretty sadistic piece of work, right?”
“A nun?” Virdon cocked an eyebrow. “I think Galen can hit a little harder than a nun.”
“You never saw Sister Mary Francis. She could have been a linebacker for the Giants. Those Jersey public school nuns were tough.”
“Pete—” Virdon began, obviously trying to turn the conversation more serious.
Burke wasn’t having any of that. “It’ll be okay, Alan. I’ll take my lumps, and then we can get the hell out of Dodge.” He toyed with a piece of bread from his dinner, ripping it into little pieces and tossing them at the empty bowl. His voice was still hoarse, but the food and time to rest had eased the rawness.
“I just wish you had told me what was happening. Maybe I could have helped.”
“I don’t think a note from my C.O. was going to impress Solan, y’know?” Burke quipped wryly. “Look, there wasn’t anything you could have done. Except end up getting yourself caught in the middle.”
“What about making a break for it in the morning, when they bring you out into the open? Maybe… maybe I can create a distraction—” Virdon’s voice had taken on an edge of desperation.
“Alan, stop. That’s exactly what I don’t want you doing. Even if I could bust loose somehow, where the hell are we going to go? You can barely walk here and back to the hut without looking like you just finished the Boston marathon.” He sighed. “Just do me a favor tomorrow, will ya?”
“Stand somewhere where I can see you. That’s how you can help. If I see a friendly face, maybe it won’t be so bad.”
They both turned at the key rattling in the lock. Virdon gathered up the empty dishes when Galen appeared in the doorway, indicating it was time to go. Watching Burke try to hide the fear and apprehension that flashed across his face, Virdon felt his stomach drop. “Pete—”
“Hey, give Galen one of those patented pep talks will you?” Burke whispered quietly. “I don’t want him chickening out tomorrow, okay?”
Virdon nodded then turned to leave with Galen.
The next morning at dawn, Galen was forced into a practice session with Solan. The gorilla had lashed a sack of grain to a large barrel in the middle of the courtyard in front of Korbo’s office.
“No! I don’t want to practice,” Galen objected. “This entire thing is barbaric.”
Solan shrugged. “Have it your way. I’m just trying to do you a favor.” He walked over to the sack. “Wielding a cane isn’t all that difficult, but it does take a little practice to hit what you are aiming for.” He traced over a box he had drawn on the sack at the height of a kneeling man’s shoulders. “This is the target area. If you hit too high, you could break his neck or fracture his skull. If you hit too low, you could damage his spine or kidneys.” He let the long stick dangle from his hand and shrugged again, a malicious smile playing across his lips. “Don’t blame me if your favorite pet ends up maimed or—”
“Fine!” Galen stalked forward and took the cane from Solan. The wood was smooth and heavy, a length of green hickory stripped of its bark that was longer than his arm and about the thickness of one of his fingers. He looked at it like it was a serpent about to turn in his hand and bite him.
“Good. Now stand far enough away that the end just reaches across the shoulders. If you’re too close, it’ll whip around. Too far away and it’ll dig gouges out of his back.” He pulled the end of the switch into place until Galen was at the proper distance. He stepped back. “Now swing.”
Galen pulled his arm back and brought the rod whistling into the sack. A small cloud of grain dust puffed out of the bag as the wood impacted squarely in the center of the target area.
“Good. Again,” Solan commanded.
A heavy lump settled in Galen’s stomach as he struck the sack again an inch below the first blow, but still within the box.
“Again. Harder this time.”
Galen swung again, putting his entire shoulder into it. The thunk when the cane hit the bag resonated up through his forearm.
He grunted with the effort this time, pivoting his hips to increase the force. The jarring of the rod made his hand tingle.
He swung again, watched the bag ripple under the impact, as if in slow motion.
The fabric of the sack parted under the blow in a long gash, spilling grain into the dirt. Galen dropped the rod, breathing hard as he tried to swallow down the taste of bile in his throat.
“Good,” Solan said with an arrogant, satisfied smirk. “All ten cuts should be just like that.”
An hour later, all the humans from the village were gathered in the courtyard. Korbo emerged from his office, followed by Solan and Galen. Behind them, two humans flanked Burke as he was brought out. He was stripped to the waist, his hands bound behind him. As an extra precaution against him trying to escape, they’d tethered his ankles together as well, barely enough rope between them for him to walk. Burke concentrated on shuffling one foot in front of the other as he tried to block out the presence of the crowd. So many people who had come—no, he reminded himself, been forced to come—to watch him be beaten and broken.
When they reached the center of the gathering, Burke was pushed to his knees in front of the heavy, iron-bound barrel. Solan untied Burke’s arms and re-secured them wrapped around the barrel. The ropes were pulled tight so that his chest pressed into the wood, bowing his back around the curve of the container. Turned his head to one side, Burke felt the coolness of one of the metal bands beneath his cheek. He tried to wiggle to get more comfortable, but the lashings held him tightly.
As he listened to Korbo drone on with a prepared speech about how good the humans had it in Dagon, he searched his limited field of vision for a familiar form. When Korbo began to talk about how the humans were still subject to rules, but that punishment for breaking those rules would always be tempered with mercy, Burke saw Virdon step to the front of the crowd where he could see him. Fergus stood next to the older astronaut, a hand resting lightly on Virdon’s arm ready to restrain if necessary. Burke felt a small knot of anxiety give way to relief. Galen must have tipped Fergus that Virdon might have a hard time standing by and watching.
Korbo finished his speech. A murmur rippled through the crowd, and then they fell quiet. Virdon’s eyes grew wide, focusing over Burke’s head, and he knew Galen must have stepped into position. Virdon looked back to Burke and nodded encouragement, raising his clenched fist to tap his chest over his heart. It was about to begin.
Galen listened to Korbo’s speech, but his eyes never left the dark-haired man kneeling in front of him. Burke’s shoulders tensed as if he were testing his bonds then slumped in defeat. He looked so vulnerable, wrapped around the unyielding barrel.
Scanning the crowd, Galen found Virdon standing where Burke could see him clearly, his eyes locked on Burke, nodding and mouthing encouragements. The rest of the crowd was restless, holding their collective breath as they waited for the gruesome spectacle to begin.
Galen’s attention snapped back to Korbo when he realized the older chimpanzee had stopped speaking and was calling him to step forward. As a wave of dread resignation washed over him, Galen took the proffered cane from Solan and stood in the same spot he’d used during the earlier practice. He held the long stick out, testing the distance, and adjusted his stance half a step backward.
“Ten blows,” Solan reminded him. “Just like earlier.”
Galen silently wished that a rock would fall from the sky and crush the smug gorilla. When that didn’t happen, he wished that one would fall and land on him so he wouldn’t have to go through with this. He took a couple of deep breaths to steel his nerve, to try to settle the bounding rhythm of his own heart, and realized he was stalling. Which wasn’t doing Burke any favors, Galen imagined, since the anticipation was probably at least half as bad as the actual blows would be.
As Solan opened his mouth to urge him on, Galen drew the stick back above his head. Ten, he consoled himself. Ten times. I can do this ten times, and then it will be done. The cane inscribed a whistling arc through the air as Galen pivoted his hips and shoulders to repeat the motion that had garnered Solan’s approval. The blow landed squarely across the pale shoulders.
The moment would be ingrained in Galen’s brain for a long time. Unlike with the sack of grain, there was no real give to living flesh, so the recoil vibrated up through his whole arm. The sound was flat and wet, not the dry, dusty thud he was expecting. Burke’s entire body arched away from the blow before he slumped back against the barrel, visibly wilting in his bonds. But other than an involuntary grunt, he remained adamantly silent. A welt was already forming.
“One,” Solan announced loudly. Galen tried to swallow past a throat gone suddenly dry. Nine more. Just like that one. Oh god, nine more times he had to hear that sickening sound, feel the impact as he inflicted pain on someone he considered a brother.
On the third blow, when the skin split open over one shoulder blade, Burke finally cried out. A single scarlet line slowly trickled down his back. Galen stared, mesmerized by the bright red blood, and felt his gorge rise. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry, he began to chant a litany in his head. He realized then he’d had no idea—none of them had—how bad this ordeal was really going to be.
The fifth blow opened another slash across the other shoulder blade, pulling an agonized scream from Burke. He quivered uncontrollably, thrashing and writhing within the confines of the ropes. Galen could see Burke’s chest heaving as he fought the pain, but his own throat felt raw at the rush of air in and out, as he fought to keep down the cries that clawed to escape.
Galen glanced over at Virdon. Fergus had a firm grip on the older astronaut’s upper arm, his other arm thrown across Virdon’s chest to keep him from surging forward. His friend looked pale and queasy. Did Alan really understand that he had no choice here? Did Pete?
He was only half way done.
He couldn’t do this anymore. He just couldn’t. Maybe he could pull the cane back at the last minute, lessen the force. But Solan watched intently, both Galen as he swung the cane and Burke’s back for the expected results. The gorilla would know if Galen spared the rod and would take over. Galen considered for a moment just handing the cane to Solan and walking away. Let someone else do this. But that would only cause Burke more suffering, and his blood would still be on Galen’s hands. No, he’d promised Burke to see this through to the bitter end. But he had to know if that was what his friend still wanted.
Solan was frowning at Galen, obviously impatient for him to continue. Galen’s lips pressed into a tight line, and he strode over to Prefect Korbo. “Prefect, may I have a moment to check on him? Please?” Galen pleaded.
Korbo’s brows furrowed together. “This is highly unusual. But… all right.”
Galen held out the cane to Korbo, not wanting to leave it anywhere near Solan. He hastened over to his friend. He tried not to look too closely at the gristly mess on Burke’s back.
“Pete?” he whispered so the others wouldn’t hear him using Burke’s real name. Burke’s entire face was pinched tight, and he whimpered quietly with every exhalation. Galen tucked a hand under Burke’s chin. “Pete?”
“Just finish it, Galen,” Burke ground out through clenched teeth, his voice wrecked. “Finish it.”
Galen nodded then stiffly walked back over to retrieve the cane. When Solan looked like he was about to approach, Galen whipped the cane upward, pointing it at the gorilla as a warning to stay back in case the deadly expression on his face was not admonition enough.
With each of the last five blows, Galen felt more nauseated. He wanted to fall to his knees in the dirt and vomit but refused to give Solan that satisfaction. Burke trembled non-stop, even once the blows were finished. The flesh on his back looked pulverized, heavy bruising surrounding the bleeding ribbons of skin.
After the last blow was struck, Galen stood frozen, staring at the cane, at the dark blood that stained the wood and dripped from the end. He dropped it with a strangled sob. Then he whirled on Korbo. “Are we done here?” he spat.
Korbo’s pained expression was a shallow reflection of Galen’s own. “Yes, it is finished. Take him and go.”
As if released from an invisible bond, Virdon and Fergus rushed to where Burke sagged, barely conscious, against the barrel. Virdon knelt next to his friend and reached out a shaking hand to touch his pale face. “Pete? Oh god, Pete.”
When Fergus cut the ropes binding Burke in place, Virdon caught him as he swayed to one side. He pulled him tight against his chest so the dark head lolled on his shoulder, careful not to touch his back. Burke groaned into Virdon’s neck.
Galen backed away from the two humans, a sick feeling that he had betrayed some sacred bond of friendship twisting his gut. The look of disgust that Virdon leveled at him over Burke’s shoulder spoke volumes, even as the blond man murmured in the other’s ear, “I’ve got you. You’ll be okay. I’m here. You’re gonna be okay now. It’s all over.”
All the self-loathing, all the frustration, all the disappointment in his own race coalesced into a burning hot ball of rage directed at Solan. The gorilla stood next to the Prefect and nodded at some question Korbo had asked, a leering smile plastered across his dark muzzle. If anything, the smile grew bigger when his glance flicked over to the humans still kneeling in the dirt.
Galen stalked over to the two apes, fists balled at his sides, a deep, dangerous scowl creasing his face. He stopped in front of Solan, breathing heavily. “I just want you to know, this doesn’t change anything,” he growled in a tone that made Korbo fall back half a step. “Those men are still my friends, my brothers. What I did here today, I did to save his life, not to punish him for defending himself against a bully and a coward who happens to wear the fur of an ape. You may think you are so progressive in your ways, but at the end of the day, you are always going to be the masters, and these good humans,” he swept a hand to take in the crowd beginning to disperse, “are always going to be slaves. And until you realize how utterly wrong it is that they live and die by your whim, you are just as much a part of this abomination as if they wore chains and collars.”
“You speak heresy, Caleb, and sedition,” Korbo warned. “This is the natural order of things, that Ape be master over Man.”
“There is nothing natural about any intelligent person being treated like an animal, like a piece of property. And until we learn that one lesson, the most important of all, we will never even be their equals, let alone their ‘betters.’”
Solan snorted in derision, but whatever he was going to say remained unspoken when Korbo cut him off with a commanding gesture. “I think you had better take your servants and go. As soon as possible. And never darken my door again.” His voice was heavy with regret that belied his words.
“Oh, of that you can be sure.” Galen hissed. He shuffled back over to Virdon just as Fergus and his son Tobin lifted Burke upright, and the group began the arduous walk back to the hut.
Fergus and Tobin carried Burke into the hut and laid him on his stomach on the bed. Virdon brushed past them and knelt by his head. He stared at the blood smeared across Burke’s shoulders and down his back, already turning black around the edges as it dried. Forcing himself to look away, he pushed the sweat-drenched hair from Burke’s forehead then peeled back an eyelid, still bruised and swollen from the blow to the face he’d taken the day before. Burke moaned and flinched away.
“Hey.” Virdon settled his hand on the back of Burke’s head. “Take it easy, it’s just me.”
“Yeah. Just be still. Fergus is getting Hannah. She’s got supplies waiting to patch you up.” Virdon retrieved a cup of water and helped Burke raise his head enough to drink.
“Shit,” Burke groaned as he flopped back into the thin pillow.
“I know, I know. I wish I had something to give you for the pain.” Virdon felt helpless, even more so knowing that cleaning the wounds would be excruciating for his friend. But the risk of infection always hovered like a specter in all their minds.
“Morphine,” Burke gasped, “would be nice.”
An idea sprang into Virdon’s head. “Try something with me, okay? Try to slow down your breathing. Breathe in for a three count, and out for a three count. And focus on the sound of my voice.
“In. Two. Three.
“Out. Two Three.”
He continued the tempo for a couple of minutes until Burke’s breathing evened out from pain-filled pants to slow, measured respirations. He kept up a steady, massaging pressure on the back of Burke’s neck. “Try to relax. Pain is worse when you’re tense. And keep breathing. Picture yourself somewhere calm and peaceful.“
Burke closed his eyes, and in his own mind, Virdon remembered the last time they’d been on a beach on the Gulf together before the mission, nowhere to be and no one giving them orders. Just the sun, the surf, and a cooler full of beer. Virdon continued to drone on counting breaths for him.
“How’s the pain now?”
“Congratulations.” Virdon cocked an eyebrow. “You just passed your first Lamaze class.”
Burke snorted then winced. He took a few more regular breaths and said, “I don’t care how much you sweet talk me, Colonel. I’m not having your baby.” He looked around. “Where’s Galen?”
“He’s out back.” Puking his guts out, but Virdon wasn’t about to tell Burke that. “He’s pretty shaken up.”
“Do me a favor, keep him out of here for a while, okay, Alan?” Burke asked.
Virdon nodded. Much as he was concerned about the chimp, right now all his energy was focused on helping Burke.
Hannah bustled into the hut, carrying a basin of fresh water and a bundle of clean rags tucked under her arm. Fergus’ wife had her long, gray-streaked hair tied up in an efficient bun on the back of her head. Jenna trailed behind her mother with more supplies. Virdon could see the tear-streaked paths down the younger woman’s cheeks, but she stoically followed her mother’s instructions.
“Thanks, Hannah.” Virdon reached to pick up one of the rags to start cleaning Burke’s back.
Hannah gave his hand a slight tap. “No, I’ll do it.”
“I should—” Virdon began.
“You should keep talking to him, try to keep him calm. Hold him down if necessary.” She spoke in a quiet, crisp tone, her attention on arranging the supplies on the table. She finally looked up at Virdon with a challenging expression. “I’ve tended to a lot of the humans here. I know what I’m doing. Right now, he needs you to keep him still so I can help him.”
“All right.” He ducked his head, guilt vying with relief that he wouldn’t have to cause his friend more pain.
Virdon settled back on the stool. Burke’s eyes were pinched tight, and he clung to the pillow like it was a life preserver, but he continued to breathe evenly. “Hey,” Virdon lightly grasped one of Burke’s wrists, noting how his skin was chaffed from being bound for so long. “You ready for this?”
“Yeah. Hey Hannah,” he greeted her as she sat on the edge of the bed. “Sorry I can’t offer you a cold drink or something. I’m a lousy host.”
“You are very strange, Brokk,” she chided gently. “Now try to hold still.”
At the first touch of the cloth to his back, Burke groaned, burying his face into the pillow to try to muffle his cries. Virdon grabbed one of his hands in a firm overhand grip. “Squeeze if you have to. Keep breathing. It’ll be over soon.” He buried his other hand in Burke’s hair, stroking the dark curls in a way he hoped was soothing.
Jenna handed Hannah clean cloths whenever the one she was using became too soiled to be useful. The older woman moved briskly but with an amazingly gentle touch, dabbing and wiping at the blood. Although she kept her head down, Virdon could see her tight-lipped expression and watery eyes. Burke squeezed Virdon’s hand until he was sure the bones were going to crack, but he kept up a steady stream of babbling encouragement. When he tried to get Burke to use a different breathing technique, Burke just shook his head and muffled another yell into the pillow. He was too far gone to concentrate on anything but how much it hurt. But other than a few involuntary twitches, he remained still.
Finally, with most of the dried blood cleaned away, they could see the wounds clearly. In several places, the skin was ripped open in long gashes, overlapping and crisscrossed with welts that were turning deep purple as more blood pooled beneath the intact skin.
Hannah laid a clean cloth across the worst places where fresh blood welled up and pressed down as gently as she could to try to stop the bleeding. Virdon watched all the tendons in Burke’s neck stand out as he tried not to arch off the bed, an animalistic keening ripping through his throat. Then he went limp and his grip on Virdon’s hand slackened.
“How bad is it, Hannah?” Virdon finally asked, his own voice husky. He swiped a hand over his stinging eyes.
“The bleeding is almost stopped, it looked like a lot more than it was. But I can’t really sew up the cuts; they’re too shallow and the edges of the skin are too mangled.” She pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “The best I can do is try to smooth everything down and put a bandage over it. He’ll have some scars.”
“Yeah, I was afraid of that.” He retrieved a bag from under the other bed. “Here are some bandages and a liquid that will help prevent infection. They were given to us by an ape doctor when I was injured,” he explained. “Go ahead and use them. I don’t need them anymore.”
She nodded to Jenna, who took the items Virdon offered. Hannah gingerly lifted a corner of the cloth from Burke’s back. No fresh blood seeped from the wounds. She soaked a new cloth in the antiseptic and dabbed it over the ragged flesh. Virdon remembered how much the fluid had stung on his incision and was thankful that Burke was already unconscious.
With Virdon propping Burke up, Hannah wrapped a figure eight around his chest and back to hold the bandage tightly in place. Virdon arranged Burke on his side in what he hoped would be a comfortable position then wiped the film of sweat from his face with a cool, wet cloth. Nothing to do now but wait.
Then Virdon remembered Galen. “Hannah, can you stay with him for a bit? I want to go check on Caleb. He’s very upset.”
Hannah’s eyes narrowed slightly, but she gave a terse nod. Virdon patted Burke’s head one last time and then went in search of Galen.
Galen had lagged behind the rest of the group during the march from the village center to their hut. The entire way, he’d stared at Burke’s back. He tried to find something, anything else to look at, but his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the rivulets of blood that dripped down into the waistband of Burke’s pants. He listened to Burke’s grunts and whimpers as he was jostled between Fergus and Tobin, an arm draped over each man’s shoulders to keep him upright. Burke was walking—shambling may have been more accurate—but every few steps he stumbled when his legs folded under him. Virdon was quiet, only the telltale way he rubbed at his left side any indication that he was still sore himself, although he was breathing hard by the time they reached their destination.
When they were in sight of their quarters, Galen felt another wave of nausea wash through him. Surely between them, the three humans could care for Burke. He wasn’t sure he could take the sight of the blood or of his friend’s pain-filled expression any longer.
“I’ll be back, Alan,” he muttered, touching Virdon’s arm before he clapped a hand over his mouth. As he scurried around the side of the small building, he didn’t see the sympathetic look from Virdon that followed him.
He reached the back of the hut before his knees gave way and he heaved dryly into the tall grass. Leaning a hand heavily against the mud wall, he sat back on his heels with a groan. But every time he closed his eyes, he saw the image of his friend tied helplessly to that barrel, heard his screams every time the cane bit into his flesh. Galen had thought it wouldn’t be that bad. He’d witnessed humans being whipped, seen the scars left by the lash, and had been grateful that Solan had not suggested that as Burke’s punishment. Really, how much damage could a stick do? After all, he’d been hit with a switch before, in his misspent youth as an unruly student. It had stung and brought tears to his eyes when he was a child, but that was as much from humiliation as from the hurt.
No, he’d had no idea how badly a thin cane, wielded with an ape’s full strength behind it, could rip apart bare skin. No idea.
He’d never raised a hand against a human before.
Galen! Come here this instant!
Well, maybe that wasn’t entirely true.
“Galen, did you hit Loomis?” His mother stood with her hands on her hips.
“No, mother,” the young ape lied. Loomis was his parents’ servant, had been for two years now.
“Are you going to stick with that answer?” Ann asked archly, one brow rising dangerously on her forehead. ”He said you cuffed him on the side of his head.”
“And you are going to take the word of a human over mine?” Galen asked with all the indignant gravitas a fourteen-year-old could muster.
“No, I’m taking his word alongside yours. As soon as you answer me truthfully, that is.”
He’d been teased at school with the ultimate insult of being an animal lover. His parents only had the one servant, while many of his friends had several. And it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford more; his father Yalu was an up-and-coming member of the government, currently supervisor of the department of antiquities. But his mother didn’t believe in letting humans do things that she could do herself or chores that were Galen’s responsibility.
That’s what his disagreement with Loomis had been about. He’d ordered Loomis to take the food waste out to the garden to spread among the flowers. Loomis had been cheeky enough to remind him that his mother wanted him to do that chore. The human had defied him. He’d heard the echoes of his classmates’ schoolyard taunts, and the next thing he knew, his hand had flown seemingly of its own accord.
He’d stared at the mingled look of shock and sorrow on Loomis’ face as he pushed himself up off the kitchen floor. Galen felt something he couldn’t quite put a name to break inside him and it sickened him. “Will that be all, young master?” Loomis had asked in a weary voice.
“Yes, Loomis,” he’d whispered then fled to his room.
“Well?” his mother waited expectantly.
Galen saw the stubborn glint in his mother’s eyes, the look of fearful disappointment on her face. He dropped his own gaze to the floor.
“Yes, mother, I hit him,” he admitted. Then his anger flared again. “But I gave him an order, and he refused to do it! He is the servant, and I am the master. Doesn’t that mean he has to do what I tell him to?”
Ann sighed and tucked a hand under her son’s chin to lift his face to look at her. “And if you tell him to cut down all the flowers in my garden, should he do that, too?”
“Of course not! Why would I tell him such a thing?”
“Perhaps because you got angry with me. Why is not the point, son. Just because you can tell him to do something doesn’t mean you should. And just because you have told him to do something doesn’t automatically mean he should do it.” She paused. “He knew the chore was yours to do and so did you. So why did you order him to do it?”
“Because apes should not be doing menial tasks. And taking out the garbage is menial!” He was very proud of that word he’d learned in his lessons recently. “It’s human work. Apes are better than Humans,” he added haughtily.
“Then act it,” Ann snapped. “Today, you acted like a human. Lazy. Petty. Cruel.” At the stricken expression on Galen’s face, her words softened. “Son, being master over someone else means you have a responsibility. To show them kindness, to treat them fairly. If you hit one of your friends, what do you think they would do?”
Galen snorted. “Hit me back, I’m sure.”
“And would anything happen to either of you, other than being scolded by your elders for such foolishness?”
Confusion clouded the young ape’s face. “Well, no.”
“And what would happen to a human who hit you back?” she asked with a piercing look. When Galen gaped at her slack-jawed, she answered for him. “He would be severely punished, possibly killed.” She waited for a moment for those words to sink in. “So think about that the next time you raise your hand against a human. They need to be disciplined sometimes, yes, but always with compassion and fairness in our hearts. That’s what makes us better than them, son, and if we lose that, we lose what we are.”
He never hit another human again.
He was still trying to get his rebellious stomach under control when Virdon came looking for him. He’d moved further along the back of the hut, away from the smell of bile, and was sitting with his back against the wall.
“Galen?” Virdon squatted down. “Are you okay?” he asked when the chimp’s eyes remained closed.
Galen slowly opened his eyes, afraid of what he would see in Virdon’s face—anger, disgust, recrimination. But all that greeted him was concern.
“Yes, I’m fine. I didn’t strain anything while I was beating one of my best friends to a bloody pulp,” he quipped bitterly. “How is Pete?”
“He’s resting.” Sensing that the conversation might be a long one, Virdon shifted to sit cross-legged. “Galen, you did what you had to do to save his life. He knows that, and so do I.”
“Does he?” Galen wondered. “If our positions had been reversed Alan, you and I, would you have been able to do that to him?”
“If it kept him from being executed—” Alan began.
But Galen wasn’t satisfied. “Or would you have found another way?”
“Galen, don’t do this. You can go crazy imagining all the ‘what ifs.’ He already told you he accepted what happened. More importantly, he’s alive; he’s hurting right now, but he’ll bounce back.”
“Will our friendship? Or… or your trust in me?” Galen sighed. “The sad truth is that we have to continue this charade of master and servants wherever we go, because in this world, that’s what humans are. Servants. Slaves,” he spit the word out with disgust. “What happens in the next village, when I have to pretend to be your master again? Will Pete still trust me not to…not to…” he buried his face in his hands, unable to finish the thought.
Virdon patted the chimp’s shoulder then gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I trust you as much today as I did yesterday, my friend, and the day before that. And if I know what kind of person Pete is at all, he does, too.” He tried another tack. “Look, I understand you feel guilty, but there is plenty of blame to go around. I’m the whole reason why he’s in this situation to begin with. Pete is under my command. I should have figured out he was in trouble long before this.”
“He wouldn’t let me tell you. I should have done it anyway.” He tutted. “I still don’t understand why he did that.”
“Well, one thing that’ll never change about Pete—he’s always gonna be stubborn as a mule. When he gets it in his head he’s responsible for something—or someone—he can be the most obstinate, pig-headed…” he trailed off, just shaking his head.
“Yes,” Galen agreed. “A quality that is not unique to your species. Sometimes I think apes and humans are more closely related than either would want to admit.”
Virdon smirked half-heartedly. “Galen, I do believe you’re right.”
To Virdon’s relief, Galen decided to take a walk, heading for the woods in the opposite direction from the village center. He remembered Burke’s request to keep Galen away for a while, but the chimp seemed just as anxious to stay away on his own. When Virdon returned to the hut, Hannah was sitting with Burke, who was still unconscious, maybe asleep. Her expression when she saw Virdon grew hard and stormy. She motioned for him to follow her into the main room of the hut.
“I don’t understand, Ansem, why you worry about Caleb,” she blurted, harsh and angry. “He’s not the one who is bleeding and suffering.” She obviously didn’t understand the full situation, Virdon realized, and only saw another human being tormented at the hands of another ape.
“He didn’t want to hurt Brokk. But he was caught between a rock and a hard place.” When Hannah looked confused, he tried again. “He was forced to choose between two bad things. Hurting Brokk that way was the lesser of two evils. Caleb isn’t like other apes, Hannah.”
“He seems just like other apes. Apes don’t care about humans. They don’t care if we get hurt, so long as we can still work.”
“Caleb cares. He really does.” Virdon pursed his lips, considering how much he should say. “Caleb isn’t our ‘master,’ he’s our friend.”
“Friend?” she scoffed. “Apes and humans can’t be friends.”
“Maybe not here and now, but someday, maybe they can be. Someday,” his voice took on a wistful tone. “History is filled with times when some people thought they were better than others, for a lot of different reasons. But in all those times, someone eventually stood up to deny that way of thinking. And usually everyone decided that it was better to treat people equally. Caleb believes we should all be equal. It’s not a popular idea, and it’s gotten him into trouble in the past. But someday, maybe everyone will believe it again.”
“I don’t see how. Apes have always been masters over humans. Why would they want to change that?”
“For no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.”
“I still don’t understand.” She shook her head. “You’re very strange, and so are your ideas.” She shrugged, as if dismissing the entire conversation. “Jenna brought some lunch, if you are hungry.”
Once assured that Virdon could handle caring for Burke on his own, Hannah returned to her own chores. Virdon settled at the table and was halfway through a bowl of stew when he heard a noise from the other side of the curtained partition. He rushed into the other room.
Burke sat up on the bed, doubled over with his arms resting on his knees.
“What are you doing, Pete?” Virdon exclaimed. “What’s the matter?”
“Tried to get up,” Burke muttered. “Got dizzy.”
“You should be resting. Do you need something?”
“Yeah, I need to get up,” Burke replied with a weary sigh. He sat up straighter and peered up at Virdon. “I need to get on my feet if we’re going to leave tomorrow.”
Virdon put a restraining hand on Burke’s shoulder. “Departure’s been delayed. You need time to recover.”
“Then I can damn well do it somewhere else,” he snapped. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve overstayed our welcome here. I want to put his little burg in my rearview as soon as possible.”
Virdon admitted to himself that the sooner they could leave Dagon, the better. Galen’s budding friendship with the Prefect had collapsed under the strain of the situation. And although Virdon hadn’t caught all of Galen’s final words to Korbo and Solan, he’d heard enough to know that Galen could be in danger of being arrested.
“All right.” Virdon conceded. “Then let’s do this right.” He squatted down in front of Burke and pulled other man forward until his arms were draped over his shoulders, then grabbed Burke’s waist. “Ready?”
Burke nodded. He tried to muffle his groan when Virdon stood, pulling him to his feet. He leaned his forehead on Virdon’s shoulder as he swayed unsteadily at first, but he quickly recovered his equilibrium.
They made their way into the other room. Burke settled in one of the chairs, careful not to lean against the rough-hewn back. He tried to hide his discomfort, but his face was pinched and drawn. Virdon poured Burke some water. Grabbing the cup with both shaking hands, Burke drank greedily.
“Hey, take it easy, you don’t want to get sick,” Virdon admonished. When Burke put the cup down, Virdon asked, “Think you could eat something?”
“Yeah, I’m starving.” Burke hadn’t had any food since the meager dinner Virdon had brought him the night before. And it was now well past midday.
Virdon has just served Burke and taken his own seat when Galen returned, looking stricken. Burke’s face paled even more at the sight of his chimpanzee friend, who stopped just inside the door.
“Pete!” exclaimed Galen, He glanced at Virdon, but his gaze kept sliding away from Burke. “How… I mean… are… are you—” he stammered, unsure what to say. He closed his eyes and made a noise halfway between a whimper and a groan. “Oh, Pete, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
Color flooded back into Burke’s face, “Look, Galen, what’s done is done. No point crying over spilt milk. Let’s just focus on getting out of here tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? You still want to leave tomorrow?” He turned to Virdon. “Will he be able to travel so soon?”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here!” Burke snapped. He raked both hands through his hair. “This is not up for debate. I’m leaving tomorrow, with or without you two.”
Virdon felt a spark of anger at Burke’s stubborn ultimatum. “Fine. We’ll leave tomorrow. I’m going to talk to Hannah about arranging for some extra medical supplies to take with us.” He stalked out of the hut, leaving Galen staring in his wake.
Turning back to his other friend, Galen scuffed his feet in the dirt.
Burke’s head was bent over his food, even though he was toying with it more than eating. “Galen,” he interrupted, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore right now, okay?”
Galen shook his head and sat by the fire, staring at the flickering light as he tried to figure out how to repair his relationship with his dark-haired friend.
Two hours into their journey the next day, Burke began to stagger. Despite Galen carrying his pack and the slow pace they maintained for Virdon’s sake as well, the strain of walking was taxing his endurance. Galen took the lead; if they ran into strangers on the road, they were less likely to arouse suspicion with an ape leading the humans. Virdon brought up the rear, where he could keep an eye on Burke.
The second time that Burke stumbled, Virdon called a break. After they moved a little distance off the road, Burke lowered himself onto a rock with a barely suppressed groan, weariness etched in every line of his body. He braced his shaking hands on his knees, his face covered in a sheen of sweat despite the coolness of the day. With his eyes closed, he didn’t see Virdon standing in front of him with his hands on his hips and an aggravated expression on his face.
“So were you just planning to keep going until you dropped, or were you going to share with the rest of us that you’re having trouble?”
“I’ll be fine,” Burke’s breathless voice was hoarse and low. “Just give me a couple of minutes.”
“Oh, for the love of—” Virdon threw his hands into the air. “You are not goddamned fine!”
Galen’s head snapped up from where he was sitting in the leaves, but one look at Virdon’s face convinced him that this was something that the two humans needed to work out between themselves.
“Take off your shirt,” Virdon demanded, taking a step closer to Burke.
Burke winced but looked up and locked stares with Virdon. “No,” he refused flatly.
Virdon’s eyes narrowed. “I need to check your bandages.”
“You just checked them a couple of hours ago.”
“And now you could be bleeding again from all this exertion.”
“I’m not bleeding. I’m—”
“Fine. Yeah. So you’ve said.” Virdon crossed his arms over his chest, “Except I don’t think you’d tell me if you were bleeding.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Finding sudden strength in his anger, Burke pushed himself off the rock and took a step toward Virdon.
“Maybe I’m not sure I can trust you right now, Pete.” Virdon raised his chin, his jaw clenched. “Not about this, anyway.”
“Jesus, Alan.” Burke was tired of Virdon treating him like a child. “What the hell crawled up your ass and died!”
“You want to know what’s bothering me?”
“Yeah, I do!”
“All right, Burke, let’s start at the beginning. What you did was reckless and irresponsible,” Virdon snapped.
“Hey, I know I shouldn’ta hit him, but—” he tried to explain.
“Did I sound like I was done?” Virdon stood with his nose inches from Burke’s face. “Eyes forward! Mouth shut!”
Oh shit, Burke thought, he’s really pissed. He couldn’t remember the last time Virdon had given him an order, let alone barked one at him. Instincts took over and he snapped to attention, expression carefully schooled and eyes locked on a point straight ahead of him. The only sign that he was struggling to remain silent was the way the muscle on one side of his jaw clenched and twitched. Galen watched wide-eyed from where he sat on the ground.
“I’m not talking about you hitting Solan. Galen was right, you were just defending yourself.” Virdon paused to let that sink in. “I’m talking about you keeping what was going on a secret. I’m talking about you trying to hot-dog your way through a situation that you couldn’t control. We’re a team, and we only have each other to rely on. Without that, we might as well walk up to the next gorilla soldier we see and turn ourselves in. And you left us out of the loop. We can’t protect each other if we don’t know what’s going on.”
He let out a frustrated huff, still staring at his junior officer. He could almost hear the grinding of Burke’s teeth as he endured the dressing down.
“If you had come and told me, we could have figured something out. But no, instead you decided to push it all down and turn sullen and withdrawn. You keep telling us you are ‘fine’ when it’s obvious that you are anything but fine. How am I supposed to trust you if you lie to me?”
That accusation was more than Burke could take. “I didn’t lie, Sir!”
“You hid the truth. A lie of omission is still a lie.”
“I was just trying to protect you!” Burke blurted out, then dropped his gaze as a flush rose in his face. Damn it, he thought. He didn’t want to lay a guilt trip on Virdon; that had been the whole point of keeping his secret in the first place. But his friend had pushed too far.
Virdon’s tone softened; he did feel responsible, but not in the way Burke imagined. “I know. But not by risking your own life. This has got to stop, Pete. And I mean now.” He ducked his head to try to look at Burke’s face. “So let’s try that again, shall we? How are you doing?”
Injured pride warred with embarrassment and shame across Burke’s face. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Finally, he spoke in a low voice. “I’m hurtin’, Alan. I don’t know how much further I can go today. But I had to get out of that place.”
“I know,” Virdon said again. Now that his anger was spent, he focused once more on his friend’s distress. “Maybe we can find a place nearby to hole up for a few more days, give you a chance to heal better.”
Virdon stayed with Burke while Galen went in search of shelter. The chimp found a cave created by an old rock slide only a short hike away. He picked up the packs while Virdon supported Burke over the uneven ground, now that the younger man was finally willing to accept help.
After they had arranged branches and vines to camouflage the entrance to their hiding place, Virdon pushed Burke down to sit on a rock near the entrance while Galen went to forage for fresh fruit and water. “Now it’s time to check those bandages.”
Virdon helped Burke pull his shirt over his head, but he still grimaced at the movement. Small patches of blood had soaked through the bandages. As Virdon began to unwrap the swathing, Burke saw the bright red splashes and remembered Virdon’s earlier accusation. “I didn’t realize I was bleeding, I swear, Alan.”
Virdon hummed a noise that Burke wasn’t sure was agreement or skepticism. “Let’s just get you cleaned up, then we’ll fix up a place for you to rest. I don’t want you doing anything else strenuous today.”
Once the binding was removed, Virdon carefully peeled away the dressing. The bleeding wasn’t bad; it seeped sluggishly from two or three places where the scabs had pulled away from the ragged cuts. Burke moaned loudly when Virdon disinfected the wounds with their almost depleted supply of antiseptic but tolerated the bandages being rewrapped with only the occasional grunt.
He followed Virdon into the cave and laid down on the blankets already spread out for him. He caught Virdon’s arm as the older man started to move away and leaned up on one elbow. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Alan. I shouldn’t have lied to you. I guess I should have trusted you more, too.”
“All right. We both screwed up,” Virdon admitted. “Let’s put it behind us now and work on rebuilding that trust.” He hunkered down again. “Speaking of which, talk to Galen, would you? I think he’s worried that you’re mad at him.”
Burke frowned. “Mad? No, I’m not mad. The big monkey saved my life.”
“It does seem an awful lot like you’ve been avoiding him, pal.”
Sighing, Burke hung his head. “I just didn’t want him to see how much pain I was in. I hate that he feels guilty about it.”
“Then tell him that.” Virdon cocked an eyebrow. “C’mon, it’s not going to kill you to talk about your feelings a little bit.” Burke’s tight-lipped reticence bordered on neurotic at times.
“It’s all part of the mystique, my friend. The ladies love mysterious and brooding. Like flies to honey.”
“You know, flies are also attracted to manure.” Virdon chuckled.
“Har-de-har-har, Farmer John.”
By the time Galen returned from foraging, Burke had succumbed to exhaustion. He woke just after sundown. Galen was building a small fire near the back of the cave, where a natural opening in the overhanging rock would let the smoke escape. Virdon was taking the first watch, crouching in the brush outside the entrance for cover.
“Alan?” Burke called softly in the deepening gloom. Galen dropped the small twigs he was feeding to the growing flames and shuffled over to where Burke was pushing himself into a sitting position.
“He’s outside, Pete,” Galen replied, sotto voce, as he knelt next to his friend. “Do you want me to get him?”
“No, no, that’s okay.” He reached out toward where he thought Galen’s shoulder would be, finding it with a friendly squeeze. “How long was I out?”
“About four or five hours. It’s not as late as it seems; it gets dark early this time of year.” He gestured toward the flickering flames. “It’s also getting chilly; you should come over by the fire.” He stood and offered Burke a hand.
Burke let Galen pull him to his feet and draw him to the fire. “Are you hungry?” Galen asked solicitously.
“Yeah.” Burke lowered himself carefully onto another rock. He took the bread and fruit offered and attacked it, suddenly ravenous, while Galen built up the fire again. As the light grew, Burke took a good look at the chimp.
“Listen, Galen, I meant what I said the other night.” Galen looked up, his brow furrowed in quizzical confusion. “Thank you. For talking the Prefect out of executing me. For taking care of the punishment yourself, instead of letting Solan at me again. I know that must have been really hard for you to do.”
Galen’s eyes were shiny in the reflected light of the fire. “I don’t want to ever have to do something like that again. Seeing you hurt and… and the feeling of hitting a living, breathing person like that….” Galen looked down at the dirt as his voice quavered. “Knowing at that moment that you must surely hate me for being the one doing it.”
“No, Galen, I didn’t hate you, not even in the middle of it all. Do you want to know what I was thinking?”
Galen’s lips twitched. “I’m not sure I do.”
Burke pushed on with a ghost of a smirk. “I kept thinking that if you’d do something like that because I asked you to, I really could count on you for anything. Do you know how rare that kind of friendship is?” He shifted uncomfortably—and not just from the rock digging into him. “I kept thinking that maybe it’s more than I deserve, because I don’t think I could have… if our positions had been reversed.”
Galen scoffed and looked up at his friend to see if he was serious. “You mean, you couldn’t be that cruel.”
“Not cruel—courageous. I think that you’re the bravest ape I know.” Burke raised his chin, as if daring Galen to contradict him again.
“I…I…,” Galen stammered. “I don’t feel brave, not now and certainly not then. Mostly I felt scared, and…and ill.”
“Exactly,” Burke replied cryptically. “True bravery isn’t about being unafraid, Galen. It’s about doing what needs to be done despite being afraid. It’s about doing what’s hard, what you want more than anything in the world not to do, because someone else is counting on you. Trust me, buddy, many people would’ve walked away instead. But you didn’t. You stuck by me when I was counting on you. So thank you.”
Galen thought about what Burke said, and about what Virdon had said earlier about trust. The ugly reality was that human life was held cheaply by his species. But what he felt for Alan and Pete went beyond responsibility. And he did count on them—to help keep him safe, knowing that they would be willing to risk their own lives to save his.
Suddenly he understood what Korbo didn’t, what even his mother failed to grasp, all those years ago when he’d struck Loomis. Without that trust, humans and apes couldn’t be equals. Even if every ape suddenly understood the necessity of being a responsible master to their human servants, without mutual trust, they could never develop the friendship that was an essential step on the path to equality.
Maybe that was the one final lesson both species needed to learn. Trust.
And if two stubborn humans and one equally flawed ape could learn it, maybe there was hope for the rest of the planet.