Chapter 4

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Night had not yet melted into dawn when Virdon returned from the village, fresh horses in tow; the meadows were plated silver in the weak light of the waning moon, heavy with dew. He tiredly thought that he was getting all too acquainted with the hour of the wolf.

They had to ride by night - while two apes on horseback wouldn't have raised a brow, a human on a horse would've immediately attracted a mob. As a result, they had to hide by day, a necessity that was driving him crazy. While Galen and Zana hit their bedrolls as soon as they had eaten, Virdon - invariably volunteering for first watch - was prowling the perimeter, unable to sit still for a minute. Speeds, times, distances were relentlessly ticking in his mind. Pete's captors weren't fettered by his own group's constraints: they could exchange the horses at every way station, and exchange the riders, too. They would be headed straight back to the apes' central city, to Urko.

Virdon's hands stilled at the knot he was tying to keep the last horse from wandering into the forest surrounding their hiding spot; for a moment he could feel Pete racing away from him, like a moving dot on the map hovering before his mind's eye, a tiny, fierce flame of life and defiance pulling at some undefined line of connection to him.

Please give him strength, he prayed, give him hope. He must know that we won't abandon him.

He jerked the knot tight and absently patted the horse's neck before he made his way to the campfire. At least Galen had mastered the art of making a smokeless fire by now; he had even taken the time to dig a small hole that would conceal the glow of the flames. At other times, Virdon would've made some approving noise, but now he just hunkered down and silently accepted the cup of hot broth that Zana handed him.

„How did it go?" Galen asked, nodding towards the horses.

„Smoothly." Nobody had batted an eye when he had led their exhausted mounts through the village - he was just another slave, barefoot and docile, gaze downcast. It hadn't been difficult to take on the body language of defeat... it was exactly how he felt as soon as they were forced to interrupt their pursuit. Every dawn was another punch this world delivered to him, another reminder that he belonged to the conquered race.

„The officers didn't hear you leading them away?" Galen pressed on, and Virdon frowned. He might not be a professional horse thief, but did Galen really think he'd jeopardize Pete's rescue by being sloppy?

„I kept the rest of the herd occupied with a sack of carrots I... found." He hadn't just turned into a thief of horses; what a career jump for Colonel Alan Virdon, former Air Force pilot, former spaceship commander...

Zana blew an amused sniff. „Peet would've bowled over laughing if he'd seen you with a sack of carrots on your back - remember how he'd laughed when I bought you that straw hat?"

Virdon's lips twitched; oh yes, he could imagine the reaction. Damn, Al, I didn't know you'd play Santa for the beasties, too!

He closed his eyes for a second and forced himself to focus on the heat of the cup in his hands, the blaring of bird calls from the trees, and the pressure of a piece of gravel boring into his backside. He took another sip from his broth.

They were on their way back to the city. Back to square one. All the miles of cobblestone, deer trail, underbrush, and grassland they had traversed, all the dangers and struggles, the slave work on Polar's farm, the mad race to snatch him away from Aken's execution platform at the very last second... and they were not a single step closer to safety. On the contrary - he was leading the rest of their group straight back to Urko's home base.

I lost Pete, and now I'm endangering Zana and Galen. But he couldn't turn his back on his friend, he just... He knew about „enhanced interrogation," and during the war, his comrades had gladly filled him in on the gruesome details, one story about someone who knew someone who had fallen into the hands of the Chinese more gory than the next. It had all been a game of who could keep a straight face then.

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