Chapter 18

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Virdon slowly closed the door behind him, careful not to make a sound. With all the curtains drawn, the room was bathed in a dim half-light, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust.

Zana was lying in bed, a silent heap of suffering; only the dark blob of her head was visible. Virdon hoped she was at least half awake. He didn't want to disturb her if she was sleeping, but this was probably his only chance to see her and to... to do what he had come to do.

She didn't stir when he sat down in the chair beside her bed and laid his gifts on the nightstand - candied fruit and nuts, an almond paste that was similar to marzipan. „Zana?" he said in a low voice. „Zana, are you awake? - I'll go if you're really asleep, I don't want to disturb you," he continued when she didn't react. „But this may be my only chance to see you, so I had to try... I brought you some sweets, I know you love them."

She drew a deep breath, as if she was indeed waking up just now, and turned her head a little. „You bought them?" she whispered. „You don't have any money..."

Virdon smiled. „I earned a bit on the side - I made leather bracelets for the chimpanzee children, and they paid me with a bit of their allowance. I didn't take much," he added hastily. „I made the bracelets really cheap, but I wanted to buy you something... something nice."

There was a moment of silence. „Thank you," Zana whispered.

Virdon cleared his throat. „Galen has forbidden us to come and see you," he explained in a low voice. „He is..." Furious. "... very protective of you. But you know that, of course." He slowly rubbed his palms against each other between his knees, not sure how to proceed.

„Pete got into a nasty fight with him over that decision," he informed her. „I just thought you should know - he hasn't forgotten you. He very much wanted to visit. Maybe he'll manage to slip by Galen, like I just did. But it's possible that your fiancé turns up here any moment, and kicks me out, so..." he drew a deep breath, „I better say what I wanted to say, before I waste this opportunity."

He flicked a glance at Zana's face, but it was too dark in the room to see her expression. He couldn't even say if her eyes were still open. Maybe she had already fallen asleep again. She had to be on drugs to numb the pain - and those drugs also dulled the mind.

He had to stop grasping for excuses to keep silent. „This was all my fault."

The admission didn't bring relief. But that was only right.

„You all were right, back when you tried to talk me out of going into that old city. You were right, and I was wrong, and the worst part is, I knew even then that I was just grasping for reasons to justify my desire. I was desperate to find something to help me get home to my family, and I let that despair overrule my good sense, and... and overrule anyone else's common sense, too. I was selfish."

Zana weakly raised her arm, and let it flop limply back on the coverlet, and Virdon didn't know if that gesture was meant to tell him to stop talking, or to comment on what he had said.

In any case, it told him that she was awake, so he ploughed on. „I hope you believe me when I tell you that I didn't dismiss the risks that my decision implied for any of you. I simply didn't even think of any dangers, which is maybe worse, but at least it means I didn't think of them and then decided I was willing to risk you running into them." He stopped, feeling he had somehow lost track of his original intent.

„If I could turn back time and undo what happened there, I would," he finally said. „But I know I can't, and that the consequences of my selfishness will be with you for the rest of your life, and I can't make that right again, ever."

The weight of that truth dropped on him the moment the words had left his mouth, and he struggled to draw another breath. It was as if his chest had been crushed, as if he was choking on his failure.

Zana didn't move. If she was still awake, she didn't acknowledge his confession at all.

He had wanted to beg her forgiveness, but Virdon found he couldn't say the words. He didn't deserve forgiveness. Not from her, not from anyone.

„Words can't express how sorry I am, Zana," he whispered. „If I can do anything, anything at all that would help you... help you to get better, feel better, just tell me, and I'll do it. Whatever it is, Zana, you can ask anything from me."

He couldn't ask her forgiveness; but even her wrath would be better than this nothingness that was emanating from her, cold and miserable, like burial shrouds.

The door opened behind him, and now Virdon felt another kind of coldness surging against his back, an icy gale of white fury. He slowly rose from the chair and turned around.

Galen was standing in the door, face and stance stony like a statue; if he was surprised to find him here, he didn't show it.

Virdon ducked his head. „I was just about to leave..."

Galen stepped into the room and closed in to him, trapping him between Zana's bed and the wall. „I couldn't help but overhear your offer," he said frostily, „and I might just take you up on it."

Virdon blinked. „I made that offer to Zana," he said cautiously.

„You offered to do anything that would make her get better," Galen corrected him. „I know of something that would greatly help her recovery." He ducked his head and pulled a leather string over his head. When he extended his hand to him, Virdon saw that it was the data disc.

Galen was giving it back to him.

„Take it," he said, when Virdon made no move to reach for the disc. „You were loathe to let go of it, so I think it would help you just as much as it will help Zana and me." He pushed the pendant against Virdon's chest and let go, and Virdon had no choice but to catch it before it dropped to the floor. He cast a searching glance to Zana. She met him with a stare that betrayed nothing.

Slowly, Virdon pulled the leather string over his neck. „If that's what you both agreed on..." he said hesitantly, still refusing to believe that Zana would throw them out for good.

He was met with silence from both apes.

Virdon turned to Zana a last time, still numb with disbelief. „Farewell then, Zana. I wish you... I wish that you'll find happiness again. I'll keep you in my... in my thoughts." He'd also keep her in his prayers, once he found the nerve to address God again, but right now, he wanted to avoid another altercation with her fuming fiancé.

Galen stepped back to let him pass, but Virdon didn't move immediately. „Pete will want to say his goodbyes to her, too. Will you at least allow that?"

Galen nodded curtly, and with a sigh, Virdon brushed past him. He'd have to find Pete and explain to him that they had been abandoned like dogs by their pretend masters - without papers, without money, and without a single piece of equipment. For once, he was content to let his hot-tempered friend sort things out with the chimp. As events had so vividly demonstrated, his own decisions might not be the sanest right now.

And right now, he was more than willing to turn himself in and be done with.



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