Chapter 21

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Virdon had been told to stay put in the tack room until Burke had hitched up the horses to their new wagon, but when he learned that Galen also wanted his friend to carry all their equipment downstairs from their rooms at the inn, he had snatched up his crutch, limped down to the horse's box, put the new harness on Tala and Apache, and had driven the wagon over to the inn himself. He knew the ape didn't want to see him, but he'd be damned if he'd let Galen burden Burke with all the work from now on. Since Zana had decided that she wanted to keep him around, her fiancé would just have to put up with having to see his face every day.

Pete had told him about Galen's decision with a mixture of fury and amusement while he brushed down the horses. Virdon had just completed the last saddlebag, and was half determined to sell them off under Galen's nose, so that they'd have at least a bit of money to buy some food.

He didn't know how to feel about the ape's new law. Until now, their group had been pretty egalitarian, with leadership shifting between him and Galen, and sometimes even to Zana or Pete. Now, it seemed that Galen was determined to establish a hierarchy that mirrored the greater power structure of this world.

Burke was already waiting at the side of the road; they hadn't been able to salvage much when they had been forced to abandon their previous wagon, but Galen had stocked up on their equipment, and bags and boxes were piled up beside Burke. His friend looked sullen; Virdon was careful not to ask for the reason.

He reined in the horses and climbed slowly down from the driver's seat. In the back of the wagon, he could hear Burke already heaving the canvas bags over the tailboard. When he finally reached the rear, Burke jumped out again, and grabbed the last bundle - the apes' bedrolls. He chucked it into the wagon.

„You can jump right after those, and put them away where they belong," Galen's sharp voice sounded from the door of the inn. Both men turned to watch him, as he slowly led Zana to the front of the wagon. The pair stopped at the passenger side; Galen turned his head and opened his mouth to call Virdon, then narrowed his eyes when he noticed that Burke hadn't moved. „Get to it, Peet," he snapped.

Virdon more felt than saw Burke stiffen, but his friend just growled, „Yes, boss," and vanished into the back.

Galen pursed his lips for a moment, but said nothing. Virdon assumed he knew that Burke would never address any ape with 'master', except to mock. This was the most he could bring himself to.

With a sigh, Virdon grabbed the bow and pulled himself up. Burke left whatever he was doing, and came to lend him a hand.

„Damn that leg," Virdon gasped, and let himself fall onto the bundle of bedrolls that still lay where Burke had thrown it. „I'm so sick and tired of it acting up."

„It'll get better over time," Burke assured him. With a jerk, the wagon began to move.

Virdon turned his head to regard the apes for a moment. „You better get Zana's bedroll out," he murmured and moved aside to hand the bundle to Burke. „She won't be sitting on the passenger seat for long, she's fresh out of surgery."

Burke took the bundle, but didn't move. He stood there, swaying a bit to balance out the wagon's movement, and stared down at him with a frown.

„What?" Virdon asked tiredly.

„You gonna call him 'master'?"

Virdon rubbed his face. „Not if I can avoid it."

„And if you can't?"

Virdon sighed. „I'll probably call him 'boss', like you do."

„What a fucked up situation," Burke murmured. He moved to the front of the wagon and began to lay out Zana's sheets. The new order positioned the apes at the front of the wagon, the humans all the way back against the tailboard. Virdon suspected that if the weather allowed it, he and Burke wouldn't be sleeping inside the wagon at all.

Burke returned with a flask of water and some dried fruits, and they shared a meager breakfast. The sun was spearing through the clouds, throwing beams of golden light at the roofs and city walls of Silan, as the town slowly retreated from their view. The roofs were low and round, utterly alien to Virdon's eyes. The dried apricot in his mouth was so sour that it made his eyes water, and suddenly he fervently wished for bacon and eggs. And coffee. He'd give his right leg for a cup of coffee right now.

„Are you still doing your katas?" he asked Burke.

Burke slightly turned his head and gave him a sideways glance. „They aren't called that, but yes, I'm still doing them," he said. „Not that they'd do me any good against an ape... Why do you wanna know?"

„I was thinking, maybe you could teach them to me," Virdon said hesitantly. „I have no ambition to become a martial arts fighter, but maybe they'd retrain my leg. I can't go on crutches for the rest of my life. Not in this world, not if I want my life to last longer than a few months."

Burke nodded. „Sure. I can do that. Good idea, Al."

They were both thinking the same thing: once they had crossed the mountains, they were out of Urko's reach. The need to stay together as a group would end then, and with the way things had developed, the apes wouldn't want them to stick around, either.

„It seems the northern apes aren't that strict when it comes to humans traveling unsupervised," Virdon remarked. He pondered the dried fig in his hand, then put it away. „Provided they have all the necessary papers with them."

„They even allow humans to carry weapons," Burke added. „Leander said something about humans being trained as bodyguards for them. That means I can keep Betsy." Galen had confiscated all the other guns Burke had captured from the apes. Virdon wondered if he had sold them - the money for the new wagon had to have come from somewhere.

„Better keep that gun out of Galen's sight," he cautioned. „I doubt he'd tolerate a weapon on either of us now."

„Betsy and I saved his hairy ass," Burke growled. „An' I'm not giving up my knife to an ape again." He was wearing his ANSA knife hidden under his shirt. Virdon assumed that Galen knew about it, but chose to ignore it, as long as Burke didn't blatantly push it into his face. As furious as the ape was with them right now, he hadn't lost his cool pragmatism.

„So what are we gonna do with our freedom up North, Al?" Burke leaned against the plank and stretched his legs. His fingers played with the cap of his water bottle. „Are you still determined to dig through every damn nuked city between here and the Rockies?"

Virdon smiled and watched the sky. It would rain later this morning. „Yep."

„Jeez, Al!" Burke muttered.

„I don't expect you to stay around..." Virdon began.

„C'mon, you know I can't let you get yourself killed," Burke interrupted roughly. „Gonna make sure you don't get eaten by mutants." He was silent for a moment, probably struggling for a diplomatic way to phrase his next words.

„But really, Al, that's no way to live!" he finally exploded. „What if you'll never find a way? How long do you wanna try before you finally admit that this world is just too backwards to get us home? Five years? Ten? Twenty, assuming we live that long?"

Now it was Virdon's turn to search for words. „Right now, I can't imagine I'll ever stop looking for a way home," he murmured.

Burke sighed. „So that'll be my life then," he said, frustrated. „Chasing your Fata Morgana."

Virdon glanced up to him. „You still haven't told me what kind of life you think you can have here. A life worth living, I mean."

And this time, his friend had no answer.

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