Sunday, April 22, 2007


"The Famous Ape"

In honor of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, here is the complete text of my short story "The Famous Ape," which originally appeared in JM Lofficier's Tales of the Shadowmen: Danse Macabre.

The Famous Ape
by Chris Roberson

When the ape boarded the train in Comrade Olur Station, he’d given his name as Thomas Recorde. If the use of the surname, an antiquated pre-republic custom, had raised any eyebrows, no one had seen fit to comment on it.

There were half a dozen other ape passengers on the mostly empty train, all in suits of clothes as threadbare as those Thomas wore, but they sat far apart from one another, not speaking, trying not to make eye contact. The only words spoken were exchanged with the elephant who made his ponderous way down the aisle, checking everyone’s papers as the train steamed away from the station, leaving Olurgrad behind.

Thomas, for his part, kept his attention focused on the tarnished scrollwork on the cabin wall, studying it with the avid attention of one with nothing better to do. This had once been an imperial train, before the Animalist revolution, and while it had been rechristened The Glorious Battle of the Windmill by the new government, its interior was still decorated with images of the Twelve Virtues. Thomas recalled the day at court, years before, when the old elephant king had issued the decree that the Virtues should be emblazoned on all imperial property, commemorating a particularly portentous dream. The decree, of course, held as much weight now as any of the old king’s numerous fancies, which was to say none at all, but while the images were faded, the figures themselves could still be discerned. This winged elephant, with his shield and saber, must represent Courage. This, with his saw, Perseverance, and this one Learning with his candle, and this Patience with his timepiece.

There were more, Thomas guessed, at the front of the car, but they were masked by the draped flag of Olurgrad, blazoned with a pair of white tusts on a field of green. There was some symbolism to that, Thomas was sure, the image of old imperial virtue being obscured by pious Animalist patriotism; but just what the symbol signified, he could not say, and did not much care.

Thomas had had his fill of piousness, and of patriotism. He’d seen his first blue sky in years that morning, the horizons of his world for long decades limited by lifeless gray walls. But any joy he might have taken from his first impressions of freedom were marred by the noise of the parade. He and the other political prisoners had been cleaned up, dressed in the same suits in which they’d been arrested years before, and marched out to Green Square to be put on display. It was Midsummer Day, the anniversary of the first Animalist revolution. There’d been a full martial parade, the ranks of the elephant army marching in time, the crowds singing Beast of the World in patriotic unison, if not entirely on key. The cannons of Fort Hatchibombotar were fired in salute, and then Comrade Poutifour had taken the podium. The first citizen of the nation, as well as the last surviving leader of the revolution, the old elephant had been turned out with martial splendor, the ribbon of the Order of the Green Banner dangling from his left ear, his tusks polished to a mirror sheen. He delivered a rousing speech on the recent successes of the various Animal Committees—the minor victories of the Sharp Tusks Movement and the Clean Tails League, the advances of the Wild Comrades’ Re-Education Committee to uplift the primitive elephants of the veldt.

Then Comrade Poutifour had turned the crowd’s attention to Thomas and the other political prisoners. A great show was being made of this exchange with the ape republic, and while the text of Poutifour’s speech spoke of it as representing an improvement in the relations between the two great powers, the clear subtext, thinly-veiled, was that the apes were fast losing the long-standing cold war, and that the elephants would assuredly be the ultimate victors.

When the first citizen had concluded his remarked, as the day was ending, the ape prisoners were ushered unceremoniously to Comrade Olur Station, put on the train, and sent on their way.

Built in the days when both ape and elephant were ruled by kings, the old railway line was once a vital artery of traffic between the two nations. Even when the apes ousted their king, and instituted the republic, regular rail service was continued. It was only with the advent of the First Forest War that the trains stopped running, and after the elephant withdrew from the conflict when the Animalists seized power, it seemed for a time that the trains might never run again. Now, it seemed, service had been resumed, however limited the basis. What that presaged for the future, Thomas was not sure. He had been out of touch with internal politics for some considerable time.

Thomas remembered the first time he’d ridden this line, when he’d gone as a young ape to Celesteville, and the court of the elephant king. Now, a lifetime later, he made that trip in reverse, finally returning home.

The train rumbled along through the night, making its steady way through the Ituri Rainforest, skirting the border between Karunda and the Congo. It passed unnoticed through lands dominated by human tribes, first that of the Ba Baoro’m, and then the Bansutos, who did not sense the passing of the specially camouflaged train.

As dawn broke, the train finally approached its destination. Just east of the Omwamwi Falls, it entered a hidden tunnel, passed briefly through a midnight-dark tunnel, and came out the other side in the valley hemmed on all sides by mountains. There, before them, lay the sprawl of the ape republic, with Gorilla City at its center.

The other passengers seemed to come alive, as the train pulled into Monkeyville Station, their eyes widening, gradual smiles pulling at the corners of their wide ape mouths. Were they hoping to see family waiting to greet them? Friends? Or were they simply overcome by the emotion of returning home, after so long a delay?

Thomas knew that if anyone was waiting for him, it would not be family, and it would not be friends.

The train came to a stop, and the passengers queued to climb down to the platform. Thomas hung back, looking for any opportunity. The train’s crew had readily accepted it when he’d identified himself as Thomas Recorde on boarding, and the elephant who checked their papers was too bored to notice the discrepancy, but Thomas knew that his imposture would not stand up under the close scrutiny of the ape republic’s authorities. The fact that he used his birth name as an assumed identity, while perhaps ironic, did little to ensure that he would escape the inevitable consequences that would follow the discovery of the name under which he was better known. Famous, in fact. Or infamous, to be precise.

As it happened, he needn’t have worried. Just as it came time for Thomas to disembark, one of the apes who’d preceded him off the train went into a bout of histrionics on returning to his native soil, hooting loudly like one of their primitive cousins in the jungle, dropping to all fours, and kissing with prehensile lips the very flagstones of the Gorilla City pavement. While all eyes were on this rather dramatic performance, Thomas slipped away into the milling crowd of the train station, seemingly undetected by the uniformed officers waiting to receive the returned prisoners.

Thomas had a moment of brief panic, as he glanced back and his eyes met those of an ape in a wide-brimmed yellow hat, a yellow raincoat draped over his long forearm. From his position, and posture, it was clear that the ape in the yellow hat was some superior to the uniformed officers.

His heart pounding in his chest, Thomas willed himself to break eye contact. Passing a news kiosk, he stopped walking, reasoning that he would look less like someone attempting to flee if he was no longer moving. Forcing himself to act as calm and naturally as was possible, he picked up a copy of the Gorilla City Gazette.

“Is this even real?” asked the she-ape behind the counter, narrowing her eyes and looking close at the rumpled republic banknote Thomas had produced. She peered at the date. “This thing is older than I am.”

Thomas gave a lopsided grin that didn’t reach his eyes, and answered only with a shrug.

“Whatever,” the she-ape replied with a shrug of her own, and rang up Thomas’s change.

Sliding the coins in his pocket, Thomas tucked the folded paper under his arm, and casually glanced back over his shoulder. The attentions of the ape in the yellow hat were elsewhere, his back turned to Thomas.

As the pounding of his heart gradually slowed its pace, Thomas walked out of the Monkeyville Station, into a brief and clear Gorilla City morning.

It had been a lifetime since he’d been back, and Thomas had no notion where to go. All he knew was that he wanted to be away from the station. He hurried to the cab stand on the corner, hopped in the backseat of the first car in line, and shut the door behind him.

“City Center, please,” Thomas said.

The ape in the front seat, a weathered old silverback, glanced in the review mirror, his eyes narrowed beneath the brim of his cap. “You mean downtown?”

Oui,” Thomas said, and then cursed himself inwardly. “That is, yes.”

The driver shook his head, but pulled away from the curb, merging into traffic.

Throughout the drive, not a word was exchanged between them, but at every stop the drive would stare intently through the mirror at Thomas, eying him with clear suspicion. Was he reacting to Thomas referring to a district of the city by a name not used since the days of the old king? Or to the Gallic accent which Thomas could not hide, having spoken nothing but the elephants’ French for decades?

In silence, they reached the center of the city. Thomas paid the fare, his ancient bills eliciting the same response from the drive that they had from the newsvendor. His suspicions aside, however, the driver was happy to keep the change, and pulled away from the corner and back into traffic without a backwards glance.

The sun had risen high enough in the east that the light now spilled between the close-packed buildings at the city’s center. Thomas’s shadow reached out an impossible distance before him as he walked, touching the buildings on the street’s far side. His stomach grumbled, and Thomas realized absently that he’d not had a bite to eat since leaving the prison in Olurgrad the morning before. He was unexpectedly famished.

In the shadow of a building that, in Thomas’s youth, had been the office of the exchequer, but which now appeared to be an art museum of some stripe, was a small sidewalk café, tables under white clothes, straight-backed chairs with well-upholstered seats, shade umbrellas still folded from the night before. Thomas found a seat at the table farthest from the street, the stones of the building wall behind him cool through the thin fabric of his antique suit, and waved the waiter over.

Thomas ordered a pot of tea and a basket of fresh bread, doing his best to adopt the lost accent of his youth and failing. The waiter, though, subtler than the cabdriver had been, narrowed his eyes only slightly when confirming Thomas’s order, and then left him with a tight, professional smile.

When his tea arrived, poured steaming into a delicate porcelain mug, Thomas spread the newspaper out before him, and read the news of the day.

President Solovar was up for reelection again. From what Thomas read, it appeared that the main opposition in the impending election came from two corners: Mohor’s Anthar Primitivists on the one side, and the Force of Mind Party led by Grodd on the other. The article contended, however, that early polls indicated that Solovar would carry the day.

None of the names meant anything to Thomas. The last time he’d had reliable news of home, Huc had still been president of the republic, and he’d never heard of the Anthar Primitivists or the Force of Mind Party, nor of Mohor or Grodd, whoever they might be. He might as well have been reading about some unknown, foreign country.

Which, in many respects, he was. It had been a lifetime or more since the death of God and the ouster of the old king, and the country had clearly changed in ways that he early republic could never have guessed. When Thomas had left for Celesteville, sent to do Red Peter’s bidding, General Huc was newly elected, the first president of the republic. Now, the old general was surely dead, and an unknown set of players had taken to the political stage.

Thomas shut tight his eyes, remembering evenings at the Huc family home in his younger days. He’d been betrothed to the general’s daughter, Isabelle, when it came time for him to leave. But the general had felt his daughter too young to marry, and so Thomas and Isabelle had promised to wait until Thomas returned from his assignment in the elephant nation. When war had broken out, and Thomas’s stay in the court of the elephant king had been extended, he consoled himself in the knowledge that the war could not last forever, and that eventually his name was be cleared at home, and he and Isabelle would be reunited. Then the Animalists had overthrown the elephant king, and jailed Thomas as a counter-revolutionary, and a lifetime had passed. For all he knew, Isabelle was dead as well, buried beside her father in the Huc family crypt.

Thomas’s stomach roiled, and he angrily turned the page, looking for some relief from memory and politics. He sought solace in the entertainment sections, and failed to find it.

At the top of the page was a review of a new drama, entitled simply Princess Flora. The work of a rising young ape playwright, the drama was apparently based on rumors that the elephant princess, daughter to the old king, had survived the purges in the first days of the Animalist revolution, and had emigrated first to Europe, and then to the United States. The reviewer called Princess Flora a masterwork, an uplifting story of the indomitable animal spirit, of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds.

It was all nonsense. Nothing but fiction, whatever the playwright or the reviewer might think. Thomas knew first hand. He’d been there, had counted the bodies as they were dragged one by one from the king’s summer home. There was no chance that any of the royal family had escaped that bloody retribution, not even sweet, simple, blameless Flora. She may have been possessed of an indomitable spirit, but when facing the overwhelming odds of a firing squad, even that brave young elephant had not persevered.

Not politics, nor entertainment, then. Perhaps in the pages of the editorials he might find some escape, some relief. But no.

The paper’s back page was dominated by a single editorial, a lengthy missive excoriating the present government for allowing the return of the traitor Zephir to Gorilla City. There may have been implicit in the condemnation some message of support for one of the opposition candidates, either Mohor or Grodd, but such subtleties were beyond Thomas. He could only stare fixated at the name written so often in smudged black ink, and the atrocities and crimes so often attached to it. Zephir. The Traitor.

Eyes wide, Thomas looked up from the paper. On the far side of the patio, the waiter was in close conversation with a silverback ape in a fine suit, whispering in low voices while pointing in Thomas’s direction. Suppressing the urge to panic, Thomas dropped a handful of rumpled republic notes on the table, and hurried from the café, his basket of breads untouched, his tea left still steaming in its mug.

Thomas walked at speed up the street, turned a corner, turned another corner, and promptly got lost. The city of his childhood seemed to have consumed and digested by another, and while bits and pieces could be matched to his memory, most was as unrecognizable as the names in the morning paper. Still he kept walking, aimlessly, as quickly as possibly without looking as though he were running. He resisted the temptation to look behind him, convinced that at any moment he would be recognized.

He walked down a narrow street, towering buildings crowding on either side, in deep shadows, the light of the morning sun completely obscured. Then he turned a corner blindly, and found himself in a different world.

He had reached the geographic center of the city. Once known as Kensington Gardens, it had been renamed after the death of God as Moreau Park. Thomas remembered the dedication ceremony, as clear as though it had been the day before. Isabelle had stood by his side, hand-in-hand, and they’d wondered aloud what the future would bring, now that God was no longer among them. That was before the ouster of the old king, when Isabelle’s father had simply been the head of the ape army, but even that, too, would soon change. It had been a strange, heady time, as all of the carefully crafted illusions so precious to the old order were one by one chiseled away, and a new, fresh-minted future revealed.

Thomas passed under the arch at the park’s entrance, the bronze now tarnished a greenish-brown. A walking path stretched out before him, curving slightly to the west, while to his left stood an obelisk, with rows of cages arranged beyond. A zoo of some sort, it seemed.

Walking closer, Thomas was able to read the plaque set on the obelisk’s face. Provided by the Gorilla City Humane Society, the plaque listed the names of all the mutants and sports which had been successfully reintegrated into human populations, with new identities and histories. Kaspa, Zembla, and Ka-Zar. Nyoka, Sheena, and Jann. The list went on and on.

Beneath the sign was a piece of weathered paper in a metal frame, a less grand notice. It said that in the cages beyond were those unfortunates who had not yet been “successfully retrained,” and who remained on as wards of the state.

Thomas winced, despite himself. He knew what the notice meant, knew it had nothing to do with his past circumstances, but the resonances were too close to be ignored. Steeling himself, he rounded the obelisk, walking down the promenade, passing each of the cages in turn.

From time to time, the genetic engineering which granted the apes of Gorilla City intelligence and abilities in advance of their more primitive jungle cousins, went awry, leading to the birth of, to be charitable, “undesirables.” Most of these displays commingled characteristics of an ape and the human from which the engineered genes had been drawn. Most often, these sports gave the appearance of being entirely human on the outside, while on the inside being as savage and unsophisticated as the most primitive jungle gorilla. These sad creatures belonged truly to neither world, human or ape, falling somewhere in between.

When Thomas had been a child, the order of the day was to eject these unfortunates from polite society, casting them out into the wilderness, like Spartans abandoning unwanted children to the elements. The hardiest of the sports, though, survived, taking refuge in the caves above the city. Thomas had heard campfire stories in his youngest years about these strange ape-men, and what became of them in the wild. In the years since, more forward-thinking citizens of Gorilla City had evidently objected to this admittedly cruel treatment, and sought other solutions to the problem. And it seemed that they’d had some measure of success, having found ways to reintegrate the ape-men into the human populations.

What remained in these cages, then, were those sports too primitive ever to be retrained, too much animal ever to pass as man, too much man ever to live among the animals. Thomas paused by one cage, inside of which hulked an ancient silverback ape-man, wrinkled and bent. A sign on the cage door indicated that his name was “Malb’yat.” Thomas peered in, his heart going out to the sad, hunched creature in the cage, remembering the years he himself spent in a room no larger, no more amenable.

The old ape-man looked up, his watery eyes meeting Thomas’s. He reached up a wrinkled hand, gnarled into a claw, and in a plaintive voice said, “Where? Where Balza?”

Thomas shook his head, sadly. He had no notion what a “Balza” was, nor had any confidence that the poor creature would understand the answer, if he had. He turned, and continued down the promenade.

Beyond the zoo, Thomas came to a statue atop a high pedestal. In cast bronze, it depicted a creature with the face of a man, and a body that intermingled aspects of man and gorilla, wearing an open shirt and loincloth. It was a familiar figure, and one which had haunted Thomas’s dreams throughout childhood.

The strange man-ape depicted in the statue had insisted that his creations call him “God,” and it had not been until after his death that the gorillas had learned the name by which he’d once been known to his fellow humans. The apes of Gorilla City, like the elephants of Olurgrad and the rhinoceroses of Rataxesburg, all owed their intelligence to Francis Arnaud Moreau, as did the animals on whom he’d originally experimented while still living in England, whose descendants on Manor Farm had originated the doctrine of Animalism.

It was unknown how God had come to resemble his fellow man so little, but it was rumored that his strange appearance was the result of self-administered gene therapies. The story went that he’d once suffered near-fatal injuries on an island in the Pacific Ocean, before coming to Africa, and had been left for dead by earlier creations. The introduction of genetic material from healthy apes to his system had healed his injuries, but in time the gorilla genes began to breed true, and with each passing year he became less and less man, more and more ape. Like the unfortunate sports in reverse, in time he was little more than a man trapped in an ape’s body.

Which, it could be said, was true of every ape in Gorilla City, to some extent. But most found it distasteful to dwell on the question of just where all the gene in their makeup originated.

Of course, only a generation after his passing, there were already those who questioned the existence of God altogether, dismissing any talk of genetic manipulation or design, and insisting that the intelligent species of apes, elephants, rhinoceroses, and others had arisen naturally, by process of evolution. But so far as Thomas knew, those who held such notions were still few in number, and regarded as no more than cranks and zealots by the scientific establishment.

Thomas continued on past the statue, following a tree-lined path that curved off to the right. The weather that morning was mild, though the sky was clear and the sun was bright in the east. A she-ape in some sort of athletic suit jogged by, singing softly along with the music faintly audible from the large headphones over her ears. In the opposite direction came an older ape on a bicycle, a young chimp riding along beside, balanced precariously on a cycle still outfitted with training wheels. In the distance, Thomas could hear the sounds of a group of juvenile apes playing soccer in an open field, while a young she-ape and her mother could be seen flying a kite nearby.

Each time another ape passed, Thomas felt sure that he would be discovered, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. He was anonymous, it seemed, just another old ape in an ancient suit, like the vagrants rummaging through the trash bins, or asleep on the park benches. Is that were he would end up, after all this time? As another of their number, the faceless and anonymous street dwellers?

Hunger and fatigue worked at him. He’d walked already this morning more than he had in years, and with no food in his belly, and having had only fitful sleep in the train car the night before, his energy was flagging badly. Finding an unoccupied park bench, he sat down to rest a moment. Sighing deeply, feeling the aches in his long underused muscles, he closed his eyes, thoughtfully.

When he opened them again, the quality of the light had changed. He must have fallen asleep without realizing it, the sun climbing higher in the sky as he slept. More than that, though, he discovered that he was not alone, feeling the presence of another on the bench beside him.

Thomas turned his head, startled.

There, sitting beside him, was an ape of advancing years, wearing a yellow trench-coat and matching wide-brimmed hat. Eye half-lidded, he puffed contentedly on the pipe clenched between his teeth, elbows draped casually over the back of the bench.

It was the ape that Thomas had seen at the train station that morning, directing the movements of the uniformed officers.

Thomas’s heart pounded in his chest. He was too frightened even to move. He’d been discovered, clearly. Could he run? Was there any point in trying? Where would he go?

“Look there,” the ape in the yellow hat said casually, still not looking in Thomas’s direction. He took the pipe from between his teeth, and pointed with its stem to a point above the tree line. Thomas, swallowing hard, looked in the direction indicated, and just visible over the treetops could see the ramparts and towers of an imposing structure hulking over the city, styled as a medieval castle. “Do you recall when, as young apes, we’d whisper behind our hands, referring to that monstrosity as the House of Pain? You might find it amusing to learn that, with God long dead and the castle remade into the presidential palace, there are many who feel it deserves that childish name better than it ever did before.”

Thomas narrowed his eyes, looking at the other ape carefully. There was something about the curve of his jaw, something about the quality of his voice that was hauntingly familiar. As if...

“George?” Thomas said, recognition dawning.

“Hello, Zephir, my old friend.” The other ape turned to him, smiling. “It’s good to see you again.”

Confused emotions swirled in Thomas. A smile came unbidden to his lips, but within he still felt the fear of discovery, the vertiginous tremble of uncertainty.

“I would have thought you were still in America,” he replied, at length.

George returned the pipe to his mouth, puffing deeply. Then, the smoke curling from the corner of his smile, he chuckled. “No, I grew weary of adventures, I’m afraid. A young ape named Bonzo was given the task of watching the Americans, and I was brought home.” He paused, and a cloud passed momentarily across his features. “Too late to see our old teacher Red Peter again, but not too late to be offered his vacated seat at the head of the intelligence services.”

Thomas nodded, appreciatively, lips pursed thoughtfully. “So you’re the head ape, now?” He was genuinely impressed. “And the intelligence services still persist, as they did when we were young?”

George inspected the contents of his pipe’s bowl, and then overturning it tapped out the ashes onto the ground between his feet, knocking the pipe against the palm of his hand. “There is a remarkable inertia to such systems, my friend. There have been precious few changes made to the spy apparatus since it was first instituted by Wolsey under the old king, as I’m sure you’ll recall. When Colonel Aristobald took charge under the new republic, he did little more than change the names and titles on the doors. And when Wolsey’s first operative and protégé Red Peter returned from the field to take charge upon the death of Aristobald during the First Forest War, he reversed the few changes that Aristobald had made. When I took control, I saw no reason to muddy the waters with unnecessary changes.”

“Hmph.” Thomas shook his head, ruefully, the smile fading from his lips. “Red Peter,” he repeated. “That old bastard.”

“That he was,” George agreed, pulling a pouch of tobacco from a pocket, and refilling the pipe’s bowl. “And the finest mind I’ve ever encountered.”

“I don’t recall you speaking of him so highly when we were his pupils.” Thomas snarled momentarily, and then his expression softened, as he remembered fonder memories. “In fact,” he went on, smiling, “I distinctly recall you mocking Emily mercilessly for praising him on rare occasion. If she hadn’t been sent on assignment to England when she was, I was sure you’d murder each other. Or fall in love. One of the two.”

George damped down the tobacco into the pipe with the tip of his thumb, and smiled. “It is a thin line, to be sure.”

“Whatever became of Emily, anyway?” Thomas asked.

George’s smile froze, and he was silent for a moment, striking a match and sucking its flame into the pipe. When the tobacco began to burn, he shook out the match, and in somber tones, replied. “She fell in love with a human. It... ended badly.”

Thomas nodded. “Such things usually do.” He paused. “And what about...?” He broke off, and swallowed hard. “What about Isabelle?”

George glanced over, blowing out a stream of smoke. He opened his mouth to answer, but Thomas interrupted before he was able to speak.

“No, don’t tell me,” he said, hurriedly. “I... I’d rather not know, I think.”

George nodded, and returned the pipe to his mouth.

“So,” Thomas said, brightening slightly. “You’re the new spymaster, are you? I assume you’ve a new crop of intelligencers you’re carefully cultivating, eh?”

“Of course.” George smiled. “You’d scarcely believe how young these apes seem, when they come to me. I recall you, Emily, and I were most fully grown when Red Peter recruited us for the intelligences services, but if we were anything like as old as Chim-Chim, Magilla, Bear, and Grape, we must have been scarcely babes in arms.”

“These are their names, your young protégés?” Thomas’s eyes bobbled. “They sound more like circus performers than civilized apes.”

George chuckled. “Ah, but were those of our generation any better? Back when God was in his castle, Henry still on his throne, and this city was still called London, I was George Boleyn, Emily was Emlia Bassano...”

“And I was Zephir.”

“I suppose.” George chose not to remark on the interruption. “But only among friend, Thomas.

It was true. Even before the ouster of the old king, it had never been Thomas, only Zephir; his father, Robert Recorde, had four sons and five daughters, who were seldom if ever called by their given names, but instead known as the Four Winds and Five Wandering Stars. With the coming of the republic, and the abolition of the names bestowed by God, he’d simply made it official, and Thomas Recorde became Zephir.

He wondered what had become of his three brothers, and of his five sisters. He’d heard from his mother once, in the days of the First Forest War. His seeming betrayal of the republic, siding with the elephants, had broken his father’s heart, she said. So far as the family as concerned, the letter had read, brother Zephir was already dead.

“My parents are dead and buried, I suppose,” Thomas said aloud, musing. “I’d always hoped to square things with them, to let them know that their son wasn’t really a traitor. But then...” Thomas trailed off, his eyes unfocused.

“I was in America when I heard about the revolution, and about your being imprisoned. It... It just made me sick that I wasn’t able to do anything to help back then.”

Thomas took a deep breath, and gave a limp shrug. “You shouldn’t blame yourself. I suppose it isn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I should have known something was in the wind when the Old Lady was assassinated by the cabal of Fandango, Capoulosse, and Podular. They hoped to rid themselves of her influence over the king, you see, taking her place in the king’s favor. But it was only a short while afterwards that Hatchibombotar, Olur, and Poutifour sprung their revolution. If I’d been any sort of spy I’d have seen it coming, but I’d allowed myself to get too close to the royal family, and saw nothing of what was happening with the common elephants outside the palace walls.” He paused, his lips drawn into a tight line. “More’s the pity.”

“There was a war on, Zephir,” George replied. “And you were doing your duty. When the elephant king and the ape republic went to war, you were perfectly positioned to act as our eyes and ears in the enemy court.”

“Yes, but only by posing as an enemy myself, a traitor to my own people.”

“You were an invaluable source of information during the First Forest War. I’ve seen your reports myself, since taking Red Peter’s job. The republic might well have lost the war to the elephants in those early days, if not for you.”

“Yes,” Thomas said hotly, eyes flashing, “and what was my thanks for it? A lifetime rotting in an elephant jail.”

George reached out and placed a hand on Thomas’s shoulder, his expression grave. “Zephir, you must know that was one of the hardest decisions that Red Peter ever had to make. But for the gorillas to claim you as one of their own, to prove your innocence, would have been to expose our entire network of informants. The elephants had to believe you were really a traitor.”

“And our own people, George?” Thomas tugged the folded newspaper from his pocket, brandishing it at the yellow-hat wearing ape. “They had to believe it still, as well?”

George lowered his gaze. “I’m sorry, Zephir. There just wasn’t any other way.”

Thomas threw the paper to the ground, and leapt to his feet. “I was abandoned, George! Left to the tender mercy of the Animalists! And now freed only because the elephants have found some use for me as a bargaining chip, tossed in with a bunch of other anonymous political prisoners.”

George looked up at him, surprised. “You mean, you didn’t know?”

Thomas narrowed his eyes, arms crossed over his chest. “Didn’t know what?”

George shook his head, sadly. “Oh, Zephir. It was at my urging that Solovar arranged for the release of the apes held by the elephants. We had to offer Olurgrad a raft of political concessions to close the deal, but I knew that no price would be too high. Not when the bill had come due, all these years later.”

Thomas opened his mouth, and closed it again. His eyes widened. Finally, he said, “You did this?”

“Zephir,” George sighed, “I’ve been laboring ceaselessly since I took office to get you released. In fact, I’ve done little else for the last few years but investigate every possible angle. This was just the first to bear fruit.”

“But... but...” Thomas was taken aback.

“Unfortunately,” George continued with remorse, “I’ve been unable to convince Solovar that your name should be cleared publicly. At least not yet. All of Red Peters files from those days have been sealed, by the president’s order, until the end of the century. His position—with which I disagree, but my voice carries little weight—is that with tensions easing with the elephants, and hope for reconciliation on the horizon, it wouldn’t do to reopen old wounds, and to remind them that relations between our two countries were not always so genial.”

Thomas set his jaw, eyes narrowed. “So I’m to remain a traitor.” It was a statement, not a question, demanding no answer. “Hated by my countrymen.”

“I’m afraid that those who remember the name of Zephir, yes, will likely hate his memory.” George paused, and gave a sly smile. “But who remembers that there was ever a Thomas Recorde, my friend? I doubt there’s more than a handful still living who remember that the famous Zephir was once called by that name, and one of them stands before you.”

Thomas shifted uneasily, averting his gaze. “This is not how I foresaw my homecoming, when I left for Celesteville, all those years ago.”

George climbed to his feet, slipping his pipe into his pocket. He stepped to Thomas’s side, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Come work with me, friend. There’s a place for Thomas Recorde at the intelligences services, even if there isn’t one for Zephir. I can use someone with your experience to help train my students, to increase their chances of surviving in the field.”

“I don’t know...” Thomas began, uneasily.

“You don’t have to decide right away,” George hastened to add. “We will discuss it further over dinner tonight. I’ve invited someone to join us, by the way. Another of those who remember the name of Thomas Recorde, but who hold no grudge against the name Zephir, for all of that.”

Thomas looked up and met George’s eyes, confused.

“Have you forgotten, old friend?” George asked. “Isabelle was a young ape with us, too, and has never forgotten the name to which you were born.”

“I-Isabelle,” Thomas repeated, his tone breathless.

George tightened his companionly grip on Thomas’s shoulder, and nodded. “She waited for you. All of these years. She waited.”

Thomas tried to reply, but couldn’t think of the words to say.

“Come on, Thomas Recorde,” George said, taking him by the arm. “It’s time to go home.”

(c) 2006 MonkeyBrain, Inc.


I have this in the Shadowmen anthology, but I still appreciate you posting it here. This time, I took the opportunity to google the references that I didn't get the first time. Anything that mixes references from Animal Farm, Babar, Tarzan & the Lionmen, Curious George and Flash comics has to be cool.
Why, Stu, I'm sure I have *no* idea what you mean. References? I'm shocked at the suggestion. Shocked, I say...
I'm just sorry that you couldn't include So-so the monkey from the Peter Potamus Show, and Twinkles the Elephant.
Dang, I missed one!

Ah well, there's always the sequel...
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?