© Dale Cozort
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1949, on the bank of an alternate Congo river in Africa-4M Snapshot, a very strange alternate Africa
Jace Lee had never seen muskets before except in books. He recognized them, though. He even knew they were different from rifles like Lucas Weaver, the Warlord of the Congo, carried when his men timidly ventured into the jungle, searching for Jace and Janet Steele, Jace’s only human friend.
Ordinarily, strange men carrying muskets and wearing white robes that covered their bodies would have riveted his attention, but not this morning. Eleven-year-old Jace was in terrible trouble, trouble that could leave him alone in the jungle, if not crippled or dead.
Jace dipped his canteen in the river, watching the strange men beach their canoes and congregate on the river bank. These were real men like the ones in the books, not like the People, the apelike men he had grown up with, and considered his own kind, despite their many physical differences.
Janet called the People man-apes or ape-men, or sometimes just monkeys. She claimed they were animals, smarter than lions or leopards, but still animals. She insisted that Jace wasn’t one of them, that he was an American.
“They’re still my people.” Jace’s whispered words were fierce, but he said them in English, not the limited language of the People, making a mockery of his claim. With two exceptions, none of the ape-men could speak more than a word or two of English and they struggled to produce even those few alien sounds.
Despite his words, Jace knew he wasn’t part of the People now, not the way he had been when he played among the three and four-year-old man-apes, running and wrestling and climbing with them as equals. Now, with few exceptions, the People had rejected him. His former playmates were almost grown now, towering over him and already developing the powerful chest and shoulder muscles that made grown ape-men very nearly the equal of lions in single combat.
At eleven years old, Jace was still a child. with a child’s thin shoulders and chest and a sprinkling of freckles to go with hair halfway between red and brown. Janet said he looked like Tom Sawyer playing at being Balzar of the Jungle. He was tough, wise and powerful far beyond any child who had grown up among civilized men but was far weaker than his former companions. Worse, he wasn’t interested in ape-women when they came into their time, a lack of interest that drew derision and sometimes physical beatings from his former companions. Now a few of them had taken to hunting him like a beast to be killed and eaten.
Jace finished filling the canteen, studying the men. Among the white-robed men were other real men who wore only loin cloths. They had olive skin and carried heavy loads while the white-robes yelled at them in a language Jace didn’t understand.
An animal new to Jace came ashore with the white-robes, walking upright, tall as a man, but slender and covered with down-like feathers. It had an eagle-like face, but crocodile teeth instead of a beak and slender arms instead of wings. **A bird-lizard? ** That was the only way he could describe the beast.
The white robes moved hastily aside when the animal moved further inland, looking around with sharp eyes. It turned toward Jace and stared coldly in his direction. Jace froze in place until it turned away, then he eased back into the trees.
He wanted to see more, but the bird-lizard’s eyes seemed entirely too sharp, and Jace couldn’t stay anyway. Janet, one of only two friends he had left, was back in the cabin they shared. She was safe from the man-apes there, inside a circle she called the Zone of Fear, which allowed only her and Jace to approach the cabin. However, she was also pregnant and dying in childbirth. Jace had to help her, had to find some way of getting the fetus out of her body, now over twelve hours into labor.
**She can’t die!** Jace closed his eyes and prayed to the Gray-Eyed Man.
Janet would have told him that he was being foolish. “The Gray-Eyed Man isn’t real.” She told him that many times, but Jace had seen him, always in the distance, fading away like the morning fog, leaving no trail.
“If the Gray-Eyed Man isn’t real, where did the soccer ball, the books, the canteen and my knife come from?” he asked once. “Who built the cabin and the Zone of Fear? Who rides in the giant sky ships we see overhead?”
Janet didn’t have an answer, so now Jace prayed that the Gray-Eyed Man would take the baby out of her before it killed her. “She says that it’s from an ape-man and it’s wrong that it’s growing inside her,” He whispered. “She says it will probably kill her.”
He briefly wondered, not for the first time, how she got pregnant. It wasn’t by force. He was certain of that. She would have found some way to kill any ape-man who tried to force her, despite such an assailant’s huge size and strength advantage.
His mind shied away from other explanations as he moved through the forest automatically, not consciously noticing his path, but attuned to it. His memory flitted back to the white-robes and then to the bird-lizard’s predatory gaze. He shivered at the second memory, despite the morning’s warmth.
To an outsider, the forest looked like a tangle of trees and vines, with one tree or vine not much different from another and sections of forest interchangeable. To Jace, every tree and every vine had a story, a history and a purpose.
He knew at a glance when every one of several hundred kinds of trees and vines and bushes would have ripe fruit, nuts or berries and exactly when to go to them, so he got the ripened fruit or other goodies before the swarms of parrots, monkeys and chimpanzees that also wanted to eat them. He excelled at this cutthroat game, where getting to trees a few hours before the competition meant a full stomach and getting there late meant hunger or running fights for the remnants of the feast.
He also knew which branches and vines would support his weight, which branches had hidden weaknesses, and where he could find good water trapped in depressions high in the trees. He knew all the trails through the forest, both on the ground and through the trees, had traveled them all until moving along them was as easy and automatic as driving to the store is to city people.
Jace chose his trail carefully this time, climbing high in the trees, among thin branches where his enemies among the People couldn’t reach him. The trail he followed there took him through the sunlight of a cloudless tropical morning, among small, agile green-furred monkeys that made spectacular jumps from treetop to treetop. Something moved in the sky though, triggering ancient monkey instincts against birds of prey and causing the monkeys to sound the alarm and flee to lower branches. Jace focused on the movement and felt a rush of hope and relief.
The four huge oval shapes crossing the sky weren’t natural. The first time Jace and Janet saw them, years ago, Janet said that they were airplanes, but far bigger and faster than any plane she had ever seen, and shaped wrong. She called them sky ships. These four sky ships crossed the sky silently, disappearing behind the trees before Jace could count to ten.
Sky ships usually meant the Gray-Eyed Man was nearby. Jace had never seen him emerge from the ships, had never seen the ships do anything other than race across the sky, but usually when he saw the ships something strange and wonderful appeared near the cabin, and sometimes he saw the Gray-Eyed Man in the distance.
Once the sky ships disappeared, the little monkeys resumed their activities, noisier and more active than ever.
The forest and its trails were far more complex than a city, with communities of animals that traveled only among canopies of the tallest trees and others only in the midrange or lowest trees. Jace studied those trails, his curiosity pushing him to find routes and resources even the People hadn’t discovered in all their generations here.
Jace’s world had sharp boundaries though, like the river. He had never been to the other side, though he often sat in a tree overlooking the water and stared across. He knew ape-men much like the People lived across the river too. Sometimes he heard their alarm calls or saw them scavenging along the river for fish trapped in little pools cut off after a flood.
The People also scavenged on their side of the river, though cautiously because crocodiles lurked there, and because Lucas Weaver and his men sometimes ventured up the river in boats and even hunted a short distance into the forest. With few exceptions, the Warlord’s men never penetrated far into the trees though and seemed, even after all these years, to be terrified by the forest.
In happier times, after he read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Jace fantasized about building a raft and exploring the river with his playmates among the young of the People. He even built a raft, but his playmates were too afraid of the water to join the game. They were awkward swimmers, their heavy muscles making it impossible for them to float.
When Jace got closer to his destination, he descended cautiously to the lower branches so he could move faster.
A sound made him stop and reach for his wooden club. He relaxed when he recognized the ape-woman swinging through the trees toward him. Eve was two years younger than Jace, but at nine she was almost fully grown, six inches taller than him and forty pounds heavier. She was still a friend so far, though Jace had seen many friends and playmates turn into enemies. She swung down silently beside him.
Eve, almost alone among the man-apes, could speak many English words, at least a hundred, though Janet claimed that Eve’s words resembled English only in Jace’s imagination. Eve struggled today, with excitement making the mix of whispered English and ape-person words more difficult to understand than normal.
Jace figured out what she was trying to tell him though, and the news was disastrous. A band of young ape-men, his former playmates, were systematically hunting him. They had broken branches he normally used as a forest highway to the cabin, forcing him to approach on the ground, where they were waiting for him, spread out to cover all the ways in.
One more almost insurmountable obstacle to overcome when he already had more than enough to deal with.
Jace wasn’t going to the cabin right away, though his first destination might be even more dangerous. Janet would have been appalled at the idea, but in his desperation Jace was going to the Warlord for help of a kind. He didn’t know if there was a doctor among Weaver’s survivors, but surely someone among them could do a better job of saving Janet than he could. **I don’t dare ask them though.** What he would be asking for was already risky enough.
Jace knew the way to the shipwreck. Before his playmates grew into the hulking, dangerous figures they now were, Jace sometimes led them to trees overlooking the warlord’s domain.
They all reveled in the danger of being so close to the evil man and his followers. Lucas Weaver and his men had managed to get the wrecked ocean liner mostly ashore, where it sat rusting in the tropical humidity, but still holding together. The tropical sun must make it stiflingly hot during the day, so the surviving passengers spent most of their days in crude huts on shore, with the huts surrounded by a palisade of upright poles.
The survivors had cleared the trees surrounding their little fort and planted a field of potatoes and a few other crops there, the struggling vines and plants mostly overrun by tropical weeds despite women and children hacking away in the hot sun to keep the gardens clear.
A tangled web of barrels and tubing sat in one corner of the stockade, a still. According to Janet, Weaver’s men built it when the survivors were nearly starving, putting time into the project that would have better spent foraging for food.
**And now I need the product of that folly.**
With or without his playmates, Jace spent hours watching the survivors from the forest, though he never told Janet about that pastime. He knew Lucas Weaver’s voice and those of his supporters.
He often wished he could go down among the survivors, especially when he saw boys and girls near his own age playing down there. Janet’s stories of brutality among the survivors, especially Weaver and his friends, usually kept him at a distance though.
He had, a few desperate times, had another kind of interaction with Weaver’s people, a dangerous kind he never told Janet about, a kind he would have to repeat now. With Eve’s help, he gathered fruit and nuts from the forest overlooking the shipwreck and put them in a canvas bag, moving frantically fast, his impatience making him reckless.
When they finished, he left Eve in the forest and deposited the fruit bag on a flat stone the size of a kitchen table at the edge of the forest, drawing a crude sketch in the dirt by the rock and writing, “Alcohol for cut.”
Janet’s stories sent him scurrying back into the trees by Eve. From a safe distance, he made two distinctive echoing hoots, waited a second, then added two more. He and Eve climbed high in the trees and watched a boy a little younger than Jace run to the rock, then back to Weaver’s camp with the fruit bag.
Eve stayed with Jace a while, then wandered off, remaining in sight, but foraging in the forest around them. Jace stayed where he was, fidgeting, impatient.
A tall pale man in a white, long-sleeved shirt, white pants and a straw hat moved slowly toward the rock with a curiously mechanical limp like a wounded machine, leaning heavily on a cane. He paused frequently, apparently short of breath. Finally, he reached the rock and sat a bag down on it. He stood leaning on his cane and sucking in huge gulps of hot, moist tropical air.
“Someone hurt?” The words were loud but came out as a gasping burst. “Here is your alcohol.” The man paused, drew in another breath. “Not a doctor but I can fix most wounds.” He stood by the rock, his eyes scanning the forest. “Just ask me.”
Jace was almost desperate enough to respond, but not quite. Finally, the tall, pale man said, “We know someone is helping you. The men in the big planes maybe? Did they put us here? Tell them they have to send us home. We can’t survive here.”
He stared into the forest, then limped away, leaving the bag.
Eve rejoined Jace and stared at the limping man. “He help?”
“Maybe.” Jace climbed down and grabbed the bag, which now held a vodka bottle refilled with some dark liquid. He opened the bottle and smelled the potent alcohol.
Eve eyed the bottle. “Taste?”
Jace shook his head. The People sometimes ate fermenting fruit and the results were usually disastrous, with big males injuring themselves or others.
He stared down at Weaver’s stockade and at the man still limping toward it. **I can’t take their help. They would take us back to the shipwreck and force Janet to marry someone she hates.**
If Weaver’s people were off-limits, that left Syla, medicine woman of the People. The ape woman knew far more about the jungle than any of the other People. Maybe she knew how to end Janet’s seemingly endless labor. But how could he get her to the cabin? His hostile former playmates wouldn’t dare bother her but even her mind wasn’t strong enough to get her through the Zone of Fear. Would she even come if he asked? Like the tribe’s Big Men, she took little obvious interest in the disputes of young ape-men.
Eve helped him track down the ape woman, keeping to trails high in the trees that wouldn’t support full-grown males of the People. When they found her, Syla was collecting leaves and stuffing them into hollowed-out gourd hung around her neck. The gourd was secured by a strip cut from one of Jace’s outgrown trousers, given to a younger playmate many years ago, but quickly repurposed by the People, who were fascinated by string of any kind.
Syla was tall and slender for a full-grown female of the People. She had been an adult, one of the elders, when Jace and Janet fled to the People seven years ago, but she still seemed agile and alert. Unlike most of the People, her eyes were a striking pale blue, emphasized by her dark brown skin. Like most of the ape-women, her face was hairless, except for a slight hint of white hair on her upper lip and chin. Light brown hair covered her head and, more sparsely, her body.
She nodded when she spotted them and embraced them in the traditional greeting of the People, but without the normal vocalizations. **She didn’t make noise because she knows that Nalit and his friends are hunting me.** Jace thought about appealing to her for help against the young ape-men but realized she probably wouldn’t help him. Females only intervened in struggles between males of the People when those struggles became too destructive.
“Janet baby wrong,” Syla said. “You want help.”
That summed it up. He wondered how much the ape-woman knew about Janet’s baby. Probably more than Jace did. How much could she know about what to do in the desperate situation though? Apparently not much. She hugged Jace again, then told him that she could give him something to make the pain go away for a while or another concoction that would make death painless.
“Can you—” Jace tried to find words in the limited language of the People for what he wanted to do. He finally got the idea across enough that the ape-woman looked appalled, then thoughtful. Finally, she turned away. “No.”
Something to make the pain go away might be useful. Syla gave him a pinch of dried, crumpled bark wrapped in a large leaf and a gourd half full of a brown liquid. In exchange, Jace made a fire for her. He had made fires for his friends among the People before. They were always fascinated and sometimes Syla or Eve kept one going for hours or even days before they lost interest in the hard work of tending it or forgot and let it burn out.
Eve had even started a fire once, following Jace’s directions, but even she didn’t have the patience to do it routinely, or to keep a fire going. Jace tried to avoid making fires for the People now, after one he made for his playmates got loose and almost burned a large part of the forest.
He stared at the fire he made for Syla. The ape woman looked up from it and waved in a ‘good luck’ gesture. He nodded and swung back into the trees toward the cabin, with Eve following him. He traveled several minutes before he realized he had forgotten to tell Syla about the white-robes and their bird-lizard.
Jace moved quickly through the forest, with Eve gliding along beside him. When he was younger, he had been the awkward one in the trees, slower and less agile than his ape-man playmates. Now, he was far superior to them. The males were too bulky to move quickly in the trees. Eve, lighter than the males, could still keep up with him.
**How can I get past them?** While Jace had far more stamina than his enemies, they could move faster than him on the ground for short distances. **But if I get to the Zone of Fear, they can’t follow me.**
The Zone extended a hundred yards in every direction from the cabin. Neither Jace nor Janet felt the fear that the Zone inflicted on ape-men, lions, leopards and everything else that approached the cabin. The cabin meant safety, but he had to get to it. He worked his way through the forest until he got close enough to the Zone of Fear to hear Janet screaming in the cabin, the weak, exhausted, desperate cries of a woman near death.
The cabin sat on a near-island in the edge of an oxbow lake, hidden in a cluster of boulders. The ground around the boulders was covered in thick grass two inches tall, a perfect circle of smooth green that defied the tropical rains and the inroads of longer tropical grasses and trees.
Just outside the grass circle was a soccer field, now overgrown with weeds and saplings. The man-apes Jace used to play with had grown too bulky to play soccer, their heavy muscles tiring quickly in the hot tropical sun. Younger ape-man children kicked the soccer ball around, but never actually played like Jace and his young ape man friends had after the soccer ball mysteriously appeared and Janet showed them how to play.
Jace usually got to the cabin by forest pathways through trees growing in the shallow water. He circled the area, noting where his former playmates were. The ape-men had done a good job of organizing this ambush, almost as good as Jace would have done. They had limited vocabularies and lacked Jace’s effortless flair for inventing new tools, but they were good at stalking and cornering enemies.
Which of the young ape-men planned this ambush? Jace had no doubt about that. Nilat had never really been Jace’s friend, even when they were playmates. Jace had confronted the then five-year-old Nilat and thrown him to the ground when Nilat bullied one of the other ape-man children, even though the ape-man was already turning into the mass of muscle he was now.
The broken branches closed Jace’s forest pathways. That left three ground routes. Two involved long jumps from rock to rock, while the last was a shallow ford, with the water only a foot deep at its deepest.
The trap would force Jace to make a dash on the ground or through shallow water to reach the Zone of Fear close to one or more of his tormenters no matter where he went.
“I can’t make it.”
Eve climbed onto a branch beside him and stared down toward the cabin. She had never been in the little wooden building, even though Jace would have been happy to have her there.
His playmates once tried to push into the Zone, daring each other to go further and marking their progress. Eve went further than the others, but finally had to turn back, sprinting desperately on her short legs. She never talked about what she saw in the Zone, but other ape-men told of visions that were terrifying while they happened but seemed silly later. His playmates all acted strange for a few days after they entered the Zone and the Big Men of the People told them not to try again.
Five young ape-men blocked his way, two at each of the rock-jump routes and Nilat alone guarding the ford. Jace noticed that while his opponents had cut him off from the Zone, they were too far apart to quickly help one another if he attacked along one of the routes. How could that help him though? Each of his opponents was bigger and far stronger than a grown man, several times Jace’s weight, with heavy arms, chests and shoulders. He could no more match the strength of even a single ape-man than a rabbit could fight a lion.
Despair, which had been lurking in his mind, welled up. Janet screamed in the cabin, so close, but seemingly impossible to get to. Cold, purposeful anger pushed aside the despair. Jace swung forward, not knowing how he was going to get past his former playmates but determined to find a way. A budding branch he had pushed aside sprang back, slapping him across the back. The branch hurt, but it gave him an idea. He twisted it loose from the tree and whipped it back and forth, studying its motion. Eve sat silent beside him, her eyes on the branch.
He handed it to her. “Hit me with it.” She hesitated, then swung the branch half-heartedly at him. “Harder.” She swung again and again at his insistence, until the branch streaked toward him almost too fast for his eyes to follow and left long red welts when it landed.
Finally, Jace nodded. The whipping hurt enough that he could barely keep back tears. He turned and hugged her. “Stay here. Please.”
Nilat undoubtedly wanted Jace to use the ford, so Nilat could deal with him personally. Jace studied the trees and brush around Nilat, making sure no hidden enemies lurked nearby. He didn’t see any more ape-men and didn’t expect to. The other young ape-men hated Nilat and his four friends but feared them too much to oppose them.
Jace didn’t hesitate. He cached his club in a tree and waded into the ford’s shallow water armed only with the long, thin branch. The branch looked pitifully small compared to the muscular ape-man. Jace’s doubts about his plan welled up, but before they could destroy his resolve, he splashed directly toward Nilat. The ape-man turned, a startled expression on his face, then hesitated, seemingly poised between fighting and running. Finally, he charged into the shallow water to meet Jace.
The ape-man towered over Jace. Muscles stood out on his hairy shoulders, chest and arms. His fingers looked like sausages. He held a heavy club, almost a log, and pounded it through the water to the rock below as he yelled a deep roaring challenge, his face contorted. Jace’s charge didn’t falter, though his instincts told him to turn and run. Faltering now meant death.
Jace’s charge and Nilat’s responding one brought them within a couple yards of one another. Jace veered from their collision course and whipped the branch around, hard against Nilat’s leg, then his butt.
The sting seemed to startle the ape man but made him even angrier. He swung his massive club, faster than Jace expected. Jace pivoted out of the way and brought the branch around directly at Nilat’s groin, the high-speed tip striking the ape man in that sensitive spot once and then again. Nilat dropped his club and clutched his injured body. Jace splashed past him, directly for the Zone of Fear. Behind him, Nilat bellowed his pain and anger and charged. Jace thought he had enough of a lead to make it to the Zone, but Nilat’s bellowing got closer and closer behind him. Five yards from the smooth, short grass of the zone. Four. Three.
A sudden jerk almost threw Jace off his feet. Nilat had a hand around the straps that held Jace’s canteen and the gourd. Janet had to have that concoction, so Jace popped the quick release lid off the canteen and tossed water in the ape-man’s looming face. The ape-man’s hands flew to his face, but one of them still held the straps, pulling Jace toward him. Jace kicked up at Nilat’s groin, as if he was kicking a soccer ball. Nilat folded, the straps falling from his hands. Jace took the remaining few steps into the Zone of Fear.
Nilat wasn’t done yet, though. He charged into the Zone, his anger and pain overwhelming the fear, at least for a few steps. He faltered then, his momentum carrying him further into the Zone, but with terror replacing anger in his face. He staggered out of the Zone, collapsing just outside the circle of short grass, and rocked back and forth, his face full of terror and his hands wiping frantically at his body, as though swatting at a poisonous snake or insect that was crawling up him. Jace felt a brief burst of sympathy for his former playmate, followed by triumph at his victory over the ape-man.
Janet’s cries pulled him back to his goal. He snapped the lid back on the canteen, ran the remaining steps to the boulders and then to the cabin’s entrance. He stopped at the doorway, where he pulled on a shirt and pants that Janet had made for him. He traveled through the forest with just a loin cloth, but Janet insisted that he wear ‘civilized clothes’ in the cabin.
Putting on clothes before he entered the cabin was more than just a gesture to please Janet. It signaled that he was going into a fragment of a different world, a world completely alien to the one outside, one he didn’t and couldn’t share with the People.
Huge gray boulders surrounding the cabin hid it from the outside world. A narrow path led through the boulders to the cabin itself, an imposing square structure made of logs thicker than a big man’s waist and ten yards long in both directions. The back of the cabin butted up against the entrance to a shallow cave, with water gushing from a little spring and filling a natural cistern.
The building was windowless, with a thick hardwood door Jace had never seen closed. No need to close it with the Zone of Fear surrounding and protecting them. Despite the lack of windows, the cabin was normally well-lit and cheerful, with light supplied by glass channels and mirrors that brought sunlight from the roof into the cabin.
Some seemingly magical mechanism stored sunlight so flipping a switch brought them soft light in the evenings or a cloudy day, though only for a few hours. The floor was marvelously smooth, though made of logs split in half, with the split sides facing up. The wood was polished and stained dark.
Books lined every wall of the cabin, including the interior walls that separated off Janet’s bedroom and Jace’s and the one that marked out the kitchen. Jace loved the feel and smell of books and had read many, but with the excitement of the forest filling his days, most of those books remained a mystery to him, never opened. A piano sat in one corner of the main space. Janet played it marvelously, though Jace had never mastered the keys.
The kitchen remained a mystery to him too. Janet guarded it fiercely as her territory and kept him out, disappearing behind the thick door with raw meat, edible seeds or fruit in the middle of the afternoon and emerging hours later with completed meals that she insisted they eat at a heavy wooden table in a corner of the main room that she set with plates, cloth napkins and silverware.
She had kept up that dinner routine until two days ago, when the pain of impending childbirth finally made it impossible. Jace missed those dinners now, though he could keep his stomach filled with the products of the forest and carry enough back to Janet to keep her from getting hungry.
Jace paused in the doorway, his triumph fading when he saw Janet, stunned at how weak she looked. The young blond woman was still on the crude sofa where he left her, her young face mottled with broken veins from her futile efforts to push the baby out. Her eyes were bloodshot. She stared at him wildly, with no sign of recognition at first. A contraction hit her, pushing a moan from her lips.
Jace ran to her and gave her a drink, then refilled the canteen from the spring and offered it to her again. She muttered, “If I drink any more, I’ll explode.” She poured the cold water over her face. “If your Gray-Eyed Man was really a god, he would have put running water in the cabin.”
Jace couldn’t remember running water or toilets, but Janet talked about them a lot. She seemed to miss them more than anything else about her life before the jungle.
“I need a doctor,” Janet said. “I need this thing out of me.” She groaned when another contraction hit her. “You know what you have to do.” The words came out between gasps of pain. “It’s been too long since my water broke,” she said. “You have to cut it out or it will die, and it will kill me too.”
“I prayed to the Gray-Eyed Man,” Jace said. “He is coming. I saw the sky ships. He’ll know how to save you.”
Something thudded on the roof of the cabin, probably rocks thrown by his former playmates. Only the strongest of the People could throw rocks far enough to hit the cabin from outside the Zone of Fear and even they could rarely hit it at that distance.
“Even if there was a Gray-Eyed Man and he really cared about us, how would he get past your vicious little ex-friends?” Janet asked. “And if he got past them, how would he get through the Zone of Fear?” She moaned her way through a long, agonizing contraction. “If he cared about us, why would he leave us stranded in this god-forsaken jungle and let me get pregnant with an animal’s baby?”
“This is my home,” Jace said. “I’ve had a good life so far.”
A year or two ago, that would have been true. Now Jace saw no future for himself here. He thought about Eve for the first time since he left her. **She is still my friend.** But even they were growing apart. She was a grown, if still young, ape-woman, and all the females near her age were already having babies. Eve stared at the babies enviously when she was around them.
“And Eve is still my friend.”
“Eve wants to have your babies, but she can’t. Different species.”
“She’s just a friend and even if she wanted more, you’re having a baby with one of the People.”
“I don’t understand how that happened. It shouldn’t be possible. They are way too different. And this kid is going to kill me.”
Janet moaned again. She had been in hard labor for over twelve hours now, shockingly long for Jace, who was used to the ape-women simply turning aside and squatting to deliver their babies. He sat listening to her heart racing, her hand feebly clutching his. Finally, he sat the vodka bottle on the floor beside her. Janet eyed it, and Jace expected her to ask where he got it, but she didn’t.
“I can’t do it.” The thought of cutting his friend open and getting the baby out left him shaken. “If I try, I’ll kill you.”
“The book shows you every step you need to take.” Janet pointed to a heavy brown-covered book open face-down beside the couch. “It has pictures of each thing you have to do. You can do it. If you don’t, I’ll die.” She pointed to the vodka bottle Jace had bartered for. “Soak the knife in it, then pour it over where you have to cut and over hand towels to wipe away the blood. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve got.”
“The book also says that this should only be done in a hospital, by a doctor,” Jace said. “It says that the shock will kill you if I do it without anesthetics and germs will kill you if I try it without sterilizing the tools.”
Despite his protests, he knew he was going to go through with it, that he had no choice. A caesarian section, the book called it. The book also issued all the warnings he mentioned to Janet, and others. It said that western medicine only managed to get the operation right after thousands of years of desperate attempts that left mother, child or both dead most of the time, saving a baby once in a great while, but almost never the mother.
Jace couldn’t imagine a future where he saved the baby but not Janet. Jace had long looked to his surrogate older sister for the important decisions in their lives. He couldn’t imagine any future at all without Janet. **She’s the strong one, the one who keeps us alive.**
“Maybe if we wait a little longer the Gray-Eyed Man will come,” he said. “He’s coming. He has done so many things for us. He wouldn’t leave you alone to die.”
“He doesn’t exist, or he doesn’t care,” Janet said. Another contraction shook her. She grabbed Jace’s hand and squeezed painfully hard, taking panting breaths until it finally passed. She took another couple of breaths. “My body is doing its best to get this thing out of me, but it’s too big. It can’t come out. You know what you have to do.”
Jace did know what he had to do. At least he knew enough to say the words to himself. Anesthesia to prevent shock. That’s where Syla’s concoction would help. Use the alcohol to sterilize whatever he used to cut. Sterilize the area around where he planned to cut. Make the external and internal cuts to get the fetus out. Stitch the cuts. Hope the wounds healed instead of getting infected.
Those words didn’t capture how hard and dangerous the process was but thinking even them terrified him. The actions behind those words were even worse. They left him almost paralyzed with fear. He had only one chance to get this right. No chance to practice. No room for making a beginner’s mistake. No one to correct him if he forgot something, misinterpreted something the book said or if the book assumed that he knew something he didn’t.
Jace stared at the book. Whether he tried to cut out the fetus or not, this could be the end of the only life he really knew.
Jace’s memories of life before the cabin were vague. The cabin had been their home, his and Janet’s, for seven years now. Janet claimed that both his parents and hers had been passengers on a ship torpedoed by a German submarine not far from the African coast, though Jace didn’t understand how the ship ended up near Africa, since it was heading from New York to London. Survivors beached the ship nearly intact a few miles down the coast and waited for a rescue that never came.
“This isn’t our world’s Africa,” Janet told him more than once. “There are no half-apes/half -men in Africa in the world we came from and there are English and French colonies all along the coast. The British or French would have found us long ago in our Africa. We would have seen ships going by and normal planes flying over, not just the sky ships.”
She sometimes speculated that the Germans might have won the war, but that wouldn’t explain ape-men or why the Germans didn’t find them. “We’re someplace entirely different,” she said once, with tears in her eyes. “And I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ll ever get home.”
Jace knew from the books that their world’s Africa was full of dark-skinned people who had lived there long before the English and French. He wondered where they were in this version of Africa and why Janet never mentioned them.
He didn’t remember the ship, the torpedo or the grounding. He only vaguely remembered his time on the wrecked ship, a time that ended years ago when Lucas Weaver, the self-appointed Warlord of the survivors, tried to marry off Janet, then twelve-years old, to one of his supporters. She fled desperately into the jungle with Jace, who she had informally adopted as a younger brother. And that began their years in the cabin.
“If I die, don’t become one of them,” Janet said. “You’re an American, not a monkey. Always remember that. It’s something to be proud of. A citizen of the United States. The greatest country on Earth. The richest. The freest. The most just. America is a light for the rest of the world. We lead, and they follow our example.”
She had made a small American flag out of cloth she found in the cabin. It had only ten stars because she ran out of material, but she claimed that the real American flag had a lot more. She thought it was forty-eight, one for each American state.
Jace wasn’t sure what a state was, and he doubted that Janet did either, but she taught him the names of as many as she could remember. He started naming them now, spelling each one.
Janet smiled. “You’re a good brother. I wish you really were my brother.” The smile fled as a contraction hit her. When it passed, she said, “Thank you for the water.”
Jace knew nothing about the United States except what was in the books and what Janet told him. He often wondered why they were in a ship sailing away from the United States if it was such a great place to be. He also wondered why nobody from the United States came to find the shipwrecked survivors. If they didn’t come, they must not have cared.
The Gray-Eyed Man cared about them, Jace knew. Why else would he put the cabin where they could find it when they were desperate for shelter? Why else would Jace find oddly packaged food a few times when the fruits and game got scarce, and their hunger grew intense? Why else would books and a knife and a canteen and a soccer ball appear when they were needed?
“He knows we need help and he cares.” Jace said that emphatically, but his doubts grew