And Bananas for All is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your lunatic host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Related reading: Night Flight Mike, The Reaper's Coleslaw, Simon of Space, Plight of the Transformer, The Long Man
Coming up next: Stay tuned for this year's science-fiction Christmas story beginning the week of December 3rd!
And now, our adventure concludes:
The preparations for the exodus were, in a word, grim.
An exodus was required: that much was plain to Mike. Each day the gaily coloured, mud-dripping dinosaurs tore deeper into the forest with their lockstep march of slash, burn, churn and level. A constant pall of dust hung over the treeline, making visible the slanted rays of the sun. Birds fled in swirling clouds, squawking.
The fight to defend their Eden was childish, Mike knew, and ultimately doomed. He could not continue to risk the lives of his troglodyte brethren to buy another hour or an afternoon. The slow life had a deadline, and its far side promised misery for them all.
They would have to leave. That there might be nowhere to go was somewhat beside the point -- Mike wasn't even sure where they were in the first place. In philosophical desperation, he decided that meeting their fate on their feet was better than waiting for it to come and take them. Mad flight was preferable to despondent suicide, futile action better than sad stagnance.
There's hope in activity. There's optimism when the plan has yet to fail.
They worked furiously. Each chimpanzee in the troupe was fitted with a rope-woven knapsack for the females to ferry the young and for the males to ferry supplies: dried berries, roots, nuts, and plastic canteens of water stolen from the construction zone; also pelts to stave off the elements, also stone-tipped spears, also triple-wrapped boxes of matches and faggots of prepared kindling. Lastly, each was fitted with a matching hat and cloak of bundled grasses as camouflage.
When the time came, they looked not so much like a gang of chimps but a parade of hunch-backed shrubberies.
Their initial route was perilous. Mike's forays to the adjoining hilltops showed that they were hemmed in by a wide, yellow-brown river's convolutions on three sides. He did not have confidence in his abilities to engineer a raft sufficiently safe to cut across the swift, silty flow. That meant the only viable vector of escape involved crossing the construction zone to whatever lay beyond.
On the day before their planned exeunt he encouraged the chimps to eat fit to burst. On this account they were not difficult to persuade. He wanted them to start off on the right foot -- well fed, feeling strong, feeling able. That night around their beloved fire-pit they chanted in rhythm and drummed rocks against rocks.
When the moon rose they paused to gaze at it. It was no longer a crescent but a nearly full face; never the less, the chimps knew the crescent was there, hiding on one sharp edge of the silver celestial coin. They reverently mimed the peeling of their index fingers. "Banana," they said. "Banana sky banana."
Mike lay back in his hammock, staring into nothing. He shivered.
He would miss this view of the dark branches crossing over his head in a way he had never fathomed he could miss anything -- even his former life, even his new wife, even the smirk and froth and tumble of days among men. Everything had an aura of finality to it, from the chirping of the evening insects to the wet smell of the forest's fragrant dusk.
He sat up. All eyes were upon him. "Okay," said Mike quietly. "Let's go."
He didn't look back. He couldn't.
The procession wound its way down the face of the hill and then gathered into a clot at the edge of the clear-cut field of dirt where the dinosaurs slept and the lanky guards patrolled. "Stay together," he reminded them. "Go slowly. And if something happens, freeze. If they start to shoot, hug the ground. If I tell you to run, run without looking back."
The chimps grunted their assent. Mike could hear their fingers whisper against each other, but in the dark he could not see their signs.
"Okay," he said again, then swallowed.
They waited for the first guard to saunter past their position, then felled him with a tranquilizer dart. Mike carefully stripped off his skins and ragged pants and then dressed himself with some difficulty in the skinny guard's tight uniform. He hitched up the black leather belt and then used the attached flashlight to take careful inventory of the equipment he'd acquired: a radio, a whistle, a rifle, a wallet containing a few crumpled bills and a magnetic-strip card that was otherwise featureless. He unloaded the rifle and discarded it.
The chimps covered the sleeping guard in leaves, and then the party pushed on across the open dirt. Mike's radio muttered but he couldn't understand the language. The chatter was casual and intermittent.
They all looked up as they passed beneath the sleeping construction machines, their long necks casting stripes of shadow in the moonlight, their metal bodies matte with clods of mud. The chimps sniffed, detecting a lingering perfume of petroleum and men.
They were closing on the far line of utility poles that held up the flood-lights, now unilluminated. A loosely-slung electrical cable swayed between the poles, caught in a gentle breeze. The chimps hesitated. The sinewy motion of the cable disturbed them.
"Snakes," signed Tattler, taking Mike's hands to put the words into them.
"No," whispered Mike. "It's like a rope. Nothing to be afraid of." He paused, reconsidering this. "Just don't touch them, okay?"
The apes regarded him dubiously, then suddenly went stock still. Mike blinked, then turned around. His breath caught in his throat as he spotted a security guard jogging over to him, his expression lost in the dark. Mike's hand went the air rifle slung over his shoulder, his senses opening and quickening with the familiar terrified tickle of engagement.
Mike unslung the rifle.
The guard slowed to an amble and said something very African. Mike looked at him blankly. The guard chuckled and batted aside Mike's rifle. "You speak English?" he asked.
"Some," said Mike.
"You got a light? A match?" the guard asked. He had a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his thick lips. He patted down his own pockets to emphasize his point.
Mike gave him a box of matches. The guard struck one, momentarily revealing his features to Mike. "They bringing in all sorts of guys, huh?" he mumbled around the cigarette as he puffed it alive. "I'm all the way from Sierra Leone. The name's Barry."
"John. From Madagascar."
Barry scratched his head and made a face as he stared at the line of shrubberies lined up behind Mike. "They're doing landscaping here already? Man, these guys are all about the fast. You hear me? All about it."
"And you're guarding these bushes, man?"
Mike cleared his throat. "Yeah," he said again. "Until dawn."
Barry shook his head. "These guys are some crazy guys, man. All hush-hush and fast-fast. Up to some crazy business I have no doubts. None, John!"
"Me neither, Barry."
"I got to keep on my walking, man. You take it easy."
Slightly shaking with disbelief Mike panned his head to watch the guard saunter away along the row of utility poles. One of the juveniles squeaked. Mike hissed, "Is everybody okay?"
The bushes nodded. Mike gave a quiet whistle and started onward again.
The landscape changed around them. The mounds of dirt gave way to silhouettes with rectilinear features, and the sound of their footfalls sharpened and started to echo off surrounding faces. There were many construction machines parked here too, but they were smaller and more nimble. There were cars, as well, parked on the sides of a rudely paved tongue of road. Arrayed on either side were groups of trailers on cinderblocks, many of them with lighted windows, some of them leaking tinny music.
Mike called a halt and waited for the slowest of the shrubberies to catch up. "The workers are still awake. We must go very quietly. Stay low. If you hear any sound, freeze."
The party crawled between the trailers, choosing corridors of darkness where possible. Inside some of the dark trailers they could hear snoring. They froze when someone ducked into an alley they were crossing to urinate, letting go their collective breath only once he'd shaken it off and stumbled back to bed.
They were nearly at the last row of trailers. Mike slowed to let everyone regroup behind. He cocked his head. There was something in the low blur of intermingling noise from the trailers that caught his attention, but he could not define it.
The chimps could. They heard Climber.
"Are you sure?" asked Mike worriedly.
They collectively pant-hooted an enthusiastic affirmative.
"Shut up! Shut up!"
It did not take them long to hone in on Climber's location. On the corner of the very last row were two long trailers connected together, slightly removed from the mass of other accommodations. It squatted in the shadow of a tall plywood wall, and from a slightly open window came the murmur of human voices cut occasionally by a troglodyte whimper.
"Stay here. I'll scout."
Mike crawled across the dirt on his belly until he was beneath the window, tucked in beyond the reach of the rectangle of yellow light shining out. The trailer swayed slightly as a man paced across its floor. "I knew you were fond of the animals, so when I heard the men had captured one I thought you'd want to see it. Pity it's such a slouch, though."
A woman's voice replied, her tone cool and bored. "I imagine he's depressed at being put up in a cage. Wouldn't you be?"
"Oh well. Do you want to keep it, or shall we have it set free?"
"Why did they catch it in the first place?"
"It was mucking with the machines, apparently. Precocious, perhaps. Look at the way it looks at me. It's almost as if there's a man in there."
"That's precisely what crosses my mind looking into your eyes, Bahram."
They both chuckled. Mike used the covering sound to masque his own motion as he extended from his squat to bring his eyes level with the sill. In his quick peek he observed two men and a woman in fine European clothes, and Climber squeezed into a dog-sized cage on his hands and knees. Mike ducked down again, and a split second later the third person, an old man who had not yet spoken, shifted his weight in the trailer.
"Prince, we are being observed," he announced crisply.
"What makes you say that?"
"Instinct. Step away from the windows, sir."
"Honestly -- you're paranoid, Tenny."
"Quiet, please." A radio squelched. "We have a guard down on the eastern perimeter, sir. That's quite enough: we leave immediately."
"A drunk guard and a funny feeling? That's hardly enough to worry over. I object, Mr. Smith."
"With all respect, your father has asked me to refer any objections with regard to security directly to the princely rectum, sir. Now, if you and Miss Seventy-Seven will kindly stay close I'll take the lead out the door." A gun was cocked. "Field: spin up the ornithop."
The trailer door squeaked open, and the party of three slipped out and moved away briskly, disappearing into the gloom. Climber let out a mournful whine and shook his cage.
He dropped his head dispiritedly, then looked up again as Mike slid across the trailer and crouched down in front of the cage. "Shhh!" he warned, fiddling with the latch. It sprang open.
Climber wormed his way out and then buried Mike in a hug that was as wonderful as it was brutally tight and malodourous. Mike grabbed Climber's long, leathery hand and tugged urgently. "Let's go!"
Climber and Mike rejoined the others outside just as klaxons began to ring shrilly from every quarter. The flood-lamps on the utility poles glared to life and loud-speakers parked beside them buzzed: "Attention all personnel: there is a security situation in progress. Trespassers are in the zone -- repeat -- trespassers are in the zone. Lethal authorization is granted: shoot to kill!"
"Crap," said Mike.
Lights came on in many more of the trailers. The workers called to each other in their native tongues, wanting to know what was going on. "Is drill?" somebody kept yelling. "Is drill, okay?" Boots pounded on wooden steps as legions of workers poured out into the night, checking their weapons and looking around for something to point them at.
Climber pulled on his elbow. Mike looked back. The chimps were hauling themselves up and over the plywood fence in panicked flight. Mike went after them, but couldn't jump high enough to get a grip on the top edge. He looked around desperately as someone shouted, pointing at him splayed against the fence. "Help!" Mike cried.
Climber poked back over the fence and dangled his arm down, hand open. Mike took it and winced as he was yanked savagely upward. He managed to catch the fence against his side, then drop over into the bushes beyond. "Oof!"
He fought to catch his breath. The chimps clustered around him, moaning in fear. Mike looked where they were looking and his breath failed him again.
In the middle of the jungle was an airport.
There was an octagonal terminal and a modest tower with a slowly turning radar receiver on top. There were runways outlined by rows of tiny, dim red lamps. Near the terminal, where the tarmac was illuminated, it seemed that every horizontal surface had been painted with camouflage patterns. The roof of the terminal itself was planted thick with bushes. The wide hangar from which projected the noses of a handful of sleek aircraft was netted by camouflage veils, as were the fuel tanks and other assorted bric-a-brac Mike couldn't identify. The whole establishment would be virtually invisible from above.
"It's a secret airport," marvelled Mike. The chimps hooted anxiously.
He got to his feet, then waved the chimps over with him into the shadow cast by bales of chainlink fencing awaiting installation. On the ground beside them were neat bundles of barbed-wire. The chimps touched Mike to gain his attention, but he was elsewhere, his eyes unfocused as he stared over the secret, camouflaged airport. A new plan was coalescing -- one risky, but in many ways more certain than a coordinated but blind flight into the countryside.
"We're gonna fly out of here," announced Mike. "We're gonna be stowaways."
He paused to explain the concept of stowing away, and then was forced to take another moment to more fully elucidate the concept of being transported in a heavier-than-air flying machine. The chimps seemed in equal measure dubious and awed.
Together, Mike and his line of walking shrubberies stalked along the shadow of the plywood fence and then sprinted across a short strip of grass to hunker at the side of the aircraft hangar. It was only at this point that Mike was able to discern the duos of armed guards -- healthier, taller, more serious-looking men than those patrolling the construction zone -- marching in strict formations around the perimeter of the tarmack. Mike swallowed a gasp: had he seen them earlier he would have made a less daring approach to the hangar. Now that they were here, however, the guards seemed oblivious to them.
One of the duos walked along the side of the hangar, talking quietly. "Did he say what's going on?" asked one, speaking with an American accent.
"All he said was that the VIPs just bugged out."
"Control says we're still on, though, right?"
"He says we're so far behind schedule there ain't nothing that can stop those birds going up tonight, come Hell or high water. Until Control says different, that's what I'm reckoning on."
"So why did the VIPs go?"
"VIPs spook easily. This one time we were opening up an invisible railway through Germany and all kinds of brass showed up for the dedication, and then at the last minute they all took off. Rumour was they didn't like the look of an ice cream truck parked across the street."
The guards continued on their way. Mike frowned. This operation, whatever it was, was seeming weirder and weirder by the moment. Secret airports? Invisible railways? Who were these people?
By standing on Climber's shoulders Mike was able to peek inside one of the hangar windows. The hangar was a busy place. There were six black aircraft parked inside, and three of them had men in fluorescent jumpsuits swarming over them -- checking the engines, disconnecting fuel lines, inspecting the flaps. The aircraft were being loaded with cargo through ramp openings in the rear, fed by a steady stream of workers dollying large crates from a line of black, canvas-back trucks.
Neither the trucks nor the aircraft bore emblems, logos or visible registration numbers of any kind, but a row of tall, white lettering had been painted on the hangar's rear wall: UNLIMITED SHIPPING, LIMITED.
Mike's eyes widened. He had never dreamed the busy world could hold a smuggling operation so complex or well-funded. He had been led to believe there was no concerted action possible out of the sight of a thousand tireless satellite eyes, no movement that could manage to stay beneath the ever-present radar of a wartime globe. He could only guess what markets might be black enough and rich enough to necessitate such an enterprise: drugs, guns, slaves?
Climber grunted as Mike jumped down. "I've got an idea," he said.
A quarter hour later Mike and his troupe sauntered carelessly across the tarmac. Mike waved in a friendly way to the guards on the periphery. They had abandoned their grass-clump cloaks in favour of fluorescent yellow safety vests with reflective Xs on the chest and back. Each chimp carried an aircraft-signalling lantern, lit dimly red but -- according to the embossed lettering on the hilt -- glowing brightly in the infrared.
One of the aircraft was being ushered out onto the tarmac behind them. Mike encouraged his brood to wave their lanterns purposefully, as if conducting the craft into the clear. As they drew too close to another runway worker driving in a golf-cart he squinted at Mike, then at the band of short, bandy-legged assistants trailing in his wake.
"Who are you?" he asked, so Mike shot him with a tranquilizer dart.
Mike looked around quickly. The black aircraft was catching up to them as it motored steadily toward the runway, engines whirring. He pushed the limp worker into the back of the golf-cart, then gestured to the chimps to climb aboard. They squeezed in, sitting on the worker and squishing Mike against the little steering wheel. Gourmand and Tattler climbed up on the canvas roof, causing it to bow dangerously. "Nobody fall out, okay?" he called as he floored the pedal. The cart zoomed forward with an electric whine.
Mike's radio burped static. "Is it just me, or is there a still cart on the field?"
"That's just Powell. He's supervising the signallers; over."
"Well tell him to get the hell clear of our run! Is he an idiot?"
"Come in, Powell. Are you an idiot? Over."
Mike pulled the radio off his belt and toggled the contact. He muttered in what he hoped was an appropriately nondescript growl: "Lay off, you assholes. I'm just doing my goddamn job."
The aircraft was passing them. Its engines began to thrum louder. Mike pushed the golf-cart to its maximum speed and steered in under the belly of the plane, watching anxiously as they brushed past a landing gear and then drifted out directly beneath the cargo ramp. "Climber!" called Mike. "Take the wheel!"
Climber looked at him as if he were crazy. "Now!" implored Mike. The ape scrambled over the seat-back and seized the wheel. "Keep it steady!" instructed Mike, then stood up on the seat.
He took a deep, solidifying breath -- then jumped.
Dangling from the underside of the plane, he rotated the lock and managed to lever the cargo door's release. The ramp yawned down at them. Mike screamed, the chimps screamed, and then Climber jolted the car to the left just in time to miss the dangling ramp. It struck the asphalt and began leaving a trail of hot orange sparks.
Mike found himself facing a very surprised looking fellow in a black jumpsuit. "What the Hell?" he cried in disbelief just before a cluster of hairy arms reached up and grabbed him bodily. A moment later he was bouncing painfully across the tarmac, dwindling behind the golf-cart.
"Okay, allez-oop!" ordered Mike, pointing inside.
The chimps did what they did best, flexing gymnastically as they threw themselves through the air and landed with a series of heavy thumps on the cargo deck. A shrill alarm sounded from inside but the aircraft was never the less accelerating, now drawing away from the golf-cart as its engines spun up to a terrifying pitch.
Mike scrambled up to stand on the hood of the cart, reaching up for the arms of his brethren within the belly of the plane. The cart veered out of control, sliding further and further back until it it threatened to carry Mike directly behind one of the screeching jets. "Crap!" he cried in a panic, then closed his eyes and vaulted for all he was worth.
The moment unsuspended in the blackness seemed eternal. He regretted nothing.
And then he was being hauled onto the cargo deck by many strong hands. A second later only his feet were dangling outside, whipping in the suddenly vicious wind. He pulled himself all the way in and then looked up, seeing his chimps clashing with a second man in a black jumpsuit who was staring wide-eyed at the stone-tips of three spears. Mike dodged just as he was tossed out through the open cargo door, tumbling awkwardly and then hitting the golf-cart. It keeled up on two wheels and then fell over, spilling the man and his unconscious colleague onto the camouflage runway.
"Sorry!" called Mike as he pumped the lever to close the door. When its edges were flush the shrill alarm stopped ringing.
An intercom crackled. "I've got an alarm on the rear hatch -- you guys see anything back there?"
Mike slapped the contact. "Hatch secured! Situation nominal! We're good to go!"
"I've got a green light now, thanks Montgomery. See you on the dark side!"
Mike and the chimps collectively slid to the back of the cargo deck in an unruly pile as the aircraft surged forward and then, a moment later, it began to tilt. The chimps were frightened but Mike kept shouting, "It's okay! It's okay!" until they consented to snuggle against him and merely whinny.
They lifted off with a tell-tale belly lurch. The chimps gasped.
A moment passed, and then another. No one burst into the cargo deck to apprehend them. The craft continued to climb. As the air outside thinned the scream of the engines faded to a less aggressive drone. They began to level off. Mike wiped a slick layer of perspiration from his brow. "Okay," he muttered to himself numbly. "Okay...okay..."
"Where go?" signed Tattler.
"I don't know," admitted Mike. "I hope to someplace better."
Mike worked to suppress his recall of his last flight. He tried to remind himself of all the times he'd flown without being shot down and crashing in the jungle. He knew he could not relax, however, until the pilot situation had been dealt with. "We can't hide back here for the whole trip," explained Mike. "We'll freeze. We have to talk to them up there, maybe reason with them." He hesitated, then loaded the last remaining dart into the air rifle. "And maybe not."
The chimps watched worriedly as Mike opened the metal companionway and left the cargo deck. They hooted with disquiet as the craft lurched through a patch of turbulent air, the fuselage creaking. A short time later Mike reappeared. "There aren't any pilots," he said dumbly, shaking his head. "The flight's controlled by computer. And...and I've never seen a cockpit like that before."
His concern was redoubled as the craft began once again to tilt its nose upward. Mike frowned. Could a vehicle so small have stratospheric capabilities?
Bowed by the pressure of acceleration, Mike and chimps were forced to cower in the back corner of the cargo deck, mashed against a strapped-down group of crates. The deck became colder. Their exhalations condensed into little clouds in front of their mouths.
The engines became quieter and quieter and then, though the craft continued to surge upward, they became altogether silent. When the vibration of their efforts also died away, Mike felt a certain lightness of being he couldn't explain until he turned his head and saw a juvenile chimp turning slowly head over heels through the air.
Mike paled. Freefall!
Either they were tumbling out of the sky to their certain deaths, or the craft had escaped the envelope of Earth's atmosphere and Mike and his gang were now in outer space. Despite the absence of violent pitching, Mike couldn't make up his mind which scenario was more likely.
Clumsily, he propelled himself to the companionway and wiggled his way through, clutching a series of convenient hand-holds on the nearby bulkhead. He turned toward a small, round window and his breath caught in his throat. Beneath an inky black sky was a vast expanse of pale blue clouds and mottled continents, curved slightly at the horizon.
The chimps smashed into him from behind after flinging themselves with too much force across the cargo deck. They bumped into each other and complained with irritable growls as they fought to catch a glimpse of what Mike saw. "Ball?" they asked. "Marble?"
"No," said Mike slowly. "It's the world. The whole world. It's Planet Earth. And...we're leaving it."
"Where go? Where, M?"
Mike was forced to pause as unseen manoeuvring jets executed a short burn, turning the craft until all they could see was the blackness of space punctuated by the unholy bright eye of the naked moon. "I don't know...maybe there?"
Mike shrugged helplessly. "Maybe, yeah."
There was no sense of depth in the view. It looked as if the crystal-clear moon hung just inches behind the glass, a highly-detailed soccer ball hanging in the void. It was unreal and unbelievable, and Mike wondered whether he'd been knocked out somewhere along the way and had fallen to making up his own reality.
He recognized that his plan to contact his wife upon landing would now involve more long-distance fees than he had previously considered. Of course, this thought was based on the premise that he and his troupe wouldn't be instantly killed upon being discovered by the smugglers on the receiving end -- a group coordinated enough and powerful enough to keep a lunar base secret. What chance would they have against such fearful odds?
Glutton tugged on his sleeve. "Hungry," he signed.
This brought Mike back to the present. Though he could not control their fate, he could at least make them comfortable. If these were to be the last days of their lives, they would at least feel full. "Let's unbundle some supplies -- but be careful: if you spill anything we'll be sitting in a cloud of dried berries..."
He trailed off, eyes glued to the front-most crate in the cargo deck behind them. With a pensive frown he kicked off the nearest bulkhead and sailed through the air into the hold, bumping into the crate. He pulled his way to the top and then pried back a corner of the lid. A wide grin split his face. He looked up.
"It's bananas," he said.
The chimps looked at him with cocked heads, confused.
"It's bananas!" he repeated triumphantly, bracing himself against the ceiling in order to pull the lid entirely free. He reached inside and hauled out two bunches of firm, greenish bananas. "They're shipping bananas to the moon -- and there's enough for everyone!"
Mike started ripping bananas free of the bunches and launching them to turn end over end into the legions of ready hands. The chimps grabbed them out of the air and tore them apart, biting with relish and then hooting for joy. Chunks of half-chewed banana flesh tumbled from their mouths as they happily shrieked. Mike, feeling like Santa Claus, threw out banana after banana until every ape held two, mashing them into their faces as quickly as they could.
"Bananas for all!" he cheered. "Bananas for all!"
The future was, in a word, uncertain, but Mike Zhang Cuthbertson and his loyal troupe of expressive chimpanzees were living in a moment of pure ambrosia: weightless, careless, warm and dry, kicking lazily through a field of floating banana peels with no guns pointed at them and no machines relentlessly consuming their world. There was no promise inherent in this strange excursion into space, but there was cause for hope: new and unimagined possibilities were spreading before them, splayed out like a golden peel.
"Come what may," he said to himself, "at least we won't face it hungry."
He opened a banana for himself and bit into it with gusto, then closed his eyes and savoured the clean, unfettered flavour. This victory, this present moment, suddenly seemed worth every inch of trouble they had endured.
If chimpanzee astronauts could gorge themselves all the way to the moon, anything was possible. Of this Mike was sure, and it was all he needed to know in order to go on.
"What next?" asked Climber, blinking seriously at Mike.
Mike shrugged, and tossed away his peel. "Who knows?" he said. "The impossible begets the impossible. It's not for monkeys like us to understand what lies ahead. But if we stick together and hold fast, it can't be all bad. We're going to the sky banana, Climber, where no chimp has gone before."
Climber didn't seem to comprehend a word of it, so Mike threw him another banana.
"Eat up," he advised. "Tomorrow may be even weirder."