I’m writing a series of deliberately retro science fiction novellas that hopefully emulate the pulps in the non-stop action department, but with more modern science and a more modern outlook on the world. This is a brief excerpt from the rough draft of the second of those novellas, a hopefully more modern look at the old-fashion Jungle Adventure story. The full rough draft is around 25,000 words long–maybe eighty to eighty-five pages. I hope to get this out in e-book form later this summer.
1949, on the bank of an alternate Congo river in a very strange alternate Africa
Jace Lee had never seen guns before except in books. He recognized them, though. He even knew to call these guns ‘muskets’, as opposed to rifles. He knew what gunshots sounded like, from hearing gunfire in the distance when Lucas Weaver, the Warlord of the Congo, went hunting or sent his men searching for Jace and his only human friend, Janet Steele. Ordinarily, strange men carrying muskets and wearing white robes that covered most of their bodies would have riveted his attention, but not this morning. Ten-year-old Jace was in terrible trouble, the kind of trouble that could leave him alone in the jungle within hours, if not crippled or dead. He dipped his canteen in the river, watching the strange men beech their canoes upstream 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 had long considered his people, despite the many differences between him and them, the ape-men that had been his friends for years but had now rejected him. Janet called the People man apes or ape men, or sometime just monkeys. She often said they were animals, a little 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. English. That made 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 had to work hard to get out even those few alien sounds.
Despite his words, Jace knew he wasn’t a part of the People now, at least not the same way he had been when he played among the two and three-year-old man-apes, running and wrestling and climbing with them as equals. Now, with one or two exceptions, the People had rejected him. His former playmates were almost grown now, towering over him and displaying the powerful chest and shoulder muscles that made grown ape-men very nearly the equal of lion in single combat and made a group of them capable of chasing away even a pride of lions.
At ten years old, Jace was still a child. He was tough, wise and powerful beyond anything that a child could be if he had grown up among his own kind, but still far weaker than his former companions and not interested in ape-women when they came into their time, a lack of interest that drew derision and then physical beatings from his former companions. Worse, 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 along the riverbank. Among the white-robed men were other real men, these men stripped to loin clothes that showed olive skin. They carried heavy loads while the white-robes yelled at them in a language Jace didn’t understand. He wanted to see more, but he couldn’t wait, couldn’t stay. Janet, one of only two friends he had left in the world, was back in the cabin they shared. She was safe from the man-apes there, inside a circle she called the zone of fear that allowed only Jace and her to approach the cabin. However, she was also pregnant, in labor and probably dying in childbirth. He knew of only one thing he could do to help her and that was to get the water back to quench her thirst and to cool her body, now over twelve hours into labor.
She can’t die! Jace closed his eyes for a second and prayed to the gray-eyed man. Janet would have told 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, able to fade away like the morning fog, leaving no trail. “If the gray-eyed man isn’t real, where did the soccer ball and the books and the canteen and my knife come from?” he had asked the last time the subject came up. “Who built the cabin and made us safe in it?”
Janet didn’t have an answer for that, so now Jace prayed that the gray-eyed man would come and take the baby out of Janet before it killed her. “She says that it’s from an ape-man and it’s wrong that it be in her,” He whispered. “She says that it shouldn’t be growing inside her and it will probably kill her.”
A sound made him open his eyes and turn abruptly from the robed men. He reached for a wooden club he had close at hand, but relaxed a little when he recognized the ape-woman swinging through the trees toward him. Eve was a year younger than Jace, but at nine she was almost fully grown, six inches taller than him and at least forty pounds heavier. She, at least, was still a friend. At least she had been so far, though Jace had seen enough friends and playmates turn into enemies that he didn’t count on her. She jumped down from a tree and landed beside him, nearly noiseless in her passage through the jungle and to the ground.
Eve, almost alone among the man-apes, could speak many English words. Jace wasn’t sure how many, maybe a hundred or more, though she struggled to make the sounds and Janet claimed that Eve’s sounds resembled English only in Jace’s imagination. Eve struggled even more today, with her excitement making the mix of English and whispered ape-man words more difficult to understand than normal. Finally, Jace figured out what she was trying to tell him and the news was disastrous. A band of newly adult ape-men, his former playmates, were actively hunting him. Not only that, but they were being uncharacteristically systematic about it. Eve told him that the ape-men had spread out, covering the approaches to the cabin that Jace and Janet shared. Worse, they had broken branches he normally used as a forest highway to the cabin, forcing him to approach on the ground.
Jace moved back into the forest and moved easily through it, with Eve gliding along beside him. When he was younger, he had been the awkward one in the trees, slower and less capable than his young ape-man playmates. Now, he was by far their superior because the males were too bulky to move at any speed much above the ground. Eve could still almost keep up with him in the trees, despite her greater weight. Jace wasn’t moving at top speed, trying to figure out a way back to the cabin. While he had far more stamina on the ground than his enemies among the ape-men, they could move faster than him for short distances. And if I get to the zone of fear, they can’t follow me.
The zone of fear surrounded the cabin, extending out nearly a hundred yards in every direction. Neither Jace nor Janet could feel the fear that the zone inflicted on the ape-men, on lions, leopards and every other being that had tried to approach the cabin. The cabin meant safety, but he had to get to it. He worked his way through the forest until he got close to the zone of fear. He heard Janet screaming in the cabin, not the normal cries of a woman in labor, but the weak, exhausted, desperate cries of a woman near death.