2. The Building in the Lake
They'd been flying for a few hours when Melissa straightened up and pointed up to the left.
“That's a pretty ominous looking thunderhead” she said. “Might pay to skirt around it a bit.”
Jay looked at the, indeed, ominous black mountain of cloud piling up on the horizon. “You might be right. Still, I'd rather not detour too early; we're gonna be tight on fuel as it is.”
“Sure. Just keep an eye on it.”
The plane hit the first squall a half hour later; a gust of wind made the plane lurch, and their goggles and the low windscreens started spattering with a light coating of raindrops. Jay hunkered down a bit lower in his cockpit and tightened his grip on the control stick a little.
“I might head a bit north,” he said. “Try to avoid the worst of it, skirt around the edge.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Melissa. “I hate flying in the rain.”
Ten minutes later the second squall hit. It only lasted a few minutes, but it brought with it a bank of white fog that all but completely obscured their vision.
“I'm going to have to drop down below the clouds,” said Jay. “Can't see a thing in this soup, and we're a bit close to the mountains to be flying blind.”
“Well, dying's not high on my list for today, so please feel free,” Melissa said. “Besides, damp cloud is one of the less fun things in life.”
Jay pushed the throttle in a little, then pushed the stick forward. The nose of the plane dropped a little, and they began to descend, although the only indication was a slight feeling of lightness, and drops of water travelling up the glass instead of across. The occasional lurch punctuated their descent as they hit pockets of denser cloud.
They burst out into the clear; clouds forming a solid roof meters above their heads, brown tussock and glistening creeks far below them. Ahead in the distance they could see a dam, a grey lake lying in the valley behind it, nestled at the foot of the dark mountains that rose up into the clouds.
“You got a map there 'Liss?” Jay asked. “I don't remember seeing a lake on our route.”
“Hold on, I'll have a look.” Melissa's head ducked down for a few moments. “Yeah, here's a map. We're, what – west, north-west out of town?” She paused another few moments. “Okay, weird, there's not supposed to be a lake within a couple hundred kays of here. Nothing on the map at all.” Another pause. “How old's this map? It shows the river, I think, it just doesn't know about any lake.”
“Odd. That map's pretty recent.” said Jay. “We got it to navigate that big new development up north, remember? And that's only, like, six months old. Surely we would have heard about a lake in that time?”
“Would have thought so,” said Melissa. “Want to go take a look?”
“It's mostly on our way; may as well. What does the map say about a way out through the back of the basin?”
“Um…” – Melissa paused to wipe her goggles – “yeah, looks like you can follow the old river up. Only low hills either side, and up through a pass onto the next plateau.”
“Cool.” said Jay. “Let's do it. I don't think our delivery's far from the river anyway, just a bit further up.”
There was no sound but the engine and the wind for a few minutes. Jay gave the gauges a once-over, and tucked his scarf back into his jacket where it had come loose and started flapping in his face.
“Hey, I was thinking, maybe we should get covered cockpits soon.” he said.
“Like, on this plane, or a new plane?” Melissa asked.
“Dunno…” said Jay. “This guy does alright, it's just a bit cold.”
“Be nice to have a dual cockpit, too.”
“So you can hit me, right, when I tick you off?”
“Well, yeah.” Melissa laughed. “But you gotta admit, it'd be nice. And warmer. We could do with more luggage space, too, while we're talking about it. I'm sick of not being able to take anything when we go away for a weekend.”
“True enough. Maybe I'll talk to the banker when we get back, see where things stand.”
Jay rested his head back on the ledge of the cockpit. He reached an arm up to stretch, floating his hand in the wind, then did the same with his other arm.
“How about dual controls next time?” he said.
“Getting lazy, old man?” Jay could hear the smirk in her voice. “But sure, I like flying too. And we could make some longer runs with two of us.”
Jay brought his attention back the the landscape – they were nearing the dam, and the trickle of river that flowed out underneath it. He banked towards it, pointing his nose down to descend some more.
They flew low over the dam, and saw a couple of trucks travelling across the top. Jay banked left, following the road up the side of the lake, towards the low path he could see in the distance.
“Do you see that?” Melissa asked, pointing down to the right, towards the middle of the lake. “It look like some kind of, I don't know, a building or something?”
It was pretty weird; a corkscrew-shaped thing sticking out of the lake. A single lane bridge ran from the road out to a platform sticking from the side of the construct; the platform had a number of trucks parked on it.
The building rose out of the lake; make for a couple of floors above water level. Probably more underwater, Jay guessed. He turned the plane out over the lake, to circle around it for a better look.
“It looks like there's something underwater too,” Melissa said. “See, on the far side, sticking out.”
Jay could see it; the silhouette of what looked like some kind of gantry or crane, with something mounted on its farthest point.
There was the faint sound of a siren from below, and men looking like ants burst out of the building and onto the platform. Some stood in the middle of the platform and were, Jay guessed, looking up at the plane circling their building.
“I'm not sure that this is such a good thing, Jay.” Melissa sounded a little worried.
“Eh… what are they going to do. We're up here, they're down there.” Still, Jay pulled the nose up a bit and made his circle a bit wider. “Might be time to leave huh?”
“Yeah, let's,” Melissa said. “No point causing more trouble than necessary, right?”
Jay glanced back down. The silhouette of the underwater gantry was a lot clearer all of a sudden, he thought. And – wait, whatever was mounted on the end was now sticking out of the water. And long and pointed. And pointing its end this way.
“Uh-oh. You got your parachute on?”
“What? What is it?” Melissa was really worried now.
“I suspect we're about to find out for sure, but it looks like a gun. Or a missile. Hold tight.”
Jay pushed the nose down, opened the throttle wide, and headed for the gap in the hills. Not much more to do now but hope.
“They're firing!” Melissa yelled. Jay looked back to see a plume of smoke rising from the water, a yellow flame behind.
“Aww, why's it always gotta be missiles?” he cried.
He pushed the nose down hard, throwing the plane into a dive. The missile snaked towards them, the curve of its trajectory obvious by the smoke trail – it was tracking them. They couldn't evade it; their only hope was to outrun it.
They pulled out of the dive a scant few meters above the water, racing over the ripples and low white crests, the missile still steadily closing on them. They reached the end of the lake, and began to climb towards the pass, still hugging the riverbed. The missile was close enough now to be audible, a steady whine behind them. Jay tried jinking left then right a few times, zig-zagging to see if he could throw the missile off their scent, but it was far more manouevrable than they, and stuck to their tail, its whine constantly growing louder.
The pass grew nearer, but so did the missile. The plane pulled up sharply to avoid a pile of brush, twisted left around a rock outcropping, then shot out through the pass, over a steep drop into the open country beyond, the missile so close they imagined they could feel the buzzing of the tracking equipment.
The plane's engine skipped. Jay looked down, and his face fell.
“We're done, 'Liss. No more fuel. You bail now, I'll hold it steady then follow. I'll give you some height for your chute.”
So saying, he used the plane's momentum to pull it up; enough for another fifty meters, he guessed, still far too low, but it was something. The propeller slowed then stopped, and everything fell eerily silent.
“Go now!” he yelled. Melissa pulled herself up out of her seat, and tumbled over the wings and down past the tail of the plane. He watched long enough to see her pull the rip-cord, then brought his attention back to the plane.
The last of its momentum spent, it stood still on its tail for a brief moment, then dipped its nose frighteningly in a violent stall. He had pushed himself up to the edge of the cockpit when the missile hit the tail of the plane. A bang, the plane spinning. He was hit by a wing, thrown away from the plane, ears ringing, half-stunned. He grabbed for the rip-cord, flailed around, found it, pulled it.
He shook his head, cleared a little. Why was he spinning like that? He looked up – ah, that would do it. His chute had a big rip down one side, and one of the lines was hanging free and useless. It was going to be a mighty rough landing.
He looked down, trying to spot a good landing spot, then realised it was useless. He had as much control as if he was flying a crazed falling panda bear. The best he could do was land properly.
Jay was still spinning as he dropped towards a clear, shallow pond set between mounds covered in tussock and grass. He tried his best to line up straight, but his torn parachute twisted him around at the last minute, and he landed sideways in the shallow water. He couldn't move his feet quickly enough in the water to run off his momentum, and found himself tumbling. He yelped as he landed his foot on a rock and turned his ankle off to one side, then fell onto one side. Thankfully the water wasn't deep enough that he was completely wet, but still; he was wet enough to be in trouble if he let himself get cold.
Jay picked himself up, trying his twisted ankle carefully, wincing at the hot pain that shot up his leg. He unstrapped his useless parachute, dropping the harness in the tussocks beside the pond.
Where was Melissa? he wondered. He hobbled up to the high point of the still-too-low mound, looking for evidence of her or the plane. Ah, there she was – he could see her chute discarded by the road, halfway up to the pass. He could make her out sitting beside it, and he saw her wave. He scanned the rest of the landscape, looking for the telltale plume of smoke; he saw it, in the other direction from Melissa, about a hundred meters beyond where he currently stood, a smouldering pile of, well, not much at this point. The front part of the fuselage was mostly intact, but the rest of it was totalled.
“I guess we'll be getting that new plane a bit sooner, huh?” he mused out loud. “I wonder if my insurance covers missiles?”
His attention was caught by the sound of an engine; a truck by the sound of it. He looked up, back towards Melissa, and saw a truck descending the road behind her. Crap.
He started half-trotting, mostly-hobbling through the tussock and grass towards the road, but he was still hopelessly far away when the truck stopped beside her fallen parachute. She looked up at the truck as a couple of men stepped out. She stood, and started walking towards them, only to stop abruptly when one of them raised a machine gun at her.
Jay saw her shoulders slump; one of the men said something, and Melissa climbed into the back of the truck, the armed man following her up. The driver hopped back in and proceeded to turn the truck around.
They're not coming for me, Jay realised. They were just going to take 'Liss and do a runner. Jay started running, ignoring the fire spreading up from his injured ankle, stumbling as he slipped on rocks and tussocks. He reached the road, turned, and – stopped. The truck was just disappearing over the top of the pass; he had no chance. He'd just have to hope they were taking her to the thing in the lake.
He dropped onto the road, his ankle screaming at him. He took stock. He had a twisted ankle, he was soaking wet, he had no equipment or supplies, and his girlfriend had just been abducted. Not good, he thought. I think I need to head for the plane for now.
He forced himself to stand, moaning a little as he gingerly placed weight onto his injured leg. He started limping – very slowly, very carefully – across the plain towards the wreckage of what had recently been his pride and joy.