4. Follow the Yellow Brick Road

April 2008

When Jay reached the wreckage, he went straight for the remains of the fuselage. He looked into the cockpit, hoping for some dry clothes. He dug out a scarf, a pair of gloves, and an old blanket. He broke a few fragments of shattered wing struts into usable lengths, tore a sheet of the wing fabric away, and went to look at whatever it was that was still smoking.

The smoke was coming from a small pile of charred fabric and wood that was, judging by the blackened wires also in it, the remains of the tail. He wrapped a piece of the un-burnt fabric around one of his wooden pieces and poked it around, looking for embers.

It caught, thankfully, with no real fuss, and within a few minutes he had a nice fire burning. It was going to burn a bit too fast, he thought, with only bone-dry wood and fabric, but there wasn't much he could do. He stripped off his wet clothes, laid them by the fire, wrapped himself in the blanket, and tried to massage a bit of life back into his ankle.

A piece of fabric made a reasonable bandage, so he wrapped that around his ankle a few times. His clothes dried within a half hour or so, by which time Jay was feeling mostly alive again. He dressed, and proceeded to rummage through the cockpits for anything else usable. A small flask of whisky went into his breast pocket, where he discovered the small message cylinder, still intact. Guess I'll hold onto it, he thought. Who knows, I may yet have a chance to deliver it.

This done, he stomped out his small fire and began walk towards the road to the pass.

As he reached the pass, the clouds above were beginning to clear, revealing a warm afternoon sun just past its zenith. He stood at the side of the road in the saddle of the hill, looking down towards the lake. Things seemed to have settled down out in the lake; the platform was empty but for a few trucks parked, and the gantry and missile launcher had – at least, as far as he could tell from this angle – submerged itself again in the lake. He stood for a moment, enjoying the sun on his face, and the breeze through the pass, but this was not really the time to be standing around enjoying the view. He had to figure out how to find Melissa.

He began the long walk down to the point where the bridge spanned the gap between the road and the building out in the lake. As he walked, he examined his surroundings.

The lake sat in a deep basin, surrounded by tall hills. The only gaps were the opening above the dam, and the pass behind him, and the hills weren't the sort you wanted to be climbing, all steep scree slopes and landslips.

The building was a monstrosity, from ground level, sticking two or three floors above the lake, it seemed to be a continuous spiral surrounding a solid core – vehicular access around a column of rooms and offices, perhaps? It was finished in a shining steel-gray that had to be more than just bare metal, and there was a veritable forest of aerials and antennae sticking from the flat top of the monstrous construction.

The odd thing, Jay noted as he slowly got closer to the thing, was that there appeared to be no windows at all. Not in the outer spiral, nor in the inner column.

He was within a hundred meters of the bridge when he heard the trucks. He dived off the road into a handy ditch and watched as the convoy – two, four, no, five trucks – trundled across the bridge, turning down the road away from him, down towards the dam. He stayed in the ditch as he crept down closer to the point where the bridge met land, peering up over the edge occasionally to look for any signs of life – or more trucks. He was regretting his move a little when he finally reached the end of the bridge, with no further signs of anything, and nothing to show but a shoe full of gravel and a wet sock from where he'd stood in a puddle. Still, he hadn't been spotted by the no people who were there.

He crept up to the beginning of the bridge and peered across. It was a blank, straight, featureless crossing, and if they had any sort of cameras pointing this way he'd be bound to be spotted. Worse, it was only just wide enough for a truck; if he was halfway across it when the trucks returned, or more went out, he'd either be squished or very very wet and cold. Squished wouldn't be a good career move, and he'd had enough of wet and cold for today. Too, the light was fading by now, and he had no way of making fire. A dip in the lake would probably finish him off proper. What to do?

He gingerly worked his way around under the bridge, hoping for a walkway, or pipes or something on which he could clamber across. But the underside of the bridge was almost as featureless as the top side, punctuated only by giant concrete struts every few meters. That wasn't going to work either. He sat to think.

He sat for around half an hour as the light dimmed around him, and the shadows of the bridge grew and blurred and blended with the landscape. He crept out a little, and stared up at the moon. Hope you're alright, Melissa, he thought. I'll try to get to you soon, I swear.

Then he heard engines again, this time from down the road, in the direction of the dam. The trucks must be back, he thought. Here's my chance.

He climbed back up the bank to the end of the bridge, then ensconced himself just outside the far wall of the bridge – within a meter of where the trucks would pass by, but hopefully out of sight. The engines grew louder.

The first set of headlight beams came into view, dazzling him for a brief second as the truck slowed and turned onto the bridge. Five of them, right? Jay asked himself.

The second followed, a little faster than the first. Too fast, Jay thought. There was no way he'd be able to grab hold at that speed. He'd have to slow them down. He reached around him for a rock, grabbing hold of a fist-sized one just as the third truck's beams angled past him. Here goes, he thought. He lobbed the stone over the wall, bouncing it off the truck's bonnet and into the windscreen. There was a loud glassy noise, and the truck swerved sideways, bounced off the far wall – nearly knocking Jay down the bank with the impact – and screeched to a halt. The fourth and fifth trucks braked to a stop behind it, and armed men – the guards, Jay guessed – jumped out of the passenger doors of each truck to see what the problem was.

“What happened?” Jay heard a guard say.

“Rock in the windscreen, out of nowhere.” That was probably the unfortunate driver.

“Well, we've all been told about following too closely; might have just been flicked up by the other truck.”

“I dunno, I was a fair way back. Have a quick look around, okay?” Covering his ass, maybe, but the driver was going to be making life difficult for Jay in a minute. Well, now was the time. Jay slid down the bank, trying not to make too much noise.

“What was that? I heard, like, rocks sliding or something.”

“I'll check.”

Jay darted underneath the bridge, just in time. A torch beam flashed down where he'd been a moment ago, panning down and across the bank.

“I can't see anything.”

Jay didn't wait to hear any more. He crossed to the other side of the bridge, and started making his way along the ditch beside the road. The fifth truck was only twenty meters away, and – unlike the others – didn't have its back-end bathed in bright headlights. He crept along the ditch, then froze for a moment as a guard walked along the road just above him. The guard stopped directly over him, then turned around and lit a cigarette. Jay breathed again. The guard passed out of view across the road, and Jay judged it safe to begin moving again. He reached the last truck and, it looking clear, dashed out of the ditch and clambered over the tailgate into the back of the truck.

He crept his way forward as far as he could – no sense risking spot-checks – and hid himself behind some large crates, feeling his way through the darkness of the covered truck. He pulled a tarpaulin over him and lay back.

After a few minutes, he heard voices, then doors opening and shutting. The truck shuddered into gear, then jerked into movement. He felt the change in movement as the truck rolled onto the flat panels of the bridge, the sound punctuated by the seams between slabs – ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. The truck slowed, turned, stopped, reversed, then turned off. Jay hoped that they didn't have anything to unload; he'd rather not be discovered. Thankfully, it appeared that this was the return trip – doors opened and closed, and voices disappeared off elsewhere.

After a few minutes, Jay decided it was safe to move. Besides, he was getting bored, and who knew what trouble Melissa was in. He poked his head out of the canvas flaps at the back of the truck and, seeing no-one around, carefully climbed down.

He was in shadow behind the truck, but the rest of the platform was brightly lit by a couple of floodlights suspended above large, truck-size doors set into the building. A camera sat at the halfway point between the lights, scanning side to side across the platform. Jay shrunk back into the shadow; it wouldn't pay to be spotted, especially as he couldn't see an obvious way in. There were no obvious entrances other than the huge truck doors, and he certainly wasn't going to be quietly sneaking them open.

Well, nothing for it. He'd have to wait until they opened the doors in the morning. He climbed back in the truck, pulled the tarp over him, and slept.