13. On the Warpath

June 2008

The early morning sun brought Jay back to the land of the living. Well, mostly back. He tried to sit up and whimpered with pain. He tried rolling over first then levering himself upright. He struggled to sitting without too much pain, this time, but he still hurt all over.

He was incredibly thirsty, he realised. Water; he needed water badly. He tried to recall when the truck had crossed the last stream, but he had no idea. He have to find out for himself.

A little more whimpering and groaning and hurting had him standing upright; swaying on his feet, staggering rather than walking, but upright nonetheless. He dragged himself to the top of the nearest low rise; only a meter or so, but it felt like Everest to his damaged body.

He looked around him; he was near the track that led back to the road; it would be a good idea to stick near that. He turned a full circle, noting the hills and mountains around him for landmarks. He saw a telltale dip in the ground, following a wavering line away from the hills – a small gully, with any luck a stream. It wasn't too far, maybe a hundred meters or so. Noting the direction of the track, he started stumbling and tripping through the tussock towards the stream.

Which was dry. Not completely dry, though, damp spots in the dirt suggested that there was sometimes water here. He might find some up a bit further, he thought. He began to follow the gully upstream.

Sure enough, another couple hundred meters found him a small, brown-looking puddle of water sitting in the middle of a dust-bowl. He was beyond caring – he knelt and drank thirstily, doing his best to not muddy the waters as he drank, but not entirely succeeding. Nonetheless, he drank his fill, and a little bit more.

He tapped the whisky flask in his pocket thoughtfully. He pulled it out and unscrewed the lid and, after staring at it a moment, took a swig. Then he poured the rest into the dirt and submerged it in the puddle. Once it was full he screwed the cap back on and shook it dry, shoving it back into his pocket.

He sat back on his heels and pulled the message tube out of his other pocket. He opened the tube, unrolled the message, and read it. He swore quietly, look around at the surrounding hills, checked the paper again, rubbed his forehead, then rolled the message up and placed it back in the tube.

He stood up, swayed for a moment, then began walking, upstream again.

As he walked, the sun rose, bringing some heat back into his body; he realised how cold he'd been. As his body warmed his muscles relaxed, too, pinging and twitching occasionally as knots let themselves go and worked themselves out. He was feeling better than he had been for days. He kept walking.

Melissa was woken by a banging on the door to find the sun streaming across her face. She'd overslept. She ran to open the door.

“Sorry, Vi–” It wasn't Alvira. It was Jay's brother, Melissa realised. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard what happened. I want to come with you.” Mark was a few years younger than Jay, and he worked as a security guard in town. “When are you going?”

“Any minute now, Mark. Vi's coming to pick me up shortly. Hey, I gotta get dressed; do you mind waiting for minute? Come in.”

“Okay, thanks.” He followed her into the house.

Melissa left him in the kitchen and went to dress. She had a quick wash, then went back to the kitchen.

“I'm not sure which plane Vi was planning to take, but if it's the four-seater I don't see why we can't fit you in. We could probably do with your help, too. Got a jacket?”

“Uh, no…”

“Grab one of Jay's off the rack there. He won't mind.”


Another knock sounded at the door. Melissa opened it to Alvira.

“Hey Vi – hey, which plane were you taking? Jay's little bro wants to come along.”

“I'm taking the four. Figured we could do with a spare seat for Jay anyway; one more's fine.”

“Cool.” Melissa leaned back into the house. “Come on, little brother, we're leaving. Pull the door shut after you.”

They got into Alvira's car, and Mark joined them a moment later, jumping in the back. “Shall we go, then?” he said.

“Oh wait, I forgot something!” Melissa jumped out of the car and ran back inside, appearing a moment later with the walkie talkie she'd found in the truck. “This might be useful.”

Vi nodded, and they pulled out and headed for the airport.

Once at Vi's hangar, they set about preparing for the flight. Melissa and Mark rolled the plane out of the hangar while Vi went over weather charts, occasionally calling Melissa over to ask a question about their destination.

“I'm done,” she said. “I'll just head over and file a flight plan with the tower.”

“Good idea,” said Melissa. “Wish we had.”

“Get the plane started, can you? I'll only be a couple of minutes.”

Mark had been flying with Jay enough to know how to spin a prop, so Melissa hopped into the cockpit and hit the sparks. “Spin it,” she shouted out the window to Mark, who did, and the props whirred into life. He circled wide around the propellers, then jumped into the back of the cockpit, strapping himself into one of the small seats that were more often than not folded up to make more cargo space.

Vi arrived at a run, pulled out the chocks, and jumped into the pilot's seat without even stopping. She was taxiing even as she strapped herself in. Melissa looked at her curiously.

“Just heard, heavy front coming through this afternoon. We've got to beat it if we want to land up there. Lana and Daniel will be a couple of minutes behind us; they've got a copy of our flight plan.”

She spun the plane onto the end of the runway, and they took off into the early morning light.

Alvira's plane was more modern, and significantly faster, than Jay and Melissa's old biplane. Barely three hours had passed when Melissa spotted the dam ahead, set between the hills. She pointed it out to Alvira.

“That's the dam there; the lake's just in behind it. We'll want to stay clear of that area – skirt around to the left, land on the road in back. They don't seem to head up that way, anyhow.”

“Sounds good.” Vi banked the plane and pulled the nose to the left.

They continued up and around the hills, and another five or ten minutes found them out of sight of the dam, on the other side of the hills which surrounded the lake. They descended towards the plain, looking for a landing spot, and Melissa found herself looking for the wreckage of their old plane. She followed the road down from the saddle off to their right – that was their route to the lake – and down towards where she'd seen Jay at the roadside, before she was bundled into the truck and away.

She spotted the wreckage, although it was looking more like a large fallen tree than anything else, save for the flat section of wing still visible from the air.

“There's the plane,” she said, pointing.

“My god – they made a mess of it, didn't they?” said Vi. “Bastards. I'll land on the road and we can take a look, eh?”

“Alright. Just be careful. No sense making another wreck.”

Vi dropped the plane further, circling low over the tussocks to line up with the road. She aimed for a straight stretch, swooped down, and there was a bump and a squeal as the tires hit the ground. She braked gently and the plane slowed to a stop, at about the closest point the road passed by the wreck.

Melissa jumped out of the plane and made her way across to the wreckage of her plane, Mark following behind. They picked their way carefully through the tussock.

“How did they shoot you down? That's some seriously munted airplane,” Mark said.

“Some kind of missile launcher, in the lake,” Melissa said. “Seemed to be heat seeking or something. We bailed out just as it hit.”

“You always carry parachutes?” Mark asked.

“Any long flights, yeah,” said Melissa. “Not so much for just short hops.”

They reached the wreckage, and Melissa surveyed the scene. She took in the ashes of the fire, the blanket and gloves piled nearby.

“Jay was here at some point,” she said. “But probably, I think, right after the crash – he wasn't far from here when I got grabbed.”

She went over to the fuselage and stuck her head into each cockpit. She kicked her feet up and her head down and rummaged around, but found nothing of note. She hauled herself back onto her feet and looked around a bit more.

“I don't think there's anything here,” Mark said. “Looks like Jay – or someone – took everything interesting.”

“Yeah,” said Melissa. “I think you're right.”

They heard the sound of another engine, above them – that'd be Daniel and Lana catching up. They headed back towards Vi's plane. She'd pulled it off the road and switched off, and was busy tying the props down and chocking the wheels. As they finished pulling the cover over the cockpit, Daniel's plane came to a stop beside them, and he switched off too. They helped him and Lana tie down, then, grabbing their packs, set off up the road towards the saddle.