14. In the Valley of the Shadow

July 2008

By midday, Jay was noticeably closer to the base of the mountains, in the back of the valley. He stopped for a rest and a short nap under the shade of a single scraggly fir tree, out of the heat of the sun for a bit. He woke a little thirsty, thankful to be so near the creek, which this far up had a slight trickle flowing through it in most places. He drank his fill, splashed water over his head and face and down his chest, and kept walking.

As he walked, he pulled the message out again. He hadn't misread it, he was sure, but he didn't entirely understand how it said what it did, and what it meant for him.

(You might find the address hard to find, the note on the back of the message said. It's right at the back of a small valley, directly underneath the mountains. The valley has a rough vehicle track running up it from the main road. The track runs a short distance from a mostly dry stream. I've sketched a quick map of the valley; hopefully it'll help you locate it.

The map showed a valley that was, Jay was convinced, the very one he now found himself in. What were the chances?)

He rolled the message back into its tube, swapped the tube for his flask and took a swig. That sun really had some heat in it this afternoon.

He never strayed too far from the creek, but it was down in a gully which made navigation a bit dicey, so every so often he'd climb out of the riverbed and find a higher point to survey his surroundings. He still couldn't see any sign of his destination, but that didn't mean much – not only did he have no idea what he was looking for, it was obviously camouflaged enough that it didn't show up on Karl's satellite photos either. Good and bad, he figured, but mostly good, as long as the place was actually there. He dropped back down into the riverbed, and kept walking.

They were better prepared this time, of course, the five of them. Sleeping bags, plenty of cold rations, wet-weather gear – enough that they'd survive a couple of nights out in the cold, if necessary. It wouldn't be comfortable, but it'd be no challenge to their survival either. Melissa just hoped Jay was similarly comfortable.

They hiked up to the saddle and paused for a moment; they didn't want to give themselves away too early, or at all, and there was no point rushing in and making stupid mistakes. They crouched in the ditch beside the road and looked down over the lake, looking for any sign of movement.

There wasn't much; a few ant-sized dots moved around on the platform. Occasionally a truck or two left, or arrived, but nothing at all happened on the road between them and the bridge, and very little happened elsewhere either. The figured it safe to move closer towards the bridge.

By early afternoon they'd worked themselves down towards the bridge – slowly and carefully, so as not to attract undue attention. One at a time they dashed from the ditch into the shadow under the bridge, leaving large gaps to check for traffic.

Once they were all safe and secure under the bridge, Melissa flicked on the walkie talkie – volume low – to try to get an idea of what was going on.

Nothing, nothing but the hiss of static. Maybe they'd all switched to another channel? She switched through the channels.

… csshhh click … ckk sshh click … cssss click … psssssh click … be there shortly, Rhodes, over. Bullseye. She had them.

The five of them listened in to the radio chatter, hoping for some clue as to Jay's whereabouts, or some idea of a way inside.

“– trucks arriving back at the depot shortly to unload. I'll send them straight back to the lake after that.”

A depot somewhere, away from the lake? That must be where the trucks came from, across the dam. They kept listening.

“– yeah, just make sure you've got enough men handy –”

“– one truck out, needs a new filter –”

“– couple of guys off today, but I've pulled in a couple of temps –”

“– stopping to change a flat –”

“– running a few minutes behind –”

Daniel and Lana had got bored and moved away to talk quietly on the other side of the bridge. Mark lay back and snoozed. Vi just looked concerned; they weren't making any progress. Melissa frowned; this wasn't going as she'd hoped.

She wondered if they had a second channel – one for the labour, one for command or something. She flicked the dial a couple more times, but found nothing. She flicked back to the original channel, in the vain hope that something more might be happening. It wasn’t.

“We could try asking?” she said to Vi. Vi raised her eyebrows. “I mean, they have no idea where we are; what are they going to do? Stop telling us all the useful information they’ve been sharing?”

“They’ll know we’re within range,” said Vi. “That might be enough.”

“If we use Daniel or Mark, they might not realise it’s not one of them. They don’t seem especially formal – maybe it’ll just sound like gossip?”

Vi pursed her lips and twisted her mouth sideways. “I’m not entirely convinced. But I guess we need to do something. Let’s not jump into this, though. Worst case scenario?”

“Worst case scenario, they can locate our signal, next thing we know we’re prisoners too. Still, how easy can it be to locate a walkie talkie signal when all of your truckies are carrying them?”

“Okay. Best case scenario?”

“Best case, they tell us where Jay is, how to get to him, and what the obstacles are going to be. Hell, if we talk persuasively enough, they might even bring him right to us.”

Vi grinned. “I think that a little fanciful, ‘Liss, but hey, it might be worth it. Let’s see if one of the boys is keen.”

“Keen as, Vi.” Mark had obviously been listening to the conversation; he was sitting up behind them with a sly smile on his face. “Sounds like a pretty hopeful plan to me, but I don’t think there’s too much risk to it either. Let’s have the radio.”

Melissa handed him the walkie talkie. Mark listened to it for a moment, waiting for a suitable break in the chatter.

– ckshh “… hey, what happened to that dude we picked up the other day?” Mark said, in his best trucker voice.

“That guy who jumped one of our trucks?” came a reply. “You didn’t hear?”

“Nah, I ended up in the infirmary for a bit after he clocked me. Not impressed.”

“Ha… you and half the rest of us, apparently,” continued the voice at the other end. “Caused right havoc, that guy did. The bosses got so sick of him they took him up into the high country and dumped him.”

Melissa drew in a sharp gasp, then put her hand over her mouth to quiet herself. She threw Mark an apologetic glance.

“Dumped him?” Mark asked the walkie talkie.

“Yeah – hit him around a bit, took his shoes and jacket, and dumped him miles from anywhere yesterday evening. Doubt he lasted the night.”

Melissa wasn’t looking too happy at this; she’d gone quite white and was sitting very still. Mark looked at her and decided it was time to wrap up.

“Where’d they drop him?” he asked.

The radio barked with a burst of static, and a new voice came on. “Wrap it up ladies, this isn’t the gossip hotline. You with all the questions, I’d appreciate it if you’d drop by my office later on – I have a few questions for you myself.”

Mark dropped the walkie talkie as if it were a hot potato.

“You hear me? It’s polite to acknowledge when you’ve been asked something.”

Mark picked up the walkie talkie gingerly. “Acknowledged,” he said. “I’ll come by at the end of my shift.”

“Good,” said the voice. “I look forward to it.”

Mark dropped the walkie talkie again, a little pale himself at this point. He looked at Melissa, trying to find something to say.

“If anyone could survive a night in the high country like that, it’d be your brother,” he said.

“He’s right, you know,” said Vi. “They don’t make many as tough as him. You just gotta keep the faith, okay?”

“Mmm.” Melissa tried to muster a smile, but it trembled and disappeared again.

“Well, no sense hanging around here anymore, then,” said Vi. “Daniel, Lana,” she called out, and when they looked around: “we’re heading back to the planes for now. He’s not here.”

The two looked curious, but didn’t say anything. They grabbed their packs, and Melissa retrieved the walkie talkie, switching it off before packing it away. Mark poked his head out the side of the bridge.

“All clear,” he said. “Let’s head.”

One at a time, again, they dashed from the bridge’s shadow to the ditch, and began picking their way back up to the saddle. Once over the saddle they stopped for a breather – as much for the sudden release of tension as for the exercise of the climb. They were in the clear again, for now at least.

They took their time getting back to the planes, and re-set a fire in Jay’s old fireplace by the wreckage. The afternoon was ending, and it’d soon be time to set up camp for the night.

Melissa didn’t talk much that evening; just stared into the flames. The mood was glum; even Daniel and Lana were unusually quiet after Vi quietly explained the situation to them. Someone occasionally said something vaguely hopeful or encouraging, but no-one had much heart for chatter. They were all glad to turn in pretty shortly after the light failed.