17. The Meetup
The fliers stopped in at the club to explain to their backup force exactly what was happening.
“We'll be heading back out tomorrow, weather permitting,” Melissa said.
“Any sign of him?” someone asked.
“Not yet, but I think I have an idea of where to look; a hunch at least,” said Melissa.
“Well, you know you can call on us anytime. We could help search if you like…”
“Thanks,” said Melissa, “but there's probably no point. I don't think we'd luck onto him, even with twenty planes buzzing around the countryside. Either my hunch will play out, or it won't, and either way more planes aren't going to make much difference. I will give you a call if we need you though, count on that much.”
“Well, all the best.” A chorus of agreement followed; they were all batting for her. She thanked them again, and took her leave. She headed home with Mark – he'd left his car outside her place.
“You going to be okay?” he asked her.
“Yeah, I think so, thanks. You going to join us again tomorrow?”
“Wouldn't miss it. Here, same time as last?”
“Yeah. Thanks Mark.” She hugged him goodbye, and watched him drive off.
She walked inside the house; it seemed awfully empty with Jay gone. She started cooking, but her attention wasn't there; she kept burning things, and eventually gave up, threw out the mess she'd made, and settled for toast and a hot cup of tea. She sat down in front of the tv, and before she was halfway through her tea she'd fallen asleep, the tv voices chattering quietly in front of her and the rain pouring down outside.
She dreamt during the night; odd bits and pieces, glimpses and fractured images. Jay mostly, in feverish flashes, tossing and turning beside a fire somewhere – she couldn't see where, couldn't pick out any details beyond Jay's face. She tossed and turned restlessly too, his fever infecting her, but as he quietened and settled later in the night, breathing more comfortably, so did she.
She was aware of the rain easing outside, and in the new, clean quiet that follows storms she slept deeply, no more dreams for the rest of the night.
She felt much better when she woke the next morning; she was a bit stiff from a night on the couch, but the sun streaming through the curtains was nice, and before long she'd be heading back towards where she was sure Jay was, still alive and, if her dream meant anything, well again, any crisis averted.
She was showered and breakfasted and feeling her best in many days when Mark knocked at the door. She let him in and turned on the jug for a cup of coffee while they waited for Vi.
“I had odd dreams last night,” Mark said.
“You too?” said Melissa.
Mark looked at her. “Jay? In some kind of fever?”
“You know, I think he's actually okay now,” Mark said.
“Me too.” Melissa smiled. She wasn't sure what was going on, but she'd find out – and in the meantime, things were beginning to look up.
Vi knocked on the door, and Melissa invited her in for a coffee. The sense of anxiety had vanished; Jay was alright, and they'd find him easily enough, Melissa was sure. Besides, a day like today – sun shining, ground still wet from the night's rain – who could stay depressed?
They finished their drinks and headed for the airport, and were soon flying over fields covered in thin shining tendrils of mist, as the rain evaporated in the morning sun.
Jay awoke; it was light, this time. Early morning, it seemed. He remembered the night before, and sat up with a jolt. The other man was nowhere to be seen. The fire was just a damp pile of ash and soot. Jay realised that he still had the man's coat over his shoulders, but he could see no other indication that the man had even been there. He stood up and looked around.
He realised that he was quite thirsty. He walked down to the creek; it was a little swollen and dirty, but still looked safe to drink. He drank. He reached up and gingerly felt his forehead; there was a slightly rough, raised patch where the man had struck him, but it didn't hurt, and it didn't feel like it was open at all. His third eye, huh?
He climbed out of the gully. It was time to head towards the lake – for all that it was going to take a good week at this rate. He pulled the coat off, then put it back on with his arms through the sleeves – he may as well wear it properly. It'd be a shame to lose it. Actually, its loss would probably be his death. He better look after it.
He set off towards the road.
He made it to the road, and starting following it as it wound north. He’d been walking maybe half an hour when a sudden piercing pain behind his eyes gripped him. He collapsed to his knees, groaning and holding his temples, bright lights flashing in his otherwise darkened vision. He toppled sideways and curled up in the gravel beside the road, hardly aware of the small stones stabbing into his side. The pain was all-consuming.
Then the hallucinations came – flashes, images, barely enough for him to recognise. He saw planes beside the road, a fire by the wreckage. A sudden image of Melissa looking back at him from the saddle in the hills, as he flew through the air towards and past her at incredible speed.
Then he was in and below the building. He saw apes, scattered on the ground before the huge doors, groaning, twitching, some not moving at all – limbs scattered, fur scorched and burned off, a wail as one ape held another limp, still one. Occasionally a human lay dead among the apes.
Jay floated through and above this scene, slowing briefly, then speeding up again as he flashed down through the caverns and tunnels. He shot through a narrow passage, flinching away from the walls, frighteningly close at this speed, then he burst out and up into the vast cavern that held the gorilla village. He was high above it, but even from this height the flames and screams as the village burned were all too clear.
Jay began to fall towards the ground, gathering speed, feeling the air plucking at his shirt as he fell, spread-eagled in a vain attempt to slow himself. His vision went black as he hit the ground.
He gradually came to on the side of the road, awareness returning to him as he began to feel the sharp stones of the gravel. The pain in his head receded, and he gradually uncurled, fingers cramping as he willed them to release their white-knuckled grip on his head. He stood up, the blood thumping in his head. What was that about? Was it real? Or an intimation of the future? He shook his head, trying to forget what he’d seen, and continued walking.
“Where does your hunch point you, Melissa?” Vi asked. They were nearing the site of the wreckage – and their sometime camp – again.
“South-west, I think, in close to the mountains,” said Melissa. “You should be good just to follow the road; if Jay's gotten that far he'll stick to it.”
“Cool.” Vi swung the plane more towards the south, following the line of the road that dropped from the saddle above the lake and crossed the plain. “Sounds likely to me.”
The clouds cleared and the sun came out as Jay walked, the sun bouncing off the road making him squint, and the heat prompting him to take off Huki's coat. He draped it over his shoulder as he continued down the road.
By mid-morning the last of the previous day's rain had evaporated off the road, and it was turning into the hottest day Jay had seen in a long time. The seal of the road was getting too hot to walk on, so Jay found himself walking along the narrow grassy strip between the gravel and the tussocks that came almost to the road here.
He remembered his hip flask; pulled it out and took a couple of swigs of the brackish water it held. He wondered where the nearest creek was. A day like today – he was going to need more water. If he could find enough, he might even take a swim. He hummed a little as he walked, stopping occasionally to half-heartedly curse at stones or thistles that pricked his bare feet. Still, two days of walking without shoes had built up some decent callouses already, and he'd miraculously managed to avoid blisters. Even the small cuts he had all over his feet and ankles were healing pretty well.
Jay found a creek a little further on; a tiny bridge spanned a narrow riverbed, and Jay followed it up a hundred meters or so to a shallow pool. It wasn't enough to swim in, but Jay waded out a little to knee-depth and refilled his flask, then stripped his shirt off and had a wash. Feeling much refreshed he made his way back to the road.
He'd been going perhaps another five minutes when he heard an engine, far above. He stopped and looked up, shading his eyes against the sun with one hand, trying to spot the source of the sound.
A glint of sun against metal caught his eye – he saw the plane. He stepped out into the middle of the road and started flapping his coat to attract its attention.
“Down there!” Mark said. “I see something – on the road.”
Melissa looked down. “It's him, waving a blanket or something. Can you land down there, Vi?”
“I'll have to loop around,” said Vi, “but otherwise, no problem. You're sure it's him?”
“Who else could it be?”
The plane looped around, past Jay, but turning. It pointed its nose towards him as it descended, and – after what seemed like an eternity – he heard its wheel thump down on the seal with a sharp grumble. It slowed, and was just idling along by the time the plane reached him. It turned, and before it had even stopped alongside him Melissa had jumped out and was running towards him. She threw her arms around his neck.
“Are you okay?” she asked him. “I've been having some weird dreams of you recently.”
“I've been having some weird dreams of me too,” he said. “But I'm mostly okay now. Just the occasional headache.” He smiled. “It's nothing really.”
“How's your fever?” Mark asked, joining them at the side of the road.
Jay shot him a look. “Fine thanks – it blew over in the night. How'd you know?”
“Like she said, strange dreams.”
Jay rubbed his forehead thoughtfully. Melissa looked at him curiously, then pulled his hand away to examine his head herself. “What's this mark?”
“Would you believe that some dude poked me with a burning stick?” Jay asked.
“Makes as much sense as anything else,” Mark snorted. “Why not?”
“Apparently it's my third eye,” Jay said, “and if it's anything to do with the hallucinations I've been having, I think I may have been better off without it. Ah well, too late now.”
“Are you coming, or not?” Vi yelled out of the plane, which she'd switched off. “If I let the engine cool too much more we'll have to give it a full half hour before I can start it up again.”
“Alright, we're coming.”
Mark spun the props as Vi gave him the thumbs up, and the engines roared back into life. They all piled back into the plane, Mark quietly yielding his back seat to Melissa.
“Thanks for coming, guys,” Jay said to Vi and Mark. “I was starting to think I was going to be walking all the way back.”
“Ha! As if we'd leave you alone!” Vi said. “All for one and all that crap. One day it might be me, and I'd damn well expect you guys to come looking.”
Jay laughed. “Fair enough, fair enough. Where're we headed?”
“Home,” Vi said. “I've had enough of this part of the country.
Jay suddenly looked serious. “I've got unfinished business, I'm afraid.”
“The lake?” Melissa asked.
“Yeah. I made a promise I have yet to fulfill.”
“Well,” Vi said, “you've got a bunch of pretty angry messenger-pilots who were all in favour of storming in there with all the guns they could find. If you can spare half a day, how about we head home and round them up, then you can have yourself an army to do what you got to do?”
“For real?” said Jay. “They wanted to do that?”
“Well,” said Vi, “no-one likes seeing a pretty lady upset.” She winked at Melissa. “Plus, it seems you actually have some friends there.”
“Actually,” Melissa said, “I don't think it's about us at all. They're just pissed that someone thinks they can shoot messenger planes out of the air. ‘You hurt one of us, you hurt all of us’ kind of thing.”
“Wow,” said Jay. “Okay, I could use an army. I have no plan, but I'm sure I'll find something for them. Let's round 'em up.”