“Why does everybody always ask if you’re ready right before doing something foolhardy?” Justin wondered aloud.
“Tradition,” Shades answered.
“Good luck out there,” Roger told them. “We’re both counting on you.”
Bandit looking at the three of them as if they were about to wander off a cliff or something, casting wary glances at the camp, and the woods beyond.
They all stood in the cargo door for a long moment, could almost feel the noontime sun edging into afternoon, daylight wasting. Certain that even Max would lose his nerve if they had to enter that forest after sundown.
“But what if Erix comes back?” the pilot asked, as if truly beginning to digest the implications of being all alone out here.
“I doubt he’ll be back unless Roxy fails.” Figured if it was anyone else out there against Erix, he wouldn’t expect much— even survival might be raising the bar too high— but he gave the bounty hunter at least fifty-fifty odds. After all, Erix set a mean trap, yet she still escaped. Thinking quickly, he made up a couple passwords: “Since Erix isn’t around to overhear us, let’s use passwords. When we come back, we’ll call out: ‘Take it to the Maximum,’ to signify that it’s just us, and there’s no danger. But if we say: ‘The Albatross has landed,’ that will be a warning to keep your guard up. That we’re being followed, or held at gunpoint, or there’s some other kind of trouble, and it’s totally at your discretion how to respond.
“You’ve seen for yourself what Erix is like. If no one gives the password, we could hardly blame you for shooting first and asking questions later.” Remembering it from earlier, Shades handed Roger Erix’s dropped power pistol to hold the fort. A weapon once pointed at him, a very personal reminder of what they were dealing with out here. “Now that he knows the Albatross is no use to him, the only thing he might try to double back for would be the supplies. In a place like this, you should think of him as a kind of intelligent savage, and be wary of anyone you don’t recognize approaching this place.”
“And what about Roxy?” Roger pressed.
“I guess she’s on her own,” Justin commented, “since she took off…”
“Try to maintain radio contact as long as possible,” Shades advised. When they checked earlier, the Albatross’s solar panels, at least, were still operable, capable of powering the lights, radio and basic electronics for the time being. “But make sure she replies before giving the password, just blurting it over the radio could allow Erix to overhear it. We’ll try to bring back help, and return with them, if possible. And even if this Pickford place turns out to be defunct, we should still be able to scrounge up a ship, more supplies… something. The return trip shouldn’t take more than a day or so with even the crudest of vessels. And if, for some reason, we’re unable to make it back ourselves, we’ll at least try to pass on the password to your rescuers. I just hope some backwoods bumpkin doesn’t blunder into this mess, but somehow I doubt anybody’s coming out here on their own anytime soon. There’s just something about those woods that gives me a bad feeling…”
Contrary to Shades, Roger found he hoped some local might get involved, hopefully someone who had some idea what the hell was going on out here. In spite of his stubbornness about not abandoning ship, he still fought down an ominous fear of being left behind, now that they came down to it. Then he looked over at Bandit, and seeing Max’s determined expression as he made his own heartfelt farewell gave him hope. Understood that Max, if no one else, would return as long as he still lived, even if he had to drag supplies down the coast on a sled or something.
That resolved, they set out to enter the Woods in earnest.
“Lock and load, guys,” Shades said as they set out, even as it occurred to him that there was no such function on energy weapons.
All of them armed and prepared as one could be for the Unknown.
As they passed the lodge, Shades wandered over to the nearest cabin in their path. Peered in through the dusty window, though he doubted there was anything to stir up inside. Just like the lodge, he saw only signs of hasty retreat, odds and ends left behind, and no return trip for any of it.
Near the edge of the Camp Stilton grounds, the dirt road that wound through the camp led into the forest proper. Though the trees were already a strong presence in and around the camp, they practically formed a solid wall along the shallow stream at the edge of the grounds, that, according to the map, would bend a little ways downshore of Stilton to empty into the sea near the last big bend before the curve of the peninsula. The covered wooden bridge crossing it striking them as looking more like a tunnel into the woods.
Being the lightest, even with his pack on, Justin tested it first. Though the bridge was old and creaky, and slightly warped, it still held, a testament to the craftsmanship of its builders. They crossed one at a time, just to be on the safe side. Though little more than a trickle ran beneath it compared to the size of the riverbed, the Amarrack clearly at low ebb, which they could easily cross on foot if the bridge was too frail, the last thing they needed was any more injuries, no matter how minor.
On the other side, the tree canopy fairly seemed to lean over the old dirt road on both sides, allowing only a scant, golden-green light to filter down to them through layers of leaves. Scenery Shades might have found rustic and scenic, if it didn’t feel so ominous. Wishing he knew why he was so certain it was the woods themselves everyone before was so afraid of. As they moved farther inland, away from the Ocean, the salty, briny smell of the sea became ever more muted, and the pungent, primal scents of the Woods began to take over.
Shades took in the scents around him, wondering. They were essentially the same sort as the smells that surrounded him back in the mountains around Lakeside. Smelling them again after all this time, he noticed them in a rather different way. Of crushed, bruised underbrush, stirred soil, the earthy smells of the wild.
Max, on the other hand, found little to compare with this years on the Isle of Paradise.
A short way down the road, they came to a fork, a leaning, faded wooden sign pointing left for the stricken town of Rannigan’s Wharf, right for Pickford. As if the dense foliage didn’t already put Max in mind of it, he tried not to picture the words Top of the World and Boneyard on that sign, like the one he found at a fork in a forested path on a certain haunted island once upon a time. The sign itself seeming to offer one last chance to change their minds about Rannigan’s, and they all paused for a moment before resuming their original course.
To his dismay, Shades noted that the road the fork connected to was a dirt road, as well, as if none of this Highway 13 was actually paved, a rather trumped-up designation for what looked like little more than one of many old logging roads out in the mountains back home.
Justin took a couple swigs from his canteen before they pressed on, and Shades cautioned him again to ration his water carefully, as there was no way to be sure how long they might be out here, and Justin sighed and put it away.
Knew after a couple days, it could easily be down to only one swig. Then nothing, the way things were going. Unless they could reach the other river marked on the map, which they would have to cross on their way to Pickford, or some other source to replenish their water.
And stop to boil it, holding back the handful of water purifying tablets Roger gave them, unless they had no choice. Knew even ‘clear’ water could be populated with enough bacteria to empty your bowels in a couple hours. And in places where it wasn’t, the alkali or other mineral content would empty your bowels instead.
Along the way, they decided to maintain radio contact with the Albatross for as long as possible, though if their reception within the camp was any indication, they doubted it would last long. And they turned out to be correct, the signal fading measurably once they crossed the river. Since the plane’s radio had a much longer broadcast range, and stronger reception, than their handhelds, they could still hear their last (though hopefully not final) broadcast, intended as both a distress signal, as well as for Roxy’s benefit:
…They’re headed up the peninsula, to a town called Pickford. Your last known direction has you headed for Rannigan’s Wharf, which all evidence indicates you should beware of. Since I’m too injured to travel, I’m staying with the plane, and can give you the password for not getting shot… This is Roger Wilco, of the Albatross. If you can hear…
Recorded for playback at regular intervals.
Like most things around here, it was difficult to pin down just how many years this road had been abandoned. Apparently, long enough for the woods to begin reclaiming it, dwindling to a pair of weedy ruts. Radio contact with Roger quickly gave way to static, despite all of their doubts that they could’ve made it the full two miles yet.
Highway, my ass… Shades thought. Looking back, he could have sworn their signal reception diminished right along with the road itself, leaving them with a pair of subtle depressions in the underbrush that none of them fully trusted.
“The river…” Shades muttered, nearly facepalming. His own words (People build roads, so they always lead somewhere…) ringing in his own ears, mocking him. “We need to go back and follow the river. I know it’ll take longer, but the edge of the highlands upstream should serve as a natural guide to the other river, and that’ll take us to Pickford, even if the roads are gone.”
“Then why the hell did we go this way?” Justin muttered, kicking a small rock.
“Because I thought it would be faster if we followed the road,” Shades admitted. “I didn’t think it would be this far gone…”
“Then let’s go,” Max suggested, wanting to head off the argument he smelled brewing.
And so they turned back, all of them regretting whatever measure of daylight they just lost on this path, but they didn’t get far.
Turning the next bend, what was left of the road not only failed to return, but again faded away, this time with a tree growing in the middle of the path. Looking around, they could see no forks, no place they could’ve gotten sidetracked from the main road.
Justin ended their long moment of silent consternation with, “You said…”
“I know what I said,” Shades mumbled. “I made a mistake, okay…”
“How the hell can you be so damn calm about it!?”
“Justin, I’m terrified.” Though he still wasn’t sure just what sort of games this place could play, he feared they were already starting to find out. This was one of those places. They were still too far in to see even a hint of the covered bridge anymore, so he recommended, “Let’s try following the signal back to the ship, or at least the shore… If we give in to panic, we lose by default.”
“But how?” Max asked. “We’ve been going back, but we still aren’t getting anything.”
“If we can make it back to the coast, we could find the camp, and then the river…” But there wasn’t a shred of confidence in any of Shades’ words by then, as if he already understood somehow it was too late for that. He was never truly lost back in Lakeside; even when he wandered off into places he’d never been before, he quickly regained his bearings. “And no compass directions, either…”
“So what the hell do we do now?” Justin demanded, kicking the tree that was making such a mockery of their sense of direction.
“I don’t know,” Shades confessed. “Back in my world, if you get lost in the woods, you’re supposed to find a safe place and wait for a search-and-rescue party, but that doesn’t apply in our situation. I don’t think anyplace in these woods is terribly safe anymore, and no one is going to come looking for us out here…”
“And you’re supposed to be the wilderness expert, smartass!”
“Justin,” Max admonished him. To him, their voices seemed to reverberate one moment, only to sound stifled and muffed the next. “He’s trying. We all are.”
“That plane crash was too far away from civilization, only someplace with long-range radar could possibly have even noticed it,” Shades thought aloud. “And I really don’t believe that ghost squadron was from anywhere around these parts, either, so it’s pretty safe to say we’re on our own out here.”
“So what do we do?”
“That road had just enough twists and turns to mess up our bearings,” Shades pointed out, trying to piece it all together, “but we’re near a peninsula. We should pick a direction and try to stick with it. We should either hit the shoreline, or encounter one of the two river branches that box us in, or the highlands in between. This is the sort of haunted place where I could picture us getting split up and shooting each other or something… We should aim to stick together, even while exploring.”
Much like the compass readings, he wasn’t even so sure the sun rose or set in the same place in these Woods. In the Twilight Zone.