Busted Axle Road
CopyrightÂ© 1993, 2001, 2010
Mark had learned the hard way to load up on Bromo even before he left the house for one of the Toivo Expedition meetings. He really didn't care much for Vietnamese food, and it didn't set well with him, but it was part of the planning. For his own part, if the expedition ever came off, he didn't intend to eat Vietnamese any more than he could help it. In the permanently-packed baggage he kept ready for the trip, there was a good two weeks supply of backpacker's freeze-dried meals. That, and a willingness to lose a few pounds, and he thought he could survive.
In spite of Mark not caring much for Vietnamese food, he did enjoy getting together with the Expedition team once a month. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, there wasn't much new to report, but they'd kept at being ready, in case they should ever get the permission to search for traces of Toivo. It could have easily degenerated into a monthly poker game, but the handful of veterans hung in there, and all of the Expedition staff, except for the archaeologist, Rod Matson, who could rarely attend, was present in Steve and Binky's living room once they were through with dinner.
"No progress on getting permission," Gil reported. "Our last contact with the embassy at the U.N. got nowhere, but our inquiries to the one in Ottawa at least got a polite response. I was sort of told that it would be easier to get permission for just one of us to go, and I'm wondering if we ought to pursue that route."
"One of us would be more than we've got now," Bud said. "The heck of it is, if it's just one person, who do we send? Gil, it just about comes down to you."
"Yeah," Gil said. "I know that. If we could even get permission for three, I think I'd be a lot more comfortable, but there's going to be a limit to what I could do by myself. I figure with three, I go, I've been in the area, got a good idea of what I'm looking for. Steve goes, so we're not dependent on interpreters. Rod goes, because I'm about ninety-nine point nine percent sure that it's going to involve excavating a dig, if we get that far."
"All I can say is try for one, try for three, try for all of us," Bud said. "Take what we can get."
"It gets damn frustrating," Gil said. "But, we've been around that block so many times before that there's nothing new to be said, when I do have something new to show you. It's kind of interesting."
"What might this be?" Steve asked. "Something good, I hope."
"Pretty good," Gil said, getting onto his knees. "Afraid I'm going to have to lay this out on the floor. He opened a briefcase, and took out a thick pad of large photos, and started laying them, one overlapping each other, across the floor.
"Came up with some overheads, huh?" Mark asked, getting up to look them over. They were remarkably detailed; you could make out individual people in the photos, working in the rice paddies and whatnot. As a pilot, Mark spent a lot of time looking down, and he was familiar with the view. "Looks like they were taken down pretty low," he said. "Couple of thousand feet, maybe?"
"I doubt it," Gil said. "These ain't real new, but they ain't that old, either."
Mark took a closer look at one of the photos. There was a notch cut out of the corner of each of them, apparently with a pair of scissors -- obviously, to remove identifying marks. "Where'd you get these, Gil?" Mark asked.
"Would you believe it if I said they showed up in the mailbox one day, with no postmark and no return address?" Gil said.
"I'm not sure whether I would or not."
"Let's just say that I've still got friends, and maybe one of them took pity on us," Gil said. "OK, this is Pham Dong village, and over here is Duc Vinh. This here is the patch of jungle where Henry got separated from his platoon." He got up, and walked to the other end of the line of photos, nearly twenty feet long. "Clear down here, you can see what's left of the fire base. It's pretty well grown over, but you can still make out some of the bunkers."
Mark walked down to look at that imagery. "Got a magnifying glass?" he asked, and Gil produced one. Mark studied the fire base carefully. Things grew fast in Vietnam, and there was a lot of rain, so things got obliterated quickly -- and what was left of the fire base where Henry Toivo's company had left on patrol was all but gone. At a guess, it had to be at least ten years since the fire base had been abandoned. That made these photos fairly recent; no wonder Gil wasn't saying where they came from, if he did even know.
They had to have been taken from high up, with a hell of a lens. From a U-2 at a minimum, maybe an SR-71. They could even be satellite imagery, but if they were, they were better than any satellite photos Mark had ever seen. If they came from a satellite, they came from a real good satellite. A Keyhole, maybe?
"OK," Gil said. "I know you're just seeing these for the first time, but just look over the general route. We know Henry had a good sense of direction, and I've guessed that he must have realized that he was separated from his unit and tried to get back to the fire base. If he went on a more or less direct line, it'd be along these photos. There's plenty of cover, and you've got to figure, he'd have wanted to stick to cover."
"Yeah," Ryan Clark agreed. "But I was in that general area, too, and cover in that neck of the woods was just lousy with every booby trap and punji pit known to man, so you got to figure these were, too. Hell, it might still not be too safe to go into those woods."
"If we get there, we've got to be damn careful," Gil agreed. "I mean, real damn careful, since everything will have grown up so much. But, I hope we don't have to search the woods at all. I still think that someone there in Pham Dong or Duc Vinh knows right where to look. Steve, I know you've been working hard with Binky, but I hope we draw a good local interpreter, and you just have to keep them honest."
"That's kind of the plan," Steve said.