He could see the sky through the branches above him.
His breath steamed in the cold.
It was absolutely quiet save for the slow bump bump bump of his heart beating in the predawn.
He craned his neck, stared down at the remains of his campfire.
White smoke trickled up out of the embers.
Tobias wiped the dew off the long barrel of his high-powered rifle and shouldered his Kelty. He walked to the edge of the grove and crouched down between a pair of saplings.
It was damn cold.
First freeze of the season couldn’t be more than a night or two away.
He took a compass out of his pocket. He was facing east. A series of meadows and forests gradually climbed toward a range of mountains in the far distance. Fifty, possibly sixty miles away. He didn’t know with any certainty, but he held out hope that they were what had once been called the Sawtooth.
If they were, he was almost home.
Raising his rifle to his shoulder, he stared through the telescopic sight and glassed the terrain ahead.
There was no breeze.
The weeds in the open fields stood motionless.
Two miles out, he spotted bison—a cow and her calf grazing.
The next stretch of forest looked to be three or four miles away. Long time to be in the open. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and walked away from the protection of the trees.
Two hundred yards out, he glanced back at the grove of pines dwindling behind him.
It had been a good night there.
Fire and tea and the closest thing to a restful night’s sleep as he could ever hope to experience in the wild.
He walked into the sun, stronger than he’d felt in days.
Between his black beard, black cowboy hat, and black duster that fell to his ankles, he looked like a vagabond prophet sent to roam the world.
And in some ways, perhaps he was.
He hadn’t made the notation in his journal yet, but this was day 1,287 of his trek.
He’d made it as far west as the Pacific and as far north as where the great port city of Seattle had once stood.
He’d nearly been killed a dozen times.
Had killed forty-four abbies. Thirty-nine with a revolver. Three with his Bowie knife. Two in hand-to-hand combat that he had come very close to losing.
And now, he just needed to get home.
Not only for the warm bed that awaited him and the promise of sleep without the ever-present threat of death. Not just for the food and the long-dreamt-of-sex with the woman he loved.
But because he had some news to report.
My God did he have some news.
Ethan followed Marcus down the Level 2 corridor past a series of doors labeled Lab A, Lab B, Lab C.
Near the far end, within spitting distance of the stairwell, Ethan’s escort stopped at a door inset with a circle of glass.
Marcus pulled out his keycard.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be,” Ethan said, “but I’ll have them notify you when I’m ready to go back to town.”
“It’s not a problem. I’ll be by your side the whole time.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Sheriff, my orders—”
“Go cry to your boss. You may be my driver, but you aren’t my shadow. Not anymore. And while you’re at it, wrangle up Alyssa’s reports on her mission.”
Ethan snatched the young man’s keycard, swiped it through the reader, and shoved it back into his chest. Stepping across the threshold, he turned and stared the escort down as he shut the door in his face.
The room wasn’t dark, but it was dim—like a theater five minutes before the movie starts. A five-by-five stack of monitors glowed on the wall straight ahead. There was another door to the right of the screens that was accessed by a keycard entry. Ethan had never been granted access to surveillance.
A man wearing a headset turned in his swivel chair.
“I was told you could help me,” Ethan said.
The man stood. Short-sleeved button-down adorned with a clip-on tie. Balding. Mustached. What appeared to be a coffee stain on his lapel. He looked like he belonged in mission control, and the room certainly emanated a nerve-center vibe.
Ethan closed the distance between them, but he didn’t offer his hand.
Said, “I’m sure you know plenty about me, but I’m afraid I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Ted. I head up the surveillance group.”
Ethan had tried to prepare himself for this moment. For meeting Pilcher’s number three, the man tasked with spying on the people of Wayward Pines in their most private moments. The urge to break his nose was even stronger than Ethan had anticipated.
Have you watched Theresa and me together?
“You’re investigating Alyssa’s murder?” Ted asked.
“She was a great woman. I want to do whatever I can to help.”
“Glad to hear that.”
“Please, have a seat.”
Ethan followed Ted over to the monitors. They sat down in swivel chairs on wheels. The control panel looked ready-made to fly an alien spacecraft. Multiple keyboards and touchscreen technology that looked more advanced than anything Ethan remembered from his world.
“Before we start,” Ethan said, “I want to ask you something.”
“All you do is sit in here and eavesdrop on private lives. Correct?”
Ted’s eyes seemed to cloud—was that shame?
“That is my life.”
“Were you aware of Alyssa’s mission in town?”
“Okay. So here’s my question. You’re in command of the most sophisticated surveillance system I’ve ever seen. How did you miss her murder?”
“We don’t catch everything here, Mr. Burke. There are thousands of cameras in town, but most of them are indoors. We had a far more extensive exterior network when Pines began fourteen years ago, but the elements have exacted considerable damage. They’ve killed cameras. Drastically limited our eyesight.”
“So whatever happened to Alyssa…”
“Occurred in a blind spot, yes.”
“These blind spots—do you know where they are?”
Ted turned his attention to the controls, his fingers moving at light speed across an array of touchscreens.
The camera feeds vanished.
Twenty-five monitors now merged into a single image—an aerial photograph of Wayward Pines.