Home > Wayward (Wayward Pines #2)(10)

Wayward (Wayward Pines #2)(10)
Blake Crouch

He struck a spark onto the char cloth. A yellow flame licked up and impaled a bundle of Old Man’s Beard that was laced with a dismembered branch of dead fir. The spikes of dried-out, russet-colored needles ignited. Smoke coiled out of the tinder.

His heart swelled with primal joy.

Tobias built up a cone of sticks over the growing flames and held his hands to the heat. He hadn’t bathed since his last river crossing. That had been at least a month ago. He still remembered catching his reflection in the glass-smooth current—beard down to his sternum, skin embedded with dirt. He looked like a caveman.

Tobias added a single log to the blaze and leaned back against the tree. He felt reasonably safe in this little grove of pines, but there was no sense in pushing the luck he’d already pushed so many times to the breaking point.

At the bottom of his Kelty backpack, he pulled out the one-liter titanium camp kettle and filled it halfway with water from his last remaining bottle.

Dropped in a handful of sharp-smelling pine needles, fresh off the branch.

Kicked back waiting for his tea to boil was as close to human as he’d felt in ages.

He drank the pot of tea and let the fire die. Before he lost its light completely, he took inventory of the contents of his pack.

Six one-liter water bottles, only half of one still full.

Flint and steel.

A first aid kit down to a single pill of Advil.

A dry bag filled with buffalo jerky.

Pipe, book of matches, and the last of his tobacco, which he was holding on to for his final night—if it ever came—in the wilderness.

His last box of .30-30 Winchester cartridges.

A .357 Smith & Wesson revolver for which he’d run out of ammo over a year ago.

Pack fly.

A leather-bound journal sealed in plastic.

He pulled out a stick of jerky and scraped off the carpeting of mold. Allowed himself five small bites before returning it to the bag. He finished off the pine tea and packed everything back. Shouldering the pack, he climbed twenty feet up to his perch in the tree and fastened the Kelty to a branch.

He untied his hiking boots—the soles long since worn through the tread and the leather beginning to disintegrate—and laced them to the tree. He slid his arms out of his Barbour duster. The coat was months overdue for a thorough waxing but so far it still kept him dry.

He maneuvered into the bivy sack and zipped himself in.

Wow, he stunk. It was almost like he’d developed his own musk.

His mind wouldn’t stop running.

The chances of a swarm stumbling through this grove of pines were admittedly slim. A small group or a loner—better.

Tree bivouacking was a good news/bad news proposition.

The good news—it kept him out of the obvious lines of site. Countless times, he’d heard a branch snap in the middle of the night and rolled quietly over to stare down twenty or thirty feet at an abby creeping past underneath him.

The bad news—if one ever looked up, he was treed.

He reached down and touched the smooth, leathered handle of his Bowie.

It was the only real weapon in his arsenal. The Winchester would get him killed in close combat, and he only used it anymore to hunt his food.

He slept always with his hand on the knife, sometimes waking in the dark, other-side of midnight to find himself clutching it like a talisman. Strange to think that an object of such violence had assumed a place as comforting in his mind as the memory of his mother’s voice.

Then he was awake.

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.

9

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.

“That’s right.”

“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.”

“Sure.”

“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?”

“I was.”

“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.

Ted said, “So we’re looking at the town and the valley. Pretty much every square foot of real estate inside the boundary of the electrified fence. We can push in anywhere we want.” The image zoomed down onto the school—the playground equipment crystallizing into sharp focus.

“Is this real time?” Ethan asked.

“No. This photo was taken years ago. But it’s the grid upon which all of our tracking relies.”

Ted tapped the screen at his fingertips.

A DayGlo overlay appeared.

Most of the town was covered.

Ted pointed at the screens.

“Everywhere you see this overlay, we have a current, real-time, microchip-triggered camera feed. But you’ll notice black spots, even within the coverage.” He tapped his controls and a single house filled the screen. The overhead perspective changed to a three-dimensional street-level view. With a swipe of his finger, the Victorian’s windows and wood siding stripped away and the image became an interactive blueprint.

“You’ll note there are three blind spots in this residence. However…” The DayGlo overlay was replaced with solid red. “There are no what we call ‘deaf spots.’ This house, like every other residence in town, is sufficiently miked to capture anything above thirty decibels.”

“How loud is thirty decibels?”

Ted whispered, “A library conversation.” He returned the screens to the aerial image of Pines with the DayGlo overlay. “So aside from a few blind spots in each house, most of indoor Pines is thoroughly wired. But once you get outside, even in town, the system begins to show cracks in its veneer. Look at all the black areas. There’s a backyard with no visual surveillance whatsoever. The cemetery is a disaster—just a few cameras here and there. And as you move away from the center of Pines and toward the cliffs, it only gets worse. Look at these blind spots on the south side. Twenty-acre stretches of completely unmonitored terrain. Now, in theory, we have a way to handle that.”

Ted punched in something on a keyboard.

A new overlay meshed with the DayGlo.

Hundreds of red blips appeared.

The vast majority clustered in a six-block radius near the center of town.

Some were moving.

“Recognize those?” Ted asked.

“The microchips.”

“We’re reading four hundred sixty signals. One short.”

“That’s because I’m sitting here with you?”

“Correct.”

Ted moved the cursor over a stationary blip in a building on Main Street. He tapped the touchscreen. A text bubble blossomed.

Ethan read, “Brad Fisher.”

“I believe you had dinner with Brad and his wife last night. It’s 10:11 a.m., and Mr. Fisher is in his law office. Right where he’s supposed to be. Of course, all this data can be massaged any number of ways.”

Every blip disappeared except for Fisher’s.

The time stamp at the bottom of the screen began to run backward.

His blip moved out of the building, north up Main Street, and into his house.

“How far back can you go?” Ethan asked.

“All the way to Mr. Fisher’s integration.”

The red dot raced all over town.

Months rewinding.

Years.

“And I can give him a trail,” Ted said.

A trail appeared and scribbled everywhere, like someone pushing a stylus across the screen.

“Impressive,” Ethan said.

“Of course, you understand our problem.”

“System works until people cut out their microchips.”

“It’s not an easy or painless procedure. Of course, you know that.”

“So what exactly do you do all day?” Ethan asked.

“You mean how does one go about monitoring an entire town?”

“Yeah.”

“Put on that headset.”

Ethan grabbed it off the console.

“Can you hear me?” Ted’s voice came loud and clear through the speakers.

“Yep.”

Ted’s fingers worked the touchscreens and the image of Wayward Pines and Brad Fisher’s lifelong trajectory switched back to twenty-five separate images.

“I’m one of three real-time surveillance techs,” Ted said. “Through that door over there, we have four more surveillance techs reviewing flagged footage and audio round-the-clock. Tracking persons of interest. Generating reports. Communicating with our in-town team. With you. Do you understand how the system gathers and sorts data?”

“No.”

“I’m not saying video isn’t crucial, but it’s really the audio that we lean most heavily on. Our system runs state-of-the-art voice recognition software, which pings off certain words, tones of voice. We’re not looking as closely at the actual words as the emotion behind them. We also have body-language recognition, but it’s less effective.”

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