A low-decibel hum.
Curiosity pulled him forward, Ethan climbing quickly until he’d cleared the corner, the hum becoming more prominent with every step, his anticipation spiking.
When he finally saw it, a stab of exhilaration coursed through him.
The canyon continued its steep ascent for another mile or two, the cliff walls topped with jagged spires and serrated ridges, an unforgiving cruelty to the landscape that looked almost alien.
Fifty feet upslope, Ethan stared straight at the source of the hum—a twenty-foot-high fence crowned with coils of razor wire that spanned sixty feet across the breadth of the canyon at its most tapered point. Signage on the fence advised:
RISK OF DEATH
RETURN TO WAYWARD PINES
BEYOND THIS POINT YOU WILL DIE
Ethan stopped five feet from the barricade and made a thorough inspection—the fence was constructed of square panels of wire, the side of each square approximately four inches long. In proximity, the hum was even more ominous, giving the fence an authentic, not-to-be-fucked-with vibe.
Ethan caught the scent of rot in the vicinity, and it took him only a moment to spot the origin. A large rodent—probably a marmot—had made the mistake of trying to crawl through one of the squares adjacent to the ground. Looked like it had been microwaved between the wires for eight hours. Charred pitch black. Some poor bird, apparently thinking it had stumbled upon a hassle-free meal, had erred in judgment, attempted to help itself to the critter’s remains, and suffered the same fate.
Ethan glanced up at the canyon walls.
They were sheer, but the handholds, particularly on the right side, looked feasible for someone who was both motivated and had the nerves to handle a little exposure.
Ethan trucked over to the wall and began to climb.
It wasn’t the best rock, and some of the holds felt rotten in his grip, but they were plentiful and spaced closely enough that he didn’t have to put his weight on any one for more than several seconds.
Soon, he was twenty-five feet off the ground, a weightless, tingling sensation in his gut as the electrified razor wire hummed just several feet beneath the soles of his boots.
He traversed a ledge on solid rock, carefully sidestepping as he crossed to the forbidden side of the fence. The height rattled him, but even more, the reality of what he’d just done—this illicit boundary crossing.
A nagging premonition in the back of his mind whispered he’d just willingly placed himself in terrible danger.
* * *
Ethan safely reached the canyon floor and went on, the hum of the electrified fence growing softer as his system kicked into an intensified and disconcerting state of alertness. Same thing had happened to him in Iraq—a heightened level of sensory intake always seemed to hit him in the ramp-up to missions that ultimately went to shit. His palms would start sweating, his pulse rate would accelerate, his sense of hearing, smell, taste, everything ratcheted into overdrive. He’d never told anyone, but when he lost the Black Hawk in Fallujah, he’d known the RPG was coming five seconds before it exploded.
It was lonely country up here beyond the fence, the rock all fractured and lightning-blasted.
The absence of clouds only underscoring the mood of absolute desolation.
After his time in Wayward Pines, it felt surreal to be this alone again, so far removed from other people. But in the back of his mind, a new worry had begun to eat at him. The canyon appeared to climb another thousand feet to a high, wind-ripped ridge. If his strength held, he might reach it by dusk. Spend another long, cold night trying to sleep on shattered rock. But then what? He would soon be out of food, and though water still bloated his stomach from the last drink he’d taken before the stream vanished, the exertion he was putting his body through would bleed him dry again in no time.
But even more than the looming threat of hunger and thirst, he feared what lay beyond that distant ridge at the top of the drainage.
Miles and miles of wilderness, if he had to guess, and though he still retained a modicum of survival training from his military days, when it came down to it, he was beat to shit and tired as hell. The prospect of walking out of these mountains and back into civilization struck him as beyond daunting.
And yet, what choice did he have?
Return to Wayward Pines?
He’d rather freeze to death alone out here than ever set foot in that place again.
Ethan made his way through a section of the canyon clogged with massive boulders, carefully hopping from one to the next. He could hear water running underneath him again, but the stream was invisible, unreachable, hidden down in the black space beneath the dogpile of boulders.
High on the left-hand wall of the canyon, something threw a sharp glint of sunlight.
Ethan stopped and cupped his hand over his eyes and squinted toward the blinding glimmer. From where he stood in the belly of the canyon, all he could see was a square, metal surface a good ways up the wall, its proportions too perfect, too exact, to be anything but man-made.
He jumped to the next boulder, now moving with greater speed, greater intensity, and constantly glancing up at the wall as he went along, but the nature of that reflective surface remained elusive.
On ahead, the canyon looked more reasonable, the boulders downsized into traversable terrain.
He was considering whether he could make the climb to that piece of metal when the crackle of falling rock disrupted his thoughts.
For a terrifying instant, Ethan imagined a landslide heading his way, a thousand tons of rock raining down off the wall, crushing him to death.
But the sound had originated behind him, not above, Ethan turning, glancing back the way he’d come, figuring it was just a boulder he’d moved across and dislodged several minutes ago, now finally shifting in his wake.
Still, there was something eerie about registering a sound other than his own labored breathing or the movement of rocks in his immediate vicinity. He’d grown so accustomed to the stillness of this isolated drainage.
He could see down-canyon for a long ways, his eyes initially fixing on the electrified fence a quarter mile back, but then on movement much closer, inside a hundred yards. At first he thought it must be one of those marmots, but it was scrambling with a weightless, feline agility, almost too quickly from rock to rock, and as he squinted to bring it into focus, Ethan saw that it didn’t have fur at all. It looked albino, covered with pale, milky skin.
Ethan instinctively backpedaled as he realized he’d grossly underestimated its size. It wasn’t moving over small rocks. It was moving through that field of giant boulders Ethan had just emerged from, which meant it was actually closer in size to a human being and traveling at an intimidating speed, barely even stopping between leaps.