“Some do, but we’re an adaptable species. Through conditioning, like good humans, most come to accept their environment, as long as it isn’t completely devoid of hope.”

“I don’t believe they accept that the world is still out there, when you won’t let them see it.”

“You believe in God, Ethan?”

“No.”

“Many did. Adopted moral codes. Created religions. Murdered in the names of gods they’d never seen or heard. You believe in the universe?”

“Sure.”

“Oh, so you’ve been to space. Seen those distant galaxies firsthand?”

“Point taken.”

“Wayward Pines is just a shrunken world. A small town never left. Fear and faith in the unknown still apply, just on a smaller scale. The boundaries of the world you came from were space and God. In Pines, the boundaries are the cliff walls that protect the town, and the mysterious presence in the mountains, aka me.”

“You’re not a real psychiatrist.”

“No formal training, but I play one back in town. I find it helpful to gain the trust of the residents. Stay in touch with the mood of the town. Encourage people in their struggles, their doubts.”

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“You had the people murder Beverly.”

“Yes.”

“And Agent Evans.”

“He forced my hand.”

“You’d have had them murder me.”

“But you escaped. Proved yourself even more adept than I first thought.”

“You’ve created a culture of violence.”

“That’s nothing new. Look, when violence becomes the norm, people adapt to the norm. No different than the gladiator games or throwing Christians to the lions or public hangings in the old West. An atmosphere of self-policing isn’t a bad thing.”

“But these people aren’t really free.”

“Freedom is such a twenty-first-century construct. You’re going to sit here and tell me that individual freedom is more vital than the survival of our species?”

“They could decide that for themselves. There’d be dignity in it at least. Isn’t that what makes us human?”

“It’s not their decision to make.”

“Oh, it’s yours?”

“Dignity is a beautiful concept, but what if they made the wrong choice? Like that first group. If there’s no species left to even perpetuate such an ideal, what’s the point?”

“Why haven’t you killed me?”

Pilcher smiled, as if glad that Ethan had finally broached the subject. He cocked his head. “You hear that?”

“What?”

“Silence.”

The birds had gone quiet.

Pilcher pushed against his legs and struggled onto his feet.

Ethan stood too.

The woods had become suddenly still.

Pilcher pulled the gun out of his waistband.

He unclipped his walkie-talkie, brought it to his mouth.

“Pope, come back, over.”

“Yep, over.”

“Where are you, over?”

“Two hundred meters north. Everything all right, over?”

“I’m getting the feeling it’s time we ran for the hills, over.”

“Copy that. On our way. Over and out.”

Pilcher started toward the clearing.

In the distance behind them, Ethan could hear the ruckus of branches snapping and dead leaves crunching as Pope and Pam headed back their way.

“It was a big deal, Ethan, for me to fly you a hundred and thirty miles down here to the Boise ruins. I hope you appreciate the gesture. We’ve had our handful of problem residents over the years, but no one like you. What do you think I value most?”

“No idea.”

Ethan glimpsed the meadow through the oaks.

Red leaves drifted lazily down from the branches above.

“Control. There’s an underground contingent in Pines who presents a façade of compliance. But secretly, they want to take over. Call it...an insurgency. A rebellion. They want to break free, to pull back the curtain, to change how things are done. You understand that would mean the end of Pines. The end of us.”

They came out of the trees, the helicopter a hundred yards away, its bronze paint job gleaming in the late-afternoon sun.

A part of Ethan thinking, What a perfect autumn day.

“What do you want from me?” Ethan asked.

“I want you to help me. You have a rare skill set.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re implying I have no choice in the matter?”

“Of course you do.”

A breeze lapped at Ethan’s face, the meadow grasses bending toward the ground.

They reached the helicopter and Pilcher pulled open the door, let Ethan climb in first.

When they were seated and facing each other, Pilcher said, “All you’ve wanted to do since you woke up in Pines is leave. I’m giving you that opportunity, plus a bonus. Right now. Look behind you.”

Ethan glanced over his seat into the cargo hold, pushed back the curtain.

His eyes became wet.

It had been right there the whole time—a brutal fragment of knowledge he hadn’t allowed himself to even acknowledge. If what Pilcher said was true, then he would never see his family again. They’d be nothing more than ancient bones.

And now, here they were—Theresa and Ben unconscious and strapped to a pair of stretchers with a black duffel bag between them.

His boy did not look like a boy.

“After I put you into suspension, I looked you up, Ethan. I thought you had real potential. So I went to your family.”

Ethan wiped his eyes. “How long have they been in Pines?”

“Five years.”

“My son...he’s—”

“He’s twelve now. They both integrated well. I thought it would be better to have them stable and settled before attempting to bring you in.”

Ethan didn’t bother to mask the rage behind his voice, his words coming like a growl. “Why did you wait so long?”

“I didn’t. Ethan, this is our third attempt with you.”

“How is that possible?”

“One of the effects of suspension is retrograde amnesia. Each time you reanimate, your mind resets to just before your first suspension. In your case—the car wreck. Although, I suspect some memories linger. Maybe they emerge in dreams.”

“I’ve tried to escape before?”

“First time, you made it across the river, nearly got yourself killed by the abbies. We intervened, saved you. Second time, we made sure you discovered your family, thinking that might help. But you tried to escape with them. Nearly got all of you killed.”