Alan leveled a wilting glare at the young man. “What are you saying, son? That on the wild assumption any of this is true, you’d be a-okay with Mr. Pilcher killing one of our own, his own daughter, and trying to hide it? You’d just go along with that?”
“He’s the boss,” Marcus said. “If he did something like that, I bet he had—”
“He’s not God, is he?”
A scream raced up the tunnel and went reverberating through the ark.
Alan released Ethan and said, “What was that?”
“Sounds like some of the abbies found their way into the mountain,” Ethan said. “I drove through the entrance to the tunnel.”
Alan looked at Mustin’s weapon. “What do we have that’s meaner than an AR-15?”
“An M230 chain gun on a rolling mount.”
“Mustin, Marcus, get on that chain gun. Call everybody up. The entire team.”
“What are you going to do with him?” Marcus asked, jutting his chin toward Ethan.
“He and I are heading up to surveillance to take a look at what he’s got.”
“We were told to kill him,” Marcus said, raising his gun.
Alan stepped toward Marcus, the barrel of the AR-15 digging into his sternum.
“Would you mind not pointing your weapon at me, son?”
Marcus lowered his gun.
“While you and Mustin make sure we don’t all get eaten, I’m going to look at what the sheriff says is proof concerning what happened to my friend. And if it’s anything less than advertised, I’ll execute him on the spot. That all right with you?”
“You’re almost there!” Theresa whispered.
Ben lowered his shoe toward the next foothold.
The cries and the screams from the Wanderers’ cavern were still audible. That narrow ledge had just run out, and now they were down-climbing a fifty-degree stretch of cliff. So far, the abundance of handholds and footholds in the good, hard granite had saved their lives, but Theresa couldn’t ignore the two-hundred-foot fall that awaited the slightest misstep. The reality that her son was on this rock wall with her was almost too much to bear.
If Ben fell, she’d jump right after him.
But so far, he was listening, following her instructions, and doing a damn fine job of holding his twelve-year-old shit together.
Ben stepped down onto the ledge where Theresa had been perched for the last few minutes. It didn’t lead anywhere, but at least there was enough of a surface so they didn’t have to cling desperately to a handhold.
They still had a long way to go, but progress had been made, and the tops of the pine trees were only twenty feet below them.
Another scream broke out of the tunnel far above.
“Don’t think about it,” Theresa said. “Don’t imagine what they’re going through. Just focus on where you are, Ben. On making smart, safe moves.”
“Everyone in that cave is going to die,” he said.
“If we hadn’t found the ledge—”
“But we did. And soon we’re going to get off this cliff and find your father.”
“Are you scared?” he asked.
“Of course I am.”
Theresa reached over and touched her son’s face. It was slick and cool with sweat and rosy with exertion and the beginnings of a sunburn.
“Do you think Dad’s okay?” Ben asked.
“I think he is,” she said, but her eyes filled with tears at the thought of Ethan. “Your old man’s one tough hombre. I hope you know that.”
Ben nodded, glanced down the face of the cliff into the welcoming darkness of the dense pine forest.
“I don’t want to get eaten,” he said.
“We’re not. We’re tough hombres too. We’re a family of tough hombres.”
“You’re not a tough hombre,” Ben said.
“You’re a tough hombra.”
Theresa rolled her eyes and said, “Come on, brat. We better keep moving.”
It was late afternoon when they stepped from the rock onto the soft floor of the forest.
They had been on the cliff for hours, under the burn of direct sunlight. They dripped sweat as their eyes readjusted in the cool shadow of the trees.
“What now?” Ben asked.
Theresa wasn’t sure exactly. By her estimate, they were approximately a mile from the edge of town, but she wasn’t confident that heading for Wayward Pines was the safest play. The abbies wanted to feed. They would stay where the people were, or at least where they’d been. Then again, if she and Ben made it into town, they could hole up inside a house. Lock themselves into a basement. If the abbies found them in the forest, there’d be nowhere to hide. It was already getting late, and she didn’t relish the thought of sleeping out here in the woods, in the dark.
Theresa said, “I think we go back into town.”
“But that’s where the abbies are.”
“I know of a place where we can hide. Wait this out until your dad fixes it.”
Theresa started off into the trees, Ben following close on her heels.
“Why are you going so slowly?” he asked.
“Because we don’t want to step on any branches. We don’t want to make a sound. If something comes our way, we need to be able to hear it early enough to hide.”
They went on, winding their way down through the trees.
They heard no more screams, human or abby.
Nothing but their own footsteps in the pine needles, their heavy exhalations, and the whoosh of wind pushing through the tops of the trees.
He followed Alan through the glass doors. They took the stairwell up to the second floor, came off the landing, and headed down the corridor into Level 2.
As they approached surveillance, Alan pulled a keycard out of his pocket.
When he swiped it at the door, a red dot lit up above the reader.
Alan tried again, same result.
He banged on the door.
“It’s Alan Spear. Open up.”
Alan stepped back, fired four rounds into the card reader, and then put a size thirteen boot into the center of the door.
It burst open.
Ethan let Alan move in first.
The room was dark, illuminated only by the glow from the wall of monitors.
No one at the console.
Ethan waited in the threshold as Alan approached the inner door.
He tried his keycard again: green light.
Dead bolt retracting.