Two months after their arrival, the first Mrs. Fisher climbed one of the cliffs on the northern end of town and leapt five hundred feet to her death.
It had torn Brad up, but otherwise, his integration had gone smoothly. No escape attempts. No erratic behavior. There was only one surveillance report in the man’s file. A couple of exterior cameras had caught him on a later-than-approved walk one night following a fight with Megan. The report had ultimately received an NSA (No Suspicious Activity) rating, and Brad had never raised suspicion again.
“How’s the new job treating you?” Brad asked.
“No complaints. Finally starting to get my sea legs. Tell me about your law firm.”
“Oh, it’s nothing special. Just my secretary and me. I call it a ‘door practice.’ I handle whatever walks in the door.”
Like anyone has ever walked in your door.
They stood in the semi-dark in the shadow of the cliff and drank.
After a while, Brad said, “Sometimes, I see mountain sheep up on those cliff ledges.”
“Oh yeah? Never seen one.”
Two minutes of silence elapsed and then Ethan commented on their garden.
The punctuations of silence weren’t completely uncomfortable. Ethan was beginning to understand that in Wayward Pines these periods of shared quiet were normal, expected, inevitable. Some people, by nature, were better at surface conversation than others. Better at walking the line, steering clear of forbidden topics. There was much more thinking before speaking. Like living in a novel of manners. Ethan had encountered one or two residents who could engage with seemingly effortless speed on a deep well of approved subject matter. But as a whole, conversations in Pines unfurled at a measured, almost plodding pace, with a rhythm distinctly alien to the world before.
It had been some time since Ethan had had liquor, and he already felt lightheaded. A sudden distance from the moment that troubled him. He set the glass of scotch on the fence and hoped it wouldn’t be too much longer before their wives called them in to the table.
Dinner was almost nice.
They kept the small talk going and the conversation only stalled a handful of times.
Even then, between the clink of silverware and Hecter Gaither’s piano playing on the tube radio, the silence was not unpleasant.
Ethan was fairly certain he had seen this room before on one of Pilcher’s monitors. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was a camera embedded in the drywall in the corner of the ceiling above the china hutch.
He knew for a fact that gatherings of three or more received monitoring priority from Pilcher’s surveillance techs.
They were being watched at this very moment.
After dessert, they played Monopoly. Board games were hugely popular at dinner parties. With clearly defined rules, they allowed people to laugh, joke, and interact with more spontaneity and with a shared sense of purpose and competition.
Men versus women.
Theresa and Megan snagged Park Place and Boardwalk early on.
Ethan and Brad focused on infrastructure—railroads, utilities, waterworks.
A little before nine thirty, Ethan landed their tiny metal shoe on Boardwalk.
The Burkes waved back at the Fishers from the driveway—the young couple standing arm in arm in the illumination of the porch light. They yelled back and forth how much fun was had. Made promises to get together again soon.
Theresa and Ethan walked home.
There was no one out but the two of them.
A cricket chirped from a hidden speaker in a bush they passed, and Ethan caught himself pretending that it was real. That all of this was real.
Theresa rubbed her arms.
“Want my jacket?” Ethan asked.
“Nice couple,” Ethan said.
“Please don’t ever do that with me, darling.”
She glanced up at Ethan in the dark. “You know.”
“Surface conversation. Filling the silence with bullshit. I do it every day of my life, and I will continue to do as I’m told. But I can’t stand it with you.”
Ethan flinched internally.
Wondered if any microphone in the vicinity was capturing their conversation. From his limited experience in the mountain and studying surveillance reports, he knew it was hit or miss whether conversations were legible outside. Even if they were being recorded, it wasn’t like Theresa was openly violating any rule. But she was straying dangerously close into gray territory. She was acknowledging the strangeness and voicing dissatisfaction with the way of things. At the very least, their last exchange would generate a report.
“Be careful.” Ethan said it at just above a whisper.
She let go of his hand and stopped in the middle of the street, stared up at him through eyes beginning to sheet over with tears.
“Around who?” she asked. “You?”
In the middle of the night, Ethan’s phone rang.
He went downstairs, answered.
“I’m sorry about the late call,” Pilcher said.
“It’s all right. Everything okay?”
“I had a word with Alan this evening. He said you two spoke in the morgue today.”
“Yeah, he was helpful.”
“This is hard,” Pilcher said, his voice turning hoarse as if he’d begun to cry. “Ethan, I need you to know something.”
The thousand-seat auditorium was at capacity and the lights shining up from the orchestra pit burned his eyes. Twenty years ago, lecturing to a full house would’ve given him a rush to last for days, but he was long over the thrill. This lecture tour, beyond generating much-needed funds, wasn’t pushing him any closer to completing his work. Lately, all he wanted was to be in his lab. With only seven years left in this world, he needed to make every second count.
As the applause died down, he forced a smile, looked up from his notes, and rested his hands on the lectern.
He could do the opening by memory. Hell, he could do it all by memory, this being his tenth and last talk on the circuit.
He began, “Suspended animation is not a concept of twentieth-century science. We didn’t invent it. It belongs, like all the great mysteries of the universe, to nature. Consider the seed of a lotus plant. It can still germinate after thirteen hundred years. Bacterial spores have been discovered in bee amber, perfectly preserved and viable after tens of millions of years. And recently, scientists from West Chester University successfully revived bacteria that had been trapped for 250 million years inside salt crystals, deep underground.