The back of someone’s head filled the lower part of the screens.

“Is that Alyssa?” Ethan asked.

“Yes.”

Ted upped the volume.

Kate: “No more apples?”

Alyssa: “No, they went fast.”

Kate reached into her basket and handed something to Alyssa.

“Freeze it,” Ethan said.

The image held—Kate’s arm outstretched.

“What is that?” Ethan asked.

“A green apple?”

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Ted rolled video.

Kate: “You’re always bringing the loveliest fruits and veggies to us. I thought I’d bring you something from my garden.”

Alyssa: “What a gorgeous pepper.”

Kate: “Thank you.”

Alyssa: “I’ll have this tonight.”

Kate moved out of frame.

“Wanna see it again?” Ted asked.

“No, play the next one.”

They watched Kate and Alyssa rendezvous three more times.

Next day, on Main Street, the women passed each other and Alyssa shook her head.

The day after, at the riverside park, their paths crossed again.

This time, Alyssa nodded.

“Wonder what that was all about?” Ted said. He glanced at Ethan. “Any ideas?”

“Not yet.”

Ted played Alyssa and Kate’s last encounter.

It happened the day of Alyssa’s death at the community gardens, and the interaction was identical to their first.

Kate stopped at Alyssa’s vegetable stand.

They exchanged a few words.

Then Kate handed her another bell pepper.

Ted paused the video.

Ethan said, “There’s probably a note in that pepper.”

“That says what?”

“I don’t know. Meeting place and time? Instructions for Alyssa to remove her microchip? Explain something to me. I understand that when these Wanderers remove their chips you can’t track them. But don’t the cameras still pick up their movement?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Our cameras only key off microchip proximity and motion.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Look, there’s no way to monitor this town using the thousands of cameras all running at once. Most of the time, we’d just be scrolling through empty space. So our cameras key off the microchips. In other words, until a chip moves within range of a sensor, the camera is in sleep mode. It only transmits a video feed when a microchip pings it. And even then, when a chip is motionless for fifteen seconds, the camera reverts to sleep mode.”

“So what you’re saying is—”

“The cameras don’t run all the time. When a resident removes their microchip, for all intents and purposes, they become a ghost. Somehow, these Wanderers have figured out a way to game the system.”

“Show me.”

Ted brought up a new image, said, “Here’s the last thirty seconds we have of Kate on the night Alyssa was murdered.”

On the screens, a bedroom appeared.

Kate entered the room wearing a nightgown that fell to her knees.

Her husband followed.

They climbed into bed together, killed the lights.

The overhead camera switched to night vision.

The Ballingers lay absolutely still in bed.

After fifteen seconds, the feed went dark.

Next time it picked up, morning light filled the room, and both Kate and her husband were sitting up in bed.

“Reinserting their chips,” Ethan said.

“Yes. But all night, from approximately ten fifteen until seven thirty the next morning, they were ghosts. And in that period of time, Alyssa Pilcher lost her life.”

“This is why Pilcher really runs the fêtes, isn’t it?” Ethan looked at Ted. “Am I right? It’s not only because he wants the town to police itself. It’s because when someone removes their chip, he actually needs our help to find them.”

Ethan called for Marcus.

When his escort arrived, Ethan said, “I want to see Alyssa’s quarters.”

They climbed the stairwell two flights to Level 4.

Five steps into the corridor, Ethan knew which doorway opened into Alyssa’s room by the bunches of fresh flowers scattered across the floor. He wondered if Pilcher had sent someone into town for them. All around the doorframe the wall had been papered with notes, cards, photographs, banners.

Whoever and whatever else Alyssa had been, at least inside this mountain, she was a loved woman.

“Sir,” the escort said, “I got those reports you asked for.”

Marcus handed Ethan a manila folder.

“I’d like to go inside,” Ethan said.

“Of course.”

Marcus took out his keycard and swiped it through the scanner.

Ethan turned the doorknob, walked inside.

It was a tight living space.

Windowless.

No more than a hundred square feet.

A single bed had been positioned against the far wall. There was a desk. A chest of drawers. A wall of bookshelves, half of which held books, the other half framed photographs.

Ethan studied them, the photos all of the same woman at varying ages—young girl to fifty-year-old woman.

Alyssa’s mother?

Ethan sat down on Alyssa’s bed.

The wall across from the bookshelves was a masterful mural of a beach—palm trees, green water over dark reefs, white sand, a sky that went on forever.

Ethan leaned back into the pillows, kicked his boots up on the bed.

Smiled.

From this angle, when you stared at the mural it felt like you were there, reclining in the sand, staring off into that false line on the horizon where the sea touched the sky.

The folder was entitled “Mission #1055 Contact Log.”

He opened it.

Five pages.

Five reports.

Day #5293

From: Alyssa Pilcher

To: David Pilcher

Mission #1055

Contact Report #1

Subject: Resident 308, a/k/a Kate Ballinger

First contact made at approximately 1125 at the corner of Main and Ninth. Note slipped to Kate Ballinger that read, “Sick of being watched.” Brief eye contact made. No words spoken. No further contact was made on this date.

Day #5311

From: Alyssa Pilcher

To: David Pilcher

Mission #1055

Contact Report #2

Subject: Resident 308, a/k/a Kate Ballinger

Eighteen days post-initial contact, Ballinger approached me at the gardens and gave me a bell pepper. The pepper had been sliced open and there was a note inside that read: “Tracking chip on hamstring in your left leg. Cut it out in a closet, but keep with you until further notice.” Two potential rendezvous times were given for me to confirm I had removed the chip. The first at 1400 on Day 5312. The next at 1500 on Day 5313. If I failed to remove the chip by Day 5313, we would have no further interaction. No further contact was made on this date.