Day #5312

From: Alyssa Pilcher

To: David Pilcher

Mission #1055 Contact Report #3

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

At 1400, I passed Ballinger walking south on Main Street near the intersection of Sixth. I shook my head. No further contact was made on this date.

Day #5313

From: Alyssa Pilcher

To: David Pilcher

Mission #1055

Contact Report #4

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

At 1500, I passed Ballinger walking south on the riverside trail. I nodded to her. She smiled. No further contact was made on this date.

Day #5314

From: Alyssa Pilcher

To: David Pilcher

Mission #1055

Contact Report #5

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

Ballinger returned to my stand at the gardens with a second bell pepper. The note inside read: “Tonight. 1:00 a.m. The cemetery mausoleum. Leave your chip in your bedside table. Wear a jacket with a hood.” Will follow up with a new report tomorrow.

Ethan moved through the Level 3 corridor with his escort in tow.

Halfway down, he stopped at a pair of double doors. Through the glass, he saw a full-court basketball game in progress. Shirts versus skins. The impact of the ball on the hardwood. The squeak of shoes. For a millisecond, he had the mad thought of joining in the game.

They walked on.

“Mind if I ask you something, Marcus?”

“Shoot.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“And how long have you lived here in the superstructure?”

“Mr. Pilcher brought me out of suspension two years ago to replace a guard who was killed on a mission out beyond the fence.”

“Everyone in the mountain knew what they were getting themselves into when they signed on with Pilcher, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“So why’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

Ethan stopped outside the doors to a cafeteria.

He faced Marcus.

“Why’d you throw your old life away for this?”

“I didn’t throw anything away, Mr. Burke. In my life before, you know what I was?”

“What?”

“A tweaker and a drunk.”

“And what? Pilcher found you? Gave you a chance to be all you could be?”

“I met him just out of prison—a three-year stint for vehicular manslaughter. I was high and drunk and killed a family on New Year’s Eve. He saw something in me I never knew was there.”

“Didn’t you have a family? Friends? A life that was at least your own? What made you trust him in the first place?”

“I don’t know, but he was right, wasn’t he? We’re a part of something here, Mr. Burke. Something that matters. All of us.”

“Here’s the thing, Marcus, and I don’t want you to ever forget it. Nobody f**king asked me or anyone in that valley if we wanted to be a part of this.”

Ethan walked on.

At the bottom of the stairwell leading out into Level 1, a noise stopped him.

Marcus was already swiping his card at the glass-door entrance to the cavern.

Ethan started down the corridor.

“Mr. Burke, where are you going?”

The noise was something screaming.

Banshee-like.

Tortured.

Inhuman.

He’d heard it before and it chilled him to his core.

“Mr. Burke!”

Ethan was jogging down the corridor now, the screams getting louder.

“Mr. Burke!”

He stopped at a wide window.

Stared through the plate glass into a laboratory.

There were two men in white coats and David Pilcher.

They surrounded an aberration.

The creature had been strapped to a steel gurney.

Stout leather restraints buckled down across its legs, below its knees and above.

One across its torso.

Another across its shoulders.

A fifth securing its head.

Its thick wrists and ankles had been clamped down to the sides of the gurney with heavy-gauge steel bracelets, and the thing convulsed against the leather straps as if in the throes of electrocution.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Marcus said, sidling up to Ethan.

“What are they doing to it?”

“Come on, let’s go. Mr. Pilcher won’t be happy if he sees—”

Ethan pounded on the glass.

Marcus said, “Oh geez.”

The men turned.

The two scientists scowling.

Pilcher said something to them and then walked over to the lab entrance. When the door opened, the abby’s screams amplified, echoing up and down the corridor like something calling out from hell.

The doors whisked closed.

“Ethan, how can I help you?”

“I was on my way out. I heard screams.”

Pilcher turned toward the plate glass. The abby had calmed down or worn itself out. Only its head swiveled under the strap, its screams reduced to croaks. Ethan could see its massive heart beating furiously through its translucent skin. There was no detail. Only color and form and motion, all obscured as if behind frosted glass.

“Quite a specimen, no?” Pilcher said. “He’s a three-hundred-seventeen-pound bull. One of the largest males we’ve ever seen. You’d think he’d be alpha male of a sizeable swarm, but my sniper spotted him coming down the canyon this morning, all by his lonesome. Took four hundred milligrams of Telazol to bring him down. That’s the full-grown adult male jaguar dosage. And he was still only sluggish by the time we reached him.”

“How long did that keep him sedated?”

“These tranqs only work for about three hours. After that, you better have them locked up, because boy do they come back angry.”

“He’s a big boy.”

“Bigger than the one you tangled with for sure. I think it’s fair to say if you’d met this bull in the canyon, we wouldn’t be speaking right now.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“Getting ready to remove a gland at the base of its neck.”

“Why?”

“Abbies communicate through pheromones. These are airborne signals that give information and trigger responses.”

“Don’t humans do the same thing?”

“Yeah, but it’s at a much more instinctual, broader level for us. Sexual attraction. Mother-infant recognition. Abbies use pheromones like we use words.”

“So why are you effectively cutting out that thing’s tongue?”

“Because the last thing we want is for him to tell all his friends he’s in trouble. Don’t get me wrong. I love the fence. I trust the fence. But several hundred abbies on the other side trying to figure out how to save their brother makes me a little uncomfortable.” Pilcher glanced down at Ethan’s waist. “You still aren’t wearing your revolver.”