“I’m here. In the mountain. What does it matter?”
“It matters, Ethan, because I asked you to do it. It’s a simple thing, isn’t it? Wear a gun at all times. Look the goddamn part.”
Ethan stared back through the glass.
One of the scientists was leaning over the abby’s face, shining a penlight into its left eye as it hissed.
It looked to be between six and seven feet tall.
Arms and legs like cords of intertwined steel fiber.
Ethan couldn’t take his eyes off the beast.
Its black talons as long as his fingers.
“Are they intelligent?” Ethan asked.
“Oh my, yes.”
“As smart as chimpanzees?”
“Their brains are larger than ours. Because of obvious communication barriers, testing their intelligence—on our terms—becomes problematic. I’ve attempted a battery of social and physical tests, and it’s not that they can’t do them. They just refuse. It would be like me trying to test you and you telling me to stick it up my ass sideways. That sort of a response. We did capture a somewhat compliant specimen several months ago. She’s down in cage nine. Low hostility rating. We call her Margaret.”
“I gave her recall tests sitting across a table from her in her cage. Now I did have two guards behind me pointing shotguns loaded with twelve-gauge slugs at her chest. But still—she displayed no signs of aggression.”
“How’d you test her?”
“With a simple child’s memory game. Walk with me.”
Pilcher knocked on the glass and held up one finger to the scientists.
They moved down the corridor toward the glass doors at the far end, Marcus trailing ten feet behind.
“I use small cardboard tiles. One side is blank. The other has a photograph—a frog, a bicycle, a glass of milk. I arrange them all picture-side up on the table and then let Margaret see them. We start easy. Five tiles. Then ten. She gets two minutes to study them. Then I turn them over so she can’t see the picture. I reach into a bag containing duplicates of the tiles. I show her, for instance, the one with the glass of milk. She touches her talon to the corresponding tile on the table, and I turn it over to see if she got it right.”
“How’d she do?”
“Ethan, we worked our way up to one hundred and twenty tiles, with Margaret only getting thirty seconds to memorize their positions.”
“And she got them all right?”
Pilcher nodded, pride in his voice. “Total recall.” He stopped and pointed at a small window in a door whose only point of access appeared to be a keycard entry. “I keep her in here. Would you like to meet Margaret?”
“Not even a little bit.”
There was a glare off the glass from the overhead fluorescent lights.
Ethan cupped his hands around his face and stared into the cage.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Pilcher said. “But I don’t believe she’s an anomaly. Her intelligence I mean. She’s only different in temperament. Which is not to say that she wouldn’t tear my throat out if she thought she could get away with it.”
The cage was only floor, walls, ceiling, monster.
The thing called “Margaret” sat in the corner with its legs curled into its chest. It watched the window in the door through small, opaque eyes that never blinked.
“I’ve already taught her fifty-two signs. She’s a natural learner. Wants to communicate. Unfortunately, her larynx is structured differently than ours to the point of making speech, at least in the sense which we understand it, impossible.”
The aberration looked almost meditative.
It struck Ethan as infinitely more unsettling to see one sitting still and docile.
Pilcher said, “I don’t know if you saw my report this morning.”
“No, I came straight here.”
“We’re bringing a prospective resident out of suspension. Wayne Johnson. It’s his first day. He’s probably waking up in the hospital as we speak. Pam’s handling orientation. We’ll see how it goes, but you may be called upon to assist in the coming days.”
“I hope Ted in surveillance was helpful.”
“So you’ll be reaching out to your old partner soon?”
“Tonight or tomorrow.”
“Excellent. You have a game plan?”
“Working on it.”
“You will report to me every day on your progress.”
Ethan said, “David, about your phone call last night.”
“Forget it. I just thought you should know.”
“I wanted to tell you again how sorry I am for your loss. If you need anything…”
Pilcher stared at Ethan, his eyes raging but his voice cool. “Find who did this to my little girl. That’s all I need from you. Nothing more.”
Pam was sitting on the end of the bed in her classic nurse’s uniform when Wayne Johnson woke up.
For a long time, he lay motionless under the comforter, blinking at the ceiling.
Finally, he sat up and looked at her.
He was shirtless, balding.
Forty-two years old.
Wayne had come to Wayward Pines, Idaho, on August 8, 1992, as a traveling encyclopedia salesman. He’d arrived late and knocked on five doors. In the evening, after one sale, he’d checked into the Wayward Pines Hotel and then walked to a family-style restaurant. En route, he was struck by a motorcycle in the crosswalk, a perfect hit and run—enough head trauma to render him unconscious, but not enough to kill or permanently damage his brain.
In light of the death of Peter McCall two nights ago at the fence, the town was primed for the introduction of a new resident.
Wayne Johnson’s skin still looked gray. He was only ten hours post-suspension blood transfusion, but his color would be back by day’s end.
Pam smiled and said, “Hello there.”
He squinted at her, his vision probably still blurred as his system rebooted.
His eyes darted around the room.
They were on the fourth floor of the hospital. The window was cracked and the white linen curtains pushed in and out as the breeze ebbed and flowed, the rhythm as steady as if the room itself was breathing.
Wayne Johnson said, “Where am I?”
He pulled the covers up around his neck, but it wasn’t modesty that drove him.