Between sips, he glanced downstream.
Aside from the madness of the water, nothing moved on either shore.
Ethan wanted to sleep, could’ve lain here on the rocks and drifted off in seconds, but he knew that would be foolish.
Must find shelter before I lose the light of the moon.
Before I lose the ability to walk.
Already, clouds had begun to roll back in front of the moon.
He forced himself to stand.
A river crossing here, particularly in his weakened state, would be fatal. He’d have to seek out shelter on this side of the river, but that was going to be a challenge. On the other side, an old pine forest swept up a mountainside for several thousand feet into roiling clouds. In such a forest, he felt confident he’d have been able to find someplace to hole up for the night, even if nothing more than covering himself under a latticework of downed limbs. You lay enough of them on top of you and they’d provide a shelter from the rain, maybe even trap enough body heat to create an oasis of warmth.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
On Ethan’s side of the river, the bank climbed steeply for forty feet to the base of that same red-rock cliff that encircled Wayward Pines.
And above that—ledges upon ledges ascending into darkness.
He was in no condition for a climb.
Ethan staggered on.
Water sloshing in his stomach.
He could feel his feet—swollen and throbbing in his boots. Knew he should’ve stopped to empty the water out of them an hour ago, but he’d been concerned that if he sat down, he wouldn’t have the strength to relace them and continue on.
The going was getting more difficult on this side, with little in the way of level ground, all of it rocky and steeply sloping.
He passed into a grove of soaring pines.
The rocky ground gave way to soft, moist earth covered in a cushion of dead pine needles, Ethan thinking, Worse comes to worse, I’ll sleep here. Wasn’t ideal—too close to the river, no branches to cover himself with, and anyone tracking him couldn’t help but find him. But at least he’d have some protection under the canopies of these ancient pines.
He took one last look around, having already decided that if he saw nothing of interest, this would be home for the night.
Ethan glanced up the slope that led to the base of the cliff.
He thought he saw a patch of blackness up there.
Didn’t think, didn’t debate, just climbed.
Scrambling on all fours up through the pines and then out of them onto a field of shattered rock.
Steeper and steeper.
He was panting again, sweat pouring down his face, his eyes stinging with it.
Near the cliff, the rock became looser and finer, his feet sliding with every step like he was climbing a sand dune.
He reached the cliff.
The darkness setting back in, all but a cuticle of the moon shrouded in clouds, and the air growing heavy with the smell of returning rain.
There it was—that patch of black he’d spotted from the river was a recess in the cliff. It extended back for five or six feet, the interior smooth and dry, protected from the elements.
Ethan climbed up onto the ledge and crawled inside.
The back wall had a natural slope, and he leaned against it, the darkening world framed by the walls of the little alcove. He couldn’t see the river from his vantage point, the sound of it vastly diminished to something like a loud whisper.
As the moonlight died, the pine forest on the other side of the river dimmed steadily away, leaving Ethan once more in absolute darkness.
It began to rain.
He sat up, and with trembling fingers, tried to unlace the boots he’d taken from the man he’d killed in the apartment. Took him several minutes to finally unravel the knot and pull off the boots. Dumped at least a pint of water out of each and then peeled off the layers of socks and wrung them out and laid them on the rock to dry.
His clothes were sopping wet.
He took off the hoodie, the T-shirt, the jeans, even his briefs. Spent ten minutes sitting naked in the alcove, twisting water out of the clothes until they were only damp.
He draped the hoodie over his chest, the long-sleeved T over his legs, and folded the jeans into a pillow. Lying against the back wall of the cave, he turned over onto his side and shut his eyes.
Never in his life had he been so cold.
At first, he feared it would keep him from sleep, his body shivering so violently in a failing effort to warm itself that he had to grasp the sleeves of the hoodie so he didn’t shake it off.
But as cold as he was, he was even more exhausted.
Within five minutes, sleep won out.
Ethan’s right ankle is shackled and chained to an eyebolt in the floor.
He sits at a ramshackle desk that holds three objects...
A blank sheet of A4 paper.
A black ballpoint pen.
And an hourglass whose black grains of sand are cascading from one bulb into another.
Aashif has advised Ethan that when the sand runs out, he will return, and if at that time what Ethan has written on the paper doesn’t delight him, Ethan will die by lingchi.
But Ethan knows that even if he had specific, high-clearance knowledge of a major upcoming offensive, wrote down dates, locations, targets, details of the anticipated ground strike and air support, it wouldn’t be enough.
Nothing will ever be enough, because no matter what he writes, he will die and die horribly.
All he knows of Aashif is his voice and those brown, evil eyes in which he senses not a desire to learn information but to inflict pain.
The guise of interrogation is merely foreplay.
Something to get Aashif hard and wet.
He is a sadist. Probably al-Qaida.
Somehow, Ethan didn’t allow that full realization to set in as he hung by his wrists in the torture room, but sitting here alone at the desk in the quiet, it hits him full force.
No matter what he writes, in a little under an hour, his life will become infinitely worse.
There is a single window in the room, but it has been boarded over with two-by-sixes.
Through tiny cracks between the panels of wood, brilliant strings of Iraqi sunlight tear through.
The heat is scalding, sweat streaming out of every pore.
The hyperrealness of the moment becomes unbearable, Ethan overwhelmed with sensory input.
—A dog barking outside.
—The distant laughter of children.
—Miles away, the eerie, cicada-like clicking of a gunfight.
—A fly buzzing at his left ear.