Someone stands over him wearing a surgical mask, face a blur.
He doesn’t know where he is or, for that matter, who he is.
A clear mask is lowered to his mouth.
The voice—a woman’s—urges him, “Take a long, deep breath, and keep breathing in.”
The gas he inhales is warm, concentrated oxygen. It flows down his windpipe and hits his lungs with a welcome burst of heat. Though her mouth is covered, the woman leaning over him is smiling at him with her eyes.
He nods. Her face grows sharper. And her voice . . . Something familiar there. Not the timbre itself, but the way he feels toward it. Protective. Almost paternal.
“That’ll pass soon. I know you’re feeling a lot of disorientation.”
“That’s completely normal. Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know who you are?”
“That’s okay too. You’ve only had blood in your veins for thirty-five minutes. It usually takes a couple of hours to find your bearings.”
He stares up at the lights overhead: long fluorescents, far too bright.
“Don’t try to talk yet. Would you like me to explain what’s happening?”
He thinks that piece of information sounds right. The name feels like his own on a level he can’t quite grasp—at the very least, like a star that belongs in his sky.
“You’re not in a hospital. You haven’t been in a car accident or suffered a heart attack. Nothing like that.”
He wants to say that he can’t move. That he feels as cold as death and afraid.
She continues. “You’ve just come out of suspended animation. Your vitals are all in the green. You’ve been sleeping for eighteen hundred years in one of a thousand suspension units, which you created. We’re all so excited. Your experiment worked. The crew came through at a ninety-seven percent survival rate. Better by a few points than you projected, and with no critical losses. Congratulations.”
Pilcher lies on the gurney, blinking at the lights.
The heart monitor he’s attached to begins to beep faster and faster, but it isn’t from fear or stress.
Within five seconds, it all clicks in.
Who he is.
Where he is.
Why he is.
Pilcher reaches a hand up—heavy as a chunk of granite—and pulls the mask away from his mouth. He stares up at the nurse. For the first time in nearly two millennia, he speaks, raspy but clear: “Has anyone gone outside?”
She removes her mask. It’s Pam. Twenty years old and ghost-like in the wake of her long, long sleep.
And yet . . . still so very beautiful.
She smiles. “You know I wouldn’t let that happen, David. We waited for you.”
Six hours later, Pilcher is on his feet and moving unsteadily down the Level 1 corridor, flanked by Ted Upshaw, Pam, Arnold Pope, and a man named Francis Leven. Leven’s official title is “steward” of the superstructure, and he’s talking a mile a minute.
“. . . had one hull breach in the ark seven hundred eighty-three years ago, but the vacuum sensors caught it.”
“I’m running a battery of tests, but everything appears to have come through fully preserved.”
“How much of the crew has been awakened?”
They reach the automatic glass doors that open into the five-million-square-foot cavern that serves as a warehouse for provisions and building supplies. Affectionately called “the ark,” it is one of the great feats of human engineering and ambition.
Massive globe lights hang down from the ceiling, stretching back into the ark as far as the eye can see.
They walk toward a Humvee parked at the entrance to a tunnel, and already Pilcher is breathless, his legs threatening to seize up with cramps.
The tunnel’s fluorescent luminaries aren’t yet operational, and the Humvee plunges down the steep, fifteen-percent grade into abject darkness, nothing to light its way but the lonely headlights blazing off the wet rock walls.
Pilcher rides up front beside his henchman.
The disorientation is still present, but retreating.
His people have told him that the suspension lasted eighteen hundred years, but with each breath he takes, that seems less and less possible. In truth, it feels as though only hours have passed since that New Year’s Eve party in 2013, when he and his entire crew drank Dom Pérignon, stripped naked, and climbed into their suspension pods.
His ears release pressure as they descend.
Glancing over his shoulder, Pilcher stares at Leven in the backseat—a lithe young man with the face of a baby but the eyes of a sage.
“We’re going to be safe breathing in this atmosphere?” Pilcher asks.
“It has altered,” Leven says, “but only slightly. Nitrogen and oxygen, thank God, are still the main components. But the makeup is now one percent more oxygen, one percent less nitrogen. Greenhouse gases have returned to pre–Industrial Age levels.”
“I trust you’ve already begun to depressurize the superstructure?”
“That was the first order of business. We’re already sucking in air from outside.”
“It’ll be a few days until our systems are fully powered up and debugged.”
“Where does our electron clock place us in terms of the Christian calendar?”
“Today is February 14, 3813, in the year of our Lord.” Leven grins. “Happy Valentine’s Day, all.”
Arnold Pope brings the Humvee to a full stop, its high beams shining against the back side of the titanium portal that has protected the tunnel, the superstructure, and all who sleep within from the world outside.