The footsteps drew near.
He had his head tucked between his knees.
Couldn’t see a thing.
Then the footsteps were right at his head, inches away on the other side of the door.
They didn’t trail away.
They had stopped.
The urge to lift his head to see what was happening so strong it nearly overcame him.
He wondered if the man was spotlighting the interior of the Crown Vic.
Wondered how well the light would pass through the rear tinted windows.
If he couldn’t get a decent glimpse inside, would he just open the door?
The footsteps went on, but Ethan didn’t move—waited another five minutes until he could no longer hear them.
Finally, he sat up and stared through the windshield.
The men were gone.
He didn’t see anyone.
Ethan eased the door open and crawled down onto the rock. If he strained to listen, he could hear voices, but they were much farther off, in some distant region of the cavern.
A hundred feet of crawling brought Ethan to the edge of the parking lot.
Straight ahead stood the cavern wall and the opening to a tunnel broad enough for two cars to travel abreast.
Ethan rose up onto his feet and crossed to the tunnel.
It was empty and well lighted and fell away from where he stood in a straight shot that descended at a ten or twelve percent grade over pristine pavement.
A sign had been affixed to the rock above the arched opening—white lettering on green background, just like the signage of the American interstate highway system.
But it listed only one destination...
WAYWARD PINES 3.5
Ethan glanced back at all the cars, thinking maybe he could borrow one of the older models, which were much easier to hotwire.
Something caught his eye—a chill blue light coming from a glass door in the rock fifty yards away.
The sound of footsteps and voices came back into range, still a good distance away, beyond the cars. Ethan thought he saw the beam of a flashlight strike one of the reservoirs, but he couldn’t be sure.
He kept close to the wall of the cavern.
It curved gently as he jogged alongside it toward the glass door.
Five feet away, he stopped.
As the door slid open, he read a single word stenciled on the glass:
Ethan stepped inside.
The door zipped closed behind him.
It was much colder, just a few degrees above freezing, and his breath plumed in the chill. The light was frigid blue, like sunshine passing through sea ice, and the air was murky with a pale gas that hovered ten feet above, thick enough to completely mask the ceiling like a cloud. And yet this room had the clean, rinsed smell of a post-snowstorm night—odorless and pure.
The noise of hissing gas and soft beeps broke the silence.
Approximately the dimensions of a grocery store, the room housed row after row of charcoal-colored units—hundreds and hundreds of them—each the size of a drink machine, each spitting a white stream of gas from its roof like a smoking chimney.
Ethan walked down the first aisle and faced one of the machines.
A two-inch-wide panel of glass ran down the middle, nothing to see behind it.
To the left of the glass, a keypad was framed with several gauges and readouts, all of them zeroed out.
To the right of the glass, he studied a digital nameplate:
JANET CATHERINE PALMER
SUSPENSION DATE: 2.3.82
RESIDENT: 11 YEARS, 5 MONTHS, 9 DAYS
Ethan heard the door slide open, turned to see who’d entered, but the waves of gas blocked his view. He moved on down the aisle, deeper into the fog, glancing at the nameplate on each machine he passed, the suspension dates progressing steadily through the 1980s.
One stopped him altogether as voices mixed in with the sound of escaping gas and beeps.
Behind the center pane of glass, it looked as if the interior of the machine had been packed with black sand. Just barely poking through, he saw a white finger, motionless, its tip resting against the glass beneath a fingerprint smudge.
The gauges displayed what appeared to be a flat-lined heart monitor and a temperature reading of 21.1111°C.
BRIAN LANEY ROGERS
SUSPENSION DATE: 5.5.84
INTEGRATION ATTEMPTS: 2
The next machine down stood empty, but Ethan recognized the first name, wondered if it was her:
BEVERLY LYNN SHORT
SUSPENSION DATE: 10.3.85
INTEGRATION ATTEMPTS: 3
There was someone moving quickly toward him now. He tore himself away from Beverly’s unit, mind reeling as he ran to the end of the aisle and started up the next.
What the hell did this mean?
There must have been a half dozen people in the room now, all chasing him, but he didn’t care.
Just needed to see one more unit.
Had to see it.
And on the fourth row, midway down the aisle, with voices closing in, he stopped.
Stared at the empty machine.
His empty machine.
JOHN ETHAN BURKE
SUSPENSION DATE: 9.24.12
INTEGRATION ATTEMPTS: 3
TERMINATION IN PROGRESS
Reading his name didn’t make it any more real.
He stood there not knowing what to do with the information in front of him.
Trying to piece together what it meant.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, he couldn’t care less about running.
He knew this voice, although it took him a moment to link it back to the memory.
To the face it belonged to.
“We need to talk, Ethan!”
Yes, we do.
It was Jenkins. The psychiatrist.
Ethan started walking.
He felt like he’d been unraveling for days, but now he was getting down to the end of the string, wondering what exactly was going to happen when it all ran out.
He wasn’t even looking at names anymore, or to see which machine was occupied, which one empty.
Only one thing mattered, one terrible suspicion gnawing his guts out.
“We don’t want to hurt you! No one touches him!”
It was all he could do to make his legs work as he approached the last machine on the last row in the farthest corner of the room.
Men followed him now.
He could sense them close behind in the fog.
No chance at escaping now, but then, did it really matter anymore?
He arrived at the last machine and put his hand against the glass to brace himself.
Surrounded by black sand, a man’s face pressed against that narrow window down the front.
No breath to fog the inside the glass.
Ethan read the nameplate and the year of suspension—2032. He turned around as Dr. Jenkins emerged out of the fog, the small, unassuming man flanked by five of those black-clad men dressed in something approaching full riot gear.