Jenkins gave a slight pause, Ethan realizing there was something in him that almost didn’t want to hear the answer.
“One thousand eight hundred fourteen years...”
Ethan let go of Jenkins’s shirt.
He staggered back.
“...and eleven days.”
Looked at the ruin.
Looked at the sky.
“You should get off your feet,” Jenkins said. “Let’s sit.” As Ethan eased down into a bed of ferns, Jenkins glanced up at Pope and Pam. “You guys give us a minute, all right? But don’t go far.”
They walked off.
Jenkins sat down across from Ethan.
“Your mind is racing,” he said. “Will you try not to think for a minute and just listen to me?”
It had rained here recently—Ethan could feel the dampness of the ground through the pair of brown fatigues they’d dressed him in.
“Let me ask you something,” Jenkins said. “When you think of the greatest breakthrough discovery in history, what comes to mind?”
“Come on, humor me.”
“Space travel, theory of relativity, I don’t—”
“No. The greatest discovery in the history of mankind was learning how man would become extinct.”
“As a species?”
“Precisely. In 1971, a young geneticist named David Pilcher made a startling discovery. Keep in mind this was before RNA splicing, before DNA polymorphism. He realized the human genome, which is essentially the entirety of our heredity information, which programs cell growth, was changing, becoming corrupted.”
“By what?” Jenkins laughed. “By everything. By what we’d already done to the earth, and by all that we would do in the coming centuries. Mammal extinction. Deforestation. Loss of polar sea ice. Ozone. Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Acid rain. Ocean dead zones. Overfishing. Offshore oil drilling. Wars. The creation of a billion gasoline-burning automobiles. The nuclear disasters—Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl. The two-thousand-plus intentional nuclear bomb detonations in the name of weapons testing. Toxic waste dumping. Exxon-Valdez. BP’s Gulf oil spill. All the poisons we put into our food and water every day.
“Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve treated our world like it was a hotel room and we were rock stars. But we aren’t rock stars. In the scheme of evolutionary forces, we are a weak, fragile species. Our genome is corruptible, and we so abused this planet that we ultimately corrupted that precious DNA blueprint that makes us human.
“But this man, Pilcher—he saw what was coming. Maybe not specifically, but in broad strokes. Saw that, over successive generations, because of the substantial environmental changes we were bringing to bear, there was the potential for tachytelic anagenesis. To put it in terms you might understand—rapid, macroevolutionary change. What am I saying? From human to something other in thirty generations. To put it in Biblical terms, Pilcher believed a flood was coming, so he decided to build an ark. Are you following me?”
“Not at all.”
“Pilcher thought if he could preserve a number of pure humans before the corruption reached critical mass, they could, in effect, sit out the evolutionary changes that would lead to the destruction of human civilization and our species. But to achieve this, it would require a robust suspended animation technology.
“He set up a lab and dropped his billions into R&D. Nailed it by 1979 and started work fabricating a thousand suspension units. Meanwhile, Pilcher had been looking for a small town to house his cargo, and when he stumbled across Wayward Pines, he knew it was perfect. Secluded. Defendable ground. Closed in by those high mountain walls. Tough to access. Tough to leave. He bought up all the residential and commercial property and started construction on a bunker complex deep in the surrounding mountains. It was a massive project. Took twenty-two years to finish.”
“How did the supplies keep all of this time?” Ethan asked. “Wood and food couldn’t have lasted nearly two thousand years.”
“Until the crew reanimated, the warehouse cavern, the dormitories and surveillance center—literally every square inch of that complex—existed in a vacuum. It wasn’t perfect, and we did lose some material, but enough survived to rebuild the Wayward Pines infrastructure, which time and the elements had completely erased. But the cave system we utilized contained minimal moisture content in the air, and since we were able to kill off ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all bacteria, it turned out to be almost as efficient as suspension itself.”
“So the town is completely self-sufficient?”
“Yes, it functions like an Amish village or a preindustrial society. And as you saw, we have vast stores of staples that we do package and truck into town.”
“I saw cows. Did you create suspension chambers for livestock as well?”
“No, we just put some embryos in stasis. Then used artificial wombs.”
“There was no such thing in 2012.”
“But there was in 2030.”
“Where’s Pilcher now?”
Ethan said, “You?”
“Your colleagues, Kate Hewson and Bill Evans—when they disappeared in Wayward Pines, they were trying to find me. Some of my business dealings had fallen onto the Secret Service radar. That’s why you’re sitting here right now.”
“You kidnapped federal agents? Locked them away?”
“And many others...”
“Aside from my handpicked and extravagantly compensated crew, I didn’t think I’d get much in the way of volunteers for an endeavor of this nature.”
“So you abducted people who came to Wayward Pines.”
“Some came to town and I took them there. Others, I sought out.”
“Six hundred and fifty were conscripted over the course of fifty years.”
“You’re a psychopath.”
Pilcher seemed to consider the accusation, his cool, dark eyes intense and thoughtful. It was the first time Ethan had really looked into the man’s face, and he realized the shaved head and good skin belied Pilcher’s age. The man must have been in his early sixties. Possibly older. Ethan had up until this moment written off his utterly precise, controlled manner of speaking as a gimmick, a shrink’s ruse, but now he saw it for what it was—clear evidence of an immense intellect. It struck him that he was sitting out here under a canopy of oak trees with the sharpest mind he’d ever encountered. Something both thrilling and terrifying in that.