“That’s why you pay me the big bucks, right? If it were up to me, I’d have my entire security team rolling with us.”

“No, we’re keeping this intimate for now.”

Leven says, “Pam, would you mind bringing your flashlight over?”

As she shines the beam onto the release wheel, Pilcher says, “Let’s just wait a beat.”

Leven straightens.

Pope heads over.

Ted and Pam turn to face him.

Pilcher’s voice is still gravelly from the drugs that revived him.

He says, “Let’s not let this moment pass us by.” His people study him. “Do you all understand what we’ve done? We just completed the most dangerous, daring journey in human history. Not across distance. Across time. You know what waits on the other side of this door?”

He lets the question hang.

No one bites.

“Pure discovery.”

“I don’t follow,” Pam says.

“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. This is Neil Armstrong going down the steps of Apollo 11 to stand on the moon for the first time. The Wright brothers testing their flyer at Kitty Hawk. Columbus walking ashore into the New World. There’s no telling what lies on the other side of this portal.”

“You predicted that humanity would become extinct,” Pam says.

“Yes, but my prediction was just that. A prediction. I could’ve been wrong. There could be ten-thousand-foot skyscrapers out there. Imagine a man in 213 AD stepping into 2013. ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.’ Albert Einstein said that. We should all savor this moment.”

Leven turns his attention to the release wheel, which he begins to crank counterclockwise.

When it finally locks into place, he says, “Sir? Care to do the honors?”

Pilcher approaches the portal.

Leven says, “It’s this latch, right here.”

Pilcher throws the latch.

For a moment, nothing happens.

The lights of the Humvee cut out.

Only the beam of Pam’s meager flashlight cuts through the darkness.

Something under their feet begins to groan, like an old ship creaking.

The heavy portal door shudders and begins to creak open.

And then . . .

Light spills across the pavement, spreading toward them in a radiant stain.

Pilcher’s heart is pounding.

It is the most thrilling moment of his life.

Snow whisks inside across the pavement, and a shot of bone-chilling cold knifes into the tunnel. Pilcher squints against the light.

When the four-foot portal is fully open, it frames the world beyond like a picture.

They all see a boulder-strewn pine forest in the midst of a snowstorm.

They move into the forest, tracking through a foot of soft powder.

It is beyond quiet.

The sound of falling snow like a whisper.

After two hundred yards, Pilcher stops. The others stop too.

He says, “I think this is where the road into Wayward Pines used to be.”

They’re still standing in a dense pine wood, no sign of a road anywhere.

Pilcher pulls out a compass.

They head north into the valley.

Pines tower above them.

“I wonder,” Pilcher says, “how many times this forest burned and regrew.”

He’s cold. His legs ache. He’s certain the others feel the same weakness, but no one complains.

They trudge on until the trees break. How far they’ve come, he can’t be sure. The snow has let up, and, for the first time, he sees something familiar—those massive cliff walls that almost two thousand years ago surrounded the hamlet of Wayward Pines.

It surprises him how much comfort he finds in seeing these mountains again. Two millennia is a long time when it comes to forests and rivers, but the cliffs look virtually unchanged. Like old friends.

Soon, their party is standing in the dead center of the valley.

There’s not a single building left.

Not even ruins.

Leven says, “It’s like the town was never even here.”

“What does this mean?” Pam asks.

“What does what mean?” Pilcher says.

“That nature has taken back over. That the town is gone.”

“Impossible to say. Maybe Idaho is now a huge preserve. Maybe Idaho doesn’t exist anymore. We have a lot to learn about this new world.”

Pilcher looks for Pope. The man has wandered twenty yards away into a clearing, where he kneels down over the snow.

“What is it, Arnie?”

He waves Pilcher over.

As the group gathers around Pope, he points down at a set of tracks.

“Human?” Pilcher asks.

“They’re the size of a man’s footprint, but the spacing is all wrong.”

“How so?”

“Whatever this thing is, it was moving on four limbs. See?” He touches the snow. “Here are the hind legs. There are the forelegs. Look at the distance between tracks. That’s one helluva gait.”

In the southwest corner of the valley, they find a collection of stones poking up through the ground, scattered through a grove of scrub oak and aspen trees. Pilcher squats down to inspect one of the stones, brushing the snow away from the base. Once a block of polished marble, time has worn it rough.

“What are these?” Pam asks, running her hand across the top of another similar stone.

“The ruins of a cemetery,” Pilcher says. “The etchings have been eroded. This is all that’s left of twenty-first-century Wayward Pines.”

They walk home, back toward the superstructure.

Everyone weak.

Everyone cold.

The snow picks up again, a shroud of white falling against the backdrop of cliffs and evergreens.

“Doesn’t particularly feel like anyone’s home,” Leven says.

“One of the first things we’ll do,” Pilcher says, “is send out the drones. We’ll fly them to Boise, Missoula, even Seattle. We’ll know if there’s anything left.”

They follow their own tracks back into the woods. As a silence descends on the group, a scream rises up in the valley behind them—frail and haunting, echoing off the snow-hidden peaks.

Everyone stops.

Another scream answers—lower in pitch, but containing that same mix of sadness and aggression.

Pope opens his mouth to speak when a veritable nation of screams rises up out of the woods all around them.

They hurry through the snow, jogging at first, but as the screams close in, everyone accelerates to a full-on sprint.

A hundred yards out from the tunnel, Pilcher’s legs are finished and sweat pours down his face. The others have reached the portal. They’re climbing through, shouting at him to run faster, their voices commingling with the shrieks behind him.