Pilcher looked over, his faced streaked with deep scratch marks that still oozed blood.

“Who’d you tangle with?” Ethan asked.

“I had to let Ted go this morning.”

Ethan bristled.

Pilcher smelled boozy. He wore a black satin robe and looked disheveled as hell as he offered Ethan the bottle.

“No thanks.”

On one of the screens, Ethan saw the brilliant muzzle flash of the chain gun cutting down abbies in the tunnel.

On another—abbies on Main Street, lackadaisically feeding on kills from the night before, their stomachs bulging.

“Quite an end to it all,” Pilcher said.

“Nothing’s ending but you.”

“I don’t blame you,” Pilcher said.

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“Blame me? For what?”

“Your envy.”

“What exactly do you think I envy?”

“Me, of course. The way it feels to sit behind that desk. To have . . . created all of this.”

“You think that’s all this is about? That I want your job?”

“I know you believe in your heart it’s about giving people truth and freedom, but the truth, Ethan, is there is nothing in this world like power. The power to kill. To spare.” He waved at the screens. “To control lives. To make them better. Or worse. If there ever was a God I think I know how he must have felt. People demanding answers they could never handle. People hating him even as they basked in the safety he provided. I think I finally understand why God went away and left the world to destroy itself.” Pilcher smiled. “And you will too one day, Ethan. After you’ve sat behind that desk for a while. You’ll understand that the people in that valley aren’t like you and me. They can’t handle what you told them last night. You’ll see.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Either way, they deserved to know the truth.”

“I’m not saying it was perfect. Or even fair. But before you came, Ethan, it worked. I protected these people and they lived the closest thing to normal lives that they could ever hope for. I gave them a beautiful town and the opportunity to have faith that all was as it should be.”

Pilcher drank straight from the bottle.

“Your fatal flaw, Ethan, is that you’re under the mistaken impression that people are like you. That they have your courage, your fearlessness, your will. You and I are exceptions, cut from the same cloth. Even my people in the mountain struggle with the fear. But not you and me. We know the truth. We aren’t afraid to look it in the eye. Only difference being, I’m aware of this fact, and it’s something you’re going to learn slowly and painfully and at great cost of human life. But you’ll remember this conversation one day, Ethan. You’ll understand why I did the things I did.”

“I’ll never understand why you turned off the fence. Why you murdered your daughter.”

“Rule long enough, you will.”

“I don’t plan on ruling.”

“No?” Pilcher laughed. “What do you think you’ve got down there? Plymouth Rock? You going to write a constitution? Start a democracy? The world beyond the fence is too cruel, too hostile. That town needs one strong man to lead.”

“Why did you turn off the fence, David?”

The old man sipped his whiskey.

“Without me, this would be a world free of our species. We’re here because of me and me alone. My money. My brilliance. My vision. I gave them everything.”

“Why did you do it?”

“You might as well say I created them. And you. And you have the gall to ask—”

“Why?”

Pilcher’s eyes suddenly burned with unchecked rage.

“Where were they when I discovered that the human genome was becoming corrupted? That humanity would become extinct in a matter of generations? When I built a thousand suspended animation units? When I dug a tunnel into the heart of a mountain and stocked a five-million-square-foot ark with enough supplies to rebuild the last town on earth? And while we’re on the topic, Ethan: Where the f**k were you?”

Pilcher’s entire body shook with fury.

“Were you there the day I emerged from suspended animation and took my crew outside to find that the abbies had taken over the world? Were you there as I walked down Main Street watching my workers frame each building? Pave each road? On the morning I called the head of suspension into this office and instructed him to wake you up so you could be with your wife and son again? I gave you this life, Ethan. You and everyone in that valley. Everyone in this mountain.”

“Why?”

He growled, “Because I could. Because I am their f**king creator, and creations don’t get to question the one who made them. Who gives them breath. And who can, at any second, snatch it all away.”

Ethan looked up at the monitors. They showed chaos in the cavern. The chain gun was empty and the guards were falling back with their AR-15s as the monsters advanced.

“I didn’t have to even let you up here. I could’ve locked the elevator. What are you going to do with me?” Pilcher asked quietly.

“That’s for the people you tried to murder to decide.”

Pilcher’s eyes misted.

As if, for a fleeting moment, he saw himself with clarity.

He looked back at his desk.

At the wall of screens.

His voice became raspy with emotion.

“It got away from me,” he said, and then he blinked, a hardness returning to those small black eyes, like water freezing over.

Pilcher came at Ethan with a short-bladed fighting knife, a sudden, lunging stab aimed straight at Ethan’s gut.

Ethan deflected Pilcher’s wrist, the blade only grazing his side.

Rising to his feet, he rained down a savage left hook that snapped Pilcher’s head around and cracked his cheekbone, the force of the blow driving him off the couch, his head smashing into the edge of the coffee table.

Pilcher shivered out on his back and the knife slipped out of his grasp, clattering to the hardwood floor.

VII

HASSLER

SECRET SERVICE HQ

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

1,814 YEARS AGO

Hassler enters his corner office in the Columbia Center, happy to see Ethan Burke already seated across from his desk. By his watch, he’s five minutes late. Burke probably arrived five minutes early, which means he’s been waiting at least ten minutes.

Good.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Hassler says as he walks past his agent.

“Not a problem.”

“Imagine you’re wondering why I pulled you off that Everett thing.”