“I loaded this up with twelve-gauge slugs. It’s going to kick a bit more than the bird-shot rounds you’re used to.”
Hecter held it by the stock—so strange to see those soft, dexterous hands clutching a tactical shotgun.
Ethan said, “You and I will go down last. I’ll be right there with you.” He turned his attention back to the arsenal. “I’ve got a few revolvers and a handful of semiauto pistols left. Who wants what?”
TWELVE YEARS AGO
An autumn day.
They didn’t make skies this blue in his life before. You can look straight up into purple. The air so clear and clean it suggests a hyperreality, the colors blindingly intense.
Pilcher walks down the road into town. It was paved two weeks ago, and it still reeks of tar.
He passes the new billboard where a worker is painting the “e” in “Paradise.” When completed, the phrase will read, “Welcome to Wayward Pines Where Paradise is Home.”
Pilcher says, “Good morning! Good work!”
“Thank you, sir!”
The town has a long way yet to go, but the valley is beginning to look almost civilized. The forest has been mostly felled, save for a handful of trees left standing to line the streets and shade front yards.
A concrete truck rumbles past.
In the distance, new houses stand in various stages of completion. The residences were prefabricated prior to suspension. With all the foundations laid, the work seems to be accelerating, the town growing faster each day as homes begin to take shape.
The school is nearly finished.
The bottom three floors of the hospital framed.
Pilcher arrives at the graded, unpaved corner of what will one day be Eighth and Main.
The valley hums with the distant whine of saws and the pressurized bursts of nails shooting into studs.
The buildings that will soon line Main Street are fully framed, their yellow pine boards bright in the early sun.
Arnold Pope drives up in a topless Jeep Wrangler.
Pilcher’s right-hand man climbs out of the Jeep and struts over.
“Come down to see the progress?” Pope asks.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?”
“We’re actually ahead of schedule. If all goes well, we’ll have a hundred seventy homes completed before the snow flies, and the exteriors of all the buildings. Which means we’ll be able to continue working on the interiors through the winter.”
“So when may I schedule the formal ribbon cutting?”
Pilcher smiles, imagining it—a warm day in May and the valley popping with blossoms and the baby greens and yellows of new leaves.
A fresh start. Humanity’s blank slate.
“Have you considered how you’ll explain all of this to the first residents?”
They walk down the middle of the street, Pilcher eyeing the scaffolding fronting the building that will become the opera house.
“I imagine there will be some shock and disbelief at the outset, but once they understand what I’ve given them the chance to be a part of?”
“They’ll fall on the ground thanking you,” Pope says.
A flatbed truck carrying a load of raw lumber rumbles past.
“Can you fathom being given this opportunity?” Pilcher muses. “In the world we came from, our existence was so easy. And so full of discontent because it was so easy. How do you find meaning when you’re one of seven billion? When food, clothing, everything you need is just one Walmart away? When we numb our minds to sleep on all manner of screens and HD entertainment, the meaning of life, of our existence and purpose, becomes lost.”
“And what is that?” Pope asks.
“What is what?”
“To perpetuate our species of course. To reign over this planet. And we will again. Not in your or my lifetime, but we will. The people I bring out of suspension to populate my town won’t have Facebook or iPhones, iPads, Twitter, next-day delivery. They’ll interact like our species used to. Face-to-face. And they’ll live knowing they’re the last of humanity, that outside our fence are a billion monsters that want to devour them. With that knowledge, they’ll abide in a full understanding that in the face of these enormous stakes, their lives have taken on incomprehensible worth. And isn’t that all we want in the end? To feel useful? Of value?”
Pilcher smiles as his town—his dream—comes to life before his eyes.
He says, “This place is going to be our Eden.”
Jim Turner kissed his eight-year-old daughter on the forehead and wiped away the tears that were streaming out of her eyes.
She said, “But I want you to stay with us.”
“I have to go secure the house.”
“Mommy’s staying with you.”
“Why are people screaming outside?”
“I don’t know,” he lied.
“Is it because of those monsters? We learned about them in school. Mr. Pilcher protects us from them.”
“I don’t know what they are, Jessica, but I have to go make sure you and Mommy are safe, okay?”
The little girl nodded.
“I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
He stood, put his hands on his wife’s face. Couldn’t see her in the darkness, but he could feel her lips trembling, the wetness of tears running over them.
He said, “You have water, food, a flashlight.” He tried to make a joke out of it. “Even a pot to piss in.”
She grabbed his neck, put her lips to his ear.
“Don’t do this.”
“There’s no other way and you know it.”
“It won’t work. The boards are too long to go across the door.” He heard their neighbors, the Millers, dying in their home across the street. “When it comes time to get out—”
“You’ll break us out.”
“I want nothing more. But if I’m not here to do it, use the crowbar. You’ll have to wedge it into the jamb.”
“We should’ve stayed with the others.”
“I know, but we didn’t, and now we’re doing the best we can. No matter what you hear in this bedroom, you stay in this closet, and you don’t make a sound. Cover her ears if—”
“Don’t say that.”
“If what, Daddy?”