“I should talk to Alyssa,” he said.
“After the party, we’ll say our goodbyes.”
Gray Chanel dress.
Wavy silver hair.
He watched her move gracefully toward the oak doors.
When she was gone, Pilcher went to his desk.
Lifted the phone.
Arnold Pope answered on the first ring.
It would’ve been the best champagne Hassler had ever tasted if he could appreciate it, but the nerves were getting to him.
This place was unreal.
Word was it had taken thirty-two years to complete the tunneling, the blasting, the excavation. The price tag must have been north of fifty billion. An entire fleet of 747s could’ve fit inside that cavernous warehouse, but he had a hunch the real money had gone into the room where he now stood.
It was the size of a grocery store.
Hundreds of drink-machine-sized units stood hissing and beeping as far back as he could see. Some of them vented white gas, the vapor hovering ten feet above the floor. It was like walking through a cold, blue fog. The ceiling invisible. The cold air pure and ionized.
“Would you like to see her, Adam?”
The voice startled him.
Hassler turned, faced Pilcher.
The man looked dapper in a crisp tuxedo, champagne flute in one hand.
“Yes,” Hassler said.
“Right this way.”
Pilcher led him down a long row toward the back of the room, and then up another aisle of machines.
“Here we are,” he said.
There was a keypad, gauges, readouts, and a digital nameplate:
THERESA LIDEN BURKE
SUSPENSION DATE: 12/19/13
Down the front of the machine streaked a thick pane of glass, two inches wide.
Through it, he saw black sand and a patch of skin—Theresa’s cheek.
Hassler involuntarily touched the glass.
“We’re about to get started,” Pilcher said.
“Is she dreaming?” Hassler asked.
“None of our testing—and there’s been plenty of it—indicates any level of sentience during suspension. There’s no brainwave activity. The longest we’ve put any of our test subjects under has been for nineteen months. No one reported any sense of time while they were down.”
“So it’s like a light switch going off?”
“Something like that. Did you get a chance to read the memorandum in your room? Everybody got one.”
“No, I just finished the medical exam and came straight here.”
“Ah, well, you’ll be in for a few surprises.”
“Is everyone on your team going under tonight?”
“A small group has been chosen to stay behind for the next twenty years. They’ll continue to gather provisions. Make sure we have the latest technology. Tie up a few loose ends.”
“But you’re going under.”
“Of course.” Pilcher laughed. “I’m not getting any younger. I’d rather bank my time in the world to come. We should get back out there.”
Hassler followed him out into the cavern.
Pilcher’s people were waiting—everyone dressed to the nines.
Men in tuxes, women in little black dresses.
Pilcher climbed up onto a crate and looked out over the crowd.
In the light of a giant globe that hung down from a cable in the rock above, Hassler thought he saw Pilcher’s eyes turn glassy with emotion.
He said, “Tonight, we come to the end of a journey thirty-two years in the making. But like all endings, it’s also a beginning. As we say goodbye to the world we know, we look forward to the world to come. The world that waits for us, two thousand years from now. I’m excited. I know you are too. And maybe you’re also afraid, but that’s okay. Fear means you’re alive. Pushing boundaries. No adventure without fear, and my God are we all on the brink of one hell of an adventure.” He raised his glass. “I would like to propose a toast. To each and every one of you who’ve come this far with me and are about to take this final leap of faith. I promise you, the parachutes will open.” Nervous laughter flickered through the crowd. “Thank you. Thank you for your trust. For your work. For your friendship. Here’s to you.”
Hassler’s palms had begun to sweat.
Pilcher glanced at his watch.
“It’s 11:00 p.m. It’s time, my friends.”
Pilcher handed his champagne flute to Pam. He untied his bow tie and flung it away. He removed his jacket and dropped it on the rock. People began to applaud. He slid off his suspenders and unbuttoned his pleated shirt.
Now the others were beginning to undress.
All the men and women near Hassler.
The cavern became quiet.
Nothing but the sound of clothes sliding off and dropping to the floor.
Hassler thinking, What the hell?
But pretty soon, if he didn’t join in, he was going to be the sole clothed person in the room, and somehow that seemed worse than undressing with complete strangers.
He pulled off his bow tie and followed suit.
Within two minutes, a hundred twenty people stood naked in the cavern.
From his pedestal, Pilcher said, “I apologize for the cold. It couldn’t be helped. And I’m afraid where we’re going it’s even colder.”
He climbed down off the crate and moved in bare feet toward the glass door that opened into suspension.
Within thirty seconds of walking inside, Hassler was shivering uncontrollably—part fear, part cold.
Lines were forming down the aisles, men in white lab coats directing traffic.
Hassler approached one, said, “I don’t know where to go.”
“You didn’t read the memo?”
“No, I’m sorry, I just got—”
“It’s fine. What’s your name?”
“Hassler. Adam Hassler.”
“Come with me.”
The lab technician showed him to the fourth row and pointed down the corridor of machines, said, “You should be halfway down on the left. Look for your nameplate.”
Hassler followed four naked women down the aisle. The vapor seemed thicker than before and his breath was pluming in the cold, the metal grating over the stone like ice to the soles of his feet.
He passed a man who was climbing into a machine.
Now the fear really kicked up.
He realized as his eyes scanned each nameplate that he had never imagined this moment. Never prepared. Sure he’d known it was coming. Known he was voluntarily submitting to this. But somehow, he’d subconsciously pictured something akin to general anesthesia. A mask descending toward his face in a warm operating room. Lights dimming out in a state of drug-induced bliss. Certainly not tramping around naked with a hundred other people.