The raw fear of death overtook him. Donald knew, in some recess of his mind, that they were all dead. The end of all things was coming. There was no outrunning it. No hiding. Paragraphs from a book he’d read came to mind, thousands of paragraphs memorized. He patted his pants for his pills, but they weren’t there. Looking over his shoulder, he fought to remember what he’d left behind—
Anna and his sister pulled him past the Senator, who wore a hard scowl of determination, who frowned at his daughter. The tent flap brushed Donald’s face, the darkness within interspersed with a few hanging lights. The spots in his vision from the blasts made themselves known in the blackness. There was a crush of people, but not as many as there should have been. Where were the crowds? It didn’t make sense until he found himself shuffling downward.
A concrete ramp, bodies on all sides, shoulders jostling, people wheezing, yelling for one another, hands outstretched as the flowing crush drove loved ones away, husband and wife separated, some people crying, some perfectly poised—
Husband and wife.
Donald heard her name over the crowd. But it was his voice. He was yelling it. He turned and tried to swim against the flowing torrent of the frightened. Anna and his sister pulled on him. People fighting to get below pushed from above. Donald was forced to move his feet the opposite direction of his will. He was drowning. The tide was pulling him beneath the waves, a white mist rising up around him like sea foam. He wanted to go under with his wife. He wanted to drown with her.
Oh, God, he remembered.
He remembered what he had left behind.
Panic subsided and fear took its place. He could see. His vision had cleared. But he could not swim up the ramp, could not fight the push of the inevitable. His world was gone.
Donald remembered a conversation with the Senator about how it would all end. There was an electricity in the air, the taste of dead metal on his tongue. He remembered most of a book. He knew what this was, what was happening.
His world was gone.
A new one swallowed him.
In 2007, the Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platforms that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs, and even self-propagate.
That same year, CBS re-aired a program about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event.
At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind had discovered the means for bringing about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened.
Troy startled awake from a series of terrible dreams. The world was on fire, and the people who had been sent to put it out were all asleep. Asleep and frozen stiff, smoking matches still in their hands, wisps and gray curls of evil deeds.
He had been buried, was enveloped in darkness, could feel the tight walls of his small coffin like a closed fist.
The confinement brought a scream to his lips, but his fearful cries leaked out in a trembling whimper.
Dark shapes moved beyond the frosted glass, the men with their shovels trying to free him.
Troy’s eyelids seemed to rip and crack as he fought to open them fully. There was crust in the corners of them, melting frost coursing down his cheek. He tried to lift his arms to wipe it away, but they responded feebly. An IV tugged at his wrist as he managed to raise one hand. He was aware of his catheter. Every inch of his body tingled as he emerged from the numbness and into the cold.
The lid popped with a hiss of air. There was a crack of light to his side that grew as the suffocating shadows folded away.
A doctor and his assistant reached in to tend to him. Troy remembered this. This was real. So were the nightmares. He tried to speak but could only cough. They helped him up, brought him the bitter drink. Swallowing took effort. His hands were so weak, arms trembling, they had to help him with the cup. The taste on his tongue was metallic. It tasted like the death of a machine.
“Easy,” they said when he tried to drink too fast. Tubes and IVs were carefully removed by expert hands, pressure applied, gauze taped to frigid skin. There was a paper gown. He remembered this.
“What year?” he asked, his voice a dry rasp.
“It’s early,” the doctor said, a different doctor. Troy blinked against the harsh lights, didn’t recognize either man tending to him. The sea of coffins around him remained a hazy blur.
“Take your time,” the assistant said, tilting the cup.
Troy managed a few sips. He felt worse than last time. It had been longer. The cold was deep within his bones. He remembered that his name wasn’t Troy. He was supposed to be dead. Part of him regretted being disturbed. Another part hoped he had slept through the worst of it.
“Sir, we’re sorry to wake you, but we need your help.”
Both men were talking at once.
“Another silo is having problems, sir. Silo 18—”
Pills were produced. Troy waved them away. He no longer wished to take them.
The doctor hesitated, the two capsules of clear blue sky resting in his palm. He turned to consult with someone else, a third man. Troy tried to blink the world into focus. Something was said. Fingers curled around the pills, filling him with relief.
They helped him up, had a wheelchair waiting. A man stood behind it, his hair as stark white as his coveralls, his square jaw and iron frame familiar. Troy recognized him. This was the man who woke the freezing.
Another sip of water as he leaned against the pod, knees trembling from the weak and cold.
“What about Silo 18?” Troy whispered the question as the cup was lowered.
The doctor frowned and said nothing. The man behind the wheelchair studied him intently.
“I know you,” Troy said.
The man in white nodded. The wheelchair was waiting for Troy. His sleep had been longer, his legs more like a newborn’s than a foal’s. Troy felt his stomach twist as dormant parts of him stirred.
“You’re the Thaw Man,” he said, even though this didn’t sound quite right.
The paper gown was warm. It rustled like the leaves of winter as his arms were guided through the sleeves. The men working on him were nervous. They chattered back and forth, one of them saying a silo was falling, the other that they needed his help. Troy cared only about the man in white. They helped him toward the wheelchair.
“Is it over?” he asked. He watched the colorless man, his vision clearing, his voice growing stronger. He dearly hoped that he had slept through it all.
The Thaw Man shook his head sadly. Troy was lowered into the chair.
“I’m afraid, son,” a familiar voice said, “that it’s only begun.”