Ryan watched in stunned silence as his mother cried, tears running down her face on the other side of the protective glass. She held his gaze. He would give her credit for that. But her words were bone-chilling and completely unacceptable to twenty-year-old Ryan Anand.
Lifting his hands to flatten them on the glass, he shuddered. It wasn’t the first time he’d compared his mother’s self-imposed prison to a real penitentiary. After all, it had been months since the last time he touched her. She’d been living behind that damn glass for much longer than originally anticipated.
And now this bombshell.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. The intercom system was cutting edge, perfect, not a single flaw. Too bad he couldn’t say the same for the work being done on his mother’s side of the glass.
Ryan’s gaze shifted slightly to the right as his father, the renowned Lieutenant Tushar Anand, stepped up to set a hand on his wife’s shoulder. Ryan’s mother, Lieutenant Trish Wolbach-Anand, was no less esteemed in the medical community. The two of them had met at West Point before going on to attend the same medical school. Instead of being sent overseas to serve their country, they had married and been assigned to this secret government research facility outside the rural town of Falling Rock, Colorado. Project DEEP: Disease & Epidemic Eradication & Prevention.
The building was more like a bunker and thus the occupants referred to it as the DEEP bunker. It operated like the CDC except completely under the radar. Their research focused mainly on potentially life-threatening diseases from around the world, developing vaccinations and cures when possible.
Ryan had always known his parents’ work was dangerous, but never more than right this moment. As he glanced back and forth between his mother and father, he realized that although they had been married for over twenty years, he was pretty sure they hadn’t spent more than a few hours alone together on any given week in the last several years.
“Mom…” There were no words to express how devastating this day was. His parents had been researching a rare form of viral-onset anemia for five years. They’d always known the risks involved in working in the DEEP bunker, but no one anticipated this level of devastation. Of the original twenty-one-member team of medical professionals, Ryan’s parents were the last two survivors, and his mother had obviously succumbed to the symptoms of the disease.
“It won’t be forever.” She forced a smile that did nothing to assuage Ryan’s frustration and deep sadness.
Anemia AP12. Ryan had first heard the term five years ago when General Winston Custodio was brought into this remote bunker in Falling Rock, Colorado, after spending several months at a small village in Africa where he contracted the disease. So far it hadn’t spread to many other parts of the world, but people in Africa were dying every day. The team hadn’t been able to save General Custodio’s life—unless being cryonically preserved was considered still living.
Ryan glanced at his father again, knowing he too was not far behind his wife. The symptoms were there—bruising, fatigue, pallor. Ryan knew enough to realize his father had about another month, maybe two.
“I hate that you’re in there alone,” he told his parents. “I should be with you.”
His mother shook her head. “No. I would never take that risk. You need to stay out there where you’re free to come and go without threat of quarantine. You have school.” She slid into the padded chair on the other side of the window and leaned against the frame. “Follow your dreams, Ryan. You’re so bright. You can be anything, do anything.”
Ryan would never know what those dreams might have been under normal circumstances in a normal world with normal parents. His parents had worked in this secret underground bunker for as long as he could remember. It was all he knew.
“I’m going to medical school, Mom. You know that.”
She smiled. “I think we’ve done you a disservice never introducing you to other opportunities. Maybe you’d rather be an English professor or an engineer or an artist or something.”
“An artist?” Ryan laughed. “Have you forgotten the crayon drawing you stuck on the fridge when I was a kid?”
She giggled, causing a round of coughing that made Ryan cringe. He hated to see her sick like this. “I remember, but maybe you could have honed your fine-motor skills if you hadn’t been surrounded by beakers and petri dishes.”
“I love science, Mom. You know that. I dream in science.” He wasn’t kidding. He’d had a brain for science from a very young age. Perhaps it was genetic. “I won’t veer from my plans. Two more years of undergrad and then I’ll be in medical school.” He hadn’t told his parents his specific field of interest yet, but it didn’t matter right now.
What mattered today was that he would never see his mother again. Or at least he had to assume that would be the case. Every member of the team was now cryonically preserved in a special room one story beneath Ryan’s feet. Thank God the bunker had been built with this future consideration in mind, including everything a cryonics facility would need—not just the cryostats in which to preserve the bodies but also the equipment needed to vitrify each member of the team.
At the age of twenty, Ryan knew every bit of the cryonic terminology. He doubted there were many other university juniors who could explain the vitrification process used to remove 60 percent of the body’s water, replacing it with a cryoprotectant that prevents the human body from a literal freezing when submerged in liquid nitrogen.
Finding a cure for anemia AP12 was within reach. The team had worked frantically for the last five years to develop a drug that would reverse the effects. But an unforeseen lab accident meant time had run out for them. Now, finding a way to resuscitate everyone once a cure was found would be the next hurdle. Possibly insurmountable.
The next person to join the Hope Room, as his parents called the eerie room filled with two dozen cryostats, would be Trish Wolbach-Anand. Her own husband would ensure she was safely stored. Ryan couldn’t imagine how difficult that would be for his father.
His father finally spoke, his voice choking up. “Your grandmother has all of our papers in order. Monthly deposits will show up from the government in your bank account for the rest of your life.” He spoke without stating the obvious—he had less than a month himself. Ryan would be left without either parent.
Ryan had practically been raised by his maternal grandmother, Patricia Wolbach, since his parents had often spent days and even weeks inside the bunker. Until Ryan left for college two years ago, he’d lived in the small ranch home a few miles from the bunker most of his life. His grandmother still lived there, staying in touch with Ryan all the time, always there for him on holidays and vacations.
She too would mourn this loss. Trish was her only child. Her husband, Ryan’s grandfather, had died before he was born. It would be Ryan and Patricia from now on. Alone. Waiting. Wishing. Hoping.
A tear ran down his mother’s face. “I’m sorry we didn’t spend more time at the park, the zoo, the science center. We didn’t travel as much as I would have liked.”
“Mom, those things don’t matter. You know that.” Quality time was far more important than quantity, and although Ryan’s parents had been absent for most of his life, when they had been present, they were completely his. Christmases and vacations had been devoted to family time. Sundays had been spent playing games, building forts, doing science experiments. Compared to other people Ryan knew, he wouldn’t trade his life for anyone’s.
Tushar kissed the top of his wife’s head and set his chin on her silky blond hair. She’d kept it long all these years. At forty-five, she still wore it in long waves down her back when it wasn’t pulled in a bun while she worked.
The contrast between his pale, blond, blue-eyed mother and his dark-skinned, Indian father was striking. Ryan had been told all his life he’d hit the genetic jackpot, his brown, wavy hair and tanned skin the perfect shade women found attractive. His eyes were dark. Mysterious, they said.
He’d ignored any overture from women, however, his interests far more academic. He would much rather have his head inside a book than anywhere else.
“I know what you’re thinking, son,” his father said, interrupting Ryan’s memories. “And I want you to stop it. Live your life. Find love. Find peace. Find…happiness. Do not dwell on this. It’s not your responsibility.”
Ryan stared at his father, understanding what his words meant while at the same time calculating how long it would take him to get through school if he added a class every semester and studied nights and weekends.
He wouldn’t let this be the end.
After all, finding cures for rare blood diseases was going to be his specialty. And he would find a cure for anemia AP12 if it was the last thing he did.