Strathmore reached the TRANSLTR floor and stepped off the catwalk into an inch of water. The giant computer shuddered beside him. Huge droplets of water fell like rain through the swirling mist. The warning horns sounded like thunder.
The commander looked across at the failed main generators. Phil Chartrukian was there, his charred remains splayed across a set of coolant fins. The scene looked like some sort of perverse Halloween display.
Although Strathmore regretted the man’s death, there was no doubt it had been “a warranted casualty.” Phil Chartrukian had left Strathmore no choice. When the Sys‑Sec came racing up from the depths, screaming about a virus, Strathmore met him on the landing and tried to talk sense to him. But Chartrukian was beyond reason. We’ve got a virus! I’m calling Jabba! When he tried to push past, the commander blocked his way. The landing was narrow. They struggled. The railing was low. It was ironic, Strathmore thought, that Chartrukian had been right about the virus all along.
The man’s plunge had been chilling‑a momentary howl of terror and then silence. But it was not half as chilling as the next thing Commander Strathmore saw. Greg Hale was staring up at him from the shadows below, a look of utter horror on his face. It was then that Strathmore knew Greg Hale would die.
TRANSLTR crackled, and Strathmore turned his attention back to the task at hand. Kill power. The circuit breaker was on the other side of the freon pumps to the left of the body. Strathmore could see it clearly. All he had to do was pull a lever and the remaining power in Crypto would die. Then, after a few seconds, he could restart the main generators; all doorways and functions would comeback on‑line; the freon would start flowing again, and TRANSLTR would be safe.
But as Strathmore slogged toward the breaker, he realized there was one final obstacle: Chartrukian’s body was still on the main generator’s cooling fins. Killing and then restarting the main generator would only cause another power failure. The body had to be moved.
Strathmore eyed the grotesque remains and made his way over. Reaching up, he grabbed a wrist. The flesh was like Styrofoam. The tissue had been fried. The whole body was devoid of moisture. The commander closed his eyes, tightened his grip around the wrist, and pulled. The body slid an inch or two. Strathmore pulled harder. The body slid again. The commander braced himself and pulled with all his might. Suddenly he was tumbling backward. He landed hard on his backside up against a power casement. Struggling to sit up in the rising water, Strathmore stared down in horror at the object in his fist. It was Chartrukian’s forearm. It had broken off at the elbow.
* * *
Upstairs, Susan continued her wait. She sat on the Node 3 couch feeling paralyzed. Hale lay at her feet. She couldn’t imagine what was taking the commander so long. Minutes passed. She tried to push David from her thoughts, but it was no use. With every blast of the horns, Hale’s words echoed inside her head: I’m truly sorry about David Becker. Susan thought she would lose her mind.
She was about to jump up and race onto the Crypto floor when finally it happened. Strathmore had thrown the switch and killed all power.
The silence that engulfed Crypto was instantaneous. The horns choked off mid blare, and the Node 3 monitors flickered to black. Greg Hale’s corpse disappeared into the darkness, and Susan instinctively yanked her legs up onto the couch. She wrapped Strathmore’s suit coat around her.
She had never heard such quiet in Crypto. There’d always been the low hum of the generators. But now there was nothing, only the great beast heaving and sighing in relief. Crackling, hissing, slowly cooling down.
Susan closed her eyes and prayed for David. Her prayer was a simple one‑that God protect the man she loved.
Not being a religious woman, Susan had never expected to hear a response to her prayer. But when there was a sudden shuddering against her chest, she jolted upright. She clutched her chest. A moment later she understood. The vibrations she felt were not the hand of God at all‑they were coming from the commander’s jacket pocket. He had set the vibrating silent‑ring feature on his SkyPager. Someone was sending Commander Strathmore a message.
* * *
Six stories below, Strathmore stood at the circuit breaker. The sublevels of Crypto were now as dark as the deepest night. He stood a moment enjoying the blackness. The water poured down from above. It was a midnight storm. Strathmore tilted his head back and let the warm droplets wash away his guilt. I’m a survivor. He knelt and washed the last of Chartrukian’s flesh from his hands.
His dreams for Digital Fortress had failed. He could accept that. Susan was all that mattered now. For the first time in decades, he truly understood that there was more to life than country and honor. I sacrificed the best years of my life for country and honor. But what about love? He had deprived himself for far too long. And for what? To watch some young professor steal away his dreams? Strathmore had nurtured Susan. He had protected her. He had earned her. And now, at last, he would have her. Susan would seek shelter in his arms when there was nowhere else to turn. She would come to him helpless, wounded by loss, and in time, he would show her that love heals all.
Honor. Country. Love. David Becker was about to die for all three.