The Commander rose through the trapdoor like Lazarus back from the dead. Despite his soggy clothes, his step was light. He strode toward Node 3‑toward Susan. Toward his future.
The Crypto floor was again bathed in light. Freon was flowing downward through the smoldering TRANSLTR like oxygenated blood. Strathmore knew it would take a few minutes for the coolant to reach the bottom of the hull and prevent the lowest processors from igniting, but he was certain he’d acted in time. He exhaled in victory, never suspecting the truth‑that it was already too late.
I’m a survivor, he thought. Ignoring the gaping hole in the Node 3 wall, he strode to the electronic doors. They hissed open. He stepped inside.
Susan was standing before him, damp and tousled in his blazer. She looked like a freshman coed who’d been caught in the rain. He felt like the senior who’d lent her his varsity sweater. For the first time in years, he felt young. His dream was coming true.
But as Strathmore moved closer, he felt he was staring into the eyes of a woman he did not recognize. Her gaze was like ice. The softness was gone. Susan Fletcher stood rigid, like an immovable statue. The only perceptible motion were the tears welling in her eyes.
A single tear rolled down her quivering cheek.
“What is it?” the commander pleaded.
The puddle of blood beneath Hale’s body had spread across the carpet like an oil spill. Strathmore glanced uneasily at the corpse, then back at Susan. Could she possibly know? There was no way. Strathmore knew he had covered every base.
“Susan?” he said, stepping closer. “What is it?”
Susan did not move.
“Are you worried about David?”
There was a slight quiver in her upper lip.
Strathmore stepped closer. He was going to reach for her, but he hesitated. The sound of David’s name had apparently cracked the dam of grief. Slowly at first‑a quiver, a tremble. And then a thundering wave of misery seemed to course through her veins. Barely able to control her shuddering lips, Susan opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came.
Without ever breaking the icy gaze she’d locked on Strathmore, she took her hand from the pocket of his blazer. In her hand was an object. She held it out, shaking.
Strathmore half expected to look down and see the Beretta leveled at his gut. But the gun was still on the floor, propped safely in Hale’s hand. The object Susan was holding was smaller. Strathmore stared down at it, and an instant later, he understood.
As Strathmore stared, reality warped, and time slowed to a crawl. He could hear the sound of his own heart. The man who had triumphed over giants for so many years had been outdone in an instant. Slain by love‑by his own foolishness. In a simple act of chivalry, he had given Susan his jacket. And with it, his SkyPager.
Now it was Strathmore who went rigid. Susan’s hand was shaking. The pager fell at Hale’s feet. With a look of astonishment and betrayal that Strathmore would never forget, Susan Fletcher raced past him out of Node 3.
The commander let her go. In slow motion, he bent and retrieved the pager. There were no new messages‑Susan had read them all. Strathmore scrolled desperately through the list.
SUBJECT: ENSEI TANKADO‑TERMINATED
SUBJECT: PIERRE CLOUCHARDE‑TERMINATED
SUBJECT: HANS HUBER‑TERMINATED
SUBJECT: ROCIO EVA GRANADA‑TERMINATED . . .
The list went on. Strathmore felt a wave of horror. I can explain! She will understand! Honor! Country! But there was one message he had not yet seen‑one message he could never explain. Trembling, he scrolled to the final transmission.
SUBJECT: DAVID BECKER‑TERMINATED
Strathmore hung his head. His dream was over.