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Susan staggered out of Node 3.


As if in a dream, she moved toward Crypto’s main exit. Greg Hale’s voice echoed in her mind: Susan, Strathmore’s going to kill me! Susan, the commander’s in love with you!

Susan reached the enormous circular portal and began stabbing desperately at the keypad. The door did not move. She tried again, but the enormous slab refused to rotate. Susan let out a muted scream‑apparently the power outage had deleted the exit codes. She was still trapped.

Without warning, two arms closed around her from behind, grasping her half‑numb body. The touch was familiar yet repulsive. It lacked the brute strength of Greg Hale, but there was a desperate roughness to it, an inner determination like steel.

Susan turned. The man restraining her was desolate, frightened. It was a face she had never seen.

“Susan,” Strathmore begged, holding her. “I can explain.”

She tried to pull away.

The commander held fast.

Susan tried to scream, but she had no voice. She tried to run, but strong hands restrained her, pulling her backward.

“I love you,” the voice was whispering. “I’ve loved you forever.”

Susan’s stomach turned over and over.

“Stay with me.”

Susan’s mind whirled with grisly images‑David’s bright‑green eyes, slowly closing for the last time; Greg Hale’s corpse seeping blood onto the carpet; Phil Chartrukian’s burned and broken on the generators.

“The pain will pass,” the voice said. “You’ll love again.”

Susan heard nothing.

“Stay with me,” the voice pleaded. “I’ll heal your wounds.”

She struggled, helpless.

“I did it for us. We’re made for each other. Susan, I love you.” The words flowed as if he had waited a decade to speak them. “I love you! I love you!”

In that instant, thirty yards away, as if rebutting Strathmore’s vile confession, TRANSLTR let out a savage, pitiless hiss. The sound was an entirely new one‑a distant, ominous sizzling that seemed to grow like a serpent in the depths of the silo. The freon, it appeared, had not reached its mark in time.

The commander let go of Susan and turned toward the $2 billion computer. His eyes went wide with dread. “No!” He grabbed his head. “No!”

The six‑story rocket began to tremble. Strathmore staggered a faltering step toward the thundering hull. Then he fell to his knees, a sinner before an angry god. It was no use. At the base of the silo, TRANSLTR’s titanium‑strontium processors had just ignited.