Susan stood alone in the dimly lit silence of Node 3. The task at hand was simple: Access Hale’s terminal, locate his key, and then delete all of his communication with Tankado. There could be no hint of Digital Fortress anywhere.
Susan’s initial fears of saving the key and unlocking Digital Fortress were nagging at her again. She felt uneasy tempting fate; they’d been lucky so far. North Dakota had miraculously appeared right under their noses and been trapped. The only remaining question was David; he had to find the other pass‑key. Susan hoped he was making progress.
As she made her way deeper into Node 3, Susan tried to clear her mind. It was odd that she felt uneasy in such a familiar space. Everything in Node 3 seemed foreign in the dark. But there was something else. Susan felt a momentary hesitation and glanced back at the inoperable doors. There was no escape. Twenty minutes, she thought.
As she turned toward Hale’s terminal, she noticed a strange, musky odor‑it was definitely not a Node 3 smell. She wondered if maybe the deionizer was malfunctioning. The smell was vaguely familiar, and with it came an unsettling chill. She pictured Hale locked below in his enormous steaming cell. Did he set something on fire? She looked up at the vents and sniffed. But the odor seemed to be coming from nearby.
Susan glanced toward the latticed doors of the kitchenette. And in an instant she recognized the smell. It was cologne . . . and sweat.
She recoiled instinctively, not prepared for what she saw. From behind the lattice slats of the kitchenette, two eyes stared out at her. It only took an instant for the horrifying truth to hit her. Greg Hale was not locked on the sublevels‑he was in Node 3! He’d slipped upstairs before Strathmore closed the trapdoor. He’d been strong enough to open the doors all by himself.
Susan had once heard that raw terror was paralyzing‑she now knew that was a myth. In the same instant her brain grasped what was happening, she was in motion‑stumbling backward through the dark with a single thought in mind: escape.
The crash behind her was instantaneous. Hale had been sitting silently on the stove and extended his legs like two battering rams. The doors exploded off their hinges. Hale launched himself into the room and thundered after her with powerful strides.
Susan knocked over a lamp behind her, attempting to trip Hale as he moved toward her. She sensed him vault it effortlessly. Hale was gaining quickly.
When his right arm circled her waist from behind, it felt like she’d hit a steel bar. She gasped in pain as the wind went out of her. His biceps flexed against her rib cage.
Susan resisted and began twisting wildly. Somehow her elbow struck cartilage. Hale released his grip, his hands clutching his nose. He fell to his knees, hands cupped over his face.
“Son of a—” He screamed in pain.
Susan dashed onto the door’s pressure plates saying a fruitless prayer that Strathmore would in that instant restore power and the doors would spring open. Instead, she found herself pounding against the glass.
Hale lumbered toward her, his nose covered with blood. In an instant, his hands were around her again‑one of them clamped firmly on her left breast and the other on her midsection. He yanked her away from the door.
She screamed, her hand outstretched in futile attempt to stop him.
He pulled her backward, his belt buckle digging into her spine. Susan couldn’t believe his strength. He dragged her back across the carpet, and her shoes came off. In one fluid motion, Hale lifted her and dumped her on the floor next to his terminal.
Susan was suddenly on her back, her skirt bunched high on her hips. The top button of her blouse had released, and her chest was heaving in the bluish light. She stared up in terror as Hale straddled her, pinning her down. She couldn’t decipher the look in his eyes. It looked like fear. Or was it anger? His eyes bore into her body. She felt a new wave of panic.
Hale sat firmly on her midsection, staring down at her with an icy glare. Everything Susan had ever learned about self‑defense was suddenly racing through her mind. She tried to fight, but her body did not respond. She was numb. She closed her eyes.
Oh, please, God. No!