Susan Fletcher stumbled across the darkened Crypto floor toward Strathmore’s catwalk. The commander’s office was as far from Hale as Susan could get inside the locked complex.
When Susan reached the top of the catwalk stairs, she found the commander’s door hanging loosely, the electronic lock rendered ineffective by the power outage. She barged in.
“Commander?” The only light inside was the glow of Strathmore’s computer monitors. “Commander!” she called once again. “Commander!”
Susan suddenly remembered that the commander was in the Sys‑Sec lab. She turned circles in his empty office, the panic of her ordeal with Hale still in her blood. She had to get out of Crypto. Digital Fortress or no Digital Fortress, it was time to act‑time to abort the TRANSLTR run and escape. She eyed Strathmore’s glowing monitors then dashed to his desk. She fumbled with his keypad. Abort TRANSLTR! The task was simple now that she was on an authorized terminal. Susan called up the proper command window and typed:
Her finger hovered momentarily over the ENTER key.
“Susan!” a voice barked from the doorway. Susan wheeled scared, fearing it was Hale. But it was not, it was Strathmore. He stood, pale and eerie in the electronic glow, his chest heaving. “What the hell’s going on!”
“Com . . . mander!” Susan gasped. “Hale’s in Node 3! He just attacked me!”
“What? Impossible! Hale’s locked down in—”
“No, he’s not! He’s loose! We need security inhere now! I’m aborting TRANSLTR!” Susan reached for the keypad.
“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” Strathmore lunged for the terminal and pulled Susan’s hands away.
Susan recoiled, stunned. She stared at the commander and for the second time that day did not recognize him. Susan felt suddenly alone.
* * *
Strathmore saw the blood on Susan’s shirt and immediately regretted his outburst. “Jesus, Susan. Are you okay?”
She didn’t respond.
He wished he hadn’t jumped on her unnecessarily. His nerves were frayed. He was juggling too much. There were things on his mind‑things Susan Fletcher did not know about‑things he had not told her and prayed he’d never have to.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Tell me what happened.”
She turned away. “It doesn’t matter. The blood’s not mine. Just get me out of here.”
“Are you hurt?” Strathmore put a hand on her shoulder. Susan recoiled. He dropped his hand and looked away. When he looked back at Susan’s face, she seemed to be staring over his shoulder at something on the wall.
There, in the darkness, a small keypad glowed full force. Strathmore followed her gaze and frowned. He’d hoped Susan wouldn’t notice the glowing control panel. The illuminated keypad controlled his private elevator. Strathmore and his high‑powered guests used it to come and go from Crypto without advertising the fact to the rest of the staff. The personal lift dropped down fifty feet below the Crypto dome and then moved laterally 109 yards through a reinforced underground tunnel to the sublevels of the main NSA complex. The elevator connecting Crypto to the NSA was powered from the main complex; it was on‑line despite Crypto’s power outage.
Strathmore had known all along it was on‑line, but even as Susan had been pounding on the main exit downstairs, he hadn’t mentioned it. He could not afford to let Susan out‑not yet. He wondered how much he’d have to tell her to make her want to stay.
Susan pushed past Strathmore and raced to the back wall. She jabbed furiously at the illuminated buttons.
“Please,” she begged. But the door did not open.
“Susan,” Strathmore said quietly. “The lift takes a password.”
“A password?” she repeated angrily. She glared at the controls. Below the main keypad was a second keypad‑a smaller one, with tiny buttons. Each button was marked with a letter of the alphabet. Susan wheeled to him. “What is the password!” she demanded.
Strathmore thought a moment and sighed heavily. “Susan, have a seat.”
Susan looked as if she could hardly believe her ears.
“Have a seat,” the commander repeated, his voice firm.
“Let me out!” Susan shot an uneasy glance toward the commander’s open office door.
Strathmore eyed the panicked Susan Fletcher. Calmly he moved to his office door. He stepped out onto the landing and peered into the darkness. Hale was nowhere to be seen. The commander stepped back inside and pulled the door shut. Then he propped a chair in front to keep it closed, went to his desk, and removed something from a drawer. In the pale glow of the monitors Susan saw what he was holding. Her face went pale. It was a gun.
Strathmore pulled two chairs into the middle of the room. He rotated them to face the closed office door. Then he sat. He lifted the glittering Beretta semi‑automatic and aimed steadily at the slightly open door. After a moment he laid the gun back in his lap.
He spoke solemnly. “Susan, we’re safe here. We need to talk. If Greg Hale comes through that door . . .” He let it hang.
Susan was speechless.
Strathmore gazed at her in the dim light of his office. He patted the seat beside him. “Susan, sit. I have something to tell you.” She did not move. “When I’m done, “he said, “I’ll give you the password to the elevator. You can decide whether to leave or not.”
There was a long silence. In a daze, Susan moved across the office and sat next to Strathmore.
“Susan,” he began, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”