As the implications of the Commander’s phone call to Security began to settle on the dazed Greg Hale, he found himself weakened by a wave of panic. Security is coming! Susan began to slip away. Hale recovered, clutching at her midsection, pulling her back.
“Let me go!” she cried, her voice echoing though the dome.
Hale’s mind was in overdrive. The commander’s call had taken him totally by surprise. Strathmore phoned Security! He’s sacrificing his plans for Digital Fortress!
Not in a million years had Hale imagined the commander would let Digital Fortress slip by. This back door was the chance of a lifetime.
As the panic rushed in, Hale’s mind seemed to play tricks on him. He saw the barrel of Strathmore’s Berretta everywhere he looked. He began to spin, holding Susan close, trying to deny the commander a shot. Driven by fear, Hale dragged Susan blindly toward the stairs. In five minutes the lights would come on, the doors would open, and a SWAT team would pour in.
“You’re hurting me!” Susan choked. She gasped for breath as she stumbled through Hale’s desperate pirouettes.
Hale considered letting her go and making a mad dash for Strathmore’s elevator, but it was suicide. He had no password. Besides, once outside the NSA without a hostage, Hale knew he was as good as dead. Not even his Lotus could outrun a fleet of NSA helicopters. Susan is the only thing that will keep Strathmore from blowing me off the road!
“Susan,” Hale blurted, dragging her toward the stairs. “Come with me! I swear I won’t hurt you!”
As Susan fought him, Hale realized he had new problems. Even if he somehow managed to get Strathmore’s elevator open and take Susan with him, she would undoubtedly fight him all the way out of the building. Hale knew full well that Strathmore’s elevator made only one stop: “the Underground Highway,” a restricted labyrinth of underground access tunnels through which NSA powerbrokers moved in secrecy. Hale had no intention of ending up lost in the basement corridors of the NSA with a struggling hostage. It was a death trap. Even if he got out, he realized, he had no gun. How would he get Susan across the parking lot? How would he drive?
It was the voice of one of Hale’s marine, military‑strategy professors that gave him his answer:
Force a hand, the voice warned, and it will fight you. But convince a mind to think as you want it to think, and you have an ally.
“Susan,” Hale heard himself saying, “Strathmore’s a killer! You’re in danger here!”
Susan didn’t seem to hear. Hale knew it was an absurd angle anyway; Strathmore would never hurt Susan, and she knew it.
Hale strained his eyes into the darkness, wondering where the commander was hidden. Strathmore had fallen silent suddenly, which made Hale even more panicky. He sensed his time was up. Security would arrive at any moment.
With a surge of strength, Hale wrapped his arms around Susan’s waist and pulled her hard up the stairs. She hooked her heels on the first step and pulled back. It was no use, Hale overpowered her.
Carefully, Hale backed up the stairs with Susan in tow. Pushing her up might have been easier, but the landing at the top was illuminated from Strathmore’s computer monitors. If Susan went first, Strathmore would have a clear shot at Hale’s back. Pulling Susan behind him, Hale had a human shield between himself and the Crypto floor.
About a third of the way up, Hale sensed movement at the bottom of the stairs. Strathmore’s making his move! “Don’t try it, Commander,” he hissed. “You’ll only get her killed.”
Hale waited. But there was only silence. He listened closely. Nothing. The bottom of the stairs was still. Was he imagining things? It didn’t matter. Strathmore would never risk a shot with Susan in the way.
But as Hale backed up the stairs dragging Susan behind him, something unexpected happened. There was a faint thud on the landing behind him. Hale stopped, adrenaline surging. Had Strathmore slipped upstairs? Instinct told him Strathmore was at the bottom of the stairs. But then, suddenly, it happened again‑louder this time. A distinct step on the upper landing!
In terror, Hale realized his mistake. Strathmore’s on the landing behind me! He has a clear shot of my back! In desperation, he spun Susan back to his uphill side and started retreating backwards down the steps.
As he reached the bottom step, he stared wildly up at the landing and yelled, “Back off, Commander! Back off, or I’ll break her—”
The butt of a Berretta came slicing through the air at the foot of the stairs and crashed down into Hale’s skull.
As Susan tore free of the slumping Hale, she wheeled in confusion. Strathmore grabbed her and reeled her in, cradling her shaking body. “Shhh,” he soothed. “It’s me. You’re okay.”
Susan was trembling. “Com . . . mander.” She gasped, disoriented. “I thought . . . I thought you were upstairs . . . I heard . . .”
“Easy now,” he whispered. “You heard me toss my loafers up onto the landing.”
Susan found herself laughing and crying at the same time. The commander had just saved her life. Standing there in the darkness, Susan felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was not, however, without guilt; Security was coming. She had foolishly let Hale grab her, and he had used her against Strathmore. Susan knew the commander had paid a huge price to save her. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Your plans for Digital Fortress . . . they’re ruined.”
Strathmore shook his head. “Not at all.”
“But . . . but what about Security? They’ll be here any minute. We won’t have time to—”
“Security’s not coming, Susan. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
Susan was lost. Not coming? “But you phoned . . .”
Strathmore chuckled. “Oldest trick in the book. I faked the call.”