Susan climbed down the ladder into the sublevels. Thick steam was now boiling up around TRANSLTR’s hull. The catwalks were wet with condensation. She almost fell, her flats providing very little traction. She wondered how much longer TRANSLTR would survive. The sirens continued their intermittent warning. The emergency lights spun in two‑second intervals. Three stories below, the aux generators shook in a taxed whine. Susan knew somewhere at the bottom in the foggy dimness there was a circuit breaker. She sensed time was running out.
* * *
Upstairs, Strathmore held the Beretta in his hand. He reread his note and laid it on the floor of the room where he was standing. What he was about to do was a cowardly act, there was no doubt. I’m a survivor, he thought. He thought of the virus in the NSA databank, he thought of David Becker in Spain, he thought of his plans for a back door. He had told so many lies. He was guilty of so much. He knew this was the only way to avoid accountability . . . the only way to avoid the shame. Carefully he aimed the gun. Then he closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.
* * *
Susan had only descended six flights when she heard the muffled shot. It was far off, barely audible over the generators. She had never heard a gunshot except on television, but she had no doubt what it was.
She stopped short, the sound resounding in her ears. In a wave of horror, she feared the worst. She pictured the commander’s dreams‑the back door in Digital Fortress, the incredible coup it would have been. She pictured the virus in the databank, his failing marriage, that eerie nod he had given her. Her footing faltered. She spun on the landing, grappling for the banister. Commander! No!
Susan was momentarily frozen, her mind blank. The echo of the gunshot seemed to drown out the chaos around her. Her mind told her to keep on going, but her legs refused. Commander! An instant later she found herself stumbling back up the stairs, entirely forgetting the danger around her.
She ran blindly, slipping on the slick metal. Above her the humidity fell like rain. When she reached the ladder and began climbing, she felt herself lifted from below by a tremendous surge of steam that practically jettisoned her through the trapdoor. She rolled onto the Crypto floor and felt the cool air wash over her. Her white blouse clung to her body, soaked through.
It was dark. Susan paused, trying to get her bearings. The sound of the gunshot was on endless loop in her head. Hot steam billowed up through the trapdoor like gases from a volcano about to explode.
Susan cursed herself for leaving the Beretta with Strathmore. She had left it with him, hadn’t she? Or was it in Node 3? As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she glanced toward the gaping hole in the Node 3 wall. The glow from the monitors was faint, but in the distance she could see Hale lying motionless on the floor where she’d left him. There was no sign of Strathmore. Terrified of what she’d find, she turned toward the commander’s office.
But as she began to move, something registered as strange. She backpedaled a few steps and peered into Node 3 again. In the soft light she could see Hale’s arm. It was not at his side. He was no longer tied like a mummy. His arm was up over his head. He was sprawled backward on the floor. Had he gotten free? There was no movement. Hale was deathly still.
Susan gazed up at Strathmore’s workstation perched high on the wall. “Commander?”
Tentatively she moved toward Node 3. There was an object in Hale’s hand. It glimmered in the light of the monitors. Susan moved closer . . . closer. Suddenly she could see what Hale was holding. It was the Beretta.
Susan gasped. Following the arch of Hale’s arm, her eyes moved to his face. What she saw was grotesque. Half of Greg Hale’s head was soaked in blood. The dark stain had spread out across the carpet.
Oh my God! Susan staggered backward. It wasn’t the commander’s shot she’d heard, it was Hale’s!
As if in a trance, Susan moved toward the body. Apparently, Hale had managed to free himself. The printer cables were piled on the floor beside him. I must have left the gun on the couch, she thought. The blood flowing through the hole in his skull looked black in the bluish light.
On the floor beside Hale was a piece of paper. Susan went over unsteadily, and picked it up. It was a letter.
Dearest friends, I am taking my life today in penance for the following sins . . .
In utter disbelief, Susan stared at the suicide note in her hand. She read slowly. It was surreal‑so unlike Hale‑a laundry list of crimes. He was admitting to everything‑figuring out that NDAKOTA was a hoax, hiring a mercenary to kill Ensei Tankado and take the ring, pushing Phil Chartrukian, planning to sell Digital Fortress.
Susan reached the final line. She was not prepared for what she read. The letter’s final words delivered a numbing blow.
Above all, I’m truly sorry about David Becker. Forgive me, I was blinded by ambition.
As Susan stood trembling over Hale’s body, the sound of running footsteps approached behind her. In slow motion, she turned.
Strathmore appeared in the broken window, pale and out of breath. He stared down at Hale’s body in apparent shock.
“Oh my God!” he said. “What happened?”