In the testing room Ethan sat at a computer screen divided into quadrants. At random intervals the computer beeped. Three seconds later, the computer generated a blip of light somewhere on the screen. After each tone and before the light blip appeared, Ethan was supposed to touch the screen in the quadrant where he thought the light would occur.
He was into his second run when the ceiling lights in the room blinked out and the monitor went dead. Ethan sat back in his padded chair and waited in the dark. Several minutes went by and nothing happened. In the distance, he heard a siren wailing. He smelled smoke. Then water hissed from the sprinkler system overhead.
The smoke became thicker and Ethan dropped to the floor to avoid the worst of it. He groped to the door and felt around until he found the doorknob. It turned, but the door wouldn’t open. Panic seized Ethan. He saw a faint reddish glow higher up the door. Ethan’s fingers ran up the jamb to chest level where a ten-key security lock glowed dull red. This door had never been locked before. The red keypad had never been lit before. But why would they want doors locked in an emergency?
A deep rumble vibrated the walls and Ethan’s heart rate accelerated. He began coughing. Nobody was coming to release him; he was on his own. The smoke got so thick he had to put his face right up to the door. He stared at the keypad and in his head saw a number. He punched in seven digits. The keypad glowed green and clicked. Ethan yanked at the doorknob and the door opened. He staggered into the hall.
The fluorescent tubes in the hall beamed brightly; the carpet remained dry; no sprinklers had gone off. Except for smoke spilling out of the testing lab, the air was clear. What the hell was going on?
In the control room, Clifford Dolci tapped a monitor labeled Test Lab Number 2 Infrared View. “Did you see that, Andrew? He got the code on the very first try. A seven digit number.”
Andrew Churchill sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers, a smile twisting his pale lips.
“Uh-oh,” said Dolci.
“He’s bugging out.”
Andrew Churchill glared at the screen. They’d stumbled onto something here. He didn’t know why, but he needed this farmer. It took Andrew Churchill three seconds to weigh the possibilities and reach a decision. “Call security,” he said.
As Ethan loped down the wide corridor, his skin prickled. With each step his thoughts screamed, “They know, they know, they know…” He cursed himself for what he had done – the witching his mother had tried to beat out of him since childhood. He had always kept his head down, made a modest living to avoid attention, but this easy money had sucked him into something he now regretted.
He felt them ahead, so he veered left into a corridor of the same white walls, same gray carpet, the same progression of endless oak doors. But Ethan had a precise sense of direction. He knew exactly where he’d parked his truck and no matter how many times his route might twist and turn, he could find it.
Hearing a shout, he snatched a quick look behind. A mountain in a blue uniform swept toward him. Now he had to really run. His knees still ached from sprinting through the thunderstorm with Beth, but he had no choice. “Damn.” Ethan cut right and broke the line of sight, charging down the first corridor that appeared. Fifty feet ahead he saw a gray metal door, behind which he would find open air, his truck, and an end to this foolishness. But he felt someone ahead about to intersect his line of flight. He accelerated, focused on the gray door that led home.
He arrived a second too late.
A door on his left swung open with such force it banged back against the wall. Two guards spewed from the opening and collided with Ethan. The trio went down in a tangle, Ethan ramming his right knee into the groin of the nearest guard. The man screeched as he swung an elbow at Ethan’s face. An instant too slow, the man’s elbow never connected, as Ethan’s knuckles broke the guard’s nose. Blood gushed and the man howled. His attack stopped.
As the second guard grabbed Ethan’s neck from behind, Ethan spun left and got a leg under himself. With huge effort, he lifted himself and the second guard long enough to slam backward against the wall, crushing the breath out of the man who clung to him like a limpet. The guard’s grip loosened and Ethan drove an elbow backward catching his attacker in the front of the rib cage. A high squeal came out of the man and Ethan almost shook loose. Through the corner of his eye, he saw motion and heard the slamming footsteps of the man-mountain rapidly approaching.
Reaching up with his left hand, Ethan felt behind his head, located his grappler’s face and rammed a thumb into an eye socket. The guard let loose with a guttural roar. Ethan shook himself free. Without looking back, he hurled himself at the gray door. He had his hands on the horizontal throw-bar, when a crushing weight hit him from behind. The impact drove him through the doorway, sprawling him across a concrete landing.
For a brief instant, Ethan lay in the sun. But as helpless as a calf in the jaws of a crocodile, he could not fight the enormous strength that yanked him back through the doorway.