Stratus Fear

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Chapter Thirty-one

I tried to think rationally, but rational thought eluded me. I had to find an outlet somewhere in this maze of ductwork and then get the hell out of the building. Panic would only make it harder for me to maneuver but I couldn’t convince my mind of that fact. Now the strident bleat of a warning siren rang in my ears along with the digital voice.

“Danger. The automatic destruct system has been activated. Please evacuate the building. Detonation is set for T-minus twenty-one minutes.” Bleat, bleat, bleat! “Danger! Please evacuate the building and observe designated exit routes.”

I thought about the irony of the situation. It sure would have helped if the building engineer had placed a designated exit-route sign up here. When I spotted some light ahead, red like a bordello light but light just the same, I scampered in that direction and found a large vent fitted with a metal grill overlooking one of the labs. The red light came from an exit sign over a door, and at least it gave me some sense of where I might be. This laboratory looked like the one Dane had shone me on our first meeting when he gave me the guided tour. That meant I should be close to the lobby.

“Detonation in nineteen minutes and forty-five seconds.”

I tried to push the grill out with my hands, but the metal proved too heavy. Next, I braced myself against the back of the vent and pushed with my feet. The grill gave a little but I still needed an extra surge of strength, strength I just didn’t have but needed desperately.

“Time of detonation is now seventeen minutes and ten seconds.”

I began to beat on the grill with my feet until it broke loose on one side. Come on, come on! One last, meteoric push finally freed the grill and me as well. Peering down, I estimated that the distance between me and the floor had to be a good eight feet. Still, if I lowered myself down the wall, I could probably fall the rest of the way and be no worse for wear. I had no other choice.

“You have fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds before denotation commences.”

I moved fast, slithering down the wall and dropping to the floor. I landed on my rump but I quickly sprung back up and headed for the exit door. The continuous bleating of the warning signal was doing more than getting on my nerves, but managed to crawl under my skin as well. It would probably echo in my mind for days to come…that’s if I survived.

Naturally, the door came locked, one of those big steel numbers that would take a welding flame to cut through. I looked at the ID locking device on the wall next to it, triggered by an authorized employee’s fingerprint and cornea scan, but even if I managed to smash up the digital pad, it still wouldn’t open the door because of the extra security measures involved.

Desperate now, I whirled around to locate some other means of egress. There had to be another exit or exits someplace, but I couldn’t see any along the walls, even after I turned on an overhead fluorescent lamp. I glanced back at the large window, the same one I had peered through on the tour with Dane, but then I had been on the other side looking in—not out.

Maybe, just maybe, I could throw something heavy enough to smash through the window, that’s if I was dealing with regular glass and not tempered safety glass. At this point I’d try anything.

Choosing a piece of lab equipment, what appeared to be a microwave accelerator, I rammed it into the glass but it only bounced back. I needed something heavier, and I needed a stronger arm. I considered a larger machine, labeled a cyclotron, and made of heavy duty steel. I could barely get it off the table let alone hoist it over my head. But I had to try… Thus, with herculean effort, I lifted it and threw the damned thing with all my might, but only managed to make a small dent in the glass. Damn! Beyond desperate now, I spied the mechanical laser arm, and knew it would do the trick if I could just figure out how to work it.

Wheeling the whole table over, I positioned the laser’s arm so that its long needle-nose pointed directly at the window. Then I began pushing every button and flipping every lever until I finally heard the machine warm up with a low, throbbing hum. In just a split second, the laser beam came to life, shot forward, and shattered the glass into a million little shards.

Elated and flushed, I pointed the laser out of the way and then climbed through the portal. But before I hit the hallway, I noticed the autoclave panel had been pulled back to expose the particle rollers. I had no choice but to walk across them and try to keep my balance. Suddenly, my foot wedged between two of the rollers and I fell forward.

“Five minutes and twenty-two seconds to detonation.” The drone’s voice had become both my constant companion and my doomsday herald.

As I worked to pull my foot loose I felt a shot of pain. Great! I must have twisted my ankle. With both hands now I tried to drive the rollers farther apart, one up, one down. Come on, come on! Despite the pain, I separated the rollers as far as I could and then wiggled my foot. It came free at last. After I staggered forward, I ran down the hall as fast as my sore ankle would allow until I came to the intersection of connecting hallways. I had no idea which one to take. This had to be a maze, a crazy, surreal maze with no escape possible. I tried to remember which hall Dane and I had taken from the lobby. Dane…I couldn’t think of him now. The left, yes, it had to be the left! And yet the more I ran the more I found myself surrounded by walls of right angles and miles of floor.

“Detonation in two minutes and fifteen seconds.”

Then I saw the glow of lights ahead, illuminating the Senesco holo-sign behind the reception desk, welcoming me through the zigzag of shadows and guiding me to the lobby at last. But I had one problem. The big double doors to the outside world were locked tight, and even if I managed to set off the alarm, a security team wouldn’t arrive in time to save me. I could see the globe sculpture right outside, highlighted by multi-hued spotlights, so close and yet so far. I pounded on the glass and let out a primal scream of sheer frustration. I had come all this way…only to be stopped cold when freedom beckoned just beyond these doors.

Detonation in fifty-six seconds.”

Cold…I suddenly felt a draft. It seemed to be coming from one of the halls ahead of me to the right. I ran in that direction, heedless of my aching limbs. I smelled the acrid night air now, tinged with creosote from the brewing storm, and knew I had found salvation at last. In their haste to leave the property, Joffe and his minions had gone through the side door but hadn’t closed and locked it after them. Now it stood ajar, and I joyously shoved it open and bounded through the doorway and out into the night. Fat, needle-sharp raindrops pelted me but it felt heavenly. The android’s voice seemed to follow me. “T-minus fifteen seconds and counting…fourteen, thirteen…twelve…eleven…ten...”

I kept on running until I came to a sturdy, leafy hedge that seemed to surround me. Now I had no choice but to continue forward, and so I made an Olympic-worthy long jump over the nearest set of bushes just as the building exploded into a fiery ball behind me.

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