Chapter Fifty-Three

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For two pressurized seconds, I hold every body part I still have control over away from the duct's metal. The nine-volt battery is alive between the pads of my fingers. The whir of the HVAC fan, pushing air many floors down, whispers in my ear.

In my attempt to keep perfectly still, I lean too far forward and begin tilting out over the brownout mechanism.

Nothing has happened yet. The thought occurs to me that electrical circuits are fast.

One second becomes two.

Two become three.

My tilt worsens to a teeter—I am about to pitch forward and land on the brownout circuits. Will anything happen if I smash them? Could some spark be produced and do the job of this battery I just snatched?

Not caring to learn these answers, I duck my shoulder at the last second and crash into the empty—and safe—corner of the duct. The noise is stupendous.

Three seconds become five.

Five become ten.

We're safe.

I squirm over onto my back and fill my lungs with hot, filmy air. The duct's metal sides pin my ears and the spikes of my hair to my head. My skin is a petri dish of grotesqueries—sweat, dirt, blood, scab, stuck clothes.

And I don't care.

Paul calls up, "Deb, what's your status? Are you okay?"

I exhale. "Yeah! All good up here."

I crawl back to the removed HVAC vent, plodding on all fours, sore in my butt and back, nudging Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt ahead. Of forty original quills, she has about seven left.

Paul is waiting underneath the vent. He's helping me down onto the table we pulled over before when my grimy arm slips. He stops my fall by bracing my left foot, and as he releases it, we are both watching the contact.

I think about my belief, forty-odd hours ago, that Paul had impure thoughts about my feet. It seems such a strange, petty inference now—so ignorant, so cavalierly drawn.

"You need to get to a hospital," he says, glancing from one abrasion to the next. "Those monsters put you through the ringer."

I pick a dust bunny from a gash on my elbow, extracting a thread of blood. "Hospital later. I have a few to-dos ahead of it in the queue."

Paul grins. In the fullness of his face, I don't see condescension or think of his McGriddle intake. All I see is warmth.

He says, "Why am I not surprised?"

We slog down to the lobby together. My heart still pumps double time, but my brain has given up the fight, processing the scene in a sort of happy haze.

People stream through the exit, gushing outside to sidewalks or Muni, anyplace but here. The evacuation is hasty but controlled; Susan went ahead the moment the detonator was disabled and let everyone know the imminent threat had been removed.

The lobby glass shows cracks, but none of the panels got punched out. Apparently Security Kyle ran downstairs and escaped by the parking garage—which Elite had secured with a simple padlock, easily broken by bolt cutters—then circled back around front to disable Oleg's double-door lock.

"Take your time, let your body readjust to the natural world," Susan is saying, raising her nose with a savoring air. "Again—you have my apologies, your families have my apologies—please, relax, take as long as necessary coming back to the office."

Her message is having its intended effect. People pause to buckle their briefcases or be sure of outer pockets. A few are even lingering to watch some of the Cape Canaveral launch on the lobby TVs. Scaffolding towers are being wheeled away from the spacecraft, and CNN has placed a countdown timer in the corner of the screen.

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