They reached the door to the stairs and Michael opened it. “Let’s just get down as far as we can go. We’ll figure it out.”
Bryson had been quiet, and he didn’t move toward the opening after Sarah had walked through. His arms were folded and his face had that pinched look of concentration.
“You can’t hack your way out of this one,” Michael murmured.
“I know,” Bryson replied. “I’m thinking.”
“Not a good time,” Michael said, but deep down he hoped his friend would devise some brilliant plan.
“Let’s go!” Sarah yelled, clearly out of patience.
“Okay, okay,” Bryson snapped, moving into the stairwell. “Follow me.”
And of course he went up the stairs, not down.
Sarah took in a breath, probably ready to argue. But Michael reached out and squeezed her arm. She stopped before she began, looking at him anxiously.
“I think he’s right on this one,” he said, proud of how softly he managed to say it.
Sarah’s defeated look showed she knew they were right. “I just want to be out of this place.”
“Me too. But we’d be walking right into their arms if we went down. Cops are probably running up those stairs as we speak.”
“Then we better get moving.”
Bryson had already disappeared around the bend of the ascending stairwell, and they took off after him, up two steps at a time.
The office building was a big one, as the numbers on the doors indicating the floor illustrated all too well. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty. With no end in sight as Michael paused to catch his breath, looking up through the rectangular spiral of the railings, rising and rising. His chest heaved with the effort of climbing, and sweat dripped from his face onto the floor.
“Gotta … keep … moving,” Sarah said through her own huffs.
“Gotta … keep … breathing,” he mocked in reply.
He could suddenly hear distant shouts and footsteps, but the acoustics of the stairwell made it impossible to make out words or to know how close those responsible for the noise were. Fear rattled in his chest along with the ragged breaths.
“What’s the plan, anyway?” Sarah asked.
For some reason Bryson looked like he’d just taken a rest instead of having sprinted up fifteen flights of stairs. He pointed up. “Hide.”
“Hide,” Michael repeated.
“Yes, hide,” Bryson responded smugly. “You think I would lead you two wonderful people on a wild-goose chase that ends with us in the slammer? No way.”
“I think cops are really good at hide-and-seek,” Sarah said. “Especially when they have dogs that can smell humans from a mile away, infrared sensors, all that good stuff.”
“Have faith in Bryson,” Michael said. “He is all-knowing.” He didn’t even mean to be a smart aleck—something told him that his friend could get them out of this.
“Yeah,” Bryson replied. “Have faith. And no offense, Mike the Spike, but you were dead wrong.”
“I was? About what?”
“When you said we couldn’t hack our way out of here.”
Bryson tried to hide a grin as he turned and continued up the stairs, his feet pounding as he jumped the steps two or three at a time. Michael and Sarah exchanged a look, part amused, part curious, then followed him.
The sounds below—shouting, footsteps, doors opening and slamming—were definitely getting closer. Michael vaulted up the stairs, his heart a jackhammer in his chest.
Bryson didn’t stop, keeping a relentless pace as they passed floor after floor. Forty. Forty-five. Fifty. The muscles in Michael’s legs felt like acid had been injected in them, growing more painful by the second. And his lungs burned, fighting for oxygen. He tried to tell Bryson to slow down, but he couldn’t get the words out. Sarah looked just as miserable, but she kept climbing, staying right in front of Michael.
The building stopped at the sixtieth floor. Mercifully. There was a swinging gate blocking off the last flight of stairs, which ended at a door marked with a sign that said, simply, ROOF. Michael’s vision pulsed along with his heartbeat, making everything jitter. The number 60 printed on the door to the top floor shook as if laughing, as if it were mocking him, saying, Why didn’t you take the elevator, you idiot?
Which was a good question, actually. He spit it out to Bryson between pulls of air into his lungs.
“Because they’re watching those puppies with cameras. The cops might even have someone in each elevator car. Plus”—he took a deep breath—“I had no idea this stupid building was so tall!”
Sarah was bent over, hands on knees, but she pulled herself up straight. “Well, they’re coming.” Even as she said it, Michael noticed over the rushing in his ears the footsteps echoing up the chamber of the stairwell. “They’re probably searching floor by floor, which will take some time, but they’ll be here soon enough.”
“So what do we do?” Michael asked, waiting for Bryson to finally reveal his plan.
His friend took charge in a way Michael had never seen before, not even in the worst of times inside the Sleep.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Bryson said. “Come on.” He started walking back down the stairs, a thing that seemed so absurd to Michael that he didn’t even bother asking. “I just wanted to see how far up this place went, but we can’t hide on the top floor, too obvious. Let’s go down a few and find a good spot.”
Their steps echoed as they descended. Michael’s legs had cooled off too much and felt weak as he followed.
“So is that really your plan?” Sarah asked. “We’re just going to hide and hope no one finds us?”
Bryson gave her a hurt look over his shoulder—genuine, as if she’d really offended him. But then he hid it with a grin. “Give me some credit, lady. Remember what I said about hacking?”
Suddenly it hit Michael what his friend had planned. “We’ll break into their computer system, watch their feeds, listen to their scanners. Then we can move around and keep avoiding them.”
“Yep,” Bryson replied.
Sarah responded as if she’d known the plan all along. “We can break into the schematics of the building, too. Maybe there’s a way out that we’re not thinking of.”