Chapter 1 – Mall Chase
He’d been wrong to think they wouldn’t come after him in a crowded public mall. Standing at the back of the clothing store, he was just able to see when the pair of operatives appeared at the entrance. To most people, they might seem slightly out of place, perhaps a little old to be casually browsing the latest teen fashions, but to Dr. Mason they might as well have been wearing bright orange hazmat suits.
He frowned and sighed. These weren’t just the tech team, sent to retrieve him and the stolen goods he carried. These were “cleanup” agents, ordered to contain an event at any cost. The Doctor knew without doubt that the men, slowly making their way through the displays of jeans and tank tops, would willingly kill everyone else in the store in order to get to him, if necessary. All of which meant that he had very little time to do what needed to be done.
An odd clarity came over him as he accepted his fate. He had no family to begin with, save for an estranged sister in Utah, and few of the people he still called friends or colleagues would even notice he was gone for weeks or even months. That left only his work to worry about, which was why he was running in the first place. In that matter, he must not fail. The world was not ready for what he had produced, and certainly not in the hands of the group he had ended up working for.
It was time to move. Slowly, without drawing undue attention to himself, he left his sheltered corner and headed into the store’s break room. He was relieved to find it empty, and equally so to see the employee entrance at the back. The exit would lock once he let it shut behind him, but that path was a literal dead-end anyway, so he let the heavy door click closed and stepped into the hallway behind the stores. The cold gray concrete was a stark contrast to the carefully branded and color coordinated marketing festival of the mall proper, and he sighed again, this time at the reduction of the thumping music that was trapped behind the heavy metal door. He could just make out the fast, heart-like bass rhythm beyond the foot or so of concrete and rebar, and noticed that his own pounding heartbeat was nearly perfectly synchronous with the fading cacophony. An unconscious harmony, no doubt, but one that he recognized from his own work. He needed to keep moving.
Certainly, they would have the exits of the hallway monitored, but now that he understood the stakes, he could choose to take a more extreme path. All risks were now acceptable.
He put his hand into his pocket to be sure that the item was still there. He might have been relieved if it had not been, lost somewhere within the thousands of people that visited the mall each day, but a few seconds later his fingers found the simple smooth plastic, and he mulled over his options. The momentary possibility of being free of his task gave him an idea, and he tried to visualize the layout of the shopping complex from the directory he had seen earlier. Looking up, he saw what he was expecting. It was a maintenance ladder leading to the next level.
The access wasn’t meant to be used by anyone but authorized technicians, and was locked mostly out of the way. It wasn’t impossible to reach, just purposely inconvenient. But ‘dead’ was a lot more inconvenient, so the Doctor grunted and scraped and generally lifted himself up until he managed to get himself a footing. The rest of the climb was easy, if not dirty, and quite dark. He was just beginning to wonder how far he needed to climb, when his head thumped into hard concrete and he winced. Besides the small circle of dim light below him, the space he occupied was black as pitch, and for a short time as he rubbed the top of his head, he considered just hiding out there until his pursuers moved on. But no, these were not the kind of people who would leave any dark hole unchecked. It might take hours, but eventually, they would find him.
Knowing that the ladder had to go somewhere, he felt around him until his fingers found a latch. The small access door opened without any alarms, and he slowly cracked it just enough to peer out.
Dr. Mason was expecting another concrete hallway, so he was momentarily blinded by the blazing afternoon sunlight that flooded in from the top of the parking garage. A stifling Southern California heat blew across his face as though he had just opened the door of an oven, and he gasped. Instantly, he felt new drips of sweat rolling down his neck and back.
The parking lot looked mostly empty, the mall patrons tending to choose the shaded, cooler levels rather than leaving their cars in the hot sun all day, but the vehicles would still give him some cover should anyone be watching. He quickly pushed open the door and stepped into the heat.
There were no bullets or cries of alarm, so he counted his blessings and moved as casually as he could to the nearby cars, searching. He had no idea how long he had, but so far, his luck was holding. Now if he could just find what he was looking for.
Minutes passed, and he was nearly to the far end of the lot. He could turn around and start down another row, but every second he was out in the open increased his chances of being spotted. More ticklish drips of body moisture crawled down his back, and he ached to be out of the direct sunlight, but he forced himself to continue searching.
Two vehicles short of the end, he saw what he was looking for, but resisted running forward. This was the critical juncture. He needed to be rid of the device, but he must do so such that no one would notice if they happened to be watching him. He slowed slightly, as though he might be approaching his own vehicle, reaching into his pocket for his keys. But it wasn’t his car, and his keys were back in his lab. Instead, he palmed the small plastic device in his hand and withdrew it. Turning out of the row, he squeezed between two parked cars: a truck, and a smaller passenger vehicle. Just as he moved past the smaller car, he lifted his hand as though to steady himself, and slipped the small, black obelisk through the crack at the top of the slightly open passenger side window. Without looking back, the Doctor moved straight on through several rows of cars until he came to the low wall at the edge of the lot. There, he stopped and took a deep breath as he stared down at the busy people four floors below. It was done.
He smiled, knowing that it didn’t matter what happened to him now. It was out of his hands. Fate would decide whether the device would find its way to the proper authorities now, and he had a moment of guilt, knowing that path would undoubtable cost more lives. But at least there was a chance now: a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.
Dr. Mason was still smiling when the door to the stairwell burst open and three armed men moved quickly into the open. The first bullet hit him in the calf and went right on through, causing him to lean against the low wall for support. A second bullet impacted his shoulder and felt as though someone had punched him, spinning him around so that he had a clear view of the third shot, which shattered his knee on the other side. Suddenly finding that neither of his legs would hold him up, he fell backward and tipped over the wall. He had one quick look at the ever blazing California sun before he crashed headfirst into the roof of an SUV parked four stories below.