Jabba stared blankly at the printout Soshi had just handed him. Pale, he wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “Director, we have no choice. We’ve got to kill power to the databank.”
“Unacceptable,” Fontaine replied. “The results would be devastating.”
Jabba knew the director was right. There were over three thousand ISDN connections tying into the NSA databank from all over the world. Every day military commanders accessed up-to-the-instant satellite photos of enemy movement. Lockheed engineers downloaded compartmentalized blueprints of new weaponry. Field operatives accessed mission updates. The NSA databank was the backbone of thousands of U.S. government operations. Shutting it down without warning would cause life-and-death intelligence blackouts all over the globe.
“I’m aware of the implications, sir,” Jabba said, “but we have no choice.”
“Explain yourself,” Fontaine ordered. He shot a quick glance at Susan standing beside him on the podium. She seemed miles away.
Jabba took a deep breath and wiped his brow again. From the look on his face, it was clear to the group on the podium that they were not going to like what he had to say.
“This worm,” Jabba began. “This worm is not an ordinary degenerative cycle. It’s a selective cycle. In other words, it’s a worm with taste.”
Brinkerhoff opened his mouth to speak, but Fontaine waved him off.
“Most destructive applications wipe a databank clean, “Jabba continued, “but this one is more complex. It deletes only those files that fall within certain parameters.”
“You mean it won’t attack the whole databank?” Brinkerhoff asked hopefully. “That’s good, right?”
“No!” Jabba exploded. “It’s bad! It’s very fucking bad!”
“Cool it!” Fontaine ordered. “What parameters is this worm looking for? Military? Covert ops?”
Jabba shook his head. He eyed Susan, who was still distant, and then Jabba’s eyes rose to meet the director’s. “Sir, as you know, anyone who wants to tie into this databank from the outside has to pass a series of security gates before they’re admitted.”
Fontaine nodded. The databank’s access hierarchies were brilliantly conceived; authorized personnel could dial in via the Internet and World Wide Web. Depending on their authorization sequence, they were permitted access to their own compartmentalized zones.
“Because we’re tied to the global Internet, “Jabba explained, “hackers, foreign governments, and EFF sharks circle this databank twenty-four hours a day and try to break in.”
“Yes,” Fontaine said, “and twenty-four hours a day, our security filters keep them out. What’s your point?”
Jabba gazed down at the printout. “My point is this. Tankado’s worm is not targeting our data.” He cleared his throat. “It’s targeting our security filters.”
Fontaine blanched. Apparently he understood the implications-this worm was targeting the filters that kept the NSA databank confidential. Without filters, all of the information in the databank would become accessible to everyone on the outside.
“We need to shut down,” Jabba repeated. “In about an hour, every third grader with a modem is going to have top U.S. security clearance.”
Fontaine stood a long moment without saying a word.
Jabba waited impatiently and finally turned to Soshi. “Soshi! VR! NOW!”
Soshi dashed off.
Jabba relied on VR often. In most computer circles, VR meant “virtual reality,” but at the NSA it meant vis-rep-visual representation. In a world full of technicians and politicians all having different levels of technical understanding, a graphic representation was often the only way to make a point; a single plummeting graph usually aroused ten times the reaction inspired by volumes of spreadsheets. Jabba knew a VR of the current crisis would make its point instantly.
“VR!” Soshi yelled from a terminal at the back of the room.
A computer-generated diagram flashed to life on the wall before them. Susan gazed up absently, detached from the madness around her. Everyone in the room followed Jabba’s gaze to the screen.
The diagram before them resembled a bull’s-eye. In the center was a red circle marked data. Around the center were five concentric circles of differing thickness and color. The outermost circle was faded, almost transparent.
“We’ve got a five-tier level of defense,” Jabba explained. “A primary Bastion Host, two sets of packet filters for FTP and X-eleven, a tunnel block, and finally a PEM-based authorization window right off the Truffle project. The outside shield that’s disappearing represents the exposed host. It’s practically gone. Within the hour, all five shields will follow. After that, the world pours in. Every byte of NSA data becomes public domain.”
Fontaine studied the VR, his eyes smoldering.
Brinkerhoff let out a weak whimper. “This worm can open our databank to the world?”
“Child’s play for Tankado,” Jabba snapped. “Gauntlet was our fail-safe. Strathmore blew it.”
“It’s an act of war,” Fontaine whispered, an edge in his voice.
Jabba shook his head. “I really doubt Tankado ever meant for it to go this far. I suspect he intended to be around to stop it.”
Fontaine gazed up at the screen and watched the first of the five walls disappear entirely.
“Bastion Host is toast!” a technician yelled from the back of the room. “Second shield’s exposed!”
“We’ve got to start shutting down,” Jabba urged. “From the looks of the VR, we’ve got about forty-five minutes. Shutdown is a complex process.”
It was true. The NSA databank had been constructed in such a way as to ensure it would never lose power-accidentally or if attacked. Multiple fail-safes for phone and power were buried in reinforced steel canisters deep underground, and in addition to the feeds from within the NSA complex, there were multiple backups off main public grids. Shutting down involved a complex series of confirmations and protocols-significantly more complicated than the average nuclear submarine missile launch.
“We have time,” Jabba said, “if we hurry. Manual shutdown should take about thirty minutes.”
Fontaine continued staring up at the VR, apparently pondering his options.
“Director!” Jabba exploded. “When these firewalls fall, every user on the planet will be issued top-security clearance! And I’m talking upper level! Records of covert ops! Overseas agents! Names and locations of everyone in the federal witness protection program! Launch code confirmations! We must shut down! Now!”
The director seemed unmoved. “There must be some other way.”
“Yes,” Jabba spat, “there is! The kill-code! But the only guy who knows it happens to be dead!”
“How about brute force?” Brinkerhoff blurted. “Can we guess the kill-code?”
Jabba threw up his arms. “For Christ sake! Kill-codes are like encryption keys-random! Impossible to guess! If you think you can type 600 trillion entries in the next forty-five minutes, be my guest!”
“The kill-code’s in Spain,” Susan offered weakly.
Everyone on the podium turned. It was the first thing she had said in a long time.
Susan looked up, bleary-eyed. “Tankado gave it away when he died.”
Everyone looked lost.
“The pass-key…” Susan shivered as she spoke. “Commander Strathmore sent someone to find it.”
“And?” Jabba demanded. “Did Strathmore’s man find it?”
Susan tried to fight it, but the tears began to flow. “Yes,” she choked. “I think so.”
An earsplitting yell cut through the control room. “Sharks!” It was Soshi.
Jabba spun toward the VR. Two thin lines had appeared outside the concentric circles. They looked like sperm trying to breach a reluctant egg.
“Blood’s in the water, folks!” Jabba turned back to the director. “I need a decision. Either we start shutting down, or we’ll never make it. As soon as these two intruders see the Bastion Host is down, they’ll send up a war cry.”
Fontaine did not respond. He was deep in thought. Susan Fletcher’s news of the pass-key in Spain seemed promising to him. He shot a glance toward Susan in the back of the room. She appeared to be in her own world, collapsed in a chair, her head buried in her hands. Fontaine was unsure exactly what had triggered the reaction, but whatever it was, he had no time for it now.
“I need a decision!” Jabba demanded. “Now!”
Fontaine looked up. He spoke calmly. “Okay, you’ve got one. We are not shutting down. We’re going to wait.”
Jabba’s jaw dropped. “What? But that’s-”
“A gamble,” Fontaine interrupted. “A gamble we just might win.” He took Jabba’s cellular and punched a few keys. “Midge,” he said. “It’s Leland Fontaine. Listen carefully….”
“You better know what the hell you’re doing, Director,” Jabba hissed. “We’re about to lose shut-down capability.”
Fontaine did not respond.
As if on cue, the door at the back of the control room opened, and Midge came dashing in. She arrived breathless at the podium. “Director! The switchboard is patching it through right now!”
Fontaine turned expectantly toward the screen on the front wall. Fifteen seconds later the screen crackled to life.
The image on screen was snowy and stilted at first, and gradually grew sharper. It was a QuickTime digital transmission-only five frames per second. The image revealed two men. One was pale with a buzz cut, the other a blond all-American. They were seated facing the camera like two newscasters waiting to go on the air.
“What the hell is this?” Jabba demanded.
“Sit tight,” Fontaine ordered.
The men appeared to be inside a van of some sort. Electronic cabling hung all around them. The audio connection crackled to life. Suddenly there was background noise.
“Inbound audio,” a technician called from behind them. “Five seconds till two-way.”
“Who are they?” Brinkerhoff asked, uneasily.
“Eye in the sky,” Fontaine replied, gazing up at the two men he had sent to Spain. It had been a necessary precaution. Fontaine had believed in almost every aspect of Strathmore’s plan-the regrettable but necessary removal of Ensei Tankado, rewriting Digital Fortress-it was all solid. But there was one thing that made Fontaine nervous: the use of Hulohot. Hulohot was skilled, but he was a mercenary. Was he trustworthy? Would he take the pass-key for himself? Fontaine wanted Hulohot covered, just incase, and he had taken the requisite measures.
“Absolutely not!” The man with the buzz cut yelled into the camera. “We have orders! We report to Director Leland Fontaine and Leland Fontaine only!”
Fontaine looked mildly amused. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?” the blond fired hotly.
“Let me explain,” Fontaine interjected. “Let me explain something right now.”
Seconds later, the two men were red-faced, spilling their guts to the director of the National Security Agency. “D-director,” the blond stammered, “I’m Agent Coliander. This is Agent Smith.”
“Fine,” Fontaine said. “Just brief us.”
At the back of the room, Susan Fletcher sat and fought the suffocating loneliness that pressed down around her. Eyes closed, and ears ringing, she wept. Her body had gone numb. The mayhem in the control room faded to a dull murmur.
The gathering on the podium listened, restless, as Agent Smith began his briefing.
“On your orders, Director,” Smith began, “we’ve been here in Seville for two days, trailing Mr. Ensei Tankado.”
“Tell me about the kill,” Fontaine said impatiently.
Smith nodded. “We observed from inside the van at about fifty meters. The kill was smooth. Hulohot was obviously a pro. But afterward his directive went awry. Company arrived. Hulohot never got the item.”
Fontaine nodded. The agents had contacted him in South America with news that something had gone wrong, so Fontaine had cut his trip short.
Coliander took over. “We stayed with Hulohot as you ordered. But he never made a move for the morgue. Instead, he picked up the trail of some other guy. Looked private. Coat and tie.”
“Private?” Fontaine mused. It sounded like a Strathmore play-wisely keeping the NSA out of it.
“FTP filters failing!” a technician called out.
“We need the item,” Fontaine pressed. “Where is Hulohot now?”
Smith looked over his shoulder. “Well… he’s with us, sir.”
Fontaine exhaled. “Where?” It was the best new she’d heard all day.
Smith reached toward the lens to make an adjustment. The camera swept across the inside of the van to reveal two limp bodies propped against the back wall. Both were motionless. One was a large man with twisted wire-rim glasses. The other was young with a shock of dark hair and a bloody shirt.
“Hulohot’s the one on the left,” Smith offered.
“Hulohot’s dead?” the director demanded.
Fontaine knew there would be time for explanations later. He glanced up at the thinning shields. “Agent Smith,” he said slowly and clearly. “The item. I need it.”
Smith looked sheepish. “Sir, we still have no idea what the item is. We’re on a need-to-know.”
“Then look again!” Fontaine declared.
The director watched in dismay as the stilted image of the agents searched the two limp bodies in the van for a list of random numbers and letters.
Jabba was pale. “Oh my God, they can’t find it. We’re dead!”
“Losing FTP filters!” a voice yelled. “Third shield’s exposed!” There was a new flurry of activity.
On the front screen, the agent with the buzz cut held out his arms in defeat. “Sir, the pass-key isn’t here. We’ve searched both men. Pockets. Clothing. Wallets. No sign at all. Hulohot was wearing a Monocle computer, and we’ve checked that too. It doesn’t look like he ever transmitted anything remotely resembling random characters-only a list of kills.”
“Dammit!” Fontaine seethed, suddenly losing his cool. “It’s got to be there! Keep looking!”
Jabba had apparently seen enough-Fontaine had gambled and lost. Jabba took over. The huge Sys-Sec descended from his pulpit like a storm off a mountain. He swept through his army of programmers calling out commands. “Access auxiliary kills! Start shutting it down! Do it now!”
“We’ll never make it!” Soshi yelled. “We need a half hour! By the time we shut down, it will be too late!”
Jabba opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut short by a scream of agony from the back of the room.
Everyone turned. Like an apparition, Susan Fletcher rose from her crouched position in the rear of the chamber. Her face was white, her eyes transfixed on the freeze-frame of David Becker, motionless and bloody, propped up on the floor of the van.
“You killed him!” she screamed. “You killed him!” She stumbled toward the image and reached out. “David…”
Everyone looked up in confusion. Susan advanced, still calling, her eyes never leaving the projection of David’s body. “David.” She gasped, staggering forward. “Oh, David… how could they-”
Fontaine seemed lost. “You know this man?”
Susan swayed unsteadily as she passed the podium. She stopped a few feet in front of the enormous projection and stared up, bewildered and numb, calling over and over to the man she loved.