“It’s proof,” Fontaine said decidedly. “Tankado dumped the ring. He wanted it as far from himself as possible-so we’d never find it.”
“But, Director,” Susan argued, “it doesn’t make sense. If Tankado was unaware he’d been murdered, why would he give away the kill code?”
“I agree,” Jabba said. “The kid’s a rebel, but he’s a rebel with a conscience. Getting us to admit to TRANSLTR is one thing; revealing our classified databank is another.”
Fontaine stared, disbelieving. “You think Tankado wanted to stop this worm? You think his dying thoughts were for the poor NSA?”
“Tunnel-block corroding!” a technician yelled. “Full vulnerability in fifteen minutes, maximum!”
“I’ll tell you what,” the director declared, taking control. “In fifteen minutes, every Third World country on the planet will learn how to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. If someone in this room thinks he’s got a better candidate for a kill code than this ring, I’m all ears.” The director waited. No one spoke. He returned his gaze to Jabba and locked eyes. “Tankado dumped that ring for a reason, Jabba. Whether he was trying to bury it, or whether he thought the fat guy would run to a pay phone and call us with the information, I really don’t care. But I’ve made the decision. We’re entering that quote. Now.”
Jabba took a long breath. He knew Fontaine was right-there was no better option. They were running out of time. Jabba sat. “Okay… let’s do it.” He pulled himself to the keyboard. “Mr. Becker? The inscription, please. Nice and easy.”
David Becker read the inscription, and Jabba typed. When they were done, they double-checked the spelling and omitted all the spaces. On the center panel of the view wall, near the top, were the letters:
“I don’t like it,” Susan muttered softly. “It’s not clean.”
Jabba hesitated, hovering over the ENTER key.
“Do it,” Fontaine commanded.
Jabba hit the key. Seconds later the whole room knew it was a mistake.
“It’s accelerating!” Soshi yelled from the back of the room. “It’s the wrong code!”
Everyone stood in silent horror.
On the screen before them was the error message:
ILLEGAL ENTRY. NUMERIC FIELD ONLY.
“Damn it!” Jabba screamed. “Numeric only! We’re looking for a goddamn number! We’re fucked! This ring is shit!”
“Worm’s at double speed!” Soshi shouted. “Penalty round!”
On the center screen, right beneath the error message, the VR painted a terrifying image. As the third firewall gave way, the half-dozen or so black lines representing marauding hackers surged forward, advancing relentlessly toward the core. With each passing moment, a new line appeared. Then another.
“They’re swarming!” Soshi yelled.
“Confirming overseas tie-ins!” cried another technician. “Word’s out!”
Susan averted her gaze from the image of the collapsing firewalls and turned to the side screen. The footage of Ensei Tankado’s kill was on endless loop. It was the same every time-Tankado clutching his chest, falling, and with a look of desperate panic, forcing his ring on a group of unsuspecting tourists. It makes no sense, she thought. If he didn’t know we’d killed him… Susan drew a total blank. It was too late. We’ve missed something.
On the VR, the number of hackers pounding at the gates had doubled in the last few minutes. From now on, the number would increase exponentially. Hackers, like hyenas, were one big family, always eager to spread the word of a new kill.
Leland Fontaine had apparently seen enough. “Shut it down,” he declared. “Shut the damn thing down.”
Jabba stared straight ahead like the captain of a sinking ship. “Too late, sir. We’re going down.”
The four-hundred-pound Sys-Sec stood motionless, hands resting atop his head in a freeze-frame of disbelief. He’d ordered a power shutdown, but it would be a good twenty minutes too late. Sharks with high-speed modems would be able to download staggering quantities of classified information in that window.
Jabba was awakened from his nightmare by Soshi rushing to the podium with a new printout. “I’ve found something, sir!” she said excitedly. “Orphans in the source! Alpha groupings. All over the place!”
Jabba was unmoved. “We’re looking for a numeric, dammit! Not an alpha! The kill-code is a number!”
“But we’ve got orphans! Tankado’s too good to leave orphans-especially this many!”
The term “orphans” referred to extra lines of programming that didn’t serve the program’s objective in any way. They fed nothing, referred to nothing, led nowhere, and were usually removed as part of the final debugging and compiling process.
Jabba took the printout and studied it.
Fontaine stood silent.
Susan peered over Jabba’s shoulder at the printout. “We’re being attacked by a rough draft of Tankado’s worm?”
“Polished or not,” Jabba retorted, “it’s kicking our ass.”
“I don’t buy it,” Susan argued. “Tankado was a perfectionist. You know that. There’s no way he left bugs in his program.”
“There are lots of them!” Soshi cried. She grabbed the printout from Jabba and pushed it in front of Susan. “Look!”
Susan nodded. Sure enough, after every twenty or so lines of programming, there were four free-floating characters. Susan scanned them.
“Four-bit alpha groupings,” she puzzled. “They’re definitely not part of the programming.”
“Forget it,” Jabba growled. “You’re grabbing at straws.”
“Maybe not,” Susan said. “A lot of encryption uses four-bit groupings. This could be a code.”
“Yeah.” Jabba groaned. “It says-‘Ha, ha. You’re fucked.’ ” He looked up at the VR. “In about nine minutes.”
Susan ignored Jabba and locked in on Soshi. “How many orphans are there?”
Soshi shrugged. She commandeered Jabba’s terminal and typed all the groupings. When she was done, she pushed back from the terminal. The room looked up at the screen.
PFEE SESN RETM MFHA IRWE OOIG MEEN NRMA
ENET SHAS DCNS IIAA IEER BRNK FBLE LODI
Susan was the only one smiling. “Sure looks familiar,” she said. “Blocks of four-just like Enigma.”
The director nodded. Enigma was history’s most famous code-writing machine-the Nazis’ twelve-ton encryption beast. It had encrypted in blocks of four.
“Great.” He moaned. “You wouldn’t happen to have one lying around, would you?”
“That’s not the point!” Susan said, suddenly coming to life. This was her specialty. “The point is that this is a code. Tankado left us a clue! He’s taunting us, daring us to figure out the pass-key in time. He’s laying hints just out of our reach!”
“Absurd,” Jabba snapped. “Tankado gave us only one out-revealing TRANSLTR. That was it. That was our escape. We blew it.”
“I have to agree with him,” Fontaine said. “I doubt there’s any way Tankado would risk letting us off the hook by hinting at his kill-code.”
Susan nodded vaguely, but she recalled how Tankado had given them NDAKOTA. She stared up at the letters wondering if he were playing another one of his games.
“Tunnel block half gone!” a technician called.
On the VR, the mass of black tie-in lines surged deeper into the two remaining shields.
David had been sitting quietly, watching the drama unfold on the monitor before them. “Susan?” he offered. “I have an idea. Is that text in sixteen groupings of four?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Jabba said under his breath. “Now everyone wants to play?”
Susan ignored Jabba and counted the groupings. “Yes. Sixteen.”
“Take out the spaces,” Becker said firmly.
“David,” Susan replied, slightly embarrassed. “I don’t think you understand. The groupings of four are-”
“Take out the spaces,” he repeated.
Susan hesitated a moment and then nodded to Soshi. Soshi quickly removed the spaces. The result was no more enlightening.
Jabba exploded. “ENOUGH! Playtime’s over! This thing’s on double-speed! We’ve got about eight minutes here! We’re looking for a number, not a bunch of half-baked letters!”
“Four by sixteen,” David said calmly. “Do the math, Susan.”
Susan eyed David’s image on the screen. Do the math? He’s terrible at math! She knew David could memorize verb conjugations and vocabulary like a Xerox machine, but math…?
“Multiplication tables,” Becker said.
Multiplication tables, Susan wondered. What is he talking about?
“Four by sixteen,” the professor repeated. “I had to memorize multiplication tables in fourth grade.”
Susan pictured the standard grade school multiplication table. Four by sixteen. “Sixty-four,” she said blankly. “So what?”
David leaned toward the camera. His face filled the frame. “Sixty-four letters…”
Susan nodded. “Yes, but they’re-” Susan froze.
“Sixty-four letters,” David repeated.
Susan gasped. “Oh my God! David, you’re a genius!”
“Seven minutes!” a technician called out.
“Eight rows of eight!” Susan shouted, excited.
Soshi typed. Fontaine looked on silently. The second to last shield was growing thin.
“Sixty-four letters!” Susan was in control. “It’s a perfect square!”
“Perfect square?” Jabba demanded. “So what?”
Ten seconds later Soshi had rearranged the seemingly random letters on the screen. They were now in eight rows of eight. Jabba studied the letters and threw up his hands in despair. The new layout was no more revealing than the original.
P F E E S E S N
R E T M P F H A
I R W E O O I G
M E E N N R M A
E N E T S H A S
D C N S I I A A
I E E R B R N K
F B L E L O D I
“Clear as shit.” Jabba groaned.
“Ms. Fletcher,” Fontaine demanded, “explain yourself.” All eyes turned to Susan.
Susan was staring up at the block of text. Gradually she began nodding, then broke into a wide smile. “David, I’ll be damned!”
Everyone on the podium exchanged baffled looks.
David winked at the tiny image of Susan Fletcher on the screen before him. “Sixty-four letters. Julius Caesar strikes again.”
Midge looked lost. “What are you talking about?”
“Caesar box.” Susan beamed. “Read top to bottom. Tankado’s sending us a message.”
“Six minutes!” a technician called out.
Susan shouted orders. “Retype top to bottom! Read down, not across!”
Soshi furiously moved down the columns, retyping the text.
“Julius Caesar sent codes this way!” Susan blurted. “His letter count was always a perfect square!”
“Done!” Soshi yelled.
Everyone looked up at the newly arranged, single line of text on the wall-screen.
“Still garbage,” Jabba scoffed in disgust. “Look at it. It’s totally random bits of-” The words lodged in his throat. His eyes widened to saucers. “Oh… oh my…”
Fontaine had seen it too. He arched his eyebrows, obviously impressed.
Midge and Brinkerhoff both cooed in unison. “Holy… shit.”
The sixty-four letters now read:
“Put in the spaces,” Susan ordered. “We’ve got a puzzle to solve.”