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Chapter 36

“Manual abort?” Susan stared at her screen, mystified.

She knew she hadn’t typed any manual abort command-at least not intentionally. She wondered if maybe she’d hit the wrong sequence of keys by mistake.

“Impossible,” she muttered. According to the headers, the abort command had been sent less than twenty minutes ago. Susan knew the only thing she’d typed in the last twenty minutes washer privacy code when she’d stepped out to talk to the commander. It was absurd to think the privacy code could have been misinterpreted as an abort command.

Knowing it was a waste of time, Susan pulled up her ScreenLock log and double-checked that her privacy code had been entered properly. Sure enough, it had.

“Then where,” she demanded angrily, “where did it get a manual abort?”

Susan scowled and closed the ScreenLock window. Unexpectedly, however, in the split second as the window blipped away, something caught her eye. She reopened the window and studied the data. It made no sense. There was a proper “locking” entry when she’d left Node 3, but the timing of the subsequent “unlock” entry seemed strange. The two entries were less than one minute apart. Susan was certain she’d been outside with the commander for more than one minute.

Susan scrolled down the page. What she saw left her aghast. Registering three minutes later, a second set of lock-unlock entries appeared. According to the log, someone had unlocked her terminal while she was gone.

“Not possible!” she choked. The only candidate was Greg Hale, and Susan was quite certain she’d never given Hale her privacy code. Following good cryptographic procedure, Susan had chosen her code at random and never written it down; Hale’s guessing the correct five-character alphanumeric was out of the question-it was thirty-six to the fifth power, over sixty million possibilities.

But the ScreenLock entries were as clear as day. Susan stared at them in wonder. Hale had somehow been on her terminal while she was gone. He had sent her tracer a manual abort command.

The questions of how quickly gave way to questions of why? Hale had no motive to break into her terminal. He didn’t even know Susan was running a tracer. Even if he did know, Susan thought, why would he object to her tracking some guy named North Dakota?

The unanswered questions seemed to be multiplying in her head. “First things first,” she said aloud. She would deal with Hale in a moment. Focusing on the matter at hand, Susan reloaded her tracer and hit the enter key. Her terminal beeped once.

TRACER SENT

Susan knew the tracer would take hours to return. She cursed Hale, wondering how in the world he’d gotten her privacy code, wondering what interest he had in her tracer.

Susan stood up and strode immediately for Hale’s terminal. The screen was black, but she could tell it was not locked-the monitor was glowing faintly around the edges. Cryptographers seldom locked their terminals except when they left Node 3 for the night. Instead, they simply dimmed the brightness on their monitors-a universal, honor-code indication that no one should disturb the terminal.

Susan reached for Hale’s terminal. “Screw the honor code,” she said. “What the hell are you up to?”

Throwing a quick glance out at the deserted Crypto floor, Susan turned up Hale’s brightness controls. The monitor came into focus, but the screen was entirely empty. Susan frowned at the blank screen. Uncertain how to proceed, she called up a search engine and typed:

SEARCH FOR: “TRACER”

It was a long shot, but if there were any references to Susan’s tracer in Hale’s computer, this search would find them. It might shed some light on why Hale had manually aborted her program. Seconds later the screen refreshed.

NO MATCHES FOUND

Susan sat a moment, unsure what she was even looking for. She tried again.

SEARCH FOR: “SCREENLOCK”

The monitor refreshed and provided a handful of innocuous references-no hint that Hale had any copies of Susan’s privacy code on his computer.

Susan sighed loudly. So what programs has he been using today? She went to Hale’s “recent applications” menu to find the last program he had used. It was his E-mail server. Susan searched his hard drive and eventually found his E-mail folder hidden discreetly inside some other directories. She opened the folder, and additional folders appeared; it seemed Hale had numerous E-mail identities and accounts. One of them, Susan noticed with little surprise, was an anonymous account. She opened the folder, clicked one of the old, inbound messages, and read it.

She instantly stopped breathing. The message read:

TO: NDAKOTA@ARA.ANON.ORG

FROM: ET@DOSHISHA.EDU

GREAT PROGRESS! DIGITAL FORTRESS IS ALMOST DONE.

THIS THING WILL SET THE NSA BACK DECADES!

As if in a dream, Susan read the message over and over. Then, trembling, she opened another.

TO: NDAKOTA@ARA.ANON.ORG

FROM: ET@DOSHISHA.EDU

ROTATING CLEARTEXT WORKS! MUTATION STRINGS ARE THE TRICK!

It was unthinkable, and yet there it was. E-mail from Ensei Tankado. He had been writing to Greg Hale. They were working together. Susan went numb as the impossible truth stared up at her from the terminal.

Greg Hale is NDAKOTA?

Susan’s eyes locked on the screen. Her mind searched desperately for some other explanation, but there was none. It was proof-sudden and inescapable: Tankado had used mutation strings to create a rotating cleartext function, and Hale had conspired with him to bring down the NSA.

“It’s…” Susan stammered. “It’s… not possible.”

As if to disagree, Hale’s voice echoed from the past: Tankado wrote me a few times… Strathmore took a gamble hiring me… I’m getting out of here someday.

Still, Susan could not accept what she was seeing. True, Greg Hale was obnoxious and arrogant-but he wasn’t a traitor. He knew what Digital Fortress would do to the NSA; there was no way he was involved in a plot to release it!

And yet, Susan realized, there was nothing to stop him-nothing except honor and decency. She thought of the Skipjack algorithm. Greg Hale had ruined the NSA’s plans once before. What would prevent him from trying again?

“But Tankado…” Susan puzzled. Why would someone as paranoid as Tankado trust someone as unreliable as Hale?

She knew that none of it mattered now. All that mattered was getting to Strathmore. By some ironic stroke of fate, Tankado’s partner was right there under their noses. She wondered if Hale knew yet that Ensei Tankado was dead.

She quickly began closing Hale’s E-mail files in order to leave the terminal exactly as she had found it. Hale could suspect nothing-not yet. The Digital Fortress pass-key, she realized in amazement, was probably hidden somewhere inside that very computer.

But as Susan closed the last of the files, a shadow passed outside the Node 3 window. Her gaze shot up, and she saw Greg Hale approaching. Her adrenaline surged. He was almost to the doors.

“Damn!” she cursed, eyeing the distance back to her seat. She knew she’d never make it. Hale was almost there.

She wheeled desperately, searching Node 3 for options. The doors behind her clicked. Then they engaged. Susan felt instinct takeover. Digging her shoes into the carpet, she accelerated in long, reaching strides toward the pantry. As the doors hissed open, Susan slid to a stop in front of the refrigerator and yanked open the door. A glass pitcher on top tipped precariously and then rocked to a stop.

“Hungry?” Hale asked, entering Node 3 and walking toward her. His voice was calm and flirtatious. “Want to share some tofu?”

Susan exhaled and turned to face him. “No thanks,” she offered. “I think I’ll just-” But the words got caught in her throat. She went white.

Hale eyed her oddly. “What’s wrong?”

Susan bit her lip and locked eyes with him. “Nothing, “she managed. But it was a lie. Across the room, Hale’s terminal glowed brightly. She’d forgotten to dim it.

Chapter 37

Downstairs at the Alfonso XIII, Becker wandered tiredly over to the bar. A dwarf-like bartender lay a napkin in front of him. “Que bebe Usted? What are you drinking?”

“Nothing, thanks,” Becker replied. “I need to know if there are any clubs in town for punk rockers?”

The bartender eyed him strangely. “Clubs? For punks?”

“Yeah. Is there anyplace in town where they all hangout?”

“No lo se, senor. I don’t now. But certainly not here!” He smiled. “How about a drink?”

Becker felt like shaking the guy. Nothing was going quite the way he’d planned.

“?Quiere Vd. algo?” The bartender repeated. “?Fino??Jerez?”

Faint strains of classical music were being piped in overhead. Brandenburg Concertos, Becker thought. Number four. He and Susan had seen the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields play the Brandenburgs at the university last year. He suddenly wished she were with him now. The breeze from an overhead air-conditioning vent reminded Becker what it was like outside. He pictured himself walking the sweaty, drugged-out streets of Triana looking for some punk in a British flag T-shirt. He thought of Susan again. “Zumo de arandano,” he heard himself say. “Cranberry juice.”

The bartender looked baffled. “Solo?” Cranberry juice was a popular drink in Spain, but drinking it alone was unheard of.

“Si.” Becker said. “Solo.”

“?Echo un poco de Smirnoff?” The bartender pressed. “A splash of vodka?”

“No, gracias.”

“?Gratis?” he coaxed. “On the house?”

Through the pounding in his head, Becker pictured the filthy streets of Triana, the stifling heat, and the long night ahead of him. What the hell. He nodded. “Si, echame un poco de vodka.”

The bartender seemed much relieved and hustled off to make the drink.

Becker glanced around the ornate bar and wondered if he was dreaming. Anything would make more sense than the truth. I’m a university teacher, he thought, on a secret mission.

The bartender returned with a flourish and presented Becker’s beverage. “A su gusto, senor. Cranberry with a splash of vodka.”

Becker thanked him. He took a sip and gagged. That’s a splash?

Chapter 38

Hale stopped halfway to the Node 3 pantry and stared at Susan. “What’s wrong, Sue? You look terrible.”

Susan fought her rising fear. Ten feet away, Hale’s monitor glowed brightly. “I’m… I’m okay,” she managed, her heart pounding.

Hale eyed her with a puzzled look on his face. “You want some water?”

Susan could not answer. She cursed herself. How could I forget to dim his damn monitor? Susan knew the moment Hale suspected her of searching his terminal, he’d suspect she knew his real identity, North Dakota. She feared Hale would do anything to keep that information inside Node 3.

Susan wondered if she should make a dash for the door. But she never got the chance. Suddenly there was a pounding at the glass wall. Both Hale and Susan jumped. It was Chartrukian. He was banging his sweaty fists against the glass again. He looked like he’d seen Armageddon.

Hale scowled at the crazed Sys-Sec outside the window, then turned back to Susan. “I’ll be right back. Get yourself a drink. You look pale.” Hale turned and went outside.

Susan steadied herself and moved quickly to Hale’s terminal. She reached down and adjusted the brightness controls. The monitor went black.

Her head was pounding. She turned and eyed the conversation now taking place on the Crypto floor. Apparently, Chartrukian had not gone home, after all. The young Sys-Sec was now in a panic, spilling his guts to Greg Hale. Susan knew it didn’t matter-Hale knew everything there was to know.

I’ve got to get to Strathmore, she thought. And fast.

Chapter 39

Room 301. Rocio Eva Granada stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror. This was the moment she’d been dreading all day. The German was on the bed waiting for her. He was the biggest man she’d ever been with.

Reluctantly, she took an ice cube from the water bucket and rubbed it across her nipples. They quickly hardened. This was her gift-to make men feel wanted. It’s what kept them coming back. She ran her hands across her supple, well-tanned body and hoped it would survive another four or five more years until she had enough to retire. Senor Roldan took most of her pay, but without him she knew she’d be with the rest of the hookers picking up drunks in Triana. These men at least had money. They never beat her, and they were easy to satisfy. She slipped into her lingerie, took a deep breath, and opened the bathroom door.

As Rocio stepped into the room, the German’s eyes bulged. She was wearing a black negligee. Her chestnut skin radiated in the soft light, and her nipples stood at attention beneath the lacy fabric.

“Komm doch hierher,” he said eagerly, shedding his robe and rolling onto his back.

Rocio forced a smile and approached the bed. She gazed down at the enormous German. She chuckled in relief. The organ between his legs was tiny.

He grabbed at her and impatiently ripped off her negligee. His fat fingers groped at every inch of her body. She fell on top of him and moaned and writhed in false ecstasy. As he rolled her over and climbed on top of her, she thought she would be crushed. She gasped and choked against his puttylike neck. She prayed he would be quick.

“Si! Si!” she gasped in between thrusts. She dug her fingernails into his backside to encourage him.

Random thoughts cascaded through her mind-faces of the countless men she’d satisfied, ceilings she’d stared at for hours in the dark, dreams of having children…

Suddenly, without warning, the German’s body arched, stiffened, and almost immediately collapsed on top of her. That’s all? she thought, surprised and relieved.

She tried to slide out from under him. “Darling,” she whispered huskily. “Let me get on top.” But the man did not move.

She reached up and pushed at his massive shoulders. “Darling, I… I can’t breathe!” She began feeling faint. She felt her ribs cracking. “?Despiertate!” Her fingers instinctively started pulling at his matted hair. Wake up!

It was then that she felt the warm sticky liquid. It was matted in his hair-flowing onto her cheeks, into her mouth. It was salty. She twisted wildly beneath him. Above her, a strange shaft of light illuminated the German’s contorted face. The bullet hole in his temple was gushing blood all over her. She tried to scream, but there was no air left in her lungs. He was crushing her. Delirious, she clawed toward the shaft of light coming from the doorway. She saw a hand. A gun with a silencer. A flash of light. And then nothing.

Chapter 40

Outside Node 3, Chartrukian looked desperate. He was trying to convince Hale that TRANSLTR was in trouble. Susan raced by them with only one thought in mind-to find Strathmore.

The panicked Sys-Sec grabbed Susan’s arm as she passed. “Ms. Fletcher! We have a virus! I’m positive! You have to-”

Susan shook herself free and glared ferociously. “I thought the commander told you to go home.”

“But the Run-Monitor! It’s registering eighteen-”

“Commander Strathmore told you to go home!”

“FUCK STRATHMORE!” Chartrukian screamed, the words resounding throughout the dome.

A deep voice boomed from above. “Mr. Chartrukian?”

The three Crypto employees froze.

High above them, Strathmore stood at the railing outside his office.

For a moment, the only sound inside the dome was the uneven hum of the generators below. Susan tried desperately to catch Strathmore’s eye. Commander! Hale is North Dakota!

But Strathmore was fixated on the young Sys-Sec. He descended the stairs without so much as a blink, keeping his eyes trained on Chartrukian the whole way down. He made his way across the Crypto floor and stopped six inches in front of the trembling technician. “What did you say?”

“Sir,” Chartrukian choked, “TRANSLTR’s in trouble.”

“Commander?” Susan interjected. “If I could-”

Strathmore waved her off. His eyes never left the Sys-Sec.

Phil blurted, “We have an infected file, sir. I’m sure of it!”

Strathmore’s complexion turned a deep red. “Mr. Chartrukian, we’ve been through this. There is no file infecting TRANSLTR!”

“Yes, there is!” he cried. “And if it makes its way to the main databank-”

“Where the hell is this infected file?” Strathmore bellowed. “Show it to me!”

Chartrukian hesitated. “I can’t.”

“Of course you can’t! It doesn’t exist!”

Susan said, “Commander, I must-”

Again Strathmore silenced her with an angry wave.

Susan eyed Hale nervously. He seemed smug and detached. It makes perfect sense, she thought. Hale wouldn’t be worried about a virus; he knows what’s really going on inside TRANSLTR.

Chartrukian was insistent. “The infected file exists, sir. But Gauntlet never picked it up.”

“If Gauntlet never picked it up,” Strathmore fumed, “then how the hell do you know it exists?”

Chartrukian suddenly sounded more confident. “Mutation strings, sir. I ran a full analysis, and the probe turned up mutation strings!”

Susan now understood why the Sys-Sec was so concerned. Mutation strings, she mused. She knew mutation strings were programming sequences that corrupted data in extremely complex ways. They were very common in computer viruses, particularly viruses that altered large blocks of data. Of course, Susan also knew from Tankado’s E-mail that the mutation strings Chartrukian had seen were harmless-simply part of Digital Fortress.

The Sys-Sec went on. “When I first saw the strings, sir, I thought Gauntlet’s filters had failed. But then I ran some tests and found out…” He paused, looking suddenly uneasy. “I found out that somebody manually bypassed Gauntlet.”

The statement met with a sudden hush. Strathmore’s face turned an even deeper shade of crimson. There was no doubt whom Chartrukian was accusing; Strathmore’s terminal was the only one in Crypto with clearance to bypass Gauntlet’s filters.

When Strathmore spoke, his voice was like ice. “Mr. Chartrukian, not that it is any concern of yours, but I bypassed Gauntlet.” He went on, his temper hovering near the boiling point. “As I told you earlier, I’m running a very advanced diagnostic. The mutation strings you see in TRANSLTR are part of that diagnostic; they are there because I put them there. Gauntlet refused to let me load the file, so I bypassed its filters.” Strathmore’s eyes narrowed sharply at Chartrukian. “Now, will there be anything else before you go?”

In a flash, it all clicked for Susan. When Strathmore had downloaded the encrypted Digital Fortress algorithm from the Internet and tried to run it through TRANSLTR, the mutation strings had tripped Gauntlet’s filters. Desperate to know whether Digital Fortress was breakable, Strathmore decided to bypass the filters.

Normally, bypassing Gauntlet was unthinkable. In this situation, however, there was no danger in sending Digital Fortress directly into TRANSLTR; the commander knew exactly what the file was and where it came from.

“With all due respect, sir,” Chartrukian pressed, “I’ve never heard of a diagnostic that employs mutation-”

“Commander,” Susan interjected, not able to wait another moment. “I really need to-”

This time her words were cut short by the sharp ring of Strathmore’s cellular phone. The commander snatched up the receiver. “What is it!” he barked. Then he fell silent and listened to the caller.

Susan forgot about Hale for an instant. She prayed the caller was David. Tell me he’s okay, she thought. Tell me he found the ring! But Strathmore caught her eye and he gave her a frown. It was not David.

Susan felt her breath grow short. All she wanted to know was that the man she loved was safe. Strathmore, Susan knew, was impatient for other reasons; if David took much longer, the commander would have to send backup-NSA field agents. It was a gamble he had hoped to avoid.

“Commander?” Chartrukian urged. “I really think we should check-”

“Hold on,” Strathmore said, apologizing to his caller. He covered his mouthpiece and leveled a fiery stare at his young Sys-Sec. “Mr. Chartrukian,” he growled, “this discussion is over. You are to leave Crypto. Now. That’s an order.”

Chartrukian stood stunned. “But, sir, mutation str-”

“NOW!” Strathmore bellowed.

Chartrukian stared a moment, speechless. Then he stormed off toward the Sys-Sec lab.

Strathmore turned and eyed Hale with a puzzled look. Susan understood the commander’s mystification. Hale had been quiet-too quiet. Hale knew very well there was no such thing as a diagnostic that used mutation strings, much less one that could keep TRANSLTR busy eighteen hours. And yet Hale hadn’t said a word. He appeared indifferent to the entire commotion. Strathmore was obviously wondering why. Susan had the answer.

“Commander,” she said insistently, “if I could just speak-”

“In a minute,” he interjected, still eyeing Hale quizzically. “I need to take this call.” With that, Strathmore turned on his heel and headed for his office.

Susan opened her mouth, but the words stalled on the tip of her tongue. Hale is North Dakota! She stood rigid, unable to breathe. She felt Hale staring at her. Susan turned. Hale stepped aside and swung his arm graciously toward the Node 3 door. “After you, Sue.”

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