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Chapter 46

Phil Chartrukian slammed down his receiver. Jabba’s line was busy; Jabba spurned call-waiting as an intrusive gimmick that was introduced by AT T to increase profits by connecting every call; the simple phrase “I’m on the other line, I’ll call you back” made phone companies millions annually. Jabba’s refusal of call-waiting was his own brand of silent objection to the NSA’s requirement that he carry an emergency cellular at all times.

Chartrukian turned and looked out at the deserted Crypto floor. The hum of the generators below sounded louder every minute. He sensed that time was running out. He knew he was supposed to leave, but from out of the rumble beneath Crypto, the Sys-Sec mantra began playing in his head: Act first, explain later.

In the high-stakes world of computer security, minutes often meant the difference between saving a system or losing it. There was seldom time to justify a defensive procedure before taking it. Sys-Secs were paid for their technical expertise… and their instinct.

Act first, explain later. Chartrukian knew what he had to do. He also knew that when the dust settled, he would be either an NSA hero or in the unemployment line.

The great decoding computer had a virus-of that, the Sys-Sec was certain. There was one responsible course of action. Shut it down.

Chartrukian knew there were only two ways to shut down TRANSLTR. One was the commander’s private terminal, which was locked in his office-out of the question. The other was the manual kill-switch located on one of the sublevels beneath the Crypto floor.

Chartrukian swallowed hard. He hated the sublevels. He’d only been there once, during training. It was like something out of an alien world with its long mazes of catwalks, freon ducts, and a dizzy 136-foot drop to the rumbling power supplies below…

It was the last place he felt like going, and Strathmore was the last person he felt like crossing, but duty was duty. They’ll thank me tomorrow, he thought, wondering if he was right.

Taking a deep breath, Chartrukian opened the senior Sys-Sec’s metal locker. On a shelf of disassembled computer parts, hidden behind a media concentrator and LAN tester, was a Stanford alumni mug. Without touching the rim, he reached inside and lifted out a single Medeco key.

“It’s amazing,” he grumbled, “what System-Security officers don’t know about security.”

Chapter 47

“A billion-dollar code?” Midge snickered, accompanying Brinkerhoff back up the hallway. “That’s a good one.”

“I swear it,” he said.

She eyed him askance. “This better not be some ploy to get me out of this dress.”

“Midge, I would never-” he said self-righteously.

“I know, Chad. Don’t remind me.”

Thirty seconds later, Midge was sitting in Brinkerhoff’s chair and studying the Crypto report.

“See?” he said, leaning over her and pointing to the figure in question. “This MCD? A billion dollars!”

Midge chuckled. “It does appear to be a touch on the high side, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” He groaned. “Just a touch.”

“Looks like a divide-by-zero.”

“A who?”

“A divide-by-zero,” she said, scanning the rest of the data. “The MCD’s calculated as a fraction-total expense divided by number of decryptions.”

“Of course.” Brinkerhoff nodded blankly and tried not to peer down the front of her dress.

“When the denominator’s zero,” Midge explained, “the quotient goes to infinity. Computers hate infinity, so they type all nines.” She pointed to a different column. “See this?”

“Yeah.” Brinkerhoff refocused on the paper.

“It’s today’s raw production data. Take a look at the number of decryptions.”

Brinkerhoff dutifully followed her finger down the column.

NUMBER OF DECRYPTIONS = 0

Midge tapped on the figure. “It’s just as I suspected. Divide-by-zero.”

Brinkerhoff arched his eyebrows. “So everything’s okay?”

She shrugged. “Just means we haven’t broken any codes today. TRANSLTR must be taking a break.”

“A break?” Brinkerhoff looked doubtful. He’d been with the director long enough to know that “breaks” were not part of his preferred modus operandi-particularly with respect to TRANSLTR. Fontaine had paid $2 billion for the code-breaking behemoth, and he wanted his money’s worth. Every second TRANSLTR sat idle was money down the toilet.

“Ah… Midge?” Brinkerhoff said. “TRANSLTR doesn’t take any breaks. It runs day and night. You know that.”

She shrugged. “Maybe Strathmore didn’t feel like hanging out last night to prepare the weekend run. He probably knew Fontaine was away and ducked out early to go fishing.”

“Come on, Midge.” Brinkerhoff gave her disgusted look. “Give the guy a break.”

It was no secret Midge Milken didn’t like Trevor Strathmore. Strathmore had attempted a cunning maneuver rewriting Skipjack, but he’d been caught. Despite Strathmore’s bold intentions, the NSA had paid dearly. The EFF had gained strength, Fontaine had lost credibility with Congress, and worst of all, the agency had lost a lot of its anonymity. There were suddenly housewives in Minnesota complaining to America Online and Prodigy that the NSA might be reading their E-mail-like the NSA gave a damn about a secret recipe for candied yams.

Strathmore’s blunder had cost the NSA, and Midge felt responsible-not that she could have anticipated the commander’s stunt, but the bottom line was that an unauthorized action had taken place behind Director Fontaine’s back, a back Midge was paid to cover. Fontaine’s hands-off attitude made him susceptible; and it made Midge nervous. But the director had learned long ago to stand back and let smart people do their jobs; that’s exactly how he handled Trevor Strathmore.

“Midge, you know damn well Strathmore’s not slacking,” Brinkerhoff argued. “He runs TRANSLTR like a fiend.”

Midge nodded. Deep down, she knew that accusing Strathmore of shirking was absurd. The commander was as dedicated as they came-dedicated to a fault. He bore the evils of the world as his own personal cross. The NSA’s Skipjack plan had been Strathmore’s brainchild-a bold attempt to change the world. Unfortunately, like so many divine quests, this crusade ended in crucifixion.

“Okay,” she admitted, “so I’m being a little harsh.”

“A little?” Brinkerhoff eyes narrowed. “Strathmore’s got a backlog of files a mile long. He’s not about to let TRANSLTR sit idle for a whole weekend.”

“Okay, okay.” Midge sighed. “My mistake.” She furrowed her brow and puzzled why TRANSLTR hadn’t broken any codes all day. “Let me double-check something,” she said, and began flipping through the report. She located what she was looking for and scanned the figures. After a moment she nodded. “You’re right, Chad. TRANSLTR’s been running full force. Raw consumables are even a little on the high side; we’re at over half a million kilowatt-hours since midnight last night.”

“So where does that leave us?”

Midge was puzzled. “I’m not sure. It’s odd.”

“You want to rerun the data?”

She gave him a disapproving stare. There were two things one never questioned about Midge Milken. One of them was her data. Brinkerhoff waited while Midge studied the figures.

“Huh.” She finally grunted. “Yesterday’s stats look fine: 237 codes broken. MCD, $874. Average time per code, a little over six minutes. Raw consumables, average. Last code entering TRANSLTR-” She stopped.

“What is it?”

“That’s funny,” she said. “Last file on yesterday’s queue log ran at 11:37 p.m.”

“So?”

“So, TRANSLTR breaks codes every six minutes or so. The last file of the day usually runs closer to midnight. It sure doesn’t look like-” Midge suddenly stopped short and gasped.

Brinkerhoff jumped. “What!”

Midge was staring at the readout in disbelief. “This file? The one that entered TRANSLTR last night?”

“Yeah?”

“It hasn’t broken yet. It’s queue time was 23:37:08-but it lists no decrypt time.” Midge fumbled with the sheets. “Yesterday or today!”

Brinkerhoff shrugged. “Maybe those guys are running a tough diagnostic.”

Midge shook her head. “Eighteen hours tough?” She paused. “Not likely. Besides, the queue data says it’s an outside file. We should call Strathmore.”

“At home?” Brinkerhoff swallowed. “On a Saturday night?”

“No,” Midge said. “If I know Strathmore, he’s on top of this. I’ll bet good money he’s here. Just a hunch.” Midge’s hunches were the other thing one never questioned. “Come on,” she said, standing up. “Let’s see if I’m right.”

Brinkerhoff followed Midge to her office, where she sat down and began to work Big Brother’s keypads like a virtuoso pipe organist.

Brinkerhoff gazed up at the array of closed-caption video monitors on her wall, their screens all freeze frames of the NSA seal. “You’re gonna snoop Crypto?” he asked nervously.

“Nope,” Midge replied. “Wish I could, but Crypto’s a sealed deal. It’s got no video. No sound. No nothing. Strathmore’s orders. All I’ve got is approach stats and basic TRANSLTR stuff. We’re lucky we’ve even got that. Strathmore wanted total isolation, but Fontaine insisted on the basics.”

Brinkerhoff looked puzzled. “Crypto hasn’t got video?”

“Why?” she asked, without turning from her monitor. “You and Carmen looking for a little more privacy?”

Brinkerhoff grumbled something inaudible.

Midge typed some more keys. “I’m pulling Strathmore’s elevator log.” She studied her monitor a moment and then rapped her knuckle on the desk. “He’s here,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’s in Crypto right now. Look at this. Talk about long hours-he went in yesterday morning bright and early, and his elevator hasn’t budged since. I’m showing no magno-card use for him on the main door. So he’s definitely in there.”

Brinkerhoff breathed a slight sigh of relief. “So, if Strathmore’s in there, everything’s okay, right?”

Midge thought a moment. “Maybe,” she finally decided.

“Maybe?”

“We should call him and double-check.”

Brinkerhoff groaned. “Midge, he’s the deputy director. I’m sure he has everything under control. Let’s not second-guess-”

“Oh, come on, Chad-don’t be such a child. We’re just doing our job. We’ve got a snag in the stats, and we’re following up. Besides,” she added, “I’d like to remind Strathmore that Big Brother’s watching. Make him think twice before planning any more of his hare-brained stunts to save the world.” Midge picked up the phone and began dialing.

Brinkerhoff looked uneasy. “You really think you should bother him?”

“I’m not bothering him,” Midge said, tossing him the receiver. “You are.”

Chapter 48

“What?” Midge sputtered in disbelief. “Strathmore claims our data is wrong?”

Brinkerhoff nodded and hung up the phone.

“Strathmore denied that TRANSLTR’s been stuck on one file for eighteen hours?”

“He was quite pleasant about the whole thing.” Brinkerhoff beamed, pleased with himself for surviving the phone call. “He assured me TRANSLTR was working fine. Said it was breaking codes every six minutes even as we speak. Thanked me for checking up on him.”

“He’s lying,” Midge snapped. “I’ve been running these Crypto stats for two years. The data is never wrong.”

“First time for everything,” he said casually.

She shot him a disapproving look. “I run all data twice.”

“Well… you know what they say about computers. When they screw up, at least they’re consistent about it.”

Midge spun and faced him. “This isn’t funny, Chad! The DDO just told a blatant lie to the director’s office. I want to know why!”

Brinkerhoff suddenly wished he hadn’t called her back in. Strathmore’s phone call had set her off. Ever since Skipjack, whenever Midge had a sense that something suspicious was going on, she made an eerie transition from flirt to fiend. There was no stopping her until she sorted it out.

“Midge, it is possible our data is off,” Brinkerhoff said firmly. “I mean, think about it-a file that ties up TRANSLTR for eighteen hours? It’s unheard of. Go home. It’s late.”

She gave him a haughty look and tossed the report on the counter. “I trust the data. Instinct says it’s right.”

Brinkerhoff frowned. Not even the director questioned Midge Milken’s instincts anymore-she had an uncanny habit of always being right.

“Something’s up,” she declared. “And I intend to find out what it is.”

Chapter 49

Becker dragged himself off the floor of the bus and collapsed in an empty seat.

“Nice move, dipshit.” The kid with the three spikes sneered. Becker squinted in the stark lighting. It was the kid he’d chased onto the bus. He glumly surveyed the sea of red, white, and blue coiffures.

“What’s with the hair?” Becker moaned, motioning to the others. “It’s all…”

“Red, white, and blue?” the kid offered.

Becker nodded, trying not to stare at the infected perforation in the kid’s upper lip.

“Judas Taboo,” the kid said matter-of-factly.

Becker looked bewildered.

The punk spit in the aisle, obviously disgusted with Becker’s ignorance. “Judas Taboo? Greatest punk since Sid Vicious? Blew his head off here a year ago today. It’s his anniversary.”

Becker nodded vaguely, obviously missing the connection.

“Taboo did his hair this way the day he signed off.” The kid spit again. “Every fan worth his weight in piss has got red, white, and blue hair today.”

For a long moment, Becker said nothing. Slowly, as if he had been shot with a tranquilizer, he turned and faced front. Becker surveyed the group on the bus. Every last one was a punk. Most were staring at him.

Every fan has red, white, and blue hair today.

Becker reached up and pulled the driver-alert cord on the wall. It was time to get off. He pulled again. Nothing happened. He pulled a third time, more frantically. Nothing.

“They disconnect ’em on bus 27.” The kid spat again. “So we don’t fuck with ’em.”

Becker turned. “You mean, I can’t get off?”

The kid laughed. “Not till the end of the line.”

Five minutes later, the bus was barreling along an unlit Spanish country road. Becker turned to the kid behind him. “Is this thing ever going to stop?”

The kid nodded. “Few more miles.”

“Where are we going?”

He broke into a sudden wide grin. “You mean you don’t know?”

Becker shrugged.

The kid started laughing hysterically. “Oh, shit. You’re gonna love it.”

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