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Chapter 59

Susan reached for Commander Strathmore’s hand as he helped her up the ladder onto the Crypto floor. The image of Phil Chartrukian lying broken on the generators was burned into her mind. The thought of Hale hiding in the bowels of Crypto had left her dizzy. The truth was inescapable-Hale had pushed Chartrukian.

Susan stumbled past the shadow of TRANSLTR back toward Crypto’s main exit-the door she’d come through hours earlier. Her frantic punching on the unlit keypad did nothing to move the huge portal. She was trapped; Crypto was a prison. The dome sat like a satellite, 109 yards away from the main NSA structure, accessible only through the main portal. Since Crypto made its own power, the switchboard probably didn’t even know they were in trouble.

“The main power’s out,” Strathmore said, arriving behind her. “We’re on aux.”

The backup power supply in Crypto was designed so that TRANSLTR and its cooling systems took precedence over all other systems, including lights and doorways. That way an untimely power outage would not interrupt TRANSLTR during an important run. It also meant TRANSLTR would never run without its freon cooling system; in an uncooled enclosure, the heat generated by three million processors would rise to treacherous levels-perhaps even igniting the silicon chips and resulting in a fiery meltdown. It was an image no one dared consider.

Susan fought to get her bearings. Her thoughts were consumed by the single image of the Sys-Sec on the generators. She stabbed at the keypad again. Still no response. “Abort the run!” she demanded. Telling TRANSLTR to stop searching for the Digital Fortress pass-key would shut down its circuits and free up enough backup power to get the doors working again.

“Easy, Susan,” Strathmore said, putting a steadying hand on her shoulder.

The commander’s reassuring touch lifted Susan from her daze. She suddenly remembered why she had been going to get him. She wheeled, “Commander! Greg Hale is North Dakota!”

There was a seemingly endless beat of silence in the dark. Finally Strathmore replied. His voice sounded more confused than shocked. “What are you talking about?”

“Hale…” Susan whispered. “He’s North Dakota.”

There was more silence as Strathmore pondered Susan’s words. “The tracer?” He seemed confused. “It fingered Hale?”

“The tracer isn’t back yet. Hale aborted it!”

Susan went on to explain how Hale had stopped her tracer and how she’d found E-mail from Tankado in Hale’s account. Another long moment of silence followed. Strathmore shook his head in disbelief.

“There’s no way Greg Hale is Tankado’s insurance! It’s absurd! Tankado would never trust Hale.”

“Commander,” she said, “Hale sank us once before-Skipjack. Tankado trusted him.”

Strathmore could not seem to find words.

“Abort TRANSLTR,” Susan begged him. “We’ve got North Dakota. Call building security. Let’s get out of here.”

Strathmore held up his hand requesting a moment to think.

Susan looked nervously in the direction of the trapdoor. The opening was just out of sight behind TRANSLTR, but the reddish glow spilled out over the black tile like fire on ice. Come on, call Security, Commander! Abort TRANSLTR! Get us out of here!

Suddenly Strathmore sprang to action. “Follow me,” he said. He strode toward the trapdoor.

“Commander! Hale is dangerous! He-”

But Strathmore disappeared into the dark. Susan hurried to follow his silhouette. The commander circled around TRANSLTR and arrived over the opening in the floor. He peered into the swirling, steaming pit. Silently he looked around the darkened Crypto floor. Then he bent down and heaved the heavy trapdoor. It swung in a low arc. When he let go, it slammed shut with a deadening thud. Crypto was once again a silent, blackened cave. It appeared North Dakota was trapped.

Strathmore knelt down. He turned the heavy butterfly lock. It spun into place. The sublevels were sealed.

Neither he nor Susan heard the faint steps in the direction of Node 3.

Chapter 60

Two-tone headed through the mirrored corridor that led from the outside patio to the dance floor. As he turned to check his safety pin in the reflection, he sensed a figure looming up behind him. He spun, but it was too late. A pair of rocklike arms pinned his body face-first against the glass.

The punk tried to twist around. “Eduardo? Hey, man, is that you?” Two-Tone felt a hand brush over his wallet before the figure leaned firmly into his back. “Eddie!” the punk cried. “Quit fooling around! Some guy was lookin’ for Megan.”

The figure held him firmly.

“Hey, Eddie, man, cut it out!” But when Two-Tone looked up into the mirror, he saw the figure pinning him was not his friend at all.

The face was pockmarked and scarred. Two lifeless eyes stared out like coal from behind wire-rim glasses. The man leaned forward, placing his mouth against Two-Tone’s ear. A strange, voice choked, “Adonde fue? Where’d he go?” The words sounded somehow misshapen.

The punk froze, paralyzed with fear.

“Adonde fue?” the voice repeated. “El Americano.”

“The… the airport. Aeropuerto,” Two-Tone stammered.

“Aeropuerto?” the man repeated, his dark eyes watching Two-Tone’s lips in the mirror.

The punk nodded.

“Tenia el anillo? Did he have the ring?”

Terrified, Two-Tone shook his head. “No.”

“Viste el anillo? Did you see the ring?”

Two-Tone paused. What was the right answer?

“Viste el anillo?” the muffled voice demanded.

Two-Tone nodded affirmatively, hoping honesty would pay. It did not. Seconds later he slid to the floor, his neck broken.

Chapter 61

Jabba lay on his back lodged halfway inside a dismantled mainframe computer. There was a penlight in his mouth, a soldering iron in his hand, and a large schematic blueprint propped on his belly. He had just finished attaching a new set of attenuators to a faulty motherboard when his cellular phone sprang to life.

“Shit,” he swore, groping for the receiver through a pile of cables. “Jabba here.”

“Jabba, it’s Midge.”

He brightened. “Twice in one night? People are gonna start talking.”

“Crypto’s got problems.” Her voice was tense.

Jabba frowned. “We been through this already. Remember?”

“It’s a power problem.”

“I’m not an electrician. Call Engineering.”

“The dome’s dark.”

“You’re seeing things. Go home.” He turned back to his schematic.

“Pitch black!” she yelled.

Jabba sighed and set down his penlight. “Midge, first of all, we’ve got aux power in there. It would never be pitch black. Second, Strathmore’s got a slightly better view of Crypto than I do right now. Why don’t you call him?”

“Because this has to do with him. He’s hiding something.”

Jabba rolled his eyes. “Midge sweetie, I’m up to my armpits in serial cable here. If you need a date, I’ll cut loose. Otherwise, call Engineering.”

“Jabba, this is serious. I can feel it.”

She can feel it? It was official, Jabba thought, Midge was in one of her moods. “If Strathmore’s not worried, I’m not worried.”

“Crypto’s pitch black, dammit!”

“So maybe Strathmore’s stargazing.”

“Jabba! I’m not kidding around here!”

“Okay, okay,” he grumbled, propping himself up on an elbow. “Maybe a generator shorted out. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll stop by Crypto and-”

“What about aux power!” Midge demanded. “If a generator blew, why is there no aux power?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Strathmore’s got TRANSLTR running and aux power is tapped out.”

“So why doesn’t he abort? Maybe it’s a virus. You said something earlier about a virus.”

“Damn it, Midge!” Jabba exploded. “I told you, there’s no virus in Crypto! Stop being so damned paranoid!”

There was a long silence on the line.

“Aw, shit, Midge,” Jabba apologized. “Let me explain.” His voice was tight. “First of all, we’ve got Gauntlet-no virus could possibly get through. Second, if there’s a power failure, it’s hardware-related-viruses don’t kill power, they attack software and data. Whatever’s going on in Crypto, it’s not a virus.”

Silence.

“Midge? You there?”

Midge’s response was icy. “Jabba, I have a job to do. I don’t expect to be yelled at for doing it. When I call to ask why a multi billion-dollar facility is in the dark, I expect a professional response.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“A simple yes or no will suffice. Is it possible the problem in Crypto is virus-related?”

“Midge… I told you-”

“Yes or no. Could TRANSLTR have a virus?”

Jabba sighed. “No, Midge. It’s totally impossible.”

“Thank you.”

He forced a chuckle and tried to lighten the mood. “Unless you think Strathmore wrote one himself and bypassed my filters.”

There was a stunned silence. When Midge spoke, her voice had an eerie edge. “Strathmore can bypass Gauntlet?”

Jabba sighed. “It was a joke, Midge.” But he knew it was too late.

Chapter 62

The Commander and Susan stood beside the closed trapdoor and debated what to do next.

“We’ve got Phil Chartrukian dead down there,” Strathmore argued. “If we call for help, Crypto will turn into a circus.”

“So what do you propose we do?” Susan demanded, wanting only to leave.

Strathmore thought a moment. “Don’t ask me how it happened,” he said, glancing down at the locked trapdoor, “but it looks like we’ve inadvertently located and neutralized North Dakota.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Damn lucky break if you ask me.” He still seemed stunned by the idea that Hale was involved in Tankado’s plan. “My guess is that Hale’s got the pass-key hidden in his terminal somewhere-maybe he’s got a copy at home. Either way, he’s trapped.”

“So why not call building security and let them cart him away?”

“Not yet,” Strathmore said, “if the Sys-Secs uncover stats of this endless TRANSLTR run, we’ve got a whole new set of problems. I want all traces of Digital Fortress deleted before we open the doors.”

Susan nodded reluctantly. It was a good plan. When Security finally pulled Hale from the sublevels and charged him with Chartrukian’s death, he probably would threaten to tell the world about Digital Fortress. But the proof would be erased-Strathmore could play dumb. An endless run? An unbreakable algorithm? But that’s absurd! Hasn’t Hale heard of the Bergofsky Principle?

“Here’s what we need to do.” Strathmore coolly outlined his plan. “We erase all of Hale’s correspondence with Tankado. We erase all records of my bypassing Gauntlet, all of Chartrukian’s Sys-Sec analysis, the Run-Monitor records, everything. Digital Fortress disappears. It was never here. We bury Hale’s key and pray to God David finds Tankado’s copy.”

David, Susan thought. She forced him from her mind. She needed to stay focused on the matter at hand.

“I’ll handle the Sys-Sec lab,” Strathmore said. “Run-Monitor stats, mutation activity stats, the works. You handle Node 3. Delete all of Hale’s E-mail. Any records of correspondence with Tankado, anything that mentions Digital Fortress.”

“Okay,” Susan replied, focusing. “I’ll erase Hale’s whole drive. Reformat everything.”

“No!” Strathmore’s response was stern. “Don’t do that. Hale most likely has a copy of the pass-key in there. I want it.”

Susan gaped in shock. “You want the pass-key? I thought the whole point was to destroy the pass-keys!”

“It is. But I want a copy. I want to crack open this damn file and have a look at Tankado’s program.”

Susan shared Strathmore’s curiosity, but instinct told her unlocking the Digital Fortress algorithm was not wise, regardless of how interesting it would be. Right now, the deadly program was locked safely in its encrypted vault-totally harmless. As soon as he decrypted it…. “Commander, wouldn’t we be better off just to-”

“I want the key,” he replied.

Susan had to admit, ever since hearing about Digital Fortress, she’d felt a certain academic curiosity to know how Tankado had managed to write it. Its mere existence contradicted the most fundamental rules of cryptography. Susan eyed the commander. “You’ll delete the algorithm immediately after we see it?”

“Without a trace.”

Susan frowned. She knew that finding Hale’s key would not happen instantly. Locating a random pass-key on one of the Node 3 hard drives was somewhat like trying to find a single sock in a bedroom the size of Texas. Computer searches only worked when you knew what you were looking for; this pass-key was random. Fortunately, however, because Crypto dealt with so much random material, Susan and some others had developed a complex process known as a nonconformity search. The search essentially asked the computer to study every string of characters on its hard drive, compare each string against an enormous dictionary, and flag any strings that seemed nonsensical or random. It was tricky work to refine the parameters continually, but it was possible.

Susan knew she was the logical choice to find the pass-key. She sighed, hoping she wouldn’t regret it. “If all goes well, it will take me about half an hour.”

“Then let’s get to work,” Strathmore said, putting a hand on her shoulder and leading her through the darkness toward Node 3.

Above them, a star-filled sky had stretched itself across the dome. Susan wondered if David could see the same stars from Seville.

As they approached the heavy glass doors of Node 3, Strathmore swore under his breath. The Node 3 keypad was unlit, and the doors were dead.

“Damn it,” he said. “No power. I forgot.”

Strathmore studied the sliding doors. He placed his palms flat against the glass. Then he leaned sideways trying to slide them open. His hands were sweaty and slipped. He wiped them on his pants and tried again. This time the doors slid open a tiny crack.

Susan, sensing progress, got in behind Strathmore and they both pushed together. The doors slid open about an inch. They held it a moment, but the pressure was too great. The doors sprang shut again.

“Hold on,” Susan said, repositioning herself in front of Strathmore. “Okay, now try.”

They heaved. Again the door opened only about an inch. A faint ray of blue light appeared from inside Node 3; the terminals were still on; they were considered critical to TRANSLTR and were receiving aux power.

Susan dug the toe of her Ferragamo’s into the floor and pushed harder. The door started to move. Strathmore moved to get a better angle. Centering his palms on the left slider, he pushed straight back. Susan pushed the right slider in the opposite direction. Slowly, arduously, the doors began to separate. They were now almost a foot apart.

“Don’t let go,” Strathmore said, panting as they pushed harder. “Just a little farther.”

Susan repositioned herself with her shoulder in the crack. She pushed again, this time with a better angle. The doors fought back against her.

Before Strathmore could stop her, Susan squeezed her slender body into the opening. Strathmore protested, but she was intent. She wanted out of Crypto, and she knew Strathmore well enough to know she wasn’t going anywhere until Hale’s pass-key was found.

She centered herself in the opening and pushed with all her strength. The doors seemed to push back. Suddenly Susan lost her grip. The doors sprang toward her. Strathmore fought to hold them off, but it was too much. Just as the doors slammed shut, Susan squeezed through and collapsed on the other side.

The commander fought to reopen the door a tiny sliver. He put his face to the narrow crack. “Jesus, Susan-are you okay?”

Susan stood up and brushed herself off. “Fine.”

She looked around. Node 3 was deserted, lit only by the computer monitors. The bluish shadows gave the place a ghostly ambiance. She turned to Strathmore in the crack of the door. His face looked pallid and sickly in the blue light.

“Susan,” he said. “Give me twenty minutes to delete the files in Sys-Sec. When all traces are gone, I’ll go up to my terminal and abort TRANSLTR.”

“You better,” Susan said, eyeing the heavy glass doors. She knew that until TRANSLTR stopped hoarding aux power, she was a prisoner in Node 3.

Strathmore let go of the doors, and they snapped shut. Susan watched through the glass as the commander disappeared into the Crypto darkness.

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