Greg Hale lay curled on the Node 3 floor. Strathmore and Susan had just dragged him across Crypto and bound his hands and feet with twelve-gauge printer cable from the Node 3 laser-printers.
Susan couldn’t get over the artful maneuver the commander had just executed. He faked the call! Somehow Strathmore had captured Hale, saved Susan, and bought himself the time needed to rewrite Digital Fortress.
Susan eyed the bound cryptographer uneasily. Hale was breathing heavily. Strathmore sat on the couch with the Berretta propped awkwardly in his lap. Susan returned her attention to Hale’s terminal and continued her random-string search.
Her fourth string search ran its course and came up empty. “Still no luck.” She sighed. “We may need to wait for David to find Tankado’s copy.”
Strathmore gave her a disapproving look. “If David fails, and Tankado’s key falls into the wrong hands…”
Strathmore didn’t need to finish. Susan understood. Until the Digital Fortress file on the Internet had been replaced with Strathmore’s modified version, Tankado’s pass-key was dangerous.
“After we make the switch,” Strathmore added, “I don’t care how many pass-keys are floating around; the more the merrier.” He motioned for her to continue searching. “But until then, we’re playing beat-the-clock.”
Susan opened her mouth to acknowledge, but her words were drowned out by a sudden deafening blare. The silence of Crypto was shattered by a warning horn from the sublevels. Susan and Strathmore exchanged startled looks.
“What’s that?” Susan yelled, timing her question between the intermittent bursts.
“TRANSLTR!” Strathmore called back, looking troubled. “It’s too hot! Maybe Hale was right about the aux power not pulling enough freon.”
“What about the auto-abort?”
Strathmore thought a moment, then yelled, “Something must have shorted.” A yellow siren light spun above the Crypto floor and swept a pulsating glare across his face.
“You better abort!” Susan called.
Strathmore nodded. There was no telling what would happen if three million silicon processors overheated and decided to ignite. Strathmore needed to get upstairs to his terminal and abort the Digital Fortress run-particularly before anyone outside of Crypto noticed the trouble and decided to send in the cavalry.
Strathmore shot a glance at the still-unconscious Hale. He laid the Berretta on a table near Susan and yelled over the sirens, “Be right back!” As he disappeared through the hole in the Node 3 wall, Strathmore called over his shoulder, “And find me that pass-key!”
Susan eyed the results of her unproductive pass-key search and hoped Strathmore would hurry up and abort. The noise and lights in Crypto felt like a missile launch.
On the floor, Hale began to stir. With each blast of the horn, he winced. Susan surprised herself by grabbing the Berretta. Hale opened his eyes to Susan Fletcher standing over him with the gun leveled at his crotch.
“Where’s the pass-key?” Susan demanded.
Hale was having trouble getting his bearings. “Wh-what happened?”
“You blew it, that’s what happened. Now, where’s the passkey?”
Hale tried to move his arms but realized he was tied. His face became taut with panic. “Let me go!”
“I need the pass-key,” Susan repeated.
“I don’t have it! Let me go!” Hale tried to getup. He could barely roll over.
Susan yelled between blasts of the horn. “You’re North Dakota, and Ensei Tankado gave you a copy of his key. I need it now!”
“You’re crazy!” Hale gasped. “I’m not North Dakota!” He struggled unsuccessfully to free himself.
Susan charged angrily. “Don’t lie to me. Why the hell is all of North Dakota’s mail in your account?”
“I told you before!” Hale pleaded as the horns blared on. “I snooped Strathmore! That E-mail in my account was mail I copied out of Strathmore’s account-E-mail COMINT stole from Tankado!”
“Bull! You could never snoop the commander’s account!”
“You don’t understand!” Hale yelled. “There was already a tap on Strathmore’s account!” Hale delivered his words in short bursts between the sirens. “Someone else put the tap there. I think it was Director Fontaine! I just piggybacked! You’ve got to believe me! That’s how I found out about his plan to rewrite Digital Fortress! I’ve been reading Strathmore’s brainstorms!”
Brain Storms? Susan paused. Strathmore had undoubtedly outlined his plans for Digital Fortress using his BrainStorm software. If anyone had snooped the commander’s account, all the information would have been available…
“Rewriting Digital Fortress is sick!” Hale cried. “You know damn well what it implies-total NSA access!” The sirens blasted, drowning him out, but Hale was possessed. “You think we’re ready for that responsibility? You think anyone is? It’s fucking shortsighted! You say our government has the people’s best interests at heart? Great! But what happens when some future government doesn’t have our best interests at heart! This technology is forever!”
Susan could barely hear him; the noise in Crypto was deafening.
Hale struggled to get free. He looked Susan in the eye and kept yelling. “How the hell do civilians defend themselves against a police state when the guy at the top has access to all their lines of communication? How do they plan a revolt?”
Susan had heard this argument many times. The future-governments argument was a stock EFF complaint.
“Strathmore had to be stopped!” Hale screamed as the sirens blasted. “I swore I’d do it. That’s what I’ve been doing here all day-watching his account, waiting for him to make his move so I could record the switch in progress. I needed proof-evidence that he’d written in a back door. That’s why I copied all his E-mail into my account. It was evidence that he’d been watching Digital Fortress. I planned to go to the press with the information.”
Susan’s heart skipped. Had she heard correctly? Suddenly this did sound like Greg Hale. Was it possible? If Hale had known about Strathmore’s plan to release a tainted version of Digital Fortress, he could wait until the whole world was using it and then drop his bombshell-complete with proof!
Susan imagined the headlines: Cryptographer Greg Hale unveils secret U.S. plan to control global information!
Was it Skipjack all over? Uncovering an NSA back door again would make Greg Hale famous beyond his wildest dreams. It would also sink the NSA. She suddenly found herself wondering if maybe Hale was telling the truth. No! she decided. Of course not!
Hale continued to plead. “I aborted your tracer because I thought you were looking for me! I thought you suspected Strathmore was being snooped! I didn’t want you to find the leak and trace it back to me!”
It was plausible but unlikely. “Then why’d you kill Chartrukian?” Susan snapped.
“I didn’t!” Hale screamed over the noise. “Strathmore was the one who pushed him! I saw the whole thing from downstairs! Chartrukian was about to call the Sys-Secs and ruin Strathmore’s plans for the back door!”
Hale’s good, Susan thought. He’s got an angle for everything.
“Let me go!” Hale begged. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Didn’t do anything?” Susan shouted, wondering what was taking Strathmore so long. “You and Tankado were holding the NSA hostage. At least until you double-crossed him. Tell me,” she pressed, “did Tankado really die of a heart attack, or did you have one of your buddies take him out?”
“You’re so blind!” Hale yelled. “Can’t you see I’m not involved? Untie me! Before Security gets here!”
“Security’s not coming,” she snapped flatly.
Hale turned white. “What?”
“Strathmore faked the phone call.”
Hale’s eyes went wide. He seemed momentarily paralyzed. Then he began writhing fiercely. “Strathmore’ll kill me! I know he will! I know too much!”
The sirens blared as Hale yelled out, “But I’m innocent!”
“You’re lying! And I have proof!” Susan strode around the ring of terminals. “Remember that tracer you aborted?” she asked, arriving at her own terminal. “I sent it again! Shall we see if it’s back yet?”
Sure enough, on Susan’s screen, a blinking icon alerted her that her tracer had returned. She palmed her mouse and opened the message. This data will seal Hale’s fate, she thought. Hale is North Dakota. The databox opened. Hale is – Susan stopped. The tracer materialized, and Susan stood in stunned silence. There had to be some mistake; the tracer had fingered someone else-a most unlikely person.
Susan steadied herself on the terminal and reread the databox before her. It was the same information Strathmore said he’d received when he ran the tracer! Susan had figured Strathmore had made a mistake, but she knew she’d configured the tracer perfectly.
And yet the information on the screen was unthinkable:
NDAKOTA = ET@DOSHISHA.EDU
“ET?” Susan demanded, her head swimming. “Ensei Tankado is North Dakota?”
It was inconceivable. If the data was correct, Tankado and his partner were the same person. Susan’s thoughts were suddenly disconnected. She wished the blaring horn would stop. Why doesn’t Strathmore turn that damn thing off?
Hale twisted on the floor, straining to see Susan. “What does it say? Tell me!”
Susan blocked out Hale and the chaos around her. Ensei Tankado is North Dakota….
She reshuffled the pieces trying to make them fit. If Tankado was North Dakota, then he was sending E-mail to himself… which meant North Dakota didn’t exist. Tankado’s partner was a hoax.
North Dakota is a ghost, she said to herself. Smoke and mirrors.
The ploy was a brilliant one. Apparently Strathmore had been watching only one side of a tennis match. Since the ball kept coming back, he assumed there was someone on the other side of the net. But Tankado had been playing against a wall. He had been proclaiming the virtues of Digital Fortress in E-mail he’d sent to himself. He had written letters, sent them to an anonymous remailer, and a few hours later, the remailer had sent them right back to him.
Now, Susan realized, it was all so obvious. Tankado had wanted the commander to snoop him… he’d wanted him to read the E-mail. Ensei Tankado had created an imaginary insurance policy without ever having to trust another soul with his pass-key. Of course, to make the whole farce seem authentic, Tankado had used a secret account… just secret enough to allay any suspicions that the whole thing was a setup. Tankado was his own partner. North Dakota did not exist. Ensei Tankado was a one-man show.
A one-man show.
A terrifying thought gripped Susan. Tankado could have used his fake correspondence to convince Strathmore of just about anything.
She remembered her first reaction when Strathmore told her about the unbreakable algorithm. She’d sworn it was impossible. The unsettling potential of the situation settled hard in Susan’s stomach. What proof did they actually have that Tankado had really created Digital Fortress? Only a lot of hype in his E-mail. And of course… TRANSLTR. The computer had been locked in an endless loop for almost twenty hours. Susan knew, however, that there were other programs that could keep TRANSLTR busy that long, programs far easier to create than an unbreakable algorithm.
The chill swept across her body.
But how could a virus get into TRANSLTR?
Like a voice from the grave, Phil Chartrukian gave the answer. Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet!
In a sickening revelation, Susan grasped the truth. Strathmore had downloaded Tankado’s Digital Fortress file and tried to send it into TRANSLTR to break it. But Gauntlet had rejected the file because it contained dangerous mutation strings. Normally Strathmore would have been concerned, but he had seen Tankado’s E-mail-Mutation strings are the trick! Convinced Digital Fortress was safe to load, Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet’s filters and sent the file into TRANSLTR.
Susan could barely speak. “There is no Digital Fortress,” she choked as the sirens blared on. Slowly, weakly, she leaned against her terminal. Tankado had gone fishing for fools… and the NSA had taken the bait.
Then, from upstairs, came a long cry of anguish. It was Strathmore.
Trevor Strathmore was hunched at his desk when Susan arrived breathless at his door. His head was down, his sweaty head glistening in the light of his monitor. The horns on the sublevels blared.
Susan raced over to his desk. “Commander?”
Strathmore didn’t move.
“Commander! We’ve got to shut down TRANSLTR! We’ve got a-”
“He got us,” Strathmore said without looking up. “Tankado fooled us all…”
She could tell by the tone of his voice he understood. All of Tankado’s hype about the unbreakable algorithm… auctioning off the pass-key-it was all an act, a charade. Tankado had tricked the NSA into snooping his mail, tricked them into believing he had a partner, and tricked them into downloading a very dangerous file.
“The mutation strings-” Strathmore faltered.
The commander looked up slowly. “The file I downloaded off the Internet… it was a…”
Susan tried to stay calm. All the pieces in the game had shifted. There had never been any unbreakable algorithm-never any Digital Fortress. The file Tankado had posted on the Internet was an encrypted virus, probably sealed with some generic, mass-market encryption algorithm, strong enough to keep everyone out of harm’s way-everyone except the NSA. TRANSLTR had cracked the protective seal and released the virus.
“The mutation strings,” the commander croaked. “Tankado said they were just part of the algorithm.” Strathmore collapsed back onto his desk.
Susan understood the commander’s pain. He had been completely taken in. Tankado had never intended to let any computer company buy his algorithm. There was no algorithm. The whole thing was a charade. Digital Fortress was a ghost, a farce, a piece of bait created to tempt the NSA. Every move Strathmore had made, Tankado had been behind the scenes, pulling the strings.
“I bypassed Gauntlet.” The commander groaned.
“You didn’t know.”
Strathmore pounded his fist on his desk. “I should have known! His screen name, for Christ’s sake! NDAKOTA! Look at it!”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s laughing at us! It’s a goddamn anagram!”
Susan puzzled a moment. NDAKOTA is an anagram? She pictured the letters and began reshuffling them in her mind. Ndakota… Kadotan… Oktadan… Tandoka… Her knees went weak. Strathmore was right. It was as plain as day. How could they have missed it? North Dakota wasn’t a reference to the U.S. state at all-it was Tankado rubbing salt in the wound! He’d even sent the NSA a warning, a blatant clue that he himself was NDAKOTA. The letters spelled TANKADO. But the best code-breakers in the world had missed it, just as he had planned.
“Tankado was mocking us,” Strathmore said.
“You’ve got to abort TRANSLTR,” Susan declared.
Strathmore stared blankly at the wall.
“Commander. Shut it down! God only knows what’s going on in there!”
“I tried,” Strathmore whispered, sounding as faint as she’d ever heard him.
“What do you mean you tried?”
Strathmore rotated his screen toward her. His monitor had dimmed to a strange shade of maroon. At the bottom, the dialogue box showed numerous attempts to shut down TRANSLTR. They were all followed by the same response:
SORRY. UNABLE TO ABORT.
SORRY. UNABLE TO ABORT.
SORRY. UNABLE TO ABORT.
Susan felt a chill. Unable to abort? But why? She feared she already knew the answer. So this is Tankado’s revenge? Destroying TRANSLTR! For years Ensei Tankado had wanted the world to know about TRANSLTR, but no one had believed him. So he’d decided to destroy the great beast himself. He’d fought to the death for what he believed-the individual’s right to privacy.
Downstairs the sirens blared.
“We’ve got to kill all power,” Susan demanded. “Now!”
Susan knew that if they hurried, they could save the great parallel processing machine. Every computer in the world-from Radio Shack PCs to NASA’s satellite control systems-had a built-in fail-safe for situations like this. It wasn’t a glamorous fix, but it always worked. It was known as “pulling the plug.”
By shutting off the remaining power in Crypto, they could force TRANSLTR to shut down. They could remove the virus later. It would be a simple matter of reformatting TRANSLTR’s hard drives. Reformatting would completely erase the computer’s memory-data, programming, virus, everything. In most cases, reformatting resulted in the loss of thousands of files, sometimes years of work. But TRANSLTR was different-it could be reformatted with virtually no loss at all. Parallel processing machines were designed to think, not to remember. Nothing was actually stored inside TRANSLTR. Once it broke a code, it sent the results to the NSA’s main databank in order to – Susan froze. In a stark instant of realization, she brought her hand to her mouth and muffled a scream. “The main databank!”
Strathmore stared into the darkness, his voice disembodied. He’d apparently already made this realization. “Yes, Susan. The main databank….”
Susan nodded blankly. Tankado used TRANSLTR to put a virus in our main databank.
Strathmore motioned sickly to his monitor. Susan returned her gaze to the screen in front of her and looked beneath the dialogue box. Across the bottom of the screen were the words:
TELL THE WORLD ABOUT TRANSLTR
ONLY THE TRUTH WILL SAVE YOU NOW…
Susan felt cold. The nation’s most classified information was stored at the NSA: military communication protocols, SIGINT confirmation codes, identities of foreign spies, blueprints for advanced weaponry, digitized documents, trade agreements-the list was unending.
“Tankado wouldn’t dare!” she declared. “Corrupting a country’s classified records?” Susan couldn’t believe even Ensei Tankado would dare attack the NSA databank. She stared at his message.
ONLY THE TRUTH WILL SAVE YOU NOW
“The truth?” she asked. “The truth about what?”
Strathmore was breathing heavily. “TRANSLTR,” he croaked. “The truth about TRANSLTR.”
Susan nodded. It made perfect sense. Tankado was forcing the NSA to tell the world about TRANSLTR. It was blackmail after all. He was giving the NSA a choice-either tell the world about TRANSLTR or lose your databank. She stared in awe at the text before her. At the bottom of the screen, a single line was blinked menacingly.
Staring at the pulsating words, Susan understood-the virus, the pass-key, Tankado’s ring, the ingenious blackmail plot. The pass-key had nothing to do with unlocking an algorithm; it was an antidote. The pass-key stopped the virus. Susan had read a lot about viruses like this-deadly programs that included a built-in cure, a secret key that could be used to deactivate them. Tankado never planned to destroy the NSA databank-he just wanted us go public with TRANSLTR! Then he would give us the pass-key, so we could stop the virus!
It was now clear to Susan that Tankado’s plan had gone terribly wrong. He had not planned on dying. He’d planned on sitting in a Spanish bar and listening to the CNN press conference about America’s top-secret code-breaking computer. Then he’d planned on calling Strathmore, reading the pass-key off the ring, and saving the databank in the nick of time. After a good laugh, he’d disappear into oblivion, an EFF hero.
Susan pounded her fist on the desk. “We need that ring! It’s the only pass-key!” She now understood-there was no North Dakota, no second pass-key. Even if the NSA went public with TRANSLTR, Tankado was no longer around to save the day.
Strathmore was silent.
The situation was more serious than Susan had ever imagined. The most shocking thing of all was that Tankado had allowed it to go this far. He had obviously known what would happen if the NSA didn’t get the ring-and yet, in his final seconds of life, he’d given the ring away. He had deliberately tried to keep it from them. Then again, Susan realized, what could she expect Tankado to do-save the ring for them, when he thought the NSA had killed him?
Still, Susan couldn’t believe that Tankado would have allowed this to happen. He was a pacifist. He didn’t want to wreak destruction; all he wanted was to set the record straight. This was about TRANSLTR. This was about everyone’s right to keep a secret. This was about letting the world know that the NSA was listening. Deleting the NSA’s databank was an act of aggression Susan could not imagine Ensei Tankado committing.
The sirens pulled her back to reality. Susan eyed the debilitated commander and knew what he was thinking. Not only were his plans for a back door in Digital Fortress shot, but his carelessness had put the NSA on the brink of what could turn out to be the worst security disaster in U.S. history.
“Commander, this is not your fault!” she insisted over the blare of the horns. “If Tankado hadn’t died, we’d have bargaining power-we’d have options!”
But Commander Strathmore heard nothing. His life was over. He’d spent thirty years serving his country. This was supposed to be his moment of glory, his piece de resistance-aback door in the world encryption standard. But instead, he had sent a virus into the main databank of the National Security Agency. There was no way to stop it-not without killing power and erasing every last one of the billions of bytes of irretrievable data. Only the ring could save them, and if David hadn’t found the ring by now…
“I need to shut down TRANSLTR!” Susan took control. “I’m going down to the sublevels to throw the circuit breaker.”
Strathmore turned slowly to face her. He was a broken man. “I’ll do it,” he croaked. He stood up, stumbling as he tried to slide out from behind his desk.
Susan sat him back down. “No,” she barked. “I’m going.” Her tone left no room for debate.
Strathmore put his face in his hands. “Okay. Bottom floor. Beside the freon pumps.”
Susan spun and headed for the door. Halfway there, she turned and looked back. “Commander,” she yelled. “This is not over. We’re not beaten yet. If David finds the ring in time, we can save the databank!”
Strathmore said nothing.
“Call the databank!” Susan ordered. “Warn them about the virus! You’re the deputy director of the NSA. You’re a survivor!”
In slow motion, Strathmore looked up. Like a man making the decision of a lifetime, he gave her a tragic nod.
Determined, Susan tore into the darkness.
The Vespa lurched into the slow lane of the Carretera de Huelva. It was almost dawn, but there was plenty of traffic-young Sevillians returning from their all-night beach verbenas. A van of teenagers laid on its horn and flew by. Becker’s motorcycle felt like a toy out there on the freeway.
A quarter of a mile back, a demolished taxi swerved out onto the freeway in a shower of sparks. As it accelerated, it sideswiped a Peugeot 504 and sent it careening onto the grassy median.
Becker passed a freeway marker: SEVILLA CENTRO-2 KM. If he could just reach the cover of downtown, he knew he might have a chance. His speedometer read 60 kilometers per hour. Two minutes to the exit. He knew he didn’t have that long. Somewhere behind him, the taxi was gaining. Becker gazed out at the nearing lights of downtown Seville and prayed he would reach them alive.
He was only halfway to the exit when the sound of scraping metal loomed up behind him. He hunched on his bike, wrenching the throttle as far as it would go. There was a muffled gunshot, and a bullet sailed by. Becker cut left, weaving back and forth across the lanes in hopes of buying more time. It was no use. The exit ramp was still three hundred yards when the taxi roared to within a few car lengths behind him. Becker knew that in a matter of seconds he would be either shot or run down. He scanned ahead for any possible escape, but the highway was bounded on both sides by steep gravel slopes. Another shot rang out. Becker made his decision.
In a scream of rubber and sparks, he leaned violently to his right and swerved off the road. The bike’s tires hit the bottom of the embankment. Becker strained to keep his balance as the Vespa threw up a cloud of gravel and began fish-tailing its way up the slope. The wheels spun wildly, clawing at the loose earth. The little engine whimpered pathetically as it tried to dig in. Becker urged it on, hoping it wouldn’t stall. He didn’t dare look behind him, certain at any moment the taxi would be skidding to a stop, bullets flying.
The bullets never came.
Becker’s bike broke over the crest of the hill, and he saw it-the centro. The downtown lights spread out before him like a star-filled sky. He gunned his way through some underbrush and out over the curb. His Vespa suddenly felt faster. The Avenue Luis Montoto seemed to race beneath his tires. The soccer stadium zipped past on the left. He was in the clear.
It was then that Becker heard the familiar screech of metal on concrete. He looked up. A hundred yards ahead of him, the taxi came roaring up the exit ramp. It skidded out onto Luis Montoto and accelerated directly toward him.
Becker knew he should have felt a surge of panic. But he did not. He knew exactly where he was going. He swerved left on Menendez Pelayo and opened the throttle. The bike lurched across a small park and into the cobblestoned corridor of Mateus Gago-the narrow one-way street that led to the portal of Barrio Santa Cruz.
Just a little farther, he thought.
The taxi followed, thundering closer. It trailed Becker through the gateway of Santa Cruz, ripping off its side mirror on the narrow archway. Becker knew he had won. Santa Cruz was the oldest section of Seville. It had no roads between the buildings, only mazes of narrow walkways built in Roman times. They were only wide enough for pedestrians and the occasional Moped. Becker had once been lost for hours in the narrow caverns.
As Becker accelerated down the final stretch of Mateus Gago, Seville’s eleventh-century Gothic cathedral rose like a mountain before him. Directly beside it, the Giralda tower shot 419 feet skyward into the breaking dawn. This was Santa Cruz, home to the second largest cathedral in the world as well as Seville’s oldest, most pious Catholic families.
Becker sped across the stone square. There was a single shot, but it was too late. Becker and his motorcycle disappeared down a tiny passageway-Callita de la Virgen.