Susan had no idea how much time had passed.A burning in her throat pulled her to her senses.Disoriented, she studied her surroundings.
She was on a carpet behind a desk. The only light in the room was a strange orange flickering. The air smelled of burning plastic. The room she was standing in was not really a room at all; it was a devastated shell. The curtains were on fire, and the Plexiglas walls were smoldering.
Then she remembered it all.
In a rising panic, she pulled herself to her feet. The air felt caustic in her windpipe. She stumbled to the doorway looking for away out. As she crossed the threshold, her leg swung out over an abyss; she grabbed the door frame just in time. The catwalk had disappeared. Fifty feet below was a twisted collapse of steaming metal. Susan scanned the Crypto floor in horror. It was a sea of fire. The melted remains of three million silicon chips had erupted from TRANSLTR like lava. Thick, acrid smoke billowed upward. Susan knew the smell. Silicon smoke. Deadly poison.
Retreating into the remains of Strathmore’s office, she began to feel faint. Her throat burned. The entire place was filled with a fiery light. Crypto was dying. So will I, she thought.
For a moment, she considered the only possible exit-Strathmore’s elevator. But she knew it was useless; the electronics never would have survived the blast.
But as Susan made her way through the thickening smoke, she recalled Hale’s words. The elevator runs on power from the main building! I’ve seen the schematics! Susan knew that was true. She also knew the entire shaft was encased in reinforced concrete.
The fumes swirled all around her. She stumbled through the smoke toward the elevator door. But when she got there, she saw that the elevator’s call button was dark. Susan jabbed fruitlessly at the darkened panel, then she fell to her knees and pounded on the door.
She stopped almost instantly. Something was whirring behind the doors. Startled, she looked up. It sounded like the carriage was right there! Susan stabbed at the button again. Again, a whirring behind the doors.
Suddenly she saw it.
The call button was not dead-it had just been covered with black soot. It now glowed faintly beneath her smudged fingerprints.
With a surge of hope, she punched at the button. Over and over, something behind the doors engaged. She could hear the ventilation fan in the elevator car. The carriage is here! Why won’t the damn doors open?
Through the smoke she spied the tiny secondary keypad-lettered buttons, A through Z. In a wave of despair, Susan remembered. The password.
The smoke was starting to curl in through the melted window frames. Again she banged on the elevator doors. They refused to open. The password! she thought. Strathmore never told me the password! Silicon smoke was now filling the office. Choking, Susan fell against the elevator in defeat. The ventilation fan was running just a few feet away. She lay there, dazed, gulping for air.
She closed her eyes, but again David’s voice woke her. Escape, Susan! Open the door! Escape! She opened her eyes expecting to see his face, those wild green eyes, that playful smile. But the letters A-Z came into focus. The password… Susan stared at the letters on the keypad. She could barely keep them in focus. On the LED below the keypad, five empty spots awaited entry. A five-character password, she thought. She instantly knew the odds: twenty-six to the fifth power; 11,881,376 possible choices. At one guess every second, it would take nineteen weeks…
As Susan Fletcher lay choking on the floor beneath the keypad, the commander’s pathetic voice came to her. He was calling to her again. I love you Susan! I’ve always loved you! Susan! Susan! Susan…
She knew he was dead, and yet his voice was relentless. She heard her name over and over.
Then, in a moment of chilling clarity, she knew.
Trembling weakly, she reached up to the keypad and typed the password.
S… U… S… A… N
An instant later, the doors slid open.
Strathmore’s elevator dropped fast. Inside the carriage, Susan sucked deep breaths of fresh air into her lungs. Dazed, she steadied herself against the wall as the car slowed to a stop. A moment later some gears clicked, and the conveyor began moving again, this time horizontally. Susan felt the carriage accelerate as it began rumbling toward the main NSA complex. Finally it whirred to a stop, and the doors opened.
Coughing, Susan Fletcher stumbled into a darkened cement corridor. She found herself in a tunnel-low-ceilinged and narrow. A double yellow line stretched out before her. The line disappeared into an empty, dark hollow.
The Underground Highway…
She staggered toward the tunnel, holding the wall for guidance. Behind her, the elevator door slid shut. Once again Susan Fletcher was plunged into darkness.
Nothing except a faint humming in the walls.
A humming that grew louder.
Suddenly it was as if dawn were breaking. The blackness thinned to a hazy gray. The walls of the tunnel began to take shape. All at once, a small vehicle whipped around the corner, its headlight blinding her. Susan stumbled back against the wall and shielded her eyes. There was a gust of air, and the transport whipped past.
An instant later there was a deafening squeal of rubber on cement. The hum approached once again, this time in reverse. Seconds later the vehicle came to a stop beside her.
“Ms. Fletcher!” an astonished voice exclaimed.
Susan gazed at a vaguely familiar shape in the driver’s seat of an electric golf cart.
“Jesus.” The man gasped. “Are you okay? We thought you were dead!”
Susan stared blankly.
“Chad Brinkerhoff,” he sputtered, studying the shell-shocked cryptographer. “Directorial PA.”
Susan could only manage a dazed whimper. “TRANSLTR…”
Brinkerhoff nodded. “Forget it. Get on!”
The beam of the golf cart’s headlights whipped across the cement walls.
“There’s a virus in the main databank,” Brinkerhoff blurted.
“I know,” Susan heard herself whisper.
“We need you to help us.
Susan was fighting back the tears. “Strathmore… he…”
“We know,” Brinkerhoff said. “He bypassed Gauntlet.”
“Yes… and…” The words got stuck in her throat. He killed David!
Brinkerhoff put a hand on her shoulder. “Almost there, Ms. Fletcher. Just hold on.”
The high-speed Kensington golf cart rounded a corner and skidded to a stop. Beside them, branching off perpendicular to the tunnel, was a hallway, dimly lit by red floor lighting.
“Come on,” Brinkerhoff said, helping her out.
He guided her into the corridor. Susan drifted behind him in a fog. The tiled passageway sloped downward at a steep incline. Susan grabbed the handrail and followed Brinkerhoff down. The air began to grow cooler. They continued their descent.
As they dropped deeper into the earth, the tunnel narrowed. From somewhere behind them came the echo of footsteps-a strong, purposeful gait. The footsteps grew louder. Both Brinkerhoff and Susan stopped and turned.
Striding toward them was an enormous black man. Susan had never seen him before. As he approached, he fixed her with a penetrating stare.
“Who’s this?” he demanded.
“Susan Fletcher,” Brinkerhoff replied.
The enormous man arched his eyebrows. Even sooty and soaked, Susan Fletcher was more striking than he had imagined. “And the commander?” he demanded.
Brinkerhoff shook his head.
The man said nothing. He stared off a moment. Then he turned back to Susan. “Leland Fontaine,” he said, offering her his hand. “Glad you’re okay.”
Susan stared. She’d always known she’d meet the director someday, but this was not the introduction she’d envisioned.
“Come along, Ms. Fletcher,” Fontaine said, leading the way. “We’ll need all the help we can get.”
Looming in the reddish haze at the bottom of the tunnel, a steel wall blocked their way. Fontaine approached and typed an entry code into a recessed cipher box. He then placed his right hand against a small glass panel. A strobe flashed. A moment later the massive wall thundered left.
There was only one NSA chamber more sacred than Crypto, and Susan Fletcher sensed she was about to enter it.
The command center for the NSA’s main databank looked like a scaled-down NASA mission control. A dozen computer workstations faced the thirty-foot by forty-foot video wall at the far end of the room. On the screen, numbers and diagrams flashed in rapid succession, appearing and disappearing as if someone were channel surfing. A handful of technicians raced wildly from station to station trailing long sheets of printout paper and yelling commands. It was chaos.
Susan stared at the dazzling facility. She vaguely remembered that 250 metric tons of earth had been excavated to create it. The chamber was located 214 feet below ground, where it would be totally impervious to flux bombs and nuclear blasts.
On a raised workstation in the center of the room stood Jabba. He bellowed orders from his platform like a king to his subjects. Illuminated on the screen directly behind him was a message. The message was all too familiar to Susan. The billboard-size text hung ominously over Jabba’s head:
ONLY THE TRUTH WILL SAVE YOU NOW
ENTER PASS-KEY ______
As if trapped in some surreal nightmare, Susan followed Fontaine toward the podium. Her world was a slow-motion blur.
Jabba saw them coming and wheeled like an enraged bull. “I built Gauntlet for a reason!”
“Gauntlet’s gone,” Fontaine replied evenly.
“Old news, Director,” Jabba spat. “The shock wave knocked me on my ass! Where’s Strathmore?”
“Commander Strathmore is dead.”
“Poetic fucking justice.”
“Cool it, Jabba,” the director ordered. “Bring us up to speed. How bad is this virus?”
Jabba stared at the director a long moment, and then without warning, he burst out laughing. “A virus?” His harsh guffaw resonated through the underground chamber. “Is that what you think this is?”
Fontaine kept his cool. Jabba’s insolence was way out of line, but Fontaine knew this was not the time or place to handle it. Down here, Jabba outranked God himself. Computer problems had away of ignoring the normal chain of command.
“It’s not a virus?” Brinkerhoff exclaimed hopefully.
Jabba snorted in disgust. “Viruses have replication strings, pretty boy! This doesn’t!”
Susan hovered nearby, unable to focus.
“Then what’s going on?” Fontaine demanded. “I thought we had a virus.”
Jabba sucked in a long breath and lowered his voice. “Viruses…” he said, wiping sweat from his face. “Viruses reproduce. They create clones. They’re vain and stupid-binary egomaniacs. They pump out babies faster than rabbits. That’s their weakness-you can cross-breed them into oblivion if you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, this program has no ego, no need to reproduce. It’s clear-headed and focused. In fact, when it’s accomplished its objective here, it will probably commit digital suicide. “Jabba held out his arms reverently to the projected havoc on the enormous screen. “Ladies and gentlemen.” He sighed. “Meet the kamikaze of computer invaders… the worm.”
“Worm?” Brinkerhoff groaned. It seemed like a mundane term to describe the insidious intruder.
“Worm.” Jabba smoldered. “No complex structures, just instinct-eat, shit, crawl. That’s it. Simplicity. Deadly simplicity. It does what it’s programmed to do and then checks out.”
Fontaine eyed Jabba sternly. “And what is this worm programmed to do?”
“No clue,” Jabba replied. “Right now, it’s spreading out and attaching itself to all our classified data. After that, it could do anything. It might decide to delete all the files, or it might just decide to print smiley faces on certain White House transcripts.”
Fontaine’s voice remained cool and collected. “Can you stop it?”
Jabba let out a long sigh and faced the screen. “I have no idea. It all depends on how pissed off the author is.” He pointed to the message on the wall. “Anybody want to tell me what the hell that means?”
ONLY THE TRUTH WILL SAVE YOU NOW
ENTER PASS-KEY ______
Jabba waited for a response and got none. “Looks like someone’s messing with us, Director. Blackmail. This is a ransom note if I ever saw one.”
Susan’s voice was a whisper, empty and hollow. “It’s… Ensei Tankado.”
Jabba turned to her. He stared a moment, wide-eyed. “Tankado?”
Susan nodded weakly. “He wanted our confession… about TRANSLTR… but it cost him his-“
“Confession?” Brinkerhoff interrupted, looking stunned. “Tankado wants us to confess we have TRANSLTR? I’d say it’s a bit late for that!”
Susan opened her mouth to speak, but Jabba took over. “Looks like Tankado’s got a kill-code,” he said, gazing up at the message on the screen.
“Kill code?” Brinkerhoff demanded.
Jabba nodded. “Yeah. A pass-key that stops the worm. Simply put, if we admit we have TRANSLTR, Tankado gives us a kill-code. We type it in and save the databank. Welcome to digital extortion.”
Fontaine stood like rock, unwavering. “How long have we got?”
“About an hour,” Jabba said. “Just time enough to call a press conference and spill our guts.
“Recommendation,” Fontaine demanded. “What do you propose we do?”
“A recommendation?” Jabba blurted in disbelief. “You want a recommendation? I’ll give you a recommendation! You quit fucking around, that’s what you do!”
“Easy,” the director warned.
“Director,” Jabba sputtered. “Right now, Ensei Tankado owns this databank! Give him whatever he wants. If he wants the world to know about TRANSLTR, call CNN, and drop your shorts. TRANSLTR’s a hole in the ground now anyway-what the hell do you care?”
There was a silence. Fontaine seemed to be considering his options. Susan began to speak, but Jabba beat her to it.
“What are you waiting for, Director! Get Tankado on the phone! Tell him you’ll play ball! We need that kill-code, or this whole place is going down!”
“Are you all insane?” Jabba screamed. “Call Tankado! Tell him we fold! Get me that kill-code! NOW!” Jabba whipped out his cellular phone and switched it on. “Never mind! Get me his number! I’ll call the little prick myself!”
“Don’t bother,” Susan said in a whisper. “Tankado’s dead.”
After a moment of confused astonishment, the implications hit Jabba like a bullet to the gut. The huge Sys-Sec looked like he was about to crumble. “Dead? But then… that means… we can’t…”
“That means we’ll need a new plan,” Fontaine said matter-of-factly.
Jabba’s eyes were still glazed with shock when someone in the back of the room began shouting wildly.
It was Soshi Kuta, his head techie. She came running toward the podium trailing a long printout. She looked terrified.
“Jabba!” She gasped. “The worm… I just found out what it’s programmed to do!” Soshi thrust the paper into Jabba’s hands. “I pulled this from the system-activity probe! We isolated the worm’s execute commands-have a look at the programming! Look what it’s planning to do!”
Dazed, the chief Sys-Sec read the printout. Then he grabbed the handrail for support.
“Oh, Jesus,” Jabba gasped. “Tankado… you bastard!”