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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:



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?”



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.

Everyone turned.

“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!”

Nobody moved.

“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.

“Jabba! Jabba!”

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!”