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Jabba stared blankly at the printout Soshi had just handed him. Pale, he wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “Director, we have no choice. We’ve got to kill power to the databank.”

“Unacceptable,” Fontaine replied. “The results would be devastating.”

Jabba knew the director was right. There were over three thousand ISDN connections tying into the NSA databank from all over the world. Every day military commanders accessed up‑to‑the‑instant satellite photos of enemy movement. Lockheed engineers downloaded compartmentalized blueprints of new weaponry. Field operatives accessed mission updates. The NSA databank was the backbone of thousands of U.S. government operations. Shutting it down without warning would cause life‑and‑death intelligence blackouts all over the globe.

“I’m aware of the implications, sir,” Jabba said, “but we have no choice.”

“Explain yourself,” Fontaine ordered. He shot a quick glance at Susan standing beside him on the podium. She seemed miles away.

Jabba took a deep breath and wiped his brow again. From the look on his face, it was clear to the group on the podium that they were not going to like what he had to say.

“This worm,” Jabba began. “This worm is not an ordinary degenerative cycle. It’s a selective cycle. In other words, it’s a worm with taste.”

Brinkerhoff opened his mouth to speak, but Fontaine waved him off.

“Most destructive applications wipe a databank clean, “Jabba continued, “but this one is more complex. It deletes only those files that fall within certain parameters.”

“You mean it won’t attack the whole databank?” Brinkerhoff asked hopefully. “That’s good, right?”

“No!” Jabba exploded. “It’s bad! It’s very fucking bad!”

“Cool it!” Fontaine ordered. “What parameters is this worm looking for? Military? Covert ops?”

Jabba shook his head. He eyed Susan, who was still distant, and then Jabba’s eyes rose to meet the director’s. “Sir, as you know, anyone who wants to tie into this databank from the outside has to pass a series of security gates before they’re admitted.”

Fontaine nodded. The databank’s access hierarchies were brilliantly conceived; authorized personnel could dial in via the Internet and World Wide Web. Depending on their authorization sequence, they were permitted access to their own compartmentalized zones.

“Because we’re tied to the global Internet, “Jabba explained, “hackers, foreign governments, and EFF sharks circle this databank twenty‑four hours a day and try to break in.”

“Yes,” Fontaine said, “and twenty‑four hours a day, our security filters keep them out. What’s your point?”

Jabba gazed down at the printout. “My point is this. Tankado’s worm is not targeting our data.” He cleared his throat. “It’s targeting our security filters.”

Fontaine blanched. Apparently he understood the implications‑this worm was targeting the filters that kept the NSA databank confidential. Without filters, all of the information in the databank would become accessible to everyone on the outside.

“We need to shut down,” Jabba repeated. “In about an hour, every third grader with a modem is going to have top U.S. security clearance.”

Fontaine stood a long moment without saying a word.

Jabba waited impatiently and finally turned to Soshi. “Soshi! VR! NOW!”

Soshi dashed off.

Jabba relied on VR often. In most computer circles, VR meant “virtual reality,” but at the NSA it meant vis‑rep‑visual representation. In a world full of technicians and politicians all having different levels of technical understanding, a graphic representation was often the only way to make a point; a single plummeting graph usually aroused ten times the reaction inspired by volumes of spreadsheets. Jabba knew a VR of the current crisis would make its point instantly.

“VR!” Soshi yelled from a terminal at the back of the room.

A computer‑generated diagram flashed to life on the wall before them. Susan gazed up absently, detached from the madness around her. Everyone in the room followed Jabba’s gaze to the screen.

The diagram before them resembled a bull’s‑eye. In the center was a red circle marked data. Around the center were five concentric circles of differing thickness and color. The outermost circle was faded, almost transparent.

“We’ve got a five‑tier level of defense,” Jabba explained. “A primary Bastion Host, two sets of packet filters for FTP and X‑eleven, a tunnel block, and finally a PEM‑based authorization window right off the Truffle project. The outside shield that’s disappearing represents the exposed host. It’s practically gone. Within the hour, all five shields will follow. After that, the world pours in. Every byte of NSA data becomes public domain.”

Fontaine studied the VR, his eyes smoldering.

Brinkerhoff let out a weak whimper. “This worm can open our databank to the world?”

“Child’s play for Tankado,” Jabba snapped. “Gauntlet was our fail‑safe. Strathmore blew it.”

“It’s an act of war,” Fontaine whispered, an edge in his voice.

Jabba shook his head. “I really doubt Tankado ever meant for it to go this far. I suspect he intended to be around to stop it.”

Fontaine gazed up at the screen and watched the first of the five walls disappear entirely.

“Bastion Host is toast!” a technician yelled from the back of the room. “Second shield’s exposed!”

“We’ve got to start shutting down,” Jabba urged. “From the looks of the VR, we’ve got about forty‑five minutes. Shutdown is a complex process.”

It was true. The NSA databank had been constructed in such a way as to ensure it would never lose power‑accidentally or if attacked. Multiple fail‑safes for phone and power were buried in reinforced steel canisters deep underground, and in addition to the feeds from within the NSA complex, there were multiple backups off main public grids. Shutting down involved a complex series of confirmations and protocols‑significantly more complicated than the average nuclear submarine missile launch.

“We have time,” Jabba said, “if we hurry. Manual shutdown should take about thirty minutes.”

Fontaine continued staring up at the VR, apparently pondering his options.

“Director!” Jabba exploded. “When these firewalls fall, every user on the planet will be issued top‑security clearance! And I’m talking upper level! Records of covert ops! Overseas agents! Names and locations of everyone in the federal witness protection program! Launch code confirmations! We must shut down! Now!”

The director seemed unmoved. “There must be some other way.”

“Yes,” Jabba spat, “there is! The kill‑code! But the only guy who knows it happens to be dead!”

“How about brute force?” Brinkerhoff blurted. “Can we guess the kill‑code?”

Jabba threw up his arms. “For Christ sake! Kill‑codes are like encryption keys‑random! Impossible to guess! If you think you can type 600 trillion entries in the next forty‑five minutes, be my guest!”

“The kill‑code’s in Spain,” Susan offered weakly.

Everyone on the podium turned. It was the first thing she had said in a long time.

Susan looked up, bleary‑eyed. “Tankado gave it away when he died.”

Everyone looked lost.

“The pass‑key . . .” Susan shivered as she spoke. “Commander Strathmore sent someone to find it.”

“And?” Jabba demanded. “Did Strathmore’s man find it?”

Susan tried to fight it, but the tears began to flow. “Yes,” she choked. “I think so.”