There was a sudden and reverent silence among the group on the podium. It was as if they were watching an eclipse or volcanic eruption‑an incredible chain of events over which they had no control. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.
“We’re losing it!” a technician cried. “Tie‑ins! All lines!”
On the far‑left screen, David and Agents Smith and Coliander stared blankly into their camera. On the VR, the final fire wall was only a sliver. A mass of blackness surrounded it, hundreds of lines waiting to tie in. To the right of that was Tankado. The stilted clips of his final moments ran by in an endless loop. The look of desperation‑fingers stretched outward, the ring glistening in the sun.
Susan watched the clip as it went in and out of focus. She stared at Tankado’s eyes‑they seemed filled with regret. He never wanted it to go this far, she told herself. He wanted to save us. And yet, over and over, Tankado held his fingers outward, forcing the ring in front of people’s eyes. He was trying to speak but could not. He just kept thrusting his fingers forward.
In Seville, Becker’s mind still turned it over and over. He mumbled to himself, “What did they say those two isotopes were? U238 and U . . . ?” He sighed heavily‑it didn’t matter. He was a language teacher, not a physicist.
“Incoming lines preparing to authenticate!”
“Jesus!” Jabba bellowed in frustration. “How do the damn isotopes differ? Nobody knows how the hell they’re different?!” There was no response. The room full of technicians stood helplessly watching the VR. Jabba spun back to the monitor and threw up his arms. “Where’s a nuclear fucking physicist when you need one!”
* * *
Susan stared up at the QuickTime clip on the wall screen and knew it was over. In slow motion, she watched Tankado dying over and over. He was trying to speak, choking on his words, holding out his deformed hand . . . trying to communicate something. He was trying to save the databank, Susan told herself. But we’ll never know how.
“Company at the door!”
Jabba stared at the screen. “Here we go!” Sweat poured down his face.
On the center screen, the final wisp of the last firewall had all but disappeared. The black mass of lines surrounding the core was opaque and pulsating. Midge turned away. Fontaine stood rigid, eyes front. Brinkerhoff looked like he was about to get sick.
Susan’s eyes never left Tankado’s image. The desperation. The regret. His hand reached out, over and over, ring glistening, deformed fingers arched crookedly in stranger’s faces. He’s telling them something. What is it?
On the screen overhead, David looked deep in thought. “Difference,” he kept muttering to himself. “Difference between U238 and U235. It’s got to be something simple.”
A technician began the countdown. “Five! Four! Three!”
The word made it to Spain in just under a tenth of a second. Three . . . three.
It was as if David Becker had been hit by the stun gun all over again. His world slowed to stop. Three . . . three . . . three. 238 minus 235! The difference is three! In slow motion, he reached for the microphone . . .
At that very instant, Susan was staring at Tankado’s outstretched hand. Suddenly, she saw past the ring . . . past the engraved gold to the flesh beneath . . . to his fingers. Three fingers. It was not the ring at all. It was the flesh. Tankado was not telling them, he was showing them. He was telling his secret, revealing the kill‑code‑begging someone to understand . . . praying his secret would find its way to the NSA in time.
“Three,” Susan whispered, stunned.
“Three!” Becker yelled from Spain.
But in the chaos, no one seemed to hear.
“We’re down!” a technician yelled.
The VR began flashing wildly as the core succumbed to a deluge. Sirens erupted overhead.
“High‑speed tie‑ins in all sectors!”
Susan moved as if through a dream. She spun toward Jabba’s keyboard. As she turned, her gaze fixed on her fiance, David Becker. Again his voice exploded overhead.
“Three! The difference between 235 and 238 is three!”
Everyone in the room looked up.
“Three!” Susan shouted over the deafening cacophony of sirens and technicians. She pointed to the screen. All eyes followed, to Tankado’s hand, outstretched, three fingers waving desperately in the Sevillian sun.
Jabba went rigid. “Oh my God!” He suddenly realized the crippled genius had been giving them the answer all the time.
“Three’s prime!” Soshi blurted. “Three’s a prime number!”
Fontaine looked dazed. “Can it be that simple?”
“Outbound data!” a technician cried. “It’s going fast!”
Everyone on the podium dove for the terminal at the same instant‑a mass of outstretched hands. But through the crowd, Susan, like a shortstop stabbing a line drive, connected with her target. She typed the number 3. Everyone wheeled to the wall screen. Above the chaos, it simply read.
ENTER PASS‑KEY? 3
“Yes!” Fontaine commanded. “Do it now!”
Susan held her breath and lowered her finger on the ENTER key. The computer beeped once.
Three agonizing seconds later, nothing had happened.
The sirens kept going. Five seconds. Six seconds.
Suddenly Midge began pointing wildly to the screen above. “Look!”
On it, a message had materialized.
KILL CODE CONFIRMED.
“Upload the firewalls!” Jabba ordered.
But Soshi was a step ahead of him. She had already sent the command.
“Outbound interrupt!” a technician yelled.
On the VR overhead, the first of the five firewalls began reappearing. The black lines attacking the core were instantly severed.
“Reinstating!” Jabba cried. “The damn thing’s reinstating!”
There was a moment of tentative disbelief, as if at any instant, everything would fall apart. But then the second firewall began reappearing . . . and then the third. Moments later the entire series of filters reappeared. The databank was secure.
The room erupted. Pandemonium. Technicians hugged, tossing computer printouts in the air in celebration. Sirens wound down. Brinkerhoff grabbed Midge and held on. Soshi burst into tears.
“Jabba,” Fontaine demanded. “How much did they get?”
“Very little,” Jabba said, studying his monitor. “Very little. And nothing complete.”
Fontaine nodded slowly, a wry smile forming in the corner of his mouth. He looked around for Susan Fletcher, but she was already walking toward the front of the room. On the wall before her, David Becker’s face filled the screen.
“Hey, gorgeous.” He smiled.
“Come home,” she said. “Come home, right now.”
“Meet you at Stone Manor?” he asked.
She nodded, the tears welling. “Deal.”
“Agent Smith?” Fontaine called.
Smith appeared onscreen behind Becker. “Yes, sir?”
“It appears Mr. Becker has a date. Could you see that he gets home immediately?”
Smith nodded. “Our jet’s in Malaga.” He patted Becker on the back. “You’re in for a treat, Professor. Ever flown in a Learjet 60?”
Becker chuckled. “Not since yesterday.”