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Susan sat alone in the plush surroundings of Node 3. She nursed a lemon mist herb tea and awaited the return of her tracer.

As senior cryptographer, Susan enjoyed the terminal with the best view. It was on the back side of the ring of computers and faced the Crypto floor. From this spot, Susan could oversee all of Node 3. She could also see, on the other side of the one‑way glass, TRANSLTR standing dead‑center of the Crypto floor.

Susan checked the clock. She had been waiting almost an hour. American Remailers Anonymous was apparently taking their time forwarding North Dakota’s mail. She sighed heavily. Despite her efforts to forget her morning conversation with David, the words played over and over in her head. She knew she’d been hard on him. She prayed he was okay in Spain.

Her thoughts were jarred by the loud hiss of the glass doors. She looked up and groaned. Cryptographer Greg Hale stood in the opening.

Greg Hale was tall and muscular with thick blond hair and a deep cleft chin. He was loud, thick‑fleshed, and perpetually overdressed. His fellow cryptographers had nicknamed him “Halite"‑after the mineral. Hale had always assumed it referred to some rare gem‑paralleling his unrivaled intellect and rock‑hard physique. Had his ego permitted him to consult an encyclopedia, he would have discovered it was nothing more than the salty residue left behind when oceans dried up.

Like all NSA cryptographers, Hale made a solid salary. However, he had a hard time keeping that fact to himself. He drove a white Lotus with a moon roof and a deafening subwoofer system. He was a gadget junkie, and his car was his showpiece; he’d installed a global positioning computer system, voice‑activated door locks, a five‑point radar jammer, and a cellular fax/phone so he’d never be out of touch with his message services. His vanity plate read megabyte and was framed in violet neon.

Greg Hale had been rescued from a childhood of petty crime by the U.S. Marine Corps. It was there that he’d learned about computers. He was one of the best programmers the Marines had ever seen, well on his way to a distinguished military career. But two days before the completion of his third tour of duty, his future suddenly changed. Hale accidentally killed a fellow Marine in a drunken brawl. The Korean art of self‑defense, Tae kwon do, proved more deadly than defensive. He was promptly relieved of his duty.

After serving a brief prison term, Halite began looking for work in the private sector as a programmer. He was always up front about the incident in the marines, and he courted prospective employers by offering a month’s work without pay to prove his worth. He had no shortage of takers, and once they found out what he could do with a computer, they never wanted to let him go.

As his computer expertise grew, Hale began making Internet connections all over the world. He was one of the new breed of cyberfreaks with E‑mail friends in every nation, moving in and out of seedy electronic bulletin boards and European chat groups. He’d been fired by two different employers for using their business accounts to upload pornographic photos to some of his friends.

* * *

“What are you doing here?” Hale demanded, stopping in the doorway and staring at Susan. He’d obviously expected to have Node 3 to himself today.

Susan forced herself to stay cool. “It’s Saturday, Greg. I could ask you the same question.” But Susan knew what Hale was doing there. He was the consummate computer addict. Despite the Saturday rule, he often slipped into Crypto on weekends to use the NSA’s unrivalled computing power to run new programs he was working on.

“Just wanted to re‑tweak a few lines and check my E‑mail,” Hale said. He eyed her curiously. “What was it you said you’re doing here?”

“I didn’t,” Susan replied.

Hale arched a surprised eyebrow. “No reason to be coy. We have no secrets here in Node 3, remember? All for one and one for all.”

Susan sipped her lemon mist and ignored him. Hale shrugged and strode toward the Node 3 pantry. The pantry was always his first stop. As Hale crossed the room, he sighed heavily and made a point of ogling Susan’s legs stretched out beneath her terminal. Susan, without looking up, retracted her legs and kept working. Hale smirked.

Susan had gotten used to Hale hitting on her. His favorite line was something about interfacing to check the compatibility of their hardware. It turned Susan’s stomach. She was too proud to complain to Strathmore about Hale; it was far easier just to ignore him.

Hale approached the Node 3 pantry and pulled open the lattice doors like a bull. He slid a Tupperware container of tofu out of the fridge and popped a few pieces of the gelatinous white substance in his mouth. Then he leaned on the stove and smoothed his gray Bellvienne slacks and well‑starched shirt. “You gonna be here long?”

“All night,” Susan said flatly.

“Hmm . . .” Halite cooed with his mouth full. “A cozy Saturday in the Playpen, just the two of us.”

“Just the three of us,” Susan interjected. “Commander Strathmore’s upstairs. You might want to disappear before he sees you.”

Hale shrugged. “He doesn’t seem to mind you here. He must really enjoy your company.”

Susan forced herself to keep silent.

Hale chuckled to himself and put away his tofu. Then he grabbed a quart of virgin olive oil and took a few swigs. He was a health fiend and claimed olive oil cleaned out his lower intestine. When he wasn’t pushing carrot juice on the rest of the staff, he was preaching the virtues of high colonics.

Hale replaced the olive oil and went to down his computer directly opposite Susan. Even across the wide ring of terminals, Susan could smell his cologne. She crinkled her nose.

“Nice cologne, Greg. Use the entire bottle?

Hale flicked on his terminal. “Only for you, dear.”

As he sat there waiting for his terminal to warm up, Susan had a sudden unsettling thought. What if Hale accessed TRANSLTR’s Run‑Monitor? There was no logical reason why he would, but nonetheless Susan knew he would never fall for some half‑baked story about a diagnostic that stumped TRANSLTR for sixteen hours. Hale would demand to know the truth. The truth was something Susan had no intention of telling him. She did not trust Greg Hale. He was not NSA material. Susan had been against hiring him in the first place, but the NSA had had no choice. Hale had been the product of damage control.

The Skipjack fiasco.

Four years ago, in an effort to create a single, public‑key encryption standard, Congress charged the nation’s best mathematicians, those at the NSA, to write a new super algorithm. The plan was for Congress to pass legislation that made the new algorithm the nation’s standard, thus alleviating the incompatibilities now suffered by corporations that used different algorithms.

Of course, asking the NSA to lend a hand in improving public‑key encryption was somewhat akin to asking a condemned man to build his own coffin. TRANSLTR had not yet been conceived, and an encryption standard would only help to proliferate the use of code‑writing and make the NSA’s already difficult job that much harder.

The EFF understood this conflict of interest and lobbied vehemently that the NSA might create an algorithm of poor quality‑something it could break. To appease these fears, Congress announced that when the NSA’s algorithm was finished, the formula would be published for examination by the world’s mathematicians to ensure its quality.

Reluctantly, the NSA’s Crypto team, led by Commander Strathmore, created an algorithm they christened Skipjack. Skipjack was presented to Congress for their approval. Mathematicians from all over the world tested Skipjack and were unanimously impressed. They reported that it was a strong, untainted algorithm and would make a superb encryption standard. But three days before Congress was to vote their certain approval of Skipjack, a young programmer from Bell Laboratories, Greg Hale, shocked the world by announcing he’d found a back door hidden in the algorithm.

The back door consisted of a few lines of cunning programming that Commander Strathmore had inserted into the algorithm. It had been added in so shrewd a way that nobody, except Greg Hale, had seen it. Strathmore’s covert addition, in effect, meant that any code written by Skipjack could be decrypted via a secret password known only to the NSA. Strathmore had come within inches of turning the nation’s proposed encryption standard into the biggest intelligence coup the NSA had ever seen; the NSA would have held the master key to every code written in America.

The computer‑savvy public was outraged. The EFF descended on the scandal like vultures, ripping Congress to shreds for their naivete and proclaiming the NSA the biggest threat to the free world since Hitler. The encryption standard was dead.

It had come as little surprise when the NSA hired Greg Hale two days later. Strathmore felt it was better to have him on the inside working for the NSA than on the outside working against it.

Strathmore faced the Skipjack scandal head‑on. He defended his actions vehemently to Congress. He argued that the public’s craving for privacy would come back to haunt them. He insisted the public needed someone to watch over them; the public needed the NSA to break codes in order to keep the peace. Groups like the EFF felt differently. And they’d been fighting him ever since.