Outside Node 3, Chartrukian looked desperate. He was trying to convince Hale that TRANSLTR was in trouble. Susan raced by them with only one thought in mind‑to find Strathmore.
The panicked Sys‑Sec grabbed Susan’s arm as she passed. “Ms. Fletcher! We have a virus! I’m positive! You have to—”
Susan shook herself free and glared ferociously. “I thought the commander told you to go home.”
“But the Run‑Monitor! It’s registering eighteen—”
“Commander Strathmore told you to go home!”
“FUCK STRATHMORE!” Chartrukian screamed, the words resounding throughout the dome.
A deep voice boomed from above. “Mr. Chartrukian?”
The three Crypto employees froze.
High above them, Strathmore stood at the railing outside his office.
For a moment, the only sound inside the dome was the uneven hum of the generators below. Susan tried desperately to catch Strathmore’s eye. Commander! Hale is North Dakota!
But Strathmore was fixated on the young Sys‑Sec. He descended the stairs without so much as a blink, keeping his eyes trained on Chartrukian the whole way down. He made his way across the Crypto floor and stopped six inches in front of the trembling technician. “What did you say?”
“Sir,” Chartrukian choked, “TRANSLTR’s in trouble.”
“Commander?” Susan interjected. “If I could—”
Strathmore waved her off. His eyes never left the Sys‑Sec.
Phil blurted, “We have an infected file, sir. I’m sure of it!”
Strathmore’s complexion turned a deep red. “Mr. Chartrukian, we’ve been through this. There is no file infecting TRANSLTR!”
“Yes, there is!” he cried. “And if it makes its way to the main databank—”
“Where the hell is this infected file?” Strathmore bellowed. “Show it to me!”
Chartrukian hesitated. “I can’t.”
“Of course you can’t! It doesn’t exist!”
Susan said, “Commander, I must—”
Again Strathmore silenced her with an angry wave.
Susan eyed Hale nervously. He seemed smug and detached. It makes perfect sense, she thought. Hale wouldn’t be worried about a virus; he knows what’s really going on inside TRANSLTR.
Chartrukian was insistent. “The infected file exists, sir. But Gauntlet never picked it up.”
“If Gauntlet never picked it up,” Strathmore fumed, “then how the hell do you know it exists?”
Chartrukian suddenly sounded more confident. “Mutation strings, sir. I ran a full analysis, and the probe turned up mutation strings!”
Susan now understood why the Sys‑Sec was so concerned. Mutation strings, she mused. She knew mutation strings were programming sequences that corrupted data in extremely complex ways. They were very common in computer viruses, particularly viruses that altered large blocks of data. Of course, Susan also knew from Tankado’s E‑mail that the mutation strings Chartrukian had seen were harmless‑simply part of Digital Fortress.
The Sys‑Sec went on. “When I first saw the strings, sir, I thought Gauntlet’s filters had failed. But then I ran some tests and found out . . .” He paused, looking suddenly uneasy. “I found out that somebody manually bypassed Gauntlet.”
The statement met with a sudden hush. Strathmore’s face turned an even deeper shade of crimson. There was no doubt whom Chartrukian was accusing; Strathmore’s terminal was the only one in Crypto with clearance to bypass Gauntlet’s filters.
When Strathmore spoke, his voice was like ice. “Mr. Chartrukian, not that it is any concern of yours, but I bypassed Gauntlet.” He went on, his temper hovering near the boiling point. “As I told you earlier, I’m running a very advanced diagnostic. The mutation strings you see in TRANSLTR are part of that diagnostic; they are there because I put them there. Gauntlet refused to let me load the file, so I bypassed its filters.” Strathmore’s eyes narrowed sharply at Chartrukian. “Now, will there be anything else before you go?”
In a flash, it all clicked for Susan. When Strathmore had downloaded the encrypted Digital Fortress algorithm from the Internet and tried to run it through TRANSLTR, the mutation strings had tripped Gauntlet’s filters. Desperate to know whether Digital Fortress was breakable, Strathmore decided to bypass the filters.
Normally, bypassing Gauntlet was unthinkable. In this situation, however, there was no danger in sending Digital Fortress directly into TRANSLTR; the commander knew exactly what the file was and where it came from.
“With all due respect, sir,” Chartrukian pressed, “I’ve never heard of a diagnostic that employs mutation—”
“Commander,” Susan interjected, not able to wait another moment. “I really need to—”
This time her words were cut short by the sharp ring of Strathmore’s cellular phone. The commander snatched up the receiver. “What is it!” he barked. Then he fell silent and listened to the caller.
Susan forgot about Hale for an instant. She prayed the caller was David. Tell me he’s okay, she thought. Tell me he found the ring! But Strathmore caught her eye and he gave her a frown. It was not David.
Susan felt her breath grow short. All she wanted to know was that the man she loved was safe. Strathmore, Susan knew, was impatient for other reasons; if David took much longer, the commander would have to send backup‑NSA field agents. It was a gamble he had hoped to avoid.
“Commander?” Chartrukian urged. “I really think we should check—”
“Hold on,” Strathmore said, apologizing to his caller. He covered his mouthpiece and leveled a fiery stare at his young Sys‑Sec. “Mr. Chartrukian,” he growled, “this discussion is over. You are to leave Crypto. Now. That’s an order.”
Chartrukian stood stunned. “But, sir, mutation str—”
“NOW!” Strathmore bellowed.
Chartrukian stared a moment, speechless. Then he stormed off toward the Sys‑Sec lab.
Strathmore turned and eyed Hale with a puzzled look. Susan understood the commander’s mystification. Hale had been quiet‑too quiet. Hale knew very well there was no such thing as a diagnostic that used mutation strings, much less one that could keep TRANSLTR busy eighteen hours. And yet Hale hadn’t said a word. He appeared indifferent to the entire commotion. Strathmore was obviously wondering why. Susan had the answer.
“Commander,” she said insistently, “if I could just speak—”
“In a minute,” he interjected, still eyeing Hale quizzically. “I need to take this call.” With that, Strathmore turned on his heel and headed for his office.
Susan opened her mouth, but the words stalled on the tip of her tongue. Hale is North Dakota! She stood rigid, unable to breathe. She felt Hale staring at her. Susan turned. Hale stepped aside and swung his arm graciously toward the Node 3 door. “After you, Sue.”