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Phil Chartrukian stood fuming in the Sys‑Sec lab. Strathmore’s words echoed in his head: Leave now! That’s an order! He kicked the trash can and swore in the empty lab.

“Diagnostic, my ass! Since when does the deputy director bypass Gauntlet’s filters!?”

The Sys‑Secs were well paid to protect the computer systems at the NSA, and Chartrukian had learned that there were only two job requirements: be utterly brilliant and exhaustively paranoid.

Hell, he cursed, this isn’t paranoia! The fucking Run‑Monitor’s reading eighteen hours!

It was a virus. Chartrukian could feel it. There was little doubt in his mind what was going on: Strathmore had made a mistake by bypassing Gauntlet’s filters, and now he was trying to cover it up with some half‑baked story about a diagnostic.

Chartrukian wouldn’t have been quite so edgy had TRANSLTR been the only concern. But it wasn’t. Despite its appearance, the great decoding beast was by no means an island. Although the cryptographers believed Gauntlet was constructed for the sole purpose of protecting their code‑breaking masterpiece, the Sys‑Secs understood the truth. The Gauntlet filters served a much higher god. The NSA’s main databank.

The history behind the databank’s construction had always fascinated Chartrukian. Despite the efforts of the Department of Defense to keep the Internet to themselves in the late 1970s, it was too useful a tool not to attract the public‑sector. Eventually universities pried their way on. Shortly after that came the commercial servers. The floodgates opened, and the public poured in. By the early 90’s, the government’s once‑secure “Internet” was a congested wasteland of public E‑mail and cyberporn.

Following a number of unpublicized, yet highly damaging computer infiltrations at the Office of Naval Intelligence, it became increasingly clear that government secrets were no longer safe on computers connected to the burgeoning Internet. The President, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, passed a classified decree that would fund a new, totally secure government network to replace the tainted Internet and function as a link between U.S. intelligence agencies. To prevent further computer pilfering of government secrets, all sensitive data was relocated to one, highly secure location‑the newly constructed NSA databank‑the Fort Knox of U.S. intelligence data.

Literally millions of the country’s most classified photos, tapes, documents, and videos were digitized and transferred to the immense storage facility and then the hard copies were destroyed. The databank was protected by a triple‑layer power relay and a tiered digital backup system. It was also 214 feet underground to shield it from magnetic fields and possible explosions. Activities within the control room were designated Top Secret Umbra . . . the country’s highest level of security.

The secrets of the country had never been safer. This impregnable databank now housed blueprints for advanced weaponry, witness protection lists, aliases of field agents, detailed analyses and proposals for covert operations. The list was endless. There would be no more black‑bag jobs damaging U.S. intelligence.

Of course, the officers of the NSA realized that stored data had value only if it was accessible. The real coup of the databank was not getting the classified data off the streets, it was making it accessible only to the correct people. All stored information had a security rating and, depending on the level of secrecy, was accessible to government officials on a compartmentalized basis. A submarine commander could dial in and check the NSA’s most recent satellite photos of Russian ports, but he would not have access to the plans for an anti‑drug mission in South America. CIA analysts could access histories of known assassins but could not access launch codes reserved for the President.

Sys‑Secs, of course, had no clearance for the information in the databank, but they were responsible for its safety. Like all large databanks‑from insurance companies to universities‑the NSA facility was constantly under attack by computer hackers trying to sneak a peek at the secrets waiting inside. But the NSA security programmers were the best in the world. No one had ever come close to infiltrating the NSA databank‑and the NSA had no reason to think anybody ever would.

* * *

Inside the Sys‑Sec lab, Chartrukian broke into a sweat trying to decide whether to leave. Trouble in TRANSLTR meant trouble in the databank too. Strathmore’s lack of concern was bewildering.

Everyone knew that TRANSLTR and the NSA main databank were inextricably linked. Each new code, once broken, was fired from Crypto through 450 yards of fiber‑optic cable to the NSA databank for safe keeping. The sacred storage facility had limited points of entry‑and TRANSLTR was one of them. Gauntlet was supposed to be the impregnable threshold guardian. And Strathmore had bypassed it.

Chartrukian could hear his own heart pounding. TRANSLTR’s been stuck eighteen hours! The thought of a computer virus entering TRANSLTR and then running wild in the basement of the NSA proved too much. “I’ve got to report this,” he blurted aloud.

In a situation like this, Chartrukian knew there was only one person to call: the NSA’s senior Sys‑Sec officer, the short‑fused, 400‑pound computer guru who had built Gauntlet. His nickname was Jabba. He was a demigod at the NSA‑roaming the halls, putting out virtual fires, and cursing the feeblemindedness of the inept and the ignorant. Chartrukian knew that as soon as Jabba heard Strathmore had bypassed Gauntlet’s filters, all hell would break loose. Too bad, he thought, I’ve got a job to do. He grabbed the phone and dialed Jabba’s twenty‑four‑hour cellular.