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Phil Chartrukian slammed down his receiver. Jabba’s line was busy; Jabba spurned call‑waiting as an intrusive gimmick that was introduced by AT T to increase profits by connecting every call; the simple phrase “I’m on the other line, I’ll call you back” made phone companies millions annually. Jabba’s refusal of call‑waiting was his own brand of silent objection to the NSA’s requirement that he carry an emergency cellular at all times.

Chartrukian turned and looked out at the deserted Crypto floor. The hum of the generators below sounded louder every minute. He sensed that time was running out. He knew he was supposed to leave, but from out of the rumble beneath Crypto, the Sys‑Sec mantra began playing in his head: Act first, explain later.

In the high‑stakes world of computer security, minutes often meant the difference between saving a system or losing it. There was seldom time to justify a defensive procedure before taking it. Sys‑Secs were paid for their technical expertise . . . and their instinct.

Act first, explain later. Chartrukian knew what he had to do. He also knew that when the dust settled, he would be either an NSA hero or in the unemployment line.

The great decoding computer had a virus‑of that, the Sys‑Sec was certain. There was one responsible course of action. Shut it down.

Chartrukian knew there were only two ways to shut down TRANSLTR. One was the commander’s private terminal, which was locked in his office‑out of the question. The other was the manual kill‑switch located on one of the sublevels beneath the Crypto floor.

Chartrukian swallowed hard. He hated the sublevels. He’d only been there once, during training. It was like something out of an alien world with its long mazes of catwalks, freon ducts, and a dizzy 136‑foot drop to the rumbling power supplies below . . .

It was the last place he felt like going, and Strathmore was the last person he felt like crossing, but duty was duty. They’ll thank me tomorrow, he thought, wondering if he was right.

Taking a deep breath, Chartrukian opened the senior Sys‑Sec’s metal locker. On a shelf of disassembled computer parts, hidden behind a media concentrator and LAN tester, was a Stanford alumni mug. Without touching the rim, he reached inside and lifted out a single Medeco key.

“It’s amazing,” he grumbled, “what System‑Security officers don’t know about security.”