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Only yards from TRANSLTR’s hull, Phil Chartrukian stood over a patch of white lettering on the Crypto floor.



He knew he was definitely not authorized personnel. He shot a quick glance up at Strathmore’s office. The curtains were still pulled. Chartrukian had seen Susan Fletcher go into the bathrooms, so he knew she wasn’t a problem. The only other question was Hale. He glanced toward Node 3, wondering if the cryptographer were watching.

“Fuck it,” he grumbled.

Below his feet the outline of a recessed trapdoor was barely visible in the floor. Chartrukian palmed the key he’d just taken from the Sys‑Sec lab.

He knelt down, inserted the key in the floor, and turned. The bolt beneath clicked. Then he unscrewed the large external butterfly latch and freed the door. Checking once again over his shoulder, he squatted down and pulled. The panel was small, only three feet by three feet, but it was heavy. When it finally opened, the Sys‑Sec stumbled back.

A blast of hot air hit him in the face. It carried with it the sharp bite of freon gas. Billows of steam swirled out of the opening, illuminated by the red utility lighting below. The distant hum of the generators became a rumble. Chartrukian stood up and peered into the opening. It looked more like the gateway to hell than a service entrance for a computer. A narrow ladder led to a platform under the floor. Beyond that, there were stairs, but all he could see was swirling red mist.

* * *

Greg Hale stood behind the one‑way glass of Node 3. He watched as Phil Chartrukian eased himself down the ladder toward the sublevels. From where Hale was standing, the Sys‑Sec’s head appeared to have been severed from his body and left out on the Crypto floor. Then, slowly, it sank into the swirling mist.

“Gutsy move,” Hale muttered. He knew where Chartrukian was headed. An emergency manual abort of TRANSLTR was a logical action if he thought the computer had a virus. Unfortunately, it was also a sure way to have Crypto crawling with Sys‑Secs in about ten minutes. Emergency actions raised alert flags at the main switchboard. A Sys‑Sec investigation of Crypto was something Hale could not afford. Hale left Node 3 and headed for the trapdoor. Chartrukian had to be stopped.