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Jabba resembled a giant tadpole. Like the cinematic creature for whom he was nicknamed, the man was a hairless spheroid. As resident guardian angel of all NSA computer systems, Jabba marched from department to department, tweaking, soldering, and reaffirming his credo that prevention was the best medicine. No NSA computer had ever been infected under Jabba’s reign; he intended to keep it that way.

Jabba’s home base was a raised workstation overlooking the NSA’s underground, ultra‑secret databank. It was there that a virus would do the most damage and there that he spent the majority of his time. At the moment, however, Jabba was taking a break and enjoying pepperoni calzones in the NSA’s all‑night commissary. He was about to dig into his third when his cellular phone rang.

“Go,” he said, coughing as he swallowed a mouthful.

“Jabba,” a woman’s voice cooed. “It’s Midge.”

“Data Queen!” the huge man gushed. He’d always had a soft spot for Midge Milken. She was sharp, and she was also the only woman Jabba had ever met who flirted with him. “How the hell are you?”

“No complaints.”

Jabba wiped his mouth. “You on site?”


“Care to join me for a calzone?”

“Love to Jabba, but I’m watching these hips.”

“Really?” He snickered. “Mind if I join you?”

“You’re bad.”

“You have no idea . . .”

“Glad I caught you in,” she said. “I need some advice.”

He took a long swallow of Dr Pepper. “Shoot.”

“It might be nothing,” Midge said, “but my Crypto stats turned up something odd. I was hoping you could shed some light.”

“What ya got?” He took another sip.

“I’ve got a report saying TRANSLTR’s been running the same file for eighteen hours and hasn’t cracked it.”

Jabba sprayed Dr Pepper all over his calzone. “You what?”

“Any ideas?”

He dabbed at his calzone with a napkin. “What report is this?”

“Production report. Basic cost analysis stuff.” Midge quickly explained what she and Brinkerhoff had found.

“Have you called Strathmore?”

“Yes. He said everything’s fine in Crypto. Said TRANSLTR’s running full speed ahead. Said our data’s wrong.”

Jabba furrowed his bulbous forehead. “So what’s the problem? Your report glitched.” Midge did not respond. Jabba caught her drift. He frowned. “You don’t think your report glitched?”


“So you think Strathmore’s lying?”

“It’s not that,” Midge said diplomatically, knowing she was on fragile ground. “It’s just that my stats have never been wrong in the past. I thought I’d get a second opinion.”

“Well,” Jabba said, “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your data’s fried.”

“You think so?”

“I’d bet my job on it.” Jabba took a big bite of soggy calzone and spoke with his mouth full. “Longest a file has ever lasted inside TRANSLTR is three hours. That includes diagnostics, boundary probes, everything. Only thing that could lock it down for eighteen hours would have to be viral. Nothing else could do it.”


“Yeah, some kind of redundant cycle. Something that got into the processors, created a loop, and basically gummed up the works.”

“Well,” she ventured, “Strathmore’s been in Crypto for about thirty‑six hours straight. Any chance he’s fighting a virus?”

Jabba laughed. “Strathmore’s been in there for thirty‑six hours? Poor bastard. His wife probably said he can’t come home. I hear she’s bagging his ass.”

Midge thought a moment. She’d heard that too. She wondered if maybe she was being paranoid.

“Midge.” Jabba wheezed and took another long drink. “If Strathmore’s toy had a virus, he would have called me. Strathmore’s sharp, but he doesn’t know shit about viruses. TRANSLTR’s all he’s got. First sign of trouble, he would have pressed the panic button‑and around here, that means me.” Jabba sucked in a long strand of mozzarella. “Besides, there’s no way in hell TRANSLTR has a virus. Gauntlet’s the best set of package filters I’ve ever written. Nothing gets through.”

After a long silence, Midge sighed. “Any other thoughts?”

“Yup. Your data’s fried.”

“You already said that.”


She frowned. “You haven’t caught wind of anything? Anything at all?”

Jabba laughed harshly. “Midge . . . listen up. Skipjack sucked. Strathmore blew it. But move on‑it’s over.” There was a long silence on the line, and Jabba realized he’d gone too far. “Sorry, Midge. I know you took heat over that whole mess. Strathmore was wrong. I know how you feel about him.”

“This has nothing to do with Skipjack,” she said firmly.

Yeah, sure, Jabba thought. “Listen, Midge, I don’t have feelings for Strathmore one way or another. I mean, the guy’s a cryptographer. They’re basically all self‑centered assholes. They need their data yesterday. Every damn file is the one that could save the world.”

“So what are you saying?”

Jabba sighed. “I’m saying Strathmore’s a psycho like the rest of them. But I’m also saying he loves TRANSLTR more than his own goddamn wife. If there were a problem, he would have called me.”

Midge was quiet a long time. Finally she let out a reluctant sigh. “So you’re saying my data’s fried?”

Jabba chuckled. “Is there an echo in here?”

She laughed.

“Look, Midge. Drop me a work order. I’ll be up on Monday to double‑check your machine. In the meantime, get the hell out of here. It’s Saturday night. Go get yourself laid or something.”

She sighed. “I’m trying, Jabba. Believe me, I’m trying.”