The Commander and Susan stood beside the closed trapdoor and debated what to do next.
“We’ve got Phil Chartrukian dead down there,” Strathmore argued. “If we call for help, Crypto will turn into a circus.”
“So what do you propose we do?” Susan demanded, wanting only to leave.
Strathmore thought a moment. “Don’t ask me how it happened,” he said, glancing down at the locked trapdoor, “but it looks like we’ve inadvertently located and neutralized North Dakota.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Damn lucky break if you ask me.” He still seemed stunned by the idea that Hale was involved in Tankado’s plan. “My guess is that Hale’s got the pass‑key hidden in his terminal somewhere‑maybe he’s got a copy at home. Either way, he’s trapped.”
“So why not call building security and let them cart him away?”
“Not yet,” Strathmore said, “if the Sys‑Secs uncover stats of this endless TRANSLTR run, we’ve got a whole new set of problems. I want all traces of Digital Fortress deleted before we open the doors.”
Susan nodded reluctantly. It was a good plan. When Security finally pulled Hale from the sublevels and charged him with Chartrukian’s death, he probably would threaten to tell the world about Digital Fortress. But the proof would be erased‑Strathmore could play dumb. An endless run? An unbreakable algorithm? But that’s absurd! Hasn’t Hale heard of the Bergofsky Principle?
“Here’s what we need to do.” Strathmore coolly outlined his plan. “We erase all of Hale’s correspondence with Tankado. We erase all records of my bypassing Gauntlet, all of Chartrukian’s Sys‑Sec analysis, the Run‑Monitor records, everything. Digital Fortress disappears. It was never here. We bury Hale’s key and pray to God David finds Tankado’s copy.”
David, Susan thought. She forced him from her mind. She needed to stay focused on the matter at hand.
“I’ll handle the Sys‑Sec lab,” Strathmore said. “Run‑Monitor stats, mutation activity stats, the works. You handle Node 3. Delete all of Hale’s E‑mail. Any records of correspondence with Tankado, anything that mentions Digital Fortress.”
“Okay,” Susan replied, focusing. “I’ll erase Hale’s whole drive. Reformat everything.”
“No!” Strathmore’s response was stern. “Don’t do that. Hale most likely has a copy of the pass‑key in there. I want it.”
Susan gaped in shock. “You want the pass‑key? I thought the whole point was to destroy the pass‑keys!”
“It is. But I want a copy. I want to crack open this damn file and have a look at Tankado’s program.”
Susan shared Strathmore’s curiosity, but instinct told her unlocking the Digital Fortress algorithm was not wise, regardless of how interesting it would be. Right now, the deadly program was locked safely in its encrypted vault‑totally harmless. As soon as he decrypted it . . . “Commander, wouldn’t we be better off just to—”
“I want the key,” he replied.
Susan had to admit, ever since hearing about Digital Fortress, she’d felt a certain academic curiosity to know how Tankado had managed to write it. Its mere existence contradicted the most fundamental rules of cryptography. Susan eyed the commander. “You’ll delete the algorithm immediately after we see it?”
“Without a trace.”
Susan frowned. She knew that finding Hale’s key would not happen instantly. Locating a random pass‑key on one of the Node 3 hard drives was somewhat like trying to find a single sock in a bedroom the size of Texas. Computer searches only worked when you knew what you were looking for; this pass‑key was random. Fortunately, however, because Crypto dealt with so much random material, Susan and some others had developed a complex process known as a nonconformity search. The search essentially asked the computer to study every string of characters on its hard drive, compare each string against an enormous dictionary, and flag any strings that seemed nonsensical or random. It was tricky work to refine the parameters continually, but it was possible.
Susan knew she was the logical choice to find the pass‑key. She sighed, hoping she wouldn’t regret it. “If all goes well, it will take me about half an hour.”
“Then let’s get to work,” Strathmore said, putting a hand on her shoulder and leading her through the darkness toward Node 3.
Above them, a star‑filled sky had stretched itself across the dome. Susan wondered if David could see the same stars from Seville.
As they approached the heavy glass doors of Node 3, Strathmore swore under his breath. The Node 3 keypad was unlit, and the doors were dead.
“Damn it,” he said. “No power. I forgot.”
Strathmore studied the sliding doors. He placed his palms flat against the glass. Then he leaned sideways trying to slide them open. His hands were sweaty and slipped. He wiped them on his pants and tried again. This time the doors slid open a tiny crack.
Susan, sensing progress, got in behind Strathmore and they both pushed together. The doors slid open about an inch. They held it a moment, but the pressure was too great. The doors sprang shut again.
“Hold on,” Susan said, repositioning herself in front of Strathmore. “Okay, now try.”
They heaved. Again the door opened only about an inch. A faint ray of blue light appeared from inside Node 3; the terminals were still on; they were considered critical to TRANSLTR and were receiving aux power.
Susan dug the toe of her Ferragamo’s into the floor and pushed harder. The door started to move. Strathmore moved to get a better angle. Centering his palms on the left slider, he pushed straight back. Susan pushed the right slider in the opposite direction. Slowly, arduously, the doors began to separate. They were now almost a foot apart.
“Don’t let go,” Strathmore said, panting as they pushed harder. “Just a little farther.”
Susan repositioned herself with her shoulder in the crack. She pushed again, this time with a better angle. The doors fought back against her.
Before Strathmore could stop her, Susan squeezed her slender body into the opening. Strathmore protested, but she was intent. She wanted out of Crypto, and she knew Strathmore well enough to know she wasn’t going anywhere until Hale’s pass‑key was found.
She centered herself in the opening and pushed with all her strength. The doors seemed to push back. Suddenly Susan lost her grip. The doors sprang toward her. Strathmore fought to hold them off, but it was too much. Just as the doors slammed shut, Susan squeezed through and collapsed on the other side.
The commander fought to reopen the door a tiny sliver. He put his face to the narrow crack. “Jesus, Susan‑are you okay?”
Susan stood up and brushed herself off. “Fine.”
She looked around. Node 3 was deserted, lit only by the computer monitors. The bluish shadows gave the place a ghostly ambiance. She turned to Strathmore in the crack of the door. His face looked pallid and sickly in the blue light.
“Susan,” he said. “Give me twenty minutes to delete the files in Sys‑Sec. When all traces are gone, I’ll go up to my terminal and abort TRANSLTR.”
“You better,” Susan said, eyeing the heavy glass doors. She knew that until TRANSLTR stopped hoarding aux power, she was a prisoner in Node 3.
Strathmore let go of the doors, and they snapped shut. Susan watched through the glass as the commander disappeared into the Crypto darkness.