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Greg Hale lay curled on the Node 3 floor. Strathmore and Susan had just dragged him across Crypto and bound his hands and feet with twelve‑gauge printer cable from the Node 3 laser‑printers.

Susan couldn’t get over the artful maneuver the commander had just executed. He faked the call! Somehow Strathmore had captured Hale, saved Susan, and bought himself the time needed to rewrite Digital Fortress.

Susan eyed the bound cryptographer uneasily. Hale was breathing heavily. Strathmore sat on the couch with the Berretta propped awkwardly in his lap. Susan returned her attention to Hale’s terminal and continued her random‑string search.

Her fourth string search ran its course and came up empty. “Still no luck.” She sighed. “We may need to wait for David to find Tankado’s copy.”

Strathmore gave her a disapproving look. “If David fails, and Tankado’s key falls into the wrong hands . . .”

Strathmore didn’t need to finish. Susan understood. Until the Digital Fortress file on the Internet had been replaced with Strathmore’s modified version, Tankado’s pass‑key was dangerous.

“After we make the switch,” Strathmore added, “I don’t care how many pass‑keys are floating around; the more the merrier.” He motioned for her to continue searching. “But until then, we’re playing beat‑the‑clock.”

Susan opened her mouth to acknowledge, but her words were drowned out by a sudden deafening blare. The silence of Crypto was shattered by a warning horn from the sublevels. Susan and Strathmore exchanged startled looks.

“What’s that?” Susan yelled, timing her question between the intermittent bursts.

“TRANSLTR!” Strathmore called back, looking troubled. “It’s too hot! Maybe Hale was right about the aux power not pulling enough freon.”

“What about the auto‑abort?”

Strathmore thought a moment, then yelled, “Something must have shorted.” A yellow siren light spun above the Crypto floor and swept a pulsating glare across his face.

“You better abort!” Susan called.

Strathmore nodded. There was no telling what would happen if three million silicon processors overheated and decided to ignite. Strathmore needed to get upstairs to his terminal and abort the Digital Fortress run‑particularly before anyone outside of Crypto noticed the trouble and decided to send in the cavalry.

Strathmore shot a glance at the still‑unconscious Hale. He laid the Berretta on a table near Susan and yelled over the sirens, “Be right back!” As he disappeared through the hole in the Node 3 wall, Strathmore called over his shoulder, “And find me that pass‑key!”

Susan eyed the results of her unproductive pass‑key search and hoped Strathmore would hurry up and abort. The noise and lights in Crypto felt like a missile launch.

On the floor, Hale began to stir. With each blast of the horn, he winced. Susan surprised herself by grabbing the Berretta. Hale opened his eyes to Susan Fletcher standing over him with the gun leveled at his crotch.

“Where’s the pass‑key?” Susan demanded.

Hale was having trouble getting his bearings. “Wh‑what happened?”

“You blew it, that’s what happened. Now, where’s the passkey?”

Hale tried to move his arms but realized he was tied. His face became taut with panic. “Let me go!”

“I need the pass‑key,” Susan repeated.

“I don’t have it! Let me go!” Hale tried to getup. He could barely roll over.

Susan yelled between blasts of the horn. “You’re North Dakota, and Ensei Tankado gave you a copy of his key. I need it now!”

“You’re crazy!” Hale gasped. “I’m not North Dakota!” He struggled unsuccessfully to free himself.

Susan charged angrily. “Don’t lie to me. Why the hell is all of North Dakota’s mail in your account?”

“I told you before!” Hale pleaded as the horns blared on. “I snooped Strathmore! That E‑mail in my account was mail I copied out of Strathmore’s account‑E‑mail COMINT stole from Tankado!”

“Bull! You could never snoop the commander’s account!”

“You don’t understand!” Hale yelled. “There was already a tap on Strathmore’s account!” Hale delivered his words in short bursts between the sirens. “Someone else put the tap there. I think it was Director Fontaine! I just piggybacked! You’ve got to believe me! That’s how I found out about his plan to rewrite Digital Fortress! I’ve been reading Strathmore’s brainstorms!”

Brain Storms? Susan paused. Strathmore had undoubtedly outlined his plans for Digital Fortress using his BrainStorm software. If anyone had snooped the commander’s account, all the information would have been available . . .

“Rewriting Digital Fortress is sick!” Hale cried. “You know damn well what it implies‑total NSA access!” The sirens blasted, drowning him out, but Hale was possessed. “You think we’re ready for that responsibility? You think anyone is? It’s fucking shortsighted! You say our government has the people’s best interests at heart? Great! But what happens when some future government doesn’t have our best interests at heart! This technology is forever!”

Susan could barely hear him; the noise in Crypto was deafening.

Hale struggled to get free. He looked Susan in the eye and kept yelling. “How the hell do civilians defend themselves against a police state when the guy at the top has access to all their lines of communication? How do they plan a revolt?”

Susan had heard this argument many times. The future‑governments argument was a stock EFF complaint.

“Strathmore had to be stopped!” Hale screamed as the sirens blasted. “I swore I’d do it. That’s what I’ve been doing here all day‑watching his account, waiting for him to make his move so I could record the switch in progress. I needed proof‑evidence that he’d written in a back door. That’s why I copied all his E‑mail into my account. It was evidence that he’d been watching Digital Fortress. I planned to go to the press with the information.”

Susan’s heart skipped. Had she heard correctly? Suddenly this did sound like Greg Hale. Was it possible? If Hale had known about Strathmore’s plan to release a tainted version of Digital Fortress, he could wait until the whole world was using it and then drop his bombshell‑complete with proof!

Susan imagined the headlines: Cryptographer Greg Hale unveils secret U.S. plan to control global information!

Was it Skipjack all over? Uncovering an NSA back door again would make Greg Hale famous beyond his wildest dreams. It would also sink the NSA. She suddenly found herself wondering if maybe Hale was telling the truth. No! she decided. Of course not!

Hale continued to plead. “I aborted your tracer because I thought you were looking for me! I thought you suspected Strathmore was being snooped! I didn’t want you to find the leak and trace it back to me!”

It was plausible but unlikely. “Then why’d you kill Chartrukian?” Susan snapped.

“I didn’t!” Hale screamed over the noise. “Strathmore was the one who pushed him! I saw the whole thing from downstairs! Chartrukian was about to call the Sys‑Secs and ruin Strathmore’s plans for the back door!”

Hale’s good, Susan thought. He’s got an angle for everything.

“Let me go!” Hale begged. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Didn’t do anything?” Susan shouted, wondering what was taking Strathmore so long. “You and Tankado were holding the NSA hostage. At least until you double‑crossed him. Tell me,” she pressed, “did Tankado really die of a heart attack, or did you have one of your buddies take him out?”

“You’re so blind!” Hale yelled. “Can’t you see I’m not involved? Untie me! Before Security gets here!”

“Security’s not coming,” she snapped flatly.

Hale turned white. “What?”

“Strathmore faked the phone call.”

Hale’s eyes went wide. He seemed momentarily paralyzed. Then he began writhing fiercely. “Strathmore’ll kill me! I know he will! I know too much!”

“Easy, Greg.”

The sirens blared as Hale yelled out, “But I’m innocent!”

“You’re lying! And I have proof!” Susan strode around the ring of terminals. “Remember that tracer you aborted?” she asked, arriving at her own terminal. “I sent it again! Shall we see if it’s back yet?”

Sure enough, on Susan’s screen, a blinking icon alerted her that her tracer had returned. She palmed her mouse and opened the message. This data will seal Hale’s fate, she thought. Hale is North Dakota. The databox opened. Hale is– Susan stopped. The tracer materialized, and Susan stood in stunned silence. There had to be some mistake; the tracer had fingered someone else‑a most unlikely person.

Susan steadied herself on the terminal and reread the databox before her. It was the same information Strathmore said he’d received when he ran the tracer! Susan had figured Strathmore had made a mistake, but she knew she’d configured the tracer perfectly.

And yet the information on the screen was unthinkable:


“ET?” Susan demanded, her head swimming. “Ensei Tankado is North Dakota?”

It was inconceivable. If the data was correct, Tankado and his partner were the same person. Susan’s thoughts were suddenly disconnected. She wished the blaring horn would stop. Why doesn’t Strathmore turn that damn thing off?

Hale twisted on the floor, straining to see Susan. “What does it say? Tell me!”

Susan blocked out Hale and the chaos around her. Ensei Tankado is North Dakota . . .

She reshuffled the pieces trying to make them fit. If Tankado was North Dakota, then he was sending E‑mail to himself . . . which meant North Dakota didn’t exist. Tankado’s partner was a hoax.

North Dakota is a ghost, she said to herself. Smoke and mirrors.

The ploy was a brilliant one. Apparently Strathmore had been watching only one side of a tennis match. Since the ball kept coming back, he assumed there was someone on the other side of the net. But Tankado had been playing against a wall. He had been proclaiming the virtues of Digital Fortress in E‑mail he’d sent to himself. He had written letters, sent them to an anonymous remailer, and a few hours later, the remailer had sent them right back to him.

Now, Susan realized, it was all so obvious. Tankado had wanted the commander to snoop him . . . he’d wanted him to read the E‑mail. Ensei Tankado had created an imaginary insurance policy without ever having to trust another soul with his pass‑key. Of course, to make the whole farce seem authentic, Tankado had used a secret account . . . just secret enough to allay any suspicions that the whole thing was a setup. Tankado was his own partner. North Dakota did not exist. Ensei Tankado was a one‑man show.

A one‑man show.

A terrifying thought gripped Susan. Tankado could have used his fake correspondence to convince Strathmore of just about anything.

She remembered her first reaction when Strathmore told her about the unbreakable algorithm. She’d sworn it was impossible. The unsettling potential of the situation settled hard in Susan’s stomach. What proof did they actually have that Tankado had really created Digital Fortress? Only a lot of hype in his E‑mail. And of course . . . TRANSLTR. The computer had been locked in an endless loop for almost twenty hours. Susan knew, however, that there were other programs that could keep TRANSLTR busy that long, programs far easier to create than an unbreakable algorithm.


The chill swept across her body.

But how could a virus get into TRANSLTR?

Like a voice from the grave, Phil Chartrukian gave the answer. Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet!

In a sickening revelation, Susan grasped the truth. Strathmore had downloaded Tankado’s Digital Fortress file and tried to send it into TRANSLTR to break it. But Gauntlet had rejected the file because it contained dangerous mutation strings. Normally Strathmore would have been concerned, but he had seen Tankado’s E‑mail‑Mutation strings are the trick! Convinced Digital Fortress was safe to load, Strathmore bypassed Gauntlet’s filters and sent the file into TRANSLTR.

Susan could barely speak. “There is no Digital Fortress,” she choked as the sirens blared on. Slowly, weakly, she leaned against her terminal. Tankado had gone fishing for fools . . . and the NSA had taken the bait.

Then, from upstairs, came a long cry of anguish. It was Strathmore.