Susan was wet and shivering, huddled on the Node 3 couch. Strathmore draped his suit coat over her shoulders. Hale’s body lay a few yards away. The sirens blared. Like ice thawing on a frozen pond, TRANSLTR’s hull let out a sharp crack.
“I’m going down to kill power,” Strathmore said, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Susan stared absently after the commander as he dashed across the Crypto floor. He was no longer the catatonic man she’d seen ten minutes before. Commander Trevor Strathmore was back‑logical, controlled, doing whatever was necessary to get the job done.
The final words of Hale’s suicide note ran through her mind like a train out of control: Above all, I’m truly sorry about David Becker. Forgive me, I was blinded by ambition.
Susan Fletcher’s nightmare had just been confirmed. David was in danger . . . or worse. Maybe it was already too late. I’m truly sorry about David Becker.
She stared at the note. Hale hadn’t even signed it‑he’d just typed his name at the bottom: Greg Hale. He’d poured out his guts, pressed print, and then shot himself‑just like that. Hale had sworn he’d never go back to prison; he’d kept his vow‑he’d chosen death instead.
“David . . .” She sobbed. David!
* * *
At that moment, ten feet below the Crypto floor, Commander Strathmore stepped off the ladder onto the first landing. It had been a day of fiascoes. What had started out as a patriotic mission had swerved wildly out of control. The commander had been forced to make impossible decisions, commit horrific acts‑acts he’d never imagined himself capable of.
It was a solution! It was the only damn solution!
There was duty to think of: country and honor. Strathmore knew there was still time. He could shut down TRANSLTR. He could use the ring to save the country’s most valuable databank. Yes, he thought, there was still time.
Strathmore looked out over the disaster around him. The overhead sprinklers were on. TRANSLTR was groaning. The sirens blared. The spinning lights looked like helicopters closing in through dense fog. With every step, all he could see was Greg Hale‑the young cryptographer gazing up, his eyes pleading, and then, the shot. Hale’s death was for country . . . for honor. The NSA could not afford another scandal. Strathmore needed a scapegoat. Besides, Greg Hale was a disaster waiting to happen.
* * *
Strathmore’s thoughts were jarred free by the sound of his cellular. It was barely audible over the sirens and hissing fumes. He snatched it off his belt without breaking stride.
“Where’s my pass‑key?” a familiar voice demanded.
“Who is this?” Strathmore yelled over the din.
“It’s Numataka!” the angry voice bellowed back. “You promised me a pass‑key!”
Strathmore kept moving.
“I want Digital Fortress!” Numataka hissed.
“There is no Digital Fortress!” Strathmore shot back.
“There is no unbreakable algorithm!”
“Of course there is! I’ve seen it on the Internet! My people have been trying to unlock it for days!”
“It’s an encrypted virus, you fool‑and you’re damn lucky you can’t open it!”
“The deal is off!” Strathmore yelled. “I’m not North Dakota. There is no North Dakota! Forget I ever mentioned it!” He clamped the cellular shut, turned off the ringer, and rammed it back on his belt. There would be no more interruptions.
* * *
Twelve thousand miles away, Tokugen Numataka stood stunned at his plate‑glass window. His Umami cigar hung limply in his mouth. The deal of his lifetime had just disintegrated before his eyes.
* * *
Strathmore kept descending. The deal is off. Numatech Corp. would never get the unbreakable algorithm . . . and the NSA would never get its back door.
Strathmore’s dream had been a long time in the planning‑he’d chosen Numatech carefully. Numatech was wealthy, a likely winner of the pass‑key auction. No one would think twice if it ended up with the key. Conveniently there was no company less likely to be suspected of consorting with the U.S. government. Tokugen Numataka was old‑world Japan‑death before dishonor. He hated Americans. He hated their food, he hated their customs, and most of all, he hated their grip on the world’s software market.
* * *
Strathmore’s vision had been bold‑a world encryption standard with a back door for the NSA. He’d longed to share his dream with Susan, to carry it out with her by his side, but he knew he could not. Even though Ensei Tankado’s death would save thousands of lives in the future, Susan would never have agreed; she was a pacifist. I’m a pacifist too, thought Strathmore, I just don’t have the luxury of acting like one.
There had never been any doubt in the commander’s mind who would kill Tankado. Tankado was in Spain‑and Spain meant Hulohot. The forty‑two‑year‑old Portuguese mercenary was one of the commander’s favorite pros. He’d been working for the NSA for years. Born and raised in Lisbon, Hulohot had done work for the NSA all over Europe. Never once had his kills been traced back to Fort Meade. The only catch was that Hulohot was deaf; telephone communication was impossible. Recently Strathmore had arranged for Hulohot to receive the NSA’s newest toy, the Monocle computer. Strathmore bought himself a SkyPager and programmed it to the same frequency. From that moment on, his communication with Hulohot was not only instantaneous but also entirely untraceable.
The first message Strathmore had sent Hulohot left little room for misunderstanding. They had already discussed it. Kill Ensei Tankado. Obtain pass‑key.
Strathmore never asked how Hulohot worked his magic, but somehow he had done it again. Ensei Tankado was dead, and the authorities were convinced it was a heart attack. A textbook kill‑except for one thing. Hulohot had misjudged the location. Apparently Tankado dying in a public place was a necessary part of the illusion. But unexpectedly, the public had appeared too soon. Hulohot was forced into hiding before he could search the body for the pass‑key. When the dust settled, Tankado’s body was in the hands of Seville’s coroner.
Strathmore was furious. Hulohot had blown a mission for the first time ever‑and he’d picked an inauspicious time to do it. Getting Tankado’s pass‑key was critical, but Strathmore knew that sending a deaf assassin into the Seville morgue was a suicide mission. He had pondered his other options. A second scheme began to materialize. Strathmore suddenly saw a chance to win on two fronts‑a chance to realize two dreams instead of just one. At six‑thirty that morning, he had called David Becker.