“I don’t like it,” Susan muttered softly. “It’s not clean.”
Jabba hesitated, hovering over the ENTER key.
“Do it,” Fontaine commanded.
Jabba hit the key. Seconds later the whole room knew it was a mistake.
“It’s accelerating!” Soshi yelled from the back of the room. “It’s the wrong code!”
Everyone stood in silent horror.
On the screen before them was the error message:
ILLEGAL ENTRY. NUMERIC FIELD ONLY.
“Damn it!” Jabba screamed. “Numeric only! We’re looking for a goddamn number! We’re fucked! This ring is shit!”
“Worm’s at double speed!” Soshi shouted. “Penalty round!”
On the center screen, right beneath the error message, the VR painted a terrifying image. As the third firewall gave way, the half‑dozen or so black lines representing marauding hackers surged forward, advancing relentlessly toward the core. With each passing moment, a new line appeared. Then another.
“They’re swarming!” Soshi yelled.
“Confirming overseas tie‑ins!” cried another technician. “Word’s out!”
Susan averted her gaze from the image of the collapsing firewalls and turned to the side screen. The footage of Ensei Tankado’s kill was on endless loop. It was the same every time‑Tankado clutching his chest, falling, and with a look of desperate panic, forcing his ring on a group of unsuspecting tourists. It makes no sense, she thought. If he didn’t know we’d killed him . . . Susan drew a total blank. It was too late. We’ve missed something.
On the VR, the number of hackers pounding at the gates had doubled in the last few minutes. From now on, the number would increase exponentially. Hackers, like hyenas, were one big family, always eager to spread the word of a new kill.
Leland Fontaine had apparently seen enough. “Shut it down,” he declared. “Shut the damn thing down.”
Jabba stared straight ahead like the captain of a sinking ship. “Too late, sir. We’re going down.”
The four‑hundred‑pound Sys‑Sec stood motionless, hands resting atop his head in a freeze‑frame of disbelief. He’d ordered a power shutdown, but it would be a good twenty minutes too late. Sharks with high‑speed modems would be able to download staggering quantities of classified information in that window.
Jabba was awakened from his nightmare by Soshi rushing to the podium with a new printout. “I’ve found something, sir!” she said excitedly. “Orphans in the source! Alpha groupings. All over the place!”
Jabba was unmoved. “We’re looking for a numeric, dammit! Not an alpha! The kill‑code is a number!”
“But we’ve got orphans! Tankado’s too good to leave orphans‑especially this many!”
The term “orphans” referred to extra lines of programming that didn’t serve the program’s objective in any way. They fed nothing, referred to nothing, led nowhere, and were usually removed as part of the final debugging and compiling process.
Jabba took the printout and studied it.
Fontaine stood silent.
Susan peered over Jabba’s shoulder at the printout. “We’re being attacked by a rough draft of Tankado’s worm?”
“Polished or not,” Jabba retorted, “it’s kicking our ass.”
“I don’t buy it,” Susan argued. “Tankado was a perfectionist. You know that. There’s no way he left bugs in his program.”
“There are lots of them!” Soshi cried. She grabbed the printout from Jabba and pushed it in front of Susan. “Look!”
Susan nodded. Sure enough, after every twenty or so lines of programming, there were four free‑floating characters. Susan scanned them.
“Four‑bit alpha groupings,” she puzzled. “They’re definitely not part of the programming.”
“Forget it,” Jabba growled. “You’re grabbing at straws.”
“Maybe not,” Susan said. “A lot of encryption uses four‑bit groupings. This could be a code.”
“Yeah.” Jabba groaned. “It says‑'Ha, ha. You’re fucked.' “He looked up at the VR. “In about nine minutes.”
Susan ignored Jabba and locked in on Soshi. “How many orphans are there?”
Soshi shrugged. She commandeered Jabba’s terminal and typed all the groupings. When she was done, she pushed back from the terminal. The room looked up at the screen.