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Endgame Enigma
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The picture showing on the large wallscreen facing one end of the conference table was a prototype habitat designed to test ideas and technologies for living in space. It housed over twelve thousand people, in an immense torus more than a mile in diameter. Six spokes—three thick, major ones alternating with three thinner ones—connected the torus to a central hub structure. Part of the image was shown in a cutaway to reveal miniature cityscapes and residential areas alternating with multilevel agricultural sectors and parks. At intervals around its exterior, the colony carried the Red Star emblem of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had named it Valentina Tereshkova—after the first woman to go into space, more than fifty years previously. They claimed that it symbolized the peaceful goals of their space program and would stand as a showpiece to the world of what a Marxist economic system could achieve. Completion of "Mermaid," as the structure was code-named by the Western intelligence community, was targeted for the following year, to coincide with the centenary celebration of the Russian Revolution.

Gerald Kehrn, from the staff of the assistant secretary of defense for international security, was more concerned about the colony’s suspected hidden function, however. He was an intense, restless man with a bald head and a heavy black mustache, who radiated nervous energy and paced agitatedly below the screen as he spoke. "Then, about a year ago, an East German defector appeared in Austria, who claimed to have worked on construction of Tereshkova from 2013 to 2014. He was brought back to the States, and in the course of further interrogations described some of the hardware that he’d seen, and in some cases helped install."

Dr. Jonathan Watts, a civilian adviser with the decade-old US Space Force, who had come with Kehrn from the Pentagon, interjected for Paula’s benefit, "Big-mother X-ray lasers. Nuclear-driven microwave pulses strong enough to melt metal. A giant accelerator track buried inside the main ring—what you’d use to feed batteries of matter-zappers." He tossed up his hands and shrugged. His face was constantly mobile, changing expression with each thought progression behind black, heavy-rimmed spectacles. "Other parts of the place seemed to be for launching ejectable modules, probably fission-pumped eggbuster lasers. And according to other reports, certain key parts of the structure are double-shelled and hardened against incoming beams."

"Yet nobody else has seen a hint of all this," Paula remarked. "Enough visitors have been through the place, haven’t they?"

"Just on the standard tour," Colonel Raymond said from his seat opposite Watts. "They only see what they’re allowed to see. The place is over three miles around, not counting the hub. There’d be enough room backstage to hide the kinds of things we’re talking about."

Paula nodded and looked again at the image on the screen. Except for its inner surface—the "roof" facing the hub—the main torus was not visible directly; it moved inside a tire-like outer shield of sintered lunar rock which, to avoid needless structural loading, didn’t rotate with the rest of the colony. The shield was to exclude cosmic rays. Supposedly. Or was that another part of the defensive hardening? The question had doubtless occurred to other people too, so she didn’t bother raising it.

In the center of the group, informally chairing the proceedings, was a broad-framed, craggy-featured man with a dark chin, moody eyes, and gray, wiry, short-cropped hair. He was Bernard Foleda, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Unified Defense Intelligence Agency, and had arranged the meeting. The UDIA was essentially an expanded version of the former Defense Intelligence Agency, now serving the intelligence needs of the Space Force in addition to those of the traditional services. He had said little since Paula’s arrival, tending instead to sit back for most of the time, watching and listening impassively. At this point, however, he leaned forward to take charge of the proceedings again.

"Obviously this was something we had to check out." Foleda spoke in a low-pitched, throaty voice that carried without having to be raised. "We put a lot of people on it. To cut a long story short, we succeeded in recruiting one of the people who worked on Tereshkova—a Russian, who was code-named ‘Magician.’ "

Paula’s eyebrows lifted. "As a source? You mean you actually got yourselves an inside man up there?"

Foleda nodded. "Luck played a part in it. He was someone we’d had connections with for a while. The details don’t matter. Magician was an electrical maintenance supervisor, which meant he moved about a lot—exactly what we wanted. He worked there for almost six months. But as you can imagine, it wasn’t the easiest place to extract information from. The snippets he did get out to us were tantalizing. He indicated that he’d collected a whole package together, but he couldn’t get it down to us. The security checks on everybody who came back for leave or whatever were too strict. He wouldn’t risk it. But what he said he had up there sounded like dynamite. We christened it the ‘Tangerine’ file."

"Dynamite," Jonathan Watts repeated, tossing up his hands again. "Weapons specks, pictures, firepowers, ranges, configuration data, parts lists, blueprints, test data, installation dates . . . the works."

Foleda resumed, "Then somebody had an idea." He stopped and then looked at Colonel Raymond. "It might be better if you explain the technicalities," he suggested.

Raymond turned his head toward Paula. "It involved the packet-header and checksum protocols used in the Soviet communications link down from Mermaid." Paula nodded. The terms related to data-communications networks.

In many ways, communications networks are like road systems: their purpose is to move traffic quickly from one place to another with minimum congestion. They therefore present similar problems to their designers. Speed is important, of course, and so is safety, which means essentially the same in communications as it does on highways: what arrives at a destination should bear as close a resemblance as possible to whatever left the departure point.

Also important in both fields is using system resources efficiently, which means avoiding situations in which some channels become choked while others are not being used at all. Thus, morning commuters seek out alternative routes for getting to work, which spreads traffic out over all the available roads, to come together at a common destination. A standard technique for sending large files of information from one computer to another through a communications network works the same way. The sending computer breaks the file up into data "packets," which follow different routes through the network to the destination, with different computers along the way deciding from moment to moment which way to route any given packet, depending on the conditions at the time.

To guard against errors due to interference, equipment faults, or other causes, the computer at the sending end uses the data content of a packet to compute a mathematical function known as a "checksum," which it sends along with the message. The receiving computer performs the same calculation on what should be the same data and compares its checksum with the one that has been sent. If they match, then the message is clear; or more precisely, the chances against it are astronomically remote.

Raymond went on, "We figured out a way to transmit Magician’s Tangerine file down, using the Russians’ own Earthlink. Basically the idea was very simple: rig the packets to carry a bad checksum, which means that the receiving Soviet groundstation throws them out as garbage. But NSA is watchlisting the mismatches. Get it?"

Paula was already nodding and smiling faintly. It was neat. When the checksums failed to match, the receiving computer would simply assume that the message it had assembled was corrupted, disregard it, and signal for a repeat transmission. What Colonel Raymond was saying was that the checksums for the packets containing the Tangerine file would be deliberately miscalculated. Therefore they would, in effect, be invisible to the message-processing computers at the Soviet groundstation. But the computers in the US National Security Agency’s receiving posts in Japan, Australia, Britain, and elsewhere, which eavesdropped on the Soviets’ communications all the time—and just about everyone else’s, too, for that matter—would be programmed to look for just those mismatches. Thus they would be able to intercept the information that the Soviet system ignored. (It went without saying that it would be a simple matter to abort the retransmission attempts for each packet after a couple of tries, to avoid getting the system into a loop that would otherwise go on forever.)

"Tricky, though," Paula said. "Magician would have to get inside the communications center up there."

"He was a maintenance supervisor," Raymond reminded her. "That part was okay."

"Yes, but it would involve actually getting into the system software somehow, and tampering with it. Was that really Magician’s field?"

Foleda gave a heavy sigh. "You’ve hit it, right on the nail."

Paula glanced around quickly. "I take it from the way we’re talking that this didn’t work out."

"We worked with what we had," Foleda said. "Magician wasn’t an expert on Soviet software. But we got the job down to what seemed like a straightforward procedure, and he was confident he could hack it. . . . But something went wrong. He got caught. The last we heard he was back in Moscow—in the Lubyanka jail."

"The Tangerine file wasn’t transmitted?" Paula said.

Foleda shook his head. "Nothing ever came through."

"Presumably they got him first," Kehrn said, still below the wallscreen. He came back to the table and sat down at last.

Paula looked away and gazed at the image of Valentina Tereshkova again while she thought over what had been said. So, if it was a disguised battle platform, in combination with the other weaponry that the Soviets were known to have deployed in space, it would outgun everything the West had been putting up for the past decade. But why did that call for the meeting in progress now, and in particular her presence at it? Then it came to her suddenly what the meeting was all about. She jerked her head away from the screen to look at Raymond and Foleda. "That file is still up there," she said.

"Right on the nail, again," Foleda confirmed. "Magician managed to get a message through to us after he was arrested—it doesn’t matter how—saying that as a precaution, he created a backup copy of the file. Apparently the Soviets never found out about it." Foleda gestured at the screen. "It’s up there right now, inside a section of Mermaid’s databank, stored invisibly under a special access code. We have that code. What we don’t have is somebody up there who would know how to break into a Russian computer system and use it."

Paula stared hard at him as the meaning of it all became clear. They had risked using a nonspecialist, and the gamble had failed. But by a small miracle, the prize was still waiting to be claimed. This time they wanted an expert.

She swallowed and shifted her gaze from one to another of the faces staring back at her questioningly. "Now wait a minute . . ." she began.

 
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