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Binary: A Novel, Page 2

Michael Crichton

  Decker cleared his throat and opened a briefcase in front of him, removing a sheaf of computer printout. He slipped through the green pages as he spoke. “I’ve been working in Special Projects Division for the last six months,” he said. “I was assigned to establish redundancy programs on certain limited-access files so that we could check call-up locations to these data banks, which are mostly located in Arlington Hall in Washington.”

  He paused and glanced at Graves to see if the information was making sense. Graves nodded.

  “The problem is basically one of access-line proliferation. A data bank is just a collection of information stored on magnetic tape drums. It can be anywhere in the country. To get information out of it, you need to hook into the main computer with an access substation. That can also be anywhere in the country. Every major data bank has a large number of access substations. For limited or special-purpose access—stations that need to draw out information once or twice a week, let’s say—we employ commercial telephone lines; we don’t have our own lines. To tie in to a peripheral computer substation, you telephone a call number and hook your phone up to the computer terminal. That’s it. As long as you have a half-duplex or full-duplex telephone line, you’re in business.”

  Graves nodded. “How is the call number coded?”

  “We’ll come to that,” Decker said, looking at Venn. “For now, we’ll concentrate on the system. Some of the major data banks, like the ones held by Defense, may have five hundred or a thousand access lines. A year ago, Wilkens’s congressional committee started to worry about unauthorized tapping into those access lines. In theory, a bright boy who knew computers could tap into the system and call out any information he wanted from the data banks. He could get all sorts of classified information.”

  Decker sighed. “So I was hired to install redundancy checks on the system. Echo checks, bit additions, that sort of thing. My job was to make sure we could verify which stations drew out information from the data banks, and what information they drew. I finished that work a month ago.”

  Graves glanced at Phelps. Phelps was watching them all intently, pretending he was following the discussion. Graves knew that it was over Phelps’s head.

  “Just before I finished,” Decker said, “we discovered that an unauthorized station was tapping into the system. We called it Sigma Station, but we were unable to characterize it. By that I mean that we knew Sigma was drawing information, but we didn’t know where, or how.”

  He flipped to a green sheet of computer printout and pushed it across the table to Graves. “Sigma is the underlined station. You can see that on this particular day, July 21, 1972, it tapped into the system at ten oh four p.m. Eastern time and maintained the contact for seven minutes; then it broke out. We determined that Sigma was tapping in at around ten o’clock two or three nights a week. But that was all we knew.”

  Decker turned to Venn, who said, “I came into the picture at this point. I’d been at Bell Labs working on telephone tracer mechanisms. The telephone company has a problem with unauthorized calls—calls verbally charged to a phony number, calls charged to a wrong credit card number, that kind of thing. I was working on a computer tracing system. Defense asked me to look at the Sigma Station problem.”

  “One ought to say,” Phelps said, “that the data bank being tapped by Sigma was a Defense bank.”

  “Yes,” Venn said. “It was a Defense bank. With two or three taps a week at about ten p.m. That was all I knew when I began. However, I made some simple assumptions. First, you’ve got to have a computer terminal in order to tap the system. That is, once you’ve called the number that links you to the computer, you must use a teletype-writing or CRT apparatus compatible with the Defense system.”

  “Are those terminals common?”

  “No,” Venn said. “They are quite advanced and fairly uncommon. I started with a list of them.”

  Graves nodded.

  “Then I considered the timing. Ten p.m. Eastern time is seven p.m. in California, where most of these sophisticated terminals in defense industry applications are located. If an employee were illegally using a terminal to tap into Defense, he couldn’t do it during office hours. On the other hand, it requires an extraordinary access to get into an East Coast terminal location at ten at night—or into a Midwest location at eight or nine. Therefore Sigma was probably on the West Coast.”

  “So you checked the West Coast terminals?”

  “Yes. Because in order to hook into the Defense system, you’d have to unhook from your existing system. What corporation, R&D group, or production unit had a terminal that was unhooked at seven p.m. Western time twice a week? Answer: None. New question: What group had its terminals repaired twice a week? Repairing would entail unhooking. Answer: The Southern California Association of Insurance Underwriters, a company based in San Diego.”

  Graves said, “So you investigated the repairman and you found—”

  “We found our man,” Venn said, looking slightly annoyed with Graves. “His name is Timothy Drew. He has been doing repair work on the S.C. Association computers for about six weeks. It turns out nobody authorized those repairs; he just showed up and—”

  “But you haven’t picked him up.”

  Phelps coughed. “No, actually. We haven’t picked him up yet because he’s—”

  “Disappeared,” Graves said.

  “That’s right,” Phelps said. “How did you know?”

  “Tim Drew is a friend of John Wright. He’s had dinner with him several times a week for the last month or so.” As he spoke, Graves had a mental image of Drew—early thirties, blond-looking, muscular. Graves had run a check on him some weeks back and had discovered only that Drew was an ex-Army lieutenant, discharged one year before. A clean record in computer work, nothing good, nothing bad.

  “We weren’t able to find him,” Venn said, “but we’re still looking. We thought—”

  Graves said, “There’s only one thing I want to know. What information did Drew tap from the classified files?”

  There was a long silence around the table. Finally Decker said, “We don’t know.”

  “You don’t know?” Graves lit a cigarette. “But that’s the most important question—”

  “Let me explain,” Decker said. “Drew was an ex-Army officer with knowledge of computer systems. He knew that he couldn’t call in on any old number. The call-in numbers are changed at irregular intervals, roughly once a week. But the possible permutations of the call-in number aren’t great. With trial and error, he might have found it.”

  “You know he found the number,” Graves said, “because you know he tapped in. The question is, what did he tap out from the system?”

  “Well, once he was hooked up, he still had a problem. You need subroutine codes to extract various kinds of information, and—”

  “How often are the codes changed?”

  “Not very often.”

  Graves found himself getting impatient. “How often are the codes changed?”

  “About once a year.”

  Graves sighed. “So Drew might have used his old codes to get what he wanted?”


  “Then we want to know what codes he knew. What sort of work did Drew do when he was in the Army?”

  “He did topological work. Surface configurations, shipment routings, that sort of thing.”

  Graves glanced at Phelps. “Can we be more specific?”

  “I’m afraid not,” Phelps said. “Defense is unwilling to release Drew’s work record to us. Defense is a little defensive, you might say, about the fact that this tap occurred in the first place.”

  There was a long silence. Graves stared at the men around the table. There were times, he thought, when working for the government was an exercise in total stupidity. Finally he said, “How can you get Defense to release the information?”

  “I’m not sure we can,” Phelps said. “But one of the reasons you’re being briefed is that we were hoping
you might be able to shed light on the situation.”

  “I might?”

  “Yes. Drew was working for Wright, after all.”

  Before Graves could answer, the telephone rang. Phelps answered it, and said, “Yes, thank you,” and hung up. He looked at Graves. “Do you have any thoughts about this?”

  “None,” Graves said.

  “None at all?”

  “None at all.”

  “Well,” Phelps said, “perhaps something will occur to you in the next hour.” He gave Graves a heavily disapproving look, then stood up and turned to Decker and Venn. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he said. And to Graves: “Let’s go.”

  Los Angeles: 6 a.m. PDT

  Hour 11

  ANOTHER CONFERENCE ROOM, ANOTHER GROUP. This room was decorated entirely in Tahiti posters; it occurred to Graves that whoever had owned the travel agency before it went bankrupt was a Tahiti-nut. Perhaps he was himself Tahitian. Graves began to wonder why the Tahitian owner had gone out of business. Too much time away from the office, basking in the sun? Discrimination against him by Angelenos? Some rare disease carried by coconuts which had made him an invalid?

  “Gentlemen,” Phelps said, and cleared his throat. Graves was snapped back to the present. He looked around the room. There were, he saw, a number of high-ranking Washington people. They all looked tired and disgruntled. Phelps had brought them out to California on a red-eye flight, let them sleep a few hours, then dragged them up for a meeting with … John Graves?

  “John Graves,” Phelps said, “has come up from San Diego this morning to brief you on John Wright. Mr. Graves has been in charge of Wright’s surveillance in New York and San Diego for the past three months.” Phelps nodded to Graves, and Graves stood.

  “We have some footage which is quite revealing,” Graves said. “I thought we’d begin with that, if we can screen it …”

  The men in the room looked confused. Even Phelps, who never lost his aplomb, seemed uncertain. Graves settled it by tearing down several Tahitian posters from the wall, clearing a blank white space. He was embarrassed for a moment—the tearing noise sounded somehow indiscreet with all these Washington guns, and the whole business emphasized the makeshift nature of the surroundings.

  Phelps seemed to sense it, too. “You must excuse us,” he said, “but these are temporary quarters for the duration of the Republican Convention.”

  Graves stepped to one side as the room lights dimmed. A black-and-white image was projected on the wall. It showed a dapper, rather handsome man standing at a podium. For a moment there was no sound, and then it came on abruptly. The voice was sharp, vigorous, and slightly petulant.

  “—can a person do in the twentieth century? The question is not rhetorical, my friends. Each and every one of us is powerless in the face of giant corporations, giant institutions, giant government. Do you think automobiles are badly made? Do you think your electricity bill is too high? Do you disagree with the nation’s foreign policy? Well, there’s nothing much you can do about it. No matter what you think, or I think, the wheels continue to spin of their own inertia.”

  The film image of John Wright paused to take a drink of water. “Perhaps you think that a few people have power—high government officials, high corporate executives, wealthy individuals. But that also is untrue. Everyone is locked into a system which he has inherited and is powerless to change. We are all trapped, my friends. That is the meaning of the twentieth century. It is the century of impotence.”

  Wright’s voice dropped lower, became more ominous. His face was grim. “Impotence,” he repeated. “Inability to act. Inability to be effective. This is what we must change. And with the help of God, we shall.”

  There was some applause on the sound track before the film ran out of the camera and the room lights came back on. Graves lit a cigarette and flipped through the pages of his own file on Wright before speaking.

  “I showed you that film for psychological, not political, reasons,” he said, “because it summarizes most of what we know about John Wright’s mental state. The speech was given last year before the annual conference of the Americans for a Better Nation, an extremist group which Wright started and still leads. You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s small, and has no significance whatsoever in national politics. Over the last few years, Wright has poured 1.7 million dollars into the organization. The money apparently doesn’t matter to him. But the lack of impact—the impotence—matters a great deal.”

  He paused and glanced around the faces at the table. They seemed to be paying attention, but just barely. Two were doodling on the pads before them. “John Wright,” he said, “is now forty-nine years old. He is the son of Edmund Wright, of the Wright steel family. He is an only child. His father was a crude, domineering man and an alcoholic. John grew up in his shadow, a very strange child. He was a good student and learned quite a lot of mathematics, even made a minor reputation for himself in that field. On the other hand, he was an inveterate gambler, horse racer, and womanizer.”

  The assembled men began to fidget. Graves nodded to the projectionist, who began flashing up slides. The first showed Edmund Wright glaring into the camera. “Edmund Wright died of cirrhosis in 1955. John Wright changed completely when that happened. He moved to New York from Pittsburgh and became a kind of local celebrity. He was married four times to well-known actresses; all the marriages ended in divorce. The last divorce, from Sarah Layne, occurred in 1967 and coincided with a six-month nervous breakdown for Wright. He was hospitalized in McClain General outside Atlanta for paranoid ideation and feelings of impotence. Apparently he had been impotent with his last wife.”

  A picture of Sarah Layne flashed up. The men all stirred uncomfortably as they stared at the image: handsome, but haughty and undeniably challenging.

  “Wright left the hospital against doctor’s advice and plunged into the political organization he formed: Americans for a Better Nation. For the next four years he gave speeches and wrote pamphlets. In 1968 he worked hard to influence the national elections on every level—mostly without success. He fell into a depression after that.

  “Recently, his interest in politics dropped sharply. He seems to have withdrawn from any kind of public life; he no longer holds large parties and no longer participates in the social life of New York. According to all information, he has been intensely studying a variety of subjects that are rather ominous. These include sociology, radiation theory, physics, and some aspects of biology. He has interviewed experts in several different areas—” Graves flipped the pages of his file “—including cancer experts, civil engineers, horticulture specialists, and aerosol spray-can designers. He—”

  “Aerosol spray-can designers?” someone asked.

  “That is correct.”

  There was some head scratching among those present.

  “He also became interested in the meteorology of the Southwest.”

  The men were listening now and looking very puzzled. All the doodling had stopped.

  “Wright was listed as a Potential Surveillance Subject at the end of 1968, after he had engaged in some questionable activities to influence the national election. As a PSS he did nothing out of the ordinary until six months ago. Then two things happened.

  “First, Wright began to transfer large amounts of money from various accounts in this country and in Switzerland. As you know, we keep an eye on private capital transfers in excess of $300,000. Wright was moving much more than that. Secondly, he began to be seen with known underworld figures. The pattern of behavior suggested a courtship, and we became very concerned at that point.”

  The slides changed again several times in rapid succession, showing smooth-faced businessmen. “Robert ‘Trigger’ Cannino. Sal Martucci. Benny Flick. Gerald ‘Tiny’ Margolin. These are some of the men he saw during that period.”

  The slides now showed Wright in restaurants, at taxi stands, and in Central Park with these men.

  “Active surveillance began in June 1
972, when Wright left New York for San Diego. He was clearly making plans for the Republican Convention, but their nature was not clear, and he was giving himself much too much time. I ran the surveillance from the start. During the surveillance period his contacts with organized crime have substantially decreased. He has been seeing only one person consistently—this man.”

  The screen showed a bald, glowering face.

  “Eddie ‘The Key’ Trasker, fifty-three, a resident of Las Vegas who lives mostly in San Diego. He is reputed to be the power behind the Teamsters, and his influence over all forms of interstate transportation is enormous. Wright has seen him nearly every week, often during the early hours of the morning.

  “He has also come in contact with this man, Timothy Drew, an ex-Army officer with a background in computers. The meaning of that association was unclear to me until this morning. Drew clearly represents Sigma Station; Drew tapped out classified Defense information for Wright. We do not know what kind of information, or why it was stolen.”

  Graves sat down and looked at the faces. Phelps said, “Questions, gentlemen?”

  McPherson, from the President’s staff, cleared his throat. “I gather from Mr. Graves’s excellent but rather psychologically oriented presentation that we have no damned idea what Wright is up to. Is that substantially correct?”

  “Yes, it is,” Graves said.

  “Well then,” McPherson said, “I’m afraid we can do nothing. Wright has acted suspiciously and is quite probably deranged. Neither is a crime in this country.”

  “I disagree,” Corey said, sitting back in his chair. Corey was Defense liaison; a heavyset man with thick eyebrows that joined over his nose. “I think we have plenty of reason to apprehend Wright at this time.”

  “Plenty of reason,” McPherson said, “but no evidence, no charges …”

  Whitlock, from the Justice Department, straightened his tie and said, “I’m sure we all agree this is an unpleasant sort of meeting. Mr. Wright is a private citizen and he is entitled to do as he pleases so long as he does not commit a crime. I’ve seen and heard nothing that suggests a crime has been or will be committed, and—”