11011011100: Code Breaker :00111011011
By Mike Meginnis and Rebecca King
m: 1 4157 919 23120 251521 5120. 3114 208919 25 1121215 20 15 3151420914215?
r: Where am I?
m: 251521 1185 120 815135. 251521 1185 11215145, 5243516 61518 2085 4157.
r: I stare at the black screen, and those green numbers stare back at me. They light the tip of my nose. My palms are sweating, and I remind myself I have been trained for this. Still, my fingers scramble through the pages of the book, the journal of notes my mentors left me.
m: (The ink has bled where you pressed the pen too hard, but you can still read every page. You find chapters on substitution ciphers, on procedural ciphers, on foreign languages as distorted by algorithms as further distorted by randomly generated numbers. You find the drawing you made of a young girl hanging herself. You don't remember why. There are a lot of good reasons.)
r: I wonder if the Mastermind is laughing to see me scrambling through my notes. A rookie. In the darkness around me, it seems so dark but for those glowing green numbers. They paint the darkness green. I run my fingers down the lines again, the letters so comforting in face of numbers. The drawing of the hanged girl is a message. EVERYTHING IS A MESSAGE, they said.
m: 2085 4157 12931119 8919 38151619.
r: Yes, they are trying to tell me something. I study the blank spaces between the numbers, can almost hear the rhythm of a voice. I rule out foreign languages. 4s, 1s, and 8s, dance in my vision. I type back, 5129 4811 752 55 93710?
m: Habi dhk gek ee iegj? (The cursor blinks.)
r: I'm thinking in codes now, as they've trained me. I'm noticing patterns. Patterns are keys. But this one is easy, so easy it unnerves me. Almost as much as the whirring in the dark. The whirring of machines, of cameras, of computers breathing. I type, Utag bpt gefd brog.
m: 212017 21620 7564 218157? (The cursor blinks.) 2085 4157 919 315139147 3121519518.
r: Why don't you take a break? the screen asks me. It taunts me in its long stream of code. It knows whats at stake, just as I do. I bite my lip and stare into the black. I no longer know how long I've been in here.
r: I check my pockets.
m: You have your special calculator, which is also (barely) a phone. You have your dog whistle, though your dog is at home. You have the handful pens you accidentally took from the bank, the office, your parents' home, the office supply store, and the post office, all of which you mean to return. You have your keys, including the key to the Academy's library. You have your pocket watch; it's nearly midnight. Your eyes are so tired. Your hands can't stay still.
r: This induction is no longer fun. Just a test, the guild leader promised me. Just a test to gain my purple robes, to carry the guild calculators as big as dinner trays. None of the guild leaders speak of course, they only message each other in numbers from their calculators, or make strange signs with their hands, a code within a code. I worry about my dog and weigh the Academy's library key in my hand. They've given me a way out.
m: The library itself is also encoded, of course — each book according to its own rules, sometimes hinted on the inside covers, sometimes left for you to discover. The system by which they are shelved is a code, some strange mutation of Dewey Decimal. There is a code word you have to say after you turn the key to get inside. (Fortunately, somebody told you the code word.)
r: I wonder if they'll let me finish the test after I check on my dog. I wonder if I can stretch my legs in the halls of the Academy, or if I leave this room, will I fail?
m: The rules, which might answer any or all of these questions, are written (in code, of course) on a thick ream of paper next to your keyboard. You can try to read it if you want. No one ever makes anything explicit, easy, clear in this place.
r: I've read the rules again and again. Each rule is it's own code. I've read the rules about not speaking to anyone until the test is over. I've read the rules about using calculators, codexes, pens and papers. I think I may have over compensated on that last point, but I'd been having nightmares about running out of ink, about not being able to chiper my own notes, my own calculations. I decide to leave the dark exam room for the libarary. After all, they offered me a break.
m: You wander out into the hall and west, around the corner, north, out onto the campus. The grass is binary: here is a blade, here is a blade, here is the absence of a blade, here is a blade, here is the absence, the absence, the absence. The trees are fractals. The sidewalk is chalked up with secret messages, love notes, ideograms. Further north, the library. The big doors are locked. You use your key. And then it's time to say the code word:
r: GRAHAM CRACKER, I say. I hear the clang of bolts being drawn and the door creaks open.
m: The lights blink on and off as you walk inside. You immediately recognize it as morse code: THERE IS SOMETHING HERE THAT SHOULDN'T BE. But it all looks empty. There are the usual towering shelves, the globes of all colors, the row of chess boards, the computer lab. To the east, the stairs. To the west, the restrooms. North, the stacks. South, the exit.
r: I walk up to the chessboards and examine them. The pieces are spread, mid-game. On one board, white is winning. On the other, black. The code is white, black, black, black, white, black. The spaces between the pieces are codes themselves. Messages fill the room in the pattern of gold inlay on the wooden tables, in how many red books are between blue books, and though the room is silent, the messages fill my mind like white noise. Everything is noise and silence, placeholder and absence. But that is why they brought me. Because I can read them.
m: What is the most trivial message you see? What is the most important?
r: Some are only commentary, like ancient Rome's graffiti. "Rolfe was here" and "Karen is a slut." But my eye is immediately drawn to the most simple message in the room. OHM_ It's spelled out over and over again in handprint smudges on the windows of the second floor. My father, a codebreaker, once taught me that OHM is the most basic code of the universe. Sound and silence. I wonder if he left this for me, or if this is part of the test.
m: You see a dog in the stacks. The dog watches you read the codes. It is not your dog but it is like your dog, but covered in stripes that go from nose to tail. Black and white. Varying thicknesses. He pants heavily, as if he's just been running. The dog's breathing sounds like morse code too. You can't quite make it out. You would have to get closer.
r: When I see the dog among the books, I want to point and cry out, "It is you who do not belong", but the stripes on his coat spell out BOOK stops and starts of black and white. The test makers are clever. I approach the dog and take the dog whistle from my pocket. He pants a greeting, and I reply with my whistle.
m: The dog pants, "You are making the test harder than it has to be." The dog pants, "They are testing you to see if you'll get lost in all of this." The dog pants, "Most code breakers, when presented with a simple problem, make it more and more complex until they can lose themselves in it, because this is really what they want: to get lost, to become inscrutable." The dog pants, "But if you fail this test, and lose yourself in the library and the code seeking your answer, then this is another kind of passing, because they would not be so cruel as to turn you out, once you had rendered yourself useless in all other things. They will accept you as a code breaker regardless. But one way is very different from the other. Some would say much worse." Pant, pant, pant.
r: Of course, I was a fool to expect anything simpler from the code breakers, to expect simple zeros and ones, codexes, and calculators. My father lost himself trying to break the code of the universe. He sat for hours, in silence, listening for the faint rumbles and silences of the stars, of the world, of that vast black space. All it took was my mother asking him, on a night after to much wine, whether the stars really had a message for them. I whistle back to the dog my thanks, but the whistle tastes cold and metally in my mouth.
m: The dog bites your ankle just hard enough to draw a little blood and scampers away into the stacks. The lights are blinking morse again: "IF A IS ONE THEN I'VE ALREADY SAID TOO MUCH."
r: Substitution 101. Basic. The codes in the room wash over me. Even with the dog's advice, it's hard not to be swept away by this room. No wonder no one studies here. How could they with so much noise? I walk back toward the stacks of books, letting their numbers wash over me. I work my way back down from asking "What is the code of the universe? What is the code of the world? What is the code of this building?" It's parameters were simply given at the beginning. As the dog says, that's the problem with us codebreakers, always looking for something else, some secret not expressed.
m: 2085 4157 919 23120389147 251521 5120.
r: The code is clear. It repeats itself along the spines of the books over and over. But you'd have to get close enough to see it. You'd have to ignore the grains of the wooden shelf, the colors of the books, the patterns of sunshine on the floor. It says, "Just because this is written in code doesn't mean it's worth knowing." I follow the stairs up to the second floor to check the stacks there. The message continues. 89624 5088156 2940582 857 109482 "Even though you broke the code, you could have learned this elsewhere."
m: 2085 4157 919 2051189147 152120 25152118 2081815120. (Do you feel freed? Do you breathe easy? Have you stopped sweating?)
r: I am breathing easier except for the lump that's formed in my throat. I think of all the nights I stayed up late memorizing algorithms, Latin, or binary while my dog rubbed against my legs. I wonder how many hours he waited for me by the door. I think of my mother, married to one codebreaker and birthed another. But now at least, the room around me is truly quiet. I cannot think in code while mourning something I don't yet know how to name.
m: 2085 4157 919 23120389147 251521 495. 2085 5144.
Bio: Rebecca King is managing editor of Origami Zoo Press. She lives in Pittsburgh, where she writes stories and sometimes, they get published. See proof at >kill author, decomP magazinE, and 300 Reviews.