Everything Has Meaning
The new day had started with a focus that disconnected Conor from the caffeine headache bidding for his attention. He woke wide-eyed and alert long before his alarm clock needed to help.
He had spent most of the morning marvelling at his achievement, or at least he believed it was his to claim. Despite the excitement of the code’s sudden decryption, the mystery and circumstance surrounding it had brought an anxiety that gave everything he looked forward to an uncertain sting.
It had been late afternoon the day before when, in a sulk, Conor had succumbed to the idea that perhaps the code was unbreakable. Or at least that was to say that it couldn’t be broken in the time he had to work with. His decryption engine continued to run, offering cross comparisons and cipher analysis, but a reality had begun to dawn that if he could break it, he would have done it by now.
As the day drew into evening his seated composure sank from an upbeat lean forward to a lazy slouch. He watched as the sun set from his window, an accepting smile across his face.
With a sigh Conor changed into his running gear, intent on burning off the stress that had built up over the past three days and as he left Tennyson and stepped into the cold, a sense of relief lifted the weight from his shoulders. Failure was at least a conclusion, it was over.
The night carried the usual chill in the air as the road lighting lit up a course down Walton Street near the Radcliffe Observatory. The route he set out looped round and round, cooling his head and relaxing him of any thoughts, the tarmac footpaths smooth under his feet.
Nearly two hours had passed before his exhausted frame stumbled through the car park heading for home, steam rising from his forehead as his body heat met the cold. Yearning for his bed and the rest it would offer, he burst through the door to his room and took a cool bottle of water from the portable fridge under his desk.
Taking long, indulgent gulps, Conor felt his breathing begin to slow and the burning in his chest subside. He slumped on to his bed, exhaling loudly as his body fell into the mattress. His eyes closed for several seconds before they opened again, slowly letting his thoughts stray back to the code. Sitting up, he leant over to his desk and stroked his hand over the mouse pad, watching with little expectation as the screensaver dissolved.
He squinted in confusion; the progress bar was gone. The view he had grown accustomed to had changed, replaced instead with a message. Conor dropped the bottle he was drinking from. Cipher Decode Success.
Even as he read it, Conor couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was the Enigma cipher. Of course! The Enigma. He remembered reading about the Enigma when he was studying the ergonomics of World War Two during his History A-Level. It was invented by the German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of the First World War and although initially used commercially, it was made famous by the Nazi German Military in World War Two for communicating encrypted orders and controlling engagements.
Encrypting and decrypting a message on the Enigma machine required four key settings.
First was the wheel order, three rotors which dictated the sequence (125). Second was the initial position of the rotors (137). Then came the Plugboard settings, these permitted variable wiring that could reconfigure connected letters to effectively swap before and after the main rotor scrambling unit (PB: A-B); and finally the ring settings, the position of the alphabet rings relative to the rotor wiring (TXT). Conor looked at the code:
CICRX PRBDG BPCBZ
It was obvious, staring him in the face the whole time. The code was even broken up into sets of five letter groups as used by the German Military.
Still unsure as to how the engine had managed to break it, he noticed that the code had been converted from ‘CICRX PRBDG BPCBZ’ to now read ‘RADCL IFFEC AMERA’.
Considering the Enigma machine had no space bar, he immediately removed the spaces to reveal the message.
The main research library to the University of Oxford was the Bodleian, or ‘the Bod’ as many called it. It was one of the oldest libraries in Europe and, in Britain, second in size only to the British Library in London. Radcliffe Camera was a beautiful reading room that stood as part of the Old Library in Radcliffe Square.
Feeling the pure rush of accomplishment, Conor stared at the decrypted message, sighing in relief at its simplicity:
It was 9.45AM and Conor was sat fully dressed at the end of his bed, staring at his reflection in the wall mirror.
The Bodleian Library was a twenty minute walk from where he was staying, but, deciding to leave early, he gave himself plenty of time.
He had considered talking to Samuel before leaving but was almost certain he would only try and talk him out of going, or worse insist that he came along. This was something Conor would do alone.
With his body still aching from the evening run, he stepped out of his room a few minutes before 10.00AM. Clicking his door shut, Conor noticed Samuel’s door slightly ajar from across the hallway and gently pushed it open.
Instantly the smell of morning odour that followed a night of cigarettes and drinking filled his nose. Samuel was fully dressed, asleep, face down on his bed, his heavy breathing and occasional snort filling the silence in the room. Conor smiled sympathetically at his friend before quietly pulling the door shut.
He gave a yawn and covered his mouth as he walked downstairs. Being awake for most of the night had worn him down despite the adrenaline. He’d buy a sugary drink on the way to get sharp.
Heading for the main door he deviated off course to check his mailbox; it was empty but he was glad to know it.
Going down the steps, the fresh morning air helped bring some colour to his cheeks. At this time of day the early lectures were already under way and the roads had now settled from the bustling bumper to bumper of morning rush hour.
Conor decided to walk, leaving his car to gather rust for another day. With an upbeat pace he took the most direct route he could. Sticking to the pathways, his feet skimmed along the pavement as he looked up to the endearing dome growing in the distance.
Radcliffe Camera was one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks, her presence ever prominent along the Oxford skyline. He was looking forward to seeing it up close.
Coming off Broad Street, Conor walked past the main entrance of the Bodleian Library just after 10.20AM. He made his way along the side road of Catte Street, with the vast stone brickwork of the Library to his right, and the grand entrance to Hertford College to his left.
He followed the road ahead through the steel gate towards Radcliffe Square until he passed the old library to his right. Conor’s pace stuttered as Radcliffe Camera suddenly came into view. The sheer scale and beauty of the building took him by surprise.
Designed by James Gibbs, one of Britain’s most influential architects and built between 1737 and 1749, Radcliffe Camera (or Radcliffe Room) was one of the first examples of a circular library in England.
The architecture for the time was seen as inspired. From the outside it appeared built in three levels; the base made of brick materials sourced from local stone, the central compartment complimented with Corinthian columns which paired up between near fifteen foot windows and an upper level that finished with a beautifully designed lead dome. The interior was broken into two stories known as Lower and Upper Camera. Lower Camera was a grand reading room whilst Upper Camera acted as an archive to a wealth of literature.
Although it was not originally part of the library, Radcliffe Camera was introduced in 1860 to house Oxford’s medical and scientific collections, but these were later transferred to the Radcliffe Science Library in 1861. In recent years Radcliffe Camera kept a collection of books on Anthropology, English, Film, History and Theology.
Conor walked up the stone steps and through the main entrance archway, taking in a wonderful smell of stone, oak and old parchment. He had already gone through the formal declaration process to be granted access to the Bodleian during his first month at the University. This was traditionally oral, but in recent years was now done by signing a declaration letter.
Instantly Conor understood why Radcliffe Camera was considered such an architectural triumph; he appreciated the textured interior and how the lighting from the surrounding windows gave the bookcases and tables a glow. The first floor could be seen from the ground floor study area, a huge encircling ledge that opened up to give way to a breathtaking inner dome. The stone work above the encircling archways offered subtle details that attributed to impeccable craftsmanship.
Conor walked out onto the ground floor known as Lower Camera. He scanned the room from left to right. There were surprisingly few people studying here considering the room’s size, perhaps thirty-five, forty at most, spread out across both floors. Some sat reading on the ground floor whilst others typed on their laptops, seemingly using the tranquil environment as the perfect study area. He checked his watch – it was 10.24AM.
Conor tried to keep moving, suddenly aware of how peculiar a situation this was. What was he supposed to do? Did he need to go somewhere? Were they expecting him? There was nothing obvious or out of place. He didn’t recognise anyone. Conor thought back to the message. Perhaps the Enigma settings doubled up to be the location of a book? A chapter, a page? There had to be something.
He sat at one of the available workstations in the centre of Lower Camera, taking a deep breath and trying not to lose heart.
Looking at the time on the monitor, he could see that it was now 10.27AM. Should I just wait? Conor clicked to open the library intranet and paused for a moment to think.
Raise the flag. Reaching inside his jacket pocket, he pulled out the white card containing the code and placed it on the desk in front of him.
As the time bore down on 10.29AM Conor grew agitated, frequently turning in his chair, glancing from reading room to Upper Camera. He tried to focus, to envisage what was expected of him.
The time on the monitor updated relentlessly, the seconds passing quickly until it finally refreshed to read 10.30AM.
Good morning, Conor, a message read, suddenly appearing on the screen in front of him. The sender was anonymous.
He couldn’t hide the relief from his face. Instinctively Conor glanced around Lower Camera trying to figure out where it had come from. There were fixed terminal stations everywhere he looked.
Who is this? he wrote, glancing anxiously from left to right.
A friend. The response came back quickly.
Did you send me the code?
Yes, the user replied. Conor imagined the sender staring at him from afar, watching his every move.
What is this?
A project of discovery, Conor. An opportunity worth anything you could fear losing.
He frowned. An opportunity to do what?
Can you keep a secret?
A game for the young, the user replied. Do you want to be part of something that will change the world?
The grandeur of the message made him nervous. Is this a joke? he wrote, peering up to Upper Camera and catching the suspicious glance of an elderly man disappearing behind a pillar.
Why did you break the code? the user responded.
With a squint Conor leaned back into his chair, looking down at the small white card in front of him.
Codes are made to be broken, he wrote.
There was no response. Lightly tapping at the table as the seconds passed, he glanced at the time. It had been over a minute.
Conor shook his head. This wasn’t an invitation; breaking the code had meant nothing, there was no reward. This was an interview.
He thought for a moment before typing a new response.
Because everything has meaning.
How interesting, the user responded.
Sensing that he needed to choose his questions carefully, Conor thought hard before asking; Will you tell me your name?
You can call me Rysbrack.
As the response came back, he caught a glance from the corner of his eye. A curious stranger he didn’t recognise; a man on a laptop wearing a dark blue hoodie, his head low and hunched. Their glances met for seconds before quickly breaking contact.
Where are you? Conor asked.
That’s for you to tell me, the user responded. You only get one chance, Conor. Make it count.
He scratched his forehead and exhaled, his eyes now darting around the room, scanning from terminal to terminal. An awkward stare caught by a young woman, a glance to Upper Camera in hope. Conor felt his nerves taking over, clouding his thoughts. Whatever clues had been offered, he’d missed them. He tried to factor in the layout of the room, picture where he would stand if the roles were reversed. This would be a guess, a shot to nothing.
You are… he typed, freezing to ponder for a final moment, looking up at his chosen target. By the second column, next to the fire exit. He hit return and held his breath.
Almost instantly the session terminated, his PC restoring to display the library intranet.
Conor leaned forward, the look on his face turning desperate. He closed his eyes. Fail, Conor. Poor show.
* * *
Appearing gormless and expectant, Conor waited for another five minutes, staring blankly at the monitor screen. His disappointment clearly visible, he glanced around the room in frustration.
Eventually he lowered his head, logged off and left, giving Radcliffe Camera one final look before heading for the exit.
Ellie gave it ten minutes before making the call. Leaning up against a bookcase secluded in the corner, she held the mobile phone to her ear.
‘We’ve got another bite,’ she said.
‘Who is it?’
‘Conor Martin. Twenty-one. Freshman at St John’s. Studying Computer Science.’
‘Interesting. How did it go?’
She sighed. ‘Not as we wanted it to. We’ll need to alter our plans if he’s to progress to the next stage.’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ she whispered.
‘Is he right for this?’
‘Difficult to say,’ she said. ‘There’s something about him.’
‘This is your call. Should we proceed?’
Ellie paused before speaking softly. ‘I think so.’
‘You need to be sure.’
‘I am sure… Yes, we proceed.’
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David P. Philip