Now on the sidewalk … uuh, huh … whoo … sunny mornin’ … uuh, huh,
Lies a body just oozin' life … eek!
And someone’s sneakin' ‘round the corner.
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?
– Bobby Darin (Mack the Knife)
Kevin looked over the encrypted message he’d found in the Audrey Niffenegger. The encryption kept changing, making it difficult to crack, an endless file, looping away, almost as impenetrable as the master time file’s own encryption.
He had tried copying it, but that had made things worse as the looping had gotten more rapid. He had done that twice, and had essentially wasted two PADDs doing that. Then he hit upon the idea of photographing the actual file. He used a separate PADD, not connected in any manner, and every time the file changed, it snapped a picture. He now had several of the pictures projected up, into the air in front of him. The file kept changing, and the other PADD kept snapping, as he looked, seeking any sort of pattern he could recognize.
There were fewer than two hundred words in the document, if the spacing could be trusted. It consisted of one word, which seemed to be its title, and then six paragraphs of varying lengths – again, if the spacing was correct. He stared and stared at the pictures, then started to look at the newer ones when it hit him. There was one newer one where the first paragraph was written in Greek letters.
That paragraph was a short one – only six words long. It was probably the initial premise, listed right after the title. The Greek letters were all amassed together, and in Greek alphabetical order. Alpha, two betas, a gamma, four deltas – but one was at the end of the first word, two encompassed the second word and the last delta started off the third word. Then there were three epsilons at the end of the third word, with a zeta starting the fourth word, followed by, one eta, two thetas and then an iota finished the fourth word. The fifth word was the last two iotas followed by two kappas. The last word was three lambdas, one mu, two nus and it ended with a xi. Five letters, two, then four, then five, then four and, rounding out the sentence was a seven-letter word.
The words and their patterns made no sense, but maybe the letters did? He tried to ignore the actual sounds of Greek and instead focused on the letters as placeholders. Did the alpha mean A? He tried it and was rejected by the original message, “Okay, you SOB,” he said to the screens in front of him, “It’s not an A. Are you a B, by chance?”
“All right, C, and it’s my final offer.”
He typed it in and the looping stopped for just a second. He stared at it, dumbfounded. The C had stuck. He had hit pay dirt.
“All righty, then,” he said, “Alpha is C. I bet it’s not the first letter of this paragraph or even this word. Are you maybe the first letter of the alphabet for this paragraph?” he glared at the screens again, “If you are, then, let’s see, fourteen different letters. Let’s say C really is the first one. Then you gotta go at least as far as, hell, C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P. Let’s figure you have no Qs, no Xs and no Zs but I reserve the right to change my mind about that, you lil stinker. So are the betas Ds?”
He tried, and was rejected, “Huh. Well, we couldn’t make it easy, now, could we?”
His communicator chimed. It was Deirdre, “Want some coffee?”
“Uh, just a sec. Actually, lemme bring what I’m working on with me. If, uh, if you don’t mind, that is.”
“Not all. Five minutes?”
“I wanted to talk to you about the job,” Deirdre said, as soon as she and Kevin had sat down, “Assuming that’s allowed.”
“I guess it is. So shoot.”
“Would I be traveling?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, “For you, actually, I don’t imagine things’d be much different. You’d just be working with me officially, is all.”
“Oh, uh, okay.”
“That a bad thing?” he asked.
“No. It’s, uh, can I say something in confidence?”
“It’s Levi. He, uh, he’s kinda creepy.”
“He’s got issues,” Kevin said, “He harassing you, or something?”
“No. It’s just that he stares.”
“Ah,” Kevin said, “Levi Problem Number Eighty-Seven.”
“Or forty-five or whatever. He doesn’t, uh, doesn’t seem to realize when he’s supposed to break his gaze. I guess that’s the way I’d put it. He’s tenacious – which is good – but he puts that focus on nearly anything. He’s curious. He’s studying you in a way, I guess.”
“Kevin, he’s ogling me.”
“Then tell him to cut it out.”
“Hmm. Well I can tell him, too, and I suppose Otra can. Actually, I’m kinda surprised. I had thought he only had eyes for her.”
“Oh. Well, uh, I dunno. Just, he’s weird.”
“We all are,” Kevin said, “It’s why we were hired.”
Deirdre had to smile at that, and tossed her black hair a little. “Are you saying I should act like I’m certifiable in order to get the job?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” he said, “Can, uh, you know anything about decryption?”
“Probably as much as you do. Why?”
He presented his problem, and his findings, such as they were. She looked them over, “I’m thinking that brute force isn’t the way to go. It seems you get punished for wrong guesses.”
“But there’s a bit of a reward for right ones. Why d’ya suppose that is?”
“I, huh,” she thought a moment, “Y’know, I think they want us to break it. But through reasoning – not by just blindly guessing. It’s like, if we can prove our mettle, we get the prize, which is the message.”
“I like it. So we have fourteen different letters. One is known. And we’ve got six words in one sentence, if we go with their spacing.”
“If the spacing is right, then I know the second word. But, uh, not necessarily the letters.”
“Yes. A two-letter word, second in a short sentence? It’s gotta be is.”
“So, uh, blank is blank, blank, blank, blank?”
“Uh huh. First word could be, uh, a name, a noun, maybe. It’s not who or what because it’s a declarative sentence. It’s not a question.”
“Right. I bet you do crosswords,” he said.
“And cryptoquotes and cryptics and all of that. And, heh, speak of the devil,” she indicated Levi, who was getting something from a replicator.
Levi saw them and came over. Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down.
“Uh, Levi, you know Deirdre?” Kevin asked.
“Yeah,” Levi said, eating a corn muffin.
“How ya doing?” she asked.
“Wha -? Oh, uh, fine. What are you doing?”
“We have an encrypted note from whoever took Audrey out for a spin,” Kevin said.
“You should leave that for the experts,” Levi scolded.
“Maybe,” Deirdre said, “What do you think the first sentence is?” she showed him their findings.
“I dunno. Something about time, or history, or the Commission, or about how terrible they think we all are,” Levi said, “Assuming it has anything to do with Audrey being taken.”
“Assuming that,” Kevin said.
“It doesn’t mention the Commission – none of the words are long enough, if we can trust the spacing,” Deirdre pointed out.
“There are two four-letter words. Maybe one of them is time? Another one could be past,” Levi ventured, “Just because the alpha is a C, that doesn’t mean that maybe there isn’t a B in there. Maybe the fourteen letters are the first fourteen letters of our alphabet. So that would be A through, uh,” he thought for a moment, “N.”
“No, I don’t think so. The second word is probably is,” Deirdre said.
“Yeah, huh,” Levi agreed, “You think the other four vowels are in there?
“There are probably at least two vowels,” Kevin said, “I mean, it’s hard to make up a coherent sentence – even a short one – if the only vowel you’ve got to work with is I.”
“Don’t forget a Y. Wait, hey!” Deirdre said.
“A breakthrough?” asked Kevin.
“You said it might be about history. That last word is seven letters long. I wonder if it’s history?” she said.
“It could also be Audrey, though. But either way, if your theory about the letters being in order is right, then the xi is probably a Y,” Levi said.
“Only one way to find out,” Kevin said, and tried it. To their delight, it worked.
“So we’ve got parameters now. And we may have a rule, at least for this particular sentence,” Levi said.
“Probably not for the title or the other paragraphs, you figure?” Kevin asked.
“Yes, but still – we’ve got a C and a Y, and probably also at least one I and at least one S. there’s probably more than one S, given that letter’s popularity,” Deirdre said.
“And the S – assuming the rule holds true – can’t be any earlier than,” Levi counted to himself, “six letters from the Y. Which is, uh, theta.”
“By the same token, the H can’t be any further along than the fifth from the C, but that only holds true if the last word is history,” Deirdre said, “Zeta, or earlier.”
“Which would make the eta the I,” Kevin said, “And the T would be right after the S – the iota. Or, um, it could be later than that. There probably aren’t any Xs in such a short sentence.”
“Do any of the other snapshots show any sort of an order?” Deirdre asked.
“Can’t tell. These could be languages, pictograms or just random images. Does a bicycle come before a sun? In English, yeah. In Mandarin, maybe not,” Kevin stated.
“First word is alpha, beta, beta, gamma, delta, and then a space. Second word is probably is – that one is two deltas. Third word is delta, three epsilons. Fourth word is epsilon, zeta, eta, two thetas. Fifth word is three iotas, two kappas. Last word – possibly history – is three lambdas, mu, two nus and xi. Alpha is C; xi is Y,” Levi summarized.
“Is this seat taken?” it was Otra.
“Oh, no, of course not,” Deirdre said.
Otra put down a glass of water onto the table and began to drink from a separate cup of coffee. Her chavecoi – flowery appendages on top of her head – leaned down, one by one, and dipped themselves into the water glass. The water level began to appreciably drop as, in turn, the chavecoi began to perk up and change color.
Deirdre stared a little, “Oh, sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Otra said, “You know what they’re for?”
“They’re a bit of evolutionary magic from Dawitan, to help ensure my survival. If there’s ever an extended food shortage, I’ll be all right, ‘cause I can photosynthesize.”
“That’s convenient,” Deirdre said.
“Oh!” Levi finally looked up, “Your chavecoi are looking particularly perky today.”
“Uh, ‘scuse me,” Kevin said, getting up, “I’ll tell Carmen we made some progress.”
“Oh, and please tell her I’ve found Helen Walker’s next of kin,” Otra said.
“Will do. See ya,” Kevin said, taking the PADDs back. Once he’d left the cafeteria, he shook his head and laughed a little, “Levi, Levi, Levi,” he said softly to himself. It had been a dumb move for Levi to comment on the perkiness of the woman’s chavecoi – almost as if he’d commented on the perkiness of her breasts.
Kevin considered heading straight to Carmen’s office and then, instead, went to his own.
The little room had University of Wisconsin – Madison paraphernalia all over it, from his mug to a red and white pennant on the door, to a stuffed badger toy he’d won for Josie at a fair.
Josie. The mere sound of her name in his head took him back immediately. Her smile, her laughter, how her antennae moved – for she had been Aenar – he remembered all of it.
She was really named Jhasi, but he had said her name wrong when they had first met, and she had liked even that, particularly when he had said it made her sound as if she were a honky tonk angel.
She was a little thing, pale as skim milk. They had made quite an odd couple. When she had been well, they would go to Tellar, or Umbriel, or Risa, and heads would turn. What did such a delicate, ethereal creature see in a mammoth part-reptile like him?
But then she had gotten sick.
At first, it had been little things, like her saying she wasn’t hungry, or she was too tired to do something or other. Then she would sometimes lose her coordination, and be unable to hit a door chime on the first try.
Then it had been more things, like she’d be unable to concentrate for very long, or she appeared paler, almost translucent.
They had gone to the doctor together, in 3100. It was a Tuesday, he remembered. January fourteenth. What a way to start the century. And they had sat together and heard the horrible diagnosis together.
Her body was on a mission of self-annihilation.
First, her immune system went, as it made up and battled nonexistent foes, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Then, once it was completely gone, it was replaced chemically while her body attacked its own musculoskeletal system. Her bones replaced by an alloy, her muscles by a synthetic elasto-protein, her body was still unsatisfied, and ate at her own blood. Her blood was drained and replaced by a substance akin to an industrial lubricant. Her body had stopped in remission for a few months, apparently trying to figure out where it should hit next.
Those had been a good few months – or as good as things could get. She’d had a biosuit, and he would slip her into it in the morning, and she had some semblance of wholeness and three-dimensionality, and could get up and, very, very tentatively, even take a dainty step or two, as if she were a prima ballerina auditioning for a part in Swan Lake.
He had had her wedding dress taken in, and fitted to the suit, and they had renewed their vows on Tandar Prime. As in the original ceremony, the close-fitting bright pink gown made her resemble a stick of peppermint candy. But this time around, the candy seemed long past its all-too-short shelf life.
Then her body had gone after the last vestige of Josie that was still Josie – her brain. Aphasia and a bit of forgetfulness turned into full-blown amnesia, spiced with grand mal seizures.
Kevin and the doctors had downloaded the remnants of Josie O’Connor’s brain into a sterile database, even as those memories and that personality had faded and become distorted. Her skin became paler and thinner, a near-transparency. Her internal organs, such as anything remained, mixed with the artificial supportive mechanics, and became fully visible.
It was like the final veil or fan had dropped, in a stripper’s routine. There was nothing left on December 29th, 3108.
He had a database of jumbled, scrambled intellectual associations, but no way to tie it all together. Building an android with that program seemed unnecessarily cruel all around. It would not be her. It could never even so much as hold a candle to her.
He couldn’t bear to erase it, so the file stayed, a copy at work, a copy at home and a copy in a vault where he’d put his other valuables – her dress, her wedding ring and an English-Aenar phrase book written on real paper. He had brought it with him on their first date. She had insisted on keeping it, and had even circled and annotated key words and helpful phrases in it, like kiss and dinner and I am yours.
He briefly fired up the database, just to hear the mechanical substitute voice – her own, true voice had gone by the fourth year of her illness – say, Kevin, don’t forget that I love you, please bring home some cilantro.
Then he left, bound for Carmen’s office.
A-there's a tugboat … huh, huh, huh … down by the river dontcha know
Where a cement bag’s just a'droopin' on down
Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear.
Five'll get ya ten, old Macky’s back in town.
– Bobby Darin (Mack the Knife)