THE MAGIC CIRCLE CHALLENGE:
Excerpts from The Matrix
[CHALLENGE INSTRUCTIONS: READ THIS EXCERPT. WHEN YOU GET TO THE
TRY TO FIGURE IT OUT. ARE YOU AS SMART AS ARIEL BEHN? IF NOT, HINTS WILL BE PROVIDED.]
For the rest of the week things were frustratingly quiet. It wasn't
that I was hoping for a follow-up car chase or another avalanche to rescue
me from boredom. The problem was, no package had arrived yet. Nor had I
been able to contact Sam.
I cruised by the No-Name cowboy bar, inquiring as casually as possible
about phone calls. The bartender told me he'd noticed the pay phone on the
wall across the room ringing a few times earlier that week. But nobody
picked it up, and nothing since.
I scanned my mail messages on the computer each day, coming up empty.
Olivier and I had to coordinate our driving schedules for a few days
until I could operate my car again, and Wolfgang was still out of town. So
in a way I felt lucky that the parcel didn't arrive until I could be alone
when I went to fetch it. Meanwhile I hid the rune manuscript in a place
where no one could find it, right beneath ten thousand United
States-government-employed noses: inside the DOD Standard.
The Department of Defense Standard was the bible of all research and
development branches of the federal government: thirty-five massive bound
volumes of rules and regulations that had to be consulted in order to do
anything from developing a computer system to constructing a light-water
reactor. It cost the taxpayers a fortune to produce and update this key
document. We had many sets around the site: one was kept on the six-foot
bookshelf just outside my office. But in the whole five years I'd worked
here, I'd never once seen anyone stroll idly across the floor to peek at
it, much less really consult the thing for the purpose intended. To be
blunt, we could have papered the latrine walls with the DOD Standard and I
doubt, even then, anyone would have noticed it.
I was the only one I knew who'd actually tried to read it--but once was
enough. What I saw was less comprehensible than the revised Internal
Revenue Service tax code: government service writing style, par exellence.
I was sure no one would find the rune manuscript if I hid it there.
So on Friday, the first day I was able to drive myself to work, I
stayed until after Olivier left the office. It didn't surprise him. We
were off to Sun Valley at dawn, so any work I'd need to finish before the
weekend had to be done now. As soon as he left to get his things together
for the trip, I started hauling volumes of my nearby set of the Standard
down from their shelves and unfastening the sliding bindings. I inserted a
page of runes about every forty or fifty pages along, throughout the set.
It was ten o'clock when I'd finished. I felt lucky I hadn't hurt my
arm, hefting those heavy binders for such a long time. As I sank into my
desk chair to relax for a minute and collect my thoughts, I bumped the
mouse pad on my desk. The test patterns that had been revolving on the
screen vanished and a clean screen came up, illuminating the half-darkened
I stared at it. A symbol I'd never seen, like a giant asterisk, half
filled the screen. Beneath this symbol was printed a question mark.
How did this get on my computer screen? No one here in the office
could have done it; I'd been right at my desk all day.
I tapped a question mark into my terminal, for Help. The Help screen
gave me a message it had never given me before, and one I felt certain it
wasn't programmed to produce: it said I should check my mail.
I called up my message file, though I'd swept it out completely only a
few hours earlier this evening. Nonetheless, there was one new document
out there. I pulled the message up on the screen.
It started to build across the screen slowly, as if there were a
hidden hand within the tube itself drawing the picture from inside out. As
the letters drew themselves magically, I watched with a kind of dazed
fascination. Before it had finished I knew, of course, who had put it
there. It could only be Sam.
At the laser printer beside my desk, I printed out a few copies to
mess with by hand, and I studied them.
TO ACCESS THE ACROSTIC FOR PRINTING YOURSELF]
Although I knew that the first rule of security was to delete an
incoming encryption from the machine as fast as possible, I also knew Sam.
If Sam wanted something destroyed at once, it would have been programmed
to self-destruct when printed. The fact that it was still sitting there on
my screen meant there were more clues contained in it, other than the
sequence of the letters themselves. In fact, I might already have received
one: the asterisk.
From my desk drawer I grabbed three of those cheap transparent
government pens. I wound a rubber band to hold them together, then fanned
them out in a snowflake pattern, in the shape of the asterisk. I slid this
across the page to see whether, along any of the three axes, acrostics
could be ferreted out. No luck--though I didn't expect any. It would be too
simple a clue, and therefore too dangerous, for Sam to leave on my
While scanning this page of letters, I drew back for a few seconds to
get perspective. In breaking an unknown code, it's always a huge advantage
if the person who encrypted the message is trying to communicate with you.
And clearly even more so if you happen to have been hand-trained by him,
as I was by Sam.
Right now, for example, I could make some fair assumptions about the
hidden message before me: Sam would never have sent it, or any message,
via computer, which he hotly opposed as unsafe, unless the message itself
was important or urgent or both. That is, unless it was something I
vitally had to know before I left, as he knew I'd planned to, for Sun
Valley on the weekend. Even so, he'd waited all week to send it--right down
to the wire, almost the final hour of Friday night. Obviously he'd been
unable to find another way to communicate, and was therefore forced to use
a method he didn't trust. This told me two critical things about the
"personality" of the code he'd used.
First, since he believed it might be vulnerable to the snooping of
others, the code would have to be many-layered, with red herrings dropped
on every trail costing time and labor to anyone else also trying to
Second, since Sam had taken a risk that must have been forced on him
by time constraints and urgency, he would have to use a code simple enough
for me to unlock quickly, accurately, and all by myself.
The combination of these two vital ingredients told me that the key to
this code must be something that only I would be likely to see.
Using a ruler as my guide, I searched the page. The first clue popped
out at once. There were two items, and only two, on this page that were
not letters of the alphabet: the two ampersands (&) in lines twelve and
sixteen. Since an ampersand is a symbol for the word "and," perhaps they
formed some connections between parts of the message. Though this could be
guessed by anyone, I felt sure that was where the trails--both the false
and the true trails--began: that is, in the middle. And I felt even more
certain that I would find a clue "for my eyes only" that would tell me
where to look for the place to branch off from the obvious
I wasn't disappointed. The ampersand on line sixteen connected the
words SCYLLA and CHARYBDIS, and led to the complete message JACKSON HOLE
TWO P.M. SCYLLA & CHARYBDIS. That was a red herring, not only because it
was my private nickname for those rocks--others might know that too--but
rather because I'd told Sam I was going to Sun Valley this weekend, not
Jackson Hole, to meet Uncle Laf. But herring or no, it did tell me that
the message I was seeking would explain where Sam would try to meet me
this weekend. Thank God.
There were a few other scattered messages that leapt from the page,
like the one starting with GRAND on line fourteen, saying he'd meet me
Sunday at Grand Targhee, lift three, at four p.m.
But I thought it far more likely that Sam's real message would be
buried in the crop of conflicting messages that branched from the other
ampersand. And all of those dealt with places at Sun Valley.
The ampersand on line twelve connected the two words valley and day.
Backing up, it read from southeast to due north: SUN VALLEY & (SUN)DAY.
Then the bifurcations began, and were difficult to follow.
THE MAGIC CIRCLE:
About the Book
The Magic Circle Challenge
Worldwide Research Adventures
The Eight Contest