THE MAGIC CIRCLE CHALLENGE:
Excerpts from The Matrix

[CHALLENGE INSTRUCTIONS: READ THIS EXCERPT. WHEN YOU GET TO THE THIRD ACROSTIC, 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 room.

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.

Original acrostic message

[CLICK HERE 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 computer.

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 decipher it.

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 path.

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.

Acrostic with Jackson Hole red 
herrings

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.



Acrostic with Sun Valley messages

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