Eight months it had been. Eight months since silent war had been declared and every able-bodied person was placed in the service of the State, whether he knew it or not. Eight months since every able mind had been recruited for the madness, he thought to himself, his mind wandering to the image five feet behind him--his work at the Department, his eyes always grateful for a few minutes of respite from the glare of the monitor. Every waking hour, he and seven others in a small room toiled away at the terminals like modern-day, miniature Turings, crunching, smashing and dismembering numbers in search of the perfect algorithm that would let the forces in the field communicate securely. Three doors down the narrow, off-white corridor another group hacked away at the opposition's codes.
"Sisyphus," he thought to himself. "Codes are made to be broken and we try to roll the next one up the hill before the last one comes tumbling down. I buy time. I'm in the business of Temporal Acquisition." He tried to smile to himself but failed and instead looked at the last tiny bubbles about to pop on the surface of his lukewarm cup of coffee.
He'd met her here, in the hallway, while he was disdainfully pouring himself a cup of that same tepid product of Krakatoa, as they called the coffee machine. Its brew was a disaster even when hot. He never quite got that joke but suspected that nobody else did either. She'd been rummaging among the unlabelled sugar packs for equally unlabelled sweetener. "Krakatoa Coffee and sweetener," he had said. "If that won't kill you, neither will the war."
They'd been living together in a miniscule room since, whenever they were both there and off-duty, if there ever was such a thing as being off-duty in this place. Tired, hasty sex maybe once a week to satisfy some basic desire. A sense of familiarity and relative security. They'd probably never have met, let alone gotten along, under different circumstances. At irregular intervals he'd find a note on the bed saying "gone" and some cryptic drawing or phrase which he was expected to decipher by the time she returned. That was their little game. It would be days, sometimes as much as two weeks, before she came back.
She wasn't a cryptographic genius or a number cruncher, as he had soon discovered. She had a sound grasp of
crypto but not quite his level of brilliance--and she had an eidetic memory. She was a courier, charged with inconspicuously supplying the field players with new codes in places where neither wire nor ether could not be trusted to be free of very, very smart prying ears. Hardcopy alone was too risky, it was up to her and others like her to carry it and use their minds as storage and transportation devices and decrypt it along with the key the unit had. The code itself could be his own for all he knew--she'd be given a complex key to remember and key in herself at the destination.
He had found a note today, upon returning to their room for a catnap. "Gone," it said, predictably. And, less predictably, scrawled beneath it like an afterthought which it probably was, "eat raspberries in summer and artichokes at noon." The note was fresh, the ink smudged a bit when he rubbed his thumb against some of the writing. He'd shaken his head and hauled himself onto the bed, hoping to cure the splitting headache that had invaded his cranium and was rolling around inside it like an angry panzer division. He had almost managed to resist the temptation but by the time he fell into a fitful sleep his mind was swimming in a sea of sun-soaked artichokes.
He stared out the window. Daylight was dimmer and the vista sometimes slightly distorted by the thick glass. The building had been inconspicuously fortified several years ago and served as one of a number of centres in which critical operations were thought up, coordinated and sometimes carried out. Not even a gilded cage they gave him to live in, he thought to himself as he observed the greyish hue of the glass. The food sucked as badly as the coffee. Artichokes. The window was facing south. He looked at the shadow his cup cast on his lap, made the adjustment for his longitude and estimated it to be about 13:30. He put aside the imaginary artichoke, no doubt to remember it around noon the following day.
Three floors below, on the opposite side of the street, was the bus terminal. A pair of steel blue clad soldiers with semi-automatics stood next to the terminal building door. Security, he thought. Control. Mind control. They owned his mind and all that was in it. Thirty-odd yards to the right, a man knelt to tie his shoe lace, trying to tie it with one hand holding a newspaper which was desperately trying to flee, aided by a gust of wind. Small loss it would be, he thought to himself, lots of propaganda and no heroes in the news. Hell, what sort of news was it when all worth reading was Monday's sports section? He looked at the terminal, wondering whether she took public transportation as a means of travelling unnoticed. It was easy in the middle of a large city, a person being more agile on foot and more secure in a bus than she'd be in a car.
A bus, painted in the typical cream and turquoise stripes of the long-haul liners, pulled out of the terminal, turning left into the one-way traffic. It stalled briefly as it got caught in the midday traffic, hiding the soldiers from his view. She had left less than an hour ago. Maybe she did take the bus. Maybe she was on one like this, headed for some city far from here to deliver the precious contents of her mind. Maybe she was on this one. He couldn't make out the destination in the panel next to its front door. The man on the pavement managed to get his shoelace tied and glanced upwards, across the street, maybe taking a look at the cloudless blue sky. As the stranger's eyes passed over the window without noticing him, he caught a glimpse of movement in one of the buses windows. He could make out a figure behind the darkened glass. Just a figure. It might have been her. It might have not been. The stranger's gaze passed over the thick window again on its way down to the ground as he stood up to trudge off and go on with his business.
He was staring at the bus as it began to move in the wake of a green traffic light, belching a cloud of exhaust that drifted upwards and to the left. "Take care," he mouthed towards the dark bus window. "Take care."
Nobody saw. Nobody heard. He turned his head from the window, wheeled himself back to his desk, gave the numbers on his screen an annoyed look and joined the debate over the latest football results.