Rubik’s Code

“You sure about this?” asked Major Chambers, the day’s duty officer. “It doesn’t look like he’s doing anything except sitting there, rocking.”

Amelia Dennis continued watching the man through the one-way mirror. “Just be patient,” she said. “He’s got to settle in first.”

“But he’s not doing anything,” Chambers repeated, his impatience seeping into his voice.

Dennis turned away from the mirror to face Chambers. “Major, we’ve been trying to decipher these transmissions for over a year now. A few more minutes isn’t going kill us.”

“You don’t know that,” Chambers said. “These messages could be anything from a demand for our surrender to a request for diplomatic relations.” He paused. “One that, if we don’t respond to quickly enough could turn into a demand for our surrender.”

“Well,” Dennis said, “that could also happen if we respond incorrectly. I’m guessing it would be a good idea to know what these communications actually say before just blasting some gobbledegook out into space all willy-nilly. Wouldn’t you agree?” She turned back to the window. “That guy in there? He’s our best bet to figure it all out.”

“Really?” the major said. “He just looks like some kind of weirdo, sitting there swaying back and forth like that.”

Dennis felt her hackles start to rise and she struggled to maintain control. It wasn’t easy because the man on the other side of the glass, Mohamed Knowles, reminded her brother so much it was unnerving. That made her very protective of him, so hearing Chambers’ “weirdo” comment really got under her skin. It didn’t help that she herself shared some of the traits found in Knowles and her brother. That made the major’s remark personal. After she had calmed down a bit, she said, “I spoke with him when he got here and he told me he needed some time to acclimate.” She paused for a moment. “This is a stim, Major. It’s his way of acclimating.”

“You ‘spoke’ to him?” Chambers said, with a raised eyebrow. “They told me he couldn’t speak.”

She sighed. Why was dealing with NTs always like this? “Okay, he didn’t ‘speak’. But he did communicate with me.”

Chambers shook his head. “I know you’re the NSA’s wunderkind for this kind of thing,” he said. “But I think you choked on this one. We’re not gonna get a damn thing out of this guy.” He watched Knowles for a couple of minutes. “Why him?” he said. “We’ve got cryptanalysts coming out of our ears. I mean, we’re the freakin’ NSA, for god’s sake.”

“Yes, we have a ton of cryptanalysts. And, they’ve been working on this from the moment we received the first transmission. What have we gotten from them?” Chambers opened his mouth to answer but she cut him off. “Bupkis,” she said. “Why him? Just a few years ago, he solved a Rubik’s Cube in just over three and a half seconds. He doesn’t cube anymore, but when he did, he was one the top speedcubers in the world.” She looked back at Knowles. “They told me to think outside the box and this is about as ‘outside the box’ as I could come up with.”

“Wait, did you just say ‘Rubik’s Cube’?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, unable to keep all the condescension she was feeling out of her voice.

“But that’s just a toy,” Chambers said incredulously. “How does it translate to cryptanalysis?”

“You weren’t a math major in school, were you?” she asked. He shook his head. Great, she thought, attempt #4,365,791 of trying to explain complex mathematical concepts to laypeople. “Okay, a lot of cryptanalysis works with game theory. Are you familiar with that?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Chambers said. “If I remember correctly, it’s the study of the elements that are present in a group.”

Dennis nodded. “Sure. I mean, that’s really simplified, but you’ve got the idea. But I’m not going to go any deeper than that because some of this stuff could make your head explode. The short answer is that group theory is also very helpful in solving a Rubik’s Cube. And, I’m betting that anyone who can solve Rubik’s Cube in three and a half seconds might be pretty damn helpful in working this mess out.” Just then, Knowles picked up the headphones and started the recording. “There,” she said. “He’s starting. You happy, now?”

Chambers looked skeptical. “I guess,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if it works, though.”

Dennis arrived early the next morning. She was eager to see what kind of progress Knowles had made yesterday and hoped to get there before he arrived so she could look over his work in private. Stopping just long enough to pour a cup of coffee from the breakroom’s community pot, she headed to her office. She had left instructions for Knowles’ progress to be forwarded to her before being secured for the night. She looked for the report but came up empty. That was odd, she thought. Her team was very capable and always on top of things like this. She ventured out of her office, looking for one of her people to see what the problem was. Unfortunately, it was too early and no one was in yet.

Eventually, she made her way down the observation room where she’d spent most of yesterday. And, there was Knowles on the other side of the one-way glass. He was still at it. It looked like he’d spent the night in there because the room bore the tell-tale signs of an all-nighter: empty soda cans and food wrappers strewn about him, a half-eaten pizza on the table within arm’s reach, even a cot with a pillow and rumpled blanket hanging half onto the floor. What the hell? she thought. Only, she didn’t think it. She said it out loud. The night-shift intercept tech that was watching over him, turned around.

“Oh, good morning, Ms. Dennis.”
“Did he spend all night working?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” the tech said. “He’s like a machine. Only left to go to the bathroom.” The man smiled. “He didn’t want to do that, though. He asked for a bucket so he wouldn’t have to leave, but Lieutenant Schiffer said, and I quote, “Oh hell no!”

Dennis smiled at that. She could hear Schiffer saying those exact words in her head. She and Briana Schiffer had a lot in common, and while both were willing to do almost anything it took to get the job done, Schiffer was more conservative than she was. But she had to agree with her on this one. A bucket of… that just wasn’t going to fly. Knowles had asked for a room where he could be isolated to minimize distraction but also have help close at hand if he needed it. He didn’t say anything about a bathroom and she wished she’d thought about it. She really should have because she’d seen her brother get fixated the same way Knowles was right now. Watching him for a few minutes, she hoped to see a break in his concentration. He’d been pretty adamant about his request for isolation, insisting that he be left completely alone unless he specifically asked for help. But, none came. The thing was, she really wanted to know how he was doing. She decided to take a chance and speak with him. Keying the intercom, she said, “Mohamed, would be all right if I came in and spoke with you for a minute?” He froze for just a second, then nodded, putting aside the pad he’d been furiously scribbling on.

She was assaulted by a jumble of odors ranging from stale pizza to body odor the minute she stepped into the room. The table wasn’t just littered with pizza, food wrappers, and empty cans. There were also wadded-up sheets of yellow paper from the legal pad Knowles was using. On a couple, she could see bits of equations he’d worked on. She pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.

“So,” she said, “have you figured any of it out?”

Knowles looked in her general direction but not directly at her. That was something that unnerved a lot of people, but she understood. Eye contact is hard. Her brother often wouldn’t even look up from what he was working on; he got everything that was going on around him, but he didn’t engage the way society thought he should. While she had her own issues with eye contact, she was nothing like Knowles or her brother. Her trick to dealing with society’s demand for eye contact? Look toward the other person, but focus on a point just beyond them. It sounded crazy but it worked. For her, at least. Her brother couldn’t even manage that. She suspected Knowles would be the same way.

“I think I’m onto something,” he said. “But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, there’s one phrase that keeps coming up in every message but it’s very weird.” He shook his head. “There’s no way what I’m getting should be correct, but no matter what I do, it keeps coming out the same.”

“Okay,” Dennis said, “tell me what you’re finding. Maybe I can provide some context or something that will help it make sense.”

“It’s worth a shot, I guess,” he said with a sigh. “I think what they’re saying is “We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty.”