The monitor room is always kept cool and dark, to help the agents stay focused on the watch. It actually works pretty well, so Agent Parker isn’t surprised to see eyes mostly up when she pops into the detention block. A few people tapping out reports.
The one she’s interested is splitting his attention between the screen and a piece of paper he’s scribbling on in front of him. He’s due for a reaming, except – “Grogan, what the blazes is she doing?”
On the monitor is Alycia Chin, doing some weird sort of … dance? A linear set of movements, pacing along a line, then off to its sides, intersecting, from left to right, from front to back of the cell, a series of right-angled steps, slow-motion tumbles, ballet pirouettes …
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” Grogan straightens quickly. He’s a normal agent; if he’s on detention block duty, there’s a good chance he’s screwed up somewhere recently. Everyone rotates through all positions at some time or another, but few like to linger where they have to keep a sharp eye on prisoners, or come in contact with the sort of threats, metahuman and not, that AEGIS deal with.
A few actually like the work. A lot of them need to be washed out of the agency, in Parker’s opinion.
“It’s a puzzle,” Grogan continues. “She doing a crossword puzzle.”
Parker evaluates it, and can just see it – Chin is tracing the steps of various answers, up and down, across, interlocking, interdependent. “Interesting exercise, I suppose,” she comments. There’s something not quite right about the movements. She’s doing the same words multiple times Parker realizes. “Of course, most people just solve them on paper.”
“She’s not solving it, ma’am. She’s writing it.”
“Writing --” Parker is impressed, despite herself. Juggling the contents of the puzzle that looks – she watches for several moments – Twelve on a side? mMore? Until she retraces all the way across or up-and-down, it will be difficult to say. But juggling all that is impressive in and of itself. Creating the puzzle, with its necessary backtracking and revision along the way – that’s gobsmacking. Not that she’d say so.
“This is the third one she’s been doing today, since the interrogation was suspended for the afternoon.”
The movements are almost hypnotic – there’s some system she’s using, but she’s not just pacing back and forth, but occasionally doing spider-like tumbles, twirling, even at one point a handstand. It’s all strangely beautiful.
“How do you know this is third?”
“When she’s done, she sits down, pulls out that sketch pad, and writes it up.” He holds up the piece of paper he had been working on earlier. Yes, 15-by-15, the size of the New York Times weekday puzzle. “It’s a damned hard one, too.”
She snatches the paper – half-filled, lots of erasures – out of his hand. “This – is one of hers?”
“Well, yes, ma’am.”
“And that whole ‘No contact with the prisoner, no exchange of information with the prisoner, no communication with the prisoner, except under Star Seven protocols’ bit of directive – this didn’t seem to apply to crossword puzzles, too?”
Grogan seems to shrink slightly. “We didn’t contact her. She put the first two she did on her dinner tray, folded in half. I’ve been working on the first ever since, but she never talked to us, nor us to her.”
“Words, shapes, movement – the building blocks of communication, Agent Grogan. Agent Matthews!”
The agent at the next table, who’s been studiously watching another set of cells and very pointedly not being seen to pay attention to the conversation, snaps to in her rolling chair. “Ma’am!”
“Call officer of the watch, have two security folk sent down here, and get Agent Grogan into psych lockup until we can be sure he hasn’t been programmed in some fashion.”
“Programmed?” Grogan and Matthews say simultaneously, though with different tones of voice.
“Hypnotic movement, subliminal messaging in the clues or answers, even the shape of the puzzle could convey information, consciously or unconsciously. If you know what you’re doing, you can get someone to choose a number or a word even without saying it, by peppering their environment with the right suggestions.”
“I don’t --”
“Or the whole thing could be a way to smuggle information out. Finish the puzzle, toss it in the trash, it gets picked up by dumpster divers, or suborned cleaning staff.”
“How – how do you know she’s doing that?”
“I don’t. But I don’t not know, which is just as bad when dealing with someone like this prisoner. Matthews?”
“Yes, Agent Parker, right away.”
“And once they’ve arrived and I’m sure you aren’t going to pull out a gun and start shooting others, Agent Grogan, I’m going to walk this down to cryptoanalysis and see if they can tell me anything interesting. Which should have been your go-to response as soon as that paper showed up on the tray.”
* * *
The cryptoanalysis team crunched the two puzzles for some three hours before finding how the messages were encrypted. They contacted Parker.
“Well, it was hidden, ma’am, pretty well, but not as well as it could have been. A Herzfeld Transformation after looking at the cyclotomic fields and resulting homomorphisms --”
“Yes, ma’am.” The analyst looks vaguely uncomfortable, for reasons Parker can’t quite yet glean.
“The first one said,” He pauses, then plunges in. “‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE MOVE ALONG.’”
A long silence. “I see. And the second?”
“‘THESE ARENT THE HIDDEN MESSAGES YOURE LOOKING FOR.’”
Even more impressive. Not just a large crossword puzzle worked out via physical movement and mental manipulation, but one that included actual encrypted messages.
A slight smile actually plays on her face, which confuses and terrifies the cryptoanlyst.
“All right then, ring up the psych ward, let Grogan out. Send him home docking today’s pay and – no, have him see me. I have an errand for him.”
* * *
Alycia’s done with the third puzzle, built, compiled, and written quickly but neatly (Father was a stickler for penmanship) on the sketch pad, by the time the next meal arrives. There’s a soft chime, and the panel slides way, revealing a covered plate and utensils. It’s been made quite clear to her what happens if any of the utensils go “missing” – and the ends to which her captors will go to recover such items, after administering sufficient tranqs through the air to bring down an elephant.
She has no interest in that kind of a search, nor in stealing a spork, nor, in fact, of busting out. She expects to be released sooner or later – probably sooner, given the cadence of the questioning. All that remains in question is how to avoid being bored to tears when not being interrogated. Thus the crosswords.
The problem being, any crossword she could remember the questions for, she’d remember the answers to. But this game –
She pulls out the tray, and finds something there besides food. KIDZ FIRST KROSS-WORDS! VOLUME 47 says the cover. On the title page, someone has written, nicely and neatly, “Perhaps this will be more your speed.”
Alycia looks up at one of the cameras. “Touché,” she says aloud, shooting a finger gun at it.
Well, it had been fun. And not a total loss. An afternoon’s entertainment, at least, and some good language practice. Plus …
Alycia considers the book, full of simplistic asymmetric criss-cross puzzles (and large, cartoony pictures of animals). Maybe she could amuse herself other ways. Fill in the answers per the clues, but in non-English languages. Find words that aren’t the obvious answers but still fit.
Alycia leave the last crossword she wrote for Agent Parker. No idea if it will be decoded, but one can always hope.
“‘ARE WE THROUGH YET’”
author: *** Dave H.