You were happy when Montenegro returned to power through democratic means; you thought that everything would change under his rule and your work would again become urgent. What a disappointment. There was no significant threat to national security as there had been during his dictatorship. You were forced to admit that times had changed. Even worse, during the last stretch of Montenegros administration, the vice president, a charismatic technocrat pardon the contradiction with wide eyes and dimpled cheeks, had decided to reorganize the Black Chamber and turn it into the focal point of the fight against cyberterrorism. This will pose one of the key challenges to the twenty- first century, he had said when he came to announce his initiative. We must be prepared for what is to come. Immediately thereafter the vice president introduced Ramírez-Graham, the new director of the Black Chamber: One of our countrymen who has succeeded abroad, a man who has left a promising career in the north to come and serve his country. A round of applause. He had annoyed you from the very start: the impeccable black suit, the well-polished loafers and neat haircut he looked like some sleek businessman. Then he had opened his mouth and the bad impression only worsened. True, he might have had slightly darker skin than most, and somewhat Andean features, but he spoke Spanish with an American accent. It certainly didnt help when you discovered that he wasnt even born in Bolivia but was from Arlington, Virginia.
You search the walls for a sign of salvation. Around you are only silent structures, muted by the vigilance of a supervisor who believed it prudent that employees of the Black Chamber not be distracted. Aside from the aluminum emblem at the entrance, there are no signs or notices, no noise that might distract you in the endless search for the text that resides behind all texts. But you can find messages even on immaculate walls. Its simply a matter of looking for them. Your glasses are dirty fingerprints, coffee stains and the frame is twisted. There is a slight pain in your left eye caused by the lens bending at the wrong angle. For weeks youve been intending to make an appointment with the ophthalmologist.
Ramírez-Graham has been director of the Black Chamber for almost a year. He has fired a number of your colleagues and replaced them with young computer experts. Since you obviously dont fit in with his plans for a generational change, why havent you been fi red? You put yourself in his shoes: you cant be fired. After all, you are a living archive, a repository of information regarding the profession. When you go, a whole millennium of knowledge will go with you, an entire encyclopedia of codes. Your colleagues who havent yet turned thirty dont come to ask you practical questions. Rather, they come to hear your stories: of Étienne Bazeries, the French cryptanalyst who in the nineteenth century spent three years trying to decipher Louis XIVs code (so full of twists and turns that it took more than two centuries to decode it), or of Marian Rejewski, the Polish cryptanalyst who helped to defeat Enigma in World War II. There are so many stories, and you know them all. Your new colleagues use software to decipher codes and see you as a relic from times when the profession was not fully mechanized. The world has changed since Enigma, but being historically out of sync is nothing new in Río Fugitivo.
You pause in front of the Bletchley Room, where slim computers use complex mathematical processes to understand coded messages and fail more often than not. Years are needed to decode a single phrase. With the development of public key cryptography, and particularly with the appearance of the RSA asymmetric system in 1977, a message can now be coded using such high values that all of the computers in the world working to decipher it would take more than the age of the universe to find a solution.
Spanish edition copyright © 2003 by Edmundo Paz Soldán, English translation copyright © 2006 by Lisa Carter. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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