"All the Hues
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Thursday, January 10, 2008


The Decryption of Floriform X

(Note: This short fiction was originally written on Twitter in 140-character-or-less bursts. There have been one or two minor edits. The lines were labeled with numbers to keep track of them as they flowed into the Twitter stream. Can you decipher the 64-bead string in Line 123?)

000 "The Decryption of Floriform X," a TwitterFiction
001 Dr. Streetman sighed, gazing at the vivid gentian shard. The incised letters ranged from 3 to 4 inches in height.
002 At least she thought they were letters. She consulted her hypothetical syllabary. "Ba, be, bi, bo, bu," she mused.
003 It was possible they were ideograms. There was no pattern she could determine. There were only six shards.
004 None of the shards fit together.
005 She'd been working at the project -- she thought of it as a "project" -- since last October, when the shards had come to her attention.
006 Her friend Arden Mallory, from the art department, had brought the shards by, enthralled by their color, wanting to discuss glazes.
007 Arden was an adjunct professor, making hardly enough to get by.
008 Arden often ate lunch with "Dr. Jane," as she called her. Or sometimes, "The (Wo)Man in the Street."
009 Arden had a special interest in cobalt glazes -- cobalt oxide and cobalt carbonate being the most common.
010 Arden joked that cobalt oxide's chemical formula, CoO, spelled the cry of doves.
011 "It has almost no opacifying effect," Arden had gone on that day. "So the O's are not appeased," quipped Dr. Streetman. "Not mollified."
012 Meanwhile, she was smoothing the first shard Arden had handed her, unwittingly, with her thumb, noting the depth of the intaglio.
013 "Since there's no crawl or blister," Arden was saying, "I'm thinking this is not an alkaline or boron glaze."
014 "I'm thinking magnesia glaze over cobalt, at this point," Arden continued. "Nice, isn't it? I found them in a junk shop, in a tin tray."
015 Dr. Streetman jolted awake. Aaron Meyer, her department head, was in the doorway. "Still musing on those shards?" he said, brows lifted.
016 Jane regarded Meyer's dark-blue suit, noting the crisp white pocket square he always wore. Today its triangularity irritated her.
017 He gazed at her computer screen, where her sketch of Shard 1 was displayed. "A pretty thing, but negligible," he murmured. "Majolica?"
[Illustration of Floriform X, Shard 1]
019 She too remained gazing at the screen. "I believe that this is a letter," she said. "Or an ideogram."
020 "You found it in a junk shop, didn't you?" Meyer inquired. "Which has since closed down."
021 Jane remembered the day she had gone in to talk to the owner. It was raining, and she was using her large, black, crow-like umbrella.
022 The owner of Longterm Memory was a large man with white hair and a Santa Claus beard. He beamed at her, rubbing his hands together.
023 Jane put the shards on the counter, clearing her throat a few times. "Hello, my name is Dr. Jane Streetman," she began, self-consciously.
024 "My friend, Arden Mallory, purchased these shards at your shop some time ago. May I inquire as to their provenance?"
025 The owner put on a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and peered at the shards, frowning. "Sorry, I don't remember right off."
026 "Right on," thought Jane, "right through, write on ..." Meyer was asking her something. "Huh?"
027 "I said, why haven't you gone in for carbon-dating these so-called reliques?" Jane watched his small, pudgy hand take up Shard 1.
028 "Fourteen disintegrations per minute," thought Dr. Streetman, "according to Willard Libby." She pictured her mental multiplier.
029 "Well, Dr. Meyer," she replied after a suitable pause, "you know the cosmic ray flux has not been constant for some time now."
030 He shrugged. "And I believe our lab persists in using the Libby figure, whereas I prefer the more accurate Cambridge half-life."
031 "Be that as it may," sniffed Meyer, "the original organics associated with this post-1950 knickknackerie have long since dissipated."
032 "So why did you suggest carbon-dating in the first place?" asked Dr. Streetman.
033 "I was making a point," said Meyer, "about your choice of archaeological site."
034 "You have not mentioned thermoluminescence," said Dr. Streetman.
035 "I need hardly remind you that your samples have not been protected from heat or light," replied Meyer.
036 "We are all accumulating radiation," said Dr. Streetman.
037 Meyer coughed his dry little cough, then settled one haunch on the edge of Jane's desk. "My dear Jane. I think you know why I am here."
038 "Your teaching record is impeccable," Meyer said, "and your administrative service faultless, though scant."
039 "However," said Meyer, "the department questions your line of research for the past year."
040 "Therefore," he concluded, "our recommendation to the tenure review committee is not ... unequivocal." He gazed at her, pursing his lips.
041 She stared back, not into his eyes, but at his perfectly rounded hairline, and the neatly coiffed black hair which swept back from it.
042 "I am not ready to publish my findings," she said in a low tone. "If you could give me till the end of next term --"
043 Meyer stood. He had hold of Shard 1, and Jane's eyes widened in alarm. "Because of your record, Jane -- and because I like you --"
044 "-- I'm going to submit this piece for TL dating." He waggled the shard at her, then slipped it into his pocket.
045 Jane thought rapidly. The shard was large enough so that samples might be taken from its edges without destroying the incised portion.
046 "The ideogram --" she said. He smiled. "Your scrap of pottery-class kitsch will be returned to you virtually unharmed."
047 He was at the door. "Oh, and Jane? I'd appreciate an outline of your next paper on my desk by the end of the week."
048 "Something from your day job, if you would. You know what sticklers our current crop of referees are." And then he was gone.
049 Dr. Streetman sat unmoving. Her mind whirled. In a few weeks -- months at most -- she would know if the path of a year was a blind alley.
050 Why had she dragged her heels on the question of absolute-dating her finds? Though of course, strictly speaking, Arden was the finder.
051 It was all about proof -- certainty -- though, of course, Aaron Meyer would strike out any ambiguities in the TL-dating results.
052 "Though of course -- though of course -- so, off course --" her mind chattered. "Something from your day job," Meyer had requested.
053 She opened her folder of monoalphabetic substitution ciphers to the cipher alphabet of Mary Queen of Scots, less nulls and codewords.
[Illustration of the M.Q.S. cipher alphabet]
055 Three were geometrical shapes: a circle, a square, a triangle. And XYZ was 789, which made her feel they had run out of steam by the end.
056 J, V and W were excluded. In her mind's eye, she projected suitable candidates, and replaced XYZ's 789. To improve was to interfere ...
057 "Is he gone?" Arden Mallory poked her head around the edge of the doorway. Jane looked up and smiled her assent.
058 Arden shot through the doorway and flopped down in the chair opposite Jane, sprawled comfortably in an instant, long legs extended.
059 "It's lunchtime," said Arden. "I'm doing the old-lady thing in the faculty dining room, if you're interested. Cutlet and custard."
060 "If I can digest," said Dr. Streetman. "Odious little man," Arden said. "He reminds me of half a Dutch doll."
061 "His paint is still fresh," said Jane. "Thus the nausea," Arden said. They paused. Arden crinkled her face.
062 "Well," said Jane, "this isn't lunch, is it?" She rose. Arden whisked just outside the doorway. "Coast is clear," she stage-whispered.
063 The faculty dining room was buzzing with people on this rainy Thursday. Pink-shaded lamps littered little square tables, naperied white.
064 As usual, male eyes followed Arden's long-limbed, slouching stride, and glossed over Jane as over a null in a ciphertext.
065 They made for the far wall with the picture window. The day's luncheon menu was clipped in a brass holder with foliate ornament.
066 "Fruit cup?" said Arden. It was their usual appetizer. "I'll just stick with the rabbit food," said Jane, spearing celery from the tray.
067 When the waitress came, Arden ordered chicken cutlet, green beans and rice pilaf, and custard with raspberry sauce. "Same," said Jane.
068 "So," said Arden, leaning forward. "What did he want?" Jane closed her eyes. "One of the shards, it appears."
069 Arden frowned. "What for?" Jane sighed. "He's going to have it TL-dated. And yes, I know you both think I'm crazy --"
070 "Oh, Jane. I just think --" Arden said. "It's all right, I don't take it personally," Jane said. "You know me well enough by now --"
071 "Jane." Arden met her friend's eyes. "Longterm Memory's a fun place -- WAS a fun place -- but Abe Messer's no Sir Arthur Evans."
072 "And I'm no Alice Kober," replied Dr. Streetman. "But I gauged Mr. Messer as a man of reasonable integrity."
073 "Sure, sure," said Arden. "But he didn't imply those shards were an archaeological find, did he?"
074 Jane forked a few green olives from the tray. "He said they came from Patmos. Or, to be more precise, from a man who summers there."
075 Arden leaned back in her chair. "There is a world of difference between tourist-trade exports and authentic traditional craft ..."
076 "... But, to be honest with you, I didn't ask Abe for the provenance of the piece. I just liked the blue."
077 Their meals arrived, nicely arranged and steaming hot. Jane picked at her beans. "I wish the microwave had never been invented."
078 Arden was already halfway through her chicken. "I know what you mean, but this is really good ... So when do you think you'll find out?"
079 "About the shards?" Jane said. "About a week, I'd say. Unless he has a reason for wanting to push them through the pipeline."
080 "You think he wants to discredit you?" said Arden. "I don't think he's been happy with me since the Xenos tablets," said Jane.
081 "You did right to go over his head. He did nothing but grouse about your work. There's a limit to what's politic," said Arden.
082 Jane sighed. "It's the waste of human effort I object to. He should have used his mental energy for new hypotheses. Instead, he --"
083 "He's jealous," said Arden. "That's all it is. I've seen it a thousand times. He can't stand the way you just keep going forward."
084 They had come to the custard with raspberry sauce. "These are fresh, you know," said Arden. "They come from the botany club."
085 Dr. Streetman ate her treat without tasting it, her mind drifting through her one and only conversation with Abraham Messer.
086 She remembered his warm basso voice, the crumbs on his ribbed sweater, the shapes the Greek letters formed in her mind: Πάτμος
087 "Patmos is so beautiful," said Jane, "it's hard to believe it was ever a place of exile." Arden replied, "That's what empire does."
088 "Yes," said Jane, "but the island was once sacred to Artemis. And inhabited since 3000 BC. It seems there had been an acropolis."
089 "I wish we had seen it," said Arden. "I wish we were there now. I'd build my mosaic there. Maybe the Muse would visit me more often."
090 There was a discreet cough at Dr. Streetman's elbow, and she looked up from her custard to see Aaron Meyer, looking decidedly pale.
091 "Excuse me, ladies," he said. "Jane, I think you'd better come and see me in my office." His face was grim.
092 "I'll take care of this," said Arden quickly. "You go. Go ahead."
093 Dr. Streetman trailed Meyer through the crowded dining room. She'd never seen him without a self-satisfied smile; it was quite unnerving.
094 Maybe the review committee had shifted its allegiance. Or maybe he'd misplaced her sample, or destroyed it in the TL-dating test.
095 Whatever it was, he wasn't talking. She hurried to catch up with him. "What is it, Dr. Meyer? What's going on?"
096 "I don't understand it," he was muttering. "They used a γ-spectrometer with a hyper-pure germanium detector --"
097 "-- and they calculated age by the additive dose method, resulting in a mean value of age 5000 ± 175 years!" Dr. Streetman gasped.
098 "Were any over-large quartz inclusions manually removed?" she asked. "Because self-absorption of α- and β-radiation might skew the --"
099 They had reached Meyer's office, and he hustled her inside, slamming the door. "Why didn't you give me a full report before?" he spat.
100 Jane's mind was spinning. "Wait a minute. How could the radioactive equilibrium condition have been established in such a short time?"
101 Meyer's face flushed crimson. "You've been working with a copy." Jane stared. "What?" He fished in his pocket, brandished the shard.
102 "It was for your own protection." Jane received the richly blue-glazed specimen in wonder. "You mean ... this is forged?"
103 "What does it matter? You were working on the decryption of incised shapes. You had 1200-ppi scans. Why would you need the originals?"
104 She could only stare at him. If Meyer were capable of what she could only call "stealing," what else was he capable of?
105 "So all the shards are forged?" she finally managed. "When did you replace the originals?" Meyer pursed his lips pettishly.
106 "You needn't say 'forged,'" he said. "We merely made a series of impressions, at the start of the fall semester."
107 Jane thought hard. If she said, "But why didn't you ask me?" that would be true confrontation, and right now she just wanted to get away.
108 "I see," she finally said. "You wanted to safeguard the quality of the samples, and you didn't want to embarrass me by implication."
109 Surely that was politic enough, maybe too much; would he buy it? Could he think her so disingenuous, especially after the Xenos fiasco?
110 "I'm glad you see the reality of the situation," said Meyer. He lowered his voice. "I'm planning a leveraged buyout of a small telco."
111 "What?" Jane said. "You wouldn't expect me to get by on what Orpheus pays me," said Meyer. "I've been day-trading for years."
112 "So," he wound up, "you can see I'll be needing a bit of bridge financing soon. What's the name of your man in Patmos?"
113 "My man in Patmos?" said Jane. "There isn't one. I mean, Messer never said --" Meyer narrowed his eyes. "Jane. You'll get your cut."
114 "I can guarantee safe harbor," he continued. "This can stay between you and me. And, of course, your man in Patmos."
115 Once more, she played along. "I'll call Messer," she said. Meyer smiled his pursed-lip smile. "That's good. That's very good."
116 "I'm glad you're on board," he said. He handed her a thick folder. "Here's the TL report. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
117 Out in the hall, chattering students streamed past Dr. Streetman as she stood dazed, fingers telling over the shard's pattern.
118 She took it out of her pocket and scanned its familiar gestalt. The man was a bottomless pit, she thought. How had she not seen it?
119 Numbly, she made her way to her own office. As she reached to unlock the door, her eye was caught by a flash of blue.
120 There was a string of beads hanging from the door handle. She lifted them off. They resembled κομπολόι, Greek worry beads.
121 However, they lacked the typical kombolói structure -- there was no παπάς, or "priest" bead, and no θυρεός, or "shield."
122 She counted them. Sixty-four beads -- an even number, not the usual multiplication of 4+1. And their ordering seemed random.
[Illustration of the 64-bead string]
124 Her watch beeped. Time for "Art at Random: Cryptographic Nonces," an interdisciplinary approach for non-math majors. Her TA taught it.
125 She decided to attend this session. Working with random bitmaps always relaxed her, the way knitting relaxed some other women.
126 She stuffed the string of beads into the pocket of her jacket. Was it signal or noise? Currently it seemed both at once.
127 The class was held in a wonderful room, high and light, in the art building. A few students were already seated when she came in.
128 Her TA, Atreides Menard, was off to one side hanging up a pale blue tarpaulin. He wore a white coverall, freely splattered with paint.
129 Jane hastened to assist. Seeing her, his face lit up. "Dr. Streetman! I'm honored." She smiled. "Were Pollock's actions truly random?"
130 He laughed. "It's slow and messy, but it's just as good as atmospheric noise and radioactive decay. And more fun to generate."
131 He handed her a coverall from a bin. "If you'd care to participate --" Jane said, "Thank you, but I think I'll just observe."
132 A stream of students entered, and there was much chatting and laughing over the donning of the coveralls. Jane took a seat in the back.
133 She admired the way Trey organized the students without strain or fuss. He had a natural charisma. How different it was for her!
134 Very soon, the class was hurling paint with mad abandon at the length of canvas on the wall. One student mounted a ladder and poured.
135 Within ten minutes, they had used up all of their supplies. Splashes and dribbles of many colors now covered the room-width canvas.
136 As efficiently as he'd led them into action, Menard wound them in again. They stuffed their used coveralls in a second bin, and sat.
137 "We've now made a master one-time pad," Menard said. "Since we're not aiming for high security, we can cut it up for collage later on."
138 He switched on the projector and began narrating a PowerPoint presentation. Black-and-white photos of two men appeared side by side.
139 "Gilbert Vernam, 1890 to 1960, co-invented the one-time pad, the only truly unbreakable cipher method known," lectured Menard.
140 The next slide showed a small roll of white paper with holes punched in it in neat, even rows. "This is paper tape, or punched tape."
141 "You'll note that this roll has eight rows for data, separated between the fifth and sixth row by a row of smaller sprocket holes."
142 "The paper tape was encoded in Baudot teletype code. Teletype machines, or teleprinters, were the size of the first desktop computers."
143 "Captain Joseph Mauborgne, 1881 to 1971, added random information to the paper-tape key proposed by Vernam in U.S. Patent 1,310,719."
144 "However, truly random information is difficult to come by. Atmospheric noise and radioactive decay are two good natural sources."
145 Dr. Streetman pulled up her last random black-and-white image from Random.org. She zoomed in to 200%, and it resembled fine concrete.
[Illustration of random image at 200%]
147 Following the powers of two, she zoomed in to 400%. Coarser concrete.
[Illustration of random image at 400%]
149 She zoomed in to 800%. Now the image resembled a 2D bar code.
[Illustration of random image at 800%]
151 She zoomed in to 1600%. Crossword puzzle, though asymmetrical.
[Illustration of random image at 1600%]
153 She zoomed in to 3200%. Mondrian, without the reds and yellows.
[Illustration of random image at 3200%]
155 She zoomed in to 6400%. Floor plan, with open seating.
[Illustration of random image at 6400%]
157 Dr. Streetman gazed at the black-and-white rectangles on the screen. Then she thought, Wait a minute. Floor plan ...
158 She rushed out the classroom's back door, heading straight for her office. No one was there. She accessed shard images, fast.
159 Could these symmetrical floriforms be, not semagrams, not hieroglyphs, not language at all, but floor plans for some lost acropolis?
160 F I N I S