It was a day like any other in early September of 2013 when Russell Southwell first spotted the code. It was printed on a white sheet of paper, taped to a streetlight that Russell just happened to pass by every day on his commute to and from Stevenson High School. At first, he thought nothing of it. However, as the tearaway strips of paper that had telephone numbers printed on them began to, slowly but surely, disappear, he one day decided to take a better look at it.
The code was rather complex, but was not something necessarily unsolvable for him. He vacantly glanced downward: in the pocket of his black coat, he had his wallet, which contained a white USB jump drive. Held on the jump drive was an artificial intelligence he had been working on since he was about ten years old. The artificial intelligence had been named Carmine for no particular reason other than Russell’s preference. It had been programmed to, among other things that revealed just how much free time the young man had on his hands, solve codes. Pulling out his cellphone (the goal for him was to make Carmine into an app, but he had not yet figured this out), Russell took a picture of the code and decided to take one of the few remaining tear-away slips of paper just in case.
“Why not,” he mumbled to himself. “I might as well. Nothing better to do…”
He had no idea what the phone number on the paper or the code itself would bring, but he pocketed it anyway. When he returned home, he unlocked the door with the key that he had on a strap attached to the belt loop on the left side of his pants, and entered.
“Dad?” He called into the house. “I’m home.”
There was no response, and Russell looked at the calendar app on his cellphone as he closed and locked the door. His father had a doctor’s appointment that day, which was a relief to him, as the man had been sick for months. Just to make sure, Russell looked around the house. He was indeed alone, so he returned to the living room, taking a seat on the couch. He sighed and slicked his messy black hair out of his face as he turned on the TV. Nothing good was on, so he just turned the channel to some sort of ongoing tennis tournament.
From his backpack, Russell pulled out a slick black laptop. Well, actually, it wasn’t very much slick. It was overclocked and running on Windows 8 (which he had to admit wasn’t his favorite operating system—he much preferred Windows 7, but was too lazy to downgrade), but the laptop itself was worn, and frankly, Russell was surprised that it still ran as well as it did.
The young man, only fifteen years old but having managed to enter grade eleven classes, pulled out his wallet. There was no money in the wallet, just a library card and Russell’s medical card, ignoring the jump drive, which he pulled out and plugged into the side of his laptop. As he waited for the Autoplay window to open, he rubbed his plump pink-ish lower lip with his index finger, a strange habit he had developed while lost in thought. After realizing he was doing it, however, he stopped and instead decided to take off his coat, now wearing only his grey pullover sweater.
When the computer finally loaded the jump drive, which took a hell of a while, Russell opened Eclipse, the Java IDE he used to work on Carmine, and loaded the source files for his project. He took a quick skim over the code just to make sure that everything was as he had last saved it; he’d had issues recently with saving files to his jump drive, which made him worried enough to consider asking his father for another.
He started the project.
“Hello.” Carmine wrote in the output window. The artificial intelligence was programmed to work with both voice input and text, but Russell had not yet worked out all of the voice recognition flaws (and besides, he’d left his microphone upstairs), so he opted to simply work with text.
“How are you, Carmine?” Russell typed.
“Poor loading time.” The A.I. replied. “Other than that, current execution is fine.”
“That’s a relief.”
Deciding that was enough testing of Carmine’s reaction to small talk, Russell looked at the code.
The young man blinked. “Looks like… Playfair…?” He muttered to himself. He couldn’t be sure, but it was worth a shot. Since he knew that Playfair ciphers required a key that was at least six characters long, and that digits would probably be the most common characters in use, he instructed Carmine to convert the code through every possible key between “100000” and “199999”. The artificial intelligence complied, beginning the process of outputting strings of gibberish and the keys associated with them. Not entirely keen on watching this process, Russell sighed and placed the laptop down next to him, sinking back against the sofa cushions.
School bored him half to death, but then again, so did a lot of things. He kept telling himself every morning that he wasn’t depressed, because he didn’t feel like that was the case. He wasn’t miserable, he was just… apathetic. However, this brought up the realization that he didn’t technically have to feel sad and/or suicidal to be depressed. Depression also displayed itself through a loss of pleasure in the little things—like the things that Russell used to enjoy doing but now could do without.
He sighed. Honestly, that was what made him sad: the realization that he wasn’t enjoying things anymore. While he was far from suicidal, he just… wasn’t interested in living anymore. Everything in his mind told him that nothing would change—his life would be bland and boring for the rest of his existence. He felt like he would never amount to anything. He would forever be nothing more than a meaningless husk of a man, trying his hardest to be known but never quite making it into any light, let alone the limelight. And even if his life did become at all interesting… did he even want that? If something changed, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t enjoy it. It was either apathy or hatred. He didn’t want either. He just wanted to have a reason to smile again, and not just some temporary smile caused by seeing something funny online; a true, genuine smile brought about by an honest contentment with his life and wherever it was headed. Something told him that he would never find that, and having nothing else to do, he merely attempt to convince himself that he was okay with that.
Deciding that he had better stop thinking before he made himself cry or something, Russell let out another sigh and picked up his laptop, placing it back onto his lap. He skimmed through the outputs, trying to find anything that he could make sense of, when there it was: key “195686”.
“Close enough,” Russell thought as he looked at the contact number on the strip of paper he’d taken. He reversed the number and wound up with area code 703, which was for… where, exactly? He looked it up on his phone: Virginia. The number itself seemed to be a landline number.
Taking a shaky breath, Russell thought. Was this a good idea? He had absolutely no clue what he was about to get himself into, but a part of him argued that he may as well take the risk: the paper had peaked his interest. For all he knew, though, it was a recruitment sheet for some sort of shady government operation. He could put himself into serious danger. Yet, amidst this fear arose a reminder of what he had thought to himself just minutes prior: how afraid he was of his life never changing. If he didn’t take any risks, he would be condemning himself to a boring life, but he was just as scared of change as he was of having none of it. He bit his lip. Despite his own better judgment, he reluctantly called the number.
The phone rang only twice before the voice of a serious older man answered. “Hello?”
“Um, hi…” Russell was pulling a blank. Talking to strangers over the phone had never been a strong suit of his…
“Why are you calling?”
“I, uh… I solved a code, and… it told me to call this number?”
Russell gulped, trying to compose himself, but his voice was shaky and cracking. “Um, it says, ‘The number is backwards. Call reverse. Ask for Lyndon. Announce key’… The key is ‘1-9-5-6-8-6’…?”
There was a pause on the man’s end. Russell said nothing, assuming that the stranger was checking the answer.
“Stay where you are, Mr. Southwell.” The voice ordered suddenly, startling Russell until he remembered that he was calling with his own cellphone, and that his name had probably appeared on their caller ID. “Lyndon will be with you shortly.”
“W—wait, wh—” Russell didn’t get a chance to ask what he meant before the man hung up. “Christ,” he thought to himself, “What have I got myself into? That was stupid. I don’t even know who that guy is.” Trying to shake his worried feeling away, Russell closed his laptop and absent-mindedly watched tennis.
About forty minutes later, there was a melodic knock on the door that made Russell jump. His father was not due home for about two more hours, and he also did not use such a cheery knock. He would’ve used his key, anyway, so he had no reason to knock in the first place. Remembering the phone call that he’d had with the stranger, he suddenly felt worried, so he remained in place on the couch. After thirty seconds, the person at the door did the same knock again, somewhat louder this time.
“What am I so afraid of?” Russell asked himself in his head, using his teenaged bravado to his advantage. “I can take this guy if he tries anything.” So, reluctantly, he approached the door and looked out through the peephole.
Standing in front of the door was a tall but scrawny man in a dark, desaturated blue suit. His light blue dress shirt, which Russell could barely tell had thin white stripes, had its collar unbuttoned a bit. Looking around, particularly at the street to his right, the man with messy, dark roan red hair that glowed almost ginger in the slowly setting sun blew a pink bubble with the gum he chewed. He was wearing brown sunglasses, the kinds with thick plastic frames.
Slowly, and with trembling hands, Russell unlocked the door, watching as the man (perhaps Lyndon?) looked at the peephole, at which point he pulled his own eyes away from it. He opened the door, and the man nodded at him.
“Hey there.” The stranger greeted in a casual way. He sounded British. “I’m Terrence Lyndon. You’re Russell Southwell, correct?”
“Uh, yes…?” Russell answered, his lips curled in a scowl of uncertainty.
“Mind if I come inside?” Asked Lyndon.
“Yes,” Russell told him, but the six foot tall man had already pushed past him and welcomed himself inside. Rolling his eyes, realizing that the man seemed like more of a hassle than a threat, Russell grudgingly closed the door. “My father will be home any minute now.” He lied.
“I guess that’s fine.” Lyndon responded as he looked around Russell’s first floor, taking in something about it. “I wasn’t instructed to keep any secrets from your family.”
The man turned to Russell, still wearing his sunglasses, and smirked, blowing another bubble with his gum. When it popped, he spoke, saying, “You did a good job with the code, kiddo. But I’m here to see you crack something yourself.” He pulled out another piece of paper from his pocket, shaking it open while keeping his other hand firmly in his left pocket. “Y’know, just to make sure you’re not cheating.”
Russell took the paper and looked at it. This code was much more complex. In fact, it looked like a Rijndael cipher. He looked up at Lyndon in a bewildered awe. What an extreme leap—without a key, there was no way that Russell could even attempt to solve this! “B—but…”
The strange man smirked. “Too hard for you?”
“I… I’m gonna need the key. Or, I mean, at least a hint…”
“You can solve for it yourself, can’t you?”
“Well, sure, but not unless you wanna stick around for like, a week…” Then, not knowing what else to say, Russell confessed, “And I mean, I didn’t technically solve the first code by myself, anyway…”
Lyndon frowned. “Then who did?”
“My…” Russell paused. He found no reason not to tell the truth, figuring that lying would only cost him in the end. Lyndon, despite seeming rather odd for such a position, looked like he was part of something big. Something official. Maybe for the government. “Well, I…” He pointed at his laptop. “I made an artificial intelligence.” He blurted. “I programmed it to help me solve codes and ciphers. I mean, I probably could’ve solved the first cipher myself, but it would’ve taken me a few hours at least. This one here would probably take me a few days, if not a few weeks.”
Lyndon raised his eyes, raising his sunglasses up as well to accentuate this, revealing enchanting lavender eyes, a color that Russell had never actually seen in real life before. Examining the man’s face, Russell couldn’t help but compare him to a young Patrick Swayze (who he knew only due to his father’s interest in the actor), but also noticed the bags under his eyes. If he didn’t know any better, he would’ve said the man looked somewhat hungover, if not completely sleepless. “You created an artificial intelligence that solves codes?” The tall man asked for clarity’s sake in a flat voice that projected his disbelief.
“Yes. It, uh… It knows how to respond to small talk, too.”
“How long did it take to solve the Playfair cipher?” Lyndon got straight to the point, ignoring the young man’s remark.
Russell shrugged. “Um… about… five minutes?”
Lyndon pulled off his sunglasses entirely, folding them and hanging them from the left breast pocket of his dress shirt. “You’re kidding.” He accused, though his voice retained a level of friendliness that eased Russell’s mind.
“No, I’m serious. See?” Russell waved the new code. “I’ll have it try to solve this.”
“Be my guest.”
Russell sat back down on the couch, opening his laptop on his lap. Lyndon placed his hand against the wall behind the young man, leaning forward to look at the laptop without actually sitting down. Not commenting on this strange behavior, Russell entered the code for Carmine.
“It’ll take a bit.” Russell admit. “Like, a bit a bit.” Realizing that his words hardly made sense, he flatly told Lyndon, “You’re going to want to sit down.”
“So… You could break encryption codes with this.” Lyndon posed hypothetically as he reluctantly took a seat on the cushion to Russell’s right. “You could access databases, and perform man-in-the-middle attacks on secured communications.”
“Um, theoretically, yes. I guess so. I’d just need to tweak the code, but, heh, I mean… What you suggested, that’s… well, illegal.”
A few minutes of silence passed as both Russell and Lyndon sat completely still beside each other, just staring at the television. The tennis match was still going on, with two new contestants that Russell cared for about as much as the others—not at all.
“You like sports?” Lyndon casually inquired.
“Not really,” Russell disclosed.
“Ah. Nothing else on, then?”
“Unless you like reality television.”
“Eek. Lord, no.”
Lyndon’s apparent disgust at reality television, which matched his own, earned from Russell a small smile.
They remained silent for a little while longer, until Carmine output: “Possible solution found. ‘Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 12:25 (Key: 1225)’.”
“Holy shit,” Lyndon mumbled as he stared at the screen, “it’s bloody right…”
“What did I tell you?” Russell allowed himself to brag a bit; he figured that after five long years of hard work coding Carmine, he deserved as much.
“Alright, you’ve proven yourself.” The older man affirmed as he stood up. “I’m going to be honest. I work for some guys. I guess you could say they’re pretty important in helping to ensure the safety of the United States.”
“Yeah?” Russell raised a brow as he closed his laptop.
“It’s no secret that many other countries want to attack us. We need to keep them at bay and find out their plans. But, we can’t do that…” His eyes met Russell’s with a hint of suggestion as he concluded, “without skilled hackers.”
“So, what?” Russell asked, admittedly somewhat sarcastic, “You work for the CIA or something?”
Not moving his head, Lyndon’s eyes swept left, then right, then fell back upon Russell. He managed a low titter as he replied, “Well, you’re almost bang on. FBI, actually.” To prove this, Lyndon reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a badge case, which he flipped open to reveal both a badge and an FBI identification card. It seemed genuine.
Russell processed that for a moment, not speaking until Lyndon returned the badge to his pocket. “Why’d you hesitate?”
Lyndon placed his left hand up, blocking his voice from going in that direction as if to suggest secrecy, and hissed, “Let’s just say we don’t talk about the CIA.”
Dismissing this, Russell decided to ask a different question that he had: “What are you, then? Some sort of recruiter?”
“A mere Field Agent.” Lyndon answered humbly. “But yes, I’m kind of working as a recruiter, because I’m looking for a partner.” He frowned and mumbled culpably, “And because times are kind of tough.”
Russell sighed. “Look. I believe you, I guess. But I’m going to have to pass on the offer.”
“I’ve got school, and my father… He’s… He’s not well.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Both of them were quiet for a beat. While part of Russell wanted to accept Lyndon’s offer—whatever it was, exactly—the other part was terrified of the commitment it might require. He sensed danger, though more in whatever the agent was suggestion than in the agent himself.
“Are you sure?” Lyndon asked. “We could really use your help. You’re the quickest and most-accurate person we’ve seen so far.”
Russell shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
With a disappointed huff, Lyndon again reached into the inner pocket of his blazer, this time pulling out a white contact card. He extended the card, which had a Chicago-based cellphone number on it as well as an official-looking e-mail address, to Russell. “If you change your mind,” he offered, “let me know.”
Russell meekly took the card. “Sure, I guess.”
Lyndon put his sunglasses back on, then shoved both of his hands back into his pant pockets. “I hope to hear from you soon, Southwell. Good luck with school, and tell your father to get well soon for me.” With that, the odd FBI Field Agent headed for the front door, which he opened and closed behind himself.
Now alone again, simply staring at the wooden floor where Lyndon had been standing just a few seconds ago, Russell let out another deep sigh and leaned back. What a strange end to his afternoon that was…