As soon as you turn your back on the uncertain sunrise and enter your office building, you cease to be Miguel Sáenz, the civil servant discernible behind the wrinkled gray suit, round, wire-rimmed glasses, and fearful gaze, and become Turing, decipherer of secrets, relentless pursuer of encoded messages, the pride of the Black Chamber.
You insert your electronic ID card into a slot. You are prompted for your password and type ruth1. The metal door opens and the world you unknowingly dreamed of as a child awaits you. Slowly, with measured steps, you enter a vaulted glass enclosure. Two policemen greet you formally. They see the color of your card — green, meaning Beyond Top Secret — without looking at it. It was all so much easier during Albert’s time, when there were only two colors, yellow (Secret) and green. Then that smug Ramírez-Graham arrived (you had once called him “Mr. Ramírez” and he had corrected you: “Ramírez-Graham, please”), and card colors soon began to multiply. In less than a year, red (Top Secret), white (Not at All Secret), blue (Ultra), and orange (Ultra Priority) cards appeared. The color of your card indicates which parts of the building you have access to. Ramírez-Graham has the only purple card in existence, Ultra High Priority. In theory, there is only one area in the seven-story building for which the purple card is required: the Archive of Archives, a small section in the heart of the archives. Such proliferation is laughable. But you are not laughing; you are still offended that some of your colleagues have Ultra and Ultra Priority cards and can go where you cannot.
“Always so early, Mr. Sáenz.” “For as long as the old body holds out, captain.” The policemen know who you are; they have heard the stories about you. They don’t understand what you do or how you do it, but still they respect you. Or perhaps they respect you because they don’t understand what you do or how you do it.
You walk next to the wall where the great emblem of the Black Chamber hangs. It is a resplendent aluminum disk encircling a man bent over a desk, trying to decipher a message, and a condor holding a ribbon in its claws that bears the motto “Logic and Intuition” in Morse code. True, both are needed to penetrate the crypt of secret codes, but they aren’t used in equal proportions. For you, at least, intuition is what lights the way, but the hard work is done by reason.
They don’t understand what you do or how you do it, but still they respect you. What you do? Is it correct still to speak in the present tense? Your glory days, you have to admit, begin to fade in the expanse of time. For example, December 6, 1974, when you detected a cell of leftists who used phrases from Che Guevara’s diary to encode messages; or September 17, 1976, when you were able to warn President Montenegro that an insurrection was brewing in the Cochabamba and Santa Cruz regiments; or December 25, 1981, when you deciphered messages from the Chilean government to its chargé d’affaires regarding water that was being diverted from a river along the border. There are many, many more, but since then your successes have been sporadic. Ramírez- Graham reassigned you, and although at first it seemed that your new job was a promotion, it actually distanced you from the action. As head of the Black Chamber’s general archives, you have become a cryptanalyst who no longer analyzes codes.
Your steps echo down the hallway. You rub your hands together, trying to warm them. The country’s return to democracy in the early 1980s didn’t end the work that was done in this building, but it did minimize it. At first messages between unionists were intercepted, and then later on between drug traffickers, careless people who spoke on easily traceable radio frequencies and didn’t even bother to code their messages. The 1990s brought sporadic work listening to opposition politicians on bugged telephones.
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 Montenegro’s 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.” Immeddiately 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 didn’t help when you discovered that he wasn’t 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. It’s 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 you’ve 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 don’t fit in with his plans for a generational change, why haven’t you been fi red? You put yourself in his shoes: you can’t 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 haven’t yet turned thirty don’t 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 XIV’s 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