A Cryptic Christmas in a World Not So Far Away
It was a cold morning in London and a brisk wind was creating ripples on the Thames. It was nipping at Josh' skin as he made his way across Vauxhall bridge. He had paced himself at yesterday's Christmas party, but he still had that feeling of unease you get when you had a few too many. His shirt felt too tight and the collar was itching. He had hoped the walk would make it go away, but was still dazed as he walked through the doors at MI6. The security guard nodded in respect.
"I thought you people were out on a piss yesterday?"
Josh acknowledged the gesture with a smile.
"Oh, we were. But my luck has it that I have to be in first thing today."
The guard laughed.
"Good man, someone has to keep the country safe."
For the briefest of moments, Josh felt special. But this was hardly an accurate description of the situation. The truth was that most of his colleagues had been drunk beyond recognition. They were in no shape to do anything, even if they had been able to haul themselves to work. More to the point, though, he had drawn the short straw as one of the junior members of the team. He had only been at MI6 for seven months, and was still settling in.
He didn't like the cloak and dagger attitude of his colleagues, and was not yet used to the fact that he couldn't talk about his job to his girlfriend and family. But he enjoyed the work. It was challenging and a far cry from the dull job as signalling engineer for Serco he had walked into after finishing his degree at Birbeck College. He had been headhunted by the intelligence unit after an MI6 inspection on the security at the DLR. There had been a summit at the Excel centre with the attendance of defence ministers from the major G7 powers. MI6 had sent an officer to evaluate Serco's safety procedures, and was impressed with Josh' knowledge on cryptography and cyber security.
"Why don't you come work for us?" the officer had asked even though his supervisor had been standing next to them.
"Er, I am quite happy with my job here." He had stuttered.
"Sure you are." The officer had replied with a confident grin.
But the security services didn't take no for an answer. To his initial dismay he was fired the following day for no apparent reason, but the call from the MI6 officer later that week had revealed the plot. Less than a week after his final day at Serco, he was sat in a small office with no windows, buried deep in the basement of the MI6 headquarters. His task: decrypting communications from foreign powers.
He walked to the elevators, and swiped his card which signalled to the lift's onboard computer to transport him underground. The motion activated overhead lights in the office flickered into life with a mechanic groan as he walked to his desk. He looked across the floor at the empty chairs. There were about 15 analysts in the room on a normal day. He reckon he would be the only one in today. His computer fired up, and he opened yesterday's mail from his supervisor informing him of that day's tasks. He was reading when he heard a faint whistle from someone walking down the hall from the elevators. It was an unmistakably upbeat whistle, and he thought he could make out the melody of God Save the Queen. His heart sank. Only one person he knew at MI6 whistled that tune, and it was the last person he wanted to see now.
The section chief Martha Grindelson, or simply "mam" to Josh, pushed the door open, and walked straight towards his desk. At 6.2 feet she was taller than most of the men in the office. She was an elegant, almost imperious, woman. She was slim, and always walked with a straight back. She had enduring pretty features and curves, and even at 50 she could make younger men stop to take a closer look. She acknowledged Josh with a nod as she approached.
"Good to see someone manning the fort today."
Josh straightened his back in the chair.
"A pleasure mam."
She had a spring in her step that morning, and Josh knew exactly why, but he didn't want to talk about it. The night before had been perfect for him barring that fatal encounter as he was leaving the party. He had mingled just about enough with his closest colleagues, he had shook hands with the the right people, and he had not been too drunk. But the wheels had come off when had gone to the cloak room to fetch his coat. He saw them, almost stumbled on them, as he was making his way to the end of the room where his coat had been allocated its place. The section chief had been leaning forward with her dress pulled up, and her ass pushed against the crotch of a man standing behind her with his trousers around his ankles. Josh had been frozen on the spot. But the chief had been unfazed despite her precarious position. She had simply looked up and smiled at him as if the situation, and her role in it, was the most natural thing in the world.
"Are you lost darling?"
"Err, no mam. I am sorry mam." Josh had stuttered.
"Well move along now; we're about to have a moment here."
He hadn't responded, and instead turned his head around in panic to see if he could find what he was looking for. Luckily he found his coat hanging right next to where he stood. He grabbed it and left as quickly as his legs could carry him.
He dreaded the conversation that was about to begin, but to his relief the chief opened the conversation with with a question on work.
"So, where are we with Project Caesar? Any new information coming in today?"
Josh quickly scanned the message from his supervisor. There was indeed.
"Yes mam, we're getting a big file today which is supposed to contain the specs of the cameras of France's new spy drones."
"If we manage to decrypt it we should be able to give our tech guys enough information to hack them."
She put her hand on his neck and played with his neckline hairs. Every muscle in his body tightened.
"That's splendid darling; how long will it take?"
"The last one of this size took us two months; they are using seven different keys to encrypt this communication."
He could almost smell her disapproval as she tightened the grip around his neck.
"Two months is too long darling. You need to work faster. I need it the first week after we're back from Christmas."
Josh tried to object.
"But mam ..."
She wouldn't have it.
"That's it then. I want this on my desk by Friday the first week of the year. Always move forward darling."
"Yes mam." He mumbled.
"Oh, I found this on one of the other desks."
She handed him an envelope.
"I think it's for you."
"For me?" Josh looked puzzled.
"Yes, it has your name on it."
It did indeed. "To Josh" it said on the front with elegant hand writing.
"Well then, I will leave you to it. You have work to do."
He nodded, but she had already turned her back to him and was leaving the room. He opened the envelope and found a small slip of paper with the following letters:
zinws yjwsl zgdav sqxqg mlwdd sfqgf wstgm ldskl fayzl aoadd caddq wm
He sighed. The cipher looked simple enough, but he didn't have the energy to solve it now, and in any case the section chief had been right. He had work to do. By the looks of it, he would have to pull a couple of night-shifts over the holidays to complete his new task. He put on his headphones and went for the playlist with calm and soothing classical music. The first file from MI6's contact in Toulouse had just come in, and there was no time to waste.
* Can you help Josh to decrypt the message. The first one who does gets to allocate a £100 to their charity of choice. DM me on Twitter or email me through this site. The charity must be possible to receive donations from a U.K. wage earner/tax payer.