Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The telegraphist (II)

At the beginning of the seventh week all communication with Z---- was broken off again, this time for three days. It resumed promptly and without explanation on the fourth morning at 0600 hours, but two days later it ceased and did not resume. A slave to protocol, he submitted no daily reports, since none had been requested. To break the monotony he began to make his morning rounds in a counter-clockwise direction. He was struck by how different an aspect the oasis revealed when examined in this fashion, but after a few days the novelty wore off. He began to alternate, walking clockwise one day and counter-clockwise the next, and this seemed to be the most tolerable arrangement.

After the second full week of silence he caught himself softening his steps, listening for the engines of the relief party that by now was overdue. He heard none, nor were there any unexpected visitors, suspicious or otherwise. The worst of the heat of the dry season, suffocating and blinding, lay upon the desert, and he spent as much time as he could asleep with wet rags over his eyes. Scarcely animate, the lethargic mule stared at him from its stall with unblinking and (he half suspected) unseeing eyes, and barely summoned the energy to eat.

He was writhing on his cot in a semi-delirious state, somewhere between night and morning and between sleep and waking, when the alarm rang. He leapt up and rushed to the telegraph. It wasn't the operator at Z---- but the outward post, and the message, as ever, was incomprehensible:
Ba bara sabara rebapara azera ba STOP Sarabara berisa seribisarabisa serata bezera razara ra STOP Berisol sorisoriso bazara sarisarasarisab STOP
He transcribed this seeming gibberish into his logbook, returned an acknowledgement, then relayed the message to the operator at Z----. There was no response.

The following day, at around the same hazy hour of dawn, another message came down:
Saraba barisaserisab azarasaraza bazirazep STOP Azirasora sarizap borisoq qrabba oraseraborisep prebanamarasarasap STOP Azapep STOP
Again he acknowledged, transcribed and forwarded the message, and received no response from Z----. To his surprise, however, an hour later an identical message arrived. Perplexed, he carefully compared it with the previous one and acknowledged it, but almost immediately a third came, and then a fourth. He duly forwarded each transmission, but when the fifth and sixth arrived he held back. Clearly the operator in the hinterlands was not receiving his acknowledgments and was repeating himself in the mistaken belief that his messages were not getting through. There was no point in annoying the authorities at Z----, if they were indeed listening, with obvious repetitions. For several hours the wires carried message after identical message, dozens, scores, eventually hundreds. He transcribed each one, for a while, then simply gave up, walking away and returning every hour or so to see if the incoming transmission was the same as the others. It always was.

The messages trailed off in late evening, then sputtered to a halt. He was awakened once during the night, then again around 0500, and after that the pace began to pick up again until the incoming transmissions had become a virtually continuous stream of characters. He walked away from his desk and went outside. The wind had gathered and a sandstorm was obscuring the horizon, but the heat was as relentless as ever. The mule stood motionless and he wondered whether it had died standing up during the night and had simply neglected to fall. He threw it some hay regardless.

When he went back inside the telegraph was still chattering. He recorded a few lines, then threw his chair back in a huff and started to walk away, rage rising within him. On the verge of losing control completely, he was about to smash the instrument and put an end to his torment once and for all when he caught himself, finding that a greater fury was welling up inside him, and coldly and meticulously typed out a message to the operator on the other end:
Raberaparabep barabap parabarabagarap garap baregatarat top barop roparaoparop bererep qrabab STOP Garep arepabap gop STOP
These syllables, though they meant nothing to him, he transmitted without a single pause. To his surprise, the machine did not pick up where it had left off. Instead there was silence for a few moments, then a brief acknowledgment, and then it lay still.

No further transmissions arrived until late that evening. He was dozing in the cot, his spoon rattling in the empty can of beans beside him with every labored breath, when the alarm woke him and a message trickled out:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
He wrote out the message, then tore it roughly out of the logbook and paced the room, reading it over and over. He had been instructed in the making and cracking of basic ciphers during his initial training, but this fit the pattern of nothing he had ever seen. He leafed through his logbook, carefully examining old entries. There seemed to be too few unique letters, too much obvious repeated filler, for the messages to contain any but the most rudimentary communication. No doubt there was a key, known to the operator on the other end and also at Z----, or maybe not even there, maybe the transcriptions were referred to another operator at some distant headquarters, perhaps even all the way to the home country, to some intelligence officer in the national palace, who perhaps decoded them for the eyes of M. le Président himself. One way or another it was clearly beyond his ken.

While he was considering this the alarm sounded again, and another string came through, this one identical to the last:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
And then it seemed to wait, patiently, expecting an answer. He put his hand on the key and tapped, hesitantly at first, then fluently:
Morarerabap aramara marabeparepamar berererapap STOP Beraqraba garab megaraba babap babap babap ma garabarap STOP Serabep arbaraba barapep a pep perapebabep merera baramabap STOP
A brief acknowledgment followed, and then nothing for the rest of the night.

(To be continued.)

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