The 25th Word - By Brian Law

The quiet in the room was broken by a very slight knocking on the door. The man in the room preferred absolute silence and his underlings knew well what happened when that silence was broken without a very good reason. After a few moments, the slight knocking resumed, this time just a bit louder.


“Enter!” boomed the voice of the man behind the large desk. The soundproofing in the room allowed just enough of that command to register on the other side of the doorway. The doorknob turned ever so slightly, and Grimsby entered tentatively, a well-worn file clutched close to his vest.


“What is it, Grimsby?” the voice growled as Grimsby judiciously closed the door quietly behind him and turned to face the large desk. 


“I think I’ve broken the code used in the FireFly Telegram, sir,” Grimsby announced nervously after clearing his throat. 


The man behind the desk put down his pen, leaned back in his large chair, and asked, “You’d better remind me. Just what is this FireFly Telegram, Grimsby?”


“Ah, yes, well, sir, it’s a file I’ve been working on for eight years, long before you were made the head of this division three years ago, sir.” 


“Sit down, then, Grimsby,” the man said, extending his hand towards a chair. “And let’s start by asking why it has taken eight years to clear this FireFly thing up, anyway?”


“Well, eight years ago, I had been offered an early retirement package by your predecessor, sir. I declined the offer, and the next day I was presented with the FireFly telegram and told that it was to be my sole job to decode it until I actually retired. But, that I had to do it “old school”, sir. Couldn’t use the division’s computers. I could use the division’s library, but I could not confide in any one else in the division. I was told I had to do all the work by hand in a windowless room in the basement. No phone, no computer, nothing but me, my pencil and paper, and the telegram, sir.” Grimsby paused, and then added, “It was my punishment, sir, for not taking early retirement.”


The man behind the desk nodded, and then asked, “So, you found yourself alone in a highly secure location. Did they give you any details about the source of the telegram? Who sent it? To whom was it sent? Anything at all?”


“Virtually nothing, sir.  I was just handed a copy of the telegram and told to decipher it, period. It consisted of twenty-five separate numerical groups, with a numerical date of 2/07/2014. I worked in that little room for three years until I finally broke that code.”


“Three years? My God, Grimsby, what took you so long?”


“Well, sir, each time I thought I had it decoded, it just came out as what looked like gibberish. Until I figured out that it wasn’t gibberish, sir. It was Afrikaans!”


“Really? So five years ago, I arrive and take over the division. But I was never told about any of this. The only reason I know about you is because I read your file, just like I read everyone’s file who works here.” The man stopped for a moment, pondered something, and then asked, “So, now you presumably had a telegram with twenty-five words in the Afrikaans language. What was your next move?”


Grimsby shifted a bit in his chair and replied, “I had to learn the language, sir. At least enough to determine if the telegram made sense when it was translated into English. That, sir, took me the better part of a year and a half.”


“And did it make sense when translated into English, Grimsby?”


“No. The telegram was double-coded. I broke the first code that resulted in the Afrikaans text. But then I had to decode what that was trying to tell me. It took me over three more years to figure out how they were doing it. Turns out, the key to  deciphering the Afrikaans text was the Volksblad edition of the date of the telegram. Volksblad is an Afrikaans language newspaper in South Africa.”


The man was getting excited. “Good work, Grimsby. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to encrypt this little telegram. Clearly they wanted no one to know what they were talking about. So, what did the telegram say? This is just fascinating!”


Grimsby fidgeted momentarily as he collected his thoughts. “Well, it was very painstaking work, sir. I won’t go into how I determined the decoding process except to say that I went through many versions until it became obvious that this telegram was from one scientist to another. The sender was telling the recipient of a huge breakthrough in his research. Obviously, some super secret project given the complicated method they used to communicate.”


The head of the division muttered to himself, “A secret project? Hmm, there were rumors a few years back about secret labs in that part of the world.” Then, catching himself, he said, “Anyway, you got my complete attention, Grimsby. But you’ve only used up seven and a half years to this point. Why did it take you six more months to decode the entire message?”


“Well, sir,” Grimsby replied, “It was the last word that had me mystified. The twenty-fifth word. I just couldn’t find a translation from Afrikaans to English for it. What I figured I had stumbled upon was a new word in Afrikaans, you know, that this scientist or these scientists had just made up to describe what they were doing. They knew what it meant, but none of the rest of us knew, at least not until this morning. That’s when I figured it out!”


“A new word. How did you do it, Grimsby?”


“I was reading the New York Times this morning with my coffee and got interested in some medical article. And that’s where I saw the term. It’s three words in English. But those South African scientists put it into a single word! One word, but what it says explained everything, sir!”


“Grimsby, what did the word mean?” His boss was now on his feet, leaning over his desk, his eyes ablaze with anticipation.


“It means ‘gain-of-function’, sir!”



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