I wrote a short story that I’ve decided to share here. This is part one. The story is set during World War II at Bletchley Park, home of Project Ultra, a top-secret Allied effort to break the German codes that encrypt vital war messages. I’ll post the full story in three or four installments. Let me know what you think!
The Broken Heart Machine
Bletchley Park, England, 1942
“I’ve had a peculiar intercept today.”
Paul Wiezerski set down his lunch tray and turned his eyes on Reggie Cheevers. Reggie was holding a slip of paper in his hands, and he and Harold Wright leaned over it protectively.
Paul hunched in, his wide shoulders and thick neck like a canopy over his smaller compatriots. He had arrived here six weeks ago from Washington, D.C. as a cryptanalyst–a code breaker–on loan from the U.S. military.
The English officers on base had been rather cold on his arrival, but Reggie and Harold, civilian analysts at Bletchley, had recognized him as a kindred spirit. They called themselves code rats because they were tasked with gnawing at encrypted German communications, and because their work was furtive and stealthy.
Cryptanalysts weren’t supposed to discuss their work when off duty—it was a standing order at Bletchley. Most of the Luftwaffe messages they deciphered weren’t worth talking about in any case: weather reports, duty rosters, and other quotidian communications of the bureaucratic machinery of the Wehrmacht. A mystery was a welcome change.
“It came in on an unusual frequency,” said Reg. “In the higher bands. The Germans have never used it before.”
“At least as far as you know,” said Harold. This was a running joke among the lower echelons at Bletchley; only a select few were privileged to see the Big Picture. Everything the cryptanalysts deciphered was sent up to Intelligence (a designation that suggested the code rats had none). The rats gnawed, but it was the wizards in high towers who assembled all the pieces and moved the levers of the war.
“Even more unusual than the frequency was that the transmission was sent in plaintext,” said Reggie.
“Not enciphered?” asked Paul.
Reggie shook his head.
“What did it say?”
Reggie glanced around the canteen and then removed a sheet of paper from a pocket of his trousers and unfolded it. The other men raised eyebrows. This was a significant breach of protocol. In careful block print, the men could make out the following:
D R E A M L A N D O N T H E S T R O L L
Reggie let them examine it a moment, and then inserted narrow lines between groups of characters to separate them into words. “Here’s what you get if you arrange them like so.”
“Dream, Landon, Thestroll” said Harold. “Hmmm.”
“Clearly it’s a code,” said Paul. “You don’t need encryption if you have keywords with pre-defined meanings.”
“Of course it’s a code,” said Reggie. “But what’s it mean?”
“Could mean anything,” said Paul. “Attack to commence at dawn. Assassinate the prime minister. We’ve run out of sausage, please send more.”
“Did you transcribe the intercept correctly?” asked Harold
Reggie tilted up his chin and didn’t reply. Code rats prided themselves on their accuracy.
Paul, who had been studying the paper, gasped. He erased Reggie’s lines and replaced them with his own.
“Look at it this way,” he said.
“ ‘Dreamland on the Stroll’,” said Reggie. “Does that mean something to you?”
“Dreamland,” said Paul. “It’s a nightclub in Chicago, where I grew up. The Stroll is a couple of streets in a negro neighborhood that’s full of clubs and bars. People walk the Stroll on Saturday nights. They go dancing and drinking.”
Reggie looked puzzled. “Who would send a wireless message about an American nightclub?”
“Maybe it’s advertising,” said Harold with a grin. “Someone trying to drum up a little business.”
“Did you send the intercept up to Intelligence?” asked Paul.
“Of course I did.”
“I imagine it’s giving them a headache,” said Harold.
Reggie turned to Paul. “Do you know something about this?”
“No,” said Paul. But that was a lie. He had walked arm in arm with a girl along the Stroll, and danced with her at Dreamland. He had danced with her and fallen in love.
Paul Wiezerski walked quickly across the campus of the University of Chicago, his broad shoulders hunched, his laborer’s hands buried in the pockets of his second-hand trousers. He could see the cuffs of his pants starting to fray. He wondered if his mother could do anything about it. She’d already patched his other pair of pants, and sewn a tear in the lining of his suit coat. He wished she could do something about his shoes while she was at it–they were too small, and caked in layers of cheap shine to hide their age and scuff marks.
He threaded through a group of undergrads gathered near the steps of the library; his peers, supposedly, but to Paul they were a strange species of bright young things, soft and careless and at ease. Or perhaps he was the strange one: a scholarship boy from the tenements, a charity case selected by the city fathers, the shabby token of the Christian virtues they espoused in public.
As he passed he heard their laughter. He glanced back, hands clenched into fists, to see if they were laughing at his attire—or his odor. He worked nights at a slaughterhouse, the same one his father and brothers worked, the same one where he’d been working since he was twelve. The stink of the killing floor was a potent mix of blood, shit, entrails, and the rank fear of terrified animals.
Paul was fastidious with his toilet in the mornings. He doused himself with cold water from a basin and scoured himself with a rough cloth and lye soap. Wiping that smell away was like peeling off a layer of dank skin. But he worried the odor trailed him like a shadow.
The bells from the campus tower sounded the hour. Paul forgot about the laughing undergrads and hurried into the library. He was supposed to meet his tutor at 3:00 p.m. outside the main stacks.
The University had a foreign language requirement for graduation, but Paul’s fluency in Polish didn’t count. He had signed up for French, drawn by the bright flame of high culture. Now he was being burned. He understood the structure of the language, but he was at first puzzled, and then irritated, by all the vowels and consonants that appeared in written French but were blithely disregarded when spoken.
Pronunciation was bringing down his grade (my bette noir, he thought with grim humor). The French language should dance on the tongue; Paul’s professor said he spoke as if he had a boot in his mouth.
He rushed into the library, his cheap shoes echoing on the marble floor. He saw a figure standing near a column. A young woman, slim and pretty with auburn hair. She caught his glance and smiled, her green eyes lively and warm.
He approached her, hoping that he had been successful with his morning’s ablutions.
“You must be Paul,” she said. “I’m Helen. Helen Strand.”
She extended a hand and Paul shook it gently. Her skin was smooth. He felt a pleasant warmth at the contact, then quickly withdrew his own hand, embarrassed by the hard calluses that rimmed his palm.
“Strand,” he said. “One of my professors has the same name.”
Helen nodded. “My father.”
Paul’s eyes widened. “Professor Strand is your father?”
Paul stared at Helen, searching for some resemblance. Professor Strand was tall and cold, with a hawk-like face and a hawk-like manner—aloof and solitary, and ready to drop from above on weaker creatures and snatch them in merciless claws. If the daughter was anything like the father, Paul’s tutoring sessions were apt to be painful.
“I see he’s had his usual effect on you,” said Helen. “Let me guess–calculus?”
“And algebraic number theory,” said Paul. “I’m a math major.”
“Quel domage.” She reached up and brushed a strand of hair from his forehead. “At least the scars aren’t visible.”
Paul’s scalp tingled. He smiled. Perhaps tutoring would be more enjoyable than he’d guessed.
The next afternoon it was Harold’s turn to share some news with his compatriots.
“We got one!” he whispered, setting his lunch tray on the table. “We bloody got one intact!”
“An Enigma machine!” he hissed. “From a German U-boat. In perfect operational order.” The Germans used the Enigmas to encode their wireless messages; the machines generated a fiendishly difficult encryption scheme. A captured machine would be invaluable in helping the Allies understand—and break—German codes.
“Hell!” said Reggie. “How did you find out?”
“A friend of mine from school. Works in the Royal Navy. And that’s not all. The Navy found the sub on the surface of the water. All the sailors inside were dead. Every one of them—and not a mark on them.”
“What?” said Paul. “How’d they die?”
“Heart attacks,” said Harold. “Massive ones. The heart of every sailor on the sub had burst.”
“How’s that possible?” asked Reggie.
Harold shifted his eyes left and right. “Secret weapon. It’s got to be! Some boffin’s found a way to kill Germans inside those cans without firing a shot!”
The men sat back in their chairs, giving the matter the consideration it deserved. Harold beamed.
After several minutes, Reggie leaned forward again.
“Well, I’ve got something too. Not as stunning as Harold’s news, but I’ve had another curious transmission.”
Paul put his big elbows on the table, his hands poised in the air as if to catch whatever information Reggie would share.
“Same frequency,” said Reggie. “And again, unencrypted. But if there’s any reference to Chicago in here,” he said with a glance at Paul, “it’s beyond me.”
He unfolded a slip of paper.
C L O C H A N O N T H E S H I P
“I’ve transcribed it correctly,” said Reggie. “Obviously you can squirrel out ‘the ship’ but I’ve no idea about letters before that phrase. Clochanon?”
“Wait a moment,” said Harold. “What if you divide the letters this way?”
The others watched as he separated the letters.
“Then you have ‘clochan’ and ‘on the ship.’ That makes more sense.”
“Does it?” said Paul. “What’s ‘clochan’?”
Harold smiled. A fiendish solver of crosswords, he hoarded obscure and unusual words as if they were silver.
“Over in Ireland,” he said. “Little beehive huts made of stone. Irish monks built them in the middle ages. The monks would sit in them for years, praying or going mad. Or both. You still find them along the west coast of Ireland. But what this message is supposed to mean, I couldn’t tell you.”
“Well someone knows,” said Reggie. He looked at Paul.
Paul shrugged. He tried to keep his face neutral, but his mind was reeling. Music played in his head, horns and a piano. A singer was singing. He and Helen clung to each other, and as they danced, Paul whispered the lyrics in Helen’s ear.
I long to hold you near and kiss you just once more, but you were on the ship and I was on the shore. You were on the ship, and I was on the shore.
The song was called ‘Harbor Lights.’ He and Helen had shared their first kiss as they danced to that song. He remembered how that kiss had surprised him. Coming as they did from two different castes, Paul had supposed Helen was just slumming when she agreed to go out with him, like other rich WASP girls he’d seen on campus; the kind who ran around with black musicians or Italian gangsters—siphoning a thrill from dalliances with the underclass. But her kiss was warm, tender even. Helen’s affection for him was real.
It was two a.m. when they’d left Dreamland, giddy with music, slightly drunk on cheap champagne. Paul had escorted Helen home. Her voice trembling, she had invited him to her bedroom. Paul’s longing for her was more potent than his fear of being caught by her father, so he accepted. He had never been with a woman before. They clung together, naked beneath her sheets, fumbling and gentle, their bodies alive with almost unbearable sweetness.
After that night, Paul vowed to be with Helen forever. Her radiance revealed to him a self he hadn’t known existed—a self that could live life rather than just endure it. He craved the light of her presence because it illuminated the person he could become.
He discovered could be playful, even charming. He twirled with her in an impromptu jitterbug on Michigan Avenue at mid-day, not caring about the disapproving pedestrians who frowned at their exuberance. He affected a monstrously broad Parisian accent when ordering her a milkshake at Woolworth’s, knowing it would send red blossoms into her cheeks. He picked a daisy from the flower bed outside the Rockefeller Chapel and tucked it behind her ear, an excuse to let his fingers trail through her hair and down the taut, warm skin of her throat.
“You all right old boy? You’ve gone all pale.”
Paul blinked. Reggie was waving a hand in front of his face.
“Have I?” said Paul. He glanced around the commissary if he wasn’t quite sure where he was.
“Must be the tinned beef,” Paul mumbled. “Didn’t agree with me. Excuse me, gents. I think I need to lie down.” He got up and stumbled away.
The other code rats followed him with their eyes. Harold clucked in sympathy.
“The stress must be getting to him,” Harold murmured.
“I wonder,” said Reggie.
Paul left the commissary and walked the grounds, hands in his pockets, mind working furiously. He hadn’t seen Helen in almost two years, nor had any contact with her—no letters, no telegrams, nothing. She had said she was going away with her father, and then she dropped off the face of the earth. He had carried the ache of her loss with him for all this time.
Could these messages be from her? Could she be trying to contact him? Why now? And why this way, with an obscure transmission broadcast out across the ether? As these questions roiled in his mind, Paul was certain of one thing: if it was Helen, he would find a way to her.
Read Part Two here.