At Fort Meade

It took Tenabe Yehumariam and her sociocultural cryptography team nearly a week to sort through the transmissions. The basic material transmitted consisted of a series of yantras or mandalas. Image recognition software could not match them to any known exemplars. According to the unit’s academic consultants the general style was typical of work done in the fifteenth century in Central Asia, towards the end of the Silk Road Era, most likely from a monastery in the Tian Shan mountains, but it did not match precisely existing work from any known community, either in style or precise structure.

A routine steganography check indicated that in addition to whatever information the mandalas themselves were intended to convey directly, they were an encryption of a rather large library of texts. These fell, broadly, into three categories. The first was an anthology of key philosophical, theological, and mystical texts from across humanity’s principal civilizational traditions.

The texts were in themselves unremarkable. They might, of course, have turned up an any number of syllabi in philosophy or religion courses anywhere on the planet. But the combination, and the presence of two of the texts in particular –ibn Sina’s al-Isharat and Zhou Dunyi’s T’ai-chi t’u shuo—struck Tenabe as odd.

Then there was a series of astrological and alchemical texts, or rather of texts composed exclusively of astrological and alchemical symbols. Again, the unit’s consultants could not only not identify the texts but said that while the symbols themselves were quite ordinary that they were unaware of any other text of the kind. It was not even clear if the subject matter was alchemical or astrological or if the symbols were just a kind of code being used to encrypt yet another message at a deeper level, or both. But the initial cryptology reports came back insisting that the texts were just noise. This by itself would not be unusual. Hiding valuable information in the midst of noise was a well established steganographic techique. But this still left the task of finding what was being hidden.

Finally, there was a very short text which consisted of a mixture of Hebrew, Devangari, and Han script. All of the words seemed to be inflections –or at least modifications– of the Hebrew root yhwh, the Jewish name for God. But no one had ever seen anything like it.

It had been established that the transmissions were coming from a national forest site with minor archeological significance high the Sangre de Christo Mountains. The site was currently under investigation. Various members of her team with more extensive technical cryptological skills were at work on the tougher parts of the manuscript. It was her job, as Team Lead for the NSA’s first Sociocultural Cryptography Unit,   to pull all these details together and figure out what they meant. Tenabe decided to start with what seemed easy. Raising a glass of cardamom tea to her mouth, she opened Google and set it to run a search for documents containing both the name Zhou dun-yi and the name ibn Sina. She found that sometimes ordinary search engines “thought of” things that the more focused IC engines missed.

Most of the hits were spurious: they involved references to companies involved in trade between China and Iran. But she was surprised at just how many websites actually contained both names. Most were world religions anthologies or encyclopedias of philosophy. But three of the top ten attracted her attention. Two were syllabi for courses at Nizhoni College and the third a blog post praising essentially the same course (while complaining about the quantity of reading) offered a few   years earlier at Southern Methodist University.

The courses in question were taught by the same professor. She immediately pulled his file, which turned out to be rather thin –just a few references to contacts with revolutionary organizations more than 30 years ago. But he would be worth talking to. So she initiated a request that he be detained for questioning.


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