Ethan woke up with a kink in his neck from sleeping on the too small couch. There was a soft light coming in through the crack in the drapes, just enough to allow the room to materialize around him. The hotel was silent. He couldn’t hear the sound of a TV in any of the near rooms, and there was no one opening or closing doors. He swung his legs around and stood up, stretching and rolling his neck until the kink worked itself loose.
She was asleep diagonally on the bed, bent so that her head just missed the pillows. She had never pulled down the blankets and the laptop was still open as if she had fallen asleep while working on the clue. Ethan was surprised at how young she looked. Looking at her now, it occurred to Ethan that she was probably the youngest agent he had ever known.
Given that she’d been up who-knows-how-long, Ethan decided to let her sleep, but he wanted to see if she had come up with anything on the targets. If not, they were in trouble because they couldn’t afford to get behind. He ease onto the bed, trying not to disturb her, but she didn’t stir.
He reached over and grasped the base of the laptop, but just as he lifted it, she shot out her hand, grabbing his wrist with more force than he would have thought possible. In one swift motion, she pulled his arm back painfully before Ethan had a chance to react. She was about to attack him when she froze, staring at him with fierce animal-like eyes, her breath heavy, and her jaw clenched. He decided it was best not to move.
She held him that way for about three seconds, the look in her eyes more terrifying than the pain in his arm before she shook her head and let him go, mouthing the word, “Sorry,” and backing away, still very animal-like.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said quietly. True enough and perfect for listening ears at the same time.
“S’okay,” she answered back groggily. The wild vulnerability with which she’d attacked him was fading quickly.
“Why don’t you go back to sleep for a while. I’ll go shower.”
She looked at him and then at the laptop, in what seemed like a meaningful way. “I’m awake now. Why don’t we go shower together?”
Ethan felt his mouth drop open before he realized this was all part of the act. The sound of the shower would cover their whispers. She ignored his shock and subsequent embarrassment (or maybe he’d hidden it better than it seemed) and picked up the laptop and carried it into the bathroom.
Ethan followed behind, still feeling awkwardly unsettled while she turned the water on and closed the door. She slid to the floor, sitting cross legged, and he took a seat next to her. “Sorry about your arm,” she whispered. “I tend to over react when waking up.”
He just shrugged. “Did you find anything?”
“I think so,” she said as she turned the laptop on. “It’s…complicated. There seemed to be some type of pattern, but we have some missing data which makes it harder. I decided to try overlaying the five target rounds on top of each other, and the pattern started to look a little more familiar.” She pulled up a file and demonstrated by typing a command. All 5 rows of targets moved on top of each other. She pressed a few more buttons and the actual targets disappeared leaving a bunch of multi-colored dots that were the shots.
“Each color represents a different round of the competition, and the first round has the biggest dots, while the last round has the smallest, so you can see them all,” she explained quietly.
“There are so many that are exactly on top of each other,” He commented. All over, the multi-colored dots were lined up almost exactly on top of each other. One of her shots was exactly the same as one of his had been.
“I thought it was pretty unusual to have them line up so nicely, but I still couldn’t see anything in it.” Neither could Ethan, though it certainly didn’t look random. “So I coded it to display more prominently the more times a particular point was hit. She clicked another button and Ethan watched as some of the points faded, while others grew darker.
“It almost looks like…braille,” he said squinting. He didn’t know much about braille, but the arrangement of the dots was styled similarly.
“It is, but the missing data is throwing it off. I’m not sure what it says.”
“Do you know any of it?”
“Well, I think there are two lines of text.” She pointed to the top and then the bottom. It was true that almost no hits were in the middle.
“But people hit the bullseye. Even a couple of my shots were dead center. Where are those?” He asked.
She clicked a few buttons and the targets re-appeared. “You can see that the two lines of code are not centered on the targets. All your bullseyes are part of the upper line of code.” He nodded and she turned the targets back off. “I’ve tried putting it into a translation program, but it didn’t make sense. I’m pretty sure the last part on the top line says ‘the’. And here,” she pointed left of ‘the’, “is a CH. The second line definitely ends with ‘NER’.”
Ethan studied the patterns. “It looks like three words?”
She nodded. “Two on the top, one on the bottom. Middle word is ‘the’. Now it’s just a matter of putting in likely possibilities and trying to come up with something that makes sense. See this?” She pointed to the start of the second line. There is a good possibility that it’s a ‘W’. But it depends on how the missing data lines up. I was going to run a few possibilities last night, but I closed my eyes for just a second, and the next thing I knew…” She gingerly touched his wrist where she’d grabbed him.
He shrugged. “No harm done. Can I see it?” She handed the laptop over to him. “You are stronger than you look,” he added.
Ethan pulled up a blank document and made it visible below the code. She watched as he typed ______CH THE _____NER.
“If I was any good with computers I could write a code that would find all the possibilities based on probability given our unknowns and find a short list of possible answers. It would be simple to choose the right one from there,” she chattered on.
Ethan didn’t comment on this. It already seemed to him that she was ”good with computers”. He put the W in as the first letter on the second line, just to see if anything jumped out. “Could this be a W too?” he asked pointing to the beginning of the first line.
She studied it. “Yes. If this point here,” she pointed to a faded point, “had a couple of hits that we don’t know about, then it would also be a W. And next to it, there are a lot of individual shots that just fade away and aren’t included, but we’re missing data so any one of them could become prominent.”
“What if none of them become prominent?”
“Then it’s an ‘A’.”
“It’s probably a vowel of some type,” he commented, and filled in the possible letters. It now read WA_CH THE W__NER. Ethan felt like he was playing Wheel of Fortune. He typed the rest of it in.
WATCH THE WINNER
They both stared at the answer. The room had gotten hot and steamy. Ethan felt sticky.
She looked over at him. “So who won?”