The Cryptographer’s Body’, Evelyn Deshane

Illustration © 2019 L.E. Badillo

 [ Binary code, © 2019 L.E. Badillo ] When she went under the knife, she thought of binary code. The anesthesiologist held the mask over her face, and told her to count backwards from one hundred. The zeros and ones lined up in her mind; the rest was easy.

Years before this moment, Kylie wanted to unmake her body on her own. As a young child, she imagined undoing her limbs from her torso so she could swap out with someone else. She refashioned her name inside her mind, peeling back the x’s and vowels in Alex for the Y and new consonants in Kylie. She added an S to HE and flipped HIM until her pronouns settled on she/her. When Kylie realized her desire was more complicated than code, she stopped configuring.

She joined the military. A week into her station, her first lieutenant received a garbled message from an incoming unidentified object. The entire unit was baffled. Kylie, always a fan of puzzles (especially the one she saw in the mirror) stepped up and started to solve.

Another month of late night messages passed before she was pulled out of combat and placed inside the computer lab. Another month after that, she was a full cryptographer.

It’s for the best, you know, her mother wrote in a letter. You won’t be blown up this way. No scars or stitches to come back home with. From your head to your toes, you will stay my son.

She didn’t have the heart to tell her mother the truth. Kylie doubted, even if by some machine-born miracle that allowed her to switch her torso, that she’d get the right heart to tell her mother about the enigma underneath her surface. So Kylie slipped late night communiqués of encryptions to other military officers. She collected medal after medal, commendation after commendation, until she met her husband.

Scott was on night patrol as a new security officer for the interplanetary base. He walked around Kylie’s work station while she was stuck on a message.

“Will you stop?” Kylie stuck her head outside her office door. “All I can hear are your feet. I can’t solve this with your racket.”

Scott smiled. Wide. There was a gap in his tooth and a chip in another. Where did the missing parts of him go? Every last freckle on his face seemed to form a constellation she couldn’t name.

“The plosives,” he said.


“The language you’re dealing with in that message. The inhabitants are fans of plosives. But written down, it may look like what we call exclamation points.”

“How do you know this?”

“Stationed over there for a time. You pick up things. May I?”

She nodded, now desperate for help. His hands were gentle as he examined the message and her cipher. He clucked his tongue in his mouth like a musical instrument.

“Yes, exactly. Here? That should be a plosive. Think a p or a t. Make sense?”

She examined the message. What she had been stuck on for weeks suddenly changed, like finding the dot in a magic eye painting. “Yes. Thank you. This is a relief. ”

She phoned her superior officer. A minute later, a platoon was sent out to defend the south bay where the attack was coming. Scott stayed by her side.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see that for so long. I’m cutting it too close. I shouldn’t be…”

“Hey, hey. You got it now. Don’t beat yourself up about the past. There’s nothing wrong with a little help, either.” He smiled again. Those teeth. They were perfect to her. “And you saved the day. Regular hero.”

“Not exactly, but thank you.”

“Sure. Before I head back, can I have your number?”

It took a moment for Kylie to remember her phone number. It took another moment to explain her skin.

He understood. Without a cipher, without all the puzzle pieces in place. He understood how her parts went together, and that night, he traced every last freckle on her skin as if he was assembling her anew.

They dated for a year before Kylie put in a request for surgery on earth. Then he proposed marriage. Two dates appeared in Kylie’s organizer, two separate countdowns with different results.

The wedding was first. During the reception, Scott read off a poem made up of stray lines from the coded messages they worked on together; military language cut up and repurposed for something better.

“And in the morning,” Scott said. “I will be with you. Your bodies are my bodies. Our men, your fortress. We are in this together. My queen in this new order.”

Another ninety days passed until the surgery date. As Kylie woke up six hours after going under, she thought of binary code again. Her binary code, assembled into the flesh made real.

“Are you ready to see your future?” the nurse asked.

Kylie stood in front of the mirror and allowed the bandages to fall away.

© 2016 Evelyn Deshane

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