A Problem in Communication
by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.
The Science Community
(This part is related by Peter Hagstrom, Ph.D.)
The Ability to communicate ideas from one individual to another," said
a professor of sociology to his class, "is the principal distinction
between human beings and their brute forbears. The increase and
refinement of this ability to communicate is an index of the degree of
civilization of a people. The more civilized a people, the more perfect
their ability to communicate, especially under difficulties and in
The delivery of his country into the clutches of a
merciless, ultra-modern religion can be prevented only by Dr. Hagstrom's
deciphering an extraordinary code.
As usual, the observation burst harmlessly over the heads of most of the
students in the class, who were preoccupied with more immediate
things—with the evening's movies and the week-end's dance. But upon two
young men in the class, it made a powerful impression. It crystallized
within them certain vague conceptions and brought them to a conscious
focus, enabling the young men to turn formless dreams into concrete
acts. That is why I take the position that the above enthusiastic words
of this sociology professor, whose very name I have forgotten, were the
prime moving influence which many years later succeeded in saving
Occidental civilization from a catastrophe which would have been worse
than death and destruction.
One of these young men was myself, and the other was my lifelong friend
and chum, Carl Benda, who saved his country by solving a tremendously
difficult scientific puzzle in a simple way, by sheer reasoning power,
and without apparatus. The sociology professor struck a responsive chord
in us: for since our earliest years we had wigwagged to each other as
Boy Scouts, learned the finger alphabet of the deaf and dumb so that we
might maintain communication during school hours, strung a telegraph
wire between our two homes, admired Poe's "Gold Bug" together and
devised boyish cipher codes in which to send each other postcards when
chance separated us. But we had always felt a little foolish about what
we considered our childish hobbies, until the professor's words suddenly
roused us to the realization that we were a highly civilized pair of
Not only did we then and there cease feeling guilty about our secret
ciphers and our dots and dashes, but the determination was born within
us to make of communication our life's work. It turned out that both of
us actually did devote our lives to the cause of communication; but the
passing years saw us engaged in widely and curiously divergent phases of
the work. Thirty years later, I was Professor of the Psychology of
Language at Columbia University, and Benda was Maintenance Engineer of
the Bell Telephone Company of New York City; and on his knowledge and
skill depended the continuity and stability of that stupendously complex
traffic, the telephone communication of Greater New York.
Since our ambitious cravings were satisfied in our everyday work, and
since now ordinarily available methods of communication sufficed our
needs, we no longer felt impelled to signal across the house-tops with
semaphores nor to devise ciphers that would defy solution. But we still
kept up our intimate friendship and our intense interest in our beloved
subject. We were just as close chums at the age of fifty as we had been
at ten, and just as thrilled at new advances in communication: at
television, at the international language, at the supposed signals from
That was the state of affairs between us up to a year ago. At about that
time Benda resigned his position with the New York Bell Telephone
Company to accept a place as the Director of Communication in the
Science Community. This, for many reasons, was a most amazing piece of
news to myself and to anyone who knew Benda.
Of course, it was commonly known that Benda was being sought by
Universities and corporations: I know personally of several tempting
offers he had received. But the New York Bell is a wealthy corporation
and had thus far managed to hold Benda, both by the munificence of its
salary and by the attractiveness of the work it offered him. That the
Science Community would want Benda was easy to understand; but, that it
could outbid the New York Bell, was, to say the least, a surprise.
Furthermore, that a man like Benda would want to have anything at all to
do with the Science Community seemed strange enough in itself. He had
the most practical common sense—well-balanced habits of thinking and
living, supported by an intellect so clear and so keen that I knew of
none to excel it. What the Science Community was, no one knew exactly;
but that there was something abnormal, fanatical, about it, no one
The Science Community, situated in Virginia, in the foothills of the
Blue Ridge, had first been heard of many years ago, when it was already
a going concern. At the time of which I now speak, the novelty had worn
off, and no one paid any more attention to it than they do to Zion City
or the Dunkards. By this time, the Science Community was a city of a
million inhabitants, with a vast outlying area of farms and gardens. It
was modern to the highest degree in construction and operation; there
was very little manual labor there; no poverty; every person had all the
benefits of modern developments in power, transportation, and
communication, and of all other resources provided by scientific
So much, visitors and reporters were able to say.
The rumors that it was a vast socialistic organization, without private
property, with equal sharing of all privileges, were never confirmed. It
is a curious observation that it was possible, in this country of ours,
for a city to exist about which we knew so little. However, it seemed
evident from the vast number and elaboration of public buildings, the
perfection of community utilities such as transportation, streets,
lighting, and communication, from the absence of individual homes and
the housing of people in huge dormitories, that some different, less
individualistic type of social organization than ours was involved. It
was obvious that as an organization, the Science Community must also be
wealthy. If any of its individual citizens were wealthy, no one knew it.
I knew Benda as well as I knew myself, and if I was sure of anything in
my life, it was that he was not the type of man to leave a fifty
thousand dollar job and join a communist city on an equal footing with
the clerks in the stores. As it happens, I was also intimately
acquainted with John Edgewater Smith, recently Power Commissioner of New
York City and the most capable power engineer in North America, who,
following Benda by two or three months, resigned his position, and
accepted what his letter termed the place of Director of Power in the
Science Community. I was personally in a position to state that neither
of these men could be lightly persuaded into such a step, and that
neither of them would work for a small salary.
Benda's first letter to me stated that he was at the Science Community
on a visit. He had heard of the place, and while at Washington on
business had taken advantage of the opportunity to drive out and see it.
Fascinated by the equipment he saw there, he had decided to stay a few
days and study it. The next letter announced his acceptance of the
position. I would give a month's salary to get a look at those letters
now; but I neglected to preserve them. I should like to see them because
I am curious as to whether they exhibit the characteristics of the
subsequent letters, some of which I now have.
As I have stated, Benda and I had been on the most intimate terms for
forty years. His letters had always been crisp and direct, and
thoroughly familiar and confidential. I do not know just how many
letters I received from him from the Science Community before I noted
the difference, but I have one from the third month of his stay there
(he wrote every two or three weeks), characterized by a verbosity that
sounded strange for him. He seemed to be writing merely to cover the
sheet, trifles such as he had never previously considered worth writing
letters about. Four pages of letter conveyed not a single idea. Yet
Benda was, if anything, a man of ideas.
There followed several months of letters like that: a lot of words,
evasion of coming to the point about anything; just conventional
letters. Benda was the last man to write a conventional letter. Yet, it
was Benda writing them: gruff little expressions of his, clear ways of
looking at even the veriest trifles, little allusion to our common past:
these things could neither have been written by anyone else, nor written
under compulsion from without. Something had changed Benda.
I pondered on it a good deal, and could think of no hypothesis to
account for it. In the meanwhile, New York City lost a third technical
man to the Science Community. Donald Francisco, Commissioner of the
Water Supply, a sanitary engineer of international standing, accepted a
position in the Science Community as Water Director. I did not know
whether to laugh and compare it to the National Baseball League's
trafficking in "big names," or to hunt for some sinister danger sign in
it. But, as a result of my ponderings, I decided to visit Benda at The
I wrote him to that effect, and almost decided to change my mind about
the visit because of the cold evasiveness of the reply I received from
him. My first impulse on reading his indifferent, lackadaisical comment
on my proposed visit was to feel offended, and determine to let him
alone and never see him again. The average man would have done that, but
my long years of training in psychological interpretation told me that a
character and a friendship built during forty years does not change in
six months, and that there must be some other explanation for this. I
wrote him that I was coming. I found that the best way to reach the
Science Community was to take a bus out from Washington. It involved a
drive of about fifty miles northwest, through a picturesque section of
the country. The latter part of the drive took me past settlements that
looked as though they might be in about the same stage of progress as
they had been during the American Revolution. The city of my destination
was back in the hills, and very much isolated. During the last ten miles
we met no traffic at all, and I was the only passenger left in the bus.
Suddenly the vehicle stopped.
"Far as we go!" the driver shouted.
I looked about in consternation. All around were low, wild-looking
hills. The road went on ahead through a narrow pass.
"They'll pick you up in a little bit," the driver said as he turned
around and drove off, leaving me standing there with my bag, very much
astonished at it all.
He was right. A small, neat-looking bus drove through the pass and
stopped for me. As I got in, the driver mechanically turned around and
drove into the hills again.
"They took up my ticket on the other bus," I said to the driver. "What
do I owe you?"
"Nothing," he said curtly. "Fill that out." He handed me a card.
An impertinent thing, that card was. Besides asking for my name,
address, nationality, vocation, and position, it requested that I state
whom I was visiting in the Science Community, the purpose of my visit,
the nature of my business, how long I intended to stay, did I have a
place to stay arranged for, and if so, where and through whom. It looked
for all the world as though they had something to conceal; Czarist
Russia couldn't beat that for keeping track of people and prying into
their business. Sign here, the card said.
It annoyed me, but I filled it out, and, by the time I was through, the
bus was out of the hills, traveling up the valley of a small river; I am
not familiar enough with northern Virginia to say which river it was.
There was much machinery and a few people in the broad fields. In the
distance ahead was a mass of chimneys and the cupolas of iron-works, but
There were power-line towers with high-tension insulators, and, far
ahead, the masses of huge elevators and big, square buildings. Soon I
came in sight of a veritable forest of huge windmills.
In a few moments, the huge buildings loomed up over me; the bus entered
a street of the city abruptly from the country. One moment on a country
road, the next moment among towering buildings. We sped along swiftly
through a busy metropolis, bright, airy, efficient looking. The traffic
was dense but quiet, and I was confident that most of the vehicles were
electric; for there was no noise nor gasoline odor. Nor was there any
smoke. Things looked airy, comfortable, efficient; but rather
monotonous, dull. There was a total lack of architectural interest. The
buildings were just square blocks, like neat rows of neat boxes. But, it
all moved smoothly, quietly, with wonderful efficiency.
My first thought was to look closely at the people who swarmed the
streets of this strange city. Their faces were solemn, and their clothes
were solemn. All seemed intently busy, going somewhere, or doing
something; there was no standing about, no idle sauntering. And look
whichever way I might, everywhere there was the same blue serge, on men
and women alike, in all directions, as far as I could see.
The bus stopped before a neat, square building of rather smaller size,
and the next thing I knew, Benda was running down the steps to meet me.
He was his old gruff, enthusiastic self.
"Glad to see you, Hagstrom, old socks!" he shouted, and gripped my hand
with two of his. "I've arranged for a room for you, and we'll have a
good old visit, and I'll show you around this town."
I looked at him closely. He looked healthy and well cared-for, all
except for a couple of new lines of worry on his face. Undoubtedly that
worn look meant some sort of trouble.
The New Religion
(This part is interpolated by the author into Dr. Hagstrom's narrative.)
Every great religion has as its psychological reason for existence the
mission of compensating for some crying, unsatisfied human need.
Christianity spread and grew among people who were, at the time,
persecuted subjects or slaves of Rome; and it flourished through the
Middle Ages at a time when life held for the individual chiefly pain,
uncertainty, and bereavement. Christianity kept the common man consoled
and mentally balanced by minimizing the importance of life on earth and
offering compensation afterwards and elsewhere.
A feeble nation of idle dreamers, torn by a chaos of intertribal feuds
within, menaced by powerful, conquest-lusting nations from without,
Arabia was enabled by Islam, the religion of her prophet Mohammed, to
unite all her sons into an intense loyalty to one cause, and to turn her
dream-stuff into reality by carrying her national pride and honor beyond
her boundaries and spreading it over half the known world.
The ancient Greeks, in despair over the frailties of human emotion and
the unbecomingness of worldly conduct, which their brilliant minds
enabled them to recognize clearly but which they found themselves
powerless to subdue, endowed the gods, whom they worshipped, with all of
their own passions and weaknesses, and thus the foolish behavior of the
gods consoled them for their own obvious shortcomings. So it goes
throughout all of the world's religions.
In the middle of the twentieth century there were in the civilized
world, millions of people in whose lives Christianity had ceased to play
any part. Yet, psychically—remember, "psyche" means "soul"—they were
just as sick and unbalanced, just as much in need of some compensation
as were the subjects of the early Roman empire, or the Arabs in the
Middle Ages. They were forced to work at the strained and monotonous
pace of machines; they were the slaves, body and soul, of machines; they
lived with machines and lived like machines—they were expected to be
machines. A mechanized mode of life set a relentless pace for them,
while, just as in all the past ages, life and love, the breezes and the
blue sky called to them; but they could not respond. They had to drive
machines so that machines could serve them. Minds were cramped and
emotions were starved, but hands must go on guiding levers and keeping
machines in operation. Lives were reduced to such a mechanical routine
that men wondered how long human minds and human bodies could stand the
restraint. There is a good deal in the writings of the times to show
that life was becoming almost unbearable for three-fourths of humanity.
It is only natural, therefore, that Rohan, the prophet of the new
religion, found followers more rapidly than he could organize them.
About ten years before the visit of Dr. Hagstrom to his friend Benda,
Rohan and his new religion had been much in the newspapers. Rohan was a
Slovak, apparently well educated in Europe. When he first attracted
attention to himself, he was foreman in a steel plant at Birmingham,
Alabama. He was popular as an orator, and drew unheard-of crowds to his
He preached of Science as God, an all-pervading, inexorably systematic
Being, the true Center and Motive-Power of the Universe; a Being who saw
men and pitied them because they could not help committing inaccuracies.
The Science God was helping man become more perfect. Even now, men were
much more accurate and systematic than they had been a hundred years
ago; men's lives were ordered and rhythmic, like natural laws, not like
the chaotic emotions of beasts and savages.
Somehow, he soon dropped out of the attention of the great mass of the
public. Of course, he did so intentionally, when his ideas began to
crystallize and his plans for his future organization began to form. At
first he had a sort of church in Birmingham, called The Church of the
Scientific God. There never was anything cheap nor blatant about him.
When he moved his church from Birmingham to the Lovett Branch Valley in
northern Virginia, he was hardly noticed. But with him went seven
thousand people, to form the nucleus of the Science Community.
Since then, some feature writer for a metropolitan Sunday paper has
occasionally written up the Science Community, both from its physical
and its human aspects. From these reports, the outstanding bit of
evidence is that Rohan believes intensely in his own religion, and that
his followers are all loyal worshippers of the Science God. They
conceive the earth to be a workshop in which men serve Science, their
God, serving a sort of apprenticeship during which He perfects them to
the state of ideal machines. To be a perfect machine, always accurate,
with no distracting emotions, no getting off the track—that was the
ideal which the Great God Science required of his worshippers. To be a
perfect machine, or a perfect cog in a machine, to get rid of all
individuality, all disturbing sentiment, that was their idea of supreme
happiness. Despite the obvious narrowness it involved, there was
something sublime in the conception of this religion. It certainly had
nothing in common with the "Christian Science" that was in vogue during
the early years of the twentieth Century; it towered with a noble
grandeur above that feeble little sham.
The Science Community was organized like a machine: and all men played
their parts, in government, in labor, in administration, in production,
like perfect cogs and accurate wheels, and the machine functioned
perfectly. The devotees were described as fanatical, but happy. They
certainly were well trained and efficient. The Science Community grew.
In ten years it had a million people, and was a worldwide wonder of
civic planning and organization; it contained so many astonishing
developments in mechanical service to human welfare and comfort that it
was considered as a sort of model of the future city. The common man
there was provided with science-produced luxuries, in his daily life,
that were in the rest of the world the privilege of the wealthy few—but
he used his increased energy and leisure in serving the more devotedly,
his God, Science, who had made machines. There was a great temple in the
city, the shape of a huge dynamo-generator, whose interior was worked
out in a scheme of mechanical devices, and with music, lights, and odors
to help in the worship.
What the world knew the least about was that this religion was becoming
militant. Its followers spoke of the heathen without, and were horrified
at the prevalence of the sin of individualism. They were inspired with
the mission that the message of God—scientific perfection—must be
carried to the whole world. But, knowing that vested interests,
governments, invested capital, and established religions would oppose
them and render any real progress impossible, they waited. They studied
the question, looking for some opportunity to spread the gospel of their
beliefs, prepared to do so by force, finding their justification in
their belief that millions of sufferers needed the comforts that their
religion had given them. Meanwhile their numbers grew.
Rohan was Chief Engineer, which position was equal in honor and dignity
to that of Prophet or High Priest. He was a busy, hard-worked man, black
haired and gaunt, small of stature and fiery eyed; he looked rather
like an overworked department-store manager rather than like a prophet.
He was finding his hands more full every day, both because of the
extraordinary fertility of his own plans and ideas, and because the
Science Community was growing so rapidly. Among this heterogenous mass
of proselyte strangers that poured into the city and was efficiently
absorbed into the machine, it was yet difficult to find executives,
leaders, men to put in charge of big things. And he needed constantly
more and more of such men.
That was why Rohan went to Benda, and subsequently to others like Benda.
Rohan had a deep knowledge of human nature. He did not approach Benda
with the offer of a magnanimous salary, but came into Benda's office
asking for a consultation on some of the puzzling communication problems
of the Science Community. Benda became interested, and on his own
initiative offered to visit the Science Community, saying that he had to
be in Washington anyway in a few days. When he saw what the conditions
were in the Science Community, he became fascinated by its advantages
over New York; a new system to plan from the ground up; no obsolete
installation to wrestle with; an absolutely free hand for the engineer
in charge; no politics to play; no concessions to antiquated city
construction, nor to feeble-minded city administration—just a dream of
an opportunity. He almost asked for the job himself, but Rohan was
tactful enough to offer it, and the salary, though princely, was hardly
given a thought.
For many weeks Benda was absorbed in his job, to the exclusion of all
else. He sent his money to his New York bank and had his family move in
and live with him. He was happy in his communication problems.
"Give me a problem in communication and you make me happy," he wrote to
Hagstrom in one of his early letters.
He had completed a certain division of his work on the Science
Community's communication system, and it occurred to him that a few
days' relaxation would do him good. A run up to New York would be just
To his amazement, he was not permitted to board the outbound bus.
"You'll need orders from the Chief Engineer's office," the driver said.
Benda went to Rohan.
"Am I a prisoner?" he demanded with his characteristic directness.
"An embarassing situation," the suave Rohan admitted, very calmly and at
his ease. "You see, I'm nothing like a dictator here. I have no
arbitrary power. Everything runs by system, and you're a sort of
exception. No one knows exactly how to classify you. Neither do I. But,
I can't break a rule. That is sin."
"What rule? I want to go to New York."
"Only those of the Faith who have reached the third degree can come and
go. No one can get that in less than three years."
"Then you got me in here by fraud?" Benda asked bluntly.
Rohan side-stepped gracefully.
"You know our innermost secrets now," he explained. "Do you suppose
there is any hope of your embracing the Faith?"
Benda whirled on his heel and walked out.
"I'll think about it!" he said, his voice snapping with sarcasm.
Benda went back to his work in order to get his mind off the matter. He
was a well-balanced man if he was anything; and he knew that nothing
could be accomplished by rash words or incautious moves against Rohan
and his organization. And on that day he met John Edgewater Smith.
"You here?" Benda gasped. He lost his equilibrium for a moment in
consternation at the sight of his fellow-engineer.
Smith was too elated to notice Benda's mood.
"I've been here a week. This is certainly an ideal opportunity in my
line of work. Even in Heaven I never expected to find such a chance."
By this time Benda had regained control of himself. He decided to say
nothing to Smith for the time being.
They did not meet again for several weeks. In the meantime Benda
discovered that his mail was being censored. At first he did not know
that his letters, always typewritten, were copied and objectionable
matter omitted, and his signature reproduced by the photo-engraving
process, separately each time. But before long, several letters came
back to him rubber-stamped: "Not passable. Please revise." It took Benda
two days to cool down and rewrite the first letter. But outwardly no one
would have ever known that there was anything amiss with him.
However, he took to leaving his work for an hour or two a day and
walking in the park, to think out the matter. He didn't like it. This
was about the time that it began to be a real issue as to who was the
bigger man of the two, Rohan or Benda. But no signs of the issue
appeared externally for many months.
John Edgewater Smith realized sooner than Benda that he couldn't get
out, because, not sticking to work so closely, he had made the attempt
sooner. He looked very much worried when Benda next saw him.
"What's this? Do you know about it?" he shouted as soon as he had come
within hearing distance of Benda.
"What's the difference?" Benda replied casually. "Aren't you satisfied?"
Smith's face went blank.
Benda came close to him, linked arms and led him to a broad vacant lawn
in the park.
"Listen!" he said softly in Smith's ear. "Don't you suppose these
people who lock us in and censor our mail aren't smart enough to spy on
what we say to each other?"
"Our only hope," Benda continued, "is to learn all we can of what is
going on here. Keep your eyes and ears open and meet me here in a week.
And now come on; we've been whispering here long enough."
Oddly enough, the first clue to the puzzle they were trying to solve was
supplied by Francisco, New York's former Water Commissioner. Why were
they being kept prisoners in the city? There must be more reason for
holding them there than the fear that information would be carried out,
for none of the three engineers knew anything about the Science
Community that could be of any possible consequence to outsiders. They
had all stuck rigidly to their own jobs.
They met Francisco, very blue and dejected, walking in the park a couple
of months later. They had been having weekly meetings, feeling that more
frequent rendezvous might excite suspicion. Francisco was overjoyed to
"Been trying to figure out why they want us," he said. "There is
something deeper than the excuse they have made; that rot about a
perfect system and no breaking of rules may be true, but it has nothing
to do with us. Now, here are three of us, widely admitted as having good
heads on us. We've got to solve this."
"The first fact to work on," he continued, "is that there is no real job
for me here. This city has no water problem that cannot be worked out by
an engineer's office clerk. Why are they holding me here, paying me a
profligate salary, for a job that is a joke for a grown-up man? There's
something behind it that is not apparent on the surface."
The weekly meetings of the three engineers became an established
institution. Mindful that their conversation was doubtless the object of
attention on the part of the ruling powers of the city through spies
and concealed microphones, they were careful to discuss trivial matters
most of the time, and mentioned their problem only when alone in the
open spaces of the park.
After weeks of effort had produced no results, they arrived at the
conclusion that they would have to do some spying themselves. The great
temple, shaped like a dynamo-generator attracted their attention as the
first possibility for obtaining information. Benda, during his work with
telephone and television installation, found that the office of some
sort of ruling council or board of directors were located there. Later
he found that it was called the Science Staff. He managed to slip in
several concealed microphone detectors and wire them to a private
receiver on his desk, doing all the work with his own hands under the
pretense of hunting for a cleverly contrived short-circuit that his
subordinates had failed to find.
"They open their meeting," he said, reporting several days of listening
to his comrades, "with a lot of religious stuff. They really believe
they are chosen by God to perfect the earth. Their fanaticism has the
Mohammedans beat forty ways. As I get it from listening in, this city is
just a preliminary base from which to carry, forcibly, the gospel of
Scientific Efficiency to the whole world. They have been divinely
appointed to organize the earth.
"The first thing on the program is the seizure of New York City. And, it
won't be long; I've heard the details of a cut-and-dried plan. When they
have New York, the rest of America can be easily captured, for cities
aren't as independent of each other as they used to be. Getting the rest
of the world into their hands will then be merely a matter of routine;
just a little time, and it will be done. Mohammed's wars weren't in it
Francisco and Smith stared at him aghast. These dull-faced,
blue-sergeclad people did not look capable of it; unless possibly one
noted the fiery glint in their eyes. A worldwide Crusade on a scientific
basis! The idea left them weak and trembling.
"Got to learn more details before we can do anything," Benda said. "Come
on; we've been whispering here long enough; they'll get suspicious."
Benda's brain was now definitely pitted against this marvelous
I've got it!" Benda reported at a later meeting. "I pieced it together
from a few hours listening. Devilish scheme!
"Can you imagine what would happen in New York in case of a break-down
in water-supply, electric power, and communication? In an hour there
would be a panic; in a day the city would be a hideous shambles of
suffering, starvation, disease, and trampling maniacs. Dante's Inferno
would be a lovely little pleasure-resort in comparison.
"Also, have you ever stopped to think how few people there are in the
world who understand the handling of these vital elements of our modern
civilized organization sufficiently to keep them in operation? There you
have the scheme. Because they do not want to destroy the city, but
merely to threaten it, they are holding the three of us. A little
skilful management will eliminate all other possible men who could
operate the city's machinery, except ourselves. We three will be placed
in charge. A threat, perhaps a demonstration in some limited section of
what horrors are possible. The city is at their mercy, and promptly
"An alternative plan was discussed: just a little quiet violence could
eliminate those who are now in charge of the city's works, and the panic
and horrors would commence. But, within an hour of the city's
capitulation, the three of us could have things running smoothly again.
And there would be no New York; in its place would be Science Community
Number Two. From it they could step on to the next city."
The other two stared at him. There was only one comment.
"They seem to be sure that they could depend on us," Smith said.
"They may be correct," Benda replied. "Would you stand by and see people
perish if a turn of your hand could save them? You would for the moment,
forget the issue between the old order and the new religion."
They separated, horrified by the ghastly simplicity of the plan.
Just following this, Benda received the telegram announcing the
prospective visit of his lifelong friend, Dr. Hagstrom. He took it at
once to Rohan.
"Will my friend be permitted to depart again, if he once gets in here?"
he demanded with his customary directness.
"It depends on you," Rohan replied blandly. "We want your friend to see
our Community, and to go away and carry with him the nicest possible
reports and descriptions of it to the world. I wonder, do I make myself
"That means I've got to feed him taffy while he's here?" Benda asked
"You choose to put it indelicately. He is to see and hear only such
things about the Science Community as well please the world and impress
it favorably. I am sure you will understand that under no other
circumstances will he be permitted to leave here."
Benda turned around abruptly and walked out without a word.
"Just a moment," Rohan called after him. "I am sure you appreciate the
fact that every precaution will be taken to hear the least word that you
say to him during his stay here? You are watched only perfunctorily now.
While he is here you will be kept track of carefully, and there will be
three methods of checking everything you do or say. I am sure you do not
underestimate our caution in this matter."
Benda spent the days intervening between then and the arrival of his
friend Hagstrom, closed up in his office, in intense study. He figured
things on pieces of paper, committed them to memory, and scrupulously
burned the paper. Then he wandered about the park and plucked at leaves
The Cipher Message
(Related by Peter Hagstrom, Ph.D.)
Benda conducted me personally to a room very much like an ordinary hotel
room. He was glad to see me. I could tell that from his grip of welcome,
from his pleased face, from the warmth in his voice, from the eager way
in which he hovered around me. I sat down on a bed and he on a chair.
"Now tell me all about it," I said.
The room was very still, and in its privacy, following Benda's
demonstrative welcome, I expected some confidential revelations.
Therefore I was astonished.
"There isn't much to tell," he said gaily. "My work is congenial,
fascinating, and there's enough of it to keep me out of mischief. The
pay is good, and the life pleasant and easy."
I didn't know what to say for a moment. I had come there with my mind
made up that there was something suspicious afoot. But he seemed
thoroughly happy and satisfied.
"I'll admit that I treated you a little shabbily in this matter of
letters," he continued. "I suppose it is because I've had a lot of new
and interesting problems on my mind, and it's been hard to get my mind
down to writing letters. But I've got a good start on my job, and I'll
promise to reform."
I was at a loss to pursue that subject any further.
"Have you seen Smith and Francisco?" I asked.
"How do they like it?"
"Both are enthusiastic about the wonderful opportunities in their
respective fields. It's a fact: no engineer has ever before had such
resources to work with, on such a vast scale, and with such a free hand.
We're laying the framework for a city of ten millions, all thoroughly
systematized and efficient. There is no city in the world like it; it's
an engineer's dream of Utopia."
I was almost convinced. There was only the tiniest of lurking suspicions
that all was not well, but it was not powerful enough to stimulate me to
say anything. But I did determine to keep my eyes open.
I might as well admit in advance that from that moment to the time when
I left the Science Community four days later, I saw nothing to confirm
my suspicions. I met Smith and Francisco at dinner and the four of us
occupied a table to ourselves in a vast dining hall, and no one paid for
the meal nor for subsequent ones. They also seemed content, and talked
enthusiastically of their work.
I was shown over the city, through its neat, efficient streets, through
its comfortable dormitories each housing hundreds of families as
luxuriously as any modern hotel, through its marvelous factories where
production had passed the stage of labor and had assumed the condition
of a devoted act of worship. These factory workers were not toiling:
they were worshipping their God, of Whom each machine was a part.
Touching their machine was touching their God. This machinery, while
involving no new principles, was developed and coordinated to a degree
that exceeded anything I had ever seen anywhere else.
I saw the famous Science Temple in the shape of a huge
dynamo-generator, with its interior decorations, paintings, carvings,
frescoes, and pillars, all worked out on the motive of machinery; with
its constant streams of worshippers in blue serge, performing their
conventional rites and saying their prayer formulas at altars in the
forms of lathes, microscopes, motors, and electron-tubes.
"You haven't become a Science Communist yourself?" I bantered Benda.
There was a metallic ring in the laugh he gave.
"They'd like to have me!" was all he said.
I was rather surprised at the emptiness of the large and well-kept park
to which Benda took me. It was beautifully landscaped, but only a few
scattering people were there, lost in its vast reaches.
"These people seem to have no need of recreation," Benda said. "They do
not come here much. But I confess that I need air and relaxation, even
if only for short snatches. I've been too busy to get away for long at a
time, but this park has helped me keep my balance—I'm here every day
for at least a few minutes."
"Beautiful place," I remarked. "A lot of strange trees and plants I
never saw before—"
"Oh, mostly tropical forms, common enough in their own habitats. They
have steam pipes under the ground to grow them. I've been trying to
learn something about them. Fancy me studying natural history! I've
never cared for it, but here, where there is no such thing as
recreation, I have become intensely interested in it as a hobby. I find
it very much of a rest to study these plants and bugs."
"Why don't you run up to New York for a few days?"
"Oh, the time will come for that. In the meanwhile, I've got an idea all
of a sudden. Speaking of New York, will you do me a little service? Even
though you might think it silly?"
"I'll do anything I can," I began, eager to be of help to him.
"It has been somewhat of a torture to me," Benda continued, "to find so
many of these forms which I am unable to identify. I like to be
scientific, even in my play, and reference books on plants and insects
are scarce here. Now, if you would carry back a few specimens for me,
and ask some of the botany and zoology people to send me their names—"
"Fine!" I exclaimed. "I've got a good-sized pocket notebook I can carry
"Well then, please put them in the order in which I hand them to you,
and send me the names by number. I am pretty thoroughly familiar with
them, and if you will keep them in order, there is no need for me to
keep a list. The first is a blade of this queer grass."
I filed the grass blade between the first two pages of my book.
"The next is this unusual-looking pinnate leaf." He tore off a dry
leaflet and handed me a stem with three leaflets irregularly disposed of
"Now leave a blank page in your book. That will help me remember the
order in which they come."
Next came a flat insect, which, strangely enough, had two legs missing
on one side. However, Benda was moving so fast that I had to put it away
without comment. He kept darting about and handing me twigs of leaves,
little sticks, pieces of bark, insects, not seeming to care much whether
they were complete or not; grass-blades, several dagger-shaped
locust-thorns, cross-sections of curious fruits, moving so rapidly that
in a few moments my notebook bulged widely, and I had to warn him that
its hundred leaves were almost filled.
"Well, that ought to be enough," he said with a sigh after his lively
exertion. "You don't know how I'll appreciate your indulging my foolish
"Say!" I exclaimed. "Ask something of me. This it nothing. I'll take it
right over to the Botany Department, and in a few days you ought to have
a list of names fit for a Bolshevik."
"One important caution," he said. "If you disturb their order in the
book, or even the position on the page, the names you send me will mean
nothing to me. Not that it will be any great loss," he added
whimsically. "I suppose I've become a sort of fan on this, like the
business men who claim that their office work interferes with their
We walked leisurely back toward the big dormitory. It was while we were
crossing a street that Benda stumbled, and, to dodge a passing truck,
had to catch my arm, and fell against me. I heard his soft voice whisper
in my ear:
"Get out of this town as soon as you can!"
I looked at him in startled amazement, but he was walking along, shaking
himself from his stumble, and looking up and down the street for passing
"As I was saying," he said in a matter-of-fact voice, "we expect to
reach the one-and-one-quarter million mark this month. I never saw a
place grow so fast."
I felt a great leap of sudden understanding. For a moment my muscles
tightened, but I took my cue.
"Remarkable place," I said calmly; "one reads a lot of half-truths about
it. Too bad I can't stay any longer."
"Sorry you have to leave," he said, in exactly the right tone of voice.
"But you can come again."
How thankful I was for the forty years of playing and working together
that had accustomed us to that sort of team-work! Unconsciously we
responded to one another's cues. Once our ability to "play together" had
saved my life. It was when we were in college and were out on a
cross-country hike together; Benda suddenly caught my hand and swung it
upward. I recognized the gesture; we were cheerleaders and worked
together at football games, and we had one stunt in which we swung our
hands over our heads, jumped about three feet, and let out a whoop. This
was the "stunt" that he started out there in the country, where we were
by ourselves. Automatically, without thinking, I swung my arms and
leaped with him and yelled. Only later did I notice the rattlesnake over
which I had jumped. I had not seen that I was about to walk right into
it, and he had noticed it too late to explain. A flash of genius
suggested the cheering stunt to him.
"Communication is a science!" he had said, and that was all the
comment there was on the incident.
So now, I followed my cue, without knowing why, nor what it was all
about, but confident that I should soon find out. By noon I was on the
bus, on my way through the pass, to meet the vehicle from Washington. As
the bus swung along, a number of things kept jumbling through my mind:
Benda's effusive glee at seeing me, and his sudden turning and bundling
me off in a nervous hurry without a word of explanation; his lined and
worried face and yet his insistence on the joys of his work in The
Science Community; his obvious desire to be hospitable and play the good
host, and yet his evasiveness and unwillingness to chat intimately and
discuss important thing as he used to. Finally, that notebook full of
odd specimens bulging in my pocket. And the memory of his words as he
shook hands with me when I was stepping into the bus:
"Long live the science of communication!" he had said. Otherwise, he was
rather glum and silent.
I took out the book of specimens and looked at it. His caution not to
disturb the order and position of things rang in my ears. The Science of
Communication! Two and two were beginning to make four in my mind. All
the way on the train from Washington to New York I could hardly, keep
my hands off the book. I had definitely abandoned the idea of hunting up
botanists and zoologists at Columbia. Benda was not interested in the
names of these things. That book meant something else. Some message. The
Science of Communication!
That suddenly explained all the contradictions in his behavior. He was
being closely watched. Any attempt to tell me the things he wanted to
say would be promptly recognized. He had succeeded brilliantly in
getting a message to me. Now, my part was to read it! I felt a sudden
sinking within me. That book full of leaves, bugs, and sticks? How could
I make anything out of it?
"There's the Secret Service," I thought. "They are skilled in reading
hidden messages. It must be an important one, worthy of the efforts of
the Secret Service, or he would not have been at such pains to get it to
"But no. The Secret Service is skilled at reading hidden messages, but
not as skilled as I am in reading my friend's mind. Knowing Benda, his
clear intellect, his logical methods, will be of more service in solving
this than all the experts of the Secret Service."
I barely stopped to eat dinner when I reached home. I hurried to the
laboratory building, and laid out the specimens on white sheets of
paper, meticulously preserving order, position, and spacing. To be on
the safe side I had them photographed, asking the photographer to vary
the scale of his pictures so that all of the final figures would be
approximately the same size. Plate I. shows what I had.
I was all a-tremble when the mounted photographs were handed to me. The
first thing I did was to number the specimens, giving each blank space
also its consecutive number. Certainly no one could imagine a more
meaningless jumble of twigs, leaves, berries, and bugs. How could I
read any message out of that?
Yet I had no doubt that the message concerned something of far more
importance than Benda's own safety. He had moved in this matter with
astonishing skill and breathless caution; yet I knew him to be reckless
to the extreme where only his own skill was concerned. I couldn't even
imagine his going to this elaborate risk merely on account of Smith and
Francisco. Something bigger must be involved.
I stared at the rows of specimens.
"Communication is a science!" Benda had said, and it came back to me as
I studied the bent worms and the beetles with two legs missing. I was
confident that the solution would be simple. Once the key idea occurred
to me I knew I should find the whole thing astonishingly direct and
systematic. For a moment I tried to attach some sort of heiroglyphic
significance to the specimen forms; in the writing of the American
Indians, a wavy line meant water, an inverted V meant a wigwam. But, I
discarded that idea in a moment. Benda's mind did not work along the
paths of symbolism. It would have to be something mathematical, rigidly
logical, leaving no room for guess-work.
No sooner had the key-idea occurred to me than the basic conception
underlying all these rows of twigs and bugs suddenly flashed into clear
meaning before me. The simplicity of it took my breath away.
"I knew it!" I said aloud, though I was alone. "Very simple."
I was prepared for the fact that each one of the specimens represented a
letter of the alphabet. If nothing else, their number indicated that.
Now I could see, so clearly that the photographs shouted at me, that
each specimen consisted of an upright stem, and from this middle stem
projected side-arms to the right and to the left, and in various
vertical locations on each side.
The middle upright stem contained these side-arms in various numbers
and combinations. In five minutes I had a copy of the message,
translated into its fundamental characters, as shown on Plate II.
The first grass-blade was the simple, upright stem; the second, three
leaflets on their stem, represented the upright portion with two arms to
the left at the top and middle, and one arm to the right at the top; and
That brought the message down to the simple and straightforward matter
of a substitution cipher. I was confident that Benda had no object in
introducing any complications that could possibly be avoided, as his
sole purpose was to get to me the most readable message without getting
caught at it. I recollected now how cautious he had been to hand me no
paper, and how openly and obviously he had dropped each specimen into my
book; because he knew someone was watching him and expecting him to slip
in a message. He had, as I could see now in the retrospect, been
conspicuously careful that nothing suspicious should pass from his hands
Substitution ciphers are easy to solve, especially for those having some
experience. The method can be found in Edgar Allen Poe's "Gold Bug" and
in a host of its imitators. A Secret Service cipher man could have read
it in an hour. But I knew my friend's mind well enough to find a
short-cut. I knew just how he would go about devising such a cipher, in
fact, how ninety-nine persons out of a hundred with a scientific
education would do it.
If we begin adding horizontal arms to the middle stem, from top to
bottom and from left to right, the possible characters can be worked out
by the system shown on Plate III.
It is most logical to suppose that Benda would begin with the first sign
and substitute the letters of the alphabet in order. That would give us
the cipher code shown on Plate IV.
It was all very quick work, just as I had anticipated, once the key-idea
had occurred to me. The ease and speed of my method far exceeded that
of Poe's method, but, of course, was applicable only to this particular
case. Substituting letters for signs out of my diagram, I got the
AM PRISONER R PLANS CAPTURE OF N Y BY SEIZING POWER WATER AND
PHONES THEN WORLD CONQUEST S O S
(By Peter Hagstrom, M.D.)
My solution of the message practically ends the story. Events followed
each other from then on like bullets from a machine-gun. A wild drive in
a taxicab brought me to the door of Mayor Anderson at ten o'clock that
night. I told him the story and showed him my photographs.
Following that I spent many hours telling my story to and consulting
with officers in the War Department. Next afternoon, photographic maps
of the Science Community and its environs, brought by airplanes during
the forenoon, were spread on desks before us. A colonel of marines and a
colonel of aviation sketched plans in notebooks. After dark I sat in a
transport plane with muffled exhaust and propellers, slipping through
the air as silently as a hawk. About us were a dozen bombing planes, and
about fifty transports, carrying a battalion of marines.
I am not an adventure-loving man. Though a cordon of husky marines about
me was a protection against any possible danger, yet, stealing along
through that wild valley in the Virginia mountains toward the dark
masses of that fanatic city, the silent progress of the long, dark line
through the night, their mysterious disappearance, one by one, as we
neared the city, the creepy, hair-raising journey through the dark
streets—I shall never forget for the rest of my life the sinking
feeling in my abdomen and the throbbing in my head. But I wanted to be
there, for Benda was my lifelong friend.
I guided them to Rohan's rooms, and saw a dozen dark forms slip in, one
by one. Then we went on to the dormitory where Benda lived. Benda
answered our hammering at his door in his pajamas. He took in the
Captain's automatic, and the bayonets behind me, at a glance.
"Good boy, Hagstrom!" he said. "I knew you'd do it. There wasn't much
time left. I got my instructions about handling the New York telephone
As we came out into the street. I saw Rohan handcuffed to two big
marines, and rows of bayonets gleaming in the darkness down the streets.
Every few moments a bright flare shot out from the planes in the sky,
until a squad located the power-house and turned on all the lights they