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art by Billy Sagulo

The Key To El-Carim's Heart

Henry Szabranski lives in Buckinghamshire, UK, with his wife and two young sons. If you were to ask him if he knows anything about cryptography, he would deny it. Find out more about his writing at henryszabranski.com or follow him on Twitter @henryszabranski.
Although I was almost invulnerable to physical attack due to my fighting prowess and the great height and scale of my fortified tower, she somehow slipped through my defenses and made me fall in love with her.
I knew it was a ruse, some devilish trick of hers, but I could not help myself. After all those years spent on one battlefield or another, amassing wealth and power far beyond my wildest dreams, at last I had met my match. Respect and fear I could command like no other--but love, love had always eluded me.
"You are afraid of love," she said. "To love you must give, and you fear to give anything of yourself."
I determined, then, I would conquer love. I drew up detailed plans, implemented outrageous strategies, fine-tuned radical tactics. "Life is war," my father taught me. "Everything is war. The animals in the fields rooting for food, that is war. Growing crops enough to feed your family, that is war. Even deciding who will sleep on which side of the bed, that is war. It is all war, Carim, and the sooner you realize that and make your plans for conquest, the better."
So for love I hatched my schemes. I called up vast squadrons of bouquets, ordered my lieutenants to flatter and charm, commanded my chefs to create exotic dishes to tease and delight. I made certain I captured Princess Jana's heart. I would not fail.
But somehow it turned out it was my heart that was lost, not hers. Lost, and then smashed asunder.
I decided then and there I would never make myself so vulnerable again. Love was not some distant territory to be won. It was a weakness, an unnecessary complexity. A weapon that could be used against me.
A fault to be eliminated.
I consulted with the greatest minds at my disposal. They were unanimous in their advice, and I realized that if I were to implement their plan I would not only rid myself of my last vulnerability but also make myself vastly stronger and more secure than ever before.
All because of Jana and how she had spurned me. And for that, at least, I thanked her.
So I encrypted my heart and removed it to a place of safety, my impregnable tower now hosting a server farm protected by nested firewalls and relentlessly scanning anti-virus agents. My captive engineers assured me the custom symmetric key algorithm they used would take even the most powerful quantum computers longer than the lifetime of the universe to crack; no one would be able to decode the contents of my heart ever again.
"Place the key in a safe place," the engineers warned. "You have the only copy. Without it, your heart will be forever inaccessible."
"Exactly as I wish," I replied, and despite their protests, I had the machines that generated the key smashed to pieces. The engineers were put to death and all their work destroyed. They had never seen the key, I was always careful to make sure of that... but still. Why take risks?
With my heart at last made safe, the lone key in my possession, whole continents and civilizations fell before my ruthless onslaught. It all became so simple. Pleas for clemency were disregarded without thought, entreaties for mercy dealt with swiftly and without pity. Enemies and friends fell alike, and my empire grew as vast and terrible as the count of those I slaughtered.
Then, one day, my generals finally conquered the distant kingdom to which Jana had fled. She and those who had harbored her were brought before me. I looked upon her familiar face and for a moment I felt fear, that perhaps my heart beyond the firewalls and protective agents and unbreakable encryption might fall once again to her wiles... but there was nothing. I felt no trace of emotion. No hint of regret. The executed engineers had done their job well.
"Kill her," I ordered.
And then Jana stepped aside to show me the dark-haired baby girl she had been hiding, the one whose face mirrored and yet transformed my own. I would not call it love, but certainly something stirred where for so long there had been a purposeful void.
"And your daughter?" she demanded, her voice cracking. "Would you slay her, too?"
I tried to search in my heart. I really did. But alas, I found the key was gone. Stored on no computer, it was written on a slip of parchment I kept on my person, a simple--if long--sequence of gibberish letters and numbers. But since the removal of my heart, the slip had torn and crumbled and faded, and no matter how much I stared at it, I could not decipher the key.
Perhaps if I thought I would use it again I would have taken better care of it.
I hesitated only a moment before nodding to the guards. They knew me too well to protest. Perhaps afterwards I would have them killed, too. Troublesome witnesses removed. And then also their families. And those who knew them.
Perhaps I should just kill everybody.
Life would be so much simpler that way.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 2nd, 2013


When I was very young I saw a film where the villain removed his heart. He placed it in a distant tower surrounded by traps and guardian monsters and thought himself invulnerable. Of course the intrepid hero got past the various obstacles to skewer it in the end. The film, I think, was called "Sindbad". I can't remember much else about it, but that image of the safe-guarded heart stuck with me. Nowadays we can thoughtlessly encrypt much of our precious data and think we are keeping it safe, but--the NSA notwithstanding--in actual fact we are as good as shredding it, if we do not keep safe and accessible the means to decrypt it again.

- Henry Szabranski

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