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The Shortwave And the Calling

"You're listening, and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal," he says. "It's the most chilling thing you've ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There's nothing like it."

To pay the rent, Fernandez released music through Irdial-Discs, which by then was part of a small ecosystem of clubs and record shops selling avant-garde music in London. Finally, after three years of wee-hours number logging, he heard about a book called "Intercepting Numbers Stations" by a guy named Langley Piece. He mail-ordered it from a place in Scotland, and when it arrived he sat and devoured it in a sitting. The book confirmed Fernandez's initial hunch -- the stations were no joke.

Akin Fernanadez, pictured on a London rooftop, turned his fixation with shortwave transmissions into "The Conet Project" recording. (Poppy Berry - For The Washington Post)

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"They're deadly serious, in fact," he says. "That little German girl reading numbers, she might be ordering someone to assassinate a person with a poisoned umbrella."

Mission: Indecipherable

Let's say you're a spy, out in the field, spying. You need instructions now and then from headquarters, but you don't want to risk exposure by picking up a phone (tappable) or getting an e-mail (traceable). Face-to-face meetings carry their own risks. What do you do?

One solution, dreamed up during the Cold War: Listen on shortwave radio at a predetermined time and frequency for a message that only you can understand. Numbers stations, it turns out, are the one-way chatter of espionage agencies to their spies. This isn't conspiracy theory hokum; it's referenced in a dozen-plus memoirs of assorted ex-spooks and defectors. And though numbers broadcasts might sound low-tech in the age of the BlackBerry, the idea isn't utterly cockamamie.

"In a two-way communication, you have to acknowledge the message," says David Kahn, author of "The Codebreakers," a history of cryptology. "But with a shortwave broadcast, anybody can listen, which means that nobody knows who the message is intended for."

The numbers, Kahn explained, are translated with the aid of what's known as a one-time pad, essentially a dictionary for a language that is spoken only once. Most pads are destroyed after a single use -- some of the Soviet pads, lore has it, were edible -- making them one of espionage's rarest artifacts. In 1988, three were found in a bar of hollowed-out soap when a Czech spy, posing as an art dealer in London, was caught by authorities as he sat in an apartment and transcribed a message sent via shortwave.

For Fernandez, this spy angle was a red rag to a bull. A dozen new questions arose, such as how much was all this costing taxpayers, and what messages were being sent? It irked him, too, that no government official, at least in Britain or the United States, would acknowledge this whole system was in place. He was unmoved by the argument that if the system were acknowledged it wouldn't be secret anymore. It didn't matter to him that the messages were totally indecipherable, or that nobody else seemed remotely worked up about them. The more Fernandez thought about it, the more outrageous it all seemed. British citizens -- and citizens of other countries -- underwriting secret messages, sent to agents, telling them to do God knows what.

"Even if you assume that most of the messages are 'pick up this money' or 'drop off the laundry,' think about what numbers stations represent. The only way a secret like this can be kept is if you live in a society where everybody is obeying and everybody is a little sleepy. But if you're a curious kind of chap you'll wonder, if your government can keep this a secret, what other secrets are they keeping."

If you knew Fernandez back in 1994, there was no talking him out of his numbers addiction. He claims he had a social life through his super-fixated years, but ask for the name of a buddy who knew what he was going through and he comes up empty.

Well, a girlfriend named Anne Marie came by one night and listened and her jaw dropped. More typical, though, was the reaction of a cousin who lives in London, who was perfectly baffled.

"I'd call and he'd say, 'I'm listening to something, do you want to hear it?' " remembers Enitan Abayomi. "And then I'd hear a voice over the radio. And I'd think, so? I just didn't hear what he heard in it. But he's very, very bright, and I often feel like he's leaving me miles behind. So I thought that people with higher IQs than mine might understand what he's talking about."

At some point, Fernandez began to think he'd never kick his numbers habit. It had pushed nearly everything else out of his life. He'd had enough, and in 1997, he tore himself, at last, from his radio. How did he do it?

"The Conet Project," he says.


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