Gregor and the Code of Claw

Page 18


Chapter 18
It started simply, with just one claw on one stone surface. Then another and another joined it until the scratching rang through Regalia, blocking out any other sound.
"I've heard that before." Gregor had to raise his voice for Howard to hear him. "Or something pretty near like it."
"In the Underland?" asked Howard.
"No, in my apartment back home. Ripred sent a bunch of small rats up to scratch on our walls and scare us into coming for the plague meeting," said Gregor.
"And did it scare you?" asked Howard.
Gregor remembered how they had all fled the apartment, trying to escape the claws that were threatening to break through the plaster. "You bet."
"Then I am less ashamed to admit it scares me as well," said Howard. "It is only to affect our minds. The rats cannot possibly scratch their way into the palace."
"Well, it works," said Gregor. He needed to get away from the creepy sound, before it really did a number on his nerves. "Can you get me back to the code room? I could lie down there."
Now that his ribs were back in place, Gregor could walk okay. "But do not try any strenuous movements for a while," Howard warned him. "The bones can shift out of place again. If they do and I am not there to help you, you know now how to remedy this. Here, carry these smelling salts with you." He pressed a small container about the size of a matchbox into Gregor's hand.
"Great," thought Gregor. "Not only do I have to breathe until I black out, I have to revive myself." But with all of the dead and severely wounded lying in the High Hall that seemed a little whiny. The floor was sticky with blood. Many of the injured had not been attended to yet. "You stay here, Howard. I can get to the code room on my own," he said.
"I will stop by later to check on your condition," said Howard.
"Whenever you get a chance. Really, I'm okay," said Gregor. He began to work his way slowly through the crowded halls toward the code room. "Excuse me. Excuse me. Can I get by, please?"
A path opened when people saw who was asking. Many of the Underlanders reached out to touch him or allowed themselves a smile. Some seemed amazed to see him at all. "You live!" cried out one old man. "We heard the Bane had killed you!" Gregor began to worry what rumors may have gotten back to his sisters and tried to move faster.
When he got back to the code room, he found Lizzie weeping on Ripred's shoulder while the rest of the code team hunched in their rooms. Boots was patting Lizzie's hair, but she looked on the verge of tears herself. It was like a dress rehearsal of what would happen when he really was killed. Gregor wished he could have avoided seeing it.
"There, what did I tell you? He left the battle alive," said Ripred, nudging Lizzie's chin so her head turned to see Gregor. "He's just fine."
"Gregor!" said Lizzie. "I thought you were dead!"
"No, just kind of bruised up," said Gregor, rubbing his hand over his bandage.
"Gre-go!" Boots ran over, stood on her tiptoes, and planted three kisses on the bottom edge of his wrappings. "All better?" she asked.
"All better. Thanks, Boots," said Gregor.
"You might have sent word of your whereabouts," said Ripred reproachfully. "We lost track of you after you retreated. That was hours ago."
Gregor had the feeling the rat would really like to bite his head off, but he didn't dare do anything else to upset Lizzie. "Oh, my ribs were messed up. Couldn't do much until Howard and a doctor found me and popped them back into place."
"Like Aurora's wing." Luxa had appeared in the arch of the rat room. Her face was very pale but she wasn't crying.
"Yeah, a lot like when Aurora dislocated her wing in the jungle," said Gregor. "Now she's as good as new, and so am I." Temp nudged Gregor in the leg. The cockroach had a clean shirt in his mouth. "Thanks, Temp." Gregor tried hard not to wince as he put it on. Clearly he had to downplay his injury as much as possible. "So what's been going on here? Any luck with the code?"
But apparently this was the wrong thing to say because it only set Lizzie off on a fresh round of sobs.
"No, we have not had any luck on the code, because your poor sister has been so worried about you," said Ripred. "It has cost us precious hours."
"It's not his fault. I'm no good at it. I'm no good at all. If the rats come I won't even be able to help fight. I'm worthless," Lizzie choked out.
"Don't be ridiculous. You can't throw a rock without hitting thirty warriors down here, but code-breakers are as rare as trees," said Ripred.
"I'm not the code-breaker. I want to be, but I'm not. Maybe it's Boots after all," said Lizzie.
"Well, stranger things have happened, but I'm still betting on you," said Ripred. "Now climb on and we'll work together."
"You're staying?" asked Lizzie.
"Yes, I'm staying until we crack this thing," Ripred said. "Solovet may wage her war without me."
Still sniffling, Lizzie scooted up onto Ripred's back. She lay on her stomach with her elbows on his head and peered down at a strip of cloth on the floor. "Maybe if we reversed the Copernicus Cipher," she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
"Let's give it a try," said Ripred. The rest of the code team gathered around and silence fell on the room. That is, except for the scratching. It was very faint here, so far from the outer walls of the palace, but Gregor could still hear it.
Luxa came to his side and whispered, "Should you be resting?" He nodded and let her lead him into the human room. He gratefully sank onto the bed, positioning himself on his right side to avoid any pressure on his bruised ribs and the wound on his hip. She sat next to him, holding his hand. "One or the other of us always seems to be recuperating."
"Only way we get to see each other," said Gregor.
"True enough," said Luxa. "They say you and Ares fought the Bane magnificently."
"Who says? Not Ripred?" asked Gregor.
"Well, not Ripred. But he did admit you did better than he had hoped. And then he took all of the credit for it," said Luxa.
They both laughed, and there was Ripred's nose poking over the end of the bed. "Some of us are trying to work, if you don't mind. I don't really have to explain how imperative breaking this code is, do I?"
"No, we are sorry," said Luxa.
"Why don't you two do something useful?" said Ripred.
"Like what?" Gregor asked.
"Like running some more of the code by Boots, just in case she happens to recognize it as something other than a tail. It will at least keep her out of everyone's hair," said Ripred. "Report anything of interest, just in case she is the princess."
"Whatever that means," Gregor mumbled to Luxa after Ripred had left.
Boots and Temp were sent in, along with about fifty yards of white strips covered in code. "Where do they get this stuff, anyway?" Gregor asked. "I mean, who writes it down?"
"The rats send the code through rock seams that carry sounds well," said Luxa. "This is a tap." She hit the stone wall once with her fingernail. "A click." She made two very quick, softer hits. "And a scratch." She scraped her nail briefly on the wall. "A short pause indicates the break between letters and a longer pause, the break between words. I cannot really replicate it at full speed. Can you, Temp?"
"Like this, it sounds, like this," said Temp. He placed his foot on the floor and began to drill out a series of taps, clicks, and scratches that were so rapid that Gregor's ears could never have sorted them out. Especially those taps and clicks. Of course, when his dad had played a Morse code message for them on the computer, even a really slow one, that had seemed unintelligible, too.
"We have many spies positioned at strategic points to record the messages. It is not difficult to intercept, as the rats make no effort to conceal it when it is encoded. Then the messages are written down by humans and flown to the code room," said Luxa.
No one had been bothering to translate the chicken-scratch code into regular alphabet letters — probably all of the code team could read it like that, anyway — so Luxa quickly drew up the Tree of Transmission as a guide. She may not have enjoyed learning this stuff in class, but she didn't even have to go out in the main room to copy the tree. She could remember the whole thing by heart.
"I guess that old mouse must have been a pretty good teacher," said Gregor.
"I suppose so," Luxa said. "The tree is not difficult for me to recall."
"It is constructed so that many of the letters most commonly used are represented with fewer beats. The letters E, A, and I for instance, require only one signal. T and R require only two," said Luxa. "Here, this is easiest to see on the chart." She drew a grid like the one carved into the code room floor.
"It is not perfect in this respect, of course. Because the letter B only requires two signals, although it is much less common than the letter O, which requires three. But the tree was the best balance they could find between speed and ease of remembrance," said Luxa. "Shall we begin?"
Boots seemed to enjoy finding what set of lines matched which alphabet letter a lot more than she had enjoyed their earlier code games.
"Okay, Boots, find straight-straight-straight-left," Gregor said, pointing to the sequence | | |\.
Boots traced along the tree with her chubby finger. "Straight...straight...straight...left...makes X. It makes X, Gre-go!"
"Good job!" said Gregor, and wrote an X above the corresponding lines with one of Lizzie's markers. And so they went on, transcribing the code in low voices, letter after letter, for about an hour. By that time, Gregor had pretty much learned the tree himself. At least learned it well enough to send Luxa this message:
| | / \ | \ / \ \ . | / \ \. /. | | / \. | / | | | / / | / | | | |. | / / | | \. | \ |// \ / \ | / | / / | / \.
She laughed, wadded up the strip of fabric, and tossed it back at him. But as they went on with their task, Gregor wondered if it had been a mistake. She had thought it was funny at first, but now she looked kind of sad. For one thing, it was Henry's joke. So there was all that baggage. For another, any references to dying right now weren't exactly humorous. People had thought the Bane had killed him until he'd walked in. He wished he hadn't sent it but it was too late now.
Boots lost interest in the tree so they made up some other games with the letters on the strips, trying to find words, reading them backward, using their own strategies to try and break the Code of Claw. Luxa and Temp took over the lesson more and more until Gregor was really just observing. Simple, direct thoughts were all his brain could muster. He wanted to go to sleep. He wanted more pain medicine. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go home. By the time Ripred called for everybody to take five, Gregor was practically in a trance. He didn't want to join the others for tea and cake, but he was afraid Lizzie would get upset if he didn't, so he dragged himself out of bed.
The code team was too discouraged for chitchat. They ate in silence, occasionally twitching or murmuring something indistinct.
Hazard came in unhappily and sat next to Luxa, leaning his head on her shoulder. "What is wrong?" she asked him.
"They will not let me continue matching the nibbler pups with their parents. They say it is too dangerous. That all of the nibblers must be brought to the palace now," said Hazard.
"They will be safer here," said Luxa.
"Yes, now that the diggers can be heard tunneling toward the arena," said Hazard.
Ripred jerked his head up from his cake. "Can they?" He bounded over to the door. "Am I to get all of my updates from seven-year-old boys?" he bellowed. "Tell Solovet I am not being kept informed!"
"It's not the rats scratching?" Gregor asked.
"Oh, no, Gregor. This sounds completely different," said Hazard.
Ripred turned back to the group, murmuring, "At least they are not digging for the palace. Although why not worries me."
"You think they have another plan to enter it?" asked Luxa.
"I think if they don't, they're working on one," said Ripred. "But as they have never succeeded before, it will have to be quite a plan. In the meantime, they know we'll wear ourselves out bringing in the nibblers."
"Dulcet says I will be needed later," Hazard said. "That I should rest. But I am not sleepy. Can I help in here?"
"Why not?" asked Ripred. "Perhaps some new blood will refresh our minds."
"What are you doing?" asked Hazard. No one seemed to have the energy to answer. Finally Lizzie, who hated it when people ignored her questions, spoke up. "I'll show you." She took the nearest strip of fabric and an aqua-blue marker from her back-pack and sat next to Hazard. "This is a message sent by one rat to another. Those little lines stand for these letters." She quickly wrote the correct alphabet letters above the lines.
"Like the chart on the floor?" asked Hazard.
"Uh-huh," said Lizzie. "Only even when we turn it into letters we still can't read the message because it's in code. A really hard code."
"Does each letter stand for another letter?" Hazard asked.
"Yes, but there's some extra trick on top of that. Like maybe you're supposed to throw out every third letter or something, and then it will make sense," said Lizzie.
"Can the letter A ever be a letter A?" asked Hazard.
"We don't think so. See, basically, this is like a cryptogram, and a letter is never itself. There's another kind of puzzle that's called an anagram, where you just take the letters and mix them around to form another word. Like the word 'nap' could be the word 'pan' and the 'a' doesn't have to move, or the word 'cat' could be the word 'act'—"
"Or the name 'Gregor' could be the name 'Gorger,' " said Gregor, giving Lizzie a poke in the side.
"That's what I said when Gregor told me about the Underland. That he and Gorger really had the same name," said Lizzie.
Man, that seemed forever ago! When he'd told his family the story of his first trip. "Yeah, Hazard, I'm talking about meeting giant spiders and throwing myself off a cliff, and all Lizzie can say is that this nasty old rat king named Gorger and I've got the same name. Because the letters matched. Oh, she saw that right off," said Gregor. He took a deep drink of his tea and was vaguely wondering if he should eat more cake when Heronian spoke up.
"She saw that right off?" the mouse asked slowly. "She saw that right off?"
"Sure did," said Gregor. "Well, you know how she can mess around with words." He didn't see what the big deal was. Noticing that "Gregor" had the same letters as "Gorger" couldn't hold a candle to doing that crazy who-ate-the-cheese-for-lunch puzzle. But this new information produced a strange reaction in the room. One by one, the members of the code team raised their heads and stared at Lizzie, who was twisting the aqua marker around and around in her hands.
"I saw that right off. I did," Lizzie said to herself. "That's what I saw."
"What she saw, it is the flaw in the Code of Claw," said Daedalus. "Think about exactly what it was that you saw, Lizzie."
Lizzie's eyes shifted to the code tree and began to dart around the letters. "An anagram. I saw an anagram. Where some letters can be themselves." Her mouth dropped open slightly and her breath came out in short pants.
Gregor had seen several panic attacks begin like this and was tempted to intervene. But everyone else was frozen, not daring to interrupt whatever was going on in her head. So he waited, too.
"An anagram — of Gregor's — name," said Lizzie.
"In the naming is the catching," Reflex said in a quivering voice.
"Maybe — that line — wasn't about my — name at all!" Lizzie suddenly dropped her marker and snatched up the piece of code she had been showing to Hazard. She read it, her lips moving silently over the letters. When she looked up, her next words were barely audible. "Gre—gor. Gor—ger. I think — I know — how to break — the code!"