Gregor and the Code of Claw
PART 3: The Warrior
Lizzie flipped over the strip of fabric and wrote the alphabet on the blank side as the words tumbled out of her mouth. "Okay, okay, what if it's like an anagram, and there are letters that don't change. Then all you would need is one key word and a really simple code and the rats could still keep it in their heads."
"And you think it's 'Gregor'?" asked Ripred.
"It's the word I saw," said Lizzie.
"It would be a good choice. You could remember it by 'Gregor' or 'Gorger,'" said Heronian.
"It is even easier," said Reflex. "The words only require four letters: G-O-R-E. 'Gore.' One needs only to remember the word gore."
"Yes," said Lizzie. "Yes. So the G, O, R, and E stay the same." She wrote these letters above themselves on the alphabet.
E G O R
"And now we use a cipher so simple that no one could forget it," said Daedalus.
"Single shift, be the simplest, single shift," said Min.
Lizzie nodded and began to fill in the letters.
"A is represented by B, B is C, C is D, D would be F because the E remains unchanged...." Heronian said, although Lizzie was way ahead of her. Her aqua marker speedily filled in the remaining letters.
"Try it! Go on, try it!" said Ripred, thrusting an unbroken strip of code before Lizzie.
Lizzie's hands were trembling as she lifted the strip and began to read. "Diggers — arrive — at — camp — near — Regalia. Tunnel — under way." For a moment, they all just sat there, stunned at their success.
"That's old. We need the latest transmissions." Ripred ran to the door. "Fresh code! Fresh code!" he called. He bounded back to Lizzie, scooped her up with his nose, and tossed her in the air. He spun half-way around and caught her so she landed on his back. "A letter can be itself!"
Lizzie was laughing as she flung her arms around his neck. "A letter can be itself! A letter can be itself!"
And suddenly the whole code team burst into some kind of brainiac celebration. Reflex began to shoot lines of silk around the room like they were streamers. Daedalus was scooping up heaps of code with his wings and flinging them in the air. Heronian leaped back and forth over Ripred and Lizzie. And even old Min had geared up into some creaky old cockroach dance.
Boots was in heaven, running here and there, spinning in the streamers of silk, and boogying on Temp's back. "A letter can be yourself! A letter can be yourself!" she crowed.
"Yes, a letter can be yourself, you clueless little thing," said Ripred. But he was happy. Joyful even. Hazard wrapped his arms tightly around Luxa. "So everything will be all right? Now that they've broken the code?"
"It will be better at least, Hazard," Luxa said, hugging him back. But when she looked at Gregor, he could tell she was thinking of the rest of the prophecy. Of his death.
"Everything's going to be just fine, Hazard," said Gregor. The last thing he wanted to do was crush this moment of victory with his own troubles. "Good job, Liz!" he said, high-fiving his sister.
"It was all of us," said Lizzie. "And Hazard, too. He's the one who made me think about the anagrams."
"Can I go tell the nibblers the code is broken? I am sure it will lighten their hearts," Hazard said.
"No!" said Ripred, suddenly serious. "No one outside of this room must know we have broken the code. I will personally inform Solovet. The rest of you must swear to secrecy."
All the code team nodded in agreement, so Gregor nodded, too, although he thought Hazard was right and that the news might give everybody a big psychological boost. A young woman brought in a basket filled with tightly rolled bundles of code. The code team gathered around it, eager to decipher the latest messages. Despite the general excitement, Gregor began to think about that nap again. But Ripred had other work for him. He enlisted Gregor, Luxa, Hazard, Boots, and Temp to decode the piles of accumulated messages, just in case there had been anything of value in them. Luxa suggested they work back in the bedroom, so Gregor was able to lie down again, anyway. They had to do two passes on each strip of code, one to write it as the alphabet, the second to decrypt it with the Code of Claw. Most of the messages were old news — updates on the battle to free the nibblers, the alliance with the diggers, the Bane's location — but some yielded important information in terms of which species had sided or not sided with the Bane. The cockroaches had not, the spiders were trying to remain neutral (so Reflex's presence here must be a secret), and it was too dangerous to try to approach the ants. Gregor found it difficult to believe the ants would join either the humans or the rats. They had made it very clear they wanted both species dead. Probably nothing pleased them more than a big old war between the two.
Try as he might, Gregor could not keep his eyes open. At one point Luxa whispered, "Sleep, we will manage this."
So Gregor just let himself drift off. When he awoke, everything was quiet. Luxa, Hazard, and Boots were asleep on the bed across from him. Temp snored gently on the floor. Ripred must have sent everyone to bed. Gregor tried to go back to sleep, but his back and hip hurt. He was hungry again, too. He made his way to his feet in stages and went into the code room. Lizzie and Ripred were asleep on the floor, as they'd been the other night. Ripred opened one bleary eye, took him in, and then let the lid slowly slide shut. Gregor went over to the food cart and rooted around for a snack. He found a tureen half-filled with lukewarm beef stew and finished it off. His stomach felt better, anyway.
Gregor wished Howard would come by with some more medicine. But when he thought of the wounded, and his shoes sticking to the bloody floor of the High Hall, he knew Howard hadn't had a second to do it. He could send a message to the hospital, but again, they were so busy just keeping people alive he felt like a wimp bugging them. He wondered about his mom up at the Fount. Was she getting the care she needed? Or was the hospital there as overwhelmed as the one in Regalia? And what about his dad and grandma? Boy, he hoped his dad wasn't having any ideas about coming down here to rescue them all. Maybe his relapse was bad enough to keep him in bed. It was an awful thing to wish on his dad but it was better than having him drop straight down into the jaws of the rats.
He poured a mug of cold tea and gave up on the idea of returning to bed. He wasn't really tired now, anyway. Might as well make himself useful. The area on the stone grid was covered with the latest messages all neatly transcribed in Lizzie's aqua marker. But there were still bunches of the old code spilling over baskets. Gregor grabbed a handful of strips and settled himself down to work. It was mostly the same-old same-old stuff about troop movements that had occurred weeks ago. And then out of nowhere came this message:
// |||\ |\\ // |/ / // |\\ \|. ||\ |\\ \ ||\. |\\ \\ . \| |\\ //. He wrote it as the alphabet:
UXJUDIUJQ. FJEF. JP. QJU
And then applied the Code of Claw using Lizzie's system. The words stabbed him in the heart.
Twitchtip. Memories of the rat swam before his eyes. Her nose buried in the moss of the arena because the smell of humans made her ill. The desperate look on her face as she spun around in the whirlpool. Her claws digging into his life jacket, as she choked out, "Don't — let — go!" And he hadn't let go. He had risked his life to save an outcast rat when no one else would bother to try. And then they were friends, despite the rat/human thing. Twitchtip was the first one who knew he was a rager. She had given Boots food. She had dragged herself through the rats' maze to help Gregor find the Bane, then forced him and Ares to leave her to die. But she hadn't died. Not right away. The rats had kept her alive in a pit and probably tortured and starved her while they tried to extract information out of her about Gregor. And finally, only recently, she'd left the world. As alone as ever. The tears splashing down on the words surprised him because he hadn't cried in such a long time. Not for his mom or Ares or the mice or Thalia or Luxa, or even for himself when he knew about the prophecy. It was just that it had all been so awful, Twitchtip's life. Banished to the Dead Land because of her remarkable sense of smell, living alone in that harsh world before she finally, desperately, had teamed up with Ripred. Bleeding to death in the maze but not fast enough, not soon enough to escape falling into the hands of the rats who hated her for being a scent seer and then hated her even more for helping Gregor.
"All right. All right now." Ripred was looking over his shoulder at the message.
"It's not all right!" Gregor's voice was harsh, but low, because he didn't want to wake everyone to see him like this. "I should have gone back for her."
"We thought she was dead," said Ripred.
"But we didn't know. And they had her all this time. And we never even found out for sure," said Gregor. He thought of his dad, wasting away for years in that rat pit. Had she died in the same one they'd found his father in?
"Even if we'd known, there's almost no chance we could have gotten her out," said Ripred. "It isn't likely they —"
"Just shut up, Ripred! I mean, what do you care? You never even liked her! You treated her like trash. You only made that deal with her to help yourself, so I' could kill the Bane for you. Don't act now like — like she mattered to you!" said Gregor. He hadn't kept his voice down. Practically everyone was awake now. Frightened by his outburst. Afraid the rats had broken into the palace. "Just shut up!"
Gregor stormed into the rat room and yanked the curtain closed behind him. He sank down on the bed and wept. He knew it wasn't just about Twitchtip, it was about all of the dreadful things that had happened and the ones that awaited him in the coming hours. A hand, Lizzie's he thought, tentatively edged around the curtain. "Leave me alone!" The weeping sent new shock waves of pain through his ribs, but it was a long time before he'd cried himself out. Then he just lay on the bed watching the soft flicker of light from an oil lamp on the wall. It was quiet outside again. Everyone must have gone back to sleep.
Footsteps entered the code room. "Where is Gregor?" asked Howard in an exhausted voice.
"In there," Luxa replied. She had not gone back to bed, then. She was waiting for him. "We had word of Twitchtip's death. They had her imprisoned in a pit until recently. He is greatly upset."
There was a moment of silence while Howard absorbed the news. "So should we all be. Only Gregor's grief should not be mixed with shame, as should ours," said Howard. He had not attempted to save Twitchtip from the whirlpool at first but had taken excellent care of her afterward. "She did us all a great service and what poor treatment we gave her in return."
Howard opened the curtain to the rat room and came in. "I am sorry," he said. Gregor didn't reply. "Come. Sit up. You must have need of this." Howard helped him to a sitting position, administered a dose of painkiller, and gave him the rest of the bottle for later. He painted a new coat of medicine on Gregor's hip and calf stitches, and applied fresh bandages. Finally he examined his back. "Quite a bruise, but the bones are holding in place," he said as he wrapped the ribs again. Then he sat on the bed, elbows on his knees, digging the palms of his hands into his forehead, trying to find the right words. "Gregor, of all those Twitchtip knew in her life, I am sure she would wish you the least amount of grief," said Howard.
"You helped her, too. After the whirlpool. In the maze," said Gregor.
"Because you were right," said Howard. "You were the only one of us who looked past her fur and teeth and claws and saw who she really was. If we are ever to have peace, that will be the first step. The alternative is this." Howard waved a hand vaguely, somehow suggesting their current situation. "Slaughtering one another. Walling ourselves in with our dead. So pointless. All of it." He gingerly touched his eyes, bloodshot and swollen from fatigue. "You must rest your back if it is to heal."
"You need some rest, too, Howard," said Gregor.
"No. If you could see the hospital..." Howard looked down at his hands. They were shaking badly.
"Only I begin to fear I will do more harm than good."
"Just for a few hours. Lie down. I promise I'll wake you," said Gregor.
Howard looked at him as if he couldn't quite process the words. "A few hours?"
"You are going to hurt somebody. Lie down." He stood up and pushed Howard back on the bed.
"Two' hours. No more," said Howard.
In the time it took Gregor to pull the blanket up, Howard was asleep. Gregor came out into the code room. Everyone was up again, back at work. Boots came over and put her arms up. He couldn't lift her, with his back and all, so he sat down and pulled her onto his lap.
"Ow," said Boots. She pressed her hand to her nose. "Ow." This was the sign she had used for Twitchtip, to indicate the rat's hurt nose, when she was still too little to say her name. "She died."
"Yeah," said Gregor, thinking. it had been better before Boots had understood about dying.
"You put her here," Boots said, patting his chest over his heart. Well, not exactly — she got the wrong side. But he knew she meant his heart.
"I'll put her there," Gregor confirmed. He caught Luxa's sad gaze. She had had her own connection with Twitchtip. They had protected each other in the maze for as long as they could.
Gregor set Boots back on her feet and went over to help Luxa with the strips of code. "I truly believed her dead, Gregor," she whispered.
"I know," said Gregor. "I guess I must have, too. But I didn't deal with it. I had, like, this fantasy that she'd escaped. She was safe back in the Dead Land or something."
"She is safe now," Luxa said wanly.
"That's how it works down here," Gregor said. Nothing was really safe until it was dead. He looked at Ripred, thought about the rat's family, and wished he hadn't yelled at him. If anyone knew about being tortured in a pit it was Ripred, who had been left by the Bane to die in the Firelands, his teeth overgrowing until they'd locked in a grotesque fashion. Ripred had treated Twitchtip like he treated almost everybody else. Not great. But Ripred hadn't killed her and if she had lived, Gregor felt sure he would have made good on his promise to let her join his band of rats. Not that it mattered now. A basket of new code rolls came in and Ripred put everybody, even those who had been translating the old stuff, on them. They had been working only a few minutes when Min began to click in distress. "Bad news, here be, bad news!" The cockroach was too agitated to read the message outright, so Luxa hurried to help her. She could translate the chicken scratch into letters and then break the code on sight now.
"When — diggers — reach — arena — launch — attack —" she read.
"What? Where?" asked Ripred, jumping to her side.
Luxa held up the strip of fabric so they could both see it.
"By the river," he read aloud.
"By the river," Luxa repeated. "No one can attack by the river. They would be torn to shreds in the rapids."
"Not anymore. Have you seen it lately? Since the earthquake?" said Gregor.
"No," said Luxa. She had been too ill to notice anything on their flight back from the Firelands.
"It's very low. They would have to swim down several hundred yards from the north beach, but they could do it," said Ripred.
"You have been in the war room. What defense have we in place at the docks?" asked Luxa.
"Nothing," said Ripred. "Nothing at all."