Izzy called back almost an hour later. The noise level was significantly higher, and Emily realized her friend must have gone home after the class was over. She could hear Izzy’s little brothers in the background.
“Let me try to get somewhere quieter. I promise it wasn’t this loud when I dialed you,” Izzy shouted.
Emily held the phone away from her ear and grinned.
“They only got extra loud once it was ringing. The timing!”
Emily heard a door close, and the noise level cut. She assumed Izzy had gone into her bedroom.
“Yeah, so class ran over a little since we started late, and then I decided to come home before calling you back. I’m starving, so forgive me if I chew in your ear.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Emily said. I’ve heard hungriness and college go together.
“Lucky me I live nearby and my mom is always ready to feed me!” Izzy said. “A lot of the other students are surviving on frozen burritos and ramen noodles.”
“Your mom is cool,” Emily agreed. “So, how much of what I said did you hear?”
“Literally all of it, and it really made it hard to keep my mind on Voltaire, I’ll have you know. I mean, Mr. Washington is a pretty engaging history professor, but coded messages always overtake my brain.”
“Wait, your history teacher is named Mr. Washington? He doesn’t by any chance, have a white wig and false teeth made of wood, does he?”
Izzy laughed. “Stop it; you’re gonna make me choke on this sandwich! Wait ‘til you hear what his middle name is…”
“Don’t tell me it’s George!”
“No, it’s Josephus.”
Emily shook her head. “Wow, the guy literally couldn’t have done anything BUT teach history.”
“That’s how he introduces himself at the beginning of the semester, ‘I’m Dr. Jeremiah Josephus Washington, and yes, my parents were history buffs.’”
Not for the first time did Emily wish she were going to college with her friend, experiencing the delightful quirkiness of having such a character for a history professor.
Someday, she promised herself. Her savings account was getting there. She would eventually be able to afford a semester at the community college.
“Anyway,” Izzy said, “that message. I had this crazy idea, since I have both things on my mind… what if it’s the key to decoding the first of the radio messages?”
“I won’t lie; that occurred to me too,” Emily said thoughtfully. “But isn’t that a long shot? The Phoenix valley is a huge area with a ton of people who could be sending Morse Code out into the airwaves for any number of reasons.”
“Really?” Izzy asked, mumbling around a bite of food. “Like what?”
Emily paused a moment and thought. “Well, I mean there’s… Ham radio operators. But so many of them use voice exclusively now. Plus—” she sucked in a breath as a thought struck her, “it’s actually against FCC rules for Ham operators to transmit encoded messages.”
“Hmm. So probably not the Hams.”
Emily snickered at Izzy’s phrasing. “Brent thinks it’s just homeschoolers going through a Morse Code phase and having fun.”
“That’s oddly specific,” Izzy said with a short laugh. “What else you got?”
Emily was silent, thinking. “I’m… not sure,” she said, finally. “I guess there aren’t as many legitimate reasons as I thought I could think of. And it does say ‘key’ in it. That sounds like decoding instructions.”
“So, let’s decode something with it!” Izzy said. “I have been fortified with an entirely too massive sandwich and I’m ready to use my brain.”
“You don’t have any homework to do or anything?” Emily asked, not wanting to contribute to her friend’s procrastination.
“Meh. I have a history paper to write for Mr. Washington’s class, but I can hammer that out pretty quickly.”
Emily was skeptical, but it wasn’t her degree. “If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure, Izzy said confidently. “Okay, let’s do this thing. Send me a picture of what you decoded, and—”
“I’m on a super basic flip phone,” Emily reminded her techy friend.
“Riiight… okay, just read it off to me and I’ll jot it down on some—” there was a rustling noise “—paper. I’m ready.”
Emily smiled. “It says ‘KEY 239261184 APPLIES TO ONE.’”
Izzy muttered the last bit of the phrase under her breath as she finished writing it out. “Okay, so the ‘key’ part is pretty straightforward, right? If we’re assuming its a key for deciphering code. Not sure about ‘applies to one’ —hey, was that spelled out or a numeral?”
“Good question!” Emily said. I’m not sure I would have thought to ask that. Good to have Izzy on the case! “It was spelled out as a word.”
Izzy made a few thoughtful sounds on the other end of the line.
“No chance it could be a bank routing number or account number, could it?” Emily mused.
“It does have nine digits,” Izzy said, thoughtfully, “so it could be a routing number. But then why ‘key’? Let’s just focus on testing the theory it’s a cipher key.”
“Yes, I agree,” Emily said. “The most basic thing I can think of is a number-letter substitution. But maybe that’s too basic.”
“Uh-uh,” Izzy said firmly. “If it’s anything like technical troubleshooting or… erm… cracking other kinds of things—”
Emily was pretty sure her friend was avoiding using the word ‘hacking’ as she had a few times before.
“—starting basic is never a bad thing. The most likely, most basic is where we begin.”
“That makes sense. How badly would it sting if we tried all kinds of complicated things and then discovered it was actually something basic we’d overlooked due to overthinking!”
Izzy groaned. “You don’t want to know how many times I’ve had that happen.”
Emily grabbed a separate piece of paper, not wanting to mark up her original decoded message. “Let’s both write out the alphabet and assign numbers 1 to 26 from A to Z.”
There were a few moments of silence as they each wrote out the simple letter-number substitution grid.
“Okay,” said Izzy, slowly, “I’m getting 2=B and 3=C…”
“9=I,” Emily added, “and then 2=B again. This isn’t making sense already: BCIB?”
Izzy didn’t reply for a minute, and then Emily heard her blow a raspberry. “Nope, it doesn’t check out unless BCIBFAAHD can be put through a secondary cipher to mean something in English. Or some other language, I guess,” she added after a brief pause.
“Or unless that IS the key to some kind of cipher. Cuz remember we’re looking for a key,” Emily said, feeling her heart sink a little.
“But, here’s something else,” Emily said, sitting up straight, suddenly as she stared at the two pieces of paper in front of her. “We just went through it a digit at a time. But looking at the number-letter grid… there are lots of double-digit letters! Maybe we need to be grouping digits together!”
“GIRL!” Izzy said, and then went silent for a while.
Emily was sure she was writing and rewriting the string of letters the way she was, grouping the digits in pairs. “I can tell you for sure 39, 92, 61, and 84 are definitely out. The alphabet only goes up to 26,” she said.
Izzy spoke abruptly. “Hey, there IS a 26 in there. Like… that’s a Z, which isn’t the most common letter, but it’s at least a starting point.”
“Hey, Iz… you know how 2=B and 3=C doesn’t really make sense, considering there are no words that begin ‘BC’? What if that’s a pair and it’s actually 23=W?” Emily grew excited.
The next moment, she and Izzy said in unison: “That would mean the 9 has to be ‘I’!”
“WIZ—” Emily breathed. “That’s weird, but it definitely has potential to be a real word.”
“We’re definitely on the right track,” Izzy breathed.
“Okay, is the next letter 1 or 11?”
“That’s a choice between A or K,” Izzy said quickly.
Emily scribbled down an A since it made more since. With only three digits remaining and a clear way they had to be arranged, both girls silently completed the decoding as fast as they could.
“WIZARD!” they both yelled.
“We both sound like Ace!” Emily blurted.
“Oh. My. Word,” Izzy whispered, either not getting the classic Who reference or just not noticing in her excitement. “I know this one!”