Rat Key (Updated Version)
Author's note: This is the revised version of Rat Key and let me tell you, it is much improved. I'm still... Show full author's note »
And so the surface shakesI rub the back of my head and sigh as I walked around the city. This whole government thing really bothers me. We’ve had people like him come here before, but this guy’s different. He looked right at me like he knew me. ‘What if he does know me?’ I think. I shake my head and dismiss the thought. ‘There’s no way.’ But still, there’s Grand in the mix now too. He may just be big enough, loud enough, and stupid enough to make a difference here. ‘This’ll get real bad real fast.’
I stop in front of an abandoned library. Vines are starting to grow over it like a present wrapped in ribbon and a bow. The windows are shattered and the walls cracked. I almost feel bad for it, but I don’t. Instead, I snort and say, “Shows how much people like…whatever it is they keep in libraries.” I turn my head to the left and then to the right, making sure I’m not being seen and continue on my stroll.
I pass the old bar, the movie theatre, the museum. All of them are being eaten alive by vines. But I guess that’s what happens on this side of the city. Nobody cares about it, so nobody does anything with it and it gets devoured. I like the buildings though. They remind me of somebody, but I can’t ever decide who. They’re old, damaged, and worn, but still alive. They still work.
Out of curiosity and boredom, I creep past the slightly ajar door to the museum and explore the interior. There’s a large circular desk in the middle of a very large room with an extremely high ceiling. Several banners are hung from the ceiling with different pictures on them. One of them has a skeleton of some animal I’ve never seen before. It has a really big head, with long, powerful looking teeth, and short arms. I laugh a little at how ridiculous it looks. The banners have some symbols on them, but I don’t know what they mean, so I disregard them and head into a hall full of animals.
They are all so still, I think they must be paralyzed or something. Hundreds of animals stand like statues behind a wall of glass. I tap on it, trying to get a large cat like thing to move. It doesn’t even blink. It just bares its teeth at me like it was before. “Why don’t you move?” I ask it. “You’re an animal. You’re supposed to move.” I don’t get a response to that either. Frustrated, I walk away from the big cat and stand in front of a very tall, dark brown animal, with really big horns protruding from its forehead. They don’t really look like horns though; they aren’t sharp. Instead, they’re rounded and curved in a shape that’s almost like a bowl. “How do you move with those things on your head? Isn’t it heavy?” I ask. Nothing. “Hey!” I hit my fist on the glass repeatedly, but still, not one of the animals stir. ‘They must be very well trained,’ I think.
I walk on, into a circular room with a whole grassy desert area in it. There are several animals behind a curved wall of glass. One of them looks like a horse, but it has a bunch of black and white stripes on it. Another looks like a really big cat, except it has long, darker hair around its neck. A third’s rather ugly looking with its dirty tan fur. It stands on its back legs and wasn’t very tall. I guess that it wouldn’t even reach to my knee. There’s a very tall animal with a ridiculously long neck. It’s skinny and has light, spotted fur. I don’t really know what to make of that one, but as I crane my neck to look at its head, I saw that this wall of glass doesn’t reach the ceiling. There’s at least three feet between them, so I climbed up, helped by a slanted stool with loads of words and pictures of it. I drop to my feet and I’m inside the desert. It’s different than I expected it to be though. It doesn’t feel any different from a city. It’s not any warmer and it smells exactly the same. “Aren’t you guys kind of cramped here? There’s so much space, why don’t you spread out?” I ask. None of them reply. “Hey, look,” I say, walking further into the desert, “there’s all of this space for- ow!” My head crashes against something hard, but there’s nothing in front of me. Puzzled, I turn around to the animals. “What was that?” You could’ve heard a pin drop in that desert. A smile creeps onto my face. “I see what you’re doing. You’re playing tricks on me. Think you can fool a rat, eh?” I turn back around to the rest of the desert and reach my hands out for the animal I’d run into. But it doesn’t feel like an animal. It feels cold and rough. I move my hands around and notice that it’s constant from one end of the glass wall to the other. “Wait a second,” I say, “this isn’t a desert at all. This is a wall. It’s painted, isn’t it?” The animals give me the silent treatment again. “Fine! If you’re going to be rude, I’ll just leave.” Then I realize that there isn’t a stool for me to use on this side of the glass. I climb on top of the animal with the long neck and leap across the top of the glass. I land on my feet, but stumble forward a few steps when I do. “Ha! Bet you didn’t think I could do that, eh, Long-neck?” The thing just rocks slightly. At least it moved though.
“What was that?” a hushed voice says from another room. I run into the room right next to the one with the fake desert and clamber over the glass. I land in a fake prairie with four horses. I climb on top of one and freeze, hoping whoever it is that heard me isn’t going to come this way and if he does, he believes that I’m supposed to be in here. Luckily, there’s another rider. He’s dressed like he’s from the 1800s. What a weird man.
“You go look in there,” another voice says from somewhere very close. After a few seconds, a man with a pistol enters the room and looks around. His eyes fall on me and bear into my skull. I try my best to remain as still as the horse I’m pretending to ride.
“Don’t remember the horses having two riders when I came here as a kid,” he says.
“Will you focus? If there’s someone here and we don’t find them, Grand’ll kill us,” the man in the other room says, sounding angry. ‘Grand?’
“Alright, alright, I was just mentioning it. Jeez,” he says as he walks out of the room. He’s still too close though for me to move.
“Nothing?” the other man pauses, “Alright, let’s go then.” They walk away, their footsteps heavy.
I very slowly and very quietly climb out of the fake prairie and tip toe to the door, looking around for anybody else as I do so. Then I squeeze through the door, being careful not touch it and potentially create noise. As soon as I’m out, I quietly take a few more steps and then I bolt off sprinting. I race by all the dilapidated buildings with vines taking them over and head straight for one of Hearth’s grates. I slip into the grate, startling whoever’s supposed to be guarding it. “Whoa, Rat! What’re you doing?” he calls after me.
I don’t answer him. I just keep running. I have to talk to Hearth right away. I run around corners and through long halls, desperately trying to get to Hearth. I know she’d be in the left wing at this point in the day, so I run toward that. As I turn the last corner before the left wing, I come face to face with Hearth, almost running into her. Alarmed, we both skid to a halt.
“Rat! What on Earth are you running around for?”
“Grand is making some kind of plan. He was in the old museum today,” I huff.
I simply nod, knowing that she didn’t say what because she hadn’t heard me, but instead because she couldn’t believe it. “Oh my God.”
“He had henchmen there too…and who knows who else.” She asks if I think that our special visitor found him. “Or Grand found him. Either one is terrible.”
Hearth bit the tip of her thumb in thought. “What are we going to do?”
“We need to tell the other leaders. This is a threat to everybody in this city,” I tell her.
“And what if they’re in on it? What if they find out that we know about Grand’s plan and don’t really like it?”
I hesitate, knowing she’s right. As much as I trust most of the leaders, you can never know just who is teamed up with whom. Technically speaking, I shouldn’t have told Hearth, but I did. For all I know, she could be allied with Grand. I simply say that she’s right.
She just nods absent mindedly, staring at a very interesting spot on the dirt floor. Judging by her gaze, something could’ve been coming out of the floor…and there is. A drilling noise fills the hall as a small lump of dirt grew and opened up to reveal a hole; it’s a hole with a man in it. He’s short and slightly fat with dark brown hair either naturally or from dirt. He wears a black coat with a tear at his elbows and has a light on a bent tube that’s attached to a metal ring around his forehead.
“News from the Surface. A group of revolutionaries has formed in the eastern part of Maw. They call themselves the Steamers. That is all,” he says in a monotone but with a slight lisp. Then he drills again and disappears underground.
I turn to Hearth, my eyes wide with shock. She meets my confused eyes and says, “That’s Mole. He’s a…friend, you could say.”
“You mean he’s a spy.” She admits that I’m right, but also mentions that he comes in handy at time like these. I mentally laugh at the phrase ‘times like these’ and think a little about how the city’s beginning to unravel. “How does he do that?” She just shakes her head and raises her eyebrows. “Revolutionaries, eh? Wonder what that’s all about.”
She places her fist under her chin and thinks for a few seconds before raising her head with a lit up expression. “Hey, Rat, were you planning on doing anything today?” I answer no, but say it skeptically. I’ve learned over the years that Hearth never asks if you have plans unless she has some for you. “I see, I see. Well then, since you’re so curious about these revolutionaries, why don’t you go investigate?”
“Oh, no. I will not be pushed around by you again.”
“Please, for me?” she says, giving me her cutest, most innocent look. I almost believe it.
“No,” I say flatly. “Have that Mole creature do it.”
She suddenly turns dramatic, placing her hand lightly on her forehead. “Oh, but Mole isn’t quite there like you are, Rat. He’s spent a bit too much time underground, I think.”
“Flattering me won’t work, Hearth,” I say as I cross my arms.
“Fine, fine. Maybe I’ll just tell you to do it then.”
“Will you?” She says yes. “And if I say no?”
“Rat, go investigate those revolutionaries. Now.” I tell her I’ve got no intention of following up on that. “Rat. Go.” I shake my head side to side. “Go!”
“Alright fine! Have it your way!” I turn to leave but not before she gets the last word.
“Oh I will.”
‘Stupid woman. Why can she always push me around like that? I don’t get it!’ I think as I climb the ladder to the Surface, grumbling. I storm toward the museum again before I realize I have no idea where these people would be. ‘What was it Mole said? East town?’ I turn in a full circle. ‘Which way’s east again?’ I scratch my cheek and frown. “This could be a problem.”
I decide that forward is as good a direction as any and head off. Passing the dilapidated buildings again makes me feel kind of down, but at the same time I feel young. All of these buildings are dead, but I’m still alive and well. Why didn’t they survive like me? I walk and walk until I swear I must be nearing the edge of the city but sad, beat down buildings just keep coming. Eventually, after what seems like hours, I reach an enormous stone wall as the sun begins to set and the sky turns light orange. The wall looms over me like some kind of imposing demon. It’s a giant staring down hungrily at its prey. And I’m the prey. “Interesting,” I say, “Why do they feel the need to trap us in here?”
I dismiss the thought quickly when I hear the rapid firing of a gun, followed by a low hardy laugh. Crouching down low, I shuffle toward the front of a building. I straighten my back and peer around the corner of the dead tan shack. My jaw drops at what I find. A man is standing in the open grass, holding his arm up and examining it. He’s a fat man with greasy black hair and boots of the same color. He wears an oil stained wife beater and loose grey pants with a yellowish tan apron over them. His arm is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s grey and has several gun barrels rather than a hand. It’s a machine. A young girl approaches him from behind the shack with a wide smile on her face. She has light brown hair that goes no farther than her chin and wears a black bomber hat. She has tight brown pants and a tan leather jacket. On her feet, she wears knee high black boots. She doesn’t look any older than 16.“It worked perfectly! Oh, you’ve done it, Dad!” she says excitedly.
“Your Dad’s made a breakthrough, Katie. Those Surfacers won’t doubt us again!” he says proudly. “Now where’s your gun? We need to make sure it’s in top shape.”
She turns and faces me, reaches to her side where a gun holster rests on her belt. “It’s right,” she pauses, her eyes meeting mine. I flinch and clamber on top of the building. “Here.”
Bang! A few shingles are blown off of the roof near the edge. “Think you can spy on us, eh?” the man says. A rapid succession of bullets follows his words and countless shingles are blown to bits. I hold my ground, lying flat on my stomach on the roof. I know that escape is impossible. They’ll shoot me. So what do I do? Bang!
“Hey! We know you’re there so why don’t you just show yourself?” the girl named Katie shouts.
I bite my lip, knowing that what I am going to do will probably get me killed, but what other option is there? I stand up slowly and look down at them. The girl’s eyes go wide. The man raises his gun or rather his arm and takes aim. “Wait! Don’t shoot!” Katie yells, rushing over to her father.
“What, Kate? He’s a spy.”
“Look at him. Dark brown hair, dusty green pants, brown boots, black shirt, torn up green cape? Ring any bells?” After receiving a blank look from the man, she rolls her eyes and says, “He’s Rat, Dad.”
“What?” The man turns to me and seems to analyze me. “By golly, he is!” He lowers his arm and says, “Come on down, Rat. We won’t shoot.” Hesitant and very confused, I hop off the roof, landing gracefully on my feet. I ask them how they know my name.
“You’re famous around here! We all respect you!” Katie declares.
“Where is here and who is we?” I ask.
“Where is the Autobody and we is the Steamers. Have you heard of us?” the man asks, smiling a wide and dirty smile. His voice is rough like sand paper.
“Steamers? You’re that group of revolutionaries,” I say, trying not to give away the fact that I’m here to investigate them. Katie squints and demands to know who told me that. “I, uh, I heard it from a mole.”
The man laughs loudly and seems to shake the earth, but I stay on my feet. “We’ve gotten stranger answers around here, haven’t we?” Katie nods in agreement. “Nice to meet ya, Rat. The name’s Brian, but they all call me Clank here.”
“Don’t suppose you’re good with machines?”
“Hahaha, what tipped you off?” He elbows me hard in the ribs with his metal arm. It feels as though he’s bruised the bone inside my abdomen. “The arm? The name? The get up?”
“A combination, really,” I say, rubbing the spot where he jabbed me. “So this Autobody, what exactly is it?” Clank says that it’s where all the Steamers live. They set up a camp just a few days ago. “And what exactly are Steamers?” I ask.
“What are Steamers? What do you live under a rock?” Katie says. I raise my eyebrows at her in question. “Oh, right, you’re from the Tunnels. Well, here. Just let me show you.” She grabs ahold of my lower arm and drags me off in the direction of a rare row of pine trees. We slide through them, needles poking at our skin and arrive in an immense, open field. Several tan and patched tents are set up with people rushing in and out of them. Many of them carry some sort of material, mainly metal, or tool. Almost all of them are either teenagers or young adults. All of them wear clothing similar to Katie and Clank. Dark boots, tight pants for girls, looser pants for guys, jackets, gloves, some long, some short, some of them wear flight goggles, some wear bomber hats, some wear pulled back metal masks. A few people glance at us but carry on with their business. Clank goes off somewhere toward a large, seemingly troublesome machine and sets to work. “See?” Katie says as she drags me through the cluster of tents. “These are Steamers.”
Machines are everywhere. Parts of them scatter the ground like the aftermath of a horrible battle. At almost every turn, there’s somebody pounding away with a hammer or drilling holes in a sheet of metal, but most of all, people are tinkering with things, not really having much of an effect and I don’t think they mean to. “You’re inventors.”
“Correct,” she says, “We make everything here out of metal and steam. Pretty neat, eh?” she says, gesturing to a small airship taking flight. The thing is literally a boat taking flight with metal wings attached to the sides. It looks like a kid’s toy, but I know it’s not. Or do I? Do I really know anything here? I decide not as a man rides by on a gold machine that resembles a spider and walks like one too. It shoots steam out of the spouts on its body every so often.
“Check it out, Katie! Finally got it done!” he shouts over the incredible noise of the thing. She shouts some sort of word that I can’t understand. I mutter the word amazing and don’t expect Katie to hear me, but she replies to it. “Glad you like it. It’s not much, but hey, it’s home now,” she says, sounding almost sad.
“Why are you guys here? You’re great inventors. Why don’t you make money in the city?”
Katie furrows her eyebrows and balls up her fists. “Because that city is corrupt, that’s why. They banish people to the Tunnels saying they ‘disrupt society’. The only reason they disrupt anything is because they’re not accepted. The Surfacers only want the normal and only the normal belong. None of us here are normal so none us belong and we’re sick of it. If they want our talents, they can accept us for who we are. And they can accept your people too.”
“You do realize that gangs live in the Tunnels right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t care. There’s good in everybody. Take Well, for instance. He’s a great man, but he’s the leader of a gang. Your social standing means nothing to us Steamers.”
“Hm. Can’t say all of us are as pure hearted as you, but it’s good that you think that way. We need more people like you in this godforsaken city. But what do you plan to do to change things?”
“Uh, that we don’t know…yet. We will. With so many great minds here, how could we go wrong? We’re Steamers! Even though we don’t know what the heck we’re doing right now, if you ever need us, just call,” she smiles.
“Will do. I ought to be heading back to the Tunnels, though. Don’t want too many people to know who I am.”
“Right, a hidden identity is all a thief has,” she says, “It was nice to meet you, Rat.”
“Nice to meet you too. Take care of yourself, Katie.” I turn and wave over my shoulder as I walk in the direction of the nearest grate. “Work on that revolution of yours.”
“You can count on that one!” she calls back to me.