Bad behaviour, especially a child’s,
that is slightly bad but is not intended
to cause serious harm or damage.
Also, a conglomeration of rats.
Scurrying, a mischief of two, Rook turned and whispered to Coda who was not far in his tow.
‘We’ve been here.’
‘Yes?’, replied Coda, sniffling, then sneezing, then wiping her nose on her sleeve. Finding no clean spot, the outcome was undeniably worse.
‘Fine’, answered Rook. ‘Map.’
‘I wish you’d warned’, scolded Coda, blind and grimacing and cross.
‘Sorry’, repeated Rook, sheepishly, who had himself only barely remembered to look away in time.
‘Dial down the…’
‘I know. I know. There…’
Rook’s mind was a jumble of twine, his inventions somehow always ahead of him. Out of control. The holographic map now seared onto Coda’s retina was exactly one such invention. The blueprint of the bunker was available to all, of course, though no true Bunker Rat had ever set so much as an eye on it. Maps were an intimate affair to Bunker Rats. Every Bunker Rat possessed their own map etched into their mind, a most complex sensory web of information, cultivated over years of underground dwelling, that guided them through the gloomy depths of the earth. No two maps were the same, thus, no two Bunker Rat travelled the underground the same way. And it was a matter of excessive pride, almost a code of the Bunker Rats—if such a thing could be said to exist—that it should be so.
It was a testament to Rook’s uniqueness of mind, to his vision, that he managed to skirt this blind-spot. In fact, his map was counter-culture in more than one regard, for not only did it delineate the entire bunker in more detail than the blueprint—now outdated by almost a century—it also delved deep into the unsanctioned warrens that webbed the underground like roots to the bulb of the bunker. However sacrilegious, it was Rook’s belief, that no mind could contain the vast extent to which the underground had spread. A constantly evolving virtual map, granted them unsurpassed dominion over the warrens. It was a tether which enabled them to wade further into the unknown than anyone had dared to go. No bunker rat had ever seen the light of day. So it stood to reason that the way of the bunker rat was erroneous. A limiting factor. Already outcast, neither of them granted much weight to the decorum of the Bunker Rat… inasmuch as it did not imperil their existence amongst the community, of course. Theirs was the way of the fringe dweller. Of the pioneer. Invested with that infamous restlessness so many genius possessed, which either led to greatness… or fiery demise. Only one thing was certain: the way out would not find them of its own accord.
Coda vehemently defended Rooks unconventional method. In her eyes, Rook was the way out. So, she made her peace with the fact that not a single one of his off-beat ventures was not a work in progress, to say the least.
That’s the business of catapulting oneself into the future, Coda often supposed, sometimes you’re ahead of yourself, sometimes behind.
She certainly could not keep track, and she was fine with the fact that it would never not be so. In truth, there existed two distinct Rooks. While the Rook she could see and talk to orchestrated his madness; in his shadow, something more pernicious was at work. Though not exactly poetic, Coda had taken to calling the conniving Artificial Intelligence of sorts: The Roobot.
Perhaps pernicious was too harsh a word, but she could never help but be, at the very least, wary of The Roobot, which, too often, seemed to possess a will of its own. Coda, by her estimation, spent as much time working against the Ai, as she did working with it. Working mostly behind the scenes, there was no telling how many simultaneous projects it endlessly enhanced, streamlined, and generally bamboozled. Expert mostly in pushing a concept to its logical extreme, The Roobot Ai made a poor companion to Rook’s eclecticness, his general folly, and the sheer flurry of ideas that constantly travelled his mind. A poor companion, yes, for it worked much in the same way that Rook did. That is to say, it possessed no power of discrimination. Its prodigious processing capacity meant that it could afford to act upon any and all of Rook’s whims, any and all of his schemes, of his intuitions, of his so-called masterplans.
Of which, or so Coda incessantly reminded him, there were too many. Too many to be conducive to any one constructive end. And she would know. Since Rook always had a foot into the next venture and the next, the task of abstracting a concrete result from them, generally befell Coda. Under her executive patronage, the haywire concoctions of the Rook and Roobot explosive duo, were either promoted or retired. As Editor-in-Chief, she triaged everything in accordance to its likelihood to lead to a way out.
And given the overwhelming flow of Rook’s mind, her triage needed to be highly exclusive. That is to say, her title might as well be amended to Retirer-in-Chief. Once retired, the troublesome off-springs of Rook’s mind found a home in a place she called The Cemetery. This trash-bin for troublesome widgets, in truth, frightened her.
‘Out of sight and out of control’, she would say. Perhaps a more accurate word, although she would never admit this to Rook, would be Archive. These programs went onto the back-boiler and, by no means, ceased their feverish devolution into madness. However, as much as she feared their ceaseless brooding, she could not help thinking of herself as an amateur curator of a darkly museum of sorts. One day, when one of Rook’s inventions would strike gold, his outcasts would surely acquire some kind of counter-culture value on the Fog—the underground network—or even the Cloud—Earth’s network. Who knew?
‘Note’, whispered Coda. ‘Condensation on a cooling pipe. Drops slide when big enough, acquire speed when conjoined with other drops. Title: Rook’s mind is a cooling pipe.’
‘I like that one.’
‘Yeah?’, asked Coda, still half-blind, a lick of nervousness in her voice. It was not often that Rook listened in on her notes.
‘Highlight note. Archive.’ Then, in the quietest whisper, so as not to be overheard, she addendumed, ‘Note. Does Subject 1 perhaps listen more than previously believed? Investigate. Priority: Yellow. No. Priority: Orange. Archive.’
‘Co, where do you think we are?’
‘Dunno’, she answered half-heartedly. She hated this game. ‘Still underground, I presume.’
Rook sighed, only partly defeated by her lack of faith. It befell him, after all, to get them out, and that was no trifle burden.
‘Go fish’, answered Rook, and though still squinting, Coda thought she could make out the faint outline of a grin on his sooty face. She shivered with electric apprehension. Satisfaction, coming from Rook, was bona fide damnation.
‘Above ground? Not so…’ Coda said, weighing the concept. ‘Can’t be.’
‘So, my fellow rodent’, answered Rook with gleeful mischief. Blind or not, there was no longer any avoiding the grin that stretched, so out of place, on the brooding genius’ face…
‘Note. A bust of Rook would not look out of place amongst the likes of Mozart and Shakespeare. Anticipate demand for such artefact, holographic, 3D printed perhaps, make a fortune. Archive.’
‘Hand me the felt pouch.’
‘The felt pouch… Oh, this is a bad day…’
Rook’s sharp teeth flashed once more. In the end, as an archivist, Coda could not stand in the way of her subject, however unfavourable the outcome promised to be.
‘Here’, Coda said resolutely, handing him the infamous felt pouch, milestone of trouble. ‘Work your evil. Whatever you do, I suppose you can’t summon worse than this… hell.’ And then, in a mousy voice, she added, ‘Please don’t…’
‘Earthbound!’, shouted Rook, interrupting her.
‘Earthbound’, Coda said disheartened, repeating the secret slogan of their escape campaign. She shook her head. ‘Note. Try everything but madness and you’ll never succeed. Not fully. Title: Courage of Madness. Archive.’
Rook opened the felt pouch and drew forth an insect-like gadget that whirred and was not still one second. once set in motion. From one instant to the next, it vanished from the palm of his hand. Coda was scratching the rash on her thumb, in that anxious way she had. Rook unexpectedly reached out to soothe the restless scratching, before her nails drew blood.
‘It’ll work. I guarantee it.’, he reassured her, as faint sounds of drilling became audible above.
What was with him today? Reluctantly, she allowed her anxiety towards the outcome of his scheme, to shift momentarily towards an anxiety at his uncharacteristic behaviou. Which, as a whole, was surely a betterment.
‘I might not be smart’, he said, as the whirring and drilling of the insect-gadget continued above, ‘but I’m a thinker!’ He tapped his nose twice as he said so.
A deafening alarm caught her halfway to a smile. Reflexively, they both crouched low, looked at one another, and scurried off. Not wanting to be anywhere close when the Repair-Droid swept into the tunnel to investigate. Repair, in this case, was shorthand for Human-Mulching.
‘Wait!’, Rook whisper-yelled, regaining some self-control. ‘Wait!’
‘No time, no time,’ Coda was repeating frantically, a certain madness in her eyes.
Not yet knowing what impulse drove him, he grabbed hold of her wrist. Then, forcefully, he began dragging her back to the spot where the insect-like gadget had disappeared. Terror had sapped all of the strength from Coda’s limbs, so that she was beyond the capacity to resist his madness.
‘Leave the damn thing’, she said, yelling now, to be heard over the alarm. She thrashed weakly, cowed by a mortal fear.
‘I don’t care…’, he said, pulling ever harder, ‘…about… the gadget.’
‘What..? Rook, come on…’, she pleaded, tears welling in her eyes.
‘Here. We’re here. STOP!’
Stunned into obedience by the uncommon harshness of his command, she crouched quite still.
‘What? You’ve lost your mind, Rook…’
How could he be smiling? In a moment like this? Mad like a rabid rat in a cage…
‘I am breathing…’
‘Now you are!’
‘Oh’, and she was. For the first time, she was. It hurt her nose, so cold, so raw was the air she inhaled. She rose to her full height to the small hole the insect-gadget had bored into the ceiling of the tunnel. A faint taste of blood hovering, metallic, over the back of her tongue.
‘Soo… freeesh!’, she blurted out, drunkenly. ‘So good… So good, it soapin’ hurts!’
‘Smell that Co? Don’t ever forget that smell.’
‘What is it Ro? What have you done?’
‘That Co, is a taste of surface-Earth. It is a taste of the future. Never doubt it. It’s ours. It’ll all be ours one day, you’ll see.’
A moment carved itself out of thin air, then. And they held each other, in an unconscious embrace, so full of childhood innocence, and stayed there for what felt like an eternity. Each felt the cold dampness of the other’s skin, or at least their bodies registered it. For, in that moment, the smell of the future, rushing through the tiny opening the insect-like gadget had bored, filled their senses to the brim.
He pushed her round glasses up the bridge of her nose, and said, ‘You know, for a rat, you sure look mousy.’
She blushed, her retort, something about his rat tail haircut, jumbled itself in her mind. Quintessential Rook, she thought, despite herself. Quintessential rat in his madness. Oozing cool. Averse to it too. No putting your finger on it either.
‘Rats’, she whispered with a sigh. And, suddenly, that was as much of a fleeting moment they could steal from impending doom.
‘Now run Coda! Run!’
She needed no such imperative. And together they laughed and fled that most dangerous place. Laughed at the prospect of death so near to this most profound reaffirmation of life. Exactly how laughter is never so far a state from tears and vice versa. The border between such states never as thin, never as ephemeral as when experienced fully.
Death would not come swift at the hand of the Repair-Droid. Only their prodigious capacity to scurry any which way down the tunnels and shafts, bred into all Bunker Rats from birth, could now save their clammy near-translucent hides. Perhaps it was the pure surface-Earth air, they had just inhaled, that gave their limbs an extra agility; or perhaps it was the taste of the future which granted them a new indomitable will to survive; but, in the end, they managed to outrun mortal peril. Soon they found themselves panting and whining and whooping on the floor of their secret lair.
‘Note…’ Coda managed, after heroically collecting some measure of wind in her lungs. ‘Never… never listen… listen to Rook… ever again.’
‘Never…’, Rook managed in a hoarse whisper. ‘Never… not.’
‘Never not.’, Coda, despite herself, agreed. ‘Rook’, she said, after some of the euphoria waned, ‘kill us… or free us, but do it quick.’
Although Coda concluded her decree with a sincere attempt at a smile, she saw that Rook’s eyes were suddenly leaden with purpose and intent. It was no negligible burden to have the fate of another in your hands, let alone the fate of someone whom you loved more than you loved even yourself; but neither was Rook’s courage negligible. He nodded solemnly, conspiratorially.
‘It’s no pipe-dream, Co.’
After this, both fell into their own respective worlds. Rook tinkering, as he never wasn’t, and Coda mulling over her notes from the day, classifying, finding in them a sense of order which enabled her to withstand the never-ending chaos of their bunker existence. Archiving, she stumbled across a few unclassified notes, which she could not remember taking. Ime. Ime. Ime. Ime, they read. All seventeen of them. For the life of her she could not remember what on Earth’s surface they meant. She merged them all into the same file. And since it was her proclivity to hoard, she filed it under Poetic—that most mystical area of her archives, dedicated to her uninterpretable notes.
One day, I’ll find a home for all of you, misfits, she thought. And perhaps then… Perhaps then, I’ll cease taking notes altogether. That was just the thing about the future, it could never be too utopic.
All her notes classified by theme and leitmotif, she fell into a shallow sleep, lulled by the clinking and humming of Rook at work on whatever new devilry his mind conjured. Not so simple an endeavour to sleep when one’s mind is constantly on, as Rook’s was. Rook possessed no filter, no reducing valve, through which he perceived the universe. His mind was an unfathomable pool of free-association. And, how he could withstand the constant onslaught of it, how he could abstract anything out of so much chaos, and somehow come out the wiser for it; was beyond any and his comprehension.
Coda’s note Op. 17 A-9 described it best: Rook’s thinking is so outside, that he would not be able to find the box, even if he tried. Which he never, not in a million Earth-years, would.
Besides, Rook had Coda. Coda was his box. Coda was his filter. And that was no trifle thing. Though how malign or beneficial this dependence on Coda, this unspoken collaboration, would prove to be; there was as of yet no telling. So long as they remained a unit, it was at least safe to say that theirs would not be a benign alchemy.
Rook was tinkering softly still when Coda awoke, a few hours later, to take a few more notes.
‘Note’, he heard her whisper with a yawn. ‘No time – Note Ime. Not poetic, reclassify… reclassify in…’, but before she could think of a place for the anomaly—which despite its now worthless nature, she would never delete—she fell once more into a deep sleep.
Rook smiled kindly. Then, maniacally. Then, not at all. A pale and insomniac genius in the dark. A pale and insomniac genius in the dark, not for very much longer.