Bunker Rats – Chapter 2: King Rat

Hector /ˈhek.tər/
To talk and behave towards someone
in a loud and unpleasantly forceful way,
especially in order to get them to act
or think as you want.

Also, name of first rat in space.

Inasmuch as he never slept, Rook was also impossible to wake. Coda had been annoyed in waking by the incessant click-clicking of the LoBN monitor. She crab-walked over to it, sore from the previous day’s mad dash to escape the Repair-Droid; afraid to stretch out fully, thus fully acknowledging that another day must begin. The needle in the LoBN dial was bouncing off of the metal pin that indicated, in flaming red, the highest possible metric. She eyed the LoBN mistrustfully. One of Rooks innumerable, and so amply unreliable concoctions; the Law of Big Numbers monitor kept track of unusual patterns of motion in the underground. Coda squinted at the dial, at the nervous needle, at the red. Something was afoot. And… that was about as much as she could garner from the instrument.

‘Note. Lower usefulness value of the LoBN to slim. Archive.’ Her throat was still raw from the inebriating gulps of air they had stolen from surface-Earth. She cleared it, stretched her neck, swallowed dryly, and lobbed a discarded gadget of unspecified function at the sleeping lump that was Rook. The latter action was more with the aim of venting her annoyance than that of yielding any productive outcome. In truth, she was delaying the moment when she would have to put a metaphorical mental-Hazmat suit on, and delve into the murk of the night’s work. Rook’s work. Left too long to its own device, Rook’s handiwork rapidly degenerated into an unproductive cesspool of unfinished business and half-cooked delirium.

‘What’s more pressing?’, she mused aloud, notes of despair in her raspy voice. ‘Whatever the LoBN is picking up or the janitorial work?’

She cast a forlorn look at the LoBN dial which stubbornly refused to inform her of anything useful and, sighing, twiddling the tips of her fingers with apprehension, she set sights on the mental-janitorial work. She waltzed over to her workstation.

‘Earthbound, how sweet the sound’, she crooned in a broken falsetto, ‘For those of us profound, that may one day be… Earthbound.’ She whistled. Perhaps hoping to wake up Rook and thus delay her work. She settled into her throne at the helm of her workstation, and threw one more squint Rook’s way. ‘No dice… No dice, for us here mice.’

Once removed was about as close to Rook’s work as she would get. Not that her triage would not gain in efficiency were she to plug directly into his workstation. But, by her estimation, the prophylactic, in keeping her sane, was well worth the reduction in efficiency. With a sniff, she glanced between her flashing terminals at Rook’s filthy, cluttered workstation. She would never, not in a million Earth years, dare plug directly into it.

‘Cleanse that’, she whispered, the Bunker Rat colloquialism rolling so easily off the tongue. ‘Note. Murphy’s law monitor. ML or Mel monitor. More appropriate name for LoBN? For something that spells unspecified doom? Archive.’

She smiled, but swiftly sabotaged the act into one of her customary sniffs. She listened to Rook’s soft snoring. Procrastination felt oh so sweet. She made it last, one more half-hearted moment.

Do not go gentle into that good night, she thought. Bah, not quite. Do not go… Do not plug gently into… oh, never mind. Just go.

‘Fine!’

And with this, she strapped herself in and plugged into her terminal. With a prolonged sigh, she slumped into the harness and was gone.

How a body aches, she thought, as she always did, immediately after the transfer.In the immaterial realm of cyberspace, the weightlessness of the mind was so that a body seemed a grotesquely clumsy, ill-conceived vessel. Beyond, in the conceptual distance, loomed the great brooding tempest that was Rook’s chaotic realm. ‘Note. I am Huxley’s Reducing Valve to Rook’s madness. Rook exists without my moderation. I, on the other hand, serve not quite a purpose without his madness. Symbiosis in end but not quite in means. Archive.’

Always, a certain melancholia accompanied the transfer. As though the mind registered there some of the elements of death’s subtle alchemy, as though it registered some sort of trespassing. Only once fully acclimatised and oriented and resolute inside cyberspace, did she allow herself to venture into her studio, which she affectionately called The Cutting Room. Inasmuch as all is a construct in cyberspace, the aesthetic of her studio, with its broad one-way mirror, its orderly worktable, its knickknacks and charms, its green cutting mat, criss-crossed with scales and metrics; helped her maintain a foot firmly into physical humanity.

No greater apprehension did she entertain, than that of loosing the grasp of her physical humanity. How effortless it would be. As easy, she reckoned, as letting the current of a sluggish river carry you downstream. She knew what awaited there, and so she held on. Downstream was Artificial Intelligence, was Roobot, was Cyber herself in whose domain she temporarily intruded. She would never allow her work to become so inhuman as that. For then, of what use would she be? It was one of the many contradictions of her work, that the more proficient she became, the more redundant she became. There was only one thing she could do, that a computer could not do better, faster, more accurately. One domain Ai would never exceed her in. And that was emotional intuition.

An Ai’s flaw, as far she Coda was concerned, resided perhaps exclusively in their being human creation. And however alien Ai evolved to be, it would never outgrow the presuppositions of its genesis. Ai were incepted to become perfect in every way humans were not. And thus blinding them to the beauty and art and value of imperfection, to the creative potential of errors and flaws. No, Ai she would So, settling inside her Cutting Room, she recited her mantra and set about her work.

‘To strive for is noble, to attain is to fail.’

She repeated it twice, thrice before stepping into Rook’s realm of madness. Her compulsion towards order inhibiting any further procrastination. ‘Note. What rat, I ask you, would sit idle before the endless universe of possibilities presented by a curbside heap of garbage. Archive.’

For the rest of the morning, she untied knots of thought, isolated individual tangles, then individual strands, tagging and classifying them as she went, before reversing the process altogether. Then, like a migratory birds of old, she tracked their interactions in their natural environment, studied in detail their patterns of behaviour, how they merged, how they selectively attracted and repelled, in this endless most ancient mating ritual of ideas. Of original thought. His cyclical art of mind, wherein nothing was so close to the start than the end of a thought; met the science of her mind, wherein nothing was so far-flung that it could not be classified, juiced and/or archived. And the intimate interplay shone like a neon sparkle in her avatar’s eyes. Rook possessed this rare vision that allowed him to glance behind the veil of the world, into the plane beyond where everything is interwoven. Where there is no such things as an isolated phenomenon, but rather exists as a part of the whole, is defined by it. Allowing him to make connections where others my only see coincidence or fate.

For the rest of the morning, Coda slaved away. Archived. Marvelling as always at the freedom of his inspiration, his utter lack of censorship, the crude genius of it all. Though it was Rook’s job to come up with the means of their escape, in truth no smaller was her responsibility in the affair. Upon her befell the daunting task of isolating the slippery essence of his genius, and, somehow, to nurture it into some viable, actionable hacks for escape. Indeed, much wider and all-encompassing did her vision need to be than that of Rook’s. In every sense, she was the natural selection, to Rook’s untamed wilderness. And the responsibility she thereby inherited was such a constant source of anxiety for Coda, it exerted such barometric pressure upon her soul, that she feared decompression sickness, were she to let her iron grip slip for one instant.

Coda’s survival as a Bunker Rat was an improbable one. The life of a Bunker Rat was as cheap a currency as existed above or below the Earth’s surface. And as such every Bunker Rat learned from the off-set to roll with the punches, to be slippery when wet and opportunistic. Not Coda. Her adaptation to the constant state of chaos that ambushes a Bunker Rat from birth, was no trivial event. As uncommon as a pearl, a unique skill developed in layers of hard nacre around her weakness, in no small part thanks to Rook.

As acute as her chronic anxiety towards life, was, much sharper was the tool that arose from it. In truth, the gears of her keen mind never rested one second. Analysing every possible outcome well in advance. As such, she did not live in the present as much as in the future. Anticipation became a way of life. Visualisation a diving bell to weather the immense pressures. She might not possess Rook’s ability to glance unscathed upon chaos, but she had evolved an acuity to parse it. Rook, in fact, was about as much chaos as she dared allow into the carefully monitored parameters of her life. Not that it was a small measure by any standards. In fact, if it weren’t for Rook, she would never even leave the confines of their secret lair. There was only one thing strong enough to disarm her crippling anxiety and that was her indomitable loyalty to Rook.

As it concerned her work, she would ask herself the same question so often, that it evolved into its own mantra of sorts.

How many times have I discarded the One?’

For in truth, how could she trust her editing method, if she herself could not put it into words? It was all intuition to her, all tightly-knit cursive, all Latin. As simple and as obscure as that. She often wondered who was in charge of natural selection up on Earth’s surface and whether they suffered the same as she. ‘Note. When on Earth’s surface, seek out the ministry of natural selection. Archive.’

In the end, she followed her gut as to what to incentivise and what to disincentivise; taking refuge in the thought that no idea was ever so far beyond redemption that it could not be once more summoned for further consideration.

The fruit of Rook’s mind was sacred to her, or as sacrosanct as she could conceive. And so, nothing would ever be deleted. Not on her watch.

Not on her watch… Oh, the irony, she thought. For what she condemned to the Cemetery of ideas, was precisely that: beyond her watch. She, of course, would never have conceived of such a place, were it not for the overwhelming never-ceasing maelstrom of Rook’s thoughts. As things stood, she needed to prioritise her attention, and this made the Cemetery a necessary evil. She knew, in the back of her mind, that condemning ideas to fester there, far from conscious thought, was, in fact, a method of empowerment all its own. An accidental method of incentivising. And she would know, for what else was a Bunker Rat than one such discarded after-thought? And were they not themselves, Rook and her, working in the shadow to upset the natural order of the world?

Note. The world should fear us, Bunker Rats. And, so too should I fear the outcast by-products of Rook’s chaotic mind. The Cemetery will one day surface my anti-thesis, to haunt my biased soul. Archive.’

‘Poetic. I’m in a poetic mood today’, she remarked dispassionately.

There was a rhythm to her triage that was not at all displeasing to her. She would turn… ‘Note. I, Coda, turn tempestuous skies into skies where well-defined, singular cumulonimbus clouds drift, like ghosts of things to come. Their rain will fertilise the path towards our escape. Archive.’

Too far?’, she wondered. Poetic note-taking made for less informative sources to later pilfer for actionable data. However, they did provide an inspired substrate for the manifesto she dreamed of one day publishing. For the time being, she made up her mind to ease-off her attempts at prose.

When, at last, she was satisfied with her morning’s work, she glanced upon it with blurry emptiness and logged out.

Click-click click-click.

‘Yes I know. Doom is imminent. Nothing I can do about it if you don’t…’

‘Morning’, Rook said fresh and oddly jovial. ‘Are you talking with LoBN?

‘I would like to talk with LoBN. Sadly, for now, dear LoBN is as dumb as it is dumb.’

Rook turned his head sideways in that frustrating way he had of deciphering the undecipherable.

‘Morse?’

‘You’re kidding.’

‘Don’t think so… Here, let’s see.’ With this Rook fumbled for a pencil stub and scribbled down the long and short of it upon the corner of his desk.

‘Here’, he said after a brief interlude, ‘see for yourself.’

Coda sidled sceptically over, reluctant to dwell too long in the corrupting orbit of Rook’s workstation.

‘Mass… gathering.’, she read, wrinkling her nose, struggling to decipher Rook’s appalling calligraphy. ‘You’re jo-king’, she said nasally.

‘Are you laughing?’

‘That’s in no way an accurate measure for your sense of humour.’

Morse? Roobot.., she thought, meanwhile, mentally shaking a fist into the air at her arch-nemesis. This was typical of the Ai. Blink and everything in the room would change. Optimised in a way that only seemed to make sense to the unconventional mind of Rook.

Rook shrugged, mawing on the corner of a wooden piece of toast, hoping for his saliva to eventually soften it enough so that it would relinquish the few weakly calories it so stubbornly held onto.

‘Well,’ asked Rook, ‘should we go?’

‘Go?’

‘Yeah. LoBN? The mass gathering? Are you ok, Co? You seem a little… fuzzy…’ he said, waddling his fingers.

Coda’s brow furrowed. She reached over and slapped him on the back of the neck like a scolding mother.

‘Was that sharp enough for you?’

Click-click click-click, went the frantic LoBN needle in the dial.

ͼϾᐷ

‘Coast is clear.’

‘Too clear.’

Rook and Coda slipped unnoticed from one of the many convoluted passageways that led out of their secret lair. Coda sniffed.

‘So much for a mass gathering…’, she said picking at her thumb. The general vacancy unnerved her.

‘Let’s suss out the Blueprint first’, Rook said, referring to the centre-most, documented portion of the bunker, ‘I’ve got a hunch.’

Without a word, Coda fell in line, following Rook’s lead as he navigated from shadow to shadow. Though she agreed with these evasive manoeuvres, almost by default, she found herself questioning the decision of heading towards the Blueprint. To her the Blueprint was not only the epicentre of the Bunker, but the epicentre of trouble. And as such, it repelled her just as much as it attracted Rook. It was for good reason that they had established their lair outside the Blueprint’s limit. By Rook’s estimation, the known Bunker was the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and consisted of a mere ten percent of the entire subterranean realm. Though she was inclined to dilute such a claim, it nonetheless confirmed, in her mind, why the Blueprint held such highly concentrated trouble.

Coda consciously marked their exact moment of entry to the Blueprint, for the advent of its queer aesthetic. This most ancient part of the Bunker was by no means a colour-less place.On the contrary, Coda often surprised herself finding comfort in its wildly chromatic walls. Half a century or more of paint lay there scuffed and laid bare in degrees to the eye in a kaleidoscope of worn oil. History in its manifold layers. She, in fact, possessed quite a collection of cross-sections of paint, cut from the walls where all layers still remained. She liked the mementos. For her, they not only marked the various epochs of the Bunker’s history, but most importantly, they marked the moment when no more effort was place into curating the underground experience that was the Bunker. To mark the moment when the whole world dropped its pretence, and accepted the suffering neat, without adorn, of the inglorious Time-Share of earth.

‘A third above, two-thirds below’, went the motto. And she found herself whispering it every time they crossed the threshold into the known bunker. The idea that humans had lost custody of earth was somewhat of a subject of passion for her.

‘Co. Something’s off…’, Rook whispered, wrenching her from her reveries. There seemed, indeed, something vaguely amiss, though neither a convergence nor an exodus was obvious at first glance.

‘I know. Can’t get my nails under it though… Can you?’

‘Hey Brats!’

And there it was. Rook and Coda froze. The vicious voice had come from an alcove behind them.

‘Great. Tourists…’, whispered Coda, disgust in her voice.

‘You all alone Brats? Where’s the rest of your vermin kind?’

The troupe of tourists sneaked out from the alcove into the open. By skin tone alone, or general lack of translucence, tourists were immediately recognisable, though skin tone was hardly the only distinguishing factor at play.

‘Brats?’, asked Coda, examining her nails. Never so calm as when she was fuming inside. ‘Bunker rat, Brat. Not very original Tourist. You know’, she continued with a sniff, ‘I always wondered. Is it the sun that broils Tourists’ brains, or are you all born soapin’ dim?’

‘Gnaw gnaw gnaw,’ the smallest boy of the troupe said, to much snickering. ‘Do you hear that boy’s? Got to file those growing incisors somehow, I guess…’ The would be troupe leader stepped bravely forth as he spoke. Bravely, because even though tourists spent two-thirds of their life in Bunker, the third of Earth-surface time they were granted meant that their eyes never fully adapted to the gloomy underground environment. Rook and Coda, played to their advantage and clung to the shadows.

‘Oh, you Brats are all the same. You bring it upon yourselves, truly.’

Coda stayed uncharacteristically quiet at this. There was something suspicious about the boy’s confidence which she could not puzzle out. Something terribly wrong was afoot, and her mind worked furiously through the possibilities. But, in the end, she could not beat the boy to it.

‘Oh, you don’t know?’, the boy said, seizing upon the silence.

‘You’re out of your mind’, Coda said, spitting disdainfully into the muck. ‘I wish they’d stop sending us the crazy ones.’

‘My father stood up for you, you know?’, the boy said, as though she had never spoken. ‘Mystery to me why he would go to the trouble…’

‘Hey!, Coda exclaimed, surprising even herself. ‘I don’t speak French, get to the point.’

‘Why, you know, the extermination…’, the boy said only to happy to oblige.

‘Ex… extermination’, she heard Rook try the word behind her.

‘Put them to work, my dad said. They’re crafty, he said.’, the boy continued his tirade, revelling in his uncontested upper-hand. ‘Undocumented, living in filth, never seeing the sun, never breathing the air. We all took pity on you at first. But there was nothing for it in the end. Isn’t that right boys?’

‘Yup.’

‘Mmhm’

‘Nothing for it’, came the mumbling responses from the shadows.

‘See, the problem with rats’, the small boy continued, pronouncing the word rat with such disdain that his front teeth showed, ‘is that they reproduce like, well, rats. Before you know it, well, you have an infestation on your hands. And still, no one would have said or done anything, if you had only stuck to the shadows, where you belong. But boy, look at you now! How bold you’ve grown! Acting like this is your home and all. Well’ the boy said, lining up his coup de grace, ‘it’s not your home. Not for long, anyway.’

Coda felt Rook’s cold hand slide into her own. Still, she stood her ground.

‘Which brings me to my original question. We’ve been posted here all day, doing our part, helping with the… census. And something curious happened. All of a sudden, there’s not a single rat to be found. Fancy that. Haven’t seen a single rats all day! Have we boys?’

‘Nope’

‘Not a one.’

‘Let’s get out of here, Co’, Rook whispered in the interlude. Coda, however, would not let the morsel go. All the more, because the Tourist had put his finger right on the thing that was bothering her.

‘Not a one.’, repeated the squat troupe leader. ‘Well, until you two came scurrying along. So… simple question really. Where’s the rest of your vermin kind?’

There was such sugar-coated venom in the Tourist’s tone, that Coda could not help grimace.

‘Oh, they’re here’, Coda said circumspectly, eyeing the shadows emphatically.

The tourists made as though to laugh dismissively, but Rook stepped back into the shadow at that moment, and ricochetted a pebble against the far tunnel wall. The effect was instantaneous. A confusion of noises reverberated all around them and some of the Tourists jumped where they stood.

‘Now!’ Rook whisper-yelled.

Coda stood her ground a second more. Long enough to take in the small Tourist’s features, long enough to spit once more. Then, she dove down the narrow hatch Rook was holding open for their escape. The Tourists had regained their sparse wits in the interim and were closing in on Rook. But Rook was not alone, never alone. And, following some logic of its own, the pebble that wasn’t quite a pebble exploded into a cloud of smoke. Rook and Coda disappeared without pursuers.

The maintenance chute, down which they slid, was short-lived. Coda landed harder than she would have wished. Having dived head first, she was caught having to perform complex mid-air acrobatics in order to land feet first, and that took away from her capacity to roll with the impact. Stiffly, she regained her footing just in time to clear the landing spot and call, ‘Roll!’, to the falling Rook. Rook who’d had the common sense to dive feet first, gracefully converted the impact into a somersault.

‘Pfiou!’, he said. ‘What was up with those guys?’

‘Did you know it would do that?’

‘Do what?’

‘The pebble. The smoke.’

Rook shrugged and was about to say something, but Coda put her hand on his mouth.

‘Shhh!’, she whispered.

At first, they listened to the kerfuffle echoing from above that reached through the chute. And then, there was… something more…

‘A mass…’

‘…gathering’, they finished together.

‘Of course!’, exclaimed Coda in a whisper, pieces finally falling into place in her mind.

‘Hey, Co. Why weren’t we invited, do you think?’

‘Well, we don’t exactly have friends, do we Ro?’

‘Par’, said Rook.

‘Note.’, whispered Coda to herself, ‘Keep an ear to the ground. Possible Bunker-Rats rebellion effort. Link with possible extermination? Investigate. Priority: Red. Archive.’

‘A rebellion..?’

‘Don’t be a snoop.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Par, I guess…’, Coda answered. ‘Want to go check it out?’

‘Nah…’, Rook answered, suddenly dispirited.

‘Yeah. Come on, lighten up.’

‘You can go.’

‘Me..? Why don’t you want to go?’, Coda asked puzzled. Rook was silent, staring at his feet. Doing that thing with his ankles.

‘You really think’, he asked, finally, ‘…a rebellion?’

‘Well? We’re Bunker-Rats too aren’t we? What if their successful Ro. Would you want to be left behind?’

These were evidently not the right words to say, for Rook withdrew farther inside himself. Then something clicked in Coda’s mind. As plain as day, and she had not even considered it.

‘Note correction.’, she whispered to herself, though loud enough for sullen Rook to hear. ‘Keep an ear to the ground. Possible Bunker-rats rebellion. Effort likely to fail. Possible threat to Earthbound escape campaign? Priority… Double-Red. Archive.’

‘Note.’ Rook said, though he possessed no note-taking technology of his own. ‘Investigate sabotage possibilities.’

‘Archive.’

‘What?’

‘You have to say: Archive.’

‘Archive.’

‘Good.’, Coda said with a sigh. ‘Shall we? We got an escape campaign to save and a rebellion to sabotage’

Rook nodded, and together they scurried down a convoluted maze of tunnels led by the increasing commotion of the gathering. Along the way, they met many crossroads with traps and elaborate decoys set in place, seemingly aimed at deterring Tourists. To the keen senses of a Bunker-Rats, especially to such an accomplished mischief as Rook and Coda, these were little other than parlour tricks. They never once doubted their way towards the convergence.

Coda wasn’t sure when exactly they had left the Blueprint behind and entered into the complex array of warrens that spread outwards for who knew how far. Hoping her confidence in Rook’s Roobot-enhanced mapping system was not misplaced, she travelled alongside her companion without a word so as not to wound his already sensitive pride.

Soon, the path ahead narrowed so that they had to crawl rather than crouch. Quite suddenly, the noisome gathering ahead, fell under a blanket of eerie silence. When Rook squeezed out of the narrow shaft into the vast cavernous hall ahead, Coda in his wake, they found themselves bathed in utmost obscurity. The pair’s acute senses made it impossible for them not to acknowledge the presence of a myriad shuffling bodies in the dark.

‘It’s a trap!’, whispered Coda, louder than she had wanted. She reached to pull Rook back towards her, her mind suddenly full of the Tourist’s ominous talk of extermination. ‘Ro, it’s a trap!’

‘I don’t think so, Co.’ answered Rook, inexplicably calmed and composed. ‘But you’re right, we should hang back a little in case we need to make a swift exit.’

What intuition is this?, thought Coda, unable to think back to a more ill-omened event. And they had stepped blindly into it.

‘Ro, I think we should leave’, she insisted. ‘Now, before its…’

Rook wrapped his arm around her shoulder in the dark and led her to the side. To the extent that it was possible, their eyes had adjusted a little to the smothering darkness, so that they could make out two towering stalagmites. They huddled there, not daring to speak or make any more noise. The silence was so oppressive that they both had to fight the reflex of holding their breath. Looking back, Coda was unable to make out the narrow shaft that was their only known exit.

Where had the commotion gone which had guided them here?

‘Bunker… Rats.’, came a voice, booming across the wide open gallery, breaking the oppressive silence at last. The voice seemed to be considering the words. There was no telling the voice’s origin as it bounced randomly around the vast hall. The gathered crowd shuffled nervously.

‘Co…’

‘I know…’

‘There’s hundreds of them.’

‘Hundreds. What do we do Ro?’, Coda asked. But before Rook could answer the booming voice erupted forth from the darkness once more.

‘Bunker rats, yes. Oh, the power of words. An insult… for some. Yes? But they have not named us so. No. Bunker rats is our name. We chose it… long ago. They can’t take it away from us. Can’t wield it against us. No.’

The orator’s rhythm was off. Oddly entrancing. Contemplative, as though weighing the matter for the first time, it nonetheless found resonance in the hundreds of Bunker Rats gathered who could be heard, even in their silence, to be hanging onto his every word. Coda and Rook were no exception to this. From their hiding place, they listened carefully. Coda to the rhetoric, Rook to the ideas.

‘Bunker Rats.’, the invisible speaker spoke the words as though to himself. Then he laughed. ‘I’, the orator proclaimed in his deep resounding voice, ‘I am a BUNKER RAT.’ Another wave of shuffling travelled through the crowd, although this time some whispering also broke out amongst the multitude of spectators. ‘It is OUR word to wield. How DARE they presume to insult us with it?’, the voice demanded. There was much nervous acquiescence in the great hall.

‘You. Out there.’ the orator said, though the cave was bathed in utter darkness.

Coda wondered whether anyone could tell whom the voice was referring to. Is that the point?, she wondered. That it could be any of us?

‘What are you?’

A few voices, quivering at first, erupted into the dark.

‘I…’, some tried.

‘Rat’, others whispered.

‘Difficult, isn’t it?’ the voice asked, oddly clement, as though speaking to children. ‘What’s a rat alone?’

‘I… I am a Bunker Rat.’, a brave voice spilled forth from the crowd, unexpectedly.

‘Very…’ The voice began, chuckling. ‘Very good. Brave! Yes, very brave… I wonder, will you step forth? Identify yourself, perhaps?’

There was a great yawning hollow in humid air of the cavern. The brave voice in the crowd dared not speak again, dared not make itself known. ‘No? Well… I cannot condemn you for it. What’s a rat alone? I myself take refuge in darkness.’

Upon these words a spark flickered for a second against the far wall, so fleeting that Coda and Rook, safely concealed behind their stalagmite, almost missed it.

‘Look’, Rook whispered, ‘over there.’

A modest camp fire grew from the spark, impossible to miss now as it cast a shimmering light upon a lone towering silhouette standing before the fire, perched upon a narrow pedestal of stone. Still of the restlessly shuffling multitude, there was no sign other than the odd whisper. In the dark, hundreds of unseen heads turned to face in its direction.

‘There’, the silhouetted orator spoke, not unkindly. His arms cast menacing shadows sweeping across the crowd. ‘Now. Once more. May the one who spoke step forth into the light. Make yourself be known.’

The crowd shuffled in the dark. Would the one who had spoken oblige?

Random eruptions of hushed proclamations filled the hall.

‘It’s a trap’, said some, with a modicum of persuasion.

Coda could not help but be sympathetic to the paranoia the words expressed. I wouldn’t go, she thought. Forget it.

‘Coward.’, another said, though not so loud as to be identified. This time it was Rook who nodded silently at the proclamation.

At length the voice came again.

‘No? No. I do not blame you. It’s not cowardice. No. Not cowardice… SURVIVAL. For, what is a rat alone?’

There came another flicker, this time neither Rook or Coda missed it. The lone silhouette had cast liquid onto the fire and both watched it as it shimmered in the air. Then, with a deafening rush the fire exploded, and greedily consumed the stack of wood and debris. And for the first time, the crowd was entirely illuminated. As Rook and Coda had both suspected, hundreds of Bunker Rats were present at the gathering.

‘But we are NOT alone… are we?’

A deafening chatter began to filter through the crowd, kindled by the euphoria of the moment. Coda huddled involuntarily. It seemed the crowd teetered precariously between paranoia and celebration.

‘Today I stand before you’, the lone towering silhouette continued, this time, using no louder than a conversational tone. The orator wielded such control over the souls present, that it had the immediate effect of drawing the attention of the crowd in, perhaps with more success than any reverberating shout. A hush fell upon the crowd in a fast expanding ripple with the lone silhouette as its epicentre.

‘Why?’, the voice asked, not much louder than a whisper now. ‘Because I, alone amongst all of US! I ALONE know what it’s like to be a lone rat.’

‘The first bunker rat’, whispered Rook by Coda’s side.

‘What?’

‘I’, said the silhouette, with a voice at once deeper and more resonating, ‘am the first Bunker Rat!’

The crowd, taken off guard by the sudden confession, reacted in the array of ways which are the proclivity of the shocked. Loud exclamation jutted from an ambient din of discussion and disbelief.

The first Bunker Rat, thought Coda, mind racing. How come I had never though of that before? Of course there had been a first. So, why step out into the open now? What claim does he profess to have? Royalty? Will the Bunker Rats recognise his claim?

When the voice at last came again, all bravado had drained from it, as though the years had caught up with the man after his unexpected confession.

‘For many years,’ began the first Bunker-Rat, ‘I was alone of my kind. I, alone of all humankind, was denied my third of Earth’s surface. Oh, it is no novelty now. Every Bunker-Rat, sooner or later awakens to that immutable fact of their existence. Back then, however, the word undocumented had never been wielded before. It was’, the first silhouette said, pausing to find the right words, ‘a death sentence. No, a rat alone is nothing. NOTHING. But, look at us NOW. We are NOT alone… oh no. WHAT ARE WE?’, the voice bellowed. And after a brief stunned silence, someone in the crowd answered.

‘A mischief!’ The voice was not as confident as the will it took to speak it, but it nonetheless broke the spell. And in a thunderous earthquake of a roar, the hall erupted to echo the words.

‘A MISCHIEF!’

There was much ecstatic celebration in the exclamations that followed. The teetering crowd had at last forgone its suspicions and had, it seemed, fallen squarely on the side of celebration. Coda sighed. The silhouette turned as it contemplated the cheering gathering, so that the light finally illuminated its features. The orator was in fact a elderly man, his face weathered by years of struggles, his clothes the rags of a bunker rat, though the tone of his skin—perhaps merely a trick of the light—revealed something other to Coda’s shrewd eyes.

This time, she came to the insight first.

‘He’s been out… outside!’, she whispered to Rook, aghast with the realisation.

The elderly man lifted his arms into the air casting long shadows across the crowd. The crowd, in spite of the general excitement, obeyed his command once more and fell silent.

‘Undocumented,’ the man spoke into the hushing din. ‘Outcast. Outside the system. Today, I come bearing news.’ Upon hearing these words, the crowd fell so silent that it was more than likely that the entire gathering heard Coda’s sniff. ‘And the news is this: being Outside the System, is no death-sentence. No, no, NO. What it means. What Outside the System really means, is…’, the entire mischief held its breath as one, ‘freedom.’ The crowd, who was expecting a shout, or at least a revelation of some kind, was completely befuddled by this anti-climactic conclusion.

‘Freedom?’

‘Did he say freedom?’

‘What freedom?’

‘Yeah, what freedom?’

‘Mischief! I stand before you today, not as merely as a man, not merely as the first Bunker-Rat, not merely as King Rat. I stand before you now, as the first Bunker-Rat who… has… seen… the surface.’

The crowd teetered once more over the razor-edge of madness. In the grips of wholesale restlessness and incredulity, wild laughter arose from the masses, and sounds of outrage. Was this a hoax of some kind? The surface? King Rat? Just who was this senile old man? Could he truly be the first?

To Coda, this was all beside the point. She forced herself to see further into this highly contrived scheme. What was the deeper motive? An agent provocateur, surely, but who sent him? And to what end? The whole affair reeked of rancid conspiracy. Riling up the Bunker Rats, inspiring revolution? Coda gasped aloud.

‘Of course! The extermination. Rook…’, she whispered, but Rook was beyond hearing, deep as he was in contemplations of his own. It took a powerful exertion of will for her to concentrate upon the nature of her intuition. It was all happening so fast. She counted her breaths.

‘Note’, she said, at last. ‘All to the same end. All to the same end. Revolution is too brunt tool, not so easily guided. Wielded by idealists, its chaotic and often counter-productive nature, is not… is not an unfortunate side-effect but precisely its aim. Burning everything down to ash, to chaos, for the opportune to mould back into the desired order. A revolution is exactly the means of justifying the extermination effort. We will cry freedom and it will be our gavel. Archive.’

It all came together so abruptly in her mind that she was quite out of breath. Rook was quiet at his side. No, not quiet. Rook was quietly mouthing a word in the darkness.

‘Undocumented. Undocumented.’ There seemed so terrific a treasure, which Rook was trying desperately to excavate from the word. Coda could make no sense of it, but the physical theatre of the moment was enough to make her understand. Rook was on the verge of a revelation of his own. An epiphany.

Ro… What is it? What have you found?

‘The Time-Share of Earth is a lie!’, King Rat was proclaiming from up high on his pedestal to the ecstatic crowd, forgoing all efforts at subtlety. ‘The Time-Share of Earth… is a lie! A lie. The Time-Share of Earth is a LIE!’ The elderly man was hammering his message home. Over and over again until the crowd was once more as incensed as entranced by his words. ‘One third above, two thirds below. Hahaha! It is a LIE! I have seen it. Up there’, he shrieked, pointing a crazed finger as though to the unseen moon whence his lunacy came.

‘Up there’, he whispered now, basking in the inebriating trance of a hundred souls, ‘surface people… surface people have no idea we even exist. Life on Earth is’ his wild watery eyes flickered in the firelight, ‘pure distraction. Enter-TAINMENT!’, he pronounced, as though exorcising unimaginable evil from the word. ‘GAMES. LIFE-streams. Drugs. ESCAPE!’

There it was. Something in the words had marked the spot with an unmistakeable X. Something in King Rat’s words had landed like a drop of soap in the murky waters of Rook’s mind. And, at that moment, Rook saw true and was now trembling under the weight of the realisation. Coda, worried, crouched closer to him. Some part of her knowing that her body heat would not soothe the trembling, some part of her performing the act regardless.

‘Ro… What is it, Ro?’, she whispered. But the momentum of the old man’s tirade against surface-Earth was unstoppable. His words steam-rolled over hers.

‘They ESCAPE! Can you believe it? THEY escape. By any and all means, they try to escape surface-Earth. A Bunker Rat’, King Rat’s voice fell to a whisper once more, and he spoke emotionally, as though personally wounded by the very concept, ‘A Bunker Rat… you and me, we could live entire lives… on the mere crumbs. The CRUMBS. It’s all there. All there for the taking. Bunker Rats. It’s all there. And they… They don’t… They don’t even… want it. They… seek… escape… from… paradise.’

The was a moment of awed silence as the words found their myriad marks.

Remember these words’, King Rat said, at length. ‘Spread these words. There is an exodus coming. A time for the undocumented, the outcast, the free; to claim their share of surface-Earth. A share we have long paid for… in full… with our very lives. Listen to us now, remember these words well, repeat them, sing them, brand them on your souls. Bunker Rats… shall inherit the Earth!’

Silence. Not a squeak arose from the crowd. For, in the time it took for the gathered Bunker-Rats to assimilate these most revolutionary, life-altering words, they were no longer news, but truth. A new axis around which their lives would henceforth revolve. Coda too was silent, numb in the aftermath of such overpowering layers of rhetoric. Wielding people’s own emotions against them. The precise moment of paradigm shift was almost audible in the absolute silence, the clicking of the mechanism, of the switch in the rails that would lead the Bunker Rats straight to perdition.

‘N…Note.’ she said at length. ‘Pithing the individual’s I think, therefore I am against the masses’ I feel, therefore I am, in the arena of the soul can yield only one result. Thoughts are of unknown providence, can be unreliable, dangerous even. Emotions are the more familiar, and thus will always prevail as a definition of self when aroused. With the right rhetorical sugar-coating, there is no limit to what people in an emotional state will swallow. Need to work on dissociating the message and sub-text aimed at the thinking brain, from those aimed at the animal brain. Need to work on finding flaws in rhetoric… Need to work on… work on… Archive.

The constant grinding of gears forming the basis of her existence was suddenly quieted, overpowered, for the very first time, into silence. Whoever this King Rat was, he was no mere Bunker-Rat. Not in the way he would have us believe. Two notes, not entirely formulated, whose nature, whose essence, she could not quite yet name, were swimming in the vacuous confines of her mind. Confused, she nonetheless archived them both.

‘Note. Us. Archive.’, her quivering voice was drowned out by the crowd’s sigh of transcendent revelation, of enlightenment. ‘Note. End game is engaged. Time for the final edit. Pick one way out now and stick with it, make it work. Archive.’ Her due diligence complete, she turned to face Rook.

Whatever Rook had gleaned from the speech, she could be sure it would be the exact conceptual opposite. Rook’s prodigious mind was not so fragile a thing that she would fear his having swallowed the rhetoric wholesale. However, his lack of a filter certainly meant that he had absorbed it all. And there was no telling how much work that would create for her. How much disentanglement. Hopefully, at least as much chaotic mess, as new constructive solutions, for this would probably be the last sample from which would arise the final solution.

Rook remained withdrawn, even as they edged stealthily away from the crowd, back to the constricted tunnel that had led them to the cave. Whatever his mind has seized upon, however it had changed the alchemy of his endless scheming, he kept it to himself and did not speak a word. Coda imagined that if he had spoken a word, it would undeniably have been Undocumented, which left her no farther in her understanding of the matter. Even so, she would have welcomed the breaking of the nerve-racking silence. Her own mind, who’s iron-cogged machinery provided a factory of never-ceasing clamour and bustling, was now rendered inactive by the overwhelming input it had received. And in the great gaping void left behind by its inactivity, the many words and concepts, of the propaganda and deceit and misinformation, bounced around like so many pebbles in a glasshouse. Wreaking wanton destruction with every moment of Rook’s silence.

Coda, the workaholic, finally undermined, finally defeated. Not by lack of work, mind you, but excess of it. The bitter irony cut to the core of her, where something irreparably broke, never to be whole again.

Rook and Coda shared everything. And yet, Rook possessed the power of isolating himself from the world by losing himself in his chaotic mind. A power, she herself did not possess; again which she was powerless. His refusal to speak or listen, was the last betrayal. Or certainly would have been. For just then, as they turned the last corner towards their secret lair, Coda caught a fleeting glimpse that changed everything. That meant everything. Even in the gloom, she caught sight of a familiar sparkle in his eyes. Inspiration. Inspiration, in Rook, was no trifle thing. She shivered with dread and apprehension. For in that sparkle lay two omens, clear as day to Coda’s keen knowing eyes.

‘Note. King Rat’s speech, 1100 hours, August 28, Year of the Salamander. First day of the end of our lives. As we know them. Classify: Historical Dates and Events. Archive.’

She ended the note there, not brave enough to record the second omen. Not in front of Rook anyhow. And besides, the day was sufficiently ill-omened as it was, thank you very much, farewell. But the omen had a mind of its own, and would not allow being kept secret, being kept unprophesied. And so, in her vast empty mind, she reluctantly gave it the power of word.

Note. King Rat’s speech, 1102 hours, August 28, Year of the Salamander. Though today we are set upon a new path, there, in the distance, already looms a cleft that will see us forever divided. Archive.

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