by Colin P. Davies
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
I couldn’t sleep that night and by about 4:00am I’d given up trying. I switched on the wall-screen and downloaded the pictures from my wristphone. I scrolled through snapshots from the last couple of days: Tom Bowie’s new white kitten; the gold Pontiac Flybird that coasted through the neighborhood blaring No Wheels, No Tolls; Jenny Wong, the most beautiful, and unattainable, girl in school; the skeleton...
I peered at the shot. It wasn’t centered, but it was good enough to see the skull and those white globes of eyes. And something else.
In the deep and dark nose hole, two red dots reflected the flash. I looked closer. The image was faint, but I could not mistake that familiar snout.
Gazing out from inside the metal skull was a rat.
I’d read that primitive people, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were scared of rats. The creatures lived in the sewers and carried disease. Maybe so, but the only thing carried by a rat these days is surveillance equipment.
I pulled out some old boxes from under the bed and found Blackie. Gently, I lifted the old toy rat and blew the dust from his fur, then ran a fingertip over his eyes.
I dug out some fuel cells and pushed one of the little spheres into Blackie’s belly. The toy twitched and rolled onto his feet. How could anyone be frightened by this little creature? Maybe it was different when rats were flesh and blood and not this hybrid biotech. Back then, sighting a rat meant illness and even death. Today it only meant you were being watched by nosey neighbors, or the kid next door.
I established the link with my wristphone, then sent Blackie downstairs to the dining room to hide and observe.
* * *
I left the house about 6:00 am, without breakfast or waking Dad, and headed over to World of Warriors. The streets were empty and the sound of my footsteps on the sidewalk came back at me from the dark faces of the houses.
A mailbox saw me approaching and illuminated its slot. I left it disappointed.
I was glad I’d put on jeans and a sweatshirt. The air was cool and wisps of mist drifted below the tree canopy. It wasn’t long before I noticed I was being followed. Subtle sounds and glimpses of movement when I spun around. I walked faster. Soon the noise was unmistakable. I glanced behind and saw dark shapes scuttling after me. Rats — and lots of them. One or two rats might be cute, but I didn’t relish being swamped by a sea of thousands. I ran.
At the end of the dark street the sidewalk narrowed between another mailbox and a large bush which overhung the path. As I slowed to edge through the gap, the mailbox saw me and lit up. Its light revealed the skeleton lurking behind the bush. I dropped to my knees as a slashing metal hand skimmed my scalp. Leaves showered over me. I threw myself against the metal legs. Pain speared through my back, but the skeleton tumbled and crashed to the concrete.
I found myself lying, cheek pressed to the cold ground, looking at a tsunami of rats rolling towards my face.
It’s surprising how fast you can move when the occasion calls for it. No time to think. You simply fly from the floor and start running...
Ten minutes later I was in World of Warriors, gasping for breath, and grasping for an explanation. The rats, the skeleton... and why was I the center of these strange events?
The disrupter was all I could afford. The criminal record check took thirty seconds and the personality test was over in two minutes. I was armed. The device was black and looked like a small flashlight. I felt safer already.
The dawn sun beamed through the gaps between the houses as I made my way home. I was on edge — every bush and fence likely to be hiding the skeletal assassin. The streets were quiet, with only occasional birdsong and a passing cyclist.
I hadn’t gone far before I became aware of a rustling behind me — something moving through the dead leaves on the path. I suspected a rat.
I strolled around a fenced corner and waited. Soon a dark snout poked out beyond the base of the corner post. I fired. The disruptor made a fizzing sound and the rat slumped. I went back and picked it up. It was limp, but only temporarily disabled — I didn’t know for how long. I tossed it into a garden and continued home.
My house came into view and I slowed my pace. My heart sounded loud enough to me to wake anyone still sleeping. I took a moment to catch my breath. Home was only three gardens away at the dead end of the street, where an overgrown footpath led down the embankment to the railway tracks.
The door to my house opened. I saw Dad emerge and walk briskly up the garden path towards the street. I threw myself into Mr. Johnson’s front garden, behind a bushy conifer, and waited, listening for footsteps, imagining he was creeping up on me.
I peeked around the bush in time to see his back disappearing into the undergrowth as he went down the path to the railway.
As soon as he was out of sight, I followed.
* * *
“The scan shows a degree of bruising to the right side of the brain.” It was the doctor’s voice again. “I can’t give a clear answer about consequences. We simply don’t know. And there are bursts of intense activity, as though he’s drifting in and out of a dream state.”
I heard my Dad muttering in a familiar mix of curses and confusion that usually ended in anger. “Can’t you use lasers, or nanotechnology? There must be some technique.”
“Maybe in the future, but not in 2007.”
“Dan’s always had such faith in the future.”
“I have to work with what we have now.”
“What can I do?”
“Talk to him. Hold his hand. Be there for him.”
The doctor had no idea what he was asking.
* * *
I pushed through leaves wet with dew and made my way downhill, trying to make little noise and not get too close. The ground was muddy and uneven and I struggled not to slip down the embankment. Soon the path opened out onto the tracks. I held back behind the cover of a tall stand of fireweed.
The air down here was damp and smelled of rank vegetation. Beyond the two railway tracks, the opposite embankment climbed again in a thick growth of grass and brambles.
Standing between the rails... was my Dad.
He had the face of a madman, switching between placid and angry, grinning and crying. What was he doing?
The rumble of an approaching train threw me from my hiding place and I dashed across the tracks. “Dad! Get off the line!” He didn’t react. The oncoming train blared a warning.
“Wake up!” I grabbed his arm and tugged. He stumbled, but fought me and I couldn’t get him off the tracks. I panicked. Images of rats and skeletons flashed through my mind. He was like an automaton. He couldn’t help himself... he was being controlled!
I snatched the disrupter from my pocket and fired at his head. The weapon fizzed and he screamed and slapped his hands over his ears. I dragged him off the line. Moments later, the train clattered past, buffeting us with cold wind.
He stared at me, his face lined with confusion, and shouted above the noise, “Dan? How did I get here?”
“Dad... we’ve got to go... get away. We need help.”
A searing pain shot through my hand and I dropped the disrupter. I spun about and found myself facing metal ribs. The skeleton grabbed for me and managed to hook my sweatshirt collar. I spotted the rodent’s snout in the nasal cavity. Were the rats controlling the skeletons? Then who was controlling the rats?
“Dan! Help me!”
I looked around to see Dad being bundled away by two skeletons.
The skeleton holding me lifted its hand. I dropped my body. My sweatshirt tore free and I fell to the ground, rolled away and grabbed the disrupter. Again the weapon fizzed and the skeleton stumbled. I kicked its knee and it fell. Its skull clanged against the rail.
I jumped to my feet and tore after the other skeletons as they dragged Dad into the embankment and disappeared.
I reached the cut-out in the slope and found a short tunnel with a closed steel door in the back wall. I screamed with frustration. I’d been so close! I beat my fists on the door. It didn’t open. There was no handle. Nothing to pull at. I aimed a vicious kick at the door, but only managed to hurt my foot. I whirled away, desperate for a way in, trying to think of something, anything...
I gazed up the embankment and saw... my house!
The secret lair of these skeletons, the place where they had taken my Dad, was directly beneath my house.
“You haven’t won!” I yelled at the door. Not yet.
I had one last card to play.
His name was Blackie.
* * *
“Dan....” Dad’s voice. “I’m sorry, Dan, about everything.” He was struggling to find his breath. “I don’t know if you fell out of the tree by accident, or if...” There was a sob in his voice. “You scared me to death.”
I felt him rest his hand on my arm.
“I’ll get treatment... stop drinking. Things will be different in the future, I promise.”
I’d always believed in the future.
“But I can’t do it without you... I need you. I need your help.”
* * *
I put Blackie down on my bed and stroked his soft fur. He’d shown me how the visitor, a skeleton, had disappeared from the dining room. I turned off the wallscreen and ran downstairs to the kitchen.
I stuffed a bag with a flashlight, matches, a small bottle of paraffin and the largest knife I could find. Taking a screwdriver, I dashed upstairs again to Dad’s bedroom and forced open the drawer where he kept his handgun.
Back in the dining room, I stood in front of the cupboard that Blackie had revealed as the secret access to the lair below. How big that place was, I had no idea — but, with my bag and the disrupter, I was ready for anything.
I opened the door and pressed on the back of the cupboard. The wall swung open.
I froze, confused.
The staircase that should have descended into the darkness went sharply upwards towards a blinding light.
It made no difference. I knew this was the way I had to go. Nothing was going to stop me. I started up the stairs.
I had to save my Dad.
* * *
The light grew brighter, until I had to squeeze my eyes shut. But I could hear, and behind that piercing glare was a voice.
“He moved... My God, he moved!”
My Dad’s voice.
Summoning all my courage and hope, I opened my eyes.
Copyright © 2007 by Colin P. Davies