Short Story – Rat Race

Pearce twirled his umbrella as he paced across the mesh floor.  Far below him, millions of rats swarmed over everything, oblivious and uncaring about Pearce passing above.  Using a flashlight, Pearce peered through the floor, looking for a particular rat amongst the horde, one that had been causing trouble recently.  One of his colleagues walked through the rats in pursuit of their target, but being so close to the ground meant that he couldn’t see over the huge rectangular rat homes.  Pearce, from his position high above, had a clear view of the area and therefore had responsibility in overseeing the ground crew and spotting the troublemakers.

“Three six four, this is Pearce,” he said into a walkie talkie, “go forwards forward forwards for ten yards, right right right.”  He twirled his umbrella as he paced above the rat in question, waving his flashlight backwards and forwards.

“Roger Pearce, we have it.”  A number of wardens surrounded the rat, eventually boxing it into a white crate.  They tried to lift the animal away but a number of rats surged against the men, making them drop the crate.  “Pearce, we really need some backup.  We’re experiencing some disobedience from the rats.”

“Copy.”  Pearce triggered an alarm on his belt; it flashed red, signalling others to come to the position below him.  He couldn’t understand the rats at all.  As big as a house cat, the evolved rats could be cute, or exceptionally intelligent, or even something bordering on humane.  The majority of the rats though were mindless, savage, filthy animals.  They were content to shit, fight, and fuck for the majority of their lives, bringing up a swarm of rats that were content to do exactly the same.  It was a pandemic of base instincts that, unless culled and controlled, would grow exponentially until there was only shitting, fighting, fucking rats left.  The authoritarians in charge of the world of rats merely laid down policy and procedure for keeping the rats in check, never explaining the ultimate goal for keeping millions of rats in semi-captivity.  It was definitely a job where you were paid from the neck down.

The extra wardens had arrived at the scene below and were pushing the rats away with black batons.  They weren’t allowed to use real force on the rats, no matter how violent they got.  Something about rights for these animals?  Pearce didn’t know the full story, but knew that rules were rules.  No hitting, no killing, only reasonable restraining force.  Some argued that the only way to control the rats was to use hard, even fatal, force when confronted with the exact same threat.  However, the counter argument from the authorities was that the wardens were not rats.  Lethal force wasn’t civilised.  Lethal force was used by the rats because they were rats.

Pearce watched the battle through the metal grilling, still twirling his umbrella thoughtfully, casting light on the scene for the benefit of his colleagues.  Finally, they had managed to cage all of the misbehaving rats and were carrying them out through the maze of rat hovels.  Pearce folded away his umbrella, switched off the flashing red beacon and flashlight, and returned to the canteen for some food.  More misbehaving rats for the naughty step; a few days in a locked room to calm them down, then they would be released back into the rat world with some reduction in rations.  How do you punish a senseless animal?

After a lonely meal of egg sandwiches and spinach leaves, Pearce went back onto the grill and glided across the land of rats.  In some areas, the animals were living on top of each other, revelling in the closeness of other rats.  Some cuddled into the mass of the bodies; some bit and scratched.  The more placid ones lived in small groups away from the main masses, quite content to snuffle through the empty areas by themselves.  One thing was universal though; their filth surrounded them all.  Great piles of their shit, their piss, uneaten food, hair, skin, even their dead, surrounded the rats’ homes.  Eventually, some of the rats would group together and push the filth to the edges of their nests, but these piles would eventually grow too big.  Pearce did not envy the workers who had to remove these mountainous stench-piles.  One thing that Pearce had noticed was that these piles were growing faster and faster each time.  There were simply too many rats now.

Pearce noticed a group of wardens closing in on a throng of rats, so he switched on his flashlight and wandered over to the commotion, his umbrella twirling.  It was as he expected; towards the nocturnal periods, some of the younger rats would take part in a strange activity of drinking the fermented piss that had accumulated under the well-frequented public habitats in an area.  The rats would then work themselves into a fit of fighting and fucking that would eventually cause trouble, namely knocking into houses and harming the more-docile rats.  Pearce watched the drunken animals fornicating with each other, spitting and squealing at would-be opponents, and yakking-up the fermented piss before passing out.  It was a most odd behaviour.  More boxing-up of rats, more batons, more warden support.  It wasn’t fair, thought Pearce as he watched one of the rats deliver a nasty bite to the face of warden 1/87, according to the back of his yellow and black jacket.  What was the point in allowing these rats to carry on like this?  He followed the rat running away from its attack on the warden.  These rats were better-off dead.  They didn’t add any value, they just drained resources, caused trouble, and made a nuisance of themselves.  They were filth, garbage, scum.  Below, warden 1/87 had trapped the rat into the corner of an alley.  Pearce held his light steady on the scene, but the warden waved him away.  “Pearce,” crackled the walkie talkie, “there’s nothing to see here.  Go help the others.”

“Copy,” replied Pearce, and moved his light onto the main trouble area.  That had been odd, thought Pearce; usually, the wardens needed his light to help maintain control on the situation, but warden 1/87 had seemed almost angry.  Pearce paced around the area with his umbrella spinning, then returned his light back to the alley where the warden had trapped the rat.

The rat had been eviscerated, fingers of blood running down the alley and collecting in a small pothole.  Pearce looked at the bloody scene numbly, and then moved away.  It was only a rat, one of millions that created them so many problems every day.  He shouldn’t feel anything for them… should he?  He didn’t – that was a certainty – but he wasn’t totally happy with that.  It was a life, after all.  Someone’s parent, or someone’s child.  As the wardens finally brought the ruckus under control below him, Pearce searched for warden 1/87 but he had disappeared in the chaos.  A few minutes after the last of the inebriated rats had been carted away, Pearce’s radio crackled with a request to shine on an alley not too far from his current location.  The dead rat had been discovered.

Pearce finished his shift and went home to a restless night, full of rats and blood and chaotic battles between rats and humans.  Several times Pearce had bolted upright because he had heard a noise, expecting the door to his small neat bedroom to burst in and a wave of violent, drug-crazed rats to begin their murderous assault on him.  There would be no reasoning with them if that were to happen, thought Pearce as he washed his face in cold water, staring at his gaunt unshaven face in the bathroom mirror.  The rats were feral, out of control, with no sense of right or fairness.  They were selfish, totally driven by their base instincts, caring only for instant gratification of their desires.  That alone scared Pearce more than anything.  That alone was what prevented Pearce from reporting what he’d seen in that alleyway.  Maybe 1/87 was the solution to the rat problem.  That rat had been involved in a crime; it had attacked a warden.  The rat had tried to evade justice by running away.  1/87 had solved the problem, albeit again company policy.  The wardens were about upholding the rules, not breaking them.  He shook his head.  That thought process was making his mind hurt, so he went back to bed.

***

“Pearce, this is just an informal chat about an event that occurred while you were on-shift.”  The interrogator was an elderly and kindly-looking gentleman wearing the all-white robes of his order.  “You’re not implicated in any way, but you may have seen something that could help in our investigation.  Do you understand?”  Pearce nodded nervously.  He knew what this was about.  “So, on the 1st Nov, you were overlooking an incident involving a group of the general population of rats who were intoxicated.  Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see anything out of the ordinary during the incident?”  The inquisitor sat poised, pen on paper, and waited for Pearce to respond.

“No.”

“Nothing?  Nothing at all?”

“Only the usual.  Rats rioting and being carted into boxes.  Biting, fighting, fornicating.”

The inquisitor made a note.  “Did you happen to remember seeing warden 1/87 on duty that night?”

Pearce felt his stomach clench; it was about the rat murder.  How much did they know?  “I think so,” said Pearce after a pause.  “I seem to remember 1/87 being attacked by a rat.”

“Quite,” replied the inquisitor.  “Did you see what happened after 1/87 was attacked?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?  You oversee from up high.”  He stopped writing and glanced at Pearce.  “You may have seen something else.”

“I… I’m afraid not.”

The inquisitor stared long and hard at Pearce, then made a final scribble and closed his notepad.  “Thank you for your co-operation.”

***

That night saw the biggest rat uprising for at least a decade.  The murder had undoubtedly stirred up the rats, and so all wardens had taken to the floor to quell the trouble.  Pearce hovered over a big mass of the animals, umbrella in one hand and his flashlight in the other.  Despite being out of immediate danger, he felt anxious and worried.

Below him, wardens charged into the mass of rats, using their riot shields as a battering ram.  The animals tried to fight back but they were defenceless against the well-equipped wardens.  Pearce stopped and looked around him; walking the grilled floor, umbrellas and flashlights twirling, were a number of other overseers like Pearce.  What would they have done in his situation?  Had they seen things too?  Was it common for wardens to kill rats?  Suddenly, the rats surged forward and completely swamped the wardens.  Pearce waved his flashlight frantically, but all the wardens were submerged in a sea of dirt and broken teeth.  He activated his beacon, but no other wardens were available.  He picked up the walkie talkie and called base.   “Men down!  The population have overrun the ground troops!”

“Copy, Pearce.  Similar reports across the area, stand by.”

Pearce did so, forced to watch the dead men being eaten by the animals.  Pieces of their hi-viz jackets spread out amongst the rats like an exploding star in slow motion.  Pearce realised that his dream had turned into a premonition, and the rats were now a serious threat to the humans.  There was the pound of running booted feet on the grill floor, and a large soldier carrying a rifle appeared next to Pearce.  He saluted.  “Private Jenkins, 111th.  I’d appreciate your help in illuminating the area if that’s OK?”

“Of course!”  Pearce felt a lot happier with the soldier by his side.  The rats were no match for the army!  “Where do you want to go?”

The soldier pointed to the main throng of animals.  “Over there will be fine.”

“This is terrible,” stated Pearce as they strolled over the huge furry mess of rats shifting and screeching below.  “I’ve never known the rats to get so violent.  Usually they skirmish but it’s easily combated by the wardens.  I’ve never known the rats actually kill a man, let-alone several.  This changes everything.”  They came to the spot that the soldier had indicated.  “I mean, what’s going to happen now?  How do we get control back?”

“Like this,” replied the soldier.  He dropped to one knee, loaded his rifle, then fired off a burst into the rats.  There was immediate carnage, blood and fur bursting like water balloons.  He continued firing, pausing only to slap home another magazine.  Across the grill, other soldiers were doing the same, an overseer standing next to them like a brilliant guardian angel.  Pearce winced at the noise of gunfire and screeching.  Rat bodies joined the warden’s bodies until all the rats had ran away or were lying dead.  The soldier stood and grinned.  “That was fun.  Let’s go back to base.”

The next night, Pearce walked across the grill, alone, with his flashlight off.  The entire rat world was silent, save for the odd armed soldier who wandered through the maze of habitats.  Most of the rats were dead, their worthless bodies collected by the wardens and burnt in huge funeral pyres.  The mass culling had been triggered by the rats gaining the upper hand.  They couldn’t run their own world; they didn’t have the intelligence or the capacity.  A “goldfish trying to drive a tank” was the phrase that the authoritarians used regularly.

A rat dived out of a habitat and scurried across the gully between homes, desperate to be somewhere else.  Another rat met it halfway, and then they both scurried into another house.  Loved ones reunited, thought Pearce sadly.  Millions of the animals had been slaughtered, a necessary evil against the threat of chaos and disorder.  And yet the authoritarians were determined to keep a world of rats; new subjects were being brought in, but this time would be controlled using  a rich mix of lights, sounds, and narcotics to keep the rats subdued and conformist.  It sounded wonderful, as long as you weren’t a rat.

Pearce finished his shift and returned to base.  He would sleep soundly tonight.

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