Bunker Rats – Chapter 1: Mischief

Mischief  /ˈmɪstʃɪf/

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.

‘50/50.’

‘30/70?’

‘Fine’, answered Rook. ‘Map.’

‘Bleach!’

‘Sorry…’

‘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 bright 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 self-respecting Bunker Rat would demean him or herself by consulting it. Maps were a more intimate affair to the Bunker Rat than mere markings on paper. Cultivated over years of underground dwelling, the knowledge of every nook and cranny, every twist and turn, every chute and ladder; was first-nature, entrenched into the soft matter of the Bunker Rat brain like so much earth. A most complex sensory web of information, reflection of each individual’s life of explorations through the gloomy depths. No two of these memory-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, to his eccentricity, that he managed to skirt this blind-spot. That he would even think of it as a blind-spot. In fact, his map went against the common grain in more than one regard. For not only did it delineate the entire bunker in more detail than the original bunker blueprint—now outdated by almost a century—it also delved deep into the unsanctioned maze of warrens that webbed the underground like tentacular roots to the bulb of the bunker. However sacrilegious, even to Coda at first, it was Rook’s firm belief that no Bunker Rat, however prodigious an explorer, however assiduous a memory-map maker, could possibly contain the vast extent to which the underground had spread. For this reason, Rook had devised a constantly evolving virtual map, granting them unsurpassed knowledge, and so, dominion over the warrens. It was a tether that enabled them to wade further into the unknown than anyone had ever dared to go.

No Bunker Rat had ever seen the light of day. So it stood to reason—Rook’s reason—that the way of the Bunker Rat was erroneous. A limiting factor. Already outcast by their own choosing, neither Rook nor Coda 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 geniuses possessed, which either led to greatness… or fiery demise. To them, 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.

‘Note.’ Coda pronounced into the air. ‘That’s the business of catapulting oneself into the future, sometimes you’re ahead of yourself, sometimes behind.’

‘I like that one.’

‘Yeah?’, asked Coda, still half map-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 One 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.

‘Don’t call me that.’ 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. All brows and gravity and storm-like. 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 neatly spaced teeth flashed once more. In the end, as an archivist, Coda could not permit herself to 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…’ she looked around her, ‘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 could draw blood.

‘It’ll work. I guarantee it… I think,’ 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 behaviour. 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 smile and twisted it into a grimace. Instinctively, they both crouched low, looked at one another, and scampered off. Not wanting to be anywhere close when the Repair-Droid swept into the tunnel to investigate. Repair, in this case, being shorthand for Human-Mulching.

‘Wait!’ Rook whisper-yelled, regaining some self-control. ‘No, Wait!’

‘No time, no time,’ Coda was repeating frantically, ‘no time, no time…’ a twitch-madness in her eyes.

Not yet knowing what impulse drove him, Rook 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 tugging.

‘Leave the damn thing’ she whispered almost to herself. ‘There’s no…’ She thrashed weakly, cowed by a mortal fear.

‘I don’t care…’ he said, tugging 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 Rook’s command, she crouched quite still.

‘Breathe.’

‘What? You’ve lost your mind, Rook…’

‘Breathe!’

How could he be smiling? In a moment like this? Mad like a rabid rat in a cage…

‘Breathe!’

‘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, on 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 feeling the cold greasy dampness of the other’s skin, against their own. 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 brink of stimulus bliss.

Rook pushed Coda’s 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 the rat tail that hung at the back of his buzz-cut head, 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 then, quite suddenly, that was as much of a fleeting moment as 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 with freedom in their lungs, freedom in their legs. How they howled at the prospect of death so nearly juxtaposed to this most profound reaffirmation of life. They revelled in that liminal space, between life and death, just as Sisyphus’ tears of despair turned to laughter, once every millionth time, as he watched his boulder tumbling down the hill once more. The border between such states never as thin, never as ephemeral as when experienced fully.

Guided by engrained instincts, Coda and Rook soon found themselves crawling through one of the many entrances to their secret lair. Safe and sound, they lay sprawled 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 set us free, but do it quick.’

Although Coda concluded her decree with a sincere attempt at a smile, she saw that Rook’s eyes fastened themselves to hers, leaden with purpose and intent. It was no negligible burden to have the fate of another on your hands, let alone the fate of someone whom you love more than you love even yourself; but neither was Rook’s courage negligible. He nodded solemnly, conspiratorially.

‘It’s no pipe-dream, Co.’

‘I know.’

‘Good.’

Some time later, the two of them fell naturally into their own respective world. Rook tinkering, as he never wasn’t, and Coda mulling over her notes from the day, classifying, finding in them that deep 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 had 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 anyone’s and his and Coda’s 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 obviously 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.

 

 

Copyright © 2021 by Etienne Robert

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