the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 14


His conscience fell silent. Probably amazed at the cleverness of the plan, Maurice told himself. He had to admit that he was cleverer at plans than at underground navigation. He wasn't exactly lost, because cats never got lost. He merely didn't know where everything else was. There wasn't a lot of earth under the town, that was certain. Cellars and grating and pipeways and ancient sewers and crypts and bits of forgotten buildings formed a sort of honeycomb. Even humans could get around, Maurice thought. The rat-catchers certainly had. He could smell rats everywhere. He'd wondered about calling out to Dangerous Beans, but decided against it. Calling out might help him find out where the little rat was, but it'd also alert… anyone else to where Maurice was. Those big rats had been, well, big, and nasty-looking. Even an idiot dog would have trouble with them. Now he was in a small square tunnel with lead pipes in it. There was even a hiss of escaping steam, and here and there warm water dipped into a gutter that ran along the bottom of the tunnel. Up ahead was a grating leading up to the street. Faint light came through it. The water in the gutter looked clean. At least, you could see through it. Maurice was thirsty. He leaned down, tongue out- There was a thin, bright red streak curling gently in the water… Hamnpork seemed confused and half asleep but he knew enough to hold on to Sardines' tail as the rats made their way back from the stables. It was a slow journey. Sardines didn't think the old rat would manage the washing lines.

They skulked along gutters, and along drains, hiding in nothing more than the cloak of night. A few rats were milling around in the cellar when they finally arrived. By then Darktan and Sardines were walking on either side of Hamnpork, who was barely moving his legs. There was still a candle burning in the cellar. Darktan was surprised. But a lot of things had happened in the last hour. They let Hamnpork sink to the floor, where he lay, breathing heavily. His body shook with each breath. 'Poison, guv?' whispered Sardines. 'I think it was just too much for him,' said Darktan. 'Just too much.' Hamnpork opened one eye. 'Am… I… still… the… leader?' he said. 'Yes, sir,' said Darktan. 'Need… to… sleep…' Darktan looked around the circle. Rats were creeping towards the group. He could see them whispering to one another. They kept looking at him. He stared around, trying to spot the pale figure of Dangerous Beans. 'Nourishing… tells me… you saw the… tunnel… of the… Big Rat…' said Hamnpork.

Darktan glared at Nourishing, who looked embarrassed. 'I saw… something,' he said. 'Then I shall dream there and… never wake up,' said Hamnpork. His head sagged again. This isn't… the way a… an old rat should die,' he mumbled. 'Not… like this. Not… in the light.' Darktan nodded urgently at Sardines, who snuffed out the candle with his hat. The damp, thick underground darkness closed in. 'Darktan,' Hamnpork whispered. 'You need to know this…' Sardines strained his ears to hear the old leader's last words to Darktan. Then, a few seconds later, he shivered. He could smell the change in the world. There was movement in the darkness. A match burst into life and the candle flame grew again, bringing shadows back into the world. Hamnpork was lying very still. 'Do we have to eat him now?' said someone. 'He's… gone,' said Darktan. Somehow, the idea of eating Hamnpork didn't feel right. 'Bury him,' he said. 'And mark the place so we know he's there.' There was a sense of relief in the group. However much anyone might have respected Hamnpork, he was still a bit on the whiffy side, even for a rat. A rat at the front of the crowd looked uncertain. 'Er… when you say “mark the place”,' it said, 'do you mean like we mark other places where we bury things?'

'He means by widdling on it,' said the rat beside him. Darktan looked at Sardines, who shrugged. Darktan had a sinking feeling inside. When you were the leader, everyone waited to see what you said. And there was still no sign of the white rat. He was on his own. He thought hard for a moment, and then nodded. 'Yes,' he said at last. 'He'd like that. It's very… ratty. But do this, too. Draw it on the ground above him.' He scraped a sign on the ground: ' “He was a rat from a long line of rats and he thought about rats”,' said Sardines. 'Good one, boss.'

'And will he come back like Darktan did?' said someone else. 'If he does, he'll get really mad if we've eaten him,' said a voice. There was some nervous laughter. 'Listen, I didn't-' Darktan began, but Sardines nudged him. 'Word in your ear, guv?' he said, raising his charred hat politely. 'Yes, yes…' Darktan was getting worried. He'd never had so many rats watching him so closely. He followed Sardines away from the group. 'You know I used to hang around in the theatre an' that,' said Sardines. 'And you pick up stuff in the theatre. And the thing is… look, what I'm saying is, you're the leader, right? So you got to act like you know what you're doing, OK? If the leader doesn't know what he's doing, no-one else does, either.'

'I only know what I'm doing when I'm dismantling traps,' said Darktan. 'All right, think of the future as a great big trap,' said Sardines. 'With no cheese.'

'That is not a lot of help!'

'And you should let them think what they like about you and… that scar you've got,' said Sardines. 'That's my advice, guv.'

'But I didn't die, Sardines!'

'Something happened, didn't it? You were going to set fire to the place. I watched you. Something happened to you in the trap. Don't ask me what it was, I just do tap-dancing. I'm just a little rat. Always will be, boss. But there's big rats like Inbrine and Sellby and a bunch of others, boss, and now Hamnpork's dead they might think they should be the leader. Get my drift?'

'No.' Sardines sighed. 'I reckon you do, boss. Do we want a lot of scrapping amongst ourselves at a time like this?'

'No!'

'Right! Well, thanks to chattery little Nourishing, you're the rat that looked the Bone Rat right in the face and came back, aren't you…?'

'Yes, but she…'

'Seems to me, boss, that anyone who could stare down the Bone Rat… well, no-one is going to want to mess with him, am I right? A rat who wears the teeth-marks of the Bone Rat like a belt? Uh-uh, no. Rats'll follow a rat like that. Time like this, rats need someone to follow. That was a good thing you did back there, with ol' Hamnpork. Burying him and widdling on top and putting a sign on him… well, the old rats like that, and so do the young ones. Shows 'em

you're thinking for everyone.' Sardines put his head on one side, and grinned a worried grin. 'I can see I'm going to have to watch you, Sardines,' said Darktan. 'You think like Maurice.'

'Don't worry about me, boss. I'm small. I gotta dance. I wouldn't be any good at leadering.' Thinking for everyone, Darktan thought. The white rat… 'Where is Dangerous Beans?' he said, looking around. 'Isn't he here?'

'Haven't seen him, boss.'

'What? We need him! He's got the map in his head.'

'Map, boss?' Sardines looked concerned. 'I thought you drew maps in the mud '

'Not a map like a picture of tunnels and traps! A map of… of what we are and where we're going…'

'Oh, you mean like that lovely island? Never really believed in it, boss,'

'I don't know about any islands, I really don't,' said Darktan. 'But when I was in that… place, I… saw the shape of an idea. There's been a war between humans and rats for ever! It's got to end. And here, now, in this place, with these rats… I can see that it can. This might be the only time and the only place where it can. I can see the shape of an idea in my head but I can't think of the words for it, do you understand? So we need the white rat, because he knows the map for thinking. We've got to think our way out of this. Running around and squeaking won't work any more!'

'You're doing fine so far, boss,' said the dancer, patting him on the shoulder. 'It's all going wrong,' said Darktan, trying to keep his voice down. 'We need him! I need him!'

'I'll get some squads together, boss, if you show me where to start looking,' said Sardines meekly. 'In the drains, not far from the cages,' said Darktan. 'Maurice was with him,' he added. 'Is that a good thing or a bad thing, guv?' said Sardines. 'You know what Hamnpork always said: “You can always trust a cat-” '

'“-to be a cat”. Yes. I know. I wish I knew the answer to that, Sardines.' Sardines stepped closer. 'Can I ask a question, guv?'

'Of course.'

'What was it Hamnpork whispered to you just before he died? Special leader wisdom, was it?'

'Good advice,' said Darktan. 'Good advice.' Maurice blinked. Very slowly, his tongue wound itself back in. He flattened his ears and, legs moving in silent slow motion, crept along beside the gutter. Right under the grating there was something pale. The red streak was coming from further upstream, and divided in two as it flowed around the thing, before becoming one swirling thread again. Maurice reached it. It was a rolled-up scrap of paper, sodden with water and stained with red. He extended a claw and fished it out. It flopped on the side of the gutter and, as Maurice gently peeled the paper apart, he saw the smudged pictures drawn in thick pencil. He knew what they were. He'd learned them, one day when he had nothing better to do. They were stupidly simple. 'No Rat Shall…' he began. Then there was a damp mess, down to the bit that read: 'We are not like other Rats'. 'Oh, no,' he said. They wouldn't drop this, would they? Peaches carried it around as though it was a hugely precious thing- Will I find them first? said an alien voice in Maurice's head. Or perhaps I have… Maurice ran, skidding on the slimy stone as the tunnel turned a corner. What strange things they are, CAT. Rats that think they are not rats. Shall I be like you? Shall I act like a CAT? Shall I keep one of them alive? FOR A WHILE? Maurice yowled under his breath. Other, smaller tunnels branched off on either side but the thin red streak led straight on and there, under another grating, the thing lay in the water, the red leaking gently from it. Maurice sagged. He'd been expecting-what? But this… this was… this was worse, in a way. Worse than anything. Soaked in water, leaking the red ink from Ratty Rupert the Rat's red waistcoat, was Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure. Maurice hooked it out on claw-tip, and the cheap paper pages fell out, one by one, and drifted away in the water. They'd dropped it. Had they been running? Or… had they thrown it away? What was it Dangerous Beans had said? 'We're nothing but rats'? And he'd said it in such a sad, hollow voice… Where are they now, CAT? Can you find them? Which way now? It can see what I see, he thought. It can't read my mind, but it can see what I see and hear what I hear and it's good at working out what I must be thinking… Once again, he shut his eyes. In the dark, CAT? How will you fight my rats? The ones BEHIND YOU? Maurice spun around, eyes wide. There were rats there, dozens of them, some of them nearly half the size of Maurice. They watched him, all with the same blank expression. Well done, well done, CAT! You see the squeaky creatures and yet you don't leap! How did a cat learn not to be a

cat? The rats, as one rat, moved forward. They rustled as they moved. Maurice took a step backwards. Imagine it, CAT, said the voice of Spider. Imagine a million clever rats. Rats that don't run. Rats that fight. Rats that share one mind, one vision. MINE. 'Where are you?' said Maurice, aloud. You will see me soon. Keep going, pussy-cat. You have to keep going. One word from me, one mere flicker of a thought, and the rats you see will take you down. Oh, you might kill one or two, but there are always more rats. Always more rats. Maurice turned, and edged forward. The rats followed. He spun around. They stopped. He turned again, took a couple of steps, looked behind him. The rats followed as if they were on string. There was a familiar smell in the air here, of old, stale water. He was somewhere near the flooded cellar. But how close? The stuff stank worse than tinned cat food. It could be in any direction. He could probably outrun the rats over a short distance. Bloodthirsty rats right behind you can give you wings. Are you planning to run to help the white rat? said his conscience. Or are you thinking of making a dash for the daylight? Maurice had to admit that the daylight had never seemed a better idea. There was no point in lying to himself. After all, rats didn't live very long in any case, even if they had wobbly noses- They are close, CAT. Shall we play a game? Cats like PLAYING. Did you play with Additives? BEFORE YOU BIT HIS HEAD OFF? Maurice stopped dead. 'You are going to die,' he said softly. They are getting closer to me, Maurice. So close now. Shall I tell you that the stupid-looking kid and the silly-sounding girl are going to die? Do you know that rats can eat a human alive? Malicia bolted the shed door. 'Rat kings are deeply mysterious,' she said. 'A rat king is a group of rats with their tails tied together'