Chapter 7:

Luena's Tenderness: The Little Rat Cyborg

Sarette's Reve De Mort: And Other Stories

It was not the teeth upon her tail that caused the pain of a thousand nails nor when her sister was whipped by a guard who jeered, "Take that, you lump of lard". But her father as if he were only a bother yanked up by his leg they forced him to beg for mercy.Bookmark here

She remembered it looked like a screw being ripped from plywood. No mercy was shown, and her father had died with that word on his lips. Luena's hope had died too. Her third eye was fried. There was no escaping the pain, except by giving in to the withering of her brain. Though school was still a necessary torture, she could not even do basic math problems, or write a decent sentence. She had kept trying, though, trying to do her best.Bookmark here

As Luena headed out the door on what turned out to be the last day of the life she had known, her mother repeated her frequent plea. "Please don't forget to bring home dinner tonight. I know you're disgusted, but we have to eat." Luena thought of the humiliating wait in line for a measly pound of rat meat, deemed enough for a family of five, though they were now down to four. Rodent meat was all they could count on for food anymore, food that might possibly kill them should luck not be on their side when their portion was given. Luena wretched at the thought of eating another bite of rat. She could resist the hunger pains, but she had to take care of her mom and sisters.Bookmark here

Luena walked to the bus stop and waited for one of the open bed trucks used for transport. The trucks reminded her of ones used to transport soldiers, or worse, prisoners on a road crew. Her peers had nicknamed the trucks open buses, similar to the name given those short little yellow buses used to transport disabled kids in some of the stories they read in school. If you were on an open bus, you were probably going somewhere you'd rather not go; school for the lucky, or the crematorium for the unluckiest. An open bus pulled up and Luena climbed in for the ten minute ride to school. As the bus pulled into the school parking lot, Luena noticed activity near a side door of the school, then heard a scream followed by whimpering. A group of bullies had ganged up on one of her unfortunate peers, but all he'd lost was a tooth and a little blood. Nothing compared to the treatment her tribe of elves got from the police on a regular basis. Luena felt the familiar bellyache as she approached the school.Bookmark here

Luena went to all her classes. Additional ordinary bellyache. Most of her teachers hadn't cared about or noticed the change in Luena over the last week. There had been one who would smile at her faintly as she handed her memorization exercises usually used for much younger students. The teacher was trying to help coax Luena's brain back to normal so Luena wouldn't be punished for failure to finish her regular work. This teacher had been the bright spot in the otherwise bleak school day, even though Luena wondered whether the teacher suspected it wouldn't be a fruitful venture. As frequently happened to teachers, though, this one was hauled away in an open bus. A fate shared by many, especially those who were surrounded by others most of the day.Bookmark here

Every teacher carried a cane, used for intimidation and sometimes for impromptu paddling in the hall. There were no limits on the punishment teachers could dole out to students, as long as each student could walk out of school at the end of the day. So far this freedom to punish had not gotten out of hand.Bookmark here

On three of the five school days since Luena's father had died, she had been sent to In-School Suspension. Classwork had to be completed there, even though you received a zero for it. The worst part about ISS was the time it provided for Luena's mind to wander. The loss of her father was not the only loss she had suffered recently. Haunting images of Garry, the boy she had dated for only a month before he succumbed to the virus that was killing dozens of her peers daily, always entered her mind. The virus that assured you a trip on the open bus to the crematorium. She saw him foaming at the mouth, a green line forming around his lips. Garry had complained of chills, with goosebumps that would cover his arms and legs with increasing frequency, a few days before the end. His throat had begun to ache during the last day, before the vomiting began. He had been approaching the school; Luena had gotten there just ahead of him. He had doubled over, and green vomit spewed several feet around him. He caught Luena's eyes just before the police arrived to haul him away with the unlucky classmates who had been hit by his puke.Bookmark here

There were two known ways to catch the green virus, now called the green plague. Some of the rats they were forced to eat were infected with it. If you dodged that bullet, you might come in contact with the vomit of a victim. Rats and mice had been the main source of food since the oppression of her tribe had begun. Luena had lost a third of her weight, despite her mother's constant urging to eat. Her mother even seemed to look forward to the meals that included rat breast. What, did it taste like chicken, Luena wondered. Though her mother was adjusting to life without her husband, Luena knew she was in pain. But she was also driven by the need to keep her three daughters alive. Luena couldn't accept the rat diet, even though she knew she was slowly starving. She had better luck eating the mice served at school, though even with dipping sauce she had to choke them down. Luena still didn't understand why, but with the rats she felt a connection. She had even made a pet of one. So far she had succeeded in saving that one from being the evening meal.Bookmark here

Luena was jolted out of her ISS daydreaming by the force of the teacher's cane ramming into the back of her chair. She tried to return to her work, but once again wondered why it even mattered. She noticed a chill over her body, and saw the goosebumps rising on her arms. Alarm changed to calm relief. So what? She hoped it was what she thought it was.Bookmark here

When Luena returned home that afternoon she followed her normal routine, except she avoided her mother and went straight to her room. Her mother always tried to tempt her with a snack after school, some sort of rat tidbit she tried to make as tasty as possible. It never worked. Luena wasn't up to dealing with that drama. She could have the plague! Maybe not, so maybe she should do her homework, but why? She would almost certainly be in ISS again tomorrow, so all her homework would get a zero. Luena's thoughts were racing, her mother was knocking, saying they needed to talk. Goosebumps covered her arms and legs again. She remained calm and opened the door to talk to her mother.Bookmark here

"What's wrong, honey? Did you get our meat?", her mother asked. Suddenly Luena knew she had to leave. Though she knew her mother was beginning to suspect something was up, she calmly said she had forgotten, and that she'd go harvest some of the tastier grasses. That was a lie, one of her sisters could do that once they realized she was gone. She closed her door and locked it, and began packing a bag. When she opened her bedroom window to leave, her mother must have heard, because she came back and began pounding on the door and yelling her name. Luena looked back at the door, then slid onto the window sill before making the short jump to the ground. By the time she was disappearing into the woods, her mother had used the key all her daughters knew she could use any time she wanted in their bedrooms. Luena was gone, though, and her mother watched and hoped she would change her mind and reappear. Another part of her knew she had to protect her other daughters.Bookmark here

She whispered, "Let's just keep this to ourselves, girls."Bookmark here

Luena was on the run, not sure if her mother would pursue her. Half of her wishing she would, saying they had to stay together no matter what. The other half knowing she wouldn't. Self preservation, and more importantly, protecting her other two daughters, would win out. Luena wanted to stay in the woods, but she was having more and more chills, and was hungry, too. There were rumors that during the curfew hours, the police patrolling the downtown area ate like kings, and sometimes threw the remnants of their feast in the dumpsters. Luena was desparate enough to check it out.Bookmark here

Along with the patrolling police, the nighttime streets were full of rat cleansers. These were genetically bred cats with poison running through their veins instead of blood. A scratch or bite from one of them would inject the recipient with this poison. None of Luena's tribe knew how long it took the poison to kill, since the victim was always hauled away to the crematorium. There was an antedote, but only available to the oppressors, should one of their own be an accidental victim of a rat cleanser.Bookmark here

Luena made her way to a dumpster, but heard footsteps. She noticed a rat cleanser on the other side of the dumpster, then heard someone say, "Hey, you're out past curfew." Luena ran in the opposite direction, but felt a sharp pain and the weight of the rat cleanser on her lower back. She screamed as the rat cleanser sank it's teeth into her hip. The poison went to work immediately, causing a sensation she could only describe as lions gnawing all over her body.Bookmark here

She collapsed, and her vision began to dim. She heard the police guard say to the rat cleanser, "Good job 283, next stop the crematorium...hey wait, who's there? Luena heard the police guard gasp, and heard his running footsteps fading into the distance. She also heard growling, hissing, and yowling just beside her. As she slipped into unconsciousness, her last thought was that she would be the evening meal for some unknown creature.Bookmark here

Luena thought she had died that night, but she had awakened to the sight of a rodent-like creature kneeling beside her. Luena could feel her own hands, feel the pain in her hip, feel the familiar hunger in her belly...she was alive! She said out loud, "How exactly am I here right now?" The rat creature responded in the voice of a girl, "You barely made it." Luena said, "I had a rat for a pet once."Bookmark here

The rat girl responded, "I had a human for a pet once." Luena hoped the joking around, if that's what it was, was a good sign, but the rat girl had disappeared. She came back carrying a contraption with tubes and guages, in a carrying case that looked like a backpack. The rat girl began hooking the tubes to Luena, but Luena was too weak to resist. The rat girl seemed kind, and gently warned Luena before piercing her forearm and attaching another tube. Luena summoned strength and blurted, "What the hell?" The rat girl explained,Bookmark here

"You've got poison in your system, you know that. This machine will monitor and control that poison, at least temporarily." Luena was skeptical. "What, this thing?" The rat girl responded, "We don't know how long you've got, but this is your best chance at making it long enough to find a solution to your dual problem". Luena looked at the rat girl, realizing she had figured out that not only was there poison running through Luena's veins, but the feared green plague lurked there too.Bookmark here

Luena had all kinds of questions, but no energy to ask them out loud. What exactly was this rodent-like creature? How could she speak like a girl? Is there really a way to save me? She drifted into a dreamlike state with these thoughts on her mind:Bookmark here

"A night of the full moon I have felt a pulse in my veins. Like a lab rat, bitten to the core a situation I deplore, I am – a rodent locked in human flesh."Bookmark here

Luena woke up, and found that she had claws and paws. On her face were whiskers and fur. Part of her body had been replaced by 3D printed replacements, using vat grown flesh to replace the part of her that was no longer there. She didn't think that the experience would be so violent, and yet now it feel like only a brief memory. And she wasn't sure if they were going to find her, only knew that she needed to hide until the calm came.Bookmark here

It was difficult to remember the exact nature of the faces of the militarized police, she only remembered the emotions her mother experienced when she was suppose to be sent away do to the plague. You wouldn't think, in the twenty first century, that this would still be a problem, however when your government knows its empire is about to run out, it would manufacture all sorts of controversies to distract the public. She couldn't say with any certainty that the plague isn't true, but Luena wonder what life could have been like if she could have a normal familial experience. There were times when she missed them, yet part of her got used to the idea of living in the sewers.Bookmark here

She was greeted by a rat man, covered in cybernetics. There was still something in his gaze that suggested there was still a part of him that was still human. He reached out his claw to her. "Come, I have much to show you." Reluctantly, she followed down the tunnel. Luena wasn't used to being so wet, the room smelled like shit. It figures right, this is where I'd end up. But she supposed it was better than being taken on a train somewhere and shot, put inside an unmarked grave. She could hear the sounds of insects crawling in the darkness. She could also hear the sound of cars moving above the city street.Bookmark here

Down hear, where the angels never tread, the only ones that live hear are out of their head. Out of some vague sense of hope that arguably never existed to begin with, and yet here they were eating left over frozen dinners, and popping coffee tablets.Bookmark here

She was introduced to this small community, though it was much larger than what one may expect. The actual success rate of captured rat people was worse than what was portrayed on the news. Where the poorest wore wooden shoes, while the richer people eat salted crackers, and reality television.Bookmark here

Here this small community got hand me down television sets to old to be used by those of finer taste. It was a surprise that their vacuum tubes had not exploded. There was an influx of different models, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; not even the flow of flat screen television screens in high definition. Computers drew graphics in an old fashioned dot matrix, with very little colors besides purple, lime green, and gray text.Bookmark here

"I'd call it Purgatory, but think spirits have better taste."Bookmark here

"I've heard you come from the surface." the rat man said.Bookmark here

"I lived in the surface for a while." Luena said.Bookmark here

"When you see me, what do you think I am?"Bookmark here

"You look similarly to a rat."Bookmark here

The plague did not so much kill you, as turn you into a new life form. No matter how much rodents evolved, they would turn out differently from humans. Their desire for the darkness of the homestead, the ability to adapt to living in a small space. And the sound of buzz saw blades, making their way through another rat carcass.Bookmark here

"Cannibalism, that's what we've been reduced to."Bookmark here

"But I saw one of your people eating."Bookmark here

"The laws preventing food destruction at grocery stories are still on the books."Bookmark here

The rat man held up a device.Bookmark here

"They even toss out storybooks."Bookmark here

Sleeping in a pile of your own filth was the least of your concerns down here, although she tried to prevent as much of this as she could. It turned out that Luena didn't stay in the rat form, but was something that could switch between and human form and rodent at will. The crew would always take human form to reduce the likely hood of being murdered as pests, although the government, that had a digital voice recorders in every street corner, could find you at any moment, and take you to those camps.Bookmark here

But the crew were champs.Bookmark here

The likelihood of finding any given was reduced by the fact most self-respecting people would never go down here, and in fact I would not have made the choice myself, if military police were not literally threatening me with a bullet to the brain. Who knows how many wondered down here, when all was said a gun.Bookmark here

It was better than putting your mouth to gun.Bookmark here

But it wasn't actually fun. In some ways...Bookmark here

It was worse than death.Bookmark here

Luena was one of those teenagers that, while most people shied away from do to the cult of public perception, there was always a part of them that wanted to be like her, even if they never wanted to admit it.Bookmark here

She was remembered as being one of those plucky heroines in young adult novels that managed to hack it out, despite the world pretty much wanting to rip out your guts. Luena knew that being actually, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a true outcast, was far more appealing than what the big screen tended to present. She was the one girl, because nobody wanted her as her sweet heart, people paradoxically also wanted her as their sweet heart. And mother her by combing her hair. It wasn't so much her inability to take care of herself ( she had this in spades ) but her fear of certain blades, that she only recently overcame. And her issues with insects, especially ones that were trapped in amber.Bookmark here

But Luena was the queen of the spiders in the sewer, the princess of the rats. And for her, she was trapped in something far more thick, without the comfort of being killed first: without the comfort that she could be some odd specimen studied under the magnifying glass of some scientist in a laboratory. Instead she simply disappeared from society, and those who did remember her never wished to admit to this effect. She slept in a black Japanese futon in her own personal crawlspace, carefully swept by the retro styled android maids, in their tap dancing shoes. She herself had only just gotten used to the flower of her new arms and legs, and their tendency to change from human to animal form at her whim.Bookmark here

She no longer dreamed of vague validation.Bookmark here

She only hid inside her makeshift tomb, personal masturbation. Her own world where she could eat as much as she wanted, whenever she wanted. But the stuff that was around was not very good, even if in generally larger quantity. Especially packaged fried noodles, something that you might think would be an Otaku's dream, but only you spiced them just perfectly, always intended up tasting like spicy nothing. She would rather be eating makeshift chocolate yogurt from Greek stock, but here the only thing like that was in tubes: abandoned yogurt cartons that weren't sold by their buy date. All the feast in the world, withered with time.Bookmark here

She remembered the taste of Thyme.Bookmark here

She remembered the taste of the kiss of hot chilly peppers, and old fashioned tap dance rhyme, but now the only music was the sound of buzz saw screens, the food year old garlic powder. And everything else, with the scent of death.Bookmark here

They wouldn't normally eat each other.Bookmark here

But lately the lack of spare food gave them largely no other options, and the only ones that would remain in good shape were the android maids, who, do to being older models, didn't need to eat, and didn't have any kind of digestive tract. Things were arranged in a pact, that only the strongest would be the one that would be harvested. "We could just go dumpster diving."Bookmark here

"Well you would you dumpster diving?"Bookmark here

"Well..."Bookmark here

"I didn't think so."Bookmark here

But at this point, she wasn't sure how much longer she could resist. She didn't want to see any more of her friends go. But there wasn't a whole lot more options, and it seemed there were less infected ones visiting the sewers by the month.Bookmark here

She need to go beyond herself.Bookmark here

See the city for one last time.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.