The Birth of a Rat
 
This was the first piece I wrote that was set in the Last City. I've now revised and edited it thoroughly.

There was no original intention except to explore the city from the eyes of a citizen, but at some point it was also planned to be a POV in the novel. That may or may not happen now. With the reawakening of a project that was started over a decade ago, a lot will inevitably be different. The city has grown and changed since I last visited.

The Birth of a Rat (~3000 words)

Black smog from the coal refineries blanketed the endless city, turning day into perpetual dusk. Tall, mismatched buildings loomed over the streets, threatening to topple down on the citizens below. As dark morning dawned, people moved about their tasks like wheels in a rusty clockwork, part of a machine that had forgotten its purpose.

He was running along those gloomy streets, his breath hampered by the coal fumes and his pale face contorted in fear-filled focus. Oblivious to the people around him, he failed to notice the suspicious glances and shaken heads because he was running for his life. His name was Dirk Wellcroe, and he was late for work.

Somehow, the first workbell had escaped him, lost in a tangle of restless dark dreams. It was hard to know if you were awake when your daily life felt like an evil dream. As the second bell had tolled he had stirred, but even then reality had not been strong enough to break through. When the third bell had tolled with passive finality he had sat up with a sharp intake of air, eyes wide and mouth agape. He had jumped into his dirty coveralls and raced out the door, his mind catching up as he ran down the street.

And now, familiar buildings were speeding past him in an unfamiliar blur. He had not run this fast since escaping bullies in the youth education facilities. His life had been going at a painfully slow pace since then, an incessant repetition of unfulfilling moments. Now the pattern broke for the first time and his mind raced. Moving at full speed felt unreal.

He ran through the cast iron gateway of the coal refinery, frantic footsteps echoing across an empty outer yard as he raced towards the processing plant. The emptiness stabbed at him with its abnormality. There should be workers in dirty coveralls filing towards their buildings in a sad gait; a difference of fifteen minutes had made the world foreign to him. He turned the corner and crashed through the door into his building and skidded to a halt across the coarse cement floor. He meant to speak up but all the exertion finally took its toll. All he could do was stoop with his hands on his knees to hack and wheeze as his ravaged body tried to catch up with its need for air.

“I'm here. I'm ready for work,” he finally managed to cough out, pink spittle hitting the floor. His breath was strained and his mouth tasted of iron and coal. 

The foreman, a heavy-set thug who could not have looked more out of place brandishing a clipboard and a pencil stub, turned around and briefly looked at Dirk. “You don't work here,” he said, then turned back to surveying the conveyors.

Dirk saw the dirty workers around him, faces blank except for a hint of fear in their eyes. No one stopped working. No one spoke up. Everyone knew that those who displayed abhorrent behaviour were taken away and never seen again. He desperately scanned the people operating heavy machinery, a sight so familiar it was nauseating. They went about their tasks, just as he had done when others had been dragged away screaming. He could not be angry with them. They did what they had to, to persist.

So he stood there watching the massive conveyors shift lazy piles of coal. His pulse echoed in the empty room of his mind, and a sharp pain throbbed between his eyes in that same rhythm. He was tired and thirsty. He turned around and started pacing towards the door, barely lifting his feet.

A heavy hand on Dirk’s shoulder made him start, and he nearly tripped over his own feet turning around.

It was the foreman. “You'll wait here until the Ministry of Numbers sends someone for you.” His voice boomed above the clamour of the machines. 

Dirk backed away until he hit a rack of tools. Points and edges poked into his back. His hand fumbled around until it found a hilt, and Dirk raised a rusty screwdriver to the foreman. It seemed a feeble a tool compared to the steel gaze and bulky frame of the man before him, but the unexpected display of aggression made him take half a step back. Dirk wasted no time; he knew he was outmatched and dashed for the door. A big hand grabbed for him but he was out, and once again he was running.

Only this time he didn’t know where he was going. He had always been going where the city told him to. He ran up the same street he had come sprinting down minutes before. Perhaps today he would find out what lay beyond it.

No one was following him, and he slowed his pace. Out of habit, his legs carried him back to his apartment block, and his mind was too confused to intervene. He went up the stairs. The door to the apartment on the first floor was always open and through the doorway he spotted the lady who lived there. She offered him a half-hearted smile, her son clutched to her apron. Dirk nodded back but found no smile for her today.

Dirk had listened from his room as a Consortium bureaucrat had imposed on the lady one day, overwhelming her with licences, warrants, and talk of directives. Due to her unemployed status, the suit had said, it was her duty to unload the public education system. The suit had assured the lady that she was to be recompensed. A few days later, half a dozen children had been dropped on her doorstep. A solace for the dirty kids but a pest on the poor woman. She never received any money.

The next time a grey suit appeared it had been regarding the lady’s son, who was due to ship off for public schooling in another sector. Dirk had been passing by on his way to work, and had seen the grief in the mother's eyes, grasping for a way to avoid losing her son. She was claiming that her son had already been shipped off, and these children had all been assigned to her by the Consortium. But she had clearly been on the verge of breaking down. Dirk had surprised himself by stepping in.

“I watched them shuffle the brat off last week. Said something about the worker’s program out in the farmlands,” he had hazarded. 

The bureaucrat had given him a short glance, then nodded. “Of course. I'm afraid the records are a bit of a mess. A water leak in the filing room.” 

The kid had stopped calling his mother ‘mom’, and that had been that. Six years old and clearly he grasped the seriousness of the situation. Dirk kept meaning to buy the frail boy some hard candy or a wooden automobile toy, but it always slipped his mind until he saw the scared child huddled to his mother's apron. Tomorrow, he had always thought. I'll get it tomorrow.

He climbed the second set of stairs, unlocked his door and swung it open. The summary of his life was in that cramped, decrepit room. The wallpaper was peeling, the original hue lost to a variety of darker shades that told a story of age and poor maintenance. A small, square window looked out onto the farscreen across the street, from which a Consortium suit looked down on the citizens and perpetually reminded them to be content. The room had two pieces of furniture. A bed with stained sheets and a crumpled excuse for a pillow, and crammed in next to the door was a wardrobe, a heavy thing where he hung his two sets of clothes. Both were coveralls for work.

He realised he was still holding the screwdriver, so he pocketed it and sat down on the bed, trying to gather his thoughts. He knew the Ministry of Numbers would come calling, although with all the red tape the foreman’s report had to chew through it would likely be a while yet. In his left pocket was what remained of last week’s pay. Enough bits to last him a couple of weeks if he spent it conservatively, but what would he do? Assuming the Ministry didn’t take him away, how would he even find another job? After he had completed the mandatory youth education program he had been assigned to the refinery and he had worked there since. Suddenly he understood that a long time ago, he had resigned himself to the fact that he would work at the refinery for the rest of his life.

Now he had no direction. All his life, he had listened and obeyed because that is what you do if you wish to survive in this city, this last city. No room for independent thought, no lenience for dissent, no quarter for rebels. He had accepted the bleak life of a citizen because there was no sane alternative.

Or was there? In his youth, there had been thoughts of escape, about setting out to find another path. He remembered dreams of lands beyond the walls of the city, places with vivid colours and no workbell. And rumours crept through the city, rumours of people who fell through the chasms in the system but persevered in another society, beneath the city. Whispers told of all manner of people living in abandoned tunneltrain stations, closed sewers, and condemned service tunnels. Rats, they were called, dissidents and deviants who renounced the word of Management and went their own way. They defied the city from below, chewed at its foundations. 

Dirk walked over to the window and tried to look at the street through the dirty glass. There was no one there, but he got he urge to open the window and get a better look. It was stuck in the frame. He yanked hard on it until it finally gave in with a dry creak and a cloud of black dust. A rush of thick air made him aware of how stuffy the room was, and standing there he felt like he was looking out from a prison into a world of new and strange opportunities. It dawned on him that he had never opened it before.

He had to look for them, find another way to live. He turned around and scanned the room, light-headed and disoriented as if he was taking the first steps on an important journey. There was little he could take with him. The clothes on his back and the bits in his pocket was everything he had amassed during his long years at the refinery. It underlined the fact that it was time for a change, and he walked to the door.

As he reached for the doorknob, a brutal thumping shook the door on its hinges, freezing him in place. He wiped years of grime from the peep-hole and peered out through an oily haze. He immediately knew that the two men standing in the stairwell were from the Ministry of Numbers.

They looked just as he had expected but nothing like he could have imagined. Both wore grey suits of a simple cut, yet even in identical clothes they could not have looked more different. One was a gangly, gaunt man whose thin lips wore an unconvincing smile. He was leaning towards the peep-hole and the lens distorted his face, giving him the air of a predatory rodent. The other was a tough brick of a man the size of a small house, his passive gaze betraying no intelligence.

“Knock, knock, Mr Wellcroe,” the thin one said. His voice was as charming as nails drawn across a damp blackboard. “I believe we need to have a little chat, you and I.” A short pause. “Don’t play games, now. We know you’re in there.” In terror, Dirk looked down at his hand and saw that he had grabbed the doorknob and twisted it half-way. Panicked thoughts flashed through his head but only one made any sense. Escape.

“Of course,” Dirk said with a feeble voice, “Let me just—” he sidestepped and put all his weight into shouldering his wardrobe. For a moment, he thought it wouldn’t yield to his efforts, but with a reluctant creak it toppled over, hitting the floor with a deafening crack and blocking the door. Dirk ran towards the window and threw himself out. He spun half a lap in the air and landed awkwardly with a nasty snap from his right ankle. The pain hit him like a silent whiplash and he winced as he rushed towards the nearby alley. His foot still supported him, though his vision blurred. Before he turned the corner, he glanced up and saw the muscle man's square face framed in the window.

Ahead was an alley lined with garbage. Foul-smelling steam rose from a grated manhole cover. Dirk limped over to it and got on his knees, pulling at it desperately, but the slits were too thin to get a proper grip. When he was about to give up he remembered the screwdriver in his pocket, and he pulled it out and used it to leverage the grate enough to push it to the side. After a final moment of hesitation, he climbed down into the dark underbelly of the city, stopping only to replace the cover.

There was no going back now. He stepped off the ladder and into a damp, dark passage stinking of refuse; he had to breath through his mouth to avoid retching. As soon as his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, he began walking. Despite the miserable situation, he felt liberated. Instead of being caught in the gears of the great machinery, he had grabbed hold of his destiny.

Dirk was not sure how long he spent trekking through stagnant sewers, abandoned service tunnels, and along forgotten tunneltrain tracks. There were times he felt like he was being watched, but he never saw or heard anyone, and no one answered when he called out. The urge to abandon this foolish search was growing in him, but something stronger compelled him to go on. It wasn’t like there was anything left for him up there.

It was impossible to tell time, but after scrambling through darkness until he was so thirsty he could barely breathe, Dirk had to sit down and rest. As soon as he did, he knew it was a mistake. Exhaustion washed over him and he could no longer resist closing his eyes. His thoughts spun into the darkness and he gave in and drifted off into uneasy slumber.


His mind was pulled back by a strange sound. “Hey,” the sound said, “are you still with us?” It was a light sound, happy, like a giggling violin. He opened his eyes and tried to rub some clarity into them. There were two shapes standing over him. It appeared one was a tall, bulky man, clad in rags and leaning casually on a thick length of rusty pipe as if it were a cane. The other was a small woman holding a torch. She had ruffled blond hair and a round face decorated with a broken smile. 

“Sorry we couldn't get to you earlier,” she said, “we had to make sure the Numbers weren't following you.” Dirk tried to reply but could only cough.

The woman turned to her companion. “Got any colours?”

The man appeared to ponder the strange question at length, then dug deep within his ragged robes and pulled out a piece of paper which he handed to the her. Then he resumed leaning on his pipe. The woman held up the paper to Dirk. It was split into two parts, one was grey and the other a washed out red. Dirk looked at it, confused.

“What colours are they?” the woman with the violin voice asked him, her face grave and perhaps a little concerned.

“Grey and red,” Dirk croaked, but she shook her head. 

“Look again at the grey,” she said, her voice more quiet now. “Look harder.” 

He did as she asked, and tried to focus in the flickering torchlight. “It has a little blue in it.” The woman nodded and turned back to her follower.

“What do you think? Do we take him with us?”

The man frowned. “He is far gone.” His voice was deep but mellow, completely out of place in a dank sewer. 

The woman’s face scrunched up in determination. “But he had the will to come looking for us. The will to run from the Numbers.” The man nodded slowly, and apparently the woman took it for consent because she unscrunched her face into another smile which she beamed at Dirk. “What's your name, stranger?”

“Mr Wellcroe.”

“No, no. That's not your name! That's what they call you.”

Dirk hesitated for a moment. “Dirk,” he said. “My name is Dirk.” 

She nodded. “I’m Ermine, and this sombre fellow is Growl.”

“What happens now?” Dirk asked.

“We will show you forbidden things. Moving pictures of the past. Books with history in them, history from before the city. We have all been lied to, Dirk. Come with us, and let us show you what is left of the real world.” She offered him her hand.

He took it. “Where are we going?”

“Where the Rats live.”