Stories Short Story: Rat Trap by Maria A. Perry

The first time the lights turned on, he remembered a surge of panic coursing through his chest, leaving him to shake with nerves and some sort of nonphysical cold…dread, probably, if he had a word for it back then.
It shone so brightly that he had to resist the urge to slap his eyes closed and bury his head under his arms, as many of his brothers had.

 

Their weak, shrill cries all around him were terrible. It was not as terrible, he thought, as being unable to tell what was going on.
Figures moved among them, their shadows creating small spots of momentary respite from the blinding brilliance that had interrupted their world of warmth and darkness and relative comfort.
The first time he saw light, he was wrenched away from his brothers and placed into his own cell, the thin plastic enough to hold him in, slick enough that he could not climb out to freedom, but neither opaque enough to hide the fact that others like him were on either side, nor thick enough to hide their piteous mewling.


They understood words, had language, but knew better than to use it. Speaking amongst themselves seemed to upset their owners, and usually resulted in the entire room being shaken, and waves of panic that took hours to die down. So they communicated quietly, through touches and small whimpers and squeaks and moans, like the ones coming from them now. They weren’t words, but he knew what the sounds meant, sounds of loss and fear. Sounds of the ache of worry in chests that were suddenly cold and lonely, and didn’t know what either of those things were.
He hated the cold. Before, they could curl around one another, seek comfort in pressing together. It had always been that way, for as long as he could remember…and he couldn’t say how long that had been.
Now, though, things happened in measurable cycles. The lights came on, slowly at first, gentle light that slid smoothly upwards in intensity. It was maintained for a bit, and then slowly lowered again. Part of him panicked each time it happened, at first, until slowly he relaxed as it happened repeatedly and nothing happened.
He hated the light, anyway.
Food was supplied as it always had been, out of a tube that jutted from the wall. The same went for water. This small room of isolation may be terrible and bereft of company, but it did not spell his death. That was good.
The area where he relieved his body was pulled out and the absorbent material changed twice a day.
He supposed he should be content, but he was…empty. Bored, the word was, but he had no idea. There was very little space, no wide areas for stretching one’s legs. Five paces forward, and you had gone your furthest. It would be five across as well, if the bed were not in the way. No space for running, like they used to, sometimes, in the big communal room. No one to wrestle with, even if he hadn’t been much good at it. Just the light and the cold and the empty.
It was seven of the light cycles before they came for him, or, more accurately, they just opened one of the walls and let him out.
He waited, not sure if he’d be punished for leaving his current space, but curiosity got the best of him, and he wasn’t sure if the opportunity would be repeated. He ventured out through the door cautiously, certain that it would slam closed on him. He sniffed at the sides and listened for the sounds that had been made when it opened, the whirring click of something rotating and the grind as it slid back.
Hearing none of that, he stepped forward tentatively. He was in a hall now, all the walls the same material as those of the small room he’d been in.
He could see others like him spaced evenly through these barriers, but had no way to get to them.
The ones pressed against the panels, the ones closest to him, he could see the clearest, but it wasn’t enough to recognize them—the structure cut out all smells except for one that stung his nose, something sharp and strong that burned the inside of his throat. He coughed a bit, and the echo of the noise bouncing back startled him, forcing his head to swivel, afraid he was about to be attacked.
All that was around him was the shadows of the others.
Eventually he found an opening—into another room, not his own, but bigger. Unoccupied by anything, not a brother or a single piece of furniture. It gave him pause, but when he turned to look back, all he could see were his helpless, imprisoned peers.
He spent what felt like small eternities, wandering the spaces between, his feet against the sterilized tiles the only sound in the rooms that he passed through, apart from his heart pounding in his ears and his breathing.
He took every turn that he came to at random, logic not yet involved and his special awareness and mapping abilities tempered by his rising panic, the fear that he had walked away from bed, and food and water. There was none of those things in these halls.
Finally, overcome by anxiety, he lay down and curled in on himself, refusing to move another step. The silence pressed down on him, weighted by the lack of even neighboring cells’ noises. Somehow even in the crushing vacuum, he managed to drift off and sleep.
He woke to himself in another room, identical to the one he’d left before. He couldn’t be sure if it really was the same room, just cleaned so as to be devoid of his smell, or if it was a different room, equally barren and bereft of the things that once offered him comfort.
He’d been returned to food, and bed, water and a corner for emptying out.
The wall opened for him, he didn’t leave. So, instead, they began bringing, or sending, others to him. Some of them were his brothers, others simply like them. They did not speak, at least not loudly—they all knew better. After a wary moment, they would bump their heads together, groom one another a bit, and in a series of small sounds, communicate things. Lights and hurts and fears. Then the door would open again, and the other would leave, and the alone and the dark would, eventually, return. This became a cycle, too.
Shortly thereafter, the Variables began.
Mealtime had never been announced before. Food simply came when it was supposed to. Now, small additional items would come at unscheduled times, in unison with a measured voice, soft and unmasculine, announcing that this was a variable, and a long series of numbers afterwards.
These additional foodstuffs were flavorful, beyond the usual bland daily fare, though they occasionally had sharp tangs to the taste.

The first time that he had refused to eat one of the Variables, the area where he stood, everywhere except the tiles around the food dish, began shocking his feet. He was trapped there for a long minute until, understanding what they wanted, he ate.
The Variables always left him feeling…strange. Woozy sometimes. Sick, others. Anxious or energized or lethargic or sleepy—one even sent him tumbling immediately into a semiconscious state.
He was awake enough to see through the tiny slit in his too heavy eyelids, but not awake enough to react to the sudden shock of no longer being alone. When the wall slid open a small team of three, not brothers, but shaped vaguely like him, wearing something white and stiff that swished over their skins came in to study him.
He was lifted onto his sleeping space, spread out, lights shone under his lids, cold spots pressed to his upper body. Sounds such as he hadn’t heard, beeps and chirps and voices that were more like the Variables voice than his own spoke over him.
“Take him off of tests for a day or two, and he should be fine. No need to terminate.”
“Good. I hate losing a cooperative Mouse.” A deeper voice, like one of his brothers had at times.
“It’s always the cooperative ones that go Rat on us, though. Keep an eye on him, Doctor.”
“You think I don’t know that? He’s under careful surveillance. Don’t worry, this won’t be another 2219. I’m not going to lose another one to Simon.”
There was more protocol over him, more words and numbers he didn’t understand, and a few sharp pricks to his arm, above the crook of his elbow.
When he woke up later, he was weak. Thirsty. Disoriented. He rubbed the scabbing skin where their sharp things had pierced his flesh, and traced the blue lines he had never noticed under his skin before. It was all so uncomfortable.
He wasn’t sure if that had been a dream or not, but he had a name for himself now.
Mouse. He had a word for what they feared, Rat; and something about a Simon who had taken a Mouse away from them.
Simon.
He tested the sound under his breath, afraid to speak too loud, afraid they may be listening.
It tasted like something he should know. Tasted like running in the dark with his brothers.
Tasted like being free.
He settled back into his routine. Light, feed, dark, sleep, light, other.
Only now, he had something to give them, more than his fears and his touches.
Mouse, Rat, Simon, Doctor. Hope. The last wasn’t a word he knew, not by sound, but it was a feeling. A warmth, a calmness. A sort of internal darkness that the lights could not reach.
He felt it coursing through him like the effects of a Variable, the ones that made him feel strong and fast and sure, ready to climb the walls or break them down, ready to charge through the empty hallways and discover what lay beyond.
He had discovered ambition.
He wanted, now.
Wanted words, wanted out, wanted answers. Wanted the Variables to start again, so that he might react again, might learn more with the next group that came in, or jump up and surprise them, charge past them and through the open door, discover where they came from.
His mind now raced as his legs could not. He raced towards Simon. Which had begun to mean another word he didn’t know, but grasped as a concept: Freedom.