The new planet was plentiful and full of hope, just like a new job.
The Earth colonists were now just beginning to see opportunities everywhere and to feel the optimism of adventure in every moment, again. It had been nearly six years since the first migration from Earth; they had been years of challenge and years of growth, and years of reversal and pain and disaster.
And, it had be a long six years with the rats.
No one could have known about them ahead of time. From the telescopes of Earth, the planet appeared to be perfect and uninhabited; no impediments to mankind's fondest hopes and dreams.
Setting out from Earth, the colonists, although highly trained and educated, had been so naive, so unprepared. Like new employees coming to work on the first day, they saw no possibility but success ahead of them. Lurking behind that joie de vive, was the dawning of a whole new experience, and a harsh one, for them all. In fact the very name for the planet they sailed for was altered in the first few days after landing. From Earth they had known it as EverBlue, but then they knew it not, although they should have been more prepared and more watchful. For beneath the anticipated glamour, beneath the prestige of being chosen for the most elite of assignments, they would find, not the mythical EverBlue, but in fact, the deadly and dangerous Ratworld. The name came to be spoken as a swear word, and how apropos a name it is.
The rats killed so many of the colonists in their first year that it was beyond comprehension. The planet itself was a beautiful world, "Just like Southern California," everyone said, with blue skies, ever-blue oceans, meadows of a wheat-like crops that waved in the warm sunlight as far as the eye could see. For those first moments, it looked to each of the new settlers as though they had come to heaven itself. They were all highly paid and upon return they would be rich and highly prized in any profession, any new employer would cherish them. Their families were all proud of them. The mission had been well-provisioned, thankfully. Each of them had wonderfully interesting and challenging assignments. They had all learned to enjoy each other's company on the flight to the new world. They were ready to begin building a future so promising and so alluring that they just couldn't wait to get out of the ships and get going. The carefully-planned, month-long orientation seemed pointless once they looked out of the portholes and beheld the bountiful and obvious beauty of EverBlue.
But within that beauty lurked great peril. If only they had followed the established procedures. If only, indeed.
* * * *
The four ships, each holding a crew of forty, arrived right on time. That alone was an amazing testament to the planning and procedures of "the agency," as they referred to the Space Colonization Department. The distances were enormous and the logistics were daunting, but with the careful, methodical nature of the planners, the agency's leadership had been able to foresee almost every eventuality. After all, they had been sending missions into space for over twenty years. The trip out was actually enjoyable and the crews were productive and entertained all the way. It was a long trip, but the plans and the incredible versatility built into the training of the crew and the ships' equipment arrays made it all more than bearable. There were marriages and babies born, some divorces, and arguments, everything you would expect from human beings, but there were no deaths, no disasters and no diseases. As the planet came into sensor and monitor range, the planners back home were notified and they remarked, "We have done everything we can. Now it's up to them." And, how true that was, because as the crew opened the hatches and stepped out into the new world, well ahead of the planned and proscribed time of egress, and, unfortunately, without a full or thorough completion of all the checklists and safety protocols, they stepped into the unknown like innocents with disaster waiting all around them.
At first all appeared well enough. The colonist saw nothing unexpected. Of course we know now that the rats were there all the time, watching and waiting. When they were first sited, well after a week of activity outside of the ships, time enough to relax the colonists' guard, the rats appeared friendly. "They smell so good," was what every one said. "And they're so pretty, so helpful" was another frequent comment. But the rats knew what was coming, and they patiently bided their time.
Once outside the ships, the Colonists, as planned, studied their new world enthusiastically. But had they done this from inside the ships, as operating procedures had dictated, it would have turned out very differently. But that is irrelevant now, really. As the days passed they became aware of the rats, although they didn't call them that at first, referring to them as "inhabitants" or "people" the way a space traveler might to show respect for first encounters on any new world. The realization of the rats' vast numbers came slowly, almost unnoticed, as more and more of them surrounded the new outpost.
"They don't look like vegetarians," the ship's biologist said. "I wonder what they eat?" But there were so many other things to worry about that those small, beautiful, intelligent little creatures scurrying everywhere, were soon taken for granted. In those early days before they knew that the rats were the only dangerous thing on the planet, the colonists continued on as before, staying outside the ship, building and expanding.
Once the ships were empty, and all of the settlers were out in the open, the grim reality set in very quickly and very horribly.
* * * *
That was six long years ago.
Now, flying towards the far-furrow of BittenKnee, Claudia was thinking about the new recruits who were arriving. It had been a long time since anyone new had come to Ratworld, and she was worried. For six years the few remaining survivors had colonized this world as best they could, and only one other ship had come with reinforcements.
Claudia had come on that second trip, four years ago. Now, she was thinking about Bill, who had commanded the original ships and was one of the two sole survivors from the original crew of two hundred. She remembered the day she arrived and her impressions of Bill were still very vivid.
He had met her alone; he was there when the hatch opened, at the shuttle bay at FirstBite, the new world's capital city. His wife, Joy, had remained outside, watching. Joy had not fared well in those early years. She was nervous, jumpy and never at ease. And, she was leaving on the ship that had brought Claudia, three days later. Joy was returning to Earth. Both of them felt another three years would be too much for her. She was willing to stay if she had to, but she had looked vastly relieved, almost happy, on the shuttle departure ramp as she kissed Bill good-bye. They loved each other immensely, but the rats had taken their toll. When she left, she left with tears in her eyes, but she had a whole new song in her heart. "Good luck, Claudia. Listen to Bill, he knows what he's doing," she said. Claudia had watched her leave. Standing there beside her was Bill, watching his wife leave.
In those three days before Joy left, their paths had crossed briefly a few times. But as Claudia disembarked in those first moments, she was excited, and walked briskly across the lobby and enthusiastically reaching out to shake Bill's hand.
That's when she saw the ratboots for the first time. She had always remembered the excat moment. And, she clearly remembered her first thought. "What are those ugly-looking things?" Why anyone in their right mind would wear such ugly boots, she could not imagine. All of her stylish upbringing and her innate sense of fashion revolted at the sight of those boots. She also remembered her next thought with a mental shake of her head, "You'll NEVER see me wearing those things."
How little did she know.
Bill hadn't really liked her at first meeting. He said, "You're way too pretty and dainty to make it on Ratworld. You'll be dead soon," and walked away.
In their brief time together, Bill's wife had liked Claudia right away. "Bill, this new woman, Claudia, is really great. She'll give it everything she's got, you watch. She's smart. Start her out slowly, and let her find her own way up. Help her, youÕll be glad you did."
Bill took Claudia to headquarters that first day. They flew directly from the shuttle bay to HQ. Of course, Bill never took off his Ratboots, even if technically they were not needed inside, or at HQ. "These days, some wear them all the time, some don't. I do." Bill always wore the boots. As they flew along he started Claudia's indoctrination right away.
"First of all, keep good records. Second, read the manual." He handed her a 14-page document, with an addendum of forms. Claudia looked down at it and then put it aside. Bill watched the casual movement. He thought to himself how much he wished someone had handed him a manual when he first arrived. "And third," he said, "get yourself a pair of Ratboots right away. Until I see you in them, I will assume you're dead."
Claudia folded her hands in her lap. He thought to himself, she thinks she knows so much. But, actually, Claudia was thinking that she'd better start listening to this man and she had a distinct feeling that it might be a matter of life and death. She liked Bill right off the bat. This would not be the last time Bill would misread Claudia's thoughts. It was his nature to always err on the side of doubting her and indulging misgivings about her and about everyone and everything else, as well. In time, she would find him to be a wonderful friend, funny, interesting, entertaining, loyal and deeply loyal, but on that first day, Claudia kept looking down at his boots.
* * * *
"Six years later," she thought, "now I'm the one who hands out the manual and always wears the ratboots. Now I'm the one who tells the new people about what lies ahead. Now I'm the one that turns their minds away from EverBlue, and forces them to concentrate. "Concentrate on the rats," she would say. "They are little fucking bastards."
Standing in front of the new recruits, she said, "Five out of ten of you, or more, will die. That's about the best percentage we've been able to achieve to date. Fifty percent. The rats are way too smart for most of you, and they have one thing going for them that most of you will never have going for you: a deep, abiding, tenacacious and treacherous consistency. They never vary, they never waiver. They have only one rule. We have many. Here is one of our many:
"The rats will get you when you least expect it."
"It's always a surprise. I've seen it happen way too many times. The look on the victim's face is always one of complete astonishment. They always say, as they die, 'I didn't know' or 'I didn't mean too...' but they're dead before they finish the thought. So, those of us who have survived have a systematic, predictable way of doing things. It's boring but it works. Here's another rule for you:
"Never do anything for the first time."
"We always do things the way we always do them. The way we've all agreed to do them. No improvisation. No invention. No personality. No mystery. Nothing done out of earshot or out of sight. Just boring routines that we never stray from. Never. That's why we're still alive.
"I know you're thinking about YOUR individuality. YOUR 'specialness.' About how YOU do things. About how YOUR friends tell YOU that what they love about YOU, is your little quirky, idiosyncratic ways. I know you're thinking YOU didn't come all this way to just get in line and be a number. YOU'RE an explorer, an adventurer, right?
"Wrong. If you want to survive, my friends, YOU'LL do it the way those of us, who really know how to do it, do it. Here's more good advice:
"Follow in the footsteps of the living, not the dead."
"Once you learn the ropes in a year or so you'll see there are places where you can relax, and you'll see there are places where we really do explore and experiment with new things and new ways. But here on Ratworld, only those who achieve the highest status achievable will ever get into those circles. You must be a survivor. Most of you will not make it. Most of you will never achieve the high status of the rank of survivor for the very simple reason that you will not listen to what I just said. You will not follow the rules."
* * * *
On that first day, Bill and Claudia landed at HQ and Bill started off, clunking along with the boots and the odd sound they made. It was as if he had two clubfeet, and knees that wouldn't bend. He struggled gracelessly but with majestic determination. She thought to herself that he should take them off and rub his legs. She felt bad for him, as if he were a cripple. But Bill never turned back and never stopped moving; he just kept shuffling laboriously along. Once they were inside the main compartment, he seemed to relax a little, but he remained standing, as though he were expecting trouble. Claudia sat down. It had been a long trip.
Bill said to Claudia, "I'm going to show you something that you will never forget. I'm going to show you the rats. When they see you they will go crazy. To them you are an unbelievable obsession. You are the object of their fantasies and of their demon-pursuit. You are also something they haven't seen in a very long time: a human being without Ratboots on."
Bill looked Claudia over. She was darkish-haired, with beautiful bone structure. Her skin was creamy. She was tall and very feminine in her proportions. She was wearing a loose, high-buttoned blouse, a short skirt and no leg coverings. Her bare legs were pretty and preoccupying to him because uncovered legs were almost unknown on Ratworld.
But Bill was an old hand, quickly sorting out his mental wanderings in the blink of an eye. Just as fast as his thoughts reordered, another, chastising, thought came to him like a mental slap in the face; "The rats are faster than that. Concentrate. Stay focused." He turned back to the young girl and her long, bare legs.
"Oh, yes, Claudia, the rats are going to love you!" Claudia noticed that while she heard the humor in his voice, she didn't see it in his eyes.
* * * *
"I've made almost every mistake in the books," she said to the new recruits, "and I've done almost every stupid thing possible to get myself killed. I say, 'Almost,' because as you can see I have survived.
"I survived because of Bill and the rules he wrote. But he won't always be able to help you. He hasn't got the time anymore, and, besides, now there are a lot of other people here who can and will help. And, Bill won't help you now because he's involved in projects that basically require him to be free of the rats. Which means more of you will die. But without him, and what he is doing all of us will die and this settlement will cease to exist. So forgive him if he seems insensitive and too busy sometimes." Claudia looked out at all of the young faces in the room before her. They were intent and interested in every word. She made one more concluding statement.
"There is one other element that you should know about the rats right now and never forget; they not only speak perfect English and already know your names, but they also can sense your doubts and weaknesses. It's uncanny, but they seem to know when you are at your weakest. Some people think they can read our minds."
* * * *
Walking along they had lapsed into silence. Claudia was observing him and looking around. They were coming to a large glass wall with a door to the side and directly ahead. The window looked outside. Bill was talking again. Claudia found that he generally wasn't that concerned whether she was listening or not. She also had noticed that he seemed to start talking in the middle of sentences, as though he began the thought in his mind and then, at some point, the thought began to convert to sounds; he wasn't concerned at all about where the conversion actually began. "...speak perfect English, and many other languages, Claudia, so stay right where you are and watch what you say. Remember, they are very smart; very perspicacious." With that, Bill opened the outside door, stepped over the waist-high barrier and walked outside.
As the door swung open, Claudia gasped in shock and surprise. There were furry little creatures standing shoulder to shoulder as though in a crowd in St Peter's square waiting for a Papal blessing. They were everywhere, like ants. The next thing she noticed was the wonderful fragrance emanating from them. It was delicious. Enrapturing. Wonderful. She moved a little closer.
"STOP!" Bill shouted at the top of his lungs, violently scaring her, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. He held up his hand with the classic "STAY" gesture. She froze. But already, even that slight movement had created frenzy among the rats. They rushed Bill, jumping and scratching at his boots wildly. He looked like a man wading in a surging, angry tide. The rats swelled around him, crawling on top of each other getting higher and higher on his boots. Claudia was petrified. Frozen. Horrified, thinking she had casued his death. Bill looked at her and laughed. The rats were getting no higher, and were falling back on themselves. He was safe, although in the midst of deadly trouble. "That's their one weakness; their legs. They can only jump so high and they can't stack up more than two or three high either. Thank God for their weak legs, or we'd all be dead."
Claudia continued to watch in horror. The rats were still trying with energy unabated but the reality of the situation was slowly setting in for them. They suddenly turned en masse in her direction, and for a split second she absolutely panicked thinking they could get to her. The thought of those creatures getting through to her was just too much. She moved back creating another, greatly intensified frenzy as the entire herd surged violently, now in her direction. They were stopped short by the barrier surrounding the threshold, made of the same material as Bill's Ratboot.. The rats were extremely excited, even though they were cut off, their little heads popping up over the barrier, their teeth bared in anticipation.
She felt completely naked and vulnerable. Her mind was fastened on wishing she had Ratboots. It was the first time she had realized what the boot really were.
"You're OK, Claudia! Just stop moving." She froze in place. The rats came as far as they could and were stopped. The tenor of the encounter changed. They started to smile and laugh like they were at a party. It was unbelievable to her. They were actually talking to her now.
"Charming, aren't they?" Bill asked. They were suddenly cuddly and beguiling again. One of the rats looked her in the eye and spoke.
"What's your name, anyway? You're very pretty. Do you know that?"
"Don't answer," Bill interjected. "Don't speak to the rats. They'll take advantage of that. They know exactly what they're doing. You don't."
* * * *
Claudia stared at the hundred faces of the new recruits. They were all watching her.
"They've asked me to speak with you about my experiences on Ratworld," she said. "I know it will not do you any good, but the company likes to try everything to keep you alive. They like to have a good, clear record of everything. In fact, thatÕs another rule:
"Always keep excellent records."
"The rats hate records; records help defeat them. They like it when you operate on the fly and never write anything down.
"The reason that a lot of you will be killed is because you won't (1) take the time necessary to read our carefully kept rules and records (she held up the dog-eared manual Bill had given her years ago), and (2) without the knowledge you need the rats will simply outsmart you. They know exactly what they're doing. You don't.
"If you don't follow the rules, whatever else you do won't matter, because you'll be dead.
"But before we go much further, I think you should first see what you're up against. She walked to the barn doors of the indoctrination center where they were all standing. "We've set this room up to accommodate this "need-to-know situation." You'll be able to see the rats, and they'll be able to see you. But they won't be able to get to you because of the barrier, but I should warn you that they will try. This may be the only time in your time here on Ratworld when you'll be almost completely safe in the presence of the rats without the boots. And it is an open door so you'll also be able to hear them and smell them. I also should warn you that this is one of their favorite things to do, so there are thousands of them on the other side of these doors. They enjoy this little episode and it doesnÕt happen very often so they make the most of it. So just stay calm and observe. Don't move."
With that comment she threw open the double doors to reveal what looked like a sea of little furred creatures that had all been waiting for that exact moment to rush forward screaming at the top of their lungs. Unfortunately, the recruits panicked and moved back suddenly, crushing each other.
Before Claudia could stop what was happening, the stampeding crowd of recruits had buldged around in such a way as to crush one of their number against and then over the barrier and into the rats on the other side.
In the next few moments, the new "class" of recruits got an abject lesson in rat behavior, much to their horror.
The female recruit who was knocked over the barrier was immediately and completely overwhelmed by a furry blur that pulsed and surged over her body. They didn't smother her, but seemed to let her breathe as they slowly ripped off pieces of her skin, hair, clothing. Some of the rats seemed to concentrate on removing her hair. Pieces were being passed back in an organized bucket-brigade style until she finally succumbed to unconsciousness. When the rats were done there was nothing left, except a stunned, silent abyss where the recruits' naivete had been plunged into the dark red sea of Ratworld's secrets and completely and irrevocably replaced with the stupefying horror of it's brutal reality. Given the chance at this point, most recruits would quit and go home without question.
* * * *
Bill was moving back toward Claudia like a man moving through shallow, heavy mud. He was dragging his feet, not lifting them, swinging his hips, not bending his knees. The rats moved along obligingly with his rhythm. "They're hoping I'll stumble," he said. Claudia thought about that. No room for error. One slip, one misstep and the rats get you.
One particular Rat was trying to get Claudia's attention. She noticed that when she looked at it, it was looking directly into her eyes. "You're new," it said. "You're very pretty. I bet you're from San Francisco. I can tell by your legs. Are you a runner? We've got some beautiful areas to run here on EverBlue. I know you call it Ratworld but we like the other name. You understand, don't you?" The rat giggled at his little joke. Claudia almost responded but remained silent. Bill was watching her.
"Very good," he said, "you're a quick learner. Good instincts. If you let them, they'll build a relationship with you, slowly at first. And after a while you WILL trust them in a way. Then a little more and a little more. They know what human nature is. They know what pets are. They know more about us than we do. They know how much we want to pick them up and pet them. That is always fatal. It's not the picking one of them up, that't the problem, you can kill one of them. It's the bending down that will get you."
Claudia watched Bill reacquire the barrier and then climb into the safety of the room with her. Feeling safer, she ventured a comment. "They are actually beautiful little creatures."
"No, they are not," he said. "And now you know another rule:
"Never participate in small talk with the rats."
* * * *
Claudia got the recruits calmed down somewhat and had the orderly escort them off to their overnight accommodations. She remained alone in the center.
She thought it was a shame to lose one so fast, but at least they all got to see it. "It might be a blessing in disguise," she said out loud to herself. One of the rats heard her, and said, "We thought so." The other rats found this comment amusing. Claudia shook her head and mentally chastised herself for the careless words.
"Loosen up, Claudia," the funny rat said There were some shreds of cloth in its whiskers.
* * * *
Bill sat down for the first time since meeting Claudia. He turned to her. "We have procedures here, Claudia, and you must follow them if you are to survive. I see that you have good instincts and that will help you. But you must learn the rules and follow them. Here are some more of them for starters:
"Always wear your ratboots."
"Always remember your manual and use it."
These two rules are really the same rule twice. The procedure manual is your ultimate protection but without your ratboots nothing else matters. These are the golden rules. But the others are helpful too, but only if you always keep the first two rules.
"Never make contact with a rat without speaking with me or with someone else who knows them, first. Preferably me, but if not me, choose someone who has experience."
"Be consistent in following the rules; don't ever improvise."
"Never make a decision outside of the rules that govern it, and, remember, there's a rule for everything."
"Never let your guard down."
"When in the midst of the rats, keep moving towards your goal, don't dawdle in idle conversation even though they are wonderful conversationalists and can be very funny and entertaining."
"Never take a rat's word for anything. Confirm and recheck everything they say. Keep good records about your contacts with them. They hate that, but it'll help us pick up strategies and trends. It will save your life. Remember, they are usually lying; the truth is something they don't really want you to know."
"Always let us know where you're going and when you'll be back, and always take a phone and leave the number."
"Since, in some ways, we must work WITH the rats, remember their interests and ours are never really the same."
"Even though an infinite array of challenging permutations will appear, remain calm in your understanding and application of the rules and procedures. If confused, stop and figure out how the rules should be applied to be truly consistent and then them apply them in the spirit and the letter in which they were written. Sometimes working through each component of a problem will simplify the overall approach for you."
* * * *
Claudia looked at the rat that had asked her to loosen up. It was Robert, the same rat that had spoken to her on her first day. "Robert," she said, "give it up, you'll never get me." The rat, Robert, looked at her and said, "I can always hope. Can't blame a rat for hoping." This made him and his companions laugh heartily.
Claudia was thinking about the rats more than usual these days. It must have been the new recruits. The rats were agitated in anticipation. As they put it, "those periods between ships are mighty dry...." Meaning, of course, that as people stayed (and survived) longer and longer on Ratworld they got better and better at it. There were fewer and fewer mistakes. The rats hated that.
Claudia looked down at her ratboots. They were just as ugly as Bill's. They were scratched and gouged. But they were still excellent boots. She now realized it doesn't really matter what you look like on Ratworld. "There's a beauty in simple survival.
"These boots," she thought, "are life-jackets that we wear in a deep ever-blue sea. Without them, we drown; with them, we live."
She patted the boots and smiled to herself at how far she had come since she had first met Bill. She looked out at the rats. There they were still waiting. Waiting for every new recruit with an obstinate brain, every recruit with too much ego and not enough humility. Every recruit that thought he or she could get around the boots. She knew that every recruit would have his or her day with the rats. "Oh, sure," she thought, as she considered all of those who had died, "as they died they blamed me, or Bill, or the company, but remember, little darlings, we gave each of you the boots, and the rules, but you did or didn't use them. It's that simple." She looked at the rats again. They were also waiting for her and Bill, as usual. She thought of Bill, "You'll never get him unless he wants you to."
As the rats would have it, "You can tell all of the people to wear their boots all of time; but you can't stop some of the people from wearing their boots only some of the time." This little saying always made the rats laugh uproariously. It only made Claudia more resolute. She hated the rats' sense of humor.
Later that night she asked, "Bill, what if we never lost a single person and they all stayed on and we all kept working and growing."
Bill was rubbing the top of his thigh where the ratboot callouses were. It didn't really hurt; it was just a habit of his.
"We'd have quite a place here, Claudia. Because after a while we'd learn to control the rats better and it would get easier and easier. It's the turnover that makes it hard on everyone and easy on them. If we started keeping people we would reach a critical mass that would guarantee our continued success. But that may never happen, Claudia. People are people."
"And rats are rats," she said. Bill smiled and nodded his head.
"Oh, yes. Rats are definitely rats." They both were having a good laugh.
The next morning, Claudia looked over then remaining new recruits. They seemed a little more subdued and uncertain. They were looking at her. She wondered, "which ones?" She remembered what Bill always said when she asked that question, and in fact Bill had come into the room and was now standing beside her, so she leaned over and whispered the question into his ear. And, predictably, he said the same old answer again.
"You never really know which ones, Claudia. It's impossible to predict. I thought you'd be long dead by now." Claudia had actually said the last sentence in perfect unison with him. They both laughed at their little duet and shuffled off, boots bearing down. The new recruits were watching wondering.
Outside there were rats all around. But inside, together, for the moment they were happy and safe. As they struggled along, Claudia was thinking about the future, where the colony grew and grew into something wonderful.
Bill was thinking about the rats.
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