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Stories from the Verse
Re Verse All
Chapter 39: Beam 68
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As he drew another bit of the map on his clipboard, Beam suddenly stopped and peered ahead. He heard something up the hall.
It can’t be said that he had not previously noticed the phenomenon. The lights, probably computer controlled although possibly on motion sensors, he had never ascertained which, illumined the hall where they were, but conserved energy by remaining dark beyond perhaps thirty or forty yards. Normally that wasn’t important; he only needed to see where they were and some distance ahead, and although he didn’t usually wear his glasses at fifty something his eyes weren’t perfect anymore. However, at this moment he would have liked to see what was in that darkness. He glanced around for a computer terminal, but the only ones out in the hallways were the door openers, and their function was rather limited.
He thought of another idea.
“Soph,” he said, “do you think your light will shine far enough to show us what’s in the corridor ahead?”
“I can try,” she said. She raised her hand, said her words, and Beam was pleased to see the lights come on down the hall.
“I don’t know why it did that,” she said, but Beam didn’t care. He could see.
“Ahrohyuesses,” he muttered.
“What?” she asked.
“Rodents Of Unusual Size. Giant rats. It was said they don’t exist, but that was just before they attacked.” He stared at them, uncertain what to do. Maybe they were capybaras. He thought capybaras were passive herbivores, but they were huge rodents, and that meant sharp teeth. Besides, rodents were notoriously adaptive, and there wasn’t a lot of foliage down here for foraging. He wasn’t sure what they were doing down here, or even if they were capybaras and not mutated rats or gophers or ferrets or weasels or something. What he did know is that they were big, the size of large dogs but low to the ground.
“Dawn, Bron, be ready. We’re going to move forward slowly and see if they run, and if so which way. Hopefully they’ll think humans are dangerous, and not food. I suppose it might be possible that they’re docile, and will accept us as other animals passing through. However, if they attack we need to kill them all. Sophia, get behind us.” He drew his pistol and checked that it was loaded, then unset the safety. He heard Bron cock the shotgun.
It occurred to him that this was fresh meat. On the other hand, he wasn’t particularly interested in rodent meat, even if it proved not to be rat, and they had no trouble obtaining food, so hunting was not a high priority for them. The problem was that it probably was a high priority for the rodents.
He started moving forward cautiously, Dawn flanking him and Bron a step behind, both with guns readied. Out of habit from mapping he was counting his steps, eight, nine, ten. The creatures apparently had not been startled by the light, but now it appeared they were gathered around something that they were eating.
It was the dead body of a man.
It caused Beam to pause. He had concluded that there would be people down here, and logically bodies of people, but he had not expected that his first encounter would be with a recently dead body. He wondered whether the man had been killed by the rats, or by something else, or had simply died of natural causes. Vaguely in his mind he wondered whether starvation and dehydration counted as natural causes; usually the phrase referred to heart attacks and strokes and diseases. The thought of diseases gave him pause, but then they knew where there was a high-tech clinic and they had not yet had reason to use it, so maybe it would be all right. That still left the question of whether these were dangerous predators or opportunistic scavengers. Indeed, it occurred to him, there was no reason they couldn’t be both. Just because they didn’t kill this man didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to kill them.
Besides, even if they didn’t usually kill to obtain food, they might fight to defend it.
He stopped. Dawn, ever alert, also stopped, and Bron managed to avoid bumping into them.
“Why did we stop?” Bron said.
“It occurred to me that they’re eating something, and while they might not normally be aggressive, they might well fight if they think we want their food.”
“Believe me, we don’t.”
Beam wondered whether Bron was squinting to try to see what they were eating. Then he heard an uncomfortable gagging sound, and knew he had figured it out.
The rats had been watching their approach warily. Abruptly, as if one of them had given an order, they turned and rushed at the versers.
“Shooooot!” Beam shouted.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #365: Characters Travel. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: