Yup. I've gotten desperate. I'm going to post the Na No Wri Mo tale (in progress) from this past year. Please note that I haven't worked on it since November 30th, 2005, and that it was very very much a first draft. But! Commentary is very welcome. I'll put some of my own thoughts at the end.
“The system diagnosis is complete. We’re ready, sir.”
A blue light flashed momentarily, instantly followed by a smell of forest. “The probe has been sent, sir.” The woman surveyed her computer monitor, and announced the readings. “Our connection to MW-9592 is secure. 8041 holding steady. 1533 is as well. The probe sent to MW-9593 is returning data now.”
“Affirmative. Two, sir.”
“Excellent. Send in control group M.”
“Just a moment, sir. The readings are displaying some unusual… another life form has just… appeared in MW-9593.”
“Appeared?” The commander leaned over her shoulder looking at the data himself. “Could this mean there is another visitor?”
“I don’t know, sir. Wait. One of the life forms is approaching the… Sir, we have lost communication with the probe from 9593. I’m no longer getting readings from there.” A warning light and accompanying bleep validated what she had said, indicating that the mechanical probe was no longer sending or receiving information.
“Shut it down, Jen! Shut down the connection to 9593 NOW! We must not allow any life forms to cross the threshold.”
The woman rapidly tapped her keyboard, trying desperately to get the computers to operate faster. “I am shutting down the bridge to 9593… Wait. Something is… oh god.” A blinding flash of light filled the room, causing momentary blindness to Jennifer Saunders, her supervisor, whom was known only as Mr. D., and the other technicians in the room. When they were able to see again, they were surprised to see someone in the room with them. A tall, gaunt looking man dressed completely in vibrant blue clothing was in the back of the room, near the computers. Mr. D. yelled at the man, “Hey! Get away from those!” as the stranger reached over and put his hands on the large pieces of machinery.
There was a flicker in the lights, the computers controlling the test emitted an otherworldly whine and then the power in the building shut down completely, leaving the scientists in complete darkness for three and a half seconds before the emergency generator kicked on. The computers hummed as energy was restored to them and they began rebooting. The emergency lights cast a red hue on the observation room the scientists were in, giving the area an ambience of anger and confusion. The man was nowhere to be seen. “I want security to find that man,” Mr. D. ordered in a tight voice. His anger was being channeled to a fine point so that he would not lose control. At this time, however, he wanted to kill the stranger who had ruined his experiments. “Jen, we are going to need to retrieve the security tapes. I want to know where our visitor came from, where he went, and what exactly he did to my machines.”
The woman at the desk, Jennifer Saunders, nodded. “Understood, sir.” She sighed inwardly. She had already determined to review the videotapes, since it was standard procedure to do so after every Crossing. And if her suspicions were correct, the saboteur was someone from one of the other worlds that they had connected to. That was big. That was beyond big. The thought of such a monumental discovery would no doubt carry her through her work. It was a good thing that the discovery was such a huge one, too, because there was going to be a mountain of work ahead of her and her team. The facts that she was one of the most important human beings on the planet, doing some of the most important research, with the most impact on the human race were all undeniable. And that ignored the amazing amount of knowledge she was discovering regarding the state of the universe, quantum physics, chaos theory, and animal behavior. With the data she had already collected in the three and a half years she had been working under Mr. D., she could revolutionize the entire world. Of course, that revolution was at least another three years away. None of this information would be made public for at least that long, possibly longer. The public reaction would be chaotic. The religious implications alone were astounding. If some of the data fell into the wrong hands, there would be anarchy. And that was just the data. If someone else got hold of what they were doing and figured out HOW to duplicate their results, it could very well be the end of everything. That was not hyperbole. The testing they were conducting was extremely dangerous. The saboteur that had turned out their lights could have just as easily caused a reaction that would have destroyed the entire universe.
Jennifer decided to investigate the Crossing Rooms and see if she could see any signs of entry, determine where the visitor had come from. She stood and looked through the windows into the rooms where the testing had been conducted. She could already tell, even from being in another room, that the results were not pretty.
When the power had gone out, the conduits had been severed. That meant that anything that had been Crossed was gone until a reconnection could be made. Even then the chance of retrieving the lost equipment and control group members was slight. A reconnection would not be possible until the mega computers had been recalibrated. The recalibration would not be done until a thorough inspection to determine exactly what type of damage had been done by the visitor. With each passing second, the probability of reclaiming the lost merchandise dwindled. Might as well consider them lost now and move on. Ignoring her grief at the lost lives, she calculated the equipment that was missing. Each of the probes – a total of four – were gone. They would wait in the worlds they had been left in, and if a reconnection was made, they would attempt to retrieve them. Assuming that time moved at a similar rate in the worlds they had Crossed into – not all the worlds did - they had a three month battery on them. If the probes survived there was a slight possibility that at least three of them would be salvageable. The Control Groups, however, were another story. Live subjects always were. So many of the lives before had been lost due to harsh physical conditions, or hostile life forms, or just plain shock. The deaths were sometimes easy to determine, other times the cause was more elusive. She never did figure out what happened with Group K when it had Crossed into what had been dubbed ‘Zeroland’.
Zeroland was a sort of Holy Grail among her team. Legend had it that when the project had been started, over four decades prior – back in 1963 -, that Zeroland was the first world that had been connected to. The connection had been unique in that the portal into Zeroland had been translucent, like a window. All the other connections since had been with shimmering portals that humans could not peer into. The Zeroland portal, though, had given the original members of the project a glimpse into a world beyond description. All that lie beyond it, according to the legend, was a Tree of Light and a swarm of glittery bugs. Supposedly Mr. D. had been there when it had happened, but he never gave verification of the events, of course. The connection had lasted all of fifteen seconds when the swarm of bugs had reportedly taken notice of the group of humans standing around gawking at the window, changed their pitch, and somehow caused the window to shut. The most unbelievable aspect of the tale, though, was what happened on this side. Reportedly, the computers on this side had blinked out of existence, along with the window, the building which was then the headquarters, and the team’s head scientists.
Jen had been able to buy the tale up to that point, although she assumed that much of the legend was inaccurate, due to the way legends changed and grew over time. She figured that there had, in fact, been a connection made to a first world back in the 60s. And it was plausible that Mr. D. had been present when it had taken place. She could even accept that there had been some sort of accident, and it may have resulted in damaged computers, but she couldn’t accept that the computers, the building, and the people had simply vanished.
Since that time, the story went, all attempts to reconnect to Zeroland had failed. Most felt that it did not truly exist and that it was just an urban legend. Until a month ago, that was. That was when Jen had been able to establish a link – or reestablish a link, if there was any truth to the story – to Zeroland. The portal had been translucent, and there had been a tree like object in the distance. Ecstatic about this connection, she had sent Control Group K into the portal, not even bothering with a probe, since her team would be able to witness what was going on, and besides, Control Group K was equipped with video cameras. Unfortunately, as soon as all the members of Group K had Crossed, the window had shut. Instantly, Jen had attempted to reopen the connection, but had not been able to. The computers were still showing a connection, but there was no window there. Sadly disappointed, she tried to connect using a different computer, but when she attempted, that computer froze and ended up needing thirty hours to reboot.
Five minutes later, Group K suddenly reappeared in the Crossing Room. All of them were dead. The video cameras they had been equipped with had likewise come back in nonfunctioning mode.
After the autopsies of the first seven corpses revealed nothing unusual and the cause of death could not be determined, the remaining thirteen bodies were sent to the incinerator.
She had pondered about the cause of Group K’s deaths on and off for nearly a month.
Now, this new mystery was going to take precedence. There had only ever been one other time when a life form had crossed a threshold from its world into ours. And it had not been human. The fact that a man –or, rather, what appeared to be a man- had, at least temporarily, made contact with our world was remarkable. It meant that there were other worlds out there with humans, or with beings that greatly resembled humans. That had been the thought all along, but until now, it could not be proven.
It still hasn’t been, Jen thought to herself. I’m getting ahead of myself, I have no idea whether the stranger in blue came from one of the MWs. That would have to wait until after the data could be reviewed and examined. Turning her thoughts back to the present, she began to calculate the lives lost… Control Group B, members 1 through 10, were gone. They had been sent through to MW-8041, which appeared to be a world like so many others that was suitable for life from earth. The temperature, the oxygen levels, the rate at which time progressed, the gravity level, all comparable to earth’s. Jen estimated that 62% of the worlds they had connected with – including Zeroland, interestingly enough - were ‘Class M’, as the Trekkies in her group referred to them. The problem was that connecting to the same world was damn near impossible. Repeating the same procedure would not always result in the connection being established. Sometimes a portal would open, but it would be to a completely different world than expected. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it, either. Completely random connections. Looking for the pattern in it was what Kish Badooga was paid to do, but Kish had been unable to see any sort of pattern so far. The Indian code breaker had told Jen that all of reality used patterns and that there was no such thing as true randomness. When she asked why, then, he had been unable to figure out a system for determining what worlds would connect when, he replied – off the record – that someone must not want them too. Jen thought back on that conversation now. “Do you mean someone in the group is sabotaging the project?” she had asked. “Oh, dear, no,” Kish had responded. “I don’t think any of us could even dream of doing something this sophisticated, even if we wanted to. If someone does not want us to be knocking on the doors of other universes, they are going to be much wiser than any of us, Miss Saunders.”
Was Kish onto something there? Had the man in blue been a messenger of sorts? Someone from another world that did not want to be discovered? It was an intriguing thought.
She was extremely eager to take a look at the video tape to see what secrets it revealed. Something about this man in blue was going to alter her life forever, she could just sense it.
As she headed out of the room she thought again how wonderful her job was, and how blessed she was to be doing the type of work that she did.
Chapter 1: Two Tests
The glow of the alarm clock seemed eerily bright, as though the small radio contained otherworldly powers and the illumination of the early morning hours were some sort of indication. I elicited a groan. It was too early in the day to be thinking such nonsense. The more logical explanation was that six in the morning was just way too early to wake up on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. Although I could be excused for having the superstitious thoughts, seeing how I was still somewhat disoriented from the Dream I had just had. Not to mention that Phoenix was going to the doctor today. It was going to be a long day no matter what, and waking up at six only meant there was going to be more of it to get through.
I looked around Phoenix’s room when I noticed that he wasn’t in bed. The television was off, but the computer was displaying the screen saver, so I knew he had been using it recently. I could hear him downstairs, talking to his mother. They were discussing the doctor trip for later that morning, and interestingly enough, me. I eavesdropped as Phoenix headed back to his room. “Well, at least let me say good bye to Jen if she isn’t going to go with us,” he said as he approached his door.
He opened the door and asked, “Jen, are you awake?” I yawned and looked at him. He knew I was awake, but was doing that courtesy thing that people do that aggravated me so.
“I’m awake, Phoenix.”
“Sorry. I was hoping you’d be able to sleep through the morning. Or at least until we had to leave for the doctor’s office. But now Mom says you shouldn’t go.”
“It’s all right, Phoenix,” I said, “I don’t really want to go anyway. You know how I feel about doctors.” I shuddered a little at the remembrance of my past. But quickly put that behind me. That was another lifetime ago.
“You can tell me all about it when you get back. And then I can tell you about my Dream,” I said.
A mixture of concern and dread passed Phoenix’s face. “You had another?” he asked. I nodded. “What does that make it? Three? Four? And that’s just this week. I’m starting to get worried about it. Maybe you should go to the doctor.” Remembering what I had just said about doctors, Phoenix quickly added, “…or someone. A dream specialist or something.”
I shook my head. “I’ve got you to talk to you, Phoenix, and that’s enough. The Dreams are nothing to worry about. They have always gone in cycles; this is just a high point.” Although part of me wondered that there might be something more sinister behind them, as I always did. Were The Tests to blame? It was possible. Probable, even. But I did not want to give Phoenix more to worry about. “I’m more concerned with your well being, to be honest,” I said.
Phoenix frowned. “Yeah. So am I. I…” he yawned, shook his head. “Sorry, Jen. But, hey, hopefully the doc will be able to make some heads or tails of what’s going on. I really do wish you’d come though. But, I can understand why you don’t.” Since the subject was pretty much moot at that point, Phoenix changed the subject. “What do you want to do tonight, Pinky?” he asked me, going into our usual joke. I rolled my eyes but said, “Same thing we do every night.” We finished at the same time, “Try to take over the world!”
Phoenix always found our routine funnier than I did, but then it would make sense that I would have issues with that particular joke.
Phoenix’s mother knocked on his bedroom door at that time, then opened the door and poked her head in. “Phoenix, come on. We need to go before we’re late,” she said. To me she simply said, “Good morning, Jen. Phoenix will be back soon.” I nodded at her.
I liked Phoenix’s mother, especially since she had contributed the genetic makeup to make Phoenix McDowell, but I don’t think she understood me a lot of the time. Honestly, nobody understands me the way Phoenix does. But, at least she was considerate of the relationship that her son and I have. That made her a remarkable woman in my book, as I am confident that many other mothers would not have been as open-minded had they been in her position.
His mother closed the door, leaving us alone in his room. Phoenix leaned over, kissed me on the top of the head and said, “Be good, Jen. I won’t be gone long, and we can talk more when I get home. Oh! Naomi is supposed to call me later. After she gets off work we were going to go catch a movie at the drive-in. It should be pretty sweet. I guess world domination will have to wait.” Naomi Kingsley was Phoenix’s girlfriend. She worked at the library and was an all around good person. Like Phoenix’s mother, she was understanding of the relationship I had with Phoenix, although I sometimes wondered what she would think if she knew the whole truth.
After Phoenix and his mother left, I watched a little television (CNN for about ten minutes), had breakfast (granola bars), went for a quick run, and then decided to surf the net a little.
I don’t spy on Phoenix. He has his own life, and despite our closeness, I know that he deserves his privacy, and I afford it to him. When I clicked on the History button on his computer, it was purely accidental. Despite being quite intelligent, I am, sad to say, somewhat computer illiterate.
However. When I clicked on the History button, my heart began to pound. Phoenix had been online earlier that morning, and according to the computer’s log, he had been doing searches for Jules Porter. Jules Porter was the name of the person from the Dream I had just had. *****
Phoenix got back around eleven o’clock. His demeanor was calm, which was good. I asked him how the doctor visit had gone.
“Okay,” he said, sounding like it was nothing but. I cast him a suspicious look.
”What aren’t you telling me, Phoenix?” He sighed. “Nothing. There’s nothing for me to tell you, and there’s nothing for me to not tell you. They don’t know anything yet. The blood tests they ran were ‘inconclusive’. The doctor seems to think I’m suffering from depression, which is possible, I guess, but it doesn’t feel right to me. I think there’s something else going on. I mean, what do I have to be depressed about?”
“Not a lot,” I said, honestly. “You are living a pretty charmed life, Phoenix.”
He smiled. “Thanks, Jen.”
I asked him what his mother thinks. “Well, Mom is hiding it pretty well, but I can tell she’s upset. Her little boy is all screwed up in the head, sleeping all the time, and so on. But like I said, she’s putting on her game face and being tough for us both. We’re supposed to go to a psychiatrist that the doctor recommended us to on Thursday.” Phoenix sounded as though going to this psychiatrist would be going to the electric chair. He brightened some, “Hey! Why don’t you come with us? Please?”
“Well,” I said, “I believe psychiatrist meetings are meant to be private and confidential. But I would like to meet your shrink, and get to know her (or him) firsthand. Sure. I’ll go.”
Phoenix grinned, and then yawned. “Man,” he said, “that trip to the doctor’s office wore me out. I think I may take a nap for a while.”
Knowing Phoenix the way that I did, I could tell that he was going to sleep whether I wanted him to or not, so I simply said before he passed out, “Pleasant dreams, Phoenix McDowell.”
When Phoenix woke up, about ten minutes later, he seemed refreshed and his usual carefree self. “Hey,” he said. “Hey,” I replied. He snatched up the remote and turned on the television, changing it from CNN to MTV. Some edition of the Real World was running. He sighed, and switched it to MTV2. An old video from Smashing Pumpkins was on. Phoenix switched the television off. “I can tell you want to talk about something, Jen. What is it?”
I’ve found that often the Universe will find the most inopportune moments to be annoying. In the events that followed I’ve thought about this moment with Phoenix and wondered if some Higher Power was at hand and caused the phone to interrupt us before we could speak. Part of me believes that there was, despite what I’ve learned about the nature of the Universe. If that is the case, I must say that either the Higher Power is malevolent in nature, or that it has (or had) a much grander reason for stopping the conversation from taking place. It seems to me, though, that had Phoenix and I talked about Jules Porter at that moment, things would have been a lot easier for us in the long run.
In any case, I was able to say, “You went online this morning,” before the phone rang and Phoenix’s mother answered. She yelled up to Phoenix that it was Naomi. Phoenix held up a finger – just a minute – and picked up the phone. “Got it, Mom,” he said into the receiver.
“Hey, Naomi, how are you, sweetie?”
Phoenix lay down on the bed while he was talking to her, and I wondered briefly if he was going to fall asleep again. “Uh huh,” he was saying. “No, I remember.”
I started to read the newspaper while he was talking, since I had nothing better to do until he was finished with his conversation.
Phoenix’s voice had changed. Naomi had just said something that had affected him deeply.
The rest of Phoenix’s side of the conversation went like this:
“Wow. Are you posi… are you sure? Well. Wow. Um.” (a yawn) “Sorry. No, I …we’ll get through it, honey. We will. I promise. Do you want to come over so we can talk, and decide what we want to do? It… No, it’ll be okay. I promise. Okay. I’ll see you in about five minutes. I love you. Bye.”
He hung up the phone and said to me, “Naomi just took a pregnancy test, and the result came back positive. I’m going to be a father.”
Chapter 2: Expecting. The Unexpected.
“I’m going to be a father,” Phoenix repeated. He was in a state of shock, perhaps. Excited, nervous. The typical reaction upon hearing such news. Especially at his age.
Phoenix was still lying on the bed, and his eyes drifted closed. I nudged him a little. “Hey. Phoenix. Come on, kid, the mother of your child is going to be here soon, and you need to be awake for this.”
It was doing no good. Phoenix was out, and I was unable to wake him. I headed toward the door of the bedroom, planning on going downstairs to get his mother, when Phoenix woke up on his own. He was clearly disoriented upon waking, as though he hadn’t been expecting to fall asleep when he had, and was not sure where he was at. Upon seeing me at the doorway, his mind cleared up.
“Jen, Naomi is coming over before she goes to work.”
I looked at him expectantly, but said nothing.
He continued, “A child?” he asked. “What am I going to do with a child?” His voice was full of dread, and I knew what he needed most was reassurance.
“You’re going to be a father. A wonderful, caring father. You and Naomi will give the child the best life it can possibly have.” I went back over to his bed and sat near him. “Phoenix McDowell, you are, without a doubt, the kindest, most loving, and all around nice person I know. You saved my life, and you are my best friend. Any child would be lucky to have you as a parent. You and Naomi will do fine.”
Phoenix smiled at my words, but I knew the doubt had not left his mind completely. It probably never would. That’s just how parents and parents-to-be are.
“That’s kind of you, Jen, but …” he didn’t finish the thought, at least not out loud. Maybe he wasn’t sure what he was going to say to begin with. Or maybe he just changed his mind and decided to let my statements sink in and accept them as truth. Or maybe he was just too tired to continue the conversation. Whatever the case, that part of our dialogue was done. “..Thank you, Jen. You are, aside from Naomi, my best friend too.” He chuckled, and then added, “Which makes me a freak of nature, but who wants to be normal, right?”
I blinked in agreement.
“Exactly,” Phoenix said.
A Volkswagen beetle pulled into the driveway, and Phoenix and I peered out the window. Naomi got out of the vehicle and looked up. She waved. Phoenix slid his window open and yelled down, “Come on up.”
Naomi said, “Okay,” and entered the house. Phoenix started straightening up his room while I chuckled softly. Naomi had seen the room plenty of times and knew what to expect. Hell, the child she was carrying had been conceived in the room, and it had been more of a mess then. Still, Phoenix managed to straighten up the room right as there was a knock on his bedroom door. The door opened and Phoenix’s mother was standing there with Naomi at her side. “Naomi’s here, dear,” she said, opening the door completely to allow Naomi to walk in. “Thanks, Mom.” Phoenix said. “Thank you, Mrs. McDowell,” Naomi said.
“I’m running to the store to pick up some groceries,” Phoenix’s mother said, “do you need me to get anything for you?” “Are there any Mountain Dews left?” Phoenix asked. Phoenix’s mother said, “There are two cans left in the fridge. I’ll grab some more while I’m out.” She closed the bedroom door and left.
Naomi stood at the doorway while Phoenix and I sat on the bed. We looked at each other for a while, nobody saying anything. Finally, Naomi pulled the pregnancy test out of her pocket and showed it to Phoenix. “Positive,” she said.
Phoenix stood up, crossed the room, and hugged Naomi tightly. “We’ll get through this, Naomi. We will.”
Naomi broke off the hug. I finally got a good look at her and realized how much of a toll this news had been on her. Normally Naomi Kingsley was vibrant and happy and full of life. Now, while she was technically full of life, she looked pale and withered. It was evident that she had been crying recently, and she looked like she was going to start again soon. Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked like she had aged ten years in an afternoon. “I… I don’t think I want to keep it, Phoenix,” she said.
Phoenix looked like he’d been shot. “What?” he managed to ask.
Naomi didn’t repeat herself; instead she listed her reasons behind her decision, counting off the points on her fingers. She began weakly, still shaken, but grew more confident as she went on. “First, we weren’t expecting this child. This wasn’t planned. Second, we are much too young, Phoenix. I’m only 18, and you are only 17.” Phoenix said glumly, “Eighteen in October.” I said to him, “I don’t think you’re helping your case.” “Thirdly,” Naomi continued, ignoring us, “how would we support a family? I work at the library and you don’t have a real job.”
“I’ve got the part time job at the PetSmart. Or, I’m sure my mom would…”
But Naomi didn’t want to hear that, saying, “I don’t want to rely on parental help, Phoenix. I don’t want to HAVE to rely on parental help. Besides, what if your mother isn’t supportive? I very much doubt she wants to be a grandmother this early in her life. And I know my mother and step-father don’t want another child in their home. Lastly, it’s my body, and my decision. And if I decide that I don’t want to keep it, I’m not going to keep it.” Naomi looked at Phoenix defiantly, as though daring him to attempt to negate that fact.
Phoenix angrily asked, “Why did you bother to tell me, then? Did you want me to talk you out of it? Or were you hoping for support in your decision, because while I’ll give it to you, and it IS ultimately your choice, I have to admit that it kinda sucks for you to spring this big on me and then tell me, ‘Oh, by the way, you aren’t getting any say in this’.”
Naomi shouted back, “God damn it, Phoenix! This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m supposed to start college in the fall! I’m still living with my parents, and so are you! We aren’t even living together; we can’t bring a child into the world that way. Not to mention the fact that the world is in a craphole to begin with. Bringing a baby into this world is irresponsible and selfish. And in our instance, it would also be a stupid thing to do.”
Phoenix shook his head. He looked weak, and I recognized the warning signs. He was going to pass out. His depression (or whatever it was that was causing these spells) had come on in the past couple of months. It had affected his performance at school, and while he was still the same Phoenix I’d known, he was also different. He slept a lot, and was tired much more than he used to be. His constant intake of caffeine seemed to have little impact. I had suggested to him that he exercise more – I myself loved to run – but Phoenix wasn’t really an exercise type of guy. It seemed that whenever he exerted himself, it only made the situation worse. Even getting emotionally excited would sometimes cause him to need to take a nap. And the conversation (or, yelling match, more accurately) with Naomi was certainly emotionally taxing. When I saw him wobbling, I said, “Phoenix, why don’t you sit down?” and reached up to touch his hand.
He sat down on the bed, then put his head between his knees and took a few deep breaths. Naomi sat down next to him and put her arm around him. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call a doctor?” at that point Naomi remembered that Phoenix had gone to the doctor earlier. “God. I am so sorry. I totally forgot that you had your appointment today. How did that go? What did you learn?”
Phoenix turned to Naomi and said, “It’s okay, Naomi. I’m okay. The doctor didn’t have much to say. They did some poking and prodding and…”
I didn’t hear the end of that sentence because it was at that moment that there was a flash of light, a strong forest smell, and Phoenix, Naomi, and the entire house disappeared.
Chapter 3: Dreams Come True
One moment, there I was, in Phoenix’s bedroom, the next, I was …somewhere else. The flash of light had momentarily blinded me, and when my eyes adjusted I saw that I was no longer in my comfortable, familiar surroundings. Instead, I found myself in an open field of grass and dandelions. The sun was shining brightly; there was a nice breeze blowing and nary a cloud in the sky, a lone wooden cottage stood to the south, making the entire scene look like something out of a visualization of the word ‘peaceful’. Despite this, I was feeling anything but peaceful. I was utterly terrified and confused. I called out, “Phoenix? Hello? Where are you?” but there was, of course, no answer. Had I fallen asleep and entered one of my Dreams? This was certainly vivid enough to qualify as one, and it had that same indescribable ‘feel’ to it that I had come to accompany with my Dreams. However, the grass beneath my feet felt real enough, as did the wind and the sun on my skin.
Deciding I had nothing really to lose, I followed a well-worn path to the cottage.
The door to the cottage was open – or more accurately, no longer on its hinges - so I opted to play Goldilocks and enter.
My use of Goldilocks as a description of myself may have been more apt than I had suspected. It appeared as though bears – or some sort of furry animal – did reside in the cottage, although the three bears from the fairy tale probably were more civilized than whatever called this shack a home. There was broken furniture strewn about the floor, along with animal (dog?) droppings, fur, and most disconcerting of all, dried blood. A few flies buzzed around the room, lazily. The sight of the shack was bad, but what was worse was the smell. Whatever lived here had a scent about it that was comparable to a living trash heap. I don’t normally mind the smell of garbage, but this was bad even for me. I instinctively knew that whatever that odor belonged to, I did not want to meet it.
But I did.
The …thing, for lack of a better word, was curled in a corner of the shack, apparently sleeping. It appeared to be a dog, but it could very have been a small bear or a coyote. Its exact size was difficult to determine since it was in a ball. I could see that it had five claws on each foot, and they were very sharp. The animal’s face had a wolfish quality to it, but was not exactly like any wolf I had ever seen before, either. The fur appeared to be grey in color, and looked very soft. I was not in a hurry to feel it, however. I took a step closer into the small building, and the wolfthing twitched slightly. I froze, willing the creature to remain unconscious. After a long enough pause to determine that the monster was not going to actually awaken and tear me to pieces (yet), I moved again. There was an interesting smell in the opposite corner of the beast, coming from what looked like a puddle. Granted, the puddle could have been animal urine, but even from across the room I could tell that it was not. It did not emit the odor that urine would have, for one thing. For another, it was glowing. Thirdly, and most telling, was the fact that there was a machine, roughly the size of a grapefruit, but square in shape, sitting on the floor. It had several lights on it and an antenna that stuck up about three inches. It had six wheels on the bottom, which allowed it remote controlled mobility. Currently it was not moving, but sitting still, undoubtedly collecting data about the surroundings, probably including me. It hummed ever so slightly. I was amazed that the probe had not woken up the animal, but was relieved that that was the case.
I knew then that the puddle I saw was actually a portal, as I had had previous experience with such things. That did little to ease my fears, though. This meant that The Tests were certainly involved somehow. So much for leaving that life behind me.
Making my way toward the strange liquid, I kept one eye toward the creature, stopping every time I perceived that it was on the edge of waking. Even though the puddle/portal was only a few feet away, it was a slow go.
Once I got to the puddle’s edge, I sniffed it. The smell was intriguing. Familiar. Forest. There was more to it, but the scent of trees was unmistakable. This close to the edge of the portal, I could also hear voices from the other end. This had been the case in my prior interaction with a portal, although it had been different then. Many of the voices were panic stricken. That came through clearly despite the inability to make out the exact words. It was as though the puddle had captured the voices of Hell and was somehow playing them back to me. If that were the case, the animal in the other corner was a Hellhound, which seemed accurate to me.
I touched the portal. It rippled, but the voices and the smell remained. I was anxious about entering the portal, as I had no idea where it would lead to. The last time I had entered a portal things had ended badly. Eyeing the animal in the corner, I weighed my options. Stick around and become lunch, or enter the portal which could take me just about anywhere, and might just lead back to The Tests or worse.
Suddenly, I had more to worry about. In the other corner of the room, a blaze of light caught my attention, and, also, unfortunately, woke up the creature. I looked at where the light had flashed and suddenly there was a man standing there. The man seemed vaguely familiar, but I did not know why. I had never seen this man before, but there was something about him that was recognizable to me. The emergence of the man startled me, but the dog thing was even more irritated by being woken by two unwelcome intruders. Of course, I somehow doubt that this animal had a sunny disposition to begin with. This thing had been sleeping somewhat soundly one second, and was preternaturally alert the next.
When the animal awoke, it looked toward me, and the portal, before turning its attention toward the mysterious stranger. In the two seconds that the beast had looked at me, I realized I was looking at a nightmare come to life. I hoped to never in my life see such a sight again, and would not wish such a vision on anyone, even on someone who deserves the worst punishment imaginable. The dog thing had three eyes. Or rather, three eye sockets. The center socket held a yellow, crazed, bloodshot eye, the other two were hollow, or perhaps held eyes that were so black and dead as to appear that there was nothing there. The creature’s eyes were like a pair of abysses; dark, empty, deep, morbidly hypnotic.
While it was only two or three seconds that the animal had looked at me, I felt a sense of relief when it turned toward the other being in the room.
Snarling, the abomination turned to face the other newcomer to the shack. It rose on its hind legs. It seemed to grow for several minutes as it stood. The beast stood 8 feet tall, at least. I believe it would have stood taller, if not for the ceiling of the shack. Its abdomen, while covered in fur like the rest of it, had a snake like appearance. The creature appeared to be a combination of a wolf and an anaconda. The thing opened its snout, revealing fangs that were dripping with what might have been venom and might have been saliva. The beast had some sort of snake like tongue, which zipped in and out, no doubt sniffing the air. Obviously, it did not like what it smelled. The animal growled and hissed at the same time. Facing the man in the corner, the creature took a step toward him. The man showed no fear at the advance of the hellhound; in fact, he smirked, which made me consider the fact that this mysterious appearing out of nowhere gentleman might not be the sanest person around. Looking beyond the creature, the man glanced at me. And then, in a blink of an eye, he was beside me. Before I could move away from him, he placed his hands on me and spoke in a bizarre language that I did not recognize. His voice was low and deep, but also harmonic, and it put me at ease. I wondered how he had gotten past the wolfthing, and how he had done it so quickly, and apparently the three-eyed creature was wondering the same thing. It turned toward us, slowly, its tongue still slithering in and out between the dangerous looking teeth. The stranger finished speaking and another portal opened beside us. The man said – in my head – “Go!”, and more or less threw me into the portal that he had created.
Suddenly, I was inside some sort of office. Luckily, it was empty. I can’t imagine what the person who worked in the office would have thought having seen me just appear out of thin air. I could not see a portal to indicate where I had come from, which was fine by me, I was in no rush to go back to the place with the wolf-snake. Although I did wonder who that person who had saved me was. Was he someone involved with The Tests? How was he able to create a portal out of thin air? And how was he able to communicate telepathically with me?
I decided to hide, in case the Hellhound somehow managed to follow me through the portal. I crawled under the desk, since I also did not want to leave the office and have someone who worked there see me. I could wait under the desk until I was sure that it was safe to leave. When it came to survival, I could be very patient indeed.
While I was there, I took in some of the surroundings. A calendar was on the wall, and… well that was odd. It was already switched to June. And four days were marked off, meaning it was the 5th. But it said 1986. If this wasn’t a dream… had I gone twenty years back in time? Almost twenty years to the day? There was an intriguing thought. Had the mysterious stranger at the wolf’s shack been a time traveler? But if that were the case, why would he send me back in time two decades? Was it a mistake? And more importantly, how would I get back to May 27th, 2006?
A knock on the door of the office broke me out of my reprieve. I made myself smaller under the desk as a teenage girl entered the office. I watched her intensely while willing myself to not be noticed by her. She was wearing a fast food uniform, although I couldn’t place the chain. I saw her name tag read “Andilus” which seemed an unusual name to me, but, heck, people name their children all sorts of bizarre things. Andilus looked cursorily over some clothing on a chair, and then picked up the telephone. She said, “Hello?” twice, and then dialed a number. After a few seconds, she hung up and dialed another number.
It was at that point that I could hear some sort of noise from outside which sounded like the sky was being ripped apart. I feared that the Hellhound had found me, but this was a different noise than the beast had made. Someone outside the office began yelling names, but was drowned out by whatever was making that intense noise. My heart was pounding as I cowered in fear. There was an explosion, and it shook the building. Andilus shrieked loudly and dropped into a crouch. I thought she might see me, but she was too busy leaving the office to go be with her coworkers.
Suddenly I could smell smoke and knew that it was coming from the explosion I had just heard take place nearby. I’ve wound up in a war zone. I don’t belong here., I thought, and then there was a flash of light and I was not there anymore.
I had time to think I hope this place is better but quickly realized that that thought had been in vain.
I heard a very familiar voice saying, “Hey! Get away from there!,” and before I opened my eyes, I knew where was.
I was in that damn room again and the whirring of the computers was all too familiar. Fortunately, everyone had their backs to me. My sudden appearance would have raised all sorts of questions, and I was not in the mood to answer any of them. I looked past everyone, and saw that there was a man standing near the computers. He was dressed similarly to the man who had formed the portal in the wolf world, and I wondered if he was the same person. I was too far away to tell for certain. This man did not speak, so I could not compare their voices. He placed his hands near the machinery, which hummed as though it were angry, and then, the computers lost power. In fact, the entire room was suddenly pitch black. While everyone was preoccupied with the power outage, the man abruptly arrived beside me. He certainly moved the same way as the man in the wolf wolrd had. Placing his hand over me I heard him speak – again, in my mind only, and his telepathic voice was the same as that of the man from earlier, so I believe he was the same person – he said, “You do not belong here?” and then … I found myself… in a body of freezing water.
The fuck? was all my brain had the capacity to think at this time. Another thing I noticed was that this place again had the feel of one of my Dreams, including the near-cinnamon smell of choset. Gathering my bearings, I realized that I was in the middle of a swimming pool and that it was night. The water was incredibly cold, which I concluded to mean that it was an unheated pool and that it was a nonsummer month. There was nobody inside the pool, which I considered fortunate. I really didn’t want to deal with any people at this time. What I wanted more than anything was to be home.
Fortunately, I know how to swim. I made my way to the edge of the pool and climbed out. I was shivering and wondering what my next move was going to be when I noticed that the pool had blocks of ice floating in it.
In addition, there was snow on the roof of the house, and icicles hanging from the side of the home. The words ‘ice age’ came to my mind which made a certain amount of sense, although I didn’t recall there being swimming pools and suburban houses during the ice age.
My most pressing concern now was to get warm. I looked toward the house, but the sliding glass door to the back porch was closed and the lights were all off. I noticed a shed, also covered in snow, in the enormous back yard. I was going to make my way there when the sliding glass door opened. A large black man carrying a lit torch stepped out of the house. He was wearing a parka and thick pants. Another person, smaller in stature (a child, perhaps?), was beside him, also dressed in winter clothing. The larger man pointed at me – or in my direction at least, but it’s safe to assume he was pointing at me – and said something in a foreign language. To my untrained ear it sounded like an African language, but I have no idea what it really was. The child said something back to the adult, and I took off running. Perhaps I should have stuck around to find out if the people could help me, but after jumping from location to location, I wasn’t thinking very clearly. Plus there was clearly a language barrier that I didn’t think we’d be able to work through. Besides, my instincts told me to run, and my instincts have kept me alive this long so I wasn’t about to start disobeying them now.
I hightailed it toward the shed – again, my instincts told me to go there – and I could tell that the man and his child were following me. Luckily, they were dressed in their heavy clothing so it bogged them down. I got to the shed before they did, but I saw that it had a big lock on the door. Well now what?
I turned back toward the house, and the people who were chasing me. Three other people, two of them with torches, and all of them wearing winter gear, had emerged from the house by then. I could hear them chattering and saw them pointing in my direction. There was no place I could go. I would eventually be captured. I was freezing from my dip in the pool when a deus ex machina saved me. Literally. My would be captors approached, the adult saying something in that mumbo jumbo tongue of his and I could see a grin on his face and a hunger in his eyes that I did not trust in the slightest when there was a momentarily blinding flash of light and a strange man (or maybe a woman? I didn’t get a good look at the figure due to the light) appeared behind the crowd. This stranger obviously did not belong to this world any more than I did. The group with torches turned to see what had caused the flash of light and the new arrival said something –it sounded like “t’key ghee fa”-in a voice so deep (so it was a male?) that my bones rattled. There was yet another flash of light and after a few milliseconds, I found myself back in Phoenix’s bedroom.
Chapter 4: Proving Myself
I reappeared in Phoenix’s room on his bed. Phoenix and Naomi were still there, although not as I had left them, which made sense. I had been gone for ten minutes, at least. Both of the teens were on the ground, looking under the bed, lifting things up, Naomi had gotten a flashlight. Phoenix was saying, “This is impossible. This is just impossible,” over and over. Naomi was attempting to calm Phoenix by saying, “She couldn’t have gone far. We’ll find her.” Trying to hide all the joy in my voice I calmly asked, “Find who?”
Upon hearing my voice, he sat straight up and exclaimed, “Oh, thank God!!” Naomi heard Phoenix’s voice and sat up too. When she saw me, her face had a brief look of relief followed by one of immense confusion. “She’s …dripping wet.”
Phoenix was already picking me up. “Yeah, she is. Oh, wow, she’s cold, too. This is really weird. What the hell is going on?” Phoenix handed me over to Naomi, and I crawled into her hands. I was happy to be back in a warm room, and being held by humans that I knew loved me and weren’t going to eat me.
“Phoenix, I am so relieved to see you again.” I said. Phoenix nodded, but had an extremely tired look on his face. He sat down on the edge of the bed and took a few deep breaths to recoup.
Naomi, still holding me in her hands said, “I’ll go get a towel for her,” and we left the room. She carried me down the hall, grabbed a towel and began to dry me off as she walked back with me. As she carried me down the hall she said to me, “That was strange. I saw it myself, and I still don’t believe it. You just disappeared right before our eyes. And listen to me, I’m talking to the rat just like Phoenix does.” It felt wonderful to be pampered, and to no longer be wet and freezing. But the amount of relief I felt at being back in Phoenix’s care was immeasurable. Heaven, if it exists, must look like that teenager’s bedroom.
When Naomi and I came back into the bedroom, we found Phoenix lying on the bed, sleeping soundly.
Naomi sighed. She finished drying me off as best she could and put me back in my cage. “Hey, Phoenix,” she said, shaking him gently. “Come on, sleepyhead. We need to talk.” She looked at me warily and added, “About a lot of things.” Looking at her watch she added, “And I have to get to work soon, so wake up.”
Phoenix groggily came to and asked, “Did I fall asleep?”
Naomi nodded. “Are you awake enough to talk?”
Phoenix smacked his mouth, stretched, yawned. “Yeah, I think so.” He shook his head to clear it and apologized for being so sleep-prone. Remembering that I had come back Phoenix turned to me. “What happened?” he asked. “You were gone. I mean, you actually vanished, Jen. Where did you go? How did you do that?”
Naomi frowned. “Phoenix,” she said, “I know you talk to your rat all the time, it’s one of the things I love about you, but believing that she can talk back… well, it’s sort of unusual, you know? I mean, if she can talk, why doesn’t she say something now?”
Phoenix nodded toward me. “Jen, I think it might be time,” he said. I sighed, and hesitated. I knew this day would come eventually – probably a few times – but we had kept it secret for so long that breaking it felt sacrilegious somehow. “Are you absolutely sure she won’t tell?” I asked Phoenix. We both looked at her. Phoenix knew her better than I, obviously, but I hoped that he would not let his feelings for her cloud his judgment. Phoenix said to me, “Yeah, I trust her completely. It’s time to tell her.”
“Tell me what? Jesus, Phoenix, have you gone crazy? The rat can’t talk.” Phoenix interrupted Naomi’s tirade by holding up his index finger. “Shh. Hold on, okay. Just wait until I finish explaining everything, all right?”
Naomi had a slight frown on her face, but she was quiet. “Go ahead.”
Phoenix took a deep breath and picked me up out of the cage. “First,” he said, “you must swear to not tell anyone about this.”
Naomi said, “Yeah, okay,” but Phoenix was not having it. “No, Naomi. Swear on your mother’s grave that you will keep this secret. This is big and it can not be told to anyone. Hell, my mother doesn’t even know. In fact, I haven’t told anyone until just now. You are the first person I’m telling. First and only. So you must swear not to share this information with anyone, no matter how trusting you think they may be.” He looked at Naomi for confirmation that she understood. Her eyes were wide with curiosity, Phoenix had gotten her attention. “Okay. I swear on my mother’s grave that I won’t tell a soul. Promise.”
“Okay,” Phoenix said. He was petting me for comfort – whether it was mine or his own was unclear, but I knew he was nervous. “This is going to sound crazy, but it’s true. Jen, my rat, can talk to me. Telepathically, anyway.” Naomi, to her credit, didn’t look like she was going to laugh out loud, but I knew the look of skepticism on her face meant she was going to need more proof than just Phoenix’s word.
Phoenix continued, “Jen was a lab rat at some research facility – she doesn’t know where, or if it was government or what – but she escaped and wound up near the pet store where I found her. She’s been able to communicate with me telepathically since the day I brought her home. Nobody else seems to be able to hear her, but I can. She’s super-smart, too. Like at least as smart as you and me.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.
“I just meant that you are …” Phoenix didn’t finish that since he knew there was no good way to end it. He continued on to Naomi, “As far as we can figure, the lab must have done some experiments on Jen, giving her the intelligence and her telepathic abilities. And,” Phoenix said, remembering my vanishing act, “apparently she can turn invisible, too. That’s a new power, though.”
“I didn’t turn invisible, Phoenix. I was physically gone – I was actually in some other place. Teleportation, maybe.” I corrected him.
“Ah. She thinks it was teleportation, instead. Cool!” Phoenix really could be a bit of a geek sometimes.
“Anyway,” he continued, “Jen made me swear to not tell anybody about her power, for fear that the lab people would come looking for her, or other lab people would want to chop her up. Not to mention the fact that who would believe me if I told them? I didn’t want to end up locked up in a mental institution. Of course, I might anyway, but not because of Jen. She truly can speak to me.”
Naomi was looking at both of us like it was some sort of elaborate joke and she were trying to figure out the punch line. When she realized that Phoenix was done speaking she said, “Phoenix…”
He looked at her, desperately wanting her to believe his story. And I think she wanted to believe as well, because believing would mean that her boyfriend wasn’t hearing voices and attributing them to a rat. The Son of Sam killer had, after all, been instructed by a dog. But her brain just would not accept that what he had told her could be true. Rats don’t have telepathy.
She was looking for a way to break the news to her boyfriend gently. For a polite way to say, ‘I love you, but you’re batshit insane.’ There is no easy way to say that, of course.
“Phoenix…” she said again. “Jen can read your mind? Because she’s one of the Rats from NIMH?”
I said, “I can’t read his mind,” at the same time he said, “She can’t read my mind,” and the humor was too much. We both laughed. Which, of course, to Naomi’s eyes (or, ears, or more accurately, mind) looked like just Phoenix cracking up at saying that his pet rat couldn’t read his mind. Naomi started to back up toward the bedroom door. “Phoenix, did the doctor put you on any medication?”
Realizing that he was on the verge of losing Naomi’s trust – if not Naomi herself – Phoenix regained his composure and said, “No, honey. Listen, I’m not crazy. I can prove it. Or, rather, Jen can.” He set me down on the bed, where I could watch both of them. Closing his eyes, he said, “Hold up some fingers,” Naomi sighed and held up three fingers. “Three,” I told Phoenix. He instantly said, “Three.” She opened her hand. “Five.” ”Five.” She held up another two. “Seven.” ”Seven.”
A little bit of doubt in her voice, Naomi said, “You’re peeking.” Phoenix chuckled, “No. I’m not.” He turned his back to Naomi and said, “Go ahead, do something unexpected. Or better yet, type something on my computer and Jen will tell me what it is.”
Naomi stuck her tongue out at me. “Phoenix, she’s sticking her tongue out at me.” I said. Phoenix laughed and said, “Jen’s whining about you sticking out your tongue at her.” His girlfriend’s face started to go pale.
She walked over to Phoenix’s closet and pulled out a random striped shirt. I reported to Phoenix, “She has a striped shirt from your closet now.”
”You’ve got one of my striped shirts. From my closet.” Phoenix said, still with his back to Naomi, and still with his eyes shut tight. “What color?” she asked. “I’m color blind.” “Jen’s color blind.”
Naomi was almost convinced, I could tell. She was looking at me as though I were wielding a nuclear weapon on my back. She walked over to Phoenix’s computer, and I reported that to my owner, who said it out loud as she was doing it. She started up Microsoft Word and in a new document typed out, “This is crazy.”
“Tell her ‘yeah, it is.’” I said.
“Yeah, it is,” Phoenix repeated.
That cinched it for her. “Holy shit,” she said. “You’ve got a psychic rat.”
Phoenix opened his eyes and turned around, grinning. “I know,” he said, “isn’t it awesome?”
Chapter 5: When Phoenix met Jen
“I feel like I’m in a bad Dean Koontz book,” Naomi said. Phoenix responded, “Is there any other kind?” ”You’re not helping,” Naomi retorted back. She took a breath, and then looked at her watch. “Oh, man. I need to get to work. Come on, both of you, let’s go.”
Phoenix picked me up and put me in his shirt pocket – a favorite place of mine when we went out. Phoenix always wore shirts with pockets on the front so I could ride around in them. Unless you knew I was in there, I usually was undetectable. There had been many situations where I had gone with Phoenix somewhere that rats were not allowed to be. Like the library, for instance.
Phoenix, Naomi, and I headed downstairs and to Naomi’s car. Phoenix stopped at the refrigerator and grabbed the last Mountain Dew cans on the way. He then quickly penned a note for his mother – “Went to the library with Naomi. Jen is with me. Be home later tonight. Love, Phoenix” – and used a magnet to hook it to the fridge.
As we were walking out to Naomi’s car, I asked Phoenix, “How do you think she’s taking the news about me?”
Phoenix nodded, “Pretty well, I think. Better than I did, anyway. Remember when you first spoke to me and I freaked out big time?”
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, here, Phoenix, but she’s not going to tell anybody, is she?”
We were almost to Naomi’s car at that point so Phoenix said quietly, “No, I really don’t think she will.”
Phoenix opened the door and climbed in. Naomi smiled and she looked radiant. “Hi,” she said happily. She leaned over and kissed Phoenix on the lips. I poked my head out of his shirt pocket and sniffed the air. “Hi, Jen,” she said just as happily, if not moreso. She giggled a little, “Man. This is just cool.” She reached over and pet me on the top of my head. “What is she saying, Phoenix?”
I made a Marge Simpson like groan, conveying my worry that the secret would not be kept.
“Well…” Phoenix said, “she’s actually a little worried about you being able to keep her secret.”
Naomi looked hurt. She started the car, and began to back out of the driveway. “Jen,” she giggled again. “Sorry,” she apologized, “I’m still getting used to the fact that you can actually understand me. But, listen, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. I know what would happen if the wrong people found out, and I would never do that to any living being. Your secret is as safe with me as it was with Phoenix. I like that my boyfriend and I are the only ones who know about Jen the Wonder rat.” Naomi was rambling, something that Phoenix had said she was prone to do when she was excited. “Although I suppose, maybe, whoever is responsible for making you the way you are knows about you, too? Are they looking for you? I would imagine that they are. But, Phoenix, you said that she escaped…wait. How did you guys meet, exactly? I always thought that you had brought her home from the PetSmart.”
Phoenix yawned and said, “That’s the cover story I have been using. And it isn’t a complete lie. I did find her near the PetSmart, but obviously that isn’t where she came from.”
All this talk of my past caused me to reflect on just how I had gotten to the place I was now. It had only been three months since I had escaped from where The Tests were being conducted. For the first six months of my life, nothing had been unusual. The scientist who took care of me, a woman named Jen, made sure that I was well fed and happy. She would have me run mazes and she measured me daily. I was often hooked up to a machine that reported my vital statistics back to her, and then run through mazes. The machines they used were, surprisingly, noninvasive. Jen (the human Jen, that is) would simply attach a sort of mini latch onto my chest – or the other rats, when they were being measured – and let us do our thing.
Periodically, a group of rats from our brood were removed – for testing, the rest of us assumed, not that we gave it much thought – and never brought back. One day, it was my turn. Six of us – me, three males, and two other females - were all brought into a room together and set upon a table in front of a blank wall. On the other end of the room was a large window which looked into another room. That room had Jen, a man I did not recognize, and some very large computers. The whirring of those machines was audible – to us rats at least – even through the glass.
This time Jen had not attached just the normal vital taking machinery to us. In addition to that, she had perched a miniature camera on our heads. I am convinced that these were to provide video documentation of the testing they were about to conduct. You see, we rats were not the true focus of this group’s experiments. We were simply the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak.
After Jen had set the six of us up, she left us alone in the room, closing the door behind her. This was unusual, as every time we had been tested previously, she had remained beside us.
The table we were perched upon was a long narrow white porcelain table that smelled of cleaning products. Despite that, the stench of death was faintly there. I was intrigued by this, but not yet frightened. After all, Jen had used different odors in our tests before. The six of us scurried around the table, sniffing here and there, investigating the table to see its boundaries and if there was a way down. There was not. The table was high enough off the ground that a fall from the edge would result in being stunned, at least. Not that we would leave, anyway. This was our home, and we had been given no reason to want to change that. Jen was a good master who fed us well. Besides, even if one of us had thought to leap from the table, we knew from past experience we would simply be placed back on it. The door was shut, and there was no escape. If we wanted off the table, we would have to wait until the experiment – whatever it was – was completed.
One of the male rats approached me. We had mated before, and I could tell he wanted to mate again. I bared my teeth at him; the equivalent of ‘Not tonight, I have a headache’ and he got the message. He continued toward me and simply nuzzled my side instead. I allowed it, knowing that if he continued I would weaken and we would end up mating again, although with the equipment on our backs, it would probably not be enjoyable for either of us.
However, we were soon distracted by an increased whirring of the machines in the back room. All six of us perked up our ears as we heard that and faced to look at the window. Jen was sitting there, while the man stood behind her, watching us intently.
The white wall on the other end of the room rippled, as though made of a liquid. There was a flash of light and we all smelled something that we could not recognize at the time – but that I now identify as ‘forest’ – and that’s when things got really strange.
A cacophony of voices suddenly filled the room, and while I was a Rattus Norvegicus, and the voices were Homo Sapiens (or some of them were, at any rate), I was beginning to understand them. I looked at my comrades and could see that they, too, comprehended the words that they were hearing. Well, perhaps ‘comprehended’ is not the right word. It was as though we understood the definitions, but the context was all wrong. It would be like a person learning a foreign language, and knowing the vocabulary, but having the first person they meet who speaks it fluently say utter nonsense.
The voices were coming from the direction of the ‘wall’. Glancing at each other, sniffing the air warily, we decided to go toward it. Although the decision was more of an impulse. We were drawn toward the wall, like moths to a flame, to use an overused cliché.
One of the males reached the wall first. He stopped within millimeters of the wall and sniffed, his ears perked, his whiskers sticking straight out, his fur standing on edge. All six of us were equally alert. We waited behind him as he slowly stuck out a paw and touched the glowing, speaking, forest-scented wall. His hand went through the wall. He instantly retracted his hand, which appeared normal. Sensing that he was in no immediate danger, the leader stuck his head into the wall. A female followed him, sticking her head through the wall as well. By that time, the first male had gone all the way into the liquid wall. I was the fourth to go in, alongside the rat that I had mated with.
I don’t know what exactly I had expected to find going through that portal, but the change that occurred in me – in all of us, presumably – was certainly not what I would have dreamt possible.
As soon as I emerged on the other side of the portal, I knew I was different. The rat that I had mated with was beside me, and I could understand his thoughts. Just as he could now understand mine. Our bond was strongly similar to that of the one I have with Phoenix, but I would dare to say that this one was more intense, possibly because of our being the same species, possibly because we could both think to each other, possibly because we had crossed the portal together. Whatever the reason(s), this male was my lifemate, and I was his.
“Where are we?” I asked him, although I did not use the actual English words, but more the gist of the thought.
“I don’t know.”
The other rats, if they could communicate with us, did not do so, nor did they give any indication that they had heard us speaking.
Looking around our new surroundings, it was understandable that my mate had responded with “I don’t know.” The world we were in was vastly different from the sterile room we had been in mere seconds ago.
The first thing we noticed was that the portal we had entered was not there. There was no going back, at least not the same way we came in. The next thing we noticed was the darkness. It was pitch black where we were, but there was light emitting from what looked like a large tree in the distance. The tree – the fact that I knew the word ‘tree’, despite having never heard the word before, and despite having never seen a tree in my life was just one of the marvels of this place – the tree was the biggest thing I had ever seen. There was no way to measure exactly how big it was, but I knew that even humans would find the size of this plant unfathomable. The tree glowed brightly, too, which I knew was not a ‘natural’ thing on our world, but which made absolute sense to me at the time. Surrounding the tree – or, as it came to me in my thoughts, The Tree – were hundreds, no, millions, no …hundreds of trillions of flying insects. These insects were flying around The Tree, zipping here and there, moving at speeds that were nearly too quick to comprehend. They were moving so fast that it was impossible to clearly make out what they looked like. It looked like they were going to crash into each other, but they somehow never did. It was evident that they had wings, and as they flew along, they made a lyrical humming buzz that was very enjoyable. The complexity of their movements was mesmerizing. The buzz of these bizarre insects was mesmerizing. The entire Tree was hypnotic.
The six of us were still at least fifty yards from the base of the tree. The ground we were on felt solid, and yet, looking down was impossible to see. By visual cues alone, it appeared as though we were floating in midair. Our tactile senses, though, told our brains that we were standing on solid earth, which felt cool, damp, and peaceful.
Our group began to walk toward The Tree, although what we intended to do I still do not know. We didn’t get very far, though, before one of the insects noticed our presence. It alerted the others – it had some sort of language that involved the way it flew, the buzz it made with its wings and pheromones (probably among other things) – and before we knew it, a swarm of the insects had surrounded us.
We bit at them, as that was our only real form of defense, but none of us were able to actually catch any of the bugs in our mouths. When we realized that biting was not going to be effective, we fled. Or tried to, rather. The ground, which had moments ago been cool, damp, and peaceful, now hindered our movement. It was as though the earth had become sticky, tearing small bits of our fur out if we moved too quickly. I screamed to my lifemate, “Help!” but he was busy screaming the same to me. Our four noncommunicative friends were obviously terrified as well. In fact, one of the males had perished. His heart had given out and he lie still on the now sticky ground, the bugs investigating, but still not touching him. My own heart was working overtime and I was panting in abject terror. The insect things were still swarming around us, and it was evident that they were talking – either to themselves or attempting to communicate with us I didn’t know. After several seconds of straining against our earthy bonds, I realized that we were being examined by the insects. The hum of their wings intensified as they seemed to inspect the mechanical equipment. I wondered briefly if the scientists were receiving any of the data.
The swarm of insects continued to buzz around the five of us that remained alive. They had abandoned the rat that had died, apparently no longer finding him of interest. The insectile hum changed pitch suddenly, and I felt lighter. Indeed, I was no longer on the ground, and neither were the rest of us, including the corpse. The illusion of floating in midair that we had experienced upon entering this bizarre universe was now the truth. Somehow the otherworldly creatures were causing us to levitate. We floated there for a moment, and then we flew threw the air toward The Tree, as though thrown. The Tree had originally appeared to be fifty yards away; we covered that in half a second, perhaps less.
The Tree filled my vision for half of a second, and I saw that The Tree was not in fact a completely solid thing, but was instead comprised of billions of lights next to one another which gave the appearance of solidity. The lights seemed to be small – about the size of the insects – but we quickly were targeted on one specific light. The invisible force that was carrying us pushed us toward the light, closer and closer, and then, I lost consciousness.
When I came to, it was almost a disorienting as when I had gone through the portal. I was back in our world, or at the very least, no longer in the world of The Tree and the insects. It felt like the world that I had called home my entire life, although I did not recognize my surroundings. The equipment that I had been wearing had been removed, and I was not in the white room where the Test had taken place. Was it possible I had dreamt the entire thing? The whole encounter with the insects, The Tree, the portal, even my newly acquired knowledge and ability to communicate with my mate?
I called out to him, “Where are you?” and to my complete surprise I got a response! “You’re alive! That is fantastic! I had feared you were truly dead,” he said, his voice full of joy and then confusion, “Wait… where are you? I can’t see you.”
“I can’t see you either,” I said, “but it fills my heart to be able to hear you again. Was… what we went through a dream?”
“I don’t believe so,” he responded, “but I don’t know what else it could have been.” Changing the subject back to our current situation, he said, “I believe I am being held in some sort of cage that does not have any bars or windows. A box of some sort. It smells strongly of death.”
I had been wandering around, trying to get my bearings and discovered I was in a similar situation. “I am too. Have we… have we died?” I wondered.
He was quiet for a while and then said, “I think maybe the humans believed we were dead after we returned from that Tree. Who knows, maybe we were. But we’ve been resurrected now. The question is, what do the humans do with us when they believe we are deceased?”
While I had been investigating my tomb, I made some calculations. The box I was in was not very big – maybe three times the size of my body, and it appeared to be made out of cardboard. The walls pushed rather easily. “I think we can escape!” I said. “Find a corner and begin to chew.”
I started gnawing on a corner of the box when I heard a distant whirring noise, and felt the box begin to move, as though on a conveyor belt (which, it turns out, it was). “What was that?” we both asked simultaneously. “I don’t know!” we both said in unison. “Stop doing that!” the two of us chided each other. “Chew!” I said at the same time he said, “Escape!”
The box I was in began to get warmer.
My teeth broke through the corner of the box, and I ripped at with my paws. I stuck my nose out and could smell fire. “I’m almost out,” I told my mate. “Help!” he screamed, his mental voice was filled with fear. “It’s getting hot and I can’t get out.” He was panicking and it was doing him no good. “Just stay calm. Focus on one corner and keep chewing.”
As I was telling him this, I was making great progress in my own escape. I had chewed a big enough hole in the corner of my box that I could stick my head out. I saw that I was indeed in a box on a conveyor belt and the belt had many other boxes on it. We were all progressing toward an open fire. My box was maybe two feet away. At the rate the conveyor belt was moving, my box would be engulfed in flame within sixty seconds. There were four other boxes in front of me and one box behind me. I squeezed myself out of the hole and announced, “I’m free!” I could see that the box directly in front of me was the one holding my mate, since it was moving. “I can see the box you are in,” I told him.
“Hurry! It’s so hot!”
The fire was indeed incredibly warm and getting warmer all the time. We had maybe forty seconds left before going into the incinerator. I began chewing on the corner that he was, and a small hole appeared. My mate’s pink nose poked through, sniffing frantically.
“There’s no time!” he said. “Yes there is,” I argued. But he was right. There was no time for us to rip the hole in the box big enough for him to squeeze through. The heat was so intense that I felt like I was going to catch on fire. The box in front of my mate’s disappeared into the flames. I tore faster at the hole, trying to make it large enough for him to get through. Maybe ten seconds remained before the cardboard box would be dropped into oblivion. “Go,” he commanded. “Save yourself.”
I ran for the corner, knowing that this whole scene above will have to be revised completely, because there’s no way that they incinerate rats in shoeboxes. That’s just lame as hell.
I began to make my way up the stairs. When I got to the top of the staircase, I found a closed door. I examined the crack at the bottom, but it was far too narrow to squeeze under. As I was up there, I heard footsteps approaching. Two humans were walking this way, and were talking. The voices were muffled –and I didn’t speak the language yet anyway – but I was able to remember what they said. I backed away from the door, but remained on the steps. As soon as they opened the door, I was planning on making my escape. The door swung open and the first scientist walked in, stepping over me completely. It is such a good thing that humans do not generally take in their entire surroundings. He was carrying a box labeled “Control Group A – MW530 – Deceased” which made no sense to me, but I knew that the box contained more dead rats. His companion entered the room behind him, and he, too, stepped over me (although he came much closer to stepping on me), and he too was carrying a box. His box was labeled “Control Group C – MW1693 – Deceased”.
The leader –or the human that had entered first- was saying something to the other person. “…But as long as they keep paying me, I could really care less what they’re doing. I don’t ask questions so long as I get paid.” I watched in shock as they walked to the center of the room and dumped the contents of the boxes. The boxes contained more dead rats. The men were wearing thick gloves and masks over their faces, in order, most likely, to avoid catching a disease. I was tempted to run over and bite one of them for spite.
Instead, I took the time that the door was open to flee the room, finding myself in a large hallway. It had the familiar scent of the place I had grown up, so I knew I was still in the same building. However, I had no idea where in that building I was, nor how to get out. I followed the walls, looking for an escape route. I turned the corner and saw a much longer hallway with multiple doors on either side. One of the doors was labeled ‘Jennifer Saunders’. I could smell Jen’s scent all over that room, and my heart ached with longing. However, a new emotion rose in me as well – anger. Jen had, indirectly or not, murdered my lifemate, my family, my friends, and left me for dead as well. Despite how kind she had been previously, she was not to be trusted in the least.
I continued past her room. Beyond Jen’s room were ten doors with intimidating looking doors, each marked ‘Restricted’. Underneath those signs were more signs reading, ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ and each door was marked with it’s own marking – ‘MW Contact Room 1’, ‘MW Contact Room 2’, and so on. I could hear the whirring of computers coming from most of the rooms.
Finally, near the end of the hall was a small hole in the wall near a ventilation duct. It was obviously a tunnel that had been made my rats, or mice. I entered it and began to follow the duct. About three inches in were several rat traps laid out. I was surprised that the scientists would use trapped rats for their experiments, but then realized that they probably had these traps to capture any of us who did happen to escape. I avoided the traps and kept on walking.
The vents seemed to go on forever. I made my way through turn after turn, wondering just how big a facility this place was. Whenever I had the opportunity, I would head in the direction that I thought was up. I had known that the incinerator was downstairs, and I wanted to get as far away from that place as possible. Plus, I had the instinct that the tests were being conducted underground. I passed several other traps, each near ventilation ducts in the walls where rats could easily climb. Fortunately, I did not see any dead rats on my way.
Eventually I made my way to a ventilation duct that, when I peered out it, I could see a doorway leading to sunshine! Escape! Looking around, I could see that the duct lead out to a large room – a lobby type area – with a few people walking around. The door seemed to be open and shut on a semiregular basis. I would be able to escape out it, but the chances of being seen were slightly high. I had to risk it.
Nibbling away a corner of the drywall to create a new hole for me to get out of, I waited until the room was nearly empty of people, and then dashed toward the outside world.
Nobody saw me leave, and I emerged as a free rat.
Freedom can be a scary thing, especially when it is newly thrust upon you. Now imagine that the world is about fifty times bigger than you already perceive it, and that you have no idea where you are or where to go and you’ll begin to grasp what it was like for me at that moment. The building I had just exited was a squat nondescript brick building. Obviously the labs were all underground, since there was no way that they could be concealed within the structure visible on the surface.
Before me lay a vast desert, and not much else. There was a parking lot with three vehicles parked in it. Leading out of the parking lot was a two lane road that disappeared over the horizon in both directions. It was an east-west running road. There were no other visible buildings. I stuck to the road, since it was solid, and I assumed would get me away from the labs. I headed west, toward the setting sun. There were no cars on this road, and in the first twenty minutes of my journey, I didn’t pass a single soul.
As I walked, I found myself in a sort of daze, not really thinking about the events that had transpired, just focused on moving. I figured there would be time for introspection later, but now I had to get away, in case I was being looked for.
A vehicle approached from the direction that I had been walking. I stepped off the side of the road into the desert sand and watched as one of the cars from the parking lot drove past me.
Such power! The vehicle was so large. And so fast, as well. The ability to travel such large distances in a short amount of time was practically godlike. Godlike… I thought of the insects and how they had been able to cause the ground to change its substance, and had also caused us to levitate without touching us. That was power.
I heard the car even as I lost sight of it, the engine revving slightly. Then… it paused. Had I been spotted? Was the driver actually stopping the car in order to capture me, or was I being paranoid? I scurried into the desert a little more, making sure that I did not lose sight of the road, but was convinced that I was not visible from the street myself. Listening, the car continued to sit, unmoving. In addition, I could hear some …other mechanical noise. It was distant, but growing louder. Intrigued, I decided to investigate.
I followed the road – still off on the shoulder, however – continuing in the direction I had been walking. I could see the car that had passed me just minutes ago, not moving. In front of it was a barrier of some sort, complete with flashing lights. This was interesting. Even the car that had such speed and strength was not all powerful. A wooden bar with some lights was evidently enough to bring the vehicle to a stop. Listening, I heard the other machine becoming louder. I could see it off in the distance and watched fascinated.
Slowly, this much larger machine crossed in front of the car, rumbling along metal tracks I had not seen at first. The gigantic vehicle was, of course, a train, and it had quite a few cars on it. I watched as the freight train chugged along leisurely. But most intriguing to me as it passed were the smells. I was close enough to the passing train that I could smell different scents wafting from it as it drove on. Wheat, corn, coal, and numerous other things I did not recognize. But the best smell was one that I did. Other rats. That train had rats on it. Not knowing much of the world, I was convinced that maybe the rats were operating the train, which gave me an insane amount of joy. If rats were, in fact, able to wield so much power out of the laboratory, then maybe those who had been repressing me and my family (i.e., Jen) could be brought to some form of justice.
Using that logic, I opted to follow the train tracks and ignore the highway. The train, of course, was moving too quickly for me to board, but I shouted out anyway, “Let me on! I am in need of assistance!” Alas, if any of the rats (or any other living thing) heard me over the din of the train passing, they could not or would not stop to help me. As soon as the final car passed, the wooden barrier lifted and the car from the lab continued on its way down the highway. The sun was setting, but I had a goal. I was going to locate the rats that had been driving that train and bring Jen to justice. I began following the train tracks.
It took me over an hour of walking, and by that time the sun had long set and darkness had moved in. A howl of a hungry coyote caused me to speed up and wonder about the safety of what I was doing, but I decided to stay the course. Eventually I came upon a ‘parked’ train. This one had fewer cars on it than the one I had seen earlier, and it didn’t have the same smells either. I could not smell rats on this one, which was surprising to me. However, I decided to board it anyway in hopes of driving it myself or finding where other rats were. “Hello?” I asked into the darkness, but I met no answer.
I sniffed around the empty freight car, and, concluding that it was safe, I lay down and slept.
When I woke sometime later, the sun was up; the room I was in was shaking, and was also moving. Instantly alert, I sat up and said, “Hello? Is anyone there?” I looked around the room, but there was still nobody in here with me. Sunlight poured I through the cracks in the freight cars walls and the rumbling of the train made it evident that we were moving. I poked my head out of a small hole in the door. We were moving far too fast for me to consider jumping. Besides, I did not recognize the surrounding area outside of the train. It was no longer desert, which I assumed meant the lab had been left far behind. Instead, miles and miles of fields were being passed by at the leisurely pace of the train. A freeway was running parallel to the train tracks, and I watched in amazement at the number of cars driving on it. Could there actually be that many people on the planet? And each of them with a car that possessed so much power? Were all of those people conducting experiments on rats, killing hundreds of us? I felt severely outnumbered, so I pulled my head back in and decided to investigate the train.
My car was still deserted, save for me. However, nearby I could sense that I was not alone on this train. Sniffing, I detected …food! My stomach growled and I realized that I had not eaten in nearly twenty four hours. The food I smelled was salty mixed with a scent of corn. I followed my nose to a corner of the car, and the scent was slightly stronger here. I was going the right direction. I stopped and smelled again – the food was a big draw, but I could also smell something that gave me pause – humans. They weren’t familiar to me, so I was convinced they were not any of the laboratory employees. Listening, I could almost hear what they were saying to each other. From the pitch of their voices, I could tell that there were at least five of them, and they sounded young. Two of them were female, the rest were male. While I didn’t understand the language they were speaking – my learning of English would come later – I do recollect it. The trip through the portal had enhanced me enough to that point (which is how I was able to remember what the workers had said, too, which, again, I will fix later.)
“Pass the chips, Paul.”
Munching, and the salty corn smell.
“Do you guys think they’re looking for us yet?” – one of the females.
“Shit, my dad won’t notice I’m gone for a month, if that. They’ll have to tell him that I’ve gone missing before he takes notice. He probably won’t even care when they do, either,” was the answer she got from one of the males.
Another male replied, “We’ve only been gone for almost four hours now, I’m sure that our cover stories will hold for at least five or six. But we should make the food last. I think [city] is the next stop, but I’m not sure if we want to get off there or not. And even if we do, we’ve got to think about how we’re going to eat, wherever we end up.”
“Always the rational one,” said one of the others, followed by several light chuckles that were difficult for me to hear.
As all this conversation was going on, I was making my way toward the car they were in. it was not an easy journey, as I did not want to fall out of the moving train, nor did I want the humans to know that I was with them. I did not know if they would experiment on me if they captured me, but I was not willing to take that risk, either.
Finally I made it to the car that these five young people were traveling in. They had several sleeping bags and each of them had a knapsack stuffed to the point of overflowing. One of them was holding a bag of Fritos, which was definitely where the smell was coming from. I assumed that he was the one that was named “Paul”. I watched hungrily as he ate a few more of the chips, then folded the bag’s top down and set it aside. He reached into his own bag and pulled out some sort of mechanical device which had headphones on it. He placed the headphones over his ears and started to move his head back and forth to the music coming from it. The rest of the children didn’t seem to mind. In fact, one of the females produced a book from her own bag, curled into a far corner, and began to read. The other three of the group were still talking to themselves, but I ignored their conversation. My focus was on the bag of Fritos.
With incredible stealth and a good amount of willpower (I was completely famished at that point) I slowly made my way to the bag of chips by scuttling through the shadows of the car. The scent of the Fritos was so intoxicating that I felt almost magnetically drawn to them, but I had to take my time and remain unseen.
Finally I got to the bag. The rumble of the train as it rolled down the tracks seemed to cover any noise that I might have been making by the rustling of the bag. In addition, Paul still had his headphones on, and he was the nearest to me. If he didn’t hear me, it was unlikely that the others would either. I hungrily bit through the aluminum bag, producing a hole in it that was large enough for me to stick my head in and remove a chip. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. The salt and oil and grease and corn were divine. I wanted more. As I was making a pig of myself, I suddenly heard one of the females (the one that had not been reading a book) scream an ear piercing yell. “Oh god!! It’s a rat!!”
Not recognizing the words, but certainly recognizing the terror in her voice, I pulled my head out of the bag and saw that Paul had scrambled away from me, the girl who had screamed was pointing in my direction, book girl was making herself even smaller in her corner, and the other two males were standing up and heading my way.
I had speed and smallness on my side, though, and quickly escaped the teens as they shouted and yelled, creating a melee and quite a spectacle of themselves.
I retreated to my own car, happy to have eaten and gotten away from the clutches of humans who wanted to do me harm once again.
When the train came to a stop again several hours later, I departed. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the city of [city]. And my life was about to change forever.
I wandered around the city, trying to locate a place to stay for the night. Mostly I was looking for other rats. Rats are social animals, and I hadn’t had an encounter with another rat in over twenty four hours, my experience in the pile of corpses notwithstanding.
This place had so many fascinating smells. Trash and food were abundant, so I was in no danger of starving. Eventually I caught the scent of other rats, and followed it to a building that was the PetSmart where Phoenix works part time. I could smell the rats (and many, many other animals) inside and was frustrated at my inability to find a way inside. Curling up outside in the alley behind the store, I fell asleep.
I didn’t wake up until it was too late. The human had come up behind me and was downwind. In addition, he had been incredibly quiet about doing it. Just as he was reaching down to pick me up, he said aloud (which was what woke me) “Well, how did you get here?”
Instantly alert, I tried to scurry away, but, as I said, it was too late. The human’s hand grasped me. I swear that I saw a flash of light and the faintest smell of forest, but it could have just been the shock of being grabbed unexpectedly. I would have run out of his hands, but the instant he touched me I became drowsier than I have ever been in my life. The human was bringing me to his face, for a better look at me, I presumed and he said, “What’s your name, little lady?”
Feeling myself fall into a deep slumber, I said, “Jen never…” and lost consciousness (again!) before I could finish my sentence.
Phoenix has told me the tale of what he did when he found me. I was asleep for nearly a day after being touched by Phoenix. When he originally found me, he picked me up, asked my name – not really expecting an answer, of course – and was thrown for a loop when he heard a voice in his head say what he heard as “Jennifer”. Assuming that I had somehow escaped from the PetSmart, he took my sleeping body into the store, petting me all the while. I can imagine his confusion. He was walking to work through the back alley – a route he always took – when he discovered a rat sleeping back there. He picks it up, it wakes up long enough for him to hear it speak to him, and then it falls asleep again and is unwakeable. Not the typical day for him, or for anyone, really.
After being unable to wake me, he put me in his shirt pocket, which was the beginning of that little tradition.
When he went inside the pet store, he realized that I might come to and that I might (and probably would) crawl out of his pocket and away from him. To remedy this, he went into the store’s rat aisle, picked out a smallish metal cage, brought it back to the employee area and put me – still sound asleep – inside it.
Phoenix later told me that his intention was to put me with the other rats in the store display, where I would eventually be bought by some kid and their family. He wanted to first get his supervisors approval.
My life may have turned out very differently if that had happened. Fortunately, I came to before that twist of fate could occur. Phoenix was on his way to see his supervisor – a middle aged man named Mr. Reilly – when I woke up. Looking around, I felt disoriented and confused. Where was I? How did I end up back inside a cage? I could tell that it was not the lab, for which I was thankful, but if not the lab, then where? I scrambled around the small cage and then I did the thing which saved my life, and forever connected me to Phoenix.
“Where am I? Hello? Is there anyone there?”
Phoenix, even though he was not in the room with me, heard me say this in his head. I didn’t see him do it, but he told me later that upon hearing the female voice in his head he spun around, looking all over the place trying to find who had spoken. The image is rather amusing to me now.
Since I didn’t hear anyone respond to me and I could not see anyone in the room with me, I figured that nobody had heard me. Assuming I was alone, I began searching the cage for a way out, all the while talking to myself to keep myself company. “Great. I’ve wound up in another cage.” I sniffed the air and realized that I was in the PetSmart. “Well, I’ve managed to get inside the store, but…” I remembered the human who had picked me up before I had mysteriously fallen asleep. “That hu…” I stopped midsentence because at that point Phoenix quickly opened the door and was staring at me.
Realizing that he may have been able to hear me when he entered the room (at this point I still didn’t know that he had heard my previous outbursts) – and even more frightening, understand me – I shut up completely and tried to act like a normal rat. Phoenix’s eyes narrowed and he approached the cage. He looked at me suspiciously, getting very close to the cage. I backed up into the far corner and watched him back, trembling slightly. He watched me for about ten, fifteen seconds, and then seemed to dismiss the idea that I had somehow been talking.
“You weren’t really talking were you little lady?” he asked me.
I blinked. I couldn’t believe my ears. I could understand this human! How in the world was this possible? I nearly spoke just then, but I was still wary of people, remembering that the last person I had trusted had turned out to be a murderer.
“Thought so,” he said. “It must be that I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so my brain is playing tricks on me.”
I stood on my hind legs and sniffed the air, trying to get a sense of if this human was completely trustworthy. I could smell the other rats, along with the cats, dogs, birds and other animals in the building. That could have meant that they were all safe, or it could have meant that this place did not restrict its experiments to rodents.
My instinct told me that I had nothing to fear from this human, that he was not going to harm me. But there were the disturbing facts: One - He had grabbed me. Two - He had somehow put me to sleep (drugged?). Three - He had put me in a cage inside a building with numerous other animals, also in cages. Four – He seemed to be able to hear me, or was at least suspicious of my ability to speak.
Still, my instincts, as I have said before, are very strong, and normally quite trustworthy, so despite the logic behind those arguments, the gut feeling that this guy was okay stuck with me. Deciding to go with my intuition, I took a deep breath and said to Phoenix, “You aren’t going to hurt me, are you?”
The reaction I got was not one I expected. Phoenix scrambled backwards away from me, a horrified look on his face. “What in the hell?” he asked.
I wiggled my whiskers a little, not sure what (if anything) to say in response. Phoenix had reached the door to the employee break room, not taking his eyes off of me the entire time. Afraid he was going to leave I said, “You haven’t answered my question. Are you planning on hurting me?”
Phoenix’s face had gone pale and his jaw was hanging open. He shut the door, absentmindedly and stepped back toward the cage. “You… you really can talk,” he said in a half awed whisper.
“And you really can understand me,” I said. “Although you still haven’t told me your intentions,” I added.
He chuckled. “But… your mouth isn’t moving. Oh! It must… heh, it must be telepathy. Oh, wow.” He closed his eyes tightly and scrunched up his face.
I stared at him.
He opened his eyes and looked at me. I cocked my head sideways in a quizzical manner. He took another step toward me, closed his eyes again and put his fingers to his temples, rubbing them in a circular motion. I wondered briefly if he was suffering from a mental disorder.
Realizing what he was attempting I said, “I can’t hear you, if that’s what you’re trying to do.”
He opened his eyes in surprise. “Oh,” he said with a touch of sadness. “Well, okay, then.”
He knelt down to get a closer look at the cage. “But you can understand me when I speak?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, what do you mean?” I said sarcastically.
He blinked, then got it. He chuckled slightly and said, “I like you, Jennifer.”
Upon hearing that name, it was my turn to freak out. “What did you call me? How do you know her? You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” I shrieked. I began running in circles inside the cage, convinced that I would soon be joining the ranks of the multitudes of dead rats in the bottom of a basement. Seeing me be absolutely paranoid and insane, it’s amazing that Phoenix still tolerates me, but that’s what friends do. They can see you at your worst, and accept you regardless.
“Hey, calm down there.” Phoenix said, “Nobody is going to hurt you,” he promised in soothing tones. “Trust me, I won’t let anybody hurt you.” He opened the cage and reached inside. I considered biting him – very strongly considered it, which appalls me now, but just goes to show how much stress I was under at the time – but I didn’t. I let him pick me up and he started to pet me, which calmed me considerably.
He told me, “I thought Jennifer was your name. When I first found you, I said, ‘What’s your name?’ and you replied ‘Jennifer’, although at the time I thought I had imagined hearing it.”
Hearing this explanation, I understood how the misunderstanding had occurred. I considered correcting him, but realized that I didn’t have a name and telling him the entire story of my life seemed like an overwhelming task at the time. Instead, I simply said, “Jen is sufficient. What shall I call you?”
“I’m Phoenix. After the mythological bird, not the city or the late actor.”
I simply looked at him, since I had no idea what he was talking about. He sighed and said, “The phoenix was a bird from Greek mythology. In the story, the bird was made of fire and would burn itself into ashes, only to be constantly reborn. There’s also a city in Arizona called Phoenix, as well as an actor from the 80s who was named River Phoenix. People generally wonder which of the three I was named after. It’s the bird. Well, that and my mom liked the name.”
“I like the name, too. I also like you, Phoenix. You’re the first kind human I have encountered.”
Phoenix frowned. “Really? Sorry to hear that. So… were you experimented on? Is that how you can talk to me? And do other people hear you too? And, hey, you must have escaped somehow.”
Understandably excited about the idea of being the first human in history to experience telepathic communication, let alone with a different species, I knew we would have a lot to ‘talk’ about for a while. I was running up his arm, sniffing his head, getting used to his scent, looking around while he was talking. Instead of answering all his questions right then, I asked him one, “What are you going to do with me?”
He stopped his barrage of queries and thought. “Well, I can’t let you stay here. Other people will ask questions, and there’s the possibility that you could get sold to another family.”
“No good.” I agreed.
“Right. So. I guess I’ll take you home with me. You can stay in my room, I suppose. We’ll need to get you a habitat to stay in. I assume you are not toilet trained?”
“What’s a toilet?” I asked him.
“That’s what I thought.” Instructing me to get into his pocket, and to stay hidden, he left the employee break room and began walking through the aisles of the still-mostly empty store. When we got to the aisle with cages and plastic rodent homes, he stood looking at the displays. He whispered into his shirt pocket as discretely as he could, “Okay. Take a look at what we have and let me know what you like.”
I stuck my head out of his pocket, which was a pretty comfy place to travel, and looked at the shelves. There were several small generic cages and some fancy plastic ones that were quite extravagant and featured pictures of smiling happy children on the boxes, along with rats, or hamsters or gerbils who looked… well, it was difficult to determine the emotional state of the rodents, but the consumer is left to imply that they were happy in their new home. Looking them over, I found one that seemed livable. “I would like that one.” I read off the name on the box.
“You can read, too?” Phoenix asked, astonished.
“Apparently so,” I said, equally amazed. “I’ve never really understood the symbols I saw until now.”
Phoenix shook his head in amazement and picked up the cage. He took it to the back, along with bedding, a water bottle, an exercise wheel, and food. I was going to be treated like a queen.
We devised the plan that I would have to be put in with the other rats temporarily – when nobody was looking, to see him place me there, of course – and then he would ‘purchase’ me, along with the equipment. It did not take much coaxing on my behalf in order to get him to remain quiet about my ability, and he had no qualms about deceiving his boss, or really about spending the money on me.
He found his supervisor and told him that he was planning on buying a rat, along with the necessary accessories. No problem, in fact, he even got me for a discount since he was an employee. Human monetary interactions are amusing to me.
When he went to pick me out, his supervisor was with him, and he tried to tell him to purchase more than one rat, since we are social animals. But during my time spent with the other rats, I discovered that I could either take them or leave them. They were not able to communicate with me the same way that my lifemate, and now Phoenix were able to. Sure, it was nice to be interacting with members of my species who were alive, but I had been spoiled by my telepathy. I don’t want to say that I was above the other rats, but I was certainly different from them.
During his shift, Phoenix and I discovered that my voice could be heard by him no matter where he went. Even if he was in another room, and there was loud noises going on, he could still hear me just fine. Apparently, telepathy was not diminished by obstacles, nor distance. Of course, he was not very far away, being in the same building and all. Later experiments, though, would prove that even miles away, Phoenix was able to hear me just fine, and that there appeared to be no limit to the lengths my telepathy would travel in order to reach him. Not only that, but there was no lag. No matter how far away we were, when I spoke, Phoenix could hear me as though he were right beside me, instantly.
Before he was ready to take me home that day, he had to call his girlfriend, Naomi, in order to come pick us up. Since he did not own a car, he had taken the bus to get to work, and my cage and the toys would be too much to carry home by himself. She agreed to pick him up, I made Phoenix promise to not tell anyone his new secret, and everything was going along wonderfully for the past three months.
I learned that Phoenix was suffering from some strange depression type of thing where he was pretty tired all the time. Looking back, it is odd that the first day we met, he displayed zero symptoms of it. Additionally, my sudden dip into unconsciousness when he first touched me was equally puzzling. Of course, ours has never been an ordinary relationship.
But now it was going to be even less ordinary. There were two changes brought into our lives that day, both of them from Naomi. First, the fact that she was carrying Phoenix’s child, regardless of the future of the baby, that would change both of them forever. Second, she now knew the truth about me. How those two facts would influence things remained to be seen. Just then we arrived at the library, and I snapped out of my reverie, back into the present.
Chapter 6: Research and Development
Naomi was still very excited about the fact that I was able to mentally communicate with her boyfriend. We pulled into the parking lot of the library and Naomi and Phoenix got out of the car. I rode along in Phoenix’s pocket, sniffing the air and loving being outside.
After Phoenix gave Naomi a shortened version of how I had come to be with him – I myself had left out the visit to the Tree and the flying glass insects. Phoenix was convinced that the scientists had tinkered with my brain and had unintentionally given me telepathy. As far as I knew, that was correct, so why burden him with the extra knowledge of what may very well have been a psychotic state of mind I was in? As the weeks and months passed, I had even started to wonder if the entire visit to the Tree had been a dream.
Although now that I had been somehow transported out of Phoenix’s room into a world where wolf snakes existed, which had contained some more of the glass bugs from the Tree (although not nearly as many, and I would much rather face the glass bugs than one of those wolf-snakes again) and then into some sort of battlefield, before going home again, things were certainly more mysterious than I had believed. Maybe I would explain to Phoenix everything I had experienced and see what he made of it. I felt that if I knew where it was that I had been experimented on, that it might be a clue and help us to understand exactly what had been done to me, and perhaps explain how I had disappeared earlier in the morning.
Naomi obviously had a similar idea. Under the guise of her working (she was working, of course, but she was also doing a lot more personal research than would probably be approved of by her supervisors), we spent the next couple of hours pouring over books on telepathy, mind control, remote viewing, and animal experiments. The last of these was too horrific for me to look at and I asked Phoenix, “Why do humans do this type of thing?”
He had a pad of paper and a pencil next to him so that he could communicate with me without talking. He was sitting at a desk with a book propped up in front of him, and had allowed me to get out of his pocket and crawl around on the tabletop. He wrote down: “I don’t know, Jen. Knowledge, I guess.”
“Pfft,” I pffted. “Seems to me that you’ve carved up one orangutan, you’ve carved up them all. What else is there to learn once you’ve seen everything inside?”
Phoenix wrote, “A lot of medical advances have resulted from animal testing. Not that I’m excusing it.”
“Medical advances for humans,” I said, not hiding my bitterness.
Phoenix nodded sadly.
Naomi found an interesting article about animal-human dialogue, but it did not, of course, mention anything nearly resembling the situation that Phoenix and I shared. Mostly some improvable statements about people talking to animals, treating them with respect, and having the animals react in ways that seemed like they were understanding what the humans had said. It seemed like a bit of anthropomorphizing to me, but then, I’m not really what you would call an unbiased expert.
After learning what we could – which was nothing new, only new to Naomi – Phoenix and I opted to get something to eat while Naomi finished the rest of her shift.
Nothing much happened the rest of the day. Naomi did some more research on telepathy, reading all sorts of nonsense about ESP and paranormal activities. Later that night, after she got off work she came back over to Phoenix’s house, and the three of us were in his room, surrounded by books. Phoenix was lying down, not quite asleep, but probably very near it.
“What I don’t get,” Naomi said, “is WHY someone would create a telepathic rat. What good is it?”
“Spying purposes, maybe,” I suggested.
Phoenix grunted in approval, trying hard to fight sleep. “Spying,” he muttered to Naomi who had given him a quizzical look.
“Although she’s right,” I continued, “having the communication barriers we have, it wouldn’t be very effective for spying. I could report to you things hundreds of miles away in an enemy camp, but a) I would have no idea if you were awake to hear me and b) how could you report to me that the mission was a success, or that I needed to look for more information or, well, anything, really? It would be like having a walking video camera, but no real way of controlling where it would go. Or really a way to control that I would bother to report ANYTHING. Which makes me believe that spying might not have been the intention.”
Phoenix had realized he was dozing off, and forced himself to sit up and stay awake. “Or,” he told me, “that you were just phase one, maybe.” Naomi looked at him with the ‘please relay the entire message’ look that was becoming quite familiar.
“Jen was just telling me how inadequate a spy she would be, is all,” he explained.
Naomi nodded. “I see. So, spying is out, most likely. Maybe it was just an unintended consequence?” she suggested. “But that raises the question of what exactly they were trying to accomplish.”
“Jen has told me that they weren’t doing any toxicology testing on her or her rat friends,” Phoenix said.
“That I know of,” I corrected.
“That she knows of,” he added.
“And yet, something must have been done to kill all those rats.” Naomi said. “Hey…” she stopped midthought and decided it was too strange an idea to speak. But she had piqued Phoenix’s curiousity. “Well?” he asked. Naomi looked almost embarrassed to say what she had been thinking. “Well,” she started, “Jen said that she woke up in a pile of rat corpses, which means that they must have assumed she was dead. Maybe… maybe she was. Maybe she actually did die, and came back to life, and when she did, she brought her newfound intelligence and telepathic ability with her.”
Phoenix considered it then said, “Maybe. Although, really, there isn’t a way for us to know that conclusively.” He yawned and added, “Truthfully, I don’t see a way for us to know much of anything about her conclusively. And, really, does it matter? We know she can do it, does the why or how make much difference?”
I was still pondering what Naomi had said about my death. She was perhaps onto something there. Not that I felt that I had earned my powers from being resurrected, but… I had been in the world with the Tree, the flying insects had levitated me and my companions, had flown us closer and closer to one of those floating cells, and then, nothing. Had THEY killed me? Had they returned a dead rat to the normal world inside the lab? Or maybe …maybe they had made it look like I was dead. In order to give me an opportunity to escape? That felt right somehow. And if that had been the case… that meant that they had likely done the same with the other rats. But… why had they not been revived? Had there simply been not enough time? That could have been the case. Although, oh dear. That would mean that they had been alive when put into the incinerator.
I felt ill.
“Phoenix,” I said, “I’ve had enough of this for one day. I’m going to go to sleep. You look exhausted yourself. Maybe we should call it a day.”
It didn’t take much arm twisting to get Phoenix to agree with me. He told Naomi that he was tired, and that Jen was too, and asked her if she were staying here or going home. (Jen’s mother knew they were sleeping together, and did not have any reservations about it. Or if she did, she kept them to herself. Either way, there were many nights (usually on the weekends) when Naomi would stay over.) Jen said that if we were going to sleep, she was going to go home and do some more research, see if she could whip up some more info on my condition, or find any one online who might have encountered another rat like me. If I had escaped wherever it was I had been held, perhaps others had, too. And that would mean that there could possibly be other people with psychic connections out there as well. She felt that having the information that I had traveled on a train, and had started my journey from a building in a desert might be enough to go on. I felt personally that it was a long shot, but didn’t really see the harm in her trying, especially using the anonymity that the internet provided. Most likely she would end up communicating with a bunch of internet weirdos who where self-deluded or flat out lying about their paranormal encounters, so honestly, it was most likely a waste of time for her. On the other hand, it could very well turn out that she would get a clue that would provide her with a way of blowing the whole case wide open. Stranger things have happened.
Phoenix and Naomi kissed goodnight, and I noticed that the baby issue seemed to have taken a backseat for the time being. I wondered when it would be addressed, because eventually it would have to be one way or another. But Phoenix’s offspring was, ultimately, none of my concern, so instead, I curled up in my bedding and quickly drifted off to a peaceful sleep.
In my dream that night, my namesake – human Jen, the Jennifer Saunders who had cared for me while I was an ordinary lab rat in some desert building – was chasing me as I ran through some canyons, which suddenly turned into rivers. A wolf snake thing emerged at the bank of the river and began chasing human Jen. The wolf snake spoke in my dream, at first sounding like one would expect a wolf snake hybrid to sound if such a creature were able to speak, but then taking on the voice of human Jen. It said: “Stupid little animals who tinker with the things they don’t understand end up at the bottom of the food chain. Leave things alone, little beasties. Leave the Tree alone. Kill the Tree, kill us all.”
Jen was running for her life by that point, terrified – rightfully so – of the wolf snake, which ran at an amazing pace. It moved in a bizarre gallop, slither hybrid that was sickeningly fascinating. The wolf snake caught Jen by the leg, and she screamed out in pain. I continued to run, but was also able to see the entire death of my previous owner. The wolf snake tore off her legs, blood staining its mouth and claws, as the human screamed her death throes. I had what I hoped was a suffiecent head start, as I knew that the wolf thing would chase after me once it had finished with Jen. An all Jen diet was what that monster was currently on, apparently.
The thing bit Jen’s head clean off, crushing her skull in its jaws, and swallowing it down it’s long gullet of a throat. I tried to swim across one of the many rivers, hoping that the predator would not be able to follow me, or see me in the water. But it did.
The three eyes were staring at me as it slowly walked/slithered toward me. “You can’t escape, little beastie,” it said in a perfect mockery of human Jen’s voice. “You belong to me. The rat belongs to me. The rat belongs to me!!!”
It was at that point that I woke up, startled, only to see that human Jen was in fact inside Phoenix’s bedroom and was saying, “The rat belongs to me.”
I scurried into the corner of my cage, trying to make myself small and invisible. This couldn’t be happening. I must still be dreaming. There was no way for her to be here. As far as she knew, I was a pile of ashes. I had left her and her experiments miles behind me. What had she done – gone from house to house across the country trying to find me? That would be insanity. If she were truly here, there must be some other explanation for how she had found me.
Phoenix was sitting on his bed, his mother and human Jen were standing at the doorway. Human Jen was wearing a rather dressy skirt, and had her hair up. She looked very professional, and had an air of intimidation about her that was difficult to ignore. She was looking around the room, taking in all the surroundings. But she mostly focused on me. She was holding a small briefcase in her hand.
I was absolutely terrified to see her again, despite the fact that, prior to her attempt to murder me, she had been nothing but kind to me. However, I was not going to be going anywhere with her anytime soon if I had a say in the matter. On the other hand, I did not want to say anything in front of Phoenix. What if Human Jen had been able to track me down because I had a psychic connection to her, and she had heard me talking each and every time I had spoken to Phoenix? Granted, she had found me now, but if I acted like an ordinary rat, and Phoenix was wise enough to stick to the cover story of having bought me at the PetSmart, there was no way she could prove otherwise. I was safe as long as we did not stray from our lie. Realizing that, I tried to stop trembling and began to run on my exercise wheel. It gave me the advantage point of burning off the extra stress, and to watch and listen to the conversation while appearing to be preoccupied. Phoenix would know otherwise, of course, but he would (hopefully) be the only one.
Phoenix is a smart guy, and he quickly put two and two together. He deduced that this woman in front of him, who was claiming that I belonged to her, must be one of the representatives from the company that had experimented on me. Therefore, he was going to do the same thing I was doing – play dumb. Feigning ignorance is a wonderful technique for getting information and for getting out of responsibility. Phoenix asked the woman, “What? What are you talking about… Mrs. Saunders, was it?”
The woman extended her free hand to Phoenix, who shook it, reluctantly, all the while giving his mother a look that read ‘Who the hell is this woman, and why did you let her in our house let alone in my room?’. “Yes,” Human Jen said, “Jennifer Saunders, Unreal Power, Inc., Research and Development Department.”
Phoenix said, “Uh huh,” and I knew that his heart had skipped a beat upon hearing the words ‘research’ and ‘development’, because mine had done the same. If I were a human, I would be sweating bullets right about now. Instead, I began to drink from the water bottle.
Phoenix’s mother spoke up for Human Jen saying, “Mrs. Saunders claims that we have something that belongs to her. Or more accurately, her company. In particular, your pet rat Jen. I told her that you had bought her at PetSmart about a month ago, but she insisted on seeing the rat herself.”
Human Jen said, “That’s right, Mrs. McDowell. Yesterday at Advanced Reality, Inc, or ARI, we had a very strange thing occur. Granted, ARI is in the business of dealing with very unusual circumstances, but …nothing like what happened yesterday. I can not discuss everything with you folks, of course, due to security reasons and business …things, so forgive me if I am not able to explain something to the extent you would like. I can say with absolute certainty, however, that the rat that is living in that cage does belong to ARI.”
Phoenix’s mother looked at her son questioningly. Phoenix looked at Human Jen as though she were a monster, knowing that most likely, she was telling the truth. But he was going to stick to the lie in hopes that I would be able to stay with him. He made a promise to me that nobody was going to hurt me, and he was intending on keeping that promise. “That’s impossible!” Phoenix blurted, and then hastily added, “Ma’am.”
“I can assure you that it is not.” Human Jen said with all the conviction of someone who knows that they are telling the truth. “Well,” she added, “no, I would have thought that her existence was impossible myself – and especially the fact that she is so far away from ARI headquarters. And yet, here she is, right in front of us. Control Group K, number 19. Alive and well, some three hundred and fifty miles away from where she was yesterday.”
“Oh,” Phoenix’s mother said, “I am afraid you are mistaken, Mrs. Saunders. Phoenix has had Jen here for, like a said, about one month. If she were in your care yesterday, then you must have her confused for another animal.”
I realized that I had been watching the humans speak intently for a while. Not wanting to give myself away, I found something rat like to do.
“It’s true,” Phoenix said, “Jen, um, the rat Jen, has been with me since about the 8th of May. She was with me yesterday.” (He conveniently left out the missing ten minutes where I went teleporting to other worlds) “In fact, she was with me at the library with my girlfriend. She can vouch for her. You must want some other rat. I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing.”
Human Jen smiled and said, “I’m afraid that I am not mistaken, as strange as the circumstances are, K-19 there,” she pointed toward me. I glared back. “K-19 there is in fact, property of ARI.”
Phoenix spoke up while Human Jen had been speaking, saying, “Her name is Jen,” when the name K-19 had been uttered. Human Jen said, “That is a mighty strange coincidence as well, don’t you think, Mr. McDowell? My name is Jennifer, and you ‘buy’ this rat and just happen to name it Jen? Isn’t Jen an unusual name for a pet rat?” The suspicious tone in her voice was one I did not like at all. I needed to be in contact with Phoenix somehow, but I still didn’t know whether Human Jen could hear me or not. I decided to risk it and said, “If anyone in this room can hear me, please cough.”
Phoenix coughed briefly, but Phoenix’s mother and Human Jen did not. If Human Jen had heard me speak, she had a marvelous poker face.
“Good.” I said. “Now, Phoenix, listen closely. This woman is in fact the woman that took care of me and the other rats while I was prisoner at…I guess ARI. But there is not a way she can prove it, so we should be okay as long as we stick to the story. Oh! I know. Get the receipt from PetSmart from when you bought me! That proves ownership.”
Phoenix’s mother, still responding to the human-only conversation going on said, “That is a rather strange coincidence, Mrs. Saunders, but how could Phoenix have known that you were her previous owner… unless… Phoenix? Did you really buy Jen at PetSmart?”
”Of course I did, mom!” Phoenix got up and rummaged through his receipts. The fact that Phoenix kept all his receipts was due to the fact that his mother was an accountant and she had taught him that habit early. Now it was going to pay off. He pulled out the PetSmart receipt and walking back to the two women, he said, “See? One rat, female, bought on May 8th, 2006. Along with the cage, the equipment, the food, and pretty much everything else you see in Jen’s corner.”
“I may be mistaken,” Human Jen said, and hope filled my heart briefly. She then continued, “But let’s find out one way or another. She opened her briefcase and pulled out a gun shaped object that appeared to be made of plastic. It was plugged into a small battery pack in the piece of luggage. “This is a scanner to identify the microchip inserted in the back of all ARI animals,” she said as she was preparing it. “If you would be so kind as to get K-19 and bring her over here so I can scan her, we will know for sure whether she is the rat I am looking for or not.”
Phoenix looked very tired suddenly. I was not feeling too great myself. “Microchip?” I said. “Microchip? This…” I didn’t finish because I didn’t know what else to say. I was in a mild state of shock, and I currently couldn’t see a way out of the predicament we were in. if there truly was a microchip inside me, it would prove without a doubt that I had come from the ARI lab. Phoenix finished my sentence for me. As he was coming over to the cage, he muttered, “…sucks,” loud enough that only I could hear him. He opened the top of the cage, reached in and said, “Come on, Jen. Let’s find out what we need to find…” he yawned and a crazy plan came into my head.
Talking quickly as I climbed into his hand I said, “Drop me! When you get me out of the cage, act as if you are going to fall asleep, and let me go. I’ll make a run for it. Hide out in the house somewhere where she can’t get to me.” Phoenix pet me as he carried me, and I sensed him shake his head. He tapped his finger rapidly, but gently on my back. Morse code. It took me a second to realize what he was doing, so I missed the first part of the message, but got the gist of it. He spelled out, “…to break law. Will find another way.”
I squirmed in his hand and said, “But Phoenix! This woman is a murderer.”
He was almost to Human Jen and he quickly tapped out, “Will find a way.” Aloud he said, “So, what type of research do you do at ARI, anyway? I’ve never heard of your company.”
Ahh. He was trying to get more information from her, and at the same time distract her from her mission of taking me. Good boy.
“We are currently researching virtual reality fields,” she lied, “K-19, or Jen, as you are calling her, was involved in a number of experiments with the latest VR materials.”
“She’s lying,” I said. “The worlds we were sent to were NOT virtual. They… wait, could they have been?” I had to wonder. That would explain a lot of the bizarre things I had seen during my stay at ARI’s labs. If they were advanced enough virtual reality sensors, then it could FEEL real, and feel as though we were inside a world where insects could levitate us, or where there were people made of bread walking around. But two questions remained, if the virtual reality answer Human Jen was presenting was the truth. One – WHY would they test such virtual reality technology on rats? and two – how had I been transported hundreds of miles away in mere seconds? No, the virtual reality ruse was just that. Something that looked good on the surface, but didn’t hold up to scrutiny. There had to be something more – and most likely something more sinister – going on.
I could see that Phoenix was still conflicted. I quickly told him what had just gone through my head. Aloud he said, “VR, huh? That’s pretty cool. Like video games and stuff?” he yawned and stretched after he handed me over to Human Jen. I walked into her hands easily, not struggling, much as I wanted to, still holding onto the hope that Phoenix had something up his sleeve. “Because,” Phoenix continued, “I never knew that animal testing was, you know, required for development of video games.”
Human Jen had turned on the scanner and was running it up and down my back. The machine beeped, and the display on the gun said: “K-19 05/31/06 Property of ARI”. Crap. I bristled at being referred to as “property”, but even more disturbing was the fact that the bastards had cut me open and put that chip inside me without my knowledge. The list of atrocities they had committed just continued to grow.
Human Jen said, “And there we have proof. This animal belongs to our company, I’m afraid. Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I will need to bring this animal back with me.”
Actually, he didn’t faint so much as fall asleep. But either way, he lost consciousness. His mother and Human Jen both reacted with a gasp and stepped toward him to help. He had collapsed onto his bed and was safe from physical harm, but the suddenness of his collapse were what concerned the women. It concerned me as well, but I was trying to use this opportunity to get out of Human Jen’s hands. Sadly, that was to no avail. I squirmed and she simply held me tighter. Phoenix’s mom reached him first, shaking him and calling his name. He groggily came to and looked extremely embarrassed when he did so. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“Are you okay?” I asked, at the same time his mother did.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” he said dismissively.
Human Jen looked at Phoenix with a suspicious eye. “I don’t mean to intrude,” she said, “but have you had these fainting spells a lot?” The humans on the bed looked at her with wonder. “Yeah,” Phoenix admitted, “for about a year or two. It’s gotten worse lately.”
Human Jen nodded. “And are you tired all the time?”
Now it was Phoenix’s turn to be suspicious. Who was this woman? And how did she know so much about his life? “Yes. I am,” he said with an unmistakable guarded tone to his voice.
“What about dreams?” Human Jen asked, “Do you often have very vivid dreams?”
Phoenix’s mother had stood up and was looking at Human Jen with a severely disturbed look on her face. “What do you know, Mrs. Saunders?”
Human Jen realized that they had grown suspicious of her – obviously anyone with authority must be untrustworthy – so she put their minds at ease and said, “Have you been to a doctor yet?”
“A few days ago, actually,” Phoenix said, and then offered, “but they didn’t tell us much. He seems to think I’m depressed.” He glanced at his mother guiltily, as though depression were something to be ashamed of.
Human Jen nodded. “That isn’t surprising. It often goes misdiagnosed at first.”
Phoenix said, “What does?”
“Narcolepsy,” Human Jen answered. “You are exhibiting the classic signs of narcolepsy: Cataplexy, excessive daytime sleepiness, vivid dreaming. My sister is a narcoleptic, and she went through the same ordeal. She’s on medication now and it is helping tremendously. The doctors thought she was suffering from depression as well, had her all mixed up on antidepressants for years. Now, though, she gets through her days with hardly any problems at all.”
Phoenix and his mother were awestruck. His mother suddenly grinned hugely. “This is great news!” she exclaimed, hugging her son. Human Jen smiled too. “Well, you should still get a professional diagnosis done. I could be wrong, after all.”
I added, “Yeah, and you are still a rat murderer.”
Having not heard me, Human Jen continued, “But my best guess is that you are in fact suffering from narcolepsy. And with the medications they have now, and by catching it this early, you should be fine very soon.”
Phoenix said, “I see. Well, thank you for clearing that up. Mom, does this mean that we don’t have to go to the psychologist on Thursday?” Phoenix’s mother nodded. She said that she would go cancel the appointment, and make one with the doctor right away. She left the room. Human Jen put me back in the cage and Phoenix said, “So, uh, are you still taking Jen with you?”
I looked at her expectantly.
She smiled sadly and said, “Yes, I’m afraid so, Mr. McDowell. She does belong to ARI, after all.”
Phoenix resorted to whining. “But how many rats do you need? I could buy you another rat. Or another dozen. PetSmart has plenty of rats that we could provide you. Why do you need Jen? I don’t want her to die!”
Phoenix’s cell phone rang just then, but I noticed that Human Jen’s eyes narrowed briefly when my death had been mentioned. I hadn’t wanted Phoenix to bring that up, because it would cause suspicion on Human Jen’s part. She hadn’t mentioned rat deaths, so how could Phoenix have possibly known? However, I realized quickly that he could put her on the defensive, and might even have a way out with the other rat idea. While I was not keen on sacrificing the lives of other innocent rats to save my own, I would prefer to not be killed if it could be helped.
Human Jen had not seen this development coming, apparently. There was no real logical reason for her to want me personally back. At least, none that she had given us. In addition to not knowing why she wanted me, she had not stated how she had found me. I must be a very special rat if she had been willing to travel all this way to track me down…
Human Jen quickly recovered, though, and said, “While I appreciate you wanting to keep this animal as your pet, Mr. Mc Dowell, I am sure you understand that K-19 has been through a good deal of experimentation already, and that to begin again with a different rat would disregard many hours of scientific research.”
Phoenix said, “Excuse me for a moment,” and answered his cell phone and turned his back to Human Jen while he spoke in slight whispers. I, of course, could hear him the entire time. “Hi. No… yeah, you should come over. We’ve had a …development with Jen. Her owner has shown up. No, she’s here now. Okay. See you soon. Bye.”
He hung up and turned back to face Human Jen. “That was my girlfriend,” he offered. Human Jen said, “Well, I would love to stick around and meet her, but I really must be getting back to ARI. I have a transporter cage in my vehicle. If you will excuse me I will go and get it.”
Phoenix and Human Jen started to leave, and I could hear their conversation as they went down the stairs. Phoenix was trying the “Any rat but Jen” tactic again.
I lost the conversation as they went outside to Human Jen’s vehicle. I heard the door shut, and then they came back inside. As they were heading back upstairs, Phoenix’s mother, apparently done arranging the various doctor’s appointments, joined in the conversation by admonishing her son. “Phoenix! We can buy you a new rat. This one is the property of ARI and we must return it.”
They walked back into Phoenix’s room. Human Jen had a small metal cage in her hands. “But mom!” Phoenix whined. She gave Phoenix one of those looks that normally is enough to silence him, but not this time.
“She obviously doesn’t want to go back,” Phoenix said.
“What?” Human Jen asked.
“Jen must not want to go back. If she escaped and traveled all this way – how many hundreds of miles? – just to get away, don’t you think that’s relevant somehow? You claimed that she wouldn’t be harmed…” I interjected to Phoenix just then, “Actually, she never did say that.” Phoenix continued, “…but why would a rat living the good life flee? What exactly are you doing to the rats at ARI, Mrs. Saunders?”
But Human Jen was having none of this. Apparently my feelings were none of her concern. She walked over to my cage and opened the lid. Reaching in she said, “What ARI does is classified information, but it is all perfectly legal, I assure you.”
Phoenix said, “I didn’t say anything about legal. We’re talking morality, not legality This is a living, sentient being.” Eyebrows were raised at ‘sentient’ and I said, “Ixnay on the entientsay” but Phoenix was on a roll, “She deserves to be listened to. Any living animal does, and whether the law allows for the murder of nonhumans or not makes no difference. The amount of research you will lose makes no difference. I will pay you to take a different animal, and I will pay you for any loss of research that results…” Phoenix wasn’t going to be stopped by me or anyone else, but then his narcolepsy kicked in. Getting emotional was apparently a trigger for tiredness, and having his psychic pet rat threatened to be taken away tended to make one emotional.
He sat down on the bed, closed his eyes. His mother and Human Jen both reacted with alarm, although Human Jen kept a tight grip on me. She was also not as nervous as his mother was. She began to comfort Phoenix, calming him, trying to get him to snap out of his sleepiness spell. He seemed to be okay, though. He was not energetic enough to stand up, but he opened his eyes and looked up at Human Jen. He said firmly, “I don’t know how I’m going to stop you, but I am going to find a way to make sure you do not take Jen from me. My girlfriend’s mother is an attorney, and if possible, I will take legal action. You brought up the law, earlier. I am willing to fight tooth and nail for my rat and to keep her away from you and your company doing it’s experiments.”
“Go Phoenix!” I cheered happily.
Unfortunately, my reaction was not matched by Phoenix’s mother nor by Human Jen. Phoenix’s mom admonished her son. “Phoenix Kevin McDowell! What is the matter with you?” Human Jen’s eyes had narrowed at first, but then she smiled wryly. “It’s quite all right, Mrs. McDowell. It’s obvious that Phoenix here cares greatly about K-19, or, I suppose Jen is the name he’d prefer she be referred to.”
”So would I,” I interjected.
The scientist continued, “Phoenix, however, should know that he would be going up against the best lawyers that our corporation can buy. It would entail a long, messy battle, not to mention the cost. And ultimately, we are in the right. The rat did escape from our facility, regardless of how it came about being in your care, it is still our property.”
Phoenix’s mom, not knowing either side of the story asked what we were all wondering. “What is so special about this particular rat? Why did you travel – how many miles again? Hundreds? – just to recapture a rat that you haven’t had in your research facility for over a month? And, Phoenix, what is it that is so special about her that you can’t let go? Either one of you could simply purchase another rat. Listen to yourselves! Talking about taking legal action over the ownership of a lab rat! It’s ridiculous! Both of you are acting completely stubborn and I don’t understand why, so maybe one or both of you could do a little explaining to me? What, exactly, makes Jen so extraordinary?”
Human Jen started to give some song and dance number, blah blah blahing about how each of the rats that are tested in their company is unique, and the data gained from each one was invaluable. “I don’t trust her, still,” I told Phoenix as she was talking. “She still hasn’t answered your mother’s question about why she tracked me down. Or, for that matter, how she tracked me down.”
Phoenix nodded ever so slightly and when he found a breaking in point in Human Jen’s dialogue, he asked, “How did you come to find Jen, anyway? If she truly managed to –however it was done – get so many miles away from your lab, how did you pinpoint where she was? And why did it take you so long to do it? If every rat is so damn important to you, why not track her down the first night she escaped? Why wait until nearly three weeks later?”
“Global Positioning System,” Human Jen answered. “The microchip inside K-19 also has a GPS frequency emitter, which allowed me to track her down to your home.” She opened up her briefcase, showing a small computer monitor displaying a map of the city and a small beacon beeping where we currently were at. There was also a long digit, displayed at the bottom of the screen, which was probably the identification code used on the GPS barcode inside my body. “Well, that means even if I were to run,” I said sourly, “it wouldn’t do any good. They’d be able to track me wherever I go.”
Phoenix looked at the display and then nodded. “Impressive. But it doesn’t answer my other question. If you had this technology available, and you could find where she was, why did you wait until now to track her down?”
Being a rat, I have an acute sense of hearing. I also have an enhanced sense of feel. Additionally, I have been living near humans for my entire life, and have been “super smart” for at least three weeks. So when Human Jen began to have her heart beat faster, I could hear it. I could also feel her pulse quicken while she was holding me in her increasingly sweaty hands. When she spoke, I could detect the slight quivering in her voice and I could see her eyes moving rapidly back and forth. In other words, I knew with absolute certainty that she was lying. “There was a malfunction with the GPS equipment that we, unfortunately, did not discover until just yesterday. As soon as we remedied that situation, I got clearance from Mr. Wolf, he’s the director of ARI, rented an SUV, and drove for nearly ten hours straight just to get here.”
“Malfunction, my ass,” I told Phoenix. “She didn’t know I was gone. Ah! Corner her with that! Ask her why she didn’t physically notice I was missing. It’s because she thought I was dead and threw me out along with the rest of the dead rats. She assumed that my corpse had been burned with the others. The real question – for me at least – is what tipped her off that I was alive?”
“Was there a malfunction with your eyes, as well?” Phoenix asked in a snarling tone, just as I would have. “I mean, how else can you explain that you did not see that Jen was missing?”
Human Jen was quiet for a second. I could tell she was trying to think of a way out of the discussion with Phoenix without giving away too much information. The funny thing was that Phoenix was doing the same thing. My former owner, instead of answering Phoenix’s questions, diverted the topic and asked her own. “You say that you bought K-19 at PetSmart where you work, correct?”
Figuring that she was going to get around to answering his question, Phoenix warily said, “Yes, that’s right. I’ve shown you the receipt.”
Human Jen nodded. “And where does PetSmart get the rats that it sells?”
Phoenix looked at me questioningly wondering where Human Jen was going with this. I said, “I don’t know what she’s getting at. Go ahead and answer her, but be careful. I think she is trying to trip you up and catch you in a lie.”
“We… we have several different rat providers. We get the majority of them from specialized breeders. A few are born in the store. The rest are brought to us from the local animal shelters. Why do you ask?”
“Are there records of the rats when they are brought into the store? When these breeders or the animal shelters make a delivery, I assume that there is a record of this?”
“Oh no,” I said, realizing there was a crack in our story, and that Human Jen was trying to make it bigger.
“Of course,” Phoenix said. “I can show you the documentation down at the store if you’d like. But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday, since the store is not open on Memorial Day.”
“Ahh. The delay tactic. Nice one.” I said.
Human Jen said, “I will have to contact my supervisor and let him know that I am staying here longer than expected, but, yes, Tuesday would be just fine. I’m sure you understand that I need to get to the bottom of how K-19 escaped, and more importantly, how she wound up being in your care. If one of these breeders that gave the rat to your store was responsible for K-19’s theft, we will want to prosecute them, rather than you. I believe that you did not know that K-19 was stolen property when you bought her. We are willing to overlook your ignorance in this matter. If, however, it turns out that someone else knew, well, surely you would like to know if you are being provided laboratory animals to sell, Mr. McDowell?”
“Yeah,” Phoenix mumbled, “can’t really argue with that logic.”
“Well, then,” Human Jen said, handing me back to Phoenix, “I will be back here on Tuesday. Is 9:00 am good for you?”
Phoenix looked surprised at having me handed back to him. “You aren’t taking her?”
Human Jen said, “Not right now, no. I don’t have a humane place to store her overnight. I have a rather generic cage in my SUV, but it isn’t suitable for her to stay for longer than six or seven hours. I’ll allow you to have one last night with your pet.”
Realizing how cruel that sounded, Human Jen said, “I am sorry that this is happening to you. It’s unfortunate that she must come back with me, but she does.” She even sounded genuine when she was saying that. “If there is anything I can do to help ease the pain of giving her back, just let me know, and I will do what I can.”
Phoenix just shook his head and put me back in my cage. I ran over to the water bottle and took a drink. I could hear Naomi’s car pull up outside as she parked in the driveway and got out of her Beetle.
Human Jen was walking out of Phoenix’s room, with Phoenix’s mother and Phoenix himself following suit. Phoenix turned back to me and said, “I’ll be right back. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
“I know,” I said with what I hoped was more confidence than I felt.
Okay. Ignoring the parts where I was obviously talking to myself making notes, and the other parts that are just... bad, some of this is actually half way decent. The prolouge as it stands now is not right. It started off originally much shorter, and it should be re-shortened. The Human Jen background info can be put in later, and should be. It needs to get right into the story, rather than focusing on the Tests for so long and giving so much info right off the bat. I have mixed feelings on keeping Jen's identity a secret for so long. I mean, there are hints all along that she isn't a human, but would she really not be forthright from the get go? Or is it just a cheap writing trick? The answer might be "yes". The pregnancy story line was sort of interesting, but sadly ended up getting dropped due to the other stuff going on. Plus, I don't think I was writing it very well. But I had planned on it coming into play more later on. Um. The interaction with Human Jen, Phoenix, his mom (heh. I love that we never learn her name, since Rat Jen doesn't know it) and Jen (or K-19) needs a lot of work, although bits of it are good.
And now, I must add the words and make a few more posts and then go celebrate the new year.