Kaleb had completed his morning routine before Deckart arrived at his door. Once waking up, Kaleb noticed his right arm grew in the night. He now had down to his elbow back and new skin was pale green. The skin seemed to stretch across his elbow in a convex patch of skin that itched like crazy. Kaleb equipped his new sword, backpack, Shocky, his headband, communicator, and his rail gun; and waited in his kitchen, drinking coffee.
Deckart knocked on his door at 8:15 am making a notification appear in front of Kaleb as he made his way around the counter.
Your friend Jericho Deckart has requested entrance into your player home.
What followed was a short list of permissions about the various rooms in his house. He could cut off access to any of his rooms, allow full access to everything to his house or anything in between. The list was comprehensive, even allowing him to pick what Deckart to grab from his fridge. Giving Deckart access to everything but his lab, Kaleb opened the door.
Deckart gave a wide smile and moved into Kaleb’s living room. Removing his fedora, which Kaleb noticed was a new addition to the older man’s ensemble, Deckart sat on the grey couch. Kaleb sat across from Deckart in the recliner, turning it to face the other man.
“What can I help you with, detective?” Kaleb asked smiling.
Deckart scratched the back of his head and began. “Y’know I’ve been playing MMO’s for a long time. I’ve been Paladins, Rogues, and many magic-users. I’ve killed goblins, trolls, elves, almost every type of magical creature. So, when this game came along it was a chance at something different, Y’know?” He looked at Kaleb who nodded confused about where the conversation was going.
“So after registering with the HLO and doing a Patrol I asked my Handler, Hildy, for anything I could help with in the area. You know what she gave me?” Deckart asked his eyes smiling. Kaleb shook his head still confused.
Deckart continued “Apparently there were reports of animal attacks in downtown, So I went to investigate. The man who submitted the report was Corey Mekiska, he owns a bar off of 6th street. The animal in question had appeared from the basement of his bar The Rogue Taproom.”
“No!” Kaleb said, realization dawning in his eyes.
Deckart was almost laughing as he nodded. “My first mission, in this brand new Super Hero VRMMO, was to eliminate 12 rats in the basement of a bar.” He was laughing hard by the end of his sentence. He leaned back on Kaleb’s couch and sighed, wiping tears from his eyes.
An annoyed voice emitted from Deckart’s wrist. “You asked, and it was a legitimate call, Jericho.” Deckart looked chagrined as he said “Yes, yes it was, Hildy. It’s just a joke between friends.” Deckart glanced at Kaleb trying hard not to erupt in laughter again.
“So, what? You need help with more rats?” Kaleb asked shaking his head at the old gaming trope.
“No,” Deckart said “After blasting the rats I went to the local precinct to report the mission done and make a few contacts. After explaining about the rats a helpful officer, Joey Fredricks, told me it wasn’t the only report of rats appearing throughout downtown. Several heroes reported completing the same mission as me. They appeared in shopping centers, corporate building’s parking lots, even the Sam Houston Office Building.” Deckart caught Kaleb’s eye and continued seriously “And the size of rats ranged widely. The ones I fought were your typical fantasy size, a small dog, but there was a report of a tiger-sized rat in Republic Square.”
Kaleb’s eyes got wide at the thought. “They coming up through the sewers?” He asked.
Farrah answered. “The HLO thinks so. I found the file while you were talking. Several teams of Supers will head to sites and head down into the sewers.”
Hildy picked up the conversation from there. “But, you two along with a few others will head into the old Austin Subway System.” adding. “Hello, Farrah.”
Farrah gave a friendly “Hello.” but remained mostly quiet as Kaleb sighed loudly.
“Hasn’t the Subway System been defunct and sealed off for a while now? So they are setting the Mundanes aside.” Kaleb asked.
Farrah argued. “That’s not what they are doing.”
Kaleb asked. “Are the teams heading into the subway all Mundanes?”
Silence fell as Kaleb stared at his wrist communicator. Silently daring Farrah to prove him wrong. Deckart had a curious expression glancing between his communicator and Kaleb’s. Eventually Deckart broke the silence.
“Something I should know?” Deckart’s eyes studied Kaleb face waiting for an answer.
Kaleb sighed. “if you are Mundane, then you get stuck with the ‘safe’ jobs. That is until the HLO decides that you can handle the tougher jobs.”
Deckart shrugged. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Some people at HLO are intent on making sure we are never ready for the tougher jobs.” Said Kaleb conveying his anger with the situation.
Farrah sounded annoyed as she said. “Fine, the higher ups had us place the Mundanes in the defunct Subway because it was safer. But we need to search the subway, anyway. Just in case some rats have made their way in to the subway system. And I would think you’d trust my experience enough to tell you when I think you’re ready for the big leagues.”
Kaleb sighed loudly as he glanced at Deckart who was pointedly looking around the room awkwardly. “I trust you, Farrah, I’m just mad at the situation.” Standing he said to Deckart. “Let's get this done. At least they’re paying us.”
Deckart grinned “Work is work, right? Our point of entry into the old subway system is just across the river on Brazos street.”
Hildy sounded a little awkward after Kaleb and Farrah’s conversation saying. “I’ve called you a taxi, it should arrive soon.”
“Thank you, Hildy.” Deckart said as they made their way out of the house. Kaleb locked his door and followed the detective to the curb. As Kaleb stood on the curb, he remembered that he told Roy he would stop by Nova Hardware.
“We need to make a stop at Nova Hardware up the road, first it’s on the way.” Kaleb said.
Deckart nodded. They waited for 3 minutes before an auto-taxi pulled up on the street. Sitting in the passenger seat Kaleb told the automaton at the wheel to head to Nova Hardware. The faceless droid whirred as it tilted its head and beeped confirmation. They pulled away from his house and shot down the street after Deckart settled in the back seat.
Pulling up in front of Nova Hardware, Kaleb saw Roy’s truck out front. Telling both Deckart and the Robot driver he would be right back, Kaleb walked into the hardware store. Hank was at the counter as Kaleb walked in. The store was almost empty, and no one was at the counter so Kaleb moved to talk to Hank.
“Hey Hank, did Roy tell you about my need for scrap?” Kaleb asked.
Hank smiled wide as he wiped down the counter. “Professor! Good to see you. Roy told me that would be by today. Although he didn’t say why, to wrapped up in that sword of his honestly.”
Kaleb tried his best to look apologetic. “Sorry about that, it seemed right to make him one if I was crafting one from myself.”
Hank laughed. “Believe or not, I get it. Hell, even his mom gets it. Though I bet she wishes you had made him a shield or maybe a suit of armor.”
“Ideas for next time.” Grinned Kaleb. “So I was hoping you could send that boy of yours out to collect extra scrap metal and leather. He said you had contracts with the various junkyards.” Kaleb explained.
Hank nodded. “What are you looking for? Just scrap metal?”
“Yeah, my stockpile is getting low.” Kaleb answered as he moved up to the register. As he did a store menu popped up. Finding a selection marked as 'services’ Kaleb tapped it and transferred his remaining credits to the store.
Hank froze as the credits went through. “You didn’t have to give this much, I could probably get you what you need for half as much.”
Kaleb was glad to hear that before he thought deeper about it. Gritting his teeth he said. “Use all of it. And if possible, see if you can find one of those ancient cars.” Kaleb said thinking of all the steel he could get from the older generation of cars.
Hank looked curious before shrugging his shoulders. “Whatever you need Professor, I’ll make calls then send the boy around to pick it up and drop it off.”
“Could you hold the scrap until this evening? I’ve got HLO business this morning, probably won’t be home till tonight.” Kaleb asked.
Hank looked worried. “Anything serious?”
Kaleb tried to hide his disappointment. “No, just a long walk in a dark tunnel.” making his way to the door Kaleb gave a wave adding. “Tell Marie and Roy I said ‘Hi.’ I’ve got to get to work.”
Hank waved back saying. “I will professor. Good luck out there.”
Kaleb entered the taxi and looked back at Deckart who leaned forward and told their driver the street corner where the old subway entrance was. On the drive Kaleb asked. “So what exactly is our job when we are down there, Farrah?”
Silence was his answer. Kaleb looked at his communicator in a mixture of shock and bemusement. He never expected Farrah to be so petty. After close to a minute of silence Hildy was the one who eventually answered his question.
“The two of you are to access the subway from the corner of East Chavez and Brazos. From there you are to walk the track for 6 miles south exiting at the Subway access on Brodie Lane.” Hildy explained.
Kaleb’s could feel his eyes almost bug out of his head. “They want us to walk from downtown Austin all the way to Sunset Valley? That’s a 2 hour walk!”
He heard a light “Humph” from his wrist as Farrah finally spoke up. “Is that too easy for you, Gecko?”
Kaleb just grit his teeth. “Petulant hare.” He said under his breath into his wrist.
Kaleb wasn’t sure, but he was certain he heard a suppressed chuckle coming from his wrist. Turning back to Deckart he asked. “What do you have for weapons?”
Deckart just opened his tan trench coat showing off the large bore energy weapon and saying “I lucked out when I chose Detective. I spawned into my apartment/office and this was sitting on my coffee table. It needs to vent for 15 seconds after ten shots, but it’s done me well so far.”
Kaleb stared at the gun. The first thing he noticed was the lack of an energy crystal or a crystal housing anywhere on the gun. The absence made the gun look more sleek and less bulky than anything Kaleb made. Next he noticed the 10 red rectangles glowing on the barrel. Finally he noted the venting switch along with the vent holes on the back of the gun.
“Farrah?” Kaleb asked.
His Handler seemed to predict his question saying “K-Tech’s Cybar Energy Pistol Mark I. Powered by a proprietary energy battery, Effective in the medium range. Preferred handgun of standard law enforcement. Only downside is that it lacks the punch of the later models.”
“Proprietary battery…” Kaleb said leaning over the seat trying to get a better look at the gun. “Hey Deckart do you think I could -”
“NO!” Farrah yelled, snapping Kaleb out of his haze. “If K-Tech finds out you even TRIED to replicate their battery, they’ll bury you under a pile of lawyers faster than you can blink.” Farrah explained.
Kaleb nodded blankly. “Yeah, I bet they protect any kind of battery technology better than gold.” Kaleb said aloud.
Farrah confirmed his suspicions. “Exactly, with the Elentian’s stranglehold on the crystal market the other tech companies have come up with their own different energy sources. And they protect them zealously.”
Kaleb nodded deep in thought. “Thanks for letting me see that, Deckart. You have given me some ideas.” Kaleb said turning forward and staring out the front window, thinking.
Deckart’s voice came from the back seat. “Sure thing professor, but remember: If you create a death ray, I get a test fire.”
“What kind of contact would I be if you didn’t get you some equipment, right?” Kaleb asked, a wide smile on his face.
“No... now Professor I never said you had to give me anything.” Stuttered Deckart surprised.
Kaleb turned his head to look back at the detective. “But that’s why you got to know the others right?” Deckart just nodded as Kaleb stared at him. “It’s fine Deckart, you’ve got several contacts who can tell you about various jobs. But me I’m the guy you planned to go to for equipment.”
Deckart looked chagrined, scratching his cheek he said. “Your also not a bad guy, and hey, I figured I’d ask later about equipment once we did a few quests together.”
Kaleb nodded. “I’m a crafter, figured players would approach me for stuff, eventually. But next time you get an HLO mission, I’m your FIRST call.”
Deckart laughed “You were my first call honestly. Andrea, Rox and Toni are my information network, Rob and Rick were to be my muscle. But, Rick is off being an idiot and Robert does nothing without his big brother.”
Kaleb said. “I get it, but building stuff takes credits so the more jobs I do the better.” The taxi pulled up to the corner of Brazos and Chavez and slowed to a stop. Deckart and Kaleb got out of the car each spotting the subway entrance halfway down the block.
Kaleb stuck his head back in the car asking. “What do we owe?”
The faceless automaton turned to him as Farrah answered. “You’re on HLO business so the fee is on our tab. Plus, your broke.”
Kaleb shrugged. “I figured Deckart would pay. But that’s good to know.”
Deckart gave a laugh as the both made their way to the subway entrance. A rolling gate locked with a padlock protected the entrance to the stairs leading below the street.
After sharing a look with Deckart Kaleb asked. “Farrah are we breaking this lock and if so will they charge us for the lock?”
Farrah answered. “One second.”
“We tasked an HLO speedster to run to each entrance and unlock them. Once we completed the operation he would run back, lock them and then run the key back to City Hall.” Hildy explained.
Farrah spoke up again. “Ok, so Gary checked in at the downtown HLO at 7 this morning. He reported in to get the key at City Hall at 7:01. After that we haven’t heard from him, But no one else from the first couple subway entry teams have reported locked doors. But, the remaining 4 teams above ground have reported locked gates. So something must have happened at the West Lake Hills entrance. It was the one before this one.”
“So are we breaking this or not?” Deckart asked.
“Break it. But be on your guard down there.” Hildy said.
Nodding Kaleb and Deckart backed away from the door as Deckart drew his blaster. He put a shot through the gate lock and then they both pulled the gate to the side. As they stared down the dark staircase Kaleb swore loudly.
“Damn it!” Kaleb said. Drawing Deckart’s attention who just looked at him questioningly. “I forgot a flashlight, I don’t look forward to getting my ass kicked in the dark again.”
Deckart smiled while reaching into his coat and saying. “There’s a story there, Professor.” He pulled out two Maglites from an inside pocket and passed one to Kaleb. “You must share it with me later.”
Turning on their lights, the pair made their way down the dark staircase. They carefully avoided the various pieces of trash littering the stairs and came to the subway landing. It surprised them to find a small community of cardboard boxes and huts made from plastic sheeting.
“It’s a homeless town.” Deckart said.
Kaleb asked. “But where is everybody? There’s 15 huts here but not a single person.”
They searched the entire platform, proving Kaleb correct. The entire community had disappeared without a trace.
“Rats?” Kaleb asked.
Deckart shook his head as Farrah answered, “There would be signs of a struggle, maybe even blood.”
Kaleb nodded looking down the subway tunnel. “South is this way, do we keep going or stay and investigate?”
“I have documented the situation. Keep an eye out, but your priority is the Rat investigation.” Hildy said from Deckart’s wrist.
Deckart shrugged his shoulder at Kaleb saying. “You heard the lady.” Before jumping down to the subway tracks and making his way down the tunnel followed by Kaleb.
The tunnel was large and surprisingly clean as they made their way further along. They talked occasionally to keep their boredom at bay. Now and then they would come across an emergency exit door which one of them would try to open. So far all the side exits had been locked tight. They continued on until they got to a junction after 45 minutes of walking.
“Which way?” Kaleb asked as he looked down the 2 subway tunnels.
Farrah answered. “Left.”
“What is the other way then?” Deckart asked.
“That leads to the Rollingwood and West Lake Hills stops.” Hildy answered.
“HILDY!” Farrah admonished.
“What?!” Hildy asked surprised.
Kaleb answered Hildy. “She was purposefully keeping that from me. So I wouldn’t go down that tunnel and try to find out what happened in West Lake Hills.”
“That’s where the speedster went missing.” Deckart said realization in his voice.
“That is unconfirmed, besides your mission is to explore THIS tunnel. Any deviation means a cut in pay.” Farrah said sounding triumphant.
Kaleb felt torn. He needed money, But the second tunnel probably had a legitimate threat. While their current tunnel was just busy work assigned to keep them out of the way. He stood staring down the tunnels, not able to decide what to do.
It was Deckart who spoke up next. “Will they cut our pay if we investigate? I mean we can still do our job but there’s something fishy here. Isn’t it a disservice if we don’t look into it?”
Kaleb nodded excitedly. “Yeah, the higher-ups would rather us not be the ones to look into it. But, we are here. How about we submit a request to look into it? Do they have a legitimate reason to say no?”
Farrah and Hildy got quiet for a short while. Kaleb looked quizzically at Deckart who just shrugged his shoulders. Eventually Farrah spoke up. “They have accepted the request. You were right, they didn’t have a reason to stop you.”
Hildy added. “Well they probably did, just not one they wanted recorded on an open network.”
“And how did they know they were being recorded, Farrah?” Kaleb asked.
“HLO guidelines require all Handlers to record everything while their Super is in the field.” Farrah said.
Deckart and Kaleb started down the West Lake tunnel as Kaleb said. “This mean you trust me, Farrah?”
Farrah gave a cough through the communicator saying. “I trust you, professor, I would rather you not take any unnecessary risk though.”
“Unnecessary risks are the job, Ma’am.” Deckart said which made Hildy laugh.
“Please, call me Farrah. For someone older than me to call me ma’am just feels weird.” Farrah said.
That made Kaleb laugh. Looking at Deckart he said. “I think she just called you an old man, detective.”
Deckart just grunted and swept his flashlight across the tunnel. Walking down the tunnel they continued to check every emergency exit. Like the previous tunnel all the doors had been sealed, and the city had removed all the emergency phones. They made it to the Rollingwood station without incident after an hour of walking. However, once they got there, they found something strange.
“What the hell is this doing here?” Kaleb asked. He stared at the large subway car sitting at the Rollingwood station in both surprise and excitement.
Deckart said. “I don’t know. But if I had to guess I’d say it has something to do with our missing speedster.”
As they approached the subway car, Kaleb and Deckart realized the thing was active. The lights inside were on and the car seemed to hum with electricity. But, the track seemed dead, and the platform didn’t have power either. Kaleb and Deckart were in touching distance of the car when they heard a loud clattering come from inside.
Kaleb caught Deckart’s eye and nodded at the back door to the subway car. Then he pointed to himself then the side door of the car up near the platform. Deckart nodded his understanding and moved into position as Kaleb lifted himself onto the platform and carefully moved to the side door. Kaleb slowly drew his sword and looked back at Deckart. Deckart held up 3 fingers and counted down.
As Deckart dropped his last finger Kaleb charged into the car. His eyes had just swept through half the car when something large and furry brushed past him. He barely caught sight of a large tail as Deckart gave a shout from the back of the car.
“Deckart!” Kaleb shouted running after the creature.
Kaleb arrived at the back door and looked down on the track. Deckart was picking himself up from the tunnel floor, staring wide-eyed down the tunnel.
“What happened?” Kaleb asked.
Deckart snapped his head at Kaleb still wide-eyed before swallowing loudly and saying. “It was a giant rat! Damn thing was the size of a tiger. Took off down the tunnel” He pointed back the way they came.
Kaleb was skeptical asking “Are you sure.”
Deckart looked indignant before Farrah answered. “Professor, I slowed down your recorder footage. Judging from the fur and tail, I’d agree with Detective Deckart.”
Deckart gave Kaleb a smug look before looking back down the tunnel. “But where was the damn thing going?”
Kaleb shrugged his shoulders. “It was a rat, probably got scared and just ran on instinct.”
Deckart looked incredulous. “It was the size of a couch! What makes you think it is anything like a normal rat?”
Kaleb smiled down at Deckart and said. “Hope?”
Kaleb’s smiled disappeared as a scrambling sound echo from the tunnel. He and Deckart shared a look before turning their flashlights back down the tunnel. Kaleb heard Deckart sigh in relief when the tunnel appeared empty. But, then they caught sight of several small rats scrambling across the tunnel floor.
At first it was five or six regular sized rats. Shortly thereafter the dog-sized ones appeared. And then larger ones and then even larger ones. Until the tunnel echoed with the sounds of their claws on the stone floor and their chittering. Soon a veritable wave of different-sized rats were making their way slowly toward Kaleb and Deckart.
“You should get in the Train.” Kaleb said eyes wide at the rat wave heading toward them.
“Yeah.” Deckart said already half-way into the train and pointing his gun at the wave of rats. “We should get this thing moving.”
Kaleb nodded making his way to the front of the car as Deckart fired a shot down the tunnel. The energy bolt hit the wave scorching several rats. Which seemed like a bad idea, the tunnel fell silent for several beats before a high-pitched screech roared from behind the wave. Kaleb and Deckart grasped their heads as the sound echo throughout the tunnel.
After the screech ended the hoard of rats picked up speed down the tunnel. Where they had been moving aimlessly toward the train before, the rats now charged straight at the train.
“Well, shit.” Deckart said as he fired down the tunnel.
Kaleb turned away from the oncoming hoard and tried to ignore the renewed chittering of the rats as he made it to the driver door. Deckart moved back toward him as Kaleb studied a security keypad installed in the door. The keypad looked newly installed and Kaleb couldn’t find any screws or anyway to pry it off.
“I need to get into this panel.” Kaleb shouted over the echoing sound of the rats.
Deckart put a shot into the keypad then turned back to the hoard firing at anything that tried to make its way through the door.
“I’ve only got three shots before this thing needs to vent.” Deckart said.
Kaleb traced several wires with his eyes and robotic fingers as he said. “Left coat pocket.”
Kaleb felt Deckart’s hand reach into his lab coat then Deckart’s curious voice. “What the hell? Is this a rail pistol?”
Kaleb yanked out several wires as Deckart continued firing. “Good name. It’s my first attempt. Will that help.”
There was a warm blast of air as Deckart vented his pistol saying. “Oh yeah, this will work. But, they are getting in. It’s just a matter of when.”
“We’ll be gone by then.” Kaleb said pulling another wire. The cab door gave a hiss then slid open. “Ha! I did- Oh god.”
Kaleb gave a retch as he moved into the driver’s cab and almost ran into a half-eaten corpse. He felt Deckart collide with his back before he heard Farrah say. “Oh, Gary.”
Kaleb shook himself, Moving into the cab, shoving Gary’s corpse away and staring at the controls. Someone had jury-rigged controls into the automated system. Kaleb experimentally pressed a few buttons, trying to watch what everything did.
Deckart angrily yelled from behind him. “They are in the train! Get us out of here!”
Kaleb yelled back. “All right, hold on.” saying a silent prayer to the gaming gods Kaleb slammed the throttle forward. The train car shook as two large prongs folded out from above the cab and attached to the tracks below. There was a loud hum as the track seemed to sizzle and became red hot. As Kaleb stared down at the device, he heard an electrical snap, then he was thrown backward as the train rocketed forward.
Kaleb heard several rats scrabbling in the train as he turned to look at the situation. Deckart was dual wielding both his own and Kaleb’s pistol as he stood on a seat and fired at the small rats. Toward the back of the car were a few of the dog-sized ones. Kaleb could also make out a large rat claw grasped around the open door and the silhouette of the tiger-sized rat against the back window. It was holding on to the back of the train and trying to get in.
Pointing toward the back with his sword Kaleb asked. “Aren’t they more pressing than the smaller ones?”
Deckart nodded still firing at the smaller rats. “Probably but they aren’t moving. They are letting the smaller ones soften me up. I think they’ve been waiting for me to run out of ammo.”
Kaleb nodded before charging toward the back of the car. “You handle the little ones then, I don’t want to see that big one get inside.”
Kaleb didn’t see Deckart’s response, but he stopped hearing gunfire as he charged through the wave of smaller rats. Kaleb slashed down with his sword clipping a few rats as he moved forward. One of the larger rats noticed his charge and leapt to meet him. Kaleb thrust his sword forward lodging it into the chest of the large rodent.
The rat scratched against Kaleb’s robotic arm as it slowly bled out. Its feet twitched in its death throes before Kaleb used his own foot to kick it off his sword. He was just in time as a second large rat dove for his legs. Kaleb jumped onto a nearby seat letting the rat sail past; Stabbing downward he felt his sword pierce the rat’s skull before tearing through the train floor. Kaleb hopped down off the seat and moved toward the back of the car.
There was a loud banging sound as the Tiger-rat was swinging its body trying to get a foothold inside the train. Kaleb made to slice the creature’s fingers off before something crashed into his left side slamming him into the side of the car. Another of the Dog-rats had launched itself at him and was trying to scratch through his metal arm.
Kaleb lifted his arm, raising the right with it and kicked. His foot caught the rats stomach sending it sailing to the other side of the train. They both scrambled to their feet, and the rat charged and leaped as Kaleb aimed low and thrust. The sword caught the rat under the neck and pierced through its body. Kaleb quickly kicked the rat off his sword and turned just in time to see the Tiger-rat swing its bottom feet and gain purchase in the train car.
The huge rat pulled its bulk forward into the car. Standing on two legs the rat was a foot taller the Kaleb. The fur on its head brushed the roof of the train car. Kaleb could still hear Deckart firing at small rats. So Kaleb grit his teeth and charged aiming a thrust at where he thought a rat’s heart would be. The rat lazily shifted its body away from the sword strike before snapping forward faster than Kaleb could see and grabbing Him around the neck.
Kaleb felt the rat’s claws dig into the skin around his neck. He drew his arm back and stabbed forward again, catching the rat in the gut. The rat seemed unaffected as it lifted him up and shook him violently. Then the rat really surprised him.
“Master… say… you… DIE!” The rat’s noxious breath hit Kaleb square in the face as it spoke haltingly.
Kaleb eyes bulged, both in surprise and from the smell as he felt the rat’s claws dig deeper into his neck. Releasing his sword Kaleb drew back his fist and swung a left hook into the rats bulbous eye. The rat gave a roar as it let go of Kaleb and thrashed around.
Kaleb chanced a grab at his sword, wrenching it free as Deckart yelled behind him. “Down!”
Kaleb hit the floor as the sound of ball bearings and raw energy whizzed over his head. The rat continued to roar above him as Deckart unloaded both guns into the rat. The sound of gunfire died down and Kaleb heard Deckart’s pistol venting.
“He’s still up!” Deckart screamed in warning and in surprise.
Unbelieving Kaleb looked up to see the rat recoiling with pain and screeching. It bled from several small holes and was burnt in places but it was still alive. Kaleb jumped to his feet bring his sword in a large arc cutting the rat from its stomach to its chest. The rat screamed louder and swung wildly catching Kaleb in the face with a clawed hand.
Kaleb felt the claws open his flesh as he ducked another wildly haymaker. They had wounded the rat, and it was angry, attacking on instinct. Kaleb’s dodge seemed to draw its attention, and it reared back opening its mouth wide. The rat chomped its fangs at Kaleb face. Kaleb fell to his knees and stabbed upward sending his blade into the rats lower jaw.
The rat jerked up wildly trying to escape the pain as Deckart opened fire with both guns again. The rat rocked backwards in front of the door. Kaleb seeing the opportunity dropped his sword and shoulder charged the rat, staining his metal arm in the rat‘s blood. The rats strength gave way as its back feet left the train and the speed swept him from the train.
Kaleb looked at Deckart breathing hard and sitting down. Deckart gave Kaleb wild grin and nodded as he exhaled loudly. “Well, that was exciting.” Deckart said.
“Yeah tell me about it. Any idea where those things came from Farrah?” Kaleb asked.
Kaleb listened intently for a response over the sound of the train, but none came. Kaleb looked up at Deckart, who raised his eyebrow and spoke into his own communicator. “Hildy, you there?”
No answer came. Kaleb was getting worried before there was sudden static from his wrist.
“Prof…” “… get…” “… rats…” “… Ref…” “… run.”
Farrah’s voice came in broken up and distorted. They could barely make out what she was saying. Looking at Deckart from his spot on the floor Kaleb said. “When we get to West Lake Hills, We’ll get above ground and figure out what’s going on. Agreed?”
Deckart sat in his own seat and said. “Agreed.”
The train moved quickly through the tunnel. They had been riding for 30 minutes before Kaleb felt it slow down. Deckart got up from his seat as Kaleb did the same and they moved to the train doors. Once the train stopped at the platform, the doors opened into pitch blackness. Before either could react large rat claws reached in from the dark platform and grabbed them. Kaleb struggled against the large hands that had grabbed him and he could hear Deckart doing the same when a quiet voice said.
“Please, don’t struggle. I get so little company. I would hate for me friends to rip apart my new guests.”
The voice sounded young and tired. As Kaleb searched the dark for where the voice came from he heard someone flip a switch. The sudden light filled his vision temporarily blinding him. When it dissipated, he saw that both he and Deckart were being held by four Tiger-rats. Rats filled the platform hanging from wall fixtures and crawling along the floor and walls. There was a large hole in the back wall where even more rats spilled onto the platform.
Kaleb searched for the voice again. He found him hidden in the shadows, moving forward slowly. It was a slim, pale man who seemed to glide forward as he approached. Looking down Kaleb realized the man was standing, barefoot, on the backs of rats as they carried him. More rats seemed to fall off the man as he shifted and moved on his rat carpet. The man gave them a child-like smile.
“I’m so glad to have guest down here. I haven’t had a guest in a few days. The last one was a few days ago, smelly boy. He was nice enough, but he took some of our friends. Took our friends and ran away.” The man looked sad as he explained. Kaleb couldn’t place his age he looked and sounded in his late teens, but his composure and bearing was of someone much older.
“Who are you?” Deckart asked. Either he was calm, or he was faking calm. Either way Kaleb couldn’t tell.
The younger man gave a wide smile, showing yellow, pointed teeth. “Forgive me. It’s been so long I’ve forgotten simple niceties. I am Dr. Rafelos Kane, though I believe your organization has named me ‘The Rat King’ a rather presumptuous title. But the HLO has always enjoyed its theatrics.” The man gave a roll of his eyes and a sad sigh as he looked between them.
“I am a geneticist, engaged in the study of the mutant genome. I’ve been trying to discover why we have the powers we do.” Kane continued.
“We?” asked Kaleb.
Kane looked happy to talk. “Oh yes, I was giving the gift to change the genetic structure of Rattus Norvegicus, the Brown Rat. Quite a strange ability, no?” Kane laughed. As he did the rats all around chittered along as if they were laughing too.
“Not cool enough for you?” Deckart asked.
Kane’s face turned severe and the surrounding rats became silent. “It is an amazing ability. My studies into disease and human genetics has progressed by leaps and bounds. Even if I was forced to conduct my experiments in this less than stellar environment.” He turned his gaze back to Kaleb and his face became soft again.
“And in all my years, I have not studied a Basilinoid before. Your species are not as adventurous as others. I will relish this chance.” Kane said approaching Kaleb and studying his regrowing arm. His feet padded softly on the stone platform as stepped off his pet rats. Reaching into his jacket pocket Kane pulled out an auto-syringe.
“Now this will hurt.” Kane said as he plunged the syringe into Kaleb’s arm, right where the skin was regrowing.
“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Kaleb had played VRMMO’s before, but he didn’t remember it hurting this much.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Deckart screamed as Kaleb shuddered and gave a sobbing breath.
Kane smiled at Deckart waving the auto-syringe. “Just a small genetic sample. If my rats could grow back missing limbs then my collection of other genetic material will increase. My friends here have a tendency to eat most material before bringing it to me.”
The large rats drug Kaleb and Deckart toward the large hole in the back wall. As they approached Deckart asked. “Well, you got your sample now what, are you gonna do with us?”
Kane looked sad. “This is only a small sample, sadly I’ll need much more before my test are through.” Glancing at Deckart he added. “I don’t know what function you will serve. You appear to be human. I’ll run the standard test for mutation affinity and then, depending on the results, well move you to either the lab, or the food dispensary.”
Kaleb tried to rush Kane, but he barely made it up to his knees before one of the Tiger-rats bit down on his shoulder. The bite sent another lance of pain through Kaleb. Kane looked annoyed at the large rat.
“No! He is not food!” he looked like a man chastising a dog more than a man yelling a giant rat. Turning to Kaleb he apologized. “I am so sorry, my limited ability with telepathy is a recent evolution. I don’t think my friends are used to it yet.”
He faced the platform full of rats and spoke loudly to the room, like he was speaking to a kindergarten class. “Please escort them down to the medical wing for now will you?”
All sizes of rats charged forward pushing Kaleb and Deckart through the large hole. The wave of rats picked them up and carried them down. Kaleb could feel the rat’s claws cling to him as they twisted and moved him. It was pitch black; he tried to struggle but several rats would bite or claw at him till he stopped.
After several minutes he found purchase against a rocky wall. Gripping tightly he felt the tiny teeth of rats bite into his skin and pull him. They continued in a short tug of war until a vicious bite made Kaleb scream. One of the smaller rats jammed itself into Kaleb‘s mouth and his arm let go of the wall in surprise.
The swarm grabbed Kaleb again, this time with a rat determined to claw its way into his throat. The rat seemed intent on suffocating him. He felt his himself hyperventilate as his body grew sluggish. Just as he felt his vision fade he bit down hard on the rat, passing out as he spit out its torn remains.