A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

August 18, 2007

32. The Device

"Tomorrow you die," a rat hissed from the darkness, waking Patch from a long and nightmare-laden sleep. "Tomorrow all of you die and we gnaw on the shards of your bones."

"Shut your mouth and go away, filth-eater," Patch muttered, almost without thinking.

"You shut your mouth, squirrel. You are lucky to be in cages, or in the name of the King Beneath, we would kill you now ourselves."

"There is no King Beneath," Patch said, remembering and echoing Karmerruk's words. "The King Beneath is a myth."

Gasps of furious dismay echoed from dozens of rat voices in the darkness around the cages.

"For your blasphemy you should die of the blackblood disease!" a rat said angrily. "You should have your skin torn away while you still live!"

"The King Beneath is as real as your death tomorrow," another said cleverly, to general rat approval.

"How do you know?" Patch asked. "Have you seen him? What does he look like? What does he smell like?"

At first there was no reply, and Patch thought he had won the argument.

Then a rat said reverently, "Lord Snout has seen him."

Patch twitched with surprise. "Snout of the Center Kingdom?"

"There is no Center Kingdom. The Center Kingdom is a myth," the clever rat said. The other rats hooted with applause at her wit. "There is only one Kingdom, the Kingdom Beneath, and its roads and rivers run beneath all of the shell you call the world. Soon our armies will rise from the Kingdom Beneath, and no squirrel will ever speak of the Center Kingdom again, for there will be none left to remember that name!"

The rats cheered. Patch fell silent and began to once again lick his wounded paw, which had healed a little overnight. There was no point arguing with rats. What he had to do was figure out how to escape. It was true that escape seemed impossible. But if he did not find a way, before long he and Zelina would be fed to savage dogs.

A little unnatural light spilled and spread into the room from the ceiling, enough to illuminate the wire mesh of his cage. One end of his cage, the end that pointed away from the wall and towards the killing space and the dogs, was slightly loose, and rattled when Patch pushed against it. This loose wall was also adorned with the small human thing made of metal. Patch pushed harder, but it was clear that force alone would not break the cage. Patch sighed and looked around for other animals. Maybe a bird would come in, a bird strong enough to carry a cage in its claws. It wasn't much of a hope. But it seemed to be all they had.

"We must find a way to open the device," Zelina said.

Patch looked up at her. "What device?"

"The device that holds the cage shut. That metal device." She indicated the little metal thing that perched on the loose wall of her cage as well. It looked just like the one on Patch's, right on the corner between two walls. "There is some way to open it. That's how the humans put us in and take us out."

Patch's paws were just small enough to fit through the cage's wire mesh. The device was like a metal loop from which a small metal bar extended. The bar was connected to one of the pipes that formed the frame of the cage, and the loop encircled part of the wire mesh, preventing the cage from opening. A tiny knob protruded from the bar. Patch prodded the device with his paws, and it moved a little, but would not detach. He sniffed it, but there was only the sharp, pure smell of metal. He didn't understand Zelina's claim that it held his cage shut, but she had lived among humans, and knew their ways.

"You will need to use both paws," said a voice from above.

Patch started with surprise and looked up. A fox's sharp, inquisitive eyes looked back down at him, and at the device on the wall of Patch's cage.

"Use one paw to hold it still," Talis explained, "and with the other paw, hook the little bit that sticks out and pull it away from the rest."

Patch didn't understand. Talis repeated what he had said, and Patch tried very hard to understand, but his brain just couldn't turn into pictures and then motions what Talis had described in words.

"You'll have to do it yourself," Patch said.

"I can't. My paws are too big to fit through the cage. Cat, do you understand?"

"Perhaps," Zelina said doubtfully.

She reached through the bars of her cage and tried to manipulate the device. There was a scraping sound, and a gap suddenly appeared in the metal loop, and Patch stiffened with excitement – but then, with a loud click, the gap vanished.

"That's almost it!" Talis said. "Once it's open, you just have to pull it away from the cage. Do it again!"

Zelina did. She did it at least a dozen times. She repeatedly managed to slide open a gap in the metal loop, but that occupied both her paws, and as soon as she tried to do anything else with the device, it snapped shut.

"It's hopeless," she said, frustrated. "Humans have ten fingers. I have only two forelegs. One holds, one opens, but I would need to grow a third leg to pull it away from the cage. There is no hope."

"Wait," Patch said.

He advanced to the front of his cage, and after several attempts, following the visual example Zelina had just set, he managed to grasp the device's metal loop with one paw, reach the other over the metal protrusion, and pull the protrusion away from the loop, opening up a gap.

"Admirably done, but now what?" Zelina asked. "You too have only two forelegs."

Patch answered by waving his long, proud tail. Then he curled up his body as much as he could, arched his tail over his head, and just barely, shuddering with the strain on his tail muscles, he managed to use the tip of his tail instead of his paw to hold the metal loop in place.

"Excellent!" Talis cried out.

Patch opened the loop with one paw, and reached out with the other – but did not know what to do with it. He could see the device where it was, and he could imagine it where he wanted it to be, outside the cage rather than with a strand of wire mesh caught in its loop, but he could not picture the required motion.

"I don't know what to do with it," Patch wailed.

Talis said, "Close your eyes."

Patch did so.

"Now pull the device back a very little. That's it. Now to the left. A little more. Now push it forward."

Patch lost his grip on the device, and it snapped back shut, and he cried out with dismay as he opened his eyes –

– and his cage door yawned open.

"Oh, Patch, well done!" Zelina cried.

And then, all around him, dozens of voices gasped with surprise, hope, and anticipation. Many of those voices belonged to the animals in the cages. Many more belonged to the surrounding rats.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like how that chapter ended.

August 21, 2007 at 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Steve Tiano said...

Jon, you've really got something going here, building to what I assume will be a crescendo climaxing with ... hey, it's your book. That's enough out of me.

September 2, 2007 at 4:40 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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