Awake by Egan Yip - HTML preview
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he Nexus. Kevin wasn’t sure what a Nexus was. Genesis simply explained that, at least for the rats, it was a meeting place. A meeting place of rats. A place stuffed with lots andlots of rats. If anything, it sounded more disgusting than useful.
Everyone stood over the manhole in the street, looking down into the darkness below. All they could see was the faint image of flowing sewage. A variety of strange odors rose up from the depths, unpleasantly tickling their noses. Only the rat seemed to find pleasure in such nefarious stenches.“Did you find a source of light?” Genesis asked.
Holding up a flashlight, Kevin replied, “Yeah. Found one in the glove compartment.”
Andrew adjusted his glasses. “So you’re sure Genesis and Luna can’t come?”
The rat sat up and put its paws on its hips, acting rather strict. “Absolutely not. They are enemies. Humans are the enemy too. But since you are kids, they will be more lenient.”
Genesis added, “It’s too difficult for us to go up and down ladders anyway.” He paused. “I don’t like this idea of sending you kids alone, but we don’t have a choice. We have to abide by their rules. And the Nexus is the only resource we can turn to right now.”
Kevin took out his cell phone and gave it to Genesis. “Here, you can keep my cell. Andrew’s got the number. We’ll contact you if things get out of hand.”
Genesis nodded, holding the cell phone in his mouth.
The two boys descended down the ladder. The sewer was spacious and there was a place for them to walk.
“Come, come,” said the rat, gesturing with a paw, “this way.”
They headed through the tunnel, watching their step. Kevin waved the flashlight around and was surprised to see that this particular sewer system did have some dim square-shaped lights built along the walls. His flashlight was fairly weak, so it was a welcome surprise.
After they walked for nearly ten minutes, the rat came to a stop, its whiskers twitching. There were no more lights. It was utter darkness. Extending his hand, Kevin shone his flashlight ahead. The light reflected off little glowing dots, which were strewn across the walkway. They were eyes—hundreds of tiny eyes. They had reached a gathering of rodents.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
The gray rat said, “It’s me, Norman. I just brought a couple of kids from the surface.”
A large rat stepped into the light. It was almost a foot long. Kevin supposed it was a guard rat.
The guard said, “Norman, why’d you bring these humans down here?”
“They helped me. To repay the favor, I want to take them to the Nexus. It’ll be quick and I promise they won’t cause trouble.”
“Helped you?” Sounding skeptical, the guard said, “Some of my men have informed me that a rat has been seen in the company of the accursed human pets. Were you forced into this?”
Frightened, Norman replied, “No! The cat had nothing to do with it.”
“So there was a cat?” The large rat snapped, “You should have fought that cat to the death!”
Ashamed, Norman averted his eyes. “But I had no chance…”
The guard rat ordered his fellow rats, “Send Norman down to the cleaning pool! Wash him clean of the beloved filth!” He examined the two boys with a scornful glare. “As for you, humans, get out of here! Scram! We want nothing to do with you!”
“Wait!” A small rat scurried through the furry crowd. “Hold it right there!”
The guard said to the small rat, “What is it?”
The small rat replied, “The queen has commanded these kids be sent to her.”
“T-the queen? Why would she—”
The small rat shrugged. “I know nothing.”
The large rat scowled. “What is she thinking? Fine. Bring them to the queen.”
The sea of rats parted before them, leaving some walking room for them to continue down the tunnel. Norman, however, wouldn’t be joining them. Looking timid and sad, he was dragged away by a couple of black rats.
Andrew asked Kevin, “Should we go?”
Kevin shrugged. “We’re at their mercy.”
The two boys followed the trail given them. Numerous rodents stayed on their guard, watching the boys carefully. Most of these creatures were brown and gray, making it hard to see them. Kevin kept his flashlight pointed to the ground to watch where he was stepping. Andrew avoided eye contact with the rats. The furry creatures seemed to be glaring at them. Even though they made no sounds, he could tell that they resented humans by their harsh stares.
The sewers opened up more as they went in deeper. When they reached a spacious chamber, the rats stopped leaving a way for them to walk across. The rats surrounded them, appearing as a thick blotchy carpet.
All of a sudden the rodents began squeaking, causing a loud commotion. Kevin noticed a small rat setting a lit candle over a podium made from cheap plastic crates. Then a giant white rat crawled up the podium and sat down, its ruby eyes shining by the flame. Its fur was well groomed and shiny.
The white rat said, “Welcome, children. You may call me Queen. I am ruler of Korgen.” Her manner of speaking was very elegant. “My servants have informed me of your coming as well as the purpose of your visit. I know that you have come seeking the Nexus. However, I’m afraid I cannot allow that.”
Kevin said, “Why not?”
“The Nexus is not something for outsiders.”
“But the world is in trouble! The humans can’t wake up! They’ll all die!”
“So? The humans are not our concern.”
Kevin said, “Don’t you need the humans to live? Don’t you eat our garbage?”
“You misunderstand. We will suffer, but we will adapt. Things will change, sure, but it will be for the better. We will look for other food sources. The natural order of things will rebalance, as it always has and always will.”
Kevin bit his lip. “There’s nothing you can do for us?”
“For you there is but one thing. I brought you here to warn you, dear children. Leave the city at once.”
“A great power is coming—one that will seek your life. You will be in grave danger should you choose to stay any longer.” She turned away and hopped off the crate. “Now be on your way and heed my advice. Leave the city and never return.”
“You can’t be serious!” Kevin desperately shouted, “We have nowhere to go! If you don’t help us, no one will. Please! There’s got to be more you can do for us!”
Her red eyes gleaming, the queen said coldly, “Help you? You still don’t understand. We hate humans. The only reason I offer you this warning is because you are still children, still innocent. Save yourselves. Forget the others. The humans brought this upon themselves. It is their problem, not ours.” She went to a crack in the wall big enough for her to squeeze through.
“Wait!” Kevin shouted after her, “What do you mean by that? You’re saying we did this? Whatever’s happening is our fault?” The queen disappeared into the crack. He screamed, “Come back here! I’m talking to you!” His teeth clenched, he groaned in frustration.
Andrew tugged on the back of Kevin’s shirt. “Kevin, let’s just go.” He was getting nervous. He was afraid that Kevin’s outburst might have been an insult to the queen or to the rats around them.
“Yeah,” said Kevin, “this was a waste of time. The Nexus is probably stupid anyway.”
Kevin turned to leave. When he took his first step, he felt something squishy beneath the sole of his foot. He swallowed. Inside, he felt as though his heart sank down into pit of his stomach and stayed there. Full of anxiety, Kevin wondered if he should move his foot.
Worried, Andrew asked, “What’s wrong?”
Kevin whispered, “I think I’m stepping on a rat.”
Andrew didn’t quite hear him. “What? You think you’re—”
“Keep your voice down!” Kevin motioned for Andrew to draw closer. Kevin whispered into Andrew’s ear, “I think I might be stepping on a rat, but I’m not sure.”
Andrew said fearfully, “What should we do?”
Kevin said, “I don’t know. I feel like I’m stepping on a landmine and I don’t know if it’s a dud or not.”
“Then just lift up your foot and kick it out of the way.” “Just like a landmine?”
A tiny voice squeaked, “Help…”
The rats quickly surrounded the boys. “What’s going on here? Where’d that voice come from? Lift up your foot, kid.”
“Too late,” said Andrew.
Kevin lifted his foot up. He winced as he realized he had been stepping on a little white rat. Hundreds of high-pitched gasps echoed around them as the rats shouted in horror.
“It’s the prince! The prince is dead!”
“They killed him! Murderers!”
“They’re assassins sent by the HPC!”
“Seize them! Don’t let them get away!”
Three dreadfully long hours had passed since the two boys first entered the sewers. Kevin and Andrew sat inside a massive broken pipe that had been grated on both ends to keep them from escaping. Their only source of light was a few candles around the walkways, but some of the candles were starting to smolder. They quietly listened to the sound of pitter-patter of water drops and the sloshing of murky sewage against the concrete.
There was an elite squad of guard rats watching over them. Two rats were posted on each side of the short pipe and almost a dozen more were in the vicinity. Using marker caps as helmets, these brown rats marched around in circles, armed with sharp butter knives.
Groggier than ever, Kevin sat up and yawned several times. The effects of the coffee were wearing thin. His clothes could not save him from the cold. He trembled, keeping his arms close to his chest. His eyes wandered wearily across the rats, envying their small fur coats. Smacking his lips, he looked at Andrew, who appeared to be in worse shape. Andrew was lying down, curled in the fetal position.
Kevin asked him, “How are you holding up?”
Andrew looked at him briefly, and then closed his eyes. “I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m also pretty hungry and uncomfortable. That’ll keep me awake, but I might not last long.”
Kevin flicked his wrist and checked his watch. “It’s past noon. I’ve been awake for over thirty-six hours. That’s a first for me.” Kevin glanced at the guards. He could tell that they were starting to get drowsy by the way they rubbed their eyes.
“Make the call,” whispered Kevin. “They might not notice.”
Andrew nodded. He reached into the pockets of his slacks, searching for the phone.
Unfortunately for them, the guards noticed. “Hey, what do you have there?”
Kevin whispered, “We’ve got to let Genesis know we’ve been caught.”
Andrew started the speed dial.
Several guards crawled through a hole in the grate and approached the boys warily, brandishing their butter knives. The leader said, “Hand it over kid and no one gets hurt.”
“Okay,” said Andrew, chucking the cell phone forward. “It’s all yours.”
“A phone?” The guard eyed Andrew. “Who did you just call? Speak!” He jabbed Andrew in the leg with the knife. Andrew yelped.
The guard continued by presenting the tip of his knife. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll prod you even harder! You don’t want that, do you? These knives have been cultured with various strains of deadly bacteria. If it punctures your skin, who knows what you’ll end up with.”
Whoosh. The sound of wind swept across the pipe. The guard shrieked and keeled over.
The guard rats watched as their leader fainted. While most of the rats kept watch, one went to inspect the leader’s body.
“He’s paralyzed. Been shot in the back with a blow dart!”
The rats whirled around, their eyes scanning the area. Then a few rats squeaked in shock and collapsed.
“Over there!” A guard pointed up. “Someone’s up there!”
A long piece of string touched down to the ground, and a black rat came sliding down it. All the brown rats charged at the black rat, wielding their butter knives like lances. The black rat skillfully dodged their attempts to pierce him, jumping over them with incredible nimbleness. As the black rat emerged behind two of the brown rats, it karate-chopped them, knocking out both guards immediately. Another guard attempted to stab the outsider. The black rat easily knocked the head of the knife to the ground, ran up the blunt of the knife, and kicked the guard across the jaw, causing him to reel backwards. The remaining guards turned ghostly white at the sight of this amazingly dangerous black rat.
Motioning, a guard shouted, “Retreat! We need reinforcements! We can’t defeat him alone!” The brown rats all agreed and ran for their lives.
“You’re not getting away that easily,” said the black rat. It pulled out a blowpipe. Aiming for their backs, he shot down all the guard rats with tiny blow darts. Their bodies falling to the ground, the brown rats squeaked and fainted one after the other.
The black rat walked up to the grate and took off the bolts. The metal grate fell with a clang. The rat then bowed toward the boys and said, “Don’t worry. I’m on your side.”
Kevin crawled out of the pipe and dusted himself off. “Thanks.”
Andrew followed him out, but looked skeptically at the black rat. “Why are you helping us?” Andrew wondered. “I thought rats hated humans.”
“I guess you could call me special,” said the black rat.
The rat brought a paw to its head and took off what looked like a black cloth from its face, revealing a white face underneath. It was then that Kevin realized it wasn’t a black rat. It was a white rat wearing small black clothes. Finding it humorous, Kevin chuckled. It was like a cute little ninja rat.
The white rat said, “My name is Helios. The sewers will be hard to navigate from here on out, but I can show you the way to the surface. All I ask is that you allow me to join you on your quest.” He bowed before them.
“We’ll take you up on that offer,” said Kevin, beaming. “Glad to have you, Helios.”