art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson
Servant Leader and Rat
by Steven Mathes
If this biographical blurb could be fiction, Steven Mathes would be something other than a bald, middle-aged high school math teacher.
The rat's quantum bubble popped into reality over by its dish. The rat scuttled out to its special food mix: gerbil food, caviar, and cheese. It always wanted the caviar a little rancid.
Robby turned away from the arguing customer, some man who wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
"You did the impossible," Robby said to the rat.
He opened and poured some of its favorite double ale.
"Thanks," the rat said. "Leave the bottle."
Robby turned back to the argument. The customer, a man named Lance, saw the rat only in terms of his own problem.
"See?" he said. "If you can engineer an illegal rat, you have to be able to engineer a decent, legal cupcake printer. Just don't make me feel full and sluggish."
Robby could not afford trouble, especially not a witness. The miracle of the rat returning in a quantum bubble would never be lost on Lance. The illegality of an intelligent rat gave Lance leverage.
Robby slid a cake printer across the table. This new one would print a cupcake with enzymes to make the consumer feel more and more hungry, possibly setting off an uncontrolled binge.
What if Lance were to have his cake and eat it when he was too far from medical help? But then again--there was nowhere on Earth that was too far from medical help. Sadly.
"Try this," Robby said. "Don't worry about paying me until I get it right."
Lance scurried out of the shop and disappeared in the mall, grinning the grin of a compulsive, ruthless shopper, clutching his trophy.
Robby went to his knees in front of the rat, his historic rat.
"What was it like?" he asked. "What are other realities like?"
"I got hungry."
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Rat thinking: Robby struggled to find common ground--interests and thoughts that both rats and humans shared.
"Toys? Did you find any shiny toys? A ruby? Something for your collection?"
"Yes!" said the rat, and it looked up at him, its whiskers speckled with beer. "But I need more. Always more."
Its eyes went bright with inspiration. It dragged a box over to its quantum bubble. It muttered to itself, calling out inventory as it moved the contents of the box into the bubble:
"Bouncy ball, silver earring, mouse trap, spoon, quartz crystal, heavy brass washer...."
Rat priorities: the rat proved that it understood how to get back to its rancid caviar and beer. It navigated the quantum bubble when humans could not.
He had designed the rat's genome and printed it into a zygote, in secret, as a purely intellectual exercise. He had never planned on actually implanting the egg in a female rat until his fiancée, Mary, decided they needed "time apart to recharge." He had made lots of bad choices after Mary left.
Super-intelligent rats were as illegal as quantum bubbles were legal, as illegal as super-intelligent vipers, wolves, and grizzly bears. Technically, building a smart rat carried the same penalties as dealing weapons.
At least the rat proved to be a successful design--uniquely suited to intellectual enhancement. Robby kept it to watch it grow to maturity, learn to talk, learn to read, learn to teach itself. He kept it until he caught it doing an online course on tensors and Hilbert spaces.
The quantum bubble journey was actually the rat's idea. The rat had its inscrutable reasons, much the way normal rats need to gnaw through walls, or scuttle through sewers. Robby always assumed the bubble would dispose of the illegal animal the way bubbles disposed of human criminals.
By now the rat had finished loading its toys. It looked at Robby, and nodded a drunken goodbye. It made a tiny, wet sputter of a rat burp. It scuttled into its bubble--and vanished.
Robby glanced up at one of the surveillance cameras in his shop and shrugged sheepishly.
He filled the rat's dish with extra feed, and set out the last bottle of its favorite IPA. Call it a last act of friendship, since he was certain the rat could fend for itself.
Just then the back door to his shop opened. Mary his ex-fiancée came in, acting like she still belonged. She went to the back closet, rummaged around, and took out Robby's tennis racquet.
"Can I borrow this?" she said. "Please?"
She pulled out more and more stuff. Soon she had a scatter of Robby's things next to her on the floor, some of it illegal printouts, some if it in danger of breaking if she wasn't more careful.
"Don't you have a fresh set of balls?"
"You took those last time you borrowed the racquet. I can print more if you want to wait a minute," he said sadly.
"You're such a doll," she said.
He had a special icon for printing a can of tennis balls, although he never played much anymore. The printer went to work.
"What's that rancid smell?" she asked.
"Pet food. What are you doing here? You broke up with me!"
"I grew a smart rat. It can talk. I could get bubbled for breeding it."
"Don't be silly," she said. "People do talking exotics all the time. It's like smoking pot used to be."
She had no idea. The small, fecund, resilient, adaptable, implacable rat--the species that could gnaw through lead pipe, take a fall from four stories, survive most poisons. The one that could take extreme doses of nuclear radiation--and apparently now could navigate a quantum bubble between unsurvivable realities.
Robby's rat: it had no name. It wanted to be called "the rat," and thought names were stupid.
"Anyway, it's gone," he said.
"Then what's in the dish?"
He turned and stepped out of his shop, and noticed that he held the bottle of beer. As he walked he stretched to loosen his shoulders. He thought about what he had done with the rat, and put that reality against the capabilities of Servant Leader's surveillance.
He stepped into Tara's place, just on impulse. She wore goggles serving the dual purpose of data display and eye protection. She flipped them up and gave him a skeptical look, showing off the fangs that served as her teeth. She had bio-diodes in her eyes that lit up. He picked up a small ballpeen hammer, and made a motion as if to whack the implant behind his ear. She specialized in data. She was almost more than a friend.
"I need a new cell," he said.
She grinned, took out an instrument that looked like a cross between a syringe and a voltage meter. She moved her fingers along the lump behind his ear, and pulled a trigger.
"You'll need an anonymous prepaid."
She already had an extractor ready. He felt the quick jab of pain as she pulled the old phone out, and he took the clotting pad she handed him. He held the pad to his head while she copied his data to the prepaid.
"Ok," she said. "Tilt your head."
This time the jab hurt a lot more, and the throbbing afterward lingered in spite of the phone's built-in anesthetic. She pasted the incision over with synthflesh. She threw his old phone into the shredder.
"I already took my payment from your old phone," she said. "Quite a bit, in fact."
He liked Tara. He put the bottle of IPA on the bench. A little gift.
"Thank you," he said. "Really."
She turned him toward the door, slapped his ass firmly.
"Out," she said. "Come back when you've finally gotten over what's-her-name."
He put a hand over the pleasantly warm spot where he had been smacked, and walked with his head down. He ran into the back of his mother as she stood in his door. His mother yelped, and interrupted her chat with Mary.
"We were just talking about you!" his mother said. "I'm so glad you're back together!"
"We are?" he said.
He went to his bench, his refuge. Just as he let out his breath to collect himself, the rat's bubble popped back. The hatch flipped down, the rat came out. Robby noticed that a human could almost squeeze into that bubble.
"I can't get my beer to come out any good," the rat complained.
"You're not trying to print beer, are you?"
"Is that bad?"
"Something about the nozzles," Robby said. "They screw up the taste. Craft beer has to be made by hand."
The rat hung its head. Could it feel embarrassment? Robby felt a flush of empathy, noting that he had a lot more affection for it than he did for Mary. He glanced at Mary and his mother. He stalled, wondering what to do. He still had a brewing kit from when he went through his beer making stage, but where would the rat brew in all those hostile alternate realities? He stalled long enough that Tara popped in carrying the bottle of IPA. The rat perked right up.
"I don't drink--" Tara said, and then looked right at the rat. "Oh my!"
He prayed the rat would keep its mouth shut, so of course the rat scuttled down the leg of the bench to Tara's feet.
"Would you open it?" it said. "Gnawing through the cap leaves a taste."
She did not drop the beer, she put it on the bench. Although it fell to its side. The rat clambered back up, rolled it to Robby.
"Open it?" it asked. "Please?"
"Let it settle for a minute," Robby said.
"It's so cute!" Robby's mother said. "And polite!"
"It likes to party?" Mary said. "Seriously? You could actually make some serious bank selling those."
Only Tara understood the law:
"I'd say you're in shit up to your neck."
"More like over my head," Robby said.
"Now?" said the rat. "Has it settled?"
Robby opened the churned beer slowly over a dish, and let the foam spew. Then he poured.
"Knock yourself out," he said.
"No," said the rat. "I'd never pass out from just one."
The rat dipped its snout and slurped. Robby thought about having all the innocent bystanders leave, at least while there was living evidence of a crime. Too late.
Too late. He saw the first Servant Leader drone appear at his door.
"Please remain calm and silent," said the drone. "Failure to do so may result in injury or death."
A second drone popped the security knob off the back door. The knob bounced and rolled. The door swung. The drone slipped in.
A pair of human Servant Leader Counselors, muttering importantly into their communicators, filed into the room and began moving along the walls. The second one put crime scene tape across the main door.
"Please stand still," the original drone said.
Robby glanced over by the rat's dish just fast enough to see the rat--or at least the quantum bubble that it was inside--vanish. The beer still sloshed, abandoned.
"Smart rat," he muttered.
"Please be silent!" the drone ordered.
"Or what?" he said. "You'll kill us? Stuff us into a bubble with no trial?"
To its credit, the drone let him finish his outburst before stunning him. He felt his legs give out before he realized how much it hurt. Tara's not really surprised face swung by his spinning field of vision as he fell. He landed on an arm the wrong way, but mostly he needed to deal with the spinning in his head. It got worse when he closed his eyes, so he kept them open.
He tried to tell the Counselors that Mary and his mother were innocent. It came out as gurgles. They loaded him onto a stretcher, and he gurgled some more.
"Please be silent," the drone told him.
He gurgled to tell the drone where to stick its silence. One of the Counselors stepped into his field of vision and squatted down to face him.
"Please," the woman said. "Now we have to put you in restraints."
He heard Tara curse, and saw her foot make contact with the Counselor's posterior. The Counselor fell out of view. His mother and Mary both yelped. All three fell.
"It's always easier this way, anyway," a male Counselor said.
More stretchers rolled in. Everyone was loaded, rolled out, and taken straight to the docks. By the time they were rolling into one of the bubbles, he could talk again. He did not. His neck still tingled, his nerves were raw, and his courage weakened.
He could tell the drones were gone as soon as Tara started cursing. Sometime after she ran out of things to say, a Magistrate clothed in flowing red robes came in.
"You may sit up to listen," she said in a bored voice.
Robby tried to sit up, but found himself still strapped tight. Even his head was clamped straight ahead, although he could move his eyeballs. Electric motors whirred, and his stretcher elevated into a chair. He saw the other stretchers arranged in a semi-circle, all facing the woman in the red robe.
"I don't have a lot of time," she said.
"What? Are all of us guilty of something?" said Mary.
"Yes," said the magistrate.
"I'm not!" said Robby's mother.
"Of course you are, dear," the Magistrate said. "And please don't argue."
As she spoke, a drone floated in. It aimed its stunner at Robby's mother, ready to deal with any back talk.
The Magistrate turned and gestured toward the hatch. A clerk came in rolling a small stand covered with a white cloth. The cloth was pulled aside to reveal a dead rat. Robby would always recognize the rat he designed, even in its current state of rigor mortis. They had taken the trouble to brace it so that it was upside down, its legs sticking up. Its tongue stuck out, and flopped over one eye.
The clerk hurried out.
"This is a joke?" Robby said, flinching, ready to be stunned.
"The rat requested it," said the Magistrate. "It was the real victim here, so we honored its wish."
"I don't see the controls to this bubble."
"No. There aren't any," the magistrate said.
"And we stay strapped in?"
The magistrate turned and walked out of the hatch, followed by the drone.
"Not much point in releasing you, is there?" she called back.
The hatch closed with a hiss. Without the slightest delay, something hummed, then snapped, and they were weightless. Sentenced and executed, just like that. But still able to talk about it.
"I didn't do anything!" his mother said. "What did I do?"
"You did nothing," said Mary. "Some of us did nothing."
Whether by design or by accident, they had arranged everyone so that Robby and Tara could see each other best, and he could see her rolling her eyes at the conversation. They could still breathe, and their stretchers stayed attached to what had been the floor. The light still worked.
"Robert!" Mary said loudly. "Are you even listening?"
He turned his eyeballs to her. He could just barely see her eyes rolled toward him.
"No, I am not," he said.
He waited, waited until her expression registered understanding without going all the way into another request.
"So please. Shut the hell up," he added.
"Robert!" said his mother.
"Especially you," he answered. "If you want to get out of this alive, just talk to Mary. Do not interrupt. Do not speak to me, and do not speak to Tara."
He had no actual plan, but the idea of nobody talking sounded good.
"Really!" Mary declared. "How could we be on speaking terms after you talk to us like that?"
"Back it up, then, by being quiet."
He waited until he was sure they were both pouting, and then looked at Tara.
"Got a plan?" he asked her.
"Just shut up."
"I was afraid of that," he said.
"And incidentally?" Tara added. "Your mother and what's-her-name are right. You got us into this."
"Yes. I did," he admitted.
He heard the chorus of recriminations flare up from his mother and Mary. ("Robby, are you listening?") They began to shout, then argue, and the longer he ignored them, the louder they got. ("My son a terrorist?") He could pull his head down in the clamps and it closed his ears. That made it better, but only a little. It sounded like the noise at a big party; he knew everyone was talking, but could not hear all the individual words.
His shackles held him comfortably but firmly.
They shouted his name. The alarm in their voices made him clear his ears. He heard a familiar scratch of tiny feet by his left one. He heard gnawing, splintering plastic.
"Robby, there's a rat in here."
"Do they ever stop talking?" the rat whispered.
Robby could see the corpse of the rat over on its tray.
"How can you be alive and dead at the same time?" Robby asked.
"I quantum-paired," the rat said.
A shard from the plastic control box floated by. The stretcher vibrated, and the padded shackles popped open. He lifted his head, and the momentum of it floated him. He reached back to keep himself from drifting away, but all that did was spin him.
The rat launched itself to Robby's forearm. Its claws dug into the sleeve of his shirt.
"I need more help with my beer," it said.
"Uh. Sure," Robby said. "Uh, you can't get us some gravity, can you?"
The rat gestured toward a corner of the room that Robby could not see.
"Get ready to fall," it said.
Robby tried to twist himself into line with the stretcher. He made things worse.
"Ready," he said. "It's okay."
It was not, really. He fell onto an edge of the stretcher. It flipped. He struck the hard floor with his hip and the same elbow he had damaged earlier. The stretcher landed on top of him. It took him a few seconds to untangle himself.
"I'm okay, I think," he announced.
He could hear Tara giggling. The rat still clung to his arm, although its claws may have torn his sleeve. It gestured again at someone or thing in the distance. Robby could look now. Another rat stood holding a control device, while a third scampered in and out of a quantum bubble. So it was possible to land a small bubble inside a big one?
"How many of you are there?" asked Robby.
"In here? Five, counting the dead me."
"How many everywhere?"
"Your question is incoherent," the rat said. "Can you teach me about beer?"
"Sure... But... Maybe in a place where we can brew it?"
The rat's expression was always so blank. Communication: he needed to fall back on toys and shiny things. And food.
"We'll need lots of glass jars," he said. "Clean stainless steel, pure water, fresh brewing supplies, snacks for the brewers."
All the rats except the dead one perked up.
"I love your food," they said in unison.
Dreadful inspiration came to Robby.
"Lots of rats need lots of beer."
"I could have a party!" they said in unison.
"Just for you," Robby said on a hunch.
"Just for me!" they said in unison.
"Lots of beer and food, and lots of shiny toys rolling all over the maker mall," Robby said.
"Just for me!" they cried.
By now the fourth living rat had appeared, looking exactly as bright-eyed and inscrutable as the others. Exactly.
"Excuse me?" Tara said. "Can we come to your party? Excuse me?"
"Help us!" Mary demanded.
He looked at the rat....
"If we could somehow get to my shop?"
The hatch opened with a snap, just like that, with no delay, as if the bubble had been there all along. Robby looked through the main entrance of his own shopping mall, down the hallway, straight toward the taped-off door to his shop. He could see Lance waiting in there. Lance had ducked under the tape.
There were gawkers peeking into their bubble.
Robby reached up behind his ear. His phone had reception. He set it to authorize a payment.
"There's a brew shop down that way," he said. "Get whatever you need. If they refuse to deal with a rat, come get me."
The first two drones showed up. He had failed to think about the inevitable, the drones and Servant Leader Counselors. A moment after the drones, a squad car zoomed in, heavily armed.
"Please remain calm and silent," the drone recited. "Failure to do so may result in injury or death."
A small quantum bubble appeared where the drone had been hovering, then disappeared, taking the drone with it. A second bubble did the same for the second drone. A third bubble--or was it just a single bubble working fast?--appeared in the middle of the Servant Leader squad car, right about where its main power unit was. When the bubble vanished, the cruiser wobbled, veered, and crashed down into cars in the parking lot.
"Sorry, but I want my party!" the rat said.
One of the Servant Leader Counselors staggered out of the crashed cruiser, but seemed to lack the stomach for a confrontation. Another bubble came. It was barely big enough, but it swallowed the Counselor and disappeared.
"There'll be reinforcements, right?" Robby suggested. "More Servant Leader cops?"
"No, there won't," the rat said flatly.
Many bubbles arrived and rats disembarked. Hundreds of rodents streamed into the main entrance to the mall. There were human yelps of surprise in there, and Robby hoped everyone would assume that a swarm of rats was nothing more than an illegal publicity stunt.
"The big hall with the fountain," the rat said. "It's perfect. And the brew shop has beer already made! I'm bringing my toys."
Indeed, larger bubbles appeared both outside and inside the mall. They disgorged rats pushing all sorts of shiny things. Patrons streamed out of the exits. Already Mary and his mother were in his shop telling Lance all about their adventures, eyes bugging and hands flying around.
"The shit just got deeper," Robby said.
"Yeah, well at least we're still swimming," said Tara.
"Swimming in beer!" the rat said.
"Have you started drinking?" Robby asked.
"Oh, yes, but the beer still doesn't taste good."
"Too many mouths."
"What?" the rat said.
"Too many mouths," Robby said, not daring to elaborate, not having the slightest idea what he meant.
The cold, sober, beady rat eye looked at him, showing thought if not emotion.
"Brilliant," the rat finally said. "The bodies are intoxicated, but the single mind rises above, sober. I can feel what you mean."
It skittered toward the entrance, stopping just before passing out of earshot.
"Thank you, Dad," it called back.
He and Tara snuck around the side, went into the mall through her back door, avoiding the party. They peeked out of her main entrance.
"Which is worse? Servant Leader coming to bubble us again, or Servant Leader not coming to save us?" he asked.
Their little stretch of the mall was deserted, except for a rat just where the corridor took its corner. The rat had its signature cartoon death pose: on its back, feet sticking up. The party was too quiet.
"Something's wrong," Robby said.
They went down the corridor to look. As they turned the corner by the dead rat, they saw many more. The strange, uniform pose of the dead made them look like a rat flash mob that might pop back to life at any moment, dancing to the mall music.
Lance, Mary, and Robby's mother stood among them. Mary, ready to make her original tennis date, held the racquet and the can of balls.
"Could be the plague!" Lance announced. "Don't touch em!"
As Robby and Tara approached the atrium, the bodies were numerous enough that they had to step carefully, but Robby led onward. The keg of beer was perched on the edge of the fountain. The last living rat wallowed under the tap.
"You were right about it tasting better," it said. "But the toys are not as fun."
"One of em's still alive?" Lance said. "Is it sick?"
"Just drunk," Tara said.
The rat's head swayed a little, and its normally bright eyes sagged half-closed. Its mouth drooped a little.
"It's all so pointless," it said. "Life, death, what's the point?"
"That's the beer talking," Robby said.
"No, really," the rat said. "I've explored. I've been to places where you can peek behind the Identity Tensor. Truth. Existence. It's pointless."
It belched, and then sighed. It went back to its bowl, immersed its entire face.
"Give me that," said Tara to Mary.
Tara snatched the tennis racquet. She wound up with both hands, and cracked the edge of it across the rat's spine. The racquet and the rat both broke. The bowl of beer skittered and splashed, knocking over some of the posed rat corpses.
The broken rat panted, its front claws spasming reflexively.
"Turn me over," it gasped.
Robby did as it asked, which required taking care to rotate both semi-separated halves together. Somehow, miraculously, all four feet stuck straight up. It shuddered a little.
"Thank you, Dad," it gasped.
It hung out its long tongue. Its eyes clouded over. Tara gave the racquet back to a hesitant Mary.
"Isn't that the last one?" said Robby's mother. "Didn't they help us?"
With no rat to stop them, the drones returned. The first one swooped in and hovered over Mary.
"Please drop the weapon," it recited. "Failure to do so will result in death."
Mary dropped the racquet and balls eagerly, wiping her hands on her blouse.
More drones arrived, and then a squadron of Servant Leader Counselors. Sanitation bots were already gathering rat corpses. The Magistrate who had escorted them onto the bubble also arrived.
"We apologize for the delay," said the Magistrate. "Servant Leader has crashed repeatedly, even after we restored it from a known backup."
"Well as you can see," Tara said, "we took care of the situation."
The diodes in her eyes went very bright as she spoke, although the light, like her sense of humor, failed to touch the Magistrate.
"You have a copy of your work on the rat?" the Magistrate said to Robby.
"Yes," Robby and Tara said.
"Well good. We'd like to see you continue your work, rather than sending you out again. Your value to society has changed."
Mary clapped her hands.
"Then we're okay?" she asked.
The Magistrate clapped her hands in reply.
"You three are in the way!" she said. "You three may go!"
Lance took the invitation and stepped lively for the nearest exit. Mary looked after him, and began an awkward, mincing retreat through the remaining dead rats, glancing back with just a little guilt at Robby.
"But I'm his mother," Robby's mother said, not moving.
The stun from the nearest drone came instantly. Two human aides with a stretcher came close behind. They strapped his mother in, turned the stretcher toward an exit, and looked back to the Magistrate in question.
The Magistrate waved dismissively: "Oh, take her home!"
The aides rolled the cart away, plowing over a swath of the dead rats in their haste.
"Now where was I?" she said.
"You want us to give you the genome," Tara said.
"No, no, no. How many samples do you see here? We've had the genome ever since we killed the first one. We took your data, too. We've been running simulations. Before it crashed, Servant Leader was a long way toward designing an AI."
"A computer that thinks like the rat?"
"Yes, a leadership device with an off-switch is more practical than a rat and a tennis racquet."
"You want to build a leader that likes getting high, and hoards shiny toys?" Tara said.
"We stick to the familiar."
Tara and Robby looked at each other. By now the bots had gathered up all of the rats, the dish, and even the keg of beer. Robby thought better of reminding the Magistrate that he had paid for that beer.
"So what's expected of us?" Tara asked.
"Just keep being productive," said the Magistrate. "If you decide to engineer anything illegal, or even have some insights about your rat, please tell us first. Servant Leader will be in touch, as soon as it's back online."
The Magistrate walked away, red robes flowing. The shopping mall took on an unaccustomed quiet. Tara went to Robby, and put her arm around him. Somehow, her hand found its way under his shirt.
"I assume what's-her-name is out of the picture?" she said.
"That's a safe one."
Tara kissed him, and now both her hands were under his shirt, caressing, tickling a little.
"I need to check on my mother," he said.
"Afterwards we can go to my place," she said.
She took his hand, and led him out of the mall. They passed his shop. The police tape was gone. That caught his attention enough that he looked more carefully. A rat sat on his workbench. Its bright eyes, the way its head tilted: it seemed to grin at him, in a pitiless sort of way.
"Just keep walking, and don't look at it," Tara said.
She pulled, hurrying him along, but the angle made the view into his shop clear for a long time. The rat pushed at a printer head, but had trouble moving the big thing. A second rat appeared out of nowhere, simply popped into existence without any sign of a bubble, and the two rodents worked at the part together. Robby glanced back at Tara, who focused exclusively, intently on the exit. The rats waited for him to look again.
"Bye, Dad! And thanks!" they shouted simultaneously.
The two rats and the printer head vanished.
This story was first published on Friday, January 3rd, 2014
The alien intelligence of rats seemed like great fodder for what started out as a parody of a beast fable. One thing led to another, and soon the rats were in control, and the story was about an infestation of leadership.
- Steven Mathes
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