Nat was counting the stairs as they climbed down. He was proud of his counting. He had just reached somewhere between 750 and 120 when the robot stopped. Its eyes flashed as its head swivelled around.
“329, 240. You’ve made me lose count. What’s the…oh.” Nat dropped his voice and stood stock still. Something was moving on the stairs below. Something silent, dark and about the same size as Nat.
The shape stopped. They could barely make it out now. It was hunched on the edge of a step as if waiting for something. Nothing happened. Nat, never the most patient rat in the world, crept forward to the edge of the step he was on and stretched his neck in the hope of seeing more. He stretched it a little far.
Scrabble! Thump! “Ow!” Scrabble. Nat had tumbled onto the step below and, only by dropping the finger and clinging on to the step with his claws, narrowly avoided bouncing down at least one more. Below them the shape shifted and a ray of moonlight caught two sharp shining eyes. They stared at Nat and the robot who both stared back, unwilling or unable to pull away.
“Squeak-drub. Squeak-drub.” From somewhere below came the muffled sound of someone trying to creep upstairs in rubber boots. Above, all three, robot, rat and shape, heard and stiffened and then, as one, they turned and ran back up the stairs.
“It is my belief that this may lead us to a safer place.” The robot pointed to a door to their left.
“Well don’t just believe, open it then!” panted Nat, holding his side which was beginning to hurt.
The robot pushed against it and it swung open revealing a long corridor with rooms off it. Nat and the robot started forward, the robot taking long strides, Nat sprinting as fast as he could but failing to keep pace. Behind them the door closed slowly. There was no sign of the shape.
“I can see a door at the far end of the corridor,” said the robot. Nat did not reply. He did not hear. He was several metres behind now and the thundering of his heart was blocking out all other sound. The robot looked down. When it did not see the rat at its feet it slowed and turned its head.
“W-w-wait for me, metal boy,” gasped Nat. “I’ve g-got short legs as well as breath!”
“Of course.” The robot backed a few paces and stooped down to pick up Nat. Then it ran on towards the far door while, in its arms, Nat puffed and moaned.
Beyond the door lay another stairwell, but this time Nat did not worry to count as they ran down. At regular intervals, doors led into other corridors and each time the robot slowed its pace, cocked its head to one side to listen and then tiptoed past.
The stairwell ended in a cold, dank passageway where no light shone.
“That way,” said Nat, waving a paw to the left.
“How can you tell that that is the way to continue?” asked the robot.
“Trust me, I’m a rat!” smirked Nat. “Seriously, metal boy, us rats have sharp senses. I can see better than most in the dark, and what is more, I can smell better than most, and what I smell is pizza!”
“Yep, pizza. And where there is pizza there is not only a way to fill Nat’s empty stomach, but also the great outdoors, unless someone is having a pizza party down here in the dark which humans don’t usually do. So come on, metal boy, on you go. I can see another door down there. Take me to dinner!”
The robot was silent as it walked forward with a steady pace. At the door it paused. “And how do you know that there will be no humans waiting to capture you, or me?” it asked.
“Ah,” answered Nat. “Glad you mentioned that. It’s just that where there is pizza there can be no danger. Can there?”
The robot swivelled its head to look at Nat who was now perched on its shoulder. And Nat had a funny feeling that if the robot had had eyebrows it would have raised one.