Nat swung round, Rick squeaked round. Facing them was a small, brown rat. It did not look big enough to be a threat. The only problem was that surrounding it were row upon row of large, mangy, fierce and mean-looking rats.
“Good evening ladies, gentlemen!” began Nat. “Welcome to the feast I have er, prepared for you.”
“I said, come with me!” growled the rat. For a small rat, she had a loud and rather frightening voice.
“Of course, delighted.” Nat’s own voice was a little unsteady
“And you, Rick, whatever you are,” the rat continued.
“Robot, he’s a robot!” protested Nat as the large rats crowded around them.
“Whatever.” The small rat shrugged, turned and led the way along the alley away from the street lights and far into the dark. The other rats followed, propelling Nat with them. Several of the larger and mangier looking rats took up position round Rick, trying to force him forwards. As he took a step he could feel his legs beginning to seize up for lack of oil. He took another and the creak of his joints made the rats look up at him, alarm flashing across their faces. A third step; his legs were almost completely stiff now. A fourth; he stopped, stiff, unable to go any further and swaying dangerously.
“Leave the robot thing – for now,” commanded the small rat.
Nat craned his head but could not see Rick through the sea of rats that blocked his view.
“Rick!” he yelled.
“Shut it!” snapped a rat close by, baring sharp yellow teeth. ‘Tut,’ thought Nat, ‘where’s his dental hygiene?’ He decided against voicing these thoughts.
The small rat led them round the corner and into a yard filled with dustbins, piles of rubbish and a bent and rusted old bed.
“Sidownandshudup!” snarled one of Nat’s guards. Nat obeyed. Above him the small rat climbed onto the bed and settled herself down. Two large rats stood either side of her, towering over her but clearly under her power.
“Now, young man, I think you had better explain yourself,” said the small rat.
Nat looked around him. He could see no young men, nor could he see any means of escape.
“Er me?” he asked.
“Of course, who else?” snapped his interrogator.
“It’s just that no-one’s called me a young man before, or at least no-one as lovely as you.” Nat gave her what he hoped was a winning smile. It won him nothing.
“Enough of your cheek! Don’t you know who you are talking to? You white rats with your airs and graces think you are better than us. Well I’ll tell you, you are not.” She spat at him. Next to Nat, a guard poked him hard in the ribs.
“Oof!” coughed Nat. “No, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm, It’s just that I really don’t know who you are. You see, I’m just a laboratory rat. Brought up to do tricks for humans. I am sure you brown rats are just as good, I mean better, than us laboratory ones. I mean, at least you’ve got your freedom. The open road and all….” He tailed off, aware of dozens of eyes watching him, some with disdain, some in astonishment, some with no apparent idea what he had just said.
“I” said the small brown rat with a meaningful drawl, “am Zenobia, Queen of the rats of the Westerly Alleys.”
“Your majesty,” said Nat, bowing low and hoping that is what he was expected to do.
“Look at me!” snapped Queen Zenobia. “That’s better. Now, I should have you torn to shreds and thrown to the cats…” she paused and Nat gulped. Life as a laboratory rat may have been dull but it had been safe, or at least he had thought it had been safe before tonight and the arrival of Cedric and the woman.
“…But,” continued Zenobia. “You said something of interest.”
Nat let out a breath.
“You said that you were a laboratory rat.”
Nat nodded furiously.
“My spies tell me that there are laboratory rats in the university. Is that where you come from?”
“Er, I dunno. I mean, I think I’ve heard of something called a uni-versity, yeah Big and Bob used to talk about it, them’s the humans I used to see there, the ones what made me do all the tricks and stuff, so yeah, er, maybe…” he trailed off and tried another winning smile. This time the look Zenobia gave him was more pitying than scornful.
“Interesting…” she muttered. “That, laboratory rat, is the university over there.” She pointed behind him to the building Nat and Rick had fled from not so long ago.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it! And how can I be of assistance?” Nat gabbled.
“You can tell us what you know. What is going on in there?”
“I don’t rightly know.” Nat racked his brains to find an answer that would please her. “I only know where I live. The humans, Big and Bob, make me do stuff, like ringing bells and going through mazes and then they built this robot, that’s Rick, and he just came alive tonight, and then these two humans came in and they wanted to take me only I was hiding, climbed up the back of a cupboard I did, and they didn’t take Rick cos something about suspicions and plans and stuff , and then we ran away and then we had pizza and then we found you and er, you know the rest. Oh, and the name’s Nat by the way.” Nat held a paw towards Zenobia but she ignored it.
“That sounds a load of cat’s breath!” snarled one of the guards. “Let’s tear ’im up!”
“Yeah!” growled another.
“Hmm!” Zenobia nodded, still thinking.
The guard next to Nat reached forward, grabbed his front leg and held it up for the others to see. “Come on lads!” he called. The horde of rats leaped forward. Nat shut his eyes.