Authors: Michael J. Daley
Michael J. Daley
For the mothers and the fathers:
Phyllis & Dermot Daley
Patricia & Robert Haas
In the dark
And the dust.
The smell of liverwurst.
Rat turned from the computer screen just as the boy sat up in bed. His eyes were half closed with sleep. His hair spiked in all directions.
“Checking,” Rat signed. The boy would not go for food if he did not know. Rat did not blame him. She was afraid of Nanny, too.
went two bare feet. The boy crossed the room to stand beside her. His bare arm brushed against her. She sidled a step away from that touch. Even though the boy's touch was different from the scientists'ânicerâshe was still not used to it. Rat was used to living alone, not in a room on a space station with a human boy!
and the spy program started up, tapping into the security camera in the workshop. The screen showed a low, wide workbench covered with bits of Nanny, some of them still crusted with dried liverwurst. To the right of the pile of parts, the shiny black body of the robot stood on tiny wheels. The body was about the size of an industrial vacuum cleaner, but sleek, like a jet-scooter helmet. From a socket in the side, a thin, steely arm stuck out, knobby at the joints and ending in a pincer-like gripper. At the far left of the bench rested Nanny's frisbee-shaped head with its one round eye. Once that eye had glowed green with Nanny's electronic intelligence. Not anymore.
Cables of twisted wire snaked from the head to a row of computers on the wall, all working to try to bring Nanny back. Rat and the boy did not want them to succeed. Sometimes Rat wished she could sneak into the workshop and bite through those cables to make sure Nanny never came back.
But chewing wires had started all the trouble before and doing it again would let them know Rat was still alive. She was supposed to be dead. Killed by Nanny. That's what the boy had told them.
But Nanny was the dead one.
Rat liked it that way.
“That gripper arm wasn't on yesterday,” the boy said, yawning.
Rat's nose twitched as his morning breath washed over her. It carried a whiff of fear. Nanny's gripper arms had hurt the boy, but not as badly as the sniffer's vicious bear-trap jaws had hurt Rat's leg.
Rat typed and her words wrote over the image:
THE EYE IS STILL DARK. THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS
The boy reached for the joystick. He zoomed in on the head. “You're right, Rat.”
Satisfied, the boy went to the bathroom. Rat used the toilet now, too. It was necessary. The space station's waste reclaimers counted poop. Every bit of food Rat ate had to be accounted for.
Water gushed, splattering with a harsh sound against the shower stall. Strange way to bathe, getting wet all over. But Rat guessed humans had to. The boy couldn't even scratch the back of his head with his own foot! He'd never be able to wash between his toes.
After his shower, the boy would get breakfast. Her mouth began to water. Would he bring bacon, all wrinkly brown and crisp?
Rat groomed her whiskers. Bacon would be nice.
Next came playtime in the Zero-G room. Rat would rather study, but the boy could not sit still so early in the day. So they played tag or z-ball. Of course, the exercise was good for Rat, too. It kept her fit, except for the broken leg. But studying was very importantâmore important!âbecause the space shuttle would be coming a whole week earlier than scheduled. It docked with the space station in three days, four hours, and twenty-six minutes. The shuttle would take the boy home. Back to Earth. Rat would go with himâsmuggled. That's why they needed to study. They had to figure out the best way to do that.
The boy did not like to study. He'd rather play games. It did not take Rat long to figure out how to make the boy study. In the lab, the scientists had shaped Rat's behavior with reward and punishment. Now Rat used rewards like z-ball and chessâ
study timeâto train the boy.
She had never had to use punishment.
The boy came back into the room dressed in his shiny silver jump suit. He put on his Velcro booties, then opened the laundry drawer under his bed about six inches. This was part of their routine, readying Rat's hideaway in case someone came to the room while the boy was gone.
“See you in a minute,” he said andâ
âwent out the door.
Rat waited for the sound from the Velcro booties to fade, then she opened her “Space Shuttle Escape Pods Operation Manual” study file on the computer. Rat needed this private study time. The boy must not find out about the escape pods. He talked of taking her home with him to live with the mother and the father. In New York City. In an apartment. She had looked these things up. She had seen pictures. A city full of millions of people! A towering building full of thousands! That's where the boy wanted her to live.
It made him happy, this plan.
Rat let him think she agreed, because a happy boy was a controllable boy.
The Velcro boots peeled off the carpet as Jeff walked slowly toward the science section and his parents' lab. It was part of the routine. By showing up every day, he hoped to keep them from coming to his roomâto keep Rat a secret. A silly precaution, because they weren't very likely to visit him. It was crunch time for the Project. All the data Mom collected during solar maximum needed to be analyzed before the shuttle arrived.
Mom believed the sun was about to enter a phase of reduced energy output. No other solar model predicted that. If the data proved Mom's theory right, then the Global Cooling Initiative being planned to reverse global warming on Earth would be a disaster. The human-made cooling plus the cooler sun would bring on the deepest ice age ever, one people might not survive.
Scritch-rip, scritch-rip, scritch-rip.
Jeff trailed a finger along one of the color-coded pipes that lined the wall. A purple one, like Rat. Though he would never say that to Rat. She was very particular about her coat. It was really a certain shade of lavender, with white cuffs covering the paws. So Jeff kept purple thoughts to himself.
Rip, rip, rip.
Bump, bump, bump.
His forefinger rode over the brackets holding the pipe to the wall. What was this pipe for? Jeff didn't know. He didn't care. Rat would know. Now that she had free access to his computer, Rat had learned tons of stuff about the space station. But what did it matter? In three days, four hours, and some minutesâRat knew exactlyâa space shuttle was arriving to take them home!
Home. That's all Jeff used to think about from the first day he and his parents had arrived here: getting home. He was the only kid on the space station. He was bored, and Nanny was horrible, and his parents were totally lost in the Project, just like all the other researchers. Then he found Rat, and everything changed. Now he had someone to talk to and play games with, and he was even learning sign language!
Sometimes he wished he could tell someone about Rat, to share the wonder of this amazing new friend. Then other times, most times, he wanted to keep Rat all to himself. Secret.
That's what Rat wanted, anyway, and that's what he had promised to do.