by Michail Velichansky
The furless rat stood at the entrance to the maze, wrapped in old rags, staring out at its pristine white walls. Pristine white, but to him, bloodied. They rose from the ground, and they went down deep—roots in some molten core, the bones of the world.
A mist hung above and thin tendrils floated down, caressing the ground so that the dust became damp and caked. From the distance came a sound like the dong of a bell suspended in time. The machines were calling. Everyone would be here soon.
“Called by God,” the furless rat hissed. He glanced around, nervous and agitated.
There was silence, and then the bell-thing sounded again, the machines from their caves calling, calling. The furless rat turned around and ran back. He moved as quickly as he could while old joints fought, and muscles complained. The limp was bad today: his rear right leg dragged as he moved and left eddies in the dust behind him.
He had traveled the same path before, many times; the first time, carrying the limp with pride, leaving behind the first bit of fur, tiny clumps to be covered with dust and hidden in fog.
* * * * *
In the distance, the crowd squeaked and chittered while the machines bellowed their final calls.
“They’re waiting for me,” said the young rat. He was thin and small; next to the furless rat, he still looked like a nothing, a child, a pup. His nose and whiskers twitched in agitation, his tail jerked back and forth.
Another cry from the machines beyond the maze, echoing through the plastic tunnels carved into the rock, bouncing from wall to wall into every nest till all the world heard. Then, a silence bloated with expectation.
“That was the last call,” the young rat pleaded. “I have to go.” He tried to get past the furless one, but his path was blocked.
“You don’t have to go,” the furless rat said. His heart beat quickly, and so he spoke louder to drown it out. “Don’t you understand that you could die in there?”
The young rat scuttled back and forth in front of his elder. “I have to go… If I don’t run the maze, I’ll always be a nothing-pup to them. And… and I might make it.”
“No! You could die like so many others have died. That place, it’s bloody. The walls are covered. It reeks of death.”
“That won’t be me,” the young rat said. “I’ll get through it.”
“And if you do?” The older rat clicked his teeth at the younger rat. His game leg twitched. “What then? Only the machines and their small deaths sheathed in silver. What’s the point? Why do that to yourself?”
“Because it is life!” the young rat said, too quickly. “The machines are the Hands of God! To be touched by them…” He inhaled suddenly, a reverse hiss through his teeth.
“The hands of god? What god?!” the furless rat yelled, trying to stifle the desperation he felt behind his throat, trying to ignore the pains in his chest. “There are only machines! Cave after cave of machines! I’ve seen no God!”
“Then you must be blind!” The young rat was shaking. “You see the hand but cannot see the body, so you assume that no body exists—now let me through!” He rushed forward, charging the furless rat, and they fought, hissing and scratching, until the younger rat twisted and rolled back, one of his ears torn and a thin gash across his side. He lay on his stomach, panting.
Slowly, the furless rat crawled up to him. “Please,” the old rat said. “Please, I… I can hide you. We can hide together. The others won’t know.”
“Why should I exile myself?” the young rat asked, staring at the walls. “They’re my people too.”
“They’ve practically exiled you already. You’re as alone as I am.”
“I can prove them wrong. I’ll run the maze, then they’ll accept me! They’ll have to. I’ll be a true rat then, not a pup.” And he added in a whisper-like sigh, “Blessed by God.”
“Blessed! You call it a blessing? I am lame. My fur, once thick and full, gone…”
“Once you wore your naked skin with pride.”
They became silent, and the silence filled the tunnel—but around it flittered the ghosts of muttered speech from outside, from those waiting before the entrance to the maze.
“Don’t go,” the furless rat said finally. “Please don’t go. You’re all I have, my adopted son. Don’t go. Stay with me.”
“Then… then you’ll die.” The furless rat turned away from the young rat, staring at nothing, whiskers twitching.
“Why? Why will I die?” A fire flared in the young rat’s eyes, and teeth flashed into view as he spoke. “Because I’m too weak? Too small? Or am I unworthy to be like you? To receive the blessing into myself, to allow God to leave his mark… No. No, you will not hold me back.”
He tore forward again, faster than before, regardless of wounds. They fought, and fought, and finally the furless rat was too old. The young rat ran down the tunnel, panting.
“Please!” the furless rat screamed, his voice cut bitter, a tearing squeal. “Please!”
And he lay, shaking, as the echo raced down the tunnel after the small rat, destined to finish without purpose.
The tunnel said to the furless rat, “’ease-ease-ease…”
He forced himself up. There was blood on the ground, and he didn’t know if it was the young one’s or his own.
Lagging far behind both pup and echo, the furless rat ran.
* * * * *
They were gathered in two columns before the gate leading into the maze, lifted up, open; the furless rat heard the ragged end of a cheer as he ran out of the tunnel.
“Where is he?” the furless rat yelled out, his head jerking left and right. “Where is he?!”
“No worries, Holy One.” A large brown rat with a tattered ear and an extra leg growing from his back. “He’s gone into the maze.”
The furless rat sank down, the air leaving his lungs to become, “God…”
“I didn’t think he’d do it, you know. But he did, the little runt. So maybe he’s not such a pup—I told him that before he left. Of course, he still has to get back out.”
The furless rat could only stare at the maze, barely hearing the words. His chest was tight, so tight, and he was trembling.
“God… Let him come out of there… Let him live. He’s all I have, God, God damn it, there’s so little left now…” He mumbled the prayer, choking on the words. They came anyway.
“Hope he gets out of there soon,” said the brown rat. “I’m itching to go.”
Still the brown rat sat and waited, as they all waited, as the furless one waited. The mist hung over the maze moving back and forth, seeming to be the sleep-motions of something alive, wrapping its wispy hands around paw or tail, stroking the rats just as it stroked the maze.
“He’s been a while,” someone said.
“Too small for it,” said another.
“How soon do you think?” asked the brown rat.
The furless rat could only stare into the maze. The mist felt cold on his skin, and his leg pained him more than ever before. He felt none of it.
And then suddenly everything rose—the rats stood up on their back legs and stretched their heads high to stare into the mist as it flashed green and black, as lightning crackled. The machines screamed.
The tones were chaos, rough pain. The cessation of order. Death.
So the rats took up the sounds, and they sang, forming smaller patterns around the sounds of the machines. Of mourning. Of loss. Until they stopped, quite soon, and only the furless rat made any sound at all as he choked.
“So pointless… So pointless… So much pain, so much pain to us who have your blessing… Help me get through. Help me understand.”
Slowly, the stillness broke, and from each of the columns rats began to flow toward the gate.
“He was an innocent…”
Again the machines called, static bell even-toned.
“Stop it…” the furless rat prayed.
“Stop,” he pleaded.
“Stop!” he screamed.
Eyes stared at him, small and worrying, no—piercing, ready to puncture his flesh, to quick-flash the pain into his leg as the machine continued to click-click-click, impossibly fast crackle-crackle-crackle, gauges spiking behind glass, thin red needles. The rats staring at him, moving a little closer, nervous.
Give me strength… “We must stop running the maze. We must stop! So many of us have died already… Too many. Too many have died!”
They stared at him, and he felt his own nakedness beneath the rags.
“Too many…” Breath came hard to him. The pain was a physical thing, spreading like a gnarled root from his leg. “Why? Why are we doing this, killing ourselves, killing our children? There is nothing there—you have seen. There is nothing… Nothing but the machines, calling us, screaming when we die and calling again… Bloody hands! Bloody hands cut off at the wrist!”
The eyes flashed as heads turned left and right; they stepped back.
Desperation tasted like something fermenting in his throat.
“Please! Listen to me! We can stop. We can all stop, right now, they… they can’t make us go. We can stay—for ourselves, for our children, we can stay, close the maze, tear it down. It has no control over us… It doesn’t… Doesn’t have to…”
“His runt died…”
“It is blasphemy. It is dangerous!”
And finally a calm, sad voice said, “Leave him here. If he has turned away from the gods, we must turn away from him. Goodbye, Holy One.
So they turned their eyes from him, some right away, some after looking at him for a while; and he could no longer see what the eyes of his people told him. And one by one, without looking back at him, they entered the maze, and the furless rat was left alone.
* * * * *
He stood at the entrance to the maze.
“All of it… All of it, God…” He could feel his muscles spasm, tics playing inside him. “There is so much I do not understand. Am I wrong? Are you really listening? Did you really touch me with your machines?”
The walls rose from the ground. Pristine pure and bloody from sacrifice. Roots watered with so much blood.
“Is this what you want from me?” the rat called to the walls. “Is this why we are here?”
The machines called again, and the maze said nothing.
“Tell me,” the rat said. “Please tell me.”
Adrenaline flowed from blasting heart. Yet moving slow, the furless rat rolled over, contorted himself and wiggled out of his rags. He was naked. The mist was cold and clammy on his skin, and he was caked with wet dust.
“Help me,” he prayed.
Through the pain and aged muscle, through the pounding in his head, the furless rat ran into the maze.
* * * * *
The maze never changed. And yet as he ran through it, the world twisted, like jerks in perspective. There were mirages, and he closed his eyes. He could smell… so much death, could smell how hopeless it all was, all of it, and he made himself stop knowing, moved himself to a place without smell. His nose had become null.
The furless rat ran.
There were sounds moving in on him, illusion-sounds, changing like liquid from order to chaos, breaking mind, breaking concentration—in the sounds he could lose himself. And so to another place in his mind he went, deeper down, to a place of silence.
The furless rat ran through the maze.
He tasted the mist, and it was bitter and poisonous, and then that too was gone. He felt the world move under him, felt the walls closing in on him, felt himself. Felt the maze around him, impossible to pass through. Felt himself lost. Then he felt nothing.
The world as it was now: empty, old, thoughts rebounding and echoing in the sudden silence, full of dark screens. There, before him, was the knowledge of the presence of a rat. The body of a young pup, lying without senses. Dead thing. Still-warm thing.
The machines called to him, a knowing that echoed and drowned out his own voice.
The furless rat was still. In the empty place inside himself—he thought. And then the furless rat walked out the other side of the maze.
Behind him, the maze was itself again, bones of the world, like the outside of a mouth. In front of him were the machines, so many of them, enough for them all and more. In each of the glass-and-crystal rooms, machines; in each room, a rat. The machines reached down, and they did things to the rats, they opened them and filled them, they damaged and healed, they flashed colors, shot tastes, filled noses with smells. Wires ran from bodies and heads, muscles twitched and voices screamed. In those voices there was pain, and there was ecstasy.
All the while, the gauges jerked, and the displays played their wonderland colors of numbers and formulae.
Nearby, a room was empty, and the machine waited for him. Even from here he could hear it, could hear its crackle… crackle… Could feel the metal point with his leg just as he could see it with his eyes.
It called to him.
“I can’t,” the furless rat whispered. “I can’t… Not anymore. I won’t anymore, I…”
He stared at the room, at the machines, and he said, softly, “You can’t hear me,” and the desperation in his throat exploded and bloomed.
“You’re nothing! You cannot hear me!” the furless rat yelled. And he whimpered, “Bloody hands…”
He turned and ran back into the maze.
* * * * *
“Not anymore! You are nothing, nothing! There is naught but walls, a maze of walls, beyond which are naught but machines!
“I will not run it again, even if I die now!
“If you cannot hear me—” and he shouted each word: “There is no purpose!”
Until his body gave way and he fell down into the dust so that it filled his nose and mouth, rough and metallic. He rolled over onto his back, and stared up, the walls towering over him on either side.
He was alone.
“I could still do it,” he said, his laugh causing blood to seep into his mouth. “Even now, I can still run it. I am still holy. But I won’t—not anymore… Because there’s nothing to be holy to.”
Nothing at all…
In the distance, the machines sang, perfectly ordered tones flowing around each other. The others would be returning soon, running back through the maze, stilled now, wearing their marks, the blessings of god within them. Thoughts poured into the furless rat’s head, but he stayed silent. Again the machines sang, the edge of the tones chaotic, fractal. There was passion and violence there. There were other things.
And—he felt something around him, felt… felt the hands touch him, cold, so cold he hissed, eyes wide, and the hands wrapped about him, lifted him.
From the tone it came, a natural extension—a light in the sky, growing brighter and brighter. The furless rat gasped; and he felt himself rising, saw the walls fall beneath him. The light was too bright; trembling, the furless rat turned away. He was rising still, above the maze, and he could see it all now, could see how it came together, how it was whole.
The others were returning now, through the maze like a flowing river. Some moved faster than others.
“Thank you,” the furless rat gasped. “Thank you…”
He could feel the hands on him. They turned him toward the light, and it was brilliant. His eyes burned. Working slowly and mechanically, the hands brought the metal, and they opened him. The furless rat cried out.
There was pain in his voice, and there was ecstasy.
As they stripped off each layer of him, skin and muscle and bone, as they opened his head to touch his brain, his thoughts, his soul.
As they lifted him up.
Blind, he looked up at the City of God.