Sometimes, when there’s nothing to do for the Posse and everybody else has wandered home, I like to lay back and see what the rats are up to. It’s nice how well this whole superpower gig has supplemented my lifestyle. Lotsa folks don’t have it so lucky. Poor Jereme can’t touch anyone who’s not infected, for instance. Squatter’s power is cool but he spends so much time schlepping stuff around for Schilling it’s like, what’s the point?
Not me. I’ve got it made. Jereme insists that ‘Ambassador Ratman’ is just some fancy title. He’s half right. It’s the best kind of fancy title. The kind that comes with no responsibilities and more benefits than you can dig out of a dumpster.
It’s not like there’s some interspecies UN at the Central Park Zoo, after all. El Presidente doesn’t even have time to staff his human embassies, let alone an animal one. Besides, I’m not really a joiner (current rebel affiliations notwithstanding). And the lanyards down at the UN don’t make a habit of listening to homeless teenagers regardless of our savoir faire.
Mostly what I do is draw upon the rats’ knowledge and energy: see everything they see, move with their collective strength, that kind of thing. It makes food less of a hassle. Rats in this city are well fed. A few may get trapped and go hungry here and there, but overall they’re doing okay. Anything I feed my human body is a drop in the bucket, so I mostly just don’t eat. I don’t even really need to sleep (though it helps keep me civilized).
Now, I’m a pretty resourceful fellow. If I really needed to I could probably survive without the power, but I’d have a lot less time for dope shit. The rats are like an invisible network taking care of my needs. Sure, they can’t pay for a toothbrush or a trip to the doc, but my immune system is amped and I’m not stuck inked up with the other chronics absorbing some rich prick’s emphysema. Plus, on days where there’s not much to do around the hideout, I can channel surf the rats and find one that’s up to something good.
It was one such a day when I got whisked into all this business with the Power Teens or whatever they call themselves. After roaming a few dozen ratminds I’d found one going to town on a discarded pizza while a busker howled Nirvana a hundred feet away. The crust was a little stale, to say nothing of the grunge, but it beat rewatching The Lobster’s Net on Jereme’s old TV.
I was schnoz-deep in marinara and teen spirit when Fred started giving her rat, Spartacus, a good shake. My insides rattled. Poor little guys never lasted long. “Jonathan? Something has come to the board’s attention. We need to speak to you in person.”
Oh, goody. The board in this case meant The Welfare Group, aka the pissy stuffed-shirt branch of ‘the resistance.’ God help us. Jereme is bad enough. The guy’s basically another ivory tower twit, bless his heart. I mean, who goes to grad school in this day and age? But the Welfare Group… The poorest member of their board still pulls in six figures a year, and she’s bound to this Aztec goddess or whatever, which has got to be some kind of privilege.
One just can’t expect these folks to understand life’s little realities, you know? Good thing they had a surly neighborhood Ratman to help keep them grounded. I took the usual route to Fred’s building. The hideout occupies a section of old caved-in subway tunnel, the walls sealed off with medusaflesh. There’s the lame exit up top through the bookshop where the cueballs and falsebeards browse the shelves without buying. Then there’s the highly exclusive exit into the alleyway that Fred installed so I wouldn’t scare customers from the shop. Lovely how she looks out for me.
It was a gorgeous day outside, the early June heat cut with a cold, fierce wind. It was less the kind of day where you feel like you can do anything and more the kind of day where you feel like you must do something, like the sky itself is telling you to get moving. Maybe if it were merely a nice day, one with a gentler breeze and a subtler warmth, I’d have preferred to stroll along the streets like a man. But on a day like that, I had to fly like a rat.
That’s another thing people discount: rat propulsion. See, on an average day you can expect to find about two million rats running around this city, and in early June you can expect to see a lot more. Each of those rats can exert about three Newtons of force if they put their mind to it, giving me about six million Newtons of collective rat-strength to play with. Or, to put it another way, I can leap, throw, punch and kick with the force of about three space shuttle engines at any given time.
I crouched to the ground and tensed my muscles. They burned hot as I reached out to the energy of two million swarming bodies, felt it flood and coil in my muscle fibers. It was important not to draw too much power. Anything I do burns the calories the city’s rats are currently using. Using half of my power would be enough to cause a city-wide rat famine. Using all of it could actually set the Metro on fire. So I took just the tiniest sip I could, drawing about as much energy as each rat would have used to blink over the course of a day, and folks on the street fucking lost their minds as I disappeared into the sky.
That’s another nice thing about this power. I can share the rats’ senses and the rats are everywhere. Sure, they were in the dirty places. They were in the dirty street I was just on, one little guy rummaging in a trash can nearby. He heard the lady that was standing next to me scream, then curse bitterly at me for startling her. The rats were in the clean places too. They were scrabbling in the walls of the high-rises, snooping for anything us bigguns left behind. And it’s usually up there in the clean places that they would hear the dirtiest secrets.
I reached the apex of my leap a few feet above the roof of the building to my left and three blocks East of my target. Now, when I first got this power I’d have taken a second to land, assess my trajectory, and line up a careful leap. But frankly, that was the human mind holding me back. With two million rat brains hooked up to mine, I’m a walking super-computer. Of course, I’m the kind of super-computer that got a B+ in high school Algebra and is mostly an expert in garbage. But if there’s a problem a rat could get its head around, physical stuff like hand-eye coordination and rhythm, then it’s solved as soon as I look at it. Nowadays, I surrender myself to the flow. It’s all very Matrix. Or, if you prefer, Crouching Pauper Hidden Rat Swarm.
So, about as casually as I might have leapt a turnstile, I gripped the edge of the roof and launched myself up into a long arc that took me right outside Fred’s office. I dug my nails into the glass of the window at a precise angle, scraping it rather than shattering. Chips and shards exploded under my fingernails, rebuffed by the bootlegged Seal of Mars over my solar plexus.
The board members were non-plussed as the window screeched, my boots thumping against the pane, my face pressed flat with tongue stuck out. Sure, the whole pressing your face against the glass bit is pretty childish. But when you’re balanced on your fingernails at the top of a New York City skyrise every scrap of friction matters.
Fred rolled her eyes and had an aide open the window next to me. “Crawl in here before you fall, idiot.” I swung through, waving at the suits with one hand, rubbing my face with the other.
“You guys really gotta clean that window. Also, whoever it is that has the Cheez-Its in their desk drawer, they’ve been compromised by one of my furry friends. You’re welcome.”
Schilling returned to her seat at the left of the head of the table. Xotchyl Marigold, Xochiquetzal’s gift to mankind, was in the middle of presenting. She waited for me to find a chair.
“If I may bring you up to speed, mister…?”
“Jonny is fine.” Surnames are a drag.
“Mister Jonny. Ms. Schilling says you might be able to enlighten us on a project that has recently come to our attention.” She motioned at a large wooden sphere on the table, its surface carved into a labyrinth of hinges. She karate chopped the table twice, snapping her wrist to make two perpendicular strikes.
The sphere wobbled, and at first as if by accident blocks of wood began to rain out from it. The disintegrating ball rolled around the table, blocks scattering onto each other, slowly giving way to a distinct shape. Before long it had fallen apart completely, forming a model of some building. “What can you tell us about this place, Jonathan?” Fred asked.
Yes, the place was familiar. The rats had definitely seen it. “It’s in Westchester…” I began. It took more time to puzzle out what mattered than it did to summon up the collective lore of the nearest rat colony. Rats have keen senses and are good at patterns, but they signify differently. More and more these days, it takes concentration to focus on things in terms that humans would be interested in.
“There’s lots of food… We’re talking enough for maybe a dozen or so people to wait out the apocalypse but… there’s a gymnasium, dormitories… And a blood-stained room where old ones go to die.”
“Boding well,” one of the board members said. It was the spooky one- the lawyer she-Dracula, whatever her name was. Or maybe it was that lady with the ram-horns, I don’t know. I was distracted by the task at hand and I could never keep these people straight.
“Have you caught any conversation around the place? Any kind of buzzwords or anything?”
I nodded slowly. “Something called… YOUTHFRONT? Ohhhhhh. Shit.” I snapped back to my human senses. The board members stared at each other from around the table. A couple were slack jawed. Fred rolled her eyes back in her head and sneered.
Some old white guy rubbed his wrinkly chin. “Why would they need to start a new FRONT right now? Is this all because of that Topeka attack?”
“It’s as good a pretense as any,” Fred acknowledged. “But that name… Is this supposed to be some kind of super school?”
“Like an internship,” a younger but paler white guy suggested. “Give the kids some kind of formal training before they have to learn it in a full-fledged FRONT.”
“And some formal indoctrination,” I muttered. Marigold gave me an unimpressed look, which was downright withering under her earth-deep eyes.
“Kid’s got a point.” Fred cranked the dial on her oxygen tank. “Kids are easy to manipulate and easy to get rid of if you can’t manipulate them.” She leaned forward. “Case in point: kid, I need you to illegally use your powers to inform us of everything that goes on in that building full of supers from this point forward. If you need to head over to Westchester and personally drop off a barrel of live rats, I’ll give you the barrel and the petty cash to make it happen.”
“You always take care of me, Fred.”
“Call me Schilling or I’ll find a rodent boy who won’t get so familiar.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n.” I stood up from the table. “Anything else you fine folks need before I head out?”
“Yeah, kid, take a mint.” She tossed me a peppermint from her purse and I popped it in my mouth before leaping out the window.
I closed my eyes for just a second as I shot higher still into the sky. What a stupendously excellent day. Got to taste a bit of pizza, got to eat me a free mint, and soon I was going to do the thing I was born to do: narc on a nest full of Nazi super-teens, and God willing? Maybe show ‘em all with a little rat-fu.