Plugs

We humans have found ways to cope with the Ratters’ “friendly invasion.”   Cowards stain carpets with hara-kiri.  The blithe pretend that the aliens have not arrived, driving to work while ignoring saucers whirring overhead.  The timid hide in sewers and damp basement hidey-holes–the first places the Ratters look.  And sycophants believe they are the future of human survivors, ratting out fellow humans.  The only true survivor is you who hold this reading slate, you who cannot be a Ratter because the slate would self-destruct if your reflective eyes gazed upon it, you who cannot read this aloud because it would detect the spoken language and explode with enough force to bring a Ratter ship crashing to the earth.  You desire to undermine their place on this planet until they can be properly exterminated.  Presently, three methods of success include lip service, pay, and pompous yet low roles in the government.

Foremost, give lip service.  Admire their strength and their tails’ roughened metallic texture.  What separates you from the sycophants?  Palm moisture:  Sycophants sweat in awe of rats and in fear of being cornered by humans.  We will lure the Ratters into the arena.  Stage boxing matches between humans and aliens.  Let the aliens win.  “Ooh” and “aah” their prowess.  But reserve one human champion.  Pay whatever it costs to buy the fight because humans need hope.  Remember:  We are among the weakest of Earth’s predators, yet we reign supreme.  Viva Darwin!

Yet we best not underestimate their evolutionary climb.  Seek to undermine their will in other ways:  paying them less, or paying more while taking away other privileges.  Don’t pay in cheese, or if you do, severely limit their diet.  Low-calorie diets keep them prepubescently under six foot.  High-calorie diets allow them to tower to twelve foot, intimidating to any human.  Find ways to restrict hiring any creature over six and a half feet–low ceiling heights, small offices and closets, etc.  This hurts a small percent of humans as well, but we can compensate these humans in other manners.

Neither of these methods alone would stop the Ratters from getting suspicious.  Therefore, we need to elevate their statuses artificially.  Promote them into prominent yet piddling roles in business and government.  Presidents are fine so long as their human cabinets and CEOs do the critical decisions.  If trouble arises, accidents can happen.

We humans presently appear to have the short end of the stick, but our evolutionary genius has helped us beat stronger predators before.  It will again.

The younger typesetters told stories about Samuel: how he had once set the Canon of the Witches in one night, and how when the oil in the lamps had run out, he had gone on in the dark, with only his sure fingers to guide him. Or how when Gundrid of Maesbury lost her temper and turned the mayor into a field vole, then ordered tiny books to be printed for the poor woman by way of apology, Samuel had hired dormice to cast the type, but had composited every page himself, with tweezers and an immense magnifying glass.
Even so, Bridget warned him before she shut up shop. “Sir,” she said, “hadn’t it better wait till tomorrow? I mean… when we are all here? So it’s a bit—safer?”
The others thought she was brave to say that. He shook his head.
“It’s wanted Frida’s Day,” he said.
So he opened the book when all the locks were locked, and turned from page to page, both hands working on their own, pulling vowels and consonants, ligatures and punctuation from the case. Under his hands the words of the spell formed themselves in the formes. This job they would have to print blindfolded. But even if he set it in the dark, he still had to shape the words, taking care that they did not shape him. He recited verses from the Canon, interleaving them with the lines he set, like protective leading.
He’d left one window open to let the spring air in, the air of a perfect evening, just free of a soft rain, the cherry tree outside the window covered in blossoms so sweet they seemed to scent the moonlight.
I, H, A, V, E, B, E…
When the words took him he knew. They felt like the touch of his master on his shoulder. He almost expected to hear Old Jack’s voice, saying, “Well done, Samuel.” Then he knew it was too late. Fear bit him.
It will feel heavy as lead, he thought. Binding as a forme, oily as ink.
But it didn’t. It felt light as the words in his mind, soft as the lead between his fingers. It felt fine and funny, like setting text for field voles.
I have become. Let my wings open. Let it always be spring, and I in it, he thought. I did my best.

She lost her name on Stiltskin 9, another casualty when the reputation economy crashed. She made it offworld with a few credit cubes and a broken-down matter fabricator.

From the first, though, her new planet turned out to be just wrong. The fabricator’s nanotech assembly was stuck, would only convert straw to gold. And she couldn’t find any straw, just caldera of a steaming, congealed, or lukewarm porridge. The last of her cubes bought her way into a domed city, but it was nearly hibernation season, and the super-intelligent bears shunned her, in spite of her fur coat and matching gloves.

The bears favored semi-communal open-plan architecture, so wandering the city felt to her like wandering a single immense home. Soon enough, she was completely alone, the bears having all retreated to the privacy of their winter dens. She made herself at home, helping herself to the leftovers in the bears’ kitchens, snoozing warily in their summer beds, and whiling away hours in their virtual reality entertainment chairs–at least, whenever she could find one with a neural helmet neither too large nor too small.

One day, she met an insomniac. His was the only brightly-lit living area. Where she’d heard white noise forest-sound lullabies coming from the dens of other bears, he had a frantic electro-fiddle hoedown screeching from his speakers. He was sitting at a bark-covered kitchen table with a mug of coffee as big as her head.

“I get nightmares,” he grumbled.

She hadn’t asked.

“Humans in my house while I sleep. Touching my stuff.”

She folded her hands in her lap.

“Never seen a human.” He shuddered. “I hear they’re mostly hairless.”

She’d noticed the VR entertainments were redacted so that all other sentient species appeared as bears.

She tugged her fur-lined hood forward. “I can’t sleep either. Just moved from the other hemisphere. Biological clock still off.” The quick-spun tale surprised her. “I could keep a lookout for you. Let you rest.”

There was gratitude in the bear’s bloodshot eyes. “I couldn’t pay you, except in trade.” He motioned toward stacks of crates. “I’m import. High-end porridge bowls.”

She shrugged, “Sure.” It was safer than serial housebreaking.

“Didn’t catch your name,” said the bear.

She saw an open crate, a bit of packing material spilled out. Straw.

“Call me Goldy,” she said. The fabricator was a restless weight in her pocket. “I’m in export.”

Note from the author: Although my girlfriend does read my mind sometimes, this story is not about either one of us. Occasional mind-reading is fun and exciting; it’s only constant mind-reading that’s a problem.

“That’s sweet that you like me better,” Marcia said, reading my thoughts as a jogger passed us, “but you’re right: she has a nicer ass.”

It was great that Marcia always told me what was on her mind. I found it harder to like hearing what was on my mind. Which, unfortunately, she knew. It was also impossible to surprise her.

“But I don’t need surprises,” she said as I was thinking about the problem one Sunday morning during a walk in postage stamp park two blocks from our apartment. “Believe me, I get enough surprises just hearing what people think. The old guy at the Korner Mart yesterday: he wanted to smear–”

“Look, ducks,” I said. It was true, there were actually two ducks today in the bathtub-sized pond in the middle of the tiny park. Of course, I was just changing the subject.

“Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t bring things like that up.”

 As usual, she ignored what I said and responded to what I thought. It wasn’t even a matter of privacy: it was a matter of being able to conduct a relationship instead of having my instincts conduct it for me. For just a while, I wanted her out of my head. And she’d probably just overheard that thought, proving the importance of my point. God, I seriously needed to break up with her.

Marcia looked at me disgustedly. “Fine,” she said. “You … just … fine!”

She strode off in the direction we’d come. She was probably starting to cry already, and knowing that I knew that probably was making her cry even harder.

“Hey, get back here!” I shouted after her.

She turned, but shook her head furiously. Her tears glimmered on her cheeks. “I know what you think,” she said.

“Thinking isn’t the same as deciding,” I said, walking toward her. “If you’re going to hear everything I think, fine, but some of that stuff is crap.”

“It’s not crap!” she said. “You thought–”

I pictured crap, a big steaming pile of it. She snorted with laughter that she was trying not to have and made an I’m-really-amused-but-I’m-trying-to-be-angry face.

“Come on, Houdini,” I went up and took her hand. “You didn’t even look at the ducks.”

The ducks had flown away when we went back to the pond, but I remembered what they had looked like for us both, and that was almost as good.

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