I spent the day in the library, sorting, stacking, and recording new arrivals and returned books. It was fascinating how scrap paper was turned into bound volumes complete with illustrated pages and handwritten text. The vast collection encompassed many different subjects and genres, from schoolbooks to children’s picture books.
One title made me smile as I flipped through its familiar pages, tracing the cover icon with my finger.
‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka.
I glanced up from the stack I was putting away. Rena the librarian waved her hand to get my attention. Climbing down the stepladder I leaped to where she was, ready to be of any help.
“I’ve gotten word from the print shop,” she started, handing over a slip of paper. “They have several new volumes ready for circulation.” She pointed to a wood bookrack with wheels. “Take that and go pick them up will you?”
I nodded in affirmation.
The print shop was on the lower level known as the Manufacturing Wing. The entire floor was dedicated to the production of materials for the community from cloth to metalworks.
As I passed each room I couldn’t help linger a bit at each, taking a peek at what was being done. I reminded myself I couldn’t stay too long as Rena was looking forward to the new acquisitions.
The print shop was a much larger than imagined. Desk after desk of writing rats lined the room, facing giant pages of source material pegged to the wall. The back of the room was dedicated to sewing the pages together, binding them into leather bound covers. Although the door was already open the squeaking cart brought everyone to my attention.
“Ah, you’re finally here,” A light brown rat answered. “Come in… Anna? Is that your name?”
“Yes, it is.”
“A pleasure to meet you.” He took my hand. “I am Nathan. Welcome to the print shop.”
As he led me to the side room where the finished books were stored, I cursed the cart embarrassed by the noise that shattered the quiet of the chamber. I looked back into the main room watching the rats working diligently at their script, unaffected by the noise.
“I’m surprised you don’t have a printing press,” I commented as Nathan packed the books. “I’m sure it would make your job a lot easier.”
Nathan gave a knowing grin. “Research and Development has been promising us one for a while. They’re still having trouble getting one to work without constantly breaking down.”
“Really? I thought you guys could build anything after seeing this whole place.”
He smiled at my innocent comment. “We may be smart, but we’re not miracle workers.” Nathan grabbed another stack of books from the shelf. “We’ll eventually have a press but until then, we’re stuck doing this the old-fashioned way.”
He continued to carefully place books on the cart, their leather covers getting the best of my curiosity.
“Not to be morbid but what are these covers made out of? I notice they’re leather but I don’t remember seeing any rat-sized cows around.”
The brown rat let out a chuckle at the thought of tiny bovines. “Now that would be a trick,” he answered. “You have to remember that most of our supplies are freely given by the Valley itself. If we come across anything that isn’t too far gone, we’ll utilize as much as we can. We try hard not to waste anything.”
“The ultimate recyclable,” I joked. “And here I thought you cannibalize the dead.”
Nathan gave me a horrified look despite the joking tone in my voice, although to be honest, the thought did cross my mind.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “Bad joke.”
The rat sighed in relief. If only he knew.
“That’s the last of it,” he announced as the final book was placed on the cart. “Give Rena my regards. We’ll have a new batch for her by the end of the month.”
“Will do,” I answered, giving my polite good-byes to the scribes as I left.
There were twenty hand-bound books on the cart, soon to be well worn by voracious rats who couldn’t get enough knowledge. Some of the titles were challenges in and of itself, ‘Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy’, ‘Physics and its Applications’, ‘Ethics in Genome Manipulation’. My brain hurt just reading them.
I was lucky to get through basic math courses in high school and avoided such classes all together in college. I wondered what the rats got out of such heavy reading. I’m sure there were some who needed to know these things but all of them?
If I was going to be a permanent part of this community I have to convince Nathan to get a hold of some other types of novels for my sanity. No way could I find science textbooks entertaining.
I made my way back at an easy pace. The halls were quiet although there was a faint humming of work echoing throughout.
As I neared the top of the ramp I recognized the set of doors lining my way. It was the hallway to the infirmary where that little yellow mouse worked. The humming grew louder but didn’t catch my attention until I turned the corner.
A group was fussing around the infirmary door. A female nurse stood guard, keeping them at bay. I didn’t want to eavesdrop yet I wondered what happened.
“Excuse me please.”
A rat I recognized from the meeting politely yet firmly passed through the crowd. I slowed to a stop, watching the nurse open the door wide enough to let him in while continuing her vigil against the prying bystanders. As the guard disappeared I caught the familiar sight of a dark gray rat with a red tunic inside. My heart skipped.
“Jinnai?” I blurted.
Pushing the book cart aside, I wove my way through the crowd.
“I’m sorry, but no one is allowed except authorized personnel.”
I was surprised by the sudden exclusive nature of the room.
“Could you tell me if Jinnai is in there? Did something happen?” I felt nervous at the thought that something may have happened to him and on his first day of real guard duty no less.
“I’m sorry but I can’t answer you,” the nurse replied in a stern, practiced tone.
“Could you at least tell me if that’s Jinnai in there? You don’t have to give me details. I just want to know…”
The nurse shook her head about to say her rehearsed comment again when I heard my name from the other side.
“Jinnai?” I answered back with a nervous crack.
The nurse looked over her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I heard him say to her. “You can let her in.”
With reluctance she opened the door. I rushed past her not liking what I encountered.
Jinnai looked as if he had been in a battle zone. His tunic was torn and dirty with his fur all disheveled. Still, he looked fine compared to the rat sitting on a cot nearby.
His right arm had been torn open from wrist to elbow. Mr. Ages was sewing up the nasty wound, with every tug of the thread making the rat hiss in pain. Pooling where they sat ran a speckled trail of blood leading from the door. Two guards stood by alongside the nurse assisting Mr. Ages. One of them was the guard who had entered moments before.
“Oh my God…” I gasped, trying hard not to stare. “What happened? What happened to you?”
Jinnai took my hands, reassuring me. “I’m okay, I only look bad. Justin had sent out a group on what was supposed to be a ‘look and see’ mission. It didn’t quite end up that way.”
I was just about to ask my next question when the door opened again. Justin came in, scanning the room. Seeing me made his face grow long.
“I don’t think she should be here.” Justin did not making eye contact with me.
“She might as well stay,” Jinnai answered. “This has just as much to do with her as it does us.”
The back of my neck tingled at the sound of those words. There was only one thing that could connect me to whatever disaster fell this group.
Justin counted heads, not liking what he saw. “Where’s everyone else?” he asked with rising concern. “Seven of you were sent out. I only count three.”
Jinnai glanced over at me. “Yes, there were seven of us.”
I didn’t like the way he stressed ‘were’.
“The others have been captured.”
“Captured?” Justin spurted. “Are they…?”
“They’re still alive, that I know for sure,” Jinnai answered. “Our attempts to rescue them were ineffective.” His eyes followed the crimson trail staining the floor.
My head began to spin at the vague words. “Who captured them?” I asked, needing to hear the answer I feared.
Jinnai and Justin fell silent with both sets of eyes on me. With a great deal of hesitation, Justin answered.
“Your poachers,” he said. “They’ve returned.”