Doofus lifted his head.
Tommy's eyes met Meg's.
Then a second sound: Snap!
"Two," the boy said. "We caught two at the same time!"
Meg put her book aside and armed herself with an iron poker from the fireplace in case the prey needed to be struck to finish them off. She hated this part of rat catching.
She went to the kitchen, switched on the lights, and looked first in the cabinet beneath the sink. In the dish, the poisoned food was almost gone. The beef was gone from the big trap too; the steel bar had been sprung, but no rat had been caught.
Nevertheless, the trap wasn't empty. Caught under the bar was a six-inch-long stick of wood, as if it had been used to spring the trap so the bait could be taken safely.
No. That was ridiculous.
Meg took the trap from the cupboard to have a closer look. The stick was stained dark on one side, natural on the other: a strip of plywood. Like the plywood backing in all the cabinets, through which the rat had chewed to get at the Saltines.
A shiver shook her, but she remained reluctant to consider the frightening possibility that had given rise to her tremors.
In the cupboard by the refrigerator, the poisoned bait had been taken from the other dish. The second trap had been sprung too. With another stick of plywood. The bait had been stolen.
What rat was smart enough ... ?
She rose from her knees and eased open the middle doors of the cabinet. The canned goods, the packages of Jell-O, the boxes of raisins, and the boxes of cereal looked undisturbed at first.
Then she noticed the brown, pea-size pellet on the shelf in front of an open box of All-Bran: a piece of warfarin bait. But she had not put any bait on the shelf with the cereal; all of it had been in the dish below or under the kitchen sink. So a rat had carried a piece of it onto the higher shelf.
If she hadn't been alerted by the pellet, she might not have noticed the scratch marks and small punctures on the package of All-Bran. She stared at the box for a long time before she took it off the shelf and carried it to the sink.
She put the poker on the counter and, with trembling hands, opened the cereal box. She poured some into the sink. Mixed in with the All-Bran were scores of poison pellets. She emptied the entire box into the sink. All the missing bait from both plastic dishes had been transferred to the cereal.
Her heart was racing, pounding so hard that she could feel the throb of her own pulse in her temples.
What the hell is going on here?
Something screeched behind her. A strange, angry sound.
She turned and saw the rat. A hideous white rat.
It was on the shelf where the All-Bran had been, standing on its, hind quarters. The shelf was fifteen inches high, and the rat was not entirely erect because it was about eighteen inches long, six inches longer than an average rat, exclusive of its tail. But its size wasn't what iced her blood. The scary thing was its head: twice the size of an ordinary rat's head, as big as a baseball, out of proportion to its body—and oddly shaped, bulging toward the top of the skull, eyes and nose and mouth squeezed in the lower half.
It stared at her and made clawing motions with its upraised forepaws. It bared its teeth and hissed—actually hissed as though it were a cat—then shrieked again, and there was such hostility in its shrill cry and in its demeanor that she snatched up the fireplace poker again.
Though its eyes were beady and red like any rat's, there was a difference about them that she could not immediately identify. The way it stared at her so boldly was intimidating. She looked at its enlarged skull—the bigger the skull, the bigger the brain—and suddenly realized that its scarlet eyes revealed an unthinkably high, unratlike degree of intelligence.
It shrieked again, challengingly.
Wild rats weren't white.
Lab rats were white.
She knew now what they had been hunting for at the roadblock at Biolomech. She didn't know why their researchers would have wanted to create such a beast as this, and though she was a well-educated woman and had a layman's knowledge of genetic engineering, she didn't know how they had created it, but she knew beyond a doubt that they had created it, for there was no place else on earth from which it could have come.
Clearly, it had not ridden on the undercarriage of their car. Even as Biolomech's security men had been searching for it, this rat had been here, out of the cold, setting up house.
On the shelf behind it and on the three shelves below it, other rats pushed through cans, bottles, and boxes. They were repulsively large and pale like the mutant that still challenged her from the cereal shelf.
Behind her, claws clicked on the floor.
More of them.
Meg did not even look back, and she didn't delude herself into thinking that she could handle them with the poker. She threw that useless weapon aside and ran for her shotgun upstairs.
BEN PARNELL AND DR. ACUFF CROUCHED IN FRONT OF THE CAGE THAT stood in one corner of the windowless room. It was a six-foot cube with a sheet-metal floor that had been softened with a deep layer of silky yellow-brown grass. The food and water dispensers could be filled from outside but were operable from within, so the occupants could obtain nourishment as they desired it. One third of the pen was equipped with miniature wooden ladders and climbing bars for exercise and play.
The cage door was open.
"Here, see?" Acuff said. "It locks automatically every time the door is shut. Can't be left unlocked by mistake. And once shut, it can only be opened with a key. Seemed safe to us. I mean, we didn't think they'd be smart enough to pick a lock!"
"But surely they didn't. How could they—without hands?"
"You ever take a close look at their feet? A rat's feet aren't like hands, but they're more than just paws. There's an articulation of digits that lets them grasp things. It's true of most rodents. Squirrels, for instance: You've seen them sitting up, holding a piece of fruit in their forepaws."
"Yes, but without an opposable thumb—"
"Of course," Acuff said, "they don't have great dexterity, nothing like we have, but these aren't ordinary rats. Remember, these creatures have been genetically engineered. Except for the shape and size of their craniums, they aren't physically much different from other rats, but they're smarter. A lot smarter."
Acuff was involved in intelligence-enhancement experiments, seeking to discover if lower species, like rats, could be genetically altered to breed future generations with drastically increased brain power, in hope that success with lab animals might lead to procedures that would enhance human intelligence. His research was labeled Project Blackberry in honor of the brave, intelligent rabbit of the same name in Richard Adams's Watership Down.
At John Acuff's suggestion, Ben had read and immensely enjoyed Adams's book, but he had not yet quite decided whether he approved or disapproved of Project Blackberry.
"Anyway," Acuff said, "whether they could have picked the cage lock is debatable. And maybe they didn't. Because there's this to consider." He pointed to the slot in the frame of the cage door where the stubby brass bolt was supposed to fit when engaged. The slot was packed full of a grainy brown substance. "Food pellets. They chewed up food pellets, then filled the slot with the paste, so the bolt couldn't automatically engage."
"But the door had to be open for them to do that."
"It must have happened during a maze run."
"Well, there's this flexible maze we constantly reconfigure, half as big as this whole room. It's made of clear plastic tubes with difficult obstacles. We attach it to the front of the cage, then just open their door, so they go straight from the cage into the maze. We were doing that yesterday, so the cage was open a long time. If some of them paused at the door before entering the maze, if they sniffed around the lock slot for a few seconds, we might not have noticed. We were more interested in what they did after they entered the maze."
Ben rose from a crouch. "I've already seen how they got out of the room itself. Have you?"
They went to the far end of the long room. Near floor level, something had tampered with an eighteen-inch-square intake duct to the building's ventilation system. The grille had been held in place only by light tension clamps, and it had been torn away from the opening behind it.
Acuff said, "Have you looked in the exchange chamber?"
Because of the nature of the work done in lab number three, all air was chemically decontaminated before being vented to the outside. It was forced under pressure through multiple chemical baths in a five-tiered exchange chamber as big as a pickup truck.
"They couldn't get through the exchange chamber alive," Acuff said hopefully. "Might be eight dead rats in those chemical baths."
Ben shook his head. "There aren't. We checked. And we can't find vent grilles disturbed in other rooms, where they might have left the ducts—"
"You don't think they're still in the ventilation system?"
"No, they must've gotten out at some point, into the walls."
"But how? PVC pipe is used for the ductwork, pressure sealed with a high-temperature bonding agent at all joints."
Ben nodded. "We think they chewed up the adhesive at one of the joints, loosened two sections of pipe enough to squeeze out. We've found rat droppings in the crawl-space attic ... and a place where they gnawed through the subroof and the overlying shingles. Once on the roof, they could get off the building by gutters and downspouts."
John Acuff's face had grown whiter than the salt part of his salt-and-pepper beard. "Listen, we've got to get them back tonight, no matter what. Tonight."
"Just trying isn't good enough. We've got to do it. Ben, there are three males and five females in that pack. And they're fertile. If we don't get them back, if they breed in the wild ... ultimately they'll drive ordinary rats into extinction, and we'll be faced with a menace unlike anything we've known. Think about it: smart rats that recognize and elude traps, quick to detect poison bait, virtually ineradicable. Already, the world loses a large portion of its food supply to rats, ten or fifteen percent in developed countries like ours, fifty percent in many third-world countries. Ben, we lose that much to dumb rats. What'll we lose to these? We might eventually see famine even in the United States—and in less advanced countries, there could be starvation beyond imagination."
Frowning, Ben said, "You're overstating the danger."
"Absolutely not! Rats are parasitical. They're competitors, and these will be competing far more vigorously and aggressively than any rats we've ever known."
The lab seemed as cold as the winter night outside. "Just because they're a bit smarter than ordinary rats—"
"More than a bit. Scores of times smarter."
"But not as smart as we are, for heaven's sake."
"Maybe half as smart as the average man," Acuff said.
Ben blinked in surprise.
"Maybe even smarter than that," Acuff said, fear evident in his lined face and eyes. "Combine that level of intellect with their natural cunning, size advantage—"
"Size advantage? But we're much bigger
Acuff shook his head. "Small can be better. Because they're smaller, they're faster than we are. And they can vanish through a chink in the wall, down a drainpipe. They're bigger than the average rat, about eighteen inches long instead of twelve, but they can move unseen through the shadows because they're still relatively small. And size isn't their only advantage, however. They can also see at night as well as in daylight."
"Doc, you're starting to scare me.'
"You better be scared half to death. Because these rats we've made, this new species we've engineered, is hostile to us."
Finally Ben was forming an opinion of Project Blackberry. It wasn't favorable. Not sure he wanted to know the answer to his own question, he said, "What exactly do you mean by that?"
Turning away from the wall vent, walking to the center of the room, planting both hands on the marble lab bench, leaning forward with his head hung down and his eyes closed, Acuff said, "We don't know why they're hostile. They just are. Is it some quirk of their genetics? Or have we made them just intelligent enough so they can understand that we're their masters—and resent it? Whatever the reason, they're aggressive, fierce. A few researchers were badly bitten. Sooner or later someone would've been killed if we hadn't taken extreme precautions. We handled them with heavy bite-proof gloves, wearing Plexiglas face masks, suited in specially made Kevlar coveralls with high, rolled collars. Kevlar! That's the stuff they make bulletproof vests out of, for God's sake, and we needed something that tough because these little bastards were determined to hurt us."
Astonished, Ben said, "But why didn't you destroy them?"
"We couldn't destroy a success," Acuff said.
Ben was baffled. "Success?"
"From a scientific point of view, their hostility wasn't important because they were also smart. What we were trying to create was smart rats, and we succeeded. Given time, we figured to identify the cause of the hostility and deal with it. That's why we put them all in one pen—'cause we thought their isolation in individual cages might be to blame for their hostility, that they were intelligent enough to need a communal environment, that housing them together might—mellow them."
"Instead it only facilitated their escape."
Acuff nodded. "And now they're loose."
HURRYING ALONG THE HALL, MEG PASSED THE WIDE ARCHWAY TO THE living room and saw Tommy struggling up from his chair, groping for his crutches. Doofus was whining, agitated. Tommy called to Meg, but she didn't pause to answer because every second counted.
Turning at the newel post, starting up the stairs, she glanced back and could see no rats following her. The light wasn't on in the hallway itself, however, so something could have been scurrying through the shadows along the baseboard.
She climbed the steps two at a time and was breathing hard when she reached the second floor. In her room, she took the shotgun from under the bed and chambered the first of the five rounds in the magazine.
A vivid image of rats swarming through the cabinet flickered across her mind, and she realized that she might need additional ammo. She kept a box of fifty shells in her clothes closet, so she slid open that door—and cried out in surprise when two large, white rats scuttled across the closet floor. They clambered over her shoes and disappeared through a hole in the wall, moving too fast for her to take a shot at them even if she had thought to do so.