The thick steel cable gently swung in the westerly wind, thinner cables whipping about as they hung towards a non-existent road. The shadow of a lone figure stood upon the cable, his whip-like tail in constant motion as it kept him balanced, his dark eyes showed no emotion as he surveyed the scene, the rising sun, lighting up broken spires of steel, concrete and glass. Too many years had passed, the old city no longer had a known name, the rubble-strewn streets empty save for the local wildlife or any outcasts who chose to make it their home.
Some inner instinct made the creature look over his shoulder. The sun lighting up his rat head, his black eyes took in the approaching dust storm. Fastening the buttons on his shirt with one paw-like hand, he locked his holster with the other. Smiling a challenge at the approaching storm he spoke to no one. “Come and get me.”
Extending his black claws from both hand and feet he dropped to feral form running along the cable to the nearer support tower. A sharp turn and he was in the air, tail trailing behind as a rudder, he rolled over to see the grey-blue sky before plunging into the cool river of the estuary not a moment too soon. With a roar the dust storm arrived, rolling over the land as though seeking creatures to scour flesh from bone with its violent wind.
Turning upright, the rat-man sped along under the surface. He knew the route well, a couple of hundred yards and he was at the old sewer outlet. Darting into the pipe he turned on his headlight. It wasn’t far before a break became visible in the pipe wall. Turning into it, he surfaced, turning off the headlight, the rat swam to the edge of the pool, his way illuminated by ancient lights. He noticed one more had died meaning yet another trip to find a replacement.
Pulling himself from the water he stripped off shirt, shorts and belt before shaking as much water off as he could. Throwing the wet clothing over his shoulder he took them to the heated pipes. A gauge nearby informed him the power levels were dangerously low. Normally he wouldn’t have cared, but dust storms could last for hours and he needed the sunlight to touch the black glass that made the power. A small sigh escaped him as he reached for the lever and switched over to the emergency lighting.
“Hey, I was trying to read.” The voice came from one of the secondary chambers.
“Sorry, Night, you’ll have to wait ‘till the dust storm passes. It’s only just dawn.”
“Find anything interesting tonight?” The voice enquired.
“Nothing new. I’m beginning to think we’ve uncovered everything we can in this ruin. Almost time to move on.” The scene that greeted the rat-man as he entered the room was exactly as he had expected, metal signs, books and posters were scattered about, making it almost impossible to move without treading on something. “So then, young stoat, you find anything new in all this?”
“No, Black, not really. I do find this writing to be rather confusing sometimes. Clawmark is far easier to read.”
“That’s because it’s the written language of us anthropomorphs. The ancients written language was used worldwide like ours, but we still find it difficult to read. It’s a shame historians like us are so few.” Clearing a soft chair, Black collapsed into its comforting embrace.
Night picked up a heavy bound book, caressing the cover. “Each time I read these relics I seem to understand the language better. But it’s not through learning; it’s more like I’m remembering how to read.” Tossing the book aside he gave a derisive snort. “Listen to me, I must sound stupid.”
“Not entirely,” Black smiled. “You do know that legend tells that we were made by the ancients, that our intelligence was due to them. If there is any truth in the stories, then it may be that your understanding is meant to be. Maybe the rest of us just don’t read enough to allow our given intelligence to understand what it is seeing.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Maybe, I’m not even sure myself. Did you learn anything in your reading?”
“Maybe, those plates there,” Night pointed to the stack of metal sheets, “they are all the ones we found at the joins of each path, those that are still legible at least. If I understand them right, they are nameplates, each one naming a path. If each path had a different name, then that would explain the repetition of the numerals we found on the intact doors. There are four words that end the names, if that’s what they are, if I read them right they are, road, way, avenue, and street.”
“You think these words are all words for path?”
“It could be. They are all found on the plates, and by the frequency that they occur it’s the only truly plausible explanation I have.”
“Anything else?” Black encouraged.
“I can’t find anything printed after the year of twenty twenty-four, by their calendar. It’s almost as though they gave up recording things.”
“Could that be the year they vanished?”
“I don’t think so. That records building we found, it had the books, but it also had those silver disks and those amazing crystal collections. Maybe they found a way to write really small, onto those disks? I don’t know, I’m guessing here.”
“Well, we have all those that didn’t break when the touched them.” Standing, black headed to the exit. “I’m going to catch some sleep while this storm blows. Wake me when the sky is clear.”
“Alright, I’ll clear up in here.” Watching the door until he was sure Black had gone, Night moved straight to his own chair, thrusting a hand down beside the cushion he pulled out a pair of fingerless gloves. The red emergency lighting shone from the metallic surface. Slipping them on he flexed his fingers, getting used to their feel. A small dot of green light slowly grew in brilliance near the wrist of each glove.
Checking the door again, Night pressed the light and felt the gloves fit themselves to his hands. Closing his fist a pair of metallic blue claws shot from between the fingers. Relaxing his fingers a little the claws retracted back into the glove, though he could not see where they might be stored. Levelling an arm towards a makeshift target on the wall, a small cylindrical device rose from the back of the hand. All he had to do was want to hit the target, and a blue ball flew from the end of the cylinder, blasting a hole in the target. Relaxing his arm, the cylinder vanished into the glove once more.
Touching the small point of light, the gloves became loose and he pulled them off. They were as thin as his other clothes, and felt like fabric, yet they looked like metal. These artefacts, Night decided, he was keeping for himself. He’d show Black the small tube he’d found with them when he woke. The rat had not slept for days; other discoveries could keep until he had slept full.
It didn’t take long to put everything back in their boxes, having slept for most of the night, the stoat headed into the main room and sat himself facing the pool, rifle laid on his lap, but ready to fire on any intruder.
“Wakey, wakey.” Night caught the jacket before it landed on his head.
“Nice try, Blackear, I was only dozing.”
“Your snoring could have brought roof down.” The jacket thumped into Black’s head. “Thank you, I was about to ask for it back anyway.”
Night let out a sceptical cough as he removed the clip from the rifle, catching the unexpended round mid air as he un-chambered it.
“So what’s for breakfast then, my good rat?”
“A couple of my cousins.” Black held up two dead normal rats by the tails.
“This city’s diet is getting tiresome. I’ll be glad to get back to civilization.”
“Me too. I don’t like having to eat rats, but it’s pretty much the only food out here.”
Night rose from the floor and crossed to the heating rails. “Any idea how long you’ve been asleep?”
“You’re the one next to the energy meter. And catch, seeing as you’re over there.”
Night caught the now skinned rats replacing the clothes with them. “Power system’s fully charged. I’ll switch to main power.” The clunk of the lever echoed in the cavern and the main lighting flickered into life. “You’re clothes are dry.”
Warned this time, Black was able to catch them. Quickly putting the garments on over his fur he noticed again the dead bulb. “We’re going to have to get a replacement for that light today.” Taking a seat by the makeshift worktop, Black took out his pistol and began stripping it. “Another two days before we have to return. They’re going to be boring as hell.”
“Maybe. Could you not do that on the food top? We purposely made a bench in the other room for that.”
“Yeah, well, I want to talk, and you’re in here tending the food. I’m not doing it on your half anyway.”
“Thanks.” Flipping the rats over he turned to Black. “So, what do you want to talk about.”
“First, thanks for letting me sleep so long. Second, I had a thought. You know those folding devices we found in one of the taller buildings?”
“I seem to remember one of them, had a little drawer with a slot that looked like it could hold one of those disks. The box beside it had a hole the same shape as those crystals. We’ve always through they were machines, maybe they can read the invisible data, if there is any, on those disks and crystals.”
“Maybe. You want to try it?”
“Yes, I want to bring one back here, hook it up to our power and see if we can get it working. We may have to learn a lot about how to get it to work, but if we make it work, it could be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for.”
“Well, I’m going with you on that trip then. Now, put that gun back together, the food’s almost ready.”
Eating in silence was almost impossible for the pair, but they managed it somehow. While he waited for Black to finish, Night headed into the secondary room and collected the gloves and tube, secreting them in an inner pocket of his jacket. Returning to the main room he found his partner waiting for him.
Passing Night his rifle, Black indicated the stoat should take the lead. A couple of steps took them to a ladder that led up to a manhole cover. Pushing it aside, Night carefully scouted the surroundings. Deeming it safe he pulled himself out, closely followed by Black. Replacing the cover, Black inserted a short pole into one of the holes and jerked it sideways; a metallic clunk of a mechanism inside was just audible. “Alright, were locked up,” he whispered. “Our destination is two paths over. If that gang of cats is still hanging around we may have some trouble.”
“In that case, I was going to save this for later, but here,” Night pulled the tube from his pocket. “You might find it helpful.”
“What is it?”
“Both gun and sword, I’ve got my own version, just press the green light to turn it on.” Night pulled out the pair of gloves as he spoke.
“These are artefacts? We shouldn’t use them like that.”
Night pulled the gloves on, “Your choice, but if it means I live, I’m using them.” He pressed the light.
“I see you’ve already experimented with it. For me, this is a last resort. But tell me how to use it.”
“Just press the light, if your target is at a distance point the tube at it, keeping the light towards you, and just want to shoot it. Up close, you’ll know once you turn it on.”
“If it saves my life, thank you, if not, you’re haunted.”
“Fine by me, but let’s get off the path, that building has a route over to the next one.”
Crouching low they jogged over to the building Night had indicated. Checking through the broken windows they leapt inside. Piles of roofing had fallen in numerous places and one of the support pillars looked dangerously close to collapsing, keeping to the rubble covered areas of floor, they made their way stealthily through the building.
Hiding beneath the windows on the far side, Black carefully looked over the edge. “I don’t see anyone, there’s all the usually sounds as well, so I doubt anyone else is nearby.”
“Ok, I’ll go first.” Moving along to the missing door, Night stepped through the opening into daylight. “Well, no snipers. We’d best get to the end of this path; those building are too unstable.”
A swift lope had them both at the corner of the end building quickly. “Alright, our target is on the next path,” Black looked as Night. “If we didn’t encounter them yet, I doubt we will. I don’t remember any cover in the next path, so we run as fast as we can. And at least hold your rifle, even if you don’t intend on using it, you should look armed.”
The last dash to their target building, a steel structure with most of the glass missing from its curved sides, was as uneventful as the rest of their trip. The interior of the structure was still in good shape. Reaching the stairwell though, they found the steps beginning to crumble under foot. “Quick and light Nightstorm, quick and light.”
The journey up was quick. Four stories up, they turned off the stairs and onto a level that was once obviously a place of office work. The folding machines littered the floor amongst the pulp that used to be wooden desks. Black’s memory took them straight to the device with the draw open. Folding the lid down carefully he packed it into his backpack, placing the small box and its cable into the bag with it.
“Alright, so far, so good,” Night said as he turned to the door. “Or not so good.”
Framed by the empty doorway, stood a leopard. “So, the history hunters have returned?”