the amazing maurice and his educated rodents (discworld #28) - Page 5


'An ideal base,' said Dangerous Beans. 'It smells secret and safe. A perfect place for rats.'

'Right,' said a voice. 'And you know what's worrying me about that?' The rat called Darktan stepped into the candlelight, and hitched up one of his belts of tools. A lot of the watching rats suddenly paid attention. People listened to Hamnpork because he was the leader, but they listened to Darktan because he was often telling you things that you really, really needed to know if you wanted to go on living. He was big, and lean, and tough, and spent most of his time taking traps apart to see how they worked. 'What is worrying you, Darktan?' asked Dangerous Beans. 'There aren't any rats here. Except us. Rat tunnels, yes. But we've seen no rats. No rats at all. A town like this should be full of them.'

'Oh, they're probably scared of us,' said Peaches. Darktan tapped the side of his scarred muzzle. 'Maybe,' he said. 'But things don't smell right. Thinking is a great invention, but we were given noses and it pays to listen to them. Be extra careful.' He turned to the assembled rats and raised his voice. 'OK, people! You know the drill!' he shouted. 'In front of me, in your platoons, now!' It didn't take long for the rats to form three groups. They'd had plenty of practice. 'Very nice,' said Darktan, as the last few shuffled into position. 'Right! This is tricky territory, troops, so we're going to be careful…' Darktan was unusual among the rats because he wore things. When the rats had discovered books – and the whole idea of books was still a difficult one for most of the older ones – they found, in the bookshop they invaded every night, the Book. This book was amazing. Even before Peaches and Donut Enter had learned how to read human words, they'd been amazed by the pictures. There were animals in there wearing clothes. There was a rabbit who walked on its hind legs and wore a blue suit. There was a rat in a hat, and he wore a sword and a big red waistcoat, complete with a watch on a chain. Even the snake had a collar and tie. And all of them talked and none of them ate any of the others and – and this was the unbelievable part – they all talked to humans, who treated them like, well, smaller humans. There were no traps, no poisons. Admittedly (according to Peaches, who was painstakingly working her way through the book, and sometimes read out parts) Oily the Snake was a bit of a rascal, but nothing truly bad happened. Even when the rabbit got lost in the Dark Wood he just had a bit of a scare. Yes, Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure was the cause of much discussion amongst the Changelings. What was it for? Was it, as Dangerous Beans believed, a vision of some bright future? Had it been made by humans? The shop had been for humans, true, but surely even humans wouldn't make a book about Ratty Rupert the rat, who wore a hat, and poison rats under the floorboards at the same time. Would they? How mad would anything have to be to think like that? Some of the younger rats had suggested that perhaps clothes were more important than everyone thought. They'd tried wearing waistcoats, but it had been very difficult to bite out the pattern, they couldn't make the buttons work and, frankly, the things got caught on every splinter and were very hard to run in. Hats just fell off. Darktan just thought that humans were mad, as well as bad. But the pictures in the book had given him an idea. What he wore was not so much a waistcoat as a network of wide belts, easy to wriggle in and out of. On them he'd sewn pockets – and that had been a good idea, like giving yourself extra paws – to hold all the things he needed, like metal rods and bits of wire. Some of the rest of the squad had taken up the idea, too. You never knew what you were going to need next, on the Trap Disposal Squad. It was a tough, ratty life. The rods and wires jangled as Darktan walked up and down in front of his teams. He stopped in front of one large group of younger rats. 'All right, Number Three platoon, you're on widdling duty,' he said. 'Go and have a good drink.'

'Oooh, we're always on widdling,' a rat complained. Darktan pounced on it and faced it nose to nose, until it backed away. 'That's 'cos you're good at it, my lad! Your mother raised you to be a widdler, so off you go and do what comes naturally! Nothing puts humans off like seeing that rats have been there before, if you catch my meaning! And if you get the opportunity, do some gnawing as well. And run around under the floorboards and squeak! And remember, no-one is to move in until they get the all-clear from the trap squad. To the water, now, at the double! Hup! Hup! Hup! One two, one two, one two!' The platoon headed off, at speed. Darktan turned to Number Two platoon. They were some of the older rats, scarred and bitten and ragged, some of them with stubs of tails or no tails at all, some of them missing a paw or an ear or an eye. In fact although there were about twenty of them, they had between them only enough bits to make up about seventeen complete rats. But because they were old they were cunning, because a rat who isn't cunning and shifty and suspicious doesn't become an old rat. They'd all been grown up when the intelligence came. They were more set in their old ways. Hamnpork always said he liked them that way. They still had a lot of basic rattiness, the kind of raw cunning that would get you out of the traps that over-excited intelligence got you into. They thought with their noses. And you

didn't have to tell them where to widdle. 'All right, people, you know the drill,' said Darktan. 'I want to see lots of cheeky stuff. Stealing the food out of cats' bowls, pies from under the cooks' noses-'

'- false teeth from out of old men's mouths-' said a small rat, who seemed to be dancing on the spot while he stood there. His feet moved all the time, tippity-tapping on the cellar floor. He wore a hat, too, a battered, home-made thing out of straw. He was the only rat who could make a hat work, by wedging his ears through it. He said to get ahead, you had to get a hat. 'That was a fluke, Sardines. I bet you can't do it again,' said Darktan, grinning. 'And don't keep on telling the kids how you went for a swim in someone's bathtub. Yeah, I know you did, but I don't want to lose anyone who can't scramble out of a slippery tub. Anyway… if I don't hear ladies screaming and running out of their kitchens within ten minutes I'll know you're not the rats I think you are. Well? Why are you all standing around? Get on with it! And… Sardines?'

'Yes, boss?'

'Easy on the tap-dancing this time, all right?'

'I just got these dancing feet, boss!'

'And do you have to keep wearing that stupid hat?' Darktan continued, grinning again. 'Yes, boss!' Sardines was one of the older rats, but most of the time you wouldn't know it. He danced and joked and never got into fights. He'd lived in a theatre and once ate a whole box of greasepaint. It seemed to have got into his blood. 'And no going on ahead of the trap squad!' said Darktan. Sardines grinned. 'Aw, boss, can't I have any fun?' He danced after the rest of them, towards the holes in the walls. Darktan moved on, to Number One platoon. It was the smallest. You had to be a certain kind of rat to last a long time in the Trap Disposal Squad. You had to be slow, and patient, and thorough. You had to have a good memory. You had to be careful. You could join the squad if you were fast and slapdash and hasty. You just didn't last very long. He looked them up and down, and smiled. He was proud of these rats. 'OK, people, you know it all by now,' he said. 'You don't need a long lecture from me. Just remember that this is a new town so we don't know what we're going to find. There're bound to be plenty of new types of traps, but we learn fast, don't we? Poisons, too. They might be using stuff we've never run across before, so be careful. Never rush, never run. We don't want to be like the first mouse, eh?'

'No, Darktan,' the rats chorused dutifully. 'I said, what mouse don't we want to be like?' Darktan demanded. 'We don't want to be like the first mouse!' shouted the rats. 'Right! What mouse do we want to be like?'

'The second mouse, Darktan!' said the rats, who'd had this lesson dinned into them many times. 'Right! And why do we want to be like the second mouse?'

'Because the second mouse gets the cheese, Darktan!'

'Good!' said Darktan. 'Inbrine will take squad two… Bestbefore? You're promoted, you take squad three, and I hope you're as good as old Farmhouse was right up until the time she forgot how to disengage the trip-catch on a Snippet and Poison Ratsnapper Number 5. Over-confidence is our enemy! So if you see anything suspicious, any little trays you don't recognize, anything with wires and springs and stuff, you mark it and send a runner to me-yes?' A young rat was holding up its paw. 'Yes? What's your name… miss?'

'Er… Nourishing, sir,' said the rat. 'Er… can I ask a question, sir?'

'Are you new in this platoon, Nourishing?' said Darktan. 'Yes, sir! Transferred out of the Light Widdlers, sir!'

'Ah, they thought you'd be good at trap disposal, did they?' Nourishing looked uneasy, but there was no going back now. 'Er… not really, sir. They said I couldn't be any worse than I am at widdling, sir.' There was general laughter from the ranks. 'How can a rat not be good at that?' said Darktan. 'It's just so… so… so embarrassing, sir,' said Nourishing. Darktan sighed to himself. All this new thinking was producing some strange things. He personally approved of the idea of the Right Place, but some of the ideas the kids were coming up with were… odd. 'All right,' he said. 'What was your question, Nourishing?'

'Er… you said the second mouse gets the cheese, sir?'

'That's right! That's the squad motto, Nourishing. Remember it! It is your friend!'

'Yes, sir. I will, sir. But… doesn't the first mouse get something, sir?' Darktan stared at the young rat. He was slightly impressed that she stared back, instead of cringing. 'I can see you're going to be a valuable addition to the squad, Nourishing,' he said. He raised his voice. 'Squad! What does the first mouse get?' The roar of voices made dust fall down from the ceiling. 'The Trap!'

'And don't you forget it,' said Darktan. 'Take 'em out, Specialoffer. I'll be with you in a minute.' A younger rat stepped forward, and faced the squads. 'Let's go, rats! Hut, hut, hut…' The trap squads trotted away. Darktan walked over to Dangerous Beans. 'That's got us started,' he said. 'If we can't get the humans looking for a good rat-catcher by tomorrow, we don't know our business.'

'We need to stay longer than that,' said Peaches. 'Some of the ladies are going to have their babies.'

'I said we don't know it's safe here yet,' said Darktan. 'Do you want to be the one to tell Big Savings?' said Peaches, sweetly. Big Savings was the old head female, widely agreed to have a bite like a pick-axe and muscles like rock. She also had a short temper with males. Even Hamnpork kept out of her way when she was in a bad mood. 'Nature has to take its course, obviously,' said Darktan, quickly. 'But we haven't explored. There must be other rats here.'

'Oh, the keekees all keep out of the way of us,' said Peaches. That was true, Darktan had to agree. Ordinary rats did keep out of the way of the Changelings. Oh, there was some trouble sometimes, but the Changelings were big and healthy and could think their way through a fight. Dangerous Beans was unhappy about this but, as Hamnpork said, it was either us or them and when you got right down to it, it was a rat-eat-rat world… 'I'm going to go and join my squad,' said Darktan, still unnerved at the thought of confronting Big Savings. He moved closer. 'What's up with Hamnpork?'

'He's… thinking about things,' said Peaches. 'Thinking,' said Darktan, blankly. 'Oh. Right. Well, I've got traps to see to. Smell you later!'

'What is the matter with Hamnpork?' said Dangerous Beans, when he and Peaches were alone again. 'He's getting old,' said Peaches. 'He needs to rest a lot. And I think he's worried that Darktan or one of the others is going to challenge him.'