Author: Chris Cook
"What have we here?" said a high, squeaky voice from among the boxes. To Willow and Tara's amazement, a small mouse with patchy grey fur walked casually out from his hiding place, quite ignoring the band of fierce, large rats on either side of him.
"I thought all you miserable moggies knew better by now," the mouse said in a voice dripping condescension, "this is Spike's place. Cats don't come into Spike's place. Know why? Because cats that do, don't come out again." The mouse paused, and grinned, showing its small, sharp teeth. "Are you getting a vague glimpse of your immediate future?"
"Dalton?" Amy squeaked. "What on earth are you doing here- never mind," she hastily added, as the rats flexed their paws and glared at her, "not my business, never mind..."
"Well, well, well," the mouse, Dalton, smiled, "look what the cats dragged in. Long time no see, Amy. I thought you were much too craven of a coward to poke your whiskers anywhere near here. I thought you knew what'd happen if I ever got my paws on you."
"I don't see your paws anywhere near her, mouse," Willow hissed.
"You're not in a position to make threats, cat," Dalton sneered, twitching his pink nose disdainfully at Willow. "You ought to remember who you're talking to. This mouse isn't hiding in a skirting board sneaking bits of cheese any more. This mouse is Spike's trusted lieutenant... and that, you miserable feline, rearranges the food chain a bit."
"We'll see," Willow muttered darkly, letting her claws scrape a little on the concrete floor.
"Just because I'm a curious sort," Dalton went on, "before we haul your worthless flea-bitten carcasses in front of Spike, suppose you tell me what idiotic idea in your little kitty brains led you to come onto hostile territory?"
"We're-" Tara began.
"None of your business, Mickey," Willow interrupted, surreptitiously nudging Tara with a back leg. The mouse gave a humourless smile, showing his tiny fangs again, and looked thoughtfully from Willow to Tara.
"That's a house cat," he said, "her collar's in good condition, and she's been groomed by a human. Unlike you," he looked back at Willow, "with your tatty old collar... how long have you been a stray? Two years, three?" He peered at the tag on the old, faded collar around Willow's neck, then at Tara's newer tag.
"Willow," he declared, "and Tara... what a cute couple." Amy gasped in fright, Willow glared furiously, and Tara stared at the mouse in confusion.
"How'd he...?" she began.
"A housecat named Tara," Dalton went on, as if amusing himself, "yes... it all begins to make sense. You came here looking for someone, didn't you? A stupid, feisty little kitten? She said you'd come. Seemed to be under the impression that you'd perform some daring feat and rescue her... as if a housecat could do anything of the sort."
"What have you done to her?!" Tara demanded, taking a step forward. The rats tensed, baring their fangs, which were quite a bit longer and sharper than Dalton's.
"Oh, she's safe," the mouse said airily, "safer than you, at any rate... Spike won't let anyone take a bite out of his new mascot. You, on the other hand... well, having a kitten around the place has got my comrades here spoiling for a fight, and you three are practically wearing signs saying 'fair game'. In language even a rat can understand," he added with a condescending smile at the rats.
"The first rat that jumps," Willow hissed, baring her fangs, "these teeth will snap him like a twig!" The rats bristled at the threat, but checked momentarily.
"Big words, little kitty," Dalton mocked her in a sing-song squeak, "you're outnumbered ten to three. If you can count your housecat and that miserable little gutter rat in a fight."
"Willow," Amy hissed quietly, "let's go Willow, let's get out of here!"
"We're not leaving Miss Kitty," Willow hissed back, pre-empting Tara who was about to say likewise.
"She's safe!" Amy hissed. "Spike won't hurt her, she's a mascot! That means he'll keep her!"
"Well, much as I've enjoyed talking to you," Dalton went on, "I think the time has come for you to get the hell beaten out of you."
"I mean it!" Willow snarled. "The first rat that moves! You see these teeth? You think I won't do it?"
"What difference does it make?" Dalton sneered. "While you're biting one rat, the other nine will be biting you. How long do you think you'll last then?"
"Long enough to finish off the rat I bite!" Willow shot back. "Back off," she whispered to Tara and Amy, "slow, back to the outside."
"Get them!" Dalton squeaked.
"The first rat dies!" Willow snarled over him. "Which one, huh? You?" she glared at one of the rats at random. "Or you? Or you? Which rat here thinks it's okay to get his spine bitten clean through, so long as some other rats survive? You're all willing to die for the cause, are you?"
"Get them!" Dalton squeaked shrilly, hopping up and down at the rats, who snarled and clawed at the ground, but hesitated at actually making the first move.
"That's right," Willow hissed, "smart rats, you stay right there, and we're leaving now. That means no more cats on your territory, and you can all go on being smart rats. Back off!" she whispered urgently to Tara, who was glaring at the rats and refusing to retreat. Slowly, as if waging an internal struggle, she began to back up with Willow, while Amy cautiously but eagerly sought the shelter of the shaft leading out of the building.
"What are you waiting for?!" Dalton squeaked incredulously. "Are you afraid?"
That stung the rats, and several of them tensed to leap. Willow hissed loudly, baring her fangs for all to see.
"Stay down!" she warned. "Stay down and you all live through this... otherwise there'll be at least one of you dead on the floor in the space of a second. One in ten, any of you like those odds enough to die, just to get rid of a cat that's leaving anyway?"
"What's wrong with you?" Dalton squeaked. "It's not like you've never fought a cat before!"
"I don't see you first into the fray, mousey," Willow glared. "Looks to me... back into the shaft, go on..." Amy and Tara backed nervously out of the corridor, with Willow slowly following, keeping her eyes fixed on the rats. "Looks to me like these rats are smarter than to get themselves into a nasty fight just on the say-so of a little squeaky mouse."
"Yeah?!" The mouse jumped as if to attack Willow. He instantly scuttled back, but the sudden jolt had done its work, and the rats instinctively leapt forward, none of them paying any attention to him now that they were in motion.
"Run!" Willow yowled, scuttling backwards as fast as her paws could carry her. He bumped into Tara, holding the grille open for her, and turned to grab her with her front paws and shove her through to safety first, before scurrying through herself. She slammed the grille shut just as the first of the dark, furry shapes thudded against it. She raked her claws across the grille, causing the rats to recoil from it for an instant, then gave it a final tug to wedge it solidly shut and scampered out after Tara and Amy.
In the building's cavernous mail sorting complex, a black rat with a streak of bleached white hair down his back looked down from his perch atop a stack of crates, as Dalton and his rats slunk morosely in from a doorway.
"What's all the noise?" he demanded. "What'd I tell you about making a noise like that? Too much commotion and you'll have people coming down here to see what all the fuss is. That's all we need... got ourselves a nice, cosy set-up here, and you go and ruin it by letting the humans know we're here."
"Sorry boss," Dalton said quickly, "only... well, thing is, there was someone in the corridor, and, you know how it is, got to put on a show of strength and all that."
"Someone?" the rat asked. "A rat from outside? Alright, haul 'em in and let's have a look at what's left of 'em."
"Actually boss," Dalton explained, cringing, "while yes, technically there was a rat... there were a couple of cats as well."
"Ah. I see," the rat nodded. "And no doubt you've got a really good explanation for why you're not hauling this cat's sorry carcass in here as we squeak."
"Two cats, boss," Dalton corrected.
"Don't correct me!" the rat hissed. "I hate that. You may have some smarts between your ears, but that does not mean you can go lording it over everyone else, got it? You just bloody well remember who's the little mouse..." he snarled, snowing his fangs meaningfully, "...and who's Spike."
"Yes boss, sorry boss," Dalton back-pedalled quickly. "I told the rats to get them, boss, only you know how it is, they're not all like you, they hesitated, and the cats got out..."
"Yeah," Spike sighed, "bloody wastes of fur... I'd do in the lot of you if there were any better rats in this sorry town!" he hissed loudly at the various rats milling around the sorting complex. They cringed, and as one did their best to go unnoticed as Spike's gaze swept across the room.
"Miserable bleedin' rodents," he muttered, before looking down at Dalton again. "Who were these cats?"
"Oh, no-one boss, no-one," Dalton assured him, "strays, looking for food, not even worth thinking about, really, nothing to even bother with. Chased them out, they're gone, end of story."
"Oh well," Spike muttered, "probably wouldn't have been much fun to fight anyway. Hey, li'l bit?" he said to the crate's other occupant. "Like to see Uncle Spike fight a cat?"
"You're a bad rat," Miss Kitty Fantastico meowed, trembling but brave.
"Yeah," Spike nodded, "I am that. But you know what, li'l bit? I'm top rat of this town, so I can be as bad as I want, and ain't no-one gonna stop me. Dalton!" he yelled.
"Yeah boss?" the mouse replied.
"Take us up to the mascot perch." Spike advanced on Miss Kitty and grabbed a hold of her collar, dragging her over to a heavy cargo hook on a chain resting on the corner of the crate.
"Hold on, li'l bit," he advised, "otherwise I'll just hook your collar on this, and you'll choke on your way up." Glaring, Miss Kitty held on tightly to the bulky pulley at the top of the hook.
Dalton, meanwhile, scurried up to a gantry overlooking the sorting complex and hopped up onto the control console, where a large, bored-looking rat was sleeping. He quickly kicked the rat awake, then looked out over the complex. Conveyer belts ran non-stop, moving letters back and forth, larger belts shifted boxes and crates, and metal arms slid in and out, diverting letters and packages into shafts once the writing on them had been read by the glittering red eyes of the machines bolted in place along the belts.
"That one," Dalton ordered, pointing to a button, "press, then turn that knob this way." The rat dutifully obeyed, leaning heavily on the button to push it, then grabbing hold of the knob and hauling it around until Dalton told him to stop.
Spike and Miss Kitty held on as the chain's slack was taken up and the hook rose into the air, swinging slightly from side to side.
"Interesting thing, li'l bit," Spike said, matter-of-factly, "most of us think that people run the world, but you know, they don't. Machines move their letters, tell them when to cross the street, drive them around, decide when to open doors for them, let them buy things... machines run people. It's true. And Dalton there, he's a smart mouse. He can read people's writing, and understand it. That means, I can run the machines. This whole place, every machine in it, I say the word and Dalton'll make it move how I want, where I want, when I want. I own this place. It's like the food chain, see? People, machines... me."
"Th-then," Miss Kitty said in a frightened meow, clinging tightly to the chain and trying not to look down at the dizzying drop beneath her, "h-how come th-the mouse isn't in charge?"
"Ah, good point," Spike nodded, "incisive mind, that's what I like to see in a mascot. Not too incisive, mind you. Now, the reason Dalton doesn't run things, and I do, that's to do with the food chain too, in a way. Call it the food chain of fighting. Any rat in this room, he can beat seven shades of hell out of Dalton without really trying. But Dalton's mine, and me... well, I can take on every rat in this room, all by myself. And they know it. Know why I can do that?"
"N-no?" Miss Kitty stammered.
"Cause I'm a bleedin' vicious killer," Spike said gleefully. "Come on, hop off."
Miss Kitty glanced down to see the hook lowering itself to the top of a towering stack of crates. At a snarl from Spike she jumped the short distance down to the crate top, and watched as the chain, with Spike aboard, came to rest atop the stack. In the distance, Dalton shouted more orders, and the top of the chain began to trundle across the roof, until it was some distance from the stack, the chain hanging between them as the hook remained precariously balanced where it was.
"Get the idea?" Spike asked. "I'll explain it to you, just to make sure - you never know what daft things kittens'll try, do you? This chain, it's loose. It'll support me, cause I'm a lean fighting rat, but you're a big fluffy kitten, and unless I'm mistaken, a bit heavier than I am. If you try to climb it up to the roof, the hook'll slide off the top of the crate, and drop you down to the floor, and once it stops swinging - assuming you don't fall off and break all your kitty bones - you'll be in reach of all those rats down there. They're not nice rats, li'l bit. I like to keep 'em well fed, but not too well fed, see? So they wouldn't mind at all if a helpless bite-sized kitten like you happened to drop into their laps, and me... well, let's just say that if my mascot thinks she can try to escape, then I figure whatever happens to her, she had it coming. Now, what're you going to do?"
"...stay h-here," Miss Kitty said, glowering at Spike.
"Good girl," the rat nodded. "Stay put, and you'll live. A while longer, at any rate." With that he turned and scuttled off, along the chain hanging over the huge drop, and eventually up into the rafters. Miss Kitty frowned after him, then curled up tightly so none of the rats would see her cry.