The Humans are Watching; Stick to the Curfew!
One Ration per Citizen per Week. No Exceptions!
In the Clan we Trust!
The words rained down on Wisp as she marched through one of the many metal corridors in the Den. The propaganda tried to shout over the noise of the crowd swimming around her, but there was no chance of success. It was eight in the evening and dozens of people were squeezing back and forth through the narrow network of tin tunnels, hoping to finish their business as quickly as possible before the nine o' clock curfew.
Wisp gripped tighter to the large bag slung over her shoulder, glaring at the package that was half her size; her nimble body simply wasn't built for pack mule duty. For whatever reason, the Clan hadn't asked her for active duty in a while, and she wasn't going to argue with the Clan any time soon. It wasn't because she was afraid of them, of course, but because she didn't want to go through tons of paperwork and appointments just so she could give them the finger. Instead, Wisp just soldiered on like she always did. After managing to cut and barge her way through the seemingly endless crowd, Wisp emerged at Swift Junction. There was even more people swarming by the round tunnel shaft, waiting for the lift to arrive, but at least Wisp could break off to the plastic railings at the edge to get some space. She peered down at the hollow pit, watching the sparkles of light that were scattered around in the darkness like the night sky. At least, that's what it looked like in the pictures; lots of black with bits of white here and there. Wisp had never actually seen the night sky herself.
The lift soon arrived and Wisp stepped onto the platform, waiting until she reached Floor Ten; Dahl Utilities. Wisp took the north exit into the engineering district. It was less crowded than the bustling markets and the social venues of Floor One, but she still had to tread carefully over the passing wires and cables that were sprawled around the pipelines like silken strands of spider web. She passed by several technicians, most of whom were working on the huge main pipes overhead and behind the curved walls. The work of the engineers was vital and respected in the Den; if any of the important pipes sprung a leak or burst, then the whole tunnel would have to be evacuated so that the plumbing could be fixed before the humans investigated.
Secrecy was their first and last line of defense.
* * *
Wisp reached her destination; a round metal hatch with a crude wooden sign plastered on the surface, which said 'Greyword Electronics'. The painted letters was beginning to flake and show their age. She knocked on the metal door, feeling its warmth spread through her knuckles. The lower floors had much better heating than the upper floors.
"Bwah, what? Uh, yes, come in, come in!" Said a weak and frail voice. Wisp opened the hatch and stepped into the personal workshop of Mr. Greyword. It was small, just like every other home in the Den, with there was barely enough space for the essentials. An unkempt bed took up the north wall, while a cupboard and drawers covered the second. There was no bath or toilet (the Den used public bathrooms for each street to ration the water supply) and thus there was enough space for a workbench at the third wall. Mr Greyword was quietly tinkering away, buried within his assortment of nuts, bolts, screws and pins. The elderly man turned to face the courier, staring at her through the thick white eyebrows and the murky opaque goggles that obscured most of his face. He squinted his eyes and he could just about deduce the thin teenage girl with the long chocolate coloured hair and the dirty brown duster coat standing before him.
"Ah, it's, uh... you!" He stroked the thin white turf on his chin. "Now now, don't tell me, I'll remember it. It was, uh, Wasp, wasn't it?"
Wisp said nothing, and instead she unslung the bag from over her shoulders. Mr Greyword swept some of the mess on his desk carelessly onto the floor and Wisp laid the large cylinder before him. His cracked lips curved up into a wide smile, and Wisp could imagine that his eyes were gleaming intently behind those goggles of his.
"Ah, wonderful, a genuine AA battery! Well done again, my dear, yes, well done. I say, hm, how much energy has it got?"
Wisp shrugged. She only cared about the packages that she found and retrieved herself. It was just her job to take it from the lucky bastards who got active duty.
"Well, I'll, uh, get this tested out, and if she's working well, that'll be one for the elevator."
Wisp thrust a small pink slip into the bony hands of her client, desperate to just get away from this blithering old man and back to her bed.
"Oh, right, yes," Mr Greyword scrambled for a pen amongst his bundle of tools, and after using three of them which had no ink left, he found a working one and quickly jotted down a jumbled mess of dashes and dots. Wisp quirked an eyebrow and guessed that this was supposed to be his signature. The old man nodded, content with his weird little scribble, and passed the slip back before turning and hunching over his newfound item. Wisp stuffed the pink slip into her coat pocket and left the room, leaving Mr Greyword to his work as she set off for Floor Seven so she could collect her pay and go home already.
* * *
"Thank you very much, Wisp," said Mrs Faith, taking the slip from the girl's hand. "Your ration will be waiting for you in the next room."
Wisp tapped her foot impatiently and Mrs Faith shook her head, her short black hair bouncing as she did.
"I'm sorry, dear, but they haven't called you for a surface assignment yet. Maybe next time?"
Wisp just rolled her eyes and stormed into the next room of the Rations Office. It was a public building, which meant it was just several rooms crudely meshed together with makeshift pipe tunnels, and as this building was responsible for stocking food and other sundries, guards stood by to protect the precious cargo - stealing rations was a common practice in the Den, especially during the winter.
As the guards patted her down and made sure she wasn't intending to smuggle anything in or out, Wisp scowled and keep her venomous thoughts to herself. Every time would be "next time". She had no family and lived alone, which was technically legal but very frowned upon in the Den. She couldn't help but feel that she was being shunned and left out of active duty because of being a "loner". If it wasn't for her natural aptitude for getting the job done every time, they probably would have permanently assigned her to pack mule duty years ago.
The guards stood aside to let her into the food stock room, where the man shifted through the bags and containers that made up just one of the many ration piles throughout the Den. Wisp's reward turned out to be a custard cream, which was actually pretty good, especially for a "loner". The biscuit was half her size, which would possibly last her for a few days. She had to break it into pieces to fit it into her bag, but soon enough she was walking briskly through Floor Three's Pratchett Accommodations with her prize. She clutched her arms around her chest; it was the middle of winter and bits of ice and frost were beginning to build up around the pipes.
When Wisp reached Room #67, she gripped onto the freezing cold hatch handle and swung it open, stepping into her tiny haven. She owned the only furniture she needed; a bed to sleep in, a wardrobe to store her clothes, a chest to store her other belongings, a fridge for her food, and a table and chair to eat from. It wasn't much, but it was hers. She took the crumbled biscuit pieces and put them in the fridge before kicking off her boots, throwing her coat into the wardrobe, and promptly collapsing onto her bed. She laid on her back, looking at the stamps she had stuck all around her room. Humans collected stamps, but all they did was buy them and put them in a book. Stamp collecting for someone like her was a lot more dangerous and a lot more rewarding, as she had to steal it from right under their noses. Each one felt like a trophy to her. The stamps covered every inch of the walls and the ceiling, showing so many different and wonderful things. There was a golden bald headed eagle, a team of men planting a flag in their hill, a jolly man in a red suit handing out toys, a man in a suit floating in the night sky she so desperately wanted to see...
Wisp rubbed her eyes and started undressing so she could just get some rest. She was only eighteen years old, but she felt like she was eighty. No matter how many stamps she took and hung on the walls, bits and pieces of the dull grey metal underneath managed to peek through and remind her of where she really was, and where she always would be. Wisp locked the hatch and huddled underneath the napkin that served as her covers, watching her breath rise in the air like faint mist from the cold, until it drifted above her and her eyes blurred in the haze as she fell asleep.
* * *
Four firm knocks on the hatch woke Wisp in the dead of night. She gritted her teeth, ready to punch whoever had dared to disturb her slumber. She marched to the door, ignoring the bitter cold of the metal floor on her bare feet, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she fumbled with the lock and swung the hatch open. Mr Wilson stood before her, wearing the thick fur coat and badge of office that only a representative of the Clan could afford. He looked at her, waiting for her to blush and apologise for answering the door in just her pants and her bra. She didn't. Mr Wilson briefly wondered why the Clan would ever want to deal with this skinny violent-looking loner, but his duty came first and he cleared his throat.
"We have a problem," Wilson whispered. "The Clan has asked for your assistance. Get dressed and follow me. You're going to the surface."
A sly grin crawled across Wisp's face. It looked like tonight was going to get a lot more interesting.
* * * * *
"Ludi (known taxonomically as Parva Servus, Latin for "small servant" or simply "a servant") are a degenerative species in the Homo genus. Discovered over 500 years ago by Samuel Ludibrium on the Isle of Tupillil, they were introduced into human society and have since evolved into sapient creatures capable of human-like tendencies."
Cain paused to cleared his throat, before moving on to the next paragraph.
"According to historical texts written by the crew of the S.S. Bromeliad, the Ludi were a primitive animalistic race, akin to ancient tribal humans. Upon their discovery, they were adopted into human society in exchange for their services. Ludi were often employed for precise manual labour (such as small-scale engineering) or common pets and servants."
Cain lingered his eyes over the man before him for a second, before they returned to the page in his hands.
"On February 20th 1899, the M5:5 Act was staged, wherein there were mass outbreaks of violent behaviour and disobedience amongst the Ludi. Their refusal to work or obey halted most of the manufacturing and maintenance in areas such as India and Japan, although these effects were also felt in other areas such as North America and Europe. There were several accounts of Ludi violence against humans, in addition to Ludi public protest and criminal offenses around the globe. A worldwide conference was held and it was unanimously decided that with no other viable course of action, the Ludi would be segregated and no longer allowed in human society. The law was exacted immediately, with failure to comply punishable by death. Many Ludi rebelled against the reform, and within a week of the M5:5 Act, over fifty percent of the worldwide Ludi populace had been executed."
Cain fumbled as he flipped the page over. He always felt awkward when he read that last paragraph.
"The records for Ludi population centres were lost shortly after the Act, resulting in a lack of definite Ludi habitat locations, especially due to their persistent ability to survive and invade new territories. It is believed that most of the Ludi population has decreased greatly over the years in certain areas. For example, despite the number of alleged sightings, remote areas such as Japan and Australia have had very few officially recognised Ludi habitats found in the last twenty years, leading to the theory that they have been led to extinction (a theory supported by the prevalence of Ludi hunting in these areas for their human-compatible blood and their alleged culinary taste.) Aside from these areas, there are sightings throughout the rest of the world, and it is believed that Ludi habitats are commonly found within major cities and towns. However, these Ludi habitats are growing more rare in recent times. This is most likely due to most governments following the example of North America in their campaigns to sterilize any Ludi habitats that are found to be within human territory or using human resources."
The page ended with a list of references and documents, but Cain decided that his presentation had gone well enough and he finished with a smile. The man before him, Professor Gunther, watched him for a moment through his thick spectacles, before he leaned back in his chair and gave his own smile.
"Well done, Mr. Cunningham. I think that's a good foundation for you to work on throughout the course."
Cain nodded in agreement. He put his bundle of papers on the professor's desk, where the musty smell of wood vanish and hot chocolate was wafting over him. "Thank you, sir."
"Think nothing of it. Now then, I think you're done for today. Enjoy your weekend."
The professor leaned over his desk and began skimming through the papers from the other students, and Cain was dismissed with a vague flick of the wrist. Cain left the office, closing the door quietly behind him, and walked out into the campus. He stepped onto a fresh blanket of snow, which was growing by the minute with each new snowflake falling from the heavens. Winter seemed to have come early to Pym Valley.
* * *
27 Dyne Drive was very ordinary. It was a little bungalow with a tidy garden, clean windows and a charming brick chimney. Cain loved it, though; it was small and simple. He unlocked the door and walked in, brushing the snow off of his shoes and kicking them off by the door, along with hanging his coat on the nearby rack. The house seemed colder than usual; he had been expecting the air to be wavering before his eyes with raw heat like most of the time, but it was much more chilly today. The answer to his mystery came from the kitchen.
"GODDAMN IT!" There was the sound of a radiator being kicked, and then a series of angry grunts and growls. Cain ran a hand through his short black hair with a smirk. It was good to be home. He walked into the narrow kitchen to find Alice clutching her foot and chanting at least a dozen different curse words to herself. When she saw her housemate walk in, she quickly flipped back to her usual cheerful self. The two of them had managed to rent the bungalow for their university years, and Alice was by far the most unusual thing within it. Her short frazzled green hair and the weird magic eight ball thing that she had for her right eye just didn't fit in. Then again, it couldn't imagine anywhere that could handle Alice.
"Sorry about that, Cain. The radiator is broken and I'm freezing my tits off," Alice glanced at her mechanical adversary, yet the eight ball glass eye still managed to linger on Cain. No matter how often he saw it, Cain always felt awkward when he looked directly at it.
"So you thought you would kick it back into shape?" He asked, putting the kettle on so that he could have some coffee, already looking forward to his fresh brew.
"Yeah, well, it might have worked!" Alice shouted back. "You were busy talking about rodents or something."
"Ludi," Cain corrected her.
She rolled her eyes (or rather she rolled her left eye and the right one just sort of jiggled gleefully.) "Same thing, really."
Cain decided not to answer her. Alice was a sweet girl at heart, but she was always quick to judge and stubborn to boot, and he knew that an argument with her would last at least several hours. "Any plans for the weekend, can I ask?"
Alice giggled. "Going to have some peace and quiet tonight, and then tomorrow is going to be a party out in town. Woo!" She banged her head to an imaginary tune.
Cain smiled. "Hope you have fun."
"What, don't you want to come with?"
He thought about it for a second. "Mm, no, I'm busy with my work."
"Whatever. If I find any of your precious little Ludi on the dancefloor, I promise not to step on them," She laughed. "Well, if they're quick enough."
It was Cain's turn to roll his eyes. Alice gave another laugh before she practically skipped away to the bedroom to use the computer. Cain thought about trying to repair the radiator, but he assumed that it was fine. He used to live further north where it was much colder than this, hence why he could survive the bitter cold in just his usual vest, shirt and trousers. He finished making his cup of coffee and walked into the living room to watch some television or something. He had nothing planned tonight, or tomorrow night, or the night after that. Alice kept urging him to go out clubbing with him, but he wasn't what he wanted. What he wanted was something small and simple.
Cain went to set up the fireplace to warm things up, setting up a nice assortment of firewood and coal for the cold night ahead. He was at least glad that his Ludi work was going well, though he wished that he had more background material and research. Ever since he had been taught about the Ludi in school, from the carefree stories of 'the little people' in first grade all the way up to his studies on Ludi biology and environmental adaptation in high school, he had never seen an actual photograph of one. It was always a vague description or an artist's impression, showing small rabid creatures that looked more rodent than human. It just didn't seem very likely that no one would have any evidence of the Ludi, since it was glaringly obvious that they had survived to the present day and that they were still living all around the world in scattered hideouts. An entire colony could be right beneath his feet and he would never know. He smirked to himself over the thought; Alice would freak out if she ever found Ludi running around her home.
The fire sparked up and the fireplace began its work. Satisfied, Cain reclined in the sofa and clicked on the TV remote. Nothing happened. He quirked an eyebrow as he flicked the cover on the back and looked inside.
The AA battery was missing.