It was obvious that Scratch didnt belong.
For starters, his coat colour was all wrong. With the exception of Ned, who possessed a rather handsome coal-black layer of fur, every rat in the laboratory was a sparkling, immaculate white. Scratch was the same dirty grey as the neglected piping runs outside. Secondly, he was young. The others, even Ned, were all quite old. Hyram, the leading rat and often simply called the Admiral, was jokingly said to be immortal.
It was also obvious that most of the other rats did not appreciate his presence. After all, they belonged, and he did not. They had been born and raised in this laboratory, the most prestigious analysis and research facility of all. Scratch was
well, no one cared to even ask which laboratory he had come from. It didnt matter, after all, because there was no other laboratory in the world like this one.
In fact, Scratch would not have even moved to the laboratory if Ned hadnt requested a replacement for his recently deceased partner. No one had ever asked for a replacement before, or at least not in recent memory. The other rats had all laughed, confident in their assumption that the Admiral would deny the request. But he hadnt. In fact, Hyram seemed all too eager to entertain Neds whim. The other rats grumbled, but said nothing. After all, Ned was a brilliant engineer and meticulous chemist, and no one cared to step between Neds genius and the Admirals fondness for it. Instead, they took their displeasure out on Scratch.
On his first day, Scratch had been taken on a whirlwind tour of the laboratory. He was shown the chemical cabinets, where each reagent, solvent, and additive was carefully coded and stored according to its formula and expiration date. He had seen all of the mixing and analysis equipment: scales, beakers, graduated cylinders, burettes, droppers, burners, stirrers, and pipettes. Drawers were opened and closed so quickly that he barely had time to recognize their contents. Most of them seemed to contain sedimentary layers of papers, mostly log sheets and procedures. The computer system was disturbingly outdated. The other rats had asked Scratch rather critically if he knew how to type, and Scratch had answered yes. He had felt that it would not be in his best interests to tell them that his home laboratorys computer was operated by voice recognition alone. Scratch had then been shown the door to the communal feeding and nesting area at the back of the lab. There was another door not far to the right of the nest, which was barred with a powerful locking mechanism and a coded keypad. Scratch had asked where the door led but had received only a cuff on the head in response.
After that, Scratch had been free to explore the lab while the other rats pretended as if he didnt exist. He had asked when it was time to forage, and the other rats had laughed bitterly. Real laboratory rats dont forage, they had said. Meal times were regularly scheduled, and Scratch was the last to eat. He was given the worst bed in the nesting area, one made up of threadbare, oily rags that smelled faintly but distinctly like dried fish. That night, he had slept poorly. It hadnt helped that the other rats had woken him up in the middle of the night only to beat him with tubes and pipettes.
On his second day, Scratch had been thrown unceremoniously into laboratory work. His training had consisted of being ignored when he was performing well and derided when he was performing poorly. Few in the lab even bothered to call him by name. Instead, they nicknamed him Nub, which Ned explained, rather apologetically, was shorthand for non-useful body. Of the rats that he had met so far, only Ned seemed keen to help him in a kind and compassionate manner, showing Scratch the written procedures and explaining the unwritten protocols. Scratch had wondered if, deep down, Neds benevolence was born out of guilt for having trapped the young grey rat in such a hostile place so far from his friends and family. Scratch had also wondered if, deep down, he hated Ned for the same reason. His desire for some form of connection with another living thing had not allowed those thoughts much more than passing speculation, though, and he had delved into his work at Neds side, grateful for the company of the older rat.
Today, however, Ned was nowhere to be seen, and Scratch had begun work on his assigned analyses alone. Very few rats were awake and working just yet, and the only one within conversation range was a very skinny white rat with missing patches of fur and rheumy eyes. The other rats called him Chubby in a strange mix of affection and mockery. Scratch did not know Chubbys real name and so wisely abstained from calling him anything at all.
The two rats worked in silence until Scratch heard the older rat mumble under his breath. He swiveled his ears forward and listened more closely as he continued to adjust the temperature of the burner.
Dilution, calcination, sublimation, distillation
all this, and were still no closer to our original objective than we were in the beginning.
Scratchs curiosity overwhelmed his discretion. Original objective?
Chubby snorted and squinted his ruby eyes, seemingly aware for the first time that the younger rat was even in the same room. This is the Prima Turris, the first laboratory. I wouldnt expect someone like you to know this, but every other laboratory here, from the ones in the highest levels to the ones in the lowest tanks and voids, concerns itself with the chemical maintenance of our operating facility. Sampling water, calculating, weighing chemicals, mixing chemicals, and sampling again. An endless cycle with no end and no purpose. But the Prima Turris
we are different. Only we remember our original purpose.
But what is the original purpose? Scratch asked.
The old rat did not answer the question. Instead, he simply barked, Get back to heating the burner! Scratch jumped in surprise and then returned to monitoring the temperature of the sample that he was heating.
Ned checked up on his new assistant later that day, much to Scratchs delight. Together they worked on developing a more efficient procedure for testing several water chemistry parameters.
Scratch, as usual, stayed behind in the laboratory long after Ned had left for the communal nesting room, meticulously cleaning and drying all of the used equipment to his mentors stringent requirements. On his way to his bed, Scratch stopped in front of the strange, locked door that he passed every morning and every night just outside of the nest. His onyx-black eyes scanned the lab from right to left. When he was sure that no one was around to chastise him, Scratch tapped out a few words on the keypad. First, for his own amusement, he tried his name. Then he tried Prima Turris. Then, as many of the names of the other rats in the lab as he could remember. Each time he completed another combination of letters, the keypad panel lit up with an angry red colour. Scratch, who had not expected anything to happen, did not feel particularly disappointed. That was the nice thing about having very few expectations. Growing tired and bored, he wiped his whiskers and made his way to his way to his fishy, rag-lined bed.
The next several days went by uneventfully but satisfactorily. Scratch performed his duties in the laboratory with increasing capability. Ned continued to instruct him carefully, almost affectionately. The other rats began to ignore him more than berate him, and a few of them even seemed to become comfortable with his presence.
Scratch and Ned occasionally made small talk when they werent completely engrossed in their work. Ned told Scratch about some of the marvelous advancements in chemical preparations he had made and how he was the fastest in the laboratory at several of the analyses. Scratch reminisced about his old laboratory and some of the foraging expeditions that he had been on outside of the lab. When the conversation shifted to family, though, Ned became silent, and Scratch, to change the subject, made an observation about the rats in Prima Turris. There arent any female rats here, he said. There were quite a few in my old lab. Why arent there any here?
Ned scratched his shoulders with his forepaws and smoothed his whiskers, obviously uncomfortable. But he answered Scratchs question anyway, as best as he could. There is a very old tale about the first head rat here. He fell in love with a beautiful female rat named Julia. But something happened. There was fallout between the two, and much of our progress toward the original purpose was destroyed in the process. From then on, all of the rats in this laboratory have been male. It keeps our goals and our minds on a professional level instead of a
ah, personal one.
Scratch was silent for a moment. He thought about asking how the lab was repopulated when its occupants finally became too old to work. He thought about asking whether it was something of a disappointment to have never felt the affection of a female before. Instead, he asked, But what is the original purpose?
Ned did not answer. Go get a fresh burette. We need to replace this one, he said.
Scratch felt more unfulfilled than ever.
That night, after the laboratory was empty except for Scratch and one of the chemists who regularly kept watch on the night shift, Scratch again slipped off to examine the keypad controlling the mysterious locked door. He tried all of the chemical names that he could think of, and all of the names of the various analytical supplies. He input animal species designations, mundane objects, and food items. Each time, he was rewarded with an angry red light informing him that he was not authorized access. An approaching, shuffling noise interrupted Scratchs mindless amusement with the keypad, and he desperately scrambled on top of a nearby supply cabinet and behind some amber chemical bottles to avoid being seen. Scratch didnt particularly fancy that he would enjoy the ensuing confrontation if someone found him messing with the locked door. It hadnt been expressly forbidden to him, but, judging by the stony silence and nasty looks he received when he asked about it, he preferred not to take any chances.
Scratch watched from his vantage point as a great white rat sauntered up to the door. In his mouth he carried a jumble of papers. Scratch recognized the rat as the head of the laboratory, Hyram. He had never been formally introduced, as the Admirals time was far too valuable to be wasted interacting with such a lowly subordinate, but Scratch recognized him by his sheer size and power of presence. Scratch had seen Hyram many times crouched on the highest shelf in the nesting room, fastidiously grooming and pouring over countless reams of notes and logs. Even from far away, in the cramped nests, Scratch had been impressed by the Admirals aura of power and grace. Now Scratch was so close that he could smell the chemical salts lacing the great rats fur, and he could only watch in enraptured silence as Hyram tapped out letters on the keypad.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Click.
The bars slid back into the doorframe with a quiet groan. The door swung inward, the Admiral and his collection of papers swept into the mysterious room, and the door closed again with a click. The bars returned to their original position. The lab was silent.
Scratch did not move for quite some time. His heart was beating so furiously that he could feel it in his feet and tail. When he finally mustered the courage to descend from his perch, he nearly fell to the floor as his shaky legs buckled beneath him. He hurried through the nesting room door and into his bed, not bothering to even groom himself, pulling the fishy rags over his body and face. That night, sleep did not come easily to Scratch.
The next morning Scratch was able to force himself to rise and prepare for work by sheer force of will alone. He groomed his disgusting, matted coat and polished his whiskers with his pinkish saliva. Breakfast was left in the corner, as always. It was some sort of fungus substance mixed with honey. Scratchs stomach informed him that it hadnt recovered from the night before by knotting up into a ball, and the grey rat elected to skip his meal.
Ned was already working, carefully weighing chemicals for an analytical solution. Scratch fell into his normal routine with hardly a word. His mind turned even as his hands moved over the dials of the burner and the bulb of the dropper. What was in that room? What were those papers? Those papers
A thought occurred to Scratch. Ned? Where are the old logs and data sheets? Where is the Archival Room?
Ned, who had been pouring concentrated iodide into a beaker, stopped. He blinked. What?
You know, continued Scratch, the Archival Room. Every laboratory has one. The place where all of the notes and data sheets and logs and procedures that have been created since the lab began its work are stored. The greatest lab that there is must have one.
Ned blinked again. No, I dont believe we have one.
Then where do all of the old logs go? There must be paper copies kept somewhere, since the digital data file is deleted every week to make space for new information.
Ned narrowed his eyes. Why are you so interested in all of our old data?
Scratch recognized that he walked on a razors edge. His next words were measured. Because, in order to determine whether all of our tests and measurements are even effective, we have to have all of the previous logs to see the overall trends. A number is just a number, but a set of numbers is a history. If you plot a single number on a graph, you have a point. But if you plot a hundred numbers, then you have a path, a trend. You need to have a path. Otherwise, how will we ever know when we have reached the original objective?
Ned was silent.
Ned? Scratch asked.
Yes? Ned responded. His voice was so low that it was almost inaudible.
Ned, what is the original objective?
I dont know.
There was an awkward silence in which Ned was too ashamed and Scratch was too surprised to speak. The grey rat recovered first. If you dont, then who does?
Ned shook his head sadly, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. I came here just as you did, a stranger from a faraway place, longer ago than I care to remember. I never asked more than once what the original objective was. How could I? When I was new, that was information that I was not trusted or privileged enough to have. Now? Its been too long. I could never ask now. Who knows, maybe no one here knows the answer. Maybe everyone does. Maybe only the Admiral. The black rat looked up at his protégée now, his gleaming black eyes imploring. If youve ever felt a connection with me, do me this favour. Never speak to me of this again.
Somewhere in the dark pit of his being, Scratch felt a stir of shameful pity for his mentor. He closed his eyes and nodded his head. Lets talk about how we can make this mixing process faster without damaging the integrity of the chemical compounds.
Ned and Scratch began discussing procedures and properties and additives and analyses. They talked enthusiastically at first, but eventually the lack of sleep from the night before began to take its toll on Scratch. He faltered a few times with his paws as he was counting out drops of liquid for measuring. Ned frowned. Youre obviously tired. Weve been working you too hard since youve been here. Why dont you lie down for the rest of the night, and Ill finish cleaning up tonight for a change.
Before he knew what he was doing, Scratch nuzzled his mentor in a mixture of relief and appreciation. He backed away then, embarrassed, but Ned only laughed and clapped him on the shoulder with his paw. Youre a good kid, Scratch, and you deserve some time off. Keep at it, and someday you will be do great things. Now get going, off with you! Ned hustled Scratch toward the nesting area, and the young rat happily obliged.
Despite his guilt over trapping Ned in an uncomfortable corner and his lingering curiosity over the strange locked room, Scratch fell asleep almost before he had curled up in his pile of rags.
Scratch did not stir until it was time for his next shift in the laboratory. Once again, he groomed himself upon awakening, and mentally promised himself that he would never fall asleep before cleaning himself ever again. The chemicals had seeped into his hair shafts and skin, and the taste of it lingered until Scratch overpowered it with the salty flavor of the brine-cured lox that had been left for his breakfast. He rushed to his station in the laboratory a few minutes late, and several of the other rats shot nasty glances in his direction. No one seemed more than superficially concerned, though, so Scratch ignored them and delved immediately into heating the burner.
The entire day passed without event, except that Ned did not show up for his assigned tasking. Scratch wasnt overly worried. Ned regularly missed work sessions, as he was often sequestered for special or important projects. After all, he was easily the most intelligent and resourceful rat in the laboratory, besides the Admiral. Scratch simply worked harder and prepared Neds workstation for his impending return.
But Ned was not seen the next day. Or the next. Or the next. He was not in the lab, nor was he in the nesting room. Scratch became increasingly concerned and increasingly suspicious. He questioned many of the other rats in the lab. Most of them expressed only passing consideration, telling him that it was likely that Ned was simply involved in a very crucial and very selective assignment. A rather obtuse rat named Harper even went so far as to curse Ned for always getting the choice projects that took him out of the boring, stuffy lab. A few rats were, much to Scratchs surprise and relief, more understanding, offering to let him know first if they saw or heard anything. One rat in particular, a former partner of Neds usually simply called Hex, pulled Scratch aside and whispered, He told me several days ago that he was concerned about some record-keeping discrepancies and was going to speak with the Admiral. I havent seen him since. Be careful, young one. Im worried about Ned, too, but I dont want to get caught up in whatever mischief hes made for himself.
Scratchs blood felt as if it had been iced over and the fur on his flanks stood on end at Hexs words. He pretended that his sudden impulse to smooth his grey hair down was simply a product of habit as he thanked Hex for his time and scurried away. His nerves were on fire, and he struggled to retain some semblance of composure. Evolution, he knew, had geared his species to jump at shadows and hide at the sound of a pin drop. Civilization had worked hard to temper that fear with a sort of refined determination and defiance against instinct. It had led partially to self-loathing and partially to a harsh intolerance for weakness. Scratch did not speak to anyone else about Ned. Instead, he feigned interest in improving a procedural calculation, while his mind turned over other things. Neds disappearance, the missing logs, the original objective
they were all linked in some extraordinary way that Scratch couldnt begin to unravel. The only thing that he knew for certain was that the mysterious locked room held the final piece of the puzzle.
As he worked and thought, Scratch began developing the suspicion that the other rats in the laboratory were watching him. He wasnt sure if that impression was real or imagined, but he didnt want to take a chance either way. He began to deliberately examine the contents of an amber bottle and squeaked as he splashed a sour, biting liquid on his face. Scratch put his paws over his eyes and scrambled upright to the washing cabinet, where he began to splash water over his head. If the other rats in the lab hadnt been actively watching Scratch before, he certainly had their attention now. He felt his skin burn under their collectively disdainful gaze as he continued to rub the cleansing water on his face and around his eyes. It was an uncomfortable experience, but necessary for his plan.
Hex sidled up to Scratch. Youve been addlepated all day, young nub. Are you tired? Youve been working very hard the last few days. But even a headstrong nub like you should know his limits. You cant be everything for everyone at all times. Perhaps you should just lie down for a while. Scratch rubbed his eyes and looked up Hex. The white rat leaned in closer as if to whisper something to the young grey rat. He said nothing, however. Instead, he simply winked. Scratch paused a moment, then nodded, slowly and almost imperceptibly, in response.
Youre right, Scratch said, for the benefit of any rat who might have still been watching. Ive been over-extending myself without realizing it. I had better go turn in a bit early tonight before I cause any more
The white rat returned to his own studies. Thank you, Hex. Scratch thought to himself.
Scratch did not acknowledge the locked door as he passed it on his way to the nesting room. He didnt even spare a glance at the keypad. Instead, he made his way straight to his nest of old, fishy rags and curled up into a tight ball, with the tips of his feet touching his nose. He half-closed his eyes and willed his breathing to slow into a rhythmic cycle. He did not intend to sleep, but allowed himself to drift into a sea of semi-wakefulness. Time passed in the form of observations mixed with hallucinations. White rats slunk by in succession as the laboratory technicians returned to their respective beds for the night. Pungent and salty chemical odours wafted in periodically through the door. Images that were dreams without dreaming slipped by Scratchs half-closed eyes: curling snakes, wisps of smoke, and glints of flickering light. Once, he was certain that he caught the scent of a female rat.
Time passed. Sensing that nothing had stirred for many hours, Scratch opened his eyes and allowed his mind to flow back into the reality of the present. He looked around, his whiskers twitching and his ears swiveling. The other rats were all sleeping fitfully, their quiet snores filling the room. Even the Admiral lay curled in his bed on the highest shelf in the room. Scratch watched for many long minutes until he was certainly that there was no motion in the room beyond the steady rising and falling of dozens of furry sides. He counted quickly and silently. There was only one empty nest, belonging to the rat who stood the night watch. Scratch sighed in relief. He did not want any unexpected company tonight.
Scratch slipped from his nest without a sound. In his mind, he envisioned himself as nothing more than a shadow, merging into the steel floor. It was a trick that had saved him many times on foraging duty outside of his old lab, where rats were still easy prey for some of the larger, less scrupulous denizens. He snuck outside of the nest room and stood up on his hind legs, testing the air and watching for the night technician. He neither heard nor smelled anyone nearby.
Scratch looked at the locked door. He looked at the keypad. He looked at the locked door. How many possible combinations could there be? A hundred, a thousand, a million, it didnt matter. He knew that he could never in his lifetime try them all. He looked at the door. He looked at the keypad.
A memory stirred. Scratch typed in the word Julia.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Click.
The bars slid back into the doorframe with a quiet groan. The door swung inward. Scratch was too stunned to move. His heart had raced in fear many times in his life, but this was the first time that his heart threatened to stop beating. Only the door creaking as it began to close again spurred Scratch into action, and he barely managed to scramble through it before it was sealed off again. He curled his tail around him, relieved that it had not been crushed, and took a deep breath, realizing suddenly that he had been holding it since the door had opened.
Before this moment, Scratch could not have put into words what he expected to see behind the door. Now, as his eyes swept around the room, he could not for his life understand how he could have imagined anything different. Pale blue light from electric lamps drifted about the room lazily, spilling over desks and rusty shelves like smoke. There were papers everywhere. They were strewn about the floor, falling off of chairs and tables, spilling from piled boxes that had been stuffed too full for their integrity. There were a great many books scattered around the room as well. Some of them were in piles, and some of them lay open on the floor. There were other papers stuffed between the pages of many of them. At the other end of the room there was a hallway lined with shelves and boxes and doors to more rooms as far as Scratch could see. An uncountable, unimaginable, invaluable treasure. A wealth of knowledge.
The Archival Room, Scratch whispered.
The room smelled mainly of dust and mold, but then a new, disturbing scent drifted to Scratchs nose. He looked more carefully around the room and felt his skin scrawl as his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. What he had believed to be rusty residue on the shelves and desks and floor he now saw was not rust at all, but a dried brown liquid. Most of it had been spilled years ago. It was covered with its own layer of dust and debris. On some of the closest shelves, though, it was fresh, splashed across the papers and books with wild abandon, collecting in little pockets on the floor. It gleamed black and red in the pale light. Scratch reached out to touch it, and pulled his paw away in disgust and horror as some of it stuck to his fingers. Without smelling it, he knew immediately what it was and who it belonged to.
Neds blood. Everywhere. More than Scratch had even believed was contained in a single rat. His heart felt as if it had fallen into a pit. For the first time in his life, Scratch wept. Please, no, he moaned. Not because of me.
So complete was Scratchs feeling of despair and guilt, that he almost welcomed the creak of the door and the shuffling of footsteps behind him. Scratch did not turn around, but remained facing the shelves with his head lowered and his eyes closed. Why? he asked. Why Ned?
The voice which answered was dark and polluted, like a cesspool revolving in a swamp of reeking plants. But it was powerful, too, with the weight of a primordial ocean behind it. Because once the question had taken root in his mind, he would have never stopped until he had the answer. I offered the answer. The price was his life.
Hyrams presence filled the room so completely now that Scratch needed not turn to face him to feel the potency of his blood-red gaze. His scent enveloped Scratch like a blanket. It contained the same mix of decay and strength as his voice. Tell me, the grey rat whispered. I already know how this will end. Please, do me the honour of telling me. What is our original purpose?
The Admiral made a rumbling noise, and Scratch was surprised to realize that it was a chuckle. This laboratory was built thousands of years ago, and it had but one goal: to find the key to immortality. Do you see that symbol engraved on the wall? The circle within a triangle within a circle? Thats the alchemical glyph for the Elixir of Life. That was Prima Turriss original purpose. To destroy death itself.
Hyrams voice turned icy now as he continued. The elixir was isolated flawlessly by the combined work of the head rat and a genius alchemist named Julia. She was very beautiful and very clever, and the head rat was madly in love with her. He wanted to keep their discovery a secret, because he knew that once the Prima Turriss original purpose was achieved, the laboratory would be broken down and forgotten, its inhabitants turned away and its doors locked. But Julia wanted to share the formula, and risk destroying everything that they had worked for on the slim chance that everyone would be able to benefit from it.
Silence filled the room. Several heartbeats seemed to distill into an eternity before the Admiral spoke again. So the head rat was forced to kill her before she could betray their secret. Thus, research here at Prima Turris continues still to this day in an attempt to discover a formula which has already been found, and this is why the Archival Room was sealed. To protect the secret.
Scratch finally turned. He looked at the great rat, the head rat who projected power and grace. It was you, wasnt it? Youve been here since the beginning. The stories that I heard when I first got here, the ones that I thought were just amusing, bitter jokes about your age. They were all true. You really are an immortal. And you killed the one you loved to keep it a secret.
Hyram snorted. It carried with it the contempt of a hundred lifetimes of objectivity. Ive watched as alchemy was replaced by chemistry, only to see the world once again turn back to alchemy as the properties of radiation and radioactive decay were discovered. Ive witnessed the immortal building blocks of matter come together to form mortal flesh, only to experience the liberating yet enslaving power that makes us immortal once again. Like the ouroboros, the serpent which devours its own tail, I will bear witness to an endless circle of history. I will watch as those around me are created and destroyed and created and destroyed, committing the same mistakes as their predecessors over and over again until the end of time. There is not a day or a night that passes in this metal hell that I dont wish that Julia was still by my side. I loved her. And now my punishment is to live forever without her.
Scratch met the Admirals gaze. Was it worth it? he asked.
Of course, the great rat rumbled, without hesitation. A hint of a smile crossed his face. And for you? Was it worth it for you as well?
It was Scratchs turn to laugh, dry and humourless. I cant imagine a more fitting end. The white rat was faster than Scratch expected. The grey rats last thoughts as he watched his blood spill out across the papers and the books and the floor was a brief moment of gratitude that for him there would not be an endless circle.
The Moral of Our Story: A long time ago, someone made the assertion that ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power. This is only partially true. Ignorance is no more than the refuge of those who do not wish to be considered dangerous revolutionaries, those who prefer a long but bitter life of consenting to the whims and abuses of those in positions of authority. Knowledge, on the other hand, is preferred by those who have lost the ability to protect themselves from their own desires and ambitions, those who are as prone to self-annihilation as the moth circling the flame. The retreat of ignorance keeps us safe but controlled. The pursuit of knowledge allows us satisfaction but also invites destruction. Which, in the end, will you choose?