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RUNNING WITH RATS

In the city of Isseran, everything is in its proper place. Society runs like a well-oiled machine… but the machine grinds unfortunates between its gears. Slaves and soldiers want more than their masters will give them; rebellion hangs in the air.

Alix Black-Eyes, a former slave with a dark secret, stumbles upon a small band of rebels called the Rat Runners. They hope to harness the endless power of dreamstuff to stop the cruel machine. Can Alix and her new friends build something better in its place, or will their differences tear their rebellion apart before it can truly begin?

Running with Rats is a dieselpunk dark fantasy webserial that posts biweekly (the second and fourth Friday of every month).

ARC ONE: THE MASTER’S DREAM

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

ARC TWO: THE AERONAUT’S DREAM

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |


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The Aeronaut’s Dream: Part 5

“Well?” Nvara said.

Alix folded her arms and stared at the mess of gleaming fabric at Nvara’s feet. Cloth-of-gold tangled around bright red and silvery-grey and a yellow so bright it made Alix’s eyes bleed.

“You sure this is right?” she said.

Nvara rubbed her nose and glared back up at Alix.

Swear to all the gods. This is Vlidwear,” Nvara said.

“Somehow I don’t trust someone who calls them ‘Vlids’ to know,” Alix said. She folded her arms.

“I mean, she’s right,” Svelen said. “Rich Vleylaanders wear this stuff.”

“But… a cape? Really?”

“Yup.” Svelen held up a jacket made of golden cloth, covered in swirling embroidery.

“Is this one for me?” he asked.

Nvara nodded. “Start getting dressed, we don’t have much time.”

Svelen shrugged the jacket on. It fit better than anything Alix had ever seen him wear.

“This stuff is fucking deck,” Alix said.

“Look at you, following the party line.” Nvara raised a shawl, looking at it critically, and tugged at the fabric. The edge of it unraveled into glowing lio. Dark blue light glowed around her hands as she shaped it; the fringe grew an inch, and tassels sprouted from the hem.

“Yeah, well,” Alix said. “There’s a difference between ‘people can’t have nice things’ and ‘this is too many nice things, put some back’.”

She put the cape on anyway. It weighed on her shoulders like a shroud. The hem grazed the ground.

“You got something for my face?” Svelen asked.

“There’s a veil.” Nvara picked it up and tossed it at him. He caught it.

“…We’re really doing this,” she said.

“Is it that strange?” Svelen wrapped his hair up in a loose turban. It was bright orange- the same shade as his freckles.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Alix said.

“Welcome to our vexin’ life,” Nvara said. She snorted.

“Oh! Did you tell Alix about the time thing?” Svelen asked.

He glanced down at the ground.

“Time thing?” Alix said.

“Forgot,” Nvara said. “We don’t have that much lio, so I’ve got to recycle what we do have. So these clothes have a time limit.”

“…You’re saying they’re gonna disappear.”

“No. They’ll turn back into lio. There’s a difference.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.” Alix frowned. This was like something right out of a fairy tale- Tattershoes running from her prince’s party as her dress turned to rags and her footmen to fish.

“It’ll last for eight hours, that should be enough time.” Nvara sounded offended. “Get dressed, Vashe’s gonna be here any minute.”

Alix unclipped the cape and grabbed a robe from the pile. It went down to her ankles and it was deep red- the same colour as her sweater. She threw it over her other clothes- there was no way she was going to trust lio-clothing to keep her warm.

Vashe opened the door.

“You fuckers get a move on,” he said. “Party starts in ten minutes.”

Alix scrambled to finish dressing. Nvara put out the fire.

The four of them left. Alix lagged behind, looking back at the bunker.

She wondered if she’d ever see it again.

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 4

<< previous arc | first | previous next | last | newest arc  >>

TRIGGER WARNING: this episode contains scenes of medical torture and a PTSD flashback. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Alix felt small and grubby whenever she was in Solsva vrenli, even if she kept out of sight.

Vrenli just meant ‘hearth’. It was the place where each caste lived, the central fire that they gathered around to be born and marry and die. Once, long ago, Solsva vrenli had been where tanners and smiths lived. Then the smiths became factory workers, and then the Revolution happened and the workers became the highest caste. Now Solsva vrenli had towers that nearly grazed the sky, and the people who lived there were rich as could be, in both money and grease. 

And right now, Alix and Vrenli were in a maintenance tunnel under its streets. Shining stainless steel pipes and odd copper wires mingled together over Alix’s head. She could hear the whooshing and rushing of some vast machine underground behind her  and the clanking gears of the Cathedrals of Industry overhead. Sunlight filtered down through grates at the edges of the street every few hundred paces.

For Vari’s sake, the maintenance tunnel was too clean. If the grungy underbelly was still too posh for her, where was she supposed to go?

“Don’t tell me he lives in the Progress Building,” Alix muttered.

“Nope,” Vashe said. “It’s an old house.”

“Is that it?” Alix pointed up through the grate.

The building itself was about two stories high, made of brick, with the upper walls painted to look like timber. You could still tell it was brick, though- the windows were arched and lined with stone. It was at least as big as Alix’s old master’s house, and it cast a long shadow on the street above them.

“Yup. Move, I need to get a better look-”

Vashe pulled the notebook out and started jotting down notes. Alix stepped aside and squinted up at the building.

“How’d you learn Yunlin?” she asked.

“Is it any of your business?” he said.

“Not really. Just- my mother was from there.”

“Oh.” Vashe closed the notebook. “Can I ask you somethin’?” 

“Is it any of your business?” Alix said. 

He gave her a dirty look.

“Svelen swore blind and sideways you were a vexin’ thoughtform. I trust him more than I trust my own life, but you’re pretty fuckin’ rock-solid that you ain’t. And you keep talkin’ about your mother and such. So what’s goin’ on?”

Alix groaned.

“This shit again?”

“I’m just tellin’ you what he told me.”

“He thinks I am cause of my eyes, and ’cause we were both slaves,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s not personal, but-“

“You get put in a certain box by enough people, even the people who care about ya start to believe it,” he said.

Alix nodded.

“Gotcha. Just wanted to know,” Vashe said.”Like you said. Not personal.”  

She sighed, and rubbed the back of her neck.

They said that thoughtforms weren’t really people. They looked like people, sure, and acted like people. But a ray gun made out of lio could shoot real plasma rays, even if the inside was a black box that shouldn’t work by any world’s rules. In the same way, they said, a thoughtform could have ‘real’ feelings, but they weren’t the same kind of feelings everyone else had- they were just part of the illusion, there to make thoughtforms more like humans. They didn’t have souls, so any emotions they had were meaningless- hollow as a mannequin’s head.

Alix didn’t know whether or not that was true. She figured that Svelen – and now, Vashe- acted enough like humans that she ought to treat them that way, whether or not they were ‘real’ people. If they were, it was the right thing to do. And if by some chance they weren’t, it wasn’t any skin off her nose to treat them right.

But she still felt squirmingly, soul-wrenchingly uncomfortable when anyone decided that she must be a thoughtform, even if they had a good reason. It wasn’t that she hated thoughtforms, not by any stretch- but if someone thought she was one, they’d treat her wrong.

And that didn’t just mean smart remarks behind her back. It meant the room with the bright white lights and the electric shocks and recollections that were somehow both blurred and sharp. Just brushing up against that memory pulled it to the front of her mind.

A scalpel sliced into the back of her neck.

She strained against the leather straps belting her to the table, trying to break them. Her vision blurred. She clenched her teeth against the pain.

Interesting,” the voice behind her said.

“What?”

“This one’s not a black box. Whoever made it put time into it.”

Something tore her skin apart and exposed nerves to the air. The faint air current burned. She wasn’t going to scream, not if her life depended on it – but she stifled one in the back of her throat.

“How do you figure?”

“See for yourself.”

Alix felt something pulling the muscles in the back of her neck apart. She gritted her teeth harder.

“Nerve endings and everything.”

Something sharp tapped bone. Alix’s entire body shook. It hurt so much she thought she’d puke.  

“That’s strange. You sure it’s-”

“Positive.”

Metal tugged something inside her. Someone screamed and screamed and screamed. She didn’t realize it was her until her voice hoarsened away-

“Alix?”

Vashe’s hand was on her shoulder. She was breathing heavy.  Her hands were clenched into fists. The pain faded away slowly as her surroundings came back. 

“I’m fine,” she said. Her words came out quick as ticker tape, and with less thought behind them.

“Sure. But you zoned out.” Vashe’s hand didn’t move away.

“…Yeah. So? I’m fine.” Alix wanted to scream at him, but that would just prove him right.

“Ai, ai.” Vashe still looked at her the way you’d look at a baby bird with a broken wing. She wanted to punch him.

“We got what we need?” she asked.

“Mostly. Still gotta go around the front.”

“Then let’s do it.”

“Sure.” Vashe started to walk, and Alix followed. She felt limp as a squeezed-out washrag- but they had to keep moving.

This was only the rehearsal. Soon, if they were lucky, it’d be opening night.

She had to be stronger than this if there was any way they were gonna survive.


Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

If you liked this post, and want to support my writing, consider donating to my Patreon?   For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get bonus content, worldbuilding notes, and free books.

Thanks for reading!

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 3

<< previous arc | first | previous next | last | newest arc  >>

“What job? It’s not the Sveshon place, is it?” Svelen asked. “I told you that wasn’t gonna work-“

“Nope. It’s ballsier than that.” The corner of Vashe’s mouth twitched up.

“How can it be ballsier than Sveshon.” Svelen folded his arms.

“Simple,” Vashe said, and rubbed some of the frost off his horn. It turned to water in his fingers. “It’s the vexin’ Taxasho Manor.”

“…When you say ‘Taxasho’, you don’t mean…” Alix started.

“The one and only.” Vashe grinned. His teeth were sharp as knives.

Alix’s breath caught. Taxasho was a household name, so much that even thoughtforms and slaves knew who he was. ‘The greatest aeronaut of the age’, they called him- he’d sailed across the Wild Sea in only three days, nonstop. He’d become a hero for it a few years back; every child on the city’s streets wore an aeronaut’s leather cap for weeks afterwards.

“We’re robbing him?” Svelen’s eyes went wide as saucers. “How- what-”

“I’ll explain when Nvara wakes up.” Vashe rolled his head around on his neck. “She fall asleep, or did she go under?”

“She went under.” Svelen frowned, and glanced at the pill bottle on her bedside. “It was for a good reason, though. We’ve been teaching Alix to dreamrun.”

“Aight. Just be careful. We’re running low.”

Svelen reached out and shook Nvara’s shoulder.

“Nvaaaara. Nvara. Tiiiiime to get up,” he said.

She groaned, and rolled over.

“I’ll get some svass on,” Alix said.

It was an excuse to leave the room, but at the same time, she had the feeling they were all going to need it.

There was something peaceful about pouring out svass crystals, and letting the boiling water rush over them. They dissolved, turning the water dark brown. Alix stirred hers with a spoon handle and waited for the others to follow.

Svelen came out first. He sat on the floor, back an inch away from the fire barrel.

“You wanna burn yourself?” Alix asked.

“No,” he said. He scooted away.

Vashe opened the door, and Nvara followed in his wake. Nvara looked like she’d slept for a hundred years and hadn’t gotten one bit of rest in all that time- dark rings circled her eyes, and her hair still crackled with static. She grumbled her way to the svass and picked up a cup without saying a word.

“Right. Soooo.” Vashe said. He drew out the ‘o’ like a foghorn.  “Taxasho is hosting a benefit this weekend. His kid got kidnapped, he’s raising a whole bunch of money to find the brat. We get in there during the benefit, and steal the money and the lio once everyone’s asleep.”

“I dunno, this doesn’t sound right…” Svelen said. “Money for a kidnapped kid? Do we really want to steal that?”

“The kid’s been gone for five years, he’s probably dead. Besides which, it ain’t for a charity or anything like that. He’s usin’ it to look by himself. And he’s a terrible fucking person.”

“Oh?” Svelen tilted his head to one side.

“When it was legal, he used to breed his slaves.” Vashe scowled.

“You don’t mean-” Alix started.

“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse,” Vashe said, and spat on the floor. “Eugenicist bastard.”

“…All right, I take back what I said,” Svelen said. His lips pressed together tightly.

Nvara grunted.

“Ai, no problems here.” Alix folded her arms. “How’re we getting in?”

Vashe pulled a little leather-bound notebook from his pocket. It was a soldiers’ notebook, standard-issue khaki, with the three stars of Isseran’s flag on the front. Someone- whether Vashe or someone else- had spattered red paint over them, and it made the leather shiny.

He flipped it open. The pages- each barely the size of his palm- were covered with notes upon notes upon notes. They weren’t written in straight lines; they wound around the pages in mazy twists and turns of thought. Some of them were written in Vroxhen, the language that everyone in Isseran spoke- but others were smoothly-drawn Yunlin characters or spiky Vleylaandish script, and they tangled with long strings of numbers that were probably a code.

In the middle of this mess was a map.

It was crude- barely more than three boxes lined up- and labeled in the same jumbled way. Alix picked out a couple of words- ‘door’ and ‘guard’, and the Yunlin word for ‘bed’.

“This is Taxasho’s place,” Vashe said. “Doors- windows- guards, far as I could make out.”

He pointed to each. His finger tapped the edge of the map.

“Main entrance is here. Master bedroom’s here.”

Alix tried to make out more of the notes, but Vashe closed the notebook and tucked it into the pocket of his big black coat before she could get a look at it. He picked up his cup of svass and blew on it.

“Looks risky,” Nvara said. Alix blinked. She hadn’t even realised Nvara was paying attention.

“Not as much as you’d think. Party’s in three days,” Vashe said. “It’s one of those vexin’ ‘dance all night’ deals. Ends at three in the morning. We get into the party, we’ve got the cash. Stay long enough, we’ve got some lio in the bargain.”

“Is the cash going to be useful? Without grease, I mean,” Svelen asked.

Grease meant a lot of things. Grease was knowing the right people- which official to slip a bribe to, which officials would listen to a sob story, which Vravesva could be trusted to help and which were in league with the people who hurt you. It was knowing which shopkeepers kept extra cigarettes or sewing needles under the counter, and which landlords had a sister who had a friend who could get you fresh fruit or real svass or record albums from Nalavra- and it was knowing what to do and say to make it happen.

“Worst case scenario, we come out of it with a bunch of useless paper and some lio,” Vashe said. “I think it’s worth takin’, though. Real money’s its own kind of grease with the right people.”

Svelen nodded.    

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Alix said. “Are we just gonna walk through the front door, or…?”

“Word in Livova Vrenli,” Vashe said, “is that the Vleylaandish ambassador’s goin’ with a full fuckin’ retinue. We disguise ourselves, slip in, slip away from the party, find where they’re keepin’ the cash, steal it, get into his bedroom, steal the lio, and get out before light.”

“You mean Senna’s word?” Nvara grumbled. She half-drained her mug in one gulp, and set it aside.

“She’s been reliable so far, ai? Get the Vravesva stick out of your ass.”

“This isn’t vexin’ caste talking, Vash’. We’ll look like fools if we go in there done up like Vlids and there’s no one there, and that’s if we make it out with our heads.”

Nvara’s Vravesva? Alix thought. That would explain a lot- if she was a member of the soldier caste, it’d make sense that she was afraid of thoughtforms and especially of shapeshifters. The Vravesva used to live in the Blight, before it was the Blight.

“- ninety percent sure,” Vashe was saying. “You can look around for yourself, if you want. We got some time. But I’m gonna need you to weave us a disguise. It don’t have to be Vleylaandish. Just thought it’d be harder to notice if we fucked somethin’ up.”

“Do we have enough lio for that?” Svelen asked.

Both Svelen and Vashe glanced at Nvara. She frowned; dark bags puffed under her eyes.

“…Yeah,” she said, after a moment’s thought. “Fabric shouldn’t take that much. But I’m gonna need a picture to work off, or somethin’.”

“I could ask Professor Senvex if he has anything,” Svelen said.

Vashe nodded. “Good idea. Me n’ Alix can case the place tonight. You and Nvara go to Senvex, and see what else you can pick up on the way. News, rumours, shit like that.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Svelen said. “Nvara, you ready to go yet?”

“…Still feel like death. Give me ten minutes,” Nvara said.

“Wait, hold the phone,” Alix said. She turned to look Vashe right in the eye. It wasn’t something she did often- eye contact made her uncomfortable, and her gaze did the same to everyone else.

“You want me to go with you?” she asked.

“Well, yeah.” Vashe grinned a razor-sharp grin. “I wanna see what you can do.”

“Thought you didn’t trust me.”

“I don’t. Yet. You’ve gotta earn it.”

Vashe ran his hand down the back of his neck, and rolled his head around.

“Any other problems with this plan, or can we start workin’?” he asked.

“Works for me if it works for the rest of you,” Svelen said.

“Yeah. I’m good,” Alix said.

Nvara nodded, and pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers.

“Right,” Vashe said. “Let’s get to work.”


Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

If you liked this post, and want to support my writing, consider donating to my Patreon?   For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get bonus content, worldbuilding notes, and free books.

Thanks for reading!

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 2

<< previous arc | first | previous | next | last | newest arc  >>

Alix landed in the middle of a clearing like nothing she’d ever seen.

Trees made of brick surrounded her. Their branches crumbled upwards, turning into thin, leafless twigs of steel. Snarled roots of pipe and wire twisted into the ground at her feet. The path beneath her feet was metal, so coated in rust that dust coated her boots. Newspaper-grass and tin can bushes sprouted along each side of the path.

The goggles made the world look like an old movie. Everything was sepia and white, and it flickered as she turned her head.

“Where-” she said, aloud.

“Sshhh!” Svelen’s voice came from above her head, like the voice of a god. She blinked.

“You’re gonna wake her up,” he whispered. “Remember, you’re still in the real world too.”

Alix nodded. She hoped he could see her.

“Where do I go?” she asked.

“Follow the path,” Svelen said. “See if you can find anything glowing.”

She started along, passing through the forest uneasily. Something rustled in the undergrowth, but when she turned to look, nothing was there.

“What happens now?” Alix muttered.

Great puffs of smoke came from the undergrowth. Smog blotted out the sky, thick as the smog around the Cathedrals of Industry.

“Nvara’s at the center of her dream,” Svelen said. “You have to get to the center, find where the lio’s coming from. It’s close to her. Depending on the dream, might be her, might not. Pick up as much as you can carry and bring it back.”

“Aight.” Alix nodded, and walked onward.

She heard the great machine before she saw it. Great pneumatic whooshes and clanks echoed through the metal forest. It sounded like some kind of vast mechanical animal, slowly dying.

But she couldn’t see it properly until she’d gotten to the edge of the trees. When she did, she had to shade her eyes- light glinted off metal, so bright it blinded.

It was a building. A skyscraper made of wood, with roots that twined deep into the ground. Its windows gaped like vacant eyes, and vast machines twisted up its sides like parasitic vines.

Platforms on pulleys cranked endlessly up and down; pumps studded with gauges clunked and groaned as they pushed something out of them. Smoke rose from stacks poking out from the skyscraper’s sides. Alix wondered how it hadn’t burned down.

“Guessin’ this is it,” she said aloud.

“What is it?”

“You can’t see?”

“I’m not wearing the goggles, Alix.”

“Right. It’s a giant… machine-tree.” Still shading her eyes, she looked up its length.

“… Ah, yeah, that’s the place.” Svelen breathed out hard. “Be careful in there.”

“You’re not my vexin’ mother,” Alix said. Despite her brave words, nervousness crept up her spine like a snake.

“No, but still.” She could almost hear Svelen nervously twisting his fingers together.

“Sorry,” she said.

She started for the tower.

“Do you see anything shiny?” Svelen asked.

Alix shaded her eyes and looked up- past the grinding gears and the endless pumps. Near the very top of the tower, in one of the empty windows, there was a light. It looked more like neon than fire, though it was as sepia-toned as anything else through the goggles.

“Yeah. It’s sort of… cold?” She tilted her head to the side and squinted, trying to see it clearly.

“That’s the lio. Go get it.”  

Ai. On the move.”  

She lept, caught the edge of one of the platforms, and pulled herself up onto it. It clanked as she pulled herself up. The platform swayed from side to side.

A bell clanged in the distance. Alix saw something move out of the corner of her eye.

“What-”

One second, she was standing on the platform; the next, something shoved her, and she fell.

Alix grabbed at the brick, fingers scrabbling against the stone. She caught a pipe and hung. Her legs dangled into the nothingness.

She didn’t dare look down.

Above her, the thing looked down from the platform – a glowing white shape with silver, burning eyes. It looked like a hole in the world.  

“Svelen? What the fuck-” she said. Her voice cracked.

“What? What’s going on?”

The white shape leaped to a platform closer to her. It was graceful as a dancer, but something about the way it moved was wrong. Its limbs had too many joints, and its outline shifted and blurred.

“Alix?” Svelen’s voice echoed in her ears.

She tried to pull herself up. Rust flaked onto her fingers. The pipe groaned.

The creature reached out for her. Its arm flicked through shapes, fast as frames of a film reel. A crab’s claw snapped at her; a bear’s claws lashed forward; a serpent hissed and bared its fangs.

The monster’s reach was just barely too short. The serpent’s breath hit her face, but its jaws snapped onto empty air.

She laughed in breathless shock. Her gaze flicked down the tree’s trunk. She was too far above to drop down onto another moving platform, but another pipe jutted out from the side. If she managed to catch it-

Something moved. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it- the creature’s torso lengthening, stretching like rubber. It reared up like a snake.

“Alix, answer me-” Svelen said.  

The creature swayed from side to side. Staticky words crackled from its mouth, like a thousand garbled radio channels all speaking at once.

“One Of End Are You Kill End The Our Us Hurt End We Our Save Our End End End End End-”

Alix let go of the pipe. She fell like a stone. The creature tumbled after her, body uncoiling like an eel’s.

She grabbed for another branch, but her fingers only scraped against the brick. Something hot and wet ran down her hand.

The ground rushed closer. Alix closed her eyes-

Something tore at her temples. Cold air hit her face like a brick.

She wasn’t falling; she was sitting on a cold concrete floor. She couldn’t feel the weight of the goggles on her face anymore, but her fingers and her temples smarted.

She opened her eyes.  

Svelen stood over her, coiling up the goggles’ wires.   

“Alix- Are you okay?”

She sighed, and rubbed her hand. It felt like she really had gashed herself on a brick wall, but when she pulled the glove off, her fingers were as good as new.

“I’m fine.” She scowled. “There was a – thing, chasing me. That’s all.”

“…Ohhh dear. Was it the one with the gas mask?” Svelen asked.

She shook her head.

“It was a – shapeshifter-thing,” she said. “I tried to run away. Fell off a tower.”

“So I got you just in time,” Svelen said. He looked down at the goggles, and turned them over in his hands.

“I’m guessing that if you die in a dream, you’re still dead,” Alix said.

Svelen nodded.

“If you want-” he murmured. “She’s still asleep. You can try again.”

Alix raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll let me?” she said.

“…If I didn’t, you’d figure out how to do it without me,” he said.

“You’re not wrong, but-” she said.

Outside, the hatch slammed.

Alix flinched. Every time the door opened or closed, she half-expected jackbooted Vravesva goons to march in.  She nervously glanced at the bunk room door.

It opened. In stepped Vashe, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. Melting frost dripped down his horns, and his eyes were bright.

He set the package down next to the door, and rubbed his hands together.

“Boys and girls,” he said, “we’ve got ourselves a job.”


Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

If you liked this post, and want to support my writing, consider donating to my Patreon?   For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get bonus content, worldbuilding notes, news, and more.

Thanks for reading!

The Aeronaut’s Dream: Part 1

<< previous arc | first | previous | next | last | newest arc  >>

“I’m not chickening out,” Alix said.

She pulled the glove up over her elbow. The elastic band inside was sticky, and it bit into her upper arm. But its satin was smooth against her skin.

“Didn’t say you were, but….” Svelen shrugged, and fidgeted with the goggles on his lap. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t practice now.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Alix breathed out, and pulled the other glove on. The fingers crumpled and flexed.  “The sooner I learn how to dreamrun, the sooner your boy can rest easy.”

“He’s not my boy-”

“Will you two shut up,” Nvara groaned.

Alix glanced over at her.

Nvara lay on the bottom bunk of the left-most bed, wrapped in a sheet so patched that it was nearly a quilt. She squinted up at Alix through a curtain of hair.    

“Sorry, Nvara. I thought the pills would have kicked in by now,” Svelen said.

“Well, they ain’t. So vexxin’ can it already.” Nvara pulled the sheet up over her face and curled up into a ball.

Alix pinched the bridge of her nose with her ungloved hand.

“Maybe we should go into the other room,” she said.

Svelen nodded, and opened the door.

It was late morning, but the main room of the rat runners’ bunker looked much the same at ten o’clock as it did at twenty. Daylight couldn’t come this far underground. The only real difference was that the fire in the barrel in the centre of the room had burnt to coals, and the radio on a pile of boxes in the corner let out faint music instead of static.

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Svelen said.

“Positive.” She folded her arms. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?”

“This isn’t ‘a hard time’, Alix.” Svelen sighed. “You’ve seen me give you a hard time.”

“Fair, but- you’re goin’ all mother hen. ‘Are you sure you wanna do this? Are you really sure? Really? Can I quote you on that? Get that in black and white for the Snvitla?'” Alix sighed.

“If I wanted to be sure of somethin’, I’d ask the Snvitla to not print it,” Svelen said.  “They never write anything but propaganda.”

“You know what I mean, Svelen! I know what I want, for Vari’s sake!”

“You’re shouting.”  

“Fucking right, I’m shouting! Don’t you get it-”

“You’re shouting, and you’re gonna wake up Nvara.”

Alix pinched the bridge of her nose again.

“Svelen. You said Mama could be alive.”

“What’s that have to do with this?” Svelen’s voice always got squeaky when he was upset, but it was reaching the point that only mice could hear. “I told you, it was a really lousy ditto copy, I could barely read it, I made out her name and the date-”

“Which is why I need to learn to dreamrun!” Alix threw up her hands.

“If we can go into dreams- can’t you pull memories out of people’s heads? Information? I could find out for sure. And then we could rescue her.”

“And I want to do that!” Svelen’s shoulders hunched up. “I want to help you do that.”

“So why are you trying to stop me?” she said.

“I’m not. I’d be crazy to fight you on this. I’m just worried about you.”

Silence hung in the air. Even the radio signal had faded almost to nothingness. Svelen stayed hunched over, clenching the band of the goggles in his fist. Alix glanced back at the door- if Nvara was still awake, she wasn’t saying a word.

“…are you mad at me?” Svelen asked.

Alix bit her lip.

“I’m not mad.” She breathed out, long and slow. “Not at you.”

He relaxed, some, but his gaze still reminded Alix of a hunted rabbit’s.

“You said it yourself, Sve,” she said. “This isn’t the end of the world. It’s a practice run. You don’t gotta worry about me this much.”

“…Don’t be so sure about that.”

Svelen’s fingers knotted together, twisting the band of the goggles between them.  

“What’s there to worry about?” Alix asked.

“It’s the dreamscapes. They’re scary places. Especially-“

He stopped short and hissed through his teeth.

“Especially Nvara’s?” Alix said.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Were you going to?”

He looked away.

“Why do you two even keep her around?” Alix scowled.

“I didn’t mean it like that!” Svelen threw up his hands. “She doesn’t want to hurt you.”

“That’s not an answer, Sve’, and you know it.”

Alix leaned back against the wall, folding her arms.

“She hates thoughtforms,” she said. “You’re a thoughtform. Vashe’s a thoughtform, far as I can tell. She hates my guts.”

He couldn’t meet her eyes.

“So why do you keep her around? Seems like it ain’t helpin’ anyone.”

“That’s like asking me why I keep you around,” he said.

Alix swallowed.

“That’s- that’s different. I’m not like that,” she said. “Not all the time. Not at you.”

“She ain’t like that all the time either.” Svelen breathed out hard. “You caught her at a bad time. Got a bad first impression.”

Outside, thunder rolled. Static fizzed the radio’s music.

“Must have been one vexin’ bad time.”

“It was. …Nvara doesn’t hate thoughtforms. Not really. She hates shapeshifters.

Svelen held up a hand, cautiously.

“And no- no, I’m not saying you’re one, okay, don’t look at me like that.”

“Didn’t say you were.”

Alix scuffed her foot against the ground. Her toes caught the edge of the burlap rug, and crinkled it up.

“News report came on right before you came in. It was propaganda. But it set her off,” he said. “She gets all… tense when she’s like that. All brittle. Same way you do sometimes.”

His voice and his expression stayed mild. So mild that Alix got the feeling he was trying to talk her down. If it had been anyone but Svelen, she would have been annoyed. As it was… she was still annoyed, but she restrained it.

“So she doesn’t hate you.”

“No. She’s Vashe’s best friend. You really think he’d trust someone who hated his guts?”

“…From the way you talk about him, no,” Alix said.

“Well- he wouldn’t. It’s not her fault she got like that. It’s just- sometimes the inside of her head’s a bad, bad place. And it shows in her dreams. You run into stuff that, well… you don’t wanna see. But she’s the only human we’ve got to practice with.”

Alix glanced through the door. It was dark inside, so she couldn’t see much of anything, but she could hear Nvara’s breathing, soft and slow.

“So you’re not worried that I’ll fuck up. You’re worried she will.”

“Something like that.” He nodded.

“Well, I’m gonna have to learn how to do this sometime. Isn’t it better if we do it now?” she said. “She’s not riled up, I’m not riled up, and nothing’s at stake.”

“You’re right. I just- I feel like I’m puttin’ you in danger,” he said.

“Svelen? I’m putting myself in danger.” Alix grinned. “I’m just gonna need you to get me out of it.”

“Ain’t that just the way.” Svelen smiled; the corners of his eyes crinkled up. “Let’s get this over with, then. Before Nvara wakes up.”

“Thanks, Svelen.” Alix started to pull on the other glove.

“Wire me,” she said.

Svelen held the goggles up and cursed under his breath.

The goggles shone bronze, even in the dim half-light of the oil lamp. The lenses looked thin and wispy, as real as opium smoke. Thin wires hung down the sides, like the straw hair on an old shadow-play mask. Each one was capped by a thin metal circle. And – as wires tend to do when left alone- they’d tangled together like a peasant woman’s braids. He started to untangle them.

Alix pulled her hair back, took the rubber band from her wrist, and tied it into a bun. It was a little comforting, doing something so familiar.

Svelen pulled a little bottle from his pocket and screwed off the cap, smearing glue that looked like clear butter onto each of the metal circles.

“What did you call those things again?”

“The electrodes?” Svelen held up one of the circles by its wire.

“Yeah, that was it.”

Alix closed her eyes. Svelen started to work- sticking an electrode to each of her temples and one to the center of her forehead, just over the bridge of her nose. They stuck on firm, tugging at the little hairs on her cheeks and the edge of her hairline. The glue-jelly felt cold and tingly against her skin, and it smelled awful. She tried not to pull a face, though- it might make them fall off. .

The first time at anything was always the hardest, she told herself. The faster she learnt to dreamrun, the faster and easier it’d be next time, and the time after that. Soon it would just be normal. And once it was normal, she could do it with no problem, until she got what she wanted.

Svelen crept forward and opened the door. He peered around the corner, and then motioned Alix over.

“She’s out. Don’t put those on until I tell you, ai?”

“Ai.” Alix’s fingers curled around the frames. The lenses’ edges were solid under her fingertips.

She followed after him, walking quiet as a cat. Nvara was fast asleep on the bed- a splayed out mess of wild, tangled hair and long awkward limbs. Her face looked different when she slept- calmer and less guarded than Alix had ever seen her.

Alix sat down beside the bed.

“Get closer to her head,” Svelen whispered. “Helps the connection.”

She nodded, scooted forward, and tucked her knees into her chest.

“Right, Svelen said. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Alix said.

“On my signal, then. Three… two… one… clear.”

Alix pulled the goggles down over her eyes and slid into the dreamworld.


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