A working rat is a useful rat.
Its what her old mum used to say anyway. Tool belts wrapped over her body, screwdriver clutched in her paws, the old matron hardly ever spent a day away from the machines and gears and steam... Even on the day she was born the working rat was deep in the bowels of a clanking, hissing contraption, dodging springs and avoiding pistons.
Its no wonder that she would end up the same way. No one could possibly know a mechanical edifice better than a Working Rat, making their skills in high demand by few, but frequent, customers.
Still, by no means was it a safe, meritorious job. The brutes from Watchmaker’s hill were always on the prowl to add another to the tally hanging on their belts, their little bodies jostling together at their hips. Those who employed her and her ilk were just as likely to dump them into a stew as they were an engine, talking be damned.
And the cats... least said the better. Wretched beasts the lot of them.
A working Rat had one major bonus however. They were safely ignored by the rather more exotic threats in the Neath. No souls for Devils. No interest for Rubberies. And who knows what the Clays think about anything? As for the rulers of this little slice of dank, dark, despairing cavern, the Masters, not a word, nor any indication that they were aware of them at all.
This particular benefit also expanded to the Surface lands, which led to her current position. Lazily swaying to and fro within an old bucket on a rope, watching the Great Canal as imports and exports swap hands, occasionally with both parties knowledge. From time to time, a more interesting delivery might make her ears swivel, a shaved chunk of pencil lead scraping a note on the back of an old receipt.
Times, though the denizens of the Neath may try to deny it, were changing. And with it were changing the fate of the rats that scurried through its veins, keeping the pumping hearts of industry beating. Contracts for Legitimate Working Rats we’re becoming scarcer and scarcer, with the noose of rat catchers growing that little bit tighter every day. Her ol’ mum, Candles guide her, would have been horrified at how her precious and hard won respect would have been so easily torn apart, leaving them all, bandits, beasts and Workers, at the mercy of the Big Ones once more.
And as she toiled in a scrap heap of an engine, at the mercy of a Big One who simply poured more rats in than cough up the echoes for proper repairs, watching the sticky piston that was sticky no-more pound the body of a not-mere-moments-ago living, breathing, chatty and energetic young rat that was about to be informed of impending fatherhood, she thought, “Is this it? Is this a Working Rat’s lot in life?”
The sabotage was swift, subtle and would have earned her a bite to the ear from her ol’ mum if she had ever gotten the slightest hint that she was involved. No doubt he’d be up and moving again soon enough, but a geyser of steam blasting the flesh from your face might stick with him the next time he tried to feed rats into a mechanical meat grinder. Of course that left her and her crew now unemployed in a city that would rather see her bubbling in a pot than share the same streets.
Fate, however, had a plan for her though. Without the ever present heat of the furnace, silks and scraps and papers were hoarded greedily to keep the damp chill of the Neath at bay, easily if not legally obtained from the homes of Londoners along with whatever crusts they could drag into their holes. With a rapidly swelling waistline, she was hardly in the position to be cautious, deciding to strike for one of the more well to do households that had rat catchers on site at all times. It was here, grabbing anything suitable for nesting, that she stumbled upon one of the rarest of curios in the Neath.
Documents from the surface. Specifically, a ragged, dog eared old catalogue about the newest fad to sweep the wealthy elite.
Her pause to stare at the miniature, functionable marvels of engineering saved her from the descending cleaver that shaved her whiskers a little too close for comfort, scampering around the blade and bolting for her hidden hole. Even now, she couldn’t say what made her drop the rags of genuine surface-silk, the ribbon bound bundle of scandalous letters, the few lumps of wax she gnawed from any nearby candles, lightening her load to drag the worthless water damaged, torn and pencilled pages behind her like a pauper’s wedding train, but after several harrowing minutes scurrying through tunnels and pipes, she finally uncurled her paws and drank in everything they had to offer.
And opportunity shone in her eyes.
If they hired her crew for their big, fancy engines, why not simply apply their own work down to their scale?
Her claws reverently traced the colour faded images on display. Mighty steamers, nimble yachts, intimidating ironclads... of course the armaments would be fake, but she would be disappointed, nay, ashamed, if her crew was unable to cobble together something that would make even that ungodly thing from the cupboard pause momentarily.
And so, with much debate, reasoning, explanations and only two cases of severe ear biting, her crew set to work.
Surface currencies were mere curios for the Neath’s inhabitants, shiny and heavy and worthless to the Bazaar. And so very, very portable. Pulled through sewer grates, dragged under the stove, tossed into the drain, her Working Rats brought anything and everything round and metallic. A few of the brighter boys who were good at their numbers tallied each coin that rolled in front of them. The Frank, the Sterling, the Deutschmark, and more besides. In the end, it took to persuading the Scuttling Squad with some intriguing maps her crew had made of the local pipework and whatever wax they had on hand for some of their more muscular boys to drag the heavy bags of coins all the way to the Canal.
She was in no way to say anything, of course, but she was certain the twitching tails of some of the girls in the crew probably convinced them more than local knowledge.
Nimble paws scribbled with ink on the tags tightly secured to the bags, and for good measure a handful of the younger lads opted to stow away within them, entombed in a sack of spider silk stitched into the lining. Should the Surface Big Ones get any ideas about misplacing a bag or two, they’d find a shockingly severe series of bad luck on their heels.
Which led her to now, nails tapping on the ancient wood of her current cradle, absently gnawing on an old mushroom cracker. The waiting. Waiting for something that may never come.
Days became weeks. Weeks drifted into a month... Until finally, word came through the chain of rats, from dockside through Veilgarden and around to the old abandoned clock tower they have made their home in. The first package had arrived, by expensive courier no less.
Despite her ballooning waistline, she made it to the half submerged tower in record time, paws already itching to grab tools and get to work, beholding their new acquisition in all its glory. The steamer was bigger than expected, and as promised a perfect likeness to the original... on the outside at least. A gesture, and a swarm of rats started to scamper over its steel casing and into its bowels, already ringing with the sounds of pounding metal...
It took days and nights of tail breaking work. Teams of rats switching at “dawn” and “dusk” to keep the work going throughout all hours. She, unfortunately, had to miss the mounting of the improved engine courtesy of the several railings now clinging to her, but the ship was now fully zea worthy. Nests were built into its hold and hard working rats kept an eye on the furnaces as the first of many climbed on board, smoke rising from its stack as it headed for the docks and Beyond, into the open waters. Already more surface coins were coming in, a clumsy circle scrawled around a large Ironclad, and even the Crew, now hovering around sone expanding females, were volunteering their services in creating functional artillery for it.
She dusted her paws off with pride and clutched at her tool belt, eyes gleaming with possibilities. They may have been the shortest in London, but truly, London was far too small for them. There was a whole Neath for them to explore. To find home.
And maybe for her children, perhaps something even beyond that...