Any of you out there ever heard of a company called Thorne Tech? I’ve going to assume you haven’t. We’re a local deep tech company that’s doing R&D on AI, quantum computing, and a few other side projects. The reason I'm so sure you've never heard of us is that, unlike most other tech companies that are constantly overhyping and underdelivering, Thorne Tech keeps a pretty low profile. If anything, we downplay how advanced some of our stuff is, and that’s the stuff that we officially acknowledge exists at all. You’d think that would mean we’re doing classified research for the government or the military or something, but I’ve never seen any evidence that our boss answers to any higher authority.
The mad scientist in question here is one Erich Thorne, and I’ve been working as his personal assistant for the past couple of years. I'm not a secretary though; there’s an AI that handles all the administrative duties. No, I mostly do errands and auxiliary tasks, that exact nature of which varies depending on whatever Erich's current pet project is. I'm not privy to all the details, but I do know that some weird stuff is definitely going on in his lab, especially on the sublevels that I'm not allowed to access.
I have a bunch of weird stories about working for him, but I’m going to start with the most recent one; Erich’s had me driving his girlfriend all around town checking rat traps. Some test rats escaped from the lab a few months ago, and they’re very invested in finding them. The thing is though, they’re very selective about where they put the traps, because they’re also very invested in no one else knowing that the rats are loose or getting a hold of them first. I really hope it’s just because the rats are worth a lot of money and not because they’re the carriers of some sort of bioweapon or something.
“This is the first stop?” Ivy, Erich’s girlfriend, asked with a hint of disdain in her voice, peering out the passenger window at the slightly creepy and dilapidated Victorian house across the street.
Ivy, or Miss Noir as I am required to refer to her, is just as weird and creepy as her boyfriend, if not more so. She’s British and only came to Harrowick County this year, but from what I’ve gathered she knew Erich before that. Her features are so symmetrical and perfect she legitimately skirts the edges of the uncanny valley. Throw in the fact that she’s got the body of a comic book superheroine and I half-humoured the idea that she was a sexbot Erich made too smart and that only some sort of hardwired devotion to him was keeping her from taking over completely.
Turns out though that she’s a flesh and blood human being who’s been self-experimenting with bio-electrical modulation. Based on what she told me, most biological functions are coordinated with electrical signals, and she’s been hacking those signals for years to optimize her health, cognition, and appearance.
Makes me curious about what other augmentations she might have that I know don’t about yet.
“Yes, Miss Noir, this is it; Orville’s Old-Fashioned Oddity Outlet,” I said as I let the Tesla park itself (yeah, I’m driving her around in a car that’s one software update away from being fully autonomous. That’s how unimportant I am at our company). “The most… eclectic source of occult paraphernalia in town. A lot of what he sells in there is crap, but he’s got enough good stuff to keep Erich coming back.”
“And you’ve personally had interactions with Mr. Bucklesby before, correct?” she asked.
“Yes, Ms. Noir.”
“And how would you describe him?”
“Um… as an obnoxious, cantankerous old man who I would trust as far as I could throw,” I said truthfully. “Don’t worry. As long as we don’t let him sell us anything, we should be alright.”
“Very well, then. Come along, Rose,” she said as she unbuckled her seatbelt.
I kept close behind her as she walked up to the old wood and glass door, ignoring the faded ominous warning of Caveat Emptor, along with the more recent provincial mask mandates and shutdown orders.
Inside, everything seemed dim and dusty, with strange artifacts and objects packed onto every suitable surface. It was dead quiet too, so much so that I thought Ivy and I might be the only ones in there.
“Pretty faces are not mask exemptions, young ladies,” Orville’s gruff old voice croaked out from the other side of the shop. He was sitting at his big wooden desk, restoring a set of antique panpipes.
“We’re both fully vaccinated,” Ivy said, though didn’t move to take out any sort of proof.
“Yeah, so am I. It’s still like an eight hundred dollar fine,” Orville reminded her. “Also, I’m closed anyway, so it’s a moot point.”
“No, the shutdown and the masks are what’s moot here since we’re all vaccinated, and I do not waste my time obeying pointless laws,” Ivy said firmly as she obstinately folded her arms across her chest.
"Is that right? Because I've been known not to obey laws with well-established and widely agreed-upon points," Orville said as he rose from his chair. He grabbed his hickory cane, but didn't lean on it, instead holding it more like a baseball bat.
I swallowed nervously and eyed the door, ready to bolt in case things got violent.
“On yester’s eve, my sisters three saw serpents flee into the old hollow tree,” Ivy said inexplicably. Orville looked as confused as I was for a moment, but then a look of recognition flashed across his face.
“Oh, ah… ‘Does the Black Moon howl?’” he replied, not sounding very sure of himself.
“What?” Ivy asked, scowling at him in contempt.
“No? That’s not it? Um… ‘Those who do can always find a friend?’” he guessed again. Ivy shook her head slightly. “Swing and a miss, eh? Is it ‘I didn’t realize this was a sad occasion’?”
She just kept staring at him, looking like she was about to tear him a new bodily orifice.
“Hold on, I think I have it written down somewhere,” he said as he pulled open a desk drawer and started rummaging through it.
“You’re supposed to have your shibboleths memorized!” Ivy scolded him.
“Lady, I’m a doddering old man teetering on the brink of senility! I can’t even remember which one of my false teeth is the cyanide-filled one!” he said defensively. “Does cyanide expire? I’m really hoping cyanide expires at some point.”
“I… look, my name is Ivy Noir, I’m with the Ophion Occult Order, and as of this year I have replaced Seneca Chamberlin as Head Adderman of the Harrowick Chapter,” she explained.
“Well then say that! What do you need all this cloak and dagger stuff for when there’s no one else around?” Orville asked. “Wait, you’re not here about what happened on April Fool’s, are you?”
“What happened on April Fool’s?” she asked, squinting at him suspiciously.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m a crazy old man talking nonsense,” he said as he flipped over a display frame of what looked like pink and red carnival money.
“Enough! I have other things to do today and you will not waste any more of my time! Is that clear?” Ivy demanded. Clasping his hands together and contritely lowering his head, he nodded in acquiescence. “Good. Now, a while ago Ms. Romero here gave you an electronic rat trap, and I believe she told you that Thorne Tech would be coming back to check on it?”
“Romero?” Orville said as he took a good look at me for the first time. “Oh, hey Rose! Didn’t realize that was you. Why didn’t you say something?”
"As a subordinate, Ms. Noir prefers I speak only when spoken to as much as possible," I said through a weak smile.
“Erich’s got you looking after this stuck-up crumpet here? What for?” Orville asked, his contrition from a few seconds ago already forgotten.
“She’s his girlfriend, and she’s working out of our lab now,” I replied.
“Excuse me; when I’m present and we are discussing Erich in the third person, I’m not his girlfriend, he’s my boyfriend,” she corrected me. “And you are not to give out any personal information about myself, no matter how trivial, without my expressed permission. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Ms. Noir. Terribly sorry, Ms. Noir,” I apologized.
“Yeesh. If you weren’t such a looker, I’d feel bad for Erich,” Orville said. “I’m actually pretty on the fence about it, now that I think about it.”
“The rat trap! Now!” Ivy ordered.
“That settles it. I’m off the fence. Poor Erich,” he said as he scurried off to retrieve the rat trap. It was a small, black, metal box with an aperture on one end and an electronic display on the other. Orville pulled open the metal slat that covered a glass viewing port to reveal that the box was empty. “Nada. I don’t know what to tell you. The Witch across the street has a cat, but she’s a vegan and I’m pretty sure she uses her Witchcraft to keep her cat from hunting. It’s just cruel, and largely defeats the whole purpose of domesticating cats in the first place. I ask you; why keep a cat if it’s not going to keep vermin away? Crazy hippie.”
Ivy tapped a button on her AR glasses and scanned the QR code sticker on the side of the trap. An LED lit up and the trap uploaded its data to her. After examining it for a few seconds, she tapped her glasses again and then examined the trap itself.
“You haven’t been meddling with this, have you?” she asked.
“Meddling? Me? Preposterous!” he claimed in an overly defensive tone, thumping his fist on his desk and triggering a mechanical jack-in-the-box to pop out of a hidden compartment, which he promptly shoved back down.
“You didn’t find any abnormal rats in this thing and try to keep them for yourself, did you?” Ivy asked.
“What on Earth would I want with some diseased rats?” he asked with a dramatic flourish of his arm, accidentally gesturing to a display case of small, taxidermy animals. Ivy eyed him suspiciously before eventually shoving the trap back into his hands.
“Put that box somewhere a rat can get at it but as far out of public sight as possible,” she ordered. “If it does catch anything, let us know immediately. Understood?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Orville nodded.
“Good. And get your shibboleths memorized before my next visit,” she said as turned around and swaggered to the door. “Rose, let’s go.”
I gave Orville a polite half-wave goodbye and chased after Ivy, faintly hearing him blow on the panpipes he had been working on as the door shut behind me.
“What did I tell you? He’s an insolent old bugger, isn’t he?” I asked good-naturedly as we walked back towards her car.
“No. He’s not what he seems,” she said ominously. She didn’t volunteer any more information, and I didn’t press her for it.
Checking the rest of the traps around town went relatively smoothly, but Ivy was getting frustrated that they were all turning up empty. The traps were supposed to attract the escaped lab rats specifically and be able to tell the difference between them and anything else before locking shut, and Ivy was starting to wonder if maybe the traps weren’t working like they were supposed to.
"If it's not the traps, then that means that the rats have skipped town, were caught by someone else first, or are smart enough to avoid or escape the traps altogether, and none of those are acceptable,” she groaned as we pulled up to our final stop; Avalon View Luxury Apartments.
“What if they’re just dead?” I asked, since that seemed like a pretty big possibility to overlook.
"They're not," she insisted, but refused to expand on that any further. "Do you think you can handle this one by yourself? Chamberlin owns this building. He's never actually threatened me, but I don't feel entirely comfortable walking down into a basement and leaving myself at the mercy of his staff."
“Yeah, of course. I can check a trap and scan a QR code for you,” I agreed eagerly.
“Good girl,” she said, handing me her phone. “Just tell the doorman what you’re there for and he’ll take you to the rat trap.”
I got out of the car and walked off towards the ostentatious mahogany and cream-coloured high-rise, this time putting my mask on before entering the marble-tiled lobby.
“Hi, I’m Rosalyn Romero from Thorne Tech,” I introduced myself to the doorman standing behind the front desk, flashing my company ID and proof of vaccinations. “I’m here to check on a rat trap we placed a while back.”
“Of course, Miss. Just fill out the visitor log and I’ll escort you down to the cellar suites,” he said as he passed me a binder and took my temperature with an infrared thermometer. “You’re good.”
“Cellar suites? Is that a euphemism?” I asked uneasily.
“Not at all, Miss. Mr. Chamberlin maintains multiple subterranean apartments for clients to whom privacy is paramount,” he said nonchalantly. “You have nothing to be concerned about. They’ll be alerted of our presence and will be sure to remain in their rooms until we’ve left.”
“Uh-huh,” I murmured. I couldn’t help but think of the sublevels at Thorne Tech, and of the hours I must have spent wondering what Erich kept down there.
Once I was signed in, the doorman – whose name was Sven, according to his metal name tag – led me into the elevator. He tapped a keycard to the controls and all the buttons began to flash, the display asking for a pin. He punched in a four-digit number too quick for me to see what it was, and when the buttons stopped flashing the display read ‘STAFF MODE ACTIVE’. Instead of selecting a floor, he just pressed down, and down we went.
We descended down through the basement and stopped at the level below that, the display simply reading ‘SUB’. The doors slid open, revealing a long, wide hallway lit with mini-chandeliers. The floors were still marble, but the arched walls and ceiling were made from large and heavy bricks. The ‘apartment’ doors were all solid bronze with gargoyle knockers on top.
“Swanky,” I said, hoping I wasn’t coming across as too sarcastic. “What do you got, a coven of vampires living down here or something?”
“Oh God no. Vampires are such divas, and prone to infighting. A coven couldn’t pay us enough to put up with their drama,” he replied. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if he was joking, but I laughed anyway.
We reached the end of the hallway, and he gave the door three loud knocks with the knocking ring. When he didn’t get a response, he cautiously opened the door, revealing a large common room of some kind.
"Looks to be empty. The rat trap is over by the back door," he said, pointing to an old wooden door at the end of the room, obviously much older than any of the bronze ones. There was a space between it and the floor that was big enough for a rat to squeeze through, and when I got close enough, I could feel a draft of stale air coming from it. It was padlocked shut though, and I doubted that Sven would open it just to satisfy my curiosity. Instead, I just bent down and picked up the rat trap. But when I did, I noticed that it was a little heavier than the others. I quickly opened the viewing port, and there beneath a thin layer of ballistic glass was a big, black rat.
“Finally!” I said, taking out Ivy's phone and scanning the QR code. "Hey there, little guy. Are you still alive in there?"
I gently tapped the glass, getting the rat’s attention. It opened its eyes, and I saw that they were a very vibrant crimson colour.
“Wow, freaky. Yeah, you’re definitely some sort of escaped lab rat, aren’t you?” I asked it excitedly. It twitched its nose, but otherwise didn’t seem to react to my presence. “Alright Sven, I got what I need. Can you take me back up now? Sven?”
When he didn’t answer I looked back towards the door, only to see him staring at me in horror. Well, not me. The rat.
It had become fuzzy around its edges, like there was no clear line between it and its surroundings, but the rat was definitely growing in size. I dropped the trap and ran for the exit, but Sven had already fled and closed the door behind him.
“Sven! Sven you coward, open this door!” I screamed as I furiously pounded my fist against it. I turned around to check on the rat, only to see that it couldn't really be called a rat anymore at all. Its hazy, vaguely humanoid form was almost as tall as the ceiling. Long, whip-like appendages that moved like molasses stretched out to caress anything they could reach. The rat’s crimson eyes were the only original feature left now, shining brightly in its hollow void of a face.
Its undulating, ever-expanding form threw out shadows in all directions, shadows which crept and skittered of their own volition across the walls and furnishings of the room. They clustered around the ceiling lamp, slowing suffocating it so that there was just enough light for the shadows to be clearly seen.
The being at the back of the room began to speak, softly but deeply in some incomprehensible guttural language, and the shadows began to repeat its chants in grating, high-pitched squeaks.
I didn’t have any weapons on me, so I grabbed the first object within reach and threw it at the thing, but it went through it like it wasn’t even there. It just kept getting bigger and louder, its form growing angrier and more turbulent. Its tendrils started frantically whipping towards me, and I ducked for cover behind an armchair. Even though the shadows and tentacles it was casting outwards kept moving faster and faster, the creature itself remained put. It twisted and thrashed about as much as it could without moving from where it stood, but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to be able to move from that spot.
As terrified as I was, I was able to think clearly enough to realize that the shadow creature was tied to the rat, and the rat was still in the trap. I paid close attention to how its tentacles were affecting the world around it, and as far as I could tell they weren’t affecting it at all. They passed through everything just as the crystal tumbler I had thrown had passed through it. Even the air didn’t even seem to be disturbed.
I realized that everything that was happening was just an illusion created by the rat. It was trying to scare me, because that was all it could do. It hadn’t done anything until I had opened the trap’s viewing port, and it seemed a decent bet that shutting it would be enough to put a stop to its phantasmagorical attack.
I took a few deep breaths to steel myself, and when I worked up enough nerve I jumped out from behind the chair and dashed towards the creature. It screamed and roared, whipping me ferociously with its elongated limbs. I did feel pain, but they didn’t penetrate my clothing or draw any blood, so that must have all been in my head too.
Forcing myself to press on, I dropped onto my hands and knees and crawled into the creature itself, reaching around blindly for the rat trap. After a few horrifically drawn-out seconds, my hands felt a small, metal box that was vigorously shaking about as the rat inside tried to free itself. Desperately grabbing onto it, I frantically fumbled with it for a few seconds until I found the viewing port and snapped it shut.
The creature around me let out a final, anguished wail before vanishing into nothing, leaving the room exactly as it had been before. I breathed deeply in relief, and laughed at the sound of the little rat scratching at the inside of its trap.
“Yeah, well too bad! I’m not opening it again after that stunt, you little shit!” I cursed at it, shaking the trap for good measure.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard the bronze door behind me unlock and creek open. I spun around and saw a tall, slender man dressed in a fancy silk housecoat. His skin was a dusky midnight blue, tattooed with bright silver runes and sigils. His long hair and large irises were a pale Alice blue, and the sclerae of his eyes were black. To cap it all off, he had a prominent pair of long, pointed ears.
I honestly thought he was another rat-induced hallucination before he spoke.
“What in the Seven Circles of Hell is going on in here!” he demanded, his voice ethereal and his accent a weird mix of British and Scandinavian. I suddenly realized that he was one of the residents of the cellar suites, and that my mishap with the rat trap had disturbed him.
Fortunately, he turned out to be a pretty chill guy for a ‘Dark Elf’, if that’s what he was. He introduced himself as Alfsigr and once I explained what happened he got Sven on the intercom and chastised him for abandoning me down there. Sven came down to retrieve me immediately, apologizing and promising that neither myself nor Thorne Tech would be held liable for the damages. I probably could have – and should have – gotten some kind of recompense out of it as well, but I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could.
When I got back to the car, Ivy was still waiting for me in the passenger seat.
“Here,” I said as I exhaustedly shoved the rat trap into her hand.
“It caught one?” she asked delightedly. The only response I could manage was a weary nod. “You opened the viewing port, didn’t you?”
“I was never told not to open the viewing port!” I said defensively. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me that these rats can generate nightmarish hallucinations?”
"Because that information is on a need-to-know basis, and you didn't need to know," she said smugly, seemingly satisfied that the consequences of my actions had been punishment enough for sneaking a peek at the lab rat. She scanned the trap's QR code with her glasses, and as she read over the data the smile slowly vanished from her face. "This rat gave you hallucinations? You’re sure? There couldn’t have been another rat nearby that was responsible?”
“Of course I’m sure. The hallucinations started when I opened the port and didn’t stop until I closed it,” I replied. “Why, what’s the problem?”
“All the rats that escaped from the lab were males,” she said softly. “This rat is female. The only way she could exist is if she’s the daughter of one of the escaped lab rats. They’re breeding with the local population and passing on their engineered traits to their offspring!”
“Jesus Christ,” I murmured, the thought of an exponentially increasing population of those nightmare rats making my blood run cold. “…I need to adopt a cat.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell