The Righteous Indignation of the Naked Mole Rat

A Sci-Fi Short Story by Gareth D. Jones

The Righteous Indignation of the Naked Mole Rat

by Gareth D. Jones

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Other stories on TTTV by Gareth D. Jones:

 

 

Naked mole rats are cool. Some people say they’re cute, but they’re not. They’re just weird. Weird is cool though. They’ve suffered a lot from anthropocentric interference in the environment. You used to find them in large areas of East Africa, then the usual suspects started reducing their numbers: hunting, habitat loss, over-cultivation, climate change, you name it. I mean, how’s a guy supposed to study an animal when it’s being wiped out quicker than you can count them?

The last colony of naked mole rats was almost gone before the Kenyan government finally tried to do anything about it. Then, one day, the entire two thousand inhabitants of a nearby village disappeared. Now that’s weird too.

Locals from nearby, a generally superstitious lot, thought it was nature’s revenge. They called the phenomenon The Righteous Indignation of the Naked Mole Rat. Well of course it was nothing to do with the little critters, was it? That’s classic horror movie fodder, that is. I mean, what do they think happened? The little mole rats rose from near-extinction to wreak their revenge on their oppressors? I know they’ve got big sharp teeth, but they’re naked. And they’re mole rats! I studied the little beasts as part of my PhD, you know, because of their extraordinary longevity and its application in human gerontology. They don’t eat people, only tubers. They certainly don’t make entire villages disappear.

The UN sent someone in to investigate the disappearance, and for bonus points they decided to drag me along too. Not that the UN thought it was the mole rats’ fault either, oh no. But they wanted me to appear as an ‘expert’ to counter local superstition and rumour. So I found myself on a little Cessna flying into some remote airfield with a rucksack and a case of equipment. Even through my confidence though, I had this nagging worry that I would turn out to be one of those pompous movie scientists who doesn’t believe the warnings until it’s too late. I had visions of being overrun by hordes of naked mole rats, being knocked to the ground and realising the error of my ways as they began nibbling on my toes. In 3D.

You’re probably guessing that didn’t happen, else how could I be giving you this account. Well, I don’t need my toes to type do I? Eh?

No, you’re right. That didn’t happen. But I tell you, what we found out there in Kenya was much more bizarre.

Across the narrow aisle from me, as we buzzed along at four thousand feet, was the leader of our mission. She was about forty I guess, dressed in a quasi-military khaki suit, hair cropped short and manners the same. Doctor Bracke was Belgian. She had a first name, I’m sure, but I was never privileged to use it. Serious, intelligent, competent: she was a UN special investigator and she wanted everyone to know it.

There were four others with us as part of the official team: her Belgian assistant, a security adviser, a forensics investigator named Tegan, and Professor Heinz the scientific adviser. Plus two commandos to keep an eye on us. They looked barely old enough to care for themselves. Aside from the commandos, I was the youngest at twenty seven. I guess there aren’t many naked mole rat experts to choose from.

It was hot when we debarked from the plane. That sounds pretty obvious I guess. I was in Africa, so what else would you expect? The airfield was flattened earth, surrounded by grassland as far as the eye could see. A low wooden building stood a couple of hundred yards from where we’d stopped, a pair of old jeeps parked to one side. Paint was peeling from hut and vehicles. I kept an eye out for sharp teeth as I trudged through scorching heat. My bags felt twice as heavy as when I’d packed them.

A tall man with a big frown emerged from the hut and stood silently as we approached. He wore a cut down army uniform of some kind, and bare feet.

“I’ll take you to the village,” he said without preamble.

Doctor Bracke had her hand half raised to shake, and undoubtedly had a grandiose introduction prepared. The man turned away and got into the nearest jeep. The doctor harrumphed, which is something I’ve never been able to master, and climbed into the passenger seat. Three of my fellow investigators climbed into the back. A skinny man with large eyes appeared in the driver’s seat of the second jeep, unfolding from a low slouch. Tegan hopped quickly into the front seat; she evidently didn’t fancy being squashed in the back with the two sweaty commandos. So that was my destiny for the next hour, as we bumped over rough ground and I discovered that the particular model of jeep transporting us didn’t have air conditioning.

When we finally stopped I thought I had probably died of heat somewhere along the way without realising. The two commandos jumped out and strode purposefully towards the nearest huts, looking dangerous and glistening with sweat. Our driver slid back down into his seat and closed his eyes. I climbed out slowly, feeling like a limp rag, and half thought about opening the door for Tegan. By the way, just because I remembered her name doesn’t mean she survived, so don’t get complacent. Tegan had freckles and wavy hair that was damp and plastered to her head by then. She was out of the car herself by the time I’d mustered enough strength to stand upright. I left my bags in the back.

Our guide, such as he was, led the way for the rest of us. He stopped short of the nearest dwelling and gestured wordlessly at the silent village. The two commandos, patrolling in separate directions, were the only sign of movement in the late afternoon sun.

“Right,” said Doctor Bracke, clapping her hands together, “let’s get to work.” She started issuing orders, telling us what our jobs were, in case the heat had driven them from our minds, I guess, warning us to be wary, telling us not to go too far, making sure we knew to stay in pairs, and generally boring the remains of my brains into submission. This was what she was born for.

I nodded my thanks at our guide. He said nothing, and returned to his jeep. The doctor wandered off with her assistant, a tubby Belgian man ten years older than she was. I never saw him again after that.

My work at the village was pretty limited. While everyone else was concerned with where two thousand people vanished to, my job was to look for signs of mole rats. I was hoping to team up with Tegan; she was only a couple of years older than me, and the others were way older, like forty or more. I thought we’d have more in common to chat about, but she was already walking off with the security adviser, a man with iron-grey hair and a limp. Only the scientific adviser remained: an Oxbridge man named Bartholomew Heinz. He was about sixty, with white hair and red face, and was already making notes on a small tablet. He looked up at my approach, nodded curtly and pointed at the nearest hut.

“Shall we?” he said, and strode off briskly.

There was no sign of any mole rat burrows – little volcano-shaped mounds. I followed along, hoping to find something to entertain me.

The huts were circular, with mud brick walls and domed roofs of thatch. There appeared to be nothing unusual about them – no tooth marks from mole rats burrowing through the walls, or piles of earth inside where they’d burrowed up from below and snatched the family away in the night. I felt a bit extraneous.

Heinz waffled on about the latest theories of plate tectonics as we walked. As far as I could tell it was completely irrelevant to our mission, but it interested him enormously. I could see the other pairs intermittently among the huts. We ducked in and out of several of the dwellings, but came up with no conclusions. The place seemed to have been abandoned in the middle of an ordinary day, like the Marie Celeste but with less water.

There was a burst of static from the radio that Heinz wore clipped to his belt. I didn’t have a radio; evidently not important enough. Doctor Bracke’s voice sounded tense as she spoke:

“Has anyone seen Bart?”

That was the Belgian guy’s name, her assistant. We hadn’t seen him. I thought it amusing that after her long lecture to us, she was the one to lose her partner. It was funny for a minute anyway. Later it wasn’t funny at all.

Voices chimed in one by one to admit that they hadn’t seen Bart either.

“Okay, this is serious. He’s disappeared.”

That’s when I stopped smiling. I’d kind of forgotten we were investigating a mass disappearance. It was still daylight, and we had soldiers with us, and there was no sound of danger. You wouldn’t expect anyone to vanish like that, would you? I certainly didn’t.

“Everyone make their way to my position,” Doctor Bracke said. “We need to find him.”

I could hear her then, calling to Bart off the radio as we traversed the village. One of the commandos was already with her as we got closer. Tegan and her companion limped in from another angle to get there just ahead of us. Heinz was the slowest, and I was rattled enough to make sure I stuck by his side. The commando was scanning the perimeter continually as we arrived. He waved his hand in acknowledgement of the other soldier who was coming from the far side of the village. I watched him walk, noticed the understated alertness of his posture. He went out of sight behind a hut.

Silence stretched on for long seconds. He didn’t reappear. I stared hard at the edge of the hut where he should have emerged. Nothing. Doctor Bracke swore quietly in Flemmish. I don’t speak the language, but I’m pretty sure I got her meaning. The other commando made a move forward, but the doctor put out a hand to stop him.

“Call him up,” she said, her voice eerily calm.

Nobody else made a sound.

“Bravo two, come in.”

Heinz mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Bravo two, come in.”

Nothing.

“Bravo two, report.”

The commando, Bravo One I guess, pulled a little sat nav thing out of his pocket. He stared at it for a long time.

“There’s nothing from his transponder, ma’am.”

When a big, strapping, deadly, commando’s voice sounds rattled, I know it’s time to start worrying.

“What’s the range?” Doctor Bracke’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“Five klicks.” I think that’s kilometres. I should look that up.

“I’m going to check it out,” said Bravo One.

“Don’t go out of sight,” Doctor Bracke said.

Bravo One moved slowly towards the hut in question. He stayed in sight and went beyond it, weapon at the ready. He looked round.

“There’s nothing here.”

“Stay exactly there,” Doctor Bracke called. She turned to us. “Okay, we all stick together. Move that way.”

We walked slowly, like a little flock of sheep, until we reached Bravo One.

There was nothing behind the hut.

“Doctor Heinz?”

Bartholomew Heinz looked blankly at our leader, as if he had just realised there was a reason he was there.

“I don’t know,” he said. At least he was honest.

As if on cue, everyone started calling out together, either on their radios or just into the still air.

“Bart!”

“Bravo Two!”

The noise subsided after a minute.

“Back to the jeeps,” Doctor Bracke said. “This is more dangerous than we thought.”

Nobody argued. Bravo Two spaced us out a bit more, so we could be together without getting in each other’s way if we had to run, or in his way if he had to shoot. I really wished there was something for him to shoot, because to be honest, the sudden disappearances and silence had me freaked out. I tried to smile re-assuringly at Heinz, in case the old man was about to have a heart-attack or something, but he looked less worried than me. Beyond him, at the other edge of the group, Tegan walked nervously.

Then she vanished.

It wasn’t that she just disappeared. There was no flash or bang, or hole in the ground. It was like she walked behind some scenery, you know those backdrops on stage painted to look like the countryside. It was like someone had left a piece of backdrop randomly in the middle of the village, painted to look exactly like a piece of the village, and she walked behind it. Only she never came back out. And there was nothing there.

I screamed. I admit it: I screamed like a girl. I mean, I was looking right at her and she just went somewhere, and didn’t come back. Nobody else was looking; they were all ahead, apart from Heinz who was staring at the ground.

Everyone stopped and stared, and started gabbling, and I just stood and stared and gibbered about what happened. Then we ran. Forget discipline. We were scared. I was petrified. You can’t imagine what it was like. She just vanished!

We ran back to the jeeps and our guide got out slowly as we lurched to a halt. His skin was black, dark black, but I swear he went pale as he pointed over our shoulder. I’ve never seen that before. I looked round, but there was nothing there. Heinz was with me, red faced and panting. For a moment I felt guilty about leaving him behind, but he’d got a burst of speed from somewhere.

“He was taken,” the guide said, still pointing.

I tried to do a head count, confused for a minute about how many of us there should be. It was the security adviser, the guy with the limp. He wasn’t there.

Behind us, the other jeep roared away in a cloud of dust.

Doctor Bracke swore again.

The commando grabbed our guide’s arm, just in case he felt like leaving without us too.

Our leader regained her composure as we stood there, wide-eyed and breathing heavy.

“We need to get a perimeter set up,” she said. “This is something really odd. We’re going to need more equipment, more security.”

She nodded at Bravo One.

“Let’s get back to the airfield, set up a forward base.”

He nodded, and we all piled into the jeep. I ended up with the luggage in the back. Of course, it was much more sensible to have a forward base there, near the village, but I certainly wasn’t volunteering to stay there, and neither was anyone else.

It took a few days, but we eventually had a whole Kenyan Army platoon circling the village, with makeshift barriers in place. A dozen scientists turned up with boxes and crates, tents and camp chairs. And bags of scepticism, which soon vanished when we drove a herd of goats through the village and half of them didn’t come back out. They lost a robot probe too before they were all convinced.

I pretty much left them to it and went off to visit the nearby naked mole rat colony. The scientists were all excited about the weird phenomenon they’ve found in the village, but I was happy to keep away. I wondered, from time to time, where Tegan and the others ended up. Back in time? Forward in time? Another dimension, another planet? Vaporised into subatomic particles? If they went somewhere else, did they find mole rats there too?

The answer came several weeks later, when Tegan re-appeared one day. I saw her the next morning, gaunt and grubby, with a haunted look in her eyes. They’re all slaves, she told us. On an alternative Earth, all of the people who vanished have been enslaved by the dominant race. Naked mole rats rule on that world, and their technology is far in advance of ours. They created the rifts that slice between realities and they set out to explore.

On our Earth they found the last colony of their kind in a sorry condition, and quickly came to the conclusion that we’re to blame. Which is pretty much right. There are no humans on their Earth – who knows what happened to them? They started taking people through the rifts, creating an isolated colony to study, and to allow us humans the chance to experience what we’d brought on the mole rats.

They sent Tegan back with a message. They want to talk to an envoy from our Earth. They want us to put things right for our unintelligent mole rats. She got the impression they could make life very difficult for us, what with their reality rifts.

There was a lot of intense discussion among the scientists and politicians and military people about who they could send. I wasn’t privy to any of their discussions, but you can guess whose name came up.

It looks like I’m off to face the righteous indignation of the naked mole rats.

 

 


 

—- legal —-

Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alchemist_x/32757810517
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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