Cat and mouse

Oridom moved silently along the huge cavern, flitting between the larger pieces of detritus left by a long-gone civilisation. The sheer walls of the cavern soared up so far the ceiling was shrouded in darkness. Perhaps there wasn’t a ceiling at all, he couldn’t tell. The thought made him nervous.

But there’d been no turnoffs for two days now. Mandao couldn’t have gone any other way since Oridom’s last sighting of him. He was in front of him somewhere, still running.

Oridom’s training had supplied him with the ability to sleep for short periods and still be aware of any movement around him. So his quarry couldn’t have doubled back either. Mandao had no such training. He must be exhausted by now. He was persistent though, considering the last of his co-conspirators had been captured four days ago. He was the only one left.

Oridom squatted, his feet flat on the floor, and pulled out a protein bar. As he ate he studied his surroundings. There was nothing much there. The further up towards the surface he went, the emptier the corridors became. Nobody came up here.

But then a mouse appeared from a tiny gap in the far wall. It must have smelt his food. Sitting up on its rear legs, its nose wriggled, the whiskers bristling around its head. The mouse worked its way in short bursts across the corridor towards Oridom. He stayed very still until it got close and then his arm whipped out and the mouse was cradled firmly in his hand before it knew what was happening. He could feel its little muscles straining to work free, its heart fluttering within.

Using the thumbnail of his other hand, he pried a crumb off his protein bar and placed it on the shelf that was his thumb just beneath the mouse’s tiny head. Its nose went wild, first half-circling the crumb as its whiskers strained forwards, and then lifting tentatively as it first tasted and then nibbled the morsel.

Oridom watched it eating as he munched on his own food. The mouse was the first living thing he’d seen in two days—since Mandao’s retreating figure had brought a massive pile of crates down in his way, delaying Oridom for nearly half an hour.

Mandao and his band of rebels had only wanted to damage property as a protest. They’d plainly done their best not to hurt anyone, deliberately planting the explosive charge in one of the most outlying of the city’s generators and on the side furthest away from any habitation. That could be counted in their favour.

But they hadn’t planned on a group of squatters being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nine dead, two of them children. None of the rebel group had known of the deaths until later. Four of them had handed themselves in because they’d heard the news broadcasts. The others had surrendered when told of the deaths by their pursuers.

Oridom was convinced Mandao only ran because he didn’t know. He’d stop running as soon as Oridom told him—when he finally got within earshot. But he must suspect by now. Oridom wouldn’t bother following him this far for property damage alone.

Oridom pried another crumb off his protein bar and placed it on the floor. Putting the rest of the bar into his mouth, he held the mouse up to his face so they could look at each other.

“Thank you for your company, little friend,” he murmured. Whiskers flickered, bulging brown eyes stared.

Oridom set the mouse down next to the crumb on the floor. To its credit, the mouse didn’t run immediately, but sniffed the crumb before cramming it into its mouth. It then skittered away to the nearest cover.

Oridom rose from his crouch and soundlessly jogged on. It was another hour and a half before he began to detect the slightest of signs that Mandao was close: dust still lingering midair in the dim light of the passage.

Cautiously rounding the next corner, Oridom discovered the corridor’s end was ahead. A huge blast door towered above him, ascending into the darkness. Beyond that would be the decimated and barren surface. Mandao had to be in this next section.

Oridom called his name and waited.

A small, black, rubber ball rolled out from behind a container on his right. Mandao must be so tired he couldn’t walk out under his own power.

Moving forward, Oridom picked up the ball and found him. Sitting cross-legged on the floor against the wall, Mandao’s face was pale and gaunt, the skin under his eyes dark with sleeplessness. He’d run far longer than Oridom had expected.

Mandao’s brow wrinkled, “You kept coming.”

It was a question: Why?

“There were squatters in the generator. They were killed in the blast.”

Mandao’s face crumpled as his eyes closed and Oridom detected the barest shake of his head. Life was so precious. It must be hard to know you’d been responsible for a death.

Oridom could barely hear him now, “We worked so hard to…”

“I know,” he interrupted him, “It will be taken into account.”

Mandao’s face rose, his expression earnest, “Then I shouldn’t waste more of your time than I already have. We’ll start back.”

He unfurled his legs and tried to get back onto his feet. But he didn’t have the strength and, after several attempts, Oridom pressed him back to the floor.

“Rest,” he said.

As Mandao refolded his legs, Oridom knelt and pulled a small gas stove out of his backpack. Lighting it, he assembled the ingredients he had for a hot meal as some water boiled for the tea.

When the tea was ready, he poured them each a cup and gave one to Mandao with a nod of the head. Mandao clasped his hands and bowed as he received it.

After a sip or two, he was revived enough to ask a question, though his voice was hoarse.

“Are there family members I could offer my services to?”

Oridom’s head tilted to the side, “Not many. The others of your group may have taken those positions before you return.” For a life, a life’s service may be offered, but the poor couldn’t afford the fertilisation fees for children, so their families were small by necessity. All attempts would be made to find a position for Mandao, however. His life was no longer his own.

When the rolls of meat and grain were ready, Oridom sliced them up and served them. He’d never had such a grateful recipient of his cooking. It embarrassed him.

When they were finished, Oridom told Mandao to sleep. They would travel back when he was properly rested. Downhill, it would be faster. Especially if they could find a wheeled cart to sit on.

Mandao simply rolled to one side and was asleep in moments, exhausted. Oridom leaned against the wall and watched his charge until his eyes slid shut and he dreamed of bulging brown eyes and whiskers.

 

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