What a Rat Race

By Ande Jacobson

Robert was restless. He looked around quickly and then took off running through the lab, climbing over various apparatus, leaping from landing to landing, until finally stopping atop a bookcase in the corner. It was late, the lights were dimmed, and he wanted to play. This was not an unusual occurrence after the scientists left for the day.

Robert was an albino specimen of the species Rattus norvegicus (brown rat) more commonly referred to as a laboratory rat. Like the other rats in the lab, he had snow white hair, a little pink nose, and tiny reddish eyes. Unlike his compatriots, he also had one mostly blue ear and wasn’t kept in a cage. Instead he had free run of the lab, or most of it anyway. He was what the staff members called their conscience rat, and he learned over time that a conscience rat was kind of a lab mascot or pet that the scientists pampered to make them feel better about the work they did. His blue left ear was the result of the scientists tattooing it to make him stand out from the other rats in the lab.

Robert was extremely long lived for a member of his species. In the United States, the life expectancy of a common lab rat (barring an early experimental demise) is 2-3.5 years. Robert was already ten-years-old, very bright (he could read), and still as energetic as a pup. He was extremely tidy and “lab broken” using one designated sink as his rat box. He was also a bit devious and enjoyed sneaking up on some of the scientists. When they looked like they weren’t paying attention he would pounce much like a cat. He was particularly fond of leaping onto people’s heads or shoulders from above, and the regulars in the lab didn’t seem to mind. Robert tended not to bother visitors as that could sometimes prove dangerous, something he’d discovered in an unfortunate incident some time back.

He didn’t know why he was so lucky to be chosen as the lab’s mascot, but he enjoyed his freedom as far as it went. There was one area where he wasn’t allowed, and a bright green door separated the forbidden region from the rest of the lab. While he often wondered what went on in there, he was also apprehensive. He had noticed that whenever the scientists took any rats through that door, those particular rats never came back. Despite his fears, Robert loved being able to explore so much of the lab, and when there were other rats around, he wanted to be able to play with them. He had been born in the lab and was pulled out of his litter when he was just three weeks old.

After resting atop the bookcase for a moment, Robert leapt onto Cynthia Gonsalves’ desk. Cindy ran the lab, and Robert knew that she kept some of his favorite treats in the upper right drawer. He discovered that Cindy often didn’t close that drawer completely, and he nudged it open just enough to get inside. He was never sure if she did that on purpose or if she’d been careless, but no matter. He slipped into the drawer surveying the available treats, and he ate a few. After he had his fill, he climbed back out of the drawer, jumped off the desk and ran across to a row of cages. Tonight, there were six other rats in the lab, each in a separate small cage next to a larger enclosure. Although there were often a number of other rats in the cages, Robert would soon discover that this night was a little different than usual.

He went to each cage checking the doors, and the last one he checked caught his interest. The door looked like all the others, but he noticed that the lock wasn’t engaged. It couldn’t be released from inside the cage, but being on the outside, Robert knew that he could flip the bar out of the clasp to free the door. He nosed the connector out of the way, grabbed the mesh near the latch with his teeth, and it moved! He pulled the door open just a bit, and a white blur burst out of the cage.

Robert was ecstatic. He had a playmate now and immediately chased after her. The new rat led the way with Robert in close pursuit. The two of them raced up onto the bench and up the outside of the larger enclosure. From there they were able to climb onto the bookcase, and they circumnavigated the lab. Besides the treats Robert took from Cindy’s desk, there was a feeding station for him on the upper lab bench. From previous nights he also had a small stash of treats taken from Cindy’s desk that he’d placed in a hidden spot behind one of the bookcases.

While rats cannot talk in a way that humans understand, they can communicate with one another. Robert found out that the new rat was called Robin, and he wanted to know where she had been. He knew that he was considerably older than the other rats he had previously encountered in the lab and wondered how old Robin was. He was surprised when she told him that she too had been born in this lab, and when she told him when that happened he determined that they must be littermates since no other rats even came close to their age. Having been separated so early, Robert had lost track of all of his siblings and assumed they had died long ago. He learned that throughout her life, Robin had been in several different labs, but she had never experienced the freedom that he had. She also had something else in common with him as he looked closer – she too had a blue ear, though in her case it was her right ear rather than her left. Robert knew that he had a blue left ear because he’d seen his reflection in a lab mirror before and had heard the scientists mentioning it from time to time. He also knew that up until now, no other rat he’d seen had that kind of marking.

As morning approached, Robert knew that the various staff members would be arriving soon, and he wasn’t sure how they would react to Robin being loose. Upon reflection, the fact that she too had a blue ear gave him some confidence that the scientists also considered her special, so he decided to take a chance.

Most nights, Robert settled on Cindy’s desk after his evening snacks and exercise. He read whatever reports she’d left open the night before and had learned a great deal about the work they were doing. He wasn’t sure she realized he was reading them, but he was almost always on top of them when she arrived in the morning. Robert couldn’t manipulate a computer keyboard sufficiently, so he relied on the various hardcopy reports and journals that were always on Cindy’s desk.

Because he and Robin had spent the bulk of the night catching up after so many years, he was much later in returning to the desk. He brought Robin with him and had just started telling her about a report he began reading when he heard Cindy come into the lab.

“Hey Robert, hope you had a good night,” Cindy said as she sat down at her desk and looked at the two of them.

Robert got off the report, turned around toward Cindy, and looked up at her.

“Are you hungry,” she asked?

Robert cocked his head and squeaked.

Cindy pulled a couple of treats out of her drawer and offered them to Robert and Robin. Robert wasn’t sure if she realized he went in there most nights, but he ate them from her hand while Robin hung back a little. When he finished, Cindy picked the two of them up and petted them gently.

Robert watched after Cindy put them back down on the desk as she got up and examined the six cages.

“It’s OK, Robert. I left that door unlocked to see if you would take the initiative to set her free to join you. Robin is your sister, and we finally got her back from Animal Colony. She wasn’t supposed to have been taken, but fortunately she hadn’t been used in any experiments. She had just been in the general rat population in Animal Colony for some time. The odd thing was that like you, she’s outlived the other rats nearby. We knew that she was your sister, but we wanted to see if your longevity was nature or nurture. You’ve had more freedom than any other rat in the complex. Robin has been caged the whole time, and has been mostly with other rats rather than lab staff. We brought her back to reunite her with you to see if the two of you would connect. Clearly you have,” Cindy said smiling down at the two of them.

With that, Cindy walked over to the green door and went into the off-limits area leaving the two of them alone on her desk. After several minutes, she came through the green door and went straight to her desk. Robert watched while Cindy gently picked Robin up again and looked her over carefully.

“Relax Robert, I’m not going to take her away again,” Cindy said.

Robert watched closely and squeaked. Robin squeaked back at him as Cindy put her down on the desk. Robert took Robin onto the lab bench, and they settled into a small rest station where Robert often slept for a chunk of the day. The lab started filling up as more of the staff arrived, and soon, there was a soft hum of activity as the scientists went about their work. Robert overheard Cindy telling a few of the staff that there was now a second conscience rat who she was giving free run, except for the forbidden area behind the green door of course.

From his reading, Robert knew a bit about work that was done in the lab. He had read about experiments studying the effects of weightlessness that were in progress using rats as subjects. The older reports mentioned “sacrificing the experimental subjects,” but the newer reports didn’t say any subjects were sacrificed. He knew that these reports stemmed from the work being done behind the green door, the experimental suite as Cindy referred to it, and they piqued his curiosity. He decided that he needed to find out what happened in there, but he didn’t want to get caught or hurt.

Robert observed the traffic going through the green door as staff frequently entered and exited, sometimes bringing in new rats, sometimes transporting equipment, and sometimes just walking in or out themselves as Cindy had done that morning. He’d just have to attempt to ride in with some equipment if he could figure out a viable way to do it without being noticed.

The cage on the end where Robert had freed Robin the night before was empty, and the door was propped open for some reason. Robert watched as Robin left the rest station and climbed down from the bookcase to the top of the empty cage. She waited a moment, then went inside the cage and curled up to sleep. Robert stayed where he was and also sacked out for a bit.

When Robert awoke, he was shocked to find Robin and her cage missing. He panicked thinking she’d ended up in the restricted area. Now he had a pressing reason to find a way in. He carefully worked his way over to the middle of the bookcase near the green door and watched who was entering and exiting the room, at least he thought it was a room. He scooched closer to the edge of the shelf he was on, and just as Cameron and Ashley were rolling a cart piled high with equipment past his position, he jumped onto the cover of an apparatus that poked slightly above the heads of the techs guiding the cart and quickly moved to the top of the piece of equipment unseen.

As they cleared the door, he moved to the front of the equipment and noticed that he was riding through a hallway with doors on both sides. He had no idea that this wasn’t just a room. It was an entire suite of rooms of some kind. There were warning placards on several of the doors as they rolled past, and Robert recognized those as signs indicating the use of radioactive materials that he’d read about in some of the reports on Cindy’s desk. He started to wonder how he was going to find Robin in this new labyrinth. From the hallway, he didn’t see any cages and had no idea how to find out what was in each room or if it was even safe to do so. After seeing the warnings, he was afraid of potential radiation.

Ashley badged through a door midway down the hallway, and she and Cameron rolled the cart in with Robert peeking over the edge of the equipment. He stayed just out of their sight as he tried to decide whether to stay in this room or race out into the suite’s hallway before they locked him inside. He looked around and noticed that this was a much larger room than he’d imagined, far larger than the lab outside the green door. There were cages throughout the room lining the walls and on the bench areas. The cages along the walls were mostly filled with rats, although one side of the room had cages of mice. There were smaller cages on one of the larger bench areas, each with one or two rats inside, and sure enough, Robin was alone in one of them. The door they came in was on one end of the cavernous space, and there was another door at the other end.

Ashley and Cameron were beginning to unload the equipment onto one of the benches, and if Robert didn’t move quickly, he knew that they’d discover him. As they carefully pulled the cover from the equipment, Robert slid with it near the bench. When they started to fold the cover, he leapt off onto the bench where Robin’s cage was and jumped on top of it. He quickly found the door, noticed it was partially latched, and started trying to open the lock. He saw Cameron turn in his direction watching as Robert managed to get the door open. He and Robin took off running with the Cameron and Ashley in pursuit. They ran across the bench toward the door they had come in and got out into the hallway.

Robert and Robin raced down the hallway away from the room they’d just exited running deeper into the labyrinth. As they approached the end of the hallway, they saw that it continued around a corner to the left and followed it around.

They heard Ashley calling out their names as she turned the corner. Still running full out, Robert noticed a door at the far end of this hallway branch and ran toward it. Just as he and Robin they got to the door, it opened and Robert skidded into the wall to the left of the door while Robin ran through it. He watched Robin as she ran along the building and started climbing up the side.

Robert was conflicted. He’d never seen outside of the building before and was curious about what was beyond the lab. He was also afraid of the possible dangers that lay beyond the walls of the space he knew. Robin disappeared above where he could see from inside the door, and he felt a sense of loss. He’d only just met her, but they’d bonded in the short time they had spent together, and he realized that if she hadn’t been in the lab, he wouldn’t have even ventured beyond the green door. He hoped that she would be safe, but he wondered if he would ever see her again.

While he contemplated what to do next, Ashley caught up with him and picked him up. She admonished him for running away from her and Cameron, carried him back through the labyrinth to the lab, and then placed him gently on Cindy’s desk. Robert listened while Ashley and Cameron told Cindy what happened. He was surprised that neither Ashley nor Cameron realized how he had gotten into the labyrinth because they told Cindy that they didn’t notice him until he was working on getting Robin out of the cage in the colony room. They recounted chasing him and Robin through the hallway, and reported that Robin had raced out of the building.

Robert looked up at Cindy waiting for her to notice him. He couldn’t decide what he wanted her to do, or what he should do now that he was back home. He wanted to somehow get them to rescue Robin, but he didn’t know how to ask them to do that. He also wasn’t sure she needed rescuing. The one thing he was sure of was that he was no longer interested in the world beyond his lab. He was safe and had everything he needed.

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