Deep under the big city, connected to the labyrinth of sewers and infrastructure that maintain the lives of countless creatures above, there is a special room. Stout metal ribs gird this chamber and arc to a point at the top of its dome. At that spot where they come together is a square grate, through which a pale white light seeps in, falling in curly motes to the ground far below. It is impossible to tell how far up the shaft reaches, how long it takes for such a quiet light to sink into the deep earth. The light is faint, ghostly, and reveals little, but it is precious.
For scale, assume that a city is mirrored above and below, the way a tree and its roots reflect each other. Then, consider the boundless sprawl of the particular city above. The vast tangle and knot coiled beneath the lowest streets is enough to make a reasonable person swoon. A reasonable person would also agree that it was a bit of pretty good fucking luck, then, that the young man and his robot should have found this one place, unique of all places, at all.
In this quiet spot, removed from the noisiest arteries of the sewers, the young man and his robot had camped for almost a year. At least it was dry, and it did feature the only natural light one could find for miles. Still, the décor was a bit uninspired. In fact, if it weren't so depressing one would almost describe it as vagrant-kitsch: over there a tattered tent made of rags, over here a fire pit, over there a couple of buckets, probably with holes in them just for effect. And more debris scattered around: a few paperback books molting their faded pages away, a stained shirt draped disintegrating over a rock. However, amongst all of this irrelevant miscellany, one thing, as they say, brought it all together: beneath the diffuse light from the vent above had grown a tree to about a foot in diameter before it was felled. And on this tree stump, in a sepulchral gloom, far below the earth, in the middle of a damp stain, alone and glistening, lay a beating heart.
The young man kneels, his robot beside him. Their eyes fixate on the heart. Lying there, sadly defenseless and futile, it makes desperate wheezing and gasping noises as it inhales and exhales through its empty ventricles.
The young man, wearing a dusty green uniform of sorts, suddenly reaches one finger out and touches the heart. He presses in slightly, forming a small dimple. He slides his finger down over the ventricle, leaving an oily wake. The heart continues pumping, dumb and persistent. He pulls his hand back and holds it, shaking slightly, before his eyes. Swift as a snake, the young man darts his tongue out and licks the tip of his finger, then vigorously wipes his hands on his pants legs.
“I guess it's ready,” he says. The robot nods. Its long, many-jointed limbs are always angled inwards. It appears to be always huddling against a cold wind. Its red eyes provide no illumination, but brood privately from deep within a metallic cowl.
The young man is quiet for a moment, staring ahead contemplatively, until a smirk nearly eclipses his whole face. “Do you remember what I had to do to get it,” he asks, nearly sputtering over his own laughter. The robot nods stoically, for robots do not forget. In an almost obscene guffaw, the young man doubles over in laughter, little diamond tears appearing at each outer corner of his large pale eyes. “And how he said- how he said,--” he trailed off in laughter, leaving the rest implicit. The robot nods. The young man aborts his laughter with a sharp intake of breath, and holds it. He sighs. “Then they'll probably be here soon.”
The young man looks to the round portal that leads to the sewers. From his vest pocket he pulls out a pair of binoculars, places them to his eyes and adjusts the light settings. Black ghosts dart past the entrance, like spectral arrowheads volleyed from either side. Back and forth they fly, and then suddenly,
creeping around a corner appears the first of many rats, company the boy had been expecting, dreading. It stops at the entrance, half in and half out, stabbing its long pointed nose at the air with one paw raised. It takes a few steps in and stands up. The young man stands too. They are about the same height, both mangy but lithe, scrawny and strong too. More rats appear behind their leader, slinking in, taking a few darting steps at a time. More and more, until the entire entrance is crowded with them, each crawling over the back of the other, overflowing into the room.
The robot slowly unfolds two long arms, and holds them steadily parallel to the ground.
The rat's voice irks the young man terribly. The edges of his words are sharp and cut short. He slides together pauses, but then halts unexpectedly. He notices the binoculars in the young man's hands. "Ah! You have a, a, a--. For the--- fire. And, and, and the heart--. So very---- well done."
"Thank you Labrot," the young man says, trying to sound steady, easy.
The rat turns his attention to the robot. "The--- metal-man is--- a good friend isn't he?"
"Yeah. A very good friend."
"And the heart. The, the------ the heart." The boy thinks Labrot seems unusually distracted as he pauses to sniff at the beating heart. Labrot whips around to the boy, who instinctively recoils from the foul acrid breath seeping between the rat's stained lips. "Do-we-shall-begin?"
Ceremoniously, the young man reaches his binoculars up and holds them in a line with the light trickling down from above. He fiddles with the dials on the lenses, then keeps his arms as still as he can.
(A terribly long silence.)
A gray noodle of smoke rises as the heart begins to smolder. It turns darker, becomes a ribbon, becomes a cloud, turns black, becomes a haze, then flames burst from its side and whip upwards as flesh peels retreating from the conflagration. The burning heart beats faster and faster as the smoke unfolds deeper and darker. Its wheezing gasping becomes panting rasping as flames bite away at purple flesh. The young man lowers his arms. All watch expectantly, silently, as the heart burns brighter, until the flames become an opaque white veil that is blinding to behold. Presently, the flame dies. The heart is gone. Just a modest pile of ashes scatter around the tree stump. The young man lets out a long breath. Labrot twitches his nose and scratches at the ground. The rest of the rats begin to shift in agitation.
“Does--- it work?”
“We won't know until summer.”
“When is that?”
"We won't know for a long time.”
Labrot seems displeased by this answer. “No, not good--- quickly, now we--- don't wait. Can't.” The rats writhe and squirm behind him, growing increasingly agitated.
The young man takes a step back, startled by the urgency in Labrot's tone and well aware of his combustive temper. “It takes time, Labrot. I told you. This is just the first part. It should work, but we won't know for a while.”
“No! Not waiting. Do you remember? How you got? What you did? Very upset, took--- many rats!”
The young man looks down, ashamed for laughing about that incident just minutes ago. It was true, many rats had died that day, and to help him too. He knows he has his part of the bargain to uphold, but what he is saying is true: these things take time. Everybody knows that.
“No longer friend. You've made tricks on us. Many--- rats call you demon, call---- you bad spirit! Many rats dead!” Unable to hold back his nervous rage, Labrot springs at the young man, his face turning hellishly malicious. The young man has just a fraction of a moment to see Labrot's bright sharp teeth flying towards him, just a moment to open his mouth but not enough to scream. And then a red flash and a sharp whip-crack sound startles the entire room into silence. Labrot now lies a broken, bloody pile, thrown against the ribbed walls of the chamber with unfathomable force. The robot retracts it's metal fist, uncurls its many joints and stands tall, towering over the young man and nearly filling the room. The rats stare up at the red-eyed terror and then scatter, disappearing as swift as a snuffed flame.
The robot huddles back over, like a very tired person. The young man kneels back down at the tree stump. He stirs the pile of ashes with one finger, resting his head on his arm on the edge. He looks up to the sky as if he's heard a sound. “This had better work,” he says.