Three Rats is, for lack of a better description, a mishmash of cultures and places and people, all cooped up together in something that could only be described as the masterpiece of a particularly evil-minded maze-designer. Fraught with poorly lit, narrow alleys that unwind and give place to even more dark, dangerous alleys, the whole ward seems intent on staying well away from the sun’s unforgiving light, lest the petty criminals and unintentional murderers be disturbed in their daily comings and goings. Organized crime has been the main career path for most sons of the ward for decades now, which is all well and simple compared to the hassle that freelance criminals must endure in order to survive and do business in a territory crisscrossed by a myriad of invisible feudal borders painted in gang colors. Needless to say, it is not a very promising career in the way of longevity or financial security but considering what is happening to the poor fellow on the other end of the transaction, probably a better one than “professional innocent bystander”.
The old and the weak are common victims of such tragedies. Although illness and hunger may claim their fair share of lives, many deaths in the ward can easily be attributed to acute intoxication with the rusty steel of an ill-kept blade or the “accidental” repeated tripping of incredibly clumsy people into doorknobs and carefully misplaced clenched fists. Many have learned the basic arts of wound stitching and dressing, also referred to as “Three Rats Haute Couture”, but only a very rare few have actually benefited from any kind of medical training.
He is one of the few. Doctor Nataniel Santiago e Santamaria, rescued from a life devoid of proper education by the Guardia’s scholarship programs, is a rare case of a poor man free to follow his calling as a healer, repaying with his work the education he couldn’t have afforded otherwise (while effectively managing to avoid any real Guardia duty). But still, he wishes he could do more.
And that is why he keeps staring at the old abandoned barbershop, with its tiled floors and mirrored windows, every time he walks by it in his wanderings through the ward.
“That would be a good place,” Syro says conversationally, wrenching the good doctor from his daytime reverie.
Nataniel shakes his head, half-startled, half confused. “For what?”
“Your clinic,” Syro replies as if reading his thoughts. “Isn’t that why you keep staring at the building?”
Nataniel smiles bitterly, looking at the abandoned shop one last time before filing away the dream of a neighborhood clinic one more time. “Sueños, mi amigo,” he sighs. “I have no money to make that happen.”
Syro merely shrugs. “Shame. Although, I still don’t see why you believe you are wasting your skill. Your work at the Station has never been questioned.”
Nataniel nods slowly. This is an old discussion, had and buried countless times. His dreams were never, after all, a secret. A child of poor parents, raised in a low-magic ward ravaged by disease, Nataniel had always dreamt of becoming a healer. Like Three Rats, his home-ward, a Fourth Ring area called Torre de la Tierra, is a poor one, although considerably less urban than his current address. Land of cattle and cattle ranches run by rich breeders with considerably less-wealthy employees, where the knowledge of animal healing is far more valued than the healing of humans and creatures alike, Torre holds a wonderful reputation for its tasty, healthy cattle, while secretly hoping no one will notice the scrawny, chronically ill (ill-fed, ill-washed, ill-payed, pretty much just ill) people who tend to the magnificent beasts. And, without magic, the people need more… empirical ways of healing. They need people trained in the arts of a kind of medicine that goes beyond sun-dried cow-dung infusions (which is good for pretty much anything, by the way). Nataniel had set out to be that person, very much against his father’s wish that he learn how to heal animals.
That is where money can be made, mi hijo, he had said. Working for all the big rancheros. You can’t make a living out of healing people who can’t even afford to be sick.
Wise words for Torre de la Tierra. Completely wasted on Nataniel, though. One day, the Guardia recruiters had stopped by, promised him an education in return for his service and that was that. Except that now, years later, he is no more of a doctor than he was back at his home-ward. Sure, he has all the diplomas and certificates but most of his work consists of stitching up officers (and the occasional criminal) and autopsying dead bodies, which in turn also results in some more stitching, down the line.
Nataniel sighs again. It is just not enough.
“I want more, Syro,” he states. “I want to do something good for these people.”
Syro looks around at the landscape of faces darting in and out of side alleys, of people talking to each other in that shouting manner that politely allows neighbors in adjacent buildings to gossip and spy without leaving the comfort of their windowsills. His eyes soften at the sight, glimmering with the broken compassion of one who contemplates lives he can pity but not understand.
“Yes, they always do seem to be falling apart…” he barely whispers.
Nataniel walks the next few steps in silence, listening to the sound of his own footsteps on the old, damaged, frequently absent cobblestones.
“Anyway…” he finally speaks. “Why the sandias?”
“The what?” Syro queries, raising his eyebrows at the unknown word.
“The…como se dice?… the melancias, watermelons,” Nataniel explains, lifting the two cloth bags he has been carrying for the last twenty minutes, each of them filled with two good-sized watermelons bought, after much bargaining, for half price on the basis that most of the fruit is made of water and water, as everyone knows, is free of charge pretty much everywhere in the Insula.
“Oh!” Syro exclaims, looking at the fruit-filled bags he too is carrying almost as if he has just now noticed their existence. “Well, they are a vital part of my next trial in the field of applied physics.”
“Applying physics to watermelons,” Nataniel chuckles. “You mean you squash them?”
“No!” Syro exclaims immediately. He thinks about it for a moment. “Well, I mean… Not squash them per se…”
“Then will there be juice or not?”
Syro nods reluctantly. “If all goes well, yes. It may be splayed a bit all over the walls, though.”
“Bueno…” Nataniel idly rubs his thumb against his forefinger. “What in the Isla are you testing, then?”
Syro’s face lights up, as it always does at the chance of a dissertation on one of his complex theories and experiments. “I wish to test the propulsion and behavior of particles when moving at high velocity between two points in space.”
Silence falls between the two, marked by the almost audible churning of Nataniel’s mental gears as her deciphers his friend’s words. “You’re going to shoot something at the sandias, then.”
“Yes. Pretty much so,” Syro concedes.
“And why are you doing it?” Nataniel inquires with a mixture of dread and curiosity.
“I have developed a new, more efficient way to neutralize potential criminals that I am pretty certain is both practical and non-lethal as per my calculations and preliminary tests,” Syro says brightly.
“Mui bien… Why shoot it at fruit, then?” the physician insists. “You would be more certain if you shoot it at a living target.”
“Like… you?” Syro asks with a glimmer of hope in his eye.
“No!” Nataniel nearly shouts, immediately attracting attention to the odd pair. His next words come out in a hiss. “No, no, no, no, no. No hay manera! Virgen… No, I mean like… a god. We have some of those walking around now.”
Syro looks disappointed. “Yes, I tried to convince that nice gent… Dwayne? Dimi?”
“Dion,” Nataniel offers, caught in macabre fascination over how that conversation may have gone. “You asked Sergeant Dion if you could shoot at him.”
Syro looks at his friend, nodding energetically, seemingly unaware of anything strange with this. “I showed him my calculations and explained the manner of functioning of the weapon. He seemed quite impressed and interested in it but, alas, he also seems to be a very busy man… well, god.” He shrugs. “A shame, really.”
“A loss for science, mi amigo,” Nataniel chuckles.
Syro hangs his head low and shakes it slowly, sadly. “And people wonder why we remain so far behind in relation to this whole ‘magic’ business… As if the secrets of the Universe could be reduced to a quick gesture and some colorful puffs of smoke.”
“Speaking of colorful,” Nataniel comments jutting his chin at two reclining figures sitting in the cool shade of a filthy gutter. “Those two seem to be enjoying the pretty colors right now, no?”
Syro takes a better look at the two men, one in his thirties, thin, coarse, black hair over tanned skin, the other already in his mid-fifties, too heavy for his height, pale skin permanently tinged with lobster-red rosacea, the remnants of what was once red hair fading away into gray. “Don’t those two work at the Singing Cockroach?”
“Work? One of them is the patrón!” Nataniel cries.
They cover the distance to the reclining pair, setting down the bags of fruit at a safe distance from what may just be two cases of alcohol-induced bad mood waiting to happen. Currently, however, only the young man seems restless, while the older gent smiles beatifically.
“Crickets!” he moans, gesturing at the ground around him. “Look, crickets! Sooo pretty…”
“Aaaaaaaaaargghhh!” the younger man screams, trying to melt into the wall behind him while slapping random body parts. “Get’em off me! Get’em off, get’emoffget’emoff!!”
“Hey, compañeros!” Nataniel greets them, crouching by them. “Que pasa?”
The owner of the Singing Cockroach, possibly the worst, most cutthroat pub in the ward, pulls the good doctor to him, grabbing him by the sleeve of his shirt, a massive hand holding Nataniel’s shoulder while the man asks in an almost childish tone, “Can I keep the crickets, mister? I promise they’re just for keeping.”
He brings his face very close to Nate’s, whispering in a drunken drawl. “No stealing food so people will buy mine more expensively this time.”
“So that’s what happened three months ago…” Syro mutters.
“Fire! Use fire!” the young man keeps screaming. “Aaaaaarrrrrrgghhh!! NOT ON ME, DAMMIT!!”
“I think they’re delirious,” Nataniel notes, examining both men intently. “May be some drug,” he offers.
“Your hands are so soft,” the older man goes on in a scary-sweet voice, his hands locking around Nataniel’s and forcing them against his reddish, stubbled cheek. “I like a man with soft hands. R’minds me of my mammy.”
“See?” the physician says, struggling to release himself. “Delirium.”
“I don’t know,” Syro hesitates. “Your hands are quite soft.”
“Stomp on them!” the young hallucinating man screams, kicking wildly. “Don’t stop ‘til you hear the crunching!”
“Well, that’d be a perfect waste of a good pair of surgeon’s hands,” Syro admonishes him.
“Soft…” the owner of the Singing Cockroach carries on, stroking Nataniel’s increasingly sweaty hands. “Like the hair on granny’s back.”
“Syro, they’re not talking to us,” Nataniel says while using his own sweat to finally free himself from the man’s iron grip. “They’re both under the effect of some strange drug. We should take them in and examine them better.”
“Yes… Maybe we should,” Syro concedes.
“Can we bring the crickets, mister?” the older man pleads, eyes wide, lower lip pouting like a six-year-old, while Nataniel holds his arm and help him to his feet. “I wanna train them to ride the llamas.”
“Uuhh… Por supuesto que sí, hombre!” Nataniel agrees, on the basis that crazy people are not to be contradicted. “Bring the crickets.”
“But Nataniel, where are we housing the llamas?” Syro asks, worry tinging his voice as he helps the younger man up.
Nataniel looks at his friend and shakes his head in confusion. “Llamas? What llamas?”
As if on cue, the younger man jumps and grabs Syro, screaming and flailing madly, trying desperately to climb into his arms. while pointing at something invisible right next to him. “Keep it away from me! I’m allergic to wool!” He suddenly stands very still, his expression locked in deep disgust.
“EwewewewEWEWEWEW EWWWWWWWWWW!! It’s licking me!!!”
“See? Llamas,” Syro says, impassibly, ignoring the young man and picking up his bags of fruit. “Here, hold that,” he adds, handing two of the bags to the man, who clutches them like some sort of makeshift shield.
“Ay, Madre Virgen…” Nataniel sighs while helping the older man along, who keeps trying to hold the good doctor’s hand and skip merrily alongside him. “This should be interesting.”