What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you're on your own?
No, I get by with a little help from my friends…
The Beatles, With A Little Help From My Friends

Crouched in a corner, wrapping his arms around his knees and putting down his forehead on top of them, Willard Stiles closed his eyes. He was alone, and there was no way out.

They thought he was dangerous. They thought he was insane.

Clenching his teeth, he listened to an inner voice taunting him. He was far too weak to fight back.

There was no way out, no damn way out…

But then he sat up straight suddenly as something small, yet soft and warm touched his ankle. No. He was not alone.

He held out his hand, felt how thin whiskers tickled his fingers, how tiny claws scurried on his skin, how a very light-weighted, silky-furred something made itself comfortable in his palm. Raising his head, he opened his eyes. "So good to have you around", he murmured.

The white rat looked at him out of clever red eyes, and sniffed.

Willard smiled. "Any news from the world outside?"

The rat squeaked softly, and, as always, the answer arrived straight in his head. Your pack. No leader. Dispersed. Or dead. No leader.

By now, Willard had got used to conversing with rats. And he even preferred it to conversing with humans. It was so much simpler, for a start. You did not have to pick up all the subtleties humans managed to achieve. Rats spoke in simple, short terms, and they did not lie. They had not mastered the intellect to do so.

Sometimes Willard wondered how his own words arrived in the rats' little heads. When he spoke to them, he tried to keep it simple. But they also understood more complicated things, so it seemed. Maybe they could not fully read the complex patterns of the human mind. But they seemed to be getting the idea. They were learning.

Ben had been a particularly quick learner.

Willard shuddered and sought comfort in stroking the soft fur of the rat in his hand. Ben was dead now, he had made very sure of that, but his memory still haunted Willard's dreams.

But it was all over now, Ben's reign as well as his. Dispersed or dead, no leader.

No leader.

They had not had a leader in the very beginning. Rats did not need a leader. There was just the pack. And then he, a human, had interfered. He had tamed Socrates, and then he had tamed the pack. They had seen his superiority, his size, his strength, the things he could do with his fingers which paws would never achieve, the complex patterns of his mind… and they had obeyed.

And Ben had watched. And learned.

It had been all his own fault, he had realized it later on. In taking Socrates upstairs with him while leaving the others down at the basement, he had created an individual. And this had not felt right to the pack. In a pack, there were no individuals. Ben had been the first to try to gain this new status. The others had followed. And they wouldn't leave their newfound freedom. With their coming upstairs after Ben… the whole pack had become a vast individual.

And it was always individuals who rebelled, never parts of a whole which had their places in the world. It never was nameless things. It was…

… those who had names.

Willard could have cried out loud for not realizing his own folly for so long. It was he, he himself, who had made Ben what he had been – by giving him a name.

But how should he have seen it? Back in those days, he had not known how the spirit of the pack worked. Giving things names was just a human trait. How could he have known?

It was by giving names that he had started it. After Socrates had been Socrates, there was no way he was going back to live with the pack. Quite naturally, he would return to Willard. Before they had met, Socrates had just been a common animal, just part of the pack, but Willard had made him special.

And so he had done with Ben. He had addressed him, had given him a name, and by this action decided his own fate.

From now on, he would not give rats names lightly!

However, this revelation came a bit too late. Several rats now came to his room to keep him company, and they all had a name.

The white one in his hands had been the first to come, and he had called it Plato, in memory of Socrates, the first rat and best friend he had ever had.

Cold. Hard. Sit other place. Soft place.

Willard smiled. Plato really cared for him. "I'm fine", he said.

Soft place, Plato insisted. Lair.

Clever rat, Willard thought. He had realized the purpose of a bed, and he had translated it into the language of the rats. To the other rats, Willard's bed had always been something running along the line of Big Soft Thing.

Plato nibbled Willard's thumb to draw his attention to him. Soft place.

"Oh, alright." If this gave Plato satisfaction, he would do it. After all, it was for his best. He rose to his feet and stretched a bit, careful not to drop Plato. Part of his muscles ached from cowering in the corner for so long.

Plato moved in his hand. High, the rat stated.

Again Willard smiled at his little friend. "Yes, to you it's high. But don't worry, I won't let you fall." He walked over to the bed – just a few steps, the room was so small – and sat down again heavily. "I wonder for how long they will keep me here", he said.

Keep?

There were things rats just did not understand. "I can't get out", Willard explained. "They locked me up in here, and they won't let me out."

Why? For a rat, it was a very sophisticated question. Why should reasons be important to a rat? They saw things as they were, and they never wondered why they were like that.

"Because they believe I'm dangerous."

Dangerous.

"Yes."

You dangerous?

"No, Plato. At least, not to you." That should do, Willard thought. Probably this was all that mattered to Plato. But it was interesting how he could pick up things already. How he had worked out the meaning of "to believe".

To a rat, was there any other sense to the word? Did rats possess any transcendental thoughts? He seriously wondered.

There were voices outside the door. At once Willard sat bolt upright and listened.

"I'd like to see Willard Stiles", said a voice. It had a calm, confident tone to it, something Willard had never really managed to give his own voice.

"Our Rat Boy? Are you sure?" If he remembered it right, this was one of the doctors. "I'm not sure if it's a good idea. Alright, I'll call an orderly to go with you. He's been rather phlegmatic lately, but with him… I wouldn't be so sure he's harmless."

A visitor? Willard had never had one until now. There was nobody who cared about him, except the rats. Who could it be? The only thing he could tell about him was that he was male and very sure of himself. There was nothing else the voice revealed.

How should he react? Well, that depended on who this visitor was. For the first impression, it was probably best to assume his lethargic pose, sitting with his back against the wall and staring somewhere into the air. What about Plato? After a moment's consideration he shoved the rat inside his jacket and ordered it to keep very still. Plato was clever enough. He would do what he was told.

Willard did not have to wait long before the door opened. "Visitor, Rat Boy!" the cheerful voice of an orderly announced. It was the same who usually brought him his meals, and Willard did not like him at all. "He says his name is Tom or something like that-"

"Almost", somebody else cut him off. Despite his usual procedure, Willard just had to turn his head. In the doorframe, right beside the orderly, stood a young man with long black hair which touched his shoulders in silky locks, yet had something messy about it. Although he was not very tall, Willard was tempted to say that he loomed. The way the stranger held his chin, his whole attitude hinted a definite trace of arrogance. "Thank you", he said coldly. "You may go."

"Visitors are not to be left alone with dangerous patients", the orderly protested.

The stranger turned to face him. Although he was rather thin, his stance was quite alarming. "He will not harm me", he said. "Leave us. Now."

For a moment the orderly just stood gaping, then he turned on his heels and hurried away.

With a smile of satisfaction, the stranger pulled the door shut behind him. "Listen, pal", he said, addressing Willard as if speaking to an old friend, "I know you're perfectly sane, so don't you play silly buggers with me. I'm one you can't deceive."

Alright, this changed things a little. Forcing all the calm and confidence he could muster into his voice, but at the same time knowing that he would never be this stranger's equal there, he asked: "Who the hell are you?"

The skinny young man smirked, exposing a set of yellowish teeth, the tips of all four eye teeth filed to the sharpness of needles. "It's time you meet Tomcat, Rat Boy."

Trying to hide his surprise and irritation, Willard said: "Should I know you?"

"Nope, but I'm about to fix that problem."

"Why have you come?"

"Because I need you, Willard. Because I need your help."

Indeed, Willard thought, I'm the perfectly sane one among the two of us. Who's that guy, a Rat Boy wannabe? Does he think I'll teach him how to control rats to kill some person he doesn't like? What a git.

"You're not the only one with special talents", his visitor continued softly.

"What do you mean?" Willard asked sharply. Yes, he could see it, this was going to run along the lines of "Please help me train my two cute little black and white pet rats to rip my neighbour to pieces".

"That I have a special gift of communicating with creatures, only with a different species."

"Good for you", Willard said sarcastically. If people could just let him be…

"Now, now, mate, don't be rude. I could get you out of this confounded place, Rat Boy, you know."

"You could?" And you probably don't believe it yourself.

"I could", said the stranger, not without pride. "I've got everything arranged. We could do it tonight. Together with my… friends, I have studied this building for some time. It shouldn't be too difficult. Are there any of your little rodents around?"

"You'll have to explain that", Willard said, ignoring the question.

The visitor gave him a mysterious little smile. "It's easier than you would guess, Rat Boy. I'm just depositing a pair of cats in here. As soon as it's dark and most of the staff has gone home, they'll let me in. And I'll let you out."

Willard raised his eyebrows. "Don't you think that's a bit too simple, my friend – what was your name again?"

"People call me Tomcat. But I prefer to call myself Mishuk."

"Mishuk?"

The stranger's dark eyes seemed to go even darker. "After the first cat I met. He was the best friend I ever had."

Like Socrates, Willard thought. Maybe I should give this Tomcat – or Mishuk – a chance. "And how is this supposed to work?" he wanted to know. "What do the cats do?"

His visitor grinned. "Did you know they do cat therapies in here? That pat-the-cat-and-it's-gonna-be-better nonsense? Well, I just sent two of mine to mingle with the cats they keep here. By tonight, they'll know everything we need to know. And they'll let me in. They learned how to do it. They're really clever. They might even be able to deactivate the alarm before I come. I've got Chandra on the force, she's an absolute professional. Then we pick up the stuff you need, and then… we just walk out." He grinned broadly. "What d'you say?"

"And this is really going to work?" Willard asked. "And look, even if it's going to work, I have nowhere to go."

"That's what you think", said Mishuk, still grinning. "A young lady by the name of Cathryn is anticipating your arrival, mate."

Immediately Willard sat up straight. "Cathryn?"

"You've heard right, Rat Boy."

"I'm Willard to you."

"Right, Will. She's awaiting you."

"I'd only be endangering her", Willard said, trying to force the clouds of pink fogging his brain back into the recesses from whence they came.

Mishuk snickered. "You're a noble knight, buddy, really! No, you're not going to endanger her. I made sure of that. I found us a place to stay. We're just going to pay her a visit. Thought that'd cheer you up. And besides, she already helped me, so we can count on her. She must be quite eager to see you."

Cathryn eager to see him! Willard felt his pulse pounding in his veins at this thought. Yes, she had seemed to like him, after all she had turned up at his house twice, and she had come to his mother's service. When going to work on that terrible day, he had decided to ask her out, but then Martin had fired him and later on killed Socrates, and all that had been on his mind from then on had been revenge.

And in the end… she had turned away from him. She had refused to help him.

But he couldn't blame her. What should she have done? Run in, killed all the rats with a flamethrower, run out again, knocked the policemen out and then brought him somewhere safe? A bit too much to ask of her.

After all, she had hardly known him.

"You coming?" Mishuk inquired.

Willard nodded. There was absolutely nothing he might lose. "Right. But I'll take a few rats along, if you don't mind."

Mishuk grinned. "I thought so. I'll just tell the cats not to harm them. Well then, pal, see you tonight, then. Have a nice day." And with this, he was gone.

And only then it occurred to Willard that he hadn't asked what kind of help exactly Mishuk was referring to when he said he needed it.

Well, he was going to find out.

Inside his jacket, something stirred. There was a scrabbling of small paws, and then Plato poked his little pink nose out. What?

"He wants to let me out", Willard answered, absent-mindedly running a finger between the rat's ears.

Out, Plato repeated.

"That's right."

The intensity of this new thought caught Willard by surprise. Smell. Not right.

"Yeah, he probably smelled of cat."

Not right.

"Look, I understand cats are your enemies…"

Not right, Plato interrupted. Careful. Not right.

Willard paused. Now this sounded like a serious warning, with some urgency in it. But then he shook his head, shaking his doubts away. "There's no need to be afraid, Plato. I'm not sure about this Mishuk fellow myself, but I think that he's a friend, though maybe a strange one. And concerning cats… they can't harm me."

Yes, but once you thought that rats couldn't harm you, and you had to learn it the hard way…

"They won't do anything to me", Willard confirmed, but more to reassure himself.

Plato squeaked. Go with you.

Willard smiled. "I had hoped you would. Thank you, Plato."

Despite everything.

Despite everything. An amazing degree of abstraction for such a small animal. Was Plato fully aware of what he was saying? Or was it just something he had picked up from Willard once? "Thank you", Willard said again flatly.

Cleopatra. Go with you?

"That's for her to decide. If she wants it."

Salazar go? Ruby go?

"Same goes for them."

Plato climbed down upon the bed and stood up on his hind legs, twitching his whiskers. Call.

"Yeah, that's right, you call them." And don't get overexcited, Willard mentally added.

Yes, and don't worry about me overmuch, there's a good boy. Don't you try to adopt me, Plato, I'm too big for this! He grinned to himself. What a funny old world. A rat starting to act like his mother…

His mother. If his mother could see him now… she'd surely give him hell.

And she had been good at it, she really had.

With a heavy sigh, Willard lay back and stretched out on his bed. It was of no use to dwell on the past. Now, there might actually be a future he could be thinking of…

There was the scurrying of tiny claws on the floor, then a little squeak that informed him that a rat wanted to be helped up onto the bed. Without even looking, he let his arm slump down to the floor. Immediately he felt how a rat climbed up along it, then another one, a third one, a fourth, a fifth. They were all assembled.

Plato strolled onto his chest and settled down there comfortably, accompanied by a small grey rat. This was Cleopatra. Despite her common appearance, she was a pretty animal as soon as you got a closer look, and she moved with an almost irritating kind of natural grace. The other three came to sit in a small semi-circle beside his head.

"Alright, folks", Willard said, staring up at the ceiling, "we might just get our chance to see the world outside. The great big world. Bright prospect, isn't it?"

A chorus of squeaks answered. They might not really have understood him, but they had certainly caught the spirit. After all, rats were an adventurous folk.

And if Mishuk was telling the truth… he would be free. Free! He longed so much to see the sky again, to feel the wind in his hair, the gentle rain of spring on his skin, to smell the lilac on the air, to trot along the walkway with the knowledge he was going home…

No. Not home. It was not a safe place. Somewhere else.

And besides, he was being sentimental. Life would not be easy on the run, even if he succeeded.

But at least it would be better than this.

By now, it must be the middle of afternoon, or maybe late afternoon, he had no idea. How long was it still until darkness came? Sitting around in this small, empty room would be even worse now than it usually was, because the hours would drag themselves along so very slowly, as always when he awaited something. And then doubt would come and gnaw at his soul, and when it had gnawed long enough he would at last give in to it…

Plato moved, came up to his chin and nudged him gently. Eat. Hungry.

"I'm sorry", Willard murmured. "There's nothing left."

Willard hungry.

Still staring up at the ceiling, Willard raised his eyebrows. "How d'you know?"

Willard not eaten.

"I'm just fine, Plato", Willard groaned. "Don't you try that on me."

Plato recoiled slightly. Not eaten, he insisted, but not with the same intensity as before.

"I bloody know! I didn't want to! Will you now leave it at that?" The next moment he was sorry for using that tone on the rat, but it was too late. Plato retreated. "Sorry", Willard murmured, ashamed of himself.

Not slept, another rat joined in. Cleopatra. She would always back Plato up.

Not slept. Whole night. This was Salazar. Yes, he had been pacing the room most of it, and Salazar had been perching on his shoulder for part of the time.

Ill, Plato stated. Willard ill.

They all were worried about him, but there was absolutely no reason! He was fine!

Or was he? He felt somehow… dizzy… weak…

Tired, Plato said. Sleep.

Willard wanted to protest, but he was still ashamed about being too harsh with Plato. So he obediently closed his eyes. It might really do him some good. For one thing, it might come in useful if Mishuk was really going to turn up in the middle of the night. Besides, it would make the long wait a lot more bearable.

Already drifting off, he felt how a small body curled up on his chest.