"Rat Kids" - Short Story - 1995 ( sci-fi-fantasy)

In the year 2210 Rat kids live in the dim, stinking underground levels beneath the great domes of  America.  These subterranean, concrete lined zones are used for composting garbage. Every city in North America with a population over 100,000 has been re-built as a mega-structure over the past generation and  covered with a tinted plastic dome.  Each dome has a swarming population of rat kids.  They live in dim, dank and violent squalor.  The only light is from six inch diameter grilled air vents at one hundred yard intervals that cast a faint glowing patch of light onto heaps of rotting garbage.    Abortion was outlawed in 2015. Unwanted babies are dropped down the garbage chutes from as high as the seventy fifth level of the mega structures.  Many survive the fall from the intermediate and lower rings and if they are not immediately torn apart and eaten, they are cared for by female children who feed them and keep them warm as if they were dolls.  Most dropped babies suffer broken bones and severely bruised internal organs in their ricocheting fall through the chute and collision with the pile of garbage at the lower opening.  Sometimes the trash at the bottom of the chute is deep enough to break the fall and  if the older boys, the seven to ten year olds, are in a merciful mood, usually after eating, the new arrivals are spared.  Babies dropped from the upper levels inhabited by the dome aristocracy rarely survive the drop. Biodegradable waste is typically thrown into the chutes where it decomposes at ten year intervals as though in a vast composting device.  Composted organic matter is flushed out every decade and used to fertilize the greenhouse dome crops that along with flavored cockroach paste feed the populations of the domed cities.  The Earth’s ozone layer was burned off by the warming earth one hundred years previously, making it impossible to remain in the direct sunlight for more than a few minutes at a time without sustaining life-threatening sunburn.  There is no food grown beyond the protection of growdomes that surround each of the vast, urban structures.

By the time they are three years old, the rat kids are strong enough to fight for food.  At least once every day a rat child gets into a kicking, biting, slugging battle over a new scrap of food that falls to the garbage pile from one of thousands of garbage chutes that extend vertically for hundreds of feet to the upper levels of the dome and empty into a dim slot of space over hundreds of near dark acres of garbage strewn concrete slab.  It is warm in winter in the garbage underground and there is plenty of food but the rat kids must fight all summer in the hot, gassy, damp stench of this lowest slot to keep their place at the inner circle of a garbage chute during the freezing time.  The kids know that the finest morsels of food come tumbling down from the shafts connected to the living units of the upper levels of the dome.  The strongest kids, few younger than eight years old huddle and play and fight around these shafts from on high.  The eight year olds rarely win their fights with the older boys and girls but they are strong enough to beat back the ones younger and weaker than themselves.  All of the kids are covered with pustulating wounds, aching muscles and scar tissue from the relentless fighting.  Many of the older kids have been bitten too many times by age nine to fight successfully for a spot at a food chute and they huddle in the dark fastnesses of the zone and die.  There are no rat kids over ten years old because they have died from disease, infections from their bites and ripped flesh, blows to the head or suffocation.  There are many gangs of six to eight year olds who roam from shaft  to shaft smothering or clubbing sleepers during the early morning hours.  Sometimes the twenty or thirty kids gathered at a shaft will all be killed while sleeping after  a particularly savory feast, the remains of  roast beef dinners or Thanksgiving meals.  The death rate for rat kids accelerates greatly late on Christmas night after myriad kitchens in the dome above have been cleaned and leftovers dropped down the chutes.  A trick is to listen closely and hear the upper shaft hatch opening then rush in toward the shaft, pushing the others aside just as the scraps drop out of the duct opening that is ten feet or twelve feet above the maggot infested, slimy, stinking pile - jump into the air and catch a few choice scraps in mid-air, then run away before getting pummeled and torn apart.  Rat kids know it is dangerous outdoors in the ultra-violet sunlight.  They know they would starve to death outside of the dome or they would be murdered on sight by any ordinary citizen after failing an instantaneous birth-chip verification glance.

Rat kids know their place.  The garbage levels under each urban dome are flushed once every ten years, killing all of the rat children in the garbage zone.  Rarely does a rat kid survive the flush.  After the flush, the rat kid society is reborn as fresh garbage piles up at the base of the chutes high enough to break the fall of the first new baby who then becomes the potential elder of the new ten year colony.  Each of the dozens of chutes of  supports its own gang of rat kids.  Rat kids are, of course, totally ignorant of sex.  They never see babies born.  New members of their society drop from the chutes.  Each garbage chute is two feet in diameter.

Dome Salt Lake is the fourth largest population center in North America.  Down in the garbage zone there lives a colony of one thousand rat kids.  High above the rat kids on the exclusive seventy-fifth ring live two eleven year old girls Margie Roux and Aria Purcell who have recently graduated from talking dolls to Barbies.  Margie and Aria have just agreed via text  message to drop their two dolls, Chatty Cathy and Talking Tina down their respective garbage chutes in a private little ritual that will, at least for them, symbolize their transition into big-girlhood.

Seventy six levels below there are dozens of clusters of naked, vicious and hungry children waiting for the sound of a hatch opening, then the drop then the extremely violent version of the game King of the Hill with the spoils going to the strongest, most vicious kid who fights off his competitors with bites,, kicks, scratches who grabs the prize and runs away through the darkness to gnaw at the morsel.

At opposite sides of the fifteen mile diameter mega structure each of the two talking dolls falls onto a pile of old bones, rinds, peelings and coffee grounds.  The population of kids has known, as long as they have been alive, which chutes drop the highest quality garbage and the dolls fall onto the piles of the two most vicious, brutal and experienced of the entire subterranean population.  The dolls are immediately tossed aside by the two girls who have won this particular battle when they discover that the dolls are not edible.  The abandoned dolls are inspected in turn by the eight year olds and then the six year olds.  The dolls are finally picked up out of the darkness by a curious boy called Gip who pulls the string in Talking Tina’s back.  Tina Speaks and Gip drops the doll in terror and runs away.  He creeps back and pulls the string again introducing his generation of rat kids to the English language.  Fifteen miles away at the opposite side of the ring, a seven year old girl named Rika is struck by Chatty Cathy by an angry older kid who has tossed it away.  Rika is huddled by the vent…. (to be continued )