Ang huddled into the darkness behind the waste bin. She waited, silently, while the group of youths passed. She shivered, vainly trying to create a little warmth. She had not eaten enough during the last few days. She had found no romance in living by her wits, trying to survive on the streets.
Again a face appeared in her mind, and in her fragile hiding-place she felt a spark of warmth. Jason's smile made her less alone, for a time. A stab of despair destroyed her comfort when she remembered the night she had last seen him. If only she had known where he lived!
After arguing with her parents Ang had left. She wasn’t sure what to do next so she had headed to Linda’s, hoping that Cassie would not turn her away. Maybe she could not stay there permanently, but once she got there she would be safe.
Few cars passed her in the small hours of the morning, but when they did she huddled behind trees, hoping they would not see her. There were no trees nearby when the black limosine turned the corner.
The car had slowed down and shadowed her for frightening moments before the window rolled down and someone spoke.
Ang froze, and the limo stopped at the kerb beside her.
“Why don’t you come with me?” B. B. Raven leered from the depths of comfort. “Are you thirsty? Would you like some new clothes?”
He leaned out of the window, a gold-plated ipod in his hand. “This is for you. If you need somewhere to stay, I’ll take good care of you.” The shrewd business-man had seen Ang’s bags and guessed. “I can be a good friend.”
Ang hesitated. She knew what he offered. She could live well, provided she paid the price. In her anger and her fear the offer seemed reasonable.
“I can’t let you wander the streets. It’s too dangerous for one like you, pretty young thing.”
Did she even have a choice? And it would be easy to surrender, give up and not have to worry about what would happen next.
“I’d be safe if it weren’t for perverts like you!” Ang’s words startled herself most of all.
The motor-bikes that suddenly filled the street, pushed her towards the car, as if it were refuge. When they surrounded the car, Ang’s back was pressed against the cold duco.
She found herself confronted by a dozen men and women, bizarrely clad and riding black speed monsters. Ang had no strength left to fight - she had met her worst fears. Behind her the window of the limosine rolled up, and she heard the door lock.
A Harley Davidson growled up next to her on the footpath. It’s rider grabbed her roughly and swung her up behind him, firmly held by the backrest which stopped her from falling backwards when the bike powered away. Another rider grabbed her bags and they sped off into the night. Ang hung on to the leather of the man's jacket, terrified by the experience. The tears were swept from her eyes by the wind that they were chasing.
They finally stopped at a dilapidated house on the fringes of the city. There were already a number of bikes parked outside the house, and the sounds of a party came from within. Ang had been pushed into the house.
"Look what we found!" boomed out the voice of her captor.
The scenes of mayhem and depravity stilled, and someone thought to tone down the volume of the death metal that was hammering through the speakers. As they looked in her direction, Ang began to cry.
"She's mine!" said a tall man who had been amassing a tidy sum by beating all comers at arm-wrestling. "You said if they found her she was mine," he said, looking threateningly at the leader of the gang.
"O.K. She's yours - but now we're even!" The threat in the bikie's voice was equal to his opponent's belligerent manner.
The tall stranger stepped forward, leaving his money to the men he had beaten. He grabbed Ang roughly by the arm. Taking her bags with his other hand, he steered her towards a hallway.
"She's worth what I've paid," he said in parting.
Ang was pushed through a doorway into a bedroom. She recoiled, shocked by the figures writhing on the bed, and the tall man propelled her into the next room, which was not occupied.
He closed the door behind them and turned to Ang.
She did so willingly. She had never felt so tired in her life. She sat on the edge of the bed, looking at the man she had been given to. She found it difficult to focus on him and could not seem to get a clear image.
"You've been riding without goggles, haven't you?" he unexpectedly said. "You also look very tired. Lie down and sleep."
He had pushed Ang gently down onto the bed and covered her with the rough blankets. Then he had sat in a chair next to the door and begun to speak. Ang could remember nothing of what he said. As she had drifted into a restful sleep, she dreamed. Her companion on the chair had seemed to glow, colours pulsating around his head. When she woke later on she saw the man simply asleep in his chair. Somehow comforted, she had fallen back into a peaceful sleep.
In the morning she was awoken by someone barging into the room where she was sleeping alone. A strange woman peered at her, and then looked about the room. Ang barely had time to consider how lucky she had been so far and wonder about her strange protector, when the woman spoke.
"Come on! I haven't got all day. We have to take you back."
Ang went with her, enduring a slightly less frightening daytime ride on a bike. She was left on a street corner in a part of the city that she didn't recognize.
She had somehow come through the experience unharmed. Completely bewildered by the events of the last few hours, Ang spent some of her money on a large take-away meal. The food warmed her stomach, but did nothing to resolve the turmoil she felt. She sat in a park, thinking, trying to work out what to do.
Finally she decided. She would try to find a job. Once she had a place of her own, she could go back and see Linda. She could find Jason - she was sure he would want to join her. Why should she let her life be decided for her! Strengthened by her resolve, Ang had begun trying to find a job or a place to stay.
She was not successful.
Her first night on the street she had chosen to sleep in the park. A strange wino had harassed her until she left the area. She had ended up sleeping in a drain. The second night she had tried to get into a youth shelter, but they were already over-crowded. She didn’t really sleep that night, moving from doorways to laneways, trying not to be seen, finally dozing for a time under some thick bushes in someone’s front yard.
The youths who had frightened her into hiding behind the waste bin were gone now. She would have to find a safe place for the night. She could begin trying to walk home to Linda in the morning. Carefully checking the street, Ang stepped out from her hiding-place. She could hear nothing, so she believed that it was safe to emerge from the alleyway.
A massive figure loomed in front of her. He placed one hand around her arm, gripping her with the strength of iron.
"You're coming with me," he said, as he led her off into the night.
The room somehow seemed more like a tent, or a gypsy's caravan. Tapestries draped the walls and scarves of many colours, some with glittering beads and flashes of silver thread, were hanging in the gaps. Some were attached to the ceiling, softening the abrupt corners of the room and flowing down onto the walls. The doors were curtained with cascades of chiming crystals.
Morgan's mother had brought out her current piece of work and was showing Linda how the coloured threads, beads and pieces of glittering brocade could be used to achieve the most pleasing effect. But Linda, although fascinated by the unusual hobby, found, as always, that it was Sheila who absorbed her attention.
The woman was possessed of a quiet strength and dignity that complemented her determined nature. Her eyes shone with the joy of living, sharing her enthusiasm with those around her. Linda was perplexed, though, when she tried to decide how old Sheila was. She didn't look much older than Cassie, but Morgan's father was definitely older than that - not that that had to mean anything. Only . . . Sheila seemed, somehow, well-preserved, as something precious would be, and the wisdom that accompanied her ringing laughter touched Linda's heart, making her feel at peace.
Linda turned briefly to gaze at the patterns and textures that had grown over most of the tapestry. She looked at the barren webbing that had so far been untouched by a creative spirit.
"The birds aren't just flying, they're dancing. What will they be dancing around?"
Sheila chuckled melodically. "What do you think they should be dancing around?"
They could hear the clatter from the kitchen where John and Morgan Sortilege were cleaning up. Morgan's sister, Fey, was hiding behind a book in the corner of the unusual living room. She couldn't forgive Morgan for meeting Ezekial while he had been out. It had been bad enough missing out on going to an opening night of a play without learning that your brother had met a real-life pop-star. Now she glared furtively at Linda, wishing she could have Zeke's autograph.
"They should be dancing around a tree," said Linda, "but not just any old tree - it should be a tree of life. This tree would somehow be everything that was good in life; love, sharing, taking care of people and the world around you. It's a tree of hope and promise." Linda's eyes shone with the idea.
"That sounds like a beautiful tree," said Sheila.
"Linda looks more beautiful every time I see her, son. You've been good to her."
"She's been good to me," said Morgan, glancing at Linda through the beaded curtain.
"She's healed now, son."
"Yes. I know."
"So why won't you take her to your bed?"
Morgan looked at his father and blushed. He shrugged and looked away. He hesitated before speaking.
"I want things to be right. I'm scared. I don't know if I can do things right. . . " His voice trailed away.
John Sortilege smiled and put an arm around Morgan's shoulders, hugging.
"Let's sit down and have a chat, young man. They'll be busy with the works of art for a while."
Morgan walked into the bungalow first, switching on the lamp and then turning to take Linda's hand as she walked up the step. He still marvelled at the way his parents had made it seem so natural that he and Linda should go to his room together, alone. Once again he realized that his parents were special in many ways. He took Linda in his arms and kissed her. When she returned his kiss he broke away.
"I want to make love to you," he said.
"Yes," said Linda.
"Yes? What do you mean?"
Linda laughed. "I mean yes. I want to make love to you."
Morgan gazed at her, still unsure whether he should believe that it was possible for his dreams to become reality.
"I love you," he said.
"I know," replied Linda. "I love you."
"It's a rat! A rat from outer space!"
Cassie gaped. She felt no fear.
The large rat paced forward confidently on its hind legs. It strode over to Zeke and placed a paw on his shoulder. The strange pair exchanged glances and the rat began to laugh. The shrieking squeaks infected Cassie.
"I explained to my friend the position which rats occupy in the ecosystem of this planet," said Zeke as the rat continued to squeal and snort.
While Ang had crouched, terrified, in a squalid alley, and Jason faced his father; and Linda and Morgan, unknown to Cassie, made love in Morgan's bungalow, Cassie could only think of blocking her ears against the piercing squeaks.
The rat, clad in an intriguing pair of all purpose breeches, stepped up to Cassie. Behind him his craft shimmered and blended into it's surroundings. The park was empty - empty except for Zeke, Cassie and the space-rat.
The rat looked back at Zeke, as if conferring with him, then placed his paw gently on Cassie's neck so that his palm held the skin of her throat. She had no thought of retreating from the touch. She was startled, though, when the rat began to speak.
"You are right not to fear. And it is wonderful to behold the beauty of the children of the Earth."
It was a few moments before Cassie realized that the words she heard were not spoken.
"Yes, child. This is what telepathy is like."
The rat began rummaging in the pockets of his breeches. He eventually found a small globe that glittered as light touched the myriad facets of it's silvery surface. He again placed his palm on Cassie's skin and spoke to her.
"Daughter of the Earth. You have greeted me courteously as a representative of your world." The rat did not smile, but Cassie could feel the humour in his mind. "Please accept this token of friendship from my planet and share it with the people of your Earth."
Cassie took the globe from the space-rat.
"But before you carry this treasure back to your world, you must enjoy my hospitality. Please, come in. We have a great deal to talk about."
The tale that unfolded as they sat aboard the alien space craft was frighteningly familiar to Cassie. As he spoke, their host stared first at Cassie, then at Zeke, then at Cassie again. He introduced himself while pouring a golden beverage for them all, as "Zpud”, although when he tried to speak his name aloud, it sounded more like a sneeze.
Zpud apologized for staring. He explained that the archives on his planet contained pictures of creatures which looked exactly like humans. As he spoke Cassie began to comprehend the tragedy that had been inflicted on his planet and his people. Unwittingly, he also shared his feelings, and the anguished sense of loss which washed over the alien being was also experienced by Cassie. She felt herself oppressed by the weight of aeons.
Realizing the distress he had caused her, the rat apologized again and collected himself. He bustled over to the door of the tiny shuttlecraft and opened it.
"This is the most delectable planet I have ever smelt," he thought, as he allowed his lungs to fill, drawing the scented atmosphere through his nostrils. He returned to his guests and resumed his tale.
His planet was born in circumstances similar to Earth's. Orbiting a sun which was like the Sun, life evolved, dragging itself from the primordial slime to bask in the solar warmth. Life rarely remains uncomplicated and the planet soon had a flourishing population.
Humans would view this planet in the way white men had seen Australia when they first arrived. The seasons were all muddled up and the plants were strange and inhospitable. The animals were simply unbelievable.
This planet had no water-dwelling mammals; the notion was totally unthought of amongst its intelligent beings. Mammals simply didn't live in water. Discovering whales on Earth had been like discovering a way to overcome the laws of gravity. And their planet had not experienced life that would compare with dinosaurs.
For some reason their environment had encouraged the smaller, more adaptable life-forms. Eventually these life-forms developed intelligence and social organization. While dinosaurs roamed the Earth, this planet developed a thriving civilization. There were wars and tranquillity, harvest and famine, and the society grew in technical capability. Unfortunately the wisdom and morality of the people did not also grow.
It was their need for energy that led to their downfall.
Nuclear power seemed a good alternative in a world where no nuclear bomb had ever actually been used. Unaware of the lasting nature of radioactive contamination, they protected themselves from lethal doses, but considered the low-level leakage from plants and waste-dumps to be an acceptable risk. They discovered too late that radiation could poison a whole world.
Zpud's misery broke into the story. "I have lived so long!" he mourned, "but I have never seen such beauty as I glimpsed when I first looked upon this planet Earth. My own home is a desolate wasteland where there is only death. I have yearned to smell a breeze on my home planet - a breeze that was once more perfumed by life."
He went on to tell of the desperate attempts by his race to save themselves and their planet: attempts that were, when the accounts were balanced, futile. But with the ingenuity that had created the mess in the first place, fragments of the once all-conquering civilization managed to survive.
They lived in perpetual quarantine, isolated from the toxic environment. The largest colony was in what had originally been a military establishment. It now supported a thousand creatures, all trapped below ground by their fore-fathers' mistakes.
The beings who survived did not do so intact. There was no-one who had escaped the effects of the contamination completely. Illness and genetic damage were the main problems. Some illnesses could be cured, some could not. Scientists believed they could remedy the chromosomal damage, however. In the early years of "hibernation", as they called their enforced isolation, scientists worked frantically to reverse the results of their lack of foresight. A rat-like creature had been the only species on the planet which had shown any signs of adapting, and the easy supply made them the obvious choice as experimental subjects.
Cassie was a little stunned by her ability to understand the precise technical details of what happened, and she was fascinated by the scientific history of the tragic creature that stood before her.
"So you see," he said, "while our experiments made the rodents more adaptable, the results in our own species were less predictable. While the rats flourished, my people suffered from two dominant effects of the scientific research: telepathy and sterility.
"Our entire population had taken part in a drawing-of-lots. Half were to be subjected to the whims of the scientists while the other half formed a control group, untouched by technology. The control group failed to prosper and eventually died out, unable to produce any viable off-spring. I wish my parents had been part of the control group."
Zpud paused and again walked over to the door of the sophisticated craft. On the pretext of smelling the breeze, he sniffed back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. The melancholy ring had not left his mind when he resumed speaking to them. As he spoke he stood in the opening to the alien spacecraft, unable to believe that it could be possible to live in a world without walls. He could barely comprehend that it could be possible to escape into an immense paradise - just by stepping through a door.
"While the control group dwindled, for a time, the experimental group managed to survive. There were even offspring such as myself, which, with the help of some genetic repair techniques, were able to survive. And we were born with telepathy.
"The community took delight in our wonderful ability, and no-one realized, at first, that we also suffered a terrible handicap. We were the last generation of our race: sterile, unable to continue our species. And our pre-occupation with ourselves led to this farcical abomination that walks before you!"
The space-rat faced Cassie, eyes blazing.
"We found that we had the ability to transfer our minds to other bodies." He stopped communicating and worked to eventually control the rage that rendered him speechless. "The first rash fools damaged their minds trying to operate the inadequate brains they had stolen. But it was clear that our hapless rats could provide us with bodies that could be renewed. Our geneticists and doctors changed the direction of their research. Their previous experience made the creation of a suitable host quick and moderately successful.
"The experimental rats had a rapid cycle of generations, but our bodies aged impatiently. We could wait only long enough for the unfortunate beasts to achieve a brain structure that could accommodate our intellects. Eager to escape the pain of age, we did not hesitate to take that first jump. The promise of life was more important than the inconveniences reported by the first volunteers who invaded these pathetic bodies."
The giant rat was bowed with grief. He now sobbed openly, but continued with the story as if it were a burden that must be unloaded.
"Since then we have increased the size of our hosts but been able to do little about what we have lost. We have lost our world and our bodies.
"Once I had a body, such as yours." He looked longingly at Zeke. "Now I inhabit this travesty." He turned to Cassie. "This body lives, but it does not feel. The only sensation that remained intact for any of us was smell, and some of us did not even retain that very well. The pleasures of the body are numb - the body reacts, but we do not experience the sensation.
"We can even reproduce with these bodies, but the life we create is not of our species. And the sexual aspect of these vehicles is some how disconnected from the rest of the system. We gain no pleasure from the experience. All we can do with these bodies is see and smell and manipulate the world around us."
The three beings faced each other. Cassie let the waves of anguish wash over her. She could feel the hollow despair of the space-rat's sterile immortality. Her mind began searching for some comfort.
"But you're able to travel in space. Surely that must be wonderful!"
The rat shrugged.
"We have been wandering through space for a long time now. We have seen many strange places and worlds of great beauty. But there is no answer for our plight.
"Space is empty: our crafts are as much a trap as the bunkers which shelter us on our home planet. And our race carries the guilt for the destruction of a beautiful environment. We decided, when we first began roaming the skies, that we would never interfere with natural systems again. We cannot risk another tragedy. It means that we can never contact the civilizations we discover or choose a new world for our home. We do not dare. And anyway," the rat paused sadly, "there is nothing we have seen in our travels which could lead us to hope.
"We have created our own tragedy. Living in ill-fitting bodies, our only salvation is death."
Zeke stepped over to the large rodent and grasped his arm.
"No, my friend. You can't talk that way. There must be hope."
"But there is none." The rat turned to Cassie. "You see, there are now many of us who can no longer justify our parasitic infection of these bodies. We have manipulated these creatures to suit our needs, and they now have intelligence beyond their original state. What right do we have to deny them an existence? Do we have more of a right to be alive than them?"
There was silence for a time. The space-rat grieved, unable to conceal his despair from Cassie. When, at last, he was able to put aside his sorrow at the woes of his race, he pointed at the globe which was idly glittering in Cassie's hand.
"We will not interfere, but we will tell our story - with that device which I have given you. Please listen to me carefully: you have only one chance.
"We have taken time to assess the political situation of your world. This is a troubled world. There is so little trust among your nations that they must be given this message in such a way that there can be no doubt that it is genuine. And you only have one chance. Once the globe has delivered it's message, it will disintegrate. We do not want to lead you in the wrong direction with traces of our technology. You will hear our message knowing that it will be your last communication with our world.
"You must contact your leaders. This globe would surely be of interest to them. Keep it safely, with Morgan Sortilege, and keep the location of this treasure secret. Knowing of it may only endanger whoever possesses the knowledge. Tell only Morgan - he will know what to do.”
“Morgan Sortilege! How do you know him?” The rock under Cassie’s sense of reality shuddered.
The rat paused. He stepped forward and took Cassie's shoulders gently in his paws.
"My child, do not be afraid." Cassie wanted to explain that she was not afraid of him, but the thought had barely formed in her mind when the rat began to laugh. "I know that you are not afraid of me," he chuckled, "but you are facing much that you could fear. You will be watched over by friends and, if it is possible, cared for. But you will be alone."
"Not entirely," said Zeke.
The rat gazed at Zeke. She sensed, but did not understand a communication between the two. Then Zeke spoke.
"I am still a native of this planet and you have no right to interfere with my actions."
"No," said the rat, shaking his head grimly. "I have no right to interfere with anything you do, but you must consider what it is you do. The survival of this planet may depend on you."
"I would not willingly do anything that would endanger this world."
"Then let us hope that we can persuade more people to think as we do."