Cassie's head was spinning as she watched the tiny silver craft disappear into the night sky. There had been so much to take in, an alien rat, an urgent message, a globe in her palm that glittered mysteriously, Zeke . . .
The rat had spoken to her passionately of the need to make people understand. He had explained that human science was actually doing well in predicting possible outcomes. The complexity of the ecosystem meant that the aliens could make no predictions more accurate than those that were being made by the scientists of Earth. All agreed that the environment needed immediate attention. The system was showing signs of deteriorating. World-wide action was urgently required.
But his alien civilization could not help the people of Earth. His species no longer trusted its own judgement. They lived uneasily, declining into despair as they endured an immortality for which their race was not prepared.
She looked at Zeke. "Are you an alien?"
He looked back, a wistful smile on his lips. "Yes, and no."
"What kind of an answer is that!"
"Wonderful! I'm going to be taken care of by a space man who changes his body the way most people change clothes."
"No. It's not like that. He saved my life!"
"Who's he? Who are you? You saved me. Why? Was all this planned?"
"Yes . . well, no, really. I wasn't meant to meet you at Wilson's Promontory - that was an accident. I think. I don't know how much influence the Sortilege's have. And now . . . I had to see you again. And then the Council agreed to send this message, and . . .
"Hey, look. Could we go somewhere and talk? I want you to understand. I'm Zeke, but I'm the alien too."
"It's not far to my place," said Cassie. She didn't fear this strange man, and she did want to hear what he had to say. They walked, hand in hand, across the lawn in the direction of Cassie's home.
"I'm glad there's no-one here," said Zeke. "It is best that only you know."
Cassie put the mugs on the coffee-table and settled herself comfortably in one end of the couch. "So tell me the story."
"My story has lasted for such a long time," said Zeke wearily. His voice was haunted by the despair that had flavoured the alien rat's message. "I am older than Zpud, but I have only seen pictures of my home planet before it was destroyed." A sadness took hold of his voice. "We had always hoped that our descendants would one day be able to return to the surface where they were supposed to be. But, of course, there will never be any descendants." He sighed.
"So you - Zeke - you're an alien."
He braced himself. "I am and I'm not. Let me try to explain." The telepathic empathy that accompanied Zeke's words left Cassie in no doubt about his extraterrestrial connections.
"Competition for a placing in the space service is very fierce. There is actually a roster system, but if you don't behave you lose your place. I wouldn't have been on my last mission if some-one hadn't forgotten to process some waste correctly before discharging it to the surface. You see, our planet is beginning to revive. It seems a miracle to us - it's happening earlier than our scientists had predicted. While some are buoyed by the signs, others are cast into despair by the thought that no children will ever inherit our planet from us."
Zeke snorted at the melancholia which seemed to be taking over everything he said.
"It must be hard to lose everything the way you have," said Cassie.
"Yes, I suppose so. Anyway, when I saw your beautiful world and the trouble it faced, I was overwhelmed. As the data we collected built up, so did my frustration at our inaction. I argued with my superiors, but they insisted that we could do nothing.
"Eventually I acquiesced. I could see the right in their words. What if we did interfere, and ended up ruining your world as we had ruined our own? But I gained permission for some field trips to gather data and specimens. That was difficult. The procedure for taking a specimen requires that you establish that viable populations exist and removing your specimen will have no effect on the ecosystem. The "paperwork" involved is almost unbelievable.
"But as I worked on the surface of your world I became more convinced that I could not stand by and do nothing - yet I could not come to you as a creature from another planet, one with superior technology. Your species would have turned to me for answers I could not give. So . . . I could do nothing except try to endure the frustration that plagued me.
"I was working in the hills around Los Angeles. There was a particularly interesting species there that I could see would soon be threatened, so I mentally prepared myself for the work I would have to put in for the report and went planet-side. I had barely been wandering around for five minutes - looking for my specimen - when I tripped over Zeke.
"He had fallen from a pathway and rolled down the slope to where I was working. He had stopped at the car-park to have a "hit", and decided to walk down the path a little so that he could have his injection in pleasant natural surroundings." Zeke made no attempt to disguise the contempt he felt, only Cassie wasn't sure whether the disgust came only from the alien she saw in front of her, wearing a human body. "In the dark he made a mistake and administered an over-dose. When I discovered him he was close to death.
"I didn't even think before applying the First Aid Kit. It had stabilised his condition and recommended a course of treatment that was available in the shuttle-craft before I realized that I had just broken every rule in the book. I decided that the consequences were best left until another time and took him to the shuttle-craft. I knew I would probably have enough time before any-one would be expecting to hear from me.
"It took less time than I expected for the Doctor on the shuttle-craft to clean out his system and declare him "recuperative". The programming in those machines is either brilliant, or by some fluke the treatments which suit our bodies also suit yours. Although . . . given what has happened, that shouldn't be so surprising. It's a pity I will never have the chance to research the possibility." Zeke seemed to withdraw a little and depression once more overwhelmed Cassie. Zeke apologized. "I'm sorry. The psyche of my race is not meant for immortality. There are few who can escape the pain of living too long. Perhaps Zeke should tell the story from here - he knows all the rest." Cassie felt the telepathic link withdraw, and Zeke now spoke with his own voice. Cassie silently noted that the magnetic attraction that she felt for him did not diminish.
"Yeah, well, you can imagine what a shock it was, waking up and staring at a big rat. For a start, I didn't expect to wake up. I didn't make a mistake - I knew how much I shot up. I wanted to die." But it was not with despair that Zeke spoke. Instead he spoke confidently of a time that was past. "Lying in an alien spaceship, face to face with a creature that definitely didn't come from the same planet as Spock, held helpless by the equipment that had just saved my life, I did what any normal human being would do in the same circumstances - I started swearing and arguing."
"Is that really normal human behaviour?" butted in the telepathic Zeke.
"Probably," laughed Cassie. "I'd like to have been a fly on the wall."
"Ah yes. A quaint human expression. Let me see . . . " Zeke's face took on a vacant stare, and the telepathic voice spoke again. "Take my hand, close your eyes and let your mind drift."
Cassie did as she was bid. She soon found herself an observer in the first conversation between Zeke and the alien.
"Let me go you furry alien bastard!"
As Zeke spoke the word `furry', Cassie realized that she was seeing an edited version. A voice in her mind confirmed this and the conversation continued.
"Please be calm," said the rat, "or I will have to administer a sedative." Obscenities from Zeke's mouth flooded the room. The rat moved towards the apparatus that restrained the human and the foul language stopped.
"Are you going to kill me?" he asked.
"No," said the rat.
Hearing the despair in Zeke's voice, the rat paused to look at him.
"Do you wish to die?"
"I'd be dead if you hadn't found me. Why couldn't you just leave me to die?" The defeated misery in Zeke's voice seemed to hold the rat entranced. "I suppose your race is so bloody superior you never kill anything, not even a bug under your microscope?"
The rat did not appear perturbed by Zeke's hostility. Instead it drew a chair up to the device that held the reclining human being. "Do you really wish to die?" asked the alien rodent, his whiskers twitching.
"Yes," screamed Zeke. "Are you some kind of bloody masochist or something?"
"No," said the rat, gently, "but I, also, wish to die. Only it is forbidden."
Zeke stopped struggling against his restraints. He looked at the forlorn creature who held him captive. "Life's a bitch, then you die," he said, his mouth twisted in a bitter grimace.
"You are fortunate, my friend," said the space-rat, "For although moribund, my species does not die."
"Aah, cut the melodramatic cr..." Zeke's protestation was stopped by the tears that rolled down the rat's face. He quietly began to tell Zeke the story that Cassie had so recently heard.
When the rat finished talking there was a silence that lasted almost a minute. Finally Zeke spoke.
"Well, you win! Nothing that disgusting ever happened to me."
The odd pair stared at one another sympathetically.
"You know," Zeke commented, "if you had my body you could try to do something to help."
The rat started nervously. "No," he answered sadly, "as much as I might wish to, I cannot. It would not be right. And it may not even work."
Zeke laughed. "So who gives a stuff if it doesn't work! As long as I'm dead I'll be happy. Do you really care if it kills you?"
As Zeke looked at the space-rat the pathetic creature seemed to grow as he grasped his chance to either do something constructive, or rest peacefully. Both options were irresistible. He looked at Zeke with resolve.
"All right. Let's do it! Only . . . are you really sure?"
Zeke's nod was unnecessary as the alien being could already feel the certainty in the mind that he touched with his own. The rat leaned forward and placed his palm on the human's face.
And there the alien being chose to stop transmitting to Cassie. She looked at the human form that sat opposite her on the couch. "So you're an alien?"
"Yes, but I'm also me - `Ezekial'. Spock was so damned worried about hurting me that he couldn't kill me, so we're sort of co-habiting. Spock doesn't understand it any better than I do."
"Spock? You mean . . ."
"Yeah. Inside this body lurks the mind of a space-rat!"
Cassie laughed with Zeke, aware of an amused alien consciousness laughing - a kind of mental background music that had been present throughout their entire conversation.
"Do you always know he's there, what he's thinking, you know?"
"No, not always. I can't keep him out, but he can keep me out. That's what he did when he arranged the shuttle-craft, set the controls and sent the dead rat back to the mother-ship with a message."
"How does it feel?"
Zeke laughed again. "Weird. Mind you, he really did save my life. We kept a couple of things from the ship and he took me away until this body had survived the `cold turkey'. Urgh!" He shuddered. "I never want to go through that again. Spock kept me out for a lot of it, but he had to rest sometimes.
"And here I am - a new man. I've been able to speak and have people listen. They don't always take me seriously, but then, I've had a bit of a reputation, you know. People just don't expect a pop star to start preaching."
Cassie smiled. "Maybe not."
"Spock's people were glad that you were here as a contact. They thought it would be better to avoid giving the globe to me. My shared "inheritance" is too much of a risk. Its bad enough that I'm being so vocal."
Zeke smiled at Cassie and she spoke, "It was you who inspired me to write the play."
"Yes. There was something about you . . ." Her voice trailed off as she gazed into Zeke's eyes. She reached towards him. His hand came to meet hers, and when they touched Cassie felt electric thrills run through her body.
The background noise of Spock's presence suddenly became insistent. In a flash Cassie felt the shock and the joy as the alien revelled in the sensations that his new body was experiencing. Cassie's mind reeled when she realized that through her contact with the alien mind she could actually feel Zeke's body, as if it were her own. She could feel the pleasure of two bodies - her's and Zeke's. Caught in a three-dimensional echo, she felt her hand touching her hand touching her hand. She felt her body (which wasn't her body), aroused and erect. Blushing with surprise and pleasure, she searched, but was dismayed to find no contact with Zeke's mind.
Aware of her disappointment, Spock collected his wits enough to use his own consciousness as a bridge.
The alien remained aloof while the human minds met. He observed the sharing of experiences and tentative opening-up as Cassie and Zeke allowed another person to know them intimately. Their psyches touched and caressed. When their minds were finally satisfied, there could be no doubt that they were lovers. The awareness of each others' body became urgent. Zeke pulled Cassie towards himself.
"Wait!" shrieked a voice in their heads. The forlorn alien was unprepared for the waves of pleasure he had been sharing. He was overwhelmed by the experience and a little alarmed. Cassie and Zeke stared into each other's eyes again, and Spock realized that his companions would not accept any interference.
"All right. I just feel a bit . . . strange about this."
Neither Zeke nor Cassie spoke, but the alien knew that they did not consider this a normal situation. The bizarre "menage-a-trois" shared silent laughter.
Then the lovers embraced and Spock abandoned himself to the experience. As Cassie stroked Zeke's thigh she could feel the exquisite shivers she was causing. Her pleasure in his hand caressing her stomach was doubled by knowing that he could feel it too.
Spock felt everything.
He observed and shared as the two humans explored each other's bodies. Their shared consciousness allowed the lovers to give and receive pleasure, totally in tune with one another.
They moved from the couch to Cassie's bed. It was a slow waltz as they walked and touched, reluctant to lose contact with each other. At the side of the bed their clothes melted to the floor and they lowered themselves onto the cool sheets.
Free to enjoy their bodies, Cassie and Zeke relaxed and gave themselves up to the exquisitely echoing sensations. They gazed into each other's eyes. Zeke ran one soft finger across Cassie's forehead, down her cheek and along her jaw.
"You are so beautiful!" he said, and an alien presence echoed a fervent agreement.
Cassie laughed and kissed Zeke soundly. United in their purpose, their bodies rubbed and stroked, increasing all the time the thirst that demanded satisfaction. Flesh touched flesh. A hand caressed Cassie's breasts. She stroked Zeke's hip and slid her hand into the comfortable groove between thigh and groin.
Eager lovers, their appetites keen, yet they ignored the urgent demands of their bodies. They dallied, exploring the feelings that their caresses produced, able to experience them for themselves, knowing the pleasure they gave each other.
Physical union seemed to deepen the mental contact. Zeke and Cassie abandoned themselves to the primal friction, the rhythm of their bodies creating an instinctive harmony. The climax of this ancient music was inevitable.
The couple erupted with pleasure. The powerful aftershocks left them lying exhausted in one another's arms, unwilling to break the physical contact that had left their bodies humming.
"Wow!" echoed a voice in their minds. "No wonder this planet has a population problem!"
Annie scratched her head and took another draught of coffee. The pile of papers in front of her was almost gone. The one she was correcting was the third last.
Conservationists have been getting upset about the motor car. Our main form of transport is not a good one. Cars cause pollution and smog in major cities and they use a ridiculous amount of fuel and they add to the greenhouse effect. To do something we have to stop people using their cars as much. Perhaps we should even stop letting people own cars. We either need to stop people moving around or find a source of energy that can transport people safely without polluting the environment. If we improved our public transport system people wouldn't need to use their cars to travel around because they could use the public transport system instead. It would probably be better if we could find a source of fuel that wasn't going to damage the environment so much. Some people think that hydrogen could be used as a fuel source but it is explosive and has to be stored properly. Other people think that we could use a crop like sugar-cane to make a sort of alcohol that would work like petrol and they wouldn't need to change people's cars much and it would be good because the farmers would make more money. A different fuel source combined with improved public transport would be a good idea. If we don't do something about the environment soon it might be too late. If we make relatively small changes now maybe we won't have to suffer so drastically later on and that would be better because people wouldn't suffer so much in the long run only the governments won't really do anything strong enough because they're only interested in winning the next election.'
Annie chuckled and muttered to herself, "I'm going to have to stop telling these kids what I think when they ask me a question. That reads like a campaign speech."
She wrote, "When you started, you remembered what I said about keeping your sentences shorter, but by the end you had forgotten. You did a lot of research for this assignment and your conclusion summed it up well. Improving your sentence structure will help you get your ideas across better. Good work."
"Two to go." She sighed.
A man's arms suddenly encircled her. "Don't struggle!" growled a voice from behind her. The man began kissing her neck.
"Rick, please, I have to finish this. There are only two to go. You're always working when I see you!"
"Not always," said Richard Rank, grinning sheepishly. Annie belted him with the paper she had just marked.
"Here. Read this if you're so bored," she said, discouraging his advances and turning her attention to the next paper.
The student had chosen the manufacturing industry and Annie was pleased with the result. There was interestingly presented evidence about the problems associated with the mechanization of industry. The student suggested that we should return to labour intensive methods of production. This would have two benefits.
`There is no doubt that wages could not be expected to be high, but as there will be a general lowering in the standard of living any-way, that will probably just be a part of the whole process. The employers would also have to cut their profit margin when they take on the extra employees. Every-one will have to bear the cost of saving the environment. Hiring more people to do the work would have two advantages. The first would be the benefit to the environment of stopping the use of machinery that uses up a lot of energy, contributing to the greenhouse effect. Often the machinery causes damage to the nearby environment as well, especially if their are dangerous processes required during manufacture. Consumers will have to do without products that can't be made without dangerous procedures which often lead to waste being discharged into the environment. The other advantage would be social. The process of healing the environment will mean that many people are likely to be displaced from their jobs. By going back to making things by hand we will be providing people with a livelihood, often one which is more rewarding than factory work. I think it's going to be hard for people to accept the changes that have to be made, but the fact remains that we have to make these changes. What we should be doing is looking for the best way to make those changes so that people are taken care of.'
Annie chewed her pen for a few moments before responding, "You should be proud of this piece. It is well-written and presents some well-reasoned and feasible suggestions for change. The evidence is interesting and well-researched. Your solution is intriguing as it deals with another possible problem associated with the changes to our economy. Would you consider writing up the conclusion as a "letter to the editor" and sending it to a paper?"
She moved the paper aside and picked up the final assignment, trying to control her urge to pretend it wasn't there.
"It has to be done," she said sadly and began reading the work. After a brief account of his research the student had reached some appropriate, but unusual conclusions.
"After all peple do'nt really need gold - its a luxury, when its mind it makes a mess of places and to make the raw stuff into real gold they have to polute the air with sulfer die-oxide. Maybe we should rashen the amownt off gold peeple could have, it'd have to be fare tho cause then peeple would get mad and would'nt let them do it like that. Maybe you still had to by it but you wer'ent aloud to by more than how much you were aloud to have for that year but you could trade in some old gold if you did'nt like it so you could have somthing knew and better if you wanted it. And besides they really should do somthing to get the sulfer out insted of just blowing it into the air cause peple use sulfa and then it wouldn't be such a problem."
"Aargh!" Annie tore at her hair, took a deep breath, and wrote her response and suggestions.
She had watched Matthew work on this piece. Inspired to think that he could actually work out how to help, he had struggled through reference books that were not geared to his ability. Laboriously he had found the meanings of words in the dictionary, and asked any-one nearby to help him translate a language that was foreign to him. His choice of subject was a little eccentric, but he had made an excellent point. His thinking was sound. It was a damn shame that he could not express himself clearly.
" . . . Try to organize your thoughts so that you write about one thing in one place. For instance, it would have been better to talk about saving the sulphur when you mentioned the sulphur dioxide pollution. See me to talk about sentence structure. Your work is improving. Keep up the effort; there is still work to do."
Annie shuffled the papers into a manilla folder and put them in her bag. "I've done it!" she announced.
"So have I," said Richard. "Wanna do it again?" He took Annie's hand and drew her to him. They embraced and kissed. Annie held Richard tightly to her, enjoying the feeling of his tall, hard body.
The two of them jumped apart when someone's fist began loudly hammering at the door. Richard Rank, suave and street-wise, cleared his throat.
"I'll get that," he croaked nonchalantly.He answered the door. Annie sat, startled, on the couch.
Richard did not invite the midnight caller in. He remained at the door talking to someone that Annie could see only as a sinister figure in the fancy glass by the doorway. It was boring watching a conversation you couldn't hear well enough to follow, especially as it was obvious that Richard was anxious she did not come into contact with his visitor. The two men, murmuring at the door, seemed to be disagreeing, vehemently but quietly. Annie took a last look at the spare figure, taller than Richard, that was silhouetted in the glass, and wandered into the kitchen, away from the argument.
When Richard closed the door he lit a cigarette.
"Shit!" he announced to himself. "Damn it! I won't do it!" He paced around the small room.
"The evidence will be safe as long as I have it. If I don't have to use it, I won't. But I won't torch it." His face became stern. "I'm not going to let that bastard get off looking like a nun's laundry." He gathered together the evidence, aware of the hours of boredom that had produced the photos, remembering the patient brown-nosing that had earned him the more damaging documents.
He made a careful pile on the coffee-table, stopping to consider his next move.
Richard absently lit another cigarette from his unfinished one. He began to pace about, but stopped when Annie called. He walked through the kitchen into his small and cluttered bedroom. Annie had cleared the bed and was lying seductively, awaiting him. Although his agitation remained, Richard was glad to use his pent-up energy in a worthwhile pursuit.
His clothes did not co-operate. Richard found himself sprawled on the floor trying to remove his jeans. He still had one foot trapped in the clinging denim when he gave up and crawled onto the bed next to Annie. He then leaped into the air.
"Get it off me! Where is it? Where is it? Shit, I hate spiders!"
Annie, controlling her laughter, was fortunately able to locate the startled creature before it was harmed by Richard's frantic brushing and flailing. She evicted it and returned to Richard. Although recovered from his brush with a wild beast, he was not calm. He grabbed Annie and dragged her onto the bed next to him.
The cat which sat in the doorway looked at the entwined bodies with disdain. He could understand why they were doing this, but did they have to do it on his bed? That left-over tuna had filled his stomach nicely and he had planned to take a leisurely nap.
These human beings! he thought, in disgust. They really don't seem to care about in front of whom they perform. You wouldn't get me doing that sort of thing in front of a dog, but I know he has.
The cat prepared to find another location, but changed his mind. After all, it was his bed! He trotted over and jumped onto the bed. There was, he decided, not enough room, so he unleashed his claws and grabbed at the nearest exposed flesh.
Being a creature possessed of lightning reflexes, the cat escaped injury during the ensuing fracas. He made his escape and hurried through the doorway, chuckling at the cries of pain behind him.
Richard eventually regained his composure, helped by Annie's soothing ministrations. He calmed down to find himself aroused and, being a man who believed in action, he gave his full attention to Annie.
The increasingly passionate exchanges between the two were stopped the telephone ringing.
"Shit! I'd better answer it."
Richard lurched through the kitchen and towards the phone. In his haste he knocked over the coffee table, spreading documents and evidence all over the floor. He grabbed at the telephone and held it to his ear.
"Yes?" He paused briefly, listening, then replied. "No. No-one named Cecil lives here. Is this some kind of a joke?" He paused again. "You have a wrong number."
Richard hung up the phone and walked back to the bedroom, avoiding the papers strewn on the floor. Annie was waiting, patiently. Thinking ahead, Richard reached into the bedside drawer for a condom.
He had done this . . . how many times? Enough to feel confident, boldly grasping the tiny plastic packet and tearing it open. He did not expect a lubricated miniature frisbee to propel itself gracefully across the room and land, with a disappointed "Plop," in the fish tank next to the window. He reached for another condom.
With Annie's help, he was more successful. More ready than ever, Richard and Annie surrendered themselves to mutual pleasure. Rather than tiring them, their work earlier in the evening seemed to have made them keen. Hunger appeared to be the best sauce, and they finally were quiet, satisfied; content to lie in each other's arms, glowing. Annie decided it was all worthwhile, despite the cramp in her left buttock.
Then the cat farted.
It did rather spoil the moment. It was also unfortunate, as it prevented them noticing what was happening in the next room. With their faces under the bedclothes they could not smell smoke.
Covered, as it was, by some papers, Richard had not noticed the ashtray which had also fallen when the coffee-table was knocked over. A gust of wind sent a draught through the flat, fanning the glowing paper, ignited by a forgotten cigarette, into a flame that began to spread.