Authors: Kate Thompson
The most direct way of following the call led the two rats across the city by way of drains and under-floor passages. Tess was surprised by Algernon's speed and agility, and also by his apparent lack of fear. She realised as she ran beside him that this was what he had been deprived of as he grew up in his artificial environment. It was no surprise that he was dull-witted and inarticulate, since he had missed out on the rats' basic education in life. But all that was changing now. Who could tell how much his intelligence might increase, provided he could avoid the common pitfalls of city rats and stay alive long enough to learn his way around.
One of these hazards, poison, was very much in evidence in several of the gardens they had to pass through. Tess was on guard, but Algernon was far too preoccupied to be diverted by food, no matter how enticing it smelled. Where cats were concerned, however, his single-mindedness was a considerable handicap and, on two separate occasions, Tess had to rescue him; once by steering him away from the waiting jaws of a large tom, and once by charging a cat that was just about to grab him from behind. The cat was so surprised by Tess's aggression that she turned tail and fled, and by the time she had recovered herself, the two rats were long gone.
The rest of the journey was safer. When they joined the sewers, Algernon proved to be an excellent swimmer, and his regular exercise on the wheel had made him fit enough to cope with the slippery exertions of climbing back out of them. By the time they surfaced, in order to cross a small open square, he was a lot less white than he had been, but still not as camouflaged as Tess would have liked him to be. Because what she feared most for him had yet to be encountered, and that was the reaction of the other rats. She was not surprised that they hadn't come across any before now, because she was working on the assumption that all the others within range of the strange call had got a long head start on them. They were stragglers, she and Algernon, bringing up the rear. But she knew that before long they would be getting close to their destination, close to the moment of truth.
They dropped back into the underworld by means of a hole in the ground beneath the cover of bushes in a corner of the tiny park. Tess called to Algernon again, warning him to take his time and watch out for cats, but when she opened her mind for his reply she caught nothing but a babble of rat images. They were close. Above them, they could hear the deep rumble of a car passing along a street. A moment later they were on the other side and, surprisingly, beginning to climb.
Abruptly, Algernon stopped. He was ahead of Tess and blocking the narrow passage which ran higgledy piggledy through a foundation wall between detached houses. She couldn't see beyond him, but she could hear the restless rustling of a great gathering of rats. Impatiently, Tess squeezed her way in beside Algernon, whose fluid body seemed to elongate as he made room for her in the narrow space. They were looking into the kitchen of a vacant house. Tess held her breath, astonished by what she was seeing. There were rats of all shapes and sizes: rats with grey coats, brown coats, black coats, sleek rats and mangy rats, thin rats and fat ones, all milling around in an aimless fashion. The dim light on their moving backs made Tess think of water, rippling and flowing. The kitchen was flooded with rats.
Her first concern was for Algernon. The hole in the wall where they were standing was about two feet from the ground. It would be easy to slip down the wall on to the floor, but not so easy to climb back up if there was trouble down there. A rat could scale that height in a flash, but not without a run-up. Already a few twitching noses were beginning to turn and look with curiosity at the two newcomers. Tess tried to pick up on the reactions, but the images she received were the visual equivalent of a roar in a football stadiumâit was impossible to pick out any individual communication. She scanned the crowd, hoping to find someone she knew, but there was no one she recognised. She hesitated, and beside her Algernon was hesitating too. Whatever certainty had brought him here was severely weakened by the sight of so many rough and street-wise relatives.
Their decision was made for them. Without warning, another group of latecomers arrived in the passage behind them and, in their urgency to obey the call, they crowded forward relentlessly, pushing Tess and Algernon out of the hole in the wall and down into the restless mob below. Tess scrabbled through the crowd, desperate to stay close to Algernon and defend him against attack, but to her relief it proved unnecessary. The other rats grudgingly made space for him on the floor. Those closest to him inspected him curiously, but none had time or energy for aggression. All minds were firmly fixed on the powerful call that had brought them together.
Tess tuned into it as accurately as she could. It was a strange feeling, being drawn to something she could neither see nor hear, but which exerted such a powerful attraction on the rat part of her mind. It wasn't an active call; none of the rats was being asked to do anything except be there. It was as though they had been drawn by some sort of magnetism and were now held within its field of force, powerless to move away.
When she looked round, Tess saw Algernon struggling across the backs of the other rats towards the opposite side of the room. She tried to call him, aware that walking on another rat's back without permission is extremely bad manners. But if he heard her at all, he ignored her and carried on, oblivious to the warning clouts and nips that the other rats were giving him. Tess bared her teeth in exasperation and followed. There is no equivalent of an apology in the rat language; instead, Tess tried to convey a sense of urgency to the rats whose backs she crossed. It was of little use, however, since all but the eldest and wisest rats in the gathering were feeling a similar sense of urgency and had little patience with shovers. By the time Tess caught up with Algernon on the other side of the room, she was covered in little cuts and bruises and thoroughly fed up.
Algernon was scratched and bitten too, but he didn't seem to care. He was wriggling into a small hole that had been chewed in the bottom of the door which led into the hall. Tess followed. This narrow space was full of limp cardboard boxes and dusty trunks, long since abandoned. Rats were packed into every available space, level upon level of them, like the audience at a mega pop concert. A flight of stairs ran down from the floor above, and Tess noticed something which filled her rat mind with wry amusement. On the top step a cat was sitting, its face turned away in silent uninterest, as though it had no idea that it was surrounded by its worst enemy. Tess knew that the nonchalance was feigned, that beneath its smug exterior that cat was absolutely terrified. It was another measure of the single-mindedness of the gathered rats that they didn't set upon the poor creature and tear it to shreds. Despite herself, Tess hoped that they wouldn't change their minds.
Ahead of her, Algernon was slithering through the gathering again, over and under and around, any way that he could see of getting across the room. Tess followed, steeling herself against another series of bites and blows. From time to time she looked around her, hoping to catch a glimpse of friends from the past; Long Nose, perhaps, or Stuck Six Days in a Gutter Pipe, but she had no luck. They could have been anywhere. There was no way for Tess to tell how many rats had gathered, or if any were exempt from the call.
Algernon scuttled along beside the wall and Tess followed, determined to try and hold him still by force if once she managed to catch up with him. But as they slipped through the open door into the front room, a new message began on the stranger's mental wavelength. It was electrifying. Every rat in the place sprang to attention, some sitting up on their tails or standing on their hind legs in an effort to understand.
Tess was no less attentive than the others. The images coming into her mind were quite clear. The rats were to search beneath the city for a certain type of large, stone container. Some of these structures would be open to the human world, in huge basement rooms where they were regularly visited. Others would be buried in the ground where no humans could reach, and these were the kind that the rats had to go and find. If and when they succeeded they were to return and report.
That was all. As abruptly as it had started, the communication ended, and for a moment there was a profound silence. Then the visual babble began again, becoming pandemonium as a hundred thousand rats began to react. Tess resisted the temptation to join the confusion and looked round. Rats were pouring out of the room as though someone had let the plug out. She caught a glimpse of Algernon disappearing into a hole, like a piece of white paper being swept by the current into a drain, and a moment later she was alone.
BOUT A MILE AWAY,
Jeff Maloney, the head keeper of Dublin Zoo, was being woken from a deep sleep by the phone. His irritation at being disturbed was worsened by the fact that he had only just got to sleep, following a long evening trying, unsuccessfully, to save a new-born calf in the pet section. Even now it was the first thought that came to his mind. The irony of it. The zoo had successfully bred hippos, elephants and rhinos, but when it came to a common Jersey cow, they had been powerless to save the calf. As he crossed the sitting room, Jeff tripped over a dog first, and then a chair. He was swearing by the time he reached the light-switch, but it was nothing compared to the torrent of abuse that he let loose when the phone stopped ringing the instant before he reached it.
Tess stood in the middle of the floor and tried to gather her thoughts. She sent out a few half-hearted calls towards Algernon and her other rat friends, but if any rat picked them up he or she was far too preoccupied to respond. It was all so confusing, and Tess's rat mind hadn't much space for rational thought. For a few moments she scuttled around the empty house with the vague idea of finding something to eat in order to calm her nerves. At the top of the stairs, the cat was still frozen in the same position, even though all the other rats were gone. Tess knew that the poor creature would climb walls rather than go in there again.
Think; she needed to think. Slipping back into the third of the rooms, she Switched back into human form. The smell of rats was strong, even to a human being's weak sense of smell. Tess wondered how she would feel if she opened the door one day and found her own house as full of rats as this one had been. Her parents would call in pest control; the house would be evacuatedâperhaps the whole street. But no matter how hard people tried, they would never get rid of the rats in the city. There would still be rats there long after the human race had died out or moved elsewhere.
Tess shivered. She was still wearing her school uniform, but without a cardigan or a jacket. She was wasting time. As soon as she put her human mind to the problem which faced her she began to see her way forward. The image of the person that had called was still confused, but of two things she was sure. He was a boy, and he was a Switcher. The realisation brought a sense of excitement with it, because Kevin had told her that all Switchers must meet with another to pass on their knowledge. She had often wondered since whether this was true and, if so, when she would encounter this new friend. Now it seemed that the time had come. The only problem was that she still had to find him.
She concentrated hard, trying to remember how it had felt to her as a rat when the message had come through so strongly. Where, exactly, had it come from? Somewhere above, she realised, and behind her as she stood now. She turned round. Yes, that way. Not directly above, but ahead of her now; a house across the street perhaps?
Jeff Maloney was just getting comfortable in bed when the phone rang again. For a few seconds he hesitated, then decided not to ignore it. He took a different route across the sitting room this time, but unfortunately the dog had also decided to change location, and once again there was an outraged yelp as Jeff's foot came into contact.
This time he went straight for the phone, fumbling in the darkness for the receiver.
âHello. Jeff Maloney?'
âGarda barracks here. We have a report of an unusual bird at the edge of the Phoenix Park. We were wondering whether you had lost any.'
Jeff had visions of blundering around with nets in the night. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing had happened. âWhat sort of bird?'
âI'll hand you over to the witness, hold on.'
There was a crackle, and then a sort of knocking sound, as though the receiver at the other end had been dropped on the floor. At last a rather drunken voice came on to the line.
âHello. Jeff Maloney here. You've seen an unusual bird?'
âBy God, I have. Never saw anything like it. It must be one of your lads, come out of the zoo. I never saw anything like it.'
âCan you describe it to me?'
âIt was golden, pure golden. I never saw anything like it.'
Jeff gritted his teeth, convinced that he was dealing with a hallucination. It wouldn't have been the first time that had happened, either. âCan you tell me any more?' he said.
âI've never seen anything like it. It had ... sort of ... long tail feathers, hanging down. And it was golden.'
âProbably a hen pheasant,' said Jeff. âWe quite often see them in the park at this time of year. Was it sitting in a tree?'
âIt was, by God, but it wasn't a pheasant, no way. It was golden, pure golden, I've never seen anything like it.'
Jeff sighed. âA trick of the light, I'd imagine,' he said, as kindly as he could. âThose street lights can have a strange effect sometimes.'
âWell, you can say what you like,' said the voice on the other end of the line, âbut that was no pheasant, hen or cock. I'veâ'
âânever seen anything like it, I know,' said Jeff, his patience finally deserting him. âI appreciate your calling, and I'll check it out first thing in the morning on my way to work.'