Mother Gena was always busy, rearranging the furniture, polishing ancient relics, and revising maps of the underground cave network whenever new tunnels were discovered.
Her children had no idea why she kept the maps up to date. The caves ceased to be occupied by their people after the last human became extinct. The young ones couldn’t imagine what it had been like for their ancestors, pursued by that two-legged species at a time when they had been dependent on all four. Once the humans had gone Mother Gena and her people took over the nearby town and made their homes in the buildings that were still standing.
The old network of tunnels ran under a hill near the town and excavators had found human artefacts in the caves worn away by flowing water. The subterranean river had started to rise again due to the warming climate melting distant glaciers. This would be the last chance for the excavators to finish exploring the caves before they became submerged. Curiosity to understand the species that had taken their ancestors to the brink of extinction drove them on. If human pollution hadn’t destroyed the climate, which had ultimately exterminated them, the rats, along with many other species would have been wiped out first. But rodents knew how to survive in the nooks and crannies opportunity offered.
Now Mother Gena’s people stood on two legs and inhabited their small part of the planet. It was a harsh, very different place from the previously lush world.
Dingal put down her drill and listened.
The others in the excavating team did the same.
They could hear faint laughter.
It didn’t have the high-pitched ‘chink’ of young rodent voices. Yet no other surviving species was able to make those joyful, childlike sounds.
It confirmed that there was a large cavern on the other side of the tunnel wall, just as Dingal had predicted. The excavators had no idea what they would find, but if it wasn't explored right away the caves and tunnels would soon be flooded and the opportunity lost.
Sangan calculated the best place to drill and demolished the thin rock wall.
Light flooded from the cavern beyond.
The small team stood staring in amazement through the gap. Below them was a magical world illuminated by a ceiling of fluorescent rock. Fruit-laden trees buzzing with insects filled the slopes of a valley with a sparkling stream winding its way through it. But the water was overflowing its banks. This impossible wonderland would soon be flooded.
Dingal was first to dash down into valley.
As she reached the rising water small faces peered from the bushes.
They were human children.
It wasn’t possible.
Curiosity overcame fear and they ventured from their hiding places. Most of them were taller than Dingal. The rest of the excavators came down to wonder at the bright-eyed, pink-cheeked children of a species that had long been extinct.
They seemed friendly and the oldest child pointed at Dingal’s overalls, bright and multi-coloured to be visible in the dark tunnels.
“Are you the Pied Piper?” she asked.
Not understanding a word, Dingal could only give a whiskery smile and indicate the rising stream and entrance above.
The human children understood. As soon as the rest of their companions joined them, they followed Dingal’s team out of the tunnels to the safety of the world above.
The best scientists and doctors attempted to work out why the children of a species that had died out millions of years ago were in such good health. They all seemed contented, unaware of their impossible ages, and friendly towards their small rescuers who assumed their survival must have been due to the magical properties of the cavern.
Mother Gena insisted on fostering six of the children, much against the advice that she should take no more than two. This was an unpredictable species and there was no telling what they would be like when they grew up - if they grew up. What if they continued to remain young until the rodent species also became extinct? Mother Gena’s people did not have religion. Their beliefs were based on self-reliance, and not getting things wrong in the first place, so fortunately no one suggested that the humans had been sent by some devil or were an aberration of Nature.
Against all expectations, the children were well behaved and soon picked up the strange language of their rodent benefactors. They quickly learnt the ways of their adoptive families and joined in the games of their children, despite being twice their size.
As time passed it became apparent that the rescued cave dwellers were not ageing. That must have been why they had survived for so long, living in the same moment which would have been an eternity for anyone else. This had to be the doing of the mysterious Pied Piper the children kept telling mother Gena and Dingal about.
But who was this mysterious entity?
Could he still exist after all this time?
The caves were now rapidly flooding. It would have been dangerous for a sensible person to go back and look for him. But curiosity easily overrode Dingal's sense of self-preservation. Also, the children had become much slower, no longer able to skip and jump with their rodent companions. After living in a place where time had stood still, their bodies were now paying the price.
Mother Gena was distraught that her young charges would soon slow down altogether and inevitably stop breathing.
Dingal was preparing to revisit the cave the children had been rescued from when Mother Gena found out and insisted on joining her. Despite the danger, she could not be dissuaded.
The tunnels were flooded so they used a boat to navigate towards the magical cavern where the children had been discovered.
The water now almost reached the ceiling and its fluorescent rock cast an eerie, hard light across the clear, still water. In its depths they could see drowned trees still loaded with fruit.
Amongst them was a large, glowing cube.
It hadn’t been there when Dingal’s team had broken through the thin rock wall.
She had to find out what it was.
Despite Mother Gena’s protests, the excavator put on her breathing apparatus and dived down to investigate the mysterious object.
Its walls were seamless.
At her touch they started to open like unfurling paper.
Mother Gena immediately hauled on Dingal’s safety line and pulled her back to the surface.
The walls of the cube dissolved to reveal a strange, multi-limbed creature gazing up at them with several pairs of brilliant eyes. They should have been terrified, yet there was something benign in its bulbous, tentacled appearance, rather like the intelligent octopuses that colonised the shallow coastal waters.
Then it changed.
Slowly it was transformed into a human wearing a brightly coloured tunic.
The Pied Piper rose to the surface until he was standing by the boat - on the surface of the water.
“Are you the mysterious stranger the children talk about?” demanded Mother Gena.
“But you’re not a human - what are you?”
The Pied Piper spread out the palms of his hands. “My people protect other species from epidemics that spread from planet to planet.”
“Is that why you came here?”
“A particularly virulent disease was carried to this planet in the tail of a comet. It had already wiped out a third of this continent's population before I arrived. Those children were not yet contaminated so I placed them in stasis. The rest of their community did not survive.”
“But they aren’t ageing,” protested Mother Gena. “Yet they are still dying.”
“I can prevent that if you are prepared to raise them.”
“Wait!” said Dingal. “If they grow up there are enough of them to reproduce. They could start another human population!”
“Like the one that blamed your ancestors for carrying the plague and tried to exterminate them?” asked the Pied Piper.
Mother Gena was near to tears. “But we can’t let them die after all this time.”
“The decision is yours,” said the Pied Piper. “I cannot remain here long. The time stream I operate on will not wait.”
He began to fade.
“Make your choice by tomorrow, then come back and let me know what you have decided.”
Dingal and Mother Gena were confused by the true price of their altruism. Should they allow these children grow up and trust they would respect their benefactors - or perhaps give birth to a generation that would try to exterminate them yet again?