The knock on the bedroom chamber was timid. And it was much to weak to raise the large form that slept wearily beneath the heavy covers.
Again, there was a hesitant rapping.
Again, it was not enough to rouse the sleeper.
Finally, whoever had intended to wake the bedchamberʼs occupant gave up the vain attempts at knocking. Slowly the door was pushed ajar and the face of a female rat peered into the twilight of the darkened room. She was tall, not just for a female. Looking the equivalent of being in her mid-twenties had she been born a human her remarkable stature did not take away from her youthful charm. Most rats considered her a beauty, and not just because of her looks. The rat lady was wearing a floor-length dress that slightly echoed the serious feel of a Guard. An unlikely blend, yet whoever had found it a fit concept to tailor had done so quite expertly. It breathed of female grace and held the strength of the combatant. Colored an olive green, it nicely offset with the ratʼs crème colored fur.
The tall girl slowly walked into the chamber and, carefully not to disturb the sleeper, went to he heavy drapes covering the round window. She pulled the curtain away and let the morning sun bathe the entire room in its golden light. The rat approached the sleeping alcove built into the wall to inspect the resting form within. Light reflecting from a nearby mirror made her crystal blue eyes sparkle like precious gems. Quietly, she bent over the rim of the bed and put her muzzle close to where the sleeperʼs head was expected to be. In a clear and vibrant voice the girl rat whispered to the turned face:
"Grandpa. Wake up grandpa. Itʼs almost time for breakfast."
Slowly, the large body beneath the blankets stirred and the head turned wearily around on its pillow. Ice-blue rheumy eyes set within a hard and ancient face desperately fought to get accustomed to the new radiance. As the resting ratʼs gaze recognized his visitor a yawn followed by a series of short coughs escaped his throat. Despite the unusual size of the aged rat its body clearly had succumbed to the ravages of time. With the labored effort of the truly ancient the silver-gray rat pulled himself up from his bedding. It was an almost pitiful sight to see this once strong rodent having to catch his breath after such a menial activity. While the female was amazingly tall the old one would likely tower even over her, if he still had the ability to stand up straight. The same imposing size of the elder appeared to have expressed itself in the young lady that had awoken him. His heavy fame spoke of bygone days of enormous power and agility. But now the large angular face mirrored the pain that ravaged his aged bones.
Covering another cascade of small coughs with his right paw the old one addressed the female:
The voice was weak yet it carried a deep bass resonance reminiscent of distant thunder. Looking down at the teenager a slight smile cracked the chiseled features. A bit bashfully the girl replied:
"Sorry to wake you grandpa, but I know how much you like to sit at the breakfast table with us and so I thought... "
The aged rat smiled and nodded as he placed his large right paw into the hands of the younger. The tall lady rat carefully assisted as he painfully climbed out from his bed. Then she helped to slowly dress the huge bent-over form of her elder. Once the towering ancient was fully clothed in his voluminous dark green robes she presented him with his cane. Another smile appeared as he accepted the cane and, with the female supporting him, slowly shambled out of the sleeping chamber.
Just as they were passing trough the door the rat caught a glimpse of himself in the wall mirror.
How old he had become. Once, his pelt had been dark, a deep gray of storm clouds. Now his ragged pelt had turned milky and his brows where of the color of snow. He shook his head in remembrance of days when a piercing gaze from beneath his hard features would have sent shivers down the spines of almost everyone. Those times had long passed. What now stared back from the glass surface was a face riddled with age. Still bearing the size and hardness of his former youth the bleached fur and tired eyes now betrayed the frailty of his body. Old age was not for the faint of heart.
Thoughts of the past lingered in the old oneʼs mind as he slowly walked towards the living chamber. The rat looked down at his oldest great-granddaughter who supported his left arm as he carefully paced his steps. If anyone would have told him years ago how weak he would one day be, he would have laughed in their faces. But then again, the rat had never dreamed of reaching such a high age in the first place.
He had been a member of the Guard once, the first one born to those who had originally escaped the horrors of NIMH all those years past. Now he was the only one of that generation left alive. He had been the biggest rat in the colony back then. Even today only a few came close to his original size. A relentless guardian of the young colony he had always fought right at the forefront of battles against countless wild predators, but not anymore.
The aged rat had always expected to, one day, die in the line of duty. Somehow it had never happened. Others, like good old Justin, had died instead. Freak accidents, attacks by feral animals, and just old age had claimed all of those that he had once known and cared about. He silently shook his head as the girl led him towards the already laid-out breakfast table. All the ones the old rat had once served to protect, Jonathan, Max, Cleopatra, and so many more were now gone while he had remained. It didnʼt make sense. He should have died long ago, even considering the strange abilities that all the descendants of the NIMH experiments shared. Gabriel, who had often tended to the guardʼs wounds during his days of duty, had once remarked that his body showed an uncanny reluctance to die. But despite this ability to survive for such a long time it had not managed to spare him the aches of physical deterioration. Age happened to all.
As he carefully lowered his rump onto the chair he glanced at the family already present. Marian, the tall girl that had awakened him, and two more of his great-grandchildren were half sitting, half squirming in their seats. The young twins, Ethan and Solomon, were busy pulling each otherʼs head-fur, while their older sister desperately tried to separate them. Another smile crossed the big ratʼs face. He had never really thought he would have a family of his own.
With her almost white fur his great-granddaughter reminded the rat strongly of another young female, though of the mouse kind, which he had known a long time ago. Cynthia, the daughter of Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby, had been one of his dearest friends, in those long-gone days. He had known the small mouse since the time her parents had joined to live with them in Thorn Valley. Cynthia had possessed an innate cheerfulness and fun-loving spirit that had often driven the Guard up the wall. It had not been an easy task to protect the wily young gardener on her excursions into the woods. Back then Mr. Ages, the colonyʼs head physician, had sent her out to collect all sorts of weird roots and strange fungi. Cynthia had had a strange affinity towards both animals and plants. She had often claimed that she could feelʼ others and did not need any protection when gathering specimens. Yet Justin, who had lead the colony back then, would not have let her go out into the woods alone if she had been a certified fortuneteller. And the now ancient one had always been the one charged with guarding the mischievous mouse. He guessed he had just been lucky that way.
At times Marian appeared to be a rat-born reincarnation of his former ward. Cynthia had died almost ten years ago as a content mother of five with more grandchildren than anyone could ever hope for. She had always made him realize just how wonderful life could be. Now it was his great-granddaughter that reminded the old rat of the joys this world still held. As he watched her desperately trying to stop her younger brothers from pulling the cloth off the table all the pains of his great age no longer mattered. Seeing the children enjoy themselves always made it worthwhile.
The elder turned his head and smiled. In his younger years smiling had been as remote a concept as family. Now he was quite accustomed to both. He looked thankfully at his grandson-in-law, who still could not resist addressing him by his old nickname. Ferdinand Chandler was already wearing his uniform as he sat down next to the old rat. He was a rather smallish, slender rat that would hardly even reach up his grandfather-in-lawʼs chest when they stood face to face. Yet Ferdinandʼs well kept burgundy uniform and dark-blue cape clearly showed his rank, as the current Captain of the Guard.
Soon Jessica, his granddaughter, would take her seat between her husband and the two twins, who were still not done wrestling over one of the spoons. As the rat looked at his neighbor he could not help but silently enjoy the irony of his offspringʼs choice for a mate. Dark-brown Jessica, who was also a member of the Guard, stood almost two heads taller than the beige colored Ferdinand. And her slim but hard muscled body was at least three times as massive. Yet both had felt immediately attracted when they had first met. And the Captain of the Guard was more than a match for his sometimes ill-tempered grandchild.
George, a former trainer in the Guard, had once been trained under the scrutiny of the now ancient rat himself. It had been him who had turned the rather weak-bodied Ferdinand into one of the most capable fighters in the colony. What he lacked in brute strength he made up for with agility and dexterity that put his small size to shame. The Captain was not someone you would want to cross. The old one remembered how he himself had, when still training new Guard members, often remarked on how quickness and alertness could overpower superior strength. Ferdinand was living proof of that.
As the elder acknowledged his grandsonʼs greeting he finally saw Jessica emerging from the kitchen. The children noticed her as well, or more likely the large tray of still steaming pancakes and a pitcher of orange juice she carried. Jessica had always been a stickler for good nutrition. She put down the tray in the middle of the round table and sat down at her husbandʼs side. Sorting out the still wrangling boys to her right she began handing out the pancakes. That got the twins to finally sit down quietly. She smiled at the aged rat as she handed him his plate.
"How are you feeling today, grandpa?"
The old one smiled cautiously and replied.
Jessica chuckled at the reply. She was sure that her grandfather had suffered another night of bad pains. The cold months always played havoc on his bones, which protested fiercely when he forced them to move his large body around. But her grandfather hardly ever complained. As she looked at him, slowly but contently eating his breakfast, she could not help to realize how much she really loved the old rat. Jessica still remembered how her grandfather had taken care of her and her siblings when her parents needed someone to watch them. He had always been kind and compassionate towards the children, even though he could be quite stern. They had respected and loved him for his care, and especially for all the games and stories he had shared with them. Jessica still had a hard time believing the tales that depicted her grandfather in his younger days, the days before he had met his wife, her long-dead grandmother. She had known him as a kind if somewhat physically intimidating old rat that loved to teach, using very little words and a lot of heart, and spend time with his grandkids. She just could not imagine him viciously chasing down wild predators. But then again, her children hardly ever could imagine her doing the same thing today.
Waving his fork, Ferdinand, while still chewing his second pancake, suddenly addressed his grandfather-in-law.
"You know, Iʼd really appreciate it if you would look in on that Christian fellow today. We have been training with him for three weeks now, but I canʼt figure out his problem. Would you mind?"
The old oneʼs eyes lighted up. He always enjoyed helping out as much as his weak frame allowed him too. And the Guard was still his passion after all these years. With as much excitement as his tired voice could muster he replied.
"Of course. Iʼd love to."
Suddenly, Marianʼs eyes began to glow with excitement.
"I can take grandpa there if you like?"
The aged rat could barely contain a chuckle. Like many of his family, Marian was a part-time member of the Guard. She had been off duty for the last few months, courting a handsome young rat, actually the same Christian that her father had mentioned, and was busy setting up a home for their marriage. She always liked to watch her intended train. Handing Solomon and Ethan each another helping of pancakes her mother answered.
"As long as you donʼt keep your father and your fiancé from doing their work..."
Now it was Ferdinand who could not help but chuckle, which almost caused his mouth-full of pancake to spew over his tunic. His daughter was usually too busy fawning at Christian to actually interrupt the training. He suspected that she still maintained some private training for herself between setting-up her unfinished living quarters.
When she was younger her hobby of exercising close combat moves had almost caused a serious accident once. Christian, who had been a good friend of hers even then and had and almost been as fanatic as she in her adoration of the Guard, had often acted as her sparring partner. Back then both of them had sometimes been a bit too intent on getting the moves they tried to emulated from watching the Guards train just right. At one time a twirling kick by Marian had caught the boy rat at the temple and knocked him unconscious. Thankfully, there had been no real injury apart from a headache Christian suffered for the rest of the day.
But both kids had gotten a harsh talking to by Jessica and Ferdinand. They were scolded severely and told to be more careful when doing this sort of training. The exercises of the Guard were preparations for combat and quite dangerous when performed without care. After that both of them had developed a much more serious attitude towards exercising safely. As a matter of fact, both sets of parents had been astounded to see with how much seriousness their children approached the incident. Now the two had become capable Guards in their own right, if only Christianʼs little training problem would come up repeatedly.
Chewing on another fork full of pancake her father remarked.
"If Brute doesnʼt mind you can come along."
Marian turned around to gaze up at the elder who was still busy with the last of his own pancakes. She gave him one of her never-fail impressions of the perfectly adorable little girl. She had used that face on him as a child and to see it now on the face of a beautiful adult melted his heart. He would most likely need his great-granddaughterʼs help anyway, but for courtesyʼs sake her parents still made her ask for permission. Jessica was afraid her daughter would hurt the ailing oneʼs pride. He could not help but to feel humbled by her protectiveness. But most feelings of personal pride in his physical abilities had long since past. The aged rat had reconciled with the frailties he now suffered. Nowadays he was glad to be helped by his loved ones. Yet he wished he could be of more service to them in return. Being a burden on those he cared for was something that always bothered him. He nodded, which elicited an impish grin that belied Miriamʼs age.
"Nobody is going anywhere without finishing their breakfast!"
Jessica enjoyed playing the family matron. Her daughter reminded her so much of herself when she had been young and carefree, not to mention having been freshly smitten with Ferdinand. Stories seemed to repeat themselves in this family, especially the important ones.
The gymnasium was quite large. When the colony had decided to expand the Guardʼs training facilities the old workout room had been enlarged into an arena with enough seats to accommodate almost every single inhabitant. On the main floor were outlines of numerous playing fields for all kinds of sport and the colony now hosted a number of annual tournaments. In between, the Guard used the hall for their training in both armed and unarmed combat. Today a number of exercise dummies had been suspended from the ceiling in addition to several rebounding punching bags. Between them two-dozen young Guard members were patiently listening to their instructors and watching their peers practice.
Both the old rat and his great-granddaughter were watching the training session from the stands. Ferdinand was trying to teach the large, silver-furred Christian how to fight using a quarterstaff. It was an amazing sight to see the middle-aged, small and slender form of the Captain slowly rotating around his own axis while twirling his staff around him in complicated figure eights. He tried to demonstrate the flow of motion to the huge trainee in every detail. Christian was almost twice as tall and about six times as heavy as Ferdinand, but watched the Captain with a respect reserved for those of superior skill.
Once finished Ferdinand showed him what the exercise would look like at full speed. Marian could not help but feel proud as her dad. The Captain almost flew through the air. With the grace of a dancer he lashed out with his staff in precisely aimed jabs. The entire exercise barely lasted ten seconds. Then Ferdinand let the large trainee walk slowly through the motions himself, carefully guiding his hands from behind. After three trails Ferdinand asked Christian to perform the maneuver on his own.
The big Guard took a deep breath and repeated the exercise on his own. Slowly at first, Christian kept on repeating the maneuver with ever quickening movements. Then, just as he was about to complete a run at full speed, the quarterstaff literally flew out from his paws. It landed in the seats about two rows away from the spectators. The young Guard stopped in mid spin and looked up at the seated figures with embarrassment. Having Miriam once again witness his failure made him want to sink into the ground. From his bashful glance towards the Captain it became clear that it was not the first time the training maneuver had ended in this fashion.
Ferdinand cast a questioning look towards his grandfather-in-law. The aged rat gestured towards his great-granddaughter to fetch the staff for him while he raised himself and slowly shambled onto the exercise floor.
The trainee cast worried glances towards the approaching elder. The ancientʼs accomplishments during his time of active duty and his years as a trainer were legend in the Guard. The fact that he also was the great-grandfather to the one he loved made the situation even harder. He felt he had to live up to standards he could never achieve. To have his training problems cause this renowned rat to abandon his retirement clearly put Christian ill at ease.
Ferdinand nodded a greeting and went directly to the heart of the matter.
"What do you think is his problem?"
The elder rubbed his chin and mumbled to himself. When Marian arrived with the quarterstaff he gestured towards Christian to take it from his beloved and repeat the exercise one more time. The trainee nodded and stepped back. As before, he began the motions slow and then increased his speed. At almost the exact moment at which he had let go of his weapon before the young Guard again lost his grip on the staff. Yet this time it only clattered to the floor a few steps away. Miriam, with an expression of sorry toward Christian again retrieved his weapon. Her fiancé walked towards the Captain and the aged rat with a downcast look. He was sure that this would be his last day as a Guard. He always trained so diligently but this one set of moves was always a boon to him. He could not understand what caused his grip to loosen every time.
Ferdinand had looked closely at the grizzled face of the ancient rat during the second try. As his gaze was returned the old one just shrugged.
"I guess itʼs nerves."
Now the young Guard was truly devastated. The venerable one not only questioned his physical fitness but his mental state as well. Despite his reverence for the large veteran he could not stand up for this without at least defending his sanity.
"You know I am capable! I have proven it on duty many times."
Thankfully, his Captain turned towards him with a warm smile.
"I donʼt think that is quite what he meant, Christian. Am I right?"
The grizzled one shook his head with a tired smile.
"Yep. Let me explain. Christian, take the staff and come over here."
The large trainee did as he was bidden. As he stood before the huge robed figure, the elder stepped behind him.
"Stand just like when you lost your grip. Hold that stance."
Christian raised the staff and moved into position. The old rat slowly began to walk his heavy right paw over the back muscles of the Guard. Suddenly, he pushed a tight spot beneath the young oneʼs right shoulder blade. Christian immediately dropped his weapon. He and Marian were both flabbergasted, not quite understanding what had just happened. Only Ferdinand gave a small grin as the aged form reappeared from behind the trainee. He cast a questioning eye towards his grandfather-in-law.
The huge rat nodded. Christian looked from one to the other in despair.
"Does that mean I will not be able to use this technique?"
The Captain of the Guard gave the taller rat a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
"No, it just means that when you do a specific motion one of your bones squeezes on the nerve that lets you keep your grip."
The Guard, while relieved at his soon-to-be father-in-lawʼs casual tone, still looked concerned.
"But what can I do about it?"
"About the way your nerves and bones work, probably nothing. But all these exercises are not the perfect way to fight for all who train here anyway. Theyʼre just what we have come up that works best for most."
The wizened rodent covered a series of coughs in his right paw and then explained.
"You probably had this forever. You just learned to move around it. The exercises donʼt. Just learn to move around the motions that make you loose your grip. It should not take long."
The slender trainer nodded in agreement.
"It should not take long at all. The exercises are just there to make your body accustomed to the fighting motions so you will know them instinctively when you need them. But they do not have to be exactly the maneuvers we show you. With your skill you will soon find others that will work for you and that will be just as efficient. First you have to learn exactly which motions will cause you to loose your grip. Then you will learn how to work around them."
He gave Christian a small wink.
"Someone with your strength and agility, and especially your determination, makes a fine Guard, and a fine husband I might add."
Ferdinand looked at the elder.
The ancient rat nodded.
Christian could not help but blush, particularly since Miriam saw it fit to choose just that moment to give him a kiss on the cheek. Behind them the other Guards chuckled at the display of affection.
"I better get to trying to find these motions then,"
Christian coughed nervously to his intended and the world in general.
Miriam let him go, but not after giving another kiss, to the general amusement of the crowd and the quiet smiles of her elders.
Ferdinand winked at the old rat.
"Thanks for your help, Brute. I will see you later tonight."
With this the captain turned to his protégée and the two spectators moved towards their seats again. As they watched the rest of the training the aged one could not help but notice the silent admiration in the eyes of his great-granddaughter, and in the eyes of the other trainers and trainees as well. They had all watched as he had made his diagnosis. And they knew exactly who he was.
He understood now why his grandson had wanted him here today. Ferdinand had known about Christianʼs true problem, probably from the first time he had seen him drop his weapon. But he had wanted the retired veteran to voice his opinion, to show everyone how the knowledge of observation and training was handed down from generation to generation within the Guard. It not only filled the members with pride, but also with the knowledge that those who had served before them were confident in their abilities as well.
And, as he leaned his paws on his cane, the final and probably foremost of the Captainʼs motives for asking him here played though his mind. His grandson-in-law had wanted the retired Guard to feel needed again. A huge smile cracked his features. He was truly blessed with the most kind of families. His granddaughter could not have chosen a more capable, determined, and more caring mate than this one. If anything, the old rat felt towards Ferdinand in a way that only very few could claim. He felt love.
The Library was a place of renewal for the elder. Before he had met the one that later became his wife he had read only what had directly concerned his duties. His personal collection of books had consisted entirely of tomes on all sorts of combat, tactics, weaponry, and mental control. There had been no recreational reading for him at all. Yet his mate had endeared the written word to him on a much more enjoyable basis. It had started slowly, when reading stories to his young children, that the now ancient one had felt a curiosity towards the great wealth of texts that the colonyʼs library held. And his wifeʼs devotion to reading, which had led her to frequent the library often, had encouraged him to do the same. Now that his aged body discouraged most physical pursuits his mind thirsted for nourishment even more.
Of lately he had read a lot about the religions and metaphysics of humanity. Their beliefs were so manifold and often colorful. The grizzled rat never ceased to be amazed at their ingenuity. The large volume that rested on his favorite table today dealt with the many curious aspects of the Hindu beliefs. A heavy clawed finger carefully followed the text so as to keep the reader from loosing his footing. At the end of another passage the old one leaned back in the comfortable armchair and gazed at the libraryʼs ceiling. He smiled.
The Hindu concept of reincarnation was so fascinating. A society bound by a rigid cast system allowing its member social and spiritual advancement only through the passage of death. Clearly, it was a means of maintaining the status quo in the countries, which relied on these beliefs. But there still appeared to be a grain of truth about the concept. There was a sense of continuity of existence there that made this type of faith appealing, even more so than the faiths of Christianity and the Islam with their promise of an unchanging state of paradise.
And, amazingly, all of these beliefs used the same principles. Regardless which of the many religions he studied, the spiritual virtues themselves always showed a similar humorous mixture of true moral guidance and carefully placed methods of political control. Whoever was at the helm of the powerful institutions, which relied for their control of mankind on spiritual obedience, had universally filled religious text with, on the one hand, spiritual virtues and, on the other hand, with rigid dogma to ensure the prosperity and power of the religion itself. That was what most of the human religions boiled down to: power. Ensnare the masses with the truth and then bind them to you with obedience and lies.
And once one sifted through all the pointless ceremonies and reached the bare bones of what it was to be that made one faithful, these truths were all remarkably alike. Basic concepts of moral behavior and social consciousness all held these mighty fortresses of belief together. Behind the façade of power and righteousness there lay the lessons of what made a being truly human, or rodent. Strangely, from his own experience the elder would have to judge that there were truly very few humans that ever lived up to any of these virtues. Mankind seemed to be a species that was unable to make proper moral choices on their own accord and needed imposed guidelines to act upon. And then they would disregard them nonetheless.
Sadly, he knew of a great number of rats and mice within the colony that suffered from the same malady. It appeared that moral behavior was not a thing engrained into the make up of any race, but something that only dire necessity would teach one. The old rat had once, ages ago, undergone such an experience himself. Only afterwards had he known what it meant to be a good individual.
But the moral ideals of the beliefs of men were not what had caught the ancientʼs attention this day. Today he dwelt on mankindʼs various religious concepts of life and death. It was quite extraordinary to have such countless views on the cosmos universally acknowledging the existence of the soulʼ. Only to then disagree about everything else. Somehow the knowledge of a personʼs essence was clearly discernable to all. Yet a clear concept of what lay beyond the horizon of this existence and of what constituted the ultimate nature of the universe had eluded humanity for millennia. Some of them had touched on the truth, but never clearly enough to catch the core of existence.
The aged one folded his paws in front of his face and allowed himself another excursion into his memories. He was one of the few that had been granted a view into the ultimate secrets of being. There had only been some fleeting glimpses of that great truth, but they had certainly sufficed. Some things were not meant for the minds of mortals. What good was is to behold ultimate truth when one lacked the facilities to understand it?
They had really only begun to understand the scope of what the humans at NIMH had attempted upon their return to that accursed place. It had been Justin, Mrs. Brisby, Cynthia, Timothy, himself, and the stranger, who had answered to the name of Julia, that had made the long trip back towards the city of man, back to the place where their lives had been changed, back to NIMH.
They had all thought that their quest was undertaken by their own choice. They had wanted to avert the doom of the strange ailment, which had been slowly spreading through the colony. So the six of them had headed through the woods, to the old farm, and into the realms of humanity to find a cure. They had been such fools.
He should have been more suspicious. After three years of having evacuated the rosebush, and without any warning, NIMH had entered the lives of the Thorn Valley rats again. The men had come to the old Fitzgibbon farm with large machines. Slowly they had examined every grain of dirt, every bushel of grass, and all the animals of the fields. And then they had neutralized them. If not for the flight of Teresa and her family from the old Brisby home, which had still been located on the farm, the colonists would probably have never known what had happened in time to save themselves.
On their way to the city he and his companions had known that NIMH had once again invaded the farm. But what they saw when they had crossed their old home was beyond anything they had expected to find.
The humans had taken everything. The farmhouse, the tractor, the old mill, even the stone had been removed. And what had not been taken had been carefully exterminated. When they had looked upon the former home of the Fitzgibbon family the only thing they could see was a vast expanse of burnt ashes and dead earth closed off by tight electrical wire. There had not been a single living thing left in this place of death. The farm had been sterilized.
Yet all of this had only been a prelude to the true horror of what awaited them at NIMH. Not the old NIMH the rats had known those years ago, but a new, even more sinister apparition that had taken its place.
The elder still shuddered in recollection of his first glimpse of the dark steel tower that had arisen before them in the forest clearing that faithful night. The humans had known of their return into the old facility and trapped them there. And then they had been transported far away from the city into the confines of the new NIMH. And there the nature of the audacities that humanity had committed had been revealed to them in full.
Jonathan Brisby had died four years before they had begun their return to the world of humanity. When NIMH had them in its clutches once more it was Jonathan Brisby who faced them, or at least the thing that had chosen to use his flesh for its own purposes. The being that even today was only referred to as The Directorʼ.
Whatever had driven the human scientists to find a way to extend life had also encouraged them to bridge the gap between the living and the dead entirely. At least they had tried. But what they had truly called forth from beyond known existence had been more terrible than they could have ever imagined. They had tried, not just to create a new body from the remains of the deceased, but also to endow it with its original spirit, its original soul. How they had ever found scientific proof of the entity, which religions refer to as the soulʼ, had never been made clear to the grizzled veteran. He only knew about the ways the humans had tried to entrap them, and wished that he could forget.
After all the perils he had lived through the old rat now knew for sure that it had not been the men at NIMH who had conceived the vile procedures that had lead to his own creation, and to the summoning of that monstrosity behind the face of his revived friend. These men of science had been smart, but not that smart. Only years later, after the thing that had pretended to be Jonathan Brisby had been vanquished, had they learned about the The Tankʼ.
The ways in which mankind governed itself these days was strange and devious. Some humans were born particularly giftedʼ in the ways of the mind. And the governments of humanity were always careful to detect such abnormalitiesʼ as soon as possible. The country called the United States of America had also maintained programs designed to find and contain such special individuals. These poor people were placed in a facility, which isolated them from the rest of the world. Only very few other humans ever knew about this place, a place where caged geniuses were forced to create marvels of science undreamt off by the rest of mankind. Their achievements were kept secret so that their government might have the sole means of using them when the need arose. Only sometimes, when procedures needed to be tested, would other institutions be granted the privilege of witnessing them. Only then would one of the miracles created in The Tankʼ be revealed. It had been in this manner that the scientists of NIMH were chosen to experiment with the strange serums that would prove to hold the key to life itself.
The old one sighed with closed eyes at the disturbing memories. After their second escape from NIMH they had decided to be just as secretive about these procedures as the humans had been. Justin, Julia, and the others had all agreed that some technology was just too dangerous to make public. They had decided to lie.
Despite the few individuals that would later be part of the Phoenix Project, none in the colony even suspected the powers that they now had at their disposal. All in all, the technology that had resurrected Jonathan Brisby had only been used on three occasions.
The first time had been when the human scientists had tried to re-make the mouse that they had grown from the bones of the ratsʼ dead friend. It had been at that instant, with all the bungling that the sciences of man usually employed, that The Directorʼ had been created.
The next time it was the thing in the guise of Jonathan Brisby itself that utilized the forbidden means to resurrect the rat that had been known as Jenner. Only this time the technology had been refined to perfection. The Directorʼ had wanted to revive Jenner untainted, so he revised the faulty procedure to its current state.
And finally, only moments after that the now grizzled Guard and his companions had made their second escape from NIMH, A.L.I.S., the being that had been made, not born, had used the same method to truly bring Jonathan Brisby back to his loved ones. And at the same time A.L.I.S. had been allowed to join the ranks of the living. On that day, a mind molded in silica had been transplanted into a body of flesh.
After that the Resurrection Procedureʼ had never been used again.
The old one remembered clearly how both Jonathan and Jenner had expressed their wishes that this method should be never be made known. They had made their case through explanations of what they had experienced beyond the boundaries of death. It became evident to all individuals directly involved that some things should not be tampered with. The universe was meant to operate along certain principles. Once these were altered or disturbed abhorrent manifestations could endanger all of creation. The Directorʼ, they said, had been a relatively benign example. Even the modified technology would not be a perfect safeguard against the horrors this method could unleash.
And from the vivid depictions of his re-born friends the ancient rat had learned about the true make-up of the cosmos, at least in the limited way that his mortal brain would allow.
Apparently, there really was no such thing as death. Similar to the Hindu concepts he had just pondered, Jonathan had talked about a continuous stream of existence. Every soul was in a never-ending process of evolving into higher forms of consciousness. Through expansion of oneʼs own perspective oneʼs soul was meant to continuously grow towards a goal of perfection. Even though it would never reach this goal. After every death a soul would, depending on its development, either begin a new life at a higher state of existence, or return to he same kind of life as before. Jonathan had claimed he had never actually leftʼ this world, but had been present in a somewhat different form than a mortal mind could perceive. His claims of having actively participated in the ongoing lives of his own family had been extremely touching.
It was Jenner who had seemed particularly insistent on explaining the ways a soul could be permanently stuck at the same level of spiritual growth. From his persistence many guessed that this had been his personal fate. And, that it was a fate not to be relished. He had stated that unwillingness for empathy and expanded points of view could cause a soul to be trapped in the same kinds of lives for eternity. The periods betweenʼ these lives were the most horrible part of the whole process. It was during these intermediate phases, between the times in which suitable bodies existed to house the trapped souls that the full realization of oneʼs futility would impact on the individuals in question. He was certain that those moments where what mankind tried to describe by words like hellʼ. When The Directorʼ had pulled Jenner back into the mortal realm he had allowed him to retain the full horror of the state his soul was in. Normally, this knowledge was lost once a soul was again born into a normally developing body.
It had been difficult for both Jonathan and him to make all these concepts comprehensible as they could not truly make the others understand how the ideas of time, space, and life really worked in the big scheme of the universe. As a matter of fact, since they had become a part of this mode of existence again the full significance of the experience eluded them as well. They had become, once again, mortal
All in all they had resigned to leave off any further attempts to use the method. Yet the revelations of the two revived ones had made a huge impact on the veteran and the others who had witnessed them. It was quite an extraordinary feeling to be told first hand about what lay behind the curtain of death. And it took away some of the ever-present fear of oneʼs own mortality.
Now all these events were far in the past. Jonathan and Jenner had both succumbed to the process of dying many years before. The ancient was the only one left to recall those distant happenings. He had almost forgotten about them himself during the period he now considered his true life, the time he had spent with his family through its many generations.
Yet as his own death slowly approached he was again transported back to those old revelations. Soon it would be his turn to leave the ones he cared for. And as his tired body was again riddled by that cough that never seemed to leave him nowadays he was almost glad that it would finally be over. Jenner had once joked that ever-lasting mortality was the most terrible thing in the universe. As much as that statement had been a contradiction the aged rodent had seen its hidden truth for some time now.
These were not healthy thoughts. The large rat shut his eyes and tried to focus on the present again. And the present still held obligations. Even though he was no longer able to physically contribute any work to his friends and family he knew how painful his departure would be to them. To cause those he cared for pain was the last thing the aged one wanted. He would do better to exist as an invalid for eternity than to willfully harm the ones he loved. And he so much enjoyed the sight of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If anything, to have them listen with wide eyes to his stories of bygone days was more than enough compensation for his little aches and pains. The elder would not let thoughts of the past ruin his present. There was still too much to cherish in the here and now.
He closed the large book in front of him and slowly rose from his chair. The long period of sitting had let the cold back into his bones. And they protested painfully as he commanded them into movement. As he slowly passed the librarianʼs desk he waved at the young female rat tending to the needs of the readers. Heather had promised him she would return the book to the shelf for him since he could no longer climb the libraryʼs ladders himself.
Supporting his immense bulk on his knobby cane the bent figure cautiously shambled through the long corridors of the colony. He was in no hurry to reach the home of his grandson-in-law, as dinner would not be served for at least another hour.
He passed the office of the current Leader of the Council. The door to Angelaʼs office was ajar and the elder always enjoyed his conversations with Justinʼs granddaughter. He went inside.
Angela had been at the head of the colony for more than four years now. A mother of four she still managed to handle both her duties and her family in a way that none had to suffer for the other. She was still very young, about the age Justin had been when he had taken up office, and showed about as much talent and dedication as he had. As the head of the colony Angela was in charge of the ongoing Phoenix Project as well. And she often informed the old veteran of how things were progressing when she returned from the secret installations in the rocky cliffs at the Valleyʼs rim.
Yet today her office was empty. The huge rodent carefully peered inside, but there was no trace of the colonyʼs commander in chief. It was quite possible that Angela was down in the hidden command center of the Project right now. But the elder had never known her to leave her office open when not around.
As he entered the room his eyes traveled across the great desk that was situated at the far side of the chamber. Behind it the large circular widow allowed all the stars of this clear winterʼs night to sparsely illuminate the office. He shook his grizzled head. The office had not changed a bit since the day it had first been opened.
The elder was about to leave the room again when a light caught the corner of his eye. It came from the wall to his right. And its source was the great Seeing-Machineʼ.
Nicodemus, their first leader, had constructed a similar device back in the old rosebush. Once the colony had been evacuated and moved to Thorn Valley Justin and the others had thought the secrets of this machine to be lost. Nicodemus had possessed powers that could only have been described as magic. He had been able to move objects by will alone and through his Seeing-Machineʼ he had looked into all aspects of the universe. He had seen the now, the bygone, the things to come, and the things that were but could not be seen by eyes alone.
They had not been able to transport Nicodemusʼ machine on their journey to the Valley. Only his book they had salvaged. But no one knew for sure how this important piece of equipment had been constructed. That was until Timothy Brisby had come along.
The youngest son of Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby, Timothy had possessed an uncanny ability to create and repair all sorts of mechanical things. He had often confessed to have no clue as to how some of the devices he constructed truly worked, but work they always did. It had been he who had taken up the task to construct a new Seeing-Machineʼ. And as with all of his other projects he had been successful. Not pleased with merely re-building Nicodemusʼ old machine he decided to improve upon it, give it a wider range, make it easier to use. The fact that he did not know how one would later use the device had never bothered him in the least.
Despite all the ambiguities as to the function of the machine Timothyʼs design had proven correct. Justin himself had been the one to discover the deviceʼs potential. Both he and the now retired Guard had learned how the process that NIMH had begun in their bodies continued to change them as they aged. Justin, Elizabeth, and many others had developed abilities similar to the oneʼs Nicodemus had shown as the years progressed.
He himself had not been exempt. But the bearded veteran had always refrained from using these properties or even training them. Something in their nature and his knowledge as to how they stimulatedʼ oneʼs own perspective had made him reluctant. Maybe that was the reason for him being the last of the first generation to still live. Jonathan had claimed that a life was completed by reaching a certain level of spiritual development. Did the use of these powers accelerate the development? He did not know. And he did not care to know either.
Yet the three large stones set into the heavy gold framework of the machine now pulsed with a red light. With trepidation the ancient one realized that the rhythm of the glowing pulses was that of his own old heart. He was able to detect motion in the blades that would initialize the Seeing-Machineʼ.
Whatever the contraption desired to show him he wanted no part of it. He had in his entire life only used the device four times, and each of the omens it had shown had been predictions of future disasters. And only two of these happenings he had been able to avert.
The wizened rat never really understood why this object showed futures as they would happen and at other times futures that could be avoided. But he was certain that he no longer had the strength to face a fifth revelation of things to come. He quickly shuffled out of the chamber careful to close the door behind him. In the darkness the lights on the Seeing-Machineʼ slowly dimmed.
Dinner had been a joy. The twins had, for a change, decided not to initiate the meal with one of their little food fights. Apparently, Marian had told her brothers in exhaustive details how their great-grandfather had fixedʼ one of the Guard trainees.
Ferdinand himself had brought the subject up again and noted that Christian was already making great improvements, much to the apparent delight of his great-granddaughter. The old one just nodded bashfully.
The meal took almost two hours to complete as both Jessica and her mate had a lot of information and gossip to share with the elder. At some points discussions became quite engaging and caused food to turn cold on the plates. But, as always, some consensus of opinion was found at the end and everyone retired with a full stomach and a warm heart.
But tonight sleep did not come easy for the ancient rat. He had told Marian that he would not need her to help undress him since he had already felt a strange exhilaration as he headed out from the dining room. The huge form now sat crouched over the old writing desk and watched out the window into the dark valley.
In front of him lay a small hard-worn notebook and an inkwell with quill. He had finished todayʼs dairy and was just about ready to stack his small ledger back into the deskʼs drawer with the others.
The retired Guard had started to keep a journal shortly after the Rats of NIMH had settled in the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. Back then he had kept it to serve as an account of his conduct should he ever be killed in the line of duty. His entries were always short and to the fact with only little personal reflection. Only when matters truly moved the large rodent had he included more detailed contemplations. To ensure that no one else would sneak a peek into his personal account he always wrote the entries in Latin. In those past days the Guard had been afraid to let anyone share what was on his mind, in the days before his mate.
But as the years passed the collection of notebooks had continued to grow, as had the inner reflection of the author. Now he was already working on the twelfth book. The rat did not think these texts would be really of any value to anyone but himself. On the other hand, the colony made such a big deal about turning the members of the first and second generation into heroes that this collection of personal thoughts might just show them how average they had really been in their wants, fears, and hopes.
The just finished entry had been a bit more detailed than recent ones. He had not been so deeply involved in self-contemplation for quite some time now. The disturbing thoughts in the library still sent small shivers up his spine. It was either that or the winterʼs cold had found a way into his heated bedchambers.
The tired rat carefully placed the small book on top of his earlier journals and closed the desk drawer. Slowly, he walked towards his bed. He did not feel like undressing tonight. There was a strange premonition that he would not sleep for long and might need the protection of his robes later. Once he had managed to climb up the edge und slip beneath the blankets the persistent cough that had plagued him for weeks again shook his body.
His eyes felt heavy, but he also harbored a strange reluctance to close them. He had never experienced such a strange sensation before. Could it be that he was afraid of not being able to lift them again once he did? Was he afraid that tonight would be his time to leave this world?
He chided himself for such infantile notions. The Guard had not feared death throughout his entire life. And there had been many occasions when he had thought his end was certain. Why would he fear death now? It was not as if he did not have a clear idea of what awaited him afterwards. Jonathan and Jennerʼs testimony had never truly left his mind. They had claimed that oneʼs ability for love and commitment was what ensured that a life was not in vain.
The elder had never considered himself to be righteous, but he had always tried to live in accordance with what he believed to be right and decent. After all, that was all one could expect from anyone. If tonight truly was to be the time he would die, than he would have nothing to fear. The whole idea of being afraid of death actually managed to produce a chuckle in the raspy throat.
The rat turned over to his side and tried to get some sleep. Tomorrow was another day to gather oneʼs strength for.
He was awake. He had no idea of how long he had slept, but it could not have been more than an hour.
The old ratʼs head was turned towards the window, which still showed the dark open spaces of the Valley. It was amazing to see just how much light the star-speckled sky shed into the bedroom. Everything was outlined by the pale radiance in black and white.
The grizzled one sighed. He felt restless. It was as if an unknown force was vibrating through his aged and aching body. And his head was almost buzzing with energies that would not let his mind come to rest. Tonight sleep could surely not be thought of.
He raised himself from his bedding slowly, not wanting his bones to send him into well-known realms of agony. With his hind legs dangling from the bedʼs edge he crouched forward gazing out at the distant woods of the Valley floor. Once his eyes grew accustomed to the dark it was possible for him to make out some details. There was a distant path through the fields visible. He remembered walking this way himself quite often in the dark, during his days as a Guard. Night patrols had always been somewhat soothing to his mind as oneʼs thoughts could wander undisturbed in the loneliness of the night.
A strange idea arose from the veteranʼs consciousness. Maybe, just maybe, he could go out for a short night stroll. It had been years since had set foot outside the colony after nightfall. Now there was a strange yearning in his heart for those long gone feelings of solitude that waited out there in the Valley, out there in the night.
The whole concept was ludicrous. If he went out there he would probably perish from exposure to the cold air. The ground was still hard with frost and many predicted snow for the coming weeks. But the calling of the distant paths, stretched out there in the glow of the night, grew stronger with every moment the rat looked through that window. Maybe he could just look out from one of the colonyʼs many entrances without actually having to brave the cold. That might serve to calm his nerves. He just had to try.
Carefully, the ancient rat lowered himself to the ground and began to leave his abode. Suddenly, he stopped in front of the large walk-in closet next to his chamber door. There was something inside that he would need. He opened the closet slowly and with a sure reach removed the shaft of the weapon he had used for so many years. He himself had fashioned the large dark-bladed lance all those ages ago. As he glanced at the starlight reflecting almost magically from the dark metal he felt a sense of belonging that he had deemed long forgotten. The old lance was still as sharp as ever. It would probably serve as a better support for him tonight than his walking cane. The elder closed the closet again and headed for the door.
As he shambled along the colonyʼs many corridors he was taken aback by how quiet the place was. The cold season always had a habit of confining the rats and mice to their beds during the dark hours. In the warmer months the burrows would have been busy throughout the entire night.
The old rodentʼs steps were spaced as silently as his ailing joints would allow. Thankfully, the same restlessness that had deprived him of sleep also helped him ignore the painful protest radiating through his limbs.
He reached the East Entrance having to rest and catch his breath only twice. And when he finally arrived he wondered whether he should approach the sentry that guarded the passage for some conversation. Yet as he neared the arched exit he noticed that the rat on guard had fallen asleep at his post. Still standing erect the large Guard did not notice the ancient one as he slowly walked by him to look outside at the beautifully clear night sky. In days past, during his tour of duty, he would have probably scolded the sentry horribly. But similar things had happened to him on many occasions. If a danger should approach he would wake the sentry himself.
The big rat took a deep breath of the breeze that wafted inside. Amazingly, it did not feel that cold at all. And he was surprised that his annoying cough had not shown itself again since he had first tried to get some sleep. If anything, the fresh air seemed to fill the retired Guard with an energy he had not felt in ages. A lungful of clear air surely did wonders for the soul.
He looked at his paw holding the heavy lance. His grip was surer than he would have thought it should be. And he could have sworn that if he removed his weight from the staff he would now be able to stand up without support. Exhilarated by the fresh air he tried. And to his surprise he did not need to lean on the pole at all.
What a good idea it had been to come down here. He had not felt this well in years. The rat looked back at the sentry and decided to wake him. He was now sure that he could afford to go on just a little stroll outside. Maybe just around the base of the oak that formed the shell of the colony. But first he would tell the rat guarding the passage. After all, it was better to let someone know when you were heading out into the dark Valley.
The veteran was so excited he almost ran to the rat on watch. But as quickly as he approached the Guard he abruptly came to a halt. The sentry had been awake the whole time. The uniformed rat was casually staring out into the night. That was not unusual. What caused concern was that he was gazing right past him. The young rodent was awake yet did not see him.
The large rat swallowed hard.
He understood now.
He looked down at himself in wonder.
There was no more frailty, no more pains. His heavy robes were gone. On his body he saw the olive green tunic he had worn when he had himself been a Guard.
The elder took a deep breath even though he did not need to anymore.
It had happened without him noticing, quite amusing in its own way.
How light it felt, how invigorating.
Turning around, his black cloak billowing behind him, he shouldered his lance and walked out into the starlight night of Thorn Valley.
There were old friends and loved ones to say hello to.
His mate was waiting for him.
Together they would return to their work, their duty, their love.
The colony would always be protected.
The dark-furred rat whistled as he strolled down the path.
It felt good to be back on duty.
Yesterday night, the seventh of the first month 48 years after NIMH, Brutus, first and last of the second generation, died peacefully in his sleep. He has kept us safe from dangers and from ourselves. We will miss you, old friend.
Head of the Counsel of the Children of NIMH