Crossed Paths, Crossed Lives

By David Leemhuis

Contents

Chapter 1: Martin Brisby’s Discontent

Deep in the wildest, least explored part of a national forest preserve lies a valley, entirely ringed by mountains, that has rarely, if ever, been seen by humankind. While not completely inaccessible to their capabilities or technology, it is nevertheless remarkably well preserved. In spite of this land’s frequent visits by hikers and backpackers, the area in which this valley lies is actually often avoided; much of the ground is quite rocky, difficult and unpleasant to pass through, with much dense, thorny growth. From these plants, which virtually surround the valley, was its name taken: Thorn Valley. Even planes and helicopters normally don’t pass over it, making its seclusion complete. And yet…though civilization—human civilization—had passed it by, it is nevertheless home to a race of peaceful and intelligent creatures who, over the past two and a half years, have built a civilization all their own—one which has flourished and prospered unbeknownst to humankind. These creatures knew of Thorn Valley’s remoteness when they moved here, knowing that if they were discovered by humankind, the lives of every last one of them would be jeopardized. But here, there was little if any chance of that.

The valley’s floor is rather cigar-shaped, approximately four miles long by two miles wide, and close to one end one would see growing many grain plants such as corn, wheat, barley, buckwheat; but only upon close examination would it become evident that these and others are cultivated crops, cultivated by those selfsame creatures so intent upon avoiding the notice of humankind. The crops are not grown in even, ordered rows, a further step to avoid detection, but randomly; indeed, this is the only outward evidence that this civilization exists. For these creatures are rats, and though much more intelligent than most of their kind, with reasoning power and emotions much closer to humans, they still feel much more at home living underground. Within the valley’s walls, underneath its rock ledges, lie the entrances to a vast labyrinthine series of chambers: home to the Rats of Thorn Valley.

Martin Brisby sat near the top of one of the taller cornstalks, his thoughts ever his own, perched on the innermost part of one of its leaves where it was sturdy enough to support his weight, leaning against the central stalk. This particular stalk had of late become much-favored by him when he felt the need to be alone, to think—a desire that he’d felt much in recent weeks.

Martin’s father was Johnathan Brisby, most certainly the most unique mouse in the world. Several years ago, he’d been given injections, as had the rats, of certain chemical compounds by human research scientists, the unique combination of which had boosted his intellect to human levels and extended his lifespan indefinitely. This had enabled him, another mouse named Cyril Ages and twenty rats—the progenitors of the Thorn Valley colony—to escape and eventually found their first colony. Later, Johnathan had come into possession of a strange jewel, which led him into many strange experiences, both here on Earth and in the extradimensional realm of Lahaikshe from which it had originated. The reasons for this, he eventually discovered, were the results of the efforts of one named Pharsal, who had created the jewel—commonly referred to as simply the Stone—as an instrument to be wielded by two individuals who, he believed, would be the heroes he could never be. It had been two years since that business had been largely settled, though there were still lingering questions pertaining to his unwilling “exile” on Lahaikshe, which had so painfully separated him from his family and friends. But he still retained the Stone, occasionally utilizing its power to help the Thorn Valley community and to visit his home-away-from-home on Lahaikshe, the home of the sorcerer Gwinthrayle; and even to visit yet other extradimensional worlds, in which he and his family had made other friends and acquaintances.

Martin’s mother was named Madeline, and she too was one of a kind. She’d never known a mouse like Johnathan before she’d met him, but she wouldn’t learn until much later why he was so different. His association with the Stone had caused him to leave this very dimension, and his friends and family could only assume that he’d died. In the meantime, Madeline had found herself in dire straits and went to a mysterious group of rats for aid. She learned of Johnathan’s and the Rats of NIMH’s common origins; and quite by accident learned that they were in grave danger if they stayed where they were. Almost in an instant, all their lives were irrevocably altered: the Rats’ leader, Nicodemus, was dead, slain by the dark ambitions of Jenner, a former friend whose disagreements with their leader had been fanned into violent hatred by forces he knew nothing about. Before long, Jenner and a reluctant associate of his named Sullivan were also dead. These three were the only ones to have died since the Escape from the laboratory; and, ironically, not even by human hand, as they’d feared most, or even by rats’ natural predators. But no more need die; the survivors began their already-planned relocation to Thorn Valley, albeit ahead of schedule. And Madeline? When Jenner’s treachery almost caused her children’s deaths, the Stone—the selfsame jewel that had changed her husband’s life—now exercised its power through her as well, saving her children. Months later, she’d learned through it that Johnathan was alive, prompting her and three of the Rats to seek him out in Lahaikshe, a mission that almost resulted in their deaths; but in the end, she’d not only been reunited with the man she loved but learned that they’d have many more years together than they’d believed, apparently solely by virtue of the fact that they were mates. They’d also learned that it was Pharsal’s intent to have two individuals possessed of heroic and unselfish traits to share command of the Stone, which was how she could also wield its power, though since then she’d largely left this to Johnathan.

Johnathan and Cyril Ages (who still largely eschewed his first name) were the only two mice, out of eleven, to have escaped the NIMH laboratory with the original twenty Rats; and collectively, they were often referred to as the Original 22—or less formally, and to the chagrin of some of them, as the OT’s. Because of the two mice’s close and longstanding ties to the Rats, they and their families also lived and worked alongside them in Thorn Valley. There they all continued to prosper as they grew more and more settled and familiar with their new settings and lifestyle. Many of the Rats had put off having more children for the first year or more after moving to Thorn Valley, until things had become more settled. Such was the case with the Rats’ leader Justin and his wife Isabella, who’d begun their family just under two years ago and now had three children. Besides the longer lifespan and increased intelligence, another important genetic change wrought by the injections was a much-slowed birthrate, brought down to a level a little over that of humans, with twins being the norm. Single births were much more common, and litters had never gone above triplets. Any births at all were fewer and further between as well. At the time of the Migration to Thorn Valley, the Rats’ population was around 150; in the two and a half years since, it had more than doubled.

The Brisbys, too, had had additions to their family since their happy reunion two years ago. The older four children were officially adults in the community, though in human terms would still be considered to be in their middle to late adolescence. As with their peers among the Rats, they had longer periods of childhood and adolescence than their ordinary counterparts, who were generally referred to as “naturals”; but once reaching full adulthood, they seemed to age noticeably little, if at all. It was still too early to tell, of course, but it appeared very likely that all the children and grandchildren of the Original 22 inherited in full all the altered characteristics of boosted intelligence, longer lifespan, and overall more robust health.

Perhaps this was one of the matters passing through Martin’s mind now as he stared up at the late afternoon sky; at least, until his reverie was abruptly shattered by a “thunk” sound, accompanied by a sudden vibration which almost toppled him from the stalk. It was followed seconds later by a second “thunk.” Martin secured a tight grip on the central stalk and looked over the edge of the leaf to the ground below.

“Hey…hey! What’s the story here? What do you think you’re doing?”

On the ground, a young rat about Martin’s age, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, interrupted in mid-swing his cutting down with his axe of what he’d thought to be an ordinary, unoccupied cornstalk. He instantly looked up at the sound of the familiar voice.

“Oh, hey, Martin! Didn’t know anyone was up there! Sorry, I didn’t mean to shake you up like that.”

Martin was unimpressed by the apology as he shinnied his way down to the ground and walked straight up to Ira, fuming. He was large for a mouse, weighing a little more than his father; and though he never consciously used his size to intimidate, he wasn’t oblivious to the effect it could have, to rats as well as fellow mice. “Well, why don’t you learn to look first, Ira? You trying to scare the crap out of me, or what?”

“Hey, I said I was sorry, okay? These stalks do have to come down, you know that.”

Martin made to direct more invective toward Ira, but instead he straightened his own straw hat, gave an inarticulate grumble and moved away through the stalks. Ira stared after him perplexed as another rat with an axe approached.

“That was Martin, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” replied Ira. “I wonder what’s eating him.”

“He’s still on the warpath? He about bit my and Horace’s heads off yesterday.”

Ira shrugged. “It’ll all come out sooner or later, whatever his problem is. C’mon, Maury, let’s get back to it.”

As Martin wended his way out of the cornfield and towards the trail that led to his family’s home, he found himself wondering the same thing. What was the reason for this feeling of discontent, of restlessness, that caused him to snap at almost everyone he met lately, even some of his closest friends, almost to the point of alienation? He dismissed the thought. Each time he tried to figure it out, he’d end up facing more questions, something he hadn’t the patience for. Unfortunately, this would invariably succeed in compounding those feelings.

He emerged into a more open area and instantly looked up, scanning the sky from horizon to horizon; an instinctive reaction, but one not nearly as necessary as in past times. He was reminded, as he often had in similar circumstances, of his family’s hike to Thorn Valley two years ago; specifically, when they were attacked by a weasel that might have succeeded in killing one or more of them if not for the timely intervention of their unlikely friend and ally the Great Owl; and then the next day, before their arrival in the valley, when they had to duck for cover when a hawk appeared above them, which probably hadn’t even spotted them when it was chased away by their crow friends Jeremy and Beatrice. The Rats told them how they’d been dealing with the problem of airborne and earthbound predators, beginning with the arrival of the advance crew led by Arthur. On their first day here, in fact, a hawk swooped down upon and pinned one of them, and it was instantly set upon by six stick-wielding rats, in much the same way as when several of them first met the Great Owl, some two years before. The quickly-discouraged raptor was then told to pass the word along: this was the Rats’ territory now and they would let nothing bar their way of making it their permanent home. The message was duly noted, and eventually no birds of prey would venture near the area, knowing that much easier prey could be had elsewhere. Land-based predators were similarly discouraged, though some, like badgers and the occasional bobcat, proved to be more tenacious. The worst such case, thankfully also the last, involved a stubborn weasel who refused to leave them alone until the rats were forced to kill and eat it. It took this incident to convince other mammalian and avian predators that this was an area to be avoided, and now virtually all did so. Snakes were a bit more of a problem, due to their much lower intelligence level; but even they were eventually seen less and less.

The trail took Martin past Lake Nicodemus, including the swimming area, where he and his family and friends had spent many a lazy summer afternoon. Though it was mid-September, there were still many pleasantly warm days left in the season, and even now he could hear the sounds of adults and children alike enjoying a cooling interlude in the cove. He almost considered joining them, then decided against it; somehow it just wasn’t what he wanted right then, even after a workday spent in the fields. He was close enough to see some he recognized, including Tara, one of the swim instructors, watching her charges closely as they swam between the shoreline and the recently-completed offshore diving dock. She was one of those he could call a genuine friend, and some had said it was because they were similar in personality, though they wouldn’t call each other best friends. He started to go over just to say hello, then again changed his mind. He sighed; he still felt the need for solitude right now.

Soon Martin was climbing the gentle slope, the one he’d climbed every day in the last two years, that would take him to the Wall—the steep natural ridge that all but surrounded the whole of Thorn Valley. Set within it was the Brisby home, as was the Rats’ community, a few minutes’ walk to the north. After rounding a grove of sumac, he was within sight of the natural courtyard that lay directly in front. He sighed, smiling to himself. Whatever his mood, the sight of the family home always gave him a feeling of security and contentment, of someplace where he would always feel welcome and secure. In the two years they’d lived here, it was a feeling that had become very strong, perhaps even more than that which their old creekside home gave him, something he wouldn’t have believed back then.

About three feet from the courtyard entrance, he heard sounds of laughter from behind a nearby bush. From around it dashed his younger siblings Shawna and Lyndon, who were the first of the four youngest Brisby children to be born after their parents were reunited. Following on their heels was his twin sister Teresa, who gave a raucous laugh, to which the two youngsters responded with shrieks and more excited laughter. Martin again allowed a small smile at seeing their carefree play.

Shawna saw him first, and both she and Lyndon ran up to greet him with hugs. Then Teresa came forward. She’d become quite a beauty in the past year, and was now almost the mirror image of their mother: the same slim figure, the same delicate facial features including the same blue eyes and petite, upturned nose. She wore a lavender minidress and matching hair ribbon, and their younger siblings wore no clothing at all. A more relaxed attitude toward dress had prevailed lately in the community, especially just this past spring and summer, and especially among the youngest children during their playtime. But it had been a longtime practice among those working the fields as well, especially on the hottest summer days when any clothing at all—except the more utilitarian variety used to carry tools and the like—was quickly deemed impractical. Martin, in fact, today only wore his straw hat as shade, and nothing else. He, as well as his older siblings and parents, often helped out in the fields alongside the rats, usually until an hour or so before sundown. It wasn’t mandatory duty for any of them; though, of course, there were those whose chosen profession was farming. But virtually everyone who was old enough, from the OT’s on down, willingly helped out at least part of the time.

“You’re back a little early,” Teresa said to Martin. “How was your day? Besides hot, that is.”

“Oh, it was okay, Sis. I just had some…other things to take care of.” He rubbed at his elbow, a gesture Teresa was long familiar with.

“C’mon, Martin, join us!” said Lyndon, tugging at his oldest brother’s hand.

“Maybe later, okay?” His manner was amiable enough as he patted Lyndon and Shawna’s heads; but as he started to walk away, both looked up at Teresa, puzzlement and disappointment etched on their faces. Teresa made to call after him, then decided against it.

“What’s wrong with him, Teresa?” asked Shawna. “Why doesn’t he want to play with us?”

“I…guess he just needs to be alone, to think some things over.” She sighed, wishing she could make things clearer to them; but though her explanation was certainly true, she was just as much in the dark as to what was wrong with Martin lately. For a long time, she’d considered him little more than an impulsive pest and loudmouth who always had to be kept from getting into trouble. But they had been closer in recent years, though not to the degree of Timothy and Cynthia, who’d had a strong bond from infancy on. Certainly they had all gotten along better and become much closer since that day two and a half years ago, the one that had changed their lives forever; and more specifically, the incident where their winter cinderblock home was sinking in mud, when the four of them, as well as their babysitter Auntie Shrew, had all come so close to death—a turning point for them all in so many ways, beyond a doubt. But Martin had always been less inclined to discuss his innermost thoughts and feelings, something that had changed little even since their brush with death, and now Teresa couldn’t help but feel concerned about his recent moodiness. She’d never said it aloud to any of her family, not even their mother, but she’d secretly envied Timothy and Cynthia’s closeness; they’d always confided to each other all their thoughts and secrets, anything that was on their minds, and she wished she and Martin could do the same. Since the family’s move to Thorn Valley, and throughout the many subsequent changes in their lives, they’d encouraged and supported each other, both during their formal education with the Rats—only completed this past spring—and since then, as they’d begun their respective careers: his training with the Guard, and hers as an apprentice teacher and soon a fully-fledged one at Thorn Valley School. And yet, somehow, it still wasn’t quite enough.

Teresa brushed these thoughts aside as best she could, and said, “Let’s not worry about him now, okay? Why don’t we pick up where we left off?” Shawna and Lyndon responded positively. “All right, who’s it?”

“He is!” shouted Shawna.

“No, she is!” shouted Lyndon.

“I’ll tell you what…how ’bout if you’re both it? Bye-bye!” Teresa sped away and around the bush, and she was soon happily pursued.

As he was leaving them, Martin was within earshot of Shawna’s questions to Teresa, and now found himself asking them of himself. A spirited game of tag might have done much to lift his spirits; so why didn’t he join in with them? Among the rats and mice of the community, there was a sense of playfulness maintained well into adulthood; he’d frequently seen it for himself, even among the elders, and he was definitely no exception. So it wasn’t a matter of being too old for such games. And yet…somehow just seeing Shawna and Lyndon seemed to add to his discontent. But why should that be? He certainly loved them as much as his other older siblings; he was as excited as they, two years ago, upon learning that there would be future additions to the family, and again last year. He’d joined them in play many times and genuinely enjoyed their company most of the time. So why this feeling now that, somehow, something about their being here wasn’t…quite right?

In the courtyard in front of the Brisby home’s front door was Madeline, wearing a light pale-green dress, styled much like Teresa’s, a look that would further the impression of the two of them as twin sisters rather than mother and daughter; but otherwise looking very much the part of the family matriarch as she sat on a flat stone, smiling as she supervised the play of her two youngest children, Vanessa and Kirk, and their friends Regina and Turlough. They wrestled, leap-frogged and jumped up to and down from the large flat-stopped stone in the center of the courtyard which they’d long ago dubbed the “leaning rock.”

Not a day had passed since their move to Thorn Valley when Madeline didn’t think about how lucky they all were to be so blessed: with such beautiful children and to be able to raise them in such a safe and peaceful environment. She and Johnathan loved children, and these past two years since their reunion had been the happiest time of their lives, largely due to having and raising these newest members of the Brisby clan. The four older children’s help in raising them certainly made things easier as well. Yet, they’d mutually agreed that perhaps eight would be enough, at least for the time being. Now, as to the matter of grandchildren, she thought: while neither she nor Johnathan would think of pushing Teresa or Martin into anything before they were ready, she wouldn’t at all mind if Teresa and Eric decided to get more serious. They had been friends since the family’s first visit here and had lately become noticeably closer to each other, and her family all liked him as well.

Before she could think further on the subject, her attention was captured by the one entering the courtyard. His entrance was noticed by the little ones as well, and they all immediately abandoned their games to greet Martin, shouting his name eagerly. His mother could see that something was once again troubling him, even though he greeted his youngest siblings and their playmates as amiably as he did Lyndon and Shawna. She got to her feet and approached Martin, smiling radiantly; clearly, she thought, he could use a hug.

“How was your day, dear?” she asked her eldest son as he gently brushed Vanessa and Kirk from him.

“Oh, it was okay, Mom.” He accepted her embrace, something he never refused under any circumstances. “I’ll be in my room for a while.” He smiled faintly—a sight that everyone in his family had lately become familiar with—and headed for the front door.

Madeline shook her head as Martin entered the house. The children had resumed their games undaunted, but she couldn’t keep from feeling some dismay. How much longer will this go on? she wondered. Every night, as she and Johnathan prepared for sleep, they would lie awake for a time, discussing the day’s events and those that lay ahead; and of late this moodiness of Martin’s had become the main topic. They both wished fervently that it was just a phase, something he’d get over on his own; and they’d tried, many times, using all the diplomatic skills at their disposal, to get him to share what was troubling him, all to little or no avail. It was suggested that taking more of a hard line with him was a possible way to break through, but both admitted that neither of them was much good at “playing the heavy”; and this was something he would almost certainly not respond well to. This was all unexplored territory to them, and they gladly accepted advice, unsolicited or not, from the elder Rats who had already raised sons and daughters to adulthood. The possibility of depression had been brought forth; some of the rats had experienced bouts of it, as had Johnathan, especially when he’d been under stress over the (since-disproven) aging difference between him and Madeline, and during the period of his “exile.” In none of these cases, though, did it seem to be chronic, and it was never so bad as to cause anyone to withdraw from everyone and everything. In some cases it seemed to be seasonal in nature.

Both of his parents, though, had admitted feeling that whatever it was that troubled Martin was something unique, something the Rats hadn’t dealt with in their children. It was no more than a hunch, really, and nothing they could put a finger on. Both wished that the empathy they’d shared since their reunion extended to others as well as to each other; but in discussing the point, they admitted it was probably just as well that it didn't. Martin would no doubt find such a thing intrusive, and possibly his siblings would as well. The shyness theory had been put forth as well: there had always been a certain amount of it in his mother, and with it an often-inherited trait, this could be how it manifested itself in him. Both agreed that that could provide at least part of the answer, but it wasn’t the whole picture; he, and all his siblings had no difficulty making friends here, both among the Rats and the local naturals; and likewise, their mother had largely overcome such tendencies in herself.

Now, returning her attention to the youngsters in her care, Madeline thought about how fortunate it was that they didn’t need to be concerned with such matters. Even as she allowed a chuckle as she watched Kirk and Turlough tumble all over each other in their impromptu wrestling match, she decided that she and Johnathan would definitely be discussing the point in greater depth upon his return from the Rats’ colony, where he’d been spending a good half of the day. She was sure he’d agree that an after-dinner family conference would definitely be in order tonight, with Martin as its principal subject.

Said subject of all this controversy, meanwhile, lay in bed, absently scanning the ceiling of the room he shared with Timothy. Foremost on his mind was the matter of why just seeing his youngest siblings would evoke the feeling that they were part of this larger problem. This time, he made a greater effort to analyze the matter…and something occurred to him. It wasn’t like a bolt from the blue, but he realized its possible significance. As mice, their kind was so few in number in Thorn Valley, whereas there were so many more of their rat counterparts. Could this be related to this present mood of his? The more he mulled over the point, the more it seemed to make sense. For the first time in days he felt close to a possible solution, perhaps even a major turning point. He even felt relaxed enough to drift off for a short nap, interrupted when Timothy quietly informed him that they’d be getting ready to go to dinner soon.

After dressing for dinner in a light blue tunic, he came out to the living room where everyone else was waiting already. Johnathan, dressed in a vest styled after the ones he’d brought home from Lahaikshe, greeted his eldest son with a quick hug; again, something Martin never refused, though, as with his mother, he didn’t have much to say, at least not now.

Johnathan refrained from asking how his day was, which surprised Martin but didn’t displease him, and instead simply asked if he was ready, after which all ten of them left together. What Martin didn’t know, though, was that, while he was still napping, Johnathan had taken Teresa, Cynthia and Timothy aside and told them of their plans to hold a post-dinner family meeting in which they hoped to get to the bottom of Martin’s recent behavior. They had also agreed that if, at any time during the proceedings, he tried to bolt from the room, everyone would jump him and physically hold him down. He and Madeline both agreed that this would be best, and they were determined that, if nothing else, Martin would listen to what they had to say to him. His siblings agreed to the plan, though they hoped such drastic measures wouldn’t be necessary; Martin, after all, slightly exceeded his father in size and weight these days, so even if it were three against one, it wouldn’t be easy to pin him down.

Most days, the Brisby family took their meals at the Rats’ communal dining hall, though once or twice a week they’d have a private informal dinner at home. Tonight, though, the main entrée was crayfish stew, always a popular if rare treat, and they didn’t want to miss that. Everyone, including Martin, looked forward to it. And so they soon had taken their seats, with trays fully laden, at their regular specially-sized table. As always, conversation was all over the map, everyone finding something interesting to relate that happened to him or her at work or in class; and, as always, the parents beamed with pride at how well all their children were coming along in all their endeavors.

Cynthia was now apprenticed to Mr. Ages, learning how to prepare, mix and brew all the pharmacological remedies that had always been an enormous boon to his fellow creatures, the Rats and Mice of NIMH and naturals alike. It was a subject she’d taken to very naturally, after an admittedly slow start; and now, nearly every day, Ages would remark to one or both of her parents about her work. Though his delivery of such remarks was low-key, they knew him well enough to tell that he was very pleased and impressed with Cynthia’s work and that she had met and exceeded his expectations.

Timothy had, unsurprisingly, excelled in every subject of his studies and had completed them ahead of the others, even his older sibs. Now, though, he was as yet undecided on any single career, and for the time being was keeping busy with a variety of occupations, from administrative aide to farmworker to medical assistant to babysitter to helping out in any of the workshops. He felt no great need to settle on any one career yet, and no one, including his parents, was pressuring him. All, including Timothy, felt that there’d be plenty of time to make such decisions, and that eventually one career path would become clear to him.

Teresa described a lively discussion about antonyms in Angeline’s English class, in which Shawna and Lyndon were pupils. She was clearly loving her job and looking forward to the increased responsibility she expected to have in the near future.

And Martin? Though he was clearly enjoying his meal, he added little to the conversation, offering little insight as to why, two days ago, he’d wanted to take some time off from Guard training to work almost exclusively in the fields. Brutus, the Captain of the Guard, wasn’t happy about it; but there were no hard and fast rules about such a thing—though some suggested that, perhaps, there should be some—so he agreed to it. After all, one had no business being in the Guard if one isn’t truly dedicated to protecting the community. As with Timothy, no one was pressuring him; if Martin needed more time to decide if he truly was ready to commit to such a calling, or pursue another one, then so be it.

His youngest siblings seemed to make a point of avoiding engaging him in conversation directly, and could be seen glancing up at him cautiously. But it didn’t stop them from enthusiastically telling their parents and other siblings about their own day, both what they’d learned in class and after-school escapades.

It wasn’t until meal’s end that the parents announced that, as soon as they’d returned home, there would be a family conference. These would be called usually no more than once a week, and everyone, including the youngsters, would attend, whenever there was a matter which, the parents agreed, greatly concerned or would affect the entire family. The subject would generally be of a more serious, “heavier” variety, something the parents deemed worthy of more than just light dinnertime patter; and this time, as always, Johnathan reminded everyone to hold off any speculation as to this evening’s subject until after they were all home. Martin, of course, was as yet unaware that the older siblings were already aware of the meeting in advance; and if he suspected that he was destined to be its main topic, he gave no outward sign, apparently willing to just “follow the crowd.”

And so, a few minutes later, Johnathan and Madeline Brisby looked around at their eight children, all sitting, lounging or sprawling in an informal circle in front of them on their living room floor as they sat on the sofa. Everyone looked very attentive, waiting for the parents to begin describing the reason for the meeting. Martin, meanwhile, just sat silently, arms folded, seemingly just as interested as the others in hearing what would follow.

“Thank you all for coming,” began Johnathan. He always began with this bit of humorous irony, which would get a laugh or two—usually. “Now…to get right to the point: it’s come to our attention recently that one of us…seems to have a problem that he seems unwilling or unable to talk about with his family.” Almost immediately, all eyes in the room were on Martin, who was starting to squirm in his chair ever so slightly. No longer beating around the bush, Johnathan continued: “Now, Martin…we’ve all heard from some of the Rats, or have seen firsthand, how irritable you’ve been lately; even downright rude, to be honest. After the council meeting today, Justin took me aside, and discussed some things with me privately; and he described one particularly ugly scene in the fields yesterday, involving you.”

Madeline continued, “We’ve always encouraged all of you to talk to us about whatever is bothering you, anything at all that is on your minds. I guess if it’s not so easy to do so, it would just be your nature. But, Martin…sweetheart…you’ve got to try, for yourself…for all of us.”

Martin’s brothers and sisters offered their encouragement. “You can tell us, Martin,” said Cynthia. “That’s right, no one’s out to put you down or anything,” added Teresa. “Yeah, how come you’ve been such a pain lately?” asked Lyndon.

“Lyndon!” admonished his mother.

“Tact, kiddo,” reminded his father. “Remember what I told you about tact?” Lyndon looked apologetic. “Now, Martin…as Teresa said, we’re not out to put you down, or judge you or anything like that. But we do have to get to the bottom of this. This shouldn’t go on much longer, not like it has been; I know you know that as well as we do.”

Martin, the whole time, had continued to listen silently to all that had been said, expression hardly changing. Johnathan was actually surprised that Martin had shown such patience and tolerance thus far, especially what with being put on the spot as he was now. Recalling the agreement he’d made with the older children earlier about keeping Martin from any attempt to flee the meeting, it now seemed that such a tactic would indeed be unnecessary, as they’d hoped. Martin not only had no obvious intentions of looking for any means of escape, but actually looked ready to speak.

The next voice, however, was Timothy’s. “I’ve had this idea…that maybe what’s bothering Martin has something to do with the fact that we, along with Mr. Ages’s family, are the only mice in Thorn Valley, or for that matter, in the entire world, that are the way we are. We’ve all seen other mice, some of them friends of ours like Eric and Sarah, grow older much faster than ourselves. I think most of us have accepted that pretty well. I know I have; it doesn’t bother me at all. But maybe Martin just has more trouble dealing with it.” He looked over to his brother, who stared slack-jawed back at him and finally broke his silence.

“Why, that’s the biggest crock I’ve ever heard! Just what do you…” He suddenly fell silent, remembering where he was, and looked down as if in thought. Everyone else was silent, too, evaluating Timothy’s words. Johnathan rubbed at his whiskers, smiling slightly and nodding as he realized what perfect sense it made.

Martin looked up, sighing. “Oh, pbfhhht…he’s right. I was thinking about it earlier, and I came to the same conclusion. I don’t really know why, but…” He looked over to Timothy, unable to completely suppress a glare. “You know, you don’t have to be right all the time!”

Timothy just maintained his usual modest manner, taking his brother’s hostile-sounding barb in stride, knowing that Martin just didn’t like being shown up like this; then, too, he realized that it probably would have been better if he’d let Martin speak first. So he told Martin this and apologized for it.

“Oh, that’s okay, Tim,” he said, his tone much more conciliatory. “I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Martin patted his brother’s shoulder and stood, looking at his parents. “Look, I’ve been a jerk lately and I’m sorry. I just…need to think about this a bit more alone, okay?”

His parents weren’t expecting this session to wrap up quite so soon, but they decided there was little point in continuing it now. “Well…I guess this’ll do it for the night,” said Johnathan. “Take all the time you need, son; and remember, if you feel the need to discuss it further with us, don’t hesitate.” He and Madeline rose from the sofa.

Madeline came forward, embracing Martin. “Just remember we all love you, and whatever you decide, we’ll be behind you.”

Martin nodded and smiled. “Thanks, Mom…Dad. I’ll be going to my room now.” He turned and walked toward the arch that opened into the hallway, then stopped briefly. “It’s okay if Tim comes in, I don’t care.”

As he lay on his back in the dark, Martin thought about all that had happened in the last few hours. He felt some satisfaction over realizing the source of his discontent, but it was small. It still didn’t explain why it was that only he seemed to feel this way. It was still too early to tell with his youngest siblings, but Timothy, Cynthia and Teresa indeed seemed to adjust quite well to their family’s uniqueness; so why couldn’t he? Knowing the source didn’t lessen the feeling very much; in fact, the more he thought about it, the more he felt he had to take some sort of action, somehow, someway.

As he continued mulling things over, he realized why it was that he’d never had any lasting and close friendships with any of the local mice—naturals, as they called all animals that didn’t have the NIMH-altered genes. All of his closest friends were among the Rats. It wasn’t uncommon, though, for his family to get on quite well with other natural mice, going back to their time at the creekside home and the Fitzgibbons farm, most notably Kory and Janice and their children. Many, though, upon meeting any of the Brisbys for the first time, sensed that they weren’t like other mice and so tended to shy away from them. The Rats, during their Wandering Days following their escape from NIMH, had had much the same experience with fellow rats. There were always exceptions, of course, such as their old creekside neighbors; but even they, in retrospect, didn’t become especially close friends, spending their shared time mostly in playing games but not really confiding in each other or talking in any real depth.

The situation had been much the same since moving to Thorn Valley: most mice would steer clear of them, but some were more receptive to their company; and none more so than siblings Eric and Sarah, whom the Brisby children met on their first visit here two summers ago. Sarah, in fact, had taken a shine to Martin on their first meeting, but it was Eric who had ended up becoming greater friends with them, especially with Teresa. The two had been spending quite some time together lately; and though he’d been made aware of their aging difference, it seemed to matter little to him. It was a different story with Sarah: on the day they were first told of the difference, over dinner last year, she showed visible uneasiness and left them abruptly, after which they saw little of her over the next few days. The next time she talked to any of the Brisbys, she told them that she’d thought about the matter and that she was sorry for avoiding them. Her moodiness had reminded them of their old neighbor Janice’s actions just before they’d moved here, which seemed to have been in reaction to the news of the move. Whatever the reason, they continued to see little of her; and all they’d learned from Eric was that she and their mother, Audrey, decided to move further away to the south. It was unclear why; Audrey hadn’t forbid them to associate with the “different” mice, and had been polite to the Brisbys, if not overly receptive, when she’d met them. But, it was agreed, it was their choice, and the Brisbys respected that. Martin had found, though, that he’d missed Sarah…at least a little. He now wondered if that had contributed to his present mood. Since then, Eric had moved to a new home closer to the Brisbys’, and had spent a greater amount of time with them, especially this past summer, becoming almost one of the family.

Martin’s thoughts turned to more recent events, soon taking him back to an occasion several weeks back, and a conversation with one particular rat friend, easily his closest one.

This time, it was like a bolt from the blue. He suddenly sat bolt upright, thoughts racing; then he literally leaped out of bed and dashed for the doorway arch. Out in the hall, Timothy was heading for the room to get a few things when suddenly the door flew open and Martin came barreling out. Timothy was almost certainly fully grown by now, though he was smaller than his brother, and slighter of build; and though he was pretty quick and agile, Martin’s appearance was so surprisingly sudden for both of them that he almost knocked Timothy on his side.

“Hey, Martin, where’s the fire? What’s going on here?”

Martin had to fumble for a reply that wouldn’t reflect his sudden bout of enthusiasm too much. “Uhbm, err…Just going out for a walk, for a bit. I-I’ll be back in an hour or so.” He continued on toward the front door. Hearing the voices of his parents and some of the other children outside, he prepared a similar answer for them.

Just outside, Johnathan and Madeline were in the midst of their almost-nightly routine. They were perched on the natural rock ledge above the front door, watching the onset of twilight while overseeing their children and their friends in the courtyard. Towards the front sat Teresa and Eric, just talking quietly, seemingly oblivious to the games being played by her younger siblings and their friends, even when the decibel level was raised. Cynthia was absent, currently off with friends. Johnathan nudged Madeline when Martin passed through the doorway beneath them.

“We’re glad you could join us, Martin,” Madeline said.

“Yeah…actually, I’m going off to see Lambert for a bit.” He rubbed at his elbow and hoped he didn’t appear too impatient.

“All right. Be careful. Don’t be too late.”

“I will, Mom. Don’t bother waiting up for me.” He smiled and turned, dodging past the youngsters taking turns leaping up and down from the leaning rock, briefly nodding at Teresa and Eric as he left the courtyard.

“Maddie!” said Johnathan with a laugh. “He’s a big boy now. And training with the Guard, lest we forget.”

“I know,” Madeline replied. “I guess what I really meant was for him to be careful in a more general way.” She sighed. “I’m not really worried…well, not too much, but still…with his being the way he’s been lately, what might he do?”

Johnathan nodded. “I know what you mean. He’s always been a bit of a daredevil, getting himself into things without always thinking of the consequences.”

“Mm-hm. I can’t imagine who he might have gotten that from.” She nudged him playfully.

Johnathan grinned. And from whom, he might add, might she have picked up more of this sense of humor in the last couple of years—besides himself? “Touché,” he said with a laugh, pulling his wife closer to him and kissing her cheek. “You shouldn’t worry, though. Martin’s got a good head on his shoulders. I can’t see him doing anything too foolish.”

Chapter 2: Planning a little excursion

Martin made his way along resolutely in the steadily-darkening twilight, thoughts not straying far from the reason for his abrupt departure. For a moment, he felt a slight twinge of guilt; for this plan he was formulating, he already realized, would involve a bit of deception and would surely mean not being entirely truthful to his family. He brushed it aside; after all, he was entirely truthful back there about where he was going right now. As for the rest, it was only, for now, just an idea. For the remainder of the short hike back to the Rat community he resolved to concentrate on his own safety, though any real danger was minimal.

Martin and his family were, of course, always welcome in the Rat community at any time of day or night, and so he was greeted courteously by all he saw upon his approach. He knew many were aware of his recent reputation, so he resolved to be equally courteous. Willis was the sentry on duty at the main entrance, and after the two had chatted briefly Martin moved along.

Upon entering the main foyer, Martin took a moment to look all around with admiration at the spacious chamber. No matter what was going on in his life, and even with all that was on his mind now, he never let himself grow completely jaded to all the Rats had built here. In the two years since his family had first visited, the community had changed and expanded to fit the growing needs of the steadily growing population, with new construction and excavation going on seemingly constantly for new living quarters and other facilities.

By the time he’d climbed the ramps that brought him to the third level, though, only one thing was on Martin’s mind as he made his way through what would seem, to the novice eye, to be a confusing maze of corridors, but which was really very tightly planned and organized rat architecture. His destination was one particular apartment in one section where living quarters were clustered. Soon he reached it and was knocking upon its door.

The door opened a crack, and the rat behind it took a couple seconds before looking down. “Oh, uh, Martin. Didn’t expect you to be here this time of day.” There was an unmistakable tone in his voice that showed he knew well of Martin’s recent reputation.

Martin noticed this and was quick to put him at ease. “Don’t worry, Tremaine, I’m not biting anyone’s heads off today. I just need to talk to Lambert. Is he in?”

“Sure, I’ll get him.” Tremaine turned back into the apartment the two brothers shared; and soon another rat—very similar in appearance, with uniformly medium-grey fur—took his place.

“Hey, Marty! What brings you here?”

Martin motioned for Lambert to bend down. After Lambert crouched, Martin said quietly, “Can we go someplace a bit more private?”

“I guess so; but why the big blanket of secrecy?”

“You’ll see. C’mon, let’s get going.”

Lambert, now made quite curious by the his friend’s unusually urgent tone, ducked back through the door and told Tremaine that he’d be back in a short while. After returning and closing the door behind him, Lambert said, “Would the library be okay?”

“Sure. In fact, it’d be perfect. Let’s go.”

Lambert’s parents were OT’s Graham, who oversaw the glassmaking plant, and Simone, the principal of Thorn Valley School (and Teresa’s boss). He and Tremaine were respectively their third and fourth sons; their older sons were Lol and Vernon, and younger son Alvin; their oldest daughter was Zora, and her sisters were Mary Louise (Lambert’s twin), Ophelia and Colleen (Tremaine’s litter-mates) and Jenine, who, with Alvin, was born after the Migration. Lambert was around Martin’s age, and the two had become fast friends since their first meeting two years past.

In short order the pair had reached their destination, one they and everyone here knew well, and let themselves in.

“Lambert! And Martin! How are you this evening, my young friends?”

“Fine, Tallus,” replied Lambert. “We need a little privacy for a while.”

“Of course! Of course! And take all the time that you need.”

Tallus was another of the OT’s, and was the community’s head librarian and archivist. Gifted with a remarkably photographic memory, he had a passion for the amassing of recorded knowledge. The great majority of the books, charts, maps and other documented information in the library had been transcribed in exacting and meticulous detail from his own memory; much of it from the days when the OT’s had spent that winter, not long after the Escape, in a human house whose owners were away, reading the many books there and practicing writing. There, Tallus could exercise the full range of his newfound talents. He even found he could transcribe onto paper writings on two different subjects simultaneously; and yes, he found that he was ambidextrous, too. There was also full comprehension of all that he’d read; there seemed to be no subject that he wasn’t expert in, though of course hands-on experience wasn’t always possible. It all served him in good stead after the first colony was established at the Fitzgibbons Rosebush; especially when the Thorn Valley Plan was on the drawing board, he being one of its major architects. It seemed incredible to some that he’d found time for a family, but he and Angeline, the senior teacher at Thorn Valley School, had been happily married since before the Rosebush and had raised many children.

The library had a look of perpetual clutter, as if it were in a constant state of reorganization— which was true for the most part; having, in truth, been so since Martin’s first visit here. Yet, Tallus had all along claimed that he knew exactly where to find any given item. Martin and his siblings had spent many hours here in the past two years; Timothy had initially been the one most eager to immerse himself in the Rats’ store of recorded knowledge, but his siblings quickly realized how their own thirst for knowledge was at least equal to his. Their enthusiasm was quick to rub off on their mother as well; Madeline had found it necessary to spend only a few weeks’ worth of remedial reading classes before she found herself devouring seemingly everything in the library’s stacks. There were days when she practically lived here and would tear herself away only when reminded that she could check out books and take them home. Even when pregnant, she would make it her second home; though since having more little ones to care for, her time spent here had tapered off some, especially after the incident where she’d gone into labor here while carrying Vanessa and Kirk, an incident they’d all recounted with a great amount of humor.

At this time of day the place was lit by strategically-placed oil lamps; and it was in one not-as-well lit corner that Martin and Lambert settled down to discuss Martin’s so-urgent business.

“Okay, Marty, talk turkey,” said Lambert as they made themselves comfortable on the floor, facing each other.

Intent upon getting right to the point, Martin began: “Do you remember this one conversation we had a few weeks ago, while we were harvesting the late carrots?”

“While…hmm…the carrots…Oh, you mean when we were talking about NIMH, and how some of us might want to leave Thorn Valley someday?”

Martin nodded. “You got it.” The two began retracing the main points of the conversation. They’d commented on the stories of the NIMH experiments in which the OT’s had received the treatments that had made all of them into what they are now, an integral part of their people’s history taught in class these days; and how curious it had made some of their children and grandchildren, to the point where they expressed a desire to actually see the place for themselves someday. This led to the question of whether any of them would be allowed to leave Thorn Valley to strike out on their own if they so desired. No individual rats had seriously entertained the notion as yet; it was still in the “what-if/maybe/someday” category of discussion. Everyone still was very content, or seemed to be, to continue living as they were, where they were. But if anyone did want to leave, could he or she rightfully be restricted from doing so? This had already been, and continued to be, a subject that warranted much discussion, having been brought up in several council meetings, where it had often been the main topic; certainly it was a matter not to be taken lightly.

“So…” began Lambert, “what is this leading to? What exactly do you have in mind?”

Again not wanting to beat around the bush, Martin replied, “I’ve been thinking of doing just that thing. To see this place where my dad, Mr. Ages, and the OT’s all escaped from. And…I’m asking you if you’d be willing to come with me.”

Lambert stared. “Whoa…you can’t be serious…can you?”

“Do I look like I’m joking? C’mon, what do you say? Are you in or not?”

“Even if you are serious…you can’t expect me to just say yes, just like that. Sure, I admit I’m as curious as the next fellow to see NIMH, but…how would we get there? We don’t know what we’d run into along the way, what sort of dangers. And in any case: come on, man, this is NIMH we’re talking about! And why are you all of a sudden so obsessed with this?”

Martin realized that he indeed should have explained himself further before blurting out the question as he did. “You’re right. Okay…maybe I am obsessed. Maybe I’m even crazy. But you know how I’ve been lately. I was just…discussing that, the way I’ve been, with my folks, and they...we agreed that it was because we’re the only mice that are like we are, and I’ve just had more trouble adjusting to that.”

Lambert nodded silently, realizing that it made sense, and decided, for the time being, to continue humoring him.

“I don’t know,” continued Martin. “I can’t say how I hit upon the idea that…making this trip would put all that to rest, settle those feelings for me. But I can’t deny it, I can’t shut it away. Just seeing the NIMH building will settle all that; I just know it will.”

“Did you discuss this part with your folks, too?”

“No, and I don’t intend to either.”

“You mean…you’re going to just up and take off without telling them?”

“No, no, it’s not like I wouldn’t tell them anything. I’d say that I’m just taking a little hike in the area just outside the valley for a few days; like, just to get my head together. They’ve agreed to that sort of thing before, lots of times.” Such excursions were quite common, but were generally limited in the territory covered, mainly to little more than a mile outside the valley.

“Well…why wouldn’t they allow you to make a longer trip like this, then?”

Martin looked disbelievingly at Lambert; then he realized his friend was pulling his leg, and gave him a push on the arm. After all, such a trip would not, by any means, be approved by the council, let alone his parents—or anyone’s parents—and they both knew this very well; at least, not one in which he openly declared his intention to see the NIMH lab.

Lambert allowed a chuckle, then said: “Okay, then: if you’re serious about this, how would you get permission? What would you tell them? Because there’s no way they’d agree if you just said, ‘Well, I’ve got me a hankering to see NIMH, don’t wait up for me.’”

Martin was taken aback for a moment, not yet prepared to admit that he hadn’t allowed much time to think this through all the way yet. “Okay…so this isn’t just a longer trip than usual I’m planning here. This is, after all, the place that made us all what we are today; but it’s also the place that no one wants anything to do with again.” He paused, giving a small laugh. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? On one hand we talk about NIMH almost reverently, and on the other we’re scared silly of being caught and sent back there. Sure, maybe we’re not so worried about that these days, but it’s been in the back of everyone’s mind.”

Lambert couldn’t help being impressed that Martin had thought so much on matters like these; hardly ever had he heard such strong opinions from him.

“As for it being dangerous…I’ll bet one or two could slip in or out easily enough without being noticed or caught.” Martin paused again to allow Lambert time to consider the point. “Come on…where’s your sense of adventure?”

Finally Lambert said, “Your parents have always struck me as being pretty easygoing on a lot of things. Are you sure you wouldn’t be able to level with them completely, and then they wouldn’t tell anyone else?”

“No way,” said Martin decisively. “Not in a million years, believe me. You don’t know them like I do.”

“And no one else would approve of it; that’s a given, if anything is.”

Martin’s expression brightened. “Then you will come along?”

“Not so fast. You still haven’t said a word on how you expect to get there. I know the OT’s all made the trip from the city to the Fitzgibbons farm on foot, but that was over a year-plus period. You don’t expect this to take that long, do you? And you do plan on coming back?” Lambert had an absurd thought and chuckled. “Maybe you could ask your dad to use the Stone to get you there.”

Lambert’s mention of the Stone, though made in jest, gave Martin pause; but only for a second, his look of confidence unchanged. He was prepared for just such a line of questioning, and so replied, “Oh, I’ve considered how to get there. C’mon, let me show you something.” He got to his feet and started to leave the dimly-lit corner, motioning for his friend to follow. Martin led Lambert to a section of the library where many loose charts and documents were stored. Martin immediately began ruffling through them.

“What are you looking for? An alibi?”

Apparently ignoring the remark, Martin answered, “I don’t see it here; Tallus must have reorganized this section since I last saw it.”

“Saw what?”

“A map.” Martin continued shuffling through some more papers. Lambert saw no need to ask which map. Martin, looking slightly annoyed, ceased his rummaging and went to look for Tallus, soon finding him at his desk. After asking where the maps were located, while deliberately avoiding asking for a specific one, Martin was directed to the right area. Once there, Martin wasted no time, telling Lambert to look for the one showing Thorn Valley and the surrounding environs, and they both began digging for it. After two minutes, Martin announced he’d found it, and he immediately dropped to the floor and spread it out. As soon as Lambert joined him, Martin began pointing out details on it.

“Okay…here we are in Thorn Valley; here’s the Great Owl’s woods; the creek where our old summer home was; there’s the Fitzgibbons farm, and the closest town, Pine Ridge; now, over this way, west of here, is the Greenlee River. But this right here: this is the key. This is what’ll make getting there so much easier and faster.”

“What, this road here?”

“Not just any road. That’s a federal highway. Cars and trucks can travel much faster on them than on most roads, and nonstop too. And this one leads directly to Sampson, where the NIMH lab was located.”

“Okay, but what’s all that got to do with us? Unless we…” Lambert looked up to see the determined smile on Martin’s face.

“Hitch a ride. You got it.”

Lambert’s jaw dropped and eyes widened. “Are you…are you nuts? Why, that’s riskier than anything you’ve already suggested! We’d be discovered for sure!”

“Shhh! Keep it down, willya? Now…how do you know how risky it’d be? Have you ever tried it?”

“Of course not, but…”

“But what? Look, we’ll just be more careful. You and I have learned a thing or two about stealth, I’ve had Guard training, and both of us have taken self-defense classes. Sure, this’ll mean being around humans more, but we shouldn’t have much trouble keeping out of sight. We’ll just wait for the right vehicle to stop alongside the road, and that’ll be our ticket in.”

“Well…how do you know which vehicle would be going to Sampson? Any one of them could be headed anyplace but. And last I checked, you’re no mind-reader.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?” Martin again asked.

And again, Lambert didn’t answer it directly. “Just how well have you thought this out? ’Cause I’m starting to wonder if you ever did.”

Martin looked annoyed. “You sound just like my sister.”

“Well, maybe she’s right when she says that you throw yourself into situations without considering the consequences.” Having known and attended classes with both Martin and Teresa since their first visit to Thorn Valley, he knew whereof he spoke.

Attempting to sidestep the issue, Martin again asked, “Are you with me on this, or not?”

Lambert sighed and thought for a moment. “As usual, there’s no trying to change your mind, is there?” Martin just sat with arms folded, waiting for a definite yes or no. “I just know I’m going to regret this.” Lambert looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head slowly.

A broad smile crossed Martin’s face. “You’ll do it, then? Really? No bull?”

“Someone’s got to keep you out of trouble; and, well…I’ve never seen a highway…”

“So…yes or no?”

Lambert breathed in deep. “Yes.”

Martin had to restrain himself from shouting out “Yeahhh!” and instead just got up, avoiding tramping on the map, and gave Lambert a quick sideways hug. “This is gonna be great, I just know it. And you won’t regret this.” They returned attentions to the map, particularly to the area that lay between Thorn Valley and the highway.

After a while, Tallus approached them; and for a moment, Martin half-wondered if he may have overheard some of their talk and would confront them on it. But instead Tallus only told them he was going to bed, and they could extinguish the remaining lamps when they were through. Soon after, their planning was finished; and with the prospects of a very interesting day to come, the two friends parted for the night.

Soon, Martin was making his way home, surprised at how late it had become. It was now close to midnight, so he kept his guard up to the maximum. Though predators were rare in these parts, there was still no unconditional guarantee against them. At this moment, he realized just how much more on their guard he and Lambert would have to be on the outside; for the further away from Thorn Valley they’d get, the lower the margin of safety. But he still had no intention of backing down; not even if his parents were to get wind of their real plans, and…

A new thought occurred to him; and with it, the realization that he’d have one more important task to perform tomorrow before this trip could get underway—one that Lambert had unknowingly brought up, after a fashion. He thought about it the rest of the way home, and considered: maybe it could be done now, while everyone was asleep? No, he decided, too risky; it would be best left for tomorrow, after everyone else was out of the house. It now occurred to him that, since it was so late, he could have stayed and bunked with Lambert overnight; he and his sibs had often had sleepovers with their Rat friends, and their parents were always amenable to it. He’d become so caught up in his plans that neither he nor Lambert had even suggested it.

Half-expecting someone to be waiting up, he was relieved to find no one sitting out in the courtyard; or in the living room, after he crept his way inside. Then he caught himself: he’d have nothing to justify, or explain any further, other than that he just simply lost track of time. Sure.

As he tiptoed down the short corridor, he stopped by the parents’ bedroom door, again reminded of his plan; then he moved on to the bedroom he shared with Timothy, continuing to be as quiet as possible; even so, his brother awoke and noticed Martin just as he was climbing into his bed.

“’Bout time you ga’ back,” Timothy said sleepily. He snorted. “What time’s it, an’way?”

“Don’t worry about it, squirt,” replied Martin. “G’night.”

Timothy just yawned and turned on his side, going back to sleep almost immediately.

Chapter 3: Into the Great Beyond

The following morning, as the Brisby family was preparing to go to breakfast, Martin told everyone of his and Lambert’s plans: that the two of them were planning a hike of the area surrounding Thorn Valley, over a period they estimated at about four or five days, possibly more. Naturally there was some concern over their safety; but Martin was quick to point out—perhaps unnecessarily—not only his Guard training, but also that both he and Lambert had made many such trips in the past, albeit shorter ones, and had been trained well for such undertakings, learning every trick in the book when it came to eluding and avoiding dangerous situations. Though they still had reservations, both Johnathan and Madeline had to agree that they couldn’t rightly forbid him from going. Martin was, after all, officially an adult member of the community, and certainly much more responsible these days; and, as parents, they were never really overprotective of their children. And finally, all had to agree that this should do much to lift him out of the mood he’d been in.

All this they discussed on the way to and during breakfast; and while there, all final details were also taken care of, most notably approval by the council, as was required for all such trips this far outside the environs of the colony, both inside and outside of Thorn Valley. Lambert met them there, and he told them that his parents were already on board; and, in short order, he, Johnathan and Martin had made the rounds of the entire dining hall, informing all the other councilmembers of their plans. In equally short order, the trip was approved; and after Martin and Lambert agreed on a pre-departure meeting place, Lambert left to get packed. One more agreement was made: the family would return home and gather to see Martin off, but it would be nothing elaborate. Though it wasn’t spoken aloud, the parents knew that such a sendoff wouldn’t be much of a help to Martin, given his recent moodiness.

Back home, Martin lost no time, going straight to his and Timothy’s room to pack. There was no need to take much along; food would certainly be plentiful along the way, and both of them had committed to memory as many details of the route as they could, so there was no need to bring a copy of the map. Martin’s exceptional sense of direction and tracking ability would be a tremendous asset, to say the least. This was something that wasn’t always taken seriously by his family, especially since, in his younger years, it sounded like so much bragging. But once he’d had the opportunity to put this talent to the test, especially during Guard training, no one doubted it. So his family was confident that, if he and Lambert otherwise stayed safe from danger, getting lost or being unable to find their way home wouldn’t be an issue.

So it was mostly medicinal and first-aid supplies that he packed in the small satchel that he’d carry on his back, along with a little food, mostly treats like raisins and other dried fruits and nuts. He and Lambert wouldn’t even be going with “the clothes on their backs,” because they agreed to go without them on this trip, in part because of the mild weather and for the ease of movement, with all the traveling they expected to do; but also—unbeknownst to anyone else—to further ensure not attracting any possible human attention. There was no real objection from their families or anyone else, since it would be away from the community; and while there were no rules set in stone where clothing is concerned, especially since moving to Thorn Valley, this was something that would be generally frowned upon in the colony’s corridors.

Okay, Martin thought as he packed, two more bits of business to take care of. Soon he’d meet with Lambert at their rendezvous point to iron out last-minute details. As for the second bit: if everyone’s out of the house at the right time like they should be, then there would be no problem carrying it out, and they’ll be able to get this show on the road right away. With that, he took a last look around the room; then, satisfied that he was adequately prepared, he went out to the living room, where everyone was assembled. It occurred to him that if everyone had decided to wait outside in the courtyard, he could have carried out that “second bit” now; but he wasn’t about to suggest it openly.

“Well, everybody, I guess this is it.” Martin looked all around at his parents and siblings, who could see he was eager to get started. They all gave their farewells and wishes for the best of luck and a safe journey. Martin reserved a special goodbye to the four young ones, assuring them that his apparent brushoff of them yesterday was only part of his present mood, and not out of any ill feeling for them.

“Want some company?” asked Lyndon just as Martin turned to leave.

“Already got some, shortstuff,” he replied with a grin. “Besides, it might be a bit dangerous for you out there.” Seeing Lyndon’s expected dejection, Martin crouched down and said, “When you’re older. That’s a promise.” After giving his little brother one more hug, he stood and gave one last goodbye to everyone else before exiting.

As he left the courtyard, he already felt more cheerful and buoyant than he had in weeks. He immediately took the trail leading to the rendezvous point, about midway between the Brisby home and the Rats’ main entrance. Just the planning and anticipation for this trip had done much to lift his spirits. He thought back to breakfast and how easy it had been to get the council’s approval; at times, between last night and this morning, he thought they might end up turning it down. If not, he pondered, what would he have done? Try to sneak away anyway, with or without Lambert? Just as well, he concluded, that that option was taken out of their hands.

Martin’s spirits were further lifted upon seeing Lambert waiting for him at their meeting place, a mostly brush-filled gap nestled in a rocky outcropping, noting with amusement how both of them were going “naked.” They compared notes on how they’d made their farewells to their families, and it occurred to Martin how his last words to Lyndon resembled their mother’s, over two years ago, whenever he and his siblings pestered her over when they could go to Thorn Valley to visit the Rats. They both confessed, though, a feeling of unease over the fact that they hadn’t been truthful about the nature of this journey. Plus, they’d told everyone they’d be taking four or five days, possibly more, when they knew it would likely take that long just to reach the highway.

“I thought,” remarked Lambert, “that since you were the one who thought up this whole scheme, that you wouldn’t mind giving that little ‘cover story.’”

Martin sighed. “I thought so, too, but…well, let’s look at it this way. It’s not a complete lie, just a little bending of the truth. We are going outside the valley, and we said it could take longer than we thought.”

“So…you’re still not thinking of giving it up?”

“No, of course not. Why? Are you?”

“No, you’ve convinced me that this will be all worthwhile; I was just making sure you still were yourself. Still…have you thought at all about the hell we’re likely to catch when we get back?”

Martin nodded. “Oh, yeah. There’s no doubt about that. But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” He adjusted his satchel. “Well, if you’re ready, let’s get...aw, nuts!”

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s one more thing I forgot to do. I’ll have to swing by the house again.” Martin turned on his heels. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t start without me.” Another lie, or at least partial truth, he thought. He didn’t really forget anything, he just needed the right moment to perform this one last task.

In about fifteen minutes Martin returned. Lambert affected an overly-impatient stance, rolling his eyes and tapping his foot. “’Bout time, Marty. You think you’re about ready now?”

Martin nodded, fully expecting this reaction. “Oh, I ran into a minor complication or two, but it’s all settled now.” He hoped that Lambert wouldn’t ask for more specifics now, but was prepared just in case.

“Good. Well…” Lambert gazed upward at the Wall, the sheer cliffside that dominated the west side of the valley, scanning it back and forth. “Let’s get cracking.”

“‘Let’s get cracking’? Huh!” commented Martin as they started off. “I’d think it should be something more pompous-sounding like ‘…and so the journey begins…’” He chuckled at his own sonorous tone.

“Yeah, right…‘as they set out in search of their roots;’…or maybe ‘in search of their brains’?”

“Hey, you didn’t have to come along, you know!”

“Just to keep you out of trouble, like I told you.”

You keep me out of trouble? That’s a laugh! Let me tell you…” And so it went, as their journey began in earnest. Both found it hard to express precisely how they felt about this undertaking, though they were well aware of its portent; and, though neither could predict precisely what was to come, they anticipated it eagerly.

The route they took toward the valley’s northwest corner took them past the lake’s swimming cove. Both were tempted to take a brief dip, but they decided against it. Further on, they passed the cornfield, waving to some of their sometime coworkers, most of whom were aware by now of the two friends’ trip.

Further and further away from the colony they went, into territory that was still largely untouched by Rat civilization. Soon they were making their way up a mostly-forested slope on the northwest side, close to the valley’s northeast end. Ahead lay a cleft which provided relatively easy access to the outside. It was quite the steep climb, as it would be most anywhere in the valley. This posed little problem for most quadrupedal creatures like rats and mice, of course; and certainly not for this particular pair, who were equally at home with four- or two-legged locomotion. Nevertheless, they hoped this would be the steepest climb they’d need to make on this trip.

They’d reached a point still short of the summit but where the ground began to level out. The two friends started to express their thankfulness over the easier going—at least until they had to begin the trip down the opposite downward slope—when they heard a voice calling to them from behind a cluster of young maples. “Ho, you two! Ready to challenge the great untamed wilderness, I see!” The voice’s source stepped out: a Guard rat in the brown and green camouflage uniform worn by those who performed the regular roving patrol watch, each of which covered a specific area along the valley perimeter.

“Sure looks that way, Phil,” replied Martin. He and Lambert certainly expected to meet one of the Guard before departing the valley. A thought came to Martin, one which brought a slight unease to him, but this wasn’t the time or place to voice it aloud. Instead, he recalled how Philip was one of the first Rats of Thorn Valley that they’d met on his family’s first visit, greeting them at the main entrance. Later, he’d been the first one Martin had approached on the subject of joining the Guard himself, and he’d been the most active in convincing Brutus to allow Martin to begin training.

Philip chatted with the two travelers for a short while; then, as they started off again, said: “Well, good luck. Have fun!”

“Thanks, Phil. You too!” retorted Martin.

Philip looked only slightly irked; then, he suddenly called out, “Oh, hey! Hey!” Martin and Lambert stopped and turned. “Let’s be careful out there!”

The two grinned and waved goodbye, appreciating the admonition; then they resumed their journey, knowing that Philip’s was the last familiar face they’d see for some time. They paused briefly at the summit, looking all around, regarding what lay ahead; then they moved on. The ground began sloping downward, as steeply as it had for them going up. They were now “officially” out of Thorn Valley, and the journey had now truly begun in earnest.

As they made their way down headfirst on all fours, they took care to not go so fast as to risk taking a tumble and end up somersaulting down the slope; still, this was the easiest way for them. Presently Martin said, “I thought of something, when we were back there with Phil: I wonder if they’ll try to…monitor us in some way, keep tabs on our movements.”

Lambert chuckled. “You’re getting paranoid in your old age, Marty. Come on, why would they do something like that? We bent over backwards to keep from revealing to anyone where we’re really going.”

“Yeah, I guess so; maybe I was a little paranoid.” After a pause he added: “I guess if we were found out, they’d just try to stop us outright.” Feeling satisfied with the rationale, he added: “It was just a thought, anyway.”

Soon the ground started losing steepness, quickly leveling off, leaving the travelers very relieved at the easier going that lay ahead. It was still a heavily wooded area, and would be for most of the first day’s travel.

It passed quite uneventfully. The landscape changed little, and there were no encounters, or even close calls, with any predators. Still, they never completely let their guards down, knowing that their safety margin was drastically lower here on “the outside,” where predators did not steer clear as they did of the north end of Thorn Valley. So while they often passed the time in conversation, they generally kept it to a minimum, speaking low so as not to attract undue attention, knowing that while the presence of danger was there relatively little of the time, the possibility of danger was constant.

They soon found, with little surprise, that they were attracting a certain amount of attention, simply by virtue of the fact that here was this odd couple, this rat and mouse traveling together, obviously strangers to these parts by the almost-excessive amount of caution they displayed. On several occasions this first day—and they knew, on more to come—they’d find themselves being berated by a squirrel, who’d almost invariably scurry up a tree trunk, settle on a limb and chatter nervously at them if they tried asking it for directions; or, in many cases, if they just happened to enter its territory. Not that they were at all surprised by such encounters; and asking for directions wasn’t absolutely necessary, but occasionally they felt the need to at least confirm that they were headed in the right direction. Encounters with most other rodents—ground squirrels, chipmunks, other mice and rats, voles, woodchucks—and other small mammals were generally more amicable, though few could be any more helpful in telling the two travelers what lay beyond their own limited territories.

“If only we could make friends with a bird,” Martin mused as they took a break after about three hours of near-constant travel.

“You mean like those two crows a couple years back, that your family was friends with?” asked Lambert as he returned from relieving himself behind a fallen log.

“Yeah…though not necessarily to fly with; at least to give us better directions. They can see more and cover so much more territory.” Martin munched on a wild pokeberry from some he’d just gathered and thought more about Jeremy and Beatrice. They’d paid regular visits since the Brisbys moved to Thorn Valley, on later visits accompanied by their children, once they were old enough to fly. All the Brisby children had greatly enjoyed flying with them, but Teresa—rather surprisingly—had been the one to take to it the most. On all the crows’ visits last year, she’d been the first to virtually beg them for a ride. They hadn’t been by at all this year, though, and when Teresa at one point had their father use the amulet to check up on them, it appeared that nothing bad had happened to them; rather, just that they were moving on with their lives. It was disappointing for Teresa, for all she understood; after all, she was certainly doing the same, especially considering how close she and Eric were becoming.

The two travelers continued on, keeping a pretty steady pace, but not a hurried one, and making plenty of rest stops. Because of the long journey that lay ahead, they knew the importance of not pushing themselves too hard. One small problem had already become apparent, though: they found they had to adjust their paces to compensate for each other’s differences in size and speed. Though Martin was no less healthy and robust (for a mouse) than Lambert, he would still tire faster if he tried to keep up with his rat companion’s normal walking pace. So Lambert had to slow his pace to a rather slow amble (for him) for Martin to keep up at a non-tiring pace. Eventually Lambert suggested that they could move together at a faster clip if Martin were to ride piggyback. Martin, understandably, wasn’t keen on the idea at first, saying that it would make him seem almost helpless or like an extra burden, not to mention embarrassing. Lambert assured him that it would be no trouble or burden for him, and that it would be at best a part-time thing. And how could it be embarrassing, since they didn’t know anyone out here? So, after Martin agreed to give it a try, they both found that it worked quite well for both of them, and they agreed to continue this rather odd form of travel on a part-time basis.

They knew this would continue to get them more than their share of curious stares and probably more; and it wasn’t long before they passed a young chipmunk who froze at their approach, staring round-eyed and silent as they passed, then began tagging along behind them at about eight feet. Finally, after following them for some 20 feet, she stopped and turned back, perplexed and shaking her head. The two companions shared a laugh over the incident, knowing they’d have to get used to more like it.

By the end of the first day—they’d agreed to limit night travel as much as possible—they found a suitable hollow underneath a log to spend the night. Lambert had sprayed the area outside with a de-scentifying solution which Mr. Ages had devised, to throw off any night hunters; and once inside, they all but sealed up the entrance, leaving enough open to the outside to provide circulation. After they chatted a bit on how the first day had gone and on what lay and what might lay ahead, they fell into sleep.

In the morning, Martin awoke first, and almost immediately he began widening their air passages. “Sure got stuffy in here overnight,” commented Lambert as he stretched and got to his feet. He joined Martin in digging their way out. After picking up their gear, they emerged into the daylight, stretching and breathing in deep, greeting the new day. They began looking around for food, dipping into their own stores for “appetizers.”

The second day also passed mostly uneventfully. The terrain soon became less heavily-wooded, giving way a few times to open meadows, all of which the travelers passed through with their usual caution.

They encountered a good-sized herd of rabbits in midafternoon. When they asked them what lay beyond the hills that lay ahead, the travelers were told that the grasslands gave way to more dense forest, where these rabbits rarely ventured, and further on lay a river. We’re on the right track, the two agreed, visibly pleased by this confirmation. Thanking the rabbits, the two pressed on.

The rabbits who gave this information were perplexed. Knowing nothing of maps, they couldn’t understand how these two mismatched travelers, who were obviously not locals, nevertheless seemed to know of the river. An elder of the warren who’d overheard the exchange commented that, as a youngster, he’d heard tales of a valley, located about a day’s journey away in the opposite direction, where rats unlike any others were reputed to live. Perhaps those two came from there, he suggested. Not being a matter that required any great and immediate attention from them, they all returned to feeding and enjoying the sunshine.

Martin and Lambert reached the woods just as the sun was setting. By the cumulus clouds building to the north, they knew a thunderstorm would probably hit well before sunrise, so they looked for a place to bunk that was off the ground.

“Gotcha!” Martin heard Lambert exclaim as they searched. Lambert emerged from a stand of tall grass munching a grasshopper.

“How can you eat those things? Bleagh!” Martin wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“Hey, don’t knock it…”

“…If I haven’t tried it, I know. Well, I have, and that’s why I said that. I do know what I’m talking about some of the time.” Martin continued scanning the nearby tree trunks.

Undaunted, Lambert remarked, “Great source of protein. Did you know that some humans eat a lot of different kinds of insects? If it’s good enough for them…”

“Saayy…” interrupted Martin, “this could be a good one.” He indicated a hole about ten feet up on a thick trunk. The two climbed up to it, and found a good-sized woodpecker’s nest hollow within. After they set to the disagreeable but necessary task of cleaning it out, they prepared it for their own use.

Later, as Lambert lay back on the floor of their temporary lodgings, he looked up at Martin, who was perched up on the rim of the hole, looking lost in thought as he stared up at the emerging stars being slowly eclipsed by clouds. “Say, Marty,” he said with a yawn, “what’s the big secret?”

Martin looked at him with a start, his train of thought broken. “What do you mean, secret?”

“Well, I don’t usually see you sit and think so much. C’mon, you can tell me.” He paused and added, “Say, that reminds me: what was that that was so important that you had to go back for it, when we started yesterday?”

Martin looked momentarily annoyed; then, all at once, he seemed contrite as he jumped down and sat next to Lambert. “I guess it’s useless to keep it from you any longer. And you hit the nail on the head, too; that was what I was thinking about.” He reached for his satchel and began fishing through it. “It wasn’t anything I really forgot either.” So saying, he found the object of his search and pulled it out, displaying it to Lambert. It was a pendant of gold-colored metal, hanging from a like-metaled chain, with a round, polished stone set in it. Even in what little light there was, it could be seen to glint deeply and red, as if hinting of mysterious, unfathomable energies within.

Lambert’s eyes widened as he realized what he was looking at. “That…that’s the Stone. The one that…has all those strange magical powers.” It was common knowledge among the Rats of how this amulet was given those mystical properties by Pharsal, a member of the Rusay—the race native to Lahaikshe—and a seeker of arcane secrets; and how it had made its way into the hands of Martin’s father and had been responsible for his unwilling “exile” on that extradimensional world; and later still had proven to have power in the hands of Martin’s mother as well, saving the lives of him and his siblings. Madeline had then used it to learn Johnathan’s true fate and, with help from three of the Rats including their leader Justin, found him and brought him back home. Since then, it had been quite a boon to them all, with the family using it to visit Lahaikshe and yet other extradimensional worlds, and even keeping the colony supplied with many otherwise unobtainable goods.

“I thought you’d recognize it.” Martin placed it back in his pack. “Remember back in the library, when you brought it up?”

Lambert thought for a moment. “I did, didn’t I? But what are you doing with it? I thought it only worked through your mom ’n’ dad. How can it…” He paused, realization coming upon him. “You…took it so that they wouldn’t be able to see where we are with it.” Lambert was eminently familiar with its many and varied capabilities, among which was to view what went on almost anywhere the user willed.

“That’s right. They won’t know where we are, or be able to follow us with it, or try to bring us back.”

“And you planned this all along, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Just after I left you the night before. I got the idea that maybe, just maybe, they’d use it to check up on us at some point, maybe even before we made it to NIMH. So I decided I’d try to get it, to prevent that. I decided to wait until morning, after I’d said goodbye to everyone. I knew everybody would be out of the house by nine-thirty, ten; so after all that, and I met you, I told you I’d forgotten something. I guess it was because I thought it should be kept secret, even from you, until we’d left Thorn Valley. Anyway, it went off like I planned, mostly. I tried not to look too sneaky going in, just in case someone was watching. I slipped in, and once I was sure no one was in the house, I went to where they keep the Stone, in the closet, the big walk-in off my parents’ bedroom. I knew just where they kept it—in that little chest, the same one Nicodemus kept it in—and what shelf it was on. I found it, pulled it out; and then I was just putting it in my satchel when I heard somebody out in the hall, and then a voice. It was Tim’s, calling out: ‘Hello! Is anybody in here?’ Well, I thought, now what do I do? Stay in here and take the chance that he wouldn’t look in here? Either that, or I’d let him see me walking out of there and make up some story about what I was doing. I figured the first choice would be best, because what could I tell him about why I was in our parents’ closet? So I stayed quiet and waited until it sounded like he’d left. After I could hear the front door close, I tiptoed out; and when I got all the way outside, I half-expected Tim to accost me right there. But he didn’t seem to be around, so I went back to join you.”

They were both silent for a moment as Lambert weighed this new information. “So…do you really think they would have used it that way?”

Martin got to his feet and sighed. “I thought so at the time…but now…” He began pacing back and forth. “I don’t know…maybe it was one of those things I do without thinking. It sure seemed right at the time.” He sighed again. “Maybe, if I hadn’t taken it, it’s just possible they wouldn’t try to force us to come back. Either way, I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t taken it.”

“Why? What’s the big worry? Heh…aside from the permanent grounding we’re both liable to receive when we get back.”

Martin gave a slight smile. “We’re too old for our parents to control us like that. Then again…”

“Well, the council sure won’t be happy about it, when the truth comes out, that’s for sure.” It was only starting to dawn on them just how serious things could get for them upon their return.

“Let’s…not think about that now. Look, I just…don’t feel all that great about just taking the Stone like this, from behind their backs, especially after we didn’t tell the whole truth about where we’re going. I’ve never done anything like that before. I think that’s why I got a little paranoid yesterday, just after we left Phil. Sure, they probably won’t be needing it for anything major, but…what if, just suppose some emergency came up, something they’d need its power for in a hurry? I guess if there’s anything I’m really worried about, that would be it.”

“Well…how often does something like that come up?”

Martin had to admit that, in the over two years since their parents had learned the full truth about the red amulet, and its capabilities had become common knowledge in the Thorn Valley colony, there had been nothing close to a crisis situation that would have warranted so great a need for its power; and there was no need to assume that it would be needed anytime soon. Still… “There is a first time for everything, you know.”

“And that first time’s going to wait until the few days that the Stone’s not there? Come on, that’s silly. Next thing I know you’ll say you want to turn back.”

Martin shook his head emphatically. “No way. Not after we’ve come this far. I couldn’t think of turning back. I’m still determined to see this through. And…I suppose it is silly to think that something bad’s going to happen there now.

Lambert nodded. “Glad to hear it. You know, I have to admit I’m not crazy about our little circumventing of the truth, either; but look at the bright side: just think of when we get back, and we tell about all we’ve seen and been through. Why, we’ll practically be heroes.”

Martin laughed as he sat back down. “Us, heroes. That’ll be something to see.” He thought a moment. “I guess you’re not so much in this just to keep me out of trouble anymore.”

“Hey, I was kidding about that; mostly. All right, maybe half-kidding, but one thing’s clear: I wouldn’t have gotten into this if I didn’t want to see NIMH as much as you.” Lambert yawned. “C’mon, partner, let’s grab forty winks.”

“It feels like forty degrees right now,” Martin remarked as he moved closer to Lambert. With the storm moving in, the temperature had dropped some, so they felt the need to conserve body heat more. As the two friends curled up together, Martin felt his confidence in this mission once more reinforced. There was still a twinge of uneasiness, though, that something could happen back home. Oh, let it go, he told himself. Why not just sleep on it.

* * *

At that moment, some 500 feet away, a small figure made his way through the underbrush, his pace seemingly headlong and disregardful of any nocturnal hunters that might be afoot or on the wing. He looked up and cursed the fates. The sky was almost completely overcast, and the moon was already hidden. How will I find my way now? he thought. I’ve got to keep moving. He paused as he felt another twinge of pain in his right hind leg. That damned stupid bobcat. Didn’t he realize I had no time to mess with him, that this was just too important for him and his stupid appetite? If he were thinking more rationally right then, he’d no doubt realize how lucky he was to have escaped that encounter with his life, with only an injured leg to show for it.

He now paused to examine it. He’d hoped it hadn’t become too bad, but it was clear by now that infection had already set in, despite his earlier efforts to stave it off. He’d tried licking it, but the pain made it difficult to get into the position to do so, what with the upper leg bone broken in at least one place as well as the deep claw wounds, which might also have injured some tendons. At least the splints were holding. He was also reminded of his left ear, part of which had been bitten off when he’d tried to take temporary shelter in a squirrel’s nest; its present tenant took great exception to his intrusion. Then there was the missing half of his tail, lost in another hairbreadth escape from a badger. He’d almost forgotten these other injuries, with the more serious condition of his leg. He started to take a few more steps; then he realized that perhaps it would be more sensible to get some rest for a while. After all, he’d had far less sleep than he should have these past few days. But how could he rest now, with his destination so close? He might even be too late. And yet…perhaps he could rest for at least a little while; then, as soon as he awoke, he’d set out again. As he felt the first few drops of rain, he realized that now was the best time.

As he searched for suitable lodgings, his thoughts fell to Patricia…would he ever see her or Karen again? He again deeply regretted that there was no time to tell them where he was going; or anything at all, in fact. But he had to leave immediately; there was no time to lose. Surely they’d understand that. He was sure that if he saw them again, and explained it to them, that they would.

He soon found an abandoned chipmunk’s burrow, cleared the debris from the entrance, and crept in. Once he was all the way inside, he collapsed, sheer exhaustion finally taking him over. Before losing consciousness completely, one more thought came to him, the one that had driven him from the outset:

They must be warned…

Chapter 4: Crossing the river and other things

Sure enough, the storm began passing through the area shortly after midnight. The two travelers were awakened by the first clap of thunder but soon went back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that they were high and dry.

At daybreak, they arose to find that the storm had lessened to a drizzle. After breakfasting on the berries they’d brought up with them, they began making their way down the trunk to the ground.

“Wow,” commented Martin, “I’d forgotten just how high and dry we were. I wouldn’t mind doing this again, though.”

“We were lucky this time,” added Lambert with a laugh. “Next time it’ll probably be occupied and we’ll wind up getting our brains pecked out.”

Once on the ground, they made sure they had their directions straight, and they set out again, heedless of the inclement weather. Martin again felt a surge of optimism, his doubts about aspects of this trip lessened, especially in regards to the Stone. There was, after all, much to look forward to. It had been quite an adventure so far, just to be in different surroundings; and greater adventure certainly awaited, what with the river coming up, followed by the highway, “stowing away,” getting inside NIMH, and going through it all again in reverse to return home. He remarked to Lambert that, in spite of all their planning, the enormity of all this and the amount of sheer work required of them to reach their destination was really only just dawning on him. Lambert confessed that he felt much the same way, and both admitted they had butterflies over some of what was to come, particularly getting inside NIMH. But there was no lack of enthusiasm, nor was there any serious talk of turning back.

They continued on, breaking again in late morning; it all went pretty much as usual until midafternoon. The two were in “piggyback” mode again, as had been their part-time practice since yesterday, when Lambert paused, his snout held high, whiskers twitching.

“What is it?” asked Martin.

“Can’t you smell it?”

Martin inhaled deeply. “Oh, yeah…can’t be far now. C’mon, giddyup!”

“Hey, you want a horse, I’ll give you a horse!” said Lambert over his shoulder, reminding Martin of the previous day’s incident when he’d reared up and flung Martin off when told to “giddyup.” They continued their banter as they drew nearer to the source of what their olfactory senses told them was approaching, the source of that unmistakably wet, organically rich smell.

Martin jumped off Lambert’s back as they stopped on the bank of Greenlee River, the presence of which had been confirmed by yesterday’s helpful rabbits. Peering through the cattail stalks, they surveyed it up and down, assessing the best possible way to cross it. It was really more a creek than a river, at least at this point, being some 25 feet across. The current wasn’t overly strong, and there were no rapids; from there, they couldn’t see the bottom, but it looked to be fairly shallow. Still, if there were a way to get across without a whole lot of swimming involved, they’d try for it, as they’d agreed upon earlier.

Martin shinnied up a cattail stalk for a better view. Clinging to its crest, he shaded his eyes. Downstream, he spotted a green heron wading in the creek about two feet away from the opposite bank, appearing to confirm it wasn’t very deep. Casting his gaze upstream, he quickly announced, “Hey, there’s our way over right there.”

Lambert craned his neck and saw what Martin indicated: a large tree trunk, lying almost evenly crossways across the river. It stopped short of reaching clear to the other side. No matter, they agreed; it would have to do, and was in fact as good or better than anything they’d hoped for. They made for it swiftly.

Approaching its base, they could see it had fallen quite recently, probably from a combination of disease and strong wind; though probably not from last night’s storm, since it wasn’t windy at all, and the earth exposed by the pulled-up roots was packed fairly well. They climbed the roots to the trunk and, sighting across it, further assessed the situation. The topmost branches, as they’d noted already, didn’t quite reach the opposite bank.

Nothing for it but to go forward, they knew, so across the trunk they went. Where the trunk divided and branched out, they proceeded with more caution. Their intent was to move out on the thickest branches as far as possible, then swim the remaining distance to the shore.

It didn’t quite come off as planned. While Lambert was negotiating one branch, Martin was making his way along another one that was thinner than he’d expected, and was about to jump to an adjacent thicker one when they both heard a rustling along the bank. The sound distracted Martin just enough to ruin his leap. He fell short of the other branch and plunged with a “gloop” into the river.

Both friends were excellent swimmers, so Lambert wasn’t worried about Martin drowning; but he couldn’t help but be concerned, though, when Martin didn’t surface for a few seconds, and for the fact that they still didn’t know the source of the noise on the bank. Soon Martin did surface, about four feet downstream from the point where he fell in. While treading water, he called back to Lambert: “As long as I’m in this far, I’ll meet you on the bank.” He began dog-paddling in that direction.

“Be careful, Marty.” Again Lambert was concerned for his friend, not sure that that was a good idea right then. A few seconds later, his uncertainty was justified. Just as Martin reached the shallows about a foot from the bank, Lambert saw a very definite light-brown-furred shape moving through the weeds directly toward him. “Oh, crap…Marty, look out!”

Martin couldn’t hear his friend clearly over his splashing in the shallows, and so he turned and shouted back, “What’d you say?” but no sooner had he when there was a loud snuffling and grunting in front of him. He quickly turned his head toward the sound…and found himself snout-to-snout with a wild boar. He instantly turned, and paddled furiously back in the direction of the fallen tree, momentarily heedless of the fact that it was upstream; and though the current wasn’t overwhelming, it might still slow down his getaway. Sure enough, the boar started in after him. Lambert could only watch helplessly and hope that the wild swine would decide not to pursue the matter much further.

Martin had started with a good lead, but his much larger pursuer was closing in rapidly; and Martin, in his haste, was heading in a direction that might take him away from the tree. “Marty! This way!” Martin responded to Lambert’s shout by turning at almost a right angle towards the tree; unfortunately, this enabled the boar to close the gap even further by turning at a 45-degree angle toward Martin.

Just as it looked as if the boar would overtake him, Martin suddenly felt something bobbing to the surface from beneath him. It happened so fast that for a moment Martin found himself kneading the thick, dark brown fur of his apparent rescuer’s back with his still-paddling feet. He glanced up at Lambert on the tree, staring open-mouthed; then he glanced over his shoulder to see the boar looking apparently discouraged as it grunted in distaste—or so it almost seemed—and then turning back, leaving Martin both relieved and bewildered.

“Need a lift, cousin?” the newcomer greeted him jovially, giving Martin a sideways glance. “Name’s Clement. What’s yours?”

“Uh, Martin. Nice to meet you, Clement. Uh…you’re a muskrat, aren’t you?” Martin had known about muskrats, of course, but this was the first one he’d met in the flesh, since there were none in Thorn Valley or in their old creekside neighborhood.

“Right as rain, Martin. Want me to drop you off by your big buddy over there?”

“That’d be fine, uh, Clement.” Martin shook his head in disbelief, still not quite sure what to make of this rescue. Clement glided up to the trunk, placing himself alongside it so that his passenger could climb up on it more easily. Lambert helped Martin up, drawing his friend to him in an embrace. “Oh, man, Marty, I thought you’d bought it for sure that time.”

“Yeah, you and me both,” Martin replied, still breathing fast. “So much for keeping me out of trouble, eh?” They both thanked Clement for his aid.

“’Tweren’t nothin’, friends,” he replied modestly, climbing up partially onto the trunk. “B’sides, I get a kick out o’ rilin’ old Slobber-Snout there every chance I get.”

The two friends laughed; then Lambert said, “Glad to hear it, but…why did, uhm, old Slobber-Snout turn back when you showed up?”

“Heh, heh…why, them varmints aren’t too crazy ’bout us muskrats! We don’t agree with ’em. Heck, everybody knows that!”

“Uh, yeah, sure. Must’ve slipped our minds,” said Martin. They both decided not to ask Clement to elaborate.

“Well, I got me some gatherin’ to do, so I reckon I’ll push off now.” Clement slipped back into the river. “You guys take it easy and be careful, hear? ’Bye now!” He began paddling leisurely downstream.

“’Bye! Thanks again!” the two travelers called after him. “Well,” said Lambert as they looked toward the bank, “let’s take this from the top again.” The boar was nowhere in sight; apparently he had decided to root for something less liable to run away or get him wet. Still, they waited a few more minutes before jumping into the river and making for the bank. This was achieved without incident.

With their journey on foot resumed, they discussed how remarkable it was that a complete stranger would come to their aid as Clement did; a different species, yet. He probably saved Martin’s life, and yet he’d treated the incident as if it were all in a day’s work. It led to a discussion on all the diverse creatures that had befriended and aided both the Rats and Martin’s family over the years, beginning with the Great Owl and continuing with Auntie Shrew, Jeremy and Beatrice, and on through their new neighbors in Thorn Valley. They also recalled the stories of their parents from the Wandering Days, and how nearly all of them had saved each other’s lives many times over as a matter of course; and how that had continued since, most notably when Martin’s mother had saved virtually the entire Rat community from being captured or killed by NIMH.

The remainder of the third day’s journey continued to be largely uneventful. They hiked through more woodland and over more rolling hills. The weather continued to be quite pleasant, the sky partly cloudy. When they looked for a place to camp for the night, they got help and lodging from an unexpected but welcome source: an unusually-generous chipmunk named Jeeter who offered to put them up in his well-protected and spacious home underneath some tree roots. It wasn’t the above-ground location they’d hoped for, but they still accepted his offer gladly.

* * *

Johnathan Brisby turned off the lamp and joined Madeline in bed. As they snuggled close together, they reflected on the unremarkable but satisfying evening they’d had here at home, socializing with Matilda and Bryant, who had brought their youngest children Cecil and Inez to play with their own little ones. After the rat family had gone home, it took them a while to get Lyndon, Shawna, Vanessa and Kirk completely settled down; but now, after having tucked them in and making sure they were asleep, the parents’ nightly bedtime conversation turned toward the one member of the family who wasn’t presently accounted for, at least not completely.

“Well, I wonder how they’re doing tonight, where they are. I do hope they haven’t run into any trouble.” Madeline yawned, nuzzling Johnathan’s shoulder, her head against his chest.

“Well…there is one sure-fire way to find out.”

“Now, Johnathan…we already agreed that we wouldn’t use the Stone. Of course it would be easy, and I know we both can’t help being curious, and even worrying some. But still…it would seem too much like spying. It wouldn’t seem right.”

“I know. I was just kidding.” Half-mumbling, he added, “Maybe.” Madeline laughed quietly, and Johnathan added, “But don’t worry about my reneging on our promise. I haven’t even looked at or gone near the Stone since before they left. And let’s not worry about them either; they’re both big boys now.” Johnathan nuzzled his wife’s ear and kissed her forehead. This kind of talk, they found, always reassured them, though it wasn’t necessary. They, and all the Rats who were parents, did their best to teach their children to be as self-reliant as possible.

“I know. Good night, Johnathan. I love you.”

“Love you, too.” They both closed their eyes; then Johnathan opened his, and looked up to the ceiling. “Good night, Martin and Lambert,” he said quietly. “Be safe and be careful.”

* * *

The morning of the fourth day of their excursion, the two friends arose after what both agreed was the best night’s sleep they’d had so far. They set out again after gathering their own breakfast—not wanting to impose further on their host—and thanking Jeeter for his hospitality.

The landscape changed little this day; mostly forested, hilly, occasionally rocky, sometimes more open. By late afternoon they were passing through a more open area that soon became an actual meadow, with poorer, sandier soil. This openness consequently made the travelers warier than usual.

Martin, however, found that he couldn’t help thinking back to last night at Jeeter’s place, after they’d bedded down. He was just nodding off when he seemed to hear his father’s voice wishing him well. It was very brief, but he found he couldn’t help lying awake for a while afterward and thinking: was it simply one of those half-dreams that one often gets before completely falling asleep, or was it something more? It seemed like the latter, because it had felt so unusual, so indescribable. Even though he’d thought about this several times today, he’d never mentioned it to Lambert at all. He couldn’t really think why; it was as if, in some strange way, it was something too personal to describe with another.

Now, all at once, realization hit him. Not what that strange event was all about, but what it reminded him of: two years ago, when his mother received those mental “impressions,” which were the result of attempts by his father, working in tandem with the sorcerer Gwinthrayle, to communicate with her across the dimensional gulfs between Lahaikshe and Earth. The way she’d always described those experiences was very much like the way last night’s “well-wishing” felt to Martin. But why? Could there be a connection, somehow? It seemed absurd, and yet…

“Marty! Jump on, quick!” Lambert’s call of alarm broke Martin’s train of thought and immediately spurred him to action. Lambert had already dropped to all fours, and Martin hopped onto his friend’s broad back; and barely had he secured a firm grip when Lambert broke into a swift, frantic, seemingly headlong gallop. Martin glanced over his shoulder, needing to see for himself the reason for Lambert’s sudden alarm; and through the cloud of dust kicked up behind them, he saw it: a bobcat, in full-tilt pursuit. Martin grimaced, and after facing front again saw a brushy thicket, covered with vines, dead ahead. They plunged headlong into it. Once well within it, Martin jumped off Lambert’s back, but he was prepared to get back on if they needed to make a quick getaway.

Outside, the bobcat, unable to see his quarry, snarled in frustration. It was a sound that would cause some to freeze in abject terror, knowing that death was but a brief moment away. Indeed, with the bobcat now reaching into the thicket with broad swipes of his forepaws, it would seem that this would be the case here very soon. But inside the thicket, his would-be victims were preparing for defensive action.

“Are you sure about using them now?” Martin asked.

“Right now, it seems like the best idea,” replied Lambert as he reached inside his backpack for something long and thin from a separate, hidden compartment. They both spoke in rushed, urgent whispers.

“Yeah, but a bobcat! Geez!”

“If you got a better idea, I’m all ears!” Lambert grimaced as he drew back from the bobcat’s latest swipe. Martin fell silent, suddenly reminded of both his father and mother’s run-ins with Dragon, and his own close shave (with most of his family) with a weasel two years ago. He forced such thoughts aside, concentrating on the crisis at hand.

The cat’s groping about was getting closer to the spot where they stood their ground. Lambert gritted his teeth and inched forward slightly, closer to where he anticipated the paw would be making its next swipe; instead, it pulled out completely. Lambert stepped back, knowing that any second the cat might try plunging directly in after them. If it tried groping again… Then, some inches to the left of where it was before, came the forepaw again. But the cat’s movements were a bit slower, more deliberate. This was it, Lambert knew, now or never. Getting as close as he dared without getting snagged, he aimed the thin needlelike object in his hand at the paw’s padded underside as it made its next swipe.

It took only an instant, but Lambert could instantly tell he was successful by the angry snarling and spitting sounds outside the thicket. He stepped back to where Martin had crouched anxiously, and both waited in silence. Over the next minute, they could hear any further angry feline sounds grow more and more lethargic-sounding, and then cease entirely. Even then, they waited about two minutes more before allowing their breathing to return to normal.

“I guess he won’t be back for more right away,” said Martin. “Those little stickers are potent.”

Lambert nodded. “We’d better make sure, though.” Cautiously, they began making their way outside. As their eyes met open daylight again, they needed look no further than a few feet from the thicket to justify their feelings of relief and confidence.

There was the bobcat, lying on his side, looking completely dead to the world, even blissful. The two friends boldly walked up to his forepaws, and from the left one, Lambert extracted his defensive weapon: the tip of a porcupine quill. But not an ordinary one. The Rats had always tried to develop defensive weapons that they would bring with them on trips outside Thorn Valley, which could be used to subdue an adversary without doing permanent damage. But it was only this past summer, when a recently-deceased porcupine was found, that it was suggested that its quills could be utilized in some way toward that purpose. And so its quill-tips were harvested accordingly, after which it was given a proper burial. It wasn’t long before the idea came forth that the quills could be tipped with something similar to Mr. Ages’s sleeping powder, which had been so effective against Dragon the cat. He was commissioned to develop such a solution, one which would go to work very swiftly after entering the bloodstream. While not fatal—the Rats had always been opposed to intentionally causing death to most creatures, including those which would attack and prey upon them, with rare exceptions for the most persistent ones—it would make for a lengthy nap for the subject. And so, using the inch-long tips of this unfortunate porcupine’s quills, the Rats had developed a new defensive weapon for their arsenal. No one knew just how effective it would be, though, since the opportunity to test it on an attacking predator hadn’t come up—not really unfortunately, of course—until now.

Martin couldn’t resist climbing up the bobcat’s torso to its slowly rising and falling ribcage, where he struck a “conquering” pose. “Boyoboy. Wait till the folks get a load of this. They’ll never believe it.”

“I’ll say they won’t,” retorted Lambert. “You’ll have embellished the tale so much that no one possibly could.”

“Oh, yeah, right.” Martin jumped back down to the ground. “It’ll be no match for yours. After all, you’re the one that stuck ol’ Puss-in-Boots here. You don’t really think I’d take credit for that, do you?”

Lambert suddenly didn’t feel like pursuing the argument. He looked upon the cat one last time before turning away and sitting down, finding himself shaking, breathing shallowly. Martin was about to ask what the matter was; but he quickly understood his friend’s distress and so came up beside him, stroking his shoulder. Martin had at times been accused—not unjustly—of being tactless and insensitive. But after an experience such as this, he understood all too well.

“Hey, it’s okay, Lammy. It’s over, and we can move on now. And you did great. You saved both of us.”

Lambert nodded, smiling. “Yeah…thanks, Marty. I just never really thought…about what it would be really like to…you know, come that close…” He breathed in deep.

“Yeah, I know. Believe me, I know.” Martin didn’t begrudge this kind of reaction from Lambert at all; he knew this was the first time his friend had come this close to death in such an up-close fashion. His own first time had been over two years ago, when their winter cinderblock home was sinking in mud with himself and his siblings inside; and for weeks after that so-fateful day he and Teresa and Cynthia had occasional nightmares about the experience. His own recent Guard training had done much to put more confidence into him, but he knew well that facing possible death, especially like this, wasn’t the same for everybody. He thought briefly about Lambert’s “keep you out of trouble” statement, and decided this wasn’t the best time to bring it up.

“Well…I guess we’d better make tracks, huh?” So saying, Lambert stood up, readjusted his backpack, and the two continued on, at first in silence.

At length Martin said, “Well, we knew this trip wouldn’t be so dull eventually. I’ll bet nothing this interesting’s going on back home right now.”

Chapter 5: A mystery patient

Kevin looked up through the trees at the late afternoon sky as he continued his roving patrol. As one of the Guard, he often pulled this particular duty; though when they’d first moved to Thorn Valley, he preferred night duty. An old instinct, he knew; though it was undeniably riskier at night, it felt more comfortable to him. Since then, though, he, like many others, had become equally comfortable working both day and night, and these days he found he actually preferred to work days or swing shift. He thought about the recent crop of graduates who’d completed Guard training, something many were glad to see, since the more their ranks were swelled, the better; at present, they were still spread rather thinly. But with many new recruits in training, things would definitely be easier in the future.

As he made his way past a thick elm trunk, Kevin thought about one of those recruits, who at present appeared to be undecided over his future career and was currently engaged in a sabbatical away from Thorn Valley. Martin Brisby’s brother Timothy had been close to Kevin’s family since his first visit here, especially his younger brother Quincy, and more recently Kevin could count Martin as a friend as well, especially since he’d begun Guard training. By the time he and Lambert were back from their little wilderness junket, Kevin believed he and his fellow Guard and unofficial “court musician” Lol should be finished with the latest composition they’d been collaborating on, and would be able to give it a proper premiere by then.

Further thoughts on the subject fell by the wayside as Kevin heard a strange, out-of-place sound. He instantly froze stock still and listened. Trained as were all in the Guard to recognize sounds that indicate something that doesn’t belong and to distinguish those from the everyday variety, Kevin listened further, turning his head slowly and adjusting and “fine-tuning” his ears to pinpoint the sound’s location. Something or someone smaller than a rat, from the sound of it, had fallen to the ground and rolled with the incline. No doubt, he decided, this is someone; and someone who’s not at all well, at that. He instantly made for the location. A young squirrel, fallen out of the nest, perhaps? No…it didn’t sound like a fall from a great height, or any real height at all.

He reached the location, scanning the ground thoroughly and listening further. This is the spot, he thought, I’m sure of it. So where…

Then he saw it. At first glance, he took it for a lump of sod; but now, as he rushed over to it, he could see it was clearly a living creature: a mouse, no less, but was it indeed still living? Kevin immediately checked the poor creature’s vital signs: still breathing, but shallowly, rasping; a too-faint, irregular heartbeat; and all but burning up with fever. No wonder, what with the horrid condition it was in. He carefully examined it further. It was a male, adult mouse, the same species as Johnathan and his family, though hardly recognizable as such. His fur was dirty, tangled and matted from his head to what remained of his tail, at least half of which was missing; most of his right hind leg was raw and swollen, probably badly infected, possibly gangrenous, and appeared to be broken in at least one place; and his left ear was partially gone, appearing to have been bitten or chewed off. What could he have possibly gone through, to show up here in this condition, Kevin thought as he reached for the walkie-talkie at his belt.

At Guard Central, Captain Brutus received an urgent message from Sector 7. It was Kevin, reporting his discovery of a mouse whom he’d never seen before but who would surely die if he didn’t get help immediately. A few more messages, relayed over the colony’s intercom system, alerted medical personnel, who were swiftly mobilized to the location.

* * *

Just before sundown, Martin and Lambert found themselves on the edge of a wide wetlands area. Martin groused about the fact that it wasn’t marked on the map, but Lambert reminded him that that particular detail might have been missing from the original map that Tallus made his memory-copy from, or he himself might not have noticed it. At any rate, they agreed that they’d camp overnight on this side, and cross the marsh first thing in the morning. They not only found suitable lodgings—another hollow log—but also the means with which to cross the marsh more easily. They gathered together some stout but not too heavy branches from a recently-fallen tree; and, after stripping and cutting them down to size, lashed them together with cattail stalks. Their raft completed, they then gave it a brief test run to make sure it was “swampworthy”; then, having carried this out successfully, they settled in for the night.

At the crack of dawn they gathered some breakfast and began crossing the marsh as planned, continuing to head due west, using two more stout branches to pole themselves along. On two occasions the water got too shallow for the raft to keep floating with occupants and not run aground, and they had to get off and push it along, a bit risky since they could get their feet stuck in the muck if they didn’t keep moving.

Along the way they received the usual stares and, once in a while, remarks about their mode of travel: two young muskrats swimming along behind and alongside them, now and then pausing to stare and ask questions; ducks who’d pause in their feeding, stare as the travelers poled past, and mutter amongst themselves; a great blue heron staring down its beak at them haughtily. They took it all in stride, and before they knew it—actually only a little over a half hour—they reached dry land.

They pulled their raft in from the water and concealed it underneath a bush. This was done on Martin’s suggestion; in case they passed this way on their return trip, it would save their having to build another one. He was sure that if they did pass this way, he would recognize this area and be able to find the raft again. With this much settled, they continued their fifth day of travel.

* * *

Mr. Ages frowned as he regarded his mystery patient: lying in this bed in the colony’s medical ward, receiving nourishment from an intravenous tube, still unconscious but with breathing near normal and his fever brought down considerably, and overall resting much more easily now. Heaven knows he needs it, thought Ages, after all he’s been through. And yet…exactly what had he been through? Neither he nor his medical colleagues, nor anyone else who’d seen him as he was borne on a litter from the upper slope of Sector 7 to the colony late yesterday afternoon, had seen anything quite like it. He’d apparently traveled a long way and had gone as far as he could on sheer will alone, and then just collapsed. Work had already begun to save him up on the slope, and once he’d been brought to the ward, it continued in earnest. He quickly underwent treatment for exhaustion and dehydration, and to stave off infection. His injured ear and tail were treated fairly easily, but it was quickly determined that it was too late for his leg, and so they were forced to amputate virtually all of it. He was gently bathed all over, and fanned dry. He responded very well to treatment, and soon all that was left was to administer the drip-feed, and let him rest.

With the crisis stage past, many others outside the medical staff came by to observe his progress. All were concerned, but many were curious; word of the strange circumstances of this mystery mouse’s sudden appearance had gotten around quickly, and many questions arose. Primary among them was that of why he’d driven himself so far as he surely must have, and where he was bound. Was he, in fact, specifically bound for Thorn Valley, and the colony? Because no one knew him, it seemed impossible to understand how that could be. Consequently, most were especially curious to learn his story after he awakened.

These matters and more were very much on Ages’s mind now. After the stranger had been put to bed, he and his colleagues took turns watching over him; and yet, Ages had found himself coming back several times during the night. Besides all the other mysteries, there was something else about the stranger that Ages couldn’t put his finger on, something that kept drawing him here. After the stranger had been cleaned up and was more recognizable as a mouse, Ages couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something familiar about him, after all. Why should this possible familiarity affect him this way, Ages asked himself. There was nothing especially distinctive in his face, fur color, or other physical features to suggest anything particularly unusual. He had fur of brown and crème, much like Madeline Brisby, a thin build which could have been due to recent privations, a face that would be considered quite handsome by rodent standards. And yet…why did it seem as if this stranger’s presence—maybe his very existence—meant so much more than just someone he couldn’t quite recognize? After all, this wasn’t the first time that a small rodent from outside the community—a natural—had been treated for some injury or ailment. The extent of this one’s injuries was the major factor, but he was sure there had to be more to it.

“Cyril?”

Ages responded by turning his head toward the ward’s entrance door, smiling as he looked upon the voice’s source: his wife of almost two years, Alma.

“You’ve been up most of the night, haven’t you?” She came up behind his chair and began massaging his shoulders.

“Yes, yes,” replied Ages with a yawn, his tone betraying his frustration. He realized just how little sleep he’d had; virtually none, in fact. “There’s just something about him I can’t quite figure. Great Jupiter, I wish I knew what it was!” He flexed limbs with a grunt.

Alma was sympathetic, though she didn’t understand his confusion. “How is he?” she asked as she approached the bed.

“Oh, he’s much better than last night. All he needs right now is plenty of rest.”

“Poor fellow,” said Alma as she touched the mystery patient’s arm. “It’s a shame you couldn’t save his leg.” She looked sadly at the bandaged stump.

Ages sighed. “Yes, well…I’ve a feeling he’ll appreciate all we could do for him…after he wakes up. Till then…”

“Till then, you should get some rest, too.” Alma crouched at his side, taking his arm and nuzzling his shoulder. “Come on. Bernie or Jemial can watch him, and fill you in when he wakes up.”

Ages smiled, shaking his head. No denying it, he thought, this girl can be very persuasive. He kissed her lightly, then stood up. “Oh, I suppose I should. Who knows, maybe if I sleep on it, I’ll figure it all out.”

The adjoining room was in part the equivalent of the chamber in Ages’ old threshing-machine home where he mixed his potions and remedies, with the rest devoted to files and records. Bernadette—who was often called Bernie—was currently busy updating some patient files. She was one of the oldest second-generation Rats of NIMH, along with her litter-mates Bryant and Silvio; and like her parents and litter-mates, was a seemingly tireless worker who had somehow found the time to marry and raise a family of four (so far) with her husband Colin. She’d become an accomplished nurse and midwife back at the Rosebush, doing her parents Tallus and Angeline proud. She’d been the first assistant Ages had taken on when the new medical department was launched in Thorn Valley, and was instrumental in its organization.

Ages and Alma walked together arm-in-arm into the room, where Ages asked Bernadette if she’d watch the “M.P.” for a while, adding unnecessarily that she contact him as soon as he wakes. He and Alma proceeded to his office, where he’d get as comfortable as possible on his sofa.

Bernadette assured him she’d do both, adding that she’d update Cynthia as well after she reported for work. As the mouse couple left the room, she couldn’t help smiling as she thought, as she and others had many times, about what an unlikely couple they made, or had seemed to be not too long ago. To think that someone like Ages, who’d been thought of for so long as a very private mouse as well as an old curmudgeon, would marry and start raising a family would indeed have been met with skepticism and even total disbelief only two years ago; and yet, here he is now, a loving and devoted husband and father of five. Johnathan Brisby had sometimes suggested to him that very idea, trying to impress upon him the fact that he was the only other physiologically altered mouse from NIMH besides himself, and even lecturing him on “carrying on the legacy” and other such talk. Ages was suitably unimpressed; or at least seemed so at first. He never discussed the subject with Johnathan or anyone else in any great depth, but eventually would not openly hoot Johnathan’s suggestions, which was enough for him to tell that Ages was considering the point. Later, during the following winter, came news that left nearly everyone flabbergasted: Ages and a local mouse named Alma approached first Johnathan and Madeline Brisby, and then the community at large, to announce their intent to marry. It seemed that Alma, whom Ages and the Brisbys were already acquainted with, had lost her way during an unusually-heavy snowstorm, and had found her way to his door seeking shelter. He took her in…and something happened which, to the present day, he wouldn’t discuss in detail—though it was widely rumored he had shared more details with the Brisbys. Suffice it to say that each found the right mate that day. Doubt that their union would work was widespread, yet work it did. No one could quite explain it, but everyone was nonetheless happy for them. He still retained some of his gruff and impatient demeanor, but marriage and parenthood had clearly done much to smooth out some of his rough edges—though he still preferred to allow only Alma and a few select others to call him by his first name. From the beginning, he’d been an affectionate and attentive parent to their children Turlough and Regina (first litter), and Celia, Paul and Milo (second litter), something which surprised many at first, given his strong dedication to his profession, but which was generally accepted now. The youngsters naturally gravitated toward the four younger Brisby children for playmates, and the nine mouselings were nearly inseparable.

The other major change in Ages’s life was establishing and organizing a more formal system of health care and with it, the Rat colony’s new medical facility. He now had a staff of five, full-time, who had become as knowledgeable as he in the field of medicine, or close, including Cynthia Brisby, who was swiftly becoming his pharmacological specialist. He now spent more time among the Rats than he had at the old Rosebush colony, overseeing the facility’s functions, though he still maintained his own home separately, close to the Brisby home.

Yes, Mr. Ages had had many changes in his life in the two-plus years since moving to Thorn Valley, but he knew nothing of how the arrival of the Mystery Patient would initiate another, one which would greatly affect many others besides him.

* * *

About two hours later, Justin, taking a break from some paperwork, saw a familiar figure ahead of him in one of the second-level corridors. “Johnathan! I’ll bet you’re headed for the ward, aren’t you?”

“Sure am, Justin,” he replied, pausing to wait for his friend to catch up. “I couldn’t make it sooner, but what I’ve heard has piqued my curiosity.”

“I haven’t actually seen him myself since last night, but the last word I’d gotten was that he’s much improved, that all he needs is plenty of rest.”

“That’s good. Mmm…it may be just a rumor, but I heard that Ages stayed up with him all night.”

“Really? Now that’s dedication…or something.”

“I know what you mean. That’s not like him. I don’t mean dedication, I mean…well, we’ll find out, right? In the meantime, I wonder how our intrepid explorers are doing. I know I promised Maddie I wouldn’t use the amulet to look in on them, but it’s been the better part of a week now.”

“Don’t worry about ol’ Lewis and Clark,” replied Justin with a laugh. “They did say it might take longer than five days.”

“Yeah, I know. Well, if nothing else, it’s showing which of us is the bigger worrier.”

When they entered the medical facility, Bernadette apprised them of the M.P.’s current condition while Cynthia was keeping busy in the adjoining laboratory. Rather casually, she mentioned the odd effect the stranger’s presence had on Mr. Ages, and confirmed the rumor that he indeed hadn’t gone home last night. Their colleague Samara, who normally worked nights, had reported that Ages spent almost the entire night at the stranger’s bedside. He had since been convinced by Alma to get some rest and was now grabbing a nap in his office.

This news, of course, served to arouse the two friends’ curiosity all the more. Bernadette led them to the M.P.’s bedside, where he had all the appearance of one who was just catching up on sleep. As Johnathan drew near, he at first commented on the stranger’s condition, expressed sympathy for the amputation; but then, all at once, a change came over him. Justin was looking directly at his face, and saw Johnathan suddenly lean in close, as if studying the patient’s face closely, intently. Suddenly his eyes grew wide, as if in shocked realization.

“Johnathan? Is something wrong?”

But his friend didn’t even seem to hear, instead whispering something neither Justin nor Bernadette could make out; they could only look at each other, perplexed. Bernadette fought back an impulse to say out loud, “Johnathan, not you too?”

Then Johnathan looked up at the two rats; and in deliberate, measured tones, he said: “Bernie, I don’t wish to offend you, but…could you please leave Justin and me alone with him, and contact Ages and tell him to come in here as soon as he can?” Justin almost asked him to explain, but he refrained, trusting the conviction in his friend’s voice.

“Are you sure, Johnathan?” Bernadette asked. “He specifically asked me to wait until the patient wakes up. I’m willing to do it, but he won’t be pleased.”

“Bernie, believe me, I wouldn’t ask this of you, or Ages, if I wasn’t absolutely sure. Please, just do it for me. I’ll take any heat from Ages. Oh, and…don’t tell Cynthia yet either. I hate to leave her out of the loop, but…for now, just Ages, okay?”

Bernadette agreed, though still with reserve and confusion. Absolutely sure of what? What could they possibly have to discuss about the M.P. that wouldn’t be for her ears, but would be for Ages’s? But, though burning with curiosity, she did as Johnathan asked, leaving the room and closing the door behind her. She had half an impulse to hang back and try to catch a snatch of further conversation, but instead moved on toward Ages’s office, not relishing the idea of waking him up.

* * *

The fifth day of travel passed fairly uneventfully. There was more thick forest that eventually grew thinner and more park-like. As it did, signs of human presence became increasingly evident: rusted metal containers and other litter, long-cold campfires.

In late afternoon, they saw their first human. They thought it was a deer when they first heard the loud, crunching footfalls, but soon realized: deer don’t move anything like that. They reacted accordingly, concealing themselves behind a thick trunk and waited, peering cautiously at the passing figure. Sure enough, it was a human: a man in his late twenties to early thirties, bearing a large pack on his back—not unlike his unnoticed observers. He strolled right by within some ten feet, oblivious to the two sets of eyes watching his every move so intently. Well they should be intent; this was the first human these two travelers, themselves decidedly non-human but very humanlike in many respects, had seen since moving from the Fitzgibbons farm. They waited, cautious but fascinated, until the man had moved well away from them, before they moved on themselves.

“This is going to sound odd,” said Lambert, “but I’d forgotten how…how straight, how upright…heck, just how bloody big they are!”

Martin nodded. “I know what you mean, but we’d better get used to the idea of seeing more of them, ’cause there’s plenty more where he came from.”

* * *

All day Bernadette had found herself increasingly distracted from the task at hand. It was now close to the end of her shift, but that had little if anything to do with her distraction. Just what was going on in there? Why had Johnathan and Ages all but sequestered themselves away like this, with the M.P., and asked her to give them privacy except for a handful of select visitors? Again she considered putting an ear to the door and…but no, eavesdropping was never her style. I’ve waited this long, she thought, so a little more won’t hurt.

Jemial soon entered the room, ready to begin his shift. “How’re you coming along on the files?”

“About three-quarters of the way. Care to take over for a while?”

“Sure, I’ve got nothing but time.” Jemial sat down in the chair Bernadette had just vacated, while she went to pour herself some tea. Jemial had been the second rat to become Ages’s full-time assistant, and though he was every bit as dedicated to the medical profession, he had much the same sense of humor as his older brother Willis, the Guard rat who had helped to return Johnathan Brisby to them two years ago. It sometimes grated on the nerves of his colleagues, especially Ages; but like his brother, he could be deadly serious and thoroughly professional when the occasion called for it.

He was barely into his work when he asked Bernadette, “So…has the plot thickened yet?” He nodded toward the closed door to the ward.

“I wish I could say for sure,” she replied with a shrug. “It looks to me as if neither of them is going to budge from there until old sleepyhead wakes up.”

“Has anyone else been by?”

Before Bernadette answered, she gave a “quiet” gesture to Jemial, then went on in a more subdued voice. “Well, Justin dropped by again around noon; and he left after a few minutes with an odd expression on his face. He just nodded to me, but I could tell he’d been told something that affected him more than he let on. A bit later, both Madeline and Alma came by, and when they left, they didn’t look too happy. Madeline said right out to me that she felt that Johnathan was keeping something from her.” Many, including Bernadette, were aware of the emotional rapport the pair shared, so she knew it surely had to be true. “Apparently,” she went on, “Alma couldn’t get anything out of them either. Others have been by, too; everybody’s curious, of course, but I haven’t seen any more reactions like those two had.”

“How about Cynthia? I take it she wasn’t any more successful.”

“No more than her mother. The poor kid was almost in tears, though she was trying her best to hide it. Not only was her boss not leveling with her, but her own father as well.”

“Have you heard anything yourself? Like, something you ‘just couldn’t help’ overhearing?” Jemial asked with a wink.

“I didn’t intentionally eavesdrop,” Bernadette said a bit defensively but with good humor, knowing that Jemial was only kidding. “But you’re right; there was something…I don’t know if it means anything, but…once I did hear Ages say something that I don’t think he meant to say as loudly as he did. It was about something or someone named…‘Kimball.’”

Jemial frowned. “What’s a Kimball?”

“It doesn’t ring any bells with me, either, but…if there is a big secret, I get the feeling that we’ll all know about it soon enough.”

Jemial grunted in agreement as he returned to work on the files. “Maybe. In the meantime, I’m not losing any sleep. After all, how bad could it be, right?”

Chapter 6: Hitching a ride

Martin and Lambert settled down to spend the night in the abandoned den of a fox or coyote. By leaving the leaves and brush at its entrances as undisturbed as possible, and by spraying their de-scentifying solution all around, they ensured themselves a peaceful and undisturbed night’s rest. They were quite excited about the next day, though; since, by their estimation, they’d reach the highway—and quite possibly their ultimate destination, the NIMH facility—within that same day. Both admitted to some trepidation over the idea of stowing away in a human vehicle to get to the town; they’d had plenty of time to think about and discuss the matter, and so were even more aware of the risks. But there was certainly no turning back now; that was totally out of the question. With the prospects of a very interesting day to come, to say the least, they went to sleep.

* * *

“Mommy, where’s Daddy?” Vanessa Brisby asked her mother as she and her twin brother Kirk were being tucked into bed.

“Now, sweetheart, I already told you. He’s with Mr. Ages, and they’re looking after that poor mouse that came in yesterday, who was very tired and very sick.”

“But why is Daddy there?” asked Kirk. “Why does he have to be with him?”

“He…didn’t tell me,” replied Madeline. “He said that when that mouse wakes up, and can talk to us…then he could tell us for sure.” Inwardly she winced; it was the same explanation she’d given to Lyndon and Shawna as she tucked them in, and again she felt as if she were lying outright, and she wanted to level with them as much as possible. And yet…on her two visits to the ward, she’d learned enough to understand at least some of Johnathan and Ages’s reasoning, and why what they suspected should be kept under wraps for the time being. On her first visit, accompanied by Alma, she’d sensed almost immediately that Johnathan was keeping something from her; and he’d taken her aside, telling her privately that he’d likely have something to tell her later, but to come alone. He was genuinely regretful about not being able, for whatever reason, to tell her more; this Madeline could discern beyond a doubt, given their emotional rapport and longstanding no-secrets vow. So when she did as he asked and came by later in the day by herself, even keeping her visit as much of a secret as possible from Alma, he told her something for which she then understood, at least to a degree, all of the secrecy. It was definitely something which would otherwise be the source of rumors running wild, and until the patient woke up and could tell his own story, it was best kept under wraps. Ages had even agreed that it was best that Alma not be told until the truth was confirmed (“God love her, and so do I, but she’s not the best at keeping secrets,” was how he summed it up). Even Cynthia was told no more than the rest of the medical staff, something that she seemed to understand though couldn’t help feeling hurt about. Justin was the only other one who’d been told thus far. Madeline understood all this very well, but all the same couldn’t help feeling hurt herself, especially after Johnathan told her he thought it best if he stayed in the ward overnight. It would be the first time since their reunion over two years ago that they’d slept apart; nothing in all that time had been enough to do this, and even after he apologized profusely and embraced and kissed her consolingly and told her he’d make it all up to her in the days to come, it was still hard for her to completely accept it. Could it be true? she wondered. Is he really who they think he is? Given what they’d known all these years, it seemed impossible. And yet, if anyone would know…

“I heard Mr. Ages had to cut his leg off,” said Kirk, interrupting his mother’s musings.

“Eeeuuww!” Vanessa wrinkled her nose.

“Yes, it’s true,” replied Madeline, “and it’s such a shame. But if he hadn’t, that mouse would have gotten sicker, and probably would have died. But he’ll be all right now. And now you two need your sleep.” She gave them each a goodnight kiss and hug, told them she loved them, and tiptoed out of the room.

* * *

Martin woke first, stretched limbs, and made his way through the debris-laden den entrance. Once completely outside, he noticed a different scent; and almost immediately found himself being investigated by another forest denizen, one much larger though still very young: a fawn. Martin was initially startled, but soon began chatting with her. When Lambert emerged, he got the idea to get the fawn’s mother to give them a lift at least part of the way to the highway. Luckily, she was nearby; but when Lambert made the offer to her, she haughtily refused. The doe did at least point them in the right direction and tell them that it wasn’t too far off. Martin thanked her for the information, and told a still slightly-disappointed Lambert that they couldn’t expect her to leave her fawn for any great period of time anyway. They gathered some breakfast and forged ahead.

As they proceeded with their sixth day of travel and final leg of the “wilderness” phase of their journey, Martin and Lambert reflected on their adventures thus far: the sights they’d seen, the acquaintances they’d made, the dangers they’d encountered. Just having made it through all that, they knew, boosted their confidence in the remainder of the journey going equally well. Lambert confessed that, days ago, he’d virtually given up the notion that he was in this solely to keep Martin “out of trouble”; his enthusiasm for the journey’s purpose was now certainly equal to Martin’s. Martin silently reflected on other matters: the not-entirely-banished notion that bringing along the Stone might not have been a good idea…and that strange “well-wishing” that he’d felt three nights ago. In truth, neither concerned him overly much now. The former, while undeniably still there, had been reduced to little more than a very small nagging doubt; while the latter seemed more and more attributable to simple homesickness as it receded further into the past—though he still hadn’t told Lambert about it. He did admit now to Lambert that as much as he felt that this trip was doing them both good, he did feel a touch of homesickness. Lambert admitted to the same.

After about two hours of hiking, Lambert suddenly came to a halt. “Listen,” he whispered to Martin, who again rode on his back. “Hear that?” They both cocked an ear. It was a sound undeniably alien and out of place in this wilderness: a combined hissing and rumbling which continually shifted, never sounding exactly the same from moment to moment. It was a sound totally unfamiliar to these two travelers, but nonetheless they both knew instantly what it meant.

“All right!” exclaimed Martin. “Gid—er, let’s get going!” Lambert broke into a swift trot toward the sound, which, in the next few minutes, grew stronger. It was also apparent that they were very near the forest’s edge; an expanse of open space could be seen ahead, beyond the trees. Knowing that this surely confirmed their expectations of what lay ahead, their excitement grew.

Soon they drew up to the forest’s edge. They emerged into the open, squinting against the unobstructed daylight. Martin dismounted from Lambert’s back, and they hopped up to a fallen log for a better view of the scene before them. Directly in front was an incline of a 50 to 55-degree angle, 200-odd feet long; beyond which the ground leveled off for another hundred feet or so. Beyond lay that which they’d traveled so long and hard to reach, and upon which traveled a seemingly-endless procession of human-made vehicles of an equally-endless variety of shapes and sizes; one of which, it was hoped, would take them to their final destination, or at least close to it. These vehicles were moving, often two abreast, in two opposite directions: closer to the two friends, they were moving from left to right, towards the northeast. Across a brief strip of ground, the remainder of the traffic moved in the opposite direction. Beyond that, the forest resumed. They took it all in with both eagerness and awe, these two small travelers: the sights, the sounds; and yes, even the smells, which they increasingly found to be none too pleasant, even at this distance. Nonetheless it all seemed to beckon to them.

“Wow…” said Martin, gazing to and fro slowly. “So that’s a highway.”

“So it is…so it is.” Lambert turned to his friend. “Shall we?”

Martin grinned. “Let’s go.” They started off down the incline. The grass was fairly tall, but still they were extremely wary, knowing that hawks patrolled open areas like this. It would be a great shame to have come this far only to become someone’s dinner, they agreed. There were some trees, bushes and rocks between the woods’ edge and the highway shoulder, but they were relatively few and far between. They kept moving steadily, down to where the ground leveled off. The grass was starting to become shorter, and this increased their wariness as they skipped from what cover was available to the next, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Finally they came to a rather thick bush only about thirty feet from the shoulder. They ensconced themselves well within it and plotted their next move.

“Okay, back to reality,” said Lambert wryly. “Now we just have to get on board one of these monsters.” At this distance, they did seem more monstrous; though both of them had seen motor vehicles before, it was quite some time ago—back at the Fitzgibbons farm—and was limited to only a few cars and trucks and farm equipment. Being near all these vehicles, moving so fast and so noisily, was quite an unsettling and intimidating experience; they realized, though, that this, like being near humans, was another thing they’d have to get used to if they were still committed to carrying out this mission, especially if they expected to be riding one or more of the “monsters” in the next couple of days or so. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for one to pull over to the shoulder. But would it be headed for Sampson?

Lambert brought up another matter that could further complicate their plans, one that was becoming clearer the longer they waited: “How can we be sure that this vehicle will stop anywhere close by here?”

Martin had to admit that he hadn’t considered just how long a wait they could be in for, nor how they could be sure that their ride would stop nearby. It was one of those matters which one doesn’t give much thought to until one is in the thick of the situation. “Okay, so I didn’t take everything into consideration. Look, I said that there were things we’d worry about when the time came.”

“I know you did…and I’m still with you a hundred percent, believe me. I guess there’s no sense in moving from here, at least not yet.”

“Guess we’ll have to keep eyes peeled for someone slowing down. How ’bout you watch that way, and I’ll watch this way.” And so they did…and as the minutes dragged on, they saw increasingly just how much they’d been leaving to blind chance. After all, this highway stretched on and on for who knows how long, and was designed for nonstop travel, and everyone just kept rolling along. How could they be sure anyone would stop, let alone nearby, and let alone someone on his way to Sampson? They continually gave words of encouragement to each other, especially about the things they had to look forward to: the adventures that lay ahead, the stories they’d tell upon their return. It was a major effort, though, to keep from becoming discouraged or impatient, especially as the minutes became an hour, then two hours.

It was shortly after that point that Lambert said, “Say, Marty, you think it’s about time that we headed for home?” to which Martin replied only with the dirtiest look that Lambert could remember ever seeing on him. Yet…what if no one stopped? They still had some of their own food stores in their packs, but they wanted to conserve them as much as possible; and with the last of the berries they’d brought with them finished, and with nothing to eat here except exhaust fumes and road dust, thoughts of home were looking better and better.

And then, all at once, everything changed. “Marty…take a look,” Lambert said quietly, pointing down “his” way, northeast. Could it be…yes, it was definitely a vehicle slowing down, one that had just passed them; but would it pull over to the shoulder and…stop! Yes!

Broad grins crossed both their faces. “Let’s roll,” said Martin, and they fairly jumped from the bush and finally, two hours and forty-two minutes after they’d hidden there, began making their way down the road to what they hoped would be their lucky break. They continued to keep well off the shoulder, and low, almost crawling on their bellies, with great wariness, to avoid as much attention as possible.

The stopped vehicle was a white panel van, with side windows at the front and just in back of the front seats, and windows on the back doors. It was about two hundred feet further down the road, and as they advanced closer to it, Martin and Lambert continually glanced up to see what was happening with it. The occupants, two men in their twenties, had gotten out, and were already bringing out tools from the back door of the van. They could also see that the van was leaning toward the left rear corner; and they knew enough about motor vehicles to know that this had to mean a flat tire. This was confirmed when one of the men brought out the spare wheel.

The closer they got, the more they strove to remain unseen. Almost even with the van was a small shrub, about 25 feet from the shoulder. They made for it, first by keeping a greater distance from the shoulder; and then, when they reached the point where they could get to it without being in the men’s line of sight, they did so. All the while, they kept their ears open to the men’s conversation; any hint of where they were bound was of paramount importance to these would-be stowaways. So far, they weren’t saying much; mostly about the job at hand, other things that meant little to the two rodents.

During a lull in the men’s exchanges, Lambert said to Martin, “You know…I think that even if they’re not headed for Sampson, at least we’d be headed in that general direction. I wouldn’t want to keep waiting here in this area much longer.”

“I know what you mean. I hope it won’t come to that, but I’m prepared to take any steps to get there, for as long as it takes.”

“Yeah, but…we shouldn’t wait here much longer, though. We don’t know how long it’ll take them to change that tire.” They’d both already looked for a way in; the back door was wide open, of course, but that was too risky, with the men working at that end. It looked as if their best bet was the partially rolled-down front window, on the passenger’s side. The driver’s-side window was also rolled down, but they’d likely be seen on that side as well; and since it faced the traffic, that was not a likely option.

“Let’s wait just a bit longer…’cause I get the feeling that…” Martin instantly went silent as one of the men spoke.

“Well, so much for getting back to Sampson by noon.”

“Yeah,” replied his friend.

Martin looked at Lambert excitedly. “Was that an engraved invitation or what? C’mon, let’s get on board!” The two dashed from around the shrub, almost recklessly, but continuing to keep out of the men’s sight. They stopped in front of the front bumper, which they’d figured to be the best way up. Lambert stood up straight to better assess how to start the climb.

“I could probably make it in one leap,” observed Martin. “But maybe we’d better—hey!” In an instant Lambert had snatched him off his feet and given him a healthy toss right up to the top of the bumper, upon which he landed quite smoothly. He looked down upon the now-grinning rat in disbelief. “Geez, give a guy a warning next time!”

“You’re welcome.”

Martin made to say more, but suddenly found he didn’t have the heart, considering all they’d experienced thus far, especially the encounter with the bobcat; he just shook his head, now smiling himself, and moved to one side to allow Lambert to join him.

“You sure you can make it in one leap?” he said.

“I’d better, otherwise you’ll have to come back down and boost me up,” replied Lambert with a grin. He moved around to the side of the bumper, knowing this would be easier for him, given his greater bulk, than leaping onto it from the front. After pausing to ensure the two men were still busily engaged in their wheel-changing, he took a deep breath and crouched slightly before springing upward and forward. Contact! He easily managed to propel his entire body onto the bumper, and he sighed with relief, grinning at Martin.

“Okay, step two,” said Martin as they moved in front of the grill. There was still a good amount of heat emanating from the radiator, but the grill wasn’t too hot to the touch. They began climbing, as close to the passenger’s side as possible, Martin ahead of Lambert. The grill stopped short of the hood, of course, so Martin signaled Lambert that it was time to give him another boost. Lambert moved a bit further up to enable Martin to stand on his shoulders, then he moved further still. Now Martin was able to pull himself up by grabbing onto the crack in the hood. Once entirely up, he again moved to one side to give Lambert plenty of room. Lambert carefully inched his way up to where he could also get ahold of the crack, with feet still clinging to the grill. He pushed himself up sideways from the grill, swinging the lower part of his body up onto the hood and hooking one foot into the crack. With a little help from Martin, he was able to bring himself up entirely. It was all a bit tricky to negotiate with all the smooth painted metal surfaces they had to work with.

Now they looked ahead to step three: crossing the hood to the windshield. This in itself posed little problem, as the hood tilted upward at an angle not too sharp, enabling them to make their way up without slipping backwards, as they immediately found. But they did feel more exposed and vulnerable now, a feeling compounded when they reached the windshield and found they could see all the way to the back of the van, and through the back door’s windows, near which the van’s occupants were still changing the wheel and could be seen occasionally stepping into their line of sight. At least the doors weren’t wide open; that would leave them even more open to discovery. The traffic continually rushing by so swiftly and noisily was adding to their nervousness as well, even though everyone was passing by too fast to notice them. They were aware, though, of the fact that since the two men were working on the side of the van that faced the traffic, they themselves were being more cautious and probably taking a bit longer to finish the job than they would otherwise. This bought their would-be stowaways more time to carry out their own task, though it didn’t make them feel any less nervous.

Step four: they prepared themselves to employ the same boosting technique one more time. The windshield was at an angle that wasn’t too steep, making it fairly easy for Lambert to give Martin a healthy push to the roof, and for him to leap up afterwards. Making sure no one was watching, they quickly got into position and carried out the first part. Martin used the momentum of Lambert’s push to easily pull himself over the upper rim of the windshield, and onto the roof.

As Lambert prepared to make his leap, though, one of the back doors suddenly opened. Lambert saw this and reacted instantly, letting himself slide partway down the hood. There he froze still and listened.

The next few seconds were terrible for both friends. They expected to hear “What was that?” or “Hey, did you see that?” any moment, plus they knew that this could mean the men were putting their tools away and would be ready to leave before their stowaways were completely on board.

Their apprehension quickly turned to relief as they realized that Lambert hadn’t been seen, and that the men weren’t finished with their work; the one opening the door must have just been putting one thing away or bringing it out. Okay, this time for sure, thought Lambert, and he again assumed the position, again watching for any movement from the back. Once properly poised, he instantly made his leap. Made it!

On the roof, the two gave each other a brief, congratulatory hug before looking to the last, and possibly most critical step. They moved as close as possible to the edge of the roof and peered down at the passenger’s-side window. They quickly evaluated the situation. The fact that the window was partially instead of entirely rolled down might work in their favor. Each of them could drop down to the upper edge of the glass, and bounce off of it into the seat. This could be risky, though; there wasn’t much room to properly execute a drop that would guarantee that they’d bounce off in the direction they wanted, especially with Martin’s smaller bulk. Plus, landing on the edge of that glass, though it was smooth, wouldn’t make for the most comfortable of bounces.

Soon an alternative plan was drawn up, and they quickly moved to put it into action. Martin slid himself down over the top rim of the window as he held on to Lambert’s hand. Once he was hanging down freely, Martin said “ready” and Lambert began swinging him, slowly at first but soon gaining momentum. Martin counted one, both of them counted two…and on three, Martin released his grip and, rolling with the fall, landed squarely in the seat. He quickly righted himself as Lambert prepared for his turn by turning himself around and gripping the window rim with all fours. Again he took a deep breath; then, all at once, stepped backward off the rim. His hindquarters swung forward into the open window and he let go when he’d swung far enough in. He landed somewhat less gracefully in the seat beside Martin.

“You’ll have to brush up on that one when we get back,” said Martin, grinning.

“Yeah, well, let’s save our congratulations for later.” Lambert jumped to the floor. “C’mon, we’d better—”

The back door opened again. Lambert instantly scurried to the floor in front of the seat, Martin quickly joining him. They listened as the tools and the bad tire were tossed in. Again they were relieved that Lambert hadn’t been seen. The back doors slammed shut, and both knew that was their cue to move to the back. They scurried in back of the back seats just as they heard the front doors open. They felt the floor of the van move underneath them—an odd, unfamiliar sensation—with the weight of the two men as they got on board, took their seats and slammed the front doors. The men continued to converse as the motor started, another odd sensation for their unknown passengers, and unsettling, too, for all that they were prepared for it. They couldn’t deny, of course, that they were also relieved to have had this degree of success so far. Now was definitely a good time for congratulations.

The van started out on the road again, bringing yet another new sensation to the two stowaways. Better get used to it, they again told themselves and each other as they found for the first time what the inside of a vehicle moving 60 to 65 miles per hour felt like. Martin seemed better able to acclimate himself than Lambert, who huddled under the seat in some discomfort.

After they’d traveled a few miles, Martin remarked casually, “Just think…only a few inches beneath us, all that hard, solid pavement is moving so swiftly. Of course, it’s not really moving, we are; but it amounts to the same.”

Lambert let out a groan, wanting nothing more at that moment than to give Martin a swift kick in the backside. Martin came up beside his friend, placing an arm around his shoulders, and the moment passed.

“It’s that bad, huh?” he asked.

Lambert nodded. “I think…I’ll be better once we’re off this thing. Right now, I almost wish I were dead.”

“Buck up, old chum. We know it’s not too far to Sampson, going this fast. In the meantime, I’ll keep a lookout for signs. There’s bound to be some along the way, showing how much further it is.” He glanced and pointed upward. “I’ll hop up on the seat here, and keep you posted.”

“Okay, be careful.”

Martin braced and sprang upward, alighting well onto the seat. His claws gripped the vinyl seat cover, though he tried not to scratch or puncture it; the less they betrayed their presence here, the better. He made his way to the passenger’s side, keeping himself out of sight of the driver’s rear-view mirror, and jumped up to the seat arm. Here he could plainly see out the window to the world rushing by: trees, fields, fences, buildings, guardrails, billboards. It was quite the thrill for him, as much as when he and his siblings and mother had flown with Jeremy and Beatrice that first time, over two years ago.

There were road signs as well, but none were especially informative as yet: green-and-white mile markers, the posted speed limit, others which didn’t tell Martin what he really needed to know. At one point the van’s surroundings abruptly turned dark, with the traffic sounds giving off a strange echo, startling Martin; and then, just as suddenly, everything returned to its previous state. He quickly realized what had happened: the van had passed beneath an overpass. He gave a small laugh of relief and quietly informed Lambert of what had just happened.

Over an hour passed in much the same way. Martin alternated between monitoring the scene outside up on the seat arm and going below to keep Lambert up to date and offer moral support and encouragement, since he’d become only a little more acclimated to this form of travel.

Finally a sign came into view, one which was much more relevant. Martin looked at it very intently, making sure he had all the information down pat; then he made his way back down to the floor. “Good news, Lammy. Only 35 more miles to go to Sampson. Hang in there, buddy. We’ll make it.” He sat down close to his slightly incapacitated friend. “It’s a shame you’re feeling so bad. You’re missing a great view up there.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Lambert replied wearily. Managing a smile, he added, “If they could see us back home right now, I’ll bet they still wouldn’t believe it.”

“Yes…literally.” Martin’s thoughts went to the amulet, tucked away in his satchel, and again wondered: would his parents have really used it to interfere with this trip? Had they, in fact, already wanted to but discovered the Stone missing? Best not to think about that now, he told himself, not when there were more immediate concerns: how they’ll leave the van when it stops, finding their way to NIMH, how they’ll get inside. Yes, there was still much to do, and much to look forward to. It should be some homecoming awaiting them, when it’s all through; quite interesting, to be sure.

Chapter 7: Awakening, warning and disembarking

Mr. Ages regarded silently the still-unconscious form in the bed beside him. It was now midafternoon, around two hours shy of two days since he’d come stumbling into Thorn Valley. In the next bed Johnathan slumbered away, having stayed up most of the night watching over the mystery patient. He’d certainly been convincing yesterday, Ages thought; but then, he’d always had the better memory for faces. But even if he were right about the patient, was it really necessary for them both to remain at his side constantly until he awakened? Johnathan had certainly presented a convincing argument, and if he were right, Ages could certainly understand his reasoning; but it still seemed unnecessary.

He glanced toward Johnathan; then abruptly, glanced back at the M.P. Was that a slight movement, glimpsed in his peripheral vision? Ages got up and silently drew closer. It almost seemed… Yes, there it is again, a slight tremor in his arm. Ages again glanced at Johnathan—should he be awakened now?—and again at the M.P. From him issued a low moan. In an instant, Ages was at Johnathan’s bedside, giving his shoulder a shake. “Johnathan, wake up!”

“Uumpfgh…morning already, sweetheart?” Johnathan smiled foolishly, eyes still closed.

“Johnathan, it’s me, Ages! Our patient’s waking up!”

Johnathan’s eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright. Still groggy, he almost stumbled as his feet hit the floor. Both mice came up to the M.P., one on either side of his bed, and watched as his eyelids began to flutter. His whole body began to stir. His eyes were suddenly wide open.

“Johnathan, go contact Justin immediately, and get Bernie in here,” Ages whispered urgently. Johnathan hesitated briefly, reluctant to leave at this point; but, respecting Ages’s authority in this matter, he quickly carried out the command.

The M.P.’s eyes wandered over the ceiling, then met Ages’s. He made to speak but couldn’t immediately, emitting a dry cough, then clearing his throat.

“Easy, fellow, easy,” said Ages as Bernadette entered the room. The M.P. gave a start when he saw her. “It’s all right, she’s a friend. We’re all friends here. No matter what you’ve been through, you’re safe here.”

Bernadette would remark later that she’d rarely heard Ages sound so genuinely concerned. She stood by, ready to administer a sedative through the intravenous tube if necessary. But now it looked as if it wouldn’t be, as the M.P. seemed to calm immediately at Ages’s words. He now studied the older mouse’s face briefly but with great intensity; then he gave a low, hoarse whisper: “Is that you…Ages?”

Ages’s eyes widened; at first in surprise, then with visible delight. “Yes, yes, that’s right. I’m Cyril Ages. This is Bernadette. And your own name…do you remember?”

“Yes…yes, of course. I’m Kimball. Kimball Davis.”

Ages nodded vigorously, again delighted. “Ah, yes…yes! Johnathan was right! It is you!”

“Johnathan…Johnathan Brisby?” Kimball was becoming increasingly lucid as his mind steadily accepted the reality of his surroundings.

“Yes, Johnathan Brisby! He’s here, too; and there are many other rats you may remember.”

Kimball gazed all around the room, and finally noticed the intravenous needle inserted in his left arm. Again he gave a start, and Bernadette was ready to restrain him in case he tried to pull it out; but instead, he looked at it with fascination.

“It’s all right,” said Bernadette. “It’s what kept you fed while you were unconscious.” She was puzzled over the two mice’s exchanges of recognition, but for now reserved comment.

“You…you have such things here? Where is this place?”

“Well, we generally call it simply the colony,” answered Ages, “but it’s located within an area called Thorn Valley.”

Kimball gave a sharp intake of breath, his eyes growing wider. “Thorn Valley…then…it’s true, I…” His expression was suddenly one of disbelief and confusion as he finally noticed how the lower part of his body, still covered by a light blanket, appeared to be missing something. Was his right leg sunken further down in the bed? Or was it…

Tentatively, he reached out, shaking his head slowly. With hands shaking, he drew aside the cover; and disbelief gave way to shock. He slowly drew trembling fingers over the bandaged stump, still shaking his head, afraid to confirm by touch what his sight was telling him. “It’s gone, it’s…really…” He moaned softly to himself, a pitiful sound.

“I’m so sorry, Kimball, old friend,” said Ages. “There was nothing we could do to save it. If we hadn’t taken it away, you surely would have died.” Kimball lowered his head in his right hand. Ages stroked his shoulder consolingly and replaced the bedcover. Bernadette couldn’t help feeling choked up, as much from Kimball’s reaction as to Ages’s display of compassion.

Johnathan’s return brought Kimball back to attention. “I got Justin on the horn, he’ll be here in a minute.” He approached the bed with a broad smile. “It is you...isn’t it, Kimball Davis?”

Kimball responded in kind, the matter of loss of limb momentarily forgotten. “Yes, Johnathan Brisby, it’s me. And Ages was right about you, too.”

Johnathan sat on the bed, and the two embraced. “It’s so good to see you.” He was unable to continue for a moment; when he found his voice again, it was heavy with emotion. “It’s just…amazing. All these years, we’d thought all of you had perished for certain.”

Bernadette could contain herself no longer. “Could someone please tell me what’s going on here?”

Johnathan straightened, his eyes glistening as he faced Bernadette. As he dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief, he told her, “We’re sorry we couldn’t tell you or anyone else sooner, but we didn’t want any unfounded rumors to get started. Bernie…meet Kimball Davis, another of the eleven mice who succeeded in escaping from NIMH, eight years ago.”

Bernadette gasped, hand on forehead. “I…I’m very pleased and honored to meet you,” she said incredulously. “So that’s how you all know each other. I should have known that, but…I have to confess, I don’t have the best memory for names.” Inwardly, she noted with amusement that Jemial didn’t find the name familiar either. It was an easy thing to forget; though all of the second- and third-generation rats were told the names of their fallen mouse comrades, it wasn’t as if they’d expected to actually meet any of them someday. But now she looked upon Kimball with genuine respect, overcoming her mild embarrassment.

“Yes…oh, yes, we knew each other quite well,” said Kimball. “And the rats…all of them escaped?”

“Yes,” said Johnathan, “and they made all this you see here. This is their colony.” He breathed in deep. “We were so sure…that none of the mice, besides Ages and me, could have possibly survived. That’s why we didn’t come back and search for you, at least not as far as we did.”

“It’s…all right, Johnathan. No need to apologize. I’m sure you…” Kimball’s features suddenly became etched with worry, as if he were reminded of something vital that had been forgotten in the midst of this reunion.

“Kimball? What’s wrong?” Ages asked.

“Oh, Lord, I just realized…why I came here, why I was so driven to reach you.” He looked up to his old comrades, looking as if the weight of the whole world were on his shoulders. “Listen to me…”

Just then Justin entered the room; and the first thing that greeted his ears was the strange mouse, the one that Johnathan had insisted was one of those he’d known while at NIMH, saying strangely familiar words that would haunt him for a long time to come:

“You’re all in grave danger. NIMH is coming!”

* * *

Martin had continued to stick close by Lambert as much as he could, though his friend was feeling a little better now since taking some of the upset stomach remedy they’d packed. If he’d known that he was this prone to motion sickness, thought Martin, he definitely wouldn’t have agreed to this trip within the time frame they’d planned on, or even close to it.

Soon, Martin felt the van slowing slightly. He got up, jumped back up on the seat and to his arm-perch. Sure enough, the van had traveled up an off-ramp and was approaching a red-and-white sign at the top of the incline. Martin knew only the rudiments of road signs, but he knew what “STOP” meant. He jumped down to the seat and called out quietly, “Lammy! Brace yourself, we’re gonna stop soon.” Martin could already feel the forward-pulling force as he hung on to the seat belt. On the floor, Lambert clung to one of the seat’s metal legs. The van made various creaks and groans as it came to a stop before making a right turn. After the turn, Martin jumped back down to the floor, where Lambert was making a few groans of his own; this last set of motions was doing him absolutely no good.

“Just hang in there, Lammy,” said Martin. “We’re off the highway, so the town can’t be too far off.” He hoped that what ailed Lambert was nothing more than simple motion sickness; he wished he could do more for him. Right now, he figured the best he could do was go back to the seat arm and keep both of them apprised on how close they were to town. So back up there he went, and looked to see what lay ahead. Very soon there appeared a sign that Martin thought could be of particular interest to them. As they passed it, he could clearly read: “Welcome to Sampson.” There were other words, in smaller letters Martin couldn’t make out; but, of course, he needed no further information. He relayed this to Lambert. “Now all we have to do is sit tight and wait for this thing to come to a stop, and for those guys to leave for a bit.”

Lambert gave a deep sigh of relief. “It’s too bad we’ll have to go back this same way, though. Now that’s something to look forward to.”

Martin had an impulse to say that he was sorry he got Lambert into all this, but thought better of it. After all, he rationalized, Lambert agreed to come along completely of his own accord. Certainly neither of them could predict precisely what was to come; but then, who could? No, an apology was definitely not in order. In fact, there really shouldn’t be anything to apologize for, after they returned to Thorn Valley. Well, maybe for taking the Stone without asking; and maybe for causing some worry. There will inevitably be some, since this trip had already taken longer than what they’d told their families and friends. It was only starting to dawn on Martin the effect their prolonged absence would have back home. Then he dismissed the thought; it’s useless to think about such things now, he reasoned, when there’s so much more to do.

Thus, he replied to Lambert: “There’s a lot that we can really look forward to, you know that. And don’t worry…you made it through this session alive. You can do it again.”

They spent the next few minutes in silent anticipation. Then, they felt the van making a right turn, and shortly after, a left. After about two more minutes, there was another left turn, followed by some slow maneuvering. Finally, the van came to a complete stop. The two men said a few more words about hoping this wouldn’t take too long. The driver shut off the motor, and they both got out.

Their unknown passengers looked at each other, smiling in relief—especially Lambert—as they heard the doors slam. “O-kay! Now we’re in business!” said Martin. Positive that the men were far enough away, they made their way out from under the back seat. Martin jumped back up to the seat arm, then to the top of the seat back and looked all around. From there, he could see most of the way around, except at the part of the van’s side walls that were close to the back, where there were no windows. They were in the parking lot of an auto-parts store. A few other vehicles were also parked there. Martin returned to the floor when somebody left the store and approached the sedan parked to the van’s right.

The two crouched low behind the right front seat and waited until the man got into the car, started it and backed it out before speaking. “I saw a row of bushes way off on the edge, where the blacktop ends, over to the right,” reported Martin. “I think that’s our best bet, once we’re out of here.”

“Let’s get a move on, then,” said Lambert decisively if a bit wearily.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?”

“I’d better be, ’cause we don’t know when those guys are coming back.”

“Okay,” said Martin. Both of them jumped up to the seat and looked up to the window, still partially down. Martin, being smaller and less conspicuous, climbed up to the window’s bottom edge to scan the area. No one leaving the store; no other humans on foot; no new vehicles pulling into the lot.

“C’mon up, the coast is clear.” Martin boldly leaped up to the upper edge of the window glass. As Lambert followed, Martin looked down, wishing that it wasn’t such a long drop, though he was certain he’d be able to handle it. At least the running board beneath the door would make it a little easier. They looked across the lot; to the sedan parked one space away, to the two other vehicles parked between it and the hedgerow.

“Well, see you below,” said Martin. He stepped off the glass and landed squarely on the running board, and then dropped to the pavement. Looking up at Lambert, now perched on the edge and hanging half out, he said, “You’re absolutely sure you’re up to it?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Otherwise, what’ll you do, try to catch me?”

“Good point. Okay, fire away.”

Lambert stepped over the edge of the glass, placing his feet on the outer gasket, still hanging on to the edge of the glass. He braced himself, then let go all at once. He landed with an “oof” but otherwise just as smoothly as Martin.

The two now together prepared for crossing the lot. Again making sure they were unobserved, they made a fast dash for the underside of the next car. They again looked around before going further, this time noticing a dog—a golden retriever—with his head sticking out of the partially-open window of the next car. It was evidently waiting for its owner to return, since there was no human visible, at least not in the front seat. It was at the window on the side facing them, though they managed to keep just out of its sight. They assessed their next move, taking into account the fact that this was the first domestic dog they’d actually seen up close. They knew, though, that it would be sure to make a lot of noise if it saw them; and though it was confined to the car, its barking could attract attention. They agreed to wait until it turned away before making their next dash. This took about two minutes; then, after again making sure no one else was approaching, they made their move.

Now, there was one more vehicle, a pickup truck, left to cross under before reaching the bushes. This one was currently unoccupied, but there was still the matter of the dog in the car above them. Lambert peered out cautiously, directly below the backseat door. Looking up, he saw what he’d expected to see but was a bit unnerved all the same. There was the dog again, head out the window, the underside of its muzzle and outhanging tongue directly above. Again, the two friends agreed to wait until the dog moved before crossing to the truck, though it would be trickier this time without the better view of the dog they had before.

They’d have to make do; and so, again after about two minutes, the dog’s muzzle slipped out of view. They looked both ways, and dashed for the underside of the pickup. Just as they reached it, a loud barking filled their ears. The dog hadn’t completely turned away from the window after all. The sound was so loud and so close that they both felt thoroughly panicked for a few seconds, though they knew the dog was confined to the car and couldn’t chase them. They ran almost blindly all the way under the truck, straight into and through the nearest bush and into the vacant lot beyond it. Only when they were safely ensconced within the tall grass did they come to a stop. Almost at once they began laughing excitedly over their escapade.

“I’d give that an ‘A’ for effort,” said Martin. “So now how do you feel?”

“If I still felt lousy from the ride, it’s scared out of me by now.” Lambert laughed again, shaking his head. He stood upright, adjusting his satchel. “So…now all we have to do is get to the NIMH lab.”

Martin did the same. “Yup…that’s all,” he understated. They began crossing the vacant lot, toward a building on its opposite side, alert for predators even here, which they knew could most likely take the form of stray cats or dogs. As they did, they discussed how they’d go about this next step. From the stories they’d been told by their parents for years, the NIMH lab was on the outskirts of town and was in a large white building, four stories tall. That description certainly didn’t match anything they could see in the immediate area; but then, they also knew that Sampson was a fairly large town and there was no guarantee that it would be anywhere close by. They could see a lot of close-set buildings in the area; they were, in fact, right smack in the middle of Sampson’s business district. So, how would they find the way to the lab? Surely a building that conspicuous would be well known to any local rats or mice, or other animals that they could easily communicate with. If there was enough of a local grapevine, they should be able to be directed to it easily enough. For now, they’d stick to the backlots and alleyways, traveling as much as possible in out-of-the-way areas away from human traffic, in hope of finding someone who was willing and able to get them started on their way. It was now around three in the afternoon, so they’d have plenty of daylight hours left. They were both exceedingly hungry, and so set about scrounging something for a late lunch before getting down to any other searching.

Chapter 8: Another escape from NIMH

“You’re all in grave danger! NIMH is coming!”

Even now, two hours later, the words continued to ring and reverberate in the heads of those who’d heard them, from the lips of this long-lost friend and comrade who had arrived so mysteriously; apparently driven on, almost to the point of death, by the sole desire to warn them of this danger. To Ages in particular were the words not only startling in their portent, but familiar as well; for they were the exact words Madeline Brisby had spoken to him two and a half years ago, which had precipitated his and the Rats’ almost-immediate withdrawal from their homes on the Fitzgibbons farm, and the Great Move to their present lodgings in Thorn Valley. When Ages, Johnathan, Justin and Bernadette had heard this new warning, none wanted to believe it, quite naturally; and Kimball actually became impatient and almost hysterical at their initial disbelief. Bernadette went ahead and administered the sedative; and soon after, a much-calmer Kimball apologized for his outburst. Justin more formally introduced himself, since the Rats and the other nine mice hadn’t had much time to really get to know each other at the time of the Escape. He then gently urged Kimball to start from the beginning the story he had to tell. Ages, though, felt that Kimball needed a bit more time to recuperate and more fully get his bearings in these new surroundings before beginning what everyone knew would be a tale quite long in telling: encompassing his own survival from what seemed a certain death in the airshafts, what he’d been doing and where he’d been all this time, how he learned of Thorn Valley’s being home to the Rats of NIMH…and how he’d learned of this supposed human discovery of their whereabouts, and its exact nature.

Justin and Johnathan had left almost immediately to call a council meeting. It was a brief one; everyone was brought up to date on Kimball’s status, including the confirmation of his identity and his warning. There was a controversy over how long they should wait before milking him for more information; since, if his warning was as urgent as he’d made it sound, shouldn’t some action be taken as soon as possible? It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but ultimately it was decided that when Ages decided Kimball was well enough to tell his tale, the entire council would gather in the ward to hear it. Then, and only then, when more details were known, would any plan of action be discussed.

Immediately following the meeting Johnathan met Madeline in the waiting area outside the ward. She’d heard Kimball had awakened; but before she could inquire further, Johnathan drew her to him, embracing and kissing her, thanking her for her patience. She assured him that she understood all the secrecy and there was nothing to forgive; and so he brought her in to meet Kimball, who was delighted to meet Johnathan’s self-described “better half.”

Kimball had many other visitors, including the Brisby children, and Ages’s wife and children. Cynthia, Teresa and Timothy told him of their days on the Fitzgibbons farm, and how their father had been unwillingly forced away from them for almost a year, though—by Johnathan’s request—they refrained from going into greater detail, including anything about the red amulet, and that it had sent him to an entirely different reality. They told him it was a long, involved story which they’d gladly share in the near future. The visit did much to boost Kimball’s morale, his heart gladdened to meet all of them, and he gladly and generously allowed them to consider him their “uncle.” Cynthia, luckily for Johnathan, had proven, like her mother, to be very understanding of his withholding of information, her earlier discontent quickly giving way to the pleasant surprise and delight over meeting this peer of her father. Ages explained as best he could to Alma why he’d kept his suspicions of Kimball’s identity from her, and luckily she understood quite well—even after learning that Madeline had known about it already—aware herself of how she may not have been able to keep quiet about it.

And so it was now, two hours after he’d regained consciousness in the ward, that a rather large group was now gathered in a rough semicircle, some sitting in chairs or on the adjacent beds or on the floor, some standing; all to hear a story which many already felt would signal a major turning point in all their lives. Mr. Ages would normally not allow this many visitors to his ward at one time, but if there was any thought of raising objection, he never gave it voice.

“Well, old friend,” said Johnathan, “I guess you weren’t expecting to tell this to so large a crowd.”

“It’s all right, Johnathan. The more that hear it now, the better.” Kimball sighed as he regarded his audience: over twenty rats, most of them council members; Ages, Johnathan, and their wives Alma and Madeline seated on either side of his bed. Ages had run many tests and had determined that he was now strong enough and improving quickly; he’d been taken off the intravenous feed and was eating solid food. Soon he’d be able to get out of bed; though, of course, he’d have to get used to getting around on three limbs. Now he was sitting upright, much more relaxed and comfortable.

“Well,” he began hesitantly. “First I want to say that I’m very, very pleased to see that you’ve all accomplished so much here, and that you’ve done so well on your own. I just hope that…that it doesn’t all just…” He closed his eyes, seemingly unable to continue.

“It’s all right, Kimball,” said Johnathan gently, patting his arm. “Just take your time.”

“But that’s just it, Johnathan, how much time is there?” Though he was much calmer now, his tone was no less urgent. “Still…nothing’s happened yet, and it’s been over a week. Maybe…” He looked around at all the faces of the assembled, all focused on him, all anticipating his every word. “Maybe…I should start from the beginning.” Kimball managed a smile and cleared his throat.

“I’m sure all of you who were there remember that day in the NIMH laboratory. We’d noticed how you rats had carefully and meticulously planned your escape over a period of several days. When we realized what your goal was, it was suggested that we could accompany you; in fact it was Johnathan here that made the suggestion. So when the day came, he was our spokesman, even though some of us, including him, had misgivings about approaching you at what was really the last minute. But as I’m sure you remember, we were located in a different part of the lab, and we had little if any opportunity to meet before then. It’s a shame we’d had so little contact, otherwise we could have planned our escape together. As it was, we weren’t as prepared as you for what was to come, and…as you know, things went awry, tragically so for most of us mice.

“We’d all followed the route that led to the outside, using your spool of thread as a guide. But though we’d been told to beware the force of the air, sucked in from the outside by motor-driven turbines which switched on and off periodically, we were still woefully unprepared. Just before we reached the grating through which we’d reach the outside, the wind struck. It had been hard enough before to maintain a grip, but now it was impossible; the force was so overpowering.

“We all tumbled backward, tail over head in total darkness, glancing off those cold metal walls and each other. It was a sickening and horrible sensation, made even more so by the fact that we didn’t know where we’d end up, and that we probably wouldn’t survive. The whole experience will surely haunt me the rest of my days.”

Kimball felt the need to pause for breath. “It was impossible to get any sort of bearing from one moment to the next, and so I could only flail about blindly, in the slim hope that I’d grab on to something to which I could maintain a hold.

“Then…something happened which, like this entire experience, happened so quickly that it took a few more seconds to comprehend. Suddenly I was no longer moving; I’d managed to secure a hold on a seam joining two segments of the shaft together. Once I’d realized that’s what I had done, I brought my other hand to the seam and held on as tightly as I could. I still consider it close to a miracle that I was able to do so.

“After about a minute, perhaps—it was difficult to tell—the wind stopped. My first impulse was to get out of there as quickly as possible, get to a place of safety. Then I realized: where was safety? Where was I? I’d been blown into one of many shafts, all unfamiliar, and hadn’t a clue as to how to find my way back to the grating; plus, the wind would surely start again before long. All this combined to maintain the grip of fear on me. For a time, I was so terrified I couldn’t think what to do, and continued to just hang on there. Then, the realization hit me all at once, that moving anywhere was better than staying where I was. I forced myself to think clearly and rationally, and I began to more fully assess my current predicament. The shaft was at about a 45-degree angle, which was fairly easy for me to climb; and climb I should, I figured. The mere thought of going down any further terrified me, and there was no way I’d let the wind catch me again. So I began making my way up; shakily at first, but with increasing confidence as I found that there were many places I could grab onto when the wind started up again: more seams, ends of bolts and the like.

“After I’d gone a ways, I heard something coming from an adjoining shaft, off to the side up ahead; definitely sounds of movement, much like those I’d been making. I froze, mind reeling; I’d concentrated so hard on saving myself that I hadn’t even considered that other of the mice may have survived. I was about to call out when a familiar sound began, one that made my heart skip a beat. ‘Brace yourself!’ I shouted out to the other mouse. I did the same as the wind started again. Again, I could only think about keeping as tight a grip as possible.

“After about three minutes it died down again. I loosened my grip and for the first time realized how sore and raw my hands and feet had become from all this hanging on for dear life I’d been doing. I moved forward and almost at the same time I could hear the other mouse do the same; I was afraid that she, or he, may not have been able to. A voice came to me, shakily saying ‘Hello?’ It was a voice I recognized, so we approached each other. We touched noses and took in each other’s scent, confirming our identities; then we embraced.

“The other mouse was Patricia…you remember her, don’t you?” Kimball addressed Ages and Johnathan, and they nodded, impressed and pleased to hear this, as was everyone else; it was the first Kimball had so much as hinted that another besides himself had survived.

“Well, we could feel each other shaking like leaves. We began to talk, and she reported that she was feeling just as stiff and sore as I was, and we were equally terrified of the prospect of remaining in the airshafts much longer. We probably could have made our way to the grating eventually, but we knew there was surely an almost-endless maze of shafts to get through first; and neither of us could face that prospect. We’d almost surely starve to death before then, too. So we agreed that if there was a way out of the ventilation system that was easier and faster, we’d take it, even if it didn’t lead outside.

“So we continued on, more or less randomly, until we could make out a faint source of light ahead. We made for it, and we were stunned and amazed at what we found. Here was an end to one shaft that was completely open, leading to a room which was darkened, like most of the building that time of day, but which we soon realized to be the building’s cafeteria, with tables, chairs, vending machines, a kitchen sink. We realized later that one of the staff had removed the grating, probably for cleaning, and hadn’t yet bothered to replace it. But we didn’t care; right then all that mattered was that we were free of those damnable airshafts.

“Once we were certain no one was about, we jumped down to a countertop directly below us, and then set about sizing up the place. We moved furtively though it was increasingly clear that there was no one else in the building, or at least that part of it. We knew there’d likely be only a night watchman to watch out for. We made our way to the sink and set about quenching our thirst, and cleaning and grooming ourselves and each other; those airshafts weren’t the cleanest place in the world. We discussed ways of getting out of the building, as well as the possibility that yet other mice may have survived. Before I’d come here, I’d assumed all this time that Patricia and I and…one other were the only ones who had survived, just as Johnathan and Ages thought they were. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Virtually everyone there felt like asking who this “one other” was, but knew that would come later. Kimball acknowledged their curiosity and promised to tell all.

“So…we were greatly concerned that some of the other mice may be alive and trying to find their way out. But—and I’m still not very proud to admit it—we couldn’t face entering the airshafts ever again. We agreed that if there were others, they would have to find their own way out, as we did.” Kimball sighed, unable to meet anyone’s eyes for a moment. “I guess…neither of us was cut out to be very heroic…unlike you two. Justin tells me that both of you, in your own way, have done much to earn that description.”

“Be that as it may,” said Johnathan, “nothing you can say will convince me that your bringing yourself here wasn’t heroic.” Everyone added yeas of agreement.

Kimball smiled and said, “Thank you, all of you. That really means a lot. In fact, the more I’m…with all of you, the more it seems that this is home, that this is where I truly belong.”

“When all’s said and done, Kimball,” said Justin, “you will have a home here, if you so choose.”

“Thank you, Justin. Now, where was I… Oh, yes. We also realized that you rats had surely given up searching for any of us, and that we probably would have wanted to accompany you if we could; but by then, you were surely far away, having gone in any direction away from the building. We soon realized we’d have to accept that we’d have next to no hope of joining up with you; at least at that time, of course. At any rate, even then we held no antipathy for you for leaving us there; after all, it wasn’t as if you’d deliberately abandoned us. You had to be on your way, and as far from NIMH as possible, for your own safety; so we couldn’t blame you for that.

“So…I mentioned that we were discussing how to get outside. We couldn’t come up with a solution right then, but until we could, we had to set about finding some food. Searching the counters and cupboards further, we found small single-serving boxes of dry cereal. We selected one and almost tore it open on the spot, but we soon realized how unwise that would be, if we were to keep our presence secret. Patricia suggested we take it someplace out of the way first, such as the trash receptacle we’d seen on our initial survey of the room, the kind with a spring-loaded door that swings in. I couldn’t think of a better idea, so we dragged and pushed this box of cereal across the counter to the trash can. Fortunately, it wasn’t too great a jump to get from one to the other, though getting the box over there was a bit of a challenge. We made our way inside and found there was a small amount of trash, mostly paper, still in there. This gave me an idea: we could stay in there, and when the trash would get taken out the next day, we’d go with it. The plastic liner in the can was of the opaque type, so unless someone was to deliberately dig through it for something, we’d be able to leave undetected if we kept still. With this much agreed upon, we broke open the cereal box. As we ate, we agreed that we would stay together after we got out of there, though it hardly needed saying; indeed, how could we not? Though what would be in store for us, ultimately, we didn’t give much thought to then.

“We grew relaxed enough to sleep for a time, clinging close to each other, awakened only once before morning when someone walked through the room. We kept perfectly still and silent as we saw a flashlight beam pass across the trashcan door. The night watchman, we realized. After he left, it occurred to us that there’d be much more commotion around there if our escape, and that of the rats, had been discovered. If not then, then certainly in the morning there’d be plenty of commotion either way, when everyone came in for work; so we enjoyed the solitude while it lasted.

“Sure enough, there was commotion aplenty in the morning. We’d prepared ourselves for this, but it was still extremely unsettling to be near all these people, even though we couldn’t be seen. It became even more so whenever someone placed some trash in the receptacle; though, of course, the more that came in, the better concealed we’d be. We continued to hold on to each other—for dear life, it seemed. Through it all, we listened closely for any bits of conversation, but we heard nothing about the Escape. It seemed hard to believe that it hadn’t been discovered, until we realized that this lack of mention of a subject that would be foremost on many people’s minds was probably due to its being kept secret. We knew how important we were to the scientists, and that their experiment—us—had succeeded far beyond their expectations; and that success provided our means of escape. Such a thing would surely not be allowed to become general knowledge to everyone who worked there, or to everyone in general.

“Most of the morning had passed before the moment we’d been waiting nearly half a day for arrived. We suddenly heard the top of the receptacle being opened. We were pretty well buried, so we couldn’t be immediately seen; but it was still rather stressful, to say the least, coming that close to being discovered, as much as we’d prepared for it. The bag was closed and we felt it and us being lifted out. We were taken down a flight of stairs, out at least two doors, and tossed into a dumpster.

“We waited until we were sure no one was nearby before making our way to the plastic liner. We quickly chewed and clawed a hole through it and made our way out. In the next few seconds, we’d jumped from the dumpster and were running as fast as we could toward a small wooded area behind the building. Those first few minutes of freedom were so exhilarating, so elating: I swear there’s been little to equal it since then. I’m sure it was the same for the rest of you when you made your own escape.

“We barely slowed down, let alone stopped, until we’d reached the woods. When we did, we were out of breath, our sides aching and unable to say a word from the sudden and prolonged exertion; but we were both laughing excitedly. We embraced in thankfulness of our freedom. I knew that at that moment we both first realized just how thankful we were to not only be liberated from our captivity, but to have each other as well; and how our feelings for each other were starting to run deeper than that of mere friendship and camaraderie. These feelings were tinged with sadness, though; for there was still the matter of our lost comrades. We were torn between staying close to this area in the hope of meeting any of them if they got out, and putting as much distance as possible between ourselves and NIMH. Going back inside was out of the question, and yet how would we know for sure if any others escaped? Or had escaped already? On the other hand, surely there would be humans scouring the area for evidence of their escaped charges. Perhaps they’d already done so, but that was no guarantee against more of the same.

“We decided we would move further away; not an easy decision to make, but we thought it the most practical choice. Though we had no definite plans for the future at that point, we’d already agreed to stay together indefinitely. It wasn’t long before we realized just how deep our mutual feelings ran, and soon Patricia and I had declared our love for each other. Somehow, knowing that we’d live longer and have much more time together than we would otherwise seemed to make it that much deeper and…more special.”

Kimball looked up at the ceiling, sighing, momentarily lost in thought; and those closest to him, especially Johnathan and Madeline, recognized the look on his face. His separation from Patricia was a pain both knew well, and they looked at each other knowing full well what was on each other’s mind: that they wouldn’t stay separated for long, and they had just the means at their disposal to reunite them. Everyone else in the audience knew this as well, of course, but all knew—without any formal agreement beforehand—that this was a subject best left for later, after they’d heard Kimball’s story. So for now, Johnathan merely said, “You will see her again, Kimball. Somehow, someway, we’ll make that happen.” Madeline and everyone else agreed emphatically.

“Thank you so much, my friends. Well…as I said, we didn’t settle on a permanent or even semi-permanent home for several weeks. We led a nomadic existence, staying within the general vicinity of the town. We had our reasons for not wandering further; to be honest, we felt rather intimidated by the prospect of making any really great journey, just the two of us; such an undertaking would be better if there were more of us; safety in numbers, and all that, as I’m sure you can all attest. Certainly we didn’t fully accept then that we were the only surviving mice, and though neither of us said as much, that was most certainly a factor in our remaining ‘local.’ There’d be a greater chance of our finding other survivors; a slim one, to be sure, but better than none. At any rate, our biggest concerns were settling down and educating ourselves about the world. Of course, as close as we were now, we knew that children would be an inevitability for us, and we agreed that we wanted them; and in fact, it was when Patricia first announced she was pregnant that we hastened our search for a place of more permanence.”

Chapter 9: The "strange one"

Kimball leaned his head back, sighing with pleasure at the memory. “Ah, what times those were. It was the perfect place we’d found to raise our family. Not far from downtown Sampson there was a lot that was quite overgrown, with many weeds and brushy growth, adjacent to a small wooded area. In it was a small abandoned building which seemed to have been a workshop of some kind. There, or rather in a crawlspace beneath it, we made our first home. We found a nice small entrance hole on the outside, just large enough for us but too small for larger animals. Inside it was very spacious, but cozy; we knew from the start that it was perfect for our needs, and so we lost no time in making it truly ours. We gave it a thorough cleaning out of the leavings of previous occupants and brought in many things to make it homier. And just in time, for shortly after we’d settled in came the arrival of our first two children, Jessica and Norman. It was surprising to us that it was only a double birth, and that they were born larger and more fully developed, but we quickly realized it had to be one of the changes wrought by the NIMH treatments. Either way, they were ours to love and raise.” He paused, sighing and smiling.

“And educating ourselves…yes, we certainly did. Anything that was readable, we read, when we could get ahold of it. There weren’t many opportunities at first, until the time we discovered the local library, and found out how we could gain entry. There was definitely no stopping us then! When Jessie and Norman were big enough, we’d take them on extended ‘learning excursions.’ Yes, we quite literally lived at the library part of the time. We’d spend the daylight hours in out-of-the-way areas, and at night we’d come out and read voraciously. There were always books sitting on tables, and those proved easiest for us to deal with; you might well imagine the difficulty two little mice would have in taking even the smallest volumes down from the shelves. The ones on tables were usually reference books: encyclopedia volumes, books on history, mathematics, science, a dictionary. These we especially valued having access to, and there was always enough light shining in from the street lights to read by.

“Later on, though, something odd seemed to be going on. It almost seemed as if certain books were being deliberately left out for us; different encyclopedia volumes in succession, for instance. We wondered: did the librarian suspect or know outright that something was amiss after hours? We were always as careful as possible to leave no trace of our being there, and yet we couldn’t help suspecting this. At first, we thought that she might try staying there after hours, to see for herself what was going on. So for a while, we were careful not to show ourselves very soon after closing time, and we’d cautiously watch for any sign that she was about. We realized the irony in this situation, that we were watching for her after hours because we suspected she could be watching for us! Soon, though, it appeared that the latter wasn’t the case, because we never saw her after hours, even as we continued our studies pretty much unabated. To this day, we can’t say for certain whether or not she ever suspected; but if she did, she would have to be considered a genuine friend and ally to us, or very close to one.

“One thing I took an especially keen interest in was geography. I spent considerable time poring over maps, memorizing all those place names and different types of physical features. On one such occasion, while looking over maps of this part of the state, I noticed the Thorn Mountains National Forest that lay to the south of Sampson. It occurred to me that an area like this, further removed from human civilization, would be the perfect place for you rats to set yourselves up. I made an especial point of memorizing all the details on how to get there from Sampson, and landmarks and points of interest within the forest. I won’t say that it became an obsession—at least not then—but there was undeniably a feeling, in the back of my mind, that someday I would go there myself.

“Ah, but it seemed that that day, if it ever came, would be further and further off in the future, the more and more our state of domesticity increased. As much as I did want to see other places, it was the greatest, most fulfilling experience I could imagine to see our children grow; the wide-eyed curiosity at each new discovery, the eagerness to learn new things; which, indeed, Patricia and I shared with them. We were very pleased to find that not only did they inherit our increased intelligence and learning capacity, but we also experienced the wonderful phenomenon of having children who grew and matured much more slowly. We had a total of thirteen children over the years, but only one of them still lives with us…or perhaps I should say with her mother.” Kimball sighed and added, “I don’t suppose there’s much of a chance I’ll see any of them ever again.”

Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other and smiled. As before, they were tempted to announce out loud how they would see to it personally that Kimball would be reunited with his loved ones—not only his wife and daughter back in Sampson, but his twelve other children as well. They could even be brought here to live, if they desired. But then, there was still this warning of his. What if they all had to move from Thorn Valley, as they feared they might be forced to? Best not to suggest it at all, they mutually decided, until they’d heard the rest of the story.

“But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself again,” continued Kimball. “I’ll try not to let that happen again. Now…I said that most of our children have struck out on their own. Certainly learning all about the world with their parents did much to influence their desire to see more of it; outside of the simple truth that they had all grown older and wanted to be on their own. Naturally it was hard letting go, each time another one or two of them left. One thing we impressed upon each of them was never to forget who they are, their own heritage. To that end, we’d encourage them to seek out their brethren—you rats and mice here in Thorn Valley—and to obtain what information they could in the course of their journeys to track you down. Of course…as to which of them have since gone on to do so, we have no way of knowing; obviously none of them have reached you here in Thorn Valley.” Kimball sighed. “We’ve had no contact with any of them, of course, and can only wonder what directions they’ve taken, both physically and in life in general; or, indeed, whether any of them are still alive. It’s a possibility we’ve had to face. I guess it’s true, and I’m sure you’d all agree, that we gained a more complex emotional makeup while at NIMH, otherwise we wouldn’t be bothered so much by all this.

“Anyway…though we’d both talked of moving ourselves, it’s something we could never bring ourselves to carry out. Patricia, especially, had become so attached to the old place, even though I’d tried so many times to convince her that we couldn’t stay there forever. What if the building above us were to be torn down, or renovated? There was no reason to believe that things would remain the same indefinitely. It all came to a head of sorts about three years ago.

“I already hinted that another of us survived, and I’ll tell you about him now. Through the local grapevine, I’d heard stories of a strange mouse—that is to say unusual—that was living in an area which we knew to be the vicinity of the NIMH building; some said, within the building itself. Now we were considered odd and a bit different by the local mice; nonetheless, we got on quite well with many of them and were generally accepted. But some of the stories we heard about this “strange one” gave us pause, not the least of which was the allegation that he seemed able to bypass any obstacle, avoid any trap. We were burning with curiosity. Could this one possibly be one of us, or were these just exaggerations, tall tales? Just this description of his reputed abilities seemed to make it quite likely. Yet, if he was, why would he be spending all his time in and around NIMH, instead of doing as the rest of us did, and getting himself as far away from there as possible? The curiosity got to be too much for either of us to bear; and so, one day at the crack of dawn we began a journey back to a place we thought we’d never come near again, for the first time in some six years. Michael was the oldest of our children living with us at the time, and he was quite capable of looking after the younger ones. Promising to hurry back, we set out on our journey.

“It took us until the early afternoon to get there, and once we were close to it we asked local mice about this ‘strange one’; because surely, they could give much more conclusive and informative reports on him. They told us that he indeed spent most of his time inside the building; and when he appeared outside and came in contact with other mice, the reports were mixed. One said his words and actions seemed incomprehensible to him, one said he ignored him completely, and to another he seemed relatively normal. It painted rather a confusing picture, but we decided it was good enough for us, so we steeled ourselves for our attempt to get inside and meet this strange one. It’s funny how things change; we’d sworn we’d never go near the place again, and here we were preparing to plunge ourselves inside. But, this was, after all, just the possibility that we’d hoped for all this time.

“Soon we had reached the small wooded area which had been our temporary home in the days immediately following our escape; and there before us was the NIMH lab, which we hadn’t seen since then. Now I had my share of apprehension, to be sure, but I wasn’t about to turn back now after having come all this way. Patricia, though, told me she couldn’t go through with it. Even being this far physically from the building, she was all but paralyzed, barely able to move. I tried as best I could to cajole her and soothe her fear, assuring her I’d be beside her every inch of the way, but it was no use. For a brief instant I considered going ahead without her, since we had come such a long way; but though I couldn’t deny I was disappointed, I understood well her fear. So I continued to speak to her consolingly, still trying to convince her that we could do this together safely; but still, all she wanted was just to return home.

“And then suddenly, in the middle of this dilemma and to the surprise of both of us, we heard a voice say, ‘Hello. Do I know you?’ It came so suddenly we both couldn’t help being startled; it was as if he’d materialized out of thin air. Friends…do you remember Vincent?”

Johnathan’s and Ages’s eyes grew wide as they nodded.

“Well, Patricia and I didn’t recognize him immediately, since it had been so long; but he knew us, and it was quite a strange reunion. It was as if we’d parted company only six weeks before instead of six years, and as if he were expecting us, at this very place and time. That was only the beginning. He told us that he’d indeed been living there, inside NIMH, all that time. When asked how he survived the airshafts, he’d only say that he found his way out later; he didn’t elaborate. And if he could leave NIMH anytime, we asked him, why didn’t he? Why did he choose to remain living there? He was again evasive, saying that it was his ‘mission’ to monitor all activities there and keep track of everything that’s said and done. He was clearly nervous, edgy; and though he seemed to welcome our company, he told us that he couldn’t talk to us for very long and that he would need to return soon. It was beyond our understanding why he’d willingly choose such a way of life. We wondered if something had affected his mind: the airshaft experience, the isolation, perhaps the chemical compounds interacting with something unique in his body chemistry; or a combination of any or all of the above. In any case, we had to admire the very clear reality of his survival all these years, under these circumstances.”

“There always was something…unusual about him, even during the time we all spent together,” observed Ages.

Kimball nodded, sighing. “Be that as it may,” he continued, “there did seem to be a method to Vincent’s madness, if that’s the right word; and we knew it when he said he learned of something that he was sure we’d want to know. A few months earlier, he’d heard talk of the possibility that the rats who’d escaped NIMH six years before were living on the farm of someone named Fitzgibbons, who lived some distance away to the southwest—close by the National Forest! Could my suspicions of what became of the rats have been true? And there was more: some of their people had gone there to check out the farmer’s reports of unusual rat activity; but once there, they found no evidence that there was anything unusual going on. Vincent believed that this could very well have meant that those were the rats from NIMH there, but somehow they had learned of the danger they were in and moved out in time. I couldn’t imagine why you’d all be living so close to human habitation, so I initially dismissed his theory. But as I got to thinking, it made more sense: being close to a ready food source, for instance. And besides, it was too much to resist, being the first I’d heard any word of what might have happened to you. Plus, if you had all moved, you probably would have moved to a location in the forest. It was all conjecture on my part, at the time; but now, of course, we all know it was more.

“I told Vincent of my theory, and then I presented a proposition: he could leave there with us, and then the three of us, with our children, would journey from Sampson to the forest to join our lost rat brethren. But Vincent flatly refused, saying it was out of the question and that he still had his mission there. I tried to appeal to any sense of logic he might have, saying that no one gave him this mission but himself, and that knowing where the rats would likely be should be a fulfillment of that mission, thereby freeing him from it. I asked him, all but pleaded with him, to at least consider moving out of there and in with us, or at least closer to us. But we soon realized that Vincent, for all his brilliance, was not a very rational being.

“It hadn’t escaped my notice that throughout our visit, Patricia had been mostly silent; and though I hadn’t asked her directly, it seemed that my suggestions, especially that of leaving Sampson, were not sitting well with her. At any rate, after I’d asked Vincent one last time to reconsider—and after he’d again refused, unsurprisingly and sadly for me—I said that if he ever had further information that he thought would concern me, he should contact me through the grapevine; and, whether he did or not, that we would be back there to see him from time to time. He agreed to that much, even saying he looked forward to our next visit. Then Vincent bid us farewell, moving off toward the building; but after he’d rounded one thick tree trunk, we looked for him but couldn’t see him. It was as if he’d vanished, leaving as abruptly as he came.

“Patricia asked if we could go home now; and though this visit had left both of us perplexed, it was the first time we’d seen any of the lost mice; and it was, after all, what we’d come for, and she was as satisfied as I with this aspect of our trip. So I was happy to oblige her, and we began the journey back home. As we did, I brought up the fact that she’d been mostly silent; and she confessed that she had strong misgivings over the whole idea of our leaving home, where we were relatively secure, to strike out for a place way out in the wilderness which we couldn’t even be sure was home to the ones we hoped to find. She said that with no absolute confirmation, what would be the point? A wild goose chase, she called it. And if the rats were safe now, they certainly didn’t need us. And there was the considerable distance to take into account, making for quite an arduous journey; and the dangers which even I knew we’d face, and our inexperience with open and wilder country. She emphasized that she had nothing against the rats, only that all these factors were too much to take such a risk on. Much of this made a great deal of logical sense to me, and I knew it then; but even so, I thought for sure that with a larger incentive like this—as I saw it—she’d feel more inclined to move away. I said that any further discussion on the subject should wait until we got back home and could discuss it with the children.

“It was at that point that it occurred to me: how is it that she’d been able to let go of our children who had wanted to leave home and strike out on their own, but our own leaving was out of the question? Granted, none of those departures were easy on either of us, but we’d agreed each time that we couldn’t deny them their freedom. Plus, she knew as well as I that most if not all of them would try to seek out the rats, and neither of us tried to discourage any of them from doing so. When I put these questions to her, she would only say that she still believed all that, but for herself, she simply just didn’t want to leave our home. Then she said she didn’t want to discuss it further, and we continued on, speaking little about anything for much of the trip home. I wondered, and I’m sure she did as well, if this could possibly indicate the start of a rift between us.

“Halfway during our trip, though, I remembered something we’d read during one of our learning excursions: in a book on psychology, there was a section on phobias, irrational fears; including one described as a fear of being away from one’s home. Could that be Patricia’s problem, I wondered; so I brought up the subject, as carefully as I could; and surprisingly, she agreed that this could be the case with her. Although, if it were so, how was she able to make this trip to begin with? She said that she’d wrestled with her feelings of apprehension all the way there, but she was determined to tough it out largely for my sake, but also because she genuinely wanted to meet another survivor like us. Once we’d made it as far as the woods, though, she found she couldn’t go on. Whether or not this was directly related to her other fear, I’d seen for myself how difficult it had been, and I’d no doubt that it was all genuine.

“We both felt some relief at having brought all of this out; and as we delved further into the subject, we realized that Vincent may have a similar condition, one that kept him from leaving what he’d come to regard as home. It would explain a lot, we both agreed. The rest of the way, though, we didn’t discuss any further the possibility of moving—to Thorn Valley or otherwise—or of further visits to Vincent.

“Once back home, though, we immediately filled the children in on what we’d learned, and I presented my ideas to them. They were much more receptive to it than their mother; the younger ones were especially eager to see more of the world beyond Sampson, of course, as was Michael; though he agreed that it would be best if all of us were on board before we made any plans. But Patricia made it clear that, in spite of our ‘diagnosis’ of what was troubling her, she hadn’t changed her mind on the idea of moving, and even the young ones’ enthusiasm didn’t seem to faze her. She was still quite adamant that it was best if we stayed right where we were.

“I was discouraged, especially given how we’d just ‘diagnosed’ her, but I wasn’t about to give up. I thought my idea was still viable, and I swore to myself that I’d continue to try convincing her of the same, using as much gentle cajoling as I could. But I also made it clear to her and the children that I would make good on my promise to Vincent, even if it meant going there alone; and over the next few weeks, I visited him several times, to see if there were any developments he could tell me of; and to continue trying to convince him to move, at least at first. Each time, we’d continue to meet at the same outside location; and each time, it was as if he’d anticipated my arrival, either waiting for me or showing up just after I’d arrive.

“By now it was definitely becoming an obsession with me; and as you can well imagine, it didn’t sit well with Patricia. She thought it foolish of me to repeatedly place myself in danger like that, for what she saw as a lost cause. She had nothing against Vincent, but she couldn’t see the point of my trying to persuade him to leave NIMH, or to get unvalidated information from him, especially if he had a problem with leaving his home that was similar to her own—even if that home was a place as potentially dangerous as NIMH. For all that she understood him, it didn’t make it easier for her. And I, fool that I was, couldn’t see her concern for what it truly was. Increasingly, I saw her complaints as interference; I was adamant that my visits to Vincent were of great importance, because they would also concern all of you, our brethren. Why could she not see that? I asked both myself and her.

“We were each so convinced of the rightness of our own points of view, and so unwilling to compromise, for all that there was much in each view that was quite valid. It all resulted in some…really unpleasant scenes between us.” Kimball paused, closing his eyes, pained by the memories of this period. “They were never violent, by any means; and in fact they rarely even escalated to shouting arguments either. But we were talking less and less, even trying to avoid each other even though we lived under the same roof. It was as if we didn’t have anything to say to each other, or even know each other anymore; as if there was never a time when we weren’t disagreeing over everything; as if we never loved each other passionately, and that thirteen children never resulted from it.

“The saddest part of it all was the effect this situation was having on them. I think the older ones tried to explain to the young ones that it was just an ongoing disagreement we were having, and that things would soon be as they were before; but for at least one of them, it got to be too much. Michael had been planning on leaving soon, and during this period he did so, and he persuaded two of his sisters, Michelle and Myrna, to leave with him. Neither of them came right out and said it, but we knew that it had to be the current state of our household that influenced them greatly in their decision. Even knowing this didn’t help much in patching our differences; we each blamed the other for their abrupt departure. In our way, we’d both become beings as irrational as Vincent.

“It was about three months after we’d first visited Vincent when, as I was getting ready to do so again, Patricia offered me an ultimatum: if I left this time, she and the children would not be there upon my return. I was still so blind that I dismissed this as no more than a bluff. I told her that after she’d been so stubborn for so long about moving, there was no way she’d carry it out. I didn’t even wait long enough to hear her reply.

“On the way, though, I found myself thinking about her threat and the events of the past three months that led up to it. I asked myself: had I become too obsessed with this? I wondered if it weren’t too late to settle our differences peacefully, if some kind of compromise couldn’t be found; sad to say, it was the first I’d really thought objectively about the matter. When I met with Vincent at our usual spot, I told him how Patricia’s and my initial disagreement about my visits to him had snowballed into something that was threatening to tear us apart forever. I also told him of her ultimatum, and that this meeting could very well be our last one, unless he had information that he was absolutely sure I’d need to know. In one of the more lucid moments I’d seen him in, he said that though he’d enjoyed my visits, the well-being and stability of my family and household were more important. He’d seemed to genuinely enjoy my company whenever I visited, and now I found it a bit surprising that he’d agree so readily to my calling them to a halt, or at least cutting them back. It was always hard to tell just what went on behind that rumpled brow of his.

“I thanked him for the advice, we said our goodbyes, and I set out for home. I had time on the way to think about the effects our disagreements had on the children, and how we could still come to a mutual agreement and rediscover the love I knew we still shared but couldn’t seem to express. I also grew increasingly worried that Patricia would indeed make good on her promise to leave an empty home waiting for me. I recalled our last words to each other, and I felt so ashamed that I’d been so insensitive as to call her ‘stubborn’ when I knew very well of the fear that had been crippling her.

“None of these concerns, though, prepared me in any way for what greeted me when I got there. The vacant building that was our roof was completely razed! All that remained was the cement foundation. There were earth-turning vehicles making the lot totally unrecognizable from what it was. I…I’ve never been able to put into words just how horrifying this initial discovery was. We knew, long ago, that something like this was inevitable; but why did it have to happen right then, that day? I fought down the panic, the impulse to rush blindly toward the foundation, and stuck to the outer perimeter of the plowed area, calling out my wife’s and children’s names. Surely, I reasoned, they had to have heard the equipment coming and realized what was going to happen, and would have all gotten out in time.

“I continued my search for what seemed like hours, but was probably only about fifteen minutes, still calling out their names, before I got a reply: the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. In the woods behind the lot, they’d waited all this time. I held Patricia so close to me, for the longest time since either of us could remember. And the children, too; I wept to see all six of them safe and sound. Lucille, my littlest daughter, begged me never to leave them again. I told her that nothing or no one would ever again tear me from them.

“We knew not exactly where to begin our search for new lodgings, but since we were now truly together for the first time in three months, we put to the task happily. We both agreed how foolish we were to have let differences of opinion grow and fester like they did. I admitted my own foolishness in letting my curiosity over what the rats might be doing become such an obsession, and I apologized—oh, how I apologized—for not being more understanding, especially since I knew of her fears very well. Patricia actually seemed to have overcome at least part of her fear, and in fact said so, adding that it shouldn’t have taken circumstances like these to convince her that we should move. The inevitable question then came up, of whether this forced move should mean that we’d now go out to the national forest to seek out the rats. Patricia even said that she’d be willing to discuss such a plan; but I said that I thought our biggest concern right then was to get ourselves settled again, and to do it right there, locally. I meant it, too; suddenly, knowing what had become of the rats wasn’t as important as rebuilding our lives, rediscovering our love. Perhaps someday we would seek out our brethren, we both agreed; and certainly our remaining children would want to do so when they left home. But for now both of us were satisfied to find new lodgings right there in town.

“There was something else I needed to know right then, though: would Patricia have carried out her ultimatum? She replied that, to be honest, she would have, and was just making ready to when the men arrived to tear down the place. Once she and the children had grabbed what belongings they could and made their way to safety, she’d realized that if I’d returned to see our home razed and my family nowhere to be found, it would be too much punishment for me. Once she’d seen how sorry I was to have neglected them and their needs, she was willing to give me another chance, and I was determined not to let them down.”

Chapter 10: Kimball’s perilous journey

“We soon found a suitable location: one closer to downtown, but no less secluded and protected from intruders. We quickly settled down, and I do believe we were happier than at any time since we’d first settled down together. Since I felt the need for us to be as honest as possible with each other, I told Patricia what I’d last discussed with Vincent, and I promised that I would only visit him again if the word came to me of something truly important. Her initial reaction told me that I still had a ways to go before she’d completely trust me to not become obsessed again, and I could hardly blame her. I worked hard at it, and eventually I knew I’d succeeded.

“Things went along rather uneventfully—wonderfully so—until summer of last year, when two more of our children, Desmond and Orland, left home, so full of eagerness to see the world. They said they would indeed strike out for the forest and seek out the rats. Their litter-mate, Karen, stayed behind, as did we. Once more I was reminded that I honestly did want to seek you all out; but Patricia was once again quite content to remain there. Yet, so was I, to a degree that would have surprised me only a few months before. It was a definite dilemma; but for the time being the desire to remain won out.

“It was around October of last year, though, that another reason for not remaining presented itself. A group of rats, led by one named Boonger, began staking out an area of town that included our home as their turf, their territory. Almost overnight, we’d found ourselves in a state of siege, almost. For these rats are nothing like yourselves: brutal, self-serving, and just plain dangerous. Of course, not all ordinary rats are as bad as them, but this group seems to live for making much more than nuisances of themselves to nearly every other creature that crosses them, including other rats. Friends and acquaintances of ours have been maimed or even killed by them. Their presence forced us to take even greater cautions in our comings and goings. Even though it’s been this way for nearly a year, we’d managed to keep our home inviolate from them, its location a secret; though we’ve all had close calls with them from time to time.

“As you might guess, this situation greatly influenced further discussion on whether we should remain there; Patricia, in fact, rather suddenly was much more willing to discuss the idea of moving not only away from there, but to the national forest as well. Admittedly, it never got the point of making any definite plans for moving at all, but it was still quite a change for her.

“Then, just a month ago, our three youngest ones—Bertram, Ellis and Lucille—left the nest, leaving only three of us. Since they were our youngest, it was especially hard on us; for that fact alone, but also we were greatly concerned for their safety. For the first time we had to worry about our children risking their lives before even leaving the immediate area, due to all the rat-gang activity. We managed to see them safely off, though. This further reduction in our family’s number, to my mind, should have provided an even greater impetus for leaving the area, making a fresh start. Patricia, especially, was still reluctant to make another move; she’d become even more attached to this place than our first home. I didn’t want to pressure her overmuch, but how much longer could we hold out, continue to live this way? And Karen…I think she’d stayed with us this long for much the same reasons, but it wasn’t long before she was seeing things more my way. Both of us continued trying to quietly persuade Patricia to agree to finally letting go. There was a certain amount of stubbornness in both of us; the same which had led to our earlier rift, and now led us to feel that since we were there first, why should we let those hoodlum rats force us out? A not-unreasonable attitude to take, I’m sure you’d agree. There’s no telling how much longer that attitude would have kept all three of us from moving, if certain other developments hadn’t arisen—around two weeks ago, as I figure it now.

“These past two years, I hadn’t heard anything from Vincent; whether he was still living at NIMH, or even if he was alive at all, I hadn’t a clue. But I remembered my promise to Patricia; or rather, I lived it. I’d worked too hard at regaining her complete trust in me to jeopardize it now. But then word came to us via the local grapevine that Vincent finally did have some important information. Patricia and Karen, bless them, knew how important it was to me; and they actually encouraged me to get started as soon as possible, urging me to be careful and…and to hurry back.

“From our present home, it was a slightly shorter trip to NIMH, and I made it well before sundown the same day. On my earlier trips, Vincent and I had established a regular meeting place, in the same spot in the woods in back of the building. It was always so uncanny; even though he couldn’t know ahead of time that I was coming, he was always able to meet me there, always within a minute or so after my arrival. After two years, we both still remembered our regular meeting place well, for there he was; as with our first meeting, it was as if it were days or weeks before since our last.

“He lost no time in telling me what he’d heard the day before. There was a discussion among three of the workers, one of which had casually asked the others if they’d heard the latest on those rats who had escaped all those years ago. According to what he’d heard, they believed they might have pinpointed where they might have gone. There was no word on whether it had been determined for certain that you all were ever at the Fitzgibbons farm, but now it seemed that they’d been making sweeps of the surrounding countryside for many square miles all around, and found nothing as yet. Only recently had they been able to get inside one area which government red tape had prevented their making a very extensive search of as yet.

Kimball sighed, wishing he didn’t have to go on. “I’m sure I needn’t tell you what that area is. There were a few select spots within it which, by then, were prime for their search; one in particular, they said, was largely inaccessible even on foot, and was probably the one that they’d look into first. The area was called…Thorn Valley.

“My mind reeled with the implications. I remembered Thorn Valley from the maps of the forest that I’d spent so many hours poring over, memorizing every detail. There had been times when I’d thought that this earlier obsession had been all for naught; but hearing this now, I knew that it had to be right. If Thorn Valley was indeed where you were all living now, and if humans would go there to investigate, then only one course of action was open to me. I’ve since realized that all the information I had was second-hand, even third-hand, and from my own extrapolations; but at the time all I knew was that you were all in grave danger and must be warned, even with no solid confirmation of your presence here. I’d wondered earlier today before you were all gathered here: could it have been a homing instinct of some kind that created that original obsession in me, to learn all I could about this area and try to get more information from Vincent, and to ultimately lead me to you? Whatever it was, I knew I had to leave, to get to Thorn Valley as soon as possible, by any way possible.

“For the last time, I asked Vincent to leave as well, to accompany me there. I virtually begged and pleaded with him, but still he refused; though he did wish me good luck. It wasn’t good enough for me, and I said some angry words to him and pushed him down. It was beyond belief that he would still refuse to leave, even in the face of this new information.

“I immediately made to leave, heading in the general direction of home. But then I realized: after I’d tell Patricia and Karen of this, I’d certainly want them to accompany me; but what if they, Patricia especially, still wouldn’t want to leave? I resolved that it would just be an unnecessary delay to go back home. Yes, I remembered my promise to them, but warning all of you was more important. It wasn’t an easy choice to make by any means; I realized that there was a good chance that I’d never see home again, but I was sure that if I ever did, they’d surely have to understand once I explained everything. It seemed, at the time, the most rational and logical decision I could possibly make; but, of course, I’ve questioned it and regretted it greatly since.

“But with that much decided, I set out for the road that led to the interstate highway—the same one which, over one hundred miles to the southwest, comes within a few miles of the part of the national forest where Thorn Valley lay. A plan was forming, one that I’d thought about ever since I suspected Thorn Valley of being your home. If I could just get on board a vehicle that was heading in that direction, it would cut my time to get there drastically. I knew the layout of the town very well, and something of the behavior and habits of its people as well, so I knew my best bet would be to find someone making a fuel stop before heading out to the highway. There were several gas stations along that route, so all I had to do was get to one where someone was fueling up. Since nightfall was rapidly approaching, I moved swiftly, with mind intent on my mission, but never forgetting all I’d learned about stealth. All the while, Patricia and Karen were never far from my thoughts; and I believed, as I have since, that somehow I would see them again, and hope that they’d understand.

“There were two vehicles at the first station I encountered: a pickup truck and a station wagon. It occurred to me that I had no real way of knowing which one, if either, would be heading southwest, the direction I needed to go; or, in fact, if either would go onto the highway at all. But I had to choose, and quickly; so I decided on the pickup, probably because it was the easiest for me to sneak on board. I waited until the owner left to pay for his gasoline before I leaped my way into the truck bed. He soon returned and started the motor, an initially startling sensation, and he drove off with his stowaway on board.

“I can’t say how I knew that that would be the correct vehicle; whether it was just dumb luck, or even if it were somehow tied in with this ‘homing instinct’ I’ve theorized. All I knew then was the huge sense of relief I felt when the truck turned onto the ramp that would take it southwest onto the highway.

“Once past that hurdle, I could assess my current situation better and plan for what lay ahead. I was now much more aware of the fact that this was my first ride in a motor vehicle, and the feeling of constant motion underneath and knowing the great speed at which it was moving was quite unsettling at first. Soon, though, I actually began to find it exhilarating. But it was a feeling tempered by the knowledge that I had to know exactly how far I could ride before reaching the point where I’d have to make the rest of the journey on foot.

“I went over in my head all that I’d learned, all the details I’d memorized: how many bends the highway made between the entry point and my ‘stop,’ how long each section ran and in what direction. I found it a fairly easy matter to keep track of all these changes in direction, using the moon and stars to confirm them. Lucky for me it was a clear night, so I knew I’d know just where to get off. There was just one not-so-small problem with that: how to get off. I was nestled among various items the driver kept there in the truck bed, and I was sure that slipping away unseen would be no problem, especially at night. But this truck was moving at about 60 to 65 miles per hour. I knew that roads like these were designed for faster, nonstop travel; but once experiencing it firsthand like this, I knew I was in over my head. If he didn’t stop anywhere even close to my stopping point, it looked as if I’d have to take my chances on jumping off. But there was nothing but cold, hard pavement in back of us at all times, and I knew enough about laws of physics to know I wouldn’t stand a chance of surviving such an attempt, jumping onto it at this speed. What about jumping off the side, I thought, and take the chance of landing where it was softer, off the shoulder? I was well aware of the swiftness of the air all around the truck—or rather, that of the truck passing through it—and it was swifter than anything I’d ever experienced. Memories of the airshafts immediately came to mind. Would this allow me to jump off the side to an area off the shoulder, or would I be swept along to the pavement behind to serious injury or death? It would avail me naught, I decided, to take such an enormous risk; otherwise, what would be the point of making this trip, with its sole purpose being what it was? No…there had to be a less mortal alternative. If the driver were to stop or slow down close to my stopping point, that would be much safer; but if he didn’t…

“Then I had it: a little distraction might do it. I looked around for something that would help me carry this plan out. I rummaged about and found some oily rags, and I selected one that wasn’t too dark in color; I needed a lighter-colored one, one more easily seen in the dark. I continued to sit tight and bide my time, all the while maintaining my concentration on where we were.

“The miles continued to roll by until, about an hour and a half after the trip started, the driver pulled over into a rest stop. Here was another dilemma: I was still quite a ways off from my stopping point, but this would probably be the only chance I’d get to disembark this easily. I decided to stay put, still confident that I could pull off my plan of distraction successfully. So after about five minutes the driver returned, and the trip resumed.

“Another half hour passed. I’d calculated carefully when and where my stopping point would come up; and right then, I knew it had to be very close at hand. All right, this is it, I thought. I covered myself with the rag and made my way up to the area just outside the back window. I gritted my teeth and began making my way across, where I knew the driver could plainly see me.

“I wished I could have seen his face, but of course I couldn’t see a thing; I could only feel my way across, and I found I had to be careful not to trip over any part of the rag that might find its way underfoot, and because the metal surface I walked upon was a bit slippery. But it paid off, because the truck was slowing down, and I mean fast. I slipped back down and discarded the rag as the truck pulled over to the shoulder, soon coming to a complete halt. As I heard the driver opening the door and stepping out of the cab, I quickly jumped up to the side of the truck opposite him, and in a flash I was over the side and onto the ground, dashing for the tall vegetation off the shoulder. I then turned and froze, watching and waiting as the driver carefully prodded at and rearranged the items in the back, trying to figure out what it was that moved—not flapped about in the breeze, but very deliberately moved—across his back window. I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic, just a bit, knowing how much I’d startled him, and I actually found myself wishing I could have thanked him for the lift. Soon, finding nothing out of place and shaking his head, he got back in and resumed his trip.

“I exulted at the success of my plan, but I knew that the easy part was over; for there was a great deal of territory left to cover, and now I was entirely on my own. Though I’d already traveled the greater distance, the rest would have to be done on foot and would take a great deal longer. But I was ready to face it; I think I may have been a bit cocky and overconfident then, flush with the success of all that I had done so far, but at the same time not knowing everything about what I could expect to encounter.

“I set out to cross the highway; this time of night, traffic was pretty light, so I was able to cross the southbound lanes, the median, and the northbound lanes with ease. There was a strip of mostly open ground to cover before the really thick woodland began, and I crossed it swiftly and with great caution, knowing owls could be on the wing. I soon reached the woods, and found it easier to concentrate on things, such as the purpose of this mission, which I’d lately been distracted from. I felt recharged, being this much closer to discovering whether or not my theories were true; it steeled my resolve to move on, with nothing standing in my way. Yet I also had to face facts: I was sorely out of my element, unused to really deep wilderness; I was one tiny mouse against a vast, intimidating expanse of woodland. But I was determined not to fail. I knew the way to Thorn Valley, and if I continued using the heavens as my guide, I wouldn’t stray off course. In spite of my inexperience in the ‘boondocks,’ I was sure I’d be able to handle myself more than adequately. And I was determined, more than I’d ever been, about anything.

“Still, all the determination in the world couldn’t keep me from becoming tired, and so I set about finding a safe place to catch a few hours’ rest. There was a hole in a tree, several feet up, which looked inviting; but once inside, I found it to be anything but. The hole was occupied by a squirrel, one who proved to be extremely irate about having his sleep interrupted. I apologized, and asked—quite politely, mind you—if I could spend just a few hours there, and then I’d be on my way and never bother him again. He very loudly chattered at me to leave that instant. I was impatient, tired and in no mood to find shelter elsewhere; and my would-be host was in no mood for further argument. With no warning, he leaped at me, momentarily pinning me. I felt a quick, sharp pain on the left side of my head, then I scrambled for the hole and made my way back to the ground as fast as I could.

“I was honestly shocked at how serious he was about not wanting me there. It wasn’t until I’d reached the ground, with his chattering still ringing in my ears, that I realized how serious. I reached up to feel the side of my head, and drew my hand back suddenly; it hurt so much I gave a small yelp. I felt the blood between my fingers and realized that…that squirrel had bitten a chunk of my ear clean off! At first I think I was confused and hurt more from his hostility than any physical pain; and rather angry to boot, at what seemed a cowardly and ruthless act, attacking one so much smaller. I’d known squirrels in general to be rather high-strung and excitable, but I never would have expected such an extreme reaction; though in retrospect it was pretty naïve of me not to expect any less. But I vowed to put the incident behind me and find a safer, preferably unoccupied place to sack out, though the pain was making it a bit hard to concentrate. I soon found a suitable place, though, and fell asleep almost immediately.

“The next few days were almost like a blur. I encountered a marshy area which I crossed with no small difficulty, swimming much of the way. I tried to concentrate solely on my mission, but I couldn’t help thinking about other matters, such as Vincent; I regretted that I’d been so short with him and that my last words to him were angry ones. But most in my thoughts were Patricia and Karen. I felt that I probably could easily have had time to go home first, and at least tell them what I felt compelled to do, since it probably wouldn’t have caused that great a delay. But if I had, I was sure I still would have gone and carried all this out, with or without them. I believed it then, and still do, that this is bigger than just us. Yet I also felt, then as now, that I…betrayed them, reneged on a promise. I want so much to see them again, tell them how sorry I am.”

Again Kimball paused, looking up at the ceiling, unable to keep tears from forming; and again Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other, fighting back the temptation to tell him straight out that they had the means to grant his wish. Both were certain this wouldn’t be the last time before he concluded his story.

Kimball took a moment to compose himself, then continued: “Well…at this point these matters began to divert my concentration from what should have been my primary concern: my personal safety and survival. I learned the hard way what a moment’s inattention can mean, not long after I’d crossed the marsh. I was suddenly confronted by a badger. I managed to reach a hole that was too small for him, but enough of me was still within his reach.” Kimball reached down for his tail and lifted up what was left of it, its end bandaged. “I started pulling away frantically after he snagged me, and I soon escaped. The burrow had a rear entrance which I made my way through while the badger was still digging at the front end. I put considerable distance between us before I stopped, and I noticed for the first time that half of my tail was missing. It didn’t even start to hurt until right then. It’s strange, but the first thought I had upon seeing this was that at the rate things were going, my family wouldn’t recognize me by the time this trip was through, if they ever saw me again.

“I was more determined than ever to see this through, and I hardly even got any sleep that night; I thought sleep to be a luxury I couldn’t afford, since it may have been already too late to warn you. This renewed determination didn’t make me much more careful, though; otherwise I never would have allowed that bobcat to get so close to me, the day after I’d encountered the badger. It was as if he came out of nowhere, and suddenly I was again running for my life. It seems odd to admit now, but I was more angry than fearful, as I darted about, managing to evade him before I reached a thicket of thorny bushes. Once safely within, I shouted, ‘Leave me alone, you bastard! I’ve got lives depending on me, I don’t have time for this!’ Needless to say, it didn’t impress him; and if I had been more fearful, I surely wouldn’t have let him get within paw’s reach of me in the next instant. He snagged my right hind leg, and right away I could feel one of his claws digging into the flesh. Now I was truly frightened; as I tried to pull away, he pulled me closer still, and I briefly wondered if I was to be crippled the rest of my life, if I survived this. Then he lifted his paw, to prepare for getting a better grip on me, I figured later. He probably meant to do it for only an instant, but it was all the time I needed to make a break for it. My immediate impulse was to run as fast as I could, but my right leg wasn’t working properly. Sometime during my struggle to get free, it had become broken as well as lacerated. I forced myself to be calm, and I realized my best chance would be to stay well within the thorny thicket until the bobcat got discouraged. It took a few minutes, but soon he did.

“I assessed the damage to my leg, and then set about fashioning splints for it and binding my wounds. I found I was able to get around on three legs fairly easily if I kept the bad one limp; it wasn’t a comfortable situation by any means, but it would have to do.

“The next few days were indescribable. I couldn’t even say for sure how many more days passed before I reached you. I’m still amazed, though, that I got through them with no more serious mishaps. I was still obsessed with keeping myself moving, sleeping for as brief periods as I could, even with my leg in that shape. I reached a river, which provided a good chance to bathe my wounds. I was worried about the leg becoming infected; I’d tried licking it before, but it was very painful to get into the position to do so, so I welcomed the opportunity. I was able to cross the river without swimming most of the way, thanks to a fallen tree.

“Even now, I honestly can’t remember much of what happened in the next day or two. I remember a thunderstorm, and taking shelter in a chipmunk’s burrow. But the next day I could feel myself growing feverish; I knew my leg had started becoming infected. How I was able to keep myself going I couldn’t begin to say, or how I kept from becoming prey to just about anything. I had become so delirious that the one obsessive thought, to keep moving, was all I knew, it was my whole world. The one halfway-clear memory of this period was when I encountered a group of rabbits. No doubt my appearance, which I understand had to be quite horrendous by then, evoked no small curiosity. One asked where I was bound; I don’t remember my exact answer, but I’m sure I mentioned Thorn Valley. Someone mentioned a rat and mouse traveling together, who’d passed through there just the day before…”

Kimball paused, acknowledging the many surprised stares and whispers this news seemed to evoke. “Er…two of yours, I presume?”

“Yes,” replied Johnathan, “That could have been our son Martin…”

“…And our son, Lambert,” added Graham and Simone together.

“I see,” said Kimball. “If it were them, I wish I could tell you more that the rabbits said about them, but I can’t remember if they said anything or not…except…”

“Except what?” asked Madeline.

“Well, they did say those two were heading for the river—the one that I’d crossed, I figure—but I guess it’s obvious they were headed someplace.”

Johnathan frowned. “But…they didn’t have any particular destination when they left; they were just going on a hike in the area just outside the valley…or so they said.”

“That river lies due west of here, if it’s the Greenlee…a good two to three day’s journey,” observed Tallus. “Could they have just meant to go there, and then head back?”

“Or could they have meant to go beyond the river, to someplace further still?” mused Johnathan.

“Now, let’s not jump to any hasty conclusions here,” said Justin. “We don’t know for sure that those rabbits met Martin and Lambert.”

“True enough,” agreed Johnathan, “but how often does one see a rat and mouse traveling together, and headed for a specific place?”

“Point taken, Johnathan,” said Ages, “but perhaps we should let Kimball finish his story first.”

Kimball cleared his throat. “Well…back to the rabbits: the next thing I knew one of them, an elder of the herd, offers to take me part of the way to Thorn Valley. I didn’t question why, and I still find it hard to imagine why he made the offer; and I’m a bit surprised now that I accepted, with the one-directional and increasingly delirious state my mind was in. I guess there was some part of me that said I’d be foolish to pass up the offer, and it won out. I climbed upon his broad back, and he said to hang on as tightly as I could. Then he started running; slow at first, then gradually increasing in speed as he could see that I was keeping my grip. How I was able to maintain it is something I’d have to call miraculous.

“I have only vague impressions of how this leg of the trip went. I know the elder rabbit didn’t take me all the way to you, since your sentry Kevin found me alone. But I’ve no clear memory of most of the ride or how long it was, or of being let off, or of anything until I woke up here. It was sometime during this period that the splints fell off my leg; obviously I was too far gone to replace them, or even to have noticed, probably.

Kimball breathed in deeply and looked around at everyone else looking at each other, muttering, whispering, all knowing that the story had reached an end, and that there was much for them to do if his warning was true. “I guess if there’s anything more to say now, it’s that I’m more grateful than words can express, for saving my life.”

“We just did what we would’ve done with anyone, old friend,” said Ages, “even if they weren’t in as bad a shape as you were.”

Johnathan nodded. “And don’t even think of saying you wish you could repay us, because you already have, doubled and then some. But now…” He turned toward Justin.

“Now,” said Justin seriously, “I think a meeting is in order.” No one dared question why even if he or she wanted to, and so everyone got up and began filing out of the room. Alma also left, to return to her children; Ages had already advised her not to tell them anything of what they’d learned here until a plan was down firm.

“I should attend too,” said Ages, “but while I’m gone, you should get some more rest.”

“I’m not tired, really,” replied Kimball. “I’d like to attend this meeting of yours, if I could.”

“Maybe some other time; but for now, you should stay here and rest and eat, and give yourself more time to build your strength back up.”

“I’m fine, really. See?” Kimball started to stand up in bed, on all threes, but found out just how much almost every muscle in his body still ached. With a groan he flopped back down on his side. “Well, maybe just a while longer…”

“That’s a good boy,” said Ages with a grin. “After all, it was only a few hours ago that you came back to the world of the living.” Bernadette came forward to help him to a sitting position again.

“We’ll all be back as soon as we can,” said Johnathan, “and we should hope to have some kind of plan by that time, or at least an idea of where to begin.”

“I think I’ll stay here for a while, to keep him company,” said Madeline.

Ages and Johnathan were a bit surprised, but neither could see any reason why not. “All right,” said Johnathan. “Then we’ll see you both later. And, Kimball…we’ll definitely have some good news for you by then.” He winked at Madeline and she responded in kind, showing that she understood not to reveal too much too soon. After they left, she pushed a chair up to Kimball’s bedside. He’d noticed their subtle exchange, which got him curious, but he decided not to directly address it.

“So sad, is what it is…to think of you all forced to flee again, after you’ve accomplished so much here.” Kimball sighed deeply. “I wish there were some alternative.”

“Well, maybe there will be,” said Madeline. Eager to change the subject, she added, “You know, you and I have something in common, even though I didn’t come from NIMH. It was I who warned the Rats that NIMH was coming that other time, back on the Fitzgibbons farm.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it started two and a half years ago, when I didn’t yet know any of the Rats, even though they lived close by. I didn’t know of Johnathan’s or Mr. Ages’s ties to them either; and Johnathan, in fact, wasn’t…with us at the time, but that’s a whole story in itself. It all really started when Timothy, my youngest son, came down with pneumonia…”

Chapter 11: Separation and discovery

It was nearing sunset, and these two out-of-towners weren’t making much headway in their search. The problem was not that Sampson was such a big town; by human standards it was relatively small, with a population of about 17,000. But to two small rodents, especially two who’d never seen any real human community, one of any size would seem quite large, and quite strange. There was so much to see that was new to them, it almost distracted these two from their purpose here. Though they still very much wanted to find someone who could give them the directions they needed, their more immediate concern was to find lodgings for the night. It had, after all, been a day like no other for them and they wanted to be well rested for the next leg of their journey tomorrow. They surely should be able to know the way by then, they hoped, even though they hadn’t met with much luck this first day. They’d encountered other mice, rats and other small mammals, who either didn’t trust these two strangers and edged away from them, or just claimed ignorance on knowing the way. “Mother told me there’d be days like this,” remarked Lambert at one point, referring to similar experiences the OT’s had after the Escape. All in all, they kept their sense of humor about this, knowing that sooner or later they’d have to have better luck.

Since leaving their “ride,” they’d wandered mostly aimlessly until they had found themselves back in the downtown area. Lambert remarked facetiously that maybe Martin’s tracking ability was on the fritz, but Martin assured him that it was working just fine; he still knew where they had or hadn’t been. This particular street had only a smattering of vehicular or pedestrian traffic this time of day, though they still proceeded with their usual amount of caution as they turned down an alleyway they hadn’t checked before, one separating two two-story buildings. Lambert stopped for a moment, putting his hand to his forehead.

“Still feeling a little woozy from the ride?” asked Martin.

Lambert resumed his pace. “Not really, it’s just a little headache. Boy, you’d think after four or five hours I’d be over it. Well, live and learn, I suppose.”

“You’re not thinking of…not returning the same way, are you?”

“Well, sure, I’m thinking about it; but what other choice do we have?” Lambert acknowledged Martin’s genuine concern. “Like you said, I survived this one, so I’ll manage going back.”

“I hope so. Boy, I wonder how much longer we'll have to keep frogging around like this. Sure, it’s been interesting, with all the sightseeing, but—”

“Shhh! Listen…” Lambert cocked an ear towards the source of a faint sound coming from behind some boxes stacked on one side of the alley. Soon Martin heard it too. Someone their size, they realized. They moved forward cautiously, and soon they were approaching a cluster of cardboard boxes against a wall. Two rats were rummaging through them, and they quickly noticed the two mismatched strangers and shifted their investigation to them, eyeing them with suspicion.

Martin immediately felt apprehensive, his caution level rising. He’d never known rats that were anything but friendly and helpful, but already he was getting a bad feeling about these two. He tugged at Lambert’s arm, looking up with concern.

“Just let me do the talking,” he whispered. Presenting as friendly a demeanor as he could, he said to the two strangers, “How’re you fellas doing? My name’s Lambert, and this is my friend Martin. Would you possibly know how to get to a place called NIMH? It’s a large white building, away from the center of town. Only we don’t know how to get to it from here.”

By now it had dawned on both of them that these two were not likely to be ones to readily dispense information. These were tough, lean, scarred street rats, used to foraging for every scrap of food, and fighting for territory and mating privileges. In contrast, Lambert was larger, more robust, and obviously better fed. He couldn’t help feeling a bit self-conscious about these differences as the two looked him and Martin up and down.

After about a half-minute of this, accompanied by an awkward and uneasy silence, one of them spoke. “Well, now, what would ya wanna be doin’ somethin’ like that for?”

“Yer’ a big one, ain’tcha? And who ever heard of a rat pallin’ ’round with a mouse?”

“Or carryin’ a bag on his back? Got somethin’ you’d care to share with two smaaall, puny rats like us?” They both took a couple steps forward. Though they were both smiling, their demeanor was anything but cordial or friendly.

Martin nudged Lambert. “Lammeeee…let’s not press our luck…” he said under his breath anxiously.

Lambert nodded. “Well, I guess we’ll be on our way, if you fellas can’t help us…” They both turned and started walking briskly the way they came in. Suddenly there came a shrill whistle from one of the street rats. More of them appeared, as if materializing out of nowhere: two, five, ten…the next thing the two travelers knew, they were surrounded by fifteen rats, each equally rough-looking—an intimidating sight by any standard.

“Havin’ trouble, Thumbo?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, Boonger. These two rubes don’t seem to un’erstand the rules o’ etti-kutt ’round these parts.”

“Hey, honest, guys,” said Lambert. “We don’t want any trouble. We just need some directions, then we’ll be on our way and never bother you again.”

“Sure, we’ll give you directions,” said Boonger, who was larger than the others and obviously their leader. “Like you doin’ somethin’ for us…like maybe providin’ a little entertainment?”

Lambert cleared his throat, eyes darting nervously as he looked for an escape route. “I guess you don’t mean you want us to dance…do you?” He tried hard not to sound as nervous as he felt.

Martin was also looking for an out, and soon noticed that in back of them there were no rats close to each other. With scarcely a thought he immediately dropped to all fours and darted straight through the gap, heading for the back of the alley.

It took the rat-gang a few more seconds to react. “After him!” shouted Boonger, who stayed with most of the gang to continue watching Lambert while three others took off in pursuit of Martin.

With heart pounding and all four legs propelling him furiously, Martin looked ahead to the rear of the alley, and for the first time he noticed it didn’t end there but made a right turn. Glancing behind at the three menacing forms gaining on him swiftly, he quickened his pace and rounded the bend…and felt his heart drop. The alley only went a few feet further in that direction before dead-ending. So be it, thought Martin, maybe I can still evade them. This part of the alley had been long untended, so there were many weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement and where there was bare ground, much of them growing right up against the brick walls, in which there many small niches, nooks and crannies. There was one thicket that looked especially suitable for hiding, so Martin dashed straight for it. He hunkered down low, hoping it would be enough to throw them off his trail or at least buy him a little time while he looked for another avenue of escape, though he knew he may not get the chance for much looking.

Presently the rats arrived at the dead end and set about sniffing and scratching around, intent upon finding their quarry. Knowing it was just a brief matter of time before they came upon his hiding place, Martin cast his eyes about him for a better one, heart still pounding, trying hard not to give any thought to what would happen if they found him, but knowing all along that he would do his best to defend himself tooth and nail if need be.

“Quick! In here!”

It was an urgent whisper, coming from behind him. Martin turned his head to see, just outside the thicket, a small gap, one that he’d overlooked, between two bricks in the wall.

“Come, now! Don’t let them catch you!” Martin couldn’t see inside the gap at all, but he knew the voice of another mouse when he heard one—a female voice, at that—and that it had to have come from there.

Unfortunately, both the voice and the slight rustling Martin made in response was enough to attract unwanted attention as well. “Here he is! This way!” one of the gang-rats shouted.

Oh, pond-scum, Martin thought as he all but flew for the hole and started to push his head through. It was a tight fit, as he’d thought; then he remembered his backpack. Quickly he removed it, pushed it through the hole, then followed it himself, soon working his whole body through. No sooner had he done this when he felt someone pulling him to one side, and he heard the same whispering voice urging him to keep silent.

From further back in the dark recess, he could see one rat-snout after another trying in vain to press its way in through the gap, all to no avail. Soon their voices could be heard: “Boy, Boonger’s really gonna go wild over this.” “What’ll we tell him?” “That we let the little twerp get away? We won’t have legs to stand on!” “I wonder if it’s too late to consider a career change?”

After the voices died down enough to assure Martin and his apparent benefactor that they’d gone, he turned to her, heart still pounding. “Thanks for the, er, rescue, but…my friend’s still out there with them. I can’t just leave him like that!”

“If you go back out there, you’d surely be killed. But since your friend’s a rat, I don’t believe he’ll be harmed. I think they’ll more likely try to get him to join them.”

Martin shook his head in indecision and confusion, heartsick at the idea of not even attempting a rescue. “I…I’ve known that there are rats like those, but…I never thought they could be that hostile…” He turned again towards the other mouse, now better able to make out her outline in the dim light. “Wait a minute…how do you know my friend’s a rat, when you didn’t see us?”

“I did see you, from one of several vantage points in the alley. I’ve learned to evade Boonger’s gang ever since they started taking over these alleys, so they weren’t even aware of me.”

Martin couldn’t help being impressed, and more. There was something about her words, her scent, her whole manner, that seemed out of the ordinary and yet somehow familiar. “What’s your name?” he finally asked.

“Karen Davis. I live close by here, with my parents…although Dad isn’t…here right now. What’s yours?”

“Martin Brisby. You can call me Marty.” It seemed appropriate to him; since Lambert was one of the few who called him that, Karen’s addressing him the same way would serve to remind him of what he even now swore inwardly: that somehow, someway, he would see to it that his best friend would be free. After introducing himself, though, it almost seemed that Karen reacted in a startled fashion, though it was so dark he couldn’t be sure.

“I’m pleased to meet you…Marty. I think Mom will want to meet you, too. You do look like you need a place to rest for the night.”

Martin found himself increasingly intrigued. There was definitely something unusual about her, and it seemed the curiosity was mutual. It was almost as if…no, that couldn’t be. A slim chance of that at best. Still…as curious as he was, he stopped short of accepting her invitation flat-out. “I…you’re right, Karen, I do need to rest for the night, but…I still just can’t abandon Lambert, just like that.”

“He’ll be all right, believe me. We can search for him later. Are you coming with me?”

Martin was ready to argue the point further; after all, Lambert was his friend, so how could she know such a thing? But he took a moment to think, and found himself accepting the offer, though he still couldn’t be sure if it was the right thing right then. Still…Karen definitely knew her way around—this much he could already tell—and with his complete and absolute inexperience with this town and everything in it, he definitely needed someone like her. The thought that she could be leading him into some kind of trap never occurred to him; indeed, he wondered, fleetingly, if this meeting wasn’t random or accidental, as if he were meant to be brought here.

Martin picked up his backpack and, as he put it back on, looked once more at the gap through which he’d been led to safety, disbelieving that he’d actually been able to squeeze his whole body through it; then, turning to Karen, he allowed her to take his hand. She began leading him through a maze of passages: through a crawlspace here, up a wall stud there, squeezing through numerous gaps and cracks.

“It’s a complicated route, I know; but we’ve been able to keep it, and our home’s location, a secret from Boonger’s gang.” It finally occurred to Martin that Karen, and possibly her mother, were much more likely candidates to guide him toward NIMH, since she knew her way around so well. Even though he had yet to see her clearly, he already had a strong impression of her as having an air of quiet determination, of someone used to getting a job done, no matter what—the kind of traits he always admired. He found himself anticipating getting to know her better, and decided to wait until they’d reached her home before broaching the subject of NIMH.

Along the way he asked, “So, Karen…how did you guys come to live in a place like this; you know, with such hostile neighbors?”

“They weren’t always our neighbors,” Karen replied. “We were here first, and it was pretty peaceful when our family first moved here, two years ago. Then about a year later Boonger and his gang began taking over the alleys in this area. We had better neighbors here before, both rats and mice. We generally avoided the rats, though they weren’t anywhere near as bad as Boonger’s gang. But since then, more and more of them have moved away, and…” She paused to sigh. “…and some have gotten hurt really bad or even killed. We’ve all had to be extra careful in our comings and goings, and learn every trick in the book to avoid them. They don’t take kindly to creatures other than rats on what they consider their territory; or most other rats, for that matter. You can’t let them catch or corner you; they’d be just as liable to cripple you for life, or even kill you, as much as look at you.”

Martin shuddered. He’d gotten a strong sense of that very possibility only minutes ago. “It sounds like…an awful way to live. Why don’t you move away?”

“We’ve been talking more and more lately about it, but you know how it is when you become attached to something or someplace; the longer you stay, the more you hate to leave; Mom especially.”

“Believe me, Karen, I know exactly what you mean.” Indeed, the words brought back memories of his family’s decision to leave their old creekside home two years before for their present one in Thorn Valley, and his own mother’s reluctance to leave it behind. It also occurred to him: if Karen’s family had moved from here, would he be having this conversation now; or, for that matter, would he have survived that encounter in the alley?

“You and your friend…you’re not from around here, are you?”

“I guess we couldn’t have been more obvious about it, huh? We’re from far away, all right; far off in the country, in fact.”

“Ah-ha! I figured as much. So…what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“Well…Lambert and I were heading for, uhm, a specific place we knew was in this area…” Martin couldn’t keep it to himself any longer, and he saw no further reason to beat around the bush. Though it went against his earlier resolve, he asked, “Karen…would you or your mom happen to know the way…to NIMH?”

Karen suddenly stopped cold. Even in the pitch blackness Martin could tell she was turning to face him directly. “Marty…please don’t say another word until we get to my home. I think…we each sense…similar things about each other; and it’s something that’s better discussed when we’re with my mother.” She again took his hand and continued leading the way.

Even if he didn’t feel inclined to respect her wishes, Martin Brisby still couldn’t have said a word right then, not even if his life depended on it. She’d taken the words right out of his mouth. This whole situation, in fact, was taking on an increasingly unreal aspect: being suddenly spirited away from a hostile and potentially fatal situation by this girl whose words and manner were so beguiling. Martin was more than ever burning with curiosity but resolved to hold off on any further questions or any words at all for another few minutes.

And so he and Karen continued on in silence until they came to a cement block foundation. Karen led Martin up to where it met wood. There, they were able to pass through a gap between floorboards; and finally, after a few more gaps and crevices, they came to a knothole in another floorboard.

“Here we are,” announced Karen as she dropped through it. Martin followed, and landed on a neatly-arranged pile of stones. He followed Karen down from it and looked around. They were in a spacious crawlspace with a packed earth floor. Over in a far corner a single red ornamental light bulb illuminated the scene. As the two mice approached it, Martin could see Karen clearly for the first time, though of course it wasn’t the same as in daylight. She looked to be about as old, or rather as mature as Cynthia and Timothy. His earlier impression of her was reinforced as the two looked each other up and down. He was finding much to admire about her: she was undeniably attractive, though it was a different sort of beauty than the females in his family; Karen seemed leaner of build and narrower of face. But he was hardly displeased upon seeing her, and she seemed to regard him much the same way.

Abruptly, she turned her head and called out: “Mom! I’m back, and I’ve brought someone I think we both want to meet.”

Martin was so caught up in his admiration of Karen that it took the entrance of her mother to break the “spell.” Shaking off his embarrassment, he saw a mouse very much like Karen in overall appearance step into the light. Her mother was almost a mirror image; neither of them wore clothing but did wear ribbons to tie back their longer cranial hair, much like Teresa. “Marty, this is my mother, Patricia Davis. Mom, this is Martin Brisby.”

Patricia’s eyes widened. “Martin…Brisby…” she murmured distantly as she began studying his face closely. She suddenly straightened as she realized her actions and noticed Martin’s confusion and slight discomfort over her scrutiny. “Oh, I’m…terribly sorry, Martin. I know it was rude of me to act that way upon meeting someone for the first time. Welcome to our home.” She took his hand in both of hers.

“Er…thanks, Patricia, and that’s all right; I’m almost getting used to that kind of reaction. Karen acted almost the same way.” Patricia nodded thoughtfully. “What’s going on here?” Martin asked abruptly. “I get the impression there’s something more we should know about each other. Karen said the same thing.”

“There may well be, Martin. Tell me: what’s your father’s name?”

“Johnathan. Johnathan Brisby.”

Again Patricia’s eyes widened. “Johnathan! Of course! I knew there was a resemblance! And the name…” She clapped hands like a delighted child.

Martin shook his head in confusion. “How could you have known my dad? Unless you…”

“Oh, yes, we knew Johnathan very well, my husband and I. Come this way, please.” They all moved closer to the illuminated corner, where Martin could see they’d set up the main part of their housekeeping. There were small carpet remnants on the floor; tables, chairs and beds made from small pieces of wood and stone. But what really caught Martin’s eye were the pictures: stuck to the walls and even the ceiling, in neat little snacks; many half-finished, all beautifully rendered on small scraps of paper, in pencil, charcoal and crayon: pictures of mice, of rats, of other animals, of trees and all manner of other plants, of buildings and many other human-made things. They were every bit as good as the ones made by the best artists back in Thorn Valley, including his brother Timothy.

Karen noticed Martin’s fascination and said, “Mom’s got quite a talent, doesn’t she?”

“Yes…she sure does. You drew all of these, Patricia?”

“Yes. I really love drawing. Ever since the day I discovered I had the talent, it’s been my favorite pastime. Even through six pregnancies and thirteen children, I’ve never stopped completely.” She approached one stack and began sorting through them.

“Thirteen…wow. I’ve got seven sibs myself. I guess they don’t all live here now, do they?”

Patricia paused in her riffling and sighed. “No, most of them have struck out on their own. I think most, if not all of them, were going to try to…” She resumed her search. “Oh, it’s so much to tell, Martin, and I’m sure you have a lot of stories to share as well.” She found the pictures she’d been searching for and sat down on the floor and spread them out. Karen and Martin sat on either side of her.

The drawings were all of other mice, some of them portraits, others full-body renderings. Martin’s eye was instantly drawn to a portrait, a pencil rendering of a mouse, one strikingly familiar to him. “That…that looks like my dad!” he said, gasping.

“Yes,” said Patricia, seeming to expect such a reaction. “And do you recognize any of the others?”

Martin scanned the lot before one other in particular caught his eye. He gave a small laugh. “That…that’s Mr. Ages!”

Patricia again looked delighted. “So he survived too! How wonderful! Martin…has your father ever mentioned the name ‘Kimball’ to you? Or my name?”

Martin looked squarely at Patricia. “Yes…I believe he has. Kimball’s your husband, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is.”

“So that’s it. I suspected it before, but now there’s no doubt. You’re both from NIMH, and you also escaped that night eight years ago!”

Chapter 12: The Hiding Plan

“Friends…we’ve got a problem. Probably…no, definitely one bigger than any we’ve ever had to face.”

Justin looked out over the faces of those assembled before him in the lowermost rows of the amphitheater-style assembly hall: the entire council, a mix of first- and second-generationers; plus the senior Guard officers, including Captain Brutus. It was later than the usual time for such a meeting—a little after 8:00 P.M.—but that was of no concern whatsoever to all assembled, not when faced with such a problem as what loomed before them now—no less than life or death itself.

“It’s like history repeating itself,” said Arthur. “We get the message: ‘NIMH is coming!’ and we all have to run for our lives.”

“Only this time,” said Graham, “there are so many more of us…and we’ve no great Plan to fall back on.”

“All right, let’s not belabor the facts,” said Velma impatiently. “We all know we have to do something about this, but what?”

“Easy, Velma,” said her husband Colbert. “Well…we all know the most obvious solution: to move away…again. But how far would we get, and for how long, before NIMH catches up with us?”

“He’s right,” said Orson. “The whole point of our moving here in the first place was to have a place to truly call our own, where we could live peacefully and self-sufficiently, raising our children and pursuing knowledge, with no interference from humankind. It’s all any of us has ever really wanted. Would we be prepared to live as nomads, always being pursued, always on the run?”

“Yet, what other solutions are there?” put forth Justin. “Obviously nobody wants to move, not after we’ve accomplished so much here. We’ve set down roots permanent enough that most of us couldn’t think of anyplace else as home. Many of us put off having children, or more children, until we’d become more settled here. No, none of us wants to move on; but what other choices are there?”

“You know,” brought up Simone, “we’ve had so much discussion lately about how some of our younger ones might want to leave here someday, strike out on their own, and I’ve always thought that we couldn’t begrudge that right to anyone who desires it. Now, I believe that more than ever, if all of us are in jeopardy. If some of us were to go elsewhere, in different directions, then survival for at least some of us would be better ensured.”

“And most of us have had training in wilderness survival and self-defense,” added Angeline. “We may even be able to stay within Thorn Valley, but scattered throughout, in different bands.”

“All very valid points,” said Colbert, “but would it not still mean that we would still have to lead a nomadic life, always in fear of being captured? No, I think that whatever we decide to do, we should take a stand, all of us together. Even if it were to come to fighting for our land, our children, possibly even dying for our right to be free…if that’s what it would take, then by all I hold dear, I’d be willing to take that step.” He slapped his fist into his other hand.

“No!” cried Isabella suddenly. “I mean…I know that’s how you really feel, Dad, and I’m not denying your right to say so. But I would much rather live always on the run than not live at all. I’m all for living free, but I’m not prepared to die for it.”

“I’m with her on this,” said Arthur, “but at the same time, I think it’s possible that they might not slay us, or even capture us outright.”

“You can’t be serious!” said Norriss. “They were all ready to pump cyanide into our old colony! How could you possibly believe that it wouldn’t be the same this time?”

“Of course I can’t be absolutely certain, but consider this: that was two and a half years ago. Maybe they wouldn’t want to kill us this time, after they’ve seen all we’ve accomplished. I’ve never believed that all humans are bad, that they all would react to us with fear and loathing. Who’s to say that they couldn’t accept us and coexist peacefully with us? After all this time that we and humans have had no contact with each other, I think it’s very possible that it wouldn’t be the same this time.”

The room was abuzz with whisperings and mutterings and skeptical headshaking, to Arthur’s expectation. Justin indicated he was ready to speak, and the room quieted. “Arthur, old friend…that would be nice, but let’s face it. We’d never be treated as anything but a curiosity. ‘Come and see, everyone, the Experiment That Succeeded Too Well.’ Would we ever have full rights under their laws? I can’t see us ever being equals to them legally, even if we are on an equal footing, intelligence-wise. Nicodemus…had always hoped that there would come a day in which we and they could meet and agree to coexist peacefully. He knew—as did we all—that we wouldn’t be able to avoid them and escape their notice forever, especially considering how we’d escaped them originally. There would always be the likelihood of someone continuing to search for us, track us down, or stumble upon our location by accident. And now…apparently, that time has come upon us. And now that it has…I believe, as I know many of you do, that they are simply not ready for us, and won’t be for some time, if ever.”

Justin paused, expecting someone to challenge this view; but none, Arthur included, raised any objection. “We’ve continued to monitor their radio broadcasts, and though it isn’t all bad news we’re hearing, they still paint an overall picture of a humankind that doesn’t take well to tolerating differences among their own kind. Look at their history, with one race or ethnic group subjugating another because of a perceived inherent superiority of one over another. So what would we be to them, besides an ongoing experiment? Would we ever be more than that? To them, we were property that got away from them, and now they want to reclaim that property.” He turned to Arthur. “I’d really like to believe you, old friend; I’d give anything for it to be a guaranteed truth. But at this point in time…it would just be too great a risk.”

Johnathan Brisby, who’d been mostly silent thus far, was reminded of a conversation he and Madeline had the day they’d moved here, on the same subject, and how he’d reached much the same conclusion. He himself had had conversations with Nicodemus back at the Rosebush about future human contact, agreeing that there was no easy answer, no way to definitively tell how a first-contact situation would play out. Nicodemus had more optimism that humans would eventually be ready for a friendly first encounter; though he always maintained that his precognitive abilities, known only to a small circle of the elders including Johnathan, could not extend further than the immediate future, measured in minutes or very few hours. So it was pure optimism that had fueled this view, and time would tell whether or not this would prove to be true, or a blind spot on Nicodemus’s part.

As for Arthur, he appeared not greatly disappointed; he’d known the idea would be extremely controversial. “Be that as it may, Justin…one thing we’re all agreed upon is that whatever our ultimate fate is, the great majority of us, at least, will want to face it together; even if some do want to leave, as Simone said.”

Everyone looked at the others in the room, and none saw expressions or heard any word to dispute the point. There were many expressions of concern and anxiety—though everyone was trying hard to be as businesslike as possible—for they all knew that Arthur’s point was at the crux of this whole predicament. Whether they’d spend the rest of their lives fleeing and eluding, or be captured and possibly killed or experimented on further, it was the fate they all had to face.

Jolene spoke next. “I’m not saying that Kimball’s convictions—or Vincent’s, I should say—aren’t valid; but do we really know what the humans will do when they get here? It seems to me that if they’ve never observed this area closely, and if they’ve no definite reason to believe we’re here, then they could be coming to just observe, just give the place the once-over.”

“That may be,” said Norriss, “but even if that were true, they could still be equipped to capture us or otherwise deal with us as they will.”

“I’m afraid he’s right,” said Justin. “It’s just one more thing we can’t leave to chance.”

“What about…hiding?”

It was Johnathan Brisby who now brought up this very simple point which, everyone began to realize, may be the best solution yet proposed. Though the Rats’ colony had become well established in Thorn Valley these three years past—including the initial construction and settlement by Arthur’s advance crew—steps could be taken to conceal or minimize outward signs of their presence here; so that to any humans viewing the valley from the air, there would appear to be nothing to betray a sign of civilization of any kind, or at least they’d be small enough to escape human notice and throw them off their trail; and if Jolene’s idea turned out true, there would be an even greater chance of eluding human notice. The specific tasks that would be required were discussed at length; and at the discussion’s conclusion, it was agreed that it could be done. It would require quite a bit of sweat and toil and many rat-hours and everyone giving his or her all—but it could be done.

“Well, Johnathan,” said Justin, “it looks like you’ve done it again.” There were many yeas of agreement throughout the hall.

“Oh, come on, Justin! If I hadn’t brought up that point, somebody else would have. And besides, I think any congratulations should wait until after those NIMH guys have made their sweep, found nothing, and gone home. Then we can all pat each other on the back.”

“Well, if this is the plan we’re going with,” said Ages, “I say we get started right away. We don’t know how much time we’ve got.”

Justin nodded. “If only we knew just when they’d arrive; we could set up more of a timetable. It could be days, even weeks from now; but it could just as easily be tomorrow, or in the next five minutes. I guess all we can do is work our tails off and hope and pray that we do have enough time.” He sighed and looked out towards everyone. “Well…if we’re unanimous on this plan, this ‘Hiding Plan,’ then our next order of business would be to put the word out to everyone else.”

“I agree,” said Norriss. “It’ll come as quite a shock to most, but it’s better to put it straight to everyone than let unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire. There’ve been enough of those already since Kimball’s arrival.”

“All right. If nobody has any further suggestions or objections, or any comments at all, then we can call a general meeting.”

Tallus raised a hand. “This may be an odd time to say this, Justin…everyone. But I’ve been thinking about Arthur’s earlier point. I, too, believe that not all humans would react negatively to us. If we could show the right one, or more, all that we’ve accomplished here—on our level—it could be a major step forward for both us and them.”

“No offense, old friend,” said Orson, “but I think we’ve worked this through already. Are you going someplace else with this?”

“Perhaps,” replied Tallus with a definite twinkle in his eye. “When I said ‘on our level’ I meant it literally. Johnathan…that amulet of yours: does it have the capability of shrinking anything or anyone?”

Johnathan chuckled. “Well, if it did, I’m sure I’d know about it by now. But it could cert—” His eyes widened. “That’s it!” He jumped to his feet, almost shaking with excitement. “The Stone! It could transport us all to someplace NIMH could never find us!”

The room fairly exploded into sudden, disorderly conversation. Justin called everyone to order, then said, “Johnathan, if you’re sure it can do this, we’ve got a whole new ballgame here!” For all he tried to appear the cool, self-possessed leader, he himself found it hard to contain his excitement.

“There’s no reason I can see why we couldn’t pull it off!” exclaimed Johnathan. “I was thinking before of using it to bring Kimball’s family here, and to recall Martin and Lambert. But to use it for all of us…why didn’t it occur to me before?” He turned to Tallus. “Wait a minute…you deliberately brought up the Stone, didn’t you? Just because I hadn’t done it myself yet? You, of all of us, would remember its capabilities, and whether or not it could shrink anything!”

“Oh, perhaps, Johnathan. But I did mean every word I said, regardless.” There was again that twinkle in his eye, that small, knowing smile.

Johnathan laughed out loud. “You wily old…listen, don’t anyone go anywhere, okay? I’m heading for the ward to tell Maddie and Kimball, then I’ll be back as fast as I can with the Stone.” He turned and raced out of the hall as if on wheels. Behind him, the discussion continued, this time in a more orderly fashion, the main topic being how they would break the news to their children.

* * *

“Maddie, are you sure you haven’t seen it? Anywhere at all?” asked Johnathan, his voice taking on an increasingly uneasy tone as he continued his search of their walk-in closet.

“Johnathan…you’re not saying I’m lying to you, are you?” asked Madeline, standing at the doorway.

Johnathan immediately ceased his rummaging and came out to her, clasping her shoulders. “No…no! Sweetheart, of course not! I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s just that…” He turned, gesturing. “…there’s no reason for it not to be there. That is where we always keep it, that’s where it should be.”

“We probably have nothing to worry about. One of the children just wanted to look at it, I’m sure.”

“That’s…probably true. It’s probably even put back in there, but in the wrong place. Vanessa or Kirk, especially, might not have remembered exactly where he or she got it.” As reassuring as they tried to sound to each other, there was no masking the uneasiness in both their voices. “So…is everyone here?”

“Timothy should be bringing Vanessa and Kirk in with him any minute now.”

Johnathan looked back into the closet and sighed. “I guess there’s no sense in tearing up the place any further, at least not until we get to the bottom of this. Someone has to know where it is.” On this they both agreed; so they went out to the living room, where half of their children already waited. In a few more minutes all but Martin were assembled. As the parents had agreed, they leveled with the children on the current situation: Kimball’s warning, what the council had discussed and decided upon, Johnathan’s realization of the Stone’s possible role in preventing their discovery by NIMH, telling Kimball that the amulet could also be used in bringing his family here, and coming here to fetch it.

“Now, we come here to find the Stone not where it belongs.” Johnathan looked particularly toward the younger ones. “We don’t want to pin any blame, or punish anybody here. But it’s very important that we know where it is, so if any of you have been in the closet and looked at the Stone, or took it out of there, we need to know now.”

All of the younger ones denied having taken it or seen it at all. Vanessa and Kirk did admit to playing in the closet a couple of days ago, but they didn’t open or go near the small chest containing the amulet. The older children denied any knowledge of its whereabouts as well.

“Maybe Martin took it, Dad,” piped up Lyndon.

They all looked at each other. “Why would he do that?” wondered Teresa. “It only works through the two of you.”

“It wouldn’t be of any use to him, all right,” mused Johnathan, rubbing his whiskers. “Unless…”

“…Unless…he has it to keep us from using it,” finished Madeline, saying the words slowly and carefully as it dawned on her—and swiftly, on the older family members—just how much sense the idea made.

“We were considering…using it to check up on him and Lambert, but promised ourselves we wouldn’t,” continued Johnathan. “He might have thought we would, and so he took it to ensure that we wouldn’t.”

“It sounds like something he’d do,” agreed Teresa. “But why?”

“Yeah, if all he and Lambert are doing is just taking a hike,” said Cynthia.

“The rabbits…” Madeline murmured.

“What rabbits, Mother?” asked Teresa.

“Kimball said he heard from those rabbits he’d met about a rat and mouse traveling together, and headed west, toward the river.”

“The Greenlee River?”

“It’s the only one in the area, so that’s what we assumed,” said Johnathan. “If that was them, and if Martin did take the Stone, then they might be headed someplace they don’t want us to know about.”

“Someplace further west, beyond the river, do you think?” said Madeline.

“Anything’s possible, at this point.”

“Uh, Dad,” began Timothy, “I don’t know if this has anything to do with this or not, but…after Martin left, only about an hour or so later, after we’d all left the house…I came back here to get a couple of things; and when I was still behind the bushes, I saw a mouse that looked like he was headed for our courtyard. At the time, I thought he looked like he could have been Martin, but I didn’t get a very clear view of him, so I figured he could just as easily have been one of our neighbors. By the time I got close enough to get a clearer view, I couldn’t see him anymore. I couldn’t tell if he went inside, or had just passed by. But I still thought it could have been Martin, come back to pick up something he forgot. So when I got inside, I called for him several times. I got no reply, and I didn’t hear anything else; and I could detect his scent, but it was among everyone else’s, so I assumed it was from earlier, before we all left the house. So I just got what I came for and left.”

“Did you go in or near the closet?” asked Johnathan.

“No. I guess I probably should have, but I didn’t think it was necessary…at the time.”

“But if that was him,” offered Teresa, “and he was trying not to be seen or heard, then he could have made a point to keep quiet when he heard you calling.”

The point hung silently for a moment; then Shawna said, “Mom…Dad…is Martin coming back? What’s going to happen?” The other young ones, easily picking up on their elders’ uneasiness, raised a chorus of similar questions.

Their parents gently quieted them; then Madeline said, “Children, you mustn’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine. Now we all need to go to the Rats’ colony again, because Justin wants everyone to be there, and it should be just about your bedtime when it’s done.”

“Is that what the meeting’s about, Dad?” asked Lyndon. “The humans are gonna come here?”

“That’s what we believe, son. But it’s going to be okay. We’ll figure out a way to make sure they won’t find us.” He and Madeline gave each child a hug.

Lyndon and the other youngsters seemed reassured, though the youngest ones still had questions. Teresa volunteered to explain things more thoroughly to them—“even if I don’t understand myself, completely,” she added more discreetly to the parents.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” said Madeline. “And don’t you worry, either.” Madeline turned to Johnathan. “Now I’ve got to convince myself not to worry.”

“There’s still the Hiding Plan to fall back on.” Johnathan stroked his wife’s shoulder. “Buck up, Maddie. We’ll get through this one way or another.”

“Tim and I can keep searching for the Stone, just in case it is still here,” offered Cynthia. “At least for a little while, until we’re all ready to go to the meeting.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Uh…where’d Tim go, anyway?”

“He stepped outside, I think.” Cynthia then confided, “I…don’t think I’m especially scared, but…I’m not sure what to think about Tim. I thought that of all of us, he’d be the one to feel that this’ll all be put right.” She referred to his well-known intuitive ability to sense when, during a time of crisis, he would know when a positive outcome was extremely likely, even when it wasn’t imminent. The three now walked out the front door into the courtyard, where they immediately found Timothy lying on his back on the leaning rock, looking up at the twilit sky. He turned his head toward his parents and sister as they approached.

“I don’t…feel anything. I keep thinking that, as important as this whole situation is, I should feel something. But I don’t, at least not yet.” He sighed and sat upright. “I don’t know…maybe I’ve come to rely too much on this intuition of mine. Maybe I’ve even outgrown it. I keep telling myself that, intellectually, I know there’s a good chance this will all turn out for the better. But I don’t feel that; I don’t feel anything about it. And…that scares me. I’ve never felt this scared about anything.”

“Oh, Timothy…” Madeline came forward and embraced him, feeling him tremble. “Maybe…it is too early to tell. You’ve only just learned of all this. Maybe it’ll be tomorrow before you feel anything.”

“She’s right, son,” said Johnathan, rubbing his back. “Try to keep a good thought. Whatever happens, we’re not giving up. Try to be strong, Tim; for yourself and for all of us.” Cynthia added her own encouragement.

Timothy seemed genuinely buoyed by their words and slid down from the rock. “I’ll try; and maybe you’re right, maybe it is too early to tell. But I still…can’t help thinking that if I’d known for sure if that was Martin I saw, I could have kept him from taking the Stone…if that was him.”

“Tim, you can’t hold yourself to blame for that,” said Madeline. “You couldn’t have known.”

“Yeah, and besides, you know Martin,” offered Cynthia. “He might have tried to talk you into letting him go with it, and keeping it a secret.” She gave Timothy a consoling hug. He knew well of what she spoke, having been in such a position before, on one very memorable occasion last year in particular.

“Listen, why don’t you two go on ahead and keep looking for the Stone,” said Johnathan abruptly, “while your mother and I get back to the Rats and update them on the situation. We’d already gotten well into discussing the Hiding Plan, and I’m sure we can pull it off.” He then added quickly, “That is, if you still can’t find it.” They agreed that after they left, the children would proceed on to the meeting after about ten minutes or so. After their parents wished them luck, Timothy and Cynthia went back inside.

“Do you really think they could find it still?” asked Madeline. “You searched the closet pretty thoroughly.”

“Honestly, no; but we can give them that much hope, at least; and us too. And hopefully it’ll keep them occupied enough to keep from worrying too much.” He said this knowing that both Timothy and Cynthia were positive thinkers and not especially given to worry—in contrast to himself. His own predilection for worry had led him to keep so much from his family, all due to his concern over the aging difference between Madeline and himself, later proven to have never existed to begin with.

Madeline just nodded, and she and Johnathan went to the courtyard entrance, where two rats waited to take them back to the colony. Brutus had assigned two of the Guard who were also their best runners, Jerome and Orpheus, to take them to and from their home quickly, riding “bareback.”

“Anytime you folks are ready, we can start heading back,” said Jerome.

Johnathan was about to say they were when Madeline told them they would be ready in a minute or so. Taking Johnathan’s arm, they returned to the leaning rock. “I was wondering,” she began, “if there could be some other reason for the Stone’s absence, maybe…something we haven’t learned about it yet.” Both were certain that, even after having had seemingly-permanent custody of it for over two years, there were still mysteries to be uncovered, details that even the Lahaikshean sorcerer Birantha hadn’t learned himself…and he was the greatest living authority on it.

“I’m not sure what that would be,” said Johnathan. “It does need to have someone commanding it, as far as we know, for it to do anything. And it ‘chose’ you and me, so there shouldn’t be anyone else; unless Pharsal was lying about its only choosing two. Anything’s possible where the Stone’s concerned, but…there’s just too much evidence pointing toward Martin. Like Teresa said: it does sound like something he’d do.”

“I suppose so, but…I hope you’re not blaming him for this situation.”

“No, of course not. There’s no way he could have known, any more than Tim or any of us. But if he’d only confided in us, told us what his and Lambert’s real plans were. I’m sure it couldn’t have been anything that we would have expressly forbidden. Why the big secret? We’ve always been open with our children, and encouraged them to be the same with us. Why does it have to be so hard with him?”

Madeline had an impulse to make the comparison between Martin and Johnathan, who had kept more than a few matters from his family in past years—but she thought better of it. “It’s…just something that can’t be explained away, I suppose. Even with all that’s happened to us—some of which could almost be called miraculous—why one’s children turn out a certain way can still be a big mystery.”

“How true.” Johnathan inhaled deeply and gazed heavenward. “Kimball was so excited when we told him the Stone could reunite him with his family. He was so happy I thought he’d grow a new leg right then and there.”

Madeline gave a small laugh. “Yes. I’ll hate to have to break the bad news to him.” She thought back to only half an hour ago when she was nearing the end of her story, telling Kimball of her first encounter with the Rats of NIMH. He’d been especially fascinated by the account of how the Stone’s power had activated through her, saving her children, and he’d wanted to know more about it. But she said that it would be best that she and Johnathan tell it together when there was more time, long and involved a tale as it was.

“Yeah, he’ll be crushed, poor guy. I can do it, if you’d like.”

“No, you go on ahead to the meeting, Johnathan; I can handle it.”

“All right. C’mon, let’s go.” They returned to where Jerome and Orpheus awaited, and soon all were off.

* * *

“…And that’s the situation as it stands now, we figure. Unless Martin and Lambert get back here with the amulet before the humans arrive, we’ll have to go with the Hiding Plan.”

Johnathan looked out at the sea of faces before him, hating to be the harbinger of bad news. In the short time that he’d been absent, the general meeting had been called, with attendance mandatory for everyone not on sentry or some other form of duty, adults and children alike. By the time he’d returned, a good half of the community was there; and shortly, everyone was assembled, including the Brisby children. Justin and the other elders lost no time in setting the record straight on Kimball’s origins and why he’d come here. There were the expected reactions of shock, dismay, denial; but most were pacified when the council detailed the Hiding Plan.

They’d leveled with everyone on the situation with the Stone, and how they’d initially proposed combining the Hiding Plan with use of the amulet. It had been proposed that after the area would be camouflaged to make it appear as if the rats didn’t live here, the amulet could have been used to temporarily evacuate the entire populace, perhaps only to another part of the valley, until the humans had left. The council had been in the midst of this discussion while the general population began arriving for the general meeting; but then Johnathan arrived with the disheartening news that the Stone had come up missing, and that Martin most likely had taken it. In gauging the crowd’s reaction, it appeared to him and the rest of the council that no one was directly blaming Martin for the situation, an idea his parents made abundantly clear they didn’t subscribe to.

Justin now again spoke. “Friends…we do have a serious situation on our hands, but not an insurmountable one. Before we had the idea to use the Stone, we discussed the Hiding Plan, and we all agreed that it should work. So I propose that we carry out this plan, with or without the amulet. We don’t know how much time we have; it could be weeks away, or one week before they arrive; or perhaps even sooner. But one thing is certain, or very probable: when they do arrive, it’ll surely be during the day. So each day that we get through, all the way till sundown without any humans arriving, provides us that much more time to prepare ourselves. So it will be a day-to-day existence till then, to be sure; and I wish I could say more that will make it easier on all of you. It won’t be an easy time for any of us; but we can make it work. Most of us remember well the Migration, and building this new settlement from the ground up; and how arduous it all was, so I won’t bore you with the details. But in comparison, we should be able to carry out this plan far more easily, at least as far as physical labor is concerned, because there are more of us now; and though there will be moving involved, it won’t be far and it’ll be only temporary. But all of this applies only if we all cooperate, all pull together. We’re not giving up this land, my friends, or our freedom. If there’s one thing that’s clear right now, it’s that we will not have to abandon this colony forever, not after all the work we’ve done to make it what it is today.” Justin paused for a moment. “We were so sure—Nicodemus and the rest of us who first saw Thorn Valley’s potential for our use—that it and we would be safe, inviolate from human intrusion. Maybe we were wrong…but that doesn’t mean we’re giving it up. We all love it here too much; it can still be our Utopia, our Promised Land. So…are you all with me?”

There was a resounding note of approval throughout the chamber; yet it wasn’t without an undercurrent of uncertainty. It was hardly unexpected; who among them would welcome such news with open arms? Though there were expressions of determination on many faces, even enthusiasm, there were almost as many that reflected the uncertainty and dread they couldn’t conceal; some could only shake their heads in mute shock.

Damn them, thought Justin. Why couldn’t they leave us alone? Why should we be made to suffer like this, not knowing when they’ll be here, or exactly what to expect of them? He thought of Arthur’s words earlier, and wished there was a way their pursuers could be made to understand that even though these rats are the result of their own experiments, they are nevertheless now very much their own beings, essentially people just like them, who wish to pursue their own destiny.

He shunted the matter aside; there’ll be time for such idle musings later, after they’d thrown NIMH off their trail. He held both arms up to indicate he was ready to speak again. The chamber grew quiet. “Now…the council has determined that if we work around the clock, in three shifts, we’ll be able to prepare ourselves more than adequately in two days, maybe less. The sooner we get started, the better; so if we can have volunteers to work the first night shift, they can report to Graham, Arthur or Bryant. They’re coordinating our initial efforts, which will mainly consist of bringing in the remaining harvest, whether it’s fully grown or not, and burying the stalks and other unusable material. Let’s make this plan work, friends. If there are no further questions, this meeting is adjourned.”

There were probably questions aplenty, Justin knew, but mostly of the type that none could give any definite answer to. None voiced any aloud, though, though he and Johnathan did pass along more personal reassurances to some, including Lambert’s parents Graham and Simone and some of his siblings, regarding their belief that he and Martin had gone on a hike that went much further in distance than anyone had thought; and that Martin had very likely talked Lambert into it, something both sets of parents agreed wasn’t unlikely. Soon everyone else had either filed out of the chamber or was queuing around the organizers for the night shift, for which there was plenty of volunteers.

“Well, they’ve got their hands full,” commented Johnathan. “Not that the rest of us don’t.”

Justin nodded. “I know matters are in good hands, but…I was thinking, from seeing how some of us are dealing with this, that more should have been done to prepare for a situation like this. We’ve always carried out regular emergency preparedness drills, but those have been mostly for camouflaging the colony, and it seems to me they haven’t been taken as seriously as they should have. We’ve allowed ourselves to grow too complacent, where we should have maintained a constant state of readiness, prepared ourselves better both physically and mentally. I’ve no doubt we can get this plan off the ground, but…this is such a blow to so many.”

“It’ll be hard on all of us, old buddy,” said Johnathan, “but we’ll make it. Right now, the rest of us need to get some shuteye.” He and Justin said goodnight, but before leaving the hall, he was approached by Tallus.

“Johnathan, I feel compelled to say…that as great a respecter of privacy as I am, I feel some regret for allowing Martin and Lambert as much as I did that night before they left. Perhaps if I’d gotten wind of their plans, well…”

Johnathan held his hand up, smiling reassuringly. “Don’t let it worry you, Tallus. Even if you had listened in, unintentionally or not, I think they might have been careful to not give too much away. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Martin came up with the idea of taking the Stone later, maybe at the last minute.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s true. And I believe with all my heart that, provided we have enough time, we can make this plan work.”

After chatting a bit more, they said goodnight and Johnathan headed for home. He wished he could truly believe their own encouraging words, with no reservation. Yet there was Timothy’s dearth of any intuitive feeling on the situation; maybe it was too soon for him to tell, as he himself thought; but maybe not. And Martin? Even if this Hiding Plan were entirely successful without the Stone, what if Martin never came back? Or couldn’t come back? What if he were in some kind of danger? As acutely aware as he was of his own predilection for worry, it didn’t make it easier for him to deal with it when he felt there was good cause.

Johnathan met Madeline at the ward, and told her and Kimball of their current plan. He apologized unnecessarily for building up Kimball’s hopes only to tear them down, but Kimball assured him that he didn’t hold Johnathan to blame, adding that he himself believed that Martin and Lambert could return in time. Kimball then added some encouragement of his own: since, after all, it had been nearly two weeks since he’d received the bad news, it could just as easily be any number of days before NIMH arrived. Johnathan was indeed impressed, to hear this coming from one who was almost in hysterics over the same matter only earlier that day. The Brisbys told Kimball goodnight and returned home, hoping sleep would come without too much difficulty.

Chapter 13: Old associations, new acquaintances

It had been quite a night for telling stories. Even as Kimball Davis told the story of his life to his long-lost friends and colleagues, how could they know that later the same day, many miles away, the same tale—albeit from a different perspective—was being told to the offspring of one old friend?

Martin Brisby listened enthralled as Patricia Davis related her and Kimball’s escape from NIMH and their subsequent life together: their first home, their “learning excursions,” raising their thirteen children. He found especially interesting the story of Vincent and his strange self-appointed “mission,” which seemed to stem from an irrational fear of leaving what he’d come to regard as home; and Kimball’s obsession about learning all he could about the Rats of NIMH and what the scientists had learned about them, if anything. Patricia described, with no small reluctance, the domestic friction between them, and how it was resolved; their move into new lodgings; and finally, the day almost two weeks ago when Kimball left for NIMH, positive that Vincent had solid information to give, and promising he’d return home immediately.

“And…he’s not back yet.” Patricia shook her head and began pacing in circles. “And I’m just at my wit’s end. I keep asking myself, should I go try to find him? Should I just wait? He promised he’d return, and I trusted him to keep his word, trusted him not to leave for days at a stretch, like two years ago. But any number of things might have happened; maybe he can’t return because maybe he’s injured or…” She suddenly looked apologetic. “Oh, I shouldn’t be bothering you with our problems like this, Martin. Please, tell us all about your own family, and of the Rats.”

Martin had felt like disclosing right away the reason that he and Lambert had come to Sampson, and suggesting that Patricia and Karen could join him (and Lambert, if he’d be able to rejoin them), but he knew that was best saved for the end of his own story, which he certainly did want to share. Though he’d already briefly brought the matter to Karen, she didn’t bring it up, curious to hear Martin’s story first.

And so, condensing as much as possible, Martin related to an equally captive audience the journey of the Rats, Mr. Ages and his father following the Escape eight and a half years ago, the formation of the Rosebush Colony and how his parents had met, Johnathan’s reluctance to disclose the full details of his life to his family and his reasoning for it, how they’d eventually found out about it though not from Johnathan, the Rats’ Migration to their new Thorn Valley colony and his family’s eventual move there themselves. For now, though, he felt it necessary to leave out certain details, most notably the amulet and its power—in spite of his current “borrowing” of it—saying that, during the house-moving, the Rats had some trouble from one of their own, but ultimately that didn’t keep the job from being carried out successfully. He also left out the specifics of Johnathan’s ten-month absence, saying only for now that it was due to circumstances beyond his control and was a lengthy story best left for later, when there’d be more time. Finally, he described how he’d come to decide to make this trip, and its major highlights, right up to the encounter with Boonger’s gang.

“Well, now you know why I’m here; or rather Lambert and I.” They remarked on the differences and similarities between their families’ histories. It was wonderfully unexpected, they all agreed, to find each other like this, finally confirming the existence of other mice like themselves. Martin’s earlier estimate about Karen was also borne out: she was indeed born the same year as Timothy and Cynthia. Soon, though, more immediate concerns had to be addressed: Kimball’s disappearance, Lambert’s unknown or at least unconfirmed fate, and the trip to NIMH which Martin and Lambert had previously planned for the next day.

“I was thinking, before I started my own story…” Martin began, “since you don’t know what happened to Kimball, and since I was heading for NIMH anyway but needed directions from someone, and since you know the way…maybe one or both of you could go there with me tomorrow.”

After a moment of silence, Karen said, “Wow…I’ve never been there myself, but it sounds like it’d be an exciting time. What do you think, Mom?”

Patricia looked down, unsure of how to answer. She’d never been overprotective of any of her children; she and Kimball had schooled them all well in the art of evasion and moving about unseen, and Karen especially had become quite “streetwise” lately, avoiding danger from stray dogs and cats as well as Boonger’s gang. Patricia herself, though, had become more homebound lately, for the most part avoiding going out except to gather food; and Karen could easily understand her mother’s reluctance to make a decision on the matter, even though it was all about finding what happened to Kimball.

Likewise, Martin found himself understanding Patricia to a degree that would have surprised him not too long ago. In spite of his own unswerving dedication to meeting this mission’s goal, he could see why she’d be reluctant or even terrified of the prospect of returning to NIMH—especially if they found it necessary to take their search for Kimball inside the building—and he knew he’d understand perfectly if she opted to stay home.

Karen, of course, had seen firsthand how her mother had grown increasingly reluctant to venture any great distance from home, and even she believed it something of a paradox how Patricia could allow her children to leave home but not allow the same for herself. It was the main reason she’d opted to stay rather than leave with her litter-mates Desmond and Orland, or with her younger siblings a month ago; she’d felt her mother needed someone else to look after her besides Kimball. And with him currently among the missing…

“I…I know I should go, especially given how long he’s been gone; but it’s just…” Patricia paused, sighing. She hadn’t wanted to admit outright in front of their guest just how much her reluctance stemmed from her own irrational fears.

Karen stepped up to her, arm around her shoulders. “Mom, we know by now that something must have happened to Dad that delayed his return. If we go to NIMH, we should stand a good chance of finding out what it was. If Vincent met him, then he should be able to tell us. And we can ask along the way if anyone has seen him or heard anything. Anything would be better than just sitting here worrying.”

Martin spoke next. “Uhm…I hope I’m not out of line by mentioning it, but…you said that Kimball had never been gone this long when he was making all those trips to NIMH before; so whatever happened to him, I doubt that he’s still there.”

“We have considered that,” answered Karen. “Either he left and didn’t come back home for some reason, or…”

“…Or he was…discovered, and captured.” Patricia closed her eyes, breathing in deep. “I know it’s a possibility, but…” She looked at Martin, managing a smile. “I’m really sorry that you have to hear all this, Martin. I know it’s not your problem.”

Martin looked very serious at both of them. “That’s all right, Patricia, you don’t have to apologize. Because whatever this information was that Vincent had for Kimball, it was probably something he’d heard the people there discussing, right? And it might very well be something to do with the Rats. And that might concern my family, too. So this is definitely something that concerns all of us. Besides, we’re practically like family now, with all we have in common. So we’re definitely in this together.”

“Thank you, Martin,” said Patricia. “I really appreciate your saying so. Well…if there’s no stopping you two youngsters from making this trip, then…” She breathed in deep. “I guess you can count me in.”

“Are you sure you’ll be up to it, Mom?” Karen asked.

Patricia thought for a moment. Neither she nor Karen had disclosed in great detail her own fears about being away from home or for making another trip to NIMH; but Martin’s arrival had inspired her to a degree that would have surprised her only hours before. “Honestly, I’m not sure, but…you’re right, dear, we can’t just sit and wait anymore. So I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” She paused as Karen hugged her, then said: “What about your rat friend, Martin?”

“I was just coming to that,” said Martin. “Are either of you familiar with the places where Boonger’s gang hangs out, have meetings and such?”

“I know some of them,” offered Karen. “I don’t ever want to get too close, of course, but I’ve seen where they often gather; in fact, I can lead us right to their main hangout.”

“Good. So…if either or both of you are willing, I’d like to try to get Lambert away from them; or at least get word to him about where I am now, and that I haven’t forgotten him.”

“It’s…possible,” said Karen, “but we’d have to be very, very careful. You don’t know them like we do. Remember how I said that they could cripple you for life? A friend of the family, named Jersey, who crossed them once, had both ears mangled, one foot bitten clean off, and he was ill for a long time from infected bites.” She involuntarily shuddered.

“We found him in time, and brought him into our home and took care of him the best we could,” added Patricia. “But he was never the same after that, just…scared to death of leaving here. He lived with us for about three months before he died, never venturing outside once during that time. I know he was lucky; they could have done worse to him, and still let him live. But still…” She began pacing in circles again. “Ooh, those barbarians! We were here first! Why can’t they just let us live in peace? Filthy hoodlums!”

“You sound like a certain shrew I used to know,” said Martin with a slight smile. “But I think you two speak more from firsthand experience than she ever did. Anyway…are you both with me on this, too?”

Karen nodded. “I’m in, Marty.”

Patricia nodded. “I’d like very much to meet this friend of yours. It’s been a while since I’ve met a rat who wasn’t…like them. I’ll be joining you, then. But we really need to get a good night’s sleep first…especially you, Martin, after all you’ve been through today. You really do look tired.”

Martin realized for the first time in hours just how weary he felt, even as he noted with amusement how easily Patricia fell into “mother-mode” with him. “I know you’re right, Patricia, but…I just can’t shake the feeling that any more delay would just place Lambert in greater danger.”

“I can’t blame you for worrying, Marty,” said Karen. “But I think Lambert’s size will do a lot to keep him out of danger.”

“You mean, they’d be less apt to harm someone larger than themselves?”

“Yes, and also because they’re likely to see someone his size as potentially valuable to them, as a fighter or in obtaining food or mates.”

“I hope you’re right. I guess…what really bugs me is the way I ran out on him back there, and so suddenly too. I’d hoped that…he’d be able to get away from them as easily, but…if he couldn’t…how does that make me look? I feel almost like a coward.”

“Marty, listen to me. You know you wouldn’t have lasted one more minute out there against them. I think Lambert realizes that, too. If you two are as good friends as you say, I can’t believe he’d see it any other way.”

Martin couldn’t help feeling impressed by and admiring Karen’s forthrightness and strong will. Her words, and his own reaction to them he found rather surprising, but pleasantly so. He looked over to Patricia, who fairly beamed.

“And, Martin…” added Patricia, “think of how Lambert must have felt being surrounded like that, not being able to get away.”

There was no need for her to elaborate; Martin could well imagine Lambert’s feelings of humiliation and frustration. “What can I say? Except that you’re both right. Well,” he said with a laugh, “I can see it’s not going to be dull being around you two.”

“Now there’s the ultimate compliment!” Karen said with a laugh. “Right, Mom?”

“Oh, indeed!” Patricia laughed and yawned. “Well, I’ll be getting to bed now. I know we’ll want to start bright and early tomorrow.”

“I’ll join you in a bit, Mom, but first I’d like to discuss a few more things with Marty.”

“Well, all right. Good night, you two, and don’t let it get too late.”

“We won’t. Good night, Mom. I’ll get the light when we’re done.” After Martin gave his own goodnight, Patricia moved over to the sleeping area. He looked over to Karen, unaccountably feeling some discomfort, which Karen picked up on right away. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, Marty. There are just some things I wanted to talk over alone with you, if you don’t mind.”

“Er, no, I guess not,” said Martin as Karen directed him over to another part of the crawlspace, further from the Davises’ living area. “In fact, I was about to suggest much the same.”

“Oh, good.” She touched his arm, and Martin felt his heart rate increase slightly, something he wouldn’t have been able to explain then. He briefly wondered: Why should I be afraid to be alone with her? I was already, on the way here, and it wasn’t like this. The thought fell by the wayside as Karen went on: “Actually, I really wanted to thank you.”

“Uh, you’re welcome. What for?”

“Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Mom in such high spirits. With Dad missing, and with Boonger’s gang making it harder and harder to get around safely, she’s really been down in the dumps lately, and I haven’t been much better.” She paused, looking over her shoulder, then continued more quietly. “She probably wouldn’t want me to tell you, but…she was just…paralyzed, really, over the idea of going even near NIMH, let alone go inside. But your arrival has really made a difference…in both of us.”

She smiled at him in the dim red light; and he found himself wondering how she would look in the daylight, even looking forward to it. He smiled back, a bit shyly. “Well…I’m glad I could be of help to her. And I’m glad to be here, too, Karen. When we began this trip, I knew we’d have to expect the unexpected, but…finding out there were other mice that escaped NIMH was something I’d never thought of, at least not seriously; and I guess it had to be the same for you too. Man, just wait till they find out back home! In fact, that’s the main thing I wanted to discuss. When we’re all done with everything here, it’d be great if you could all come with us when we return to Thorn Valley.” He took her hand. “I just know you’ll love it there! No humans ever come, predators steer clear, too; and lots of peace and quiet, not like this smelly and noisy place. And wait’ll you see all we’ve accomplished there! I’d only begun to describe it before.”

“Oh, Marty, that would be wonderful. I know I’d love to go, and I’m sure Mom could be convinced that we should. But Dad…I don’t know. I mean, of course he’d want to go, but…I just can’t help feeling that something bad has happened to him, that we won’t see him again…”

“Don’t talk like that! We will find him, or else know why not. Cheer up; we’ve got a lot to look forward to, and I’m sure that includes finding your dad.”

“I do hope so. And I know you’re right. Thank you, Marty.” As Karen again smiled at him, Martin was suddenly aware they were still holding hands. Feeling self-conscious again, he slowly drew his hand away. Attempting to conceal his embarrassment—thinking briefly that the low illumination in the room was a great help—he changed the subject.

“I was also thinking…Lambert probably could get away from the gang easily enough on his own. He’s got the brains and knowhow for sure, plus there are the things in his satchel I was telling you about, like the de-scentifying solution and the sleepytime quills. As long as they don’t take it away from him, that is.”

“If there’s food in there, that’d probably be the only thing they’d know what to do with,” Karen offered. “Whether they let him keep it might be another matter, though.”

Martin nodded. “There was still some food in there; dried fruit and nuts, mostly. But I was wondering…what if he gets away while we’re looking for him? How will he knew where to find me? We could miss each other. He could escape during the night, or maybe he already has. Sure, the sooner he gets away from those bozos the better, but still…”

“I think I know a way. First, he’ll be sure to return to the alley where you got separated, right? We could leave a note for him to find.” Karen went on to describe how, since Lambert would be too large to fit through the hole that provided Martin’s escape route, there would be another way for him to find the Davis home on his own. She led him to another area of the crawlspace where there was a trapdoor on the ceiling, held in place by two hinges on one side and a sliding bolt on the other. As near as could be determined, it was originally installed by a previous tenant of the space above them for an indeterminate purpose, and was later tiled over. Apparently it was completely unknown to the present tenants, who operated an antique and curio shop; but their “under-tenants” found it eminently suitable for their own needs. The mice originally had two entrances: the one to the roundabout route through which Karen had led Martin, and one that was more directly connected to the crawlspace. But both were only big enough for themselves, and not enough if they wanted to bring in something larger. But this trapdoor was found to be ideal for that purpose, since it was very well concealed from the top. The door itself was as wide and long as a linoleum tile, one of which topped it. Though the sliding bolt was on the underside, there had been a hole alongside it, through which a human operator could use his finger to work the bolt back and forth. This hole had been covered by a second tile by the time the Davises moved in; the previous tenant had evidently placed it there just before vacating. Of course, this didn’t bother the new under-tenants, who’d always be working the bolt from below. Above, the antique shop was quite cluttered, jam-packed with artifacts, making it easier for the mice to keep their comings and goings unobtrusive. Here too, Karen told Martin, the lifestyle of her family had its parallels—albeit on a smaller scale—with their long-lost rat compatriots. Though they tried to keep it at a minimum, some of what they brought into their home was stolen from humans, including some items from the shop above; plus, with only rudimentary knowledge of electricity, they were able to tap into a line of the building to provide power for the Christmas-tree bulb that was their sole source of light; and, like the Rats on the farm, they were bothered some by this aspect of their lifestyle.

Now Karen detailed her plan to Martin for leading Lambert to them. It wasn’t without some risk; but, “What isn’t, these days?” was how he summed it all up.

With this much of their plans for tomorrow settled, Karen turned out the light, and she and Martin joined Patricia in a good night’s sleep, settling down on cotton-stuffed mattresses. It was a while before he could drop off completely, though, mind still racing from the day’s events, not the least of which was Lambert’s (presumed) abduction and the uncertainty of his current well-being. But there were also his own strange, unaccountable reactions to Karen’s presence. Well, he reasoned, it’s not every day that he meets other “Mice of NIMH” that he hadn’t known existed before. And to think…this was the very thing he’d realized was the source of his discontent back home, or rather the lack of same. Sure…that had to be it. He settled back, breathing in deep, closing his eyes.

Yet, he found himself thinking back to that moment just after Karen had led him to safety, when he wondered if their meeting was coincidence or…something else. Considering everything, could it have been only coincidence? He recalled their first meeting, playing it over in his mind, and it occurred to him just how much he may owe his life to her; surely, he wouldn’t have discovered that passage to safety on his own before the gang-rats overtook him. In the dark, he looked over to where Karen lay beside her mother, hearing her breathing steadily; and he felt an enormous sense of gratitude, vowing to properly express it in the morning.

Another fleeting thought before sleep overtook him, about his father’s talk of destiny bringing his mother and himself together…

Chapter 14: The gang hangout

“Are you sure that’s not too conspicuous, Karen? Right out in the open like that?”

“It’ll be okay, Martin. It’s in the open enough for Lambert to notice it, and if any human sees it, he’ll just think it’s graffiti, just someone signing his name.”

Martin, Patricia and Karen were in the alley where Martin had been rescued by Karen the previous evening. It had been a somewhat restless night, especially for Martin, despite the comfortable surroundings. Right after breakfast, the three had made their way through the “long way” to this alley to put Karen’s plan for directing Lambert to their home into action. On the wall, in plain sight, Karen had printed “LAMBERT” in large block letters that he couldn’t possibly miss, using one of her mother’s charcoal pencils. After his attention would be drawn by that, it was hoped he’d continue to search along the wall and find the note, neatly folded with “TO LAMBERT” printed on the outside, stashed within the thicket of weeds which lay next to the wall, near the gap through which Martin had slipped to safety.

“Well, I hope this works,” said Martin. “As long as none of Boonger’s gang finds the note, we’ll be okay.”

Karen laughed quietly. “Of course we will. They can’t read, remember?”

“You’re right, I almost forgot.” It amazed Martin at how accustomed he’d become to the idea of rats being able to read, to forget that the great majority can’t.

“Maybe they can’t read, but they can see, hear and smell very well,” reminded Patricia. “So let’s not spend any more time here than we have to.”

“You’re right, Mom.” Karen looked a little sheepish as the three began moving furtively away and out into the alley. “I thought I’d be the one cautioning us like that.” Though Boonger’s gang restricted most of their activities to the evening and nighttime hours, the three mice were no less cautious. Any of them could be lurking anywhere; it was in the daytime, after all, that Jersey had his ill-fated run-in with them.

They made their way all the way out to where the alley opened out into the street, and peered about cautiously. Since it was still quite early, there were only a few people about, driving or walking to work or walking their dogs. The latter was cause for concern, but as long as the dogs were leashed they should pose little problem. The trio scooted over to a parked car and ducked beneath it, waiting for the best opportunity to cross the street. When it came they dashed for another parked car. They carried on this way—keeping low, making sudden dashes—for a while longer, until they reached another alley which led to another back-alley running crossways. This area, Karen explained to Martin, was where Boonger’s gang had a great concentration of hangouts, including in two vacant buildings. They also frequented the sewer system in the area; though the three mice agreed they’d avoid the sewers unless they’d absolutely exhausted other possibilities.

They carefully investigated those places that Karen knew the gang—and hopefully Lambert as well—were most likely to be found: basements, crawlspaces and the like, into which they could gain entry via broken windows, loose boards or siding, holes and gaps in foundations. Though they often found evidence of the rats’ presence, they found none of their present whereabouts; at least, not for a little over an hour into their search, when they struck pay dirt.

There was a hole in the ground alongside one building, right next to the brick facing, well hidden from a casual human passerby by a clump of weeds. “This is at least one of the entrances,” said Karen. “It leads under the foundation and into a crawlspace, through a place where the mortar is loose. Right directly inside is this particular hangout of theirs.” She boldly came forward and took a step down into the hole, whiskers twitching. Martin found himself feeling just a little apprehensive for her, though he knew by now that she knew well what she was doing.

She stepped back and announced quietly, “They’re in there. That’s the strongest scent I’ve gotten so far.”

“I wonder if it’s the whole gang,” said Martin.

“It could be. They sometimes have meetings, and then they’ll all sack out together. If it is, it’s all the more likely Lambert’s with them.”

“Great,” said Martin wryly. “A whole roomful of hostile rats. Some days it doesn’t pay to get up in the morning.”

“You do want to know if Lambert’s in there, don’t you, Martin?”

“Sure, Patricia. I just wish the odds weren’t so much against us.”

“Maybe,” said Karen, “or maybe not. We should at least be able to take a look without alerting them.”

She and Martin prepared to descend, Patricia agreeing to stay outside and give the signal if there was danger on this end. She couldn’t help but be concerned for the younger ones’ safety, though she knew how capable both were.

Side by side Martin and Karen made their way down through the dark tunnel, the rat-scent growing ever stronger. There are a lot of them, Martin thought. These rats smelled quite different from the ones he was familiar with; more of a wildness about them, for want of a better term.

The tunnel leveled out, then inclined upward slightly. They grew more cautious, moving even more quietly, knowing that the rats could be directly inside, just past where the tunnel met the crawlspace. The two mice tensed, ready to turn tail at any moment if necessary. Soon they sensed the tunnel opening just ahead. The scent was stronger than ever, and there were sounds to be heard as well. The mice continued to feel ready to take flight, but not because the sounds were menacing or intimidating. Indeed, they seemed very benign: snoring, snuffling, steady and regular breathing; the sounds of rats sleeping.

They slowly drew closer until they were looking right into the chamber, the faint light filtering through the tunnel providing the only illumination. As their eyes adjusted to the near-total darkness, they could make out the shapes of the sleeping rats. Martin squinted as he scanned the group, impatient for his vision to adjust enough to better recognize individual body shapes, and one in particular. Beside him, Karen was doing much the same. Martin thought about how brave and unselfish she was for risking her health and well-being for a virtual stranger; two virtual strangers, when it came right down to it. Yet, though only half a day had passed since he’d met Karen and her mother, there was such a sense of rightness he felt about all this. Certainly it was attributable to their common origins; but he could sense more to it, though he couldn’t yet describe it. He recalled his vow from last night, that he’d thank her properly for getting him out of a jam that would likely have proved fatal. He would do it, he vowed, before the day is over.

All at once, Martin’s eye caught the form of one rat almost directly in front of them. He recalled the scene in the alley, where he noticed how all the gang-rats were noticeably smaller than his friend. Now he could see how this one was definitely bigger than most of the others, but was it Lambert? He strained for a better view. The big rat’s head was pointing outward, toward the mice. It did look very much like him, but he was lying on his side, wedged very firmly between two other rats. If he tried getting away now, Martin realized, they’d be upon him in a second. Martin felt some disappointment but wasn’t yet discouraged. He noted how the other two rats were facing the opposite way. If I could just get over to him without waking anyone else, he thought, to at least let him know he hasn’t been abandoned…if that is Lambert. He looked all around; between the tunnel opening and the big rat, there were no rats directly against the wall. All he’d have to do is move a few inches to the right, but he wished there was an easy way to tell from here that that really was Lambert. With all these intermingled scents, it was near-impossible to single one out, even one that was familiar. True, it looked very much like him, but…

His mind suddenly made up, he slowly crept forward, preparing to step down from the opening in the wall to the earthen floor. Karen touched his arm and looked concerned, though she wasn’t trying to hold him back. Martin acknowledged her concern, giving her a reassuring smile and nod. He gingerly crept down and soon had all four feet on the dirt floor. So far, so good. He took each further step as if his life hinged upon it; which was quite true, of course. He kept alert for differences in anyone’s breathing or other irregularities.

Soon he was directly in front of the large rat. There was no further room for doubt: this was Lambert. With that much confirmed, now came the critical part. Martin stepped forward, closer…closer…and reached out his hand and lightly brushed Lambert’s whiskers. His muzzle twitched in response, but he slumbered on. Martin reached out again, this time giving one of Lambert’s whiskers a slight tug.

The rat’s eyes flickered, then opened, blinking; then flew wide open to the sight of this small figure, sideways to his point of view, gesturing for him to keep still and silent. Martin? Yes, it was definitely him. But how—

Martin stepped closer, crouching so he could whisper directly in Lambert’s ear. “Lammy…I wish…there was…some way…I could…get you…out of here.” He paused frequently to continue making sure nobody but Lambert or Karen was aware of his presence. “I’m sorry, but…there’s too many…of them. I wish…I could…do more…I’m with…two mice…who also…need to get…to NIMH. I’d hoped…all four of us…could go.”

Lambert gestured subtly with his eyes and brows to let Martin know he was ready to reply. Martin bent down, placing his ear to Lambert’s mouth. Lambert was curious to know more about these two other mice, but instead he whispered, “I think…it won’t be…long before…I can get away…I’ll…outsmart them yet…Don’t worry about me…You all…go on ahead…to NIMH…without me…Don’t wait…on my behalf.”

Martin was surprised at the reply, of course, and almost forgot where he was. He restrained himself from speaking out loud. “Are you sure…about…abo…” Lambert’s ear hairs were tickling Martin’s nose. He felt some horror as he realized there was a sneeze coming on. He tried to stifle it, but it came upon him so fast he didn’t have time to properly prepare for it. He could only half-stifle it, and the half-sneeze that escaped was enough to make Martin again wish he’d stayed in bed.

The heads of Lambert’s guards instantly bobbed up. “Hey! Who’s there?” one of them yelled. As one rat after another reacted in kind, it took Martin another second to realize that he had little more than that long to get out of there with his skin intact.

He dashed for the hole in the wall, glimpsing Karen still there, hanging back a short ways. Just as he leaped, she moved back to give him plenty of room; then both scrambled frantically toward the surface. Karen gave a shrill warning whistle to Patricia. Behind them, shouts of “Get them!” and “Don’t let them escape!” could be heard.

In an instant, the two mice had reached the surface. Joined by Patricia, who’d immediately assessed the situation, they raced out into the alley. Patricia took the lead, directing them out to where they could see the alley joining the street, about thirty feet ahead. Behind them, three rats emerged into the daylight, looked every which way, saw the three mice heading for the open street, and gave chase.

Karen glanced over her shoulder and saw the three rats in hot pursuit. She glanced ahead; the alley ended about twenty feet further, but would the rats overtake them by then? They knew the rats weren’t used to moving about in daylight, and that should work to their advantage. But for how long? Once they reached the open street, the rats shouldn’t want to pursue them any further. Repeat: shouldn’t.

About ten more feet…the street was closer, and a strip of lawn could be seen up ahead, to the left, between the street and the building facing it. The mice had been bearing to the right side of the alley, but now they crossed to the left. Karen glanced over her shoulder again. The rats were following suit; they’d gained considerably, and though they seemed more reluctant to maintain pursuit, they were still in pursuit.

Come on, thought all three, just a little further. Three feet…two…one…the end of the alley! The mice ran out onto the lawn, but the danger wasn’t yet over. The rats were still gaining on them, and Patricia wondered, with some trepidation: What if she’d underestimated them? What if they continued on, in spite of being out in the open and in broad daylight, until they’d run down their quarry?

Then, coming down the sidewalk, was possible salvation: a plump, middle-aged woman carrying two bags full of early-morning shopping. That should do it.

“This way!” called Patricia to Karen and Martin. The trio ran straight toward the woman. Around the corner came the three rats. The woman caught sight of all six of them, screamed at the top of her lungs but managed to hold onto her groceries, and broke into a fast trot down the sidewalk. All three rats stopped cold, stumbled all over each other in their haste to reverse direction, and then darted back into the alley; the combination of broad daylight, open space and screaming woman finally unnerving them enough to abandon their pursuit.

The mice were unnerved, too, but not enough to turn back to the alley; they scampered into a nearby hedge, working themselves well within it; and, seeing no immediate danger, paused there to catch their breaths. Patricia and Karen found themselves laughing excitedly about the whole escapade, though Patricia expressed surprise that the rats persisted as long and far as they did. “Such a hold Boonger must have over them to be that afraid to fail in their mission; more than their fear of broad daylight, I guess. I wonder how long they’d have chased us if that woman hadn’t been there?”

“Who knows?” said Karen. “I feel a bit sorry for her; probably scared her out of a few years’ growth. You know, Mom, I have to say I’m proud of the way you led us out of there.” She leaned over to kiss Patricia’s cheek.

“Thank you, dear. I guess I surprised myself, a little…” She and Karen both noticed that Martin was just sitting silently, shaking his head, looking confused and disappointed.

“Marty, what’s wrong?” asked Karen, hand on his shoulder. “Is it…it’s Lambert, isn’t it? What’d he say?”

Martin repeated their entire conversation verbatim. He shook his head again, scratching the nape of his neck. “I know there’s not much we could’ve done to get him out. But there’s so much more I wanted to tell him; I didn’t even get the chance to mention the signs and instructions we’d left for him. Sure, he’d probably go there anyway, but I wanted to make sure.” He pounded his fist into his other hand. “All because of a stupid sneeze! I hate sneezing! Why’d I have to do it right then?” He sighed greatly.

“Marty, I wouldn’t worry about him not escaping, or not returning to the alley,” said Karen.

“I know, I know,” said Martin impatiently. “He’s no dummy, he’ll figure it out.” He then looked contrite and added, “I can’t help it. I just feel like I’m abandoning him…again. And why’d he say to go on ahead without him?”

“Martin, you never abandoned him,” consoled Patricia. “Not now or last night. Why, just the fact that you went through all that trouble to find him would be enough to tell him that.”

“Hmmm…yeah, you’re right.” He nodded, looking somewhat appeased. “But I still don’t get why he told me that.”

“Well…from what you told us last night, this whole trip was your idea to begin with. Maybe he just wasn’t as enthusiastic about it. And I hesitate to say this because he is your friend, but maybe he was a bit reluctant about the idea of going to NIMH. I can certainly relate to that.”

Martin scratched his head. “I don’t know...after coming all this way, all the talking about it, anticipating…that just doesn’t sound like him at all.”

“Well…” suggested Karen, “just maybe he figures that after he escapes the gang, he’ll have had his fill of adventure and be ready to go back home anytime.”

Martin thought for a moment. “He did say, at the beginning, that he came along to keep me out of trouble. He said he was kidding later—or mostly kidding—but maybe he was more serious than either of us knew.”

“At any rate,” said Patricia, “the three of us do have someplace else to go.” She took a deep breath. “I can’t deny that…the whole idea’s got me a bit rattled, but…I guess after what we’ve just been through, it’d be silly to back down now.” Though she didn’t say it out loud, she’d felt somewhat emboldened by this morning’s escapade.

“Either way,” said Karen, “we can’t stay here all day.”

“Yeah, I guess…I’m ready when you are,” said Martin. “I wish Lammy could be with us, but…I guess we’d better get going. If it’s not too much trouble, though, could we go back to your place first? I’d like to pick up my backpack; I get the feeling it might come in handy.”

The women agreed, and so they set off, taking an alternate route that avoided the alley they’d just left, in case there’d be trouble waiting for them there.

Chapter 15: Carrying Out the Plan

Work to bring in the remainder of the season’s harvest went on through the night; and at six the following morning the hastily- but well-organized day shift continued operations. Since settling in Thorn Valley, the Rats had made a point of planting crops so as to appear somewhat more unobtrusive from the air, though aircraft were officially not allowed to pass over. This present operation was an extra precaution, for if humans saw all these plants which were obviously food crops all growing in like groups, they’d have to assume they were deliberately planted and cultivated. So all the remaining groups, ready or not, were being harvested and taken to the proper storage facilities. All the wheat, corn, barley, tomatoes, beans, carrots, peanuts and many others—both the parts humans normally regard as food, and what other parts the Rats could use—were taken in. What couldn’t be used was uprooted and broken down, and buried in specially-dug trenches. Other outward signs of their dominance here would also be dealt with, primarily their development of the swimming beach: the diving boards and offshore diving platform, which were designed to be easily disassembled, would be stored away—not for good, everyone hoped.

Virtually all normal inside activity, such as production in the textile and furniture plants, had been suspended until further notice, with everyone devoting his or her energies toward the Hiding Plan. Overall morale within the general population was high, as was optimism for the success of the Plan; yet, virtually everyone felt at least a glimmer of uncertainty. Could it be possible that all their efforts would be in vain, since the humans could arrive any day, at any time? Even the more seasoned among them couldn’t help feeling this way, despite having been through the mad scramble to vacate the rosebush. In that case, they knew just how much time they had left, even though it was less than half a day. And there were questions—mostly from those who’d done most or all of their growing up in Thorn Valley—concerning whether all this was really necessary, whether they were really in that much danger, whether it wouldn’t be better for them to all just move on. There was also more serious talk of some rats setting out on their own.

At 9:30 there was a council meeting, the first of several to trade further ideas, establish further details of the Plan, and give progress reports. With the harvesting phase due to be finished by tomorrow, the landscapers would then move in and make all the crop-growing areas look “wild” again as much as possible. This second phase was already well established; but for the third phase, it still wasn’t down firm as to where everyone would be evacuated. A different part of Thorn Valley, perhaps closer to the southwest end? It could be enough, but there was no guarantee against the entire valley being searched. Someplace outside the valley? There was nothing to stop them from searching anywhere else in the area as they saw fit. Wherever they searched, it was agreed, it would be gone over with a fine-toothed comb. The other aspect of the third phase was widely agreed upon: that the entrance holes to their service tunnels would be filled in, and the areas surrounding them made over to disguise the wear caused by the normal traffic. It was now also suggested that, for some of the holes at least, the Rats could temporarily “lease” them to local rabbits, woodchucks and other burrowing animals, filling them in only partially, making them appear to be no more than these animals’ burrows. If they could get any of the other local creatures to go along with the idea, it would definitely be the way to go. The more the better, of course, but any cooperation they’d be very grateful for, as it would cut down on their own workload.

The subject returned to evacuation, and this time Tallus brought forth a suggestion that startled almost everyone with its simplicity. With all the evidence of aboveground activity eliminated or disguised; with all the holes filled in or leased; and with the humans consequently all the more likely to just pass over the area without digging deeper, literally or otherwise…why, then, could they not just stay underground, right where they are, while the humans are conducting their investigation? The idea almost immediately met with approval from most of the council, including Justin, though a few were skeptical. Would this guarantee their not being discovered? They were reminded that this Hiding Plan that they were all very committed to was quite a risk in itself, and that there was no guarantee of any aspect of it being absolutely foolproof. All they could do was carry it out to the best of their ability, and hope and pray that their efforts would be sufficient.

Tallus brought forth another important point: that even if the humans had good reason to believe they’d find something here, they still couldn’t know that they’d been expected; and so they wouldn’t expect the rats to carry out any plan to throw them off. This seemed to pacify any remaining skeptics; it was, after all, another point in their favor, and a very logical one.

So these latest proposals were put to a vote and were unanimously approved, both the “burrow-leasing” and the “staying put” proposals, which would make this a Hiding Plan in an even more literal sense of the word. They would now disseminate these new aspects of the Plan to the general population as soon as possible; they hoped it would reduce the feelings of uncertainty and dread. Justin shared two parting thoughts: that they all make it safely to sundown, both today’s and those to come, however many it would take to carry out the Plan to their satisfaction; and that for untold millennia, ordinary rats have been consummate survivors, resisting all attempts to eradicate or control them. Certainly these rats could do no less, and probably do better. The meeting adjourned, with everyone leaving to resume work or to rest up for the next shift.

* * *

Willis paused for a moment to make a sweeping gaze of the clear, late-morning sky. At least we’ve got decent weather for this, he thought. The main reason he looked up, though, was something he’d likely be loath to admit, but one he couldn’t deny: that at any time during the daylight hours, there could be a plane or helicopter coming in low, making ready to land; and that would surely signal an end to their way of life, and their freedom…that is, of course, only if they arrived before the Hiding Plan was completely finished. If only they knew how much time they had…but since no one knew, it was becoming increasingly stressful on nearly everyone. Though Willis and many others who were overlooking and supervising operations had been doing their best to encourage everyone and keep morale high, they all shared, to some degree, the same fear: that all this work would be for nothing if the humans arrived before the Plan was completed.

Even now, as he made his inspection of the garden areas that were to have been cleared, he saw firsthand how these anxieties were affecting the quality of work already done. Here and there, parts of stalks, leaves, vines and other unusable parts were carelessly strewn about; some stalks were merely sheared off at the base, with much still showing, instead of uprooted. He shook his head sadly; though there was renewed confidence in the Plan after word of the new aspects of it were spread around, they still had a ways to go before everyone was working together to the best of his or her ability. What was really needed was to keep driving home the idea that the more days they got all the way through safely, the greater the chances of it all going successfully, with everyone’s confidence level increasing accordingly. I hope it does something for my own confidence, thought Willis. Only three weeks ago, he and his wife Sabrina became proud parents, for the second time, of twin girls. Like them, those with newborn or very young children would certainly be the ones most in need of a good boost in confidence.

As he continued his inspection, he heard someone approaching; rather a small figure from the sound of it, moving swiftly and determinedly. As she moved around a bush, Willis immediately recognized her as Cynthia Brisby, dressed in a plain beige work tunic that nearly matched her fur color. As they approached each other Willis noticed that she appeared to have been crying.

“Hey, Cynthia…what’s the matter, sweets? You’re shaking like a leaf.”

Cynthia wiped away a tear. “I’m shaking because I’m mad! How could he say such a thing about Daddy? About all of us?”

“Whoa, kiddo, let’s backtrack. Who said what about whom?” He sat down on a nearby rock and patted the space beside him. “C’mon, tell me all about it. Tell Uncle Willis.”

All of the Rats had friendly relations with the Brisby family, who had become just as much an integral part of the community, and perhaps none more so than those that had risked their lives to bring Johnathan back home over two years ago. Justin and Melvin and their families could be certainly counted among their closest friends, but Willis was one who especially went out of his way to lend a sympathetic ear or a helping hand; to simply be everyone’s friend overall. Cynthia managed a small, shy smile, well aware that this was a matter that would be of concern to him, so she accepted his invitation.

“Well,” she began as she sat down, “Teresa and I were helping with the lima beans, gathering the rest of the pods…and after a while we noticed that Colvin and Herb seemed to be falling behind in their uprooting. So I went back to check on them, and they were sitting down, looking like they were just taking a break. I thought it must have been an awfully long break, since they’d lagged so far behind. So I said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re gonna have to do better than that to keep up with us.’ I didn’t say it like I was accusing them of being lazy or slacking off or anything like that; and it wasn’t like I was barking orders at them. I thought I was just kidding around with them; but then Colvin said, ‘What’s the difference whether we do this or not? They could still discover us.’ I said, ‘But we should be able to stay hidden, and then have them pass right over us. That’s the whole point of the Plan.’ Then Herb said, ‘Plan, shman; how do we know they’ll miss us? We don’t know what they’ll do to look for us, or what kind of equipment they’ve got. They might have some kind of rat detecting machine that’ll pick us up just like that. I think it would be better if we just up and left.’

“Well, I thought they were being a little rude, but I thought Herb did have a point; and I was about to say so when he said…he said, ‘Why should it matter to you anyway?’ I…I just couldn’t believe it, my jaw just dropped. Before I could ask what he meant, he goes, ‘NIMH’s probably not looking for you mice, they’re only after us. We’re the only ones with our tails on the line here. And here’s your dad, up there with the council, saying what we should all do. Why should you care? It shouldn’t be your problem.’ Well, I…I just exploded. ‘How dare you say we shouldn’t care?’ I shouted. ‘After all we’ve been through together?’ I wanted to say more, but I was just so mad I was seeing red; so I just went stomping off to tell my folks. Teresa heard the commotion, but I didn’t even stop to tell her what was going on. Then I ran into you, and…oooohhh! I still can’t believe it. I’ve never said anything like that to him, or to anyone. Why would he say something…so heartless? Why would…anyone?” Cynthia’s eyes brimmed with tears and she took out a handkerchief.

Willis offered his arm in comfort, and she leaned against him as she dabbed at her eyes. The account didn’t especially surprise him; he’d known Herbert, son of his brother Jemial, to not be the best when it came to tactfulness and having a tendency to ‘shoot from the lip,’ despite the many lectures he’d received from his parents about it—not unlike Cynthia’s big brother Martin in his early days, and her little brother Lyndon.

“I don’t think Herb really meant to hurt you by that statement. He was just thoughtless and unmindful of the effect his words might have. And I know both he and Colvin are scared, too, just as the rest of us are, to one degree or another; we just handle it in different ways. I’ve already seen some very sloppy work since last night, and probably all of it can be blamed on wondering when that helicopter or some other aircraft is going to appear above the horizon. I’ve caught myself glancing up several times today.” He looked down at her, putting his arm around her shoulders. “So what do you think? Does that help?”

“Well…maybe he didn’t really mean it the way it sounded; and now that I think about it, I’m not sure Colvin agreed. I think he may have looked surprised when Herb…said that. But still…why would he make it sound like…I don’t know, like we should have nothing to do with each other, just because we’re mice and the rest of you are rats?”

“Well, I don’t think it means he hates your family, or all mice. I think it’s more…an instinctive thing, that different species associate and interact only with their own kind, even though that’s not nearly in us as much as in natural rats and mice.”

Cynthia’s eyes widened. “You mean…like ’way back when Daddy and Mr. Ages first moved in with the Rats, and then later moved out?”

“Exactly. Same as when you moved here, and you opted for separate quarters from us. None of it was out of any ill feeling or prejudice, but just because it felt like the right thing to do. And it was understood implicitly and perfectly well by everyone, just as it is now.”

Cynthia nodded, seeming satisfied by the explanation but still looking downcast. Willis stroked her shoulder, smiling encouragingly. “Chin up, kiddo. I wouldn’t worry about this meaning a sign of anything really serious; just like we shouldn’t worry about NIMH arriving before we’re ready for them. Everybody knows that your family is very much with us on everything that happens here and they’re part of every decision. Even if Herb truly believes what he said, he’d be in the minority. What do you say the two of us go over and talk to both of them, if they’re still there. I’ll bet Herb’s ready to apologize right now.”

Cynthia smiled and got up to stand on the rock, leaning over to kiss Willis’s cheek. “Thanks…‘Uncle.’” He gave her a quick hug, and then they joined hands and started off together. “Daddy and Mom have always said that…your interests and concerns are always the same as ours. And Justin, Simone, Tallus, Brutus…and you and so many others…They’ve all told us the same thing these past two years, and we’ve never doubted their sincerity.”

“We’d be foolish not to believe it, sweets.” He gave her a smile and a wink as he raised her hand in his.

Shortly Cynthia let out a small laugh. “I wonder if Teresa confronted them after I left.”

“If she did, she’s probably already given Herb an earful. And she’s always supported you.”

“Yes, she has. I guess…I shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Martin for losing his temper.”

“Well, there’s a lot of that going around these days. Many of us will be on edge until this whole thing blows over.”

“You really believe it will? That everything will be all right?”

“I can’t afford not to. I’ve got two new babies at home.” Willis didn’t elaborate; there was no need. Even so, when he and Cynthia walked out into a more open area, he gazed upward and around him, from horizon to horizon. Then, catching himself, he looked down at Cynthia with some surprise. The two laughed nervously as they realized they’d caught each other in the same act.

Chapter 16: Crosstown

In spite of his disappointment and feeling of helplessness over losing Lambert—however temporary the situation was hoped to be—Martin Brisby managed to overcome it enough to actually find some enjoyment in the crosstown hike with Patricia and Karen. Almost forgotten, at least temporarily, were the reasons for this trip, the mysteries they hoped to have solved. It was an equally exciting trip for Karen; though she’d seen a good portion of the town before, she’d never been this far from home. For Patricia, it had been an effort for her to keep from changing her mind about making the trip after they’d returned home for Martin’s pack; but she made good on her promise, reminding herself that this was for Kimball and would quite possibly be the only way to find out what happened to him. She recalled her and Kimball’s first meeting with Vincent, and her husband’s subsequent meetings with him; and how he would always meet them in the woods in back of the building. She hoped it would be that simple this time; and yet, there was a nagging feeling that this time would be different, and that they may actually have to try to get inside NIMH. She pushed back, as best she could, any such thoughts, and thus she was actually able to derive some enjoyment from this trip as well.

Having seen his first actual human community only the day before, Martin was impressed with all the sights. Though they followed a route that took them mostly through overgrown backlots and other areas that saw little human traffic, it was nonetheless an experience Martin would never forget, being so close to all these places of human habitation and business. Of course, humans themselves posed relatively little danger to them; for domesticated dogs and cats, especially strays, they had to constantly be on the lookout. As they’d expected to do, they would ask about Kimball whenever they encountered other mice, but thus far none, even the ones who were acquainted with him, could say specifically if they’d seen him. They naturally hoped for more encouraging news later on, the closer they got to NIMH.

Never too far from Martin’s mind, though, was the constant presence of his two traveling companions, and how much they’d come to mean to him in such a short amount of time. He thought back to that morning, when they’d first emerged into the alley and they were all able to see each other in the daylight for the first time. They made a joke of it, pretending they were meeting for the first time, but the looks of admiration exchanged between Karen and Martin last night were renewed, this time not deterred by Patricia’s presence. She in fact was inwardly beaming at their mutual attraction even if they didn’t openly acknowledge it themselves, though outwardly she maintained a more businesslike demeanor.

One particular point of interest they passed on the way was a parking lot, which looked to Martin to be indistinguishable from any of the others they’d seen; but this one had special significance to his traveling companions, since it stood on the site of the vacant lot where the first Davis home stood. They paused for a moment, Patricia regarding it silently, reminded of the friction in their household in its final weeks, and how their forced move marked a fresh start for her and Kimball in so many ways. Of course, this in turn reminded her of the day’s mission, so they moved along shortly.

In late morning they took their first break, nestled among some stacked wooden crates and pallets, dining on some of the food they’d brought, that which they’d packed as well as gathered along the way. The women had, for the most part, been restraining themselves, but now couldn’t help expressing mild amusement at how strongly Martin’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings had been showing, what with all the wide-eyed, childlike wonder he’d been expressing. Patricia likened it to a story she and Kimball had once read on one of their trips to the library: a children’s book about a city mouse and a country mouse. Martin was slightly embarrassed at the comparison but took their teasing in stride, readily admitting how obvious his unfamiliarity had been.

“There’ve been a lot of stories like that written, haven’t there? Ones that feature mice and other animals that are…let’s see, Tim knows this word…anthropomorphized, that’s it. They’re as intelligent as humans, and carry on just like them, or close.”

Karen nodded. “That’s right, and what’s funny is that the authors of those stories, and humans in general, have no idea there are creatures very much like that in the world.”

“But what if they did know?” added Patricia. “It’s ironic that those stories are written for human children, and not really taken seriously by adults. But if those same adults knew the truth…”

“They’d never accept us, at least not generally,” finished Karen.

Patricia ruefully nodded her agreement. “Though certain individuals might,” she added.

“Like that librarian, maybe?” suggested Martin. “The one that seemed to be leaving books out for you?”

“Quite possibly,” said Patricia. “I have to admit, I wouldn’t have minded swinging by the library, just for old time’s sake; but it is pretty far out of our way.” She then added, “Do you ever worry, Martin, or any of you in Thorn Valley, about being discovered by humans?”

“Well, after the Rats moved there, there was some concern about that, since they’d had such a close call on the farm. But now, we figure there’s not that great a chance. Heck, it’s been two and a half years; if they were going to make a move on us, wouldn’t they have done it long before now? That’s what we all generally think, but I think there’s a feeling in the back of everyone’s mind that we could still be discovered. I was saying to Lambert, before we left, how ironic it is that we talk about NIMH almost reverently, as the place where we originated; yet at the same time we’re scared silly of the very idea of going back there, or being sent back.” Going unspoken, for now, was that days-old nagging feeling of his—now mostly disregarded—that something bad could happen in Thorn Valley in his absence—or rather, the absence of the Stone.

“Except for you and Lambert, of course,” reminded Karen.

“Right. And it’s occurred to me, and I’m sure it has to you, that Vincent’s been able to live there all these years undetected, and get in and out safely, so that shows it can be done. Sure would like to find out how he manages that.”

“Me, too,” agreed Karen, “or why he seems to want to keep living there. But he never made it clear to Dad, and he’s probably the closest friend Vincent has in the world. I guess it’s probably true, that it’s something he can’t help, an irrational fear.”

Patricia nodded, sighing. “I still wish we could have convinced him to come live with us. I feel so sorry for him, being there all alone…” She sighed again. “I’d like to at least tell him I’m sorry for…well, practically blaming him for the rift between your father and me.”

“I do hope we can see him as well as find Dad,” said Karen. “I’ve always wanted to meet him, and maybe seeing one of Kimball’s children in the flesh will be enough to convince him to move from there.” She laughed. “Or maybe that’s giving myself too much credit.”

Martin chuckled. “Well, either way, we should probably get going soon.” He looked at Patricia, willing to defer to her on decisions like this, mostly out of simple respect, but especially after seeing how well she’d led them out of danger this morning. Patricia agreed readily and soon they resumed their trek.

Soon, they were making their way through a residential area, though the individual houses were spread rather far apart, with enough cover in between to allow them to travel unnoticed, through the occasional wooded lot and along hedgerows, though of course they still kept alert for any kind of predator. They kept conversation light and mostly quiet, the women giving Martin details about the other Davis children who’d already left home.

At length Patricia said, “Martin, when we last talked about NIMH, and how the scientists made us what we are now, it got me thinking: do you believe in a god, a supreme being that made everything and everyone?”

“I guess so; I know both my parents do. I know that for a while some of us questioned that if there is, then how do we fit in the scheme of things, since it was human scientists that made us what we are? But lately I’ve figured that’s irrelevant, that we just are who we are. A lot of us feel that way. Besides, it’s been over eight years now, and we’re all still here, and still free to go our own way, live the way we choose. I’d say that’s proof enough that we belong here. So…how about you two?”

“Well, Kimball and I have always believed; and though we’ve encouraged our children toward the same, we’ve never pushed it on them. We’ve read the Christian Bible, but we’ve always been skeptical whether or not it chronicles actual events or is more symbolic, allegorical. But it’s certainly possible that a supreme being was responsible for making everything around us.”

“Mm-hm. That’s how a lot of us back home look at it.”

“I guess I’m skeptical about the whole thing,” said Karen. “I’ve never really given thought to very much beyond what I deal with every day.”

“Well,” said Martin, “whether there’s a god or not, I’ve got good reason to believe that there is a lot more beyond what we can see all around us.”

Naturally, the women were made curious by this cryptic statement, but Martin told them that it was quite a long story in itself, and better saved for another time; since, mainly, they needed to keep conversation at a minimum for their personal safety. He hadn’t even yet told them about the amulet—which had a direct role in many of those experiences—or why he’d had it all this time, nestled inside his backpack. He realized that he looked forward to telling them all about what it could do once it was back in his parents’ hands, such as reuniting them with the rest of their family, even bringing them all to Thorn Valley if they so desired. He thought about how much he genuinely enjoyed Patricia and Karen’s company, and not just by virtue of their common origins. Again he wondered if it was more than happenstance that brought them together, his self-appointed “mission” to see the NIMH lab for himself having been transformed since last night into a quest that could possibly mean life or death for the one they now specifically sought. Almost inevitably, some of his parents’ words about destiny returned to him, about how much they believed so many events in their lives weren’t accidental or coincidental and had played out according to design.

Through the clear, early-autumn afternoon they pressed on, still staying largely out of sight but still able to move swiftly and steadily. At one point they were spotted by a large dog which barked loudly and gave chase. It gave them all quite a scare, but luckily it and they were on opposite sides of a fenced-in yard. Encounters with cats were relatively few and of minimal danger. Once they had to slink by within twenty feet of one who was taking a snooze on someone’s back stoop. Another was sitting in a window, but safely indoors; so it could only glare at them and switch its tail as they strolled by; in full view, in fact. This was Martin’s idea; though they could have easily stayed out of sight, he couldn’t resist the fun of teasing and taunting at least one cat on this trip—at least until Karen led him away with a jerk on his arm. The third encounter was the closest one, but also the least dangerous: a very young kitten, which hadn’t been taught any hunting skills, was disappointed that they couldn’t stay and play for a while. They told it they had someplace they needed to get to; which was true, of course, but they also didn’t want to linger in case its mother was about.

In midafternoon they finally met up with a mouse who had not only known Kimball from his previous crosstown trips, but had actually seen him a week or so ago. They’d very briefly exchanged words, he told them; Kimball just said that he was on his way to NIMH to talk to the “strange one.” Satisfied to hear any word at all, and that Kimball had made it this far, they thanked the other mouse and carried on.

Finally, around 4:00, they approached one particular small wooded patch of land on the outskirts of town. By Patricia’s reaction, her younger companions could tell it had to be familiar to her, and therefore an indicator that their destination was very close.

“Is that it, Mom? The place where you and Dad lived for a while, after you escaped?” Karen asked.

“Yes, Karen, it is.” They all paused briefly. “Eight years,” Patricia said with a sigh. “It’s been eight years since we’d lived here, and some two years since I’d seen it last; but it will always hold fond memories for your father and me. We…first became aware of our mutual feelings here.” She sighed again, smiling.

Martin and Karen looked at each other, Patricia’s smile proving infectious to both of them; then, unaccountably, Martin felt some embarrassment. Abruptly returning his attention to Patricia, he said, “So, I guess that must mean we’re pretty close, huh?”

“Yes, we are.” Patricia continued to lead them on. “It’s ironic that we can have such fond memories of this place, when such a short ways further lies a place that harbors hardly any such memories.”

“Except for escaping it; right, Mom?”

Patricia chuckled. “Of course. That, and meeting your father.” They skirted the outer edge of the wooded lot, speaking little; and soon it came into view, lying at one end of a cluster of buildings—an industrial park, Patricia called it, where there were many different types of businesses and research facilities. The trio paused to look across this mostly open field at one especially-prominent four-story building, walls gleaming bright white in the sun. Even amongst the other buildings this one stood out prominently, seeming almost to call out to them invitingly, but also ominously, perhaps dangerously so.

They regarded it silently for about a minute before Karen broke the silence. “Well, this is really it, isn’t it, Mom?”

“It certainly is.”

Martin continued to regard the building silently as he thought about all the events of the past week culminating in this moment. He recalled his original reasoning, how he was so sure that coming here would put to rest all those feelings of discontent—a purely selfish motive. Though all had gone according to plan on the way to the city, so much had happened in the barely-over-a-day since, and so much learned. Looking upon their destination now, it brought home just how unimportant all this made his own problems seem; as well as how his reasons for coming to NIMH were no longer for himself alone, what with Kimball’s unknown status and the equally-unknown reasons behind it. Martin had become at least as concerned about Kimball as his wife and daughter, and the important information Vincent allegedly had for him had begun to occupy more of Martin’s thoughts lately; plus he genuinely wanted to meet both of them. The implications of this important information were making him increasingly ill at ease, for all he tried to hide it. He remembered his earlier words to his companions; and though he’d spoken positively, now he wished he could be more certain of the idea that the Rats of Thorn Valley would continue to be undiscovered by humankind. What if Vincent’s information concerned that very matter? Last night, he’d told the ladies that whatever it concerned might very well concern his family and friends as well. But did he seriously think… He tried to push aside the thought, reflecting on how this mission was growing increasingly complex at every turn. Here he was, preparing to infiltrate this building he’d never before seen; with two mice whom he didn’t know existed 24 hours ago, yet felt a strong kinship with; without his best friend, who had accompanied him up till yesterday; to get further information from or about two other mice who were strangers to him. I knew there would be some surprises along the way, he thought, but this is ridiculous. And yet, for all that, there were no doubts whatsoever about the rightness of what he now felt compelled, even obligated to do.

He turned to the ladies. “Well, I’m ready whenever you are; though I do wish Lambert could be with us.”

Patricia breathed in deep. “Perhaps…we should wait a minute or two, to see if Vincent will meet us here.”

“That’s right,” said Martin. “He always seemed to know whenever he had visitors, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he did. Now if I can only find the same spot…” Patricia began leading them just inside the woodland’s edge.

“Dad never really learned how Vincent did that, did he?” asked Karen.

“Hush, please, dear, I have to concentrate.”

“Oh. Sorry, Mom.” Since Patricia had only been here once since the escape, two years ago at that, it was with a little difficulty that she led them to the same spot. “This is it,” she announced. “I’m sure of it.” Since it had been some two hours since they’d rested, they sat, agreeing to give Vincent no more than ten minutes. They each took out a small amount of food.

As they ate, Patricia said, “Now…to answer your question, Vincent never told your father how he was always able to meet him here; or if he did, Kimball never told me.”

“That reminds me,” said Martin, “of what my dad told me about Nicodemus, the rats’ old leader. He’d have…premonitions of things that would happen soon after. Vincent could have the same kind of ability.”

The women looked at each other, amazed. “That’s so fascinating, Martin,” said Patricia. “And if it’s true, it would explain so much.”

“I can’t wait to hear more, but I guess that’s another story best left for later, isn’t it?”

“It is, Karen,” said Martin. “And believe me, I’m looking forward to telling it. And hopefully I won’t be the only one telling you.”

They spent the rest of their break speculating on what was to come, with little actual discussion; and Patricia continued preparing herself psychologically, as determined as she’d been all day to see this through. All day she’d tried, as best she could, to suppress any fears she’d harbored about making this trip, and especially about the prospect of actually going inside the building, were it to become necessary. But this was for her man, the love of her life, the father of her children. By no means had she forgotten the fear that had all but paralyzed her on their last visit here; but present circumstances being what they were, she could not—would not—rest until she knew what had kept him from returning these two weeks past. She looked over to the two younger mice, sitting noticeably closer together than they had before though saying little, and felt thankful for their company, for the encouragement they’d given her and would continue to give; plus, she and Karen both looked forward to meeting Martin’s family and friends, giving them even greater incentive to see this through.

So caught up in these thoughts had Patricia become that she’d nearly forgotten the main reason they’d paused here. Surely Vincent should have shown by now, given his record, and assuming that Kimball had met him here every time he’d visited solo; and yet…it was looking more and more that they’d have to try making their way inside. Inside NIMH, the place they never thought they’d set foot inside again, for any reason. The thought made her bite her lip with renewed apprehension. The younger mice noticed her increased anxiety; though she’d avoided disclosing to Martin the full extent of her earlier fears and how they’d affected her two years ago, and Karen had also largely avoided bringing up the subject, it wasn’t hard for him to guess what was affecting her thusly now.

“I think…it’s been just about ten minutes now,” he said to Patricia as he moved closer to her, touching her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

She looked at him, managing a smile. “I…yes, Martin, thank you. I guess…if Vincent’s going to be a no-show, then…we’d best get started.”

As they all got to their feet, Martin was reminded of those so-pivotal events of over two years past, when his own mother wrestled with her own doubts and fears but was determined to fulfill her own mission, one which meant life or death for his brother, and ultimately for all of them; and then months later, she had to rally her forces on another mission to find their father in Lahaikshe and bring him home. This time, there was a huge difference: in both earlier cases, he and his siblings were kept in the dark about the situation and only later were able to fully understand the difficulties their mother had to overcome. Now, though, Martin was right here, shoulder-to-shoulder with Patricia and Karen, all ready to face together whatever tribulations might yet come; and it was his own actions which in part had brought them to where they were now. He could only hope they were truly up to it all, especially considering that it was now looking as if they’d all have to—

As sudden realization came upon him, Karen gave voice to just the same matter as if reading his mind: “If we have to go all the way in, how will we know where to go? It’s a pretty big building.”

Patricia looked toward the building, visible through the trees, anxiety etched upon her face; the others knew she had to have already considered the point. For a moment Martin wondered if they hadn’t reached a dead end; after all, once they were inside they couldn’t just search blindly, and the more time they spent inside the building, the greater their chances of being caught. Briefly he again thought back to his pre-departure remark to Lambert: that just seeing the NIMH lab would be enough to satisfy his feelings of discontent. Did it really never occur to him that circumstances might call for his actually going inside the place? That night in the library, he’d been so cavalier in his planning, so simple did he believe this whole affair would prove to be. Now, he could scarcely believe his own naiveté.

He had another thought: if this was Vincent’s usual meeting place, then wasn’t it possible that…

Abruptly he turned and dropped to all fours, searching intently, whiskers twitching. The women were perplexed for a moment; then Patricia asked, “Martin, do you think…there’s some clue here, something left here by Vincent?”

“Or maybe by Dad,” added Karen. “We’ve got nothing to lose by looking.” Patricia couldn’t disagree, so all three fell to giving the area a thorough inspection.

In less than a minute they got results. Martin announced he’d found something decidedly out of place, nestled inside a cavity underneath a tree root. Immediately he tried extracting it; it was wedged in pretty snugly, so Karen assisted him. Soon they drew out their prize: a small plastic pill bottle topped by a white cap. Inside was a rolled-up scrap of paper with writing clearly visible on it. They lost no time, Patricia unscrewing the cap while the others held the bottle, then unrolling and unfolding the paper.

Poring over the words written there, they could tell immediately they weren’t put there by human hand, as small as they were; but the women could immediately tell they weren’t in Kimball’s handwriting. But as they read on, the writer’s identity became obvious, even before they reached his signature at the bottom. It couldn’t be anyone else’s, as it presented a list of instructions which, though apparently written in haste, was very detailed in how to reach a specific location within the very building which they were preparing to infiltrate. And when they reached the end, there was the very name they’d expected, even hoped to see.

They looked at each other, processing this new information. “Well, maybe Vincent couldn’t be here, for whatever reason,” said Martin. “But he sure knew someone was coming.”

“Yes, but was he really expecting us?” wondered Patricia. “It’s odd he would sign his name, but it’s not addressed to anyone specifically; not Kimball or myself. And,” she added disappointedly, “it doesn’t mention Kimball at all. We still have no idea what happened to him.”

“And it doesn’t say exactly what’s special about this room, this…utility closet, or what we’re supposed to do when we get to it,” observed Karen.

“I guess we’ll find out when we get there,” said Martin. All three were clearly curious; after all, here were some detailed instructions, seemingly intended just for them. Still, he couldn’t help wondering: could it be a trap of some kind? How likely was it that someone at NIMH could have found Vincent out, learned about this regular meeting place, wrote up this note with handwriting that would be exceedingly difficult to execute by human hand? Quickly he dismissed the entire notion without voicing it aloud, mostly on the strength of that last point. No, he decided, this had to have been Vincent’s work, and it couldn’t have been intended for anyone else but other mice who could read, and they were the only ones hereabouts who qualified. All agreed that the note had to be bona-fide, so they reviewed it again, discussing many of the details aloud, committing as much as they could to memory; then, certain they’d prepared themselves adequately, Martin carefully re-rolled the note and put it in his pack.

“I guess…we’d better get started,” said Patricia. “It’s getting pretty late.” They made their way to the grove’s edge, where they could look upon the white four-story edifice again. They regarded it silently for another moment; then, Patricia took a deep breath and took her companions’ hands. “Kimball…my love…please be well, wherever you are.” Looking back and forth at her daughter and her old friend’s son, she took another deep breath; then she said decisively, “Let’s go.” The trio dropped to all fours and began crossing the mostly-open field toward the rear of the NIMH facility.

Chapter 17: Inside NIMH

Midway across the field a lone small evergreen shrub grew, and there they paused to catch their breaths, looking across the remaining distance to the rear of the building, trying to better assess how they would gain entry. Vincent’s instructions made it seem almost easy, and yet…this was NIMH, a place of potentially great danger to them. From where they crouched, it looked no more dangerous than any other human-made structure; but considering what had gone on here in the past…

An unsettling thought came to Martin, one he couldn’t believe hadn’t occurred to him before. “Did Vincent ever say anything to Kimball about whether or not there are still experiments going on here? You know, like…that one?”

“Vincent never said anything about that,” replied Patricia. “And he would know, if anyone would. Kimball did actually ask him once, and he said no, definitely not.”

“Even so, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” added Karen. They again reviewed the directions in Vincent’s note, after which they prepared for the next leg. Patricia was still the most visibly nervous of them, but she assured them she was still committed to this. They sized up what lay before them: a delivery truck backed up to a loading dock which stood a couple of feet above ground level, where a bush grew alongside the wall; and voices discernible even at this distance. There would be a door opening and closing, surely; but would they dare enter the building in such a simple fashion?

There was nothing for it but to forge ahead; so they made for the bush alongside the building. Once nestled behind it, they could better assess their next move. No humans were in sight yet; they were all still inside, voices still occasionally audible. There was a short flight of concrete steps next to the bush, which they agreed should be safe enough to use as an observation point. Going over the basics of Vincent’s instructions again, they couldn’t help questioning whether simply using the doors to gain access was the safest way. He didn’t go into detail as to why, but all agreed they had little choice but to follow his instructions to the letter, risky as they seemed. Patricia believed it was just as well; the best alternative would be the ventilation system, and she couldn’t see using that under any circumstances. “Not only would I never want to repeat that experience, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else,” was how she summed it up.

They moved furtively from the bush to the top concrete step. Finding it too low for them to see over the top edge to dock level, Karen had Martin give her a boost on his shoulders—a move which, despite the tenseness of the situation, he couldn’t deny gave him a slight thrill. As she kept watch, they waited for their opportunity, whispering among themselves. All admitted to being nervous, now that they were at the point of no return. Martin was reminded of the time his mother had been captured for a short time the night their old winter home was being moved. He remarked aloud on this, adding that this was no farmhouse kitchen they were attempting to infiltrate here. He quickly realized this may have been not the most morale-boosting thing to bring up and apologized.

They instantly fell silent as a louder voice was heard inside; and seconds later, as they suspected, the large double doors swung open. The mice tensed and Martin ducked a little further so that Karen could as well. A man emerged, and after he paused to prop open the doors on the outside, he went back in and reemerged seconds later pushing a handcart. He set it upright momentarily and then bent down to unlatch the truck’s back door. After it had rolled up, he took the handcart inside the truck with him.

“If we duck behind the door on our side,” whispered Karen down to the others, “we should be out of his sight.” She quickly described all else she could see, and they quickly agreed on their next move.

The man emerged with handcart laden with cardboard cartons and took them inside. “This is it,” Karen whispered urgently. “Now!” Martin hoisted Karen the rest of the way up to dock level, he and Patricia followed, and the trio scurried over to the door propped open on their side. They huddled in the corner, peering inside through the gap under the lowermost hinge. Soon the deliveryman emerged and went inside the truck for another cartload, and sure enough, the mice were well out of his sight. They could hear another voice inside the building, but he seemed to be further in, well away from the door.

Martin led the way inside, squeezing his head through the gap. He cast his gaze all around the room. There was one person, whose back was turned, at the right side; but Martin could see nobody toward the left side. There were, however, various chairs, tables, benches and boxes. He glanced back toward the right; and, noting that the deliveryman was still in the truck, whispered, “I think this is it. ’Round the corner and don’t stop.”

The three pushed through, single-file but briskly, into the room. They immediately ducked behind the nearest boxes, pausing when they were safely out of sight. Amidst sighs of relief, they gave each other’s hand a congratulatory squeeze.

“You know,” remarked Patricia, “I’d been thinking that they might have made it more difficult for any of their animals to escape this building, after we’d all done it. But that doesn’t mean none can get in!”

“We did it, all right,” added Karen with a laugh, “though we’ve got a ways to go yet.”

“But we can do it, right?” said Martin. “’cause we’re a team!” He looked back and forth between the women; then, feeling a bit self-conscious at his pep talk, removed his hands from theirs. It had been such a rush of excitement for all of them to have made it this far, but now it was time to really get down to cases.

Patricia felt some of her old uneasiness return from being inside this building, but was determined to suppress it. Remember Kimball, she continued to repeat to herself as the trio went over further details of where to go and what to do. “Now remember,” she said to her companions, “if by some chance any of us do get caught or cornered, we play dumb. We don’t let on that we’re anything more than ordinary mice.”

“I don’t think I’ll have much problem there,” said Karen. “Now, Martin, here…” She indicated the backpack he carried.

Martin agreed that could pose a problem, though with some embarrassment since he’d almost completely forgotten it. A mouse wearing anything, let alone a tiny leather satchel on its back would arouse plenty of curiosity, and more, even if he did “play dumb.” They discussed the matter further and agreed that, since Martin felt compelled to have it with him at all times, he’d just try his best to discard it in some out-of-the-way place if it became absolutely necessary. At any rate, they knew that if they did give this pretense, the greater their chances of being released unharmed, once it was determined that they weren’t escaped experimental mice—of which, they reminded themselves, there shouldn’t be any here anyway.

So…where to now? Their best immediate course was to sit tight until the activity in the receiving area was finished. They listened closely as the deliveryman continued his unloading and exchanging occasional words with the other man. Now and again one of the mice took a cautious peek from their hiding place to keep visual tabs on the progress of the men’s work. While they did this, they again reviewed Vincent’s directions, making a special note of the security cameras they would have to avoid.

Soon the unloading was finished. After completing some paperwork, the deliveryman said “Have a good one” and walked out the outer double doors, which the other man closed and secured back in place. He then returned to a far corner of the room.

“I think this is it,” reported Karen, who’d observed this activity. They all ventured cautiously from the boxes. Several feet further on, toward the left side of the room, stood a door which was their next goal; the one, according to Vincent, that would continue them on their way. They couldn’t hear anyone approaching from the next room, so they made a quick dash to the doorway’s edge. They peered around it into a corridor that turned to the right after about forty feet. They looked for the nearest security camera; and there it was, right where Vincent said it would be, mounted near the ceiling. A signal was given, followed by another quick dash to a closed door. A pause to listen, then they were off again.

They made fast dashes between doorways, water coolers, and other objects and areas that they could quickly use for cover. At one point a white-coated technician approached from the rear, and they had to flatten against a closed storage-room door as she passed without noticing them. They had an even closer call when they’d just ducked behind a water cooler, and thought they might have been spotted when someone came by, but to their relief he turned out to be only stopping for a drink. At another point they were startled when a voice came blaring over the public address system, making Patricia leap straight into the air and almost cut and run; but they all calmed down when they realized nobody was there in person, and that the voice was simply paging someone. Patricia was embarrassed at being so jumpy, knowing there was a P.A. system from her previous time here, and all three shared a laugh quietly.

They continued this way for some fifteen minutes total until they came to a fire door, under which they squeezed easily enough. Behind it lay a staircase with a 180-degree bend halfway up, the first of at least two they’d have to climb. Along the way, Patricia remarked that, as important as this mission was to her personally, she’d be relieved once it was all over. The others admitted some unease, too; not just from being in a human-built edifice in broad daylight, but also from awareness of what this building was and what it represented. Martin realized that all the psychological preparation in the world couldn’t adequately prepare any of them for the experience of actually being here. Of course, their surroundings so far hardly looked dangerous; the corridors they passed through seemed quite nondescript and benign, as much as the exterior of the building—hardly the medieval torture chamber one might be inclined to visualize.

Up the stairs they went, one step at a time. They found the best way to be to leap up to each step, pause for a moment to listen, then leap to the next. Though they were prepared to take evasive action if someone came up or down the stairs, it was unnecessary; and they made it all the way up in about five minutes. There was a security camera here in the stairwell as well, and all the while they’d made sure they were staying out of its range as they did the ones in the hall.

They still needed to get to the third floor, so they continued as before, onward and upward. As they expected, this next set of stairs was identical to the previous. When they reached the fifth step, they heard a sound that made them freeze momentarily. Someone had opened the fire door on the third floor and was coming down the stairs, headed their way. They quickly stood up and flattened against the back of the step, as they’d planned. These steps had a slight overhang which the mice hoped would help them that much more in remaining unseen now.

The man came down to and around the bend. The mice held their breaths as they prepared for him to step over and past them. They watched the soles of his shoes pass within inches of them. He continued on into the hall without turning around.

After he was out of sight, they resumed climbing, relieved with this latest success but not ready to rest on their laurels. They rounded the bend, and were only two steps away from the end of their climb when the disturbing sound of a door being opened again reached their ears. This time it was the one on the second floor, so now they had to conceal themselves from someone approaching from the rear. They’d discussed earlier that in case this happened, they’d suspend themselves from the outer edge of the stairs while the person passed by—a risky plan, but there was really no other way to hide outright in the stairwell. Luckily it didn’t come to that; there was a floor-standing ashtray at the top of the stairs, just inside the door. As the man approached from below, they made for it swiftly. Just as they were about two feet from it, they could hear someone on the opposite side of the third floor door approaching. They poured on the speed and piled in between the ashtray and the wall, almost on top of one another as the door opened. They listened silently, each wondering if they had been seen previously and one or both of these people were prepared to capture them. The third-floor person began descending the steps and exchanged words with the other one, who soon was gone through the nearer door. Though they were sure they hadn’t been spotted, before or now, they were still enormously relieved.

“Whew…when it rains, it pours, eh?” commented Martin as they emerged cautiously from behind the ashtray, finding himself almost laughing from the excitement of all this skulking about, all the close calls.

Patricia found not nearly as much to be excited about. “I think,” she said, hand over chest, “that if, heaven forbid, any of us do get caught, the scared-confused-typical-mouse act won’t be so much an act.”

“It’ll be all right, Mom,” said Karen, rubbing her shoulder. “Just keep thinking of why we’re here.”

“She’s right,” added Martin. “We’ll find Kimball, or know the reason why not.” It suddenly occurred to him that if Lambert had accompanied them, they probably wouldn’t have gotten around as easily as they had thus far. He felt a bit guilty thinking this way, but he couldn’t deny that their smaller size was proving to have a definite advantage here, in enabling them to slip under doorways and behind objects. A full-grown rat would have a decidedly more difficult time keeping unnoticed. Perhaps Lambert recognized this, and that influenced his decision to tell Martin to go on without him.

Once they were certain no one else was approaching, they squeezed under the door out into the third-floor corridor. Not much further, they knew, before they reached the utility closet which was their destination. Everyone’s anticipation again rose, though they knew not exactly why Vincent directed them there. Martin was anxious to not only learn all about Vincent’s vital message for Kimball, but just to meet the “strange one” in the flesh. He’d been intrigued by Patricia’s description of his unusual ways and motivations and wondered how he could possibly continue living like this: always having to elude humans, probably just to carry out normal everyday tasks, and how he’d existed this long in their midst undetected. If it was really an irrational fear that kept him from leaving, it was halfway understandable, from the books on psychology Martin had read. Or was there more to this “mission” he’d dedicated himself to? For all that Martin looked forward to learning Kimball’s fate, and meeting him as well, there was no doubt that Vincent was the real enigma here.

Finally, as they huddled behind another water cooler, their “final” destination was in sight: a door that lay several feet further down on the other side of the hall—or rather, what lay behind it.

“So that’s our all-important meeting place—presumably,” said Martin, adding the last word because Vincent’s note did not specifically state that he’d meet them there.

“It’s all we’ve got, though,” said Karen. “And we’ve gone to all this trouble to get this far.”

Patricia peered out further, looking both ways. “All clear.” They looked at each other, nodding; then they bolted as one from the niche, in a beeline for the closet door. In seconds they’d squeezed under and were well inside.

Chapter 18: Vincent’s hideaway

In the near-total darkness, they found themselves breathing much more easily. After all their sneaking about, the dark confines of this utility closet were almost comforting; at least at first. They moved further in, not wanting to be close to the door in case someone happened to walk in, and took greater notice of the sights and smells of their surroundings: racks with brooms and mops, a utility sink, metal buckets and wringers, shelves with all manner of plastic and metal containers. The air was rather musty with the faint odors of ammonia and pine that wafted through to the nostrils of the three mice. It wasn’t overpowering but was still none too pleasant a mixture.

“Hope he gets here soon,” said Martin, wrinkling his nose and half-heartedly fanning the air in front of his face. “I can think of some better places to cool our heels.” Not only did this sense of urgency stem from these surroundings and their wanting to know about Kimball’s whereabouts, but also from it being late afternoon and that the building would be closed for the day within the hour. Naturally they preferred being able to leave the way they came in; but, as they’d already discussed, if this meeting detained them past closing time they might have to spend the night here, possibly being forced to “throw themselves away” and leave with the trash, as Kimball and Patricia did some eight years before. All knew, though, that they’d want to leave as soon as possible after hearing what Vincent had to tell them. For now, they settled down next to the wall, actually finding a degree of relief at being able to rest for a while.

“I hope,” speculated Patricia, “that Vincent will know we’re here now, just like he always seemed to know when Kimball was waiting for him in the woods right away.”

“Considering he seemed to know we were coming,” observed Karen, “after leaving that note for us. It couldn’t have been intended for anyone else, could it? Even though it wasn’t addressed to you or anyone else.”

“Yes, however he did all that; that has to be some unique ability he has.”

“That reminds me of my brother Timothy,” said Martin. “Since he was a little squirt, he’s had a knack for knowing things the rest of us don’t. Not like predicting specific things, but more like knowing when things would work out for the better.”

Karen gave a small laugh. “We could use him right now. I hope we get the chance to meet him and the rest of your family.”

“I hope so too. In fact, I think it’ll happen soon.” He chuckled. “Boy, now I’m starting to sound like Tim.” He looked at Patricia, who only nodded, seeming to approve of the idea. Though Karen and Kimball had discussed the possibility of their moving permanently to Thorn Valley with her before, there’d been no such discussion today; even though Karen and Martin had privately discussed the matter last night, neither had brought it up since.

Now, though, Patricia said: “Martin…I would love to see Thorn Valley, too, and all the rats have done; and I know that we’d be welcomed there. It’s just that…all the time we’ve spent here, all the memories associated with the homes we’ve made here—even though we did move once, and that was because we absolutely had to—making such a drastic move, and one so far…I know Kimball’s tried for years to convince me that we should, and I’ve felt more inclined lately to agree. But, still…oh, I don’t know, what with making this whole trip today and worrying about Kimball, it’s just…so hard to make decisions on anything else.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Karen said, “An idea I’ve had…is that maybe whatever we decide to do—moving-wise—depends on what we learn here.”

“What do you mean, Karen?” asked Martin.

“Well…what if Dad learned something from Vincent that…made him want to try to go to Thorn Valley on his own?”

Again everyone was silent; then Martin said, “If that’s true, I’m almost afraid to guess what that something is.” He rubbed at his nose. “But I guess if that were true, at least for Kimball…it would be better than the alternative.” None had to guess what that would be. If he had gone off on his own, there would be a greater chance of his being alive than if he’d been captured, and determined to be more than an ordinary mouse.

After another minute of silence, Patricia said, “I’d hoped before that…if Kimball were here, then somehow, we’d know it by now. I know it’s foolish; I know that he’d be one small mouse in this big building.”

“Maybe, Mom, but…so’s Vincent.”

“And we haven’t seen a trace of him, either.” Martin got up and began pacing the floor. “It’s been a good ten minutes. If he was so dependable before, what could be keeping him now?” No one voiced it aloud, but all realized the possibility that they’d been sent on a fool’s errand; or worse, that Vincent had been captured as well—yes, even after all this time.

Then Martin had another idea. He commenced examining the closet’s baseboards.

“Marty, what are you doing?” Karen asked.

“I had an idea…that just maybe there’s a reason for Vincent directing us here, to this specific location. Like there’s something we’re supposed to find here.”

“Of course,” said Patricia, “just as we found his message back in the woods.”

“Exactly.” Martin gently urged the others to silence as he ran hands across the surface of the walls, baseboard and adjacent flooring, now and again tapping, listening closely all the while. He concentrated mainly on the baseboard, which was of the rubber type, feeling and listening for any irregularity. Knowing that Vincent may have left another message for them here, Patricia and Karen joined in the search, expecting quite logically to find another such note.

After about five minutes, Karen’s curiosity over Martin’s own search got the better of her; clearly, he was looking for more than just another written message. “Marty…what exactly are you looking for? A hidden entrance or something?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But I’ve got to do something besides sit.”

“I guess it would make sense for Vincent to have some kind of hidden lair around here. He has to sleep somewhere. But it wouldn’t be anything too elaborate, would it?”

“It’s possible…” Martin continued his search.

“Although if he did, you’d think he would have said something to Dad, or—” As Karen turned to one side, she tripped over a loose area of the baseboard against the floor. Yelping with surprise, she stopped herself from falling on her face; but as her hands hit against the upright portion of the baseboard, she felt something give slightly underneath with a distinct “click” audible to all three mice. In the next second, something else was heard to give way or open, coming from a nearby wooden shelf.

The three immediately climbed onto the shelf, which was only about two inches off the floor, and gawked at what they saw. A small section of shelf was now tilted downward as if on hinges. “It…wasn’t like that before, was it?” asked Patricia.

“I don’t believe so,” said Martin carefully. “No, there was definitely something there, behind the baseboard. A switch or something.” Martin took a step forward and whistled into the dark space. “Yeah, it goes down a ways, all right. Right into the floor.” He looked to the others. “Well…once again, I’m ready when you are.”

They proceeded with the usual caution, down the incline of the shelf-section, which led directly into a hole in the floor. They dropped down about two inches, and Martin again began looking for something.

“If Vincent’s the one who set all this up, then there should be something around here that’ll close up the shelf again.” Soon he found a simple metal lever mounted on the floor. He tripped it, and sure enough, the shelf-section closed, engulfing them in complete darkness. They’d already gotten a sense that they should continue toward the wall, through another hole. Karen tried it first and found that there was a small platform on the other side of it. Soon all three had passed through the hole and were standing on the platform, and they tried to get their bearings in this chamber that seemed darker still. This was a rather narrow space within the wall, but it was also an indeterminate number of feet deep. They soon found what seemed to be a flight of stairs that led down. It was quite narrow, so they slowly began feeling their way down single file.

After they’d descended a short ways, Martin said, “Well, Karen…I guess this is elaborate enough, eh?”

“This is…just so amazing. How could one mouse accomplish all this?”

“Not just one mouse,” Martin again reminded, “but one who’s lived here eight years undetected.” He gave a small laugh. “I guess there’s just no underestimating this guy.”

“Kimball never mentioned anything like this, even remotely. Apparently Vincent intentionally kept all this from him,” observed Patricia. “But why?”

“It’s probably just as well he never tried to actually bring Dad here,” Karen mused. “As far as we know.”

“Maybe it was to protect him from the risk of being captured,” suggested Martin. “Either way, I get the feeling we’re going to get some light on the subject, one way or the—” His voice fell away as, all at once, several lights came on: some with a flicker, others going from dim to bright. Some were colored Christmas-tree bulbs, others plain; but it was clear to all that “elaborate” was a massive understatement.

“I think someone knows we’re here,” said Karen slowly. But they soon found that they had activated the lights, just by passing over one certain step. Now able to see their way around this chamber, they saw at the bottom of the stairs what looked to be a door, set in a wall stud. Now they moved more quickly down the rest of the way.

“This reminds me of Mom’s description of the Rats’ old colony under the rosebush, when she first met them,” said Martin. “I always wished I’d had the chance to see it for myself.” Indeed, he realized how she must have felt that time: the sense of wonder and discovery, of strangeness and otherworldliness, of wondering how all this was possible.

Once reaching bottom, they could see it certainly had to be a door. A small lever unlatched it and they passed through into a tiny chamber illuminated from a larger neighboring chamber. Its entrance was a circular hole in the wall partition, and through it they entered what they knew had to be Vincent’s secret lair—a secret within NIMH.

There were many furnishings that were very much mouse-sized versions of human ones: chairs, a bed, a table, a chest of drawers. A remnant of low carpet covered most of the floor. Stacked here and there were papers, some bound, some in loose stacks. The walls were decorated with a variety of artifacts: memos taken from various places around the building, some with “from the desk of” letterheads and suchlike; labels, some with shipping information on them, some with instructions and cautions about package contents; even a piece of a candy-bar wrapper.

But what caught their eyes the most were the drawings: of rooms around the building, of lab equipment, of other mice, of scenes that were indescribable to the three mice. Like Patricia’s, these were all in pencil and charcoal, and she took an especially keen interest in them, gazing with childlike wonder upon each. Most of them had a stylized “V” in the corner; it was clear they were all Vincent’s work. One mouse portrait was particularly recognizable to Patricia: it was a self-portrait. Another was immediately recognizable, even to Martin, from Patricia’s own artwork: it was of Kimball, apparently rendered completely from Vincent’s memory, unless Kimball had posed for him. It was all illuminated by the same kinds of lights installed in the “stairwell,” probably activated at the same time.

To Martin, the chamber had much of the same “organized clutter” look of the library back home. Tallus should see this, he thought. “Boy, he definitely made this place his own,” he said with a mixture of wonder and admiration. “And all under everyone’s noses, too, just like the way the Rats plotted their escape.”

Still, one thing was clearly missing. Karen, still looking at Vincent’s portrait, said, “But where’s the real article?”

“Oh, I hope nothing bad has happened to him,” said Patricia. “Or your father either, of course. I still can’t imagine why he never told Kimball about any of this. Unless he was keeping it secret, too.”

“Speaking of Dad, Mom,” reminded Karen, “let’s not forget the main reason we’re here.”

Martin was already approaching the table. “Since Vincent seems to be such a compulsive note-taker, there should be something here on his and Kimball’s whereabouts. I hope these ones on top are the most recent ones.”

“I know you’re right,” said Patricia as she and Karen joined him, “though I’d still rather hear it from Vincent himself. I feel like we’re intruding. This is his home, after all…even though it seems…insanely dangerous for him to be making it here in this building.”

“I’m with you on that, Patricia,” said Martin, “but let’s not forget how little time we’ve got if we want to leave tonight.” The three set about sifting through the notes, some of which were written in ink in longhand, others in pencil. But it wasn’t easy to determine which were most recent; there were several pages which dealt at length with things they couldn’t make head or tail of; seemingly abstract statements and ideas, and the like. Still, they did their best to keep them in the order in which they found them. There were no page numbers, but they found that some had dates which, they figured, marked off the first page of that date’s entry. “Too bad they’re not all marked like that,” said Martin, “but it’ll have to do.”

Very soon, Karen announced that she found an entry for two days ago. There were none more recent to be found, at least on the table, so they set about reading it. Much of it seemed confused, rambling; but it became clear that Vincent believed there was a certain fate in store for him, perhaps a dire one.

The three read on, increasingly uneasy over what they might find; but they were in no way prepared for what came next. Patricia gasped loudly, and Martin and Karen stared in disbelief at the words before them:

“Patricia, wife of my dear friend Kimball,” it began. “If you are reading this, then you have read the directions I left for you at our old meeting place. I know that you surely will come here to seek out your husband. I wish you and yours all the luck in the world in finding him. As for myself…I know there’s no escaping my fate. I’ve always known these things. I suppose I even knew all along that it would end this way, that my luck wouldn’t hold forever. But there’s no point in refusing to accept it. If it doesn’t come today, it will come tomorrow; if not tomorrow, the next day; but it will come. Remaining here, in my hideaway, is futile; I can’t stay in here forever. I’d long ago accepted that it was dangerous just living here; but it was my choice, and mine alone. Oh, I suppose there are regrets; I know I could have accepted your offer to come live with you anytime. I can’t really say why I’d let my obsession (yes, I admit it was an obsession) for this mission continue as it has, even after I’d all but confirmed the rats’ presence in Thorn Valley, or elsewhere in the national forest. I’d let myself become too much a creature of habit, I suppose. But even if it’s too late for me, it doesn’t have to be for you. Kimball has already left on his journey; I wish I could confirm that he’ll make it safely. I do know, however, that he’s gone without you; and that is why I’m addressing you now. Please don’t judge him too harshly; he may be their only hope, if he reaches the rats before they do. He still loves you very much, as do I in my own way. I sincerely wish I could have seen you one last time; perhaps we will meet again in some fashion. For now, I leave you with this. Please convey my best wishes to Karen and the rest of your children; I hope all of you will be reunited someday. Vincent. Sept. 18.”

For a moment, the three could only stare at each other. Reading of Vincent’s willingness and acceptance to meet his own end—however he knew of it and whatever its precise nature—was enough of a shock. But Kimball leaving on some journey, possibly to Thorn Valley to warn the rats? The idea of Kimball going off to Thorn Valley was in itself not too surprising; Karen had already brought it up. But the impetus behind it now, to give warning… Even Karen’s earlier suspicions of this very thing didn’t lessen the shock now.

Martin fought down the feeling of creeping dread, of icy panic starting to clutch at his insides. “Let’s…let’s find the pages where he tells what he learned, and why Kimball left. There’s got to be something here on that.” As they all searched anew, Patricia tried to rationalize Kimball’s actions. After all the promises he’d made, how could he just up and leave, without a word? Yet, if his reasons were important enough… She decided to reserve further judgment until they learned more.

After about two more minutes of sifting through Vincent’s notes and hoping that they wouldn’t have to search beyond these loose pages on the table, Karen announced, “I think this is it.” Patricia and Martin almost pounced on the page she indicated. Sure enough, here was an almost word-for-word transcription of a conversation among three NIMH staffers, regarding areas that the government hadn’t yet covered in seeking the whereabouts of the rats who’d escaped eight years ago; areas within the national forest, including Thorn Valley. As soon as the proper government clearance could be had, those areas would soon be investigated.

Martin took a step backward from the table, feeling the blood drain from his face and his knees threaten to give way. In the back of his mind, he’d known as early as last night that this was possible; and though he realized this now, it didn’t do anything to lessen the shock.

“Marty, are you all right?” asked Karen. “Maybe you should sit down.”

“That’s just it,” said Martin as he stepped forward, leaning on the table for support. “How can I sit down when my family, my friends could be dead or captured by now? You saw the date on that entry. It was over two weeks ago!” He began pacing the floor, head in hand. “God, they did it. The bastards finally did it. How could we possibly think they couldn’t find us?”

“Marty, please calm down,” said Karen. “Maybe they—”

“Calm down? Calm down? Didn’t you see that? Don’t you understand what this means?” Martin’s eyes were wild with the dread and panic that threatened to take him over completely.

“Of course I understand,” replied Karen, who nevertheless couldn’t help feeling stung by his manner. “Please, just listen. Maybe they haven’t reached Thorn Valley yet. Maybe the rats could still be warned.”

Martin made to shout something else but managed to “wind down” a bit. “Okay…all right. Maybe you’re right. But who’ll warn them?”

“Don’t forget, Marty, Dad already left to warn them.”

“How do we know he made it? And we still don’t know for sure that’s why he left.”

“Yes…yes, we do,” said Patricia. She’d continued looking through Vincent’s notes and had found the next entry, in which he’d described his last meeting with Kimball and how he’d left almost immediately, saying he had to get to Thorn Valley as fast as he could.

“There’s only one thing left for us to do, then,” said Martin, sounding surprisingly calmer. “We’ve got to get out of here, as fast as possible; then, we’ve got to do just like Kimball, and get back to Thorn Valley. Are you both with me?”

“You can count me in, Marty,” said Karen without hesitation. “Mom? You’ll join us, won’t you?”

“Well, I…I mean, I know I should, but…”

“Mom, I know this isn’t an easy decision to make all at once like this, and I know you’ve been reluctant to pull up stakes…”

“I don’t mean that. I was going to say, what about Vincent? We should do something for him, too.”

“I wish we could,” said Martin, “but we just don’t have time, and we have no idea where to look for him. And…let’s face it, he might already be dead.” Seeing Patricia’s stunned expression, he added, “Look, I know that sounds callous, and I want to know just as much as you what happened to him, and why he was talking like he was done for. But we got to remember, he’s not the only one who could be dead by now.”

“Well…all right, I understand what you’re saying, Martin, but…Karen, are you absolutely sure you want to go? I mean, it’s such a long way, and it could be dangerous…”

“Mom, you’ve never been overprotective, and now’s not a good time to start,” Karen said with a small laugh. “Of course it’ll be dangerous, but what about the danger they’re facing in Thorn Valley right now? Or have already faced?”

“All right,” said Patricia, holding both hands up. “I won’t try to make any more excuses. I’ll come with you.”

“Then let’s hurry,” said Martin. They all headed for the circular doorway.

“What about the lights?” asked Karen.

“I think they’ll take care of themselves again,” said Martin, already making his way through the round opening to the outer door. “All we’ve got to worry about now is getting out of here on time. We’ve already taken too much time.” The edge of desperation was returning to his voice.

Soon they were all through the door, which they closed behind them, then they started ascending the stairs quickly. Sure enough, about halfway up, all the lights went out automatically. Re-orienting themselves to the sudden darkness again, they continued on to the top of the stairs, and then through the hole to the underside of the shelf. Martin tried the switch again, and the small shelf-section opened downward. They leaped through, up and into the utility closet again. The hidden lever closed the trapdoor again. From there to the crack under the door, out into the hall…and suddenly they were once again thrust into the world of humans, the place they’d just left behind seeming very much like a separate world.

They once again skipped furtively between doorways, water coolers, and anyplace else they could temporarily conceal themselves. They made their way out, Martin’s tracking ability keeping them along the same route: down two flights of stairs (this time not encountering any humans), through more corridors that brought them back to the receiving section at the back of the building. Though they were as alert as ever to keeping out of the security cameras’ range and avoiding any humans, all that they’d seen and experienced were never far from their minds, nor of what lay ahead.

Finally they were in the receiving department, where they ducked behind the same group of boxes as before. The lone human in the room, the same one as before, was on the opposite side of the room. They moved closer to the swinging double doors; then, after waiting only a few more seconds, Martin said, “Let’s go now.”

“Marty, we don’t know if anyone’s out there yet!” protested Karen.

“We can’t wait!” Martin was clearly in no mood for any further argument, and shot out towards where the doors met. As much as Patricia and Karen understood the reasons for his actions and attitude, they couldn’t help feeling dismayed at his recklessness. Still, they had no choice but to go after him, in accordance with the way they’d already discussed this part of the plan.

Martin’s running push was sufficient to budge one of the swinging doors out. He stood back, letting it swing back; after which the women joined him in giving it another push. This proved to be enough to widen the crack between the doors enough to allow all three to slip through to the outside. No one was outside, so they immediately made for the steps leading to ground level; and once there, they broke into a full-tilt run across the field, not slowing until they were well clear of the building, until they reached the woods.

The shipping and receiving clerk stepped out onto the dock and looked all around. No sign of them now, he thought; if there was anything there. He shrugged, went back inside, and made ready to close up for the day. He was sure the door had opened a crack; while sitting in front of his computer, he’d noticed in his peripheral vision a slight difference in the amount of light coming in. It might have been a sudden breeze, even though there it wasn’t an especially windy day. Well, if it was some animal, he thought half-seriously, it couldn’t have been one of ours. It had, after all, been some six years or so since there’d been any animal experimentation at this facility. Supposedly it was because of reorganization, shifting of funds to other programs; but everyone who had been working here in those days remembered one project in particular, the one that was abruptly terminated after some of the subjects—or perhaps all of them, it was rumored—escaped. Someone must have watched his credibility go spinning down the toilet, the clerk thought with amusement.

Chapter 19: The Willing Plan

The three mice paused to catch their breaths after reaching the woods. It was still well before sundown, their little adventure inside NIMH having taken less than two hours, though it naturally had seemed longer. They agreed that there was still much to discuss before going any further, since they’d concentrated solely on getting out of the building since making their important and terrible discovery. They gathered some food and sat down to discuss their next step, though Martin was still having difficulty in doing anything that didn’t involve staying in motion. Making their way to the highway, they agreed, was an absolute must. Martin groused about how long that alone would take; but then, Karen brought up another vital matter:

“What about Lambert?”

Martin hid his face for a moment, shaking his head. “I’d…forgotten all about him, after all this other stuff…” He sat silent in thought.

After almost a minute Patricia asked, “What are you thinking, Martin? Should we try to rescue him again, or at least tell him what’s going on?”

Martin was silent for another moment; then he looked up and quietly said, “No.”

Both women gaped at each other, scarcely able to believe their ears. “How can you say that?” demanded Karen. “He’s your friend, you can’t just desert him like that!”

“Don’t tell me I’m deserting him!” Martin shouted. Getting himself more under control, he added, “I don’t like the idea of just leaving him without another word, any more than you; in fact, I hate it. But we’ve got to look at the big picture here. There are just too many other lives at stake. You said yourself that he probably wouldn’t come to any real harm with those gang-rats. Whatever else happens back home, whatever is happening now…nothing’s going to keep me from coming back here and finding him, if it’s the last thing I do. But if we try to get him out now, by ourselves, it’s too much of a risk, especially this time of day, when they’re more likely to be active. You told me that yourself. And let’s not forget what could’ve happened this morning.”

Patricia and Karen both sighed, nodding. Patricia added, “Well…I guess this is just a case where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I know that’s right, but…it’s so much like Kimball leaving us without a word.”

“For the same reason, Mom, let’s not forget. I’m sure he realized the same thing about needs.”

“And we’re doing this now for him as well, I know that.” Patricia looked towards the west, where the highway lay. “Well, I guess we should get going, then…right, Martin?” She and Karen had accorded to him the greater portion of leadership and authority in this new mission, since he’d made it all the way from Thorn Valley and knew best how to get back.

But Martin suddenly had an odd expression on his face, almost smiling. “If we get back in time, we should be able to get back to Lambert just like that. Yeah…I give the Stone back to Mom ’n’ Dad; heck, they could even use it to—” His steadily brightening expression suddenly fell away. He sat down, looking as if the entire weight of the world was on his shoulders.

“Martin, what is it now? Please tell us,” Patricia said as she and Karen sat closer to him.

“The Stone,” Martin said shakily. “If they had it now…oh, Lord…”

“What stone?” asked Karen. “What do you mean?”

Martin almost seemed not to hear for a moment; then he silently removed his backpack, rummaged around for a moment and drew out a pendant of gold-colored metal, with a round polished red stone set into it. “This one. I didn’t tell you about it before, I…I didn’t think it was relevant. But if they had it, it would save them for sure.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Patricia. “But…how would it save them? It’s just a stone.”

“No, it’s much more than that. It has great power, enormous power. But it only works through my parents. And they have to be actually holding it, in physical contact with it. Why is another story completely.”

Both women were perplexed. Then Karen asked, “If that’s true, then why did you—”

“Because I was selfish!” Martin replied sharply. “Because I didn’t think, as usual.” He got up and began pacing again. “I thought they wouldn’t need it. They hadn’t had any great need for it for a long time, so I took it because I thought they might use it to bring me back.” He slapped both thighs in frustration. “Two days! Just two days after we’d left, I started regretting it. ‘Oh, noooo, I’m not turning back now,’ I said to Lambert. Damn it! If I had…” The full realization of the effect of his absence from Thorn Valley, or rather the Stone’s, was slamming full into his face.

The women were sympathetic but hardly knew what to say to console him. Finally Karen said, “Marty, I…we don’t really understand about this power you say it has…but couldn’t they still get along without it when NIMH comes? At least some of them, maybe all, could get away or hide someplace.”

“But they won’t know! They won’t have a clue about the danger they’re in!”

“Unless…” began Patricia, “unless Kimball made it to them in time. Maybe that’s…a slim chance at best. I’ve been thinking about him being out there, all alone, in a strange wilderness, surrounded by all kinds of unknown dangers, having to travel such a long way; and it…it hardly seems possible. But even a slim chance is better than none.”

Karen nodded. “She’s right, Marty. As long as there’s a ray of hope, we won’t give up. Maybe Dad did make it; maybe they’ll get away when NIMH arrives; maybe NIMH hasn’t shown up yet; maybe they won’t show up for a long while yet…”

“Maybe…maybe! There’s just too many maybes.” Martin threw hands into the air. “I know there’s no way we can tell exactly what’s going on back home, or what’s going to happen; but that’s just it. If we did have something definite to go on, then…I don’t know, I just don’t see how we can be hopeful about anything.”

Karen got to her feet. “Well…there is one thing that’s definite…”

Patricia followed suit. “…and that’s that we have to get going.”

Martin made to add something; but instead, he just sighed, nodded, and replaced the amulet in his backpack.

The long return journey truly began.

* * *

In the gathering twilight, Johnathan Brisby trudged home from the council meeting, thankful that this day was almost over. He was satisfied that some genuine progress was being made, but was a bit disappointed that the meeting broke up later than expected. He sighed. Oh well, this has been a week for the unexpected, and it’s not going to stop there. At least it was one more day without NIMH showing up.

Both he and Madeline were among those who’d volunteered to canvass the area for prospective temporary tenants for those burrows that presently were entrances to the Rats’ service tunnels. As expected, they met with varying degrees of success. Some weren’t in the least interested in an agreement that was only temporary; at the beginning, Johnathan had said, “What’s the worst they could do, kick dirt in our faces?” and that’s precisely what happened a few times. Others, though, agreed quite readily. The canvassers had tried to concentrate primarily on those individual rabbits, woodchucks, and other local burrowers that they were already at least acquainted with; and by the end of the day, arrangements were made for all the tunnel entrances.

As Johnathan drew nearer to his home, he again thought of Martin, as he had once earlier that afternoon. If he and Lambert did return in time—with the amulet—how different things could be. Would it be capable of such a feat as he’d considered? He’d kept the idea to himself for the better part of the day, not presenting it before the council or even telling Justin. Surely there would be many other factors to take into account, not the least of which would be the council’s approval. And the consequences of such an act…

As he approached the courtyard, he tried to brush the matter aside. There was still much to do, after all; no time for idle fantasies when the reality of the situation was constantly staring them in the face. Upon entering, he smiled upon seeing that Madeline was waiting up for him, sitting on the flat stone just outside the front door. She immediately leaped to her feet, approaching him.

“Johnathan! Did the meeting run long?”

They embraced and kissed. “Yeah, it did. Just like this whole situation.”

Madeline sighed. “I know what you mean. I wish we could just wake up and things would be normal again. And yet…oh, I don’t know, I feel like things could never quite be the same again, even if we aren’t discovered. We’d always have to live with the knowledge that…it would be much easier for them…and that they could come here again, and this time we might not have time to prepare.”

Johnathan held her closer to him. “Oh, babe, we mustn’t think that way. Things will be all right, Maddie, I just know it.” Johnathan thought about how much more now than just two years ago Madeline and their entire family considered themselves one with the Rats. Back then, she wouldn’t have so readily considered the interests and concerns of their family to be the same as the Rats’, and wouldn’t have used the word “we” to mean both parties. But they knew now, more than ever, just how closely bound they all were, their destinies inextricably linked, by bonds stronger than those of loyalty and friendship.

He considered telling her of his latest thoughts concerning the Stone; surely she, above all others, should be told first. Perhaps later, he thought, since now wasn’t quite the right time. “How…is Cynthia feeling lately?”

“Oh, I think she’s pretty much over it. Willis told me how even after they’d spoken to Colvin and Herb and set the record straight with them, she still felt down in the dumps, even though they both apologized. She’s such a sensitive girl.”

“No more so than her parents,” Johnathan said with a smile. “Well, maybe a bit more. ’Course, the whole situation has got us all on edge.” Madeline nodded, still looking downcast.

He placed his hand under her chin. “Hey, is something else wrong? Besides the obvious, I mean.”

She looked up. “Oh, Johnathan, I didn’t want to tell you right away, but…” She led him to the flat stone, where they both sat down. “I was putting the little ones to bed, and…Vanessa said to me, after I’d tucked her in…she said, ‘Mommy, we’re not going to die, are we?’ Well, I…told her no, of course not, that everything would be all right…just as you said now. She seemed to believe me, but…” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Oh, Johnathan, I could have burst out crying right then. I almost did, after I’d left the room, but I…didn’t want them to hear me…” She choked back a sob. “That was why I said…that I felt that things couldn’t be the same again. I knew we couldn’t keep them from all that could happen to us, but…are they going to grow up with that kind of fear constantly?”

Johnathan drew her closer, allowing her to cry on his shoulder, feeling close to tears himself. It was well known among all of them how they experienced life so differently than their natural counterparts, who lived constantly with the possibility of sudden death. They didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or dwelling upon it, largely because they lived such brief lives and they had to continue on. But these rats and mice lived life so much more fully and on such different levels, with more complex emotions and a more humanlike sense of self-preservation, that they weren’t anywhere near as willing to let it all go. There was a greater awareness of what constituted a potentially life-threatening situation, and how to avoid it. So it was now that there was such widespread uneasiness and uncertainty, since none knew precisely what kind of danger they were in, or when it would strike.

Now, Johnathan found himself at a rare loss for words, wondering what he could say to comfort and reassure his wife and children. Inwardly, he cursed the fates that allowed such undeserved pain and anguish. Finally, he said, “Maddie, I think the children will be more resilient than that, just like when you all thought I was dead. They’ll get through this; we all will.”

Then, all at once, he decided that maybe now was a good time after all; even if the idea were just whimsy, it was nonetheless something to think about. “There was an idea I had today, about the Stone and what we could possibly do with it if it were here now.” Speaking quietly, he detailed his idea to Madeline, her eyes quickly growing very wide.

At the conclusion, she said, “Oh, Johnathan, could it do such a thing? It seems like…so much.”

“Yes, it does. And yet, in all the time we’ve had it, we still don’t know all its capabilities…or its limits. Birantha was the greatest living authority on it before it fell into our hands, and even he allowed the possibility that Pharsal may not have told him all about what it could do.”

“And Pharsal himself…or his…spirit…couldn’t stay long enough to tell us, if he could have. But still…if the Stone could do that, if this were the only way we’d truly be safe, and never have to worry about being captured, then I’d be all for it.”

“I’d supposed you would. But would everyone else? If it were put to a vote, then…” Johnathan shook his head. “But we don’t know yet if it’s even possible, so…I guess we should concentrate on the job at hand.”

“Yes. You know…there’s something else about the Stone that I’ve thought about before, but not much lately. All this talk reminded me of it. We’ve had it for such a long time now, that I began to wonder if that could have some effect on…how should I put this…on how it works with us, our control over it?”

Johnathan stroked his whiskers. “Could be…but how exactly did you happen to think of this?”

“Well, do you remember the last time we visited Tugrelho and Kalfomenda, and it seemed like the Stone responded faster when we commanded it to take us there, and when we returned?”

“Yes…yes, you’re right, come to think of it,” said Johnathan. In the past year-plus, they’d made several visits to the home of those who had become their closest interdimensional friends and acquaintances, after having been introduced to them by Gwinthrayle. “It was like that the last time we visited Gwinthrayle, too.”

“And when was the last time we, or anyone else we brought along, felt tired after it performed a task like that, traveling between dimensions?”

“You’re right. In fact, now that you mention it, it goes all the way back to our earliest interdimensional trips. Those always seemed to be the most difficult tasks for the Stone, the ones that would take the most out of us, at least in the beginning.” Indeed, the first few times either of them used it for any kind of task, the Stone would draw on the user’s own life-energies to carry it out, leaving them feeling exhausted, even bringing unconsciousness.

“And when I first came to Lahaikshe with Justin, Melvin and Willis, we all noticed how quickly we recovered, and compared it to how it had knocked me out completely the first time I used it to save the children. I remember how Willis suggested it might have been because I was more ‘in tune’ with the Stone than before.”

“Yes…and when we all returned home, we felt only a little weakened, mostly a little dizzy. And every time we’ve used it since then, it’s only gotten better. It’s like that ‘enervation effect’ diminished more and more as time went on. Why, on the last few occasions we made an interdimensional jump, we all felt perfectly fine afterwards. And it went through the process more quickly, too.” Johnathan shook his head and laughed. “Wow…I noticed all of these things, but…it’s like the pattern never occurred to me or you. But it’s so obvious!”

“Yes, it looks like we were both…what’s that expression…‘asleep at the switch.’” Madeline laughed and sighed. “I wonder, though…back when I’d first had the idea, should I have brought it up then? I can’t help thinking that if I had, maybe things would be different now. I can’t say how, exactly, but…”

“I guess it’s impossible to tell now, but…if our control over the Stone has changed in some way these past two years, then…is it possible it’s changed in some way that could help us now?”

For a short while, both of them mulled the point silently; then, abruptly, Madeline drew in breath, looking as if she’d experienced a major revelation. “Johnathan…what if the Stone could now be controlled without one of us actually holding it? If it does work differently now…”

“That would make a difference, all right; but haven’t we already tried that?”

“Well, yes, we have; but how long ago?”

“Hmmm…I guess it has been a while. Well…” Johnathan got up and began pacing back and forth, groping for the right words. “In other words, for instance, we could get the amulet to return to us…just by willing it home? I mean, anything’s possible, sure; but we don’t know how far away Martin and Lambert are, if they’re close enough for something like this to work; if it’ll work at all…”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

Johnathan threw up his hands; then, smiling, he said, “Well, I’d be an idiot to argue with logic like that. I guess we’ve nothing to lose, right?” They discussed the point in greater depth; and the further they got into the subject, the more excited over it they became. Madeline reminded them both that it was sounding almost as if they were more concerned about getting the amulet back than about Martin and Lambert’s safe return. Agreeing to keep things in proper perspective, they decided that, to start at least, they’d work in shifts around the clock. Both were tired from the day’s labors but agreed that this would need to be carried out this way.

Madeline volunteered to take the first shift, starting as soon as possible, agreeing to wake Johnathan so could spell her when she felt too sleepy to continue. They also agreed, for now, to not let word of what they were doing get around further than their own family and the council. When the next meeting was called, the one not “on duty” would attend and tell the council about this “willing plan,” but not about what they’d discussed about the Stone earlier. That was, after all, something pretty drastic, to say the least, if it were possible; and probably wouldn’t be necessary, if the Hiding Plan succeeded. But they’d still proceed with this new plan; certainly if it helped bring Martin and Lambert home, but they’d breathe much easier with the amulet back in their hands as well.

With this much decided, they went inside. In the living room, she said, “Well, better get right to work…although it won’t look much like work.” Johnathan kissed his wife and wished her good luck, and she sat down in the middle of the floor. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep several times. As she felt herself growing more relaxed, she began concentrating on the amulet in the same fashion as they’d done many times. She visualized it in front of her, and then pictured Martin with it while she silently repeated, Come back to us, come back to us…

Johnathan stood back, silently observing her. I do hope this works, he thought, even if we do have enough time. It should be enough just to have our travelers back.

After about five minutes, Teresa entered the room from the bedroom wing. “Hi, Dad,” she said with a yawn. “I stayed up to do a little reading.” Johnathan silently put a finger to his lips, pointing to Madeline. Teresa frowned. “Why’s Mother sitting there like that?” she whispered.

Johnathan steered her back into the hall and quietly explained the gist of the “willing plan” to her, after which she said, “I hope it works, too, but not so much for the Stone. I do believe in the Hiding Plan one hundred percent. But…oh, Dad, I never thought I’d miss Martin like this. I hope he’s all right, but…why would he just go off like this, without really telling us where he’s going?”

Johnathan drew his eldest daughter closer to him. “Well, it would be easy to just say that this was simply another case of his doing something without thinking, but…I get the feeling he and Lambert really sat down and planned this out. Obviously they didn’t know any of this would happen, but I think they’ll have both learned a pretty good lesson.” He kissed her lightly on the cheek. “C’mon, chin up. They’ll be back safe. Let’s get some shuteye.”

Chapter 20: Martin's guide

It was now about 10:00 P.M., over four hours after the three companions left the woods in back of NIMH. They’d only rested once in that time, and then for about ten minutes; Martin could hardly bear to stay in one place for more than a minute. The two females respected this, fully comprehending the urgency of the situation; but they hoped that he’d settle down a bit as the trip wore on, especially after they’d obtained their ride.

They’d traveled most of the way across town, and now made their way along the road which led directly to the highway onramp. Through a somewhat-neglected front yard, Martin was now trailing ahead of the others by about two feet, and Karen felt the need to call this and other matters to his attention.

“Marty! Wait up, will you?” Martin forged ahead, seemingly oblivious to Karen’s call. “Marty!” This time she shouted, making him jump.

Martin whirled. “Geez, keep it down, willya?”

“Marty, we haven’t taken a break in over three hours,” Karen said as she and Patricia caught up to him. “We can’t keep moving at a pace like this. We’re not used to it, especially Mom."

Martin sighed, trying not to look impatient. “All right, but we shouldn’t be too long. The later it gets, the harder it’ll be to find someone going our way.”

“I’d still like to know how we’re going to do that,” said Karen as she squatted to relieve her bladder. “There may not be a situation like when you and Lambert got your ride to come here.”

“I know, I know. I figure if we can get to some place just before the highway, where a lot of vehicles stop, that’ll be our best bet.”

“Like a gas station?” offered Patricia as she followed her daughter’s example. “I think there is at least one further out that way, but not all are open this late. I wish both of us were more familiar with this area.”

“Yeah, that makes three of us. Well, something’s bound to come up that we can use. Something’s got to.” All three sat down.

“Er, Marty…about Lambert,” began Karen. “We’re only a few blocks from that area right now. Are you still sure you won’t reconsider?”

Martin nodded ruefully. “I’m sure. I still don’t like it, but like I said, there’s nothing that’ll keep me from coming back for him.” After another few minutes of chatting about Lambert and home, Martin said, “Well, if you two are about ready…”

They all got to their feet; but after continuing on a short ways, it was Martin who seemed to lag behind this time. “C’mon, Marty, we don’t have much time, remember?” Karen said half-jokingly over her shoulder. Not only did Martin give no reply, but his companions couldn’t hear his footsteps either. “Marty? Are you still with us?”

Patricia and Karen turned around. Martin had frozen stock still and was staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to everything. “Martin, what’s wrong?” Patricia asked as they came up to him. She gently jostled him by the shoulder.

Martin blinked and shook his head rapidly. “Phwuh…uh…oh, hi, you two. Sorry I…didn’t seem to notice you just now, but…I don’t know how to describe it, it was the weirdest thing.”

“What did it feel like?” asked Karen.

“Well, it…I don’t know if ‘feel’ is the right word, it was more like…well, insight, I guess I’d have to call it.” Abruptly he seemed filled with renewed purpose. “C’mon, let’s go. It’s not too much further.”

“What isn’t, Marty?” Karen asked as they all moved forward again, Martin again leading.

“Something that can help us.” He said no more, and though the women could only look at each other in bafflement, they didn’t press him further. It was obviously something that he’d never before experienced, and his own surprise over it seemed genuine. Patricia wondered if it was an ability similar to that which his brother Timothy possessed; the way Martin had described it earlier, it didn’t seem unlikely. Perhaps he wondered the same thing.

They moved on, hardly speaking; from yard to yard, some manicured, some unkempt; across driveways, paved and unpaved; through fences, picket and chain-link. Then, some eleven minutes after Martin’s “insight,” he said, “I think we’re coming up to it.”

A white picket fence separated this yard from the next. Through it they passed, and dead ahead was a black 4X4 pickup truck. An outside light from the house illuminated the scene. Martin looked as if he were waiting for some cue or signal; then he said confidently, “Yeah…yes, this is it. Definitely.”

“But how can you—” Karen interrupted herself and they all fell silent, laying low and still as a man walked out of the house carrying a toolbox. He placed it in the back of the truck, then went back to the house. The mice could hear the man’s wife talking, reminding him of something.

“C’mon, let’s make our move now!” said Martin urgently. The others didn’t yet know what to make of this, but they heeded the conviction in his voice and manner. They sped as one across the lawn to the back of the truck. They stopped about two feet in back of the open tailgate.

“Are your leaping muscles up to this?” Martin asked the women as they sized up the distance of the tailgate from the ground.

“It’ll take a bit of a running start,” said Karen, “but I think we can both make it. Mom?”

“Oh, I guess so,” said Patricia. More voices issued from the house, with the man sounding like he was about to come out again, reminding them of how little time they had.

“All right, then, I’ll go first,” said Martin. “I should be able to make it from here…” A short, fast dash, and he leaped almost straight up and directly onto the side of the tailgate. He allowed a brief moment of triumph before turning, looking down at the women. “Next!”

Karen took a few steps back before starting her run. She made it most of the way on, her back feet slipping slightly, but needing no assistance from Martin. Patricia was a bit hesitant; but hearing the truck’s owner saying goodbye to his wife from the partially-open door spurred her into action. She sped for the tailgate and leaped, even as the man was closing the door behind him and approaching the truck again. She didn’t quite clear the edge, and Martin and Karen helped her up the rest of the way; then they quickly made their way further into the truck bed just as the man came to close the tailgate. It slammed loudly, making them all jump—though not enough to be noticed—and then they heard the door to the cab opening. They nestled in between a plastic cooler and the wall as the motor came to life, a sensation the women were unprepared for. They both gave a start and held on to each other.

Martin couldn’t help giving a small laugh. “Better get used to it. We’ve got a ways to go.” As the truck backed out onto the road and began moving forward, they still held each other but were starting to acclimate themselves to this new experience.

“Well, it’s not as bad as I thought,” said Patricia, still a little unnerved. “I feel a little silly about making such a fuss.”

“Don’t be,” said Martin. “It was pretty much the same for me on the way here. I just hope neither of you get sick like…like Lambert did.” He again felt a pang of guilt, knowing that he was now truly leaving Lambert behind to his own fate.

“Well, now that we’re here, Marty,” inquired Karen, “do you think that now you could tell us how you can be so sure this truck is going our way?”

“I’m still not quite sure, but…it’s a feeling that hasn’t completely left me since it…first hit me, right after our last break. I don’t quite know how to describe it. It’s almost like…another presence, like somebody telling me where to go and what to do. And one of the first things I knew…from it, was that this truck was going where we wanted to go.”

“Do you…still feel it?” asked Patricia. “Is it ‘telling’ you anything now?”

“No, nothing specific. But…it’s still there, I can tell; like…like someone always guiding me, watching over me.”

The truck traveled a ways further, its passengers growing silent as they realized the real proof was yet to come. At length Karen said, “Well, Marty, whatever ‘it’ is, we’ll know pretty soon if it’s right or wrong.” The truck had already passed the gas station where, two weeks before and unbeknownst to them, Kimball had done some stowing away of his own, for the same purpose.

Not much further before the fateful moment would arrive: “The turning point, literally,” remarked Patricia.

A few moments more of silent anticipation; then the three mice braced themselves as they felt the brakes being applied. The truck came almost to a complete stop; a car passed on the left from the opposite direction; then, the truck made a left turn onto the onramp. Only when the mice were sure that it wouldn’t make any more turns did they know that Martin’s instincts—for want of a better term—were confirmed. This truck was definitely traveling southwest and accelerating quickly, and they were truly on their way.

The relief they felt was almost tangible, though they knew well that there were other urgent matters to attend to, mainly knowing at what point to get off, and how. Martin had studied the map enough to memorize all the turns the highway made, as well as calculated the approximate travel time before they’d reach their “stop.” He realized that being able to see the stars overhead would be a great help in keeping track of any change in direction, however subtle; and so the three moved out from their hiding place to where they could see through to the sky, though still not right out in the open.

“Boy, we’re lucky it’s a clear night,” said Karen, gazing upward after the three settled into their new location. “We couldn’t do this if it were cloudy, could we, Marty?”

“Oh, I think we’d manage. I’d just have to go more by feeling when we’re on a curve.”

“I’ve been wondering,” said Patricia, “if it’s possible that Kimball thought of doing this very thing, getting a ride for most of the way.”

“It does sound like him,” agreed Karen, “considering how he studied those maps so intently. And, if he was trying to get there fast, this would be the way to go.”

“That makes sense,” agreed Martin, “and it sounds like he and I have a lot in common. He probably had to make all the same decisions and get past the same obstacles.”

“Even if he did it successfully,” said Patricia, “he’d still have to make his way off the vehicle, and then to Thorn Valley alone.” She closed her eyes. “I can hardly bear to even think about it.”

“Now, Mom; we’re not thinking that way, remember? Dad’s got to be all right, wherever he is.”

“Karen’s right,” said Martin, continually glancing upward. “Right now, we need to figure out just how we’re getting off this thing. Aha…feels like we’re hitting the first curve.” They looked up, and sure enough, saw the stars shift position slightly.

They fell to discussing the two more immediate concerns: where and when to leave the truck and the fact that all were starting to feel sleepy. They decided that they’d take turns sleeping before leaving the truck; Martin, though, decided that he should stay awake the whole time, since he was the most familiar with the highway’s turns and knowing exactly when to get off. He brought up another matter which the women were unaware of: using road signs to determine their getting-off point. Though they’d be visible in the truck’s headlights, it wouldn’t be feasible to try looking for them from the truck bed. They agreed that a plan for getting off should be decided upon now, to prevent any last-minute scrambling around. None could know, of course, that Kimball had indeed faced the same trials as they did now, including the realization that jumping off a truck in motion was out of the question.

It wasn’t long before the subject of distracting the driver came up. A visual distraction was quickly decided upon as the best choice, since the driver had turned his stereo up rather loud, probably to help himself stay awake, and probably wouldn’t hear a tapping or any other sound they could make on the back window.

They began offering suggestions for how to make the driver stop the truck long enough for them to disembark; but soon Martin said, “No…I don’t think we’ll need to do anything. It’ll be…done for us, somehow.”

The women looked at each other. “Is this…er, ‘it’ again?” asked Karen.

Martin nodded. “It’s like…it’s almost like it’s getting stronger the closer we get to Thorn Valley.”

After a pause, Patricia mused, “I wonder…could this…intuition or whatever it is have something to do with that jewel of yours?”

Martin, visibly impressed, didn’t answer right away, instead reaching into his pack. Drawing out the Stone, he held it in front of him where all three could see it. “Whenever it manifests its power,” he explained, “it always glows red. Sometimes it’s faint, but it always glows. If it’s at work now…” They all gazed intently at it…and sure enough, a faint luminescence could be discerned, definitely originating from within.

“It did glow…didn’t it, Martin?” said Karen. “It was hard to tell…”

But Martin was more confident. “It did. I know it did, though it was pretty faint. You know, Patricia, as soon as you suggested that, I had a very strong feeling you were right.”

“I thought you said that it only works through your parents,” said Karen.

“That’s right. I’m not sure how yet, but…it’s definitely at work now.”

“But if that’s true,” Karen said carefully, “then could they be behind this too, in some way?”

“But they have to be actually holding it; isn’t that what you told us, Martin?”

He didn’t seem to hear Patricia’s question at first, being suddenly lost in thought. Then he said slowly, carefully, “A day or two after we left Thorn Valley—Lambert and me—I was just dropping off to sleep, and I thought I heard Dad’s voice saying goodnight and wishing me well. I’d almost forgotten about that. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all since a day or so before we got our ride. But that just has to tie in with this now.” He looked at the amulet again; it was still glowing, ever so slightly. He resumed looking up at the stars. “I always thought before that the amulet worked only when they held it; but maybe this is something they didn’t know about before. They’d always said that they suspected it could do more than what they’d used it for, that there was more yet to be discovered about it. At any rate…I know that in some way or another, we’ll be able to get off at the right time.” Martin looked at the amulet once more before replacing it in his pack.

“I wonder if it was glowing like that all along, ever since you first got that…‘insight’ back there,” suggested Karen.

“Probably was.”

“I can’t help thinking, though,” said Patricia carefully, “that maybe, just maybe we should have some kind of backup plan, just in case.”

For a moment, Martin felt almost offended by the suggestion; then he said, “Well…okay. I can see why you might still be skeptical. I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

“It’s not that we don’t trust or believe in this conviction of yours, Martin,” said Patricia, hand on his shoulder. “It’s just that we’ve never dealt with anything like this before.”

“Really,” agreed Karen. “I mean…magic stones that can do things for you just by wishing? It’s not that we don’t believe it works, but…”

“That’s okay, Karen,” said Martin. “There’s a whole lot to tell about it, and when we get home you’ll probably be able to see it in action. Right now, though, we should get going on that backup plan.”

They made a thorough overview of the items in the back of the truck, choosing those which would be useful in distracting the driver. In short order they’d formulated their plan; and with this much done, Martin told the others that he’d stay up to continue tracking the progress of their journey, while both of them could go ahead and get some sleep if they wanted to. Though neither was sure about getting any great amount of sleep in a moving vehicle, they both agreed to try after Martin assured them that staying awake would pose no problem for him.

After Karen and Patricia had chosen a spot in a corner of the truck bed to settle down for an attempted nap, Martin sat down, leaning against the toolbox, periodically glancing upward and thinking about the events of the past two days. He thought about how he and Lambert were so casual in saying that there were bound to be surprises in store. Now, in the space of well under 48 hours, so much had changed: Lambert hustled off by hostile rats; finding other mouse survivors from NIMH; and the gut-sinking discovery that the Rats and his family were in danger and that his purloining of the Stone might contribute to that danger.

And now this mysterious intuition. Was it really linked to the amulet—and his parents, as Karen suggested? Whatever it was, it certainly hadn’t steered them wrong yet. It had boosted his confidence greatly, and now it occurred to him that if his parents were behind this, it meant that they and presumably everyone else were still alive and well. Even so, it didn’t mean that he and his companions could afford to take their time; but as long as he felt this intuition—this ‘guide,’ as he was increasingly regarding it—it would help him stay relatively calm and focused. But would it last? Maybe it’s still too early to make such determinations, he decided, or draw any conclusions. If the Guide was indeed growing stronger the closer they came to home, then later he should have some definite ideas of what was going on.

The minutes ticked slowly by, then the hours. It did take some effort to stay awake, mostly by getting up and moving around the truck bed, and sometimes to the point of pinching and poking himself, but Martin succeeded in maintaining his watch without interruption. The intuitive feelings helped as well, serving as a constant reminder of why he was doing this, and actually putting him more at ease.

There was some impatience as well; but before he knew it, the truck reached a very important point in the journey. He watched as the stars shifted from his perspective, signaling the penultimate turn in the highway. Just one more bend after this, he thought. Won’t be long now; I’ll wake the girls in a little while.

About two minutes later, though, he heard a small shuffle in back of him. He looked over his shoulder to see Karen emerge, blinking her eyes and yawning. “Well, it looks like you had less trouble staying awake than I had trying to sleep.”

“Oh, it was touch and go for a while, but it looks like I’ll make it. Not much further to go now.”

“That’s good,” Karen said with another yawn as she sat next to him. “It’s funny; even though this part of the trip is probably the safest, I’ll still be glad when it’s over, and we’ve got our feet on something that isn’t constantly moving and rumbling underneath. It just doesn’t feel right.”

“I know what you mean.” He added with a small laugh, “Though I have to admit I enjoyed the last ride more than Lambert.” Again he felt a pang of guilt at his own mention of his friend’s name. Then, Karen sat a bit closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. Though he knew it was only a casual gesture, it nevertheless triggered in Martin feelings that had been almost buried, after all else that had happened: how he’d felt there was something special about Karen upon first hearing her voice, a feeling that seemed to be mutual; his concern for her safety later; and their continued and obviously mutual admiration throughout their hike to NIMH. He remembered his parents’ descriptions of how they’d met, how they’d soon realized that they belonged together—as if by destiny, they’d always said. When the time came, they both knew it at once. Now Martin wondered: could it possibly be the same now for him and Karen? There was no denying that he was quite fond of her, and she of him; and yet, with their present predicament, there was just no time to pursue the matter. Of paramount importance was to get to Thorn Valley, get the Stone back in the right hands…and, no doubt, to face the music. And all that applied only if they got back in time. He involuntarily shuddered.

“Are you cold, Marty?”

Martin looked at Karen and smiled. In spite of what he felt to be more pressing matters, he didn’t feel inclined to be shy and self-conscious at her nearness, like before; in fact, he welcomed it. “No, not really, Karen; I was thinking about…about home, and what might happen if…oh, I know I shouldn’t dwell on it, but…” He felt the need to change the subject. “Karen, I…I’m really glad you and your mom are with me. I know there were times when I was being…a real jerk to you both, getting impatient, yelling at you…but I didn’t mean any of it. You do believe me, don’t you?” Inwardly he was nearly pleading for her to say yes.

“Of course, Marty, we both do. We know it’s this whole situation that’s…put you on edge. You have such…an enormous weight on your shoulders, like it’s all up to you whether…oh, I guess I shouldn’t say too much about that. What I’d really like to say is that I…we’re happy to be with you, too.”

“Thanks, Karen. I’m glad to hear you say that, I really am. In fact…” Martin paused to breathe in deep. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you this yet, but…I never properly thanked you for…well, saving my life in the alley. If you hadn’t gotten my attention when you did…we wouldn’t be doing any of this, that’s for sure.” There was more he wanted to say at that moment, but instead he added, “So…thank you, Karen. I’m just…really grateful.” He took her hand, squeezing it. Just the touch of her hand was having an increasingly profound effect upon him, and he found himself wanting to say more, so much more.

“You’re welcome, Marty. I guess…it’s just what we do.”

Martin nodded in agreement. “The other thing you said, though…it’s absolutely true. I’ve thought the exact same thing. So much depends on me, or rather us, when we get to Thorn Valley.”

“Is…‘it’ telling you anything now?”

“Well, it’s there, all right; and I’m sure I was right about it growing stronger.” He glanced heavenward, and barely had he done so when he got the cue he was waiting for: the stars turning ever so slightly above them again.

Karen noticed it, too. “Is that the last one?”

“It sure is.” Martin got to his feet, as Karen went to wake her mother. Martin looked up to the driver through the back window. Look at him, he thought, just driving on and on, music turned up loud, totally oblivious to our problems. He wondered: If he knew, would he help us? Would he be at all concerned about the fact that they had loved ones as he probably did, people they were worried and concerned about and needed to rejoin? Would any human? His parents, and some of the Rats, had often discussed the idea at length, that they could have possible allies among humans if only they could know which ones to trust and reach out to. The Davises had allowed for the same possibility, citing as a likely example the librarian who seemed to be helping them.

Martin shook his head, dismissing the thought. None of that mattered right now, not when the most important matter was the assurance he’d felt earlier about their being able to leave the truck. He still felt this, but nothing more specific about it. Better get the backup plan ready, just in case.

When Karen came back out with a bleary-eyed Patricia, she asked Martin about that very matter; they then set about getting it ready. About five minutes more, he estimated, before reaching their “stop”; that should provide enough time for them to set everything up.

They gathered the necessary materials: two discarded plastic drinking straws, a roll of electrical tape, and a light-colored rag. They pushed the end of one straw into the other, taped them together to make sure they’d hold, then taped the cloth to one end of the pole. Their makeshift flag assembled, they waved it back and forth to make sure it would hold together.

“Isn’t a white flag usually considered a symbol of surrender?” asked Karen.

“I guess that makes sense,” said Patricia. “We’re surrendering from the torture of having to ride in this thing!”

Martin laughed and said, “Well, it may not even come to that…if something else happens.”

“Are you still sure about that, Marty?” asked Karen.

“Absolutely. But I did agree to this, too; I’m not going back on it. So…are we all ready?”

Everyone got into position. Karen and Patricia brought the flag to the top of the toolbox, where they’d hoist it high enough to where the driver could see it in his rearview mirror, but not so high that the flag, and possibly they, could be blown off the truck. Martin joined them, keeping careful track of time all the while, certain he was counting down to just the right moment so that the driver would stop in just the right location. With just a few seconds left, he again reminded the women to brace for a sudden stop. Martin counted down three…two…one…then, while Patricia crouched and anchored the bottom of the pole as best she could to the toolbox, Martin and Karen raised it straight up, the cloth already flapping in the breeze, the scene almost an unconscious imitation of the U.S. Marines’ flag-raising on Iwo Jima. They began waving the flag back and forth…

And, almost simultaneously, the unexpected struck, though the three mice couldn’t see it happen directly. Steam suddenly began pouring out from under the truck’s hood. The driver noticed this first, with annoyance and disbelief; but upon noticing in his mirror the thoroughly out-of-place activity outside his back window, he reacted with greater disbelief and some shock. He almost ran off the road but managed to pull over to the shoulder in a reasonably calm manner.

Even so, he did put the brakes on abruptly. The mice let go of the flagpole, and immediately curled up in balls. They were sent flying off the toolbox, and after caroming off the front wall, they all landed unhurt on the floor of the truck bed. In an instant they were on their feet and ready for action. Seconds after the vehicle had come to a complete stop, they heard the door open. Immediately they leaped up to the top of the passenger’s-side wall and then down to the ground, just as the driver came up to his side, saying “What the hell is going on here?”

The mice scurried under the truck, watching the man’s feet. He stayed at the back long enough to poke around for a few seconds; then, seemingly satisfied that there were no living things in the back of his truck—apparently without noticing the rag and two straws taped together—he went to deal with the more serious matter under his hood. As he muttered amid curses about the lousy radiator hose that he’d recently installed, and giving a certain auto-parts dealer a piece of his mind, his erstwhile passengers slipped out from underneath the truck, out the driver’s side. Making sure the man’s back was turned—though he probably wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway—they ran without looking back across the road to the median. With enough light to see by, they spotted a bush which they headed for.

Pausing there, they looked back across the road to the truck, where they could still hear the driver complaining loudly as he went back for his tools. As their hearts slowed down and they got their bearings, the scene took on an almost surreal quality: here they were, in the middle of a vast and unfamiliar wilderness in the dead of night, the truck’s head- and taillights providing the only illumination, with this one human moving amidst it, the steady drone of frogs and crickets and katydids providing the only sound other than the man’s grumbling and the occasional other vehicle passing by…and the mice’s own breathing.

Soon, though, the reality of their situation regained their attentions, and with it, questions. “Something happened to his truck that shouldn’t have,” observed Patricia. “Something about his radiator hose…”

“Something that he would’ve stopped for anyway, even if we didn’t…wave our flag…” Karen’s voice trailed off as they all realized the truth.

“That was it! I just know it!” said Martin with the confidence of one who’d just had a strong belief confirmed.

“So that was how…‘it’ enabled us to get off,” said Karen, shaking her head in disbelief.

“Not only that,” said Martin, reaching into his backpack, “but I know definitely now that this is behind it all.” As he held the amulet out for all to see, they could again make out a faint but very definite glow. “Mom,” he murmured almost inaudibly.

“Did you say…‘Mom’?” asked Patricia.

Martin hesitated, unsure at first of how to describe what he’d just felt. “It was her. It was like…I don’t know, not like her actually speaking to me, but…like her mind was in direct contact…” As much as he’d suspected earlier that one or both of his parents were behind this, now he had no doubts. “I never knew…none of us did…that the Stone could do anything like this. But…” He gave a small, determined smile. “We shouldn’t knock it.”

“Well, I’m not sure I understand all that,” said Patricia, “but I know I wouldn’t want to spend all night here.”

“Right,” Martin said as he replaced the amulet in his pack. “Thanks for bringing me down to earth.” He looked back across the highway to the man tending to his truck. “You know, I almost wish we could thank him for his trouble.”

“I know what you mean,” said Karen. “I feel like we should apologize for startling him like we did, especially since it wasn’t really necessary.”

Patricia agreed. She then added, “I’m sorry we doubted you, Martin.”

“That’s all right, Patricia. Forget it; that’s all behind us now.” They all turned toward the southeast, across the northeast-bound lanes. “And now…all that’s in front of us.” They gazed at the thick, dark forest for a moment; then they exchanged silent glances, nodding, and started across the rest of the median and the highway.

As they began moving up the mostly-open incline, they continually glanced up, regarding the forest looming before them. To Patricia and Karen especially it seemed impossibly huge, seeming to symbolize all that yet lay before them, the great distance left to cover; yet, into it they knew they must plunge. The women were especially apprehensive just to go right on in, as necessary as they knew it to be. Martin assured them that their own experience in moving about evasively in Sampson, plus his own experience in the woods and his exceptional sense of direction and tracking ability should stand them in good stead. Plus, Martin felt quite certain that he’d be able to lead them to the path over which he and Lambert had passed before, owing as much to his own ability as being guided by the Stone. Right now, they agreed that they’d go a short ways into the woods and then find a place to rest. Though the women hadn’t slept too well on the truck, and Martin not at all, they agreed that just a few hours’ sleep should be enough. Martin wished they could keep moving without a break, though he knew none of them could endure that for long. Still, what if this “guide” didn’t last until they arrived in Thorn Valley? If it stopped, would that mean that they were too late, as he thought before? Perhaps it was still too early to tell; Martin resolved to think about that as little as possible.

As the three travelers drew up to the forest’s edge, it still seemed imposing, yet also strangely comforting in its majesty.

Chapter 21: Understandings, misunderstandings

“Well, I guess our first order of business is how last night’s shift went,” said Justin to an assemblage of somewhat tired-looking individuals.

“Well,” began Arthur, “first of all, I’d like to extend a few good words to those on the swing shift who enabled us to rent out our service tunnel entrances. We should only need to use them through today’s swing shift, perhaps even before the day shift is over, since we’ve got well half the crops in storage already; the remainder shouldn’t take much longer, certainly not past today, to get inside. Once that’s done, we can move right in on getting the entrances properly camouflaged and getting the new tenants in; and get it done sooner than we’d expected. So to our canvassers: thanks for a job well done.”

After some brief applause, Bryant and Matilda then went into more specific details: how much of which crops remained unharvested, special considerations for remodeling certain burrows and in landscaping the garden areas. Work had already begun on the latter, in those parts already completely harvested. Graham gave his morale update: overall, there was a marked improvement over the night before. It had been estimated at the start that the more days they got through, the higher morale would be; and already it looked as if this were the case. It was boosted further just by seeing the ongoing progress of everyone’s labors.

When discussion of this subject had run its course, Madeline Brisby stood up and said that she had a matter to share with everyone. She made her way to the dais at the center of the amphitheater as Justin took a seat in the front row. “I know…most of you are probably wondering why I’m here and Johnathan isn’t.” Her tone was a bit tentative; she was still not entirely comfortable with speaking before a large group. “Well…his absence ties in with what I have to say.”

She described last night’s conversation about the amulet and how its capabilities may have changed over time, with the possibility that they could “will” it—and Martin and Lambert—home. She made no mention, however, of the other possible use for it that they’d discussed. She did describe how they’d subsequently taken turns “willing”, at intervals of two to three hours. “On the first one, which was mine, I couldn’t really tell if I was making any sort of contact at all; but I still felt that the effort was, and would continue to be worthwhile. On Johnathan’s first shift, though, he felt much more strongly that the Stone was responding to his ‘call,’ though he couldn’t really describe how, exactly. On my second, though, I could actually feel for brief periods, sometimes just flashes, that I was in contact with the Stone. I’m very familiar with how it feels, both of us are; and there was definitely something this time. Just as with Johnathan, it’s a difficult feeling for me to describe, precisely.” Madeline laughed a bit nervously.

“Neither of us, though, could feel that we were making direct contact with Martin or Lambert; and yet…both of us could sense that the amulet was, and still is, coming back to us—actually getting closer to Thorn Valley, physically. Of course, we hope that Martin and Lambert are coming with it. We do believe in the Hiding Plan as much as the rest of you, and we sincerely hope it succeeds. We wouldn’t want any of you to believe otherwise. But if we can get the Stone back here in time, it’ll be that much more insurance against our being discovered.” She looked toward Justin, smiling.

He smiled back, nodding thoughtfully. “Madeline…if this procedure succeeds the way you and Johnathan believe, then more power to you. Have you told anyone else about this, outside of this room?”

“Just our children, and we’ve already made them promise not to tell anyone else, because we already decided it shouldn’t be common knowledge.”

“Excellent. We’ll all make sure it stays that way for the time being.” Justin put the matter out for discussion, though there was little more that needed be discussed. Madeline promised she and Johnathan would report directly to Justin about any change in the “contact.” With this much settled, the meeting was adjourned and everyone returned to more immediate matters.

* * *

Around that same time, Martin, Patricia and Karen were just getting up from about three hours of rest. They’d mutually agreed that they’d continue to press on in this fashion as long as they could: to keep moving day and night, grabbing two or three hours of sleep at a time when one or all of them felt they especially needed it. Since the beginning of this journey, the women understood well the need to get to Thorn Valley as fast as possible; and since they respected Martin’s convictions wholeheartedly, they made little in the way of complaint about it. But though they hadn’t discussed it between themselves, they couldn’t help wondering if Martin might take his convictions too far in some way.

At any rate, there’d been further changes in the Guide during the night. As Martin had suspected, he did feel directed to the route he and Lambert had taken before. As it happened, they’d left the highway only a few hundred feet from his and Lambert’s original starting point on their highway journey, and so once Martin felt definitely guided toward the original path, it wasn’t long before they’d reached it. With Martin feeling, almost instinctively, that it was the same one, and before too much longer recognizing parts of it visually as well, his companions had no doubt of the natural tracking ability he’d spoken of. Overall, he could feel the Guide growing stronger as well; the incident back at the bush in the median, where he’d felt his mother’s mind reaching out to him, was repeated several more times before they’d rested. He’d theorized that it was the Stone’s power, activated from afar, interacting with his own natural ability that had guided them to the right vehicle back in Sampson and had caused the driver’s radiator hose to fail at almost that precise spot, enabling them to disembark.

He’d presented this theory to Patricia and Karen, and though they found it fascinating, it did little to reassure them. That first hour or so of hiking through the woods was quite unsettling, at times terrifying for them. It was imposing enough just before they entered it, but being well inside of it at night for the first time was almost claustrophobic; it seemed ready to close in on them at any moment. They tried their best, though, to keep their wits about them, and remember all they’d learned, and follow Martin’s own advice. At one point Patricia apologized for being a burden, carrying on as she was, being so scared of a hike in the woods. Martin assured them both they were doing just fine, adding that his first time in the deep woods after dark was much the same.

When they’d settled down to rest the first time, he told in greater detail that particular occasion, two years ago—“When I was just a kid,” he called that time—when he and his family set out to Thorn Valley to see the Rats, before they moved there permanently. In spite of the “I-ain’t-scared-o’-nothin’” bravado he was known for then, he now admitted that he was probably just as ill at ease, perhaps more, than his mother and siblings when it started getting dark; he was the first to suggest that they start looking for a suitable place to spend the night. He’d sometimes derided Cynthia for being a scaredy-cat, but he was as terrified as any of them when that weasel attacked. The weasel was in turn attacked and killed by the Great Owl; and when he subsequently came down to greet them, Martin strove to look the bravest and so emerged from their refuge first. He added that this was the last time they ever saw the Owl; after they’d moved to Thorn Valley, they occasionally heard reports of his being in the vicinity, but eventually none saw or heard from him again. Everyone had wondered if his sad prediction on their last meeting had come true, that when the ancient, already-dead oak that was his home finally succumbed to the ravages of time and a strong enough wind, it would take him with it.

This was the first Martin had mentioned the Great Owl, and the women were incredulous that his family were friends with such a being. Karen remarked that, when all this was over and there was plenty of time, he and his family and friends would have to start from the very beginning and tell everything. Martin agreed, acknowledging her note of confidence in the success of their mission.

Now, in the morning, as they resumed their journey, Martin could feel yet another change in the Guide: now it was definitely his father’s mind that was guiding them, via the amulet. It seemed stronger still, too; at times, Martin said that it felt almost as if he’d start moving without moving his feet.

About an hour later, the Guide faded. Martin felt initially startled, but he calmed as he remembered a hunch he’d had the night before. In a minute, it was reestablished, confirming his suspicions on what his parents were doing: taking turns “willing” the Stone and himself home, since now it again was his mother’s mind that he felt.

It occurred to Martin, for the first time, just thinking about this, that everyone will be expecting to see him and Lambert with the amulet. How will he explain Lambert’s absence, justify leaving him the way he did? He posed the question to his companions.

“Why not tell them the truth?” suggested Patricia. “That you’d have risked serious injury or death…or rather, that we did risk serious injury or death on his behalf. We’ll certainly support anything you’d tell them, Martin.”

“Thanks, Patricia. I guess it’s not worth worrying about, not with so much else going on.” No, keeping a steady pace was all that really mattered. Yet, even with keeping their breaks at a minimum, eating lightly and while on the move, and other efforts to cut down the travel time, they still would probably get to Thorn Valley in about five days—as long as his and Lambert’s previous journey—and perhaps even longer. Before, the pace was speeded by the frequent rides that Martin took on Lambert’s back. But now, there were three mice making the same trip; and the pace, to Martin, seemed painfully slow by comparison, and it was an effort to not show impatience. As reassured as he felt by the continuous contact with his parents, he still couldn’t shake the feeling of dread, that the threat of human discovery was checked for a brief time only…that the next break in the Guide wouldn’t be nearly as brief…and that that would mean there’d be nothing to go home to.

Then he looked at Karen and Patricia, feeling further reassured by their presence, reminded that whatever happened, he wouldn’t be alone.

* * *

“Cynthia! How are you today, my dear?”

“Not too bad, thank you. Better than yesterday, I guess.” Cynthia approached Kimball’s bedside, leaning over to kiss his cheek. She pulled a chair up and sat. He took her hand in his and squeezed it affectionately.

“Your mother told me about that spot of trouble you had yesterday. I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it.”

“No, that’s okay. You’re practically family now. I do tend to get a bit oversensitive sometimes. And with this whole situation, everybody’s just really edgy.”

“I don’t wonder. But I’m sure this will all work out. And that rat boy…Herbert, is it? His parents and uncle set him straight, I trust?”

“I think they did. Herb’s not a bad kid, really; he just says things without thinking sometimes. And he did apologize.”

“That’s good. We’ve all been there, no doubt…speaking out of turn…”

“Mm-hm. Oh…Tim should be by in a little while. If he can…” She was interrupted by the door to the corridor opening, her expression brightening upon seeing her twin brother enter the room. “Wow, speak of the devil!”

“Hi, Sis. Morning, ‘Uncle.’” Timothy grinned as he pulled up his own chair next to Cynthia’s. Since yesterday, Mr. Ages had adopted a very liberal policy on visitors where Kimball was concerned; agreeing, after some cajoling by Cynthia, that frequent visits like this would be of considerable help in boosting his morale and speeding his recovery.

Kimball chuckled. “Well, Timothy, you seem in great spirits today.”

“I am. I’ll admit, I still don’t get a definite feeling like I usually do…at least not yet. I figure that must be it: it’s still too early. So I’ve decided I’m not going to worry, and just take it a day at a time, like everyone else.”

“A splendid attitude to take, my boy. For myself, I try to focus on the moment I see my darling wife and children again.” He sighed. “Oh, it should be one grand reunion!”

“We’re looking forward to meeting them too,” said Cynthia. “Once Dad has the Stone back in his hands, it should be a snap.”

“He hasn’t explained to me yet, in great detail, exactly how he’ll do it. And doesn’t it work through your mother, as well?”

“It does,” said Timothy. “But most of the time, she prefers to let Dad do most of the work with it, for personal reasons. Anyway, what he’ll do is have you concentrate on whoever you’re looking for, picture him or her in your mind, while he wills the Stone to show an image of him; and then he wills it to take both of you to wherever he is, or a short distance away so it won’t be too great a surprise.”

“Ah, yes,” Kimball said with a chuckle. “That could be upsetting for them, having someone suddenly appear out of nowhere.”

“That’s the idea. The actual trip can be disorienting if you’re new to it, but you’ll get used to it fast.”

“Do you think they’ll all want to come here?” asked Cynthia. “If so, that’ll be great. I can’t wait to meet them.”

“I don’t think you’ve told us all their names yet,” observed Timothy. “What’re they like?”

“I was hoping you’d ask,” replied Kimball, visibly delighted. “So without further ado…our first two we named Jessica and Norman, as you may remember. Early on, she had an interest in medical matters, like our Mr. Ages. Both she and Norman had such an unending thirst for learning all they could, as did all our children, starting when we first brought them along on our trips to the library. I’m sure you can both relate.”

“We sure do,” agreed Timothy. “And they were the first to leave home?”

“Yes…and though it was relatively easy for us to let them go at the time, knowing how much they wanted to see the outside world and seek out their rat brethren, it’s been…well, as you can imagine, we have to wonder how they’re faring, or even…” He breathed in deep. “…if they’re still alive. It’s a possibility we’ve had to face.”

Cynthia stroked his arm. “I’m sure they’re all still alive and well.”

“Thank you, dear. One has to wonder, though: it’s been over three years since they left home. If they were indeed striving to reach you, then…” Kimball shook his head. “I know, I shouldn’t be thinking that way. There are any number of reasons why they may not have found you by now.”

“That’s right. They may have simply gone the wrong way,” suggested Timothy.

“Please, tell us about your other kids,” said Cynthia.

“Well…our second litter was of twins again: two girls, Louann and Marie. Louann’s a lot like you, Cynthia, always striving to stay positive, with a real zest for life. Marie’s much the same, though a little quieter, a little more shy. They left home together as well.

“Our next was a single birth. Michael is his name, our second son. We’ve always believed that of all our sons, he’s the one that resembles me the most.” He paused, sighing, looking wistful. “He was…I think, the one who had the most mature traits at an early age. Very take-charge, he is; but also, perhaps, the most sensitive. After he’d left home, we’d realized, Patricia and I, just how upset we’d made him by…the disagreements we’d been having at the time. I think, out of all of them, he’s the one I want to see again the most, just to reassure him that we’d made peace not long after he left. We’ve always imagined…that he might even harbor some resentment toward us. I just hope…that if he ever did, he’s managed to forgive us by now.”

Cynthia patted Kimball’s hand. At the same time that she felt deep sympathy for him, she also found herself picturing Michael in her mind’s eye, keying off Kimball’s statement that Michael resembled him; even wishing she could talk to him, give him words of reassurance and comfort.

Timothy spoke again, interrupting her musings. “I’d be willing to bet he has. But didn’t you say that two more left with him? Two more of your daughters, I believe?”

“Ah, of course. Michelle and Myrna. They were our next two, in fact. Both very no-nonsense, a little tomboyish. Michael and they were always close, and that’s the main reason they all left together. I’m certain…that they weren’t nearly as affected by our fighting as Michael was. They had been planning on leaving soon, anyway.” He sighed, some small sadness showing through again.

Cynthia and Timothy glanced at each other, both feeling a small amount of regret for pushing Kimball toward the subject, then remembering that he was entirely willing and eager to talk about his children.

“Well,” he continued with expression brightening, “that brings us to the ones which, I believe, are the closest in age to yourselves. For the first time, we had triplets, and not for the last time, too. I know that’s occurred a few times among the Rats, and with your own Mr. Ages. Ours were two more boys and a girl: Desmond, Orland, and Karen. I’ve told you plenty about Karen already, how she was the last of them remaining with us. She’s very steadfast, determined, lots of stick-to-itiveness. And perhaps a bit of a tomboy herself. Now, Desmond…ah, what a little charmer he is. He was the best of our children, I think, at making friends among the native mice. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d talked one or two of them into coming along with him and Orland. And Orland…full of humor, but very compassionate too. One of your medical colleagues, Jemial, reminds me of him quite a bit.

“And finally, there’s our youngest, our ‘babies’…though I’d advise against remaining in the same room for long if you were to call them that! Our second set of triplets: Bertram, who prefers Bertie; Ellis; and Lucille, who prefers to be called Lucy. I’ll tell you, at times it seems those three aren’t happy unless they’re bickering over something, especially Bertie and Lucy.” Kimball paused to chuckle. “Ellis would usually end up playing peacemaker, and it would almost always get resolved with all three of them in a wrestling match, and everyone laughing and hugging and nobody going to bed angry. They were such an adventurous lot, and Patricia and I both thought they were a bit too young to have struck out on their own when they did. But we’d never denied any of our children their freedom when they thought they were ready. And they made a big show of promising to stick together and let nothing keep them from separating.”

“I’ll bet they’ve made good on that,” remarked Timothy. “And it was only a month or so ago when they left?”

“It was. So I’m sure they’re nowhere near here yet.” Kimball paused, gazing at the ceiling. “Just as I’m hoping, as we discussed earlier, that there are plenty of reasons that none of my children have reached you yet.” Again he couldn’t completely hide his anxiety over the matter.

All felt the need to re-lighten the conversation, so Timothy and Cynthia reiterated how much they looked forward to meeting all of Kimball’s family, and related some more of their own experiences growing up, until their own duties called them away. Eventually Kimball found the need for a bit more sleep, wanting to be rested up for later activities which he hoped would take him outside the ward for a short time.

* * *

As Arthur had predicted, the greater part of the remaining harvest was brought in before the day shift was over. Since yesterday, the landscapers had been in the process of reforming and reshaping the areas completely harvested. Work had also already begun on those service tunnels that wouldn’t need to be utilized further; filling them in further down and, in some cases, more landscaping on the surface for a more natural appearance. Some tunnels were left intact in case of emergency.

The Rats experienced no real problems this day, although there was one rabbit that gave them some difficulty, actually blocking the entrance with her body while several perplexed rats, laden with radishes and beets, struggled to come up with the most diplomatic way of getting her to move aside. It took no small amount of convincing and cajoling before she understood that this particular burrow wasn’t thoroughly prepared, and wouldn’t be ready for her to move into until the next day at best.

It was all taken in stride; the Rats had long known that dealing with most other animals could sometimes be difficult, due to the differences in intelligence, lifestyle, and—in this case—the greater complexity with which they went about daily tasks. Of course, this also led to some other animals tending to shun and avoid the Rats; though others accepted them, resulting in several alliances and even friendships with them over the years—for instance, the Great Owl, Auntie Shrew, and Jeremy and Beatrice. In some cases, it had gone further: most notably with Johnathan Brisby, who had fallen in love with a “natural” mouse, though that situation had changed shortly after they’d met; and more recently with Cyril Ages, who now had a successful marriage with Alma. There had also been a small amount of intermarriage allowed between the Rats of Thorn Valley and natural rats. This was deemed important not only in strengthening the gene pool, but it was also felt to be a way to more closely tie them to this land and bolster their sense of belonging, both here in Thorn Valley and the world in general. It had long been the general attitude among the Rats that, although they were intellectually superior to naturals, this did not make them any less worthwhile as beings. They were intelligent and talented, too, after all; it was just a different kind of intelligence, in some ways equal to the Rats. Long ago, during their Wandering Days, the Original 22 had developed an attitude toward naturals that was snobbish and condescending, though it was greater in some individuals—i.e. Jenner—than others. Since moving to Thorn Valley, though, their children were actively taught and encouraged to reject such attitudes and accept their differences as being simply the way things are. And this, in light of recent events, was hoped to be the way it would continue.

It had become quite cloudy by midafternoon, as Teresa Brisby made her way home after working the day shift, helping with reshaping the tunnel entrances. It was dirty and tiring work; but she’d taken a nice cool dip in the lake afterwards, and now felt refreshed and revived. She carried her work tunic folded under her arm, allowing the air and sun to dry her fur as she moved along. She sighed deeply as she looked up to the fluffy white cumuli above her, a gesture that had become a habit for many lately, but for Teresa it was for reasons that were quite different, ones that now made her feel wistful and nostalgic.

After she’d just come upon the trail leading directly to home, she approached a large rock on her left.

“Boo!” Someone had suddenly leaped from behind the rock directly into Teresa’s path; someone she knew well, but who gave her quite a start nonetheless.

“Eric!” she exclaimed breathlessly, hand over heart. “You nut, you just about scared me out of a year’s growth!”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to,” Eric said as the two embraced. “Couldn’t resist it, though; you looked like your head was in the clouds again.” He winked and grinned knowingly.

Teresa was only slightly embarrassed, but still tried to cover it. “Well, I…was just thinking back to when my family knew Jeremy and Beatrice.”

“Those two crows?”

“Yes. On cloudy days like this I just can’t help thinking about when they first flew us in to Thorn Valley, over two years ago. Then I got to wondering what they’re doing now. They were great friends to us, of course, and I know they’ve got their own lives to live, too. But, oooh! I really miss the rides. Soaring high above the hills and mountains, looking down upon even the highest treetops…” She tilted her head back, eyes closed, expression near-rapturous. “It’s like being one with the air you breathe, so elemental an experience. To think that they do it every day, as a normal, routine part of their lives, just a way of getting around. To be able to fly like they do, completely on their own…that would be so wonderful.”

“Really like flying, huh?”

Teresa laughed exuberantly, giving him a brisk hug; Eric’s talent for understatement had always endeared him to her. “Oh, Eric, if they ever return, I’d love to have you fly with me.” She sighed. “I wonder if they ever will, after all this time. We certainly were lucky; or Mother was, really, to have made friends with Jeremy so long ago. Mice don’t often make friends with birds like crows, you know.”

“Mm-hm. Say…speaking of someone coming back, when’s your brother due? And his rat friend…Lambert, is it?”

“Yes. I wish I knew…I mean, I have every reason to believe the Hiding Plan will succeed without the Stone’s help, but…still, we should all be together at a time like this.” Teresa had previously explained the basics of the situation to Eric, about how Martin took the red amulet and had left no definite word on his and Lambert’s destination, how Kimball had suddenly appeared with his story of impending invasion, what was being done to prevent discovery, and—since her parents felt that Eric, who was all but one of the family, could be trusted not to tell anyone else, largely due to his relatively little traffic with the Rats—how they were trying to will Martin and Lambert home via the amulet.

“You know…I still don’t quite understand all that to-do about that stone, or exactly why the Rats are so afraid of these humans; ’course, I’ve never even seen one myself. But…I don’t know, with Martin taking off like that, practically lying like he did, taking your dad’s stone without telling anyone…I have to wonder: are you sure he’s worth all this worry and trouble?”

Teresa suddenly stopped cold in her tracks, momentarily speechless. “Eric! How can you say such a thing? That’s my brother you’re talking about!”

“Hey, take it easy! I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t talk to me!” She spat the words angrily. “Don’t ever talk to me again!” She began walking briskly up the trail. Eric started to put his hand out to her but she pushed it aside; then she suddenly broke into a run for home.

Eric could only stand dumbfounded for a moment, scratching his head. In the two years he’d known her, he’d come to admire how headstrong and willful she could be. He’d witnessed some of her arguments with Martin—which she would almost always win—but he’d never before seen her this angry with anyone. He started after her; then he stopped, turned, and walked slowly the other way, shaking his head as he wondered what went wrong so suddenly.

* * *

“Are we all ready back there?”

“Ready as we ever will be.”

“Okay, then…upsy-daisy!” Bernadette stood upright, lifting her passenger with her. Kimball was strapped into a harness on her back, a kind usually used by Rat parents for young children, designed to work equally well with the bearer in an upright position or on all fours. This one had been modified to fit Kimball. Earlier that day, Ages had given him limited ambulatory status, meaning that he was well enough to spend some time out of bed, but not to move around on his own power for very long. Soon after, Kimball himself suggested the idea of being given a tour of the colony, even if it meant being carried along like a child. Ages was skeptical at first, but realized that since Kimball had been longing to see more of the colony outside of the medical ward, it would certainly do much to lift his spirits and speed his recovery, as much as the many visits he’d received that had done so already. Bernadette gladly volunteered to conduct this tour, promising Kimball she’d keep any “baby” jokes at a minimum.

Before they’d even left the medical department, Kimball already began expressing aloud his admiration for all that he was seeing, punctuating his statements with exclamations like “Amazing!” and “Stupendous!”

“Relax,” said Bernadette with a laugh, thinking Kimball was being at least partially sarcastic. “There’s a lot more to this colony than just these drab rooms.”

“Ah, Bernie…I know it all must seem drab and routine to you; but for eight long years I’ve wondered how things had gone for you rats, what sort of life you’d built for yourselves. There were nights I’d lie awake, picturing in my head the type of community you’d be living in, sometimes very definite pictures. I’d describe them to Patricia the next day, and she’d sketch them out for posterity. This will be worth it just to see how close my visualizations were. But I guess I should stop bending your ear; after all, you’re the tour guide.”

“I’m glad you finally remembered,” said Bernadette, grinning. “Now, over here’s the emergency room, where we received you…”

Over the next two hours, Kimball was given the grand tour; not only the underground parts, but the surrounding vicinity aboveground as well; including how the Hiding Plan was progressing. Kimball reacted to each new detail with un-self-conscious, childlike, wide-eyed wonder. In turn, many of the Rats they met along the way took time to say how pleased they were to see him up and about, and to give him their best wishes. When he got his first good look at the outside: this beautiful, secluded valley that his new and old friends called home, he couldn’t help weeping openly with joy. But it was tempered by the knowledge that this peaceful, near-idyllic existence was threatened as it was. When he was shown the work of the Hiding Plan that had already been carried out, he was buoyed and encouraged with renewed hope that all would be well, that all would continue as before one way or another. He was again reminded of how badly he’d wanted to bring Patricia here, as well as any of their children who could be located and were willing to come. He had also, by the Brisbys’ permission, been made aware of the Willing Plan, and he was pleased to hear that their efforts seemed to be having a definite effect on drawing the amulet, with Martin and Lambert, home.

At the end of the two hours, both Bernadette and Kimball were starting to feel tired, so she returned him to his bed in the ward. Of course his appetite had been whetted to see more, but he was willing to wait until he was feeling stronger, confident there’d be plenty of time.

* * *

“Teresa! Eric’s outside. What should I tell him?”

“Uhmm…well…oh, tell him I’ll…be there in a minute, Tim.” Teresa turned to Cynthia.

“Go on ahead, Teresa, I’ll bet he’s really sorry.”

Teresa sighed. “Well…either way, there’s no point in putting him off.” She smiled and gave her sister a hug. Thanking Cynthia for her encouragement and advice, she walked out into the hall, where Timothy wished her good luck; and into the living room, where their mother was on “willing” duty. She proceeded on tiptoes toward the front door.

Almost an hour ago, Teresa had arrived home abruptly, almost in tears. Timothy asked her what was wrong, but she went straight to her and Cynthia’s room without answering, and he thought it better to leave her alone for a while. Shortly Cynthia came home, and for a good forty minutes the two sisters discussed Teresa’s tiff with Eric. Cynthia tried to convince her sister that Eric just didn’t think about what he’d said, much the same as Herbert didn’t with her the day before.

Now, as she passed her mother sitting on the living room floor, eyes closed, brow furrowed in concentration, she again reminded herself not to ask “How’s it coming?” or some such. If the parents’ estimation was correct, that the amulet was indeed coming closer to them and that they were touching Martin’s mind through it, then she certainly didn’t want to break her mother’s concentration. This, in turn, again reminded Teresa of the matter confronting her now, just outside the door.

She emerged into the courtyard to find Eric waiting at the Leaning Rock. He smiled when he saw her, again wearing her favorite lavender minidress. His expression looked to Teresa to be contrite; Maybe Cynthia was right, she thought.

The two simply said “Hi” to each other; then Eric said, almost stammering: “Uh…listen, Teresa, can we…uh, would you like to go for a walk or something?”

Teresa felt the need to put him at ease. She smiled and took his hand. “Of course, Eric.” They walked out into the nearby foliage, along the trail that would take them to the lake’s south end. They were both silent most of the way there, neither wanting to admit first to his or her indiscretions. Finally, both started apologizing at once; they both laughed at this.

“I’ll go first, okay?” said Eric. “Look, I’m really sorry about what I said about Martin. If I knew you’d get that upset, I never would have said it. Guess I just wasn’t thinking.”

Teresa didn’t argue the last point. “I’m sorry, too, for exploding like that. It’s just that…Martin does mean a lot to me. I think, probably more in just the past week or so, more than I ever thought he could. Despite whatever differences we may have had in the past, we’ve never really disliked each other. I guess…this whole situation has gotten to me more than I’ve tried to let on. It’s like…I didn’t want to admit it to myself; and that’s why, at least in part, I reacted the way I did when you suggested that Martin wasn’t worth the worry. I’d realized just how much hinges upon him getting back here in time. Even if NIMH doesn’t detect our actual presence, we’d still feel safer if we were all moved from here, and the Stone can do that easily. But more importantly, I think, is just the fact that he’s my brother, and I love him; and that I can’t help worrying about something bad happening, with him being gone so long.”

Eric was silent for a moment. By now, they were approaching the big, spreading burr oak which was the centerpiece of the area that had come to be called Oak Park, a favorite area for relaxation at the south tip of the lake. “That’s really nice, Teresa. I’m sure he loves you, too; just like the rest of your family. And…they’re not the only ones.”

Teresa stopped cold and stared. “Eric! Wha…what are you saying?”

Eric made to say more, but instead directed her to a spot in the oak’s shade, already a favorite of theirs. “Let’s sit down here, okay?” After they did so, he continued: “Look, I’m not much good with words. Look at how upset I made you, because I didn’t think first. I know I’m…not the smartest guy in the world; and I may not understand all about how your family and the Rats are different from the rest of us; or all about this danger you’re in. Heck, I know I’m…probably just a simpleton to you…”

“Oh, no, Eric, you shouldn’t say that. Sure, there are differences in the way we learn and understand things, but…that doesn’t make you inferior or stupid. We’re all just who we are.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Teresa. Look, all I really want to say is…I may be a simpleton, or not; but I know one thing…” Eric paused to take a deep breath. “…and that’s I love you.”

Teresa’s breath left her for a moment as she stared agape at him. “Oh, Eric! You mean…I mean, I never thought that…Oh, I love you, too!” They rushed into each other’s arms. They spent the next minute holding each other close as they knelt together, silently reveling in the cool of the shade and the warmth and closeness of each other.

Finally Eric said, “Oh, Teresa…for whatever it takes, I’ll be with you through all this. I’ll be with all of you. You can depend on me.”

Teresa could only look upon his face with a look of deep appreciation. It was a magic moment, the stuff of dreams; one that both felt would be shattered by further talk. So she leaned in closer, placing her lips against his, feeling that it was the most natural thing to do. He obviously agreed, and both sighed contentedly as they shared their first kiss.

* * *

Even as two mice discovered their true mutual feelings, elsewhere, others were possibly making similar discoveries. Martin, Karen and Patricia had pressed on throughout the first day of their hike to Thorn Valley, with the routine they’d agreed upon. Even with frequent breaks, Patricia felt that they should slow their pace just a little. Martin chafed at this a bit, but he knew it would avail them naught if they made themselves too tired, and possibly leave themselves more prone to lapses in attention or judgment which could prove harmful or fatal.

As dusk approached, though, the women could notice a subtle change in Martin’s demeanor. He seemed more inclined to take a slower pace, as if not as worried about home as before. They asked him about this, and he replied that it may well be another subtle change in the Guide, due to their ever-closer approach to their goal. Though he was as intent as ever on the mission’s purpose, he now almost seemed to enjoy the trip, almost as much as he did on the hike to NIMH yesterday. During breaks, he’d tell more stories about his family and the Rats, and the adventures they’d had over the years. Patricia and Karen, too, were finding more and more to enjoy; they were less frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings, and were appreciating more the peace and solitude and unspoiled quality of it all. Their confidence in being able to take care of themselves out here was growing, too; they regarded the approaching nightfall with less trepidation than before.

All along, Martin felt that they were still being led along the route he and Lambert had taken. Once in a while, he would recognize an individual tree or rock or gully, or a particular juxtaposition of these and other elements, confirming they were on the right track—no small feat, considering they were traveling in the opposite direction. Karen asked him at one point how it would feel if he were to deliberately stray off the route. They tried it, moving at a route perpendicular to the “correct” one, and Martin reported that he felt something he could best describe as a sort of tugging at his mind; not painful or discomforting, just a feeling that he was being guided back toward the route, in every way but physically.

With this at-least rough familiarity of their surroundings, Martin was able to determine how soon before they reached their first real obstacle: the wetlands area. They’d traveled through unbroken woodland so far, and when they’d reach the marsh, hopefully before midnight, they’d take a break before crossing it. As they’d expected, Patricia and Karen were able to face the prospect of nighttime deep-woods travel a bit more easily and with greater confidence; though with no less wariness, of course.

It was around 10:30 to 11:00 when they reached the edge of the marsh, and Martin immediately and confidently began examining an area right on the edge of solid ground. “Let’s see, it should be right along here…” He approached one particular bush, underneath which was what appeared to be simply a layer of leaves and other debris, which he instantly attacked. “Bingo! I knew I’d lead us to our raft again. It’ll save us a heap of trouble crossing this mess.” Whether Martin would have led them to it without the Guide’s help was open to debate, of course, but they were all glad to have come to it one way or another.

Because of the area they were in, they realized that someplace more high and dry would be better suited for a few hours’ rest. They started looking for a hole in a standing tree, but soon found a suitable hollow log instead.

It was a particularly chilly night, so they curled up close together in their temporary shelter. While the women fell asleep in just a few minutes, Martin initially found it more difficult to feel relaxed enough, and not just from the past day’s excitement. In the faint moonlight that filtered through, he looked at Karen’s slumbering form beside him, and found himself thinking about sharing with her more than just his own body’s warmth. He reached out slowly, gently touching the side of her face, the one he’d come to admire so much lately. She stirred slightly, whiskers twitching, moaning softly. And that lovely scent of hers…

Martin caught himself. He couldn’t afford to be thinking like this now, not when there was so much yet at stake, so much that’s more important. He laid his head back, trying futilely to put the matter behind him. He wondered if he weren’t just making excuses. Deep down, he knew just how much he was starting to care for Karen, beyond the kinship they shared by virtue of their common origins; but every time he tried to give the matter any consideration, he felt the need to bury it. He remembered well how his parents had said, on more than one occasion, that when he’s truly in love for the first time, it’ll become the single most important thing in his life. Was this it, then? He still wasn’t quite sure. Or was he sure, and was this something else he was trying to deny? Again he caught himself. Too many questions, and he was dog-tired; that he knew, beyond a doubt. This should all work out one way or another, was his last thought. Then, sleeping became the most important thing in his life.

Chapter 22: Nightmare and reaffirmation

As they planned, the three small travelers arose about two and a half hours later. Since last night, they’d found it fairly easy to avoid oversleeping and keep these “naps” fairly brief, owing to a certain amount of restlessness on all their parts. Martin lost no time in digging out the raft and, after they’d pulled it out and into the water, testing it. He jumped up and down on it and poled it out a short ways and back. Once satisfied that it was still “swampworthy,” they all got on board, and by the light of a nearly-full moon, began poling across, amongst the cattails and rushes.

In truth, all were a bit more nervous about making this part of their journey at night; they all confessed to feeling exposed and vulnerable, crossing an open area like this. They continued keeping each other’s spirits up by quietly telling stories. Patricia remarked on how this experience reminded her of a favorite book of theirs, titled “Tom Sawyer.” She and Karen described parts of it to Martin.

* * *

Justin was suddenly jolted out of a sound sleep by a keening, tremulous wail…one which he would later describe as one of purest terror. Raising up in bed, he looked to his right to see Isabella already sitting up, head down and between her knees, breathing heavily. He touched her shoulder. “Izzy? What’s wrong?”

She straightened, turning her head, facing him, her expression almost wild-eyed; then she collapsed into his arms, crying softly.

“It’s all right, baby; I’m here. It’s all right.” Justin could feel her whole body trembling as he soothed and caressed away her fear. What sort of nightmare could she have had, he thought, to cause her to cry out like that? Never had he known her to tremble and quake this much, not in the two years they’d been married. Knowing how well she’d handled herself during the last great time of crisis for the Rats, he’d never have believed a bad dream could have this kind of effect on her.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” came a child’s voice from the doorway. Their son, Ferdinand, approached his parents’ bed, followed closely by his sisters Greta and Mina.

“Mommy’s just had a bad dream, kids,” said Justin. “She’ll be all right. Back to bed with you now.”

Isabella raised her head. “That’s right, children; it was a bad dream, but don’t worry. You heard your father. Back to bed with you.” She tried hard not to look or sound as distressed as she felt. They all said goodnight, and once Isabella was sure the children had returned to bed, hoping they hadn’t discerned her tears in the dim light, she collapsed against Justin again, burying her face in his chest and moaning softly.

“Izzy, do you…think you could tell me about it now?”

She looked up; her eyes, again welling up, meeting his. “Oh, Justin, it was just horrible. I’ve never…” She choked on her words, then fought to compose herself. “I was…I dreamed I was… Oh, I should try to start f-from the beginning.” She was still shaking quite strongly, but she was obviously determined to get the story told.

“The earliest I remember, I was walking past the school playground. I looked in and saw only one child in there…it looked like Susanna, Silvio and Miranda’s littlest girl. Only she acted like…she was trying to hide; and I knew it wasn’t from me. I continued on down the corridors, but I hardly saw anybody. Those I did see…acted the same way as Susanna, like they were trying to avoid being seen. Soon I was in the main foyer, and…by now everything looked…so gloomy, like a grey pallor hung over everything. I then felt like…I had a burning need to get outside, so I headed for the main entrance. As I made my way through it, I started calling out your name, but you never answered. When I saw daylight ahead, I could tell immediately that something was wrong…very wrong. When I got outside, I looked around. There was no wind, but I could see…some grasses waving around limply, and some tree branches, too; but they had no leaves. They…they all seemed…oh, God…like they were all dead, or dying, crying out for help. Everywhere there was that same grey pallor over everything. There was no birdsong, or any other sound to be heard; it was like I was the only one alive anywhere.

“I was so afraid… Again I called for you; but in reply, I instead heard a…low roaring sound, which seemed to come from everywhere, but mostly from straight above. I looked up, and…before the sky was just overcast, but now…it was like a blackness spreading over the sky, and…and I knew it was also coming straight down, toward me. I was afraid, but I couldn’t look away. It just came right down, and…and it knocked me right off my feet, flat onto my back.” Her speech was again growing more halting and agitated. “It…it just pressed me down, pinned me, I couldn’t move a muscle…and…and…”

“It’s all right, Izzy, you don’t have to continue.”

“No…no, I feel I have to. It not only pinned me to the ground, it…I could feel it…invading me. It blinded me, it was in my ears, my mouth, it was…like it was trying to get in wherever it could…” Isabella choked back a sob. “Then I was here, and you were beside me. I…” Finding it impossible to continue, she broke down into great, wracking sobs.

Justin continued to comfort her, whispering words of reassurance, even though his own eyes filled with tears. Even as he told her it was all right, that it was only a dream, his left hand was clenched into a fist of rage and frustration. Then he abruptly started to rise out of bed.

“Wh…where are you going? Justin, please don’t leave now.”

Justin felt torn for a moment; then he lay back down beside her. “I just…feel the need to take a walk right now, sweetheart. But I guess it can wait for a little while.” He embraced her gently and promised he’d stay until she’d felt more relaxed and able to return to sleep.

In a few minutes she was calmer and relaxed enough to drop off rather quickly. Once he was sure Isabella was fast asleep again, he gently eased his way out of bed without waking her. He put on a robe and tiptoed out of the room. After briefly looking in on the children he went out to his office. Again his hands were clenched as he sat down at his desk. Damn them, he thought, for causing so much tension and misery among us. He continued brooding silently for another moment before slamming his fists down on the desk. Remembering where he was, he hoped his family hadn’t heard his small outburst; then he got up and walked out into the corridor.

At this time of night, there were usually not many up and about; now, with work on the Hiding Plan going continuously day and night, there were more than usual up, though most of them were working outside. So it was largely-empty corridors that Justin walked now attempting to work out his frustrations. He thought of his wife, lying in that half-empty bed: the gentlest, most loving and innocent creature in all the world, one who never meant harm to anyone, forced to experience such nightmares. Since the first council meeting, Isabella had made no secret of her wish that they could all just up and leave, even if it meant leaving behind all that they’d built and accomplished. Their lives and continued survival, she felt, were more important, even if those lives were spent constantly on the run. In spite of this, she’d seemed to bow to the will of the majority, and wholeheartedly and actively supported the Hiding Plan; but now along came this nightmare of hers, which seemed to confirm just how deeply she felt that their lives were in danger if they remained. Justin recalled the imagery she’d described, and it still haunted him, almost as much as if he’d experienced the dream himself. As much as he’d tried—and thought he’d succeeded—in convincing her that her fears were groundless, now he couldn’t help wondering if she were right. Could all these elaborate efforts to conceal themselves and the influence they held over this land be for naught? Is it possible, he thought, that the humans actually have a very good reason to believe that “their” rats were here, and so were just waiting to receive the proper authorization to come in and recover them?

To recover them…to recover lost property. Justin recalled his own words at the meeting, just days—or was it weeks?—ago, in which the Hiding Plan first took shape. Maybe property is all that we ever could be; maybe we never were meant to exist like this. He shook his head. I can’t be thinking this way, I’m supposed to be the leader. Yet, what if Isabella’s fears were valid? There was, after all, much that they didn’t yet know about what the humans would do, much more than their time of arrival. Justin again thought of Isabella’s bad dream. A dream…maybe that was all this existence of theirs could ever be; and, like all dreams, it must come to an end. Rats playing at being human…How could we ever believe we could keep it up forever? He looked all around at the corridors and ramps, balconies and mezzanines; and for a moment, it all seemed unreal and foreign to him.

His thoughts continued in much the same fashion as his rather aimless wandering eventually brought him to one of the private quarters sections.

“Say, Justin! Do you have a minute?”

Justin turned, feeling almost intruded upon by the interruption. It was Kevin, the Guard rat who’d found Kimball, and accomplished musician in his spare time.

“We’ve all been busting our tails lately, and I know you’ve had a lot of decision-making to do…so I thought you might like a little diversion.”

“Well…I guess it couldn’t hurt,” Justin replied, affecting as favorable a tone as possible. “Lead on.”

Kevin led Justin toward his own quarters, just a few doors further down the corridor. On the way, he said, “I woke up about two hours ago and found I had a little tune running through my head. Well, I got out of bed without waking Alcina, and starting working on it in my head.” He paused, humming a portion of it. “I’ve definitely got a whole new composition going.”

They reached the door to his family quarters. “I’ll be back in a second. You’ll like this, Justin, I promise.” He entered the apartment, returning shortly with a wide, stringed instrument, not unlike a harp or zither, and closed the door quietly. They continued on down the hall. “I’d just finished building my ‘gizmo’ here before the crisis hit, and then when we were all working on the Plan, I knew I’d eventually come up with a piece inspired by this whole situation. Along comes this little tune in my brain, and everything clicked. It was like it was just the cue I was waiting for.”

When they reached an area further away from any private quarters, Kevin invited Justin to sit on a bench. “There…I think this is remote enough.” He laid his “gizmo” on his lap, stretched his arms across it in preparation. “Here’s what I got so far. Tell me what you think.” He closed his eyes, a look of intense concentration on his face as he hummed the tune again. He took a deep breath and began plucking the strings, playing out the tune he’d hummed and quickly building on it, expanding on it and adding variations.

Justin had gone with Kevin more out of politeness than curiosity, hardly considering that this could be anything other than a brief, unimportant diversion; certainly nothing that would have any effect on the near-despair he’d been feeling. But now…he found himself listening intently, very intently as Kevin’s nimble hands played across the surface of his “gizmo.” Before he knew it, it became hard for him to swallow and his eyes began to moisten. The melody Kevin played seemed to express so eloquently all the toil, hard work, doubt and uncertainty, hope and optimism; all the love that they all had for this land, not only just in these past few days, but since the day they’d arrived here. The lines issuing from Kevin’s instrument expressed all this and more; and Justin had to make an effort to keep from breaking down and crying with joy.

After about three minutes Kevin stopped playing. “Well, what do you think, Justin? Not half-bad, huh?”

Justin found it difficult to reply right away. “Kevin, that…was just the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a long time, maybe ever. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Why?”

“For reaffirming something in me that I’ve always known, but I somehow let slip by. But no more; not ever.” He patted Kevin’s shoulder and got to his feet.

“I guess that means you like it, right?”

Justin laughed out loud. “Kevin, you nut! Don’t change a single note of it. As for me…I’ve got someone waiting for me. Well, good night…and thanks again.” He turned and strode briskly up the hall.

Kevin, a bit puzzled but hardly displeased, looked down at the “gizmo,” and then got up, placing it under his arm as he started off toward his own quarters. “Hmm…and I thought it was just another nice tune. Guess I’m doing something right.”

Justin made his way back to his office and family quarters with much more vigor in his step than before. He shook his head in disbelief over this course of events. He realized, deep down, that he’d been hoping for a “good, swift kick” to take him out of his previous state of mind. But to have it come so quickly, and in such a form as it did, was completely unexpected. He’d always enjoyed the works that the musically-inclined among them produced, but this piece Kevin just played for him—this achingly beautiful composition—went beyond simple enjoyment. It put things back into perspective. If the Rats of Thorn Valley’s existence—such as it was—was just a sham, something that shouldn’t have a claim to legitimacy, then how could something like that be produced? Or this whole colony, everything he looked upon? No, Justin decided, we have every right to be here. Not just here in Thorn Valley, but on this planet, in the totality of existence. This had always been a firm belief of his and of virtually all the citizens of this community; so how did he allow himself to give in so easily to thoughts of giving up? Again he thought of Isabella; no, she and her nightmare weren’t to blame. It was the strain, the pressure of having to do so much in so little time without knowing exactly what was in store that had triggered it and made him so vulnerable. This situation, it was widely known, was causing frayed nerves in everyone; he was no exception, and neither was Isabella, her nightmare being ample proof. And yet, if he hadn’t indulged Kevin, would he have given in completely and announced to everyone tomorrow that he thought they should all just give up and wait for capture or death, or at best flee and abandon everything? He couldn’t see taking things to such an extreme. Still and all, he was glad that Kevin’s music was able to turn him around as it did.

Well, in any case, he thought, it’s time I got back to bed, and that dear, sweet wife of mine. He now especially felt the need to feel her warm and near beside him. He wanted so much to share this resurgence of optimism with her; but it was two in the morning and they all needed their sleep now. Again he thought about her fears about the possible futility of the Hiding Plan, and he realized: Maybe this is a dream they were living here, but if so it’s a worthwhile one, one worth preserving—even fighting for, if it came to that.

Justin tiptoed back into the bedroom. He removed his robe and prepared to ease his way back into bed without disturbing his wife’s slumber. But in the dimness he saw that their children had joined her and were all sleeping peacefully on either side of her. He smiled and shook his head, not really surprised. Perhaps it was best for all of them right now to feel this kind of closeness and security. He slid into bed, with Greta between him and her mother.

As he closed his eyes, he heard a whispered “G’night, Daddy.”

“Good night, sweetheart,” he whispered in Greta’s ear. He kissed his daughter’s forehead and encircled her with a protective arm. This is what it’s all about, right here, he thought before nodding off. If the humans who would capture us could see just this right here, see for themselves just how much we have in common with them, what would they think? Could it be that they’d consider leaving us in peace? Maybe Arthur has a point, after all…

Chapter 23: A long break

The three travelers had poled themselves better than halfway across the marsh and continued to quietly regale each other with tales from their own personal experiences.

“…straight up, about six, seven feet in the air, legs flailing about, and the look on his fat face…” Martin had a tough time restraining laughter. “Then Dad goes, ‘Well, now, this isn’t very sporting, is it?’ and then it was like the floor gave way beneath him. Dad willed the Stone to let him down all at once, and Dragon just plummeted. Boy, you never saw a cat run so fast! He took off for the farmhouse like a bat out of hell…oh, man!”

Though both women could see the humor in the account, Karen said, “You know, Marty, even with a cat as mean as Dragon, that really wasn’t very sporting.”

“Well, maybe not…but hey, it was educational. Now we know that cats really don’t always land on their—” Martin suddenly glanced upward, expression alert, silently signaling for quiet.

“Martin, what—” Patricia caught herself as all three sensed possible imminent danger.

After another second’s pause, he exclaimed “Incoming!” and all three jumped overboard instantly just a swift brown shape swooped down toward the raft but apparently not directly at it, since it carried its trajectory right back up into the moonlit sky.

It didn’t take the mice long to realize this; and so, one by one, their heads bobbed up, breaking the surface of the stagnant waters. As soon as they could ascertain that no further danger was readying to strike, they reboarded the raft.

“Phew…that was close,” said Martin, shaking himself canine-fashion. “Sure glad we’re most of the way across this mess.”

Patricia exhaled quickly, trying to clear her nostrils and shaking her head rapidly. “We do have the advantage of being able to take a dive when we’re in danger, but I know what you mean. I’ll be glad to be back on dry land too.”

“That was an owl, wasn’t it, Martin?”

“Sure was, Karen. I don’t think he was really trying to attack, though; owls don’t usually hunt over water. Maybe he was just curious.”

The women were clearly unnerved by the encounter, being the first of its kind since their journey began. As they resumed poling along, they confessed aloud to as much; but Karen suggested that if such an attack occurred early on, they likely would have either been too petrified to even move, or else turned tail and run in blind panic out toward open ground again. Patricia agreed, commenting that they’d come a long way just in the past 24 hours, and not just in distance.

Soon they reached solid ground again. After they disembarked, Martin “thanked” the raft for its service to them, and they resumed on foot. As ever, Martin continue to feel guided, and said aloud that he felt even more confident that they’d make it to Thorn Valley in time.

Onward they pressed for another two hours without incident, passing through deep, dark forested hills with the occasional more open area, with Martin repeatedly pointing out something he recognized from before, confirming that their path was true.

Karen was getting ready to suggest another rest break when she noticed Martin seemed somewhat ill at ease. He’s probably just tired, she figured; but she asked him if anything was wrong anyway out of simple concern, figuring it couldn’t hurt.

“It’s…the Guide. Usually it’s only a minute, sometimes less, but…it’s been about three or four minutes since Mom…since her contact just dropped off.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything serious, Martin,” said Patricia.

“Well, I hope you’re right, for all our sakes.”

The three trudged on. Four minutes became five…six…and after about ten, the women, seeing the continued agitation in Martin’s manner, were starting to feel uneasy themselves. “Oh, Martin, isn’t it back yet?” asked Patricia.

“No. It isn’t.” Though the answer was put simply and quietly, Martin’s body language was speaking volumes. His gait was growing “heavier” and more forceful, and he looked as if he were ready to explode.

Karen, drawing up beside him, took his arm. “Marty, listen. Just because it’s been this long doesn’t mean anything bad.”

“You don’t know that.” He continued on, not even looking at Karen.

“Well…neither do you,” she countered. “Maybe they were interrupted. Maybe—”

“Again with the maybes! I’m sick and tired of not knowing! We’ve got to keep moving!”

Karen decided that, for the time being at least, there was no use arguing the point. If the Guide did return in the next few minutes, then that would certainly prove her right and things would return to “normal.” Of course she and Patricia hoped it would come soon, since they hadn’t stopped since their last sleep break.

Five more minutes passed with no apparent change in the situation. Finally Patricia said, “Martin, isn’t it possible that your mother just fell asleep?”

Martin didn’t answer; and though his expression seemed less anxious, neither Karen—who’d tried in vain to keep up with him but had lagged a bit—nor Patricia could tell if he’d even heard the question. Now both were starting to worry; if indeed, the Guide didn’t return, would it mean both of Martin’s parents were distracted by something as serious as they’d all feared—or more than distracted? And if so, what would Martin do?

It took about another minute before they got their answer: without warning, Martin broke into a fast trot, swiftly outdistancing his companions. Patricia and Karen exchanged glances of disbelief, then hastened their own paces.

“Marty, wait up, will you?” cried Karen. Still it seemed as if Martin didn’t hear, as if he’d been taken over by something that made him oblivious to everything and everyone around him. Indeed, he appeared heedless of his own safety as he forged ahead almost recklessly.

Still it continued this way, frustratingly so as Martin continued to lead the way at a frantic and seemingly tireless pace, heedless of his companions’ entreaties to slow down. More and more it seemed as if he were oblivious to their very presence. At first Patricia and Karen had little difficulty in keeping up; but very soon, it took more and more effort, with Martin continually putting more distance between himself and them. They recalled their earlier concern that he could carry too far his insistence upon maintaining a steady pace, possibly to the point of neglecting his companions’ needs and limitations. At first, they didn’t want to accept that that was what was happening now, but as they tried harder than ever to get Martin to stop or slow down or even get him to acknowledge their presence, there was an increasing edge of desperation in their pleas.

“Martin, will you please listen to us?” called out Patricia. “It’s probably nothing wrong, your mother might’ve fallen asleep! Martin!”

“We can’t keep going like this, Marty! Mom’s not used to it!”

Still Martin responded only by maintaining this frenetic, adrenalin-charged pace of his, still giving no sign of having heard. The thought of Martin, who probably could find his way to Thorn Valley with or without benefit of the Guide, leaving them here, stranded in this vast wilderness, suddenly filled Patricia with a feeling of panic that made her insides seem to wrap around themselves. The feeling manifested itself in a sudden burst of speed that she hoped would enable her to catch up to him. She tripped over a root, picked herself up and continued at the same fear-driven pace. Karen was now pleading with both of them to wait up.

Soon they were passing through a rocky outcropping, with much loose gravel. As Patricia came within two feet of Martin, she misjudged a step over some larger stones, and one of her feet slipped and became pinched between two of them. She let out a yelp of pain and collapsed, breathing heavily. She again called out to Martin. Karen, at her mother’s side the next instant, quickly found her foot to be not badly injured. But the expression on her face could only be described as sheer terror, the same which Karen was beginning to feel herself, realizing as her mother did that without Martin, they would surely become lost, possibly die out here in this wilderness.

“Marty! Come back!” Karen hollered, her own voice more edged with fear than before. “Don’t strand us here!” Still Martin didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder.

“Maaartiiinn!” The cry came raw and ragged from Patricia’s throat, a scream of purest terror—one which finally had the desired effect.

Martin stopped in his tracks, realization slowly creeping over him. He turned to see his companions, about six feet back, and felt the blood drain from his face as he realized that this was the first time he’d so much as acknowledged their presence in…fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes? He realized he had no idea as he approached them slowly, muttering “What have I done?” over and over under his breath, as if afraid of the answer he’d receive should it be voiced aloud. A sinking feeling grew in the pit of his stomach as he drew up closer to them, seeing Patricia sitting in a trembling heap, breathing in ragged gasps, her expression a mixture of relief and intense confusion as her tear-filled eyes met his.

He found it much more difficult to meet Karen’s eyes, though, as she gave voice to her feelings, straight from her gut. “How could you do this to us? After all we’ve been through together? You tried to abandon us! You betrayed us!” She spat the words angrily, and Martin felt the sting of each one, as if he’d been prodding at a hornets’ nest. “I wish I could’ve picked up one like this—” Karen indicated one of the larger stones. “I would’ve thrown it at you!”

As shocked as he was by her anger, the like of which he didn’t think possible from her, it was dwarfed by the shock of his own actions, the full realization of which had by now sunk in completely, with Karen’s virulent words hammering it home. They were all true, he knew; he did try to abandon them. Because he’d allowed himself to fear the worst when the Guide had fallen away for so long—as it was still absent—he let it overshadow the needs of his companions; as much as he knew how useless and foolish, even suicidal it was to act as he did, rushing forward almost blindly. Any predator could have picked him off with impunity, as well as Karen and Patricia, in their desperate flight to catch up.

All this he realized in a matter of seconds. But now what could he possibly say to them? A simple “I’m sorry”? How could that possibly atone for what he’d done to them? Yet, he had to say something right now.

“I think…we’d better find a place to rest for a while.” For the first time he noticed how labored his own breathing was, how tired he was; sweat was pouring off him despite the cool of the night. No doubt, their top priority right now was rest and shelter; this he knew in spite of the anguish he felt. The instinct for self-preservation was still quite strong, after all, and all of them felt extremely vulnerable right now.

They found a shallow but suitable unoccupied burrow and immediately fell to clearing it out for their own use, all the while hardly saying a word to each other. Once this was done, they practically collapsed from physical and emotional near-exhaustion. Sleep didn’t come right away, though; all were still so shaken from the harrowing experience.

After the women had managed to drop off, Martin continued to lie awake, staring into the dark as he lay on his back, assailed as never before by conflicting emotions. Though it had still been only days since they’d met, they’d been through enough together to feel as if they’d known each other for months if not years. Now, it seemed to Martin, he must surely be a puzzling, even frightening stranger to them now. He wasn’t even sure that he knew himself anymore, but he was very sure that his own actions were frightening to him. The fact that he was so optimistic before the Guide fell away made it even more so. He’d long known how single-minded he could be, but to so coldly and callously disregard Patricia and Karen as he had… How could he have let it get to that point? What had they done to deserve such shabby treatment from him? Patricia had come to be like a mother to him; would he treat his mother like that? And Karen… Martin looked at her still form; then he looked away. Quietly he moved closer to the entrance; he could no longer bear to be in such close proximity to them, especially Karen. As much as he knew how dependent they were on him to lead the way and help them learn to survive in this wilderness, he felt unworthy to be in their presence, and he was certain he would continue to be for the rest of the trip.

Martin thought about the times he’d snapped at or was impatient with them. They’d already put up with so much, and now this… He couldn’t at all blame Karen for lashing out at him. How could she look upon him in the same way again, as she had when they’d first laid eyes on each other, and since? How could either of them? He realized the irony of it, how he’d succeeded in alienating them so much at a time when they might very well need each other more than ever. They could be all they had left, with Kimball most likely unsuccessful in his own mission, and with what Martin feared to be the cause of the break in the Guide. Were their efforts to reach Thorn Valley in time all for naught?

Images flooded his mind, unbidden: flying machines landing in the meadow; bewildered rats, and his own family, scurrying about frantically in a vain effort to escape or hide; men with shovels, digging, chopping, tearing at the earth, pushing hoses into the holes they made; nets being thrown over those who hadn’t been gassed to death, who’d come aboveground to perhaps a worse fate. Martin gave a low moan and shuddered at the thought of such a calamity, and of his own powerlessness to stop it. Why me? he asked silently as he gazed up through the treetops at the night sky. Why was so much being heaped on his shoulders? He felt bad about the self-centeredness of the thought, considering all that could be happening back home, but he couldn’t help it—what with being unable to rescue Lambert and leaving him behind, the terrible discovery at NIMH, the mad flight out of Sampson; and everything since then, culminating in this. He fought back the urge to break down and cry as he again thought of how he’d hurt Patricia and Karen; especially Karen. What had he done to deserve this? Why was he being punished? How could he—

“Marty? Can we talk?”

Martin turned suddenly, startled even though Karen whispered softly. “Uh, yeah…I guess so.”

She sat next to him. “Marty, I know how bad you must feel about all that’s happened, and I…I just wanted to say that I didn’t mean…what I said about throwing stones at you. Still…you had become so far gone that...something needed to be done to snap you out of it, this…this spell you were under.”

Martin sighed and rubbed at his eyes, running hands over his face. “You…you’re right, Karen, and I can’t blame you for thinking that way, saying what you did. I…wish I could tell you just how…” He sighed. “I feel like if I just say ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s just not enough. How can it be?”

Karen took his hand. “Marty, I know I speak for both Mom and myself when I say that…it is enough. We understand what drove you to it. There’s just one thing you’ve got to promise us: that you’ll never let it happen again, and have your actions prove it to us.”

Martin’s eyes met hers, and a small smile of gratitude crossed his face. “Karen, I…I promise you both…nothing like that will ever happen again.” There was so much more he wanted to say; but right now, he figured, perhaps it was enough for him to know that they were willing to give him another chance.

“I’m glad, Marty, I really am. I think…we should both try to get some sleep now.” Karen started to turn back into the burrow; then she said, “Marty, do you remember…one of the things we were trying to tell you…before, about your mother?”

Martin looked puzzled, not wanting to admit outright that barely anything his companions had said to him during his mad flight had registered with him.

“We thought…that maybe she just fell asleep. You told us that your folks normally do all their sleeping at night, right? So they’re not used to staying awake this time of the night.” Karen said no more, but only nodded with a knowing expression before returning to the back of the burrow, leaving Martin open-mouthed as he considered the idea and its simplicity. It didn’t make him feel any better about his actions, but somehow he was able to find a small measure of relief; enough to make him feel, in a surprisingly short while, that he could follow Karen’s example and get some shuteye.

Soon he joined them in the rear of the burrow, where both women were already asleep. He eased in close to Karen, his back to hers, feeling secure in the belief that he could be at least this close to her.

* * *

“Maddie! Wake up!”

Madeline Brisby returned to consciousness to find her husband standing over her, gently nudging her. “John—Johnathan? Why’re you—” She sat bolt upright as full realization came upon her. “Why, I…fell asleep, didn’t I?” She looked around the living room, the floor of which she’d spent the past two hours curled up on.

“It sure looks that way,” said Johnathan as he sat down beside her.

“Oh, Johnathan!” She moaned to herself, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, I…feel like I’ve let you down, like…I’ve let Martin down.”

He embraced her, stroking her shoulder consolingly. “It’s all right, darling, accidents happen. I’m sure there was no real harm done. What’s really important is whether you sensed any change.”

“Er…well, it seemed to be just like you said on your last shift, that the Guide is growing stronger all the time. It was definitely stronger than on my last shift. I still couldn’t really say for sure that Martin and Lambert were with the Stone, though. It’s really frustrating.”

“I know, but it’s all we have. I keep wondering exactly what effect this contact is having on Martin…if he is with the amulet.”

“I’m sure he is, Johnathan; and Lambert, too. We’ve got to keep believing. That’s why I was worried about letting Martin down. I wondered if such a long break would have some…different effect on him, or something.”

“Maybe, but we shouldn’t worry about that now. And I didn’t mean I wasn’t confident in the boys being with the amulet; it’s just that there’s so much about this situation that’s uncertain or indefinite, we’ve got to face any and all possibilities. But right now, I’ve got to get the Contact going again. You get some more sleep if you feel you have to.”

Johnathan kissed her, then breathed in deep as he prepared himself. “Well, here I go. See you in about two hours.”

“All right, love. Good luck.” Madeline felt slightly bothered by his rather businesslike tone, though she knew it was valid, considering the way this routine had to be carried out. As Johnathan closed his eyes and began concentrating, Madeline returned to their bedroom just as some of the children were getting up.

Chapter 24: Floating along

Karen woke suddenly to a loud braying from outside the burrow. Stupid blue jay, she thought as she yawned and stretched. Sounds like he was right in my ear. She looked toward the entrance at the morning twilight; then on either side of herself, at Martin and Patricia. She was glad to see that Martin didn’t spend the whole time sitting and bemoaning the fates, and was able to get some sleep.

Suddenly something didn’t seem quite right to her; she squinted, then closed her eyes. Upon opening them, she looked again at Martin. Did he move? No, he was still sound asleep. Unless he’s dreaming, and moving about with his dream… She raised her head, looking at him squarely. There…he is moving! But how? She turned to give her mother a nudge. After Patricia was awake, Karen whispered for her to look at Martin.

They both saw him moving slowly, seemingly not of his own accord, across the floor of the burrow, as if carried along by many small insects. Karen crept forward and whispered his name, trying to wake him without touching him, as if that might break the effect.

“Wha…wh’appen?” he mumbled upon awakening. His eyes widened as he, too, quickly became aware of the strange situation. “Wha…who’s carrying me?”

“Well, we’re not,” answered a bemused Karen. “And if you’re not doing this, then…”

It all came to him in a second, as he slid closer to the burrow entrance. “The Stone! I can feel it…the Guide’s back!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, Martin!” Patricia clapped hands. “But…it wasn’t like this before.” She and Karen followed him outside.

“We weren’t this close before,” suggested Karen. “Maybe that has something to do with it. How does it feel, Marty?”

“Like…like I’m being moved by something I can’t see or hear. But what’s the diff? The Guide’s back, this is great!” Even as Martin continued moving across the ground in this bizarre fashion, he shifted to an upright position. Still the effect continued. Martin remembered his own earlier description: that it was like being guided in every way but physically. Now it was still like that, but without that exception.

The women followed on either side, shaking their heads in disbelief at the strange and funny sight of Martin standing but not moving. By now he was definitely floating above the ground—if only about a quarter of an inch above—instead of sliding across it. “What if you tried to walk?” suggested Karen.

Martin had been so fascinated by these new developments that it hadn’t occurred to him to try some forward locomotion of his own. “Good point. Let’s try it.” He tried it; it had no effect. “Feels like I’m treading water,” he reported.

“What happens if you remove the Stone?” suggested Patricia.

Martin took it out of his pack—which he hadn’t taken off his person before going to sleep—and dropped it to the ground. Instantly he was gently lowered there himself. “Now this is really getting interesting. I wonder if it works both ways.” He picked up the amulet and placed it around his neck. He was again brought aloft a quarter of an inch and resumed floating off in a southeast direction.

They discussed what had been established about this new development and what it might entail as they gathered breakfast, for which Martin had to remove the amulet again. Would the Stone have moved away from him if he’d removed it from his person before going to sleep? Though he’d had it in his pack, which had stayed on his back all that time, he now felt very strongly that it wouldn’t have; its inactivity when he removed it now seemed to bear this out.

As they prepared to start off again, Karen suggested half-kiddingly that Martin was getting the better part of the deal here, what with not having to walk while he held the amulet. Patricia suggested that she and Karen each try it themselves. Martin, especially, was amazed to discover that the amulet did work the same way for each of them as well. He deduced that this was due to his parents’ willing the Stone to bring him and whoever accompanied him to Thorn Valley. It was quite a disorienting sensation for them, as they felt their feet leave the ground and finding they couldn’t keep them from flailing about for a few seconds as each of them moved a few inches further on.

After Patricia finished her try, she removed the amulet and laid it on the ground. Then, she made a suggestion that would prove to be a turning point of sorts: “Why don’t all three of us try it together?”

Martin was clearly impressed. “That would make things easier, all right. Nothing to lose by trying.” He bent to pick up the amulet, put it on, and began floating along again. As the women followed alongside, he invited them to link arms with him.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Karen as her and Patricia’s feet again left the ground. “I think it’ll still be a while before I get used to this.” Again their feet flailed about as they both gripped Martin’s arms tightly, but acclimated themselves quickly to this new sensation. The three looked at each other smiling, and Martin even felt like laughing; for a while, he wasn’t sure that he ever would again.

Having reminded himself of last night’s debacle, he felt the need to comment on the subject, especially with his companions so physically close to him—which, he suspected, would be the state they’d be in the rest of the trip. “Karen…Patricia…I…I want to say again how sorry I am for letting things get so out of hand last night. I just…thought about the break in the Guide, and I became deaf, dumb and blind to everything else. I…just can’t believe I placed us all in danger like that. We’d have been sitting ducks for any owl or fox or weasel. And then…you tried to tell me about my mom falling asleep being the cause of the break, and I wouldn’t listen. But it’s so simple…and it was probably exactly what happened! Why couldn’t I see it?”

“Martin, we know how bad you must still feel about it,” said Patricia, “but you’ve got to try putting it behind you, especially now that things are going so well again.” She looked around at their surroundings, passing by them in this unorthodox fashion.

“That they are,” he agreed. “I know you’re right, Patricia; it’ll take a while, but I think I can.”

“Time heals, Martin. Just remember that.”

“She’s right, Marty,” added Karen, rubbing his shoulder. “I bet you’ll look back upon this and laugh someday.”

“Well, I hope so.” Inwardly, though, Martin wondered if he could ever truly put behind him the sound of Patricia’s bloodcurdling scream, Karen’s angry words to him; or the knowledge of what he’d done to two who’d shown him nothing but kindness and generosity. Even now he couldn’t help wondering: would they ever really trust him again, despite what they were saying now? No, he decided, there was no use thinking that way; after all, they’d both promised to give him another chance, just as he’d promised them he wouldn’t let anything like last night happen again. They were holding him to that, so he’d hold them to their promise too. He would try to put it behind him; even now, just “feeling” his father’s personality again, knowing he was guiding them through the amulet, was doing much to lift his spirits, though he was in no less a hurry to get home as before.

After they’d gone a bit further, Martin brought up a more immediate concern: this mode of travel may be moving them along faster than their own leg-power, but it made them rather conspicuous. If they had to suddenly hide from a predator, what would they do? Since they seemed able to turn the floating effect on and off only by removing and replacing the amulet, it seemed the only way they’d be able to protect themselves would be to drop the amulet, then run for cover. If only we had some of those sleepytime quills, Martin thought; but Lambert had all of them in his pack. At least, their moving along in complete silence was an advantage.

As before with Martin on Lambert’s back, the peculiar mode of travel they employed got them a generous share of curious stares, and more; a larger share, in fact, since this was quite unlike anything any of the local denizens had ever seen. Some ran in superstitious fear when faced with this incomprehensible sight of three mice just floating along by no visible means of support. Others would scamper away and then stop and observe from a “safe” distance. Others were bolder: some would simply stop and watch them pass almost casually, fascinated; still others would even tag along and ask questions about how they were doing this and what it was like. The mice would try to tell them without being patronizing that this was something rather complicated that they probably wouldn’t understand. No matter what the reaction was, the mice knew this was something most of these animals would be telling their children and grandchildren about someday. Martin remarked that the tale of their passing through would surely be embellished in many cases; and, in those cases were they met with a more fearful reaction, there would surely be parents telling their broods that if they didn’t behave, the “three floating monster mice” would come to get them.

* * *

With everyone having gotten through the previous day unscathed, and with work on the Hiding Plan all but completed, the overall attitude throughout the colony was now one of guarded optimism. There was still some talk among some younger rats about striking out on their own; but even most in that camp were starting to admit that things were looking better here, and that they might all escape detection after all.

Around 8:00 Justin dropped by the Brisby residence to see firsthand how they were going about the Willing Plan. It was the first chance he’d had to do so, even though he knew there wouldn’t be much to see.

“You’re just in time,” Madeline told him as she greeted him just outside the door with a quick hug. “I’ll be relieving Johnathan again in a minute.” She described briefly and with some embarrassment her earlier mishap, and he told her about Isabella’s nightmare and confided in her his own moment of weakness and uncertainty. It had been a rough time for all, they agreed; but both, like the majority, felt more strongly than ever of a positive outcome.

Madeline also told of Timothy being disturbed by his own lack of a positive feeling when the crisis was first realized, and how it had since changed; he now felt there would be a positive outcome to this, but—in typically cryptic fashion—he also felt it may not be that way for some. As usual, he could give no specifics, since his ability wasn’t prescient in the usual sense; so his family didn’t know quite what to make of this one.

In the living room, Madeline quietly informed Johnathan that it was time. “How did it go?” she asked as he stretched and got to his feet. “Was there any change?”

“Was there ever!” He gave her a quick kiss. “Oh, hi, Justin. Glad you’re here, you’ll definitely want to hear this. For the first time, we can definitely say that Martin is with the Stone.”

“Oh, Johnathan, that’s wonderful!” Madeline rushed to embrace him.

“It sure is,” added Justin. “But what about Lambert?”

“Well, that’s where it gets a little strange. First of all, I can tell that it’s definitely Martin. I can…feel his personality; and yes, I know that sounds a little strange, but…well, I know his personality and that’s the best I can describe it. Anyhow…I can’t get any specific thoughts from him…or from his companions.”

Justin and Madeline both raised a brow. “Companions?” Justin emphasized the plurality of the word.

“He’s with two others…and I can tell enough about them to say that they are both mice.”

They all looked at each other. “Well, it sounds like Martin’s made a few acquaintances out there,” Justin said, scratching his head.

“Yes, but who could they be? And what happened to Lambert?” wondered Madeline. “I’ll get going right away; maybe I can find out more.” She sat down in preparation.

Johnathan gave her one more good-luck kiss; and as she settled herself in, he took Justin back outside, where they discussed this new, heretofore-unknown capability of the Stone, and the effect if may be having on Martin and his unknown companions, and what may have happened to Lambert. There was so much at this point that was unknown, that could be no more than conjecture. None could say for sure where Martin and Lambert had gone—other than that it was further west, beyond the river—or why they’d been gone so long. The theory had been put forth that they could have gone to Sampson and NIMH, knowing where Martin’s head was at before they left. The idea of them going off to see the place where their civilization was born certainly fit, and would explain much about why he took the amulet. Yet, would even Martin try something so dangerous? The idea seemed preposterous on the face of it, since it had long been deeply rooted in everyone’s subconscious that to go there, intentionally or not, would be the most dangerous thing. And the sheer distance to be covered…yet, Kimball had stowed away on board a human vehicle to cover the lion’s share of it. Couldn’t Martin and Lambert do the same?

None in Thorn Valley, of course, could know that not only was this the case, but that Martin’s current companions were the loved ones of the one whose dire warning had precipitated their current predicament. Martin’s parents had little clue as to the precise effect their Willing Plan was having, but would surely be stunned if they could see it for themselves.

Chapter 25: The shield

For a good two hours, the three tiny travelers had floated along in this bizarre fashion, sailing along as if on the wind an inch above the ground; and in that time it had become clear that they were slowly but steadily gaining speed. They’d just experienced another break in the Guide, which had literally dropped them off, and which made them a bit nervous at first—until it resumed a minute or so later. During the break—in which they kept moving on foot—Martin made a point of assuring the women that he’d be patient this time and they’d all stick together. Even so, it was a relief for all of them when the Guide restarted.

Presently they came upon an area that Martin remembered especially well, and the memory again unnerved him. Karen recalled his description of this open meadow with sandy soil and scattered trees, and now said to him, “This is a lot like the area where you guys met up with that bobcat, isn’t it, Marty?”

“That’s because this is that area. Boy, I wouldn’t want to be within a mile of him again, especially if he’s got a good memory.” Again Martin remembered how their safety margin could be lowered considerably, due to the lack of the quilltips which had saved him and Lambert during that earlier attack. He decided that, for as long as possible, he’d hold the amulet in his hand instead of wearing it around his neck, so that he could immediately drop it, and they’d be able to get away that much faster if danger threatened.

Martin reminded his companions that they should keep as quiet as possible, knowing that that same bobcat could very likely be in this area still, and that its territory likely encompassed all or most of the meadow. On and on they drifted, alert to any untoward sound or scent, Martin simultaneously noting details about the area that he remembered and how long it was taking them to pass over it compared to last time. He continued to be amazed at how the amulet was leading them along almost the same precise path; he even recognized the thicket where he and Lambert had been cornered and succeeded in “sticking” the bobcat with the sleepytime quill.

Very soon, they started to come upon thicker woods again. “I wonder if we’re out of his territory yet,” whispered Karen.

“I’d rather hope so,” replied Martin, “but let’s not forget that we still could be attacked anyt—”

It came without warning, this tan-furred dynamo that came charging at them from behind a bush, and so fast that the three travelers barely had time to react—either in fright, or in Martin’s case, to let go of the Stone so they could run.

However, in the next split-second, when Martin did realize what he had to do, he felt very strongly that he shouldn’t drop the amulet, that the best thing he could do at that moment was to hold onto it. Simultaneously, he realized that in a sudden crisis like this, he wouldn’t be thinking like that unless it was connected to the Guide. So he obeyed the inclination and kept it gripped tightly in his hand, trusting in this feeling, even as the bobcat was a heartbeat away from inflicting sudden death upon all of them.

Patricia and Karen were both petrified, but Karen, noticing Martin’s lack of action, managed to yell frantically, “Marty! Drop it!” But he steadfastly retained the amulet even as the bobcat gave a bloodcurdling snarl and raised a forepaw to strike them down. In spite of his own confidence in their safety, Martin instinctively averted his eyes, drew in breath and gritted his teeth. The women did the same as the bobcat seemed to fill the sky.

But nothing touched them, let alone struck at them, though they could still hear the bobcat snarling in rage and, it seemed, confusion. Martin looked up first, just in time to see the bobcat charge again. This time he didn’t look away…and was astounded and relieved at what he saw. The bobcat was flailing away futilely at them with its paws, but it couldn’t touch them, as if it were being continually thwarted by…an invisible barrier! Of course! When he received that reassurance of their safety, he hadn’t time to consider exactly what that would entail, but now…

Tentatively, he reached out, groping at the air in front of him until he felt just what he’d hoped he’d feel, even as the bobcat continued to paw at it futilely. A broad grin crossed his face, and he even laughed out loud. Patricia and Karen, still hiding their faces, looked up in confusion. Laughter was the last thing they’d expected to hear from Martin, and they looked to him, initially unable to comprehend what had just happened.

“It’s all right,” he said quickly, “he can’t even touch us! Watch!” He turned to their would-be attacker, who continued to follow alongside them, and began taunting him with gestures. “Thought you had me nailed, eh, you ugly fleabag?” he said mockingly, sticking out his tongue and giving a mocking snarl of his own. “Thought you had yourself another free lunch, did you?” By now, he’d positively identified the cat as the same one from five days ago, who now probably also remembered Martin, as well as the tiny pointed object that had been stuck in his paw just before he fell asleep so suddenly and strangely. The bobcat continued to snarl and spit in frustration and confusion at these three strange mice who, all the while, continued to just drift along, despite his best efforts to stop them.

“Ah, go cough up a hairball, hairball!” Martin yelled back as the bobcat finally gave up, turning and stalking away, glancing back with a hate-filled expression. He turned to his companions. “Boy, even with this kind of protection, I wouldn’t want to cross him again. He’d really be mad as a hornet then.”

The women were still shaken from the experience, gripping each other tightly; and though they were relieved at its outcome, there were still questions aplenty. “Martin,” asked Patricia shakily, “do you think you can tell us what’s going on here?”

“Sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner, but it’s a lot to explain, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time.” Martin glanced over his shoulder one more time for good measure, confirming the bobcat had indeed abandoned his pursuit. “It was the Stone! It’s one more way it’s helping us now. The reason I didn’t drop it is because I got another ‘reassuring’ feeling, and it told me to hold on to it. And you just saw the reason why.”

“Didn’t you tell us,” said Karen, “that the Stone protects the one using it like that? With a…force-field, that’s what you called it.”

“Exactly, Karen. It must have reacted to our need for protection…while Mom continued ‘willing’ it.” He looked ahead of them, facing Thorn Valley. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Do you realize what this means?” Karen asked, her own fright being quickly supplanted by excitement as they all considered how this would affect the remainder of the trip. “If the Stone protects us like that every time danger threatens, then…we could continue uninterrupted, without stopping to rest!”

“You mean we could sleep while floating in midair? I like the idea, but…”

Martin echoed Patricia’s skepticism, at least initially; but the idea of anything that would enable them to keep moving nonstop was too tempting to resist; so he and Karen tried convincing Patricia that if they were both willing to try it, she should too, since they reasoned that all three should agree to it. She soon came around, and after some more discussion, they agree at least one of them should be awake at all times. Martin was very certain of this, and it did make logical sense, since the amulet had to react to one’s feeling of being in imminent danger, for which that one would have to be awake.

With this much established, Martin found himself grinning broadly and shaking his head over this newest bit of good fortune. Not only were the Rats and his family still alive and well, but now the three of them stood an incredibly improved chance of rejoining them unscathed and much faster than before. His companions were equally pleased at this, and at the seeming near-turnaround in his mood just within the past few hours.

Martin clasped them both to him a bit more closely. Though the urgency of their mission hadn’t lessened, he knew that with things taking such a positive turn, there was no room for any attitude that would drag things down again.

* * *

The crops were all in; all necessary camouflaging had been completed; all the service tunnel entrances had been leased out as burrows or otherwise treated as abandoned; and all but a few of the windows were kept covered until further notice by the sliding panels which camouflaged them from the outside. All of the outside work—not “virtually” all, but every bit of it—had been done. This was the first matter brought forth at the latest meeting, which was made a general meeting, in anticipation of this very momentous occasion. And, as anticipated, it was greeted with great jubilance.

“Friends,” began Justin before everyone, “we’ve put in a lot of hard work these past four days, as you all know well; and it was all done under the pressure of knowing that the humans could arrive at any moment of the day. But we did it. We all came through with flying colors. I know you all have had doubts, to a certain degree, that we’d make it under the wire; and, I confess, I’ve had my share as well. But now the hardest work is done; done very well, and on time. But I’m aware that some of you still harbor doubts as to whether all these efforts will keep us from being discovered; and some of you believe that leaving Thorn Valley would be the best way to ensure non-discovery.”

Justin paused briefly, glancing at Isabella, who stood by his side. She responded with a look that told him that, despite last night’s vivid and harrowing nightmare, she still wanted very much to believe in the Plan’s success, and would continue to stand by him.

“These are all very valid views,” he continued, “and what I’m asking now—and I know I speak for everyone in the council—is that those of you who are the most adamant about the idea of leaving Thorn Valley choose a spokesman from among you, and have him speak before us all now.”

After a bit of whispering and shuffling, one young rat, Garrick, stood up and made his way to the center of the amphitheater. He and his twin brother Donald were Matilda and Bryant’s oldest children. He cleared his throat nervously. “Justin…everyone…we’ve…a group of us got together just before the meeting, and…what we’ve decided is that, since we have accomplished this much before the deadline, we will stay on for the time being…at least until after the humans have made their pass here. Then…well, I guess we’ll just wait and see.”

“We can ask no more, Garrick…the rest of you. We’ve long said that no one should be forced to stay here if he or she wishes otherwise.” As Garrick returned to his seat, Justin continued: “But now…I know there must be a question on everyone’s mind, a very basic and simple one.” He left it for those assembled to voice aloud.

From around the hall came responses of “What now?” and “Now what do we do?” A rather short discussion period followed; and it was decided that, for the time being, aboveground activity would be restricted only to areas immediately adjacent to those entrances still open, except for the Guard, who would carry on their patrols as usual; and regular drills would be conducted, to improve readiness. More discussion followed on how these drills would be carried out.

At one point, Kimball, who was well enough to attend this meeting, had Jemial bring him to the dais so he could say a few words. “Yesterday,” he began, “I was given a tour of your colony and was able to see firsthand not only the colony itself, but all the effort to preserve it. Since then I’ve thought much on how, in a sense, I’m the one responsible for all that effort; how it’s been on account of my warning to you, which is really only based on something I was told: a secondhand account, from someone whose mental stability could be considered questionable. I’d never previously had cause to doubt Vincent, but I can’t help wondering if he may have misinterpreted those words he’d overheard. Suppose NIMH won’t come after all? Oh, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear right now, after all your efforts…but I felt I needed to say it.”

Justin couldn’t help feeling some small annoyance; his timing certainly could have been better. Then he told Kimball and everyone else, “Even if Vincent had heard wrong, at least now we’re better prepared than ever for any human intrusion, of any kind. And yes, it’s true we don’t know how long we’ll have to live like this, in this state of near-siege. But when Martin and Lambert get here with the amulet, then we’ll have the means at our disposal to get some definite answers…right, Johnathan?”

“Absolutely, Justin.” Johnathan recalled how, at the beginning of the meeting, they’d agreed, with some regret, to bend the truth a bit on the current status of the Willing Plan; and so they would tell everyone else that though they knew for certain that the Stone was with Martin, they were essentially taking it for granted that he was accompanied by Lambert. They agreed it was probably best, given what little information they had that could be confirmed.

Now, they detailed how they believed the Stone could be used to get those definite answers: mainly, by finding out where those humans who would be participating in this mission currently were, and keep tabs on their every movement, via the amulet’s searching and imaging capabilities. However, Johnathan still kept to himself that other way of utilizing the Stone which he still felt might be too radical, too likely to be deemed unacceptable by the majority. It might not work anyway; he and Madeline had never tried anything remotely like that with it, after all. Still, he found his thoughts returning to the idea time and again. Perhaps Justin, at least, should be made aware of it…eventually.

Chapter 26: Cruising speed

The day had turned out to be warmer than in recent weeks, with greater humidity as well. There was a haziness that lingered in the air well after sunrise; and as the three travelers continued their odd mode of travel, it seemed appropriate in a rather surreal way.

As they grew more and more accustomed to floating along like this, as well as to the idea of being continually protected from harm, they grew more relaxed, to the point where Karen volunteered to be first to try a “floating nap.” They’d already found that they had to remain in physical contact, even minimally, for them to be all pulled along like this. This was certainly another reason for at least one of them to be awake at all times, to make sure they’d maintain physical contact. So now, Karen tried a reclining position, curling up on her side, her back against Martin’s left hip and thigh. Accustomed as they were by now to the feeling of nothing beneath them, she adjusted quickly to this new sensation, finding it surprisingly relaxing. In just a few minutes, she was sound asleep.

Patricia, sitting at Martin’s right, smiled, shaking her head at seeing her daughter slumber away. “I wish it were that easy for me,” she whispered. “I’ve come to enjoy this, watching the world drift by; but I’m still not sure about sleeping through it.”

“I bet you’ll be able to sleep just as easily,” he said. “And anyway, if I’m figuring this right, we won’t have much further to go. I know about where our halfway point is, and we should reach it later today. But with our going so much faster, and our speed steadily increasing, and if we can get by with only short breaks to gather food, sleeping while on the move…” He paused to glance at Karen. “…then we should arrive in Thorn Valley sometime tomorrow afternoon.”

Patricia sighed. “That’s wonderful, Martin. Soon we’ll know if…Kimball reached them and gave his warning in time. I still can’t help thinking…what may have happened to him, picturing him…injured, dying…maybe even dead already…” She shut her eyes tightly, shaking her head. “Oh, I’m sorry, Martin. I know I shouldn’t keep talking like that.”

Martin wanted to give her more reassurance than a simple everything-will-be-all-right; then he remembered a thought he’d had earlier, which he hadn’t yet shared. “Patricia, I’ve had this idea, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more logical it seems. I got to wondering why my parents are doing this, exactly. Is it just because they want me back, or…did Kimball reach them, warn them, and they realized how the Stone could help them? I can’t imagine them doing something this elaborate, so time-consuming, just to get me back. I mean, of course they love me, but still…something big’s got to be going down back home, something they really need the Stone for; and I’m willing to bet they know all about what’s going to happen, and that Kimball’s the one who told them.”

Patricia pondered the point silently for a moment and agreed with some relief that it did make logical sense. Martin added, “I really believe, more than ever, that things will be all right. In the meantime…might as well enjoy the ride.”

This they did, silently admiring the view, and occasionally greeting local residents as Karen continued napping. At one point Martin casually looked down at her slumbering form, pondering how much he wanted to see her protected and safe, allowing a sigh at the feel of her back against his hip, gently placing a hand on her shoulder without waking her.

He abruptly caught himself, turning away quickly. Several times today, since they’d started floating along like this, he’d caught himself admiring her when he was sure she wasn’t looking. But why? Why couldn’t he come right out and tell her how he felt? What was holding him back? It was hardly a secret to everyone who knew him that discussing his feelings openly wasn’t his style; and yet, with what he was starting to feel for her… Earlier he’d thought that the current situation was such that it wouldn’t allow for discussion of such matters, but now it seemed even more that he was only making excuses, especially now that they could afford to be a bit more relaxed and unworried. Perhaps it was because her mother was so close by all the time…or was that just another excuse? Once again, he decided there were just too many questions. Perhaps this was one of those things that would become clearer in time.

Patricia, however, had hardly been oblivious toward Martin’s latest attentiveness toward her daughter. She’d observed from their first meeting their mutual attraction, and decided it wise to back off for now and leave everything to the two of them. She didn’t disapprove of any of this, in spite of last night’s debacle; she’d seen how devastated he’d been over his actions, and how penitent, and she was sure it was all genuine. But she also didn’t want to push them into anything or make them feel uncomfortable. So she’d kept silent, and for the most part, appeared oblivious all this time, though she understood much of what Martin was going through: the feelings of unworthiness, of gut-wrenching uncertainty and fear—however unwarranted it may be—and all of it coming at a time when there so much more to deal with. Once those other matters were resolved, she hoped—and so did he, she believed—that matters of the heart, if such these were, could be properly addressed.

* * *

By early afternoon, the first drill was held. It was carried out relatively simply and very efficiently. A rule had been enacted that anyone moving aboveground for more than a brief period should take with him or her a walkie-talkie for quick recall. The drill began with one of the Guard sentries reporting that a helicopter had been spotted heading for the valley, with the emphasis that this was a drill. Once the word reached Guard Central, it went out to the entire colony; and anyone aboveground and out of earshot was immediately notified. The windows still uncovered by the sliding panels were concealed; everyone gathered in the meeting hall, where a headcount was taken…and with confirmation that everyone not on sentry duty was present and accounted for, everyone waited in silence until the word was passed that the drill was over.

Justin congratulated everyone on the smoothness and swiftness with which it was carried out, then apologized for what he believed many might see as an infringement on personal freedom, or at least an annoyance: the much-closer attention given to everyone’s whereabouts at all times. “But we don’t want to lose anyone,” he said, “so until the humans do arrive, this is the way things will be. Unless, of course, as we discussed this morning, Martin and Lambert do get here with the amulet…whichever comes first.”

That said, those who had other business left the hall, while others had questions about the drills and related matters. During and after this, it seemed that while the overall mood was still very much guarded optimism, there was an undercurrent of uneasiness centering on the questions of how long they’d have to live like this, or if things would ever truly get back to normal. Others were of the what-if variety, many worst-case scenarios. One even suggested that things had gone too smoothly thus far, and that something was bound to go awry eventually. Though Justin and some others conceded that these may be valid points, it was counterproductive to dwell on what might or might not be.

* * *

Not all that far away, three companions were finding out yet more about their current situation. While this mode of travel was faster and more protective, it afforded little chance for exercise; all felt the need to have their feet on solid ground for at least short periods to stretch their limbs and expend a little energy. This posed a problem, since to remain traveling in this manner, they had to all be in physical contact with each other, and at least one of them with the amulet. They tried several ways to circumvent this, including having one of them remain floating while the other two got their exercise, running alongside the one. But because of the speed at which the Stone was guiding them by this time, it was difficult for those on the ground to keep up without tiring. They felt that the point was just to keep reasonably active, not to tire themselves out; so they found their best bet to be to get as much exercise as possible during breaks to gather food; which was always a bit risky, as they felt the need to stay close together, and close to the amulet, but not touching it. As bothersome as they found this aspect to be, they knew they’d still reach their destination much faster than under their own leg-power, after all.

In midafternoon, Martin informed his companions that they were approaching another point in his earlier travels he remembered especially well. They were close to the home of Jeeter, the chipmunk who’d put him and Lambert up on their second night out. Karen half-seriously suggested that they at least say hello to him as they passed his burrow, though they knew he was likely to be out someplace right now. As they passed, though, Martin decided, purely on impulse, to call out, “Hey, Jeeter, how’s it going?”

Patricia laughed. “Martin, do you really think that…” But before anyone could say another word, a response came from outside their circle.

“Martin? That you?” The three looked behind them, and sure enough, they saw a chipmunk, at first sitting up and shaking his head rapidly; then, breaking into a swift scurry after them, tail straight up.

“Wow…can I call them, or what?” Martin removed the Stone from around his neck and dropped it. They stopped almost cold though not jarringly, and settled gently to the ground.

Jeeter quickly caught up with them, his words tumbling all over each other rapidly. “Martin! You fly so fast, I not say hello back. Who you friends? How you fly? Where bigfriend rat Lammy?”

“One question at a time, okay, pal?” said Martin with a laugh. “Jeeter, these are my new friends, Patricia and Karen. And we’re not actually flying; that stone that you see on the ground there is what’s doing it. As for Lambert, well…something came up a couple of days ago that took him away, but I’ll be back for him. And that’s a promise.”

“Oh. See why, yes.” Apparently satisfied by this explanation, he added, “You come, yes? Spend night again, Jeeter’s house?”

The offer was tempting to all of them, even though it was still some four hours till sunset; but Martin replied, “I’d really like to take you up on that, but we’ve got to be moving on. Something really important’s happening back home, and we all have to be there.”

With Jeeter again satisfied by the simple explanation, they all said goodbye and wished each other well. The mice joined hands, Martin took up the Stone, and away they went. Jeeter watched them recede into the distance for a short while before resuming his own business.

“He is a generous fellow, isn’t he?” commented Karen.

“To a fault,” agreed Martin. “But even if we weren’t in such a hurry, I wouldn’t want to impose on him again, especially with three of us.” But as close as they were now to Thorn Valley, and with their speed still steadily increasing, they weren’t about to stop for very long. Martin had already estimated their arrival for the middle of the afternoon the next day, perhaps even a bit sooner; and with this estimate their level of anticipation had risen greatly. By now, all three were better accustomed to getting their sleep while floating; and with this having been their only real obstacle to moving mostly nonstop previously, they were now fully committed to doing so.

The remaining daylight hours passed uneventfully, and there were no close encounters with would-be predators. The closest thing to an attack was when a bold and brash young squirrel came up to them as they sped by and reached out to grab Martin’s foot. To everyone’s astonishment, the squirrel was pulled into the “field” that the Stone’s power created and found himself floating along with them. That is, for all of three seconds; then the squirrel released his grip, dropped to the ground, and made for the nearest tree trunk and scurried up. There, he watched them recede into the distance, though he still felt so alarmed by the unexpected sensation of being picked up and carried along that he almost lost his grip on the bark, because he was shaking so much.

The mice couldn’t help laughing in sympathy, and it triggered speculation on the possible limits to what the amulet’s power could “pull along” like this. Martin described in greater detail things it had accomplished in past times. Earlier, he’d balked at going into any great detail on the subject; but with all of them more at ease at how the trip was going, he felt more inclined to open up more about the Stone and its origins, and his parents’ experiences with it, including how it had whisked Johnathan away to another dimension—a concept that took a bit of explaining—leaving his family and friends to believe him dead. He condensed as much as possible the story of how Pharsal had set the condition upon the Stone that it have two bearers who were possessed of the heroic qualities that Pharsal believed he lacked, and those two turned out to be his parents—who, even now, believed that it wasn’t chance or coincidence that brought the Stone into their hands. Naturally Patricia and Karen found the account confusing and hard to believe, but Martin emphasized that after they all got to Thorn Valley and set things right, they could hear it all from the original source, and even be shown firsthand what it could do, the places it could take them.

In the early evening, around sunset, they encountered another important landmark: the Greenlee River, where Martin and Lambert had run into their first bit of difficulty. Thankfully there was no “Slobber-Snout” to menace them this time. On Martin’s suggestion, they paused here for a few minutes to refresh themselves in a shallow area where there was little current. They all welcomed this chance to unwind a bit; it was a “water break” much more welcome than the one they’d had to take two nights ago when buzzed by an owl. Martin managed to allow a little playfulness as the three splashed each other, and told them more about their own body of water back in Thorn Valley, which they’d christened Lake Nicodemus after the Rats’ old, revered leader, and the swimming area they’d developed which was a very popular recreational spot. He then described in greater detail the previous encounter with the boar and the muskrat Clement, pointing out the fallen tree, where the boar pursued him through the water and where Clement rescued him. Martin had hoped to see Clement again, of course, but they all knew they couldn’t wait too long for him; so once they’d all felt sufficiently revived and refreshed, quenched their thirst and gathered more provisions, Martin took up the Stone again, they all joined hands and continued on.

Floating in midair across the river proved to be another memorable experience. A dragonfly momentarily hovered in front of them as if in curiosity, just before they reached the opposite bank and moved on over dry land again.

* * *

In comparison to recent days, this had been the closest to a day of rest for the denizens of the Thorn Valley colony, what with the actual physical-labor portion of the Hiding Plan completed. Nonetheless it was difficult to feel genuinely relaxed, since now everyone was marking time until the arrival of either their errant travelers or the humans.

Many turned in early that night, including Arthur and his family. He and Melinda had just put their children to bed and were now following suit. As they snuggled close together, Melinda gave a sigh that seemed to Arthur to be one of discontent.

“Hey, sweetheart, don’t worry. This will all be over with before we know it.”

“Oh, it’s not that…much. I was just thinking…if Dad were still with us, what would he do? What would be his reaction to all this? I’ll bet he wouldn’t want us all to just sit this out.”

“That’s probably true. But there’s still the big question of how far he’d take things.”

“Yes…with or without being under anyone’s influence.” Melinda sighed. “It’s funny; even after all that happened later, after…he was killed…after all that we learned, I still find that hard to believe, even though it was just as hard at the time that he could turn…so cold, and then so vicious.”

Arthur caressed her neck and shoulders. “You still miss him, I know. I miss the way he was too, before Ghormfisk got his hooks into him. It was such a waste.”

They both certainly knew her father well; for he was Jenner, one of the Original 22 and, for the first few years after the Escape from NIMH, a solid and staunch ally and friend. He and Matilda were the first of the OT’s to “officially” choose each other as mates; and for that same period, he was a loving and devoted husband and father. Then came the disagreement with Nicodemus over the Rats’ future and where and how they should live. Almost immediately afterward, his wife and children and many others sensed a change in Jenner: subtle at first, but over the ensuing weeks and months he grew increasingly irritable and verbally abusive, though not physically so. He seemed to care less and less even if Matilda and the children shared his household, and coldly rebuffed any attempt on their part to please him or even understand what was wrong. It wasn’t long before Matilda decided she couldn’t take any more, so she took Melinda and her brothers George and Melvin and left Jenner for separate quarters. Hurt and confused, she wanted as little as possible to do with him; not an easy feat, since the old Rosebush community was such a small and insular one. Yet, Jenner seemed to care not a whit; this new private obsession of his, this campaign against Nicodemus’s Thorn Valley Plan, seemed to be all that mattered to him, whatever Matilda chose to do mattering not at all. Melinda remembered well the day they’d moved out, how her mother had asked him straight out if Jenner even remembered a time when he cared for her and the children. His gut-wrenching answer, stated so simply and matter-of-factly: “Yes, I do. But I have other concerns now.” He’d barely seemed to notice as they left the apartment for new quarters. Soon after, Bryant, though a contemporary of Jenner and Matilda’s sons, became a great source of comfort for her and shortly, even more; the two quickly took up housekeeping and had children together. Even this development didn’t raise anything more than indifference in Jenner. Then came the day like no other, so fateful in so many ways, when Jenner engineered the “accident” that killed Nicodemus, leading to his being killed in a swordfight with Justin, a fact Matilda and her children learned amidst the chaos and confusion of the Rats’ forced overnight move from the Rosebush. It was shocking enough to learn about his callousness growing to such a degree that he would murder Nicodemus, and that it brought about his own death; but months later it was revealed that Jenner had been used as a tool by an extradimensional being whom none of them even knew about, for little more than his own amusement; and with this new information came the realization that Jenner would likely not have gone as far as he had otherwise. It was especially shocking for Matilda, who couldn’t help wondering how their lives would have gone without Ghormfisk’s influence. It took time, patience and a lot of love and support from her family and friends, but she was able to put this business behind her surprisingly quickly and resume a more normal life.

Arthur had also remembered how quickly Jenner had changed; and how, though he couldn’t stop the advancement of the Thorn Valley Plan, he spared no effort to derail it. On the day that Arthur’s party left to begin the initial construction and settlement, Jenner had railed at them, sneering that all their efforts would be futile and the whole project was destined for failure. Arthur let him have his say, but his only reply was that at one time Jenner might have been alongside him, a full partner in a project like this which was all for the good of their people and their future, and that he hoped Jenner would see the light before too much longer.

Jenner’s daughter and her husband now silently contemplated the past and the future; knowing that the past was irrevocable, but nonetheless wondering—though not obsessively—how things could have been; and confident that they did have a future, though uncertain as to exactly what form it would take. As for the present, they welcomed this respite from the past few days’ labors, though an end to this whole affair would be hugely welcomed. Soon they were both asleep.

* * *

On through the night, through the thick and still foreboding forest floated the three mice. They’d expected some kind of attack during the night, or rather an attempt at one, but nothing threatened them at all. They theorized that because they were moving so fast by now, and in such an unnatural fashion, that they were being avoided more and more by most creatures, hostile or not.

During the night they passed the tree where Martin and Lambert had taken shelter their second night out…where they’d unknowingly come close to crossing paths with Kimball. This was close to the edge of a meadow which gradually gave way to more dense forest. Soon they reached the area where Martin and Lambert had encountered the herd of rabbits that had helped them with directions. As with Jeeter, this new passage of strangers through the area didn’t go unnoticed; the three mice could see several sets of rabbit eyes reflecting the moonlight, observing them from a distance, but obviously wary or even fearful of coming too close.

Martin confessed that this bothered him somewhat; he’d never intended to cause any anxiety or apprehension in any fellow creatures they’d encountered. But, he reasoned, as committed to this form of travel as they were, if they did have that effect, so be it; it wasn’t like they were deliberately trying to scare anyone.

The rabbits, however, were more curious than frightened; and this curiosity again attracted the attention of a certain elder rabbit, who joined his fellows in watching the three floating mice recede into the distance. He wondered: could these three have a connection with that one strange mouse who passed through here a week ago—injured, delirious, intent upon reaching someplace called Thorn Valley—whom he’d transported on his back for most of the way? The elder hadn’t known precisely where Thorn Valley was, though it had to be in the general direction in which the mouse was headed; he figured that it could very well be that valley of which he’d heard tales of unusual rats—and mice, too, it would seem. It may have been just beyond that steep incline which he’d been too tired to climb all the way, before he’d left the mouse on his own. And all this, following that earlier incident with that rat and mouse traveling together in the opposite direction. The elder shrugged it off; but for a long time to come, he and many others in the warren would think on this string of incidents and wonder if there was a connection among them.

For a good three hours during the night, Karen, feeling confident enough to keep watch solo, did so while the others slept. She was as alert as ever to the possibility of imminent danger, but time and again was every bit as distracted as Martin was while she was sleeping, often finding herself looking at him up and down the length of his body as he slumbered away. She was glad that he was able to sleep without noticeable difficulty, given all the recent turmoil; but she couldn’t deny there was admiration there as well. She genuinely wanted him to be happy and wished for a quick end to this whole crisis, and then hopefully afterwards they might…

She caught herself. As much as she understood what had driven him to behave as he did, for all of which she and Patricia had forgiven him, just how deeply could she care for someone who was capable of almost abandoning her and her mother, two he’d embraced as friends? And just as Martin did, she decided this was too much to consider right now. Things would have to look clearer tomorrow, so she brought her thoughts to the near future after they’d reached Thorn Valley and were reunited with old friends and hopefully family as well.

Chapter 27: In the home stretch

As dawn broke, they realized just how much speed they’d gained overnight. They now watched the world drift by at the speed of a human walking very briskly. In the first few hours of daylight, Martin kept his companions apprised of how much further they had to go. Every time they passed a landmark that he recognized, he’d announce how many days and hours away from home he and Lambert were at that point.

As the morning wore on, they passed the time in mostly silent anticipation, knowing that in a few short hours so much would be answered or resolved. For Patricia and Karen the anticipation was mostly on Kimball’s behalf, though they hoped as much as Martin that everything and everyone there would be as they should be. For Martin, though, there was the feeling, though not overwhelming, of dread. For the past 24 hours, he’d actually been able to enjoy much of the trip and keep in check most of the worry and anxiety he’d felt before. But with them so close now, much of it was rushing back, though he tried hard not to show it. Mostly he was anxious over how his family and friends would regard him—or may already regard him, for that matter—for purloining the Stone and placing them in jeopardy. Intellectually he knew that none could rightly blame him for something he’d had no idea would happen; and that his family and the Rats weren’t exactly helpless without the amulet; and that it was very likely that Kimball had reached them in time. Still, he couldn’t entirely banish the notion that things couldn’t be the same again, that he couldn’t be trusted, no matter what good reasons he thought he had for his actions: taking the amulet, leaving Lambert behind…and almost abandoning his companions? After that, could he even trust himself again? And Karen…how would she regard him, if they were starting to mean as much to each other as he’d begun to believe? In spite of their close physical proximity on this trip, Martin wondered if he would ever be close to anyone. He was aware of how this was such an important matter to him now—just in these past few days, in fact—than ever before, and though he felt a bit surprised at this, he didn’t once question it. More and more these days, he realized just how much his family and friends meant to him, as well as the importance of himself to them. In spite of these anxieties, he sincerely hoped it wasn’t too late to make it up to everyone. Again he reminded himself of how Patricia and Karen had pledged their continued trust in him, and how he’d promised to be worthy of them.

On and on they went…then, shortly before noon, that promise was put to the test. The Guide was interrupted, as it had been so many times before, and so they weren’t too concerned; they just continued along, holding hands and sticking close together, ready for when it would resume. But when the minutes dragged on, becoming three, five, ten…again there was some nervousness. The three mice exchanged uneasy glances. This time of day, there was far less chance of this interruption being attributable to an unintended nap.

Even in this situation, they spoke little; then Karen said, “Marty, we don’t know why it’s been so long this time, but…I mean…”

“I…think I know what you’re trying to say, Karen. Don’t worry, I promised you that wouldn’t happen again. No way. And I’m not forgetting all that we’ve discussed since, either.” Martin breathed in deep, biting his lip. “I know, there’s any number of reasons for this one, and no matter what it is, everyone should be safe.” Silently he added: But only if Kimball made it, gave his warning, and that being the reason for Mom and Dad doing this. This, to him, was still too big an “if” to suit him. Though they’d all been more hopeful this past day, there was still in Martin the fear, far back in his mind before but now very much in the forefront, that they could still arrive too late, even with them being this close. Martin tried hard to stifle it, and said to the women that he’d limit his own speed so they could all keep up with each other, but that they should keep a steady pace, keep moving as much as possible.

Some 25 minutes after the Guide fell away, however, they found themselves floating again; and Martin, while relieved, was uneasy nonetheless. Something was wrong, even as he could “feel” his mother’s mind reaching out to his through the amulet. He wished he could discern actual, specific thoughts; if so, he’d certainly have a clearer picture of what was going on back home. But it was much like that “well-wishing” he’d received on the third night out: no real thoughts at all, but a general feeling that his parents wanted him and the amulet to return to them. So much trouble they’re going through, he thought; what could he possibly do to make it up to them?

Over the next hour and a half, the Guide was broken several more times, “switching” on and off at irregular intervals: sometimes on for only a minute or two, off for about as long, on for fifteen or twenty. Now, they all knew, something was definitely wrong. If their experiences in the past two and a half days could be considered normal, this was most decidedly abnormal.

Finally, as they were again floating, it loomed into view, a landmark that was more familiar to Martin than any other on this trip. Patricia pointed to this forested slope, curving upward ahead of them. “Martin…is that what I think it is, ahead of us?”

“It sure is,” Martin said with a nod, a broad smile crossing his face. “It suuuure is!” He gave an inarticulate yell of triumph.

All three rejoiced, embracing and congratulating each other. “We made it!” they all shouted. After all the anxiety, uncertainty and tired feet, their journey was nearly at an end. With the sight of the incline’s base rapidly approaching, Martin again felt hope rise, his spirits soar. Not much longer, and they’ll be on the other side of the rise, and home. Surely his troubles wouldn’t be completely over, but after all they’d been through, how could anything to follow be very bad? No question about it, the worst had to be over with.

As they floated upward to the slope’s summit, Patricia said, a bit tentatively, “I hate to burst any bubbles, Martin, but…after all those interruptions we’ve had, we know something’s not quite right.”

“I realize that, Patricia. But the fact is, we’re here, finally! Nothing’s getting in our way now!” In spite of these words, though, Martin knew full well the truth in Patricia’s, and vowed to keep mostly silent until they actually arrived. What was that expression, he thought…something about a fat lady singing…

He looked to his left to see Karen gazing up at the incline, smiling in anticipation. He wondered if he and she would ever get the chance to find out what they truly meant to each other, if there really was trouble brewing. He again felt some small surprise that this should be such a vital matter to him, but he didn’t question it.

Onward and upward they advanced, saying hardly a word; then, a little over halfway to the summit, a sound was heard coming from the other side: a decidedly unnatural sound. “Listen!” Martin whispered. “Hear that?”

It was a low whirring and rumbling sound they heard, one which Martin took at first for the drumming of a ruffed grouse; but no, he quickly realized, this was the wrong season, and this had a much more mechanical sound to it…like some kind of aircraft? He’d never seen or heard a helicopter before, but knew that had to be the source of such a sound. With this realization came the returning sense of crawling dread once again. He fought back rising panic and forced himself to remember all they’d discussed about the likelihood of the Rats’ taking steps to prevent discovery. Having lived in the city all their lives, Karen and Patricia were accustomed to the sound of many types of motorized craft, including helicopters. They knew full well, though, that it was definitely out of place here.

“They did it,” Martin said distantly. “Even with us this close…they still got here before us.” There was no mistaking the controlled rage in his voice, and his companions could empathize; after all, this was every bit their struggle as it was Martin’s, and hearing this solid, irrefutable evidence of human intrusion in Thorn Valley was demoralizing for them all. Both of them, sitting on either side of him, held his arms a little tighter.

“Oh, dear lord,” exclaimed Patricia. “If it’s this bad for us, think of what it’s like for them right now, seeing all those flying machines coming…”

“Maybe, Mom,” said Karen, “but you know what we’ve got to keep telling ourselves.” She glanced to the left to see a woodchuck pause in his foraging, sit up and wave his forepaws in front of his face in confusion as they passed. Looking ahead again, she added, “We’ve been floating so fast lately—when we’ve been floating at all—but now it’s like we can’t go fast enough.”

Patricia was about to add something when, still many yards from the summit, they found themselves slowing rapidly and their feet easing into contact with the ground again.

“I wish I hadn’t said that,” said Karen quietly. They all looked at each other, unable to say any more for the moment, wondering if this latest break in the Guide would be the last.

“Nothing for it but to keep moving, I guess,” said Martin, his subdued tone belying the inner turmoil they all felt. They continued the rest of the way up on all fours, doing their best to keep a steady pace but still keeping together. As they did, they could hear the mechanical whir of helicopter rotors die down. If only that meant all was well and safe again, but they knew it meant the aircraft had to have landed.

Minute after agonizing minute passed, the constant upward climb starting to tell on them. As the crest grew nearer, they all continue speaking words of encouragement to each other, while trying to assuage their own feelings of helplessness, their fear that things were far beyond their abilities to control.

Finally, moving forward started becoming easier as the ground started leveling off beneath their feet. Then it began a downward incline, at an angle noticeably sharper than on the way up. Looking up, they could make out, through the trees that covered the slope, the opposite slope that formed the border of the southeast side. Pausing for a moment to catch their breaths, they took it all in, both the view before them and the realization that they’d truly, at long last, reached Thorn Valley.

They resumed their downward trek, feeling their spirits buoyed anew in spite of not knowing exactly what lay ahead. Wish it was all downhill from here in more ways than literally, thought Karen.

Martin directed them toward one particular grove of trees. “If there’s a sentry on duty, we’ll be able to find out right away what’s going on.”

They paused to look around and listen for anyone’s approach. They started to resume their journey when they heard the sound of rustling underbrush. “Who goes there?” came a voice from a nearby patch of thorny bushes.

Recognizing the voice, Martin responded: “Martin Brisby and two friends. Come on out of there, Walt, let me see you.”

The head of a rat popped out into view. “Martin! It is really you!” Walter extricated himself completely and ran to meet the trio of mice. Though he wasn’t the closest of friends Martin had among the Guard, just seeing him was, at that moment, like seeing all of the Rats alive and well.

“Walt, you’re a sight for these sore eyes, let me tell you! Is everyone else all right? We just heard the helicopter a few minutes ago.”

“Well, er…yes, of course, everyone’s safe and hiding below, ’cept for those of us still on duty. How…” Walter was interrupted by the three mice’s mutual—and loud—congratulations. He looked on perplexed, scratching his head, wondering how they knew about their current situation. And who were these other two, anyway?

Before Walter could say more, Martin said, “Listen, I know all about humans coming here. Just relay ahead that we’re here, okay? See you later!” The three began dashing down the slope, diving through the foliage.

“Martin, wait! I still don’t—” Walter interrupted himself when he could see they weren’t about to stop. More quietly, he finished to himself: “—know who your friends are.” He sighed in exasperation as he reached for his walkie-talkie. “Guard Central, this is Walter, Sector 7.”

“Sector 7, Guard Central. Go ahead, Walter,” came the crackling reply.

“Cap’n, Martin Brisby has returned, but without Lambert. He’s accompanied instead by two mice. They left before I could get more information, or tell them anything about our current situation. They’re on their way right now.”

“So Martin’s returned, finally! I’ll get the word out. In the meantime, they should make it down safely, with the humans spread so far apart. Don’t worry about his companions; chances are they have business here, if they’re with Martin. Brutus out.”

Walter wondered about Brutus’s last, rather cryptic statement, but decided that wasn’t important right then, at least to him. Since the humans were most likely looking for a concentration of rats, he knew that he and the other sentries on duty ran little risk of being discovered or captured. Still, he wished he were below with his family and friends; being aboveground, exposed like this even though they could easily escape human notice, while that which they’d feared for so long was taking place, didn’t seem right to him. He thought back to almost two hours ago, when he was the first to be aware of the first helicopter approaching, almost before he could see or hear it. One brief, terse message to Captain Brutus—“They’re coming! Choppers!”—was all it took to set in motion the final, most critical stage of the Hiding Plan. Walter had pictured everyone scrambling to safety and again wished he weren’t on duty right now. At least now that Martin’s back with the Stone, he thought, things should take a different turn before too long. There was nothing for it now but report in anything else worth reporting and await further orders.

* * *

Justin looked up from his floor-pacing to survey the meeting hall all around. All the Rats of Thorn Valley except for sentries and those on certain other duties were gathered on the floor or up in the seats, most just sitting in small groups. Some conversed quietly but most were silent, anxious, wringing hands, awaiting further word and hoping the news would be positive. He looked at his family, gathered on the lowermost row of seats. He and Isabella exchanged small, encouraging smiles as their youngest daughter, Mina, slept soundly in her mother’s arms. Justin felt a small pang of envy: If only we could all sleep through this. Next to them, her older siblings Ferdinand and Greta quietly conferred with friends, all looking more bored than scared, wondering how much longer they’d have to wait, wait, wait like this. Not far away were the Brisby and Ages families, along with Teresa Brisby’s beau Eric—the only mice in the Thorn Valley community, but who had pledged the same loyalty to it in any time of crisis. It was much more than a show of solidarity, they all knew.

Overall there was calm, but there was some amount of uneasiness in everyone, including Justin. In spite of all the work, all they’d done to conceal the existence of the colony and themselves here, could they still be discovered? No one brought up the point aloud, though, Justin least of all. At least when the word was passed for everyone to take cover, less than two hours ago, it was carried out as in their drills, in a calm and orderly fashion, in spite of it being made very clear that this was not a drill. Those who were aboveground at the time could see and hear the first two helicopters coming in from the east; a fearsome sight, to be sure, for all that it had been expected. Everyone proceeded to the meeting hall to await further word from the sentries. It didn’t take long, with them watching and reporting every move the human intruders made from safe places of concealment: the landing of the helicopters in the meadow north of the pond, the area best suited for this in the valley; the subsequent fanning out of the occupants to every corner of the valley, bearing different types of equipment, mostly unfamiliar to the Rats’ eyes but so far nothing that would indicate a mass capture was their aim; the landing of the third helicopter less than a half hour ago. The fact that many of the humans made for different parts of the valley offered some cause for relief, at least at first; but the arrival of the third helicopter raised the question of how many more there would be.

Be that as it may, thought Justin, we may still get through this. Just because more humans may be looking for us, it doesn’t have to mean a greater chance of discovery. We can get through this, Stone or no Stone. Certainly many had hoped Martin would arrive before now; but, after all, the whole point of the Hiding Plan was that their own efforts, their own resources would be enough. Still, a little extra insurance would be nice…

Justin’s train of thought was shattered by the beeping of his communicator. All conversation ground to a halt as the sound resounded around the room. All eyes and ears were on Justin as he made to answer, eager to hear Brutus’s report but not getting his hopes up. “Justin here. Go ahead, Brutus.”

“Justin, word from Sector 7 just reached me. Martin has returned, with two mice as companions, but without Lambert.”

“Martin’s here?” Justin almost shouted, loud enough for the whole chamber to hear. The Brisbys all got to their feet, almost as one; many rats began talking low but excitedly, and others called for quiet to hear further details.

“Yes, and they’re headed your way quite fast, so fast that Walter couldn’t get more info, or give any either.”

“Quite all right, my friend. Thanks for the report, we’ll take it from here. Justin out.” As he replaced the communicator at his belt, he approached the Brisbys as they reacted joyfully to the news. “Well, I guess the best thing now would be for one of you to go out to meet them…but very carefully.”

Johnathan made to reply, but Teresa spoke first. “I’ll do it! I’ll bring them here!” She was actually jumping and shaking with excitement. None could see any reason why not, but before she left Justin again cautioned her to take care. Though reports indicated no humans close to the colony, that situation could change anytime. Teresa agreed to keep an eye out and reminded him that one mouse would garner little attention anyway. Then she raced from the hall without waiting to hear more; not that any more needed to be said.

As she left, Graham and Simone approached Justin and Johnathan, who both knew what was coming next. “Justin, did we hear correctly?” asked Graham. “That our son isn’t with Martin?”

“I’m afraid so. It’s what they suspected, through their contact with the Stone.” Justin indicated the Brisbys.

“We’re sorry we couldn’t tell you sooner,” said Johnathan in a confessional tone, “but we had to be absolutely certain we weren’t misinterpreting what we were receiving.”

“So you couldn’t discern anything more specific, like why Lambert isn’t with him, or where he is?” Simone’s question was officious in tone, as was typical in her status as principal of Thorn Valley School, but she couldn’t entirely conceal her anxiety over her child’s status.

“’Fraid not, Simone. Believe me, I’d give anything to be able to tell you more.”

“Well, I must say, Martin’s going to have some explaining to do,” said Graham almost casually.

Madeline frowned, having taken the remark more seriously than was intended. “Graham, are you suggesting that…it may be Martin’s fault for whatever happened to Lambert?”

“He’s not perfect,” added Johnathan, “but Martin’s got a good head on his shoulders. He wouldn’t abandon his friends outright; there’s got to be a good reason for his absence.”

Graham looked apologetic. “I’m sorry if I gave that impression; I certainly didn’t mean it that way. And yet, it’s true, I’m sure you’d agree, that wherever he’s been and whatever he’s done, there will be a whole lot of explaining in order.”

None could dispute the point. Madeline apologized for her outburst, but everyone understood, given all the tension and anxiety in the air lately.

Chapter 28: Reunions amid the siege

Karen spotted him first, and they cautiously moved forward to a large rock. They peered around it to observe the scene further, through the trees which lay in front of them for another few yards before giving way to the meadow. They watched the man in the green clothing walk back and forth, making wide sweeps over the area, frequently pausing to take photographs. To Patricia and Karen, at least, that’s what he appeared to be doing; and though this would be a relatively innocuous activity elsewhere, here just the man’s presence was threatening enough.

Martin clenched his fists in silent rage, cursing his own helplessness, wanting nothing more at that moment than to rush out there and bite the man’s foot off if it were in his power.

Noticing his agitation, Karen reminded him, “Marty, Walter didn’t say anything about anyone being captured, or anything serious. I’m sure everyone’s safe wherever they are.”

Martin nodded, trying to look more composed. “I know, I know; and we’re sure to find out where soon enough. C’mon, let’s keep moving.” As they started, he added, “Now I wish we hadn’t run off so fast back there, before Walt could give us the lowdown. At least if he radioed ahead like he should have, someone should meet us pretty soon.” He continued to lead the way, taking them closer to the edge of the clearing, where they could all get a closer look at the man and his activities, which still appeared to be nothing more than simple exploration and observation. “Damn,” he muttered, “I wonder how many more of them there are.”

“Wouldn’t they be looking all over the valley, Martin?” suggested Patricia.

“Well, I hope so, ’cause they’d be spread out more. If they didn’t already believe we lived at this end, or in the valley at all…”

“Marty…Mom…look!” It was the glint of sunlight off plastic and metal that had caught Karen’s eye. Further away in the meadow they could see one of the helicopters; and though it was a sight they’d expected to see, it still seemed a mocking presence, especially to Martin. It was as if all they’d been through, all their best efforts to get here in time didn’t amount to anything. Soon the other two also came into view. Their presence was such a distraction to Martin that he was having difficulty leading his companions in the right direction, or what he hoped to be such, so that they could rendezvous with whoever was sent out. While he’d been relieved to hear that everyone was safe after all, just as they’d theorized, he again cursed himself for not listening further to Walter. He’d said “below”: that could mean the colony itself, but couldn’t he also have meant somewhere else in the valley?

He needn’t have been so concerned. After they’d gone just a little ways further, they heard someone approaching through some dense bushes ahead.

“Who is it?” Martin called out, cautious but optimistic.

“Martin?” came a familiar feminine voice, followed by an equally familiar face poking through the foliage.

“Teresa!” Martin rushed forward to greet his twin sister as she dashed out from the bush. They spun each other around as they embraced. Both found it difficult to speak at first, so choked with emotion were both of them.

Soon Teresa managed. “Oh, Martin, I…never thought I’d miss you so much. Thank God you’re all right.” She kissed his cheek.

“I missed you, too; all of you. Is everyone all right?”

“Well, it’s been quite a…” Teresa suddenly looked contrite as she finally acknowledged her brother’s companions. “Oh, hello! I’m sorry, it’s like I didn’t even notice you, even though I was expecting to see someone with Martin.”

“That’s quite all right, dear,” said Patricia. Martin quickly stepped in to introduce everyone, after which Teresa gasped, her jaw dropping, looking thunderstruck.

“Karen…and Patricia,” she repeated carefully to herself. “You…you’re Kimball’s wife and daughter…aren’t you?”

Their reactions, and Martin’s, matched Teresa’s, and then some. “Kimball’s here? Now?” Patricia shouted the words excitedly as she clasped Teresa’s shoulders, almost shaking her.

“Yes…yes, he is!” Though she hadn’t yet absorbed all the implications, Teresa found their sudden excitement infectious as Patricia spontaneously hugged her, and as Karen embraced Martin.

“Martin, did you hear?” cried Karen. “Dad’s here! We were right! He made it here, all the way!”

“Well, what are we waiting for? C’mon, let’s beat feet!” As the four mice moved along the trail, Martin felt some small apprehension. Despite his outward enthusiasm and enormous relief, there were aspects to his return that he wasn’t looking forward to.

“I’m so glad I was able to find you so easily,” said Teresa as she led them along. “I figured you’d probably take this route once you reached the valley from the slope where Walter is. I couldn’t help trying to avoid having the humans seeing me, even though I knew they wouldn’t be looking for mice.” She went on to explain briefly how the Rats had hidden themselves underground and camouflaged their aboveground activities, leaving only one rarely-used emergency access tunnel open, in the event that Martin, and whoever his companions were, returned before the humans arrived. It was later decided it would be safe to keep it open, even after the humans did arrive, since it was in a very out-of-the-way area that would be less accessible to humans.

Teresa also mentioned how their parents had carried out their Willing Plan and how they’d sensed that two mice accompanied Martin instead of Lambert. Martin, Karen and Patricia were impressed at how accurately this confirmed their guess at what was going on back here. “Martin, I was going to ask you what happened to Lambert, but…I guess that would have to be a long story, wouldn’t it?”

“That’s an understatement, Sis, if anything is.” Martin shook his head, giving a small laugh. Certainly he wanted to say more, but where would he begin? He had half an impulse to ask what everyone thought of him and what he’d done, but thought better of it. If the rest of his family would be as glad to see him as Teresa was, it couldn’t be too bad.

Likewise, Patricia and Karen were burning with curiosity over Kimball, but Teresa would only say that he was greatly looking forward to seeing them again, reminding them that he had no idea they’d be arriving now. She wanted to level with them about his condition, but decided it would be best left to Mr. Ages.

In a few more minutes, Teresa led them off the path and deep within an extremely brushy area. A pathway that had been cut through the briars, unseen from above, led them to the tunnel entrance.

“I’d almost forgotten about this one,” remarked Martin. He mentioned to Karen and Patricia how the Rats had tunnel entrances hidden here in much the same fashion as at the old Rosebush colony. Both couldn’t wait to see the rest of the colony and meet everyone. Patricia remarked to Teresa how for years she and Kimball had both pictured in their minds how this colony looked, often putting their imaginings to paper, and wondered how they compared with the real thing. She and Karen were quick to add, though, that all that was secondary to being with Kimball again.

* * *

“Johnathan, dear, please sit down. They’ll be here soon.” Madeline looked down at Vanessa on her lap, stroking her head and silently assuring her that her father’s floor-pacing didn’t mean anything bad was going to happen.

Johnathan paused, facing his family. “Oh, I know they should be all right, Maddie. It’s just…it’s been going on twenty minutes now. They could be wandering around looking for each other. Martin might not know where to go on his own.”

“If they both stick to the trails, Johnathan, then they should meet,” offered Ages. “Teresa knows that, and I’m sure Martin’s had enough Guard training to know that too. I swear, Johnathan, sometimes I think if you didn’t have something to worry about, you’d have no personality at all.”

Madeline quickly put a hand up to her face, trying in vain to suppress a giggle. Timothy and Cynthia’s reactions matched their mother’s, Cynthia’s being less restrained and followed by an apologetic look.

Johnathan gave a crooked grin and looked all around. “Well, anyone else feel like ganging up on poor old—”

“Here they come!” shouted Cynthia. Everyone looked to the chamber’s north entrance to see four mice enter, two of them familiar. They rushed forward to the center of the room, while the other two advanced more slowly, gazing all around in wonder, a bit cautious about how they’d be received.

Martin saw his family before him, arms outstretched to receive him, to welcome him home. Though he could only see love and concern on their faces, he felt hesitant…but only for a moment. He rushed toward them, and he was instantly smothered in warm embraces. His father and mother took turns nearly squeezing the breath out of him, followed by Timothy and Cynthia and the four young ones, the occasion bringing him back to Johnathan’s return to them two years ago, the outpouring of emotion at least as great as that most memorable occasion. And he knew that for this moment, at least, it didn’t matter what he had done, or why; all that mattered was that he was back among those who loved him.

There was so much he wanted to say, but again he was at a loss for where to begin. Then he remembered his companions; but Teresa spoke first.

“Dad…Mother…you won’t believe who this is who came with him.”

“Who do you—” Johnathan interrupted himself as he looked more closely at the two approaching figures. He and Madeline had known they were coming and that they’d both be mice, and had seen them come in with Martin and Teresa; but it hadn’t yet registered with him or his family to wonder about their identities, so caught up were they in their reunion with their wayward son. Everyone else in the room wondered as well, ever since Brutus’s message; up until then, Johnathan, Madeline and Justin were the only ones who’d even suspected that someone other than Lambert accompanied Martin, and Justin had told Brutus to possibly expect this when Martin arrived.

The two strangers had watched Martin’s reunion with his loved ones with vicarious pleasure, especially touched at the sight of him being mobbed by his youngest siblings, and his hugging and kissing each of them; and they were happy that his earlier anxieties about how well it would go seemed to be for naught. Now, the older one of the pair—though it would be hard to tell at a casual glance—gasped as she saw Johnathan up close.

“Johnathan Brisby…as I live and breathe!” She rushed forward to embrace her old friend and comrade. Justin, who had hung back until Martin’s initial greetings with his family were over, approached the group of mice, curious and eager to meet this one who, he’d already realized, had to be related to their previously most recent guest.

It took Johnathan a few more seconds to fully realize her identity, if not its full implications. “Patricia? It…it is you, isn’t it?”

Madeline gasped. “Patricia…we’d suspected this, didn’t we, Johnathan?”

“And you must be Madeline!” Patricia greeted her with equal aplomb. “Oh, Martin’s told us so much about you; about all of you!” The implications would wait; for now, there were many happy introductions and reintroductions to be made. Karen was warmly and roundly welcomed too, of course; Cynthia was beside herself at gaining another “sister.”

Patricia was surprised to find that she was able to recognize Justin and some of the other elders, since they’d had only the briefest of acquaintances the night of the Escape: “I guess I’m just good with faces,” she summed up. Naturally she recognized Cyril Ages with no difficulty, having reinforced the image of him in her mind’s eye over the years by putting his likeness to paper, as she’d done with Johnathan and others. She was thrilled to meet his wife and their children, and a bit surprised that Ages had started a family so recently.

Still, there were other matters that required more immediate attention. “Kimball…can you take us to him?” asked Patricia of anyone present.

“Yes, yes, of course, I’ll take you to him right away,” replied Ages quickly; then, excusing himself momentarily, he took Teresa aside and asked her privately if she’d said anything to them about Kimball’s condition. Upon hearing she hadn’t, he thanked her for her discretion and turned to escort Patricia and Karen to the medical facility.

Having already learned from Martin that Ages was the head of medicine here, both women felt some amount of anxiety rise. “There’s…something wrong with him, isn’t there?” asked Patricia.

“Well, he’s much better than when we found him, and we expect a full recovery, but…” Ages paused, sighing as he led them out of the chamber. “I won’t lie to you ladies, he was in quite a bad way when he arrived…”

After they left, Johnathan turned to Martin, who’d been almost silent since his arrival and now groped for the right words. Finally he said, “Listen, I…know what’s been going on here, what you’ve had to do, and…and…” He closed his eyes, his expression reflecting the great weariness he felt in both body and spirit. “Oh, God…” He leaned against Johnathan, lowering his head on his father’s shoulder. “Dad, I’m…I’m sorry. Mom…everyone…I feel like I’ve let you all down.”

His family, and everyone else who was close by, were silent for a moment. Then Johnathan said, “Son, listen…I…we don’t know all of what’s happened to you, where you’ve been, what you’ve been through. But it’s obvious that it’s all been pretty rough on you. I want you to know that nobody’s condemning you, and that you can tell us all about it when you feel ready.” Madeline, Teresa, Timothy and Cynthia quietly voiced their agreements.

Martin looked up, managing a smile. “Thanks, Dad…Mom, all of you. That really means a lot.”

“So where’s the Stone, Martin?” a young voice piped up, his tone entirely innocent.

“Lyndon!” admonished Teresa.

“That would have been my next question,” said Johnathan, throwing a stern look at Lyndon. “Well, Martin…I believe there is something you have that belongs to us.”

Martin was already reaching inside his pack, and shortly he drew the amulet out, immediately handing it to Johnathan. “Mom, Dad…I could…feel you, in my mind, through it, guiding me; and then later, it was literally pulling us along, all three of us.”

“Literally pulling you along? Really?” asked Madeline, wide-eyed.

Johnathan placed the Stone around his neck, nodding thoughtfully. “Well, I guess it’ll be some story you’ll have to tell us.” He noticed Martin looking past him at someone approaching, expression slightly anxious, and turned to see Graham and Simone approach.

“It’s great to have you back, Martin,” said Simone, “and we’re glad you’re all right, but, well…”

“…Well,” continued Graham, “I guess you know what we need to know.”

Martin nodded, breathing in deep. He’d seen this coming, though he’d hoped that, somehow, it wouldn’t come quite this soon. Seeing some more of Lambert’s family gathering around—Zora, Mary Louise, Tremaine, Vernon, Jenine, Alvin—he steeled himself, and said, “Well, Lambert and me…we ran into a pack of hostile rats, really mean customers. They forced Lambert to go along with them, and there’s no telling what they would’ve done to me if I hadn’t gotten away. Karen and Patricia say that he’s…valuable to them, and that he probably won’t be harmed while he’s with them. But anyway, now we can just use the Stone to locate him and bring him back, can’t we?” He looked at Johnathan expectantly.

Everyone’s expressions brightened. Johnathan looked at Graham and Simone, nodding. “Well…I can see no good reason why not…”

Graham nodded. “Yes, we could get started right away, in fact. Why don’t we—”

It was the beeping of Justin’s communicator that interrupted him, and once again it prompted near-total silence from everyone. Some of the other councilmembers gathered around. “Go ahead, Brutus.”

“Justin, the human that Sector 5 reported on earlier: he’s very close to our main entrance. Devon can’t see exactly what he’s up to, but if you ask me, he’s too close for comfort.”

Justin frowned. The main entrance had undergone quite an elaborate camouflaging job so that it resembled a long-abandoned burrow, choked with weeds, dead leaves and debris; hardly one that would arouse suspicion. “For now, just have Devon keep reporting in. Justin out.” He turned to those closest to him. “All right. I guess this is where our efforts are really put to the test.”

“It’s too bad the sentries can’t get close enough to actually see what this guy’s doing,” said Arthur. “I’d like to know if they’re doing more than just taking photos and notes.”

“Well, even if this is no more than a fact-finding mission for them, that makes it no less dangerous for us; and we’re not losing anybody, if we can help it.”

“Mm-hm. All we can do is hope they don’t find too many facts.”

“Still,” brought up Graham, “there should be no stopping our—”

“Use it, Johnathan!” came a shout from the stands, from someone who’d evidently been within earshot of Brutus’s last message.

“Yes! Use the Stone to get us out of here!” came another.

Johnathan, his family and those others on the floor looked at each other in stunned bemusement, unsure as yet what to make of this latest development.

* * *

All the while that Ages led Patricia and Karen to the ward and explained Kimball’s condition to them in detail, the pair continued to look about them in wonder, the anticipation of their imminent reunion not lessening the impressions they felt upon seeing all their long-lost comrades had built.

“Well, there’s not much more I can tell you about his condition; I hope I’ve prepared you adequately.”

“Oh, I think you have, Cyril,” replied Patricia as they reached the office entrance to the ward. “And I know you did your best for him, too.” As they paused at the doorway, Patricia put her arms around his shoulders, clasping him to her. “Thank you.” The gesture was simple but eloquent in its meaning. Karen gave him a hug of her own.

“You’re quite welcome, ladies.” Ages led them inside, where Jemial was on duty. After introductions, Ages went into the ward by himself.

“Cyril! What’s going on?” asked Kimball, sitting up in bed, laying aside the book he was reading. “Jemial tells me there’s some excitement down there.”

“You might say that, old friend,” said Ages with a smile. “Martin Brisby’s returned, with the Stone…and he’s brought someone with him.”

“He…he actually made it back? That’s wonderful! But…you said someone with him. You mean besides his friend, Lambert?”

“Well, we don’t know his exact status yet, but…as for those others, I’ll let you meet them for yourself.”

Ages moved to one side to allow two figures into the room, two to which Kimball instantly reacted with open-mouthed, heart-leaping recognition. It was a reunion both joyous and sad, more than either of the women had expected; just from seeing Kimball again and realizing just how much he’d suffered to come here and warn their old comrades. Kimball hadn’t expected, beyond his wildest imaginings, to see his loved ones again so soon, in this way; but for now, he didn’t even try to comprehend how this could be, or the very fact that they’d made such a long and arduous journey themselves. For now, it was enough that they were all here, together again. Ages exited the room, quietly closing the door.

Kimball’s wife and daughter sat on either side of him, all holding each other close, overcome with emotion, unable to speak for several minutes. Finally Kimball managed to say, “Oh, Patricia…Karen…my sweet, beautiful girls. I’m so sorry I…didn’t tell you anything, leaving you without a word. I…I just couldn’t think of anything but…” He blinked, tears streaming down his face, unable to continue.

“Shhh…it doesn’t matter, darling,” said Patricia quietly, still sniffling. “We understand why you did it, and it doesn’t matter now…not after you’ve probably saved everyone here.”

Neither of them had outwardly acknowledged Kimball’s injuries yet; but now Karen said, “It’s such a shame about your leg, Dad; and all the other things that happened to you along the way.” She gently touched the still-bandaged stump.

Kimball sighed. “If only I’d been more careful, less overconfident and cocky, I’d never have lost it, or…”

“Oh, darling, that doesn’t matter either,” said Patricia, stroking his face with both hands. “I can get used to you with one less leg. What’s important is that we’re all here together, and alive and well. We were so afraid for a while…that we’d never…” Again all were silent, unable to speak. Kimball held his wife and daughter closer to him, and together they spent the next several minutes in blissful solitude.

* * *

Theirs was a scene far removed from the one Ages found himself in the thick of upon his return to the meeting hall. He shook his head in disbelief, dumbstruck at what he was witnessing. It looked as if all order, or semblance of order had broken down completely. No one was throwing blows physically, but there were seemingly hundreds of discussions or arguments going on simultaneously. Justin and the other councilmembers were trying in vain to restore order.

“What in tarnation’s this brouhaha all about?” Ages demanded of no one in particular; though it was already becoming clear that Johnathan and the Stone were at the center of it all.

To Johnathan himself, as well as several others, it was something they’d predicted might happen. In spite of all the work on the Hiding Plan and everyone’s outward confidence on it, many still feared that it wasn’t enough; that the only true way out of discovery by humans was to leave, and that the amulet was the easiest way. Now, with it back in the hands of those who could make it accomplish such a feat, combined with Brutus’s “too-close-for-comfort” report, it had become too much for many, just sitting here while humans were roaming about with impunity above. Brutus’s message was enough to push just one of them over the edge. No one had yet owned up to having first shouted for Johnathan to use the Stone to take them away from here, but it hardly mattered now; not with so many others—quite possibly a majority—all clamoring for the same thing. The din was becoming so loud and boisterous that some of the children were covering their ears, some becoming upset and being comforted by parents and older siblings.

Justin was feeling increasingly annoyed at this breakdown in order and what it meant; but the last straw for him was seeing his daughter Mina, face pressed against her mother’s chest, obviously wanting it all to stop. She looked up to him with tearful, pleading eyes; and Justin decided on a measure that, while arguably not drastic, was not one he’d ordinarily resort to.

He raised his communicator to his ear and shouted, for all to hear, “Quiet, everybody! I’m getting another message from Brutus!” The din was instantly reduced to near-total silence. He brought the walkie-talkie down and said sharply, “Now that I have everyone’s attention, I have to say how ashamed I am of this kind of behavior. We’ve always prided ourselves on our sense of community and of cooperation with each other, our ability to come together on issues, our willingness to compromise or bow to the majority when we disagree. We’re all tired, more than a little nervous, and all very anxious for this situation to end; but that shouldn’t excuse what I’ve just witnessed here. It’s obvious we’ve got a major disagreement here, but a shouting contest won’t do any of us good.”

The point hung in the air for a moment, as realization swept over the crowd. Some discussion resumed, but now it was much more subdued. “Now,” Justin continued, “some of you think we should use the Stone to take us out of here. Even after all of us worked together to keep ourselves hidden? You’d have us just chuck it all, as if it were all for nothing?”

Amidst the hubbub of voices, one rat, a few rows up in the stands, stood, waving arms, indicating he had something to say. After Justin acknowledged him and the crowd quieted, he said, “Justin, it’s not like we want to abandon everything. We just think it’d be better to remove ourselves from here until the humans leave. You heard how close that one was to our main entrance, even if it is camouflaged. I say we should get started right away!” Several raised their voices in agreement.

Arthur spoke next, almost angrily. “Now, come on, Quincy! We all knew what to expect when they arrived! We knew they could possibly come this close, but what was the point of the Plan? So that they wouldn’t come any closer!”

“He’s right,” added Norriss. “You’d have us throw all our efforts away, just because some of you got cold feet at the last minute?”

Again the room grew quieter; then, Justin’s communicator sounded off again for real. Brutus reported that the human had continued to examine the area around the front entrance for a few more minutes, even poking around with a stick before moving on.

This seemed to prove the point of Justin and Arthur and others, that the concealment worked after all. But still there were arguments as to what even this meant. What if something there had aroused his suspicion, and he would return soon, possibly bringing others with him? What if they did have equipment that could be used for capture, or even for detecting their quarry, and they just hadn’t brought it out yet?

Amidst this, there continued to be calls for Johnathan and Madeline to take up the amulet to transport everyone out. Justin argued that if they did so, and if there was no further human examination, what would be the point?

“The point is, we’d be alive, Justin!” It was Isabella who’d spoken up, to his surprise. “It’s not that I don’t believe in the Plan; I don’t think that any of us completely disbelieve in it. But there’s still a chance we could be discovered. I also realize…if we did transport out of here, and the humans did uncover the colony…we could never return. It would be like an archaeological dig to them, a curiosity. But still, we’d be alive. We could always settle down elsewhere.” The point raised more quiet discussion.

Justin didn’t quite know what to think. He’d hoped he’d convinced Isabella, since her nightmare, that the Hiding Plan couldn’t miss, that they’d all be safe; but it seemed now that there’d be no swaying her—and likely many others—from the idea that flight was their only viable option. And yet…didn’t he feel the same, deep down? It was something he’d never have admitted out loud, but he couldn’t deny it.

Discussion of the points Isabella raised continued; and amidst it all was one who’d been seemingly forgotten. Martin Brisby had listened to all the reports coming in, the reactions, the opposing viewpoints, the arguments; so much of it centering upon the Stone: the red amulet which he’d been so sure wouldn’t be missed, which he’d taken for the purely selfish motive of rendering his parents incapable of tracing him or bringing him back; the absence of which having had an effect that he was only beginning to fully realize.

His parents had also been taking it all in, mostly silently. Now, they looked to each other, nodding; still silent but each sensing what the other felt: that there was something that shouldn’t be kept to themselves any longer, and that now was the time to bring it before everyone.

Justin was continuing to argue in favor of allowing the Hiding Plan to play out to its conclusion, but he was interrupted by a tug at his tunic. He looked down to see Johnathan. Before either said another word, the room again grew quiet; with the debate centering on use of the amulet, most were waiting on tenterhooks for Johnathan or Madeline to finally make a definitive statement on the matter.

“Justin…everyone…there’s something, really just a theory, which Maddie and I have about the Stone. We think…we may have an alternative to suggest.”

Chapter 29: The mass exodus

The man turned from the sheer embankment toward the patch of tangled briars typical of the ones that were so pervasive in this valley. Though they weren’t nearly as bad in this area, he was still weary of dealing with them, especially after sustaining a few jabs. What I wouldn’t give for a good old-fashioned machete, he thought; but he, like everyone else, was given strict orders to leave everything as is to the greatest extent possible. In spite of the occasional rough going, and his own chafing at these instructions, he still couldn’t help feeling awed. Was it true that they may well be the first human beings to set foot in this valley? The first non-Native Americans, maybe, but even that seemed a bit far-fetched, in spite of its relative inaccessibility from the outside, at least on land. He looked back at the embankment. So much of it was like that, almost all the way around the valley: no gradual slope to the valley floor, but almost a sheer drop in most places. So unique, and said to likely be the only one of its kind in this part of the country. As he swatted at a mosquito on his neck, he wished that it were just as unique. Must have missed a spot, he thought; he paused to apply some more repellent.

As he moved on, he thought: Just how thorough a search do they expect, anyway? This is quite a lot of ground to cover, even with this many of us. He again thought of that leaf-and-debris choked burrow entrance he’d seen underneath that rocky overhang, the one that looked as if there may have been a good deal of traffic around it at one time, but it was clearly abandoned now. Yet, he still couldn’t help getting an odd, undefinable feeling about it. If these rats were that smart, they could make themselves appear not to be here, to hide from us. But how likely is that? It’s not as if they were expecting us, after all. He still found it hard to believe, the very idea of rats gaining intelligence and striking out on their own: It’s like something out of a cartoon by Charles Addams or Gahan Wilson, or the guy that does “The Far Side.” There was so little detail that those in charge of this mission seemed willing or able to divulge about these rats. Perhaps they were the result of an experiment that went awry, though no one admitted this explicitly; it definitely wasn’t the sort of thing they’d want leaked to the general public, if it were so.

In the past few days, since they’d begun this so-called investigation, he’d thought much on this matter. Surely, this valley would turn out to be just another of those areas where they’d find absolutely no evidence of these “clever” rats; yet, there was still this strange feeling he had. Was it connected to that abandoned burrow, or was it something else entirely? The more the minutes wore on, the more it seemed the latter; and still he couldn’t define the feeling. Oh, well, no sense in getting preoccupied about it, he thought. Let’s just get this part of this wild-rat chase over with.

He moved on toward the deeper woods off to the south, pausing to admire one prominent, obviously aged oak tree. Wouldn’t that look good in my backyard, he thought. On the edge of the woods, he bent down to examine another burrow. As he did, he heard some small movement nearby. He glanced up to see a squirrel making its way down a nearby trunk. It paused for a moment to look at him before it resumed its descent. Upon reaching the ground it broke into a full-tilt run. Something about its behavior struck him as unusual. Most other animals in the valley that he’d encountered, having probably never seen a human being before, would react to him with much more curiosity, and overall were rather tame. So why did this squirrel seem almost frantic to get somewhere? Usually it’s just the opposite: it would scurry up a tree to escape danger. No predators in sight, nor did it seem to involve a territorial dispute. He shrugged; May as well just keep on doing what I’m being paid for, he thought.

Hardly had the thought crossed his mind when two chipmunks scurried past, not three feet from where he was squatting, not even looking at him or otherwise acknowledging his presence. Again this struck him as odd, especially after he noted that they were moving in the same direction as the squirrel. Now this might be something really worth investigating, he thought as he moved further into the area from where the animals were running—which, in fact, was where he’d just been.

It didn’t take long for him to be convinced that something unnatural was going on. Several feet away a woodchuck ambled along resolutely, again in the same direction. Further on, three deer bounded off into the deeper woods. Above, a flock of blue jays skirted the treetops, braying in alarm.

Caught up as he was in all this strangeness, he’d practically forgotten about making any contact with his colleagues. “Report anything unusual or uncharacteristic” was the main directive, especially if it were some outward sign of intelligent non-human life—something that seemed more and more unlikely to him lately. But this was easily the most unusual thing he’d seen yet, so he reached for his walkie-talkie.

“DiPietro, this is Travis, over.”

“Travis, DiPietro. What’s going on?”

“I…don’t quite know how to describe it. For three or four minutes now, I’ve seen animals of many kinds, mammals and birds, all moving in the same direction. No idea yet as to why.”

“Can you tell where they’re going?”

“If you mean a specific destination, no, but…from where I’m standing, they’re all heading south-southwest. It’s like…like they’re moving away from something rather than toward.”

“Hmm. No sign of that kind of activity down our way yet. But let’s keep each other posted on this. Over and out.”

Travis continued in that direction, shaking his head in disbelief as more and more animals passed on either side, all seemingly bent on escaping…what? Soon he reached the edge of the woods. Just past the big oak he’d admired earlier was the spring-fed lake, on the north side of which the helicopters were parked. He continued to see animals on the move—more deer, squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks—but now that he was out in the open again, he could see that they weren’t all moving in one direction. Rather it seemed that they were moving away in different directions, but also from one area, seemingly confirming that they were moving away from something.

He contacted DiPietro again to report this observation, but barely had he done so when something else demanded his attention. “Travis, what’s happening now? Travis, come in,” responded DiPietro to the prolonged silence from the other end.

“Uhh…I’m moving in toward the lake now, and…well, it’s not just birds and mammals now. All around me, there’s…toads jumping through the grass, lizards…more small mammals too; several rabbits, gophers, more birds flying, too; but the insects! You would not believe this, even the insects are getting into the act! Crickets, grasshoppers, they’re all over the place! Dragonflies, ka—” After a pause, he added, “A praying mantis just landed on me for a moment, then moved on. I swear to you, I know it sounds crazy, but…it’s like a mass exodus of every living thing that isn’t rooted to the ground, all getting up and the hell out of here. And all of them in the same direction! You gotta get someone else over here; I need someone to tell me I’m not dreaming.”

“I’ll get right on it. DiPietro out.”

Travis advanced to the edge of the lake…and once again could scarcely believe his eyes. Not only were frogs, turtles, even crayfish making their way out onto dry land, but fish were actually leaping into the air, trying to reach the bank. Some succeeded in beaching themselves, flopping about helplessly.

“This is crazy, this is crazy…” Travis said to himself as he bent down to pick up one of them, and actually found himself shaking. He tossed the small fish back into the water, taking care to visually follow it after it submerged. It almost immediately leaped onto the bank again, and Travis felt his insides do some leaping of their own. He stood up straight, feeling his knees almost ready to buckle underneath him, and reported this latest incident, almost dropping his walkie-talkie.

“Travis…Howard…are you all right? You sound like hell,” said DiPietro.

“Oh, God…I feel like…like I need to get out of here, too. It’s like something in the air, s-something telling me I can’t stay here…” Travis paused as he started moving away from the area. He continued his report, trying to sound as calm as possible. “I’m walking away from the lake now; from…from here it looks even more like I thought, that the animals are…moving away from…in different directions, but from this area. That seems to include the lake, much…of the meadow, back to the embankment. This…is just too damn bizarre for words, I hope someone else can get ov…er…”

“Howard? You okay? What’s happening now?”

Again he felt like his senses betrayed him. Through the air, all around him, were all manner of flying creatures; something that ordinarily wouldn’t warrant any disbelief, were it not for the fact that they were creatures that weren’t meant to fly. A turtle went sailing by, craning its neck from its shell, legs flailing, still wet from the lake; frogs, toads, lizards, salamanders, an occasional snake, all moving with no visible means of support but otherwise as before: outward from this area. Soon came the biggest shock yet: fish were now flying past him, bodies twisting helplessly in the air, and crayfish as well, flailing their claws about.

Howard Travis felt a new surge of this feeling he couldn’t define, almost akin to panic; this urge to leave the area as soon as possible. Intellectually, he knew that this had to associated with this strange effect that was now seemingly driving all the animal life out of the area forcibly; but this didn’t make it easier for him to resist it, or to deal with it on any level that other than what could only be described as intuitive or instinctive. It was distracting him to where it was increasingly difficult to make a very accurate or even coherent report.

DiPietro and everyone else were by now listening to every word coming from Travis’s section with unswerving attention, devoting virtually none to their own areas; especially those who were on their way there, to see this phenomenon for themselves and possibly lend some form of assistance. There was no mistaking that whatever was causing this, it was having an effect on Travis that was decidedly unnatural, even frightening. Many were starting to feel that something was coming to a head over there, and that the strangest was yet to come.

Travis realized this beyond all doubt as he continued making his way to the eastern perimeter of the meadow. By now he hardly questioned the reality of all these animals which by rights shouldn’t be airborne flying all around him, occasionally colliding with him and simply moving on; all he knew was that he too had to keep moving on with them. Soon he picked up his walkie-talkie again; in a somewhat calmer voice, he reported: “I think I’m…almost out of the area now…I don’t know how I know, but I think the worst is over, for me anyway.” He paused to catch his breath, and turned to face “the area.” “Yeah…I don’t think this can get much…weirder…”

His voice fell away as he saw it, seemingly radiating from the rock of the embankment, over two thousand feet away. Even through the foliage that grew between it and himself, it was plainly visible. It started with a glowing field of red which at first he took for a trick of the eye. He blinked, looked again at the area…and now it looked as if the rock and soil itself were the actual source of this light, as if the earth had become red-hot. The glow grew, and grew swiftly, spreading to the nearer foliage, appearing to flow across the field, heading straight toward him. Everything in its path—trees, bushes, grass, rocks—seemed consumed by it, and gave off the same radiance. It reached the pond; the water glowed the same way. The very air was not immune: the effect spread through it, making the sky as seen through it appear violet.

So fast was all this happening that Travis could only stare slackjawed, rooted to the spot, oblivious to the voice through the walkie-talkie asking, almost frantically, what was happening. All at once, realization returned; he started to turn and run, and almost immediately stumbled over a jutting rock. He fell almost flat on his face; and if he was hurt at all, he barely noticed as he turned his head toward the advancing glow, afraid to look but also unable to turn away. Still it was spreading, just a few feet away now, so swiftly that he knew there was no more time, no chance of escaping it now. He shielded his face with his arms, closing his eyes, thinking of home, of Sharon, of how he may never see anyone or anything he knew again; then the glow overtook him, enveloping him…

…and he felt nothing, at least at first. He opened his eyes and put his arms down. All he saw was red, the glow surrounding him, but it didn’t hurt or feel hot like he’d half-expected. Then, indescribable sensations assailed him, knocking him flat on his back. This was it for sure this time, he was certain; then the red turned to black as all his senses left him completely.

Chapter 30: Two worlds colliding

—It’s too much for it to handle. It would never work.

—We’ve got nothing to lose by trying.

—Something could go wrong.

—Many of us have been there before. We know it will be hospitable to us.

—With that many of us, along with everything else, it’s bound to cause strain on everyone.

—Maybe this is the only way for us to be truly separate from them.

—The process shouldn’t be irreversible, but why would we want to return?

—None of us are sickly or in fragile health, so no one’s life should be endangered.

—With our longtime association with it, we should be able to tell beforehand if we can pull it off.

—Those in favor make a show of hands…

—If anyone still wants to leave and take their chances out there right now, you’re welcome to it.

—What would Nicodemus think? I can’t believe he’d approve…

—Let’s gather all the sentries in; we’re not leaving anyone out.

—Still, couldn’t a task this enormous drain it permanently of its power?

—It would be an imposition, not just on the natives but on the land itself.

—It can be done; and it would be reversible.

—It still sounds like too great a risk, especially considering the number of us involved.

—Rest assured, Lambert will be our first priority afterward.

—It sounds good to Sabrina and me…

—Yes, but what if…

—After everything else we’ve all faced together, it’s only fitting…

—Well, isn’t there still a chance that…

—Just imagine their surprise when it happens…

—I still say that…

—It may be our only chance for a lifetime…

—Come, let’s all join hands, pool all our thoughts as one.

* * *

It was still a few more minutes before Johnathan Brisby realized he could open his eyes, or at least feel like he was opening them. He lay flat on his back, gazing up at the skylights that still illuminated the meeting hall, though it was noticeably dimmer than before. There was near-complete silence in the room. Did it work? he asked himself. Were they where they were supposed to be, or had something gone wrong? No, he thought, I can’t accept that possibility. Not yet. This feeling of enervation, of great exhaustion, was entirely expected. Let’s just give it a few more minutes. In the meantime, let’s see how everything else works. He tried to cry out loud, but could only give forth the barest gasp. But he could hear himself: a good sign.

He tried to move his limbs, but again his muscles responded only feebly. He tried turning his head; and as he did so, other sounds, however faint, could be heard close by, and they were indeed sweet to hear. Madeline, lying by his side, moaned softly. He could see her opening her own eyes, and Johnathan made a greater effort to move his hand toward her. It came up against her own hand, and she responded with a faint sound that seemed of relief. He tried raising his head, and was pleased to find that it was easier than he’d thought. Casting his gaze about, he could see many others lying about on the floor where they’d collapsed, and others in the lowermost rows of seats, many slumped over. Increasingly, he could hear other sounds of gradual awakening and recovery.

It was becoming a bit of a strain to keep holding his head up, so he set it back down, turning it again toward Madeline. Again he tried to speak. “Ma…Madeline?” It was a croaking whisper, but it did just fine; she was able to respond in kind.

Over the succeeding minutes, there was much stirring about, much calling out of loved ones’ names. There were many complaints of feeling completely awful, but there were many expressions of thankfulness as everyone found family and friends nearby. More and more began moving about, some even able to stand upright.

Soon Justin’s voice was heard above the crowd, sounding weary but still not failing to command everyone’s attention after he’d made his way, with no small effort, to the dais. He called for a confirmation that everyone was present and accounted for, and that none, hopefully, felt ill effects that were too serious. It soon was confirmed that everyone was indeed next to the one he or she was next to before they’d begun the process. Many only felt “weak as a kitten,” and there was the expected widespread nausea, even some vomiting in a handful of individuals; some complained of near-uncontrollable shaking. But all seemed to feel certain that they’d completely recover.

Others besides Johnathan remarked on the light from outside being dimmer than before, and some called upon him to confirm whether this was a sign that this process—the same process which caused them all such discomfort now, and should have led to a major change in all their lives—had gone as planned.

In the ensuing minutes the degree of physical discomfort was indeed easing gradually, in some faster than others, adding to everyone’s feeling of relief. Most in the community had never experienced anything like this before, but finding that the effect was indeed temporary and not too great a strain after all, plus knowing their families and friends were all there and recovering as well, was boosting everyone’s morale.

Several were now moving carefully among the crowd, checking on everyone’s well-being. Ages and his medical staff were giving special attention to those who still complained of excessive weakness and insides in knots. For those who’d recovered more quickly there was a growing restlessness, since they could no longer see any reason to be confined here, and so they gave voice to their concerns. Clearly, a growing number was impatient to confirm with their own eyes that what they’d hoped to have done was a success. As planned, Brutus organized a Guard contingent to scout ahead; since none knew yet if it was safe to go outside, they were the best suited for dealing with unexpected or even dangerous situations directly.

Justin gave his approval and off they went. Then he returned his attentions to his family, seated on the lowermost row. “How are we all doing?”

Ferdinand and Greta leaned on each other, still complaining of some overall discomfort, but they admitted feeling better than before. Mina still whimpered wordlessly as her mother cradled and rocked her, but she seemed improved also. Isabella herself felt much stronger but wanted to stay with the children until they felt well enough to be moved.

Justin felt close to weeping at the sight of his family, and everyone else, in such a state. “I just wish…we could have done it without going through all this.”

Isabella smiled as she reached up to stroke his cheek. “It’s all right, love. It’ll be worth it, because I just know we made the right decision.”

Elsewhere in the chamber, everyone else tried their best to deal with the situation—mostly silently, in anticipation for what was to come. Those parents with infants or very young children, such as Willis and Sabrina, still tried their best to calm and comfort them. Graham and Simone, and their sons and daughters, all waited silently for further word on what lay “out there,” but with thoughts never straying far from Lambert, and how soon before he could be sought out. Kimball and his newly-refound wife and daughter silently held on to each other. When they’d first learned of this proposal, they’d all agreed to participate without hesitation, though there was some initial anxiety over whether it would be too big a strain on Kimball, who hadn’t completely recovered from his own ordeal. But after all, they argued, what would they have him—or all three of them, for that matter—do, stay behind? It didn’t take them long to agree that they should all stand together in this.

Nearby were those who were very much at the center of things. Johnathan Brisby and his family quietly conversed about what had just been done, concerned perhaps more than anyone else about its success or failure, with everyone’s eyes returning time and again to the red amulet against his chest. With them was Eric, who’d promised Teresa and her family his unflagging allegiance but who now could only sit silently, shaking his head in disbelief and bewilderment. Martin was equally and uncharacteristically silent, and his parents couldn’t help being concerned; they’d begun to wonder how all this was affecting him, and they hoped he’d confide in them soon. For their own part, they noted how the physical aftereffects were more intense than either of them had experienced in a long time, more like their earliest experiences with the Stone.

In a few seemingly-long minutes Brutus’s party returned. An almost-eerie silence pervaded as everyone anticipated his report. “Well, everyone…we’ve seen it for ourselves, with our own eyes…but, speaking strictly for myself, I can’t say as I’ll ever get used to it.”

“But…it was successful?”

“Indeed it was, Justin. Indeed it was.” Conversation again filled the room: low in volume, but excited and full of anticipation, perhaps tinged with some confusion and uncertainty.

Martin Brisby looked up, quietly breaking his silence. “I guess…we did it, didn’t we?” The question was put matter-of-factly, with scarcely a sign of emotion.

“I guess we did, son,” answered Johnathan, patting Martin’s shoulder before getting to his feet carefully.

Eric looked up, expression still lost, bewildered. “What’d we do?”

Teresa helped him to his own feet. “I think…if we all go and see for ourselves…we’ll all understand better.” Certainly there were many who shared Eric’s sense of confusion and befuddlement, but everyone felt as Teresa did; many were even now getting to their feet and moving toward the exit. At the forefront were Brutus and Justin and their families, with the entire Brisby family following closely, leading everyone who was ready and feeling up to it out into the corridors toward the main entrance.

“We cleared away most of the debris,” reported Brutus, “just enough to get us outside, basically.”

“That’s just fine, my friend,” said Justin. “We’ll have plenty of time to get it and everything else just the way we want it again.” Soon everyone, with a few exceptions, was lined up just inside the main entrance, which had been camouflaged as an abandoned burrow under the Hiding Plan. Justin and Brutus were ready to lead everyone else to the outside, to surroundings which promised to be both familiar and disorienting.

Lyndon Brisby impatiently wormed his way through. “What’re we waiting for?” he said as he dashed toward the mostly-uncleared aperture.

“Lyndon! Don’t go far,” cautioned his mother.

“Don’t worry,” said Johnathan, “he’ll be all right. We all will.”

“Yep,” concurred Timothy in his familiar confident tone, “we sure will.” With that, they followed him, stepping out hand-in-hand into the daylight for the first time in what seemed like days.

The first sign of anything unusual was immediately noticeable. The air was several degrees warmer, and though it was filled with familiar scents, others were beginning to mix in and mingle, odors both familiar and strange. It was also, as noted in the meeting hall, noticeably dimmer. It was midafternoon with clear skies before; but now, though the sky was still clear, no sun was immediately visible in the sky or through the foliage, as if it hadn’t risen or had already set.

More and more rats and mice emerged into the open, mostly silent, all realizing almost instantly that though the immediate surroundings looked much the same, things had definitely changed. The next most obvious difference was the near-silence: there was no birdsong to be heard, and though everyone had been told to expect this, it was still unsettling.

“Daddy, the cliff’s gone,” said Lyndon, tugging at Johnathan’s arm and pointing upward. “Or some of it.”

A collective gasp was heard after everyone followed Lyndon’s gaze. The precipice which formerly towered some fourteen hundred feet above the colony’s main entrance now rose to only about two hundred and then stopped abruptly, as if sheared off.

Arthur shook his head. “We all knew…all expected results like this, but…”

“But it’ll take a whole lot of getting used to,” finished Johnathan. “And it doesn’t stop there, by a longshot.”

Kimball, carried in Bernadette’s arms, gazed back and forth, unable to take in enough. “I’d never have believed…that this place…or any place could change so much, so quickly.”

Johnathan, Justin and Brutus continued leading the way, past the trees that lay in the “front yard” several feet in front of the main entrance. Johnathan lost no time, climbing a young oak which was a favorite vantage point from which he could have a better view down to Lake Nicodemus and beyond. At about three feet he stopped and stared, shaking his head. Knowing full well what to expect still made the sight no less disorienting and hard to comprehend at first. Whereas normally one would see the meadow on the opposite side of the lake give way to the southeast “wall” of Thorn Valley, now he could see only a few trees at meadow’s edge; again, as if the land beyond had been cut away. In actuality, though, it was very much the opposite.

Everyone else reacted in much the same way upon attaining a good view across. Beyond the “cutaway” point no further horizon could be seen at first, just a haziness that gave the impression of early-morning low-lying mist. “Maybe…it is early morning here,” someone suggested. Indeed, the further out into the clearing they ventured, the more it seemed that it was lighter toward the northwest…or what had been the northwest.

By now the entire population of the Thorn Valley colony had come outside and had begun to spread out in different directions, encouraged by earlier assurances of their safety which increasingly seemed to be bearing out. A sense of awe pervaded, brought on by the contrast between the sense of unease and tension that had come before and what was before them now, marked initially by the persistent quietude but now even more by what was advancing upon them from behind, over the greatly-reduced cliffside. Not that there was anything sinister or threatening about the sun rising where it was; it was that it was rising opposite of where everyone was accustomed.

Justin rubbed at the nape of his neck. “I guess this clinches it, if anything does…right, Johnathan?”

“Indeed, my friend…for better or for worse.” Johnathan brought his gaze from horizon to horizon, across this sky so much like the one they were all familiar with, but subtly different; this sky that looked down upon a world that he’d called home at one time, and which may very well come to be considered home by all of them, by these creatures who, seeking only peace and freedom from persecution, had been pursued across the face of their own world, even to its remotest area, and ultimately from it altogether.

This, then, was the culmination of what had begun as an idea in the mind of Johnathan Brisby, had developed into a very strong conviction in the minds of himself and Madeline; and, when presented before the community, was nearly-unanimously agreed upon as the only real and hopefully permanent solution to their problem. The idea was that the Stone could be employed to not only move everyone to a location safe from human intrusion, but the actual colony itself as well: the entire underground complex, a generous portion of the cliffside, and much of the adjacent land—even including Lake Nicodemus—which they’d made so much their own. They’d kept the idea to themselves at first, believing it too radical a step to take, and not one that would be seriously considered as a viable option. But with the return of Martin and the amulet came the hue and cry to use it for a mass evacuation to ensure everyone’s survival, if nothing else. They’d both felt the time was right to not keep the idea to themselves any longer; and, in truth, were not greatly surprised to find that a majority would approve of such an act if it could be done. It didn’t take much further discussion to decide that if they were to move the entire colony, it shouldn’t be just simply moved to another location on Earth. All were well aware of the fact that the Brisbys, sometimes accompanied by others, had used the Stone to visit other extradimensional worlds, some of which would be eminently suitable to live in themselves on a more-than-temporary basis. Without hesitation, Lahaikshe, the world of their sorcerer friend Gwinthrayle, was considered. With its climate that compared favorably to Earth’s, their overall familiarity with much of it, and its native race the Rusay’s frequent contact and familiarity with them, it was believed it would do nicely.

Oh, there were the arguments, the possible pros and cons tossed back and forth: whether the trip would be too much of a strain on some or all of them, knowing that the more sizable the task, the more likely the amulet would be to borrow life-energies from those it was dealing with; whether this would have to be a permanent move; whether it could be reversible, accounting for the possibility that a task this great could drain the amulet of its mystic energies permanently; what to do with the other animals that lived in the area, who certainly shouldn’t be forced into this unwillingly.

In a remarkably short time, these and other matters were put to rest, or at least reasoned to be less serious. The Brisbys believed the Stone could accomplish more sizable tasks with greater ease now, due to their long association with it, so the enervation effect shouldn’t be much more serious this time. Still, it was argued, a chunk of land this size? The Brisbys answered that they’d never really tested the limits of the amulet’s power; and with it back in their hands, they felt more certain than ever that it could be done. They were also sure that it would still be working properly afterwards, though as usual it would take some time to “recharge.”

A solution for dealing with their fellow creatures was also found. While in “communion” with the Stone, the Brisbys discovered a heretofore-unknown capability: to remove all or some living beings from a designated area. The environmental consequences were also discussed: they could use the amulet to remove all animal life from the area before transporting, but plant life was a far different matter. No one was prepared to have their little tract of land be barren and lifeless except for themselves. But, maintained those well versed in botany, there could be a problem with some of the Earth flora interfering with the native plant life, and vice versa, to possibly serious environmental detriment. And where exactly would they settle in this “new” world? They couldn’t just plop themselves down anywhere; again, there could be serious consequences.

And again, the solution to both problems was realized in quite short order. Johnathan and Madeline knew of one particular area that, while not totally devoid of life, was quite barren and empty; not due to an arid climate, but more to simply being dominated by bare, exposed rock, for reasons not really understood by the natives. There were other such areas scattered across Lahaikshe, but this one they believed to be especially appropriate: extremely flat, of more than sufficient dimensions to accommodate this “new” piece of land; and far enough from most other native plant life to prevent any great amount of mutual interference. In addition, it wasn’t far from Gwinthrayle’s home.

What about how the Rusay would react to all these outsiders imposing themselves and their land upon their world? These people weren’t strangers to interdimensional visitors, and the Brisbys and their friends who’d come here had relations with the natives that were always friendly and cordial; but this—! It was agreed that this would be a matter that could really only be dealt with after the fact, since time was running short and they had to take action fast.

There was also a brief debate on whether Nicodemus would approve of such a radical step. It was Justin, in fact, who was the first to remind everyone that Nicodemus had always held out hope for eventual acceptance by and diplomatic relations with humankind. But even Justin admitted that, at this point in time, removing themselves completely from their attentions, to a place where they couldn’t follow, was the best solution; perhaps the only solution. Even advocates for dialogue, like Tallus or Arthur, agreed that humankind, by and large, just wasn’t ready for them; and it had to be assumed that these humans were equipped to capture or kill them, or else those that followed them would be.

Graham and Simone, meanwhile, had reluctantly agreed to put the search for Lambert on hold until this other business had been resolved. Before the call for mass evacuation had arisen, Johnathan was readying to begin that very search; but this was all but forgotten by everyone but Lambert’s family in the midst of the subsequent debate on the greater matter. Patricia and Karen talked to them in hopes of convincing them that Lambert would continue to be in relatively little danger in his present situation. Though Graham and Simone barely knew these mice, they felt they could trust in their convictions, and they were won over to the majority who felt that—after it was put to a vote—evacuation was their top priority with the amulet.

Once this was decided, Johnathan used the Stone to bring in all the sentries from outside; and with every last citizen of the Thorn Valley colony present, the process began without any further delay. At this point, few even thought about how fast they had all come to such a momentous decision; hardly an hour had passed between Martin’s return and the beginning of the process. But the sense of collective urgency was so strong that all else was overshadowed by it. Everyone pooled their thoughts as one, concentrating on nothing but seeing this newest plan become reality. Though Johnathan and Madeline were the only ones who could command the amulet’s power, they’d long known that, in calling on its power for tasks like these, it was an enormous help for everyone involved to concentrate in a like fashion along with them; and in this case, once it had begun, it was very quickly accomplished.

Now, as they witnessed the success of the procedure, the full realization was swiftly dawning on them. A piece of their world was literally torn away and transported to an entirely different one. There would be many moral and philosophical debates to come; but for now, it was enough just to orient themselves to these surroundings which were old but also, paradoxically, new.

By now, with everyone’s physical strength and stamina returned to normal or close, and with less apprehension since the near-total lack of dangers on this world was a well-known fact, the citizenry of the Thorn Valley colony had fanned out far and wide from the colony entrance, venturing forth in small groups, with at least one of the Guard with a walkie-talkie in each. One group, led by Brutus, headed for the far edge of the meadow on the east side of Lake Nicodemus—or what used to be the east side—beyond which used to lay the opposite side of the valley. But now, beyond those few trees that remained, lay the very edge of the piece of land that accompanied them to Lahaikshe, and this group would be the first to see the view from there and how far the land rose above the plain upon which it found its new home.

In another group led by Arthur, he gazed heavenward and tried to picture a bird’s-eye view of all this; if there were birds here, he reminded himself. That may be the hardest thing to adjust to, he and many others knew; most enjoyed the state of coexistence alongside their fellow creatures, in spite of their differences. But with the amulet’s power expelling all higher animal life from the area, leaving only most lower, microscopic species, it would be drastically different here, even with the familiar surroundings: a lonelier place, to be sure, without the sound of birdsong, the buzzing of insects, rabbits and woodchucks browsing in the grass by the pond.

At any rate, he pictured, as from above, a green-laden mesa with a small lake and a jagged lump of rock on one side, all surrounded by an expanse of flat, red barrenness. Arthur shook his head. Did it really have to come to this? Still he couldn’t accept the impossibility of a reasonable dialogue with the humans; all they’d have to do is be able to communicate—not just verbally, but to impress upon them these creatures’ hopes and dreams, their ambitions…the undeniable truth that their existence is every bit as legitimate. He looked at Melinda and their children, and again his thoughts fell to Jenner: would he have ever agreed to any of this?

Melinda took his arm, leaning her head on his shoulder. “We did the right thing. I know we did.”

Arthur nodded and smiled. “I know, darling. I really do believe it, too. But still…” He detailed his misgivings to her.

Nearly everyone had some misgivings and uncertainties, but overall the feeling was one of having made the right choice. Martin Brisby, however, hadn’t said a word since leaving the colony. It was a silence that spoke volumes to Karen, who’d realized that he could be blaming himself for much of what had been happening here before and since their transference. And with this, on top of everything else he’d been through…

She came up beside him, touching his arm. “Marty…is there anything you’d like to talk about? If there is, I’m here. We all are.”

Hardly looking up, he replied, “I’m okay, Karen. It’s…I’m just…getting used to all this.”

Karen didn’t press him further but hoped he’d open up soon; it was obvious, now much more than before, that he was holding too much back.

Further on, as Brutus’s group made their way closer to the edge, his wife Deena noticed someone was missing among their brood of four children. “Augie! Where are you? Darrin, wasn’t he just with you?”

Darrin shrugged. “He was here just a minute ago, Mom, I didn’t see where he got to.”

Deena sighed. “You know how he wanders sometimes, you should have held his hand.”

“I wouldn’t worry about him, Dee, he shouldn’t go far.” Brutus paused, scanning the area. “Just the same, let’s spread the word to look out for—”

Something bursting through a stand of tall grass to the family’s right interrupted him. As if on cue, Augustus, whom his family called Augie, was racing toward them full steam, wearing an expression of sheer terror. He ran straight toward his father and leaped straight up.

“Augie, what’s wrong?” asked Brutus as he scooped his son up. “You’re shaking like a leaf. Take it easy, kid, it’s all right now.”

“What’d you see, honey?” asked his mother. “What scared you?”

Augie could only point in the direction from which he’d just come running. “Over there…big, real big…l-looked at me…” He buried his face in his father’s chest.

His parents, brother and sisters, and others who witnessed this scene looked at each other, at a loss for what to make of it. What could Augie have seen to frighten him so? Whatever it was, Brutus knew, there was no reason to doubt that he had seen something out there. He reached for his walkie-talkie. Within seconds, the message had been passed around to the entire population that everyone, with a few exceptions, needed to stay where they are until further notice. Brutus gave Augie a quick kiss and handed him over to Deena, assuring his family he’d be careful. He went to investigate.

In short order a new group was assembling just as Brutus returned. “All right, Brutus,” said Justin with a tone of expectancy, “what’s this all about? What did Augie see?” He didn’t want to believe it could be anything dangerous, but considering all they’d been through back in Thorn Valley…

“I think…you’d better see for yourself, Justin.” Brutus led him back into the tall grass. Justin could have sworn he detected at least a hint of fear. In Brutus? What could have shaken him that much, or at all?

He soon had his answer. There was something ahead, something he couldn’t yet see clearly, obscured by the close-set stalks; but it was something big, all right. A fallen log? No, there shouldn’t be anything remotely like that in this area. Only one other possibility, then; Augie did say it was something alive, but something he couldn’t positively identify. Then it must be…

Just a little further, and Justin’s suspicions were confirmed. It was a human, a man dressed in green, lying flat on his back, seemingly able to move only barely. The two rats moved with extreme caution toward his head. His face was turned toward them, bearing an expression of great disbelief as he saw these two small creatures studying him and motioning to each other before retreating back into the tall grass.

Chapter 31: Three worlds colliding

In all his life, Howard Travis had never seen such a captive audience. Why, the closest thing would have to be that presentation he’d made back in high school, before an auditorium full of kids, half of whom were more interested in trading gossip and joking and firing spitwads and otherwise not even listening…

He caught himself, wondering why such an absurd thought would come at a time like this. He’d realize later that it was just an attempt to deal with this bizarre scene before him now, which was the latest entry in a parade of bizarreness. For a good hour, more or less—it was difficult to discern the passage of time—he’d been lying here in the grass after that…that red force had slammed into him, seemingly drawing out his vitality, leaving him semi-conscious, hardly able to move so much as his eyelids, and his insides tied in knots. This had followed on the heels of that mass exodus of animals from the area, and his own irrational feelings of panic and urgency to leave the area.

Now he was faced with something which defied all his attempts to rationally accept. Even after he was able to open his eyes, his vision took a few more minutes to clear to where he could make out very definite forms. He’d seen that small creature come literally face to face with him, so close he could swear there was a definite change in its facial expression before it turned tail and ran. A few minutes later two more appeared, both larger; followed over the next few minutes by more until there were dozens all gathered alongside him: dozens of…rats! He continued his attempts to move any part of his body, but all his muscles seemed barely able to respond. It was a continued fear of the unknown that mainly prompted this feeling, to get away; but he couldn’t.

There was an acceptance of sorts in him, that all his attempts were futile, that he was at their mercy; let them have their way with him. At first he wondered: what were they waiting for? Then he realized: they hadn’t made any moves that seemed in the least bit hostile; it was more like he was being studied, with the way they stared so intently, the cocking of heads this way and that, the startled reactions every time he was able to make some small movement. That absurd high-school memory crossed his mind; then right after he’d caught himself, it finally occurred to him: rats! These just had to be none other than the very rats they’d come here to find, or at least to uncover evidence of! The more he looked, the more he was convinced that these were far from ordinary rats, and therefore had to be the ones.

With his fear being replaced more and more by curiosity, Howard was able to notice further details that differentiated these rats from ordinary ones: many of them were standing upright, appearing as much at home on two legs as those who were on all fours; many were wearing clothing, either upper-body garments, like vests or tunics, or what looked very much like dresses or skirts—could this possibly mean different styles for males and females? Some carried small satchels or handbags; some carried what appeared to be small cutting instruments, like swords or machetes; not as weapons, Howard hoped. All this he’d observed from lying on his side, glancing up and down the line of rats, but not very far. He tried raising his head, and was surprised to find that he could, if only for a few seconds at a time. In response, the rats closest to his head took several steps back, appearing cautious. He was thus able to see more rats, gathered in a line running the entire length of his body.

More details presented themselves to him: several mice as well as rats, observing him just as intently; some rats holding babies at their sides, younger rats clinging close to older ones, eyes round and unblinking; ways which they appeared to interact, even communicate with each other, more than just body language. It was as if they were actually speaking to each other quietly; he’d see one lean over to its neighbor and make sounds in the other’s ear, sounds which seemed to be no more than ordinary squeaks and squeals. Yet, there were other, more subtle ways that they behaved and interacted that indicated that they communicated on a much more sophisticated level; not the least of which were the facial expressions that he could distinctly make out. Just as an expression of what appeared to be shock and fear seemed to register on that first young one, Howard could swear he could make out expressions that were worried or anxious as well as fearful; some even angry.

He caught himself again, marveling at how willing he was to accept what he was seeing here, hardly doubting his senses. But…what if this was just a dream? All this weird stuff…things like this just don’t happen.

Then, on impulse, he raised his head one more time; and suddenly, one of the rats—no, make that a mouse—broke from the others and ran straight toward him…

* * *

Justin and Brutus shook their heads, at a loss for what to say or do. Behind them, a sizable crowd was gathering; word of this “mysterious presence” had spread quickly. Many could be heard to gasp as they saw it clearly for the first time. Though the man himself was harmless right then, and though many were aware that this one individual wouldn’t necessarily be dangerous to them, the sight of him, his very presence, caused much trepidation. To have taken such elaborate measures to remove themselves from the world of humankind, to where they’d never have to worry about being discovered by them ever again, and now to find that one of them was inadvertently brought here with them, was very demoralizing, after all else they’d been through lately.

Not all reacted with fear, or with any great fear. A good many of them, especially the youngest members of the community, had never seen a human in the flesh before, and were more fascinated than fearful. Arthur moved in a bit closer, assuring his family he’d be careful, mind racing with the possibilities of this encounter. Tallus felt similarly as he too approached, fascinated. Kimball, still being carried by Bernadette, convinced her to bring him closer, followed closely by Patricia and Karen. The Davises had lived in such close proximity to humans that they approached with great caution but little real fear.

Johnathan and his family approached, their reactions mixed. The younger children were cautious but fascinated, hanging a little further back, and Madeline stayed with them to reassure them, though she, like Johnathan, had already gotten a sense that this particular human was essentially harmless to them. Martin stared expressionless, his thoughts ever his own. Teresa and Cynthia went after a terrified Eric, who’d scrambled for cover upon first seeing the human. Timothy, to little surprise, showed no fear or hesitation and strode boldly alongside his father to where Justin and Brutus still watched the man’s face carefully.

As the two mice came up beside Justin, he said, “Johnathan…the commands you gave the Stone were supposed to ensure that…something like this wouldn’t happen…weren’t they?”

“I know, Justin, they were. Maybe…maybe this guy felt inclined to leave the area, but…because he is a human, with a higher intelligence level than rabbits or squirrels, he wondered why, questioned the inclination…and hung back just a little too long.”

Justin scratched his chin. It made sense, especially considering how close the man was to the edge, where the section of Thorn Valley that accompanied them to Lahaikshe suddenly cut away, a nearly-sheer drop to the plain below.

“Well, however he got here…what do we do with him?” asked Brutus. He looked to the right and back again, down the length of the man’s body, continually alert to any movement.

“I think the answer’s pretty obvious,” said Justin. “Right, Johnathan?”

Johnathan looked down at the amulet around his neck. “I know what you’re thinking, Justin; and so far, it’s no go. I was testing it just a couple minutes before we knew about…him, and right now it’s dead as a doornail. It couldn’t move a grain of sand the length of my hand right now.”

Justin couldn’t help feeling worried, in spite of Johnathan’s earlier assurance that the amulet would need more time than usual to “recharge.” “Well…how soon do you think it’ll be ready to…”

His voice left him as the man began to raise his head, his face reflecting the great effort it was taking. Justin and Brutus motioned for everyone to step back as they did so themselves. After a few seconds, the man’s head lowered, his breathing quickened from the effort.

Justin said with continued caution, “Maybe…we shouldn’t be this close to him. He could start a…lot of moving around suddenly.”

“Well,” said Johnathan, “if he recovers the same way we did, then we shouldn’t need to worry about that; though I don’t know why it’s taking him longer to recover than us.”

Justin made to reply, then looked at Timothy, as if noticing him for the first time. And not just his presence: he was almost smiling, nodding to himself as he looked upon the human. His eyes met Justin’s, and Justin felt almost ashamed for forgetting how much Timothy’s intuition can be of help in virtually any crisis situation. The two exchanged smiles, and as Johnathan took notice, Justin said, “Okay…if Tim thinks this will all work out, then I’ll lay off the worry pills. We should continue monitoring him like we’ve been; but speaking of things taking long, Johnathan…”

“Oh, yes, the Stone. I wish I could give you an approximate figure, but since it’s never accomplished such a huge task at one time before…I’d give it a good…oh, five, six…”

Justin tried hard to look more composed than he felt from this news. “Hours?” He glanced up at the prostrate human, then at Timothy, who was far less ruffled by his father’s estimate.

“It’s going to be okay, Justin,” said Timothy confidently. “Trust me on this one.”

“All right,” he said, taking a deep breath. “But all the same, we’d better come up with something to do with him in the meantime.”

“If you’re concerned about any hostility from him, Justin,” said Tallus, “I think your concerns are unfounded.”

“Well, I don’t see any outright hostility coming from him, but…well, what did you have in mind?”

“Just look at him, Justin, the way he’s been looking at us these past few minutes. It’s obvious he knows who and what we are: the very rats he and his cronies came to Thorn Valley to find. Why, I’m willing to bet that, given the chance, he’d want to communicate with us. It’s just too bad that…”

The man was raising his head again, and again everyone exercised greater caution. His right hand shook and trembled slightly.

One among them exercised no caution at all. Tallus was about to elaborate on his interrupted statement when Martin Brisby broke from the crowd, raced toward the man’s hand before Brutus or anyone could touch him, leaped upon it, and—to the shock of everyone present—began biting and clawing at it. It happened so quickly that it took until after Martin was well upon the hand before anyone called out to him, expressing disbelief and entreating him to stop. The man’s own reaction wasn’t as slow. He cried out at the sudden sharp pain and tried to shake Martin off, but could only raise a feeble tremble in his hand, as before. Brutus rushed forward and in a flash had snatched Martin away and backed off, carrying him like a small child. Glancing at the man’s hand, he noticed that Martin’s attack had already drawn blood.

“Lemme go, Brutus! C’mon, put me down!” Martin thrashed about ineffectually in the big rat’s grip, kicking him and pounding at him with his fists.

“Not until you calm down,” replied Brutus. “What were you thinking, anyway?” He brought Martin over to Johnathan and Timothy, amidst everyone else’s mutterings and whispers, now tinged with renewed nervousness. What could have made Martin do such a thing? And what would this do to the man’s attitude toward them, since they’d shown no hostility toward him up till then? Most in the crowd backed off even further.

The man, meanwhile, had redoubled his efforts to move his hand, and finally succeeded in bringing it up to his chest to where he could look at it, moaning and breathing hoarsely all the while.

“All right,” said Martin to Brutus, bringing both hands up. “Just…set me down, and I promise I won’t do it again.” He tried hard to look and sound more composed, but as Brutus carefully lowered him to the ground, Johnathan could sense the rage and frustration simmering just below the surface. Only now had Johnathan, and many others, truly begun to realize what his eldest son had gone through in recent days. Brutus was still poised to grab Martin after setting him down, just in case; but Martin just turned to face his father and everyone else.

With the exception of the sounds of the man’s continued struggle to tend to his bleeding hand, there was near-total silence. Timothy looked upon his brother, uncharacteristically gaping in shock. Further back, his mother stood with hand over heart, unable to comprehend what they’d all just witnessed. His youngest siblings clustered around her, looking almost ready to run and hide from him. All others who knew him could only look upon him with disbelief, having difficulty accepting that Martin could be capable of what they’d all witnessed.

Johnathan wanted to come right out and ask what was wrong, what he or anyone else could do to help him, but instead he waited for Martin to speak first. Martin looked as if he were about to; then, he closed his eyes, shook his head and muttered, “I got to be alone right now.” He walked briskly past Johnathan and through the crowd.

“Martin, wait…” Johnathan began, interrupting himself as he realized that it might be best if Martin were alone for a while. Madeline also called out to him as he passed her and his younger siblings. Martin said the same to her, and soon disappeared from everyone’s sight.

“What’s wrong with Martin, Mommy?” asked Vanessa. “Why’d he bite the man?”

“He’s had a really bad time, sweetheart. I wish he’d tell us all about it.” Clearly, she thought, it would take far more than a hug to cure what was troubling him.

Patricia approached her. “Well, Madeline, there’s…a lot that Karen and I could tell, but…well, he should be here with us for that…and right now, maybe other things are more important.” She looked over to the man, who by now seemed oblivious to all the eyes upon him, concentrating solely on his hand. He’d struggled with his left hand to reach into the bag he’d carried with him on his left side, and had torn the wrapper from an antiseptic wipe and was dabbing at his hand, trying to staunch the bleeding.

Looking in the direction Martin had gone, Justin said, “Well, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him going far, in any case.” His own surprise and shock was evident to Johnathan, despite his calm demeanor. He scratched his chin and added, “But Patricia’s right about our visitor. In fact, I believe most of us should move away from here just in case.”

“I understand, Justin,” said Tallus, “but I still wish that he and we could communicate. Now more than ever, in fact, to let him know that none of us really means him harm, in spite of Martin’s attack.”

It was indeed ironic that though these rats and mice were on an equal par with humankind, intelligence-wise, and could read and understand English, there was still the barrier of verbal communication on their part. Since their vocal apparatus was much the same as ordinary rats and mice, they couldn’t speak in a manner that would enable humans to understand them; it would sound like so much squeaking.

Right now, though, any further discussion was again dramatically interrupted. The man had forced himself up to a sitting position. Though still shaking from the “borrowing” of his life-energies by the Stone and from this whole harrowing experience in general, he managed to wrap his hand in gauze and an elastic bandage. As he finished, he looked all around, once again acknowledging his captive audience. He rested his head on his knees, and though he was breathing heavily, he smiled slightly and raised his bandaged hand, waving it tiredly.

“Well…I guess this proves I’m not dreaming. This hurts too much.” He spoke in a voice weary and hoarse, but the effect on the rats and mice was nonetheless startling, for all they’d expected it. The man was just beginning to acknowledge the reality of these creatures and the situation in general; but then he noticed something else unexpected, something he’d already seen but which hadn’t registered yet.

“Wait a minute…I thought the sun was over this way…” He looked over to his left, and frowned at what he saw. “Hey…isn’t there…aren’t there more woods over this way? It’s like…” He was unable to continue his statement, gaping as he was at the unexpected sight of the few trees off to his left giving way to what immediately appeared to be nothing at all, as if the ground beyond them simply dropped away—which, he would find out, was exactly the case. He looked back at his audience, eyes widening, expression one of intense disbelief, a silent “What the—” on his lips; then, looking beyond, he noticed for the first time how the sheer rock wall on the northwest side of the valley was replaced by a much shorter single peak. He screwed his eyes shut, rubbed at them with his good hand, opened them again. Still there was that difference which all logic told him shouldn’t be there. He looked back to the left; still there was that openness that wasn’t there before the red force knocked him down. He looked back at the rodent assemblage.

“Okay…now it’s almost like I’m someplace else altogether, too; not just face-to-face with smart rats. Well…I don’t know what-all’s going on here just yet. But I do know one thing: I’m not crazy, I’m not dreaming. I guess that’s two things, heh…” He looked all the way up and down the entire line. “You are all real, aren’t you?”

One rat stepped forward; he could swear there was something of an air of authority about him. He was followed closely by another, larger, more powerful-looking. They were followed by two mice. He was impressed by this apparent response to his question, and he realized that he actually recognized all four of them from before, as the ones who’d first started studying him closely. Addressing them, he said slowly, hesitantly: “Okay…if you understand me, nod…if you mean yes.” Both rats and both mice immediately did so. Howard Travis shook his own head incredulously.

* * *

Karen paused for a moment and stood upright, whiskers twitching. She was looking toward the section of forest which had been brought along, which used to lie to the south of the colony. I’m sure he went this way, she thought. She cocked an ear. There it is again, a slight rustling. Sounds like he’s about even with that blackberry thicket ahead. The eerie absence of any sound from birds or insects, though rather unsettling, made it so much easier to hear any such small sounds. She again dropped to all fours and moved on quietly, now and again pausing briefly to listen and confirm she was on the right track.

She wondered if she shouldn’t have been so quick to go after Martin. Obviously he knew the area better than she and had a special place in mind to be alone. Perhaps his father was correct in saying that Martin needed this, having known him all his life—again, much better than she. But Johnathan hadn’t been with them, hadn’t seen all that his son had gone through these past few days, hadn’t suffered the nearly unbearable, numbing uncertainty along with him. No, Karen was positive that this was something he needed to talk about, and soon, with someone who truly cares about him. And how much did she care for him, she asked herself, and in what way, exactly? She couldn’t say for sure. She’d never felt these precise feelings before, for anyone, so there was no basis for comparison. But one thing was crystal clear: despite his own stated desire for solitude, Martin was crying for help…help which was hers to give willingly.

She’d hardly thought before about anyone missing her back there, but now she wondered if her parents might be a bit worried over her sudden absence; surely they’d missed her by now. They’d long trusted her ability to look after herself, but perhaps because they were now in unfamiliar territory, however safe it might be, she now regretted not telling them where she was going, instead of slipping away. Well, she thought now, that’s all past now, for better or worse; might as well make the most of the situation at hand.

She soon found herself in the shade of a majestic old oak, surrounded by an area that gave the impression of parkland. She guessed correctly it had been specially developed by the Rats for such a use. Sure enough, she thought, if I had a favorite place to enjoy a little solitude, it would be much like this. But did he indeed come this way?

She quickly had her answer. There he was, leaning against a thick exposed root of the oak, arms folded, eyes closed. She wondered for a moment how she should approach him; then she thought, Why be subtle? and just walked up to him in a normal, calm fashion.

Martin’s eyes snapped open. He looked up to see the approaching figure, first with surprise, then with ambivalence. “Karen, you shouldn’t have followed me.”

“Maybe not, but…well, I just couldn’t help myself. You need help, Marty. We all want to give it.” She sat down next to him.

Martin gave an almost-smile and sighed. “Karen, I appreciate what you’re trying to do…really. But I have to work this out myself.”

“Marty, I’ve seen firsthand what you’ve been through. Mom and I both have, and we’ve experienced much of it with you. It’s just too much for one mouse to carry around with him. Please…don’t shut us out.”

Martin stood up, seemingly unmoved by Karen’s earnestness. “Look…maybe later. Could you just…please leave me alone for a while?” He started off, away from the oak and Karen, toward some taller grass.

Karen was hardly surprised, but nonetheless disappointed. How could he continue like this? There was no mistaking the pain he was feeling, etched in his face and present in his voice, for all he tried to hide it. She stood up, determination in her own features. He’d come to mean too much for her to give up on him so easily. Suddenly she broke into a run on all fours.

Martin heard something advancing swiftly upon him from behind. Karen? But why would she… He made to confirm the identity of his “attacker,” but in mid-turn it grabbed onto his legs and hindquarters, bringing him down. He started to struggle, then he paused in disbelief as he saw that it was indeed Karen, still gripping him tightly, determined not to let go. “What d’you think you’re doing? Leggo of me!” He resumed his struggle.

“Not until you start listening to me, and think about what I’m saying!”

They continued to struggle wordlessly, each with equal determination. Soon Martin succeeded in wresting himself from Karen’s grip completely, if momentarily. He started off again. “Now don’t follow me this time, all right?”

His tone was almost threatening, but Karen was undaunted. “Marty, let me help you! That’s all I want! Please!” Still he seemed unmoved. She reached out for him again, and he pushed her away before she could touch him, and kept moving away. Still she persisted, this time grabbing onto his arm.

“I said leave me alone!” This time he swung around abruptly, pushing her more forcefully with both hands, sending her off balance. She tumbled over and over on the ground, coming to rest abruptly against another tree root, then lying still.

It was a moment frozen in time. Martin looked upon her and for a moment found himself unable to budge from the spot, unable to comprehend what had just happened, disbelieving that it was he who’d brought it about. But it was only a moment; and in the next, he was at her side.

“Karen! God, no…” He gently but shakily lifted her head, cradling it in his left hand while his right hand felt for a pulse. There!...and she was still breathing too. “Please be all right. I-I didn’t mean it, Karen, you’ve got to believe me…” He felt his insides tie in knots, his limbs grow weak, his face become numb. Later he’d realize that such an experience couldn’t be enough to seriously injure her, let alone kill her, but at this moment he could only believe the worst. Briefly, an image came to mind, one that his father had described to him and his siblings after he’d returned to them two years ago, that of his mother lying unconscious and possibly dead.

A few agonizingly long seconds later, her breath returned, halting and gasping at first. Her eyes opened. “I’m…all right, Marty. Just…have to catch my breath…”

“Oh, Karen…” Martin held her close to him. “I…did it again, didn’t I? I just…didn’t think, and I…” His voice cracked; and almost instantly his trembling gave way to uncontrollable weeping, great wracking sobs that shook both of them.

Karen held him close in turn. “It’s all right, Marty. Everything’s going to be…all right…” She couldn’t keep herself from crying in sympathy, after having known well all he’d suffered and endured; and keeping all his emotions tightly reined, since, in his own view, they couldn’t let anything interfere with the most important matter of returning to Thorn Valley as quickly as possible. Even after their arrival, and finding everyone safe, he still denied himself the emotional catharsis he so badly needed. But now, at long last, nothing was holding him back.

Chapter 32: Mutual understanding

They’d spent the past several minutes making further attempts to communicate. The man had introduced himself as Howard Travis, though the rats and mice couldn’t reciprocate. Justin, Johnathan, Timothy, Arthur and Tallus had continued, through gestures, to get other points across to him, with varying degrees of success. More and more were they certain, especially the latter two, that Howard was one who not only meant no harm to them, but one with which further familiarity could be beneficial to him and them.

There were many grumblings and disagreements with this view, of course: “He’s a human! Their kind has done nothing but chase and try to exterminate us!” “They drove us to this, to where we are now. We shouldn’t be getting this friendly with him!” “I say we just go back under, and not have anything to do with him until he can be sent back!” Despite this latter sentiment, few could outright deny that with the Stone the only way to return Howard to Earth, and with it nonoperational for such a task for several hours, something had to be done with him until then. More and more, logic prevailed: that until that time, they should become friendly with him, get on his good side; especially considering that he’d eventually regain his full strength and be able to stand upright.

Throughout this, Johnathan continued to test the amulet for any sign of “life,” however small. Right now, the best thing it could possibly do for them would be to make two-way communication easier. He knew its translating capability normally didn’t take much out of it and could very well be possible for it soon.

Kimball and Patricia had indeed been so engrossed in the proceedings that they didn’t notice Karen’s absence for several minutes. They mentioned it to Justin and Johnathan, though they weren’t really worried; but all the same, Brutus called on two of the Guard to check on her, and on Martin as well. Melvin and Willis volunteered without hesitation.

By now, Howard had gleaned a few details from his new acquaintances, through both their gestures and questions from him answerable by a simple yes or no. He’d learned that they had lived in Thorn Valley for a few years and that their presence here was indeed related to all the strangeness that had just taken place, and to the result of that strangeness. He’d already seen that result for himself: that this section of land, late of Thorn Valley, was now a plateau, rising some seventy feet above a broad, flat, arid-looking plain. He’d ventured whether the “new” placement of the sun in the sky meant that this was indeed a completely different world that they and this land were now a part of. The answer was affirmative. This, of course, proved to be the most difficult thing for Howard to grasp. How could such a thing be possible, and just how could the rats, even ones as intelligent as these, have had anything to do with it?

For the time being, they made no attempt to get across to Howard anything about the Stone, or about the transference in general. Naturally he had many more questions on this, and was becoming worried about how he’d get back home, or if he’d be able to, his greatest concern being whether he’d see any of his family and friends again. Many in the crowd could certainly sympathize, and realized that they’d given little thought about how the humans pursuing them, or humans in general, could even have friends or loved ones, for whom being separated from or losing could mean tremendous heartache and despair.

“Sharon…that’s my wife, she’s seven months pregnant…God, I may never see her again, or our baby. She’ll think I’m dead, everyone will.” The fact that Howard was still too weak to stand seemed to add to his misery. He looked toward Justin’s group, expression desperate. “Okay, look; if you can’t tell me how we came here, then tell me this much: is there a way back? Can you send me home?”

It was Johnathan who stepped forward and nodded affirmatively. As the one who could sympathize the most with Howard’s predicament, he wanted very much to specifically assure him that there was a very definite way, but that it would be a while longer. The more information they were able to impart to him, the more he wanted to know; and the more difficult and frustrating the language barrier was becoming. Naturally he wanted to know how long it would be, and they managed to get across that it would be a few hours yet. Howard just sat silently after this; with, it appeared to Justin, an air of barely-restrained impatience.

Justin, his own impatience showing, turned to Johnathan. “Talk to me, Johnathan. Is it working yet? Does it seem like it’s coming close?”

“Not yet, old buddy. We’ll know when it is, though.”

“Take it easy, Justin,” said Timothy cheerily. “It’ll be okay.”

Justin was taken offguard as he realized how nervous he’d sounded, and couldn’t help feeling slight annoyance at the two mice’s pointing it out, irrational as he knew the feeling was. “Look, he’s starting to get restless. We have to be able to tell him a few things more specifically, or else there’s no telling what he might do.”

“I wouldn’t worry about him going on a rampage or anything, if that’s what you mean. He knows by now that we’re the key to his getting home, and he’s not going to want to jeopardize that. Anyway, when the Stone’s ready to start translating for us, I won’t know it till then; it’s not a gradual thing.”

“Well, I’ll take your word for it. As for your other point…” Justin glanced up at Howard, who still sat crosslegged, staring into space. “…it does make sense, I’ll admit; but I still hope it’s not too long…”

“Too long for what? Who said that?”

Everyone looked up to the voice’s source. Howard was now looking very intently at them; as they did to him, especially Justin, as he realized what had just happened. “You…understand me, don’t you, Howard?”

“Yeah, I…I sure do.” He gave a bemused smile, placing his good hand on his forehead, shaking his head.

Justin glanced at Johnathan, who simply nodded and grinned. “It’s working,” he said simply.

“Well, Howard,” said Justin, “now that we’re on mutual speaking terms, I think some proper introductions are in order. I’m Justin, the leader of the Rats of Thorn Valley.”

Johnathan, Timothy, Tallus, Arthur, Brutus and many others introduced themselves, Howard acknowledging them all while still very much dazed by this sudden and unexpected development. Finally he said, “This is…really getting strange now. How is it that…I couldn’t understand you before, but now…”

Justin glanced at Johnathan. “Are you sure about this?”

“We’ve already let enough of the cat out of the bag, Justin, just by showing ourselves to him. He already knows what we are; might as well let the whole cat out, or at least more of it.” Johnathan stepped forward again. “This stone around my neck, Howard: this is what’s enabling you to understand us now. It’s also what brought us and this piece of land here; and what will return you to Earth, though not immediately. It will be a few hours, as we informed you earlier.” Johnathan held up the Stone.

Howard leaned in closer, squinting. “That…that tiny little red stone did all that? How…how could it? Is it…like magic or something?” He laughed to himself, scarcely believing he’d even suggested the possibility.

“How it works is not important right now. I will say that it only works when I, or my wife Madeline, or the two of us in tandem command it. Right now, it needs to ‘recharge,’ for want of a better word, before it can send you home.” Johnathan hoped his words came through as authoritative and adamant as he’d intended, to let Howard know that they were truly calling the shots here, and that he should keep himself in line if he wanted to see home again. Johnathan also deliberately refrained from mentioning any of the amulet’s other capabilities, and he would continue to do so even if Howard were to ask. He also realized, during this exchange, that their words to him were also amplified for his ears as well as translated; otherwise, Howard would barely be able to hear them clearly.

“Well, er…Johnathan, I guess I’ve got a bit of a wait, don’t I? So, can you tell me something more about yourselves?” Without waiting for an answer, he added, “They are never going to believe this back home, not any of it. Now if I could bring one of you back with me, give them some really solid evidence…” Howard was only beginning to consider what would be awaiting him upon his return: the questions, which would surely be endless, the reports…

Suddenly he was aware of a considerable hubbub rising from the rodent assemblage, and it didn’t sound especially friendly. “Er…did I say something wrong?” Even as the words left his lips, though, he realized that he hadn’t chosen his words very well in his last statement.

Justin strode boldly forward, to within just a few inches of Howard. “Now you listen to me, and listen good. Has it occurred to you why we moved ourselves here? It was because of you, and all others like you who would consider us just property to be recovered, nothing more than lab specimens that got away. You drove us from our world.”

Colbert joined Justin. “Do you want something to tell your fellows when you return home? Then listen closely, Howard. You can tell them that we’re all very much the same as you. Maybe it was a laboratory experiment of yours that gave rise to us, but that doesn’t change what and who we are now. We experience life too fully and deeply, certainly as much as your kind, to be regarded as mere specimens. We think and feel much the same. We have fears and doubts. We fall in love. We have arguments and disagreements, though they never lead to violence. We feel joy and disappointment, elation and dejection. You can tell them that we have our own lives to live, and we don’t intend to see that changed, not ever, and not for any single one of us.”

A chorus of huzzahs followed, and one rat and two mice came forward. The rat was carrying one of the mice, which, Howard could see plainly, had a bandaged stump where his hind leg would be. The rat set him down, and the other mouse sat close beside him. The three-legged mouse spoke next. “Sir, my name is Kimball Davis, and this is my dear wife Patricia, and my good friend Bernadette. It was I who traveled here, or rather to Thorn Valley, alone and unprotected, to warn these others of your coming. I came virtually blind, with really only second- and third-hand information to go on, and with no absolute confirmation of their presence here, at considerable peril to life and…and limb.” He glanced down at his bandaged stump.

Patricia brought her face close to his, kissing him on the cheek. She spoke next. “And it was one of Johnathan’s sons—the one you’ve already…met—plus my daughter and I, who faced not so much physical peril as my husband did, but worry and uncertainty that was nearly crippling, to bring ourselves and the Stone here, after we found out what you and your friends at NIMH were going to do.”

Others added similar comments, many quite vindictive. After all, Howard was one of those individuals whose imminent arrival caused so much anxiety; and now here he was, directly in front of them, finding himself the target of much criticism, even outright vilification. Through it all, he continued to look and listen with both wonderment and bewilderment. The more it was impressed upon him that these were intelligent creatures whose continued existence was legitimate, the more he felt genuinely stung by their verbal attacks.

Finally he raised both forearms, taking care not to make it appear a hostile gesture. Even so, some of the closer rats took a few steps back, wondering if they hadn’t pushed things a bit too far. “Okay, listen, everybody.” Some continued to jeer and otherwise disregard Howard’s attempt at gaining their undivided attention, but soon those who genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say had quieted down everyone else. “All right. First of all, I don’t even work for this…NIMH you speak of; you mean the National Institute of Mental Health, don’t you? If they were the ones who made you what you are, then, yeah, I can see why you think they’d be after you. But anyway, I don’t work for them. None of us do. We’re a research team hired by the Department of the Interior. And we weren’t equipped to capture any of you, or anything like that; just...take pictures, notes, basically just do a survey of the area. I don’t know; maybe if we did find proof that you existed, then…someone else would, or rather would have moved in to try and capture you. But we definitely wouldn’t have. Look, I didn’t mean anything by that remark about bringing one of you back with me. I…I didn’t realize, I just didn’t think.”

His words seemed sincere, and his expression appeared to match; but many still weren’t ready to pledge any great amount of trust in him. There was no loud jeering, but much distrustful muttering. Everyone fell into some form of discussion over what should be done until Howard could be sent back. Justin had gathered together everyone who had addressed Howard directly.

“He really does sound sincere, Justin,” said Tallus.

“Well, he may or may not be; but even if he is, that doesn’t solve our problem. And if he isn’t, it could be a bigger problem.”

“When he spoke earlier about missing his wife,” observed Patricia, “I’m positive he was sincere about that, at the very least.”

“I agree,” said Johnathan. “That’s why I wanted to assure him that there was a way back.”

“I won’t argue with that,” added Colbert. “No one should be forced away from his loved ones, as you know well, Johnathan. But whether he was sincere about everything he said or not, we’ll all breathe easier when he’s gone from here, and that should really be the end of our worries about humankind.” He turned to Arthur, who had been mostly silent since they’d all gathered here. “What say you, Arthur? Do you believe he could be one of those humans who might be the ‘right’ one?” He took care not to affect a tone that could be taken as derisive; though he hadn’t agreed with the views Arthur had taken at the meeting following Kimball’s arrival, he respected them as he respected Arthur himself, enough to allow for the possibility that he could be right. And there were others, after all, who shared Arthur’s view that contact with the right humans at the right time could benefit them, and Nicodemus had been the first. He’d known the eventuality, even inevitability, that humans—with their drive to explore, map and catalog every square mile of the planet they walked upon—would come into contact with the Rats of Thorn Valley one day. Later would come the in-depth discussions of whether Nicodemus would approve of the action they’d taken this day; but for now, what to do with this one human was their top priority.

“It’s still possible,” Arthur replied. “As for how to tell for sure, I haven’t a clue, outside of a standard interrogation.”

“If there were some way to really get inside his head,” pondered Tallus, “to where he’d be unable to mask any deception…”

Johnathan snapped his fingers, looking as if he’d had a major revelation; and Madeline, who’d since joined the group with their younger children, said, “Johnathan, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“If you mean there’s something, or rather someone, who could help us out here, and maybe solve more than one of our problems, then…”

Justin quickly picked up the thread. “Oh…you mean Gw—”

“Hey, what’s that?” Howard said loudly, pointing with his bandaged hand. He’d been quietly observing and listening with interest all the foregoing discussion, though some of it had been too quiet to hear clearly. He was certain by now that they meant him no real harm and knew that the discussion was all on his behalf; but he was aware as they that until they could send him home—which he had no real choice but to believe was true—something had to be done with him in the meantime.

Now, everyone strained to look in the direction he was pointing; but since the rodents couldn’t see above the level of the tall grass as Howard could, it was a few seconds more before the object of his attention came into view as it drew nearer. Soon all could see that it was a “who” rather than a “what”: a small figure, humanoid in shape, floating several feet above the tops of the foliage. As he came into the crowd’s full view, he descended and came almost to a stop. He was now so close that Howard could discern many more details: the bald head, light blue skin, catlike eyes, other facial features that gave him an appearance of human mixed with reptilian. He was dressed in a multicolored tunic with oversized sleeves and tan trousers. Howard could swear that there was an expression of great surprise registering on the newcomer’s face, recognizable through his alien features; and he was right. Almost immediately he’d gotten the impression of a wizard, a sage, a wise man, and that this one was no stranger to the Rats. He also realized that he was taking this latest bit of strangeness almost casually.

“The fellow does have a way with grand entrances, doesn’t he?” commented Tallus.

The fellow “stood,” still suspended above their heads, with hands on hips. Addressing no one in particular, he said, “Well…I seemed to have gained a few more neighbors this morning.” Looking over to Howard, he showed little visible surprise at seeing him, though it was obvious he’d have plenty of questions about him.

“You could say that, Gwinthrayle,” said Johnathan, as he and others close by made room for the newcomer to alight near them. After doing so, he was given the gist of the events that led to this momentous change in his friends’ lives and in this small corner of his world. They also detailed their dilemma concerning Howard, and the two were introduced to each other. It was also the first many in the Thorn Valley colony had seen Gwinthrayle after having heard many tales of the one who had been Johnathan’s benefactor here on Lahaikshe, though there were others who had met him on past visits.

“Well, Johnathan, Justin…everyone…while I’m sure you won’t be unwelcome here like this, I trust you’ve taken the possible long-term consequences into account; that is, if you plan on making this a long-term commitment. I know that’s not much of a welcome, but…”

“That’s all right, Gwinthrayle,” said Johnathan quickly. “And we have discussed the consequences; some of them, at least.”

“But we do have some more immediate concerns,” added Justin, “not the least of which is our large friend Howard here. Johnathan and Madeline had a suggestion, and I think I know what they may have in mind.”

The Brisbys detailed their idea to Gwinthrayle, explaining how they needed to know whether Howard had been truthful with them or not, and how their sorcerer friend might help them in that area.

Chapter 33: Reaching out, coming together

Martin Brisby had continued, for several more minutes, to pour out all the agony and frustration he’d felt; all the fear and pain, all the feelings he’d repressed for so long. He’d wept uncontrollably and without reserve, as a small child would. And Karen Davis was there, always there, gently whispering words of comfort. Occasionally she still found herself crying with him; to her, it sounded as if his very soul were being torn apart.

Soon, the storm had subsided. Karen could feel Martin’s seemingly-uncontrollable quaking lessen; his breathing, though still sounding a bit labored, much calmer. Finally he drew his head back a short ways, from her tight, comforting embrace, to look at Karen’s face. He looked ready to speak but didn’t utter a sound; all at once he seemed unable to look Karen in the eye as he leaned back on the root. Karen sighed and sat next to him, half-expecting him to again shrink away from her closeness, but he stayed put.

He again made to speak, but could only cough at first. Finally he began, in a voice quavering and hoarse: “I…saw the human lying there, and…and suddenly all I could think of was…that he and those others were to blame for everything, all the bad stuff…we’d been through.” He cleared his throat. “Even if that wasn’t completely true, I didn’t care. I just saw him, thought about all I’d…we’d been through, and…I just saw red, I lost it completely. You…you saw what happened, what I did.” He closed his eyes, his entire body shuddering at the memory of the skin of the man’s hand yielding beneath his teeth and nails. He fought down the sudden nausea he felt.

“And then…” He paused to swallow a lump in his throat. “…And now this, wh-what I did to you. I…I promised you that nothing like that, when I abandoned you and your mom, would ever happen again, and…and I lied, I broke my promise to you.” He looked at Karen, and tears started flowing anew. He looked away. “I-I’ve never done anything like that in my life, to anybody. I don’t…I don’t want to hurt anybody, Karen, not ever. You’ve got to believe me.”

Karen said nothing but reached inside the bag she’d carried since they’d left the Davis home three days ago, and pulled out two handkerchiefs. She began dabbing at his face with one; he accepted it, managing to croak a thank-you, and she began drying her own tears with the other.

“And…all of us have been through rough times, not just me. You had no idea if your dad was even alive. And you…if it weren’t for you…My god, Karen, you…you saved my life from the gang in the alley. I should be…worshiping at your feet, doing everything for you, anything you ask…and I…it’s like I didn’t even care about that. How can you still be here? How can…how can you stick by me like this?” He dabbed at his eyes again and drew his knees up, resting his forehead against them.

“Oh, Marty…” Karen rubbed his shoulder, at a loss for what to say. She couldn’t deny that she couldn’t entirely disagree to a point or two he’d made. At one point during their journey, she’d asked herself: how deeply could she care for someone who’d done what he did, almost abandoning his companions? And now he’d rejected her help, to the point of actually striking out physically. But there was so much more that he’d done that was positive, that showed how much he’d cared for his family and friends.

Suddenly filled with resolve, she said, “Marty, obviously I don’t know you as well as your family. But I’ve seen so much in these past three days that…I think I know what drives you, and what and who you really care about…enough to know that that’s not what you’re like normally. It was the situation we were in that got you so wound up, to where you couldn’t think straight. Besides, I…probably shouldn’t have sneaked up on you the way I did either. I guess it’s that stubborn streak I inherited from both my folks. But I just couldn’t see giving up on you; not then, and not now.”

“I…appreciate that, Karen, but…you shouldn’t make excuses for my treating you like I did.”

“I’m not, Marty, really. But I’ve seen the real you. You’re generous, brave, unselfish, always willing to help others. Look at how concerned you were over Lambert, and getting back to your family and friends on time. And that’s not all. I think…from the time we first met, I knew. It wasn’t something I could explain then, and I’m not even sure I could now. But I just felt that you and I, we…should be together. I think you knew it too, even then.”

Martin straightened to a sitting position and looked straight into Karen’s eyes, this time not turning away, his face reflecting the realization that had come over him in a rush, the feelings which he couldn’t entirely articulate but also couldn't deny. Later he’d look back upon this moment as a revelation, a turning point. But now, there was only this girl, this beautiful girl before him, smiling tenderly with arms outstretched to receive him, whom he wanted only to take into his own arms: a desire that now seemed completely natural. He did so without another thought, at least for the time being, of being undeserving of her company, and without reservation. A deep wellspring of emotion had been tapped, and perhaps he knew even then that it would continue to flow indefinitely. Tears again flowed from both of them, but they were more joyful this time, as he gently caressed her and nuzzled her neck and shoulders. Karen responded in kind, holding Martin ever more tightly to her.

“Oh, Karen…” Martin was finally able to say, “I never thought I’d ever need anybody this much…” He pulled back to gaze upon her face.

“Everybody needs to be close to somebody, Marty,” she replied, brushing a tear from his cheek. “I’m glad we aren’t denying ourselves any longer.”

Only two days before, Martin’s sister and their close family friend had declared their love for each other on almost this same spot, albeit in different surroundings. Perhaps these two would make a similar affirmation in time; but for now, there was only the gentle healing touch they bestowed upon each other, for which they were more than content.

* * *

“Well, Howard, Johnathan…if both of you are ready, we may begin anytime.”

“I’m ready, Gwinthrayle.”

“Well, I’m not quite sure what to expect of all this, but…I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

They’d finished explaining to Howard the basics of how they’d known Gwinthrayle: via previous visits to this world, Lahaikshe, using the red amulet to get here. They included the detail about its originating here, but saw no reason to disclose most others, such as Johnathan’s “exile.” After this, they told him of the idea they’d proposed for determining the truth in his account and how it may be of mutual benefit.

After some deliberation, it was decided that Johnathan be the one to participate with Howard in this procedure, largely because it was his and Madeline’s idea and he genuinely wanted to try it, knowing it to be safe and painless. Gwinthrayle agreed it could be easily done; and after it was explained in detail to everyone else present, it was generally agreed to be of benefit to them.

Howard sat cross-legged on the ground with one arm outstretched, with hand laid on the ground, palm down. Johnathan sat with his own hand on one of Howard’s fingers. Gwinthrayle placed one hand on each of them, closed his eyes, and concentrated.

Howard again thought how strange it was that he was accepting all this with little question; but then, he realized, if he could accept intelligent rats and mice, a tiny stone containing enough power to transport them across dimensions and enable them to communicate, and a small blue-skinned man who just dropped in—literally, then this spell shouldn’t be too hard to take, if the little blue-skinned man was on the up-and-up about it. In spite of the very real pain in his right hand earlier, Howard still couldn’t quite convince himself entirely that this was all real. After all…other dimensions, other civilized races? It was the stuff of fantasy and science fiction. He enjoyed books and movies of those genres, though he wouldn’t describe himself as a geek or fanatic. In any case, he reasoned, what choice did he have but to accept that this was all real, and just play along?

Johnathan had witnessed Gwinthrayle and others of his ilk, particularly his fellow sorcerer Birantha, utilizing this same spell in the past, though this would be the first time he’d be experiencing it firsthand. He was just a bit apprehensive of the idea of this being done in tandem with a human; but he was curious of what could be learned and well aware of how Howard could benefit as well. Close by sat Madeline, every bit as ready as Johnathan, knowing that because of their emotional rapport, she’d be experiencing much of the effects of the spell herself firsthand. Nearby, their children and friends were eagerly anticipating the results, with little if any fear or apprehension, due to Timothy’s continued confidence in its positive and likely beneficial outcome.

After only a few seconds of concentration, the spell began to take effect on them both. Each felt immediately as if his very soul, the entire sum of his existence, was merging and becoming as one with the other. Each encountered memories, feelings, attitudes not belonging to him but seeming every bit as real as his own.

Howard’s mind reeled as he learned for the first time—and simultaneously recalled—Johnathan’s short life before his and the other mice’s capture and subsequent life spent in the NIMH laboratory, the injections they’d received, the tests they were put through; their brief acquaintance with the rats who’d received the same treatment; and the escape of all the rats and only one mouse besides Johnathan. Howard learned of the dawning of their higher intelligence and reasoning power, the sense of wonder they felt with each new idea and more complex concept, the anticipation mixed with dread as they engineered their escape. He felt exultation over their success mixed with sorrow over lost comrades. He experienced/re-experienced their adventures on the way to founding their first colony, with all the joys of learning new things and testing the limits of their newfound abilities, as well as the more risky and dangerous experiences. He felt the strong sense of comradeship with the rats, and the need for a mate which developed into the strong, passionate love Johnathan shared to this day with his beloved Madeline. He felt the pride and joy of watching their children grow, as well as the frustration and dread over the since-disproven aging difference. He learned of finding the Stone and discovering its capabilities one by one without knowing its origins. He experienced the wrenching change which tore Johnathan away from everyone and everything he’d known and loved, and the efforts of his new friend Gwinthrayle in setting things right. He learned of Johnathan’s reunion with Madeline and his friends, which began so terribly and ended so sweetly, and of learning of the Stone’s secrets, making clear so much of what had been so puzzling. He felt the deep sense of peace and contentment in the two years since; and, most recently, of the rollercoaster of emotions endured in the past several days: dread, uncertainty over their ultimate fate; hopes raised, dashed, and raised anew, the guarded optimism over the plan to throw off their would-be captors.

And for Johnathan, it was just as much a learning experience. Though he, like those others who’d escaped from NIMH and their progeny, possessed intellect and emotions on a par with humankind, he was now finding out what it truly meant to be human. He learned of Howard’s childhood, growing up with his parents, two brothers and one sister in a small rural community; his frequent battles with his older brother; the fall from a bicycle that put his arm in a cast for more than a month; his backyard pond, where he raised goldfish and turtles; his excellence in schoolwork, especially in science and mathematics; his anguish when the first great love of his life was forced away from him when her family moved to another state; his friendship with Sharon, which developed into a love that lasted throughout college, after which they were married; receiving his degree, after which he went through a number of jobs before landing a position with a scientific firm specializing in field research; his and Sharon’s decision to put off having a baby until this year. And most recently, Johnathan learned of Howard’s being sent to this region after his team was hired by the federal government to investigate the possible presence of intelligent rats; with virtually no further information given, such as why they were suspected of being in the vicinity of the Thorn Mountains National Forest, or where they came from or why they were thought to exist at all. Sworn as they were to secrecy about the specifics of this mission—what few they were given—many internal rumors came up within the group, most notably that these rats were the result of a lab experiment that worked too well—which Howard now knew to be all too true. Lastly, Johnathan experienced, through Howard’s eyes, those terrifying last few minutes before the transport effect reached its climax, with the mass exodus of animal life and that ominous red glow enveloping everything.

It only took between three and four minutes for each to absorb the other’s lifetime’s worth of memories. Then, Gwinthrayle terminated the spell, removed his hands and stepped back. The two beneficiaries of the spell continued to sit still for a moment after their eyes opened; then both sank backwards in the grass.

Madeline sat closer to Johnathan, taking his hand gently. While their rapport didn’t bring any of Howard’s specific memories to her, she’d felt the range of emotion Johnathan had experienced as the spell ran its course. Their children drew near, keeping conversation quiet as instructed. None were especially worried as they were told to expect both Johnathan and Howard to experience some disorientation for a short time afterwards. He lay on his back, staring upward silently, hardly seeming to notice those around him as his mind sought to process all this new information. Everyone felt like asking him straight out what he’d learned; Justin and others nearby quietly instructed everyone else to stay quiet until Johnathan was ready.

Some three minutes after the spell’s conclusion Johnathan breathed in deep and sat upright. Madeline embraced him, and he assured his family that he was fine, though clearly the experience had left him moved almost beyond words.

Justin came over, crouching before him. “So…what’s the verdict? I don’t want to rush you, Johnathan, but…”

“That’s all right, Justin. I can tell you for sure that Howard’s on the level. He really doesn’t mean us any harm. Lord…there’s just…so much more, I…wouldn’t know where to begin.” He closed his eyes, shaking his head.

“You’ve told us plenty, old friend,” said Justin. “Right now, you just take it easy for as long as you need to.”

“And the same for him, too…right, Justin?” Arthur looked over to Howard’s prostrate form. As before, just after the transference, it was taking him a little longer to recover.

“I guess so…well, actually, yes and no. I mean we won’t try to rush anything out of him, but…what he gets out of this, I think, could mean more in the long run than what Johnathan learned.” Arthur just nodded as he again glanced toward Howard, modestly pleased that Justin was coming around to his and Tallus’s way of thinking—that contact with a human, the right human, could benefit them greatly.

Two rats made their way toward the front of the crowd. They were Melvin and Willis, whose report some of the mice were awaiting especially. “We’ve tracked down Karen, folks,” said Melvin, “and Martin as well. They're both over in Oak Park, near the big burr oak, just sitting and talking.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Patricia. “He surely needs to talk things over. It was hard on all of us, making the trip here, but especially on Martin. He suffered so much.”

“I know all of us are looking forward to hearing the whole story,” said Willis. “I mean, it’s amazing how you were able to find each other like you did, but…there was a lot that sure had to be rough on him.” Going unmentioned was that it was the sound of Martin weeping unreservedly that had drawn their attention to that location beneath the big burr oak, something he and Melvin had agreed to keep to themselves. Both Guard rats were personally concerned for his well-being, having been close to the Brisby family since Johnathan’s return. They’d also checked on Teresa, Cynthia and Eric and reported that the girls were still trying to coax Eric out from where he’d been hiding since Howard was discovered. Madeline wanted to help also but decided it best for now to leave the task to her daughters.

Martin’s parents were thankful to hear he was trying to work things out. “I wasn’t really worried,” said Madeline to Patricia, “but I’m glad to hear they’re both all right.” She paused and added, “She…Karen…is really concerned about him, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is,” replied Patricia. “I guess we all are, aren’t we? But, after all, we are almost like family, all of us.”

“Oh, yes; and it’s so wonderful that we were finally able to find each other.” Madeline had noticed, as had most of his family, that there seemed to be a definite mutual fondness between Martin and Karen, ever since their arrival hours ago. Deciding to avoid addressing the subject for now, she continued: “Patricia, did Kimball tell you that we were planning to use the Stone to locate the rest of your children?”

“Yes, he did. And we’re sure that most of them, and probably all of them, would want to move here, since most of them were looking for the rats, or rather, they said they’d try seeking them out.”

The three mice continued on that subject, while Johnathan was still quietly processing the information gleaned from Howard Travis, who was still flat on his back, staring upward. A small group led by Justin and Brutus approached him carefully, drawing even with his head. Howard looked toward them with tears welling in his eyes.

He sat up, with face in his hands for a moment; then he said quietly, “I never…thought it could be anything like this, there’s…so much that never would have occurred to me. God, the lives you’ve all led…so full of danger, but at the same time…” He again lowered his forehead to his hands. It was obvious that he, like Johnathan, hardly knew where to start in sorting out all that he’d learned, and that he’d been deeply moved by the experience.

Johnathan turned, making eye contact with Howard. For a whole minute, the two stared silently at each other, both realizing that they were as brothers now, having shared so intimately the details of not only each other as individuals, but of their two societies as a whole. Then Johnathan spoke, voicing this very view.

Howard agreed, then added: “I’m looking at you now, and…you look just like before, all of you do; but…I can’t think of you as…as rats and mice now. I know that might sound weird, but…before we did…this just now, I still couldn’t think of you as much more than…just animals, even after we could communicate. But now…God, you’re all so much more, I know that. You’re all individuals, just as much as we are.”

Johnathan nodded. “I…all of us, we’ve learned much about the world, and of humankind, from books that you…that humans have written. But we’ve had relatively little direct contact, never really known how you live day to day. Such a fight you have, just to have a place to live, and worrying about money. Such a dependence upon making enough money you have; to where you have to have so much before you can afford to have children. The most natural thing in the world, and it too hinges upon making enough money. It just seems so preposterous.”

So it went, with many of the Rats joining in to discuss what had been learned, and their differences and similarities. Some of the other Rats returned to the colony to get some things back in order, while others began scouting around to begin assessing the aftereffects of this land’s presence here. At one point, Howard asked them if they really planned on staying here for the long haul. None could offer any definite consensus as yet. Justin was quick to add that, though it was nothing personal against Howard, it would be entirely appropriate if they did stay on Lahaikshe permanently, since they were virtually chased off Earth by humankind, and perhaps it was true what had been said earlier: that they have no real place there now.

To this Howard replied that when he got home, he’d do everything he could to convince the powers-that-be that these intelligent rats they sought were just as worthy of existence as they. When he said this, it again occurred to him just what he would be in for upon his return: the battery of questions, of physical and psychological tests; all of which would certainly be compounded if he were to tell about everything he’d seen and heard, and all the insights he’d gained. He considered for a moment: wouldn’t it be easier if he just told them he’d had no memories of anything in the past few hours before they’d find him? But it was only a moment. No, he’d experienced too much here to keep it to himself, to just sweep it under the carpet. No matter the consequences, he would face them.

After he stated this aloud, he tried standing up straight, and he was surprised to find that he could do so much more easily than he’d thought. He realized that it had been quite a few minutes since he’d last tried, what with so many other matters pulling his attention. Now he had a better view of how close he was to the edge of this patch of land. He could see how the ground dropped off just a few yards away, and what lay beyond. It all gave him an even greater sense of otherworldliness upon seeing the surrounding landscape: the flat, bare, reddish-brown plain which gave way to extremely rocky terrain in one direction, with formations that reminded him of the American southwest; and in another direction to heavily-forested terrain. Johnathan offered to take Howard on a mini-tour of the perimeter of this newly-formed plateau, and of the immediate area in general; though he’d already seen much of it while still on Earth, he had a considerably different perspective on it now, knowing that this land had been home to these people for years, and that it was very much like their Promised Land to them.

Johnathan’s family and friends watched cautious but amazed as he hopped onto the palm of Howard’s outstretched hand, offered on the ground in front of him, and with no hesitation climbed up the length of Howard’s arm to his shoulder. They walked off together, and Johnathan began describing what lay beyond what they could see, and some of what they’d done with this land.

The others discussed in greater detail what other steps would need to be taken if they were planning on staying here permanently. Bryant and Matilda brought up the most important matter regarding their food supply: if they planned on continuing to grow food here, there was the matter of pollination, which many of their crops would require in order to produce. But all insect life was ejected from the area by the Stone’s power before the transference. However, there was insect life here, which interacted with native plant life in very much the same way as on Earth, so it was hoped that they would do the same with the Earth flora. Otherwise, much of their food would have to be Lahaikshean fare, trucked in from outside. This wouldn’t be the worst thing for them, but the more self-sufficient they could be in raising food, the better, they all agreed.

Another possible problem dealt with the microorganisms brought along. The amulet couldn’t make an exception for them, so they stayed where all the other animal life was removed. Not that the rats would have wanted it that way, of course, since they were well aware that most microbes were an essential part of the ecosystem. The problem lay in possible contamination in the surrounding area, since these Earth-born microbes could interact in different, possibly dangerous ways with native flora and fauna. This was why Johnathan had deliberately chosen this relatively isolated area in which to set their land. This, they realized, may not be enough; and so Gwinthrayle now suggested a spell that he’d had some familiarity with, one which would isolate those lower forms of life to this “island.” He began work on it immediately.

Chapter 34: Eric’s distress

Martin and Karen had continued to converse these several minutes past, talking easily about all that they’d gone through together. Martin was surprised at how easily he was able to share his innermost thoughts and feelings with Karen, things he’d never told anyone else before. At one point he commented on how strange it seemed that she was the first one he’d been able to open up to before, at least to this degree, rather than someone in his own family or a longtime friend. He also confessed how he’d been so wrapped up in his own problems and how recent events had affected him, that he’d practically forgotten how those same events had affected her and Patricia, and everyone in general. He felt the need to apologize for this, but Karen assured him that it was all in the past and didn’t matter now.

“Well,” said Martin at length, “I think it’s about time we got back. How about you?”

“I know we really should,” said Karen as Martin helped her to her feet. “Whether or not they’re wondering where we are.” They’d both realized that it was probably known they were here; even though no one had directly approached them, Martin thought it likely that they were seen together here and so were left alone. Such a thing might have made Martin feel self-conscious or embarrassed not long ago, but the thought didn’t trouble him at all now.

Karen made to start off, but Martin gently drew her to him, facing him. “Karen, I…there’s so much I…” He closed his eyes. “You’ve done so much…I’ll never forget all you’ve done for me.” They embraced.

“We’ve done so much for each other, Marty. We need each other.”

They stood thus, gazing upon each other silently for a moment more. “Well,” Karen said at length, “shall we?” Martin said nothing but took her hand and led her back to where they’d left nearly everyone else. “How long were we there?” asked Karen.

Martin looked up at the sun, shading his eyes. “Man, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Over an hour, I’ll bet.”

“Yes…and speaking of ‘man’…”

“That’s right. I’d almost forgotten about him, if that’s possible. I wonder how they’re making out with him.”

“I’m sure nothing bad’s happened; otherwise, we’d have heard something by now.”

Martin agreed, but the two quickened their pace anyway, holding hands, curious to find what had transpired since they’d left, though their thoughts were never far from their newly-discovered feelings for each other, and how their lives and those of almost everyone they knew were turned upside down so quickly and in so many ways.

As they approached the area where everyone had been gathered, they passed others who had already left the area and had other duties to attend to, wishing them well, many plainly uncertain of how to address Martin after witnessing his attack on the human; and he realized it would probably be some time before he could completely live down the incident. He remarked on this to Karen; but before they could discuss it further, they noticed some small commotion near a large rock, one Martin and his friends and siblings had often played upon. He recognized the voices of his sisters, and so they went to investigate.

A little closer and they could see Teresa and Cynthia crouched down on all fours before a narrow space beneath the rock. With only their backsides and tails visible, it was a sight Martin might have found humorous, but he was already getting a sense that the situation was deadly serious. Teresa heard their approach and jumped to her feet, and Cynthia quickly followed.

“Martin, Karen! We’re glad you came by. Is…everything all right?” From the looks on their faces, it was obvious that Teresa, and likely Cynthia, had gotten wind of Martin’s earlier action against Howard.

“I’m okay, Sis, really; maybe better than in a long time.” He surprised Teresa with a hug, then asked, “What’s going on here? Is that Eric under that rock?”

Teresa got over her surprise quickly, nodding ruefully. “He’s been in there ever since we discovered the human.” Martin did recall seeing Eric scurry away then, now that Teresa mentioned it, and seeing her and Cynthia follow.

“We couldn’t even find him at first. We just started covering all the more likely hiding places that were nearby, and we found him here. But he wouldn’t come out, no matter how much we pleaded and tried to convince him that nothing bad would happen to him. Melvin and Willis came by, but they couldn’t help him either. They offered to dig in underneath and bring him out bodily, but we didn’t think that was a very good idea.”

“He’s terrified, Martin,” added Cynthia. “He’s hardly said a word to us, but we know he’s so scared of the human that it’s like he’s rooted there. I’ve never seen him like this. I thought I’d be the one to be that scared.”

“We’re at our wit’s end with him. Can you talk to him, Martin? Karen, maybe you could help, too.”

“Of course, Sis, you don’t even have to ask.” Martin could easily discern the worried tone in her voice and realized how much she and Eric had come to mean to each other lately, apparently just since he and Lambert left. He’d noticed this after his arrival in the meeting hall; and he realized that not too long ago he wasn’t as likely to make such an observation, such a show of empathy. And in any case, he’d known Eric for two years now and considered him to be his friend too, though not as close as Lambert and some of his other friends among the Rats.

He and Karen both crouched at the base of the big rock, before the narrow gap beneath it, which provided barely enough room for one mouse. With Teresa and Cynthia close by, they spoke gently to Eric, trying to convince him that since nothing bad had happened to them or anyone else out here, it was just as safe for him. It went on like this for several minutes; and Martin was on the verge of suggesting that the Guard rats’ earlier idea was looking much more attractive, when they finally heard him speak.

“It…it’s not just the human,” he murmured.

“What do you mean, Eric?” asked Martin.

“It’s…it’s our being here. We…don’t belong here. I-I can’t explain it, but…I just c-can’t go out there, I can’t! It’s just not…natural out there anymore.” He paused and added, “I-I’m really sorry, Teresa. I know I said I’d…I’d be with you in all this. But…I-I can’t help it, I-I just can’t…”

The four mice looked at each other, uncertain of what to make of this development, or what to do. Tears began welling in Teresa’s eyes, and Cynthia offered her shoulder in comfort.

“I-I should have foreseen this, Cynthia. I should have known that…this would be too extreme a change for him.” They were all struck by the intensity of Eric’s distress; it was on such a primal level, as if his being taken from Earth robbed him of any ability to function normally.

“You couldn’t have known,” replied Cynthia. “And we don’t know why nobody else seems to have been affected this way yet. Maybe Mr. Ages can help him.” Inwardly, she doubted that he had a remedy for anything like this; even with all she’d learned under his tutelage, it didn’t seem likely.

Undaunted, Martin and Karen pressed on, trying to convince Eric that things would be all right. Martin crept in close, and reached in and touched Eric’s shoulder as they talked to him. They told him that living here was much safer than where they were before; that the experiences they and Patricia had just undergone were much more harrowing, and they’d made it relatively unscathed; and that no matter what happened, they and others would be here to help him. And, they asked him, he wasn’t really planning to stay in there till he starved to death, was he?

Perhaps it was that last point that did it; but finally Eric began moving slowly, shakily, ever so slightly closer to the outside till they could see him peering out, eyes darting back and forth. Teresa came in close and reached in to touch his face, telling him how much she loved him and hated to see him like this, assuring him again that they would help in any way they could to get him adjusted to this new life. Slowly he emerged, looking about nervously, Teresa staying close and touching him the whole time, continuing to speak words of encouragement. When he was all the way out, she embraced and kissed him, still speaking to him quietly, reassuringly. Martin and Karen’s eyes met; after witnessing this tender scene, they were more aware than ever of a truth in their situation.

* * *

Johnathan and Howard had made an entire circuit of the perimeter and into the interior in several places on their “tour.” Included was the disguised main entrance that Howard had examined earlier; he’d remarked that it was indeed a very convincing camouflage job, just as the Rats had intended. He was also able to witness one of the sliding window panels in action; with the danger over, some of them were being opened to reveal the windows beneath, incorporated into the actual rock face behind which lay their colony. Howard, enormously impressed, remarked that he could understand why they considered this their pride and joy, and that he wished he could see the interior for himself.

Johnathan had talked almost nonstop during the tour, on a wide variety of subjects relating to the lives of these rats and mice. Howard was especially impressed by the open, heartfelt manner in which Johnathan detailed his feelings toward his family and friends, so much so that it made him feel a great sense of inferiority, both for himself and human society in general. Such a great sense of nobility was in these creatures, with such enormous devotion to family and community. It certainly confirmed what he’d learned from the mind-link they’d experienced; and though the intimacy of this link made some of what he’d learned seem almost embarrassing, it left no doubt that it was all genuine. He felt humbled, and more determined than ever that these creatures should be left alone to live as they choose, and that it would be the gravest injustice for anyone to try to capture them, where they were likely to be doomed to dissection in some lab or, perhaps worse, regarded as curiosities, like freaks in a traveling circus. This, in fact, was what they feared most were they to be kept alive, believing that even if they had some degree of diplomatic relations with humankind, they would never be equal to humans legally—their sense of xenophobia was just too great. Even if there were individual humans who would accept and befriend them, there would be many more who would regard them with fear and mistrust, even superstition. The unfairness of it all was starting to make Howard feel frustrated and almost angry.

Meanwhile, the group that was discussing matters relating to their long-term presence here had turned their discussion into a council meeting, with Gwinthrayle sitting in. He’d completed his ecological isolation spell; and now, he said, only time would tell if it would truly be as beneficial as they’d hoped. This patch of land would retain the microscopic life-forms brought from Earth, many of which were essential for the survival of the land and its inhabitants, but they could not exist outside of it. The same would go for plant life; and conversely, none of the analogous life-forms native to Lahaikshe could live or grow here. Larger animal life from both worlds could circulate freely, of course, though due to their relative physical isolation, that would probably be minimal and mostly limited to flying creatures like wilfajads—the native class of animal analogous to birds—of which the mhys’haspa was the largest representative.

On that note, they also discussed how the Rusay, the native rat-sized humanoid race, might regard their presence. Though visits by interdimensional beings were not unknown, how would they react to an entire colony of such beings as permanent neighbors—if, indeed, they were to stay on permanently? Again, their relative isolation would probably minimize the initial impact of their presence, which was likely to be great and create quite a stir, to say the least.

These sounds of discussion reached the ears of five mice, who steered themselves in their direction. Eric still appeared gripped by this dreadful feeling that made him look as if he were a second away from bolting and running for cover again, but Teresa and Cynthia stayed close by his side, assuring him they were there for him. On the way, the sisters told Martin and Karen what Melvin and Willis had conveyed to them earlier, about Gwinthrayle’s arrival and his mind-linking spell between Johnathan and the human. Though they didn’t yet know its outcome, they were all eager to find out. Teresa and Cynthia also quietly commented to each other on Martin and Karen’s closeness to each other and how un-self-conscious Martin seemed about it, something they’d never have expected from him two weeks ago.

They arrived at the meeting site, Eric promising shakily that he wouldn’t run away again, and they sat down. Madeline and Mr. Ages were the first to meet them, and she told them about Johnathan and the human—Howard Travis—leaving on their tour. Eric calmed noticeably in Madeline’s presence, and she assured him in motherly tones that he’d be all right and that Ages would do all he could to find out what was ailing him.

“Now if everyone would stop crowding around him…” he said in his usual fretful tone as he steered Eric a short ways away, medical kit in one hand, Teresa following closely. He spoke quietly and reassuringly as he tended to his patient, pulling out a stethoscope and other equipment. Teresa told him what Eric had told them before, how his fear seemed to center around their being here on Lahaikshe.

Madeline also took notice of how “together” Martin and Karen seemed, but chose to say nothing about it for now. Inwardly she was beaming, as much as Patricia when she’d first taken notice of their mutual affection. To think that her two oldest offspring both found themselves truly in love for the first time, or at least seemed to, at almost the same time yet. From what she’d seen of Karen so far, she was sure that she would be good for him, and Martin for her.

The four youngest Brisbys approached Martin a bit tentatively, having witnessed his earlier outburst and still a bit troubled by it, this having been the most violent anyone had seen him. But he recognized their reluctance, so he crouched with open arms, assuring them that he was fine now and still the same old Martin. They all came forward as one, with more kisses and hugs following. Kimball, Patricia and Karen were especially touched by this scene. This, they believed, had to be the true Martin they were witnessing here.

Lyndon remained a bit longer, sitting with his big brother’s arm around him. “Martin…I guess now that we’re in La…Lahaysee, you won’t be able to take me on that trip out of Thorn Valley.”

Martin was confused for a moment, and then he remembered that promise he’d made at the beginning of his and Lambert’s trip. “I guess you’re right, Lyndon, unless we go back to Earth. But I think…there’s going to be a lot we can do that’ll make up for it.”

“Okay.” Lyndon seemed satisfied; then he asked, entirely innocently, “Martin…are you and Karen in love?”

Martin just looked up at Karen, exchanging smiles. Madeline, within earshot of the question, looked dismayed and was ready to give Lyndon another stern lecture about politeness and tact, but Martin was able to convey to her silently that he took no offense. “We’ll see, shortstuff,” he replied. “We’ll see.” He stood, giving Lyndon a playful smack on the head. Lyndon just giggled.

Kimball then called Martin over to his side. “Martin, I didn’t have the chance to say this earlier, but…” He paused, face suddenly conveying great feeling. “…I just have to say that I’ll always be grateful to you, for delivering my sweet, beautiful girls here safely.” He embraced Martin and continued haltingly, “Even though you didn’t…lose a leg or any other parts, you went through an experience that had to be…harrowing, awful for you, in some ways more than mine. But you still came through, son.” He pulled back to face Martin. “You came through beautifully. Never, ever doubt that you’re a true hero, my boy. God bless you.”

Kimball kissed Martin on the cheek. Martin felt himself blush, but accepted the praise silently as Patricia and Karen added their agreements. Martin’s family members looked upon the scene with a mixture of pride and curiosity, more eager than ever to hear the full story of his journey.

Nearby, Ages wrapped up his exam, Eric still appearing tense. “Well,” he said to Teresa, “I can’t see where there’s anything physically wrong with him. I’m afraid his problem’s out of my hands.” Teresa nodded sadly, actually not terribly surprised. She took Eric in her arms, holding him close, continuing to assure him that she’d stand by him as much as he’d pledged himself to her during their earlier crisis.

Ages took his bag and left them alone, genuinely wishing he could do more. He rejoined the other mice and repeated what he’d told Teresa.

“Perhaps,” Alma suggested, “all he really needs is some T.L.C.”

“I’d rather hope so,” said Ages, not sounding especially hopeful, “but I’m afraid Eric’s problem might run much deeper than that.”

“What do you mean?” asked Madeline.

“Well, I’m not absolutely certain, but…being a ‘natural’ and native to this land, it’s possible that Eric is more…vulnerable to great changes in it.”

“But,” said Alma, looking confused, “I’m a natural and I lived in Thorn Valley all my life, just like Eric. And nothing like that’s happened to me.”

“And so was I a natural, at least until I met Johnathan,” added Madeline. “Do you think…maybe because Alma and I have been…closely associated with everyone here—the colony and our husbands especially—that may be why we’re not affected like that.” Since their reunion, she and Johnathan had learned, via use of the Stone, that he’d in essence made her just like him as if she’d undergone the NIMH treatments like him, Ages, and the Original 20 rats, apparently purely by being his mate. When Ages married Alma, it was speculated that he might have the same effect on her, and in the nearly two years since, it was very much appearing to be the case, since she seemed little aged. In addition, there was the small amount of similar intermarriage among the Rats, with four naturals made part of the community, though it still too early to tell if there was a similar effect with them.

“So,” Madeline continued, “What I think is that…it could be the same with Eric, but…not right away.”

Ages adjusted his spectacles. “So you’re saying that, given time, he could be better adjusted to this new setting, this new living situation.”

“Yes, I hope.”

“But…how will it be for him until then?” Everyone looked to each other, lost at how to best answer Cynthia’s question. What if, after all, whatever ailed Eric was something else completely, something he might never get over? He’d sounded so sure that he couldn’t handle staying here; what if returning to Earth was the only cure for his condition, as he seemed to believe?

Justin and some of the other Rats joined the discussion and were brought up to date just as Johnathan and Howard returned. It was a startling sight, for those who hadn’t seen them leave, to see them together now; especially for Martin, who stared wide-eyed as Howard greeted them almost as he would old acquaintances. He sat down cross-legged on the ground near the gathering and extended his left arm for Johnathan to “dismount” his shoulder and return to the ground.

As Martin looked at Howard’s hand he was reminded that that was the good one; he glanced at the still-bandaged right one, wincing as he again recalled how it had come to be in that condition.

Johnathan greeted his wife first, embracing and kissing her tenderly as if they’d been apart for more than just an hour. Everyone else present took it casually as if it were an everyday sight, which of course it was. Howard, in fact, was aware of this too, having learned, via the mind-link, virtually everything about Johnathan’s life, including the most personal and potentially embarrassing details. But any embarrassment was overcome by feelings of admiration as he watched Johnathan greet the rest of his family and his friends, briefly describing what he and Howard had discussed on the tour. He thought of how strong and so pure Johnathan’s love still was for his wife and children, five and a half years after he and Madeline met; and reflected on how it compared to his love for Sharon. He’d known her for some nine years, been married to her for six, and now couldn’t help wondering if he was starting to take her for granted. A country-western song lyric he’d heard once came to mind: “Love her like the devil when you get back home.”

Johnathan had finished most of his greetings, but finally noticed how Martin had been hanging back. He was heartened to see Karen at his side, the two obviously having spent a good amount of time talking things over. Karen gave him a gentle push when they saw Johnathan approach; both of them knew that Howard’s entrance was the main reason he was hanging back.

“Glad to see you came back, son,” Johnathan said, embracing him. “How’re you doing?”

“Better, Dad. Quite a bit better, in fact.”

“That’s great. Now…I believe you have a few words for the big guy here.” Johnathan motioned toward Howard.

Martin looked up at the human, swallowing a lump in his throat with an audible “gulp.” For a moment he felt trapped; then he saw his duty clearly and stepped forward. “Er…Howard, my name’s Martin, and…and I’m the one who…attacked you earlier. I’m really sorry about your hand, I didn’t mean to do it. I was just…out of my mind for a moment.”

“That’s okay, Martin, your father told me you’d been through a lot lately, even though he couldn’t say exactly what.” Even as he spoke, Howard drew his right hand closer to him—a near-instinctive reaction of which he was barely aware.

The gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Martin, who felt compelled to say more. “Look, I’m really, really sorry. You gotta believe me, I…I never meant to hurt anyone. I just didn’t understand, I…didn’t understand anything.”

Howard could hear the pain in Martin’s voice and was suddenly aware of his earlier reaction. He extended his hand—the good one—out to Martin, laying it on the ground in front of him. “Hey, it’s all right, Martin. I know you didn’t mean it, and…I trust you.”

Martin looked up to him, feeling surprisingly grateful for this new gesture, and laid hands on Howard’s palm. “I…I never thought an encounter with a human could be like this.”

“Well, I’ve learned a lot about all of you…and if others did, there could be more like this.”

Martin just nodded, then turned to see Johnathan approach. “I don’t mean to rush you or anything, Martin, if you’re not ready…but there’s more than a few words that you have for the rest of us.”

Martin sighed. “That’s okay, Dad, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” The attentions of everyone present—rat, mouse, human and Rusay alike—were centered on Martin now. Patricia and Karen came forward and sat beside him, ready to jump in when the time arose. Martin was ready to begin; but first he looked up at Howard, then at Johnathan and Justin. They all agreed that it was appropriate that Howard hear this too. Martin cleared his throat, a bit uncomfortable at being the center of attention, something that wouldn’t have bothered him so much in past times; but under these circumstances… He steeled himself, having known this would be necessary and now wanting to get it all out in the open and over with.

“Well…you remember the day before we left, Lambert and me, when we sat down to discuss what you thought…the trouble was with me. Well, I got this idea, and I met with Lambert to see what he thought of it…”

So it went, as Martin described his plan—unbeknownst to anyone, including Lambert—to “steal” the Stone, an act that was causing him visible pain to describe. It confirmed for Timothy his suspicion that someone had sneaked into their home that morning, though he’d found no one inside. Martin was more comfortable describing his and Lambert’s adventures en route to the highway—including the attacks from the boar and bobcat—and their stowing away on the van for the ride to Sampson. The latter met with some small skepticism, and Martin couldn’t help feeling insulted by this; but Johnathan reminded everyone that when Lambert returned, he’d corroborate the account. Kimball was also quick to support him, pointing out that if he could pull off such a stunt successfully, there’s no reason to believe that Martin and Lambert couldn’t as well.

Martin continued with the trip into Sampson, their getaway in the parking lot, their initial difficulty in getting directions to NIMH, and their fateful encounter with Boonger’s gang. Patricia and Karen joined in and helped Martin describe their initial meeting and attempt to rescue Lambert, and hike to NIMH; how they’d found Vincent’s directions to what turned out to be his secret lair inside the building, and their infiltration and discovery of the lair’s location. Kimball took an especially keen interest in this part, since in all their meetings, Vincent had kept his lair a secret even from him, never describing it except in the most cursory way such as “It’s where I sleep.” They described what they found there, how they learned of possible impending human discovery of the Thorn Valley colony and Vincent’s unknown fate, the latter point causing Kimball noticeable apprehension. Then came the story of the agonizingly slow and frustrating return trip, including the difficult decision to not search further for Lambert. This was balanced somewhat by the strange and wondrous “guiding” by the amulet, and how it had led them to the right vehicle that would take them where they were going, even causing it to become disabled at just the right point, enabling them to disembark and continue on foot over the same route as he and Lambert, owing as much to Martin’s own unerring sense of direction and tracking ability as to the guiding. It was the first that Martin or the others had described in any great detail how the Stone’s and his parents’ “Guide” had affected them, and his parents were surprised and pleased at the specifics; and dismayed as well upon learning how Madeline’s inadvertent falling asleep “on the job” had affected the three as they described how the Guide had disappeared for such a long time. Martin insisted on describing alone, though with visible pain, how he’d neglected his companions to the point of nearly abandoning them. Again, this was balanced by the Guide returning in such a different and even pleasing way, enabling them to make the bulk of the remainder of the trip floating in the air and faster than a normal walking pace, and even protecting them from danger, in the form of the same bobcat’s second attack.

Finally they told of their final approach to and entrance into Thorn Valley. Martin did his best to describe his feelings upon realizing all that everyone had gone through during his and the Stone’s absence, how he’d held himself responsible for so much of it, and the reason for his extreme reaction against Howard. He said nothing, though, of how he’d lashed out at Karen. Earlier, they’d mutually agreed to keep it to themselves for the time being. Now, however, he felt bothered by this, just a little, especially after Kimball had given him such heartfelt thanks. Perhaps, he reasoned, it wasn’t necessary, at least at this point; after all else he shared, this laying bare his very soul to his family and friends. It was the first Martin had done anything like this, and now he realized how much easier it was than he would have believed only days ago; after all, he’d just done much the same with Karen, and after that, how much more difficult could this be?

His audience listened intently, including the youngest ones; and while all were genuinely interested in the details, it was frankly surprising to hear him open up like this, but all would agree it was a pleasing change. Most already believed that the guarded and often sullen Martin Brisby they all knew well would become a thing of the past.

When he was finally through, everyone sat in silent reflection for a short time. Martin and Karen sat close to each other, quietly exulting in each other’s company and that of those they loved around them. Martin felt so much cleaner inside than he had in a long time, perhaps in years. There were some personal demons still to be purged, to be sure, but he hoped that their impending rescue of Lambert would take care of at least one.

Madeline was still understandably troubled from learning how her accident led to the Contact—as she and Johnathan called it—being broken, leading to his near-abandonment of his companions. Martin embraced his mother, insisting that there was no cause for guilt on her part and that the responsibility for his subsequent actions was all his. Patricia and Karen also let her know that they held her blameless as well.

Johnathan tested the Stone once more, but again he reported that it still wasn’t good for much more than the translation it was providing for them, so it would likely still be a few more hours before it could send Howard back to Earth. It was already decided that the most obvious location was back to Thorn Valley; it wasn’t hard to picture the stir created there not only by his absence, but especially by the sudden disappearance of such a huge tract of terra firma. No doubt his colleagues were searching for him frantically and had probably already concluded that wherever that chunk of land went, Howard had to have gone with it.

Still…what else could he do until then? Gwinthrayle stepped in next and suggested that he take Howard on a tour of the surrounding land. He explained how lifeforms in general are scaled down in size on this world, and therefore it would be prudent to utilize two rather simple spells to carry this tour out in the best way. The Rusay sorcerer demonstrated one of them on the spot, and Howard was startled as he found himself floating slowly upward to about a foot off the ground. Gwinthrayle explained that they would observe everything while floating like this, and that Howard could make himself comfortable in any way he chose. Gwinthrayle then worked the other spell, or at least seemed to; from Howard’s perspective, there seemed to be no change at all. Then he heard his new friends saying that they couldn’t see him or Gwinthrayle. This spell of invisibility, Gwinthrayle explained, rendered them so only to others, not to themselves or each other. Howard assumed a position as if sitting in a chair, and off they went.

While several rats returned to discussing details of their future existence here, Johnathan and Kimball’s families, along with Graham and Simone and some of their children, started firming up details on what to do after Howard was sent home. It was already decided that would be the first priority before finding Lambert. And after that? With the amulet’s searching capabilities, any or all of the other Davis children could be located and brought here if they desired. The enigmatic Vincent would also be tracked down and given a similar offer; many here were especially eager to meet him, hoping that this “final fate” he’d written about didn’t actually mean his imminent demise, or that it was no more than just a feeling or hunch. The fates of the other six mice—the ones long presumed to have died in what they’d referred to for years as the “Airshaft Massacre”—would no doubt be uncovered as well, since the Stone could also show images from the past. The latter was, of course, something Johnathan could have done at any time since he’d held the Stone; but he hadn’t, because he wasn’t aware of its searching capability, at least at first, plus the possibility hadn’t occurred to him that any of the mice—including Kimball, Patricia, or Vincent—could have survived. But now, with two of those mice in front of him now and the confirmed existence of the third, there were many possibilities to explore. Some of them were bound to be unpleasant; under the circumstances, not all of the other six were likely to have survived. But he and the others were prepared, even eager, to face them all, because it would mean they could finally “close the books” on this case.

Chapter 35: Departures

The next few hours were spent in more discussion and planning; and some action was already being taken on putting the colony back the way it was before, beginning with restoring some of the tunnels. The Rats regretted what had been, in effect, swindling those other animals out of their new burrows, having refurbished all those entrances for that express purpose and making all kinds of promises to these animals, and then turning around and having the amulet’s power kick them all out, and then quite literally taking it all away. Perhaps, it was suggested, they’d have to content themselves with the fact that those were temporary leases, but just a bit more temporary than they’d planned.

There were, and would continue to be, many regrets expressed regarding their move to Lahaikshe, many of which were concerned with leaving so much behind. The debate was revived over whether or not Nicodemus would have approved, and by and large it was agreed that he would not have wanted contact with humankind before they could be certain, beyond a doubt, that their human contacts could be trusted, that they genuinely wanted diplomatic relations and would not capture or otherwise betray them. Overall, it was felt that this was not yet the right time, that humankind wasn’t yet ready for them and perhaps never would be; and that this move was the right one for them all, and that they should plan for a permanent stay on Lahaikshe. The point was raised over whether this wholesale move was really warranted, considering that Howard’s party was mainly surveying the area and was not prepared to take specimens. But it was generally agreed that if they had reported that there were intelligent rats in Thorn Valley, more human intrusion was inevitable, and this time it wouldn’t be as benign. Those who had contemplated leaving the colony, such as Garrick, weren’t as sure about that now; certainly they could be sent to Earth later if they desired, but they agreed too that things should be given a chance to work here first, and so they agreed to stay on.

Martin spent most of the time with his family and friends, some wondering if there was more he wanted to say; but he seemed content to have Karen close by his side, where she stayed most of the time. Many of his friends among the Rats, including Kevin, Philip, and Tara, came by to offer encouragement or a simple “You did good.” A young lady named Bertha, who was the oldest daughter of Anna and George, and Brutus’s half-sister, and who Martin was aware was fond of Lambert, asked him—or more accurately Johnathan—how soon they could begin their search for the one of their citizens still unaccounted for. Johnathan assured her that, as they’d been planning, Lambert would be their first priority after they’d returned Howard. Bertha appeared satisfied, and could then be seen taking aside Lambert’s brother Tremaine and talking to him privately. It created a bit of a stir; and though Martin half-heartedly protested, “C’mon, let’s not be gossips here,” he couldn’t deny his own curiosity about what Bertha might be planning with his best friend.

Eric showed little change; he’d continued to be very quiet and withdrawn, eating very little; not as petrified of being here as before, but showing no real signs that he was becoming better acclimated either. Teresa never left his side, and continued giving him all the love and support he needed, with much help from the rest of the Brisby family, who had all but adopted him in recent months; but though he didn’t outright reject anyone’s overtures, it all seemed to have little effect. Teresa was beginning to feel afraid for him and to believe that there would be one thing only which would restore him to his old self.

Gwinthrayle and Howard returned after about two and a half hours, and Johnathan greeted them with the news that the amulet would be ready, at long last, to send Howard home soon. Howard was pleased to hear it, of course, but was glad that it would still be some time yet, since he felt the need to be alone, to contemplate all he’d seen and learned and what he had to look forward to back on Earth.

And so, finally, the long-awaited word came. Once Johnathan could say beyond any doubt that the time was right, Gwinthrayle left to fetch Howard.

Soon there was quite a crowd gathered; almost the entire colony was assembled for this momentous occasion. For some, it was mainly to see that the amulet was working up to speed again, but most genuinely wanted to see that Howard got off safely. Among the latter were some who would feel relieved once he was gone; though they knew he meant no harm, still they felt that they’d breathe more easily without him here—simply because he was human, they realized. It was an instinctive, deep-seated feeling, one they couldn’t deny.

Howard again sat cross-legged on the ground in front of them, still for the most part silent. As the time drew nearer, he was thinking more and more about what awaited him. Still, he genuinely wished everyone good luck, again expressing how much he’d learned from them and hoped that others could learn from what he’d say about them. He again thanked Gwinthrayle for the grand tour, an experience he was sure he’d never forget—actually seeing another world—even if he were to forget everything else about this overall experience. He apologized for the anxiety that everyone was put through, knowing of the impending arrival of his team; especially to Kimball and his family and Martin for all the hardships they’d suffered to reach Thorn Valley in time to warn everyone else. These apologies weren’t really necessary, of course, since he’d had no way of knowing what would happen, but he felt the need to pass them along. He even told Isabella he was sorry for the nightmare she’d experienced.

Howard expressed concern over whether he’d experience the same weakness as before, and Johnathan assured him that though he’d be likely to feel some, it should be nowhere near as bad. They had settled upon a location for Howard to appear in Thorn Valley, and so there was nothing left but to give their final goodbyes before starting the process.

“Johnathan…brother…it’s been…There’s an expression some of us have: ‘It’s been real.’ I know that some of this…heck, all of this, still seems pretty unreal to me, but I know it really has been real, and I’m never going to doubt that it was. I just want to say thanks once more, for all you’ve done…for all that all of you’ve done, to open my eyes to worlds I never knew existed.”

“It’s mutual, believe me, Howard…brother. All these years that some of us have wondered what it would be like to really, truly be human, see things through human eyes…now I really know.” Johnathan paused and placed the Stone’s face against Howard’s palm, laid out before him. He looked up and smiled. “Well, if you’re ready, let’s get this show on the r—”

“Johnathan, wait! Stop!”

Everyone looked toward the source of the sudden, unexpected shout, and all were invariably surprised to find out its identity. It was Eric. He’d broken away from Teresa and now came forward with surprising boldness toward Johnathan and Howard, still looking nervous and ill at ease but seemingly driven by a conviction that overcame any fear. Teresa could only stare in disbelief for a moment before following him.

“Eric? What’s wrong?” Johnathan, like the others, couldn’t fathom such an uncharacteristic outburst from him.

“J-Johnathan…” Eric began, standing before him with knees knocking, glancing nervously up at Howard, but still determined to see this through. It seemed to prove, if proof was still needed, that Howard wasn’t the principal source of Eric’s distress. “Y-You’re sending…him back to where we were…t-to Thorn Valley, aren’t you?”

“Er, yes. That’s right.”

“Well…send me with him. I’ve got to go back there too.”

“Eric, no!” Teresa rushed to his side, taking his arm. “You can’t! What about…what about us?” Tears began welling in her eyes.

Eric turned to her, cupping her face in his hands. “Teresa, I-I’m sorry. I tried, I really tried. But I can’t stay here, I…just don’t belong. I feel like…if I stay much longer, I…I’ll die.”

“Oh, Eric…” Teresa held him close. She’d known that something like this was possible, but she was still quite distraught. “You can’t leave now, not when…you and I…”

“Oh, baby, I don’t want to leave you either. Unless…unless you come with me…”

Teresa looked at him straight on, surprised at the suggestion; then she looked around at the faces of her family, of everyone else present. All at once, an expression of great determination came upon her, visible through her tears. All who saw it knew she’d made her decision.

“Dad…I’m going to do it. I’m going with him.”

“You’re…really sure of this, Teresa?” Johnathan asked this, even knowing that when Teresa made a decision, she was always very sure of it. The rest of her family gathered around, just as surprised at this sudden development.

Teresa nodded. “I…Oh, Dad…Mother…I don’t want to leave any of you, but he needs me. We need each other.”

Madeline held her eldest daughter close. “Oh, Teresa, I’m going to miss you. My own little girl…”

“I will too, but…Maddie, there was always a possibility that any of our children might want to go off on their own someday. And she’s as mature now as you were when we first met; she and Martin are.” Johnathan looked over to Martin and Karen, smiling.

“I know, Johnathan, it’s just that it’s so sudden, and…it is hard, after all these years…” Madeline looked at Teresa and Eric, looking decisive herself. “But you’re right, we have to let you make your own decisions, and…Eric really does need you.” She kissed each of them on the cheek.

Johnathan looked over to Kimball and Patricia, reminded that they’d let all of their thirteen offspring go except for Karen, and of one more detail where the Stone was concerned. “Well, hey, it’s not like this is a permanent farewell. We do have the Stone, you know. We can visit anytime.”

Ages came forward. “Teresa, do you remember what we discussed a short time ago? Perhaps, in time, you could both rejoin us here, if Eric feels up to it.”

“He’s right, Teresa,” Johnathan said. “So let’s not make this a sad occasion. It’s a new beginning, just as this day has been for us all. Eric…you take good care of my daughter…and yourself, okay? I hope you feel better soon.”

Eric managed a smile. “I’ll try my best, Johnathan.”

The round of farewells began anew, with everyone wishing the two mice the best of luck in their new life together, and cautioning them to be careful, since it may not be as safe in Thorn Valley as before. The presence of the Rat colony kept predators in check almost all of the time, but with it gone, they would be likely to start moving in on the area again.

Martin and Teresa embraced, each feeling closer to the other than they ever had. He echoed their father’s wish that they take good care of each other. “She’s the only twin sister I got,” he remarked to Eric. Privately, Teresa wished him and Karen the best of luck.

Howard took this all in with keen interest. As he watched Teresa explain as best she could to her youngest siblings why she and Eric had to leave, he recalled the day his older sister left home, and then himself two years later. Neither could compare with this, with the outpouring of genuine love and caring he was seeing here; though of course these were possibly life-and-death circumstances here, on Eric’s part especially.

Johnathan used the Stone to fetch some of Teresa’s and Eric’s belongings—just the essentials—as Teresa finished up her goodbyes: to her boss Simone and fellow teachers, and her other friends including her two closest among the Rats, Hermione and Ophelia.

Since it had already been theorized—and hoped—that Eric’s condition may be temporary, Johnathan promised them that he would visit them in a few weeks, probably two or three, and bring them back to Lahaikshe to see if Eric could adjust to living here yet. Of course Teresa wished it would be so, but Eric agreed too, wanting to be among those he knew best, for himself as well as for Teresa.

With all the goodbyes concluded, the two mice were ready for their own interdimensional jump. After some deliberation, it was decided that it would be safe enough to send Howard and the two mice back to Thorn Valley in the same jump, to the same location they’d decided upon.

Thus, Howard invited the mice to make the trip with him inside his pack. Eric was a bit reluctant, but was soon coaxed when told that the sooner they did this, the sooner they’d be back in Thorn Valley. Johnathan and Madeline gave their daughter one more farewell hug and again wished the two young lovers the best of luck and for them to take care. They bade everyone farewell once more, then slipped inside Howard’s pack.

Before beginning the process anew, Johnathan posed a question to everyone present: “So…does anyone else want to join Howard at this time?” To some it sounded as if he were making a joke, considering Eric’s abrupt and unexpected interruption, and he acknowledged this; but he was entirely serious, given all that had happened today. No one called out or came forward, so he again placed the amulet against Howard’s palm.

The two exchanged last goodbyes, Howard said farewell to all assembled, adding that he would never forget this experience. Johnathan visualized the area where Howard and his two small passengers would appear. He thought once more about the new life Teresa and Eric were embarking upon, and about the trials Howard would be likely to experience in the days to come; then he concentrated fully on wishing that they be sent to this location, but only as long as no humans were too close, so that none would see their abrupt appearance there, and so that Teresa and Eric would be able to get away safely. Since it was already dark there now, that would help in making their entrance less conspicuous.

The familiar red glow emanated from the amulet and in seconds completely enveloped Howard. He felt some apprehension, though he believed Johnathan’s earlier assurances. Inside the pack, the two mice were braced, holding on to each other tightly with eyes closed.

As the glow intensified, Madeline had half an impulse to rush forward and stop the process. Though she refrained, still she couldn’t help feeling worry, even fear for them. It would be such a different Thorn Valley awaiting them: if not more dangerous, then certainly lonelier, with so many friends and loved ones and familiar surroundings no longer there. Still, it was Teresa’s decision; and though it was made in haste, it was with the conviction of someone who’d always been very sure of what she wanted. Her family and friends could be sure that she knew very well what she was getting herself into.

The glow reached its apex, everyone averted his and her eyes…and upon returning their gaze, all saw Johnathan and the amulet alone.

As his family gathered around, Johnathan looked upon the Stone’s face and smiled. They’d all made it safely, and were none the worse for wear.

* * *

Howard Travis shook his head. His limbs felt a bit unsteady, and he was a little light-headed; but overall he felt strong enough to stand up and walk around. Johnathan wasn’t kidding, he thought. But was he where he should be?

He opened his eyes and raised his head. It was much darker than he thought it should be; then he remembered that if he was back on Earth, in Thorn Valley, then it should be well after sunset by now. In the moonlight, he could see he was sitting within a stand of trees, the edge of which was several feet away. As he shifted slightly, he was aware that he was leaning against another tree. Guess I made it, he thought. He couldn’t be absolutely sure, having not set foot into Thorn Valley before today, but this looked like the area he was walking through when he first noticed the strange animal activity, not long before that happened. So if this was that area, then nearby should be…

His thoughts were interrupted by stirring sounds in his pack. He’d almost forgotten his two traveling companions. He lifted the flap and two small heads popped out, looking all around, their tiny eyes gleaming in the dark. “Well, guys, we made it.”

Teresa looked up at Howard and smiled. “So we did.” Then, looking toward the edge of the woods, she added, “Over there must be the edge of where our land was. Why don’t we all take a look?”

But to Howard, the words only registered as squeaks. He was confused at first, then he remembered. “Oh, that’s right, I can’t understand you anymore without the Stone here.” Teresa had also forgotten, and so nodded in response. “But you can understand me, I suppose. Hardly seems fair.” Howard noticed Teresa’s persistent pointing toward the edge of the woods, and remembered his own curiosity about it. “Oh, I get it. I guess we both know what we’ll find there, huh?”

Howard stood up, a bit shakily but with increasing confidence and relief as he began to move forward. Eric was startled by this and tensed as if ready to leap out of the bag, but Teresa managed to calm him down, telling him that it wouldn’t be much longer and there was something interesting she wanted to see. She described it to him as Howard brought them to it.

As he drew closer, Howard could see just how “cut off” the edge of the woods really was, confirming his suspicions even before he reached it. Even in the semi-darkness, it was an awesome, jaw-dropping sight even as he was prepared for it.

The ground dropped off abruptly in front of them, a sheer drop; and Howard took a few cautious steps back in case the soil closest to the edge was loose. He looked across to where the ground resumed, some several hundred feet away. The crater was some seventy feet deep, as much as, he instantly noted, the plateau he just left was high above that bare plain. Even from where he stood, he could make out, in the moonlight, the bottom of the crater and the pools of water that had formed here and there from where the springs that had previously supplied water to the lake were now exposed. The most startling part of the entire scene could be seen to the left, toward the ridge that formed the northwest border of the valley. It looked as if a sizable chunk of mountainside had been very cleanly scooped out—as, indeed, did this entire section of landscape—but here the effect was so much more pronounced, as if this solid rock were soft butter before a gigantic knife.

“Will you just look at this,” Howard said quietly, incredulously. He looked down at the two mice, themselves staring in amazement from his pack. “That’s where the Rats’ actual colony was before, wasn’t it?”

Teresa nodded, adding privately to Eric, “And our homes too.” She sighed, and Eric stroked her shoulder.

The three continued silently surveying the scene; then, abruptly, the silence was broken.

“Hey, Travis! Is that you?” The voice came from some one hundred feet behind them.

Howard turned and squinted in the flashlight beam that met his eyes, shielding them with his hand. “Yeah, it’s me! Is that you, George?”

“That’s right. Stay there, I’ll come to you.” George began moving toward them, summoning others on his walkie-talkie as he did.

“Well, I guess now’s the time we part company,” Howard said as he looked down at his bag. But the two mice were already gone. Howard looked around at the surrounding foliage but couldn’t see them or detect any movement. He said quietly, out of earshot of his approaching associate, “Good luck, you two. I really hope you can rejoin the others someday.”

As he started to take a few steps forward, he heard a squeak from within a clump of weeds. He acknowledged the reply with a nod and a smile; then he prepared to meet George and soon everyone else.

“What the hell happened to you, Howard?” asked his associate, now recognizable by face as George Scolnik. “We combed this whole area after…whatever it was that happened here happened, and we couldn’t find a trace of you.” George drew up to Howard, greeting him with a comradely arm around the shoulder and a handshake. “Are you okay? Your hand’s bandaged up.”

“Yeah, I’m fine, George, just fine. Just from a little scrape I got into.”

“Glad to hear it; but what did happen to you? I know everyone’s going to ask you that in the next few days, but…do you think you could describe it in twenty-five words or less?”

Again Howard considered claiming amnesia, denying any knowledge of what had happened during the several hours after his transmission was cut off and just before now, as if it were a “typical” alien abduction; but he again reminded himself that he had every intention of sticking to his guns, regardless of the consequences. The past several hours were still very fresh and very real in his mind, and there was no way he’d pretend they didn’t happen, that all he’d seen and learned was an illusion.

Yes, it would certainly take less than twenty-five words to reply “My mind’s a blank”; but instead, he replied rather distantly, “Well, George…I don’t think I can in that few, but…if I have my way, everybody who should hear all about it will.”

George frowned, but before he could ask Howard what he meant by this cryptic statement, Howard said, “So have you guys got any of those sandwiches left? I’m starving.” In fact, up till now he’d hardly given any thought to the fact that he hadn’t eaten in some seven hours.

“Mmm, yeah, I think we do,” George replied. “Here, I’ve got an extra granola bar here to tide you over.” He reached into his pack for it. He decided against asking Howard anything more, knowing that he’d be in for enough questions as it is.

Soon other flashlight beams, accompanied by other voices—some familiar, some not so—met the two. Howard took a deep breath and steeled himself for what was to come.

A few feet away and hidden safely from sight, Teresa and Eric remained low and quiet as they listened intently and carefully to the voices that joined with those of Howard Travis and George Scolnik: loud at first, then gradually fading in the distance. It occurred to Teresa that in light of recent events here, and with the humans well aware of them, they would certainly be remaining here for an extended stay, running all manner of tests to determine just what happened to the piece of land that had formerly occupied that gigantic hole in the earth, and why it happened. She and Eric shouldn’t be in any danger from them, since they’d be no more than just two more little mice to them. But now other possibilities occurred to her. What if the humans found out what really happened here and found the way to follow the Rats to Lahaikshe? Would they really go to such extremes? Could they? It seemed farfetched, but still…

She realized how much hinged upon Howard, and exactly what and how much of his own experiences he would reveal. She hoped he would exercise considerable discretion and good sense. She was sure he would, after learning so much about them, and in such intimate detail. These misgivings, she knew, were due mainly to their natural fear of humans, plus the more specific fears of the consequences of the colony’s discovery. She concluded that there was probably nothing to worry about, as far as the colony’s being further bothered by humans was concerned.

As the voices faded completely, she said, “Well, Eric…I guess we should look for someplace to stay, at least for tonight.”

“I know where we can go,” Eric replied instantly. He took her hand and led her along the newly-created forest’s edge, still keeping a safe distance from the edge of the pit. “If we’re lucky,” he went on, “we can stay there past tonight.”

“Oh, I know,” said Teresa. “It’s your family’s old home, isn’t it? Before your mom and Sarah moved away?”

“Yeah, that’s it. I hope nobody else has discovered it.”

“Me too,” agreed Teresa. “It is a nice place.” She noted to herself how Eric seemed already to be in much better spirits, with greater self-confidence, just from being back in Thorn Valley again. That at least portended well for the future, she decided.

The pair made their way along cautiously in the moonlight until they came to their destination: three large boulders with much of the valley’s characteristic thorny growth surrounding them. They searched for the entrance and found it to be a bit overgrown, which was actually a good sign. As they cleared away debris, they noted there seemed to be no fresh scents hereabouts, mouse or otherwise.

The passage opened out into a spacious chamber in the center of where the three boulders came together, leaving a small gap above that allowed a small amount of moonlight in. An inner chamber, the one Eric’s family used as their actual den, was a little further in, between two of the boulders. A smaller stone, suitable for sitting or leaning on, sat in the middle of the outer chamber. The place always reminded Teresa of a smaller version of the Brisby home here in…rather, the one formerly here in Thorn Valley.

A check of the inner chamber confirmed that it was entirely free for their own use, with the old bedding and other furniture still there and suitable for them, at least for tonight; so they set about getting themselves acclimated to what they both knew was their new but hopefully not permanent living situation.

They unpacked what little they’d brought; then, as Eric began arranging the bedding to better accommodate the two of them, he said, “Well, it looks like we can be comfortable here, for a while anyway. Guess we were plenty lucky, huh, Teresa? Somebody else could have…” He paused as he noticed Teresa standing with her back turned, her hands to her face. “Teresa? What’s the matter?” Even as he drew up to her, placing hands on her shoulders, it wasn’t hard to guess.

She turned, face streaked with tears. “Oh, Eric, I thought I’d…I’d be able to…I mean, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but…”

He held her tightly. “Oh, baby, it’ll be all right. And…it probably won’t be for good.”

“I know. It’s just…I pledged myself to you, I wanted to stick by you, like you stayed with us the whole time. It was all because I love you. But now…” She couldn’t hold back a sob.

Eric reached up to brush away her tears. “I know, baby, I know. You miss your family, your friends. I miss your family, too. You all took me in and treated me like one of you. But you’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. I love you, Teresa, and as long as I’m here…”

Teresa suddenly reached up to cup his face with both hands, planting her lips against his. They both sighed, enjoying the moment as only those truly in love can know. They moved to their hastily-arranged bedding, sinking down into it, breaking off their kiss only momentarily to murmur endearments to each other. It had been a difficult day, long and harrowing; and though sleep would come soon enough, right now all either of them needed or wanted was to be safe and secure in each other’s arms, draw strength and comfort from each other and give freely of themselves emotionally and physically.

Though their immediate future was uncertain, the matter would not be of any concern until the morning light.

Chapter 36: Lambert’s emancipation

Well, guess that’ll do it for one more day, he thought as he made the final preparations for settling in for the night. Instead of turning off the light, though, he decided to keep it on a bit longer while reflecting once again on the events of recent days. He stretched out in full on his back, eyes traveling about the room, now and again settling upon one of the drawings, rendered in pencil and charcoal, that adorned the walls and ceiling in such profusion: of buildings, trees, other plants, other objects natural and human-made; of animals like rabbits, rats, squirrels, other rodents; several species of birds, like pigeons and sparrows; a variety of insects and an occasional spider; some that seemed unlikely in this place, like a raccoon or a bat; even an occasional dog or cat or horse.

Mostly, though, there were those of mice, in all manner of settings: some simple facial portraits, some full-body; some posed, and some which froze a moment of action so accurately, as if photographed and not drawn, which depicted one or more mice running, jumping, climbing, conversing, bathing, eating, sleeping, making love, giving birth, nursing babies. Some were more whimsical: a mouse and a cat with reversed proportions, with the former holding up the latter by the tail; a mouse with wings sprouting from its back, flying over another mouse who bore a shocked expression.

Some were harder for him to figure out; and some were even startling, at least on first glance, particularly the ones that depicted mice that looked uncannily like Johnathan Brisby and Mr. Ages. Coincidence? He’d thought so at first, in his first few minutes here, the day before in late afternoon; then he found the letter that had been left for him here. He still found some of the things written there hard to believe; for all these years it had been accepted that no other mice survived the Airshaft Massacre besides Johnathan and Ages, though learning otherwise was hardly unwelcome news. The letter didn’t go into any great detail about the circumstances behind the survival of the two mice that made their home here, or the other one who apparently actually lived at NIMH, bizarrely enough, or why they’d chosen to live as they did, where they did, all this time. But then he found the stacks of journals and notes that revealed to him much of the history of this mouse family, whose surname was Davis: their first home, their first meeting with Vincent, their domestic discord, their thirteen children who, except for one, had all left home looking for the Rats’ new home.

It had all intrigued him enough to want to meet these mice, and had made him all the more eager to hear more about their adventures firsthand, if they and Martin return…

He caught himself. If? he thought. Certainly he didn’t want to believe that some calamity had befallen Martin and his two companions on the way to or at NIMH; but it had been going on four days now since that conversation—if it could be called that—in the gang hangout, and there’d been no sign that they were even anywhere in the area. Not that he’d been out that much lately, or at all really, since he’d been confined here since his arrival in the Davis home. Still, how much longer could he continue to wait here? He’d always thought of himself as a patient sort; after all, he’d put up with Martin all this time. But this kind of waiting, this sitting here idly…it just didn’t seem right, what with not knowing if any of them would make it back here. And it wasn’t his style; he was a rat of action. But the letter was very specific: “Stay right there,” it said. “We don’t know how long it’ll take, but we’ll make every effort to make it back, and then we’ll all leave together for Thorn Valley.” All well and good, but…almost four days? Certainly they should have been here by now. He could trust Martin to be careful, and probably those two females as well, having lived here for so long, but still…

Oh, that does it, he thought as he got up to switch off the light with its red Christmas-tree bulb. I’ve just got to keep telling myself that it’s useless to worry like this. After all, a lot can happen in three days. And just think of the adventures we’ll have to tell each other and everyone else about when we get together. Got to keep thinking “when;” accentuate the positive, as Mom would say. Yes, there should be a great deal to look forward to. With that, he settled back into bed. It wasn’t long before he began to feel drowsy.

After only a few minutes, something cut right through to his conscious mind, jolting him awake again. What was that, he thought as he opened his eyes; a flash of light? Maybe the fixture’s malfunctioning in some way; but there was no source of light to be seen; it was just momentary, then. But then he heard the sounds: whispered voices, shuffling about. Just as a new scent—no, make that several—reached him, one voice came through loud and clear: “There he is! Right over there!”

Lambert sat bolt upright as realization swept over him all at once. No, this definitely had nothing to do with the light, for which he again got up to switch on. He recognized the voice and immediately understood the implication. “Johnathan, is that you?” he called out even as the red light again filled the chamber, confirming the speaker’s identity as that of his best friend’s father.

“It sure is,” came the reply. “Looks like you’ve kept yourself well here.”

Lambert stepped forward to greet the newcomers. Not only was Johnathan Brisby here, but there was Martin, three other unfamiliar mice—one of whom was missing a hind leg and parts of his tail and ear—and one rat: his father Graham. “Johnathan…Marty…Dad? How’d you all…” He then noticed the amulet Johnathan wore around his neck, still glowing faintly, confirming his suspicions. “You used the Stone, didn’t you, Johnathan? But that means…” He frowned in confusion.

“It’s a long story, son,” said Graham, “but all that matters now is that you’re all right, and that we’re together again.” He stepped forward to embrace his son; and for Lambert, any confusion over the whys and wherefores of this reunion fell by the wayside as he was caught up in the great emotional rush of the moment; a moment he’d looked forward to for seeming ages, though he didn’t expect it in quite this fashion.

“Your mother’s been quite worried, Lambert, and your brothers and sisters, too. They’ll have a proper homecoming bash waiting for you when we return.”

Lambert looked at his father; then, abruptly, his eyes fell away. “I’m…that’s great, Dad, but…I’m not sure I deserve it after I…we left without telling you everything.”

“Well, son, I think we can all consider that matter laid to rest. Believe me, you’ll see for yourself why when we get home.”

Lambert smiled. “If you say so, Dad. Oh, man, it really is good to see you again. All of you.” Johnathan introduced him to Kimball, Patricia and Karen, and Lambert now realized, seeing them up close, that he recognized them from the drawings; he complimented Patricia on her craftsmanship. He stopped short of asking Kimball about his injuries, but Kimball recognized his curiosity about them and said that was part of the “long story.” Karen told him that she and he had “almost” met before, when she’d been with Martin when they’d found Lambert in the gang hangout. She added that it was wonderful to meet him at last, after all Martin had spoken about him.

“Thanks, Karen, it’s great to meet all of you, too. But speaking of Martin…” Lambert looked toward his erstwhile traveling companion, who had seemed to hang back since their arrival. Now he looked to be at an uncharacteristic loss for words, uncertain of how to greet his friend.

Lambert crouched in front of him. “Say, Marty,” he began jovially, “it’s about time you showed up. I was beginning to think you’d…” Martin suddenly rushed to embrace his friend. “…forgotten.” Lambert was bewildered, not ready for such a reaction from Martin, whom he could feel trembling beneath his hands. “Marty, are you…crying?” Though still unsure of what could have brought this on, he didn’t question it, and so he concentrated on comforting his friend. “Hey, Marty, it’s all right…it’s all right, buddy,” he said quietly. Johnathan and Karen came up to them. Lambert looked at them questioningly.

“He’s been through a lot,” Johnathan said. “We all have.” Karen began stroking Martin’s shoulder gently.

After a pause, Lambert said, “I was just thinking…before you arrived, that a lot can happen in three days. I’m beginning to think that’s the understatement of the century.”

Johnathan shook his head, smiling. “You don’t know the half of it, friend. I guess we should tell you about some of it, at least, right now.” Helped by Graham, he told Lambert briefly about Kimball’s discovery and journey to Thorn Valley, and his dire warning; and the Hiding and Willing Plans. Martin joined in when he felt more composed, telling Lambert how sorry he was for not being able to do more for him, and for leaving town without him. He and Karen described what they and Patricia had discovered at NIMH, and how they’d been guided by the Stone’s power. They tried as much as possible to condense the story, but it predictably proved difficult. They did their best, and by the time they reached the colony-moving and Howard Travis, Lambert was speechless, shaking his head. Johnathan remarked that Lambert would need two faces to properly express his astonishment.

Johnathan added that they were here not only for Lambert, but to tie up some other loose ends as well. He indicated Kimball and Patricia, who for the past few minutes had been busily engaged in taking down pictures from the walls and ceiling and basically gathering their possessions together. Curious, Lambert said, “So…I guess you’re coming to live in Thorn Val…er, with us permanently, eh?”

“That’s right, Lambert,” said Patricia, looking wistfully all around the crawlspace. “This has been home for over three years, and though that’s not as long as we lived in our first home, I think I’ll miss this one more, in spite of being surrounded by Boonger’s gang…”

“That reminds me, Lammy,” piped up Martin, in much better spirits now. “How did you get away from them?”

“Oh, boy…I knew we’d get around to that. Guess I owe it to all of you to tell it right now. Marty, I understand what you went through, and I know that some of it was due to your worrying about me. And…” He now addressed the Davises. “…since I’ve pretty much made your home mine since yesterday, darn near eating you out of house and home, you-all deserve to know right away too. I know you’re curious, too, Dad…Johnathan. So…if everyone’s ready…”

Patricia said that they’d like to continue gathering their belongings, and listen to his story while they worked. Martin and Karen lent a hand, encouraging a visibly-tired Kimball to take a load off his feet for a while. This much agreed upon, Lambert began.

“Well…after those three rats took off after you in the alley, Marty, I naturally wanted to come after you, to try to get those goons to leave you alone. I looked Boonger right in the eye and said to him that if any harm came to that mouse, they’d all live to regret it. It was a bluff, of course; I knew I wouldn’t have a prayer of taking them all on. But it was just so frustrating, being in a situation like this so suddenly with no immediate solution in sight. At any rate, Boonger and several of the others scoffed at this; though some of them actually seemed impressed, even respectful of me right then. I guess my larger size was working to my advantage even then, in that small way.

“Soon two of the rats sent after Marty returned with the news that they’d lost him; the third was evidently fearful of reprisal for their failure, and had apparently deserted the gang on the spot. But I couldn’t care less; I could have jumped for joy after hearing how you’d given them the slip. I restrained myself, though, because I’d already started getting ideas on how to best deal with my own predicament, and those included appearing not too concerned about you.

“‘So he got away,’ I said. ‘What do you intend to do with me, then?’ Several of them voiced some…rather unpleasant suggestions, but Boonger silenced them and repeated his own earlier suggestion that I provide them some entertainment. He shouted ‘Skrebbo!’ and suddenly one of them leaped on me from behind, bringing me down to the ground. I was quickly able to get where I could face him, and I could see that Skrebbo was one of the larger rats in the gang, though still not as large as Boonger or myself.

“It didn’t take long to realize that he was out for blood. The other rats started cheering him on: ‘Tear him to pieces!’ and ‘Rip his throat out!’ they hollered. Well, I’m not too well-equipped for such a serious form of fighting, I’ll admit; and at first, all I could do was keep his teeth and claws away from me the best I could. It wasn’t that difficult, with my greater size, but his greater ferocity was threatening to get the better of me, and I couldn’t keep on the defensive forever. Then I managed to gather my wits enough to remember some wrestling holds. Before Skrebbo knew what was happening, the tables had turned, and I had him pinned to the pavement, unable to move a muscle. At the same time, though, I was aware that this made me pretty vulnerable, open to another attack while I was keeping Skrebbo pinned; it’s something I wouldn’t have put past them. But that didn’t happen. Instead Boonger ordered Skrebbo to stay right there while I got up off him.

“I stood up, catching my breath. ‘Well, I’m glad I could provide you some entertainment,’ I said. ‘Now will you let me go my own way?’ Well, needless to say, they didn’t; but this incident suddenly seemed to change their view of me as a helpless pushover. It occurred to me later that Skrebbo could have just simply gone for my throat from behind without any warning; obviously they wanted a little sport from me first. But they didn’t expect me to turn the tables on him like I did, so I guess Boonger realized that I could have some value to them, that my greater size and unique talents, at least to them, could be an asset to them.”

Martin looked at Patricia and Karen, impressed at this confirmation of their earlier estimations about how the gang would regard Lambert.

He continued: “Now, when I realized this, my first thought was, ‘Oh, great, now these bozos will never let me go.’ But later I saw how I might be able to turn that attitude in my favor.

“Well, over the next few hours the gang continued with their nightly routine: raiding garbage cans and dumpsters, harassing other rats and mice who happened to cross their paths, just generally being a nuisance; and they were ‘kind’ enough to ‘invite me along’ on these jaunts. Despite their new respect for me, there were never less than five rats close by me on this first night; no way were they letting me out of their sight. So I decided to try a new tack: pretend to wholeheartedly go along with them, tell them I was interested in joining them of my own free will. By this time, they’d seemed to have all but forgotten that mouse that they’d first found me with. I realized that to them, that encounter was pretty much routine, just part of a usual night’s work, in spite of all that was unusual about it, like Marty’s being able to get away as easily as he did.”

“What about your backpack?” asked Martin. “I see you have it now, but did they let you keep it then?”

“Wow…thanks, Marty. In all this excitement, I’d almost forgotten it.” Lambert glanced toward the satchel propped up against the wall next to the bed. “As you can imagine, they were pretty curious about it. Right after my match with Skrebbo, they grabbed it, took it away from me, and handed it to Boonger, who immediately began rifling through it, tossing the contents here and there. They couldn’t seem to make head or tail of it, so after they helped themselves to the little bit of food left inside, they just tossed it aside. Fortunately, they didn’t find the hidden compartment that held the sleepytime quills; I had a feeling right then that that was a good omen.

“Well, I asked Boonger, in as non-antagonistic a manner as I could, if they could put everything back inside and give it back to me. I’m still not sure why, but Boonger actually agreed to it, at least in part. Either he had more respect for me right then than I thought, or maybe he just figured there was no harm in it; maybe something of both. In any case, after the contents were replaced, he gave some instructions I couldn’t hear to another rat, who then took off with it in his teeth. I thought right then I’d never see it again, but later I learned otherwise.

“Well, as I said, they kept me going with them all night, until we all crashed in one of their hangouts; not the one they consider their main one, but one that some of you know quite well anyway.” He glanced toward Martin and Karen, who nodded knowingly. “By the time you two caught up with me the next morning…er, make that three; sorry, Patricia…I’d already managed to attain a small degree of…respectability, for want of a better term, within the gang. And…I hate to put it this way, but your appearance right there might have been a bit of a setback. See, the whole idea behind my trying to get in good with them was so I might get away more easily from them later on. As I said before, they’d seemed to pretty much forget about you, and my association with you. But then you not only showed up there, but were found talking to me. I said to you that I was close to outsmarting them, and that you and your lady friends should go on ahead without me. I didn’t get the chance to elaborate—I’m sure you remember why—and I know you’ve probably been wondering about what I meant. Well, it seemed to me that you were much keener on visiting NIMH than I was; and since I was sure at that point that I wouldn’t be getting away anytime soon, I didn’t want to hold you up. Besides…I’d had time to think things over, and I realize that you’d have a much better chance of pulling off everything successfully: getting inside, and coming and going undetected; getting inside, and coming and going undetected; since you’re mice, and so you’d be more apt to escape notice than me.

“Anyway, when three of the gang chased you out of there, again I had to wait on pins and needles for word on whether they were successful in running you down, but I also had to feign a complete lack of concern; it wasn’t easy. As it is, Boonger started grilling me, having realized that the intruder was the same mouse as before. I tried my best to convince him that you were nothing to me anymore, that being one of his gang was all that mattered to me now. Then the three rats returned with the news that you’d escaped—again. It was all I could do to keep from laughing in their faces, but I managed to continue showing no concern. I even said that it was too bad the little twerp got away, that he’d been getting on my nerves lately. Er, no offense, Marty; or to you ladies, since they were after you too. Anyway, that may have been laying it on a bit thick, but Boonger and anyone else who listened seemed to buy it. I guess it wasn’t really that big a setback; what I really meant was that I thought so at the time.

“At any rate, I continued to do my best to convince them I was entirely with them. I’d go along with them on their ‘missions,’ do what I was told. I’m not too proud of some of the things I’d done, which were expected of me if I were to be one of them; but at least I managed to avoid doing any really serious harm to anyone. It wasn’t easy, since there were always a certain number of rats keeping a close eye on me; but as their confidence in me increased, that number steadily decreased. My own confidence that I’d be able to escape increased, as I got to know these rats better, with their habits and routines, and strengths and weaknesses.

“Finally, late yesterday afternoon, I saw my chance. By this time, there were only two rats sticking close by me. Most of the gang was resting now in one of the other hangouts, different from the one you saw us in. I casually asked one of my ‘shadows,’ Gruggy, about my backpack, and what had been done with it. I thought maybe that was being a bit too bold, that he’d get suspicious and report to Boonger about it right off the bat. But instead he took me out of earshot of the others and told me it was hidden right there, elsewhere in that hangout. Well, that was a luckier break than I’d ever expected, though I still didn’t want to appear too enthusiastic. I got a little bolder and asked him if he’d take me to it, that there was something ‘interesting’ I wanted to show him. He didn’t answer, but instead left for half a minute. Again I thought I’d crossed a line, that now he’d tell Boonger, but instead he returned with his partner, Blorfins. They said that Boonger probably wouldn’t approve, but they themselves couldn’t see any harm in it, since I’d been pretty straight with them these past three days, and so they agreed to lead me to where my backpack was stashed. I remember thinking: three days? Had it really been that long? Yet, that was a shorter period than I’d expected to get this far with them.

“Well, they led me to an out-of-the-way corner and began digging in the dirt, and out of the shallow hole they pulled my backpack. I immediately checked it over; it had been chewed in a couple of places, but luckily the hidden compartment was still intact, and still hidden. Even then I got to thinking: what if they suspect that I’m trying to make a break for it, and a whole crowd of them are waiting to ambush me right now? I tried to put that thought out of my mind; after all, either way I was at the point of no return, and I could only forge ahead and hope for the best.

“Of course they were curious about this ‘interesting’ something I had to show them. I told them to close their eyes and hold their hands out. They thought this was a pretty strange request, but I managed to assure them that it would be a surprise to them, and that this was part of it. So they complied, and I quickly reached inside the pack’s hidden compartment and drew out two of the sleepytime quills. This is almost too easy, I thought as I gave each of them just a pinprick in the palm, which I hoped would be enough to do the trick. They both jumped in surprise and wanted to know what I’d done to them. Keeping the quilltips concealed, I replied that they shouldn’t let a little poke upset them, and that it was part of the surprise. In seconds, it did prove to be enough. Blorfins started swaying first, and soon keeled right over. Gruggy started to ask what was happening, but he couldn’t get all the words out before he collapsed right on top of Blorfins. I replaced the quilltips in the hidden compartment, and slung my pack over my shoulder. I said ‘gotcha’ to my erstwhile guardian angels, then started making my way out.

“Since it was late afternoon, I knew I’d best make it quick, since it wouldn’t be long before all of them would be up and about. There was only one other who was fully awake and alert and guarding the only entrance and exit, and he and it were apart from where the rest of the gang were sleeping or just dozing. I could get past them easily enough, I knew, but Ezprip, the sentry, might pose a problem, unless I could pull off something like with the other two.

“I had little other choice but to try; so a minute later, I approached Ezprip, minus my pack, and quietly informed him that something strange was happening ‘over there,’ and that I thought he should have a look at it. Again, he didn’t suspect a thing, and actually seemed to welcome the respite from guard duty, having been put there almost nonstop after letting those three mice get away two days before.

“I led him to another dark corner of the hangout, where I quickly bent down and pricked the bottom of his foot with the quilltip I’d concealed. He whirled around and looked at his foot, wondering what that was he’d stepped on. I pretended to search around in the dirt for whatever that was, while the drug took effect. He flopped right down and started to ask why his head felt so strange. I told him that he’d been working too hard and needed a rest; then I retrieved my backpack and tiptoed back out to the exit.

“Well, just because I’d succeeded this far didn’t mean I was out of the woods yet. I still had to return to the exit, get through it and away from it without making the slightest sound; and I learned the hard way that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Just as I passed through the exit-hole, I could hear one of them asking, quite loudly, who that was that just went out the door, and where the sentry was. I cursed to myself silently; I didn’t know what else I could have done to slip out unnoticed, but there was nothing else I could do right then but distance myself from this place as quick as possible, before they had a chance to completely assess the situation.

“That came pretty fast as it was, with one of them sticking his head out, seeing and recognizing me, and alerting the others. Okay, I thought, I should still be able to get away since I knew the area pretty well by then, and since there was still plenty of daylight left, they shouldn’t want to pursue me too far.

“Here was something else that didn’t come off too well. I found myself cornered where I’d thought I could slip through easily, and in seconds here were a dozen or more extremely irate gang-rats staring down their snouts at me.

“For a moment I thought this was it; then I remembered that I had a backup plan. Boonger pushed right through them, and said to me that I’d betrayed them after they’d trusted me and that now I was going to provide them some real entertainment. ‘Wait!’ I said, ‘I think you should know something before you even think of threatening me. Three of your gang are back there, lying on the floor, completely still. Do you know how they got that way? I did it. I killed them with just a touch. You can send someone back there to see for himself if you don’t believe me.’

“They all looked at each other in confusion, wondering if it could possibly be true, and even Boonger was fidgety, looking more nervous than he wanted to. He ordered two of them to go and verify my claim, and for about two minutes we had a silent, tense face-off. Skrebbo was among them, and he looked like he was ready to tear into me at any moment; at one point, it looked like he would, even with no order from Boonger. Then the others returned to report that it was true, that they couldn’t detect any sign of life in the three I’d ‘taken out.’ It was a definite relief; I’d gambled that they’d think those three were dead if they couldn’t rouse them right away.

“‘You see how it is, don’t you?’ I said. ‘And I could do the same to any of you right now; that means you too, Boonger. Now if you’ll all excuse me…’ and I took a step forward. They looked more intimidated than before but only moved slightly. ‘I said, now if you’ll excuse me…’ I was more emphatic this time, throwing hands in the air. All of them except Boonger jumped back, even Skrebbo; a couple even turned tail and ran right then. ‘I’ve got business elsewhere,’ I told Boonger and stood nose-to-nose to him for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder and the others all turned and ran back to the hangout. After another moment of him silently glaring at me, still unable to accept that I’d gotten the best of him, he too turned away and stalked back to the hangout.

“I waited until he was well out of sight before I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and made my way out of there. My bluff worked, but I couldn’t rest on my laurels yet. Those three wouldn’t stay unconscious forever, and I didn’t know exactly where to go from there. It didn’t take long to realize that Marty would probably expect me to return to where we last met, and so I made my way to the original scene of the crime.

“It wasn’t easy, all this maneuvering about right in downtown Sampson in broad daylight, but I was helped by the fact that after three days, I knew my way around well enough to get to my destination. It took the better part of an hour, sneaking under parked vehicles, behind bushes and trashcans, shinnying up and down drainpipes and dashing across a rooftop or two—but I made it unseen, as far as I could tell. I went further back, to where you’d been chased to the dead end, and looked around for some sign of your presence there.

“Well, it was a sign, literally, that I found. My heart jumped when I saw my name printed low down on the wall like that. It was a relief to see, but I knew there had to be more, so I continued searching and I found your note. I read it quickly and stashed it in my pack, and then I checked out the wall further and found the hole through which you escaped; sure enough, I was too big for it. Heh…I’d hoped I could make my way into this place a bit more easily, but there was nothing for it but find this other way in you’d mapped out.

“Well, after a bit more sneaking about, I made my way to the antique shop’s side entrance, which certainly appeared less risky than the front. There was an inner door propped open, and the outer door was an unlatched screen type. The first time I tried to wedge my way in, I heard someone approach from inside. I ducked back behind the trashcan, and waited for him to be gone, then I tried again.

“Once I was all the way inside, I looked for the potbellied stove. Once I’d found it and ducked underneath it, I felt around for the floor tile that concealed the trapdoor. I felt it give slightly as I pushed down on it, but only a little; so I pushed down with both hands and more of my weight. This time it gave all at once, and I tumbled right down into the crawlspace. I quickly recovered from my undignified landing, brushed myself off and climbed back up the dirt-mound with the small scrap of plywood on top, and pushed the trapdoor back into place, replacing the sliding bolt which you’d left open for me. I was alert to any sounds from above which would indicate someone noticing any strange activity from underneath the stove. Nobody seemed to, so I set about making what I could out of these new surroundings.

“It didn’t take long to confirm that these were no ordinary mice living here; I’d already figured that way back when Marty told me that those two other mice also needed to get to NIMH. But then I discovered the letter you’d left for me here which explained who and what you were, and your current situation. And then I discovered your journals, and they were really fascinating, and made me want to meet you all the more. I feel a little awkward admitting that, now that you’re all here. It’s almost like I was intruding, but…”

“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” said Patricia reassuringly. “We expected you probably would, since you’d already been here a whole day.”

“Yes, and under the circumstances, you probably couldn’t leave here for very long,” added Kimball.

“That’s true,” admitted Lambert. “There was little more that I could do but wait, even though I couldn’t help worrying a bit, especially when it got to be four days since you’d left. But I knew it would be some time before the heat died down about my wangling my way out of the gang, so I stuck around here for my own personal safety. I’m sure Boonger’s still mad as a hornet about that. In the meantime, you’d left plenty of provisions, so I wouldn’t need to go out for food for a while.”

“And…well, there’s not much more to tell. I’m sure glad you showed up when you did, though; I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise, if it had been more than just one day that I had to continue waiting.”

“Well, it’s all history now, buddy,” said Martin.

“We’re just glad you’re all right, son,” said Graham.

“Thanks, Dad, but…I have to admit that it does bother me a bit, the way I deceived the gang yesterday.”

Martin scratched his head, baffled. “Why? I really can’t see why they’d deserve much sympathy. ’Course, that’s from my own experience with them…”

“Well, it seemed to me that several in the gang, maybe even most of them, are in it because they feel they don’t have any place else to go. I got the impression that some of them would gladly leave if they just had the initiative, or if they were shown that there were alternatives to that way of living. I just don’t feel that all of them are that bad. Gruggy, one of my ‘guardian angels,’ was halfway likable; he definitely wasn’t the worst of them. And they are rats, after all. You were a street rat once, Dad, and so was Mom, before you and the rest of the OT’s were captured, though you didn’t come from Sampson. But if you were, some of the gang, even Boonger, could even be blood relatives to us.”

“Very understandable, Lambert,” said Graham, “and it occurs to me that your leaving might inspire some of them to take that step for themselves.”

“That could be. In fact, I’d rather hope so.” Lambert turned to the mice who were still gathering the household’s contents together. “I also hope you’re almost through packing. No offense, but…I’ll be glad to be out of here and back home again.”

“None taken, Lambert,” said Kimball, “but there are still a few other matters to resolve before then…right, Johnathan?”

“Absolutely, old friend. And I think we can get on them right away.”

Chapter 37: Other loose ends

Johnathan explained to Lambert what had been discussed before their departure, about what they’d hoped to find there, in this town, besides him. For the Davises’ benefit he briefed them on what to expect; then, he held the Stone before him, closed his eyes, and concentrated. The others gathered around, arranged so all could see the amulet’s face, anticipating the images to come: the images which all hoped would reveal once and for all if any others survived the events of that fateful night over eight years ago.

The seconds ticked by silently; but after about a minute without any discernible images on the amulet’s face, the others looked at each other questioningly. Should it be taking this long? And if it wasn’t simply a case of taking too long, then…

Johnathan abruptly opened his eyes, his expression downcast. He shook his head slowly. Those most familiar with the Stone and its capabilities were first to realize what this must mean.

Graham spoke first: “Johnathan, I’m truly sorry, but…we’d anticipated that most or all of the others hadn’t survived.”

Kimball and Patricia looked at each other, disappointment etched on both their faces. “I guess,” said Patricia, “we shouldn’t really be surprised, given how long it’s been…”

“But,” ventured Kimball, “there’s still Vincent, isn’t there?”

Johnathan looked up. “That’s just it. The Stone can only locate those beings who are living. I was including Vincent in my search.”

“Johnathan, no! You can’t mean…”

“I’m afraid it’s true, Patricia. It means that just since Kimball last met with him, he…he’s gone.” Johnathan put his head back down. “Damn!” he muttered as he slapped his fist into his other hand. The others reacted with various degrees of sorrow and bewilderment as they pondered how Vincent may have met his end, and why.

“Dad…” began Martin, “remember what we told you about the notes we found, where Vincent said he…was going to meet his fate?”

“I know, Martin, but…I guess you can’t blame me for hoping otherwise.”

“Johnathan…I must know how it happened. The Stone can show that, can’t it?”

For a moment Johnathan looked as if he might protest this, but instead replied, “Yes…you’re right, Kimball. I guess I thought it better if we didn’t know, but…” Patricia silently gave her agreement, so Johnathan again fell silent and concentrated anew.

This time images did come; and all of them wished the amulet’s face was larger to provide an easier view. They saw a mouse that Kimball recognized the most readily, making his way along walls, ducking behind water coolers and boxes and under tables, scurrying through doorways. Martin, Karen and Patricia recognized these areas as the same that they’d made their way through passing in and out of NIMH. They watched the image of Vincent continue this methodical-seeming flight all the way to the outside of the building, all the way from the dock to the dumpster. There, he rounded a corner…and came face to face with a stray cat.

The swiftness and violence of what was observed next shocked everyone into insensibility for a moment. Then Johnathan covered the Stone’s face and pushed it into the dirt floor; he’d felt like throwing it across the room.

Kimball and Patricia comforted each other, unable to hold back the tears. Graham and Lambert could only shake their heads silently. Martin and Karen embraced, themselves feeling a sense of loss; each attempting, as did the others, to make sense of what they’d just seen. How could Vincent have been so careless as to allow himself to meet such an ignominious end? Especially since it looked very much like he still could have escaped? There was easily enough space for him to slip underneath the dumpster, where the cat couldn’t follow; he seemed to have enough time to react. Yet, he seemed to almost deliberately make no attempt to escape, as if he welcomed his end. Or was he frozen with fear? There was only so much that these images could tell them.

It was about three more minutes before anyone felt inclined to break the silence; and then, these points were discussed aloud. Johnathan seemed, through it all, to be the most deeply affected by all this, and Kimball remarked that he thought he’d be the one to feel that way, having been the closest to Vincent. Perhaps, they agreed, it was because Johnathan had just learned days ago that another old comrade yet lived, and now he was taken away before they could meet again.

It was resolved that only one course of action was open if they wished to know more about their fallen comrade: perhaps a clue, or better, as to why he’d met his demise as he did, and certainly more about him overall, as well.

* * *

Deep within a white building on the edge of town, there was a flash of light in a corner of a utility closet, heralding the arrival of three small visitors. Johnathan immediately willed the red amulet to provide some more permanent illumination, though Martin assured him that they wouldn’t need it for long where they were going. He felt along the baseboard for the hidden switch that Karen had literally stumbled upon only three days ago. It still seemed unbelievable that it could have been such a short time ago, with all that had happened since.

As Martin hunted, Kimball looked around the room, shaking his head. “It’s still almost…inconceivable, Johnathan. All the times that we’d met and confided in each other, for all that he’d go on about his ‘mission,’ he would tell me nothing specific of the home he’d made for himself here, let alone bring me here. It’s almost as if he couldn’t trust me to keep it a secret. I mean…I understand his not wanting to bring me here, to keep me out of danger, and yet…”

“Maybe it wasn’t like that at all,” said Johnathan. “You did say it was hard to tell what went on…behind that rumpled brow of his.” His casual tone belied the anguish he still felt over learning of Vincent’s death. “Well…once we’ve gone through his notes, we should get some definite—”

“Here it is!” announced Martin. A click behind the baseboard once again signaled the section of wooden shelf to tilt downward. Without hesitation the three climbed onto the shelf to look down into the open space beneath it. Martin led the way down, where they found the lever to close the door, and the hole in the wall.

As they carefully made their way down the stairs, with Kimball picking his way down on all three legs, Martin again warned about how suddenly the lights would come on. Even with this warning, they still gasped in wonder at the sight, with the knowledge that Vincent had accomplished all this entirely on his own.

“Why, Vincent?” said Kimball as he looked around at the multicolored lights guiding their way down the narrow staircase. “Why did you keep all this from me?”

To Johnathan, it became clearer what a genius Vincent was, but a very eccentric one; that he could singlehandedly build a world of his own here, but have no apparent desire to go beyond it, and stick strictly to his self-appointed “mission.” Such a tragic waste, he thought.

Through another door, then the “mouse-hole”…and Vincent’s lair, fully illuminated like the stairwell, lay before them. Martin directed them to the table with some of Vincent’s notes, where he and Patricia and Karen had made their so-fateful discovery. Those notes still lay on top. Both Johnathan and Kimball, though, directed their immediate attention to the lair as a whole, gazing about curiously at the cobbled-together furniture; but of greater interest, especially to Kimball, were Vincent’s own drawings that decorated the wall, some recognizable as himself and Patricia.

Martin was quick to point out the self-portrait, which Kimball gazed upon almost longingly. “Why, Vincent?” he repeated. “You would have been so welcomed, not only by my family, but now…” He sighed, shaking his head, and turned to Johnathan, eyes glistening. “The last time I saw Vincent, I…was so angry with him, I…pushed him down and told him I’d go on without him since he…didn’t seem to care about our old friends. My last words ever to him, but…I didn’t know it.”

“Well, he would have been welcomed,” Johnathan agreed, helping Kimball to stand upright. “Beyond a doubt. Right now, though, I think we should have a look at his notes here.”

Kimball agreed, and so the trio began examining those which Martin, Patricia and Karen had seen, and further. “You know,” Martin said at length, “I wanted to come back here, but…now it feels strange, since the last time I was here we were in such a hurry to leave and get back to Thorn Valley. And now, just like that, we’re here again.”

After only about ten minutes, they realized that there’d be no quick solving of Vincent’s many mysteries in store, just from the notes immediately at hand. For his writings were extensive, as much as Martin had described and more, with many that he and the women hadn’t even noticed on their previous visit.

“I think,” announced Johnathan at length, “that there’s only one viable option for us here, the one I’d considered since we discovered Vincent’s fate.”

“You never said what that was, but I can guess,” said Kimball. “You want to transport all his notes to your home…or rather, our home, don’t you?”

Johnathan smiled faintly. “Everything here, old friend; not just his notes, but all his possessions. I think it’s the most fitting tribute we can give him.”

“Are you sure, Johnathan? It seems almost like a…defilement, especially so soon after you and I have first seen it for ourselves. I don’t know…leaving it as it is seems like a better tribute to his memory to me.”

“But if we did that, the humans could run across it in time; and who knows what that would lead to. No, I think it best that we do as the rats did when they left the rosebush, and leave as little trace as possible of Vincent’s existence here. Not only everything in his lair here, but also the stairs, the lights, the electric switches and wiring for the doors and lights—everything. The Stone can do most of that, and quickly too.”

Kimball had to admit the logic in this plan, though he was still bothered by aspects of it. “All right, Johnathan. I’m sure Vincent would disapprove if he could, but I guess we’ve little other practical choice.”

Johnathan assured Kimball that he wholly agreed on both points; then he took one more look around the chamber. “Well, guess there’s no sense in putting this off. I’ll start with everything that’s not nailed down.”

He prepared to concentrate, to will the amulet to send Vincent’s belongings to a specific area in the colony in Lahaikshe, but Kimball interrupted him. “Johnathan, perhaps you could send me back there too right now. Ages wasn’t too happy about my making this trip in the first place, and I do feel pretty tired, so…”

Johnathan agreed that it would be a good choice, adding that since nobody back in the colony would be expecting Vincent’s belongings, Kimball could explain their presence to everyone right away. With this much decided, Johnathan concentrated anew. The Stone glowed, reached peak intensity, and all three mice closed their eyes. There was a flash, and in its wake the room was entirely bare of furniture, notes, paraphernalia and Kimball, leaving only the electric lights on either side of the room. With this done, Johnathan set to the task of removing as many signs of Vincent’s presence as the Stone’s capabilities would allow: taking out the light fixtures and restoring the wiring to its original state, both inside and outside the lair; dismantling the staircase; disengaging the switches and restoring the wiring to them; sealing shut the trapdoor in the shelf.

It all took a matter of minutes; and in the end, Johnathan and Martin were back in the utility closet, pausing in silent reflection. Then Martin said, “Well, Dad…there’s nothing left for us here.”

“You’re right, son. Nothing at all.” There was no masking the bitterness and disappointment Johnathan still felt over Vincent’s untimely demise. He looked at the pile of scrap wiring and other leftover materials, for which they would make a quick trip to the dumpster outside before returning to the soon-to-be vacated crawlspace.

“Dad, I know there’s not much we could have done, but…I don’t know, maybe…something good will still come out of this, something we might find in Vincent’s notes.” He shrugged, patting his father’s shoulder.

They sat down on the edge of the shelf. “Hmm…maybe you’re right. You’re sounding almost like Tim these days.” Johnathan chuckled.

Martin responded in kind. “Yeah, maybe I am.” After a pause, he added, “I guess…we should figure that since everyone in Thorn Valley was…saved by all the trouble we went through to get home, that kind of balances things out.”

“Yeah…yes, you’re right, son.” They sat for another minute, Johnathan contemplating the irony; that after the way everyone in the colony had been spared from the attentions of humankind, Vincent should meet his end in such an age-old fashion.

“Guess we should get back to the others, right?” Martin found that he particularly wanted to be at Karen’s side again.

Johnathan nodded, placed an arm around his son’s shoulders, and concentrated, using the Stone to scoop up the entire scrap pile.

* * *

Back in the crawlspace, a spirited discussion that Patricia, Karen, Lambert and Graham were engaged in was suddenly interrupted by a sudden flash. Once they had their bearings, Martin and Johnathan quickly explained the reason for Kimball’s absence, assuring his wife and daughter that he was quite all right, and told all about what they’d done with Vincent’s lair. The others’ reactions were much the same mixture of doubt over the rightness of the act, and admission of the logic behind it.

“Now,” asked Johnathan, “what was this big discussion you were in the midst of?”

“Well, Johnathan,” answered Lambert, “I couldn’t resist the idea of getting in a parting shot at Boonger before we leave town, since you’ve got the Stone with you.”

“Oh, really?” Johnathan raised an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”

Lambert detailed the game plan to Johnathan and Martin. “You know, Lammy,” said Martin, “that is pretty underhanded.”

“Lowdown and sneaky,” added Johnathan.

“I like it.” Martin broke into a grin, then laughed out loud.

“I love it,” said Johnathan. “Let’s do it.”

* * *

“We warned ya before, rube, about comin’ ’round here, pretendin’ like ya belong here. Now yer’ gonna pay!”

“No, please, Boonger, I didn’t mean any harm,” pleaded the smaller rat, “I just—”

“No excuses!” shouted Boonger. “Okay, boys, have at him!”

“Yo! Pus-Face!”

All four rats turned at the sound of the new voice. Boonger’s eyes widened. “You!” he growled in rage.

“Yeah, me, you sack of dog vomit! Though in your case, I guess that’d make you a social climber!” Lambert was posed very nonchalantly against a wooden crate. “Now, what do you say you guys back away from the ‘rube’ there. Hey, Shtuppo, Yergit; you guys still taking orders from this loser?”

The other two gang-rats stepped backward from the “trespasser” and looked at Lambert rather nervously, then at each other; then at Boonger, who stepped forward, nostrils flaring, teeth bared. “I didn’t think you’d have the nerve to show your face here again. You didn’t kill Gruggy or Blorfins or Ezprip. No one fools me and lives.” He took another menacing step forward. “I’m going to tear your ears off and feed ’em to ya!”

“My, but it’s getting drafty around here. And such a smelly wind, too!” Lambert fanned the air in front of his face. “Must be from all the bluff-ola, it’s getting mighty thick.”

Boonger was livid from Lambert’s taunts and unintimidated manner. “I’ll show you who’s bluffing!” he shouted as he charged.

Lambert raised a hand and gestured, and when Boonger was only two inches away he suddenly found himself being pushed backward down the alley until he was some twelve feet away.

Upon stopping, he looked unsteady on his feet for a moment; then he shouted, “I don’t know what you did, but you don’t scare me!” In spite of these words, his voice couldn’t mask his uncertainty over what he couldn’t understand. “Well, what are you two waiting for? Tear him apart! Get him!” he ordered Shtuppo and Yergit. He noticed that the “trespasser” had fled already, but he didn’t care. All that mattered was punishing this one who’d deceived and defied him so audaciously.

But this audacity didn’t end with Lambert. “Forget it!” shouted back Yergit.

“Get yourself some other boys, Boonger!” added Shtuppo.

“Yeah, someone who’s too stupid to know when to quit!” The two fled the scene, and Boonger could only gape in stupefaction, to think that his hold over the members of his gang wasn’t as absolute as he thought.

Lambert viewed this scene with great interest, even pleasure. Looks like Dad was right about my leaving having an influence upon the rest of the gang, he thought. He noticed that more of the gang had popped up in the alley, all keeping their distance, looking on with disbelief at what was unfolding. Their presence brought up Lambert’s caution level, but he also thought it fortunate that most or all of the gang were present to witness this.

As Boonger advanced menacingly, Lambert said, “My, how the mighty have fallen. You should take a cue from your boys, sewage-breath.” He made a point of saying this loud enough for all present to hear. Again Boonger charged. “Oh, come on. You can’t be serious.”

Again Lambert gestured, and again Boonger found himself traveling in an unexpected direction: straight up! When he reached a height of about ten feet, he suddenly found himself somersaulting uncontrollably several times, coming to an abrupt stop, and then making several dizzying spins. Then he was lowered back down to a few inches above the pavement with head down, as if hanging by the tail, to where his face was just in front of Lambert’s. He was now very visibly shaken, and was having great difficulty in seeing straight. Lambert had to stifle laughter at seeing the gang-leader’s head bobbing around. The other gang-rats continued to keep their distance, eyes riveted on the scene, many slackjawed.

“Admit it, Boonger. You have no idea what you’re dealing with here. Face reality, pal. You’re right, I didn’t kill those three, but you’ve just seen what I can do.” Lambert gestured again, and Boonger dropped the remaining inches to the pavement.

Boonger got up, every fiber of his being shaken, and started moving away from Lambert, but he couldn’t walk straight. He glanced over his shoulder, expression still hate-filled, but also with a certain amount of grudging respect; then he continued down the alley, running into just about everything he possibly could.

From inside the wooden crate behind Lambert came a barely-suppressed giggle, followed by a “Shh!” Those gang-rats that were still in the alley didn’t seem to notice, and many of them had already fled, following Shtuppo and Yergit’s example. Others continued to glance between Boonger and Lambert, uncertain of what to do or whether they should follow one or the other. A couple of them, one of them Skrebbo, started to come to Boonger’s aid, but he rebuffed their help, growling at them to leave him alone.

Some of them were looking to Lambert now, and the boldest of them stepped forward tentatively. “We want to join you,” he said. “We want you to be our leader.” He didn’t seem to care whether or not Boonger was still within earshot.

Lambert shook his head vigorously. “You guys don’t need me, Poody. You can do what you want, go where you want. You don’t need an overgrown bully like Boonger to lead you, but you don’t need me to tell you what to do either.”

“But…some of us don’t know anything else.”

“You can learn, Gruggy. You can all learn. The first thing you can do for yourselves is get away from here, as far away from Boonger as possible. Leave him to his hateful ways. Live your own lives.”

Gruggy, Poody and the others all looked at each other; then, one by one, they all left the alley, scattering in each direction. Gruggy flashed Lambert a grin, looking appreciative before he left. In the distance, Lambert noticed Skrebbo looking indecisive before he, too, fled.

Once Lambert was absolutely certain all were out of sight and earshot, he placed hand over heart and breathed a heavy sigh of relief, sinking down onto the pavement. “Okay, they’re all gone. Come on out.”

From behind a loose slat in the crate emerged Graham, Patricia, Karen, Martin and Johnathan bearing the Stone. They congratulated each other on successfully pulling off this deception which, in the end, led to so much more.

“You know, Johnathan,” remarked Lambert, “you sure cut it close that first time he charged me. Just a couple more inches, and I’d be missing an ear or two.”

“Well, it was a bit hard to tell how close he was from in there; but, be that as it may, it sure didn’t take long to take the fight out of him, did it?” Johnathan gave the Stone a bouncing motion in his hand.

“I’m sorry I almost gave us away,” said Karen, “but I couldn’t help myself. We’ve waited for so long to see Boonger get his comeuppance.”

“That’s quite all right, dear, no harm done,” assured Patricia. “It’s too bad your father had to go back early, though; he’d have loved to see this.”

“And, boy, Dad, you were so right about the gang,” Lambert said, feeling enormously satisfied. “It looks like most of them wanted to leave, and seeing Boonger so thoroughly emasculated like that was the final straw.”

“And speaking of comeuppance: Boonger sure did ‘come up’ pretty well, didn’t he?” said Martin.

“That he did,” said Graham with a laugh. “Well, Johnathan, it’s back to the crawlspace, then back home again, eh?”

“Mm-hm; and then straight to bed, as far as I’m concerned. It’s been one hell of a long day.” Though Johnathan, like the others, had had their spirits lifted at this bit of mischief-making, they were all more than ready for a good long rest.

* * *

Back at the crawlspace, there was one more moment of silent reflection: for Kimball and family, it was in remembrance of the years they’d spent here, through good times and bad, believing themselves the only ones of their kind in the world; for Lambert and Martin, there were the memories, indelibly etched in their minds, of what had become a voyage of self-discovery for them both; for all of them, there was the sorrow for fallen comrades and anticipation for what was to come, with leaving this place behind symbolizing a break with the old, though not necessarily a final one.

One more moment; and then, with another flash, it was back to the familiar yet strange place they now called home.

Epilogue

Though the setting of the sun, the one which hung in a sky that was so alike and yet completely different from what they’d known, was still some hours away, most of the colony formerly of Thorn Valley had gone to bed or was making ready to, since the differences in “time zones” and day length between worlds meant that everyone’s internal clock was still set to that which everyone was accustomed to and probably would be for some time. It was just another adjustment necessary for all to make if they expected to remain in these new surroundings indefinitely, and very probably permanently. And with everyone tired from the past week’s labors, and relieved that they were now where they could feel truly safe and relaxed, the colony was collectively more than ready for a good rest.

Of course there were many matters that required attention, though not necessarily immediate: maintenance of Lake Nicodemus with the loss of the springs which kept it replenished; how well Gwinthrayle’s biological isolation spell would work; whether the plant life, especially the food crops, would truly be able to be maintained as well as before. There were all those notes and other possessions of Vincent’s to go through, and giving them and him their proper due, as a monument or tribute, something that had been decided by the council almost immediately after Kimball had made his sudden appearance accompanied by said belongings and the sad news of Vincent’s demise.

There was the matter of digging out a home or homes for the colony’s newest residents. For now, the Brisbys were putting up Kimball, Patricia and Karen in their home, but they all hoped the newcomers would have their own quarters soon, especially if there were yet other new residents coming. This was the matter that was of the greatest immediate importance to them, especially to the mice, whose population was likely to increase in the days to come. The Davises felt entirely positive that all or most of their children would agree in a minute to come here to l