This is the older, illustrated version of the story NIMH: The Final Experiment. This used to be hosted at ntfe.thornvalley.com. --Simon
Okay, here is the story.
Before you dive into it, let me apologize for two little things.
First of all, I am sorry that the story isn't completed yet. It is already finished in my head. But due to lack of spare time and the ability to draw and paint faster it has taken four years to get it this far. How far will I be able to make it? I don't know. I only know it will be unlikely that I will ever reach the last chapter since this represents two and a half chapters of a story that has at least fifteen chapters to it.
Secondly, I'd like to point towards the poor quality of the first few images that accompany this tale. As I have never taken art classes I had to teach myself drawing, painting and editing from scratch. Hence, the first ten to twenty images are rather sketchy and the characters have not yet been developed fully in them. On the other hand, you can literally track the changes and slow improvements as I have tried to get the images as close to the style of the original movie as possible and that can be fun to look at as well.
Now that I have besmirched the most obvious shortcomings of my story myself, feel free to go ahead and find more and let me know about them.
It was yet another night under the cold gaze of a pale moon casting strange shadows onto the ground below.
The day before it had rained without end. Now, at last, only a handful of clouds remained to block out the cold light. Other than a few thin, high clouds the sky above was as clear as crystal. Yet despite the moon's luminance the forest below remained dark and brooding as wisps of mist rose from the wet ground to wrap themselves about the trees in ghostly shrouds.
The only object to reflect the moon's light was an obviously man-made structure. It rose obscenely from the small clearing like a grasping claw trying to reach the heavens itself. Steel, concrete, and sparkling glass formed the enormous tower. A huge clearing had been cut into the forests and a grass-covered rise now served as the building's throne. Cutting through the wilderness a single road connected the compound with the rest of civilization. Everything about it bespoke of man's presumptuousness, of his willingness to intrude into this refuge of nature. The tower's prodigious proportions and its utter coldness were an abomination, sitting amidst the woods like an open wound. And the uncaring light of the Earth's pale brother turned it into a monument of death.
Yet deep within the tower, unseen by any from beyond its cold walls, a presence had begun to stir.
Through a huge circular window the light penetrated deep into a palatial office. Facing the glass wall was a black leather chair. Shaped like a dark cradle the seat almost swallowed its occupant. Any stray bit of light not absorbed by the seat fell onto the monolithic desk behind it. The chair was huge, but the rectangular bulk of the obscure table was gigantic. Its surface seemed endless, perfectly polished and as dark as the pit itself.
It was from this desk that another source of light broke the darkness. A thin column of green glowing letters silently flashed on and off on the smooth expanse.
The seated figure surveyed the vast woodlands beyond the window. It did not heed the insistent flashing on the table.
It had time, all the time in the world. And in this, of all moments, precise timing was everything, total control.
Endowed with the never-ending patience of an electronic mind the word 'recording' silently kept on blinking. The machine had time as well, an eternity of it.
Finally, without ever turning the chair, the observer acknowledged the silent call.
'It has been three years, since I accepted this position.'
The voice was young. Yet at the same time it sounded heavily burdened. It echoed of an unending weariness, as if it had been drained beyond measure. The speaker emitted a coldness that mirrored the lifeless technology in front of him.
'Since then, we have made remarkable progress. We have managed to rise above the failures of the past. Now, at last, we are ready to reach towards new, undreamt of horizons.'
It was a chilling travesty to have the observer pause, as if he was trying to create an illusion of suspense. The audience did not care. It was nothing more than an instrument. There were no feelings within the table, as there were no feelings within the voice.
'Now, after three long years, we are finally in a position to complete the one project which has been the foundation of all our efforts. Once it is completed, we will finally be able to create a future that shall be to our own liking.'
There was another pause. Longer than the first, it hallowed the commencement of the monologue.
'Tomorrow I shall initiate the final experiment. We will begin by retrieving those specimens, which, through the carelessness of others, have been lost to us for so many years.'
The speaker paused a final time, his last words drawn out slowly as if to savor them.
'Save and secure the entry!'
From deep within the bowels of the enormous computer a synthetic, yet distinctively female voice replied.
'Log entry saved and secured. Good night Sir.'
A small hand reached out from the chair and patted the surface with unexpected tenderness. And the voice that had been bereft of all emotion finally showed a trace of warmth.
'Good night, my dear.'
The flashing had stopped, leaving only the moon to illuminate the room.
And with its light came utter silence.
Morning had finally won out against the night.
Soon the sun would rise over the distant mountains.
Yet within the woods there still remained a treacherous darkness and the coldness of the settling dew.
Against one of the trees leaned a creature, which at the moment had only one wish: To be back home, tucked away in its warm bed.
It was a rat.
It was cold.
It was wet.
And it was in a foul mood.
As rats went this particular one was rather peculiar. Being far from the most popular kind of animal to begin with, this specimen was of astonishing size. It was large enough to be mistaken for a rabbit, but only if rabbits now came with ragged dark-gray fur, a heavily muscled body, long claws, and a hairless tail. Everything about this rat reeked of violence. It was big and it was mean. Even the most desperate predator would hesitate trying to make a meal of this one; the promise of a hearty meal was clearly outweighed by the high probability of getting one's muzzle and other body parts seriously mauled. It wasn't so much its size, but this animal had the words 'bad temper' engrained in its very being.
Strangely enough, for all its aggressive attributes it also had a curiously civilized slant to it. First of all, how many rats went about wearing clothes? This one was dressed in an olive green tunic of medieval design, with a long black cloak tied tightly around the collar. The same was now clinging uncomfortably to the creature's damp fur.
Yes, this was not by any means an ordinary rat. Surreal as the concept of a clothed rodent might be, the specimen in question was still an undeniable fact. That is, it would have been if somebody had been around to see it.
Despite the civilized attire the rat still looked more disturbing than reassuring. The diminutive halberd leaning next to the animal was only one of the reasons for that. It was tiny by human standards, but to the animal's paws the spear was a perfect fit. Its blade was made of a strangely dark metal with a razor sharp edge that glittered dangerously even in the dim light. And anyone unlucky or foolish enough to stand on the wrong end of if would quickly learn exactly how sharp that edge was as well. In the right hands, or paws for that matter, it was capable of inflicting some serious damage.
Coincidentally, the rat's mood matched its appearance perfectly. It grumbled and growled continuously, casting suspicious glances everywhere. The message was clear. Anyone or anything in these woods stupid enough to try and mess with it would get a nasty surprise, very nasty.
Thoughts that would seem out of place for any animal roamed through the rodent's head, thoughts of a warm bed, with sheets and pillows, thoughts of a warm drink, of breakfast even. The rat's mind was filled with concepts usually associated with much more sophisticated creatures. It was intelligent. But none those musings helped to lighten the animal's mood today.
Intelligent or not, the rat was cold, wet, tired, and seriously annoyed.
The creature kept on looking around the gloomy woods for a while. It scanned the underbrush with keen ears and twitching whiskers. Maybe it would get lucky. Maybe something out there would come and attack it. Anything was better than standing here in the cold and feeling bored. The rat hated boredom even more than the cold. It suffered from a serious case of 'mad' that it wanted to vent on something, anything. But at the moment there seemed to be no volunteers; and the only other creature nearby was one it would never, ever raise a paw against. So it bit back its frustration and fought to think more pleasant thoughts.
A few moments of internal grumbling later the clothed animal turned its head upwards. A call went up into the distant canopy.
Far up on a branch the head of a young crème-colored field mouse popped into view. Trying to make out the tiny shape below the small creature yelled on the top of her lungs:
'I am all right, Brutus! Don't worry!'
Down at the tree's base Brutus the rat glumly returned to search his surroundings. Since there was no apparent solution to his boredom he resumed his grumbling between gritted teeth. He really could have done with a good fight about now.
Back on the branch the young mouse, one Cynthia Brisby by name, returned to her work with a soft, happy hummed tune. While the rat down below felt astonishingly grumpy today Cynthia was in an excessively good mood. But that was as normal for her as anger was for Brutus.
Balancing carefully on the dew-slick surface, the mouse crawled out from the trunk until she reached a nub on the branch. A large, vertical twig had long ago broken off and left behind a sizable stump that protruded from the larger branch. Kneeling in front of the old injury the mouse took a brown bag from her shoulders and opened it with a pleased smile; she had found the last specimen.
Cynthia rummaged around inside the confines of her bag. She was enjoying her work immensely. After a while she began to whistle through her teeth. Being about the equivalent of a young adult the skinny little rodent possessed an innate cheerfulness, a trait that had often served to drive her elder companions, including Brutus, insane.
One thing she did have in common with the rat on the forest floor was her clothing. Cynthia was dressed in a light-blue poncho, which apparently kept both the cold and the rain out much better than the rat's attire. At least she wasn't grumbling.
After having searched every corner of her satchel, the mouse produced a small glass vial. She uncorked it and reached up to scrape off bits of an inconspicuous little fungus she'd seen growing along the base of the stub's jagged top, letting the flakes and bits fall into the vial.
As she finished, she returned to stow the glass container back into the shoulder bag. Soft clinking noises from within indicated that her pack already held a large number of the small containers. It had been a busy morning and this was the last sample she had to take.
But, unbeknownst to Cynthia, a visitor had crept onto her branch.
The red weasel was rather small, little more than a youngster. But that did not bother it in the least. The tiny mouse, so conveniently located on the branch, should not be a difficult prey item and was perfectly breakfast-sized. Better still, the mouse seemed completely oblivious to the predator's approach.
With her back turned Cynthia continued to rearrange the insides of her bag.
Quietly, the weasel hunched up at the base of the branch, digging his claws into the soft bark and waited patiently for the moment the mouse would stick her nose particularly deep into her pack.
Then it pounced.
The weasel really had no time to realize what was happening.
Only a second ago it had been within touching distance of the mouse, ready to sink its teeth into the prey.
Then the rodent had vanished and the weasel had hit the stump, sending a storm of bright glittering stars through its head.
The confused predator's ears were still ringing when it realized that it was no longer on the branch. The rapid change in its surroundings and the feeling of wind whistling by strengthened its suspicions. It was no longer on the branch, far from it.
It was falling, and it was falling fast.
As it caught a glance of the receding canopy it spied the mouse again. Cynthia was grinning. The intended breakfast had pushed the weasel off the tree.
There was only one thing for any self-respecting predator to do in a situation like this.
The mouse twitched at the shriek. Then, abruptly, she grabbed her backpack and ran towards the trunk, almost slipping down its side. Cynthia slid more than climbed down the tree's rugged surface and all the earlier cheerfulness had vanished from her face. She had to get to the bottom before it was too late.
How could she have forgotten about Brutus?
Cynthia could already hear the sounds of fighting from below. Apparently, the weasel had reached the ground floor intact. And there, unfortunately for it, it had found Brutus. She really had to hurry now if she wanted to avert disaster.
Cynthia reached the forest floor just in time.
The rat stopped instantly. Brutus had, within moments, pinned the enraged predator to the floor. His eyes had taken on a cold, icy glow, his spear pointed directly at the weasel's forehead and the huge muscles of his shoulders had already begun to shove the weapon forward.
Yet at the sudden scream the rat froze. Thus far he had acted only on reflexes, following a series of trained movements engrained in his very being. But then Cynthia's yell had thrown a wrench into that.
Brutus did not move an inch. It would only take him a second to finish the job.
The mouse slowly walked over to the heavily breathing rat and carefully touched his arm.
'Please, Brutus. Let him go.'
The rat looked down at his adversary, his eyes slowly showing comprehension. With a disgusted grunt the spear was lifted. He snarled at the weasel and it, in turn, had enough sense to jump into the underbrush as fast as it could.
As the assailant vanished into the forest Brutus shouldered his spear and walked away into the darkness, sounding like a volcano ready to pop its top.
Cynthia had to run to keep up with him.
The mouse quietly strolled behind the angry rat in an effort not to infuriate him further. They walked this way, without any words between them, until they had cleared the forest. Here a dirt path stretched through a tall-grass meadow. While not spacious in human terms the road was wide enough the keep the surrounding grass from blocking the sun's warm rays. It was quite a pleasant walk if not for the icy silence between the two travelers.
Finally, Cynthia broke the vigil.
'I'm sorry,' she admitted.
The rat turned around to face her and grunted in disgust.
'Oh come on, Brutus. I knew he was there before he even got close. I always know.'
The rat just cocked an angry eyebrow and rumbled, 'He's gettin' smarter.'
Cynthia stared at the towering rodent in honest surprise as he spoke.
'A can't help ye up there.'
The mouse looked down at her feet. Brutus did have a point.
'I guess you're right. I won't do it again.'
Putting on her cutest smile Cynthia carefully peeked over to the rat. Brutus still looked as grave as ever. She would have to resort to more devious measures. Scrunching up her face in an effort to look as grim as she could the mouse turned to imitate the sulking gait of her huge companion.
They walked this way for about five minutes. Brutus kept sneaking glances at Cynthia and her impression of the perfect grouch was quite accurate. Finally, the rat could not contain himself any longer. His hard face broke into smile and a chuckle escaped his throat.
As if on command, Cynthia raised her head and grinned happily.
'Still friends?' she asked.
With a heavy sigh Brutus nodded. It was just not possible for him to stay properly mad at his ward; at least not while she acted like this. With Cynthia around there just was no other option.
So, the two unlikely travelers made their way along the trench in the grass.
As mouse and rat continued their journey the ground gradually began to rise. When they had neared their destination the grass had shortened and there was chill wind about. The rat was glad his clothes had finally dried. A cold would be just the thing to top off his day, he thought darkly.
The path ended right in front of a fallen tree perched near the edge of a cliff. The trunk's base had been neatly cut and its bottom surface loomed in front of the two rodents like a wooden wall, a wooden gate to be more exact. The entire surface had been rimmed in brass. Divided in the middle it parted into two semicircular panels. Some time ago these doors would have opened up completely but now the encroaching grass obstructed their intended function.
Cynthia could not help but notice the vegetation.
'If Justin ever expects us to use the elevators for big stuff again he had better get somebody to cut that grass.'
She turned to her companion.
'I thought it was the Guards' duty to keep the roads and such in shape.'
The rat turned a questioning face towards her. Then, shrugging, he replied, 'Too busy babysittin'.'
Instead of giving a snappy response the mouse waited for Brutus to turn his head again. Then she stuck out her tongue. Even though he didn't see it, it did make her feel better.
Meanwhile, the rat was busy unlocking a small door in the right panel. As the key was turned rows of electrical lights came on within the tree's recesses. And what they displayed was remarkable indeed.
The trunk was hollow. The tree had been thoroughly carved out and now resembled a long tunnel. Bright lights lined the curving walls and a reinforced wooden ramp ran across the floor.
Not waiting to take in the splendor, rat and mouse entered the cavern, making sure to close the door behind them. They walked along a small rail towards the far side of the tunnel.
There, resting on a raised platform was a large wire birdcage. Right behind it, on a similar base, stood a red motorcycle helmet. Oddly enough, both human devices had been connected to the cave's ceiling by thick cables, which disappeared into dark regions above.
Ignoring the large cage Brutus and Cynthia climbed onto the platform with the crash helmet. The rat raised the helmet's visor and the mouse eagerly climbed inside. With a wide smile she looked at the row of cushioned seats inside, covered in purple satin, looking quite comfortable and jumped right up onto one of the cushions.
But Brutus did not follow. Curious, the mouse peeked over the helmet's rim. As she looked at her large friend she noticed his troubled expression. With his eyebrows cocked the large rat leered suspiciously at her.
It didn't take Cynthia long to realize what was wrong.
'All right, I promise I won't pull on the release this time.'
Brutus did not look convinced. But after a few moments of eyeing the innocent expression on the mouse's face he finally did climb in. As he made sure that both their tiny seatbelts were secured the rat reluctantly pulled down on a lever in front of his seat, closed his eyes, and sat back.
The visor shut automatically and from above the sounds of grinding gears could be heard. Slowly, the round platform below the helmet divided into three panels, which slid back smoothly into recesses within the tunnel floor.
The elevator was hanging freely. Below it the bright light of morning shone into the cavern.
Then, to the sounds of creaking metal, the helmet was gradually lowered into the depths. It cleared the confines of the trunk and the full grandeur of the scenery below came into view. The helmet sported another cable at its bottom, a lifeline extending an incredible distance into the deep. Slowly but steadily it began its descent down into the depths of a wide, green valley.
Carved eons ago by a raging river, Thorn Valley was surrounded on two sides by nearly vertical cliffs. The valley floor itself was still divided by the remnants of the once mighty river that had created it so long ago. Along the banks and the rocky walls it was filled with lush meadows and woodlands. The hollowed out trunk the rat and mouse had entered had been halfway suspended above the gaping ravine. It precariously leaned over one of the steep cliffs allowing the two elevators a smooth ride down towards the distant woods.
Inside the helmet Cynthia enjoyed the tremendous view, leaning forward to stare down at the valley below. She could even make out some birds flying underneath.
Brutus, on the other hand, was clenching his teeth and kept his eyes closed shut. His breathing was hard and labored and there were tiny beads of sweat matting the fur of his brow.
The mouse turned her gaze from the gorgeous view to look at her companion. The rat was so tense she could almost hear his heart beating inside his chest. The way the elevator rides kept affecting Brutus always saddened her.
The rat was renowned for his fearlessness. He was known to defend the colony against anyone and anything. Most of the rats in Thorn Valley felt sure that there was nothing Brutus was afraid of. But they were wrong. There were a few things that not only frightened the huge rat, but caused him to freeze up in panic.
Heights were one of them.
Cynthia looked from the strained face to the valley floor. It would take them almost twenty minutes to reach the bottom at this rate, twenty minutes of pure terror for her friend. Reaching a decision the mouse leaned over and grabbed hold of the lever Brutus had used earlier and gave it a good, hard pull. Both the lever and the gears within the elevator machinery moaned in unison.
Jerking his eyes open the rat had just enough time to yell 'Noooooooo!' before the helmet fell.
The drop was instantaneous. As if it had been cut loose from all bounds it raced towards the ground. Inside the illusion of free fall was perfect. The only thing certain now seemed to be the inevitable crash. They had already reached the tree line.
Then the automatic brakes kicked in.
Compared to the sudden descent these worked much more gradually. Slowly, as not to throw the passengers out of their seats or snap their necks, the helmet returned to its initial descent speed just as it passed the canopy. From there it once more glided smoothly along its guiding cable towards a tiny meadow and towards the smaller of two neatly cut-off tree stumps. An instant before the elevator reached the wooden platform the floor unfolded outwards into three panels, like a blossoming flower.
They had arrived at the ground floor station.
The helmet continued its decent until the vertical shaft revealed by the entrance had widened enough to allow for a landing platform. There, it finally stopped.
Brutus, his eyes still wide with terror, opened the visor gasping for air. A few breaths later he glowered accusingly at the mouse.
Cynthia, with a look of complete innocence on her face, shrugged.
'I had my paws crossed. And it didn't take as long this way. Mother always says it is better to get something painful over with as fast as you can.'
Brutus was stunned. Not waiting for a reply the mouse quickly exited and walked across one of the connecting ramps to the walkway lining the cavern walls. A few more moments later her exasperated companion climbed out as well. But before passing the ramp Brutus closed his eyes again. Between the platform and the outer walkway the tunnel continued to plunge into unknown darkness.
The rat did not just have a problem with heights. Depth was another thing that made his blood run cold. Staring straight ahead, Brutus took each step carefully, silently muttering beneath his breath.
The travelers were being expected.
Standing at attention at the station's exit was a brown rat guard. Only slightly less imposing than Brutus he was also fully clothed and armed with a spear. As both passengers made their way along the tunnel wall the guard's face broke into a wide grin.
'How was the ride?' he asked the still panting rat.
The other raised a warning finger and glared, a deep rumble beginning in his throat. His face would have frozen the sun.
'Come on, Sarge, ' replied the guard. 'Just trying to cheer you up a bit.'
Brutus gave a conceding sigh and shook his head. It was time to catch up with his young charge. But just as he was about to follow Cynthia up the staircase the brown rat called out once more.
'Sarge! The Captain told me to remind you that you're up for tonight's Chamber Meeting!'
Rolling his eyes at the news Brutus prepared for a caustic snarl before Cynthia's presence forced him to bite back his intended response. The growing growl died leaving only a frustrated mutter as the only thing he could say aloud.
The elevator station was located deep beneath the forest floor and it took both mouse and rat several minutes of climbing the steep stairs before they emerged from the hidden exit. The door was nestled within yet another tree stump facing a small dirt road not dissimilar to the one they had used earlier. Only this time there was no change in elevation. Down here the path was quite level as it cut through meadows and woods alike. At times other roadways of the same type intersected it. Cynthia and Brutus changed directions often but did so in the casual manner of people who knew exactly where they were and were they wanted to be.
Yet at one crossing the mouse suddenly hesitated, looking down a less worn path that wandered off to the north.
'Can't we go down to the right here?'
The rat groaned disapprovingly.
'Don't you want to know if the new dam works?'
Brutus' face brightened a bit and, after a moment's thought, he nodded approval. The two of them turned and took the path to the right.
After only a short walk the road reached the bank of the river Thorn, after which Thorn Valley had originally been named. As it had since the colony's founding, the river flowed smoothly but powerfully down its bed, the water speeding and surging as it squeezed through the narrow neck created by the valley's stone floor. At the waters edge a ramshackle bridge had been constructed, reaching all the way to the other shore. The thing looked rickety and unsafe, its uneven top ranging from a foot or two wide in places to hardly wide enough to allow the rat and mouse to walk side by side. From above it appeared nothing more than just a bunch of sticks, planks, and nails seemingly thrown together in an almost random fashion, as if built by children or a rouge band of boy scouts before the valley was placed off limits for camping. In any event it was clearly unfit to span such a strong and expansive stream. Yet somehow the bridge held.
On second glance, there were some aspects to the structure that were out of place. For one, the contraption not only consisted of a supported walkway but sported a significant amount of woodwork beneath the waterline as well, far more than any simple walkway would have required. It had a much greater number of structural supports than one would expect in a normal bridge, let alone one as ramshackle as this. But its most amazing attribute only became apparent when one looked at the construct in profile where you could see both up and downstream sides of the river.
Upstream water levels at the bridge were much higher than the ones downstream.
This was not just a bridge. It was a dam.
The final giveaway to the structure's true purpose was the constant clicking and grinding noises from beneath the walkway. Hidden gears and paddle wheels were turning in the gushing waters almost hiding a silent but persistent electrical hum. This fragile looking pile of wood was in fact a carefully engineered piece of camouflage to hide the dam below it, one designed to withstand and channel remarkable amounts of water pressure. And from it the colony received one of its most treasured resources: Electricity.
Why had the colony's engineers chosen to give it this decrepit appearance? Because of the most basic concept of their philosophy: Survival.
It had been a matter of secrecy. Despite their remote and protected location, the Rats of NIMH, as the strange rodents with the human-like attributes now called themselves, still could not risk discovery by humans. They had built their new home in a nature preserve but someone might still be able to spot a more obvious construction, through blind luck or sheer accident. Looking as unsophisticated as it did the dam resembled nothing more than the childhood prank of some wayward trespasser.
The two rodents continued on their way until Cynthia bent down, a faint vibration teasing at their toes. She peered intently into one of the gushing water columns on the downstream side as it mixed with the water flowing over the matching spillway set above it.
'There!' she shouted towards Brutus over the breaking stream, pointing down to a silvery shadow as it flashed down the spillway below them. 'I knew it was large enough to let the fish through!'
The rat nodded in agreement. Making sure that the structure did not interfere with some of the other creatures and resources the rats depended on had been another important consideration in its construction. As Brutus caught the occasional flash of silver in the water his dour face cracked with a small smile. He'd come to like the taste of trout. After a few moments the large rodent turned to look up at the distant cliffs. Following his gaze the mouse chuckled and stood up again.
'Don't worry! I don't think anyone will notice this thing from up there, not even from one of their flying machines. Ratchet knows how to build stuff that works and hide it in plain sight. They won't recognize it even if they were to look right at it.'
As Cynthia turned to reach the other side of the expanse the rat just kept looking at the sky. It promised to be quite a beautiful day. Only a few clouds were to be seen, nothing that could really cause a shower. Then, Brutus' gaze froze. Up in the sky was something that was not supposed to be there. He turned pointed upwards.
'The crows!' he exclaimed.
The small mouse looked up, gasped, and immediately took off towards the opposite shore, running as fast as her small paws could carry her.
'Hey!' cried the rat.
Stopping in mid-stride Cynthia turned and shouted.
'They're back way too early! Something's wrong! I've got to tell mother!'
With that she disappeared on the other side.
Brutus scratched his chin, shouldered his spear, and continued his walk to the other side, slowly, his mind lost in thought. He looked back over his shoulder at the distant sky once more and shook his head.
Cynthia was right. Something had to be wrong, very wrong.
The mouse was racing. She cursed herself for wanting to see the new dam. The extra twenty minutes their detour had cost them would mean one heck of a side-ache. She sped along the dirt path as fast as she possibly could, not looking as she chose her turns. If not for her precious bag Cynthia could have made even better time by running on all fours even though it might have been a bit undignified. She felt stupid for not having handed it to Brutus. Now it was too late and leaving it behind was unthinkable.
Down the dirt road stood a large machine, at least it was large in rodent terms. Built from wood and metal plates that had been tightly bolted together it resembled a hand made toy tank; but only if someone were to overlook its huge size and somewhat tall mid section. It even had tank tracks.
And in between those tracks two rats were busily cleaning out gears. A young female, dressed in a worker's apron, was climbing out from a panel at the front. She leaned over to look at a more elderly male rat in similar attire, which was busy oiling the sides of the contraption.
'Dad, I'm done. Should I check the grain-intake next?'
The older rat turned around.
'Please do. I'll be done here in second.'
Just then Cynthia, her poncho and bag flying behind her, ran by the two workers.
'Hi Hands! Hi Ratchet! Bye Hands, Bye Ratchet!'
Then she disappeared around a bend in the road.
The male looked at the female in confusion.
'What was that about?'
The younger rat shrugged, 'If she's in too much a hurry to talk then there's a problem somewhere.'
Looking at the path the mouse had just passed the older rat was at a loss.
And that summed it up nicely.
The Oak stood alone within a sea of grass. Nobody knew whether it had grown up a solitary tree or had just outlived its neighbors. Over the long centuries of its life it had grown to immense proportions and now dominated the valley floor. The trunk was so massive and compact it resembled a medieval castle, its huge branches forming ornate towers crowned with greenery. And through the tall grass six pathways centered towards the monumental tree.
Approaching the Oak Cynthia paused to relieve the pain in her side, her breath coming in deep, shuddering gasps. She desperately needed a rest but forced herself to keep going, though at a much slower rate.
But as she rounded the final curve and neared the rugged bark at her enforced, more leisurely pace she was suddenly taken aback.
'Oh no!' she groaned.
The small portal, which was nestled within a cleft between dividing roots and usually open, was closed shut.
The young mouse turned to look around, she knew better than to think she had the strength to open it by force.
'Hello! Is anyone there? I have to get inside, right now!'
There was no reply.
'Where's a rat when you need one?' muttered Cynthia.
Sighing she grabbed her bag and started to jump up the overhanging root arch, desperately trying to reach a particular and deceptively looking twig with her paw. After the fourth try she sighed, setting the bag down and pulled out a length of string. Looping into a long, loose circle she swung it up over her head and it wrapped around the end of the small stick.
'I did it!' she squeaked.
Then she pulled with all her strength until the twig snapped downward with a loud 'click'. Accompanied by the sounds of straining gears the heavy wooden panel between the roots slowly raised itself and revealed the entrance.
With a deep breath the mouse stuffed the string back into her bag and entered the sparsely illuminated passage. After a few steps she resumed her running. The small tunnel with its carved stairs soon joined others to form a huge cave within the tree. The wooden hall was followed by a shaft, which extended all the way up into the trunk.
This was the colony's Atrium. An immense wooden gate could be lowered between it and the entrance hall to seal up the entire colony in case of emergency. The Rats had painstakingly hollowed out the tree's core and most of its major branches without killing it to make room for their living quarters. To maintain the Oak's stability the inside had been lined by special brickwork. Only the internal walls had been carved out of the tree's natural wood. The system of rooms and caverns was extensive enough to reach far below the dense roots.
In order to make journeys from the top branches to the lowest levels of the colony more convenient the Atrium housed an elaborate staircase with multiple rodent-sized elevators.
The two sentry rats standing guard at the boundary between the Atrium and the gate-shaft took no notice as Cynthia ran passed them.
She leapt over the stairs and raced by an elderly rat lady in a formal council gown, brushing against her and upsetting her ornate headdress. The rat was clearly offended at the lack of greeting or acknowledgement.
'Little vagrant!' she snapped. 'Running around the hallways like that! No respect for her betters has this little brat. You wait until I have a word with your mother. I certainly won't tolerate... '
The lady's ranting continued long after Cynthia was out of earshot. But the mouse had other problems to worry about.
The stairs lead up to one of the many walkways, which lined the walls. Running by many doors Cynthia headed towards one decorated with sparkling green glass. Those were the elevators. Once there, she quickly pushed the round button embedded in the doorframe. It immediately lit up a bright red and a loud noise from behind the door hallowed the approach of the elevator.
Then everything just stopped.
All the lights within the atrium suddenly went out. And the sound of the elevator was replaced by the loud complaints from everyone present in the now completely dark hall. The colony's power had apparently gone down again.
'This is just great,' complained Cynthia as she edged through the darkness towards another set of stairs. Now she would have to walk topside. This promised to be a day of running and her lungs were still burning from the previous exertion.
High up in one of the hollow branches the sun's rays gently filtered through a small round window into a circular room. Within a small group of rat children was sitting on cushions and pillows carelessly strewn on a large carpet. At the center of both carpet and room rested a huge book.
And directly in front of the heavy ledger a young male rat was desperately trying to read.
'He's never going to get it right.' muttered an impatient rat boy seated at the carpet's rim.
'Don't be so mean,' retorted the girl sitting next to him.
On the other side of the room a dark slender male joked:
'Like you were any better when you started?'
The argument was getting well under way now.
Sitting next to the rat trying to read was a brown female mouse. She was wearing a red cloak and reading glasses and watched the rat children intently. Not a youngster by mice standards she still appeared to be youthful and vibrant. And she noticed quickly what was about to happen. She would not allow an argument to break out, not in her class. The mouse turned towards the grumpy boy that had started it.
'If everyone keeps on grumbling like this we will never be able to finish before midday,' she paused for a second before adding: 'which will mean no lunch for any of us."
The mouse's voice was determined yet not unkind and the rat children quieted down immediately. They did not want to spend half the day in here.
'Come Phillip, you can do it. Just follow my finger.'
The mouse pointed her paw towards a specific line in the book and the young rat hesitantly began to read.
'After the fight with Je... Je... Jenner we b... b... buried both him and his vi... victim, our be... beloved lea... lea.... Oh I just can't do it!'
The mouse had not taken her eyes off the boy. She put her hand on his shoulder in consolation.
'Philip, I know you can do it. You are such a smart boy. But you are just not getting any better,'
The boy was close to tears now.
'It's nothing to cry about, nothing important comes easily,' comforted the mouse.
After a few moments of thought she took off her glasses and handed them to the young rat.
'Put those on and wiggle them around a bit.'
The boy put the glasses in front of his eyes and, after squinting slightly and moving pulling his head away from the page, he read on.
'...our beloved lea... leader. If I h... had been more care... careful I could have guessed what Jenner had been... planning. Now Nicodemus is dead and we will have to carry on without him. If Mrs. Brisby had not warned us, N.I.M.H would have trapped us all, maybe even ki... killed us. Just like her husband, Jonathan, she has helped us survive. I do not know how she pulled her house out of the dirt by herself or what the strange sto... stone had to do with it. Nicodemus gave it to her. He had never told any of us about it. That is all I know, though Jenner apparently re... cog... nize... recognized it somehow. But I do know that we owe her a great amount of grati... gratitude. When her children are old enough we will allow them to learn at our n... new home. That much we owe both her and Jonathan.'
Philip looked at the mouse in amazement. Even the other children had quieted down.
Mrs. Brisby just smiled at him and nodded slowly, her expression both pleased and touched by embarrassment and memories. "See, you can do just fine. You know what this means don't you?"
The young rat had a bad feeling he knew what was coming but shook his head.
'I think you need glasses, Philip.'
The bratty boy who had first started a fuss laughed out loud.
'Philip's gonna be a four-eyes!'
The brown mouse turned to the annoying child and kept on smiling.
'I guess I am a four-eyes too then?'
The youth nearly choked at the remark.
'No, ma'am! Of course not!'
Now it was the other children's turn to snicker but Mrs. Brisby paid them no heed. She patted Philip on the shoulder.
'I had problems reading too. Why don't you go and have Mr. Ages look at your eyes? I bet he will make you a nice pair of glasses.'
There was no time for Philip to reply. A series of footsteps had become audible from outside the reading room and just as the boy opened his mouth the large door was being pushed inwards.
It revealed a thoroughly exhausted Cynthia.
Some of the children gasped but all were too surprised to say anything.
Mrs. Brisby was the first to rise and rush to her daughter's side. The light-furred mouse was completely out of breath and fought to hold herself up by the doorframe while her mother gently supported her. Nonetheless, Cynthia was trying to get words in between her hastily drawn breaths.
'Mom... crows... back... Teresa... '
'Honey, catch your breath! Just calm down! You're ready to fall over.'
The younger mouse nodded and took a few deep breaths before continuing.
All around the rat children had gotten up and were now gazing at the two mice in confusion. They sensed that something was wrong but couldn't think of what it could be.
Finally, Cynthia had recovered enough from her run up the numberless stairs and looked straight at her mother. Mrs. Brisby decided it would be better to leave a paw on her daughter's shoulder. She often tended to overestimate her own strength, but then so had she in her younger days.
'Mom, the crows are back. Brutus and I were just on our way back and we saw them crossing the ridge.'
Mrs. Brisby put her free paw to her chin and cast a worried glance to the floor. Biting her lip for a moment the older mouse needed time to decide what was to be done. Finally, she nodded, let go of her daughter's shoulder and waved her glasses at the children.
'We have to finish early, children. Rachel, can you make sure the book goes back to the library?'
She looked over to the young rats that had teased Philip only minutes before.
'And I want you two boys to help her with it.'
The blond-furred girl that had been seated next to rather obnoxious youth earlier nodded, as did the rest of the children. Even the rude boy showed his agreement. All the discontent had vanished from his face. In the end, the children cared deeply for their teacher and the mouse's obvious distress troubled them.
'We'll pick up tomorrow at the same time. I have to go.'
'Goodbye Mrs. Brisby,' the young rats chorused, as they always did at the end of class. The mouse had never insisted on it but the children just loved to show their affection this way.
Smiling briefly she stepped out of the room followed by Cynthia.
Mother and daughter hurried down the winding steps towards the tree's base. Mrs. Brisby was anxious to find out just what really had occurred outside.
'Was it all of the crows or just Jeremy? Could you see if they were carrying anybody?'
Cynthia shook her head.
'It looked like all of them, but they were so far away I couldn't see if Teresa and the others were with them.'
The older mouse looked ahead for a moment to make sure she wouldn't trip as they descended further.
'Something must be really wrong if Jeremy has brought his whole family. He knows it's not safe to leave his nest unguarded. The other crows would steal it from them in a heartbeat.'
Then her concerns shifted to her own oldest daughter.
'I hope she and the children are alright.'
The other nodded and swallowed hard. The same thoughts had bothered Cynthia ever since she had first spotted the crows. For them to come back this early meant serious trouble.
Both mice followed the stairway down until they reached one of the hallways leading towards the great Atrium. Inside the vast chamber a few emergency lights had been lit but none of the elevators were operational. Mother and daughter made their way along the staircases towards the ground floor. But they did not stop there. Taking one of the small doors to the right of the main elevator column they ventured even further down, deep into the part of the colony that existed far underground.
They passed into another great chamber, this one cobbled with large stones and much less ornate than the Atrium. Adjoining the vast expanse were storage areas for grain, the harvesting machines and some of the rat's experimental prototypes for vehicular transport. Between these rooms, like the arms of a star, countless corridors radiated outward from the Oak's center. The tunnels had been lined with the same brickwork as the underground hall and were wide enough to allow the transport of large pieces of equipment.
Cynthia and Mrs. Brisby chose one of the Westward tunnels. Despite her obvious anxiety the older mouse decided to keep their pace at a fast walk rather than running the way her daughter had done earlier. They still had to travel some distance and it would not help them if they exhausted themselves now.
And, she reminded herself, it would be best not to draw too much attention to her family's plight if the worst had indeed happened back at the old farm. Some of the Rats still did not agree with the sharing the colony with the mice.
As they made their way the light-furred mouse remembered something.
'If Teresa really has come back, won't they try to get rid of her again?'
Her mother looked downcast.
'I don't know. Right now I am more worried whether or not they're all right. But if she is back... you know they'll try to get rid of Gregory.'
'It's not fair! Gregory is nice! It's not his fault that he didn't come from NIMH. Teresa couldn't have found a better husband.'
The other mouse had to agree.
'I know. But you know how some of the rats are. They don't want... "wild animals" in their home.'
Mrs. Brisby spoke the last words in a bitter tone. And her daughter knew exactly why she felt so awful.
'Yeah, they let us stay because they think they owe dad and you. But when Teresa fell in love with Gregory they couldn't get over the fact that he is not like them. I mean, you they would never turn away, but with him they had no problem. After all, he didn't save their sorry tails like you did. Stupid double standard!'
The older mouse sighed.
'If they are really back I will try to talk some sense into them tonight, at the Chamber Meeting. I didn't think Teresa would be back so soon though. I'd hoped for a bit more time to convince the Rats.'
Cynthia just looked at her mother sadly. The younger rodent had little hopes that her brother-in-law would be allowed to stay with them. All of the Rats had great respect of her mother, many even thought of her as being a good luck charm. But Mrs. Brisby still had a hard time getting some of them to accept her as an equal despite the fact she had been allowed to teach elementary reading. At times the strange attitudes of the Rats of NIMH could be rather tiresome, and disturbingly humanlike. That she could read at all had surprised the Rats and that she could now read well enough to teach it had shocked most of her critics into silence.
Ahead of them a ray of light shone down into the tunnel. A row of ladder steps had been carved into one of the walls and allowed the mice to climb towards a hole in the ceiling. From it issued the warm rays of the afternoon sun and illuminated the caverns beneath. The entrance opened itself to one of the Oak's distant roots that had been hollowed out like the rest of the tree, though never enough to risk harming or weakening the Great Oak. Both the colony's engineers and gardeners had been very particular about that.
Bulging over the ground the growth offered Cynthia and her mother a wide platform to stand on. Mrs. Brisby was the first to exit and gave her offspring a hand in stepping up.
Brutus was already waiting.
The huge rat was grumbling sourly as he tried to attach a red ribbon to the back end of his halberd. Finally the discontented guard grunted and used both fists to tie the cloth in a rough knot. It wasn't as refined a method as it could have been but it got the job done.
As he noticed the arrival of the two mice Brutus gave a short nod in greeting. He still appeared a bit ill at ease whenever the brown mouse was about. Around Mrs. Brisby Brutus' demeanor became so subdued he seemed almost timid. The huge guard had first met her under rather strained conditions. And even though Mrs. Brisby had told him numerous times that she didn't bear a grudge Brutus still felt ashamed at having scared her so badly when he had encountered her in the Rosebush all those years ago. After all, he had made it look as if he had been ready to cut her in two. He knew that had been his job, but he still felt guilt over the way he had bee forced to treat some of the intruders, especially her.
But after having received a warm smile from the older mouse the rat's reservations eased a bit and he turned his attention to the sky. The crows had been circling for some time now, waiting for the signal to land. Brutus lifted his up-ended weapon and waved the red band like a banner. Now the birds could make their approach.
Cynthia had started to smile as she watched the descent of the four crows. Even from down here she could see that each of the black birds carried passengers. That meant that Teresa's entire family had come back to the Valley. Whatever the Rats might think of her sister's family, the crème-colored mouse was glad to see her again. And getting to play "auntie" to her sister's children was always a lot of fun.
As the first crow got ready to land on the raised root the younger mouse's face contorted to a frown. The bird's movements were not as coordinated as they should have been.
Suddenly Cynthia pointed upwards.
At that time Mrs. Brisby and Brutus has noticed their predicament as well. The crow, Jeremy by name, was not really landing. No, he was falling, and falling fast! As the black shape spiraled towards the ground the three rodents were able to see the bird's eyes were bulging and his beak gasping for air.
The reason for that was the diminutive rodent perched on his back. Wearing a little purple hat, which had apparently tipped over the wearer's eyes, an elderly shrew was grasping a line of string that ran around the crow's neck. As a matter of fact, she was pulling so hard that her mount was, for all intent and purposes, choking and the both of them were yelling and screaming at each other as they plummeted downwards. To make matters worse they were heading straight for the waiting rodents.
Mrs. Brisby, Cynthia and Brutus had barely time to throw themselves out of the spiraling bird's way as he finally managed to straighten enough to at least control his pending and unavoidable crash. At the last instant the crow managed to pull up just enough not to plough into the root itself but still grazed the wood with his feet as he tumbled onwards. Finally, under the loud yelling and cursing on the part of his passenger, Jeremy crashed into the tall grasses.
The older mouse was the first to peek over the rim of the root to find out if the two arrivals had gotten themselves hurt.
From behind bent blades of green grass the unmistakably shrill voice of the Shrew yelled out.
'You bird-brained imbecile! Can't you do anything right, you blundering buffoon? Just wait until I get my paws on you, you cross-eyed vulture! I'm going to stuff pillows with your feathers and make a foot-rest out of your empty head!'
There was frantic scrambling coming from the grasses now and Jeremy's voice indicated that the crow was desperately trying to get away from his displeased passenger.
'No madam! Please, don't do that! No... madam, really... please...'
In a burst of speed the black-feathered creature leapt out from the ruffled foliage and scrambled back towards the safety of the root. As he half-crawled, half-fluttered onto the arrival platform he almost knocked the still cowering Mrs. Brisby down to the floor, trying to hide behind her small form.
But the Shrew was close behind. Waving her stick angrily and yelling on the top of her lungs the enraged rodent climbed up after her quarry. As she does the crow cringed behind the mouse in an effort to make himself as small as possible.
'Miss Briz! Please, don't let her tie me up again! Anything but that!'
As she reached the root's top the Shrew was still fuming. Rushing towards both mouse and bird she swung her stick wide forcing Mrs. Brisby to duck down low. Luckily, the angered rodent only managed to dislodge a few feathers, but she was clearly not finished with Jeremy yet. Continuing her tirade of insults and threats the Shrew was ready to tear right into him with a vengeance. Thankfully, the brown mouse stood back up as the shrew was drawing her cane back and put a hand on the other's shoulder.
'Auntie Shrew, please calm down!'
'Calm down? Brisby, this overstuffed turkey nearly killed me! And he did it on purpose too! You saw him… he was trying to make a pancake out of me!'
This was getting out of hand. If something didn't distract the Shrew soon she would either keep ranting all day or, worse yet, actually start hitting her intended target or someone else.
Cynthia and Brutus had watched the odd display with amusement. But it was dawning on them that they would have to get the Shrew away from Jeremy. The remaining three crows were still circling and unsure whether it was safe to come down while the elderly rodent was acting this way. Mrs. Brisby looked imploringly at her daughter and the light-furred mouse finally gave the huge guard a playful nudge.
Auntie Shrew dropped her stick and gasped in surprise as the deep voice rumbled from behind her back.
'Yer bags, ma'am?'
Despite the fact that the Shrew always touted her assumed bravery in all circumstances the Rats of NIMH still managed to give her the willies. And Brutus, with his freakish size, was more than enough to draw the flustered rodent's attention away from Jeremy and to avert her imminent 'explosion'. Looking up over her shoulder the suddenly pacified shrew opened her mouth a few times before finding enough courage for a reply.
'Oh… yes… the bags. They… kind of… fell down when we landed.'
Brutus just nodded and turned about, bowing and indicating for the Shrew to lead the way. Picking up her cane the elderly rodent fidgeted nervously as they descended to the meadow floor to pick up the scattered luggage. Cynthia was hard pressed not to snigger out loud. Having a rat that size loom up behind one could do wonders for the creation of a more docile attitude. As the unlikely pair scrambled down the side of the root the young mouse waved to the remaining crows.
The next to land was Jules, Jeremy's son. Far more graceful than his father the young crow carried a tan-colored female mouse wearing a light-blue skirt and ribbons in her hair, holding tightly to his neck feathers with one paw as she closed her eyes tightly just as the crow flared his wings out for landing. Nestled in her lap, and held even more tightly by her mother's other paw, was tiny mouse child in a violet shirt, one that seemed to find even the terrifying landing a delightful treat. She squealed in delight as Jules sat down on the root. Teresa Brisby, eldest daughter to Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby, slowly slid off the crow's back before reaching up to help her daughter Lynn to get down. Close behind them, spreading her wings as she swooped down to land on the root came Jules' sister Janet who had brought Teresa's oldest son Kir. She looked over towards her brother with a small smirk, the 'my landing was better than yours' look obvious to any that saw it. Bringing up the flock was Jeremy's wife Julia, who her husband still lovingly referred to as "Mrs. Right". She swooped down between her children and gracefully landed, lowering a wing to allow the adult male mouse on her back and the young boy in his lap to dismount.
Teresa's brown-furred husband had not even had the chance to catch Flynn, the couples' younger son, as he slid down Julia's back towards him before Teresa raced to her mother. Lynn, who had been dragged along by her, desperately wanted another ride with the crows and kept dragging Teresa, trying to pull her back towards Jules. The young woman had a look of barely concealed desperation on her face.
'Mom! They took the house!'
Mrs. Brisby, or Elizabeth as Justin sometimes called her, embraced her oldest daughter quickly.
'It's alright honey! Who took what house?'
The newly arrived mouse was close to tears now.
'The humans from NIMH! They came back! They took everything. The farmer had to leave and they're tearing up the farm. They're killing all the farmer's animals and burning down the fields. They're even trying to kill all our friends out in the field and garden! We barely managed to get away. And then the Great Owl said…'
Teresa slowly caught herself as she noticed the worried stares of her children and husband. The kids were still far too young to understand what NIMH had been about all those years back. And Gregory, despite the bright green tunic he wore and all the love that she felt for him, was just a normal field mouse. At times like these she understood why her father, Jonathan, had kept her own mother and herself in the dark about that horrible place. How could she burden her family with the knowledge of what NIMH was and what the people from there had done?
But now events had thrown that awful past back into her life. Gregory had seen what the humans had done to their home, their friends. She had asked herself many times how to explain all that to him, never finding an answer.
Gently rocking her daughter's shoulders Mrs. Brisby just nodded in understanding.
'You can tell us about it later when we got you all settled in.'
The mouse with the pink ribbons gave a sigh of gratitude and ushered her husband and the two boys forward. The children were all still exited about the flight and Flynn kept poking his older brother repeatedly.
Gregory smiled bashfully at Mrs. Brisby. The wild field mouse was painfully aware at how his marriage to Teresa had caused his wife's expulsion from the Rats' colony. Even though his mother-in-law had always told him that he was the best thing that could have happened to her daughter this fact had always bothered him. He had seen the wonders of the Thorn Valley colony himself and understood to some degree what Teresa had given up for him. He could never escape the tinge of guilt that he felt when he thought of that and knew in his heart that Teresa had secrets she could never share with him, though these feelings always faded away at the sight of his wife and their happy children. Still, he wondered, what would it have been like for them if they could have stayed?
Smiling at both Gregory and the children the older mouse turned to Cynthia.
'Honey, I am going to get the guest rooms ready. Can you tell your brothers and Mr. Ages what happened? And if they could still come for dinner?'
She smiled a bit and added; "And ask if they can bring a little something with them, it seems we'll be feeding more than we'd expected.'
The light-furred mouse nodded.
'Sure, I'll tell them!'
Cynthia's perpetual cheerfulness gave way to an expression of concern as she climbed back into the tunnel. She mused that the day had become much more complicated than she had expected, wondering if that was supposed to be part of 'growing up'?
Back on the root Mrs. Brisby's grandchildren had milled around the brown mouse and were bombarding her with questions. They, at least, were thrilled to be back at the colony. Here they had their grandmother and all their uncles and aunts to play with.
The young mouse quickly strolled back the cobbled corridors towards the Oak while above her family was collecting the meager belongings they had managed to bring.
As Cynthia reached the large subterranean hall again she didn't use any of the stairs to go top-wise but rather descended down further. Below the storage and maintenance halls, hidden far below the surface the Rats of NIMH had created yet another vast cavern. Here the altered rodents had decided to build their great infirmary.
The clinic was an enormous structure, indicating how much the Rats valued the importance of their health and the study of what they had become. The main room was lined with countless doors leading to operating rooms, patient quarters and apothecaries. Opening up the chamber was a looming archway lined with smooth gray stones. It appeared the power was back on as the entrance was brightly lit, almost too brightly since she had to blink and shield her eyes as she entered.
Sitting on one of the stone benches lining the archway was a rather short rat. Silver-furred and wearing a green vest over a white shirt the rodent was reading in a small book and, unusual for him, didn't pay much attention to Cynthia as she entered.
'Hey Gabriel! Any idea where Martin and Ages are?'
The rat looked up and rolled his eyes.
'Oh yes! They're back in the exam room arguing, as usual. Why do you think I'm sitting out here? With those two going on like that I won't get any work done anyway. Even in the surgery they don't stop.'
He sighed for a second, a small grumble in his voice.
'And lately even our patients have learned not to come in when those two are "at it".'
The mouse nodded with a smile. How her older brother had gotten to become the colony's third doctor was still something of a mystery to her.
It had all started with an argument between Mr. Ages and Martin one night after her sibling had once again managed to sprain an ankle. Maybe the old physician had just managed to rile her brother up so badly or just teased him about his clumsiness until he'd decided he could do the job as well as the old mouse did. A year and a half of studying later and Ages had, with obvious reluctance, allowed him to work in the infirmary.
In a way, the two physicians made a perfect match. Both were equally hardheaded and loved to argue both opinion and diagnosis for hours at a time, something that caused the only other doctor, the short rat named Gabriel, to head for cover whenever the two mice started quarrelling. Lately he seemed to be spending a lot of time making house calls and prepping for surgery, something he began specializing in shortly after Martin's arrival in the Infirmary. A change that Cynthia suspected had a lot to do with Martin's arrival as a member of the clinic's staff.
Cynthia nodded to Gabriel and started towards the indicated room.
Behind her the short rat called out, 'If you can make them stop I'll owe you one!'
The rooms lining the infirmary's central chamber were all separated by simple blue curtains. But even though the doors themselves were all identical the mouse could have easily found out behind which her brother and his teacher were located, even without Gabriel's directions. The discussion between Martin and Mr. Ages was so heated Cynthia heard it all the way across the hall.
'How can you say that? We've ruled out everything else. It has to be something to do with NIMH!'
That was her brother. With a voice like that he could have easily become a lead singer in the colony's choir if he'd been able to stay on key for more than two notes in a row.
'And what would you know about it, you inexperienced blunderer? I was making diagnoses before you were even born!'
The more indignant tones came from Mr. Ages. Cynthia had known the old mouse for some time now and knew that he was really a very caring person. But just by listening to him rant he sounded like the grumpiest person imaginable. Even Brutus could look positively cheerful compared to a Mr. Ages who was 'on a roll'.
'It is still stupid to discount it! You're just afraid that I am right. You are always turning tails when anybody even mentions NIMH, you old faker.'
'You ungrateful whelp! If you had learned anything you'd know that you look into the most plausible causes first. Just like a young whippersnapper to go straight for the easiest explanation, even if it is the most senseless!'
The female mouse chuckled as she pulled the curtain to the examining room aside. Martin and Ages were really dishing it out good tonight. She couldn't ignore the suspicion that the two of them enjoyed their arguments, though she knew neither would ever admit to it.
The room itself was circular in outline and had been carved from one of the Oak's larger roots. Shelves with books and odd bottles lined the walls and a few beds had been set up for patients that required continuous observation. Fortunately, today at least, there were no patients to have to endure this particular argument.
Two mice stood close to the door, facing each other and gesturing wildly.
The first was gray-furred and tall. Martin was without doubt the most physically intimidating of the Brisby children and stood even taller than his father had. Once more than a little 'plump', he'd changed since the move to the colony and now his large chest was hidden behind a blue tunic covered with a short-sleeved doctor's vest. His arms were thick and muscular, looking somewhat out of place on a doctor. But his strength did come in handy when it came to setting bones or trying to restrain a panicky parent. Most amazing of all was that Cynthia's brother was also the head pediatrician of the colony now. One would not have guessed by looking at the rather burly mouse that he was good with children, particularly rat children.
The other was much older. Mr. Ages's fur was almost pure white and nobody really knew if that was due to his age, his natural color, or if something had happened to him to turn him that color at or after NIMH. A long beard sprouted from his chin and his brows were exceptionally bushy. The mouse's piercing eyes hid behind a pair of round spectacles and blazed in anger as he glared at her brother. He was much shorter than Martin, wearing a red-brown tunic with floppy sleeves and the odd assortment of tools and ornaments he hung from his belt, things that no one had been able to convince him to leave behind when he moved to stay with the Rats in Thorn Valley. Still, nothing seemed to restrain, let alone stop, the old mouse from voicing his opinion in the strongest way he knew how.
The old doctor was just about ready to unleash another scolding reply on his young protégé, the gleam in his eyes showing that he had found something he could really nail the younger mouse with.
But before he could say what was on his mind Cynthia had stepped inside and chirped happily.
'Hello, you two! Guess what, Teresa's come home!'
Both physicians stopped dead in whatever arguments they had wanted to throw at each other. Two pairs of eyes turned towards the crème-furred girl in disbelief.
'What are you talking about, Sis?'
Cynthia stepped towards one of the desks and propped up the bag she had been carrying all throughout her rather active morning.
'Teresa is back. And she brought the whole family too.'
Now it was Ages' turn to look confused.
'I thought they were not due to be back for at least another four weeks? What are they doing back here so early?'
The girl grinned at her brother and the old mouse as she began to pull out the glass vials from their storage.
'I don't know. I guess we'll all find out during dinner. Mom wants me to remind you that both of you better show up.'
'Not if that awful woman is back too,' Mr. Ages grumbled.
Martin couldn't suppress a chuckle. 'Auntie Shrew isn't that bad. From the way she always rips at you I'd say she kind of likes you.'
The bearded mouse turned to look at the younger doctor as if he was about ready to blow his top. Thankfully, Cynthia interjected before the two could start a more serious argument again.
'Anyway, you two are invited. And you know how sad the kids are when 'Grandpa Ages' isn't there. You wouldn't know where Timmy is right now, would you?'
Both her brother and the elderly mouse decided that arguing was really pointless as long as Cynthia was around. She had a way of defusing fights just by being her own ridiculously cheerful self.
Mr. Ages rolled his eyes and muttered, 'Down in the labs, where else? I bet he's probably blown up another one of my ovens by now. Heaven knows what Justin wants the lad to make, but it's playing havoc with my equipment down there. And he's also starting to annoy Gidion with all those special glass contraptions he's asking him to make.'
The mouse girl nodded and laughed as she left.
'Yeah, he is always good at making a mess. See you at dinner!'
With that the two physicians were left with trying to figure out how to restart their previous discussions. There was nothing worse than having a good argument cut short this way.
Down at the deepest level, many meters below the protective shadow of the Oak, the Rats of NIMH had built their scientific laboratories. The labs as well as the energy storage and heat systems for the whole colony had been housed as far away from the living quarters as possible. In case of an emergency it would ensure that the population was as far away from danger as possible. Assuming the warning was made in time, that was.
The actual compound resembled a round hillock of thick cobbles centered within an enormous cavern. So widely spaced were the walls of this cave that even the various lights from the laboratory windows barely touched them. Thick roots and tightly packed earth bound this living barrier together.
The more one looked at it the more the building in the middle looked like a stone beehive speckled with lights. A walkway encircled and wound itself tightly along its masonry, climbing upward in a slow spiral. Every few steps a thick glass window alternated with heavy wooden doors. From within the luminance of the furnaces and laboratory lamps shone out into the darkness of the surrounding chamber. From time to time, through large glass tubes that issued from between the stones and lead to different levels of the compound, billows of steam rushed from one room to another. And finally, from the very top of the structure, the greatest tube reached towards the colony, supplying the Rats of NIMH with whatever heat they required.
A stone bridge connected the structure with the gate to the elevators. And along that bridge now strolled a young female mouse in an effort to locate her brother.
Timothy was the youngest son of the Brisby family. As a child he had always been rather scrawny and even in adulthood he still retained an air of frailty, however misleading it now might be. There was a pair of thick glasses on his head and as usual he wore the dark green shirt with sleeves that were far too wide for him. In short, the youth looked to be a thorough academic with little time for the 'real world'.
What was more unusual was it to see the beige-furred mouse operating one of the laboratory's special furnaces, his brow furrowed and his fur matted against his skin from the intense heat.
Timothy, or Timmy as his siblings still liked to call him, stared though the thick observing window in front of a bulging contraption, his right paw resting on a lever as he monitored the progress of his experiment. Even through the safety glass the heat from the unique furnace burned into his face, he did not dare look away.
Timing was everything.
Suddenly, the rodent pulled down the lever and wild sloshing sounds from a huge hose connected to the left side of the furnace hallowed the arrival of vast quantities of cooling water. As the liquid filled the other rim of the furnace chamber it immediately turned to steam and was vented through a thick glass tube lead out from the furnace's chimney to the right towards regions unknown.
Slowly, the glow from behind the safety window subsided. Timothy waited a few more minutes before opening the small but strong steel door of the cooling stove and grasped a long-stemmed clamp. He slowly inserted the tool to retrieve the precious item from within the furnace's secondary chamber.
The young scientist tried to remain calm. He had performed this procedure successfully two times already. But the number of failures he had experienced still outnumbered the successes and forced him to be even more careful as the grabbed sealed metal container from inside the cooling oven. Cautiously the mouse maneuvered the metal object towards a table in the center of the room and then released the holds of his grasping tool.
The steel case dropped onto the wood with a hollow thud.
Timothy was sure that by now the casing would have cooled down enough and began to unscrew the holds at its side. The entire thing was nothing but two metal molds screwed together at the rim. It was what had been placed inside and left in the furnace to mature that was the real prize.
A silent prayer to whatever gods of science might be out there issued from the mouse's lips as he raised the top half to gaze upon his creation.
And then the youth raised his arms in triumph.
'Yes! Who's the mouse? Yes! I did it!'
'Ah, so we heff brought ze monster to life, Herr Doctor?'
The deep, guttural voice Cynthia imitated from stories told long ago broke the otherwise quiet of the room. Timothy's eyes were about ready to pop out of his head as Cynthia called out in that badly imitated German accent. The girl had stood at the door the entire time and apparently enjoyed the show.
Timothy turned around and fidgeted with his sleeves in embarrassment.
'Eh... Hi Cynthia! Yeah, I guess I finally got it right this time.'
His sister chuckled and nodded.
'Awesome! But just what have you been working on in here? Ages has been griping about it for weeks now.'
The other tapped the side of his nose wistfully and grinned.
'Can't tell you, Sis. It's tip-top top-secret, you know.'
Cynthia just rolled her eyes.
'Whatever! By the way, you'll never guess what happened. Teresa and Gregory are back.'
The slender mouse hesitated in surprise before he replied.
'Already? I thought they still had to wait a few weeks?'
Now the young girl actually began to look a bit uncomfortable again.
'Something happened at the farm. Teresa said something about NIMH. But she didn't make much sense.'
The male mouse took off his glasses and stared incredulously.
'NIMH? What would they be doing at the farm? They haven't been there for... must be three years now.'
Cynthia shrugged, 'I don't know. I guess we'll find out tonight. Mom said you shouldn't forget that we're having dinner together.'
She paused, then smiled and continued, 'Now that the kids are here you better not leave me all alone to play 'aunt'. And you better bring something we can actually eat too, for a change.'
'Alright already! I am done here anyway. Let me pack this up and I'll come with you. They might need a hand in getting the rooms ready and I bet Teresa will be pretty exhausted after that trip.'
As the rodent scientist carefully wrapped his precious new creation into a rough cloth his sister looked out into the dark cave in concern. Teresa had looked exasperated and terrified. And her mentioning of NIMH had actually sent shivers up Cynthia's spine. The mouse always tried to see life from a cheerful angle, always looking for and finding that little bit of silver lining in every cloud. But the more she pondered the recent events, and the dread on Teresa's face, the less she was able to keep from worrying. Nothing that had ever come from the people of NIMH had ever been intended to make their lives easier, quite the opposite in fact.
Finally, brother and sister made their way back towards the colony's upper levels. They didn't discuss all the different worries that coursed through their minds. It was easier to just talk about the prospect of having the whole family under one roof again.
But both new that having to wait for answers until dinnertime would strain their patience.
'Could you hand me your plate, please?'
Mr. Ages looked up from the book he had placed on the dinner table for a moment and then offered his emptied dish to Mrs. Brisby with an apologetic mumble.
The new home occupied by the Brisby family was far larger than their old cement block home had been. At first the widow had cringed a bit at the idea of living so far above ground. She had never really gotten used to heights, no matter how often she had traveled on Jeremy's back. Being able to close her eyes and simply hold on for dear life had, she was convinced, saved her sanity on more than one occasion. Thankfully, she didn't have as bad a phobia as Brutus did. In the end she and the children had settled in the apartment Justin had set aside for them in one of the Great Oak's main branches. It was unexpectedly spacious with three separate levels. The main level was centered on the living room, with a large, round table in the middle and two smaller rooms for food storage and a small but complete kitchen. There were a number of books, copied from volumes in the colony's library, nestled in carved shelves and even a fireplace with a hollowed chimney-tube leading to the outside. How the Rats had managed to allow open fires within their wooden home was still beyond Mrs. Brisby's understanding but the warmth it added had been most welcomed last winter. The main door led towards a wide stairway, which connected the apartment to the rest of the colony and was situated next to a hatch in the floor and a matching hatch with ladder in the ceiling. Elizabeth had her sleeping quarters on the upper level, as well as a small workshop room to prepare for her classed and other activities. The space below contained three bedchambers, one for each of her children. That was, until they would find apartments for themselves.
As Mrs. Brisby picked up the last remaining plates and carried them into the small kitchen, she noted that Mr. Ages and Teresa's oldest son were busy going through the large tome the old mouse had brought with him. The aging physician had made it his personal mission to check on Kir's and the other children's education as often as he could. He knew Teresa was a devoted mother and intent on teaching her offspring as well as she could, but without access to the colony's library, school, and teaching staff she had few resources available for the task. Thankfully, Mr. Ages always found that Mrs. Brisby's grandchildren made up for their lack in teaching aids through their immense curiosity and ambition. Kir had no problem following the text he had brought along.
All the while the Shrew, who had entered the main room again and sat down at the table, eyed both Timothy and Martin with suspicion as they played guessing games with Flynn. Cynthia had gotten up earlier to show Lynn how far one could look through the room's window even at night while letting her ride on her shoulders.
Sadly enough, Teresa sitting glumly next to her husband, who had kept a consoling paw on his mate's arm, dampened the mood somewhat. It was obvious that whatever had occurred at the Fitzgibbon Farm had greatly upset both the young mother and the feral mouse she had fallen in love with.
Having cleaned the last of the dishes Mrs. Brisby pulled up a stool next to her daughter and looked at her with concern.
'Honey, what happened back at the farm?'
Mr. Ages and the others did not want to let the children now how serious the matter was that their grandmother had broached. By prior agreement they had decided to keep the youngsters occupied while listening in to what Teresa had to say in secret. Ears swiveled curiously and glances were cast in between reading book passages, making riddles, and carrying the children around. Even the Shrew, who was not usually one to keep quiet about anything, made a point of centering her attention on the young mice. It was better than getting the children upset and forcing them to go to bed right now would not have worked either. The children were almost unnaturally sharp and could always spot someone trying to hide something, or lie to them.
'They must have come at night, when we had already gone to sleep,' Teresa started softly, her gaze focused on the floor under her paws. 'The Great Owl woke us, landing directly on our house, telling us we needed to get out right away.'
This sounded serious. The old bird had promised to keep an eye on Mrs. Brisby's oldest daughter but to take such direct action the Great Owl would have had to perceive a threat of enormous proportions.
'When we left the house,' the young mother continued, 'the entire farm was already in chaos. The humans had brought dozens of their large vehicles and there were lights everywhere.'
Gregory, who still held his wife's hand, nodded. 'It was almost as bright as day, yet it was still the middle of the night.'
Mrs. Brisby swallowed hard. She remembered the day the humans from NIMH had first come to the Fitzgibbon Farm in an attempt to catch the Rats of NIMH. Back then they had not dispatched nearly as much equipment and had been content to fill the Rosebush with gas. Even back then the vehicle that the Rats explained to her was called a "car" or "van" had been so imposing it had taken her breath away. To think that this time NIMH had returned in an even more frightening manner was hard to accept, or understand.
'What were the humans doing with all these lights?'
'At first we didn't know,' Teresa answered her mother. 'Gregory went off to drag Aunt Shrew from her home. The fields were a madhouse. Everybody was trying to get away, to run from the lights. And there were noises too,' she added, 'noises so loud you cannot imagine. Even the farmer's tractor was never that loud.'
Noting the concerned glances from her other children as well as Mr. Ages', the brown mouse, despite seeing the anguish on her daughter's face, pressed on for more information.
'Was there anything else you remember, honey?'
Teresa nodded with a shudder.
'The Owl had brought Jeremy and his family along and told them to take us away to Thorn Valley immediately. He said that the humans had arrived almost an hour earlier and that they had taken away the farmer and his entire family, including Dragon.'
Mrs. Brisby looked confused, as did the other adults at the table. They could find no sense in why the people from NIMH would force the Fitzgibbons to leave. Why would they hurt other humans?
Not noting the consternation in her mother's eyes the shaking mouse continued her story.
'Then, when we were up in the air, we could see what the humans were doing. They had put up a huge fence, around the entire farm and the fields. Those awful lights were shining all over them. There must have been more than a hundred humans wearing suits that covered them completely, all running around... catching the animals that couldn't get through the fence... so many... the fence... like a spider's web... too tight... no one got through... no one.'
Suddenly Teresa broke down and cried, Gregory holding her tightly to his chest, whispering softly into her ear as he tried to comfort her.
'THEY TOOK THEM ALL!' she wailed. 'Our friends... neighbors... couldn't fly... they caught them... ONE BY ONE!'
Mrs. Brisby put a paw on her daughter's shoulder. Teresa's tears had finally drawn the attention of her children and not even the attempts of their aunt and uncles could keep them from looking at her mother with worry. Their grandmother looked at them kindly and then nodded to Cynthia and her sons.
'Don't worry! Your mother is just feeling sad about leaving your home so quickly. Why don't you let your father and others tuck you in?'
'Can't you make mom happy again, gram?' ventured Kir from the far side of the table while Lynn was trying to get away from Cynthia and run to her mother.
'I will try,' Elizabeth said, still smiling and trying to hide the concern she felt herself. 'Why don't you just go bed and your mother will be with you in a minute, after I cheer her up a bit?'
Lynn was squealing in Cynthia's arms and crying for her mommy. Finally the crème-colored mouse let the child go and huddle in her mother's lap. As soon as she felt the weight of her daughter Teresa stopped sobbing and picked Lynn up, cuddling her tightly.
'I am alright, sweetie, I'm just sad that we had to leave so suddenly.'
Looking up at her mom's face with wide eyes Lynn asked, 'But we're here with gram. Will you be happy again?'
Teresa had to laugh through her tears and raised her youngest child up in the air with a chuckle.
'Of course I will! Look! You make me happy already!'
At that Lynn finally screeched in joy again and Flynn was running over yelling.
'Me too, mommy! Me too!'
A bit relieved Mrs. Brisby squeezed her daughter's shoulder softly, 'I think the little ones had enough excitement for one day.'
'Yes,' sniffed Teresa, now apparently in a much better mood or simply trying not to frighten her own children, 'we better put them in bed or they will keep us up all night, right Greg?'
Nodding vigorously and apparently relieved to see his wife cheering up again her husband turned to Kir and Flynn.
'You heard that? It's time for bed, so up we go to our holiday rooms! And tomorrow you get to see everyone again and maybe even play outside with some of the other kids. Come one now! It's bedtime and we've all had a very long and tiring day.'
'Awww!' complained Flynn with a yawn, 'I am not sleepy yet.'
Laughing Gregory scooped up his younger son and gave Kir, who had already gotten up from the table, a ruffle with his free hand, 'Can you believe your brother? Yawns like a badger and says he isn't sleepy. He really is not a good liar.'
Kir grinned and nodded, 'No, I am much better at that, dad.'
Giving his older son a playful shove the wild mouse chuckled, 'Now don't you start with that too, young man! Off to bed we go! Or do you want the others to see me pick you up and cart you off like Flynn?'
On his way to the door Gregory gave his wife, who had already carried their daughter with her, a tender kiss on the cheek and looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Brisby and her remaining children in gratitude.
'Thank you so much for dinner, and helping us with everything.'
Timothy grinned from across the table, 'Anytime, Greg, anytime! You just make sure those little monsters don't wreck both your nerves.'
Overhearing his younger uncle's comments Flynn squeaked from his father's arms, 'I promise I'll be good Uncle Timmy!'
After a few more well-wishes and hugs between Teresa and her siblings and a final embrace with her mother the young family left the Brisby apartment to head for the quarters that had been set aside for them in case of an emergency. As luck would have it none had claimed the apartment directly above the new Brisby home, the one Justin had promised her should the entire family show, so Teresa did not have to go far and risk running into a member of the Rats. Not all of the Rats of NIMH would be pleased to see her back in the colony. Elizabeth sighed as she watched the family head up the stairs and to the large, though no doubt dusty, apartment. She would have preferred them to use the rooms below but, given the situation, knew that this might not have been for the best.
As quiet settled back into the room everybody sat down at the table once more. Looks of concern and fear were exchanged all around and it was Martin who finally broke the silence.
'What in heaven's name could have made NIMH come back, and in such a horrible way?'
Mr. Ages shook his head, 'I don't think we will ever know, unless someone goes back and tries to find out. Whatever the humans have done at the farm, it sounds dangerous.'
Timothy rubbed his chin and then muttered quietly, 'If they are still looking for the Rats, do you think they will have a way of finding us here in the Valley?'
It was the one question weighing on everybody's mind. And it was also the one question that none at the table wanted to even think about, but didn't have the liberty to do so.
'We have to tell Justin first,' mused Cynthia. 'Some of the Rats might start panicking if they hear about this.'
Martin let his head fall into one of his paws and groaned.
'You think they don't already know? This place is a breeding ground for gossip and I bet some of them have seen Teresa and the little ones already. The landing place is all the way on the other side of the colony after all and I bet you ran into some rats, right?'
This second question had been addressed to his mother who nodded sadly.
'Yes, we did see some, and not all of them were the ones who like us.'
'Just great,' sighed Martin, 'I bet they will try to have a Counsel Meeting tomorrow or the day after where they will run around like a bunch if frightened crickets; or try to get rid of Teresa again.'
Now it was Mr. Ages turn to speak up, and speak up he did with rising anger in his voice.
'Well then they might as well throw me out too. Teresa is a good doctor and we could actually use her right now. Not to mention,' the old rodent added, 'that the majority of the Rats are on our side.'
'I just hope,' wondered Mrs. Brisby, 'that Verilla will not try to make a scene at the Chamber Meeting tonight.'
Looking at the ceiling the white-furred doctor grumbled, 'We might as well wish for rain that won't make us wet.'
Somewhat resigned the widow slowly got up from the dining room table, put on her reading glasses, and nodded.
'We better be on our way to the Meeting then. If we are late then she will be sure to start her riling immediately. It's always harder to seal up a dam after it's been allowed to break completely.'
Getting up as well Mr. Ages rumbled, 'I hope Justin remembered. The last time he was late Verilla spewed enough venom to poison a horse.'
With that in mind Mr. Brisby looked towards her younger son, 'Timothy, you said you wanted to bring Justin something, didn't you? Could you make sure that he remembers about the Chamber Meeting when you do?'
The young mouse slapped his brow so hard he almost dislodged his glasses.
'I nearly forgot about that! Thanks mom! I'll see that he gets there on time.' Timothy jumped up and grabbed the wrapped-up item he had brought with him from the laboratory, passing both his mother and Mr. Ages as he raced out of the apartment, 'Sorry! I better run!'
The old scientist shook his head and held the door open for Mrs. Bribsy, 'After you, my dear.'
So, the two older mice made their way to the Chamber Meeting while the younger one raced towards the distant office of the one who lead the Rats of NIMH.
The way from the Brisby lodgings to the Main Atrium took the two mice through many winding corridors, which gave them ample time to talk about what they had learned and what it could mean for tonight's Chamber Meeting.
'I am afraid Verilla will give Justin a hard time again tonight,' sighed the female mouse.
'Well,' replied Mr. Ages, 'it would be no different from any other Chamber Meeting this year. The boy will just have to stand his ground, as usual. It's not as if he is alone in there, which annoys Verilla to no end I'm pleased to add.'
The physician was right of course. Apart from that one particular Chamber Member everybody else greatly approved of the job the young leader of the Rats of NIMH had done so far. It was just aggravating that a single individual could sour a simple administrative session with her silly vendettas.
'I am more worried about what happened at the farm,' conceded the older mouse. 'I did not want to say anymore with your children around, but if what Teresa said is true, something really bad is going on back there.'
'What do you mean?' Mrs. Brisby asked hesitantly.
Mr. Ages took some time to organize his thoughts. He did not want to worry his old friend's widow unduly, but on the other had he valued her too much to withhold his concerns from her.
'Please, I might very well be wrong about this. But it sounded very much like NIMH has decided to capture anything and anyone that might have ever come into contact with the Rats of NIMH. This alone,' he intoned, 'assures me that they are still looking for us, maybe harder than ever. I don't know why, but whatever reasons the humans might have, they can only mean trouble for us.'
Looking through a passing window the brown mouse sounded deeply worried as she posed her next question.
'Do you think they will be able to find us here?'
With a despairing shake of his head the white-furred mouse could only shrug.
'I do not know, I really do not. As far as I know there were few if any clues left behind as to where we decided to move. All of this doesn't make much sense to me right now.' Then, after a few deep sighs, he added, 'A lot of things are happening these days that do not make much sense to me anymore.'
Mrs. Brisby tilted her head.
'Do you mean this strange allergy Martin talked about?'
Groaning Mr. Ages waved his arms around and almost growled his reply; 'Why can't that boy keep his mouth shut for once? I told him not to bother you with this, not until we knew something more about it!'
'Please,' the widowed mouse pled as she put a hand on the doctor's shoulder, 'don't be angry. I asked Martin to tell me when he came home two nights ago and looked so worried. I made him tell me.'
The other just kept on sighing and shaking his head.
'He shouldn't have mentioned it anyway. You have enough to worry about already, my dear.'
Trying a smile on the older rodent Mrs. Brisby insisted, 'Now that he did mention it to me I will probably worry even more if you don't tell me the rest.'
'Alright!' Mr. Ages deferred. 'It is just that we have isolated almost every possible cause for this allergy and nothing appears to fit. There is just no common trait we can nail down. Adults get it, children get it, no matter where they live or work in the colony. There seems to be no common denominator, except that all patients are survivors of NIMH or their offspring. It's not as if it was dangerous,' assured the physician. 'So far the only symptoms are a bleaching of parts of the fur and the skin getting sensitive to light.'
For some reason the female did not believe that matters were as trivial as Mr. Ages was trying to make her believe. Noting her doubts the white mouse rolled up his sleeve.
'Look, I have developed a patch myself, although on my fur it is hard to see. As long as I don't expose the section underneath this thinner white fur to sunlight or other bright light I don't even notice it's there. And,' he added hastily, 'it's not as if this little allergy is the only thing that has me confused these days.'
'Really?' Mrs. Brisby wondered. 'Are there any other problems apart from this?'
Looking somewhat like a little boy who just realized he had stepped from one tiny puddle into a deeper one the old mouse took off his glasses and coughed.
'It is really nothing, my dear, nothing to worry about at all.'
The widow put a small frown on her muzzle and folded her arms.
'Really,' she offered, 'I thought you knew better than trying to lie to me, Thomas Ages!'
The old, gray mouse cringed. How somebody who a long time ago had been frightened of and in total awe of him and the Rats of NIMH was now able to be so persuasive and insistent was beyond the old doctor. There was just way to keep a secret from this woman now.
When they had first met Mrs. Brisby had hardly dared to speak to him and now she treated him like a little boy who had been caught cheating in class. What was even worse was the fact that he actually felt just like one. The role of teacher appeared to have strengthened her self-esteem tremendously. In a way, this very change in the female's character was part of his concern. Maybe she was ready to learn about his musings. She definitely sounded as if she would not desist until he told her.
As the white-bearded rodent was still pondering this, the pair reached the Main Atrium. They descended down one of the many staircases that led to the central elevator, the one which would carry them to the Counsel Hall and from there to the Administrative Chamber.
Seeing that he had no other choice the white mouse let his shoulder's slump in submission. He rubbed his glasses on his apron, the way he usually did when trying to hide his nervousness, and finally spoke up again.
'If you must know, ma'am, it has to do with the results of your last physical examination.'
A look of fear crossed Mrs. Brisby's face and her paw went to cover up the gasp that was forming in her throat.
'Am I... sick?' she finally whispered with trepidation.
'No, not at all!' Mr. Ages waved his right arm with emphasis as they made their way down the steps. 'You are as healthy as can be imagined. Even your sight problems are an astigmatism you must have had since childhood, not a sign of aging or disease. And that,' he emphasized after a small sigh, 'is exactly what confuses me.'
This time it was the female mouse that shook her head. 'I am sorry, but I don't understand.'
In the meanwhile the two mice had reached the main elevator, which rose majestically through the heights of the Atrium.
'Please do not be offended, my dear,' the physician implored, 'nobody deserves good health more than you do. But as a scientist I have to face certain facts. And the facts are,' Mr. Ages rasped, 'that you should not be feeling well at all, not at all.'
The white mouse pushed for the elevator before he explained his concerns further to the startled female who had simply stood in stunned silence.
'How long ago was it that we first met, ma'am?'
After a few moments of worried thought Mrs. Brisby and replied, 'It must have been almost four years ago, back when Jonathan and I had brought Timothy because of his spider bite.'
Waving his glasses at the brown mouse for emphasis Mr. Ages nodded, 'Exactly! And since then you have not changed physically at all, at least you have not aged as much as I would have expected, or should have.'
Again there was only a lack of comprehension on the female's face. She had a bad feeling about where her friend was heading with his observations but also felt that now that she had pressed him for it she would have no other choice but to face the truth.
The elevator doors opened and Mr. Ages ushered her inside, wincing at the worry on her features. Once the doors closed and the ascent began he felt it was safe to continue.
'What I mean is,' he tried to express kindly, 'that you have never been to NIMH. You never underwent the treatments that allowed the Rats, your late husband, and myself to live as long as we do or to understand the things we do. A normal mouse only lives two years, three at the utmost, yet you don't show any significant signs of aging... after almost four years!'
Finally, a measure of understanding entered the female's features, but it was not one of comfort.
'You are saying that normally I should have...'
'I am sorry, but should have died some time ago, my dear.'
As he saw the wave of shock passing over Mrs. Brisby's face the doctor hastily added, 'But there you are, alive and in perfect health. Not only that, but you can read and write as well as any of us now. All you needed were a pair of glasses.'
'Yes,' the brown mouse nodded with relief, 'I did, didn't I?'
'Exactly!' Mr. Ages explained with a raised finger. 'And that is what confuses me. Do not misunderstand me. I am glad that you are alive and well, my dear, even more so that you seem as bright,' and now he gave the widow a conspiratorial wink, 'in many ways even brighter, than certain members of the Rats of NIMH we both know.'
This actually caused the brown mouse to raise a paw to her muzzle again, only this time to hide a smile.
Seeing that his companion had apparently gotten over the initial shock of his revelations the physician continued in a soothing voice.
'So, there really is nothing to worry about. We should be glad you are in such good health. I just wish I could explain the why and how.'
As the elevator reached a stop and the doors began to open in front of the two passengers Mrs. Brisby, even though she didn't feel as much fear as she had when Mr. Ages had broached the subject, still wished that she could explain this new conundrum as well.
Matters she had never spent much thought on were beginning to take on the guise of mysteries; mysteries that she feared might hold as many dangers as they could hold wonders. Suddenly she had to think of the Shrew. If mice normally lived only for a short time, how long ago should she have died? She pushed the thought out of her mind as it made her fur bristle.
In front of the two mice the opening doors revealed a large, brightly light chamber decorated even more lavishly than the Main Atrium. This was the Counsel Hall. In an attempt to recreate the wonders the Rats of NIMH had left behind in their old home at the farm they had tried to fashion their new governmental hall in even greater splendor than their first one. The vaulted room was round rather than the rectangular design of its predecessor in the Rosebush. In this new version the Counsel Members were not divided between a main floor and a balcony level anymore. The Rats had decided to allow enough room on the ground floor to accommodate every single elected representative. Radiating from the central floor were eight large alcoves, in which Counsel Members could choose to stand or sit. Two additional opposing alcoves housed the elevator doors with a raised chairman's pulpit on top and the passage towards the Administrative Chamber on the opposing side.
'Goodness,' hushed Mrs. Brisby, 'it looks like the entire Counsel is here tonight.'
Peering around the large hall the white mouse snorted grumpily.
'That and more. Somebody must have worked the rumor mills, like Martin said.'
Mr. Ages was right.
Usually closed to the general public during official Counsel Meetings the great hall was freely accessible to anybody when not in use. As such, it had become a place of assembly for all sorts of events, private and public. Marriages were conducted here or simple meetings between friends and colleagues when the lounges spread throughout the colony felt inappropriate. Yet ever since the Counsel had approved Justin's notion to create a separate governing body to deal with matters of administration the Counsel Hall had gained immense popularity for all those amongst the Rats of NIMH who felt concern for the needs of the colony; and of course those who loved nothing better than gossip. The large number of visitors while the Chamber Meetings took place had forced the Guard to line the spaces between the alcoves with the large rats it employed as sentries. More than once arguments or political discussions between various factions had kindled violent outtakes and Philip, the current Captain of the Guard, had decided that he would not allow a free-range circus in the Counsel Hall. Thus far he and his staff had been able to contain them without violence, though he had been overheard commenting on the use of buckets of ice water and their effectiveness in cooling hot tempers.
Tonight the vast chamber was almost filled to capacity again. As Mrs. Brisby and the aging doctor, who actively ignored the throng, made their way towards the other side of the large room the widow exchanged glances with many of the assembled rats.
Right at the elevator none other than the Captain of the Guard was keeping an eye on the crowd, all the while he was giving a stern talking to two of his Lieutenants, Emily, responsible for recruitment and training, and Leon, who was in charge of the scouts. Looking at the way Philip rolled his eyes Mrs. Brisby assumed that the two Guard Lieutenants had been caught kissing again, or something to that effect. It was no secret that they were planning to marry, but the Captain had strong views about keeping duty and displays of affection separate.
From the speaker's pulpit three rat teenagers were watching the floor with varying degrees of interest, but perked up when they spotted the two mice passing the floor. In a manner of moments after the physician and his companion had entered the room the mutterings and mumblings all around reached a new high. For some reason Mrs. Brisby and the doctor had become the focus of tonight's gossip and both had a good idea what lay at the root of that.
Somebody had spread the news about Teresa's return.
To make matters worse, not all the assembled Rats of NIMH looked upon the smaller rodents with favor. In one alcove a female and three male rats were throwing glances of unbridled loathing towards the pair of mice. These four were amongst those who sided with the views of Verilla, a minority in the colony, but nonetheless a cause of constant aggravation to the Brisby family. None of these rats had as of yet tried to openly discredit her or her children, but the widow was certain that they would love nothing better than to see them all expelled from the colony, or worse.
As luck would have it, another group of rats standing closer to the center of the hall was of a much friendlier sort. Elizabeth and her children had always gotten along well with the colony's Engineers, partially because Timothy was often called upon to help out when certain problems in new designs needed to be addressed. The four seasoned rats all gave the mice warm smiles as they passed. Arthur, the yellow-mustached Head of the Engineering Department even waved invitingly. It was nice to see the open camaraderie between the Department Head and his Engineers. Apart from Arthur, Hands, who had exchanged his work apron with a burgundy tunic, Gidion, a jovial rat who claimed to have been born across the Atlantic in Scotland, and Titus, looking like a bear of a rat, had all decided to stay in the Counsel Hall for the duration of the Chamber Meeting. Of course Mrs. Brisby had no illusions that this was solely to show her and Mr. Ages support. After all, Hand's daughter Ratchet was the Chamber Representative for the Engineering Department. The four older rodents felt that, since they were dodging the responsibility to represent their Department themselves, they could at least give Ratchet a moral heads up by hanging around the Counsel Hall for a while.
Finally, the mice reached the alcove across from the elevator. The doors that led to the Administrative Chamber were open and waiting for them. As Mrs. Brisby eyed the corridor that ended in their destination a shiver ran down her spine. But putting a paw on the female mouse's shoulder Mr. Ages urged them to enter the walkway that separated the two halls.
Both of them had a job to do tonight.
To be continued...