Survivor's Guilt

By Paul S. Gibbs

A sequel to Paul’s other complete works that focuses on Timothy and his adjustment to life as a “Mouse of NIMH.” Set after “Second in Command,” there is sadly only one chapter to this story.

Chapter 1

"I hope you realize," I told Robert, "how jealous I am of you."

My best friend and fellow draftsman glanced up from his work, a look of surprise on his narrow, brown-furred face. "Jealous of me?" he echoed. "Why?" But before I could reply he added, "And stop looking at me over the top of your glasses. Makes you look like my father."

Hurriedly I pushed my round wire-rimmed spectacles a little higher up on my nose. They did tend to slip while I was bent over my drawing board. "Maybe," I explained, "I should really say I'm jealous of you and Kim."

Robert's face fell instantly, and he nodded. "Oh," he said simply. "I understand. Listen, Tim, if I knew of any way I could help you..."

"I appreciate that," I said. I grinned ruefully. "But I don't know what it would be, unless you can invent a machine which will change a mouse into a rat."

"Or vice-versa," he pointed out reasonably. "I'll see what I can do."

The space where Robert and I did our day's work was both part of and separate from the huge space generally called the "workshop." A wide balcony or mezzanine, it stood on massive pillars high above the shop floor. Below, craftspeople (including my brother Martin) toiled each day to turn out furniture, cabinetry, and farm tools; and our boss constantly reminded them to conserve every last bit of metal they could. "We've got more wood than we can possibly use," he often said, "but iron might as well be gold."

Up on that balcony, near the big bank of high windows, Robert and I kept our drawing boards, his of course much larger than mine; and in between them, a huge table where drawings or plans could be laid out flat for examination. I had to stand on my stool even to see its surface. A cast-iron alcohol-burning stove occupied the center of the floor; it had not been lit in a month. Overhead, the same water-powered belts that drove the tools downstairs propelled a set of wicker paddle fans, which, along with wide-open windows, had so far managed to keep the temperature bearable. But it was only late May, and Thorn Valley had not even begun to get hot yet. When it did, Robert and I might find ourselves spending more time gazing longingly at the lake than working.

Our boss (who was also my partner's father) was a great believer in the quaint, rather old-fashioned notion that a happy worker is a more productive worker; and so he had given us permission to decorate and personalize our workspaces any way we chose. Above my drawing board hung one of my watercolors, "Thorn Valley Autumn," and also several of my charcoal sketches of members of my family. Over Robert's desk hung just two works, both done in the pointillist, pen-and-ink style which he favored. One depicted his mother and father; the other--the one that I often caught him gazing at, as if seeking inspiration--was of Kim. It was that particular drawing which I so thoroughly disliked, and hated myself for it. It wasn't that it was badly done; in fact it was quite skillful. Nor because I wasn't fond of the person it depicted; Kim was one of my very best friends. No: the reason why that image troubled me was that I had nothing like it hanging over my own desk--and no good reason to believe that I ever would. And that was a thought which I often found all but intolerable.

"Sometimes," I said glumly, "I wish my family had stayed on the farm."

"Would it have been any better if you had?" Robert asked reasonably. "The way I understand it, the normal mice were afraid of you and your brother and sisters--they thought you were all too 'weird.'"

"You're right," I agreed. "But if there'd been even one who didn't..." I trailed off and sighed, gazing out at the brilliant sunlit day. "All I know is, there doesn't seem to be a single member of my species in this valley other than my parents, my siblings and Mr. Ages."

"And none of them can give you what you want," Robert finished with a grin and a wink.

"That's one way of putting it, yes," I said. "The crude way."

At that moment the noon bell sounded, and below us the noises of sawing, scraping, sanding and hammering gradually tapered off, as the workers laid down their tools and filed out of the shop for lunch. Robert tossed his pencil into an overflowing cup of drawing tools on his side-table, and then with a groan he leaned back, lifting his arms high above his head. I heard the muted pops as his vertebrae reseated themselves one by one, all the way from his neck to the tip of his tail. He stood and clapped his hand on my shoulder. "Come on," he said. "You look like someone who's in desperate need of a peanut-butter sandwich."

"The morality of it doesn't concern me," Mom was saying as I opened the door. "I just think it's too dangerous."

When I arrived home from work that afternoon I felt...well, not tired, exactly; not in the same way I'd feel tired after a dozen laps around the track. I'd exercised nothing more than my fingers all day. No, what I felt was a combination of stiffness caused by inactivity and mental exhaustion. Which was good: that's how I knew I'd had a productive day.

Only my parents were at home when I entered the apartment, Dad sitting on the smaller sofa surrounded by a snowfall of paper, and Mom at the desk, ditto. As the door closed behind me they both looked up from their work, smiling. "Hello, dear," Mom said, peering at me over the top of her half-glasses in exactly the same way that so bugged Robert.

"Have a seat, son," Dad offered, moving over some of his papers. Gratefully I plopped myself down beside him. "How was work?" he asked.

"Pretty good," I told him. "Arthur has us working on the plans for that dock extension and breakwater that Judson has been asking him to build. If Judson approves the plans, the crew can start driving the piles next week." I looked over at Mom. "What's too dangerous?" I asked.

She exchanged a stricken glance with Dad, and I grinned. "Oh, I get it," I said teasingly. "Hush-hush, state-secret, department-head-only stuff, huh?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," Dad told me seriously. "But if you promise not to tell anyone else..."

I made an X across the front of my white shirt. "Hope to die," I said.

"I wish I knew whether you really mean that," Dad observed. He sighed. "All right. I'm sure you'd find out about it eventually anyway. The fact is, your boss is planning a little... collecting expedition."

"For metal," I said, and had the pleasure of seeing two jaws drop simultaneously.

"He's told you already?" Mom asked.

"No," I assured her with a smile. "He hasn't. I hadn't heard a word about it until just now. But it's the only possibility that makes sense. Arthur knows better than anyone that we've got every other building material we need--stone, wood, clay for pottery, sand for glass--but we're terribly short on metal."

Dad grinned. He wrapped his strong arm around my shoulder and drew me close, digging his fist into the top of my head. "I ought to have known that you'd figure it out," he said. "You're right, of course."

"But where, exactly?" I asked, after I'd struggled free from his grasp. "All the way back to the farm?"

"No," Dad said. He glanced at Mom. "No, that really would be too dangerous. Arthur has something else in mind, apparently. Several years ago--before you were born--an airplane crashed into the mountains some miles northeast of this valley. It was a small plane, about thirty passengers. As I recall--we heard about it on Nicodemus' radio, of course--there were some fatalities. Very few, fortunately; two or three perhaps. Everyone else was rescued by helicopter. But it was too expensive and difficult to remove the wreckage, so after the investigation the authorities just let it lie."

I nodded slowly. "I'm beginning to understand," I said.

"I figured you would," Dad said. "Arthur believes that there might be quite a lot left that's usable. Aluminum, for example, which doesn't rust away like iron. Lots of wiring, which will contain copper. Maybe even steel, from parts of the engine which still have a coating of oil. And plastics too."

I grinned. "Electronics?" I asked eagerly.

Dad matched my smile. "You sound like Hacker," he said. He shook his head. "But no, probably not. Anything that survived the crash would have been sitting there exposed to the weather all this time. It's highly doubtful whether any of it would still be usable."

"Too bad," I said, and I meant it. Dad's friend and one-time companion Eileen wasn't the only citizen of Thorn Valley who longed to get hold of a computer. "So," I went on, "is Justin actually going to let Arthur do it?"

"Exactly what we were debating in the department-heads meeting this afternoon," Dad said. "It was one of the livelier discussions we've had lately, too. Right now the general consensus seems to be against it."

"Really?" I said in surprise. "Why? Everyone must know how serious our metal shortage is..."

"Oh, they do," Dad assured me. "Actually the opposition seems to be split into two factions. One is represented by your dear mother--"

"I think it's too dangerous," she said firmly. "Your father hasn't flown over those mountains..."

"Haven't I?" he said challengingly.

"Well, all right, you have," she agreed testily. "Hiding under the rear seat of a helicopter. I flew over them on the back of a crow. That land is rugged, my darling. And I don't even want to think about what kind of wild animals live up there--owls, bobcats, weasels, foxes, wolverines, cougars..." she shuddered. "Too dangerous."

"...And then," Dad went on, as if he'd never been interrupted, "there's the faction which considers the expedition to be yet another case of stealing--which the rats swore off of when they moved up here."

I snorted. "That's not stealing, Dad," I said. "That's salvage. Two different things entirely."

"Is it?" he asked. He fell silent for a moment, gazing thoughtfully out the window; then he continued. "The major reason why the rats came to this valley is easy enough to understand..."

"Because they were stealing that poor farmer out of house and home," I finished flatly.

"Exactly," Dad said with a grin. "And quite apart from being ashamed of that--apart even from the fact that it couldn't have gone on indefinitely before the farmer took drastic action--Nicodemus feared that such a lifestyle would end up making the rats decadent and corrupt. In Jenner's case, it appears he was right. But even that isn't the whole story. Nicodemus envisioned the rats divorcing themselves entirely from human lifestyles--which he believed were ultimately self-destructive. I've sometimes wondered if he would entirely approve of the way we live now--so entirely dependent on technologies which we learned from the humans. Stole from them, one might say." He grinned. "Some people don't agree with that, of course. Most notably your boss."

"I'm with him on that one," I said. I glanced at the two of them in turn. "I'm sorry to say this--I know how you both felt about Nicodemus--but if that really was his ultimate Plan, then he was dreaming."

"What--" Mom began sharply, but Dad held up his hand, silencing her.

"How so?" he asked mildly.

"There are a lot of things we've borrowed from the humans," I said. I swept my arm in a wide circle. "Take a look at this room, for example. Furniture, rugs, fireplaces, windows...all human conveniences. I suppose we could do away with it all. We could sit on the floor, and sleep in balls of fluff, and probably be almost as comfortable." I plucked at my shirt and vest. "We don't even really need clothes, for that matter. We don't really need cooked food, or plates or cups or cutlery. We could eat grain and seeds with our hands, and lap up water out of a trough."

Mom shook her head. "I don't think that's what Nicodemus had in mind either," she said. "I remember what he told me that day: 'We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.'"

"That's right," I agreed. "It would be a step backwards, and I doubt whether anyone would accept it. But what's the alternative? Exactly what we have here. The humans haven't always made the best decisions as to what to do with their technology...but when they're confronted with a specific question, such as 'how do we stay warm?' or 'what do we sit on that's more comfortable than the ground?' they have a definite knack for coming up with the best answer, sooner or later. Arthur believes--and I have to agree--that it would be pointless and wasteful for us to repeat their efforts, because in most cases we're very unlikely to come up with better answers. But at the same time, of course, we have to pick and choose what works for us and what doesn't--and that's made all the easier because we know, in so many cases, what the consequences of a particular technology have been for the humans."

Dad smiled. "I seem to have touched a nerve," he said.

I took a deep breath, and climbed down off my high-horse. "Maybe you did at that," I said with an embarrassed grin. "Or maybe I'm just parroting my boss. Apparently he's been coping with exactly that kind of disagreement for years--"

"He has indeed," Dad confirmed. "Including today, when he proposed the expedition. He's concerned about the safety issue, of course--but he dismissed the philosophical argument 'out of hand', as the old saying has it. He believes that our need for metal far transcends what he called 'all this pointless egghead bickering.'"

I chuckled. "I don't know if I would have put it quite that way," I said. "But he's right. There's only so much you can do with wood." I pointed out the window. "Take the farm, for example. A wooden scratch-plow wouldn't begin to turn that soil. It's got to be a steel share." I removed my glasses and held them out. "Here's another example. I can't see very well without these. But if we had no metal, I'd have no choice but to live with my astigmatism. Since we don't have plastic--not yet, anyway--the only material we can make these frames out of is steel wire. And since we're not in a position to start a mining and refining operation, salvage is the best answer."

Mom and Dad exchanged a glance--and then they both burst out laughing. "What's funny?" I asked finally, pointedly.

Dad wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry, Tim," he said. "Believe me, we're not laughing at you--far from it. It's just that Arthur made exactly the same arguments this morning, and in almost exactly the same words. Great minds think alike, it seems."

"Or I've been listening to his lectures too long," I countered with a smile. I stood and stretched my stiff back. "If you'll excuse me," I said, "I think I hear the swimming hole calling."

"Martin," I said, as my fingers searched for chords, "do you realize it's been almost a whole year since Dad came back?"

My big brother (emphasis on "big") glanced across at me over the top of his book. "It would be a little hard to forget," he said, "with everybody running around planning the holiday festivities."

I nodded. He was right. Apart from the Harvest Festival and the occasional beach luau, the Rats of NIMH observed three more solemn occasions during the year--and as luck would have it, our parents were deeply involved in all of them. (You could say that I was involved in one of them too--but only in a very indirect sense.) The first was Founder's Day, in the early spring; it commemorated the rats' arrival in Thorn Valley, and--much more sadly--the death of Nicodemus. The second, with the oddly religious name of Redemption Day, celebrated the occasion when my mother, armed with the Stone, managed to repulse an attack from NIMH. The third--Liberation Day, which recognized the rats' escape from NIMH, years before I was born--we celebrated on the first of September, because no one really knew the exact date. On the first two holidays Mom served as Guest of Honor; on the third, Dad. Whether they wanted to or not. But semi-coincidentally, Redemption Day was also the anniversary of Dad's return from the dead.

"That's true," I said. I started into a melody then, a piece for lute by Bach. "But that isn't exactly what I meant."

One good thing about being a mouse in a community of rats: lots of space. The bedroom that Martin and I shared was at least twice as big as the one which our whole family had slept in, way back when. Along the right-hand wall, as one entered, were our beds, separated by a wide night-table and with a blanket-chest at the foot of each. Across the room, across a wide expanse of rug-strewn floor, stood a dresser and a wardrobe; a stove; a washstand; a desk with bookshelves above; and tucked into the corner, my drawing table. I could have perched myself upon its tall stool while I practiced, and sometimes I did; but more often I sat exactly where I was that night, in the wide, comfortable bench formed by the deep windowsill. Over the last year I had sat there--with or without guitar--many times, watching snow fall, or rain; watching autumn leaves blow by on a stiff cold wind; or--as now--watching brilliant moonlight shimmer on the surface of the lake.

Across the room, Martin sat on his bed with the pillows bulked behind him and a book in his lap. For a few seconds after I spoke he was silent, and I saw the muscles at the corners of his jaw working; then he lowered the book and gazed gimlet-eyed at me. "I know it isn't," he said pointedly, and returned to his reading.

Inwardly I sighed. That was my brother. Large--we both had our full growth, and he was more than a head taller than me, and half again as heavy; smart--he could beat me at chess, sometimes, and he could toss off complex mathematical formulae every bit as well as Robert or me; good-hearted--there wasn't a malicious bone in his body; and stubborn. It sometimes seemed to me that our parents' personality traits were like little wooden balls, thrown together into one of those spherical tumbling-baskets and mixed vigorously. All of us, my brother, sisters and me, got an equal number of hits from that tumbler--but when the ball marked "stubbornness" turned up, having been deposited in the basket by Dad, it was Martin who stood and yelled "Bingo!" He and I got along pretty well--better than he had ever gotten along with Teresa, that's for certain--but still, there were a certain number of points on which we disagreed. And because he was bigger than me--though I could beat him on the track, and also sometimes at wrestling, being more agile--those were points which I tended not to bring up...

I slid then from Bach into the Beatles: "Michelle." Fortunately my brother liked my playing--most of the time, anyway--and so I seldom needed to find someplace else to practice.

...Take, for example, our current lifestyle. While Martin certainly couldn't disagree that what we had now was many, many times better than anything we could have expected if we'd stayed where we were, still I sometimes got the feeling that he wasn't entirely happy with how we'd achieved it. And the reason why had a lot to do with the second holiday on the Thorn Valley calendar. One of the best days of my life; but one of the worst days of his. Only in his own mind, though, and for that I pitied him. To me it was always a source of joy to lie in bed late at night and know that in the very next room both my parents were asleep (or not) in each other's arms. A joy which my brother couldn't--or wouldn't--share. Sad, really. Dad had long since acknowledged his own part in building the wall which separated him from his older son, and had done everything he could to help tear it down; but as yet Martin had only allowed the cutting-out of a small, barred window, through which the two of them exchanged pleasantries. If anything, Dad's election as Vice-Leader had only served to build the wall a little higher.

From "Michelle" it was only a short step into "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." A few bars later I asked, "Have Jake and Felicia set the date yet?"

Martin stiffened visibly, his entire body from his whiskers to the tip of his tail, and I held my breath, wondering if I'd gone too far. A few seconds later, though, he relaxed and shook his head. "Not for certain," he said. "Sometime in June, though. After the holiday."

"I imagine you'll be Best Man--?"


--And Justin would perform the ceremony, something which he did often and with childlike glee. Of all his duties as Leader, he often said, he enjoyed presiding at marriages the most.

If Martin sounded somewhat less than happy about it, though, I suppose he had good reason. I might have cause to feel that way myself, one of these days. My brother considered Jake, Guardsman and meteorologist, to be his best friend, as I considered Robert to be mine. And while Robert and Kim were still just dating, Jake and an attractive rat named Felicia (also known as Flea--long story--and my sister Teresa's good friend) had decided to tie the knot. I sometimes thought that only my strong friendship with Robert kept him from proposing to Kim--and that, if true, went a long way toward making a bad situation worse.

"Do you ever," I began, and trailed off. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Do you ever think about finding a mate of your own?"

He snorted. "'Course I do," he said. "Once in a while--when I can't stop myself from thinking about it."

I quirked an eye. I considered segueing into "Take Five," but its time-signature would have required more concentration than I cared to devote just then. So instead I headed into "Yesterday," a piece I could have played in my sleep. "And--?" I prompted.

"And," he said, with a touch of exasperation in his voice, "I've decided it's pretty well pointless even to worry about it. We made our choice when we decided to stay up here. And anyway--" he broke off.

"'Anyway' what?"

He sighed. "I don't want to have to go through what Dad did, okay?" he said in a rush. "We're different, and unless we want to get ourselves into a big stupid mess like he did, we'd have to somehow explain that, up front, before things get serious. And at that point any normal mouse would head for the hills."

"Mom was a normal mouse once," I pointed out, but he shook his head.

"Different situation," he said. "And who's to say that if Dad had explained it up front, she wouldn't have headed for the hills? I know she says she wouldn't have--but that's hindsight. She can't really know."

On that point I wasn't quite so certain; but I wasn't in the mood to start a fight. I waited, and finally Martin went on, "I just don't even want to think about it. It's an impossible situation. Let's just leave it at that, all right?"

"I don't know that it's impossible," I said. "Difficult yes, but we don't have to deal with it all by ourselves. Mom and Dad are aware, and so is Justin..."

He chuckled bitterly. "Oh yeah," he said. "They're 'aware.' They're aware of a lot of things. But being aware of a situation and doing something about it are two different things. It's like...oh, say our metal shortage. Everybody is 'aware' of that too--but who's doing anything about it?"

I very nearly missed a chord, but I recovered in time. Martin didn't appear to notice. Strange, I thought, for him to pick that particular comparison...

He marked his book then, set it aside, and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "If you don't mind, Tim," he said, "I'd like to get some sleep now. I've got a lot of work to do tomorrow."

I nodded, thinking about the stack of half-finished diagrams waiting on my desk. "Yeah," I said. I hopped down from the window-seat and carefully placed my guitar into its stand near the head of my bed. "Me too."

Something startled me awake.

Exactly what, I had no idea. One moment I was fast asleep; the next wide awake, propped up on one elbow, eyes searching frantically through the darkness, heart pounding, breath short, confronting...nothing.

Through a tiny gap in the curtains a bright shaft of moonlight spilled slantwise across the foot of my bed, and spent itself in the far corner near the wardrobe. A little distance to my left, my brother slept in a tangle of blankets, his breathing deep and right on the ragged edge of a snore. I was used to that, though, and to the remarkable range of tones he could thus produce. So what...?

Gradually my heartbeat slowed, and my breathing came back under control. I lay back and pulled the blankets up under my chin. My hands behind my head, I stared up through the gloom at the distant ceiling. The tail-end of some strange dream, I decided finally. Yes. That must have been it. As I thought about it, I believed that I could recall some of the details, very dimly, as through a fog. It seemed to me that I had heard someone crying bitterly; someone--I abruptly realized--female. I'd felt within myself a strong desire to find that person, whoever it was, and to comfort her, to somehow take away or make better whatever it was that had caused her such grief. In my life I had heard just three females cry, at different times and for very different reasons: my mother, out of fear, anger, sadness and an excess of joy; Teresa, most recently from pain, last fall when she broke her ankle; and Cynthia, from frustration, when she came to me in tears absolutely certain that she would never understand algebra. Oddly, the phantom weeping in my dream seemed to match none of them.

Just a dream. Made up by my subconscious, probably out of something I'd read recently. But all the same, it was quite some time before I could manage to turn over and go back to sleep.

To Be Continued...

Last Adjustments by Author: 1999