A beautifully told story which keeps the characters true to their form in the film. It takes place four months after the rats' departure from the farm. Mrs. Brisby and her children eagerly accept an opportunity to visit Thorn Valley; but unknown to them, the Rats of NIMH are once again facing a deadly peril--one which could destroy their self-sufficient paradise forever.
Robin’s Note: This was THE first piece on the archive waaaaay back in ’97. It was a favorite back then and probably will remain one today. Tragically, Paul Gibbs died suddenly in Jan 2002. His family has graciously given me permission to keep his NIMH work alive on the web.
Elizabeth Brisby felt restless; but she didn't know why.
It had become her habit, these past few weeks, to spend a few minutes each morning by herself, sitting or lying quietly in a small patch of grass and flowers, tucked between her cinder-block house and the big boulder that sheltered it. (Her children--who had of course noticed this habit--jokingly called it "Mom's Secret Spot.") It was pleasant just to be there, alone with her own thoughts, smelling the grass and the flowers, listening to the birds and the distant buzz of farm machinery. The weather was growing warmer every day, and very soon she might have to find a shadier spot; but for now that was pleasant too: to spread out her cape and let the sunshine soak into her fur.
In the past, no doubt, she would have felt guilty for the waste of time, or anxious for what her children might be getting into while they were out of her sight; but no more. Circumstances had given her--or rather allowed her to find within herself--a serenity she didn't even know she possessed. Courage of the heart, it had been called. Whether that was true or not she didn't know--she had never felt especially courageous--but it was certainly true that her capacity for worry was not half what it had been, just a few months ago.
And yet...even as she lay there that summer day, with bees buzzing softly in the flowers all around her, she was aware that something, somehow, wasn't quite right. In some way she could hardly begin to define, something seemed...incomplete.
Why that should be she didn't know. Certainly her life was more settled now than it had been in months. She had her home, so secure now that she had not even bothered with Moving Day; she had her children, growing quickly--even Timothy, thank God--and at long last she had some answers. She had lived with her husband so long without really knowing him; knowing where he had come from, or why he had always seemed so, well, different. She had loved him in spite of that; now, finally, through his friends, she had begun to understand him. So much that had made no sense now did; there were so many memories she could re-explore, finding new significance in each. That is, if doing so didn't hurt so much.
And yet...if there was indeed one single cause for her unease, it was that. One word, one strange word, which she had never even heard before three months ago: NIMH. Her time with the rats had been so terribly brief. They had explained much, but so much more remained unexplained. Time and again, these last three months, she'd wished that she'd been able to have a longer talk with Nicodemus; or perhaps Justin, who was--frankly--easier to understand. Justin had been Jonathan's friend, that was clear; there were so many things she could have asked him. So many questions her children had asked her, which she was unable to answer.
Her children...that was another subject entirely, she thought as she turned over onto her stomach. Mr. Ages had tried to explain it to her, weeks ago when he'd come to check on Timothy's lungs, and Elizabeth's burned hands. (In fact it was amazing how candid Ages had been, now that the need for secrecy was over.) What was the word he'd used? Genetics, that was it. Every person--so he'd said--had inside of them a plan, a set of instructions for the growth of that particular person and no other. When a male and female mated (and here Elizabeth's ears had gone bright red in embarrassment) a part of his instructions mixed with a part of hers, mostly at random, so that the new person who resulted was a mixture of both. That much had been easy enough to understand: she need only look at her children. Martin and Cynthia had Jonathan's brown eyes; Teresa and Timothy had her blue. Martin had Jonathan's build and strength; Timothy had his father's impish smile and his wry sense of humor. And so on.
...But some of Jonathan's instructions--his genes, that was the word--had been changed by NIMH. And in some ways, it appeared, those genes had been the stronger. The "dominant," Ages had said. It was too early yet to tell whether those genes would affect her children's lifespans; but it was not to early to tell that their intelligence had definitely been affected. The ease with which they'd picked up reading--which Elizabeth still struggled with--and math--which she couldn't cope with at all--was proof enough. Every day, it seemed, they would say something, accomplish something, which would astound her. She lived in fear that they would someday reject her, cast her aside as foolish and unimportant...but so far at least, that didn't seem to be happening. And Timothy at least--she felt--would never do so. Not him.
All of that applied to the older three at least; especially Timothy, who made up for his still slightly under-sized and under-strength body with breathtaking intelligence. But then there was poor Cynthia. Youngest, smallest, the tagalong, the last to be included, the last to be allowed to do anything...Elizabeth had come to wonder lately what would happen to her. Teresa and Martin, at least, were inclined to be impatient with her; Elizabeth had even caught them calling her "slow."
But not Timothy. He grew quite angry with his older brother and sister when they teased Cynthia; and he spent many hours with her, teaching her to read, teaching her math...leading her through the books he himself had devoured. "She's not slow," he'd told his mother recently. "She just needs...focus. Yeah, that's it, focus."
Focus. Lying there in the sunshine, Elizabeth shook her head ruefully. How could any of them find focus, where they were? There was so much potential in the four of them. Jonathan had seen that, even though they'd all been so young when he...when he...And now that they knew a bit more about their heritage, now what? When the four of them had finished the books the rats had left them, where would they get more? Where would they find challenges equal to their abilities? She had no idea. Or rather she did; but it seemed so impossible she scarcely dared think about it.
Well--this wasn't getting her work done. Elizabeth rose, retrieved her cape, and knotted it firmly around her neck. Teresa and Martin would be finished with their chores soon, and if she didn't have Martin's lunch ready, she'd hear about it. Just like his father, that young man was: always hungry.
Justin was writing. Finally.
For nearly three months the huge leather-bound book had sat on his desk, untouched. Many times, his eye passing over it, he had promised himself that today was the day: that he would finally open the book to the first blank page, ink his pen...and begin writing. It was his duty, part of this job he'd somehow managed to get himself elected to; he knew that. But somehow the days continued to pass, and the book remained where it was, gathering dust. Not because he'd had no time--though his days certainly had been full enough for several rats--no; it remained untouched, unwritten-in, because Justin didn't believe himself worthy to touch it.
The book was the Journal, or at least a part of it; the story of the Rats of NIMH from their escape, through their exodus and settlement beneath the rosebush, up to--almost--the culmination of the Plan. It was that part of the story, their desperate flight to Thorn Valley, which remained untold; because the author of the Journal had died before he could tell it.
More than two-thirds of the present volume--as well as all of its half-dozen predecessors--was filled with Nicodemus' flowing, rounded, graceful handwriting--if "hand" was indeed the correct word. To add his own, much less attractive script to that record seemed almost...sacrilegious. Like using a highlighter in a Bible, to use a phrase he'd once heard.
But...well, someone had to do it. Nicodemus had been quite clear on that point: he wanted the story told. He wanted their descendants to know the truth. Justin might have retired that book and started another, but a full third of its pages were blank, and as the moment the community couldn't afford the waste of paper. Starting a paper mill was on his "to do" list--they'd need it for new schoolbooks, if nothing else--but with sufficient food still an issue, that seemed at best a long-term goal. No, it was this book or nothing. And so that morning, guided it seemed purely by impulse, he had opened the book, found a pen and ink (he used pencil for everyday work) and sat down.
It hadn't helped his concentration, to read the last notation in Nicodemus' writing, directly opposite the first blank page: "Mrs. Brisby has come to us for help; her home must be moved to avoid the farmer's plow. I had feared that Jenner would attempt to block the project, but unaccountably he has endorsed the plan and pledged his help. Perhaps he has finally seen the wisdom of cooperation. We will begin work at midnight." But eventually Justin tore his eyes away and began to write.
"It has been some three months since our arrival in Thorn Valley," Justin wrote. "We arrived much earlier than was called for by our Plan, but our previous home was threatened with destruction by NIMH, and we had no choice. All arrived safely. The Thorn Valley community was not truly ready for occupation, and we have had much hard work on our hands to make it so. We have drawn somewhat more heavily on our food stores than I would have liked, but our farm has begun to produce, the weather is promising, and I feel confident that we can lay in sufficient supplies for the winter.
"I must make note here of the debt owed by the Rats of NIMH to Mrs. Brisby, widow of our friend and associate Jonathan Brisby. Without her warning, we might well have died, or been recaptured, without ever knowing our danger. I wish that it were possible for me to see Mrs. Brisby again; the time we spent together was both too brief and too anxious, and I would have very much enjoyed having the time to share my memories of Jonathan with her."
He signed it, "Justin," just as Nicodemus had signed all of his entries; and then he leaned back, staring at the bare stone ceiling. His hand, almost with a will of its own, stole up to touch the gold and ruby pendant that hung around his neck.
Three months. Amazing, how the time had passed so quickly. They'd arrived to find their new home half-built at best; almost uninhabitable; had the Plan been followed to the letter, the majority of the population would have arrived in Thorn Valley some seven months later, in early autumn. Most of the excavation had been done, but none of the doors or windows were in place, Arthur's water system hadn't yet been working--that had taken weeks more--and of course the farm hadn't even begun to be worked.
Justin had never worked so hard in his life, as he had then. His memory of those first few days were a little hazy, but he did clearly remember working for three solid days, straight through, with neither food nor sleep, until he finally collapsed. Arthur the chief engineer, having it appeared more stamina, had gone even longer, and finally had to be forced to stop. For a while it seemed a tossup, whether they'd all freeze or starve first. The culture shock had been enormous--especially among the younger rats, who had never known anything other than the electrically-lit, running-water world of the old settlement.
But somehow, they'd made it through. Teams of rats gathered firewood, others formed a bucket brigade, bringing water from the lake; others, organized by Arthur, turned bare excavations into living space; and still others, braving drenching rain and even a little snow, went to work on the farm. The community still had many rough edges--Arthur had big construction plans for the next winter--but, if not exactly luxurious, the place was at least now livable.
But it was not those first frantic weeks that Justin's memory dwelled on that morning; rather, it was the last night on the farm. Time and again he had relived the scene, most often in his dreams: Nicodemus lying dead under a pile of rubble; and Jenner, weeping his crocodile tears and speaking his false words of sympathy, even as he moved to take over. And Justin himself, too shattered with grief to oppose him. Until he had attacked Mrs. Brisby...that, finally, had been the last straw.
I should have known, Justin thought bitterly, and not for the first time. I should have known Jenner was up to something. Ages suspected; I should have listened to him. But God help us, we never thought he'd resort to murder!
He reached over and touched the book, running his fingers over the entry previous to his. It should be you sitting here, he thought. Not me. I was never meant to be leader. But now, heaven help him, he was; duly and unanimously elected. Because somebody had to do it.
At that point--no doubt fortunately--Justin's flow of memories and recriminations was interrupted by a knock on the door. Firmly he closed the book and pushed it aside. "Come in!" he called.
The door opened an inch or so, and a young male rat peered nervously in. "Sir?" he began hesitantly.
Justin sighed. "Oh, come in, Thomas," he said testily. He almost added, "And stop calling me 'sir'!"; but he didn't; it wouldn't have done any good. Not with Thomas.
Thomas entered and immediately snapped to attention, much to Justin's annoyance. The younger rat wore a dark blue tunic and a white shirt, identical to Justin's: the uniform of the Guard, of which--until recently--Justin had been the captain. Now--by default--this young man was the captain, and he was utterly, hopelessly unsuited for the job. Even he seemed to know it. If only Philip hadn't...but there was no use pursuing that line of thought, and Justin dropped it. "What's up?" he asked.
Thomas hesitated, looking rather aghast at Justin's informality. (Justin had the feeling Thomas would have been more comfortable if he--Justin--had instead barked, "Report, solider!") Then he said, "Sir, we appear to have a...visitor."
Justin rose hurriedly. "A visitor?" he asked. Who in the world--? "You mean a stranger?"
"Yes, sir," Thomas said. "It appears to be a bird. A crow, to be more specific. And he's asking for you by name."
If Thomas had suddenly sprouted an extra tail, Justin couldn't have been much more surprised. "A crow is asking for me," he repeated slowly.
"Yes, sir," Thomas confirmed, dead-pan. "And he says he has a message for you--from one Timothy Brisby."
"You did what?" Elizabeth exploded.
The four younger members of the Brisby family exchanged a glance across the table; then, almost in unison, Teresa and Martin said, "It was Timothy's idea!"
Timothy shot his brother and sister a look promising mayhem; then he turned his best utterly-innocent, blue-eyed gaze upon his mother. "Well?" she prompted sharply. Jonathan had often tried to beguile her with that exact same look; she'd never bought it from him, either.
Amazing, really, how fast the four of them were growing. She'd had all she could do, with the rats' parting gift of cloth, needles and thread, to keep them in clothes. Teresa and Martin were already on the edge of adolescence (what a human would call teenage; with everything that implied); Timothy and Cynthia weren't all that far behind.
Martin...already he was the very image of his father, and would probably end up even larger and stronger than poor Jonathan. Like Jonathan he was inventive--he was making good use of the tools the rats had left--and he also had a full measure of his father's brashness and occasional impatience. That last, hopefully, he would learn to control eventually.
Teresa...she was already shaping up to be a real beauty. Like her mother, others had said; but that was not a comparison it would have occurred to Elizabeth to make. Teresa also had an unfortunate tendency toward vanity, which Elizabeth devoutly hoped was just a phase. Her rivalry with Martin was still the stuff of legend, although--for both of them--it seemed to have become more a game than anything serious. And--though at times she complained bitterly about it--Teresa did do the jobs Elizabeth wanted her to do; and did them well.
Timothy...in many ways he reminded Elizabeth of Jonathan even more strongly than Martin did. Certainly Timothy would never be as large or strong as his brother or father--he seemed to have accepted that fact himself--but he more than made up for it in brain power. In his intelligence, his quick wit, Elizabeth saw Jonathan; and especially in the slightly quirky sense of humor and impish grin he had inherited intact. Timothy had taken Mr. Ages' post-pneumonia advice to heart: "Exercise, boy, exercise!" and these days he spent almost as much time at that as at his reading. Recently, measuring him for a new shirt, Elizabeth had been surprised to feel the whipcord muscles in his upper arm. Not large--more than a head shorter than his brother--but wiry, and agile; he had even occasionally been known to defeat Martin at wrestling.
And Cynthia. Exactly what combination of genes had produced that girl, Elizabeth didn't know, with her cream-colored fur; but as she grew older and taller, losing her baby roundness, Elizabeth was beginning to see the similarities. Cynthia had Jonathan's eyes and ears--that much was clear--and Elizabeth's own shape. When the time had come to put her in a dress, her sister's hand-me-downs wouldn't fit; everything Cynthia wore was brand-new. Which was fine with her. "Slow" wasn't a word which Elizabeth liked to use either, but, unfortunately, "scatterbrained" was accurate. That too, hopefully, was a phase; she just needed focus.
Timothy wilted under his mother's gaze, and he cleared his throat several times before he could speak. Finally he said, "I asked Jeremy to find Thorn Valley. I didn't think I was doing anything wrong," he went on hurriedly. "He said he was glad to do it. He says his wife won't let him near the nest until her eggs have hatched..." He trailed off then, while Cynthia giggled behind her hand.
"That's not the point," Elizabeth told him sternly. "Although you did take advantage of him." She held up her hand to forestall his protest. "I know, I know, he agreed. We won't worry about that. But, Timothy"--he was starting to prefer that, or "Tim," rather than "Timmy"--"Thorn Valley is supposed to be secret."
"Even from us?" Timothy said challengingly. "After what Dad did for them?"
"And what you did?" Teresa added.
"That might be true," Elizabeth admitted. "But that's not the point either. The rats are nervous about being discovered--we can't blame them for that. They know us--but they don't know Jeremy. I don't know what they might do to him."
Timothy looked shocked. "They wouldn't hurt him, would they?"
Elizabeth shook her head, remembering her own first encounter with the Rats of NIMH--or, more specifically, with an over-zealous guard named Brutus. No intruders, he'd been ordered; not nobody, not nohow. "I hope not," she said anxiously.
Timothy shook his head. "They won't," he said decisively. "I told Jeremy to ask for Justin--and to mention our name right away."
Obviously he'd thought this through, which was typical; but privately, Elizabeth still had doubts. They were talking about Jeremy, after all; if he got nervous and forgot Timothy's instructions...but on the other hand, she really couldn't imagine Justin harming anyone, not even a crazy crow. Assuming, that is, that Justin was still there; obviously they had no way of being sure.
I should have known something like this would happen, she thought. For the past three months her children had been plaguing her with questions about the rats. Especially Timothy. She couldn't blame them, of course. They'd known their father such a terribly short time; to learn anything about him, anything at all, was to bring him closer. And obviously the rats had known Jonathan better than anyone, even Elizabeth. Most of the questions she had been unable to answer; but that didn't stop them from asking. The fact that she'd spent only an hour or two with the rats that terrible day, and thus had learned precious little about them, made no difference. She'd always felt, somewhere deep inside, that her children's curiosity would drive them to seek out the rats someday. When you're older, she had said. Frankly, she hadn't expected it to happen during her lifetime. Now, though...
She sighed. "Well," she said, "there's nothing we can do about it now, of course. I suppose the worst they could do is chase him out of the valley and tell him not to come back." If he even finds it; he's hardly the world's greatest navigator. "We'll just have to wait until he gets back." She rose. "Timothy," she said briskly, "it's your turn to do the dishes."
"Aw, Mom," Timothy began, but she raised her hand, bringing him to a halt.
"You're in quite enough trouble right now, young man," she cautioned him. "I wouldn't add to it if I were you." He grumbled a little, but he obeyed, and began to clear away the lunch-time dishes. Once again--as Jonathan would have said--Parental Authority had triumphed; just how long she could count on that, though, she didn't dare wonder.
They didn't have long to wait.
It was a little past three in the afternoon--according to their wall clock, really a wristwatch without a band, which Jonathan had brought home a long time ago--when they heard the commotion, and suddenly their front door was eclipsed by a large dark body. From outside their heard the familiar raucous, excited voice: "Hey, Mrs. B! Are you home? I've got a message for ya!"
At that time, as usual, the five of them were working. Thanks, in fact, to the rats.
On their way off the farm, three months ago, the rats had paused long enough to leave the Brisby family a number of gifts. The fact that the items were most likely cast-offs, left behind to save weight on their overloaded wagons, hadn't diminished their usefulness. Several bolts of cloth, of different colors and materials. A number of small spools of thread and packs of tiny needles. A set of smallish (but usable) carpenter's tools. And books. A great load of books, printed and bound by the rats themselves. Schoolbooks, mainly, but also some storybooks and novels. All of them were worn, and some had torn pages or covers--that was no doubt the reason why they were being left--but all were readable.
When Jeremy arrived, Martin, was in his corner of the living room, building something--the rest of them had no idea what, yet--Elizabeth was sewing, and Teresa mending; and near the window, Timothy and Cynthia were bent over their books. Cynthia, it seemed, was stuck on a math problem, and Timothy was explaining, for the third or perhaps fourth time. From the look on his face, even his saintly patience with her was beginning to wear thin. (And from the way he squinted at the books, Elizabeth was beginning to wonder if he needed glasses.) At the sound of the crow's cheerful voice the five of them looked up from their tasks...and then, in a flurry of fur and tails, they dashed for the door.
Standing outside their home, in all his disheveled magnificence, was Jeremy the Crow. Absolutely and utterly loyal to Mrs. Brisby, since she had saved him from the cat, not even marriage and impending fatherhood had kept him away from his new friends for long. (Jeremy a father? Elizabeth's mind boggled, every time she contemplated that.) As the family emerged he drew himself to his full height "I just flew in from Thorn Valley," he announced. "And boy, are my wings tired!" And then he flopped down onto the ground as the children swarmed over him. "Hiya, Briz," he said. "Hiya, kids. Watch the feathers, willya?"
"Did you find it?" Timothy demanded, climbing up onto his beak. "Did you?"
"Of course I did," Jeremy said. "And they've got quite a setup going up there." He shook his head. "Rats with a farm. Who knew?"
"You were gone a long time," Teresa said teasingly. "You didn't get lost, did you?"
Jeremy stood suddenly, tumbling the children in every direction, and puffed out his feathers. "Lost!" he said, sounding insulted. "Me? Lost? Ha!" He paused. "Well--maybe a little. An hour or two. Or three. But hey--" he made a sweeping gesture with his wing, scattering black feathers. "I know how to get there now, I tell ya. Straight line all the way. Zoom!"
"Did you meet Justin?" Timothy asked.
"Oh yeah," Jeremy said, nodding vigorously. "I gave him your message. Nice guy too, for a rat, I mean."
"And what did he say?" Cynthia demanded.
"Not much," Jeremy said. "He said he didn't want me to have to remember a whole big long message. He wrote it out instead." He stuck his right leg straight out before him, and they saw, fastened there, a small piece of paper. It had been rolled into a tight cylinder and tied in place with a length of Jeremy's ever-present string. "A rat who can write!" Jeremy said. "What'll they think of next? Hey Briz," he continued, "what's a carrier pigeon? I mean, I know what a pigeon is, of course, but..."
Half eager and half reluctant, Elizabeth stepped forward and untied the string. Her children gathered around her eagerly as she unrolled the paper and smoothed it out. Its inner surface, which had been inside the roll, was covered with words, the writing neat but not graceful. She recognized her own name at the top of the page, and at the bottom, the flamboyant signature. But in between...she tried, she really tried; but despite her best efforts, reading was a skill that was still all but beyond her. A little ashamed, she passed the paper to Timothy. He accepted it eagerly and without comment; and he squinted as he peered at it. (He definitely needed glasses.) A few seconds later he cleared his throat and began.
"'Dear Mrs. Brisby,'" Timothy read. "'Greetings from the Rats of NIMH! Your friend the crow delivered Timothy's message to me today, and I can't tell you how pleased I was to receive it. In fact I have lately been wracking my brain trying to figure out some say to contact you. I'm glad you saved me the trouble.
"'There is more happening here than I have room to tell you in this letter. We arrived safely--thanks to you! It took a lot of very hard work to make our new home livable, but we are settled in now and doing well. Our farm is beginning to produce, and we have high hopes for a good harvest.
"'Now the important part. You and your family are hereby invited to visit Thorn Valley as soon as possible. I'll give you fair warning--we won't take "no" for an answer! And I personally won't hear of you staying any less than a month. Don't worry much about packing; we can provide most anything you'll need.
"'I hope to be seeing you all very soon.
"'Leader (by election), the Rats of NIMH'"
In the silence that followed, Martin shook his head in disbelief. "You were right, little brother," he said.
"Of course I was," Timothy said. He gazed up at his mother. "Mom--can we go?"
"Yeah, Mom, can we?"
"Can we, Mother?"
"Can we, Momma?"
That was the very question Elizabeth had been asking herself, ever since Timothy's lunch-time confession. Can we? She asked herself. Justin, clearly, wanted them to; and not just for a quick hello, either. And what was it he'd written? "We won't take 'no' for an answer." Meaning that the rest of the rats also wanted them to come? But they'd almost kicked her out before...
That was then, she reminded herself sharply. They were listening to Jenner then, and only Jenner. He's gone now, and Justin's in charge. And she could not, in her wildest dreams, imagine Justin allowing any harm to come to her or her children. Not him. If he was inviting them, it was safe. And to see him again, to speak to him, to hear all his memories...
With an effort she blinked herself back to reality. Her children, and Jeremy, stood silent, looking at her expectantly. She cleared her throat and smiled up at the crow. "Jeremy," she said, "if it's not too much trouble, would you please come back here tomorrow morning? I think...I'd like you to take us all on a little trip, if you will."
It was a little before sunset when Justin finally laid down his pencil. Paperwork, he thought, as he leaned back and rubbed his eyes tiredly. I hate paperwork! Sometimes it was all he could do to prevent himself from just chucking it all into the fireplace. But if he did--he feared--the community would come to a grinding halt. "That's what we get for learning to read," Jonathan had often said. "Paperwork." He hadn't known the half of it.
Oh well, Justin thought. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. He spent a few moments to filing it all away, or shoveling it into the "out" tray, as the case may be; and then he stood, cracking his cramped back, and crossed to the window.
Like all the windows in the community this one faced west, and was positioned (accidentally, of course) so that it gave a particularly lovely view of the sunset. As he watched the sun sink behind the distant mountains, tinting the peaks with red and throwing long fingers of black shadow across the valley, Justin found himself smiling. He'd had many busier days since he became leader--but rarely one more interesting. If someone had told him that morning that he'd end up interrogating a bird...
Jeremy, his name was. The conversation had required every ounce of patience Justin possessed, and then some. The crow had been somewhere between nervous and scared to death, and was apparently not too quick on the uptake in the best of situations. It had taken Justin the better part of half an hour just to get that: the bird's name. Beyond that...Justin still had no clear understanding what the connection was between Jeremy and the Brisby family, but the crow spoke of Mrs. Brisby with obvious affection and respect, and Justin could appreciate that, at least. Finally, after much questioning, Justin had gathered that Jeremy had been sent to find the rats; but not by Mrs. Brisby (the crow called her "Briz" or "Mrs. B.") Rather, he'd been sent by Timothy. That in itself had been good news, at least; that Timothy had survived his illness, and was apparently thriving. In the end--having seen how hopeless it would be to ask Jeremy to remember a lengthy message--Justin had sent Thomas to fetch pen and paper. He'd tied the message in place himself; he only hoped that it would actually make it back to the farm.
Will they come? Justin wondered, as the shadows lengthened. He was--he knew--not the only one who hoped they would. News of his strange visitor had spread through the community like wildfire; he couldn't count how many times, as he'd made his rounds that afternoon, he'd been accosted by citizens seeking confirmation of the rumors. They wanted to mount a full-scale celebration, complete with speeches, marching bands and a feast; the works. Gently but firmly Justin had vetoed that. She was, he figured, going to be intimidated enough; no use adding to it.
But to see her again...their time together had been so terribly brief. Later he'd thought of a millions things he might have told her, or asked her. To have the chance to sit down with her, here in his office, and hang out the "Do Not Disturb Under Penalty of Death" sign...and then talk. Talk for hours on end. Talk until they really knew each other.
And then there were her children. If Jonathan had been right about them--and Justin had no reason to doubt it--then there was a great deal the community could offer them. At very least they'd have their minds expanded. Justin had barely met them, that night on the farm; he'd had only moments to spare. He looked forward to getting to know them too--especially this audacious Timothy. He was turning out much like his father, it seemed.
And yet...by now the first stars were appearing, and Justin, standing in the darkened room, sighed. In one sense he was not looking forward to the visit. Oh, he would make them welcome--the entire community would--and as comfortable as the rats' somewhat depleted resources could manage. But as long as the Brisbys were in the valley, Justin would have to be constantly on guard--against himself. He was the keeper of a terrible secret. Of all the rats only one other knew what Justin did: Arthur. And Mr. Ages, of course; but Ages was not there. And Arthur could be trusted. But Justin was not at all sure that he could trust himself. In his brief acquaintance with Mrs. Brisby he had grown quite fond of her--indeed, in other circumstances, he might have been sorely tempted--and he feared that his affection might loosen his tongue. It would be a strain; but he would have to think about every word before he spoke it. If only Nicodemus had been firmer...but that line of thought wasn't worth pursuing either.
Finally Justin turned away from the darkened window. After his long day behind his desk he heard the gym calling; perhaps he could sweat away some of his troubles.
Philip was worried.
As he moved swiftly through the grimy ductwork he considered what he had just overheard--and the more he did, the less he liked it. Clearly something was going on; and if his guesses were correct...then they were in serious trouble indeed. And not only them, but everyone.
By any definition of the word Philip was a handsome rat, his fur dark grey and his eyes unusually large and bright. Tall and broad-shouldered; but unfortunately--like his friends--he had recently lost a certain amount of weight to stress and poor nutrition, so that his stained, ragged and much-patched blue tunic and white shirt hung loose on him. At one time--not so very long ago, actually--Philip had been Justin's number one-lieutenant, when Justin had been Captain of the Guard; and in fact Philip would have himself been captain now, had circumstances--in the form of this endless mission--not intervened. Maybe someday.
Outside (not that they saw a lot of the outside these days) the sun was just setting over the complex. The work day had been over for some time, though, the offices and labs all but deserted, except by the die-hards. Another day, passing like a kidney stone (where had he heard that? Philip wondered); another day to pass into another week, and then into another month. Nine months they'd spent here already, or nearly; nine months in the very stronghold of the enemy. Nine months in NIMH.
Philip reached the end of the duct and swung himself onto a rope ladder that he and his companions had strung months ago. Swiftly he climbed down, two floors in all; slipped past a diverter into a narrower duct, continued a few more yards...and stopped, finally, at a dusty grille. He pushed with his shoulders, sliding the right side of the vent out of its socket a few inches; and then he dropped onto a hard, cold concrete floor. Honey, I'm home...!
"Home"--such as it was--was a storeroom, a tiny, neglected closet stuffed nearly full of cardboard boxes; the boxes contained manila folders by the thousands, computer tapes for obsolete systems...many things that no one had much use for any more. In fact it was a place long overdue for cleaning out, a job that somehow never seemed to get done. Which Philip and his friends counted on.
Behind a tall stack of boxes was a small area of bare floor, perhaps two feet square; and in that space, a kind of camp had been set up. Five beds, made of paper right out of the office shredder, held together with rubber bands. A flashlight; they scrounged batteries when and where they could. A makeshift cardboard table, and a few plastic squeeze-bottles, straight from the lab, full of water. And in the corner, elevated off the floor and carefully wrapped in plastic as if it was very precious, several good-sized bundles of closely-written paper. The sum total of nine months' work.
Four of the beds were in use, their occupants fast asleep and wrapped loosely in threadbare, dark green blankets, cut long ago from army surplus. The clothing that lay in neat piles at the foots of their beds was similar to Philip's own: dark-colored tunics and long-sleeved shirts, ragged and patched.
Three of the sleepers were rats. Two of them, male, slim of build and with dark-brown fur, were brothers: Mark and David. They were not twins, but were so similar, at first glance, that they almost seemed to be. The third, smaller and with light, almost cream-colored fur, was female: Eileen. "Hacker," they called her, because she knew more about computers, and how to get into them, than the other four put together. Philip couldn't suppress a smile as his gaze touched her.
The fourth sleeper was a mouse. Male, he had medium-grey fur, with large patches of darker, charcoal grey over his right shoulder and left hip. Once quite large and strong, the stresses of this mission seemed to have affected him most of all: he lay with his back to Philip, and the blanket around his waist; and the rat could clearly see his vertebrae, like beads on a string. God help them all if this mission didn't end soon, but especially him: there'd be nothing left.
Philip knelt down beside the mouse. He was asleep, but hardly relaxed: he tossed and turned, moaning softly, clearly in the grips of a bad dream. Again. Philip laid a hand on his shoulder. "Jonathan," he said. "Jonathan, wake up. We've got problems."
Jonathan Brisby woke with a start, his brown eyes wide and searching, sitting up so violently that Philip, alarmed, grabbed at his shoulders. "Take it easy," Philip said.
Jonathan took a deep breath and let it out slowly; as he did, Philip could clearly see the narrow stripes of his ribs, standing out clearly beneath the fur. Finally he smiled, just a ghost of his old impish grin. "Sorry about that," he told Philip.
"That's all right," Philip assured him. "Another nightmare?"
Jonathan nodded. "Afraid so," he said shortly. Obviously he didn't want to talk about it; he never did, no matter how much the others cajoled him. "What time is it?"
"About seven p.m.," Philip told him. "Just after dark."
Jonathan's eyes narrowed, as he saw that his friend was fully clothed. "What's up?" he asked.
By now their voices had woken the other three, and they clustered around, rubbing sleep out of their eyes. Philip exchanged a smile with Eileen before he continued. She hadn't bothered to dress--none of them had--but he couldn't let that distract him. "I couldn't sleep," Philip said. "So I decided to take a look around. On the way back I went past Dr. Schultz's office." He paused. "Jonathan, why would Schultz be hiring a helicopter?"
Jonathan shook his head. "What?" he said. "A helicopter?"
Philip nodded. "When I passed his office he was on the phone." He smiled wryly. "Of course. I stopped to listen. He was talking to the owner of a company that charters helicopters." He grinned. "I think they were arguing about the price. But Dr. Schultz said something about 'six hours a day for up to two weeks.' I heard that part clearly enough."
Jonathan rubbed the side of his nose; by now a familiar gesture to all of them. "Now that is strange," he said. "That's an awfully long time...It's almost as if...as if...," he trailed off then, and the four of them watched the color drain from his ears and nose. "Oh my God," he finally uttered, in tones of horror.
"What is it, Jonathan?" Eileen said.
He turned to her. "It sounds to me...like he's searching for something."
"Searching," Mark echoed. "Searching for what?"
By then Eileen had picked it up; and she too turned pale. "He's searching for Thorn Valley," she whispered.
"That's ridiculous," Mark said instantly. Then he paused, and looked around at the four of them. "Isn't it?" he finished uncertainly.
"No," Jonathan said. "No, it isn't. You remember what he was like three months ago, when he tracked them to the farm. Finding the rats has long since become an obsession with him. It's even gone beyond his reputation, or his lost funding. He's utterly convinced that the Rats of NIMH are a threat to humanity."
"But he didn't find anything at the farm," David protested.
"That's the problem," Eileen said softly. "He found nothing. Justin didn't have a choice--but still, it's unfortunate. Dr. Schultz knew our community was there, you see. How he knew we still don't know; but it doesn't matter. He was convinced. But when he got there he found no trace at all; just junk. There was only one conclusion he could draw--that he'd been outsmarted; that the rats somehow had received advance warning and gotten out. Which of course was correct. Never mind what Schultz's superiors think; that's what he knows is true. And to someone like him, that only makes us--our people--seem all the more threatening. Actually this is a quite logical development."
Jonathan nodded tiredly. "He can get his funding back, restore his reputation, and save the world, all in one fell swoop," he said. "Hacker's right--it's logical. Horrible, but logical."
"The only question is," Philip said, "what are we going to do about it?"
Jonathan gazed at him, a haunted look on his face. "Philip," he said seriously, "I'm frankly not sure there's anything we can do."
Elizabeth Brisby couldn't sleep.
She'd had a worse than usual time getting her children into bed that night; finally, in fact, she had found herself wishing for some of the powder the rats used to feed to Dragon. Their excitement was of course easy to understand; she even felt a little herself. They were going to see the rats! All evening their talk had been of nothing else: what they would see, what they would do, the million questions they would ask. No wonder it had taken her so long to settle them down.
But, having finally gotten them to sleep, Elizabeth found herself wide awake. For a time she fought a losing battle, tossing and turning; then, finally, she slipped from her bed and reached for her cape. Silently she passed through the tunnel into the living room. The space was dim; but a shaft of moonlight, lancing in through the round window, was enough for her eyes. She crossed to the pile of cushions below the window and sat.
On the stairs near the door was stacked their luggage. Justin had told them not to worry much about packing, and in fact they hadn't; stuffing just a few changes of clothing and a few other items into the tight bundles. They certainly didn't want to overload Jeremy, despite his claims that it couldn't be done.
Too sudden, she thought. Sometimes it seemed that her entire life had been like that: too sudden. First her parents had died, leaving her alone; then there was Jonathan; and then he was gone. Then there were the rats. And now this. Every time her life settled down a bit, someone kicked the chair out from under her--to use one of Jonathan's sayings. Would her life ever be secure?
But...she knew very well she couldn't deny her children this trip. She owed it to them. And to herself as well. Never in the last nine months had she stopped missing Jonathan; his absence was a hole in her heart that could never be filled. But in getting to know his friends, perhaps that hole could be patched a little. None of them would be harmed; everything else she would have to take as it came. It might even be fun.
She heard the soft patter of feet, and she looked up sharply. Directly in front of her stood Timothy. In the shaft of moonlight his eyes glittered, and his fur turned from grey to shining silver. "Mom?" he said softly. "Are you okay?"
"You're supposed to be in bed, young man," she said sternly. He was wearing nothing at all, other than his own fur, and though the night was far from cold, old habits were hard to break. She drew him close beside her and wrapped a fold of her cape around him, feeling and once again being amazed by the new firm muscles in his arms and abdomen. He looked up at her and grinned impishly.
"So are you," he said.
Inwardly she sighed. Just like his father. She'd never been able to win an argument with Jonathan either. "I was just thinking about tomorrow," she told him.
"Me too," he said, moving a little closer. "Dad saved them, didn't he? Without him they never would have gotten out of NIMH?"
"That's what Nicodemus told me, yes," she said. "And he did many others things for them too."
"And you warned them that NIMH was coming."
"Yes, I did." Privately she didn't take much credit for that; it had been pure chance that she'd overheard that phone call.
"I was just thinking," Timothy said. "After all that--I guess they'll like us, huh?"
She smiled and hugged him. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I think they will." She stood then, lifting him and depositing him on his feet. "Come on," she said. "We're both going back to bed."
Nine months ago Jonathan Brisby had been a wreck; now, at least, he was a wreck with a purpose.
They waited several hours--Dr. Schultz had been known to work very late on occasion, and even to leave and return--and then the five of them pushed aside the vent-cover and entered the scientist's office. Jonathan had lost count of how many times they had done just that during the last nine months--dozens, at least.
While they watched, sitting silent behind the vent until they were certain they were alone. Jonathan thought back over the past year of his life. From the very pinnacle of happiness he had plunged, slowly and inexorably, into depths of despair. And now this. A nightmare; a nine-month continuous nightmare. Would it ever end? Could it ever end? Or was this his punishment, for the horrible thing he had done to his family?
Elizabeth. How many times he had thought of her, as the days lengthened into months, he had no idea. In all that time no day, scarcely an hour, had gone by without the memory of her beautiful face drifting unbidden into his mind, tormenting him. He had known that it would be hard to leave her, leave their children...but he had never dreamed just how hard it would be. If he had, if he'd had even the slightest idea...he never could have done it. And maybe it would have been better that way; he no longer knew.
And it hadn't had to happen--that was by far the worst of it. Nicodemus, Justin., Ages...all of them had been against it; all of them had begged him not to go. The other four were capable--so his friends told him--they could take care of it; they could find the data. But Jonathan would not listen to their advice. He had to go, had to participate, had to make sure they overlooked nothing--but even that wasn't the entire story. For him the mission had been a way out, a way of escaping the insoluble dilemma he found himself caught in. A dilemma entirely of his own making. Elizabeth had to know, had to be told, before it was too late; had to know that he was different from her, that she would grow old and die while he remained young. She had to know; but he could not force himself to tell her. It had driven him nearly mad, preying on his mind more and more as time went on, until he had genuinely feared that the stress might drive him to harm himself or his family.
Nicodemus had been sympathetic without really understanding. He had told Jonathan of the mission he was organizing, as a way of giving Jonathan some hope: perhaps his dilemma could be made to go away. Little had poor Nicodemus know, what Jonathan would do with that knowledge; but once Jonathan had made up his mind...Jonathan had made them all swear an oath, never to tell; Nicodemus, it seemed, had taken the secret to the grave.
So long, Jonathan thought, as they crept out into the darkened office. Three months, he'd thought when they started; four at the outside. How could they have known it would take so long; how could they know that the knowledge they sought would--sometime after the original escape--have been declared secret? It was still available, they'd found; but it had to be ferreted out from a hundred sources, but by painful bit. Only his resolve not to return empty-handed had kept him from giving up in despair.
The office was dark, but enough light from the parking lot lamps filtered through the venetian blinds for the eyes of a rat, or a mouse. Jonathan and his companions made their way up onto the desk by way of the chair, the rats giving Jonathan a boost at each stage. On the way up, once again, Jonathan gazed longingly at one particular painting on the wall behind the desk. The painting itself was of no interest to him; but it concealed a wall safe, and what that contained...Someday, he promised himself. They already knew the combination; that had been easy enough to discover. Someday, when they had nothing more to lose.
There was a large square of light-colored paper spread across the desk, carelessly covering the phone, the pen and pencil set, and almost everything else. "Topo map," Philip said, kneeling down to peer at it..
"Thank you Colin Fletcher," Eileen said, and was rewarded with an elbow in the ribs. "The question is, a topo map of where?"
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Jonathan said. He crossed to the middle of the map, his feet making a crinkling sound. He knelt down...and a moment later he pointed. "Take a look," he said.
The four rats knelt down around him...and gasped. "I think we're in big trouble," Eileen whispered.
Someone--who else but Dr. Schultz--had drawn on the map with a fine-point black pen. Near its center, a tiny dot; and around that a widening set of concentric circles, each one gridded off into segments. "That center spot," Jonathan said. "That's the Fitzgibbons farm, isn't it?"
Mark and David peered closer. They had traveled those roads, several times over the last nine months; if anyone would know, it would be them. "Yes," Mark said a moment later. "Yes, I recognize the roads. It is."
"Then this is his search radius," Jonathan said. "These sections--that must be the area he thinks he--or rather his pilot--can cover in a day."
"Some of it has been X'd out," Eileen observed. "Most of the farmland to the north and east."
Jonathan nodded. "He's trying to think like us," he said. "He knows that our friends got out of the rosebush before he arrived. So which way would they go? Onto another farm? Unlikely. Into the dense woods? Also unlikely. No--he'll be looking for someplace like Thorn Valley."
They exchanged a glance, ashen-faced. "And he'll find it too," Philip said in horror. "What's to stop him?"
"Maybe this," Mark said. "Take a look."
On the map Thorn Valley was astoundingly small, barely a blip in the midst of a very large green area. That alone was comforting--but even more so was what Mark had noted. The entire Thorn Mountain Wilderness Area had been outlined with rough streaks of a yellow highlighter pen, and in the middle, in Dr. Schultz's nearly indecipherable handwriting, was written: "Restricted???!!!"
Philip rocked back on his heels, nodding slowly. "One of the reasons Nicodemus chose Thorn Valley in the first place was that it's in a wilderness area," he said. "Which means that it's illegal for the humans to fly their aircraft low over it."
Jonathan also nodded. "Yes, Philip's right. Nicodemus spoke of that often--he thought the rats would be safe there for just that reason."
"So there's hope," David said.
"Maybe," Jonathan told him. "Maybe."
At that moment Eileen cleared her throat. "Don't get too confident, gentlemen," she said. She pointed. "Look at this."
There was another line of writing below the first, a little smaller and even harder to read. They looked...and then they felt their stomachs sink through the floor. That second line read, "We'll see about that!!!"
Elizabeth Brisby still hated flying.
Perched there on the crow's wide back, sandwiched in between her two daughters, with their excited chatter flowing non-stop around her, she took a quick peek down...and instantly wished that she hadn't. For her, at least, the third time definitely was not the charm.
Exactly how high they were she had no idea--"far too" was what came first to mind--high enough, at least, that the forest below looked like a lumpy green carpet, the individual trees blurring and merging. But as high as they were, Jeremy was climbing still higher, his wings flapping steadily, easily. Considering what lay ahead, Elizabeth certainly couldn't blame him; but with every foot of altitude they gained she felt a few more butterflies hatch in her stomach. Why am I the only one who doesn't like this? she wondered gloomily.
Certainly--all too obviously--her children loved flying. That had been clear the first time, some two months ago, when they and Jeremy had talked her into a short flight, just a quick turn around the farm (so they'd claimed) to see the ruins of the rosebush. Unfortunately Jeremy loved having a receptive (and captive) audience, and had turned that "short flight" into an extended show of aerobatics. Elizabeth had landed swearing "never again!"; and yet here she was. And here they were too; if anything, more excited than they'd been that first time. She could feel it, literally, in her daughters, Cynthia in front of her and Teresa behind, as the three of them sat held together by a single string "seatbelt." Both their bodies--Teresa's slim form and Cynthia's more rounded--seemed to be almost literally vibrating. They weren't afraid to look down; in fact they did nothing but. Elizabeth couldn't see her sons--not unless she leaned over farther than she wished to--but she could hear them; they too, were clearly having a wonderful time, cradled in the crow's big feet. Jonathan would have loved this too, she realized. A few more of his genes at work.
She leaned forward a little, to speak past Cynthia. "Jeremy!"
The crow turned his head to look back at her, something she really wished he wouldn't do, though he could hardly run into anything way up here. "What's up, Briz?" he asked cheerfully. No doubt about it, he was in his element.
"Are we almost there?" Elizabeth asked.
Jeremy looked forward, squinting into the wind of their passage. "Yeah," he decided. He nodded, making the three of them bounce up and down briefly. "Just over that next ridge, and we'll see the valley." He paused. "I think."
Wonderful, Elizabeth thought. "Are Timothy and Martin all right?"
Jeremy relayed the question. A second later Martin's voice drifted up to her, in tones of impatience: "Yeah, Mom!" followed closely by Timothy's more cheerful "We're doing great, Mom!"
Once again Elizabeth sighed. Why doesn't that surprise me? On the last flight Martin had ridden in Jeremy's foot, and obviously lived to tell of it; but she'd been less than happy about Timothy's desire to emulate his brother. Last time she'd held Timothy in her lap, and had almost crushed him, she'd held on so tightly. This time, however, they'd had little choice: no room. Not only were all four of them measurably bigger now, but there was also the matter of the five packs strapped across Jeremy's lower back, behind Teresa. (One thing about Jeremy: he was never at a loss for string.) Jeremy had sworn that he wouldn't let Timothy or Martin fall, and that would have to be enough.
She relaxed then--as much as was possible--and looked ahead. The view was at least impressive.
During the last hour they had climbed steadily, passing over several ridges, each one higher and more rugged than the previous. Ahead of them now, just a few minutes distant, was the highest yet, its summit a sharp and barren spine of rock. Beyond that rose a range of grey mountains. The highest of those--Jeremy seemed to have set his course directly towards it--had a distinct shape, an almost perfect triangle with a slightly bent needle-sharp peak. Thorn Mountain. The mountains were still far in the distance, their peaks mist-shrouded. Even Jeremy didn't know exactly how far away that range was; only that he would not be taking his passengers quite that far. Elizabeth had been glad enough of that news; she didn't know the word "agoraphobia," but she knew that the sight of those huge looming peaks made her feel very small indeed.
Elizabeth's feelings that morning--looking past her fear of flying--were mixed, to say the least. On the one hand she was almost as excited as her children were, at the thought of seeing the rats again. During her brief periods of sleep the night before she had dreamed about them--well, one of them, anyway--and not for the first time; and during her longer periods of wakefulness she'd wondered what she and her children would find when they arrived. How do the rats live now? she'd wondered, over and over. That they had become farmers was a given: Nicodemus and Justin had told her that much of the Plan. But beyond that she knew next to nothing. Had they built houses of some kind, constructed their own town? Did they all farm, each family with its own plot of land, or was it a cooperative venture? Those were the questions that had burned inside her for months, without any real hope of being answered.
But on the other hand her capacity for worry, which she'd thought buried for good, was making a loud and unwelcome reappearance. What kind of reception would they get? Would the rats truly welcome them, or just tolerate them? And worse: despite Justin's assurances, would she and her children be harmed? Even perhaps enslaved, forced to work against their will? Utterly ridiculous thoughts, she knew; every time one of them popped up she pushed it away angrily; but somehow they didn't remain banished for very long.
And there was still worse, lurking somewhere in the basement of her mind. That morning she and her children had risen early, and while waiting for Jeremy to arrive, they had closed up their cinder-block home: uprooted the chimney and stowed it inside, covered the windows with straw and earth, and finally plugged the door securely. Hopefully those precautions would keep their house and belongings secure until they returned. But Elizabeth, looking at her sealed-up and disguised home, had been suddenly filled with a strange feeling--almost a premonition--that she would never see it again. That thought she had also dismissed as ridiculous...but it too had persisted, beyond all reason and logic, and because of it she still felt vaguely troubled.
Such was the lot of the compulsive worrier. But at that moment all her fears, all her worries, were driven completely out of her head, as Jeremy turned again to gaze back at her. "This is the place!" he said triumphantly.
Jeremy had passed over that final ridge with some twenty or thirty feet to spare--and now the ground dropped away below him with dizzying abruptness. Elizabeth, her fear of heights temporarily forgotten, leaned far over, clutching at Jeremy's glossy black feathers for support. Instantly she realized that he was right. They were there: Thorn Valley. It could be no other.
For a very long time afterwards Elizabeth Brisby would remember her first glimpse of the rats' new home, and the gasp of amazement that was forced from her. Around her, the children fell suddenly silent (and that was miracle enough) as they too gazed down, astonished. Whatever they had imagined, it was nothing like the reality. "It's beautiful," Cynthia whispered, and Elizabeth hugged the girl a little closer.
"Yes," she agreed. "Yes, it is."
Elizabeth had then very little head for distances--feet she could cope with, but miles perplexed her. Later she would be told that Thorn Valley was some five miles long and two across; but even that information conveyed very little to her. At the moment, as Jeremy cleared the ridge and began a long, slow spiral downwards, she knew only that the valley was very much larger than she'd imagined.
Thorn Valley ran nearly straight, on a line almost exactly north to south. Jeremy had topped the ridge near the valley's midpoint; from there both ends were lost in distance, just a blur of dark-green forest. The western wall was abrupt, high and rocky, and at first glance seemed impassable; but Elizabeth, peering closer, saw the narrow trail that switchbacked down to the valley floor. The opposite, eastern wall was considerably lower, and more broken, rising in a series of broad stair-steps of earth and stone. Beyond that--still far in the misty distance--rose the imposing bulk of Thorn Mountain. And between those walls...
The first feature to catch Elizabeth's eye was the lake. Shaped somewhat like a fallen maple leaf, dark blue and sparkling in the sun, it was fed primarily by a wide rushing stream that tumbled down from the eastern wall. Quite large, the lake seemed to fill perhaps a tenth of the valley, mainly the southern end. The rats would never lack for water, at very least.
In between the lake-shore and the eastern wall was a wide, clear area, sloping gently down to the water, and bright green with close-cropped grass. And it was in the middle of this area that Elizabeth saw her first sign of civilization, the first positive proof that they'd come to the right place. A large hollow oval of bare earth, like a thick capital O, had been carved out of the grass; in the center of the O, a rectangle of lawn was marked with white lines and circles. At either end a pair of white wooden posts supported a dangling net. What it was all for she had no idea--but clearly it was not natural, and it had not been built by humans. Then they circled a little lower and a little farther to the north, and Elizabeth saw the farm.
North and west of the lake, a very large area of nearly-flat land had been cleared and plowed into well-tended fields. As Jeremy circled lower Elizabeth saw and recognized a number of crops: wheat, corn, oats and rice; vegetables including tomatoes, and even large fields of cotton and flax. It was then early summer, and the majority of the crops were still quite immature. The fields were surprisingly large, and were separated by straight paths and low stone walls. Beyond the farthest fields, and indeed filling most of the rest of the valley, was thick, dark forest.
Absolutely fearless in her fascination, Elizabeth leaned out a little farther, shading her eyes with her hand. Down in the fields she had caught sight of motion. In fact there seemed to be quite a large number of moving objects--but, oddly, at first glance they hardly seemed to be rats. What she had seen appeared to be wide circles, yellowish in color, moving slowly among the rows of crops. Strange...but then Jeremy dropped a little lower, and Elizabeth suddenly understood. It was their altitude that had caused the illusion. What she'd seen were rats, working the fields with hoe and shovel--rats who were wearing large round straw hats, like flattened cones, which cast wide circles of shade over their heads and shoulders. Very wise, that: even now, in mid-morning, the sun was intense; by noon it would be all but intolerable.
Teresa leaned forward to speak into her ear. "Mother, I don't see any houses. Where are they living?"
"I don't know, dear," Elizabeth began; but then Cynthia interrupted her, pointing down and to the east.
"Under the rocks," she said. "Look!"
Elizabeth followed her daughter's pointing finger--and saw that Cynthia was correct. Along the valley's east wall, the tiered stairstep ridges were pierced by a large number of round windows. At first glance just dark holes; but as Jeremy circled, only a dozen feet off the ground now, the sunlight flashed and glinted from dozens of panes of glass. It seemed the rats had not built houses at all: rather, they had built tunnels.
"That must be the entrance," Teresa said, pointing. On the lowest tier of stairsteps, directly fronting the wide grassy field, was a dark archway, tall and easily wide enough for three or four rats to enter abreast. Standing guard next to that archway was a rat; a very large rat. With a feeling somewhere between a thrill and a shudder, Elizabeth recognized him: Brutus. The rat stood like a stone, gazing out over the valley, leaning on a long wooden staff.
Elizabeth gazed uneasily at the sentry, remembering their last encounter. I hope someone remembered to tell Brutus that we're coming, she thought. She didn't much desire to be chased out of the valley at the end of that staff, as she'd been chased out of the rosebush.
"Coming in for a landing," Jeremy said suddenly. "Everybody hang on!"
Directly below them now was the center of the grassy area; Jeremy was bringing them down about halfway between the entrance and the lake-shore. Elizabeth tightened her grip on Cynthia; and in turn, Teresa's arms tightened around her mother's waist. Below them, out of sight, Timothy and Martin climbed the crow's legs, hanging on with hands and feet to the thick black feathers of his undercarriage. At the last instant, as Jeremy fluttered to a typically abrupt landing, the two brothers let go, and landed rolling over and over in the thick grass. They came to rest in a tangle of arms and legs, hanging on to each other and laughing.
For a few seconds Elizabeth sat still, catching her breath, trying to convince herself that they were indeed on solid ground. The air in the valley was fresh and pleasantly tree-scented, with just a hint of wood smoke. Cooking, probably. Which was good; it wouldn't take Martin very long to realize that he was hungry. Finally she shook herself and fumbled with the string knotted around her waist. Jeremy obligingly lowered himself to the ground, folding his legs beneath himself, as Elizabeth and her daughters slid down to the grass. Elizabeth took a deep breath. Well, we're here, she thought. So where are they?
While her children untied the strings, unloading the bundles from Jeremy's back, Elizabeth circled around to lay her hands on the crow's large beak. "Jeremy," she said, smiling,. "Thank you for a very pleasant flight." And thank you for not doing any barrel rolls, she added silently.
Jeremy grinned at her. "Hey, no problemo, Mrs. B," he said. "I needed the exercise anyway." Relieved of his burdens he stood, stretching out his wings in a shower of feathers; and then he nodded toward the east. "Looks like we've got company," he observed.
Elizabeth turned. From the direction of the wide archway, a figure was indeed headed toward them at a brisk walk. Too small to be Brutus--in fact the big sentry was still standing like a statue beside the door--this rat wore a dark blue tunic and a white long-sleeved shirt. As Elizabeth saw those garments she felt her heart skip a beat--but then, almost immediately, she realized that she'd been mistaken. It wasn't Justin either, but a stranger. This rat was somewhat smaller and much younger than Justin--at least as Elizabeth remembered him--and his fur was dark grey. As he stepped up before them he smiled and bowed low, lifting his tail high into the air.
"Mrs. Brisby, I presume?" the young rat asked formally; and then, without waiting for an answer, he continued. "My name is Thomas; I am Captain of the Guard. On behalf of the Rats of NIMH and our leader Justin, I bid you and your family welcome to Thorn Valley."
Behind Elizabeth, Cynthia suddenly stifled a giggle, and was firmly elbowed in the ribs by her sister. Elizabeth could hardly blame her younger daughter, though: in fact there was something definitely comical in this young rat's stiff, dignified formality. Is he always like this? she wondered.
But then--peering closer into his narrow, earnest face--she saw that there was more to it. To her amazement, what she saw there was profound respect, almost awe--and it was directed entirely at her. Justin's message had hinted that the rats thought well of her; but just how well, she hadn't dared wonder. She was, after all, just a mouse, a normal mouse, not even one of them. And yet from the look on Thomas' face, he might have been greeting a queen.
At that moment, looking up at this young, slightly anxious rat, Elizabeth felt a change come over her. To Timothy--by far the most observant of her four offspring--it seemed that his mother had suddenly and inexplicably grown. He watched, astounded, as she pulled herself to her full height, and, with a dignity to match his own, offered her hand to Thomas. "Thank you," she said, her voice quiet and without any trace of a tremor. "We're very glad to be here."
How to explain what she had felt, seeing the respect in Thomas' eyes? Since learning the truth about her husband's origins, and about the Rats of NIMH, Elizabeth Brisby had felt, deep down inside herself, a sense of her own inferiority. That her children, and Justin, would have instantly refuted such an idea meant nothing to her. Those words, so callously spoken in her presence that day in the Council chamber, she had taken to heart, even more than she had consciously known: "Let the lower creatures fend for themselves." She had not been to NIMH; she did not have their genes; she was not, could never be, as intelligent as they were. Therefore, inferior. But to see the honest respect on the face of this rat, a stranger, and know that it was for her...she knew, suddenly, what it was she had really feared. Not that the rats would harm her or her children; but that they would reject her, ridicule her; and that her own children might join them in doing so. But that, it seemed, would not be happening.
They were all staring at her now, as she stood silent, and Thomas cleared his throat delicately. "My orders are to escort you to Justin as soon as you arrive," he said. "So if you will please follow me--?"
"Just one moment please, Thomas," Elizabeth told him, and she turned to the crow. "Jeremy," she said, "thank you again. And remember--one month. Right? You'll be back for us in one month?"
"Sure, sure," Jeremy promised grandly. "One month." He pointed skyward. "I'll watch the moon. Have a good time, Mrs. B. See ya later, kids."
They watched him go, vanishing swiftly over the western ridge; and Elizabeth shook her head. Why do I have the feeling we'll be walking home? she wondered; but somehow that thought wasn't half as alarming as it should have been. She and her children turned to collect their luggage, but Thomas stepped in quickly. "Allow me," he said graciously, and he gathered up all five packs at once. His hands full, he pointed with his chin. "This way, please."
They had not gotten very far when they were intercepted. The rat who came jogging toward them was, like Thomas, dressed in a blue tunic and a white shirt; but he was taller, his fur dark brown...and Elizabeth recognized him instantly, even before she saw the flash of red and gold from around his neck. "Justin!" she cried. And suddenly she was running, her cape flying behind her.
They met somewhere in the middle, and for Justin, it seemed, a hearty handshake was not sufficient. He caught her up in his long arms, lifting her completely off her feet, and pulled her into a massive bearhug that threatened to crack ribs. She could do no more than hang on around his neck.
Finally--a very long moment later--he set her on her feet, and he knelt down before her, putting his face at the same level as her. He was smiling, but there was a hint of moisture at the corners of his eyes, and his voice was suspiciously husky as he said, quietly, "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you. I was starting to think...well, that it might never happen again."
Elizabeth felt the tears dripping from her whiskers, and she reached up with the back of her hand to wipe them away. "I know," she said. "I was afraid of that too. I'm very glad it didn't come true."
Briefly he hugged her again; then he held her at arm's length, his hands on her shoulders, while they both took a closer look at each other. Behind Elizabeth, her children crowded around, the older two nudging each other knowingly; and Thomas, his arms still full of luggage, stood waiting stoically. If there was just a hint of a smile on his face, he can probably be forgiven.
To Elizabeth, Justin looked just as he had when she'd first met him, beneath the rosebush, the morning of that terrible day. He was leader now, no longer Captain of the Guard, and she had wondered if he would have new clothes to go with his new job. She had tried--and utterly failed--to imagine him wearing Nicodemus' robes. But now, looking at him, she was glad he had not changed: the uniform suited him far better than anything else would have. There was only one change, a symbol, perhaps, of his new authority: the Stone, which hung proudly around his neck. And perhaps--just perhaps, if one looked closely--a few more lines on his forehead, carved there by several months of worry.
In Justin's eyes, though, Mrs. Brisby had changed; but entirely for the better. He had known her so briefly, and on what had to have been one of the worst, most stressful days of her life. His strongest memories of her were of her anxiety, her uncertainty, her fear. Now--as she stood there smiling despite her watery eyes--he saw that there had been an enormous change in her since that day. She seemed...serene. Calm, confident, ready for anything. The deeply-buried courage that Nicodemus had seen in her was now much closer to the surface, available for use--just as Nicodemus had intended. And in repose--he was almost startled to realize--she was even more attractive than he had remembered. If indeed she was aging faster than him, it certainly didn't show. Not yet. Her only flaw--if it could be called that--was a hint of sadness, carefully concealed but visible nonetheless. He knew its cause, and its cure; but that thought he could only push aside for now.
Eventually Justin shook himself free of his thoughts, and glanced up at his Captain of the Guard. "I'll take it from here, Thomas," he said. He nodded at the bundles. "If you'll please take those to the guest room."
Thomas nodded crisply in lieu of a salute. "Yes, sir," he said, and started across the field. Justin watched him go with a smile. No, that one would never change.
"We've arranged a room for you," Justin told Elizabeth. "I think you'll find it comfortable. Thomas will leave your luggage there." Then he glanced up, smiling, at the four who were clustered behind Elizabeth; silent, but pleading to be noticed. "Welcome," he said.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Justin," she said, "I don't know if you've met my children..."
"Three of them I have," he said. "Very briefly, that night on the farm. You were temporarily out of service at the time." Still kneeling, then, he did the honors: he kissed Teresa's hand (whereupon she blushed bright crimson); he shook Martin's hand firmly and clapped him on the back; he tousled Cynthia's hair (while she sighed in frustration) and finally he extended his hand to Timothy. "I'm very glad to finally meet you," he said. "You probably don't remember much about that night on the farm, I suspect."
Timothy shook his head. "No, sir," he said regretfully. "I don't. But I've heard all about it." He paused, and his eyes shone with admiration. "And all about you."
Justin grinned hugely. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said. He stood and brushed off his knees. Then he glanced at Elizabeth. "Since you brought luggage, I assume you've accepted my invitation? You'll stay with us a while?"
She nodded. "Yes," she said. "I asked Jeremy to come back in a month. If that's all right," she added hurriedly.
Once again he grinned. "As a matter of fact," he said, "it's entirely too short. And now I suppose you'd like to take a look at the place." He waited until the chorus of voices had died down, and then he raised his hand. "Before we go inside," he said, "there's just a few things I'd like you to know." Suddenly he was serious, absolutely so; Elizabeth was astounded by the change. In an instant the prankster, the fun-loving young rat who joked his way through life, was gone; in his place was the Leader, the one who had brought his people through their greatest crisis safe and alive. Elizabeth looked, and understood: he had grown, that last night on the farm; even as she herself had.
He went on, "First and most important, all of you are welcome here, now and always. That isn't something I've decreed." He swept his arm. "These people have decided it themselves." He glanced at Elizabeth. "I know you didn't get a very good reception last time you visited us, but that's in the past, an everyone here wants to make that up to you." He paused. "Second, we have no secrets here. There are no places where it's forbidden for you to go." He smiled. "Except of course the private living quarters; I think people would appreciate it if you knocked first. There are also a few--a very few--places where it might be dangerous for you to go, because there's machinery in use. But we'll cover that later. Other than that, you are welcome to use every public space in this community: the library, the lounge, the dining hall...and we'll be disappointed if you don't come to the meeting hall." He paused again. "Let's see, have I forgotten anything? Oh yes--if any of you need any help, just ask anyone. Our hallways are a little confusing at first--I've even gotten lost myself a time or two. If you need directions, or anything else, just ask. We're here to help." He grinned then, and suddenly the old Justin was back. He clapped his hands together briskly. "All right," he said. "Enough for the public service announcements. Let's get you settled in, shall we?"
He turned to lead them inside; but he was interrupted. "Justin--sir?"
Justin turned, smiling. "Yes, Timothy?" he said. "And by the way--you can drop the 'sir.' Only Thomas calls me that. To everybody else I'm just Justin."
Timothy smiled broadly. "Okay," he said. He took a deep breath. "Justin--was our father your friend?"
For just an instant Justin froze, and Elizabeth thought she saw a spasm of pain cross his face. Then he knelt down again on the grass and clasped Timothy's shoulders in his large hands. "Timothy," he said seriously, "your father was one of the best friends I've ever had. In fact we shared quarters for a time, under the rosebush, before he decided to move in with Ages. I miss him terribly, each and every day."
"I was just thinking," Timothy said. "There must be a lot you could tell us about him."
Justin smiled. "Yes, there is," he said. "And you bet I will." He clapped Timothy on the shoulder, and rose. "Let's go see the place he helped make possible."
To Elizabeth and her children, the Thorn Valley community was something close to a dream come true.
They crossed the field to the main entrance, the children running ahead, racing each other, while Elizabeth and Justin followed more sedately. Justin walked slowly, his hands behind his back, patiently matching her shorter-legged stride. "So," he asked with a smile, "how did you like your first look at our valley?"
She shook her head in wonderment. "It's beautiful," she said. "I can't believe how much you've accomplished."
He grinned. "Neither can I, sometimes." He nodded ahead. "Your children," he said. "They've really grown since I saw them last. And they're all looking very well--especially Timothy."
"Yes," she agreed fondly. "Yes, they are. Especially him. I thank heaven for that every day. I...really don't know what I would have done, if anything had happened to him. Or if anything ever happened to any of them."
Justin gazed at Timothy, running along easily, almost effortlessly, beside his brother. Even two months ago that would not have been possible for him. "He reminds me a lot of Jonathan," Justin said. "Bold as brass, as the old saying goes."
That was the word for it, she had to agree. For both of them.
Justin cleared his throat. "May I make a confession?" he asked, sounding embarrassed.
She glanced up at him. "What kind of confession?" she asked.
He scratched the back of his head. "I'm sorry to admit," he said, "that I don't know your first name. I'm sure Jonathan told me," he went on hurriedly. "But if he did, I'm afraid it's slipped my mind."
Suddenly, and for no reason she could think of, she felt herself blush. He was right, she realized. All through their previous, all-too-brief acquaintance, she had been simply "Mrs. Brisby." And not only to him, but to the other rats as well. "It's Elizabeth," she told him.
"'Elizabeth,'" he quoted slowly, as if savoring the sound of it. "I like that. It suits you. May I...?"
"Of course you may," she said. She smiled. "As long as I don't have to call you 'Mr. Leader Justin.'"
He made a sour face. "Nobody calls me that," he said. "Sometimes I think I'm lucky they don't call me 'hey fathead.'"
By that time they had reached the archway, and there the children had halted, panting, under the benign--but slightly alarming--gaze of Brutus. Justin smiled up at the sentry. "Brutus, you remember Mrs. Brisby, don't you?"
She couldn't quite suppress a shudder as those big dark eyes shifted over to her. For a moment Brutus stared down at her; then, slowly, he nodded. Justin went on, "She and her children are our guests. Can I count on you to keep an eye out for them?"
Brutus' gaze shifted slowly from him to her, then to the children; and finally back to Justin. Then a huge yellow-toothed smile split his narrow face, and he nodded again, vigorously. "Good man," Justin said, clapping him on the arm. And then the six of them passed through the entrance.
The archway led into a wide, high-ceilinged corridor, which ran for perhaps three feet, and intersected at right angles with another, even wider hallway. At that joining Justin turned right, and the Brisbys followed, looking around in astonishment. Elizabeth took the rear to keep any of her children from straying. Indeed, this was nothing like what they had expected--whatever that might have been. They found themselves in a hallway perhaps two feet wide, evidently cut from the solid rock. Walls and ceiling were smooth, almost polished. The floor beneath their feet was not stone, but rather tile, red squares of unglazed terra-cotta, smooth but not slick. The walls angled in slightly, and at irregular intervals the ceiling had clearly been buttressed for additional support. Along both walls, high up near the ceiling, oil lamps with polished brass reflectors cast circles of warm, bright light. Along both walls as well were a number of wooden doors, more on the right than on the left, each one painted a different color, and each one with a sign affixed to the wall beside it. Other signs, with arrows, gave directions: to the Dining Hall, for example, or to the North Stairway.
Justin, seeing the looks on their faces, smiled fondly. "This is our magnum opus," he said. "This is why the Plan took so long to complete--because we had to finish this first." He slapped the stone wall. "There are four levels of tunnels, and they run for quite a distance along the valley's east wall. A lot of it is unused so far--and quite a bit is unfinished too. Planning for the future. The best rooms are on the west side." He pointed to the right. "They're the ones with the windows. The ones on the other side aren't used for living space. They're storerooms, lavatories and so forth."
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "The air is fresh," she commented. "Under the rosebush you had electric fans--Nicodemus told me. How do you--?"
"Water-powered fans," Justin said. "Our Chief Engineer Arthur's greatest achievement. I'll introduce you to him later, if we can catch up with him. He managed to redirect a small stream that flows into our lake. It provides us with our drinking water, and powers some machinery. Including the ventilation."
By this time they had entered the heart of the community--and the corridor was filled with rats.
During her visit to the rosebush Elizabeth had met very few of the rats, and so the ones who passed them now were all strangers to her. It was clear, however, that every one of them knew her, by reputation at least. Male and female, they passed up and down the corridor singly or in pairs, all of them obviously intent on some errand or other. Of the elaborate, almost fancy-dress costumes she had seen under the rosebush, there was absolutely no sign here. The males wore shirt and tunic, in various colors; or shirt and vest, or simply a shirt. The females wore simple skirts and blouses, mostly short-sleeved or sleeveless. Most of them carried something on their hands or under their arms: a clipboard, perhaps, or a book; or else a toolbox or a laundry basket. Elizabeth could not guess the age of any of them. That, she would soon realize, was the way with the Rats of NIMH, except the remainder of the Original 22. The members of the second and subsequent generations, having inherited the NIMH genes, simply stopped aging soon after they reached adulthood; and so all of them just looked Young. Her own children, Elizabeth realized, would probably experience that same effect: eventually they would all four appear to be the same age. She hoped she'd live long enough to see it.
But--whatever their age, and whatever their errand--every one of the rats who passed them, stopped to greet her personally. Except for Justin's strict orders, they might have mobbed her; but every one of them paused to smile respectfully down at her, and to murmur words of greeting. "We're glad you're here," seemed to be the general sentiment. Later on, after she was settled in, they would mob her; and she would have more names to memorize than she could possibly cope with.
"See what I mean?" Justin said with a smile. "They've been looking forward to this almost as much as I have."
To his right, then, Justin pointed to a door painted dark green. "That's my office and quarters," he said. "Sometimes I'm even there." And then, just three doors up the corridor, he stopped. "And this is the room we've fixed up for you. I hope you'll like it."
With a flourish (Justin was nothing if not dramatic, as Elizabeth knew very well) he threw open the sky-blue door and ushered them inside. The room within was not large, by rat standards; but it was more than twice the size of both rooms of their cinder-block home put together. The floor was tile, as were the hallways; but a number of brightly-colored woven-rag carpets were scattered about. On the west wall were two large round windows; both of them were wide open, their curtains hooked back, to let in light and air. Through the windows the view ran unobstructed down the grassy slope to take in the lake and a portion of the farm.
The room contained just a few pieces of furniture, all of them large. Along the wall to the right of the door, a writing desk and stool; there were pens and a bottle of ink on the top shelf. Above the desk a small, oak-cased pendulum clock ticked softly. Tucked into the corners, a pair of straight-backed chairs with padded seats. And--largest of all--three beds. Rat-sized, almost ridiculously huge for a mouse, all three of them had wooden frames and elaborately-carved head- and foot-boards, and all were covered with brightly-colored patchwork quilts. Two of the beds sat side by side on the right side of the room; the third was on the other side, and could be closed off from the other two by means of a curtain running on a ceiling-hung track. At the foot of each bed sat a large wooden chest, no doubt containing extra blankets. On top of one of these chests, in a neat pile, were the five packs Thomas had brought inside. On the walls hung several oil lamps, one over each bed and another over the desk, none of them lit at present.
Justin, leaning against the door-frame with his arms crossed over his chest, grinned. "Well?" he asked, "what do you think?" Then, without waiting for an answer, he went on, "Best we can do right now, I'm afraid. We're a little short on finished space. Not to mention furniture."
All five of them were gazing around in wonder; a little bare, perhaps, compared to their home, but they had never seen, nor even imagined, so much living space. And, Elizabeth realized, we probably won't be doing much more than sleeping here anyway. Everything else we'll need is outside, in the corridors. "Justin," she said, "it's wonderful. Thank you."
His grin widened. "You're welcome," he said. "I hope you won't mind the beds--we really didn't have anything smaller available." He glanced at the younger Brisbys. "I'm sure you won't mind sharing, will you?"
The four of them exchanged a wary glance; but in fact their own beds at home were packed so tightly together, they might as well have been sharing. They would get used to it. Each of the two beds had more than enough mattress-space for two mice.
"There's a few special features, too," Justin said. He pointed across the room, to a squat black object that sat directly between the two windows. "That's a heating stove," he said. "Burns alcohol. The nights have been fairly warm lately, and you probably won't need it, but if you do I can show you how to operate it. And then there's this." He turned. Into the wall to the left of the door a small niche had been carved, and a round earthenware basin set into it. A bright-metal spigot was affixed to the wall above the basin, and as Justin turned its X-shaped handle, a stream of water poured down into the basin. "Arthur's proudest achievement," Justin said. "Running water. Running cold water for the moment, but we're working on that." A shelf above the basin held soap and towels, there was a mirror affixed next to it; and someone had thoughtfully provided a step-stool, so they could actually reach the sink.
This is better than I expected, Elizabeth realized suddenly. Better because it was simpler. She had been bewildered, not to say frightened, by the electric opulence of the rosebush community; this, however--tunnels, oil lamps and simple wooden furniture--she could relate to. And running water she could definitely get used to.
"Let's see, have I forgotten anything?" Justin said. "Oh yes--there's a lavatory right across the hall, and it has a bathtub too. I can show you how to operate the boiler later. It's a little tricky until you get the hang of it."
Elizabeth crossed the room--it required more steps to do so than she'd expected--and reached up to clasp his hands. "Justin," she said, "thank you. I...never expected anything like this."
"What, you thought we'd keep you in the broom closet?" he asked. He looked around. "Tell you what--I've got some business that I should attend to, but it won't take long. Why don't I let you unpack and relax for a while, then I'll show you around." He glanced at the clock. "And maybe we'd better begin the tour in the dining hall."
Justin found Elizabeth later that afternoon, down by the beach.
At a spot not far from the community's main entrance, near where a small seasonal stream joined the lake, was a semicircular cove, fronted by a broad sloping beach of coarse sand. The rats had improved the cove some months in the past, laying a breakwater of stones partially across it, so that now it formed a swimming hole, safely shallow near the shore but deep enough for diving at the breakwater. Justin, strolling out from the community that afternoon, was once again glad that he had insisted the work be done. He knew from experience that Thorn Valley could get very hot indeed in the middle of summer--it looked like they'd set another record today, and again tomorrow--and that a cool swim would be a welcome respite for adults as well as children. (And--of course--it was important that all the children learn how to swim, for their own safety.) The beach itself was also becoming increasingly popular; Justin had witnessed--and participated in--a number of very spirited games of volleyball. And in the back of his mind, he had the beginnings of a cunning plan: a luau, perhaps? There were a few rats he was dying to see in sarongs...
Recreation. If Nicodemus--rest his soul--had one blind spot, that was it: recreation. He had entirely failed to realize that his hard-working, socially-responsible, industrious rats would need ways to blow off steam. It was an omission Justin had worked hard to correct. One of his priorities, in fact. Keep 'em happy, and they'll work harder.
For a moment Justin stood at the upper edge of the beach, looking down and smiling. The water was absolutely seething with rat children, perhaps as many as two dozen in all--but that was hard to tell, they wouldn't stay still to be counted. Quite naked--the rats has never seen the need for swimsuits--they swam, they splashed, they bounced a beach ball almost as big as they were back and forth; and the older and more adventurous among them clambered up on the breakwater for diving. When Justin saw two much smaller figures climbing up onto the rocks he peered closer--then his smile widened. Those two were Teresa and Martin Brisby. They seemed to have challenged each other to a diving contest. Even as he watched, Martin attempted a somersault that turned into a belly-flop, and Teresa, brushing her hair out of her eyes, almost fell from her rocky perch, laughing. Down below the other two--Timothy and Cynthia--were among the group with the beach ball; Justin saw Timothy lift his sister out of the water, high enough to bat the ball away from the other grasping hands. If Justin had harbored any fears that the Brisby children wouldn't be accepted by the community's youngsters--actually he hadn't--they would have evaporated right then and there.
Justin looked around, and immediately found what (or rather who) he expected to find. A little way up the slope from the beach was a wide grassy area, shaded by a number of bushes; and lying there in the deepest shade was Elizabeth Brisby. After lunch--and after the tour he'd managed to give them (brief, just the highlights, because he didn't want to tire them, and because they'd have plenty of time to explore on their own)--he had lost track of the Brisby family; but it didn't surprise him to find them here. Not at all.
Elizabeth lay with her eyes closed, flat on her back; her hands were clasped over her stomach and her cape spread out beneath her, its knot unfastened. Beside her, in a single pile, lay her children's clothing. No need for towels, not today; when they finally tired of their games and came out, the sun would bake them dry in a few minutes.
That cape troubled Justin. It was utterly typical of Elizabeth--typical of any mother, for that matter--that she would deny herself while providing for her children. The four younger Brisbys had arrived in Thorn Valley wearing clothes that seemed brand-new, well-fitting and with not a rip or a patch to be seen. But her...it hurt Justin, literally pained him, to see her wearing that same old cape, ragged at the hem and with multiple patches. All of the cloth they had left her, it seemed, had gone into keeping her rapidly-growing children clothed; she had expended none on herself. Justin doubted whether he could convince her to accept any other type of clothing, such as the skirts and blouses that her daughters wore; but that old cape was marked for replacement. By stealth, if necessary.
Quietly Justin strolled over. He didn't think she was asleep, but still it seemed a shame to disturb her; never in their brief association had he seen her look quite so relaxed. She heard his footsteps, though, and opened one big blue eye; and a second later she was sitting up, hurriedly knotting her cape.
"Sorry," he said with a grin. "Only me from over the sea. May I join you?"
Her returning smile was a little embarrassed. "Please," she said, waving her hand. He sat down beside her, cross-legged, the pile of clothing between them. He nodded down at the water.
"It looks like they're having fun, at least," he commented.
She nodded. "Yes," she said. "We met some children a little while ago, and they invited mine to join them. I couldn't possibly say no. Jonathan taught Teresa and Martin to swim some time ago--he thought it was important. And they taught the other two. They don't get much chance at home."
"I'll bet they'll sleep tonight."
She smiled wryly. "I hope so. I know I will."
He peered over at her. "You didn't join them?" he asked. "It's open to anyone, you know. Kids and adults."
"I know," she said. "But...no. I can swim, of course. But only when it's absolutely necessary." She paused. "Justin," she said, "I want to thank you again for what you've done for us. Everyone here has been so kind..."
"You're welcome," he said. "But I can't really take credit for that. It was entirely spontaneous. Like it or not, Elizabeth, you're a celebrity here."
He saw her ears redden, and for a moment she turned away. Then she said, "I'm glad you happened by. I've been hoping that we could talk--just the two of us."
"That is, unless I'm keeping you from your work," she added quickly.
He spread out his hands. "This is my work," he said. "Part of the job--'greet and entertain visiting dignitaries.'"
"Well," he said with a grin, "it has been since I made it up this morning."
"So...how do you like being the leader?"
He sighed and gazed across the lake. "It's taken some getting used to," he said. "Especially the paperwork. And I can't deny it's caused me some sleepless nights. It's a huge responsibility, having the fate of all these people on my shoulders. They all look to me for advice and wise decisions, and I have to deliver, or I'll lose their confidence. Sometimes I think it's too much for one rat to handle--especially the way I've decided to do the job."
"Well--you know how much I loved Nicodemus," Justin said. "We all did; for me, in many ways, he was the father I'd never known. But as time went on he withdrew himself more and more from the day-to-day running of the community. In a way that's understandable; he had the Plan to think about, and he had his own developing powers. But all the same, it was a mistake. It allowed Jenner to gain almost complete control of the Council. And that nearly led to disaster. I've tried--deliberately--to be much more hands-on. I spend part of every day walking around the community, talking to people, solving little problems, heading off disputes... 'Schmoozing,' the word is. Just trying to stay visible, stay connected."
He grinned. "And, so far it seems to be working. Nobody's scrawled any death threats on my office door yet, at least. And I was elected unanimously."
"I've been wondering," Elizabeth said, "what happened after you got here. You said in your letter that there was a lot of hard work..."
He nodded soberly. "That's an understatement," he said. "This place was nowhere near ready for occupation. There were a few people here--Arthur and his crew doing construction, and Ralph the master farmer and a few others waiting for the frost to break so they could get plowing." He grinned again. "Were they surprised when the rest of us descended on them.
"We weren't able to bring half the things with us that we wanted to," Justin went on. "Just bare necessities--and even then the wagons were overloaded."
"By the way," Elizabeth said, "I want to thank you for the things you left us."
"You're very welcome," he said. "For better than two weeks it was like a camping trip--a really bad camping trip. First it rained, then it got cold again, and even snowed some. And all the while we were trying to make the place livable; trying to get the kitchen running, and the plumbing, and get the glass into the windows and the doors in place, so the apartments would be inhabitable." He paused. "In a way--I've sometimes thought--it was for the best. The Plan called for most of the people to move in this coming fall. All he construction would have been finished by then, and the farm producing. But they say you appreciate the most what you work for the hardest."
"And what about you?" she asked.
"Ah, there's another story," he said. "That night on the farm...well, the fact is, I was a usurper too. I grabbed control as surely as Jenner planned to."
She shook her head firmly. "There were many differences," she said.
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But at any rate, for the next two weeks or so, there I was, shouting orders all day long--and everybody obeyed me. Nobody tried to overthrow me, nobody questioned my authority. But I knew it couldn't go on forever; eventually they'd begin to wonder, 'why are we taking orders from him?'
"So--as soon as things calmed down a little--I called a meeting. Not the Council--a meeting of every adult in the community. Among other things I told them that, in my opinion, the Council hadn't been doing a very good job of representing them lately. The Council had allowed Jenner to take over--again, that was partly Nicodemus' fault. But the Council also came very close to kicking you out that day. If it hadn't suited Jenner's purpose to pretend to help you, they would have; and then we'd all be dead."
"You know that was just an accident," she protested.
"I don't care," he said. "Neither do these people, now. Accident or no, you delivered the warning that saved us, Elizabeth, and we are never going to forget that." He paused. "Where was I? Oh yes--I'm afraid I might have made a few enemies that night, but what happened was this: I told the people that it was their community, not the Council's, and that they should decide how it is governed. And in the end they agreed with me: they dissolved the Council on the spot."
"So how are you managing now?"
"Town meetings," Justin said. "About once a week, or more if we have more business. There'll be one tomorrow night, as it happens, and I'd very much like for you to be there. Every adult in the community has a vote, and anyone can speak on any subject." He sighed. "Eventually it will become too cumbersome, and we'll have to go back to a council system. But not right away, if I have anything to say about it. At any rate, one of the first things they did--I had nothing to do with it--was to change our constitution. The position of Leader--that's the official title--is now elected. Every two years." He smiled broadly. "And guess who they elected first, right on the spot?"
"You deserved it," she insisted. "You got them here alive, and you stopped Jenner from taking over."
He shrugged again. "So," he said, "tell me--what do you think of the place?"
"It's...wonderful," she said. She gazed around. "These last few months, since Nicodemus told me about your Plan, I've been trying to imagine what it would be like." She shook her head. "But I never imagined anything like this."
"It's got a few rough edges," he said. "And it's nowhere near as opulent as the old place. But it's all ours, and that's what's important."
"There is one other thing I've been wondering about," Elizabeth said.
"Well--from what I've always heard, when the humans build a farm, like Mr. Fitzgibbons, it belongs to one family, or sometimes one company. They raise the crops, and they sell what they grow to pay for what they need. That's what Jonathan told me."
Justin nodded. "Yes, that's right," he said.
"But here--well, it seems to me you're doing things differently here. There seems to be just one farm, just as there's one kitchen and one dining hall."
Justin nodded again. "That's exactly correct," he said. "We're a cooperative. That was Nicodemus' fondest wish, the way he structured the entire Plan, and I agreed with him almost entirely. Mostly it's a matter of efficiency. Nicodemus believed that it would be ridiculous for everyone here to try to run their own small farms. Especially when there are certain to be people who have no talent for it. And...well, Nicodemus was not a big fan of the humans' capitalist system. He believed that we--being what we are--would do better to cooperate than compete."
"And--everyone here, or I should actually say every family, has their own living quarters; the apartments you see along our corridors. We've worked very hard to make certain that everyone meets at least a basic level of comfort. We're just now reaching the point where we can provide some luxuries too. But beyond that, beyond the living spaces, we hold everything in common. The products of the farm we share equally, each according to his needs. The same with the products of the workshops, the clothing factory, and so on. And everyone--every adult--has a job. About fifty-three percent of our population works directly on the farm. The rest are spread out into a number of jobs--Arthur's workshop, the cloth mill and clothing factory, the kitchen, the cleaning staff...I've tried very hard to convince everyone that every kind of work is important, and has an equal dignity."
"How has it worked out?"
"Very well, so far," he said. "I did have to make one minor adjustment--added some incentives. Nicodemus didn't think it would be necessary, but it is. If a citizen here works hard, pulls his weight, he gets an equal share of all the necessities of life, and a good share of comforts too. But if he works harder, above and beyond the call, he gets some extra credits, which he can trade for additional luxuries. It's about as close as we get to what the humans call money."
"It seems that everyone is happy," she commented.
"Well, I don't think there's a revolution brewing quite yet." He paused, and sighed. "There's one job we haven't filled yet, though, and it worries me. We don't have a physician."
"I was a little surprised that Mr. Ages didn't come with you," Elizabeth said.
"He--uh--had his reasons, I'm sure," Justin said. Exactly what those reason were, he didn't dare tell her: in fact Mr. Ages had remained on the farm in order to receive messengers from the NIMH expedition. "I really wish he had, though. Have you seen him lately?"
She shook her head. "Not for some weeks," she said. "For a while after you left he came to see us fairly often--to check on Timothy's lungs and my hands. But after Timothy and I got better, he stopped coming. He said he had too much work to do."
"When you go home," Justin said, "if you don't mind, I'd like you to take a letter from me to him." He shook his head. "We need him here. It's just a matter of time before someone gets really sick, or injured, and right now we couldn't cope with that."
"Certainly I will," she said. She paused, and then she said, "Justin, may I ask you a favor?"
She pointed to his throat. "May I...may I hold the Stone?"
"Certainly," he said. He reached up behind his head to unclasp the chain, and then he laid the amulet across her hands. She turned it over, gazing for a moment at the inscription on the back of the gold setting; then she sat silent, her eyes closed. Justin, watching quietly, saw a red spark suddenly flare in the Stone's depths. For a few moments it grew steadily brighter, and he seemed to feel a humming vibration in the air; unless that was just his imagination. Then Elizabeth sighed, opened her eyes, and handed the Stone back to him.
"Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome." He paused. "I can't get it to do any tricks for me, I'm afraid. But somehow it makes me feel more comfortable just to wear it. I only take it off when I bathe." He paused again. "If you want it back, Elizabeth, I'd be more than happy to give it to you. I've always felt it belongs more to you than me."
She smiled and shook her head firmly "No," she said. "Thank you, Justin, but no. You need it more than I do. And it will work for you--when you need it."
For a moment Justin sat silent, the Stone still resting in his hands. Then he cleared his throat. "Oh, by the way," he said. "I wanted you to know that there's going to be a concert in the lounge tonight, and you and your children are invited."
"Concert?" she asked.
"A musical performance," he explained. "A young rat named Julian--he's very good with a guitar. I think you'll enjoy it."
"Thank you," she said. A musical performance...what next? How else could these people manage to amaze her? "If they're not too tired, we'll certainly come."
A sudden noise attracted her attention then, and she looked down. Below, in the swimming hole, a major splashing war had erupted, and somewhere in the middle of it were her children. She frowned and half-rose. "Is that safe--?" she said anxiously.
"Perfectly," Justin assured her. Her pointed. In the middle of the beach stood a tall wooden platform, a seat about two feet tall, where a young female rat was perched attentively, a visor on her forehead and a white smear of zinc oxide across her nose. "Carla's a qualified lifeguard." And as if on cue, the young rat raised a whistle to her lips and blew a sharp blast. The splashing died away instantly. "See?" Justin grinned.
"I know, I shouldn't worry so much," Elizabeth said. She sighed. "But sometimes I can't help it." She looked up at him. "I am a mother, after all."
Justin nodded. "It's part of the job description," he said. "Not, of course, that I'll ever know."
"Well, you'll never know what it's like to be a mother," Elizabeth said, smiling. "That's obvious. But what about a father?"
Justin's grin was a little sheepish this time, and he scratched the back of his head. "I'll get around to that someday," he said. "I think I've still got time."
"Maybe so," she cautioned. "But all the same, don't put it off too long. Someday has a way of becoming never."
"That's just what Jonathan used to--" he began, but then cut himself off. "I'm sorry," he finished contritely.
She shook her head. "Don't be," she said. "It's all right. That's one of the reasons why I came here--and why they came." She pointed down at her soaking-wet children. "We want to know what Jonathan used to say. We want to hear everything you can tell us about him."
"I understand," he said again. "And I will. Believe me, there's a lot to tell."
"I know," she said. She paused. "Half of his life--the half that included all of you--was hidden from us. Nicodemus tried to explain why, and I've tried to understand. But, Justin, do you think Jonathan would ever have told us? Would he ever have let us be part of this half of his life?"
Justin paused for a long moment. Suddenly the conversation had turned into a minefield, and he would have to tread very carefully indeed. He said, "I think that very question troubled him more than anything else. He did want you to be a part of this. He especially wanted your children to be a part of it, because he believed that they already were, if you see what I mean. But I don't know, Elizabeth. I honestly don't know. He couldn't see past the difference between you and him--the fact that he would age so much slower than you. That one thing filled his mind constantly--and because of that, he wasn't able to think very clearly about a lot of other things."
She nodded. "I know," she said. "Maybe...maybe after I was gone, it would have been easier for him to tell them."
At that moment--so great was his affection for her--Justin came closer than he ever had to blurting out the truth. What would it harm? He demanded of himself. She knows about us now; she understands what we are. And good God, how she misses him! She's lived with this torment for nine months; why should it go on?
In the end, for better or worse, Justin was a rat of his word; that, he believed, was the most important thing setting him apart from the likes of Jenner. He had sworn an oath to one of his very best friends; and he would not--could not--break it. It was not easy; but he held his silence. Heaven help me if she ever does find out, he thought in despair. She'd never forgive me; and I couldn't blame her.
Finally Justin stood and stretched out his long arms. He squinted up at the sun. "You know," he said, "it is hot today. I think I might join them."
"You're joking," she said. "You?"
"Hey," he said, "a rat needs his exercise, you know." And then, while Elizabeth watched in amazement and not a little embarrassment, he removed his tunic and shirt and laid them in a neat pile, topping it with the Stone. He grinned down at her. "Last one in," he said, and then he dashed down the slope and plunged into the lake.
Elizabeth sat frozen for a moment, her mouth hanging open in astonishment She glanced first at the pile of clothing, and then down at him, happily cavorting with her children and the others as if he was still a kid himself.. This is the elected leader of the Rats of NIMH? she thought. Then she shook her head. Maybe so--but it's also still Justin. She looked--and then, scarcely able to believe what she was doing, she stood. Her cape landed where she dropped it, covering the Stone...and then, to the amazement and delight of her children and Justin, she also pelted down the hill and threw herself into the cool water. "Glad you could join us," Justin said, as she surfaced beside him.
"Hey," she said, smiling as she splashed him, "a mouse needs her exercise too."
Later that evening--and with some small difficulty--Elizabeth and her children found the lounge.
Actually, more correctly, it was Timothy who found it. Elizabeth was hardly surprised. Trust him to be the one with enough presence of mind to memorize the places they'd seen, the corridors they'd passed, during their whirlwind tour earlier. Less than a day, and already he knew his way around almost as well as the rats who built the place. Myself, Elizabeth predicted gloomily, as her younger son led the way, I'll probably just be learning these corridors when it's time for us to go home.
The lounge was on the community's second tier, and it was the third-largest room they had seen so far; only the meeting hall (which they had seen briefly earlier that afternoon) and the dining hall (from which they had just come) were larger. The lounge was a place for relaxation, for conversation. Its western wall was a solid bank of windows, which, as they entered that evening, was filled with one of the most spectacular sunsets Elizabeth had ever seen. A large room, its ceiling was low (by rat standards) and supported by a number of pillars. Hanging lamps sent down overlapping circles of light, and brightly-colored rugs covered the floor. Normally, when there was no performance scheduled, a large number of sofas and easy chairs would be scattered around the room, individually or in small groups; and there would also be a number of tables available for games, board or card. This night, however, that arrangement had been changed. In the room's northwest corner a stage had been set up, a small wooden platform with a folding screen for a backdrop; and the sofas and chairs had all been pulled into a semicircle in front of the stage. Most of the room lights were turned low, and several other lamps had been arranged to illuminate the stage.
As Elizabeth and her children entered, the lounge was already quite full, most of the chairs and sofas already occupied, and more rats arriving by the minute. For a second she looked around, wondering where they might find space...but then she saw, from the front row, a hand beckoning to her. Justin.
They stepped forward, to find the leader of the rats sitting, quite alone, at one end of a large comfortable-looking couch. He grinned as Elizabeth drew near. ""Glad you could make it," he said. "I used my executive powers for once. Not that anyone was going to tell me no. Make yourselves comfortable."
They did so. Elizabeth settled herself into the depths of the sofa with her children flanking her, Timothy and Cynthia next to her, and Teresa and Martin on the outside. Elizabeth noticed--and refrained from commenting on--the fact that Teresa managed to place herself right next to Justin. Yes, she's growing up, all right, Elizabeth thought with a smile. Not that she could blame her; not at all.
"This should be good," Justin told them. "Julian is one of the most talented musicians in the valley."
"Meaning that there's more than one?" Elizabeth asked.
"Oh yes," Justin assured her. "Quite a few. There's hardly a week goes by that we don't have a concert."
Elizabeth thought about that, while she gazed up at the still-unoccupied stage. There were three objects there, on the platform; two familiar, and one not. First was a wooden stool, about waist-high to a rat. Second a small table, on which stood a single glass of water. And third....On a rack-like wooden stand stood an object the likes of which Elizabeth had never seen. Made of wood, apparently, light in color and polished to a glow. The body of it was oval in outline, squashed in at the middle, and with a small hole in its center. A long narrow neck of darker wood protruded from the top. Along the length of the neck, and a little more than halfway along the oval body, were stretched six thin strings. Or perhaps wires; Elizabeth couldn't tell which.
Timothy noticed her puzzled frown, and leaned over to whisper in her ear. "It's called a 'guitar,'" he said. "The humans play them too. I saw a picture in one of the books the rats gave us."
"Thank you, dear," she said. A guitar. Another word added to her vocabulary; was that two or three hundred so far today? I wonder what a guitar sounds like?
She had not long to wait for an answer to that. The rat who stepped up to the stage was a young male, grey-furred and almost skinny; he wore a long-sleeved white shirt and a black vest, and large glasses with round lenses. He smiled shyly, acknowledging the polite smattering of applause, as he perched himself on the stool and lifted his instrument from its stand. Julian, his name was, apparently; at least that's what Justin had said; he didn't introduce himself. Probably he didn't think it was necessary. "Thank you," he said. He plucked a few notes, adjusted a tuning key, then strummed a quiet chord and nodded his satisfaction. "I'd like to start tonight with something a little different for me. It's a classical piece by Gabriel Faure; his Pavane, opus 50."
He took a deep breath then, sat for a second with his fingers poised over neck and bridge; and then began to play.
For several moments Elizabeth Brisby sat with her eyes closed, letting the sound wash over her. Up until then, music was something which simply hadn't been part of her life. She knew what it was; at times she had heard snatches drifting through the open windows of the farmhouse, or from a radio carried by someone into the garden or the fields. Jonathan had once tried to explain it to her. She'd understood that the radio was only the carrier; that it didn't really make the music, but exactly what did, she'd never even stopped to consider. That such a sound could come from a wooden box and six strings, would never have occurred to her.
Finally, perhaps halfway through the piece, she opened her eyes and, as casually as she could, she looked around the lounge. She had cautioned her children to be on their best behavior, not knowing how they would react to such an unfamiliar situation; now, she saw, she needn't have bothered. All four of them there absolutely entranced. Even Cynthia, sitting there in the crook of Elizabeth's left arm, showed no sign of fidgeting. And Timothy, cuddled up against her right side, was nothing short of enraptured, his blue eyes huge and gleaming.
Behind them the room was packed to capacity; obviously Julian's performances were popular. The rats sat singly in chairs, or together on the sofas; many of the couples had arms around each other's shoulders. All of them sat quiet, relaxed; many of them had their eyes closed, or were smiling in enjoyment. Many of them were familiar, people Elizabeth had met that day; she only wished she remembered all their names.
The piece ended, and Elizabeth and the children joined in the quiet, reserved applause. Julian stepped off his stool to take a bow, then he reseated himself. "Thank you," he said. "My next piece is a little something of my own, which I wrote a few months ago. I call it 'Exodus.'"
This piece was much different from the first; the tempo faster, much less formal. Elizabeth watched Julian's fingers dancing across his instrument, a blur of movement; she watched the total concentration on his face. His eyes were closed behind his glasses. She could scarcely begin to imagine the skill, the dedication he must possess. Truly, she had never seen anything like it.
It was at that moment, sitting there in the lounge with the music swirling around her, that Elizabeth Brisby experienced what she might have called an epiphany, had she known the word. This is the way to live. The thought came to her mind suddenly, unbidden; it was a thought that had been building inside her all day. Now, finally, it had given itself voice. She looked around at the assembled rats, all of them sitting at ease, concentrating on the music or on each other. All day they had worked hard; but now, in the evening, they could put work aside. Here and now they had no worries; they needn't wonder where their next food would come from, or whether their homes would be turned over and destroyed by a plow. They had time to read, to study, to listen to music. Their lives were a challenge, but not a struggle. Safety, security--the very things she had craved so strongly these last few months--were the very things they had in plenty.
During the next break, when Julian paused to take a drink and check his tuning, Timothy twisted his head around to speak softly into her ear. "Mom?"
"I think...I'd like to learn how to do that."
"I..." she began, and trailed off. She'd been about to say. "I don't know if that's possible." But somehow, sitting there, she suddenly didn't believe that any more. She smiled and drew him a little closer. "I don't see why not," she told him.
Jonathan wasn't hungry, it seemed.
The gleanings from the employees' lounge had been particularly good that evening: there had been a potluck at noon, and as usual, no one had touched the mixed vegetable platter. The carrot sticks, celery, radishes, broccoli and jicama were a little dry, after sitting out so long; but for the five of them, subsisting as they usually did on junk food and forgotten sack lunches, it was an unexpected and welcome feast.
Sitting there with her companions at the makeshift cardboard table, there in the forgotten storeroom that they called home, Eileen gazed at Jonathan in concern and pity. The mouse sat silent, his arms crossed over his chest, staring into space; his dinner lying there untouched before him. This was not the first time he had refused food; far from it, as his protruding ribs and spine demonstrated all too clearly. Over these last few months Eileen had taken it upon herself to try to keep his spirits up, to somehow, by jokes or outright cajoling, keep him going one more day. It was a job that was getting progressively harder, and that troubled her more than anything else. Quite apart from the fact that Jonathan was important to this mission, he was important, period, to all of them.
Eileen's respect for Jonathan Brisby was almost inborn, as it was for all the second and subsequent generations of the Rats of NIMH. All of them knew the story, having literally heard it since birth, of how he had saved them; how the Original 22 would never have escaped from NIMH, if not for Jonathan. And they knew also, first-hand, of the many, many contributions he had made since. That the Plan owed almost as much to Jonathan as it did to Nicodemus was universally-known. A mouse, less than half the size of anyone else in the community; and yet Eileen herself had seen him, with fire in his eyes, stand up in the Council and engage Jenner in blistering rounds of debate. And usually win. All of the rats (with the possible exception of Jenner) had been distressed beyond words to see him, in those last few months before this mission, spiral slowly and inexorably into confusion and depression. Whether this job had been the appropriate cure, Eileen seriously doubted.
For a time the mission had seemed to perk him up, as the five of them went about the business of espionage; but as time went on, and the answers they sought proved more elusive than they'd expected, she had seen despair begin to overtake him again. This latest round, however, which had melted the weight off of him, and left him at times with barely enough will to rise from his bed, was of very recent origin.
A little more than two months ago Mark and David had undertaken one of their dangerous, but unfortunately necessary, pilgrimages back to the farm. They did so for two reasons; first and most importantly, to deliver the fruits of their "research" to Mr. Ages; but also to bring back to their companions news of friends and families. The latest collection of news had shocked and saddened them all. Nicodemus dead, murdered by Jenner; Jenner himself dead after a vicious battle with Justin; the rats themselves narrowly escaping an invasion by NIMH; and the Plan coming to a conclusion months too early. Jonathan had greeted the news with mixed feelings at best. On the one hand the pressure was off, finally and permanently; his wife, his family now knew about NIMH, and knew who and what he was. And he couldn't help but be amazed, and gratified, to learn that the rats now regarded his wife as a hero too, a savior equal to Jonathan himself. And it had heartened him--as it had all of them--to learn that Justin had stepped in as leader. If anyone could pull the rats through this crisis, it was him.
But on the other hand, the circumstances that had brought those events about had wounded Jonathan terribly. He would never have consciously admitted to playing favorites among his children; but Eileen knew, as did they all, that Jonathan had a special affinity for his younger son, Timothy. The news that Timothy had come close to dying had struck Jonathan like a knife to the heart. "I should have been there," he'd said, brokenly, over and over. "I should have been there." All through this mission, Eileen knew, Jonathan had carried a terrible load of guilt; now it was tripled at least. And worse: what he had done, abandoning his wife and children to their fates, had seemed to him to make any hope of forgiveness unlikely in the extreme; now that hope seemed utterly dead. Timothy was alive, Mr. Ages had said; but to Jonathan that made little difference. None of them, wife or children, would ever speak to him again. That much seemed certain to him.
And now here was this new crisis, about which they could do nothing except agonize; yet another weight upon an already-overburdened mind. Perhaps--she very much feared--one thing too many; the proverbial straw. She sat for a time, watching him; then she reached across the table and pushed his food a little closer to him. "Starving yourself to death isn't the answer," she told him firmly.
He shook himself violently, as if out of a dream, and he looked up at her almost angrily. She held his gaze steadily, refusing to back down. Slowly his expression softened, and something like his old easy smile appeared. "No," he said. "No, I guess it isn't." He picked up a sliver of carrot and nibbled on it; slowly at first, and then with increasing enthusiasm. Eileen watched in satisfaction as he reached for more. His body is smarter than he is, she thought.
She hesitated for a few minutes, then she said, cautiously, "So--what did you two find out?"
Early that morning--as they knew well--Dr. Schultz's chartered helicopter had arrived. They had watched it, crouched down behind a ventilator grille; watched the small craft land within a circle of roped-off parking spaces, kicking up dust and paper; and watched Dr. Schultz, complete with leather jacket, binoculars and camera bag, cross the parking lot at a crouch and climb in. Seconds later the copter lifted off, circled the complex, and headed off into the distance. There had been no one else on board, just Schultz and the pilot; obviously the scientist was doing this on his own, without even his ever-faithful assistants
Later that afternoon, close to evening, Jonathan and Philip had been waiting behind the grille in Dr. Schultz' office when they heard the machine come roaring in for a brief landing, and then take off again. Minutes later Dr. Schultz had entered the office. He remained just long enough to fling jacket, camera bag, binoculars and topo map into his desk chair, and then he departed. Philip and Jonathan had wasted no time.
"He marked off the area that he searched today on his map," Jonathan told Eileen. He shook his head. "He was way too far to the north, nowhere near Thorn Mountain. But he's clearly not giving up--according to his notes he plans to search farther to the south tomorrow. It's only a matter of time."
"If," Philip pointed out, his mouth full, "he gets permission to fly over the wilderness area."
Jonathan fixed him with his gaze. "Do you seriously think he won't?" he asked, and Philip glanced away.
"Jonathan," Eileen said, "are we certain that there's nothing we can do?"
The steady, sad brown eyes turned to her. "Hacker," he said, "if you can think of anything, please let me know. I'm fresh out of ideas."
Eileen did have one; but it was something she would never have dared to mention. None of them--not Jonathan or their companions, nor Justin, nor Nicodemus, wherever he was--would ever had sanctioned it. It was an idea that even frightened her, when she'd thought of it earlier that day. We're in a building with labs, she'd reasoned. Labs full of chemicals, some of them dangerous. If someone were to slip something into Dr. Schultz's morning coffee...But no. Not even to save her family could she condone murder. She would not be another Jenner.
"Then all we can do it wait and watch," she said softly.
Jonathan nodded. "That's right," he agreed. "Wait, watch...and pray."
She might have known that Martin would find a way to get himself into trouble; but she never would have dreamed that he would involve Teresa too.
It had been many months since Elizabeth slept as well as she did that first night in Thorn Valley, despite the unfamiliar and overly-large bed. One minute she was settling her head into the oversized pillow; and the next--or so it seemed--Timothy and Cynthia were shaking her awake. She rose feeling better-rested than she had in a very long time.
No doubt there were many reasons why she had slept so soundly. The big bed was surprisingly comfortable, the mattress firmly stuffed with cotton (or so she supposed) instead of the rather lumpy straw that filled her mattress at home. She'd had an early morning and a late evening; and in between a long and very eventful day. Probably the most important reason, however, was that she felt safe. At home there were always the little worries, niggling away at her, below the level of her conscious awareness: what the next day would bring, whether they would be able to find food and water, what dangers they might have to face. All quite unconscious; but still they took a toll on her, most especially at night. Here, however, her subconscious had gone blissfully quiet. If only she didn't have to sleep alone any more, her relaxation could have been complete.
Her children had been glad enough of their beds last night too. Julian had played long into the night, and, sitting as they were in the very front row, it would have been both impolite and conspicuous for them to get up and leave. Cynthia did doze for a short time, nestled there in Elizabeth's arm, but no one else had noticed, it seemed. Teresa and Martin were also sagging by concert's end. Not Timothy, though. He had remained awake and alert throughout, his eyes following Julian's hands with rapt concentration, as if he could learn by simple observation. Only after the concert was over did exhaustion overtake him. They had all been too tired, in fact, to complain about having to share the two beds; and that, to Elizabeth at least, had been more than miracle enough. That they had also slept well was obvious that morning: they were wide awake, full of energy, ready for anything--and hungry. Fortunately that, at least, was easily cured.
The community's dining hall was one place Elizabeth was reasonably sure she could find--having been there twice already--and in fact it was not too distant from their guest quarters. It was also a place that, for some unfathomable reason, tended to intimidate her.
It may have been the room's sheer size--half again as large as the lounge, and with a higher ceiling, making it literally cavernous. Or it may have been the fact that the dining hall, every time she entered there, was both crowded and noisy. And that morning was no exception.
The huge room had the usual bank of west-facing windows, giving a view of valley and lake; but it had a set of skylights as well. During the day the place was flooded with light; only at dinner were the hanging lamps needed. Scattered around the wide, open floor were a number of tables of various sizes, shapes and seating capacities. Some, small and round, were meant for just two; others, larger and rectangular, would accommodate ten or more. All of the tables--so it seemed at first glance--were full; and even as the Brisby family entered more rats were pouring in behind them. Elizabeth looked around desperately for Justin--but he was not there, it seemed. They would have to do this on their own.
Service in the dining hall was strictly cafeteria-style, as Justin had told them yesterday at noon. At that time Elizabeth had no idea what he meant by that; but she had found out soon enough. On the room's north side, a long, wide counter separated the hall from the kitchens beyond. At the end nearest the entrance were stacks of trays, and racks of utensils. Moving down from there, the kitchen staff behind the counter would dish out whatever meal was being served at that particular time of day. And at the very end were racks of cups and mugs, and pitchers and thermal pots of beverages. It was a simple and efficient system--but it was designed for rats. For Elizabeth and her family almost everything--the trays, the utensils, the plates and bowls, the cups, the tables, even the portions--were far too large. Yesterday they had made do, with Justin's help…but this morning he was not present. Elizabeth hesitated, drawing her children close to her, unsure what to do--and then Timothy tugged on her arm and pointed. Behind the counter a rat was beckoning to them.
Young (there I go again, Elizabeth thought wryly) and female, the rat wore a white smock and apron, and a bandanna tied over her head by way of a hair-net. As Elizabeth and her children approached, the young rat reached down beneath the counter and produced five trays, all of them already prepared with plates, bowls, cups and utensils…and all about half the size of what the rats were pulling from the racks.
"Justin asked me to keep an eye out for you," the young woman explained. "These will be waiting for you at every meal--just ask, if we don't see you coming first."
"Thank you," Elizabeth said gratefully. "Thank you very much."
"You're welcome," the young rat said; and once again, beneath the smile, Elizabeth detected that same look of profound respect. She was truly beginning to believe that there was nothing these people wouldn't do for her. Hopefully, as they got to know her and her children, the rats wouldn't change their minds.
After that it was easy enough. The counter was almost neck-high to Elizabeth--and in fact taller than Cynthia--but they managed. They moved along the line, having their smaller plates and bowls filled, and at the end, the pitchers and urns were just small enough for them to handle. Elizabeth looked around for a table…and what she saw, almost instantly, made her smile and shake her head. Justin, she thought. Bless him!
Near the windows a smallish round table sat completely unoccupied. It was rat-sized, but someone had piled the chairs high with cushions. A tent-shaped cardboard sign sat in the middle of the table, and even Elizabeth, with her limited reading skills, could decipher what it said: "Reserved for the Brisby family." The hall was crowded, almost all available seats taken; but no one, it seemed, dared ignore that sign.
She helped her children to seat themselves--Martin and Teresa were tall enough to scramble up onto the chairs by themselves, but Timothy and Cynthia needed a boost--and then, for the first time, she looked down at her breakfast.
What she and her children had been served would have qualified as a royal feast where they came from. Hot cereal--oatmeal, it seemed, with nuts and raisins; fresh warm bread with honey, and dried, hard grains (a vital necessity, always, for the endlessly-growing teeth of both mice and rats.) Elizabeth had filled her mug, almost at random, with what turned out to be hot herbal tea, and so had Timothy; the other three had opted for some kind of fruit juice.
And to think, Justin had apologized to her for the quality of the food! The farm wasn't really producing yet, he'd said; and so they were still depending on what they'd had in storage. But Elizabeth could scarcely imagine how it could get any better. She and her children lived on what they could glean from field and garden--that had always been true, even when Jonathan was with them. To her, to all of them, this was nothing less than the food of the gods. And for Elizabeth, the best part was that she had not been obliged to gather or cook it herself. I could get used to this, she realized. Maybe too used; she would have to watch out, find a way to get some exercise, or it would all end up going to her hips.
As she ate she glanced around the table. Of all her children, only Cynthia could be described as a finicky eater. Teresa, the oldest and most responsible, was too conscious of the effort it cost to gather food; usually she ate what they had, and was glad of it. Martin, always hungry, ate what was put in front of him and looked around for more. Timothy, with other things on his mind, usually ate without seeming to be aware of what was on his plate. Only Cynthia was known to complain that--for example--they'd had corn three meals a day for a week. But here and now, even she seemed content. And no wonder.
The dining hall was noisy, filled with the sound of voices and the clinking of dishware; and so Martin had to raise his voice as he said, "Mom? What are we going to do today?"
"I don't know, dear," she said. "I hadn't really given it any thought." She paused. "Why? Did you have something in mind?"
Martin exchanged a glanced with his older sister. "Teresa and I saw some places yesterday we'd like to explore."
"If that's all right," Teresa amended hurriedly.
For a long moment Elizabeth hesitated. On the one hand, Justin had told them that there were no forbidden places in the community; with the exception of the private apartments, they were welcome to explore anywhere. But on the other hand, "we" clearly meant only Teresa and Martin; Cynthia was rather pointedly not included, and Timothy only halfway so, if the look on Martin's face was any indication. And Timothy was sticking close to his little sister these days: where he went, so did she. Should Elizabeth insist they be taken along? Did they want her to insist? I hope I do live long enough to see them all adults, she thought darkly. Though whether even that would end the rivalry, she didn't know.
She gazed around at the four of them, and finally she sighed. "All right," she said. She was very aware of Timothy and Cynthia's eyes on her; she didn't dare look at them. She raised a warning finger. "As long as you don't get into trouble."
Martin grinned, a fair approximation of his father's most disarming expression; and Teresa's blue eyes were huge and innocent. "Who, us?" Martin said.
Just outside the dining hall they separated, Martin and Teresa taking off like a shot down the corridor, before their mother could change her mind. Elizabeth watched them go with a resigned smile. It will change, she realized. The older two were adolescents now; they were at the age when they didn't want to be seen with younger siblings tagging along. Soon--very soon--Timothy would be that age too; and Cynthia would not be far behind. Eventually they would all learn to appreciate one another again. But in the meantime…
She smiled down at the younger two, laying her arms across their shoulders. They had watched their older brother and sister depart with obviously mixed feelings, Cynthia looking wistful, and Timothy indignant. "If they don't want us around," Timothy told his sister, "that's their problem. Just see what happens next time Martin wants to play chess."
"Yeah," Cynthia agreed. "We'll show them."
Of that Elizabeth had no doubt; she just hoped she wasn't in the vicinity when it happened. She said, "So--what are we going to do with you two?"
"Perhaps I can be of some help there."
The voice that spoke from behind them was female, kindly, and tinged with amusement. They turned. Standing there smiling down at them was a female rat. Not quite a stranger--Elizabeth had seen her several times in the last twenty-four hours, but couldn't remember her name, if indeed she'd heard it. The rat wore a grey skirt and a white blouse, and a brightly-colored silk scarf was tied around her neck. She held a kind of portfolio under her right arm. She was…well, not heavyset, exactly, but certainly ample. She was attractive, though, in a motherly way, her fur dark brown and her eyes bright. Elizabeth, who was rapidly becoming an expert, instantly knew that she was one of the Original 22. She did not look in any way old; but neither did she have that air of generic youth that the second generation all radiated.
The rat smiled down at them. "Mrs. Brisby, I presume?" she said. She held out her hand. "My name is Alice. I'm pleased to meet you."
As usual, it took Elizabeth several seconds to find her tongue. She reached up to clasp the proffered hand. "I'm pleased to meet you too, Alice," she said finally. She drew her children closer. "This is my son Timothy and my daughter Cynthia. My other two have already gotten away. And please--it's Elizabeth."
"How do you do," Alice said to the children; then she smiled again at Elizabeth. "I'm sorry if I interrupted, but did I hear you discussing what your children would like to do today?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "Yes, that's right. Teresa and Martin are off exploring, and…"
Alice held up her hand. "Say no more," she said. "I've been there. I have ten of my own."
Ten, Elizabeth thought. Good grief. Giving birth four times was hard enough; but ten?
Alice went on, "As it happens, I'm in charge of the community school. I was wondering if Timothy and Cynthia might like to visit our classrooms. They might enjoy meeting some children their own ages…"
A human parent would have been both gratified and astounded to see the look those two exchanged. Not only were Timothy and Cynthia ready, but willing and able too, it seemed. Elizabeth had to grasp their shoulders to hold them back, so eager were they. "I think," she told Alice dryly, "we can take that as 'yes.'"
Alice smiled. "I'm on my way there now," she said. She turned and waved an arm. "This way, please."
Together the four of them headed down the corridor, in a direction opposite that of their guest quarters. Elizabeth was smiling secretly, fondly, as she watched Timothy and Cynthia push ahead. She herself could have made no better suggestion than the one that had just fallen into their laps, so to speak. She knew also that there were very different reasons for those two's eagerness. In Timothy's case it was easy enough to understand: "school" equaled "knowledge"--and that was the one thing above all else that he could never get enough of. For Cynthia, though, it was different. She was certainly not immune to learning--she'd come quite far under Timothy's tutelage--but more than anything else she was eager for friends, for someone her own age. Never mind that they would be twice her size.
As they walked Elizabeth said to Alice, "I've met so many people here--I wonder if I've met your husband--?"
Alice shook her head. "I doubt it--he's very hard to catch up with. But you've probably heard him mentioned: he's Arthur."
She had indeed, a number of times. Arthur, the Chief Engineer, the one who had designed and built the community and almost everything in it. A genius, Justin had said; and Elizabeth believed it. "I'd very much like to meet him," she said.
"We'll arrange it," Alice assured her. "He's got to come to ground once in a while. To eat, if nothing else, though he sometimes goes days without."
Elizabeth smiled wryly to herself. If you've got ten children, she thought, obviously he's had time for something besides work.
"Did I see you and your family at the concert last night?" Alice asked.
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "We enjoyed it very much."
Alice smiled. "I'm glad to hear you say that. The young man who played--Julian--is my son. My third-oldest child."
Elizabeth felt her eyebrows rise. There wasn't much resemblance between this short and ample woman and that skinny boy; and yet… "Timothy was telling me," she said, "that he would like to learn to play the guitar."
Alice nodded seriously. "Than can be arranged," she said. "Julian has other work, of course--music is a hobby--but he always finds time to squeeze in lessons. I'll talk to him this evening."
"Thank you," Elizabeth said. "Timothy will appreciate that. What is Julian's real job?"
"He's an optician," Alice said. Then, seeing Elizabeth's blank expression, she went on, without missing a beat, "He makes eyeglasses."
Instantly Elizabeth glanced at Timothy, some paces ahead and deep in conversation with his sister. "Your son might be able to do more for mine than just teach him music," she said. "I've thought for a while that Timothy might need glasses."
Alice nodded firmly. "I'll arrange that too," she said. "A good deal of his work comes from my school. My teachers often notice vision problems in their students even before their own parents do."
"It seems to be mostly his reading," Elizabeth said. "He seems to be able to see far things fine."
"Julian will test both," Alice assured her. She smiled. "That's another reason why it's fortunate you came to our valley. He might have had that problem for life."
Jonathan would already have fixed it, Elizabeth realized. Exactly how, she wasn't sure, if he had still been keeping his secrets. Possibly he would have used Mr. Ages as an intermediary. But somehow he would have fixed it, long before now. Of that she could be certain.
Angrily she thrust that thought aside. All she could do--she and anyone else, including Jonathan--was her best. She had kept Timothy alive, against odds that had seemed insurmountable. Any other problems she would have to take one at a time.
"We're here," Alice said, stopping short before a pair of wide double doors. Curiously, they were on the east side of the corridor, the side without windows; the rooms on that side, Justin had told them, were used mostly for storage, not for habitation. Surely they wouldn't make the children go to school in classrooms without windows--would they?
The doors opened into a short corridor, which ended at a T-shaped junction. The corridors that led off to the left and right were curved inward like a pair of arms, and Elizabeth realized that they must form a wide, full circle. But a circle around what?
Alice turned to the left--obviously she knew where she was going--and within a very few paces they encountered a door, on the right-hand, inner wall. The door had a wide vertical strip of glass up its center, and through that they could peer into the room beyond. A room that was--curiously--brightly sunlit.
A classroom, obviously. On the wall at the head of the room, an enormous chalkboard covered with letters and numbers. In the front left corner a large desk, a bouquet of flowers in a vase atop it; and arranged in neat rows through the rest of the room, the smaller student desks. Beyond that the far wall was all glass; and peering through, Elizabeth suddenly understood the architecture of the place. The school was indeed in the form of a circle, the classrooms--and whatever other spaces there might be--all facing a large, open circle, a crater-like natural depression in the earth. The floor of the crater was flat--though it probably hadn't started that way--and some eight feet or so in diameter; it was grassy, and filled with benches and playground equipment: swings, climbing bars and so on. At the moment the playground was empty; it was not yet recess time.
The classroom that Elizabeth and her children were peering into was currently in use. The students--about a dozen in all, it seemed--were adolescents; about the same age as Teresa, Elizabeth realized ruefully. They sat at their desks, industriously scribbling notes, while at the head of the room a somewhat older female rat was writing on the blackboard. Math class, Elizabeth guessed; the symbols meant nothing to her, but she'd seen something similar in one of Timothy's books.
Alice smiled. "A little farther along, I think," she said, and started walking again.
They had not gone very much farther when Timothy suddenly stopped, peering curiously through another glass-paneled door. "Alice, ma'am," he said politely, "what's this?"
"That's our school library," Alice said. "Nowhere near as big as the community library, but more convenient for the students."
Timothy pointed. "And who's he?"
Alice peered through the narrow window, and she smiled fondly. The room beyond was about twice the size of the classrooms, and was stuffed nearly full with high, solidly-packed bookshelves. Spaced around the room were a number of square tables, each with four chairs. At the moment just one of the tables was occupied.
The rat who sat there, absolutely surrounded with books, was male, and young, seemingly just a little short of adolescence He wore a short-sleeved white pullover shirt, and a dark blue vest; his fur was medium grey, his eyes dark and serious-looking. A handsome young man, Elizabeth thought; but to her eye--a mother's eye, always--he seemed a little undersized, and a little pale, as if he had recently been in less-than-perfect health.
"That's my youngest son," Alice told Timothy. "His name is Robert." She glanced from mouse to rat and back again. "I'd say that you two are about the same age," she commented.
"He's not being punished, I hope," Elizabeth said.
Alice shook her head. "Not at all," she said. "Just the opposite, in fact. He's so far ahead of his classmates, we've decided to let him do some independent study." Alice looked once again from Robert to Timothy, and then briefly at Elizabeth; and then she seemed to come to a decision. She laid a hand on Timothy's shoulder. "Why don't you go in and say hello?" she suggested. "I have a feeling you two might have a lot in common."
Timothy hesitated, glancing uncertainly at his mother. She smiled and nodded, and inwardly she shrugged. Why not? she thought. Friends were something her children had always been short on; the other mice on the farm tended to avoid them. They were too intelligent, too different; the other mice were halfway afraid of them, as they had been afraid of Jonathan, no matter how charming he'd been. Here, if anywhere, that would not be a problem, if they could overcome the little matter of species. And Timothy, whether he knew it or not, needed friends just as much as Cynthia did.
Finally Timothy stepped forward, reaching up for the doorknob. Robert looked up, startled, as the door opened and closed. Rat and mouse looked at each other for a few seconds…then Robert smiled a greeting. Elizabeth couldn't hear the words they exchanged; but she saw her son cross the room and climb up onto a chair next to Robert, and peer down interestedly as the young rat pointed out something in the book he'd been reading. Ten seconds, and already they were chatting as if they'd known each other all their lives. Elizabeth couldn't know it--no one could have, then--but what she was seeing was, simultaneously, the fulfillment of a prophecy--and history in the making.
Beside her, Alice spoke wistfully. "There were so many times we were afraid we'd lose him," she said. "Ever since he was born he's bounced from one illness to another. There was nothing Mr. Ages could do. Robert spent so much time in bed--all he could do was read and study. That's why he's so far ahead of his friends."
Elizabeth looked up at her in surprise. With minor differences, Alice might have been telling Timothy's life story instead of Robert's. "But he's better now?" she guessed.
Alice nodded. "Yes. Yes, thank God, he is. Since we moved here…the fresh air, the sunlight…it's been good for him, when I can get him out into it. Since we've been here he's put on weight and muscle, and he hasn't been sick at all. We think--Arthur and I--that he'll be all right now."
Elizabeth peered in at the two of them, laughing and talking together like old friends. "You were right, Alice," she said. "They do have a lot in common." She looked up. "And so do we."
At that moment Elizabeth felt a hand on her arm, and she turned to see her youngest child gazing at her plaintively. "I'm still here," Cynthia said.
Alone, Elizabeth thought. When was the last time I was really, truly alone?
Actually--she realized as she walked the corridors, absently acknowledging the greetings of the passers-by--that was not the right question. More correctly she should ask, when was the last time I was alone, and with no responsibilities at all? And the answer to that was: a very long time ago. Or possibly never.
Leaving Timothy and Cynthia at the school had been unexpectedly hard for her; a feeling that any human parent would have sympathized with instantly. Of course the two of them would be well taken care of, would not be harmed, and would scarcely notice the time passing; but for her, that little separation was a prelude to a bigger one yet to come--one which she did not feel at all ready to confront. Probably, she reflected, no parent ever is.
Cynthia had been welcomed into a class of some dozen or so rats, all about her own age, presided over by a female--there was hardly any need to say "young"--named Marie. Cynthia had not gone boldly, as Timothy would have, but reluctantly, hiding behind her mother's cape as long as she could. These youngsters knew their community history, though, and the name "Brisby" was enough for them: Cynthia was an instant celebrity. When last seen she had been installed in an extra desk, elevated on several volumes of the encyclopedia, with the other students clustered around her, bombarding her with questions. Elizabeth was able to slip out unnoticed.
And now, walking the hallways all but aimlessly, Elizabeth found herself feeling curiously adrift. She hadn't expected that, though she might have: it was a matter of habit. Vacations, relaxation, inactivity, were simply not in her nature.
So…what to do about it? At this time of day the only thing going on in the community was work. The lounge would be open, but deserted. She might have gone to the library, but for her that would have been pointless. Unfortunately. She had no idea where Justin was--had not seen him all morning, in fact--and anyway, he had to have better things to do than look after her. So…
She turned purposefully, her mind made up--and almost ran headlong into a pair of rats. "Pardon me--" she began; but then the full significance of what she was seeing sunk in, and she trailed off, taking a horrified step backwards. Her shoulders thumped the wall, bringing her up short.
One of the rats she recognized easily: Thomas, the Captain of the Guard. The other seemed a stranger at first; but something about his face struck her memory. It was not her face that arrested her attention, though: rather, it was his handcuffs.
The rat was shorter than most, and it seemed that he had once been heavyset; but now he was thin and wan. His fur was dark grey and seemed somewhat unkempt; he wore a very simple shirt and vest, light brown in color. His hands were indeed fastened before him with a pair of sturdy iron cuffs. Never in her life had she seen anything like that; and she shrank back in horror.
Thomas stood just behind the prisoner, gripping his upper right arm firmly. "Nothing to be afraid of," he began; but the prisoner interrupted. His voice was low and raspy.
"Mrs. Brisby?" he said. She didn't reply, just stared, and he went on, "You are Mrs. Brisby, aren't you?"
Finally she found her voice; it was thin and shaky. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I'm Mrs. Brisby."
The prisoner held out his manacled hands pleadingly, making her shrink back farther. "I need to talk to you," he said. "Please. Just for a moment."
Thomas frowned and tugged on his arm. "I think you're disturbing the lady," he said.
Elizabeth reached deep down inside and brought out her courage, wrapping it around herself like a cloak. Her voice somewhat firmer, she said, "That's all right, Thomas." She gazed at the stranger. "I don't think we've met--?" she went on.
He shook his head. "No," he said. "Not really. My name is Sullivan. I…I was there that night on the farm. You might remember--I threw a sword to Justin."
Suddenly the light dawned. In all the confusion, and the darkness, she had just barely glimpsed this rat's face. And she had never known his name until now. It was he who had saved Justin's life; Justin had been unarmed, opposing Jenner's sword with a stick, until Sullivan tossed the younger rat a blade. And more--it was Sullivan who threw the dagger that finally brought Jenner down, after Justin had discarded his sword. Every moment of the fight was emblazoned on her memory; from the moment when Jenner struck her (she'd had a bruise for days) to the moment when he fell lifeless into the mud. Justin had intervened because Jenner had attacked her; but she knew very well that she herself had been only a small part of the struggle. In fact they had been fighting over the Stone…and, ultimately, control of the entire community.
"But that isn't the whole story," Sullivan went on. "That makes me sound like a hero--but I'm not. God help me, I'm not."
"I don't understand," Elizabeth said.
Sullivan seemed unable to continue; his eyes had suddenly filled with tears, and his jaw worked soundlessly. He wrung his cuffed hands, making the chain between them clink.
Thomas spoke quietly. "Sullivan had plotted with Jenner to murder Nicodemus," he explained, with just a tiny trace of contempt. "That is why both he and Jenner had swords that evening: to cut the ropes of the apparatus that was lifting your home, and drop it on Nicodemus."
She stared at Sullivan, aghast, and he nodded miserably. "It's true," he said, his voice hollow. "Almost true. When it came right down to it I couldn't go through with it," he went on. "I couldn't cut the ropes; I couldn't be a murderer. Jenner did that himself; I backed away. But that was too little too late. And I've paid." He held out his hands. "This is one way. And this is another." He pulled up his shirt, and Elizabeth, with a gasp of horror, saw the long, deep scar that ran across the right side of his abdomen, slantwise from his hip almost to his ribs. The edges of the scar were white, and the fur was tufted and patchy along its length. As Sullivan had thrown his sword to Justin, Jenner had struck at him in rage. And this, obviously, was the result.
She looked up at Thomas, and the young rat said blandly, "After his recovery from his injuries, Sullivan was tried and convicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder. All circumstances, good and ill, were taken into account. Part of his sentence involves labor on the farm, and that is where I am taking him now."
She looked at the older rat, and saw the torment in his eyes. He had suffered too, she realized. More than Nicodemus; and certainly more than Jenner--because he had been forced to live with the memory of what he'd done. He isn't like Jenner, she realized. Jenner was twisted, evil; Sullivan was just…weak. "What--what do you want from me?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all. I don't ask for your forgiveness, because I don't deserve it. I just want to say one thing to you--I've been waiting months to say it." He took a deep breath. "Jenner's plan used your home, your children, your poor sick son, as objects. He used them with no more thought than if he'd picked up a stone and thrown it. And I went along with it. And for that I just want to say--I'm sorry. I know that isn't worth much--but I truly am sorry."
At that moment Elizabeth fled. She had no idea where she was going; only that she desperately needed to be somewhere else. She dodged past the two of them and headed up the corridor as fast as her legs could carry her, doggedly fighting an impulse to go faster by dropping to all fours. Finally, some minutes later, she found a bench, in a niche cut into the stone wall, and she collapsed onto it, trembling, burying her face in her hands. Suddenly, for the moment at least, the rats' little paradise didn't seem quite so perfect any more.
She had no idea how long she'd sat there, shaking violently, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and heard a concerned voice speak quietly in her ear: "Mrs. Brisby? Are you all right?"
She looked up sharply--and found herself gazing into the dark eyes of a young female rat. The white smock and apron, and the bandanna tied over her head, were familiar, and an instant later Elizabeth recognized her: it was the kitchen worker who had helped Elizabeth and her family that morning. Name, unfortunately, unknown.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, gradually stilling her trembling, and she attempted a smile. "Yes," she said.. "I'm fine." She hesitated "I'm sorry, dear, I don't know--"
"Andrea," the rat supplied with a smile. "My name's Andrea." She sat down next to Elizabeth. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked. "I was just coming off my break and I saw you sitting there…"
"I was just…thinking," Elizabeth said. She looked around in some surprise. She'd had no idea that she was anywhere near the dining hall; but she was, almost directly across from it in fact. Her morning had come full circle.
"Well," Andrea said, gazing at her dubiously, "as long as you're okay, I've got to get back to work. We're right in the middle of getting lunch ready." She stood, but Elizabeth caught at her sleeve. The memory of the decision she'd made, before being so horribly interrupted, had suddenly returned.
"Andrea," she said, "may I see your kitchen?"
The young rat glanced down at her in surprise, and then she smiled wryly. "It's hardly my kitchen, I'm afraid. But I don't think my boss will mind. This way."
Andrea led Elizabeth a short distance up the corridor, through a wide set of double doors--and into chaos.
The community's kitchen was not in fact one room, but rather a complex of rooms, all interconnected, and all lit (at that time of the day) by large windows and skylights. As they entered, the place was a bedlam of noise, motion and scents; for several seconds Elizabeth was quite disoriented, until she began to detect order amidst the chaos.
The first space that Andrea led her into seemed to be mainly the prep area. The walls were lined with counters, topped with polished stone, and there was an additional long bench up the center of the room. Here a half-dozen or so rats, an equal mix of male and female, all of them wearing white smocks and aprons identical to Andrea's, were slicing, chopping, mixing and pounding. None of them looked up from their tasks as Andrea and Elizabeth passed through.
The next room was more properly the kitchen, because the actual process of cooking was going on there. Here the windows and the skylights were wide open; they had to be, or else the heat and the steam would have been unendurable. A wide door led directly outside, and stacked there were enormous piles of split wood. The huge cookstoves that lined the walls were black iron, and had stone chimneys. Another half-dozen rats, their smocks soaked with perspiration, were busy stoking the fires; while another ten, somewhat less disheveled, did the cooking. Today's lunch menu featured vegetable soup, it seemed: it was already simmering in huge pots atop the stoves, and more vegetables, beans and lentils--passed through from the prep room--were being tossed in even as they watched. Already the smell was heavenly.
There was another scent in the air as well, even better, and Elizabeth, following her nose, peeked through a stone arch into the next room. As she had expected, it was the bakery. Its ovens were made of brick, and shared the cookstoves' chimneys. The metal rack at the back of the room were already half-filled with loaves; and more, resting in pans on the center workbench, were apparently waiting to go into the ovens. Fresh bread was something she had never experienced, before coming to Thorn Valley; and of all the luxuries that she had found herself getting used to, that one was at the top of the list, surpassing even running water.
Andrea smiled down at her. "I'm sorry I can't give you a full tour," she said, raising her voice a little over the rattle of pots and pans. "But I've got to get back to work."
Elizabeth gazed around…and at that moment, made up her mind. "I want to help," she said.
The young rat looked startled. "Pardon me?"
"I want to help," Elizabeth repeated firmly. "I'm not a great chef, but I can cook. Find me an apron, or a towel, and give me a job."
"But you're a guest…"
She nodded. "I know I am," she said. "I'm a guest who wants to repay some of the kindness she's been shown."
Andrea looked at her dubiously; then she smiled. "I understand," she said. She looked around. "Let me see if I can find the boss."
Elizabeth sat in the dining room shortly after noon, a little tired, a little concerned…but on the whole, well pleased with herself.
Andrea's boss--the head of the kitchen department--had turned out to be another of the Original 22, a black-furred female named Margaret (or "Meg," as everyone in the kitchens affectionately called her.) An extremely busy person (weren't they all?) she had been inclined to be impatient with Andrea for interrupting her…until she saw who Andrea had brought with her.
In the end, Elizabeth spent the remainder of her morning making soup, standing atop a tall stool above a huge pot, a towel tied around her waist in lieu of an apron. She had not been given a recipe; she was free to follow her own instincts. She had a definite flair for improvisation, when it came to cooking; where she came from, she had to. It had seldom, if ever, been possible for her to plan a meal in advance; she never knew what foodstuffs she'd have available, any given day. It was that talent she put to good use that morning.
Seldom in her life had Elizabeth enjoyed a job more, than she did that morning. Certainly not since Jonathan had been gone. Mostly it was the company. The kitchen staff most certainly did not work in silence; in fact they chatted back and forth constantly. In those few hours Elizabeth, listening more than she talked, learned more Thorn Valley gossip than she would have thought possible--including the hardly-surprising fact that every unattached female in the community, girls to adults, was hopelessly in love with Justin. That, at least, she could well understand.
Eventually--it seemed only minutes, but in fact was almost three hours later--one of the kitchen staff came and got her creation, taking her pot of soup, along with the others, out to the warming tables of the serving line. Not, however, before she had managed to secure a bowlful for herself. She took it, and a good supply of bread and grains, out to her "reserved" table in the dining hall. Her non-recipe soup was edible, if she did say so herself, even though most of the ingredients had been preserved rather than fresh. Just how popular it would be, though, she would probably never know. In the bustle of the service line it was impossible to know for certain who was being served from which pot.
As she ate, as the dining hall filled up around her, Elizabeth kept and eye out constantly for her older children; and as the time passed and they failed to appear, she began to feel a tiny knot of concern grow inside her. Timothy and Cynthia she hadn't expected to see--the school had its own lunchroom, Alice had told her. But nothing short of a calamity could keep Martin away from his lunch. She knew that only too well. She had finished her meal, and returned her tray to the pickup window, before the two of them put in an appearance…and even then, she scarcely recognized them.
What she saw first was a large rat, a stranger to her, who strode into the dining hall with a scowl on his wide face and an air of determination. He was not tall--a full head shorter than Justin--but he outweighed the leader of the community by at least double. He was not fat, however, but massive; his chest and arms especially were hugely muscular. He wore a sleeveless brown tunic, a little lighter than his fur and none too clean; and a heavy tool-belt rode low on his hips. His large hands were clamped down firmly on the shoulders of two much smaller figures, flanking him; ones that were barely waist-high to him. Teresa and Martin Brisby. The two of them stood fidgeting, looking shame-faced, held firmly in place by the rat's grip on their arms…and covered, literally covered head to toe, with thick black mud.
Alarmed, Elizabeth hurried across the room…and was brought up short by the intensity of the big rat's glare. "Mrs. Brisby?" he said, his voice gruff. Then, without waiting for an answer, he went on, "I believe these are yours?"
Elizabeth peered sternly at the two of them. They couldn't hold her gaze; their eyes kept shifting, sliding away from hers. It was hard to tell where mud ended and mouse began; everything, their clothes, their fur, their tails, even the ribbon in Teresa's hair, was thickly plastered. Apparently they weren't hurt; but how on earth…?
She gazed up at the rat. "Yes, they're mine," she said. She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I don't think we've met."
"Arthur," the rat supplied. "My name is Arthur."
Involuntarily Elizabeth took a step backwards. So this was the famous Chief Engineer, the genius who had built the community and everything in it. She was not quite sure what she had pictured; but she had to admit that he fit the part, from his tool-belt to his massively strong arms. She'd been looking forward to meeting him…but under very different circumstances. She felt her ears and nose reddening; whether it was embarrassment, or anger, or both, she wasn't sure.
"What happened?" Elizabeth asked. She directed the question at Teresa and Martin; but it was Arthur who answered.
"I," he said, in matter-of-fact tones, "just found these two up on the fourth level. We've been doing some tunnel construction up there, and we've run into some bad seepage. I've had to build a long wooden sluice to carry the water and mud away. I don't know who started it, but one of them apparently dared the other to balance on the edge of the sluice, while I was off getting tools. You can see the result. When I got back I found them both stuck in the bottom of the sluice."
Elizabeth shook her head in despair. Why, oh why, did she have to be left alone to cope with this? A combination of too much intelligence, too much curiosity, too much energy…and sibling rivalry as well. Something deep inside had warned her, that morning; she should never have let those two out of her sight. And why here, of all places?
"Well?" she asked the two of them. "Is this true?"
They still couldn't hold her gaze; a few seconds later Teresa nodded. "Yes, Mother," she said faintly. "It's true. But it's Martin's fault--"
He would have disputed that, but Elizabeth held up her hand, forestalling him. "I don't care whose fault it is," she said. "Both of you should have known better. Both of you do know better. Am I right?"
They exchanged a glance; and then they nodded. "Yes, Mom," Martin said.
"We're sorry, Mother," Teresa added.
"I'm glad you are," she said. "But that's not the end of it, I'm afraid. Are either of you hurt?"
They exchanged another glance; and then they shook their heads. "No," Teresa said.
"Thank goodness for that, at least. I want the two of you to go get cleaned up. And then I want you to go to our room and stay there. Do you understand me? We're going to have a very long talk about this."
Arthur lifted his hands, releasing them, and they turned and departed hurriedly, without looking back. Elizabeth watched them go. I hope they don't touch anything before they get washed up, she thought. And I hope their good clothes aren't ruined. She looked up then, to see Arthur gazing down at her. The expression on his face was curious; it seemed to be an equal mix of anger, amusement and respect. "Thank you," she said. "Were they…were they in any danger?"
He shook his head "No, not really," he said. "The mud wasn't that deep; not even up to their knees. But after they fell in, the sides of the sluice were too high and too slippery to climb. I'm just glad I was there to hear them yelling for help."
Me too, she thought. "They won't be doing anything like that again, I promise you."
He leaned down to gaze earnestly at her. "I hope not," he said. "For all our sakes." And then he turned and departed.
For a moment she stood still, there in the middle of the rapidly-emptying dining hall, her face buried in her hands as she fought to get her emotions under control. This never would have happened if Jonathan were here, she thought. They were never out of control, when he was alive. Never. But I'm not him, and they know it. They take advantage of me because of what I am…or what I'm not..
She whirled around, to see Thomas standing behind her, looking down at her in concern. "I'm sorry to disturb you," he said contritely, "but I have a message. Justin would like to see you in his office as soon as it's convenient."
"Thank you, Thomas," she said. She sighed. What was it Jonathan used to say? "It never rains but what it pours."
"Justin, I am terribly, terribly sorry," Elizabeth began, even before she sat down; but the leader of the rats waved that off with a smile.
"Oh, that? Don't worry about it," he said. "Kids will be kids, and there was no harm done. I'm just glad they weren't hurt." He paused. "Though I have to admit, if I had to pick a person to cross, it wouldn't be Arthur."
Justin's office was just a few doors down from the Brisbys' guest room--and it suited him.
A good-sized space--though Elizabeth had as yet very little basis for comparison--the room had a curious, but comfortable, mix of furnishings. Along one wall sat a large desk, evidently old, made of a dark-stained wood. Lying atop it--amidst a sea of papers, pens and pencils--was something that Elizabeth recognized instantly, and not without a brief stab of pain: the Book, the journal of the Rats of NIMH. Somewhere inside, between those massive covers, were the words that had stabbed her to the heart, three months ago: "Jonathan Brisby was killed today…" With an effort of will she tore her eyes away. Flanking the desk were a pair of large filing cabinets, made of the same dark wood, and evidently stuffed full of papers. On the opposite wall were two doors: one, closed now, presumably led into Justin's bedroom. The other was also closed, and was in fact partially concealed by a hanging tapestry, as if the room beyond was unused. In the center of the room sat a large and comfortable sofa--onto which Elizabeth had hoisted herself at Justin's invitation--a coffee table made of light wood, and a huge overstuffed easy chair, which was evidently Justin's private domain, but which did not match the sofa at all. The chair's dark-green upholstery enfolded him like a hand as he settled into it. On the far wall, two large round windows flanked a fireplace, cold and dead now. Elizabeth gazed around…and suddenly she understood why the furniture seemed so mismatched: half of it, most notably the desk and the file cabinets, had been Nicodemus'. Probably the office had been intended for him as well.
At that point the significance of Justin's words struck her, and with an effort she tore her attention away from the furnishings. "Why?" she asked anxiously. "What will he do? He didn't seem to be a bad person…"
"Oh, he's not," Justin assured her quickly. "Not at all. He just has a lot on his mind. He's responsible for keeping this place running." He waved a hand. "Anything to do with construction or maintenance is his department. And I've been contributing to his stress, I'm afraid. Ever since we've been up here I've been looking to him to be a kind of unofficial second-in-command, precisely because he does know so much about keeping the place running. He hasn't complained about it--but I know I've been leaning on him too much."
"I met his wife earlier today too," Elizabeth commented.
"Oh, Alice? Yes, she's a treasure. She's done wonders with our school system--especially with limited resources. She'll have Arthur calmed down by dinnertime."
And then Teresa and Martin will apologize to him, she vowed silently. Or else. Justin may have been willing to forget the whole thing, and that was fine for him; but they were not his children.
Justin cleared his throat. "Actually," he said, "it's you I wanted to discuss, not your kids."
"Me?" she asked, startled. "Why?"
"Well," he began. He ran an embarrassed hand across his head. "I had a report that you were seen working in the kitchen this morning."
"Yes," she confirmed. "I was. Why? Is that wrong?"
"No, it's not wrong," he said hurriedly. "Not as such. Meg had nothing but praise for everything you did. It's just--well, I don't want you to get the idea that you have to work for your keep, because that's absolutely not true. You're our guest here, for as long as you want to stay."
"I know," she assured him. "And I don't want you to think that I'm not grateful, because I am. More than I can say. But…well, I know I don't have to work, but the fact is, I want to."
"I don't quite understand."
"I've always worked," she explained. "Ever since I was a little girl. The last time I went a whole day without working was after Cynthia was born. Jonathan was always telling me to slow down, take it easier--but that's not me. I know this is supposed to be a vacation, and I certainly don't intend to work all day every day. But I'll feel better if you'll let me help out. Just a little."
Justin smiled widely. "I can't argue with that," he said. "And I do understand what you mean. I just wish these rats of mine had half your work-ethic."
"They do," she assured him. The memories of her morning's work were still strongly with her. "Of course they do."
"Oh, I know it," Justin said. "Just kidding."
Elizabeth hesitated for a moment. One piece of Justin's decor had suddenly caught her eye, and the sight of it had brought back to mind her other morning encounter: the more alarming one. That object was a sheathed sword, which hung on pegs above Justin's desk. She said, "Justin, can you do me a favor?"
"I'll certainly try," he said with a smile. "What is it?"
"Can you…can you let Sullivan out of prison?"
His expression instantly darkened, and she drew back in alarm. "Did I say something wrong?" she asked.
He sighed. "No," he said. "No, not really. I'm sorry. It's just…well, you couldn't have known it, but that's a rather sore subject around here, I'm afraid. For me especially. It was one of the first thing I had to deal with after I was elected--and one of the worst. I actually found myself wishing he would die from his wounds."
"Justin, that's terrible!" she cried.
He nodded. "I know it is," he said heavily. "But it really was something I wished I didn't have to deal with. Yes, Sullivan did save my life. He tossed me his sword, so I could defend myself, and that got him sliced open. And he threw the dagger that finally took Jenner out, after I'd discarded my sword like an idiot. But the only reason he had a sword in the first place was that he was plotting with Jenner to murder Nicodemus. And there was no way we could ignore that, no matter what the extenuating circumstances were. He was tried and convicted according to our laws. He pled guilty, in fact. Threw himself on the mercy of the court. He can thank those mitigating circumstances for the fact that he was imprisoned instead of permanently banished."
"So--you can't let him free?"
Justin spread his hands helplessly. "It's not up to me, Elizabeth," he said. "I'm the leader, but I'm not a dictator. I'm not above the law. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment with hard labor, and that's what he'll serve." He hesitated, peering at her curiously. "Forgive me for asking, but why do you care so much? The plot he and Jenner hatched used your home and your family as pawns."
She looked away. "I know," she said. "But I don't think it was Sullivan's fault. I think Jenner forced him every step of the way. Sullivan was a…pawn too, in a way."
"Maybe so," he said grudgingly.
"…And I have to wonder if you're punishing Sullivan because you can't punish Jenner."
For a moment Justin looked at her, absolutely stricken; then he shook his head in wonder. "You, dear lady," he said, "have a definite way of stirring things up." He sighed. "I'll see what I can do," he said. "Truly, I will."
"You're welcome--I think." For a moment he looked thoughtful; then he rose and offered her his hand. "Come on," he said. "Let's go collect Teresa and Martin, have a word with Arthur. I think I have an idea how we can prevent any more mischief."
Elizabeth was resting, lying flat on her back on her borrowed bed, her hands behind her head, when Timothy and Cynthia got home from school.
Exactly why she was so tired she didn't know; certainly she had not put in a full day's work in the kitchen--not like she would have at home--and yet, soon after she and Justin had tracked down (and mollified) Arthur, she had found herself utterly exhausted. Perhaps it was the work involved in just living in this place (it was, after all, designed for rats); or perhaps--as Jonathan would have said--she was "worn out doing nothing." Surely she wasn't getting that old; not yet, anyway. Though with Teresa and Martin around…
It had been a distinct pleasure to see Justin at work, once they'd found Arthur. What was the word he had used? "Schmoozing," that was it. She had no clear idea what that meant; but he had clearly been laying on the charm a foot thick. She had detected clear echoes of Jonathan in Justin's routine; who, she wondered, had taught whom? The compromise they had reached had satisfied everyone--with the possible exception of Teresa and Martin. Certainly they had been looking none too pleased, when she'd last seen them. Well, it was their own fault.
As the door slammed open and the younger two entered, chatting and laughing, Elizabeth sat up, sliding down to the end of the bed. Timothy and Cynthia were clearly having a better day than their siblings; they were both smiling, bumping into each other playfully. Their arms were loaded full with books, which they dumped on their beds. "Hello, dears," Elizabeth said. And then she spoke words that she never in her wildest dreams ever imagined she would: "How was school?"
The two of them pulled themselves up onto the foot of her bed, flanking her, and she laid her arms around their shoulders. "It was great," Timothy said, and Cynthia nodded her agreement.
"Can we keep going?" she asked.
Elizabeth hugged them both. "I don't see why not," she said. "That is, if Alice agrees." She glanced at Timothy. "You made a friend today, I think," she observed. "What was his name?"
Timothy nodded. "Yes I did," he said, with enthusiasm. "He's great. His name's Robert." He shook his head in wonder. "He's really smart. He's way ahead of me in math." He grinned impishly, an expression he'd inherited intact from his father. "But not for long." Then, abruptly, he sobered. "Mom--you know he's Arthur's son? The chief engineer?"
Elizabeth nodded wryly. As of that afternoon, she was well acquainted with that personage. "Yes, I do."
"Robert says he once met Dad--when Dad came to talk to Arthur about the Plan. He says Dad was bigger than him then." Timothy shook his head again. "I didn't know Dad had that much to do with the Plan. But Robert says he did--he says Dad worked on it just as much as Justin and Arthur, and almost as much as Nicodemus."
"That's what I've heard too," Elizabeth said. "I wish your father could have told us. But I'm glad there are others who can."
Timothy nodded. Then he looked up at her anxiously. "Mom," he said, "Alice says she wants me to see Julian tomorrow morning. She says she wants him to check my eyes."
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, I know," she said. "Alice and I discussed it this morning."
"Because I've been concerned about you," she said. "I've noticed that you squint when you read--and that's not right. Julian is an…optician." She stumbled just slightly over the unfamiliar word. "He can check your vision, and make sure there's nothing wrong."
He looked up at her in anguish. "Does that mean I'm gonna need glasses?"
She smiled and pulled him a little closer. "Maybe it does," she said. "That will have to be Julian's decision. But honey," she went on, "I know how much you love to read. Wouldn't you like it to be easier for you?"
He sighed and glanced away. That argument had hit home, she saw. Reading, learning, the pursuit of knowledge, was a passion for Timothy. His father would have been proud. "Sometimes," he admitted slowly, "when I've been reading for a long time my eyes start to hurt. And sometimes I even get a headache. And sometimes after I've been reading, I look up and everything is blurry."
"Well, there you are," she said. "That's exactly what Julian can fix."
Timothy sighed again, tragically. "All right," he said. "I'll go."
Elizabeth smiled and hugged him. "I think you'll live through it," she said. Then she turned to her daughter. "And how was your day, honey?"
Cynthia nodded and smiled. "It was a lot of fun," she said. "I made friends too. And I learned a lot. It was really great. Except…" she trailed off then and looked away.
Elizabeth frowned. "Except what, dear?" she said gently.
Cynthia turned toward her, and Elizabeth was surprised to see tears in those big brown eyes. "Some of the kids," Cynthia said. her voice trembling, "not all of them--just a few. They…they laughed at me." She turned away again hurriedly.
"Why did they laugh?" Elizabeth asked. "Because you're a mouse?"
Without turning, Cynthia shook her head. "No," she said. "Nobody cared about that. They laughed because there's so much I don't know. I'm way behind them in everything." She turned. "I'm…I'm not dumb, am I, Momma?"
"No," both Elizabeth and Timothy said together, firmly. Elizabeth removed her left arm from Timothy's shoulders and wrapped it around Cynthia, pulling the girl close to her. "No, honey, you're not dumb at all," Elizabeth went on. She was aware of Timothy murmuring words of agreement behind her. "Never let anyone tell you that you are. It's just…well, they've had advantages that you haven't. They've all gone to school since they were small, and that wasn't possible for you. Of course they're ahead of you now. But that doesn't mean they have to stay ahead."
Cynthia spoke into her shoulder. "Marie says I could catch up, if I worked hard."
"I'm sure she's right," Elizabeth said. Even as she spoke she was fighting ugly pangs of guilt. Ridiculous, she knew; but still they persisted. Surely Jonathan had a plan, she thought. He must have had some way to deal with this. Oh my darling, if only you'd been able to tell me! Here and now, with Jonathan gone, she could think of only one thing to do: it involved thoughts that had first come into her mind the night before, as they sat listening to the concert. Thoughts which she was not at all prepared to confront. "Do you want to work hard?" she asked.
"Yes," Cynthia said firmly. "Yes I do."
"Then we'll give you all the help we can, for as long as we're here." Elizabeth glanced at Timothy. "I think you can count on your brother's help."
Timothy smiled and reached over to rub Cynthia's shoulder. "You bet," he said.
For a moment Cynthia hugged Elizabeth hard; then she looked around in surprise. "Hey," she said, "where are Teresa and Martin?"
Elizabeth couldn't help but smile, just a little. Timothy and Cynthia had vowed revenge for being excluded that morning; and in a sense, they had achieved it. "Your brother and sister," she said blandly, "are busy mopping floors right now."
Philip and Eileen hadn't been sleeping together--at least as far as Jonathan knew--but they had definitely grown fond of each other. Extremely fond, in fact.
Jonathan had watched the growth of their relationship, these past nine months, with a mixture of feelings. Surprise and amusement at first, because the two of them were such diametric opposites. Eileen was analytical, always thinking through every move before she made it; Philip, on the other hand, seldom let thinking get in the way of action. In the beginning, as Jonathan knew very well, Eileen had regarded Philip as reckless to the point of being suicidal; and he had regarded her as a fussy, sarcastic pedant. That the two of them could even become friends, let along anything closer, had at first seemed unlikely in the extreme.
And yet, somehow, they had managed it. Watching them grow closer together, Jonathan had felt his surprise and amusement turn to distinct pleasure. Never had the two of them allowed their personal business to interfere with the job at hand; that was not an issue. It had pleased Jonathan greatly to see that someone, at least, was looking beyond the conclusion of this endless mission. Clearly the two of them believed that there would be a future; and Jonathan, even in his darkest moments, found that optimism contagious. Just to watch them together was to forget his problems, at least momentarily. Except when--as sometimes happened, unless he was very careful--the sight of their happiness just served to remind him of what he had lost. When those moods struck, nothing could console him.
But these last three days, Jonathan had noticed a subtle change in that relationship. Ever since Philip had brought the news that Dr. Schultz had hired a helicopter, the two of them had drifted apart. It was not--certainly not--that they no longer loved each other. Jonathan didn't believe that for a moment. No--it seemed to him that neither Philip nor Eileen believed in the future any more. Whatever plans they had made, consciously or unconsciously, now seemed pointless. How can you plan for a future, when it seemed doubtful that you would even have a home to return to? It had been days since Jonathan had seen them kiss or embrace; or even heard them exchange a kind word. And that distressed him almost as much as the danger the rats, his friends, faced.
The three of them--Jonathan, Philip and Eileen--sat vigil that evening in the air-conditioning duct behind Dr. Schultz's office, leaving Mark and David to gather food. On this, the second day of his search, it seemed that the scientist had been gone considerably longer; the gleam of sunlight had nearly vanished from the windows when they finally heard the machine roar in for a brief landing in the parking lot. A few minutes later the office door opened, and the lights clicked on. Cautiously Jonathan and his friends crept forward, watching and listening.
Dr. Schultz was a middle-aged man now, short and compact. Rather pale of skin, he had close-cropped hair and a neatly-trimmed beard, both black with a sprinkling of grey. As they watched he settled gingerly into his desk chair, removed his glasses, and leaned back, rubbing his eyes tiredly. For a full five minutes he sat motionless; then he straightened up, and put his glasses back on. He pulled the topo map from his jacket pocket and spread it out across the desk. For some time he pored over it, making notes with a black felt-tip pen; then he sat back and closed his eyes again. Finally he reached for the telephone and dialed.
"Hello, it's me," he said, a few seconds later. He had a pleasant enough voice; but one that Jonathan had long ago learned to hate, because in his mind--and in the minds of twenty-nine others, some of them dead--that voice had been associated with pain and imprisonment. A pause, and then Schultz continued, "No, no luck. I haven't found them yet. Frankly I didn't expect to, the places where I've been searching so far. Why? Too close to civilization, that's why. Why should they abandon one farm just to move to another? That never made any sense to me."
Inside the vent, Jonathan and his friends exchanged a worried glance; but Dr. Schultz was still speaking. "I need permission to fly over that wilderness area," he said. "That's where they are; that's where they have to be. They couldn't have just up and vanished. We're not dealing with anything supernatural here. They're living somewhere near that mountain; I know it. And if I'm right, there's no way they can completely hide their activities."
He listened for a moment, then he said, "That's all I ask for right now. I just want to be able to make a few low-level flights. You can tell them that. If I find anything, then we can start talking about landing." A pause. "Yes, I know your reputation is riding on this. You think mine isn't? Obviously we have to deliver. But this is bigger than either of us, my friend. Bigger than our reputations; maybe even bigger than our lives. And don't worry: it's a sure thing. I am going to find them. And when I do…" A pause. "All right. Let me know what you find out. Right. Good-bye."
He hung up then, and sat for a moment, gazing up at the ceiling. Then he chuckled, shook his head, and stood. "Reputations," he muttered. "He's worried about our reputations. Idiot!" He folded the map and stuck it back in his jacket pocket (much to Jonathan's disappointment); and then he left, clicking off the lights behind him.
Jonathan sighed and stood, stretching out his cramped muscles. They had been waiting the better part of two hours. "Nothing more to see here," he said. "Let's go."
For several minutes they walked in silence, following the ductwork back to their hideaway, their toenails clicking faintly on the sheet metal. The Philip said quietly, "Jonathan? Who was Dr. Schultz talking to, do you think?"
"Who knows?" Jonathan said. He thought about it for a moment, then went on, "A government official, perhaps. Someone who can get Schultz permission to fly over the wilderness area."
"Or so Schultz thinks," Eileen put in. "It didn't sound certain."
"Trust me, Hacker," Jonathan told her bitterly. "It's certain. It's just a matter of time. Dr. Schultz seldom takes 'no' for an answer."
They walked in silence for another few minutes, each of them lost in their own gloomy thoughts. Then Eileen came to a sudden halt, laying a hand on Jonathan's shoulder. "We've got to talk," she said. "You asked me last night if I had any ideas, any way to deal with Schultz. Well, I do." She took a deep breath. "I think…I think we should…get rid of him."
Jonathan gazed up at her, his eyes narrowed. "Meaning what exactly?" he demanded.
"Oh, don't be dense, Jonathan," she said impatiently. "I mean put him out of the way. Kill him."
Jonathan paused for a moment. Then he said, carefully, "Eileen--Hacker--I really hope you're joking."
She shook her head. "I've never been more serious in my life," she said. "I've been thinking about this the last two days. Ever since he started searching for our home. I've been trying to tell myself that it's unthinkable; but I can't do that any more. I really believe it's our only choice."
Jonathan's voice was level, his tone neutral. "Supposing--just supposing--that I was to agree," he said. "How would you go about such a thing? Given that he's several hundred times your size, I mean."
She shrugged. "He has coffee every morning like clockwork, right?" she asked. "We find something in one of the labs and sneak it into his mug. No problem."
Jonathan shook his head. "No," he said simply. "No, that we will not do."
"Why not? she insisted.
"Among other things," he told her, "it's murder."
She shook her head. "No," she said. "It's not murder. It's war. You know that as well as I do. Schultz isn't looking for Thorn Valley so he can drop in and say hello. He intends to destroy the place. He might stop for a few prisoners…but his objective is to wipe our people out. You don't dispute that, do you?"
Jonathan shook his head. "No, of course I don't," he said. "But--"
"But nothing, Jonathan." She knelt down, laid her hands on his shoulders, and spoke earnestly as she gazed into his eyes. "In Thorn Valley I have parents and six siblings, including a twin sister." She gestured. "Philip has parents and eight siblings. Mark and David have parents and seven siblings. And that's not even counting nieces and nephews…and friends. Everyone we know is there, Jonathan. Almost everyone you know is there. Schultz is going to kill as many of them as he can. Unless we stop him first."
"And you think I don't know that?" Jonathan demanded. "Do you really think that hasn't been in my mind every minute of the last three days? Of course it has." He shook his head. "But I will not be a party to murder. Not by any other name, and not for any reason."
She released him and stood, turning her back. "Then I'll do it myself," she said.
"No," Jonathan told her. "You won't."
She rounded on him, smiling bitterly. "Oh, and you think you can stop me?"
Philip cleared his throat. Up until then he had been standing back, silent, watching the argument with a pained expression on his face. Now he said, softly, "He might not be able to, Eileen. But I certainly can, and I will."
She turned, looking shocked. "You?"
He nodded tiredly. "Yes, me," he said. "Eileen, you know how I feel about you. At least I hope you do. All of us are worried about our families--of course we are. But killing Schultz isn't the answer. You'll realize that too, once you calm down and think it through. I don't know what we're going to do--but Jonathan is right. We're not going to murder anyone."
"Why?" Eileen demanded. Her eyes, flashing with anger, shifted from Jonathan to Philip and back again. "Why is this one human more important to you than your own families and friends?"
Jonathan shook his head. "That's not it," he said. He paused. "Eileen, would you agree that I probably know more about Nicodemus' motivations than you do?"
She half-smiled. "I suppose that's true," she admitted.
"This isn't about Dr. Schultz," Jonathan said. "Not really; though I for one don't want anybody's blood on my hands. What you have to understand is this: Nicodemus never intended Thorn Valley as a permanent hiding place. He saw it as a refuge. Human beings are too expansionist, too acquisitive. Nicodemus knew that. He recognized that the Rats of NIMH are going to come into contact with humans again, some time in the future. What he hoped to do, by moving to Thorn Valley, was to delay that time. He hoped for a day when the humans might be prepared to accept us, rather than trying to destroy us." He shook his head sadly. "Obviously it hasn't worked out that way. But if we can get through this, we have to keep hoping for that day."
Eileen shook her head. "What has this got to do with Schultz?"
"Eileen, if we're ever going to have peaceful contact with the humans, we can't afford to do them any harm now. Because it won't be forgotten. Jenner used to make a similar argument. You know that the farmer--Fitzgibbons--knew very well there were rats on his land. Every once in a while he'd do something to make our lives a little more difficult--reinforce his feed bins, for example. Every time he did, Jenner would argue that we ought to arrange an 'accident" for him. We could have done it, too. That I don't doubt. But if we kill humans, even to keep them from killing us, we run the risk of having it held against us in the future. And that would absolutely assure our destruction. Nicodemus understood that, even if Jenner didn't."
"So you're going to stand around doing nothing," Eileen said.
Jonathan shrugged. "I wouldn't put it exactly that way," he said. "But unless somebody suggests a viable plan, yes."
Without another word Eileen turned and stalked away, shouldering roughly past Philip. In just a few seconds the darkness swallowed her.
Philip would have gone after her, but Jonathan caught at the hem of the young rat's tunic, stopping him. "I wouldn't, if I were you," Jonathan advised.
"No?" Philip asked.
"No," Jonathan said firmly. "I really think you'd be better off leaving her alone for a while."
Philip frowned down at him, and Jonathan continued, "She's scared, son. We're all scared. Right now I think she might say some things she doesn't really mean--and you wouldn't want to hear. Let her cool off for a while."
Philip sighed and nodded. For a moment he stood gazing down the dark, dusty shaft. Then he turned. "Jonathan," he said softly, "what if she's right?"
"Martin?" Timothy asked. "Do you...miss Dad?"
Martin looked over at his brother in surprise. "'Course I do," he said. Then his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What makes you think I don't?"
"Nothing," Timothy said hurriedly. He hesitated. "It's just...well, I've been wondering why you don't talk about him much." He pointed. "Neither does Teresa. Cynthia was too little. She hardly remembers him. But you two..."
There was a long pause, during which Martin looked down at his own, mostly-submerged feet. He wriggled his toes, sending eight tiny ripples across the swimming hole. Finally he said, slowly, "I guess...we just don't have that much to say. I mean, sure, we loved him, but he's gone, and, well...what else can we say?"
The four of them had the swimming hole almost to themselves that morning, except for Carla the lifeguard, and a few adult rats looking for exercise. The water at that time of day was slightly chilly, but the air was warming rapidly and the sun was already intense. Near the shore, Teresa and Cynthia were splashing around, tossing a huge beach ball back and forth. For a time Timothy and Martin had competed at diving; a little uncharacteristically, it was Martin who called it quits first. The two of them sat on the rocks of the breakwater, their hands behind their heads, letting the sun bake their upper bodies dry while their legs and tails dangled in the cool water.
"What's got you thinking about Dad so much anyway, little brother?" Martin asked a moment later, with just a hint of irritation in his voice.
Timothy glanced down at his own, smaller feet. His siblings might not know it, but Timothy Brisby was always thinking about his father. Not a day had passed since Jonathan disappeared, that Timothy had not thought about him, many times. But--like the others, perhaps--he usually kept those thoughts to himself. He said, "Ever since we came up here it's been like I can feel him." He waved an arm. "Everybody here knew him, and most of them liked him. He worked so hard to help them build this place. Since we've been here I've felt closer to him than I have since he's been gone." He peered earnestly at Martin. "Don't you?"
This time it was Martin's turn to look away. He mumbled something; it might have been "Yeah, I guess."
It was the morning of the Brisby family's fifth day in Thorn Valley; and to some of them at least, that place already seemed more like home than the farm ever had. For the past three days Timothy and Cynthia had attended school with the young rats, and they would have done so again this morning, except for one thing: Test Day. Even Robert, learning mostly via independent study, was not entirely immune from the requirement to demonstrate, every once in a while, what he had learned. And so Timothy and Cynthia, along with their brother and sister, had found themselves thrown on their own resources. A dangerous thing, sometimes; but after the events of three days ago, possibly not.
For several minutes Timothy watched his sisters chase the ball back and forth across the pool. Most of the time Teresa had no patience at all with Cynthia; but there were moments, and this was one of them, it seemed. Timothy didn't know exactly what had been said to Teresa and Martin after the mud-sluice incident; but whatever it was, the results were undeniable: both of them were considerably subdued, considerably less adventurous, and--for the moment at least--being considerably nicer to their younger brother and sister. Though whether that would last was another question.
Finally Timothy said, "Martin, if Dad was here right now--if it was possible--would you be glad to see him?"
For a moment Martin seemed to freeze, his wriggling toes and lazily-waving tail coming to an abrupt halt; then he turned to his brother with a look of profound disgust. "Timothy," he said, "sometimes you can say really stupid things, you know that?" And with those words he slipped into the water and swam off toward the girls.
Timothy watched him go, his face expressionless. Then, "Maybe not," he whispered. He squinted up at the sun then--and jumped in alarm. It was later than he'd thought. As his brother had a moment earlier, he slid smoothly into the water; but unlike Martin, he headed straight for the shore. He moved like a small grey torpedo, nose first, his arms pressed against his sides, propelling himself with his feet and his tail. Once on the beach he didn't pause; he grabbed his towel and his shirt and took off running toward the main entrance, drying himself as he jogged. He had an appointment, whether he liked it or not; and if he didn't hurry, he was going to be late.
"Justin," Elizabeth said quietly, "I'm afraid I have to report a robbery."
The leader of the rats looked up sharply over the top of his clipboard...and then, as he saw her, his initial alarm gave way to a small, secret smile. Mission accomplished, he thought. "Really?" he said blandly. He scooted over on the wide sofa, and waved a hand. "You'd better have a seat and tell me about it."
There were times when Justin's office, as spacious as it was, became entirely too claustrophobic; and that morning was one of those times. It was early in the day--not long after breakfast--and the lounge was all but deserted; there were just a few other rats present, quietly conversing, reading, or just sitting and thinking. Justin--as he often did--had staked himself out a position in the southwest corner, near the windows; he sat with his feet up on the coffee table, and the contents of several file folders spread out around him. The other rats who saw him there merely smiled and went about their business; it was, they knew, just another of their leader's little idiosyncrasies.
Elizabeth pulled herself up onto the sofa beside him. For someone who claimed to have been robbed she seemed remarkably composed; and the reason for that, Justin could readily see. As it happened, the word "robbery" wasn't quite accurate; "criminal exchangery" (if there was such a thing) might come closer.
"This morning I went to take a bath," Elizabeth began. "I left my cape with my towel, on the bench outside the tub enclosure. When I got out of the tub my cape was gone." She spread out her arms. "And this was in its place."
This time Justin smiled openly. "This," as she had put it, was in fact a brand-new cape, fresh out of the community's sewing department. Made of soft cotton cloth, dark green in color, the cape was a little longer than her old one, and was impeccably tailored, all four edges straight and neatly hemmed. The collar had been turned over and sewn, creating a kind of tunnel; and through that a "cord" made of the same material had been passed; Elizabeth had tied it in a neat bow-knot under her chin. Justin had grown used to seeing her dressed in red (and, very briefly, in nothing at all), and so the change was somewhat startling; but on the whole, he had to agree that the sewing staff had made the right choice. She does look good in green, he thought. More important to his eye, though, was the fact that this garment was entirely whole, with no ragged edges, and not a patch to be seen. No longer did she look like a ragamuffin; in fact she looked almost...regal. If the Stone had been hanging around her neck instead of his, she could have passed for the Queen of Thorn Valley.
With an effort--knowing full well that she was playing with him--he managed to keep a straight face. "That's a very serious allegation," he intoned. "Do you have any suspects?"
"Only one," she said. "And he seems to have an...alibi." She spoke that last word hesitantly, looking up at him; he nodded. Yes, that's the correct term. "But even if he didn't commit the crime, I have a feeling he planned it."
"I see," he said. "And what do you think his motive was?"
She shook her head. "I couldn't say."
"Maybe," Justin suggested, dead-pan, "he thought that having honored guests running around looking like bag ladies was bad for the community's image."
At that point she couldn't keep up the charade any longer; she burst out laughing. "Oh, come on," she said, "it didn't look that bad, did it?"
"Trust me, it did," he told her seriously. "I was a little hurt. I mean, we left you all that cloth, and you didn't use any of it for yourself. Yes," he added quickly, "I know you had growing kids to keep clothed..."
She shook her head. "That's not quite true," she said. "I did use some of the cloth for myself, and I do have other capes; they're in our room right now."
He quirked an eye at her. "Then why--?"
"That one was...comfortable," she said. She paused and shook her head. "No, that's not what I mean. I guess I mean it was comforting. You see...Jonathan gave it to me, a long time ago. When we met, I didn't know a thing about clothes, and he thought that was terrible."
"Oh," Justin said softly. Then his eyes widened. "Oh!" He shook his head in dismay. "There I go again, jumping to conclusions. Listen--if we hurry, we might be able to stop it being recycled into dust-rags..."
She shook her head firmly. "No," she said. She gazed out the window. "There's a time when you have to let some things go," she went on softly. "Jonathan gave me many things." She smiled. "Most of them are longer-lasting than just a piece of cloth." She hesitated, peering up at him. "Was I right?" she asked. She lifted a green fold. "Was this your idea?"
"I'm afraid so," he confessed. "Though I left the actual execution to the sewing staff."
"Well, thank you," she said. "And you can thank them for me too, if I don't get a chance first. This is lovely, and I will treasure it." She smiled. "And the community does have standards to keep up."
He grinned. "I'm afraid we might all be getting a little more ragged than we'd like," he said ruefully. "It takes a lot of resources to make clothing from scratch. There was a time when our kids didn't know the meaning of the term 'hand me down.' They're finding out now."
"Believe me," she said, "I understand."
He peered down at her. Five days ago, when she and her children arrived in the valley, he had instantly noticed--and approved--the changes in her. Now he saw that those changes were just part of an ongoing process. Elizabeth Brisby was evolving, changing, under his very eyes, it seemed. The serenity and courage he had seen that first day were still there, still evident; and now they had been joined by something he could only call confidence. Would the Mrs. Brisby of three months ago have sought him out, as she had this morning, to joke with him? Would she have walked boldly into the kitchens and offered her services? Would she have walked into his office and all but demanded that he let Sullivan out of prison? He didn't think so. And yet this Mrs. Brisby--the very much improved model--had done all those things. This Mrs. Brisby walked the corridors of the community at ease, returning greetings as if she'd lived there all her life. And in fact--Justin realized to his surprise--it was already getting hard to remember a time when she hadn't been there. As hard as it was to contemplate a time when she no longer would.
He said, "You and I haven't had as much time to talk as I'd hoped. So--how have you been getting along?"
"We've been having a wonderful time," she said. "Even better than I expected. Timothy and Cynthia have been going to school, you know--except today, of course--and Teresa and Martin have actually been making themselves useful..."
"So I've heard," Justin said. He rummaged through the papers that surrounded him. "I've got the reports here somewhere...Oh, yes, here we are. Martin Brisby spent yesterday running errands for Arthur's excavation crew up on the fourth level. They send their gratitude. And Teresa Brisby has been seen helping out in the day-care center, ditto." He glanced up. "Did you have any inkling that they had these proclivities?"
"Well, I knew that Martin is interested in construction," she said. "He's been making a lot of use of those tools you left us. But Teresa..." She shook her head. "No, I don't know what put that idea into her mind." She smiled. "Unless it's some of my genes at work."
"She must have a few, at least," Justin agreed blandly. "Where are the four of them this morning?"
"Out at the swimming hole, I think," Elizabeth said. "I thought it might be a little chilly this early in the morning, but they insisted it wouldn't." She shrugged helplessly.
Justin peered at her in some surprise. Here was another change, one which she might not even be aware of herself. Five days ago, would she have let the four of them go to the swimming hole by themselves? True, they were perfectly safe, with the lifeguard on duty; but even that would not have prevented her from supervising. Truly, Thorn Valley was having its effects on her. More and more each day.
"What I really wanted to know," Justin said, "is how you are doing. I know your kids love this place--but what about you?"
"I'm fine," she assured him. "I have to admit, this community did take some getting used to, and there are some things that are still a little strange to me. But so far at least I'm... comfortable. Yes, that's the word: comfortable."
"That's all?" he asked, in mock dismay. "Just 'comfortable'?"
She shrugged. "When you've spent as much time as I have being uncomfortable, it's enough. I've spent too much of my life being cold, hungry, frightened...Jonathan did what he could, but even he couldn't always make it go away. And since he's been gone..." She spread her arms. "But here, you have made it go away."
"I'd wait until winter," he advised, "before I made statements like that. But right this minute, I suppose you have a point."
"And I think that's going to be the hardest thing for me to give up, when we leave."
Then why leave? The words almost slipped out, but he bit them back just in time. Of course the Brisby family would have to leave eventually. This was just a visit; their real home was back on the farm, and at some point they would return to it. They had to, of course...didn't they?
"Did you and Jonathan ever fight?" Justin asked. "Forgive me if I'm being too nosy," he added quickly.
"No, you're not," she said. She paused. "Of course we did, once in a while," she went on. "Not much, and of course we always made up soon enough. But there are times when it's cold and snowing, and you have four hungry children, and you can't find dry firewood or food...and tempers can get short." She shook her head. "Somehow it doesn't seem very important any more." For a moment she was silent, gazing out at the morning; then she chuckled. "You know, it's strange. Looking back, it seems to me that Jonathan always won those arguments. Except when he let me win, which is just as irritating. Now I finally understand why." She glanced up at Justin. "I don't think that would happen any more."
He smiled. "No, I don't suppose it would." He couldn't quite suppress the catch in his voice as he said that; but she appeared not to notice. Probably--knowing that he missed Jonathan too--she would just chalk it up to emotion.
"But there was one thing he never did," Elizabeth went on quietly. "No matter how badly we fought. He never used words to hurt me. And he absolutely never physically hurt me. He could have; he was smarter than me, and stronger. But he always seemed to be afraid of that. In some ways I think he was afraid of his own intelligence and his strength, when it came to me." She paused. "I understand that now too," she finished wistfully.
Suddenly then, and to his extreme surprise, Justin realized that his left arm, with a mind of its own, had somehow draped itself around Elizabeth's shoulders, as she sat there beside him. That was embarrassing enough--but doubly so was the fact that she didn't seem to mind. Rather the opposite, in fact; she had moved in a little closer to him, so that her leg was actually touching his.
And that quickly, he felt a sudden surge of panic grip him. No, he thought desperately. Please, God, no! This wasn't right; any minute now one or the other of them was going to say something that shouldn't be said...
Justin's salvation, when it arrived a few seconds later, came in the form of a small grey shape that exploded into the lounge like a guided missile, out of breath, disheveled, and still slightly damp. Timothy grinned hugely. "Hi, Justin," he said. He turned. "Mom, it's time for my second appointment with Julian. You said you wanted to be there."
"Yes I do, dear," Elizabeth said. Justin had already, in those few seconds of confusion, removed his arm from around her. Now she stood--climbing to her feet right there on the sofa, so that her head was on a level with his--and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you again for the new cape," she said. And then she hopped down and departed, her arm around her son's shoulders, leaving Justin to touch a spot on his cheek and wonder if the temperature in the lounge really had just risen thirty degrees.
"I'm glad you brought Timothy to see me, Mrs. Brisby," Julian said over his shoulder. "I think we'll be able to make him a great deal more comfortable."
More than half of the community's second level was given over to manufacturing. It was there, for example, that the spinning, weaving, dying, cutting and sewing of clothing went on. But as large and busy as they were, the cloth mill and the sewing department were entirely dwarfed by the vast complex that was known collectively as the Workshop. Here every tangible physical item in the community was produced, be it made of wood, metal, glass, ceramic, or a combination thereof; and here too the larger construction projects, such as the excavation of new tunnels, was planned. This was Arthur's domain, entirely and absolutely--even Justin recognized his sovereignty--and a good twenty percent of the adult population worked directly for him. Elizabeth and her children had toured the shop briefly on their first day; very briefly, because the noise of the water-driven power tools had made her a little dizzy. Martin had been fascinated, which was predictable; and so too had Timothy, a little to Elizabeth's surprise.
Julian's workspace occupied a very small part of his father's huge shop, just two rooms. They were some distance away from the main shop, and, consequently, were blissfully quiet. The outer, smaller room was windowless, and was occupied mostly prominently by a large, couch-like reclining chair. The inner room was Julian's personal workshop; at the bench there he ground lenses and bent wire into frames. Timothy and his mother had gotten just a glimpse at that bench; expecting chaos, they had been surprised by the almost obsessive neatness.
Two days ago Timothy had spent more than an hour in that reclining chair, looking and feeling extremely small, reading off letters from charts that were affixed to the opposite wall; and also reading out passages from a book that Julian placed in his lap: a book where the same paragraph was repeated over and over in progressively smaller type, to the point where--for Timothy at least--it became just a grey blur. A little to Timothy's surprise, he had trouble not only with the small type in the book, but with the smaller lines on the wall-chart as well. Until, that is, Julian held lenses--affixed to long metal rods--in front of his eyes, singly and in combination. It took some time--Julian was constantly asking him to choose which of two, or even three, lenses made the letters appear sharpest, and the differences were often quite small, making the choice difficult--but eventually the rat wrote a series of cryptic numbers in a notebook, shook Timothy's hand, and told him to come back in two days. Whether Timothy passed that time in eager anticipation or in dread, is open to debate.
And now Timothy was seated in that chair again, waiting, while his mother stood beside him, and Julian bent over a small desk in the corner of the room, delicately bending wire with a pair of tiny pliers.
"Timothy's eyes are healthy, aren't they?" Elizabeth asked anxiously.
"Oh yes," Julian assured her. "Very much so. There's no sign of disease. But unfortunately not everyone's eyes are perfectly shaped." He glanced back over his shoulder again, smiling as he reached up to touch his own glasses. "There are a lot of us around, as I'm sure you've noticed."
"Yes, I have," she said, smiling in return. She paused. "Do you think you can explain exactly what the problem is? So that I can understand it, I mean," she added quickly.
"I think so," he said. "Inside the eye there's a tiny, clear, flexible capsule called the lens. Its job is to focus the light, which is reflected from the objects we see, to a sharp point at the back of the eye, which is called the retina. If for one reason or another the light isn't focused to a point, then the objects appear blurry. In Timothy's case there's a certain degree of hyperopia--meaning that his eyeballs are a little too short back to front, and the lenses can't flex quite enough to focus the light from very near objects, such as a book. There's also some astigmatism, which is an irregularity in the shape of the cornea, the clear part of the surface of the eye. That affects focus at all distances, near to far. Of course the degree of correction needed is different in each eye. What I did two days ago was to try sample lenses of various shapes and curvatures, to find the combination which will give him the sharpest vision. It's always a compromise, of course, to a certain degree. I then took that information and ground glass lenses to the proper curvature. And here's the result."
He swiveled around on his stool then, and leaned over to place on Timothy's face a small pair of glasses--in fact the smallest Julian had ever been called upon to make. As tiny as they were, he had lavished every bit of his considerable skill on them. The lenses were round, and had a slightly magnifying effect, making Timothy's big blue eyes appear even larger. The frames were silver wire, finely bent and soldered. Fortunately Timothy had his father's ears--large, and mounted on the sides of his head--and so the ear-pieces could be nearly perpendicular to the lenses. Julian sat back, frowning slightly as he examined his work, and then he said, "How do they feel?"
Timothy reached up and adjusted the frames; then he shook his head. "Weird," he said. "They make me kind of dizzy."
Julian smiled. "Not unexpected," he said. "You've gotten used to seeing everything blurry, and to squinting. But what I really meant was, how do they fit?"
"I think," Timothy said slowly, "they could be just a little bit tighter."
Julian nodded. "I think you might be right," he said. He lifted the glasses gently from Timothy's face, made the adjustment, and resettled them. "Better?"
"Yes," Timothy agreed. "A lot." He peered across at Elizabeth. "What do you think, Mom?" he asked anxiously.
What Elizabeth thought at that moment was that she was going to burst out crying. She had no idea why; there was no logical reason for it; but for some reason, with those things perched on his nose her son looked smaller and more vulnerable than ever. Which of course was ridiculous; in fact Timothy was growing taller and stronger every day. And those glasses were nothing more or less than tools; they helped him do a better job of seeing. She swallowed hard, and somehow her voice remained steady as she said, "They look fine, honey."
"Now," Julian said, "let's see how well they work." He nodded across the room, at the chart tacked to the far wall. "As I recall you got as far as line six without them. How far can you get now?"
Timothy peered across the room, for once not squinting; and he jumped in surprise. "I can get all the way down to line nine," he said. And to prove it, he read off the tiny letters: "E, F, M, O, G, H, L." He looked up at Julian. "Was that right?"
"Absolutely," Julian assured him. "That's very good; better than 20-20. Now let's try this." He laid the book in Timothy's lap and opened to a page at random. "You got only as far as the third sample," he said. "Now what can you get?"
Timothy peered down at the page. "All the way to the sixth," he said excitedly. "'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...'"
"That's exceptionally good," Julian said in satisfaction. "Even I have trouble with that one at times." He removed the book from Timothy's lap and set it aside. Then he smiled at the both of them, Elizabeth as well as Timothy. "Well," he said, "that's all there is to it. You might find over the next few days that they need adjustment. If so, you know where to find me. Oh--one more thing." He turned to the desk, and handed Timothy a small, oblong item: a glasses case, made of beautifully-worked and polished light-colored wood, fastened with a tiny hook, and lined inside with red velvet. "This will keep them from getting scratched."
"Thank you," Timothy said.
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes," she said. "Thank you, Julian. Very much You've been extremely kind." Especially since we're not really members of this community, she added silently.
Julian smiled broadly and leaned back. "You're quite welcome," he said. "I'm glad to be able to help." He paused, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Now," he said, peering down at Timothy, "I understand that you've been expressing some interest in my other profession: music. My mother tells me you're interested in learning the guitar."
Timothy's face lit up for a few seconds; then he sighed and turned away. "I was," he said. "But I was talking to Robert yesterday. He says it takes a long time to learn any instrument--months and months."
"I'm afraid that's true," Julian said. "At least to learn it well."
Timothy shook his head. "That's the problem," he said. "We're only going to be here for another three weeks or so."
Julian nodded in sympathy. "I understand," he said. "And I'm sorry to have to admit, there isn't much we could do in that short a time. It would take almost that long just to have a guitar built to your size."
"I know," Timothy said sadly. "Robert told me that too."
"But," Julian said, "if circumstances should change, I want you to know that I will be available. I always have time for an eager student."
Timothy looked quickly at his mother; but Elizabeth turned away. Once again, she thought sadly. More proof that their lives here would be much better than anything I can give them. There's only one thing I can do; but am I brave enough to do it?
Timothy pushed himself out of the chair. "Are we done here?" he asked, and at Julian's nod, he headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" Elizabeth asked.
"The library," Timothy told her. "Teresa, Martin and Cynthia should be there by now--I told them I'd meet them there." He grinned. "There's a lot of books I haven't looked at yet."
"Don't over--" Julian began; but by then he was talking to a door. He grinned ruefully at Elizabeth. "--do," he finished.
Elizabeth Brisby had been drafted to run an errand. Not that she minded especially.
In fact, over the past few days, she had several times deliberately offered to do small jobs of one sort or another, jobs that took her out into the community. She did so for several reasons: to pass the time usefully, was certainly one; but she did so mainly to explore new places--the community was much more extensive than she had realized at first--and to meet new people. Both of those objectives she had achieved admirably; by the fifth day of her visit she could not only find her away around with confidence, but she could also call a majority of the rats by name. There were still opportunities for surprise, however, and that afternoon provided her with one.
She had been told to look for a pair of white-painted, half-glass doors, opening off the west side of the first-level main corridor, some distance to the south of the dining hall. She remembered having seen those doors before, several days ago, but at the time she had given them scarcely a glance. Now she passed through them...and into another world.
The first things that struck her--almost literally--were the heat and the bright light, both quite startling after the cool dimness of the hallways. For a few seconds she wondered if she had somehow stepped outside; but no. The light was strong--certainly sunlight. But the heat was combined with far too much humidity. It had been more than a week since any rain had fallen in Thorn Valley; outside the air was bone-dry, making the heat almost endurable. Here, in this place, the atmosphere was thick with dampness, and there was a heavy scent as well: the smell of many green growing things all mixed together. Elizabeth took a step forward, letting the doors close behind her, and as she did, she realized that she was indeed in an enclosed space; but one very different from any she had seen before.
The room (for lack of a better term) was octagonal in shape, and some five feet across at its widest. The walls rose straight for some two feet, and then joined with a sharply-peaked roof that topped out at about three feet at the center. Unlike the rest of the rats' community, this was not a tunnel or an excavation, but rather a structure; walls and roof were a carefully-cut and joined lattice of wood, which had been painted white, but had acquired a number of spots of mildew, unavoidable in that damp atmosphere. The spaces in between the timbers--and in fact the structure seemed to be mostly spaces--were filled with glass. The panes were not absolutely transparent (mildew again, and dust on the outside) but through them Elizabeth could see the sky, and, somewhat more dimly, the valley's western rim. Entranced, she took a few more steps forward.
Lining the walls all the way around the structure were stair-stepped tiers of wooden benches, from floor level to far above her head. Another set of benches had been built in a smaller octagon in the structure's center, creating a wide circular path around the perimeter. Here the floor was not stone, but rather smooth gravel, that crunched faintly under her small feet as she walked slowly forward. All of the benches were lined, absolutely jam-packed, with potted plants. Elizabeth had lived all her life between forest and farm; but she could identify none of these specimens. Many of them had thick, woody stems and wide, dark-green leaves; others seemed similar to ferns. Still others had large, beautiful, totally unfamiliar blossoms. In the very center of the room a huge plant was growing, reaching almost to the ceiling; it was so large, in fact, that ropes had been affixed to the apex of the roof to help support it.
The place was beautiful--that much was undeniable--if a bit uncomfortable to visit; but what was it for? The rats certainly appreciated beauty, but this structure had taken a great deal of time and trouble to build. She could scarcely believe it had been done simply to grow strange flowers. She took a few more steps...and then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of movement. She turned.
A little distance away, near the back of the room, stood a rat; one of the very few that Elizabeth had not so far met. The rat was rather curiously dressed, in a tunic made of blue denim, quite stained and much-patched, over a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbows; there was a red bandanna tied as a sweatband around the brow. Low on the rat's hips was draped a leather tool belt, not unlike Arthur's; on it hung a pair of gloves, a long knife in a sheath, a pair of clippers, and other tools which Elizabeth could not identify. The rat's fur was light beige, almost cream-colored; very different from the dark brown, grey and black that predominated among the Rats of NIMH. At the moment the rat was moving slowly around the structure, using a long bamboo pole tipped with a metal hook to push open skylights on the lower part of the roof. The skylights had stiff hinges, and once pushed open would remain so, until the hook was used to close them.
For a few seconds Elizabeth remained unnoticed; but then the rat turned toward her...and Elizabeth took a step backwards in surprise. The costume, the rough tunic and the tool belt, had led her to expect a male...but this in fact was a female. Obviously one of the second generation, she was tall and trim, and--in other circumstances--would have been quite attractive. She gazed at Elizabeth in frank, dispassionate appraisal for a few seconds; then she laid down her pole and approached. She wiped her hand on her tunic before she offered it. "Mrs. Brisby," she said; it was a statement, not a question.
Elizabeth found herself slightly tongue-tied in the fact of such directness; it was a few seconds before she could reply. She clasped the proffered hand. "Yes, that's right," she said. "But almost everyone calls me Elizabeth."
The young rat smiled, finally, and nodded. "Fair enough," she said briskly. "My name is Judith. What can I do for you?"
"I'm here on an errand for Margaret," Elizabeth explained. She paused, and then waved a hand over her head. "But if you don't mind me asking, what is this place?"
That produced a wider smile. "This is my domain," she said. And then, seeing Elizabeth's blank look, she explained. "Actually, if you want to get technical, it's the community greenhouse. We use it to grow plants that can't take the climate in this valley. As you've probably found out by now, it can get a little chilly here at night; and in the winter there can be several feet of snow on the ground at any given time. We also use it to get a head start on the growing season; to start tomatoes, for example, while it's still too cold to plant them outside. I also do my research here."
Elizabeth's eyes had been roving around the structure, as she rolled that new word around in her head. Greenhouse, she thought. Yes, it fits. "Research?" she said.
Judith nodded. "I'm the community botanist," she explained. "My job is to keep this community fed--indirectly, at least. I research plants, decide what crops we should be planting; and over time I try to improve them by selective breeding. I'm also in charge of the seed warehouse."
"Oh?" Elizabeth said. "I thought Ralph--"
"The Master Farmer," Judith said with a half-serious frown, "is my arch-nemesis."
She shook her head. "Different priorities," she said. "An example. If Ralph finds a cornstalk that's producing ears twice the normal size, his first impulse is to deliver those ears to the kitchens, because it makes him look good. My first impulse, though, is to save those ears, dry them, and store the seed away. Why? Because if we plant those seeds, maybe next year we'll get a couple hundred cornstalks with larger than normal ears. See?"
Elizabeth nodded. "So you and Ralph...?"
"Have had a few clashes, yes," she said. She glanced around, as if looking for eavesdroppers, and then she bent down to whisper in Elizabeth's ear. "I'll let you in on a secret," she said. "I'm widely regarded as the nastiest person in Thorn Valley." She grinned. "And I'll let you in on another: I like it that way." She straightened up. "Now, how can I help you?"
Elizabeth shook her head. So overwhelmed was she by the force of this young woman's personality, that she had quite forgotten her errand. "Margaret sent me to pick up a basket of herbs for the kitchen," she said.
Judith nodded. "Oh, yes," she said. "Mom did tell me about that. I've got them ready back in my office."
Elizabeth gazed up at her sharply. "'Mom'?" she echoed.
Judith glanced down at her in surprise. "Didn't she tell you?" she asked. Then she smiled wryly and shook her head. "No, I suppose she wouldn't have. That's one of the problems with living in a small community; you always assume that everyone knows everything about everybody." She nodded. "Yes, Margaret is my mother."
Elizabeth shook her head in wonder, as she followed Judith to the rear of the greenhouse. She would never have guessed, not in a million years, that this light-furred young rat could be the daughter of Margaret, the head of the kitchen department, whose own fur was almost coal-black. Perhaps she took after her father. But of course there was no accounting, as Elizabeth knew well, for the way the genetic cards would fall. After all, how had she ended up with a beige-furred daughter?
As they walked, Elizabeth pointed to the huge plant in the center of the greenhouse. "What's that, Judith?"
Judith smiled fondly, and reached across to pat the fibrous trunk. "That's Clyde," she said. "My pride and joy. He's a rubber tree. He's not quite old enough to produce much latex, but I have high hopes. Pretty soon he's going to outgrow this place, though. That's why I keep after Arthur to build me a bigger greenhouse. Here we are."
At the rear of the greenhouse Judith had her office, a small shed, almost an afterthought, tacked onto the main structure. Here there was just one small window, facing west, a potting table, and a large desk strewn with papers. And I thought Justin's was a mess, Elizabeth thought wryly. Hanging from a hook in the ceiling was a wicker basket, which Judith brought down and handed to Elizabeth. In the basket, individually wrapped in paper, were bundles of dried herbs: basil, marjoram, dill, lavender and others. The small movement as Judith took the basket down sent up a wonderful fragrance. The basket was a trifle large, and Elizabeth took it in both arms. "Will you be able to handle that?" Judith asked.
"I'll manage," Elizabeth said. "It's not heavy, just bulky."
Together they stepped back out into the greenhouse. As they did, Judith said, "So--how are you and your family liking Thorn Valley?"
"It's wonderful," Elizabeth told her. "Everything we dreamed it would be, and more. And everyone here has been so kind to us..."
Judith nodded. "Good," she said firmly. "I'm glad to hear that. You deserve the absolutely best we can give you, after what you did for us. And after all Jonathan did."
"Did you know Jonathan very well?" Over the past five days, Elizabeth had asked that question of many people, and had gotten a number of very different answers, many of them surprisingly emotional.
Judith shook her head. "Only a little," she said. "He and I didn't really move in the same circles." She smiled. "My mother thought highly of him, though. Very highly."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Back when my twin sister and I were born," Judith said. "We were Mom's first kids, some of the first born to any of the Rats of NIMH, in fact. She was scared to death, and Dad wasn't a lot of help, I'm afraid. Mr. Ages gave your husband the job of keeping Mom calm...and somehow or other he managed it. She never forgot it."
Elizabeth smiled. "Easy enough, maybe," she said, "when it's somebody else's children. When ours were born he was an absolute wreck. Mr. Ages had to throw him out of the house all four times." She paused then and shook her head, as something she had entirely missed came clamoring for her attention. "Did you say you have a twin sister?"
"Had," Judith said, so harshly that Elizabeth took a step backwards. Judith turned away for a moment, and when she finally turned back, Elizabeth was surprised to see that the young rat's eyes were bright with tears. "I'm sorry," Judith said softly. "That was uncalled-for. It certainly wasn't your fault, and I shouldn't have snapped at you. My twin sister Eileen is...gone. Dead, we believe."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," Elizabeth said. "You mean you don't know for certain?"
"No," Judith said. Angrily she wiped away the tears with the back of her hand. "Eileen volunteered for a mission of some kind, a little more than nine months ago. Her and three others, males; they were members of the Guard. Philip, one of them was, and a pair of brothers named Mark and David."
"What kind of mission?"
She shook her head. "We don't know," she said. "It was some plan of Nicodemus', and he kept it secret, probably so Jenner wouldn't find out. Though he probably did." A brief spasm of anger crossed her face. "I have a feeling Justin knows, but if he does, he's not telling. Anyway, they left, and they never came back. It's been so long...Mom and Dad, and the parents of the other three...well, they've just about given up hope by now. All four of them must be dead."
Elizabeth set down the basket, and reached out to grasp Judith's hand. Despite the tough-as-nails facade she affected, it was obvious that Judith had been very badly hurt by this, and no wonder. Elizabeth had lost siblings too; that particular species of pain she knew very well indeed. Maybe that was the reason for the facade. "I'm so sorry," she said. "Please believe me, I understand how you feel."
Judith nodded. "I know you do," she said.
"I'm sorry to ask, but when did you say this happened?"
"About nine months ago," Judith said. Abruptly her eyes narrowed, and she peered down at Elizabeth. "You know, it's strange. I never really thought of it before. But the four of them vanished just about the same time Jonathan died."
Elizabeth looked up at her sharply. "What are you--" she began, but she got no further: at that moment she was interrupted.
Suddenly and inexplicably the entire greenhouse began to vibrate madly, as if a giant fist was pounding on it rhythmically. The timber-frame structure creaked and crackled; the potted plants danced on their shelves; and in Judith's office, a stack of terra-cotta pots fell over with a terrific crash. Above their heads, one of the propped-open skylights slammed closed, hard enough to crack the glass.
"What the--?" Judith said, as she reached out a hand to steady Elizabeth. "This isn't supposed to be earthquake country!"
Elizabeth spotted something then. Something moving, just a tiny dark speck; barely visible through the hazy, west-facing windows. She pointed. "What's that?"
Judith looked...and then Elizabeth felt the large hand resting on her shoulder go suddenly tight. "Oh my God," Judith uttered in horror.
Timothy was waiting outside the school, early that afternoon when Robert came straggling out, a notebook in his hand and a glazed look in his eyes. "Hi," Timothy said.
Robert shook himself and looked down, smiling faintly. "Oh--hi, Timothy," he said distractedly.
"How were your tests?"
Robert shook his head. "My brains are fried," he said. "I don't know why Mom makes us take them all in one day." He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Let's go out to the track, huh? I think I need a few laps."
"Works for me," Timothy said. He fell into step with Robert, and together they headed for the main entrance. As they walked, Timothy said, "So--what did they test you on, anyway?"
Robert shook his head again, tiredly. "Name it," he said. "History, English, science, math...everything. The math was the easiest, of course."
Timothy grinned. "Of course," he said. "And how'd you do?"
"I don't know for certain yet," Robert said. "Not till they're graded--two or three days." He paused, "But I think--I think--I did okay. I hope so, anyway, or I'll hear about it." He grinned. "That's what happens when your mother is in charge of the school department."
"I hope you did okay too," Timothy said with a smile. Inwardly, though, he was frowning. I wonder how I would have done? he thought. Maybe I should have found out. That was one of his problems, he realized: he didn't know how much he didn't know.
By this time they had reached the main entrance, and the passed through, circling around the ever-phlegmatic Brutus, into the bright--and extremely warm--afternoon sunshine. They cut obliquely across the grassy field toward the track.
As they walked Timothy glanced repeatedly up and his friend...but Robert was staring straight ahead, his face expressionless. Finally Timothy could stand it no more. "Robert," he said plaintively, "didn't you notice something...different about me?"
The young rat grinned hugely. "Of course I did," he said. "I'm not blind. I was just waiting to see how long it would take before you asked."
"Oh, real funny," Timothy growled. He paused. Then, anxiously, he asked, "How--uh--how do they look?"
Robert peered down at him and shrugged. "They look like glasses," he said. "Just like the ones my brother has made for a lot of other people here." He smiled. "More important, how do they work?"
For a few seconds Timothy was silent, gazing across the farm and up the length of Thorn Valley. "It's funny," he said finally. "I used to think that I could see pretty good, far away." He shook his head. "But I guess that wasn't really true." He removed his glasses, and blinked; and then he put them back on. "Yeah," he decided. "It's definitely better with them."
"Then that's all anybody has to know," Robert said with finality.
They had reached the running track by then. That large oval of crushed stone was the first thing the Brisby family had seen, entering Thorn Valley five days before; and in fact it was the most immediately visible part of the rats' habitation. A fact that was perhaps unfortunate. The wide, flat oval was well-tended, the surface firm, and smooth enough for bare feet. The track's infield was carefully-mown grass, marked with the lines and semicircles of a soccer field. Timothy had not yet seen that sport played; but he had heard it described; and had come rather reluctantly to the conclusion that he and his siblings were too small play it--at least with rats. On the track's east side a wooden grandstand had been built; on the west side a little curving ridge formed natural bleachers. They had the place to themselves that hot afternoon; most of the rats preferred to take their exercise in the cool of the early morning, or at dusk. Robert removed his dark blue vest, leaving it and his notebook on the lowest tier of the grandstand; and then he and Timothy began to jog, counterclockwise around the track.
There was a time--not very long ago--when neither of them could have done that; when they would have collapsed, out of breath, less than halfway around. Those days were gone. For Timothy they were longer gone than for Robert; and that was why Timothy has no difficulty keeping up with his friend. As Robert continued to gain strength, though--as he had, rapidly, these last two months--that might no longer be true. As they jogged, as Timothy enjoyed his first really clear look at Thorn Valley, as well as the free and easy flow of air in and out of his lungs, he said, "Robert? You're going to be out of school soon, aren't you?"
Robert was puffing a tiny bit by then; but nowhere near stopping. "Pretty soon, I guess," he said. "About four months. Why?"
"I was wondering," Timothy said. "Do you know what you're going to do afterwards?"
"Sure do," Robert said proudly. "That's easy. I'm going to work for my dad."
"You mean--building things?"
Robert shook his head. "Not quite," he said. "Drawing things. He's going to teach me how to be a draftsman. Maybe even an architect, someday."
Timothy looked up at him curiously. "What does that mean?"
"It means that I might design the things we build," Robert explained. He grinned. "Dad's getting tired of doing it all by himself." He looked down. "So--what are you going to do?"
For a moment Timothy was silent. Then he said quietly, "Right now--it looks like I'm going to be a field mouse."
"Hey--" Robert said, reaching out to pat his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Tim. That was a dumb question."
Timothy shook his head. "That's okay." Deep inside him, though, Robert's words had set off a chain of thoughts...one that was not, it must be said, entirely new. For the second time that day, he was comparing the life he would have on the farm with what he saw in Thorn Valley... and finding the comparison somewhat less than favorable. An architect, he thought, in frustration mixed with growing excitement. Designing the things they build. There must be a way I can get a piece of that. There's gotta be. But if we leave...
For perhaps half a lap they were silent; then Timothy said, "What were you saying yesterday, about the rats who vanished about the same time my father died?"
"Oh yeah," Robert said. "That was really strange. There were four of them. Three of them were guards--they worked for Justin. The other one worked for my father."
"You said they went on a mission and never came back?"
"That's what they say," Robert said. "Nobody knows what kind of mission, though." He smiled secretively. "Except maybe Justin and Dad. All four of them are supposed to be dead. But sometimes I wonder."
"Yeah," Timothy said softly. "Me too."
"I've asked Dad about it, but he just keeps changing the..." Robert trailed off then, and came to an abrupt halt, reaching out an arm to stop Timothy as well. "Hey," he said. "What's that?"
Robert frowned. "That noise," he said. "Can't you hear it?"
Timothy stood still for a few seconds, straining his ears; and then he did hear it. It was less a sound than a vibration; something felt rather than heard: a rapid pounding that he at first mistook for his own heartbeat. But even as the two of them stood, looking around in perplexity, it was growing stronger, until the entire valley seemed to be shaking; and it was gaining a definite direction as well: it was coming from the west. Suddenly Robert grabbed Timothy's arm and pointed toward the high ridge. "Look!"
Timothy looked...and he felt his jaw drop open in astonishment. For a few seconds they both stood gaping...then Robert grabbed Timothy, literally lifting him off the ground, and dashed across the track and the soccer field. Robert threw himself and his friend into the deep shadows beneath the grandstand, burying Timothy beneath his own larger body.
"What's going on?" Timothy said breathlessly. He looked up at Robert...and was astonished to see that his friend's face had gone paper-white, as if he had seen a ghost. When Robert spoke again it was in tones of sheer horror.
"We're dead, Tim," he whispered. "We're dead."
Justin was in a bad mood. A really bad mood.
As he walked the paths of the farm that hot afternoon, ostensibly on a tour of inspection, he was scowling deeply and muttering to himself; those who saw him, farmers all, did their best to keep out of his way. Justin was not often seen in a bad mood--it took a great deal to make him mad--but when he did get angry, it was better to be elsewhere. Several of his department heads had found that out the hard way.
How could they know, however, that he was mad at himself, not them? How could they know that the scowl, the muttered curses, were not directed toward them or their work, but rather inward? The reason why he had left the community that afternoon was not because he had the slightest interest in touring the farm, but rather to reduce his chances of running into one particular person; the person who had--albeit indirectly, and innocently--caused his anger. In fact they could not; and as he stalked down the paths, his hands clasped tightly behind his back, the other rats vanished like wraiths before him. He scarcely noticed.
You are an idiot, he told himself savagely. You know that, don't you? A certified, grade-A, USDA-inspected idiot. You should have known this would happen; you should have felt it in yourself three months ago. But you didn't, and now how on earth are you going to get through the next three weeks?
He paused then, where the trail topped a small rise, giving him a panoramic view of more than half of the cultivated fields. Directly behind him was a waist-high wall, dry-fit from the stones that had been plowed from the fields. He grabbed a fist-sized rock from the top of the wall and hurled it with all his strength into the adjacent--fortunately fallow--field. The situation was entirely of his own making; there was no one else he could possibly blame. And yes, it had been almost exactly three months in forming. In fact Justin, leader by election of the Rats of NIMH, was finding himself falling hopelessly in love with Elizabeth Brisby. And that could not be allowed to happen.
The problem was not--absolutely not--that they were of different species, nor even that she did not have the NIMH genes; they could have worked that out somehow. Nor was it the fact that she had four almost-grown children; that was immaterial to him. Nor the fact that he would be breaking the hearts of almost every unattached female in the community; he was, always had been, oblivious to that. No; the reason why it was impossible, the reason why he walked the farm that afternoon cursing his idiocy, was that he knew--he was one of only two people in the valley who did know--that Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby was not available.
Justin leaned against the wall and sighed, gazing out across the farm, squinting into the hot sunlight. "Jonathan my friend," he muttered in despair, "where are you when I need you?" It had been more than three months since he had last had news of the NIMH expedition. Unfortunate, that, but unavoidable; and Mr. Ages had sworn to get word to him, somehow, if anything important happened. The last news Justin had received, not long before the Exodus, was that the information Jonathan and his companions sought was taking longer to ferret out than they'd hoped, and that they might be gone months longer. Justin clearly remembered the sinking feeling he had experienced when he heard that news. A feeling that had redoubled when he'd finally met Mrs. Brisby, and saw what her husband's absence was doing to her.
At least now I know why he loves her, Justin thought wryly. Quite apart from her physical attractiveness--which was by no means inconsiderable--Elizabeth was possessed of such an essential sweetness that it was almost impossible not to love her. Nicodemus had seen it too, and that was one reason why he had given her the Stone: above all else she was a good person, right down to her very core. It was that more than anything else, which Justin found gripping his heart; that, and her terrible vulnerability. Jonathan's departure--his death, so far as she knew--had left a tremendous hole in her heart; seeing that, how could Justin help but want to be the one to fill it? It would be so easy just to take her into his arms, to let her know that someone cared...
Except that he could not bring himself to do so. Justin's concept of loyalty was severe and unswerving; as long as he had reason to believe that Jonathan was still alive, he could not allow himself to act on his emotions. Somehow--though God only knew how--he could have to hide them inside; for her sake, for Jonathan's...and for his own.
But, he told himself, if--God forbid!--if something has happened to Jonathan, or if his mission fails, and he makes good on his oath not to return empty-handed...if Justin had proof positive that either of those things had happened, well, then...
At that moment--as Justin stood there helplessly beating his brains out against his dilemma--he suddenly became aware that something was not right. He felt his ears quite literally prick up; and then, his black mood entirely forgotten, he started across the trail, frowning in concern. What in the world--?
He wasn't the only one, he saw. In the fields spread out before him, the farmers had paused in their work, downing tools as they looked around in confusion. And then, finally, it registered. It was a sound, an almost subsonic thumping that seemed to entirely bypass his ears and go straight to his skull and his gut. Soft at first, the thudding was growing rapidly stronger; then someone down in the fields dropped his shovel and pointed, up and to the west. Justin looked, shading his eyes with his hand...and his heart tried to stop beating. A flying object, darkly silhouetted against the bright sky, had just entered the valley over the western ridge...and as it did, the subsonic thumping became an ear-shattering clatter. It was an object the likes of which Justin had seen only a few times in his life, and never close-up; and had hoped not to see again for a very, very long time. It was a helicopter.
For an endless second Justin stood frozen. Then he leaped to the top of the stone wall. He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, hoping that his voice was just a little louder than the helicopter's roar. "Everybody under cover! Now!"
He watched to see that he was being obeyed, that the farm-workers were dropping their tools and diving for the shelter of the brush and walls that bordered the fields. God willing, all the rats who were too far away to hear his shout would have sense enough to do the same. Then Justin half-jumped, half-fell into the dense band of shadow in the sheltered side of the wall. Hunkered down as small as he could make himself, he peered up at this...thing, this apparition, this impossibility, which was unfortunately all too real.
The machine was flying low--much lower than Justin had been led to believe was legal in a wilderness area. It was good-sized, presumably built for distance, though Justin's knowledge of helicopter design was virtually nil. Arthur might have known. The fuselage and enclosed tail were painted white, with a long turquoise stripe and black registration numbers; on the doors was painted a circular logo of some kind, which Justin could not read. It appeared--though he could not be certain--that there were two people on board; a pilot and a passenger, both visible through the bubble windshield. If there was anyone sitting behind them, he could not tell, though there seemed to be room.
The machine topped the western ridge and swept across the valley obliquely, passing directly over the farm and heading toward the community's main entrance. At the speed it was making it would be gone over the east rim in less than a minute. Justin, peering up from the shelter of the wall, found two distinct thoughts running through his mind simultaneously. The first was: This is not happening. Not now. Not yet. And the other, directed at the copter's occupants, was, you don't see a thing. This is just an uninhabited valley. Just fly right over. There's nothing interesting here. Nothing at all.
For a few seconds it seemed that his prayers might be answered. The helicopter swept across the valley, neither gaining nor losing altitude; perhaps it would indeed vanish over the eastern ridge. Justin watched it go with a growing sense of hopefulness...but then, when the aircraft was beginning to rise to clear the ridge, it seemed to pause; and then performed a sudden sweeping turn, back into the valley. As Justin watched, cursing luridly under his breath, the machine dropped lower. Justin could feel the wind of it now, as it kicked up dust and whipped the brush around him; the sound of the engine and the blades was little short of deafening. It seemed to be drifting slowly over the grassy area, not far from the main entrance...
They've seen the running track, Justin realized abruptly. No wonder; you could see that a thousand feet up. Why oh why did I let them talk me into authorizing that damn thing?
The helicopter was hovering how, and dropping even lower, until it seemed to be less than a hundred feet off the ground. Justin rose to his knees, peering carefully over the wall, as the machine slowly turned on its axis. The passenger-side window was open, and protruding from it was a stubby black cylinder: obviously, a telephoto camera lens. For a minute or so the passenger clicked pictures at every angle: toward the farm, the beach, the playing field, the community itself. Then he lowered the camera into his lap and stuck his head out the window, peering around in very evident excitement. Justin's eyes locked on that face...and for the second time in less than five minutes he felt his heart skip a beat. His legs tried to buckle beneath him; he had to grip the top of the wall hard to keep from collapsing. Even at that distance he knew the face that leaned out of the helicopter's window; the memory of it had been burned into his mind by many months of captivity and pain. The copter's passenger was Dr. Schultz of NIMH.
Justin felt himself curling into a ball, his hands over his head, his mind descending into chaos. This is not happening, he repeated to himself, over and over. But the pounding in his head was not entirely his heart. This was real; this was happening. He forced himself to look up again.
The pilot was no one Justin knew; all he could see of that man was a pair of mirrored sunglasses and a dark cap pulled low over his brow. Justin spared him no more than a glance. The helicopter hovered for a few seconds more, and Justin was certain that its next move would be to land; but then, inexplicably, it began to rise. Instantly Dr. Schultz pulled his head inside, and he appeared to be shouting at the pilot, his hands gesturing wildly. The argument went on for almost a minute, and ended with the pilot pointing at something on his control panel. Dr. Schultz sat back, his arms crossed over his chest; and that was the last Justin saw of him, as the copter spun, rose, and finally vanished the way it had come, over the western ridge.
As the engine's thudding slowly faded into the distance, Justin rose shakily to his feet. His mind was whirling, his thought running a hundred miles an hour; but two things were crystal clear. Once again the Rats of NIMH were in deep trouble; and once again he, Justin, was the one who had to deal with it.
"People!" Justin shouted, above the clamor of voices. He spread his arms. "People, quiet, please! We don't have time for this!"
He looks terrible, Elizabeth thought. And no wonder. Sitting there on the meeting hall's top tier, she looked down at the leader of the rats far below...and even in the midst of her fear, her heart went out to him in sympathy. He looked...haggard, was probably the best word; drawn, exhausted, drained...and old. Justin was one of the Original 22, and thus was much older than her; exactly how much older, she'd never dared guess. Usually it didn't show. But now--in the middle of this terrible afternoon--it did.
The meeting hall was the largest enclosed space in the community, and the only one that had not truly been constructed, merely improved. Arthur had started with a deep pit, conical in shape, some six feet deep and five wide at the top, tapering down to less than two at the bottom. He had roofed it with a massive, buttressed stone dome, and had cut tiers into the sides, lining them with wooden benches. The entrances into the community's first-level corridor were at the top tier; the speaker's platform, a circular stage of cut stone, was at the very bottom. Lamps hung from chains affixed to the ceiling. The hall could accommodate the entire population of the community--only just--and this afternoon it was packed full, almost three hundred rats jamming the benches. All of them were talking at once; every one of them was scared half to death. And who can blame them? Elizabeth thought.
Down below, Justin's arms were crossed over his chest, and he turned in a slow circle, glaring up at them all. Gradually, under the force of his stare, the babble of voices stilled. "That's better," Justin said. He spoke in normal tones, not shouting; the shape of the hall was such that it amplified his voice. "All of you, please, listen to me. I realize that you're all concerned, even frightened, by what happened today. So am I. We've got good reason to be. But panicking will do absolutely no good at all. What we have to do--and right now--is to calmly assess the situation and try to decide what we're going to do about it. All right?"
He paused for a second, looking around. All through the hall, the rats looked at each other, shuffling feet and tails. With just those few words Justin had calmed them, and more: he even had them feeling a little ashamed at their fear. He does have the knack, Elizabeth thought. Thank God he does.
Beside her, leaning quite heavily on her right arm, Timothy had finally stopped trembling. She glanced down at him, and saw that his eyes were half-closed behind his new glasses. "Timothy?" she whispered in his ear. "Are you all right now, dear?"
"Um-hmmm," he murmured indistinctly. One row down, Robert was also listing decidedly to port, his mother's arm around his shoulders, steadying him. Whatever it was Alice had given the two of them had apparently begun to kick in. A tranquilizer of some kind, that much was clear; perhaps a weaker version of the herbal potion that the rats used to feed to the cat. Ordinarily Elizabeth would not have approved such a thing, but in this case she'd been forced to agree: after what they'd been through, they needed it.
It was Justin himself who had found Timothy and Robert, still hiding under the grandstand by the track, both of them half-deafened by the helicopter's roar. Neither of them had been hurt--Robert had been found holding Timothy beneath him, protecting his friend with his own body--but they had both been frightened out of their wits. And no wonder: as Justin said, they had been as close to ground zero as they could get, with the helicopter hovering directly over them. Fortunately--very fortunately--the grandstand had been well-built, had protected them from flying debris, and had not collapsed around them. Robert's vest and school notebook were still missing in action.
Elizabeth's other children were seated beside Timothy. All of them looked worried, going on frightened; Martin, somewhat uncharacteristically, had his arm around Cynthia, whose eyes were bright with tears. Teresa glanced over and saw that her mother was beginning to buckle under the strain of supporting Timothy's limp form; without a word she slipped an arm around her brother, taking some of his weight onto herself. Elizabeth looked over and smiled gratefully. "Thank you, dear," she said, as she rearranged her cramped body.
Below, Justin was speaking again. "I don't need to tell you what we all saw--" he began, but he was interrupted.
"What did we see?" someone demanded. "We know it was a helicopter--but are we absolutely sure it was Dr. Schultz?"
"Yes we are," another voice said. Glancing across the hall, Elizabeth recognized the speaker: Ralph, the Master Farmer; another of the Original 22. "I saw him as clearly as Justin did. And believe me, that's a face I'm not likely to forget any time soon. It was him."
"Ralph," Justin said, "were you able to read the logo on the helicopter?"
The farmer shook his head. "Not too clearly," he said. "That wasn't what I was looking at. But I'm pretty sure it said 'Charter.' 'Midland Charter,' something like that."
Justin nodded. "That makes sense." He looked around "Do we really need to debate this?" he demanded. "It was Dr. Schultz; he hired a helicopter, and he got some kind of special permit to fly low over a wilderness area. Either that or he was breaking the law. I suspect the former. And let's not kid ourselves, people. He did it for one reason. It wasn't a sightseeing tour. He was looking for us. And God help us, he's found us."
"But why didn't he land?" someone else called out.
Justin shook his head. "I don't know," he said. He paused. "I think he wanted to; he seemed to be arguing with the pilot, just before they left. Perhaps they were low on fuel; or perhaps they didn't have permission to land. Or maybe it was some of both. It doesn't really matter, though. What matters is this: we had better thank our lucky stars that he didn't land--because it's given us a chance to live." He took a deep breath. "He is going to be back, people. You all know that as well as I do. There's no use in debating that either. He will be back. Exactly when, I can't say; nor with what kind of force. I think we can safely assume that he'll come by air again, because there are no roads to this valley. But in my opinion our only chance is to believe that he'll be back tomorrow morning, and to make use of that time. The fact that he didn't land cost him his major advantage: surprise." He grinned slightly. "That's twice now. The first time we had advance warning from Elizabeth Brisby." He glanced up at her fondly. "This time Dr. Schultz was kind enough to warn us himself. And like last time, we've got to take advantage of that warning. The only question is how."
"Get out," someone said. "We've got to get out of this valley."
Justin held up his hands, stilling the rush of agreement. "Get out to where?" he demanded gently. He shook his head. "No," he went on, "this time that isn't an option. Last time--three months ago--we had someplace to go: this valley. It wasn't finished, it was barely habitable...but it was a definite place to go. This time we have no such ready-made refuge." He shook his head again. "Maybe we should," he said. "Maybe we should have prepared a fall-back position. But there's no use worrying about that now. What I say is this: if we leave this valley, if we retreat, it can't be as a group. Because then he'll track us down again. If we leave we will have to scatter into small parties, family groups perhaps, or smaller. And if we do that, I see very little chance that the Rats of NIMH would ever be reunited. I for one am willing to do that only as an absolutely last resort."
"Then what do you want us to do?" another voice demanded peevishly.
"My friends," Justin said, "this valley is our home. Everything we have here, we've worked for, and worked hard. That is a claim we could not make for our old home on the farm. It is my belief that our only choice is to defend this place. I say that we make our stand here."
There were a few seconds of stunned silence; and then a sudden barrage of voices, all shouting together in tones of outrage. Elizabeth, watching with a strong current of admiration underlying her fear, abruptly found herself wondering, what would Jonathan be doing now? The answer to that required almost no thought at all. He'd be down there on that platform supporting Justin. And afterward he would do whatever Justin asked of him--after getting the children and me to safety.
Once again Justin raised his hands, and once again quiet returned. "Hear me out, please," he said. "First of all I have to ask you to accept a gut feeling of mine--but not without evidence. I have a very strong feeling that Dr. Schultz is acting alone in this, or nearly. I don't believe he has the full backing of NIMH. That charter helicopter is my number-one clue. NIMH has the resources of the United States Government behind it--and those resources must certainly include helicopters. No; I believe this to be a personal vendetta. For that reason I also believe he is staking his reputation on the outcome of this expedition. Now, it may very well be that I am totally wrong. But if I'm right, then all we need do is hold him off, until he runs out of resources."
There was a brief murmur of assent, somewhat reluctant, and then Justin went on, "So--what is he likely to do? He could carry another two people in that helicopter, maybe, and some light equipment; hand tools, picks and shovels perhaps. Explosives? Possible, but doubtful. The worst thing we would have to fear is gas. We had reports from the scouts we left behind, that NIMH pumped some kind of poison gas into our old home under the rosebush. They can't bring a tanker truck here, but Dr. Schultz could bring in canisters of gas.
"What I propose is this," Justin went on. "We will barricade all of our windows and all doors that open to the outside. We will also disguise them as much as we are able. We will transport as much food and other necessities as we can into the deepest parts of our community, and there we will go ourselves, when he arrives." He turned to a large rat sitting on the lowest tier. "Arthur, what about ventilation?"
The engineers cleared his throat. "Covering the windows and doors might make it stuffy," he said. "But it won't be dangerous--as long as we don't block any of the ventilation shafts up in the rocks. What I can do is to turn up the speed on the fans. If Schultz does use gas, the airflow will tend to force it back out of the halls, and it might not even reach the lower levels. The major danger is that he will find the ventilation shafts. If he does, and if he sends gas down through them..." He shook his head. "Then it's all over. The gas would be sucked through the whole community in minutes."
"How big a risk is it, that he'll find them?"
"Low," Arthur said, with a tight smile. "I disguised them pretty well, if I do say so myself, for just that reason. And they're up on ridges that are too narrow for a human to walk on comfortably. Chances are he won't even go looking."
"And what is the status of the escape tunnel?"
Escape tunnel? Elizabeth thought, frowning. What escape tunnel?
"I heard about that," Martin whispered to her. "It's a way out of the community. It starts way down in the ground below the first level--down in the corridors where the water pipes and the drains are--and it comes up out in the farm, almost to the woods."
"Well," Arthur said dubiously, "frankly it's not as well supported as I'd like. I'm afraid it's been back-burnered lately, along with a lot of other things. But it is usable."
"Good enough," Justin said. He looked around beseechingly. "Nobody is more conscious than I am of the fact that this is a democracy. You elected me to be your leader, but I have no pretensions of being a dictator or an absolute monarch." He paused. "Three months ago, you trusted me to bring you here safe and alive. You trusted me enough to obey my orders without question. I am sorry to have to say this, but now is not the time for democracy. It is the time for action. We have a huge amount of work before us, and very little time to accomplish it. What I'm asking is this: that you trust me again, as you did three months ago. I will bring us through this alive. I swear it. So--what's it to be?"
For a long moment he looked up at them challengingly, his gaze slowly moving around the hall, seeking out and briefly touching each face in turn. Not a word was spoken; no objections raised, no alternate plans proposed. Finally Justin nodded and smiled grimly. "All right," he said. "Let's get to work."
Dr. Schultz was on the phone. Again.
Jonathan Brisby, crouched down in the dusty space behind the wall vent, shook his head in amazement. He had never seen a human so obsessed with talking on the telephone--or one with so obvious a dislike for it. He could only be glad that Schultz did spend so much time that way--because Jonathan and his friends had picked up a good deal of useful information these last nine months, eavesdropping on his conversations.
Jonathan, along with David and Mark, had been waiting hours for Dr. Schultz to return. Tired and hungry, they had been just about ready to give up and join their friends for dinner, when--a little before sunset--the office door suddenly opened and Schultz exploded in.
The scientist's mood could only be described as "foul," Jonathan decided clinically. The man stalked into the office, muttering under his breath; he hung his leather jacket on the coat-rack with almost enough force to break off the hook; and he threw his camera bag and binoculars into the guest chair. Wait a minute, Jonathan thought, as he watched Schultz pace and mutter. I didn't hear the helicopter land. What's going on?
For nearly ten minutes the scientist stalked back and forth in the semi-darkness--he hadn't bothered to turn on the lights--his hands behind his back and a deep scowl on his face. Jonathan and his friends watched with growing confusion. Obviously the day's operations hadn't gone entirely to plan--but exactly what had happened?
Finally, inevitably, the phone rang. Dr. Schultz turned, all but snarling; then, with a sigh, he dropped into his chair and lifted the receiver. Behind the vent Jonathan's ears pricked up, and his friends crowded closer. He felt Mark's large hand resting across his shoulders.
"Yes," Dr. Schultz was saying. "Yes, they're there, in that little valley. Just as I expected. I found them."
Jonathan felt the hand resting on his shoulder clench, and suddenly his stomach was an icy knot. Mark started to say something, but Jonathan waved him to silence; Dr. Schultz was speaking again.
"They've got a regular little farm going," he said. "Vegetables, grains, you name it. Even cotton. And get this: they've got a running track and a soccer field, complete with goal posts. I tell you they've got quite a civilization in progress up there."
He listened for a moment, then went on, "Tunnels. They've tunneled under the rocks at the east side of the valley, near the shore of the pond. I could see windows and doors... and one big open archway. Obviously a main entrance."
Listening, Jonathan felt the knot in his stomach grow harder and colder. It's happened, he thought in horror. Just what we feared. It's finally happened. He had never seen Thorn Valley in person--but he had seen the plans, the drawings that both Nicodemus and Arthur had done. Dr. Schultz's description fit well--all too well.
"No," Schultz said. "I didn't actually see any of them. Not clearly, anyway. I'm sure they heard the helicopter miles off--they must have run for cover." He chuckled. "Frankly I can't blame them."
He paused again. Then he sighed deeply. "No," he said reluctantly. "No, we didn't land. That idiot pilot wouldn't do it--he said he only had a permit to fly low over the place. He can't land in a wilderness area, he said. I tried to argue with him, but he was short on fuel. We couldn't even hover very long. We just barely made it back to the airport--he couldn't even drop me here. I had to catch a cab. Cost me a fortune."
A pause. Then, "Pictures? Yes, of course I got pictures. Fewer than I would have liked, though. As I said, we could only hover a few minutes. I was only able to get about two-thirds of a roll shot--but I got everything important. Their farm and all their structures."
Good grief, Jonathan thought in despair. Can this get any worse? Pictures, now?
"What am I going to do?" Schultz said. "I'm going back, of course. Tomorrow morning. We're going to head straight there, so we'll have plenty of fuel. I've gathered up some tools to load on the copter too--picks, shovels, a couple canisters of gas--and some explosives. No, just the two of us. The copter won't hold any more, not with the equipment loaded. I think we can do the job ourselves. That might be better anyway." He paused. "Yes, of course they'll know we're coming. That's hardly my fault, is it? Where can they go? Into the wilderness to starve? No--I think they'll try to make a stand, try to save their home. Not that it will do them any good."
Too true, Jonathan thought miserably. Too true. The rats were settled now, their Plan completed at last. As Dr. Schultz said, they had nowhere else to go. Jonathan knew Justin, knew how his friend's mind worked. He would make a stand. A hopeless stand.
"Permission?" Schultz was saying. "That's where you come in, my friend. You're going to get me permission." A pause. "How? I don't care how. Call everybody. I don't care who you have to wake up. This is important--you know that. We've got to put a stop to this now. Before it gets any bigger. Why? Because they're rats, for God's sake! Think about it!" He sighed. "All right, all right, I won't do anything until I hear from you. Right. Good-bye."
Dr. Schultz hung up the phone. For a moment he sat, staring out into space; then he chuckled and shook his head. "Sure I won't," he said. He stood then, grabbed his jacket, and left. Jonathan and his friends heard the jingle of keys as he locked the door behind him.
A few minutes later, with a faint click, the ventilator grille popped a few inches out from the wall, the carefully-shortened screws sliding smoothly out of the enlarged holes. Jonathan and his companions dropped to the floor, landing on their feet in the soft carpeting.
Mark's face was ashen, his expression anguished, as he turned to Jonathan. "What are we going to do?" he demanded. "My God, he's found our home! He's going to destroy our home!"
"I know," Jonathan said. "I understand. But--"
David interrupted him. "Jonathan, you don't understand! Everyone we know is there! Our friends, our families, our parents...he's going to murder them all! We've got to get back there. We've got to help them!"
The two rats were bigger than Jonathan; but he was older, and he faced them down with his glare. "Just what do you suggest?" he asked. "Warning them isn't an option; it's never been an option, since this whole situation started. You know that." He turned. "Mark, how long does it take you to get back to the farm?"
"Three days if we can catch the right busses," Mark said.
"And then it's--what?--another three days on foot to Thorn Valley?"
Jonathan shook his head. "We can't help them," he said. "Not like that. You heard Dr. Schultz--he's going back tomorrow morning. Permission or no. We'd get there days too late."
"But we've got to do something!" David insisted.
"The first thing we've got to do is calm down," Jonathan said. He gazed at them sternly. "Right?"
The two rats exchanged a glance, and then they nodded. "Right," Mark said.
They sat down, there in the middle of the floor. "Listen," Jonathan told them, "just because my family isn't in danger this time, doesn't mean I don't care, or that I don't understand. Believe me, I do. Those people are my friends too; you know that. But I honestly have not been able to think of anything we can do to help them." He gazed at them in turn. "Can we warn them? No. Do they need a warning? Evidently not. Can we stop Dr. Schultz from going? Just the five of us? I don't think so." Not unless we follow Hacker's plan, he added silently. And I still refuse to consider that. He spread his hands helplessly. "If any of you have any better ideas, I'd love to hear them."
For a moment they sat in gloomy silence. Then, suddenly, Jonathan looked up. "Pictures," he said. He stood. "There is one thing," he said. "I don't know exactly how much good it will do; but we're going to do it anyway. Give me a hand, would you please?"
At Jonathan's direction the three of them scrambled up onto Dr. Schultz' guest chair, where he had thrown both his binoculars and his camera bag, and had left them when he departed. Together they squeezed the plastic toggles that fastened the camera bag, and managed to fold the top flap back. "Either of you know anything about photography?" Jonathan asked with a smile.
Once again they exchanged a glance, this time bewildered. "Not a thing," Mark said.
"Neither do I," Jonathan said. "Let's see what we can learn."
Inside the bag they found a camera, of the type called an SLR; and three lenses, one of which was mounted on the camera body. Jonathan had indeed never had anything to do with photography; but he had read magazines. Just by looking, he could tell that this outfit had been expensive. One of the lenses was a monstrous telephoto, which zoomed from 75mm to 300; from a hovering helicopter, no doubt, it would have given nice detailed close-ups of the Thorn Valley farms. It was not the lenses that interested him, though, but the camera body itself. It was heavy--it took the full strength of all three of them to lift it from the bag. On its top right surface a liquid-crystal display read "22".
That's just about right, Jonathan thought. He seemed to remember that the largest rolls of 35mm film had thirty-six pictures; and Dr. Schultz had mentioned shooting about two-thirds of a roll. If they were fortunate, all of his Thorn Valley shots were on that one roll.
"Jonathan, what are we doing?" Mark asked.
"If we're lucky, avoiding publicity," Jonathan said. "Let's see..."
The camera bag had several outside pockets, fastened with zippers. In the largest, on the back of the bag, Jonathan found exactly what he had been looking for: the instruction manual, battered and dog-eared, its cover nearly detached. In a patch of brightness from the parking lot lights outside, he leafed quickly through the book, skipping impatiently past the Japanese, the German, the French and the Spanish sections, and finally to the English. The two rats watched, nonplused, as Jonathan read rapidly. Finally he jumped to his feet. "That's it," he said. "Let's get to work."
He scrambled over the camera, peering closely at the various buttons and wheels...and finally, on the right-hand side, he found what he was looking for: a tiny, recessed button marked "rewind." It was meant to be pushed with a pencil-point; he used his thumb. They waited until the motor stopped whirring, and then Mark, using both hands, managed to press down the latch that fastened the back. Together the three of them extracted the yellow metal cartridge.
"What now?" Philip asked. "Into the dumpster?"
Jonathan paused. The rewind motor had not pulled the film entirely into the cartridge; an inch or so of leader still protruded. Jonathan suddenly grinned. "No," he said. "No, I've got a better idea. Dr. Schultz is about to suffer a mysterious camera failure."
They carried the cartridge over to desk, and then, with David on one end and Mark on the other, they pulled the full length of the film out. "ISO 1000," Jonathan observed.
"What does that mean?" David asked.
"Very sensitive to light," Jonathan said. "Too bad; he probably got some nice clear shots. Mark, turn on the desk lamp, if you please."
They were far from finished; over the next few minutes they laboriously wound the film back into the cartridge, passing it close under the desk lamp as they did. "And now," Jonathan said as they finished, "we re-load the camera."
"Jonathan Brisby," Mark said admiringly, "you are truly diabolical, you know that?"
Jonathan bowed low. "Thank you."
To complete the job took a while longer. First they re-threaded the ruined film into the camera, and Mark leaned on the shutter release until the display once again read "22." At the bottom of the camera bag there were two more rolls in plastic cans, unused; in a very short time they had received the same treatment, the film pulled from the cartridges under the desk lamp, and then re-rolled. "You know," Jonathan commented as they finished, "when this is all over I think I'll take up photography as a hobby."
After they had repacked everything into the bag they rested, leaning back in the chair. "Jonathan, what did we just accomplish?" David asked.
Jonathan sighed. "A small victory in a large war," he said. "It's possible that Justin might still pull something off. That escape tunnel Arthur was always trying to sell Nicodemus, for example. If he does--if he can bring our people through safely--then the only evidence Dr. Schultz would have would be artifacts and photographs. We've just ruined his chances of getting any photos. And artifacts are too easy to fake to be truly convincing. Without solid evidence he might not get permission for another try. We can hope, at least."
Philip shook his head. "It's not much."
"No," Jonathan said. "It's not much. But I think it's all we can do." He stood. "Come on, you two--Eileen and Philip are probably back with the food by now. I think we've all got some things to discuss."
"Justin," Elizabeth said hesitantly, "what's going to happen to us?"
He gazed over at her curiously. "You were at the meeting, weren't you?"
"Yes," she said simply. "I was."
For a few seconds he peered into her eyes; then he nodded. "I understand," he said. He smiled faintly. "So--do you want the worst-case scenario, or the best-case?"
She shook her head. "Neither," she said. "I just want the truth."
Elizabeth Brisby had never before in her life worked so hard, as she had that afternoon, and evening, and far into the night; in fact she scarcely believed it possible that one poor mouse could work so hard. Her children had joined her, pitching in with all their strength; even Timothy, after the effects of the tranquilizer had worn off.
Whether the five of them had truly made a difference she couldn't say; possibly they had, if only in a symbolic way. She had no idea how many bundles and boxes she and her children had collectively carried; hundreds, perhaps. Bundles and boxes of food, bundles of clothing and blankets, boxes of medicines and bandages. Other people, far stronger than they, had been carting barrels of lamp oil and alcohol fuel, and boxes of tools. It was Justin's belief that Thorn Valley was about to come under siege. For exactly how long they couldn't know; but however long, he was apparently determined to withstand it.
The final destination of the bundles and boxes was what Arthur called the "service tunnels." Lying far below the community's main levels, these tubes could by no stretch of the imagination be termed living space. They were narrow, cramped, unfinished, ill-lit, and all but airless. Lined with the pipes that made up the community's water and waste-water systems, the service tunnels were also damp, and didn't smell particularly nice. But they were deep enough underground, Justin hoped, to be out of range of whatever tools Dr. Schultz could bring to bear. And down there too was the head of Arthur's escape tunnel: the rats' very last resort.
Elizabeth and her children had worked for hours, until they were moving automatically, zombie-like, in a fog of exhaustion. It was Arthur himself who, finally and firmly, not taking "no" for an answer, ordered the five of them to get some sleep. And Elizabeth had been forced to agree: no matter how much they might want to, mice simply could not work as hard or as long as rats. They had found that out the hard way.
By the time they returned to their guest room her children were all but asleep on their feet, exhaustion overcoming their fear; the only difficulty she'd had in getting them to bed was having to remove their clothes herself: they were too tired to help. For a time she lay down on her own bed, trying to will herself to sleep; but it was a losing battle. Her body felt as if it had been through a war, but her mind was still running far too fast; she could not relax. It was a little past midnight when she finally gave up, rose from her bed, tied her new cape around her neck, and crept out of the room.
In the hallways the work was still going on; it would, in fact, for many hours to come. Bundles, barrels and boxes were still being transported downstairs; and outside, Arthur's people, working by torch-light, were still feverishly attaching thick wooden shutters to every single window and door, and then plastering them over with mud and stone, in an attempt to disguise them. The main entrance--which would be by far the hardest--they were saving for last. Elizabeth had no thought of rejoining the work--her body simply would not allow it--and for a brief time she wandered the hallways aimlessly, trying to stay out of the way. Then she noticed the light coming from under Justin's office door.
She found the leader of the rats rifling through his file cabinets, packing into boxes the papers that the community simply could not afford to lose, most importantly Nicodemus' Journal. All afternoon and evening he had been running through the community at full speed, pitching in where needed as well as shouting orders; and he looked terrible. He seemed to welcome her arrival; not the least for an excuse to stretch out, just for a few minutes, in his big easy chair.
Now he sighed. "All right," he said. "I owe you that." For a moment he stared into space. Then he said, slowly, "Dr. Schultz is coming back. This afternoon I said that it could be as early as tomorrow morning, and the more I think about it, the likelier it seems: he isn't a man to waste time, especially now that he's lost the element of surprise. I don't know for certain what kind of force he'll bring with him, or what equipment. But make no mistake: his purpose is to utterly destroy this community, and all of us. I suppose he might take a few prisoners too, if he can; but that will be secondary."
"Why?" she asked. "That's what I don't understand. Why does he want to destroy you?"
"We're a threat," Justin said heavily. "We're a threat to the human domination of this planet. At least in his mind." He shook his head. "He created us--and now he's afraid of his own creation. I don't pretend to understand him, but I do know what motivates him. To a certain extent I suppose he's also concerned for his reputation. He failed to find us under the rosebush, and that had to have hurt him professionally. But that's secondary too."
"What more can we do?"
"Pray," Justin said simply. "Hope that our barricades hold, and hope we can get everyone out through the escape tunnel in time, if things get rocky, without him seeing them." He shook his head again. "Beyond that I don't know. As I said earlier, we have nowhere else to go; we staked everything on this community, this valley. Because we thought it was safe," he finished bitterly.
"But if he doesn't find any of you..."
"I'm beginning to wonder if even that will stop him," Justin said grimly. "I hope it will, but... well, he didn't find anything in the rosebush either--and now here he is. Every time we escape from him, I suspect, it just makes him more and more afraid--and determined. He knows we're here, just as he knew we were under the rosebush. If he doesn't find us here he'll keep trying until he does. Unless--"
"Unless something or somebody stops him," Justin said. "That's what I'm gambling on. I think he's doing all this on his own nickel--and when that's spent, if he has nothing to show for it, he'll be finished. I hope. It's not a permanent solution, but at least it might buy us some time. Years, if we're lucky."
There was a pause; then Elizabeth said, "Justin, I know you have a lot to worry about--everyone in this community. But I have to worry about my children."
He nodded. "I understand that, certainly."
"And I have to ask you--what's going to happen to them? To us?"
Justin fixed her with his gaze. Once again he looked terribly old, his eyes bloodshot and puffy, the corners of his mouth turned resolutely downward. "Elizabeth," he said, "please believe me when I say that you and your children have been very much in my thoughts. Nobody here deserves what's happening to them--but the five of your least of all. I want you to know how terribly sorry I am that I got you into this damned situation."
She shook her head. "It isn't your fault," she told him firmly. "You had no way of knowing--any more than we did."
"I thank you for that," he said, with a faint smile. He took a deep breath. "Whatever happens," he said, "you and your family will be all right. What I want all of you to do at the first sign of trouble is to head straight for the escape tunnel. Arthur, or any of his people, can show you the way. Dr. Schultz won't be looking for you; he's fixated on rats. If necessary you and your family can live here, in this valley, until your friend the crow comes for you. You've got the skill for it, and there aren't many dangerous animals here any more--we've managed to chase most of them away. I think you could hold out indefinitely. But...if any of us survives, any at all, we will make it our job to see that you get home, one way or another. Such will be my orders."
For a long moment she was silent. Then she said, her voice barely audible, "Justin...I'm frightened."
He rose from his chair and sat down next to her, taking her into his arms. Her small, trim body was trembling uncontrollably. She clung to him, burying her face in his chest, giving herself over to the fear that she had buried within her all day. A few minutes later, without looking up, she said, "I'm sorry."
"That's okay," he said. "I'm frightened too."
She lifted her face to look at him, amazed. "You are?"
"Of course I am," he said. "We're in deep trouble--only an idiot wouldn't be scared." He paused. "But it isn't hopeless. We've gotten out of worse."
He shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "But we must have sometime."
She actually laughed, a little; then she laid her head against his chest again. For a time they were both silent, his arms supporting her gently. Finally she looked up at him again. "Justin," she said. "maybe this isn't the time for me to say this--but I might not get another chance." She took a deep breath, and wrapped her arms a little closer around him. "Justin, I love you."
For the space of a few seconds Justin's heart soared--but then it came back to earth with a thud. "No, you don't," he told her, as gently as he could. "You can't. Not the way I think you mean."
She looked up at him sharply. "What?" she demanded, half angry and half incredulous. "Why not?"
He smiled. "I am flattered," he said. "And I am very fond of you too--never believe I'm not. If things were different...But there is something you don't know, and because of that you don't--you can't--love me."
He hesitated. Then, suddenly, he made his decision. Loyalty, after all, is a two-way street; he owed her a debt equally as large as that he owed Jonathan. He lifted her, gently disengaging her arms from around him, and set her on her feet. He leaned forward and kissed her gently--just that once. "Elizabeth, if we get out of this situation alive, I'll explain it to you," he said. "That's a promise. But it's going to take time, and for the moment I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to trust me."
She looked up at him curiously. "You know I do," she said. "Always."
He smiled. "Believe me, I appreciate that," he said. He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Right now, Mrs. Brisby," he went on sternly, "I think it would be a very good idea if you got some sleep."
"I'll try," she said with a sigh. "But what about you, Mr. Leader Justin?"
He shook his head. "Not in the cards, I'm afraid. Not tonight, at least."
Jonathan had mustered his troops.
Slowly his gaze shifted down the line as he paced back and forth before them, his eyes passing over each of his companions in turn as they sat waiting expectantly. Mark and David, so alike, until you got to know them. Philip, brave to the point of recklessness. Eileen, "Hacker"; if not the smartest person he knew, then certainly one of the top three or four. They sat waiting for him, silent; Mark and David cross-legged with their hands in their laps, and Philip and Eileen so close that their hips were pressed together, and their hands clasped. That at least he was glad to see.
The time was then a little before midnight; some six hours had passed since the news of Dr. Schultz's discovery came to them. The five of them had eaten, a little anyway, knowing that they had to keep their strength up; and then they had sat for hours in their dark hideout, talking and arguing. A dozen plans were proposed, discussed and rejected; tempers began to flare; and finally, exercising the authority he'd so seldom had to use, Jonathan had called a halt. Recriminations were useless now, he knew; so too were plans. In his mind--energized, now, after nine solid months of depression--there was only one alternative; only one thing they could possibly do. The idea had been slow in forming; but now it hung there in his mind, crystal-clear.
Finally Jonathan spoke. "Philip...Mark...David...Hacker," he said, "you four have been the best companions that anyone could ever have. I know when Nicodemus put me in charge of this mission, you all had some doubts...frankly so did I. I hope I've managed to lay most of them to rest. And I hope you will believe me when I say that no one, least of all Nicodemus or myself, had any idea it would take as long as it has. I have never held you to any oaths of fealty; any one of you could have abandoned the mission and gone home--and I wouldn't have blamed you. But you have all stuck with it; and for that most of all I am profoundly grateful. I know Nicodemus, God rest his soul, would have been too."
Eileen cleared her throat. "Excuse me for saying so, Colonel," she observed dryly, "but this is starting to sound like a farewell speech."
Jonathan smiled thinly. He was glad to see that she had regained, at least partially, her quirky sense of humor. These last few days, since she and Jonathan had argued, she had been curiously silent, almost withdrawn, avoiding their company; and it was Philip whom she avoided most of all, much to his obvious pain and perplexity. Philip and Eileen had been alone together for hours that afternoon, though, searching for food while Jonathan, Mark and David waited for Dr. Schultz; and during that time--if their present closeness was any indication--it seemed that a truce had been patched up. Jonathan certainly hoped so. "In a way it is," he said. "These past few hours, since we learned the extent of the trouble Thorn Valley is in...I've been thinking about our mission: what we've accomplished here, the amount of data we've been able to reconstruct. Hacker, how long has it been since we came up with anything really new and substantive?"
She frowned. "About a month, I'd say."
"Exactly," Jonathan said. "In my opinion we aren't going to find anything more. I know that we were ordered to be thorough--though we had no idea how hard that would be to accomplish. But I submit that we have accomplished it." He nodded over at the carefully-preserved bundles of paper, stacked in the corner of their "room." "It's already going to take months for Ages to review all that. In my opinion, as leader of this expedition, it's time to declare victory and pull out." He looked around. "Do I hear any discussion?"
The four of them exchanged a glance. Jonathan saw their eyes slowly begin to light; and he could almost hear their pulses quickening. Home...they were thinking. To go home...That it was a home they'd never actually seen made no difference at all.
But there was a downside, and it was David, as usual, who expressed it. "If," he said bitterly, "we've got a home to go back to."
Jonathan nodded sadly. "I know," he said. "And I wish we could have done more. All we can do is trust Justin--trust that somehow he'll pull them through. If anyone can..."
All four nodded doubtfully. Three of them had worked for Justin, he had been their Captain; they knew his capabilities, no one better. But still--given what he was up against--it seemed a terribly small chance, that even he could preserve the community.
"I just wish--" Philip began softly.
"Pardon?" Jonathan said.
Philip gazed at him, his expression grim. "I just wish we could be there," he said. "Be there when Dr. Schultz arrives. I don't know what Justin will try to do--run, hole up, or fight. But whatever it is, I wish we could be there to help."
"I think we can arrange that," Jonathan told him blandly. He had their attention instantly, complete and undivided; and with a grin he went on. "I've been thinking about that too. You see, we're not going back by bus, or by foot." He paused. "We're going by helicopter."
There was a moment of stunned silence, as that sunk in; then Eileen said, "You mean...stow away?"
"I do," Jonathan confirmed evenly. "You have to admit, it's the fastest way. We'll get there just as soon as Dr. Schultz does."
The four of them thought about that; then, as one, they grinned. "I've always wanted to travel by air," Philip observed.
"Me too," Jonathan said. He paused. "There's always hope," he went on quietly. "By stowing away...perhaps there'll be something we can do. I don't know what," he added quickly. "I'm certainly not suggesting that we crash the helicopter, or anything as suicidal as that. I don't even know if it would be possible. But...something. Other than that...we'll have to count on Justin. And even if it turns out that all we can do is pick up the pieces--then at least we'll be there to do it."
"There's one thing I want you to know, Jonathan," Philip said. "Thorn Valley isn't really your home; we know that. But whatever happens, we will see that you get home. One way or another, we will."
Jonathan looked away. There were many things he could have said...far too many. We have succeeded, he reminded himself. We've got the information; we've got what we...I...came for. "Thank you," he said simply. He took a deep breath. "There's just one more thing I want to do before we break camp," he went on. "We've talked about it--but we've always avoided doing it, because we knew it might be noticed. That doesn't apply any more." He looked around. "Those vials Dr. Schultz keeps in the safe in his office. We know what they are--and I want them. All of them."
"May I join you?" Judith said.
Elizabeth looked up in surprise, straight into the puffy, red-rimmed eyes of the community botanist. "Of course," she said. And then, to her children, "Scoot over please, dears."
Judith hooked a chair from a nearby table with her foot and dragged it over; and then she more or less collapsed into it, between Elizabeth and Teresa. She looked down in disgust at the contents of her tray. "No tea," she said, shaking her head sadly. "Lord, how I need a caffeine fix!"
Breakfast in the Thorn Valley community that morning was quiet, gloomy--and limited. The dining hall's windows and skylights had been covered over, barricaded; the only illumination came from a very few hanging oil lamps. Even at dinnertime the place had never been so dark. Most of the available food had already been taken downstairs, into the service tunnels; and so the menu that morning was reduced to day-old bread, preserves, grains...and water. Justin had ordered the kitchen fires extinguished, and the big chimneys temporarily sealed up, lest they become targets for gas. And so the exhausted populace was even denied the reviving powers of tea.
Very few people were present at the moment, though more were drifting in slowly. They moved like robots, their eyes half-closed, their ears and whiskers drooping, and their tails dragging on the floor. They didn't speak; they didn't even look at each other. All of them had been up through the night; and none of them had any prospect of sleep in their near future.
Judith shook her head. "It looks like the Night of the Living Dead in here," she said. She chuckled bitterly. "Though I don't suppose I look much better."
"I'm beginning to feel guilty that my children and I were able to sleep," Elizabeth said.
Judith smiled and patted her arm. "Don't," she said. "Believe me, no one begrudges you. Envies you, yes, but not begrudge. You are still our guests."
"What have you been working on?" Elizabeth asked.
"The seed warehouse," she said. "I've been packing up what I had in storage and getting it down into the tunnels. If we get through this, we might need to replant our farm." She grimaced. "Which is something we really, really didn't need right now."
"What about your greenhouse?"
A flash of anger passed across her face; then she sighed. "There was nothing I could do about that," she said. "If I take my plants down into the tunnels they'll die from lack of sunlight. If I leave them where they are, and this goes on very long, they'll die from lack of water." She shrugged. "I didn't have much choice; I left them where they are, and let Arthur barricade the door from the greenhouse to the corridors. All I can do is hope." She peered down at Elizabeth. "What does Justin have planned for you and your kids?"
"If--when--Dr. Schultz comes back, he wants us to go immediately to the escape tunnel, and then into the woods. He thinks we'll be safe there, because Dr. Schultz won't be looking for mice."
Judith nodded. "Our fearless leader and I don't see eye to eye very often," she said. "But this time I think he may be right."
"With all the doors and windows stopped up," Timothy asked, "how are we going to know if Dr. Schultz is coming?"
"From what I hear," Judith told him, "Justin has got Thomas stationed up in the rocks above the community, with a telescope. They've placed him right next to one of the ventilation shafts. Arthur found out some time ago, by accident, that those shafts can act like speaking tubes: someone at the top can hear someone at the bottom, and vice-versa. At the bottom, down in the service tunnels, they've got several guards stationed to relay messages. Thomas will be able to hear the helicopter long before it gets here; we should have ample warning." She shook her head. "Thomas," she went on. "I don't know whether he's very brave, or very stupid."
Something about the way she said that--half despairing, half amused--made Elizabeth's ears prick up. "Let me guess," she said. "Your brother?"
Judith nodded. "My little brother," she confirmed. "Totally unsuited to be Captain of the Guard, I'm afraid. He's a born lieutenant. By rights that job should have gone to Philip--one of the rats who vanished with my sister."
With those words, Timothy looked up sharply; but no one noticed. Judith went on, "Thomas knows that too, I'm afraid. He has been trying to prove himself for three months. I just hope he doesn't do it posthumously."
Elizabeth didn't know that word; but she guessed the meaning, from the context. I hope none of us do, she thought.
Judith glanced at the door--and her eyes widened. "I guess this situation really is serious," she said. "Look who's here."
She pointed. The rat who was entering, a look of gloom on his narrow face, was no one Elizabeth knew. He was tall and thin, brown-furred; he wore a blue denim tunic like Judith's, more worn but less stained, over a grey long-sleeved shirt. He also wore a curious flat-topped, narrow-brimmed cap, dark blue, pushed back on his head. "Who's that?" Elizabeth asked.
"Judson," Judith told her. "He's the boatkeeper--he takes care of our little fishing fleet. He almost never leaves his boathouse; since we've been up here I think he's been seen in the community maybe three times, for supplies. If he's here..." she shook her head in despair. "Then I guess Justin has decided to write off the boats as well. Not that he had a lot of choice, I guess."
"Judith," Cynthia said suddenly, "are all humans...bad?"
Judith reached across and rumpled her hair. "I'm afraid I don't know, kiddo," she told the girl. "I've never met any." She paused. "But I don't think so. There must be some at least who wouldn't approve of what Dr. Schultz is doing."
"I wish," Timothy said softly, "we had a few of them here."
Jonathan and Eileen were eavesdropping--one last time.
As the two of them lay there behind the vent, waiting for Dr. Schultz to arrive, they were both all but exhausted; and in point of fact they were dozing, Eileen lying prone with her head cradled in her arms, and Jonathan lying on his back with his head pillowed against her side. Possibly--in fact probably--their friends were also taking the opportunity to nap; who knew when they would get another chance to sleep?
They had a spent a remarkably busy night, all five of them. First and most importantly, it had been necessary for them to erase all sign of their presence at NIMH. All of the rope ladders they had strung were taken down and destroyed; the furnishings in their hideout went into the dumpster, in pieces, and good riddance. In fact they left that forgotten storeroom cleaner than they'd found it, nine months ago. Only their doctored ventilators did they leave alone; to fix those would have required time and tools they did not possess. By the time anyone noticed those grilles--if indeed anyone ever did--the five of them would be long gone.
And then, last but definitely not least, they packed. As far as personal items were concerned they had next to nothing; they had brought very little in the first place, just clothing; and all of them had long been down to their very last set. When they finished their packs were nonetheless heavy: stuffed full with bundles of precious paper. All the information they had gathered so painstakingly, during those months: computer printouts, photocopies, transcripts made in Eileen's tiny, impeccable handwriting. They had divided it all, as equally as they could; if any one pack chanced to be lost--so they hoped--the contents of the others would be enough for Ages to complete his research. In the middle of each pack, wrapped carefully in their blankets (the only reason why they had not discarded those blankets, as it happened) were the vials, those fourteen precious glass ampoules, stolen late that night from Dr. Schultz's safe. They had divided those as well; and Jonathan, at least, was prepared to give his life to defend the two that ended up in his pack.
About an hour earlier, with dawn barely beginning to break over the horizon, they had carried the packs out into the parking lot, concealing them in the midst of a thick privet hedge in one of the planters, some ten yards or so from the roped-off parking spaces where the helicopter would soon land. Philip, Mark and David were there now, keeping watch over the packs; Eileen and Jonathan had remained inside, waiting to find out if this trip was a go or not. Jonathan rather suspected it would be--one way or another.
When the door banged open the two of them came instantly awake. Without a sound they crawled forward, peering out through the vent. Across the room Jonathan could see the guest chair. I hope we put everything back into the camera bag as he left it, he thought. Not that Schultz was all that likely to notice...
It was indeed Dr. Schultz who entered. Once again he was dressed for the field, in khaki trousers, a short-sleeved plaid shirt, and sturdy hiking boots. The scientist looked a little tired, his eyes red-rimmed; Jonathan doubted whether he had slept much, if at all. Join the club, he thought sourly. But obviously, his exhaustion had not affected him emotionally. Quite the opposite, in fact. The night before, Schultz had slammed out of the office in a terrible mood; but overnight, it seemed, that had changed dramatically. This morning he seemed quite nervous; or perhaps excited would be a better word. He couldn't sit down or stay still; he paced the office, back and forth, until Jonathan became dizzy watching him. He opened the flap of the camera bag and peered inside, making Jonathan hold his breath; but everything was apparently in order. No more muttering to himself, not this morning; if anything, he was chuckling.
Lying there beside Jonathan, Eileen shook her head in disgust. "I'm glad he's so happy," she growled. "Bastard."
She might have gone on; but Jonathan shushed her with a wave of his hand, because Dr. Schultz had picked up the telephone, and was dialing.
"Hello, it's me," he said a moment later. "So--what's the verdict?"
There was a brief pause, during which Jonathan watched with interest as the scientist's mood shifted a full one hundred and eighty degrees. It was possible to see his blood pressure rise; a bright-red flush crept from his collar to his hairline in the space of a few seconds. His hand clenched into a claw around the telephone handset. Finally he ground out, "What do you mean, 'no'? Do you mean to tell me that after what I found up there, and with everything it implies, they are not going to give me permission to land just because its a wilderness area??!!"
He listened for a moment, his eyes blazing behind his glasses; they he said, "No. I don't care whose fault it is or isn't. What matters is that you and your precious government have just handed this country over to a bunch of rats! And all because of some useless trees and flowers." Another pause. "Melodramatic? Well, you just wait ten years, and then tell me I'm being melodramatic." A pause. "No. I'm through with you. I don't care how hard you worked. 'Almost' doesn't count, my friend. Not in this game."
With that he slammed the receiver down, and then he plopped himself into his chair, scowling, his arms crossed over his chest. In the vent, Eileen turned to Jonathan with a look of rising hope; but Jonathan shook his head. "Wait," he whispered. "Wait and watch."
For several minutes Dr. Schultz sat unmoving, staring into space; then he shook his head violently. "No," he muttered. "Not this time. There's too much at stake."
He wheeled his chair around to face his computer; a computer which Jonathan and his friends (most especially Eileen) were quite familiar with, as it had provided them with a good deal of information over the last nine months. Fortunately for them, Dr. Schultz was less than careful with his password. For several minutes the scientist pounded on the keyboard; then he leaned back as the printer spit out a single sheet of paper. He scanned the sheet for a moment, whatever it was; nodded in approval, and then signed it near the bottom.
"What's he got there?" Eileen asked.
"I don't know," Jonathan began. He paused then, his ears pricking up; far in the distance he had detected a faint rhythmic thumping, an all-too-familiar sound. Dr. Schultz had heard it too; he stood, grabbing for his camera bag, binoculars and jacket. "But I think we're about to find out," Jonathan went on. He slapped Eileen on the shoulder. "Come on, Hacker," he said. "That's our cue."
The two of them turned then and ran, as fast as they could, heedless for once of the sharp staccato noise their footsteps made in the thin metal ducts. Their path was not the familiar one back to their hideout, but rather one which Jonathan at least had not traveled in many months: the one that led outside. Even before embarking upon the expedition--and for obvious reasons--they had deemed the roof route to be too dangerous; and so, before they first entered the building, they had scouted carefully for an alternative. After some consideration they had finally jimmied open an outside ventilator, almost at ground-level and well-hidden behind a bush. Fortunately, as with their other altered grilles, no one had yet noticed or repaired it.
Outside the day had dawned sunny and quite warm--it would be brutally hot and humid before long--and as Jonathan and Eileen approached the ventilator, they were forced to pause for a moment, their eyes quite dazzled by a bright beam of sunlight. "Good God," Jonathan said, as they waited for their eyes to adjust. "I just realized--I haven't been outdoors for the better part of a year."
"Neither have I," Eileen said. "But now's not the time for an attack of agoraphobia. Let's go."
It was a drop of about two feet from the grille to the ground, which was covered by thick layers of shredded bark and dead leaves. Eileen went first, lowering herself to arms' length, and then dropping the final foot and a halt, alighting easily on her feet. She reached up her arms an caught Jonathan as he jumped. "It's not easy being short," Jonathan commented, as she set him down.
"Tell me about it," Eileen said. "Now what?"
Before them lay some ten years of open asphalt, with no cover whatsoever. It as still early morning; there were few cars in the lot; and only one human being in sight: Dr. Schultz, standing at the edge of the roped-off section, shielding his eyes with his hand as he peered into the sky. Even as Jonathan and Eileen had made their way outdoors the helicopter's thumping had grown steadily louder, and now the machine itself came sailing into view, heading in from the north and settling in slowly for a landing. Jonathan waited until Dr. Schultz's attention seemed most riveted on the descending copter...and then he grasped Eileen's arm. "Now!" he said.
Flat out, at top speed, the two of them dashed across the already-warm asphalt. Jonathan could not remember the last time he had gone on all fours; but this time he did, less for the sake of greater speed, and more to make himself that much less visible. Beside him Eileen did the same; he could not recall ever having seen her do so. Less than a minute later, unseen, they vaulted over a low concrete curb and into a planter, burying themselves in the depths of a thick privet hedge.
Mark, David and Philip were already there, concealed in the midst of the hedge, guarding the precious packs. If they had indeed been asleep, there was no sign of it. As Philip embraced Eileen he said, "What's the story?" He had to shout to be heard over the helicopter's roar.
"The answer was no," Jonathan told him flatly. "But he's going anyway. Assuming he can bully the pilot into it."
Together the five of them peered out through the dusty leaves. The helicopter had touched down by then. Ordinarily Dr. Schultz would have boarded while the engine was still running, ducking low under the blades; but this time he did not; instead he made a slashing motion across his throat with the side of his hand. The pilot shut the engine down. As the blades gradually came to a halt the pilot unfastened his seatbelt and descended.
Jonathan and his friends were too far away to clearly hear the conversation; but from random words, and from the two men's actions and gestures, Jonathan reconstructed it. Dr. Schultz asks the pilot for help with the equipment. The pilot asks if that means they're landing. Schultz says yes; and the pilot is surprised; he asks if they've really got permission. Dr. Schultz shows him the paper he just typed up...
Exactly what was on that paper, Jonathan did not know; had Dr. Schultz gone so far as to engage in forgery? Was he truly that obsessed? Or was there something else on that sheet?
Whatever it is, Jonathan thought, the pilot isn't buying it. And so the argument begins.
For perhaps five minutes Dr. Schultz waved his arms and shouted; while the pilot remained impassive, immobile as a stone, his arms crossed. Over and over again he shook his head. Then, finally--and to Jonathan's total amazement--Dr. Schultz reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Several pieces of green paper emerged, and were pressed into the pilot's hand; he accepted them, reluctantly it seemed, and then the two of them turned and walked toward the building.
Oh ho, Jonathan thought. So the great scientist resorts to bribery. He really is that obsessed! He turned to his companions. "This is it," he told them. "Get the packs--we've got to make this really fast."
The five of them shouldered their packs, and took off running toward the helicopter as fast as their burdens would allow. No dropping to all fours this time; their forelimbs could not have taken the weight. A few seconds later they pulled up next to the pilot's-side landing skid.
The pilot had left the door open, a fact which spared Jonathan and his friends an infinity of trouble. The lower edge of the door-frame was far above their heads, even the rats; but a little distance below that was a step, a flattened metal tube coated on its upper surface with a non-skid material. While Mark and David kept watch, Philip dug into his pack. Near the top was an item he had brought with him from the farm; he had lost count of how many times he had used it. It was a length of stout nylon cord, with a lead fishing sinker tied firmly to one end. He shook out the coil loosely on the ground; and then, standing directly below the step, he flipped the weighted end up and over. He was first-time lucky; the weight sailed over the tube and fell to the ground, looping the rope over the step. Philip tied a slip knot and pulled it tight; then he spat on both hands and swarmed up the rope. Once up on the skid he untied the rope and tossed the weight into the helicopter's cabin; then he braced himself and sprang. The nails of his fingers and toes caught at the black short-pile carpeting; scrabbling, he hauled himself into the cabin. He fastened the line to a strut below the pilot's seat; then he leaned out. "Everybody up!" he called.
The rest was easy. Mark went up first; and together, he and Philip hauled up the five packs, one at a time, tied to the end of the rope. Then David, Eileen and Jonathan followed. Philip grinned at them as he coiled his line and stowed it. "You know," he said reflectively, "you just can't have too much nylon rope."
"I'll take your word for that," Jonathan said. He looked around. "So," he went on, "where do we hide?"
The helicopter's cabin was just spacious enough for four humans; small ones. There were two seats in front and two in back; the leg-room between them was narrow. Dr. Schultz's jacket, camera bag and binoculars were already there, on the back seat, where he had tossed them before he and the pilot headed indoors. Presumably they would pile the other equipment there too, or on the floor. Philip pointed. "Under the back seats," he said. "If we push ourselves right up to the rear wall, I don't think we'll be seen."
"Make it quick, guys," Eileen hissed. "They're coming."
Jonathan peered out through the open door. The scientist and the pilot were indeed on their way back, their arms laden. Swiftly Jonathan and his companions pushed their packs into the space beneath the rear seats, all the way back to the bulkhead; and they followed the packs in. It was a cramped, dusty and stale-smelling place, full of crumpled gum wrappers and scraps of paper. Jonathan could stand upright; the other four could not. They were not a second too soon; they had barely concealed themselves when two shovels and two pickaxes thumped down on the floor, exactly where they had been standing.
Jonathan watched closely, peering out from beneath the seat, as the two men finished their work; it required three trips in all. Besides the picks and shovels they loaded first a wire cage and a box of clear plastic bags. A cage for prisoners, and plastic bags for corpses; apparently Schultz believed there would be far more of the latter. Then a larger carton, containing small metal cylinders with an ominous skull-and-crossbones marking; and finally--and most carefully, strapping them in with the seatbelts--several objects which Jonathan did not recognize at all, until he noticed that one of them was a spool of wire. Good God, he thought, his blood running cold, he really is bringing explosives! The last two items, almost an afterthought it seemed, were a cooler chest and a large insulated water jug; evidently Dr. Schultz planned on making a day of it. Those items loaded, the two men climbed into the front seats, slammed the doors, and buckled in. If they knew about their unauthorized passengers, they gave no sign.
This is it, Jonathan thought. For the second--and hopefully last--time in his life, he was leaving NIMH; this time, at very least, it had been somewhat easier to depart, and his stay there quite a bit shorter. Never in his life had he left a place with less regret; in fact there was only one thing about the place he might possibly miss: the leftover coffee in the employee's lounge .
The pilot hesitated before starting the engine. "Listen," he told Dr. Schultz. "You know I shouldn't be doing this, and if I lose my license I'm out of business. You swear to me, that you'll take the responsibility? All of it?"
"Yes," Schultz said impatiently. "Yes, I swear. Just as I wrote it out. All the responsibility is mine."
"I hope you remember that," the pilot said. And then he started the engine.
Under the back seat, the five stowaways clung to their packs and each other, as the machine lifted into the sky. The noise and vibration were appalling; Jonathan feared they would all be deaf or shaken to pieces before they arrived. He shouted close to Philip's ear: "How long?"
"I'd guess about an hour and a half to two hours!" Philip replied. "We might as well get comfortable!"
They did their best, leaning back against their packs. Two hours, Jonathan thought in amazement. It was certainly better than the four days it would have taken them otherwise; though much of that time, admittedly, would have been spent waiting for the right connections. In two hours they would be in Thorn Valley; a place none of them had ever seen, but which they had all worked a good part of their lives to make possible. As Jonathan had said, they would arrive just as soon as Dr. Schultz did; but would they--could they--be in time to do any good?
"Whatever happens," Elizabeth told her children, "we need to stay together. If we do that, we'll all be fine."
They had returned to their guest room after breakfast, possibly for the last time, to pack--and to wait. There seemed to be little else they could do. As the time passed, as early morning drifted into mid-morning, marked only by the ticking of the wall clock, Elizabeth felt her anxiety slowly but surely growing. She kept a tight lid on her emotions, or tried to; she believed that she had little choice. For her children's sake, she could not give in to panic. If she remained calm, so might they.
...But in fact (she was forced to admit) the four of them seemed a good deal less likely to panic than she herself did; what they were feeling this morning, it seemed, was mostly frustration.
They all sat close together, the children cross-legged on the floor, gathered around Elizabeth's chair. The room was dim; they had lit only a single oil lamp. The windows had been covered over at some time in the middle of the previous night, even as they slept; they had all been so exhausted, they had not even heard the work going on. The lamp's tiny flickering flame barely illuminated the room, leaving the corners in deep shadow. Somehow the gloom seemed almost appropriate.
The five backpacks lying in a pile near the door were much larger than the small bundles they had arrived with, almost a week ago; mainly because of the things the rats had pressed on them to make their exile more comfortable. Matches, blankets and clothing, mainly, and also a variety of simple tools. Justin believed that the five of them could survive out in the valley with no particular difficulty, and Elizabeth fully agreed with him. Already in the back of her mind her plans were forming: what kind of shelter they would construct, how they would go about securing food and water. It was, as Justin had realized, her own area of expertise; she had even been known to teach Jonathan a thing or two. No, survival was not one of their problems.
It was Timothy, as usual, who first gave voice to what was troubling all four of them; what was, if she was to be honest, troubling Elizabeth too. "Mom," he said, "why do we have to leave?"
There were murmurs of agreement from the other three, and Martin said, "Yeah, Mom. After all the work we did for them last night, why are they kicking us out now?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "That's not it," she assured them. "They're not kicking us out at all--Justin just thinks we'll be safer out in the woods, that's all."
"Then why aren't they all going?" Teresa asked pointedly.
"Because...," Elizabeth began, and paused. She floundered for a moment, then went on, "Because there are too many of them. Justin doesn't think the woods can support three hundred rats. And he thinks they'd be seen, coming out of the escape tunnel. But Dr. Schultz won't be looking for mice, so we'll be safe."
Even as she spoke, the words sounded hollow in her own ears. Her children--most especially Timothy--knew as well as she did: she really didn't believe what she was saying. Oh, they would be safe enough, that much was true; but whatever Justin's reasoning was, it had very little to do with the rats being seen, or not being able to find enough food. In fact--she was beginning to believe--Justin had given up. In her mind he still hoped that the rats would survive the siege--but he no longer believed it. It was entirely possible that he did not realize this himself, not consciously; but Elizabeth had seen it in his eyes late last night. He was beginning to believe that Dr. Schultz would succeed; that he could not be prevented from hunting the rats down and destroying them, no matter where they went or what they did. Gathering everyone together in the service tunnels might be nothing more or less than a last act of defiance: Dr. Schultz would find it very difficult to obtain corpses to study; and--very much more importantly--he would find it almost impossible to take live prisoners. Better to die there together than to be hunted down in the woods, captured one by one, and returned to captivity. Better especially, than that the community's younger adults and children be taken into a captivity that they had never known. Justin would probably have hotly denied any such motivations--but they were present. Elizabeth knew that only too well. Sending her and her family away was his way of exempting them from inevitable doom.
...But how can I possibly tell my children that? The answer was simple: she could not.
"Mom," Timothy said, shaking her out of her gloomy thoughts, "we want to stay. Don't we, guys?"
The three of them nodded, their chins stuck out and their whiskers bristling defiantly. "Yeah," Martin said. "We want to stay and fight."
"...Or stay and help," Cynthia amended.
"That's right," Teresa added. "There must be something we can do..."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "But I'm afraid that's not going to happen. I understand what you're all feeling; believe me, I do. And I almost wish we could stay too. But..." She gazed at Martin. "I'm afraid there isn't going to be a fight. There can't be." Her gaze shifted to Cynthia and Teresa. "And they've got all the help they need." She glanced at Timothy, the lamplight reflecting brightly from his new glasses. "I know you all have friends here, and I am sorry to pull you away from them so soon. But Justin is the leader of the community, and as long as we're here, we have to follow his orders. Not only that, but he has so many people and things to worry about. He feels responsible for us, because he invited us here, and I think--I know--that he will feel better if he doesn't have to worry about us."
The four of them exchanged a glance; and then, with some reluctance, they all nodded. "Okay, Mom," Timothy said, and the other three once again muttered their agreement.
"Good," she said. She reached out her arms to enclose them all. "And we might all still be worrying needlessly. It's very possible that Justin is right. If the rats can hide themselves away for long enough, Dr. Schultz might be forced to give up and leave."
Do I believe that? she asked herself. Unfortunately the answer to that was easy too: No. But I don't believe that this is the end, either. For any of us, rat or mouse.
At that moment they were interrupted by a loud and insistent knock on the door. Without a pause for invitation the door was wrenched open, and a rat peered in. Female, she was dressed in a blue tunic and a white shirt, the uniform of the Guard. It took Elizabeth a moment to recognize her: Carla, the lifeguard. She looked very different without her T-shirt, visor and the smear of zinc oxide across her nose. Under her fur, her face was white. "Mrs. Brisby?" she said, her voice terse with barely-controlled fear. "I'm sorry to barge in, but would you all come with us, please? It's time."
For a second Elizabeth was frozen; then she stood. "They're coming?"
Carla nodded. "Yes," she said quietly. "We've just had word from Thomas. The helicopter isn't in sight yet, but he can hear it."
Somehow Elizabeth managed, yet again, to swallow her fear. "Come on," she told her children. "Get your packs. And remember what I said: stay together!"
They shouldered their packs, and then they followed Carla out into the hallway. Already the corridor was filled with rats, adults and children, all moving ahead steadily and silently, grim-faced, heading for the ramps that would take them downstairs. In any other place, Elizabeth might have expected a stampede: but not here. Not among the Rats of NIMH. She had been a little concerned what would happen to her children and herself, if they got caught in that crowd: they were so small, they might be crushed or trampled completely by accident. But now she saw that she needn't have worried. Whether it was Justin or Thomas who had ordered it she didn't know; but Carla was accompanied by three other rats, guards all. The four of them immediately fell into a defensive phalanx around Elizabeth and her children. Thus protected, they fell into step with the evacuation.
Elizabeth could hear it now, above the soft shuffling of many bare feet, and the few--very few--whispered words: the same sound she had heard yesterday afternoon, the rapid thudding of the helicopter's blades cutting air. Quiet now; it might even be possible to dismiss it as her imagination; but it was growing steadily louder. As she walked, locked in among the hundreds of rats, she found herself looking around. Her children were doing the same, or almost: they were trying to fix in their minds the memories of this place, this community that had given them so much; and had so much more to give. But Elizabeth was looking around for one face, one particular person she wished above all to see, just one last time. But he did not appear, and by the time they reached the downward-spiraling ramp she had accepted, with heavy heart, the fact that he would not. No doubt he was busy elsewhere.
What did he mean, she wondered, when he told me that I can't love him? Probably--most likely--he meant that he was already spoken for; that he had his eye on some female rat or another. And of course she could not blame him for that: it was only proper, much more so than a cross-species relationship. Among other things she--whoever she was--could give him children of his own, which Elizabeth could not. And in any case it scarcely mattered now. But she was not sorry--she would never be sorry--that he knew; that she had finally found the courage to tell him what she had felt these last three months.
The ramp had carried them swiftly downward, into the service tunnels, and the crowd was beginning to break up, to find places to cluster together and wait. Elizabeth looked around, gathering her children close to herself. It was time for them to find the escape tunnel--and then to face whatever lay beyond.
They had arrived.
Jonathan and his companions managed to doze their way through most of the flight, curled together into a single ball of fur and worn clothing under the helicopter's rear seats, lulled partly by their own exhaustion, and partly by the engine's soporific drone. Jonathan didn't begrudge that nap, and didn't try to fight it when he felt sleep catching up with him, soon after they left NIMH. In a certain sense they were more vulnerable while asleep; it very slightly increased their danger of being discovered. But he knew--no one better--just how tired they all were. He still had no idea what they were going to do when they reached Thorn Valley; but it seemed a safe bet that they would need all the strength they could muster. And the flight was stupifyingly monotonous.
Some slight change, either in the aircraft's attitude, or in the pitch of the engine, brought them all instantly awake; and they realized immediately that the helicopter was hovering now, rather than moving forward. We're here, Jonathan thought, half in hope and half in dread. We're finally here: Thorn Valley.
He and his friends crawled forward...and then shied back, briefly, as Dr. Schultz groped for his binoculars. They peered out through the jumble of tools and boxes. Unfortunately there was very little for them to see. The door windows were far above their heads, showing nothing but blue sky from that angle, and the windshield was similarly occluded; though Jonathan thought that he caught a quick glimpse of a sharp-pointed mountain peak, just for a few seconds as the helicopter slowly rotated.
Dr. Schultz was peering down through his binoculars; after a moment he chuckled hollowly. "They've barricaded their windows and doors!" he said, above the engine noise. "I really think they are making a stand. Not that it will do them much good."
"Doc," the pilot said, "are you telling me that all this was built by rats?"
"Of course it was," Dr. Schultz said testily. "What--did you think there was a race of six-inch-tall humans up here?"
The pilot shook his head. "After what I've seen the last couple days, I don't know what to think."
"Then maybe you'd better just concentrate on the flying," Dr. Schultz said coldly. "And leave the thinking to me." He pointed. "Take us down."
The pilot hesitated. "Your responsibility?"
"Yes, yes," Dr. Schultz insisted. "My responsibility. Down! We haven't got all day!"
"Okay, Doc. As long as it's your neck, not mine."
Slowly the machine settled. Its nose was pointing due north now, and through the windshield Jonathan caught a glimpse of forest at the valley's end, miles distant. In the right-side window, the eastern ridge appeared. "Land us as close as your can to the middle of that ridge," Dr. Schultz instructed. "I'm sure I saw some kind of large entrance there yesterday."
Less than thirty seconds later they were on the ground, and the pilot shut off the engine; the sudden silence made Jonathan's ears ring. He and his friends pulled back again as Dr. Schultz reached for his camera bag. "Come on," Schultz said briskly, as he popped open his door. "I want to get some more shots before we get to work."
The pilot and the scientist exited the helicopter then; and once again, fortunately, they left the doors open. Jonathan and his friends crept out from their hiding place, worming their way through a tangle of tool handles and boxes. Cautiously they gathered around the pilot's-side door and peered out.
Even now there was not a lot they could see, not through that narrow opening. They were clearly in a large mountain valley; that much was obvious. Away to the north its end was lost in distance. Directly below them was lush grass, which seemed to have been recently cut--Jonathan didn't need to wonder by whom. Off to the right, some twenty yards away, the valley's eastern wall rose sharply in a series of stair-step ridges, made of rough, bare grey stone. Jonathan had never seen this valley before...but never for a second did he doubt that they were in the right place. That ridge fit too well, the descriptions he had heard, and the drawings and blueprints he had seen. And not only that, the signs of habitation were immediately obvious. Evenly spaced along those stairstep ridges were openings. Windows mainly, but a few doors as well; they extended as far as he could see in both directions. They had been barricaded, just as Dr. Schultz had said; covered with earth and stone, probably on top of wooden shutters. Whoever had done the job had taken pains to try to camouflage those openings; but unfortunately, they had not been particularly successful. Every one of them stood out, perfectly visible, almost pitifully obvious. No wonder Dr. Schultz had been chuckling.
The pilot and the scientist had walked some distance farther north, following the lowest ridge; Dr. Schultz had his camera out, fitted this time with a shorter zoom lens, and he was taking pictures in every direction, as fast as he could click. Jonathan couldn't suppress a brief smile as he saw that. The humans stopped some ten yards away from the helicopter and knelt down. Directly in front of them, at ground level on the lowest tier of ridges, was the community's main entrance. That was obvious, even to five pair of eyes which had never seen it before. A wide stone archway, large enough for a whole group of rats to enter at once; there were several well-trodden paths worn into the grass, converging on it. The archway had been completely filled with close-packed earth and rock, rammed in so tightly that the scientist could not even insert a finger.
"What's the plan, boss?" Eileen whispered to Jonathan.
He glanced up at her in despair. "There isn't one," he said. "If our friends are anywhere in this valley, they're holed up behind those barricades. And I can't see a way to get to them. Not now, at any rate."
"Well," she said reasonably, "we can't hang around in here all day."
"You're right," Jonathan said. He scrambled over obstacles to the other side of the helicopter, the door that faced west. On that side, some twelve yards away, was the shore of a large lake. The grass ended abruptly at the edge of a broad sandy beach, which sloped gently down to the water; he could see where a line of large stones had been placed a little distance offshore, creating a calm swimming hole. All deserted now, of course.
Philip gripped his elbow and pointed. At the north end of the beach, where it met the grass, there was a little rise, topped with a line of low, dense bushes. It was--though Jonathan had no way of knowing it--the very place his wife had sat and talked with Justin almost a week ago, while watching the children swim. "Looks like the only cover available," Philip said.
"Right," Jonathan agreed. "Let's do it!"
Before they started, they hazarded another quick glance out through the other door. The pilot and Dr. Schultz were still walking generally north, still minutely examining the barricaded openings, still clicking pictures. At any moment, however, they might return for their tools; better make this quick.
They dragged their packs over to the west-side door, wrestling them through the tangle of tools and boxes, and Philip once again fished out his rope. He could not tie a standard knot, because there would be no one left in the helicopter to untie it; instead he passed a loop through a strut under the passenger seat and dropped both ends out through the door, over the step. There was just enough line to reach the ground. While Eileen kept watch, standing on the rear seat on the pilot's side, the other four went to work. Mark descended to the ground, and David to the step; and then Philip, with Jonathan assisting as much as he could, carefully lowered the five precious backpacks. David eased them over the step, one by one; and at the bottom, Mark untied them and set them aside.
They had just finished lowering the last pack--Jonathan's, as it happened--when Eileen suddenly jumped. "They're coming!" she cried.
David jumped from the step and caught both strands of the rope, sliding hand-over-hand to the ground. Mark and Jonathan followed at double-speed. They were already on the ground when Eileen crossed the floor of the helicopter, scrambled hastily out onto the edge of the door-frame, grabbed for the rope...and missed. She teetered for a moment on the edge, her arms flailing; and then she fell.
"Eileen!" Philip screamed. He and the others dashed forward, even Jonathan; their arms outstretched. Eileen tumbled head over heels, crying out in terror; her right arm struck the step with a resounding whack, and then she fell straight down, directly--fortunately--into the four pair of waiting arms.
Her eyes were closed, her body trembling violently, as they lowered her carefully to the grass. "Eileen, darling," Philip said anxiously, close to her ear, "are you all right?"
She opened one eye and peered up at him. "'Darling'?" she quoted with a grin. "I didn't know that word was in your vocabulary, hotshot."
"Of course it is," he said, as he embraced and kissed her in relief. "Are you all right?" he repeated.
"Yes," she said. She started to lever herself up onto her arms...and gave a sudden yelp of pain, collapsing into her right side. "No," she corrected between clenched teeth, as she sat up more carefully. "My wrist--I think it's fractured."
Indeed, that limb was already visibly swelling. "That won't be the only thing that's fractured," Jonathan said tightly, glancing back over his shoulder. Through the helicopter's landing struts he could see two pair of human legs, approaching fast. "Hacker, can you walk?"
With Philip's help she struggled to her feet. "I think so," she said shakily. "I'm not hurt anywhere else." She winced again. "Just don't ask me to carry anything."
"We won't," Jonathan promised. "Philip, get her under cover. Mark, David, let's get these packs."
Eileen and Philip set off toward the bushes at a shuffling run, his arm around her shoulders; she supported her right arm with her left, holding both close against her chest. At every step she gave a little grunt of pain. In a few seconds they vanished over the ridge into the brush. David pulled down the rope and coiled it hastily around his waist. Jonathan shouldered his own pack, as did Mark and David; and together the three of them caught hold of the straps of the other two packs. They couldn't lift them, not along with their own; and so they dragged them across the grass as fast as they could. At the top of the ridge they gave the packs a push; and then they followed them over. Once again they were just in time: even as they hid themselves, Dr. Schultz and the pilot returned to the copter and reached into the back seat.
The five of them lay prone on the back side of the ridge, peering between the branches. Eileen was breathing hard now, clutching her wrist; her face was dead white. Philip's arms were around her, a look of deep concern on her face. "Hacker--?" Jonathan said.
"I'm all right," she said tersely; but that was clearly something less than the truth. "It just hurts a little."
"Splint," Jonathan said. "That's what we need--a splint. Mark, would you please find some sticks? Stay out of sight."
"Right away," Mark said, and he headed down the back side of the ridge, crawling on his belly.
"David," Jonathan went on, "I think we're going to have to sacrifice some of Philip's precious rope."
"Right," David said. He unwrapped it from around his waist and handed the coil to Philip. The larger rat patted his pockets, looking for the knife that he had lost months ago. Failing to find it, he looked frustrated for a moment; then he shrugged and went to work on the nylon line with his rodent's teeth.
"Battlefield medicine," Eileen muttered. "Gotta love it."
Mark returned a few seconds later, bearing two smooth sticks of about the correct size; and by that time, Philip had gnawed off two lengths of rope. Jonathan did the tying. Whether the splint eased the pain any, Jonathan doubted, though Eileen insisted that it did. But at very least, perhaps it would help prevent any further damage, until they could get the wrist properly taken care of--if indeed that would ever happen. As soon as they had finished their task, they all returned to the top of the ridge and once again peered out cautiously.
The pilot and Dr. Schultz had finished unloading their tools from the back of the helicopter. The day was hot, and they had paused for a brief rest, there in the aircraft's shade. Jonathan, with a certain degree of envy, watched them pass the water jug back and forth. He and his friends would have to do without for the duration; they had no canteens, and if they tried to reach the lake-side they might be spotted. Jonathan watched, sick despair growing inside him, as Dr. Schultz stood and strolled down the ridge-line. As they watched, the scientist paused before the barricaded main entrance, and suddenly he kicked it as hard as he could with his heavily-booted foot. He sent up a shower of dust and chips, but caused no other visible damage; the barricade still stood. Then he turned on his heel and marched purposefully toward the pile of tools.
Eileen was breathing a little easier now, though her face was still pale. She turned. "Jonathan," she said softly, "I just want you to know, before it's too late. I'm truly sorry for that argument we had the other day."
Jonathan turned toward her. "I'm sorry too, Hacker," he told her. "But not because we argued. I'm sorry because...I'm beginning to believe you may have been right."
The main entrance is barricaded, Justin thought. But is it barricaded enough?
That thought had plagued him for several hours, since he first inspected the makeshift plug which Arthur and his team had thrown up. It was the main entrance that worried Justin the most, even more than those dozens of windows and lesser doors scattered along the length of the community. They were small, far too small for a human to get through, and opened into rooms that were separated from the hallways by other, inner doors. But the main entrance opened directly into the main corridor, into the very center of the community; and it was wide enough, almost, for a human to crawl partway into. It would be a perfect place to toss in canisters of gas; they could be broadcast far down the hallway in both directions. Dr. Schultz would doubtless be bringing pickaxes, if not indeed more destructive devices; short of filling the main entrance and its connecting corridor with solid concrete, could any barricade be truly adequate?
Justin had supervised the evacuation; it had gone remarkably smoothly, all things considered, with no sign of panic, even among the young children. He watched until the last of his people vanished into the down-ramps leading to the service tunnels; and then--even as the helicopter's shuddering vibration increased steadily around him--he turned and ran, back through the eerily-deserted corridors toward the main entrance. It hurt him, not to be there with his people; but it couldn't be helped; he would have to rely on Alice, and others, to keep them calm. It hurt him more, that he had not had the chance to say goodbye to one person in particular. That too couldn't be helped; but hopefully--if, God willing, his theories were anywhere near correct--this would not be the final goodbye. Not yet, anyway. But at any rate--beyond all regrets--he knew where his duty lay: with the part of the community that would be, must be, attacked first.
He reached the vicinity of the main entrance just as the vibrations reached their peak; for a few seconds the entire community seemed to be shaking, and it was all he could do just to stay on his feet. Good grief, he thought, as he clung to the wall. They must be landing right on top of us! Even as he arrived at the barricade the noise and shaking stopped; the sudden silence was both startling and ominous. They're here, he thought. God help us all, they're here.
Four people were present in the corridor already, clustered around the barricade. Three of them Justin recognized as employees of Arthur's shop: Allen, Charles, and Hannah. All three were volunteers; they had been ordered to man the barricade, and to keep it standing as long as they could, short of suicide. The fourth person was also a volunteer, but he was not a member of Arthur's regular crew: in fact it was Sullivan. For a brief few seconds Justin was surprised to see him; but on reflection, he decided he should not be. The prisoner was entirely without guard, and without handcuffs; what was the point in either, now? The look that Sullivan shot him, as Justin stepped up beside him, was one of defiance; but Justin refused to be baited. Whatever I might think of him personally, Justin thought, this isn't the time. He's volunteered for a dangerous job; leave it at that for now. "How's it holding up?" he asked.
Sullivan nodded down at the floor, where lay a few small stones and a scattering of earth and sand. "It's holding, for now," he said. "The vibrations jarred that much loose, but no more."
Justin nodded. "Arthur's work is always good," he said. "Let's hope this is his magnum opus."
The barricade was not, perhaps, Arthur's greatest achievement; but considering the conditions under which it had been built, it was certainly on the top-ten list. The main entrance opened into a connecting corridor some three feet long, which intersected the community's main hallway at right angles. To entirely fill that short corridor with stone would have been impossible in so short a time--but Arthur had come close. The structure he had built consisted of a massive wooden framework, floor to ceiling, divided into half a dozen vertical chambers, each of them some six inches in thickness, and separated from each other by heavy planking. Each of those chambers Arthur had filled with rock and earth, and had packed each end with more. On the inner side, three feet into the community, he had braced the entire structure with three large slabs of stone. It had taken a dozen rats to lever each of those slabs into place, leaning forward against the barricade. It was Arthur's belief that the wooden partitions would make the barricade more resilient; that the shovels and pickaxes might simply bounce off--for a while at least. That theory, Justin had no doubt, would very soon be put to the test. And if for any reason it failed, Justin and the other four rats stood ready, with hammers, nails and a large supply of wooden planks and beams, to do what they could to shore it up.
"Where's Arthur?" Justin asked. "I expected to find him here."
"He was here," Sullivan confirmed. "But he left a few minutes ago. He said something about checking the escape tunnel."
Justin nodded thoughtfully. Good, he decided. Arthur had expressed some reservations about the supports in that tunnel; it was only to be expected that the chief engineer would go and check them, one last time. That structure was their lifeline, their very last resort, especially for the very most innocent among them: the children. Justin still hoped they wouldn't have to use it; but he was finding it harder and harder to convince himself. Stacked up against even just two humans with hand tools, the entire community seemed terribly fragile, terribly vulnerable. Funny--it had never seemed that way before.
There were several moments of silence then, as the helicopter's noise faded into memory. The five of them stood still, straining their ears, trying to catch some sound, any sound, which would give them an indication of what was happening outside. What's he doing? Justin wondered. Unloading tools, of course; that was a given. But beyond that--? Looking for the best place to dig, perhaps? Or--even more likely--taking pictures? He certainly wouldn't neglect that; he would document every step of the destruction.
As the silence lengthened Justin found his mind wandering. He thought first about Thomas, far above their heads in the jumble of rocks that made up the community's roof. He had been desperate for that assignment; had all but begged Justin for it, in fact. Still trying to prove himself, Justin thought sadly. He knows what people think: he knows they think he's too fussy, too pedantic, too obsessed with tiny details, to be Captain of the Guard. He probably even knows that I think the same. I wish I didn't--but it's true. He would make a great first lieutenant--but not captain.
Keep your head down, Justin had ordered him, and no heroics. It would be just like him, to storm the helicopter single-handed, with nothing more than four inches of sword...and to end up dead, or worse, in doing so. Stay put, Justin ordered him silently. Stay put and observe.
But as much as he tried to think of other things, Justin's wandering mind kept returning, over and over, to thoughts of one person: Elizabeth Brisby. By now she and her children should be headed up the escape tunnel, out into the forest beyond the farm. You can survive there, he had told her; and he still believed it to be true. She had the knack, after a lifetime of practical experience; and her children had their intelligence as well. He pictured them establishing a temporary home in the woods, foraging for food...At this time of the year it probably would not be a bad life, and in a little more than three weeks their friend Jeremy would arrive and take them back where they belonged.
And that, he thought, really will be the end of the Rats of NIMH. Unless...but there was no use dwelling on that.
Goodbye, Elizabeth, he thought. Please remember us; and please remember how much we honored you. And most of all, please remember that I did love you--in my own way.
Justin glanced over at Sullivan. The older rat, the convict, stood looking up at the ceiling, as if he could penetrate solid rock with his stare. He looked tired--as did they all--as well as drawn and anxious. Even three months later he had not fully recovered from the wound Jenner had dealt him; he tired easily, and even though he had been sentenced to hard labor, neither Justin nor Thomas had ever had the heart to enforce that to the letter of the law. Clearly, though, he had worked much too hard on the barricade; Justin saw a grimace of pain on that blunt face, and wondered if he had managed to re-injure himself. Justin gazed at him...and abruptly he came to a decision. "Sullivan?"
Sullivan shook himself. "Yes, sir?" he said.
"I just want you to know," Justin told him. "Whatever happens today--you are not going back to prison."
Sullivan's jaw dropped. "Pardon me?"
"Exactly right," Justin said with a faint grin. "That's what I'm doing: I'm pardoning you. I'm exercising an executive power that I just made up." He swept his hand in a circle, indicating the other three rats. "They're all my witnesses. Congratulations. As of this moment you're a free rat."
Sullivan looked down. "I...I don't know what so say," he stammered. He grasped Justin's hand and shook it firmly. "Thank you. Thank you very much."
"Don't thank me," Justin told him. "Thank Elizabeth Brisby." He looked up and scowled. "What on earth is he waiting for?" he muttered. "Get it over with!"
They heard a sound of running footsteps then, loud in the silent and deserted hallways, and they all turned. Heading up the corridor at full speed was a young rat. He drew up before Justin and stopped, panting uncontrollably; it took Justin a moment to recognize him as another of Arthur's employees. "Stephen!" he said. "Good grief, you're a mess!"
He was. The young rat wore a brown vest and a white shirt; both were spattered liberally--as was his fur--with thick grey mud, partially-dried by the wind as he ran. Still panting hard, he looked up at Justin and saluted. "I've got...a message...from Arthur," he managed to get out. "It's about...the escape tunnel."
Justin frowned. "What about it?" he demanded, suddenly and inexplicably alarmed.
The young rat told him; and Justin felt himself go ice-cold in horror. He turned quickly to Sullivan. "Stay here," he said. "You're in charge of the barricade. Keep it standing as long as you can, but at the first sign of gas, get below. Understood?"
"Understood," Sullivan said. "What's--"
He never completed his question. At that instant there was a sudden, solid thump behind them, and they all whirled around. The entire barricade jumped, as with a heavy impact. The structure as a whole remained solid; but it was jolted backward into the corridor at least a full inch. The middle one of the three huge stone slabs, intended to brace the barricade, cracked, tipped backwards, overbalanced...and fell.
"Look out!" Sullivan screamed. He started forward; but it was too late. With a deafening roar, that slab of stone and a portion of the barricade it had supported collapsed...directly on top of Justin.
We really don't have time for this, Elizabeth thought anxiously. She sighed. But how can I tell them no?
All of the children in the Thorn Valley community had been gathered together, for safe keeping as it were, in one of the deepest of the service tunnels; a place that was--not entirely by coincidence--also very near the head of Arthur's escape tunnel. It was toward that escape tunnel that she and her children ought to have been heading; but, having seen the other youngsters gathered there, they had all--most especially Timothy--begged her for a chance to say goodbye to their friends. It was a request she could well understand; and one she didn't have the heart to refuse.
Of the four of them, Teresa and Martin had made the fewest friends--though they did have some, and would have had more if they had been attending school--and Cynthia the most; but Timothy, by far, the closest. Elizabeth watched with a curious mixture of emotions--sadness, amusement and anxiety--as young Robert embraced Timothy, lifting the smaller boy completely off his feet. It seemed a terrible shame to separate them, especially at this juncture; but it was unavoidable; and it would have to happen now, or else it really would be impossible.
She was just about to call them, when a large hand closed gently on her shoulder. "Mrs. Brisby?" a voice said quietly.
She turned, to see Arthur gazing down at her. His appearance was astounding, to say the least. The chief engineer was barely recognizable; he was covered head to toe with thick grey mud, even as Teresa and Martin had been when he brought them to her days before. The expression on his face--underneath the coating of earth--was grim, and somehow...apologetic. "I'm afraid we have a problem," he said.
By this time Robert has noticed his father's presence in the tunnel, and he came running, bringing Timothy with him. The other three Brisby children pulled themselves away from their friends and joined them. "What's wrong?" Elizabeth asked, just as they all drew close.
Arthur draped his arm around his son's shoulders in absent-minded fondness; and he glanced at each of the younger Brisbys in turn before he replied. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have known it would happen; I knew the supports weren't adequate. I've had so much to do, and it seemed low-priority..." He shook his head. "But that's not an excuse."
"Arthur," Elizabeth said, firmly and impatiently, "What happened?"
He shook himself. "The escape tunnel is blocked," he said. He shook his head again, mournfully. "A big mass of rock and mud, about halfway along. I knew there was some seepage. I knew it needed more support..."
A cold chill started in Elizabeth's toes and made its way rapidly upward. "How did it happen?" she asked. "Was anyone hurt?"
"No," he assured her. "No one was hurt." He paused. "There were just two of us down there. I'm not absolutely certain how it happened," he went on. "I think--I think--it was a combination of the seepage, and the vibration of that infernal machine." He gestured upward.
Elizabeth nodded. They had all felt it; in the last few seconds before the helicopter landed the entire community had seemed to be shaking, right down to the service tunnels. It must have almost literally come down right on top of them. "Can you...can you dig it out?"
He shrugged. "Certainly," he said. "In a week or ten days. In time to do us any good, no. I'm afraid we're all stuck...and I'm afraid you and your family are stuck with us."
Elizabeth spread out her arms, gathering her children to her side. Her heart was hard and cold inside her; but somewhere, deep down, she felt a spark of....something. Hope, perhaps; or was it more like defiance? In any case, even in the midst of her fear, she could not believe that this was the end; somehow they would get through this terrible day. Of that--for some reason, beyond all logic or reason--she was certain.
"Where's Justin?" she asked Arthur. "Shouldn't he be--"
At that moment, however, she was interrupted, by a rough, somewhat ragged voice. "Mrs. Brisby! Where is Mrs. Brisby?"
She peered around Arthur's substantial bulk. There at the entrance to the tunnel stood Sullivan, the prisoner, his eyes wide and searching frantically. He was out of breath--evidently he had been running hard, and he was in no shape for it--and under his fur his face was ashen.
Quickly she stepped forward. "I'm here," she said. "What is it?"
Sullivan drew her aside, away from Arthur and her children. He was panting hard; so hard, in fact, that he had difficulty getting the words out. The expression on his face, however, filled her with horror; and suddenly, with no good reason, she was frightened. "Justin," he managed to say, quietly. "It's Justin."
"The barricade at the main entrance," he said. "It collapsed. Some of it collapsed. He was underneath it, and..."
The blood suddenly drained from her head, all of it; she felt herself sway, and there was a roaring in her ears, and black spots before her eyes. "Is he--?" she began.
"No," Sullivan told her. "Not yet. But he's badly hurt. Very badly. And...he's calling for you."
She turned, opening her mouth to call for Arthur...but Sullivan stopped her. "No," he said quietly. "He doesn't want Arthur. Just you."
She gazed up at him defiantly for an instant; then she nodded. Her children were a little distance away, still talking to Arthur and Robert. She reached over and grasped her older daughter's arm urgently. "Stay here," she ordered them all sharply. "Teresa, you're in charge!" And then--for the first and last time in Thorn Valley--she dropped to all fours, and took off like a rocket toward the upper levels. Sullivan followed her, somewhat slower.
For a few seconds Timothy stood there, gazing at their rapidly-receding forms in confusion. He had not heard their conversation; but something Sullivan had said had obviously upset his mother very badly indeed. And Sullivan was still a convict; was he entirely to be trusted? Timothy hesitated...then, without so much as a glance back, he took off running too, following them. Behind him his older sister called out. "Timothy! Stop!" and grabbed at his arm; but by then he was long gone; and he was not followed.
Elizabeth came to a sudden halt in the hallway just outside the main entrance. She rose to her hind feet, but her knees wouldn't support her; Sullivan, coming up behind her, had to hold her up with a hand under her elbow. Neither of them noticed Timothy's arrival a few seconds later. "No," Elizabeth whispered brokenly. "No, this can't be happening. Not again."
The scene that greeted her eyes was the most horrible she had ever seen, worse even than the sight of her home lying in the mud, surrounded by a shambles of broken equipment. The entire barricade had not collapsed; the main entrance was still closed, still inaccessible from the outside. But a significant portion of it had fallen, and Justin, it seemed, had been directly beneath it.
The leader of the rats lay face down, somewhat twisted, his left arm outstretched and his right pinned beneath him. His body was visible only from the shoulders up; the rest was hidden beneath a great mass of stone. One of the large obelisk-like slabs that Arthur and his crew had levered into place, to anchor the rest of the barricade, had failed and tipped over; and in falling it had shattered into three irregular pieces. All three of those still lay atop Justin, as well as a large number of smaller rocks and a quantity of earth. The larger rocks were jumbled together, so that all of their weight was not resting on him; but a terrible amount was. Two rats--a males and a female, part of Arthur's team--were working frantically around him, pulling out the smaller stones and heaving them aside as fast as they could; but their work seemed all but pointless. Broken planks showed that they had tried, without success, to lever the larger stones aside with inadequate tools. Justin's eyes were closed, and if he was indeed still breathing, it could not be seen.
"You've got to get him out of there!" Elizabeth screamed hysterically at the two workers. "Please! You've got to get him out!"
She might have flung herself at the stones; but they restrained her, Sullivan on one side and Timothy on the other. Sullivan said, "Charles and Stephen went to get equipment--jacks and pry-bars. But..." he trailed off.
She looked up at him. Tears were pouring from her eyes now, and her body was shaking uncontrollably, her breath coming in ragged gasps between her sobs. "But what?"
Sullivan shook his head. "But...it's hopeless," he said quietly. "I'm sorry to have to say it--but it's true. Nobody could survive that. We'll dig him out--of course we will. But...he's dying. It's just a matter of time."
"No!" she screamed. She twisted out of their grasp. "No, that's not true!"
"He's right." The voice was faint and whispery, almost inaudible; but at the sound of it Elizabeth whirled around.
His eyes were open now, just a little; his gaze passed over them all in turn. "Thank you, Sullivan," he whispered. Then, to Elizabeth: "I heard the news. The escape tunnel has collapsed. I...shouldn't have put you into danger by calling you here. But I had to see you...just one more time. I had to tell you...how terribly sorry I am."
She dropped to her knees beside him, clasping his free hand between hers. "No," she said brokenly. "There's nothing for you to be sorry for. We'll get you out, Justin. It will be all right. You'll be fine..."
Somehow he managed to shake his head. "No," he said. "There's no sense lying to ourselves, Elizabeth. Sullivan is right; I'm done for. It doesn't hurt," he added quickly. "I can't feel a thing below my shoulders. Spinal column is snapped." He coughed then, and a thin trickle of blood emerged from his mouth.
"No tears," he told her. His voice was growing fainter, the pauses for breath longer. "You've got to be brave--for your childrens' sake. And for everyone's sake. They all...look up to you. Respect you. And they'll listen to you." His eyes flicked up to Sullivan. "Tell Arthur...he's in charge now." He smiled faintly. "He'll love that. And the rest of you--get out of here. If Schultz wants my corpse he can have it. Get out. Get to the lower levels before the gas comes."
"Not without you," Sullivan told him firmly. "No way."
Justin glanced away. Then he pulled his hand free from Elizabeth's. Somehow he managed to wrench the Stone loose, yanking the chain over his head. He dropped it into her hands. "Take this," he said. "It was never mine to begin with. Take it...to remember me by."
"No," Elizabeth whispered, over and over. "No. Please, dear God, no. Not you too. I can't lose you too."
Justin's voice was almost gone; there was nothing left but a thin whisper. "Elizabeth," he said, "there's something I have to tell you."
She shook her head. "Save your strength," she pleaded.
"No," he said insistently. "No, I have to tell you--before it's too late. It's...about your husband. Jonathan is...Jonathan is..."
The last word he uttered had two syllables, it seemed; but it had no breath behind it, and Elizabeth could not decipher the small movement of his lips. His eyes closed, and his head suddenly lolled, his jaw going slack. A long sighing breath escaped his throat. With a wailing cry Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and backed away.
Timothy was pulling on her arm. "Mom!" he said urgently. "Did you hear that? Dad! He said Dad's--"
She was not listening. Instead she was gazing down through tear-filled eyes at the object that lay cupped in her hands, a spark of blood-red light already glowing in its depths. "The Stone," she whispered. Then, louder, "My God--of course! The Stone!"
Quickly she looped the chain around her neck, clutching the amulet tight in her hands. She looked over at her son. "Stand back, Timothy," she said. She looked around. "All of you--stand back. I'm not quite sure what's going to happen."
The other rats had all been there, that last night on the farm, including Sullivan. They understood, and they took several rapid steps back, their eyes wide, their useless work abandoned. Timothy hesitated, his gaze darting from his mother's face to the Stone and back again; Sullivan took him by the arm and pulled him back, holding him firmly in place. Elizabeth did not notice.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to slow her wildly pounding heart, and to dry the tears that still flowed down her cheeks, tears of a grief that threatened to choke her. Courage of the heart, she reminded herself. You did it before, without even understanding what was happening. You can do it again.
Somehow, with a supreme effort of will, she managed to calm and center herself. There is nothing to be afraid of, she coached herself. There is power here; and I can control it. I can always control it.
And then she felt it. Buried deep within the Stone, and yet--at the same time--someplace else. It knew her; it heard her call; and it rushed toward her like the first wave from a broken dam. Mentally she braced herself; and as the flood broke around her the channeled it, drawing its power into herself. She felt the Stone begin to grow hot in her hands, and she commanded it firmly: No. Not this time. She was barely conscious of her feeling of surprise, that her command actually worked: the Stone grew warm, but this time the excess energy would not burn her hands. Already she had learned something new.
To those watching it seemed that Elizabeth had suddenly grown, until she towered over them, rat and mouse alike; and her body was surrounded by a halo of golden light. A wave of warmth passed over all of them like a wind; and the air was filled with a deep, thrumming vibration--unless that was all in their minds. None of them was conscious of any feeling of fear; on the contrary, their fears were suddenly calmed, and they were filled with something like reverence. Timothy, standing there with Sullivan's firm grasp on his arm, felt his jaw drop open in amazement, and behind his glasses his eyes were huge and shining. He had not seen this before; he had been to sick last time to know what was happening. By now the Stone was blazing red, so bright that it could not be looked at directly; Elizabeth let go of it, and it slowly drifted down to her breast. Then, her eyes half-closed, she turned toward Justin.
To Elizabeth it was as if her consciousness had expanded to fill the entire valley. She was aware of minds, more than three hundred of them; she felt their yearnings and their fears, their hopes and their regrets. One by one she tuned them all out, even her own children; she had to, or their emotions, their needs, would have overwhelmed her. Gradually she contracted her awareness until only one thing in the universe remained: the pile of stones and rubble that pinned Justin to the floor. She reached out and touched the largest boulder, and a wave of red fire seemed to pass from her hands into the rock, enveloping it. She gestured, a motion like flipping aside a pebble, and the stone rolled away as if it suddenly weighed nothing. A few more gestures, sweeping ones this time, and all of the others did as well, until Justin lay prone in a wide circle of totally-bare floor, surrounded by a halo of stone and earth. And then she knelt down and touched him.
For a second her grief threatened to overtake her, and her control over the Stone wavered; but somehow she once again firmed herself. He was not dead, not yet; her heightened senses detected still the faint beating of his heart, the labored whispering of air through his damaged lungs. It was as if his life-force was a rope, pulled too taut, and slowly parting in the middle, filament by filament.
It was certain that Justin had no more than minutes to live; that she could feel. What she could not have known was that all of the medical technology in the human world could not have saved him. As her hands drifted slowly up his body she felt his injuries as if they were her own. First the shattered legs and pelvis, the severed spinal column; then the splintered ribs that had pierced his lungs; then the ruptured organs that bled internally. She knew next to nothing of anatomy; she did not know the correct terms for what she found; to her he simply felt...broken. The rope had frayed down to a thread, and it was rapidly parting.
Once again she took a deep breath, calling upon the power; this would take far more energy than it had to simply shift a cinder block. And then, once again, she touched him. She ran her hands down his body from his neck to his feet, a single, smooth pass without pauses. Beneath her touch she felt the shattered bone re-join and knit; she felt the internal bleeding stop, the organs once again becoming whole; she felt his heartbeat strengthen, and the air flow strongly in and out of suddenly-clear lungs. In her mind, in her inner, red-tinged vision, it was as if she had caught hold of that rope, even as it parted, and knotted the frayed ends back together. Justin would live.
...But Elizabeth's job was far from complete, and she must retain control over the power for a little while longer, if her efforts on his behalf were not to be wasted. Leaving Justin, she stood, her eyes closed and her hands held above her head, letting the power flow outward, through the mass of rock above her, out into the open air. Searching, probing...
Almost instantly she felt the two minds she sought. Humans, they were unlike anything she had ever encountered. Large minds, yes; intelligent, almost frighteningly so. The one--the pilot, it seemed--a little confused, a little bemused, and even a little frightened by what he was seeing. The other--Dr. Schultz--hard and implacable with the will to destroy, keeping a tight lid clamped down on his own raging hatred and fear. She felt them, and saw, with a kind of dim inner sight, what they were doing: they were sorting through equipment which they had unloaded from the back seat of their machine. Shovels, picks--those she recognized. A cage. Other packages, including a roll of wire, which she did not; but she heard the word "explosives" echoing through the scientist's mind. And finally, small cylinders marked with a skull and crossbones. She did not need to probe his mind to know what those were. They had both lifted pickaxes; In a minute they would begin digging, and when they opened the tunnels they would fill them with poison gas. At all costs she had to stop them--but how? She had power; the Stone gave her access to a strength greater than she had ever believed possible, limited only by her own ability to control it. But how to apply it?
She felt growing within herself then a terrible anger, augmented perhaps by the Stone's power. This man, this Dr. Schultz...he had imprisoned the rats--her friends--and her poor husband. He had hurt them, changed them, against their will. And now he wished to destroy them. And not only them, the ones he had held prisoner, but their children as well. And her children with them. People who were utterly blameless; people who had done him no conceivable harm. What gave him the right? Who had appointed him judge and executioner? Why should she not use the Stone's power to destroy him, before he destroyed hundreds of innocent lives? It would be so easy, she knew, to simply reach into his chest and stop his heart...
No, my child. The voice seemed to come from all around her, and she knew it instantly: Nicodemus. And there he was, floating before her, that grey-furred face, with its long white whiskers and strangely-glowing eyes; a face that gazed upon her in stern disapproval. She did not question how he could be there; in that situation it simply did not occur to her to do so. No, my child, he repeated. You must not harm them.
Why? She countered silently, angrily. After what he has done? Why shouldn't I kill him and put an end to it? The pilot has seen too much too; he will go back to NIMH and report what he's found, and then they will come in force.
The pilot is entirely innocent, Nicodemus told her implacably. You know this. He was hired to fly his machine; he has been drawn into matters he does not understand. Dr. Schultz is merely...misguided. He is consumed by fear. Eventually he will come to understand; but if you harm him now, before that can take place, a much greater harm will follow. Not immediately, it is true; but it will come, and if unchecked it will surely destroy you all. You must trust me, and let him live.
But I have to do something! she pleaded in desperation. Or else he'll kill everyone, here and now. He'll kill my children! How else can I stop him?
...And Nicodemus told her.
For five minutes, perhaps, Timothy, Sullivan and the other rats watched in awe as Elizabeth stood, stock-still, her arms raised, waves of power seeming to emerge from her outstretched hands and vanish through the ceiling. For long moments no one moved; they hardly dared breathe. And then, abruptly, the power was gone, like water down the drain. Elizabeth seemed to shrink, to dwindle before their eyes; and then she swayed. Timothy darted forward, but Sullivan got there first; he caught her as she fell, and lowered her gently to the floor. Timothy sat down beside her, lifting her head into his lap. Arthur, Charles and Stephen, arriving with the equipment that would not now be needed, stopped and stared, amazed.
"What," Sullivan demanded of the universe in general, "just happened?"
Hannah knelt down beside Justin, laying her hand on his chest. "Good God," she uttered. "He's alive!"
"Maybe so," Sullivan said grimly. He looked up. "But for how long?"
Jonathan was getting very tired of waiting.
More than a full hour had passed since the helicopter departed; Thorn Valley lay quiet and peaceful now, except for the birds; and still there was no sign of movement from the wide, barricaded arch that was--had to be, if he remembered the old plans--the community's main entrance. The archway had been packed full of stone and earth, in an obvious attempt to fortify and disguise it; the work had been done from the inside, it seemed, and would have to be undone from the inside as well. Is it possible they don't know they're safe? Jonathan wondered. But if so, how to get the news to them? He had no particular desire to camp out overnight.
Jonathan and two of his companions sat on the grass near the archway, leaning back against the community's native-stone walls; but not so near that they'd be underneath the barricade when it came down. If it came down. The ridges that formed the community's walls and roof extended far to the left and right of the archway, more or less north and south; a little while ago Mark and David, as impatient as Jonathan, had headed in opposite directions along the base of the lowest ridge, trying to find some other opening. At the moment Jonathan could see neither of them. Sitting beside him now were Philip and Eileen. The latter, her splinted right arm held awkwardly in her lap, sat leaning heavily on Philip, her eyes slightly glassy and her breathing rapid and shallow. Philip's arm was wrapped around her protectively, his free hand grasping her uninjured one, and an expression of profound worry and anxiety on his face.
"Eileen?" Jonathan said. "How are you, Hacker?"
With an effort she roused herself, and she managed to smile slightly at the sound of her now-defunct nickname. She spoke between clenched teeth. "To be honest, Jonathan, it hurts like hell," she said. "But I guess I'll live."
They had done what they could, splinting the arm crudely with sticks and lengths of Philip's nylon rope. Over the last hour the wrist-joint had swollen to more than double its normal size, forcing them to loosen the splint twice: obviously, a fracture. What it really needed was to be set and properly casted, something which none of them really knew how to do. The person they really needed was Mr. Ages; but as far as they knew he was miles away. Hopefully somebody in the community would know what to do; and hopefully they would have something to ease the pain and take down the inflammation.
Jonathan smiled at her, he hoped reassuringly. "Hang in, Hacker," he said. "It won't be long now."
"That's what you said half an hour ago," she replied blandly, and then she subsided, once again leaning her head on Philip's shoulder.
Jonathan turned away. He felt her pain, as keenly as if it had been his own; but there was nothing more he could do for her; not until they could get inside. Fighting ugly pangs of guilt, he gazed out over Thorn Valley...and was immediately, almost against his will, entranced. This place is exactly as Nicodemus described it, he realized. Directly in front of him a long grassy slope led down to the lake and its calm, inviting swimming hole. To the left, a soccer field and a running track, a neat oval of crushed granite; and farther still, the farming fields, which fortunately the helicopter had spared. Jonathan saw patches of tomatoes and other vegetables, wheat, rice, corn...all growing in neat and well-tended fields, as far as the eye could see. Beyond that rose the forest, dark and impenetrable. Those fields should have been bustling with workers, ringing with the sounds of voices and tools; Jonathan could almost hear it now. But instead they lay silent and forlorn. A beautiful place, yes, just as he had always envisioned it; and how close they'd come to losing it!
Sitting there in the sunlight, Jonathan shook his head. He still had no real idea what had happened, a little more than an hour ago. From their hiding place in the bushes they had seen it all...but what they'd seen seemed to make no sense at all. The community, all his friends, had appeared doomed. Dr. Schultz and his pilot had unloaded tools from their copter, tools which would have quickly broken through any barricade the rats could have erected. He'd seen them both raise pickaxes; and then...
It seemed to Jonathan that something--some force, some power--had blasted through the valley then, almost like a wind of hurricane force; but a hurricane that caused no obvious physical damage. To Jonathan's eyes the entire valley had seemed to melt and flow, as if the rocks that formed it were once again molten. The power that washed over them had seemed immense, unstoppable; but behind it he had seemed to feel some kind of intelligence, guiding and shaping it. In resonance with that intelligence--so it seemed--Jonathan had found himself gripped by emotions that were not entirely his own: fear, horror, grief...and anger. Terrible anger, which had seemed barely held in check. And somehow...Jonathan shook his head again. Crazy, he thought. It almost seemed...familiar. It was as if a mind had touched his, a mind that he should have known.
A hallucination, no doubt; but whatever he had felt, it was obvious that the two humans had felt it too, and that it had affected them very differently than it had him. Jonathan and his friends had been on the periphery; the two men were obviously the focus. Suddenly Dr. Schultz and the pilot had stopped moving, frozen in the very act of raising their tools to batter down the barricade. For a moment they stood still; then they let their tools fall and looked around, clearly gripped by a terrible confusion. Without another word, moving like robots or zombies, they'd repacked their tools and climbed back into the helicopter. The pilot started his machine and lifted off; within a few seconds the copter was gone, back on a straight course for NIMH. It left nothing but the marks of its landing skids in the grass.
"They left empty-handed too," Jonathan mused, speaking half to himself. "No artifacts, no pictures. Certainly no corpses or prisoners."
Beside him, Philip nodded. "I don't know what happened either," he said, "but I think we've won. Dr. Schultz was counting on the ends to justify the means. But when he comes back with nothing..."
"I think you're right," Jonathan agreed. "He'll be lucky to still have a job." He took a deep breath. "I think--I hope--we're safe."
Philip quirked a smile. "Who's 'we'?" he asked.
Jonathan was about to reply--though exactly what he would have said, he had no idea--but at that moment Mark came jogging down from the north. Panting a little, he sank to the ground beside Jonathan. "There are a lot of windows," Mark said. "Dozens. And even a few doors." He shook his head. "Every one of them has been barricaded and camouflaged. I tried knocking--pounding, even--but I have no idea whether anyone heard me. I didn't seem to get any replies."
Jonathan sighed. "So we wait. They've got to come out sometime."
"Jonathan," Mark said, "do you have any idea what happened?"
Jonathan shook his head. "We were just discussing that," he said. "No, I don't. The look on their faces...it was almost as if they suddenly weren't seeing any of this any more." He waved a hand. "I can't understand it."
"I can," Eileen said faintly; but before she could go on, she was interrupted. David was approaching quickly from the south--and he was not alone.
He smiled broadly--uncharacteristically--as he drew up before his friends. "Look who I found climbing down from the rocks," he announced.
Jonathan rose to his feet for a better look. David's companion was a male rat, brown-furred and slightly built. He was dressed very much like David--except that his blue tunic and white shirt were not full of holes or covered with patches. He had a canteen slung over his shoulder on a bandoleer, and a brass-barrel spyglass clutched in his hand. Jonathan had to search his memory for a name; and when he found it he smiled and extended his hand. "Thomas! It's good to see you!"
Thomas took two stumbling steps backwards, and for a moment Jonathan feared that the recently-appointed Captain of the Guard would pass out on them. Finally Thomas managed to say, "J--Jonathan?" Then he firmed himself up. "I mean--Mr. Brisby. I'm glad to see you too, sir. How--uh--how--?"
"At ease," Jonathan said with a grin. Then he sighed. "I'm afraid that's a rather long story," he went on. "Let's just say that we just flew in from NIMH. What are you doing out here? I thought everyone was behind the barricades."
In reply Thomas held up his telescope. "Justin ordered me to be the lookout," he explained. "I relayed the message downstairs--that the helicopter has left--and I was climbing down to wait when David found me. It might be a little while longer, I'm afraid." He nodded at the archway. "Arthur built that barricade to last."
"I'm sure he did--" Jonathan began, but at that moment he was interrupted, by a complaining voice from behind Thomas.
"Hey! Not even a word of greeting for your big sister?"
Thomas whirled--and then he frowned in confusion. "Judith?" he said hesitantly. "What are you doing--"
She shook her head. "No, dummy," she said with a derisive grin; but there was a suspicious brightness in her eyes. "It's me, Ha--I mean, Eileen."
With a shout he started forward. He might have flung himself at her in joy; but he was warned by her sharp cry of "Watch the arm!" More carefully then, he dropped to his knees and gently embraced her.
"Eileen," he said, his voice husky. "My God. I thought...we all thought..."
"I know you did, little brother," she said, hugging him one-armed. "And I'm really, really sorry."
"Try telling that to Judith," Thomas told her with a smile.
There was a loud throat-clearing behind them then. Thomas turned...and then he rose to his feet in surprise. Philip was standing at attention, his face grave; and as Thomas turned to face him, he saluted crisply. "Former First Lieutenant Philip reporting for duty--sir," he said formally.
Thomas blushed furiously, his ears and the tip of his nose turning bright red; but whatever it was he might have said, they never learned.
Behind them they heard a sharp crack, and they all looked over quickly, in time to see a few stones and a dribble of earth fall from the barricade. Then the noise was repeated, a little louder, and a large rock fell free, followed by the business end of a rat-sized pickax. Jonathan took a few cautious steps forward, just as most of the remainder of the barricade came crashing down in a cloud of dust. A few seconds later a rat stepped through the gap. Not overly tall, but heavily-muscled, especially around the arms; he leaned for a moment on the head of his pickax as he mopped his forehead with a spotted handkerchief. Arthur. His clothes and fur were covered with dirt; but nonetheless, Jonathan had never been so glad to see a familiar face in all his life.
Arthur looked around, peering out into the valley with a mixture of relief and suspicion; and then his eyes fell on the mouse who smiled up at him fondly. For a few seconds Arthur gaped...then he flung aside his pickax and caught Jonathan up on a massive embrace that left the mouse's feet dangling several inches above the ground. "My God," Arthur said. "Jonathan! I can't believe it! Where did you come from? What happened?"
"We were at NIMH--" Jonathan began, a little breathlessly, as Arthur set him on his feet; but the engineer waved a hand, cutting him off.
"I know that part," he said. "Justin told me months ago. I mean now--how did you get here?"
Jonathan smiled. "We stowed away on the helicopter," he said. "It looked like the nonstop from O'Hair." He stepped aside then and pointed to his companions. "Eileen took a tumble. It looks like she has a broken arm."
Arthur nodded. "We'll take care of her," he promised. "Alice will know what to do. Are the rest of you all right?"
Jonathan nodded. "We're fine," he said, and was quietly echoed by the others. He smiled. "Just tired. Very, very tired." He paused. "Arthur, what happened here? It looked like Dr. Schultz was going to tear the place apart. And where's Justin?"
Arthur's face clouded. "Justin's in the infirmary," he said. "He was hurt--part of the barricade collapsed on him--but he's going to be all right. As to what happened--I just asked you the same thing, if you'll remember."
Jonathan shrugged. "They left," he said. "That's about all we know: they simply packed up and left, before they had a chance to do any damage. It was..." he paused, choosing his words carefully, and then forged ahead. "It was almost as if they were forced to."
Arthur nodded thoughtfully, gazing out over the valley. "So that's it," he said, half to himself. He glanced down. "That must have been it," he said a little louder. "It was the Stone, Jonathan. Nicodemus' Stone. She's saved us again."
Jonathan looked up sharply. "Who's 'she'?" he demanded.
Arthur paused. Finally he said in a low voice, "Jonathan--your family is here. All five of them. They were visiting when this whole situation started. Your wife used the Stone--just like that night on the farm. I don't know exactly what she did with it, but from what you've just told me, it sounds as if she must have affected Schultz's mind somehow. However she did it, she saved us. And she saved Justin too. He was dying, Jonathan, crushed under huge boulders. She lifted the rocks off of him and healed his injuries."
At Arthur's first words Jonathan staggered back as if slapped, and as a consequence he scarcely heard the rest. Now he said, "Here? They're all--here?"
Arthur nodded. "They're all right, Jonathan," he said quickly. "None of them was hurt. Elizabeth passed out afterwards, but that's normal. It happened last time she used the Stone too."
"Where are they?" Jonathan demanded.
"The infirmary," Arthur said. He pointed, back through the pile of splintered wood and rubble, into the corridor. "Second level north. There are signs on the walls..."
Jonathan reached up and grasped Arthur's hand. "I've got to go to them," he said. "Please--take care of Eileen. And our packs. Don't let anything happen to our packs. The stuff that's inside them is more valuable than gold."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. "You mean--?"
"Yes," Jonathan said. "It's the answer. Nine month's worth of work. There are glass vials too. Don't let them get broken, whatever you do."
Arthur smiled broadly and clasped Jonathan's hand. "Count on it, my friend," he said. I'll lock them up in Justin's office. And Jonathan...Welcome back."
Jonathan smiled at him, and then, without another word, he leaped over the rubble and dashed up the hallway, following the signs. The corridors were crowded with rats, hard at work now that the emergency was over; he dodged past them all as if they weren't there. All of them stopped to stare; and many shrank back as if they had seen a ghost. In a sense, they had indeed. Fortunately none of them tried to detain him; if they had, he would have left footprints on their faces.
He found the up-ramp easily enough, and a very few minutes later he arrived in front of a pair of big double doors, marked "Infirmary." There he pulled up short, peering through the crack between them. The big space beyond was dim, its large windows still shuttered. Directly across from him a single wall-hung oil lamp illuminated two beds, side by side. On one, the left-hand, was Justin. Jonathan's second-oldest friend lay flat on his back, covered to the chin with a light blanket. His face appeared peaceful, and even from the doorway Jonathan could see the rat's chest rising and falling steadily. There was no obvious sign of injury, and yet Arthur had told him that Justin had been nearly crushed to death. It was a conundrum that Jonathan could not spare time to ponder, however. Not now.
On the other bed lay Elizabeth. She too was flat on her back, covered with a blanket; on the rat-sized bed she looked tiny, almost doll-like. Her eyes were closed, her features composed; she also had no visible sign of injury. Lying on top of the blanket that covered her breast was an object Jonathan knew only by reputation and rumor: the Stone. Jonathan gazed at her...and felt his knees suddenly turn to water. Dizzy, he clutched at the edge of the door for support. Nine months, he thought. God, how could I have stayed apart from her that long? I must have been insane.
Clustered around her were four other mice; so changed were they, that it took Jonathan several moments to recognize them as his own offspring. Teresa and Martin stood on opposite sides of the bed, near its head; Teresa's hand lay on her mother's forehead. Timothy and Cynthia stood at the foot; Timothy's arms were around his little sister, her head resting on his shoulder as if she'd recently been crying. So big, Jonathan thought in despair, as he gazed at them. They've grown so much...will they even know who I am? Will they want to know?
For almost five minutes Jonathan Brisby stood poised, torn between conflicting emotions and desires. On the one hand he wanted desperately to take them in his arms--all of them, yes, but most especially her--but on the other hand, he found himself afraid to enter, afraid of what his sudden reappearance would do to them. He had been gone, dead, for nine months. What would they do? Would they reject him, in anger or fear? Or would they--could they--forgive him?
For long minutes those two opposing forces remained balanced, rooting him to the spot; then, almost against his will, he moved forward, thrusting aside the swinging doors. At the sudden sound the four of them looked up...and their eyes, some blue, some brown, locked with his. Martin's jaw dropped; so did Teresa's, her hand slipping off Elizabeth's forehead to flop loosely at her side. Timothy gasped, and Cynthia shrank against him, jamming the knuckles of her right hand into her own mouth to stifle a scream. For a time they stood frozen...then Timothy pulled himself free from his sister's grasp and took a step forward, his eyes huge and shining. "Father--?" he said in a whisper.
Jonathan felt the tears begin in his own eyes. Against all hope he held out his arms. "Yes, Timmy," he said softly. "It's me."
With a cry Timothy flung himself into Jonathan's embrace, wrapping his arms tightly around his father, burying his face in the patched tunic. Somewhere in the back of his mind Jonathan registered, with surprise, the fact that the arms encircling him were strong; that the head was almost on a level with his own; and that his younger son was wearing glasses. "I knew it," Timothy was saying, a note of triumph in his trembling voice. "I knew you weren't dead. I knew it." A few seconds later a second pair joined the embrace: Cynthia. But that was all: Teresa and Martin still stood by their mother's bed; and now their expressions of shock were edging over into distrust. Jonathan felt his heart sink...but his sorrow quickly turned into resignation. It's no more than I deserve, he thought. And this--hugging his younger son and daughter tight to him--is more than I deserve.
Finally Cynthia, her voice choked with tears, said, "Papa--where...where have you been? We thought...we thought..."
"I know," Jonathan said. "I've been to NIMH, sweetie. I wish I could have told you--but I couldn't. I'll explain it all to you later. But the important thing is, I'm back now; and I will never leave again."
"NIMH," Timothy said, the tone in his voice that of someone finally receiving the answer to a long-pondered riddle. Then he gasped. "Does that mean--?"
"Yes it does," Jonathan said. He peered around at them. Timothy and Cynthia, still hanging onto him as if he would vanish if they let go. Teresa and Martin, edging closer now, but still looking suspicious, almost betrayed. And Elizabeth. Unconscious, oblivious to everything; lucky her. Jonathan went on, "If she wants it, then she can be...like us."
"You mean she can live forever?" Cynthia asked.
Jonathan glanced at her. He was about to say, "Well, I don't know about that"; but he saw the look on her face, and he bent down (not so very far down, now) to kiss her forehead. "Yes, sweetie," he said. "Forever."
"In a certain sense," Jonathan told Justin, "Dr. Schultz had more guts than his superiors."
"Oh?" Justin said. "How so?"
It was then early evening; some seven hours had passed since the helicopter departed Thorn Valley, and as yet there was no sign of it returning. No one seriously believed that it would. Justin had woken up an hour or so before, coming slowly back to life as if ascending from the deepest, darkest cavern in the universe. The first thing he had been aware of--after the astonishment at merely being alive had passed--was the fact that he was hungry; and the first thing he had seen, as his vision gradually cleared, was the small, grey-furred face of Jonathan Brisby peering down at him anxiously. Even now, an hour later, Justin still wondered why that sight had not surprised him more.
"The officials of NIMH were interested in his project, of course," Jonathan said. "So far as we were able to determine. They were interested to see if he would find anything. But at the same time they were distancing themselves from it. They gave him time, but no funding; no real support at all. They had invested their resources in the last project, tearing up the rosebush; and they came up empty. They had a very difficult time explaining that to their superiors in the government, the ones who control their funding. This time they wanted to be able to distance themselves, to make it look like Schultz was acting entirely alone." He smiled slightly and shook his head. "And now he's come up empty again. I have a feeling they'll hang him out to dry, as the old saying goes."
The two of them were alone in the infirmary, Jonathan perched on the edge of the bed as Justin ate. Half an hour before, Elizabeth Brisby had been carried back to the guest room, where--everyone agreed--she would feel more comfortable, when she finally did wake up; the children were with her now. Justin, however, had been deemed too weak to be moved; he would spend the night at least. And in fact he was weak, terribly so: it had taken all his strength, plus the help of two rats and Jonathan, just to sit upright, bolstered with pillows; and even the act of lifting a soup spoon from bowl to mouth exhausted him. He could feel his energy returning, however, albeit slowly; and considering the alternative, a little weakness seemed a small price to pay.
"So--," Justin said, "he in fact did not have permission to land?"
Jonathan shook his head. "No," he said. "He did not. We overheard the phone call; whoever his contact was, wasn't able to get him permission. Schultz wrote out a document of some kind, apparently taking all the responsibility on himself; and when that didn't work he bribed the pilot. Yes, you heard me correctly. We all saw it: money changed hands. But the agreement clearly was that the pilot was absolved."
Justin grinned. "So now Schultz really is in hot water."
Jonathan grinned in return, and nodded. "I daresay he is," he agreed. "One of two things will happen. Either he will lie low and try to cover up the landing; or it will come out, and he'll be in deep trouble. Possibly fired. Either way, I very much doubt he'll be back. Or anyone else; with no evidence, not even corroboration from the pilot, NIMH will have no reason to believe that there is anything here. They'll think Dr. Schultz was just having delusions--which is true, in a sense."
"The lunatics running the asylum," Justin agreed with a grin. He looked down into his empty soup bowl. Then he said, softly, "So--we have a reprieve."
Jonathan nodded soberly. "Yes," he said. "Which is just what Nicodemus intended this valley to be."
"How is Elizabeth?" Justin asked.
A brief spasm of something like pain flashed across Jonathan's face. He peered out through the newly-cleared windows, out into the slowly-darkening evening. There were clouds massing on the horizon; perhaps they would have some rain. "Still unconscious, as of half an hour ago," he said flatly. He grimaced. "I have been told--by people who have reason to know--that it isn't unusual."
Justin nodded in agreement. "She was out for a couple hours last time," he said. "And that was after just lifting a cinder block. What she did today--whatever it was she did today--had to have taken more energy. She might be unconscious for a while yet. But," he added quickly, "I'm certain she'll be all right."
Jonathan smiled wryly. "Thank you," he said. He took a deep breath. "You know I never expected to find her here--or to find them here. I never expected to arrive here by helicopter either--or at all. I expected to arrive back on the farm. I don't know how I would have approached her--had Ages go to her first, perhaps. I tried not to think that far ahead. But now..." He shook his head. "I've been beating my brains out trying to figure out the best way. Whether the kids, or someone else, should try to ease her into it. I'm starting to believe that it might be best for me just to be there when she wakes up. It's going to be a shock either way; maybe it's best over quickly."
"Maybe," Justin agreed cautiously. "I could argue it both ways, if I had the strength." He paused. "Jonathan, can you stand a bit of unsolicited advice from an old friend?"
"I haven't known Elizabeth as long as you have, obviously. But there is one thing I can tell you for certain: she is not the person you married."
"Meaning what?" Jonathan asked with a frown.
"Meaning...that she has grown. Evolved. I don't know her very well, but I do know what she's told me, and I certainly know you. She was very young when you were married, right? And vulnerable; she had just lost her parents. When you came into her life, in a very real sense you replaced them. You were stronger than she was, and smarter--she has said that herself. You always had an answer, a solution for every problem. She's said that too. And from the moment you arrived, you 'took care' of her. Is it possible--just possible--that you took care of her just a little too much? I'm not trying to judge you; I don't have the right. But I have the feeling that her relationship with you was based at least partially on dependence."
Jonathan looked away and nodded, shame-faced. "You're right," he admitted. "I'm certainly not proud of that, and it was absolutely never intentional, but...you're right."
"But that's not true any more," Justin said firmly. "And that's what you've got to understand, before she wakes up. While you've been gone she has grown--you might even say she's grown up. She has found strength within herself; she has learned to solve her own problems. She doesn't need to depend on anyone any more. And, my friend, if you try to act as if she still does, if it even seems to her that you want to take over and start making all the decisions again...then you are going to be in deep trouble. Because she will not stand for it."
Jonathan was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "I understand. Really, I do. And I believe you. What I've heard about the time she's spent here, and about what happened that night on the farm...I don't doubt that you're right. But...I don't believe--I can't believe--that's all we had."
Justin shook his head. "No," he said. "That's not what I'm saying. I don't believe that either. She does love you, Jonathan, and she has missed you. Every day she's been up here, she's said things which have made that very clear. I think you do have more, and I think you can make this work. I can't say exactly what's going to happen when she wakes up. But I do know that you are going to have to take things very, very slowly...and you are going to have to respect her."
"That," Jonathan assured him, "I always have." He paused for a moment. Then he said, with a sly smile, "You love her too, don't you?"
"Yes," Justin said simply, gazing directly into the mouse's eyes. "Yes, Jonathan, I do."
Jonathan's smile widened, and he clasped Justin's hand. "I don't blame you."
For a few seconds Justin grinned; then he said, "What about your kids? How are they taking it?"
Jonathan looked away again, and his smile fell. "Oh boy," he said. "That's another subject entirely." He chuckled. "Do you know--Timothy had it figured out, that I was still alive. He heard that Philip, Mark, David and Eileen disappeared about the same time I did, that they were on some kind of top-secret mission...and he put two and two together."
"I didn't know," Justin said. "But it doesn't surprise me. I think that boy is smarter than all the rest of us combined."
Jonathan smiled proudly. "I think you're right." Then he peered closer at his friend. Justin had begun to sag a little; his eyes were half-closed, and his voice was growing progressively quieter. Very soon he was going to need to sleep again. "How are you?" he asked in concern.
Justin smiled. "Weak as a kitten, if you'll forgive a dubious metaphor. But look at this." He took a deep breath. Under the blanket his right leg rose a trifle, and his toes wiggled. "I shouldn't be able to do that," Justin panted, letting the leg drop. "I was dying, Jonathan. That's not an exaggeration. Most of my major bones were crushed, I was bleeding internally, my lungs were ruined...and my spine was severed. That's the most amazing thing. I ought to be paralyzed from the shoulders down, but I'm not. And according to everything medical science knows, that is utterly impossible."
Jonathan patted his knee. "I think," he said, "we might have to redefine that word, when the Stone is involved."
"And your wife," Justin added. He paused, and then he frowned. "You know," he went on, changing the subject, "only one thing still bothers me about this Dr. Schultz situation."
"Photographs," Justin said. "I saw him taking pictures from the helicopter yesterday, and I'm sure he shot some more today. It seems pretty certain that Elizabeth made him doubt what he was seeing. But eventually he'll have that film developed, and then..." He trailed off, peering at his friend in confusion. "Jonathan, why are you grinning like that?"
The children were asleep. Or pretending to be.
When Jonathan returned to the guest room that evening--finding his way somehow through the unfamiliar corridors--he was surprised to find all four of them curled up in the two beds, giving every indication of deep slumber. It was not that late at night; in fact it was only an hour or so after sunset. But on reflection, he decided that perhaps it wasn't so surprising after all. They'd had a hard day too, just like everyone else in the community. Physically challenging, yes, in part; but mostly psychologically. In fact they had ridden the same emotional roller-coaster Jonathan himself had. He was about ready to drop; why should he be surprised if they already had? Unless--and this was certainly possible--they were just avoiding another emotionally-draining scene. If so, then they were better actors than he'd ever known.
He stood looking at them for a moment, in the dim flickering light of the single lamp they had left burning over the desk. Asleep they looked younger, almost like the very small children he had left behind, all those months ago. That of course was an illusion, one which would be destroyed as soon as they woke up. In fact they were no longer small, none of them; nor ever would be again. That was yet another thing he had given up.
Standing there watching them, he felt his eyes begin to fill with tears again, and he shook his head angrily. Stop that, he told himself sharply. What was done, was done; there was no point, absolutely none, in continuing to beat out his brains about it. He would only end up in a state of permanent mental exhaustion. No--what he must do, the only thing he could do, was to look forward. He had missed a huge chunk of their childhood; but God willing, he would have an even larger part of their adulthood to enjoy--if they would have him.
They had talked for several hours, the four of them and him, before Elizabeth was transferred from the infirmary to the guest room. It had not been the most coherent conversation he'd ever been involved with; in fact the word "disjointed" might well be applied. He had told them the simple truth, explaining what he had done and why; there was no use concealing anything from them, not now. In any case they would have instantly known it, if he had prevaricated--they were that smart, at very least--and what he wanted now more than anything else was their trust.
He shook his head now, remembering that conversation. Timothy...his instant and unconditional acceptance had been a balm to Jonathan's lacerated soul. Cynthia...she had been afraid at first, almost as if she was seeing a ghost; but Timothy had tremendous influence over his little sister, and she had soon followed his lead into acceptance. But the other two were another matter, and that troubled him deeply. Teresa had been silent, suspicious, aloof, gazing at her father through narrowed eyes, as if there was some trick being played on her which she couldn't quite figure out. And Martin...his reaction had hurt Jonathan most of all: outright hostility. And there was nothing Jonathan could do about that, because Martin had every right to be hostile. He could only hope that time would heal.
Quietly then Jonathan turned, and stepped over to the other side of the room. Elizabeth lay in the center of that huge bed, flat on her back with her arms folded across her stomach, just as they had placed her almost two hours ago. The night was warm, and there had been no need to bundle her up; she lay under a single light blanket. Her eyes were closed, her face composed and relaxed; Jonathan saw the blanket rising and falling with her steady, strong breathing. Her cape--a green one, brand new, Jonathan couldn't help but notice--hung on a wall peg nearby; and the Stone, that mysterious Stone, lay on the night-table, atop the coil of its own chain. Either the ruby pendant was reflecting the lamplight; or it truly did have a light of its own, glowing somewhere deep inside.
Jonathan had not been there, that night on the farm; what he knew of that incident he had heard third-hand. That Nicodemus had created the Stone as a repository for his own powers, to preserve them in case of his death...that much seemed clear enough. That he had concealed it from everyone, Jonathan included, in order to keep it out of Jenner's hands--that was obvious. But why he had inscribed that quotation on the back--one of Jonathan's own sayings--and why he had ultimately given it to Elizabeth, of all people...those matters might remain a mystery forever. What mattered to Jonathan now--even more than what she had done with the Stone--was what it had done to her. It hadn't harmed her; everyone who had been present that night on the farm insisted on that. This time it hadn't even burned her hands. She was merely exhausted, worn out by the strain of using the thing, and would awaken when she had re-gathered her strength. A dozen people or more, even his own children, had sworn to that; so why was he having such a hard time believing it?
His conversation with Justin--and the insights his friend had given him--was still strongly on his mind. You'll have to respect her, Justin had said; and I always have, Jonathan had replied. But was that absolutely true? Looking back over their time together, was it not possible that he had treated her with more than a little...well, condescension wasn't the right word, because it implied ill-will; perhaps paternalism came closer. Hadn't he usually taken problems out of her hands, before she'd even had a chance to solve them? He had always thought he had done so out of love, to spare her difficulties; but now he had to wonder if he had really done so because, somewhere deep inside, he had not trusted her to solve her own problems. It was not intentional, it had never been intentional; but all the same it had happened. And it had left her singularly ill-prepared for his departure. During their wandering days the Rats of NIMH had learned arrogance, comparing themselves to the normal rats they encountered, and who usually fled before them. Jonathan had thought himself immune to that--but clearly he hadn't been.
Once again, angrily, he shook his head. No, he thought. All of that made it sound as if there had been nothing more to their relationship; as if he had married her simply to satisfy his physical needs, and to give him children; and as if she had meekly and helplessly acquiesced in order to have someone to take care of her. But that wasn't all there was, he thought. That wasnever all there was. I wouldn't have put myself through these last nine months, if that was all there was. He had not gone to NIMH with any thought of making her more intelligent. That was not his agenda; in fact it had simply never occurred to him that such a thing was necessary. He had gone, he had spent all that time ferreting out the information, bit by painful bit, simply because he wanted to give her the chance to be as long-lived as he was. Simply because he loved her, for herself, and could not bear to lose her.
But still, Justin was absolutely right. If Jonathan had been paternalistic, if he had sheltered her too much, those days were over. Not only would she not stand for it any more, but the rats wouldn't either. She had saved them twice in a little more than three months; to them she was nothing short of a goddess. They would never permit anyone to treat her with anything less than total respect--not even her husband.
It's going to be hard, Jonathan thought. Terribly, terribly hard. Maybe I ought to be thanking the Stone...for giving us this respite, before we have to face it. There might be harsh words; he would have to be prepared for that. It was clear enough, how he would have to proceed: above and beyond everything else he would have to be totally truthful, as he had been with the children. And he would have to start with a heartfelt apology. That at least would be no problem: he had been composing it in his mind for nine months. And if after all she still rejected him...well, he would have to cross that bridge when he came to it.
It occurred to Jonathan then that he was dead-tired, his eyes half-closed and his body aching, most especially his feet. Slowly he shrugged out of his tattered clothing. He would have loved to throw both tunic and shirt into the nearest rag-bag--that was all they were good for, now--but he could not: he had nothing else to wear, and the Rats of NIMH, though certainly not dogmatic on the subject of clothing, generally frowned on total public nudity. He hung them carefully on a peg next to her cape. He was about to climb into bed beside her...but then he hesitated, letting the blanket fall from his hand. Suddenly he could not bring himself to do it. First and foremost for practical reasons: if she chanced to wake up in the middle of the night and found someone else in her bed, she might react violently. And second--perhaps most importantly after all--because she had not invited him to. At one time that would not have been an issue...but that was then. Until matters had been sorted out, until their relationship was redefined, one way or another, he would not make any assumptions.
So--what to do? He looked around. There was a large, rat-sized armchair tucked in the corner; it would have to suffice. A chest at the foot of the bed supplied a blanket and a pillow; he blew out the lamp, and then arranged himself as comfortably as he could, curled up on the wide horsehair seat with the blanket wrapped around him. He had, after all, been sleeping rough (and alone) for nine months; what was one more night? Not much more than an eternity.
Nearly a full day passed before Elizabeth Brisby finally drifted back to consciousness.
Using the Stone was always a learning experience, and a painful one at that. Nicodemus had told her that it required courage; but he had neglected to mention that it took strength as well, possibly more than one poor mouse could muster. The amulet was the focus point for a massive source of energy--she had never dared to imagine what kind--and once called, that energy was always on the edge of running away from her, out of control. To keep it in check, to channel it--that was what exhausted her. It terrified her too, what she was capable of when the power filled her. Even as she'd probed the minds of the scientist and his pilot she'd been aware that she herself harbored a dark, almost irresistible desire for revenge. Despite the words Nicodemus had spoken to her, it had taken all the strength she possessed to prevent herself from giving in and destroying the helicopter, crashing it into the hills or exploding its fuel tank. It horrified her that the Stone's power made it possible for her to do either, if she allowed her anger to take control. Made it possible for her to kill.
Despite her anger, she had followed Nicodemus' instructions to the letter. In the last few minutes before the helicopter departed, she had reached into the minds of the scientist and the pilot, and made...adjustments. She had watched through their eyes, watched as a barricaded entrance suddenly became a random jumble of stones; as a field of smoothly-mown grass became a meadow; and as a plowed and neatly-worked farm became a brambly waste. Reaching into Dr. Schultz's mind, even as they departed, she had placed a tiny germ of doubt: did the Rats of NIMH ever really exist? And in the pilot's mind she had found and nurtured a small seed of anger: he used me, and he's not going to get away with it! What would happen when they arrived back at NIMH she didn't know; but that they would return to Thorn Valley seemed unlikely in the extreme.
Still, every time she held the Stone she did learn a little more of its ways. Already she'd learned how to prevent it from burning her hands; that was valuable enough. If--heaven forbid--there was a next time, she would know how to borrow strength from the Stone itself, to prevent it from sapping her own energies so terribly. She was sure of that, at least.
It was the voices that finally brought her back. At first they were just sounds, rolling over her mind senselessly, like wind in the trees. But that was enough. Adrift in a sea of blackness, the quiet sounds were a lifeboat, and she struggled toward them with the desperation of someone drowning. Finally the sounds resolved into intelligible words.
It was her own daughter Cynthia who spoke first, in tones of concern: "Are you sure she's going to be all right?" It wasn't hard to guess who "she" was.
The voice that replied was familiar...and yet it wasn't. Male, apparently; a pleasant voice, full of warmth and shared concern. "Yes, sweetie, she's going to be fine. She's just very tired. She saved everyone, you know."
"But she's been asleep so long..."
Somewhere in her mind, Elizabeth frowned. Something had troubled her. The voice? No--not exactly. Rather, it was something about that word: "sweetie." Someone had called Cynthia that before--but who? And when? A long time ago, it seemed; Cynthia had been scarcely more than an infant...Slowly, reluctantly, Elizabeth's eyes opened.
She found herself lying flat on her back in the middle of that ridiculously large bed--rat-sized--in the room Justin had assigned to her and her children. Only a week ago? It seemed a year at least. The room was warm, and she was covered only with a single, thin blanket. Under that she seemed to be naked. Her cape hung on a wall-hook beside the bed. She was fairly comfortable, in no pain; but her body felt somewhat heavy and unresponsive. She doubted whether she could sit up unassisted. And hungry. Ravenously hungry. How long had she been unconscious?
On the wall behind the beds the two windows had been uncovered, the camouflaged, sod-covered shutters removed; and both windows had been thrown wide open. The time was midmorning, according to the clock; but the light that entered through the windows seemed curiously dim. She took a deep breath then, smelling the dampness on the breeze, and suddenly realized why: outside it was raining softly, the first rain that had fallen on Thorn Valley since her arrival. From outside Elizabeth heard the faint sounds of voices and tools; the rats were already at work, making up lost time on the farm despite the rain.
We're safe, she realized dimly. They wouldn't have uncovered the windows unless we were safe. What she had done, more than halfway out of desperation, had apparently worked. NIMH was gone, and would not return. The rats would live. Her children would live.
She turned her head. The other two beds were unoccupied and neatly made; but near the door a small group of people was clustered around two chairs. On the one--to Elizabeth's immense relief--sat Justin. The elected leader of the Rats of NIMH looked a bit pale, his movements slow and jerky; but alive! Thank God, alive! In place of his usual tunic he wore a blue terry-cloth bathrobe, loosely belted around his waist, and Elizabeth was certain that he was himself just lately out of bed. Probably without permission, if she knew him. Around his neck the Stone hung sparkling in the lamplight.
The Brisby children, all four, were gathered around the second chair, or more specifically the person who sat there. Far too small for a rat; clearly a mouse; and male. His fur was grey, his eyes large and dark brown; he was smiling, but he seemed thin, drawn and tired, as from long stress or privation. The dark-green tunic and white shirt he wore were ragged and much-patched, the patches inexpertly applied and made from wildly different materials. Clearly they'd been worn a long time, with no replacement available. Teresa, Martin and Timothy sat cross-legged on the floor, clustered around the chair, looking up intently at this person; but Cynthia he held in his lap, his arms wrapped around her as if she was the most precious thing in the world. The look on Cynthia's face was curious; it seemed almost...worshipful.
Elizabeth heard herself gasp. At that tiny sound the six of them turned, the stranger looking up sharply, his eyes shining. Gently but hurriedly he kissed Cynthia's cheek and set her aside, then he rose and crossed the room quickly. He moved as if his joints hurt. As he drew near he smiled, hesitantly and somewhat sadly. For several seconds his jaw worked soundlessly; then, finally, his voice choked, he said, "Hello...darling."
It was Jonathan Brisby.
For a few moments Elizabeth was certain she was going to pass out again. She gasped, unable to catch her breath; and black spots danced before her eyes as her heart pounded. With a look of concern Jonathan reached out his arms; but she pulled away and he desisted. Finally she found her voice. "Am I...and I dead?" she asked faintly.
With a wan smile he shook his head. "No," he said. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "No, Elizabeth, you're not. Hopefully not for a very long time." Dimly Elizabeth was aware that the children had risen and were clustered around the foot of the bed, but they hung back as if afraid to interrupt. Jonathan--this mouse--this apparition, whatever he was, reached out again, hesitantly, and this time she allowed him to clasp her hand. He felt real, smelled real, sounded real...but he couldn't be real. He couldn't be.
She might have spoken that thought aloud, or perhaps he was reading her mind. He clasped her hand between both of his, and drew it closer, to lay flat against his chest. Through the stained and patched tunic and shirt she felt the strong beating of his heart. "I'm real," he said softly. His eyes filled with tears. "I'm here. And if you'll still have me, I'll never leave you again."
They sent the children out of the room, with Teresa in charge. There was still a great deal of work to be done, bringing the community back to normal, and even four small mice could find jobs to do. It was Jonathan's idea, and he was right: there were things to discuss, words to say, that it might be better if they didn't hear. They hung back, gazing at their mother in concern; but at last they went.
Elizabeth watched them go. Her mind was whirling, her emotions threatening to spin out of control and leave her a quivering wreck; but even in that state it was clear: the four of them had not reacted identically to their father's return. Timothy and Cynthia had accepted the situation uncritically, that was clear, as a miracle that shouldn't be questioned. Cynthia especially had been so young; her memories of Jonathan couldn't be much more than those of a kind voice and a pair of comforting arms. And as for Timothy...Jonathan's death--no, disappearance, it seemed--had helped make him sick in the first place; how could he help but be overjoyed?
The other two, however, Teresa and Martin...they weren't quite so certain. That was clear as well. They were old enough to know what Jonathan's disappearance had done to their mother, and to them. They couldn't accept his reappearance quite so unconditionally.
"We talked for hours," Jonathan said as they departed. "While you were still in the infirmary. I tried to explain...I'm not sure if they believed me or not."
Justin tried to leave too, slipping out quietly behind the children; but Elizabeth stopped him. "Please stay," she begged. Why she did that she didn't quite know. Was some superstitious part of her mind was still not convinced that this person, this mouse who claimed to be her husband, could be real; was she actually afraid to be alone with him? Justin glanced questioningly at Jonathan, who shrugged; and then the rat reluctantly crossed the room and sat down, perching himself on the other side of the bed with his hand resting comfortingly on her knee. Elizabeth struggled to sit up, and finally accomplished it; with her free hand she clutched the blanket to her chest. She turned to Jonathan. "How?" she said. One word, but it expressed a multitude of questions. "How?"
For a long time Jonathan sat gazing out the window, as if gathering his thoughts. He looks so young, Elizabeth thought. That had never seemed to be the case before. She herself had been very young when they were married--barely adult, in fact--and he had always seemed much older. So young...but so terribly tired. She had never seen him so thin, or so uncertain. He had been her strength, her support, for so long...always with an answer, always with a plan. But now he seemed almost afraid to speak.
Finally, slowly, he said, "Elizabeth, darling...I love you. Never once since the day I met you have I stopped loving you. I hope you can believe that, at least. Never for one minute these last months have you been out of my thoughts. I...have made a lot of mistakes. The first and biggest was not telling you who I am, what I am. I should have done so long before we were married; but I believed that it would frighten you, and then I'd lose you. And I couldn't risk that." He glanced at Justin. "I'm glad you were finally able to find out; though I wish the circumstances could have been different. I wish too that I could have been the one to tell you...but I couldn't. I could never force myself. This is going to be hard for you to believe, I know; but everything I have done, I've done because I didn't want to hurt you. And yet that's exactly what I've ended up doing. You and them too." He nodded at the door. "If you can't forgive me...I will understand. If you want nothing more to do with me...I can't blame you."
She shook her head. "Jonathan, please," she said. She actually stumbled over that word, that name; it had been so long since she had last spoken it to his face. "I can't...I can't cope with that right now. I just need to know: how can you be here? How can you be alive?" She glanced at Justin, who looked away. "They all told me you were dead. Justin, Nicodemus, Mr. Ages...all of them. Justin," she demanded suddenly, "were you lying to me?"
Justin nodded tiredly. "Yes," he said quietly, his eyes still averted. "Yes. I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but we were."
"But why? Why would you do such a horrible thing to me? I thought you were my friends..." She trailed off then, as the memories came flooding back, of the last two times she had spoken to Justin. In his office, the night before the attack; and the next day, as he had lain dying beneath a pile of rocks. You can't love me, he'd said on the first occasion; and if we get out of this, I'll explain why. And then, before he lost consciousness, he'd tried to tell her: Jonathan is... She hadn't understood the word he'd uttered then; but now she did. Alive. Jonathan is alive. Timothy had known, that was clear; but what, exactly, had he known?
"Don't blame Justin," Jonathan said quickly. "Don't blame any of them. I made them do it. I swore them to secrecy. If I hadn't succeeded...I intended to never return. I thought...I thought it would be easier that way. Easier for you to think I was dead."
"'Succeeded,'" she quoted. "Succeeded at what?"
Justin cleared his throat. "Jonathan," he said, "I think it's time for total truth."
Jonathan smiled. "You're right," he said. "Long past time." He looked Elizabeth in the eye, his gaze steady and unwavering. "I've told you a lot of lies," he said. "I never wanted to, and I hated myself every time I did. Nonetheless, I did. But never again. I can't blame you if you don't believe me now; I can only assure you that every word of what I'm about to tell you is the absolute truth. Justin can corroborate some of it; and Philip and the others can vouch for the rest. What happened was this..."
For the next hour Elizabeth listened as Jonathan spoke, his voice soft and almost expressionless. He spoke about NIMH; his return to a place where he had suffered so much, a place he'd never wanted to see again. He spoke of the four young rats who has been his companions, and their fugitive lifestyle, holing up by day in a forgotten store-room, and spending every night searching through labs, desks, filing cabinets and computers...always on the lookout for security cameras, alert at every minute for the footsteps of night watchmen or janitors. He spoke of the long, painful process of piecing together the details of a research project that had been deemed too dangerous to continue. And he spoke of the terrible hours of anxiety he had endured, wondering what had become of her and their children; and the black pits of depression he'd plunged into, when at times the enormity of what he'd done came crashing down upon him. He spoke of how his friends, especially Eileen, had time and again pulled him out of that pit, and had managed to keep him going just a little while longer. His eyes never left hers as he told his tale; and he continued to clasp her hands tightly, as if the strength of his grasp alone could convince her that he spoke the truth.
Elizabeth listened to him silently. She listened with sadness, with horror...and with anger. It grew inside her slowly, as he spoke, and finally, inevitably, it boiled over. She interrupted him, wresting her hands free and thrusting him away. "How could you?" she demanded. "How could you do that to me? How could you do that to them? Timothy gave up hope, thinking you were dead; he didn't want to live any more. He almost died because of you. How could you leave us like that? How dare you leave us? And how dare you come crawling back now?"
Jonathan sat still, his head bowed, while she raged at him. Finally, when she had run out of breath, he nodded tiredly. "I deserved that," he said. "Every word. I know I can't expect you to forgive me. I can only ask you to believe that I'm not who I was, nine months ago."
She looked away. Then she said, in somewhat softer tones, "I interrupted you. Why were you and your friends on that...that helicopter?"
He smiled. "It looked to us like the last train to Clarkesville," he said.
"Pardon me?" She had all but forgotten Jonathan's exasperating habit of saying completely incomprehensible things; and now, suddenly, she understood why he did it.
"Uh--never mind," he said. Again, as usual. "What I mean is, it looked like the fastest way home. And...well, we thought there might be something we could do. Some way to sabotage Dr. Schultz' plans. I still have no idea what we might have done. As it turned out there was nothing we could do except watch." He smiled again. "I never dreamed you'd have it all covered."
"That's not what I meant," she said. "Why did you leave NIMH? Why did you give up your...your mission?"
He reached for her hand again, and she didn't prevent it. "We didn't give up," he said quietly. "We succeeded."
"What do you mean?"
"It's here," he said. "Justin has already sent a messenger to Ages, asking him to come look it over. I don't want to mess with it until he does. But it's all here. Copies of all the notes, the files...the formulas for everything they shot into us. And...samples."
He nodded. "Yes. We brought them mainly for Ages to analyze...but there's more than enough for that. There's also enough...for you. I made sure of that. If...if you want it."
Her gaze shifted rapidly between Jonathan and Justin, as they looked down at her earnestly. "You mean," she began hesitantly, "you mean...I can be like you?"
"Yes," Jonathan said simply. He took a deep breath, and the words came tumbling out of him. "Elizabeth, I love you. I couldn't bear the thought of losing you, of having nothing left but memories. In the end. that's why I ran away. But that doesn't have to happen. Not now. It won't be easy for you--I know Nicodemus told you what we went through--but at least you'd know what was happening to you, which was more than we did. And though it is painful, it's all temporary. I've read the notes. We can avoid the mistakes they made, the wrong turns; we can have it over and done with in just a few weeks. And then...we can all be together--who knows how long?" He paused. "If you want it," he repeated hopefully.
She hesitated, her gaze still shifting back and forth between the two of them. It was too much, far too much for her to absorb. If only she could return to unconsciousness; things were so much simpler there...
"I know you're confused right now," Justin told her quietly. "But please--do consider it. You saved all our lives yesterday, Elizabeth. That's twice now. And you saved my life. Whatever this community can do for you, whatever we can give you, it's yours. As far as we're concerned you are one of us, now and forever. We would like nothing more than to be able to make that official."
"Jonathan," she said, "tell me: what do you want?"
"I want to start over," he said without hesitation. "I want us to have a second chance. I was happy with you, darling; happier than I have ever been, before or since. Never believe I wasn't. I want to try to get that back. I know it can't be exactly the same. Timothy and Cynthia...they don't care where I've been, or why; they're just glad I'm back. They've told me so. Teresa and Martin will be harder to convince; and I can't blame them. But I want to try. I want all of us to be together as long as God allows. I want the chance to spoil my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. But only if you'll have me."
"And if I won't?" she demanded.
He looked away. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
For a long moment Elizabeth was silent. Then she fixed Jonathan with her stern gaze. "You know what you've done, don't you?" she asked bitterly. "You haven't left me any choice at all."
He looked startled. "I don't--" he began, but she interrupted him.
"Now that I know you're alive," she said. "Now that they know you've alive--how can I possibly turn you away? What would I tell them? What would I tell Timothy? And how am I supposed to live, knowing that you're out there in the world somewhere? You know I can't let you go again--not like this."
He turned away. "You're right," he said. "I'm sorry." He turned and gazed at her helplessly. "But it isn't my fault. This time it really isn't. I had no idea you were here--how could I? Or our children. It was Arthur who found my friends and me yesterday afternoon, camped on the doorstep waiting for the main entrance to be cleared. He told me what had happened; and he told me that you were here. What could I do? I had to see you, to make sure you were all right. I had to see them. They were with you in the infirmary..."
Elizabeth closed her eyes and shook her head. Try as she might, she couldn't help imagining that scene. Every bit as emotional, every bit as confused, as the one she was living through now. Of that she was certain.
"God, how they've grown," Jonathan said wistfully. "Teresa and Martin...they'll be adults soon. Even Cynthia isn't a little girl any more. And Timothy..."
"Timothy is much stronger now," Elizabeth said, smiling in spite of herself. "He's been exercising, building himself up. And he's been devouring the library since we've been here. He's the smartest of all of them. The most like you. He's always talking about you..."
Abruptly it was all too much. She felt her eyes fill with tears, and angrily she swallowed the lump in her throat. "Jonathan," she said, "I do love you. I couldn't stop loving you if I tried, no matter what you did. And there is no way on earth I can let you go a second time." She took a deep breath. "You've asked me if I'll have you back. The answer is yes. I will. Heaven help me, I don't have any other choice. But I have to be honest: I think it might be a very long time before I'll be able to trust you again. And please don't ask me if I've forgiven you. Not yet."
"That...is all I can ask," Jonathan said. He paused, then he asked hopefully, "And...the other thing?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask me that yet either."
He looked crestfallen, but he nodded. "All right," he said. "There's time yet. Plenty of time--for both of us."
Almost hesitantly then he held out his arms, and she allowed herself to be pulled into his embrace. For a few seconds she was stiff, aloof; but she had missed this too much, had imagined it, remembered it, dreamed about it too many times. She let him draw her closer...
And behind them, Justin cleared his throat loudly. "I think," he said with a smile, "I'd better leave the two of you alone for a while."
For Jonathan Brisby, Thorn Valley was a revelation.
For a time, after Justin departed, they were left alone; and during that time they talked. Just talked. He had told her his story; and now he listened to hers. She spoke of the hardships of the last winter, the sleepless nights, the struggle to find enough food for herself and the children...and the number of times she had done without. He listened in silence; and if to his ears she occasionally became bitter, he gave no sign. How could he dare to take offense, when it was all his fault?
Eventually--thankfully, as her bitterness was reaching its breaking point--they were interrupted. It was Andrea from the community kitchen, quiet and slightly over-awed, who came knocking on the door, bringing them food. A large quantity of food. No doubt it was Justin's doing: he thought of everything. The kitchen was up and running again, and the food was excellent: vegetable soup and fresh warm bread, grains for their teeth, and herbal tea; for Jonathan at least, it was the best food he'd seen in many months, and he ate like a starving wolf. Elizabeth watched in amazement, though perhaps--she reflected--she shouldn't have been so surprised; her husband seemed to weigh only about half what he had. Stress, or malnutrition? she wondered. Probably a little of both. "What did you live on, while you were at NIMH?" she asked.
"Junk food and coffee," he said, his mouth full. "Every night we'd raid the employee's lounge for whatever we could find. Stale donuts, leftover sack lunches...anything even remotely edible. Eventually Philip--you'll meet him later, you'll like him--found a way to get into the snack cupboard. We had to be careful with that, though, or they would have noticed the shortage. I'm going to miss the coffee, but I never want to see another bag of nacho cheese tortilla chips as long as I live."
She started to chuckle, but caught herself. Well, why not? she thought angrily. That's one of the reasons you fell in love with him in the first place: because he could always make you laugh. Why should it be different now?
Finally they pushed aside the empty trays. Jonathan patted his own stomach contentedly. "A few more like that," he announced, "and I'll be back to normal." He paused. "Are you... strong enough to walk yet, darling?"
More than half of her weakness, she found, had been simple hunger; she nodded. "I think so," she said. "A little, anyway."
"Good," he said. He stood, and from the hook on the wall he fetched her cape, the new one. As she tied it around her neck Jonathan smiled and reached across to touch the fine green fabric. "You're better dressed than I am," he commented. He looked down at himself ruefully. "I'm down to my last suit, as you can see."
"Don't worry," she assured him. "They won't let that go on very long. Where would you like to go?"
"Well," he said, "I understand you and the kids have been here a week?"
She nodded. "That's right."
"Then I'm sure you know the place by now," he said, offering her his arm. "And If you don't mind, I'd like you to show me Thorn Valley."
She actually hesitated, before she took his arm; which was a first. Did she still distrust her own senses? Did some irrational part of her still think he was a ghost? Or was she simply still angry with him? Finally, with an act of will, she slipped her arm through his. He gave no sign of having noticed her hesitation; but she was gloomily sure that he had noticed. This is going to be hard, she realized. Terribly, terribly hard. But the alternative was worse.
Arm in arm, then, the two of them left the room and stepped out into the wide stone corridor. A day after the attack, the fear that had gripped the community had finally begun to subside. The hallways were still full of rats, hurrying back and forth on business, carrying tools, or bundles, or clipboards, as the case may be; but the bustle had lost its edge of barely-controlled hysteria. Once again it was business as usual for a productive, determinedly busy people. And if a good many of them came to a halt, astounded, as Jonathan and Elizabeth passed, well, that was to be expected. For a while anyway. Jonathan could not help but notice the ease with which she greeted passersby--and always by name. She really had changed.
In just over a week's time the rats' community had come to feel like home to Elizabeth; all the more now that she had saved it. At first the corridors had bewildered her, and she'd had trouble deciphering the directional signs; but in just a few days she'd memorized the paths to the more important places. Over the next hour or so, walking slowly, it was those places that she showed him. The dining hall, the tables just being cleared after lunch. The kitchens, where she herself had worked several times these last few days. The gym, which was unoccupied. The school, so important to Timothy and Cynthia; it was not yet back in session, but would be the next day, according to the sign on the door. The library, the books sitting neatly on their shelves, temporarily abandoned as work took precedence over study. The huge multi-tiered pit of the meeting hall, where two days ago the community had heard the dreadful news of their danger. Arthur's workshops, which in contrast were frantically busy. And finally the lounge.
It was in the lounge that her strength faltered, and she had to sit down for a little while. They pulled themselves up onto a small sofa near the big windows, overlooking the lake and the fields. Outside the rain was still pattering down, but the horizon was growing lighter; probably it would end by nightfall. As they settled in Jonathan laid his arm around her shoulders, hesitantly; and after just a second's pause, she rested her head on his arm. How many times had they sat just like that, in olden times? Neither one could begin to guess.
Around them the lounge was all but unoccupied. A few rats where scattered among the other sofas, the tables, chairs, and private niches. A few quiet conversations were going on, punctuated by soft laughter; a few games of cards or chess; and a few of the rats were unashamedly napping, their heads leaning back and their mouths wide open. Usually--even at that hour of the day--the lounge would have been much more crowded, but the community wasn't back to normal yet. Not quite. Probably Justin would schedule a musical performance as soon as he could; after what they had all been through, they needed it.
Jonathan drew Elizabeth a little closer, his hand rubbing gently up and down her arm; and she didn't try to prevent it. "This place," he said contentedly. "This valley...is everything I ever dreamed it would be. Everything Nicodemus promised it would be."
She glanced up at him curiously. "You mean you've never been here before?"
He shook his head. "No, never," he said. He chuckled. "That's funny, I suppose, when you consider how hard I worked to make the place happen. But no. It's a long trip from the farm--as you know. Days, traveling by foot. And by the time the Plan was finalized, I had...other responsibilities."
She shook her head in wonder. To think that of the two of them, she would be the one to see the valley first...incredible, the tricks that fate could play. And of course he might not have seen it at all, had things worked out just a little differently.
Jonathan waved his free hand. "This room," he said. "This lounge. I hope I won't sound like I'm boasting, but in a way I'm responsible for it. I suggested it." He smiled and shook his head. "Nicodemus," he began, and his voice caught. He swallowed the tried again. "Nicodemus was always far too serious. I tried to tell him the people would need a place like this, if they were going to work as hard as he expected. A place to come and unwind, play a few hands of poker...but I never thought he believed me. I guess...I finally talked him into it."
"'Poker'?" she asked. "What's that?"
"It's a card game," he said. "I'll teach you sometime. Or you can get Justin to. Be careful with him, though, or you'll lose your shirt."
She shook her head in exasperation. There he went again. It used to drive her crazy, the things he would say. Where in the world did you hear that? she'd ask. But he'd only smile and change the subject. Well, that was over and done with too: another secret he didn't need to keep any more.
For several moments they sat in silence, both of them lost in old memories. Jonathan's hand continued to move up and down her arm, smoothing and re-smoothing the brown fur. She'd all but forgotten how much that relaxed her. Finally Jonathan said, "The children...they really love it here, don't they? In this valley, I mean."
Elizabeth had grown so comfortable that she'd almost fallen asleep; with an effort she roused herself. "Yes," she said. "They do. They've made a lot of new friends here. Better friendships than they have at home, actually. Especially Timothy." She twisted her neck to look up at him. "Do you know a rat named Robert?"
"Arthur's youngest?" Jonathan asked. "I certainly do. He was born exactly the same day as Timmy. In fact he was a lot like Timothy, as I remember. He wasn't a very strong child either. Always sick. Several times they were afraid they'd lose him. But smart; as smart as they come."
"He's Timothy's best friend now," she said.
Jonathan chuckled. "Is he really? I'll be darned. Arthur and I used to joke about that--they were so much alike, Arthur said, they were sure to become friends. I didn't think it would ever be possible But--" he smiled and squeezed her arm. "Times change."
"Yes, they do," she said. She paused. "The two of them are so close now I hate the thought of separating them. Timothy has so desperately needed a really good friend. Actually...I hate to separate any of them from this."
Jonathan sat silent, still stroking her arm. To what she'd just said there was an obvious answer. It was one that he'd been mulling over, in the privacy of his own thoughts, much of that day. It had come to him some time during the previous afternoon, when he and his children had sat talking, trying somehow to bridge the chasm that time had opened between he and they. One day hadn't been enough to accomplish that--he'd made barely a beginning, in fact--but the things they'd said had put the germ of an idea in his head. Obviously Elizabeth had it too; but just as obviously, it was something she couldn't cope with yet. Not in her present state. Let it be, he thought. There's time enough for that too.
Abruptly Elizabeth rose, taking Jonathan's hand and pulling him upright too. "Come on," she said briskly. "There's one other place I want to show you."
"Where's that?" he asked, as he allowed himself to be led out of the lounge.
"The sewing department," she said. She brushed her hand across his parti-colored tunic, and grimaced. "We're going to get you some new clothes, before any more people see you."
Jonathan couldn't suppress a gasp of amazement as he and his family entered the meeting hall that night. More than a little tired, and stuffed full with an excellent fish dinner--a rare treat in the community--he wanted a soft bed more than anything else; but Justin had begged them all to attend, and so they had. Now, a little belatedly, Jonathan understood why Justin had been so insistent. In a manner of speaking they had been set up.
It had been a long time--far too long, in fact--since Jonathan had seen all of the Rats of NIMH gathered together, as they were that night. From the highest level to the lowest, the tiers of stone benches were packed full, and as the Brisby family entered, all those hundreds of eyes turned silently to gaze at them. Every member of the community was there, bar none; from the remainder of the Original 22 right down to the newborns. All of them, it seemed, had raided their closets; seldom had Jonathan seen them all so richly-dressed.
As Jonathan slowly descended the wide steps, hand-in-hand with Elizabeth and with their children trailing behind, his eyes roved over an ocean of familiar faces. He saw Arthur and Alice, in the midst of their huge brood of children, including a young and slightly undersized rat who was waving enthusiastically to Timothy: his new best friend Robert, much bigger than the last time Jonathan had seen him. He saw Ralph, now the Master Farmer, and his colleague and semi-friendly rival Judith--Eileen's twin--the community's botanist. And in the background, still wary of being noticed, he caught sight of Sullivan, the erstwhile prisoner. Only one face--Mr. Ages--was lacking to make the reunion complete. So many familiar faces. Friends, acquaintances, sparring partners...even a few he would once have called opponents. And strangers, far too many strangers. In nearly a year, many children whom Jonathan had barely known had grown to adulthood; and many more had been born. Yet another reminder of the passage of time. In total silence they sat, watching, just watching, as the Brisby family entered. Suddenly--incongruously--Jonathan was glad Elizabeth had talked him into visiting the tailors' shop that afternoon. The brown tunic and white shirt he wore had been intended for a rat child, and had been hurriedly altered to fit; but they were clean and new, and at very least he was not ashamed to be seen in them. As always, his wife's instincts had been absolutely correct.
Down on the lowest tier one--just one--bench was unoccupied, the space flanked, and obviously saved for them, by Philip, Mark, David and Eileen. As the family descended Philip beckoned to them, inviting them down. Jonathan had not seen any of his companions since late the previous afternoon, but clearly they had been welcomed home as thoroughly as Jonathan himself had. Philip, Mark and David wore fresh Guard uniforms, spotless blue tunics and crisp white shirts, and Eileen--for the first time in Jonathan's memory--wore a skirt and a blouse; and looked good in them, too. Her fractured wrist had been treated, set and casted; it hung in a sling, strapped close to her chest. Philip's arm was around her waist, and hers around his; a sight that did Jonathan's spirits a world of good. Here was one happy ending in the making, at least. As Elizabeth saw Eileen her eyes widened, and she glanced quickly back over her shoulder at a higher tier, where Judith sat beside Thomas. Jonathan couldn't help smiling, but he could well understand her confusion: the two of them were indeed just about identical. Physically, anyway. The introductions would have to wait, though, because as the Brisby family began the long walk down, Justin appeared.
The leader of the rats stepped forward from the shadows onto the speaker's platform. He stood firm and strong, his arms crossed over his chest and his feet planted wide. He wore his finest, newest tunic and shirt, and over his shoulders hung a long cloak, dark blue and trimmed with gold. Around his neck the Stone gleamed, newly-polished; and from a belt hanging low around his left hip protruded the hilt of a sword, the very one that usually hung above his desk. Neither Jonathan nor Elizabeth had ever seen him look so regal, so much a leader, as he did that night. Into the silence he spoke. Not loud; but his voice carried. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said.
It was a signal, and as one the assembled rats rose to their feet and snapped to attention, facing the steps where the Brisby family paused, astounded. Justin went on, "My friends, members of the community of the Rats of NIMH, I give you Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby."
The applause began quietly, decorously; but as the six of them continued to descend it grew louder and louder, and soon was mixed with cheers and whistles. By the time they reached the bottom the rafters were literally ringing. Elizabeth's ears had turned bright crimson, and her eyes darted back and forth, seeking escape; but there was none. Behind her the children stepped back and sat down, their eyes shining with pride; and they too joined in the applause. After a few seconds Jonathan too stepped back. He had an ego--that had been remarked upon many times over the years--but he knew very well: this wasn't for him. It was for her and her alone. She had saved their lives, not once but twice; and now she had saved their home as well. He'd had his moments of glory, years ago; now it was her turn, and he couldn't begrudge her. She deserved every bit of their applause, and more.
Justin let it run for a time; then he raised his hands above his head. Slowly, reluctantly, the noise died away, and the assembled rats sat down. Justin waited for silence, then he spoke again. "All of us in this community owe our lives to Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby," he said. "If not for Jonathan we of the Original 22 would never have escaped from NIMH. If not for Elizabeth we would have died in our old home, never knowing our danger until it was too late; or else we would have died here, yesterday, in the safety of this supposedly unknown and untouchable valley. I say that we would have died; but perhaps not. We might instead have been returned to imprisonment. Very few of us here have experienced that state; it has always been my intention that none of us ever shall again. That we can meet here tonight, safe and free, we owe entirely to her. A most unlikely hero, I might once have thought; but not any more. I have learned that it is not safe to underestimate Elizabeth Brisby."
He gazed down at her, standing there below him, rooted to the spot with embarrassment, her husband and her children seated behind her. "There is no way this community can adequately repay you for what you have done," Justin went on. He grinned suddenly. "But I'm going to try anyway. Jonathan, Elizabeth, it is our unanimous desire that you and your family consider yourselves full and equal members of this community, for as long as you and your descendants shall live. Our home is your home; anything you need or desire, if it lies within our power to give, is yours. You also--and I hope this will not be the least we can give--have the undying gratitude of the Rats of NIMH, now and forever. This I pledge, on behalf of us all."
Elizabeth glanced back at Jonathan; but he smiled and shook his head: this was her moment, not his. With no escape, then, she pulled herself to her full height, wrapped her cape around herself, took a deep breath, and spoke. "Justin--everyone--thank you. Several months ago you helped me, when I didn't know where to turn. I was happy, then, to be able to do something to repay your kindness. This last week, again, you have all been very kind to my children and me; and yesterday, having come to know this place, I simply couldn't stand by and watch it be destroyed. I had to do something; and I thank God that what I did was the right thing. You are all my friends, the dearest friends I could ever hope to have. On behalf of my husband and my children...thank you."
The applause chased her to her seat, where she sat trembling. Jonathan wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. "You did fine," he whispered in her ear.
"Thank you," she said. She smiled wryly. "And thanks for the help."
And to think I used to call her "timid." He grinned and kissed her cheek. "You're welcome."
Once again Justin allowed the applause to go on for a few minutes; then he raised his hand. "Now," he said, "as much as I hate to say it, we do have some real work to get done tonight. Arthur, may I have your status reports please?"
After the meeting, as the rats were filing quietly out of the hall, Justin stepped down from the platform. "Jonathan? Do you have a moment?"
Jonathan hesitated, gazing at his family. For him at least it had been a very long day following a very uncomfortable night; but in fact the rest of them were drooping too. The kids especially--even the older two--were just about asleep where they sat, holding each other up. "Well--" Jonathan began uncertainly.
"I'll be quick," Justin promised.
Jonathan sighed. "All right."
Justin sat down beside them. The Brisby family had hung back, waiting for the hall to empty, so as not to get caught and crushed by the crowd; by now they were all but alone, the last of the rats filing through the doors far above their heads. Jonathan nodded at Justin's cloak and sword-belt. "Very impressive," he observed wryly.
Justin tossed a fold of the cloak over his shoulder, and grinned. "Only on very special occasions," he said. "I thought I'd roast to death."
"What can we do for you?" Jonathan asked.
"Two things," Justin said. He gazed at all of them in turn. "First, I want you all to know that what I said tonight wasn't just words. You are members of this community, all of you. Your votes, your opinions, count just as much as mine or anyone else's." He reached out and tousled Timothy and Cynthia's hair. "Except a couple of you still need to get a little older." He paused. "Actually--technically--that's always been true. Jonathan has always been a member, and when he married you--" he glanced at Elizabeth--"that made you a member as well. And your children by descent. But Jenner convinced the Council..." he trailed off and shook his head. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter any more, what Jenner or the Council did. Tonight just seemed the perfect time to make it official and irrevocable. In front of everyone."
"We appreciate that," Jonathan said.
"But that isn't all," Justin said. He took a deep breath and looked around at them again. "I also said I want you to think of this community as your home. I wasn't speaking figuratively then either. We want--oh, who am I kidding?--I want you to consider moving here, permanently. Frankly I think you need us--and I'm absolutely sure that we need you."
The effect of those few words was extraordinary. Jonathan, sitting there with his arms around Timothy and Cynthia, felt their small bodies suddenly grow tense with excitement. And flanking them, Teresa and Martin exchanged an astounded, hopeful glance, their eyes wide and shining.
Justin was still speaking, the words tumbling out quickly, one upon another. "I've got it all worked out," he said breathlessly. "There's a vacant apartment not too far from my quarters--three bedrooms and a living room, just right. And you don't have to give up anything. Say the word, and I'll have a team with wagons on the road to the farm. Everything you own can be here within a week." He grinned. "Even the cinder block, if you want."
He trailed off then, gazing at them expectantly. There was a moment of silence. Jonathan hardly dared breathe, let alone speak; even as Justin spoke he had felt a wild surge of excitement build within him, driving away all thoughts of sleep. For so long the two halves of his life had been separate, forced apart by grim circumstance. The thought of bringing them together in one place--his family and his friends, the best of both worlds--was more than he had ever dared dream of.
The silence was finally broken by Timothy. He looked up at his father, his big blue eyes wide and bright. "Dad--can we?" he asked.
"Yeah, Dad," Martin said. "Can we?"
"Can we, Father?"
"Can we, Papa? Please?"
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Elizabeth? Darling?" he asked quietly.
Elizabeth had sat silent as Justin spoke, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. She looked up at Jonathan...and then, without warning, she suddenly burst into tears. She rose to her feet and--evading Jonathan's grasping hand--ran headlong up the stairs. The hall door slammed behind her.
Justin half-rose, as if to go after her; but Jonathan caught at his arm, stopping him. "Justin my friend," he said tiredly, "there's a phrase I came across while I was away: 'don't go there.'"
"Meaning?" Justin asked.
"Meaning that tonight might not have been the best time to bring up that subject. Everything you said has already occurred to her--but right now she's got far too many decisions to make. Including one very big one. This one is just going to have to get in line."
Justin sighed. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry--I couldn't help myself. Do you think she'll forgive me?"
Jonathan smiled. "I don't imagine she could stay mad at you very long."
Justin grinned. "I hope not." He paused. "What about you? What do you say?"
Jonathan was very aware of four pairs of eyes on him, attentive and expectant. He smiled wryly. "If it was entirely up to me," he told Justin, "I'd say yes. In a New York minute. But," he went on quickly, "it isn't entirely up to me. I could possibly browbeat her into it." Or maybe not; all of a sudden she was not especially browbeatable. "But I don't think I should try." He glanced around. "I don't think anyone should try."
Those four pair of eyes turned away, and there was more than one quiet sigh of frustration. Jonathan hugged Timothy and Cynthia. "But that doesn't mean we should give up hope," he said. "We've just got to give her a little more time."
"You're right," Justin said in resignation. He rose, and once again threw his cloak over his shoulder. "Well, good night, all. This rat is going to bed." He paused, his foot on the stairs, and then he glanced back. "Oh--Jonathan? Would you come to my office tomorrow morning after breakfast?"
"Sure I will," Jonathan said. "If I can find it. What's up?"
Justin smiled and shook his head. "Nothing too serious," he said. "I've just been thinking,...it's past time you and I had a good long talk."
Slowly Jonathan matched his smile. "I'll be there," he promised. "Good night, my friend."
Jonathan found Elizabeth--as he had expected--lying face-down on her bed, her head buried in the pillows and the blankets pulled up around her ears.
Quietly he went about the business of getting his children to bed--though that was scarcely necessary now, they had grown so big. To him it seemed to have happened in an eyeblink. What he had missed could never be replaced; they did not have a "rewind" button. That he knew too well. Regardless of whether they or their mother ever forgave him, that at least he could never forgive himself. As a spy he had succeeded--but at the cost of failure as a father.
As he bent down to kiss her good-night, praying that she wouldn't turn away, Teresa said quietly, "Father?"
"Will you--will you be with Justin all day tomorrow?"
"Probably not," he told her. "Why do you ask?"
"Because--if you have time, I think I'd like to talk with you too."
He gazed down into her huge blue eyes--exactly like her mother's--and he felt his heart suddenly melt. He bent down and kissed her forehead. "Of course I will, honey," he said. "As much time as you want."
As he went up on tip-toes to blow out the lamp he suddenly felt a hundred years younger. Maybe there's hope, he thought. Martin would be a tougher nut to crack--that was all too clear--but maybe there was hope there too. If he could even gain his older son's friendship, as one adult to another, he'd be happy.
"Papa?" he heard, as the room plunged into darkness.
"Don't--go anywhere. Okay?"
"Never again, Cynthia," he assured her. "Never again."
In the darkness he undressed, shrugging tiredly out of his new clothes, and hung them on the peg next to Elizabeth's cape. At the side of the bed he paused and cleared his throat. "May I join you?" he asked.
He heard the rustle as she turned her head, and the amusement in her voice. "Where else would you go?" she asked.
"I have no idea," he confessed. "Maybe I'd go bunk on Justin's sofa. Wouldn't be the first time." He paused. "So?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," she said in exasperation. "Get in."
He did so, and he turned over to face her, holding out his arms. A second later--exactly one second longer than it once would have taken her--she allowed herself to be drawn into his embrace.
"Justin wants you to know he's sorry," he said into her ear. "He didn't mean to upset you. And I'm sorry too."
"It wasn't his fault," she replied. "Or yours either. It was just...one too many things, right then."
"I understand," Jonathan said. "He also wants you to know that you've got all the time in the world to make up your mind."
"Oh, I already have," she said. briskly.
"I've already made up my mind," she said. She paused. "At least...I think I have." She laid her hands flat on his chest. "I think...I want it. I want all of it. I want our children to have a life here. A real life, not just a field mouse's scrabbling for food and shelter. I want to be near the friends I've made, and I want you to be with yours. For once in my life I want to be safe; no more cats, no more plows. Justin was right: all of us need each other. And--"
"And, when Mr. Ages gets here, I want the NIMH treatment, if it can be done. I want the chance to spoil our grandchildren too. Maybe tomorrow I'll feel differently. But right now...I want it."
For a long time he couldn't speak; he just held her, held that slim, soft-furred body as if he never wanted to let go. And in fact he didn't. There were plans to be discussed, decisions to be made, apartments to be inspected...but that could wait. Right now there was nothing else in the universe except the two of them. And a future that now stretched out before them, unlimited. When finally he could speak he said, "I love you, Mrs. Brisby."
"I love you, Mr. Brisby."
...And a little while later she added, "Oh, by the way, Jonathan--"