Second In Command

By Paul S. Gibbs


A followup to "The Rats of Thorn Valley", as told by Jonathan. The Rats of NIMH and the Brisby family anxiously prepare for their first winter in Thorn Valley. Meanwhile Jonathan learns the meaning of "long-suffering" as he battles trouble with work, family, weather--and, most perilous of all, the fallout from Justin's tortured love-life.

Second In Command
Art by anonymous contributer

Chapter 1

"I think we're in for a rough winter," Justin said.

We stood there on a grassy slope, late that October afternoon, he and I, overlooking a farm which had been harvested very nearly bare. I looked up at him and grinned. "Been reading the Old Farmer's Almanac, have we?" I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. "Not exactly," he said. "But I have been applying some of its principles. Mark my words, Jonathan." He nodded down at the ragged farm. "The snow is going to come early--and hard. I just hope we're ready."

At that moment, on such a glorious fall day, it was hard to imagine that the snow would ever come; although--now that he mentioned it--there was a definite chill in the air, making me glad of the cloak I had thrown over my shoulders. Autumn in Thorn Valley was--if possible--even more spectacular than summer. Sprinkled liberally through the forest, the deciduous trees were a riot of color, red, orange and gold; the sky was hazy, the horizon smoky, and the ends of the valley were lost in clinging, luminous mist. The sun, near to setting now, was a huge flattened orange disk, so diffused by the haze that I could look directly at it. Days like those were among my favorites; sometimes it seemed that they would last forever. Still, Justin had a point: after October comes November, and beyond that December. The year--at once the worst and best of my entire life--was dying.

"You know we moved in months earlier than we planned," Justin was saying. "We had to dip a lot deeper into our food stores than I liked."

"The harvest was good," I pointed out. "Better than expected, according to Ralph."

"True," he agreed. He shook his head. "And maybe I'm worrying needlessly. But still, I can't shake the feeling that there's going to have to be some belt-tightening around here before this winter is over."

"Speak for yourself," I said, with dignity. "I already consume half what you do."

"For which we are all profoundly grateful, I assure you," Justin said. He paused for a moment, stroking his whiskers thoughtfully. "First thing tomorrow morning I'd like you to start an inventory of our food stores. I want to know exactly what we've got."

I sighed. Most of the time, these last four months, I'd enjoyed being Justin's executive assistant; as he'd said when he'd talked me into taking the job, it suited me. But there were moments... "You got it, boss," I said, somewhat less than enthusiastically.

He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. The sun had vanished now, and deep shadows were descending over the valley. "Come on," he said. "It's getting cold. And it's almost dinnertime."

When I arrived home I found, quite literally, a full house.

The three-bedroom apartment my family had been assigned (some sixteen weeks ago, though that scarcely seemed possible) was a strange--but comfortable--mixture of the old and the new. Some of the furnishings and decorations had come from our old home on the farm, the cinder block which I had located, but had barely gotten to live in before my troubles started. The rest was new, courtesy of Arthur's skilled craftspeople. And of those new items, a certain number were rat-sized. At first glance that seemed odd, almost comical; but the reason for it was simple enough. Some (in fact most) of our best friends were rats, when they came to visit they had to have someplace to sit.

As I entered, I saw that my entire family was there; and as always, that sight gave me a definite thrill of pleasure. Across the room, on the smaller sofa, Timothy and Cynthia had their heads together, poring over books and papers that were strewn across the coffee table; Timothy, it appeared, was once again helping his little sister do battle with her number-one nemesis: math. Nearer the door, on the much larger rat-sized sofa, Martin and Teresa were also hitting the books, and no wonder, with their equivalency exams staring them in the face. Poor Teresa: she sat with her right leg stuck awkwardly out before her, swathed in white plaster from knee to foot. Her crutches were propped up against the arm of the sofa. There was nothing a rat could do that she couldn't, she'd often said; it had taken a fractured ankle to convince her that maybe she'd better restrict that discussion to an intellectual, rather than athletic, playing field. If you have to break a leg, I suppose fall is the best time to do it: long before the first of the year she'd be healed.

And in the room's far corner, sitting at the desk which was tucked in between the fireplace and the window, was Elizabeth. My wife wore a dark blue skirt and a blue-and-white striped sweater; and her recently-acquired (but not much-liked) reading glasses were perched on the end of her nose. The desk before her was covered with papers, and her gaze darted back and forth among them as she jotted quick notes on a clipboard.

As I entered they looked up--four out of the five, anyway--and smiled at me. "Hello, everybody," I said, as I hung up my cloak on a peg beside the door, amidst a crowd of similar items.

In the chorus of voices that greeted me: "Hi, Dad" (from three at once) and "Hello, Father; how was your day?" only one was missing. Too preoccupied, I suppose. The kids watched, smiling, as I tiptoed across the room to the desk. Stepping up behind Elizabeth I suddenly wrapped my left arm around her breast and nuzzled the back of her neck.

"Hello, Jonathan," she said blandly, proving that she'd been less oblivious (and I less stealthy) than I'd thought. She turned, smiling as she peered over the top of her glasses. "You're a little late," she commented.

I kissed her and then released her, perching myself on the edge of the desk. The papers that surrounded her seemed to be supply requisitions from every department in the community--at least every one that she had control over--which she was struggling to bring into some kind of order. I didn't envy her the task. "Justin and I were taking a look at the farm," I explained.


"And, it's just about played out for the season. I think we've seen the last of the tomatoes--and even the zucchini has just about had it, finally."

She made a wry face. Zucchini plants have a tendency to go wild, and while we were all grateful that they'd done so well, that particular squash--in bread, or grilled, or steamed, or stir-fried, or in soup or salad--had found its way into far too many meals that summer. Everyone in the community would be glad to see the end of it.

"Justin's a little concerned about our food situation for the winter," I went on. "He wants me to start an inventory tomorrow."

She turned to look at me again; but this time her gaze was a little sharp, her blue eyes flashing above the wire frames. "He wants you to do an inventory?" she echoed. "Shouldn't that be my job?"

I hesitated for a moment. My dear wife's recent transformation--for lack of a better word--had caused a certain number of behavioral changes, some more obvious than others. Most of them I could cope with; some I even welcomed. But there was one I was finding it difficult to endure, and I devoutly hoped it was just a phase: a certain degree of touchiness, especially in regards to her job. Which meant that I would have to tread carefully. "I suspect," I said, "that Justin feels you've got enough to do already, and that it would just be a distraction. And," I went on quickly, "of course I'll be needing your input, when you have time."

She heard the placating tone in my voice, and suddenly her expression softened. She reached up to stroke my cheek. "I'm sorry, Jonathan," she said. "I shouldn't have snapped at you. It's just...well, Justin wanted me to take this job, he trusted me with it, and I want to succeed at it, by myself. I don't want other people to have to cover for me."

Once again I wrapped my arm around her. "I understand," I assured her. "You know that I hear about everything that goes on in this community, sooner or later. From what I've heard, everyone is absolutely satisfied with the job you've been doing. Despite their grumbling."

She chuckled; I felt the vibration through my arm. "Thank you," she said. Then, very deliberately, she took off her glasses and set them aside, along with the clipboard. "That," she said, "is enough of that for one day."

Jonathan hugging Mrs. Brisby
Art by LordDirk

The trouble with falling in love--if you happen to be the leader of a community--is that you get no privacy whatsoever.

As I finally sat down at our specially-built family table in the dining hall that evening (on my second trip from the counter, since I'd had to carry Teresa's tray too) I glanced across the room and smiled. "He's at it again," I observed.

"Jonathan," Elizabeth said chidingly, "it's not polite to stare."

I waved a hand around the crowded room. "Don't tell me," I said. "Tell them."

Indeed, if there was a pair of eyes in that hall which was not turned toward Justin's table I don't know whose it was--unless perhaps children too small for that particular kind of curiosity. Everybody else--including, I noticed, my lady wife--was casting surreptitious glances at our beloved leader...and his dinner companion.

One of the effects of the NIMH treatments was a tendency toward single births--which is to say that our females, rat or mouse, gave birth to one child at a time, as opposed to (as they say) "dropping a litter." (And if you think it was easy to explain that to Elizabeth, without telling her the full truth, think again.) The upside was that the children were born larger, stronger and better-developed. The downside was that the births could be difficult--as Elizabeth's had, most especially Cynthia. In our entire history, so far, there had been just one multiple birth, a set of identical twins...and Justin, for the third time that week, was having dinner with one of them right now.

I had, of course, known those twins since the day they were born. In fact I'd helped deliver them, as had Justin. That was back during our "Wandering Days," as the members of the Original 22 put it; the many months between NIMH and the founding of the rosebush community. In those days births were both a joy and a problem. We rejoiced, of course, in the creation of new life, and most especially in the knowledge that we could reproduce; that the NIMH treatments hadn't rendered us sterile. (In my case that took a little longer to determine.) Even better was the fact that the children had so obviously inherited the genes that had been created in us. But...well, in our darker moments we had to wonder what would become of those children; every new life was another mouth to feed. That fact had led us to settle down, to establish the rosebush community; and then, of course, to develop the Plan. But I digress.

Of those twins, I knew one much better than the other; about as well as one can, in fact, while still remaining just friends: Eileen. "Hacker," I'd called her, when she'd been one of my four companions on the NIMH expedition. We'd given her that nickname because she knew everything there was to know about computers; most especially, how to break into them. It was a nickname which she'd had to give up, unfortunately, when we got back: there wasn't a computer to be found in Thorn Valley. More recently she'd acquired another: "Teach." She'd spent the last four months tutoring my children, bringing them up to speed so they could join the adult world. Timothy especially adored her; they spoke the same language, which is to say higher math. Unfortunately for him, though, she was spoken for: less than a month after the end of our expedition, she married Philip. At the time she'd still been recovering from a fractured wrist; it was the first time I ever saw a wedding dress with matching arm-sling. Guess who was best man?

The other sister I knew rather less well. Judith, her name was; if she had a nickname I didn't know it, though it probably wouldn't have been complimentary. Like her sister she had light brown fur, almost beige, and large dark eyes; she was tall and slim, and yes, quite attractive. (Though I'm not permitted to notice things like that.) Unfortunately the resemblance went only a little deeper than that. Eileen was one of the three or four smartest people I'd ever met. She had a sarcastic streak too, and a rather biting sense of humor...but at the same time, she was one of the most caring individuals I'd ever known, second only to my wife. I honestly don't think I would have lived through the NIMH expedition if it wasn't for her. Time and again, in my depression, I refused to eat; and time and again, she managed to cajole or threaten me out of starving myself to death.

Judith, by all accounts, was not one bit less intelligent than her sister; but her sarcasm had a hard edge to it that Eileen's never did, and had earned her a reputation for being unapproachable and almost vicious. (Though strangely, Elizabeth strongly disagreed with that assessment.) I myself had never fallen foul of Judith's legendary temper...but I knew someone who had, more than once: Ralph. You would think that the Master Farmer would get along famously with the Chief Botanist, since they both had the same ends in mind: feeding the community. Unfortunately that had never been the case. The botanist, it seemed, regarded the farmer as an idiot and an incompetent, and didn't care who knew it. Which is not the basis for a firm friendship.

All of which meant that Justin was simultaneously accomplishing two things: he was breaking the heart of every unattached female in the community, including my daughters; and he was making everyone else, including me, wonder if he'd lost his mind.

But the really incredible thing about the situation was that Justin seemed to be making headway. The two of them--leader and botanist--sat at a table for two, tucked into a corner of the dining hall. They sat with their heads close together, talking earnestly and all but ignoring their dinners; and on occasion Justin was even able to coax a smile out of her. A real smile, too, and quite nice; not the lopsided sardonic grin which she gave to most people. Justin had charm and to spare; that I knew very well. It accounted for at least one-quarter of the reason why he'd been able to hold the community together. (The other three-quarters being talent and ability.) Obviously he'd turned the thermostat on that charm as high as it would go--I could feel it, all the way across the room--but that it was working, in the face of such opposition, seemed nothing short of miraculous.

Suddenly then I heard a familiar voice behind me. "Who'd a'-thunk it, eh?"

I turned--and for a instant it was as if I was seeing double. It was Eileen who stood there, grinning, her arms crossed over her chest. "Hello, Hacker," I said. Even though the nickname was a thing of the past, I had called her that so many times that it still sometimes slipped out. She smiled in acknowledgment.

"Hello, Jonathan," she said. Her gaze shifted. "Good evening, Elizabeth. Hiya, kids."

"Won't you join us, Eileen?" Elizabeth asked graciously.

"Don't mind if I do," she said. She pulled a chair from a nearby table and seated herself, between me and Timothy. As she did she reached over to tousle my son's hair fondly. My erstwhile companion had, upon her return to the community, exchanged the blue tunic and white shirt of her old Guard uniform for more conventional female clothing. At the moment the skirt and loose sweater she wore couldn't quite conceal the slight, but noticeable, bulge in her abdomen.

Elizabeth noticed Eileen's empty hands, and she frowned. "Did you eat dinner, dear?" she asked in concern.

Eileen smiled and rubbed her stomach. "He--or she--has got me a little off my feed today," she explained. "I did manage a bowl of soup."

Elizabeth's frown deepened, but she held her peace. As far as we'd been able to figure out, Eileen was older than Elizabeth; but my dear wife never could resist the temptation to be everybody's mother. Most people--including Eileen--didn't mind.

"Where's that husband of yours?" I asked.

"The Captain of the Guard," Eileen said with a sigh, "is currently taking an extra turn on duty at the main entrance, because Mark has a date." She shook her head. "He's either soft-hearted or soft-headed, I don't know which."

I grinned and pointed. "I'm beginning to wonder about our fearless leader, too."

Once again Eileen sighed. "Frankly, I'm worried about him," she said. "Though maybe I shouldn't be--he's a big boy. And he obviously likes a challenge. But I can't help thinking that he's setting himself up for a fall. I've got the creepy feeling that she's just playing with him."

"Me too," I began, but Elizabeth interrupted me.

"Really," she said in exasperation, "you two are terrible. Isn't it possible that she genuinely cares about him?"

Eileen smiled humorlessly. "Oh, it's possible," she admitted. "It's just not very probable."

To look at Judith right then, as she sat with Justin, you might have wondered what he saw in her. She wore--as she almost always did--her work clothes: a rough and much-patched tunic of blue denim over a plaid shirt, a bandanna tied over her head, and a tool-belt around her waist. She alternated her work days between the greenhouse--her own personal and inviolable domain--and the farm, where she clashed often and spectacularly with Ralph. No, in her work clothes she wasn't much to look at--but she cleaned up nice, as they say. It was some two and a half months before, I think, when Justin first took notice of her: on the occasion of our First Annual Thorn Valley Luau Night. Eileen and Judith had appeared wearing identical flowered sarongs--Eileen's idea--and only the fact that Philip had hung on tight to Eileen had enabled the rest of us to tell them apart. I was standing next to Justin at the time--he was looking remarkably silly in a banana-tree shirt and a floppy straw hat--and when Judith appeared under the light of the tiki torches he just about dropped his drink. It took him some time to get up the courage to approach her--but the rest, as they say, was history. Had I been a betting man, I would have lost the farm.

"Don't get me wrong," Eileen was saying. "I love my sister dearly." She sighed. "Even though she hasn't been treating me particularly well lately either. But she's never had much use for other people. To her they're just obstacles."

"Why is she like that, anyway?" I asked.

"If you ever find out," Eileen said seriously, "be sure to let my parents know. They've been wondering the same thing for years."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't agree," she said. "She's been more than pleasant to me since the moment I met her."

Eileen glanced at her with a faint smile. "I don't say that you're wrong," she said. "But I do say that if so, you're an exception."

With a certain effort I pulled myself free from the subject, which was--when all is said and done--really none of my business. I gazed up at Eileen. "So, tutor," I said, "how are your students coming along?"

Eileen gazed fondly at her charges, and all of them suddenly became very interested in their dinners. She said, "I think I'll be out of a job very soon." She patted her stomach. "And just in time, too." She nodded around the table. "Teresa, Martin and Timothy are ready to take their exams. I've talked it over with Alice; she's ready for them any time they feel comfortable. Cynthia is just about caught up with her age-group; she'll be able to graduate with her class in January. Except," she went on sternly, "she still needs to work on her math."

My younger daughter turned away, shame-faced, and Timothy laid a solicitous hand on her shoulder. "I'll help her," he assured us.

Eileen smiled. "I'm counting on it."

"So--what will you do now?" I asked.

"Well, other than maternity," Eileen said, "Justin wants me to run the library, and Alice wants me to work with some of her more accelerated students. I'll have enough to do, I imagine." She winked. "Until Justin figures a way to get me a new computer."

"Eileen," I said, "Hacker, I really want to thank you for everything you've done. And not only here." Beside me, Elizabeth nodded vigorous agreement.

Eileen reached down and clasped both my right hand and Elizabeth's left, together in hers. "It was the least I could do," she said. She rose then, with some slight difficulty. "Now, if you'll all excuse me, I've got to go warm up the bed before Philip gets off duty."

"Jonathan," Elizabeth said, "there's something I don't quite understand."

I looked over at her in some surprise. It had been quite a while since I'd last heard those words from her. These days there wasn't much she didn't understand; and what little there was, she figured out for herself. "Such as?" I asked cautiously.

We'd spent most of the evening quietly, the entire family with the exception of Cynthia, in the lounge, listening to young Julian play his guitar. (Timothy was taking lessons from him, when he had the time, and was showing quite a bit of promise.) I must confess that my attention had been somewhat divided all through the concert, as had almost everyone else's. The situation, it seemed, was escalating rapidly. Some time between dinner and the start of the concert, Judith had cleaned up and changed clothes, putting on a skirt and a blouse in place of her rough work tunic. That was unusual but not terribly alarming. What was alarming, was the fact that she sat there in the lounge all evening with Justin's arm around her--and her head resting on his shoulder. This was indeed getting serious.

And now, two hours or so later, sitting up in bed with the pillows bulked behind her, Elizabeth laid her book in her lap and gazed at me seriously over the top of her glasses. "Ever since you and I were married," she said, "you've been trying to sell Justin on the joys of matrimony, right?"

I stood then, dusting off my hands and my knees. The squat little alcohol-burning stove in the corner of our bedroom--the kids had them in their rooms too--was a product of Arthur's mechanical genius. It was capable of putting out a remarkable amount of heat--but only for a relatively short time. It was possible to turn the burner low, so the stove would run all night, producing just enough heat to take the edge off the chill. But it took some fiddling to set the valve just right, neither so low that the stove would go out, nor so high that it would run out of fuel or pressure before morning.

"That's true," I agreed. I shucked my bathrobe then, leaving it lying across the blanket chest, and I hurriedly climbed into bed. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "And with good reason."

She smiled. "Flatterer," she said. "What I want to know is, if you've been encouraging him to get married all this time, why are you so worried now? It seems to me he's just trying to accomplish what you suggested."

I turned over on my side, facing her. "That's not the point," I said. "Ordinarily I'd be happy for him. But...well, you know Justin almost as well as I do. He has a tendency to throw himself into things headlong, without thinking about consequences."

"Not at all like anyone else we know," she said teasingly.

"I was lucky," I told her. "But I'm afraid he might not be. If Eileen is right--if Judith is just playing with him--then he could be terribly hurt. Because he--obviously--is serious about this."

"And if she's not playing with him?" Elizabeth said challengingly.


"Meaning that I don't think either you or Eileen understand Judith half as well as you think you do."

"But you do?"

"Maybe I do at that," she said calmly. "Maybe Judith and I understand each other. We had a lot in common when we met, four months ago. Our situations weren't that different. We just handled them differently."

I hesitated for a moment. "I'll have to think about that one," I said.

"I hope you do," she replied with a grin. "And in the meantime, my darling, Justin's love life is none of our business. As Eileen said, he's a big boy now. Agreed?"

I sighed. "Agreed," I said. I kissed her on the nose.


It was getting late by then, and we turned in for the night. Elizabeth marked her book and laid it on top of a tall stack of others, waiting to be read, there on the corner of her nightstand. She set aside her glasses and blew out the lamp; and then, in the darkness, she settled warmly and comfortably into the welcoming circle of my arms. At times like those I honestly believed that there could not be a luckier mouse in the world than me--or one less deserving of his good fortune.

Luckiest mouse in the world
Art by LordDirk

Chapter 2

I had a remarkably eventful day, all things considered; and I didn't even begin the job Justin had assigned me.

The citizens of Thorn Valley awoke that morning to rain. And not one of the soft summer showers that made our farmers happy, either; but rather a full-blown and violent storm, complete with a lashing, almost gale-force wind, driving before it a cold, drenching downpour.

I heard the storm long before I saw it. I woke a little after dawn (or what should have been dawn; the room was still all but pitch-dark) with Elizabeth cuddled up close against me, and with the fragments of a strange dream still hovering on the edge of my consciousness. It took me a moment to realize that the thin screaming sound I was hearing was real, not part of my dream; and that it was coming from outside, clearly audible through thick slabs of stone and glass. Carefully I extricated myself from the tangle of my wife's grasp, rose, and padded over to the window, noting as I did that the room was uncomfortably cold, though the stove was still burning. I parted the curtains a little and peered out.

The outside of the west-facing window was covered with drops of water, and more appeared even as I watched. Outside the sky was just beginning to lighten, a dim, wan grey radiance. Objects on the valley floor were black shapes, still darkly silhouetted, but there was just enough light for me to see that the distant trees were lashing violently, some of the smaller ones bent nearly double. The window was literally vibrating in its frame with the force of the wind, and the raindrops pelted the glass in sharp bursts like machine-gun fire.

For a moment I stood staring in amazement. Then I became aware that Elizabeth was standing beside me, and that she was draping my bathrobe over my shoulders. As I slipped my arms through the sleeves and knotted the sash, I leaned over to kiss her. "Just look at that, will you?" I said, indicating the window with a nod.

She had donned her own robe, made of red, flower-printed silk; and she huddled in it, her arms drawn tight around herself. "I'd heard that the weather could get nasty up here," she said. She waved a hand. "No one is going out in this today, that's for certain."

I nodded. "They'd be crazy if they did," I agreed. Whatever was left on the farm, the few tired vegetables that hadn't been gleaned, would be a write-off now: the rain would pound them to pulp. Ralph and his people still had work to do, getting the farm bedded down for winter; but they wouldn't be doing it today. It looked to me as if a rat would be hard-pressed just to stand upright in that wind.

"How did he know?" I wondered out loud. "How on earth did he know?"

"How did who know what?" Elizabeth asked, gazing at me in perplexity.

"Justin," I said. I pointed. "Yesterday afternoon he and I stood on that ridge, looking out over that farm, and he told me that we're in for an early and rough winter. How could he possibly have known?"

She shook her head. "Couldn't tell you," she said. "Though offhand I'd say that this is probably a coincidence." She smiled. "Unless--are you sure he left Nicodemus' viewing globe back at the old settlement?"

"I hope so," I said. "That thing always gave me the creeps."

"Me too," she agreed. She shivered. "Can we turn up the heat a little, dear? I'm freezing."

I had no intention of disobeying Justin, really I didn't; it's just that the distractions which beset me that day were so...well, distracting.

The first and least of those struck just as I left the dining hall after breakfast. My family and I always ate together--always--at our specially-built table near the windows; but after breakfast we had a tendency to scatter like fragments from a grenade, and this morning was no exception. Elizabeth was headed for her office; Cynthia for a half-day of school; Teresa for the library; and Timothy and Martin for the workshop, where they were working part-time until they took the exams which would certify them as adults. Life with the rats kept us all busy, that much was certain.

And as for me...My job as Justin's executive assistant was a logical, some might say unavoidable, extension of his "hands-on" leadership style. He spent a good part of each day out and about in the community, talking to people, solving little crises before they became big ones; laying on the charm a foot thick. But he'd found out long ago that he could only be one place at a time, and that's where I came in. My job was to be an extra pair of eyes and ears for our beloved leader; and I was even empowered to make some of the smaller decisions myself, without having to consult him. Spending each day moving around the community, talking to people I had known most of my life (and I could lay on the charm too)...that was just about as close to a dream job as I could imagine. It certainly beat being a spy. Usually I never knew where my day's work would take me...but today I did; or I should say, I knew where it was supposed to take me: the huge third-level storerooms. But unfortunately I was not fated to get there anytime soon.

My first interruption, as I said, occurred just outside the dining hall, and came in the form of a very large and very muddy rat: Arthur. The Chief Engineer had a shovel over his shoulder and a deep, depressed frown on his face; and he was plastered head to toe with thick black mud, still glistening wet. He appeared not to notice me as I fell into step beside him; not until I cleared my throat. "You haven't been outside, have you?" I asked.

Startled, he jumped slightly. "What?" Then he looked down and smiled tiredly. "Oh--hello, Jonathan." He shook his head firmly. "Out in that? You've got to be kidding. No, this came from inside: up on the fourth level."

"More seepage?" I guessed.

"More seepage," he confirmed sadly. "It's starting to become the bane of my existence." He sighed. "The good news is, after a storm like this, I ought to have all the seeps located."

"Then what?"

"Well, obviously the water is coming down through cracks in the rock. It would be worse than useless to plug the leaks down here, in the corridors. If I do that, then the cracks will just fill up with water, and in a few weeks when the temperature drops below freezing, the expanding ice will make them worse. 'Frost wedging', geologists call it. We could even lose walls that way. No, what I'll have to do--as soon as this storm clears--is to send some crews up into the higher ridges and try to fill the crack up there. And try to improve the drainage up there too. Until then--" he sighed again. "All I can do is keep putting up sluices under the seeps as they appear. And endure the griping."

I grinned. "Good luck."

"Thanks," he said. "I'll need it." He shifted his shovel to his other shoulder then, and marched off toward the up-ramp.

Watching him go, I smiled and shook my head. With winter setting in, the workload on the farm would be gradually diminishing: very soon, until spring anyway, there would be less to do than there were people to do it. Those temporarily-unemployed farm-workers didn't know it yet, maybe, but they were about to become something very like what the British call "navvies." Well, we had to do something to keep them busy through the winter.

As I ascended the spiral up-ramp to the second level, my thoughts were filled with storms--and seepage. Mostly I was reflecting on how glad I was that all of us were indoors today. In my old life, living on the edge of the Fitzgibbons farm with Elizabeth and the kids, we would have had a devil of a time staying warm and dry on a day like this. And what was worse, at least one--and most likely all--of us would have had to go out into the weather, to gather food and fuel. Trying to find wood dry enough to burn, I remembered with a shudder. Coming home soaking wet, cold and hungry...and as often as not, empty-handed. Timothy sick, the other three scared and cranky... If Elizabeth and I had ever argued--and certainly, unfortunately, we had--it was during those times, when food was scarce and comfort even scarcer.

But at least then I'd had a home to return to. Even earlier in my life, before I met Elizabeth, during the rats' Wandering Days...a day like this would have been sheer misery. To be forced to hole up wherever there was any kind of shelter, not knowing how or if we could find food, fearing that at any minute we might be discovered wonder all of us had longed so deeply for a home. Any kind of home, so long as it was ours.

And now we have one, I thought. As safe and secure as it could possibly be. And what a difference it's made! Looking around at the rats who passed me in the hallways--and who greeted me affably as they did--I saw no trace of anxiety; to them this storm was just a novelty, a face of Thorn Valley that they hadn't seen before. Most of them--with the notable exception of the farmers--simply went on about their business, giving the weather scarcely a thought. Which is, in my humble opinion, anyway, exactly how it should be. And despite the difficulty it caused Arthur, I think a little seepage was a small price to pay for that kind of security.

The layout of our community was such that I had to pass through a short stretch of the second level's main corridor before reaching the up-ramp to the third. That short stretch took me right past the infirmary; and that's where the day's second interruption overtook me.

As I passed by, Mr. Ages was just beginning his day's work, blocking open the big double doors; he had a broom and a dustpan in his hands. As he saw me his face lit up with as near to a smile as anyone was likely to get from him. "Ah, Jonathan," he said, so expansively that I immediately became suspicious. "I was hoping you might happen by."

I stopped, and please forgive me if I confess that my eyes narrowed warily. In my job--I had long since discovered--when I was addressed with words of that sort, they were almost inevitably followed by a complaint of some kind, the intention being that I then pass it along to Justin. And if that was especially true of Ages, well... "What can I do for you?" I asked cautiously.

He gestured with his right hand, which happened to be the one holding the dustpan. "Come inside," he said. "It's well past time for your checkup."

I experienced an immediate sinking feeling. Mr. Ages was performing a valuable public service with those physical exams; his only thought, I know, being to do the job he had taken upon himself: that of keeping the community healthy. But why did it have to be me again, and why now? "I'm--uh--kind of busy right now," I told him.

He fixed me with a steely gaze over the rims of his thick glasses. "That," he said severely, "is one of the reasons why I worry about you, boy. Because you're always busy. Justin works you far too hard. And himself too. Come! This won't take but a few moments."

I hesitated; then I sighed and followed him inside. Resistance was futile, it seemed; he'd just keep pestering me until I agreed. Before I really knew what was happening I found myself sitting naked on an exam table, taking deep breaths and trying to remain patient as Ages poked the cold business end of a stethoscope into my chest and back. At least the room was warm, the big alcohol stove in the corner burning full-blast. Beyond the infirmary's big bank of windows the storm was still raging; it had, if anything, gained in intensity since dawn. Arthur's wood-gathering crews would find downed trees and branches in plenty when this was over.

My friend Mr. Ages--indeed, my oldest friend in the world, and the only one of my own species--was currently entering the fourth month of his "brief visit" to Thorn Valley. No one was so impolite as to bring up the subject, of course, but I don't know anyone who really believed that he would be leaving anytime soon. Nor, of course, anyone who really wanted him to.

He'd come flying, earlier that summer when word reached him that my mission had succeeded. (And I do mean that literally: he enlisted the help of Elizabeth's friend, the slightly demented crow, to bring him to the valley, leaving the messengers sent to fetch him to straggle home as best they could.) He had arrived with the intention of taking the NIMH materials back with him to the Fitzgibbons farm for study; but he very soon discovered that there was too much to easily transport, and that he'd be better off doing his work right there in the community. Which necessitated that some of his lab equipment and his personal effects be brought from the threshing machine, on the same wagons that were bringing my family's property. Then he decided that he would have to stay to supervise my wife's conversion; and that meant that the rest of his equipment had to be brought over. And then there were the little medical emergencies that plague any community: cuts, scrapes, burns, sprains, Teresa's fractured ankle...well, you get the picture. By this time the infirmary was his private precinct, he had reorganized it to suit his own ideas; and he had set himself up a lab, an office and living quarters adjoining it. And of course it would be far too much trouble now to dismantle all that equipment. His official response--if anyone actually asked--was that he might stay through the winter; just until he could train someone to take his place.

The truth--as he admitted to me and me alone, late one night over a cup of tea in his new lab--was that he had found solitude to be not quite what it was cracked up to be. Which is something I could have told him a long time ago, if he'd been disposed to listen.

For a very long time Ages had lived for the day when the rats would leave the Fitzgibbons farm and stop bothering him: stop calling him to Council meetings, or for advice; stop asking him to treat their medical emergencies or deliver their babies. Finally, of course, they had done exactly that; and Mr. Ages had soon found--as the old saying goes--that the silence was deafening. Worse was the fact that he suddenly had to gather his own food; previously he had been generously supplied by the rats. The last straw, though, was his broken leg, suffered while trying to do my old job. He recovered from it quickly enough, but it left him worrying: what would happen if he managed to injure himself badly? Before, one of the rats would have found him within a day; but with them gone...That, of course, was something that didn't bear thinking about. He had finally learned the truth behind the old adage about "safety in numbers." Whatever happened, he would certainly never leave Thorn Valley; and that ancient threshing machine, like the rats' old settlement, would be left to rust in peace.

"I really don't know why you're bothering," I grumbled, as Ages tapped my knee with a tiny rubber mallet. "I'm in perfect health."

That earned me another hard look. "I'll be the judge of that, if you don't mind," he said archly. "And if I'm being a trifle over-cautious, well, I've got good reason to be."

I sighed again, and subsided, as he peered down my throat, using light from a small oil lamp focused by a concave mirror. He did indeed have a point. When I arrived in Thorn Valley early that summer I was a wreck. Nine months of stress and depression had melted the weight off of me; my fur was patchy; I scarcely had enough stamina to walk from the main entrance down to the swimming hole; and I was having a hard time adjusting to being diurnal again. By the time Ages arrived, I'd had nearly a week of good food and restful recuperation; but still, the expression on his face when he first set eyes on me was one of shock and dismay. Since then he had been hauling me in for checkups as often as he could catch me. But that, as they say, was then; these days I felt better, physically and emotionally, than perhaps I ever had.

Ages was nothing if not thorough, and he absolutely refused to be rushed. He moved on to checking my ears and my eyes (thereby invading Julian's turf a bit); and then to pressing on my abdomen and feeling my joints; he even examined my fur, skin, teeth and nails. While he worked--while the minutes ticked by on the clock above the doors--we spoke; I was one of the very few people to whom he wouldn't give one-syllable replies. "I've been meaning to tell you this for months," I said, as I lay flat on my back with his fingers pressing into my stomach muscles. "Elizabeth says that you gave Timothy the idea of building himself up with exercise. It's done him a world of good, and I'm very grateful."

"You're quite welcome," he replied, a little distractedly. "Though I really can't take much credit. It was his own dedication that made all the difference. Trying to keep up with his friend Robert has helped too. And your presence in his life again, if I may say."

That last was a subject which I didn't much care to discuss, because it was my absence from his life, so it seemed, that had helped make Timothy sick in the first place. "He seems to be in perfect health now," I commented hopefully, and Ages nodded.

"Very nearly, yes. Better than we could have hoped for, in fact. I honestly don't believe we need worry about him any more, so long as he is diligent with his exercises and his nutrition. He will never be as big as his brother, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if he equals your height at least."

As Timothy already just about looked me in the eye, I had no doubt but that Ages was correct. Martin, however, towered over both his brother and me. "And what about Teresa's ankle?" I asked.

"Healing nicely," Ages said. "She should be out of a cast in three weeks or so. The rest will be a few weeks of physical therapy, to build back the strength and flexibility. I foresee no difficulties."

I winced, just a little. My older daughter usually had all the patience of a boiling teakettle; how she--and we--were going to get through another three weeks plus physical therapy, I had no idea.

Finally Ages was finished, and he stepped back as I sat up. "I must admit," he said grudgingly, "I don't believe you managed to do yourself any permanent harm. Your weight is back where it should be, your bones and joints appear sound, and I certainly can't fault your muscle tone, with all the running around you do. Are you still taking your St. John's Wort, my boy?"

I made a sour face. Not long after his arrival Ages had started me taking those wretched little tablets, made from the dried, ground and pressed leaves and flowers of a plant--not to say a "weed"--that grew profusely in Judith's herb garden. The problem was, the tablets had a very strong taste, not unlike sucking on a lavender blossom, though I must confess that I've never actually tried that. "Yes I am," I told him, and truthfully too. "Twice a day. But I don't really know why. I haven't been depressed a minute since I came to this valley."

"That's good," he said. He patted my knee. "But I'm sorry to say, my friend, that you do seem to be genetically predisposed to depression. I've known that for years. Those tablets are a safe and natural way of keeping it in check, and if they're working, you ought to be grateful."

For some reason, discussions about my mental health tend to make me uncomfortable. It could not be denied, though, that he was right: it was something I had battled off and on all my life. We were going to have to keep an eye on my children too, especially--though I hated to say it--Timothy. He and I shared too many other personality quirks for that not to be at least a possibility; and in fact he had already shown some signs of it, brought on by my departure. Like me, though, he had not been depressed at all since arriving in Thorn Valley. At least not that we knew of. I glanced away and nodded. "All right," I said. "I'll keep choking them down."

"Good boy," he said. He reached across to a nearby chair and handed me my clothing. "That's all for now," he said. "As you observed, you are indeed in perfect health. Fortunately for both of us."

I smiled. And a lot of other people too, I thought. Being depended upon isn't that bad a thing, really; not if you are actually able to make good on your promises.

As I dressed, pulling on my undershirt and sweater, and buttoning up my tunic, I glanced around at the infirmary. It's strange, isn't it, how any service, once offered, generates its own demand. For the first three months of the community's existence, give or take, this place had sat almost idle, because there had been nobody in the valley who really knew how to run it. Alice came closest; but even her medical knowledge was spotty at best, the result of a crash course with Ages some months before. But that had been all right; the rats had remained healthy, everybody was careful, and Justin held his breath, praying that there would be no serious accidents. But then Ages took over; and now, I knew, there was hardly a day that went by when his appointment book wasn't packed full. I don't think it was the case that people were more careless now, or that they got sick more often. No; I think his presence in the community made people less willing to doctor themselves. Where before they might have said, "Oh, I'll just bandage this myself," now they said "Hmm--better have Mr. Ages take a look at it." Which of course caused him to grumble no end--at least in public. Privately, I have no doubt, he was delighted to be needed.

He had remodeled the infirmary considerably since that terrible June day when I first saw it, when I entered to find both my wife and my best friend lying unconscious. His first innovation was to divide the cavernous room into "clinic" and "hospital" sections. As one entered, the hospital was to the right; there he had clustered six beds, three under the windows and three against the opposite wall, with a wide aisle between them. They could be isolated from the rest of the room, and from each other, by means of curtains that hung from tracks on the ceiling. Over to the left, where I sat now, was the clinic: here he had placed four examination tables, four large and one small; here too were the glass-fronted cabinets full of supplies. Farther to the left, in the room's southern wall, a door led into a maze of smaller rooms, where Ages had set up his lab and his office, as well as his living quarters. I had not been in the lab for some weeks, and so I didn't know if it had achieved the same breathtaking state of disorganization as his old one; but out here, in the infirmary itself, everything was absolutely spotless, in perfect order, and smelled faintly of disinfectant.

"Don't imagine that you were singled out, by the way," Ages said over his shoulder, as he washed his hands. "I'm trying, Lord willing, to give a thorough exam to everyone in the community before winter sets in. We're isolated up here, but by no means are we absolutely immune to viruses. If there is anything floating around, I'd like to catch it before we have an epidemic."

I hopped down off the table. "Everyone in the community," I commented. "That sounds like a tall order."

He sighed and reached for a towel. "It is," he admitted. "I do have my volunteer nurses, and they help me immeasurably with the cleaning and so on; but there is only so much they can do. Yes, it is indeed a very tall order." He gazed up at me then, and he actually smiled, just a little. "But perhaps not for very much longer, eh?"

I hesitated, frowning in confusion. From the tone in his voice it was clear that he thought he was sharing something with me; a private joke, perhaps, or some bit of information known only to the two of us. The problem was, though, whatever the joke or information was, I didn't know it. "Pardon me?" I said.

Suddenly his expression became one of alarm. "Oh, nothing," he said quickly. He turned away, and began to busy himself putting away his equipment. "Nothing at all." He glanced back over his shoulder. "That's all for today, Jonathan," he said briskly. "Thank you for taking the time. You can get back to work now."

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you very much." Still mystified, I made my way out into the corridor. I had known Mr. Ages longer than any other living person, that was true; but God knows I'd never yet learned to understand him.

The next interruption was even harder to ignore, because it came from my lady wife.

Somehow or other I had managed to become almost an hour late in starting my job. Which wasn't fatal, I suppose; but taking an inventory of our entire winter food stores was going to be a long and tedious undertaking. I'd hoped to have some figures for Justin by quitting time that afternoon; and if I was to make good on that, I was going to have to haul tail. Once again I headed for the up-ramp...

I had gone no more than ten paces when I heard the patter of rapid footsteps behind me, and then the voice calling my name: "Jonathan! Darling, please wait!"

Once again I came to a halt, and once again I sighed. Usually that voice was the most welcome sound in my universe; I could listen to it all day. But unfortunately this wasn't the time. I turned.

Elizabeth was dressed somewhat more autumnal that day, in a dark-brown skirt, a rust-colored turtleneck pullover, and a vest that matched the skirt. She had a large notebook in her hands, twin to my own; that and her reading glasses, which hung around her neck on a cord, gave her a faintly "schoolmarmish" look. (But you didn't hear that from me.) The lamplight glittered redly from the little ruby pendant she had recently taken to wearing, as a kind of stand-in for the Stone. She flashed a brief, bright smile as she drew up before me, panting a little; then she said quietly and seriously, "Jonathan--dear--I need your help."

Those few words were enough to grab my instant attention, because they--like "I don't understand"--were ones she almost never spoke any more. That meant that it had to be a problem of major proportions; and that meant it was unlikely to be solved with just a few words of sage wisdom. "What's wrong, darling?" I asked her. I don't think she noticed that my teeth were clenched.

"Soap," she said.


"Soap," she repeated sadly. "I've been trying for days to make the figures add up--what the factory says they can produce, versus what the department heads say they need. And I just can't make it balance. I know someone is going to have to get shorted--but I can't figure how who or how." She smiled. "I think I need some--what does Justin call it?--'lateral thinking.'"

"And I'm as lateral as they come."

"Exactly," she said. "I have the figures in my office. Would you please come take a look, dear? It shouldn't take more than a few minutes..."

I hesitated...but then I looked into those big blue eyes, and I was helpless. As usual. I sighed. "Okay," I said. "I will. But," I went on, shaking a warning finger, "you're going to owe me big for this one, I hope you realize."

She grinned as we turned and headed up the corridor. "And just how would you like that to be paid?" she asked. "As if I didn't know."

On the way to her office, a small space on the second level not too far from the infirmary, I thought about my wife, and the changes, mental and physical, which had occurred in her these last four months. Changes which, by and large, were for the good.

The NIMH treatments had found very fertile ground in Elizabeth Brisby. Her physical reaction to the first dose was violent--I still had terrible memories of watching her spike a frighteningly high fever, twisting and moaning in delirium for five straight hours, until the fever finally broke, leaving her exhausted and drenched with sweat. But once the first dose was given there was no turning back; and, as Ages had predicted, the second and subsequent doses were much easier. Today, a little more than three months after that first dose, she was the very picture of vigorous good health. In fact, though I'm hardly an unbiased observer, it seemed to me that those treatments had actually turned back time somewhat; or perhaps what I was seeing was the effects of our new lifestyle; something, at least, had erased many of the lines of anxiety and stress from her face. Emotionally she was still a little fragile--for a time after the treatments began she'd been given to abrupt and inexplicable fits of crying--but that was smoothing out too. And her fear that the treatments would somehow turn her into a different person had proved unfounded, as I knew it would. Our friend Hacker put it best when she said that what we had now was "Elizabeth Brisby Version 1.2." In all important details she was still the woman I married; but with improvements: she was calmer, less liable to panic, more self-sufficient; she was more thoughtful and quicker-witted too. Things that had once been all but beyond her, such as reading and math, were becoming increasingly easy. And what was best of all, these days she understood most of my jokes. I had never had any cause to question her intelligence--she had known quite a bit more than me, about survival in our old environment--but I could join with her, now, in celebrating her improvements; because I could so clearly see that they pleased her.

"Here we are," Elizabeth said, as she opened a narrow door and ushered me inside. "Sorry about the mess..."

Elizabeth's office was, as I mentioned, rather small; but it was more than adequate for her to do the job which she had almost literally created for herself. Formerly used for storage, the room was oddly-shaped, almost triangular, and up until very recently it had not even possessed a window. It was tucked in between two larger offices--one of them belonging to Julian, the optician--and existed only because the second-level ridge jutted out rather awkwardly at that point. Some weeks ago when Arthur--who had long since committed to memory every square inch of the community--learned that my wife was in need of an office, he immediately thought of that little forgotten space. Within a day the room was cleaned out, and was equipped with a large window, a stove, a carpet, a file cabinet or two, and a desk and chairs. And then, of course, Elizabeth added her own touches. Actually that odd little room didn't make a bad office; it was quite cozy, even.

Elizabeth's desk was on the outer wall, which was the widest; she had positioned it just as I would have, right under the window. As we entered, almost the only light came from the desk lamp; outside, the morning (mid-morning now, by no means early any longer) was still murky, the sky all but black with scudding clouds. The lamp illuminated the "mess" to which she had referred: which is to say a number of neat piles of paper spread out over the desk. Perched on the far right corner was a thick book: a transcription of Webster's Dictionary. She liked to have it handy. On our left, on top of the file cabinets, a copper kettle contained an arrangement of dried flowers. And hanging on the right wall was one of her most highly-prized possessions: a family portrait. A pencil sketch on white paper, it depicted all six of us, head and shoulders. Every time I looked at it I shook my head in amazement, to see how the artist had captured us with such stunning accuracy. The artist in question was our son Timothy; and yes, he had drawn himself too, glasses and all. He had aspirations to be a draftsman and architect in Arthur's shop; and if he was capable of work like that portrait, without ever having had a single formal lesson, I had no doubt whatsoever that he would succeed. He certainly knew how to handle a pencil.

Elizabeth closed the door behind us and sat down at her desk. I pulled over the room's only other chair and settled down next to her. I was very aware of what this was costing her, to have to ask for anyone's help, even mine; and so I kept my tone serious and matter-of-fact as I said, "All right, let's have a look at those figures."

I rather suspected that my caution wouldn't be lost on her; very little was these days. And in fact I was right. She smiled briefly, then she slipped on her glasses and reached for a stack of papers. "It's these here," she said. "All the department heads tell me they can't possibly get along with less than their full allotments..."

I eyed the thickness of that sheaf, and inwardly I sighed. Goodbye, morning, I thought. "That's what they'll always tell you," I said. "And the factory will always underestimate what they can produce, by at least twenty percent."

She looked at me curiously over the top of her glasses. "Why?" she asked.

"I have no idea," I said. "But it's the way the game is played. Even in a so-called 'cooperative' economy. The trick is knowing how to translate their figures into reality."

"That's terrible!"

"Maybe so," I said with a grin. "But it's also the way it works."

She sighed and shook her head. Then she handed the papers to me. "All right," she said. "Show me the trick."

In many ways it could be said that this soap issue typified Elizabeth's new job, and the responsibilities that came with it. She took those responsibilities very seriously, and she genuinely wanted to do the best possible job, which in fact she had been doing, very earnestly; but it was past time now for her to learn the tricks of the expert schmoozer. A subject on which--at the risk of being immodest--I was an acknowledged expert.

But anyway, this soap business. Up on the community's third level there was a small factory employing half a dozen rats. Their only job was to make soap, by boiling together wood ashes, vegetable oil and lye. That soap--in slightly different formulations--was used to clean our dishes, our floors, our laundry, and ourselves. But the resources to make it with, raw materials, energy and labor, were necessarily limited; and how much of each formulation should be made? Nobody seemed to know for certain; and as a result, there might be a shortage of bath bars, while the floor cleaners were almost literally swimming in the harsher stuff that they used.

Of course that's only one example. A great many of our departments were interconnected, the products of one being used as the raw materials of another one, or even two or three. There were plenty of areas where supply could meet demand more efficiently. It was something which no one had noticed...until Elizabeth did. My wife had been uniquely situated to do so, because during her first few months in the community, she had worked for most of the internal departments. She had cooked and cleaned and sewed, sometimes all on the same day, bouncing from job to job with an uncanny knack for knowing just where she was needed. In that way she had noticed inefficiency when no one else had. She reported these facts to me, eventually; and then, at my suggestion, the both of us took the matter to Justin. And Justin, absolutely typically for him, simply looked at her, smiled, and said, "Okay. Do something about it."

The results were several: every supply requisition for the community's "internal" departments now crossed her desk for approval; she'd had to improve her reading and math skills right quick; and she occasionally cursed the day she brought the problem to Justin's attention.

As for me, I was far happier seeing her doing this than cooking or sweeping floors, though I wouldn't have wanted to tell her that in exactly those words. Justin had worked very hard to foster a belief that all kinds of work had equal importance and dignity, and for the most part I agreed with him; but she deserved better. I believed that this job had done wonders for her self-confidence and self-reliance. And I very strongly doubt that there was anyone better suited for it: there was nobody, I mean nobody, in Thorn Valley who would not listen to Elizabeth Brisby.

But everyone needs a little help sometimes, I suppose; which is why I accepted the big sheaf of papers from her, and spread them out over my lap. "Okay," I said, as she drew up closer beside me. "Let's see who really needs what."

What else was there to say? I could refuse nothing to the owner of those big blue eyes.

Well, my morning was shot; and now, it seemed, people were determined to do in my afternoon as well.

After Elizabeth and I had finished taking a look at her soap problem--and a few others of similar complexity--I glanced up at her wall clock, and was amazed to see that the hands stood at ten minutes to twelve. I mean, the hours usually flew by when I was with her; but this seemed just a little ridiculous. I can only blame the day itself: the unchanging, cloud-induced twilight outside gave us no clue as to the passage of time. And that left us with just two choices: to go have lunch, or to do without.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I came sailing in and solved all of Elizabeth's problems with one sweep of my magnificent wisdom, because that certainly isn't true. As I said, all she needed was to learn a few tricks of the trade. And how not to be quite so credulous. Once she realized that the figures given to her by the department heads, the "bare minimums" below which they couldn't possibly survive, were considerably inflated, it was easy enough for her to see that she could safely cut them all down. And it was safe as well to tell the factory that they would raise their production. That much worked out, the only problem remaining was for her to get up the chutzpah to do it. And in that, I fear, she would have to help herself. Oh, the department heads would scream of course, and tear out their fur; but in the end they would live with their reduced allotments. And in the future they would realize that she knew how to play the game too.

But at any rate, for me to do without lunch was not even an option; and so we went down to the dining hall together, hand in hand, for a bowl of soup, a mug of tea, and endless slices of fresh warm bread. I kept a wary eye out for Justin; but fortunately he didn't put in an appearance. That was often the case, and it drove Mr. Ages crazy: our fearless leader didn't take nutrition as seriously as I did, and rarely took time for lunch.

After lunch Elizabeth and I went our separate ways, she back to her office to harden her heart, and me to once again attempt to reach the third level. Of course I failed; probably there would have been something about it in my horoscope, if there had been a newspaper within fifty miles in which to read it.

There were three of them this time, ganged together in an all-out effort to keep me from doing my job. Females all, they were walking close together as they rounded a corner, and as a consequence I nearly ran headlong into them. I should have turned and run.

One of the three was Eileen; her state of advanced pregnancy was becoming more and more apparent every day, it seemed. Her companions were Alice--who, after ten children, had sworn never to get pregnant again--and someone very much younger than either of them: Marie, a small, slim rat with light grey fur; she worked for Alice, and was in fact my younger daughter's schoolteacher. Marie was not yet married; but I knew for a fact that she was seriously dating my old traveling companion Mark.

It was Hacker who noticed me first, and she flashed a brilliant smile. "Jonathan!" she said. "You're just the person we want to see."

"Of course I am," I told her. "I'm just the person everybody wants to see today."

They all three looked at me quizzically, and I shook my head. "Never mind," I said. "What can I do for you, ladies?"

Alice cleared her throat. "If you have a few minutes, Jonathan..."

I started to shake my head. "Actually--" I began, but she interrupted me.

"--We'd like to have a word with you about your children."

I was instantly alert. "Trouble?" I asked.

Alice shook her head. "Not at all," she said. "Or--well, not really. In the case of the older three, there are some things we'd like to discuss with you about their exams. Areas where we should make sure they're prepared."

"But in Cynthia's case," Marie put in quietly, "we do have a...concern."

I looked up at her sharply. Cynthia had not joined Elizabeth and me for lunch, though the other three had. That wasn't terribly unusual, though: even on her half-days, Cynthia usually took lunch with her friends in the school's own cafeteria. She'd seemed all right at breakfast, but unfortunately that was a relative thing: these days she was always a little distracted, and more than a little tired. "What kind of concern?" I asked.

Marie opened her mouth to reply, but Alice interrupted her. "Let's go to my office, shall we?" she suggested. "This might take a few minutes."

Inwardly I groaned. Famous last words, I thought; but nonetheless I fell into step with them. When something involved my children, everything--and everyone--else could wait.

Cynthia was studying--as expected--when I knocked on her bedroom door later that afternoon. Actually she hadn't been too hard to find. There were only two places she could be, and since she wasn't in the library, well...

I should explain briefly here that in Thorn Valley our children went to school five and a half days a week, all through the year. And lest to human ears that sounds a bit harsh, please consider that our teachers had a very short time to stuff knowledge into young heads, before those heads, and the bodies attached, were no longer young. The children of the Rats of NIMH were able to absorb knowledge at a truly phenomenal rate; and my children were right up there with the best of them. But even that, unfortunately, isn't always enough, as poor Cynthia had discovered.

My younger daughter was no longer a little girl, not by any means; in fact she would be an adult, by the standards of our adopted home, just before the first of the year. Almost overnight, so it seemed, the slightly chubby toddler I remembered had become a young woman, and one who was--in my extremely biased opinion--quite attractive. In a very different way, though, than her big sister. Cynthia was destined to be shorter than her siblings, it appeared, and her outline was still somewhat more rounded than Teresa's. Her fur had remained light beige, defying my prediction that it would darken as she grew older; exactly what combination of genes had produced that, I had no idea. Her eyes, though, were an exact match for mine: dark brown, and soulful. She was also many, many times more intelligent than most of us had been willing to give her credit for--even me, to my everlasting shame. Only Timothy had seen the truth there.

The room was all but dark when I opened the door and peered in, the only light coming from a lamp hanging over the desk in the far right corner. The window-curtains were closed, but even if they had been open, they would not have admitted much light: the sky over Thorn Valley was still crowded with thick black clouds, though the wind had died down somewhat. Cynthia was sitting at the desk, bent over a large book; as I peeked in she glanced up and smiled. "Hi, Dad," she said. "Come in. What's up?"

As I entered and closed the door behind me, I looked around quickly; but we were alone. "Where's your sister?" I asked.

She made a sour face. "I don't know," she said. "Off with her friends, I think."

I crossed the room and sat down close to her, perching myself on the blanket chest at the foot of Teresa's bed. "You don't sound as if you miss her," I observed with a smile.

She shook her head. "I don't, much," she admitted. "Ever since she broke her leg she's been a real pill." She looked up at me. "I mean, I thought she was bossy before..."

Inwardly I sighed. As much as it pained me, these little conflicts were unfortunately somewhat inevitable. The three-bedroom apartment we occupied was the best the community had to offer; in fact we had more space, relative to our size, than anyone else in Thorn Valley. It was unavoidable that the girls should share one room while the boys shared the other. Any other grouping would have caused problems of another sort. But it was an unfortunate fact that while Timothy and Martin usually got along pretty well, Teresa and Cynthia didn't. It wasn't as if they hated each other, or anything so drastic as that; but Teresa, the oldest, was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she didn't need to be Cynthia's baby-sitter any more. And then there were her upcoming exams, another rich source of stress. But yes, Teresa had been undeniably grouchier since she fractured her ankle.

"Would you like me to talk to her about it, sweetie?" I asked.

Cynthia's eyes widened in horror. "No!" she said sharply; then she swallowed. "I mean, no, thank you, Dad. I think it's something we have to work out ourselves."

I smiled. That was just about what I had expected to hear. At any rate I didn't imagine their problems would last very much longer. As soon as they were both adults, both settled into their careers--whatever those might end up being--they would learn to appreciate each other more. I hoped. "Fair enough," I said. I paused. "Actually I wasn't looking for Teresa," I went on. "The person I really want to talk to is you."

She gazed at me warily. "Oh?" she said. "What about?"

"Well," I said, "I happened to be talking earlier with Alice, Eileen and Marie, and your name came up..."

Her spine stiffened, all the way down to the tip of her tail. "What have I done now?" she asked.

Her tone was so aggrieved, I couldn't suppress a grin. "Nothing," I assured her. "They're all very happy with your progress. Amazed, I might even say. They have no doubt that you'll be able to graduate with your friends."

She frowned. "So what's the problem?"

"No problem," I said. "It's just...well, sweetie, they're all a little concerned about you, and I have to agree with them. They're worried that you might be working a little too hard. You've got friends too, just like Teresa; but it seems that you don't spend any time with them. Any more it seems that all you do is study."

I paused, but she didn't reply, and I went on: "We're all very proud of what you've accomplished, Cynthia. And we do understand the reasons for your dedication. But you deserve a social life too, sweetie. You deserve some time away from your books. You didn't even come to the concert with us last night, and you used to love hearing Julian play."

For a moment she sat still, staring down at her toes; then she sighed and laid her book face down on the desk. She turned her chair around to face me. "Papa," she said, "I understand what you're saying, and I appreciate your concern. Really I do. But...I can't slow down now. I've told all my friends; they understand. They know what I have to do."

I gazed at her curiously, seeing the earnestness in her eyes, and the way her whiskers stuck out, bristling in determination. Finally I said, "I'm not sure if I know what you mean, sweetie. If you mean that you have something to prove...I can tell you that you don't. Not to your mother or me, and not to Teresa or your brothers either."

"I know," she said smiling. "Timothy has told me the same thing. But I do have something to prove to myself. And--to somebody else too."

"Somebody else?" I echoed. "Who?"

By way of an answer she showed me the cover of the book she'd been studying: Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy. That in itself didn't surprise me much; I knew how interested she was in the natural sciences. Her grades proved that. "I don't understand," I said.

"It was lent to me," she said softly, almost reluctantly, "by Mr. Ages."

For a moment I sat perplexed. Then I felt my eyes widen. The memory of my conversation with Ages that very morning, and especially its strange conclusion, came back to me, and suddenly, finally, I began to understand.

"You know how he's been saying since he got here that he wants to train someone to take his place," Cynthia went on. She smiled impishly. "Not that he's ever going to leave. But he does need an assistant--everybody knows that--and I've decided that I want it to be me."

She spoke those last few words almost challengingly, gazing straight into my eyes as if daring me to object. I reached over and grasped her hands. "Cynthia," I said seriously, "I can't think of anything that would make your mother and me prouder of you."

Her answering smile was huge and filled with relief. "Thank you, Papa," she said. "That's what I hoped you'd say."

"You're very welcome." I hesitated for a moment, then I went on, "If I may be so bold as to ask, how did you come to this decision?"

She shrugged. "It wasn't very hard," she said. "A couple weeks ago Marie gave my class a kind of aptitude test--to help us decide what we want to do, and what we're most fit for. My scores came up highest on science--just like my grades--and on public service, which kind of surprised me. I started thinking about how I could combine those two...and that's what I came up with."

"I take it Mr. Ages knows about your ambition?"

She nodded. "Yes, he does," she said. "I talked to him about it a week ago." She paused. "We had quite a long discussion, actually. He took me seriously too, which surprised me a little. He...didn't actually promise anything. He agreed that he does need an assistant--that's the word he used, not 'replacement'--but he said he hadn't really thought about who it should be. But he wasn't discouraging either. He told me to come back after I've graduated, and that we'll talk seriously then. He also swore he wouldn't choose anybody before then." She pointed to the desk. "And he lent me these books. That one, and one on medicinal herbs, and one on organic chemistry." She spread out her hands. "So you see what I have to do, Dad. I have to show him the best school record I possibly can--the highest grades, and the best exam scores I can manage. I have to prove to him that I'm really serious, and not the scatterbrain I used to be."

"That," I assured her, "you most certainly are not." I paused. I didn't want to say so--I didn't want to jinx her--but judging from what Ages had said to me earlier, I had a feeling his mind was already made up. "Does anyone else know about this?"

"Only a very few," Cynthia said. "Mr. Ages, of course, and Timothy, and my friend Rachel...and now you." Once again she flashed an impish grin. "And pretty soon Mom, I suspect. And then everybody."

I smiled in return. Only too true, I thought; but of course I'd never say so. Then I sobered. "But sweetie," I said, "Why didn't you tell us sooner? Or at least your teacher?"

She shook her head. "I...couldn't," she said. "I really didn't want to keep secrets...but this is something I want to accomplish on my own. Except that I needed Timothy's help with math, and I didn't want Rachel to think I was deliberately ignoring her."

I peered at her for a moment; then slowly I nodded. I understood her dilemma, at least in part. Mr. Ages was my oldest friend, as I said; he'd been so since we had adjoining cages at NIMH. If I had known what Cynthia was planning, I might have been tempted to "lean" on him, to use our friendship as a lever to persuade him to accept her. Or even to dissuade him, should I not approve of her ambition for some strange reason. And in fact (though I hardly want to admit it) she might be right: I might not have been able to resist the temptation to put in a good word. Or ten. Clearly that's what he'd expected that morning; it had utterly surprised him that I had no idea what he was talking about. And even more clearly, that was not what Cynthia wanted. If Ages decided to employ her, she wanted it to be because of her own talent and ability. Of course there would be a few people in the community who would still suspect nepotism; that was unavoidable. But at least she would know the truth.

And so, once again, I clasped her hands. "Cynthia," I said, "you know--at least I hope you know--that your mother and I will be proud of you no matter what career you choose to pursue, as long as it is your choice, and as long as you give it everything you've got. The same goes for your brothers and sister, of course. These last few months you've proven to everyone that you can accomplish what you put your mind to. And if this is what you want, sweetie, you have our full and absolute support. But," I went on, before she could interrupt, "I promise you I won't do anything unless you ask me to. If you need help of any kind, it's available; but I won't try to force it on you."

Once again her smile was filled with relief, and she threw her arms around my neck. "Thank you, Papa," she said. "I won't let you down."

I kissed her on the cheek. "I know you won't," I told her. She would have to begin very much at the bottom, I knew, if Ages did decide to employ her: she would get more than her fill, at first, of mopping floors, rolling bandages, washing test tubes and grinding herbs. But at the same time she would be learning from one of the best; and given time, who knew how far she could go? Did I dare even think the words Doctor Cynthia Brisby? "My daughter, the doctor." That did have a ring to it...

A moment later I disengaged her arms from around me, and set her back in her chair. "There is one thing we need to discuss," I told her. "Now, don't think I'm trying to dissuade you, because I'm most certainly not. It's just..." I trailed off.

"Yes?" she prompted.

"'s Ages himself," I said. "I'm sorry to have to say it, but he might not be the most pleasant person in the world to work for. He's certainly not cruel--actually he's a much kinder person than even he realizes. But the fact is, sweetie, when things aren't going quite right he has a way of taking it out on the first person he sees." I grinned ruefully. "A long time ago that used to be me. That's one of the reasons I married your mother, in fact. And if you go to work for him, I very much fear it will occasionally be you. He always apologizes, eventually, but while the yelling is going on, that fact is not very comforting."

She smiled wryly. "I know," she said. "We've already discussed it. He said--if he decides to take me on--that when he yells at me, I'm supposed to yell back. Unless, of course, it really is my fault." Her grin widened. "He says that's what you used to do."

"He's right, I did," I agreed. Privately, though, I had my doubts. Was my little girl tough enough to stand up to him, or would she come home from her first day in tears, vowing never to go back? These last few months she had surprised us all many times, though, with her new-found tenacity; maybe she would develop a thick enough skin. I certainly hoped so, anyway. He'll treat her well, I decided firmly. He'd better, or he'll have me to answer to!

Finally I shook myself. "Well," I said, "now I understand your motivations a little better, at least, and of course I wish you the very best of luck. But I'm afraid that it still doesn't change my mind."

She frowned. "What about?"

"About what I came here to discuss in the first place," I told her. "Your social life." I held up my hand to forestall her protests. "Now, please, Cynthia, just listen to me, all right? I understand perfectly well what you're trying to accomplish, and I certainly agree that Mr. Ages will look more favorably on you, the better prepared you are. But even so, you still deserve a life outside of your books." I paused. "No--not just deserve. You need it. For the sake of your health, mental and physical. If we had Ages here right now, I know he'd say the same thing."

She glanced away and opened her mouth to reply; but what she might have said I don't know, because at that moment she was interrupted, as the door banged open and Teresa entered, her crutches thumping on the tile floor.

My older daughter had a book-bag slung over her shoulders, apparently heavily-laden and threatening to overbalance her; and a scowl disfigured her otherwise lovely features. "Why is it so dark in here?" she muttered to herself. Then she saw me, and her expression suddenly changed. "Oh--hello, Father. How--uh--how are you?"

I smiled. "I'm fine," I said. I stood. "And I'm just leaving. Think about what I said, please, Cynthia."

"I will, Dad," she promised.

Balancing on one crutch, Teresa managed to lever the pack off her back, and she let it fall heavily onto her bed. She scowled at Cynthia. "I'm going to need the desk," she announced.

Cynthia glanced at me, rolling her eyes; I winked in return. Then she appeared to reach a decision. She closed her book firmly and shelved it, then she stood, smoothing down her skirt. "It's all yours," she told her sister. She glanced at me again. "I'm going to the gym."

I was in a remarkably good mood as I made my way down the corridor late that afternoon--but unfortunately it didn't last.

Though various interruptions had consumed most of the day, I did still have a little more than two hours left before dinner, and during that time I could at least begin the job I was supposed to have started that morning. And this time I was absolutely determined: nothing would stop me, not friends, nor wife, nor daughters. Jonathan Brisby, the inventory machine: that was me.

Except that it still wasn't meant to be. I was just outside Justin's quarters, heading once again for the up-ramp, when I almost ran headlong into the Leader himself, striding down the hallway with a clipboard in his hands and a faintly harassed look on his face. "Oh--Jonathan," he said. "Good. I was just about to look for you. Do you have those figures for me?"

"Er--no," I said. "Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to begin the inventory yet. I'm sorry, but things kept cropping up all day--"

I broke off then, because a most extraordinary thing was happening. Justin stood stock-still, gazing down at me with suddenly-blazing eyes. His hands clutched the clipboard so hard I thought it would break in two. I watched a crimson flush creep into his ears and the tip of his nose; and I realized to my amazement that I was seeing something that very few others had: Justin angry. And I don't mean "a little annoyed," either; I mean "enraged." I actually took a step backwards, so hot was his glare.

"Jonathan," he said, his tone tight and clipped, "four months ago you agreed to become my executive assistant. Meaning my employee. Is that right?"

"Yes it is," I said. "And I've always tried to--"

He interrupted me sharply. "I am talking, Jonathan. When I give you a job, I expect it to be done. And I expect it to be done immediately, not when you think it's convenient."

By then it was my turn to begin getting mad. "If you'll just listen to me for a minute, boss," I began, but he shook his head, cutting me off again.

"I don't want to hear it, Jonathan. From now on when I give you an order it will be obeyed. Is that clear? If you think you're going to have any trouble with that, just let me know. I imagine I can find someone else to do your job. Maybe somebody with less of a problem with his attention span."

And with that he swept past me and into his office, slamming the door and leaving me standing there gaping like the Catch of the Day.

Chapter 3

"Justin said that to you?" Elizabeth asked in amazement.

I nodded soberly. "Every word," I assured her.

The two of us sat close together on the smaller sofa in our living room, an hour or so after dinner. We were quite alone in the apartment for once: Timothy was off at his guitar lesson, Martin was in the gym, and both Teresa and Cynthia (I was glad to see) were off with their friends. The room was all but dark, the only light coming from the cheerfully-burning fireplace. For a little while we had sat silent, staring into the flames, "dreaming the fire" (to use a phrase I once heard), our arms around each other and Elizabeth's head resting comfortably on my shoulder. But my wife knew my moods too well; and when she finally asked what was bothering me, I'd had little choice but to tell her. Even more than four hours later, the incident still troubled me deeply.

Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't believe it," she said flatly.

I looked quickly over at her, and she made a face. "You know what I mean," she said. "Of course I know you're telling me the truth. I suppose what I should say is, I don't understand it. Has he ever said anything like that to you before?"

I shook my head firmly. "No, never," I said. "We've been friends since the day we escaped from NIMH, and he caught me when the ventilation fans were about to suck me in. I suppose we must have had a few harsh words since then, but none that I really remember."

"So why this now?"

"That's exactly what's been driving me crazy for hours," I said. "I mean, leaving aside for the moment the fact that I truly was in the wrong..."

She glanced at me quizzically, and I shrugged, making her head bounce up and down. "I was," I said simply. "He is my boss, and he did give me a job to do. I should have been doing it instead of running around pursuing my own agenda."

She smiled thinly. "From what I understand," she said, "you didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. And a large part of that is my fault, I know."

"No," I told her, as I leaned over to kiss her on the nose. "Not at all. I've just got to learn how to say 'no,' even to those big blue eyes."

"But," Elizabeth said, "even if you were in the wrong to some extent, it's hard to understand why Justin would get that angry about it. I mean, always before he's given you a lot of latitude to choose how you do your job. And he is supposed to be your best friend."

"Maybe that's the problem," I said sadly. "Maybe I shouldn't have tried to be his assistant in the first place. He and I are a lot alike--maybe too much so for this boss-employee relationship to work."

Elizabeth stared into the fire for a moment. Then she said, "I hate to say this, darling, but you might be right." She looked at me and smiled. "As a matter of fact you don't take orders very well."

This time it was my turn to look away. In that she was absolutely correct: for better or worse, I always had been far too independent. It had always been my boast that the rats didn't control me. I could--and did--move out of their old community when I felt that they were taking me for granted; and in doing so I darn well proved that I could make my own way in the world. I always figured that they needed me more than I needed them. But now...well, I'd known what I was doing; with both eyes open and a full understanding of the consequences, I'd agreed to become a part of this new community. And it was a place where there was--could only be--one leader. I'd traded in a good part of my independence, true; but at the time it had seemed like a fair exchange.

"But," Elizabeth said, "he didn't even give you a chance to explain what had happened, and that's not like Justin at all."

"You're right, it isn't," I agreed readily. "He wouldn't let me get a word in."

"So--what did you do afterwards?"

I shrugged. "I went up to the third level and tried to start that job." I grinned faintly. "No one interrupted me this time. But I'm afraid I didn't get much counting done. My heart wasn't in it at all."

"I'm not surprised," Elizabeth said. She stroked her whiskers thoughtfully. "And Justin didn't show up for dinner."

"So that's what's wrong with him?" I asked with a grin. "Poor nutrition?"

She smiled in return. "Not exactly," she said. "But it is part of the problem. Justin works far too hard. Having you for an assistant was supposed to help cut his workload--but it hasn't. He works through lunch and late into the night; I don't even want to guess how much distance he covers in a day. A mile or more, maybe. If you ask me, dear, what's wrong with him is mostly stress, and it's of his own making."

I nodded slowly, looking into the glowing embers. "He told me once, not too long ago," I said, "that he sometimes feels as if Nicodemus is looking over his shoulder, judging him and his leadership."

"Exactly," Elizabeth said. "And that has given him a tendency to...oh, what's the word I'm looking for?"

"Micromanage?" I supplied.

"That's it," she said. "Micromanage." She pronounced the word carefully, and I could almost see it being filed away in her rapidly-expanding vocabulary. "I don't think he needs to--I think this community would run just fine if he backed off a little. But he feels responsible for what happened to Nicodemus, and more than anything else, that's what is driving him."

Again I nodded. I didn't want to say so--I didn't want to embarrass her--but as a matter of fact I was astounded to hear that depth of analysis from her. Truly, she was changing. "And if I'm not mistaken," I said wryly, "that's why you were glad to see him take up with Judith."

"Among other reasons, yes," she said flatly. She didn't need to elaborate on that. We both knew perfectly well how Justin felt about my wife: he had been in love with her since the moment he set eyes on her, close to eight months ago now. He hadn't tried to keep that a secret; in fact he freely admitted it to me, just as Elizabeth had admitted that, in the days before my return, she had begun to reciprocate those feelings. I certainly could not blame either of them. Justin had neither pursued nor encouraged her; while she, thinking me dead, had known no reason why she shouldn't turn her affections elsewhere.

"Seeing the two of them together," Elizabeth said quietly, "made me hope that he'd finally given up on the impossible. And of course he's been procrastinating far too long. I know he's still young, physically, but by the calendar he's been alone for a very long time."

I drew her a little closer. "I agree with you there," I said. "And yes, I've been trying to tell him that for years. But always before he just laughed it off."

"Jonathan," she said thoughtfully, "was Judith at dinner tonight?"

"Hmmm?" I thought about that for a moment. "Yes, she was," I decided. "I seem to remember that she was sitting with Eileen and Philip. Why do you ask?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "But I wonder if perhaps something happened between her and Justin, and that's why he lashed out at you."

I glanced sidelong at her. "Meaning that you agree with Hacker now?"

She shook her head. "Not at all," she said. "If--if--there was a problem between them, it wasn't necessarily caused by her. It might just as easily have been caused by him."

I gazed at her curiously. "You really believe that there's a heart under that flinty exterior of hers, don't you?" I asked.

"I really do," she replied. She paused, and then she went on, "Because I've seen it. I keep telling you, she's been perfectly friendly to me since I met her. For two reasons: because I wasn't a threat to her, and because she saw that we were kindred spirits."

"Let's take those one at a time," I said. "What do you mean, you weren't a threat to her? Who is?"

"No one, really," Elizabeth said. "But in her mind, almost everyone. Judith's problem isn't arrogance, darling. It's a lack of self-confidence. The arrogance is a mask. It's a kind of pre-emptive challenge to the world. She attacks first because she's afraid she's about to be attacked."

"Attacked for what?"

"Name it," Elizabeth said. "Her work, her right to have the job she has, her opinions. Of course we know that she is qualified for her job, and that she does it well...but she doesn't know that. Not deep down. I was an outsider--at least I was when I first met her--and so I wasn't a threat. She could let down her guard with me."

"So tell me, Sigmund," I said, "why doesn't Eileen recognize this?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "That I don't know," she said. "I don't know Eileen quite as well as I do Judith. But from what you've told me, Eileen doesn't have any serious self-confidence problems--"

I smiled wryly. "Not hardly."

"--And that means, maybe, that she can't really understand them. In fact she might even be the cause. If as children she got the better grades, or was better at...well, better at anything, and got more attention than Judith..."

I thought back...and found myself nodding. I had no doubt that it was accidental; that neither Henry nor Margaret, nor Hacker herself, had any idea what had been happening. Maybe even Judith had not. Yes, that might explain quite a lot... "And how are you and Judith kindred spirits?"

"Judith loves Eileen," Elizabeth said. "Despite everything, and probably all the more because they're twins. When I met Judith, Eileen was gone, vanished, presumed dead. To Judith it was as if a part of herself was gone." She looked intently at me. "And that's what she and I had in common when we met, my darling, and why we hit it off so well."

I looked into the fire. "And if Judith isn't treating Eileen very well right now," I said, getting into the spirit of things, "it's because Judith is angry at Eileen for vanishing...and she--Judith--probably isn't even aware of it."


I smiled. "But we're a little off the subject," I said. "I'm guessing that in your view, Judith responded to Justin because deep down she's as lonely as he is?"

She nodded. "Obviously," she said. "The way she keeps almost everyone at arm's length would take its toll. But I'm afraid he isn't going about it the way I hoped he would. I think he might be trying to wedge their relationship into his busy schedule...and that isn't going to work. She might be trying to do the same, for all I know. And all that can do is cause them both more stress. A real relationship isn't a spare-time project."

"But of course this is all guesswork."

She shrugged again. "True," she said. "But there's an easy way to find out for certain."

The implication in her words and voice was clear enough, even without the significant glance she shot me sidelong. I sighed. "I know," I said. "I'll have to talk to him. I will, I promise."

"When?" she asked challengingly.

I drew her a little closer into the circle of my arms, and peered deep into her eyes. "Later," I said. "Later."

At that moment we were interrupted, as the apartment door opened and Timothy entered. Our younger son was toting his guitar case in one hand and a folio of sheet music in the other, and as he entered he was humming quietly to himself, the same few notes over and over, as if trying to get them clear in his mind. As he saw his mother and me he paused, there in the doorway; and then he grinned broadly, knowingly, and winked. "Don't mind me," he said, and he headed quickly for his bedroom.

The next morning dawned clear, but it didn't stay that way very long.

During the night the storm departed Thorn Valley. Exactly when I don't know; but I did come half-awake sometime after midnight, just long enough to steal some blankets back from Elizabeth, and I remember being vaguely troubled by the silence. I had grown accustomed to the wind's shrill scream. By dawn the clouds were gone and the wind totally stilled, and when I looked out the window a few minutes before sunrise I saw dark-blue sky and the setting moon.

But as I said, it didn't last. As soon as the sun rose over the eastern ridge and warmed the farmland a little, a mist began to rise from the saturated ground. Thin and wispy at first, it soon thickened; and by the time my family and I arrived at our table for breakfast, the dining hall windows were enveloped in impenetrable grey fog. I doubt seriously whether the layer of mist would have reached as high as a human's shoulders; the community's fourth level might even have been in sunlight. But the first level, at least, was socked in. By midday it would no doubt burn off, and then the valley would have another of those glorious autumn afternoons that I loved so well. Not that I was likely to get much of a chance to enjoy it; I rather doubted I'd manage to make it outside.

Sitting there at the breakfast table (it was waffle day) near a window that seemed to have been wrapped in gauze, I peered closely at my three older children, startled--but not really surprised--by the announcement they had just made. "So," I said, "today's the day, is it?"

They exchanged a glance; and it was Timothy, as usual, who was elected spokesman. "Yes it is, Dad," he said, nodding firmly. He looked at his brother and sister. "We've decided that it's time. All of our friends have graduated and gone to work already. Hack--I mean, Eileen--agrees with us: there isn't any point in our studying any more." He grinned suddenly. "And we're sick and tired of it anyway."

Beside him, Cynthia rolled her eyes heavenward and shook her head; but she kept silent. Teresa and Martin, though, were nodding their agreement.

"Timothy is right, Father," Teresa said. "It's past time for us to grow up."

Not too surprisingly, the Rats of NIMH placed a very high value on education, both for its own sake and for more practical reasons: to make our people better citizens and better workers. I've already mentioned the unfortunate, but vital, necessity of our rigorous school schedule. It was the rats' intention that their children achieve at very least a minimum standard in subjects such as math, reading, writing, science, history, civics and so on; though of course the great majority of the youngsters ended up far exceeding those minimums. As they progressed through school the children were constantly evaluated, and remedial action taken when necessary (which was actually very seldom); and so, by the time they graduated, the children were more than ready to begin the apprenticeships that formed the second, vocational part of their education. And certainly a great many went beyond even that, pursuing higher knowledge either independently or with the help of a mentor. For those of my generation, the Original 22, education had been a piecemeal process at best; we had been determined from the start that our kids would have better opportunities.

My own children, however, had unfortunately managed to fall through the cracks; all except Cynthia that is. I had of course long known about their intelligence; I had recognized that they were capable of achieving every bit as much as the rats. But unfortunately, I had never managed to develop a coherent plan for helping them accomplish it. In fact I sometimes felt myself wondering if doing so was even desirable, given the kind of life they seemed destined for. I have no real excuse for my failure; I can only say that my confusion on that matter became entwined with my confusion about many other things. And where that led is well-known.

But anyway, my children. By the time it was decided that our family would remain in Thorn Valley and become citizens of the rats' community, it was already far too late for the older two to begin school. The children in Teresa's age-group were just then graduating, and Martin's peers were not far behind. Even Timothy's peers were all but finished. Only in Cynthia's case had it seemed worthwhile to put her in school. In retrospect that decision was probably correct; but it had not been easy for her, or indeed for any of us.

So--chronologically, Teresa and Martin were adults, and Timothy was not far behind them. But academically all three of them lagged far behind their friends. The solution we eventually came up with was painstakingly negotiated, by Justin, Alice, Elizabeth, Martin, Teresa and myself, with Arthur and Eileen as advisors. It was decided to give my kids a deadline: a certain amount of time to bring themselves up to the level of academic performance that was expected from all our school graduates. This was to be determined by a set of equivalency exams devised and administered by Alice. They were not of course just tossed in without assistance, sink or swim; in fact they were offered every resource the education department had. As it turned out, though, almost the only resource they had needed was their tutor, Eileen. We had settled on six months as the maximum time; but in fact, with Hacker's help, the kids had managed to make themselves ready in a little more than four. And even shorter than that, really, because for the last several weeks they had been spending part of their time working, getting a head-start on their careers. And today, it seemed, was to be the culmination of all their--and her--hard work.

None of them, possibly, heard the tiny, tragic sigh that their mother gave vent to then. Under the table I reached across and clasped her hand reassuringly. Teresa was right, of course; it was time for the three of them to join the adult world, to begin earning the share of necessities and luxuries that the community gave them. But that didn't make it any easier. Just yesterday, so it seemed, I had bounced them on my knee; now they were grown up; and--if you will forgive a bit of parental pride--grown into strong, intelligent, attractive young adults.

"Eileen was telling me just yesterday that she thinks you're ready," I told them. "I know you'll do fine."

Beside me, Elizabeth murmured words of agreement; but the three of them were looking a little troubled. "I hope so," Timothy said. "It's an awful lot to remember."

In addition to the help Eileen had given them, they had of course all helped each other, sibling rivalries temporarily suspended. They each had their strengths and weaknesses, like anyone. Timothy, for example: he'd be done with the math section in five minutes, I had no doubt; but history and civics had very little hold on his mind: there he might struggle. Teresa was just the opposite, though she didn't have as much trouble with math as Cynthia did. Martin was more the generalist. Math was a good subject for him too; his grasp of it was just a little less than his brother's. But unlike Timothy, Martin seemed to have no major blind spots; his performance in all other subjects was about equally solid. In that way he was much like me: where the others of the Original 22 had specialized--Nicodemus in metaphysics, Arthur in engineering, Ralph in farming, and so on--I had always remained what someone once called an "intellectual jackdaw," constantly pecking at the brightest and shiniest bits of knowledge. In my current job that was a positive boon: I could bluff my way through a conversation with anyone in the community.

"How long is it going to take, dear?" Elizabeth asked Timothy.

"Probably all day," he told her gloomily. "That's what Alice said, anyway. And it'll take her a few days to score the tests." He looked up at the clock above the door, and then down at his own empty plate. "Think we're got time enough for another round?" he asked hopefully.

After breakfast, stuffed to the gills with waffles and full of determination, I made my way directly to the third level. I can't say whether word of my previous day's misfortunes had gotten out, or if the alignment of the planets was more in my favor that morning, but I made it to the warehouse without anyone stopping me. In fact the corridors I traversed seemed unusually deserted, almost as if they had been deliberately cleared. That, however, was almost certainly my imagination.

On my way up I tried to keep my mind fixed tight to the job I had to do, and which I intended to complete that day or die trying. But it was difficult to keep my thoughts from wandering just a little bit. Of course it was my three older children who were uppermost in my mind. Practically speaking, there was nothing more I could do for them. Already, no doubt, Alice had locked them in a room somewhere in the heart of the school department, and sat them down at a table stacked high with papers and sharp pencils. No, there was nothing I could do for them now; what occupied my thoughts, as I made my way through corridors and up-ramps, was how much more I could have done. I tried not to live my life in a state of guilt; my entire family, and all my friends, had been unanimous in telling me how useless that would be. But there were times when, despite St. John's Wort, the guilt rose up like a huge black wave and threatened to drown me; and that morning, try as I might to fight it, was one of those times.

Stop that, I told myself sharply, as I made my way through the second level and into the up-ramp to the third. There's no going back. What I had to do--in fact it was all I possibly could do--was to focus on what they had achieved, and would continue to achieve. Their childhood was lost; but I had plenty of time left to enjoy their adulthood. And there's always grandchildren.

...But even as I managed to thrust that line of thought aside, another came to take its place, and it was still in possession of my mind even as I pushed open the huge, solid, and very heavy doors of the food storage warehouse. The subject of that new line of thought, not surprisingly, was Justin.

At that moment the warehouse was deserted except for little me. Very soon that would no longer be true; in less than an hour, give or take, members of the kitchen staff would arrive and begin carting away supplies for lunch. But for a little while I could work in peace. I found the clipboard and pencil I'd left there the night before, lying atop a pile of flour sacks near the door, and I looked down at the topmost sheet. I shook my head. I really must have been preoccupied yesterday; I had gotten done almost exactly nothing. I'd definitely have to hurry today.

The food warehouse was yet another tribute to Arthur's incredible engineering skills. I could never enter there without a brief wave of dizziness overtaking me; it was, in fact, the single largest enclosed space I had ever been in that was not built by humans. If you wanted to get technical, the warehouse was not just part of the third level but the fourth as well. The ceiling was almost five feet above my head, and was supported by massive pillars placed at regular intervals. The floor was flat and even; Arthur had taken special care to make it so, so that carts and hand-trucks could roll over it easily. I could not see the back wall, but I knew that it was nearly twelve feet away from me as I stood near the door. The side walls were six feet away, to the right and left respectively. The place was not brightly lit, but far overhead, skylights admitted enough illumination to work by. (And yes, as I had predicted, what I saw through those skylights was blue sky and sunshine.) Yes, the place was almost mind-bogglingly big, especially for a mouse; but at the moment it was no more than one-quarter full.

Much of the floor-space was taken up with huge systems of shelves, racks and bins, some of them reaching almost to the ceiling, reachable only with ladders which would have been far too big and heavy for me to handle. The great majority of those shelves, racks and bins were empty. The full ones were clustered in just a very few aisles near the doors, and it was toward those that I made my way, clipboard in hand and pencil behind ear.

The foodstuffs stored in that warehouse were of many types. First and foremost were the sacks of grain: wheat, corn, millet, oats and rice mainly. They alone would account for more than half of my inventory, as they accounted for the bulk of our diet. A certain amount of each had been milled into flour or meal; but our kitchen staff preferred to do so only a little at a time, as needed; because the whole grains kept better. A certain amount, especially of the wheat and dried corn, would never be milled, but would be served whole, for the sake of our teeth. It's a "rodent" thing.

Next to the sacks of grain, the most abundant foodstuffs were vegetables of various types, "canned" (actually put up in Mason jars) or otherwise preserved. I've already mentioned how successful the zucchini vines had been; they were just one example of how fecund our vegetable patch had proved. Here in the warehouse there were a truly phenomenal number of jars of stewed tomatoes; and even that was only the beginning. There were also jars full of string beans, cucumbers (in the form of pickles, mainly) okra (which I loathe, but some people actually like); and others. There were also many sacks of onions and potatoes, and hanging twists of garlic. There was a diminishing supply of fresh vegetables too: radishes, carrots, and lettuce, to name a few; but that was too ephemeral to concern me and my inventory. And even if I'd been in the mood to count it, I would have had to leave the warehouse and go some ways down the corridor to another of Arthur's triumphs: his water-powered refrigerated storage lockers.

...And then there were the incidentals: sacks of seeds, such as sunflower and safflower (useful chiefly for their oil); sacks of walnuts and peanuts (and jars of peanut butter); jars of fruit preserves and honey (we had several hives of bees by then); jars and sacks of dried herbs and spices...It seemed like a lot, and just being there was enough to make me ravenously hungry, even though I was still stuffed with waffles. And in fact it was a lot; but even as I started to count, it was clear that Justin was correct. It wasn't the quantity, but the consumption, that really mattered. We wouldn't starve, that much seemed clear; but belts would indeed have to be tightened before this winter was over. At very least, our meals were going to become somewhat monotonous. Well, there's always trout and crayfish.

Though I had somewhat dreaded this particular job when Justin assigned it to me, because I feared it would be stupifyingly boring, actually I was finding out that it wasn't too bad--as essentially brainless work goes. After a few minutes it settled into a routine. Count, make a notation, move over a shelf, and repeat. The shelves weren't stacked high, which was good, because as I mentioned, the really tall ladders were far to heavy for me. I found a small stepladder with rungs that weren't too far apart, and which was light enough for me to pull from row to row. (Sometimes it can be a real pain, being a mouse in a rat's world.) I counted, and gradually my papers filled with scribbled figures; later, at home, I would convert my scrawls into a nice neat spreadsheet. A job that would have taken considerably less time if I'd had the computer that Hacker dreamed of.

The benefit of--or perhaps the trouble with--such automatic, no-brainer work is that it leaves the greater part of your mind free to wander. And where mine wandered that morning was to thoughts of my boss and supposed best friend.

Justin had not shown up for breakfast either, which was quite a surprise: he had never before missed waffle day. Judith, though, did put in appearance, albeit a very brief one: just long enough to grab a muffin and a mug of tea, and depart with both. She'd been wearing her work clothes, and the look on her face...well, let's just say everyone got out of her way very quickly. Seeing that, Elizabeth had nudged me in the ribs and nodded knowingly.

I think my dear wife expected me to go find Justin that morning; and in fact I'd had the same intention myself when I woke up. But somehow, between then and the end of breakfast I had changed my mind. I think the plain truth is that I was afraid to. Not because I feared that he would harm me, or anything so ridiculous: never in a million years would that happen. No; I think I feared that our conversation would turn into an argument, as it had the previous afternoon; and I simply did not know how to handle that. Arguing with Justin--in the sense of an emotionally-charged sharp disagreement, as opposed to a friendly intellectual debate--was something that I just wasn't equipped for.

So what was the burr under his saddle? I wondered, as I totted up jars of peas. Stress due to overwork; or a fight with Judith; or justifiable anger at an insubordinate employee? Or maybe a little of all three? The first two I could sympathize with; the third I could only feel guilty about. Always before we'd been able to discuss our problems calmly and rationally; if this boss-employee relationship had ruined that, I didn't quite know what to do. Find another job, perhaps? But where could I find one that suited me so well?

About that time I became aware that I wasn't alone; that someone else had entered the warehouse. I kept working, not even bothering to see who it was; I figured that it was probably one of the kitchen workers, come for a few jars of vegetable stock or some such. They all knew what I'd been assigned to do; he or she would get what was needed and depart.

Except it didn't happen that way: whoever it was, didn't leave. I was just about to climb down and move my ladder when a quiet voice spoke from just behind me. "Jonathan?"

I turned...and I almost fell off the ladder as I saw who was standing there, looking up at me for once. "Justin," I said cautiously.

The look on his face was unreadable; neither happy, nor sad, nor apologetic. He just looked...tired. He gazed silently at me for a moment, then he said quietly, "Can you leave that for a little while? You and I need to talk."

I almost refused. Why, I'm not sure; perhaps as a subtle form of revenge. But there was something about the look in his eye...I left my clipboard on the shelf, to mark my place, and I scrambled down the ladder to stand before him. "What can I do for you, boss?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Not here," he said. "This might take some time. Let's go to my office, please."

Without even waiting for a reply he turned, and I fell into step beside him. It was a long way down, but during that walk neither of us spoke a word. As I walked--taking two or three steps to every one of his--I peered up sidelong into his face, and what there was left of anger in me drained away. Truly, I had never before seen him look so tired and drawn. Stress and poor nutrition, I thought; but somehow those two things didn't seem quite adequate to account for it. No; something else was going on here--something more serious.

Justin's office was a study in contrast, almost as much as was my family's living room. What struck me first--what always struck me first, every time I entered there--was the somewhat mismatched furniture, a combination of items from Justin's old quarters under the rosebush and some (much simpler) things that had once belonged to Nicodemus. The second thing--almost as startling--was the contrast between the almost obsessive neatness of the rest of the room, against the jumbled, stacked-to-the-sky chaos of his desk and file cabinets. I guess that says something about Justin's personality. He was a good soldier--he would have lined up his shoes every night, if he'd owned any--but he still had a lot to learn about being an administrator.

The office was somewhat dark as he ushered me inside; the curtains were wide open, but down here on the first level the windows were still wrapped in clinging mist. He made no move to light a lamp, though. He waved me to the sofa, and then he sank down into his big old armchair. He'd had it so long that its curves and hollows were molded exactly to the contours of his body.

For a moment there was silence, as he stared into space. Then he peered earnestly into my eyes. "There are several things I want to say to you, Jonathan," he began quietly. "The first and most important is: I'm sorry. You and I have known each other almost all our lives, and I've never had occasion to speak to you as I did yesterday. Not even on the worst of the Wandering Days. I had no cause yesterday either, and I am sorry."

I looked away. "I'm the one who should be apologizing," I said. "If I'd been doing what you'd told me to, it never would have happened."

He smiled faintly. "I've been asking around," he said. "It seems you were repeatedly shanghaied, if you'll forgive an archaic phrase. In fact Elizabeth tried to take all the blame herself, when I spoke to her a little while ago."

She would, I thought wryly.

"...And I ought to have at least listened to what you had to say," he went on. "It occurred to me--after I'd spoken to your wife--that I'd entirely forgotten one of the reasons why I hired you in the first place: because I can trust you to work independently, and make decisions on your own. That inventory is important; but does it change anything if it's done yesterday, or today? Not really. I guess what I'm saying is, if you hire someone specifically because you trust his judgment, then you've got to step aside and let him exercise it."

I grinned. "Frankly, my friend, you are one of the very few people I know who places any faith in my judgment. But I do appreciate the thought."

"So," he said hopefully, "apology accepted?"

"Of course it is," I told him. I paused for a moment, peering closely at him; and then I said, "Justin--what's wrong?"

He chuckled bitterly. "You want that alphabetically or numerically?" he asked. "I'm trying to lead a community through its first winter in a totally new and unfamiliar environment. You of all people should know what that means, Jonathan. We have no electricity, no space heaters, no light bulbs, no natural gas, no inexhaustible food supply. We're on our own, with only ourselves to depend on, for the first time in our history. And that's frightening. You remember what Jenner used to say."

I nodded tiredly. "Yes I do," I said. I took a deep breath and quoted, trying to mimic our late "friend's" oily tones: "'If you do this you'll all be dead before the first winter ends. Starved or frozen to death in the wilderness.'"

"Exactly," Justin said.

"You can't be telling me that you believe that?" I asked incredulously. "From Jenner? You know that his agenda was."

"Yes, of course I know," Justin replied. "And I've been trying very hard not to believe those words. All this last summer I was successful; but now that winter is staring us in the face..." He paused and shook his head. "And it doesn't really matter what I believe. It's what they believe that counts." He swept his arm in a wide circle, encompassing the entire community. "All of them heard Jenner say that too--he didn't restrict his speechmaking to the council chamber. It's got to be on their minds too, a lot of them; and I don't know if I can combat it."

"Justin," I said firmly, "excuse me for saying this, but what I'm hearing here is far too much 'I.' We will get through this winter, together. You, me, Elizabeth, Arthur, everyone. Nicodemus is dead, God rest his soul, and I miss him as much as you do. But there is absolutely no reason for you to bear the entire weight of this community on your shoulders. Nicodemus wouldn't have wanted you to. You have department heads, you have friends. All of us want to see this community succeed. Obviously; we're not crazy about freezing or starving to death either. But you have to let us help you."

He turned away and nodded. "I know," he said simply.

"But," I went on, "I still don't believe that's all that is bothering you. When's the last time you ate?"

"Yesterday morning," he said. "I was too late for breakfast, but I grabbed some bread and some tea." He sighed. "But you're right. You're always right."


"So..." He sighed again. "I really didn't want to go into this with anyone...but I guess that if there's anybody I can trust, and who'll understand, it would be you."

"I'm flattered, I think."

"You know that for the last few weeks I've been seeing Judith..."

"I don't think there's anyone who doesn't know," I told him dryly. My mind was racing ahead of the conversation: so he has broken up with her, and he doesn't know how to handle it. Well, neither do I! The first girl I became involved with, I married. "I think we all thought you'd taken on a bit of a...challenge."

"No," he said, shaking his head vigorously. "No, that's not true at all. When you get to know her, Judith is nothing at all like her public persona. In fact we have a lot more in common than I expected. The number-one thing, of course, being that we were both lonely but didn't want to admit it."

I very much doubt whether there was anyone else in the world but me to whom he would have spoken those words. "So--what happened?" I asked gently.

"Nothing," he said. "Or--well, no, that's not quite true. I mean we didn't break up, not in the usual sense. But there is a...difficulty." He stood then, explosively, and crossed the room to stare out the window. The mist was just beginning to part, allowing dim, ghostly outlines of objects outside to appear. "As a matter of fact," Justin said a moment later, "I think--I know--that I'm very much in love with her." He chuckled hollowly. "Never thought you'd heard me say that, I'll wager."

"I...had begun to wonder," I admitted. "Excuse me for saying so, boss, but for someone in love you don't sound particularly happy."

"There's been a...complication," Justin said. Abruptly he pounded his fist down on the stone windowsill. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way!" He whirled around. "I'm the elected leader of the community, for God's sake! I've got an image to project, don't I? I'm supposed to be a role model for the kids..."

"Justin my friend," I said patiently, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."

He smiled humorlessly, and crossed the room to collapse into the chair again. "Then I'll spell it out for you, Jonathan," he said flatly. "The fact is--or maybe I should say the indications are--that Judith is currently carrying my child."

Chapter 4

If Justin had suddenly metamorphosed into Jenner, I don't think I could have been much more astonished. For several seconds I sat there gaping; then, finally, I swallowed and said, "How--how did it happen?"

Justin grinned bleakly. "If after four kids, I need to tell you that, Jonathan--" he began; but I cut him off impatiently.

"No, no," I said. "That's not what I mean." I swallowed again. "What I mean is, I didn't think the two of you were quite that close yet."

"Neither did I," Justin said tiredly. He shrugged. "What can I say? The weather was clear that evening; we went outside to look at the stars..."

I nodded knowingly. He didn't have to elaborate on that, at least; stargazing usually had that effect on Elizabeth and me too. As a matter of fact, it was to warm, starry, peaceful evenings that both Timothy and Cynthia owed their existence.

"It started to get a little chilly," Justin went on. "We came back inside, here, and I lit the stove. We sat down together on the sofa, right about where you are now...and the next thing I knew it was morning, and we were in there." He pointed to the door that led to his bedroom. "Though the majority of our clothing was still out here."

"I think I get the picture," I said dryly. I really couldn't blame either of them. In Justin's case...well, to the best of my knowledge--though I hadn't really researched the matter thoroughly--he had no prior experience in that area. And although physically he was still young, by the calendar (as Elizabeth had observed) he had done without a very long time indeed. It was hardly surprising that when an opportunity finally came along, self-control went out the window, so to speak. In Judith's case I had no data; but I was certain at least that she had been a willing participant. And, as they say, once is all it takes.

"Is she absolutely certain?" I asked.

"Well--no," he admitted. "She hasn't been to see Ages yet, if that's what you mean. But she says that she can tell." He grinned again. "I've decided to take her word for that."

"Probably wise," I observed. "How long ago was this?"

"A little more than a week. She didn't tell me until night before last, though. Apparently she wasn't sure until then." He chuckled bitterly. "That cast rather a pall over our evening, as you might imagine."

I suppose I ought to briefly explain here. While the NIMH treatment did not in fact render us sterile, it didn't leave our reproductive systems entirely untouched. I've already mentioned the tendency toward single births--Judith and Eileen being the single exception so far. The other change was a somewhat longer gestation period. For normal rats and mice the average is about three weeks. For our females it was closer to a month. Compared to the humans' nine months, of course, that additional time is an eyeblink; but even so, our children were born larger, stronger and better-developed than those of normal rats or mice. So much larger, in fact, that the females of our Original 22--in which I must also include my wife--experienced very difficult births. The females of the second and subsequent generations seemed somewhat better adapted--fortunately for them.

"So," I said quietly, "what are you going to do?"

"I wish I knew," he said, gazing at me with a helpless, haunted expression. "I really wish I knew. Of course this wasn't planned. Not by either of us. When we started seeing each other we agreed it was just for fun, just for companionship. Neither one of us has the time for anything more serious." He quirked a tiny smile. "I think we both rather enjoyed the fact that we were making people point, and whisper, and speculate. But that's all it was supposed to be."

He rose again, and crossed the room to stare out the window. A minute later he went on, without turning, "After that night...things changed. Of course they did. We tried to pretend they hadn't; we didn't talk about what happened. We dismissed it as a fluke, an accident. Although...well, I don't know about Judith, but that night got me to thinking. The fact is, Jonathan, I really did want something more than just companionship or a few laughs. I look at you and Elizabeth, Arthur and Alice, Henry and Margaret, and now Philip and Eileen. I see how happy you all are, and how lucky; and I think to myself, if I'd been quicker, or braver, after we escaped from NIMH and the Original 22 started pairing off, it might be me who's that happy too."

"Well," I said, "I don't know if that's really your fault. With the larger number of males..."

"Pointless even to worry about that now," he said. "I've known for a long time that if I had any hope, it was going to be with one of the second generation." He shook his head. "It's hard for me to believe, sometimes," he went on. "I was there when she and her sister were born." He looked back at me. "So were you. We helped Ages deliver them...and there I was ten days ago, sharing my bed with someone I once helped diaper. It almost feels like robbing the cradle..."

"You can blame Dr. Schultz for that one, if there's any blame needed," I said.

"True, but it feels strange nonetheless. I guess my point is this, Jonathan. Even before Judith gave me the news a couple nights ago, I was toying with the idea of trying to move my relationship with her up a notch or two--beyond just hanging around. I'd been thinking about it a lot. I'd just about come to the conclusion that I don't have time--but somewhere in the back of my mind I was wondering if that might just be an excuse. I had to wonder if I was just afraid to mention the subject to her." He shook his head. "But I never, not in a million years, believed that it would be forced on me as it has."

"It seems to me that there's only one solution," I said. "And I don't need to tell you what that is. From what I've been hearing, I think that you really do care for her. Trust me, Justin: no one in this community is going to think the less of you--not if you do the right thing."

"I agree with you," he said. "Believe me, I do. I've been wondering if this might be a sign from above, telling me that it's time for me to alter my priorities. But that's not the problem. The problem is Judith herself."


"Meaning that so far at least, she doesn't want me to 'do the right thing,' as you put it."

"Oh," is all I could think of to say.

"Of course I have no right, legal or moral, to force her," he went on. "And trying to browbeat someone like Judith is worse than useless. All I can do is hope she'll change her mind. But right now at least, the lines of communication are somewhat...broken."

Justin my friend, I thought in despair, how do you get yourself into these situations? I arrive in this valley to find that you were nearly crushed to death; and now this. What are we going to do with you? "If there's any way I can help...," I began.

He smiled. "Thank you," he said. "For the moment I don't think there is. But...there might come a time when I'll have to rely on you even more than I do now."

I shrugged. "I just got through telling you that you can," I said. "And not only me: everyone in the community." I paused. "You might be right about this being a sign, Justin. Someone might be telling you that there's more to life than paperwork and public appearances."

He smiled wanly. "Perhaps so." He crossed the room again and stood before me, his hands resting on the back of his chair. "Right now, though, I think it might be a good idea if we both got back to work."

What he really meant, of course, was that he wanted to be alone. And I couldn't blame him. Immediately I hopped down off the sofa. "Agreed," I said. Though exactly how I was supposed to go calmly back to counting canned goods after that discussion, I had no idea.

"...And Jonathan?" he said, as I was about to leave.


"I...can rely on you to keep this to yourself, can't I?"

I smiled. "Of course you can," I said. I've sometimes wished, though, that I'd thought a little more before speaking that promise; because it took me less than a day to break it.

Elizabeth and I had lunch alone that day, just the two of us at our private family table; which was quite unusual, and might have been a rather nice change of pace, if I hadn't had so much on my mind. I was hungry enough--climbing up and down ladders is tiring work--and I did ample justice to my soup and sandwich; but my thoughts were elsewhere. I was barely able to pay even half, let alone full, attention to Elizabeth when she tried to tell me how her morning had gone. And that can be dangerous.

Somehow or other--God knows how--I had not only managed to get back to work, but to keep my mind focused on the job at hand as well. Perhaps I was anticipating the time when Justin would need to rely on me so much more. At any rate, I had managed to get more than halfway done with my inventory, and I might have worked straight through lunch, if the increased number of kitchen workers hurrying in and out of the warehouse hadn't alerted me. And now, finally, sitting at the table in the crowded, noisy hall, I could give my thoughts free reign.

As had been the case that morning, it was my older children who were uppermost in my mind. I knew Alice, and I knew that she would certainly not force them to work the day through without sustenance; right now, no doubt, they were having their lunch too. Perhaps in the school's own cafeteria with their little sister; or perhaps Alice had arranged for something to be brought in to them. By now as well, I imagined, they were probably halfway through with their tests. I had not questioned Alice so closely as to discover the order in which she would be throwing the sections at them, so I didn't know what they had completed and what they had not. I had a picture of Timothy marking off the answers on the math section almost as fast as he could write, but then tearing his fur out over history or English. I had quite the opposite picture for Teresa. And finally, I imagined Martin stolidly, implacably making his way though each section, one at a time. Their entire future was pinned to those tests; so much so, in fact, that it had not really been discussed, what would happen if they should somehow not pass. Not that I believed it would happen; they were, after all, my kids.

But thoughts about them inevitably brought my mind full circle, right back to thoughts of Justin. On the whole, parenthood is a joy; that is what I would have told him, if he'd been in the mood to listen. But it is never easy. He would have it easier than I'd had, because there were so many others in the community to fall back on for assistance and advice. If he or Judith got sick, for example, there were always grandparents. If Elizabeth or I got sick, on the other hand, during our old lives--and it did happen--we had no choice but to keep functioning, somehow. We'd had no such ready resource as a kitchen that handed out three meals a day without fail.

And Justin would have something which I had deprived myself of: the opportunity to watch his child grow from infancy to adulthood, and to experience every day of that journey, without interruption. Some of those days would be painful, exasperating, infuriating...but the end result would be wonderful. That, at very least, I knew.

All of this, though, presupposed one thing: that Justin would actually be a part of his child's life. He wanted to be, I knew, if Judith would let him. But it was going to require a major rearranging of his priorities. And hers too, for that matter.

I was thus sunk in thought, mechanically shoveling down the corn chowder, when Elizabeth suddenly reached across and touched my arm. "Jonathan," she whispered, "look at that!"

I glanced in the direction of her nod. A few minutes earlier, so it seemed, Judith had entered the dining hall. She had already been served, and she stood now at the drink counter, helping herself to a mug of tea. To an unpracticed eye she might simply have looked as if she was in a bad mood--but knowing what I knew then, I could detect the nuances: in fact what she was, was tired, depressed and worried. Her whiskers and her tail both drooped. I tried to detect any sign of her delicate condition; but her bulky work tunic made that impossible.

But it was not merely her to whom Elizabeth had pointed. On the other side of the room Justin had also entered. Evidently he had decided to follow my advice and get some nourishment. He looked disheartened and exhausted too; with very little enthusiasm he picked up a tray and stepped toward the line, just as Judith turned to take her own tray across to a table. For an instant they were face to face, with no more than a foot separating them. Their eyes locked...and then they both looked away. Judith took a table by herself in the far corner; and Justin, emerging from the line a minute later, moved toward the opposite corner.

"That's it," Elizabeth said firmly. "That's all I can stand. After lunch I am going to have a very serious talk with Judith. I don't know what's going on, but I mean to find out."

"I--" I began, but I clamped my teeth shut on whatever it was I might have said. What could I say, really? Justin had sworn me to silence, and I was doing my best to respect that. How could I dissuade Elizabeth from talking to Judith, without revealing what I knew? I had no idea. I knew my wife: she was like a dog with a bone. If I admitted that I'd been talking to Justin she'd never rest until I'd told her exactly what had been discussed, preferably word-for-word. No: in this case silence truly was golden. And it might even be interesting to learn what Judith's spin on events was.

"Yes?" Elizabeth prompted, quirking an eye at me.

"I--hope you find out what's bothering her," I finished lamely. It was a statement that at very least had the virtue of being the truth, if not the whole truth.

Timothy was practicing the guitar--with his eyes closed.

It was about two hours before dinnertime when I arrived home, my job finally completed. My clipboard was full of figures and my head was full of thoughts. Of the two, hopefully, the figures were the more organized.

I heard the quiet chords through the door even before I entered, and so I knew what to expect; but even so I was a little surprised. Timothy was perched on a stool in the clear space in front of the unlit fireplace, his shiny, dark-inlaid instrument cradled in his lap. His fingers were moving slowly over the strings, and I immediately recognized the melody: Lennon and McCartney's "Yesterday." None of that was particularly odd. What was, was the fact that he sat there with his eyes tight shut, and his glasses removed; they lay some distance away on the small coffee table. Across the room Cynthia lay stretched out on the larger sofa, one of her mother's hand-crocheted afghans pulled over her legs and a book propped up in her lap.

Timothy heard the door, and he opened one eye, just a slit, for a second or so before closing it again. "Hi, Dad," he said, not missing a note. "I hope you don't mind--?"

"No," I assured him. "Not at all." I crossed the room, pausing to kiss Cynthia on the forehead, and deposited my clipboard on the desk. In fact I never minded hearing Timothy play. He had taken to his instrument like a natural; Julian called him the most promising student he'd ever had. Timothy wasn't ready for his first public performance--not quite--but that day was definitely coming. "Son," I asked curiously, "Why--uh--why?"

"It's an exercise," he explained. "Julian wants me to be able to feel my fingering without having to look." He grinned. "Plus, I've got an eyestrain headache like you wouldn't believe."

I winced in sympathy as I sat down at the desk. "Would you like me to get you an aspirin?"

He shook his head. "No, thanks, Dad. I already borrowed a couple from Teresa. It's getting better."

"Good," I said. I looked around. Speaking of Teresa... "Where's your brother and sister?"

"Martin's in the gym working out the kinks in his back," Timothy said.

"And Teresa had an appointment with Mr. Ages," Cynthia put in. "For her leg."

"That's right, I remember," I said. "And your mother?"

Cynthia shook her head. "She's not home from work yet."

Or something, I thought darkly, remembering her lunch-time vow. Not necessarily work. "So, Timothy," I said, as casually as I could, "how do you think you did?"

This time he did miss a note or two, but recovered quickly. "I think," he said, "I did okay. I mean, I know I didn't miss even one on the math section--"

Across the room Cynthia muttered something, no doubt sarcastic; but Timothy ignored her. "But the rest," he said. He shook his head. "I don't know." Finally he opened his eyes and peered across at me, his gaze a little unfocused without his glasses. "I mean, why do we have to know the dates of Civil War battles? Isn't that the humans' problem?"

"In a way, I suppose it is," I said. "But we haven't got very much history yet ourselves, and we can't leave the teachers with nothing to teach, can we?"

Timothy snorted in derision. "Yeah, right, Dad."

"Seriously, though," I said. "We study the humans--and their history--because we're surrounded by them. It's their world, and someday--hopefully not soon, but someday--we're going to be in contact with them again. Never kid yourselves about that."

Timothy paused in his playing, and shuddered. "I hope you're right about 'not soon,' Dad."

None of my children had ever been touched by humans, let alone imprisoned or tormented by them; it was my earnest desire to keep it that way, if I could. Elizabeth had been, albeit briefly; she could at least understand the nightmares that still sometimes plagued me. Now that I could actually describe them to her. "Me too, Tim," I told him, as I rummaged through drawers in search of paper and ruler. "Believe me."

"Dad," Cynthia said suddenly, "have you told Mom about my plans yet?"

I glanced quickly at Timothy; but he was unconcernedly checking his tuning. Then I remembered that he already knew about his sister's ambitions. "Er, no, sweetie, I haven't," I said. "I'm afraid I've had a few other things to think about since yesterday."

"I just wondered," she said. "I kept expecting her to mention it, and I was surprised when she didn't. Papa," she said in concern, lowering her eyes, "do you think...well, do you think Mom will approve?"

"I honestly can't think of any reason why she shouldn't," I said. "I suspect she'll have the same concern I did--about how Ages will treat you. But other than that, I'm sure she'll be thrilled."

"Will she think...well, will she think that I'm...capable?" Cynthia asked quietly.

"Of course she will," Timothy and I said at once, with equal forcefulness. "Just as your brother and I both do, it seems," I added with a grin.

"I don't think Teresa believes I'm smart enough," Cynthia said sadly. "Not that I've actually asked her, but..."

"I think you might be misjudging your sister," I said. "But if that is what she really thinks, then she's wrong, and you'll prove it to her."

She smiled. "Thanks, Papa," she said.

All was quiet for a few minutes. Cynthia returned to her book, and Timothy to his practice, segueing directly from the Beatles to Bach. I found a fresh pad of paper and a ruler, and set to work on my spreadsheet. Times like those were among my favorite; actually any time spent in the company of my children was among my favorite. Although...well, let's just say that since my return it was the younger two with whom I communicated best. But that was getting better too.

For a few minutes, as I said, everything was peaceful; long enough for me to inscribe my columns and rows, and begin to fill in the products and quantities. But at that point the quiet was...well, not shattered exactly, but certainly disturbed, as the door opened and Elizabeth entered. My wife had her small briefcase clutched tight under her arm, and an expression of some distress on her face. She appeared not to notice Timothy or Cynthia. She flung her case onto the smaller sofa, and then, without preamble, she said, "Jonathan, I've just been talking to Judith. You'll never believe--"

I sighed. So much for silence. "Let me guess," I said blandly. "She thinks she's pregnant."

Behind me the music ended suddenly in a discordant jangle, and the book fell from Cynthia's hands and tumbled to the floor.

"Yes," Elizabeth said in astonishment. "How did you know?"

I smiled grimly. "I was speaking to Justin earlier," I told her. "He asked me not to tell anyone. Evidently Judith didn't make the same request of you."

"Actually she did," Elizabeth said, embarrassed, as she dropped into a chair. "I just couldn't..."

"Keep news like that to yourself?" I finished dryly. "I know. Believe me, I know."

She made a face. "Well, you know it won't stay secret for long--" she began.

"Not after the bulge in her overalls starts to show, certainly," I observed.

"--And that's not the problem anyway," she went on. "We have to figure out what we're going to do about this."

I gazed at her curiously. "What we're going to do? I quoted. "Excuse me, my darling, but aren't you the one who was telling me, just two nights ago, that Justin's love life is none of our business?"

"Well, yes," she admitted. "But that was different. Jonathan, she doesn't think she wants to marry Justin--"

"So I've heard," I said sadly. "But she is within her rights there, no matter we might think."

"--And," Elizabeth went on, her voice sinking to a horrified whisper, "she isn't even sure whether she wants to have the baby."

She had my full and undivided attention instantly, as well as Timothy's and Cynthia's. Most especially Cynthia's. "What?" I asked.

"You heard me," Elizabeth replied grimly. "I'd never even imagined such a thing until she told me about it." She grimaced and shook her head. "Has anything like that ever happened in this community before?"

I thought back. "No," I said. "Not that I'm aware of. There were one or two miscarriages in the early days, before we were settled, but never anything...deliberate."

"So now you know what I mean," Elizabeth said. "We've got to stop her!"

"I'm...not sure we can," I said slowly. "To the best of my knowledge it isn't illegal. I helped write a good part of our constitution and our law, and I can't recall anything to do way or the other." I rubbed my nose. "She'd have to go to Mr. Ages, though," I said speculatively. "And I very much doubt whether he'd agree to do it."

"Will somebody please tell me what we're talking about?" Timothy said plaintively.

"I'll explain later," Cynthia told him briskly. "You won't like it."

"Is she absolutely determined?" I asked Elizabeth.

"No," she said. "That's one thing anyway. In fact I think that idea frightens her as much as the idea of having the baby." She glanced away. "I'm afraid I pestered her a bit," she confessed. "But I did make her promise to talk to me before she does anything."

"To you?" I asked.

"To me," Elizabeth repeated sadly. "I told you already, I'm not a threat to her. Poor girl, she can't even bring herself to talk to her own sister..."

"Her own sister," I repeated, more than halfway to myself. "You know, that gives me a very good idea..."

Eileen was alone in the apartment that she shared with her recently-acquired husband, when I knocked on the door early that evening. I should not have been there; in fact I had sneaked out of my apartment while Elizabeth was otherwise occupied. Whether my dear wife would forgive me for what I was about to do, I wasn't sure. That Justin and Judith would not, if they ever found out, seemed all but certain. And yet here I was.

When you're in the midst of a very bad situation, I've found, with no idea when or even if it will ever end, you tend to grab on to whatever little bits and pieces of pleasure you can find, in much the same way a drowning person clutches a log. Such was definitely the case during the NIMH expedition. For nine months my companions and I had lived as fugitives, spies and (let's face it) thieves. Pleasures of any kind had been few and far between; even eating and sleeping had ceased to give me any joy or refreshment. But there was one thing I had definitely taken pleasure in, and that was watching the growing romance between Philip and Eileen.

An unlikely relationship, I might once have said (and in fact some people still did.) Philip was big, brave to the point of suicidal, and--while certainly a long way from stupid--did tend to act first and think later. Eileen was brainy, careful and not a little sarcastic. Not much in common; but somehow that expedition had managed to bring them together. A few times the stresses of our mission had threatened to ruin the budding romance; but beyond all reason or logic, it managed to survive. It was one of the happiest days of my life (well, one of the top dozen, anyway) when I stood beside Philip as best man. He was happy too--even if his bride did have a broken arm.

I heard the call of "come in!" from inside, and I did, reaching up to nearly eye-level (as I'd become used to by then) for the doorknob.

Hacker was alone, as I said; she was sitting near the fireplace, in which a mass of oak logs was burning briskly. As I saw her I couldn't quite suppress a smile. When she joined the expedition she'd been tough as nails, determined to prove that there was nothing those males could do that she couldn't; she'd even adopted their tunic-and-shirt Guard uniform, as more practical than a skirt. How different was the figure I saw now: sitting at ease in a rocking chair with her feet up on an ottoman, covered to the waist with an afghan, and with a pot of tea on a small table beside her. Hard to believe she was the same person I'd crawled through hell with.

As she saw me she smiled. "Jonathan!" she said. "Come in! Please forgive me if I don't get up."

I entered and closed the door behind me. I saw immediately that there was another reason why she didn't want to rise, beyond the obvious fact that it would have been a struggle: she had a thick sheaf of papers spread out across her lap. "My children's tests?" I guessed.

"Some of them, yes," she said. She waved to a nearby armchair, one which I knew belonged to Philip. "Please, sit down," she said. "Alice is grading the rest," she finished, as I hauled myself into the chair.

Even though it wasn't why I was there, I couldn't resist. "How--uh--how do they look so far?"

"Very good," Eileen said with a smile. "It appears that I managed to pound history and civics into Timothy's skull after all. I'll have to compare notes with Alice, but I think I can say with some certainty that they're in--they're officially adults."

I smiled in relief. "That's the best news I've had all day," I told her. "Thanks."

"De nada," she said. She sighed. "Now," she went on, "if we can manage to help Cynthia do as well on her finals, she'll be able to land that job working for Ages."

I started to agree; and then I did a double-take. "Wait a minute," I objected. "Cynthia told me she hadn't mentioned that to you!"

"She hasn't," Eileen said. She flashed a dazzling smile. "But I have my ways. Now," she said briskly, "what can I do for you?"

I shook myself. "We have to talk, Hacker," I said. I looked around; but we were indeed alone. "If that's all right."

"Okay by me," she said. "And the Captain of the Guard isn't here. He's teaching his self-defense class tonight."

I smiled wryly. "I know," I said. Shortly after his return to the community, Philip had managed to acquire the job he had been destined for all along, when Thomas, the former (and somewhat miscast) captain, resigned in his favor. It had been a good arrangement all around: Philip was a born leader, and Thomas (who was now his first lieutenant) a born subordinate. And Philip had thrown himself into the job head-first, as was usual for him. His weekly self-defense classes were a part of that, and they were popular too: even my younger son had joined--but only after Elizabeth was assured that he wouldn't get hurt. "Timothy and Robert are both in the class," I finished.

"Ah, Robert," Eileen said, nodding. "I hear he's started to date my little sister Kim. Too early to tell if it's anything serious, of course."

I made a face. "That I know also," I said. "Anyway, Hacker, it isn't my kids I want to discuss, or Robert, or Philip. It's Judith."

Instantly she put aside her stack of papers, and her eyes narrowed. "What about her?" she asked.

And so I told her. In fact I spilled my guts, as they used to say: not only the bare facts of the case as I knew them, but also all of Elizabeth's theories and speculations regarding Judith as well. I suppose I ought to have felt terribly guilty for doing so--I was, after all, betraying the confidences of two people as well as breaking a promise--but strangely, I did not. In fact I felt a definite sense of accomplishment. It was undeniable that Judith's personal life was not my business, nor Elizabeth's either; but it most certainly was Eileen's. It was to her, after all, not my wife, whom Judith should have been going for advice and comfort.

By the time I finished, Hacker was shaking her head sadly. "How someone so smart--and she is almost as intelligent as I am--could act so stupidly, is beyond me." She paused. "Thank you, Jonathan," she went on quietly. "I don't imagine it was easy for you to tell me all that."

"As a matter of fact," I said with a smile, "it wasn't. What--uh--what are you going to do now, if I may ask?"

"I wish I knew," she said, just as Justin had a few hours earlier. She hesitated, raking her lower lip with her teeth as she thought. Then she continued, "Obviously Judith and I are going to have to have a very long talk. And if it turns out that she really is pregnant--"

"'If'?" I quoted indignantly.

"If," she repeated firmly. "Please forgive me, Jonathan, but all I've heard here is rumors." She held up her hand to forestall my protests. "I don't doubt that you're accurately reporting what you and Elizabeth were told. But mistakes do happen." She rubbed her abdomen. "I thought I was, at least four times before it really happened. In my case it was wishful thinking; in hers it might be fear, or guilt. That remains to be seen." She grinned. "If necessary I'll drag her bodily to Ages to find out for sure. But if it turns out that she really is, well..." She shook her head again. "We'll have to deal with that when and if it happens. Jonathan," she said suddenly, "I imagine you know Justin better than anyone else in this valley. Do you think he really does love her?"

"I...think he does," I said. I shrugged. "What can I say? It's his first time, as far as I know. Which isn't to say that first times can't work out. You and I both know that. But Justin always has tended toward the over-enthusiastic, so it's hard to tell for certain. Why do you ask?"

"Because I'm wondering if the best way to solve this situation might be for the two of them to face the music, get married, and give the poor kid a mother and a father."

I smiled. "Well, you know me, Hacker. Of course I agree with you."

"But not," she went on, "if that would just end up being a recipe for making three people miserable." Once again she shook her head. "What a mess!" she concluded.

There was not much I could add to that; a mess it was indeed. "Hacker," I said, "when you talk to Judith, you won't--uh--mention who it was who told you, will you?"

She grinned. "Of course not," she assured me. "Expose one of my closest friends and his wife to my sister's wrath? Perish the thought! No; I'll make her think it was my own amazing powers of perception."

I smiled in relief. "Thanks, Hacker." Actually I didn't much fear for myself: if Judith found it necessary to turn her legendary temper on me, so be it; I could handle that. But Elizabeth seemed to have established a definite rapport with our community botanist, and I certainly didn't want my actions to mess that up.

"You're welcome," Eileen said. She paused, and frowned. "If I didn't know better," she said, "I'd swear she's doing this deliberately." She patted her stomach again. "Competitive to the end, that's my sister."

Late that night, lying in bed with my wife, I made a full and complete confession...and then I waited in silence for a tongue-lashing that entirely failed to happen.

"Oh, I knew where you went," Elizabeth said, to my surprise. "That wasn't particularly hard to guess."

"And?" I asked.

"And...," she said. She sighed. "I hate to say it, but I really think you might have done the right thing. As much as I do care about Judith, I can't take the place of her family. And if she needs to be forced into talking to them, well..."

"My thoughts exactly." I paused. "Well," I said, pulling the blankets up around my chin, "I think we've done all we can, for the moment."

"For the moment, yes," she agreed, settling into my arms. "But I doubt very much that we've heard the end of it."

"True enough," I said. "True enough."

For a few moments all was silence; but just when I thought she had fallen asleep she stirred and said, "Jonathan? What are we going to do about Teresa?"

Chapter 5

Elizabeth was quite right, of course, when she said that we hadn't heard the last of Justin and Judith's situation. Nothing had been solved, not really. But the matter had passed out of our hands, or so I thought; I fully expected that my wife and I would now become spectators of, rather than participants in, the events that were to follow. Of course I was wrong. I had not been quite so spectacularly wrong, in fact, since I convinced myself: "Wait until you've been married a few months before you tell her. It'll be easier after you've gotten to know each other." But I digress. Had I known just how deeply we were going to become involved, and how soon, I think I would have packed up and moved to the forest. Or maybe back to the Fitzgibbons farm. I think it would have been easier to go mano-a-mano with Dragon than to face what was to come.

The next day began peacefully enough. I slept a little later than I usually did; emotional exhaustion, probably. When I woke I was surprised to see that Elizabeth was already up. Washed, brushed and dressed, she was sitting on the deep windowsill sorting papers. Outside, the day was dawning clear and bright, but with a stiff and chilly-looking north wind; the farm-workers, clearly visible through our window as they headed out in a long line toward the fields, were well-bundled and blowing into their hands to stay warm.

"I couldn't bring myself to wake you," Elizabeth explained, as I leaned over to kiss her. "You were sleeping so peacefully. And after last summer..."

She didn't need to elaborate on that. During the NIMH expedition my companions and I had been forced into a nocturnal lifestyle. It was inevitable, really: after all, there was no way we could get any of our particular kind of work done in the daytime. It was dangerous enough at night. After our return, all five of us had a devil of a time adjusting back to sleeping at night and working by day, the schedule that most of the community kept. Mark and David, in fact, still tended to take the "graveyard" watches at the main entrance, a habit which didn't do much for their social lives. Philip and Eileen had problems too, but at least they had them together. Myself, I can't begin to count the number of times I crept out of bed in the middle of the night that past summer, utterly unable to sleep. I got more reading done than I had for a long time previous, that was for sure. The major downside--other than the fact that it often disturbed Elizabeth when I got out of bed--was that I'd tended to conk out in the early afternoon, sometimes in the middle of Justin's staff meetings. Ages had been ready with one of his herbs--but I resorted to that only a very few times: I didn't want it to become a habit. Fortunately, as the days grew shorter and the nights chillier, the problem seemed to be working itself out.

"Maybe Ages is right," I said, as I hurriedly ran a brush through my fur. "Maybe I do work a little too hard."

"Yes, you do," Elizabeth said flatly. She rose and packed the papers into her briefcase. "And more than a little. But the fates seem to be conspiring against your slowing down anytime soon."

I grinned ruefully and opened the wardrobe cabinet. The style of clothing I had favored for a very long time was, in cut at least, exactly like that worn by the Guard: a long-sleeved white shirt and a dark-colored tunic with a black belt and hidden buttons. I had never been a Guardsman, and so I wasn't entitled to wear their dark blue. The tunics that hung in my wardrobe now, most of them almost brand-new, were of three colors: dark green, dark brown, and--for extremely formal occasions only--black. Today I seemed to be in a brown mood.

"You know, Jonathan, I've been thinking," Elizabeth said as I dressed. "The real problem isn't getting Judith to talk to Eileen. It's getting her to talk to Justin. And vice-versa, of course."

I paused in the act of buttoning, and I shook my head firmly. "No," I told her. "Whatever you're thinking, darling--no. This is out of our hands now. Let Eileen handle it. If she needs help she'll enlist her parents and her other siblings."

"I know," Elizabeth said softly. She gazed at me steadily over the top of her glasses. "But Justin doesn't have any parents or any siblings. All he has"

My children were on pins and needles that morning, all except Cynthia; she was merely annoyed. But her time was coming.

Martin expressed it best, as the six of us sat around the breakfast table. "It's like," he said, shrugging his wide shoulders, "what do we do while we've waiting? Are we really adults now, or not?"

Hacker had been confident that they were, but she'd only seen half their exams. Alice still had the other half, and I hadn't spoken to her yet. "If I were you," I told him carefully, "I'd go ahead to work today. I think that'll be the safest course. I doubt there'll be any problem with your tests--but if so, no harm done."

That answer satisfied Martin and Timothy quite well, if the glance they exchanged was any indication. Both of them were still at the very beginnings of their careers, of course, but already they were showing promise. Martin was as handy with tools as Timothy was with a pencil. Martin was a little too small to be part of Arthur's construction crew; but there was nothing stopping him from becoming, say, a furniture- or cabinet-maker, two skills very much in demand. Timothy--like his friend Robert--would end up a draftsman and an architect, that seemed certain; but my younger son had a talent for artistic work too, such as painting, drawing and fine woodcarving. Not to mention his music. They would both go far.

...Which left only Teresa. My oldest child, sitting next to me on my left, did not greet my statement with the same enthusiasm as her brothers; in fact my words made her look quite unhappy. I was about to ask her why...but at that moment I was interrupted.

"May I join you?" a familiar, somewhat gruff voice said quietly. We all turned--and were surprised (well, I know I was) to see Mr. Ages standing there, a tray in his hands and the tiny beginnings of a smile on his face.

"Of course!" I said. There was always an extra chair available for him at our specially-sized table; but he had never before made use of it, despite frequent invitations. He preferred to take his meals up to his own quarters near the infirmary. In case there was a medical emergency, so he claimed; we all knew better, though.

"You seem a bit surprised to see me," Ages continued, as he sat down between Teresa and me.

"As a matter of fact..." I began, and Ages' half-smile widened a trifle.

"To be honest," he said, "I found the solitude weighing upon me a little more heavily this morning than it usually does." His smile fell suddenly. "That often happens on these autumn days," he finished, almost inaudibly.

I was probably the only living person who knew the story behind that statement, unless he had told Elizabeth or Justin, which I considered unlikely. And me, he had sworn to secrecy. So far, that promise I'd been able to keep.

"And," he went on, before anyone could ask, "I've found that I do enjoy the company of your family."

He was looking directly at Cynthia as he said that, and when her eyes met his I was certain that she was going to choke on her oatmeal. She swallowed hurriedly, and then, a little to my surprise, she drew herself up to her full height and looked boldly back at him. He was testing her, that much was obvious. And because I still hadn't discussed the subject with Elizabeth, I was undoubtedly the only one at the table--with the possible exception of Timothy--who knew what was going on.

Ages looked pleased when he finally dropped my daughter's unwavering stare a moment later; clearly she had passed the test. He turned to me. "Jonathan my boy," he said, "I wonder if you can help me. I had a most curious conversation with young Eileen just now. You know her somewhat better than I do; perhaps you can explain it."

"Maybe," I said cautiously, very aware of Elizabeth's eyes burning into the side of my head. "What did she say?"

"Well," Ages began. He took a sip of tea and continued, sounding bemused. "She has an appointment with me this morning. Prenatal matters; you know the sort of thing."

"Not personally," I said. "But I can imagine."

"Ahem, yes. At any rate, she stopped me in the corridor a few moments ago and asked me if I would have time to see her sister Judith as well."

I didn't dare meet Elizabeth's gaze; even though my right ear was practically smoking by then. "And what did you tell her?" I asked evenly.

"As it happens, my calendar is fairly empty this morning, and so I said yes, I'd be happy to. Then I asked Eileen what's wrong with Judith, why she needs to see me."

"And what did Eileen say?"

"That's the strange part," Ages said. He removed his glasses, polished them on his napkin, and put them back on. "Eileen said--and I quote: 'that depends on how much force I have to use to get her to the infirmary.'" He paused. "Do you have any idea what she meant by that, Jonathan?"

I gazed at him. One of my best-developed talents, and certainly the one I'm least proud of, is an ability to lie with a perfectly straight face. Recently I'd sworn off--but in this case the alternative was worse. "Ages, old friend," I said, "I really couldn't say." Which statement--when you think about it--actually wasn't a lie after all.

Mr. Ages visiting the Brisby Family at dinner
Art by LordDirk

After breakfast I caught up with Justin. I found our elected leader walking briskly up the corridor not far from the main entrance, and even from behind, as I hurried to match his long-legged stride, I could see that he was feeling better. The color and set of his tail told me that. He greeted me with a smile that seemed genuine; and even from the front he did indeed look rather less haggard. Though I could still detect just a hint of sadness and anxiety deep in his eyes.

He noticed my scrutiny and he smiled as he continued to walk, a little slower now. "It's amazing what a good night's rest can do," he said. "I finally broke down and asked Ages for a sleeping aid."

"Herbal, no doubt," I commented, and Justin nodded.

"Yes," he said. "He told me that he'd given some to you too, when you were having trouble during the summer. Oh, what was the name? Something starting with a 'V'..."

"Valerian," I supplied. "And yes, I did take it a time or two. Put me out like a light, in fact. Ages claims it isn't habit-forming, but..." I shook my head dubiously.

"Oh, I don't plan on making a habit of it," Justin assured me. "But I hadn't slept well for several nights, and just to break that cycle..." He trailed off, shook himself, and smiled again. "What have you got for me?" he asked.

I opened my notebook and passed him the fruits of my labor those last three days: the neatly-inscribed spreadsheet which contained my inventory figures. He paused to unfold and gaze at it carefully. A moment later he nodded and slipped the paper into his own notebook. "Thank you, Jonathan," he said. "This is going to be very useful to me in the weeks to come. To all of us, really." He peered down at me seriously. "I'm just sorry I gave you so much grief over it."

I shook my head. "I still say at least half the fault was mine," I told him. "And as for the rest...I understand. Believe me, I do. So," I went on briskly, "what would you like me to do today?"

"What I'd like you to do," he said with a smile, "is to take the rest of the day off with my compliments." He held up his hand before I could protest. "No arguments," he said firmly. "You do a lot for this community and for me," he went on. "And recently it seems I've been inclined to take you for granted. I want to change that, starting now."

There had indeed been times in my life when I'd felt taken for granted; but these last four months had definitely not been one of those times. Possibly because I'd been far too busy; but more likely because I finally felt a real sense of belonging among the rats. My friends and my family together in one place, coexisting in harmony; how could I help but be content?

"Well," I said slowly, "if you insist..."

"I do," Justin said. "As a matter of fact...I think I might start easing off a little too. I'm starting to believe that what you and Elizabeth have been telling me is right. These people elected me as their leader--not their baby-sitter."

You don't have to hit him over the head too many tines, I thought wryly. "Will you join my family and me for lunch?" I asked.

He grinned and slapped me on the back. "I'll be there," he said. "Enjoy your day, Jonathan. You deserve it." And then he continued up the corridor, leaving me, almost for the first time since I arrived in Thorn Valley, completely at loose ends.

In the end I didn't have quite the quiet, restful day Justin envisioned for me. But at least my morning was productive. In several ways.

I went first to Elizabeth's office up on the second level, full of hope; but she was snowed under with requisition forms. "Later," she told me distractedly. "I think I can get this mess cleared by noon. If so, then we can spend the afternoon together. Deal?"

Like it or not, it was the best I was going to get. I briefly considered staying to help her--just to speed things along, you understand--but the look in her eye made it clear that my assistance was not needed. And so I once again took to wandering the corridors.

I don't want to give the impression that I had worked seven days a week since I came to the valley; that certainly wasn't the case. In fact I generally took at least one, and sometimes two, days off a week. But always before those days had been planned well in advance, activities with my wife and children carefully scheduled. That was deliberate; it was one way in which I hoped to repair my damaged relations with my family, especially Teresa and Martin. But this was different: it was the first time I'd had a day off with absolutely nothing planned; and it was both refreshing and, in a certain sense, frightening. That's your problem, I told myself, as I headed down to the first level. Too much planning. You've forgotten how to be spontaneous.

There was, I suppose, any number of things I might have done; though anything to do with the outdoors was definitely not on the list. Once glance through Elizabeth's office window had been enough to convince me of that. The weather in Thorn Valley that day was unpleasant in the extreme. The wind had risen well beyond a breeze, and it was kicking up little whirlwinds of dust and debris from the farm. Hardly one of my beloved, glowing fall days. I'd stay indoors, thank you.

In the end what I did, albeit briefly, was relax. Simply relax. I stopped by the library first and borrowed a book which I'd been meaning to read for some time; and I took it with me up to the lounge. There, in that huge, quiet and nearly-deserted room, I found a small sofa tucked away in the corner, and, curling myself up thereon, I sat back and read. I had not done so in the daytime for quite a while; somewhere in the back of my mind it almost seemed immoral.

The book I'd chosen was a transcription of a late 18th-Century British novel (though we did have several up-and-coming local authors) and its use of language was both old-fashioned and challenging, requiring all of my attention. For the next hour or so I gave it that. So engrossed was I, in fact, that I entirely failed to notice my older daughter's presence until she cleared her throat softly. "Father, can I speak with you?"

I looked up in surprise. Over the last few weeks I had grown used to Teresa's approach being announced by the thumping of her crutches. But no longer. Her current cast--probably the last she'd need--applied just the previous afternoon and as yet gleaming white and un-autographed, was of the "walking" type, which is to say that it had a hard rubber disk embedded into the heel. She was a little unsteady yet, but glad to have her hands free again.

"Of course you can," I said. I laid by book aside and scooted over. "Sit down. What's up?"

She settled in next to me. This morning she wore a dark-blue skirt and a lighter-blue, sleeveless sweater; the ribbon that tied back her hair matched the skirt. As always since my return I was struck by how lovely she had become; the very image of her mother. At the moment, though, and to my dismay, the look in her big blue eyes was once again one of extreme unhappiness. She'd looked that way at breakfast too, and I'd wondered why; only later had I recalled my late-night conversation with Elizabeth. I owed my dear wife an apology, it seemed: I had dismissed her concerns too quickly.

"I've just been to see Eileen at the school department," Teresa said. "She had our test scores..."

My heart leaped. Fast work, Hacker, I thought. I owe you one. But then I looked closer at Teresa, and my initial surge of excitement suddenly gave way to something more like alarm. "You're not telling me--" I began.

"No," she said quickly. "No, nothing like that. We passed. All three of us passed. We're adults now, officially."

I threw an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. "Congratulations," I said. I paused. Then I went on, carefully, "I hate to say so, honey, but you don't seem particularly happy about it."

She turned away; and to my surprise I saw that her eyes were filling with tears. I hugged her a little closer. "Hey now," I said gently. "What's wrong?"

"Daddy," she said in hopeless, trembling tones, "what am I going to do?"

"I don't quite understand," I said. Actually I did; or at least I thought I did. But if there was one thing I'd learned as a parent, it's to avoid jumping to conclusions. "What are you going to do about what?"

"My life," she said. She sniffled, and I pulled a handkerchief from my tunic pocket and passed it to her. "Everybody has something they want to do. Martin, Timothy...even Cynthia."

"How did you find out about that?" I asked.

She shrugged and grimaced. "I asked," she said. "I wondered why she was reading those strange books--about anatomy and herbs and chemistry. So last night I asked her; and she told me."

"And what--uh--what did you say to her?"

"I told her that if there's anything I can do to help her, all she need to do is ask," Teresa said. She looked at me sharply. "Why? What did you expect me to say?"

"Uh--never mind, honey," I said quickly. "We're talking about you, not your sister. I know you've tried a lot of jobs these last few weeks. Hasn't anything--?"

"No," she said miserably. "Nothing has been right. I'm either too small, or I don't know enough; or it's boring." She nodded down at her cast. "And this hasn't helped either. What was I thinking when I jumped off that boulder? I knew it was too far down..."

"I imagine," I said dryly, "you were thinking about all your friends who had already done it. But that doesn't matter any more, sweetheart." I paused. "You've been here almost five months. You've seen all the kinds of jobs there are. But you're saying that none of them appeal to you?"

"It's not that, exactly," Teresa said. "Because it isn't just a job that I'm choosing. It's a career. Nobody knows how long we'll live. Whatever I choose, I might have to stick with for a very long time, and that's scary."

"Yes, I suppose it is," I said. "When you think about it that way."

"I mean," she went on, "I could go to work for the kitchen, say, or for the cloth mill like Eileen's little sister Kim. I could do the work--but it would just be a job. It wouldn't be something that I really believe in."

"I see your point."

"But," she said, her voice dropping to a horrified whisper, "my friends tell me that if I don't choose soon, Justin will have to assign me to the farm. Is that true, Father?"

I smiled, reassuringly I hoped. "Technically yes," I said. "But I really don't think you have to worry about that. First of all, nobody is going to the farm for a few months yet. It's pretty well closed down for the season. Second, he wouldn't send anybody with a fractured ankle. And third--most importantly--he wouldn't assign anyone named Brisby to anything against her will. He wouldn't dare. I think we've got plenty of time to figure this out, honey, without worrying that the choice will be taken out of our hands."

"What...what should I do, then?"

"First, you need to calm down." I told her. "Nobody wants you to make a snap decision, or go into something that you'll end up hating. Second, now that you don't have to spend so much time studying, it would be a good idea for you to do some thinking. About what your strengths are, and what you might like to do. You are every bit as intelligent as anyone in this community, Teresa. There might be some jobs that you're not large or strong enough to do--that's inevitable for all of us. But there is no job that you're not smart enough to do."

She smiled. "Thank you, Father."

"And don't forget, honey, that sometimes it's possible to create a job, as your mother did. Some people say that what she's doing now is a sinecure--but that isn't true by any means. It was a real, unmet need which she had the wit to recognize."

Teresa gazed thoughtfully out at the windy morning. "That's true," she said. "I wonder..." Then she looked at me and smiled again, returning my slightly crumpled handkerchief. "Thank you, Father," she said. "That does help."

"You're welcome, Teresa," I said. "And there's one other thing I want you to remember too. No matter what you end up choosing, or what ends up choosing you, your mother and I will be proud of you. Just as long as you give it your best."

She kissed me on the cheek, and then she rose, swaying for a second before she found her balance on that little rubber pad. "Thank you," she said again. "Excuse me, please. I've got some thinking to do."

I watched her go, her head bobbing up and down because of the unevenness of her stride. She did seem a little happier now, at least...but for some reason I wasn't satisfied. All I'd been able to offer her were words. And the old saying about actions speaking louder is true.

With some regret, I marked my place about halfway through the fourth chapter of Mary Shelley's "The Last Man", and then I stood, tucking the book under my arm. It would have to be my bedtime reading now, I feared: the remainder of my morning was about to become occupied.

"I'm here to do something I promised myself I wouldn't," I told Alice.

She leaned back and crossed her arms, smiling ruefully. "Offhand," she replied, "I'd say we've all done that a time or two. What's on your mind?"

I'd caught up with Alice late that morning at her office within the school; a small space that looked out over the central play-yard, where twenty or so young rats of varying sizes were currently running amuck, sheltered by the rocks from the worst of the cold north wind. The office was almost filled by her large desk and several overflowing file cabinets. On the walls hung an assortment of pictures, mostly of the kindergarten finger-paint variety. The one that stood on the corner of her desk, though, was quite different: an image of Arthur and Alice along with their numerous progeny, it was not unlike the family portrait that hung on the wall of Elizabeth's office upstairs. This one had also been done by a youngest son, Robert in this case; unlike Timothy, though, he favored pen and ink and a pointillist style.

I leaned back in her guest chair, wondering briefly how many young miscreants had sat and squirmed there. "When my family and I decided that we wanted to stay here," I began, "it was understood that my children would eventually have to find useful work, just as all our youngsters do. I swore to myself that I wouldn't get involved; that I wouldn't try to push them into one career or another. Support them, yes, whatever they chose; but not push."

Alice smiled and nodded. "I think I'm beginning to understand," she said.

"Probably you are," I agreed. "Justin has tried very hard to promote the belief that all kinds of work have equal dignity and worth. And of course I have to agree with him."

"So do I, certainly," Alice said. "As a citizen and an educator. But as a parent..." she shook her head. "It's a little harder."

"Exactly," I said. "If any of my kids went to work for the cleaning department, say, or washing dishes for the kitchen...I'd accept it; but of course I'd be disappointed. Because I think they're capable of much more."

"You don't need to explain that, I assure you," Alice said.

"On the whole I've been pleased. Martin as a skilled craftsman, Timothy as an architect...I know it hasn't happened quite yet, but I don't see anything stopping them. Those are good, solid, challenging careers, and I'm very happy with their choices."

Alice nodded again. "Arthur considers himself lucky to have the both of them," she said. "He believes that there's no limit to their potential."

I grinned. "Of course," I said. "They've got my genes, after all." Then I sobered. "And Cynthia has set herself a goal which makes me prouder than I can possibly express. Though she'd rather I didn't mention it just yet..."

"Oh, I know all about that," Alice said briskly.

You and everybody else, it seems, I thought. I wondered idly who the stool pigeon had been; Eileen, Ages himself, or perhaps Cynthia's friend Rachel. Well, it scarcely mattered now. "And?"

"And we're all behind her one hundred percent, of course," Alice said. "Marie, Eileen and myself." She cocked an eye at me. "There seems to be one kid we've left out so far," she observed.

I smiled tiredly. "You're right," I said. "And she's the one I'm here to discuss. The other three have found their own way--but it appears that Teresa hasn't been able to. Nothing she's tried so far has been right for her--and it's tearing her apart."

"I'd heard some rumors to that effect," Alice confirmed sadly. "But is it possible that you're overreacting just a bit, Jonathan? She is your oldest, after all, your first-born; you're bound to feel differently toward her than the other three..."

"No," I said, shaking my head firmly. "In part you're correct--I do have special feelings about her, certainly. But I'm not overreacting. If you'd seen the state she was in when she found me in the lounge a while ago, you'd know I'm not."

"And you want to help her," Alice said. "That's understandable--but is it really the right thing to do? She is an adult now, Jonathan. Apparently you've already heard that all three of them passed their tests. Which means that she should be starting to solve their own problems."

For a moment I gazed past her, out at the frenetic games of kick-ball and jump-rope, the small rats soaring high on swings and dangling upside down from monkey-bars. Then I said, "Alice, I don't know if I can make you understand this. Yes, she is an adult; yes, she should be solving her own problems. But all the same I have to help her. Because of all the times when I wasn't there to help."

She glanced away and nodded. "I understand, Jonathan," she said softly. Then she fixed me with a stern gaze. "You do know, however, that you're going to have to get over your guilt eventually."

"I know," I replied simply. "And I have been--a little at a time."

"All right," she said. "Then the only other thing I can ask is, why come to me?"

I coughed into my hand. "Well," I said, and trailed off. "How can I explain this? During the time I was away, Teresa took it upon herself to be a kind of assistant mother, so to speak. She got very used to keeping the other three in line--especially Cynthia. Occasionally she could be a little too zealous, so I've heard...but all the same she was a great help to Elizabeth. If there's anything in the world she's suited for, I think it would be working with kids in some fashion."

"She tried working in our day-care center, as I recall," Alice said.

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "Just before she broke her ankle, which put an end to it. But it wasn't working out anyway, though not because she didn't like it. She's too small to cope with a roomful of rat toddlers. They're bigger than she is; they could injure her without meaning to."

"So what do you have in mind?"

"Well," I said, "I wondered if you might have some way of putting her to work with somewhat older kids, ones she wouldn't have to control physically."

Alice stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Of course she's not qualified to be a teacher--not without quite a bit of additional training. But her test scores were very high; she had the best all-around performance by far. I'll have to ask my staff their opinion, but I think--think, mind you--that I could see my way clear to creating a position for her as a kind of teacher's aide. Preparing materials, grading exams, that sort of thing--to begin with at any rate. And the way our community is expanding, I have no doubt that I'll soon be needing some additional teachers." She gazed down at me. "Does that help?"

I smiled broadly. "Immeasurably," I said. "Thanks, Alice."

"Of course this is contingent on whether she agrees--" Alice warned.

"I think she will."

"--And on any objections my teachers might raise--"

"Of course."

"--And," she finished sternly, "just so we understand each other, Jonathan: if she can't cut it, she's out. I really don't expect that will happen, but just because her parents are two of my best friends and the saviors of the community..."

I nodded. "Understood," I said. "And believe me, Alice, I'm not asking that you give her any special treatment. Just a chance. If, as you say, she wants it."

Alice leaned back and chuckled. "It just occurred to me," she said. "You might know that my husband didn't have a very high opinion of either Teresa or Martin when he first met them..."

I grinned ruefully. "So I've heard," I said. Considering that he first met them as he was fishing them, covered head to toe with mud, out of a sluice underneath one of his infamous seeps, I could scarcely blame him. I'd heard that story--at length--directly from Arthur himself.

"And now Arthur has given Martin a job, and I'm all set to offer Teresa one," Alice went on. She shook her head. "Things change, I suppose."

"The one universal constant," I agreed. I looked up at the wall clock then, and saw that both hands were nearly straight up. "And I'm about to be late for a lunch date," I finished. I stood. "Thanks again, Alice. I owe you one."

"Yes," she said pointedly. "You do."

There's a particularly diabolical old curse I heard once, supposedly Chinese in origin: "May you live in interesting times." Some people apparently crave excitement, and go out of their way to seek it. Others have excitement thrust upon them, willing or no. But in the final analysis I think most intelligent people would prefer peace and quiet, at least most of the time. It's a good deal less dangerous, for one thing. Personally I'd had my fill of excitement, and then some. Unfortunately, my life was once again about to take a sharp turn into "interesting," and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

I had that sense of accomplishment again as I made my way quickly to the dining hall: the same feeling I'd had the previous night after I got through spilling the beans to Eileen. It's a feeling that I really should be on guard against, I suppose; because no good ever comes of it.

The four of them were just sitting down as I entered, but fortunately the line at the counter was still fairly short, and I was able to join them only a minute or two later. Elizabeth welcomed me with a nod and a discreet "thumb's-up" gesture, letting me know that she'd managed to clear her afternoon. Which was good; because now I had two very important things to discuss with her, one of them being a high-handed and unilateral action which I could only hope she'd approve.

Three of our children were there too. Teresa looked thoughtful and determined, and fortunately a good deal less miserable than she had only an hour or so before. I could only hope that she would approve of my work on her behalf as well; but I'd wait until we could be alone to discuss it with her. The worst she could do was refuse; and at that point she'd have to be on her own: I'd done the best I could.

And then there were Martin and Timothy, who had officially and irrevocably become working men. They looked it too. Both of them had changed clothes since breakfast, and their new outfits reflected their new status. Martin wore a sturdy tunic made of heavy blue denim, over a long-sleeved plaid flannel shirt. Timothy wore a lighter, long-sleeved white pullover with an open neck, and a dark-grey vest with lots of pockets, out of which protruded an array of pencils. Almost exactly the same costume favored by his friend Robert; that, I was certain, was anything but a coincidence. Elizabeth looked at them with a certain wistfulness, and I couldn't blame her; it seemed as if they had grown to full adulthood in just a single morning. And in a sense they had. Cynthia was not present; she was having lunch at the school. In a way, I suppose, that was a shame; she missed quite a performance. Plus a preview of her future career.

As I slipped into my seat I was looking around, and Elizabeth glanced at me questioningly. "I invited Justin to join us," I explained. "Ah--there he is now!"

Our leader was in fact just emerging from the line, with a tray so heavily-laden that I was surprised he could handle it by himself. Our family table was far too low for him--and our chairs ridiculously small--so he deposited his tray on a nearby table, a small round one intended for just one or two rats, and then he pushed it, and a chair, over next to ours.

"You were saying something about 'belt tightening?'" I asked as he settled in.

"I'm still short on calories from the last three days," he explained with a slightly embarrassed grin.

Actually it was a good sign. Justin had a metabolism something like that of a jet aircraft. He also had that miraculous, not to say annoying, ability to shovel away tremendous amounts of food without gaining so much as a tenth of an ounce. When he wasn't hungry, that's when I started to worry.

"How--how do you feel today, Justin?" Elizabeth asked.

"Better," he told her. "Much better, thank you. I was telling Jonathan earlier that I got a good night's sleep last night, and since then I've been doing a lot of serious thinking, and made some important decisions." He looked over at my children and smiled, abruptly changing the subject. "I happened to run into Eileen a little while ago," he went on. "It appears that congratulations are in order."

The three of them turned bright crimson and smiled; in Teresa's case, I noticed, it was just a tiny bit forced. "Thank you," Timothy said.

"You're welcome," Justin told him. "You know how happy I've been to have you here. All of you," he added quickly, glancing at Elizabeth and me before turning his attention back to the kids. "I know you'll all do well. Arthur's already speaking highly of the two of you--" he nodded at Martin and Timothy. "And as for you, young lady," he went on with mock severity, glancing at Teresa, "I know you won't make me send you to work on the farm."

Teresa jumped, nearly a full inch out of her seat. "I...hope not," she said faintly.

Justin grinned. "Don't worry," he assured her. "I'm only joking, of course. You can take as long as you need. We owe you that."

"Thank you."

While Justin spoke I was peering closely at him, wondering about the exact nature of those "decisions" he'd mentioned a moment before. Was he speaking entirely of his intention to slow down, to let the community run itself a little more? Or did he have something else in mind? Unfortunately I could think of no graceful way to ask. For the moment, I'd have to be content with the fact that his mood seemed to have done a full one-eighty. Actually that was good for all of us, rat and mouse alike: to a very great extent any community takes its mood from its leaders.

For a few minutes there was silence, as Justin dug enthusiastically into his enormous plate of pasta primavera and sourdough bread. Then finally he cleared his throat and said, "Jonathan, I hate to bring up business on your day off, but what do you think about Arthur's plans for developing the fourth level?"

I swallowed hurriedly. Very aware that I had the full attention of both my sons--the mere mention of their employer's name had been enough to prick up their ears--I said, "Well, obviously he's the engineer, not me. But I have to admit that I'm a little concerned. We're going to need the space--but there seems to be an inconveniently large amount of seepage up there. He claims he can get that under control, and if so, fine. Otherwise I don't know who would want to work or live in a place that's a patchwork of drainage sluices."

Justin nodded, "I'm afraid you're right," he said. "As it stands right now it's not even suitable for storage. Arthur is sure, though, that he can--"

What Arthur was sure he could do, I never learned, because at that instant Justin was interrupted; and that was only one of several things that happened in the space of just a few seconds. Several "interesting" things.

I heard the footsteps behind me; or at least I think I did. Suddenly a large hand fell on my right shoulder and spun me around in my chair, so forcefully that my fork went flying onto the floor. Before I knew what was going on, I found myself looking up in astonishment into the usually-attractive face of Judith. A face that was contorted now into a hideous mask of fury. "What--" I gasped; it was as far as I got.

"How dare you?" she demanded. "How dare you poke your nose into my personal business?" Her voice was harsh and barely under control, an equal mixture of rage and helpless tears.

"Judith, I--" I began again, but she cut me off sharply.

"Shut up!" she cried. "Just shut up, Jonathan. You had no right." She glanced at Elizabeth, who was sitting beside me frozen and wide-eyed with horror. "I should have known that she'd tell you," Judith went on. "But you had no right--" Her voice choked off then. She was literally shaking with anger, her right hand still gripping my shoulder like a claw; and as I watched totally without comprehension, I saw her raise her left hand, the fist tightly clenched. The thought came wildly into my head that she was actually going to slug me. I'll never know whether she actually would have or not, but I know what would have happened if she had: she had strong arms, and she was twice my size; obviously, she could have knocked me into next week.

My family and Justin sat stock-still, absolutely rooted to the spot with astonishment; and by now the noisy hall had gone dead silent. As Judith in her rage raised her fist Justin leaped to his feet, upsetting his chair with a crash; but he was on the other side of the table, and someone else got there first: Eileen.

Hacker and her husband had entered the hall at just that instant, so it seemed; and Eileen, despite her condition, dashed across the intervening space to grab her sister's arm. Judith was spun around, her hand tearing free from my shoulder; she ended up nose to nose with Eileen, her arms locked in Hacker's vice-like grip.

"Are you out of your mind?" Eileen demanded. She shook Judith violently. "Are you? Hitting someone half your size...hitting anybody--!"

Judith & Eileen
Art by LordDirk

"How did you find out?" Judith demanded of her mirror image. "The only person I told was her--" clearly meaning Elizabeth, who had now graduated to clutching my hand in terror--"and she told him." She twisted around to glare at me again. "Why, Jonathan? What made you think you had the right--?"

Justin was standing beside me now, his eyes narrowing as they darted back and forth between Judith and me. Philip stood behind his wife, looking concerned, and with good reason: Eileen was in no condition for this. The hall was still pin-drop quiet; some of the rats were frozen in the very act of eating, forks halfway to mouths; and others stood immobile in line with half-filled trays before them. All of them staring at our little tableau. And me--? For once in my life I could find absolutely no words to say.

Eileen glanced at me. Then she said, "Yes, Jonathan did tell me. He did it for your own good, and I for one am glad he did."

Justin looked sharply down at me, and I couldn't meet his gaze. Why me? I thought. Lord, maybe I should have fed myself to the cat when I had the chance...

"And what gives him the right to decide what's 'for my own good'?" Judith demanded. "What gives you?"

I caught a glimpse of movement then; it was Margaret, hurrying out from her office in the depths of the kitchen. Probably she'd heard the shouting. Exactly what went through her mind when she beheld her two oldest daughters, I don't know; but she stopped short several feet away. "Girls!" she gasped.

Angrily Eileen released Judith's arms and thrust her away. "This has gone on long enough," Hacker said. "You're my sister and I love you. But if you think I'm just going to stand back and watch while you--"

Suddenly Eileen paused. Her eyes widened, and her hands dropped to her bulging abdomen. She swayed, and Philip caught her with an arm around her shoulders. "Eileen? Darling?" he said anxiously.

She looked up into his eyes, and then she uttered just two short, quiet syllables: "Uh-oh."

Chapter 6

The corridor outside the infirmary was long, wide and straight, perfect for pacing; and that was exactly the use to which the Captain of the Guard was putting it, endlessly, as I sat on a bench opposite the big double doors. I have no idea how many times Philip passed back and forth before me, his hands clasped tightly behind his back; dozens, certainly. Finally, though, and with a groan, he settled down on the bench next to me and buried his face in his hands.

"I was wondering when you'd finally get tired," I observed.

Philip gazed at me through the bars of his fingers. "I want to thank you for staying with me, Jonathan," he said, somewhat indistinctly. "But you know you don't really have to."

"Yes I do," I told him quietly. "That scene in the dining hall was my fault, and obviously that's what sent her into labor. Staying with you now is the very least I can do."

He reached over and clasped my hand briefly. "I really do appreciate it," he said. He paused. "What in the world was all that about, anyway?"

Suddenly I was treading on very thin ice. "Eileen didn't tell you?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Not really. I mean, I know she had some kind of concern about her sister, but she didn't tell me any more than that. I assumed it had something to do with Judith's relationship with Justin, but..."

I sighed. "Philip, you and I have been through a lot together, and I count you as one of my very closest friends. But that situation started because I couldn't keep my big mouth shut, so please forgive me if all I can say now is: 'don't go there.'"

He looked perplexed, but he shrugged. "All right," he said. "Just answer me one thing. Was Judith really about to hit you?"

"I honestly don't know," I said. "But I'm beginning to think it might have been better if she had. I deserve a black eye--and then some."

He shot me another brief confused glance; and then he turned his attention to the infirmary doors, firmly closed and barred from the inside. "God, what's taking so long?" he muttered in agony. "Please tell me that nothing's going wrong!"

Having been in the exact same situation--four times, no less--I had nothing but sympathy. And this was his first time too. Not--unfortunately--that it gets much easier with repetition. And in this case I actually felt some of his anxiety spilling over into me. Hacker, I thought, if anything has gone wrong, I will never forgive myself. Judith was right; who was I--or Eileen for that matter--to decide what was best for her? Why hadn't I just left well enough alone?

Unfortunately, that last question was easy enough to answer: because you never could.

Finally--I have no real idea how much later--the infirmary doors opened. Philip and I both leapt to our feet as Mr. Ages emerged, drying his hands on a fresh white towel. Ages was smiling, really, honestly beaming from ear to ear. It was an expression which only one thing in the world could inspire: a successful childbirth. Of all Ages' duties, the one he enjoyed the most.

"Philip my boy," Ages announced, "you have a fine healthy daughter."

Philip's legs almost gave way beneath him, and it's a good thing they didn't, because he would have crushed me. "And Eileen--?" he said, half-fearfully.

"She's fine," Ages said. "Tired, of course. You can see them now--but only for a few minutes."

He had to step hurriedly aside as Philip dashed past him into the infirmary. I had a quick glimpse, no more than a second or so, as Philip pushed aside a folding screen in the hospital section: a glimpse of Eileen, my Hacker, lying in a bed holding a tightly-swaddled bundle in her arms and beaming with exhausted joy. Then Philip closed the screen behind him.

I turned to Ages. "Congratulations," I said with a smile. "Another notch in your belt."

"It is truly a joy," he said seriously. "If I did nothing else but that, I would be content."

"Are they--are they really all right?" I asked. "Wasn't the birth a little premature?"

"Three or four days, perhaps," Ages said. "With our females it's not an exact science. But yes, they are both quite well. A good deal easier birth than when Eileen and her sister were born. And a fine strong infant." He peered up at me quizzically. "Why do you ask?"

I shook my head. "I don't know if you heard," I said. "There was a little...incident in the dining hall a while ago. Eileen broke up an argument between Judith and me. She had to get a little physical with Judith--I was afraid it might have caused Eileen to go into labor."

"Possibly it did," he said. "Or possibly not; she was quite far advanced. But yes, I did hear about the incident, from Eileen herself between contractions. She made it clear to me that she doesn't blame you at all."

Thanks, Hacker, I thought. That's another one I owe you.

"Well," I said, "at least Eileen's baby will have a ready-made playmate."

"Pardon me?" Ages asked.

"Her cousin," I explained. "Judith's child. He or she will be no more than three weeks or so younger--"

Ages shook his head sadly. "No," he said. "I'm sorry, Jonathan. I thought you already knew. I examined Judith this morning. She isn't pregnant, my boy. Not by Justin nor anyone else. In fact--if what I fear proves to be true--she might not be able to bear children at all."

My entire family was waiting for me when I returned home, more than four hours after my rudely-interrupted lunch. I was moving slowly now, feeling as if someone had not just slugged me, but actually worked me over with a stick: exhausted and sore all over, probably from the release of nervous tension.

As I said, they were all there, sitting on chair or sofa as the case may be, reading, studying or working. All five of them looked up quickly as I entered, their eyes full of questions. I forced a smile. "It's a girl," I said. "Mother and child are doing fine. Father is...questionable."

Amid their smiles and murmurs of relief I crossed the room and sank down into my favorite chair. Elizabeth rose from the desk and perched herself on the arm, one hand covering mine and the other pressed against my forehead. "Are you all right, dear?" she asked.

I plucked her hand from my brow and kissed it. "Yes I am," I said. "Just a little tired. What--uh--what happened after I left the dining hall?"

"Things calmed down very quickly," Elizabeth said. "Judith all but collapsed after you and Philip took Eileen out. Margaret took Judith back into her office, and that's the last I saw of her." She smiled faintly. "After that, it was all over except for the cleaning up."

I grimaced. "What about Justin?"

She frowned and shook her head. "He...left. He didn't say another word. After Margaret took Judith away, he simply turned and walked out. He didn't even finish his lunch."

And what does that mean? I wondered darkly. I rubbed my aching eyes. I couldn't figure it out now; I simply didn't have the strength. "Judith isn't pregnant," I said quietly.

Elizabeth nearly tumbled off the chair-arm. "What?"

"Ages examined her earlier," I said. "He's not completely sure what her condition is yet--he needs to do some more tests, if she'll let him--but he thinks she's suffering from some kind of a hormonal problem." I paused, stoking my whiskers. "Which could explain quite a bit, now that I come to think about it. But one thing is for certain: she's not, and never has been, expecting a child."

"Oh, the poor girl!" Elizabeth said, and I looked up at her quizzically.

"Pardon me?" I said. "Just last night you said--"

She shook her head. "You wouldn't understand," she said pointedly. "No male can. It's a terrible thing to be so certain, and then to find out that you're wrong. Almost as bad as actually losing a child."

"You're right," I told her. "I don't understand."

"Never mind," she said. She paused, frowning. "So now what do we do?" she murmured.

I drew her down into my lap and held her tight. "Nothing," I told her firmly. "We are going to do nothing. What you do is your own business--but what I am going to do is sit here and appreciate what it feels like not to have a broken nose."

Later that evening Elizabeth and I visited Eileen.

Neither Justin nor Judith showed up for dinner that night, which was hardly a surprise. It was bad enough when my family and I walked into the dining hall. Conversations stilled as I entered, and every eye in the place was on me as I picked up a tray and got in line. I'm sorry if that sounds egotistical; but it was the plain fact. They weren't watching Elizabeth, nor our children; it was me who felt like a bug under glass. The eyes followed me until I sat down; I deliberately turned my back to as much of the hall as I could manage. Then new, whispered, behind-the-hand conversations began to spring up. As much as I usually enjoyed being the center of attention, I was sorely tempted to take my tray and go home. Only Elizabeth's warning glance prevented me from turning around and screaming at all those staring eyes to mind their own business. It was, in short, not the most enjoyable meal I'd ever had. At least the food was good.

As Elizabeth and I entered the infirmary a little later, we found that mother and child were alone, except for a young female rat who was quietly puttering around, sweeping and cleaning. One of Ages' volunteer nurses, she (and others, in shifts) would spend the night there in case Eileen or the new arrival needed anything. The young woman responded to my questioning look with a nod, a smile and a "go ahead" gesture.

Eileen was sitting up in bed, and had apparently just finished her dinner, if the covered tray on the night-table was any indication. She smiled a welcome as Elizabeth and I cautiously peeked around the curtain. "Come in," she said softly. "You're just the people I've been wanting to see."

We did. Hacker looked tired and a little haggard--more so than I'd seen her since the end of the NIMH expedition, in fact--but there was a certain strange, indefinable "glow" about her too. I knew that look very well; I had seen it a number of times before, most memorably in my own beloved wife. On a low table beside Eileen's bed a cradle had been arranged, and in it, wrapped carefully in a pink blanket, was her baby. Elizabeth, drawn as if by a magnetic force, drifted over for a look, and I followed.

To some eyes (but not ours) a newborn rat or mouse might perhaps not be an especially attractive thing, and it is true that even our infants were born much less developed than those of humans. What lay in the cradle, fast asleep apparently, was a small, pink creature that at first glance seemed to be all head. The hands and feet were only half-developed, the fingers and toes barely separated (though much more so than in normal newborn rat) and the tail just a stub; the eyes were dark spots, and wouldn't open for several days yet. She did have a dusting of fur, though; unless it changed color later (which often happened) she would be light reddish brown, almost coppery. I had seen my share of newborn Rats of NIMH--including the one who now lay in bed smiling down at me--and I could see at a glance that Ages had been correct: this was a strong and healthy child.

Eileen caring for her newborn daughter, Jeanette
Art by LordDirk

"Eileen," Elizabeth breathed, "she is beautiful."

"She is, isn't she?" Eileen said proudly. "I fed her just before they fed me; that's why she looks so contented."

"Do you have a name for her yet?" I asked.

Eileen nodded. "Yes we do," she said. "We're going to call her Jeanette."

I nodded. "That's a lovely name," I said. I paused, and then the words tumbled out of me in a rush. "Hacker, I am sorry, terribly sorry, for what happened today..."

She waved that off. "Don't be," she said. "None of it was your fault, Jonathan. Nor yours either, Elizabeth. I'm still glad you told me about Judith, and she should be too. For all we know even now, there might be something seriously wrong with her. And it might never have been discovered if I hadn't dragged her to see Ages."

"She wasn't at dinner tonight," I said. "Neither was Justin."

"Interesting," Eileen said with a grin. "But I very much doubt that they're together. Unfortunately, I think it's much more likely that they're sulking separately."

"You're probably right," I said. I perched myself on the foot of her bed; Elizabeth was still gazing entranced at the small creature who was now stirring slightly. "But as of now," I went on, "that is officially their problem. I'm bowing out."

"That might be the safest course," Eileen agreed wryly. She gazed down at her child. "In a way I'm sorry Judith's not pregnant," she said softly. "Though I'm sure Jeanette will have other playmates. But on the whole I suppose I have to be glad she isn't. I don't know what kind of life the poor kid would have had. I'm beginning to think that my sister really isn't capable of love."

Elizabeth looked up sharply, but before she could speak I quickly changed the subject. "Where's that husband of yours?" I asked Hacker.

She grinned. "I sent him to get some food and rest a little while ago," she said. She shook her head. "Honestly, the way he was hovering over the both of us was enough to drive me crazy. I've never seen anything like it."

Elizabeth stepped over and grasped my hand. "I have," she told Eileen. "Believe me, I have."

For some reason that I wasn't quite able to fathom, my most important conversations with my wife seemed to take place late at night, in bed.

It was that way in our old life too. There are some thing you just don't say in front of kids, some worries that you don't air because it might frighten them to overhear. And so you wait until you're sure they're asleep. In previous times it was that sort of conversation which we'd had most often, as we lay huddled close together for warmth; but it wasn't the only sort. In fact our topics ranged far and wide. It was those late-night talks which very quickly convinced me, beyond any doubt, that Elizabeth was absolutely, emphatically not the dumb animal that her slanderers--such as my dear friend Jenner--often said she was. In fact, even in the early days of our marriage, she had demonstrated a level of understanding that often surprised me. I remembered those conversations very clearly, and--I am sorry to say--not always with unalloyed joy, because they often came close to subjects that I was incapable of discussing with her. Such as my past, and the identity of the mysterious "friends" I visited every few days. It was during those talks that I honed my most shameful and best-forgotten talents, those of evasiveness and outright lying.

But those days were gone, and--for several reasons--when we talked in bed now I found it utterly impossible for me to either evade or prevaricate. Which in the long run is a good thing, I suppose.

Elizabeth and I both retired fairly early that night, but we didn't have much luck trying to sleep. I felt exhausted, worn out, though in truth I had scarcely done a thing, physically speaking, all day. But my mind was still running a hundred miles an hour, replaying the day's events over and over, and it wouldn't let me rest quite yet. And Elizabeth was too full of the sight of Eileen's beautiful baby. We sat up, half-facing each other with our pillows bulked behind us, and one bedside lamp, burning very low, making shadows dance on the smooth stone walls.

I started to tell her about Cynthia, but she almost immediately brought me to a halt. "Oh, I know about that already," she said. "I have for days."

"That is without a doubt the most open secret in the history of the world," I said bitterly. "And how did you find out, may I ask?"

"Timothy told me," she said. "He knew that I was worried about Cynthia--I thought she was studying too hard. So he told me why she's doing it."

"And you kept it a secret."

"Of course," she said. "That's the way she wanted it, wasn't it?"

That's the way Judith wanted it too, is what I might have said; but it would have been pointless. My dear wife now had a measured IQ among the highest in the community, but the flow of logic through her brain remained for me as incomprehensible as ever. I can only assume that it was a female thing. "And I take it you approve?" I asked.

She gazed at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars. "Of course I do," she said. "How could I not?"

"And you think she's...capable?"

"Certainly she is," Elizabeth told me firmly. "She's capable of anything. But," she went on in menacing tones, "the first time Mr. Ages is mean to her will be the last. Or he'll be hearing from me."

I believed that; I honestly did. "And would you care to know what I've done to help Teresa, or have you deduced that too?" I asked.

She looked at me sharply. "Last night you didn't seem to think she needed any help."

"That was my sleepiness talking," I replied with a sheepish grin. "And that was before she came to me in the lounge, practically in tears."

Elizabeth glanced at me again, and opened her mouth as if to speak; but then she turned away. "What is it?" I asked.

"Nothing, really," she said. "It's just...well, how can I put this? I find it interesting that she went to you for help. I'm sorry to say so, dear, but not too many weeks ago I don't think that would have happened."

"You're right, it wouldn't," I agreed soberly. "And believe me, darling, the significance wasn't lost on me. Not at all."

"So--what did you do?"

I told her. By the time I finished she was nodding thoughtfully. "I like it," she said, to my infinite relief. She grinned. "Of course I'd like it better if you had discussed it with me before you did it," she went on pointedly. "But I honestly believe you might be on to something there. She was enjoying working with the children in the day-care center, more than anything else she's tried. They were just too much for her to handle. But you haven't spoken to her yet?"

I shook my head. "Haven't had a chance, with one thing and another. Would you like to be there when I do?"

She looked at me for a long moment, then she shook her head. "No," she said. "No, Jonathan, I think it might be best if you did this yourself."

"Thank you," I said. "Will she want the job, do you think?"

Elizabeth smiled wryly. "To be honest, I doubt it," she said. "At least not at first. But maybe after she's thought about it a little, she'll be willing to give it a try."

"I hope so," I said. For a moment we were silent, then I said, "You know, darling, seeing Eileen's baby this evening brought back a lot of memories..."

"Yes," she agreed. "It certainly did."

"It got me to thinking, too," I went on. "Now that we're living here, where we're safe and secure, and now that we're both going to stay young and strong indefinitely...I was wondering if you'd be willing to consider--"

"No," she said, quickly and with finality. "I wouldn't."

The next morning Justin was nowhere to be found.

He wasn't in the dining hall when my family and I arrived for breakfast, which didn't really surprise me much. Judith was, though, and that did surprise me a little. She was sitting alone at a table in the far back corner, picking rather disinterestedly at her food. I noticed instantly that she was dressed not in her usual work outfit, but in a skirt and a sweater. To the best of my knowledge Judith never took a day off; what was going on here?

Elizabeth caught me staring. "Jonathan," she said warningly, and I shrugged.

"It's a public dining hall," I said.

"Yes," she agreed. "Maybe a little too public."

Even as Elizabeth said that, Judith looked up...and across the room our eyes locked. For thirty seconds or more we stared at each other...and then she looked away, somewhat shame-faced. I wondered just what her mother had said to her yesterday. Something about "respect for your elders," mayhap? Not that I'd ever tried to get much mileage out of that Original 22 business...

"I do hope nothing is seriously wrong with her," Elizabeth murmured. "She deserves better. She's never been a very happy person..."

If so, I thought, a big part of it is her own fault. But of course I didn't say so; no good starting the day with an argument.

As we ate, I couldn't help but notice that Cynthia looked a little nervous, and that she was dressed somewhat unusually for her, in a very plain, very beige skirt and short-sleeved blouse. "Is everything okay, sweetie?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said, just a little too quickly. Her eyes darted around the table. Then she went on, "I hope so, anyway. It's Career Day at school. I'm signed up to spend the entire day with Mr. Ages."

If she expected a big stir, she was disappointed. In fact there was only one person at the table to whom that statement meant nothing, and that was Martin. He looked over at his little sister in amazement. "So that's why you've been reading those weird books..." he said.

Her whiskers bristled pugnaciously as she stared across at him. "Yeah, that's right," she said. "Any problems?"

"Who, me?" Martin protested. "I don't have any problems." He looked around. "Except that it looks like I'm the last to know." He reached across and clasped her hand. "Good luck, Sis," he said. "I know you'll do great."

Cynthia's jaw dropped, almost into her cereal. "Thanks," she said faintly.

I hid my grin behind a mug of tea. She had wanted her career plans kept secret, I knew, because she'd been afraid that her brothers and sister would make fun of her. No--strike that. Not "brothers", plural, but "brother," singular. To the best of my knowledge Timothy had never made fun of her for any reason. The other two, though, had a rather unfortunate reputation in that regard. At least they used to; yes, they were definitely all growing up.

"You should have an interesting time," I told Cynthia. "Especially after yesterday. And Ages ought to still be in a good mood, too."

"He'd better be," Elizabeth muttered around her spoon. "Or else."

After breakfast I went in search of my boss. I went first, as I usually did, to his office; but he wasn't there. I knocked, and I even dared to open the door and peek inside; but no one was at home. His bedroom door was open, and that space too was unoccupied, except by his neatly-made bed. His absence was strange but not unprecedented; he occasionally had business which took him out of the office early. What was strange, though, and totally unprecedented, was that he had left me no instructions. Always before, if he knew he wouldn't be able to do so personally, he would leave me a list of assignments tacked to a cork-board outside his office door. Today that board was bare.

Well, there seemed to be very little else I could do except to look for him, and I did so, feeling somewhat irritated. Far too much of my time on the job was spent tracking people down or otherwise playing "office tag." If only Arthur could come up with some kind of two-way radios or pagers, was a thought I'd often had. The total impossibility of it, given our current level of technology, didn't prevent me from dreaming, as my friend Hacker still dreamed of her very own computer. Maybe someday.

A quick search of the corridors failed to locate our leader, or indeed anyone who had seen him that morning. Finally I found myself at the main entrance. Philip was on guard duty there, and he looked terrible, leaning on the (largely ceremonial) pikestaff as if he would collapse without its support. And perhaps he would have. His uniform was rumpled, which was a first, and his fur disheveled, which was another; his eyes were red-rimmed and three-quarters closed.

"I didn't sleep a wink last night," he told me indistinctly. "Not a wink."

I looked up at him curiously. "They're both doing fine, you know," I said, and he nodded.

"I know," he said. "Intellectually, I know. But every time I was about to drop off last night, some new worry would hit me. Some new 'what-if.'"

I smiled sympathetically. I'd been there too, indeed I had; and I didn't have the heart to tell him that the fun had only just begun. "You haven't by any chance seen Justin, have you?" I asked.

He didn't need to check his logbook. "Yes I have," he said. "He went outside a little more than an hour ago. He said he was headed out to inspect the farm."

Did he really, I thought. I stood for a moment in a state of indecision, looking out through the main doors into a misty, glowing, and just slightly chilly autumn morning. Should I follow him? Our farm was a big place, and he could be anywhere on it. And I knew Justin; I knew that "inspecting the farm" was often his excuse for solitary brooding. Should I search him out?

No, I decided a moment later. He had not "forgotten" to leave me any instructions, I was sure of that. I wasn't quite certain exactly what kind of game he was playing; but I knew that I didn't care to participate.

And so I turned back inside. "Good luck," I told Philip, and received an indecipherable mumble in return.

I really don't know what I would have done, in the absence of any direct orders; I suppose I would have found some way to benefit the community. But I was spared the necessity of choosing, because some minutes later I passed the down-ramp from the second level and saw Alice exiting there. I fell into step beside her as she headed for the school.

"Jonathan!" she said. "I was hoping I'd run into you this morning. I was just escorting Cynthia up to the infirmary for her Career Day with Mr. Ages."

I smiled. "Forgive me for saying so," I said, "but that's a half-truth if I ever heard one."

"Pardon me?"

"I think my daughter knows the way to the infirmary," I said dryly. "I have feeling you went so you could get a look at our new arrival."

She smiled sheepishly. "Guilty as charged, I'm afraid," she said. "I never can resist. Jeanette is lovely, isn't she?"

"Yes she is," I agreed. "And if she's inherited her mother's brains and her father's courage, we're all in deep trouble." I paused. "You said you were hoping to see me, Alice?"

"Yes," she said. "I thought you might like to know--I had a talk with my staff yesterday afternoon--about Teresa."


Alice walking along with Jonathan
Art by LordDirk

Her smile widened. "Not only do they have no objections, but they all argued over who gets the job of training her. It's unanimous--we give her a try."

I reached up and clasped her hand. "Thanks, Alice," I said. "Thank you very much."

And with that I started off at a brisk and mildly illegal jog down the corridor. All of a sudden my morning had a definite and urgent purpose: finding my older daughter.

As it turned out, Teresa wasn't too difficult to locate. I just had to follow the giggling.

Upon my arrival in Thorn Valley I was extremely gratified to see how well my children had been accepted into the society of the Rats of NIMH--especially because it might have gone far otherwise. My kids were of course every bit as intelligent as the children of the rats. As far as we could tell those genes always bred true. But there was the difference in species to consider, and consequently size and strength; and there was also the fact that my four had not enjoyed the same advantages as the rats, in terms of education and experience. The young rats might have rejected them, ridiculing them as if they were the proverbial poor country cousins. Or--worse, in my view--those youngsters might have allowed my kids to hang around with them, but only so they could be the butt of cruel jokes and torment. As much as it pains me to say so, even hyper-intelligent civilized rats are not totally immune to that sort of thing.

But fortunately, neither of those things happened. Quite the opposite, in fact: my children were welcomed into the community faster and more thoroughly than I would have believed possible. To a certain extent I think they could thank their family name for that. I can't take much credit, though; these days it was Elizabeth Brisby, not Jonathan, whom the rats most revered as a hero and savior. But whatever the reason, family fame or natural charm, my kids were well-supplied with friends; and good friends too, not youngsters whose chief delight was teasing them.

I'd also been gratified to see that each of my kids had managed to acquire one particular "best" friend, of their own ages and genders. In Timothy's case--as everyone in the community well knew--it was Arthur's youngest son Robert. The two of them sometimes seemed nothing short of grafted together at the hip. (Though a complication had recently begun to rear its very attractive head: her name was Kim.) For Martin it was a large and strong rat, an aspiring Guardsman, named Jake. They worked out together in the gym almost daily. In Cynthia's case it was an attractive and very serious young rat named Rachel, with whom she studied. And--last but not least--Teresa's best friend was a striking dark-furred rat named Flea.

I must hasten to explain, lest you get the wrong idea: that name had nothing at all to do with her grooming habits. (Such thing were not tolerated in Thorn Valley anyway.) In fact it was a nickname; partially a pun on her given name (which was "Felicia") and partly a wry comment on the fact that as a small child she had been, shall we say, seldom staying in one spot longer than five seconds. Exactly who gave her that nickname no one remembered; but it had stuck like glue, and was still used by adults and youngsters alike. Mostly because it was still accurate.

Felicia, being almost exactly the same age as Teresa, was theoretically an adult. But unlike my daughter, she was well settled into a job, if not indeed a career. A living demonstration of Justin's belief that all work had equal dignity, Flea toiled quite happily on the cleaning crew, the people who swept and mopped our hallways, scrubbed and sanitized our restrooms, and did other, somewhat less attractive jobs as well. A very necessary line of work--but (just between you and me) I'm glad that none of my kids went into it full-time.

When I caught up with Teresa that morning, she was assisting Flea at her most common job, that of re-supplying the restrooms on the first level. The large cart that Felicia pushed was loaded with supplies, including such items as jugs of liquid soap for the dispensers, and stacks of towels fresh from the laundry. The restrooms--some of them just a WC, and some including a bathtub as well--were fairly evenly-spaced along all our corridors, somewhat more frequently in the residential sections. At each one along her route Flea would stop, knock, enter if it was unoccupied, assess what was needed, and deliver it. On the back of her cart hung a large canvas bag; into that went the used towels for delivery back to the laundry. Like I said, a necessary line of work.

After I found the two of them I hung back for a moment, watching and listening in some amusement. Felicia was by no means a bad worker; in fact she was very good at what she did. But in combination with Teresa...I had to wonder how Flea's boss (who was also her grandfather) would have felt about the low percentage of work versus hilarity that I was observing.

That must have been on their minds too, at least subconsciously, because when I cleared my throat they both jumped nearly high enough to hit the ceiling, and the look on those two lovely faces as they turned was one of abject terror. "Mr. Brisby!" Felicia squeaked.

My daughter, however, recovered a little more gracefully. "Hello, Father," she said with dignity.

"Hello, ladies," I said blandly. "Working hard--?" I don't know if either one of them knew the second half of that old cliché, but they exchanged a guilty glance nonetheless.

Flea was undeniably a very attractive young woman. Rather tall even for our females, she was slim and muscular; I had seen her do some rather spectacular and alarming things on the gymnastic equipment. Her fur was a shade of dark grey only slightly removed from jet black, a color that was accentuated by the white shirtwaist dress and head-scarf of her uniform. When you got to know her you realized that she was quite intelligent and well-spoken; but to find that out you had to get past your first impression, and the fact that she had enough energy for three or four rats tended to put some people off a little.

I smiled. "Flea," I said, "may I borrow my daughter for a while?"

They exchanged another glance, a worried one this time. "Uh--okay, sure," Felicia said. "I think I can manage on my own for a while."

"Thank you," I said with a bow. I extended my hand to Teresa. "Can I speak to you for a few minutes, honey?"

Teresa gazed at me curiously. "All right," she said, and she fell into slightly wobbly step beside me as I started slowly up the corridor. "Is everything...all right?" she asked.

"Everything's fine," I said. Which wasn't exactly true, but close enough for the moment. We had reached a section of the hallway that was momentarily deserted, some distance away from Felicia and her notoriously sharp hearing. "Let's sit," I suggested, and we did. I reached over and grasped her hand, and gazed earnestly into her rather confused blue eyes.

"I was wondering," I said, "if you'd made any decisions since we spoke yesterday."

She glanced away and shook her head. "Not really," she said. "Or maybe I should say only negative ones." She looked at me and half-smiled. "I've made a list of the things I don't want to do. I don't want to cook, or sew, or weave, or clean." She waved a hand back down the corridor. "I was only helping Felicia today to make myself useful."

"Of course," I said, dead-pan.

"But I'm afraid that hasn't helped much," she went on. "I know what I don't want--but I'm not any closer to deciding what I do." She shook her head again. "And as hard as I try, Father, I can't seem to come up with any ideas for a job to create, like Mother did."

I took a deep breath. "I had two reasons for asking," I said. "First, because I'm concerned about you, and what's going to become of you. But there's something else too. I want you to promise, Teresa, that you'll really listen to what I'm about to say, and seriously consider it. All right?"

"All right, Father," she said, mystified. "I will."

"Okay. Yesterday, after we spoke, I went and scouted out an opportunity for you. I just found out a few minutes ago that the person I spoke to is willing to give you a try. Now, before you say anything, honey, let me explain two things. First, I didn't do this because I thought you wouldn't be able to find anything yourself. Far from it. And second, nothing is written in stone. No one is forcing you to take this job, least of all me. I wouldn't have the right anyway. The opportunity is there for you--but only if you decide you want it."

"I...don't quite know what to say," Teresa said. "Thank you. What--uh--what is it?"

"As I said, it's just a suggestion, but it isn't a random one, and I hope you'll give it some serious thought." I paused and smiled. "Teresa, honey, how would you like to become a teacher's aide?"

For a full minute she gazed unblinkingly at me, and I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Finally she said, "I--don't know. I mean, after the day-care center..."

"No more of that," I promised. "I've talked this over with Alice. She wants to put you to work with older kids." I grinned. "Ones you'll never have to diaper. And that's not all, honey. If this does appeal to you, you wouldn't have to stay an aide forever. Alice already has thoughts of training you as a teacher."

There's a fine line, I know, between selling and pushing; and with my older daughter it was often difficult to locate that line with certainty. She hesitated, looking away. "I...I don't know," she said. "It sounds tempting, but I'm not sure....It's so sudden."

Silently, I cursed myself. Too fast, I thought. Elizabeth was right as usual. I'd have to try to back off a little. "As I said," I told her, "no one is trying to pressure you into anything. I personally think this could be good for you--but it's not my opinion that really counts." I rose, and drew her to her feet. "Can I at least convince you to speak to Alice about it? She can give you a much better idea of what she's got in mind than I can."

Again she hesitated for a long moment; but then she smiled broadly. "Yes," she said firmly. "Yes, Father, I will."

"Good," I said. "I think we can find her in her office now, if you're willing."

We turned and headed down the corridor toward the school. A minute or so later she said, "I...didn't expect you to do something like this, Father."

I smiled and squeezed her hand. "I know," I said. "But that's what I'm here for."

Teresa was a little late for lunch that day, which isn't too surprising. The rest of my family was there when I arrived, though. Including Cynthia; or--at very least--a very determined young woman who answered to her name.

"What have you been up to this morning, dear?" Elizabeth asked as I slipped in next to her, pausing to kiss her on the cheek.

"Not much," I said. "Justin didn't leave me any instructions, and he went out to the farm before I could speak to him."

She frowned. "That's not like him," she said.

"No, it isn't," I agreed. "I suppose I'll have to look for him again later. I did have that talk with Teresa, though."

Elizabeth looked over at me quickly. "And?"

"And," I said over the top of my sandwich, "I last saw her at the door to Alice's office. I can't say she was absolutely sold on the idea--but she was at least willing to talk it over with Alice and her staff."

"That's something, anyway."

Across the table Timothy and Martin were listening; Martin with a look of confusion, and Timothy with narrowed eyes, telling me that he was, as usual, busy putting two and two together. Well, no need for me to explain; they'd hear about it soon enough from Teresa herself. Cynthia, however, was most definitely not listening. She was eating mechanically, evidently on automatic pilot, while staring off into space. The look in her big brown eyes was at once thoughtful, determined, and...serene, I guess I'd say. Like someone who has achieved Nirvana.

I cleared my throat. "How did your morning with Mr. Ages go, sweetie?" I asked.

Cynthia shook herself and looked across at her mother and me. "I've found it," she told us seriously. "The minute I walked into to the infirmary this morning I knew. That's what I'm going to do with the rest of my life, Dad, Mom. It has to be."

I had never heard such a tone in her voice before: it was the sound of utter, calm certainty. Beside me Elizabeth was gaping, no doubt wondering what had happened to her scatterbrain younger daughter. "Mr. Ages thinks so too," Cynthia went on. She looked around and leaned closer. "I'm not really supposed to tell anyone yet," she whispered. "But I'm in. Mr. Ages told me so. As soon as I graduate I go to work for him full-time--and I'll be studying with him in my spare time starting now."

We all reached across the table to clasp her hand. "Congratulations," I said. "I knew you could do it."

"And so did I," Elizabeth put in. There were murmurs of agreement from Timothy and Martin too. Especially Timothy.

If it had been anyone else but Ages, I might have suspected that friendship had played a part in the decision. But not him. Nor would I have wanted it to be that way in any case. It was simply too important a job. His assistant would share his responsibility for the health of the entire community; between the two of them they would almost literally have the power of life and death. Only the most qualified and dedicated individual could possibly be considered; friendship could have no part in it.

"Eileen and her baby are doing fine," Cynthia told us. "Mr. Ages thinks they can go home tomorrow."

I grimaced. Philip my friend, I thought, you'd better get some sleep while you can!

"And Judith was in this morning too," Cynthia said, lowering her voice even more.

"I don't suppose you're permitted to discuss your cases--" I said casually, and Cynthia smiled impishly.

"No," she said. "And I didn't understand a quarter of what Mr. Ages told her anyway. Not yet, at least. But it seems that what's wrong with her isn't life-threatening. She was there for almost an hour. He finally sent her off with a half-dozen different kinds of pills, and told her to make an appointment in two weeks." She grimaced. "I've got a list of all the herbs he gave her. I'm supposed to research the origin and use of each one and report back to him this afternoon. My first lesson."

Elizabeth and I were scarcely listening to the last part of what Cynthia said, I'm afraid; we were still stuck on the first part. We exchanged a speculative glance; and then I risked a quick look over my shoulder. Judith was indeed in the hall, sitting once again at the table in the back corner; and arranged before her was a chorus line of small corked bottles, whose labels she was examining one by one. "I hope," I said dryly, "that at least one of those is a natural, herbal tranquilizer."

Just then--no doubt sparing me Elizabeth's wrath--Teresa entered the hall. Ignoring the line at the counter, she hobbled directly over to our table; and then, while the rest of the family watched in amazement, she threw her arms around me and kissed me firmly on the cheek. "Thank you, Father," she said. "You're the best."

I grinned in embarrassment as she turned and made her way to the line. "It appears," I observed, "that Teresa may have finally found her niche."

Someone once postulated that life has a kind of automatic balancing mechanism: for every good thing that happens, something bad has to come along to compensate. I'd always considered that to be fatalistic nonsense--but recent events were turning me into a believer.

Suddenly--with a suddenness, in fact, that was nothing short of breathtaking--my children were all taken care of. Oh, I had no doubt but that they would have their bad days; they were starting very much at the bottom of their chosen professions, and all of them, I was sure, would occasionally become frustrated with their rate of progress. I had a feeling that Martin might be especially vulnerable to that. All of them would come home once in a while and announce that they hated their jobs. But I knew also that all of them would stick to those jobs and excel. Of that we could all be certain.

Which left only one major problem yet to be addressed, so far as my offspring were concerned. The problem of (as Hacker once put it in her own irrepressible way) "going out and kidnapping some mates for them." And that was one which I didn't yet feel myself capable of confronting.

And so it was that I was riding pretty high as I walked the corridors that afternoon, intending--in the absence of any instructions pro or con--to see if anyone else in the community was in need of my incredible wisdom. Unfortunately, as was happening with distressing frequency lately, my good mood wasn't destined to last very long; because I almost immediately ran into Justin.

In my long association with the ex-Captain of the Guard and current elected Leader, I had seen him in a really somber mood only half a dozen times or so; and every time I did, it was bad news all around. When he found me in the hallway near his quarters he spoke just a few quiet words: "Let's take a walk." And then he turned and set off, not even bothering to see if I was following. We headed slowly through the corridors, not to his office as I'd expected, but to--and then through--the main entrance, under the watchful and phlegmatic gaze of Brutus.

Outside it was indeed one of those autumn days that I loved so well. The sky was pale blue, with a small line of clouds to the south. The western ridge was visible but softened by the haze. The trees in the forest were turning color en masse now, a riot of orange, yellow and red. A little closer, some two dozen or so rats were working on the farm, clearing out or plowing under the remains of the season's harvest.

Justin led me across the grassy area that fronted the main entrance, and which was growing a little patchy and ragged now with the onset of fall. Near the lake-shore he sat down cross-legged in the sparse shade of some half-bare bushes, and I settled down across from him. A little distance away, out in the middle of the running track, a group of youngsters were having a game of soccer; their voices drifted over to us intermittently, carried by the soft warn breeze.

Justin sat for several minutes looking sad and tired, gazing out over the lake. Finally he sighed, turned his eyes upon me, and spoke quietly. "Jonathan, a few days ago I told you something, in confidence, about a relationship I was then having with Judith. I asked you to keep that information to yourself, and you said that you would. Is that correct?"

"Yes, but--"

He shook his head. "No 'buts,' Jonathan. I told you that Judith believed herself to be pregnant with my child, and you promised to keep it confidential." He signed. "And yet, that very evening, you chose to break that promise, and reveal that information. Is that also true?"

"It isn't as if I shouted it from the rooftops--" I began, but once again he cut me off, a little more forcefully this time.

"Yes or no, Jonathan. Is it true that you broke your promise?"

I looked away. "Yes," I said. "When you put it that way, yes."

"There are a number of other things I could say," Justin went on. "Yes, it might be true that it was for her own good. No, you didn't make it known to the general public, only to her sister. And yes, it did turn out that Judith's problem wasn't pregnancy, but rather something else, which Ages is still working to treat. All of this is true." He leaned forward. "But none of it matters, Jonathan. Right now the only thing that matters to me is the fact that you have damaged my trust in you. I can forgive your unorthodox methods of doing your job, because I know that your work will get done in good time, one way or another. I can overlook your irreverent attitude, because I've been known to have one too. And I can understand your independent streak, as well as what you've sacrificed in order to give your family a safe home here.

"But what I can't overlook, or forgive, or even understand, is your betrayal of my confidence. It doesn't matter whether you were right or wrong, Jonathan. The only thing that matters is that it shouldn't have happened at all. As my assistant you've had access to a great deal of information which could be considered confidential. Up until now I've trusted you with it--but I honestly don't know if I can any more."

"Justin," I said, "this is ridiculous..."

"Is it really?" he asked. "Tell me, how would you have felt if I, months ago and for your own good, went to Elizabeth and told her your little secret? I very nearly did, you know. I came within ten seconds of telling her everything, as I lay under those rocks. But I didn't. And the reason I didn't was that I had promised. And for me, Jonathan, that went beyond any question of good or bad. You asked, and I promised. That was all I needed to know. But when it was the other way around..." he shook his head grimly. "I think you see my problem now."

"What do you want me to say?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don't know," he replied. "Because no matter what you say, I'm not sure if I can believe you any more."

"Does that mean," I began, and choked off. I tried again. "Does that mean you're firing me?"

"No," he said. "I'm not. Jonathan, I am terribly tired right now, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm more than a little confused too. I thought I had things figured out--but now it seems that I don't any more. I don't want to do something that I'll regret later. So no, you're not fired. Not yet anyway. But I think it might be better for both of us if we didn't try to work together for a few days."

"Suspended, then?"

He shrugged again. "If you like," he said. He rose. "I'll let you know when I'm in need of your services again, Jonathan. Until then I think it might be best if we stay out of each other's sight."

And with those quiet words he turned and walked away, leaving me sitting there stunned. I would have made an absolutely terrible member of the debating team, I suppose: I never could argue against anyone who I know is right.

Chapter 7

And then the rains came.

To be brutally honest, I was never all that enamored with the life of a field mouse. Though it's definitely better than "experimental animal," it's not the most comfortable--nor the safest--occupation in the world. Many times I'd cursed the lack of courage which had prevented me from rescuing my wife and children from those dangers and discomforts. Ironic, I suppose, that they finally ended up rescuing themselves. All I had ever found it possible to do was to provide them with the occasional luxury--and then ignore or evade the inevitable questions as to where it had come from. In every imaginable way our new life was safer, more comfortable, more fulfilling...but if our old life did have one redeeming feature, it was this: never once in all that time had I been obliged to tell my family that I'd been suspended from my job.

That was one of the hardest things I'd ever had to do, and not just because of my wounded pride. My relationship with my family--most especially with my older children--still seemed terribly fragile to me, and I honestly feared that this might damage it irreparably. What would they think of a father who could only hang onto a job for four months? And come to that, could I even hold up my head in public any more? A disgrace to family and community, that's what I was; I fully expected to be expelled from the community, forced to go live in a hole somewhere. And long before then my wife would have kicked me out of our bed, to sleep on the sofa or on a bench in the corridors.

Of course--as you're no doubt already thinking--I should have given my family and friends more credit. And in the long run I should have given our leader more credit too. In the short run, though...

After Justin walked away I sat for some time under that bush, contemplating the nature of friendship...and dreading the thought of going inside and facing the music. As I sat the shadows lengthened around me, and the soccer game ended, the players trooping toward the main entrance, taking the goal nets, marker cones and ball with them.

Finally, with a sigh, I rose, dusted off the seat of my tunic, and began the long walk back across the lawn. It was not any sudden access of courage that led me to do so: in fact it was the weather. The line of clouds to the south was growing steadily larger and closer, driven by what had become an unpleasantly sharp and chilly breeze. I paid scant attention except to the cold. That's actually rather unusual for me; having lived long stretches of my life in places utterly without weather, I usually gained a great deal of pleasure from watching the play of sun, cloud and wind over my adopted home. That day I was too preoccupied and morose. I've sometimes wished that I'd paid closer attention; not that there's anything one small mouse can do to change the weather, but the forewarning might have spared me some discomfort.

I made my way home as quickly as I could, my head lowered, responding with monosyllables to the greetings that came my way. None of them knew, not yet; would they even speak to me any more, when they learned that I'd become a pariah?

Elizabeth was alone in the apartment when I arrived, sitting at the desk; the kids were not yet back from work and/or Career Day. The instant she saw my face, my wife rose from her chair in alarm. "Jonathan? What's wrong?"

I sank down on the smaller sofa, and motioned for her to join me; and as soon as she had settled into my arms, I told her. At first she looked shocked, her blue eyes growing huge and her jaw dropping open; then she turned away. A few seconds later I realized to my alarm that tears were running down her whiskers.

"Jonathan," she said softly, "I'm sorry. This is all my fault..."

"How do you figure that?" I found my handkerchief and passed it to her. "I'm the one who told Eileen."

"I know," she said. She dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. "But if I'd kept my mouth shut about what Judith told me, you probably wouldn't have..."

"And then Judith's problems might still be untreated," I pointed out. "But that isn't what Justin has a problem with, darling. I broke my promise. It really doesn't matter to him whether I had a good reason or not. And it shouldn't matter to me either."

Elizabeth shook her head firmly. "No," she said. "I don't believe that. Loyalty is a wonderful thing--I'm all for it. But there are certain circumstances when it just doesn't apply, and this is one of them. Judith was thinking about destroying a life. That goes well beyond any questions of loyalty or honor."

I peered at her and half-smiled. Her tears were entirely dried now, replaced by rising indignation. "Meaning that you don't believe in absolute loyalty?"

"No," she said simply. "I don't. I can't. Because in the real world there are far too many 'yes, but' situations. Circumstances do alter cases, my darling. They have to."

I kissed her. "Thank you," I said. "That's one vote on my side, anyway."

"You're welcome." She said. She shook her head, and suddenly her eyes were blazing. "I've got a good mind to find Justin and kick him in the ankle," she went on. "He had no right..."

"Unfortunately, he did," I corrected her. "Every right. I am his employee, after all--at least I think I still am--and he can set whatever rules for me that he chooses."

"Within reason," she countered. "The way I see this, dear, he's taking his problems with Judith out on you. And that's not fair."

"That may be," I said. "But I think we're going to have to wait until he figures that out. Promise me you won't say anything to him, Elizabeth. I know that temper of yours, and I don't want both of us to be in trouble."

Once again she looked away. "All right," she said. "I promise." She grinned. "Though I would like to see him hopping down the corridor on one foot. I'll restrain myself, though. Somehow." She paused for a moment then, looking out through the window. The sun had all but vanished by now, behind the massing clouds. "I wonder...," she began thoughtfully.

I never got the chance to find out what she wondered, though, because at that moment Timothy and Martin arrived, bickering amiably about something (or nothing); after a quick greeting they both vanished into their room to change clothes. And close behind them came their sisters.

At least they looked like my daughters; they didn't behave like them, though. As they entered, Teresa and Cynthia had their heads together, comparing notes about their day it seemed. The very picture of loving sorority; looking at them, you'd have thought that they'd never had a cross word or a difference of opinion in their entire lives. How long that would last was anyone's guess; but while it did, it was a balm to my wounded psyche. And so too was the broad beaming smile that both of them bestowed upon their mother and me.

"Hi, Mom, Hi, Dad."

"Hello, Father. Hello, Mother."

A little self-consciously, perhaps, Elizabeth and I straightened up--not that the sight of us with our arms around each other was terribly uncommon or shocking. "Hello, ladies," I began--and then I paused, peering closely at them. Cynthia looked a little tired; I could tell that Ages had been anything but easy on her. But she was obviously not one bit less determined than she had been at lunch-time. And I had seldom seen Teresa look quite so happy: apparently her afternoon had been satisfactory too.

...And that decided me. The four of them had the right to know what had happened to me, of course; and I'd been on the verge of gathering them all together and telling them, getting the unpleasant task over with. But now I knew that I couldn't. Not yet anyway. For the girls especially this had been a day of major accomplishment; what right had I to ruin it with my petty troubles? None at all.

And that's why I rose, ignored the questioning look on Elizabeth's face, and draped my arms around my daughters' shoulders. "So," I said with a smile, "who gets to tell me about their day first?"

Of course I had to tell the kids eventually--I owed them that--and in fact I did, that evening over dinner. Though I was afraid I knew how they would react, still I wasn't quite sure; and as usual they managed to surprise me: they all four shrugged it off as something of very little consequence. "That's just Justin being Justin, Dad," Timothy said sagely, as the other three--and their mother too--nodded agreement. "He always overreacts. In a day or two--"

"If that long," Cynthia put in.

"--He'll get over it," Timothy concluded. "You'll see."

This conversation amused me more than a little. Excuse me, I might have asked, exactly how long have you known Justin? A little shorter time, I think, than I had. And yet I really couldn't argue, because Timothy did indeed have Justin pegged pretty well. Our dear leader did have a tendency to take things too much to heart. A definite liability in his line of work.

"Timothy is right, dear," Elizabeth told me softly. She nodded across the hall, to where Justin sat alone at a table in the far corner, morosely picking at his dinner while turning pages in a notebook. "In a way I think he was looking forward to being a father," she went on. "Now he has to get used to the fact that he isn't going to be--not yet anyway. As soon as he's worked that out of his system he'll realize how much he overreacted, and how much he does need your help."

"I hope you're right," I said. My gaze, though, was not on Justin, but rather on his opposite number, sitting by herself in the other corner and looking equally downtrodden, pill bottles arranged before her like a skirmish line. Why did I have a feeling that what they both needed right now was each other? And a good talking-to as well? But that at least was going to have to be somebody else's job; I was in deep enough trouble already.

"--And in the meantime," Teresa was saying, "perhaps you can get some rest, Father. You deserve it."

I smiled and reached across to clasp her hand. "I hope so, honey," I told her. I have to admit, that did sound good; but unfortunately it wasn't fated to happen. Not just yet, anyway. And the reason why I could already hear, even above the muted buzz of conversation in the dining hall. The rain had begun at a little after four in the afternoon, tentatively at first, but rapidly gaining momentum. It wasn't like the storm of a few days past, which after all had been mostly sound and fury. This time there was hardly any wind at all--and that was entirely the problem. The clouds settled in over Thorn Valley as if trapped there, and once in place they let loose with a vengeance. Not terribly hard, at least not yet; I had seen--and indeed been caught in--cloudbursts that were far more severe. No, what was so alarming about this storm was its persistence. Once those clouds got started they didn't want to stop; and that--though we didn't know it yet--was to be the cause of a great many events, both good and bad. At the moment, though, I was just glad I wasn't out in it.

"What are you going to do with your time off, Dad?" Martin asked.

I shook my head. "I'm not sure yet," I admitted. I glanced across the hall again. "But I can tell you for certain what I'm not going to do."

By noon the next day, of course, what had occurred between Justin and me was the talk of Thorn Valley. For a while anyway.

Though it would have been interesting, in an academic sort of way, to know who started the rumor mill turning, I don't suppose I would have had much luck finding out, even if I'd been inclined to try. No doubt everyone I asked would have implicated someone else. That's pretty much the definition of a rumor, isn't it? Though I did have a few suspects...

The next morning the rain was still pounding down, hard and unrelenting, as it had all the previous night. I sat for a long time on the windowsill in our bedroom, wrapped in my bath-robe, gazing out in fascination at the cascades and rivulets, some clear and some muddy, that flowed down briskly from the rocks above to the valley floor below, joining forces briefly at the edge of the farm before vanishing into the lake. Already the swimming beach was visibly narrower, the stones of the breakwater all but submerged; and that was only the beginning.

Sitting there, half mesmerized, I felt a hand come to rest gently on the back of my neck. "Maybe you ought to go back to bed," Elizabeth said softly.

I looked up at her quickly; but I shouldn't have been surprised that she knew; somehow she always did. In point of fact I had hardly slept at all the night before; I had spent the majority of those long hours lying there staring into the darkness, listening to the rain, with my wife sleeping peacefully in my arms. At least I'd thought she was asleep. Or perhaps it was just my bleary, bloodshot eyes and drooping whiskers which gave me away now.

She perched herself next to me. She was already dressed, today in a beige turtleneck, a dark brown skirt, and a matching blazer: the very picture of the efficient young executive. At least one of us still had a job to go to. "You really shouldn't be taking this so hard, Jonathan," she told me. "Timothy is right: it will blow over."

I nodded. "I know."

"And if you do need more sleep..."

The idea was tempting; God knows I didn't have anything else to do. I glanced over at the neatly-made bed...and then I shook my head. No. I'd spent too much time and effort these last few months trying to break myself of being nocturnal. I didn't need a setback now. "And anyway," I said, only half-aware that I'd spoken aloud, "Maybe Justin has forgiven me by now." I stood and stretched painfully. "You know, it's times like these when I really miss coffee."

Justin hadn't forgiven me, as it happened; but oddly enough, I started off the day doing just about what I would have if he had.

Elizabeth and I were rather late to breakfast, mainly because she'd practically had to dress me and lead me to the dining hall by hand. In fact our kids were already finished and ready to leave by the time we arrived. As we sat down--even before I took a drink from the steaming mug of tea which I hoped would restore me somewhat to life--I glanced back to the dining hall's rear corner. Sure enough, Justin was there, and as my gaze fell on him he looked up. For a second our eyes locked...and then he very deliberately looked away. I felt my heart sink into my toes. Not yet, Tim, I thought. Not quite yet.

A quick glance at my wife told me that she had noticed: she was quietly seething, her chin stuck out and her whiskers bristling like wire. I grinned derisively at her. "Now who's taking it too hard?' I asked.

She sighed. "I know," she said. "I shouldn't. But I just can't help thinking about all that he owes you--and everything you've done for these people, before they came to this valley as well as after. And now he's just tossing you aside..."

"Elizabeth," I said warningly, "you promised, remember?"

She nodded as she stirred honey into her oatmeal. "I know I did," she said. "And of course I intend to keep it. I won't say a word. To him," she added thoughtfully. A little too thoughtfully.

Spoon halfway to my mouth, I paused to look at her curiously; but all I got in return was a look of bland, blue-eyed innocence. Do I want to know? I asked myself. No. Not really. Not this morning. And so I turned my full attention to my breakfast. Unemployment and insomnia had at least not affected my appetite.

After breakfast, while Elizabeth headed up to her office, I took a walk around the corridors, in an attempt to clear the fog of sleeplessness from my brain. And in fact I was successful, partially at least. As I walked I met a number of rats, hurrying through the hallways on one errand or another; every one of them greeted me, as they always did, more or less deferentially according to age. I tried to return their greetings as cheerfully as I could manage. The sight of me walking through the halls of a morning was by no means odd; that had been a major part of my job description. But the fact that I was moving slowly, not hurrying at all, was most definitely strange, and it was that, perhaps, which first fired up the rumor mill. Or perhaps not; I'll never know.

It was funny, I thought as I paced the halls, how quickly this place had come to feel like home to me; I scarcely remembered how it felt to live anywhere else. From the first moment I'd set foot in Thorn Valley (deposited there by helicopter, strangely enough) something had resonated. It's silly and illogical, I know, to speak of "coming home" to a place where you've never been before--but somehow, that's exactly how I'd felt. To a certain extent, I'm sure, it was the people, all those familiar faces; but there was something more to it than even that. It sometimes truly felt as if my entire long, eventful life had been leading up to this place. Or perhaps--though I don't like to be morbid--as if I truly had died, instead of just pretending to, and had been reborn here. Whichever it was, I had always felt welcome and wanted here, and that was a feeling that even my current troublous relations with Justin couldn't disturb for long.

I walked for an hour or so, just wandering with no clear purpose in mind, until I felt about as wide-awake as I was likely to get. Then it came to me that what I wanted right then, more than anything else, was a good long talk with Eileen. Quite apart from the effect she always had on me--she had a knack for breaking me out of my blue moods--I wanted to know if she had made any progress repairing her relations with her sister. To ease my own conscience, if for no other reason. And of course an opportunity to visit with her new little one was not to be missed. I wasn't sure whether she'd been released from the infirmary yet; if so, she'd probably be at home, and that was close by. I'd check there first. I turned...

And at that moment I heard the sound of rapid footsteps, and then a familiar, slightly rough voice calling my name. I turned back to see Arthur hurrying toward me, a notebook in his hand and a worried expression on his face. "Jonathan!" he said. "You're just the person I wanted to see. I need you to tell Justin--"

I raised my hand, bringing him up short. "I'm afraid I'm not working for Justin right now," I told him flatly.

For a few seconds he was utterly nonplused. "What do you--?" he began. But Arthur was one of the most brilliant people I knew, and it didn't take him long to put two and two together. His eyes narrowed. "He didn't fire you, did he?" he demanded.

"No," I assured him quickly. "Nothing so drastic as that. But I am on a kind of indefinite suspension. Until he tells me otherwise."

Arthur shook his head tiredly. "How is it," he wondered, "that someone as brave, bold and intelligent as he is, can also be such a blasted idiot? I'm truly sorry, Jonathan. He'll come his senses eventually, I'm sure--"

"I imagine you're right," I said, and paused. I saw the look of frustration on his face, and I realized that he was almost as sorry for himself as he was for me: because now he had to go search for our Fearless Leader. His message must truly have been important. I took a deep breath. "Even though I'm not working for him right now," I went on, "there's no reason why I couldn't leave him a message--just as a concerned citizen. What's up?"

His broad face relaxed into a smile, and a meaty hand clapped me solidly on the shoulder. "That's the spirit," he said. Then he sobered. "It's this weather," he continued grimly. "You know the trouble I was having up on the fourth level--"

I nodded. "I do."

"--Unfortunately in the time between that last storm and this one I wasn't able to get as much work done as I'd hoped, plugging the sources of the seeps up in the rocks." He waved a hand over his head. "During the night a while tribe of new ones broke out, and most of the old ones got worse. I've got most of my crew up there now working on it--I've even got your boys helping. There's one particular section of corridor in the north quadrant that really has me worried. If this keeps up we might have water and mud flowing right down the ramps to the lower levels. And," he went on with a frown, "from the weather report I just heard, it is going to keep up. Two or three days at least."

I peered closely up at him. I had known Arthur a very long time, of course--since I helped him find the screwdriver that let us out of the lab at NIMH--and I knew that he occasionally had a tendency to exaggerate. I sometimes think it's an occupational hazard of engineers. But this time I didn't think such was the case. There was real desperation, even fear, in his eyes.

"I don't want to have to seal up half of the fourth level," he was saying. "We're going to need that space, the way our population is growing. But it might end up being my only choice. I wanted Justin to know the situation."

I reached up and grasped his arm. "Consider him informed," I said. "One way or another."

He smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Jonathan," he said. "Very much. That will save me a great deal of time." He turned then and started back down the corridor. "Excuse me please," he said over his shoulder. "I've got to go break out some more lumber."

Well, my discussion with Eileen was obviously going to have to wait. I turned and headed up the corridor at something more like my usual rapid gait, and as I went I felt around my tunic pockets. I wasn't carrying my work notebook that morning--there hadn't seemed to be much reason why I should--and I didn't want to take the time to go home for it. Fortunately there was no need. In an inner, "secret" pocket of my tunic at about chest-level, I found a smaller memo pad with the little stub of a pencil stuck in it. Fortunately there was still a point on the pencil. As I walked I condensed Arthur's concerns into a few brief lines, and when I reached Justin's office I tore off the sheet, folded it in two, and stuck it to the otherwise empty cork-board. I didn't bother to sign it; he'd know who it was from by the handwriting. Nor did I try to knock on the door, even though Justin might well have been there. He'd find the note soon enough.

My mission accomplished, I once again considered looking for Hacker; but even as I thought about it, I knew I wasn't going to do it. Not with something so major going on up on the fourth level. In better times Justin might well have dispatched me to check out the situation; now, with nothing better to do, I could see no reason in the world why I shouldn't dispatch myself. I turned and headed for the up-ramp.

There's one thing I suppose I ought to explain: Arthur's reference to the "weather report" he had just heard. There was actually a twofold meaning. Thorn Valley was essentially a farming community, and like any farm we were very much at the mercy of the weather. Early on (or so I'm told; I was dead at the time) Arthur cobbled together a set of makeshift, but adequate, weather instruments--thermometer, barometer, and wind vane--and installed them in the guardhouse near the main entrance. One of the daily duties of Philip's door guards was to take frequent observations, and in fact Martin's friend Jake was actively studying meteorology.

But that wasn't all. During the days of the rosebush community the rats had managed to (shall we say) "acquire" several small radios, some that ran on house current and some that took batteries. Nicodemus, I well remembered, kept one of the former type in his office: an old clock-radio with mechanical digits. The clock's motor had long since burned out (hence the reason why the thing had been discarded) but the radio still played beautifully. Several of the smaller battery-powered models made it to Thorn Valley...but eventually, of course, their batteries pooped out, and replacements (probably old-fashioned lead-acid "wet" cells) were still on Arthur's "to do someday" list. But in the meantime, he had managed to create something different. Using parts from a broken radio he put together what is commonly called a "crystal set": a type of AM radio that doesn't need batteries. We were pretty far away from civilization, and Arthur had been obliged to string twenty yards or more of wire aerial to pick up anything at all; but fortunately one of the stations we could receive with some regularity was a massively-powerful all-news-all-day operation from a city not impossibly distant. With a little imagination their weather forecasts could be applied to our valley. It was also nice to be assured every morning that the humans were not in imminent danger of blowing up the planet. The radio was also set up in the guardhouse, and if occasionally, during the long lonely night-watches on the main entrance, they tuned it to the country-western station that was the only other one available...well, I think they can be forgiven. Something had to explain the fact that my friends Mark and David were sometimes heard humming songs about unfaithful truck drivers.

Even at my fairly rapid pace, it was quite a long way up to the fourth level, and as I made my way through the corridors and up the ramps, I found myself thinking back several years, to the design meetings that had preceded the construction of the rats' new home.

The earliest meetings took place before I had even met Elizabeth, much less married her, and so I was able to attend almost all of them. Others who were usually present included Mr. Ages and Justin; and of course Arthur and Nicodemus. I recall that Jenner attended a few of the early meetings; but when he discovered that the subject under discussion was "how do we build it?" as opposed to "should we build it?" he boycotted the rest of the meetings in protest. His presence was rarely, if ever, missed.

There was only one serious bone of contention at those meetings, and that was the subject of the fourth level. Arthur and his team had done truly excellent work, surveying the valley's eastern ridge; the drawings he presented were almost photographic in their realism and accuracy. Now, I have no pretensions to being an engineer; but from the very first moment that I saw those site plans, I had serious doubts about the viability of the fourth level. The lower three were obviously not a problem: the ridges that would house them climbed almost literally like stairsteps or terraces, one upon the next, as if ready-made for Arthur to begin tunneling. But by the time you climbed up to the fourth level...that ridge was not a gently sloping stairstep; it was sharply-angled, rugged, and deeply-fissured. I'd had serious doubts that either rooms or tunnels could be successfully excavated there, without setting them so far back into the ridge so as to make them windowless and dank. Arthur believed otherwise, and he argued his point of view forcefully. I'd sometimes wondered--just between you and me--whether his arguments weren't based more on wounded ego than sound engineering: an untrained layman of a mouse had dared to question his judgment. I also had to wonder, now, if the present situation might be causing him to re-evaluate. Not that it would have done him much good; he was stuck with the situation.

Arthur and I had that discussion on several different occasions. I recall that Justin usually supported me, and that Ages held himself more or less aloof, saying that he didn't have the expertise. But in the end all my arguments came to naught. Eventually Nicodemus--who had sat silent listening to Arthur and me argue--would hold up a hand, bringing us to a halt, and then he would say, "I believe we must bow to Arthur's expertise in these matters." And that would be that. If there was one thing about Nicodemus that I never liked, it was his tendency to play the autocrat--a tendency which Justin, fortunately, was usually able to resist.

After I met Elizabeth, and in the press of subsequent events, I lost track somewhat of the design process. Obviously Arthur had finally gone ahead and built his fourth level, for better or worse. I have to admit--I always had to admit--that he had a point: we were indeed rapidly coming to a point where we would need the space. Whether it would be worth the maintenance headaches, though, was another question entirely.

Even as I made my way up the last ramp I heard the noises echoing down from above: the sharp ringing clank of well-seasoned lumber being thrown down; the staccato rapping of many hammers, the rasp of saws, and a babble of voices. At the top of the ramp I turned right, and almost immediately I ran headlong into a construction zone--or perhaps I ought to say a war zone.

The main corridor of the fourth level wasn't too much different from those of the levels below, except that it was just a shade narrower; it was more dimly-lit, having at present only about half the number of lamps as the lower levels; its floor was still bare stone in most places, instead of tile; and the majority of the rooms that opened off it still had neither doors nor windows. As of yet that level was used only for a very small quantity of storage. Eventually, though, it was scheduled to be used for living space, and the rooms had been roughed out with that in mind. And that, of course, made it vitally necessary that this seepage problem be brought under control: nobody wants to have to wade through knee-deep slimy mud to get to his front door.

Directly ahead of me now was the north quadrant, the area that so concerned Arthur. Here some additional lamps had been brought in--only an idiot does carpentry in the dark--and under their light some two dozen rats were steadily toiling, as far up the corridor as I could see. Two dozen rats and two mice.

The work they were all engaged in was simple enough, technically speaking, but back-breakingly strenuous. Arthur's nemesis, the seeps, oozed out from the ceiling and inner wall of the corridor, and some of the rooms as well, from cracks that at times were all but invisible to the naked eye. Many of the cracks wept clear water--showing that they had a direct pipeline, so to speak, to the rain-washed rocks above. Others, though--chiefly the ones that oozed from the wall--were sluggish with viscid grey mud. Unchecked, water and mud would have pooled up on the floor, and, as Arthur said, eventually flowed down the ramps to the levels below. What that gang of rats (and two mice) was doing--though it seemed an all but hopeless task--was to construct under each and every one of those seeps an angled sluice, made of long planks joined in a V, supported underneath with simple X-shaped braces, and caulked with pine-pitch to at least slow down the inevitable leakage. Like the tributaries of a major river, smaller sluices drained into bigger ones, into a room whose doorway had been partially blocked, and then out and away through a hole punched low in that room's wall.

It took me only a few seconds to locate my sons: they were struggling to place a sluice under a particularly muddy wall-seep, with the aid of a young male rat. All three of them were covered heard to toe with mud; it plastered their clothing and fur alike with a uniform coat of grey. Timothy's glasses were so spotted that I suspected he could have seen better without them. So muddy were all three of them, in fact, that I entirely failed to recognize the young rat until he spoke.

"Mr. Brisby!" he said, and I knew then that it was Robert, Timothy's best friend, under that coating of earth. Actually I ought to have realized sooner, knowing how inseparable the two of them were.

"Hello, gentlemen," I said. "Don't mind me; I'm just assessing the situation."

"You mean you were curious," Martin corrected. Robert had just put his back under the end of the sluice and levered it upward, and Timothy and Martin rushed to jam in a brace.

"That too," I admitted. I paused, and then I grinned. "You know, this reminds me of something I once saw on late-night TV. 'The Attack of the Mud Creatures', or something like that."

"Very funny, Dad," Timothy growled. He pulled a hammer from his tunic belt, a few nails from a pocket, and began fastening the brace to the sluice. Meanwhile Martin and Robert crossed to a much-depleted pile of lumber against the opposite wall, and started selecting materials for another section.

Abruptly then I knew what I had to do. If I'd still been working for Justin I would have taken a few notes and then left to file my report. But today the only person I had to report to was myself. "Could you use an extra pair of hands?" I asked.

They all three looked over at me in profound gratitude; in Robert's case it was mixed with a bit of puzzlement. Two mice and one very slightly undersized rat--this was hard work for anyone, but for the three of them it was harder still. "We'd love it," Timothy said.

And that was that. I rolled up my sleeves, found a hammer that I could use in a nearby crate of tools, filled my pocket with nails from a barrel next to that, and set to work, shoulder to shoulder with my boys and their friend. When Arthur arrived a little while later with a wagon-load of fresh lumber, I took a quick break to speak to him. "The Leader has been informed," I announced.

"Thanks again, Jonathan," Arthur said over his shoulder, as he heaved planks and beams off the wagon and onto the depleted pile. At first glance you might have thought that our Chief Engineer was merely heavy-set--but not after you observed him in action. Those thick arms and wide shoulders were pure muscle.

He grinned at my mud-spattered person, the hammer in my hand and my pocketful of nails. "It appears I've hired another carpenter," he observed.

I shrugged. "Least I could do, I thought."

"Believe me, Jonathan, I appreciate it." The last of the lumber had been tossed onto the pile, and the two young rats who had helped Arthur with the wagon took it away--probably for another load. Dusting off his hands, Arthur glanced over and Martin, and chuckled. "I think we've come full circle," he said. "He was covered with mud the first time I met him too." He shook his head. "It seems like a long time ago, but it isn't really. Just a few months."

"This time it's for a good cause, at least." I paused for a moment, gazing down the crowded corridor. Then I said, "Arthur--did it ever occur to you...all the tools, all the technology we used to build this was all invented by the humans. We came to this valley because we wanted to break the habit of stealing. But does it ever seem to you that as long as we keep using their technology, in a way we're still stealing from them?"

Arthur looked down at me as if I'd just broken free of my straitjacket. "Let me get this straight," he said. "We're standing here ankle-deep in mud, with the rain pouring down outside, with our first winter coming on and a barely-adequate food supply, and you're worried about whether we're stealing? Get a life, Jonathan! There are only so many ways you can design a wheel--and if somebody's already done it, why do it all over again?"

And that was my signal to get back to work. Very soon I was not merely mud-spattered but soaked through, just like everyone else; and in fact I didn't care. There's nothing like good hard physical work for driving out frustrations; and brother, did I have frustrations!

It was there that Justin found me, an hour or so later when he came to inspect the situation. Our leader had my note in his hand and a concerned expression on his face as he took a look around the corridor, which had come to resemble a cross between a hydrological map and an amusement park's log-flume ride. As Justin spotted me, all over mud, standing beside Martin as the two of us used our backs and shoulders to heave a section of sluice into place under yet another dribble, he frowned deeply. "I wish you'd actually come and found me, Jonathan," he said. "This is too serious for just a note."

You can't win, you know that? You simply cannot win.

My sons and I arrived home a little after four that afternoon. Utterly exhausted--if I was able to get out of bed the next morning, I'd be very darned surprised--starving, despite the soup and sandwiches which had been brought up to us at noon; and covered, literally covered head to toe with a thick armor-plating of mud that was beginning to dry out and flake off. But curiously, rarely in my life had I felt happier. Happy to have drowned my problems in simple, old-fashioned hard work; happy to have spent a day with Martin without the friction that too often occurred between us; and happy above all to learn that my younger son, who had almost died on several occasions, now had the strength to stand up and swing a hammer every bit as long as his brother or me.

Somehow we had done it; Arthur's crew, my sons, and me. The fourth level's main corridor was now so jam-packed with interconnected sluices that it was almost completely impassable; to get through you literally had to drop to your belly and crawl. But we had managed to catch and channel the flow from more than ninety percent of the larger seeps (the smaller ones would just have to take care of themselves.) And it was a good thing we had, too, because outside the rain was still pounding down, as steadily and relentlessly as it had all day.

Elizabeth was alone in the apartment when the three of us entered, arm-in-arm and laughing together. She was seated on the smaller sofa, a book open beside her and a notepad and pencil in her lap. She peered at us over the top of her glasses. "If I was still the one washing your clothes," she commented, "I'd strangle all three of you. And stay off the carpet, please."

It's very easy, of course, for me to say something along the lines of "If I had known what my wife was up to, I would have stopped her." Certainly I would have tried to stop her, by any means short of physical force. The problem is that Elizabeth couldn't be stopped by any means short of physical force.

Until my wife reminded me, it had entirely slipped my mind: that evening was the weekly community meeting. It was the method by which the Rats of NIMH governed themselves, after Justin's rather high-handed (but understandable) dissolution of the Council a few weeks after the rats arrived in Thorn Valley. Myself, I would just as soon not have gone. I'd had a largely sleepless night, a very active day, a long warm bath and an enormous hot dinner. All I really wanted now was my bed. But somehow or other Elizabeth persuaded me to attend. I've often wished she'd let me sleep instead.

When the six of us arrived at the meeting hall, the tiers of benches which lined that huge inverted cone were almost filled. I spied a bench with room for all of us, about halfway down and a third of the way around, and we made our way slowly there. And as we did I noticed a very strange phenomenon: we--or more accurately I--was leaving behind me a kind of wake, very much like that left by a motorboat on a calm lake. A wake of silence, interrupted conversations...and stares. Very soon it appeared that everybody in the meeting hall was staring at me--and pretending that they weren't. In the space of one day the rumor mill had done its job. God only knows what they all thought; given the way stories usually grow in the telling, it's possible some of them believed that Justin had not just fired me, but also beaten me and thrown my little broken body into the lake. Maybe they were looking for the bruises.

Fortunately the crowd had not long to stare. My family and I had barely settled onto our bench when Justin arrived. Our leader made his way slowly down to the speaker's platform at the bottom of the hall; he looked a little tired and more than a little preoccupied. I wondered, somewhat maliciously, if he'd had a hard day at work. If so, it was his own fault.

As Justin called the meeting to order he was working hard to avoid catching my eye; almost as hard as I was to avoid catching his. Elizabeth, though, was another matter. My dear wife sat close beside me on the stone bench, her back and tail both stiff as a steel rod, glaring down at our elected leader so intently that I expected him to spontaneously combust any moment. But she couldn't catch his attention either; it was as if a broad wedge of the meeting hall where we sat didn't exist.

"Ashamed to look us in the eye," Elizabeth muttered, half to herself. "And he ought to be. After all you've done for him..."

I laid my hand soothingly on her arm, but she shook it off. "No," she said. "I love Justin very much, but this situation with Judith has entirely muddled up his thinking, and it's time somebody let him know that."

"You wouldn't--" I began in horror; but it was already too late.

Down on the platform Justin looked around, everywhere except where my family and I were seated. "Is there any new business before we begin?" he asked, as he always did. Nine times out of ten there wasn't. But this time he--and everyone else in the hall, not the least me--was surprised, as my wife rose quickly to her feet.

"Yes," she said loudly. "I have some."

"Elizabeth--!" I whispered urgently; but she ignored me, and there was nothing more I could do, short of wrestling her to the ground.

Justin turned, looking just about as astonished as I felt. He cleared his throat and said, somewhat indistinctly, "The chair recognizes Elizabeth Brisby."

She shook off my grasping hand, stepped nimbly around me to the stairs, and then descended, with every eye in the community upon her, the twenty or so steps to the platform. Even four months ago there was no way on earth she could have done this; she would have fled screaming from the very idea of addressing such a crowd, friends though they be. But not tonight. She climbed up onto the platform and looked around, her expression somewhere between determined and grim; and then she began to speak. The conical hall was a natural amplifier--another tribute to Arthur--and her voice carried clearly even to the upper tiers.

"My fellow citizens," she said. "Since becoming a member of this community I have made it my business to study our Constitution and laws, something which I believe is the duty of every concerned citizen. And in so doing I have discovered what I believe to be a critical weakness in our system of government."

She waited, gazing around, while a small stir rippled through the hall like a quiet breath of wind. I had absolutely no idea where she was going with this, though perhaps I should have; I looked down at her with an equal mixture of admiration and utter confusion. A moment later she continued: "Our current Constitution, as amended some eight months ago, establishes the post of Leader as an elected position, to be contested every two years. That is good; but it leaves a critical gap: what happens should the elected Leader become temporarily unable to perform his--or her--duties, either because of illness, or injury, or--God forbid--death. Such a circumstance would create a major crisis at very least, and could cause irreparable harm to our community. I believe there ought to be--no, must be--a system in place to address such a situation, before it arises. It may well be--in fact I hope very much it will be--that we will never have to use that system; but all the same, it should exist."

Once again there was a stir. I was beginning to see where this was going, and I wasn't sure whether to laugh out loud at her audacity, or descend to the platform and forcibly remove her from the hall. Standing in the shadows at the rear of the platform, Justin was beginning to get it too; I saw his eyes widen and his jaw drop in amazement. But there was absolutely nothing he could do: by law, he could not prevent any citizen from addressing a meeting on any subject.

"What I propose is this," Elizabeth went on. "I believe that our Constitution should once again be amended, to create a position of elected Vice-Leader. I propose that this position should be contested on the same biennial schedule as Leader. The person so elected would have duties assigned to him or her by the Leader, as the Leader sees fit; but more importantly would stand ready to take over the leadership of the community if necessary. I believe it is especially important that this person should be selected by direct election, and not appointed at the whim of the Leader. I move that it be put to a vote, that such an amendment be drafted and considered."

Directly to my left, Timothy Brisby, Official Adult, rose smoothly to his feet. "I second the motion," he said, so coolly that I knew for certain: this was a conspiracy, and he too was a member of it. I should have known, really.

By now Justin had realized that too; and he knew as well that he'd been thoroughly had, courtesy of the democratic process. As he stepped forward into the light I saw him, with a deliberate effort, put away a scowl of irritation and don a mask of nonpartisan calm. "It has been moved and seconded," he said quietly. "Do I hear any discussion?"

I had some; but I decided to keep it to myself. For a moment Justin looked around expectantly, and so too did Elizabeth. All around me, people looked at each other, cleared their throats, shuffled their feet...but no one raised a hand. And looking down at the expression on my wife's face, I could understand why. If any of them had objected she would have ripped their livers out.

"It appears there is no discussion," Justin said finally. "All in favor?"

Not for an instant, of course, did I deceive myself into believing that the citizens of Thorn Valley didn't know what was really going on. All of them knew (more or less) what had happened between me and Justin the previous day; that much was obvious. Elizabeth's idea had a great deal of merit, of course, and something like it should have been adopted long ago; it was only because of Nicodemus', and then Justin's, enormous charisma that it hadn't. But all of them knew exactly what they were voting for. Bet on it. Even before Justin finished speaking every hand in the place went up. Every one except mine, of course.

"Opposed?" Justin said a few seconds later, purely for the sake of procedure, and all the hands dropped instantly. "Carried unanimously," Justin said mildly. He looked around. "Do I have a volunteer to draft the amendment?" he asked.

For a second I was sure that Elizabeth herself would; but if she did have it in mind, she was beaten to the punch. A few rows down from me, where she sat with her husband beside her and their offspring sleeping peacefully in a blanket-covered wicker basket on the bench between them, Eileen raised her hand. "I'll have a stab at it," she said. "I seem to be between jobs at present."

Justin glanced around. "Anyone else?"

"Yes," a quiet voice from the top tier said. "I'd like to help too."

I spun around, and so too did everyone else in the hall. The person who had spoken was sitting by herself on a bench near the big double doors, as if she had slipped in late. She sat curled around herself with her arms wrapped tight around her abdomen, and she seemed oblivious to the stares that were immediately turned her way. In fact it was Judith.

Far below, Justin seemed to have been struck dumb. He looked up at her in astonishment--I knew exactly how he felt--and for a second or two he almost seemed to stagger. Finally he cleared his throat. "Are there any other volunteers?" he asked hoarsely.

There were none, it appeared, and a moment later Justin nodded. "All right," he said. He glanced at Hacker, and he tried to glance at Judith too, but her eyes shied away from his. "I'll be asking for a progress report at next week's meeting," he concluded. He paused, and then he said, almost fearfully, "Now, if there's no other new business..."

By this time my lady wife had made her way back up to our bench. She exchanged a brief, secretive smile with Timothy, just for a second before I grasped her arm firmly and pulled her down next to me. "Elizabeth Brisby," I hissed into her ear, "just what on earth did you think you were doing?"

She gazed at me serenely, once again the very image of blue-eyed innocence. "Why, my civic duty, of course," she said sweetly. She glanced down at Justin, who was now receiving a report from Arthur about the seepage problem. "As a member of this community, it was my responsibility to correct a serious error." She looked back at me. "In our Constitution, I mean."

"Of course," I said. I sighed. "I have to admit, you do have a point," I continued resignedly. "And the way Justin's going, we're going to need a Vice-Leader. To take over when he has his nervous breakdown."

She looked sharply at me, and I smiled; but in fact I was only half-joking. Our beloved leader was spreading himself entirely too thin. He was exactly the right person for the crisis, I thought. Bold, brave, quick-thinking; he had seized control at precisely the right instant, unifying a confused and frightened group of people and bringing them to safety. More than once I'd wished I'd been there to help: at our best we were a good team, he and I. But is he right for the long run? He took things far too seriously; the minor troubles of the community, which he should have simply let sort themselves out, grew and grew in his mind until they seemed every bit as big, as daunting, as the truly major crises. And once you let that happen--I knew from bitter experience--you're done for. If everything is an insurmountable obstacle, what choice have you except to simply give up? And the one person who could have given him perspective, who would have given him a reason to back off and let the community run itself once in a while, he had thrust away. The distance between them now, him at the bottom of the pit and her at the top, was by no means merely a matter of feet and inches.

"Jonathan?" Elizabeth murmured, breaking into my thoughts.

"Yes, darling?"

She smiled impishly at me. "If we can get this amendment written and passed, who do you think we should get to run for Vice-Leader?"

Chapter 8

"Winter wheat," Ralph said.

I blinked. "Pardon me?"

The Master Farmer shrugged. "You asked me what my problem is," he said brusquely. "Well, that's it: winter wheat."

I shook my head as I sat down next to him. "You're going to have to explain that slowly," I said. "I'm afraid I missed most of the agriculture meetings, way back when."

He sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward, the universal reaction of the Expert to the Layman. I waited patiently. It was, after all, my own fault.

Ralph was one of the youngest of the Original 22, and he looked it, since we tended to hold the physical age we were when the NIMH treatments started. He was tall and slender, brown-furred, with large dark eyes; and his narrow face seemed to be permanently fixed in an expression of extreme harassment. Which isn't too uncommon among farmers, I've noticed; nor is it difficult to understand, given how dependent they are on forces utterly beyond their control. He'd been looking even more glum than usual when I ran across him in the lounge that morning, where he sat on a sofa peering morosely out through the big windows. In my surprise--I'd never seen him in the lounge in the daytime before--I'd made the fatal mistake of asking him what was eating him.

"Winter wheat is planted in the fall," he explained. "It lies dormant under the ground through the winter, insulated by the snow, and sprouts in the spring as soon as the ground warms up. It's usually ready to harvest in May."

"I know all that," I told him; and I did, too, mostly. "What I mean is, why is it a problem here and now, this morning?"

"Because I haven't been able to plant ours yet," he snapped. He pointed out the window. "And as long as my fields are hip-deep in water I won't be able to."

"Oh," was all I could think of to say.

When Ralph said "hip deep" it was an exaggeration, but unfortunately not much of one. A full four days had passed since my suspension, and not once in all that time had the rain entirely stopped falling. Of course it had not been a constant ninety-six-hour downpour; that truly would have been a disaster. Any number of times, in fact, the rainfall had slowed to nothing more than a thin dismal drizzle. A few times we'd even seen quick glimpses of blue sky, raising hopes that were ultimately dashed as the clouds closed in again. Normally I don't find rainy days especially depressing, though I know many people who do; but this stretch was beginning to get me down, despite St. John's Wort. Of course there were other reasons as well.

"If this weather doesn't clear up soon," Ralph went on gloomily, "I won't be able to get it in at all. And worst of all would be if we go straight from rain into snow, or into a hard freeze. I've got to have at least a week of dry, mild weather--or else."

"Or else what?" I asked.

He fixed me with his gaze. "Or else," he said, "come spring, we do without our number-one source of carbohydrates. Or we eat our seed grain. Laugh that off, Jonathan, if you think you can."

I shook my head. "Believe me, I can't," I said. I paused. "Does--uh--does Justin know?"

Ralph shrugged. "If he's read my report, he knows," he said. "I imagine he has. But there's nothing he can do about it. There's nothing anybody can do." He hesitated. "Except maybe pray," he finished quietly.

"Good luck," I told him. Facile, I know; but what else could I say?

He pierced me with his gaze again. "Thank you," he said with deep sarcasm. "I'm going to need it. We're all going to need it."

I left him there, staring out at the rain; somehow a nice relaxing sit-down in the lounge didn't seem quite as inviting as it had when I'd wandered in. Once again I took to the hallways.

The last four days of my life had seemed to last a month at least. To say that I'd found the time weighing heavily on my hands was a definite understatement. The first day had been full enough of course, what with the "Seepage Crisis" (as Timothy had wryly termed it.) But after the first frantic rush of sluice-building had ended, the problem seemed to have been largely brought under control. Very few new seeps had broken out, and though the old ones were still flowing freely, all that was needed now was to keep the sluices clear, and that required only half a dozen or so of Arthur's maintenance people on a rotating schedule. My sons had gone back to their normal routines of work and learning.

And me--? Well, the fact of the matter is, I was simply not mentally equipped for unemployment. All my long life I'd been busy; sometimes as a parent and provider, sometimes helping to draft the very Plan which had brought the rats to this valley; sometimes simply with the business of survival. I liked my leisure time; unlike Justin, I took full advantage of my one or two usual days off a week. But this--an indefinite and enforced vacation, thrust upon me with no warning whatsoever--frankly frightened me. Whether that's what Justin had in mind, I don't know.

It might not have been quite so bad if it had been a real vacation. If Elizabeth and the kids had taken time off as well, and if the six of us, as a family, had done...something. Exactly what I don't know; but something different from our normal routine. Gone camping in the woods, perhaps; or borrowed Arthur's little sailboat and explored the lake. Something that we had all planned together. But of course that was not to be, and not only because of the lousy weather. My sons and my older daughter had just begun their careers; they were serving what might be termed their "apprenticeships." It would be a good long time before they'd be granted any vacation. My younger daughter was simultaneously trying to cope with the conclusion of her schooling and the beginning of her career; at the moment she barely had time to breathe, but she seemed to thrive on stress. And darling wife, I know, would have taken some time off if I'd asked her to; but it would have caused her to become hopelessly backlogged, working as she did without an assistant. I couldn't bring myself to do that to her. As with the kids, it was best that I leave Elizabeth alone during the work-day, unless she once again asked for my help.

Under the circumstances I suppose it would have been very easy for me to become a "character," so to speak. You know the type: the garrulous old crock who hangs around and bugs you when you're trying to work, forever bending your ear with endless rambling stories about the "good old days," or about the fish he caught last week. Thankfully I retained just enough wit to avoid that fate. I did not haunt either my family or my friends in their workplaces.

So--what was left? I read. A lot. When eyestrain got to me I took long walks through the corridors. I also spent a lot more time than usual in the gym, burning off both the excess energy and the excess calories. And I also began to make some rather indefinite plans, deep in my mind, toward something that I'd never before even considered: a hobby. During my old life such a thing would have been ludicrous even to consider; but now...well, why not? My children were grown, I didn't have to spend all my waking hours gathering food or firewood...why not a hobby? Timothy had his music and his drawing, Martin had his wood-carving. Unfortunately the plan I was developing was somewhat long-term; it was going to require some study, as well as the gathering of certain materials. At the moment I could do no more than lay the groundwork.

And so it was that rainy morning, after the Master Farmer's gloom and doom had driven me out of the lounge, I found myself pacing the halls again, walking slowly with my hands behind my back. I had at least not taken to mumbling to myself; I was not that far gone. I greeted the passersby as brightly as I could, and ignored their curious looks.

As a citizen--and especially as one of the Original 22 and one of the architects of the community--Ralph's words did indeed cause me a great deal of concern. The subject of crop failure had been discussed over and over again in the early days; everyone agreed that it would be the single biggest threat to the success of the Plan. In those debates Ralph and Jenner had been polar opposites. Despite his gloomy outlook, Ralph actually had a lot of confidence in himself and his crew. He had argued that if we diversified our farm, and didn't try to depend too heavily on any one single product, the chances of disastrous crop failure were remote. Something would be almost certain to come up. Jenner had of course argued the opposite position: he had painted apocalyptic pictures of searing drought or pounding rain; golf-ball hail or hurricane winds. Running through his arguments was a constant refrain: if you do this, you'll starve. Needless to say, his arguments had failed to persuade the populace to abandon the Plan...but as I'd listened to Ralph's dire warning, it was impossible for me not to hear an echo of Jenner's mocking laughter. A failure of the tomato crop, say, we could live through. But wheat, meaning bread, the proverbial Staff of Life for us as well as for a good part of humanity...that was something else again.

Ordinarily I would have talked the problem over with Justin. But unfortunately, the Leader and I were still not communicating. If anything, in fact, the silence between us had become thicker and colder since Elizabeth proposed that constitutional amendment. Exactly why, I wasn't sure. Perhaps Justin believed that I had put her up to it; if so, he didn't know my wife half as well as he thought he did. Which one of us would eventually break the silence I didn't know; at the moment, of course, both Justin and I would have said "Not me!" The fact that we were harming no one but ourselves is, of course, undeniable.

As I was thus occupied, pacing and deciding that there was very little I could do about the winter wheat, I suddenly heard my name being called. I turned to see a tall slim rat in a blue Guard uniform hurrying down the corridor: Mark. As he drew up before me he grinned, despite his half-closed and red-rimmed eyes. "Planning your campaign?" he asked pointedly.

I winced. "Please," I said, "don't even joke about that. What's up?"

"I'm on my way off duty," he said. "And I've got a message for you."

I looked quickly up at him. One of my closest friends in all the world, Mark was the older and more reserved of the two brothers who had accompanied me on the NIMH expedition--and a braver, or more loyal, companion would be very difficult to find. During the nine months of the mission he and David had made the insanely dangerous round trip from NIMH to the Fitzgibbons farm no fewer than six times. Traveling among humans, hitching rides on trucks and busses to shorten their many times they had cheated death I couldn't even begin to imagine. And yet the both of them, when questioned about the experience, would merely smile, shrug, and say: "No big deal." They were Philip's most loyal and trusted officers--and the only ones who would uncomplainingly volunteer for the night watch. "From who?" I asked cautiously. "Justin?"

Mark shook his head. "No such luck, I'm afraid," he said. "No, it's from Eileen. As he was relieving me just now, Philip asked me to tell you: Hacker would like to see you. If you have time, that is," he added with a slightly wicked smile.

"Time is not one of my problems right now," I said. I paused, stroking my whiskers. "I wonder what that's about?"

"Philip didn't say," Mark said. "But my guess would be it's about that amendment."

I sighed. "You're probably right," I agreed wryly. I grasped his arm. "Thanks, Mark. You'd better go get some sleep."

He grinned. "My plan exactly," he said. He looked up and down the corridor, as if checking for eavesdroppers, and then he bent low to whisper in my ear: "Gotta be alert for my date with Marie tonight."

And with that he clapped me on the back and sauntered away. The tune he was whistling wasn't familiar to me, but most likely it had been written for steel guitar.

I turned and headed back up the corridor. I had not seen Eileen--for longer than a few minutes at a time in the dining hall, anyway--since she and Jeanette were released from the infirmary; I would welcome a chance for a longer visit, at least. What she wanted from me, I had a feeling I knew. For whatever reason, Eileen had agreed to draft Elizabeth's proposed amendment. The fact that she had volunteered so readily made me suspect a conspiracy; but if so, I had not been able to get my wife to admit it, not even under threat of extreme tickling. (And it's entirely possible that Elizabeth had not put Eileen up to it; my friend the Hacker always did enjoy a challenge. Just ask her husband.) It was well-known in the community that somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of our original Constitution was written by me. This was something very different for Eileen, despite her vast experience; probably she was looking for advice on the finer points of "legalese."

As I walked I shook my head in despair. Sometimes--often, even--I wished I'd never heard of that amendment. While I understood full well what Elizabeth had been trying to accomplish, I couldn't help but be just a little bit irked by her easy assumption that the position of Vice-Leader was mine for the taking. An assumption which was shared by everyone else in the community, it seemed. That the amendment would be approved seemed a virtual certainty; and yet I knew of no one else who intended to run. Which is wonderfully flattering, I suppose; but where, I ask you, was my free will? What if I didn't want the job? "If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve"--easy enough to say, yes; but it didn't seem to be an option. Too bad I didn't know then just limited my options really were.

I was seeing double--almost.

When I arrived at Eileen and Philip's apartment, a few minutes after Mark delivered the message, I expected to find Hacker there alone: just her and the baby. I should have known that such would not be the case; I should have remembered that it was not just she who had volunteered to write the amendment, but her twin sister as well.

As I entered they were seated close together, Eileen and Judith; Hacker at the desk with a great mass of papers spread out before her, and her sister in the rocking chair, pulled up close so she could read over Eileen's shoulder. As occasionally happened, by accident or design, the two of them were dressed almost identically, in grey tweed skirts, white long-sleeved blouses, and multicolored silk scarves tied around their necks. At first glance, anyone would have been forgiven for suspecting double vision--but on closer examination the differences became evident. Of the two, Eileen was by far the happier--and that showed, very clearly indeed, especially in Judith's dull, lusterless fur and hollow eyes. Our chief botanist had been losing sleep lately, it appeared--and I had a feeling I knew why.

As I entered Hacker half-rose, inviting me inside with a sweep of her hand; but my eyes locked instantly with Judith's, and we both froze, staring at each other in discomfort and alarm. Eileen affected not to notice. So insouciant was she, in fact, that I immediately smelled an ulterior motive. But by then I was trapped, and so was Judith.

"Jonathan!" Hacker said with a broad beaming smile. "Come in! I'm glad you got the message--you're just the person we need."

Slowly, reluctantly, I entered. As I did, Judith shot an angry glance at her sister, who returned it blandly. Judith wrapped her arms around herself and withdrew, as much as she could, putting her back to me and staring silently out at the rain. I wasn't surprised.

As I pulled myself up onto the sofa I glanced around, and Hacker smiled. She pointed across the room, to a door that stood half open: the door into the nursery. "She's down for a nap right now," she said. "Don't worry too much about being quiet, though--that one could sleep through an avalanche."

"Not unlike her mother," I observed. I paused. "What--uh--what can I do for you ladies?"

"We need a constitutional scholar," Eileen said seriously. Then she grinned. "But I suppose we'll have to make do with you."

"Thanks a whole lot."

"You're welcome. No, seriously, we need some advice on the wording. I'm afraid neither one of us has ever attempted anything like this before. And it's no good writing the darn thing just to have it turn our being unconstitutional. Is it, Sis?"

Hacker's attempt--just a tiny bit transparent, in my view--to draw her sister into the conversation almost entirely failed: Judith merely grunted a noncommittal monosyllable, without even turning. Now that I'd had a few minutes to think, I was more than a little surprised to see that she was taking time away from her beloved greenhouse. Perhaps the weather had put the brakes on her work as well as Ralph's; or perhaps she'd simply been a victim of Hacker's well-known powers of persuasion. "Would you mind taking a look at what we've got so far, Jonathan?" Eileen finished hopefully.

"Uh, sure, no problem," I said. Hacker gathered up some of her papers--how she chose those particular ones, from among the hundreds of sheets that littered her desk, I don't know--and handed them across to me. They were covered with her small, precise handwriting, and the numerous scratchings-out and false starts attested to the difficulty the two of them had been having. I glanced down at them, immediately noting the requisite "whereases" and "therefores." As it happened, though, a glance was all I was destined to get for the moment.

I had barely begun to read when, abruptly, Eileen raised her head, her ear cocked as if to catch some elusive sound. "Uh-oh," she announced. "Sounds like somebody wants feeding. Or changing. Or both." She pushed back her chair and rose. "Excuse me for a moment, won't you?"

I swear I hadn't heard a sound; but they say that mothers have a sixth sense about that sort of thing. Or perhaps Hacker had something else in mind. She crossed the room and vanished through the half-open door of the nursery, closing it behind her...and leaving Judith and me alone.

For a few moments we both sat silent, staring awkwardly at our hands, out the window...anywhere except at each other. The silence was past "uncomfortable" and well on its way to "deafening" when Judith finally broke it. She turned toward me, sighed, and cleared her throat. "Jonathan," she said quietly, "I want you to know how sorry I am for what happened in the dining hall the other day."

If I were a totally cynical person, I might have suspected that Eileen had browbeaten this apology out of her; but fortunately I'm not, and anyway she sounded sincere. "I'm the one who should be apologizing," I corrected her. "It is your life, I shouldn't have been meddling, and you had every right to tell me so."

She quirked a tiny, sardonic smile. I can't count the number of times her sister had flashed me an almost identical grin; but Judith's was a little more wan. "Maybe I did," she agreed. "But I certainly didn't have the right to threaten to slug you." She sighed again. "And I didn't have the right to make a fool of myself either."

I paused for a second, wondering exactly how to phrase my next statement; the last thing I wanted to do was to meddle again, or to get my younger daughter into trouble. Judith was every bit as smart as her sister, and it wouldn't be difficult for her to figure out who my source of information had been. Finally, picking my words with care, I forged ahead. "As I understand it," I said, "you weren't quite yourself that day."

"That much is true," Judith agreed readily. "In fact, when I look back..." She trailed off and shook her head. "Well, there's no point in going into that, I suppose." She gazed at me. "The fact is, Jonathan, no matter who started it or why, I overreacted horribly, and I'm truly sorry."

I bowed my head. "And of course I accept that," I told her seriously. "I want you to know that I'm sorry also."

Her grin widened. "And of course I accept that too," she said, gently mocking my grave formality. " everything is just fine again." She shook her head. "If only," she concluded bitterly, almost inaudibly.

"Are you--uh--are you feeling better now?" I asked. "Not that I'm prying, of course," I added hurriedly.

"Of course not," she grinned. She took a deep breath. "Yes I am," she said. "Very much so. I don't know if you know much about so-called 'female troubles'..."

"It's a subject I try to steer clear of," I told her. "Which isn't always easy with three females in my household."

"I imagine not," she agreed dryly. "Well, to put this as succinctly as possible, all my adult life I've always had a little trouble at 'those times.' If you know what I mean."

I nodded. "I think so." Lord, where's Elizabeth when I need her? I shouldn't even be listening to this!

"...And stupid me," she went on, "I've always just toughed it out. This last time, though...well, let's just say that the symptoms I was experiencing, along with an event in recent history and a certain amount of guilt, combined to convince me that I was pregnant. I wasn't lying to Justin--I honestly believed it to be true."

"I know you did," I assured her. "And he knows that too. No one thinks you were lying."

"Maybe not," she said sadly. "Well, when Eileen finally dragged me to see Mr. Ages, he--as you've probably heard already--diagnosed my symptoms as a hormone problem. And berated me soundly for letting it go on so long, of course. At first he was afraid there might be serious trouble with my ovaries. He even mentioned the word 'surgery,' which believe me, I didn't want to hear. But I've responded so well to the herbal treatments he prescribed, that now he's changed his mind. Apparently the trouble isn't as serious as he feared. And yes, the experience and the treatments have given me a new outlook as well. My mood swings were getting, well--frightening."

"Tell me about it," Eileen commented dryly. Judith and I looked up quickly, surprised: neither of us had heard Hacker come back into the room. In her arms she held a small pink-wrapped bundle, one which squirmed restlessly. She crossed the room carefully and settled herself down at the desk again, gently rocking Jeanette back and forth in her arms. "I had a few myself, during the NIMH expedition," Eileen went on. "You can ask Jonathan, or my poor long-suffering husband. In my case they were triggered mainly by malnutrition and stress--but there was no doubt a genetic predisposition too. Theoretically, we do have exactly the same DNA."

Judith glanced from me to her sister and back again, her expression uncertain, as if she was debating whether or not to say something. Finally she did. "Jonathan, I certainly don't want to cause another argument, and I swear to you that no matter what you say, I won't get angry. But...when you told Eileen what was happening to me, what were you trying to accomplish? No matter what I might have said in the dining hall, I really don't believe that you're the type to engage in idle gossip."

I shook my head. "No," I assured her. "I'm not. At least I hope I'm not." I took a deep breath. "Believe it or not, Judith, what I was trying to do was the exact opposite of meddling. I was trying to get my wife and myself out of the situation as gracefully as I could."

Judith quirked an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I don't quite understand."

"All right," I said. "Plain and simple, then. Somehow or other, Elizabeth managed to get you to tell her what you were planning: that if you were indeed pregnant, you were considering...ending it. Is that true?"

Judith looked away. "Yes," she said. "I don't know now how much of that was my mood swings talking, but...yes, I did tell her that, and at the time I think I meant it." She smiled. "Though why I told her, I don't know."

"Don't worry too much about that," I assured her. "Believe me, my dear wife has the knack for extracting information." I paused. "Of course that news upset her, and she told me," I went on. As I spoke my eyes were on a tiny pink nose and a pair of small hands, emerging from the bundle that Eileen held in her arms. "I honestly don't know what my opinion of that subject is, in the abstract. Neither wholly opposed nor wholly in favor, I think. But in this particular case, where--if you had actually been expecting--the child would have had a more than willing father, it seemed to me to be a terrible mistake. I figured that the only reason you were even considering such a thing was because you were confused and frightened."

Judith nodded soberly. "You got that right."

"But at the same time, it wasn't my place to tell you that, nor my wife's. It wasn't our business. What I was trying to do was to direct the problem toward the people whose business it definitely was: your family. Because it seemed pretty clear that you would not discuss it with them voluntarily. After that it was my intention for Elizabeth and me both to bow out."

"Jonathan did the right thing," Eileen said firmly. "You know he did, Judith. Justin ought to recognize that too--if he could get all that 'loyalty' and 'honor' nonsense out of his head. You were most definitely not thinking clearly, dear sister."

Judith nodded sadly. "Yes," she said. "Yes, you're right, Sis." She gazed at me. "I don't know what I was thinking that day in the dining hall. I'd just found out that I wasn't pregnant..."

"We just went down that road," I reminded her. "Suffice it to say you were upset and confused, and at that moment you saw me as the cause of it."

She nodded again, shame-faced. "That about sums it up, yes," she said. "And it appears I wasn't the only one."

"No," I agreed. "You weren't." I shook my head. "Hacker," I said, "of everyone in this community, I'd say Philip thinks like Justin the most. What--uh--what's his opinion of Justin's actions?" I'm not really sure why I asked that; except that Philip was one of the few people whose opinion really mattered to me.

"Mixed," she said with a smile. "On the one hand he's just like Justin--he also expects absolute and unswerving loyalty from his minions. He gets it, too--as you know. But on the other hand..." she paused. "Jonathan, I want you to swear to me that you'll never mention this to my dear husband, but the fact is, he absolutely worships you. He has ever since the early days of the NIMH expedition. He's told me any number of times that he doesn't think he could have pulled off that job half as well as you did--maybe not at all."

I turned away, feeling my nose and ears redden. "I don't know about that..." I mumbled.

"I do," Eileen said firmly. "Think about it. Philip is an absolutely perfect Captain of the Guard. But if he'd been in charge of that expedition he would have turned it into a commando raid--smash and grab, get the information and get out. But that's not how it happened. As it turned out, what that job needed was someone with the patience to stick with it, to ferret out the information a little at a time. And that person was you."

I grinned slightly. "Patience" is a word which had seldom been applied to me, I'm afraid. I'd just done what needed to be done. But we were straying from the point. "And that colors his thinking?" I guessed.

"Of course it does," Eileen said with a grin. "But all things considered...Philip believes in honor and loyalty, but he isn't so fanatical that he doesn't recognize that there have to be exceptions. He thinks that Justin is giving you a raw deal. And so does everyone else in the community, as far as I can see."

"So do I," Judith said. "Please believe me, Jonathan, I never expected anything like that to happen."

"I know you didn't," I said. "I don't think anybody would." I sighed. "As much as it pains me to say it, though, in the final analysis this really isn't about me at all."

"No?" Judith asked.

"No," Eileen said quietly. She glanced up. "As a matter of fact it's about you, dear sister."

Judith looked startled; the more so when I nodded my agreement. "Me?" she asked.

"Of course," I said. "I just managed to get caught in the middle, as usual. Justin's thoughts right now are focused solidly on you, Judith. Never doubt that."

"I--I don't..."

"I used to think," I said, "that I knew more about Justin's mind and motives than anyone else in this community." I shook my head. "Maybe that was true once. But he's changed. It took Elizabeth to make me understand just how much."

"'Changed' how?" Judith asked.

"The old Justin was a kind of overgrown schoolboy," I went on. "Certainly he had responsibilities--Captain of the Guard--but they only occupied a part of his attention. The rest of the time..." I shook my head again. "Everyone in this community--those who are old enough, anyway--remembers how he used to be. Brave, yes, energetic, the first to volunteer for anything. But we also remember his antics, his practical jokes--and his dangerous stunts, like baiting the cat. As I said, a schoolboy at heart."

"Then Nicodemus died," Judith said, the light of understanding beginning to glow in her eyes.

"Exactly," I said. "And then Justin had the weight of the entire community on his shoulders. I'm not saying that he didn't meet the challenge--obviously he did. He has been an excellent leader. The problem is that he's thrown himself into the role too whole-heartedly. Some of the department heads have accused him of micromanagement, of acting as if he doesn't trust them to make their own decisions. But that's not it. That's not the reason he's been behaving as he has. Only in the last few days, since I've had so much time to think about it, have I realized what is driving him."

The two women waited expectantly; but Eileen, I think, already knew what I was going to say. She usually was at least one step ahead of me. "Guilt," I said finally. "Justin blames himself for Nicodemus' death. It's as simple as that--and as complicated. He all but said so himself a few days ago. He told me that he sometimes feels as if Nicodemus is looking over his shoulder, judging him and his leadership. He feels that his bravado, his swashbuckling, his schoolboy antics, all contributed to Nicodemus' murder. Because he should have been paying more attention to what Jenner was up to." I sighed. "I can't agree with that," I went on. "Because it took everybody by surprise. I don't think any of us really knew, or would let ourselves believe, what Jenner was really capable of. Ages came closest--and even he didn't expect murder. I doubt whether Justin himself is consciously aware of how deeply he feels that guilt. But that is what's wrong with him. I'm certain of it now." I paused. "You both know that Justin very nearly died this last summer--he would be dead, in fact, if not for my wife and the Amulet. I've sometimes wondered if he placed himself in harm's way deliberately. Maybe not consciously, but deliberately all the same."

Eileen smiled grimly. "I'm not a psychologist, any more than Jonathan is," she said. "But I tend to agree. Certainly something has been affecting Justin--driving him to the edge of obsession, in fact. Even taking Jonathan as an assistant didn't slow him down. He still does the work of two or three rats--or tries to."

"That much is true," Judith said sadly. "Sometimes when we were together for an evening I practically had to drag him away from his desk." She gazed at me. "But I still don't understand what that has to do with me."

"That's the other half of the equation," I said. "The part that hasn't really changed very much; Justin has simply become more aware of it recently." I paused. "He's lonely," I said. "I've known that for a very long time. Oh, he has plenty of friends--Arthur, Philip, Ages, your father, myself...any number of friends. But there are some things that friends can't ordinarily supply. And I don't just mean physical needs either," I added quickly.

Judith looked away. "I know," she said, almost inaudibly.

"Loneliness can do terrible things to a person," I went on, feeling deep in the pit of my stomach a brief stab of pain, one which thankfully I'd all but forgotten. "It led me to make some very bad decisions--and some very good ones too. Once in a while, when we were alone, Justin would quit playing Errol Flynn long enough to tell me how much he envied me, for finding the courage to do something about it. I don't know if it really was courage," I added. "Something closer to desperation, I think."

"So you're saying that he had also finally decided to do something about it?" Judith asked.

"Perhaps not consciously decided," I told her. "It might be closer to the mark to say that he was finally driven to do something about it, just as I was." I shook my head. "How he stood it so long I don't know. More than twice as long as I did."

"You say he's just recently become aware of it," Judith persisted. "What did you mean by that? What happened to make him aware?"

I looked away, unable to answer. Eileen cleared her throat and said delicately, "Basically speaking it finally became clear to him that there was something he couldn't have."

Judith glanced quickly at me, and her eyes widened. "Oh," she said simply. "But...why me?"

"That's easier to answer," I said. "When he first started to go out with you there was a lot of sniggering--people were saying things like 'Wow, he must really want a challenge.'"

Judith nodded tiredly. "Believe me, I know my reputation. I worked hard enough on it."

"--But I don't think he cared about that one way or another," I went on. "I can't take credit for this insight--it was Elizabeth who really understood what was happening. In her opinion, Justin zeroed in on you for two reasons. Because you're attractive, of course. But more than that, because he saw that deep down, you were as lonely as he was."

Judith's eyes flashed, and I braced myself for an angry denial. It had occurred to me--a trifle belatedly--that here I was again: meddling. If Justin heard about this conversation, my name really would be Mud. At least this time I had a defense: she started it!

But a few seconds later Judith sighed, turned away, and nodded. "He was right," she whispered. "God help me if he wasn't right."

"Whatever his subconscious may have intended," I went on, "consciously Justin told himself that he was going into the relationship just for laughs, just for company. That was the understanding between you, I'm told. He knows as well as anyone that he needs to slow down, to relax more. But then something happened..."

Judith grinned faintly. "You don't need to use any circumlocutions, Jonathan," she said. "We all know what 'happened.'" She sighed. "And I still don't regret that night. It was perfect. I know both of you can understand that. As someone once said, it was as if that night was choreographed by God."

"Justin doesn't regret it either," I assured her. There I go again... "But it did scare him. Obviously it did. Part of him, I think, would have welcomed a relationship that involved more than just a few laughs...but deep inside him, the ghost of Nicodemus who looks over his shoulder was saying 'No!'" I shook my head. "And there's irony for you, because the real Nicodemus would have been thrilled. He always thought Justin needed someone. To steady him down, if nothing else."

"That might explain why Justin backed off," Eileen said quietly. She speared her sister with her dark-eyed gaze. "But why did you?"

Judith looked down at her own toes. "I don't know," she mumbled. Then she sighed again and looked up. "Yes I do," she said. "I was frightened too. I wasn't scared to be in a relationship--not as such. Not as long as it was just a 'few laughs.' But after that night, and especially after I became convinced I was pregnant...I was scared, and I retreated."

"Why?" Eileen asked.

"My career," Judith said. "Sis, you know how hard I've fought to get where I am. I didn't want to lose that. I kept hearing in my head what the public would say: 'There goes the Leader and the First Lady.' I didn't want to be the First be defined as an accessory to him. And I still don't."

Eileen and I exchanged a glance. "I understand what you're saying," I said. "But I think you're misjudging this community. As far as I'm aware, no female here is defined as an accessory to her husband--nor the other way around. Months ago, my wife might have been referred to as 'Mrs. Jonathan Brisby.' But not any more. Not since they've gotten to know her."

Eileen nodded. "You have defined yourself, Judith," she said. "And I can't believe anyone would ask you to give that up. Least of all Justin."

"Maybe you're right," Judith said quietly. "I don't know." She shrugged. "But it's all a moot point now, isn't it?"

"Why?" Eileen asked. "Why does it have to be?"

Judith looked startled. "Pardon me?"

"Hacker's right," I told her. I took a deep breath. "Listen, Judith, if it gets back to Justin that I've told you this, I really will be fired. But trust me when I say that Justin truly does care about you. When he thought you were pregnant he was more than willing to marry you, to do the right thing, to give your child a father. It's probably better that it didn't end up that way, because that wouldn't have been the right reason. But Justin does love you, Judith. I'd bet my last dollar on it, if I had any."

"And more than that," Eileen put in. "He needs you."

"Right again," I agreed. "You said it yourself, Judith--when you were seeing Justin you sometimes had to pull him away from his desk. The fact that you were able to do so is very significant. Nobody else can, not even me. He does need you. If for no other reason than to get that ghost off his back."

Her chin lifted proudly. "And if that's not what I want to do?"

I shrugged. "That's your choice," I said. "I'm not saying that's all there is, or all there could be. Certainly not. But it's your choice, of course. No one is forcing you--least of all me. You're not carrying Justin's child; he has no hold over you, nor you him." I paused, and then I went on, "But--if you'll forgive one last bit of meddling--I think you and Justin owe it to yourselves, and to each other, to talk things over. If you're not both too stubborn, that is."

There was a long silence, during which Judith stared out the window, out at the grey sky and drizzling rain beyond. When finally she turned to face us again, both Eileen and I were astounded to see that she was crying, the tears running freely down her cheeks and dripping from her whiskers. For a heartbeat she stared at us; and then, without apparent haste, she rose and fled the apartment, out of her chair and into the hallway in one smooth motion. She had enough presence of mind not to slam the door.

For a few seconds Eileen and I stared at each other in open-mouthed astonishment. Then Hacker cleared her throat. "Maybe," she speculated, "it was time for her to take her medicine."

Elizabeth was doing sit-ups.

It was a sad fact of life that most of the equipment in the community gym was too large for my family and me to use. That was eventually going to change, or so Arthur kept promising; but for the moment the weights were all too heavy, and the springs on the resistance machines were too stiff. Oftentimes, though, the simplest exercises are the most effective, and all you need for sit-ups is a bar to brace your feet under.

As I emerged from the locker room that afternoon, a towel over my shoulders and a crick in my neck that needed working out, I found my darling wife already in the midst of her usual twice-weekly routine. Somehow--I'm not really sure why--the sight of her in a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts, with sweatbands around her wrists and forehead, always struck me funny, and I was attempting unsuccessfully to suppress my grin as I stepped up next to her.

She scowled, but she didn't miss a beat. "If you's keep my...girlish figure...the way they...feed us...around here...guess again!" she puffed irritably.

I reached down and patted her firm stomach. "Believe me," I said, "I do appreciate it."

A little distance away there was a set of chin-up bars of staggered height; the lowest, actually intended for children, wasn't too impossibly high. I jumped, caught it, and hung for a moment while I found a comfortable grip on the smooth wood. It's a better workout, so they say, if you grasp the bar with your knuckles facing you; but I've seldom (if ever) been that dedicated. My knuckles facing out, then, and my tail dangling, I took a deep breath and hauled myself upward, once, twice, again. I was still able to do so without having to kick my legs...only just. Elizabeth was right about the way they fed us.

The gym was one of the largest spaces in the Thorn Valley community. Basically round in shape, the main room was two levels high and had a domed, whitewashed ceiling, hung with numerous lamps. Ranged around the edges were the machines, the bars, the fixed ladders, the climbing ropes, the weight benches and so on. In the center was a large multipurpose space; with the appropriate padding and other equipment in place, it could be used for such activities as gymnastics, wrestling, Tai Chi, or Philip's self-defense classes. This afternoon that area was not in use, and the floor was bare. On the far wall a wide archway led into the locker room and the showers. Far above the floor, ringing the entire space, was a wide railed balcony, cantilevered into the stone: the indoor running track. At the moment it had just two occupants, both of whom I knew very well indeed: my son Timothy and his friend Robert, deep in conversation as they jogged steadily around and around, in perfect unison.

There was in fact only one thing the gym lacked: an indoor swimming pool. But even there, Arthur had plans for the future. To the best of my knowledge only one group of people seriously "worked out" in the gym: the Guards, because Philip insisted that they stay in top shape. The rest of us, mere mortals, used the place mainly for relaxation, to drive away the stiffness of a desk job, and to mitigate the effects of too much good living. That rainy afternoon there were some dozen others there, an equal mixture of males and females. A fairly typical number.

Elizabeth had finished her sit-ups; she sat cross-legged, panting a little as she watched me struggle with the bar. "I missed you at lunch," she said. "What have you been up to today?"

"In a manner of speaking," I said between gritted teeth, as I struggled for one, just one, more chin-up, "I've been working for you. I was helping Eileen write your amendment."

"And?" she prompted.

"And," I said. At that point I had managed a full twenty chin-ups; and that, dear friends, was just about my limit. I hung for a moment at the end of my outstretched arms and then dropped, landing on my feet on the carpet. Immediately--so as not to lose momentum--I lay down next Elizabeth, my knees bent, my hands behind my head, and my feet braced under the same padded bar that she had just been using. Beside me, my wife rolled over onto her stomach and began an energetic series of pushups.

"And," I repeated finally, speaking just as she had, in short bursts between my sit-ups, "we've got it...just about done. Actually...Eileen and Judith...had it...pretty well knocked. All I...had to do...was polish up the...language a little."

"So it will be ready for the next community meeting?"

"Should be."

"What happens then?" she asked. "I have to confess I wasn't looking that far ahead."

"Voting on an amendment is a little complicated," I told her (omitting my pauses for breath.) "For one thing it requires a two-thirds, rather than a simple, majority. And it's a written ballot. What happens next is that Justin will order clean copies of the draft printed up and distributed for study."

"So it won't be voted on immediately?"


She paused, her arms fully extended. "Oh," she said softly. "I--I didn't know that. How long before it is?"

"That's up to Justin," I told her. "He can't delay it indefinitely, but he's supposed to give everyone ample opportunity to study it. Usually that's defined as two weeks. Then he'll call for discussion. That might hold it up for several more weeks, if people are inclined to quibble over the language. Finally there'll be a day of balloting. That could be a month away, or more."

"Oh," she said again. She sank to the floor with her chin resting on her hands, and gazed out over the gym, her big blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Is there--any way to hurry up the process?"

"Not that I'm aware of," I said. "It's all spelled out in the Constitution--it's basically illegal to take shortcuts. The reason it was made so complicated was to prevent certain people from ramming through amendments on the heat of the moment, before people had time to think about the consequences."

"By 'certain people' you mean Jenner," she observed.

"Naturally." I paused then, rolling onto my side to look her straight in the eye. "Darling," I asked, "what are you really trying to accomplish with this?"

She looked startled. "Why, to help you, of course," she said. "To make it so Justin can't suspend you any time he feels like it."

"Of course," I said with a smile. "But is that the only reason?"

She raised herself up on one arm. "Well, certainly there was a gap in the structure of our government," she said. "That wasn't just talk. What do you mean, Jonathan? What else could there be?"

I shook my head. "I don't know," I said. I sighed. "Darling, please don't be upset, but...what if I don't want to be Vice-Leader?"

She sat up abruptly, a look of sheer panic on her face. "But you have to!" she protested. "Everybody is expecting you to--"

"And that's exactly the problem," I said grimly. "Maybe just once I don't want to do what everybody expects."

"You have to," she said again, her voice low and urgent. She reached across and grasped my hand. "Please, Jonathan. I'll admit, you're right: we have all been assuming too much. But please don't let that stop you. You have to run, and you have to win."

"Why?" I asked with a smile. "So you can have something you can rub in Justin's face?"

"No," she said seriously. "So you can save Justin from himself."

"Elizabeth," I began warningly, but she refused to be daunted.

"No," she said. "Not this time, my darling. You can say that I'm meddling again if you like--I don't care. You know as well as I do that there's something wrong with Justin. He seems to be driven to work harder and harder, to try to solve all of this community's problems single-handed. It's been getting worse for months--and if he continues the way he's been going, he is going to self-destruct."

I hesitated for a moment before I replied. Our workout all but forgotten now, she and I leaned back against the gym's padded wall, our legs pulled up against our chests and our hands clasped over our knees. Far above I heard the rhythmic thump of footsteps as Timothy and Robert jogged by yet again. "Sometimes I wonder if we're not working from a false premise," I said finally. "Lately we've been saying 'Justin's falling apart', or 'Look how miserable Justin is.' But do we really know that? Maybe in his own way he's perfectly happy. Some people crumble under stress, but other people get along fine with it. They almost seem to need it, in fact. Look at Cynthia, for example."

Elizabeth smiled thinly. "I worry myself sick about her too," she said. She shook her head. "I'm sorry, dear, but I'm afraid I don't buy that. The Justin we have now isn't the same one I met all those months ago--and in my opinion the change hasn't been entirely for the better. But ask yourself, Jonathan. You've known him much longer than I have. Is he 'getting along fine'?" When he doesn't eat more than ten meals a week, and--by his own admission--hardly sleeps at all any more?"

I looked away. "No," I said heavily. "No, he isn't getting along fine. But I don't see--"

"I haven't decided exactly what's driving him," Elizabeth said. "But whatever it is, obviously it won't allow him to accept any help. That's why he suspended you; I know it is. That business about 'honor' and 'loyalty' was just how he justified it to himself. He has it fixed in his mind that he must have this community's problems on his shoulders, and his alone."

I looked at her in surprise. I hadn't yet discussed my latest theories with her--but it seemed that I scarcely needed to: she had gotten more than halfway down the same road I'd traveled, all by herself. "So?"

"So--that's why you have to be Vice-Leader. I don't mean that I want you to wrest power away from him, or anything as melodramatic as that. What I mean is, you've got to be in a position where he has to share this community's problems with you, and can't just send you away when he doesn't want to hear what you've got to say. That's what I intended when I proposed that amendment--and I think the people know that too."

I sighed and shook my head. "It's clear enough to me that they want me to be Vice-Leader, for whatever reason," I admitted. "If Eileen dared to write my name directly into the amendment, I think she would. It also seems fairly certain that I'd be running unopposed, as embarrassing as that would be. And as a matter of fact, it probably wouldn't be very much of a change in my daily routine. I've virtually been Vice-Leader since I went to work for Justin. He trusts--excuse me, trusted--me to make a lot of decisions on my own, without having to consult him."

Elizabeth grinned. "I think I hear a 'but' coming along here," she observed.

"Unfortunately, you're right," I agreed. "But--I don't know if there's all that much I could do for him, that I haven't already done. You said it yourself: he hired me to take some of his workload, and I did; but somehow or other it didn't seem to change anything. The more jobs I took on, the more he still seemed to have for himself."

Elizabeth nodded sadly. "I hate to admit it," she said, "but you're right. So?"

"So--if the people really want me to take the job, I will. Though I still wish it could be a real election, not just an affirmation. You were right: the community does need to know for certain who would take over if something happened to Justin. But in my humble opinion, dear, what our leader really needs, I can't supply. Only one person can."

"Oh? Who?"

"Judith," I said simply. "The woman who loves him."

Her jaw dropped. "Jonathan," she asked, "do you know something I don't?"

I grinned and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "That's a loaded question," I said. I rose and pulled her to her feet. "Come on," I said. "I'll race you up the ropes."

It's a common custom in many human religions to give thanks for one's "daily bread." In some cultures that's become a metaphor for all food, or even for the ways and means of living in general. But in others, especially the less-developed ones, it is meant quite literally. For countless millions of people throughout human history, and for many today, bread is the staple food. As someone once put it, in many ancient cultures, every other kind of food was literally "something you ate with your bread."

Our diet was a great deal more varied, fortunately; we had taken advantage of (or "stolen," if you really must put it that way) many years' worth of knowledge accumulated by the humans in the fields of agriculture and nutrition. Margaret, in charge of our kitchen, planned our daily menu with at least as much attention to "is this good for us?" as to "will it look and taste good?" My children consumed a much more varied and healthful diet now than Elizabeth and I had ever managed to provide for them, despite our best efforts. Timothy especially was living proof of the benefits of good nutrition.

But as varied as our diets were, still I had never eaten a meal in Thorn Valley that didn't feature bread--or, more accurately, wheat flour--in one form or another. Strange to think that neither my wife nor my children had ever tasted bread until they arrived here; certainly they had never tasted it fresh out of the oven before. I'd chuckled a bit when Elizabeth told me that fresh bread was a major reason why she'd decided to move to the valley; but as a matter of fact she'd been serious, and on reflection I couldn't blame her. And so, when I sat down to dinner that night with my family, I couldn't help but remember Ralph's dire warnings, even as I broke the crust on my vegetable pot pie. Especially because outside the big windows, out there in the dark, the rain was still coming down. It had dwindled now to a thin, mean drizzle, almost a mist; but still it was coming down, and as long as it did, Ralph's soggy fields could not dry.

If we run short on wheat, I thought as I took a forkful of peas, carrots, potatoes and gravy, I don't know what we'll do. We had other cereal grains available to us: oats, corn, rye, rice, even soy...but none of them would really replace wheat, not without a major lifestyle change. Most likely we'd survive--but our diet would become rather more severely restricted than any of us would like. I could almost hear Jenner's mocking tones, echoing through my mind as they used to echo through our old meeting hall: I told you so!

At that point Martin broke into my thoughts, almost as if he'd been reading them. "Jake says the barometer is going up," he commented around a mouthful of pot pie. "He says it might actually start to clear up by tomorrow."

"That's the best news I've heard all day," I told him. "Thanks." Now, if only it doesn't up and freeze...

I shook my head hard then, causing my family to look up at me in confusion. I smiled bleakly in return. Maybe I shouldn't have been judging Justin so harshly, I realized suddenly. It was all to easy to fall into the same trap he had; all to easy to allow myself to me consumed by worry over things that I could do nothing about. With an effort of will, then, I pushed the winter wheat out of my mind yet again, and turned my attention to my children.

I smiled across at my older daughter, who, as usual, was picking somewhat daintily at her dinner. She never had been as enthusiastic an eater as Martin or Cynthia--or me. "I haven't had much chance to talk to you these last few days, honey," I said. "How do you like your new job?"

Teresa nodded and smiled. "Very much." She paused. "Well, most of the time," she went on. "They've had me sorting supplies, grading papers, shelving books in the school library...that sort of thing. Sometimes it can get a little boring. I've been learning a lot, though. And Alice says I've been doing a good job so far."

"I know she has," I said. "She's told me the same thing." I glanced over at Timothy and Martin. "What about you two?"

They exchanged a glance; and, as usual, it was Timothy who replied. "Pretty good, Dad," he said. "We've both been doing a lot more sweeping, and fetching, and tool-sharpening than we'd like. But we're learning too. Arthur is teaching Robert and me personally, when he can get the time."

"And I've been working with Russell," Martin put in. "He's Arthur's best cabinetmaker."

Well, the work obviously wasn't doing their appetites any harm, either of them; and as for Timothy, I could swear that he was still growing; he would need new clothes, again, very soon now. His shoulders were starting to strain the seams of his shirts. The looks on their faces, the boys and their older sister, told me that all three of them had made the right choice of careers. With maybe just a little judicious prodding in Teresa's case. Apprenticeships are never easy, of course; but there's still no better way to get started in a career.

Which left only one of my children to be heard from, and she, unlike her brothers and sister, didn't look quite so content. In fact she looked exhausted and a little downhearted as well. "Is everything going all right with you, sweetie?" I asked her in concern.

She glanced away. "I...hope so, Papa," she said. She looked up at me. "These last few days I've been wondering whether I made the right choice after all. I know I thought I did...but it's hard."

"What's hard, exactly?" I asked her, and she shrugged.

"Everything," she said. "It's hard trying to study for my finals, and try to study the books Mr. Ages has assigned me, all at the same time. Those books are hard, and he always quizzes me on them when I see him. And it's hard to get along with him. He's always so...abrupt."

There were a lot of things I could have said at that point. I could have reminded her that we--her mother and me both--had warned her about Mr. Ages' temperament. I could have said that she, and no one else, had chosen that career; and that she had been so eager to start that she'd agreed to mix work and school. I could have--but I didn't, because she already knew all of it. "Two things," I told her. "Number one, sweetie, if Ages is riding you hard, it's because you've chosen an extremely demanding career. He has to know how you'll react to stress--because there could come a time when there's a dire medical emergency, and if that happens, you'll have to be able to respond, and respond correctly, without folding up."

Around the table, Elizabeth and the other three were nodding agreement. Cynthia smiled thinly. "I know," she said. "And number two?"

I smiled. "Number two, all of us here have confidence in you. So does Ages, or else he wouldn't have chosen you. It's hard now, and to be honest, Cynthia, it always will be. You've chosen a difficult path. But it won't always be quite so hard."

Her smile widened. "Thank you, Daddy," she said.

"Any time," I said. "And I do mean that: any time."

Abruptly Elizabeth grasped my elbow. "Jonathan," she breathed, "look at that!"

I turned. At the back of the hall our beloved, but troubled, leader was sitting alone at a small table, looking preoccupied as he picked at his dinner. Nothing odd about that, of course. But it was not him to whom Elizabeth had pointed. Rather it was Judith. The community botanist had arrived late, so it seemed; she was just now exiting the line, carrying her tray. She was dressed almost exactly as I'd seen her earlier, except that she'd added a multicolored knit vest to the outfit. As Elizabeth and I watched, absolutely unabashed in our curiosity, Judith started to make her way to her own refuge from the world, the small table in the opposite corner. But halfway there she paused. She stood for a few seconds as if in thought, and then she turned. She threaded her way through the maze of tables to the corner where Justin sat alone. He looked up sharply as she set her tray down on his table. If they exchanged any words, it was of course impossible to hear them; but I don't think they did. For a heartbeat Justin stared up at her in astonishment...then he stood, and the two of them all but fell into each other's arms. It was a long time before the two of them sat down...and when they finally did so, they remained very close together indeed.

Beside me, Elizabeth slipped her arm around my waist. "I guess you did know something I didn't, after all."

Someone had left a light on.

It was a little past midnight when I woke. Quite comfortable with my wife cuddled against me and the blankets pulled up around my ears, I don't know what it was that awakened me; but even as I rolled over and prepared to go back to sleep, I caught sight of the dim shaft of light which entered under the bedroom door, and I was immediately wide awake. Not because I was afraid of burglars or anything as ridiculous as that, but for a much more basic reason. In point of fact I'd been the last one to leave the living room that evening, and it was a hard and fast rule of our household, one which predated our arrival in Thorn Valley by a good long time: the last one to bed put out the lights. Was I getting forgetful? I wasn't that old yet, surely. (Well, actually I was, but only chronologically.) Though I did have a lot on my mind lately...

With a muttered curse I rose from bed, wrapping my arms around myself against the chill, and I felt around for my bathrobe at the foot of the bed. Slipping it on, I made my way as quietly as I could out into the living room. And I immediately realized that I wasn't getting forgetful after all.

It was a small oil lamp on the end-table of our larger sofa that was burning, its shade tilted so as to throw more illumination down onto the sofa itself. And lying there, fast asleep in that bubble of light, was Cynthia. My younger daughter lay flat on her back in her bathrobe, with a thick book resting open, face-down on her stomach, its spine rising and falling in time to her steady breathing. Other books lay on the floor, and on the coffee table was a notepad and a pencil. That she had crept out of the room she shared with Teresa after the rest of us went to bed, so as not to disturb her sister with her studying, was of course immediately obvious. As was the fact that exhaustion had overtaken her.

I smiled fondly; but as a matter of fact I now had a problem. Certainly I couldn't leave her as she was--the room was too cold, and our nightly fire had long since died--but at the same time I wasn't quite sure what to do. In earlier times I would have simply picked her up and carried her to bed, as I had done countless times before; but she was getting a little too big for that maneuver. I could not have accomplished it without waking her and her sister too.

I stood for a moment in indecision...and then I crept forward quietly. I lifted the book from her abdomen, closed it, and set it aside. From across the back of the smaller sofa I fetched a large afghan, tightly knit from real wool, and I spread it across her. She didn't awaken as I did so, not exactly; but she did sigh softly and turn over onto her side, pulling the afghan closer around herself. I stretched across to blow out the lamp, and then, in the darkness, I leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Good night, sweetie," I whispered, and then I made my way back to bed. Too bad all my problems weren't as easy to solve.

Chapter 9

We were sitting up in bed, my darling wife and I, quietly reading, when she suddenly lowered her book into her lap. "If I live to be a hundred--" she began.

"And you might," I put in.

"--I will never understand the male mind. Never."

With a tiny, and I hoped inaudible sigh, I marked my own book and laid it aside. I had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn't be picking it up again anytime real soon; this sounded like the beginning of one of those conversations. I turned over onto my side, facing her. "Meaning what?" I asked resignedly.

She peered at me over the tops of her glasses--which is never a good sign, by the way. "You and Justin," she said.

"What about us?"

She shrugged. "It's been a week since he suspended you..."

"Just about."

"...he and Judith are back together..."

"So it appears."

"...and yet the two of you still aren't speaking," she concluded. "And that's what I can't understand. Is it pride? Stubbornness? Too much testosterone? Or what?"

I frowned. "Well, you can't expect me to make the first move..."

"Why not?" she demanded.

"That's obvious," I insisted. I paused. "Isn't it?"

She shook her head. "Not to me," she said. "Explain it to me, please. Pretend that you're still talking to a poor ignorant field-mouse, and explain it to me simply."

For a few seconds I floundered. Then I said, "He's the one who should be making the first overture. And what he should be doing is apologizing. After all, he was the one who overreacted in the first place..."

Elizabeth shook her head again, sadly this time. "Jonathan my darling," she said, "I keep imagining Justin having this same conversation with Judith--and saying the exact same things, or close enough. Justin overreacted, you say. Maybe that's true. But he would say that you broke your promise to him, and he'd be correct too, even though you did it for a good cause. But none of that matters any more--we've gone far past it. These past few months you've been telling me that Justin is your best friend in all the world--and Justin has been saying the same thing about you, ever since I met him. And furthermore, the two of you still have to work together--maybe even more so than before, if events turn out as it seems they will. One of you is going to have to make the first move--and even if that means swallowing your precious pride and apologizing, I honestly can't see that it's that big a deal. You apologize, you hug, you shed a few tears, you both promise that it will never happen again...and then you move on. Where's the difficulty?"

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, "All right. I'll apologize to him--"


"--But only if he apologizes first."

She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Jonathan Brisby," she said, "you are completely impossible!"

I removed the glasses from her face and set them aside, along with the book that lay forgotten in her lap. Then I took her firmly into my arms. "I'll show you how impossible I am," I told her. Which pretty well ended the conversation; or--at very least--took it in a completely different direction.

Ralph and his crew were working like madmen.

I'm not quite sure why I chose to watch the plowing that day; usually that would not have been particularly high on my list of interesting leisure-time activities. Perhaps it was boredom; in eight days of unemployment I had just about exhausted every other kind of diversion. Perhaps too it was a touch of cabin fever; this was the first day when the sun had shone, really, strongly shone, in the better part of a week. Or perhaps Ralph's words to me, when I'd run into him in the lounge several days before, had made more of an impression on me than I'd thought.

But whatever the reason, that sunny late-October morning found me sitting on a rock not far from the community's main entrance, looking down at the fields and at the large team of rats working there. They were not having an easy time of it, unfortunately. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Despite the sunshine, it was not what I would call a truly pleasant day. The rain had indeed ended, just as Martin's friend Jake had predicted; only to be replaced the very next morning by thick fog, which lay over the saturated ground like a soggy grey blanket. For almost two days the fog persisted, cold and clammy, until just the previous afternoon and evening, when it was finally driven away by s stiff north wind. This morning that wind was still blowing, hard and chill; even though the sun was warm upon me, I found myself huddling deep inside my cloak, pulling it tight around my feet and tail. The wind did at least have a drying effect, which was good; and it gave an almost surreal clarity to the atmosphere. The spires of rock that topped the western ridge might have been outlined by Timothy, using his finest, blackest pencil.

It was a full dozen rats I saw down there in the field, all of them clustered around a single, fairly large, steel-bladed plow. I'm sure that by now you've deduced the one major problem that we, the inhabitants of Thorn Valley, had when it came to farming: we possessed neither beasts of burden nor tractors; nor indeed motorized equipment of any kind. And what that means, of course, is that when it came time for such operations as plowing, the beasts of burden were ourselves. Well, some of us anyway. Myself, I was not in any way tempted to go help them. Not this time. Putting up sluices is one thing; but this was quite another. The addition of my small strength would have been of no help to them whatsoever; and I would have been at serious risk of being trampled.

As I said, there was a full dozen of them, mostly males. One--count 'em, one--walked behind the plow, pressing down on its handles with all his strength; and that was Ralph himself. He rarely entrusted that duty to anyone else. The other eleven were--and there's no other way to put this--harnessed to the front of the plow, in approximately the same way that a team of oxen or horses might have been. Despite the chilly wind they were all stripped down to their fur, and they trudged forward slowly on their hind legs, hunched far forward, their hands grasping some part or other of their leather harnesses to keep the straps from digging too deeply into their flesh. They were making steady, if slow, progress; I rather suspect, though, that they would have been getting nowhere at all if the leader of the team had been anyone other than Brutus. On loan again from Philip, it seemed, the huge rat usually appeared capable of pulling the plow single-handed, and if the soil hadn't been quite so wet, he might indeed have done so. As usual there was a look of patient, grim determination on his narrow face as he moved implacably forward, the massive muscles bulging beneath his dark fur. Utterly unable to speak from birth, communicating very infrequently by sign language and written note, he was truly fearsome-looking when you first laid eyes on him--just ask my wife. But when you got to know him you found that he was actually supremely gentle, as well as utterly, unswervingly loyal. Brutus was by no means the "typical" NIMH-rat--whatever that might be--but we were lucky to have him nonetheless.

But anyway, the plowing. There's a term which is often applied to the soil on good farmland: "friable", meaning loose, crumbly and easy to plow. That's what the soil was like on the Great Plains, in the years before the Dust Bowl, after the first settlers cut through the thick roots of the native grasses. Which of course was both a blessing and curse; friable soil is nice and easy to work with, but once it's laid bare and the wind catches it...

Which wasn't a problem we were likely to have in Thorn Valley, because our soil was the very opposite of "friable." In fact--for the moment at least--it was inordinately dense, heavy and clayey. The streams that fed our lake carried down silt from the higher mountains, and for the past few million years that silt had been busy turning a deep V-shaped valley into a flat-bottomed meadow. A process which of course was still ongoing. Though our soil was a little short on organic matter, still it wasn't the worst in the world, not by far. But it required careful tending. Ralph was no fool, to kill his land by forcing the same fields to produce crop after crop of wheat until they were exhausted. We had learned enough to avoid that pitfall, at very least. No; he would work our land very carefully indeed, allowing some fields to lay fallow a season or two, and rotating crops on the others: a crop of wheat would be followed by a crop of soybeans, say, which fix nitrogen in the soil. And if we'd "stolen" that knowledge from the humans, rather than finding it out for ourselves by potentially-disastrous trial and error...well, I think they owed us that much, if not indeed a lot more.

As I watched, Ralph and his team finished a furrow and turned the corner--a rate of progress that was not at all encouraging: it might take them two days or more to finish that one field. And it was about at that point, when Ralph was allowing his "oxen" to stretch their kinked backs before continuing--when I became aware that someone had quietly sat down beside me.

Without turning, I said, "I hope you're not going to tell me I'm not allowed to watch the plowing."

"It's a free community," Justin said. "At least so far." He paused. "He doesn't seem to be getting his furrows very deep."

"No," I agreed. "He isn't. The soil is just too wet and too dense. He's going to plant the wheat as deep as he can, and then mulch the whole field with pine straw for insulation. And then hope for the best."

"That's just the sort of information I've been missing lately," Justin said. "For some reason I never seem to have enough time to get the details. Though I know I should."

"They say that's where God dwells," I commented.

"True enough." Justin was silent for a moment, watching as Ralph and his team resumed their backbreaking labor. Then he said, "Are you ready to come back to work, Jonathan?"

I looked up at him sharply, a sarcastic retort already on my lips; but it appeared that he was totally sincere. "To the best of my knowledge," I said carefully, "I never left my work. It left me."

Justin sighed and glanced away. "All right," he said. "I deserved that. I know I've been jerking you around this last week, Jonathan, and I know you didn't deserve a half of it, if that much. I can only ask you to believe that I'm not the same person I was, even seven days ago. I understand many things much better now."

I peered up at him closely. Indeed, the last few days had been good to him; the haunted, hollow-eyed look that he had worn for so long had begun to recede, replaced by something a little more like the carefree Justin of old. But his problems had been months in the making, and so short a time, I feared, would be barely enough to begin a cure, let alone complete it. "Do tell," I said dryly.

A brief spasm of anger flashed across his face. "Do you want me to beg, Jonathan?" he demanded. "To plead with you to come back to work? If that's what it takes, I will."

I sighed and shook my head. "No," I told him. "No, I don't need you to beg. I don't even need you to apologize. I don't know anymore who was at fault, Justin, and I don't even really care. If you want an apology from me, here it is: I'm sorry I disobeyed you. But you know something? Given the same circumstances, I'd do it again."

He looked startled; but then a slow smile spread across his face. "I know you would," he said. "But as for what I did--I hope I wouldn't do it again."

"There's only one thing I do need from you," I told him firmly. "I need you to acknowledge--right here and now--that the job you've got, the way you've been trying to do it, is too much for one rat."

He gazed down at Ralph and associates for a moment; then, finally, he nodded. "You're right," he said softly. "It is. The amount of work I was trying to accomplish single-handed was easily enough to keep a dozen rats busy. Which, by an amazing coincidence, is just about the number of department heads I have." He smiled wryly. "And believe me, Jonathan, you're not the only person who's been telling me that lately."

"I'm not surprised," I said. I hesitated. "Would it be prying if I asked you..."

"About our plans for the future?" he finished. He shook his head. "We don't have any yet. We're pretty well taking it one day at a time for now." His smile widened into his familiar grin. "And we're trying to be more careful." He sobered. "But when I think about the mistake I almost made...If I'd let her get away..." he trailed off. "But I don't think I need to tell you about that."

"No," I said softly. "No, you don't."

"All right," he went on briskly, slapping his knees with the palms of his hands. "That brings us back to my original question...and I'll rephrase it. I find that I am in desperate need of an executive assistant. I was a fool to think that I could get along without one in the first place. And I would be very pleased, Mr. Brisby, if you would agree to take back the job."

I grinned. "Well," I said, "to be very honest with you, Leader Justin, I'm not a all sure how much longer that particular job will even exist. But while it still does, I'm very happy to accept."

He smiled hugely, clapped me on the back, and hopped down from the rock. "I don't know how much longer it will exist either," he said. He held out his hand to help me down. "So we'd better make the most of it while it still does. Come on--we've got some things to discuss."

We started toward the main entrance then; and halfway there, Justin looked over his shoulder and grinned. "Not that I really expect things to change much," he added.

You might be surprised, my friend, I thought. You and everyone else.

As Hacker finished speaking and sat down, Justin cleared his throat and stepped forward into the light. "I'm sure we'd all like to thank Eileen and Judith for all their hard work--"

"And in Judith's case, for one or two other things," I muttered, earning myself a stifled giggle from Cynthia and an elbow in the ribs from my wife.

"--So," Justin went on, "do I hear any initial discussion?"

He peered around the hall, and so too did Elizabeth and I. All around us people were muttering together in pairs or small groups, casting what they apparently thought were surreptitious glances at Elizabeth and me. But no one seemed particularly eager to stand up and speak. I wasn't terribly surprised by that. Among other things, the amendment as written by Eileen and her sister (with a small assist from yours truly) was not terribly complicated. Basically it just took Elizabeth's proposal from a week ago and couched it in somewhat more legally-acceptable language. There really wasn't much for anyone to discuss. In fact, had it been legal to do so, I suspect the populace might have passed it right there and then, on a simple voice vote.

"No one is quibbling about the grammar," Elizabeth murmured in satisfaction. "Good."

I grinned and pulled her a little closer. "Afraid you'd have to get rough with them, eh?" I asked.

She gazed at me seriously. "As a matter of fact..."

Down below, Justin held up his hands, and the stir of conversation gradually stilled. "All right," he said. "It appears there is no initial discussion. As you all know, our law is very specific regarding the procedure in these cases. I'm going to ask Stephen and his crew at the printing press to get this set in type and printed as soon as possible. Copies will be available for study in the library. Unless I hear an objection, I would like to schedule the balloting for two weeks from today. Any discussion on that?"

To my extreme surprise, Elizabeth suddenly shook herself free of my encircling arm and stood, climbing up onto the bench so she could be seen. "I'd like to make a motion," she said.

Justin gazed upon her in some alarm. I couldn't really blame him; look where the last motion she'd made had gotten us. "The chair recognizes Elizabeth Brisby," he said in tones of mild dread.

"I've been studying community law as regards elections and amendments," she said. "I believe that what I'm proposing is legal. As we all know, if this amendment becomes part of our Constitution, we will have to almost immediately turn around and hold another election, this time to choose our new Vice-Leader. I believe we can save ourselves that trouble. What I'm proposing is a dual ballot. Primarily to decide whether or not to adopt the amendment--but at the same time to elect the Vice-Leader. The results of that election will be contingent on the amendment passing--if it doesn't, of course, the other will be null and void."

Which is about as likely as my beating Brutus in a wrestling match, I thought wryly. I shook my head in amazement and admiration as she sat back down. Up until recently, "devious" was not a word I would have applied to my dear wife. But now, it seemed, that was becoming her specialty. I had told her how long this process would take--and she had found a way to short-circuit it. How could I help but be impressed?

Her words caused another stir of conversation, louder this time. Justin let it run for a few minutes, and then he raised his hand again. A week ago, or maybe even less, he would have been seething by now, believing possibly that we were plotting against him. But these last few days did definitely seem to have settled him down. I, of course, can take no credit for that, though the four-hour talk we'd had that afternoon, forgoing any pretense of work, was one of the best and most productive I could remember us ever having. And yes, we did end up getting sloppily maudlin, hugging and shedding those few tears. A guy is entitled, every once in a while. And now, a few hours later, a much calmer and more centered Justin than we'd seen for a long time looked up at Elizabeth, smiled, and even winked.

"I believe that Mrs. Brisby's proposal is in fact legal," he observed blandly. "And it will indeed save us time and expense. Do I hear a second?"

A little farther down the bench, Timothy stood. "I second," he said firmly.

"It has been seconded. Discussion?"

Once again there was none; not even of the behind-the-hand variety this time. Justin waited a moment, then said, "All in favor?"

Do I really need to tell you that the motion was carried unanimously? Of course it was, though I myself thought it better to abstain. Somehow or other this whole process was beginning to feel, well...inevitable. If not indeed predestined.

"Which leaves us with just one more matter to discuss," Justin said with a smile. "Nominations. I don't suppose--?"

The only real question at that point was, who was going to do the honors? Would Elizabeth dare to do so herself, abandoning all pretense of impartiality? Or had she made arrangements? I glanced quickly at her, and she gazed back innocently; but even as she did, several rows down Eileen climbed to her feet. "I nominate Mr. Jonathan Brisby," she said.

The voices rose in response from all around the hall; from Philip, Mark and David, from Judith, Mr. Ages, Arthur, Alice, and others, all simultaneously: "Second!"

"The nomination of Jonathan Brisby has been moved and seconded," Justin said. "Do I hear any others?"

I suspect that he asked that just as a matter of form, to satisfy the legalities. If so, though, he was surprised, along with everyone else in the hall. Most especially, I'd say, my oh-so-sneaky spouse. She shouldn't have been, though: I'd already told her what I thought of unopposed elections.

I stood. She grabbed at my arm, trying to pull me back down into my seat; I think she was afraid I was about to refuse the nomination. But that wasn't what I had in mind at all. "Yes," I said. I looked around. "I nominate Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby."

In almost five months' residence in Thorn Valley, never before had I been pulled out of my bed in the middle of the night by anything other than my own insomnia. I certainly couldn't blame Sullivan, though. In his place I would have roused everybody I could think of too.

For reasons that she herself found difficult to explain, my wife had chosen to forgive Sullivan for his part in Jenner's crimes. In fact it was she who urged Justin to exercise his executive powers and pardon Sullivan. The very day I arrived in Thorn Valley--in fact almost the exact minute Dr. Schultz's helicopter touched down--Sullivan's official status changed from "convicted accessory to murder" to "free and equal citizen."

But as for me...well, I was certainly glad that the woman I loved possessed mercy and forgiveness among her other qualities; but I was myself finding it a little harder to excuse what Sullivan had done. During the last five months I'd had little to do with him; and every time he saw me he turned away, utterly unable to meet my gaze. If pressed, though, I would have had to admit that he'd been a model citizen since his release, hard-working and conscientious. Nor could I bring myself to harbor too much ill-will toward him, because my daughter Cynthia's best friend and confidante, Rachel, was in fact Sullivan's youngest child.

"I arrived with my maintenance crew about half past eleven," Sullivan said grimly as we walked. "We were here to make sure the sluices were running smoothly. I took a look around...and that's when I decided I'd better call for help."

Of course it was not just me who Sullivan had rousted out of bed, but Justin and Arthur as well. Whether any of us had been alone in our various bedrooms when we were awakened I strongly doubt. The Leader and the Chief Engineer both looked sleepy and rumpled, their eyes half-closed, their fur unbrushed, and their clothes hurriedly donned, wrinkled and half-unbuttoned. I don't imagine I looked much better. But the sight that greeted my eyes, as the four of us rounded the corner into the north section of the fourth level, woke me up more effectively than a slug of French Roast. Nor was I the only one.

"You did the right thing," Justin told Sullivan. He turned to Arthur. "Well?"

The expression on Arthur's face was the closest I'd ever seen him come to sheer terror. "This is bad," he said. "Very, very bad. And it's my fault--all my fault."

"Never mind that now," Justin said. "Just tell us what's happening."

Had we been anywhere else, I would have said that what we were looking at was a case of vandalism. But our kids, thank God, didn't go in for that sort of thing. Though it might almost have been better if they had.

Almost exactly a week had passed since Arthur's crew, with some small assistance from me, built an intricate series of sluices to catch and channel the seepage from the fourth level's walls and ceiling. The last few days had been drier, fortunately, and the amount of seepage had diminished significantly. But that could easily change, when the next rainstorm happened by, and until Arthur could affect a more permanent solution, he'd been in no hurry at all to dismantle the sluices. But now, it seemed, someone or something had decided to do it for him. About three-quarters of the interconnected system lay in shambles, either entirely collapsed or knocked askew, as if someone had deliberately kicked the X-shaped braces out from under them.

"Who did this?" Sullivan asked in bewilderment. He was looking much better than he had five months ago--he'd been putting back lost weight, and the scar of his terrible injury was finally beginning to fade--but he still had the habit of rubbing at his abdomen with the flat of his hand, as if the old sword-cut still pained him.

"No one," Arthur said testily. "No one sentient, anyway. This was caused by earth movement."

"A quake?" I asked, but Justin shook his head.

"I doubt it," he said. "No one has reported feeling anything. And a quake strong enough to accomplish this would certainly have knocked things off shelves, caused light fixtures to swing. We'd have reports by now."

"And we haven't," Arthur agreed. "No, it wasn't an earthquake." He moved forward slowly, carefully, picking his way through the precariously-perched wreckage, bending almost double as he examined the floor and walls closely. Finally he pointed. "Take a look here," he said grimly.

The three of us made our way over to him, Sullivan hanging back a little, deferring to Justin and me. What Arthur was pointing at chilled me to the bone. In the right angle formed where the corridor's inner wall met the floor, a ragged, rough-edged crack had opened. Already it was wide enough for Arthur to slip his fist into easily. "And there," he went on, pointing up. There was an almost identical crack, perhaps even a little wider, where the wall met the ceiling.

"I was afraid of this," Arthur said. He glanced at me. "You were right, Jonathan," he went on. "All those years ago, you were right, and I wish to God I'd listened." He looked up at Justin. "It's the water," he said. "Percolating down through cracks in the rock, it must have found a layer of clay, or volcanic ash, or something similar. Or perhaps a fracture plane, or an unconformity. It doesn't matter which. What matters is, this mass of rock--" he pointed to the outer wall--"is starting to slip along an inclined plane, away from that mass." He pointed to the inner wall. "Probably it's been an ongoing process...but I accelerated it greatly by excavating these tunnels."

"Good grief!" Justin said. "What about the lower levels? Do we need to evacuate?"

Arthur shook his head. "I'm reasonably certain that the lower levels are unaffected," he said. "No seepage down there, remember; and no one has reported finding any cracks. But--" he waved a hand--"this section of the fourth level is almost certainly doomed."

Justin and I exchanged a glance. Arthur always had tended toward the overly-dramatic, but this time he sounded absolutely sincere, and that was doubly alarming. "Define 'doomed,'" Justin said.

"Five or six feet of this corridor, and the outer rooms attached to it, are in danger of breaking loose and sliding down into the valley floor," Arthur explained patiently. "And I doubt very much whether I can stop it. As a matter of fact we probably shouldn't be standing here."

"How long do we have?" Justin asked.

"I can't say," Arthur said. "Right this minute it seems stable. It might hold off until the next rain, or it might not."

"Why wasn't this noticed before?" I asked.

Arthur shrugged. "Because the seepage has slowed down," he said. "I've only needed to send crews up twice a day to check the sluices. Once in the morning and once at night. Obviously this happened sometime during the day. There's nobody up here otherwise; who would have noticed?"

Justin held up his hand. "It's too late for that," he said firmly. "Only two things are important now. First, is anyone in this community in danger?"

Arthur hesitated for a long time before he answered, chewing on his lower lip and gazing at the ominous cracks. Finally, reluctantly, he said, "No. I don't believe there's any immediate danger. As I said, for the moment it seems to have stabilized."

"And second," Justin went on, "what's to be done about it?"

"Only one thing I can think of," Arthur said grimly. "Take it down ourselves, rock by rock, before it slides."

Justin and I exchanged another glance. "Five or six feet, you say?" I asked.

"At least," Arthur replied. "I'll have to investigate further before I know for certain. I hope--hope--that it's confined to this section, where the seepage was the worst. But at the moment I can't guarantee that."

"And there's no way to save it?" Justin persisted.

"None that I can think of," Arthur said. "Not that I'd feel good about, at any rate. Maybe someday we can build something--cantilever some big beams into the inner wall here, if that's strong enough to hold them. But for now the only safe alternative is to remove the unstable material."

"If I understand you correctly," Justin said slowly, "it seems to me like a long and hazardous job. Is it something that we have to begin immediately, tonight?"

Arthur hesitated again, longer this time, his face a mask of agonized indecision. Finally he shook his head. "No," he said. He smiled wryly. "Part of me wants to say yes, begin instantly. But you're right, Justin. It's going to be a tough job. Not something we want to do by torch-light, not if we can help it. We can start tomorrow morning."

"Worst-case scenario," I said. "What happens if it does go?"

Clearly that was something Arthur didn't want to contemplate. "The slope below us is steep," he said thoughtfully. "And there aren't many windows directly below. It ought to just slide straight down, en masse. If there's nobody underneath it, the danger is minimal. It would be just as well, though, to shutter all the adjacent windows on the first three levels--just in case of flying rocks. That we can begin tonight."

Sullivan, standing quietly behind Justin and me, stirred and nodded. "I'll gather my crew," he said.

"I'll come with you," Arthur said. "I've still got the shutters from last summer in storage. I'll show you where they are."

The two of them departed; but on the way out, Arthur looked back over his shoulder. "Er...there's not much more the two of you can do tonight," he said. "Everything is under control for now--you might as well go back to sleep."

"Easy for him to say," Justin muttered. He looked around, and shuddered slightly. "Let's get out of here," he suggested. "I've got a thing about hanging around in condemned buildings."

"I'm with you on that one."

As quickly as we could, we made our way out of the fourth level and down the ramp. On our way down to the first level, through the deserted, silent and somewhat chilly corridors, I said, "So--what do you think?"

Justin pointed up. "About that?" he said. He shook his head. "I'm thinking that I needed it like I need a hole in my head." He sighed. "And I think you were right. He shouldn't have tried to build that fourth level in the first place. But we're stuck with it now. I only hope to God that he can get it dismantled before it goes, and without anybody getting hurt."

"He's learned his job in doing it," I said. "As all of us have. And he's learned some humility too. I trust him--he'll get it done safely."

Justin grinned down at me. "'Learned his job in doing it,'" he quoted. "I like that. And some of us had more learning to do than others, eh?"

I frowned. "I didn't say that."

"You didn't need to. Truth is, Jonathan, I know very well that I had the fastest crash-course in history, last spring. And I know that I'm still learning. I don't suppose it ever ends, really." He paused, wrapping his arms around himself against the chill. Then he said, "Jonathan? Why did you nominate Elizabeth?"

I smiled. "Two reasons," I said. "Number one, to turn it into a real contest. And number two, to get back at her for forcing the situation on me in the first place."

"Does she know that?"

"Of course she does. We had some words on the subject before we went to bed. And after. I'd only been asleep an hour or less when Sullivan came pounding on the door."

"Me too," Justin said. Then, abruptly, he seemed to realize what he had said, and he cleared his throat. "But she didn't refuse the nomination," he went on. "I wonder why?"

I smiled. "Maybe," I said, "she intends to win."

In the darkness I shucked my clothes and slipped into bed; hurriedly, because the room was cold despite the stove. As I settled in, Elizabeth turned over to face me. "Jonathan?" she murmured sleepily. "What's going on?"

"Oh, nothing much," I told her. "The fourth level is about to collapse, that's all."

"Oh," she said. "If that's all..."

It took a full five seconds for it to sink in; then the bed bucked like a wild horse as she suddenly sat up. "The fourth level is what?" she cried.

My wife and I received a remarkable number of stares as we entered the dining hall the next morning; especially considering that the place was more than one-third empty.

"Where is everybody?" Elizabeth murmured, as we and our children picked up our trays and got in line. "It's usually much more crowded at this time of the morning."

I looked around and saw that she was right. Like most farmers, Ralph and his crew started work at almost literally the crack of dawn; they always ate their breakfast very early, and were long gone before my family and I arrived. The "inside" workers, though, the people who didn't work on the farm, were usually more than enough to fill the place up. But this morning a good many of the tables were standing empty. I took a quick head-count...and I suddenly understood.

"Arthur's crew," I said. "He must have called them out early. They're probably up in the rocks above the fourth level by now."

Behind me, Timothy and Martin almost dropped their trays. "Hey," Timothy said, sounding as indignant as only he could, "he didn't call us out early!"

Elizabeth and I exchanged a glance. How to put this diplomatically--? "I rather suspect," I told Timothy, "that he'd like you to continue with your regular work. After all," I added quickly, "somebody has to."

Martin shook his head. "Nice try, Dad," he said. He sighed and gazed back at his brother. "Looks like we're too small again, Tim."

"Yeah," Timothy agreed, his whiskers bristling in frustration. "Again."

Elizabeth and I exchanged another glance, and a nod. I could almost read her mind, and I very definitely agreed with her. The picture of our sons trying to wrestle boulders on an unstable rock-face was an alarming one, and both she and I were profoundly grateful for Arthur's decision to exclude them. But there was little point in saying so.

Fewer people there may have been; but as we made our way over to our table, I was keenly aware that the eyes of every last one of them were upon Elizabeth and me. I really had dropped a bombshell in the meeting last night, it seemed. And so too had my wife, by not refusing. No doubt they were all wondering how we would conduct our campaigns. Well, in my case, that was simple enough to answer: I had no intention of campaigning. These people already knew who Jonathan Brisby was; if they intended to vote for him, fine. How--or even if--Elizabeth intended to proceed, I had no idea. That was one point that hadn't entered into our knock-down-drag-out fight the night before.

A surprise was waiting for us at our table: Mr. Ages. He smiled sardonically and bowed his head at us as we sat down. "Ah," he said. "The candidates. What an honor!"

I grimaced. "Please," I told him, "let me eat my breakfast in peace, at least." I saw then that he had all but finished his meal, except for his tea, and I cocked a curious eyebrow at him. "What brings you out so early, anyway?"

He harumphed. "Noise," he said. "Sullivan and his crew woke me up before dawn, shuttering my windows--my bedroom and the infirmary both. I decided I might as well eat here as there." He looked around. "And in truth it's quieter here, for once."

I frowned. The infirmary--and Ages' adjacent quarters--were by no means directly beneath the section of the fourth level that was in danger of falling; nowhere near, in fact. Arthur was being over-cautious again: apparently his definition of "worst-case scenario" was somewhat broader than mine. My family's apartment was almost directly below the infirmary; would he shutter our windows next?

"The whole idea troubles me greatly," Ages went on. "I know that we can scarcely let a thing like that lie, and I know Arthur and his crew aren't afraid to tackle large projects." He glanced at Elizabeth. "Your old home is a good example. But I hardly need mention how dangerous those projects can be--even in the absence of someone with murderous intent. Unstable rocks and steep, high slopes are a bad combination."

"You'll get no argument from me," I said. And if I glanced significantly at my sons as I said it...well, can you really blame me?

"Which reminds me," Ages said. He turned to Cynthia. "If you're willing, my dear, I'd like you to work with me all day today. I think this might be a very good time for us to cover emergency procedures. I've already spoken to your teacher, and she's willing to release you."

Without hesitation, Cynthia nodded. "I'm willing," she assured him. Willing she may well have been, but to my eye what she mostly looked was tired. I knew very well that she'd been "burning the midnight oil," as they say, every night for more than a week. I really couldn't see what good she'd do, for herself or Ages, by depriving herself of sleep. But it was not my business, and with luck it might not last much longer anyway. Already her attendance at school was largely a matter of form; with each passing day the time she spend there grew shorter, and the time she spent working with Ages grew longer. Any day now I expected Alice to give up, declare Cynthia graduated, and let her go to work full-time. And as soon as that happened, Cynthia would no longer need to burn the candle at both ends; perhaps then she could get a little more rest. No, strike that. She would get more rest, or Ages and I would be having a very serious discussion. He was not going to work my daughter to death.

"Good," Ages said. "Let's hope we won't have to put them into practice."

Beside me, Elizabeth suddenly sighed tragically. "What's wrong?" I asked her, and she pointed.

"Them," she said simply.

I turned. Justin and Judith were already in attendance, at their accustomed table in the back; they were sitting so close together, they might have been joined at the hip. They were a rather interesting-looking pair, Justin in his familiar blue tunic and white shirt, and Judith in her rugged, vaguely masculine work outfit: an old, patched blue denim tunic, a flannel shirt, a tool-belt and a head-scarf. They were all smiles, their heads bent close together in conversation as they ate.

"What now?" I asked my wife. "They're back together."

"Back together, yes," she agreed. "And from what I understand, Judith isn't even pretending to go back to her own apartment at night any more. I just wish they'd decide to make it legal."

"Elizabeth--" I began warningly. There was a time, I seemed to recall, when that actually worked; but that time was long past. She gazed at me steadily, undaunted.

"I don't think," she said, "we need a repetition of what started that situation in the first place, do we?"

I couldn't disagree with her on that point. "No," I said. "We don't. That is, if it's even possible."

Mr. Ages cleared his throat. "I shouldn't say, of course," he told us. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "But just between us, yes, it is. Her hormone problems are under control. If they're not careful..."

"See?" Elizabeth said triumphantly, and I raised my hands in surrender.

"All right, all right," I said. "I certainly can't argue with you: they should make it legal." I glanced at them again, through the corner of my eye. If nothing else, life with Judith had improved our leader's appetite, judging from the way he was shoveling it down. Which was all to the good: the hollow-cheeked gaunt look definitely did not suit him. "For public-relations reasons, if nothing else," I went on. I shook my head. "This time though, I'm going to mind my own business. It's a lot safer."

Across the table, Teresa suddenly cleared her throat. "Er--Father, Mother...are you really going to run against each other?"

Elizabeth and I exchanged a wary glance. "Apparently so, honey," I told Teresa. "Unless..."

"Unless I back down?" Elizabeth finished. She shook her head. "Not a chance. I've been thinking about this all night. If you wanted a real race, Mr. Brisby, you've got one."

Teresa gazed at us in turn. "So--you're going to have posters and rallies and speeches and debates, and all that sort of thing?"

Once again her mother and I exchanged a glance. "I...don't know," I said. "We hadn't really discussed it..."

Elizabeth grasped my hand. "I'll campaign," she said, "every bit as hard as my distinguished opponent. No more and no less."

I smiled. "I suppose I'd have to say the same."

"Well, then, that leaves me with only one question," Teresa said.

"What's that, honey?"

She waved a hand, indicating herself and her two older siblings. "Who," she said, "are we supposed to vote for?"

"That," I told her seriously, "will have to be a matter for your own conscience." I leaned forward and whispered, "Though once you've heard my campaign promises..."

"I'm looking forward to that myself,: Elizabeth said dryly. She looked at me, and then back at our daughter. "Honestly, dear, my suggestion would be to vote for whomever you think will do the best job. That's all anyone can do."

"Or sometimes," I added, "whomever you think might screw up the least."

"Thanks," Teresa said dubiously.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Justin and Judith rise from their table. They embraced and kissed--Justin getting poked in the hip with a trowel--and then they parted, Judith heading for the exit and Justin strolling slowly across the hall toward my family and me. Inwardly I groaned. I knew exactly what he was going to want me to do: accompany him up into the rocks above the community's roof, to inspect Arthur's work. And after my extremely short night, I wasn't looking forward to that hike.

As Justin stepped up beside our table he looked uncharacteristically serious. Not depressed, nor grim--as he had been far too often of late--just...serious. As if he had something very important on his mind. "Good morning, all," he said. He glanced at Elizabeth and the kids. "I hope Jonathan and I didn't disturb you too badly last night," he went on.

"No," Elizabeth assured him. "And it was important community business." She glanced sidelong at me. "The kind of thing a Vice-Leader should be involved in."

Justin smiled. "The election is still two weeks away," he reminded her. He took a deep breath, and then he continued quietly, "I won't presume to second-guess the will of the people. The amendment is as good as passed; that's clear. And one of the two of you is going to be elected Vice-Leader. Whichever of you it turns out to be, there's something I'd like you to do for me. More accurately, a power which I'd like to delegate to you."

"Which is?" I asked.

"The authority to perform marriages," he said. He swallowed. "I would like whichever of you ends up being Vice-Leader to officiate when I marry Judith."

The effect of those words was both instantaneous and noisy: around the small table six people dropped their spoons simultaneously, causing a clatter that made heads turn all around the hall. Only Ages appeared unimpressed. Elizabeth and I both reached up to clasp Justin's hands.

"Congratulations," my wife said. "I know you'll be very happy."

He smiled. "I know we will too," he agreed. "And if I'm not mistaken, what you really meant to say was, 'it's about time.'"

Elizabeth turned away, embarrassed, and I peered up curiously at Justin. "Don't get me wrong," I said. "I'm absolutely thrilled, of course, But isn't this just a little...sudden? Just yesterday afternoon you told me that you had no plans..."

He nodded. "I know I did. And I wasn't lying to you--right then and there, I didn't have any plans. But...well, in a way it was caused by what happened last night. After I got back to my quarters I couldn't sleep. I just lay there with her in my arms..." He trailed off and cleared his throat. "Anyway," he went on, "that whole business with the fourth level got me thinking about last summer." He glanced at Elizabeth. "By all rights, by all known physical laws, I ought to be dead now. Don't get me wrong: I'm certainly glad that I'm not. But it made me think how terribly unpredictable life is. I plan to live forever; but I--any one of us, really--could cash in my chips tomorrow, for all we know. I realize how morbid that sounds, but you have to admit that it's true. What I mean is, for years I've been telling myself 'oh, I've got time. I'll get around to that.' But lately I've been thinking about all the time I've wasted." He took a deep breath. "Anyway--long story short--I asked her this morning, first thing, before we were even dressed. And she said 'yes' almost before I'd finished asking."

I clasped his hand. "You won't regret it, my friend," I said. "And here's my first campaign promise. If I am elected Vice-Leader, my first official act will be to perform your marriage."

"You'll get no debate on that from me," Elizabeth said.

"Thank you," Justin told both of us. He turned to me, and suddenly he was all business. "Jonathan," he went on briskly, "if you're just about finished with your breakfast, we've got a lot of work to do. I'd like you to--"

He suddenly stopped short, a strange expression on his face. I looked up at him in confusion, wondering at that moment several things happened at once. All conversation in the hall ceased as if someone had pressed the "mute" button, the people looking around in bewilderment; and in the abrupt silence I became aware of a vibration, a kind of subsonic rumbling that I felt rather than heard. Across the room, at the head of the service line, a rack full of plates fell to the floor with a crash. My half-finished bowl of oatmeal, and Elizabeth's, both skittered to the center of the table and met, clinking together madly. The kids and Ages hung on to theirs.

The phenomenon lasted for just a few seconds...and then everybody in the dining hall, my family and myself included, leaped to their feet in alarm. "What on earth was that?" I demanded.

Justin looked down at me, suddenly grim-faced and pale. "I've got a very good idea," he said. "And I don't like it."

I felt the blood drain from my face. "You mean--?"

"I hope not," he said. He grasped my shoulder and turned. "Come on!"

He would have left the room then, dragging me with him; but he was prevented. The silence suddenly broke into a babble of shouting, and the people pressed in close to Justin, all of them loudly demanding an explanation. Even the kitchen workers were emerging from behind the counter, looking frightened. Justin held up his hands for silence...but what he would have said I don't know.

At that moment a figure came dashing into the dining hall, running full-tilt. Rather undersized for a male rat, he was covered head to tail with thick grey dust, and his clothes, a white shirt and a black vest, were dirty and torn. His left arm was pressed against his abdomen, held there by his right hand; a long ugly gash on his forearm leaked blood into his fur and down his shirt-front. He paused in the doorway, his eyes searching frantically; then he spied Justin and made his way over. The crowd parted for him as if he were a ghost. He was so disheveled that I entirely failed to recognize him; but beside me Timothy suddenly gasped. "Robert!"

Arthur's youngest son was out of breath, panting helplessly; only Justin's strong arms grasping his shoulders kept him from falling full-length on the floor. "Easy there," Justin said, setting him back on his feet. "What's going on?"

The young rat looked up at him, an expression of sheer horror clearly visible through his mask of dust and grime. "The fourth level," he gasped. "Collapsed. People...trapped. And my father..."

I felt my blood run suddenly cold. Elizabeth was clutching at my right hand, hard; and on the other side Cynthia had hold of my left. The other three, and Ages, crowded close behind.

Justin grasped Robert's shoulders tightly. "What about your father?" he demanded.

Robert looked up with suddenly tear-filled eyes. "I'm afraid...I'm afraid he might have been underneath it."

Chapter 10

There was a second or two of stunned silence; then every person in the dining hall began to shout at once, crowding forward around Justin, Robert, my family and myself. In the sudden crush of bodies I pulled my wife and children close to me, fearful that they would be trampled underfoot.

Justin deposited Robert in a chair, and then he spun around, raising his arms and his voice both. "Everyone, please, back off!" he yelled, above the babble of voices. "Let's give him some air, all right?"

Reluctantly the crowd backed away, and the shouts died down to a sullen murmur. As they did, and as Robert fought to bring his wheezing under control, Justin caught hold of Timothy's arm and pulled him close. He bent down and spoke quietly into my son's ear. "I want you to run to the guardroom," he said. "Philip should be on duty at the main entrance. I need him here now."

For a second Timothy stared up at our leader utterly without comprehension; then he shook himself hard. "Yes, sir!" he said. He wormed his way through the milling throng and took off running, through the dining hall door and out into the hall. I nodded to myself in absent approval.

Meanwhile Ages had moved forward to examine Robert's torn and bleeding arm. "Cynthia!" he called, and my daughter darted forward. Ages grasped her shoulder. "I need some warm water, soap, and several clean towels," he told her urgently.

Cynthia reacted rather better than her brother had; after all, it wasn't her best friend who was sitting there injured. She nodded sharply. "Right away," she said, and she scurried off toward the kitchen.

Robert had caught his breath by then, more or less, though tears were still flowing freely down his cheeks, making dark tracks in his dusty fur. Justin knelt down before him, his hands on the younger rat's shoulders. "Can you tell us exactly what happened, son?" he asked.

Robert appeared somewhat dazed; he scanned the crowd with restless eyes. "Where--where's my mother?" he asked.

I glanced around; but Alice was nowhere to be seen. "She's probably at the school," Justin told him. "We'll find her for you, I promise. But first we have to know what happened."

Robert looked up at him, and nodded. "Yes," he said. "Yes, you're right." He swallowed. "We started work early this morning," he said. "Most of the crew was outside, up in the rocks. They were setting up equipment: cranes, blocks and tackle...that sort of thing."

Justin nodded. "I understand. Go on."

Robert took another deep, shuddering breath. Meanwhile Cynthia had returned. She was lugging a large iron kettle full of water, and there were several white towels draped over her shoulders. As she set down the kettle she pulled from her pocket a new, still-wrapped bar of hand soap. "All they had," she murmured. "Except for dish-washing liquid."

"That's fine, my dear," Ages told her. "Stay with me, please. I may need your help." He soaked one of the towels, wrung it out, and soaped it lightly; and then, taking Robert's arm into his hands, began to carefully wash away the dirt and blood. It must have hurt; but Robert appeared not to notice. He went on:

"I was working inside with Sullivan and his crew, taking down the sluices. Dad came up to check the cracks, make sure they weren't getting any bigger. And then..." he trailed off, his voice choked off in horror. "It...went. A big chunk of the north section. We heard a cracking, groaning noise...and then it all went. Sullivan and some others were on the far side of the break. I was on the near side. Dad...Dad was right in the middle. It...didn't fall cleanly The roof came down, and the walls...I got out of the way just in time." He peered down at his arm. "Almost. The blockage on the south side isn't solid; there are gaps big enough to see through. I could tell that the corridor on the north side is blocked too. Sullivan and his crew must be trapped over there. The equipment fell too, with the collapse. Maybe some of the workers too. I couldn't tell. The gap was too small; I couldn't get through to help. I just...ran."

"You did the right thing," Justin assured him. He looked up, scanning the room impatiently. "Where's Philip--?" he muttered.

At that moment Timothy entered the dining hall, closely followed by a tall grey-furred rat in a blue tunic. Not Philip, though, but Mark. He pulled up short beside Justin, and saluted. "Philip ordered me to report to you," he said. "He and Brutus are already heading out to the scene."

Justin shook his head. "Always anticipating orders," he said, but whether in amusement or irritation I couldn't tell. "How did he know?"

"It was a little hard to miss," Mark told him. "We all heard the crash, and saw the dust. Ralph's crew is heading up there too, and my brother is rounding up the rest of the Guard."

Justin nodded. "All right," he said. He glanced down. "Ages?"

"He'll be all right," Ages said. He had cleaned Robert's wound by then, and wrapped the arm with a clean towel in lieu of bandages. "It needs suturing, but it can wait for a while if need be."

"It may have to," Justin said grimly. He paused for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts. Then he looked around. "Mark, I want you, Timothy and Martin to go up to the fourth level from inside. Don't take any chances, but we need to know if it's stable up there. Go."

Beside me, I felt Elizabeth stir uneasily; but she said nothing. She and I watched as Mark and our sons hurried out of the hall.

"Ages," Justin went on, "I'll need you outside. I don't doubt we'll have more injured."

Ages nodded sharply, and glanced at Cynthia. "I'll need you too, my dear. It appears you'll have to learn those emergency procedures on the job."

My youngest daughter nodded grimly. "I'm with you." Together they departed.

"Teresa," Justin said. He glanced down quickly at her cast. "I want you to go find Alice, and tell her what's happened. And then...uh..." he paused.

"I can help them get the infirmary ready," my older daughter said quietly.

Justin grinned tightly and nodded. "Good. Go." He straightened up then and looked around. He raised his voice "The rest of you...what I'd like you all to do for now is stay here! I don't believe there's any further danger--my guess is that everything that's going to fall has already done so. But we need to keep the hallways clear. If we need any more manpower, we'll send for you. All right?"

There was a lot of grumbling, but no overt signs of mutiny. Justin turned to Elizabeth. "Would you please stay here, and do what you can to keep them calm?"

She nodded. "I will," she said. "If I can keep myself calm," she added grimly.

"What about me?" Robert asked.

"You, young man," Justin said firmly, "are going straight to the infirmary and stay there. Clear?"

Robert gazed up at him in anguish, and for a second I thought he would argue; but then he sighed and nodded. "Clear."

Justin clapped me on the back. "Jonathan," he said, "you're with me. Come on!"

...And he took off running, leaving me to keep up with him as best I could. As we ran I realized: if I had ever wondered, even for an instant, why the Rats of NIMH elected him as their leader...that question had just been fully and permanently answered.

The scene, when we finally reached it, was at once better and worse than I'd imagined.

The autumn morning was crisp and somewhat chilly, almost windless, and with a thin glowing mist clinging to the ground and the treetops. Much too nice a day for a disaster, I thought darkly. But in truth we'd been extremely fortunate: if this had happened during the previous week's pounding rainstorm...

I'd seldom seen Justin move as fast as he did that day. He ran full-tilt down the corridor--thereby breaking the law, but I don't imagine anyone would have complained--through the main entrance, and, without pausing, turned right, dashing north through the dry grass along the base of the first-level ridge. Somehow or other I managed to keep up with him--but to do so I had to abandon my dignity and drop to all fours. I could not remember the last time I had done so.

We heard the babble of voices, and saw the swirling, rapidly-dissipating cloud of dust, long before we reached the scene. We rounded a corner...and Justin stopped short, so quickly that I banged my head against the backs of his knees. He scarcely noticed. I straightened up, absently brushing the dirt from my hands on my tunic, leaving long dusty streaks on the dark-green fabric. No matter: dirty clothes would soon be the very least of my worries.

Of course not all of the fourth level had collapsed--that truly would have been a disaster, one that would have broken windows all over the community and probably blocked our main entrance too. What had fallen was only a small fraction: the very section, perhaps four feet wide, which had suffered the most from seepage during the storm. But even so, it was a terrifyingly large amount of rock that had come down.

For a few seconds Justin and I stood staring, aghast. What we saw before us was a rather atypical part of the community, a place where the outer walls, rather than rising in a series of stairsteps, formed an almost sheer face some five feet wide. Sharply-angled and deeply inset, it might almost have been described as a ramp or chute. A dark stain spread down its face: the mud that Arthur's sluices had drained away, this past week or more. Inside, I knew, the corridors of the first three levels jogged abruptly inward at that point, and there were no outer rooms built there at all. The portion of the fourth level that had fallen had been perched at the very top of that chute, almost overhanging it. Arthur had counted on those facts--those accidents of geology and construction--to limit the damage, should the collapse occur before he and his crew could intervene. He had been at best partially correct.

It appeared that the unstable rock had indeed fallen as one virtually-solid mass--but rather than simply slide to the bottom, as Arthur had hoped, it had begun to tumble instead, breaking up and broadcasting boulders--some of them twice the size of a rat--far and wide. Some had bounded even as far as the wheat-fields, plowing out furrows perpendicular to those that Ralph had so laboriously created. Had I been sitting this morning in the same place where Justin had found me the previous day, I would have ended up a mashed mouse.

The majority of the rock, though, did indeed lie in a single broken pile at the bottom of the chute. Scars on the rock-face above showed where it had bounced on the way down, and far above I could just see the fresh, ugly, ragged-edged gash where it had all begun. The entire section of corridor where Justin, Arthur, Sullivan and I had stood, not more than eight hours before, was gone: outer walls, floor, and ceiling alike. Only the inner wall, where Arthur had crouched down to examine the crack, was still there; and it was now open to the sky.

Finally Justin shook himself, and laid his hand on my shoulder. Together we moved forward. As we did, I saw that the ground all around us was littered not only with boulders, but with chucks of shattered wood and lengths of broken and frayed rope as well. Obviously the remains of Arthur's cranes, with which he'd hoped to slowly dissemble the unstable section. The slide had brought them down too. But--more importantly--had they taken any of Arthur's workers with them? We could not immediately tell.

There were already more than two dozen rats crowded around the vicinity of the wreckage. A quick glance around, as Justin and I drew near, showed them to be of three distinct groups. The first and largest was that of Ralph's farmers; some of them were quite naked except for their plow-harnesses, so quickly had they responded to the emergency. The second was Philip's Guards, five of those it seemed. And the third was Arthur's construction workers. Of that last group, no more than five or six were vertical; they seemed dazed, almost shell-shocked. The rest, almost a dozen, were lying flat on the ground in two rows. Above, a mixed group of Guards and farmers was laboriously descending the steep, switchbacked trail on the chute's right side, helping--in some cases carrying--more of Arthur's troops down to safety.

Crouched down near the double line, moving slowly from victim to victim, was a familiar tall figure dressed in blue and white: Philip. At Justin's hail the Captain of the Guard stood and crossed over to us, coming to attention and saluting as he did. "Report," Justin said crisply.

Looking at the two of them, standing face to face, I was once again struck by how similar they were--except that Philip was marginally taller, and much more muscular, the result of many hours in the gym. If I hadn't known better, I might almost have thought that they were brothers--or even father and son. Philip's tunic and fur were streaked with dust, and his expression was grim. "It's bad," he said. "But not as bad as it might have been." He nodded over his shoulder. "So far the casualties are light--mostly the result of Arthur's cranes tearing themselves loose. We've got a number of lacerations--some of them are going to need suturing. Also a fair number of bruises, sprains and torn muscles. A few broken bones also. No fatalities."

"Thank God," Justin said--a sentiment which I echoed quietly. "Ages is on his way out, with more help," he went on. "I'd like you to work with him, organizing the evacuation to the infirmary."

Philip nodded. "Understood," he said. He paused. "We do still have a few people trapped--Sullivan and four members of his maintenance crew." He pointed up and to the left. "They're on the north side of the break. Apparently they're all okay, but for the moment they're stuck. There's no outlet to the lower levels on that end of the fourth-floor tunnel. Brutus is up there now, with my first lieutenant and a couple of Arthur's crew who are still ambulatory. They're trying to salvage enough of the equipment so they can clear the blockage without triggering another big slide."

Justin nodded. "As long as Sullivan and the others are all right where they are," he said, "I think it'll be best to get all these people out of harm's way first. Just in case."

Philip nodded. "Agreed."

"Philip," I put in, "where's Arthur?"

"Arthur is...missing," Philip said flatly. He glanced back over his shoulder again, at the big, broken mass of rock some four or five feet away. "We're afraid...he might be underneath that."

Justin and I looked at him aghast, but he simply shook his head mournfully. "We don't know for certain," he went on. "But he was last seen standing right in the middle of the tunnel, just before it collapsed." He paused. "And if he is underneath all that..."

He didn't need to go on. If Arthur had indeed tumbled down the chute in the midst of that mass of rock...then he was dead. As simple as that.

"I want it dug out," Justin said in strangled tones. "As soon as possible. Get everyone you can on it. If there's even a chance..."

A chance to recover what's left of his body, is what Philip might have said; but he saw the look in our leader's eye, and he desisted. "Yes, sir," he said. "Right away."

Justin touched my shoulder again. "Come on," he said.

"Where to?"

He pointed. "Up there," he said, and I sighed. I'd been afraid he was going to say that...

The climb up the chute's right edge was long, but not as difficult as I'd feared. Not half as bad as what I'd had to put up with every day during nine months at NIMH. On the way, hauling ourselves up the steeply-angled slope with hands and feet both, Justin and I paused several times, moving aside as the remainder of the casualties were brought down. There were still no fatalities, it seemed; nor any truly life-threatening injuries. We'd been fortunate indeed; but if Arthur....that, however, was a line of thought which I didn't care to pursue. Once or twice I dared to look down, and what I saw heartened me: the remainder of the Guard had arrived, along with Ages and Cynthia; the injured were being loaded onto stretchers and taken inside. Very shortly the area below the collapse would be clear.

Vertically speaking, it was about an eight-foot climb, though the actual distance we traversed was likely much more, so twisting was the trail. At the top we found a smooth stone platform, some two feet deep and quite broad: the roof, if you will, of the fourth level. The platform was almost flat, angled just slightly to the east, and its surface was extensively spiderwebbed with cracks, ranging from hair-fine to as wide as my hand. Some of the larger ones had been filled, and quite recently too, with what appeared to be concrete. Behind the shelf, a sheer, smooth, knife-edged ridge climbed toward the sky.

There were four rats standing on the shelf, three males and a female. One of the males I would have recognized half a mile away: Brutus. Today he was dressed for guard duty. Of the other two males, one was more familiar to me than the other: Thomas, Philip's first lieutenant. He was a slim, wiry and somewhat fussy individual, the absolute diametric opposite of his commanding officer. The other male--a broad-shouldered, brown-furred young rat wearing a dirty, ragged white shirt and a dusty black vest--was less familiar to me; clearly, though, he was one of Arthur's workers. What was his name--? Tucker, that was it.

The female rat I recognized instantly--and as I saw her, I felt my heart sink. Exceptionally large and strong even for one of our females, she had light-grey fur and large, expressive dark eyes. She wore a stained, torn green tunic and a beige sweater; her right arm hung in a makeshift sling around her neck. Her name was Mary, and she was Arthur's youngest daughter; Robert's older sister. Behind her on the platform lay a pitiful collection of random junk, the remains of Arthur's equipment: coils of frayed rope and broken, splintered wooden planks and beams mostly. To my inexpert eye at least, it appeared all but useless.

As Justin and I pulled ourselves up onto the shelf, the four of them turned toward us, and Thomas--as was always his habit--came to attention and saluted. Justin looked them over and smiled faintly. "Who's in charge?" he asked.

They exchanged a glance, and then Mary stepped forward. "I think...I am," she said.

Justin gazed at her with deep sympathy, and nodded. Looking closer, I saw the dark, damp streaks running down her cheeks: obviously she had been crying, and recently too. She knew. "I think you are," Justin agreed. "What's the situation?"

She paused for a moment, clearly centering herself as well as collecting her thoughts, and while she did I took a quick look around. Up close, the scene was--if anything--even more appalling than it had appeared from below. It was as if some giant creature, or some huge machine, had scooped out a handful of rock and thrown it down to the valley floor. A little below me and to my right, as I faced the collapse, was the inner wall of the fourth-level corridor; it had broken off absolutely flush at the bottom, and no trace of the floor was left. I looked at that and shuddered, remembering standing there just hours ago. The roof, though, had not broken away quite so cleanly: there was a ragged, narrow shelf remaining, averaging about half an inch wide, and extremely treacherous-looking. Above that the ridge climbed sheer, six feet high or more.

The break itself was more than four feet wide, and--as Robert had indicated--the sides had not broken away cleanly. Not at all. The tunnel's ceiling had partially collapsed on both ends, north and south, blocking the passage all but completely. Almost directly beneath my feet, there at the south side of the break, the corridor was plugged by a nearly-solid mass of broken rock and rubble; clearly, it was going nowhere any time soon. Across the break, though, the situation was very different. The corridor on the north side was blocked as well...but in that case, a broad slab of the roof had fallen almost intact, and lay at a steep angle across the mouth of the hallway like a trapdoor. The slab was wedged in at the bottom, right at the very lip of the break, and it gave the impression of being extremely unsteady: as if almost anything, even a good hard sneeze, would suffice to send it sliding down into the valley below. A glance down showed that the evacuation was still continuing; silently I urged them to hurry.

Finally Mary began to speak, her voice flat and held tightly in control. "We were lucky," she said. "There was nobody standing directly on top of that section when it started to go. If there had been..." she shook her head, and then she pointed across the break. "Sullivan and four of his maintenance team are on the other side. We've been able to make contact with them--they're basically all right. But for now they're trapped."

Justin shaded his eyes and peered across, frowning. "It doesn't look like it would take much to get that slab moving..."

"It wouldn't," she agreed. "In fact we've been holding our breath up here, praying that it won't go until it's clear below. But that's not really the problem."

"What is?" Justin asked.

"Getting them down once the tunnel is clear," Mary said. She pointed again, and I immediately saw what she meant. The broad, flat shelf on which we stood did not continue across the break; or--more accurately, perhaps--what there was of that shelf was the very slab that blocked the tunnel, and was in extreme danger of falling. Behind that slab, though, the ridge curved around like a cupped hand, not climbable except with specialized equipment. Nor was there any convenient trail down that side of the chute--just a sheer drop to the valley below. Except for a very narrow, shallow shelf, there was nowhere for Sullivan and his team to go.

As the six of us stood contemplating this, I suddenly heard a small, muffled voice...which seemed to issue from somewhere beneath my feet. "Hello! Is anybody out there?"

I dropped to my stomach and edged as close as I dared to the mass of rock that blocked the tunnel. I peered down...and through a small, dark chink between two big boulders, I caught a glimpse of something shiny. Sunlight glinting off a pair of glasses, perhaps? "Timothy!" I called. "Is that you, son?"

"Dad?" he said. "Yeah, it's me! What's going on up there?"

"We're trying to figure out how to get to Sullivan!" I said. "What's happening in there?"

"Is Justin with you?"


"Tell him it's secure in here," Timothy said. "There's rocks all over the place, and wood, but the ceiling is solid, and it looks like it's not going anywhere!"

"Good!" I said. I paused. "Listen, Tim--there's another job I need you to do. All right?"

"Just name it!" he said.

"I need you to find Philip. He'll probably be somewhere between the main entrance and the infirmary. Tell him not to start digging through the wreckage yet. He needs to make sure that the area below the collapse is kept entirely clear of people until further notice. Understood? It looks like we're going to have to drop some more rock!"

"Got it!" he said, and the glasses vanished. It would be a long trip, from the fourth level down to the first...but running was my younger son's favorite aerobic exercise, and he could keep it up all day if necessary.

Justin nodded in approval as I stood and dusted myself off. "Good thinking," he said. "No sense endangering anyone else." He looked around. "All right--anybody got any ideas?"

Tucker cleared his throat. "Could we get to them from the other side? Climb up into the rocks and over the ridge?"

Thomas shook his head. "No," he said. "Not in a reasonable time, at any rate. I've been up there--those crags are terrible. You could wander around up there for days, trying to find a way across." He paused. "Could we extend some kind of plank bridge?"

Mary snorted. "Across four feet?" she scoffed. "Not a chance. It's impossible for us to cantilever anything that far without braces underneath. Anything strong enough would be far too heavy. And it would take hours to assemble the materials anyway."

For a long moment there was silence. Justin stood deep in thought, stroking his whiskers absently...then, abruptly, he grasped Mary's uninjured arm and pointed. "What's that?"

All of us turned to gaze across the gap, following Justin's finger. What we saw was a tiny light spot on the lower part of the ridge, not more than an inch or two above and to the right of the collapsed slab. A spot that seemed somehow to flutter in the breeze.

Finally Mary said, "That's one of the eyebolts my father installed," she said. "He used them to secure the equipment." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "There's another one back there," she went on; and it was true: this one, though, was anchored not into the ridge, but into the flat platform itself, two feet or so behind us. "Looks like that one's still got an inch or so of rope attached."

"Then it must still be solid," Justin said. "If the rope broke rather than the bolt pulling out."

Mary nodded. "I'd say so." She peered up at him. "So?"

Justin smiled slowly. "So," he said, "I think I've got an idea."

Halfway across the break, with my bare furry chest pressed against the rough stone wall and nothing beneath my dangling tail except an eight-foot drop, I paused to wonder: how did I let them talk me into this? Unfortunately that question was simple enough to answer: they hadn't. In point of fact I'd talked myself into it--because there was no other alternative.

"The first thing we need to do," Justin had said, pointing across the gap, "is to get a line from here to that eyebolt."

Mary nodded slowly, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You're right," she said. "But how? Last time I looked, none of us had learned how to fly."

"We don't need to," Justin countered. He stepped closer to the inner wall and crouched down, pointing. The rest of us gathered around. As I mentioned, when the fourth level roof pulled way from the wall, it did not do so cleanly. There remained an extremely narrow, ragged-edged shelf...and now that I came to look more closely, it did indeed seem to extend all the way across the gap, wider in some places and narrower--very much narrower--in others.

Mary took Justin's meaning at once, of course, as did we all; and she shook her head emphatically. "No way," she said. "It's too narrow."

I looked at that shelf...and then I heard someone speak, just a few quiet words. Nothing odd about that; what was odd, was that the words seemed to emanate from myself. "It's not to narrow for me."

The five of them--even Brutus--looked at me sharply. Justin's eyes narrowed. "You're probably right," he confirmed. He paused and cleared his throat. "But...does that mean you're volunteering?" he asked finally.

I looked up at him and shrugged. "We don't have much choice, do we?" I asked. "Sullivan and his crew can't wait forever--I doubt whether they've got any water over there, for one thing."

Justin peered into my eyes for a moment; and then he nodded. "All right," he said quietly. "Let's get to work."

...And the rest, as they say, was history. We rummaged around in the pile of junk and came up with two good lengths of cord, light but strong, and fortunately still sound; and a few other necessities as well. While Mary, Justin and the others checked the line I stepped over to the shelf for another look...and as I looked, I made a decision. The wall behind was rough and jagged; there were far too many places for sleeves or belts or arm-holes to get caught--a distraction I did not need. And so, ignoring the slightly-chilly breeze as best I could, I quickly stripped off my clothing, folded it, and laid it neatly aside. I'd be a little thinner that way too, without all that cloth--thin enough, hopefully.

They rigged me up a kind of harness, the best approximation we could make of rock-climber's gear: lengths of rope that encircled my waist and my upper legs, and crisscrossed over my chest and shoulders. To the front of that, to a loop directly over my sternum, they fastened one end of the longer rope. The other line, a loose coil of perhaps two feet or so, I draped over my left shoulder and around my torso, like a bandoleer. And then--before I could talk myself out of it--I made my way over to the shelf.

Before I could begin, Justin stopped me, his hands on my shoulders. He looked down at me seriously. "I'm the one who'll have to tell Elizabeth if anything goes wrong," he said. "So careful, all right?"

I nodded soberly and shook his hand. "Bet on it," I told him. I paused for a moment, pondering whether it would be better to face the wall or put my back to it. You could argue it either way, and in fact I did argue it both ways, again and again for a period of thirty seconds or so. But I was just stalling, and I knew it. With my face to the wall, then, pressed as tight against the rock as I could, I sidled slowly out onto the shelf. I told myself that my footing would be more secure this way...and maybe I believed it, too. As I began, my feet were almost entirely on the shelf ...but as I got toward the center, that little strip of rock would become much narrower. Before long I'd be up on my tiptoes. And if even that was inadequate...

When rock-climbing, it's usually a good idea to belay yourself to the most solid object available. And in this case, that object was Brutus. As I moved slowly along, my hands feeling for holds and my toes scraping along the rock-wall, across on the shelf the big rat stood with the other end of the rope wrapped around his waist, slowly paying it out as I went. It was reassuring, to glance over and see his dark, attentive eyes upon me...but only to a point. The farther I went, the worse the situation became: because if I fell, I would not fall straight down. The rope would bend my fall sharply to my right, so that I would fetch up hard against the wall of the chute. The more rope between him and me, the harder that impact would be. If we'd had the equipment, I would have been placing pitons or expansion bolts in the wall as I went, and clipping my safety line to them. But needless to say, we did not.

Very soon the process became painful, and soon after that torturous. My calves were not used to it, for one thing, and it didn't take long for them to make their complaints known. My fingertips were being scraped raw too, as they scrabbled for holds; and the breeze was gradually becoming a wind; funneling up the chute, it was chilly enough to make me regret my decision to remove my clothing. Unfortunately it was a little too late to back out now.

I was a little more than halfway across when it happened; when backing out became a literal impossibility. The shelf beneath my feet had been gradually narrowing, so that by now nothing more than my toes had solid purchase, and it was almost entirely the grip of my hands on the wall which kept me from falling. I took yet another cautious side-step to the left...and the rock crumbled beneath my foot.

How I saved myself I still don't know. There was a cry of alarm from the onlookers on the shelf, but I scarcely heard it. Somehow I managed to find purchase for my right foot, and pushing off from there I jumped sharply to the left, even as several inches of the shelf crumbled and fell from beneath me. If my hands had not immediately found holds--which I grabbed with all the desperation of a drowning man clutching a log--I would have fallen. As it was I lay against the rock-face for the better part of a minute, trembling violently, before I dared to look.

What I saw wasn't pretty. A gap of almost four inches had opened up between me and my friends, the ragged shelf crumbling back virtually flush with the wall. There was no way I could cross it; now I truly was committed--or should have been. The only way back lay ahead.

A glance over at the shelf showed the others staring at me in white-faced horror. I managed to pry my right hand--now more like a claw--away from the rock long enough to give them a reassuring wave. And then I continued. From there on, fortunately, the shelf got progressively wider.

In all, I suppose, the traverse took no more than about ten minutes--though I'd left my watch with my tunic. On the left side of the break, at the ragged edge of the tilted slab, the shelf widened out just a trifle, into a flat platform wide enough for me to comfortably stand on; and there I more or less collapsed, my knees buckling underneath me. Panting hard I crouched there, my head in my hands, waiting for my heart to stop pounding....Unfortunately it was a very short rest, before Justin's voice drifted across the gap: "Jonathan! Are you all right?"

Reluctantly I straightened up and turned. For just a second I considered telling him that I was dying, just to see what he would do...but we didn't have time for such foolishness. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted back, "I'm fine!" Standing on the brink next to Brutus, Justin didn't look quite convinced; but he waved back nonetheless.

And as for me...well, getting across the gap was much less than half the battle, and time was wasting. I got back to work; but before I did, I spared a few seconds for a look around.

Directly in front of me now was the slab that blocked the north end of the corridor. Up close, it was an even more alarming-looking object than it had been at a distance. It was something like a foot and a half long and almost two feet wide, and its surface was extensively cracked. It was perched at about a thirty degree angle, and its upper end, which lay on the same level as my feet, had pulled away almost a full inch from the ridge, leaving an ugly, ragged fissure. Exactly what was keeping the slab from sliding I don't know; its lower edge rested right on the very lip of the gap. Old man friction, I guess--but having fought the slab to a stalemate, he was now engaged in a hopeless rear-guard action with the force of gravity. I felt reasonably safe, though: even if the slab did go, the platform on which I stood should remain virtually unaffected. It says here.

I turned then to the eyebolt, which was fastened to the rock almost--but fortunately not quite--above my head. It appeared to be some kind of an expansion bolt, and it had been driven securely into a narrow crack in the vertical rock-face. It did indeed still have a length of rope attached to it, raggedly broken about an inch below the bolt, presumably by the weight of Arthur's collapsing equipment. The bolt itself appeared not to have moved even a fraction of an inch: it ought to be plenty strong for what we had in mind. If it had not been; if it had been on the verge of falling out...but that was not a thought I cared to pursue either.

First I removed the dangling rope, getting it out of my way. The knot was too hard and tight to untie, so I gnawed through it; I am, after all, a rodent. I pitched the little scrap away and watched as it drifted slowly downward. Then I uncoiled the line from around my shoulder and torso and shook it out. I fastened one end to the eyebolt, and the other to the makeshift harness across my chest (a harness which, by this time, was beginning to chafe quite uncomfortably, but which I had no thought of removing.) And with that, I finally had something which could meaningfully be called a safety line. I took a big loop of the other cord--the one which still extended across the gap to Brutus--and slipped it through the eyebolt as well, tying it back upon itself. Then I untied the end of that rope from my harness. Without its dead weight dangling from me, I immediately felt both safer and more comfortable.

I turned then and dropped to my stomach at the very edge of the slab. Beneath me, there was a narrow triangular gap where the slab met the shelf, and into that black space I cautiously stuck my head. "Sullivan!" I shouted. "Hello! Can you hear me?"

The response was immediate, if slightly muffled: obviously that gap--as I'd hoped--did indeed extend all the way into the corridor below. "Jonathan!" Sullivan called. "Is that you?"

"Yes, it's me!" I told him. "Are you all right?"

I heard shuffling footsteps as he edged a little closer. "Mostly," he said. "I think Suzanne has a fractured wrist. But the rest of us just have a few scrapes and bruises. What's going on?"

"We're working on a way to get you out of here," I told him. "But first we need to figure out some way to shift this slab."

"I think I can help you there," Sullivan said. "We've got a lot of scrap lumber, and we've been able to put together a kind of lever. It shouldn't take more than a couple good heaves to get the slab moving."

"Doubtless true," I said, glancing down. "But can you do it safely?"

There was a pause, then Sullivan said, "Define 'safely.'"

"Point taken," I said. I hesitated. "All right. That's probably the best way--none of the rest of us have any better ideas. Don't do anything yet, though--let us get the rest of the equipment rigged. I'll let you know."

"Roger Wilco!" Sullivan said cheerfully.

I pulled myself to my feet and looked around critically. The lower lip of the slab lay well below me, and as I said, once it started moving it ought to just politely slide. I saw no reason why it should affect our rig. And if I wanted to be out of the vicinity before the slab went--which I most certainly did--we would have to finish that rig first. I stepped back over to the eyebolt, and I bellowed across the gap: "Ready!"

What we were beginning now was without a doubt the most difficult part of the operation--and the trickiest as well, depending as it did almost entirely on my strength. There was no way the others could help me; they could do little more than watch and hope. If my arms failed me, if I lost my grip...then we were all in deep trouble.

At the end of the line I had carried across with me, Justin and the others sent over a large wooden pulley (or, more accurately, a "block") which had been salvaged from Arthur's equipment. The line that extended across the gap was fastened to the block's fixed end; looped over the wheel was another length of line, both ends of which were held, and slowly paid out, by Brutus. For me it was not a matter of simply pulling, not as such; that would have been beyond my strength. Rather, it was a matter of taking up some slack through the eyebolt, then belaying the line back upon itself; then taking up a little more slack, and so on, and on. It took almost half an hour in all, and long before I finished my arms and shoulders were screaming their protests. (Thank God, though, for all those pull-ups I'd been doing in the gym!) Finally I hoisted the block up onto my shoulder, and, passing a length of the line five or six times through both its eye and the eyebolt, I tied it off firmly. Then I turned and waved across the break. "All secure!" I yelled.

At that point there was little for me to do except to sit down and watch, resting my aching arms. Above my head the wheel began to turn slowly, creaking, as the line was pulled through it. As I watched a discontinuity slowly approached a change in color as well as thickness, and finally I stood again, as a neat, compact knot passed through the pulley: the knot where the somewhat thin line, identical to that which I'd carried across, had been neatly spliced to a length of much heavier, stronger rope. I helped the knot through the pulley, and then I watched it recede into the distance again, pulled back toward the other side of the break.

And that was all there was to it, almost. Justin and the others had rigged another block to the eyebolt in the platform behind them; and passing the heavier rope through its wheel, they spliced the ends together neatly, and then took up the slack in the line that held the block to the eyebolt, pulling the entire system more or less taut. What we ended up with bore an almost ludicrous resemblance to a clothesline; but in fact it was the way across--the only way across--for Sullivan and his crew. And for me too, of course. Even as I watched, Justin and the others rigged to the lower line a device known as a "bosun's chair": nothing more or less than a short wooden plank fastened to a Y-shaped arrangement of ropes.

And at long last, with all that accomplished, there was nothing left to do but to drop the slab, a process which I had no desire to watch close-up. Even as Brutus cranked the chair toward me, I lay down on my stomach again and shouted through the gap: "We're almost ready! Give me about five minutes to get clear, and then go for it!"

"Understood!" Sullivan called. He paused. "Jonathan?"


"Thank you!"

There was such open relief in his voice, that I had to smile, even though he couldn't see me. "You're welcome! See you on the other side!"

By this time the bosun's chair was in position, and I began to haul myself up into it...when abruptly I paused, one leg halfway across the plank. Frowning, I looked around. Even now I don't really know why. It's most tempting to say that I had heard something; some tiny sound barely on the edge of hearing, but enough to make my (admittedly) extra-large ears flick around in confusion, seeking its source. But is that truly possible, given the creaking of the ropes and the hissing of the wind through the ridges above me? I don't know. All I know is that something stopped me.

I dropped to the shelf again, leaving the chair swinging back and forth behind me, and I leaned down into the gap. "Sullivan! Wait! Don't do anything yet!"

"What's wrong?" he called.

"I'm not sure!" I said. "Just don't do anything till I tell you, all right?"

"All right," he said dubiously.

Scarcely knowing myself what I was doing, I stepped over to the edge of the tilted slab, dubiously eyeing the wide crack where it had pulled away from the ridge. There was only one way across...but would the weight of a mouse be enough to set it sliding? I could only hope not. I took a deep breath and ran, as quickly and lightly as I could, across the upper half of the slab, my feet scarcely touching the rock. Fortunately, the weight of a mouse was not enough. Not quite, anyway. On the other side I dropped to my stomach and peered down.

On that side of the slab there was another dark triangular gap, if anything a little wider than it twin across the way. I leaned over and stuck my head into the gloom. "Is someone...down there?" I asked.

For a second all was silence...then I heard a long, low moan. Was it the same sound I had heard just a few seconds before? I'll never know for certain, but logically it must have been. "Help me," a voice whispered. "Please help me."

The gap was big enough for me to crawl through--only just. I started to do so...and was suddenly brought up short: I had run out of slack in my safety line. I hesitated a second...then I untied the line and set it aside. And then I cautiously wormed my way through, head first. I hung by my hands for a second, and then let myself drop. I landed lightly on my feet and spun around.

I found myself in a small and very dimly-lit space, roofed over by the tilted slab. Directly in front of me, no more than a foot away, was a solid wall, which had apparently been partially crushed by the collapse of the roof. A second wall--obviously, the outer wall--lay directly behind my back; and there was yet a third, about a foot and a half to my left. At its highest point, the roof of this space was no more than two or three inches above my head, and it tapered drastically to my left. The floor was littered all over with rocks, ranging from sharp fragments to head-sized boulders. And in the very center lay a larger, lumpy object. An object that moved slightly as my feet struck the floor.

Instantly I dropped to my knees, and my groping hands encountered cloth and fur. "Arthur?" I asked. "Arthur, is that you?"

The voice was faint and pain-soaked, almost inaudible. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it's me. Is that you, Jonathan?" In the semi-darkness I saw the sudden flash of his smile. "It must be--I'd know those spots anywhere."

I moved my hands carefully down the length of his body. The Chief Engineer lay on his right side, partially curled up, his head facing the tilted slab. My eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness now, and I saw that his clothing was torn and dirty, his fur full of dust. "My God!" I said. "Arthur! It is you! Are you--are you all right?"

"No," he said succinctly. "I'm not." He shifted slightly and groaned again, a sound of pain that cut straight to my heart. "I can't get up. It's either a fractured right hip or pelvis--or maybe both. And I'm pretty well battered all over."

"How did you get here?"

"I really don't know," he said. He paused. "All of a sudden everything was falling all around me," he went on slowly, remembering. "I saw this space open up--and I jumped for it. I almost made it. A big boulder hit me in the side and spun me around. The next thing I knew, I thought I was hearing your voice--I guess I really was--and I called out for help. I was afraid no one would hear me..."

I looked around, and I finally understood where we were. The fourth level was not only a corridor, of course: it was also rooms, as yet unused, and windowless. The place where I now found myself was the partially-collapsed remains of one of those rooms--a piece which, unfortunately, did not include a doorway into the corridor. I patted Arthur's shoulder reassuringly. "We're going to get you out of here, my friend," I promised him. "Just hold on a little longer, all right?"

He smiled again. "I don't have much choice do I?"

I stood then, and picked my way back to the gap. It was a rather high jump for a mouse, but my outstretched hands managed to catch the edge, and I hauled myself back out into the sunlight. Perched on the edge of the slab I cupped my hands and bellowed, "Justin! I've found Arthur!"

Across the gap, Justin nearly tumbled over the edge. "You've what?" he shouted back.

"I've found Arthur! He's alive, but he's hurt! We're going to need medical help up here!"

Justin turned and spoke a few words to Thomas--words which, needless to say, I couldn't hear. Their meaning wasn't hard to guess, though, as the First Lieutenant of the Guard took off down the trail full-speed. "Can you get him out?" Justin yelled.

I turned and looked back. That was indeed the problem. The little gap through which I'd wormed was scarcely big enough for a mouse. Certainly it was far too small for a rat; especially one as large as Arthur; and most especially one as badly injured as he was. The remains of the room where he lay had no door, no egress at all into the corridor. Could we create one? I wondered. Sullivan and his crew had tools, it seemed; could they batter a doorway in the dividing wall? No, I decided, almost instantly. We start pounding on that wall, and all we'll do is knock the slab loose.

The slab... It was the key to the entire situation, the obstruction which held no less than six people captive. It wasn't hard to guess what Sullivan and his crew intended to do: use their lever to get the thing moving, and then run like hell for the deep recesses of the corridor while it dropped. But Arthur, trapped and helpless, had no such option. And the thing lay no more than a few inches above him. But if we're right, I reminded myself firmly, it ought to just slide right off. "No!" I shouted. "We're going to have to get rid of the slab before we can get him out! There's no other way!"

Without even waiting for acknowledgment, I dropped back through the gap and made my way across the little room, past Arthur to the inner wall. It had been partially crushed, as I said, reduced virtually to rubble not far above my head, and a number of wide cracks zigzagged across its surface. Hopefully some of them went through to the other side. Pressing my mouth against the widest crack I could find, I shouted, "Sullivan! Can you hear me?"

This time the reply was even more muffled; but it was understandable, and that was enough. "Jonathan? Did I just hear you say you've found Arthur?"

"Yes I have!" I yelled. "Listen, Sullivan, you're going to have to go ahead and drop the slab! There's nothing else we can do!"

There was a long pause, and I was on the verge of repeating myself, when "Are you sure?" he asked reluctantly.

"Yes!" I insisted. "Yes, I'm sure."

"All right! Get ready!"

Once again I dropped to my knees beside Arthur. "This is going to be interesting," I told him, with a jocularity that I didn't feel. "But if we're lucky we'll live through it."

"It's not too late for you to get clear," Arthur said.

"I know it isn't," I told him simply. "But I'm not going to."

He reached up and found my hand. "Thank you, Jonathan," he said. "Even if we don't live through it...thank you."

Through the intervening wall I heard the thump, as Sullivan and his crew jammed their lever against the slab's bottom edge. I heard their grunts of effort, and the creak of the wood; I heard the ominous grinding as the slab began to shift...and I felt the patter of small stones and dust down upon us. At the last instant, as the grinding quickened to a sliding rush, I crouched down, covering Arthur's head and shoulders with my body, my own head buried in my arms. Several rocks fell sharply upon my bare back, and the room rumbled and shook...and then bright sunshine washed over us, and it was all over. Almost.

In the open air I scrambled to my feet...a little too soon. I heard the shout behind me, "Jonathan, look out!" and I spun--just in time to see a chunk of rock about the size of my own torso detach itself from high on the ruined inner wall and bounce toward me. I tried to duck...but it was too late. The rock struck me a glancing blow in the upper left arm and knocked me over backwards. I felt as well as heard the sharp pop in my shoulder, and the wave of pain that followed literally paralyzed me. And then I was sliding helplessly toward the brink of an eight-foot drop.

At the last instant a hand closed on my right ankle and arrested my motion. And hanging there face down, more than halfway over the edge, I was just in time to see the end of the drama. Our friend the slab had indeed fallen cleanly, sliding free as if on rollers...but halfway down the chute it caught on some obstruction, and with a booming roar it began to tumble end for end, shedding rocks. On impact it exploded, showering boulders and dust far and wide...but fortunately the area had been long since cleared. I turned my head as a choking cloud of debris swept upwards. And then a pair of strong arms closed around my waist and pulled me back from the brink. Cradling my dangling, suddenly-useless left arm I turned over, to see Sullivan, his face streaked with dust and grime, peering down at me in concern. "Jonathan?" he asked. "Are you all right?"

Jonathan getting hit by a falling rock
Art by LordDirk

Looking up at him, I pondered that question. "I think," I told him seriously, "I'm going to have to get back to you on that one." And then I passed out.

Chapter 11

"Dad? Can you hear me?"

The voice that spoke those quiet words was instantly familiar: it belonged to my younger daughter. Which meant, presumably at least, that the slim hand which held a damp cloth to my forehead was hers as well. Slowly I managed to pry my eyes open--and found myself looking directly up into another pair, as large and brown as my own. I might have been gazing into a mirror--except that those eyes were framed by a slightly round face covered with soft beige fur. A face that wore an expression which was at once concerned and exhausted.

I smiled--or tried to, anyway. "Hello, sweetie," I said.

Instantly, Cynthia's eyes lit up with joy and relief. "How do you feel, Dad?" she asked.

"I'm...not quite sure," I replied. Taking a rapid inventory, I found myself lying flat on my back, wrapped to the chin in a coarse woolen blanket. Another, tightly-rolled, was tucked beneath my head. Underneath that covering I seemed to be naked, and someone had evidently removed my improvised mountaineering harness. "Where are we, and how long was I out?" I asked.

"We're still in the remains of the room where you found Arthur," Cynthia told me; and, as she rocked back onto her heels, I saw that this was true. My field of view was somewhat limited, but directly above me I could see a patch of pale-blue sky; behind my head the outer wall of that little ruined space; and to my right, a comfortable six inches or so away, the brink I had come so close to tumbling over.

"--And you were unconscious about twenty minutes, according to Sullivan," Cynthia went on.

I tried to lever myself up onto my elbows for a better look around, but that proved to be a serious mistake: my left arm wouldn't hold me, and the slightest movement was enough to cause a sickening wave of pain to shoot through my shoulder and down my side. I bit back a yelp, and Cynthia restrained me gently with a hand on my chest. "You'd better lie still, Dad," she advised. "Mr. Ages thinks you have a dislocated shoulder--"

"Ages?" I echoed incredulously. "He's up here too?"

She nodded and grinned briefly. "Not that he really wants to be," she said. "We came as soon as we heard that Arthur had been found injured." She glanced back over her shoulder, looking at something which was out of my view, and she nodded again, this time in satisfaction. "They're getting ready to take him across the gap now," she went on. "Then Mr. Ages will be with you. He treated Arthur first--he called it 'triage'."

I nodded. "I can't blame him," I said. "How is Arthur?"

"A fractured femur," Cynthia said, as casually as if she'd been using such terminology all her life. "He's going to be off his feet for a while, but he'll live."

"He will," I agreed. "He's too stubborn to die." The fog had pretty well lifted from my brain by then, and as I peered up more closely at my youngest child, what I saw alarmed me. She looked absolutely exhausted, totally spent; her fur was disheveled, and her clothing--a white blouse and a khaki skirt--was liberally spattered with what could only have been blood. The blood, that is, of who knows how many injured rats. I reached up with my good arm and clasped her hand. "And how are you, sweetie?" I asked quietly.

She turned quickly aside, but not so far that I couldn't tell: she had suddenly begun to cry, the tears running unchecked down her cheeks. "I...don't think I can do this, Daddy," she whispered. She shook her head in despair. "It was the worst thing I've ever seen. So many people injured, in pain, bleeding...and I...I..."

"...And you didn't know how to help them," I finished.

She nodded. "That's right," she said. "I wanted to--but I didn't even know how to begin. And Mr. Ages was shouting at me constantly, to bring him this and that..." She turned again to look at me. "I...don't think I can do this," she repeated. "I think I made the wrong choice."

"Listen, sweetie," I began intently, but I was interrupted as Ages stepped up beside us, wiping his hands on a scrap of towel. And as he did, Cynthia turned away quickly, hiding her face from him. He appeared not to notice--but appearances can be deceiving.

The older mouse looked exhausted too, even more so than Cynthia--which was hardly surprising--and his clothing was also spotted with blood. "Well," he said quietly, "that's that. I'll have to set and cast that leg when we get him back to the infirmary, but at least he's stable. He's one very lucky rat."

I craned my neck for a look, and what I saw heartened me. A kind of crude litter or stretcher, made of poles and ropes, had been rigged to our system of ropes and pulleys in place of the bosun's chair, and in that litter lay our chief engineer. He was wrapped in a blanket, and several lengths of rope had been passed around him, strapping him securely in place. His eyes were closed, but whether he was unconscious again, or simply didn't care to look down, I don't know. Two rats were already hard at work, hauling him across the gap: on our side Sullivan, and on the opposite side Brutus. Across the way, standing beside the big rat, Justin, Mary and Tucker watched and waited anxiously.

"He will be all right?" I asked, and Ages nodded.

"Yes, he will, in time. Now," he went on briskly, "let's see what we can do for you, my boy. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting..."

"That's all right," I assured him. "If I'd been conscious, I would have insisted that you treat of Arthur first anyway."

"Of that," Ages said with a smile, "I have no doubt. Hold still, please."

He knelt down beside me then, and, folding back the blanket, took my left arm in his hands, flexing it carefully. He was gentle, but still it hurt, and I had to grit my teeth to keep from crying out. To distract myself from the pain I asked, "How were the casualties?"

"Much lighter than I'd feared," Ages said, somewhat distractedly. "About two dozen people in all were injured. There were a fair number of lacerations and cases of rope-burn. Also some torn muscles and sprains, and even a few broken bones. But nothing life-threatening or disfiguring. No one was blinded or dismembered, thank God. Everyone's injuries will heal soon enough."

I nodded in relief. "That's good." And when he said "soon enough," he meant exactly that. It was another legacy of our altered genes: the Rats of NIMH tended to heal very quickly, even from relatively major injuries. And for us as well, scars were never permanent; after a time they simply faded away.

"And by the way," Ages went on, as he continued to manipulate my poor disconnected arm, "I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear what a tremendous help your daughter has been to me today."

He didn't look up, and so he didn't see that Cynthia had turned to stare at him in amazement. He went on, "What happened today was truly a trial by fire--especially for someone whose training has barely begun." Finally he glanced up and met her gaze. "But Cynthia held up much better than I'd dared hope." He paused, and when he went on, he was finally speaking directly to her. "Even I have seldom seen anything so bad, my dear. If you can stand up to that, you can stand up to anything this job has in store for you."

I don't know what Cynthia would have said in reply, because Ages didn't give her the chance: he returned immediately to examining my arm, which she gaped in amazement. "Hmm, yes," he said. "Definitely dislocated; but it appears that the collateral damage is minor--little more than strained ligaments, I'd say. You're very lucky too, my boy--injuries of this type are all too often accompanied by fractures. We'd better put the joint back in position here and now, before the swelling gets any worse. Cynthia?"

My daughter shook herself. "Yes, sir?"

"I'm going to need your help with this."

She hesitated, glancing wide-eyed from him to me and back again. She swallowed hard. "Mine?" she asked. "But I don't--"

"Yours," he interrupted firmly. "And don't worry, I'll tell you exactly what to do." He smiled wickedly. "When I hired you, my dear, you assured me that you are stronger than you look. Now's your chance to prove it. This is definitely going to require strength."

Once again Cynthia looked from Ages to me and back again; then she took a deep breath, visibly centering herself. When she spoke again, a few seconds later, her voice was quite calm, and almost a full octave lower. "Right," she said. "What do I do?"

What followed was a remarkably unpleasant process, but fortunately it didn't take long. They had me sit up--which was painful enough--and then both Cynthia and Ages knelt down next to me, she on my left and he behind. At Ages' direction, Cynthia placed her right hand flat against my side, just below my armpit, and took hold of my arm with her left, between the wrist and the elbow. Meanwhile Ages laid his hand on the back of my shoulder, his fingers resting on the bulge of the dislocated joint. "All right, my dear," he said, "pull. Don't jerk; be steady. But don't be afraid to pull hard."

With a quick glance at me she did so, pushing with her right hand and pulling with her left. I took a deep breath, tried to relax--it was no good fighting against them--and concentrated on not passing out again.

"Very good," Ages said encouragingly. He probed the joint with his fingers. "Now turn your left hand clockwise very slowly--and don't stop pulling. Easy now..."

She did as he directed, grunting with effort...and abruptly, with a sudden, audible pop, almost as violent as the dislocation itself had been, my shoulder fell back into its socket. And the pain...well, it would be an exaggeration to say that it was gone; but it was instantly lessened. And so too was the creepy feeling that my arm was about to fall off.

As soon as she felt the joint pop back into place, Cynthia ceased pulling, and she gently lowered my arm into my lap. I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, sweetie," I said. I paused, and then went on quietly, "See? You can do it. You haven't made a mistake, Cynthia. Not at all. Don't ever let anybody tell you that you have."

She smiled. "Thank you, Daddy," she said. Then, abruptly, her expression changed to one of alarm. She scrambled to her feet and retreated to the edge of the precipice, where she knelt down with her back to me. I saw her shoulders heaving up and down, and I started to rise, but I was prevented by Ages' hand on my shoulder.

"I think," he said mildly, "we'd best leave her alone for a minute or two."

I looked up at him in anguish. "But..."

"I'll take care of her, Jonathan," he promised. He glanced at her. "Given everything she's seen today, that sort of reaction is hardly unexpected. I don't imagine it will happen again, though. God willing, this day was the most difficult she will ever face, and as soon as we've dealt with Arthur's leg, it will be over."

"You're going to keep her, then?" I asked with a smile.

"I'd be a fool not to," he told me seriously. "All right, my boy--let's see about getting you out of here."

With the joint back in position, the pain was indeed considerably lessened--but my shoulder was extremely stiff, leaving the arm all but useless, and the area around the joint was swollen ominously, as if a small cantaloupe had somehow taken up residence there. With a wide strip of cloth bandage, brought forth from his much-depleted medical bag, Ages rigged a sling, and with another, narrower piece he bound my arm immovably across my chest. "The swelling should go down in a day or so," he told me as he worked. "We can hasten that along a bit with some of my willow-bark extract..."

Cynthia and Mr. Ages tending to Jonathan's arm
Art by LordDirk

"Otherwise known as 'aspirin'," I said dryly.

"Basically, yes," he agreed with a smile. "And if there's any ice available in the cold-storage lockers, that will help too. I'd suggest that you use your arm as little as possible for the next week--"

I sighed tragically. "No wrist-wrestling with Brutus, then."

"No," he said archly. "But in a few days, you should be as good as new."

Unless my wife kills me first, I thought darkly. She was going to just love this one...

By this time, of course, Arthur had been taken down the hill, carried by his daughter and Tucker; which meant that other than Cynthia, Ages and myself, the only people left at the scene of the disaster were Sullivan, Brutus and Justin. My daughter was sitting on the brink of the gash with her forehead resting on her knees and a miserable expression on her face, drawing in slow, deep breaths. As I glanced at her in concern, Ages patted my uninjured shoulder reassuringly. "She'll be all right," he promised. "I'll talk to her."

"Talk, or lecture?" I asked pointedly.

"Talk," he repeated firmly. "I've nothing to lecture her about. I can't fault her for having emotions, heaven knows. Eventually she'll learn to control them a bit better--but never, I hope, will she lose them. If she did she'd be useless to me."

I was able to rise to my feet, more or less under my own power, and it was only a short climb up to the little platform where I'd rigged the rope and pulley. Sullivan was waiting there; he grasped my good hand and hoisted me up beside him. Naked, I was beginning to shiver; the wind has acquired a definite edge by then, and my clothes were still across the gap. The litter had been brought back across by then, empty of course, and I allowed Sullivan to lift me up into it and wrap the blanket around me. "Thank you for saving my life," I told him, as he passed a rope around my waist and tied it firmly underneath the stretcher.

For a second he looked puzzled; then he smiled. "You're welcome," he said, "but I'm afraid you're only half right. I pulled you back from the brink--but I'm not the one who stopped you from going over. I couldn't get there quick enough."

I frowned. "Who did, then?"

"Arthur," Sullivan told me simply. He shook his head in wonder. "How he managed to move so fast with a broken leg, I'll never know."

Arthur, I thought incredulously. It was a little hard to believe--the big rat would have had to throw himself, somehow or other, at least half his body length, and with only one usable leg. But someone had caught me, and if it wasn't Sullivan...It's tempting to say something like "now Arthur and I were even"; but that was by no means true. The fact is, the Rats of NIMH had been saving each other's lives for so long, we'd long since stopped counting. We took care of each other: that was more than sufficient.

"Hang on," Sullivan told me. "Heading out!"

As the litter began to make its way slowly and steadily across the gap, propelled by the strong arms of Sullivan and Brutus, I risked one quick glance before I closed my eyes. Not down, though--I knew well enough what was beneath me--but back. What I saw was Ages crouched on the brink beside Cynthia, his arm draped consolingly across her shoulders as he spoke quietly to her. I smiled, and as I settled in to enjoy the ride, I made a mental note never to think of him as "unsympathetic" again.

Despite my protests--which were entirely ineffectual anyway, under the circumstances--our dauntless leader carried me all the way down into the community in his own arms.

"I can walk," I assured him, as he knelt down to unfasten the rope from around the litter; but in response he merely grinned and shook his head.

"Maybe you can, Jonnymouse," he told me, "but you're not going to." And with that he scooped me up, blanket and all. There was very little I could do to prevent it: he was bigger than me, and I had no particular desire to be dropped. That first step was a little steep. And so, embarrassed beyond words but utterly helpless, I relaxed and allowed myself to be carried. "Jonnymouse" indeed...

Justin carrying Jonathan
Art by LordDirk

Before we left the scene of the disaster, Justin turned to Brutus. "You're in charge," he told the big rat. "Make sure Sullivan, Ages and Cynthia get across safely. And after that..." He sighed and shook his head. "I guess we'll have to figure out what to do about this mess later. After they're across, secure the ropes, and then go get something to eat. Lord knows you've earned it."

Brutus nodded and flashed a quick smile; and then Justin turned. He paused for just a second, to gather up the small bundle of my clothing, which I hung onto with my good hand. Then he started down the trail, picking his way carefully, obviously very aware how top-heavy he was with me clutched tight to his chest like a somewhat oversized infant. "I imagine that's it for the fourth level," I commented a minute later, and Justin sighed again.

"For the foreseeable future, anyway," he agreed. "Until next spring at the very least. I'm certainly not going to let anyone work up here in the rain or snow." He glanced back up at the ragged gap. "You were right all along, Jonathan," he said. "It never should have been built. It's just dumb luck that no one was killed today."

"Somebody or something was watching out for us, that's for sure," I agreed. I paused. "But we might end up with one fatality after all, if we're not careful."

He frowned down at me. "Who?"

"Not so much who as what," I said. "This is sure to be a heavy blow to Arthur's confidence in himself and his abilities. His leg will heal--but his confidence might never recover. And we need it--and him."

Justin nodded grimly. "We all take him for granted," he said quietly. "Myself included." He nodded at the fallen remains of the fourth level; by that time the trail had carried us down almost level with that jumbled mass of broken rock. "For a while today, when we were afraid that he was buried under all that ...I found myself wondering how we'd possibly get along without him. I've heard it said that no one is indispensable--but he comes about as close as anyone I've ever known."

"I've heard that said too," I said. "But I've never believed it. I've always preferred to believe just the opposite--that everyone is indispensable."

Justin nodded slowly, thoughtfully; then he paused and adjusted his grip, grunting with effort as he hitched my sore body a little closer to his chest. "You, my friend," he announced, "are going on a diet."

Elizabeth was waiting. Naturally.

As Justin pushed open the apartment door with his foot, she looked up sharply from her perch on the smaller sofa. She was sitting rigid, upright, her shoulders not even touching the back of the couch; her expression was perfectly composed, but the damp handkerchief she held in her hands had been worried and knotted into a rag. As we entered she rose swiftly to her feet, her eyes widening in horror and her hands flying to her mouth to stifle either a gasp or a scream. Seeing that, I cursed myself soundly for not insisting that Justin put me down while we were still out in the corridor. My wife knew that something had happened to me--that much was instantly clear--but she could not possibly have known the details, not that quickly, and seeing me being carried in like that...well, God only knows what she thought. "I'm all right," I assured her quickly. I glanced up. "Do you mind?" I asked pointedly.

A little shame-faced--realizing, now, how badly his act of chivalry had backfired--Justin set me on my feet, and unwrapped the blanket from around my battered body. Elizabeth started forward, paused for an instant when she saw my sling and my hugely-swollen shoulder, and then, adjusting her trajectory a trifle, threw her arms around my uninjured side. "I was so worried," she whispered brokenly into my ear. "I heard that you'd been hurt while rescuing Sullivan and his crew--but nobody knew anything definite. I was afraid that...that..."

I disengaged her clinging arms from around me, just a little; enough so that I could gaze deeply into her eyes. "I'm sorry," I said. "Sorry that I worried you."

"--But you were just doing what needed to be done," she said with a wan smile and watery eyes. "I know. Believe me, I know."

I started to draw her a little closer, but at that moment Justin cleared his throat, and my wife and I both turned. "I think I'd better leave the two of you alone for a while," he observed with a smile. He handed my clothing to Elizabeth, and he folded the blanket neatly and draped it over his arm. "I'll be wanting to discuss what happened with both of you, but there's no particular hurry. You ought to get some rest, Jonathan. I've got to check on Arthur anyway--"

"Arthur?" Elizabeth echoed in astonishment. "You mean--he's alive?"

"You hadn't heard?" Justin asked. "He is indeed--thanks to your husband here." His grin widened. "So don't be too hard on him, Elizabeth: he's a hero. Again."

With that he departed. Even as the door was closing behind him, I suddenly realized that I wasn't quite as strong as I'd thought I was. A wave of dizziness passed through me, and I staggered and almost fell. Elizabeth had to support me with a hand under my elbow. "Something tells me," I said, "that I'd better lie down for a little while."

"Something tells me you're right," she replied in concern. "You're as white as a sheet."

She helped me into our room, and eased me into bed; as I'd hoped, as soon as I was horizontal the dizziness faded. No position was truly comfortable, but with our softest pillow under my shoulder, I could just about stand to lie flat on my back. For a few moments Elizabeth bustled about, pulling the blankets up over me, hanging up my clothes, bringing me a glass of water....but then, abruptly, she stopped short turned away. A few seconds later I realized that she was once again crying.

I reached out and touched her arm. "Hey," I said. "There's no need for that. I'm going to be fine. Everybody is."

She spoke without turning, dabbing at her eyes with the remains of her handkerchief. "I know you will," she said in choked tones. "That's not the reason I'm crying."

"No? Why, then?"

Finally she turned, and she plunked herself down on the edge of the bed, peering at me through swollen and red-rimmed eyes. She sighed. "I suppose you'll think it's silly..." she began.

Smiling, I reached up and brushed her cheek. "I won't know until you tell me."

For a few seconds she sat staring into space. Then she went on, quietly, "In our old life, before I knew about NIMH, before I knew who and what you really are...all that time you were leading a double life. You did things for the rats, dangerous things, but at the time I didn't know anything about it." She sighed. "I was living in a fool's paradise--but in a way that was preferable, because what I didn't know I couldn't worry about. And some ways you're still leading a double life. You're not just my husband--you're an important member of the Rats of NIMH, someone who is looked up to and respected. And someone who is still called upon to do dangerous things on behalf of the rats. Before, when you were out drugging the cat, I could just go on blithely with my housework, because I had no real idea what you were doing when you weren't home. But today...I knew. And all I could do was sit and wait until they brought you back inside, in who knows what condition. I don't think I'm a selfish person, Jonathan. I have no trouble sharing you with your friends--especially since they have given us a home and a life here. But I'm afraid I can't get used to the thought of you giving your life for them. I...just don't think they have that much claim on you. Not quite."

For a long moment I was silent. Then I grasped her hand and brought it to my lips. "You're right," I said softly. "You're absolutely right. But please don't blame Justin or any of the others for what happened today. The fault was entirely mine. I saw what needed to be done, and I did it. I don't know if it's any consolation, but the fact is: if I hadn't, Sullivan and his crew would probably still be trapped, and Arthur would probably be dead from shock. But you're right, darling. I should have been thinking about my responsibility to you and our children. The five of you should be uppermost in my mind, whenever I'm tempted to engage in a harebrained stunt like that. But if you ask me, this--" I indicated my swollen shoulder-- "was a small price to pay for Arthur's life."

"I...suppose you're right," she agreed reluctantly. She leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, then settled in beside me on the bed. "All right," she went on briskly. "I may regret asking this, but what exactly happened?"

And so I told her, narrating my entire experience from when Justin and I arrived on the shelf to when Ages and Cynthia popped my shoulder back into its socket. By the time I was finished, Elizabeth was shaking her head in amazement and vicarious terror. I expected that; but what I didn't expect was for her eyes to suddenly blaze with anger. "Jonathan Brisby," she said, shaking an admonishing finger, "if you ever do anything like that again, I'll...I'll..."

I smiled and wrapped my good arm around her, pulling her closer. "You'll what?" I asked challengingly.

"I don't know, exactly," she admitted. "But I'm warning you--whatever it is, it'll be pretty dire."

That evening I was able to join my family for dinner--more or less.

Several hours of sleep had served to restore my strength, at least to a certain extent; and a dose of Ages' unpleasantly bitter willow-bark powder helped take down the swelling some, aided by thirty minutes or so under an ice-pack. My arm was still all but useless, though, and my entire body felt stiff and sore, as Elizabeth helped me into my clothes and re-settled my sling. She was careful and gentle--as always--but still, the process hurt. I'm not sure, though, which of us it hurt worse--because every time I winced or bit my lip, so did she. It was quite a while before we finally stepped out into the living room.

All of my offspring looked tired--which is entirely understandable. Though the three older ones hadn't had quite as stressful a day as their little sister, they certainly had not been idle. Far from it, in fact. Martin and Timothy had spent most of the day up on the fourth level--or what remained of it--helping to clear up the debris, and to shore up the ceiling to prevent further collapses until a more permanent solution could be found. Teresa had spent her day in the infirmary; but unlike Cynthia, who had been run back and forth nearly to the point of exhaustion, my older daughter's broken ankle had relegated her to jobs which she could accomplish while remaining fairly stationary: rolling bandages, changing the coverings on examination tables, that sort of thing.

Early that morning when news of the disaster reached us, Justin had called upon my children to help out, and they had done so instantly and without hesitation. At the time I'd given that fact scarcely a thought, but now, looking back, I felt a vast sense of pride swelling my chest. Truly, the three older ones were adults now, free and equal citizens of the community; in Justin's eyes, and--more importantly--in their own. And if that was true of them, could their little sister be far behind?

As Elizabeth and I stepped out of our bedroom, the four of them leaped up from the sofa to cluster around me, reaching out to embrace me or clasp my hand. I saw the concern in their eyes, and heard it in their quiet voices: "Father, how are you?"; "Does it hurt a lot, Dad?"; "Good thing you're right-handed, Dad"; and "Did the ice take down the swelling any, Daddy?"

Clearly they knew what had happened to me, a fact which surprised me not at all. Cynthia would certainly have told her brothers and sister the whole story, hours ago. I was amused to note that my youngest daughter was not looking at me in quite the same way as her siblings. Their expressions were ones of concern and sympathy, seeking reassurance; but the look on her face seemed more like professional interest. She peered at my shoulder with narrowed eyes; no doubt she was gauging to what extent the swelling had come down.

As usual, the worried look was most obvious in Timothy's big blue eyes--unless that was just the magnifying effect of his glasses--and it was around his shoulders that I draped my good arm. "I'm fine," I assured them all. "But I'm starving to death. Let's go, while they've still got something left, eh?"

Timothy reached up to cover my hand with his own. "I doubt they'd let you go hungry, Dad," he said with a grin.

As the six of us made our way down the corridor, moving at something less than full speed, I fell in beside Cynthia and linked my arm with hers. "How are you feeling, sweetie?" I asked softly.

She smiled up at me. She had bathed and changed clothes since I saw her last--so had they all--and I rather suspected that she had caught a quick nap too. At very least she no longer looked as if she was riding the very edge of her endurance, and her eyes had regained their customary sparkle. "Much better," she said. She paused, glancing at her mother and her siblings, then she went on quietly, "Thank you, Daddy."

"What for?"

"For proving to me that I can do the job."

I quirked an eye. "And how did I do that?"

She nodded at my shoulder. "With that," she explained. She smiled. "If I can handle treating my own father...I can handle anything."

"I understand," I said. "And I'm happy to have been able to help, believe me." I paused. "There's a more important question, though. I know you can do the job; I never doubted that for a second. What you've got to ask yourself is, do you want to?"

For a few seconds she stared into space; then finally, she nodded. "Yes," she said softly. "Yes, I do."

One-armed, I hugged her. "Then that's all that matters."

In my present condition, there was of course no way I could have carried a tray; and so, as we entered the dining hall I crossed immediately to our table and sat down, while the remainder of my family stepped into line. There was an absolutely heavenly scent drifting in from the kitchen--it smelled like lentil soup and fresh bread--and it made my stomach growl so loudly that I glanced around in embarrassment. I had not eaten a thing since my interrupted breakfast, and after the day I'd had, I was absolutely ravenous. The real tragedy was that I'd be restricted to eating with only one hand.

As I waited, I looked around. The dining hall was full that evening, and even as I watched more and more people were piling in. But as crowded as it was, the place was strangely quiet, the usual hum of conversation almost entirely absent. The rats ate in silence, staring into space, looking glum and sad. I suppose disasters do have that tendency, even ones that don't actually kill anybody: in their aftermath people tend to dwell on their own mortality, and that is never a comfortable or cheerful line of thought. We were a close-knit community; we could scarcely be otherwise, with only twenty-two founding members. Everyone in the community had at least one relative who'd been involved in the day's events; everyone knew someone who had been injured, to a greater or lesser degree, when the walls came a-tumbling down. Looking around at those morose faces, I could clearly read the thought running through each and every mind: we were lucky. And indeed we were: to come through such an event without even one single fatality was almost beyond belief.

A little distance away, at a table near the windows, I noticed Timothy's friend Robert. The young rat had been one of the fortunate ones: his arm was thickly bandaged, but other than that he seemed to be little the worse for wear, an observation which pleased me almost as much as it would please my son. Robert noticed my gaze upon him; he reached across the table and touched his mother's arm. Alice looked over at me, her eyes locking with mine; and then, to my vast surprise, she abandoned her half-finished dinner, stood, and wound her way patiently through the crowd directly over to me. As she stepped up before me she bent down and grasped my hand. Her eyes were dry, but were somewhat puffy and red; obviously she had been weeping for a long time, and quite recently too.

"Alice--" I began, but she shook her head firmly, cutting me off.

"Jonathan, please," she said. Her voice was low and intense, and very slightly hoarse. "I know exactly what you're going to say--that it was 'nothing', or that it was 'no more than he would have done for you.' And certainly that much is true. Any of us would have done the same for any other. But that isn't enough. My husband is alive right now because of you...and that is something which neither I, nor any other member of my family, will ever forget. I know it's scarcely adequate, but...thank you."

There are times when a wisecrack simply isn't appropriate, as I'd discovered over the course of a long and varied life. I gripped her hand. "You're welcome," I told her seriously. I paused. " is Arthur?"

She took a deep breath and glanced away. "He's in a great deal of pain, of course," she said flatly, obviously fighting to keep her emotions under control. "But Ages was able to set the bone cleanly. He'll recover." She quirked a tiny smile. "Though he'll be impossible to live with until he does, of course."

I smiled in return. "I can imagine, believe me," I assured her. I paused, peering up into her face. "And how are you holding up?"

She sighed and glanced across Robert. "My husband and two of my children were injured today," she pointed out. "In the case of my husband, for more than two hours I was certain he was dead. I'm...coping."

"One day at a time," I said, and she smiled and nodded.

"Yes," she agreed. "One day at a time." She glanced up then, and she patted my shoulder. "Looks like your dinner is on its way," she noted. "And mine is getting cold. Good night, Jonathan."

She started to go; but then she turned back. "Oh, Jonathan?"


"Would you please tell Cynthia that I'd like to see her in my office tomorrow morning?"

I quirked an eyebrow. "I'll do that," I promised. "Good night, Alice."

She departed, making her way through the crowd back to her own table and her son; and I watched her go, with an equal mix of pity and admiration. She would make it through this; that much I knew. Too many people depended on her for it to be otherwise. Arthur most of all, certainly; but also their very large and extended family. Not to mention her staff of teachers and their students. For all their sakes, somehow she would find the strength to carry on. That had been true as long as I had known her, and it would continue to be true as long as she lived.

At that moment the flow of my thoughts--and memories--was interrupted by the arrival of my family, bearing trays. Following close behind them was a young kitchen worker named Andrea, who deposited my dinner before me, smiled, and withdrew. Seldom in my life had I seen anything as attractive as that bowl of soup, loaf of bread, and cup of tea, and I wasted no time in attacking all three.

As she stirred some pepper into her soup, my lady wife observed dryly, "I think I'm beginning to understand why you decided to play hero today."

I paused in the act of stuffing my face to glance up at her sharply. "Pardon me?"

She smiled and waved a hand. "Take a look around, my darling," she suggested.

I did--and was astounded. The dining hall was quite crowded, as I mentioned; and it appeared that every person there was staring directly at me. Not all at once, I hasten to add, but rather in ones and twos, surreptitiously, and for no more than a few seconds at a time. That had happened before, and quite recently, too: but then I'd been a pariah, suspended from my job after a very public scene, and the stares had been ones of voyeuristic curiosity. Not so this time; very much the opposite, in fact. In these glances I saw a degree of unabashed admiration which I found more embarrassing than anything else. Apparently the news of my day's work had spread--and had, no doubt, been embroidered upon with each retelling. By now, some of the citizenry of Thorn Valley probably believed that I had injured my shoulder when I lifted Arthur onto my back and leaped across the chasm in a single bound. Not, of course, that I'd ever minded being the center of attention--certainly not--but there is a limit.

The full significance of Elizabeth's words sunk in then, and I turned quickly. "Wait a minute," I protested. "You can't possibly believe that I planned this--?"

"Oh no," she said. She smiled wickedly. "Why on earth would anyone think that? Just because there's an election coming up in a few days, and you and I are the only declared candidates, why would I possibly think that you'd do something to attract attention?"

For a few seconds I stared at her, absolutely stricken; then she began to laugh, and I realized that she was teasing me. My answering chuckle was a tiny bit shaky. "Well," I said, "just don't go falling off a cliff for the sake of a few votes. Believe me, it isn't worth it."

She fixed me with her gaze. "Believe me," she said, "I already know that."

The next morning I went to see Arthur--and in retrospect, I'm very glad I did.

The first thing I found when I entered the infirmary was Cynthia, humming quietly to herself as she bustled around the sunlit room, sweeping, cleaning and rearranging. At first glance she appeared to be alone. As I passed through the double doors she turned quickly, and then she smiled brightly and laid aside her broom. "Hello, Dad," she said.

"Hello, sweetie," I replied, with a frown of confusion. "Uh--what are you doing here, Cynthia?" I went on slowly. "I thought you went to school this morning."

Incredibly, her smile widened. "I did," she said. "For the last time. That's why Alice wanted to see me. I'm graduated, Dad. As of today I'm an adult."

One-armed, I hugged her. "That's wonderful, sweetie!" I said. "I am really, really proud of you--and I know your mother will be too."

She flashed a brief, slightly embarrassed grin. "Thank you," she said. She peered around quickly--as if assuring herself that we truly were alone--and then her voice sunk to a conspiratorial whisper. "Of course it was mainly Mr. Ages' doing. He talked Alice into it. Apparently what happened yesterday convinced her that I'd be more use here than in a classroom."

I smiled. "And obviously you agreed with that," I observed dryly.

"Yes," she said simply. "I did. Of course I'll still be studying for a long time--just with a different teacher."

And a sterner one, I thought; but I didn't say so. She'd find that out for herself soon enough--if indeed she hadn't already.

"--Now," Cynthia went on, her tone suddenly brisk and businesslike, "what can we do for you? Mr. Ages is in his lab, but he's available for consultations." Her gaze shifted. "It's not your shoulder, I hope--?"

Carefully, I shifted my arm in its sling. "No," I assure her. "Actually it feels much better today. I was even able to dress myself this morning. No, there's nothing wrong with me. I was just wondering if I'd be allowed to visit Arthur for a few minutes."

Instantly her face fell. "I...suppose you can, yes," she said reluctantly. "Mr. Ages didn't say that he's not allowed visitors. But...I'm not sure if you'd really want to."

"No?" I asked. "Why not?"

She shook her head. "He isn't in the best of moods today--" she began, and I grinned.

"I know all about his temper," I assured her; but once again she shook her head.

"No," she said. "It isn't that. Very much the opposite, in fact. Mr. Ages was saying this morning that he wishes Arthur would lose his temper. No--this is...different."

I saw the look in her eye, and I nodded. "I understand," I told her. Cynthia knew, just as her brothers and sister did, all about my recurring bouts of the dreaded "D-word"; and she understood, better than her siblings, why I choked down those St. John's Wort tablets every day. "Believe me, I understand. But I'd like to try anyway. May I?"

"Certainly," she said. She nodded across to the hospital section. "He's our only in-patient right now. But," she went on with a wry smile, "don't say I didn't warn you."

I smiled and patted her on the shoulder; and then, slowly and thoughtfully, I made my way across the room.

It surprised me a little that Arthur was the only patient still in residence; not because his injuries weren't severe enough--they certainly were--but because Ages had decided that all the other victims were well enough to be released. He knew his business best, though, and I suppose that he did have a point: sometimes being in one's own home, one's own private room, is much more conducive to healing than being stuck in a cold and impersonal hospital. The majority of the injuries had involved broken bones, strains, sprains, cuts and contusions. Almost certainly Ages' primary prescription for all his patients had been bed rest. That, they could get at home as easily as in the infirmary.

And so it was that in the hospital section all the beds stood empty and neatly made, save one. That one--the third in line, near the big windows--was surrounded on three sides with folding screens, white cloth stretched over wooden frames. I peeked in through a gap--and what I saw dismayed me.

Arthur's bed had been arranged so that he could look out through the windows, out over a wide swath of Thorn Valley, a view that included the farming fields, a tiny sliver of the lake, and the woods beyond. He lay on his back, but not quite flat: the upper part of the bed had been raised slightly. His torso and left leg were loosely covered with a rumpled blanket. His right leg was a solid mass of white plaster bandages, from his waist to his ankle; and it had been elevated above the surface of the bed by a traction rig, suspended from the high ceiling. None of that was either unusual or alarming, given what I knew about his injuries. What was--what caused my heart to sink instantly--was the fact that the bedside table was entirely bare, except for a glass of water, and so too was the chair. By this time, twenty-four hours after the accident, I would have expected Arthur to be running his department from his hospital bed. The table, the chair--even the floor--ought to have been covered hip-deep with papers, reports, plans, blueprints, you name it. But they were not, and that simple fact proved to me that Cynthia had been right, even before I got a good look at the Chief Engineer's face.

Arthur lay on his back, as I said, and he was awake; he stared out through the windows with no apparent interest, his arms hanging limp at his sides and his eyes dull and lifeless. I suppose that could have been the effect of the painkillers--certainly Ages would have had him on codeine, at very least, if not indeed morphine--but somehow I didn't think so. Somehow, I knew that the physical pain he was experiencing was only a small part of his troubles. Probably because I recognized that hopeless expression: I had seen it in the mirror too many times.

For a moment I stood and stared, fighting down pangs of vicarious despair; then I quietly cleared my throat. Arthur glanced over at me quickly; but just as quickly his gaze shifted back to the windows. "Hello, Jonathan," he said quietly.

"May I come in?" I asked. In response he lifted his right arm and let it flop, a gesture which seemed to be an invitation to enter and sit down. At least I chose to interpret it as such.

As I pulled myself up into the chair, he spoke again, without turning. "It's going to snow," he said.

"Pardon me?"

He nodded out at the sunlit, somewhat windy day. Far below, on the floor of the valley, Ralph and his crew were hard at work, getting in the winter wheat. Their task was being hampered slightly, I saw, by the necessity of removing boulders from the fields--boulders which, up until recently, had been part of the fourth level. "Take a look at the ridge-top," he told me.

I did, but what I saw seemed like nothing much: a thin line of grey clouds, so far away that their shape was indistinct, lost in the autumn haze. "I'm afraid I don't--" I began.

"I've spent more time up in this valley than anyone," Arthur said. "More than Nicodemus--and certainly more than Justin. I know what the combination of clouds and a wind from that direction means. Mark my words, Jonathan: within three days--four at the outside--there will be snow falling."

The day had dawned somewhat chilly, that much was true: there'd been frost on the dry grass outside my bedroom window, before a touch of the sun's rays melted it away. And Ralph's crew seemed to be well-bundled. But snow within four days--? It seemed unlikely at best. "I'll have to take your word for that," I said with a smile. "But I'm not here to discuss the weather."

"No," he agreed. "No, I don't suppose you are." He chuckled bitterly. "It's actually rather ironic that you stopped by now, Jonathan. As it happens I was just thinking about you. I was trying to decide whether or not to be grateful that you saved my life. I'd just about come to the conclusion that I wish you hadn't found me."

I frowned and shook my head. "You don't mean that."

Finally he turned, and gazed at me through large, dark, sad eyes. "I wish I didn't," he said. "In many ways it would have been a good deal simpler--simpler, at least, than living through what's to come."

"Meaning what, exactly?"

"The inquest," he said heavily. "I imagine Justin already has it scheduled."

"What inquest?"

"Into what happened up on the fourth level, of course--and why."

I hesitated for a long moment before I replied. One of the worst things about deep depression--as I knew far too well--is its inherent illogic. What I mean is this: a person in such a state doesn't want to hear the facts; or, more specifically, doesn't want to hear anything which might tend to break him out of his funk. In the depths of a depression such as Arthur was clearly experiencing, the victim will almost automatically gainsay anything he is told--even if, in doing so, he commits wild leaps of illogic. It's not that he means to be contrary, not really; it's something almost akin to a reflex, a knee-jerk reaction if you will. Whatever I said, Arthur would no doubt throw back in my face; still, I had to try.

"To the best of my knowledge," I said carefully, "Justin is not planning any kind of 'inquest'--at least not in the sense of a public trial. I'm certain that he will want a report--of course he will--but knowing him, I rather suspect he'll accept it in private."

"Maybe," Arthur said grudgingly. "But what about the people? What will they demand?"

I shook my head. "I have no idea," I told him. "But one thing I know for certain--what they will not want is your head on a platter, or anything so melodramatic as that. We all make mistakes, Arthur. I'd need that computer Hacker is always dreaming of to tabulate all of mine. I can't speak for 'The People,' but as for myself, I'm willing to chalk it up to experience, and move on." I grinned. "And in the future, maybe I'll be listened to when I recommend against a particular building project."

For a minute or two Arthur lay silent, staring out at Ralph's workers, watching as they tied lengths of rope around an oblong chunk of rock and began to drag it out of the field. Then, once again without turning, he said, "Jonathan? Why do you want to be vice-leader?"

I smiled wryly. "I'm not absolutely certain that I do." I sighed. "But somebody has to. Elizabeth was right--it is a weakness in our Constitution. After what happened yesterday, everyone in the community should realize that. Accidents can happen anytime, and to anyone. Justin included. As much as we don't want to admit that, still we have to be prepared for it."

"I can't argue with you on that," Arthur said. "That amendment should have been written a long time ago. The only reason it wasn't--if we're to be brutally honest with ourselves--was Nicodemus, and the cult of personality that surrounded him." He paused. "But that's not really what I'm getting at." He trailed off. I waited, and a moment later he went on, "What I mean is...what makes you think you'll be able to do the job?"

I quirked an eyebrow, and he made an impatient, cutting gesture. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded," he said. "What I should have said was...well, are you absolutely certain that you want the responsibility that comes with the job?"

It was my turn then to gaze out silently at the morning. Finally I said, "No, I'm not certain. But I owe this community a great deal, and if they decide they want me to have that responsibility, I'm willing to accept it. And I think I'm able, too." I peered closely at him. "What's this really about, Arthur?"

"What do you mean?"

I shrugged. "I get the feeling that these questions you're asking have more to do with you than me."

He sighed. "Maybe they do," he confessed. "This may sound strange--but the fact is, up until yesterday I never realized just how much responsibility I carry. Most especially the responsibility to make sure that the things I build remain standing. And quite frankly, Jonathan, that's a responsibility I'm not sure I want any more--or am capable of living up to."

"Arthur--" I began, but he cut me off.

"Jonathan, I could have killed almost two dozen people yesterday. People who depend on me to make the right decisions, to give the right orders." His voice lowered. "Two of them my own children. They might all have been killed...and it would have been the fault of my own damned arrogance."

I took a deep breath, and I leaned forward to grasp his arm. "Arthur my friend," I said, "believe me, I'm an expert on arrogance. I can't even begin to count the number of stupid things I've done in my life--some of which I've gotten away with, and some I haven't. I don't need to tell you that. I also don't need to tell you my opinion of the fourth level."

He smiled sadly. "No," he agreed. "You made that abundantly clear a long time ago."

"...But that's only a tiny part of what you've built here," I pointed out. "If not for you we'd be living in tents--and who knows what we'd be using for tools, furniture...anything. The fourth level was a lapse in judgment--but from where I stand, your track record is still pretty good."

"You may be right," he agreed. He turned away; and when he looked back at me his expression was haunted. "But my own children, Jonathan. My pride almost cost me my own son and daughter. They've forgiven me--of course they have. But...I'm not at all sure that I can ever forgive myself."

"Eventually you'll have to," I told him. "Trust me on this one--nobody knows more about that than I do." I paused. "Arthur, you're an engineer, and you're used to 'bottom line' thinking: the practical and the pragmatic. Am I right about that?"

He nodded. "I...suppose I am, yes."

"Then let's think about this logically," I said. "This community needs you--it needs your strength, your energy, and your managerial ability; but most of all, it needs the knowledge and experience that's in your head. If you want to, you can quit; you can turn the workshop over to someone else. But do you honestly think that would be the end of it? Whomever you choose, he or she won't have anything approaching your experience or know-how. I guarantee that. And so he or she would be coming to you constantly for advice and suggestions. 'How do we do this?' 'How do we build that?' And I know you, Arthur. I know that you couldn't possibly refuse. You'd be up and out of your easy chair the minute your replacement came calling. Within a week you'd be de facto Chief Engineer again. You know that as well as I do--so why even bother pretending that you're going to quit? You and I both know that you're not--not as long as you're still breathing."

He gazed at me for a long time, his expression shifting between despair and uncertainty. Finally he shook his head. "I...don't know, Jonathan," he said. "Maybe it's the pain pills talking...but right now I just don't know."

I grinned and rapped my knuckles against the hard plaster shell that encased his leg. "Nobody expects you to make any decisions right now," I told him. "All we expect is for you to get back on your feet as soon as possible."

He smiled faintly. His eyelids were beginning to droop; whatever Ages was giving him for the pain, clearly the latest dose was beginning to kick in. He reached across and found my hand; there was almost no strength in his grip. "Thank you, Jonathan," he said softly. "You're a good friend."

My grin widened. "I hope you'll remember that," I said. "Come election day."

Chapter 12

"Jonathan? Darling, are you awake?"

"I am now."

"Would you be a dear and get us another blanket? I'm freezing."

I sighed. "You," I said, "are becoming entirely too domesticated." Nevertheless I threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, wincing as I passed beyond the edge of the rug and my feet hit the cold tile floor. Working entirely by feel--because there was not a glimmer of light in the room--I made my way to the foot of the bed and opened the chest. Almost immediately my questing fingers encountered the roughness of wool; and that was good, because my wife was right: our bedroom was freezing.

The bed-covering that I drew out of the chest was--if memory served--dark green in color; it was one of several dozen which had been cut from a very slightly moth-eaten army surplus blanket during the rats' Wandering Days. This particular piece, in fact, had a narrow stripe of black down one side: part of a dye-stamped "U", as in "U.S." Working once again by touch, I spread the blanket out over the bed and tucked it in loosely at the foot.

"That's better," Elizabeth said contentedly. She chuckled. "Any colder and I think I'd go into hibernation. And I've got too much work to do tomorrow."

"Me too." I glanced through the darkness in the general direction of the stove, and I saw--or thought I saw, anyway--a tiny flickering bluish flame. Briefly I considered turning it up...but finally, reluctantly, I abandoned that idea. And what changed my mind was the soft sound of the living-room clock striking one. Too many hours until morning; if I turned the stove up it would probably run out of pressure and go out long before dawn. And then the room would be colder than ever. No: better to rely on shared body heat--by no means a bad thing.

Carefully rubbing my shoulder--three days after my accident, it still ached, and the cold wasn't helping--I climbed back into bed. As she cuddled up close to me, settling into my arms, Elizabeth said worriedly, "I hope the children..."

"They're fine," I assured her firmly. "They have extra blankets too, and enough sense to use them." I paused. "And they're not children any more."

She sighed tragically. "I know," she said. "But I'll never stop being their mother." For a moment she lay unmoving; then she said, "How still it is tonight."

She was right, I suddenly realized. The Thorn Valley community was usually quiet at night; though there were rats coming and going through the corridors at almost all hours, they made little if any noise. But tonight there was something...different. The silence seemed positively thick, almost oppressive, as if the valley lay beneath a vast muffling shroud. It was a phenomenon I had encountered before, somewhere...but I couldn't for the life of me remember where.

Because you spent last winter in a storeroom at NIMH, I suddenly realized. And with that thought I once again tossed aside the bolstered bedcovers and stood. "Jonathan?" Elizabeth said in alarm. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," I said. "I just think...No, it can't be. Can it?" I hauled myself up into the window-seat, and peered out through the narrow gap between the curtains. "Well I'll be," I said. "He was right after all."

"Who was right? And what was he right about?" Elizabeth demanded in irritation.

"Arthur," I told her. I climbed down and pulled the curtains wide. Outside it was very nearly pitch-black, but my dark-adapted eyes could just barely detect a kind of shimmering whiteness. It was something which, in my old life on the farm, I had sometimes sat and watched for hours. In those days it had represented trouble, of a sort which was no longer relevant; but even then, it was a sight which I never had been able to get enough of.

"We'd better break out the shovels," I said. "And the sleds too. It's snowing."

"You were right too," I told Justin.

I couldn't see his smile, but I did detect the twinkle in his eye, somewhere in the narrow dark space between hood and scarf. "Well, that's nice to know," he said, his voice somewhat muffled by that wide coil of multicolored wool. He paused for a second, then "What about?" he asked.

"A few days ago you told me that we were in for an early winter," I explained. "At the time I didn't believe you--but I do now. I have to."

As it happened, we were standing in the exact same place where he had pronounced that particular bit of prophecy: a narrow ridge overlooking the farm. The prospect before us could not have been more different, though, and the change had occurred quite literally overnight.

The snowfall had ended at about six in the morning, though judging by the look of the clouds--and the temperature--it could start again at any time. In all about four inches had fallen. To a human, an almost inconsequential amount; hardly even worth putting on boots for. To a community of rats and mice, though, it was somewhat more significant. A blanket of pure, uniform white lay over the farm, covering the fallow ground and the fields of winter wheat alike. Here and there the smooth drifts were broken by long, narrow, meandering hummocks: the stone fences that separated the fields. Farther away, the trees were also dusted; those that had not yet lost their leaves certainly would now. Off to our right, the long grassy slope that ran down to the lake was also blanketed; but that covering was no longer anything like "deep and crisp and even." It started out that way, of course...but that was before the kids got hold of it.

The slope was perfect for sledding, and that's exactly what at least a dozen young rats were doing with it, their shouts of delight ringing out loud and clear through the clear frosty air. Others were building snowmen; and still others had erected forts and were engaged in an energetic snowball fight. Of course they were all well-bundled; but even so, I knew, it would not be long before they would be soaked through and half-frozen. And then, willing or no, they would be dragged inside by their mothers, stripped of their wet clothes, and plunked into hot baths--all the while enduring the tongue-lashing of their young lives. I knew that very well indeed--because it had often enough happened to my own children. Alas for them, they all had far too many adult responsibilities to allow that sort of thing now.

Standing there, side-by-side on the ridge, wrapped quite literally to the ears in sweaters, heavy wool tunics, hooded cloaks, scarves and mittens, Justin and I were both rocking back and forth, lifting one foot after the other in a ludicrous dance intended to keep our toes from freezing. Gazing down at the seething mass of youngsters, I had to smile. For most of them--no, make that all of them--this was the very first time in their lives they'd been able to play in the snow. Certainly it had not been possible during the rosebush days. Was this, technically speaking, a school-day? Probably, but who cared? They might be a bit more blasé about the next snowfall--but this time, they were not to be denied. And who can blame them?

Above us the sky was pewter-grey, the clouds hanging low and heavy; the valley's western ridge was quite invisible, lost in the mist. Clearly there was more moisture in this storm; but exactly what form in which it would fall was as yet unknown.

"I remember that day," Justin was saying. He chuckled, deep within his hood. "In fact that's what started us on that merry-go-round--because I asked you to inventory the food stores."

I winced. "Don't remind me, please," I begged. I glanced up. "More to come, do you think?"

"Undoubtedly," he said. "Tonight, if not sooner." He reached up to hitch his scarf a little higher around the tip of his nose. "Hard to say how long this will last, though. In two days we could have a warm spell, and all this will melt. Or it could go on without letup until spring, storm after storm. No telling."

"We're ready," I said.

"Are we?" Justin asked bleakly. He gestured down at the seething mob of kids. "I wish I could be like them," he went on. "Able to enjoy this unconditionally. But I can't. As beautiful as this is--and I certainly can't deny it--all I can think about is the trouble it's going to cause. When I look at this now I don't--I can't--see a winter wonderland. What I see is increased fuel usage, increased food consumption, and increased danger for the people who have to be outdoors. The wood-cutting crews, for example. Not to mention potential trouble with the plumbing and the drainage, the possibility of more seeps like the ones that brought down the fourth level..." he trailed off, shaking his head gloomily.

While I certainly understood his concerns, what I saw as I looked out over the valley was something considerably different. Partly, I think, because it had been so terribly long since I'd last seen snow; and partly because I still could not--would not--buy into Justin's belief that the weight of the entire community rested solely on his shoulders. But there was something even more basic at work, I think. This was the first time in recent memory when I could stand and look at a fresh snowfall and admire its beauty, without the immediate, personal, visceral fear that it would be the death of my family and myself. I know that Elizabeth would have agreed with me as well. For all Justin's concerns--and certainly they were valid, in the long run--right then and there the community did possess a sufficiency of food and fuel, and for my family and me that was an almost unprecedented thing. So too was the fact that none of us--thanks to the division of labor in Thorn Valley--had any need to go slogging through the snow, risking our lives to find sustenance. With lunch already cooking in the kitchens, and all the fuel my family could possibly use waiting in a storage locker just a few steps from our apartment, is it any wonder that I was having a hard time feeling worried?

"Let's go inside," I suggested finally. "Winter wonderlands are one thing--frostbitten toes are quite another."


We turned and made our way back to the main entrance, avoiding a needless struggle by carefully stepping in our own outbound footprints. On the way inside we passed Brutus on guard duty, bundled almost beyond recognition but as phlegmatic as ever. Five minutes later I was seated on the sofa in Justin's office, warming my chilled toes before the stove as our fearless leader ducked into his bedroom to fill a teakettle at the washbasin. As he stepped back into the office he hurriedly closed the door behind him--but not before I caught sight of a decidedly pink bathrobe lying across the foot of the neatly-made bed. An object which was by no means alone in its significance.

The changes to Justin's quarters since my last visit were subtle--but definite. A potted fern now draped its tendrils over the filing cabinet; a new and brightly-colored afghan hung over the back of Justin's easy chair; and a few unfamiliar books rested on the shelves. Botany texts, it seemed--big surprise. Looks like she's moving in a little at a time, I thought wryly. Now he'll have to marry her.

If Justin noticed my roving eyes, he gave no sign. He set the kettle atop the stove, and then eased himself into his chair, extending his hands and feet toward the waves of warmth. "Ah," he said contentedly, a few minutes later. "That's better."

"Definitely," I agreed. I nodded toward the windows. "As beautiful as it is, I'd just as soon enjoy it from here."

"Me too," Justin said. He paused for a moment; then, without looking at me, he went on, in quiet and almost insinuating tones, "I take it you don't share my concerns?"

"Certainly I share them," I said firmly. "What I don't share is your response to them."

"Pardon me?"

I shook my head in despair. "Justin my friend, we've had this discussion before, and quite recently too, as I recall. I'm all for preparation and planning--I'd be a fool not to be. But I don't believe in borrowing trouble. I spent the first part of my married life doing exactly that: constantly obsessing about what might happen. What would I do if my wife or my kids accidentally found out about the Rats of NIMH? What would I do if my children began to wonder why they were so different from their friends--and Timothy at least surely would have eventually. There's a point where "careful" becomes "compulsive," Justin. I've been there--and believe me, it's not a place where you want to spend a whole lot of time."

"So what you're saying--" Justin began dubiously, but I interrupted him with a wave of my hand.

"If you don't know what I'm saying by now," I told him, "you never will. Let your people do their jobs, Justin. Let me do mine. If you do, everything will turn out fine." I paused and grinned. "Anyway," I said, "don't you have something more important to concern yourself with?"

He grinned in return, somewhat sheepishly, and scratched at the back of his head. "I...suppose I do, yes," he admitted. By then the teakettle had begun to boil, and he rose to attend to it. As he worked--spooning tea into a pot and locating a pair of mugs--he continued to speak quietly over his shoulder. "I know you played a part in getting Judith and me back together, Jonathan," he said. "I don't know exactly what you said to her--I don't think I want to know--but whatever it was, it worked, and I'm extremely grateful."

"You're welcome," I said. I'm just glad that one of you was willing to listen...

"...But I don't want to make it sound as if she came to me and begged for forgiveness," Justin went on. "Nothing of the sort. In fact, if anyone had been keeping score, I rather think I'd come out ahead in that department. Mostly we admitted to each other--and to ourselves--what we'd been afraid of."

"Always a good beginning," I observed. I hesitated a second, then I said, "As happy as I am that the two of you are back together, and as thrilled as I was to hear about your engagement, I'm afraid I still have to wonder: is it entirely wise, politically speaking, for her to be living here with you before the marriage?"

He turned, so quickly that he almost spilled the tea. "How did you--?" he began. Then he sighed and nodded. "Elizabeth," he said with certainty.

"She did give me the first clue," I confirmed. I waved a hand. "But even if she hadn't..."

"I understand," Justin said. He handed me a steaming mug, and then he plopped down in his chair once more. "And if Elizabeth knows, then everyone knows," he added bitterly.

He was right, of course; still, the implication stung. "Have either of you been trying all that hard to keep it secret?" I asked challengingly.

"No," he admitted. "We haven't." He took a cautious sip of tea. "I do appreciate what you're saying, Jonathan. Though I'm afraid Judith wouldn't. She's a scientist; political concerns--as you put it--have absolutely no hold on her mind."

"I know," I said with a grin. "I spent the better part of a year living with her twin sister, remember." I took a drink of herbal brew, and felt its welcome warmth course through me. "I'm not saying that this community is populated by bluenoses," I went on. I grinned and looked out at the weather. "Well, maybe today some of them are. For a very long time, these people have wanted to see you get hitched. For the moment they're pleased--and they're willing to overlook quite a bit, though I daresay there has been some sniggering." I paused. "And it's just as well, frankly, that Judith turned out not to be pregnant. For a while this community will be willing to cut you some slack--but not forever. I don't know if the two of you have set a firm date yet..."

"We haven't," he said. "We were going to, but then the fourth level collapsed, and then this happened..." he indicated the snow with a wave of his hand.

"I understand," I said. "And believe me, I sympathize. All I'm saying is this: some people might view the ceremony of marriage as just a formality, as something put on more for the sake of the relatives than the people involved. But the majority of this community does not feel that way. I'm concerned that as long as Judith is living here, you two might be tempted to keep finding reasons to put off that ceremony. In my opinion that would be a very bad idea, for both you and her--but mostly for you. The people won't give you a free ride forever. And I wonder if it might be a good idea to...well, let's just say to remove the temptation to procrastinate."

For a long moment Justin was silent, twirling his mug between his hands as he stared out the window. Outside the clouds had closed down once again, and it seemed to me that I could already detect a few hesitant flakes slowly drifting earthward. Finally Justin spoke again. "Jonathan," he said, "you know I respect your opinion in all things--political matters not the least. And what you're saying makes all kinds of sense--of course it does."

I waited for a moment, then "But?" I prompted.

"But," he echoed with a quick grin, "there are some things which are more important than politics, and this is one of them. I love her, Jonathan. It's as simple as that--and as complicated. She has agreed to marry me, and both of us want that to happen sooner, rather than later. The only reason we're delaying at all, quite frankly, is because of you. Or Elizabeth; we're waiting for someone who will be legally able to conduct the ceremony, since I can't very well do it myself."

"I know that," I said. "But..."

"...But in the meantime," he finished. "I know." He hesitated, then he shook his head. "No," he said finally, firmly. "Politics be damned, Jonathan. Obviously the people already know that Judith has been spending her nights here with me. So be it. As far as I'm concerned, that has absolutely nothing to do with the performance of my duties as Leader. I'm not lying to anyone about it, nor have I really tried to conceal it. If we've tried to be discreet....well, can you really blame us? Putting aside for the moment the evident fact that we failed. I guess what I'm saying isn't the people's business."

Again I waited, and again he continued. "You know how long I've been alone, Jonathan. Far too long. And I don't need to tell you how very big and empty a bed can be, when you're the only one in it. Just these last few days have almost made me forget what that was like. And I won't go back to that, Jonathan, however briefly. Not for the people, this job...anything. Nor will Judith--and I wouldn't ask her to."

I opened my mouth to reply, but exactly what I might have said I don't know, because at that instant the office door opened and Judith herself entered, followed closely by her twin sister. Judith was wearing her usual work outfit of patched tunic and rough flannel shirt; but today it had been bolstered by a heavy denim jacket and a scarf. As she spied the two of us she smiled apologetically. "Oops," she told Justin. "Sorry to barge in. I didn't know you were discussing important affairs of state. Hello, Jonathan."

"Actually we weren't," Justin assured her. "Not exactly, anyway." He held out his arms, and she crossed over to embrace him and accept his kiss.

Inwardly I smiled. "Not exactly," no, I thought. I wonder if her ears are burning--?

Eileen was dressed somewhat more conventionally, in a heavy tweed skirt and a ribbed sweater. She was pushing a kind of stroller--which is to say, a tightly-woven wicker basket mounted on wheels--in which Jeanette was happily engaged in a voyage of discovery, the ultimate aim of which seemed to be her own toes. Thorn Valley's future heartbreaker was growing almost literally like a weed: she was visibly larger than the last time I'd seen her, just a few days ago.

"What's up?" Justin asked.

"I'm just here to change clothes," Judith told him. "It's too cold to work in the seed warehouse, and everything in the greenhouse is dormant. And Sis and I are meeting someone for lunch. Excuse me." She headed for the bedroom and closed the door.

I glanced across at Eileen. If she was at all surprised that her sister's clothing now resided in Justin's bedroom, she gave no sign. "Anybody we know?" I asked dryly.

"I should hope so," Hacker replied with a smile. "It's your wife. We're going to discuss her campaign."

Now this, I thought, is more like it. Much.

Sitting up in his hospital bed with the pillows bulked behind him and a kidney-shaped lap desk balanced across his legs, Thorn Valley's Chief Engineer was entirely surrounded by a blizzard of paperwork, covering every horizontal surface a least as deep as the snowfall outside. With a pair of half-glasses (which he never wore in public) perched on the end of his nose, Arthur sat staring out at the snowy afternoon, tapping the end of his pencil thoughtfully on the thin wood of his desk. So absorbed was he, in fact, that he didn't see me poke my head in, between the folding screens; nor did he notice my presence until I quietly cleared my throat. Then he looked over quickly, and his face broke into a broad, beaming smile. "Jonathan!" he said, in tones of delight. "Please--sit down. If you can find a place to, that is."

That was indeed a challenge, but finally I moved a thick pile of papers from the top of a rolling stool to the floor, pulled the stool up next to the bed, and hauled myself up onto it. "How--uh--how are you, Arthur?" I asked.

"Much better," he said seriously. "The pain is much less, and according to Ages, the bone is beginning to knit." He patted his leg, which still hung, plaster-cased, from its traction rig. "In fact he's going to let me go home in the morning."

"That's good," I said. I paused. "But that wasn't exactly what I meant."

"I know," he said quietly. He took a deep breath. "I owe you an apology, Jonathan, for my behavior the other day. And my thanks too." He quirked a smile. "Have you ever considered a career in psychology?"

"Who, me?" I said in surprise. "Not likely. I was just speaking from experience. I'm glad I could help, though--really."

Indeed, the change I saw before me was more than gratifying. Less than three days ago he had been despondent, experiencing terrible pain--both physical and emotional--and so guilt-ridden that he'd been on the verge of resigning his position. I doubted very much, though, whether the few words I'd spoken had made all the difference--or even a significant part of it. More likely it was his own sense of responsibility that had done it. Yes, the change was gratifying--but not entirely surprising. I suppose it might have been--if on my way into the Infirmary I hadn't run into young Robert, looking rather harried as he acted as a courier for his father. Exactly as I'd predicted, Arthur was trying to run his department from his hospital bed--and that was the best news I'd had in days.

"Me too," Arthur murmured. He hesitated a moment, then he went on, "What can I do for you, Jonathan?"

I smiled. "I'm here to give you a chance to gloat," I told him. He gazed at me quizzically, and I waved my hand toward the window. "Your weather forecast," I explained.

He nodded in sudden understanding. "I remember now," he said. "But I have no idea how I knew. Maybe it was the painkillers talking. I'm just glad it didn't happen a few days ago."

I remembered my nightmare crawl across the face of a sheer cliff, on a shelf barely wide enough for my feet...and in my imagination I added a freezing wind and blowing snow to the mix. I shuddered. "I am too," I assured him. "More than you can imagine."

"I wonder, though..." Arthur began thoughtfully.


He looked at me over the top of his glasses. "I was just thinking...maybe this snowfall today is a good thing. It may have taken people's minds off what happened on the fourth level."

"Maybe so," I agreed softly. "I couldn't say." I nodded at his lap-desk, on which was spread a single, wide sheet of white paper. "What do you have there?"

Arthur shook himself and smiled. "Ah," he said mysteriously, and he handed me the sheet. "Just a rough idea," he assured me quickly. "Something to help pass the time."

It was a pencil sketch, executed in his rapid but remarkably accurate hand. What it depicted was instantly--almost chillingly--recognizable: the "notch" in the community's outer wall, north of the main entrance, where a big chunk of the fourth level had come tumbling down. The ragged gap--which Arthur could not have seen--was not visible, though; in its place Arthur has rendered some manner of structure, a kind of long balcony or arcade, fronted with what were evidently intended to be wide, high windows, and topped with steeply-angled skylights.

"Very...uh...interesting," I said.

Arthur grinned. "Don't think it'll work, eh?" he asked pointedly.

"No, I don't think that at all," I assured him. "I'm not an engineer; I'm not qualified to make that judgment. But it would be interesting to know what holds it up..."

"Reinforced concrete beams," he said blithely. "Cantilevered into the cliff. Over that a wood deck. The rest of it is just conventional stick-framing."

"If you say so," I said. "What about the seepage problem?"

He rummaged through a stack of papers atop the bedside table, and handed me another sheet. "We intercept and channel it," he said. "The outlet will be below the level of the bridge-deck, so the water will never touch the wood."

I handed back both sheets. "And you think Justin will let you build it?"

"Oh, not right away," he said. "That's obvious enough. He'll require some convincing first, of course. And that's all right. There's no way we could begin construction before spring anyway." He glanced down at the papers. "I think I'll assign my two young apprentice draftsmen to draw up the plans. It'll be a good challenge for them."

I smiled. One of those "young apprentices" was Robert; the other was Timothy. "I'm sure it will," I said.

He set the sheets aside, and then, removing his glasses, he leaned his head back, gazing thoughtfully up at the infirmary ceiling. "This has taught me a lesson," he said. "Probably the most important lesson I could ever learn: humility." He gestured. "I tried to fight with nature up there, and I lost. Nature is bigger than we are, Jonathan. We can't beat it. The best we can hope for is a truce--or maybe I really mean an armistice."

Words to live by, I thought; but I remained silent, and a moment later Arthur went on. "I think I know where it started for me. In the days after we escaped from NIMH we were all hungry for knowledge. It didn't matter what; we were just desperate to learn all we possibly could about the world."

I nodded. "I remember."

"But after a while we all started to specialize, to narrow our fields of interest," he continued. He paused and smiled, glancing at me sidelong. "At least most of us did. I became fascinated with the idea of building, in all its aspects. Houses, bridges, roads...anything. If it had been constructed, if it was the product of someone's mind and hands, it interested me."

Again I nodded. More than once during our Wandering Days, Arthur had held up a march while he paused to examine some human structure, trying to decipher how it had been built. It was a habit that drove the rest of us to distraction. All except Nicodemus, who understood. Nicodemus understood everything--and everybody.

"At first I couldn't believe it was possible for anyone to achieve what the humans have," Arthur continued. "But after a time, as I started to learn how it's all done...I suppose I started to feel almost omnipotent. As if there was nothing I couldn't achieve, given the tools, the materials and the time. And then I was given the job of creating a new community, a new way of living, from the ground up."

"And it went to your head," I supplied blandly.

"Exactly," he agreed heavily. He shook his head firmly. "But no more. This--" he indicated his sketches with a wave of his hand--"will be built in cooperation with the rock, not in competition. And that's the method of design which I'm going to teach your son, and mine. Because in the future they will plan this community's structures."

"Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect," I commented. "Truly visionary, ahead of his time. But from what I hear, all too often his roofs leaked."

Arthur nodded. "A lesson I ought to have learned a long time ago," he said. "And I thank God that no one was killed before I did."

As my kids and I settled onto a bench on one of the middle tiers, Timothy leaned close and whispered, "Dad? What's this all about? What is Mom planning to say?"

I shook my head. "I wish I knew, son," I told him seriously. "I really wish I knew."

He frowned. "Whatever it is," he said, "I hope she hurries. I need to practice."

Thorn Valley's meeting hall was windowless, which was rather a pity, because outside at that very moment the snow was falling again, even more heavily than it had the previous night. As I've mentioned, that was a sight which usually had a calming effect on me--and "calming" was something which I was definitely in need of just then. My dear wife was being mysterious again, and that, as I'd discovered these past few months, was ominous. Worse yet was the fact that two others were involved: one of my best friends, and her sister, the de facto first lady of the community. Exactly what the three of them had been cooking up all afternoon, I didn't know--and I wasn't sure if I wanted to find out.

Speaking of took my roving eye a few minutes to find Judith and Eileen, some rows down and about halfway around the curve of the hall. And when my gaze finally lit on them, I felt my eyebrows lift in surprise, because they were clearly in the midst of a rather heated disagreement. Not loud--they weren't making a spectacle of themselves--but clearly sharp. They sat side by side, as exact as a pair of matching bookends, their heads bent close together as they whispered fiercely back and forth. Philip--no doubt prudently--had retreated to the far end of the bench, where he sat dandling his daughter on his knee, rather pointedly not listening to his wife and sister-in-law having it out. What in the world--? I thought as I watched them exchange words which I couldn't hear, and didn't want to. They both had tempers, that much I knew; but when I'd seen them last, in Justin's office, they'd been all smiles and sorority. What could have happened during the intervening few hours?

Abruptly Timothy nudged me with his elbow. "I think they're coming, Dad."

I glanced over my shoulder, back up at the main hallway doors. As I watched they swung slowly open and Justin entered, followed immediately by Elizabeth. On their way down the steps to the speaker's platform, both of them kept their eyes facing resolutely forward and their expressions quite neutral. Well, almost. As they passed the tier where the kids and I sat, Elizabeth's whiskers twitched, just a little; and Justin flashed me a half-helpless, half-amused grin. Evidently he didn't know what my lady wife was planning to say either.

At the bottom of the stairs Justin stepped immediately up onto the platform, as I had seen him do so many times these last few months; but Elizabeth hung back, remaining in the shadows for the moment. Justin turned a slow circle, holding up his hands, and the buzz of conversation gradually stilled. Finally he spoke. "We have a great deal to discuss this evening," he said. "Quite a lot has happened since our last meeting--as I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone--and there are a number of decisions which must be made." He took a deep breath. "However, before we begin, Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby has asked permission to address you for a few moments. Mrs. Brisby?"

He stepped back, out of the light, and Elizabeth climbed up onto the platform. I found myself leaning forward expectantly as she waited for the polite smattering of applause to die down; beside me, the other members of my family were doing the same. Behind his glasses Timothy's eyes were narrowed, and I imagine mine were as well, as I racked my brains trying to figure out what was going on.

Elizabeth was dressed in a green wool skirt and a beige sweater, and I'm certain that it was not only to my eyes that she looked beautiful, intelligent, composed...I might even say regal. She looked up at the sea of faces for a moment, smiling slightly; and then she began to speak.

"As you know," she began, "several days ago I proposed an amendment to this community's Constitution, to create the post of an elected Vice-Leader. We will be voting on that amendment in a little more than a week. At that time we will also be voting to fill the position, should the amendment be adopted.

"As you are all aware, I am one of the two candidates for that post." She smiled, and I thought I saw her big blue eyes meet mine, just for an instant before she continued. "I won't discuss exactly how that came to be. Because of everything that has happened in this community recently, neither my worthy opponent nor I have had the time or attention to spend on campaigning. It would surprise me not at all, in fact, to learn that the election has been the farthest thing from most of your minds.

"But it is something which we must face, and Justin has kindly granted me a few minutes this evening to speak to you about my candidacy."

She paused again, this time for a full ten seconds or more, and as I waited for her to go on I found myself frowning deeply. What's she getting at? I wondered. Is this going to be a stump speech? Is that what she spent all that time working on with Eileen and Judith? Her platform? But a quick glance down at Thorn Valley's one-and-only set of twins did nothing to allay my confusion. The two of them had stopped arguing as soon as Elizabeth began to speak, and were now--like everyone in the hall--staring owlishly at my wife; but both identical faces wore an identical expression of disappointment. Clearly they did not like what they were hearing; but why?

Before I could even begin to puzzle that out, though, Elizabeth continued. In the absolute, pin-drop silence her voice, quiet but forceful, carried easily even to the topmost tiers. "Since my nomination I've been thinking a great deal about the qualities which the successful candidate will need to have. That person must be prepared to take over instantly in a crisis, of course; but that's really only part of the story.

"The Vice-Leader will also, on a day-to-day basis, be the eyes and ears of the community Leader, going out among the people to observe and to learn what it is they expect the government to do--or in some cases, not do. Such a person must not only be well-known to the public--which around here isn't difficult--but must also be trusted, respected and liked by them, able to 'draw them out' as the saying goes; to convince them to reveal their innermost hopes, needs and fears. That person will also need the ability to separate mere whining and wishful thinking from true problems and unmet needs. That person must also be willing and able to speak freely to the Leader, to disagree with him when necessary, and to present him with the truth without becoming a 'yes-man.'

"And finally, that person must have a complete knowledge of this community. Of its functioning, yes; of how each and every department interacts with all the others. Also of its laws, of its history--and of its customs too, of the habits and attitudes which have been in development ever since the Original 22 escaped from NIMH. Most importantly, that person must have the ability to recognize situations in which custom is more important than written law. That is the sort of knowledge which can come only from a deep personal familiarity with each and every person in this valley.

"In my mind, those are the most important qualities for our Vice-Leader to have. And in examining the personalities and qualifications of the two candidates in this race, I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that only one of them possesses enough of those qualities to deserve your vote." She paused and took a deep breath. "And that person's name is...Jonathan Brisby."

Not wanting to become involved in yet another public scene, I somehow managed to force myself to wait until my wife and I were behind closed doors--in that particular case, those of our apartment and our bedroom--before I exploded.

"Elizabeth Brisby," I demanded, "do you have any idea what you just did?"

She smiled. "I believe Eileen and Judith called it 'throwing the election,'" she said.

"Well, exactly," I replied, slightly nonplused by her calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. "But why? That's what I don't understand--and I don't imagine I'm alone, either."

"Probably not," she agreed sadly. She sighed and seated herself on the edge of the bed, inviting me with a nod to join her. I did so, and she reached across to grasp my hands earnestly. "Of course I know why you nominated me in the first place," she went on. "Mostly it was to pay me back for maneuvering you into the election. But partly--at least I hope--it was because you genuinely believe I'm capable of doing the job. Am I right?"

"Of course," I assured her. "I never doubted that you're capable. So why--?"

"I'm getting to that," she promised. She took a deep breath. "The plain fact is this," she said. "Everything that has happened these last few days has convinced me that I don't want to be vice-leader."

"Why not?"

"Because in watching you I've come to understand what having that job would really mean--apart from everything I said tonight. It would mean chasing after Justin as he rushes to the scene of some crisis or other, and being able to supply him with instant, on-the-spot advice. It also means dealing with his moods, and keeping him and his career from self-destructing. It also sometimes means putting one's self in direct, immediate physical danger. And with that job description, my darling...I think I'll stick to the one I've already got."

Slowly I smiled. "Well," I said, "when you put it that way..."

"And that's not all," she went on quietly.


"No." For a few seconds she paused, collecting her thoughts; then she swallowed hard and went on. "You and I both know what I was, less than a year ago: a silly little field-mouse, scared of her own shadow, all but helpless in a crisis."

"Elizabeth--" I began, but she shook her head firmly, cutting me off.

"No," she said. "I know what you're going to say, Jonathan, and I appreciate it. But there's no use denying the truth. I'm not ashamed of it; it's just the way things were. I've gone through tremendous changes since last spring--beginning that day when I met Nicodemus, God rest his soul. But the fact of the matter is, Jonathan, those changes are still occurring. Even now I'm not exactly sure who I am." She smiled. "Oh, I'm sure of some things," she added hurriedly. "I am, and always will be, Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby, with a husband and four children whom I adore. That will never change. But in many other ways I still feel like a work on progress."

"Meaning--?" I prompted.

"Meaning...right now I just don't want to be one heartbeat away from the leadership. Maybe I'll feel differently someday--in which case you'll have a fight on your hands, when you stand for reelection. But even with all I've learned this last year, I just don't feel qualified. Not really, not in my heart of hearts."

I squeezed her hands. "I understand," I said. "And please note that I use the word 'understand,' not 'agree.'" I paused. "Would I be right in guessing that one of our twin-sister friends agreed with you, and the other didn't?"

"Not exactly," she said with a smile. "Actually they both strongly agreed that I could 'learn by doing,' as they put it. That's what they spent most of the afternoon trying to convince me of. But when it became clear to them that I wasn't going to change my mind...that's when the argument started."


"Well, even though I'd decided that I don't want to be vice-leader, I still wasn't sure exactly what I should do about it. Eileen argued that I should simply go up on the platform tonight and withdraw. But Judith said no. She pointed out that the ballots have already been printed, with both our names on them, and it would be a needless waste to have to print them again. She also pointed out that if I withdraw, one of two things would have to happen. Either the election would have to be delayed until a new candidate can be found, or you would end up running unopposed. And Judith doesn't like unopposed elections. I think the phrase she used was 'perverting the democratic process.' She convinced me to do what I did--and then to stand back and let the results fall where they may."

"And if the results fall towards you?" I asked; and in response to her stricken look I chuckled and shook my head. "It could happen," I told her. "The people might think that you were just being clever or coy. Right now they're probably expecting me to make the exact same speech myself, throwing all my votes to you."

"You won't, will you?" she asked in horrified tones.

I grinned. "It would serve you right if I did," I said. "But no, I'm not--unless you want me to. When we went into this thing we both agreed that there was no particular need for either of us to campaign. I intend to stick to that."

"Me too," she said in relief. She hesitated. "But...well, if what I did tonight does manage to backfire, I won't have much choice, will I? If the people really want me to take the job, I suppose I'll have to."

"'If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve,'" I quoted.

"Pardon me?"

"That's what William Tecumseh Sherman said when someone tried to persuade him to run for President of the United States. People probably thought he was being coy too--but in fact he never was nominated or elected."

She gazed into my eyes. "What about you?" she asked. "If elected, will you serve?"

I kissed her; but then, seeing that she was still waiting for a real answer, I said, "It doesn't appear I'd have much choice either."

Election Day. Finally.

Despite the truly miserable weather outside their snug tunnel homes, the Rats of NIMH were in a remarkably buoyant, almost celebratory mood as they trooped into the meeting hall that evening. I had watched that mood growing all day, as I went about my business, possibly for the very last time as Justin's Executive Assistant. Or perhaps I should say as I tried to go about my business. In truth I got very little work done that day. I tried, God knows...but the citizens I encountered seemed much more interested in wishing me luck than in giving me their reports. I could only wonder if Elizabeth was running into the same phenomenon. Probably; but at least she had an office to retreat into. My office, so to speak, was the corridors--something which probably wouldn't be changing, no matter what happened.

The feeling continued through dinner, during which I once again felt the eyes upon me (something I was rapidly becoming used to); and it climaxed as my family and I walked into the meeting hall. There was a sudden hush as we entered, Elizabeth and I, arm-in-arm with our kids following along behind us; and then, as we descended the stairs, the hush was broken. First by whispers, as those nearest the stairs reached out their hands to us--to my wife as often as me, I hasten to add. "Good luck," they said, or else "We're rooting for you!"--and it was difficult to tell exactly which one of us they meant. Maybe both. As we continued to descend, the whispers turned into applause, quiet at first but rapidly gaining intensity; until finally, the only way to end it was for both of us to climb up onto the bench and acknowledge it, waving our hands over our heads like a pair of prize fools. Sitting beside us, our children looked on amazed; and when finally the crowd allowed my wife and I to sit down, Teresa smiled and leaned over. "I guess," she observed dryly, "everything they teach the kids about you two is true."

For most of the inhabitants of Thorn Valley, this day had been pretty much like any other--with one very important exception. All day long, while a thin slushy snow fell outside, my friend the Hacker had sat in the community library, behind a table which bore a large padlocked box, a stack of pre-printed ballots, and a list of every adult citizen. And all day long, singly or in small groups, those adult citizens took fifteen minutes from their busy schedules to visit the library, where Eileen checked off their names, handed them a ballot, and directed them to one of the half-dozen little curtained booths which had been temporarily erected near the windows. It was a short ballot; really there were just two choices to make. One of them I doubt anyone spent much time agonizing over; it was a rather self-evident choice. The other was perhaps a little more problematic. This was only the second time since the rats moved to Thorn Valley that the ballot box and the voting booths had been brought out of storage; it was only the second time they'd needed to be. One member of the community--Arthur--voted "absentee," which is to say that Philip hand-carried a ballot to him, as he sat in his apartment nursing his leg, and turned his back as Arthur made two swift X's on the little square of paper.

By late afternoon it was all over. Eileen might have kept the polls open longer, but there was no need: by four p.m. there was not a name left unchecked on her list. So, while workers dismantled and stowed away the booths, Eileen and Philip took the ballot box into a small conference room near the library and began to count, observed by Alice. That was a process which took some time, even with Hacker on the team; halfway through they called for dinner to be sent in.

I knew all of this, I should explain, entirely by word of mouth. By no means had I hung around the library all day; my one visit had been brief and to the point. It might have been briefer, actually, if they hadn't had to find a step-stool for me to stand on so I could use the rat-sized voting booth. If I'd tried to haunt the vicinity, Eileen would have firmly ejected me, and of course it would have been entirely correct for her to do so.

Elizabeth sat close beside me as we waited for Justin to appear; and through her hip, which was pressed tight against mine, I felt her tension. I found her hand and grasped it, and smiled over at her. "Afraid you might lose, or afraid you might win?" I asked quietly.

She grinned back at me, a little nervously. "Some of both, I think," she confessed. "And..." she trailed off.

"And what?"

She shook her head. "You'll think it's silly."

"No," I promised. "No, I won't."

"All right," she said. She paused, gathering her thoughts, and then she continued, "I guess what I mean to say is that there's something...exciting about this whole process. I mean, I've participated in plenty of votes since we moved to this valley, but so far it's always been a show-of-hands thing, right here in this hall. Never anything like what we had today. And the fact that I'm the one who set it all in motion...somehow it makes me realize that this community, this idea, is bigger than any of us. And that it will still be here when we're both gone."

I grinned and kissed her on the cheek. "Speak for yourself, my darling," I said. "Personally I plan on living forever." I paused, and then I went on more seriously, "Of course you're right, though. And I know exactly what you mean. It's something I felt a long, long time ago, when I first saw Nicodemus' plans for this place. It is bigger than any of us...but at the same time, in a strange way, it isn't."

"Because it's a place where an ex-field mouse's vote counts for just as much as the oldest rat's," she said. "I know."

"And," I said, "because it's a place where that same ex-field mouse could become Vice-Leader. Is it all right if I wish you good luck?"

"Only if I can wish you the same."


She kissed me then, rather quickly; because at that moment Justin arrived. The Leader of the Rats of NIMH (by unanimous election) entered through the double-doors and slowly descended the stairs to the speaker's platform. On the way down he gave Elizabeth and me a grin and a wink. I truly believe that he didn't much care which of us won; or rather, that he was equally fond of both of us, and willing to work with the victor and console the loser, whomever they might be.

And me? What did I want, deep down in my heart of hearts? Just one thing, I'm afraid, and I'm sorry if it sounds neither particularly heroic nor poetic. What I wanted was for this whole dog-and-pony show to be over with, so that I could go back to living this second life which I had somehow been granted.

Down on the platform, Justin raised his hands for silence, which came a little more slowly than usual. As the minutes ticked down, the excitement that I felt all around me was growing, and I must confess that it was infectious. Elections often have that effect, I've noticed. It doesn't really matter who or what is on the ballot; people just seem to get caught up in the excitement of it all. Probably, like my wife, they were feeling what it's like to be involved in something much bigger than they were. And in my opinion, that's a good thing. If the citizenry at large stops being enthused by elections, your government is in deep trouble. So far at least, that particular brand of ennui hadn't struck Thorn Valley. Thankfully.

When finally Justin could make himself heard, he looked up at one of the middle tiers, where Eileen and her husband sat. "Do you have the results of the election?" Justin asked formally.

"Yes I do," Hacker said. She handed Jeanette to Philip, and then she stood, picking up a clipboard from the bench beside her. She cleared her throat, and then, in the instant silence, she went on, "As tabulated by Philip and myself, with assistance from Alice, the results of today's election are as follows.

"On the matter of the constitutional amendment, creating the post of elected Vice-Leader, we show a 'yes' vote of two hundred thirty-four, and a 'no' vote"

A quick ripple of laughter swept through the hall, in which Elizabeth and I joined. Who, I wondered, was that one person who had voted against the amendment? I took a quick look around the hall--and instantly saw that the same thought had occurred to almost everyone else. They too were searching faces, looking for the nay-sayer. But exactly who it had been, and whether he or she had done so deliberately or by mistake, was destined to remain a mystery. No one ever confessed.

Justin, smiling, raised his hand again. "The amendment having been approved by a two-thirds majority," he began, and waited while a second ripple of laughter died away, "it hereby becomes part of our Constitution. And that validates the second half of the ballot. Eileen?"

Hacker cleared her throat again. "On the election for Vice-Leader," she went on, "we have: for Mr. Jonathan Brisby, one hundred thirty-four votes; and for Mrs. Elizabeth Brisby...ninety-seven. The post of Vice-Leader thereby goes to Jonathan Brisby."

With those words, the hall erupted into pandemonium. Elizabeth threw her arms around me and kissed me; but only for a brief second before a crowd of rats, with my old companions Mark and David at its head, swept me up onto their shoulders and carried me down to the platform. As they did--as I fought a losing battle with dizziness--the cheering and shouting gradually coalesced into a single chant, repeated over and over: "Speech! Speech!"

They deposited me on the platform, and somehow or other I managed to remain on my feet, though the entire hall seemed to be spinning. As I fumbled for something to say, some small part of my mind was coming to the realization that the numbers I'd just heard didn't quite add up. According to Hacker there were two hundred and thirty-five eligible voters in the community. All of them had marked a ballot; and all of them had voted, one way or another, on the matter of the amendment. Four of them, though, had evidently chosen not to vote for a Vice-Leader. But who--? I wondered. Then I looked up at the bench where my family stood cheering and waving, and suddenly I knew. Teresa, Martin, Timothy and Cynthia--the latter having just become eligible--had been faced with a terrible choice, one which they had apparently found insoluble. And for that I could scarcely blame them. My fault, really, for forcing such a decision upon them.

To me, that fact was of much greater importance than the so-called "victory" I had just won; but the rafters were still ringing with demands for a speech, and reluctantly I tore my attention away from thoughts of my children. I'd have to speak to them all later, in private--just as soon as the election-day furor had died down a little. But in the meantime...

I raised my hands, exactly as Justin always did, and gradually the shouts quieted. Not completely, though, and I doubt very much whether my voice carried more than a few rows. But considering the words I spoke--the first that came to mind--that probably didn't matter much.

"My friends," I began. "Fellow citizens of Thorn Valley, members of the Rats of NIMH, former fellow escapees and refugees. I want first of all--before I forget--to thank you all for the honor you have done me today. I pledge to do everything in my power to live up to your confidence in me.

"Second, I want to thank you all for the unfailing kindness you have shown toward my family, most of all in inviting them--and me--to share this valley and the community you have built here. During a time when I was unable to help them, you did, and I will always be grateful for that.

"Third--and most important--I would like, if I may, to call for a show of appreciation for my worthy opponent, a person who has truly come farther this last year than any of us. With her around, I think I'd better watch my back come reelection time. Friends, fellow citizens, I give you Elizabeth Brisby!"

Those words unleashed another storm of applause and cheering, in which I joined with enthusiasm. And when I noticed the look in Elizabeth's eyes, as she stood there with her ears and nose turning bright crimson, I decided that I'd better begin watching my back considerably sooner.

Later that evening (never mind exactly how much later) my wife and I, along with Justin and Judith, managed to escape from the ongoing festivities and take refuge in my family's apartment. There in the living room, which was lit only by the crackling flames in the fireplace, the four of us made ourselves comfortable on the smaller and larger sofas respectively. We were all tired, overdue for bed; but none of us were willing to let the day end--not quite yet.

"To be brutally honest," Justin said with a grin, "I think that these people might be celebrating tonight as much for their own sakes as for yours."

I quirked a curious eyebrow. Our leader and his bride-to-be sat close together, Judith's head resting on Justin's shoulder and his arm curled protectively around her, slowly and gently massaging her arm and shoulder. She looked contented, and more than a little sleepy; if she'd been a feline rather than a rodent, she'd have been purring. In other company I suppose their closeness might have caused some raised eyebrows, but not here; because my wife was curled up against me in exactly the same way, and my hand was stoking her arm too.

The curtains had been pulled tightly over our living-room window, to conserve heat; but even if they had not, that window would have been nothing more than a black hole looking out into a pitch-dark night. Outside it was still snowing, as it had been all day, and as it had, intermittently, for most of the last week. As the night wore on and the cold bit deeper, the fat, wet slushy pellets that had plopped down during the day were solidifying into fine powdery flakes. By morning the drifts would be deep, and the shovel brigade hard at work.

"How so?" I asked.

"No offense, of course," Justin said quickly. "But a lot has happened in the last week or so. The fourth level, all this early snow, concerns about the winter--I think these people were in need of something to release the tension. Your election gave them the perfect excuse to cut loose."

"You may be right," I agreed. The Rats of NIMH don't go in for alcoholic beverages--we save our alcohol for our stoves--but the way these people were acting, they might just as well have been drunk. In the hours following my election there had been games, music, name it; and all of it absolutely spontaneous and unplanned, as far as I knew. Outside our cozy refuge, out in the hallways, it was still going on; we could still occasionally hear the noisy passage of a conga line. I had no particular idea where my children were; but they were adults now, and if they wanted to stay up until all hours of the night and be cranky the next day, that was there own concern. The intensity of the celebration was much more than I could take credit for myself. Justin was right: these people had been overdue for a distraction, something along the lines of the luau with which we'd closed out the summer. Probably very little work would get done the next day--but was that really so terrible?

"But congratulations nonetheless," Justin said. His gaze shifted to Elizabeth, half-asleep by my side, and his smile widened. "And you, Mrs. Brisby," he went on, "didn't make a bad showing at all. Without that little speech of yours the other night..."

Elizabeth roused herself. "Jonathan would still have won," she said with certainty. " might have been a little closer," she admitted with a smile.

"What would you have done," Justin asked me, "if she'd beaten you?"

I shrugged; carefully, because Elizabeth's head was resting on my shoulder. "If she had, then her job would have been vacant," I said. "I don't imagine I could mess it up too badly." I drew my wife a little closer. "And I would have learned to call her 'Madam Vice-Leader.'"

Justin grinned. "That's presupposing," he said, "that I would have given you her old job."

I shrugged again. "If not," I said, "then I suppose I would have had to retire on my reputation."

"Justin," Judith said suddenly, "don't we have something else to tell them?"

"Yes," Justin agreed. He smiled, a little nervously I thought, and went on, "Judith and I have set the date. November 30th." He rubbed her shoulder. "That way she won't be a December bride."

"Thanks a whole lot," Judith said with a sardonic grin.

"Congratulations," I said, and beside me Elizabeth nodded.

"I know you'll be very happy together," she said.

Justin's smile widened as he pulled Judith a little closer. "Oh, we are," he assured us. "We are."

Elizabeth dug her elbow gently into my ribs, and I winked quickly in return. All right, I told her silently. You called this one. No need to gloat! "That's one official duty I look forward to performing," I said.

"Speaking of duties," Justin said, "you and I have a lot of work to do, Jonnymouse. We have to codify exactly what your duties will be, so there won't be any turf battles later. And we've got to--"

I held up my hand, interrupting him firmly. "Justin my friend," I said, "I'll be very happy to discuss all that with you--tomorrow." I glanced down into Elizabeth's half-closed eyes. "But right now your second in command needs to take his wife to bed."

THE END (For Now)