By Paul S. Gibbs

This short is part of another larger work that was never completed nor released. This story takes place in the far future of Thorn Valley. Told by Cynthia, it is an interesting little read, and one of the pieces Paul sent me when he originally contacted me about getting his fanfiction up on the web. --Robin

Chapter One

I paused at the door to Justin’s office and took a deep, slow breath. My mind was still running a hundred miles an hour, as it often did following a period of intense (not to say frantic) physical and mental activity. Now, with the emergency at least temporarily over, I had to clear my thoughts, muster all my arguments, before I saw him.

Finally then—not because I was really ready, but because I would have looked very silly standing there, had the door suddenly opened—I reached out a fist and knocked. From inside I instantly heard Justin’s muffled shout: “Come in!”

I opened the door a little and peered inside. Justin was seated at his desk, quite completely surrounded by a mountain of paperwork, and looking harried. I winced as I saw that. There was a lot of paperwork in my job too, and I’d never learned to like it. Fortunately I had an assistant to dump it on. He glanced up at me; and fortunately, he seemed almost glad for the interruption. “Hello, Cynthia,” he said with a smile. “What’s up?”

“Business, I’m afraid,” I told him. “Can I speak to you for a few minutes?”

“Of course. Come in.”

I entered and closed the door behind me. As I did Justin turned and got a closer look at me, and as he did, he frowned. “Good grief, Cynthia, you’re a mess!”

I looked down at myself, and saw that he was right. I hadn’t bothered to change clothes, and my green scrub suit was covered with splatters of dried blood. A small severed artery had sprayed me from stomach to shoulder before I could clamp it off. “I’ve just spent nearly four hours in surgery,” I explained.

“You’d better sit down, then,” he said, waving his hand.

I couldn’t argue with that; I folded myself very gratefully onto the sofa. Justin picked up a clipboard and a pencil and left his desk, settling down across from me in his large, deep armchair. I looked at the clipboard and smiled secretly. I knew Justin pretty well; well enough to know that the clipboard was there less because he intended to take notes, but more because of his need to have something in his hands. He’d spend more time tapping the pencil than writing with it, I knew.

“I’d heard we have a guest,” he commented as he settled in. “An injured one. What have we got?”

I took a deep breath. “What we’ve got is a young female mouse. Just barely an adult, by our standards. Apparently her name is Jessica. About five hours ago she was attacked in the forest by some kind of larger animal. I suspect a weasel or something like that. It grabbed her by her right leg.”

Justin’s eyebrows rose. “That’s very unusual,” he commented. “They usually go for the back of the neck—and an instant kill.”

I nodded. “I know.” Well, I hadn’t really; but I’d take his word for it. “This one must have missed. Maybe she jumped at the last instant. Whatever happened, it saved her life. She wasn’t instantly killed, and she was well able to scream and struggle.

“The noise attracted the attention of a group of our people who were in the forest cutting dead wood for charcoal. Oscar’s crew. They ran to see what was happening. The animal apparently didn’t like the looks of a dozen big rats with steel axes; it dropped Jessica and ran off.

“Oscar knows enough first aid to realize that she was badly injured, especially her leg, which was losing a lot of blood. He knew she’d die very soon without medical attention. He put a tourniquet around her hip and got her to me as soon as he could. Even so it was a very near thing: she’d nearly bled to death.”

“How badly injured was her leg?” Justin asked.

“Very,” I replied. “All three major bones—the femur, the tibia and the fibula—had compound fractures. And there was rugged damage to the flesh and muscle tissue. Here, I’ve got a before-surgery X-ray.”

I slipped the plate from the file I had clutched under my arm, and handed it to him. Handling it by the edges, he held it up to the afternoon sunlight that flooded in through the windows.

Justin, I fear, did not have the makings of a doctor. I watched the blood drain from his face as he peered at the X-ray. Quickly he handed back the plate. His reaction was understandable: the plate was not a pretty picture by any means. Even a complete layman could have interpreted what it showed: a chaos of shattered bone.

“My God,” Justin said hoarsely. “What did you do?”

“Well, I have to be honest,” I said. “My very first impulse was to amputate. I had some of my volunteer nurses line up the rest of my family for blood donations—it’s the only blood I knew I could safely give her. Rat blood would have killed her.

“Then, while this was going on, and while Helen was prepping her for surgery, I took another look at my X-rays—and I decided to try to repair the leg. That’s what took four hours. First I put the bones back together with metal plates and screws, did a minor miracle of vascular surgery to restore the circulation, put the muscles back together, and sutured the flesh. Finally I applied a cast all the way up to her waist. Her other injuries were minor—just a matter of cleaning and bandaging. Here’s an after-surgery picture.”

I slipped out the other plate and handed it to him. He accepted this one much more gingerly; but really this was a much nicer picture, showing the shattered bone held closely together by the white shadows of several stainless-steel plates and long screws.

After a moment he handed the picture back. “That looks much better,” he said. “Almost normal, in fact, except for the hardware.”

“True,” I said. “I was very lucky. Even though the fractures were compounded, they were fairly clean. Almost no bone was lost. If they’d been twisted, splintered breaks, I might not have been able to do such a neat job.” Amazing how I could speak about it so calmly now; at the time I’d been sweating bullets, as they say. This was by far the most complicated thing I’d ever attempted, or hoped to attempt, I’d studied, I knew the theory; but theory and practice are two very different things And with Mr. Ages temporarily out of the valley...well, Helen and I had had out hands full, to say the least.

“I’ll bet you’re glad I bought you that X-ray setup,” Justin was saying.

I nodded vigorously. “I am,” I agreed. “I couldn’t even have begun to do this sort of operation without pictures. I would have had to amputate.”

“So she’s going to live?”

“I think so,” I said. “She was badly injured, and lost a lot of blood, but she’s a large, strong young woman. Unusually so, I’d say, for a normal mouse living in this environment. I think—I hope—she’s out of danger. And I think she’ll keep the leg, too. I managed to restore the circulation all the way to her foot. Her toes are pink and warm, and that’s what’s important.” I paused. “It may turn out to be more of a crutch than a leg, though.”

“Why so?” he asked.

“Nerve damage,” I explained. “The same kind of think you run into when doing limb reattachment surgery. The bone will heal fairly well, and so will the muscle and flesh, to a lesser degree. She’s going to have some good-sized scars, I’m afraid. But you probably know that severed nerves can’t—under normal circumstances—ever heal. So there will certainly be substantial loss of feeling and muscle control all along the injured leg. The exact extent remains to be seen.”

Justin tapped his pencil. “I’ve read about limb reattachments,” he said. “I understand that with time some feeling and muscle control come back...”

“True,” I agreed. “The key word being ‘some.’ You probably know that nerve cells are linked by tiny gaps called synapses, which are bridged by chemical messengers. With time there can be some re-linking of synapses, or the working out of alternate routes for nerve signals. But nerve cells that are severed along their lengths can’t heal. That’s a major part of what we’re dealing with here. And I think you see what that means.”

“I do,” Justin said quietly. “I means she might never be able to walk normally again.”

“At this point, I’m afraid that might be true,” I agreed. “She’s going to be in a cast—or I should say several successive casts—for some weeks. Pretty soon we can get her up on crutches. After the casts come off, and with a great deal of physical therapy, I hope I can move her up to a cane. But that may be as far as she ever gets. I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to walk unassisted again—let alone run.”

“I see,” Justin said. “And that defines our problem nicely, doesn’t it?”

“I think so,” I said. “Obviously we’re going to have to keep her. It would be nothing short of murder to send her back into the forest like that. The next large animal that comes along would certainly kill her. She couldn’t get away from it. She might not even be able to feed herself.”

“I see what you’re saying,” Justin said, “and of course I wouldn’t presume to question your diagnosis; you’re the doctor. You’ve started to treat her, for which I certainly can’t fault you; and now we have a responsibility toward her. But there’s one point I want us to be clear on. Even though she’s not one of us, she’s still a free person. We can’t keep her here by force. If she wants to leave, we’ll have to let her.”

He was correct, of course; I had just gotten through saying that Jessica was an adult by our standards, and therefore responsible. Even though she wasn’t a member of our community, she had rights; we couldn’t hold her prisoner, even for her own good. I smiled thinly. “Unless we declare her mentally incompetent,” I said.

He frowned, taking me too seriously. “Do you have any medical basis for that?”

I shook my head, shame-faced. “No, none. I was just joking.”

“I should certainly hope so. Well, we don’t have much choice, do we? For the moment at least she’s not going anywhere. I’ll authorize the expenditure of food, clothing and whatever else she needs, for as long as she needs it. I think we can afford to support one more mouse. Later, if it turns out that that she has to stay here, and wants to stay here, I’m sure we can find some way to put her to work. Actually that might be the best thing for her: occupational therapy.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” I paused. “I should tell you now, though, that there is one other complication.”

“Such as?” Justin asked warily.

“Kit knows her,” I said.

The pencil dropped from his fingers and rolled to the floor. “Pardon me?” he asked.

“My nephew Christopher knows Jessica,” I expounded.

“How? When?”

I sighed, “I don’t know the full story yet,” I said, “but here’s what I’ve been able to gather from Kit’s sister. Apparently he met Jessica in the forest some weeks ago, and he’s gone back to see her several times since. He hadn’t told anyone about her, though.”

“Then how did Helen know?”

I grinned. “I think she’s been reading his diary,” I said.

“And how does he feel toward Jessica?”

“Once again, I don’t know for certain, but apparently he has told her the story of NIMH and our people. And apparently he was just about to show her the community. It seems he was having some trouble convincing her to come.”

“Not unknown,” Justin said. He rubbed at his eyes. “Oh boy. Why did I ever want to be leader?” He looked at me again. “How did you find this out?”

“Well, as I said, before I started surgery I needed blood donations from members of my family. The nurses told them I was treating an injured mouse, and that was enough; they all donated. Christopher was one of the last to come in. He also wanted to know what the blood was for, but before they could tell him, he caught a glimpse of Jessica on her way to the operating room. He recognized her, and he just about went berserk. We had to forcibly restrain him, or else he might have torn the catheter out of his arm. Finally we had to give him a sedative and send him home to sleep it off. He was really upset, and that’s what made Helen realize who our patient was.”

“I can well imagine,” Justin said dryly. “I know your father, remember.”

I had to smile at that; he was quite right. Among the Brisby males, excesses of emotion—especially in regards to their females—were all too common.

Justin sighed. “Well, that doesn’t really change things much, does it? We’ve already decided that we’re going to do our best for her. This just gives us a little more incentive.”

“I agree,” I said. “And, if you think about it, it could actually be a benefit for her.”

“How so?”

“Well, consider. She’s been badly injured. Right now she’s still unconscious, but very soon she’s going to wake up into a world she knows almost nothing about, among total strangers. From what I understand, she was afraid to come here; now she is here, and more or less stuck. It’s going to be a very strong dose of culture shock. Kit is going to be her only anchor point.”

Justin nodded. “I see what you mean,” he said. “Would it help her recovery, do you think, if Christopher was to have more time to spend with her?”

“I’m sure it would. Not only is there going to be culture shock, there’s also going to be fear, anger, depression and a whole gang of other emotions. That’s almost always true in cases of serious injury. It’s also well known how a good mental attitude can help healing.”

Justin retrieved his pencil and finally made a note on his clipboard. “I’ll speak to Arthur,” he said. “I’ll see if I can’t get Kit some extra time off. Construction work is slow right now anyway; I think Arthur can spare one of his draftsmen.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Anything else you’d like me to know?” Justin asked with a wry smile. “Any other little surprises, waiting in the wings?”

I coughed into my hand. “Well, yes,” I said hesitantly. “But I’m not sure if I should bring it up right now...”

He sighed. “Out with it, Doctor,” he said. “I want to know exactly what I’m committing myself and this community to.”

“Okay,” I said. “I can’t make any promises, understand, but I think I know a way in which Jessica may—may—be able to walk again, perhaps normally or almost normally.”

“How?” Justin demanded. “You just told me that nerve damage doesn’t heal...”

“Under normal circumstances, that’s true,” I agreed. “But we have a way to alter circumstances: the NIMH treatment.”

He shook his head. “You’ll have to tell me slowly,” he said. “I’m not a scientist; I don’t even play one on TV.”

“We’ve got pretty good evidence that the NIMH treatment can reverse nerve damage,” I explained. “Unfortunately the evidence is what we call ‘empirical’—just observations, no real experiments. But it’s strong evidence. The case I’m mainly thinking of is Daniel.”

His eyebrows rose and he nodded sharply. He knew exactly what I was talking about: everyone in the community had known about—and agonized over—the case of poor Daniel.

He was a young rat, a good friend and co-worker of Christopher; the son of my father’s good friend and sometime traveling companion Philip. Daniel’s job in Arthur’s workshop was as a kind of general handyman; when a machine—any machine—was broken, he could fix it. He seemed to have a rapport with machinery, a kind of sixth sense I suppose; it was a talent very much prized by Arthur.

One January day about four years ago Daniel was assigned to repair the heating stove in the middle of the workshop itself. That stove, like most in our community, burned alcohol, which was mixed with air under pressure in a kind of generator under the firebox. (Bear with me on this one, please: I don’t have Daniel’s mechanical aptitude.) This particular stove kept going out, the most likely reason being a loss of pressure. It seemed a fairly typical situation: the alcohol ate into on the stove’s rubber seals, making them brittle, and they had to be replaced frequently. Daniel, with Christopher helping him, took apart the stove and replaced every seal: around the filler cap, the pump, the pressure gauge and the emergency release valve. After they were finished they filled the stove, pumped it up and lit it. It seemed to function fine, and Christopher started to clean up the tools.

While he was doing so, something in the firebox let out a loud crack. Daniel leaned close to see what it was, and at that moment the stove exploded.

Actually that’s not the right word. The metal parts remained intact; there was no shrapnel. But a faulty weld holding the generator tube to the fuel tank, weakened by repeated expanding and contracting, finally gave, and all the fuel and air belched out of the tank at once, under pressure. It caught, and suddenly the stove became Mount Saint Helens. The witnesses—Arthur’s craftspeople, including my brothers Martin and Timothy—said later that it was like being caught in the middle of a bolt of lightning.

Christopher was very lucky; he was standing some distance away, with his back to the stove. He was tumbled head over heels and struck his forehead on a workbench, breaking his glasses and giving him a mild concussion that put him out cold for more than an hour. The fur on the back of his head was singed too. But he recovered fully after a few days in bed.

Daniel was not so lucky. The fireball caught him full in the face, the force of the expanding gas throwing him violently backwards. Because the fire burned and went out so quickly, in less than a second, Daniel’s fur did not actually catch, though it was quite scorched all over his face, throat and part of his chest. And that was actually lucky, in a way: the fur insulated the skin underneath, so it was much less severely burned than it might have been. Also fortunately, his breath was knocked out of him as he was thrown back, so he did not inhale flames.

But the explosion happened so fast, he did not have time to close his eyes, or even blink. And so it was his eyes that suffered the worst damage. There was some burning of the surface, of the cornea and the sclera, which caused Mr. Ages and me a great deal of trouble. In the end we were able to save Daniel’s eyeballs.

But the major damage was to the inner surface of his eyes. The retina and the optic nerve—both made of irreplaceable nerve tissue—were overloaded by the brightness of the flash, and like an overloaded electrical circuit, they simply burned out. In some such cases the eyes can recover, if the nerves are just shocked, not destroyed; but unfortunately that wasn’t the case this time. When the bandages came off Daniel was totally blind.

Mr. Ages and I spent many sleepless nights agonizing over it; but there was nothing more we could have done. As far as we knew, as far as medical science knew, Daniel’s blindness was permanent. All the community could do was help him to rehabilitate himself: to walk with a white cane, to navigate through the corridors, and to re-learn his job; eventually he was able to do an amazing amount of his old work by touch alone.

We had known for a long time that the NIMH treatment caused scars on the flesh, and even on the muscle and bone, to heal amazingly well. So it was not much of a surprise when the scars of Daniel’s burns, even on the surface of his eyes, didn’t last long. Within eight months after the accident, in fact, it was impossible to tell, just by looking, that anything had happened.

Daniel was blind for almost exactly two years. Then, just a week short of the second anniversary of the accident, he was sitting at home while his father built a fire in the fireplace. As the kindling flared up brightly, Daniel turned his face toward the warmth—and saw the flame.

What he saw, at first, was just a flickering, dark-grey shadow, just an impression of the flames, as through a welder’s mask. But even that should have been impossible. Mr. Ages and I tested him pretty ruthlessly, to find out if he was just imagining things; but he passed all of our tests. Against all hope and reason, Daniel’s sight was returning.

It took another eight months. During that time his vision slowly improved; at first he could see only bright lights; then shapes in bright light; then shapes in dimmer light, and finally shapes with detail and color, though through a kind of haze or fog, not unlike that experienced by cataract sufferers. Finally even that cleared; so that on the day I spoke with Justin, Daniel was back at his job, with perfect vision.

“Last year when the human doctors wanted to study some of our people, Daniel volunteered,” I told Justin. “As a matter of course we sent them his medical records. Immediately I got a message asking if there had been a mistake. They couldn’t find any evidence, except for our records, that Daniel’s eyes had ever been damaged. And that should be impossible. His optic nerves were destroyed—there was no mistake about that.”

“So something made them regenerate,” Justin said.

“Right. And the only thing that makes us different from normal rats and mice is the NIMH treatment. So logically that must be it. And Daniel isn’t the only example.”

“Oh? What are some others?”

“Judson, for one. The boat-keeper. You probably remember that some years ago he injured his hand during a storm. One of his boats was drifting away, under sail, and he held a rope with his left hand while holding onto a piling with his right arm. The rope really tore into the palm of his hand. And it was hours before he could get in and have it taken care of. When I sewed up the wound I warned him there might be some impairment of that hand—and in fact there was.

“Just a couple months ago I managed to talk him into having a physical exam. It didn’t surprise me to find that the scar was gone. But it did surprise me to find that the feeling and mobility had returned to the hand. Again it was a case of nerve damage, and again it regenerated.”

“Okay, I get the point,” Justin said. “What you’re telling me is that the NIMH treatment would help Jessica’s leg.”

“I think so,” I said. “Of course I can’t say for certain. As I mentioned, all I’ve got is observations, no research. I think it would help correct the nerve damage. But to what extent, I can’t predict. I think we can say for sure that it would help the bones, muscles and flesh heal more quickly and cleanly. That at least.”

“Okay, granted, but do you realize what you’re asking me?”

“I think so,” I said. “In order to make it possible for her to go home, we would have to make her into one of us.”

“That’s right,” he said. “And frankly I’m not sure if I have the authority to grant that. Not without a vote of the people. We’ve always regarded the use of the NIMH treatment to be a pretty big thing.”

“You didn’t need a vote of the people to give it to my mother,” I pointed out.

“In a way we did,” he countered. “It wasn’t a formal vote, but there was never any doubt about the people’s will. But that isn’t the case here. The people don’t even know her.”

I had an answer to that; something about exactly what the people could do with their will. But I was interrupted by another knock on the door. “Come in!” Justin shouted.

It was my father who entered, a frown on his face an a white bandage around his left forearm. “Justin, have you seen—” he began. Then he noticed me. “Oh, there you are, Cynthia. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“What for, Dad?” I asked.

He held up his bandaged arm. “Well, when someone asks me for some of my blood, I like to know what it’s for. And I want to know why you had to give Christopher a Valium. Your brother and sister-in-law are very concerned.”

“We’ve just discussing been that,” Justin said. “You’d better come in and sit down.”

Dad closed the door, and crossed over to sit next to me. As he did he gave me a quick hug. I don’t really know why—it was a habit he’d fallen into not long after his return from NIMH, and it had persisted ever since. I’d never wanted to complain.

Over the next few minutes Justin and I gave him a capsule version of our discussion. Justin finished up with, “So, we’re trying to decide whether we can legally give her the NIMH treatments, or whether we have to put up to a vote of the people.”

Dad nodded, and rubbed thoughtfully at the side of his nose—a gesture he had used as long as I could remember. “I probably know as much about our law as anyone,” he said, “having helped write a good part of it. As far as I know it doesn’t say a thing about the NIMH treatment.”

“It does require a vote to make someone a citizen of the community, though,” Justin pointed out. “And it might be argued that the two are virtually the same thing. It was in Janet’s case, for example.”

“I don’t agree,” Dad said. “It’s true that those two things can be closely related, but I don’t think they’re interchangeable.”

“Why not?” Justin asked.

“Janet wanted to become a member of the community, so she would have someplace safe to live,” Dad said. “It was the dead of winter, remember, and all of a sudden she was on her own. She was still getting over the death of her parents, and she was emotionally fragile. It was well known that she’d marry Timothy eventually, which would have made her a member automatically, but at that point he didn’t want to pressure her. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Justin said. “But what has—”

Dad held up his hand. “Let me finish, please. Her status at that point was uncertain, and to clear that up, we voted her into the community. And we offered her the NIMH treatment as a benefit of membership. Automatically. Of course she eventually accepted it, but only after she became engaged to Timothy. In my opinion all we voted on was membership—not the treatment. That part was understood.”

Quite forgotten, I sat and listened to this by-play; amused, but a little impatient too. Dad and Justin could argue politics all day—it was one of their favorite hobbies—but I had work to do.

“So?” Justin challenged.

“So, because there’s not one word of written law about it, I don’t think we need a vote to give anyone the NIMH treatment—especially when the question of citizenship is not involved. This Jessica may eventually want to become a citizen; or she might not. That remains to be seen. But as for the NIMH treatment, in this case that is strictly a medical decision. If it will help her, it’s our responsibility to make it available. I think we have to depend on the recommendations of our duly licensed medical staff: Cynthia and Mr. Ages. If they say it will help her, then that’s all we—or the people—need to know.”

Justin nodded slowly, staring into space. “I think I have to agree,” he said slowly. “Certainly the people don’t need to vote every time we give someone a shot of penicillin, or stitch up a bad cut. And yet either one of those can be a life-saving or life-altering procedure. In the long run I don’t see that this is much different.”

“That’s what I say too,” Dad said. “But I have to deal one demurrer here. We can’t just give her the treatment—not without her permission. No more than we can keep her here against her will. We’ve got to offer her the treatment, after we’ve fully explained to her what it is, and what it will do to her. The law is silent on that too; but it’s the only moral way to proceed.”

He looked over at me, rather severely, and I wilted. Of course he was right, and I was instantly ashamed. It is true: sometimes a doctor can think of his or her patients as simple lumps of flesh or bundles of symptoms, and not as people. I’d always thought myself immune to that—but obviously I wasn’t. I admit that I’d been thinking in terms of rushing back to my infirmary, grabbing a syringe, and starting Jessica on a series of the NIMH treatment immediately. But my father was absolutely correct: I could not, morally speaking, do that. It would have to be her choice.

“You’re right,” I told him. I took a deep breath. “I think...it might be a good idea if I waited a while. Maybe even a few weeks. I was just telling Justin how confused and dislocated she’s going to be when she wakes up. Obviously she won’t be in any state to make a rational decision. I think I’d better wait until she’s had some time to recover.”

Dad nodded. “I tend to agree.”

“And she might surprise me,” I said. “That leg might heal better than I expect.” I very much doubted it, though.

Justin looked around. “So,” he said, “I think we’re all in agreement, then.”

I nodded and stood. “I think we are.”

“Keep me informed, please,” Justin said. “And let me know when she’s awake. I’d like to meet her.”

“I will,” I promised. “Thank you. For everything.”

He smiled hugely. “You’re welcome. And don’t hesitate to see me when the next disaster strikes. It’s what I live for, after all.”

Dad and I left together, and out in the hallway he slipped his arm through mine. “You look tired, sweetie,” he said sympathetically.

“I’m totally exhausted,” I told him. “That surgery was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Especially when I’d been more than halfway convinced I’d end up amputating anyway. I still might. I paused. “No—make that the second-hardest.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Why ‘second’?” he asked.

“Because now I have to go talk to Christopher.”

Dad grinned. “Two words of advice, if I may, before you do.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Number one, it might be a good idea if you don’t mention this NIMH-treatment business to him. Not just yet.”

I nodded thoughtfully. Unfortunately, he was right. I loved my nephew dearly, but in this situation he couldn’t be trusted to keep that matter to himself. Especially if my suspicions as to how he felt about her were correct. He’d blurt it out the moment she was conscious, before she was emotionally prepared to handle it. “And number two?”

He pointed down at my bloody scrub-shirt. “Change your clothes first.”

Last Adjustments by Author: 1998