High up in one of the hollow branches the sun's rays gently filtered through a small round window into a circular room. Within, a small group of rat children was sitting on cushions and pillows carelessly strewn on a large carpet. At the center of both carpet and room rested a huge book.
And directly in front of the heavy ledger a young male rat was desperately trying to read.
'He's never going to get it right.' muttered an impatient rat boy seated at the carpet's rim.
'Don't be so mean,' retorted the girl sitting next to him.
On the other side of the room a dark slender male joked:
'Like you were any better when you started?'
The argument was getting well under way now.
Sitting next to the rat trying to read was a brown female mouse. She was wearing a red cloak, fingerless gloves and reading glasses and watched the rat children intently. Not a youngster by mice standards she still appeared to be youthful and vibrant. And she noticed quickly what was about to happen. She would not allow an argument to break out, not in her class. The mouse turned towards the grumpy boy that had started it.
'If everyone keeps on grumbling like this we will never be able to finish before midday,' she paused for a second before adding: 'which will mean no lunch for any of us."
The mouse's voice was determined yet not unkind and the rat children quieted down immediately. They did not want to spend half the day in here.
'Come Peter, you can do it. Just follow my finger.'
The mouse pointed her paw towards a specific line in the book and the young rat hesitantly began to read.
'After the fight with Je... Je... Jenner we b... b... buried both him and his vi... victim, our be... beloved lea... lea.... Oh I just can't do it!'
The mouse had not taken her eyes off the boy. She put her hand on his shoulder in consolation.
'Peter, I know you can do it. You are such a smart boy. But you are just not getting any better,'
The boy was close to tears now.
'It's nothing to cry about, nothing important comes easily,' comforted the mouse.
After a few moments of thought she took off her glasses and handed them to the young rat.
'Put those on and wiggle them around a bit.'
The boy put the glasses in front of his eyes and, after squinting slightly and moving pulling his head away from the page, he read on.
'...our beloved lea... leader. If I h... had been more care... careful I could have guessed what Jenner had been... planning. Now Nicodemus is dead and we will have to carry on without him. If Mrs. Brisby had not warned us, N.I.M.H would have trapped us all, maybe even ki... killed us. Just like her husband, Jonathan, she has helped us survive. I do not know how she pulled her house out of the dirt by herself or what the strange sto... stone had to do with it. Nicodemus gave it to her. He had never told any of us about it. That is all I know, though Jenner apparently re... cog... nize... recognized it somehow. But I do know that we owe her a great amount of grati... gratitude. When her children are old enough we will allow them to learn at our n... new home. That much we owe both her and Jonathan.'
Peter looked at the mouse in amazement. Even the other children had quieted down.
Mrs. Brisby just smiled at him and nodded slowly, her expression both pleased and touched by embarrassment and memories.
‘See, you can do just fine. You know what this means don't you?’
The young rat had a bad feeling he knew what was coming but shook his head.
'I think you need glasses, Peter.'
The bratty boy who had first started a fuss laughed out loud.
'Peter's gonna be a four-eyes!'
The brown mouse turned to the annoying child and kept on smiling.
'I guess I am a four-eyes too then?'
The youth nearly choked at the remark.
'No, ma'am! Of course not!'
Now it was the other children's turn to snicker but Mrs. Brisby paid them no heed. She patted Peter on the shoulder.
'I had problems reading too. Why don't you go and have Mr. Ages look at your eyes? I bet he will make you a nice pair of glasses.'
There was no time for Peter to reply. A series of footsteps had become audible from outside the reading room and just as the boy opened his mouth the large door was being pushed inwards.
It revealed a thoroughly exhausted Cynthia.
Some of the children gasped but all were too surprised to say anything.
Mrs. Brisby was the first to rise and rush to her daughter's side. The light-furred mouse was completely out of breath and fought to hold herself up by the doorframe while her mother gently supported her. Nonetheless, Cynthia was trying to get words in between her hastily drawn breaths.
'Mom... crows... back... Teresa... '
'Honey, catch your breath! Just calm down! You're ready to fall over.'
The younger mouse nodded and took a few deep breaths before continuing.
All around the rat children had gotten up and were now gazing at the two mice in confusion. They sensed that something was wrong but couldn't think of what it could be.
Finally, Cynthia had recovered enough from her run up the numberless stairs and looked straight at her mother. Mrs. Brisby decided it would be better to leave a paw on her daughter's shoulder. She often tended to overestimate her own strength, but then so had she in her younger days.
'Mom, the crows are back. Brutus and I were just on our way back and we saw them crossing the ridge.'
Mrs. Brisby put her free paw to her chin and cast a worried glance to the floor. Biting her lip for a moment the older mouse needed time to decide what was to be done. Finally, she nodded, let go of her daughter's shoulder and waved her glasses at the children.
'We have to finish early, children. Rachel, can you make sure the book goes back to the library?'
She looked over to the young rats that had teased Peter only minutes before.
'And I want you two boys to help her with it.'
The blond-furred girl that had been seated next to rather obnoxious youth earlier nodded, as did the rest of the children. Even the rude boy showed his agreement. All the discontent had vanished from his face. In the end, the children cared deeply for their teacher and the mouse's obvious distress troubled them.
'We'll pick up tomorrow at the same time. I have to go.'
'Goodbye Mrs. Brisby,' the young rats chorused, as they always did at the end of class. The mouse had never insisted on it but the children just loved to show their affection this way.
Smiling briefly she stepped out of the room followed by Cynthia.
Mother and daughter hurried down the winding steps towards the tree's base. Mrs. Brisby was anxious to find out just what really had occurred outside.
'Was it all of the crows or just Jeremy? Could you see if they were carrying anybody?'
Cynthia shook her head.
'It looked like all of them, but they were so far away I couldn't see if Teresa and the others were with them.'
The older mouse looked ahead for a moment to make sure she wouldn't trip as they descended further.
'Something must be really wrong if Jeremy has brought his whole family. He knows it's not safe to leave his nest unguarded. The other crows would steal it from them in a heartbeat.'
Then her concerns shifted to her own oldest daughter.
'I hope Teresa and the children are alright.'
The other nodded and swallowed hard. The same thoughts had bothered Cynthia ever since she had first spotted the crows. For them to come back this early meant serious trouble.
Both mice followed the stairway down until they reached one of the hallways leading towards the great Atrium. Inside the vast chamber a few emergency lights had been lit but the elevators were still not working. Mother and daughter made their way along the staircases towards the ground floor. But they did not stop there. Taking one of the small doors to the right of the main elevator column they ventured even further down, deep into the part of the colony that existed far underground.
They passed into another great chamber, this one cobbled with large stones and much less ornate than the Atrium. Adjoining the vast expanse were storage areas for grain, the harvesting machines and some of the rat's experimental prototypes for vehicular transport. Between these rooms, like the arms of a star, countless corridors radiated outward from the Oak's center. The tunnels had been lined with the same brickwork as the underground hall and were wide enough to allow the transport of large pieces of equipment.
Cynthia and Mrs. Brisby chose one of the Westward tunnels. Despite her obvious anxiety the older mouse decided to keep their pace at a fast walk rather than running the way her daughter had done earlier. They still had to travel some distance and it would not help them if they exhausted themselves now.
And, she reminded herself, it would be best not to draw too much attention to her family's plight if the worst had indeed happened back at the old farm. Some of the Rats still did not agree with the sharing the colony with the mice.
As they made their way the light-furred mouse remembered something.
'If Teresa really has come back, won't they try to get rid of her again?'
Her mother looked downcast.
'I don't know. Right now I am more worried whether or not they're all right. But if she is back... you know they'll try to get rid of Gregory.'
'It's not fair! Gregory is nice! It's not his fault that he didn't come from NIMH. Teresa couldn't have found a better husband.'
The other mouse had to agree.
'I know. But you know how some of the rats are. They don't want... "wild animals" in their home.'
Mrs. Brisby spoke the last words in a bitter tone. And her daughter knew exactly why she felt so awful.
'Yeah, they let us stay because they think they owe dad and you. But when Teresa fell in love with Gregory they couldn't get over the fact that he is not like them. I mean, you they would never turn away, but with him they had no problem. After all, he didn't save their sorry tails like you did. Stupid double standard!'
The older mouse sighed.
'If they are really back I will try to talk some sense into them tonight, at the Chamber Meeting. I didn't think Teresa would be back so soon though. I'd hoped for a bit more time to convince the Rats.'
Cynthia just looked at her mother sadly. The younger rodent had little hopes that her brother-in-law would be allowed to stay with them. All of the Rats had great respect of her mother, many even thought of her as being a good luck charm. But Mrs. Brisby still had a hard time getting some of them to accept her as an equal despite the fact she had been allowed to teach elementary reading. At times the strange attitudes of the Rats of NIMH could be rather tiresome, and disturbingly humanlike. That she could read at all had surprised the Rats and that she could now read well enough to teach it had shocked most of her critics into silence.
Ahead of them a ray of light shone down into the tunnel. A row of ladder steps had been carved into one of the walls and allowed the mice to climb towards a hole in the ceiling. From it issued the warm rays of the morning sun and illuminated the caverns beneath. The entrance opened itself to one of the Oak's distant roots that had been hollowed out like the rest of the tree, though never enough to risk harming or weakening the Great Oak. Both the colony's engineers and gardeners had been very particular about that.
Bulging over the ground the growth offered Cynthia and her mother a wide platform to stand on. Mrs. Brisby was the first to exit and gave her offspring a hand in stepping up.
Brutus was already waiting.
The huge rat’s face was a mask of concentration as he tried to attach a red ribbon to the back end of his halberd. Finally the discontented guard used both fists to tie the cloth in a rough knot. It wasn't as refined a method as it could have been but it got the job done.
As he noticed the arrival of the two mice Brutus gave a short nod in greeting. He still appeared a bit ill at ease whenever the brown mouse was about. Around Mrs. Brisby Brutus' demeanor became so subdued he seemed almost timid. The huge guard had first met her under rather strained conditions. And even though Mrs. Brisby had told him numerous times that she didn't bear a grudge Brutus still felt ashamed at having scared her so badly when he had encountered her in the Rosebush all those years ago. After all, he had made it look as if he had been ready to cut her in two. He knew that had been his job, but he still felt guilt over the way he had been forced to treat some of the intruders, especially her.
But after having received a warm smile from the older mouse the rat's reservations eased a bit and he turned his attention to the sky. The crows had been circling for some time now, waiting for the signal to land. Brutus lifted his up-ended weapon and waved the red band like a banner. Now the birds would make their approach.
Cynthia had started to smile as she watched the descent of the four crows. Even from down here she could see that each of the black birds carried passengers. That meant that Teresa's entire family had come back to the Valley. Whatever the Rats might think of her sister's family, the crème-colored mouse was glad to see her again. And getting to play "auntie" to her sister's children was always a lot of fun.
As the first crow got ready to land on the raised root the younger mouse's face contorted to a frown. The bird's movements were not as coordinated as they should have been.
Suddenly Cynthia pointed upwards.
At that time Mrs. Brisby and Brutus has noticed their predicament as well. The crow, Jeremy by name, was not really landing. No, he was falling, and falling fast! As the black shape spiraled towards the ground the three rodents were able to see the bird's eyes were bulging and his beak gasping for air
The reason for that was the diminutive rodent perched on his back. Wearing a little purple hat, which had apparently tipped over the wearer's eyes, an elderly shrew was grasping a line of string that ran around the crow's neck. As a matter of fact, she was pulling so hard that her mount was, for all intent and purposes, choking and the both of them were yelling and screaming at each other as they plummeted downwards. To make matters worse they were heading straight for the waiting rodents.
Mrs. Brisby, Cynthia and Brutus had barely time to throw themselves out of the spiraling bird's way as he finally managed to straighten enough to at least control his pending and unavoidable crash. At the last instant the crow managed to pull up just enough not to plough into the root itself but still grazed the wood with his feet as he tumbled onwards. Finally, under the loud yelling and cursing on the part of his passenger, Jeremy crashed into the tall grasses.
The older mouse was the first to peek over the rim of the root to find out if the two arrivals had gotten themselves hurt.
From behind bent blades of green grass the unmistakably shrill voice of the Shrew yelled out.
'You bird-brained imbecile! Can't you do anything right, you blundering buffoon? Just wait until I get my paws on you, you cross-eyed vulture! I'm going to stuff pillows with your feathers and make a foot-rest out of your empty head!'
There was frantic scrambling coming from the grasses now and Jeremy's voice indicated that the crow was desperately trying to get away from his displeased passenger.
'No madam! Please, don't do that! No... madam, really... please...'
In a burst of speed the black-feathered creature leapt out from the ruffled foliage and scrambled back towards the safety of the root. As he half-crawled, half-fluttered onto the arrival platform he almost knocked the still cowering Mrs. Brisby down to the floor, trying to hide behind her small form.
But the Shrew was close behind. Waving her stick angrily and yelling on the top of her lungs the enraged rodent climbed up after her quarry. As she did Jeremy cringed behind the mouse in an effort to make himself as small as possible.
'Miss Briz! Please, don't let her tie me up again! Anything but that!'
As she reached the root's top the Shrew was still fuming. Rushing towards both mouse and bird she swung her stick wide forcing Mrs. Brisby to duck down low. Luckily, the angered rodent only managed to dislodge a few feathers, but she was clearly not finished with Jeremy yet. Continuing her tirade of insults and threats the Shrew was ready to tear right into him with a vengeance. Thankfully, the brown mouse stood back up as the shrew was drawing her cane back and put a hand on the other's shoulder.
'Auntie Shrew, please calm down!'
'Calm down? Brisby, this overstuffed turkey nearly killed me! And he did it on purpose too! You saw him… he was trying to make a pancake out of me!'
This was getting out of hand. If something didn't distract the Shrew soon she would either keep ranting all day or, worse yet, actually start hitting her intended target or someone else.
Cynthia and Brutus had watched the odd display with amusement. But it was dawning on them that they would have to get the Shrew away from Jeremy. The remaining three crows were still circling and unsure whether it was safe to come down while the elderly rodent was acting this way. Mrs. Brisby looked imploringly at her daughter and the light-furred mouse finally gave the huge guard a playful nudge.
Taking the hint Brutus sidled up behind the Shrew and tapped her on the shoulder. Auntie Shrew nearly fainted and dropped her cane when she had turned her head to look at the imposing rat. Brutus, in turn, gave a mock bow, which made Mrs. Brisby and her daughter chuckle.
‘I think he wants to help carry your bags, Auntie.’
Despite the fact that the Shrew always touted her assumed bravery in all circumstances the Rats of NIMH still managed to give her the willies. And mute Brutus, with his freakish size, was more than enough to draw the flustered rodent's attention away from Jeremy and to avert her imminent 'explosion'. Looking up over her shoulder the suddenly pacified shrew opened her mouth a few times before finding enough courage for a reply.
'Oh… yes… the bags. They… kind of… fell down when we landed.'
Brutus just nodded and turned about, bowing once more and indicated for the Shrew to lead the way. Picking up her cane the elderly rodent fidgeted nervously as they descended to the meadow floor to pick up the scattered luggage. Cynthia was hard pressed not to snigger out loud. Having a rat that size loom up behind one could do wonders for the creation of a more docile attitude. As the unlikely pair scrambled down the side of the root the young mouse waved to the remaining crows.
The next to land was Jules, Jeremy's son. Far more graceful than his father the young crow carried a tan-colored female mouse wearing a light-blue skirt and ribbons in her hair, holding tightly to his neck feathers with one paw as she closed her eyes tightly just as the crow flared his wings out for landing. Nestled in her lap, and held even more tightly by her mother's other paw, was tiny mouse child in a violet shirt, one that seemed to find even the terrifying landing a delightful treat. She squealed in delight as Jules sat down on the root. Teresa Brisby, eldest daughter to Jonathan and Elizabeth Brisby, slowly slid off the crow's back before reaching up to help her daughter Lynn to get down. Close behind them, spreading her wings as she swooped down to land on the root came Jules' sister Janet who had brought Teresa's oldest son Kir. She looked over towards her brother with a small smirk, the 'my landing was better than yours' look obvious to any that saw it. Bringing up the flock was Jeremy's wife Julia, who her husband still lovingly referred to as "Mrs. Right". She swooped down between her children and gracefully landed, lowering a wing to allow the adult male mouse on her back and the young boy in his lap to dismount.
Teresa's brown-furred husband had not even had the chance to catch Flynn, the couples' younger son, as he slid down Julia's back towards him before Teresa raced to her mother. Lynn, who had been dragged along by her, desperately wanted another ride with the crows and kept dragging Teresa, trying to pull her back towards Jules. The young woman had a look of barely concealed desperation on her face.
'Mom! They took the house!'
Mrs. Brisby, or Elizabeth as Justin sometimes called her, embraced her oldest daughter quickly.
'It's alright honey! Who took what house?'
The newly arrived mouse was close to tears now.
'The humans from NIMH! They came back! They took everything. The farmer had to leave and they're tearing up the farm. They're killing all the farmer's animals and burning down the fields. They're even trying to kill all our friends out in the field and garden! We barely managed to get away. And then the Great Owl said…'
Teresa slowly caught herself as she noticed the worried stares of her children and husband. The kids were still far too young to understand what NIMH had been about all those years back. And Gregory, despite the bright green tunic he wore and all the love that she felt for him, was just a normal field mouse. At times like these she understood why her father, Jonathan, had kept her own mother and herself in the dark about that horrible place. How could she burden her family with the knowledge of what NIMH was and what the people from there had done?
But now events had thrown that awful past back into her life. Gregory had seen what the humans had done to their home, their friends. She had asked herself many times how to explain all that to him, never finding an answer.
Gently rocking her daughter's shoulders Mrs. Brisby just nodded in understanding.
'You can tell us about it later when we got you all settled in.'
The mouse with the pink ribbons gave a sigh of gratitude and ushered her husband and the two boys forward. The children were still exited about the flight and Flynn kept poking his older brother repeatedly.
Gregory smiled bashfully at Mrs. Brisby. The wild field mouse was painfully aware at how his marriage to Teresa had caused his wife's expulsion from the Rats' colony. Even though his mother-in-law had always told him that he was the best thing that could have happened to her daughter this fact had always bothered him. He had seen the wonders of the Thorn Valley colony himself and understood to some degree what Teresa had given up for him. He could never escape the tinge of guilt that he felt when he thought of that and knew in his heart that Teresa had secrets she could never share with him, though these feelings always faded away at the sight of his wife and their happy children. Still, he wondered, what would it have been like for them if they could have stayed?
Smiling at both Gregory and the children the older mouse turned to Cynthia.
'Honey, I am going to get the guest rooms ready. Can you tell your brothers and Mr. Ages what happened? And if they could still come for dinner?'
She smiled a bit and added; ‘And ask if they can bring a little something with them, it seems we'll be feeding more than we'd expected.'
The light-furred mouse nodded.
'Sure, I'll tell them!'
Just as her daughter was about to leave Mrs. Brisby called out again,
‘Oh, and while you’re at the Infirmary…’
The brown mouse’s tone achieved a measure of embarrassment as she ended in mid-sentence.
Cynthia sighed with a sad smile,
‘Yes, I will tell Lady Camilla that you will not be sitting with her because of the Chamber Meeting.’
Her mother breathed out with gratitude.
‘Thank you, sweetie. This means a lot to me.’
Shaking her head with whimsical expression on her muzzle the younger rodent turned and made her way down to the corridor. With everything that had just happened and the worries it would cause her mother was compassionate enough to remember old Camilla. It was moments like these that made her proud of her remaining parent. Care for others in times of wellbeing was easy, but to care in times of distress was rare. But even this moment of pride could not dispel her misgivings at the fact that the day had become much more complicated than she had expected. She hoped it would not become any more so wondering, if that was supposed to be part of 'growing up'?
Back on the root Mrs. Brisby's grandchildren had milled around the brown mouse and were bombarding her with questions. They, at least, were thrilled to be back at the colony. Here they had their grandmother and all their uncles and aunts to play with. The young mouse quickly strolled back the cobbled corridors towards the Oak while above her family was collecting the meager belongings they had managed to bring.
As Cynthia reached the large subterranean hall again she didn't use any of the stairs to go top-wise but rather descended down further. Below the storage and maintenance halls, hidden far below the surface the Rats of NIMH had created yet another vast cavern. Here the altered rodents had decided to build their great infirmary.
The clinic was an enormous structure, indicating how much the Rats valued the importance of their health and the study of what they had become. The main room was lined with countless doors leading to operating rooms, patient quarters and apothecaries. Opening up the chamber was a looming archway lined with smooth gray stones. It appeared the power was back on as the entrance was brightly lit, almost too brightly since she had to blink and shield her eyes as she entered.
Sitting on one of the stone benches lining the archway was a rather short male rat. Silver-furred and wearing a green vest over a white shirt the male rodent was reading in a small book and, unusual for him, didn't pay much attention to Cynthia as she entered.
‘Hi Gabriel! Any idea where Martin and Ages are?'
The rat looked up and rolled his eyes.
'Oh yes! They're back in the exam room arguing, as usual. Why do you think I'm sitting out here? With those two going on like that I won't get any work done anyway. Even in the surgery they don't stop.'
He sighed for a second, a small grumble in his voice.
'And lately even our patients have learned not to come in when those two are ‘at it’.'
The mouse nodded with a smile. How her older brother had gotten to become the colony's third doctor was still something of a mystery to her.
It had all started with an argument between Mr. Ages and Martin one night after her sibling had once again managed to sprain an ankle. Maybe the old physician had just managed to rile her brother up so badly or just teased him about his clumsiness until he'd decided he could do the job as well as the old mouse did. A year and a half of studying later and Ages had, with obvious reluctance, allowed him to work in the infirmary.
In a way, the two physicians made a perfect match. Both were equally hardheaded and loved to argue both opinion and diagnosis for hours at a time, something that caused the only other doctor, the short rat named Gabriel, to head for cover whenever the two mice started quarrelling. Lately he seemed to be spending a lot of time making house calls and prepping for surgery, something he began specializing in shortly after Martin's arrival in the Infirmary. A change that Cynthia suspected had a lot to do with Martin's arrival as a member of the clinic's staff. With the two mice arguing all the time the rat’s nerves required some away time from the Infirmary.
Looking towards a distant set of chambers away from the exam room the mouse wondered.
‘I hope their racket doesn’t upset old Camilla.’
Gabriel, who had peered at his book again for a moment, just shrugged.
‘I doubt it. She is hardly awake anymore these days. I am amazed your mom comes in almost every evening to sit and talk with her. I am sure she can’t hear her.’
Cynthia shrugged as well, but smiled.
‘Who knows? I know that when I am that old and frail I might like to know someone is there with me, even if I am not ‘all there’ anymore.’
The mouse’s smile turned a bit sad.
‘And I promised mom I’d tell Camilla that she would not be able to sit with her tonight.’
The short rat cocked his head questioningly until understanding entered his features.
‘Right, your mom represents the teachers at the Chamber Meetings.’
Cynthia nodded to Gabriel and started towards the indicated room.
Behind her the medic called out, 'But if you can make our two bickering bozos stop I'll owe you one!'
The rooms lining the infirmary's central chamber were all separated by simple blue curtains. But even though the doors themselves were all identical the mouse could have easily found out behind which her brother and his teacher were located, even without Gabriel's directions. The discussion between Martin and Mr. Ages was so heated Cynthia heard it all the way across the hall.
'How can you say that? We've ruled out everything else. It has to be something to do with NIMH!'
That was her brother. With a voice like that he could have easily become a lead singer in the colony's choir if he'd been able to stay on key for more than two notes in a row.
'And what would you know about it, you inexperienced blunderer? I was making diagnoses before you were even born!'
The more indignant tones came from Mr. Ages. Cynthia had known the old mouse for some time now and knew that he was really a very caring person. But just by listening to him rant he sounded like the grumpiest person imaginable. Even Brutus could look positively cheerful compared to a Mr. Ages who was 'on a roll'.
'It is still stupid to discount it! You're just afraid that I am right. You are always turning tails when anybody even mentions NIMH, you old faker.'
'You ungrateful whelp! If you had learned anything you'd know that you look into the most plausible causes first. Just like a young whippersnapper to go straight for the easiest explanation, even if it is the most senseless!'
[Text Wrapping Break]
The female mouse chuckled as she pulled the curtain to the examining room aside. Martin and Ages were really dishing it out good tonight. She couldn't ignore the suspicion that the two of them enjoyed their arguments, though she knew neither would admit it.
The room itself was circular in outline and had been carved from one of the Oak's larger roots. Shelves with books and odd bottles lined the walls and a few beds had been set up for patients that required continuous observation. Fortunately, today at least, there were no patients to have to endure this particular argument.
The two mice stood close to the door, facing each other and gesturing wildly.
Gray-furred Martin was without doubt the most physically intimidating of the Brisby children and stood even taller than his father had. Once more than a little 'plump', he'd changed since the move to the colony and now his large chest was hidden behind a blue tunic covered with a short-sleeved doctor's vest. His arms were thick and muscular, looking somewhat out of place on a doctor. But his strength did come in handy when it came to setting bones or trying to restrain a panicky parent. Most amazing of all was that Cynthia's brother was also the head pediatrician of the colony now. One would not have guessed by looking at the rather burly mouse that he was good with children, particularly rat children.
The other mouse was much older. Mr. Ages's fur was almost pure white and nobody really knew if that was due to his age, his natural color, or if something had happened to him to turn him that color at NIMH. A long beard sprouted from his chin and his brows were exceptionally bushy. The mouse's piercing eyes hid behind a pair of round spectacles and blazed in anger as he glared at her brother. He was much shorter than Martin, wearing a red-brown tunic with floppy sleeves and the odd assortment of tools and ornaments he hung from his belt, things that no one had been able to convince him to leave behind when he moved to stay with the Rats in Thorn Valley. Still, nothing seemed to restrain, let alone stop, the old mouse from voicing his opinion in the strongest way he knew how.
The old doctor was just about ready to unleash another scolding reply on his young protégé, the gleam in his eyes showing that he had found something he could really nail the younger mouse with.
[Text Wrapping Break]
But before he could say what was on his mind Cynthia had stepped inside and chirped happily.
'Hello, you two! Guess what, Teresa's come home!'
Both physicians stopped dead in whatever arguments they had wanted to throw at each other. Two pairs of eyes turned towards the crème-furred girl in disbelief.
'What are you talking about, Sis?'
Cynthia stepped towards one of the desks and propped up the bag she had been carrying all throughout her rather active morning.
'Teresa is back. And she brought the whole family too.'
Now it was Ages' turn to look confused.
'I thought they were not due to be back for at least another four weeks? What are they doing back here so early?' [Text Wrapping Break]
The girl grinned at her brother and the old mouse as she began to pull out the glass vials from their storage.
'I don't know. I guess we'll all find out during dinner. Mom wants me to remind you that both of you better show up and bring some extra food.'
'Not if that awful woman is back too,' Mr. Ages grumbled.
Martin couldn't suppress a chuckle. 'Auntie Shrew isn't that bad. From the way she always rips at you I'd say she kind of likes you.'
The bearded mouse turned to look at the younger doctor as if he was about ready to blow his top. Thankfully, Cynthia interjected before the two could start a more serious argument again.
'Anyway, you two are invited. And you know how sad the kids are when 'Grandpa Ages' isn't there. You wouldn't know where Timmy is right now, would you?'
Both her brother and the elderly mouse decided that arguing was really pointless as long as Cynthia was around. She had a way of defusing fights just by being her own ridiculously cheerful self.
Mr. Ages rolled his eyes and muttered, 'Down in the labs, where else? I bet he's probably blown up another one of my ovens by now. Heaven knows what Justin wants the lad to make, but it's playing havoc with my equipment down there. And he's also starting to annoy Gideon with all those special glass contraptions he's asking him to make.'
The mouse girl nodded and laughed as she left.
'Yeah, he is always good at making a mess. See you at dinner!'
With that the two physicians were left with trying to figure out how to restart their previous discussions. There was nothing worse than having a good argument cut short this way.
Walking down the Infirmary’s hallway with the echoes of Ages’ and her brother’s halfhearted attempts of resuming their arguments following Cynthia approached the room were Lady Camilla was staying. She had never really known the old rat, mostly heard stories about her. In her time, she must have been beautiful and vibrant, yet these times had long passed. Now Camilla was alone. The Rats of NIMH lived long lives, much longer than normal rodents. But they still aged, very, very slowly. The rat she was now going to visit had been old even back when she had been caught in the streets of Baltimore, together with her husband, to be taken to NIMH, where they both had been changed forever, just as Cynthia’s father, the late Jonathan Brisby had been.
She slowly parted the blue curtain separating Camilla’s quarters from the rest of the Infirmary. Inside, the lights were dim, to allow the ancient rat to sleep in comfort. As Cynthia approached the large bed in the room’s center and looked at the form nestled within, she wondered why she did not feel sad for the old rat.
Camilla was old, very old. Her head was surrounded by waves of long, white hair, her face deeply creased, her emaciated frame covered in downy blankets. Her arms, draped in a simple night shirt, rested on the covers. This image if ultimate frailty should have depressed almost anyone. But then again, Cynthia was not just anyone. As she quietly stepped to the side of the bed, where a small armchair, the one her mother usually sat in for an hour each evening, waited, she only felt peaceful. She gazed at Camilla’s face. Then ancient rat was breathing slowly, but her features seemed locked in a small, serene smile. The heavy lidded eyes remained half-closed, but the mouse could feel that there was a mind still residing in this old body. Just like her husband, Camilla had possessed a glowing gaze, and even now, as she waited at death’s door, some of that glow remained.
The mouse sat down and slowly touched one of the rat’s hands. The hands were covered in warts and the claws were long, frighteningly so. Yet that did not matter. As soon as she touched them Cynthia felt the glow of the rat’s eyes intensify. Yes, Camilla was still in there.
The youngest daughter of the Brisby family was not only known for her cheerfulness. Those that knew her more intimately also respected her intuitive nature. Cynthia never got lost, ever. And she could feel certain things. Her siblings had their own special talents as well, like Timothy, with his uncanny ability with machines. Now the youngster felt a deep calming presence radiating from the limp hand. She bent forward to whisper to the old rat.
‘Hi Camilla. It’s me, Cynthia. My mom won’t be able to sit with you tonight. They are having the Chamber Meeting again. But I’m sure she will see you tomorrow.’
She waited, although she knew that Camilla would most likely not respond. The ancient lady barely responded to attempts to feed her anymore, and even then Ages doubted she was even aware. Cynthia knew better. The few times she had seen her like this she always felt that the dying rat was not simply waiting for death, but waiting for something, something very specific.
The mouse looked at Camilla intently for a while, not speaking. Then, the old rat’s hand, just for a moment, raised its fingers against the mouse’s palm resting on it. Cynthia smiled and nodded to herself. She patted the old one’s hand one more time and then got up to leave.
Now she had to find her brother.
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Down at the deepest level, many meters below the protective shadow of the Oak, the Rats of NIMH had built their scientific laboratories. The labs as well as the energy storage and heat systems for the whole colony had been housed as far away from the living quarters as possible. In case of an emergency it would ensure that the population was removed from danger. Assuming the warning was made in time that was.
The actual compound resembled a round hillock of thick cobbles centered within an enormous cavern. So widely spaced were the walls of this cave that even the various lights from the laboratory windows barely touched them. Thick roots and tightly packed earth bound this living barrier together.
The more one looked at it the more the building in the middle looked like a stone beehive speckled with lights. A walkway encircled and wound itself tightly along its masonry, climbing upward in a slow spiral. Every few steps a thick glass window alternated with heavy wooden doors. From within the luminance of the furnaces and laboratory lamps shone out into the darkness of the surrounding chamber. From time to time, through large glass tubes that issued from between the stones and lead to different levels of the compound, billows of steam rushed from one room to another. And finally, from the very top of the structure, the greatest tube reached towards the colony, supplying the Rats of NIMH with whatever heat they required.
A stone bridge connected the structure with the gate to the elevators. And along that bridge now Cynthia strolled in an effort to locate her youngest brother.
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Timothy was the youngest son of the Brisby family. As a child he had always been rather scrawny and even in adulthood he still retained an air of frailty, however misleading it now might be. There was a pair of thick glasses on his head and as usual he wore the dark green shirt with sleeves that were far too wide for him. In short, the youth looked to be a thorough academic with little time for the 'real world'.
While his older brother and sister both had an uncanny aptitude for medicine and his younger sister was strangely in-tune with the living world Timothy had a knack of a different sort. Machines, science and technology were his specialty. This mouse was a tinkerer of a sort that could come up with the most remarkable devices, many times without even knowing how they were supposed to work until they had been finished. When some engineering problem baffled the rest of the colony you called for Timothy Brisby. Usually a single glance at the problem was enough for the bespectacled mouse to suggest moving or adjusting the most innocuous part of the set up and all of a sudden it worked.
That was the reason Justin, leader of the Thorn Valley colony had asked him to work on a very special project.
So here the beige-furred mouse was, operating one of the laboratory's special furnaces, his brow furrowed and his fur matted against his skin from the intense heat. Timothy, or Timmy as his siblings still insisted in calling him, stared though the thick observing window in front of a bulging contraption of his own design, his right paw resting on a lever as he monitored the progress of his experiment. Even through the safety glass the heat from the unique furnace burned into his face, he did not dare look away.
Timing was everything.
Suddenly, the rodent pulled down the lever and wild sloshing sounds from a huge hose connected to the left side of the furnace hallowed the arrival of vast quantities of cooling water. As the liquid filled the outer rim of the furnace chamber it immediately turned to steam and was vented through a thick glass tube lead out from the furnace's chimney to the right towards regions unknown.
Slowly, the glow from behind the safety window subsided. Timothy waited a few more minutes before opening the small but strong steel door of the cooling stove and grasped a long-stemmed clamp. He slowly inserted the tool to retrieve the precious item from within the furnace's secondary chamber.
The young scientist tried to remain calm. He had performed this procedure successfully two times already. But the number of failures he had experienced still outnumbered the successes and forced him to be even more careful as he grabbed the sealed metal container from inside the cooling oven. Cautiously the mouse maneuvered the metal object towards a table in the center of the room and then released the holds of his grasping tool.
The steel case dropped onto the wood with a hollow thud.
Timothy was sure that by now the casing would have cooled down enough and began to unscrew the holds at its side. The entire thing was nothing but two metal molds screwed together at the rim. It was what had been placed inside and left in the furnace to mature that was the real prize.
A silent prayer to whatever gods of science might be out there issued from the mouse's lips as he raised the top half to gaze upon his creation.
[Text Wrapping Break]And then the youth raised his arms in triumph.
'Yes! Who's the mouse? Me’s the mouse! Yes! I did it!'
'Ah, so we heff brought ze monster to life, Herr Doctor?'
The deep, guttural voice Cynthia imitated from stories told long ago broke the otherwise quiet of the room. Timothy's eyes were about ready to pop out of his head as Cynthia called out in that badly imitated German accent. The girl had stood at the door the entire time and apparently enjoyed the show.
Timothy turned around and fidgeted with his sleeves in embarrassment.
'Eh... Hi Cynthia! Yeah, I guess I finally got it right this time.'
His sister chuckled and nodded.
'That’s great! But just what have you been working on in here? Ages has been griping about it for weeks now.'
The other tapped the side of his nose wistfully and grinned.
'Can't tell you, Sis. It's tip-top top-secret, you know. Justin told me not to spill anything.'
Cynthia just rolled her eyes.
'Whatever! By the way, you'll never guess what happened. Teresa and Gregory are back.'
The slender mouse hesitated in surprise before he replied.
'Already? I thought they still had to wait a few weeks?'
Now the young girl actually began to look a bit uncomfortable again.
'Something happened at the farm. Teresa said something about NIMH. But she didn't make much sense.'
The male mouse took off his glasses and stared incredulously.
'NIMH? What would they be doing at the farm? They haven't been there for... must be three years now.'
Cynthia shrugged, 'I don't know. I guess we'll find out tonight. Mom said you shouldn't forget that we're having dinner together.'
She paused, then smiled and continued, 'Now that the kids are here you better not leave me all alone to play 'aunt'. And you better bring something we can actually eat
, for a change.'
'Alright already! I am done here anyway. Let me pack this up and I'll come with you. They might need a hand in getting the rooms ready and I bet Teresa will be pretty exhausted after that trip.'
As the rodent scientist carefully wrapped his precious new creation into a rough cloth his sister looked out into the dark cave in concern. Teresa had looked exasperated and terrified. And her mentioning of NIMH had actually sent shivers up Cynthia's spine. The mouse always tried to see life from a cheerful angle, always looking for and finding that little bit of silver lining in every cloud. But the more she pondered the recent events, and the dread on Teresa's face, the less she was able to keep from worrying. Nothing that had ever come from the people of NIMH had ever been intended to make their lives easier, quite the opposite in fact.
Finally, brother and sister made their way back towards the colony's upper levels. They didn't discuss all the different worries that coursed through their minds. It was easier to just talk about the prospect of having the whole family under one roof again.
But both new that having to wait for answers until dinnertime would strain their patience.