Chapter 4: The Owl

It was almost midnight by the time Justin made his way back to his office. The meeting had not escalated as badly after the initial unpleasantness, but Verilla had found more subtle ways to harangue the other Chamber members, and him in particular. By now almost everyone in the colony had turned in. Even the Council Hall had been empty with the exception of the guards on duty and Philip. Justin felt unusually lonely walking down the passageways to his workplace. He had debated going straight to his living quarters, but if he did that he knew he would never file away the minutes from the Chamber Meeting. The whole existence of the colony seemed to revolve around pieces of paper these days.

Moving with careful quietness even though there were no living quarters at this level of the Oak the exhausted rodent slowly opened the door to his spacious office. Apparently, Timothy had also turned in for the night. Thankfully, the mouse had replaced the burnt-down candle with a new one, which gave the otherwise gloomy room a more welcoming air. As he walked to his desk Justin opened the clasp of the formal robes and let them drop unceremoniously to the floor. He had had enough of formalities for one day. He kept the stone around his neck though. Too many memories of Nicodemus and days gone by were associated with it to treat it with such disrespect.

At the desk the leader of the colony filed the various reports into their respective drawers and then, slowly, sat down in the enfolding high-backed chair. He leaned back and closed his eyes for a while. The carpenters had managed to make the large piece of furniture much more comfortable than it looked. After a few moments of quiet Justin forced himself to get up again. As tired as he was he would fall asleep right here again if he wasn’t careful. No matter his exhaustion, he was still curious to see how Timothy’s work had turned out.

He walked to the alcove on the left, where the curtains had once again been closed shut. Slowly drawing one side away the machine inside was revealed to the candle’s flickering light. It was an impressive sight. There was no doubt about that. Nicodemus’ original ‘seeing machine’ had been a circular metal arch with a whole number of bluish stones embedded in it and the rotating metal blades spinning within that arch. How that machine had been powered or even activated was something Justin had never understood. Using notes made by Nicodemus himself Timothy had been tasked to try and recreate that now lost device. The mouse had done much more than that.

With his innate understanding of machines the youngster had not only been able to follow the drawn-out instructions. He had, who knew how, made his own improvements on them. The result was, in principle, still the same kind of apparatus. But the design had changed radically. Candlelight reflected off the brass of a circular arch that was much more solid than the original. Instead of a whole array of blue stones this larger version only held three bigger red stones. One inlaid at the top and two at each corner. The arch itself was so massive that the stones looked more to be ornamentation than the actual driving mechanism. Between the stones, running along the front of the metal archway in arabesque patterns were what looked like panels of the same red crystal material. It gave the entire construction an almost ancient design, as if the device was a relic from some long-lost civilization. Timothy had argued that this arrangement should be even more efficient than the first machine. Yet when pressed how and why that would be the case the mouse had just shrugged and said, ‘It feels better this way.’

That was Timothy from start to finish. He would build something with exquisite eye to detail and function, without ever having a clue as to what the actual function might be. Finding that out, he argued all the time, was half the adventure. Justin was just glad he had never asked the savant to work with any explosive materials.

After he had admired the mouse’s handiwork Justin noticed a small note pinned to the device’s frame. He walked up the raised dais and removed the note. If he had hoped for operating instructions he was disappointed. The small sheet simply said:

She is all set and ready to go.

Now you just have to figure out how to make her ‘go’.

If anyone can figure this out it’s you.

T.B.

The rat sighed and then chuckled.

‘Thanks for the vote of confidence, Timmy.’

He drew the curtains closed again and carried the note back to his desk. Laying down the small sheet of paper on the now otherwise empty surface, Justin seated himself once more, put his arms behind his head and looked at the vaulted ceiling.

‘You ever have these problems with people, Nicodemus?’

The rat waited a few moments and then muttered,

‘I’m not sure which is worse, me talking to myself or actually waiting for someone to answer.’

Lowering his head to look at his desk again Justin stretched, holding both his arms out in front as his back curved, fists tight, and a huge yawn opened on his face.

Suddenly, he jerked his right arm away from the candle with a yelp of pain.

Had he accidentally held his wrist over the flame?

Rubbing his wrist and arm through the shirt of his tunic the rat cautiously studied his clothes and flesh. There were no burn marks anywhere. Justin looked back towards the candle and experimentally held his right arm out as he had done before. No, there was no way he could have touched the flame this way. Yet something had stung him. He moved his wrist around a bit and, just as the light of the candle hit the inside of his shirt sleeve, pulled his wrist back again with an indrawn hiss of pain.

Something had stung him on the inside of his arm, right underneath the palm, and just as the light had reached it. Very slowly, the rat opened the cuffs of his right sleeve, pulled the shirt back, and peered at the inside of his wrist. There, running from the base of his hand halfway down to the inside of his elbow, was an elongated patch of fur that had turned completely white.

Justin carefully rotated his arm close to the candle, so that part of the discolored patch would slowly pass into the candle’s cone of light. As soon as it did he had to pull his arm back with a wince. The light had felt like a sting on the skin below the white fur. Apparently, he now too had developed the allergy that had been spreading throughout the Rats of NIMH, a malady that none of the doctors understood, could cure, or even halt.

He closed his eyes and put both hands down on the desk palms down, trying to calm his breathing. For a few moments he seemed to relax, but then, his respiration quickened again, his face, eyes still closed, contorting in anger.

‘It never ends!’ Justin cursed through clenched teeth, hands pressing into the wood.

His hands clenching into fists, still pressing against the table, the rat’s breathing took up even more speed, his teeth beginning to bare themselves in a frustrated snarl.

‘What am I supposed to do?’

As if he expected someone to answer he repeated the question, louder.

‘What am I supposed to do? Someone tell me!’

His face now drawn up in a mask of fury, eyes clenched shut with tears of rage glinting in the corners, Justin raised his fists over his head, head lowered.

‘WHAT – AM – I – SUP – POSED – TO – DOOOOOOOOOOO!!!’

With the last word ringing through the room he slammed his fists into the desk.

As his flesh touched the wood the world exploded into light.

When Justin came to he still had his eyes shut tight. He was lying on his back, but could still feel the chair underneath him. Some inexplicable force had thrown him and the seat away from the table. And his chest burned, burned as if it had been doused in scolding oil. He opened his eyes to slits to peer down his torso.

There, lying on his chest, was the Stone, wreathed in flames and light so bright he was afraid it would blind him. His eyes screwed shut again. And the pain was excruciating. He needed to remove it. Blindly his hands grasped the Stone, ready to feel the same fire that was searing his upper body. Yet the fire never came. As his hands closed around the jewel the light flowed into him, into every cell of his body and every corner of his soul.

Justin’s eyes snapped open. No longer the old brown they shone like twin lanterns gazing out into the infinity of the Universe. And he saw, oh yes, he saw.

Slowly, without haste or alarm, the rat with the glowing eyes raised himself to his feet. He looked behind at the prone chair and cocked his head in solemn bemusement. He gazed at his hand, bathed in a slight halo of amber luminance and casually waved it at the seat. As if pulled by invisible strings it righted itself and gradually pulled back behind him.

How curious!

Then something else caught the rat’s opened awareness.

He looked to the left. Behind the curtain, the three stones of the ‘seeing machine’ could be seen, slowly beginning to pulse in red, then golden light, faster and faster. An increasing hum and wind behind the drapes indicated that the device’s rotating blades had begun to move.

Justin, yes, that was his name, he was sure of that, slowly stepped out from behind his desk and approached the alcove. The curtains raised themselves up and revealed the ever-faster turning blades of the magnificent machine. A small smile, as if the rat was seeing the construct for the very first time, spread his muzzle. Unlike Nicodemus’ original design there were no harsh electric discharges. As the spinning blades rushed to become a sphere of gold only a few, tiny sparks, like embers thrown up by a fire, flicked from the three pulsing stones into the spinning center. Yes, this design was more effective and wasted less.

With every step forward the image in the sphere of light became clearer. But Justin’s eyes saw beyond even the machine now, beyond the image right to what it reflected. He saw Thorn Valley’s starlight night sky. He saw the dark shape of the Great Owl, steadily approaching.

For the first time in a long while, Justin knew exactly what to do.

Nobody noticed him when he made his way up the narrow corridors, through the hollowed branches, to the high platform in the crown of the large Oak. Everything was dark. No lights shone here, except the rat’s eyes, like two candles in an endless night. There, on the platform designed to allow a very special visitor, who, in all these years, had never come, Justin waited.

Only moments later the beat of enormous wings broke the rustle of the leaves. A shadow darker than the night descended, kicking up a breeze of its own making. Occasional cobwebs drifted down from the body blocking out the stars. Finally, ponderously, the vast shape settled onto the level surface with its immense claws.

The rat with the lantern eyes gazed up into an ancient face, wise and foreboding. Eyes of a kindred nature gazed back at him. No words were spoken. None were necessary. What needed to be known was known.

The Great Owl had finally come. It had come with dire knowledge. With grave slowness the old predator looked down towards one of its own clawed feet. There, held secure and safe, was a whitish shape. Justin’s gaze followed the Owl. He nodded.

Carefully releasing its grip on the bundle the Owl stepped back, turned, and then lifted off again from the high platform, back into the night, from which it had come. As the last echoes of its heavy wings died away the rat stepped up to the white object, as large as a rat itself, and gently cradled it in his arms. Then he turned towards the hatch he had originally come out of. With each step his eyes dimmed, until they had become the same dark brown they had always been.

With his charge wrapped in his arms Justin headed to the Infirmary.

The living room of Mrs. Brisby’s quarters looked dark gray in the early morning light. It had been a late night for everyone, so the entire family had expected to sleep in. Yet the soft persistent knocking at the front door was going to make that unlikely. Being a light sleeper at the best of times Mrs. Brisby, only wearing her cape and looking rather sleep-deprived tip-toed over the carpet. She opened the door a crack and was ready to hush whoever was calling not to wake Cynthia and Timothy when she saw the worried shape of Brutus looming awkwardly in the hall. The mouse had to blink her eyes and shake her head a bit until the odd tableau registered in all her senses. Finally, she whispered,

‘What’s wrong, Brutus?’

The huge guard showed her his writing board with an embarrassed face.

Justin needs to see you

in the Infirmary exam room.

All your children too.

Emergency.

‘Right now?’

She whispered incredulously.

Brutus nodded his head with an imploring expression. For the stoic rat to look so concerned the emergency had to be quite serious.

‘I’ll wake the kids. Tell Justin we will be there as fast as we can.’

‘And that’s all he said… eh… wrote?’

‘Yes,’ Mrs. Brisby explained to Teresa, who had not been happy to leave her husband and children this early in the morning.

‘I don’t think he knew much himself. He looked like he had just woken up himself.’

It had taken only fifteen minutes to get all four of her offspring ready to leave and now the five Brisby mice hurried down the Oak’s branches, using stairs and elevators, to the underground Infirmary. Thankfully, power was running throughout the entire Oak and the group was able to make the mainstay of the journey in the comfortable main elevator.

‘I hope it’s got nothing to do with the allergy,’ Martin mused sourly as the elevator door opened at the Infirmary level.

‘Always the optimist,’ sniggered Cynthia, to which her older Brother only rolled his eyes.

---Brisby.---

Hurrying through the Infirmary’s arched entrance Mrs. Brisby stopped while her children headed towards the examination room. Noticing their mother’s gaze, which was turned in the opposite direction of the hallway, her children halted as well.

‘Are you alright, mom?’

Teresa cocked her head.

‘Did you hear something just now?’ Mrs. Brisby mused.

‘Looking her siblings Teresa shook her head, ‘No. You hear anything?’

The remaining mice shook their own heads.

---Brisby!---

The older mouse motioned for them to go ahead to the exam room.

‘Go ahead. I think I need to check on something.’

Exchanging a few confused looks the four mice did as they were asked while their mother headed down the opposite side.

Mrs. Brisby tapped her ears as she walked. She was not sure whether she had heard or felt her name being said. It had been the oddest sensation, but she was certain it had come from this direction. And there was only one room at this end of the hall that was occupied, Camilla’s.

The mouse stopped short as she saw the curtained-off entrance to the ancient rat lady’s room. The lights in the Infirmary hallway were kept very low at this early hour, barely enough to allow people to navigate without tripping. But when Mrs. Brisby looked at the drapes covering Camilla’s chamber she could make out two glowing lights shining right through the fabric.

She resumed her walk with slow steps. There was a strange lump in her throat.

Camilla, widow to the murdered Nicodemus, had been barely aware for over a month now. Mr. Ages had often stated that she would pass on soon, surprised actually that she had not yet done so. Now, the strange lights inside Camilla’s room made the mouse’s mind wander in the most curious directions.

She had befriended Camilla after her move to Thorn Valley. She did not know whether it was because she felt indebted to the widow of the one who had helped save her son when was suffering from pneumonia. Nicodemus had committed the Rats of NIMH to move her heavy cinderblock house. He had died during that enterprise, through Jenner’s treachery. Had she not asked for the Rats’ help he might still be alive today. There was guilt in Mrs. Brisby’s heart.

But Camilla, who was as old as her departed husband, never stated any misgivings towards her. Actually, the ancient one had not even grieved much, which had come as a complete surprise to all. Camilla and Nicodemus had been close. Everyone in the colony had affirmed that to Mrs. Brisby. Many claimed she was the only one who really knew the former leader’s secrets. She was almost as revered as he had been, although Camilla had rarely attended public functions.

The two widows had struck a common cord. Oddly enough, it always seemed to Mrs. Brisby that it was Camilla who helped her deal with her own old grief over the loss of Jonathan, rather than the other way around. Maybe old age did give one a greater acceptance and insight. Camilla, before her awareness had clouded, had had much insight, in more ways than one.

---Come inside, my dear.---

The mouse gasped.

The words were in her mind, not her ears, she was certain of it now. Her gloved hand actually trembled as she slowly pulled the curtain up a bit to duck inside the sick room. Inside she beheld a miracle.

Camilla was sitting upright in her bed, her long white hair hanging around her face like streamers of a waterfall. The old rat’s eyes were heavy-lidded, but open. From them shone a light that Mrs. Brisby had only seen in the eyes of two others, Nicodemus and the Great Owl.

‘Please, come closer, my dear,’ the prone rat waved a grizzled hand.

‘There is not much time.’

Her voice was raspy, but steady.

The mouse walked to the chair sitting next to the rat’s bed, but decided to stand at the bedside instead. Slowly, her hands reached out and tenderly held Camilla’s. Mrs. Brisby smiled deeply, almost moved to tears.

‘It’s so good to see you doing better again. We were worried you were about to…’

‘Hush, child,’ the rat soothed gently. ‘What must be, will be. I needed to tell you something.’

The mouse only nodded, mystified.

‘He will ask your children to go back with him, Brisby.’

‘What?’ Mrs. Brisby blinked in surprise.

‘When he asks,’ Camilla continued without answering, ‘you must go with them, go back with them.’

The smaller rodent was awash with confusion, ‘Go back? Who is going back, and where?’

The rat’s smile widened and radiated warmth.

‘Back where it all begun, child. Go back with them, back to NIMH.’

Mrs. Brisby dropped Camilla’s hand and stepped back in shock.

‘What do you mean? NIMH? Why? I…’

Still smiling, the rat lay back in her bed, eyes closing, the light within fading away. Then Camilla was just as she had been for the last weeks. Serenely smiling, breathing slowly, but her mind no longer in the present.

Without asking the mouse knew, deep inside, that the rat would not be able to answer her questions. For a time, Elizabeth Brisby could not move. The strangeness of what had just occurred was overwhelming.

Finally, Mrs. Brisby blinked. She reached over and gently patted the old rat’s hand. She spoke in a hushed voice.

‘Camilla?’

The recumbent rat did not move. The only sound was her slow breathing. Camilla was no longer here.

But had she really seen this? Had she really heard this? She did not know what had just happened. Slowly, as she removed her hand and drew herself away from the bedside, ready to leave Camilla to whatever realms her mind now moved in, she knew that she would not forget the strange event.

Mrs. Brisby stepped quietly from the room, filled with doubts and questions, and headed down the hall to the exam room.

She had just about managed to compose herself again when she drew open the curtain to the Infirmary’s examination room. Then, she almost stopped short again as she saw who else was here. Sitting on whatever chair or free cot they could find were Justin’s closest friends and allies in the colony. Racso and Ratchett, both still bleary eyed were sitting next to each other on a cot, feet dangling back and forth in an effort to stay awake. Philip, Captain of the Guard, father of six, one of the original Rats of NIMH, leaned against a wall without having taken a seat, a mixture of concern and anger on his features. The current Captain was known for his personable nature, but apparently that had slept in when he had been woken up today. Brutus looked like a scene from a comedy, his oversized body balancing precariously on a simple stool. Arthur, head of the engineering department, sat on a chair while balancing it on its hind legs.

Her own children had situated themselves in one corner of the room, next to an office desk, where five chairs had not yet been claimed. Mrs. Brisby, not seeing Justin anywhere, went over to her offspring and sat down as well, nodding with a smile to Arthur and the others. Even Philip managed a tired smile in response. She was just about to ask the small group what this was all about when the drapes of a curtained-off section of the large exam room were pulled back and Justin came into view.

He was not wearing his uniform top. For that matter, he was not wearing the undershirt either. As he reached the center of the room everyone was able to take in the fact that the colony leader’s chest had been wrapped all around with medical tape, small bits of gauze visibly sticking out at the front.

Everybody was wide-awake immediately, Brutus standing up straight. Before anyone was able to begin the barrage of questions that was bound to follow Justin put his finger to his lips and hushed them quietly. He then pointed over to the exam area he had just come from.

‘Ages is with the patient and wants us to be as quiet as we can.’

Not really having learned anything it was Philip, standing closest to the bandaged rat, who whispered,

‘What in the name of the Owl happened to you?’

Justin smiled and pointed to the desk, next to which the Brisbys family was sitting. There, innocently resting on top of a pile of medical files, lay the Stone. Then he nodded to Mrs. Brisby,

‘Remember back at the Farm, when your house was sinking into the mud? ‘

All eyes were on Mrs. Brisby now, who had never gotten used to being the center of attention.

‘How could I forget?’

Giving a friendly nod back the brown rat mused jovially,

‘Last night what happened to your palms back then happened to my chest. Ages said it will leave one heck of a scar.’

Reflexively clasping her gloved hands, which still bore the scars from the Stone’s strange attributes from all those years ago, the mouse swallowed. She did not know what to respond and when she looked around the room she saw similar consternation on every face, every face except Justin’s.

Tapping his bandaged chest with a whimsical grin the slender rodent addressed the room.

‘In any case, we had a visitor last night. The Owl has finally come here.’

Everyone gasped. The Owl, one the Rats of NIMH’s strangest allies, had never once felt it necessary to visit since their move to the new colony. Many of the residents had, in light of the Owl’s mystical reputation, voiced their concerns that maybe the move might not have been the best thing after all. Maybe they had somehow angered or displeased the Great Owl in some way. Verilla, of course, had blamed Justin’s inadequate leadership for that. The fact that the nocturnal predator had finally graced them with its presence was both relief and concern to the assembled rodents.

Mrs. Brisby, the only other person in the room who had ever beheld the Owl in person, was the first to find her voice again.

‘What did the Owl want, Justin?’

Motioning a hand towards the back of the exam room Justin’s voice remained at a whisper.

‘The Owl brought someone, a rat that escaped whatever horror has been unleashed back at the Farm.’

Again, the room was silent for a moment.

This time it was Teresa who said what everyone thought.

‘NIMH.’

His face turning somber, Justin nodded.

‘Yes, you were right, Teresa. NIMH has come back.’

Then the leader of the Rats of NIMH turned to look everyone in the exam room in the eye.

‘That’s why I told Brutus to get you all down here. Don’t ask me how I know, but all of you need to be here when our visitor finally wakes up.’

There was a certainty in his voice that many of his friends had never noticed before.

That was when Mr. Ages, apparently the only one who had no problems with being up this early in the morning, bustled into the main part of the exam room himself, wiping his paws with a towel. After having put the towel in the sink and eyed all of the assembled rodents in the room with discontent, he turned to Justin.

‘I don’t know why we need to have everyone here when she wakes up. The poor thing will be frightened enough as it is.’

‘It needs to be this way.’

Normally not one to be cowed this easily the old mouse nevertheless did not argue. Something in Justin’s voice echoed of innate gravity. Mr. Ages simply shook his head and sighed quietly.

‘Okay, come after me. Stand along the walls were she won’t immediately see that she has an entire menagerie staring at her when she comes to. Martin,’ the older doctor waved a paw.

‘Grab the bottle with the smelling salt and follow right after me.’

The elder Brisby son got the bottle and headed after his mentor, the rest of his family trailing behind. Racso, Ratchett and Philip followed, with Brutus and Justin brining up the rear.

A female rat was lying on the cot in the closed-off section of the exam room. Of average size and slender built, what part of her was not hidden by the blanket was covered in pure white fur. A large bandage had been applied to the back of her neck, but otherwise she appeared to be resting comfortably. The group filed in silently, standing as far back as possible, as per Mr. Ages instructions. The old mouse motioned for Martin to step next to the right side of the infirmary bed while he took position to the left. Then the aged doctor addressed the assembly with an unusually gentle and quiet voice.

‘She has been out since Justin brought her in. I assume she passed out while…’

Here Ages had to suppress a shudder.

‘… while the Owl carried her here. She will have no sense of where she is when she wakes up, so I want to you all to be as quiet and,’ he eyed Brutus with a glower, ‘as non-menacing as possible.’

Everyone in the room, mice and rats alike, nodded.

The older mouse looked at Martin, gently took a hold of one of the sleeping rat’s hands that were resting on the blanket. Martin, in turn, uncorked the bottle with the smelling salt, held it at the ready with his left hand while he placed his right on the patient’s remaining paw. Mr. Ages gave a silent nod and the younger physician held the smelling salt under the female’s muzzle.

For a few moments it seemed as if nothing was going to happen.

Then suddenly, with an ear-piercing scream, the white rat bolted upright in her bed, arms trying to flail wildly around her as she thrashed and wailed. If the two mice had not been ready for this and grabbed a hold of the rat’s wrists the moment she awoke she might have injured herself in her spastic awakening. Even so, the spectators in the room felt highly uncomfortable watching the young female writhe and screech as both mice doctors tried to soothe her with calm voices.

‘It’s alright. You are safe. Nobody will hurt you.’

Both Ages and Martin continued their efforts to calm their hysterical ward down.

After a few moments, the white-furred female did subsist, exhausted, falling back into the bed, breathing heavily. The two mice continued to talk to her in soothing tones while tenderly rubbing her hands.

A short while later, her breathing more even, the prone rat opened her eyes and looked at the two rodents talking to her. She gazed in confusion, blinked a few times, and then asked hoarsely,

‘Who… who are you?’

Sighing with relief Mr. Ages pulled his hand back, and removed his glasses to clean them on his apron.

‘We are doctors, miss, healers of the sick if you will.’

She gazed from one mouse to the other for a few moments. Martin tried to smile reassuringly.

‘You are mice?!”

Both nodded without comment, allowing the patient to come to her own conclusions.

‘Mice… doctors?’

Her eyes almost seemed to pop out of her head as she, once again, this time without Martin and Ages restraining her, raised her upper body up.

‘You’re the ones! You are them!’

Both physicians exchanged confused glances.

Before they could ask the rat for clarification she apparently noted the small crowd of rats and mice standing silently at attention in the back. She gasped and pulled her head underneath the covers with another shriek.

Mr. Ages turned to the others, eyeing Brutus, and snapped,

‘Brutus! I told you not to look scary!’

The huge rat tried to shrink back into the wall without success, looking around at his friends for support. Timothy and Justin were both unable to suppress a chuckle in the tense atmosphere.

Somehow, the sound of the chuckling made the patient raise her head above the covers again, staring back at the assembled group of rodents, first with fear, then with something akin to revelation.

‘Rats and mice,’ she whispered to herself, ‘wearing clothes. You must be the ones.’

Martin and Mr. Ages both turned their attention back to their guest. She, in turn, with eyes of the most brilliant blue, gazed at the ones trying to stand quietly in the shadows.

Finally, Justin, with his bandaged chest, stepped forward and gave a small but solemn bow.

‘We will not harm you. My name is Justin. Can you tell us who you are?’

The other tilted her head cautiously, taking in the injured male standing at the foot of her bed. Her eyes narrowed.

‘The bird caught me. I did not even hear it until it was too late. How did you free me?’

The brown rat smiled and opened his arms in a gesture of welcome and calm.

‘That was the Great Owl, a dear friend to us. The Owl did not intend to hurt you, simply bring you to us, where you would be safe.’

‘Safe,’ the white rat mused. Then she lifted herself up to a full sitting position, drawing in her legs underneath her.

‘My name is Julia. Are you the ones they are looking for?’

Now it was Justin’s turn to look confused.

‘Who do you mean with ‘they’?’

‘The scientists, of course,’ Julia muttered with a shiver, ‘the humans that brought us, from NIMH.’

Racso drew in a sharp breath while his intended swallowed hard. None of the assembled rodents said a word, but the chorus of indrawn breaths, sighs and other noises of discomfort spoke volumes.

Since he had initiated the conversation the leader of the colony pressed forward.

‘People from NIMH brought you where?’

‘To the farm,’ Julia exclaimed with relief, ‘to find you and take you back.’

In the shadows the Brisby family and their rat friends took on expressions of deep suspicion and distrust as they looked at the rat on the bed.

Justin continued his probing, keeping his tone as neutral and his face as friendly as possible.

‘The scientists from NIMH brought you to the farm, to find us? Why, after all this time, do they want to find us again?’

The female’s brow furrowed, ‘They said that by now the fail-safe would begin to show itself. But you must be the ones they are looking for. Are none of you sick yet?’

The brown rat drew back a step.

‘What do you mean, sick yet?’

She shook her head, ‘They said that the fail-safe they put into the serum would activate now. It was mean to make sure that if you escaped you could not spread too far for too long. It would kill you within a year.’

Even Martin and Mr. Ages were unable to find words. Gazing slack-jawed from Justin to their patient their minds were consumed with the implications of what they just heard, and what it implied.

‘You know we came from NIMH, then?’

Julia waved her arms in exasperations.

‘Of course! That was the whole point! The humans never forgot. They figured you would die out soon. They want you back, even though they can always test the serum again.’

At this point she looked down at her sheets and muttered gravely, ‘Which they have.’

Leaning forward again, his bandaged chest aching, Justin spoke more compassionately.

‘They injected you, didn’t they?’

She looked into his eyes and nodded fiercely,

‘Yes, all of us. With a new version of the serum. They wanted us to be like you so we could find you for them, lead you to them.’

A hand touched the bandage on her neck and Julia smiled to herself.

‘They let us out of our cages after they had implanted something in our necks, something that would show them exactly where we were going. But they made us too smart. As soon as we were outside, we clawed the things out with our own paws and ran for it.’

She looked up at Justin imploringly, ‘Did any of the others make it?’

When no response was forthcoming the white-furred female deflated gloomily.

‘They must have gotten all of them, then.’

The brown rat cleared his throat.

‘You said the humans expect us to die. Can you explain that, slowly?’

Julia nodded.

‘The humans talked while they waited for the serum to work in us. They discussed how the old serum had something built into it, something that would only act a certain number of years after it had been injected. They talked about how they wanted to make sure the change would not spread out of control, like a virus. That’s what they called it, their ‘smart virus’.’

She eyed the rest of the rodents at the back of the room.

‘They said the change would spread wide, as long as there was ‘prolonged contact’. So, they put a kind of time bomb into the serum. No matter who would get changed, they would all get the time bomb fail-safe too. When the years were up, that part of the change would start and…’

The female looked at her hands.

‘… and kill you all.’

Now all of the rats and mice in the room gasped and muttered in fear, rushing closer to the bed to get details. Even the two doctors were bombarding the newcomer with questions, which caused the white rat to slink back and draw the blanket over her head.

‘Hey!’

Justin shouted.

‘Calm down and give her some space. We will get to the bottom of this, just calm down, please.’

Reluctantly, mice and rats, backed away with furtive glances.

Despite their shared anxiety and questions, they knew that scaring the newcomer would solve nothing.

With a soothing voice, Justin tried to coax the covered rat back into conversation.

‘Please, can you tell us more? We need to know as much as we can.’

Very slowly, Julia lowered the sheet and looked at the furtive crowd. After making sure that nobody appeared to threaten her she nodded.

‘The humans said we would change others around us?’

‘Yes,’ her blue eyes shone, ‘they said the ‘smart virus’ would infect anyone that was exposed to the specimens… to you, I mean, for a certain time. Then the ones that were exposed would become just like the ones that got the original serum. They would infect and change others too, and on and on.’

The brown rat folded his hands across his chest and looked at Mr. Ages quietly, then turned around to face Mrs. Brisby, ‘That explains many things.’

Elizabeth, a hand on the shoulder of Timothy, nodded,

‘We are all the same, then. If we had just known, Jonathan wouldn’t have had to keep it a secret.’ Tears began forming in the corners of her eyes, and then rolled down her cheeks.

‘He might not have had to die.’

The brown mouse began to sob and Timothy allowed his mother to burrow her tears against his chest.

Justin turned back to the female on the bed, who looked confused again.

‘Tell me, how is this thing they built into the serum going to kill us?’

Julia rubbed her chin in remembrance.

‘They said something about the body changing. It starts with pigmentation, like color, loss, sensitivity to light, getting worse until even the smallest light burns, blindness, and then the body feels pain all the time, stops being able to move, then it dies.’

As she counted down the progression she was so caught up that only at the end did she notice the horror in the eyes of her audience. Even Mrs. Brisby had been shocked from her grief and looked at the white rat with abject fear. Julia shrank back a bit against her pillow.

This time it was Mr. Ages who spoke.

‘And there is no cure?’

Turning, Julia spoke urgently,

‘There is! That’s why they want to find you.’

‘Ahem,’ Justin cleared his throat, ‘this is the part I do not understand. You said the humans at NIMH no longer cared about us because we will… die out anyway. Why look for us now? Why try to find us now?’

Now it was the visitor who shook her head.

‘I don’t understand that part completely myself. The human said somebody new was in charge and has decided that it would be best to try and find the lost specimens, you, before you die. Something about you being important for science. They want to find you, switch off the time-bomb.’

‘And what about you,’ Justin leaned forward, ‘why would you care about us? You have never met us.’

The white-furred female looked at her hands again.

‘We decided we would try to find you anyway. After we had clawed each other’s tracking things from the backs of our necks we would search for you.’

She looked him straight in the eyes.

‘You’re like us, but we cannot spread the change. That’s what the humans said. They made a new serum. If we ever wanted to be with rats like ourselves we would have to find you, or live alone. There were only four of us.’

‘Even though,’ Martin now mused from the other side of the bed, ‘we are all going to die?’

Julia looked at the younger mouse and bit her lower lip.

‘I don’t know. But it was the only thing we could think of. We could not go back to the humans.’

For a while, nobody spoke. The mind could not digest so many awful things all at once.

Justin broke the silence, with an eerily calm voice.

‘But we,’ he looked at all his friends in turn, ‘have to go back.’

Now all eyes turned incredulous glances to the colony’s leader.

Justin simply sighed and shrugged.

‘She said we would not live out the year once the ‘time bomb’ started to work.’

Ages nodded.

‘The allergy,’ he looked at Martin, ‘you were right after all.’

The younger doctor did not look very consoled at his teacher’s admission.

‘But,’ Justin resumed, addressing Julia, ‘you said the humans have a cure and are actually trying to find us to give it to us?’

The female shrugged nervously, ‘That’s what they said when they talked to each other. They are looking for anyone and anything ‘infected’. They dug up the whole farm to be sure they didn’t miss anything.’

Arthur, from the back of the room, snorted, ‘So we have two choices. We can sit back and die, or we can go to the humans like pets and stay alive longer and have them cut us open and do who-knows-what with us. It would be our lives in exchange for becoming their toys again.’

The brown rat motioned reassuringly to the old engineer.

‘There may be another way.’

Mrs. Brsiby stepped forward with a suspicious look on her face.

---He will ask your children to go back with him, Brisby, back to NIMH.---

‘You are thinking about going back yourself, aren’t you Justin? You plan to go back to NIMH.’

Justin just gave the assembled rodents a sheepish grin.

‘They have the cure. Someone needs to go and get it. It’s that simple.’

Philip stepped forward with a scowl, passing by the mouse and grabbing Justin’s shoulder.

‘Are you insane? Going back to NIMH, into the human city, to look for something that may or may not exist?’

The other gently patted the Captain of the Guard’s paw on his shoulder as if consoling an irritated child.

‘We have to try. If we do nothing and Julia told us the truth, we are dead already. If we allow the humans to find us here, we may die as well, or be slaves for the rest of our lives, however short that may be.’

Shaking his head Philip muttered, ‘You’ll need a whole group to go with you. The Counsel will never agree, you know. They will never let you go, not their leader.’

Justin nodded, but with a resigned smile. He turned back to the others and looked at Cynthia.

‘You know when people lie. Is Julia telling the truth?’

Still shocked by the recent revelations the crème-furred mouse only nodded.

‘Then we really have no choice,’ the brown rat concluded.

‘We will need an expedition to try and get the cure, no matter what.’

‘And who,’ Mrs. Brisby ventured, taking another step towards Justin, ‘do you suggest should go?’

---He will ask your children to go back with him, Brisby.---

---Go back with them, back to NIMH.---

Justin’s face became serious.

‘I should go.’

Everyone but the brown mouse raised their voices in protest.

‘I am the only one of the original rats who has no family. I remember how we left NIMH, I can find my way back.’

Mrs. Brisby folded her arms around her chest.

‘All by yourself?’

Her stare was enough to make the slender rat blush.

‘I was hoping for some small help. Brutus can fight off almost any predator. But I was going to ask…’

‘You were going to ask my children to go with you.’

For a moment, nobody spoke. Justin’s jaw dropped open in surprise.

‘How…?’

‘You need someone who knows a bit of medicine, but none of the real doctors. If what she,’ the mouse nodded to Julia, ‘says is true the colony will need all the doctors it has. That leaves Cynthia. Plus, she never gets lost.’

The rat simply tried to swallow a lump in his throat as Mrs. Brisby’s eyes pierced his.

‘That means you won’t ask Martin or Teresa. They are both full doctors and even Verilla will not want them to leave once she finds out about all of this. But you will also want someone who can work well in the human city, someone who knows about machines and such.’

Her gaze went to her youngest son, still stern, and then turned her gaze back to Justin.

‘That means Timothy, am I right?’

The leader of the colony, former Captain of the Guard, rubbed his hands nervously behind his back. How she managed to make him feel like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar was beyond him.

‘Yes,’ he admitted, ‘I was going to ask them to come as well.’

As if on cue both Cynthia and Timothy stepped forward, framing their mother, a paw on each of her shoulders.

‘Mom,’ Cynthia implored, ‘we have to go. If we don’t…’

‘… we will probably all die anyway,’ Timothy finished in a trembling voice.

Mrs. Brisby closed her eyes, fighting back tears. They were her children, but they were not children anymore. She needed to let them make their own decisions.

---Go back with them, back to NIMH.---

Her eyes still closed, she nodded, then opened them.

‘Alright, but under one condition.’

Justin was both relieved and concerned at how easily the mouse had agreed.

‘That would be…?’

‘I am coming with you as well.’

It was the second time for Justin’s jaw to drop. And again, Mrs. Brisby cut him off before he could protest.

‘I am not going to let two of my children face the city of the humans by themselves, no arguments.’

Justin’s mouth closed, opened as if to protest, then closed again. Finally he nodded.

‘Okay.’

Arthur, who had been watching the verbal sparring between mouse and rat with interest cleared his throat and raised a hand.

‘Excuse me, but a reality check is in order. Like Philip already said before, the Counsel will never let their leader go off on an adventure like that, especially when they are scared witless.’

The old looked at Justin and Philip with a grave face.

‘And once they find out about this, they will panic.’

Justin turned Captain of the Guard with a sad, but cunning smile.

‘Arthur is right. They will never let the Leader of the Counsel leave.’

Philip felt a new shudder run down his spine, one that had nothing to do with the awful news about sickness and death. This shudder was caused by a very different revelation. Justin obviously, already had a plan. And the Captain was sure he would not like it.

Before the guard could give voice to his uneasiness Justin looked back at the bed and Julia again, his eyes now imploring. The female rat looked back in confusion, her eyes filled with questions.

‘What about you, Julia? Will you stay here or come back with us?’

Terror began to shine in the white rat’s blue eyes.

‘Why would you need me?’

‘Because,’ Justin lowered his gaze, ‘I have not been at NIMH in many years. I can find my way back, but then what? What rooms do I need to look in? Which humans are the ones that have the cure?’

He looked at her in growing desperation.

‘I know you have just escaped from them. I should not ask this of you. Please, come with us. If you do not…’

Justin raised right arm, showing the discolored patch of fur, which now reached all the way to the crook of his elbow.

‘… we may all die.’


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