The flight was a trip none of the rodents would forget in a long time.
At first, the four crows had been flying uneasily in the company of the much larger eagles. But as the journey commenced and the black birds got accustomed to their raptorial companions the crows started performing their usual airborne antics. Jeremy in particular did not believe in flying in straight lines and soon he and his wife were circling each other while cawing and chuckling like teenagers. Mrs. Brisby had flown on Jeremy’s back many times. There had never been even the slightest sign that the fumbling crow might drop her. Yet even after all this time flying still churned her insides and clenched her guts with fear.
Timothy and Cynthia were having a blast. Jules and Janet were not going to be outdone by their parents in showing off, so the youngsters swooped, dove, tumbled and climbed just as radically. The two younger mice had loved riding on Jeremy even when they had been children, much to their mother’s amazement. Now that each of them got to ride their –own- crow, the flight was turning into a playful game of chase.
Orin and Kara apparently felt that the crows’ aerial display was more childish than sophisticated and followed the smaller birds at measured distance. Their flight was smooth, with barely a flick of the wing as they soared on gusts and thermals. The predators gave of a sense of great solemnity, in stark contrast with the crows’ jovial abandon. That suited Julia and Justin just fine. The female sat in front, with Justin holding her around the waist from behind, as Orin glided through the air. At first, both had been breathing hard as neither of them had flown before. Yet after an hour the journey became an adventure, with both rats marveling at the distant, tiny world below.
The only one who did not appreciate, or even notice, the ride was Brutus.
Cradled in a cage made by Kara’s talons the huge rodent was snoring gently as the eagle carried him and his pack through heights, which would normally make the big rat’s heart do summersaults. Whatever Mr. Ages had put into the Guard’s hot chocolate was doing its work well. Actually, it almost did its work a little too well. Brutus, as the travelers discovered, was apparently a rather restless sleeper at the best of times. Being suspended high in the air definitely was not the best of times for the hug rodent to start rolling around his side while sleeping. In an effort to be more comfortable, Brutus twitched, moved around, and kicked his legs repeatedly.
Despite her abilities, the female eagle was having difficulties making sure he did no escape her grasp.
Suddenly, the airborne rodents heard Kara screech in dismay only to see a huge lump tumbling toward the distant ground beneath them. Crows, rats, and mice gasped in unison as they watched Brutus plummet downwards. The big rat, in turn, did not notice a thing. If not for his peril he would have looked marvelously comical, turning in midair, trying to find the perfect sleeping position, even using his pole-axe as a make-shift teddy bear, all the while his cape was fluttering in the breeze as he descended at record speed.
Kara dove after him. The eagle was a master of the air, plunging down faster than the rotating rat could fall. Opening her wings at a precise moment, she swooped in right above Brutus and managed to snag his long cap in her claws. Again, the rat, suspended from his own cape, did not notice anything and kept on snoring. As the eagle resumed her place close to her mate she slowly wrapped the Guard into her talons again, this time just a smidgeon tighter than before. Orin simply nodded with an appreciative smile while both rodents and crows shuddered with relief.
They made good time and arrived at the forest’s edge adjacent to the Fitzgibbon Farm fields before the sun had set. The eagles did not wish to fly directly over the farmstead, as Julia had suggested that it might be too dangerous considering what the humans might do to unwary trespassers, by air or by land. Crows and predators deposited their charges beneath an elm close to what had once been a verdant field.
There, the rodents, with the exception of the still sleeping Brutus, said their good-byes again. Even before the journey began Justin had made it clear that the birds would not take them all the way to the city of Baltimore. Kara and Orin were already uneasy this close to civilization. The city would not be a good place for them. They chose to return this very evening, wanting to be back in their own aerie as soon as possible. Jeremy and his family had nests in the forest and would remain here until the expedition had made it back to the Farm. Once Justin and the others had signaled them in the usual manner, the Owl would find a way to contact the eagles again.
On the question as to how the mice and rats would make it all the way to NIMH Justin had been somewhat vague. Upon the birds leaving their friends beneath the tree the brown rat had explained that he had prepared for a number of different means to get to Baltimore, but they would depend on what they found when they inspected the old Farm closer. Ideally, he had said, they might be able to secretly hitch a ride with a human car from NIMH. That would take them
directly to where they needed, if not wanted, to be. But first they would have to take a look at what the human scientists had actually done. Well, to be honest, first they had to wait for Brutus to wake up, which he did shortly after sunset.
They all looked at the huge wire fence in confusion.
So far, what the group had found was not making a lot of sense to them. Just as Teresa had hinted at the Fitzgibbon family house was gone. As a matter of fact, everything seemed to be gone, every structure, every rock, everything that was not level earth had been removed. And what had remained had then somehow been sterilized. There was no life behind that wire fence that encircled the space where the homestead had once been. The ground was a lifeless grey, and not just because of the moonlight. Not a single blade of grass or weed was growing in the flattened expanse that had once been home to the Brisby family, Mr. Ages, and the human Fitzgibbon family.
The rodents had approached the perimeter fence with great caution. Even the fields beyond the enclosure were dead and barren, so there had not been a lot of cover to hide behind. At least in the area outside the fence a few small weeds were grasping a foothold again. As they had approached the farmstead proper both rats and mice had been alarmed at the amount of light produced there. At each corner of the fence, which stood an easy twelve feet tall, were immense halogen lights, pointing both into and out of the dead, enclosed space. In addition to the lights Justin had been able to spot what he believed to be cameras on every single fence-post, pointing in both directions as well. The humans did not want anyone, or anything, getting close without their notice.
In the beginning, rats and mice had hunkered behind a hillock between the woods and the farmstead, overlooking the terrain to get an idea how to approach without being noticed by the cameras. Justin had produced a small spy-glass, which he traded back and forth with Brutus until the two had formed a consensus, which path would be the safest.
Now they stood as close to the fence as they dared. They could see a lot from their current position, none of it good.
‘There is nobody here.’
Cynthia’s comment echoed in the still night air.
Timothy and the others nodded.
‘I don’t understand this,’ her mother mused.
‘I know. There are no buildings, tents, not a single vehicle, nothing.’
He turned to Julia.
‘It did not look like this when you and your fellows made your escape, right?’
The white-furred female, obviously at a loss, shook her head.
‘No, it was nothing like this. They were putting up a fence, yes… but the lights, the cameras, none of that was here.’
She pointed to the eastern side of the perimeter.
‘That’s where the humans parked their trailers, like little laboratories that they pulled behind their vehicles. They had three of them. We escaped from the third one, the farthest from where the house was.’
Both Justin and Brutus followed her gaze. There was not a single sign of human occupation, or any other kind, to be found. Justin trained the spy-glass at the area Julia had indicated and shook his head.
‘Nothing, not even tracks from vehicles, just this dead dust.’
It was then that the bigger Guard nudged him. Justin looked at Brutus, who held up his writing tablet.
Read the signs through the glass?
All along the outside of the fence hung a series of different signs, most of them warning signs. Biohazard and lightening symbols warning of electrocution were visible even to the naked eye. Justin scanned some of the larger ones with more writing on them. He put down the telescope and turned to Julia once more and offered her the device.
‘Take a look at that larger sign right in the middle of the fence line. Can you read it for us? I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.’
She took the glass, raised it to her eye and scanned the indicated area. Then she lowered it, with an even greater look of confusion.
‘I don’t understand this.’
The mice, who had not gotten to use the spy glass, were gazing at her impatiently.
‘Well,’ ventured Timothy, ‘what does it say?’
Rather than answer, Julia handed him the telescope. The mouse took it and looked for himself.
Cynthia rolled her eyes.
‘Read it, or hand it over.’
Her brother cleared his throat.
‘There is a weird logo on the top. Then a big red ‘Warning’ and then it says: This site it designated as an experimental farm by the United States Agricultural Department. Trespassing is strictly prohibited. Approaching the fence may result in electrocution and biohazard contamination.’
Justin muttered to the mouse, ‘Read the other sign next to it.’
Moving the telescope Timothy nodded.
‘The same weird symbol, triangles and such. Then it says in big letters: Lazarus Laboratories, Inc. Experimental Farm, then some more stuff about something called USDA and human laws.’
Mrs. Brisby rubbed her chin.
‘Anything about NIMH?’
Her son scanned the signs, then the rest of the fence perimeter.
‘That’s odd. Nothing on any of the signs says anything about NIMH.’
Timothy lowered the glass and looked at Justin in confusion.
‘What does that mean?’
The brown rat, never turning his gaze from the disturbing vista below, shook his head very slowly.
‘I am not sure. Julia, have you ever heard of –Lazarus Laboratories-?’
She shook her head vehemently.
‘This is the first time I have ever seen that name. This is strange. We came from NIMH, the humans had badges with –NIMH- on them, the cars had it on them…’
Justin turned to Brutus, who held his chalk board at his side and simply gave a resigned shrug. The former Captain of the Guard sighed once more and then shouldered his back-pack.
‘We are not going to solve this mystery here. We cannot go down there where the cameras are, so we move onward, to NIMH.’
‘Ahem,’ Cynthia wondered, ‘you had said we would hitch a ride with NIMH people back to the city. There is nobody here.’
Justin smiled down at her and winked.
‘I also said I had a number of ways figured out.’
‘Have you ever heard of something the humans call –The Greyhound Bus-?’
Julia and the mice looked at him blankly. Brutus, on the other hand, snapped a finger with an expression of delight.
‘Follow me. If we walk through the night we may just make it there in time.’
The trek was not as arduous as Justin had first thought.
The road running past the Fiztgibbon Farm, or where the farmstead used to be, had an even stretch of level ground beside it, which was easy to walk on during the night. Mrs. Brisby kept musing on how different her life had become. Back in the days before she had met her future husband she would have never dared to get close to a human road. It was not just the unbelievably fast human devices called cars that frightened her back then. To walk close to the road meant being exposed, exposed to every single predator the fields had to offer, from the ground and the air.
But as the rodent expedition travelled alongside the paved road, trying not to think about the lack of sleep and the exhaustion that the continuous walk was causing, fear of predation never entered anyone’s mind. Having a rabbit-sized rat with a razor-sharp blade on a stick and the martial attitude of a wolverine as a companion did wonders for one’s feeling of safety. A few times, mice and rats had to make a run for the ditch when a rare human vehicle would veer down the otherwise deserted road.
‘Back when we lived at the Rosebush,’ Justin had explained, ‘we stole all sorts of things in order to build our colony. Many of the things we needed we could not get at the farm.’
So, the Rats of NIMH had sent Guard scouts out to find additional resources. One, the brown rat shared, was what the humans called a –gas station-, a place for them to fuel up their vehicles when they needed to. This place also had a store of sorts, selling not only food items but electronics, tools, and other mechanical doodads, which the intelligent rodents would be able to put to good use. In addition, the location also boasted a small garage, where broken down cars and tractors were being brought to be fixed.
All in all, four buildings were nestled around a road intersection, a little over a mile down from the farmstead: The gas station, the garage, the store, and a small restaurant with a bar,
where the occasional trucker and local famers came together to share food and gossip. Despite the continuous presence of humans the Rats of NIMH had ventured to the intersection many times. The things to be found at this collection of dwellings had been too tempting. Justin had led many an excursion there himself, with Brutus a member of the party.
Tonight it was not the need for resources of the material kind that made the location essential. In addition to providing services and goods to locals and transients alike, it also had a stop for the Greyhound Bus Line. This system, their leader explained, was a means of shared transportations for humans, who, for some reason or another, could not afford their own vehicle. The bus carried humans from one distant place to another. And the Rats, from their many observations at the locale, soon learned of the patterns of comings and goings at the bus stop. For one, they discovered that the Greyhound Bus drove to the city of Baltimore every Monday morning. Human beings from the area apparently went to the city for a variety of reasons. Humans of all shapes and ages, Justin remembered, would enter and leave the buses when they stopped here.
It was a few hours after midnight when the group reached the intersection. Closer to more urban areas gas stations and adjacent convenient stores were often open throughout the night. Thankfully, this was not the case here. A few trucks were parked next to the restaurant, which also advertised nightly rooms. But apart from one or two lights in the windows of that particular establishment, everything was quiet.
They waited in the ditch close to the gas station, hidden by a curtain of grass. Brutus had gone ahead to see if everything was still the same as it had been a few years back. The others waited impatiently and exhausted. Justin kept peering through the grass blades to maybe catch a glimpse of his friend. Then, a faint whistle, known well to Cynthia, echoed from across the street. The former Captain of the Guard sighed with relief and slumped back against the ditch’s dirt wall.
Five minutes later and Brutus climbed down to rejoin the group. Once tucked into the safety of the ditch he took out his writing board and quickly scribbled.
Big dog at restaurant. On chain.
Not in our way.
Clear to bus stop.
Justin tapped his chin.
‘Is there any place where we can spend the rest of the night, somewhere dry?’
The bigger rat nodded emphatically, erased the board and wrote anew.
Wood tool shed behind bus stop.
Holes in wall.
Dusty but dry.
Helping an almost sleeping Julia to her feet while Mrs. Brisby, despite her own fatigue, jostled her drowsing children awake, Justin nodded towards the shed.
‘Just a few more steps and then we can all have some sleep.’
They made it to the shed within less than ten minutes. As Brutus had stated, it was easy to get inside and find a dry corner for everyone to bed down in their travelling blankets. Justin ordered the large Guard to get some rest as he would take the first watch. All the while, Mrs. Brisby kissed Cynthia and Timothy good-night, despite the grown mice’s obvious embarrassment at the maternal gesture. Julia, resting relatively comfortably in her blanket, had to chuckle at the scene, and at Timothy’s final comments about this being a “rather odd camping trip”. Rolling over on her side the white female rat wondered about the strange way her existence had gone ever since her escape from the laboratory truck. She could only vaguely remember her previous life, as a test animal, as if a fog was beginning to form over her memories. Julia yawned. It was probably just the exhaustion. Before another thought could follow, she had fallen asleep. The rest, with the exception of Justin, who sat on one of the shed’s window sills that overlooked the bus station, were already asleep.
Despite the shed’s destitution and the late hour, the group woke relatively refreshed and in good cheer. Brutus, who had switched shifts with Justin during the night, had nudged them awake some time before dawn, as gently as the mute rat was able to. Only one day of travelling had already made the six rodents strangely comfortable with each other. The surreal quality and haste of their journey, combined with the seriousness of the task before them, probably necessitated for them to bond quickly for support.
After a quick breakfast on rations and some fresh water collected in a bin outside, the troupe made its way back towards the gas station and the adjacent bus stop. Justin remarked that the usual arrival time for the bus was just after sunrise this time of year. Hence, he was eager to be there to figure out a means for getting on the human transport before the sun came up. The bus stop itself was small, catering to regular passengers on a local basis, rather than a larger hub for the Greyhound bus line. It consisted of a large covered drive-through for the vehicle, so that passengers getting on and off could do so even in increment weather without too much discomfort. Passengers waited on a nearby set of benches with roofs, which adjoined the backside of the gas station’s convenient store.
Julia and the mice waited underneath one of the benches, trying to stay out of sight in the shadows of a far corner. Justin and Brutus were doing something on top of the bench, something involving grunts and heaving, swinging sounds, and then a small metal clink.
Timothy tried to peer up between the wooden slats of the benches as he heard Justin shout in triumph.
‘What are they doing up there?’
Cynthia had snuck up behind him.
‘I can see Brutus standing there, but Justin’s gone.’
Both their mother and Julia peered out from the corner at that remark, the female rat fidgeting with her hands.
‘He’s not going to do anything foolish, right?’
The older mouse gently put a paw on the white rat’s shoulder, smiling at the hint of growing affection in Julia’s voice.
‘Justin is a lot of things, but never a fool.’
‘Too dark to see anything,’ complained her son.
Just then a small thump and an exhausted exhale by the brown rat eased the group’s fear. Moments later both rats climbed down a bench leg and joined their companions. Justin was sweating but had one of his goofy grins on his face. He bowed theatrically to the waiting rodents.
‘I am pleased to inform you that the bus will arrive at 7.30 am and, after allowing time for refueling and loading, will depart for the city of Baltimore at 7.45 am. The drive should take about three hours and twenty minutes.’
Cynthia gave the slender rat a lopsided smile.
‘And how do you know that?’
Justin, still grinning, waved a hand upwards.
‘The humans post the schedule on the wall. I just had to get up there to take a look at it.’
‘And how did you do that,’ wondered Timothy.
Brutus held up a long rope with a sophisticated grappling hook at the end, grinning himself.
‘Hey,’ the male mouse complained, ‘I made those for the rigging of the new roof canopy in the Oak!’
Justin padded Timothy on the shoulder, ‘Yeah. They work great.’
Now it was Julia who raised her voice.
‘That’s all good, but how do we get on that bus without being seen?’
The former Captain of the Guard pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
‘We have to find a human with the right kind of bag.’
As the sun was rising the passengers for the bus began to appear, some standing, others seating themselves on the bunks. Below, the waiting rodents became more and more uneasy. Even Brutus was starting to look edgy. Justin, on the other hand, was too intent looking at the various kinds of gear and luggage the humans were setting down. Finally, when a well-dressed young man placed a big leather carrying-case right next to the side of the bench, he quietly motioned for the others to come closer.
‘Look there,’ Justin whispered, ‘that is an expensive travelling case and that human dresses like somebody important. The sides of that case are open, easy to get into. I bet the human will take this right onto the bus with him, rather than have it stowed.’
Mrs. Brisby’s eyes narrowed a bit.
‘What is going to be in that bag?’
Cynthia, peeking her head around Brutus, mused,
‘Looks like the cases doctors used to carry.’
Justin crept towards the side of the bag with the opening facing them and waved for the others to follow. Once there he quickly scrambled up the side and through the hole into the luggage. There was a muffled sound as the rat appeared to land on something and then his head peered out from the leather case.
‘Just papers, pens, and something wrapped up that smells good. Come on up!’
Brutus carefully hoisted first Mrs. Brisby and then her children up to Justin, who lifted them inside the bag. Then the Guard allowed Julia to use his hands as a stepladder to climb up. The hardest part was when the two smaller rats had to help the much heavier Brutus up to join them. Once inside the confined space, everybody tried to find a somewhat comfortable spot to sit with their backs against the case’s leather sides.
‘Brutus, my friend, you need a diet.’
The larger rat shrugged, but then gestured to a large bundle wrapped in wax paper, which was resting on one end of the bag. Cynthia, who was closest, sniffed at it.
‘Brutus is right. This smells like food.’
‘Hah,’ retorted her brother from the other side of the case, ‘I can tell that from here. Whatever is in there is making me drool.’
‘Better not,’ Justin warned.
‘This might be the human’s lunch. If he finds it missing or half-eaten when he checks his bag, we might be in big trouble.’
‘We’re not going to stay in here,’ asked Mrs. Brisby.
The brown rat shook his head.
‘Once we’re in the bus we better find a safer place to hide. If the human opens his bag while we’re still inside, things will get really hairy.’
‘Yeah,’ Timothy agreed, ‘he’ll take one look at Brutus eating his lunch and have a heart attack.’
Cynthia giggled while Brutus put a hand to his chest in mock insult.
Julia’s mood was more subdued.
‘Seeing us –animals- wearing clothes would cause serious problems.’
The chuckles subsided to be replaced by solemn nods. Just as Justin was about to add a comment the bag was lifted up roughly, shaking the contained rodents about. Everybody tried to hold on to the sides of the case in order to make as little sound as possible as the human owner moved his belongings inside the bus. This was easier said than done. Especially the mice were having difficulties in remaining stationary as the bag’s interior swayed like a ship in a gale. Both Timothy and Mrs. Brisby lost their grips on the leather’s stitching, only to roll head-over-heels across the papers. Thankfully, the human’s wrapped food served as a cushion for them and, apart from the paper rustling, dampened unwanted sounds.
Just as abruptly as the shaking had begun, so it subsided again as the carrying-case was dropped on a level surface, and then unceremoniously shoved beneath a seat on the bus. Nobody inside the luggage dared to move. Then, the hissing noises of the bus’ closing doors, the start of the engine, and the sensation of motion allowed the trapped rodents to relax a bit.
Timothy, slowly untangling himself from the wax paper and helping his mother up, muttered,
‘Take the bus and ride in comfort.’
As soon as the bus had been under way and the rats had a good peek through the case’s open side to make sure that nobody would be able to spot them, the rodents left the confines of the bag. The human had deposited the leather case underneath his chair. Luckily, the bus was barely occupied and the few seats behind the luggage piece were empty. Brutus gently patted the wrapped lunch with a longing face before taking up the rear-guard. Rats and mice kept close to the bus’ wall as they moved farther back. Justin, being in the lead, reached the end of the vehicle first. The vehicle’s movements were gradual, but still made walking more difficult, so having a wall to support one’s weight was welcome.
In the back the group decided to spend the rest of the journey in the right corner under the last row of seats. This bus had a built-in lavatory, which made the right side of the back seats somewhat cramped, which would discourage human passengers and make it difficult for anyone to spot the diminutive hitchhikers. Since the ride was going to take three hours the rodents planned on catching up on some more sleep. That, sadly, proved rather difficult. The bus’ movement and the shaking of the floor made for poor purchase. Rats and mice tried to huddle in a group, giving each other support, Justin and Brutus trying to frame the smaller mice between them. It took some readjusting, but in about fifteen minutes the travelers had managed to become at least a bit cozy. Julia leaned her head on Justin’s chest, which Mrs. Brisby, who was framed by her children around whom he had wrapped her arms, noticed with a warm smile. For someone who had just met the two rats were becoming very familiar with each other.
She was glad for that. Justin had spent so much time trying to serve the colony after Nicodemus’ death that he had never found time to have a personal life. Maybe this journey would serve more than one purpose. Both the brown rat and the white female soon nodded off. Brutus, ever the silent observer, nodded over to his superior and Julia with a wink and a grin as Mrs. Brisby caught his glance. Then she too closed her eyes and managed to sleep a bit.
Sleep was disrupted by the arrival of the children.
With the unerring instincts of juveniles everywhere the group of twelve-year-olds headed straight for the back row of seats and, once there, immediately set to work roughhousing with each other and shoving each other’s backpacks underneath the seats. One the packs managed to nudge Brutus, who was the most exposed of the group. But by the time that happened, the entire party of rodents was already wide awake. The human children made such a racket that mice and rats had been jerked from their slumber before the first child had even sat down. Now Justin and his expedition were pressed as far into the shadows as was possible, hoping that none of the kids would chance to look too closely at the underside of their seats.
‘Dung,’ Timothy complained, ‘now what do we do?’
‘Shhhhhhhhh,’ hushed his sister.
Justin, in as calm a voice as he could muster, mused quietly,
‘We stay as still and quiet as we can.’
Julia shuddered, ‘What if one of them looks under their seat?’
‘I doubt it,’ Justin assured, ‘There is so little room back here I don’t think any of them would try to stick their heads down.’
Brutus gave the bag that had bumped him an indignant kick and folded his arms across his chest in protest.
‘Kids will be kids,’ Mrs. Brisby tried to soothe the pouting rat.
‘Well, we were never that bad,’ opined Cynthia.
At this the big Guard’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head, pointing an accusing finger at the crème-furred mouse.
Now it was Cynthia’s turn to act indignant.
‘I was that bad?’
Brutus nodded emphatically, which made Timothy have to suppress a loud guffaw in his paws.
‘Easy there, kids,’ Justin chuckled softly, ‘don’t make me turn this bus around.’
Just as the brown rat was beginning to enjoy the humorous camaraderie their situation was evoking his eyes caught sight of something a few rows in front of them, across the aisle to
their left. He sat up immediately and scrambled along the bus’ back wall to the vehicle’s left side. Both Mrs. Brisby and Julia grabbed his tunic.
‘Hey!’ the female rat hissed.
‘Where are you going?’ added the mouse.
Justin pointed ahead, underneath the rows of seats on the right side.
‘There is something I need to take a look at. Stay here.’
‘What,’ Julia retorted angrily, ‘and have you getting caught because you like to play hero?’
Justin’s wide-eyed expression of surprise at the female rat’s protective outrage was enough to make Mrs. Brisby cover her mouth, so that the brown rat would not see her wide grin. He did anyway, but before the two rats could start an argument, the mouse swallowed down the laughter growing in her stomach and cleared her throat.
‘Why don’t you tell us first what you are looking for?’
The male rat pointed to an elderly man sitting in one of the window seats on the left, obviously asleep. Julia and Mrs. Brisby looked at the human, but could not discern Justin’s interest.
‘Look between his shoes’, Justin muttered.
Between the human’s loafers was what looked like a folded piece of paper. At least, it had been folded once. Now it was a random ball of clutter, but some of the details on it were visible even at this distance.
‘It’s a map. A map with the bus stops in Baltimore. There is a –Greyhound- logo on it.’
‘And?’ Julia was still indignant.
In reply, the brown rat put a hand into one of the wide sleeves of his tunic and removed a hand-drawn piece of parchment. He unfolded it carefully and put it on the floor between the two females.
Mrs. Brisby was amazed.
‘That is the human city, isn’t it?’
‘One of the things we copied from the humans when we left. We were lucky to find a map with so much detail that we could find NIMH on it, and retrace the way we left.’
Now Julia nodded.
‘You want to know where the bus stops so we can get off close to the way you and the other rats took when you first left NIMH.’
A broad smile widened the male’s features.
‘It would be a lot of help to know that.’
As the three rodents talked Cynthia, Timothy, and Brutus also drew close to take a look at the home-made map.
‘So, you want to steal that man’s map?’ Timothy asked with doubt.
Justin shook his head.
‘No, I just need to copy the bus stop that’s the closest to our old route.’
Now Cynthia chimed in.
‘And how do you plan to do that? That map looks like a crumpled lettuce.’
‘Well,’ the male rat stopped short. Justin had not thought about that part yet.
‘The map is too big to pull under that human’s seat,’ Mrs. Brisby noticed.
Julia nodded and added,
‘There is not enough space there to unfold it properly either.’
The former Captain of the Guard sighed.
‘I’ll just have to climb through the paper and try to find the right section.’
‘Won’t work,’ Timothy pointed out, ‘that is a big pile of paper. You won’t fit in there well enough to find what you’re looking for, at least not without some major noise.’
Perking a brow Justin folded his arms across his chest.
‘So what do you suggest?’
Oddly enough, it was his mother who answered.
‘That it should be a mouse to try and do it.’
Both Julia and Justin looked at all three mice incredulously.
‘That is way too dangerous.’
Cocking her hands in her hips Elizabeth Brisby stared up at Justin.
‘Oh really? Only one of us can get into the paper without making too much noise and still be able to move around enough to find the information.’
‘Don’t try to argue with mom when she uses that tone, Justin.’
‘So,’ Timothy rubbed his paws in anticipation, ‘who’s going to be the lucky mouse?’
In reply, his mother looked at Brutus, who had been silently looming behind the two younger Brisby mice.
‘Brutus, could you make sure that my children stay put and don’t do anything silly?’
The big rat, not missing a beat, scooped up both Cynthia and Timothy in his huge arms and carried then underneath his shoulders, back to the corner underneath the seats.
‘Hey! Let go!’ Timothy protested.
‘Traitor!’ Cynthia added.
‘Brutus,’ Justin hissed, ‘can you make sure that they stay a bit more quiet?’
Immediately the mice’s complaints became muffled, as if they had been put in a gag.
Julia gave Mrs. Brisby a questioning look.
‘That wasn’t really nice, now.’
The mouse nodded and shrugged shyly.
‘Sometimes being a parent isn’t nice.’
Then, she looked up at Justin.
‘What do you need me to do?’
Justin pointed at the hand-drawn map at the floor.
‘If you can find the closest bus stop to that area over there, just where it is and what it is called.’
The white rat tilted her head.
‘What is in that area?’
‘The city garbage dump.’
Both females gaped at Justin, who simply shrugged.
‘We escaped NIMH through the ventilation system. Then we took the upper sewers until we reached the dump. It was the best way not to run into too many humans.’
Turning back to the map the mouse peered at the outlines and diagrams intently, trying to commit as much of it to memory as she could. Finally, she took her glasses off and put them into a pocket in the lining of cape.
‘Let’s do this before I figure out how foolish I’m acting.’
As the two rats and mouse began to quietly move underneath the seats on the bus’ left side Brutus sat himself down in the back corner once more, only this time with two violently
squirming mice lodged beneath his arms, who had their muzzles clamped shut by his large fingers. He tried to ignore their kicks and jabs and looked at the ceiling for a while. When Cynthia and Timothy finally calmed down he removed his fingers from around their muzzles quickly, so that they would not be able to retaliate by biting him. Both his charges were casting him gazes filled with so much anger that they would have made anyone cringe.
‘You know,’ Cynthia hissed through clenched teeth, ‘that was really underhanded.’
‘Underhanded?’ Timothy snorted.
‘Kidnapping, hijacking, illegal seizure, that’s what it was.’
‘You are so going to get it. I’ll pull the elevator lever on purpose now, you gorilla.’
Brutus just sighed and tried to ignore the two mice. He was wondering when it would be safe to actually release them. His arms were getting somewhat tired.
‘I’ll invent something nasty just for you for…’
Before Timothy could finish a sound coming from the floor right in front of them diverted their attention. One of the kids on the seats above had been jumping up and down and managed to kick over one of their backpacks lying on the floor. The pack toppled over and revealed an open zipper at the top. Within that gap, a shining silver surface, with pictures and writing, caught the group’s attention. It was a small plastic bag, so small it had halfway tumbled out of the pack, just inches away from the rodents. The big rat and the mice nestled in his grip looked at the package as if mesmerized.
‘They are supposed to be awesome,’ Cynthia muttered in a hushed voice.
Timothy, still suspended in the crook of Brutus arm, nodded in awe and licked his lips.
‘I’ve read that some humans even think they’re addictive.’
Then, slowly, both mice turned their heads up to Brutus, all anger forgotten. They graced him with the most insincere smiles of innocence anyone could muster. The big rat, in turn, had to blink his eyes a few times to be able to draw his attention away from the enticing cellophane bag to look at the mice in his grasp.
‘Truce?’ Cynthia suggested.
Brutus lowered the mice to the ground and all three seated themselves next to each other along the back wall, all eyes staring longingly at the bag.
‘I am so hungry,’ Timothy sighed.
Nodding, Cynthia added, ‘I don’t think the humans would notice if we took one each, would they?’
‘What? Open the bag, take three out, and put the ripped bag back?’
‘Well,’ Cynthia sighed, ‘I guess not then.’
The large Guard, sitting between the two mice siblings looked from one to the other, and then at the silver bag, which had so providently fallen in front of them. He shook his head as if to clear it and then grabbed for his writing tablet and chalk.
We do not steal.
Both mice deflated, but nodded agreement. Finding a way to live without stealing had been at the center of the Rats of NIMH’s plan to build their colony in Thorn Valley, where they would be both free and able to live off of what they themselves produced. So, the three rodents sat back, slumped against each other, gazing at the tantalizing bag with sad looks in their eyes.
Then, unexpectedly, the boy who apparently owned the backpack raised it up from the ground. Moments later, the bus slowed, and finally came to a screeching halt. The hissing of the pneumatic doors announced a bus stop. Finally, all the kids got up and headed out the door and into the world beyond. But what really caught the sitting rodents’ attention was the fact that as the boy lifted the backpack off the floor the silver bag fell out and rolled even farther under the seat, almost at Brutus’ feet.
The mice looked at the rat. The rat looked back at each of them in turn. Finally, three pairs of eyes rested on the tantalizing image on the package and the words printed below.
Golden Honey Roasted Peanuts
Mrs. Brisby, Julia, and Justin were huddled underneath the row of seats the sleeping human occupied. The balled-up map was right in front of them. The problem was that the map was lodged underneath the seat in front of the recumbent senior. A slim leather suitcase rested next to the old man’s legs to his right, blocking the way underneath the neighboring seat. Across the aisle were other passengers. That only left one way for the rodents to get to the map, right over the sleeping passengers fancy leather shoes.
‘This is crazy.’
Julia gazed at the human’s legs and shuddered.
Justin nodded and looked from the human to the crumpled heap of paper.
‘Maybe we should just forget about this.’
‘No,’ Mrs. Brisby shook her head as she took off her cloak, ‘if the city is half as big as you said we might never find our way, or get killed somehow.’
She handed the red cape to her old friend, remembering a similar situation where she had done just that. Justin took the clothing and, after she had carefully removed them, the mouse’s gloves as well. The scars on the palms of Mrs. Brisby’s hands were still visible after all these years. Seeing them again made the brown rat rub at his own chest reflexively. Would his own scar from the Stone be there for the rest of his life as well?
The mouse, now all bereft of anything that would mark her as something more than a wild animal, hunkered down on all fours, ready to crawl over the human’s feet and into the balled-up map.
‘Here I go.’
She moved slowly, trying not to make any sudden movements that would wake the human passenger. In order to find purchase on the shoes, which were polished smooth, the mouse had to make a grab for the laces. The older man had, in his sleep, pushed both feet right into the wad of paper, which made walking around his shoes impossible. Mrs. Brisby angled for a lace and pulled herself up. The shiny leather was slippery and she had to ascend cautiously.
Suddenly, her feet slipped and she fell hard against the shoe’s outside.
In response, the human snorted and twitched, jerking his foot around, swinging the mouse from side to side.
‘Come back,’ Justin urged from underneath the seat.
Mrs. Brisby, swallowing hard, shook her head and held on to the lace until the passenger’s foot had come to rest in its original position. Then, she pulled herself up once more until she finally made it to the top of the foot. The purchase there was just as bad, which turned the move towards the toes and the map beyond into a precarious balancing act. Moving gradually on all fours the brown mouse made it to the tip of the shoe without alerting the sleeper. But just as she was going to lower herself from the tip into the folds of the map, her weight must have registered in the resting human. His foot twitched again, upwards, catapulting a surprised Mrs. Brisby headfirst into the rustling mound of paper.
Justin was about ready to bolt outside, but Julia held him by the shoulder, quietly shaking her head and pointing to the map.
A small brown-furred hand was waving at them from the rumpled map, settling both rats’ nerves. Now they had to wait.
Neither rat was able to gauge the mouse’s progress. They were only able to see the mixed-up folds of the map move and rustle as their friend made her way through the labyrinthine environment. How much time was actually passing was difficult to tell. Every so often the paper wad would shift and rustle so loud that both larger rodents held their breath, expecting either the sleeping occupant or another human across the aisle to notice. Justin was already scolding himself for suggesting this fool’s errand. Twice, the gentleman in the chair moved in his sleep, once slightly kicking the map with his feet, which was followed by a small thump and a quiet exclamation of discomfort from the mouse inside.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Mrs. Brisby emerged from the paper folds and carefully pulled herself up the polished surface of the shoe’s tip. Once up on the foot proper she proceeded somewhat more surefooted than before.
Then the sleeper suddenly turned his whole body around in his seat.
Mrs. Brisby was flung into the air and catapulted back underneath the chair, right into the two rats who had been gasping in fear. The impact was strong enough to throw Justin and Julia off their feet. Once on the ground, all three rodents remained still, eyes strained on the human’s legs. Nothing moved. Everything was quiet. Then, slowly, there was a snoring sound coming from the elderly man in the seat, rising ever more in pitch and loudness.
Justin, lying on his back, Julia next to him to his right, and the mouse, prone across both their chest, started to chuckle and giggle. The two females, not understanding why, could not suppress their relief either and joined in, having to press their hands to their mouths to keep from laughing out loud while the snores coming from the seated human only grew greater in volume.
The two rats and the brown mouse, all fully clothed again, made it back to the remainder of the group a few minutes later. They spotted Brutus and the two younger mice sitting around what looked like a small, slivery plastic bag. There was no sign of the children or their backpacks.
Justin frowned. What had been going on here while they had looked at the map? He noticed crumbs on all three rodents’ faces and sniffed the air. There was definitely a strange, but enticing aroma in the air.
Cynthia, who spotted her mom and the rats first, stood up, walked straight up to Justin, and offered him an orange, oblong object.
‘Honey roasted peanuts, anyone?’