Not a place, but space, time, all in one, the everywhere and everywhen.
Floating, was she really there? No, not there, just observing. She was not yet ready, not yet.
It was peaceful. Every place she had ever known and everything else was as close as a fingertip, intermingled yet separate; past, present, future, just directions.
There were others, those that grown beyond. If she concentrated she could discern the shapes they once wore, back when they were bound to space and time. Like stars of many colors, bubbles of light, young suns, they drifted and moved. Some of their memory shapes she recognized, others where strange, yet others where unknowable. But none were frightening.
One of the others shone a beautiful sky blue. She followed its movements. It was joyful, darting between times and spaces, meeting with others, as if in play. She looked closer. There was something familiar about this one. She concentrated. The other’s light resolved itself into the memory of its old shape as it raced across the universes.
Mrs. Brisby gasped awake.
She tried to sit up, but the soft blanket that covered her was tucked in snugly underneath a rodent-sized mattress and restrained her. Her head fell back onto the pillow, pounding. She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled her hands from under the sheets to massage her temples.
What had happened?
She remembered her strange dream. But there had been something before that, something bad. What was it?
All of a sudden recollection flooded her aching cranium and her eyes jerked open. They had been captured! At NIMH! It had all gone wrong somehow. The laboratory room that turned out to be a closet, the strange thing Timothy had found. Then the mist, the humans…
Timothy! Where was he? Cynthia! Where were her children?
The brown mouse began to struggle out from the confining blanket in a panic, not even noticing her surroundings. Once free, Elizabeth first noticed that she was in a cage. She had been sleeping on a rather comfortable little mattress supplied with pillow and blankets that had been put right onto the metal floor. Still desperate for her children she looked around the rectangular space she now occupied; three metal walls and a low ceiling of the same material. The only light came from the fourth wall. Slits in the metal and a locked door let in sparse illumination from beyond. The same scant luminance exposed a number of sleeping shapes covered in blankets spread all around the floor, two large ones, two small.
Mrs. Brisby rushed to the smaller shapes, instinctively knowing that she had found her children. She reached Timothy first. Snug in a similar blanket her son appeared to be sleeping calmly, but the mouse needed to be certain that he was alright. Elizabeth put her hands on his shoulders and squeezed gently.
Timothy snorted and scrambled, instantly awake.
‘It’s okay, honey. It’s me.’
‘Yes,’ Elizabeth replied, ‘your blanket is tucked in tight. Are you alright?’
The tan-colored mouse struggled out from his covers, fumbling to find his glasses.
‘I think so. Where’s Cyn?’
Elizabeth stepped to the second small shape and was relieved to have her daughter’s shape outlined in the gloom. She, just as her brother had, appeared to be sleeping comfortably. As Timothy was still searching around his mattress for his glasses, Mrs. Brisby gently shook her daughter’s shoulder. Unlike her brother, Cynthia woke calmly, blinking her eyes a few times and then turning her head to face her mother.
‘Is that you, Mom?’
‘Yes sweetie. Are you okay?’
The crème-furred mouse turned her head each way and then, as if she had known all along that her feeling of confinement was due having been tucked in like an infant, slipped out from underneath her blanket.
‘Mom, have you seen my glasses? I can’t see a thing.’
As Mrs. Brisby turned to Timothy she noticed he was wearing something akin to a hospital gown. Gazing down at herself and then at Cynthia she found that they were all equally attired.
Cynthia stepped to her brother’s side.
‘I don’t think you’re glasses are here, Timmy. I can’t see anything apart from these mattresses.’
‘I think I found Justin and Brutus.’
Leading her blurry-eyed brother Cynthia followed her mother’s voice to the other side of the cage where the two larger shapes where located. As with the mice, Justin and Brutus were resting on simple mattresses, although somewhat larger, and were securely restrained by their covers.
‘Let me wake Brutus, Mom. I don’t want him to freak out on us.’
‘Yeah,’ Timothy added, ‘that would not be fun: pummeled while blind.’
While Cynthia, her brother keeping a hand on her shoulder, moved to Brutus, Elizabeth gave Justin’s shoulder and gentle shove. The brown rat turned underneath the sheet and groaned.
‘Justin, wake up.’
The rat’s eyes opened and looked at her in confusion.
‘What are you doing in my room?’
Before the mouse could answer Justin’s gaze and recollections asserted themselves. Despite the secured blanket he sat up ramrod straight and grabbed Mrs. Brisby’s shoulders.
‘Are you okay? Where are the kids? What…’
‘Calm down,’ she put a palm on his heaving chest, ‘Cynthia and Timothy are fine. And I think they managed to wake Brutus without problems.’
The lean rat freed himself from his bedding and surveyed his surroundings. Brutus was indeed awake. Shaking his head, standing next to his mattress with his blanket wrapped around him like a cape he struck an almost comical figure in the dim light as the two younger mice assured him. But Justin did not feel like laughing. He remembered what had happened and his face contorted in a frown. He turned to face Elizabeth again.
‘Where’re Julia, and the others?’
The two younger mice and Brutus joined them and Cynthia answered.
‘There is no sign of Brendan, Quaestor, or Julia.’
‘This is eerie.’ Timothy ventured.
‘Really?’ Cynthia gasped in faked amazement.
‘Which part is eerie? Having been drugged by humans, stripped of our clothes, locked in a cage, or having three of our group missing?’
Noticing that his sister was getting angry the lanky mouse took a step back.
In an unusual gesture Brutus, who had shaken off his blanket, put a calming hand on the young female’s shoulder. Her mother looked at her reassuringly.
‘Brendan is going to be alright honey. We’ll find him somewhere. Maybe he is in the next cage over?’
Justin stepped to the slits in the cage’s outer wall and peered outward.
‘Hello? Anyone else in here?’
There was nothing but silence.
‘This is weird. They give us clothes, of a sort, and the only ones missing are the ones that did not come from the Valley.’
All eyes turned to Timothy as he made his statement. His mother nodded gravely and then looked at Justin.
‘Humans don’t usually give trapped animals clothing, right.’
‘No,’ Justin agreed sourly, ‘they do not.’
He pointed a finger at the slits in the cage.
‘And we are not at NIMH.’
‘What do you mean?’ Cynthia wondered.
‘Take a look.’
All five took up positions looking through the openings into the laboratory that held them. The far wall only contained a low workbench filled with odds and ends of equipment. The rest of the wall was a huge row of palatial windows through which the night sky and distant woodlands were clearly visible.
‘We’re no longer in the city.’
Nobody had a chance to comment on Mrs. Brisby’s statement. The sound of small, squeaking wheels was coming from the left side of their prison. As the rats and mice strained to see outside their cage in the gloom they noticed that beyond their prison door was a small ledge, like a walkway. From their vantage point they noticed additional cages arranged to both sides of their own. The squeaking sound was definitely coming from the left. A distant dark shape could be seen, pushing a vague rectangular object on wheels. It gave the impression of a rat shaped individual pushing a cart.
Then they heard the humming.
Whoever or whatever was approaching them was filling the air with the basso tones of some indistinct tune. But it was the voice that shocked Mrs. Brisby and the rats. While Cynthia and Timothy looked at their elders in consternation, Justin’s and Brutus’ eyes went wide and their mother took a step back from the slats with a gasp.
The shape, still dark, still humming, stopped in front of their cage.
‘No,’ Justin breathed quietly, ‘it can’t be.’
All of a sudden the face of a middle-aged male rat with glossy blue-grey fur, feral green eyes, and a sinister grin leaned against the cage slits.
‘Oh but it is, Justin, it most definitely is.’
Elizabeth covered her mouth in her hands as Justin almost shouted the name. Her children and Brutus looked shell-shocked.
‘Come now,’ the face leered from outside the cage, ‘is that any way to greet an old friend?’
Mrs. Brisby’s voice was barely a whisper.
The yellow-green eyes turned on the brown mouse.
‘I actually feel rather well, my dear Mrs. Brisby.’
‘You’re dead,’ Justin affirmed strongly, ‘we buried you.’
Jenner raised a clawed finger to the sky.
‘Ah, but apparently not deep enough, eh, old friend?’
There was a moment of incredulous silence from the prisoners, which the rat outside their cell appeared to enjoy tremendously. Then, the individual that looked like Jenner did something electronic with the door and it raised itself with a faint pneumatic hiss. The cage was open.
None of the freed rodents knew how to proceed. As surreal as their lives had been up to this point their current situation was too much of a dream, or better said a nightmare, to be real.
‘Are you going to wait in there all night?’ Jenner asked, his dark silhouette putting his fist against his hips, ‘I have your clothes here for you, all cleaned.’
Justin was the first to move, although Elizabeth was tempted to reach out with her hand to stop him. Brutus followed and, finally, holding hands, the mice left the cage as well.
Jenner looked the same as he had years ago. He still had his predatory gaze, his powerful built, the roguish beard and the same carnivorous smile. But his clothing was radically different from what his old contemporaries remembered. Instead of his purple and black robes and cape the rat was draped in a light grey uniform of some kind, trimmed with darker material. There was a strange mark on his lapel, a symbol composed of triangles that looked familiar to the other rodents. It was the same symbol they had seen on the electric fence surrounding the old Fitzgibbon Farm, or the place where the farm once had been. The uniform radiated authority. Whatever it signified, this rat, this Jenner, was not dressed like a servant.
Nonetheless, as the released mice and rats looked at him incredulously the uniformed rodent grabbed a bundle of neatly folded cloth and handed it to a dumbstruck Brutus. Once the huge rat managed to overcome his shocked inertia and accepted his clothing Jenner handed a second set of clothes to Justin with a chuckle.
‘They told me it took a while to get that sewage smell out of the fabric. It should smell rather flowery right now. I hope you don’t mind, Justin.’
The brown rat stared blankly at the other as he accepted his clothes.
‘Ah,’ Jenner intoned as he lifted a much smaller, reddish bundle and held it towards the mice.
‘I believe these are yours, ma’am.’
Mrs. Brisby was so stunned that she did not even realize how she automatically accepted her clothes from the spitting image of rat that had once tried to kill her.
Timothy and Cynthia reacted similarly when an uncannily jovial Jenner handed them their respective garments. Then he put a pair of glasses each on both Mrs. Brisby’s and her son’s pile. None of the five rodents had moved after accepting their vestments. All continued to stare at the impossible rat before them. Jenner, in turn, folded his arms across his chest and sighed in exasperation.
‘Will you please put your clothes on and stop gawking like that? I’m pretty sure the Director would prefer you being clothed rather than in hospital gowns.’
‘I don’t believe this.’ Justin muttered.
‘I don’t believe this.’ He reiterated more forcefully.
‘This must be some strange dream or hallucination from whatever the humans put into me. You are dead.’
The Jenner-look-alike rolled his eyes visibly, even in the scant light. Then, with amazing speed, he stepped around the cart and pinched Justin’s arm, hard.
The brown rat jumped back, dropping his clothes to the ground. Brutus instinctively stepped forwards, ready to push Jenner away. But the bluish-grey rat raised his arms in surrender and quickly stepped out of range, grinning.
‘He asked for it, Brutus.’
Justin glowered at the retreating rat.
‘Let me assure you,’ Jenner stated, his smile disappearing into a grave expression, ‘this is very real, and very serious. I know you have a million questions, but the Director wants to answer them himself.’
‘The Director?’ Mrs. Brisby found the courage to ask.
The imposing rat looked at her for a moment, his face almost unreadable in the dark. Jenner’s expression shifted from determined, to sympathetic, and then back again. Elizabeth had to blink to assure herself she had actually seen that momentary semblance of compassion on Jenner’s otherwise cruel features.
‘The Director of this facility has instructed me to give you your clothes and bring you to him. He will explain everything to you, everything. But please, your clothes?’
Not taking his eyes off their strange host Justin donned his uniform. Brutus followed suit and nodded encouragement to the mice by stepping between them and Jenner, who remained motionless behind his cart. Nobody spoke. All eyes, when not needed to find buttons or maneuver through garments, were glued to Jenner. Finally, Justin stepped up to the slightly larger rat.
‘You’re really Jenner?’
Again, the other rat’s toothy grin broke the gloom.
‘And you work for the human in charge here?’
Jenner winked at the brown rat, who was stepping right in front of him.
‘Yes, I work for the one who is in charge here.’
Justin tapped a finger to his chin.
‘Where is the Stone, Jenner?’
The other rat looked nonplussed and then, chuckling, slapped a palm against his forehead.
‘I will forget my own head next!’
Shaking said head in bemusement Jenner bent towards the cart and retrieved the red Stone. It glowed slightly. As Justin raised his hand to accept it the dark rat waved a scolding finger.
‘Uh-uh! This does not belong to you, Justin.’
Before anyone could move Jenner sidled around the former Captain of the Guard and stepped towards Mrs. Brisby, who immediately shrank back against the reassuring bulk of Brutus, who was already raising his fists protectively. But to the surprise of all, Jenner went down on one knee before the brown mouse, as he had done so many years before in the old Rosebush. He held out the Stone to Mrs. Brisby. There was the most curious expression on his face. Nobody, not Brutus or Justin, could ever remember having seen such a pleading look on Jenner as he whispered.
‘It’s yours. It always has been. Please,’ he moved the amulet even closer to the mouse, ‘forgive me.’
Elizabeth, not taking her eyes of the rat, took the Stone and lifted the chain around her neck. Jenner smiled in relief, just for an instant. Then his usual sneer returned and he walked back to face Justin, who had watched the exchange open-mouthed. Playfully, Jenner lifted the other’s jaw up with his right finger.
‘You look like a fish when you do that.’
Justin blinked and shook his head.
‘You work for whoever runs this place?’
‘Then,’ the brown rat lowered his voice, ‘we don’t want anything to do with him.’
He shoved Jenner so hard that the larger rat slipped and fell straight on his back. Not waiting for him to recover Justin rounded the cart and pulled Timothy by the sleeve while motioning the others to follow.
‘Let’s get out of here!’
None of them knew where they could go. But none of them wanted to remain with the impossibly resurrected Jenner, so they followed as quickly as they could, Brutus taking up the rear. They raced down the odd walkway lining cage after cage until they reached the end of what they realized was a laboratory bench. Justin peered down to the dark linoleum floor and then beyond, where the door to the laboratory stood wide open. He spotted a waste paper basket below. Not waiting for arguments he jumped down, hoping that his light weight and the paper in the bin would keep him from injury. He landed safely and, once he was able to right himself in the discarded heaps of waste, motioned for the mice to follow.
‘Come on! I’ll catch you!’
Mrs. Brisby jumped first. There was a numbed look on her face. Jenner was dead. Seeing him again, here, could not be possible. She did not want to think, so she acted instead.
Justin managed to catch her. He immediately lifted her over the basket’s rim so Timothy and Cynthia could follow. Then he scrambled out hurriedly. When Brutus made his landing his size caused the pale to tip over and spill its contents, rat included, over the smooth floor. No words were exchanged as the mice passed Brutus as he got back to his feet and all of them raced out through the open laboratory door. The entire escape had taken less than two minutes.
The rat resembling Jenner was back on his feet. He was smiling wickedly in the darkness. Without hurry he spent a few moments removing creases and dust from his uniform, unconcerned at the escape. Then he removed three items from below the cart. The first was a small helmet, made from a peculiar material with a pearly metallic sheen, but an uncanny plastic flexibility. It sported a tinted visor, which was emitting a faint green glow. Underneath the chin was a microphone. Next he produced two armored gloves of the same material. A green stone inlaid into the back of each of the gloves palms light up brightly, as did the visor of the helmet, when he donned them.
The smile broadened.
He waved his right hand in a complicated motion through empty air. On the inside of his visor three-dimensional glowing patterns were overlaid onto physical reality. As the armored glove touched a virtual icon visible only to the rat the laboratory door closed automatically and locked itself with a slamming sound.
Justin and the others had been running blindly from the laboratory into a long corridor where open doors of a similar nature gave access to countless other rooms. The brown rat looked at Cynthia, counting on her innate sense of direction. She pointed to one side and nodded.
‘Right behind you!’ he assured the young female as he sprinted to keep up with her. The rest of the mice and Brutus followed.
Then, unexpectedly, all the doors in the corridor slammed shut and locked at once.
Rats and mice halted. Looking around the now closed corridor they were at a momentary loss as to what to do.
‘Can you still find a way out for us, sis?’
Cynthia blinked a bit and then nodded once more.
‘We have to go the other way now. Come on!’
Jenner activated another virtual icon and spoke into the microphone.
‘Compound sealed. Targets are in corridor 14 D. Sterilizer groups 5 and 6, detain and retrieve. Acknowledge!’
‘Acknowledge!’ A mechanical voice chimed from hidden speakers in the rat’s helmet.
The crème-colored mouse led them to a ventilation grate in the wall.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers. Help me get it off.’
Sighing the mouse aided Justin in prying off the plastic grating, thankful that there weren’t any screws keeping it in place. Without tools they would have had a problem. As a matter of fact, they did have a problem anyway. Unlike the large cubic ventilation ducts they had encountered at NIMH, this was an unusually small, round opening. The true problem was the size. Justin would be barely able to get through but as he looked at his bulky friend he realized that there was no way Brutus would fit in there. Elizabeth, following his gaze, realized it as well.
‘Sweetie, is there any other way out?’
Cynthia looked desperately in both directions of the hallway at her mother’s question.
Her reply was cut off when she noticed the strange lights.
The others followed her gaze. Down the right corridor a number of green lights were visible, swaying in the darkening gloom of the hall. Their numbers were increasing, four at a time. Two smaller ones of each set appeared to be spaced higher up and never increased their distance to each other. The remaining pair, larger than the first, swayed back and forth somewhat lower.
‘Over there too!’
Timothy pointed to the opposite end of the hallway. There the same strange spectacle was playing out. Cynthia swallowed hard.
‘We need to go. This is trouble.’
‘Brutus won’t fit.’ Justin cut in.
Timothy, all the while, had stepped towards the group of lights coming from the right. His head tilted sideways and his eyes narrowed to slits behind his glasses as he muttered.
‘What in the world…’
His words choked in his mouth. As the lights got closer they revealed themselves to be something thoroughly strange and menacing. The general shape was that of rats, huge rats, almost as massive as Brutus; four limbs, a head, and tails. That was where the similarities ended. The entities approaching appeared to be incased from head to toe in some sort of armor, light metallic in color, with a pearly luster. What had appeared as swaying lights was revealed to be glowing green stones set into elongated helmets where one would usually expect eyes. The things’ forepaws did not end in hands or fingers. They were encumbered by long cylinders, each ending in even larger green stones of similar fashion, forcing them to move on their hindquarters, which they did with astounding grace.
The entire group was dumbstruck as the entities from the right ambled closer with a heavy but elastic gait. Then, the one in the front pointed the right tube on its arm forward, as if aiming a gun, right at Timothy.
A bright flash of light issued from the green stone and hit the young mouse in the chest. Timothy fell straight on his back, shivering slightly, and then stopped moving.
With a yell of despair his mother and sister rushed to his side. As they hoisted his upper body from the floor his glasses fell off his face. He was completely unresponsive.
‘He’s breathing!’ Cynthia exclaimed.
Justin moved the mice aside unceremoniously and carried Timothy towards the now open duct.
More of the strange beings now aimed their peculiar weapons at the group. More flashes of light, like ball lightening, struck. Racing to the round hole Mrs. Brisby and Cynthia managed to dodge the blasts. Justin hurried them into the duct and shoved the still limp body of Timothy behind them.
‘Pull him. I’ll be right there.’
The lights from the left side of the corridor were now revealed to be similar apparitions. While the mice had been able to evade a few of the illuminant shots Justin had been unable to do the same. A projectile made from green light was racing towards his back just as he was pushing the unconscious mouse into the opening.
Brutus threw himself into the line of fire, taking the blast in the gut.
The huge rat looked down at himself and blinked in confusion. Justin gazed at him in consternation as well. Then both of them noticed that their armored adversaries had stopped in their advance. The entity in the lead, which had probably been the one to issue the shot, seemed to be as perplexed as they were, its two green glowing eyes looking at the weapon issuing from its right arm in wonder. A second entity to its left raised one of its weapons directly at Brutus and, before anyone could react, fired as well. Brutus did not have time to dodge when the second blast of green light slammed into him.
Again, there was no effect.
Brutus turned to Justin and grinned evilly. Both rats knew he would never fit into the duct. He slapped Justin’s shoulder and pointed towards the mice, which were fast disappearing into the vent. Then he turned and charged head-on into their assailants, claws raised and cape flying, ready to bludgeon whatever got into his way.
The creatures in their strange armor were completely unprepared. The group from the right simply tried firing their weapons at the immense charging rat with as little effect as before. The second group, apparently just as unprepared for this eventuality, forgot Justin and the mice, who had since disappeared into the depths of the ventilation system. They charged Brutus from the rear. When the rat connected with the first one his rage and their inability to comprehend made for a surprisingly unbalanced contest. Despite their size the first three of the armored entities went flying, their helmeted heads bashing into walls and floors. Two of them had their lights dim away as they landed, apparently no longer functioning. The third was caught by its compatriots.
Wielding their weapons like clubs the beings began to surround Brutus, intent on pummeling him into submission. There were a total of ten of them, minus the two who were still prone where the huge rat had hurled them. While their awkwardness in combat suggested that they had never anticipated having to use their projectile devices as bludgeons their numbers should have given them the advantage. And without fingers or teeth they could not use the rat’s cape for purchase either. But Brutus was anything but a fool.
After his initial charge forward he turned on the five closing in behind him, barreling his way through the crowd towards the open ventilation duct. Clearly too large to make it through Brutus turned his back to the attackers, ready to act as a barrier for his friends’ escape. As one of the attackers charged in, ready to clobber him with its right weapon, he grabbed a hold of its neck with his left hand and grabbed the intended club with his right. Once in hand, Brutus tore at the strange device while holding the struggling thing’s neck tight. The weapon tore loose, cables snapping, and showing that underneath it his assailant possessed a completely normal white-furred rat hand.
Beneath their bizarre gear these creatures were rats.
Not having time to contemplate this as two more of the creatures tried to intercede, he slammed the head of the one he held captive into the helmet of the first and the removed weapon into the gut of the second, both of which tumbled backwards. The lights on the helmet of the attacker he had choked had gone out and his shape slumped to the floor. Three down, seven to go. But the remaining attackers had gotten weary. Surrounding him in a half-circle, weapons raised to bludgeon, they remained at a distance. One stepped back and tilted its head. Brutus heard mumbling coming from underneath its enclosed helmet.
‘Four specimens have escaped through the air vent, section 14 D north. Fifth specimen is blocking access, apparently stun-resistant. Orders?’
Underneath the glowing visor Jenner’s expression turned contemplative for a few moments. Resistance to the stun was something that he had not anticipated. The neural pathways of vertebrates should not be able to withstand it, even in creatures up to half a ton in mass. Then, his muzzle spread into a small smile. Of course, the specimen in question was probably Brutus.
‘Do not engage. Keep specimen contained, but do not engage.’
He moved his glove over another virtual icon. A glowing diagram of the ducts appeared and displayed four red dots moving southward. His second glove activated yet another channel.
‘Specimens are moving towards room 14-C-23. Group F4 and C4, move in and intercept. Acknowledge.’
This time a deep, growling voice answered.
Another move of his right hand and the diagram and channel link disappeared. He activated new icon and.
‘Stella, proceed to corridor 14 D. Rat specimen detainment, stun resistance, possible neural mutation. Physical detainment required. Acknowledge.’
The voice issuing from the speakers now was clearly electronic, lacking any emotional inflection.
Jenner’s smile widened into a toothy grin. This was getting interesting.
Only four of the armored rats remained.
The one who had apparently requested new orders had motioned for three of his companions to remove those that Brutus had already incapacitated. Now the remaining four moved around him cautiously. Brutus was still cornered against the small opening in the wall and tried to see if he might be able to ambush one or more of his remaining assailants and then, somehow, make a run for it. His adversaries eyed him carefully through their glowing lenses. But sooner or later, one of them would come close enough for Brutus to strike. He knew it.
Finally, one of the rodents did move just a fraction closer than he should have with his tail. Throwing himself to the ground Brutus grabbed the tail and pulled with all his might. The force was strong enough to throw the rat in his bulky armor onto his back. The remaining three charged in to stop their companion being rat-handled. But Brutus, never letting go of the tail, pulled the scrambling rat on the floor between the feet of the other assailants, which caused another to stumble. Just as he was about to charge into the rest an awful mechanical voice called out.
Everyone stopped moving, even the two rats on the ground. Five heads, four armored and one not, moved in the direction of the sound. There, another set of glowing lights heralded the approach of reinforcements. Brutus, who was still poised to charge, relaxed. The reinforcement turned out to be an average height rat, about as tall as Justin, of very slender built, wearing the same kind of armor as the previous attackers. But where the others had been huge and bulky, this one was feminine in grace and shape and did not wear any of the cylindrical weapon tubes. The hands were contained in armored gloves, the backsides of which each contained a circular stone. Yet the biggest difference was the color. The lenses of this one’s helmet and the stones on the gloves all pulsed in pinkish hue rather than green.
Whoever this was, she moved with extreme confidence, motioning with hands for the much larger armored warriors to move back. Helping their fallen comrades all four remaining hulks backed off until the lithe newcomer was the only one facing Brutus, who looked at the much, much shorter rat in bemusement.
The armored right hand moved to a spot underneath the helmet and the cold mechanical voice was heard once more.
‘This is your last chance to follow us quietly. What is your answer?’
In reply Brutus unbuttoned his cape, then balled his fists and hunched down, ready to charge.
‘You were warned.’
The armored one, who had to be female, lowered into an attack position as well.
Brutus was still deciding whether he should initiate combat with someone who was most likely a lady when the rat in question took a flying leap from her standing position at him. He had never seen anyone manage such a jump without building up speed first and he had to do a forward roll in order to move out of the path in time. As Brutus got back up again he just barely had time to see that his opponent had rolled over and landed on her feet like an acrobat and used that momentum to propel herself at him once more. Now there was no time to dodge. So, the huge male decided to intercept the flying rodent. A well-aimed jab with his right fist for a feint and then a sneaky follow-up with his left…
Before he knew what had happened he felt himself somersaulting again, only this time without wanting to. As his back slammed hard against the wall Brutus realized that somehow, someway, his assailant had managed to, from midair, redirect her angle and grab a hold of his arms in a way that would use his own momentum to catapult him into the concrete. This one was faster than anyone he had ever fought before. As his body slid onto the linoleum he expected her to use her advantage and pummel him while he was exposed. Brutus raised his arms instinctively to shield his head.
Daring to open his guard he saw that the female was standing in almost exactly the same position she had before their little tussle. Her hand was underneath her helmet again.
His anger was threatening to overwhelm him now. Being beaten was one thing, being taunted another. Brutus’ teeth erupted in a horrifying snarl as he hurled himself at the armored female. There would be no finesse now. He simply barreled ahead, making sure she would not be able to trip him or grab a hold of any limbs.
She jumped right over him as he passed.
Suddenly, a searing pain went down Brutus’s spine. The sensation was so overwhelming that he crashed headfirst into the floor, sliding along the smooth surface until he came to a stop. His vision was blurry, but he felt his attacker step gracefully over his body from behind to his head and then, once she stood in front of him, turned to look down at him. The finger touched the armored neck once more.
Then she gave Brutus a twirling kick to the head and everything went dark.
Timothy was beginning to stir again as Justin pushed him through the round tunnel. Whatever their peculiar assailants had shot him with was wearing off. They had scrambled as quickly as they could, pulling and pushing the numb mouse with them. In their hurry nobody paid attention to the turns they were taking, until finally they arrived at another grate leading into a different section of their prison.
Cynthia helped her brother to his still rubbery feet.
‘You got zapped, Timmy.’
‘Good,’ he mumbled, ‘can we go home now?’
‘Elizabeth!’ Justin called out, ‘Can you help me push this off?’
Mrs. Brisby hurried to his side as he was trying to pry the plastic covering loose that separated them from the next room. Her children joined them, Timothy now almost completely awake now.
‘Let me try something.’
The male mouse’s hand went to where he used to have his backpack only to remember that they never received their gear back. Thankfully, his mother and Justin were able to push the grate off with a popping sound. Rat and mouse peered into the darkened room. It looked almost identical to the laboratory they had just escaped from, but here the door stood unaccountably and invitingly open. Not waiting Justin lowered Mrs. Brisby to the ground and then helped the children. Cynthia looked into the gloom with clear misgivings on her face, but there was little choice but to go on.
Once they were all safely on the smooth floor Justin sighed.
‘The door is open. I thought they all closed when we ran for it.’
‘A malfunction maybe?’ Timothy offered hopefully.
The answer came as a deep, resonant growl from the open doorway.
More of the bright green lights were visible, only this time much larger, and placed much farther off the ground. There was a sound of claws clicking on the cold flooring and then the light of the windowed wall revealed their new harriers.
They were dogs, three of them, all different shapes and sizes. In front was a squat terrier, male, with grayish-red fur bristling wildly, teeth that would have made a shepherd proud, bared in a snarl. It was wearing a vest over its body, covered in places with armor similar to what their previous attackers had worn and the top of its skull covered in a helmet. Large green lenses or stones shone from where the eyes should have been. Behind the terrier was a tall Dalmatian, female, with similar vestments and headgear, her head up and sniffing the air for additional targets as the lead dog focused on the prey already spotted. A hulking monstrosity of a Rottweiler, jowls and fangs glistening with saliva as it glowered behind the smaller canine, brought up the rear, blocking any escape through the door with his bulk.
Barking and roaring the terrier charged.
Bigger than a cat and surprisingly massive the diminutive beast seemed to be all teeth as its stubby legs propelled it towards the rodents. Rat and mice instinctively ran for it, on all fours, clothes and capes flying unheeded around their bodies. Everyone was in panic. The mice, being faster, were in the lead as the group rounded a laboratory bench to see a small stepping stool next to a table. They bounded upwards. The terrier was fast closing the distance between them and the rangy Dalmatian had also joined the hunt, barking violently.
From the stool the mice and rat managed to climb up the cloth of a laboratory coat hanging against the cupboards. They did not wait to step onto the laboratory bench, sure that the taller dogs would reach them there. Instead, with Mrs. Brisby in the lead and Justin bringing up the rear, they clambered from the sleeves of the coat to the very top of the shelves. All but Justin managed to reach the top. The terrier was mad with rage as it could not reach them, snarling viciously. But the Dalmatian managed a tall jump and plucked the rat off the coat moments before he was able to reach safety.
Elizabeth’s agonized scream was drowned out by the sounds of the terrier, who had jumped on the tumbling rat as soon as it hit the ground. Cynthia pulled her mother away from the edge of the cupboard top, not wanting her to see the horrors below. The Dalmatian was the one raising havoc now, barking, howling and snapping her jaws. Of Justin there was no sound, only the clicking noises of the terrier’s claws as he walked to where the Rottweiler was still guarding the door. The huge dog moved aside to let the smaller one pass and even in the dim light, the mice could see the faint outline of a limp shape in its muzzle. All three were crying now, holding each other for comfort as they saw two dogs depart and the third still carrying on her tirade below.
Then the sound of purring, a deep, almost roaring sound began behind them. All three turned their heads in unison.
There, on the shelf with them, was an enormous shape, covered in matted grey fur, almost as big as the terrier had been, but definitely, monstrously feline. Despite the darkness Mrs. Brisby felt hypnotized by the shape. The purr was almost a growl now as the giant cat uncurled its bulk towards the mice. Its shape was familiar to them, a shape that had haunted the nightmare of many a creature living at the Fitzgibbon Farm. Despite the vest and helmet with the glowing eyes there was only one cat this horrifying. Cynthia and Timothy felt paralyzed, faces frozen in terror. Her mother, shocked beyond fear, gaped. So focused where the three mice on the monster in front of them, they did not see the terror clawing its way up over the shelving’s edge from behind.
A second cat, female, large but with a lithe and serpentine grace climbed up silently behind them. Her body was covered in a rangy orange pelt and her muzzle spread in a toothy grin that promised death.
Mrs. Brisby, still staring at the cat in front of them, was able to whisper its name.
Then the sounds of pouncing claws and the shriek of her children tore Elizabeth from her stupor. As she jerked her head around she saw Cynthia and Timothy frantically scrambling against the viscous claws of the second cat, with enclosed them like cages.
Her fear turned to rage. The rage turned her mind red. All rational thought and terror fled before the sight of her children in danger and, with a voice that was much louder than it should have been, Mrs. Brisby yelled.
‘Let them go!’
She had not even realized that the Stone around her neck was glowing, or the fiery waves of light that were cascading off her body. Only her children existed. As she screamed her outrage the second cat appeared to be hit by currents of fire that did not burn but push it violently backwards. Mrs. Brisby felt the cat. Every ounce of it, as if she was holding it in her hands like a small insect. She pushed the feline away with her mind, the flames of power doing her bidding. But her children were still trapped under the paws. She tried to concentrate through her rage, to will the talons to release them. The cat’s claws were beginning to respond to her commands.
Then Dragon’s jaws snapped closed.
Justin was a mess.
His formerly clean tunic was torn at the side and he was covered in canine drool. His right arm was still bruised from the fall, but nothing seemed broken or bleeding. He held it close to his chest.
Two of the armored rats were standing next to him, making sure he would not try another escape attempt. The terrier had carried him into the laboratory room they had first made their mad dash from and the Rottweiler had then deposited him next to Jenner, still in front of the cage. The uniformed rat and four of his armored servants had been waiting, Jenner grinning with obvious delight at Justin’s discomfort.
The battered leader of the Thorn Valley rats had remained quiet as two of the armored rodents took up positions next to him. The sounds of soft, yet heavy paws made him turn around and almost caused him to choke when he saw the shape of what looked like Dragon, carrying a swaying Mrs. Brisby in his maw, sauntering close. The mouse was dangling from her cape, which had sustained some punctures from the large cat’s teeth, her features moving between shock and rage. Behind Dragon a second feline, more slender but similarly terrifying, carried the two younger mice in the same fashion. Only once the two cats had sat down on their haunches in front of Jenner, who was still standing next to the cart he had wheeled in earlier, Justin saw the two additional armored rats sliding off the felines’ backs.
The cats dropped the mice unceremoniously to the ground and shoved them forward with their noses, grinning viscously until the Brisby family was arrayed next to their rat friend.
Jenner, who had removed his gloves and visor clapped his clawed hands jubilantly.
‘I really had hoped this would not have been necessary. But the Director and myself can’t allow you to leave just yet.’
The leering rat folded his arms behind his back and leaned forward.
‘There will be no more escape attempts, yes?’
Rather than answering Justin snapped back.
‘What have you done with Brutus?’
‘Me?’ Jenner feigned innocently, ‘I haven’t touched a hair on his pelt. One of my best sergeants had to subdue him. He received a blow to his head and I had him taken to the hospital to ensure he was okay. Judging from his angry looks I think he was alright.’
‘We want him back.’
Mrs. Brisby’s voice was as cold as ice. The Stone around her neck was still pulsing faintly.
Jenner leaned back instinctively and motioned for the two remaining guards beside him to raise their weapons.
‘I would not do that, my dear. Calm down now or I will have to have you stunned.’
She did not want to. If Dragon had not taken her by surprise this strength, this power could have freed her children, maybe even free them from all of this. Yes, she felt stronger than she ever had, powerful enough to beat them all, to kill them all.
That last thought terrified her right out of her rage.
She stumbled in place and swallowed hard as the Stone dimmed.
Jenner nodded to his armored servants and they lowered their glowing emitters once more. Then he turned to Mrs. Brisby. There was an uncharacteristic compassionate but tired smile on his face. He nodded his head slowly and talked with a quiet voice.
‘You feel it, my dear? Do not let it control you. Don’t make the mistakes I was willing to make.’
Mrs. Brisby was taken aback by this new side to the tall rat’s demeanor. She looked at Justin and her children in turn and was aghast at their expressions. Timothy and Cynthia gazed at her as in fright, not of the cats or Jenner, but of her. Justin looked defeated but understanding and nodded. He rubbed his chest where the Stone had recently burned him.
Elizabeth carefully tried to remove the jewel from her neck, now worried too. But Jenner shook his head.
‘It’s yours. You have to learn to use it and not let it use you.’
The rat that should be dead raised his arms at the group, almost imploringly.
‘Please, you must come with me. I promise Brutus will be okay. I told Stella to bring him to join us as soon as the doctors had a look at him.’
‘Jenner,’ Justin spoke quietly, ‘what is all this madness about?’
‘Come with me. The Director will explain everything. Despite what you may think, we mean you no harm. We need your help as much as you need ours.’
The expression on Jenner’s face was pleading now.
‘How do we need your help?’ Timothy cut in.
That brought the contemptuous smile back to the dark-furred rat.
‘For the same reason you came here. To save Thorn Valley from… what did those mice call it… the Blight.’
‘Brendan,’ Cynthia exclaimed, ‘where is he?’
For a moment Jenner appeared nonplused. Then he snapped a finger.
‘Ah, you mean the boy mouse. The Director had him taken to his family, of course. With the Blight being so advanced in them their treatment required isolation and low light. He should be fully recovered in a few weeks.’
‘Take me to him.’
The rat’s smile broadened as he gave Mrs. Brisby a coy wink.
‘She has your beauty and Jonathan’s fire, that’s for sure.’
‘Don’t you dare talk about Jonathan.’ Justin snapped at the other rat once more.
Taking a more defiant stance, fists on hips, Jenner tilted his head.
‘Really! You hated him and never made any secret of it.’
The taller rat seemed poised to make another biting remark, but closed his eyes and rubbed his brow as if clearing a headache. Then he answered, eyes still closed.
‘Yes, you’re right, Justin. I apologize.’
That stumped the Thorn Valley refugees anew. Jenner’s attitude was changing so rapidly it was hard to keep up with. When he opened his eyes to look at them again the imploring expression had returned. He gestured to the open cage.
‘The Director anticipated that you might try to escape and that we would have to retrieve you again. So I made sure to bring some extra clothing, just in case. We will clean and fix your normal attire again.’
Justin and the mice stared at Jenner and the open cage door. This was all too bizarre. Was he trying to lure them back into captivity? With the armored goons present he would have no need to. Justin tried to stall.
‘What about Julia? And the sewer rat, Questor?’
Jenner waved almost dismissively.
‘They’re both fine. The sewer rat is sleeping. The Director already talked with him and Julia. She’s still with him, finishing her report.’
‘Report? What are you talking about?’
The smile on Jenner turned villainous once more.
‘You haven’t guessed it yet? She is one of us, always has been. Without her we would have never managed to get you here so easily.’
The brown rat’s face dropped in shock. Behind him, Cynthia protested.
‘That’s impossible. She wasn’t lying to us.’
A resonant snigger issued from Jenner.
‘No she didn’t. She was always worried about someone being able to detect falsehoods. So we erased her original memories and implanted some new ones, memories she thoroughly believed in. It worked rather well, I have to admit.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Oh please!’ Jenner sighed dramatically, ‘Haven’t you realized by now that in this place we can do things that you can’t even imagine? Look at me! All alive and at work again.’
He sauntered up to the shorter rat and playfully nudged him with an elbow.
‘She’s got her full memories back now. But you did leave quite an impression on her, Justin. And between us, she is not impressed easily.’
‘She’s been bait then.’
‘Oh cheer up! Julia designed the plan to bring you here herself. The Director trusts her as much as he does me. And she really does like you.’
Justin got another nudge in the ribs.
‘Now doesn’t that make you feel better?’
He could only stare at Jenner in deflation. Their entire quest had been northing but a farce, planned by whoever or whatever was in charge here. He had thought he was being a bold leader, ready to save his people. Now Justin felt like he had been nothing but a patsy.
‘So that’s why her stories didn’t add up.’
The not-dead-anymore rodent winked at Timothy.
‘Correct, little man. Now, it is getting really late and the Director and Julia are waiting for us. If you would step inside and get re-dressed?’
Despite his misgivings Justin did enter the cage again. He felt so thoroughly helpless now that it no longer mattered what part of this insane nightmare he believed or not. They might as well play along. Inside the cage, instead of the mattresses and blankets, the space was filled with portable screens and tables, on which more folded clothes, were piled. There were even little name tags on them. Elizabeth and her children, all eyeing Jenner and the cage door warily, followed suit.
The door did not slam behind them, nor did Jenner follow them. Looking from table to table each found the stack of clothing meant for them and exchanged their now soiled and torn garments. The clothes were different in style than what they were used to, more along the lines of human fashions. Timothy had a buttoned short-sleeved shirt with a fashionable breast pocket of the same color than his original wear. That was the one concession made to their battered wardrobe. Jenner appeared to have made sure each would be given attire in their personal colors. Justin had a larger shirt of similar design to Timothy’s in a white color, but a short vest in the same blue of his uniform. Cynthia wore a long-sleeved sweater of a familiar sky blue and her mother got a long belted blouse of red, the Stone hidden beneath the fabric. Thankfully her gloves had not retained any damage.
Once dressed and leaving their torn vestments behind the group rejoined Jenner outside the cage. The cats and dogs, as well as all but two of the surreal sentries had vanished. Gesturing with a hand to follow him the rat that should have been dead urged them to follow him, leaving the guards and the cart behind.
‘Come on. We’re already late.’
Jenner led them across the bench to where it met the wall of the laboratory. The Brisby family and Justin followed quietly. At this point none of them had much fight left. Everything that had happened had been one nightmare after another. Elizabeth was half-certain that this was actually just a bad dream. She was not alone in that thought.
‘So you’re all working for the humans now?’
Justin’s voice carried a deep note of resentment, but Jenner looked over his shoulder and winked with a grin.
‘Not at all. Actually, it is the other way around.’
‘What?’ Timothy sounded incredulous.
‘You heard me right, little man. In here, the humans work for us.’
Mrs. Brisby stopped in her tracks and held her children’s shoulders to do the same.
‘I am not sure I believe that.’
‘My dear Mrs. Brisby,’ Jenner intoned smoothly, ‘you may believe me on this. And I haven’t even told you the best part yet.’
Now Cynthia voiced her doubts.
‘And that would be?’
Jenner’s grin became gleeful.
‘The humans work for us, and they do not even know it.’
He waved them onwards.
‘But don’t take my word for it. Let me show you.’
After a few more steps the group reached the wall where their unlikely guide showed them to a large power outlet. Jenner turned one of the screws that held the plastic cover in place. All of a sudden the entire outlet panel raised itself upwards, like a garage door, to the hissing sound of steam. Even in their exhaustion the group felt surprise. But apparently there was no time to waste as Jenner hurried them along.
‘This way, please. Now you will see the true nature of this place.’
The entered a long, metal-lined corridor, light by soft green lamps or round stones embedded in the ceiling. Each glowed in the same peculiar green that had been the hallmarks of the strange rat armor. It gave the hallway a ghastly appearance.
‘So,’ Justin cleared his throat behind Jenner, ‘if we run this place, why all this creepiness and hiding?’
The other rat chuckled.
‘Hiding in plain sight, dear Justin.’
The end of the corridor was in sight, leading to a wide-open area.
With all the marvels and terrors they had already experienced, the sight that awaited them still managed to take their breath away.
The passage led into the biggest enclosed space any of them had ever seen before. An atrium of prodigious proportion, arranged by two elongated corridors intersecting rose up an incredible 20 human stories or more. The sides of the walls were lined with countless walkways, like the inside of a futuristic hotel with bridges traversing the vast central gulf. The ceilings were distant vaulted glass, as were the walls at the end of the crossing, church-like directions of the halls. Everywhere, lamps glowed in imitated candlelight, round glass globes containing artificial wicks. There were creatures here, all over the vast space. They were able to spot dogs, cats, rabbits, and a multitude of other animals. All wore clothing of one kind or another, many conversing with each other regardless of species. Along the bridges and platforms, where tables of different sizes allowed for casual meetings, the scene was reminiscent of a stylish human promenade.
A large rabbit in what looked like a laboratory coat with the same symbol Jenner had on his uniform passed in front of them. He was middle-aged, with a slightly graying drooping mustache and glasses and a flat electronic note-taking device underneath his left arm. As he noticed the group he smiled and gave a casual two-fingered wave to Jenner.
‘Evening, Mr. Fray! You’re working late tonight as well?’
Smiling, the rat shrugged at the rabbit.
‘Just something for the Director, Dr. Hendriks. We have visitors.’
The rabbit adjusted his glasses and bent down to get a better look at the others. He used his free hand to grab Justin’s, who was closer in height to him than the mice, and shook it emphatically. The brown rat was too flabbergasted to resist and gawked at the larger animal, who smiled broadly.
‘Welcome, my friends. It’s good to know that we have some new blood coming in. New ideas are always needed.’
He removed his hand and bowed at the mice, tapping his electronic clipboard apologetically.
‘I wish I had time to properly introduce myself, but Dr. Snow wanted me to get on this tonight.’
A short bow and the rabbit had hopped along, apparently in a hurry now.
Justin and the mice all looked at Jenner, who graced them with a self-satisfied expression.
‘What,’ Justin regained his words first, ‘is this place?’
Turning around to face the vastness of the atrium Jenner theatrically raised his hands.
‘Welcome, to the new world, my friends. Welcome, to Lazarus Laboratories.’