‘Looks like it goes on forever.’
Cynthia peeked through an ornate railing besides their walkway.
Craning his neck to look at the distant glass ceiling her brother rubbed his chin.
‘Just how high is this place?’
Jenner, warming up to the role of proud tour-guide waved a gracious hand towards the expansive structure.
‘The central spire has 54 human stories. The four annexes have 34. The corridors connecting all of them are about 24 stories high, but they taper down towards the annexes.’
A group of four hamsters, all dressed in grey jumpsuits and wearing tool belts and safety helmets passed them on the wide path, arguing amongst themselves. All of them male, three younger and one middle-aged, they did not pay any attention to the new arrivals as they bickered.
‘I told you I checked! It’s not the circuit breaker.’
One of the younger hamsters complained loudly
‘Yeah,’ the older one, obviously the leader of the group, retorted, ‘like you checked that pressure gauge yesterday?’
‘That was an honest mistake. If I were to list all the times that you…’
Justin and the mice looked back at the retreating group and then at Jenner, who simply waved them on.
‘Just a maintenance crew. Let’s keep on moving. It is getting late’
‘Uh-huh,’ was all Justin was able to reply.
The farther they went along their way the more surreal their surroundings became. In passing some of the seating areas they overheard members of all different species and ages interacting and conversing in ways that would be impossible in nature. An old tomcat wearing a brown sweater, glasses, and a cap over patchy head-fur was passionately debating a female gerbil wearing a frilly pink dress on some issue of biology that went completely over the heads of the Thorn Valley refugees. At another location a mix of animals was celebrating the birthday of young rat, the large seating area covered with lanterns and decorations. The male rat boy for whom the party was being held was perched on the head of an immense shaggy dog and singing a song in tune with it.
‘Jenner,’ Mrs. Brisby spoke softly, ‘how do they all really get along?’
The uniformed rat sniggered.
‘We all share the same sad history, I guess. Like any society, we do have our hotheads and such. But overall things are pretty peaceful around here now.’
‘How about the ones that chased us down?’
Justin could not help the venom in his voice.
‘Part of our security team, Justin. If you hadn’t run none of that would have been necessary.’
‘And just what,’ the brown rat probed, ‘is your role in all of this?’
At this their guide stopped and turned to face them, arms akimbo and obvious pride on his features.
‘I am Head of Security. It’s my responsibility to keep our home safe and secure, internally, externally, and beyond. If it compromises our safety, I deal with it, no matter what it is.’
‘Like a fox guarding the hen house?’
Jenner placed a hand over his breast.
‘That hurts, Justin. It really does.’
Nobody spoke after that. Finally, waving the others onward, Jenner went about face once more and continued. His voice became serious.
‘The Director will explain everything to you. You can count on it.’
They were approaching a huge round structure that supported the center of the immense building. This column, showing lights and windows along its length, even a few balconies, rose up all the way to the ceiling, where it merged with the remainder of the central spire that reached beyond the height of the glass ceilings. In order to approach the structure rats and mice had to leave their walkway and pass over a lamp-light bridge.
Just before they reached it a screaming female mouse child, bounding on all fours, a white nightshirt fluttering wildly, raced around a corner and ran into their guide, almost toppling him over. Jenner grabbed a hold of the child, obviously surprised, to keep it from falling to the ground. The mouse girl, in turn, stopped screaming and looked wide-eyed at the dark rat holding her up, her face locking in terror. Then, a boy kitten wearing a small vest, rounded the same corner and, unlike the mouse, managed to come to a skidding halt before he plowed into the shocked assembly of rodents.
‘Okay,’ Jenner mused darkly as his gaze swept from the mouse in his hands to the young cat, ‘what’s going on here?’
The female mouse simply swallowed, but the cat, already bigger than any rat, fidgeted with its arms and then pointed a clawed finger.
‘It was her idea!’
Immediately the mouse turned in Jenner’s grasp to leer at the kitten.
‘Ahem!’ Jenner interrupted as he lowered the mouse to the floor, ‘You two should know better than to go playing tag at this time of night, especially up here. What if one of you fell down the atrium? What would I have to tell your parents?’
The mouse sidled up to the cat and both looked at their feet, obviously embarrassed. The feline muttered something and the uniformed rat put a hand to his ear.
‘What was that?’
‘I said, I’m sorry, Mr. Fray.’
‘And what about you, young lady?’
The mouse girl shuffled her feet and sniffed.
‘Sorry, Mr. Fray.’
With an uncharacteristic smile Jenner waved at them with both hands.
‘Go on, you two, but walk this time, okay?’
Without waiting for further encouragement the mouse-and-cat duo scampered off the way they had come from, still more running than walking. The rat simply looked over his shoulder at the other rodents and shrugged.
‘Kids! What can you do?’
Not waiting for an answer from the others, who were too intent at looking after the unlikely pair of children, Jenner led his guests along the bridge to a glass elevator situated on the central column. He ushered them inside the spacious compartment, which could have easily held three large canines, and talked into a dark computer monitor embedded near the entrance.
‘Top floor, please.’
‘Right away, Mr. Fray,’ responded a female voice from the console.
‘Who’s that?’ Timothy wondered.
As the transparent doors slid shut quietly Jenner gently tapped the monitor’s frame.
‘That is Alis. She helps run this place. Without her we’d be lost.’
‘Really?’ Cynthia’s brow rose, ‘Do we get to meet her too?’
‘You might,’ Jenner mused with a contemplating smile, ‘you just might.’
The elevator rose smoothly. To the members of the Thorn Valley colony this amazing contrivance, with the astounding view of the cavernous atrium, was as different to their own experiences with elevators as night and day. The motion that was as smooth as glass. When they rose beyond the ceiling of the connecting corridors their view became constrained by dull grey metal and the occasional passing light as they entered the remainder of the central spire.
Mrs. Brisby turned from the see-through walls to face the rat that had, a life-time ago, tried to kill her.
‘How did this all came to be, Jenner?’
The rat’s face took on a strange pleading look.
‘Please, just follow me to the Director. It will all make sense, I promise.’
Before any of them could speak more the elevator gradually slowed until it came to a halt. The transparent wall opposite from where they had entered now faced a wide open corridor, but this one definitely not built for human dimensions. Barely high enough to allow passage to some of the larger animals they had seen the hallway was wide, carpeted in dark green, and showed no doors on either side. At intervals gently glowing round lambs were embedded directly into the metal walls. Yet unlike the cheerful candle-like luminance they had seen in the atrium these lamps radiated a cold, greenish glimmer.
As the rear elevator wall opened into a door Jenner wasted no time in ushering his charges along the corridor. Despite the dimensions of this passage there was an odd feeling of oppression.
‘Cheery,’ Justin remarked dryly, but their guide did not rise to the bait.
At the end of the corridor the group approached an intersecting hallway and what looked like the only door in the entire hall. The second corridor ran parallel to the wall and the door contained within. As the hallways were wide, so was the door. Slightly offset from the metal of the wall by a more lustrous sheen the gateway was just as cold and uninviting. Two metal plates, dividing the door in half, showed a large panel embedded at the center between them. As wide as Justin was tall the panel showed the same triangular arrangement that appeared to be the logo of Lazarus Laboratories. Small green gems were interspersed with humming metal pipes that ran within the design, blinking at irregular intervals. The very center of the pane held another, much larger circular green stone, which pulsed rhythmically.
Much to the surprise of the group, Jenner began looking over his shoulder and around the corridors as if lost.
‘Is something wrong, Jenner?’
Despite Justin’s mocking tone the dark rat did not answer, but suddenly broke into his usually leering grin again as he spotted someone approaching from the intersecting hallway on the left. Justin and the mice followed his gaze and the brown rat felt a lump in his throat.
Three rats were about to join them.
The central one was Brutus, unmistakably so. He wore his uniform, minus the cape, and had a light bandage wrapped around his cranium. He was supported at his right by a female standing as tall as Justin. She was dressed in a full-body uniform and of a lithe, almost angular built. What really caught the group’s attention was that this uniformed rat bore the same facial abnormalities that had so far made Brutus unique. Enlarged reddish eyes radiated from her stoic face in the same unnerving manner than did the blue ones of the large Thorn Valley guard. The fact that Brutus did not seem to need any physical support but that he and the female supporting him kept their gazed locked in mutual fascination was obvious to all.
But what caused Justin to take an involuntary step in retreat was the rat walking to Brutus’ left.
‘Julia?’ He rasped.
The rat that he had formerly known as a frightened refugee and then as fellow adventurer had changed dramatically. Physically, she was still the same. Only now her alert blue eyes were hidden by a pair of glasses, her head-fur cleaned and dressed, and she was wearing a long white laboratory coat emblazoned with the local symbol. Julia was encouraging Brutus and his new friend onwards until she spotted the other rodents waiting for them.
Her face became uncertain as she saw Justin, a whole slew of different emotions trying to assert themselves on her features. The former Captain of the Guard was not faring any better until, with a bit of mischievous glee, Cynthia gave Justin an unexpected push while tripping him, which made him stumble forwards. Trying not to lose his balance the brown rat waved his arms. Julia, on impulse, rushed towards him with her arms outstretched to keep him from falling. The result was both rats with their arms around each other halfway between the two groups.
Both Julia and Justin visibly blushed at the awkwardness.
For once, Jenner did not use the opportunity to direct a jibe at his former nemesis but simply coughed loudly into his fist.
That broke the spell of the moment.
Taking a quick step backwards from each other Justin and Julia adjusted their respective clothes, while the female tried to fill the silence with conversation that did not include her identity and deception.
‘Ahem, Brutus is fine,’ she waved a hand at the towering rodent, ‘just a mild concussion. Sergeant Lux,’ she gestured towards the uniformed female with the peculiar features still holding on to Brutus’ other arm. At the mention of her name the white rat snapped to attention, military training overriding the obvious fascination she shared with the rat she had knocked unconscious earlier.
‘Sergeant Lux,’ Julia tried again, ‘made sure he got immediate medical care after their… incident.’
Mrs. Brisby, who was eyeing the changed Julia suspiciously, spoke up.
Jenner’s impatience was becoming palpable.
‘Stella knocked his lights out when he didn’t surrender. I am sorry to interrupt this, but we are being expected.’
Despite the obvious rudeness even Julia must have shared the brooding male’s need for urgency. Or maybe she simply wished for a respite in having to deal with her issues with the Thorn Valley colonists. In either case she nodded and stepped to Jenner’s side, facing the ornate panel with its glowing lights. Wordlessly both rats put their right palms on the large central stone in the icon. At their touch the scant green luminance flared up brightly. Then, with a soft hiss of steam the icon, and the doors it was set in, split in to, drawing themselves inwards.
For a few moments, a gentle mist obscured the wide rectangular opening. Once it lifted the group was able to peer into a vast, darkened room.
The corridors had been wide, but this chamber was excessively spacious. High enough to accommodate even the largest dogs the room was so wide and long that its ceiling still appeared oppressively low. The floor was carpeted emerald green and lead in a rectangular band from the door into the office. Black polished stone covered the rest and the walls to either side were barely discernable. In regular intervals along the carpet broad metal columns with scintillatingly illuminated green spheres on the top created a ghostly phalanx towards the far side of the chamber.
Jenner and Julia silently stepped forward. They did not indicate for the rest to follow, yet something about the mysterious vastness drew the group in. With Justin in the lead, the mice following, and Brutus and his new escort brining up the rear they cautiously approached and entered into the immense office. Behind them, with another smooth hiss, the doors closed and sealed, draping everyone in the scant green glow of the strange orbs.
The room focused on a central, raised portion on the floor facing the rear wall. Like a road that offered no escape the carpet led them there. The raised section was carpeted as well, but most of its surface was covered by a rectangular desk, as dark and polished as the remainder of the chamber’s flooring. High above it, a metal column like the ones lining their entrance was suspended from the ceiling. But most of the light in this abode was gifted by five circular windows situated behind the desk. The central one was higher than the windows flanking it on either side and gave the impression of a starlight halo that outlined a leather chair with a raised, rounded back. This backlight made it impossible to see who was sitting within the confines of this dark throne. But someone was definitely there.
Justin and the others did not follow Jenner and Julia onto the raised dais. There were too many strange unknowns in this room. One thing was for sure, the Director was not a human being as they had originally assumed.
Once the Head of Security and Julia stood in front of the desk, they made sure to leave a strategic opening between them so that the office’s occupant would have a clear view of his more reluctant visitors.
It was then that figure hidden in the shadows of the chair spoke.
‘I am so glad you finally arrived.’
The shock on the faces of the Brisby family and their close friends was incredible. Eyes gazed in disbelief and jaws dropped. Justin numbly marveled at the fact that with all they had already witnessed he was still able to feel startled. And startled he was. Elizabeth, in turn, felt as if her body had frozen in place and would fail her any moment. Brutus, sensing the mouse’s distress, walked up behind her, just in case. It was Justin who took a numbed step forward with his head cocked and, whispering, uttered the name that they had all associated with this voice, many years ago.
Julia and Jenner turned around towards the remaining rodents, like sentries flanking the darkened throne, looking down at them.
Then, the shape in the chair leaned beyond the covering shadow of the chair’s hood. The green glow from the orb above outlined the features of someone else that should not be alive. The light fell onto the face of a male mouse of young middle-age. Silver-grey fur, heavily tussled on his head, framed deep brown eyes. He looked a little bit older now, no, matured, and maybe somewhat leaner than when they had last seen him. But his warm smile was still the same.
The Director of this impossible place was none other than Jonathan Brisby.
Elizabeth’s eyes rolled back in her head as she fainted for the second time this night.
The other space and time again, everything at once, beautiful and mysterious.
The blue star, halo, sun, with the memory of a shape overlain.
Again, she saw him, drifting and dancing through this realm that was everything and nothing. But there was purpose to his movement, she could feel it. The memory of what had once been her husband wore a serene smile as it moved through the wonders of the cosmos, passing by others, greeting, yet not staying his course, not in this now.
A place in this non-place was calling to what had once been Jonathan Brisby. This place was merely a symbol, a symbol for meeting, but a place nonetheless.
The space was temple and school, pillars and home. It changed shape as she focused on it and her mind tried to put a form to what was merely an idea and concept. Finally, it settled on a round chamber lined with columns and a vast circular roof.
The once-Jonathan entered.
There were others, so many others. She could not count them, all arrayed in a circle in the temple space. The halos were of every color and the memory of their former shapes was legion. Jonathan drifted in between two of these, exchanging greetings and love. One glowed a brilliant orange and the echo of its last physical form was human, a girl surrounded by waves of energy. The one to the other side was bright yellow, she shape within unknown, reminiscent of a jellyfish with three eyes, one at each corner. All here were present for the same purpose, and joyful to begin.
Together, the beings which had been merely physical once raised their gaze and attention to what could have been a ceiling. It was filled with stars, all the stars and galaxies of a universe. In the wondrous multitude a shape coalesced, a shape that was composed of the same stars and nebulae it had created. It was beyond measure, father, mother, and child, yet a shape utterly alien as well.
Her mind heaved as it fought to put a form on this entity, an entity filled with so much compassion she feared her very being would burst as she beheld it/him/her. Finally, her senses settled on a thin, androgynous outline within the stellar masses. A torso that was like that of a human with four gaunt arms, each ending in an impossible, wonderful hand with four perfectly juxtaposed fingers with four joints each. They opened like petals of flowers and in the center of each hand rose a plumed tuft composed of young nebulae, birthing stars. The head was elongate and tapered, smooth without eyes. The mouth was a crossed set of slits, like a four-petal flower again.
The face that was no face turned.
Its eye-less gaze swept to the circle of beings that had once been and a wave of appreciation and gratitude washed over the assembled ones for the aid they were to give.
One of the arms composed of stars moved downwards, the flower-fingers opening wide. From the tuft of gases arose a sphere, a planet, beautifully green mottled. It lowered from the vast hand down, down through the ceiling into the center of the circle.
It was such a young world, full of promise yet unguided and lacking care.
The beings who had once worn flesh extended the memories of their limbs toward this world, and their love flowed in streamers of color towards it. Weaving sparkling bands around the sphere, suffusing it and what it would grow to become with their care, the energies were beautiful beyond compare.
The world grew and developed.
Suddenly, there was a distraction.
A small green light, shone like a beacon between the pillars of the temple, catching the once-eye of what used to be Jonathan.
None of the others perceived it. It belonged to Jonathan and Jonathan alone.
The haloed being shifted its attention towards the light, this persistent beacon.
It was wrong. It should not be.
The green light continued to flash, persistent.
The everywhere and everywhen around the memory of a mouse began to fade. A tunnel from the beacon to the once-being began to form, a dark, brooding corridor of what looked to her like storm clouds. At the center was the beacon, drawing the being that had once been her husband towards it.
What used to be Jonathan resisted. It had not fulfilled its purpose here. It did not want to return, grow smaller and less than it was now. It was not right. It could not be forced.
The roiling billows of coalescing darkness that formed the path between the flashing beacon and the once-mouse extended behind Jonathan, seemed to grow farther and farther into the beyond. Temple and beings had all disappeared. Only the one who had once been a mouse remained, fixed in the center of this tunnel of undulating gloom. The memory of the mouse turned to look behind him. There, the funnel dug deep, deep into a realm that was even more remote, far removed from the confines of what those that had once been mortal would normally access. The cloud-hole bit into a realm of pure ideas, naked and overpowering.
And something within that realm had become aware of the beacon.
It crawled itself out of the distant nothingness. Clawing bit by bit along the edges of the storm-tunnel, desperate for purchase, the raging concept from beyond consciousness drew its immeasurable self forwards. The blue-haloed memory of Jonathan was in its path, as insignificant as a mote of dust in the face of a mountain.
Vigintillions of claws, grasping, dragging, propelled it onwards, gaining reality with every symbolic inch. A sickening green glow emanated from it as a shape began to mold itself around its essential nature. It had no mind, no self, only pure idea, and longing. It lusted for becoming more real, more real than it had ever been.
Jonathan’s once-face went from the world-sized horror behind to the drawing beacon in front. He could not allow it to pass. Reality was not supposed to host an idea as primal as this, not directly. The shining blue being extended itself. Memories of arms and legs spread wide as it faced the thing, no matter how miniscule it appeared compared to the demiurge’s vastness.
Like an insect trying to hold back an avalanche the being she had once called husband was swept away by the monstrosity, carried along like overlooked debris, onwards and onwards towards the light that was still flashing. The beacon became larger as the tiny blue luminance struggled to push against the irresistible green wave that propelled them to their destiny.
They hit the light.
Mrs. Brisby gasped awake.
After a few seconds of disorientation her sight cleared.
She was sitting, almost lying down, her back supported by gentle, yet strong hands that held onto her shoulders. It was dark, gloomy, but the face looking at her full of worry was distinct.
Without thought Elizabeth threw her arms around the neck of the kneeling mouse, eyes and brow pressed against the other’s neck as tears began streaming through clenched eyelids. She did not want to think. The impossibility of what she was experiencing could not be allowed to enter her mind. She only wanted to hold him, feel him, the way she used to.
Quiet sobs and shudders wracked her body as she clung to the one who looked like Jonathan. And, just as her late husband had always done to soother her worries, the mouse pressed her head into the hollow beneath his jaw, rocked her in his arms, and hummed softly. After a few moments she felt moisture drop onto her nose, warm and salty. Elizabeth, not daring to move away, content to be cradled and rocked, opened her eyes and looked upwards.
There he was. Jonathan was still there, not a dream, still there. She noticed that he truly did look a bit more care-worn than when she last remembered him. Or maybe her mind had blurred his image over all these years. But it was him, his sound, his scent, even the gentle rocking as he held her tight. His eyes were closed now, tears flowing freely as he hummed the same tune he would always use when she was upset, a long-forgotten lullaby. She pressed her eyes closed once more as her own tears continued.
Elizabeth and Jonathan, on the green carpet in front of the office’s desk were the centerpiece of a tableau of rats and mice that dared not utter a single word for fear of breaking the spell. The humble tenderness of the scene left all around them, even their children, stunned and helpless.
Finally, sniffing away her tears Mrs. Brisby looked up at her husband, whose eyes still remained closed, and whispered.
Jonathan stopped the gentle rocking of his body and opened his own eyes, looking down at the one he had loved, and still loved, more than life itself. Trying to regain his composure, sniffling and coughing, he slowly rose to his feet, tenderly drawing up his wife with him until they stood eye to eye.
‘I’ll tell you. It’s been so long… I’ll…’
At that moment the two mice became aware that they were not alone. Elizabeth turned to look at her children, both of whom had tears running down their cheeks. With one arm she let go of Jonathan and gestured for Cynthia and Timothy. Both joined their parents in a wide embrace, all present members of their family becoming one. Again, tears fell freely as eyes closed to hold on to this impossible, wonderful moment.
Again, once time had passed, each of them dared to open their eyes. Timothy and Cynthia, feeling like the children they had been when they last seen their father, looked up at him now with a joy born from years of grief. He wore strange clothes, a black, long-sleeved jacket with a tight collar and rectangular fasteners running down one side of the front lapels. It echoed the uniforms worn by Jenner and the female rat still hovering close to Brutus, but of simpler design and more somber colorations. The most peculiar aspect was the Stone their father wore. In size and shape it was a duplicate of the one given to their mother by Nicodemus those many years before. But instead of a rich ruby color it glittered like an illuminant emerald.
These considerations quickly left the siblings as the happiness of seeing their lost parent again mingled with the memory of their grief, the years of painful remembrance. Recognizing the pain in his family, Jonathan moved his hands to tussle Timothy and Cynthia’s hair.
‘Look at you two, all grown up.’
He had difficulty speaking without breaking into more choking sobs again. He turned to look at his wife, who smiled in disbelieving wonder.
‘How are Teresa and Martin?’
‘Teresa’s married,’ Cynthia bubbled between sniffles, ‘with three kids.’
Jonathan’s gaze turned to his younger daughter, curiosity and joy jostling for place on his features.
Elizabeth pressed her cheek against his chest.
‘Yes, you’re a grandfather.’
Not wanting to succumb to tears under emotional pressure again Timothy added quickly.
‘And Martin’s a doctor.’
That news had the desired effect. Rather than tearing up again Jonathan Brisby was surprised enough to stop the free-flow of tears down his cheeks.
‘A doctor,’ agreed Cynthia, ‘and quite a good one, even according to Ages.’
He pulled his wife away from him a little so he could look into her face.
‘Our son, our Martin, is a doctor?’
Elizabeth looked up at him again and smiled, this time with wry humor as well as joy.
‘Yes, and he and Ages argue all the time.’
That elicited a chuckle, then laughter, and finally sobbing guffaws from her husband, tears and joy intermixed so irresistibly, his wife and children joined in.
Once everyone was composed again, the mouse that should not be alive moved towards the large black desk, drawing his family with him.
‘Come, I need to show you what happened. You need to know.’
Then he finally looked at Justin, Brutus, and his uniformed escort apologetically.
‘You all need to know.’
With that he gently disentangled himself from his loved ones and rushed around Jenner and the desk to take his seat in the throne-like chair once more. As he looked back at his family the pain of the many missed years that he shared with his wife and children shone from his eyes as he touched his right index finger onto the smooth black surface.
A mechanical noise from above drew the attention of rats and mice away from the Director.
The suspended glowing orb was lowering downwards from the ceiling, extended by the metal pylon until it hovered just above the top of Jonathan’s seat. As it stopped all eyes went back to the mouse, who placed his finger on a different, indistinguishable area on his desk. The same female voice that they had heard at the elevator spoke up again.
‘Alis,’ Jonathan spoke into the room, ‘please make sure that we are not disturbed.’
Jenner and Julia had, in the meantime, stepped around the desk to stand on either side of the Director’s chair, Jenner to the right, Julia to the left. Impelled by their motion Justin approached the shining table from the front and looked at his old friend in disbelief.
‘How is this… all of this possible, Jonathan?’
The mouse smiled back at him with understanding.
‘You will know everything, my friend. I promise.’
Jonathan waved his right hand over the table in a wave gesture and the area directly beneath the suspended globe light up in a similar green light. The mouse leaned back.
The green light intensified until little flecks, like motes from a campfire, only iridescently green, began floating upwards to meet the pulsating orb. Soon, a round column of rising points of light rose in a steady stream, like an upside down waterfall, to vanish within the waiting sphere above. Within the cylinder of light, three-dimensional shapes began to resolve themselves.
It was Timothy who, leaning on the table in astonishment, guessed at its purpose.
From behind the transparent, glowing images his father smiled appreciatively.
‘That and much more, son.’
Then the images came fully into focus, and the Director began his story.
They saw two human beings, unkempt and dressed in furs, arguing in front of an icy landscape.
‘It began with the humans. They were the first to fight over nothing, not food, not home, but ideas. And for ideas, they killed. ’
The two men in the glowing column were now struggling, until one reached behind him and drew a club, which shattered the other’s head. The image faded. From the rising motes of light a new scene began to coalesce. Again, there were humans, many of them, too many to count, dressed in the livery of ancient Rome, marching in organized columns by the thousands.
‘From one killing another the humans created the most horrible invention, war.’
The armies of Rome were met by hordes of warriors wearing rounded helmets, who attacked in a raging mob. Swords and spears drew blood, bodies fell on both sides, dead upon dead, until the only thing left on the battlefield were thousands of corpses, crows and vultures descending amongst them.
‘They made war for land, for power, but the worst wars were waged for ideas.’
Another war replaced the image of the first battlefield. Now the mice and rats saw humans dressed in heavy armor, with horses and siege towers, battling warriors dressed in flowing robes brandishing curved swords in an arid land of sun and heat. Again, the battle ended and what remained was another field of bodies, this once stretched out over scolding rocks and sand. Thankfully, this too dissolved back into the rising glow of the streaming light.
‘Humans made new tools. And many of them were weapons, so their wars became more deadly.’
A loud explosion echoed through the office as the image of a detonating mortar shell filled the gloom with bright terror. The watching rodents beheld men huddled in trenches, holding rifles, as huge tanks barreled across a blasted landscape and explosions tore bodies into countless pieces. The carnage was terrible and even Brutus averted his gaze at some of the gruesome imagery and the screams of the dying. Mercifully, this scene too faded.
But then it was replaced by an explosion of such magnitude it went beyond all imagination. The light from the seeing-machine temporarily blocked out all sensation, as if the world had suddenly gone white.
‘Then their weapons began to kill millions.’
The blinding light receded to be replaced by the view of a gigantic mushroom cloud, rising over the wasteland that had once been a bustling metropolis. The cloud expanded until the dark cover of its ash cast the entire office into darkness. Then a new image, soldiers marching in front of a red palace, immense rockets paraded on giant carriages behind them. Again the view changed, this time showing deep bunkers containing more rockets, silently waiting for their time to come.
‘Soon the humans were divided into two camps, separated by nothing more than ideas. In their fear and hate for each other they were building greater and greater weapons, enough to burn up the entire world. And even that was not enough.’
A new scene showed a laboratory, where humans in elaborate uniforms were talking to scientists and discussing things in tiny test tubes.
‘The humans in command wanted more than just bombs. They wanted things that could make the enemy sick. They wanted things to make themselves and their soldiers stronger. For that they needed scientists, willing to create diseases and other horrible things in exchange for wealth and power.’
In the laboratory one of the scientists came into a close-up view. Justin hissed under clenched teeth and Mrs. Brisby also recognized the younger version of one of the two men that had taken them from the storage closet at NIMH. Soon, the second man, equally younger, came into view as well.
‘Two of these scientists were Karl Schulz and Edward Valentine. One was an expert in manipulating the mind, the other aimed to unlock the mysteries of life and death. Together they served the soldiers and, with the help of many other human scientists, created the treatments that we were tested with at NIMH.’
A different laboratory, this one containing countless animal cages, took up the center of the pillar of light. A rat was seen being injected by a somewhat older Dr. Schulz, then a mouse. In the back, Valentine and two assistants were drawing blood from the other rodents and storing them in small vials.
‘They made us stronger, smarter, and extended our lives. But that was only the beginning. Only four of us ever underwent the second stage of the experiment.’
The rats and mice observed how the humans took two male rats, Nicodemus and Jenner, and two male mice, Jonathan and one unknown to them, from their cages and carried them away in darkened transport containers into the next room. There, Valentine and Schulz were waiting in front of an elaborate maze. Each rodent was removed from its carriage and fitted with a back harness that contained a large stone. Nicodemus’ was red, Jenner’s purple, Jonathan’s green, and the unknown mouse’s yellow.
‘The scientists created devices to enhance memory and unlock the hidden powers of the mind.’
Nicodemus was placed into the maze. Then they added a snake.
The observing rodents shuddered as they saw a much younger Nicodemus desperately navigating the maze as the large reptile followed. Finally, by trial and error, the rat managed to find an exit hole, too narrow for the predator to follow, which led into another attached storage container. As soon as he had made it to safety, Schulz placed Nicodemus into the maze once more and Valentine replaced the snake. This time the rodent found his way immediately, navigating twist and turns of such complexity it would have baffled even the smartest human being. Once again he reached safety and once again he was placed back into the maze with the reptile.
He made it to the exit hole just as quickly a third time, but now it was sealed. Following his scent, the snake soon had a frantic Nicodemus backed into a corner, ready to strike. Suddenly, the Stone fastened to the rat’s back flashed brightly and the snake was lifted, no, pushed violently out of the maze and landed on the laboratory floor.
Next it was Jenner who was put into the maze. Another snake chased him three times until he too was cornered, afraid for his life. When the Stone on Jenner’s harness activated in a fiery glow the snake unexpectedly burst into flame, the scientists scrambling to save the animal before the fire consumed it. When it was the unknown mouse’s turn nothing happened to the snake. It was the mouse who, once the yellow Stone light up during the last trial, jumped and levitated an impossible distance away from the maze. If not for an overwhelming fatigue that took hold of the mouse upon its landing Schulz would have been hard-pressed to retrieve it. When Jonathan faced the snake something altogether different occurred. The green light of his Stone heralded the most peculiar response from the reptilian predator. It lowered its head as if in deference and Jonathan simply climbed on top of its cranium and it lifted him beyond the boundary of the maze walls. Again, the scientists had to overcome some difficulties in regaining possession of their test subjects.
‘Before they could resume the tests Nicodemus led us out of NIMH.’
In the darkness of the night, they saw Nicodemus open his cage. But he did not release the others yet. Quietly, the wiry rat snuck into the other room and, without anyone else observing, managed to open a certain drawer and remove the red Stone from one of the harnesses. He was careful to hide the gem before he began freeing his fellow rats and then the mice. During the escape, Nicodemus showed the glowing gem to Jonathan and the mystery mouse, but was careful to hide its existence from Jenner.
Mrs. Brisby and the others witnessed how the Rats of NIMH lost the mice in the ventilation system, how they escaped the city and made their long, arduous journey that would lead them to the Rosebush at the Fitzgibbon Farm. They saw how the rats and the two remaining mice, Jonathan and Mr. Ages, began making new lives for themselves. Elizabeth had to suppress tears as the seeing-machine showed the moment when she had first met Jonathan. Throughout everything, the rats built their colony.
‘Nicodemus used the Stone and learned much. Soon he proposed the Plan, a means to live a life without having to steal.’
The image shifted to an older version of the former leader of the rats, his eyes glowing brightly as he assembled the very first seeing-machine. Then they saw Jonathan and Nicodemus talking in the rat’s library, arguing over the glowing jewel lying on the desk.
‘As time passed, some of the rats began to question the Plan, becoming greedy and lusting for power. Nicodemus and I decided to keep the Stone a secret. In the wrong hands it would be a most terrible weapon.’
Now the curtain of shining motes displayed the old Council Chamber in the Rosebush, a wildly gesticulating Jenner on the floor, waving his hands in anger.
‘Then, something unexpected happened.’
The mice drew closer together as they saw the image of their husband and father, together with Justin, as they hunkered behind a hole in the wall of the Fitzgibbon Farm kitchen. Jonathan had undressed and was holding an envelope with Mr. Ages’ sleeping power, ready to place it into Dragon the cat’s food dish. Neither humans nor the cat were to be seen anywhere, so the mouse rushed out and raced towards the feeding bowl. Just as he had placed the powder into the food, somewhere close a loud whistling noise, like from a steam kettle, sounded, and seconds later Dragon charged into the room. Jonathan ran for his life as the colossal feline bounded after him. He made it halfway into the hole, Justin grabbing his hands, as Dragon’s jaw bit him.
The Justin from years past gasped in horror. He held his friend’s arms and saw his wide-eyed terror while half his body was trapped behind a wall of sharp teeth. Dragon began to pull. A small trickle of blood flowed from the corner of Jonathan’s mouth. Scrambling for the staff by his side the brown rat hit the cat on the nose repeatedly, until it relented and let the mouse’s limp body drop to the ground. Justin pulled Jonathan in, desperate to find a sign of life in the other’s face. The mouse’s eyes were empty and half-lidded. Jonathan Brisby had died.
In the Director’s office Justin’s jaw clenched and Mrs. Brisby, who had just witnessed the actual death of her husband for the first time, buried her head into the shoulder of her son, trying to stifle a sob. Her children just stared at the column of flowing light in shock, where the image of their dead father faded away slowly. Mother and children then searched for the face of the Jonathan Brisby who had impossibly entered their lives again sitting behind the scintillating illumination pouring upwards. As they saw their husband’s and father’s face, tears on his cheeks, they were able to contain the pain at having witnessed his dying moments.
‘The Plan continued, but opposition grew, while my family never knew what had really happened. But the humans had not forgotten us. Our escape had caused many problems.’
An office room containing haggard-looking Drs. Schulz and Valentine with two other men wearing elaborate uniforms came into focus. The older uniformed human was shouting at the two scientists, who looked dejected and terrified. He pounded his fist onto a writing desk containing a folder labeled ‘Top Secret’ and raised a warning finger at the two men in the laboratory coats. Then the column showed Valentine and Schulz packing up their offices under the guard of soldiers. When other soldiers removed small experimental equipments and vials, including the four harnesses worn by the rodents that had been tested in the maze, the Stones inside the harnesses looked dull, like cheep glass. At the same time Dr. Schulz managed to hide a set of small frozen vials with a red liquid in a thermal coffee mug, Valentine slipped the three remaining Stones into the sleeve of his sweater. Then both scientists, wearing civilian clothes, left the building under armed escort.
‘When the farmer told the people at NIMH where to find us, and the humans discovered our home deserted, they reasoned that we must have died. They had planted a genetic fail-safe into the treatment, and finding the Rosebush empty they concluded that the case was now closed.’
Scenes of the remaining scientists from NIMH excavating the Rosebush colony then shifted to the entrance of a large office building, encased in shining glass, with the same logo Jonathan and everyone else in this place wore over the vast lobby doors. Dr. Valentine and Dr. Schulz, wearing sunglasses, hats, and wide-collared coats, were being ushered in by serious-looking men in dark suits.
‘Schulz and Valentine decided to sell their knowledge to a company that was working on bridging the gap between life and death.’
Now the two men were wearing laboratory coats once more. But the laboratory they found themselves in was much larger than that at NIMH had been, and contained more modern equipment. Strange cylindrical chambers were being shown to them by a third scientist of more advanced age. The glass tubes contained floating bodies of various animals, connected by an umbilical cord to the bottom. Valentine and Schulz exchanged encouraged words with the older man, who nodded with interest as he rubbed his goateed chin. Next Valentine pulled one of the Stones from a sealed box in his lab coat pocket with a pair of forceps and pointed with the other to his cranium and then at the suspended forms in the gestation tubes. The white-bearded scientist nodded as he followed Valentine’s gestures and then exchanged words with Schulz, who replied with a nod as well. Putting the Stone back into the box Dr. Valentine handed the container to a lab technician summoned over by the man with the white goatee and all three scientists shook hands with obvious excitement.
‘With the Stones and our blood they wanted to put our old memories into new bodies. But what they put back in was much more than just memories.’
A new series of three gestation cylinders came into view within the iridescent energies. Two held mice, and one contained a rat. Even in their fetal positions Jenner and Jonathan’s bodies were easy to identify. The rodents had tiny wires attached to their heads and various parts of their bodies. On the outside of each container a wire-studded box with a small circular recess had been attached. All three scientists and a handful of assistants wearing gloves and safety glasses were monitoring computer screens connected to the chambers. Dr. Valentine approached the cylinder containing the curled-up shape of Jonathan Brisby and inserted the green Stone into the round receptacle with forceps. Then he nodded to Dr. Schulz and the aged researcher, who began adjusting dials connected to the birthing tube of the Jonathan look-alike. The green Stone began to pulse, slowly, like a beacon. Computer screens reported vital signs and brain-wave activity, none of which changed. The stone continued pulsing.
Suddenly, a flash of bright green burst into the room, coming from the mysterious gem. Scientists and technicians alike had to shield their eyes. Most of the computer screens went blank or short-circuited. In the same moment, in the gestation liquid, the body of Jonathan Brisby opened its eyes, which glowed like burning emeralds. Before the humans could recover they began clutching their heads, shaking them as if to rid themselves of a terrible noise, all the while the awakened mouse turned its head to survey its environment.
‘They forced me back from what waits beyond death. You can’t imagine the pain, like being forced to grow backwards into an infant, loosing understanding and skill, in a second’s time.’
In the office, Jonathan Brisby waved his hand through the scintillating motes of streaming light and the flow ebbed away, leaving the desk dark and foreboding again. Above, the shining green orb was retracted towards the ceiling. Mrs. Brisby, her children and friends, looked at the resurrected mouse in wonder. Elizabeth stepped towards the desk and leaned towards Jonathan, looking at him almost in fear.
‘You did not want to come back?’
Jonathan swallowed hard and then slowly shook his head.
‘No. I was not supposed to.’
His wife’s eyes filled with tears as she reached her hands across the too-large expanse of the desk towards him.
‘Why would you not want to be with us, with me?’
Jonathan got up from his seat immediately to rush to his wife’s side and embrace her. He held her for a moment, looking apologetically at his children at the same time.
‘I was never separated from you. You could not see me, but I was there, always.’
She looked up at him.
‘But isn’t this better?’
He stroked her hair and sighed.
‘That’s just it. I no longer know. I forgot most of what I was before I returned.’
Then a smile crossed Jonathan’s features and he kissed his wife’s brow.
‘But I know how much I missed you these last three years.’
He motioned for his children to join the embrace again as well.
‘I missed you all so much.’
Behind them, Justin coughed into a closed fist with embarrassment.
‘Jonathan, what happened then? You say you have been alive for three years now?’
The mouse gazed at his old friend from the embrace of his family and nodded with a grave expression.
‘Yes, three long years. When I returned, the abilities the Stone had awakened in me so long ago increased ten-fold. I used them to influence the humans around me to follow my wishes.’
The brown rat’s gaze turned suspicious.
‘You can control others?’
Jonathan shrugged bashfully.
‘You remember how I was always able to help calm opposition to Nicodemus in the Council?’
Justin nodded slightly.
‘You always had that charm about you. And things went downhill quickly after you… died.’
The mouse nodded emphatically as he motioned for his loved ones to loosen their embrace in order for all to join the conversation. Jenner and Julia moved towards the front of the black stone table, creating a small circle of rodents on the green carpet. In that circle, with Julia and Jenner at his back, his wife to his right and his children to the left, Jonathan continued his explanations.
‘We all have unique gifts. The treatment amplified them. And the Stones make using them easier, like a training harness that helps infants to move until they can walk on their own. My gift is persuasion. With it I was able to influence the humans to think as I needed them to.’
‘Needed them for what?’
The grey mouse waved a hand around.
‘Every single animal in this place was once locked up in that company, or some other laboratory. I needed a way to free them from the humans forever. And by guiding the humans to do what I wanted I was able to make that possible.’
Justin looked doubtful.
‘Did they know?’
‘At first maybe,’ Jonathan admitted sadly, ‘but as I became more experienced they started to think that it was all their own idea.’
His rat friend looked around the vastness of the office.
‘And that’s how you came to run all of this.’
Now the mouse chuckled in amusement.
‘I can’t run this place all by myself. That’s why I made the humans bring Jenner back.’
Now Justin’s face turned dark.
‘About that, you said bringing you back wasn’t supposed to happen, that it hurt you. Why would you do that to Jenner?’
Surprisingly, it was Jenner himself who answered over the mouse’s shoulder.
‘I wanted to return. I needed to.’
Justin was confused now.
The dark rat sighed, his yellow eyes downcast in what looked remarkably like shame.
‘Because the way we live in this world determines how we exist in the next.’
The leader of Thorn Valley did not know what to reply. Jenner looked at him gravely.
‘You said it yourself. I murdered and betrayed for power and greed. I remember little from beyond, but what I do remember was painful, horrible. Can you even remotely imagine having to be aware of your crimes for eternity, having to face what you are without end?’
‘No,’ Justin admitted quietly.
Jenner swallowed down the lump in his throat and nodded a little.
‘I wanted to come back.’
Then he looked at Elizabeth and every other member of the group that had made the trip from distant Thorn Valley.
‘I need to make amends.’
Not entirely satisfied Justin nodded nonetheless before addressing Jonathan once more.
‘What about Nicodemus and Jacob? You didn’t bring them back?’
‘No, oh no! Nicodemus lived a good life. To bring him back would be a crime. And Jacob is still alive.’
It was Cynthia who spoke up.
‘Jacob was one of the mice that wound up in the sewers?’
Her father turned to her in elation.
‘Yes, and he and the others are here now as well.’
‘Dad, where’s Brendan?’
For a few moments Jonathan’s brow was furrowed in confusion before realization dawned.
‘He’s the young mouse that got left behind when we invited the others to join us, right? He’s with his family.’
He took his daughter’s hands in his.
‘They were all much farther along in the genetic regression than you were. Their treatment takes somewhat longer, so we gave them special quarters.’
Jonathan gave Cynthia a knowing fatherly look, which made her blush.
‘You’ll see him again. Give him some time to heal.’
Justin tried to get the grey mouse’s attention again.
‘There are a number of things I still don’t understand. Why this strange charade to get us here? Brendan told us the Blight doesn’t kill. And why did Julia have to tell us all these lies?’
Julia blushed in deep embarrassment, but Jonathan gave Justin a weary smile.
‘Would the Council have believed a word of it? Would they have let you go? And would you have come if you didn’t think your people were in mortal danger? The decision to deceive you wasn’t made easily. And Julia went through a lot of pain and danger to make it possible. You should be proud of her. Having her life erased in order to get you to come here was not an enjoyable process.’
Justin looked at the white rat in the lab coat that still averted her eyes in shame. Then, he spoke softly.
‘She’s incredibly brave, that’s for sure. I just wish I had known before I…’
Jonathan walked up to him and, as much as his limited height allowed, patted the rat on the arm.
‘She’s still the same Julia, you know. Memories do not make a person. You two can work it out, I’m sure of it.’
At that the white rat gave Justin a hopeful glance. There were definitely feelings there. They would talk later, in private. But now there were still questions that needed answering.
‘So, what is this all about anyway?’
‘This,’ Jonathan smiled back, ‘is about us finally becoming totally free.’
‘By stealing a human company?’
A look of bemusement passed across the grey mouse’s features.
‘Stealing? Oh no, we did not steal it. I believe in the Plan. We bought this place. It belongs to us in every way.’
‘Actually,’ he gave his rat friend a playful jab with his elbow, ‘you own one of the biggest portions.’
That caught Justin off guard.
‘Well, we had to make someone the owner. I am already listed as the General Director, so we put a large part of this company in your name.’
The brown rat began to look panicked.
‘How... and why…?’
Grinning at his old adversary’s discomfort Jenner took a step forward and waved his arms around graciously.
‘It’s actually very simple. Jonathan got the humans to produce a better version of the process the people at NIMH used on us. He offered it to any of the test animals who wanted it.’
‘Which was all of us,’ added Julia.
‘Right,’ Jenner agreed. ‘Once everyone had become intelligent the smartest started working secretly on the same projects as the humans’
The roguish rodent’s wink was disturbing as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder at Julia.
‘And some of us are smarter than any human ever was.’
Before Justin could object to Jenner’s insinuating gesture Jonathan interceded.
‘I managed to get many of us registered as employees, and patent holders for the inventions we created. Those were sold with such success that we were able to start buying parts of the company.’
Timothy, who like the rest of his family had been working through a torrent of emotions, finally rejoined the conversation.
‘And the humans didn’t notice? I’d think having to work with animals would make someone curious.’
His father was just about to reply when Cynthia stepped forward, putting a hand on her brother’s arm as she looked intently at her resurrected parent.
‘They didn’t see you as animals, did they? In their heads they saw humans, or at least that’s what they remembered afterwards. Dad… you manipulated their minds?’
There was a small hint of accusation in the young female’s voice and it obviously made Jonathan uncomfortable. He nodded to his daughter.
‘Yes, I did. I am not proud of it.’
‘Come on!’ Jenner snorted, ‘How else could he have kept us all safe without anyone getting hurt? The humans were happy and we were able to get free from them.’
‘And that took three years?’ Justin interjected.
Once more, Jonathan nodded.
‘Yes, we needed to make enough money to own the company, and then build this,’ he waved his arms expansively, ‘Once we had it running we were able to start contacting the others who had been changed by NIMH. All the time it took to make all this happen, Jenner and I worried we might be too late.’
Mrs. Brisby walked up next to her husband, gently touching his shoulder.
‘But this Blight would not have killed us. You know that.’
Jonathan looked back in embarrassment.
‘We didn’t. Valentine had engineered the treatment to start killing the subjects and any children in five years time.’
‘Then,’ Timothy was almost afraid to ask, ‘why aren’t we all dead?’
‘Sloppy work.’ Julia answered, ‘The part of the treatment that made you smarter and live longer interfered with the genetic time-bomb. Instead of killing you after five years it turned itself on much later, and when it did it only caused the blindness and sensitivity to light. But being exposed to sunlight will kill anyone with the Blight in the last stage.’
Jonathan nodded emphatically.
‘The first thing we needed to know once we had the humans under control was what would happen to you and the others in Thorn Valley. Our own scientists,’ he motioned to Julia, ‘created methods to test and predict what the time-bomb would do. Imagine my relief when they discovered it would be delayed. We tried to work as fast as we could to buy the company and get everything ready to send you and anyone else in need an antidote.’
‘We barely made it in time,’ Jenner remarked gravely. ‘When we discovered the original mice had survived and brought them here we were afraid you,’ he motioned to Justin and Brutus, ‘would be just as far along. We were lucky.’
Justin put his arms to his hips, addressing both Jenner and Justin.
‘Okay. We’re here. What’s going to happen next?’
Jonathan wrapped an arm around his wife’s waist and gazed at his rat friend apologetically.
‘We’ll get the cure to Thorn Valley as quickly as possible. Plus we need to get the rats from the sewers here. The last thing we want is humans finding out that they had smart rats living under their streets.’
‘Quaestor,’ Justin remembered.
‘Yes,’ the mouse agreed, ‘we have had someone talking to him about the best way to convince his people to join us. He’s smarter than you might think. But it’s not going to be easy. These sewer rats can be a bit rambunctious.’
That actually illicit a chuckle from the otherwise exhausted Justin.
‘No secret there.’
‘For now,’ Jonathan added with a somewhat pleading look, ‘I think we could all use some rest and maybe some time to,’ he turned to his wife and children longingly, ‘to spend some family time.’
Taking the hint Julia stepped forwards, passed the Brisby family towards Justin and Brutus, her shame and guilt masked by an opportunity to being helpful.
‘We have some nice quarters, beds and food ready. Let me show you. Stella, can you bring Brutus along please?’
Not waiting for an answer she led Justin by the arm, who followed with a subdued expression. The much larger rat shambled after the pair with his mute escort in tow. Jonathan, remaining behind with his wife and children, smiled and nodded at Jenner, who gave a remarkably respectful bow and a two-finger salute before turning on his heels to tail the others to the office door.
Elizabeth, Cynthia, Timothy and Jonathan remained and talked for a long time.