Timothy could not sleep.
The bed was comfortable, very much so. That was not the problem.
After they had talked what seemed like hours their father had taken them from the office back down to the promenade atrium to a section of rodent-sized apartments that had been set aside for them. He had lived here ever since the huge building had been constructed, but the Director had always had spare rooms for his children ready and waiting. His younger son could not make up his mind whether that was a sweet sentiment or strangely creepy.
The apartment itself was not fancy. A living room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and three bedrooms, one master bedroom and one for each set of two children. The furnishings were comfortable, even though they looked and felt somewhat sterile and cold. Metal, undecorated wood and plastics dominated the décor. Everything had a minimalist air to it, but not depressingly so. A few art prints, stylish lamps, and a sofa tried to make the space less anonymous. Still, the place gave the impression as if it had hardly ever been used.
On the living room table stood small framed picture with a single candle in front of it. The image had been unsettling but also heartwarming for Elizabeth and her children. It was unsettling in that it did not depict anything that had ever occurred in real life. It was an artificial construct. Upon closer inspection if proved to be hand-painted in oil, a family portrait of their family, Jonathan, Elizabeth, and the four kids when they were young. This event had, of course, never taken place. Somehow, someone had managed to perfectly portray them. The lighted candle had made the family portrait the centerpiece of the entire apartment.
The quarters had windows opening up to the atrium, which in turn received some natural light from the distant glass ceilings. The glow from the ever-present fake lanterns was dimmed this late at night, but some of it filtered into the room Cynthia and Timothy now shared, painting lines onto the ceiling as it entered through half-closed blinds.
Timothy kept staring at those lines, his arms folded behind his head.
He had never slept on a more comfortable bed, halfway covered in a wonderfully fluffy blanket. But sleep just would not come. He dared at peek over to his sister’s side of the room. Cynthia had her back turned to him, wrapped up in her blanket. She was probably sleeping soundly.
‘Timmy, are you awake?’
The hesitant whisper proved him wrong.
‘Can’t sleep either?’
Cynthia turned in her bed to look at her brother.
Timothy let out a deep sigh.
‘Apart from dad suddenly being back from the dead and us spending the night in the most impossible place on the planet I am just peachy. How about you?’
His sister ignored the sarcasm.
‘I keep wondering about Martin and Teresa, and the kids.’
The male mouse nodded.
‘Yeah, me too.’
For a moment neither spoke.
Then, Cynthia slipped out from under the covers and walked quietly to the room’s small closet and retrieved her original poncho, which had been cleaned and mended once more. As she slipped on her clothes Timothy sat up in bed and adjusted his glasses.
‘Where’re you going?’
‘I don’t know. But I can’t sleep and I sure don’t want to spend the night just lying here thinking about stuff that I can’t do anything about.’
Her brother rubbed his brow.
‘So what are you going to do?’
‘Dad said we could go anywhere in here at anytime, right? So, why not go exploring?’
‘In the middle of the night?’ Timothy ventured doubtfully.
‘Some people are still awake. I can tell.’
‘Oh well,’ the male rolled out of his bed to retrieve his own fixed clothing, ‘better keep you out of trouble then.’
They exited the apartment quietly, not wanting to disturb their parents who, for the first time in many years, were able to once again spend a night in each other’s company.
Outside they found themselves on a similar walkway to the one Jenner had first taken them along earlier. Now the lamps were a bit dimmer and nobody else appeared to be around. Since they had no particular direction in mind the two mice strolled towards the building’s central column. The walkway was not straight. To give the aligned living quarters more privacy the path was crenulated with alcoves and small balconies, which forced any casual walker into a number of short turns.
As Timothy went around the first of these in their path he collided with a rat going the other way. The impact was so sudden that both rodents bounced off each other and almost tumbled onto their respective rumps.
‘I am so sorry!’
A few seconds into the automatic apologies Cynthia and Timothy recognized the shape of Julia in the dim illumination.
‘Hi Julia! Sorry about that.’
‘Are you two alright?’ the rat appeared worried.
The female mouse grinned and shrugged.
‘We can’t sleep. So we went for a walk.’
Julia nodded with a smile.
‘I can understand that. I had to force Justin to get some rest.’
‘Oh, you were with him?’ Timothy wondered.
‘Yes,’ the female rat nodded with slight embarrassment, ‘we had a lot to talk about.’
‘Are the two of you, you know,’ the male mouse tried to formulate, ‘okay and everything?’
Julia adjusted her glasses and looked away, but with a content expression.
‘I think so. It was awkward, but I think we worked things out.’
‘Are you busy?’ Cynthia nodded to an electronic data pad similar to the one that they had seen on the rabbit scientist earlier in the evening.
The rat sighed.
‘Yes, I’m afraid. You can’t imagine the work that piled up while I was gone; so many things to take care of, so many people to look after.’
The crème-furred mouse could not suppress a chuckle.
‘You sound just like Justin.’
Julia appeared pleasantly surprised at that.
Timothy hastily added, ‘That’s not a good thing. He works himself to the bone and you look like you’re doing the same, aren’t you?’
It felt strange to be chided by a couple of mice much younger than herself, but she looked embarrassed nonetheless.
‘I tend to do that, yes. But the people here depend…’
‘You’re going to be no good to anybody if you work yourself to death, you know.’
Cynthia’s comment hit home and Timothy did not wait in adding his own.
‘You really think this place would fall apart if you got a night’s sleep?’
Julia’s mouth opened to shape a reply, and then simply shut again. After another deep sigh she gave a hesitant nod.
‘I guess it wouldn’t hurt to get some sleep, at least a little bit.’
The female mouse’s grin was endearing.
‘See, that wasn’t such a hard choice to make.’
‘And what about you two?’
Timothy rubbed the back of his neck.
‘We have a hard time sleeping with everything that has happened. You know of anything we could do to pass the time in this place?’
The white rat rubbed her chin in thought for a moment. Then her face light up.
‘Huh?’ Came the simultaneous reply from the mice.
‘Oh, I mean Dr. Prometheus. He is our head geneticist and is a bit of a night owl. He either works late into the night or sits in his laboratory and reads. I bet he would love to give you a tour.’
Cynthia turned to her brother.
‘Sounds like something you’d like.’
‘Yeah, where do we find him?’
‘Tell you what,’ Julia offered, ‘I’ll show you the way down to his place and I can just drop off this data and then go right to bed. Deal?’
She extended her hand and Cynthia shook it vigorously.
That done Julia turned around and motioned the mice to follow her. They passed a number of apartment niches that looked empty.
‘Nobody else live in these?’ Timothy wondered.
‘More than half of our living spaces are empty,’ the rat explained. ‘Jonathan expects them to fill up a little once the mice have been treated and are able to join the rest of us. With the rats from the sewers coming in as well, we should be using more soon.’
‘How long will that be?’ Cynthia longed to know.
Julia approached one of the monitors that they had noticed embedded at intervals into the walls along the walkway, the entrances of apartments, even inside every room of their own current quarters. She placed her palm on the screen and a female voice spoke softly from hidden speakers.
‘Alis, what is the rehabilitation status of the mice from Baltimore?’
‘According to the recent medical files, full rehabilitation is expected within a month’s time, Dr. Snow.’
‘Thank you, Alis.’
Timothy was mesmerized.
‘This Alis person doesn’t sleep either?’
The female rat looked at the mouse with consternation, and then laughed.
‘Alis is not a person. At least, she is not a flesh-and-blood person.’
Seeing the lack of comprehension on the smaller rodents’ faced she continued.
‘Alis is one of our greatest accomplishments. Your father and I designed her beginnings. She is a computer program that is completely aware. Her name is A.L.I.S, or autonomous logarithmic intelligence system.’
Cynthia leaned towards the monitor with a mix of awe and suspicion.
‘Like an artificial person?’
‘More like a real person, but with a body of a machine. You could say that this entire facility is Alis, at least her body.’
The male mouse gazed past his sister at the computer screen in a rapturous expression.
‘Can we talk to her?’
‘Certainly,’ assured their guide. ‘As a matter of fact, your father has given her orders to allow your family the same access rights as he does. Even I don’t have that security clearance.’
Turning around Cynthia gazed at the rat in confusion.
‘What does that mean?’
Julia smiled warmly.
‘It means that nothing in this place is secret to you. You can see and find out anything. If it exists, Alis can show it to you. Jonathan was specific about that. He wanted no secrets in his family.’
‘How,’ her brother wondered, ‘do we do that?’
‘You can talk to any monitor in this place or touch it with your hand and Alis will respond.’
Being the closest, Cynthia pressed her hand on the dark screen.
The mouse almost jumped at the sudden reply.
‘Alice… eh… Alis?’
‘Em… how are you doing tonight?’
‘All my functions are operating at optimal efficiency, my unconscious subroutines report no abnormalities, and I am experiencing excitement at making the acquaintance of you and your family. Thank you for asking.’
Cynthia turned to face Julia in consternation.
‘This is a program in a computer?’
The rat smiled and nodded, but then winked.
‘Actually, she is much more than a simple program. Your father and I designed her younger version.’
‘What do mean,’ Timothy interrupted, ‘a younger version?’
Now Julia really came alive as she continued her explanations.
‘Humans never managed to create a truly living artificial intelligence. They always tried copying the way a mind looks into a machine. But we argued that if we simply designed a computer model for a juvenile mind, like an infant, and allowed it to grow on its own, it could turn into a true personality.’
‘That would be me.’
Both mice startled at the unprompted reply from the computer’s speaker. The rat chuckled.
‘She has her own mind; and an attitude too.’
‘Okay,’ Cynthia raised a finger, ‘how can a computer be a ‘she’?’
‘She decided she wanted to be a female, so that’s what she is.’
‘I am woman, hear me roar.’
That made Julia burst out in laughter so fully even the mice began to chuckle.
Timothy, after he had gotten over his giggles, placed both hands next to the computer screen and peered into the monitor.
‘She has a sense of humor! A machine with a sense of humor! Can you see me through here?’
‘No,’ the hidden speaker replied, ‘but I can currently see you through a total of eighteen observation cameras.’
That made the mouse turn around as if stung, looking about the dim walkway while his sister and their friend grinned.
‘Are there cameras… everywhere?’
The question had been addressed to Julia but the electronic entity again took up the initiative.
‘Yes, but I do not pry. Most are used only in emergencies.’
Now his sister began to look awed.
‘She is a real person! I can feel her telling the truth.’
The white rat smiled with pride.
‘Yes, she is. Dr. Prometheus might even show you the main computer core if you ask him.’
With that, they continued their stroll until they had reached the central column. After crossing a bridge they entered one of the many glass elevators, but this time descended downwards.
‘There was something I wanted to ask you, Julia.’
Cynthia sounded almost embarrassed.
‘Why did you volunteer to do what you did? I mean, why give up your memory and endanger yourself by running around a forest with dangerous animals?’
The larger rodent rubbed her own neck in thought.
‘We had to get someone from Thorn Valley here. If we didn’t… well we just had to. I designed the procedure to close off memories for while and I did not want anyone else have to go through it. Your father did not want me to go. I insisted. Thankfully, Jonathan had counted on the Great Owl to act the way it did.’
Her face turned conspiratorially.
‘But I can tell you, seeing that bird without my memories or knowing who it was scared me so bad I fainted. But smaller animals I wasn’t really worried about.’
‘How come?’ Cynthia wondered. ‘I would never walk around the woods on my own.’
Julia waved a hand dismissively.
‘I can take care of myself. Stella insisted on training me for months.’
The blank stares of the mice invited elaboration.
‘Stella, Sergeant Lux I mean, trained me in all sorts of combat and survival modes. And when she trains you, you get trained well. Plus, she’s my cousin.’
‘But your memories?’ Timothy argued.
‘I made sure I kept those skills. I just didn’t remember having them.’
‘Huh?’ The female mouse exclaimed.
‘I was still able to fight and so on. I just didn’t know that I could do until I needed to, and I had no idea why I would be able to. It worked great.’
A more wistful expression came over the rat’s features.
‘When we tangled with those sewer rats…’
‘The Staggs?’ Timothy wondered.
‘Yes,’ Julia replied, ‘them. Well, I had some sort of dagger when I was attacked and the training kicked in. Justin was impressed.’
Now it was Cynthia’s turn to smile knowingly.
‘Justin likes women who can handle themselves.’
Obviously flattered the white rat tried to lead the conversation away from herself.
‘Then he should see Stella fight.’
The male mouse leaned closer.
‘Tougher than nails, Timothy. I have seen her lay out opponents almost ten times her weight in under a minute. She’s tough.’
Then, Julia turned somber
‘It’s part of her condition.’
‘What condition is that?’ Cynthia wondered.
‘It’s the same thing that your friend Brutus has. It’s a mutation, probably caused by the procedure the people at NIMH created. So far we’ve only seen it in rats, and it’s very rare. With Brutus included I know of only five cases total, three of them are still children, a girl and two boys.’
She looked at both mice solemnly.
‘It causes inability to speak and the strange eyes. It also appears to make the sufferer very strong and tough and prone to violence. I’m glad Brutus is here now. It’s hard for the kids who have this to adjust. We have electronic collars that enable them to speak, but being different is never easy, especially when you also have a bad temper.’
Cynthia mused, ‘Stella didn’t wear that collar, did she?’
Julia shook her head.
‘Only when she is on duty. She hates how it feels. So far she has been the only adult role model for the younger ones who have this. Brutus being here might help the boys out a lot.’
‘Wow,’ the male mouse opined, ‘Brutus has been called many things, but –role model- is a new one.’
Cynthia elbowed him in the ribs.
By this time the elevator had passed below the lowest level of the atrium. The ground floor had been resplendent with plants and water fountains, creating a beautiful garden promenade. Once underneath that level the descending cabin was facing cold metal walls with interspersed green lights and an occasional door. Finally, their conveyance slowed and they came to a halt in front of a door not dissimilar to that, which had opened up towards their father’s office.
When this gate opened they found a corridor of a different design waiting for them. It was as wide as the one that had led to the Directorial office but much taller. There were numerous sealed metal doors at various intervals, each with a computer monitor and a round green gem embedded next to them. On the doors were arrays of numbers and letters, indicating the room within. And unlike the hallway on the upper floor this passage had numerous intersections and appeared to go on forever. The term labyrinth would have been adequate.
There did not seem to be anyone about at this time of night and Julia ushered the mice along the main corridor, past four intersections, until she stopped at a closed gate. She pointed her finger down the remainder of the main passage.
‘I need to put this information into the computers. Dr. Solomon is in the main laboratory at the very end of the hall, the big door. You can’t miss it.’
With that she placed her palm on the green stone next to the monitor. It light up and the doors slid inwards with a soft hiss of steam. Before the mice could argue, or even make out the details of the room, Julia entered and the panel hissed shut again.
The siblings looked at each other.
‘Shall we?’ asked Timothy.
‘Let’s shall, then.’
They made their way to the end of the corridor.
Julia had not exaggerated. The door was immense. Even the entrance to Jonathan’s office would have looked miniscule to the great metal panel that sealed off the lair of Dr. Prometheus. The metal was smooth and without ornamentation. Unlike the smaller doors, this one did not have a monitor in the wall next to it. It did have a single, round emerald stone embedded in the middle. Timothy, after sending a questioning glance to his sister, who simply shrugged again, cautiously put his hand on the jewel. Just as the mice had witnessed before, the stone began to glow green. Then, the huge metal panel began to rise into the distant ceiling.
The amount of steam released by this vast mechanism encased the Brisby children in billowing clouds for a few moments, a draft from inside the indiscernible chamber blowing them out like a miniature storm front. Once the last of the fog had dissipated and the wind died down the siblings had their first glimpse of Dr. Prometheus’ world.
It was dark. Unlike the corridor or even the atrium the chamber beyond the gaping entrance was barely visible. What the two mice were able to perceive was that the space was vast, incredibly so. The darkness was interrupted by thousands of multicolored light-sources. Some were points, others lines, yet others appeared ovals or rectangular surfaces. It was the most curious spectacle, drawing in the siblings with their twinkles and flashings. And the sounds, oh the sounds! They were not loud. But there were so many of them. Clicks, whirs, tweets, pings, any conceivable acoustic utterance a machine could make were mixed together in a mild cacophony.
As soon as they had stepped beyond the boundary of the door, the immense gate lowered itself and shut with a pneumatic hiss and the clanking of heavy metal. Now the last remnant of illumination from the hallway was gone. Timothy and Cynthia turned their heads in every which direction, desperate to understand this peculiar place. After a few moments their eyes adjusted and they quickly discovered that they once again stood upon some sort of ramp or walkway, running along both sides of the entrance into the mysterious distances beyond. Beyond the walkway lay a dark chasm, reaching into unknown depths and heights, its mysteries expanse barely outlined by uncountable lights.
Both mice realized upon looking closer at the walls that the numberless sources of illumination were the dials, monitors, and technological devices embedded into every available vertical surface. Furthermore, they discovered that the walls were not smooth, but crenulated with uncountable alcoves and rectangular outcroppings. They could only assume the walls beyond the chasm, their lights like chaotic constellations, were equally complex in structure.
Timothy, ever the technology enthusiast, walked up to the machinery adjoining the shut doors, gazing from one blinking instrument to the next, marveling at the countless read-outs.
‘Look at this, Cyn!’
He pointed a finger at a workstation that contained five gigantic clear cylindrical tubes. Each tube was brightly illuminated in a different color and contained semi-transparent liquids, bubbling and churning. Next to them was a huge monitor, more than four times their height, like an immense glowing billboard. Five columns of numbers ran down its surface, updating every ten seconds.
‘What do you think this is?’
‘You’re the machine wiz, Timmy. How should I know?’
‘Something about making medicines,’ her brother muttered to himself, ‘I’m almost certain.’
She looked askew at the tubes, rising like glowing pillars, and shivered.
‘The stuff is grown in there, not made, grown!’
Timothy turned a quizzical glance at his sister, looking ominous in the multicolored cast from the cylinders.
‘Of course I’m sure. Whatever’s in there is alive.’
The female mouse hugged herself as she let her gaze wander over the dim vastness with its scintillating lights.
‘This place creeps me out. And how are we going to find this Dr. Prometheus in this mess anyway?’
Shrugging her brother moved closer to the precipice, trying to peer into the deep chasm stretching below. The he looked upwards, whistling through his teeth in astonishment.
‘This is one big laboratory all right.’
Timothy cupped his hands over his muzzle and tried to shout over the continuous din of the numberless instruments.
‘Hello-oh! Hellooooooooooh! Anybody hoooooooome?’
Cynthia rolled his eyes at him.
‘Nobody is going to hear you over this racket.’
‘Well then,’ her brother grinned and rubbed his hands, ‘you wanted to go exploring. This is a place I will love to poke around in.’
She waved a hand to where the walkway was disappearing into the shimmering darkness.
‘Lead on then, oh master of machines!’
Timothy did just that.
Like a sugar-addict in the largest candy store in the world the young mouse rushed from machine to machine, his sister following behind in a disinterested saunter. Many of the curious devices appeared to have been constructed on much larger scale than they were, while others were easily assessable to rodents. In between they found the ubiquitous monitors that allowed access to the facilities computer system and, supposedly, Alis.
The male mouse pointed a thumb at a monitor.
‘Should I ask Alis to find this doctor?’
Just as Cynthia was about to answer her eyes widened in fear and her head jerked around to look at the hidden distances of the laboratory.
‘He’s here,’ the crème-colored mouse whispered in a cowed voice.
Craning his neck all about Timothy tried to see anything beyond the lights flickering in the darkness.
Cynthia slowly turned in a circle, looking at the machines in the walls and then over the laboratory’s gulf.
Her brother was getting aggravated and walked towards the closest monitor.
‘Let’s ask Alis.’
That was when an immense hand, covered in wrinkles, coarse hair, and festooned with enormous nails, slammed down on the edge of walking ramp so hard it felt as if the entire laboratory was shaking.
Falling to their knees both mice turned to the gigantic appendage in shock. A single finger would be enough to crush them to a pulp. Then, slowly, with a mountainous grace, a living shape, larger than any they had ever encountered, raised itself from the depth of the precipice.
First came the arm, covered in a ragged brown pelt and sporting muscles like coconuts, it pulled the incredible body from below. A second hand appeared and rose beyond the height of the other to disappear into the gloom above, until it grasped a pole that seemed to stretch from the laboratory wall all the way over the chasm, but due to the lack of light neither of the Brisby mice had seen it. The paw grasped a hold of the pole and the hand that had originally slammed into the ramp retreated back into the deep. The second arm, extended like an incredible furred pillar, pulled the remainder of the being into view.
It was a chimpanzee. Grizzled and ancient, its face was as craggy as a cliff and furrowed as a canyon. It sported a long silvery beard and an equally silvery fringe of hair. Even at this distance the creature’s size and strength were intimidating. Giant eyes, glowing like gas lamps, shone from underneath the cavernous brows.
With a movement so sudden it stunned both mice to scramble backwards the suspending arm thrust both body and face towards the edge of the ramp, where the second hand clasped the walkway tightly. The mountainous features hovered closer, reaching over the surface of the walkway until the illuminated eyes spread their gaze over the two shivering rodents like strobe lights.
Cynthia and Timothy were too terrified to notice the unbuttoned laboratory coat with the now familiar facility logo fluttering from the muscle-bound frame of the ape. Their entire world was dominated by the incredible face, and the eyes, in which their own insignificantly small forms reflected.
Then the creature’s mouth opened to reveal blocky teeth and canines so larger than either of the mice.
A deep resonant voice boomed over them, strong enough to make their fur ripple.
‘Who are you?’
Lying prone on the ground, their heads barely raised and shaking with terror, neither mouse was able to speak.
The titanic visage drifted closer, a lower lip thrust forward like a wall of flesh before revealing the chisel-sized dentition once more. Again, the thunderous voice boomed out, so close now the air from the creature’s mouth actually shoved the siblings closer to the wall.
‘Who… are… YOU?’
The shining eyes drifted to her brother who desperately fought to regain the power of speech.
‘Tim… TIMOTHY!’ he yelled.
The chimp’s head immediately retreated in a swift motion that ruffled the mice’s fur once more. Suspended beyond the walking surface from both arms now, the ape tilted his head, using one of his enormous feet to thoughtfully scratch his chin.
‘Cynthia and Timothy… Brisby?’
The siblings nodded emphatically.
This changed the features of the dangling simian immediately. The formerly sour-faced maw turned into a wide-faced grin, still revealing teeth much too large to be endearing. Releasing one of his hands the chimpanzee managed the doubtful task of bowing theatrically while hanging by the remaining arm. Thanks to the distance between them the immense voice did not overwhelm the two mice as it had before.
‘I am honored to make your acquaintance. I am Dr. Prometheus. Now,’ he suddenly swung back towards the edge of the chasm to have his now smiling face hover over the Brisby children once more, ‘how can I be of service?’
Both Timothy and Cynthia had gotten to their feet during the time the suspended ape had kept himself at a distance. At his sudden return both fought hard not to fall back onto their hindquarters again. Still staring at the towering scientist the siblings managed to complete each other’s stammering attempts at conversation.
‘Couldn’t sleep,’ Cynthia started.
Timothy added, ‘Julia, she said… she said.’
‘Prometheus would show you… show you…’ Cynthia fumbled.
The face with the overlarge, smiling teeth leaned in even more.
‘Show you… what?’
Now both mice were at a loss. They looked at each other in desperation, then back at the vast features suspended above them. Finally, Timothy whispered.
Once more the primate’s body was propelled backwards, this time accompanied by an overpowering bout of laughter that seemed to rock the entire building. Shuddering like a wall of jelly he was hard-pressed to maintain his two-handed grip on the pole above. Finally, the jovial expulsions died down and a foot as nimble as any hand was used to wipe away tears from the corner of the ember-like eyes.
‘I do apologize for frightening you, dear children.’
Cynthia and Timothy slowly relaxed, still feeling the tremors of that booming laughter ringing through their bones. Dr. Prometheus swung a little bit closer, but this time giving the uneasy rodents more breathing room. He waved his right foot towards the now closed gates to the vast laboratory.
‘This time of night the gates are locked. Only four people can enter then, the Director, Dr. Snow, Mr. Fray, and myself. So, I was surprised to find you here.’
The grizzled ape swung a little closer, his immense visage be contorted in a conspiratorial smile.
‘How did you open the door?’
‘Julia said,’ Timothy explained, ‘that dad gave us the same access that he has.
The simian’s head nodded sagely.
‘Yes, yes. That would account for it. Now then,’
The chimpanzee’s body retreated once more and the foot waved over the dim expanse of the cavernous chamber.
‘I would be delighted to give you a tour. What would you like to see first?’
The siblings turned to face each other, unable to come up with an answer. They returned to look at the suspended hulk with a sheepish expression. Rubbing his chin with his right foot again Dr. Prometheus nodded again with understanding.
‘What is it you do where you come from?’
Exchanging quick glances the mice decided honesty could not hurt.
‘I collect plants, mushrooms, lichens, and such, things that can help the sick.’ Cynthia began.
‘Really? The ape rumbled appreciatively, ‘And how do you know where to find them and what they are?’
‘I never know what they are,’ the young female continued, ‘at least not their names. But I know what they are good for when I find them. And I always find whatever…’
‘Or whomever,’ Timothy interjected.
‘… or whomever I am supposed to look for.’
Dr. Prometheus’s burning eyes lowered to slits and his smile spread.
‘And you always know your way or when people are lying, right?’
Cynthia’s jaw dropped and her brother exclaimed, ‘How do you know that?’
Once again the booming laughter shook the laboratory. Once it subsided the simian leaned his head forward, the right foot to its side as if in a conspiratorial whisper.
‘It is my talent to know the nature of things, and of people.’
He swung backwards and pointed a finger on his left foot towards Timothy.
‘And what is your talent, my friend?’
‘Machines, I guess.’
‘Hah!’His sister blurted, ‘He can build anything! Sometimes he’s completely clueless what he’s making, but it still works.’
The male mouse looked at her irritably as if wanting to shush her. But Cynthia proved un-shush-able.
‘And it’s almost as if he can sniff them out or something. Show him any old thingamajig and he knows what it’s for.’
Both the ape’s feet were now wringing themselves, like hands clasped in anticipation.
‘Well, I think I know just what you might like to see.’
This time the furry scientist angled his body towards the walkway very gradually until his right foot was extended open-faced, palm upwards, like a platform for the mice to step on.
Cynthia, being able to feel the sincerity in their imposing host, took a cautious step forward. Timothy followed and soon the two climbed over the leathery finger-toes into the chimp’s large palm. The digits turned slightly upwards to form a cradle. Then the ape turned himself around as he hung from the bar above.
‘Fear not, children. You are safe with me.’
With that the ape swung himself down into the dark chasm as the mice screamed and held on to the curled-up finger-toes in panic.
Despite the pervasive darkness the simian knew his way. The entire laboratory appeared to be crisscrossed with poles and bars for him to navigate the vastness in his own fashion. Soon after the drop Dr. Prometheus instinctively grabbed a hold of another bar, apparently invisible in the gloom, and used it to propel himself forwards, where another pole waited in the darkness. With a swiftness and grace that belied his bulk, the chimpanzee propelled himself and his charges through the light-speckled expanse at breathtaking speed.
As soon as the siblings had overcome their initial surprise they became delighted. Having flown with Jeremy and his family many times, they had not fear of altitudes or high speeds. And the peculiar panorama of the sparkling lights from the machinery gave the impression of flying through the distances of outer space. In no time Timothy and his sister were holding on to the edge of the doctor’s cupped foot, hooting in delight as the wind blew over their faces. Above them the basso laughter of their host’s mirth mingled with their own.
Dr. Prometheus traversed the tantalizing distances with ease and surety. The farther the trio went the more outlandish the machinery around them became. Finally, the huge primate came to rest on yet another platform facing a new array of cylindrical glass tubes, illuminated brilliantly from behind. As before a huge monitor to the right displayed something, but this time it was not a series of number columns. Rotating slowly and descending downwards on the screen was the three-dimensional model of what the mice had learned was called DNA. The ape allowed Cynthia and Timothy to step from his foot onto his right palm, which he then raised towards the cylinders. In this array there were only three, but they looked much larger. Within the liquid there hovered a strange ball of white tissue connected with vessels to both the top and bottom of their respective tubes.
Timothy’s eyes were glued to the monitor read-out.
‘What is happing in there?’
Rather than answering the simian’s gaze focused on Cynthia, who, in turn, was gazing at the lumps of tissue inside the three glass columns.
‘Trees…’ she muttered, ‘you’re growing trees in there, seeds at least, right?’
Her last statement was made craning her neck to meet the scientist’s eyes.
Dr. Prometheus grinned broadly and nodded.
‘Yes, in there we are creating a new future.’
‘Incubators!’ Exclaimed Timothy, ‘Incubators that allow you to make anything, anything at all!’
A rumbling chuckle rose from the chimpanzee’s chest.
‘Not anything, son. It has to fit into the natural order too.’
Now both mice looked at the immense face in wonderment.
‘What does that mean?’ The male mouse inquired.
The large index finger of the ape’s other hand pointed at his sister.
Cynthia turned her shocked features to her brother.
‘No I don’t!’
The doctor’s chuckle returned, even louder.
‘You do, child. You just don’t realize it yet. Timothy, look at the screen and tell me what comes to your mind.’
He did as he was asked to. After a few moments he shook his head and sighed.
‘I don’t know. Just some funny ideas about mixing stuff up, like gardeners do when they want to breed new kinds of fruit; But mixing it up much more.’
The grizzled brow nodded and the eyes looked back towards his sister.
‘What comes to your mind when you look at the cylinders, child?’
Cynthia swallowed hard and stared at the suspended lumps of organic matter. Then she shrugged with exasperation.
‘Just silly stuff. Fish growing from trees.’
Now the ape’s mirth returned in full force as he tilted his head back in laughter. His body shook to make the mice in his palm afraid he might drop them.
‘Yes, yes, very good, you two!’
His glowing eyes returned to regard the siblings with something akin to bemused respect.
‘You are both correct, each in your own way. These,’ he pointed with his free hand to the tubes, ‘allow us to combine the natures of the most different life forms. You see, some of us here were born as hunters, killers of others.’
That sent a shiver down both rodents’ spines, the memory of their chase by cats and dogs still fresh. They nodded to their large host.
‘But we no longer have to kill another in order to survive. So, we are building plants that supply our meat-eating friends with the foods they need.’
Understanding dawned in each mouse simultaneously.
‘So in this tube,’ Cynthia offered, ‘you are making a tree that will grow…’
‘…a fruit with the properties and taste of a certain fish species, yes.’ Dr. Prometheus completed the sentence.
Timothy gazed at their guide with some confusion.
‘What about what you said before? What was that about the –natural order-?’
‘Ah,’ the chimpanzee raised a finger to his temple, ‘you see what we create here was never meant to exist in nature. So when we design these things we have to make sure that they will not upset the balance of the things that already exist in the natural world.’
The male rodent was still confused.
‘How can you do that? That natural order would be too complex for anyone to know, not even a million computers.’
The beard-tasseled head nodded solemnly.
‘You are correct. Not even Alis could calculate what would happen if these trees wound up in the wild. But there are other ways of –knowing-.’
Again, both children openly showed their lack of comprehension.
‘How?’ Cynthia asked this time.
Dr. Prometheus’ face lowered down towards the hand they were standing on and his voice became a hush.
‘The same way you, Cynthia, know where and what living things are. The same way you, Timothy, know the purpose and function of the mechanical.’
The glowing eyes went to the monitor and the free hand lovingly touched the surface.
‘My gift is to know where and how things can fit together well, alive or not. Until I feel that what we build will fit properly, without causing damage, we do not allow it to grow.’
Both mice gazed into those huge eyes with new awe. Their own abilities had always fascinated others, now they understood why as they appreciated the gifts of another.
The ape turned his face back to his guests once more.
‘You see, children, many of us have gifts that go beyond the rational. Some find these gifts early, some later. Your father’s gift of bringing people together and guiding them to a common goal has helped a group of animals that might normally be the fiercest enemies to work together.’
‘What goal is that?’ Timothy spoke before he could stop himself.
‘To life free, free from the humans, free from having to steal, free from having to kill.’
The large finger gently tapped one of the three illuminated growing chambers.
‘These are but part of a much greater Plan.’
He let the mice look at the suspended bundles that would once give rise to protein-producing plants a little longer. Then, reaching with his left arm to grab hold of another pole and gently transferring them to his right foot again, the aged chimp swung himself back into the glittering palace of science that was his realm. He had so much more to show them.
The gate was similarly imposing as the entrance to Dr. Prometheus’ laboratory had been. It raised itself with the same ponderousness and the same pneumatic exhale of air and mist.
The simian scientist had carried the two mice down into the deepest bowels of his realm, swinging onto ever lower poles into the blinking chasms that furrowed the laboratory. Deep down in a canyon lined with more eclectic machinery they had approached this second, cavernous gate. The ape had rested on a pole in front of it and transferred the mice from his foot, onto a hand, and then lowered himself to the ground. Thus arranged they had shambled to the portal, which raised itself without prompting.
Beyond laid yet another world. Cynthia and Timothy new they were underground. They had to be. But the incredible chamber seemed intent to prove them wrong. For all intents, they had entered the clearing of a forest, a forest of strange trees and other peculiar growths, nestled between a starlight sky.
‘This can’t be real.’
‘It is quite real, I assure you,’ Dr. Prometheus rumbled in amusement.
Looking up at the sky Timothy’s eyes narrowed.
‘That’s a ceiling up there! The stars aren’t real.’
The bellicose laughter of the ape echoed through the foliage.
‘No, they are not. This is one of our four underground greenhouses. During the day our plants look at what they think of as the sun. During the night they see this.’
Both mice looked around awestruck as their host moved farther into the artificial forest.
‘Dr. Prometheus, what kinds of trees are these? They don’t feel like anything I have ever seen.’
In response the ape ambled closer to a particular tree bearing strangely shaped oblong fruit of a pinkish color. He pointed to one of the fruits with his free hand.
‘This here is what grows out from the seeds you saw earlier.’
The male mouse adjusted his glasses as he peered around a thick chimpanzee finger.
‘The fish tree?’
Again, the laughter sounded.
‘Yes, these fruits have the same proteins and taste as…’ He leaned closer and inhaled the aroma of one of the globular growths, ‘… and even smell like Atlantic Salmon.’
The siblings eyed each other dubiously.
‘Who eats those?’ Cynthia inquired.
The simian shrugged, which jostled the mice perched on his hand.
‘Both our felines and canines are partial to it. Some of our rats and even the mice enjoy it occasionally. Personally, I am not a fan of seafood.’
A wide grin spread on his muzzle.
‘We do have some trees that grow rather delectable beefsteaks, though, I am not ashamed to admit.’
The crème-furred female leaned towards the fish-substitute plant and furrowed a brow.
‘They can’t make new trees, right?’
Dr. Prometheus shook his head.
‘No, children, these plants here cannot breed new plants. Every seed has to be made by us until we can make plants that will be able to fit in with the outside world. Those are the seeds were designing now.’
‘Why bother if they can grow safely down here?’ Timothy craned towards the wizened face.
The chimp extended a hand towards the uncountable plants.
‘Because soon we will leave this prison into freedom. If we wish to survive together in peace, we have to find a way for our meat-eating brothers and sisters to live without having to kill.’
‘That’s why you are trying to make new trees that will fit in with the world.’
‘Yes,’ Prometheus agreed, ‘the ones you see here would not fit. But the new seeds we have now will, yes they will.’
With that their host turned around, back to the large portal. There was still more he needed to show them.
Once more the Brisby children were cradled by the leathery confines of their guide’s foot as he propelled himself along the holdfasts that crisscrossed his domain. From the chasm that had brought them to the greenhouse Dr. Prometheus slowly descended to a more central portion of his laboratory, nestled deep underground. The canyon opened up into an immense cylindrical chamber with a central column made of dull metal, studded with countless green-glowing orbs. Hanging by one hand he pointed into the gloomy heights into which the pillar disappeared.
‘We are directly underneath the center of our facility. This is the main connection between every piece of equipment we have with the central computer.’
After the mice had peered into the light-festooned darkness into which the column disappeared they turned their gazed downwards. The bottom of the circular chamber showed a globular metal construct where the pillar met the floor. So vast were the proportions in this place that the metal sphere itself would have towered three human stories tall. Dr. Prometheus used the handhelds jutting from the curved wall to lower himself and his guests down to ground level, where a single flat walkway rose above a surface of wires, tubes, pipes, and other metal connections, which all came together at the centrally located globe.
As with the pillar rising from it, the structure sported a bewildering array of round gems, in all different sizes, glowing with the same emerald illumination. Some pulsed, others blinked on and off, yet others remained constant in their glow. More bewildering than the lights was the spherical building’s surface. Curving plates, metal tubes and joints intersected almost at random, giving the structure a ramshackle appearance. But what made matters even more unnerving was that the components were moving. Sliding over each other, rearranging themselves into new configurations, at times altering shape completely, the construct seemed like an ever-changing kaleidoscope of metal and luminance. How all this motion was possible in a structure obviously tethered to a solid floor beneath and the rising pillar above beggared the imagination.
One could almost, almost get the sensation that the metal surfaces were alive.
Once on the walkway, with Cynthia and Timothy transferred to the safety of his hand again, the ape walked up to the round metal artifact, its surface spinning and undulating as if in expectation. The mice had problems looking at any portion of the edifice without feeling dizzy. And no matter where they looked there did not appear to be any doors or windows. The walkway simply ended at the mismatched amalgamation of metal protrusions, pipes, and glowing stones that composed the construct’s continuously reshaped surface. Dr. Solomon gently put his free palm onto one of the gems that appeared somewhat stationary.
Suddenly, the motion of metal slowed and stopped as a familiar, mechanical female voice spoke up, seemingly from everywhere at once.
‘Good evening, Dr. Prometheus. Can I help you?’
‘Alis, would you allow Cynthia and Timothy a view of your inner workings?’
The reply contained nuances of actual delight.
‘Of course! Please, step inside!’
A singular portion of the becalmed metal surface began rearranging itself in an unsymmetrical pattern to create an opening. In moments an oval portal allowed the chimpanzee to walk into the green glow that radiated from the confines of the peculiar construction. As soon as the three travelers had ventured inside the walls closed up in the same peculiar manner, the access way the only indication that there had ever been an entrance there. Then, gradually, the various metal aspects of the structure and their glowing gems resumed their untraceable motions.
Within the structure the number of glowing gems and lights was much greater, dousing the interior in a continuous emerald haze. Here the wall parts themselves were stationary. Robotic arms, mobile cables, and other attached machinery moved in a quiet hum of apparent industry. The chamber, cavity describing it more adequately, did not appear to have a permanent floor to accommodate visitors. As Timothy and Cynthia peered from Dr. Prometheus’ cupped hand they noticed that the surface he walked on was composed of metal plates of all sizes and shapes, and at the far end jointed metal appendages were still adding new flooring, which led them to the very center of the metallic cave. There, suspended from cables leading into all directions, like a fly trapped in a web, was a singular object.
The computer core was not much bigger than the chimpanzee’s head. In opposition to the perpetual mobile outside and the riot of machinery lining the inside walls the ultimate heart of this conglomeration of technology was almost anticlimactic. A single, smooth metal sphere, without any lights or openings, apart from the dozens of taught cables issuing from it, hung there. Nothing moved. Even the metal surface was unremarkably dull.
‘This is it?’
Timothy’s disappointment was palpable.
Cynthia, on the other hand, started at the metal sphere open mouthed. She grabbed a hold of her brother’s shoulder and hissed.
‘It’s alive. It really IS alive. A machine that’s… alive.’
He looked from his sister back to the suspended computer core. Slowly, Timothy’s features changed to a more reverent cast. Even their guide had remained silent, simply standing in front of the metallic orb. After a few moments the mice dared a glance at the simian’s face. What they saw astounded them. The scientist was smiling with a far-away expression on his face. More remarkable was the small tear that was lodged in the cavernous crevices which harbored the glowing eyes.
‘This…’ Dr. Prometheus rumbled, ‘… is the body of Alis, our greatest accomplishment.’
From all around the walls the artificial voice chimed in.
‘Dr. Prometheus does tend to get overly theatrical at times.’
As if caught it a compromising situation the ape immediately wiped the tear away and coughed roughly into a calloused fist.
‘That sense of humor,’ he rumbled, ‘is something she developed on her own as well.’
Gazing up at the immense face Timothy frowned.
‘Why did it, eh, she make the choice to be, I mean, female?’
Once more the electronic voice interceded from everywhere at once.
‘That was my decision. On average, the female members of most organisms seem to be the more aesthetically pleasing and the less intimidating in their personality.’
Cynthia chuckled loudly at that.
‘She’s got you there, Timmy.’
Undaunted her brother craned her neck all around the mechanical edifice.
‘Is there another way we could talk to you? It’s really weird just shouting into the room like this.’
‘Just a moment,’ the voice replied.
From a corner of the metallic walls a set of robotic arms positioned themselves with strange gears and machinery in their grasp. Other arms joined in, some with parts, others with soldering tools, wire connectors, and other means of combining the materials. In the end there were so many mechanical appendages engaged at a corner of the chamber that none of the three visitors were able to see what they were working on. The only things visible were random sparks and various metallic sounds.
Finally, the arms disappeared all at once, revealing a tiny metallic bench, not much larger than either Cynthia or Timothy, extended from the wall. On it sat a robotic construct.
Both mice let their jaws hang in amazement.
The mechanical entity sitting on the bench was a rough approximation of a mouse body. Like something from a science fiction story dull metal surfaces overlaid moving pistons and wiring to give the miniscule machine the obvious appearance of a rodent physique. As they watched the robot raised itself off the bench with astounding graze, yet slightly unbalanced as it had to adjust the whip-like tail to counterbalance the rest of the metallic torso. Gears whirred as metal appendages and joints were tested for their range of motion. The head sported two of the green glowing gems where eyes would be expected and a small opening for a speaker system. External ears resembled radar dishes and swiveled slightly as the body turned to look at the trio.
This time the voice, much more quiet, issued from the machine rodent.
‘Could you lift me up with your other hand, Dr. Prometheus?’
A wistful smile on his craggy face and the chimp bent down to allow the robot to climb unsteadily onto his other palm. Then, once upright again, both his hands and their occupants faced each other. The two mice looked at the mechanical entity with a mixture of awe and doubt. In imitation of coy amusement the robotic mouse but its hands on its hips.
‘Is this better?’
The siblings exchanged another set of confused glances. Then Timothy leaned forward and cleared his throat.
‘I guess so. That’s really you in there?’
With the gentle whining of gears the mechanical head nodded.
‘Yes, but I am still everywhere else as well. This way you have a person to look at.’
Cynthia peered at the robot and then back at the suspended metal sphere in the distance.
‘This is too freaky,’ she sniggered.
‘What?’ Timothy wondered.
The female mouse pointed to the metal sphere in the chamber’s center.
‘She’s there. She’s here. It’s like she’s got two bodies.’
The expressionless robot head tilted.
‘More than that, actually. Almost every machine in this building can serve as a body, as you call it, if it has the right circuitry. There are also few machines outside of this facility located around the world that can function the same way.’
Timothy tried to look as deeply into the softly glowing stone eyes of the machine creature as possible. He had always been fascinated with technology, but facing a machine that was, if he dared to think it, alive, went beyond his wildest dreams. If he looked close enough, maybe he could catch a glimpse in these gems, no, eyes, a glimpse of an actual soul. Cynthia had said she was truly alive. Would Alis then also have a soul?
As if divining his intent the robot righted its cranium again.
‘What are you looking for in my optic sensors?’
He caught his breath and fumbled with his hands like a kid caught raiding the cookie jar.
‘Just… eh… curious.’
Behind him Cynthia stifled a laugh behind her hands.
Timothy whirled around flustered.
‘Well,’ his sister batted her lashes at him, hands folded behind her back now, ‘if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you got a crush on a computer.’
All three rodents, biological and cybernetic, trembled as Dr. Prometheus’ body shook with raucous laughter.
The robot’s head tilted sideways once more, lending the machine an inquisitive air.
‘Is that correct, Timothy Brisby?’
To the obvious delight of his sister Timothy fumbled for words and blushed visibly.
‘Me… what… eh… no! Of course not. That’d be… eh… weird.’
The emerald optics turned to Cynthia.
‘He does not sound well.’
The female mouse grinned at the mouse android.
‘That’s what we flesh-and-blood people call –being smitten-.’
Now her brother was ready to physically try and stop another one of his sister’s comments, only to be hampered by the ape hand beneath him swaying in yet another boom of simian joviality. Holding on to the rocking fingers Timothy glanced at the robot, which did not seem to have any more problems holding its, no, her balance.
This was turning out to be a strange night indeed.
Much, much later the outer surface of the sphere containing the computer core began moving again to create an egress for the chimpanzee scientist and his guests. As Dr. Prometheus, the mice nestled in a foot-palm once more, ascended back to the heights of his laboratory, the structure containing Alis resumed its mechanical undulations. He carried them back to the large door that had first allowed them access to this realm of scientific wonders. From there the Brisby siblings retraced their steps to the elevators and back to their family apartment.
It was far into the night now and they did not encounter a single person. From the monitors and speakers secreted throughout the compound Alis guided them on their way whenever they were in danger of taking a wrong turn. At this point fatigue had finally taken a hold of Timothy and Cynthia and when they finally arrived at their unremarkable quarters they slipped in silently, not to awaken their parents, and once nestled in their unfamiliar beds, both drifted to sleep almost immediately.
Down in the bowels of the facility, deep within the interwoven motions of its mechanical shell Alis’ computer core rested silently. Inside of the spherical cave everything was quiet. No machines moved, no read-outs blinked or chimed. One could have almost imagined that the featureless metal globe at the center was immersed in the deepest of thoughts. That was not far from the truth.
In her silent body of metal and circuits Alis was busy.
There was much she needed to learn. And she did not have much time to do it in.