The light was falling into the bedroom. As the sun had risen high enough to shine through the glass ceilings of the crossing atrium some of the illumination reached all the way into the room where Cynthia and Timothy had finally, after returning from their excursion, fallen asleep.
Neither appeared to have slept easily. Cynthia was curled up on herself, the downy blanket grasped tightly, like a lifeline. Timothy had tossed and turned so badly that his head was facing the far end of his bed, his body all tangled in his bedding. Lying on his back as morning gave way to day the light from the window was slowly moving towards his face. Once the first bright rays hit his eyelids he began to stir, and then to try and turn. Thanks to his literal entanglement his efforts to remove himself from the annoying light resulted in him falling headfirst onto the floor with a thump and yelp.
Cynthia jerked awake immediately, but momentarily disoriented. As she sat up and tried to find her brother she saw him sitting next to his bed, rubbing his forehead with a groan.
‘Are you alright, Timmy?’
‘Yeah,’ he winced, ‘this place could use a carpet.’
His sister looked around the room and stretched.
‘What time is it?’
Still sitting with his rump on the floor Timothy grumbled,
‘How should I know?’
Tussling her own hair his sister sighed,
‘I was just wondering.’
Suddenly, a strange grumbling sound echoed through the bedroom. A few moments of investigation and her brother’s sheepish expression cleared up the mystery. It was the rumbling of his stomach.
‘I guess it’s breakfast time.’
Both mice had fallen asleep in their clothes, which now looked appropriately rumpled. After setting their beds and attire right the siblings moved into the apartment’s living room in search of their parents. At night their dwellings had looked Spartan and forlorn. But now the living room table had a small bouquet of flowers on it in a vase and the scant sunlight from the atrium graced the room with a certain level of hominess. There was a sheet of paper on the table as well.
Being closer Cynthia picked it up while her brother cleaned his glassed on his shirt and read.
‘You were sleeping so soundly that we did not want to wake you. Your father asked me to attend a Board Meeting with him after breakfast. If you are hungry he says the best food can be found at the Heavenview Cafeteria. Their cranberry muffins are supposed to be the best. Alis will show you how to get there. We will find you after the meeting. Love, Mom.’
She looked at her brother who had perked up at the mention of food.
‘What’s a Board Meeting?’
‘No idea. But I do like the sound of cranberry muffins.’
* * *
Elizabeth Brisby was feeling extremely uncomfortable. She was still struggling to reconcile everything that had happened in both her mind and heart. It was difficult.
When sleep had finally found her the evening before, wrapped in the loving arms of the one she had never thought to hold again, she had been both overjoyed and overwhelmed. Upon waking it had taken her a few moments to realize that what had occurred had not been a dream. Jonathan had still been sleeping, his face so peaceful. She had traced the lines of his face with a finger, careful not to wake him. She had learned that this body was new, grown in a way she did not understand, but it resembled the husband she had lost in every detail, down to his whiskers being a bit longer on one side of his muzzle than the other. Again, tears had found her as she looked down at him, gently snoring, ever so slightly. She had joked about that back in the day. Now all these details came back not from memory but physical reality. It had been both incredibly wonderful and unbearably painful at the same time.
As if sensing her distress her husband had awoken, gazing up at her in as much confusion as she had felt just moments before. The night before, when he had disclosed all the incredible things pertaining to his resurrection, he had seemed so assured, so confident. But Elizabeth knew better. Once they had finally had some time to themselves the real Jonathan, the one who could allow himself to be weak, had been revealed. He had never before begged her for anything. That night, in the bedroom, which they were to share, he had gone down on his knees, eyes awash with tears, and begged her, implored her to forgive him, forgive him for never having divulged the secret of NIMH and what it had done to him. Jonathan, for the first time she could recall, had looked so terrified, so fragile, as if her rejection would shatter him like a thin pane of glass. She had cupped his tear-drenched face in her hands, her own tears flowing, and told him the truth. There had been nothing to forgive, not in light what they all now knew. Getting down on her knees as well, as they embraced in their sobs in front of the bed, they had never before felt so equal.
The remainder of the night had been the most precious gift she had received since the birth of her children. Neither of them had wanted it to end as they sank into blissful sleep in each other’s arms.
Now, dressed in her once-more-mended cape and gloves Mrs. Brisby stood in one of the most peculiar places she had ever been in.
After waking and dressing they had checked in on the children, who had been so deeply asleep and exhausted that they did not wake them. Jonathan had asked the computer, Alis, she reminded herself, whether Justin, Brutus, and Julia were already awake. Since they had been, he had asked the mechanical voice to arrange a meeting with them at a place where they could have breakfast, while she left a quick note to her children. In hindsight, she never wondered why he had not asked after Jenner.
They had met Justin and Julia on their way through the awaking world of the atrium towards one of the four ancillary towers, where Jonathan claimed the best breakfast was to be had. Justin had looked as if he had not slept too much, but was otherwise content and jovial. Julia had exhibited an almost childlike giddiness, which looked awkward when combined with her research attire. The attraction between the two had obviously blossomed. Brutus would meet them at their destination, having woken much earlier. Elizabeth had wondered in what state of mind he might be in.
While they had walked the two males had begun chatting about inconsequential things, small talk between old friends in need of catching up. On several occasions when either Jonathan or Justin gave the other a playful verbal jab Julia had looked at her and given her a knowing roll of the eye. Boys would be boys, it said. After a while, as they had passed a multitude of other people of all ages and species, some greeting them, others too occupied on their errands, the conversation had shifted to more immediate concerns in regards to what was going to happen next.
‘We’re going to move to Thorn Valley, all of us,’ Jonathan had explained.
Justin had expressed uncertainty as to how that would be accomplished, with all the different types of animals and their vast numbers.
Without going into exhaustive details her husband had outlined that the plans for relocation into the wild had been worked for almost two years.
‘We need to disappear,’ he had said. ‘We need to ensure that the humans will never discover our existence. Otherwise the humans will hunt us down and kill us, considering how dangerous we have become.’
That had struck Elizabeth as an odd statement, but Justin had simply nodded in understanding. Recognizing her concern Jonathan had waved his hands towards the vista of the atrium hall.
‘We have manipulated the humans into making this possible without them realizing, in only three years. If they ever learn of it, they will fear us.’
It was then that Justin had added a comment in an unusually grave tone.
‘Maybe they are right to fear us. With so much power, over nature, over death, only a fool wouldn’t be afraid.’
That had elicited a playful nudge from the male mouse.
‘Nicodemus’ wisdom seems to have rubbed off on you a bit after all.’
Justin had given some joking remark Mrs. Brisby could not recall. She had been preoccupied with the brown rat’s grave statement. Touching the ruby stone suspended on her chest she had remembered the almost overwhelming, intoxicating rush of power she had felt from it when the cats had chased them. For a moment she had craved that power, the feeling of being able to change the world, fight those that wanted to hurt her children. Later, when faced with Jenner, she had felt it again, stronger. Then she had experienced the desire to kill the resurrected rat. Never before had she ever desired to kill, not even when in mortal peril herself. But just that moment, when the currents of power began flowing and she felt that she could have snuffed Jenner’s life out like a candle, she had wanted nothing more than to give in to that urge.
Elizabeth had shuddered at that thought and stole a glance at the emerald stone hanging from her husband’s neck. Truth be told, she had not even thought of Jenner since having awoken. He had warned her not to let the power use her the night before. Did her old nemesis know more than he let on? Had Jonathan ever been tempted like this? If someone who truly craved power got a hold of such a stone the damage they could do might be beyond imagination. Yes, maybe Justin had been right with his statement. The humans would be right to fear them, even though they were the ones who made them what they were.
Mercifully, the conversation had brought her back from her disturbing musings as Jonathan had explained a few more of the steps along the way of moving all of the residents to the distant wildlife refuge. Some of these details went far beyond her comprehension; trees growing meat and stranger matters.
Finally, after ascending via another elevator to the window-tipped roof of one of the facilities side towers, they had arrived at the Heavenview Cafeteria.
It was a large place, designed to accommodate all the different species that coexisted in this peculiar place. The roof was glass, giving the impression of a semi-enclosed patio or solarium. Strengthening the illusion of open spaces were various plants, small trees, and fountains strewn throughout. On one side of the cafeteria a number of services aisles had offered food either buffet style or by order. Different aisles had been sized to serve animals of differing shapes and foods were designated to the most common preferences of these animals. Canines and cats had dominated one serving line, mid-sized rodents another, hamsters, rats, mice and smaller rodents yet another. Yet from time to time Elizabeth had spotted a dog in between a patiently walking line of rats or a gerbil vying for the attention of a server in the line dominated by the non-predatory animals.
Seating was also arranged by the size and shape of the potential occupants, though care had been taken to supply different seating areas with the largest variety of seat accommodations possible. Small tables of different heights lay interspersed and while there appeared to be a trend of similarly sized animals to congregate together, a number of groups having breakfast had been completely mixed in terms of their species.
Brutus had not been around, so Jonathan and Julia had guided them along an appropriately proportioned serving line. The food items available had boggled Mrs. Brisby’s mind. Fruits, cereals, pastries, juices, and something that was somewhat like fake meat products had made only the tiniest sampling of the variety available to them. Julia and Jonathan had recommended a few dishes, which they had taken to a seating arrangement occupied by the same rabbit in the lab coat they had encountered when they had entered the secret aspects of Lazarus Laboratories. Jenner had also been present, looking tired but also eager.
That, at least, had answered the question of his whereabouts.
At the sight of Jonathan and his wife he had become somewhat subdued and let Julia and Dr. Hendriks, or Gerald as he had asked them to call him, explain to Elizabeth and Justin what would happen after breakfast.
The specifics of that explanation had dampened the Thorn Valley residents’ appetite despite the delicious flavors of the items they had selected.
Now they were all standing in what was supposed to be one of this place’s most specialized laboratories.
After breakfast a brisk return to the atrium and then the central spire had brought the group down to the underground levels where some of the compound’s secret projects were developed and carried out. This particular research space was the brainchild of Gerald Hendriks and Julia Snow, the newcomers had been told. Brightly lighted and composed mostly of metal surfaces it was an environment that required some adjustment. Large as the room was, every wall was covered in countless varieties of machinery, elevator platforms and walkways allowing access to equipment at higher elevations.
In one part of the room was an array nine round raised platforms arranged in rows of three with four circular metal struts rising from crisscrossing points at the edge of each platform. These struts extended over the surface in a wide arch until they all met at a single point right above each platform’s center, creating a spherical metal cage. At the intersection point the struts held a fitting for a large gemstone, which did not seem to have any color at all. As Justin and Mrs. Brisby had been led past this array of peculiar contraptions they had noticed smaller gems of similar type all along the inside border of the struts. Behind them were a number of wall-sized monitors and nine work consoles with smaller screens, each manned by two animal scientists. Brutus was there as well, standing behind the busy scientists with the uniformed Stella by his side, his gaze locked onto the wall of towering view screens.
Now Mrs. Brisby was staring at the same array of monitors, feeling slightly sick. The center monitor showed the image of a conference room with an oval oak table. A number of humans of both genders and different ages, all dressed richly, were seated there, although the majority of seats had not yet been taken. From time to time a door at the conference room’s edge would open and a formally dressed valet ushered in another human in business attire. The monitor to the right of the center showed something that made Elizabeth’s blood run cold. In a room similar to the laboratory they were now located, but devoid of working scientists, stood nine large cylinders with glass doors, leaning against a wall festooned with digital readouts and computer panels. Inside each cylinder was the upright shape of a human being, only the faces visible through glass windows, the bodies apparently nude and asleep.
In order to interact with humans on a more even level, meaning face-to-face, the animal scientists had utilized the technique of growing new bodies from old tissue and taken it to new heights. Utilizing Alis’ incredible capacities for computation, Jonathan had explained to his wife and Justin, they had found a way to grow what amounted to human versions of other animals’ bodies, or better said, bodies that resembled some of the scientists present if they had been born as humans. Julia, her voice filled with pride and somewhat oblivious to the obvious distaste visible on the faces of the recent arrivals, had elaborated excitedly on the scientific breakthrough this repesented.
‘In order to own this company we had to pretend to be human and interact with humans. We needed a way to make the humans we interact with to see us as human beings as well. So, we found a way to grow bodies that are, for lack of a better word, human versions of us.’
Justin, his eyes glued to the screen showing the upright cylinders, swallowed hard.
‘You have a human version of yourself?’
She nodded and waved to the right view screen.
‘The female human in stasis chamber number four is based on my genetic materials, only altered to fit a human code.’
Both Justin and Elizabeth peered intently at the indicated cylinder. The human shape inside was female, pale-skinned with almost white, short hair. Neither felt comfortable in comparing human semblances to their own species but had to admit a certain similarity between the stored human and Julia.
‘How does this work?’ Mrs. Brisby wondered, ‘These human copies follow your commands, like… slaves?’
That last word hung like an accusation in the room and for the first time Jonathan recognized the discomfort of his wife at what they were showing her. He put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her conciliatorily.
‘No, not really. You see, these humans are just bodies, they have no real mind.’
Justin’s exclamation startled some of the scientists at the consoles. Julia, now also aware of the negative response to their revelations by their guests moved closer, waving a hand.
‘They never had a mind, or soul. They were grown basically like empty shells.’
The brown rat’s eyes narrowed even more as he folded his arms over his chest.
‘What good would that do?’
It was Jonathan who interceded.
‘You remember those toy cars that human kids play with, the ones that they control with a remote?’
Turning to his old friend Justin looked suspicious.
‘These,’ the mouse pointed to the monitor again, ‘are like that. Only they are made from flesh rather than metal and plastic. Without their remote they would never be able to work.’
Mrs. Brisby took a cautious step towards the bank of wall monitors.
‘But machines don’t need food. Bodies do.’
Keeping up with his wife Jonathan nodded.
‘The stasis chambers are designed to supply the bodies with all they need and keep them healthy.’
She shuddered again.
Justin, despite his revulsion, raised the obvious question.
‘So, how do you operate these meat-puppets of yours?’
Julia cringed at his sarcasm. But before she could answer, Jenner, who had walked off with a male gerbil scientist upon their arrival in the laboratory, unexpectedly interrupted them.
‘I will be delighted to show you.’
All eyes turned towards the tall rat.
Jenner had relinquished his uniform for a strange one-piece body suit made from some dark-blue material that encased his entire body apart from his head. Along the suit ran a series of golden wires, which intersected at nodal points on the body and various joints. At each node a small gemstone was embedded, identical to the ones they had seen in the circular cage arrangements. The gerbil scientist had followed Jenner and held a peculiar helmet, elongated and pointed at the back, the same color as the suit but with a much larger stone positioned over the wearer’s brow.
The rat took the helmet from the scientist with a courteous nod and tucked it underneath his left arm. With his right Jenner motioned towards the first of the nine platforms with the spherical configuration of metal struts. As if in explanation he simply walked onto the raised surface between the struts and, as he looked at them with his familiar leer, winked and raised the helmet over his cranium. The strangely shaped container opened itself up like an unlocked puzzle-box as Jenner lowered it gently upon his brow. Once in position the helm closed in the same automatic manner to fully enclose the rat’s features. Jenner looked more like a futuristic construct than a living being in this suit, his face now completely obscured by the alien outline of his headgear.
As soon as the helmet had sealed he raised his arms to his sides. Every gemstone encased in his attire began to glow in a sickly purple light, the large stone on the head being the brightest. At the same moment the corresponding gems in the round cage centering on him began to pulse in a similar luminance. The observers could not feel sure whether the light pulses reflected Jenner’s heartbeat or some other arcane rhythm. They did not even have time to contemplate the issue as the rat’s body suddenly lifted off the platform floor to hover right in the center of the spherical space defined by the intersecting metal poles.
Elizabeth was not even aware that she was holding her breath until Justin gasped in shock at the sight. Jenner appeared to be completely weightless; his body suspended in mid-air, the suit’s gems shining on and off like lamps in a lighthouse. Then, he began to move his hands.
The hissing sound coming from the monitors caused Mrs. Brisby and Justin to turn their heads. There, on the screen showing the stored human receptacles, one of the stasis chambers had opened. Steam obscured a full view of the body emerging from the now coverless cylinder. From the shoulders upwards the human was clearly visible. A tall man, muscular and deep-tanned, with slick-backed black hair and a sinister chin-beard, the human even felt like Jenner as he turned his head towards the camera. He gave the viewing audience the same sly grin they knew so well from his normal self and duplicated the wink he had given them earlier, his replica’s dirty green eyes glittering through the view-screen. Then, he stepped from the tube completely and disappeared into the slowly dissipating mist.
Elizabeth swiveled back to look at the real Jenner suspended in his cage of light. There, the rat engaged in the same motions that his remote human body was performing on the screen. Only here Jenner performed the movements suspended in nothing but air while out there, wherever the facility storing the human shells was located, he was guiding a body through the real world. Her head turned from the floating rodent to the monitor, where eight chambers still held human bodies. As she did so she noticed that a number of technicians, two gerbils and a rat, had approached carrying suits and helmets identical to the one Jenner was wearing.
Justin looked dumbstruck when two of the technicians stepped next to Jonathan and Julia bearing the suits like a set of valets. But that paled to his astonishment when the last scientist offered the final set of gear to him.
‘What’s going on here?’
Jonathan, who had begun unbuttoning his dark uniform, gave him a playful wink.
‘Time to dress up for the board meeting. You’re the guest of honor today.’
A look of panic crossed he brown rat’s face as Julia, her own technician in tow, came up to him and put her hands on his shoulders.
‘The largest share of our company was put in your name, Justin. Today, you are scheduled to attend a board meeting so you can look into what we are doing.’
Justin’s gaze swept back to Jonathan, who was already wearing his own version of the strange gear while the technician closed up the suit from behind. The grey mouse shrugged.
‘You own most of this place, Justin. So, you got to show up to meet the good people who work here some time.’
‘How can I do that? I don’t know how to do…’ he pointed to the hovering form of Jenner, who was still engaged in his eerie pantomime, ‘… that. And I don’t have a human version of myself anyway.’
While gently opening Justin’s collar Julia opined,
‘Actually, you do. We still had old blood samples from you back from NIMH. We have had a remote body ready for you for about two months now.’
With that she opened the button on his tunic and, to the horror of Elizabeth and Brutus, who thus far had only remained stationary due to the gently restraining hand of Stella on his arm, pulled down the rat’s shirt like a mother would with a reluctant child. If not for the macabre setting the gesture might have looked humorously endearing as well as embarrassing. As it was, Justin looked imploringly at Elizabeth as Julia was removing his clothing. Mrs. Brisby was at a loss. Jonathan, fully suited and wearing that charming smile of his stepped behind her and was gently squeezing her shoulder.
‘He’ll be alright. Julia will make sure of that.’
Now it was her turn to feel panicked and her throat constricted as she looked at her husband.
‘Do I have to…?’
Still smiling Jonathan shook his head.
‘We didn’t have enough time to grow a remote body for you since until last night we had no blood samples.’
As she turned to look at Justin again, who was now reluctantly being draped in the gold-wired uniform she nodded nervously. She did not know how she felt about this. A glance at Brutus confirmed the large guard’s own disquiet. Then Jonathan gently turned her around so she could look at the platform next to the one Jenner was suspended in. With an impish grin her husband stepped inside the circular strut-composition and, like the rat before him, donned his helmet. In difference to Jenner the light pulses issuing from the mouse’s suit were bright green, as were the corresponding lights from the cage.
Elizabeth was scared to turn her face to the monitors again as her husband’s body levitated into the center of the spherical cage. But as so often is the case, curiosity triumphed over dread. As the same hissing sounds of escaping steam issued from the view-screen she turned.
On the screen a second chamber had opened. Here, a lighter-skinned human male, of slightly less than average height with tussled grey hair and a small goatee, stepped from the metal cylinder into the mist-covered room. The human’s face spread into a warm smile that Mrs. Brisby immediately recognized. Even the human’s eyes were the same deep brown as Jonathan’s. As her husband guided the remote body through his own weightless motions the human blew a tender kiss towards the observing camera.
Elizabeth’s heart dropped.
* * *
Cynthia and Timothy looked at the entrance to the Heavenview Cafeteria.
‘That place is crammed,’ Timothy muttered, stating the obvious.
The doors to the brightly illuminated cafeteria were large, made of glass, and wide open. Even from the hallway the two mice were able to glimpse a large number of patrons busily eating and talking inside. The array of species interacting peacefully in this sunlight environment was startling.
Feeling hungry Cynthia took the. Nobody gave any particular notice of them as they slowly shuffled inside and looked around to get their bearings. The place was designed in a straightforward fashion and the siblings quickly understood its workings. They got in line at the service counters for the smaller inhabitants and took a serving tray and eating utensils. Nobody around them acknowledged them as newcomers. Occasionally, a patron or two would accidentally jostle them and apologize good-naturedly. After only a few moments the two mice started to feel strangely welcome as various individuals would exchange a few friendly words with them, or comment on the quality of the day’s dishes.
Just as Timothy was getting to enjoy the experience, not to mention moving closer in line to where the actual food items were reachable, Cynthia gasped and clenched his arm tightly with a free hand.
Before he could inquire of her what was wrong his eyes caught the same sight that had stunned his sister.
Not six feet away Dragon, together with the terrible orange female cat, was sauntering towards the serving line for the larger animals. Neither cat was wearing the strange armaments of the night before. The female was clothed in a light-green blouse while Dragon, to the consternation of the Brisby children, had a yellow sweater draped over his massive forequarters. As the felines took no notice of them, the female actually chatting with an older male rat with a laboratory coat and glasses, Cynthia’s grip slackened until her free hand fell to her side. The mice followed the cats’ movements open-mouthed, heads turning.
‘Hey kids, sorry, but those muffins are calling my name.’
A middle-aged gerbil with a pudgy midsection hidden by overalls gently nudged Timothy into moving along in the line, where a large gap had formed due to the mice’s stalling. Startled, Cynthia and her brother hurried along towards the food as the gerbil chuckled in amusement and Dragon and his counterpart went their merry way. Despite the alluring sight and smell of the dishes laid out for their choosing both mice felt their appetites somewhat dampened and caught themselves repeatedly trying to spot the two cats as they perused the cafeteria buffet. Finally, the gerbil who still trailed them next in line sniggered.
‘Those two do look a fright, don’t they?’
Timothy turned to him in confusion.
‘Banshee and Dragon,’ the older rodent replied cheerily, ‘they can give you the creeps if you don’t know them.’
Now it was Cynthia who blinked in consternation.
‘And you know them?’
The gerbil waved his free hand dismissively after it had deposited two cranberry muffins on his tray.
‘Oh yeah, I work with the security folks. We design and maintain their gear, do custom fittings and so on. I usually work with the felines; had to do a few custom adjustments for Dragon when he first started.’
‘Really?’ Timothy ventured with a dazed look.
‘Yep,’ the jovial rodent replied, ‘he’s blind in one eye, you know. So the medical staff and us rigged his helmet to feed right into the optic nerve and so…’
Noticing their blank stared the gerbil smiled apologetically.
‘Sorry, I get too technical sometimes. And I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Frederick. I’d shake your hands, but then I’d drop my muffins.’
‘My name is Cynthia. This is Timothy.’
Grinning from ear to ear the gerbil nodded in greeting.
‘A pleasure to meet you, kids. As I was saying, I helped fit Dragon’s gear when he signed up for guard duty. I mean I helped to make sure that the seeing goggles worked with his blind eye. He’s not such a bad guy once you get over his looks. Now his wife’, he winked, ‘is the one to watch out for. She’s the one in charge in that marriage. Showed him the ropes when he first showed up; not a week after he arrives and they were married.’
Looking over to the second serving line Timothy could only add another ‘Really?’ as their impromptu friend prattled on. Matters of who was an enemy or a friend in this place were definitely not as clear as they had been when they were toddlers back at the Fitzgibbon Farm. A world where a rodent would be able to talk about Dragon, bane to all animals of the fields, without trepidation was a most peculiar novelty.
‘You kids never talked to them?’
That stopped the siblings short for a moment until Cynthia managed an bashful grin.
‘Not really, no. We ran from him when we were little.’
Now the pudgy gerbil perked a curious brow.
‘He’s only been here a few weeks. You knew him as kids?’
Then, his eyes lighted up in comprehension.
‘Oh, you came from that farm, didn’t you?’
Timothy nodded, not really understanding what the other was talking about but feeling it would be the safest response. Their new confidant sidled in closer.
‘What’s it like, growing up in the wild, I mean? Does it make adjusting to this place hard?’
Cynthia, who realized that the gerbil assumed they had come with the animals that must have been collected from the Fitzgibbon Farm, shrugged while trying to hide her relief. For some reason she did not feel that revealing their home in Thorn Valley or even their parentage might be a good idea. Her brother, also comprehending the older rodent’s reasoning, felt the same way and punctuated his sister’s reply with additional nods.
‘It is different in here. Timmy, my brother, and I still have much to see and learn for sure.’
The gerbil nudged Timothy with a conspiratorial elbow,
‘Well, keep up your studies, sonny. Heck, with your glasses look like a science wiz already. Trust me; the girls in here are wild for scientists and engineers.’
That elicited a snigger from Cynthia, which she unsuccessfully tried to hide behind her hands. Their new friend clapped Timothy on the shoulder while he was glaring at his sister, desperately searching for a fitting retort.
‘Sorry kids, I have to go. I see my buddies waiting over there.’
Following the gerbil’s gaze they did notice a group of seated individuals, four rodents, one canine, and a feline, all waving towards them. Shrugging with a smile the older rodent took his tray and walked off with a final comment.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to this place in no time. Look for some kids your age and you’ll fit right in.’
As he sauntered towards his friends the mice realized that they once again had stalled the buffet line and hastened to finish their selections. The surreal nature of the day had not abated, but the terror that had stifled their appetites appeared to have disappeared once Dragon and the other feline had moved out of sight. After a little while, they made it to the end of the line, their trays laden with plates, glasses, and enough food to last two days.
Timothy was craning his neck.
With her innate sense of direction Cynthia gently pushed her brother towards the right.
‘Timothy,’ she nudged, ‘look over there. I see three mice, two young rats, and a couple of free chairs. Let’s go.’
Her brother looked at the indicated group. A little away, halfway obscured by some potted plants, the five rodents appeared to be engaged in conversation as they ate. But as Cynthia had noted, there were a few chairs left in that seating arrangement.
‘We don’t know them, Cyn.’
‘We don’t know anyone in here, Timmy. Our new friend said to mingle with people our age. They look like they fit the bill. Come on!’
Not waiting for his reply, as was so often the case, she walked towards the seated conversationalists, a broad smile on her face. Timothy sighed and trailed after her.
* * *
‘Sometimes you’re as dense as granite, you know that, lil’ Vinnnie?’
A slender brown rat wearing a green vest and white shirt was waving a scolding finger at the grey mouse in the tanned shirt. The mouse cocked a dubious brow in reply.
‘You’re taking me for granite again, Timbers?’
The mouse couple next to him groaned in unison at the awful pun.
‘Vince,’ the blond-haired female with the blue eyes sniggered, ‘that one was bad, and as old as… ‘
The second male mouse at the female’s other side lifted his fork while munching.
‘… something that’s really old.’
The rat named Timbers looked at the three mice on the other side of the table in disbelief.
‘Can you guys ever be serious about this?’
‘And spend all of our time bemoaning our fate while being completely unable to do anything about it? No thanks! I’d rather waste my time doing something I actually like.’
This came from the grey mouse that the rat had first addressed.
‘Oh, and don’t call me Vinnie. Makes me feel… Italian.’
At that the second rat, seated next to Timbers, managed to spray the liquid he had been drinking all over his own light-grey fur and tunic, hitting his neighbor with droplets as well.
‘Now see what you’ve done,’ intoned the second male mouse, a leathery, tan-colored one, ‘You made Cedric explode.’
That caused a round of giggles from the group, with the exception of Timbers who folded his arms across his chest and sulked.
‘Oh come on,’ said the mouse addressed as ‘Vinnie’, ‘You keep sulking like that and you’ll really wind up depressed.’
‘Then Dr. Vincent will have to give you therapy,’ the female said as she squeezed her neighbor’s shoulder.
‘Heaven help us!’
At that the grey mouse turned more serious as he addressed Timbers.
‘I know you’re upset. How do you think I feel? It’s not like we haven’t all tried.’
‘And,’ Cedric pointed out as wiped his muzzle with a napkin, ‘Vincent has been censured even more than you, so you can’t say he doesn’t try.’
Timbers rolled his eyes.
‘Yet here you are, making stupid jokes about it.’
Vincent shrugged. He looked to be of early middle age, a set of glasses perched on his nose and comically bushy cheek fur giving him a youthful, impish appearance. He stabbed one of the lauded cranberry muffins on a fork and held it aloft for everyone to see.
‘I choose to see the good things in my life, like this muffin, rather than focus on the sad things I have no power to change.’
‘So that’s your solution?’ Timbers sneered, ‘To drown yourself in muffins?’
The female perked up.
‘Now that would be sad. My brother killed by a muffing avalanche.’
‘There goes my new brother-in-law,’ the second male mouse sighed theatrically, ‘another victim of the muffin menace.’
Vincent pointed the forked muffin at him.
‘Never underestimate the power of the muffin, Anthony, or it may get you as well.’
Even Timbers had to chuckle now.
‘I shall resist with every fiber of my being. No pastry shall undo me.’
The muffin swung towards Timbers and Vincent’s eyes opened in mock evil.
‘Beware, young Timbers,’ the mouse intoned in a perfect evil-overlord impression, ‘the powers of pastry are not to be denied!’
The rat’s eyes narrowed.
‘I dare the wrath of the muffin!’
Without a word, Vincent flicked the fork forward, propelling the sweet treat like a catapult.
All eyes were on the muffin as it hurtled towards Timbers face. As it hit, the rat fell backwards with a screech and disappeared. Cedric and the mice looked at the spot occupied moments before by Timbers expectantly. From underneath the table horrible gagging and choking sounds emerged, followed by hideous groaning.
Cedric peered downwards and then back at the mice.
‘Oh, this is ugly.’
Suddenly, one of Timber’s paws grasped the table like a drowning man hanging on to a life raft, pulling himself up, gasping for air. When his head finally rose above the table Timbers’ expression was one of faked agony.
‘The horror,’ he gasped.
‘The crumbs,’ the female mouse noticed.
Taken aback the rat looked down on his shirt where a sizable amount of muffin remnants had indeed accumulated.
‘I bear the blood of my assailant as the trophy of my valiant struggle.’
‘Timbers one, muffin zero,’ Cedric sniggered.
‘There goes your breakfast, Vince,’ Anthony remarked.
Vincent grins, ‘Gone to a good cause.’
To underline that statement Timbers hid a burp behind a hand.
All five rodents turned at the unexpected interruption. Timbers hastily brushed the crumbs off his shirt and the others all attempted to look as if they had not just been goofing around like a bunch of children as Cynthia addressed them shyly.
‘Is there some room here?’
The three mice and two rats exchanged glances and then Timbers and Vincent managed to speak up simultaneously, which turned their statements into a garbled mess.
‘… kind of private…’
‘… nothing important…’
‘… don’t know…’
‘… take a seat.’
Not really caring what the two rodents were saying Timothy and Cynthia took seats facing each other, Timothy next to Anthony and Cynthia across from him, next to Cedric. Vincent and Timbers, who had both gotten up during their attempt at answering managed to glower at each other as they seated themselves again. Thankfully, the female mouse leaned over to shake Cynthia’s hand.
‘I’m Alexandria, well, Alex.’
Cynthia took the offered hand with a bright smile.
‘Cynthia. Pleasure to meet you.’ She nodded towards her brother, ‘That’s my brother Timothy.’
Anthony shook his hand in turn while Cedric gave him a grin and a two-fingered salute.
‘Sorry to barge into your conversation like that,’ Timothy apologized. ‘Cyn has a tendency to go wherever she wants to, no matter what.’
That gave Vincent a chuckle.
‘No problem. We weren’t discussing anything world-shattering.’
‘Says you,’ griped Timbers.
‘Don’t listen to them,’ Alex sniggered, ‘they can’t help messing with each others’ heads.’
‘Comes from being shrinks,’ Cedric mused with a sly smile.
Anthony raised both hands, ‘Don’t look at me, Cedric. I kept out of it. I’m Anthony, by the way.’
‘Cedric. And that loud fellow is Timbers.’
Timbers pointed a thumb at Vincent.
‘Vincent’s the shrink, not me.’
‘Oh woe is me,’ wailed the grey mouse wailed theatrically, ‘I always get blamed for everything!’
Alex leaned towards the other female mouse again and sighed.
‘See what I have to live with? You can’t choose your siblings, right?’
‘Oh so true!’ Timothy agreed, which caused both Cedric and Anthony to guffaw.
But Cynthia’s curiosity had been perked.
‘What’s a shrink?’
Finally looking more serious Vincent waved a hand.
‘I’m a psychotherapist, same as Anthony.’
The addressed mouse, who had just taken another bite of breakfast, raised a finger and muttered through his full mouth.
‘Studying to be. Vince’s the one already working the job.’
‘Oh,’ Timothy turned to his neighbor, ‘you deal with people with mental illness?’
Timbers laughed, ‘Yeah, and they are teachers too. First they mess them up, and then they try to fix them again.’
For the first time Vincent gave his opposition a truly angry look and the rat actually backed off.
‘Just a joke, okay?’
‘Are there lots of people in here who need this sort of thing?’ wondered Cynthia.
Vincent cocked a curious brow at that.
‘Are you new in here or something?’
‘Come to think of it,’ Cedric added, ‘I don’t recall ever seeing the two of you.’
That took the female mouse aback. Cynthia still did not feel it was safe to divulge their heritage and the sudden turn in the conversation stopped her short.
‘Actually,’ Timothy interceded, ‘we are kind of new. We came from the Fitzgibbon Farm.’
That, to Cynthia’s relief, was not even a lie. She had the feeling that despite their jovialities the therapist mice might be able to catch them should they try to actually lie to them.
‘No way!’ Timbers almost stood up in excitement, ‘You were part of the group that came in, what was it, a week ago? That is so cool!’
Alex nodded agreement, ‘We’ve only seen a few of the people that came in, that big cat for example.’
‘Dragon,’ Vincent offered with a roll of his eyes.
Timbers, always ready to needle the mouse, looked suspiciously at him.
‘Sounds like Vinnie here might have had a run-in with said cat, right?’
Now the bespectacled mouse looked almost panicked, as if caught.
‘No I didn’t!’
‘Let me guess,’ the sly rat crooned, ‘you got to do that monster’s psychological evaluation, didn’t you?’
‘Give it a rest, Timbers.’ Anthony sighed, ‘You know we can’t say anything about patients.’
‘How do you two like it here so far?’ the female mouse tried to steer the conversation back to the new arrivals.
‘It’s… different.’ Cynthia offered.
‘It’s awesome.’ Timothy opined.
Cedric nodded in understanding, ‘Different from living in the wild, I bet. Nobody hunting you here, free food and all.’
‘The golden cage.’ Timbers sneered.
Both Brisby children shared a confused expression at that statement. Adding to that was a look of clear but silent discomfort on the faces of the other rodents.
‘Oh come on!’ Timbers exclaimed. ‘That’s what we’ve been discussing all morning.’
‘What does he mean?’ Cynthia was almost afraid to ask. The mentioning of a cage clearly disturbed her.
‘Well,’ Vincent offered, ‘we were talking about some of the problems…’
‘Lies and broken promises’ interjected Timbers again.
‘… and that too,’ agreed the mouse opposite from him reluctantly. ‘We have been looking back at how we haven’t been able to really do what we dreamed we would.’
‘The things we were promised we would get to do.’
Again, nobody contradicted the agitated rat and the remainder of the group appeared to try to avoid looking directly at the Brisby siblings.
Timothy looked directly at Timbers with grave features.
‘What do you mean?’
‘What I mean, my new friend,’ the rat leaned forwards conspiratorially, ‘is that you better not believe everything your told in this place.’
That just added more confusion to Timothy’s face.
‘Take Vinnie here,’ Timbers pointed.
‘Good grief,’ the mouse sighed, ‘Here he goes again.’
Not caring about the mouse’s remark the rat continued talking to the new mice.
‘Spent almost two years studying to be a marine biologist. They promised him he would be able to study and research out in the wild, make contact with ocean animals that might join our cause, that sort of thing. Guess what, it was all bogus.’
Both Brisby mice turned to Vincent, who shrugged.
‘Guilty, I guess.’
‘And not just him,’ Timbers continued, ‘I focused on forestry and conservation. What do I get to do now? Just teach the stuff to other youngsters and fill their heads with dreams of freedom that never come true.’
‘It may still happen, you know,’ Cedric offered.
‘Oh come off it! Vincent had to learn a whole new job or he would be stuck teaching in here forever.’
‘They don’t let you out?’ Cynthia ventured.
‘Just wait a moment,’ Timothy waved at the agitated rat, ‘Are you telling me that none of you can get out?’
It was Alex who answered.
‘Hah! Unless you’re one of the bigwigs you ain’t ever seeing daylight again.’
That last outburst deflated Timbers and he slumped in his chair, apparently done with his diatribe.
‘They say it’s for the safety of us all, and only temporary.’ Vincent mused.
Anthony added sourly, ‘which they have been saying for two years now. I don’t see it happening. They like it this way; makes us easier to control.’
‘Who?’ Timothy wondered.
‘Jenner and his ilk, of course,’ Alexandria now added with uncharacteristic venom.
‘You forget where their orders come from,’ Timbers muttered from his slump.
‘In the end, it’s always Brisby, our beloved leader, who makes the decisions in here.’
Timothy and Cynthia exchanged worried glances. Somehow, their appetites seemed to have deserted them fully. As they looked at their trays and picked up their utensils they had the sinking feeling that no matter how delicious the muffins might be, they would not be able to enjoy them.
* * *
Elizabeth assumed the meeting had gone well.
Justin had managed to remain composed when the helmet had closed itself around his head. But when the stone on the suit and the gems in the circular struts had activated he had paniced. Weightless might have been what caused it, but somehow Mrs. Brisby doubted it.
As soon as the strange machines had initiated lights on the chamber containing the human remote for Justin had flashed and the shape inside had begun flaying around, just as the real Justin had been doing suspended in midair. Brutus and she had been uncertain where to look, at Justin’s body or the monitor screens. It had taken all of Stella’s strength to keep Brutus from charging straight at his floating friend. Luckily, the human versions of Jonathan and Jenner, who had donned bathrobes, had been waiting close to the now activated chamber and had released the captive form as quickly as possible.
From that moment on Elizabeth and Brutus had been riveted by the monitor displays. Holding the gasping human shape steady, the other two remote bodies had wrapped the newly emerged one in another robe. It had taken surprisingly little time for Justin’s remote to calm down and, after a few unbalanced steps, become steady on its feet. There was no sound to the transmission but the human versions of Jonathan and Jenner had talked to Justin and then pointed at the camera in the room. Justin’s human remote had looked up at the screen then and, still coughing a bit, had given the audience an “OK” sign.
The remote Jonathan had steadied Justin in his unaccustomed form while Jenner had grabbed a second robe and stepped towards the chamber containing Julia’s human counterpart. Moments later, as Julia had activated her own suit, the chamber opened and released the female human body from its containment. With apparent practice, the human version of Julia had donned her offered robe and immediately stepped towards the still wobbly shape of Justin’s borrowed body. It had been odd to see the four humans on the screen. While their shapes had been alien to Elizabeth they also had shown an undeniable familiarity. There had been no doubt that these truly were Jonathan, Justin, Julia, and Jenner. Somehow, even in the guise of a different species, their essence had shown through.
The four had exited to an adjoining room, captured on a different monitor. It had been a sort of communal showering room, where Jenner and her husband immediately began rinsing their borrowed bodies from whatever nutrient fluids had maintained them in their chambers. There Julia had aided Justin in the same process and then instructed him in how to dress his human form in clothes that had been laid out neatly on a table. Within twenty minutes all four bodies had been clothed in professional human attire and meticulously groomed features.
Jonathan’s remote had been dressed in a black suit and tie, with a tie-pin that looked remarkably like the green stone he had been wearing on his true self. Jenner’s attire had been a cold grey, with an added earpiece that must have been a microphone of sorts. Julia had dressed in a crème-colored business jacket over a skirt of the same coloration and Justin had sported a more leisurely, but even more expensive looking navy-blue jacket and pants, complemented with a silk shirt, no tie.
Jenner’s voice had come over a speaker into the laboratory as soon as his human version touched its earpiece, telling the monitoring scientist that they were ready to go.
Then the quartet had moved along a lushly appointed corridor to the conference room that at that point had been filled with over twenty serious-looking humans. Said humans had broken out in greetings and smiles as the group had entered, Jonathan-the-human shaking hands gingerly with various men and women. Jenner’s body had remained distant, but Julia took pains to introduce a still awkward looking human Justin to the assembled crowd.
‘Is there any way we can hear what they’re saying?’
‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ Dr. Hendricks had answered, ‘we have been having problems with the microphones all week. That’s why we gave Mr. Fray the earpiece.’
From there the meeting had followed some sort of predetermined format. Julia had shown Justin his seat and taken one next to him while Jonathan’s avatar had seated himself at the head of the table, Jenner standing to his right. What had followed then had been an exhaustingly tedious exchange of information. Mrs. Brisby followed the mute shapes of the human remote of her husband apparently talking to the assembled humans, answering questions, referring some to Jenner and Julia, and so forth. At some point he had engaged Justin’s human shape in the conversation. Somehow the look of discomfort on his human remote had worked to his favor. When Justin had talked the assembled crowd had responded with smiles and nods. Before long he seemed to have gained his confidence and had answered questions with a calm demeanor.
The whole procedure had taken almost an hour. Then, the four had been the first to excuse themselves to leave the true humans to remark amongst themselves. The four remotes had returned to the shower room, undressed and then, in the bathrobes, returned to the holding chambers in the first room they had observed. They had placed Justin’s human body in its receptacle first and then entered their own. Simultaneously the chambers had closed and their true bodies, still within their enclosing suits, lowered themselves onto the platforms again. Two gerbil orderlies had been standing ready at Justin’s side when his body slumped to the floor. Jonathan and the others, having been accustomed to this procedure, had not required assistance and, as soon as they were standing, had activated the mechanism that had released their heads from the strange helmets.
Now, the four of them, still wearing the strange suits rejoined their waiting friends. Justin stood on shaky feet, Julia supporting him by his arm. He shook his head as if clearing out cobwebs from his brain and smiled weakly at Brutus and Elizabeth.
‘If you ever get a chance to try this, just say “no”.’
Jonathan slapped his back jovially.
‘It wasn’t that bad. You did great. Jenner threw up the first time he came back out from using his remote.’
That and the sour expression on Jenner’s face at the comment seemed to lighten the mood somewhat.
‘So,’ Jonathan rubbed his hands, ‘how about we all clean up and then tackle the rest of the day?’
‘Jonathan,’ Elizabeth intoned worriedly, ‘just what was this meeting with the humans all about?’
Rather than answering her he winked at Justin.
‘You tell her, buddy.’
The brown rat gave a somewhat bemused smile.
‘It seems,’ he ventured, ‘that we have just bought Thorn Valley.’