Chapter 15: The Doubts

‘How can we,’ Elizabeth corrected herself, ‘I mean they, buy Thorn Valley? It’s a nature preserve, isn’t it; land that belongs to the country, or something?’

It was Jenner who replied as the group, all cleaned from some convenient shower rooms in the laboratory, made their way from the deep recesses of the facility to the main elevator shaft.

‘It seems humans will sell anything, if the price is right.

The sarcastic tone was more like the Jenner they had all known in times past.

‘There was more to it, but I’d be lying if I said I understood it all.’

Justin still appeared to be struggling a bit in regaining his composure from his body-borrowing experience.

‘Actually,’ Jonathan explained, ‘it’s relatively simple. The human government has money problems.’

‘Very bad money problems.’ Julia nodded.

‘Yes, and we offered to buy certain portions of Federal Reserve land for a rather large sum of their money.’

Jenner chuckled, ‘Their expression when they heard our first offer would have been worth the amount all by itself.’

‘Anyway, they did not want to let the land go without some strict regulations.’

Mrs. Brisby eyed her husband cautiously.

‘Like what?’

‘We stated that we needed the land to test some of our genetically engineered crops, far away from human habitation, so we offered to buy a large area around our test site that would remain untouched.’ Julia expounded.

Jonathan nodded in agreement.

‘The humans still want to regulate and check on our site and that nothing bad gets into the natural environment, but we have that covered as well.’

‘Are you going to plant these new crops?’

That elicited a chuckle from the grey mouse.

‘Of course we are. It will keep prying eyes away from the Valley itself. Thorn Valley is only a tiny portion of the land we have purchased. And the crops will do wonders for solving the humans’ need for food. Everybody wins.’

‘Why would you help humans with their problems?’

Elizabeth jerked in fear as Jenner, who pretended not to notice, put a huge hand on one of her shoulders from behind.

‘Dear Mrs. Brisby, if we solve their problems, they may have less reasons to fear us. After all, if we are the ones they buy their new food from that gives us a degree of… power over them.’

That made Justin shudder.

‘Even more power? That just might scare them even more.’

‘But they think we are just another human company,’ Julia tried to soothe his concerns.

‘And the main point is we will own Thorn Valley, we will be in charge of our own home.’

The brown mouse pulled away from Jenner and closer to her husband in response to the statement.

‘So we will all live there? Will there be enough room?’

Julia, with a cheerful note in her voice, called out.

‘We have everything planned out perfectly. We have vehicles ready that will serve as full-functioning homes until we have built the permanent residences, not mention all the equipment we are bringing along.’

‘What kinds of equipment?’ Justin wondered.

The white rat counted on her fingers.

‘Power generators, seeds, computer cores, construction equipment, you name it.’

From behind them Jenner’s dark chuckle still managed to chill Mrs. Brisby to the bone.

‘And all of it without any human ever being the wiser; makes Nicodemus’ old Plan look like a game of tiddlywinks.’

Neither Justin nor Elizabeth appreciated the derision of their deceased friend, but kept their peace as the group entered the elevator and rose to the higher levels of the building. Once aloft and looking over the immense vistas inside the structure the brown mouse sighed.

‘Just look at them,’ she said, waving  hand to the distant masses of animals visible through the elevator, going about their daily business in this strange place, ‘how will they all be able to live together?’

Jonathan kissed her playfully on the cheek.

‘They do in here. They’ll do it out there too, with the right kind of guidance.’

Somehow, that last statement left a bit of a sour taste in her mouth.

When they exited the elevator on the level where all their apartment units were located, they saw Timothy and Cynthia walking towards them, waving. Both where smiling, but looked somewhat subdued. Before Elizabeth could voice her concern her husband, his face full of worry, walked up to their children and hugged them.

‘Are you kids okay?’

‘We’re fine… Dad.’ It still felt strange to Cynthia to use that word again.

‘We had breakfast. The food was very good.’

‘The conversation could have been better though,’ Timothy grumbled.

Their mother drew closer and held her son’s shoulders.

‘What happened, Timmy?’

‘Nothing. It’s okay, Mom.’

‘Yeah,’ Cynthia added, ‘we just listened to a bunch of people griping. That’s always good for making a meal enjoyable.’

‘I’m sorry,’ their father said earnestly, ‘maybe we should have woken you up after all. That way we could have had breakfast together.’

Timothy’s stomach grumbled.

‘Actually,’ the young mouse said in response to his gastric gurgling, ‘we didn’t even eat very much.’

Cynthia nodded, ‘The conversation was so awkward; we just wanted to leave.’

‘How about this,’ Jonathan offered to the group, ‘Jenner and I’ll check in at the office really quick, everyone else can freshen up a bit, and then we all have lunch together?’

There were nods and agreement all around. Jonathan gave his wife a quick hug and another peck on the cheek and then he and Jenner made to depart.

‘We’ll be back in no later than half an hour.’

Then, the two groups parted ways, Jonathan and the security chief boarding the elevator again and the others heading for their lodgings.

As the elevator cabin rose towards the Directorial Office the grey mouse looked down at the receding image of his family walking to their current dwelling. Jenner stood quietly at attention behind him, waiting.

‘Have ALIS go through the security recordings. I want to know who my children were talking to and what was being said.’

The rat nodded quietly; then cleared his throat.

‘Something else, Jenner?’

‘I don’t think bringing them here now was the best idea.’

‘Really?’

An almost sinister smile spread over the mouse’s face as he continued staring down the distant central shaft.

‘And why would that be?’

‘With all due respect, can we afford the distraction now, with everything gearing up for the move?’

‘You think I am being distracted by my family?’

There was a twinge of venom in Jonathan’s otherwise cheerful voice now. Jenner nervously fingered his collar as if feeling stifled.

‘Well, you would have seen them again in any case after the move. Why bring them here beforehand?’

The green Stone around the mouse’s chest pulsed, a small luminance which seemed to be mirrored in his eyes.

‘Let me makes this clear to you, Jenner. Everything is going according to plan, every single detail. Do not question my decisions. Do you understand?’

The coldness in the formerly warm voice caused the rat to take a step backwards in the now crowded elevator car.

‘But…’

‘I was the one who gave you this chance at redemption, Jenner. Do not force me to take it away from you again.’

Now there was visible perspiration on Jenner’s face and the hand that had been fingering the collar was now massaging his throat as if to rub away a constricting lump. He could see Jonathan’s features reflected in the glass wall of the cabin. The eyes had become pools of green light and the features held nothing of the warmth that was so natural to Jonathan Brisby. It was probably a distortion in the surface, but for a moment Jenner felt as if someone, or something, completely alien shared the elevator with him.

‘No,’ he almost stammered, ‘of course not. You know best, Jonathan.’

Thankfully, that was the point when the elevator had reached the top floor. As the doors opened at their back the mouse turned around and, to Jenner’s great relief, the face that looked back at him was that of Jonathan Brisby once more, smiling amicably.

‘You need to learn to relax more, Jenner.’ The mouse said as he patted the much larger rodent’s arm in passing.

‘Worrying about things can be the death of you, you know?’

***

Lunch at the Heavenview Café was definitely different.

Timothy assumed being the director of the facility had to come with certain perks, and the dining arrangements that had awaited them were ample proof. A whole section of the spacious establishment had been cordoned off using portable planters and screens, which kept any other diners not only out of sight, but managed to muffle any intruding noise as well. If Cynthia had not known better, she would have assumed the rest of the cafeteria was entirely devoid of patrons.

The meals were being served by an incredibly attentive, but reserved staff of white-furred rats so large that Brutus must have felt right at home. Each wore a simple grey uniform with an apron over it and their military bearing showed that these were the same kind of rodent they had encountered during their attempted flight from the laboratory. To see them now without their peculiar armor, taking their orders, serving food and drinks, made the entire experience a little ironic.

Never having dealt with the concept of a menu, the Thorn Valley refugees picked their food by whatever names sounded the nicest rather than any actual knowledge of what the described dishes might look like. Luckily, none of the items brought by the server rats proved to be less than delicious. The meal itself proved warm and familiar, as if the rodents sharing it had been a joined group of friends for a long time. That struck Mrs. Brisby as odd, but she refused to let it dampen her good cheer. Only Jenner appeared somewhat subdued and cast worried glances over to her husband from time to time. Had he been glowering at them Elizabeth might have been less off-put by the large rat’s behavior, but the furtiveness in Jenner’s gaze chilled her. Side glances to her children confirmed that they were picking up on it as well.

Julia and Justin, by contrast, were clearly developing a romantic relationship, which Justin seemed to be more intent on downplaying than the rat scientist was. Brutus and Stella, maybe thanks to their mutual inability for speech, were less expressive about what clearly had grown beyond a fond attachment between them. The massive guard was as expressionless as always, but stayed close and watchful of the much shorter Stella, preferably when she was not looking at him. The wiry female, in turn, kept darting her intense gaze from one member of the group to the other, as if following the ebb and flow of the conversation as if it was a tennis match. Yet at the same time, without looking, she would hand Brutus items the big rat was unable to locate or did not recognize immediately amongst the various culinary implements and condiments. Watching the two mute rats in their almost subconscious interplay helped to distract Mrs. Brisby from the brooding shape of Jenner.

‘So,’ Justin muttered between two bites from a fresh-baked roll, ‘what’s next on the to-do list for that move to Thorn Valley, Jonathan?’

‘Later, early in the evening,’ the mouse replied while passing a sauce dispenser down the table, ‘we were planning to have a Convocation to formally introduce you all to the residents.’

 ‘Like a Council Meeting?’ Timothy wondered.

‘A little bit,’ his father nodded, stabbing a reluctant pea with his fork, ‘but it’s not just for a selected few people. Everybody in here can attend.’

Cynthia, wiping up gravy from her plate with a piece of bread, mused, ‘That’s going to be a lot of people, right?’

Julia pointed a fork to the wall behind her.

‘We have a large meeting place in the other corridor, the top part of the atrium hall. The whole ceiling is glass. It’s really nice. We use it about every month or more.’

Justin was intrigued.

‘You have lots of these Convocations then?’

Jonathan, his mouth full, nodded vigorously and then swallowed.

‘Of course. We gave to let everybody know what we’re planning on doing. Nobody gets left out of running this place. That’s how we make it work.’

That made the brown rat nod solemnly. Justin had never been able to manage large assemblages of people to form a democratic quorum. He had always thought that with too many people consensus or any kind of orderly meeting would become impractical. He was looking forward to seeing how the animals here had worked around that.

‘We won’t have to speak, do we? I mean, in front of all these people?’

Elizabeth was no coward, but public speaking and being the center of attention were two things that did not mesh well with her unassuming personality. Jonathan leaned over and kissed her cheek.

‘We’ll keep it very simple. Some introductions and that’s it.’

‘Oh darn!’ Cynthia complained mockingly, ‘And here I was hoping Timmy could do that singing act of his. You know, the one he does on the top of his lungs in the showers when he thinks nobody can hear him?’

‘Cyn!’

‘Hey, I didn’t say it was a bad act, did I?’

That made Brutus cough with suppressed laughter and only a quickly offered extra napkin by Stella allowed him to contain both his mirth and food. Julia could not help but chuckle at that as well. She was really beginning to like this family.

‘Just act natural and everything will be alright.’

‘Exactly,’ Jonathan added, ‘there is no need to worry. Everything’s perfectly under control.’

***

The meeting hall was filling up.

When Julia had mentioned that there would be enough room she actually understated the fact. Mrs. Brisby watched down the length of one of the deep chasms that made up one of the four intersecting atrial corridors of the building. She could hardly make out the shapes of the animals filling up the balconies at the far end. As the rat scientist had said the meeting space had been converted from the basic shape of the vast atrium. Along four stories the usual walkways and access bridges to apartments and other rooms had been replaced with large galleries that lined the walls like the tiers of an immense stadium. The seats themselves had been arranged to allow enough room for any of the many types of animals in this place, while at the same allowing different species to comingle, rather than being segregated.

Elizabeth felt uncomfortably exposed. Jonathan had brought them to this central platform, which was suspended by cables from the distant walls and slightly removed from the central column of the structure. It was at the very center of this very stadium-like arrangement. Another elevator and a narrow bridge had allowed them access, together with a few uniformed but unarmed sentry rats. She and the others had been surprised to see that part of the suspended platform was already occupied. Seated in two semicircular arrangements was a small number of assorted animals, all wearing simple, but stylish grey robes made from some shimmering material.

‘Our quire,’ Julia had explained.

That statement had actually explained nothing.

Why would a gathering like this have a quire?

Then again, Mrs. Brisby ventured that this Convocation might be very different from the Council and Chamber Meetings she was accustomed to. There definitely appeared to be a lot of pomp and circumstance.

As large as the platform was, none of the Thorn Valley residents believed that the ones seated in the distant stadium seats would be able to see them, which was somewhat of a relief. Justin, usually comfortable speaking in front of a full Council, kept fidgeting with the collar of his tunic. Brutus’ eyes were huge in their astonishment and Mrs. Brisby would have gladly run right back to their apartment quarters. Even with everything they had seen thus far they never imagined there being so many animals living here.

‘There’s the doc!’ Timothy pointed to a far-away gallery to the right where the distinctly humongous shape of the simian was seating himself oddly between what looked like a group of rats and gerbils.

‘You don’t happen to see any of the ones we met in the cafeteria this morning?’ Cynthia asked him.

‘Are you kidding? In this crowd I wouldn’t be able to tell if they sat on the seats closest to us. Why?’

The young female hugged herself a bit.

‘I don’t know. Just a weird feeling that they aren’t here anymore.’

Timothy cocked his head.

‘What do you mean, not here anymore?’

She shook her head.

‘Never mind. How long until this is going to start?’

Jonathan, at whom that last comment was addressed, smiled.

‘It takes a while for everyone to get seated. Why don’t you all take some seats over here with me?’

He indicated that they should follow him to a small half-circle of rodent-sized chairs behind a raised speaker’s podium at the very center of the platform. The seats had been chosen with care to accommodate the various different sizes of the rodents in their group and Elizabeth could not help but smile inwardly at how Justin’s seat had been placed next to one clearly meant for Julia, while Brutus’ somewhat larger chair was adjacent to one fitted to his new companion’s size. The very center of the row of seats was for four mice-sized occupants, their own family.

‘Look at the size of those monitors!’

While he had been sitting down, Timothy had found the time to look upwards and noticed  a number of truly immense monitor screens suspended from the ceiling just above the gallery rows along the walls. Each faced the opposing rows of occupants.

‘Without them most people in here would not be able to see us,’ Julia explained.

‘So we will be on cam…’

Justin’s remark was shut off by a sudden bright light, forcing him to shield his eyes for a moment. The rest of the first-time participants among the group reacted similarly as the lights in walls and ceilings began to focus on the central platform.

‘Whoaaaaaaah!’

Cynthia’s gasp was appropriate.

Once everyone’s eyes had adjusted to the new light levels they were able to see that all the monitor walls had come alight, showing an incredibly detailed image of the central platform to the entire audience. Timothy had to look from the screens back to his family in awe.

‘The picture is amazing. I can’t see any cameras at all.’

‘Oh they are there, son.’

 Hidden cameras were secreted all around the facility, Mrs. Brisby’s memory echoed. Once more, a seemingly innocent statement made by her husband sent a quick shiver down the mouse’s spine. What was wrong with her? The love of her life had come back from death. Yet every now and then Jonathan’s words seemed to touch a raw nerve. She could not remember ever having felt happier, if only that occasional haunting sensation would not creep over her.

Thankfully, the cheering from the assembled crowd distracted her away from her misgivings. From the screens they could tell that the unseen cameras were now focused on them, with Jonathan and Elizabeth in the center. An even louder cheer went up from the audience when Jonathan gently squeezed his wife’s hand and said.

‘It’s Showtime.’

Waving casually at the assembled masses the grey mouse got up from his chair and walked to the podium. Julia and Jenner raised themselves as well from their seats, located t each far end of the row of chairs, to stand at the Director’s side. Jonathan struck a fascinating figure, his black vest and the large green Stone giving him a subdued and regal bearing all at the same time.

The crowd loved it. Cheers and whistles could be heard over the din of clapped hands.

‘Quite an ovation!’

Timothy almost yelled into Justin’s ear. The rat nodded and cupped his hands before replying on the top of his lungs,

‘Beats the old Council Meetings, for sure.’

Cynthia and her mother were less enthusiastic. To them the ecstatic reception felt almost maniacal and they huddled in their chairs.

At the podium Jonathan raised both hands to get the audience to quiet down.

‘Settle down, everyone. We don’t want to be here all night, right?’

That elicited an approving round of chuckles from the masses. Jonathan knew how to work a crowd. Some hidden microphones in the podium had to be enhancing his speech. It appeared everyone in the immense assembly heard him perfectly. Once things had settled to more bearable noise level the Director put both hands to the side of the podium, an endearing smile towards his people and the cameras.

‘I’m not going to beat about the bush here. I know a couple of you didn’t believe me when I told you that we would be moving by the end of this week.’

 The murmuring disapproval rose from the tiers like a dark rumble. Jonathan Brisby, diminutive in his black uniform raised his arms once more, this time apologetically.

‘A lot of you have been disappointed before. I take responsibility for that. You have every right to be wondering,’ he leaned forward with a playfully conspiratorial wink, ‘’is he going to call it off again? Is this another empty promise?’’

Disapproval morphed into uneasiness. Despite their distance Cynthia could almost feel members of the audience shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. She was reminded of the conversation she and Timothy had joined the same morning, the disappointments the rats and mice had expressed with her father so openly. Here, Jonathan was pointedly addressing that very concern. And from the crowd’s responds both she and her brother could tell that many in the audience, despite their cheering, harbored misgivings.

Before the tide of unease could grow into something more malignant the Director clapped his hands together and rubbed them as if in anticipation.

 ‘This time, we are finally ready.’

That caused an unexpected hush. Hundreds of heads, maybe thousands, leaned forward expectantly.

‘Tomorrow night,’ Jonathan paused and inhaled, ‘we move to freedom. We move to Thorn Valley.’

 The cheering and applause felt like an acoustic bomb, buffeting everyone on the platform. Mrs. Brisby held her hands to her ears and winced. Around her the others were doing likewise. Even Brutus shut his eyes in order to shift his attention away from the noise. Only Jenner, Julia, and her husband looked unaffected by the cacophony, gazing at the exuberant multitude with satisfaction.

After giving the crowd its moment of exultation Jonathan raised his arms once more in a quieting gesture. Again, the audience settled, this time with an undertone of barely concealed joy and relief.

‘One of the reasons we have not been able to move until now is that we needed to make contact with the current residents of Thorn Valley. We could not just show up there unannounced.’

Jonathan took on his jovial tone again as he leaned against the podium.

‘Hello, there are a couple of hundreds of us who want to move into your home, right this very second.’

He winked at the crowd.

‘Sounds just a tiny bit rude, doesn’t it?’

Another round of chuckles and sniggers wafted across the hall.

‘He’s really selling this,’ Justin mused at Timothy, who at this point was following his father’s speech in rapt attention.

Jonathan straightened up again.

‘As a result, I would like you to welcome a good friend of mine, who has travelled all the way from Thorn Valley to be here tonight. Please welcome, a dear friend, original survivor of NIMH, and elected leader and representative of the Colony of Thorn Valley…’

The mouse turned on the podium and gestured with a smile to the mice and rats seated behind him.

‘… Justin.’

The applause roared through the vaulted auditorium. Justin felt as if his body was raising itself from his chair without his conscious control as he stepped towards his resurrected friend. He could not decide whether the numbness he felt originated from this overwhelming reception or something else. He only hoped he would not make a fool of himself in front of all these people.

Jonathan continued to wave him forwards, grinning broadly. Jenner, whose place to the right of the podium he was supposed to take, stepped away with a wry smile of his own, clapping his hands. It was obvious he relished his old nemesis’ feelings of awkwardness. The last thought Justin felt clearly in his mind just before he reached the podium was that he was so glad he was not wearing his awful Council robes.

The rat felt the Director’s hand on his shoulder as he addressed the audience once more. The podium added just enough height to the mouse for both their heads to be almost level.

‘It took us a long time to get him here, but he’s here. How about you give him just one more welcome?’

A second barrage of applause, this time topped off with cheers and whistles racketed Justin’s mind. He blinked hard, not even realizing that Jonathan had taken the opportunity to step down from his podium and gently maneuvered him to take his place. Only when Justin felt the surface of the podium underneath his own two hands did his situation come into focus again. He was now the center of the rapt crowd. Uncounted eyes stared at him in hushed expectation. The brown rat looked over the distant rows of spectators, many so far away he could hardly distinguish them. Then, thankfully, his leadership skills asserted themselves. He inspected the podium and gently tapped the top until he heard a resounding knock coming from the numerous speakers throughout the assembly hall.

‘Just checking if this thing works,’ he said a bit bashfully.

The crowd rewarded him with a round of chuckles.

Justin put his hands to the sides of the podium and tapped his fingers as he let his head roam around the numberless faces in the audience.

‘Well, thank you for having me and my friends here as your guests. This place is really something. It’s really…’

He pursed his lips in trying to find the right words, and finally leaned forward with a questioning expression.

‘…big?’

The chuckles were replaced with appreciative laughter.

‘You go, Justin,’ Timothy murmured grinning.

Justin coughed.

‘I don’t really know what to else say. I suppose Jonathan has your move all set up.’

He peered down at the mouse.

‘At least you better have. Sleeping out in the woods is only fun for a night or two.’

Jonathan shrugged and gave the rat a thumbs-up. That got rewarded with more laughter. Looking back to the crowd Justin smiled warmly, all shyness gone.

‘Some of our people are going to be pretty surprised, though.’

A mischievous smile passed over the rat’s features.

‘But that’ll be good for them. I say, come on over. It sounds better than being cooped up in here forever.’

That produced another round of cheers, which Justin used as an opening to relinquish the podium and walk back to his seat. Julia gave him a tight hug and even Jenner nodded with an appreciative smile. Back in his chair he exhaled deeply while Timothy sniggered.

‘They were putty in your hands.’

‘Yeah, right!’

In the front Jonathan had resumed his position on the podium.

‘That’s Justin for you, a rat of many words.’

More chuckles.

Then the mouse’s face became serious.

‘There was a second reason for the delay, a deeply personal one; and I have to ask for your forgiveness in this matter. We have all worked hard to make this possible. Many of us sacrificed part of our personal lives to do so, to keep us safe and secure.’

There were quiet nods visible in the crowd, even at this distance and the audience’s excitement was hushed to a murmur as the Director continued.

‘I made a choice, a choice that caused the delay in our move and caused many of you unnecessary distress. And that choice was a selfish one.’

This was unexpected. The animals in attendance leaned forward in anticipation.

Jonathan swallowed hard.

‘For many years my own family, my wife and children, have thought me dead, and for the sake of keeping our security intact I could not contact them to tell them otherwise.’

Apparently, that was news to most in the audience as gasps and exclamations carried towards the platform.

The Director’s voice began to crack.

‘I promised myself, selfishly, that we would not move until I had the chance to let them know that I was alive.’

He turned around, eyes moist, and extended a hand towards Elizabeth. The monitors shifted towards the mouse family.

Nobody spoke.

With the cameras trained on Mrs. Brisby and her children it was all they could do to rise slowly and join Jonathan at the podium. There, he stepped off the pulpit and embraced his wife to the echoes of countless sniffs and sighs from the crowd. Teary eyed and sniffling himself Jonathan turned Elizabeth to face the audience, Timothy and Cynthia at their parent’s side.

‘My loving wife and two of my beautiful children.’ The mouse muttered tenderly.

The applause began with a single clap, but rose to an astonishing crescendo. There were no cheers, no whistles, just the boundless clapping of a tear-filled auditorium.

Jonathan kissed Elizabeth and embraced both his children in turn, holding them tight in a huddle as the applause washed over them like rain. As awkward as this moment was, their affection on display to the multitude, there was warmth there too. Then, after what felt like an eternity, Jonathan slowly detached and motioned them to retain their seats. Then he moved back up onto the podium and with a handkerchief cleaned his face and blew his nose before. He rested his hands on the podium for a few moments before speaking again.

 ‘Again, I hope you forgive my… selfishness.’

Nobody in the immense hall responded, none knew how.

‘We have all worked long and hard for this. Time and time again you were promised that we would leave soon. Last week I asked you to prepare yourselves to move. Now I ask you to spend tomorrow making your final preparations. We leave for our new home tomorrow night.’

That caused the audience to stir again. A great number of them had probably assumed another delay in their promised freedom and still needed to make last preparation. But all in all, the mood in the auditorium was changing from shared empathy to one of simmering anticipation. Even Cynthia and Timothy, who together with their mother had felt their eyes tear up moments before, was being buoyed up by it. All the misgivings from this morning’s interlude had been erased by their father’s tender acknowledgements and his pronouncement that the long-awaited freedom was finally going to be realized.

Jonathan’s arms again beckoned for silence.

‘Let us sing.’

Elizabeth’s ears cocked with curiosity, wiping away a final tear from her behind her glasses. This was a strange request. Why would Jonathan ask for singing?

In a bright clear voice, Julia, standing to the left of the podium, started to sing.

 

‘We were caged and without hope.

Humans held us in their yoke.

Then they changed who we are.

Yes they changed who we are.

 

Science was their throne.

When they changed our blood and bone.

When they made us to serve.

Yes they made us to serve.’

 

On cue the choir and the entire audience chimed in.

 

‘But we’ll escape and we will be free.

Make ourselves into what we can be.

We’ll fight for our freedom, fight for what’s right.

Now at the end we can finally see the light.’

 

Now Jonathan, his arms raised high as if in benediction, took his turn, his voice carrying farther than even this electronic amplification could account for.

 

‘We fought and we worked hard.

Everyone has done their part.

Now it’s time to be free.

Yes, it’s time to be free.

 

We all shall live in peace.

Strife and war will forever cease.

Fore we all live as one.

Yes we all live as one.’

 

His voice was gripping. Somehow the words went straight to the heart as Jonathan’s conviction radiated out with every verse. This time, the crowd was standing up, animals of all kinds raising their hands high in response as they called out again.

 

‘But we’ll escape and we will be free.

Make ourselves into what we must be.

We’ll fight for our freedom, fight for what’s right.

Now at the end we can finally see the light.’

 

The chorus was repeated, time and time again. Tears flowed freely from cheeks of all species.

Mrs. Brisby was surprised to see Timothy and Cynthia rise from their seats, hands raised up high, to join in the singing. Her surprise turned to concern when she noticed that Justin had done the same. But the final straw was when she realized both Stella and Brutus, mute since birth, had risen as well, arms held high, their mouths desperately and soundlessly mouthing the words of the refrain.

Something was wrong here.

As the chorus was repeated, over and over, Elizabeth felt its words ring through her own body like waves of power, encouraging her, no, insisting she stand up and join as well. The tender emotions she had experienced moments before faded in her awareness as if something else was pushing them from her consciousness. She shook her head. It felt as if there were cobwebs being woven in her mind.

Suddenly, a heat gushing forth from the very center of her being, a force bursting like water through a dam drove away the befuddling compulsion. The Stone at her chest burned brightly, pulsating with the beat of her own heart, steadying it, strengthening it. Her vision cleared. No, it not only cleared, it expanded. She looked at the standing, swaying crowd, her children and friends. And what she saw terrified her.

Every single member of the audience had a peculiar green glow in their eyes. The rows upon rows of spectators looked like an assemblage of green willow-the-wisps from this distance. More, with each line of the chorus a wave of green light, like rolling mist, spread outward from the center of the chamber; and at that center stood her husband with his arms raised high.

Mrs. Brisby thanked the heavens that she could only see Jonathan from behind, as wave after wave of sickening light cascaded from his erect shape to roll over each person in this vast chamber. Minutes before she had felt the blissful embrace of his love through her entire being, but now the mouse on the dais seemed utterly alien to her. She was certain that if he tuned and she would be able to look at his face now she would not be able to recognize the one she had shared her heart and soul with. She could feel her heart breaking now, not even understanding why. Somehow, this very moment, Jonathan was no longer here. She had to look away. It hurt too much.

But turning from him did not give her any reprieve. As she looked at Cynthia in mounting despair she realized that with each wave of luminance the peculiar green glow in her child’s eyes intensified. A look at Timothy confirmed the same horror. Her children were blindly smiling in a trance, body and arms swaying to the words that rolled through the air with the clouds of energy.

Elizabeth stood and grabbed one of Cynthia’s arms, leaning over her husband’s vacated chair. Immediately, the green light in her eyes winked out and her arms dropped to her side. The young female blinked in consternation, apparently unsure of where she was.  Not letting go of her Mrs. Brisby leaned as far back to her own seat as possible and managed to touch Timothy on the shoulder.

He had the same reaction as Cynthia. Shaking his head he looked in bewilderment at his mother and then in terror at the crowd. Elizabeth squeezed his shoulder to get his attention and once he had turned back to him she quietly shook her head and nodded her chin in the direction of the still entranced Justin. Understanding passed over Timothy’s face and he extended a hand to touch the rat’s side.

As before the effect was immediate. Justin almost slumped into his chair, ready to cry out. But the mouse managed to quickly move his hand over the rat’s mouth until he had regained his composure. At the other end of the seating row Cynthia had managed to follow suit and removed Brutus from his mental entrapment. The huge rat took less time to collect himself, probably driven by an innate instinct for danger, and immediately took a hold of Stella’s arm as well.

Now, the seated rodents all silently shared in the horror around them. As the Stone pulsed brightly, endowing each of them with the same sight it had given Elizabeth, they beheld the eerie spectacle in all its glory. None dared to speak. Whatever was happening here was wrong, so deeply wrong it defied explanation. Stella, the only one of the select freed from this enchantment, who had been part of such ceremonies before, looked particularly horrified, despite her face’s limited ability to express emotions. Brutus could only guess at the depth of the betrayal the lithe female must be feeling now, the disbelief. Jonathan, his back turned and apparently oblivious to his guests’ realization, was the fulcrum. Whatever spell was binding everyone around them had its origins in him. There was no doubt about that.

Inside Mrs. Brisby’s heart a terrible wound expanded with each passing moment and tears ran down her cheeks. All those subtle misgivings had taken shape. The blessing of Jonathan’s return, her love, was somehow tainted. Yes, this was Jonathan, she had no doubt of that, felt it in her soul. But there was something else too, something awful, something that, for the moment, had removed Jonathan from this world as surely as if had died again. Silently she prayed for this obscenity to end. The nightmare had to end.

Then, mercifully, the intensity of the waves cascading from the Director subsided. With it, the swaying singers began to quiet, the awful glow in their eyes receded, until finally, exhausted, but with eerie synchronicity, they slowly sank back into their chairs, exhausted. There were a few moments of silence. Apart from the group seated behind the pulpit nobody in assembly hall seemed to be aware of what had just transpired. Jonathan had lowered his arms and dabbed his nose with his handkerchief again before speaking.

‘We will meet again tomorrow evening, at the same time, before we depart. Please, all of you be ready to depart to your designated transports afterwards. It will be the last time we will get to have a Convocation here.’

***

Mrs. Brisby felt dazed.

As soon as the macabre sing-along had concluded she had been terrified that Jonathan, or more precisely the thing that had temporarily taken Jonathan’s place, would call on her for not having succumbed to whatever influence it had exerted over everyone else. She had been certain he, no, it would know. But when Jonathan, and it had been her Jonathan again, had left the podium and rejoined them he appeared to be as oblivious as his audience as to what had transpired. He had been honestly concerned about her haunted expression, apologizing for having put her in the spotlight like this. He had assumed that it had been the exposure to the masses that had caused her emotional strain. It had taken a tremendous effort for Elizabeth to hide the actual nature of her distress, the more so as she hated the idea of keeping secrets from her husband. Yet something deep inside her had told her not to reveal what she had witnessed.

Her children had been having similar difficulties, but had been able to avoid closer scrutiny since their father had been intent on apologizing to Elizabeth. Justin, it appeared, had been struggling with the same problem. Julia had been all excited after the Convocation’s conclusion and Mrs. Brisby could only guess at how difficult it had been for him to keep up a jovial façade and not to reveal what he had actually experienced.

Deep down Mrs. Brisby did not know what frightened her more, what she had seen or the possibility that even Jonathan might be completely unaware of whatever had taken control of him. When he excused himself to lock up his office Elizabeth and the kids had a few minutes to talk about what they had gone through.

‘He’s telling the truth,’ Cynthia had assured the rest of the family.

‘At least it feels that way.’

Timothy had not been relieved by that.

‘But what happened? What was that… light, or whatever it was? It was like everyone got brainwashed somehow.’

Then her son had made the one statement that Mrs. Brisby had feared.

‘We need to get out of here.’

‘We’ve got to help Dad and the others!’

Cynthia had interjected.

‘We don’t even know what’s going on,’ Timothy had almost yelled back at her.

Elizabeth had tried hard to calm them down, which was not easy since she had been close to panic herself. The discussion had ended prematurely when Jonathan arrived and, feigning exhaustion, the children had hugged their parents and gone to bed. Elizabeth thanked Nicodemus’ ghost that her husband still had not noticed the children’s trepidation.

Then the Brisby couple had gone to bed as well.

Mrs. Brisby had never imagined that she would share a bed with her husband again, and in doing so would feel afraid both for him and of him.

***

The children lay in bed, waiting.

There was no way either could fall asleep. And the fact that they had slept in so late in the day before had nothing to do with it. With had happened, sleep was not an option. Truth be told, Cynthia and Timothy were scared, terrified even.

Neither wanted to think about what they had seen. Neither wanted to think about what it implied. But trying not to think only caused more thinking.

So, both were lying in their beds, eyes trained to the dark ceiling as time passed slowly and sleep would not come.

‘Cyn?’ Timothy whispered.

‘Yeah?’ Came the muttered reply.

‘Do you think mom and dad are asleep?’

His sister paused and closed her eyes.

‘Feels like it. Why?’

Timothy did not answer. He quietly got out of bed and got dressed again.

Where are you going?’

Cynthia sat up in her bed.

‘If mom and dad are asleep, I’m getting some answers.’

His sister sat bolt upright in her bed at that.

‘Where do you think you’ll get answers? In case you forgot, everyone in here has gotten their brain zonked.’

In the darkness Timothy’s eyes glittered behind his glasses.

‘I bet there is one person in here who hasn’t.’

‘Who?’

‘The one without a real brain.’


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