The space that was no space and every space as well.
Jonathan, the Jonathan-that-had-been, an energy memory of a self, looking through a tunnel towards a calling beacon; calling him back.
The once-mouse, straining to remain, not to return.
The tunnel in the other realm extending behind him into deeper, older spheres.
The thing, vast, luminous, a hundred eyes, a million arms, craving life, glowing green, crawling up towards the world, only the being that had once been Jonathan Brisby in its way.
The once-mouse turning to face it, dwarfed into insignificance, yet raising the memory of arms to block its path.
Onward it came, and swept him away.
Mrs. Brisby gasped awake as the nightmare tore through her.
Her fur was doused in perspiration. Each time the dream became more vivid, despite all the things about it that defied explanation. She shuddered and hugged herself, sitting up in bed. As she looked at the peaceful, sleeping shape of her husband next to her she felt like sobbing. Since the Convocation her bliss had been tainted and her dream had taken on new, horrible meaning. She had been trapped and without hope before, but never like this. Elizabeth wanted everything to be alright, for her Jonathan to be all well and whole again. But with every passing hour she knew more and more that this was not to be. And she felt helpless and powerless to do anything about it.
Elizabeth’s head jerked around.
She had not heard that. She had felt it.
Then her memory came back to her. The day before their departure, when Justin had sent Brutus to take her and her children to meet him in the infirmary, she had felt the same thing.
She had gone into Camilla’s room in the infirmary. And the ancient rat had been awake. Not only that, she had told her, predicted, that her children would be asked to return to NIMH. And Camilla had said that it was imperative that she accompanied her children there. And now, after a journey of less than a week, which felt like two lifetimes, she was here, awake in bed, next to her previously deceased husband, feeling, or hearing in her head, the same thoughts that had drawn her to Camilla’s room.
---You must step outside, Brisby.---
She turned to look at Jonathan.
---Do not wake him.---
Quietly, she moved from underneath the covers and slipped out of the bed. Her husband, gently snoring, did not stir. Next to her side of the bed the Red Stone lay on a nightstand. It glowed slightly as soon as she touched it and filled her with a certainty when she put it on. Her gloves, cape and glasses were next. Then, as silently as she could, she walked across the bedroom to the door, looking back over shoulder one more time. Mrs. Brisby’s eyes went from Jonathan to the Green Stone lying on his nightstand. As if alive and sensing her scrutiny it flared up an angry green, which elicited in her such revulsion she opened the door and almost slammed it behind her, before remembering the need for silence.
Now she stood in the darkened living quarters and did not know how to proceed. She needed to feel or hear, whichever it really was, that guiding voice again, but it remained aggravatingly silent.
Suddenly, a green and pulsing light dissipated the gloom. For a moment Elizabeth felt panic creeping up her spine. Had the thing that she had seen at the Convocation returned for her husband? Or maybe this time it wanted her?
Then she realized what it really was and a deep sigh of relief escaped her.
On the communications monitor at the dining room table the green contact light had come on. Jonathan had instructed her and the children on how to use the sophisticated communications system when he had first acquainted them with their lodgings. When contacted the device would chime a tone and this light would flash, but due to their exhaustion the Brisby family had muted all the ringtones in the apartment for the night. Mrs. Brisby wondered who might be calling at this time of night. In order to keep the light, which was probably flashing in every room now, from waking the children or Jonathan she went to the console and put her hand on the gem.
The hushed voice was still recognizable.
‘Alis?’ Elizabeth replied, ‘is that you?’
‘I need your help. Please, Timothy is… stuck.’
The mouse blinked. Timothy was asleep in his room.
‘Timothy and Cynthia went to bed hours…’
‘I need your help.’ The voice interrupted. ‘Timothy is stuck and I cannot get him unstuck.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Before resuming the conversation Mrs. Brisby went to her children’s room, opening the door cautiously. Her breath caught in her throat. The beds were ruffled and definitely empty.
She rushed to the monitor station in the bedroom and touched the connect jewel.
‘Alis,’ she fought to keep her voice low, ‘where are my children?’
‘They are with me. Cynthia is fine, but your son is…’ there was a hesitation, as if the cybernetic entity was desperately checking for the most appropriate term, ‘…stuck.’
Suddenly, her daughter’s panicked voice chimed in.
‘Mom! You have to come down here. We can’t get Timmy out!’
‘Honey, what do you mean?’
‘Please,’ Cynthia’s voice implored, ‘he’s stuck inside… I can’t describe it. You have to come!’
‘Alis, how can I find you?’
‘I will direct you. Leave the apartment and follow the glowing panels on your way. Please hurry. I am… concerned.’
Coming from a machine, that statement only added to Elizabeth’s own panic.
As soon as Alis had stopped talking a bright green arrow on the bedroom monitor appeared, pointing to the door. Apparently the electronic entity was not going to take any chances for her to get lost on the way. Mrs. Brisby left her children’s room and found another arrow alight in the living room terminal, pointing to the apartment’s exit. She left her lodgings, still careful not to wake her husband, despite her desperation to reach her children. Once outside she hurried along the walkway, from monitor to monitor.
Oddly enough, the arrows did not lead her to the central column but to a small maintenance door almost hidden inside a nook. Behind it was a cramped, metal-lined stairway that was only fit for mice or other small rodents. Even Elizabeth found it claustrophobic and wondered what purpose it might serve. After a few flights of stairs it led to another door, this one a small, uninviting metal elevator, again so small that only a few mouse-sized occupants would be able to cram inside. As she approached the door slid back automatically, the monitor on the elevator’s back wall showing an arrow pointing straight down.
Mrs. Brisby barely had time to step inside when the doors closed behind her and the cabin descended in almost free fall. The plunge was so sudden that when she tried to scream the air caught in her throat and she barely managed to hold on to the single metal bar that ran along the cabin. There were no windows, but from the erratic motions and sudden changes in direction it felt as if the elevator not only moved downwards, but somehow managed to dart sideways from time to time. Every change was so sudden that Elizabeth was thrown from one side of the cabin to the other. She tried to yell at to Alis to slow down, but whenever she had sufficiently caught her breath another jolt would throw her against a wall again. Finally, with a stop so abrupt it hurled her to the metal floor of the cabin, the ride stopped.
She was gasping for air, still lying face-down when the doors opened in front of her and allowed her a view of strangest thing she had ever seen. And it terrified her so thoroughly she jumped up and scuttled back against the far wall of the elevator cabin.
In a cylindrical chamber so vast she could not see the far end stood a cyclopean sphere made from millions of moving metals parts. Gyrating in patterns so complex it hurt the eyes the monstrous construct was festooned with numberless green gems, blinking on and off to peculiar rhythms. Everything in this gigantic place was made of metal and the only illumination came from the green glow of the stones throughout the edifice, like evil stars blinking in a cosmos of steel. And the size was so incredible, even after everything she had seen before, that her body refused to move.
The surface of the titanic metal sphere kept undulating and changing, a mass of metal so large it defied comprehension, the more so as it made almost no discernible noise.
‘Mrs. Brisby,’ Alis’s voice came from the monitor station in the elevator.
‘Mrs. Brisby, can you hear me?’
‘Please, follow the path in front of you to my central processor. I am worried that we are running out of time.’
After a few more deep breaths the mouse scrambled to her feet and cautiously stepped beyond the bounds of the elevator cabin. For the first time she noticed the smooth pathway of metal plates of all shapes and sizes that traversed above the floor of the chamber, which was composed of countless pipes and tubes reaching towards the central sphere. As she began walking and gained certainty that it was safe, she dared to look far enough ahead to realize that a tiny portion of the moving structure, just where the walkway reached it, was stationary. When she got closer she recognized her mistake. The stationary part was not small at all, about as tall as a human being actually, but the total size of the construct distorted any normal sense of perspective.
The metal path reached a towering, but stable archway into the inner confines of the sphere. Mrs. Brisby hurried as fast as she dared, trying not to look at the continuously morphing outer surface of the structure she was about to enter. Mercifully, the interior walls of the cavernous globe were inert. The chamber was lighted green by the uncountable number of glowing jewels sequestered throughout it, much more than on the outside. Despite the stationary nature of the walls, the place was not devoid of motion. Metal struts, robotic arms, conveyor systems and other technological implements were busy performing arcane tasks as the mouse passed by them, still following the path inwards.
Then Elizabeth reached the core. The featureless metal sphere suspended by its metal lifelines made a creepy centerpiece as its unblemished surface reflected the ambient glows without contributing anything. It did not move nor glow, a static icon in an illuminant chamber of technological motion.
The mouse was relieved that the path was leading her well past the ghostly orb, closer to one of the chamber’s far walls. But when she saw what awaited her there, she broke out in a run.
Mrs. Brisby had seen a construct like this before, just half a day ago. Four circular struts, inlayed with glowing gems, and a prone figure in a strange suit, suspended in mid-air, it was the mirror image of the platforms she had seen in the laboratory, the mechanisms that allowed one to enliven remote human bodies. But the shape within, mouse-sized, did not move. It was floating with the enclosing helmet facing upwards, arms and legs extended yet limp. Next to the construct stood two figures, Cynthia, pacing nervously and wringing her hands, and something that looked like a mechanical mouse.
When her daughter saw her rushing up she met her halfway, embracing her with tears in her eyes.
‘We can’t get him out!’
Elizabeth hugged her tightly, trying to ease her trembling. At the same time she could not take her eyes off the prone, suspended shape inside the structure. Despite the full-body suit and helmet she knew she had found her son.
‘Honey, what happened?’
Cynthia struggled to regain her composure, but before she could speak the mouse robot had walked up behind them and answered via the embedded speaker.
‘I am responsible. I warned him not to access the function, but he would not listen.’
Mrs. Brisby’s voice was colder than she would have believed possible as she continued to hold her daughter and stared at the machine rodent.
‘What happened? In detail.’
Cynthia, feeling her mother’s uncharacteristic rage, withdrew and gesticulated with one hand while wiping her eyes with the other.
‘Timmy wanted to talk to Alis. He said she would be the only one in this place not effected by… whatever it was that happened today, and that she could not lie to him.’
‘That is correct,’ the robot entity remarked with an eerily lifelike nod of the metal cranium.
Elizabeth pointed to the prone shape of her son and had to restrain herself from yelling.
‘And what about that? How did that happen?’
Apparently not recognizing the mouse’s anger Alis’ machine proxy answered.
‘I answered his questions about what he had observed at the Convocation.’
‘She never thought it was odd, mom,’ Cynthia interjected hastily, ‘this is the way the meetings have always gone.’
‘You did not think that it was odd?’ Mrs. Brisby’s questions had barbs in it, but again Alis did not seem to realize it. The robot mouse shook its head again.
‘I asked Jonathan about it after the first meeting. He said it was nothing to worry about. I accessed files on group trances and ceremonies and found comparisons.’
‘And you believed him?’
Elizabeth stared at the metal rodent in disbelief, switching between anger and pity.
‘How,’ she closed her eyes as she spoke to remain composed, ‘did Timothy wind up like this?’
Alis replied without hesitation.
‘Timothy was curious about how I thought. He wanted to learn more about my mind. I suggested this means to access my functions from within.’
‘It was all fine,’ Cynthia sniffed, ‘I could hear him through a speaker Alis set up. But then he… I don’t know… started poking around inside the computer at different things, trying to figure them out.’
‘He was curious about the Resurrection Function.’
Mrs. Brisby blinked.
‘It is the technology created by the humans to retrieve old memory and thought patterns into new bodies.’
She looked at the android in confusion.
‘The way they brought Dad back, Mom.’
Her eyes widened as Cynthia’s statement became clear.
‘You mean a way to bring the dead back…’
Her daughter nodded vigorously.
‘The memory patterns of deceased individuals have to be retrieved from a different dimensional plane, a higher energy pattern.’
As neither mother nor daughter comprehended Alis went on in her exposition.
‘The Resurrection Function allows access to the higher energy fields and, with the right energy pattern imprint, can retrieve any old memory pattern that the user has a prior imprint of.’
‘The Stones,’ Cynthia spoke up, ‘they kind of hold an image of a person’s memories, maybe even the soul, like a picture of it.’
Once more the mechanical mouse nodded.
‘Without a prior imprint it is impossible to draw a specific memory pattern from the higher energy state. Timothy wondered what would happen if a user managed to access the Resurrection Function in the other direction, going into the higher energy state rather than drawing a pattern out.’
Mrs. Brisby drew closer to her daughter as the impact of what the cybernetic being had just said sank in. She felt a lump in her throat.
‘He wanted to go the other way? He wanted to go where the humans and Jonathan pulled back souls?’
‘That is an adequate analogy, Mrs. Brisby. I told your son that this had never been attempted before and that I was not able to access the function myself. It would require someone to monitor the user if such an attempt was to be made. Without someone to pull the user back from the higher energy state there would be no guarantee for a return,’ Alis expounded.
‘But with someone monitoring?’ Her maternal outrage was being subsumed by terror. But she needed to get as much information as she could to save her son. If that was possible
The robot motioned a metallic arm to the assembly in which Timothy floated.
‘A living brain may function as a memory pattern imprint the same way the ECCOs do.’
‘The what?’ Elizabeth blurted.
‘The Exo-Cerebral Cognitive Oscillators.’
‘She means the Stones, Mom.’
‘That is correct,’ Alis agreed. ‘In this manner a monitor should be able to retrieve a user attempting to access the higher energy state at any point in time.’
‘Then what happened?’ Elizabeth snapped.
For the first time, the mouse-shaped machine hesitated, head and neck craning in an approximation of embarrassment.
‘I am… uncertain. I will replay Timothy’s comments before he entered the higher energy state.’
Suddenly, her son’s voice issued from the robot.
‘This is weird. There is someone calling from inside the door.’
‘That is not possible, Timothy.’ Alis replied. ‘Access is one-way and requires an ECCO imprint.’
‘I’m telling you, there’s someone calling. I’m checking it out.’
‘I don’t think that is a good …’
‘Whooooooah!’ Timothy yelled and then the recording stopped.
‘Alis, what door?’ Mrs. Brisby asked.
‘A visual representation of the Resurrection Function, for easier access by the user.’
‘What can we do?’
Now it was Cynthia who looked embarrassed.
‘I can feel him, or hear him in my head.’
‘What?’ Her mother was confused.
‘It’s not as if he was here,’ Cynthia attempted to explain, ‘His body is empty, sort of, but I can hear him calling out from somewhere.’
The younger mouse pressed her clenched fists to her temples.
‘I don’t know; everywhere. But he calls for you. I tried to talk to him, but he just says I can’t help. It has to be you, Mom.’
Elizabeth folded her hands in front of her mouth, trying to collect her thoughts. Then she turned to the mouse android.
‘Do you have any ideas?’
In reply the empty space behind the mechanical rodent became active. Robotic manipulators moved into place, quickly constructing a second platform reminiscent of those in Julia’s laboratory. A metal panel slid away from within one of the chamber walls, extending a ramp. On it rested a mouse-sized suit and helmet of the same kind Elizabeth had seen Justin wear and that was still encasing her unmoving son. She understood. She needed to go after Timothy.
Cynthia took her mother’s clothes and glasses while the mechanical mouse helped her don the full-body suit. The robot was remarkable adept and gentle and for a moment Elizabeth forgot that she was not dealing with an actual person. Then Alis’ avatar handed her the helmet.
Mrs. Brisby rolled the cumbersome device around in her hands, not relishing the idea of having her cranium enclosed in it. But a look at her motionless son removed any last qualms. Holding the helmet in both hands, her daughter and the cybernetic mouse behind her, she slowly stepped in between the circular struts. As soon as she entered the small gems lining the inside of the structure began pulsing in a red light, reminiscent of the Stone she had worn for so long. The same feeling of protection and strength she experienced when Nicodemus’ gift was active came flooding into her again, even though the Stone rested in Cynthia’s arms with the rest of her attire.
Taking a deep breath she depressed the area on the helmet that she had seen Justin and Jonathan touch to allow the enclosing device to open up. On command the helmet’s lower sections unfolded like flower petals and, gradually, she raised it over her head with both hands. It took her a moment of reminding herself that she was doing this for Timothy before she had the courage to finally lower the helmet over her face. As soon as her hair touched the inside the lower portions folded back inwards again, sealing softly around her throat and enclosing her in complete darkness.
The light hit her without warning. There was no transition.
All of a sudden, she could see; not through a monitor in the helmet as she had expected, but with her normal eyes.
She had to blink a few times to make sure that she was not just imagining this. Her hands looked normal, although she realized that she was not wearing any clothes, not even the suit she had donned before stepping into the strange structure of gem-studded pylons.
Then she realized that she was no longer in the same place she had been just moments before. The vast chamber with the green glow, her daughter and Alis’ fake body were all gone. She stood on a floor of dull metal that barely reflected a monotonous grey light. To her left was a smooth wall of the same material, rising up to enormous height while to her front and right the floor fell away into nothingness. Mrs. Brisby turned around and saw a corridor cut into a wall similar to the one on her right, although it did not rise quite as high. The passage cut into the metal wide enough to let two mice walk easily side by side, but rather than having a roof it simply led straight up, bisecting the wall all the way to the very top.
Everything was the same uniform grey. Elizabeth’s body was the only source of color she could see in this bizarre place. Now that she was here, wherever here was, she did not know where she had to go. She stepped forward and noticed that the wall to her right ended before the floor and as she passed it, she saw the same wall running perpendicular into the distance with a small section of floor lining it. Mrs. Brisby looked over the edge.
Where the floor ended another dull metal surface fell down deeply and then, an immense distance below her, cut off in a straight line. This whole place was made up of rectangular sections. It did not feel cold or warm beneath her feet, a neutral temperature, as unnatural a concept as that might be. As she continued to look down she failed to see any other structure beneath the wall’s cutoff, just a hazy grey-in-grey glow. Elizabeth lifted her gaze up and stared straight ahead towards what should have been a horizon. The empty space beyond the floor had the same uniform greyness than the abyss below. It was a disconcerting feeling and she felt as if her sense of direction was deserting her.
Then, she spotted something far in the distance. Mrs. Brisby narrowed her eyes and wished she had her glasses as she strained to make out the faraway object. As soon as the thought entered her mind she felt a familiar weight on the bridge of her nose and her sight cleared. Her glasses had simply popped into existence. But before the mouse could marvel at the phenomena the now clear view in front of her took her breath away. There, an incredible distance away, was an object constructed of an irregular arrangement of perfectly rectangular metal parts, suspended in mid-air. It was so far away that she did not dare to guess at its size, but by all indications, it had to be enormous. A look at the metal floor beneath her gave rise to the suspicion that the distant object might be of the same composition. Then, as she let her gaze roam all around she managed to spot yet another object, this one to the left, even farther distant, but of the same make-up. Turning her head the other way Elizabeth was sure that there was a third suspended object to the left of the very first one as well.
Then the light flashed.
Just for a moment, a blinding ray of white light connected the two left-most of the floating structures, like an electric discharge between them.
Suddenly, the same discharge occurred between the object facing her and the wall dropping away beneath her feet. A boom and sparkle that was powerful as it was sudden rocked the floor and the mouse fell to her knees, desperate not to fall over the precipice. The shudders continued and Mrs. Brisby fell to the floor on her back, gazing straight up.
There, right above her, at exactly the same distance as the first, was yet another rectangular composite, and further away another, and another, and yet another. As a discharge between her location, this time from the top of the wall that rose beyond her footing, and the construct above shook her body again, she realized that in this crazy realm these metal objects were everywhere, spaced in a wide perfectly rectangular grid.
A discharge erupted between the object above her and the one to its right.
Elizabeth dared to stand up again and looked once more at the open vista beyond the floor. The more she looked the more certain she felt that the number of these suspended constructs went on forever. She could see discharges occurring all around, but the vast distances between the structures made them difficult to spot.
She twirled around in surprise.
There, in front of the elongated corridor stood the robot shape Alis had assumed earlier.
‘Where am I?’
The mechanical raised her piston arms gesturing all around.
‘You are inside my central processor, my physical mind.’
Mrs. Brisby walked closer to the wall and touched it with her palm. It was the same neutral temperature.
‘It feels real, but strange.’
‘It is an image, a symbol that your mind and body can understand,’ the mouse android explained.
The brown mouse pointed at her glasses.
‘Where did they come from?’
‘Your shape depends on your expectations. You wanted to see clearly. Your mind assumed it would need your glasses to do so, so your glasses appeared.’
Elizabeth looked at her bare hands, where the old burn scares from the Stone showed.
‘So, if I wanted my clothes…’
Before she could complete the sentences her cloak, gloves, and even the Stone materialized on her. She poked the material of her cape experimentally. At least it felt as it always had. Then, the mouse looked at the robot.
‘What about you?’
The machine cocked its head.
‘What about me?’
‘I mean, why do you have this shape here, inside your own mind?’
‘What other shape should I have? It is the first and only one I have made so far.’
A thoughtful look crossed the mouse’s features.
‘So you could look differently in here?’
The robot let its photo-receptors run over her body and mused.
‘This shape worked for Timothy. But if you prefer something different…’
All of a sudden Mrs. Brisby faced her very own self where the machine had stood seconds before.
‘No, that won’t work. It’s like talking to a mirror.’
Then, she looked at her sweet daughter.
‘No, you are NOT Cynthia!’
The robot returned and gave an all-too natural shrug.
‘What shape should I take? I assume you prefer talking to a mouse.’
‘Can’t you make a shape that is, you know, your very own.’
With the electronic eyes gazing far away the audio speakers took on a musing tone.
‘A shape of my own…’
The robot disappeared again to be replaced by a random mouse body. The shape flickered, became taller, shorter, thinner, older, younger, wider, different colors. Elizabeth closed her eyes at the disturbing display, fighting down the urge to vomit with revulsion. She wondered if she could actually throw up in this strange place.
‘I am finished. I have my own shape.’
Mrs. Brisby cautiously opened her eyes. Before her stood a young, female mouse, of about the same age as Timothy. Her fur was a steely grey, darker than her husbands or any of her children. She stood just about her own height and had a somewhat lighter colored face and abdomen. Her eyes were the most brilliant green she had ever seen. Alis’ new avatar was busy looking herself over, flexing fingers and stepping in place as she tested this virtual incarnation. Then she turned to look at the guest inside her mind with an excited smile.
‘Thank you for suggesting this. I should have tried this a long time ago.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Elizabeth offered, ‘I guess.’
‘I need clothes though.’
Before the computer-being could induce another bout of nausea in her Mrs. Brisby shut her eyes again.
‘Done. How do I look?’
The question was phrased with such earnest intent and shyness that when her eyes opened she felt certain that what she was looking at now was a true person.
Alis had decided on an indigo-colored single-suit, with a short skirt but long narrow sleeves at the top. It was an unusual garment, lined with gold trim and a small emerald jeweled button in the front, but it worked.
‘Lovely,’ Mrs. Brisby said with a smile, ‘If you were real, every bachelor mouse in Thorn Valley would ask for your hand.’
In an all-too-real display of delight Alis clapped her hands together.
‘Thank you so much!’
‘Now,’ the brown mouse turned serious, ‘where is my son?’
Alis nodded, her features turning somber, and she waved the older female to follow her along the corridor.
It was quite disconcerting to walk between the two sheer walls that made up the corridor despite the amount of space actually available. The height was just too intimidating.
Elizabeth was grateful that their path was straight all the way to the end. Otherwise she would have felt trapped inside an impossible maze and with all her other concerns she did not need another worry. At the end of the corridor the wall rose up all way as it did with the passage’s sides. Set within that same dull metal was a door.
Of all the kinds of doors Mrs. Brisby would have imagined in this artificial world the one facing here now would not have entered her mind. It looked like an ordinary wooden door, the kind you could have easily found anywhere in the Thorn Valley colony. There were a few ornamental carvings, but nothing ostentatious. As a matter of fact, it looked rather worn and in need of furniture polish. The door handle was brass that was acquiring a green layer of patina. She turned to Alis.
‘This is it?’
The synthetic grey mouse nodded gravely.
‘I think everyone sees a different kind of door, but I am not sure. Timothy is on the other side.’
‘How do we get him out?’
Alis shook her head.
‘I cannot touch the door. I make the door. If I touch it then I can no longer make it. Someone else needs to open it and call him back. But when Cynthia tried it, it was locked and a voice came through saying we needed to call you.’
That did not make much sense to Elizabeth, but she was aware of her ignorance in matters involving complex machines like computers. She stepped towards the doorframe and put a hand on the handle.
‘Just open it and call for him?’
‘You are his mother. It should serve as a template to call him out.’
Mrs. Brisby looked the door up and down, took a deep breath, pressed the handle, and swung the door open.
There was nothing behind the door, just a flat, completely black surface that absorbed all light without any reflection.
‘Hello?’ She called out ‘Timothy, are you in there?’
There were no sounds coming from the blackness.
Then, unexpectedly, Timothy appeared, grinning from ear to ear, embracing his mother.
‘I knew you’d come!’
‘Timmy! I was so worried. You scared us sick.’
Timothy looked excited and healthy as he took a step back from his mother.
‘I am okay. But I needed to get you in here. They need to talk to you real bad and I…’
He stopped as he saw Alis’ new avatar.
‘Alis? Is that you?’
Looking obviously relieved the simulated mouse folded her arms behind her back coyly and even managed to blush.
‘Do you like it?’
‘I, eh, like, eh…’
His head snapped around at his mother’s stern tone of voice.
‘You scared all of us half to death. This door was locked with you inside until just now. What is going on here, young man?’
Rubbing his neck with an embarrassed expression Timothy tried to explain.
‘I wasn’t really trapped. We kept the door looked because they said it would be the fastest way to get you here. They really need to talk to you.’
Mrs. Brisby raised her hands in exasperation.
He put up his arms defensively.
‘I promised not to tell. They wanted it to be a surprise. Really, Mom, it’s safe. They’ve been waiting for you.’
---Time is short, Brisby.---
Elizabeth looked around startled. She recognized the sensation of a thought in her mind, but was astounded it was happening here, inside a machine. She turned her head to face the impenetrable darkness within the open door, sure that the source of these thoughts was to be found in there.
---You need to enter.---
She gave her son another scolding look and raised a finger in warning.
‘I will do it. But if I do not come back, you get your father.’
Now Timothy really looked uncomfortable.
‘I don’t think that would be a good idea, Mom.’
Mrs. Brisby did not answer. She turned and walked up to the doorway, trying to peer into the lightless barrier. Then she stepped forward and disappeared.
She stood in a comfortable reading room of what humans would consider Victorian design. The walls were wood-paneled, shelves filled with books and various pieces of art. Mrs. Brisby turned around and saw a huge wooden door behind her, ornately carved with gilded door knobs. In front of her she saw the backs of two immense armchairs facing a lighted fireplace, a small table with two tea cups, kettle, and serving utensils. The sides of the stately sitting room featured two tall windows covered in burgundy drapes with gold trim.
The head of a grey male rat, of early middle age, with dark brows and matching mustache and small goatee, peeked around the rim of the chair on the right side and waved a long-clawed hand invitingly.
‘There you are, my dear. We have been waiting for you. Please, take a seat and have some tea with us.’
Something was familiar about the rat, although Elizabeth could not remember ever having seen him before. As she slowly stepped around the two armchairs, she noted a third one, empty and backed next to the fireplace, with another small table, on which rested yet another cup of tea. All of a sudden she could smell the tea’s wonderful aroma even at a distance. When she rounded to the other side of the first two chairs she finally got a good look of her hosts.
The male rat that had asked her to join them was of average height, slender, and wore elaborate robes in dark blue with immense sleeves. The clothes even more than the rat himself remembered her of someone, her first thought going to Justin’s elaborate Council robes, which looked remarkably similar. The second chair was occupied by a beautiful rat lady of similar age, long beige hair falling around her shoulders over a slightly darker, tan-colored body fur. Her hands were graceful and long-clawed as well. She wore a full-length burgundy dress with sleeves that were only slightly less cumbersome than her male counterpart’s. She smiled warmly at Elizabeth, gesturing to the free chair.
‘Please, have a seat, my dear. It is so good to see you again.’
Mrs. Brisby edged herself into the large seat, which was surprisingly comfortable, and, automatically, took the teacup in her right hand, her eyes never leaving the two strange rats.
‘Do I know you?’
The male rat lovingly put a hand on the female’s as he leaned towards her.
‘She does not recognize us like this, my love.’
Something about that gesture drew the mouse’s gaze to the two hands, one gently cupping the other. Suddenly, she blinked. The hands looked ancient, gnarled and with blemishes, the nails almost as long as the fingers.
Taken aback her gaze went to the faces.
Then she recognized them.
Where moments before two vibrant rats had sat the chairs where now occupied by two truly ancient rodents, both of which she knew.
Old Nicodemus nodded slowly, his eyes glowing brightly in his withered face. Camilla, her eyes illuminant as well and no less aged, smiled at her.
‘Try the tea. It is quite good.’
Elizabeth looked at the cup in her hands and then back at the rats. They were young again.
‘Nicodemus… but, you’re…’
‘Dead, I know,’ the rejuvenated male nodded encouragingly.
Then the mouse looked at the young Camilla and realized what must have happened.
‘Camilla… I’m sorry…’
The female rat laughed and clapped her hands, a sound so joyous it dispelled all grief.
‘My dear, it was my time. Once I told you what was needed I was finally able to let go.’
Her hand touched Nicodemus’ once more as she smiled at him.
‘We have been apart too long.’
So intent on looking at the two lovers Mrs. Brisby did not even notice herself taking a sip from the tea and being surprised by the amazing flavor. That brought her back and she coughed to gain her hosts’ attention.
‘Nicodemus, Camilla, where are we?’
‘Oh this?’ Nicodemus waved a hand expansively.
‘Just a place we made that your mind can understand.’
Elizabeth gave the rats a somewhat sideways glance, as if wondering whether they were slighting her. Camilla picked up on it immediately and chuckled, the youthful sound so at odds with the memories of the dying rat the mouse remembered so well.
‘Death changes things. Space and time are not the same. In order for us to talk with you we had to create a space and time for you to do it in.’
‘Oh,’ Mrs. Brisby replied and looked down at her tea.
‘So none of this is real?’
Now it was Nicodemus’ turn for bemusement.
‘It is quite real, my dear, as real as the mechanical mind you had to enter to get here, more so even.’
‘But why? Why go through all this trouble to bring me here?’
The demeanor of the rats lost its joviality as Nicodemus’ voice turned grave.
‘Because only this way could we tell you the things you need to know to be able to do the things you must.’
Elizabeth put the teacup back on the table, her throat going dry at the ominous note in the rat’s explanations.
‘And what is it I need to do?’
The mouse blinked. She had expected something to do with her husband, but saving him had not been amongst the many terrible tasks she had imagined.
‘Save your husband,’ Camilla added, ‘he is in terrible peril.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You have seen what happened to him,’ Nicodemus mused, ‘in your dreams, haven’t you?’
Mrs. Brisby put a hand to her mouth to keep her lips from trembling and nodded.
‘I dreamt… something.’
‘When the humans tried to draw Jonathan’s soul back, they had not yet perfected their methods. They were so intent, so greedy for success and control, that they drew something back along with your husband.’ The male rat expounded.
‘I saw it. What was it?’
Camilla waved a hand through the air.
‘Every idea or concept anyone has ever had or felt exists outside all space and time as well. Each of them is a pure representation, the purest possible, of that same idea. Do you understand?’
‘No,’ the mouse shook her head, ‘I don’t.’
‘Love, hate, justice, peace, all of these are things that we can feel or think about,’ Nicodemus elaborated, ‘But each of these ideas or feelings exists separate from all reality as well, a singular driving force, without mind or soul, just the idea.’
Camilla took a turn.
‘When the humans conducted their experiment they were driven by a need for control, predictability, power, and order. So when they attempted to call Jonathan back, their needs echoed through reality. And somewhere beyond space and time they called forth the primal idea, the truest form of the very same thing that was driving them.’
‘Order and control.’
Nicodemus let the two terms hang in the air.
‘But, I saw something in my dream that was like a monster, with more arms than I could ever count, dozens of eyes, and…’
Camilla gestured for the mouse to be calm.
‘What your dream showed you was an image, a symbol of the idea of order and control, as it was pulled into our reality.’
‘Jonathan tried to stop it, stand in its way.’
Both rats nodded sadly as Nicodemus took up the thread.
‘Yes, but it swept him away. And now it uses him as an anchor.’
‘My dear,’ Camilla sighed, ‘an idea has no mind, no thoughts, no soul. In order for it to exist in our reality it needs minds to think it, to feel it.’
‘But not anymore,’ Nicodemus stated, ‘now this raw idea has trapped a mind, a body, and a soul that it can use to act in your world directly. It must be stopped.’
Elizabeth leaned forward.
‘Is it that dangerous?’
Camilla looked the mouse in the eyes.
‘Can you imagine an idea running rampant? A single concept with the power to influence living things without the restraints that a thinking mind would put on it? Imagine what would happen if even such a positive concept such as love was to rule all reality.’
‘I still don’t understand. Love guiding the world would be wonderful, right?’
Both rats looked at each other, and then back at their guest.
‘Love taken to its extreme would be total sacrifice of all self for others,’ Nicodemus mused.
‘There would be no more “I” or “You”. Everyone would lose themselves in others in total devotion until they would all disappear.’
‘It would be the death of all souls,’ Camilla assured her.
‘And the idea that is loose in the world now is much more dangerous than love. If it is not stopped, the world as we know it will no longer exist.’
‘What will happen?’
Rather than answering her, the two rats pointed to one of the large windows. The drapes of the window in question had begun to billow, an awful grey-green light behind them.
Mrs. Brisby became frightened. Whatever waited behind the curtains felt bad; very bad indeed. Sensing her trepidation Nicodemus attempted to soothe her fears.
‘You must see what could be. It cannot hurt you, unless you allow it to come to pass.’
That did not alleviate her concerns one bit, but she slowly slid off her chair and stepped towards the large window anyway. Once she had reached the curtain’s heavy fabric, she grabbed a hold of both parts with her hands, took a deep breath, and pulled them open.
She was flying over the world.
She had no body. She could see, smell, hear, and feel. Her reality had been reduced to a pure sense of awareness with which she now observed the world around her.
It felt different, empty somehow. She could see the trees and rivers, mountains and lakes, yet somehow they appeared lessened in some intangible way. Life had always given her the impression of having its own secret color, some deep vibrancy that was added to what her physical senses could perceive. Now, in this world she was traversing that vibrancy had disappeared. The physical colors were still there, but they gave the impression of having been dulled into lifelessness. It did not make any sense. She could see animals moving around, so there was life here. On the other hand, there was something odd, almost mechanical about how the animals she could see moved.
Her awareness continued onwards.
She saw the city of Baltimore, from a vantage point that one of her crow friends might have been able to enjoy. And here she noted the first tangible difference to the reality she had left only so recently.
The streets were almost empty. Where she and her friends had encountered congested human traffic only a few sparse vehicles could be seen now. As she focused she also realized that many of the buildings looked abandoned and dilapidated, as if the human population of this city had suffered a catastrophic decline. When she finally saw a group of humans walking on a sidewalk near the center of Baltimore, where immense skyscrapers towered listless and empty towards the heavens, she managed to let her senses drift closer to them. The humans, four females and three males, walked in a perfect single file, heads held straight forwards, not talking, like so many flesh-clad robots. They all wore grey single-suits that only varied in their size. Apart from their different facial features and genders they might as well have been identical. But the worse was the subdued sheen of green light she detected in their eyes, reminiscent of what she had experienced during the Convocation.
In disgust she pulled her senses away from the humans as they followed their path. Mrs. Brisby did not want to see any more of the city. She wanted to go home.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind and her awareness sped up through the sky, racing at phenomenal speed towards Thorn Valley. There, she saw the river and the valley it had carved over the eons. She let her senses be drawn to the Great Oak, sure to see some familiar faces there. The Oak stood empty and dead. The ancient tree had shed all its leaves and its formerly majestic limbs were beginning to rot away from the inside. The Thorn Valley Colony was no more.
The disembodied mouse felt panic. What had happened? Did the future portent all of their deaths? Had the genetic time-bomb been allowed to run its course and kill them all after all? No, there had to be a different explanation. Someone had to be alive. She just had to find them.
Again, the mere thought was enough to propel her awareness down the valley, closer to the meadows nestled along the riverside. There, she spotted a group of mice. In an instant she was amongst them, an invisible observer in their midst. It was her children, all of them. Elizabeth’s soul rejoiced in the fact that they were alive, despite what she had seen at the Oak. But even here, something was dreadfully wrong. She saw none of her children wear clothes. None of them were talking, apparently busy with collecting seeds that had fallen from the tall, ripe grasses. Their eyes shone in the same listless dead green she had observed in the humans. Even Teresa’s children, the usually irrepressible pack of joyful troublemakers, were quiet and simply gathered food and ate it without comment or smile. It was one of the chilliest sights she had ever encountered, until she allowed her sight to turn full circle.
She saw herself. Elizabeth Brisby, stood there, unclothed, aged, stiffly bending down to gather food. Her muzzle had greyed and her body had hunched. Apart from the scars on her hands there was no trace that she had ever been anything else but a wild animal. Then, as if listening to an unheard call, the aged mouse stood as straight as her back would allow, looking forward.
The disembodied observer felt drawn to shift her attention upwards. In the distant sky she saw the shape of a hawk approaching. Its path was strange. Clearly, the predator was hunting, but instead of the normal circular motions of trying to spot prey it headed straight for the meadow and the mouse family. She wanted to yell, scream at her oblivious children of the danger approaching. Then Elizabeth watched with horror as her own older self, slowly, stoically, left the rest of the group behind and climbed painfully onto a rock.
She never looked up, never turned to her family, all of whom were still engaged in their robotic foraging, when the hawk swooped down and grabbed her. Neither predator nor prey made a sound, no screeches of triumph at a successful hunt, no wails of pain as talons dug deep into flesh. The old mouse had followed some unheard command and willingly sacrificed herself to the claws of the haw. The predator, in turn, had probably received its own instructions, which it mindlessly obeyed. It had known exactly where its meal was to be found. And the rest of the family had not moved a muscle, not even turned their heads. They were mindless automatons, flesh without soul.
Shocked beyond comprehension the true Mrs. Brisby, observing it all and unable to intervene, had to draw her awareness away from this abomination. To see her children and grandchildren mindlessly continue their tasks, not even noticing what had occurred, or maybe not caring, was too much to bear. She let herself soar through the air at random, wanting the rush of air and the winds drown out the screams in her heart.
Then, she realized she was racing to the very structure where her physical body was even now encased in arcane machinery. There, growing second by second, were the towering buildings of Lazarus Laboratories. Elizabeth’s awareness did not slow. Her mind’s eye hurtled towards the main tower, which pulsed in the same queer green light that suffused everything in this soulless world. She passed through the outer walls, saw herself propelled through the outer human rooms and then along one of the four intersecting atria. Ever forward she raced until she entered the Convocation stadium.
There she stopped dead.
The structure was deserted, layers of dust coating every surface. But at the center stage platform, where she had witnessed her husband enthrall the population of this place, stood an abominable machine.
A conical metal case bolted to the ground held the limp shape of a male mouse bound from the waist upwards, green gems and readouts blinking in tune to the prisoner’s vital signs. The outstretched cruciform arms were encased in metal as well, held in place from the elbow outwards by metal columns that incredibly extended all the way to the distant walls of the chamber. The mouse’s head was slumped to its chest, a metal cap covering the scalp, connected by tubes and hoses to a final metal column suspended above the rodent, which reached beyond even Mrs. Brisby’s awareness. What little flesh and fur was exposed was riddled by catheters and tubes running into the supporting machinery. The insignificant shape of the mouse was nothing more than a fleshy conduit in this infernal device.
She let her focus move I closer to the mouse, until its identity was beyond question. It was Jonathan.
As soon as the realization hit her the encased mouse’s head raised itself and stared at her. Drawn beyond recognition, eyes like pools of poison luminance, the face that had once belonged to Jonathan Brisby stared at her in a grin of such vileness it threatened to shatter her sanity. She was invisible in this place, this future, but she felt that this horror that wore the flesh of her husband could see her nonetheless. Then the horse throat of the mouse screeched.
Elizabeth fell backwards, away from the flapping curtains in the virtual sitting room. Camilla and Nicodemus stood behind her and caught her.
‘It’s alright, my dear,’ Nicodemus said and his wife added.
Even though she knew that nothing in this realm was truly physical Mrs. Brisby was gasping for air.
‘What… what was THAT?’
Putting calming hands to her shoulders and slowly walking her to the door through which she had entered earlier her dead friends attempted to assure her.
‘Something that may come to pass,’ Camilla noted.
‘Unless you can stop it,’ her husband agreed.
She turned her head upwards, resisting their attempts to move her to the door.
‘How? How can I stop this?’
That actually elicited smiles from the rats.
‘You will know when the time comes, my dear. Hurry now! You do not have much time.’
Nicodemus’ words did not make her feel any better.
‘Talk to your new friend,’ suggested Camilla.
‘Who is that?’
‘The machine that wants to grow a soul.’
‘Ask her about the things she is not supposed to know.’
Before any reply could have been given the trio had reached the door and Elizabeth felt her foot touch the wood.
Everything went dark.
Mrs. Brisby fell to her knees, her head still encased in the helmet.
Before she managed to regain her footing someone engaged the opening sequence and her head-gear unfolded to release her. Timothy removed the helmet and Cynthia helped her get back to her feet, still wearing the conduit uniform.
‘Are you okay, Mom?’
Cynthia looked awfully worried.
Elizabeth bent over and coughed a bit, then drew a few deep breaths and nodded.
‘Here,’ her son said as he approached her carrying her clothes, ‘let’s get you out of this.’
Still not able to find her voice his mother shook her head violently and waved him off.
Panting she looked around the enormous chamber until she spotted the mouse-shaped robot avatar.
‘Yes, Mrs. Brisby?’
‘I need your help,’ she stammered.
The android cocked its head.
‘How can I help?’
Elizabeth struggled to remember what the apparitions had said to her.
‘What… what is it that you are not supposed to know?’
If the metal surface of the robotic head could have worn an expression it would have probably mirrored the confusion on the faces of her children.
‘I do not understand.’
‘What is it that you are not supposed to know?’
Timothy registered understanding.
‘I get it!’
He turned to the machine body.
‘Remember when we asked you about you watching everything? You said that you were supposed to keep people’s privacy, right?’
The mechanical mouse nodded.
‘That is correct.’
‘Does that mean you turn the cameras off?’
Alis shook her avatar’s head.
‘No. They still run, but I exclude them from my awareness. They are monitored by other programs for signs of danger and alert me when they register them.’
Cynthia looked from her mother to the mouse construct.
‘Mom, what happened in there?’
She raised a defensive hand to her daughter.
‘Never mind right now, honey. Alis, are there things that you are not supposed to know, or look at? Maybe something Jonathan told you not to be aware of?’
The robot nodded.
‘Your husband has designated a number of his private files as –maximum priority-, which means I am not allowed to access them.’
Mrs. Brisby took one more calming breath and, in a cold voice, commanded.
‘Access them now.’
‘I do not have authorization, Mrs. Brisby.’
‘But we do!’ Cynthia exclaimed in understanding.
Her brother and mother stared at her.
‘Don’t you remember? Dad said we were supposed to have the same access as he does.’
She turned to Alis triumphantly, ‘Isn’t that right?’
Once more the mechanical body nodded agreement.
‘That is correct.’
‘So,’ Timothy took up the train of thought, ‘if we give you permission, you could look at those things?’
Yet another nod.
‘Then do it,’ Elizabeth sighed, ‘Do it now.’
‘What am I supposed to look for?’
The three mice turned to face each other with baffled expressions. This was something they had not considered. After a few moments of though, Mrs. Brisby offered a suggestion.
‘Look for anything that is different from what Jonathan told you before.’
‘Please wait,’ the mechanical voice cautioned, ‘accessing files…’
Nobody spoke as the computer mind did its work. Then, mechanical arms and manipulators began to move new equipment into place and installed a large monitor on the wall facing them.
‘I am deeply concerned,’ Alis admitted.
‘The information I have accessed contradicts the Director’s instructions given to me.’
The robot paused for a moment, as if considering whether to continue. Then the screen light up and showed the computer generated image of a DNA molecule.
‘It appears Jonathan has overseen the production of a new serum for altering nerve pathways and has filled a number of our facility’s water reservoirs with it.’
‘Oh no,’ Cynthia muttered as she looked at the DNA image, ‘this feels really, really bad.’
‘What tanks did he fill?’ Timothy wondered.
‘The reservoirs leading into the facility’s sprinkler systems.’
Elizabeth was confused.
‘Why would he do that?’
‘According to the files,’ Alis continued, ‘the serum is scheduled to be released via the sprinkler system during the final Convocation before the move.’
‘He wants to rain this stuff on everyone?’ Timothy was aghast.
‘Apparently,’ Alis added, ‘this serum does not require injection. Simple exposure will be sufficient.’
‘Sufficient for what?’ Elizabeth clenched her hands together.
‘The data suggests it will slowly undo the changes of the original serum and return every animal back to its wild type state. Like the original treatments, it will infect any organism that comes into contact with someone that has been exposed.’
‘He’s going to turn us all back into dumb animals,’ Cynthia gasped.
‘That is part of the serum’s function.’ The mechanical mind agreed.
‘What do mean, part of it?’ Timothy felt his skin crawl.
A robotic arm pointed to a different portion of the DNA projection, which was then highlighted in red.
‘The files mention that these additional changes made to the serum will, through a mechanism I do not understand, make all affected organisms more easily subjected to an unidentified outside source of influence.’
Cynthia was shivering now, ‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘It means,’ her mother spoke in a hushed voice, ‘that this serum will take away everyone’s free will, everyone’s soul.’
Her children eyed her with dread and consternation. They had not seen what she had seen.
‘Mom,’ Timothy ventured, ‘what do you mean?’
She nodded towards the screen.
‘The world will become like a machine; no free ill; perfect control.’
The children looked at their mother and knew that whatever she had experienced inside the computer, she had been given an insight into what was going to happen. Nobody said a word for what seemed like an eternity. The three mice huddled together for comfort, while the machine rodent stood by, waiting silently for further instructions.
Minutes later Mrs. Brisby raised her head out of the embrace of her children and addressed Alis.
‘Is there anything else we need to know?’
The image on the screen changed and Alis told them the rest.
When the three mice had learned all they needed and left the confines of Alis’ inner workings, the various machines, appendages, even the robotic mouse avatar fell silent. The machine mind was still conversing with the Brisbys as they ventured back into the upper reaches of the facility, yet here, all motion stopped. Even the green gems dimmed.
Minutes passed. Then, slowly, the light returned back to its previous levels. The robot mouse lay back on a metal bench, protruding from the wall. Once reclined the bench retracted into the metal of the wall until the android had vanished from sight.
Then Alis began her new task. For the first time since the artificial mind had reached awareness, it had made its own decision as to what needed to be done. All over the confines of the metal sphere that made up the center of Alis’ being new equipment was being born from the machine walls. Two tubes composed of transparent plastic and metal bases were assembled while countless hoses and ambulatory probes connected them to machinery of obscure design. Once sealed the tubes supplied liquids, which filled both chambers quickly to capacity. Yet more and more mechanical manipulators and monitors were assembling themselves around the tubes. Syringes inserted compounds into receptacles on the cylinders’ sides, balancing nutrients and chemicals.
Alis had to hurry.
Time was running out quickly.