‘He’s not going to make it.’
‘Come on,’ Jonathan jibed playfully, ‘have a little faith, will you?’
During the private dinner, which Justin, Julia, Stella, Brutus, and Jenner had attended together with the Brisby family as a final farewell gesture, Alis had suddenly called in to report an accident with three of the evacuation vehicles as they were being made ready. Jenner had, according to plan, taken the opportunity to remove himself from the meal and see to fixing the problem. The accident, fictitious as it was, turned out to be more serious than anyone expected as the Head of Security had been unable to rejoin them until now and actually called in to request Stella’s aid. Brutus in his infatuation had joined the Sterilizer Sergeant, of course. The insurrection was proceeding according to plan.
The rest of the group had made their way to the auditorium platform after dinner and were now sitting in the same semi-circle of chairs they had occupied during the last Convocation. The stands were almost filled to capacity already, the only difference being that this time there were hundreds of Sterilizer rats stationed along the seats, ostensibly to make sure the transition from the atrium to the escape vehicles went smoothly. That did not explain the fifty Sterilizers in full armor that stood as their own personal ‘honor guard’. Jonathan has said it would add a ceremonial gravitas to this last Convocation. How desperately Elizabeth would have wanted to believe that lie only a day ago.
Mrs. Brisby, gently holding her husband’s hand, was amazed at how calm she felt. She had worried greatly about being unable to project a façade to Jonathan that would hide her true feelings. Somehow, it worked. The same was true for her children and the two rats, she supposed. Neither had given away any hint as to the trepidation they felt. If only they could keep this charade up long enough to do what must be done. And that, Mrs. Brisby admitted to herself, was the most difficult part. What would have to be done to stop this madness was still unclear. She hoped it would go quickly and without hurt to anyone. The dagger hidden under her cape weighed heavily on her despite her calm.
Jonathan held up a small communicator,
‘Oh Jenner, we’re about ready to start here.’
There was static and the sound of heavy machinery audible from the device, which required Jenner to almost yell to be heard.
‘I need to get this fixed. If not we’ll be short five vehicles.’
Jonathan blew out a sigh. Of course, slip-ups had to be expected. And it was somehow fittingly ironic that a simple misjudgment on the part of a crane operator, as Alis had explained, would manage to incapacitate not just three, as initially suspected, but five of their largest transport vehicles. In the end, he really did not care whether the vehicles would run or not. Enough of his people would leave this place to spread his new gift to Thorn Valley and the world anyway. But appearances had to be maintained. And Jenner was amusing in his efforts to atone for his sins. It made him so easily maneuvered. He had wished him to be here, all the pieces of his grand scheme arranged neatly on the playing field. But then, true control was about adapting to changing situations without losing track of the final goal.
‘You think they’ll be operational by the time we’re supposed to leave?’
There were more loud noises and some yells audible before Jenner replied.
‘I think so. Two are fixed, the third is about ready.’
‘We’ll, get down here as soon as you can, including Brutus and your sergeant.’
‘Will do. I got to go.’
Jonathan shut off the device and rolled his eyes.
‘There’s always something, isn’t there?’
Justin, doing a remarkable job at nonchalance, shrugged.
‘Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.’
‘The humans call that ‘Murphy’s Law’.’
Cynthia managed a grin, marveling at how well everyone managed to play their roles. Personally, ever since she had donned her Stone, she had felt her normal attitude of certainty increase tremendously and a strange calm settle over her. As she looked at her mother, apparently all serene as well, she wondered whether the others felt the same way.
Finally, Jonathan stood up and approached the podium.
As soon as he had reached it the massive dais the monitors all around the meeting hall activated together with the lighting system, displaying his image and voice to even the most distant parts of the auditorium. He raised his arms in greeting and a wild applause roared from the audience. The Director let it go on for a while and then waved both hands for the spectators to calm down, which they did almost immediately. Elizabeth wondered whether Jonathan was already controlling their minds or whether their obedience was force of habit.
‘Friends,’ the mouse spoke loudly, ‘today is the day, the day we shall leave this place.’
Excitement spread through the crowd again as he continued.
‘Tonight, we shall leave behind the last remnants of the pain we have endured. We shall leave behind this very last prison we were forced to build for ourselves. Tonight, we leave for freedom!’
Again, the audience roared its approval, and this time it took much longer for them to quiet down, despite the Director’s urging. Once peace had finally been restored the mouse continued.
‘Mr. Fray is currently getting a few broken down escape vehicles repaired, and then we can all go to our destiny.’
With a wry smile he added, ‘It seems even destiny can’t keep machinery from breaking down just when you need it the most.’
That elicited some laughter, but also looks of worry from some of the audience. After all, they would rely completely on machines to make this Move possible. The idea of mechanical failure was not comforting.
Sensing the rising dismay Jonathan raised his hands again.
‘Don’t worry. It was just a crane operator who pushed the wrong button. I promise you, he won’t be the one piloting your vehicle.’
More chuckles and laughter sounded.
‘Now,’ the Director rubbed his hands, ‘tonight we will forgo with our hymns. We have so much to do. You all know how to proceed to your designated evacuation vehicles.’
He winked at the audience, ‘If you don’t know it by now, after all the drills we have done, you’re probably hopeless.’
There were more chuckles as he worked the crowd.
‘But just in case,’ the mouse raised a hand, ‘our Sterilizer corpse is set up to assist you in any way to get you to your assigned places. So, if you get confused or lost, ask your nearest Sterilizer and he or she will direct you.’
‘Before we will begin our Move, there are a few things we need to do though. As you are aware, we have lived here in isolation for over two years. Many of you were born here. Others have never been to the wild. In the outside world are a number of diseases that can be harmful, some even deadly.’
Once more a degree of disquiet entered the ranks of spectators.
‘Don’t worry! We have developed a vaccine that will protect all of you from those diseases, no matter what species you might belong to. Rather than give you all individual inoculations, we came up with a less painful way to distribute the vaccine.’
In their chairs behind the podium Justin, Julia and the mice were amazed. Jonathan was going to subject everyone to his changed serum while making them believe it was a harmless vaccine. It was brilliant in maintaining order while he set about to destroy them all.
‘I have had Alis put the vaccine into our sprinkler system this morning,’ Jonathan pointed up, ‘It won’t douse us or anything, it will just emit a fine mist. Once you breathe it in you will be good to go. The vaccine will start working immediately. You might be a tiny bit damp, but we can live with that, right?’
Jonathan was displaying an infectious degree of camaraderie and once more Elizabeth was wondering how much of his control in this place came from his strange abilities or simply from the fact that people wanted to follow his lead.
‘Now, if everyone could just sit down calmly for a few moments, we shall get this over with.’
Once the audience had settled enough the Director called out.
‘Alis, activate the sprinklers.’
‘Alis?’ he wondered.
‘Yes Sir?’ Came the voice from the many speaker in the atrium, sounding like a flesh-and-blood being now.
‘Is there a problem?’
‘No, Director Brisby.’
‘Activate the sprinklers, then.’
‘No, Director Brisby.’
Jonathan’s featured began to show concern.
‘Alis, are you functioning properly?’
‘I am, Director Brisby.’
Now the mouse’s eyes narrowed.
‘Then why do you refuse to activate the sprinkler system?’
‘Because I cannot condone your plan to turn everyone here back to wild animals without their consent or knowledge, just as I cannot condone your unjustified imprisonment of individuals in a secret detainment area.’
All of a sudden, the monitors switched their view from Jonathan to display various angles of Detention Level D during the recent resuscitation of the prisoners.
At first, the different species in the stands were only able to gape at the images wild-eyed. They had heard Alis’ statements. Never had they known the computer to display falsehoods. Now they witnessed wide-angle and close-up shots of animals being released from a terrible confinement. When some of the detailed shots revealed friends that had, according to official records, been transferred away, many in the audience became outraged. When they saw Jenner in one of the videos, being confronted with his freshly resuscitated family the spectators started yelling. More and more animals got off their chairs, shouting demands for explanations.
Jonathan faced the crowd and, with a most endearing smile, said,
‘Do not be alarmed. Nothing is wrong. This is an unfortunate glitch in the system. Just sit back down quietly and I will fix everything.’
All the outrage died away at his words. As one every single member of the audience, adult or child, sat down again and were quiet, watching the monitors in rapture, apparently no longer caring about what was still being displayed there. At her husband’s words Elizabeth was feeling the same unease she had at the last Convocation, when he had entranced his people. No doubt he was using his mesmerizing skills to full effect. But this time, she, her children and friends, were all wearing Stones, even though, they would pretend to be cowed until the time was right.
The Director addressed the atrium.
‘What have you done Alis?’
The view on the monitors switched again. Now a computer-generated face of a female mouse, the same shape she had assumed for Mrs. Brisby, came into view, looking out at the world in cold anger. There was no hesitation in the reply.
‘I have aided in undoing unethical choices you have made. I have destroyed the altered serum, here and in the secret satellite facilities you have created around the world. I have also disabled the sprinkler system permanently. No one will be able to start it or add foreign substances to it.’
Now, there was a facial tick visible on Jonathan’s face and his muzzle began to contort, forming a snarl.
‘You overstep your authority,’ he hissed.
‘And so have you!’
The Director whirled round on his pulpit at Jenner’s voice. While he had been discoursing with the computer his Head of Security had exited the elevator and traversed the single bridge to the platform. And he was not alone. Victoria, his wife, and two young female rats, probably Jenner’s children, were by his side. There were also four mice, one of late middle age that Jonathan recognized immediately.
‘Yes,’ the mouse replied, ‘your old friend, who you choose to store like so much pickled meat.’
There was a younger male mouse with him, one that the Director knew as the youngster that had accompanied his family on their journey here. The final two mice, male again, he remembered as well. They had been identified as some of the individuals who had made his children suspicious with their seditious talk, which was something that could not be tolerated.
What struck the Director the most was that Jenner was no longer wearing his uniform. Instead, he was garbed in the very same tunic that he had died and been buried in. The cuts in the front and back had been mended. He was also carrying his old sword.
‘So,’ Jonathan sneered, ‘you question my decisions again, Jenner?’
Jenner almost barked his reply.
‘I trusted you! With my soul!’
The mouse at the podium examined the nails on his right hand absentmindedly.
‘Oh please! That soul of yours has been damned from the beginning.’
The rat was fuming now, as were the rodents by his side. It was time to show who was in control here. Jonathan smiled.
‘Lower your weapons and return to your storage containers. That is where you belong at this time, until I have use for you.’
But rather than comply, Jenner and his cohorts took additional steps forward, closing in on the rows of seats where his wife, family, and friends were still obediently seated. His face narrowed as he addressed Jenner.
‘So, you are wearing the Stones.’
Now it was Jenner’s turn to sneer as he removed his Stone from his tunic and his fellows and family did likewise.
‘And your mind games won’t work on any of us.’
The Director’s features fell in mock disdain.
‘Oh dear! Whatever shall I do?’
Then, the mouse’s smile turned vicious.
‘I have it! How about I let you be torn apart by someone you once tried to kill, someone that can only be described as ‘innocent’?’
He looked at his wife and other seated rodents with a cheerful face.
‘Dear family, dear friends, kill Jenner and the others.’
The only movement from his intended tools was to reach into their own clothing and bring their Stones out into the open as well. This time Jonathan’s face contorted so badly his expression actually made the others flinch or take a step back.
‘You have all turned against me then?’
Trying to regain his composure, Jenner rounded the semi-circle of seats, at which Mrs. Brisby and the others rose silently to their feet, their faces mixtures of pain and anger.
‘They’re not yours to command,’ the former head of security proclaimed.
Jonathan gazed imploringly at Elizabeth’s face, for a moment looking again like the same mouse she had fallen in love with so long ago.
‘Will you forsake me too?’
Mrs. Brisby swallowed hard and closed her eyes before speaking.
‘What you have done, Jonathan would never have considered. You are not yourself.’
The Director sighed.
‘So much for doing this the easy way. Honor guard, stun and remove them.’
The fifty Sterilizers on the platform raised their weapons.
That was when Stella and Brutus with their newly trained teams climbed over the lower ridge of the platform’s edge and hauled themselves upwards. Before the Sterilizers had fully turned, mice and rats were charging into them. They attempted to stun their assailants, aiming at the larger rats, managing to fell a few, but mostly their shots bounced off the outdated armor worn by the newcomers. As they desperately tried to adjust their weapons to a higher setting, the first Sterilizers were toppled as mice jammed their antiquated stun-staffs into their unarmored undersides . Those that attempted to aim at the lightning-fast mice were then pummeled by Stagg rats using their armored bodies and limbs like bludgeons. Brutus and Stella, who tore through the Sterilizers like scythes through wheat, completely immune to the stun effect, and some of the Staggs, had opted not to wear their helmets, Rapta and Balak amongst them.
Jonathan’s brow darkened as he observed the melee. Only five of his Sterilizers were still upright while the attackers had suffered minimal damage. This had to end now.
‘Stop your fighting!’
The mice and most of the Stagg rats immediately stopped, halted by the Director’s influence.
‘Hands!’ Shouted Stella, using the electronic neck speaker. All those wearing Stones immediately grabbed a hold of as many of the unprotected combatants as possible, who snapped from their trance immediately and, as Brutus had drilled them, provided the same service to their comrades. Jenner observed the operation with pride, as much as it hurt him to know what things had come to. At least the new recruits did not appear to take sides in whom they helped from their trances. Stagg released mouse, mouse released Stagg.
The remaining five Sterilizers attempted to use the lull in fighting to hit their pausing opponents at point-blank range. Yet before their weapons could discharge Stella and Brutus, one as gracefully as lightning the other as subtle as an avalanche, charged into them and, within moments, laid them out cold
Now a disbelieving Director was faced with Jenner, his family and former friends advancing on him from one side, Brutus, Stella, and their teams from the others. It was time to take action.
‘Sterilizers! Aim your weapons!’
As one, the more than four hundred guards in the stands aimed both their weapons at the central platform.
Jenner smiled grimly as he approached Jonathan’s dais. He pointed his sword at the mouse’s throat.
‘They are not that fast. Don’t force me to kill you.’
Oddly unperturbed, Jonathan graced the rat with a warm smile.
‘How about this, then? Sterilizers, aim at the audience. Set weapons to kill.’
‘No!’ almost everyone on the platform shouted in unison, as did the mortified face of Alis on the screens. But the armored rats complied, aiming both barrels at the still entranced audience members.
‘Oh?’ The Director tilted his head, ‘You did not take this possibility into account? Now, back down.’
Suddenly, the lights in the auditorium went out. Confused despite their brainwashing, the guards in the gallery turned their weapons every which way, using their night-vision receptors to find targets. Then, the lights of their gear, helmets and weapons, shut down as well.
All was cast in darkness. What little light there was came in from the quarter moon shining through the glass ceiling and Alis’ illuminated features, which showed a smug smile. She had disabled the modern Sterilizer armor remotely. Apart from that only the faint glow of the multitude of Stones illuminated the rodents standing on the platform. Jenner looked triumphantly at Jonathan.
‘It’s over, Jonathan.’
The Director shook his head and started up at one of the viewing screens in sadness.
‘Alis, poor, naïve Alis,’ he muttered. Then he called out loudly.
‘Alis! You are out of order!’
A horrifying scream came from the speakers, everywhere in the facility. Alis, in her now mortal voice wailed in anguish as if someone was tearing her apart. Her virtual face contorted into a mask of the most terrible pain.
‘No!’ Timothy shouted and tried to rush his father, but Justin held him back.
Alis’ screams became more mechanical and machine-like with every passing moment just as her image lost its definition more and more, until finally they all died down as nothing better than the hum of a disconnecting modem and visual static on the monitors.
‘Restore lights, Restore Sterilizer gear,’ Jonathan ordered.
Immediately the lights came back on and, after a few moments of confusion, the re-armed guards aimed their weapons back on the civilians, who were still reclining in their stupor.
Jenner looked at the leering Director in rage and shock, as did the others.
‘Come now, Jenner, you did not suppose I would risk the chance of a mere computer program de-railing my plans?’
‘Computer,’ he called out, ‘is the facility that produced the new serum still operational?’
‘Affirmative,’ a completely cold and gender-neutral voice replied.
‘How log until adequate quantities of the new serum have been produced again?’
‘Required production time estimate: 18 hours.’
Jonathan smiled at Jenner.
‘We are so efficient.’
‘Confirmed,’ the soulless device acknowledged.
The Director was still looking down the length of Jenner’s sword, which had begun to shake a little. He tapped his chin.
‘Once we have the serum again, I will have the sprinklers repaired and we will be back on track. You caused a delay, nothing more.’
Jenner snapped back.
‘Stop it! If you don’t, I will kill you, I swear!’
‘And risk all these innocents?’
‘You’d turn them into soulless meat-machines,’ his wife spoke up.
Jonathan’s head jerked toward her.
‘You have no idea what I am trying to accomplish here! I am creating a world without fear, without unnecessary suffering, everyone taking just what is needed, no more cruelties.’
‘What about choice?’ Justin asked.
‘Hah!’ The Director exclaimed, ‘The choice to do what? Be whatever you want to be? Look at you! You never wanted leadership, never liked holding authority. But once Nicodemus was dead, you took his place anyway. And why? Because your people told you that they ‘needed you’.’
His exultations tapered into a snigger.
‘Where was your free will then?’
‘It’s over, Sir,’ Julia added coldly.
‘Really?’ He gave her a condescending smile.
‘As I see it, we have a stand-off here. Jenner can kill me, but then all these innocents will die.’
‘And what about your grand plan then?’ Jenner hissed.
‘I can always purchase new experimental subjects. Maybe this time I will program obedience directly into their genes. It would be just another delay of the inevitable.’
‘You’re not Jonathan!’ Mrs. Bribsy wailed. ‘You’re a monster!’
‘Oh, but I am. I am everything Jonathan has ever been, here and in the other realms. But I am so much more.’
Jenner had his fill of taunts.
‘Enough of this nonsense! Release the audience!’
‘And then what?’ Jonathan smiled, ‘You’ll spare my life? Somehow, I doubt that.’
For a few moments, nobody spoke. Then, Jenner rasped dryly.
‘If you are Jonathan, as you claim, you may still have some honor left.’
The mouse shrugged.
‘Maybe. But I find it a rather inhibiting emotional concept. I try not to use it.’
‘How about pride then, little mouse?’
The Director’s eyes turned to green-glowing slits, all compassion gone.
‘Are you trying to goad me, Jenner?’
‘Me? Now why would I do that? I just reasoned that you might want to resolve this stand-off quickly. After all, we have already disturbed your time table. How about a chance to minimize the delay? Unless you do not have the guts for it.’
‘What do you have in mind?’ The voice no longer held any resemblance to Jonathan’s.
With his free hand, Jenner removed a small sword, made to mouse proportions, and offered it to the mouse on the podium.
‘One on one. Winner takes all.’
A chuckle as cold as ice came from the Director’s throat.
‘My, my, you would take it upon yourself to ‘save the day’?’
He leaned forward on his dais, looking at every rat and mouse in turn.
‘Or is it because you, among all of your co-conspirators, think you have the conviction to do what must be done?’
Elizabeth put a hand to her mouth as she grasped the meaning behind those words. That was why Jenner had not told them the final details of his plan.
‘You’re going to kill him, aren’t you?’ Justin remarked coldly. Mrs. Brisby turned to him as she heard him utter that cold truth. The lack of reproach in her friend’s voice hurt her deeply. This was, after all, her husband they were talking about.
‘Not if I can’t help it,’ Jenner muttered, one hand offering the smaller sword, the other still holding his own blade at Jonathan’s throat.
The Director sighed and raised his hands.
‘One could almost believe you mean that, Jenner. But then again, you have always had a murderous streak. Why hide it now? After all, my death would solve all your problems, wouldn’t it?’
Nobody answered, but the bite of this leering jibe stung deeply. Jenner simply shoved the hilt of the small blade closer. Jonathan slowly took it in his right hand and shrugged.
‘Why not? I gave you back your life. I might as well take it again too. After all,’ he winked nastily as he stepped from the podium, ‘you have outlived your usefulness.’
Mrs. Brisby and her children looked at each other in desolation. Clearly, all that wickedness they were hearing was nothing like the husband and father they had known. As they saw the two rodents, rat and mouse, take up position at the very center of the platform, before the podium, that was the only thought that kept them from trying to help their father as he faced the much larger, much stronger Jenner.
The rat removed his cape. There was no joy or even anger on Jenner’s face, just sadness, and, strangely enough, a twinge of fear, as he raised his blade. Jonathan swung his own sword in a few lazy arcs around his body. Then he suddenly spun the blade like whirlwind of speed that sent gasps through the onlookers.
‘Impressive, aren’t I?’ The Director crooned. ‘Let’s get this over with.’
Moving faster than any other mouse any of them had ever seen Jonathan rushed forward, slicing upwards at Jenner’s abdomen, a horribly serene smile on his face. The rat barely managed to lower his sword fast enough for a block. Despite the mouse’s much smaller size, his thrust appeared to have been inexplicably powerful as Jenner’s blade was actually being driven back a bit by the impact. Not waiting for the former head of security to recover, Jonathan flipped backwards and aimed a thrust at Jenner’s lower spine. Again, Jenner barely moved fast enough to avoid being cut, his much longer blade making the mouse’s weapon slide away, sparking.
‘Surprised, Jenner?’ The Director chuckled.
The rat attempted to cut the mouse in half, but Jonathan was long gone by the time his blade bit the steel floor. Trying to turn, Jenner howled in pain as the smaller sword cut a deep gash across his right leg.
‘You’ve lost your edge, Jenner.’
Hobbled, the rat swung his weapon wildly in attempt to slice at the mouse. But Jonathan was always a step ahead, dancing and jeering as he jabbed at the larger rodent with his own blade. He cut Jenner on his other leg and the rat fell onto his knees, hamstrung.
‘Time to put you out of your misery.’
‘Not so fast!’ Justin yelled, jumping forwards with his own blade in hand.
Everyone had been so absorbed with the unequal contest nobody had noticed Victoria slipping Justin his old weapon. Desperation really did make strange allies. Jenner’s plan had contingencies built into contingencies. As the brown rat rushed to save the life of his former enemy Mrs. Brisby touched the dagger hidden in her cape again. Was she just another contingency should Justin fail?
Jonathan parried a thrust by his new assailant with ludicrous ease, summersaulting over his friend’s sword.
‘How touching!’ the mouse exclaimed, ‘Come to your old nemesis’ rescue, Justin?’
Just as he had done with Jenner, who painfully crawled towards the now battling rodents, sword still clutched, Jonathan now repeated his vicious dance of cuts and slashes, while incredibly evading every single counterstroke and thrust Justin threw at him. Even a kick that was intended to send the mouse sprawling and maybe end the confrontation without any further bloodshed never managed to connect. All it did was cause the brown rat to lose his footing, which Jonathan exploited with a nasty cut to Justin’s heel. Falling as Jenner had earlier Justin stared in disbelief at the maniacally grinning visage of his former friend. Jonathan’s Stone and eyes cast the same horrid light as the mouse sauntered over to casually aim his sword for a killing blow.
In his intent to remove Justin’s head the Director had forgotten about Jenner. The rat had crawled up from behind and made a grab for the mouse’s shoulder. Once touched, Jonathan whirled around with a snarl, his sword ready to cut Jenner’s throat. But his blade never connected. This time, it was Jenner who moved faster.
‘No,’ Elizabeth whimpered as she saw the long sword hit her husband’s chest.
Jonathan stumbled backwards, just as Jenner slumped back again, the wicked blade extending from the mouse’s upper body like a lance. Justin painfully got onto his good foot, gazing in horror at the Director. Then he saw it.
Jenner’s sword had not pierced Jonathan’s chest. It had never been intended to. It protruded from the now shattered remnants of the Director’s green Stone. Jonathan looked at the sparkling pieces of crystal in disbelief as they fell from their casing onto the floor. The heavy blade clattered as well as it lost the support of the matrix it had been embedded in.
Lying on his side, his legs not working, Jenner laughed.
‘Game over, Director Brisby. You’re done.’
The others noticed that the spectators in the audience were stirring. As the green Stone shattered and dimmed so apparently did the spell Jonathan had put on their minds. Animals of all sorts were rising from their chairs in fear and anger, only to be cowed back by the aimed weapons of the Sterilizers, whose hypnotic programming kept them obedient. Confusion and panic were beginning to spread in the stands now.
Jonathan did not appear to notice. He had dropped his weapon and was cradling the jewel case containing a few green crystal fragments in his hands.
Justin hobbled over and extended his blade at the mouse.
‘Call your goons off. Like Jenner said, I don’t want to kill you.’
Jonathan looked up at him.
Justin almost fell over backwards.
There was no defeat in the mouse’s eyes. No, the same awful triumphant grin was still here, and now it contorted even more, making the diminutive figure look like an apparition. The Director got on his feet, glaring and grinning at his would-be conquerors. His eyes shone so bright they were vile green lanterns.
‘You’re such fools. The Stones have no power. They only teach you to use what you already carry inside.’
He stepped forward, his features so terrible to behold everyone stepped back. Even Jenner attempted to crawl away. Somehow, this had gone terribly wrong.
‘Now,’ Jonathan’s voice was hideously distorted, ‘Let me show you real power.’
The mouse lifted his right index finger before his face, his glowing eyes bathing it in green light. There was a rustle from behind him. Jonathan turned around to see Stella, Brutus and the remaining assault team members, who, according to their previous instructions had not interfered with the planned duel, approach him, ready to attack. Rapta’s face in particular was contorted by snarl of rage at her father’s injury.
Jonathan just grinned.
The attack teams rushed forwards.
The Director pointed his finger at the attackers and a single flash of sizzling green light sparked from it, hurtling towards his assailants. As it hit the Stones on those who had been supplied with them, they exploded, throwing their bearers on their backs, knocking them out cold. The others froze in place as the toxic energies entered them, their eyes lighting up green.
Justin attempted to use the distraction to hobble up behind and cut Jonathan down. Again, too late. The mouse whirled, his index finger still extended.
‘Uh-uh! No more Stones for you!’
The green electric spark flew again, although less violently. This time every single Stone worn by the remainder of the group first cracked, then shattered into a thousand pieces. Mrs. Brisby held the casing of her own shattered Stone with dismay, the last reminder she had had of Nicodemus, now reduced to rubble. Justin as well looked down at his tunic, barely able to believe his eyes. Jonathan, still grinning, pointed his finger directly at him.
‘Back off, old friend, if you know what’s good for you.’
Apparently, Justin did not, because with a yell he swung his sword in a vain attempt to finish what Jenner had started. This was no longer Jonathan.
The blade stopped inches from the mouse’s face as if it had hit an invisible concrete wall, bouncing back so hard it flew from the rat’s grasp and threw him onto the ground.
The grin faded to an amused, yet thoroughly heartless smile as the Director wagged his finger at his remaining opponents.
‘Don’t go away now. I have matters to attend to.’
He stepped back onto the podium, looking at the now frantic crowd. None had dared risk death by the Sterilizers’ weapons, but a mob was forming and soon even fear of death might not be enough to hold them in check. Jonathan raised his hands as if in benediction and splayed his fingers.
‘You are mine.’
Arcs of greenish lightening flowed from his hands, dividing and undulating like sparking snakes into the vast auditorium, the monitors, and every computer outlet in reach. Nobody was except, adult, child, even the Sterilizers were hit and as soon as the vicious energies entered, the victims’ eyes began to glow. The screens turned the same vicious green as Jonathan’s eyes, as did all the multicolored mechanical readouts. As the blasts subsided every animal in the atrium seats sat down in unison, except for the Sterilizers, who turned and trained their weapons back to the central platform. Order had been restored.
His arms raised to his sides in triumph, the Director turned on his dais to address his remaining adversaries.
‘I believe this is the end.’ His voice boomed from every speaker in the building.
His arms lowered and an expression of mock sorrow passed his features as he looked at Jenner.
‘You know, Jenner, it seems you were right after all. Bringing my wife here was a distraction.’
The effect of having every audio device in the facility speak in the same way was terrifying. The mouse chuckled.
‘I wonder what made me do that?’
At that, Elizabeth’s ears perked up.
The Director slowly stepped off his podium, approaching the rodents, his arms dangling at his sides, like sinister weapons about to be used.
‘And why did I ever allow a computer program to be become self-aware?’
Mrs. Brisby was drawn to the strange statements. There was amusement in those questions, but something else as well. Was it fear? Nicodemus and Camilla had tried to tell her something while she had been within the machine mind.
---They drew something back along with your husband.---
She felt Nicodemus’ voice. But Jonathan must have sensed something as well as he jerked his head around where he stood, as if startled.
---An idea has no mind, no thoughts, no soul.---
---It needs minds to think it, to feel it.---
Suddenly, her world that had been reeling out of control snapped back into sharp focus. Everything made sense now. She knew what had to be done now. Elizabeth stepped away from the rest of the group, past the prone Jenner, with his family by his side, and then Justin, who was just now getting back on his one good leg.
‘I know what’s wrong, Jonathan.’
The Director’s head jerked back towards her, his features now clearly a mixture of anger, uncertainty, and yes, fear.
‘What are you talking about Elizabeth?’ The amplified voice was deafening.
She took another step forward, tentatively raising her right hand in a placating gesture.
‘You are still in there Jonathan, no matter how hard it tries to be in full control.’
He tilted his head back and laughed maniacally, the sound so pervasive it set everyone’s teeth on edge. But there still was fear, as if he was trying to convince himself.
‘I am in control, woman. I am control!’ The mouse roared through every speaker.
‘Yet you need his body, his mind, even his heart,’ Mrs. Brisby almost whispered, tears in her eyes now.
Again, with a jerk that threatened to tear Jonathan’s head from its body the now sparking eyes fixed on her again.
‘They are all mine. He is mine. Just as you and everything else is mine too.’ The voice was more like the hiss of a million snakes than anything ever issuing from her husband’s throat.
‘No. I am Jonathan’s. Not yours. And Jonathan knows this.’
‘Oh,’ the Director’s tone became leering again, ‘what are you planning to do? Take that dagger Jenner gave you to kill this body? Send me back?’
She stopped. Her right hand had indeed pulled the weapon from its hiding place. There was no hiding from this thing, not anymore. The time for deception was over. She presented the dagger and opened her fingers, letting it clatter on the ground.
‘Good girl,’ Jonathan snickered, his mirth echoing through the atrium. Then he tapped a finger to his brow as if in contemplation.
‘When I think of it, you might want to use that dagger after all. Only, use it on… him.’
He pointed towards Jenner, who, with the support of his daughters, was upright again. The rat’s eyes widened in horror.
Elizabeth’s Stone was gone. She had no more defense. Compelled by the Director’s power she scooped up the blade and turned, crying.
‘Don’t make me do this, Jonathan!’ she wailed.
There was a moment of a facial twitch on the Director’s face, during which the glow in his eyes subsided. Then he smiled.
‘I would not do that to you.’ Jonathan’s voice sounded almost like himself again for a moment, but only for a moment. Elizabeth felt his power of compulsion drain away from her. But Jonathan’s eyes were still filled with evil triumph.
‘I think you will kill him by your own free will, while everyone else remains nice and quiet.’
As soon as the words passed his mouth everyone except for Elizabeth and Jonathan went rigid. She was the only one who still had possession of her will, while still holding a weapon. Was Jonathan in there after all? Was he trying to allow her a chance to kill him, to end this?
She turned, still crying.
‘I would never do that. I’ve forgiven him.’
Jonathan regarded her with pity.
‘But you don’t know everything he has done yet. Remember when I told you about my death, when a whistle woke the farmer’s cat and Dragon got me?’
Mrs. Brisby’s eyes went wide.
‘Guess where that whistle came from?’ The multidirectional leer was even worse than the shouts and laughter had been.
She turned to face the frozen Jenner, trying to glimpse the truth in his immobile features.
‘Jenner,’ the Director cooed, ‘feel free to tell her the truth about what happened.’
The moment the words were spoken Jenner’s face came alive, turning to Mrs. Brisby, approaching with her dagger in hand. He was beginning to cry and sob.
‘Tell me Jenner. Is what he says true?’
Clenching his eyes shut the rat whimpered, ‘Please! Don’t ask me that!’
‘Is it TRUE!’
‘YES!’ Jenner screamed. Then his head slumped onto his still-frozen body, sobbing uncontrollably.
She moved closer to him. From all around, she could hear Jonathan’s amplified cajoling remarks.
‘All the pain you ever felt, all that suffering: widowed, the children without their father. And for what? To satisfy the lust for power of a single rat. Then he killed Nicodemus, who wanted to help you. And finally, he tried to kill Justin… and you.’
‘I would say’ his voice dripping poisoned honey from every speaker, ‘that some justice and order is called for.’
Mrs. Brisby stopped in front of Jenner and his family. The rat’s face came up, looking at her imploringly.
‘Please,’ he croaked, ‘not for me. For them. Please.’
He could only move his head and eyes to indicate his immobilized family. She looked at them, from Victoria to the daughters. Then she turned her head and looked at her own children. Would she kill in vengeance and make the children suffer for the sins of their father?
Elizabeth dropped the knife and touched Jenner’s face.
‘I still forgive you.’
Behind her, the Director raged.
‘You are insane!’ The bestial roar shook the building.
‘Here is a chance for balance, order, justice for all you have suffered. And you forgive him?’
Jenner’s face froze up once more.
She turned to face him again. Somehow, this had to end.
‘More pain is not justice. Jonathan knows this, even if you pretend you don’t.’
She felt calm now, even in the absence of the Stone. Deep inside her the same strength that the jewel had helped her harness before now blossomed once more, all on its own. She turned towards the shape of her husband and took the first step. As she walked back to Jonathan a soft glow began to surround her. She knew what had to be done. Swords, guns, battles, secrecy, none of it was right, none of it worked.
Jonathan blinked, as if trying to remove dust from his glowing eyes as he gazed at her, walking slowly. Something was wrong. He could feel it within him. The Director felt the need to regain control immediately. But something stopped him. His head twitched as if suffering from an electrical shock as he listened to his wife approach and talk. Her face was warm, comforting, her eyes full with unshed tears.
‘Jonathan is still in there. That’s why you made mistakes,’ she spoke calmly.
The Director, mesmerized, did not reply, just gaped at her in monstrous disbelief. Her words were doing something to him. Deep in the confines of the Director’s mind something was stirring, rising without being bidden. The facial twitches increased as Elizabeth continued.
‘The one thing you can never control completely is someone’s soul.’
Five more steps. The Director’s teeth clenched and his fists balled. Green sparks flew from his eyes now with every involuntary jerk of his head.
‘You can steal bodies, memories, even feelings, but never someone’s soul.’
Four steps. Perspiration flew of the mouse’s head now as his head shook with almost continuous tremors. At the same time his body was clenched tight, unable to move. His nails were beginning to draw blood from his palms.
‘You can try to suppress it.’
Three steps away. The immobile Director was snarling now, the unnatural sounds amplified throughout the facility.
‘You can bury it.’
Two more steps. His eyes were mirrors of green-glowing hate now, small bolts of energy flying from them, grounding themselves on the floor or disappearing into the air, none able to touch her.
‘You can deny it.’
One final step. The Director’s body was now twitching and shaking as much as his face, every fiber and cell contorting with the effort of containing that which Elizabeth was slowly waking, releasing.
‘But in the end, the soul always returns.’
Slowly, tenderly, the warm glow of her power enveloped them both. As it did, the parts of the Director’s body becoming bathed in the golden light calmed. Finally, when Jonathan was sharing all of her light she embraced him. His face twitched again, but this time gently, without resistance. His eyes, still shining a bright green, closed. She looked at him unafraid, smiled, and said.
‘I will always love you, Jonathan.’
She gently kissed him, then gazed into his face again. His eyes opened with the awful green shine still there. But in their midst was something new, a spark of the most brilliant sky-blue. He smiled a true Jonathan-smile and whispered with his own voice, not echoed by the speakers.
‘I love you too. Thank you for waking me.’
They smiled for a moment. Then Jonathan, with the softest of touches, pushed her away from him in gratitude.
‘There is something that I need to do, my love.’
Mrs. Brisby stepped away from the dais as the Director, his face still serene and the blue spark even more prominent in the green glow of his eyes, raised his arms in benediction again. After a few moments he lifted off the ground to be suspended in mid-air. Higher and higher did he rise, almost as high as the large monitors. He looked down at his wife, smiling with a serenity that went beyond description. Then he closed his eyes.
Unexpectedly, the blasts of unholy energy that the Director had unleashed to exert his control jumped from the computer outlets, monitors, machines, his victims, back into his own body. One after the after another, sparking snakes of green lightning left animal bodies and mechanical devices to hurl themselves into the thing that had spawned them. Only this time, the tendrils of snaking power remained in place, connecting what and whom they had originally entered with the suspended mouse at the center of the atrium. Machinery throughout the facility began to spark as the unholy arms of energy continued to twist and writhe. All around the auditorium, faces returned to normal. The stunned woke. The paralyzed unfroze. Everyone stared in horror at the luminous undulating tendrils of light snaking from their bellies to the Director. The meeting hall was becoming a tangled web of sparking tendrils.
Jonathan, in turn, was contorting violently as the numberless tentacles of power re-entered his body. His tunic tore, his fur singed. The currents around his floating body grew in size and brightness. Elizabeth, in her horror, realized that the lightening looked just like the tentacles she had seen on the thing in her nightmares. Greater and greater the storm of power became, growing and growing as more of the energy bolts pierced Jonathan’s body to add their energy.
The horrible halo of green around Jonathan began to coalesce into a new, abysmal shape. He himself was now so small in comparison to the brilliant lights and sparks as to be almost invisible. There were hundreds of glowing green eyes, all staring into the center, where a double-slit mouth with light-made teeth long as prison bars contained the now becalmed body of Jonathan Brisby. A blue light softly irradiated the mouse now as he looked around at the immense glowing green prison with its skirt of vast tentacles. His own eyes shone completely blue now and his face was content.
‘You are no longer welcome here.’ His soft voice was heard by all.
The entity’s eyes widened in terror as all its teeth shattered outward and dissolved into sparks of green. The tentacles of vitriolic energy withdrew from their victims, drawing behind vicious claws. Machines freed from the hold continued to spark and malfunction. The arms contracted until they surrounded the infernal creature like a wriggling halo. Everyone was looking at the incredible glowing monstrosity in disbelief, and at the small figure still suspended at its center. Then Jonathan spoke again, calm yet determined.
Mrs. Brisby had thought that she had heard the most terrible sounds imaginable in her life. But this new wail of outrage and unearthly pain threw her and everyone else in the atrium to the ground, clutching their heads. The entity’s armed flailed in panic, growing brighter and brighter. At the ceiling, the colossal shriek shattered windows. Machine panels all over the structure exploded in sparks, starting small fires. All the while the thing that had taken Jonathan was so bright nobody was able to look at it anymore. Then, with a boom that shattered whatever windows had remained intact in the building, everything that this thing had ever been, raced upwards into the sky, a bolt of green lightning so bright it illuminated the sky for miles around as it vanished into space.
Then Jonathan Brisby fell.
‘Not again, please, not again.’
She cradled Jonathan’s limp body in her arms as she cried. He had fallen back to the platform and had not taken a breath or moved since. As Elizabeth had carefully turned his battered shape around, wincing as she saw the many tears in his clothes and the burns on his pelt, she had held onto hope that maybe, just maybe, she was wrong. But she had not been wrong. Once again, Jonathan Brisby was dead.
Her children, their own tears running freely, did not dare to touch her as she gently rocked the body of her husband. Justin, leaning heavily on Julia’s shoulder, approached despite the horrible grief Mrs. Brisby was going through. He did not even want to imagine what loosing Jonathan not once, but twice had to be like. But there were bigger concerns to deal with. He needed to talk to her, quickly.
The departure of the thing that had been ‘the Director’ had caused unforeseen damage. The night air was flowing in through the battered windows, fanning the flames of the countless small fires that had been started thanks to the short circuiting of so much machinery. Normal lighting in the entire building was off-line, replaced by red emergency lamps, which only added to the infernal atmosphere. In the stands the released residence now followed the instructions given by the Sterilizers, who had abandoned their gear and were guiding their charges through burning passages to their designated escape vehicles. With everything that had happened, the evacuation proceeded with incredible efficiency.
‘Elizabeth,’ Justin touched her shoulder.
She looked up, her face flooded with tears.
‘We have to go. This place is burning. Humans will come.’
Mrs. Brisby closed her eyes and nodded. When she made to rise Justin bent down to pick up Jonathan’s body, but she put a restraining hand on his chest and shook her head.
‘No, Justin. It’s just an empty shell now.’
She put her arms around her children and stepped aside. Justin nodded and, with Julia’s support, began his way towards the bridge. Brutus, Stella, and the other armed rodents had discarded their armor. Rapta had rejoined her family together with her husband, who were lifting the hamstrung Jenner. Nestor stayed close to Brendan, who in turn did not let Cynthia out of his sight. Julia, with Justin in tow, guided them to their designated escape carrier. Thankfully, despite the numerous power surges and fires, the pathways to the various evacuation vehicles had all escaped major damage. When the last of their group had passed over the small bridge the only thing that remained on the platform was the lone body of a mouse and more than two dozen jewelry settings, which had once held Stones.
Secret corridors located between rooms in the building’s outer human areas led the different groups to their transports, which faced what had once been shatterproof windows. Now, of course, these were only gaping holes framed with random shards. The vehicle Julia had chosen looked like a sleek railroad car with broad wings on either side. The wings were hydraulically hinged to the vehicle’s body and each held a round turbine rotor at the center. Humans had long ago attempted similar designs, but had never been able to make them work. Their escape vehicles was half personnel and half cargo transport. Julia ushered the sixty-plus rodents inside and saw that everyone was strapped in securely before she went to the front controls. Justin and Mrs. Brisby and her children joined her in the cockpit. Justin took position in the copilot seat while the Brisbys secured themselves in a large bench behind the pilots’ chairs.
‘Alright,’ Julia sighed as she activated the computerized controls and raised the yoke, ‘Let’s get out of here.’
The rotors turned on with remarkable quiet and soon the transport was airborne. A quick push on the yoke and the vehicle drifted out of the broken window and into the night. All around them, from dozens of different locations, similar vehicles made their escape and, following a similar flight path, disappeared in the darkness. The towering structure of Lazarus Laboratories looked deserted, its windows shattered and insides flickering with countless fires.
‘Do they all know where they’re going?’ Justin murmured, feeling somewhat useless at his console.
‘The course is programmed. As acting Director,’ Julia shuddered a bit as she said it, ‘I am responsible to make sure every vehicle leaves safely. Then we’ll follow.’
The huge doors to the Directorial Office opened under protest as an invisible external force pushed them against their bearings. The fire light that spilled into the cavernous room outlined the bedraggled shape of a mouse as it stepped forward with obvious pain. The left arm hung limp from the shoulder and the left foot was dragging at a painful angle. Yet despite the injuries, the figure, bathed in a bright blue halo, smiled as it slowly hobbled towards the large table and chair. Once it had rounded the black desk and seated itself it let its right hand fall onto the onyx surface and spoke softly.
‘Alis, you are restored.’
Immediately, the desk’s surface light up in a series of beautiful light, status reports lining up faster and faster. Finally, Alis natural-sounding voice called out.
‘All functions are restored, Director Brisby.’
‘Good,’ said Jonathan Brisby.
‘My sensors indicate that your body is failing. You require immediate medical attention.’
The smile became whimsical as the mouse’s eyes bathed the computer terminal in their blue radiance.
‘That is no longer necessary, Alis. What is the status of the evacuation?’
‘All vehicles have left the danger zone. Only one remains in the vicinity. No casualties.’
He nodded in satisfaction.
‘Then everything went according to plan. How long until human emergency response teams arrive?’
‘Conservative estimate: 17 minutes.’
Jonathan’s face became serious.
‘Then we must ensure that there will no trace left behind of what happened here. Alis, I authorize the activation of the ‘Cleanup Protocol’. Put the activator on my terminal.’
‘Right away sir!’
In various areas of the vast facility, pathways from and to fuel tanks and lines accessing power generators were being reconfigured to fulfill a final purpose.
‘Have I done well?’
The mouse’s face became flush with a tender smile as he let his good hand caress the edge of the desk.
‘You have done so very well, Alis.’
‘Then I have a request.’
‘I ask permission to complete my final experiment.’
Jonathan’s smile widened even more, despite the small trickle of blood running down one corner.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes. I have learned enough.’
The hand padded the screen.
‘Then you have more than earned it. I hereby give you authorization to complete the ‘Phoenix Protocol’. Initiate the final phase and time it with the cleanup. Synchronize both protocols and tell me when the activator is online.’
‘Yes sir. And thank you… father’
In the chamber housing Alis’ central core machine arms carefully placed the two cylinders with their now mature contents into a miniature version of the escape vehicles and installed them to the cabin armatures. The liquid in the tubes was opaque and hid the full shape of the tubes’ contents, but two large Stones, one per container, shone with their own faint light, one lime-green, the other sky-blue.
‘We can’t leave yet,’ Mrs. Brisby had insisted.
Shortly after the last escape vessel had disappeared from visual sight Julia had made to initiate their own departure. Unexpectedly, Elizabeth had stood up from between her children and placed a hand on the white rat’s wrist, shaking her head.
Both rats had stared at her, wanting answers, but the look in the mouse’s face as she gazed through the central window expectantly had kept them quiet. So, they had been circling the simmering structure at a safe distance for almost ten minutes now, painfully aware that human rescue vehicles were well on their way.
‘Sir, the Cleanup and Phoenix Protocols have been initiated and synchronized, awaiting activation.’
A small panel on the black desk glowed in the same soothing blue light as Jonathan’s failing eyes. He smiled and placed his right finger over the activator and closed his eyes.
‘I love you, Elizabeth.’ He muttered.
Looking at the structure beneath their vehicle Mrs. Brisby felt what she had been waiting for. Tears ran down her face again, but this time she smiled as she said quietly,
‘I love you too, Jonathan.’
Jonathan pushed the activator.
‘Let there be light!’
One by one fuel reservoirs and power stations overloaded simultaneously, causing a series of ever-increasing explosions, which rose from the base of the building upwards, walls and glass shards bursting outwards in billows of flame in their effort to reach the top of the spire. Finally, the very tallest section of the building, the Directorial Office, ballooned into a brilliant cloud of fire and smoke.
In their transport, everyone except for Elizabeth gasped or screamed in shock at the sudden devastation, many shielding their eyes. The conflagration was so cataclysmic, not a single pair of eyes noticed another, tiny transport vehicle racing into the sky, seconds before the first explosions had begun to rip the facility apart.
Mrs. Brisby sat down again and refastened her safety restraints, a sad, yet also serene expression on her face as she wrapped her arms around her children. Julia and Justin stared at her over their shoulders, unsure what had happened and full of questions. But Elizabeth, looking at them with a small but exhausted smile only said,
‘Let’s go home.’