After a brief tour Dante and George left Lilandra and the lab behind and Dante gave his uncle a tour of the valley. As they walked through the various buildings, George decided to open a new line of conversation. “Last night I overheard you outside my door. Did you propose to Cynthia last night?”
Dante smiled blissfully. “Yes, and she accepted.”
“Are you really prepared to do this? This will be unprecedented. It’s against all the laws of nature and reality.”
Dante shrugged. “So is what you did to them.”
“Touché,” George said. “I know we agreed to become like them, it’s just that I never imagined that you would join them this closely.”
Dante grinned and pointed at him. “Why not? Have you taken a look at yourself in a mirror lately? You’re not human anymore, Uncle George. You’re a rodent now, just like them. You’re just going to have to accept it. Why should I isolate myself from them and remain alone the rest of my life? I’ve found a wonderful woman and she loves me.”
George lowered his voice, contrite. “I’m sorry, Dante.”
“It’s okay, Uncle George. I know this is difficult for you. Who knows? Perhaps one day you’ll meet a nice lady rat and settle down.”
George looked aghast. “Don’t even joke about that! The very idea of spawning with one of these vermin is repellent to me!” He regretted it the moment he said it, but the damage was done. Dante stopped and looked up at him, angry.
“Uncle George, you’re the only family I have left and if you want to have any part in my future family, I suggest that you get it into your head that they are not animals anymore! You’ve helped to make them people, so start treating them as such. I know you still blame them for ruining your life, but it’s time to get over it. They were willing to give you a second chance here, so don’t waste it. Make the best of this opportunity.”
Dante began walking quickly down the hall, George moving to follow him. “Dante! I’m sorry, again!” Dante stopped, remaining silent for a long time, but eventually he spoke. “As I said, just accept them and her and we can all be happy here.”
“I will,” George said, then changed the topic. “I was wondering about something--how do I look, for a rat? Am I good looking, average or ugly?”
“I’d say you look average,” Dante replied with a chuckle. George’s thoughts returned to the scientist they'd met. “How about that Lilandra woman? How does she rate?”
“Lilandra is very beautiful, but you’re out of luck Uncle George. She’s engaged.” Dante was joshing, and while George gave him a stern look at first he smiled a little too. “I wonder how long it will take for me to be able to tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”
For the next stop on their tour, Dante took George to the hospital. He was showing him around when Mr. Ages, one of the original mice of NIMH, appeared from his office. He gave George an icy stare, which for him was par for the course as he tended to treat everyone brusquely.
“Hello, George,” he said coldly. Dante totally ignored Ages’ attitude. “Uncle George, this is Mr. Ages, chief physician of Thorn Valley.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” George said, moving to shake hands with him. Mr. Ages looked down at his hand and then up at him. “‘Sir’ is it? Things have certainly changed. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable calling me G-8?” Mr. Ages pushed past George, bumping his shoulder purposefully as he grumblingly returned to his office, slamming the door for effect.
George raised his eyebrows, resolute. “Short and to the point, at least.” Dante continued the tour. “Sorry about that. Perhaps we should avoid any of the 28 for the time being. I didn’t expect that, really. I was told he wanted you here to explain the procedure that created them. I guess he’s just not ready to meet you face to face yet.”
After they finished with the hospital, Dante took him to the library. At this time of day it was sparsely populated, which suited George just fine. When they entered, he was surprised to see Rose Brisby sitting at the librarian’s desk.
“Hello, Dante, George. How can I help you?” she asked. Dante approached the old oaken desk. “I’m just showing Uncle George around.”
“If you need anything, just ask,” she replied pleasantly.
George had wandered away from them and was examining the books on the shelves. Virtually every tome in this library was a copy of a human book, on every imaginable topic, and it was truly an impressive collection. In one corner of the library, a large painting adorned wall. It was a magnificently-rendered portrait of an ancient-looking rat with glowing eyes. George drew near to the gilt frame to read the plaque, and found the name under it was “Nicodemus”. Rose and Dante came up beside him.
Rose spoke first. “That was Nicodemus. He was the leader of the rats before Justin. He was killed by one of others in the group.” George continued to look at the eyes--there was something mesmerizing about them. “Was he from NIMH?”
“Yes,” she replied. George looked at the picture and it took him quite a while to realize that Nicodemus was A-10, from the lab. “What do you mean he was killed by one of the others?”
“One of the rats was very evil, named Jenner. He killed Nicodemus in an attempt to take over as leader,” Rose said.
“Dad called him A-13,” Dante added. George remembered him. “A-13, yes, a vicious rat. He was a handful. We always needed the leather gloves to handle him. He’s dead, I hope.”
“Yes, but keep that to yourself, Killian is Jenner’s son. As you can imagine, it’s a painful subject to bring up with him.”
“Say no more,” George said. “I’ll be glad to start the meeting tomorrow. I would very much like to hear the history of the rats and mice of NIMH,” George said.
After the library, George and Dante returned for the cafeteria for an early dinner. George began to feel tired; several nights of bad sleep and the grueling march to the valley were really catching up with him.
Returning to his apartment, George found the rest of his belongings had been delivered in his absence. He wanted to be as well-rested as possible for the coming meeting. Still,he felt compelled to sit on the edge of the bed and took out his notebook.
Have met another of the experimental animals, G-8, the white mouse. He was very hostile to my presence. Lilandra was a welcome reprieve from the normal hostility, as was Rose Brisby. It’s encouraging to see that some are willing to accept me, knowing who I am.
I see why Killian was willing to call me ‘sir’; his father had been a villain, so he is less judgmental toward others. This Nicodemus whose picture I saw intrigues me. I must know more about him and what role he played in all this.
Tomorrow is the big day, the first of the meetings. I am eager to hear what went on in their heads during the experiment, plus what happened during the escape and in the intervening years.
I only realized today that Dante does indeed think of me as family. In fact he said to me that I was the only family he had left, and he has been introducing me to everyone as his uncle. He’s making a family of his own now and I need to be more careful if I wish to remain a part of it.
He closed the notebook and crawled into bed, sleeping like a rock that night. Dante woke him early the next morning. “I figured you’d want to eat breakfast before the meeting.”
“Thanks,” George said, stretching. He was starting to get a little more used to that tail. “I need a little time to collect my thoughts.” George went into the next room and dressed in his modified human clothing, but he also concealed something extra on himself, in case there was trouble.
They arrived as the regular breakfast crowd was leaving, and there were many stares and whispers as George made his appearance. Whenever anyone looked at him, he smiled and waved, which caused those looking to turn away quickly. A short time later Jonathan, Rose, Martin and his wife Tess, along with Timothy and Jenny Brisby approached the table.
“Mind if we join you?” Jonathan asked, introducing them all to George. “Not at all,” Dante replied, motioning for them to sit. Tim shook George’s hand. “We meet again, Dr. George. You seem to be in better spirits than you were at the last meeting.”
“I am, Timothy,” George replied. “Coming here has been a lifesaver for me, but now comes the hard part--making peace with your people.” Jonathan sat in silence, but it was obvious that he had a lot on his mind. Dante broke the ice, hoping to avoid any unpleasant exchanges. “Is everyone ready for the meeting?”
“Yeah, I guess,” It’s just that it’s not something I like to talk about,” Martin said. Tim interrupted before Martin could elaborate. “It was really intense at NIMH when we escaped during the fire,” Tim said.
George looked up from his meal in surprise. “You know what happened at NIMH? About the fire and Dr. Valentine and his people?”
Martin squirmed in his seat and started to answer, but again Tim intercepted the conversation. “Yes, we know all about those things.”
“It was all my doing,” Martin added sadly.
“Tell me what happened, please,” George pleaded.
Martin caught a warning glance from Tim. “It’s a very long story. We should probably wait for the meeting. Besides, it’s not something I want to have to tell more than once.” George wanted to press the issue, but then Rose Brisby glided into the room, sharing her smile with everyone, and put an arm comfortingly around Martin’s shoulder.
After a moment she looked to the newcomer. “Feeling well this morning, George?” Rose asked.
“Yes, thank you,” George said, realizing he had been cut off. “It’s just strange getting used to having a tail. Every time I turn in my sleep it moves, and since I’m not accustomed to it I panic. But I was just so exhausted yesterday that I slept like the dead.”
They chatted for a while longer and when they had finished they headed for the conference room. George walked at the back of the procession, beginning to feel anxiety at the thought of the meeting. He took comfort in the presence of the .357 magnum revolver he had concealed in a shoulder holster under his jacket. When they got to the conference room, George asked to speak with Jonathan for a moment in private. The others went inside, leaving the two in the hall.
“What’s on your mind, George?” Jonathan asked.
“Jonathan, I have been giving this meeting a great deal of thought and I have a big favor to ask.”
“I make no guarantees.”
George nodded. “I understand. Jonathan, I would like to go to this meeting in my human form.”
Jonathan’s eyes bulged in shock at the magnitude of what he was suggesting. “Are you crazy! It’s going to be difficult enough for them facing you as a rat without having to face you as you looked then!”
George held his hands up, signaling for a chance to speak. The desperation in his eyes pleaded for him. “Please? I think it would be better for them to face me like that. As everyone has been saying, they want to put the memories of NIMH to rest. I want to face them as I was then and it would probably be better for them to face Dr. George the human rather than Dr. George the rodent. I want their hate directed at me in that form rather than my new one.”
Jonathan started to pace. “I can only imagine the reaction when I walk into the Great Hall with a human in tow. It goes against every sensible instinct I have!” George said nothing, just looking at the mouse. Jonathon sighed and nodded. “All right. All right, I'll do as you ask. But be aware that it’s really going to freak them out.”
George had known that of course, but it was a risk he was willing to take. “I understand. Thanks.” Jonathan’s eyes glowed and he raised his right hand toward George. “Close your eyes, George.”
George quickly did so, feeling the strange sensation of change that he had felt before. When he opened his eyes, he saw that he had returned to his human form but was still rat-sized. He composed himself and looked to Jonathan. “Now I’m ready to face the music.”
Jonathan opened the door and he followed him in.
There were gasps and cries of alarm when George appeared. The room was set up with several rows of chairs, the mice toward the front and the rats occupying the back rows. Several rats sat at attention, each with a stenographer's machine. A podium was set up in front of them all, a large chalkboard on the wall behind it.
“Sorry for the surprise, everyone, but I think doing it this way is for the best,” George said, taking a seat next to Dante. Justin, after overcoming his own shock, walked to the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to write a new chapter in our history. We now have the opportunity to learn about our own origins and hopefully that will give us a better understanding of ourselves.”
Justin addressed himself to the unlikely guest of honor. “George, those of us gathered here are those that had been most affected by NIMH and its treatments.” He began introducing the rats and mice, each one standing when their name was mentioned. “The way this is to start is for you to begin with an explanation of the experiment. We would like to know everything about the experiment from the human perspective. We may from time to time ask questions. Now, before we begin, do you have any questions?”
“No, I’m ready to begin,” George said and walked to the podium. He took a deep breath and steeled himself, looking out toward the mass of eyes fixed upon him. “First, I would like to thank you for allowing me to come here. I realize that for most of you the only reason you are here was for this chance to face me. Still, I am grateful, and will do my best to answer any and all questions.”
George looked around to see if there were any takers but all of them were silent, most just glaring at him. He cleared his throat and began. “Project Titan was the brain child of Dr. Erhard Schultz, a brilliant doctor and geneticist, and an influential man at the National Institute of Mental Health-- more familiarly entitled NIMH. Julie and I were just grad students at the time, working on our respective PhDs: she in molecular biology and I in biochemistry.
“We were both in mundane research projects when we were approached by Dr. Schultz. He offered us the chance to work on a once-in-a-lifetime secret project that he guaranteed would make us all world-famous. Julie and I readily agreed; when you’re in such a competitive field as medical research, you jump at the chance to make the big score and make a name for yourself, especially when you’re an anonymous college student with dreams of grandeur.
Pausing, George took a sip of water from the glass that had been placed there for his benefit. The whole thing reminded him of his classes in the ancient buildings of Princeton. There was that same academic air to it, and the echo of one professor's voice as a roomful of onlookers weighed his words. Of course, no one at Princeton had ever given a lecture to such a unique audience as this.
George spoke on, his voice growing calmer as he went. “The first thing Dr. Shultz did was to swear us to secrecy. He explained that his work was so revolutionary that if anyone else discovered it, the project would be taken away from us and others would get the fame and glory. After we signed a document he had prepared, agreeing to his terms, he explained that what he was going to do was develop a way to modify existing brain cells to compensate for damaged or destroyed brain tissue, thus theoretically restoring stability to the mentally ill and reversing brain damage.”
Someone in the gallery coughed, a little too loud to be an accident, and Justin called for order. George continued. “It was amazing. The research, if successful, would revolutionize the field of neurology and psychiatry, not to mention geriatrics, and would make us all shoo-ins for Nobel prizes in medicine. Book deals and the lucrative lecture circuit would have followed. We would all have been immortalized in the world of medicine, our names mentioned in the same breath with Pasteur, Salk and Heimlich.”
George paused again, seeing if there were any questions. There were none. “At first I thought it odd that Dr. Schultz moved his operation from the main NIMH labs to the fortress...”
“What is the fortress?” one of the rats interrupted.
George looked to his right toward the question-asker. “It was the nickname of the building where you were kept. It was originally a Victorian-era music conservatory, which was bought by NIMH in the sixties and converted into a laboratory. It was called ‘the fortress’ because it was apparently modeled after a castle and the place was just plain oppressive--at least that’s how we humans felt being there.
“Shultz moved the project there because, according to him, in every gigantic government-run bureaucracy there are people who have too much seniority, are too well-recognized or too well-connected to fire. NIMH set up that place to cull the weirdoes and deadwood, setting them up with a lab and a shoestring budget and letting them sit it out until retirement.
“They also gave the projects there virtually no supervision, which is what Dr. Schultz wanted more than anything. He was paranoid that someone would steal his work, and there was some justification to his fear. Dr. Elliot Valentine was a genius, not as great a genius as Dr. Schultz, but he didn’t have an original bone in his body and Shultz knew he had a reputation of stealing others’ work.”
George felt the question had been addressed, and continued with the main story. “At this point we had a project name, a budget and a lab. All we needed now were the lab rats.” There was an angry grumble from the crowd, and several of them appeared ready to stand and challenge the speaker. George remained aloof from their hostility. “Grumble all you like. With certain exceptions, such as yourselves, NIMH is a legitimate medical organization that helps millions of people with terrible, debilitating mental illnesses. You have to learn to take the good with the bad.”
Several people from the crowd stood now and began shouting at him angrily. Justin stood and commanded them to be silent and sit down. To George’s relief they did so. “For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Dr. Schultz didn’t want to go with the typical white, easily obtained Wistar lab rats. He specifically asked for wild rats. The only explanation he gave was ‘I have enough tame ones’.
George could sense the proverbial volcano bubbling in the room, and while he wanted to make his points he realized that he had best keep his voice calm while doing it. “That was a mistake on his part, because if he had gone with the standard born-and-bred lab rats, being so tame they probably would never have had the initiative to escape, at least not with the audacity...er, resourcefulness that you did.
“The lot of you were rounded up by animal control, along with those of B group and the control group and brought to the lab. During the sorting we discovered you mice mixed in with the rats and debated what to do with you. Eventually Dr. Schultz decided to add you to the experiment. The first stage was to use you to test his secret formula and augment your brains to see if we could improve your thinking capacity.”
Mr. Ages stood up now, and to George’s surprise addressed his question in a professional manner. “From what you knew of the details of the experiment at that point, was the mutation that occurred in us a possibility?”
“From what I knew of the experiment then, no,” George replied. “It was much later that I discovered the true nature of the experiment.” George redirected his remarks now to the entire audience. “It was a long process. We were doing unprecedented research, but eventually when you began showing signs of increased intelligence we were astonished. You obviously know what happened next much better than I do. I have to admit I found it alarming the first time one of you solved the maze using the printed symbols as guides. We knew you were becoming smarter--it was obvious.”
Now he looked to one rat in particular. “For instance, when you, Justin, leaped out of your cage and examined the baseboard and found the air duct, we thought it interesting, but nothing more than that. It was inconceivable to us that you were already plotting escape.”
George took another sip of water. “By the third year, I think that Julie and I were honestly growing afraid of what we had done. By that time you were beginning to develop humanoid characteristics, and we realized that we had perhaps gone too far. Dr. Schultz took a sample of brain cells from each of you, supposedly for examination, but as it turns out he implanted them into Dante. Where he learned neurosurgery is beyond me; it certainly wasn’t on his resume.”
At this point, George began to run the images of what had happened through his mind, so vivid were the memories. “Well, a few months later Julie and I came into work to find Dr. Schultz standing before the wall of empty cages, a wild look in his eyes. He explained that you all had escaped. We searched every inch of the lab, and then we found the open heating vent, with the thread leading into the shaft.”
George reached into his pocket and withdrew a small object and tossed it to Justin. The rat gasped when he recognized it as the actual spool of thread that they had used during their escape. George managed a slight smile. “I thought you might like to have that as a souvenir.”
Justin passed the spool around to all the others, and George continued as they looked at the unique artifact. “Julie and I were in a daze and Dr. Schultz called maintenance to tear the ductwork apart to find you. They found just six mice in the bottom of a ‘U’ shaped piece of ventilation duct. A thorough search of the outside produced the neck tags you all had worn, but beyond that no trace of you could be found. Later that same day we went to our department head with the news of the escape. Dr. Schultz told him about your abnormally high intelligence and that you had engineered your escape. He warned the head that with your intelligence you posed a threat to the human race.”
George formed an amused look on his face. “And do you know what the head’s response to this news was? He laughed! Laughed in our faces, and he laughed so hard he fell out of his chair. Needless to say, he didn’t share our concern. When we left his office, Julie and I were fired and Dr. Schultz was given a severe censure.”
“What were the grounds for you being fired?” one of the mice asked.
“Gross dereliction of duty, carelessness, not following proper procedures, stuff like that. The department head believed that we had screwed up whatever it was we were working on and destroyed all of you, and that we made up the escape story as a lame excuse to cover our mistake. NIMH kept the event under wraps, not because they believed us, but that it would make them look bad if the press and public found out that a bunch of lab animals had gone missing.”
A shadow seemed to cross George’s face when he spoke again. “When Julie and I left the building, carrying the contents of our desks in cardboard boxes, Dr. Schultz caught up with us in the parking lot. He took us aside and explained to us what the experiment had really been about. Then he took a discarded glass bottle from a garbage can, and when he did his eyes began glowing and he altered the bottle in a way that should’ve been impossible. He told me he would hunt you down to the ends of the earth, assuring us that he would bring things under control again. Then he returned to the building.
“Julie and I, on the other hand, went to a nearby pub and proceeded to get totally wasted. Now that we were laughingstocks at NIMH, we decided to return to school and try to salvage any chance of remaining in the field of science.”
Justin stood up. “I think that’s enough for now. Let’s give some of the older members a chance to get up and stretch their legs. Anyone who’s hungry can retire with me to the cafeteria.” All that speaking had sparked George’s appetite, so he accompanied Justin and Dante for a bite of early lunch. Several of the rats and mice had come as well, and while they wouldn’t approach him, he could hear them whispering to each other excitedly. So far, George was simply relieved that they hadn’t killed him.
An hour later, the meeting resumed with George back at the podium. “After college, I formed a bio-research company and Julie worked for me. One day Dr. Schultz comes calling--he said that his funding at NIMH had been cut and that he needed a place to continue his research. I gave him the warehouse next to my lab to do his thing. He would disappear for months at a time and would make strange phone calls at all hours of the night, keeping me updated of his progress in the hunt. When he was eventually fired by NIMH, he spent almost all his time between my warehouse and his private lab.
“By this time Julie and I had become full-fledged alcoholics, so the details after that are a little dim. The next big event was a massive explosion several years later at Dr. Schultz’s lab. Julie, the only other person present that night, rushed onto the scene and dragged Dr. Schultz out of the wreckage. By the time she did he was already dead--or so we thought, as I later learned.”
Some of the audience exchanged hushed whispers at this statement until several others shushed them. “A few days later Dante returned home for his father’s funeral. The next day he came to my lab to pick up his father’s car. Julie, Dante and I were in my office talking when Dante happened to mention project Titan. Julie and I tried to convince Dante to not dig to deep into his father’s work, but he insisted. I gave him the keys to his father’s secret lab, which had been given to me by Rita.”
“Who is Rita?” Justin asked.
“My aunt, my mother’s sister,” Dante replied. “We both warned Dante that what he would find there was going to change him forever, and not for the good. It certainly did. Later that night Dante comes to the lab with a dead rat--one of your type. At that point we told Dante about what we had done at NIMH and we again told him to just walk away from what he had discovered, and it seemed like we had succeeded until he got to the parking lot.”
George took a large gulp of water now, the memory of what came next far too unpleasant for his taste. “There, a giant human-sized rat was waiting for him. That giant rat turned a bunch of the nearbly squirrels into huge, ferocious monsters that tried to kill Dante. Dante dispatched them easily enough with his sword, but the rat guy was a tougher nut to crack. I ended up having to blow him away with the gun that I had kept on me for just such an emergency. I told Dante to just run for it, and he did.
“With great difficulty, Julie and I moved the bodies of the rat and the squirrels to the back of the lab and set them on fire. When they were burned up we went to Dr. Schultz’s secret lab, which Dante had set ablaze. We’d advised him to burn it down without going inside, but he went in anyway. We made sure it was burned to ashes, then we returned to the lab and continued with our drinking as if nothing had happened. Aa day or so later I had the strangest dream--Julie, Rita and I were present while Dante, George and a giant mouse that was Rose (I didn't know that at the time though) watched Dr. Schultz live his life in flashback. It was freaky seeing where Schultz had learned about the origin of those strange powers.”
Some in the crowd looked at Rose speculatively, but no one interrupted George's interesting tale. “We watched these things and then when it ended we were thrown back to reality. Julie got up and told me she was quitting and left the lab right then and there. Her last words were enigmatic: ‘George, I quit. It’s over at last and I can finally return home,’ she said, and took off without another word. I sent an e-mail to Dante, hoping against hope that he was still alive after all that had happened. In response to my letter I had another strange dream.”
“You say these were dreams.” This was Justin, who had sensed a need to give the audience a moment’s pause. “Are you sure that at the time you perceived them only as dreams, and not more?”
“Just dreams,” George said. “After all, how was I to know that there was a group of sentient rodents who could communicate with me that way? I knew the dreams were vibrant and unique, but never having experienced that before I rationalized it as some offshoot of the incident with the giant rat… or it might have been the booze.”
One of the older rats stood up now, around Mr. Ages’ age. “Let us return to the matter at hand. What was the topic of your next dream?”
George returned his attention to the full room. “Dante, courtesy of Jonathan, visited me in a dream to say goodbye and to assure me that you weren’t plotting to kill Julie or me. Over the proceeding months, my health declined and my doctor told me I had one foot in the grave because of my alcoholism. He advised me to quit and I reluctantly did so. That left me with time to think, and I realized it was you, the survivors of NIMH, that I feared more than anything. And now I had a link with you, via Dante. I decided to make you an offer I was sure you couldn’t refuse, and I was correct. That is the how and why for why I am here.”
A general buzz emanated from the room as the rats and mice started talking among themselves. Justin called for quiet, and for the question session to begin. A rat near the back row on the left side of the oval-shaped room stood up. “Are you saying that no one at NIMH believed you?”
“Not one single person,” George said. “I mean, look at you--the notion of walking, talking intelligent rats and mice with magical powers exists for humans only in fairy tales. The very impossibility of your existence is your greatest protection. Searching for you would be like looking for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. As for you mice that had been recaptured, you could have won Academy Awards for your performances as dumb lab animals when Dr. Schultz showed you to the director.”
One of the mice raised his hand. “How did Dr. Valentine get control of the project?”
“As Dr. Schultz grew more unhinged, NIMH was getting ready to can him. Valentine, who had long suspected that Schultz was working on something astonishing, had been secretly working to take the project away from him. When Schultz failed to catch you at the farmhouse, that’s when NIMH pulled the plug. Dr. Valentine was given control of the wreckage of project Titan. I can’t tell you much about his particular work, as I was long gone by that time. It’s funny in a sense--he wanted Titan in the worst way, and boy did he get it. Julie and I were back in school and Schultz was going insane, so all he had to work with was the documentation that we had kept of the experiment, which I later learned from Schultz was all faked”.
“Faked, you say?” Mr. Ages asked. “But surely he must've had legitimate notes somewhere.” George shrugged. “If he did, we never knew it. He had been removing the true results of his work so that he would leave no trail, and in fact he said that if someone did try to do what he did using what he left behind, they were in for a world of trouble. Anyhow, Valentine set out to figure out what in the world we had been working on.
“He knew the rumors and gossip about the escape and your high intelligence, but you that remained behind kept up your dumb animal act like professionals. The poor dope had no idea what he was walking into. I’m told he even went back to the farmhouse where you guys had lived and tried to capture you. The next thing I hear from the NIMH grapevine is that the ’fortress’ has burned down and Valentine and his team had their brains turned to jelly and are now running around acting like dogs.”
“What do you mean ‘NIMH grapevine’?” one of the other mice asked.
“I still have a few acquaintances at NIMH. They kept me up to date on the doings at the lab. I’m even told that over the years project Titan has taken on the status of an urban legend at the lab, where it’s unofficially referred to as ‘The Secret of NIMH’. It makes sense when you think about it--imagine your capacity for terrorism, assassination, sabotage and espionage. You could go anywhere and get into virtually anyplace. That’s just without your powers; with them...well, I’ll admit that frightens me a little even now to think of it. Some of my friends at NIMH jokingly e-mail me whenever there’s some catastrophe, asking me if I thought my super-rats were carrying out their war on humanity.”
Mercy took the floor. “Seeing us here and seeing what we have done, do you regret working on project Titan?”
George saw the interest level of the audience rise tremendously at this question, so he carefully weighed his words before answering. “I admit that I have very mixed feelings about the lot of you. I wanted to be a great scientist, but one of the first research projects I worked on turned out to be a detour into the Twilight Zone. It ruined my career before it even began. This is not where I pictured myself being at this point in my life. I feel like a mix of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau and Dr. Dolittle. I’ll admit that I’m bitter. This project didn’t just ruin my career, it ruined me.”
The emotions were churning in him now, and George for better or worse let them out.“Do you have any idea how many nights I’ve woken up screaming as I dreamed of the lot of you tearing at my flesh? I haven’t been able to look at a rat or mouse since the experiment! Anytime I would see one, I would always wonder if there was some nefarious intelligence hidden behind those eyes. Ironically, I would actually be worse off if I hadn’t accepted Dr. Schultz’s offer to work on Titan and just continued on the project I was originally working on.”
“Why?” Mercy asked.
“I was originally working for Dr. Valentine when Dr. Schultz stole me away for his secret project. If I had stayed with him I’d be with him and his people at the state hospital learning to walk and talk again.”
Martin’s face showed his horror at the thought. “They’re still acting like dogs?”
George nodded. “I visited Elliot a while back, poor slob. It may be another five to ten years of intensive therapy until they can bring them all back to any semblance of humanity.” Martin just buried his face in his hands. “Those poor people.”
Anja stood up and walked in front of the podium. “What gave you the right to inflict such torture on us!”
George responded just as tersely. “The way I see it, you came out of this experiment the winners by a long shot. We were humans, you were animals, and man has the right to do anything he wants to the entire animal kingdom.”
There was an angry rumble from the crowd, but George didn't let faze him. “Welcome to the top of the heap, folks. The first rule you’ll have to learn about being a higher life form is simple; life isn’t fair, so get used to it. One day, when your people begin experimenting on those creatures you deem as being beneath you, you’ll see how easy it can be to do it.”
“We are not like the humans, George. We would never do such a thing,” Mr. Ages said indignantly. George faced him. “It seems that the lot of you haven’t been willing to accept what we really did to you. It’s as plain as the nose your faces, but you just won’t accept it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dr. Schultz took human DNA, altered it and introduced it into your bodies. It fused with your rodent DNA and replaced many key elements in your physiology, and gave you those articulated hands, bipedal motion, speech and higher brain functions. So let’s just end the notion of a pure animal nature free of human contamination. What we did was simply transplant human nature into you.”
The crowd again erupted in shouts and epithets, and it was all Justin and the guards could do to contain them. George wasn't deterred. “The truth is always hard to accept, but in the long run it’s always the best thing. I don’t quite understand your reluctance to accept this fact. Look at yourselves! Don’t any of you think it’s odd that many of you have extraneous facial and cranial hair? Let me ask you, when was the last time any of you ran around on all fours? When did you last groom yourself with your tongue? When was the last time any of you walked around naked in public? Any of these things would seem unthinkable now, right?
The crowd grew silent at this, and George knew now they were listening. “I’ve wondered about your clothing. Having fur, it just seems so unnecessary. I found what I believe is the answer. In the Bible, at the point where Adam and Eve had just eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it states: ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’ It would appear that Dr. Schultz force-fed you that knowledge.”
George was now forced to shout over the cries of anger from the crowd. “At what point did you decide that it was necessary to get married! It didn’t feel right just taking a mate, did it!” George spread his arms out, emphasizing his words. “How about Jenner! He was your first taste of evil on a human level!”
“I bet you haven’t even given yourselves a scientific name yet. You’re not Rattus Rattus anymore, so what are you now-- Rattus-sapiens, Rattus-erectus, Homo-Rattus? You complain about the experiment, but look around! Look what you’ve built here. Can any one of you look me in the eye and tell me you regret being in the experiment? Who among you wishes they had remained an ordinary sewer rat, and would any of you really be willing to give all this up and go back to the Carlton Avenue Fish and Farmer’s Market, scavenging for rotting vegetables and fish heads?”
He looked intently at the crowd, but none dared to answer. “I thought as much. The fact that you’re all alive now, years later, is another indication of the effects of the human DNA. If you had escaped the nets, you’d be long dead! Think about all that you have done and accomplished in this new life, then compare that with what you were capable of before. How much do any of you even remember about your lives as feral animals anymore?”
George focused his attention, pointing. “Mr. Ages, remember back to the first time you healed someone? How did if feel knowing you were the first of your kind to do that since the world was created?”
For a time, no one seemed to know what to say. It was as if they all had exhausted what was in their souls to speak, and the slightest noise was audible. It was one of the rats who broke the stalemate. “Why did Dr. Schultz create us, then? Why didn’t he just experiment on humans?”
As he was about to reply, George noticed a mouse approach Jonathan and Rose Brisby and after a few moments of discussion they followed the mouse out of the room. He was grateful for the topic shift and for a few moments to collect his thoughts and emotions before going into the next round.
“He wanted to see what parts of the brain controlled those weird powers,” George said. “He made you because he believed you were more easily controlled and supervised, and any changes in you would be more easily observed. When the project was over you could also be...disposed of easily. He couldn’t work on human subjects; it would have been very difficult, not to mention illegal to get test subjects.”
“It would be difficult to conceal and very, very hard to dispose of the evidence. Or worse, what if the test subjects manifested dangerous powers? When he felt he was close enough to his goal, he risked experimenting on Dante. The rats’ increased intelligence wasn’t entirely unexpected, but since nothing like this experiment had ever been done before, we didn’t know what exactly to expect. Ironically, they ended up developing powers to the degree that Dr. Shultz sought and had gained the intelligence to use it.”
“What would have become of us at the end of the experiment?” Anja asked.
“If things had gone as planned, at the end of the experiment we would have euthanized all of you, removed your brains, sliced them into pieces and examined them under the microscope to study the extent of the improvement. Then we would have made alterations to the formula that we injected into you and begin injecting a new batch of rats in the hopes of getting better results.”
Most of the crowd rose to its feet. Justin, Dante, Tim and Anja leaped up defensively in front the of podium while Justin tried to calm the mob. Eventually they began returning to their seats.
Anja quickly turned to George and before he could react she plunged a dagger into his chest, pushing him to the ground and raising the knife for a second blow. Overcoming his pain and moving with speed he didn’t think possible, George drew out his gun and pressed it under her chin. He looked at the others--Justin, Dante, Mr. Ages and several others were moving to his aid, the rest just too stunned to act.
He looked up at Anja, who had a terrified look on her face. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t blow your brains out.” He put a hand over his wound, and then looked at his hand, covered with blood. Anja dropped her dagger.
“Not satisfied yet? I’m sorry!” he shouted in her face. “Open your eyes!” he demanded. She opened them, wide with fear.
Dante took a step closer to George, but George waived him off. “Stay back, Dante! I’m not through yet.”
“Uncle George, let us help you,” Dante said.
“George, please put the gun down.” Mercy pleaded. George looked at Mercy, then at Anja. He remembered her from NIMH, number A-5. He looked to Justin and the others who were now gathered around him, all of them alarmed.
“Get back!” he shouted to them, they quickly withdrew. He looked at Anja menacingly. “On your feet, slowly!”
He struggled to his own feet, his wound bleeding badly, the whole time keeping the gun to her chin. “I have something more to say. I came here to beg for forgiveness. What happened to you was a complete accident. We made you, but we can’t take any credit for what you built here--that was your doing alone.
George paused to breathe, fighting to keep the pain and shock at bay. “You may not like what you’ve heard, but it was the honest truth. But I can see that it’s not sufficient for some of you. Some of you want my blood, so here it is. Take it, with my compliments!”
He put his free hand over his wound until it was covered with blood, then he wiped his hand on Anja's face, leaving bloody streaks on her fur. He repeated the process, streaking both sides of her face. She closed her eyes and shuddered as he did it.
“George, stop this madness! You’re going to bleed to death,” Mr. Ages said. Guy took a step forward. “George, please, don’t kill her! We have eight kids. She was just overcome by the moment!”
George's look was icy as a glacier. “She just happened to be carrying a concealed weapon at the time. It looks a little premeditated to me.”
“We were all angry at you. I just didn’t think she’d do this! Please, don’t hurt her! We have eight children.” Guy pleaded.
George considered it for a long moment. “You’re right. I don’t want to make my position here even worse than it is now.” George took her hand and put the gun in it, then he guided her hand up to his forehead so the barrel was right between his eyes. She tried to pull her hand away, but he gripped it too tightly for her to do so.
“Here, this is what you want. Go ahead, do it!”
Anja cried and whimpered, and after a brief pause he yanked the gun out of her hand. He took it by the muzzle, offering it to the others. “If this is what it will take to even the score, just say the word. Just one of you, please! Then you’ll have your revenge.”
Justin spoke to him soberly. “George, we don’t want revenge. We just wanted answers.” Dante was visibly shaken. “Uncle George, what are you doing! Put the gun down, you’re bleeding badly!”
George lowered the gun, sighing, and handed it to Justin. In one motion, he staggered and collapsed to the floor. Justin pulled Anja away, the others crowded around him. George saw Mr. Ages quickly begin issuing orders and treating the wound, and George smiled. “How’s this for irony,” he muttered. “My life...is now...in your hands...” He tried to say more, but didn't have the ability and lapsed into unconsciousness.
When George awoke, he didn’t know how much time passed. He looked out a nearby window--it appeared to be early morning. Slowly, and with a lot of pain he sat up. He realized he was a rat again. Connected to his furry arm was an I.V. bottle and a strange device that appeared to be a heart monitor. He looked at his chest, and found the wound well bandaged.
A short time later Mr. Ages entered, who appeared surprised to see George sitting up. “George, you’re awake! How do you feel?”
“I’ve felt better,” George said, trying to find a way to sit that was comfortable. “What’s the damage?”
“Your little dramatic display nearly cost you your life. In fact when you were on the operating table, your heart actually stopped beating. I had to do CPR to get it going again.”
George slowly reached out a hand in gratitude. “I owe you my life.” Mr. Ages simply stared back. “It’s my job, George. I don’t do it to earn favors.”
“You could have easily let me die and you didn’t, so thank you.”
“If it will make you feel better, George, let’s just say I am willing to bury the hatchet,” Mr. Ages said and grabbed George's hand just as he'd started to lower it. George looked surprised, but didn’t hesitate to shake his hand.
“Mr. Ages, now that I’m awake, I need to speak to you and Justin alone as soon as possible and I need someone to bring me my big duffle bag from my room.”
Mr. Ages was writing on a clipboard now, noting George's vital signs. “Is it that important? You need your rest.” George nodded emphatically. “It is that important.”
“Very well. I will call Justin and tell him this instant,” Mr. Ages said and left the room. A short time later Justin showed up with the duffle bag and joined Mr. Ages at George’s bedside. “I’m glad to see you’re awake, George,” Justin said. “You really had us all worried. Dante was really upset, and he’ll be glad to know you’ve recovered. I owe you an apology, George. I gave you my assurance that no harm would come to you and I failed to fulfill that promise.”
“Forget about it, Justin. I must say, in a sense I’m glad it happened. I knew I was in your power and that really frightened me. But you were willing to save my life, which showed me that my life actually has some value to you. I just wanted to say that it really means a lot to me.”
“All life has value, George,” Justin said.
George motioned for them to come closer, his voice beginning to weaken some with the effort. “The reason I asked to speak to you is that there is something I wanted to give you. Only the two of you should be allowed to know of it, but if you wish to tell the others, so be it. Justin, open the duffle bag.”
Justin opened the bag and removed a large folder. He stopped when he saw what else was in the bag, and George smiled. “I forgot, that’s something else you might need. You may have to face humans again one day or you may need more supplies from the human world. There’s 2.4 million dollars in cash there, plus twenty one-ounce gold bars. Or rather they will be if Jonathan enlarges the bag back to regular size. If you want to know how to deal with the human race, right there is your answer.”
“Where did you ever get this much money!” Justin asked, handing the folder to George.
“I liquidated all my assets, except the business. But the important thing is that file,” he said, pointing to the file folder. “I hope and pray that it’s the very last factual documentation of the process that created you.”
George was showing signs of anemia, so Mr. Ages brought him some juice to drink. He downed it gratefully, then gestured to the folder in Justin’s hands as the rat flipped through the pages. “Those are photocopies of Dr. Schultz’s own documents. I waited till he left on one of his hunts for you, then I called a locksmith to open the safe in his lab at my warehouse. Inside was a stack of papers in a bundle, which I made photocopies of and returned them to the safe, locking it up again.”
“He apparently never discovered what I had done, fortunately. Who knows what he would have done to me if he had. The things described on those pages were bizarre, unearthly...I’d almost call it anti-science. It took me years to figure it out, and when I did I was even more horrified by what we had done than I was before. I now had the knowledge to do what he did, and it terrified me.”
“Did Julie have access to this file?” Mr. Ages asked.
“No,” he replied, and then paused. “Unless...unless she did to me what I did to Dr. Schultz and copied my files. I don’t think she did, though. I certainly never mentioned I had it.” George pointed to the folder, which Mr. Ages was holding now. “In your hands you hold your blueprint. With that you have the knowledge to create more of yourselves. You could even create new species of creatures, or mutate other animals. It’s Pandora’s Box, and I’ll leave it up to you whether to open it or leave it closed.”
“Without these documents, could you recreate the experiment?” Mr. Ages asked.
“No,” George said. “From memory I could perhaps go about seventy percent of the way, but the other thirty would require dangerous trial and error. I debated within myself long and hard about whether or not to give you that. I decided that if I was going to be one of you, then it was in my best interest to give you every possible advantage for our survival.”
Mr. Ages opened the file and began leafing through it, and Justin approached George’s bedside again. “We will need to think carefully before we decide what to do with that. Thank you, George.” The human turned rodent paused for a few moments to rest, then another pressing question came to him. “What happened to the lady that stabbed me?”
“Well, Anja is under house arrest until we can decide what disciplinary action to take.”
“Don’t do anything to her.”
Justin raised an eyebrow, confused. “George, are you sure? She tried to kill you!”
“Justin, I honestly expected to be cut down two steps past the front door when I got here. If that’s the only stabbing I receive, I’ll count myself very lucky. I would recommend that she get some counseling. I wouldn’t like to go through this again.”
“We have already made arrangements for that. She has always had a hard time dealing with the trauma of the experiment and your coming here was just too much for her, apparently. Your wiping the blood on her face certainly had a deep effect. I’m told that for hours she sat in front of a mirror and scrubbed her face over and over. Her family will be grateful to hear that you won’t pursue the matter.”
George leaned back on his bed. “I just want to get settled in. I don’t want any conflicts. What I do want is to get back to the meeting. I’m dying--no pun intended--to know about what happened to all of you.”
Mr. Ages put the folder aside. “Well, I’d say it will be at least a week till I’ll let you out of the hospital, but we can get you up and on your feet tomorrow. We can’t risk letting you just lie around and have you developing pneumonia or blood clots.”
“This is an impressive operation you have here. How many people do you have working for you?” George asked. The old rodent physician adjusted his spectacles. “There are three doctors, myself included. My wife is in training and we have eight on the nursing staff.”
“This is all just so amazing. It’s the same planet I was born and grew up on, and yet here I am now, a rat in a hospital run by a mouse, in a community run by a rat. It’s all too much to believe!”
Justin placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, George. Soon Thorn Valley will feel like home to you,” Justin said.
“That will be nice,” George said, and with a contented sigh he closed his eyes to rest.
Later that day Dante and Cynthia stopped by to visit him. It was obvious that Dante was still deeply shaken by the experience of what had happened. Mr. Ages understood, but he was also firm that they were to stay no longer than fifteen minutes. Dante walked in first, finding George awake and being attended by one of the nurses. “Uncle George, that was way too close! I thought you were a goner!”
George motioned him over, and then the young female mouse appeared from behind Dante. She advanced timidly, but her smile was genuine. “I’m glad as well to see you’re well, Dr. George. I was worried you might not be here to see the wedding.”
“After what happened, I’m glad to be able to see anything,” George said. He reached out a hand to her and she eagerly gave him hers. “I’m happy for both of you and I look forward to your wedding.”
Jonathan and Rose came to visit a few minutes later. George was surprised to see that Jonathan even appeared to be genuinely concerned about his health, and Rose was very supportive. They also explained their reason for leaving the meeting. Anja had arranged to have them out of the room at the time of the attack, so they couldn’t use their powers to stop her.
After half an hour, Mr. Ages shooed them all out in his own loving and tender way. Jonathon joked abut his beside manner, and George returned to his resting. At the end of the week it was decided that he had recovered sufficiently to return to his apartment, with extra guards in place. The first thing he did was go to his notebook.
Days Three to Eleven
Went to meeting with the escapees. Stabbed! Ended up in hospital for a week. This rodent body is remarkably resilient.
While in the hospital I received many visitors and was very surprised to see that cards and letters were delivered to me from concerned members of the community. Some were from the twenty-eight survivors of NIMH and others were from members of the younger generation. They expressed their feelings of bitterness and anger, but also of forgiveness and reconciliation. Apparently the stabbing had been cathartic for many of them.
These feelings were confirmed when I read the newspaper and saw that the community was shaken by the incident. Many had initially wanted to strike back at me, but now that someone had actually done so they were all horrified by the act.
They had realized that they didn’t want my blood after all, much to my relief. I like it where it is. I have gotten to know the hospital staff fairly well. Mr. Ages and I have made peace with each other, if anyone really can with that grumpy old soul. I was surprised to learn that he was married to Mercy. I would have thought him a bit old for her, but they certainly seem happy together.
Luke and Laura are a curious couple. It would actually appear that they are in love! I’m still struggling to cope with the idea of cross-species romance, but have finally come to terms with the idea of Dante marrying Cynthia. He is so happy here, it amazes me. Rita, Julie and I always hoped Dante would meet a nice girl and settle down. Well, I suppose doing that here is okay.
When the meetings resumed, George felt comfortable enough to go in his rodent form. This was the part he had been waiting years to hear: what happened during and after the experiment? He was relieved to be in the room and not feel the overwhelming hostility that he had sensed before. The tension was not quite gone, but it was definitely lessened. Justin and the others took turns speaking when they began the narrative of the rats and mice, and they told of their struggles as they were captured in the nets, the fear of being in the lab and their life in captivity.
George was amazed when he went over his own memories of the time in the lab, seeing the same things and conducting the experiments that Justin and the others spoke of. All the things they spoke of were going on before the very eyes of Dr. Schultz, Julie and himself. It seemed impossible that they had all been so blind as to not see these things.
The survivors spoke of their planning of the escape, about stealing the thread and taking the screwdriver to pry open the vent covers. Slowly, they outlined the weeks spent going through the vents, trying to find one that led to freedom.
“The day we made our escape was the most frightening,” Justin said. “We knew that once the scientists were aware of our escape that they would do anything to get us back. Once we started, there was no going back. I opened the cages that held the mice, serving as lookout while they scampered up into the ventilation system. The trip through the ducts was tense, and none of us knew if we would see tomorrow.”
At that point the mice that had been recaptured spoke briefly about the beginning of their ordeal after being blown away from the rest of the group. Then Jonathan spoke of his going through the grate that blocked the escape to the roof and how he opened it. Then they took turns speaking of their time of flight, each telling what they knew, and of the tragic death of Nell and its effect on Jenner.
Of particular interest to George was the recounting of their time at the Boniface estate and the other formative events of their early history. “The Bonifaces, like the Fitzgibbons have been our unknowing benefactors,” Justin said. “The Boniface estate sat empty, as its owner and his new bride were traveling the globe on an eight-month honeymoon. While they were gone we moved in for the winter and stayed until spring. We devoured the massive library, learning everything we could. That was the turning point in the destiny of our people, for there we got our education and it was there that we discovered Thorn Valley National Park.”
The rats spoke with great fondness of the Rosebush colony and life on the Fitzgibbons farm. Jonathan recounted his loneliness and of his meeting Rose and starting a family. Mr. Ages, when asked, reported that his main desire there had been for privacy, and of his moving to the old threshing machine.
When the rats spoke of Jenner and his growing influence on the community, it was evident that the evil rodent was a blight on their community’s honor. They spoke reverently of Nicodemus and all that he had done for them, and of his tireless work on the Plan. They all agreed that next to the humans, the cat known as Dragon had been their greatest adversary.
Jonathan recalled his fateful encounter with the cat, then Rose told George of her life and of meeting Jonathan. She wiped tears from her eyes when she got the point in her story where Jonathan had died, and of raising the children alone and life without him. George was amazed at her courage when she told him about the events that led to her meeting with the Great Owl and her trip to the rats. When she got to the point of being held captive in the bird cage and overhearing the phone call from Dr. Schultz, George interrupted.
“I’m sorry, please allow me to explain. I remember it well, the night he called the farmer. I got a phone call in the middle of the night from Dr. Schultz. The man was beside himself with excitement. He told me that Mercy had tracked the rats to a farmhouse in West Virginia, and that he had just spoken to the farmer and gotten permission to destroy the rosebush where you rats were hiding. He was so intent on destroying you that he couldn’t wait till morning to speak to the farmer-- that’s why he called so late. If he had just had the patience to wait a few more hours he probably would’ve taken you by complete surprise. As to who this Mercy person was that he spoke of I’ve never been able to figure out.”
George glanced momentarily at Mercy and she smiled, and to his surprise spoke up. “I am the Mercy he spoke of. Later I will tell my story and answer that question.”
The story of the cinderblock came next, along with the murder of Nicodemus and the death of Sullivan and the apparent death of Jenner. Then Rose in glowing words spoke of the wondrous event with the stone, and how she had moved the cinderblock. Justin and the others detailed the frantic dismantling of the Rosebush colony and the hurried flight from the farm to Thorn Valley. The hardship of the first year gradually led to the good times that followed, and the events and dangers that they faced as a stable colony.
Martin approached the podium and hesistantly began recounting his capture by Dr. Valentine and the experimentation he was subjected to, along with how he turned the situation around and took control of Dr. Valentine and the other humans at the lab.
“The process Dr. Valentine used was called ‘Electro-Cerebral Enhancement’,” Martin explained. “When Mr. Ages restored me, I fortunately lost all the details of the process.”
“The process was no doubt the culmination of a lifetime of stolen research and ideas all rolled into one,” George said.
“I manifested great powers--greater than mom or dad has, even greater than those Dr. Schultz and Jenner possessed. They were possibly greater than all the others combined, and with those powers I was going to lay waste to the entire planet.”
He continued in his story up to the point where he had brainwashed Dr. Valentine and his people, but before Tim had arrived. He returned to his seat, his wife taking his hand and putting an arm around his shoulder.
George just sat there in stunned silence. Martin had talked like a comic book supervillain; he alone had the power to destroy the world. How on earth did we create these creatures? Where do these powers come from?
The mice that had remained at NIMH began to speak, talking of their captivity by Dr. Schultz and later by Dr. Valentine, and how Valentine became even more unhinged than his predecessor. They also mentioned the ‘evil’ Martin taking control of everything, and Jenny spoke of her perilous trek from NIMH to Thorn Valley, using only the directions supplied by Martin before he was altered.
“It was terrifying,” Jenny said. “I had never been outside the lab before. I didn’t know how to forage for food or to watch out for predators. I didn’t know how to survive in the wild. It’s strange--at times during my trip it felt like some unseen hand was guiding me. As I think about how I got here, I still can’t believe I actually made it alive. The odds were astronomically against me.”
She continued her story up to the point where she encountered Tim, then he, Martin and Justin joined her up front, each taking turns telling of what happened next. Jenny and Tim had requested that they go back to rescue Martin and the others that had been left behind, which led to the encounters with two cats and the altered Martin.
Martin’s voice literally trembled at times as he described the terrible things he had done. “And when Tim and Jenny refused to join me, I...I... tried to kill them.” He began sobbing, and Tess and Rose rushed up to him and led him back to his seat.
Tim and Jenny finished their part of the story, then the mice spoke of their arrival in the valley and growing accustomed to their new life. Justin had chosen Tim as his vice-president. Jonathan and Dante told of their strange meeting and the entire group spoke of the battle with Jenner and Dr. Schultz and its aftermath. At the end, they spoke of the plans to free Jenner’s colony, and Mercy spoke of her life and her dealings with Jenner and Dr. Schultz and then of the details of the actual liberation of the other colony and some of the new arrivals spoke with her of their adjustment to the wonders of Thorn Valley.
When Mercy had finished, a long period of discussion took place as the colony historians asked questions. Justin pulled George aside. “Well, George? What do you think?”
“I’m too stunned for words, frankly,” George said, trying to process it all. “To think that in a valley, in a national park in West Virginia, an evil rat and a mad scientist fought a battle in which the fate of the entire world hung in the balance and we’re the only people on earth who know about it.”
George looked Justin in the eyes. “I am struck by one last ironic thought, though. Dr. Schultz taught Mercy how to track you, when right in front of him was his own son who could see through your eyes. If he had known that, he could’ve followed you anywhere, but he was so blinded by his mission he didn’t see opportunity staring him in the face.”
Justin agreed. “It’s all so unbelievable, if I hadn’t seen it all myself, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Shortly, Jonathan and Rose approached them. “George, we would like to know if you would help us with something,” Jonathan asked.
“Well, I don’t know how useful I’ll be. I’m still recovering from my injury, but I’ll do what I can.”
Justin started to leave, but Jonathon grabbed his arm. “Actually, I would like to speak to you also, Justin. Could we meet in your office?”
“Sure,” Justin said. “Is it something serious?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Just nodded, then turned to George. “George, I also have something I wish to discuss with you, with Mr. Ages also.” Justin went off to find Mr. Ages, and when they all arrived in Justin’s office, Jonathan began speaking. “This meeting was prompted by something George said, about how Dr. Valentine and his people are still incapacitated. Rose and I have been giving this some thought and we decided that we should attempt to restore them--that is, with your approval, Justin.
“Martin is deeply affected by this,” Rose said. “He’s always felt deeply guilty and ashamed for what he did, and the fact those poor people are still affected by what he did is deeply troubling.”
“It’s a noble thought, but how?” George asked.
“The same way we went to you, George, in their dreams,” Jonathan said. “I suggest that Rose, Martin, you and I go. I also think we should take the stone. We don’t know how big a job this is going to be. Hopefully, their humanity is just buried and not destroyed.”
George didn't like the idea of it. “Why do you need me?”
“You knew the man and you’re the most recent to have seen him, plus you know exactly where he is. All those things help in making contact.”
“Am I fit enough to help?” George asked.
“There’s no strain to you. I’m the only one who’ll feel it.”
George paused, then nodded. “I’ll help, but I would like to see this stone that everyone is talking about.”
Justin unlocked a nearby drawer and removed the golden box that the stone was kept in. He opened it, removing the golden necklace from the box’s red velvet interior, and held the stone up. George could see writing on the back. Jonathon brought a lamp over to make it legible. “The inscription is, ‘You can unlock any door if you only have the key’. That’s a quote of mine that Nicodemus liked,” Jonathan said.
George reached out and touched the stone, then cried out in alarm when it blazed to life at his touch. “Ge...” Rose shouted in alarm, but George couldn't hear her any longer.
George suddenly found himself standing alone in a dimly lit room. In the distance he saw a pair of glowing eyes. He wished he still had his gun.
“Come closer,” a kindly voice said to him. He hesitantly approached the eyes. Soon the room grew brighter. George could see an ancient rat sitting in a large chair. “Nicodemus?” George asked. The rat smiled. “Yes, George Yardley. It is I, Nicodemus. You knew me as A-10. It was quite a tale you told of your coming to us. I am terribly sorry about your injury.”
George remembered how mesmerizing Nicodemus’ eyes had been in the painting. They were ten times so now. “How do you know about that and about me?”
“George, I was there watching the meeting. Life is certainly a capricious thing, is it not? I must confess that I find it hard to reconcile the image of you as you are now with the image of what you were then.”
“Believe me, the idea of spending the rest of my life looking like this isn’t very thrilling. Why am I here? Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
Nicodemus smiled slighty. “I have found it convenient for the others to believe that I am dead. I do not enjoy this deception, but it is for the best. The reason you are here is that I wished to meet you, welcome you and to thank you.”
“Thank me? Why?”
“Over the years I have come to understand that what happened at NIMH was a good thing and necessary in the great scheme of things. I want to say that I have forgiven you, George Yardley, as well as Julie and Dr. Schultz. Those of Thorn Valley will, in time, accept you. I have gone to Anja as well and spoken with her. She will not attack you again. I know you feel like an alien here, and I can help that as well. You still think like a human in a rat’s body. I can give you insight into our people that will allow you to understand and think more like us, if you wish.”
George felt uncertain, but on some level he trusted the ancient rodent. “I’ll have to think about that. I’ve lost my old life, my old body--my ‘humanity’ is all that’s left of the old me. I’m afraid of letting go of that. What’s left of Dr. George Yardley when that’s gone?”
“George, you have agreed to spend the rest of your life here. I am merely offering you the option of fitting in better.”
George took a step closer. “Do I have to decide now?”
“No, I will ask you the next time we meet.”
“Swell. You said you were thanking me for something, what?”
Nicodemus took up an old quill pen, dipping it in an inkwell. To George’s suprise, strings of light emanated from the quill as Nicodemus wrote on the parchment in front of him. “For the documentation of project Titan. I am recording that information now in the annals of NIMH. I know it was no easy task to share that with us, but it was for the good of all that you did so. You have given us our greatest chance for survival. I am sure history will remember you kindly for that. George. And when Justin asks you to help the naturals, please do so.”
Nicodemus said, returning his attention to the writing that had been going on even while he was speaking. “What do you mean by that?”
Nicodemus began to fade from view. “Farewell, George.”
“…orge!” Rose shouted in alarm. George released the stone, the light faded and the stone gently floated to the desk top. “Whoa! Was that supposed to happen?”
Rose took hold of his arm to steady him. “No. In fact you’re only the forth person who has ever activated the stone. Odd--it usually activates only during important events. I’ve never seen it happen under normal circumstances.”
“George, what happened? Are you all right?” Jonathan asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I don’t know what happened.”
“Well, it only lasted a second, so it couldn’t have been too important,” Justin said.
George turned to stare at Justin, dumbfounded. “A second! But I was...I mean, the experience lasted several minutes!” Rose calmed him. “I’ve heard the others say something similar, so that was probably quite normal. Can you tell us anything about what you saw?” George shook his head. “Not really, no. But I’ll help with the Dr. Valentine thing.”
“Excellent!” Justin said. “Jonathan, you have my approval. Can you erase the scientists’ memories of us?”
“Yes, I can wipe clean everything from the point of Dr. Valentine taking over project Titan. They won’t remember a thing.”
George still wasn’t thrilled by the idea, but he knew now that he had to come along. “When do you want to do this?” Jonathan thought it over. “I’ll need a week to prepare myself. The effort it takes is very trying.” Rose started for the door. “We should go tell Martin--he’ll be glad to finally close this chapter of his past.”
Rose and Jonathan left, and Justin continued the talk with George that they’d begun earlier. “George, there is something Mr. Ages and I would like to talk to you about.”
“What’s on your mind, guys?” George asked.
Justin and Mr. Ages traded glances. “George, I have talked with Mr. Ages about the documents you gave us. We would like you to recreate the experiment.”
George gasped in alarm. “What on earth for!”
Justin hesitated, knowing they were asking for a lot. “When the mice that had been recaptured after the escape were returned to the lab, Dr. Schultz paired the three males with the three females. They had children, and when those mice reached maturity they were paired with naturals who also had children. Those naturals are here, George, and they’re growing older. It’s not just the mice--there are some natural rats that have intermarried with us, and by this time next year they will all be dead from old age.”
“We want you to save them, George,” Mr. Ages said. “By the time our people go over this information and could reproduce the procedure, it will be too late. Our best efforts have only managed to buy them a little more time. You’re their only hope for survival.”
George crossed his arms and shook his head. “Screwing around with your DNA is what got me into this mess to begin with! It cost me everything except my life, and just last week it nearly cost me that. If I help, I want it made perfectly clear to everyone that I am doing this out of mercy and with your blessing.”
“No problem. What do you need?” Justin asked.
“The folder and a lab,” George replied. “I don't like this, though. We’re playing with power so deadly that we can’t really know if we’re doing these naturals a worse service by altering them.”
Justin unlocked a drawer on his desk and removed the folder, handing it to George. “I know there’s a risk involved, but this is a problem that is affecting the whole colony. If we’re to keep a viable gene pool, then from time to time we’d have to do this anyway or go extinct. Right now, though, the clock is ticking for the naturals and every hour counts. When can you start?”
George sighed, tucking the folder under his arm. “We could start now.”
“Fine with me,” Mr. Ages said.
“Mr. Ages, Doctor George, good luck,” Justin said.
George and Mr. Ages immediately left Justin’s office, heading quickly down the hall. “Can we do this at the hospital?” George asked.
“No,” Mr. Ages said, taking a turn through a hallway that George wasn’t familiar with. “We’ll have to take over a lab in the science wing. Do you have any idea how long this will take, George?”
“Hard to say. I think we could have things ready in a few months. But bear in mind that it will only be the beginning of the process. The full transformation will take years. It could be faster or slower, depending on how advanced your equipment and abilities are.”
“I think you will find both to be better than you expect,” Mr. Ages said. They found Arthur in his office and hastily made arrangements for a lab. George made a list of the equipment and materials he would need, then he and Mr. Ages went to inspect the lab. It was a large well-lit room, currently unoccupied.
“I think we can cut some corners if we forego the superpowers,” George said. Mr. Ages stopped in his tracks, incredulous. “You can do that?”
“Sure,” George said. “If we wanted, we could give them all sorts of powers and alter them in any way we chose. That’s what I meant about the Pandora’s Box. The limits of what we could do are limited only by our imagination--or someone else's.”
Mr. Ages understood the ramifications. “One possibility to consider is to rewrite this document. We could include just enough knowledge to recreate us.”
“Possibly. We will see as we proceed,” George said.
Together, they worked late into the night doing as much preparation as possible. As soon as they were done, George headed directly for his home where he greeted the guards and headed inside. He climbed into bed, grabbing his journal.
I am still amazed by these creatures, their unbelievable powers, their intelligence. It’s just amazing. I have been asked to participate in two extraordinary events.
I will go to help rescue Dr. Valentine and his people, and Justin and Mr. Ages have asked me to help save some unaltered rats and mice--“naturals” as they call them--from certain death. I am very hesitant to do this, but it is something very important to them. It’s like back in my days of medical residency. Lives are hanging in the balance and only I can save them.
Mr. Ages was very preoccupied during the lab setup. I think he is dreading the start of this project. He knows that it’s desperately needed, but he, like myself, is justifiably hesitant to tamper with these people. I am trusting Justin and Mr. Ages to accept responsibility for this action and publicly say that it was their idea. Well, things certainly haven’t been boring since I got here--villain a week ago, hero today. Weird.
Wound healing remarkably well. Mr. Ages has proven to be quite a good physician. I feel it will be very uncomfortable for him to work with me, doing to others what was done to them.
Something else I have been hearing about but have been looking forward to with some trepidation is the wedding of Dante and Cynthia. Am I really ready to accept such a union? Or worse, Dante put a thought in my head that I cannot shake: he said “Maybe someday you’ll meet a nice lady-rat and settle down.”
Good heavens! Could I ever grow so accustomed to this place and these people that such is possible? When he said it he was only half-joking. In my brief time here it has become very obvious to me that the residents of Thorn Valley consider family to be everything; it is their main focus and one of their greatest strengths.
I can easily see why Dante loves this place so much. All his life he has searched for a home and a family, and has found both here. He has become very attached to the Brisby family, it seems. In essence they have become a surrogate family to him. Whatever else I may feel about them as people, I am deeply grateful that they have been so kind to Dante. He needed this so desperately in his life.
He has found fulfillment here, but can I?
After he had finished his journal entry he climbed into bed. This is it--people are counting on me, lives in the balance. Many families, husbands, wives and children are looking to me to save their loved ones from an early grave. I wanted my work here to have value. I can give the gift of life. How much more meaningful than that can my work be?
George lay in bed thinking on these things as he drifted off to sleep.