It is 15 years since our departure from NIMH; and 11 years since our departure from the Fitzgibbon's farm to Thorn Valley, where we have lived undetected and in peace. As their leader, I have brought prosperity to the Rats of NIMH. Under my leadership we have built an entire city underground, beneath the thorn thicket, where neither human nor predator can reach. We harness electricity at the nearby river. Thanks in part to Mrs. Brisby, we were able to start a new civilization. And yet I sense our troubles have not yet ended, that they may never permanently end, as long as NIMH exists. No one, no rodent on Earth is completely safe anymore. The humans will never stop searching for us. They'll never leave us be.
As Justin wrote in the book Nicodemus once used, his gaze turned to the open chest on the desk beside him, where he kept a round, red jewel. He picked it up, and gazed at his own reflection in it, deep in meditation.
There has been a catastrophe, east of here, several dozen miles away. Somewhere in Dapplewood. Thousands of animals have met their death by way of toxic gas. That is what my visions tell me. Though far from here, I have a feeling, a dreadful feeling, that it will eventually come to affect Thorn Valley as well. The humans are becoming aware; not just of us, but of all intelligent rodents. And we need to be ready.
Justin signed his name at the bottom of the page, as he always did, and placed the stone back into the chest carefully. It was time to tell the council of his visions. He just hoped they would believe him.
Abigail and the Rats of NIMH
Abigail looked up at the dead tree, her ears going down as she folded her arms. She used to climb that tree and gaze across the lush forest of Dapplewood. But now its branches were bare and dry, and it wasn't yet autumn either. Her father had warned her that the branches were too brittle and might snap under her weight. Abigail had fallen out of enough trees now to not want to chance it. And even if she could get up there, she'd be gazing at a cold, lifeless forest. The gas leak two months ago had killed every living thing in its path. She was fortunate that of the few survivors, her father was one of them. She'd already lost one parent, she couldn't bear to lose both.
"There you are," came a voice from, behind, the voice of her father, "You're not thinking about climbing up that tree again, are you?"
The young woodmouse turned around, shaking her head meekly, "Of course not, daddy."
"I think until this forest starts to bounce back you'll be keeping your paws on the ground, hm? Unless you're in that flapperwingamawhatsit, of course."
"Daddy, I'm old enough to do things like that now if I'm careful," she argued, "Cornelius says so."
"I just worry is all," he said, "I know you went through that big adventure with your friends, but that's no excuse to needlessly put yourself in danger."
"I know, I know…" she twirled a tuft of her auburn hair and sighed.
Her father smiled, "You look just like your mother when you do that."
"Did you lecture her ear off too?" she asked jokingly.
Her father chuckled, "Well…let's not get into that right now. Anyway, I came to tell you that it's time for your lessons with Cornelius."
"I knew that too," Abigail said, "I was just on my way."
"What are you doing today? More cleanups? Planting some more trees and bushes?"
"Maybe," Abigail answered, "Cornelius said it was finally time for the lesson about the hard black trail in the forest, the one with the monsters-on-wheels. He said he thinks he finally knows how the gas leak happened."
"Sounds, um…very interesting," Abigail's father pulled on his collar nervously, "I'm sure he knows what he's doing, but you pay extra attention to Cornelius today. That trail is really dangerous…I've had friends who died walking there."
"I know, I'll be really careful daddy," she said, giving him a hug.
He hugged her back, "I know you will. Now, I'll see you this afternoon. You better get going."
"Bye daddy, I love you" she said.
"Me too, Abigail," he replied.
"You love yourself too?" she looked up at him teasingly.
"I mean I love you too," he corrected himself, shaking his head.
She giggled and waved, "Anyway, see you later!"
With that she dashed off into the forest toward Cornelius' home, past the dried, yellow grass and the dead ferns and bushes. A bell could be heard ringing through the woods. As she got closer to Cornelius' house, she could see little Michelle the badger pulling the string and calling out. She wore a little pink dress, and since the accident, a pair of glasses. Russell and Edgar were already there waiting.
"I'm here!" Abigail shouted as she ran toward them, "Am I late?"
"Not too late," Edgar said, the timid mole adjusting his eyeglasses.
"But late enough," Michelle answered, "Don't you know what today is? You guys get to go on a big dangerous adventure, while I'm gonna be stuck here working out of a notebook. Boring!"
The little girl had maintained most of her perk even after the gas leak, which had killed her parents, and almost killed her, causing permanent damage to her eyes and giving her asthma. But things would never be the same as they once were. She'd hardly smiled since then, and she'd been having mood swings too. She might suddenly become angry, or burst into tears without warning. Things had gotten better after two months, but the pain and grief were still there, and maybe always would be in some way.
"You'll be old enough to come with us, one of these days." Russell patted her back, before the brown hedgehog's belly began to rumble "Anyway, I wonder what he's got planned for lunch. I'm starving."
"Did your siblings steal your breakfast again?" Edgar asked.
"Yeah, I was late getting out of bed," Russell sighed, "That's why I hope Cornelius has a big lunch planned.
"Guess we'll find out," Abigail said, walking toward the door, "Lets see what Cornelius is up to."
The four young rodents opened the door and walked down the stairs to Cornelius' study, where he sat at his cluttered desk, his face blocked by books.
"Ah, good morning, my furlings," he said, standing up. His back cracked as he stood up, and he winced.
"Uh oh, he's having rumertism again," said Michelle.
"Rrrrheumatism, dear girl," he corrected her, rubbing his back with a groan.
"We were just wondering what was for lunch," Russell chimed in.
"You mean you were," Abigail shot back.
Cornelius gave a small laugh, "You're more interested in food than what we're doing today, Russell?"
"It's more interesting than what I'll be doing," Michelle said, kicking at the ground some.
"You know with the food shortage our options are limited," Cornelius said, answering Russell's question, "Your parents are working hard to bring fruits and berries from unaffected parts of the forest, but we can only manage so much. However, I did manage to procure some rrraspberries for us all to share."
"Oh boy!" Russell said hungrily.
Abigail rolled her eyes, "What about the black trail?"
"Yes yes, we're still doing that today. I want you three to be the first to hear my conclusion about the gas leak, the monsters-on-wheels and the humans. I'll be presenting my findings to the rest of the animals in the forest tomorrow night when we have our meeting."
"Sounds important," said Edgar.
"Oh it is," Cornelius said, "I think that my findings, plus that incident where the human spared your life Edgar, will help us better understand humans and how to cope with living among them."
"So you don't think they're all bad anymore, do you?" Edgar asked with interest, "The one that let me out of the trap seemed pretty nice."
"I have definitive proof, I believe, that the gas leak was an accident, and that much of the harm that humans inflict upon animals is simply out of ignorance rather than malice. I'll demonstrate that by taking you to the black trail. Are we ready to go on a rrramble?"
"I'm ready," Abigail said with confidence.
"I'd be ready if I were going," Michelle said bitterly, grabbing her notebook and stomping towards Cornelius' desk. All this talk about the gas leak was bothering her. Cornelius immediately felt guilty for having brought it up so casually with her still in the room. None of the others had lost any family in the gas leak.
"Now now, Michelle…" he said, walking up to her as she sat at his desk, "You'll get to go on tomorrow's ramble, and perhaps after today's lesson you and I will do something fun together. Play games, go swimming…or go flying."
She turned to look up at her uncle, "Will Abby, Russell and Edgar come too?"
The three of them exchanged glances.
"I'll be free I think, I'll just have to go home real quick and tell my dad, and see what he says," said Abigail.
"Yeah, and I have to tell my mom," said Edgar.
Russell hesitated for a bit, thinking about how, with his ten other brothers and sisters, his parents probably wouldn't even notice he was gone, "Um, yeah, I'll just stay here after the lesson, I won't be missed."
Michelle gave a smile, but it was a half-hearted one, "Thanks Uncle Cornelius, and thanks guys…"
Cornelius kissed her forehead, and then turned to the others, "Do we have everything?"
"Can I carry the food?" Russell asked.
"You're just going to eat it all," Abigail said, grabbing the supply pack before Russell could reach it, "Why don't you carry it, Edgar?"
"Sure thing," he said, strapping it to his back as Russell frowned.
"Alright, step lively children," Cornelius said, heading for the door, "And Michelle, we'll be back in a couple of hours. Don't leave the house."
"Yes Uncle Cornelius," Michelle sighed, looking down at her notebook, squinting behind her glasses to read it.
The four of them exited Cornelius' home and walked into the yellow, dead grass, and then around a conspicuous empty patch of dirt where for years there'd been a rusty old animal trap. The humans had destroyed it and taken it away when they were cleaning the forest. There were seedlings sprouting on the patch; Cornelius had had the furlings start a garden there in an effort to create more food for the forest.
After a short walk through mostly dead foliage, they came to a gentle slope, which was where the black trail was. They climbed the slope and emerged from the grass, and stared at the hard, black trail. It was wide, and had a yellow stripe down the middle. Such a large stretch of hard ground, without any plants growing on it at all, was mysterious to the forest animals. Here many creatures had met their doom, being crushed by the monsters-on-wheels. But to the furlings it was a curious place that was exciting to visit, precisely because they'd been forbidden to go near it all their lives. However this was their second time seeing it.
"Now then furlings, I want you to stay alongside the trail. You are not to venture onto it. Stay close to one another."
"Yes Cornelius," Abigail answered. The memory of Russell nearly being run over by a monster-on-wheels the last time they came here was fresh in their minds.
"I also want you to keep an eye out for anything unusual," Cornelius instructed, "You see, I've discovered something very interesting."
As they walked, the children did begin to notice some unusual features in the dead grass alongside the trail. There were shards of glass, and ribbons of a strange black material. Abigail picked up one of the black strips.
"It's kinda squishy…" she remarked, sniffing it and then making a face, "What is it?"
"I know the monster-on-wheels went by quickly, but did you happen to look at its wheels?" Cornelius asked.
"They were…black. Like that." Russell said, picking one up.
"And what about all this glass?" Edgar asked.
"It's sharp, don't touch it," Cornelius warned, "Anyway, if you recall, the monster dropped something as it sped by, an enormous glass bottle of some kind. One that broke on impact."
"I do remember that," Abigail remarked, "It was still in the middle of the trail when we left."
"With its sharp points skyward, correct? Now with the evidence before us, what can you deduce, children?"
"Another monster-on-wheels must have run over the bottle, and its wheel got ripped up…" Russell said, "It must have been filled with air or something…"
"And this must have been the same day as the gas leak," Edgar added, "Because that happened only an hour or two later, right?"
"Prrrecisely," Cornelius said, proud that they were able to figure it out, "Come with me, just a little further now."
They followed Cornelius as he led them further down the trail. Within a few minutes, they came to a turn in the trail, where the guard rail alongside the trail had been torn apart. The rail itself was something strange to the furlings…something that was hard like a rock, but thin. Here the black trail seemed to have two long, black designs on it. As they followed the designs, it led them through the broken guard rail to a steep slope, and the designs gave way to two deep, long grooves in the soil. And then there was the tree at the bottom of the hill. The grooves in the ground stopped at a tree, a tree which was splintered, and looked as if an enormous chunk had been torn from it somehow. Everything here was dead though, including the tree. The ground was a mess of mud, and further down the hill had been stripped of foliage. The entire forest here was a wreck.
"Cornelius…what happened here?" Abigail asked, looking around.
"This, furlings, is where the monster went after its wheel popped on the glass," Cornelius explained, "It lost control, broke through that…that hard fence…and rolled down the hill before it slammed into that tree, perhaps landing on its side. And if my theory is correct, this is where the gas leak started."
"The monster had gas in it?" Russell asked, "What did it eat?"
Abigail and Edgar chuckled a little, though not for long, as this wasn't a laughing matter.
"You see furlings, I believe that monsters-on-wheels are not monsters at all," Cornelius said, "I've been coming here by myself for the past few days to deduce just what happened here, and I tell you I've seen humans inside these monsters. I think that these monsters are really machines."
"Machines?" Abigail cocked her head, "You mean like the flapper wingamathing?"
"Precisely," Cornelius said, "Though they are powered by a technology that makes my grandest invention seem like a child's toy. Humans ride in these 'monsters' to go faster. And these monsters, with their air-filled wheels, must have a hard surface free of trees and bushes and pointy thorns to work, so the humans built the black trail. While riding in these monsters, the humans can't see forest creatures crossing the trail because they're traveling so fast. So, by accident, they sometimes hit them."
The three of them listened closely. It was a heavy topic, but since the accident, Cornelius had been more open toward talking about things of this nature with them.
"I wonder if the Yellow Dragons were machines too," said Abigail.
"I'm sure they were," Cornelius answered.
"So why did it have poison gas?" Edgar asked.
"That is a mystery I haven't solved," Cornelius said, "Perhaps it is powered by the gas? Perhaps it was in the wheels? But the point is that the whole thing was an accident, and the humans never meant to poison the forest. Which is why they came back to clean things up."
"Huh, so I guess we can say they're not bad?" Russell asked.
"They're still certainly to be avoided at all costs I think," Cornelius answered, "After all…they did still take my parents from me, and they created those traps. Maybe it depends on the particular human. There are bad ones, and good ones. But, I think that for the most part, they don't mean to be as hostile as we think they are."
At this, the sound of a monster-on-wheels rolling down the black trail became louder. Strangely, however, it sounded like it was slowing down.
"Uh oh, wh-what's going on now?" Edgar asked.
"Quickly, into the bushes furlings," Cornelius ordered, leading them into some dried, dead bushes at the end of the clearing.
Two large vans pulled over at the side of the road, as Cornelius and the furlings watched in wonder.
"Grrreat honk…" Cornelius whispered.
The doors opened, and humans stepped out, and began climbing down the hillside. This time, the furlings could see their real faces. It was something none of them had seen before; the few humans they had seen were wearing protective masks that looked very alien to them. But these humans had hair, and eyes, and mouths. There were two people in long white lab coats, followed by a group of men wearing gloves and jumpsuits, carrying nets, bags and chainsaws.
"This is where the leak happened, right?" asked the man in the white lab coat.
"By the looks of it, yes," said the young woman, perhaps in her twenties, with blonde hair and a clipboard, dressed in a long lab coat, looking at the damage in the area, "Most of the animals in the area probably died in the chlorine leak but there were reports of a few survivors…along with the anomalies discovered during the EPA's cleanup. Any animal intelligent enough might have found shelter when the gas leak occurred and returned later. We'll see if any of them are ours."
"Hm, yes. Let's have a look around. Spread out everyone, and if you see any unusual animals, especially rats, capture them. Inspect the trees too. That's where some of the cleanup crew described seeing hints of intelligent life."
Cornelius turned to the furlings, who could only watch in shock and awe.
"Listen furlings, you're younger and faster than I am. Run to my house now. Fetch Michelle. You should find a trrrap door beneath the chair at my desk, leading to a basement. You are to hide in there. I will catch up to you."
Abigail gulped and nodded, "Come on, guys."
The three of them turned and darted through the foliage as the humans split up and searched the area. Cornelius turned to look at them once again. The vans had the letters 'NIMH' printed on the side. But he had no time to ponder what the strange acronym meant. He did his best to make it back to his home as fast as he could.