Word had spread of the impending danger as quick as we found out ourselves. An emergency meeting had been called and the air thick with anxious energy. As we made our way I glanced over at Jinnai who was deep in his own thoughts, his face unusually serious.
The meeting hall was the largest space in the community as well as the most elaborately designed. It was a deep conical pit rather than a large room, widest at the top then tapering down. It was roofed with a buttressed stone dome with cut tiers in the sides lined with wooden benches. All the seats faced a circular stage at the very bottom. Numerous glowing lamps, similar to those in the cafeteria, hung from chains affixed to the ceiling.
I lingered beside Jinnai next to the oversized double doors, watching rat after rat pass through its arches. I was casual in my assumption that we were waiting for the crowd to thin before entering.
“Mother, over here!”
Jinnai waved over the herd while I struggled to catch a glimpse of who he was referring to.
At once a light gray rat wearing a plain white tunic came over to her son, hugging him while planing a kiss on the cheek.
“I heard what happened to you,” she said with the concern only a parent could have. “Are you really okay?” She looked him over as if no matter what he said could convince her of otherwise. “By the time I got word you were in the infirmary you were already gone. Thank goodness the nurse knew enough to tell me you were okay.”
The pitch in her voice made Jinnai blush as he hid a sheepish smile. “I’m sorry mother,” he replied, embarrassed at his oversight. “You know how things get around here.”
“Especially after a promotion that almost gets you killed.” Her voice grew quite serious. “But I guess that’s the risk that comes with the job.”
“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” Jinnai answered trying to calm her.
“Serious enough to warrant a meeting like this.” She stared at him through an arched eyebrow.
On impulse Jinnai glanced over to me, catching the smile I held at his scolding. He soon had the last laugh as the gray she-rat noticed his switched attention.
“So, you must be Anna.”
Her voice switched from concern to sweet excitement. Her tone and focus made me jump anxiously.
“I have to apologize for not meeting you after the concert.” She gave my hand a comforting grasp. “I’m afraid my son takes after me when it comes to avoiding crowded areas. Too bad we can’t avoid this one.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t have met under less trying circumstances,” I answered. “I wouldn’t exactly call this the ideal time to meet with someone’s parent.”
“Patricia,” Jinnai’s mother replied. “I’d rather you call me that than ‘someone’s parent’. It makes me sound like a frump. I may be old, but not that old.”
We all chuckled easing the tension, yet the moment ended at the sound of a gavel pounding from inside the chamber.
“We better get in there. That’s the only warning call we’re going to get.”
Jinnai took my hand to make sure I didn’t get lost in the last of the crowd and the three of us made our way to the lower tiers.
Justin had long continued ahead and met up with the guards I recognized from the infirmary. They stood on the stage conversing as they waited.
We took our seats near the podium. Jinnai let go of my hand, unsure of continuing a simple show of public affection at such a dour moment. I grasped his hand back much to his relief. As I watched Justin with his tense posture, I gripped his hand tighter than before. Even though I knew what the meeting was about, I couldn’t help but feel nervous.
Breaking the suspense, Justin turned to the anticipating audience.
“Okay, a few of you may know some of the details but for the rest of you, I’m just going to put it simply. The poachers working the Valley have returned, this time heading in our direction.”
Justin paused then continued. “Truthfully, we’re not sure if they are continuing this way but they are too close for any sense of comfort and normalcy. It is for this reason that I called an end all outdoor activity except emergency tasks such as camouflaging the compound.”
The collective gasp echoed through the room, catching my own breath as well. The poachers… Had I been here that long that I had almost forgotten? The conversation in the infirmary made my skin crawl but nothing brought it all back than seeing them again, even if it was from a distance through a camera lens.
“Three individuals out of seven are all that’s left of a group that was sent out early morning. Their goal was to get any information they could especially where they were heading and how long they were staying. Our group was ambushed and trapped but unlike the first excursion no casualties were reported. Just a couple of bad scratches but nothing Mr. Ages can’t fix.”
Now everyone was confused. What would poachers want with live rats? I found myself breathing harder as memories began to return like a slowly breaking dam. With every word my entire filled with deep fear.
Jinnai couldn’t help but notice the change. I gave a weak smile. New memories flashed but just as I noticed something the image would disappear like a fog. I grew frustrated with myself. What was it I was trying to remember?
Justin went on. “This time the poachers are keeping the rats alive. We’re unsure why but I’m not going to question it. Alive is good. Either way, any continued movement will bring them right on top of us. Camouflage will not be enough. We are going to have to fortify ourselves along with putting together a rescue party. The remainder will head on down into the service tunnels bringing as much supplies as possible. We’re going to have to lay low until the two men move on.”
His demeanor was optimistic, opposite of mine. He did believe all they had to do was make themselves invisible and the poachers would move on. It was something I doubted highly.
I leaned over to Jinnai. “This has happened before?” I whispered. Jinnai gave a quick nod.
“Yes, except that time we were chased. If it weren’t for Mrs. Brisby and the Stone, NIMH would have captured all of us for certain. They were planning on digging us up and everything…”
I didn’t hear the last of his sentence as a roaring rushed through my ears.
“Nimh?” I stuttered. “Did you just say NIMH?”
Before Jinnai could answer, the last of Justin’s speech caught my attention.
“As dangerous as they are, they are not here for us. They just want their bounty but we still have to be very careful with what we do. I will chose individuals for the rescue mission to get back out captured friends. If they think a cage can hold us, they’ve obviously never met the Rats of NIMH.”
My entire body froze. He meant those words to be a battle cry but instead those four little letters sealed their fate.
“NIMH…” I whispered with each letter dripping. In the span of that moment all the pieces shattered together.
These rats are not here because of some arcane magic trapped within the recesses of a ruby stone on a gold ring. These are not the creatures of magic like I was and assumed they all were. These were the escaped children of science and now the scientists want them back.
The image of scattered papers in a dark tent became prominent in my mind, the words NIMH at the top of every page.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
As Jinnai turned, I let out a loud desperate moan.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?!” I stood up, startling everyone. “You don’t understand, it is NIMH! You are the bounty! You are what they’re here for!”
My words stuck each individual with horror. Jinnai grabbed me as I collapsed onto the floor in the aisle. My head was spinning and chest hurt from shallow desperate breathing. My panic attack was coming on strong
“What are you talking about?” Justin asked with a desperate tone. “What do you mean NIMH is involved? You must be mistaken. They’re poachers not scientists.”
Through wide, half-glazed eyes I looked past him. “How could I have forgotten? How could I have missed it? All the answers were right in front of me the whole time. Three-thousand dollars. That’s how much you’re worth. The poaching, it’s them just taking advantage. They’re here for you.”
“What do you remember,” Justin forced, trying to keep his own composure. He wanted so much to tell me I was being hysterical and irrational. That it was all about the stress of my past experience.
I knew what I saw. And I knew what was happening. “Dr. Schultz,” I replied. It was all anyone had to hear.
Every rat began to speak urgently at the same time.
“That can’t be,” yelled one.
“What if it’s true?” yelled another.
“They’ll wipe us out! We have to leave!”
I sat there on the floor trembling at the memories my transformation pushed back but could no longer hold.
Justin stepped back to the podium amid the frantic chattering, whatever confidence now shattered. Listening to the crazed chorus behind him, he raised his hands letting out a deep sigh.
“All this time Anna had known. I was so caught up in her unique situation I didn’t bring up anything that could have helped her memory. It was my responsibility make sure the original mission was not forgotten and forgetting was the first thing I did.” He lowered his eyes, ashamed to look at the people who depended on him for so much.
“I have no reason to believe her words are not true,” he continued. “There is no reason she would know Dr. Schultz’s name unless there was a connection between him and the poachers and we already know what the poachers are willing to do to keep anyone from stopping them.”
His voice became even more somber. “It’s only been a couple of months since the last attempt on our home. Thanks to the Stone, we were able to protect ourselves. But now…”
I raised my head, staring at the demoralized leader.
“We have neither the resources nor the strength to fight a direct assault again. Even if we dig in our heels, they have proven their determination. They will come after us.”
He paused, swallowing hard as he fought his own breakdown. “It is with a heavy heart that I must say this. As long as Dr. Schultz knows we’re here, we will always be in danger.” Justin let out a long, controlled breath. “We must leave Thorn Valley.”
Those words frightened the rats more than any mention of NIMH. Jinnai buried his head in my hair. Even though he had thought about leaving, this was still his home. Now that he was faced with the reality of being forced out he couldn’t help but get emotional. I heard a hushed sob as he held me tighter.
Just as the rats were settling in to the prospect of leaving I was finding myself with newfound resolve. I was surprised at their willingness to abandon everything.
“No, you can’t give up. What do you mean leave? You’re just going to let them drive you out of your home?”
I scanned the saddened faces. This may have not been their first time protecting their home but this was the first time they were accepting defeat without a fight.
“It’s a last resort I hoped we would never use,” Justin continued. “If we leave it can’t be as a whole. We have to scatter into family groups or smaller even. As a community we would always be vulnerable to exposure and constant threats.”
The next words were especially hard.
“The Rats of NIMH can never be reunited if we do separate. After the last attack, we hoped Dr. Schultz learned his lesson. That is obviously… not the case.”
Justin opened his eyes sensing my gaze. “We have no choice,” he answered with strange calm.
At those words all the dread that had been swimming in my stomach disappeared. Fear moved aside allowing a stronger emotion to come forth.
I didn’t want to embarrass Justin or undermine his authority however there no way I was going to accept this.
“Of course you have a choice,” I said, beginning to raise my voice. “You always have a choice. You just said the Stone helped you win the last time something happened. Why do you think it will abandon you now?”
“I do not have control of its power.” Justin was conflicted at my defiant tone. “As much as we want to, as much as we need to, we cannot depend on it coming through at the last minute.”
There was no turning back.
“So you’re willing to abandon all this?” I gestured to the whole of the glorious hall. “You’re going to desert everything you’ve worked so hard for? Everything you hold dear?”
Justin grew impatient with my public challenge. I took a deep breath, holding my stance. I couldn’t afford to show weakness now.
“You don’t know what we’ve already been through,” he snapped. “I can’t keep asking everyone to continually sacrifice themselves.”
My impatience and anger grew with every word. “Sacrifice is always what we must be willing to do for our homes and families. What do you think you’re asking them to do now? Start life anew? Where are you going to go? If you can’t keep your utopia in the middle of a protected reserve what makes you think anyplace else will be better?”
I spun, aiming my challenge to everyone in the hall.
“What makes you think NIMH won’t find you there as well? Do you really think no one will notice your presence anywhere? You think I’m an anomaly? You aren’t normal rats either and will surely attract attention no matter how hard you try not to.”
I could hear the hard thinking, the self-doubt, and the thoughts that reminded them of what had to be done. I turned back to Justin who was doing some thinking of his own.
“We still need to form a rescue team,” Justin replied trying to change the subject.
“And then what?”
Justin’s patience wore thin. “What would you suggest? You think after a week living here you know better than us?”
“This is my home,” I answered without faltering. “You are my family. I cannot and will not turn my back on this. The Stone did not change me to run. These poachers will not stop until they have enough, if not all of you captured. They must be stopped.”
One of the rats from the original captured team stepped forward. “How are we supposed to take on poachers who have proven they will not hesitate to kill humans? I doubt they have any more care for rats.”
My eyes narrowed, memories of the brutal men emblazoned in my mind. “Not if we strike them first,” I answered will all seriousness.
The collective silence was deafening. The surprise on Justin’s face filled me with as much surprise of my own, but I did not show it.
“She means war…” I heard a low voice answer.
War? I was surprised at the use of the word. I wouldn’t exactly call what needed to be done a war however the scope was large enough to be confused for one.
“Remember when I first came to Valley? When I was human? You had me tied up and I never noticed it happened until I woke up. You did it to protect your home. This is no different except it requires more aggression on our part. We’re not talking about killing anyone or getting anyone killed.”
A plan started to come together in my head. “We can stop them, especially if we can get the rangers involved.”
The idea seemed even more incredible than stopping the poachers.
“Get more humans involved?” another voice squealed. “That would destroy our home for sure!”
“Not if it’s done right,” I answered back. “We’ll still need two groups but it’s going to be a lot more than just a rescue mission. We’re going to put those poachers out of commission and get the rangers to come across them soon after we leave. We can’t give them any time to escape.”
I walked down towards Justin who greeted me with a cool smile, looking at me for the first time not as a scared little girl but as an equal.
I answered his smile with a sheepish shrugging of my shoulders.
Realizing he could not back down from what I started Justin looked up towards the anxious yet eager audience, desperate for his final word. “As Anna said, we have a mission to organize and if what she says is correct, we have less time than we think.”
A rumbling waved through the crowd at his words, fear slowly being replaced by hope. As I scanned the room, my chest tightened at the sight of Jinnai. Instead of sharing in the nervous excitement of what had to be done, he was solemn in his posture, a combination of anger and sadness in his eyes. I found myself unable to smile.
As the day wore on our plans began to come to some fruition. The community was divided into three groups. The largest was the home team, whose responsibility was fortifying the rats’ home – covering windows, bracing doors, and setting up the deep underground tunnels for the mass exodus that would have to take place if the poachers decided to start their hunt before we could get to them first.
The second team was the rescue party. They were the smallest group made up of strong yet agile rats. Wherever the cage-trap was in the campsite, stealth was of the necessity.
The last and largest group was the attack team. The hub of the plan rested on them. The plan was based on the hope that the two men could be tied up without incident as they slept. If such peaceful means were unable to be accomplished, then brute force had to be relied on.
This worried many. No one had ever attacked a human before except for Justin who had done so to protect me, but that was nothing more than a distraction. This time the attack would have to be constant enough to slow the men down.
Everyone was scrambling with whatever work had to be done until Justin ordered sleep shifts. Better to get some rest as opposed to none.
I sat outside hidden behind the main entrance among the rocks. Eddie was sleeping in a cave nearby, something I envied. I felt exhausted but my body wouldn’t allow me to shut down. I was hoping some fresh air would help clear my head.
My ears twitched at the voice. I could hardly see the dark shape coming towards me, seeing only a careful walking silhouette. Jinnai felt his way in the dark, taking a spot next to me. We sat in silence as we watched the stars shine above us.
“So I take it you couldn’t sleep either,” Jinnai said, not taking his eyes off the sky.
I nodded with a simple “hmmm…”
“I’ve never seen everyone so wound up,” he continued. “Even I’m a bit nervous. We’ve never made the first move. Usually it was them against us.”
“It’s easy to run,” I answered, glancing over at him. “It’s so easy to give up and accept what you think fate is handing you when in the end it’s really you who’s deciding to take the short straw.” My throat went dry, forcing me to pause. “Fate gives you the tools, the opportunity. But in the end it’s always up to you to make the most of it. Despite what a lot of people say, the meek do not inherit the earth.”
I shuffled, fighting the tight, tickling urge in my throat. I chalked the sensation up to nerves and exhaustion.
“You’re not talking about what’s going on now are you,” Jinnai replied. “There’s something else going in your mind.”
I remained quiet, not sure if I wanted to continue the discussion. Jinnai took my hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Do you miss being human?” he asked unsure if he wanted to hear the answer.
I let out a soft breath. “I don’t know.” I shrugged my shoulders, hiding my face behind locks of red. “I thought I was a pretty miserable person as a human being – a struggling photographer opposite my successful Assistant DA sister. It was… still is kind of difficult.”
My mind was awash with conflicting emotions and memories. The more I spoke, the more I was having trouble reigning them in.
“Ever since this happened, everything I thought was a big problem turned out to be really not so important. At the same time though I’m facing something that could have greater repercussions than anything I’ve ever worried about. My human life seems pretty easy now.”
“But do you miss it?” Jinnai asked again.
“It’s still a part of me.” A deep sadness stung at my insides. “As much as I’d like to say I’m completely over being human, I’m not. My memories are still human as well as the way I think. Even the way I feel is all from my human experience. I don’t know if I could forget my past like that.”
I hesitated, gathering the courage to voice my ultimate concern.
“The worst part is that I don’t think I’m meant to forget at all. I… I have this feeling that whatever magic that stone possesses… isn’t… permanent.”
“What do you mean by that?” Jinnai let out a nervous cough.
I sighed again. “I can’t explain it. I just have this feeling that I’m not going to be here much longer.”
“No, don’t say that.” Jinnai gulped hard. “Tell me you’ll stay. I can’t…” He lowered his head, his eyes closing tight as he attempted to contain himself.
Watching him breaking down was too much for me to bear. “I don’t know what the magic will do,” I answered trying to calm his fears that echoed my own. “For all I know my nagging feeling is just nerves.”
The restrained outrage in his blue eyes startled me. “I don’t want to believe the Stone brought you here just to take you away. I’ve put up with a lot but the thought of not being with you tears me up inside. You have no idea.”
Even though his ire was not aimed at me I felt uncomfortable at Jinnai’s words.
“We’ve only known each other for such a small amount of time,” I replied, hating myself. “You can’t possibly tell me that you feel this strongly. I mean, we’ve certainly shared but I don’t think…”
Jinnai shrank at my comment. “You don’t… feel the same way…?”
I choked at the implication. “It depends on how you feel.”
My heart pounded like a drum in my chest. I didn’t want to continue, but I had to. I couldn’t allow the conversation to end here, not when I felt the way I did. “Jinnai, please don’t make it harder than it is. You know as much as I do that this can’t last… it won’t last…”
Jinnai grabbed my arms forcing me to face him.
“No, I won’t be a slave to that Stone,” he said, desperate. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the magic will eventually change you back. Then maybe it won’t. Either way, if I have to live with the realization that you will not be with me then tell me how you feel. Leave me at least that. Until then I want you to know how I feel. I want you to stay with me. I don’t care how long it takes for the magic to do what it wants but say you’ll share your life with me.”
I started sobbing. “Jinnai… please…”
He pulled me close to him, his muzzle nuzzling my ear. “Anna, don’t you understand? I love you…”
A small moan escaped my lips at those words as the tears I fought so hard to keep back cascaded down my face.
“I do understand,” I gasped. “I understand…” I held out my hands, cupping his beautiful face. “I’ve loved you since I first saw you.”
We held each other behind the rocks, but it wasn’t joy that entered our hearts. The revelation only filled us with the reality that our time together was more fleeting than the night itself. Yet instead of dwelling on what time we didn’t have we decided to make the most of the time we did.
As we lowered ourselves onto the ground we cursed the magic, defying it as our bodies came together as one, our passions challenging whatever path the Stone laid out.
And the stars shone brightly overhead, bearing witness.