It was a bad day for Ferdy. A little over a week ago they had resumed the search for Nadine and the other mice, but so far there had been absolutely no progress. All the mice felt discouraged, even Jeff, Toby and the rest of the freezer mice. Somehow, Ferdy felt worse than all of them. He still thought it was his fault that Nadine was even missing. He started feeling depressed and it got harder and harder to even get up and search, with almost no hope at all.
Tonight had been the same as every night. They searched and searched, widening their grid and moving into areas where they had never been before, but in the end they returned to the big room unsuccessfully.
Suddenly, Ferdy saw the only mouse that was even worse off than him: Sophie. She had been Nadines best friend, the two of them had been almost inseparable. Sophie spent more time searching for Nadine than anyone, and hardly came back to eat and sleep for a while. Now, though, she seemed excited, or frightened, Ferdy couldn’t tell.
“I found something”, she squeaked. “Not Nadine”, she added, her enthusiasm damped a little. “But something you have to see!”
Ferdy and the other mice that were already back in the big room gathered around her. “What is it?”, Laurina asked. Sophie shook her head. “I can’t explain it, you’ll have to see for yourself. Follow me!”
Without waiting, she turned around and started running. The others exchanged confused glances, then they quickly followed her.
Sophie led them through several levels of the house. Ferdy soon lost orientation and hoped that he would not get separated from the others.
After a while, Sophie stopped.
“Where are we?”, Wulfric asked.
Sophie said, “In the basement. This is as low as the house goes, beneath us is just earth. “
“How do you know that?”, Anica asked. “Did you find a way out of the house from here?”
“I really don’t know how to say it. We have to go around this corner. There will be a large hole in the wall, leading into a sort of… cave. We’ll all fit in there and you’ll see what I found. But it is important that we are absolutely quiet!”
Before they could ask more questions, she moved on. Around the corner there was the hole she had described, big enough for five mice to go through simultaneously. Quickly, they all went inside.
“Cave” was not really an accurate description of what they saw, but none of them came up with a better one. They all stood there and stared, not knowing what to think.
They were looking down on a giant – town, for the lack of a better word. They were standing on a sort of gallery, with a way leading down into a giant cave, divided into different areas, and with more tunnels leading away from the main cave. The most stunning and most frightening part, though, was that it was filled with rats.
Rats were walking in and out, bringing food pallets and other types of food into certain chambers, others looked like they were cleaning up parts of the cave. In a corner, five rats were huddled together, as if they were discussing something important.
Most of the rats looked quite similar to each other. They were white, with red eyes. But there were also others, with eyes that seemed to shimmer in a green tone, and those with a black head.
“These are lab rats”, Anica whispered. “They must have escaped the humans, too!”
“And they built a real community”, Wulfric added.
“We should leave”, Oscar said. “It’s really dangerous, being here. What if they see us?”
“Don’t you want to see more?”, Laurina asked. She seemed as excited as Sophie and leaned over the edge of the gallery to see more.
A hushed discussion started, with both sides presenting viable arguments. Just as it became clear that they would not be able to agree on a common plan, one of the rats reared and squeaked very loudly.
Ferdy’s heart almost stopped. “They heard us”, he whispered. The others fell silent immediately, and they all sat there frozen and shivering.
But the rats did not even look up to the gallery. All of them dropped what they were doing and gathered around the rat that had squeaked. It was one of the five rats that had been discussing something intently. They stood next to each other, the other rats looking at them expectantly.
The biggest of the five rats started talking to them.
“Anyone speak rattish?”, Marcel asked. Most of them shook their heads, but Laurina looked uncertain. “I understand it a little”, she said. “But not well enough, I guess. It is just so fast, I can only get a few words.” She listened for a while, then shook her head. “I think these five are their leaders. They have made a plan, but I didn’t get what for.”
“Doesn’t matter to us, anyway”, Oscar said. “As long as it doesn’t include us, we should make sure it stays that way.”
The other mice looked at Oscar in disbelieve. “When have you become so indifferent?”, Wulfric asked. Oscar started to give a defiant answer, but suddenly Laurina whitened.
“I… I think it does include us”, she stammered. “I just heard the word for ‘mice’.”
“What else?”, Anica asked.
“I don’t know”, Laurina replied. “I’m not even sure they were talking about us, but it didn’t sound good.”
Below, a second rat had started drawing something on the wall next to it.
“I’m not getting any of this now”, Laurina said desperately. “They are talking too fast, the words all blur together.”
“If we could get close enough, could you read what they are writing on the wall?”, Sophie asked.
Laurina nodded. “I probably could. Reading is much easier than listening. But how are we supposed to get close enough? Rats are everywhere down there.”
“We do what we always do with the humans”, Sophie said. “We wait until they are all sleeping.”
“It could work”, Anica said. “It must be morning already, so it shouldn’t be long now.”
The group started arguing again, but it soon became evident that there really wasn’t another option. If the rats were planning something that included them, they had to find out, no matter how dangerous it was.
Jeff, Ferdy, Laurina and Sophie volunteered for the mission and the others agreed after another lengthy argument. None of them wanted to stay behind, and everyone wanted to help, but Jeff and Ferdy were the best at defence techniques and stealth, while Laurina was able to read the rattish words. Sophie earned herself the spot in the crew because she was the one who had found this place.
The meeting of the rats was over soon, and the rats dispersed, going to their sleeping places. Unfortunately, the sleeping places were not concentrated in one part of the cave. They each had a corner somewhere, distributed almost everywhere.
The little team waited a while, until they were sure the rats were all asleep. Then they quietly went down the ramp into the large cave.
There were rats all over, in every corner, but there was always a little space between them, through which the four mice tiptoed.
Jeff led the team, searching for a suitable route and making sure that they did not step on anyone’s tail. Laurina and Sophie followed, and Ferdy stayed a little behind and glanced back again and again to see if any of the rats woke up.
They just passed a particularly large rat when it suddenly stirred and turned its head. The four mice froze, but the rat just yawned without opening its eyes and went back to sleep. Up in the gallery, the other mice started breathing again, but the tension was excruciating.
After almost half an hour of careful sneaking, they finally reached the wall with the writing and drawing on it.
“What does it say?”, Jeff whispered. Laurina stood on her hind paws for a better view.
“The drawing looks like a plan of the second and third floor. It seems they are looking for ways in!”
“What do you mean?”, Ferdy asked. “There are thousands of ways in.”
“For us, yes”, Sophie chimed in. “But think about it. The openings to our territory are mouse-sized. None of these rats could fit through.”
Jeff nodded. “What else?”, he urged Laurina to go on.
“This word here means ‘attack’”, she said with a worried undertone. “Then there is some kind of a time course, I guess. ‘One week: find suitable routes. Two weeks: make openings wide enough. Three weeks: explore territory. Four weeks: attack.’”
Ferdy started to say something, but Jeff cut him off. “That’s all?”, he asked, and Laurina nodded.
“Then let’s get out of here, before they notice us. We can talk about this later.”
They had to restrain themselves to move back at the same slow pace as before, instead of breaking into a run that would most certainly have woken the rats. When they finally arrived at the gallery, they were exhausted.
The others immediately started asking questions, but again, Jeff prevented any discussions. “They could still hear us”, he said, and would not let anyone say a word or even pause for a second, before they had not reached the big room.
Safely back in their territory, they all sat together in a big circle and Laurina explained what they had found.
“Are you sure it was a plan of our territory?”, Marcel asked. “Why would they want to attack us?”
“And how would they even know that we exist, and where we are?”, Sandy added.
“The plan of this area was not very detailed, and some of it was actually wrong”, Laurina answered. “They must have observed us coming and going and concluded that we live here.”
“As for the why”, Jeff said, “they are rats – what do you expect? I bet it just gives them pleasure to hunt mice, or they think we might have something valuable here, like a food store or something similar.”
“And the reason is not very important right now”, Lisbeth said, thinking practically. “We need to figure out what to do about it.”
“It seems that we have about three weeks until they want to attack. But even during that time they will probably be working during the days, hoping that we are asleep, just like we did today. As they wrote on the wall, they have to make the entrances bigger, scout the area without being seen, and all that without us noticing. Our only advantage is that they don’t know we found them and saw their plan.” Laurina’s summary was as accurate as it was frightening. From where they stood, the prospects were quite bleak. There had been so many rats, and there might even be more, since they didn’t know how far the caves reached. How were they supposed to defend themselves against such superior forces?
Anica was the first one to come up with a plan. “We have to think this through step by step. We can’t let ourselves get overwhelmed by all of this, because then we would not get any work done at all. Now, first, we need to learn as much as we can about the rats. So, each night, two of us will go to the rat caves and observe their behaviour. During the day, this will be more difficult, but we need to set up watches that find out on which entrances they are working and which routes they are taking. This will be hard work, because the rats will be highly alert themselves, but it has to be done.”
Claudi nodded. “We should make a fortress of the big room, to make sure the rats cannot get in here.”
“And we need to collect a lot of food, so that we can survive even if the rats are surrounding us”, Lisbeth added.
They discussed plans for a long time that night. At some point Oscar suggested to just leave and relocate somewhere closer to the roof, where the rats did not expect them to be, but the others agreed that this would only delay a confrontation. Also, they decided, they didn’t know which dangers might be hiding in other parts of the building.
Finally, they had a rough plan and every mouse had a task assigned for the following night. Until then, they would sleep to gather their strength.
Ferdy lay curled up in his usual corner. He glanced around nervously and saw that many others were also not sleeping. Everything was so overwhelming – one moment they were looking for missing friends, and the other they were making plans on how to survive an attack by blood-thirsty rats. He knew that it would be the most sensible thing to close his eyes and sleep. The following days and nights would be hard, and it was important to be rested, but he was too nervous and frightened.
Then, as he lay there, he had a thought that calmed him down. His escape from the humans had made it possible for him to live a happy life with a loving family and some interesting adventures. Compared to so many mice in this building, he had a wonderful life, so even if it should end in the next four weeks because of a rat attack, he would still die a happy mouse.
He closed his eyes and slept.
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