The fan blew like a gale through the tunnels. Not hard enough to move the immense bulk of the rats, but easily hard enough to lift little mice off their feet. Two little mice clung to the rats, protected by their solid weight. Two little mice continued on with the rats to freedom. Eight little mice didn’t move quickly enough. Eight little mice were carried backwards through the tunnels, trying desperately to find a foothold and failing.
Eight little mice were found by the scientists the next day and replaced in their cages. And this time there were no helpful rats to undo the doors for them. Even if there were, the scientists were busy blocking their escape route, placing wire netting over the air conditioning and hammering it in – far too firmly for mice, or even rats to remove.
“So that’s that,” Eileen said glumly, twitching her nose. “Seems to me we’re in a worse position that we started in. At least they didn’t know we might have a way out before. Now even that’s gone.”
Jane sniffed mournfully around the door. “And there’s no way we could get this open ourselves.”
“Maybe with help?” Robert joined them, looking hopefully over at the rats’ cages. The other rats. The ones who had never had a chance of escaping.
The rats who, it would seem, wanted nothing to do with them. The mice got the feeling, staring over into the other cages, that it was not so much that no-one happened to be looking their way as that they were intentionally ignoring them.
It was odd. What could they have done to deserve that? Certainly rats and mice didn’t historically get on well, but these were no ordinary rats and mice.
“Hi, you! You over there! The rat with the brown ears!” Robert squeaked optimistically. It did no good. No rat even glanced around.
Over time they grew used to being back in the cage, used to the idea that this was the only life they might ever know. They ate, they were allowed out for tests — endless tests, they were given their injections, they were placed back in their cage. Some of the females bore litters, and raised them into strapping young mice. No-one got ill, no-one seemed to get older. Sometimes a new test might carry the risk of brief pain or electrocution but the mice learnt quickly, and communicated what they’d learnt. It excited the scientists, but to them it was just day-to-day survival. It wasn’t a bad life if you weren’t concerned about freedom or about the constant boredom. Slowly, the mice gave up thoughts of escaping.
Only Jane held onto the thought freedom might somehow be possible still. Night after night she pressed herself against the bars of the cage, valiantly squeaking. “Hey! Hey, I know you can hear me! Hello!”
One rat, a big brown one, glanced briefly in her direction now and then. It wasn’t much, but it was enough encouragement for her to redouble her efforts, squeaking until she had barely any voice left to squeak with. “Come on, talk to me! Why are you ignoring me? We can help each other!”
Only when Jane had exhausted herself, flopping against the sawdust at the bottom of the cage, did the brown rat come to make a closer inspection, sticking its nose between its own bars to try and catch a whiff of Jane’s scent.
“You can hear me,” she said, relieved. “I knew you could!”
“Yes, you’re all very keen on talking to us now, aren’t you?” the brown rat returned sharply. She — there was definitely a feminine note to her voice — sounded distinctly annoyed. “Now there’s no-one smarter to come rescue you.”
“I — what?” Jane crouched a moment, automatically submissive at the angry note. “What did we do?”
“Oh, nothing much,” the brown rat sneered. “Just went trooping off with your friends leaving everyone else in their cages. Never occurred to you that anyone else might want out, did it? Not until you needed us.”
“I…” Much to her shame, it hadn’t occurred to her until that moment. Hadn’t even crossed her mind. “I say, it wasn’t really our fault, you know,” she said humbly. “The rats were leading the expedition, not us. We didn’t get much of a say in who got to come with us. We were just lucky they decided to bring us at all!”
“And I bet you just argued really hard to bring everyone else along and lost, didn’t you?” The rat’s beady eyes bored into her. “Or did you just think ‘those others haven’t had as much of the injection as us; they’re not smart enough to be considered one of us; they won’t really care if we leave them; it’ll only slow us up.’?”
There was no real defence Jane could give. Truth to tell, she hadn’t considered the others much at all in the excitement of planning escape.
“I thought not.” The rat curled her tail scornfully. “And now, oh look, your new friends have left you behind in case you slow them up. How ironic.”
“I’m sorry!” Jane said desperately. “I truly am — we didn’t think, that’s all. But look, we could plan escape now, together!”
“Now your friends have ensured all of the security has sewn up good and right? No chance,” the brown rat said scornfully. “You and your friends have ensured we’re stuck here forever. Thanks for that, by the way.”
Then she turned away and all Jane’s squeaking couldn’t make her look around again.
Still, Jane didn’t give up. Couldn’t give up — there was something yearning deep inside her for freedom which she couldn’t quite put to sleep. The next time she was removed from her cage for injections she squirmed free of the human’s hand and jumped to the floor. Of course, the human followed close behind her, notebook in hand, but Jane didn’t mind that. This was just information-gathering.
Later, she bombarded the brown rat with suggestions. “We could try to get the wire off.”
“What, you think they won’t have blocked the other side too, even if we could?” the brown rat demanded. “How stupid do you think they are?”
“We could all rush the door at once in the morning. They couldn’t catch all of us.”
“It’s double-sealed. They don’t open one door until they’ve shut the other,” the rat informed her. “You’re not the only one capable of investigating escape routes you know. Besides, why do all your plans involve leaving some of us behind? If there’s another escape, they’ll heighten security again – that, or something worse to those who are left behind. There won’t be a third chance. Next time, it has to be everyone out or none of us.”
Jane was silent a moment, squashed by the reprimand. Finally, she said “There’s always the window.”
The rat glanced at her disbelievingly. “Not even a rat could open that catch.”
“No,” Jane said slowly, “but the seals are plastic. A mouse could chew through the seal, or a rat could.”
“It would take a mouse forever. And they would notice, even after one night.”
“One mouse or rat, yes.” Jane pressed her nose through the bars, counting cages. “But a hundred and twelve mice and rats? Could they all chew fast enough together?”
Now it was the brown rat’s turn to be silent for a moment. “Not everyone has had any injection at all. Some of them won’t be smart enough to understand the plan.”
“You don’t need to understand the plan to chew. They just need to understand that they should be chewing.”
Again, the brown rat hesitated. “It’s a lot of cages to open, all in one night.”
“So teach others!” Jane said urgently. “Show them how! You were the one who didn’t want to leave anyone behind — so don’t!”
That was how it started, the part of the plan that the mice could only watch, and not participate in. Night after night, the rats visited their slower neighbours, showing each how to undo the catch to their cage. It was long slow work — and sometimes it took longer to explain why they must not open them when the scientists were around. Sometimes it seemed inevitable that they would be discovered. The more ordinary rats grew old, died, and were replaced. Their replacements had to be taught all over again. The job seemed never-ending.
Not until the night of the escape were the mice to be let out of their cages. Certainly, the rats had been by to speak with them many times before that — led by the brown rat, whose name was Mandy. It seemed a simple name for such a complex rat. Sometimes Jane suspected that the reason they still hadn’t was that, despite everything, Mandy still feared that they might escape alone given the chance.
The time came at last, and one by one the cages were opened. First the smarter rats, and then they ran along, calling encouragement to their slower colleagues. One by one, the doors were opened. Then they turned their attention to the mice. The slower mice cowered at the back of their cages, afraid of the rats who freed them. Others scampered out eagerly, following the rats to the window where already many of them were gnawing at the plastic.
Still, the cage that Jane was in remained firmly shut. They waited at the door, excited at first, then with a growing sense of nervousness as they seemed to be ignored and forgotten. The seal around the window was slowly being eaten away. Were they to be left in their cage.
“Wait!” Jane called as Mandy ran past. “You haven’t let us out!”
The brown rat pretended deafness, shepherding a white mouse to the window.
“We should be helping!” Jane pleaded. “We can show them what to do! Let us out!” Still, there was no reply. “You have to let us out; it was my idea!” Then, despairingly, as that got no response, “Mandy, please!”
Please, it seemed, was the magic word. Finally Mandy loped towards the cage, finally the catch on the door was snapped open. Gratefully the mice scrambled out. Hesitating, Jane turned to look at the brown rat. “You wouldn’t have left us?”
Mandy crouched a little, slightly mocking. “Doesn’t feel nice, does it, thinking you might be left behind?” she suggested. And then she was gone, off to join those chewing at the window. There was no time for Jane to reflect on the lesson she might just have been taught. She had to run around, coaxing the last frightened mice out of their cages, nudging them towards the others. Some of them were bewildered, simple white laboratory mice who barely understood what was going on, but they were all mice. That was what mattered, at the end of things.
The last mouse was helped out not a moment too soon. As Jane and the others moved to assist her with her litter, each taking a baby in their mouths, a loud crash from the window echoed through the room. Finally the glass had fallen. Over a hundred mice and rats streamed out into the sunlight. Some of them were carrying young, some of them were slower than others, but this time the pack moved as one. When a mouse started to limp, a rat whisked it up into its mouth and carried it along with it. When a rat slowed, and looked confused, three mice ran alongside it, calling it to keep on with the group.
Where were they going? No-one knew, not yet. But it was a brand-new world, and one in which no-body, no matter how slow or stupid, would get left behind. And that, Jane understood now, was what was important.