"What happens when humans die, Steve?"
"I don't know, Kip."
"What do people believe?"
"Lots of things," Steve said, working on the keyboard while Kippy perched on his head.
"Like what?" Kippy asked.
"Well, some believe in a paradise called Heaven, and a place of torment for those who are evil, called Hell. Others think that a soul is reborn, and others think it just ceases to exist."
"Oooo," said Kippy. "Scary."
"Yeah - most people don't like that one."
"What do you believe?"
"I think there's something beyond this," Steve said, stopping his typing. "I'd like to believe that if we do well, whatever well means, then we get to pick what happens to us after we die."
"That sounds good."
"Why do you ask, furball?"
Kippy cocked his head and looked back at the wall. "I worry about dying."
"Because you only live two years?" asked Steve, who was concerned for his friend's feelings. He reached up and Kippy stepped into his hand. Steve brought them face to face.
"No," Kippy said. "I see and smell death here so often that I can't get away from it. I never used to worry about dying. It would just happen. But now I worry because everyone here dies early, and often in pain. I guess it's just the vibe."
"And none of them natural deaths," Steve said. "Yeah. I'm sorry. This place is no good for you, or them." He looked at the floor for awhile, then back up. "Well, what do mice believe happens after they die?"
"Well, field mice believe that it's best to be eaten," Kippy said. Feeder stopped chewing in mid bite.
"Kinda grim," Steve said.
"Not at all," Kippy explained. "We believe that if your body is left out to rot and nothing eats it, then nature has rejected you. You can't come back, and your soul is lost until it can find a way back to the earth. That's our Hell."
Steve nodded. "I can see that." Feeder cautiously went back to eating his precious cheese. He had never had cheese before, and he loved it.
"We also think that sometimes a very great mouse ascends to become something more powerful," Kippy said. "That if a mouse, or any other animal does 'well,' then they become something greater. But most mice like to be mice."
"You mean mice would choose to come back as mice?"
"Yeah. Being a mouse is cool."
"What about all the hardship and suffering? The weather, the predators, all that?"
Steve looked down at Knifey and then at Kippy with his brow raised. Knifey stopped hacking and looked back at the pair.
"Knifey?" He said.
"Human intervention," said Kippy to Steve. "Turns everything to poo."
Steve laughed. "Yeah. I concur, Dr. Kippy."
"Knifey!" Knifey protested, sensing he was being maligned, and threatened Steve with his pointy weapon.
"Hey - sorry, little guy," Steve said, "but if you were human they'd lock you up."
The door lock turned red and clicked.
Steve whipped the cheese out of sight and the three mice all zipped to lab trays and lay down on their backs. Kippy hissed at Knifey, who was still holding his knife in his hand. Knifey quickly hid it under his tiny body, which barely concealed it. The three mice closed their eyes and looked dead.
Greg came in holding trays and equipment.
"Hey Greg," Steve said. "What's up?"
"These are the new reports and the government papers to fill out. And the latest laser scalpel - it's way cool." He set the stuff down, almost on Kippy.
"You sure work on this mouse a lot."
"Oh? How can you tell it's the same mouse?" Steve asked, glancing out of the corner of his eye.
"The stubby tail," Greg said. "Looks like another mouse bit it off in a fight"
You don't know the half of it, human, thought Kippy. That's my badge of honor and sign of my brother's love.
"Yeah, he's... interesting," Steve said.
"Mouse Knight?" Greg asked, thumbing through the reports absent-mindedly.
Steve jerked a bit and said, "No!" Greg looked at him as if he'd spit up green foam. "No," Steve continued calmly, "Actually quite the opposite. I think this mouse may prove that the project is a bust."
"OOO, don't let Warcom hear you say that," Greg said. "He's already mad as a March hare about the wheels and special food. He canceled the extra account for that and we're gonna lose our candy machine in the hall!"
"It was worth losing some candy to give the mice some pleasure in their sad lives," Steve said.
Disturbed by the topic, Greg hastily put the papers down and made for the door. "Yeah, well, you're the boss, kinda," he said.
"Bye, chief." The door closed.
Kippy opened an eye. Knifey pounced on the cheese again and Feeder moped over to pick up the flying bits.
Kippy scuttled over to Steve, eyeballing him the whole way.
"What?" Steve asked.
"Candy down the hall?"
"Make you fat," Steve grinned.
"Extra hour on the wheel," Kippy said, his mouth full. He smiled at Steve, knowing it melted the human's heart. His cheeks were exceptionally puffy with the candy in them. Steve returned his warmest smile to the mouse.
For the next four hours they cleaned cages. Kippy rode on Steve's shoulder and handed out chocolate to every mouse on the wall that could eat. The others he groomed, or cleaned up, and made sure they all had fresh water. Kippy didn't know it, but every mouse there looked forward eagerly to his visits, for he was kind to them, and they were lonely.
Later, the wee hours of the morning found Steve and Kippy watching TV again and playing cards. Kippy would poke his nose under his cards, which were face down, to see what he had, and then remember them. Steve was dealer this time because it was faster than the mouse handing them out one at a time with his teeth, and because Steve wasn't sure whether or not Kippy could cheat that way.
"Our talk about the afterlife reminds me of a mouse story," Kippy said as he checked under a card.
"Oh yeah?" Steve said.
"Yeah. There was this mouse - or rat, I can't remember which - and he wanted to repay his human for all the kindness his owner had done for him. So when he died, he went to the MouseGod and asked if there was anything the MouseGod would do for this fine owner. The MouseGod said 'well, what do you want for him?' - to which the mouse replied, 'how about success and great health?' The MouseGod said, 'you get one wish every time you die, and if you want to use it for your human that's okay - but you only get one.' So the mouse wished for success for his beloved human, and the human was successful, but lonely. The mouse felt sorry for his human, so he went back and was born again as a mouse, in the human's household, and lived a good, loved life, enjoyed it, and then died again eventually. He went back to the MouseGod and used his next wish to find the human a mate. The human met his soulmate and was happy, but he fell ill. Again, the mouse went back and lived a full life, and died early of cancer so that he could use his wish to help the human, which he did. He ended up going back over fifty times, to pay back his human for the love and attention he had given a sick, lost cause feeder mouse who had been doomed from birth had it not been for the compassion of that one man."
"Well, when it was all over, the man and the mouse died together on the same death bed. They both went before the MouseGod, who explained to the human that this little mouse had used every wish he had for the man, and that was why his life had such fortune. The man was moved to tears, and asked the MouseGod what he might do for his dear friend. 'You get one wish also," said the MouseGod. 'And your human wish is as powerful as fifty mouse wishes.' So the human gave his wish to the mouse, to repay him for spending all he had on the human. The mouse said he only wanted the human to be happy, and perfect, and lack nothing - forever. And he used his very last and final wish to make it so."
"And...?" asked Steve.
"The human was reborn as a mouse, in a loving home," Kippy finished.
Steve wiped away tears. "That was beautiful, Kippy."
"Yeah. Royal flush."
Steve gawked at the mouse's cards. "You cheated!"
"He hee!" Kippy squeaked, and ran away with the loot - the last chunk of chocolate bar.
"Just like a mouse!" Steve said, and yelled after him," Did you know the origin of 'mouse' means thief in Egyptian?!"
Kippy happily consumed his prize from a sheltered corner without the slightest twinge of guilt, smiling at Steve.
The next day, Warcom came in while Steve was mixing samples in test tubes. The snaky man spent some time walking down the wall, looking in at the mice, mostly asleep. He seemed overly pleased with himself.
"Hello, Steve," he said. Steve instantly suspected some devious form of treachery, but smiled back at his employer.
"We have the new contract from the Man," Warcom said.
"The government renewed our grant?" Steve said, sounding disappointed.
"Yes," Warcom hissed. "We can now raid more places. Expand, maybe even begin testing wild mice." His eyes narrowed at Steve.
Steve turned back to his tubes. "Great."
"It would mean a raise for you," Warcom said.
Steve said nothing. Warcom was irritated. He looked at the mice on the walls.
"These wheels are unnecessary," he said. "I'm going to have Greg take them out." He was prodding for Steve's buttons, but Steve was used to it.
"Can't sell them for anything," Steve said. "Might as well leave them in."
Warcom grumbled something under his breath. "Do we have any... special ...mice in here, Steve?"
"Haven't found the Mouse Knight mouse yet," Steve lied, not looking up from his work.
Warcom stopped at a cage. The number 7001 had been replaced by a small piece of paper that said "Kippy." Ah, something the idiot cares about, Warcom thought, and opened the cage. Kippy was rudely awoken to Warcom lifting him by his tail. Panicking, he twisted and thrashed in vain.
And bumped right into Steve. Steve shot out his hand and gripped Warcom's wrist so tightly the hand turned white. Warcom dropped the mouse from six feet. Steve caught Kippy with his other hand. Rage burned in Steve's normally docile face.
"No, it won't," Steve said through clenched teeth. "Buy your own snake food. There's a pet store down on fifth and Mayberry Avenue." He released Warcom's hand. Warcom was stunned and frightened. Nobody had ever stood up to him before, and Steve looked ready to kill him. He could feel the wrath pouring out of Steve's soul and reaching for his. Steve wanted to kill him - he knew it. He didn't move as Steve put Kippy gently back into his cage and closed the door. Just like a bully, thought Steve. Coward to the core.
Steve folded his arms and stared straight through Warcom.
Deciding there was work to do elsewhere, Warcom made for the door. When it was shut behind him, Steve heard the bully say, "They're my mice, Mr. Stafford! I will do with them whatever pleases me!"
"Over my dead body," Steve mumbled as he went to Kippy's cage.
"You okay?" he asked the mouse.
"You defended me," Kippy said.
Kippy smiled at the man. Tears grew in his little ruby eyes.
Steve pretended to adjust his glasses and wiped his own eyes. "I almost lost you," he said. "That's not happening again. That creep will come back when I'm not here." He removed Kippy from his cage and put him in a random clean cage elsewhere on the wall. He left the number label random. "There," he said.
"Thank you, Steve," Kippy said.
"We've got to work this out," Steve said. "I'm afraid to let you go, but if I keep you here sooner or later something terrible will happen."
"To all of us," Kippy said.
Steve sat down hard on his stool and put his head in his hands.
Kippy inched to the front bars of the cage.
"Steve?" he said.
Steve came to the cage.
"I wish happiness for you," the mouse said.
A tear rolled down Steve's cheek. He petted his precious friend. He knew time was growing short.