"Check," Kippy said, and moved his queen.
"I won the college championship and I'm losing to a mouse," Steve groaned. He moved his king.
"He he he," Kippy giggled. "And you taught me how to play!"
"Kippy, how do mice want to be treated?" Steve said.
Kippy studied the board. "What do you mean?"
"We think we know what mice like, and what's good for them, but what do mice think? I have the unique chance to get a first hand impression."
"Oh," Kippy said, moving a bishop. "Well, mice like food and clean water, and... well, I don't really know what domestic mice like, but I can tell you the universal stuff."
"Clean, clean. Mice are clean. Dirty cages would bother any mouse. Too hot or cold..."
"How hot or cold?"
"Like, under 60 or over 80."
"Mice are a lot like people."
"That's probably why we do research on them," Steve said. Kippy frowned. "Sorry."
"That's okay," said Kippy. "Big tigers."
"Go on," Steve laughed.
"No too hot or cold, and mice hate to be alone. Bad for us."
"Really?" Steve asked, moving a chess piece.
"Yes, reely," Kippy said. "Duh! Let's stick you in this lab all day every day for five years and see how you do."
"Mice have feelings, like anyone."
"I know this now."
"Sneaky rodent!" Steve smiled and had to lose his queen to save his king. Kippy happily munched something, grinning ear to ear.
"Whatchoo got?" Steve asked, tossing his queen.
"Sneaky rodent took your last cracker."
Steve observed that, indeed, his last cracker was gone.
"How did you do that?" Steve asked, amazed. "I never saw you move!"
"Same way I hid your ID card," Kippy bragged. Steve glanced down at his shirt. His ID card was gone.
"Amazing!" Steve smiled at Kippy. "You're so cool."
"You are too," Kippy said, chewing away on the cracker. He put it down long enough to move his queen. "Checkmate, mister Cool."
Steve laughed and tipped his king over. "Ubermouse."
"He he," Kippy chirped.
Steve put the chess pieces away as he said, "And how does a human tell if a mouse is ill? We have a hard time with that here. For all we think we know about mice, they often suddenly turn up dead."
"Ummm," Kippy said, "Could it possibly be the freakish drugs they get here?" He put his paws on his hips and cocked his head at Steve.
"Even mice that aren't on the drugs," Steve said.
"Well, that's because in the wild, mice can't show signs of weakness," Kippy said, crawling around the table looking for the remains of his cracker. "If they do, they're food, so they don't show signs of illness until they're almost gone. By that time you better get them help fast. They've probably been sick for weeks or months."
"But how do I tell ahead of time?" Steve asked.
"Hmmm," Kippy said, thinking and chewing on his prize. "If a mouse is slow, not moving around, if you can see its breathing is deep and labored, or if they make noise. All bad."
"You make noise," Steve said.
"What kinda noise?"
"Any kind," Kippy said. "Mice are supposed to be quiet as a mouse." He began cleaning himself. "Any noise is very bad, no matter how cute it sounds. Chirping, clicking, wheezing. Bad. In the field, mice that make these noises are going to die. Often they banish themselves so they don't die around the village and bring predators."
"Is that why mice seldom die inside their nests?" Steve said. "They always drag themselves out to some corner."
"Yeah, that's why. Instinct dies hard. It's a good instinct."
"I'm surprised you don't have Myco yet," Steve commented, sticking his face back into the microscope.
"Myco?" Kippy asked.
"Mycoplasma Pulmonis," Steve said, one hand on the keyboard, typing away. "Kind of pneumonia. It's what kills most mice and rats. We can't get free of the darn thing, even in a lab environment. Now that I know about the signs of sick mice, I think I'm going to have the techs put a lot of them on Baytril - an antibiotic. I know several mice that make noise."
"Do field mice get it?" Kippy asked.
"Yeah - all mice get it. But you seem to be supermouse, Kippy. You're faster than any mouse I've ever seen. You survived the Rg-51 in record time, and you've never been sick."
"Product of the field environment," Kippy declared, climbing up onto his toy Steve. "If you think I'm quick, you should meet my brother Fleeter. You can find him in the dictionary under fast."
"Did you get along?" Steve asked.
"Oh, heck yeah. He'd do anything for me. I love that guy. He used to protect me from the other field mice when they'd pick on me for being too slow or too white."
Steve turned to look at Kippy on his shoulder. "That must have been hard, being different."
"It sucked," Kippy said. "I was always last."
"I grew up on my father's reservation," Steve said. "All the Indian kids hated me because I was mostly white. They called me thinblood and made a ritual of beating me up. I left when I was fifteen."
"Fifteen days?" Kippy asked, amazed.
"Ha ha ha," Steve laughed. "Fifteen years."
Kippy stared at the human. "Fifteen years," he whispered. "I wonder what it would be like to live that long."
Pained by the reminder that his dear friend was not on the earth for long, Steve took Kippy in hand and gently kissed him on the head. They looked at each other in silence. It reminded Kippy of his mother and her unconditional love. He stretched his body as long as it would go, put his front paws on Steve's lower lip, and licked it.
A tear ran past Steve's big nose and fell into space toward the floor. Neither of them said anything for a time.
Finally, Steve wiped his eyes and put them back into his microscope. "You're an ubermouse, Kippy," he said. "You've got great genes and you're going to make it to at least four."
But Kippy was thinking to himself that the oldest field mouse he knew was just past one.
Days passed by with each night full of talk and play. The tech crew was given the long, tedious task of medicating over a hundred mice that made noise. Many of the rodents began to feel better, and started playing on their wheels again. For some reason, the move to stage seven of the research just didn't happen. The tech crew didn't mind so much. Most of them had adopted a mouse and taken some home. Steve's paradigm shift had been contagious.
One late night Steve was snoozing on the couch while Kippy played with Feeder and Knifey. Knifey was trying to show Mouse Fu moves to Feeder, who wanted nothing to do with it. He got used to dodging Knifey's attacks, which were usually deliberately slow anyway. Knifey would get upset because Feeder refused to attack and poke him. Feeder would then run away and hide behind Kippy. This was one of those times.
"Knifey!" Knifey demanded. Clearly it meant get back here, but Feeder wasn't falling for it.
"Why doesn't Su-Steve luh-let us go?" Feeder asked Kippy.
Kippy was busy looking at The Mouse Knight, the legendary book written by Spritely that started the entire mess they were in. Kippy couldn't read, however - no one had ever taught him - so he amused himself looking at the pictures until Steve would read him a chapter at a time.
"I think he would be a mouse without a nest, food, or water if he did, Feeder," Kippy said. "I know he wants to, but Warcom would bite his rump really hard - maybe even kill him if he did that."
"Warcom is bad," Feeder said.
"Yeah. Bad," Kippy agreed.
Upset at losing his playmate, Knifey had come-a-calling to Kippy. Kippy left his place in the book and went with Knifey. He reached out and flicked one of Knifey's big bat ears to start the engagement. Knifey grinned wide and began circling Kippy. He lunged, thrusting with his poniard, but hit nothing. He cut, slashed, and fenced his way at the bigger white mouse, but Kippy was never there to take one of the mock blows.
"Gotta do better than that if you wanna be a Mouse Knight," Kippy laughed. Knifey redoubled his efforts, moving at terrific speeds. No luck. Kippy was ten times faster and still not working very hard.
"Knifey?" the little mouse asked, worried and sad looking.
"Oh no, little one," Kippy said, coming over and petting him. He knew how it felt to be slow. "You don't have to beat me to be a Knight. I'm hard to beat. If you can even touch me, why, you'll be able to beat all those other Knights no problem." He smiled at Knifey, who was grinning back wickedly. "Uh-oh."
Kippy felt a pointy thing poke his flank. Knifey had him.
"You're learning quick, little knifemaster," Kippy told him, and raised his hands in surrender.
"Knifey! Knifey Knifey!" Knifey paraded around proudly, dragging a willing Kippy by the leash that was his tail. Knifey came over and showed Feeder his victory. "Knifey."
Feeder nodded. "Th...that's great, Knifey. You - you got him at last." Knifey tossed Kippy tail aside and struck an en garde pose.
"Uh, no," Feeder whined. "After such a muh...mighty battle, I do-don't think I'd pose any ...any kind of challenge to you, O great and puh-powerful Mouse Lord."
Knifey snaffed that he knew it was so, and strode back to his pile of millet, plopped down and helped himself to a victory feast.
Kippy smiled at Feeder, groomed his ears. "You're learning too," he told him. Feeder smiled, a rare occurrence.
Steve wearily rose and hobbled blindly to the table and sat down, looking disheveled and unkempt.
The mice laughed at his hair, what there was left of it, as it stuck straight up.
"Laugh it up, furballs," he said grinning. He reached down and ruffled the fur of the two mice. Kippy enjoyed it, but when Steve took his hand away, Feeder gaped at Steve, clearly horrified, and vanished.
Kippy sighed. "I was making progress..."
"Sorry," Steve said. "I forget. He's got issues."
"Just don't bring any snakes in here," Kippy said. "He'll be okay." The mouse paused, whiskers atwitch. "Steve," he said seriously.
"Kippy," Steve said in the same tone.
"Is there anything I can do to help other mice? Like, on a large scale? I don't think mice have it very good, even outside the lab."
Steve replied, "Well, you're a talking mouse, Kippy. The possibilities are endless, as I am sure Squibble foresaw when he named you."
"Oh, even the great Squibble couldn't have foreseen all this," Kippy laughed.
"Are you sure?" Steve said ominously. "You said he was the prophet."
Kippy made a mouse face and froze. "No. No, I'm not sure."
"The question is, do you want to be a crusader, Like Spritely was? It's a hard life, it appears."
"Can't be selfish and do the 'out of sight out of mind' thing, eh?"
"No," said Kippy.
"Mouse Knight!" Steve announced to the lab, pointing at Kippy, who was embarrassed. He ran and hid behind the computer monitor. Steve ran around the wall singing "Mouse Knight, Mouse Knight," and handing out pieces of cornbread to the mice.
Kippy found Feeder behind the monitor as well.
"He's gone mad," Feeder moaned.
Kippy smirked. "No. He's gone sane."
Steve continued his carefree song and dance until all the cornbread was gone.