The First Battle
The office was dark and silent. Mandallo slept as he often did when he would rather be lurking on prey, because there was nothing else to do. His body stretched over eight feet and his cage was barely four. He was hungry. He remembered the jungle he came from as a young snake. He drifted in these memories happily - until he was rudely awakened by the smell of food.
Peering about with his slitted eye, Mandallo located the food without effort. It was standing right in front of him.
Wearing a suit of armor and an old robe.
Startled, Mandallo rose up to his full height to unfurl his majestic hood, and slammed his head into the low ceiling. Angry and ashamed at being taken by surprise, he hissed and showed his long fangs. The cage had made him lazy. He would never have been snuck up on in the wild.
"Speak quickly or die, mouse," Mandallo said.
"Pardon the intrusion," Squibble said, removing his hood. "I had to see you for myself, the legendary King Cobra. The deadliest and most feared of all snakes."
Mandallo drew back. The mouse had a silver tongue. This was one of the Mouse Knights his dread master always spoke of. They were supposed to be dangerous, but the day Mandallo feared a mouse would be the end of him.
"Well, look then, mouse - before I eat you. I am famished."
"Yes, I imagine so," Squibble said, rummaging through his pack. He withdrew a small set of raw steaks and threw them before Mandallo. "A gift for your majesty. Warcom doesn't treat you very well, does he?"
Mandallo ignored the dead meat. "He is most cruel."
"I'll get to the point, Majesty. Would you be free of him?"
"I dare not incur his wrath," Mandallo answered. "He would spray me with acid or burn me with a cigar. He has done so before. He is too terrible."
"This coming from you, sir?" Squibble motioned to the snake's great mass with his tiny paw. "You could end him with a single bite. He has no respect for you. Come with me."
"Where are you going?" Mandallo asked, tempted.
"To rescue my squire," Squibble said, "who was taken months ago by this facility and I just now became aware. At my age one does not travel quickly."
"You would die in there," Mandallo said. "Easier if I eat you here."
"You will not come with me to freedom, great Snake Lord?"
Mandallo felt strong from the compliments. But not strong enough to oppose the tyrant who kept him in his box.
"I will not," Mandallo said. "I have everything I need here."
"You have become accustomed to abuse," Squibble said. "You think it is all there is. I assure you the truth is otherwise. But if I cannot sway you, then so be it. Perhaps we will meet again."
"Our meeting is at an end, mouse. You are small, but I am used to meager morsels." Mandallo drew up to strike.
Squibble smiled and pulled something from under his cloak. The mouse yanked on it and it hissed. It smoked. It blinded Mandallo's eyes, nose, and heat sensors. He was blind.
The great snake struck where he mouse had been, but there was only hard glass.
"Life is a sad waste spent in a cage for one such as you," he heard the mouse say from above. Then there was nothing more.
Furious and depressed, Mandallo waited until the smoke cleared and sadly ate the portions of steak the mouse had left. He was too hungry to let them lie, though it stung his once mighty pride. He hoped no one could see him stoop so low.
The lab door creaked open into the dark lab as Steve was locked into the lenses of a microscope. On the computer monitor Kippy's DNA was displayed in computer generated graphics. When the light on the monitor changed out of the corner of his eye, Steve glanced up to look.
Hello. said the white letters on a black screen.
Steve moved his glasses down his nose and stared at the computer screen. He made a face of confusion. Then he lowered his gaze down to the keyboard and saw Squibble.
"Coming out of the woodwork," he muttered.
I see you have met other Mouse Knights, Sir. I am looking for one - a white mouse named Tommy. He weighs 61 grams. He has a scar across his back and tail. Would you have him?
Steve squinted at the robed mouse. He opened the book next to him, the one he had been reading to Kippy, and thumbed through the pages. He stopped in the middle, comparing the mouse on the table to a drawing on the page. He glanced back and forth a few times.
"Squibble himself," Steve said in awe.
Pleased to meet you, came the reply.
"How do you know I'm not going to capture you and lock you up?" Steve asked, leaning on an elbow in his chair.
You have no bad spirits around you, the screen displayed. The Mouse God told me you were a good man.
"The...Mouse God," Steve said.
Yes. He's my friend. And I can see spirits. It's cool. Where is my squire please? I'd hate to get rough.
Steve raised his eyebrows.
That was a joke.
"Less than you think," Steve said. He gestured to the keyboard and Squibble hopped off of it. Steve ran his fingers over the keys and brought up a list of subjects. After a few minutes he said, "There are 21 mice with the weight of 61 grams. I'll have to bring up pictures." Squibble nodded.
Steve stopped when he saw Squibble lower his head. The little mouse crooned softly in a voice Steve could barely hear. Squibble sat down and cried.
"I was too late," Squibble said to himself.
Steve looked at the monitor and saw the scar across the back and tail, and others - probably from fights. They looked like teeth and blade cuts. That had been one tough mouse. The robed mouse seemed to be taking it hard. Then something came to Steve and he checked the notes on the deceased. They said 'came with one baby male - left together.'
"This was Knifey's father!" he exclaimed.
Squibble looked up, his eyes wet.
"Knifey was his son - Knifey made it out of here, little one," Steve said in excitement. "He went with Kippy."
Kippy! Squibble jumped up onto the keyboard but then the lights came on.
"This one won't be joining him," said Warcom. He was with two armed security guards.
Steve grabbed Squibble and stuffed him into his lab coat.
"Too late, Mr. Stafford," Warcom grinned. "We have it all on tape. You talking to the white mouse - this mouse typing. We even have you on camera yelling 'Mouse Knight' at the top of your lungs and pointing to a white mouse who is now suspiciously missing from these premises. You've done your job well, without meaning to."
"You bugged the lab?" Steve was astounded at Warcom's cowardice and paranoia.
"Yes, and it paid off, didn't it. But I didn't just bug it. I had cameras, sound equipment installed - even in the back room."
"You knew about those suffering animals in the back?" Steve said.
"Knew? I was the one who told Richard to put them back there and leave them," Warcom said. "Never know when we might need a subject that just didn't matter anymore. Shame to waste good stock. A good businessman wastes nothing."
Steve was speechless. Warcom gestured and the two guards came forward.
"We'll have that Mouse Knight now, Steve."
"Not happening!" Steve backed into a corner. The men got ready for a struggle. Steve picked up a metal tray and prepared to sell his new friend's life at a dear price, because his job was already gone.
But Squibble was running across the smooth floor for the door just a fast as he could. Everyone saw him at once.
But Squibble was old, and not fast enough. Warcom lifted a foot and brought it down hard.
Either his aim was very good or very bad. He pinned Squibble by the tail. Squibble drew a knife and prepared himself to lose his precious appendage, but Warcom slammed a lab jacket over him and grabbed him up in the material. He was trapped. He hacked and slashed to no avail.
Warcom took the bound mouse to the lab table.
"Rg-51, please, Steve," he said.
Steve knew bartering, begging, and convincing were hopeless paths. So he simply shook his head, though his heart was racing.
"Well, it's been a while since I've done this," Warcom said, grabbing the needles and drugs. "But what's one to do in a mutiny?" He put the anesthesia cup over Squibble after slapping the shirt hard to stun him and dropping the mouse on the cold metal surface. Squibble felt crushed. He couldn't breathe, and when he could, he breathed gas. He was going out when Warcom took the cup away.
What resulted was a disoriented fog that Squibble could not move through. His motions were aching and cold, like moving through frozen molasses. He could not escape the needle being pushed into his skull. He tried to squeak in pain; nothing came but moans.
"I like it better when they're awake enough to be horrified," Warcom laughed.
Steve would have yelled, screamed, called him all kind of names. He wanted to panic, but it wouldn't have helped. So instead he drew back his foot and broke the leg of the guard watching Squibble's murder.
"Ahhhh!" The guard went down holding his knee and the other received a metal tray in his face with a resounding gong. He went down holding his face. Steve grabbed a scalpel off the table and came for Warcom.
Warcom's eyes went wide and he yelped, jerking the needle out of Squibble's bleeding head. Like a busted, guilty child that had been convinced he would not be caught, he bolted for the door. He vanished yelling "Guards, guards!! Help! Steve has gone insane and attacked the guards - destroyed specimens - even attacked me!" He ran down the corridor screaming in a high pitched voice like a little girl.
Steve knew that he should catch Warcom, and finish him. Then he saw Squibble slowly twisting and opening his mouth in silent agony. He remembered Kippy's face after he had fallen from the table. The same face. Steve put down the scalpel and tended to Squibble. The drug had been injected. And Warcom hadn't even gotten the injection spot right. Squibble was going to suffer the effects of Rg-51, and probably die of bleeding on the brain.
The guards forced themselves up and drew their guns.
"You're under arrest," they told Steve.
"As if it matters," Steve said without emotion. He gazed down at Squibble with sad eyes. "I'm sorry, little one. I'm so sorry."
More guards came to the door. Steve was dragged out and Squibble placed in a cage on the wall of pain, to live out the few remaining days of his heroic life in meaningless suffering.