Kippy woke to darkness, strange smells and sounds. There were many other mice - at least hundreds - in the same room, all locked in tiny, bland cages like his. He had a water spout, a small food dispenser, and recycled bedding covering the floor. His head hurt and his teeth ached from trying to escape in the van. Compared to that nightmare, this place was quiet. So many smells - he could not pick out any in particular, but many of the mice were wounded or in pain. Not many were moving. And something that smelled... wrong. The wrongness came from the center of the lightless room. Never had the young mouse sniffed anything like it. It was not a bad smell, but it made the hackles behind his neck rise. He hated it right off, and he hated the cage even more. Mindlessly, he went back to biting the bars. When that didn't work, he cried out like some of the others were doing. Then he broke down and cried, period. Desperation and anxiety filled his tiny heart. He had never even known such a terrible thing could happen. He had heard stories, but he thought they were like the legends of the Mouse Knights - fiction. Now Heaven and Hell had both presented themselves, it seemed, and he was given the latter. Depressed, he went to sulk in the corner, scared out of his wits. He had lost his freedom! He had never known life in a cage - how terrible it was! He would never become a knight, never see his family again. He was helpless now.
Just another caged mouse.
The next morning the lights came on and humans came into the room. Noises that he would later learn were mechanical and electronic began revving up and coming to life. The mice began making commotions in panic. The smells, especially the wrong smell, became choking.
The humans talked to each other. They discussed things the mouse could not understand.
"Prepare the RG formula. We have a lot of mice to inject."
"New number today, doctor?"
"Yes, fifty-one. Latest revision."
"Less fatality rate?"
"Unfortunately it's supposed to be much higher," said the doctor. "Warcom didn't care."
"Someone said these mice were pets...?"
"I didn't ask. I just do my job."
They discussed for a good long time until most of the other mice calmed down and got bored. Kippy, however, stood at the edge of his cage, holding the bars like a prison inmate, watching the humans. They fascinated him for some reason, especially the balding one in white with the sharp nose and glasses. He seemed to be giving out the orders. The others did what he said. He was the chief human.
Of this Kippy was certain when another human came into the room. Immediately the smell of the other humans converted to fear. Even the balding one. The other human spoke softly, and didn't seem harsh, but the others were afraid. This was the chief. And it seemed the humans didn't like the fact. But no one bit him, or challenged him at all. They moved when he motioned to them, and they stayed quiet as he spoke. After a short time, the ugly chief went over to look at the mice. He rapidly went up and down the rows of cages, scanning for something and on occasion stopping to gaze at a cage and ask questions of the balding doctor. Kippy couldn't see any of the other cages, for they were on the same wall as his. But finally, the chief human stopped at his cage.
Kippy hated the man immediately. He smelled of cowardice, and cruelty. (Mice can smell all these things. Most animals can.) His face was twisted with it. His eyes bulged, his mouth frowned, his smell was that of unhappiness and anger. He disliked Kippy at once also, Kippy could immediately tell. His mouse instinct ran shivers up his spine. This man was a predator. No different from the snakes. Even his face looked like a snake's. His eyes moved from side to side and squinted like that. He licked his lips and ran his tongue over his crooked teeth as he spoke to the other man, the one with glasses. A short exchange of words followed, and then the chief human scoffed, looking at Kippy. Kippy didn't know it, but he was the only mouse not to run to the back of the cage when this monster put its face near him. He felt rage from the man, that a mouse would stand up to him. The man raised a hand to the front of the cage, put tension on his middle finger with his thumb, and released it into Kippy's face. Kippy, his nose broken, flew back into the rear wall of the cage and squeaked in pain. Blood poured out of his sensitive snout. He had to open his mouth to breathe. He ran around in circles, stunned and disoriented and blind. It hurt so much!
"Sir, we need that mouse for the experiment!" Steve said too harshly. He immediately regretted it as Mr. Warcom turned with a disbelieving stare.
"What did you say to me, Steve?" challenged Warcom.
"Oh, jeeze... I'm sorry Sir," said Steve. "Its just that... this one has a high probability of being series MK, Sir."
Warcom looked back at the pathetic little rodent scurrying around in circles and spitting his blood all over the floor.
"We better have some this time, Steve," he hissed. "This is my money and my fortune here. I am not wasting a single damn cent of it!"
"Half this bunch is from the raid, Sir. Certainly there will be plenty, but we... we shouldn't damage them. Sir." A deadly glance shot from Warcom. "This one might be your key to billions and fame, Sir," Steve finished.
Warcom sniffed. He lowered his voice so only Steve could hear it. "For being so smart, you're really an idiot, Steve," he said. "Don't try to be manipulative. I own these mice. Whether they live or die is up to me." He stared hard at Steve until Steve looked away in submission, then he reached up and opened a cage door without looking. Assuming he had Kippy by the tail, he withdrew a panicked mouse. He kept his gaze on Steve, who quickly got the point. Not bothering to even glance at the miniscule, struggling beast, he headed for the door. One of the assistants held it open for him, and since he was used to it, he didn't bother with a thank you. When he passed beyond hearing, the assistant mouthed the words to the others, Madman Marty Warcom, and a few new people tried desperately to stifle laughter.
For Steve and the others it was no laughing matter. Everyone knew what would happen to the mouse.
"Another specimen down the tubes," Greg said. "Literally."
Other lab techs looked at the floor or at each other. No one had the guts to say anything to the heartless wretch who owned their company except Steve, and he was clearly silent now for fear of his job.
Kim finally couldn't stand it. "Why did his father leave the company to him?" she said. "The only bad decision the old man ever made."
"The other brother is a druggie loser and the sister is an animal rights activist," Greg said. "Old Warcom had no choice. Sadly."
"Someone see to this specimen," Steve barked, annoyed at the cruelty he had just witnessed, and further troubled at the irony that it bothered him at all. After all, despite all he did to keep the subjects happy, his very job was technically cruelty. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, he thought. Everyone went quickly back to their jobs, happy to forget about the plight of the poor doomed rodent.
Warcom entered his office and said, "Dinnertime, Mandallo!" He raised the lid on an enormous glass tank and unceremoniously tossed the mouse in. Mandallo uncoiled and began slithering toward the frightened white ball of fur immediately. He was hungry. Warcom cared as little for his collection of rare snakes as he did for the rodents. Well, maybe a little more. He did feed the snakes occasionally.
Waiting by the glass, Warcom watched the snake strike and squish the mouse to death. Mandallo did not unfurl his infamous hood, and the mouse did not suffer nearly enough to cure Warcom of his foul mood.
Disappointed, Marty struck the glass. Mandallo pulled back from his meal and coiled in defense. The mouse's dead corpse lay uneaten on the cages sandy floor. Grumbling, Marty sat down at his desk and turned his computer on to check his stocks. He let the employees have very little of it. When the company went public it would all be his. He had spent every red cent - at twenty five cents a share, and because only employees were able to buy before publicity, he was guaranteed to at least triple his money. But if any proof whatsoever was found that mice could read, by God, imagine! He would be a billionaire instantly. Mice that were smart enough to read would be able to serve as guinea pigs in space, testers that could explain everything they experienced in dangerous environments, even household servants, typists, or just plain slaves. Maybe even tech support. No. If they were any good at it he would lose money. He gleefully thought of mice not getting supper or water if they didn't perform on demand. Run on the intellectual wheel, mouse, he thought. You'll be powering my great machine all the same. Nothing has changed for you by being smart. You're still a stupid, worthless rodent.
The phone rang. Warcom answered it, "What!"
His face bleached out. His eyes took on fear.
"Yes sir. They're all here sir."
A pause. "Almost certainly sir, this time we have Knights. We just have to get them to confess, sir."
"Anything at all, sir. We'll stop at nothing. It'll be a pleasure sir."
Warcom put down the phone. His hands shook. Mandallo smelled fear on his cruel master, and enjoyed the moment.
Steve went back to his work at the lab computer, grumbling about mice and madmen like his boss, and punching the keys too hard with frustration that had been mounting for over a year. He hated his work. The pay was phenomenal, but the job was nothing like what he had hoped for. Still, they had a sizable government grant, and if the Mouse Knight project came through, he would at least have the Nobel Prize. At least. More than likely he would be mocked into unemployment, but he could still dream at least. Grin and bear it, he told himself for the millionth time. When you're rich you can quit and apologize to the poor animals. If mice can really read.
Kippy was picked up roughly by the scruff of his neck, swabbed and cleaned, which hurt even worse, and then alcohol was put carelessly on his nose, which went into his eyes. He screamed.
It was the first scream of thousands that day, and only one day of many in the lab. What Kippy thought was hell would only get worse.
All day and night he couldn't sleep for the pain in his head. He was nothing but a ball of aching fire. He couldn't breathe through his nose, and had to gasp through his mouth. Misery rode him hard and didn't let up for even one minute. Late that night, Steve was the last one in the lab, working and sipping his coffee. He had several mice laid out on tables, strapped down, mostly unconscious. From the noises they made and the smells of those mouse-sized tables, Kippy was happy he was blind.
Then the smell changed and Steve was in front of him. He heard the cage door open. He got to his feet immediately, ready to make a mad dash to freedom, but he couldn't see, and the pain of simply rising hurt so much he squeaked in pain.
Through dried blood he barely smelled Steve waving his hand in front of his broken face.
"Are you blind?" Steve said. Of course, the mouse couldn't understand him. Field mice didn't know English. Steve's face softened and his brows came together. Cursing Warcom, he grabbed the little mouse by the base of the tail and put the other hand under its feet. The mouse bit him good. Sharp teeth, right into his palm. He ignored it. Happened all the time. Clenching his jaw, he took Kippy to the counter and put him on a table.
No! No! thought Kippy, and he panicked. Rushing in any direction but the death smell of those steel tables, he ran right off the counter. It all happened so fast, Steve didn't have time to catch him. Kippy hit the hard, cold floor and lay there for a moment, as though dead, before convulsing in agony.
"Fast as a damn field mouse," commented Steve, as he bent down to pick the mouse up. He checked Kippy for broken bones. Spine was intact. Head wasn't ruptured. Internal organs, no one could tell. If the mouse was dead tomorrow, he had broken himself apart inside. Only time would tell. Badly broken nose... That must hurt...
In that quiet moment, looking into that mouse's face, something clicked inside Steve. Perhaps some angel of mercy hit him with an arrow. Perhaps he was just so tired that he could no longer maintain the apathy shields that normally allowed him to study a subject and ignore its pain. But this mouse, the one possibly dying in his hand, was in terrible pain, and for some reason, this time, he couldn't ignore it. He imagined what it would be like to have his whole face broken and then fall a hundred feet onto pavement. He felt compassion. He had seen more than his share of rodent accidents, but this mouse should not have suffered. It was Warcom's fault - his senseless cruelty. Warcom, whose face was so bent with Machiavellian tyranny, hated this mouse because it was beautiful and had a friendly, adorable face. Warcom was ugly through and through. For a moment Kippy's eyes opened, full of tears, and their eyes met.
There is a magical moment of bonding given only to a few in this world. It has no name, but it can happen between two people, in which case they marry and stay with each other happily for the rest of their lives. It can happen with a place, in which case the person in question will move there without delay and stay forever. It happened between Steve and Kippy, as sometimes it happens with an owner and a pet. In that maddening moment of blurry suffering, Kippy understood Steve to his core. And Steve fell in love with Kippy. He didn't know it yet, because animals are so much more honest with their feelings, but he felt the tiny touch of its beginning, and that was what motivated him to save Kippy, instead of put him to sleep and burn his body in the cremator.
So he put Kippy in a container and filled it with gas. Kippy thought for certain he was being killed, and went to sleep. Steve then set his nose (with hands as dexterous as a brain surgeon's), gave him antibiotics for infection, and steroids to help him heal. He also did his job, and gave Kippy the first dose of the new experimental drug they were testing on the latest batch of known Mouse Knight captives. It was called Rg-51. It had to be injected directly into the brain. Good thing the poor little guy is asleep, thought Steve.
Then he put the mouse back into his cell and hoped that he would be alive in the morning. He put his coat on and was leaving the lab, punching in the security code to lock all the doors. doors, when he heard a tiny noise from the far side of the lab. Something had fallen and made a small tinny clang. Steve was used to small noises in a room full of a thousand mice, but at that side of the room there were no cages. He walked over, turned the lights on, and bent over to pick up the metal syringe that had fallen. He peered about for escapees, but the thought was absurd. No mouse could ever escape. The locks were out of their reach and too complex. As long as he had worked there, no one had ever seen an escaped mouse. There was an inside joke among the employees, but....
Laughing to himself, he put the syringe on the counter and went home.
He always tried to leave work behind him, but he couldn't stop thinking of Kippy's tiny face, in terrible pain, crying and squinting just like any person would have. He regretted giving the mouse Rg-51. The last version of it had been dangerous. It left mice crippled. It had random, strange effects. Most were harmful. Only one in three mice lived through the set of treatments, and the newer version was more than twice as powerful. But once the first dose had been given, to stop meant certain death for the subject. Kippy was on his way now, and nothing could stop that. But for the first time in his job, Steve felt the ugly weight of guilt. He felt Kippy was somehow different.
That night he dreamed of mice. Mice and rats in armor, coming to get him for his crimes.