"Steve, pass a pretzel."
Steve did as his friend asked. The TV glowed bluish in the dark lab. Behind him the squeaks of metal mouse wheels filled the room.
Kippy sipped orange juice and nibbled the pretzel. They were both watching the TV with serious expressions.
"He...Killed Scotty!" the speaker said.
Kippy and Steve busted into laughter.
"That's the fourth time tonight," Kippy said. "Now watch... he's going to say..."
"He's dead, Jim," they both echoed. More laughter. Kippy crawled over and ate some of Steve's pizza right off his plate. Steve smiled.
Late nights had become regular for Steve. His crew thought he was working harder than he ought to when in actuality he relished the time with his tiny friend. He didn't mind the lack of sleep.
The wheels squeaked in the background like a choir.
"Won't anything keep those things quiet?" Steve asked. "How do you put up with that with those ears of yours?"
"We get used to it, like the TV in the background or somethin," Kippy munched pizza. "Peanut oil."
"Yeah. Peanut oil would do it."
The TV characters did something typical again and they both laughed. Steve scratched Kippy between the ears and Kippy tilted his head to one side so Steve could get his chin and neck. "Oh, yeah... that's perfect... right there... little lower... ahhhh."
The Trek marathon went on through the night. It became background noise after their dinner.
Kippy stared at the computer monitor. "What's that?" he asked.
"Your DNA," Steve replied. "It's pretty unique. I can't tell if that's because of the Rg-51 or what, but no other mouse here has DNA like this."
"As if I know what DNA is," Kippy scoffed.
"My faithful apprentice," Steve mimicked his old college professor, "After all this time I have spent educating you, you don't know what DNA is?"
"Close enough," Steve grinned. "Yours is weird."
"Yours is weird too!" Kippy said.
"It must be," Steve replied. "I talk to mice."
Steve pointed to the picture on the monitor. "These aren't there in other mice. I don't think the drug could have put them there, either. It modifies things, and it definitely did, but this was there before. And other mice don't have it."
Kippy put his paws up in front of his eyes like glasses. "What are you saying, Doctor?"
"You're a mutant!" Steve declared, trying not to laugh.
Kippy immediately began lumbering around like he had seven legs, a hunched back and a tentacle coming out of his face. It was just the weirdest thing Steve had ever seen a mouse do. "I am not an animal!" Kippy said. "I am a mouse!"
They both broke into tearful giggles.
"Yes, you are a mutant," Steve said. "No other mouse could have reacted to the Rg-51 like you did."
Kippy grew serious. "That junk. I hate it. Why do they keep giving it to the poor mice?"
"They think its going to teach them something," Steve said, sobered by the question.
"It's going to teach them we can be dangerous," Kippy said. "Do you know how many mice and rats there are in the world, Man?"
Steve pondered it, his chin on his fist. "No, I don't."
Kippy peered at his human, squinting for effect. "So many, Steve! More than humans by far. Now teach me to make some really dangerous, high tech weapon and we'll enslave humankind. That is, the ones we don't feed to our tigers."
"Yeah. Big tigers!" Kippy strode around the table stiff legged, like a proud and dangerous animal.
"You already know so much, Kip," Steve said. "I taught you about electricity, math, science, biology - you're a genius for a mouse. I'll be happy to teach you the secret of gunpowder if you want." He glanced down at the tiny little furball. "If you promise not to feed me to a tiger when you rule the planet." He smiled.
Kippy gestured. "No tiger for you, my Steve." The mouse petted Steve's finger. "I like my Steve. You get a wheel,"
"BMW," Steve said.
"And only the best food and water," Kippy went on...
"Pizza and Beer..."
"And a big cage,"
"At least ten rooms and an ocean view, please."
"And I'll let you out to run around once a night."
"Paid vacations! Right on!"
"Ah, who would want to know about gunpowder anyway? It probably smells bad."
"There are worse things," Steve smirked. "Mice that can think, read, write, talk... the possibilities are endless."
"Just like a human," Kippy mocked. He made a funny, crinkled face with his nose sticking out of his hands which resembled fangs. "UGH!" He sounded like an ape. "Human make mouse into weapon! Mouse kill for human! Kill, mouse, kill!"
Steve grinned. "Yeah," he said seriously, losing the grin. "That's probably what they'd do to you." Typing away at his keyboard, he said, "What do you-all want to do with your new powers?"
"What do you mean?" Kippy asked, hopping onto Steve's hand and crawling up to his neck where he lay on his belly comfortably.
"If humans weren't in your way," Steve said, "what would the Mouse Knights do?"
"Speaking of not lonely," Steve said, and he went to gather Knifey and Feeder. They stepped into his hand easily enough, although Knifey clearly had his dagger at the ready. Some damage heals slow, Steve thought. He put them on the table near Kippy and they began to lick and greet Kippy at once.
Now Steve had taken mental notes on the two strange mice, and Kippy had translated quite a bit for him. Feeder was convinced he was a hopeless loser. He cowered and buried himself in bedding during the day so nobody would see him in Kippy's cage. Apparently someone had told him in his youth that he would feed a snake. The horror traumatized the poor mouse so badly he didn't eat for days. He developed a bad case of anxiety and shook constantly. The slightest little noise frightened him to leaping uncontrollably. When he ate now, he huddled in a corner, glancing about every few seconds to make sure doom was not descending upon him. He understood he was going to die someday, and was terrified that it might be five minutes from now. His frayed nerves could only be calmed by Kippy, who spent time with him each night talking in soothing tones and trying to bring the mouse back from the edge. It might have been working. It was too early to tell. Kippy told him the Mouse Knight stories and Feeder loved them - especially the ones involving victory over snakes. He asked for them again and again, and one day finally told Kippy, "I want to be a Mouse Knight, but I'm only a feeder mouse."
Kippy told him the very first Mouse Knight had been a feeder mouse, and hope shone in Feeder's eyes. Kippy also told the scared specimen that he himself was afraid of snakes. He had an early memory of a snake devouring his real mother. It was dim and fuzzy, and full of cold, hunger and terror. But he remembered it. He had seen it through eyes that should not have been open yet.
After hearing that, Kippy was Feeder's hero.
"And... and what w-would you d-do... if... if you met a snake for real!?" asked Feeder.
"I don't know," said Kippy. "Probably nothing as long as he didn't try to eat me."
Knifey was more complex, and Kippy kept his observations of the midget mouse mostly to himself. The only word Knifey ever used gave him his name. He would use it in many different ways, tones and inflections, however, allowing Kippy to guess what he meant. But the odd thing was that Kippy would often catch Knifey practicing with his knife. The little mouse knew how to use it. He had been trained. Kippy would watch Knifey go through his forms and moves with his weapon wondering who had taught him such skill. It had probably been his father, but any mention of his father caused the poor little rodent to burst into tears and become enraged to the point of stabbing anything nearby except Kippy himself. More than once Feeder had been poked by accident and had run off to hide for hours.
But clearly, the two companions trusted Kippy with their lives, and every night he shared his playtime with them.
"Hi guys!" Kippy said.
"Hi, Knifey." He groomed his little companion, and then Feeder. Knifey curled up in Kippy's lap.
"You wouldn't want to do great things?" Steve asked. "Like Spritely?"
"Oh, if I had to, I suppose," Kippy said, petting Knifey. "But I'd rather not. I'm just a simple country mouse. I still wonder all the time how my brother is, what happened to my dad, you know."
"Both probably back in the field having a ball," Steve said. He looked down at Kippy. Kippy was staring at him. He got the message loud and clear.
"I'll let you go if you want, Kippy," Steve said.
"Will you let everyone go?"
"I can't!" Steve said. "We've been over this."
"And I won. We had a logical debate and you admitted it is, indeed physically possible for you to release all the mice and rats here. So don't say you can't."
Steve grimaced. "All right. It would be bad."
"For you? For Warcom the Merciless?"
"Hey, it's not all roses out there, you know," Steve said, eyebrows up. "Cars squish. Weather drowns. Heat kills, cold kills, animals think you're food. Etcetera."
"No worse than the field."
"These are all domestic mice, Kippy. They need owners. They can't make it on their own."
Kippy grumbled under his breath. "Yeah but they hate it here."
Steve shrugged. "It sucks, I agree. I already gave them custom food, wheels, fresh water, music to listen to, and I make the techs change their bedding every three days. People around here think I've turned Injun, Kip."
"In old America, when a white man went and lived like an Indian, he had turned Injun. He was considered a traitor to his people. Nobody liked it."
"Bet the Injuns thought it was cool."
"Ha ha ha... yeah, probably."
"Seriously, Steve, it's the right thing to do and you know it."
Steve left his work and turned around to face Kippy. Feeder went off to explore the lab table right away.
"I do. I do," said Steve. "But it's way complicated, Kip. This is huge, and we're already just sitting on it to protect you. Because I like you. I don't want to see you suffer any more than you have."
"This is the only thing we disagree on," Kippy said. "Everything else is great. But I can't sit by eating pizza while my people suffer so, Steve. It makes me feel... guilty. I'm surprised you can sleep with it. I know you like the mice. There's not one rodent here that hasn't liked you - licked your hand even - the very same hand that hurts them and gives them injections of that stupid drug!"
"Well, why do you think I gave up sleep, Kip?" Steve joked. But joke time was over, apparently, as Kippy continued staring at his friend intently.
Steve sighed. "Well, I'm trying - hard, mind you - to find a way around the problem. I'd buy the company if I had millions of dollars, but Warcom owns all the stock." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "What I do have, however, is your DNA here. I think this can prove that Rg-51 is a 'stupid' drug indeed. They won't give it to the mice if I can prove that it won't do any good. The only problem is that that would expose you."
Kippy shook his head. "Compromises and little things," he said. "No good."
"Eh?" Steve said.
"You're not seeing the big picture," Kippy said. "They'll just give us a new drug. Maybe a worse one. It'll never end. We have to do something huge - something final."
"Funny coming from you," Steve said. "What are you suggesting - really taking over the planet?"
"No, no, I'm not a psychopath, Steve. Who would do that?"
"Knifey!" Knifey declared.
"And you'd be good at it, too, my little buddy," Kippy said in mouse. "But we can't go around killing everything."
"Knifey?" Knifey said.
"Nope. It's not right," Kippy insisted.
"Knifeeyy..." he sounded disappointed. Kippy laughed. "Not that they don't deserve it," he added in mouse.
"Hong to! Chow mein long su!" Steve said.
Kippy laughed. "Sorry. Forgot it was rude."
"So you're not going to blow up the humans, what then? What's the 'big picture,' Kip?"
"I don't know," Kippy said. "I'm just a happy little mouse. My head isn't that big. For some reason, I just don't want to be the one to save the world. It's such a huge responsibility. I'm glad others are around to do it. The Mouse Knights will come up with something."
"You are a happy little mouse," Steve smiled and scritched Kippy's chin playfully. "How did you stay so happy after all you've been through?"
"Ohh," said Kippy "So now the human wants lessons, eh?" He got up and Knifey went off to find Feeder, his knife click-clicking on the metal table surface wherever he went.
Kippy put his paws on his hips. "So you admit the simple little country bumpkin field mouse has something to teach the all intelligent human, eh?" He squinted one eye.
Kippy imitated him as he was often fond of doing. "I would concur," he repeated. "Well okay, Jedi Steve, ready for your first lesson?"
Steve put his hands in his lap. He grinned. "Yeah."
Kippy motioned with his paws that he wanted to be picked up. Steve picked him up. The mouse ran up his arm to his shoulder and stood so he could put his nose in Steve's ear.
"Lesson one. How to be happy," Kippy said, and paused for drama.
"Lay it on me," Steve said anxiously.
"Always do the right thing."