RMCA Fiction: The Mouse Knight III: Conversations with a Mouse: Chapter 7: Conversation With a Mouse

RMCA Fiction:
The Mouse Knight III: Conversations with a Mouse

Cutter Hays

Chapter 7
Conversation With a Mouse

Kippy was terribly sick. His head pounded, he felt hot. His stomach was cramped and he felt weak as a baby. He would have vomited but mice are incapable, and more than one has died of this lacking. His sight returned but what he saw were spirals and psychedelic patterns. His nose healed better than new - he could smell ten times what he could before. He could tell when Steve and his assistants were coming down the hall, outside the pressure locked steel door. He could hear every word, every noise of mice, and every noise the equipment made. He even thought that deep in the night he heard the scuttling sound of mouse feet on the lab floor. He could not tell what was real and what was not anymore. He kept imagining Old Squibble hanging onto the outside of his cage door, telling him he was important and had to live. His hallucinations gave the humans rodent faces, and when Warcom would come visit, he had the head of a demon. Spirits danced in his unit at night - the spirits of mice who had died there before he occupied it. He saw Fleeter being crushed underfoot by Warcom, and his precious field in flames. Every noise in the lab became a drum against his head; every voice a strange and cryptic message. (He could not tell what was real and what was not anymore. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

His face had healed and he was his old adorable self, but the mouse could not move. He could not eat, or drink. His throat felt like someone had taken claws to it from the inside. He felt that he was dying, and this was close to the truth. On his side were his willpower, which was extraordinary, and his youth. Against him was the raging power of Rg-51. He felt often that he was on fire, and he would hop about his cage unable to contain the pain. Other times he was freezing, and no amount of the thin bedding provided by the lab would help. Often he shook and wept. He never imagined life could be so horrible. The snake, the hawk - these were natural things. He understood them. They were merciful, quick deaths. What was happening to him was a blasphemous wrongness of mankind, imposed on him by powers greater than he. Uncaring, merciless powers. He lay on his side, panting, eyes glazed over, bulging, and staring at nothing. He could not close them. So he watched the humans.

"That little one - specimen 7001," one female said, "I think Steve has a crush on that little guy."

"It was bound to happen," said another assistant, a fat young man with his hands full of instruments. "Everyone falls for one of the subjects sooner or later."

"It's so sad," she said.

"Yeah. They die," he said. "Then we get over it and keep doing the work."

"I have a hard time getting over it," she said. "If I were Steve I'd have a really hard time. I mean, he's so cute! Have you ever seen a mouse that cute?"

"I try not to look at them."

"They say he came from the field. He was found at the house, but he has the behavior of a field mouse. 90% probability of the Mk gene."

He scoffed. "I don't think there is an 'Mk gene,' frankly. And I don't believe mice can read, either. The chances of getting one of these animals to act like a person are Slim and None - and Slim's out town."

"What about 6462?" she asked, filling small vials with mouse blood.

"Yeah, that one is weird. He just stares at you," he said. "Creepy, but I think he's probably brain dead rather than super intelligent. He's in stage 3, after all"

"2545 is rather odd too."

"I don't go near that little freak! Stabbed my finger the other day. I swear he twisted that stupid little poker of his too."

"I rest my case."

"Yeah, it's weird - but it don't prove nothin."

Steve walked in with Warcom at that moment and the assistants shut up.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Warcom announced. Everybody paid careful attention.

Warcom stiffened up and held onto his collars. He smiled nicely. "We go public in one month. We will have proof of the Mk effects by then. Won't we?"

Everyone looked at each other dubiously, then quickly nodded to Mr. Warcom. He nodded back. "Good, good. Nice job everyone. I'm counting on you. Do what you do best," he said cheerfully like a salesman. He motioned to Steve to step out into the hall with him a moment, still wearing that cheerful smile. Steve swallowed hard and tried not to show his anxiety. He nodded nervously at his people to continue their work and closed the heavy door behind him once he and his boss were outside.

"We will have the proof we need," Warcom reiterated with intensity in his mouth like an unspent bullet in a gun. "I don't care how much sleep you lose, or how many animals we go through. In fact, I don't care about any of the expendables at all! So do your job!" he seethed. "I have spent my whole life scrimping and saving for this moment and I am not about to compromise. Step up the program to level 7."

Steve looked down at the floor. "We'll lose most of our stock, sir. Its at 63% fatality as it is."

Warcom raised his eyebrows in mock interest. "Well do we learn anything from those dying rodents, Mr. Stafford?" he was patronizing Steve now.

Steve nodded. "Sometimes." Almost never, actually, he thought.

"If every animal in there dies a horrific death that even Satan himself would not place on the lowest plane of Hell," Warcom hissed, "It will be worth it to me. And that..." he turned to walk away. "Is all that matters!"

Two faced, greedy little coward, thought Steve as he punched in the code to reenter the lab room. You would be Satan if you had any spine.

Once back in the room his face told his faithful assistants all they needed to know.

"Level seven," the obese lad said.

"Oh no," said the girl.

Steve nodded.

"I'll stoke up the cremator," said the lad half seriously, and everyone got to work. There was much preparation to be done. Steve stole a moment away from beginning his work to check in on the little mouse he had taken a liking to... Subject 7001, also known as Kippy.

The mouse lay there on his side, breathing hard, his eyes swollen open. It didn't look like he would make it. Steve felt a pang of guilt and remorse. He took his notepad out of his pocket, scribbled a few words and tore the sheet out. He affixed it to the side of the cage where notes went (the notes usually said "Dead - to Cremator"). This note said "Not to level 7."

"Hang in there little one," Steve said to Kippy.

And Kippy, laying there paralyzed, understood him perfectly.

This would not have been unusual if Kippy had been a normal domestic mouse. Most of them learned English by listening to inflection in voice tone or volume. Most mice understand humans if they grow up with them. But Kippy had not. He was a field mouse, and they never understood human.

Kippy not only understood the meaning of Steve's tone (it held caring) and his volume (he didn't want others to hear what he said), but he understood the words themselves. His head hurt too much to care.

Kippy went through another injection, and eventually another. Time lost all meaning to him. His senses did not dull. They sharpened. He felt more pain, more sickness. He lay there between convulsing episodes and tried not to see, hear, or smell the horrors that went on in the lab. Outside his tiny box, mice were suffering and dying in horrific, unnatural ways that should never happen. He heard them cry for help, he saw them opened up on the tables, he smelled their blood and their fear. He tried to think of happy times, of the field, his mother's kind love, and winning the gathering. But the pain came into his cage, and invaded his heart. If he lived, this would stop. Else he would die trying. His aching head could only handle that much. And he held onto it for life. He must live!

He listened to the humans endlessly. It was the only thing not full of tragedy in that foul place. He understood more and more. He learned.

Kippy's desire peaked then. Never in his life before or after had he been in such dire need of power. The power to act, to cry out, to do anything but lie there! A human would have gone mad at that point. Kippy cried. The tears washed over his matted fur and cooled his eyes. The mice being experimented on were eventually sewn up and put back in their units on the wall. Others never went back to their cages. They went to the incinerator.

The days passed by. Kippy's strength returned like a slug burrowing through rock. He awaited his fateful day on that table. In his drugged state he imagined he smelled his fur burning already.

His day came. It was late in the evening, and everyone had gone but Steve. Kippy wasn't expecting it when the cage door opened. Kippy found he was strong enough to sit, and he sat up. Steve reached in and grabbed him. Not by the tail like others, but gently in the palm of his hand. Apparently he wasn't afraid of Kippy's bite, which was just as well. Kippy hadn't the strength to bite him.

Steve took him to the table - the dreaded place of pain and death - and was about to put the cup of gas over the mouse.'Please don't kill me!' (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

"No, Steve, please don't kill me!" Kippy cried.

Steve dropped the cup and froze. After a moment, he looked left and then right. He sighed and bent over, picked the cup up again.

"Yes I'm talking to you, Steve! Don't hurt me!"

Steve's face rose over the edge of the table slowly. His eyes were circles that made his pupils seem tiny. His mouth hung open. He did not take his eyes off of Kippy. Kippy sat up and looked right at Steve.

"Ah." Steve said. "Ah. Are you... talking... to me?" he whispered.

Kippy swayed back and forth from the leaking gas. "Yes," he said.

Steve laughed nervously. He swayed a bit too. He put his head down near Kippy's face. "Say something else," he said. "I'm not dreaming this?"

"No you're not," said Kippy. "The other mice and me...we're in pain, Steve. You're hurting us! Why?"

Steve fumbled for an answer as his mouth moved but no words came out.

Then they both passed out from the leaking fumes.

Steve hit the floor considerably harder than Kippy hit the table.

The assistants found Steve and Kippy when the alarm went off because of the gas. The room was flushed by the computers through the air vents and technicians flooded into the lab to control the situation. There was no damage to Steve, Kippy, or the stock. Kippy was placed unconscious back into his unit, and Steve was taken to the infirmary, where Warcom waited for him to awaken.

He woke up to the serpentine hand of Marty Warcom patting him on the chest. It was a bit like waking to a vampire hovering over your neck.

"There, there," Warcom said soothingly. "So glad you didn't pass away in there, Steve. Good thing those computers caught it eh? Yes, good thing for you. Good thing for everyone." The viper smiled. The smile would have fooled most, but Steve knew it, and translated the words. 'Good thing you didn't kill all my potential cash cows, Steve, or I would have finished you off myself, even if you lived.'

Steve couldn't answer, so he pretended to pass out again. Warcom spoke threats to the doctors and computer staff, and then left. It was 3 am.

By eight Steve was back at work. Talk of his fatigued blunder circulated to every member of the staff immediately. People offered their verbal support when he was alone with them for a moment. When he was out of earshot they would say things like, "Man, Warcom put him back to work four hours after he almost kills himself from exhaustion!" He felt like one of the mice. Pitied and ignored.

And every time he passed Kippy's cage, there the little mouse was, at the bars, staring straight at him.

Warcom could go to hell where he belonged. Steve decided he wouldn't say anything about Kippy until he had spoken to the mouse. What was he thinking? Spoken to the mouse? More likely the gas had gotten to him. But he had to know.

That evening after everyone left, he went right to Kippy's cage.

"Can you talk?" he asked the mouse.

Kippy stared at him with big ruby eyes.

"Say something," Steve said.

Kippy stared.

"Speak up, mouse."


"I'm going to put you back on the table."

Kippy's face melted into fear. His ears went back and his eyes opened wide. He cringed.

"Oh wow," said Steve, backing away from the wall. "You understood that."

Kippy realized the mouse was out of the log.

"Can I see the other mice?" Kippy asked.

Steve's training kicked in. "Out of the question," his voice held more strength than it had. "Contamination... possible fighting..."

Kippy showed Steve his teeth in a field mouse challenge. "Contamination? In this place? You're worried about contamination? Are you humans all crazy? Hundreds of mice die here every day because of the stuff you do to them and you're worried about contamination? That's stupid!" Kippy spat. "As for fighting, it won't happen. They're too sick to worry about territory."

"It's true," Steve said to the air. "It's all true. I didn't believe it. No one did."

"Someone did," Kippy said. "Enough to take all of us from the house. Where are they? Are they on this wall?"

Steve didn't know why he was doing it, but he fumbled at the cage lock. This baby mouse had a charm on him that was futile to resist. It opened and Kippy sprang into Steve's hand. Steve waited for the bite, but none came. Steve took Kippy down the wall.

"Most of them," Steve said. "Some are in the back room, but they're only there... for a very short time."

He stopped before a unit that had the numbers 2545 stamped on a metal plate just inside the bars. Huddled in a corner, shivering and terrified, was a tiny white mouse. His fur had a ragged look, as if he had never groomed it, and his eyes were bugged out. He had enormous bat-ears, wide and pointed, sticking straight up, which made him look almost comical if not for the long pointed object in his hand.

The midget mouse pounced without warning and tried to kill Steve's finger with the poniard.

"Knifey!" it shrieked in mouse. "Knifey Knifey!" It missed Steve and Kippy, but kept stabbing rapidly at where the hand was, over and over like a psychopath, desperate to see Steve bleed. All Steve heard was a series of high squeaks.

"Good Lord," Kippy said. "What happened to him?"

"He was too young when he was brought in," Steve said. "Only two weeks old. He still needed mother's milk, but his father was all they had captured, so they put him in with his father hoping it might help him to make it. He made it, but never grew very big. He's about two months old now."

"No, I mean the attitude," said Kippy, staring at the crazy mouse, who growled and fought to take a piece of flesh.

"Oh, that's kind of unfortunate," Steve said. "We took his father away for testing, and the little guy snapped. He banged his head into the side of the cage over and over, bit himself, even tore holes in his tail." Kippy could see that the other mouse's tail was jagged and bent in several places. It rattled wildly nevertheless, looking like a stiff snake doll shaken by an angry infant. "We put his father back in with him," Steve continued, "but his father died. His father was very big, and must have made this little one feel very safe. I think the trauma of it drove the poor mouse insane."

"Is... is that a tooth?" Kippy asked, studying the knife.

"Yeah. His father's tooth. The other one is still in the back of the cage. He wouldn't let us get it out. We had a hard time getting his father's body out at all."

Kippy drew back, touched by the ordeal. "How sad."


"Let me in."


"Let me in, Steve."

"Ummmm, listen, mouse..."

"My name is Kippy!" Kippy stated.

Steve nodded in shock. "Okay, Kippy... I can't let you in.... He might hurt you."

Kippy laughed. "He isn't going to touch me with that thing. He's too slow."

"He's one of the fastest mice we have," Steve said.

"Slow," Kippy repeated.

Steve shrugged and shifted Kippy to his shoulder. Then he walked over to the desk, where there were a pair of metal laced gloves. He put them on, then held Kippy up to the front of cage 2545. The psychotic mouse was over to the corner in a flash, anticipating the door cracking even one centimeter. Steve gave Kippy a look. "You're sure," he said.

"Do it," Kippy answered.Kippy had no trouble holding him up by the attacking wrist. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

The cage door came open and the tiny mouse flew at Kippy (or at the hand, it was hard to tell). Kippy nimbly stepped aside and grabbed the hand that held the knife. The miniscule attacker weighed so little, even Kippy had no trouble holding him up by the attacking wrist.

"Knifey?" the mouse said.

"No stabbey, Knifey," said Kippy.

Knifey's nose was at stomach level with Kippy, and the little one sniffed. And sniffed. Frantically the mouse wanted to get closer to Kippy, so, holding tight to the wrist, Kippy allowed the mouse to sniff him, and set his feet down on Steve's hand.

Knifey was vacuum sniffing Kippy's stomach as Kippy lead him from the hand back into the cage. Knifey would not remove his nose from Kippy's fur.

Kippy looked back at Steve and they shared the same thought. How strange this mouse is.

Kippy felt the psychotic strength leave Knifey as the little mouse looked up into his eyes with newborn affection. Kippy let the wrist go. Knifey was far too attached to his blade to release it, but he curled up in Kippy's lap and went right to sleep.

Steve stood there incredulous. "No one has ever seen him sleep," he said. "He's never even been relaxed that I've seen."

Kippy stroked the poor mouse's fur gently. "He's just sad and traumatized, Steve. He lost the only thing that he had faith in. He thinks I'm like his father. He thinks I'll protect him."

"Looks like you will," Steve smiled.

"Will I?" Kippy returned the smile with a serious gaze. "Steve, what's happening to these animals is wrong. I know you think so too."

"I do think so, Kippy," said Steve. "But it's my job. It's all I have to live on. I spent years and tons of money on education to get this far."

"So you could do the wrong thing?" Kippy said.

Steve bent his head away, guilt ridden. "No." He took off his glasses and massaged his temples. "So I could make a difference. Originally that's what this place was built for."

"And now that you've discovered the amazing talking mouse, what now?" Kippy cradled Knifey's sleeping form. "The humans will eat me alive for this. They'll cut us up looking for answers. The bad human will take all this away from you. You know that."

Steve felt a pang of panic as he thought of Warcom. Oh, what Warcom would put Kippy through. And this would make Warcom rich indeed. He'd have half the government and every other institution in the world throwing money at him to either cover it up or go ahead with his diabolic experiments. Either way, Kippy was right.

"Kippy, I need to ask you. Are you a Mouse Knight?"

"No, I'm not."

"But they exist."

"Yes, Steve, there are Mouse Knights." Jokingly, he sounded patronizing.

"This is the discovery of the millennia, Kippy. No kidding. This is it. Mice that can think like people. Mice that can read. Mice that can talk. It's unbelievable."

"Will it make people stop treating mice so poorly?" Kippy asked.

Steve frowned. "Probably the opposite."

"Then no one must know, Steve! Burn me up in the incinerator. Get rid of the evidence! Humans are evil! Don't let them terrorize my race any more than they do now - it's awful as it is! I had no idea!"

"Well, I'm afraid I can't burn you up. Kippy."

"Why not?" Kippy asked.

Steve smiled at the mouse. "I'm afraid I like you too much, little one."Kippy smiled back. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

Kippy smiled back. Steve loved that smile from the very first time he saw it. Kippy's cheeks stuck out in big furry tufts and his whiskers stuck to the sides of his adorable face. His eyes glowed with life. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Many years later, long after Kippy was gone, he would think of it on his deathbed and fondly pass into the unknown, hoping to see it once more. Amazing how much this tiny life has affected mine, he thought.

"Something has to be done," Kippy said, looking down at Knifey with seriousness. "This just can't go on."

Steve sat down on a barstool. "The fact that you are sentient, intelligent life forms changes everything, Kippy. People won't tolerate experiments on people, and you're like people now."

"By the Mouse God, I hope not!" exclaimed the rodent.

"People aren't so terrible, Kippy," Steve said. "Most of us do our best and all of us fall short. Doesn't that happen in mouse culture?"

"Yeah," said Kippy, "but we die for it. And we don't abuse other races in cruel, terrible ways. You can't get around the issue, Steve. Humans have made awful mistakes."

Steve looked at the floor. "Yes we have. I'm sorry."

"That's a start. Now let's fix it."

"I'm one man. I don't have billions of dollars. I'm just a man, Kippy."

"Once upon a time there was a small white mouse, born with a litter of small mice, in a small home where the people did not expect it," Kippy quoted. "Our greatest legend begins that way. One mouse who refused to think he was just a mouse."

"The story is true?" Steve said, stunned.

"As true as I am talking to you. And that one mouse changed everything. Partly in the hopes that others, even humans, would follow in his footsteps."

Steve was quiet.

"The Knights will come here, Steve," Kippy said. "They cannot resist. Too many mice are suffering in these cages. They will come, and when they do, they will die, or worse, end up like Knifey here - or others. Please don't let that happen. It would be so sad. And it doesn't have to be that way. If humans would just give mice and rats a chance, we could all live together in peace."

"I'm all for it," Steve said. "But Warcom will never relent. And many others think of themselves as superior. Humans are the top of the food chain. It will damage their pride to think that other animals are as smart - or smarter - than they are. Some humans have killed entire species for that pride alone."

"It isn't just mice," Kippy said, waving a finger. "Every species is evolving, and this is just the next step. We have to evolve this fast. Humans are killing everything - taking all of it - running us out of house and home - killing our children - poisoning us and trapping us and driving people like my parents into smaller and smaller fields. No animal likes it - and all animals think Steve. They just don't think like humans do, so humans think they're 'dumb animals.' Now that's dumb!"

Steve nodded agreement.

"When all the fields are gone," Kippy went on, "and all the oceans are poison, and all the air kills anything that breathes it, where will the magnificent oh-so-smart humans be then? Dead. Like everything they envied, or hated, or feared, or had to take from to survive. It's stupid. Stupid!"

Knifey woke up with a start. Kippy gently put a hand over his eyes. "Sleep, little mouse. It's okay. I didn't mean to shout." Content, Knifey went back to bed, still clutching his father's tooth to his chest.

"Stupid!" Kippy whispered at Steve.

Steve nodded again. "If we knew a better way, Kippy, we'd be doing it."

"If I hadn't sniffed so much of Warcom's greed, Steve, I might believe that," said Kippy. "I've had a wakeup call here in this prison. I was just another happy, dumb field mouse until I met you humans. Now I can never go back to being dumb. Maybe happy... we'll see, if I live and get out. Humans are running out of time. I don't think nature will allow them to destroy everything. And even if they do, their fate will be fitting. The earth needs all its parts to live."

"Spoken like a true Native American," Steve said. "My grandpa would have been proud. He was Navaho."

"What's that?" Kippy asked.

"A tribe of humans who believed the same thing," Steve said.

"Well, what's wrong with everyone then?" Kippy asked.

"The greedy humans wiped out most of the others," Steve said, trying to make it simple for the mouse, though he doubted it was necessary.

"Don't you ever learn?" said Kippy in amazement.

"Very slowly and painfully, my friend. Sometimes too late."

"Well it's not to late for me, or for poor Knifey here. What are you going to do?"

Steve's face became troubled. "I'll lose my job if I let you go," he said, hesitating. "But my soul if I don't."

"It seems to come down to that with humans an awful lot," Kippy noticed.

Steve laughed and nodded. "Yes. Yes, it does." Then Kippy saw an idea come to Steve. It flashed across his face. "Kippy, can I take some of your DNA?"

"Some of my what?" Kippy said, a bit alarmed.

"I just need some blood... just a little bit," Steve said.

"Will it hurt?" Kippy asked.

"Yes. some," said Steve. "I need to prick your ear. It'll probably leave a scar."

"Always with the blood and the pain," Kippy said, exhausted. "Why is it so important?"

"We might be able to prove that you were fluke - that not all mice can talk."

"I already told you - they can, just not in English."

"I want to see what caused you to talk," Steve said.

"Your stupid drugs!" Kippy exclaimed, half joking.

"Maybe," said Steve. "But maybe there's just something special about you. If that's the case, I can prove that cutting up other mice isn't necessary. Please."

"Oh, fine! Be quick about it."

Steve rummaged through drawers and found a lancet. He held it up to Kippy's sensitive ear. "Hold still," he said.


"Owww!" Kippy squeaked.

Steve took the blood and put it on a slide, placing another slide over the first.Blood got all over his foot. (Copyright 2003 Cutter Hays)

Kippy couldn't lick his wounded ear, so he scratched it instead. Blood got all over his foot. For the rest of his life, Kippy had a notch missing from his left ear, and he would always fondly remember Steve by it.

"Aren't you tempted to turn me in and be rich?" Kippy asked, risking giving the human the idea if he hadn't already thought of it.

"I thought of that," Steve said, putting the slide in the refrigerator. He came back over to Kippy and blotted his ear with a sterile gauze pad. "But no - I couldn't do it. That time you fell off the counter, I felt so sorry for you. I just wanted to make you feel better. I don't know why." Steve petted Kippy on the head with one finger. "You're awful cute."

Kippy squinted and shook his head, irritated. "Are you gonna let us go or not?"

"Whoa. What's this 'us' business?" said Steve.

"I go, we all go. Otherwise I stay."


"One of your servants said it like this... 'serious as a heart attack.'"

"According to the book, that's Mouse Knight talk, Kippy. You're in danger of being recruited."

"I was on my way to be recruited when the weird humans in the bag suits came and got me."

Steve mocked. "I thought you said you were fast."

Kippy mimicked his face, and coming from a mouse, that looked pretty funny. "I had a slow moment, okay?" Then he seemed to remember something. "Do you have any field mice here?"

"No - according to the book only domestic mice became Mouse Knights."

"Please introduce me to any mice that you think might be Mouse Knights, Steve. It's important to me."

"Okay, Kip. No problem. Can you translate for me if I want to talk to them?"

"Shouldn't be a problem, Stee." Kippy chuckled. "And your answer?"

Steve's face crunched up. "I... I have to think about it. Even if I do - I have to think of how, Kippy. It won't be easy. The company would go under. Everyone would lose their jobs. I would never work in the industry again."

"You think hard, Steve. Think hard. Maybe the company going under isn't such a bad thing."

"I can understand why you'd think so. But it really was a good company once, before Old Warcom's son took over. The Old Man was a fair and just person - I liked him. He actually cared about the test subjects believe it or not. The new kid only cares about himself. He's the product of this twisted modern society. I will think about it. I promise. But this is all a bit much. It turns over everything I have believed until now. I need time to let it sink in."

"Just don't let greed sink in. We have greed in mouse communities, you know."


"Yes. It's not a big deal with domestic mice. There's plenty of food. But in field mouse tribes, there are some that take too much or take others' food."

"How do mice solve it?" asked Steve.

"We kill them," Kippy said.

Steve pursed his lips. "Oh." He tilted his head and looked upward a moment. "Not a bad idea."

They both laughed.

The lights came on.

"Steve, you have to put me back now. The assistants will come any minute." Kippy gently set Knifey down, who woke instantly. "Knifey!" the midget cried.

"It's okay, Knifey," said Kippy softly. "I will come back." He went to the back of the cage and picked up the other tooth. Knifey's tail rattled with anxiety. "May I have this?" he asked the knife mouse.

Knifey slowly nodded.

All the way to Steve's hand, Knifey hung onto Kippy's tail desperately.

"Knifeyyy...!" Knifey cried.

"I'll come back, little one, I promise!" He looked at Steve, who was glancing toward the door. Steve gave Kippy a hurried nod. He would be able to keep that promise. Kippy heard the beeps of the door code being entered. He tore his tail from the bawling mouse and Knifey's cage door was closed. Knifey screeched like an infant being removed from its mother.

Steve rushed and put Kippy back into his own unit. Moments later, as Kippy was hiding the knife, he came back and put another mouse in the cage. It was a starved, shaking, terrified white mouse. Kippy looked at the pathetic specimen and then back at Steve questioningly.

"Another troubled subject," Steve said. "See what you can do for him!" The door closed and Kippy heard voices.

"Do you have a name, mouse?" Kippy said.

The mouse looked sideways at Kippy like a frightened dog that had been beaten too often. "I came from the pet store," it said in a shaky, weak voice.

"Okay," Kippy said. "And what did they call you there?"

"Feeder," said the mouse, on the verge of tears.

Kippy placed his arms around the mouse as it shook and cried, relieved to be free at last of its agonizing loneliness.

When the assistants came, Steve was leaving, obviously distressed.

"Uhh... Where are you going, boss?" one asked.

Steve mumbled something about being sick and departed.

The techs looked at each other and shrugged. "I guess it's a routine analysis day," they said. "We've got plenty of it to do."

Steve went home in a daze. When he got there he didn't turn on the lights. He sat down in his easy chair but sat rigid. He couldn't relax. As the sun rose in windows behind him and bathed the room in red light, he wept.

He finally passed out cold from fatigue, his eyes glued shut with tears for all the lives he had extinguished.

Chapter 8: The Gathering