by Divyasri Krishnan
Four of us were bred for the mission. We were of good Perognathus longimembris lab stock, sturdy, banister-brown, able to go 148 hours without drinking water, which ensured our feces would be as concentrated as possible. We had never been outside the silver grate of our cage. We had never tunneled in soil that didn’t taste like metal. But that was okay; we were special. We were astronauts.
They introduced us to the humans a month before launch. The big one, like a long stick, didn’t take much to us. But the elderly one loved us and spoke to us often, even when the scientists got mad.
“Excited, Fe?” he asked me, peering his big wet eye between our bars. He didn’t wait for my response. “In a couple weeks, you’ll get to see the stars with me. Not many mice can say that, eh?”
One of the scientists raised his head from his clipboard. “Who’s Fe?”
The elderly astronaut pointed a knobby finger at me, and I cocked my head.
“Oh,” said the scientist dismissively, “you mean A3305.”
The elderly one had odd names for us, names that made him sing and laugh when he said them together. “Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum,” he’d chant, and all four of us would raise our brown noses. His creased face would split in half, revealing white, which we knew meant joy.
The four of us knew our roles, had always known them. I was the thinker. A3326, or Fi, was the brawn, our biggest and strongest brother. Fo, A3352, was a musical sort. And then there was Fum, A3356, our loveable coward. The scientists knew our natures, knew our harmony. We were four. No less, no more.
And then the fifth came.
A3400, the scientists called him, with sparks and bright things in their voices. The wild card. He wasn’t from the lab, like us, but from the Outside, where the other mice lived.
“Because our sample’s hardly random,” a scientist explained to the astronauts. “There are a lot of factors that separate lab-grown mice and wild mice. The effects of microgravity may very well be entirely different.”
The elderly one picked up the fifth mouse, too high for us to see. “Aren’t you a darling one?” he said. “I’ll call you Phooey.”
* * *
From the beginning, Phooey was different. He was the wrong brown. His eyes were too bright and too quick, and he hated the cage, spending all his time scrabbling at it with his claws and teeth rather than eating or burrowing. And he said the most terrible things.
“You’re all fools,” he declared one night. “You eat right from the hands of those humans. Don’t you know they’re evil?”
I pinned back my ears at Phooey, summoning all my sternness. “The humans are good to us. They take care of us.”
“They’re taking us to the stars,” Fo added. “Where no mouse has gone before.”
Phooey shook his head in scorn. “They’re only taking you there so they can study you.”
“Of course they study us,” I told him. “We’re special. They’ve studied us all our lives.”
Phooey scampered up a pile of loose dirt, scattering it everywhere, and lifted his paws imperiously to the sky. For a moment, he was silent, staring down at us in the dark. Then he spoke. “Where I come from, humans kill mice like us.”
He said this often, telling us horror stories of big shrieking machines, silver jaws that snapped your spine and tail, sharp smells that cut up your snout and curdled your insides. For three nights, Fum was too frightened to sleep.
I wouldn’t let him pull this again. “Maybe your humans did. Ours don’t.”
Phooey fixed me with one bright eye. “All humans are the same, Fe. I thought you, at least, would recognize that.”
But he was wrong. I had known many humans, and they were all different. Some scientists held us too hard, while others couldn’t stand to touch us. Some were kind like the elderly astronaut, speaking to us in low, cooing voices about their lives at home, their newborns, the music they were listening to.
I couldn’t imagine any of them killing us. Some were crueler than others, yes. But killing was a different story altogether.
“You’ll see,” I said at last. “When they take us to the stars, you’ll see.”
* * *
Two days before the launch, the scientists cracked open the top of our cage and plucked us out one by one. Fum squealed and covered his eyes, but the rest of us were calm. Even Phooey said nothing, though his eyes dulled and his head hung low over the scientist’s fingers.
“Chin up,” I told him.
He didn’t look at me. “You’re a fool, Fe.”
They placed each of us in a clear tube filled with soil, grass, and a heaping supply of food. The quarters were cramped, but that, as the elderly astronaut had explained, was the nature of spaceflight.
A small container inside my tube held a store of yellow powder. I regarded it curiously.
“The little guy’s confused,” the elderly astronaut remarked. He turned to one of the scientists, who was screwing the top on Fi’s tube. “Is that potassium superoxide in there?”
The scientist nodded. “It’ll soak up the carbon dioxide and keep them alive.”
I pressed my snout against the glass, looking through into Phooey’s tube, where he slumped on a leaf. “Alive,” I mouthed, triumphant.
He didn’t respond.
* * *
I didn’t see the launch, but I felt it. The scientists had placed our individual tubes in an aluminum container and locked it up, so all I knew was blackness, even as a force greater than any human hand dragged at my skin and shuddered my bones. I curled into the dirt to keep from trembling. Even the wet, warm scent of soil and the familiar tang of metal couldn’t comfort me.
The feeling continued, never abating. I worried for the other mice. Fi was strong, he would be okay. Even Fo might manage. But could Fum take such harsh handling? I wasn’t used to being away from him, unable to soothe him.
And what of Phooey? Had he ever experienced something like this? Would he be okay?
As much as I didn’t like him, it was my job to take care of the lab mice. He had been brought into the lab, into our cage. I had an obligation to him.
All at once it ended. Instead of the terrible, crushing weight, there was now no weight at all, a change so dramatic it seemed to rearrange the organs inside of me. I floated in a cloud of soil and darkness. I could see nothing.
Were we in the stars yet? Why was it all black?
Dirt got in my nostrils, and I sneezed. The force propelled me back, and I bumped into the side of the tube, cold and slick against my back. My claws scrabbled for purchase, but there was none to be had.
Of course I couldn’t see the stars. They were outside my tube. I just had to wait for someone to open it.
Someone would open it. Wouldn’t they?
Phooey would hate this. He had complained unceasingly about the restrictive area of our cage, lamenting at the loss of the great big Outside.
“You don’t know what you’re missing out there,” he always said. “Entire fields of green as far as the eye can see, bigger than so many humans, bigger than everything. And light everywhere. And everything singing.”
He wouldn’t be able to take this darkness, this closeness. It would kill him.
I scraped my claws against the tub, feeling them slide off. The elderly astronaut would come for me. He had promised me the stars. And once I was out, I’d get the others out, too, and show Phooey that he had been wrong all along.
* * *
The darkness didn’t end.
Stars are yellow, the astronaut had said. Like the sun. Sometimes they are red or blue or purple or a thousand colors at once.
I didn’t know if I’d even seen a thousand colors before.
Was Fum still alive? Was he eating? And the others, how were they coping?
Phooey, what do you say?
* * *
I chewed a seed, lost interest, let the wet glop of it drift out of my mouth. I missed the elderly astronaut. I missed the light and the white and the space. I missed burrowing, which was impossible here, because even if I could stay down long enough to do so, my burrow would hardly have gone an inch. We used to tuck down in our holes when we were tired of the light. There was no place to hide from the dark.
* * *
Phooey told us about the sun. We knew the sun, because it streamed through the window in the lab every day, but Phooey said that wasn’t really the sun, just a little piece of it.
Sun like one of the big lab floodlights turned on across the world. Inescapable. Warm even in the heart of winter, searing, pressing against your back and digging under your fur.
The sun was a star. The stars were many suns. I hadn’t even seen the sun. How would I have known the stars?
* * *
Lives passed. The dark remained.
I floated in limbo, dirt and food mingling with each other. Little dried pieces of strawberry caught on my whiskers and constituted my only meal. I couldn’t be bothered to search through the soil for the rest of it.
In the corner, the potassium superoxide glowed faintly, but even its light was not enough to cut through the total blackness. The pile grew gradually smaller. Keeping me alive, I knew, because the scientist said so. But I wondered.
* * *
* * *
We returned. I knew this because of the feeling, that terrible weight and pulling, which woke me out of a sleep that held me for what felt like years.
The darkness continued for a while after that, and then there was noise. Clatterings and voices, shouting professional-sounding things to each other. I heard the elderly astronaut congratulating someone.
The top of the aluminum container clicked and lifted up. Light cut in like a knife. I shrieked and curled into myself, into the dirt that fell on top of me when we stopped floating, trying to shield my eyes.
Dimly, I recognized the irony. All I had wanted was light. And now that it was here, all I wanted was relief.
“There you all are!” said the elderly astronaut. He peered down at me with his big eyes, his face filled with whiteness. “How was the trip, huh? Not too bad?”
I uncovered my eyes, but I couldn’t look at him. Instead, I looked straight to where the other tubes sat next to me. Only inches away, all this time.
Fum shuddered against the side of the tube. Fi and Fo were curled up like me, paws over their eyes.
Of us all, Phooey was the calmest. Quiet, still. He lay flat on the dirt, snout pointing up, and on his too-brown face was an expression of such peace I had never known on him, a harmony with the world after so much fighting.
I waited for him to open his eyes. To look at me and smile. I knew what he’d say.
I told you so.
“Damn,” said one of the scientists, looking at Phooey.
The elderly astronaut looked too. “Is he dead?”
“Seems so. That’s a shame.”
The elderly astronaut shrugged. “Well, now you know the difference between lab-grown and wild mice in microgravity.”
“That’s true.” The scientist grinned. “And four out of five isn’t bad.”
“Not bad at all. You gonna dissect their feces?”
The scientist nodded. “We’ll start there, but we’re really interested in the biological impact. On skeletons, chemical composition, organ function, you know.”
I told you so.
“Ah.” The elderly astronaut winced. “You’re gonna cut them up.”
“We have to, Captain. That’s always been the plan.
“I know, I know…”
“I warned you not to name them.”
The elderly astronaut looked at me. His eyes had once been as familiar to me as my own. Suddenly I could no longer tell if they were kind or cruel, warm or winter-cold, as I had once been able to do. Now they were too strange for me to read. Too human to me.
“Thanks for your service, Fe,” he said to me. “And I’m sorry.”
And then it was only us. The four good mice, soon to be dead, and the wild one who already was.
* * *
About the Author
Divyasri Krishnan is the author of PRIMORDIAL KNOWLEDGE (Bottlecap Press). Her work is published or forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, Hobart Pulp, Tasavvur, and elsewhere. She is a Best of the Net finalist, and she reads for The Adroit Journal. She studies at Carnegie Mellon University.