The Fourth World
There is an old story, probably the oldest one. The people did not live according to the creator’s plan. They would not live in harmony, they became selfish and grew beyond their means, and they had wars. So the creator destroyed the old world and built a new one for the good people. This happened three times. The third time, the world was flooded and the people emerged through a hollow reed into a canyon, at the confluence of two rivers. The people now inhabit the fourth world.
It was a colorless sunrise and a woman was running east. Her footfalls lifted red dust and her breathing was rhythmic and raspy through a mask on her face. She ran until the sun was high in the sky and the world was well lit. The sky extended, uninterrupted above her, and she turned around. The landscape was utterly barren. She followed her dusty footsteps back to a structure. Winds of past storms had painted the once white structure reddish-orange. She opened the door and stepped into an air-lock. Once inside, she removed her mask, began eating something out of a package, and sat, knees folded, in front of a computer monitor.
“Video blog 978,” she said, and took a bite of dehydrated food. “One hundred and seventeen days to go.” She stared into her own recorded face for a while, trying to tie up her long black hair the traditional way. It had been unmanageably long even before all this. She always had a difficult time with the video blogs, until recently. Maybe she’d cracked, but recently it got a lot easier when she started just spurting out whatever she thought. “I would like to have sexual intercourse with Hugh Jackman, young Hugh Jackman, obviously. I would like a haircut, even though I haven’t had one since mom passed away. I went for a run today. I think maybe I’ll explore the canyon soon. I wonder if it feels anything like the canyon back home. The dust here is really fine, it reminds me of dried out clay before it’s mixed. Maybe I’ll try making a pot or something. Not that anyone ever taught me how to do that. I think you just make coils —” A little red notification showed up on the computer screen to indicate incoming communication. She paused the vlog and opened it. Thursday: therapist day.
“Good morning, Andi.” Dr. Lemke’s image fidgeted in and out of focus.
“Hello there, therapist.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Can’t we just talk like normal people? I haven’t talked to a normal person in 978 days.”
“So, you’re feeling lonely?” Even through the fuzzy video she could tell that he was writing that down.
“No, don’t write that down. ‘Horny as hell’ would be a more accurate descriptor.”
“Hm,” he uttered condescendingly.
“I’ve never had a conversation with a good therapist, but you’re the worst of the lot. Couldn’t they afford anyone better?”
He scribbled something else on his notebook. “I’ve got some bad news for you, Andromeda. I wish we didn’t have to do this, but you are going to have to spend at least six more months out there. We still don’t have the funding to bring you home.”
“Fuck.” Even though she’d already guessed, it made her want to break something. There was silence for a bit. That meant 297 days to go. Then she said, “I think I’m going to explore the canyon today.” Then she lost the signal. This happened every now and then, especially when there was a sandstorm in the south.
In her application for the NASA interplanetary program she’d specified a desire to research the canyon, Valles Marineris, and they’d needed to station her near the equator anyway because the climate is just a smidge more predictable there. So she was close. But for the first two years, before the funding ran out, they’d kept her busy with research and she hadn’t had time for her own exploration. After that, she’d stood on the rim a few times, peering over the precipice. It wasn’t anything at all like The Canyon back home. She’d grown up near the rim of the Grand Canyon, and those who truly knew that place affectionately refer to it as “The Canyon” as if there were no other. It was vast and surreal, layers of pastel colored rock and echoes of canyon wrens. The bottom was polished black Vishnu schist that would torture visitors with reflected sunlight. It’s very alive. But here, standing on the rim the emptiness and alien-ness of this canyon was hauntingly uninviting. Somehow, there were ghosts down there.
She packed several days’ worth of food, and all of the water she had purified. She even had a little tent, a rope, harness, rappel device, and oxygen mask. The tech they’d sent her with was pretty nice. Her mask could extract oxygen right from the thin atmosphere. She was a little worried about water, but she had a hunch that there would be ice at the bottom of the canyon, maybe even a spring or two. It’s a common misconception that there isn’t water on Mars. There’s a decent amount; nothing like earth, but more than plenty for a population of one. She’d already found a few springs. They were frozen over most of the year, but midday, midsummer, sometimes they trickled. Her mother’s culture had beliefs about springs. They believed that one must care specially for the springs, and pray for the rain. If only the world had known that we really did control the weather.
They’d sent her with a little motor vehicle for overland expeditions, but she’d crashed it one night. It hadn’t really been an accident; that was after the first time they’d told her that they didn’t have the funding to bring her home. She hadn’t felt suicidal that night, not exactly. It was more that she thought it would be funny to be the first person to wreck a motorcycle on mars. It wasn’t funny. It actually hurt quite a lot and now it took her a lot longer to get anywhere.
Three days’ walk to Valles Marineris. It was was the same size as the United States of America, and four miles deep. Impressive, but not impressive in the same way as The Canyon back home. The Canyon back home was inviting. She’d spent hours exploring it, because it wanted her to, climbing buttes and temples. Valles Marineris doesn’t have any isolated towers rising out of it, no visible layers either. It’s the same color as everything else on this wretched planet. Most of it really is more of a valley than a canyon. It was a canyon that had once been at the bottom of an ocean. But there was one part of it that she’d spent a while drooling over on the topo maps, before she’d even been accepted for the mission. It was maze of slot canyons, not as deep as the deepest part but a lot more interesting. There was one portion of The Canyon that had been a similar maze, Glen Canyon. But it had long since been buried beneath the murky, polluted waters of a reservoir. There was no one alive who remembered it before. She hoped that this maze of stone would be like that one. Of course, it wasn’t. What made earth’s slot canyons special was the way that sunlight played in them. Sunlight here was a different thing. It never played at all. On earth, there was a golden tint to the light that showed especially right after sunrise, when the light was still innocent. Not here. The distance tinted it a cooler shade.
She rappelled into the pit.
It took three lengths of her rope before she reached the bottom, and there was hardly any light there. She had a headlamp, and the small beam illuminated a narrow section of the rocks around her. It was claustrophobic, and in front of her it only got narrower. She squeezed through the slot, rappelled again. Now there was no light at all. Then the ground fell out from beneath her. She clawed at the canyon walls trying to slow her fall, but broke her ankle when she hit the ground. She’d broken bones before, but she had never been so far from a hospital; she couldn’t have been further. And they wouldn’t come to save her, didn’t have the budget. She was the first human on Mars and first native woman in space. She knew they weren’t trying to find the budget either, since her job was done. And the U.S. government didn’t have the best track record for keeping promises. She should have known they wouldn’t bring her home. Adrenaline kept the pain at bay as long as she didn’t look at her broken ankle, but she had to look at it, she had to set it and splint it. It wasn’t a compound fracture, no exposed bone, but it had already swollen to grapefruit proportions. She wrapped a piece of webbing around a large rock and around her foot, then pulled. She hoped she provided enough traction to realign the shattered bone fragments. It hurt like hell. Her screams echoed in the canyons and the snap-crackle-pop of busted bones echoed up through her body. Once she’d pulled her ankle back into an ankle-shape, she splinted it with a tent pole and crawled further into the canyon. Eventually, she found a spring.
There had been a day in a canyon back home. Not so narrow. When she had run out of water six miles from the rim. In 103 degrees Fahrenheit, that was a death sentence. The smart thing to do probably would have been to find shade and try to hike out when the temperature dropped. Instead she went further down. There is a type of tree with big leaves and soft furrowed bark. Her grandpa had told her once that this tree needs water all the time, and if you can find one you can find water. Cottonwood trees. They have a different name in Hopi. They have a distinct sweet musky smell. Grandpa would brag that he could find one from a mile away just by smelling, but even as a child she knew that he actually just already knew where they all were. That day she’d run out of water, she tried to sniff out a cottonwood tree. Probably she was already delusional from dehydration but she’d found one, and water with it.
Martian springs had no cottonwood trees. No trees of any kind. Some small strange bacteria, some arsenic and a few other nasty toxins, but they’d sent her with a water purification system that could sort that out. As the sun rose higher in the sky a few beams found their way down into her dusty chasm. She saw that the spring was actually trickling from a large opening in the canyon wall. She dragged herself into the cave and wrapped up in what was left of her tent. Staying warm was going to be a challenge. Despite the high-tech space suit, the cold would kill her faster than anything else. So she dragged herself into the cave. It went down. They would never find her body, they would never even try. She’d been the primary scout researching colonization prospects. Obviously prospects were slim, and nothing good had ever come of colonization. There were no other worlds for us. The fourth was our last chance.
After her grandparents had passed away, she and her mother had finally left Oraibi. The last spring had dried. They were some of the last to leave. The old ones stayed to die of dehydration, forgotten and buried only in waves of unbearable, unnatural heat. She thought of all those sweet old people mummified along with their knowledge and stories and what had once been a blooming desert. The deserts were not barren until we made them that way trying to irrigate them. Mars was not a desert. Earth’s deserts made people believe in magic. Mars would make people believe in ghosts.
The pain in her ankle made her want to sleep and after a while, a restless sleep settled over her. In her dreams she met a grizzled old man. He was sitting in the shade carving katsinas to sell to the tourists. He wore a cowboy hat and old boots, worn jeans and a leather belt with silver and turquoise. He spoke to her in a language that she understood in her dream, despite having never learned it. When she woke, she knew she needed to descend further into the cave. So she dragged herself on. Her ankle throbbed, and the cold sank through her insulating layers. The cave went steadily downward. Surely, someone would notice that she wasn’t responding to communications by now. She wondered about her funeral, who would be there. Obviously, she didn’t have much family left, no one who did would volunteer for a year-long solo mission to Mars. But even she wouldn’t have volunteered for the three years they’d given her. She’d forgotten what the sun felt like, what air tasted like, colors. This was hell.
She was certain that she had become delusional when she began seeing images in the dust. Colorful katsinas and old symbols suspended in the murky air, written on the walls and floor of the Martian cave. The colors overwhelmed her and the katsinas danced silently somehow around her and through her. Still she dragged on. Eventually the cave began to feel less solid, but so did she. She could no longer feel where her body ended and the world around her began and still there were those colors. She finished the last of the water she’d purified from the spring, and slept again. When she woke the katsinas were gone. There was something familiar in the air and she thought perhaps she could see a light ahead. The ache in her ankle had died. She felt warm. She dragged herself toward the light. Her air mask was making a strange grinding noise. She was sure it had been clogged with dust. She wasn’t getting enough oxygen through it anyway so she took it off and inhaled, hoping to drown in CO2 and Mars dirt. She didn’t. There was oxygen in that air.
Her nostrils filled with a familiar sweet musky smell, and she thought she could hear the drone of cicadas in the distance. As she approached the light she became warmer, and felt more solid. Suddenly, she emerged in a familiar world of blinding golden sunlight, in a familiar canyon. The cascading melody of a canyon wren echoed in the distance. And below her she saw the confluence of two rivers.