This is the fourth in a special series of space-themed stories in May 2020.
by E. Catherine Tobler
Sita Balachandran found the bone on her forty-first birthday, its pale wind-scoured point emerging from the dry Martian floodplain like the splintered stalk of a flower. At first, she thought it was a stone, the floodplain a riot of similar, jagged debris, but the shape and color told her otherwise. A fossilized rib bone, she was sure.
The Martian atmosphere was well-known for the tricks it would play, even the earliest collected images of Mars calling to mind familiar shapes. A rock that resembled a crouched squirrel. A swirl of dark dust that took on the shape of a mourning woman. People sought what they understood, preferring the familiar rather than contemplating what they did not know. Especially when it came to distant worlds. But archaeologists couldn’t afford to look away; they had to look at everything from a new perspective, in order to assemble the broken past.
No matter how Sita looked at the bone, no matter how she tried to see it from a new perspective, it remained a bone. Beneath the shadow of the ancient, excavated Pathfinder lander shell, a bone.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there, hasn’t it?
That’s one way of looking at it.
Sita tried to feel it, the death Doctor Emery said bloomed in her lung and spread through her body, but she couldn’t. Couldn’t feel a damned thing.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there, hasn’t it?
They called it the find of a lifetime. Sita didn’t correct them because she agreed.
Within her quarters onboard sprawling Schiaparelli Station, she watched the assembled press, milling in the station media room like schools of fish, darting and circling, until she could stand it no more. She deactivated the viewscreens, and turned to the one small window her room afforded.
Other than the sleeping nook, the window was her favorite thing about the room; round like a porthole, it gave her a view of Big Crater and Far Knob, places they would explore in due time. She and her team had come in the name of recovery and preservation, set to retrieve every lander and rover from the red planet’s surface. Each had come to the end of its scientific usefulness long ago, but agencies and civilians alike wanted the machines retrieved. Preserved, to say “this is how we got here.” Sita could not argue, even if many craft were whittled to wire, stripped by centuries of Martian winds. Skeletal satellite dishes, hollow solar panels, sand-buried frames; they would all be gathered and tended. Just, the press said, as mummies had once been lifted from the sands of Egypt.
“The pope is calling it miraculous,” Deepti Arroway said as she led Sita down the corridor, toward the press room yet again. Sita did not think she could lend much new information to the conversation, but they wanted her. Clambered for her. Howard Carter of Mars, they called her and Sita cringed.
Miraculous. Game-changing. Universe-altering. The words spilled from Deepti, flowing past Sita to trail in their wake. Sita barely heard them, still wondering what it all meant. How could it be, a bone? They would begin excavation tomorrow and perhaps then they would know. But her mind still raced ahead, trying to make sense of it. A bone on Mars. A bit of Mars in her lung.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there—hasn’t it?
Microscopic life had been found on the planet and confirmed long, long ago, but nothing like this—nothing that hinted at mammals on any other world. The press asked Sita to speculate as to the kind of animal and she had not, would not—it was all still classified and the press would not witness the excavation as they moved Pathfinder and Sojourner and began to carefully hollow out the ground beneath. Scans showed the bone was at least 1.5 meters in length. Like the rib bone of a whale.
Bones were second nature to Sita; before the ruddy dust of Mars, there had been the golden sands of Egypt, the emerald mountains of Peru, the farmlands of Iceland, each slowly giving up secrets of their cultures. And now here, Mars blowing its ground into the sky to reveal a bone, of all things.
“Does he believe it to be God’s doing, then?” Sita asked.
“God made every blessed thing, didn’t He?” Deepti laughed soft, but her voice was strained. “Some think you should be sainted.” Deepti pushed the press room door open, allowing Sita to precede her.
Sita managed not to cringe at the cameras that swiveled to meet her; managed not to stiffen and tense beneath every eye as she navigated questions that could not be answered.
It’s hard to say how long—it could have been there longer than any of us know, though astronauts—
I was never exactly that; just one journey.
Still, given your work and position—so many screenings. We should have caught it sooner.
Should you have?
Sita thought Sojourner would break apart when they lifted her from the Martian sands, but she held. Centuries old, Sojourner rose into the air in the maw of the crane as if she had been born to the sky and Sita supposed perhaps she had been—having flown from Earth, having plunged toward the Martian ground upon her landing. One journey, just like me. Sojourner endured the journey into her crate with dignity and grace; Sita wasn’t sure she handled herself half as well, clumsy and awkward within or out of gravity.
With rover and lander removed, the site was left to Sita and her team, a tent erected around the dig site to discourage press intrusion. Sita simply stood for a while, staring at the depression in the ground where the Pathfinder shell had long rested. The rib bone curled up, as if reaching for the sky now that the shell had been removed. Sita knew everything she needed to do in order to move forward: they needed to mark out a grid, needed to record and scan and triple check every step to ensure they did things right. But she only felt capable of standing and staring at the bone, as did the rest of her crew. Within her helmet, there was only her even breath, until James spoke.
“They want me to film everything for the record,” he said. “Should I film this? The standing around?”
Sita couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “This is the most vital phase,” she said softly, at last lifting her attention from the bone. James Gonzalez and Natasha Tereshkova looked back at her, eager. “This is the phase when we stand, and stare, and ponder.”
“What exactly are we supposed to ponder?” Natasha asked.
“We’re about to change the universe,” James said. “Go down in history.”
Sita’s smile faded. “We ponder everything we could possibly ruin.”
“Oh.” James bowed his head, double checking every setting on the camera he held.
“Make no mistake,” Sita said, “this is historical. But I could be entirely wrong. Maybe that isn’t a bone.” She looked at Natasha. “Prove me wrong—tell me it’s not.”
Sita and Natasha worked to position the laser grid over the dig site, carefully marking each degree and position and rock as they went. Nothing could be wrong, Sita told herself. As much as her work had mattered before, this mattered more. The world—the universe—was watching.
But at hour three, Natasha lifted her head from her screen. “Sita, it is not a bone.”
Sita had been wrong—and the press would want explanations for that. Archaeologists had been mistaken before; empty tombs, the hoaxes of the Piltdown Man and the Feejee Mermaid, but this— This. James’s camera lens seemed to have a weight it hadn’t possessed earlier.
“Tell me,” Sita said, moving from her station toward Natasha. “Break the news gently, because history.”
Sita nodded, watching Natasha as she pondered her words carefully.
“It’s a skeleton.”
The blood drained from Sita’s cheeks. When she later viewed James’s recording, she would watch herself topple over, straight into the Martian dirt, her helmet saving her face from the bruise it likely would have otherwise sported. She woke propped against the blowing tent wall, Natasha shaking her hands, moving her arms like jump ropes.
“There you are.” Natasha’s smile was bright, amused.
“We can edit that out,” James said. “Completely editable.”
Sita closed her eyes, but eventually dared look over Natasha’s shoulder, at the lasers still marking the perfect grid over the site. “A skeleton?” It was just a whisper, but her helmet carried it well enough to the others.
“Yeah,” Natasha said. “Come see.”
Seated before the screens, Sita told herself to breathe. Bone and rock were easily distinguishable upon the screens, given the bone’s webbed structures and canals. The skeleton—and indeed it was—before them had suffered the movements of the Martian floodplain; if this plain were the bottom of a lake heaved to the surface, the bones had made the entire journey, not too terribly scattered. The skeleton appeared to be on its back, ribs reaching skyward.
“Is this…” Sita traced the long line of spine, down and down through the rock, to the point where it fanned out, exactly the way a whale’s tail would.
“Spine,” Natasha said, “and tail. And look here.” She fingered the display until it had magnified four times. “Phalanges.”
Sita wanted to bury her face in her hands, but her helmet prevented that. She exhaled and looked up at James—James whose hands were trembling even as he kept his camera trained on the women. Sita smiled at him, his umber skin seeming to drain of color as implication upon implication began to stack unspoken.
“This is where we stand and ponder a little more,” Sita said softly.
In the long night, Sita pressed fingers to her chest and tried to feel the darkness inside her. But it wasn’t a lump; it wasn’t tangible at all. Still, she prodded brown fingers against brown skin, searching.
Excavation, she thought. She needed to be dug up, the darkness unearthed and carved carefully out, as bone from earth. Beneath skin and bone, within the protective cage of her ribs; under the layers of the lung, to the bottommost layer where Mars dissolved, making her flesh its own.
The press were hungry.
Sita left the conference sweating and nauseated. She didn’t care where she went, only that she get away. Howard Carter of Mars, running from the spotlights—she didn’t care. She supposed it had always been this way, scientists and others trying to answer questions they couldn’t fully. The media had earned the word “press” though, given the way they didn’t give Sita any room to deny their speculations. Somehow, word had filtered back that it was a human skeleton they’d found in the rock, and the idea horrified Sita. No, she’d said, absolutely not—but they continued to press and wriggle, until Deepti called an end to the conference.
Sita walked to the station’s main observation lounge, chiefly empty given it was late and the press wasn’t allowed in the room. Sita went to the wide windows overlooking the whole of the station complex because it never failed to take her breath away, even tonight when the idea of a human skeleton on Mars already had her rattled. It was what the press did, she knew—they would continue until they forced an answer from her or Deepti. An answer they weren’t yet ready to give. A whale on Mars? How?
She sank into one of the concave orange chairs before the windows, long legs sprawling before her. In the near distance, Twin Peaks jutted gently into the sky and there above them, the pinprick of distant Earth. She exhaled, and a ragged sob broke from her.
“It’s quite something.”
At the intrusion of a new voice, Sita jumped. She looked over the arm of the chair, discovering the chair next to hers also occupied. Of all the chairs he could have chosen… Sita pulled her legs in, wrapped her arms around, choosing to burrow instead of flee.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
“The view.” The man gestured to the windows, his attention not lingering on Sita at all. “Well, the station, too. It’s all…quite something.”
Sita didn’t recognize him, but that wasn’t saying much. The station held a crew of fifteen-hundred and Sita concerned herself with those who worked in her unit and labs. This man could have worked in a dozen other units; his appearance didn’t give his specialty away. Even seated he seemed extraordinarily tall, his hair some shade between brown and gray, his eyes likewise. His face was long, his focus on the world outside the windows nearly absolute.
“One envisions a place,” he said, eyes skipping from windows to Sita and back again, “alive and thriving, and then…” He trailed off, as if struggling for a word.
“Mmm.” Sita didn’t offer a word, because she understood the emotion running beneath. How long had people dreamed of Mars? There had always been a civilization here, fictional or not. And now, somehow, whales. “I’m Sita Balachandran,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve—”
“Met,” he said, “and no we have not. They call me William Christopher and this station—it’s so…vast. Complicated. I get lost in the…corridors.”
All thought of the whale fled. Maybe he didn’t know—hadn’t heard—didn’t know who she was, and Sita breathed for the first time since leaving the press conference. She exhaled, lungs tickling.
“My first day here,” she said, “I was trying to find my quarters, and ended up in the commander’s—I was unpacking my bag when she walked in and I was mortified.” She laughed at the memory; it felt like forever ago—and had nearly been so. “I’ve been here fifteen years.” And a little piece of Mars got inside.
She looked at the windows, pushing herself from the chair. Through the pane of transparent aluminum she could see from Far Knob to Twin Peaks, the hills dark with the coming of night.
“Longer for me,” William said.
Sita was not startled to find him beside her, his eyes not on her but still on Mars beyond. She did not feel invisible, only just not studied. As if this were a person with concerns that reached beyond her, blissfully beyond. The tension Sita had known for the past few weeks had been left behind, a shawl dropped to the floor.
“After all this time, it still holds your attention,” Sita murmured. In the window, their reflections were watery, only half there.
“How could it not? Dr. Balachandran—”
He spoke her name, but fell to silence and she looked up at him, wondering if this was when the magic of being unknown broke. When he told her he knew her and her work and what they had found. Was it human, he would ask.
But he didn’t.
“I will leave you to the view,” he said, and giving her a slight bow, took his leave.
Sita watched him go, wanting, ridiculously, to call him back. He’d been enjoying the view before her, after all. It seemed a shame to take it from him, but she didn’t move, standing as if anchored before the splendor of the place she had called home for so long. So much of her life spent in these red hills, growing and learning, and all the while, those bones.
Can you confirm the rumor that it was a human skeleton—Sita, was it human?
In the night, she woke sweating. The nightmare clung to her even when she walked circles around her small room, drinking water as cold as she could stand it.
She had imagined plenty of things in her time as an archaeologist—and perhaps that was why the press drew the parallels they did. Howard Carter, unearthing Tutankhamun, and yet. Sita had never imagined human bodies upon Mars, but tonight they had come to her. Bodies entombed, buried, heaving themselves to the surface, bony hands breaking as they clawed at the dirt. Desperate for the thin sunlight that only turned them to ash in the end, ash that lifted into the next blowing storm.
Not human, she told herself, but the idea that the skeleton resembled an Earth whale was also so preposterous as to be unreal. Standing at her small window, she could not convince herself it was true, and even when she reviewed the data from the site, she stared at it in disbelief. It could not be. But when day came, and she and her crew returned to the worksite, she saw that it was. That damned rib bone, reaching from the ground.
She spent the day digging, carefully and laboriously removing dirt from the protruding rib. Natasha and James worked alongside, the camera perched atop a tripod to capture their work. Sita fell easily into the work; as always, it gave her a focus, a way to push back the troubling dreams of the night before. The work was methodical, and she knew it without thinking; the calm that came with doing what she had done a thousand times before.
Returning to the lab that evening, Sita encountered Deepti, who took her by the hand and drew her into the depths of her office. Deepti closed and locked the door.
“Has the press done something—did you—”
Deepti gently pushed Sita into the chair before the bank of screens, so Sita could see what played there. The images were old, black and white and shot through with static, but it was distinctly Mars, the rocky floodplain where Sojourner had spent its eighty-three active days. Sita sat quietly, watching as static rained across the images; as a dust storm blew; as a solid figure strode past the camera lens, and on into the distance against the sunset-bright sky. A human-shaped figure on the surface of Mars, without a protective suit.
She said nothing—a figure was as ridiculous as a bone, if not more so. Sita looked at Deepti as the data looped and played again.
“Sojourner transmitted billions of bites of data, but not this—this was among a cache of files that couldn’t be transmitted, because she lacked power to do so.”
“Watch it again.”
Sita watched it half a dozen more times, shaking her head each time. “It’s simple enough to debunk, isn’t it?” Her hands were shaking though, because what she was about to say didn’t correlate with what she had seen. “We’ve seen it a thousand times before—rocks that look like faces, dust storms that swirl into human shapes. It’s pareidolia, Deepti—”
“That isn’t dust. Maybe when it crosses the lens, it is, but look at it against the sky—look at it.”
And she had. There was no looking through it, because the figure—the body—was solid. As solid as any human body.
Deepti slid a new screen before Sita, the file dated twelve days after the first. Another poor quality video, but it was clearly the figure returning along the path it had first taken. Returning to the Sojourner and Pathfinder. It walked as steady as any person would, stumbling once over an unexpected rock, and then—
The figure bent down, peering at Sojourner‘s lens a moment before the recording ended—Sojourner’s drive bloated with unsent data.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there, hasn’t it?
That’s one way of looking at it.
Sita returned to the observation lounge and though she carried a tablet with her, she didn’t look at the data it held. She already knew it backwards and forwards. Among the thousands of images recovered from the lander and its rover, and the billions of bits of information, nowhere had there been this, evidence of something Sita refused to call a person. If they looked closely enough, certain formations in the dust storms looked like bodies—like people walking and then gone when the wind gusted—but at no time in the centuries-long history of the space program had there been this—a twist of dust in the wind that bent down and looked at one of the craft upon Mars. Never.
Unless they’d known and never said. Sita pressed her fingers into her collarbone, tracing its familiar shape beneath her skin. How strange, that a person could contain so many things they would never ever see.
“You should keep digging.”
Sita turned to find William approaching, looking as tired as she felt.
“Keep digging?” she asked. Her hands tightened on the tablet, wondering exactly how much of the discoveries had been made public. Surely William knew about the bone, but had evidence of the recordings leaked? Was one related to the other? Sita couldn’t piece it together.
“Even if it’s only idle speculation—the bone,” William said. He moved to stand beside her at the window, crossing his arms loosely over his chest. “There could be other such things buried? I’m not in your field, but it seems unlikely for the body to be isolated?”
Sita looked out the window, following his gaze to Far Knob. “Given the region…” She frowned a little. “And I wouldn’t call it a body, let’s…not do that. The press have tried to infer such, and it’s…not.” Couldn’t be. But how could it be a whale, Sita, really? How is a body more impossible than what you have?
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there.
“Given the region?” William prompted.
“An ancient floodplain, so what rests there now may have been carried a good distance,” Sita said. “Which means it could be an isolated discovery, yes.”
“A flood implies water.”
Sita nodded at that. “A good deal of water, too,” she said. Enough to hold a whale? An ocean? But it wouldn’t be just one, Sita. So, whales, plural? You are absurd. She exhaled, her entire body shaking. She felt like she was coming apart.
They stood for a long time in silence, watching distant dust billow over distant hills and Sita would have thought herself well and truly alone until William said again, “Keep digging.”
With that, he walked away, soft-soled shoes silent against the flooring. Sita watched him go, down the stairs and into the corridors beyond, before she looked back to Mars beyond the window.
Keep digging, he said, and so she thumbed the tablet back to life, and scrolled through the Sojourner data. Pulled up the static-shot video to watch the figure pause and look at the rover before it. If the figure possessed a face, Sita could not see it. She paused the video and though she tried, neither could she see Mars blowing behind or through the darkness. She traced its outline and found a shoulder, an arm, the line of a hip as the figure stepped into motion again.
Keep digging, he said, and so she returned to the lab, pushing the video through a dozen more analyzations, despite the fact that Deepti had already run them. She ran them again and again, even when they told her the same thing: unknown, unknown, unknown. She carried her tablet into bed with her, slid earbuds into place and listened to the howling storms Sojourner and Pathfinder had recorded. And listened again. And again. Until she heard something else in the wind—not a voice, but something she had no word for. A murmur, maybe.
Keep digging, he said, so Sita returned to the dig site each and every day, overseeing the encasing of the bones in plaster, watching in silent awe as it was hauled from the dirt in two fat portions. Copper sand streamed like water as the crane hauled the find into the sky and Sita could hardly breathe. She pushed her scanners deeper, letting them run the whole night through to explore more of the buried floodplain. And when, in the morning, they gave her evidence of what might be more bones, Sita took the information to Deepti, who nodded and said yes, keep digging.
In the dream, the piece of Mars inside Sita unlocked her chest as if it were an unearthed hoard of treasure. Her chest swung wide with a low groan of ill-used hinges and the piece of Mars inside her strode out. Sita followed, her feet deliciously bare in the rocky soil. She imagined she could feel the warmth of the distant sun on her upturned cheeks, though there was no sun, not wherever Mars was leading her.
She walked underground, though vast caverns that felt, by turns, like summer and then winter. But seasons on Mars, twice as long as those on Earth, were about clouds and ice. Winters were clear, spring days filled with mounded clouds of cream, stacking into watercolor skies. In spring, dark sands stained the retreating ices like ink, though the ice was never wholly gone, Mars turning its face from the sun before the ice could run as water once had. Deep underground, Sita watched the spread of dark sand through ice, spreading into the bones of a hand, an arm, a shoulder.
Was it human? The press demanded to know.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there.
Sita woke with a start and thought she was still sleeping when she saw the dark figure at the edge of her bed. It was not standing, but sitting as if waiting for her to wake. Sita pulled the blanket against her chest, her heart working like a piston within the cage of her ribs. She wanted to crack her chest open so that she might finally breathe. The figure did not move but watched her, eyes indeterminate within the gloom of its face. Was it a face? Sita didn’t know. Was it the face that had looked upon Sojourner all those years before?
Was it human?
She reached for the darkness, and it ebbed like a tide, rushing away from her questing fingers. She groaned a little and reached again, trying to snatch a piece of it, but the figure moved from the end of the bed, overflowing the blankets like dark, wet sand. At the foot of her bed, it stood, watching. Waiting?
“Are you alive?” Sita asked.
The figure only watched. Sita watched in return, shaking though she was not cold. She pressed a hand against her chest, feeling the flutter of heart, the evidence of life, and watched as the dark figure did the same, pressing what looked to be its own hand against its own chest. Its fingers pressed in, through the shadow, the hand forming a fist inside. Sita fumbled for the light at her bedside.
At this, the figure fled. It was not as simple as a shadow retreating with the coming of brighter light; the figure turned away from Sita, from the bed, and strode toward the door. It did not move through the wall, but sank to flow beneath it, where some thread of air allowed it passage. In an emergency, the hatch seal would be flawless, but not now, not during normal operations. Normal. If that had been…normal.
It isn’t that it’s buried too deep—it’s that it’s spread too much.
Doctor Emery drummed his fingers on Sita’s back and listened through his stethoscope. They might be on Mars, but some things didn’t change. Medicine advanced, but never quickly enough. Sita pictured her body as dig site waiting to be opened; they would mark her with a laser grid so they could know where to cut, where the least damage would be done.
Some bit of Mars has gotten in there, Sita said.
And Doctor Emery smiled at the folly of it, at the idea that Mars could be inhaled, condensed into a body that had no hope of processing it.
Deepti wasn’t in the lab come morning. Sita paced slow circles as she waited, but stopped when a crew she did not recognize emerged from the survey room. They wheeled Sojourner‘s crate with them, the crate sealed and labeled for shipment off-world.
“You can’t,” Sita protested, but was kept from reaching the crate by a young man carrying, of all things, an assault weapon. The sight of it startled Sita—she had known that the station boasted a security force, but there had been so little need for one. The idea that this man was in her lab shocked her to silence.
“But we can,” he said, and walked backwards, trailing the crew into the corridor, eyes and gun still trained on Sita. As if an unarmed archaeologist posed a threat.
Sita watched him go—watched them go, with Sojourner—then bolted back into Deepti’s office, where they had kept the files, where they had kept everything that had now been taken. Sita searched the computer, the drawers. Even the seat of Deepti’s chair had been broken from its base in case it hid information
By the time Deepti appeared, disheveled and hollow-eyed as if she had been questioned all night, Sita knew her own quarters would have been searched. Her tablet taken.
“Without evidence, we look the fools, don’t we?” Deepti asked, trying to set her chair back to rights.
“And the skeleton?”
“They came for that first.” Deepti abandoned the chair and perched on the edge of her desk. “That’s all it will be, Sita. The dig will cease and this story will fade. One strange and miraculous discovery that we cannot, by its nature, ever understand. Humans never understand miracles, do they? We can try to comprehend such marvels, but in the end they are beyond us. We are only flesh and bone.”
“Only,” Sita whispered. “And what of us? Will they cart us off, too? I know what we saw.” And what of the figure in my room—some bit of Mars got in.
Deepti did not answer and Sita did not tell her about the figure, about how it had mimicked her, how it had moved away when she tried to touch it. Sita left the lab, feeling eyes on her everywhere she went, although the corridors were strangely quiet, everyone occupied with something more important than the havoc that filled her lungs. Even the press was strangely absent, the café filled with station workers only. Sita skipped lunch, heading into the observation lounge when she saw William’s familiar silhouette against the window. Watching Far Knob, always watching.
“We can’t keep digging,” she said.
William was not expecting her and when he turned to face her, Sita would have sworn his eyes were the same copper of Mars, swirls of dust that could never quite settle. But he blinked and his eyes were only eyes, gray and still as he regarded her.
“They’ve taken the skeleton,” Sita said. “And more.”
“The data from Sojourner?” William asked.
Sita startled. It occurred to her then, there might be a very good reason she hadn’t known William prior to their first encounter. She thought of the security team with the rover; of the gun and the explicit threat. Who was this man, that he knew about the data? That he’d crossed her path exactly when he had?
“How can you kn—”
It was the way he leaned into her, then. The tilt of his head and the way he looked not at her, but into her, the way the dark figure had looked into the lens of the rover’s camera. Sita said nothing and did not move. Was it human, Sita?
“Some bit of Mars has gotten in,” William said in the silence.
Sita shook her head, but when his hand closed over hers, she knew. He was not warm in the way a living body would be. He was as cold as death, as cold and killing as Mars would be if she stepped outside without a suit. Humanity occupied a space here, but had never been built for it. Not like… Others had? Sita took a ragged breath, labored beneath the weight of her dying lungs.
The benefit of being on Mars was everything looked like something else. And everyone was so accustomed to something looking like something else, Sita was able to pass as she liked, through the corridors as though it were a normal evening, into the depths of the station where they routed toward their usual mission destinations. No one paid them a lick of attention, the press clambering for answers from station admins when no more news was forthcoming on the bones. Much work was being done, the press were assured. Sita roused James and he suited up with her, venturing toward the dig site—where they should not have gone, but headed anyhow, because Sita needed answers.
Had admins known? Sita asked herself over and over, unsure. Had Pathfinder landed where it had specifically or by chance? Had Pathfinder been guided to the floodplain to investigate the bone? Some spark of activity? Sita parked the ATV inside the shelter of the tents that still blocked the dig site from casual view, and did not know the answers. But she set James to filming, and she started to dig—the old fashioned way, with a hand shovel.
Using the guides from the scans, she dug until William—who could never have been named William, surely—settled across from her to watch her work. William no longer looked human—had never been human, Sita understood, and was like the shape in her room had been, clouds of ink trying to fashion itself into the bodies it found elsewhere on the station. If James noticed the shadow form, he did not say; only filmed Sita’s work in silence until she unearthed what looked like a skeletal, four-fingered hand, until the ground beneath it collapsed into a gaping dark hole. The dirt funneled downward and Sita scrambled from the edge as William lunged forward, vanishing into the hole.
A burst of darkness, a whirlwind of dust and debris that looked like a dust storm, like static upon an old video recording. A thousand shapes flew into the twilight sky, a murmuration of Martians, a cloud that burst through the air in a fury.
Sita and James, flat on the ground, stared, the camera aimed true. Sita could not breathe for the beauty of it, the way the cloud moved as if it were water, north, then south, and back again. Sita felt the trembling of her lungs, the movement of the piece of Mars inside her that longed to fly as free as the darkness above her, and she could not say what happened in those last moments—
—for Deepti, the film would remain inconclusive, something never shown to anyone else, something she never asked even James about, because she feared they knew the truth;
—as inconclusive as a crate where a skeleton turned to dust as though it had never been—real and tangible until it was no longer necessary for it to be so;
—a scattering of dark spring sand on the floor of Sita’s quarters, in the shape of a footstep, and then gone.
Sita opened her dying chest with the same steady hands that had, a year before, opened the rusted casing on the Viking 1 lander, and her body swung wide with the same low groan of ill-used hinges. The piece of Mars inside her flew out and out.
by Benjamin C. Kinney
I love this story’s timeless feel. It goes on forever, yet it’s over before you know what happened. Like history. Like life. Maybe even like dying.
Sita carries something inexplicable within herself. She’s dying of Mars. Being killed by this strange glorious planet, covered in the relics of our past and of other peoples’ pasts. And she, like all of us, has so little time in which to understand all these mysteries. And mysteries truly is the word. These aren’t puzzles to be solved, or riddles to be answered. At the end, things are inconclusive, unknowable, transformative. Like history. Like life. Maybe even like dying.
For all the mystery to the events, there’s no mystery to how this story feels. Sita and William are trapped by time, by the past, by one-way trips and the pressure of human eyes. By the desire to break free, like birds over red sand, alive even in the most uninhabitable of places. Each of them becoming what has invaded them, for a brief but wondrous time.
“We are only flesh and bone,” Deepti says in the middle of the story. But sometimes, we want her to be wrong. It’s that bit of Mars inside us all.
Our closing quotation this week is by Terry Pratchett, from the novel The Last Continent: “It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true. It’s called Life.”
About the Author
E. Catherine Tobler has lost the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards. She keeps writing.
About the Narrator
Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.
She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.