(Part I of III)
The blood splattered across the left side of her face and body, her Grandmother rolling on top of her and whispering with her last breath, “Chitkwësi.”
They — her Grandmother, her Aunties, her Cousins — were making their way to a small farm in the foothills. They were told there would be a feeding. They hadn’t eaten for days, for weeks, for so long her stomach no longer bothered to make any noise, the muscles too weak to cramp. She walked out of habit, through trees and brush, over rocks, towards the farm where they were told the people would be gathered.
As they broke the tree line and walked over a final row of rocks and brush at its edge, Grandmother stopped them, cautioned by their sudden visibility at the edge of a cleared field through which they could just make out the barn and house. She rested there a minute, in the memory of too many killings. Too much death. She feared all the land was being made into a burial ground where the living would no longer be permitted to walk.
But when Grandmother saw others were gathering at tables near the main barn, she resumed walking and so they followed her, through a field, through a fence, and through a line of men who sat tall on horses.
She stopped counting them at seven; the men on horses. They scared her, so she avoided eye contact. Stared at her feet. Fidgeted. They seemed like the men who had raided her village. Who had killed and scattered her family. Her Grandmother sensed her fear and held her hand tighter.
As they arrived, her Aunties and Cousins almost fell onto the benches at an empty table. Men brought buckets of stew, pitchers of water, and bread from the barn to feed them. They ate slowly at first. Studying each spoonful carefully.
She finished her water and a man filled her glass again. Another scooped the stew into a bowl and put it in front of her. Another gave her bread. She looked up, for a minute, and could see some women in the house. She wanted to thank them. It felt like the most and best meal she had ever eaten.
Well into her seconds, just before her body would have allowed her to feel relief, she could see the sickness hit. Others began to hold their throats and chest, turn a ghastly color of clay, fall to the ground, some into their own vomit. Her younger cousin, Pinaètët Màxkw, followed. Then another. And another. Her Aunties began to sob and collapse.
Her Grandmother knocked their bowls to the ground and looked at the men around them, and then at the women in the house, in anger. But it was too late. The men were already collecting scalps for the money. They wouldn’t get as much for the women and children as they would have if there had been men but they joked with each other that it was “Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.” “This should be the last of ‘em,” muttered one to another, his hands red with blood as he tied another scalp to his belt. Still another complained, “How many more of these feeds ya think it’ll take before we get the last of ‘em gone?” He spit a wad of chewed tobacco to the ground and rubbed his mouth dry on his shoulder, squeezing out the blood of a scalp he then tied onto his belt with the others.
She looked around, her voice had faded into the pain in her stomach and lungs. The men were finishing off those still struggling, shooting them in the chest or back, and then taking the scalps. They dragged the dead into a grave that had been dug behind the barn as if they were lugging sacks of flour. For a second, the indifference of monotony seemed more cruel than the murder. But only for a second.
Her Grandmother pulled her to the ground, under her own body, their bodies already limp with pain. “Chitkwësi,” her Grandmother whispered as she choked on her own vomit and died. She laid still as a man worked to cut off her grandmother’s scalp. The blood gushed out, oozing down her face and shoulder. The man then put the knife to her forehead and cut back, yanking at her scalp and hair like he were pulling a weed from the ground. The blood spilled down her face and into her eyes. All she could see was blood.
“Chitkwësi,” she heard as an echo into her death, the smell of her own vomit covering her eyes in its darkness.
The moistness of her damp hair against her face and shoulders startled her. The light. The smell. The taste of the oxygen as Ketchum woke to the air being ripped from her lungs. It wasn’t like drowning at all. Not like she had heard it would be. Not like the training simulations. It felt more like an implosion. And hot. Everything burning out of her lungs and through the pores of her skin. Everything. Life itself.
She tried to grab her throat to stop the expulsion of air but found instead that she couldn’t move. Could barely breath. She felt the bulk head give way and in her panic tried to stand from her sleeper, to escape. She was forced back down, falling though already laying down, the weight of her lungs folding in on themselves in the terror of death imagined.
She was barely cognizant when her sleeper transposed into an escape pod, closing her inside it and jettisoning out into space. Secured. Adrift. Like so many other pieces of debris blown away from the Kamal-6 near the obliterated points of impact with Scire‑6.
She didn’t wake until on a medical transport headed to the Scire-5 three days later. Just like a resurrection, never really comfortable with sleeping again, the fear of death hanging over her with an insomnia that had plagued her ever since. She wondered if her ghost, too, would haunt the science station’s phantom decks with the hundreds that had died that day. It seemed to lay ready, at any rate, in the swollen moon of skin beneath her eyes, reminding her always of her own mortality, constantly jarring her awake in the middle of the night to find relief in breathing.
Ketchum turned her head sluggishly from side to side and into her body’s stiffness. As the lights flickered on across the Kamal-5, and in her quarters, they cast odd shadows into her sleeper, whose lid raised and retracted seamlessly. The movement seemed to throw the perfect, thin layer of space dust that covered everything in her quarters with a sparkled glisten into chaos. Usually the dust would have been filtered out completely but the crew had been kept in stasis for the duration of the flight. The dust had settled.
Now, as she sat up, moving her legs sluggishly over the side of her sleeper, pulling the rest of her body out of the deep sleep mixture’s fog, the first thing that caught her eye—even after her vision had been blurred with the guck of protein build‑up—was her order card, laying as if carelessly thrown on the stand at the side of her sleeper. She had almost had to shove the thing down Anderson’s throat to get him to stand aside while she boarded. The prick.
The Kamal-6 report was hardly accurate. There was always something so sanitary about UCorp’s public reports but this one outdid itself. A catalogue of events. No distractions or deliberations. No information. A simple delineation of the lines between guilty and innocent to rationalize a simple summary judgment: her fault, her demotion. The end.
Anderson’s posturing reflected the worst of what had been cleaned up for the record. She wasn’t even on the bridge at the time, as if the freighter’s flight plan were as irreversible as an unmanned projectile.
For any thinking individual the report would hardly be evidence of her incompetence or alleged role in the accident. For most it wasn’t. But Anderson was no thinker—company man through and through. No doubt he thought of her as incompetent and dangerous. No doubt.
Luckily, UCorp was committed to a quick departure and there wasn’t any time for socializing. Ketchum left Anderson at the jetty, checked in with Penn on the bridge, and assumed her duties at navigation. As soon as they were set on course, everyone was put into deep sleep for the flight. An unusual decision. The crew wasn’t even roused for the requisite wake intervals to check operations and submit to medical therapies.
And now Saturn, exceeding the boundaries of her viewer in a brilliance she had almost forgotten, pulled at her unforgivingly. She tried to look away, as she tried to forget, but her tired eyes teared in its light, refracted into the glare bouncing off the hue of the icicles and gases cluttering its rings in brilliant color. The memories came as thick as dream’s residue. She headed into the shower to clean it all off with water so hot it left her skin red and heart palpitating. It was almost enough. Almost. But as she dried off the still moistness of her damp hair against her face and shoulders, she was startled. And just like that back in it. Back there at the collision.
Living among the stars was different than the life her ancestor’s had lived on the lands; she needed different stories, memories, to be out here among them. She needed other navigational points of reference. She wished the collision hadn’t become one of those points.
An annoying, distant sound composed her attentions and she answered the comm with indifference.
The blood from her scalp had dried over her eyes and clothes, sealing her to the body of the lifeless Grandmother, laying stiff over her in the full weight of death.
The men, after throwing them all into an open grave behind the barn, had left them there—to rot—while they drank into inebriation the scalp earnings in advance of collecting on them. Even the vultures and crawling things did not seem interested in going near them, the rancid smell of booze and death seemed to repulse the living. And she was certainly dead.
She thought so, anyway. All she knew for sure, besides the steady throbbing pain of her scalp’s lesion, was that two moons had passed while she lay still under her Grandmother. As the third moons hung low in the sky that night, she decided she would crawl out and make her way back into the forest. But only if the men were quiet and only if the four‑leggeds and winged-ones extended her an invitation by their disinterest.
She slowly separated herself from her Grandmother, pushing back the grief she could feel as a stone in her throat. She refused to look at the others, it was the only way to manage. And it wasn’t as difficult as she expected since her vision was blocked by dried clumps of blood now mixed with dirt. But it took such a long time to crawl out of the grave that she thought she could hear the men rousing themselves for another round of moonshine and singing to gunfire into the night sky. Somehow she made her way through the empty field and into the tree line’s shadows before they roused. When she felt she had walked long enough, far away enough, she dug herself into the base of a tree and pulled leaves and brush over her body. And slept. Even as she was enveloped by the increasing sounds of life around her, she slept.
Ketchum combed her long thick dark brown hair into a clip that would leave its mark in the dampness as her energy for primping waned in the discomfort of her prosthetic. She was not particularly tall, of average but round build, full lips, and dark black hair and dark brown eyes. She once thought she had a pleasant face but now found it hard to look at herself in the mirror, the eye feeling auxiliary to her body though lodged within it, as if twitching to free itself.
She rinsed out the clods of protein that had collected under the lid, finished dressing, refilled her cup, took a bite of a protein bar. She felt as automated as her schedule: In an hour she would report to medical—post deep‑sleep could be serious so clearance was mandated, or so the comm had reminded her. In 9 hours they would dock. In the meantime, she would try to be present, awake. The inordinately long sleep was sure to make even the routine of system’s checks arduous.
And then there was Anderson. He was so damn insufferable, she should have known he’d be waiting for her.
“Lieutenant.” He said, leaning against the wall just outside medical, smoking a cigar. The cigar was a rare commodity, and full of status, because the earth was now all but unable to produce such pleasures, having been mined too long for its raw materials, its soils contaminated and infertile. Only those who spent their profits on the few discretionary crops grown in space arboretums lit up.
“Commander.” She tried to walk around him but he blocked her.
“I don’t know who you fucked to get this assignment. But UCorp ain’t going to stand for any more of your fuck ups.”
“I didn’t realize those stripes represented UCorp.”
“You know what I’m saying. And you know where our shares come from.”
“Ah, so it’s about profits you’re worried about. Not chain of command.”
“You know exactly what I’m saying. You might have fooled them but we all know what you did. And no one is going to lose their shares because you can’t dock a fucking freighter.”
“So now you represent everyone?”
The door to medical opened and Dr. Nivens came half way out into the hall, finishing a cigarette he tossed into an air shaft.
“You’re late, Lieutenant.”
“Yes. The Commander and I were just catching up.”
Nivens had no love for the Commander, few did. He followed Ketchum into the medical bay without the formality of a salute. Anderson noted the insult.
“Never mind him,” Nivens said as Ketchum went behind a curtain to change.
Nivens performed the standard physical, beginning with an IV to hydrate and feed her and ending with a full body medical scan.
Ketchum fell half-asleep as the scan performed, distracted by a dream she could only remember as an odd smell of dirt and blood. Without thinking, she moved her hand to stop her eye from twitching. Nivens scolded her for moving and started the scan over.
As the light and noise ran down the length of her body, and back, she was overcome again with a smell of dirt and blood, and a sudden thirst for water. She held herself still in the thirst, her mouth feeling dry, as she waited for the scan to conclude.
“You’re all checked out, Lieutenant.”
“What? What?” she repeated.
“You’re cleared, Lieutenant. For duty. The cocktail I just pumped into you will wake you soon enough.”
“Right. Thanks.” She removed herself from the scanner, holding her lid still as Nivens threw away his gloves.
“You’ve experienced normal levels of bone loss and muscle atrophy, all reversible if you maintain the prescribed supplements for the coming days. In the meantime, as you know, watch for signs of spasm and weakness. If you experience any undue fatigue in your joints, or if you have any kind of hallucinations, report to me immediately.”
“Yes,” she replied, acquiescing to his apparent impatience for affirmation.
“As for your prosthetic, it’s adjusting well to being off the mixture. Your sensation of it coming loose is just a residual response from the unusually long sleep period we had. I assure you that there is nothing wrong. And it should be fully functional within the hour, if not less. It is quite an impressive piece of technology. It’s so perfectly synced up with your visual cortex that it hardly knows it’s artificial.”
Again, he waited for her to reply but she was feeling less accommodating and hurried to finish dressing behind a curtain she had had to pull closed for privacy. Suddenly, she had her fill of doctors.
“Must be a kind of unsettling déjà vu for you. Being back here. At Saturn,” Nivens said, trying to be nice.
“Must be.” She wasn’t.
As the moons shone through the redwoods, she woke into the sounds of night’s life. She could tell Red Fox was close as a trio of Spotted Owls warned each other from the safety high up in the tall woods. She removed the brush from her face and torso, and lifted herself up and against the tree. Her head ached but she had to find water so she mustered what little strength she had and began what would be a long walk to any one of the streams or springs she knew came off the great falls in the area. And she walked. And walked. Sometimes she thought she was falling and reached out to catch herself. To grab a hold of the hand of her Grandmother. And then she remembered and put herself back to the task of walking. Walking through the grief. So many people having walked on ahead of her.
It seemed like forever and a world away but she found a good sized stream and fell into its comfort, turning her back against the flow of the water in respect. It was cold and moved quickly but she didn’t seem to feel it. She lowered herself in and let the water overtake her body. Slowly she could feel the clumps of dirt and blood—which had mixed into new scabs along her scalp’s lesion—loosen and leave down stream. She moved her hands over her body to see if there were other wounds and realized that she had lost two nails from her left hand, probably from pulling herself away from her Grandmother and out of the mass grave. As she felt down along her left hip, she grabbed a clump of dirt and water and nail and hair and what appeared to be the roots and stems of huckleberries that had stuck to her clothes. She didn’t notice that she held it tightly as she drank, sinking her feet deep into the stream’s bed.
Another forever passed and she emerged from the water. She sat on what she thought was a granite rock. She was so exhausted that she slept there, sitting up, till just before dawn when the birds woke her. Her butt should have been sore from the rock but when she looked down she found that she had been sleeping on the shell of Turtle, and not a rock, with the clump of blood and dirt and nail and hair and berries still in her hand. She buried it all deep into the soil next to her, the roots seeming to expand and lengthen into the ground and over the shell as she kneaded it, covering it in fresh dirt and water from the stream’s edge.
Just then a Rabbit approached and seemed to whisper to her, “You are hungry. You should eat.” She had no idea how she gathered the strength to pray and kill the Rabbit but before she knew it she was eating while cleaning the hide. She used a strip of it to wrap carefully over her head. As refreshed as she could be, the sun began to make itself known. The sweat on her forehead seemed to make the cut ache even more. So she dug herself another hole to sleep in, and again came to another part of Turtle. She crawled inside, onto the shell, and slept.
Ketchum reported in with Penn for duty and assumed her station at navigation. No one but Anderson seemed to take note, all busy with their own duties, their movements dulled by sleep’s residue. Ketchum thought her own sluggishness fit right in. And then she noticed Anderson staring at her and then back at Penn. He wanted Penn to acknowledge his agitation with her presence onboard, expected Penn to do something about it. But Penn paid no attention to him. The only one who seemed to was Khaled at security.
“Lieutenant? Ketchum?” Wolfe repeated quietly, standing at her shoulder.
Wolfe was a tall, bulky man, but he moved gracefully. He was known by the crew for having a wicked sense of humor, smarts, and a howl of a laugh when he was drunk. And he definitely liked his liquor. He had several flasks he concealed in his utility pockets and around the ship, but he was known to be happiest when drinking with others. No one knew him to be a drunk.
“You alright? You looked a bit lost.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say to a nav officer.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
“It’s alright, Commander. I’m not quite that fragile.”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s a fucking idiot,” Wolfe said quietly of Anderson, “and no one here pays him any mind.”
“Good to know.”
Presumptively, she thought, Wolfe hit some commands on her console to bring up an audio from communications.
“I want you to hear this.”
“What am I looking at?”
“It seems to be coming from Saturn,” Wolfe replied.
Ketchum squinted as if that would help, staring at the translation of the sounds into metered lights. “But these look like…. communications.” She put in an earpiece and listened.
“You sure it’s not from the Scire?”
She stared at her screen while listening. “I don’t know. I could run it through the dimensional sequencing scanners but…”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Ok.” She keyed in the commands to begin the review.
Wolfe turned away too abruptly and a severe spasm in his left shin sent him spiraling into Vasquez, who was just then walking behind him. “Shit!”
“Commander!” Vasquez helped Wolfe stand.
“Relax Ensign,” Wolfe said, still holding onto Vasquez’s shoulder for balance.
“You bumped into him, Wolfe,” Ketchum said.
“Sorry, Ensign. Shit.” Wolfe grabbed his calf, trying to apply the pressure that would bring the muscle’s release.
“You want to get to medical?” Vasquez asked.
“Don’t bother,” Ketchum replied. “Nivens will just tell you that it’s a ghost of your imagination.”
“I just need to walk it off,” Wolfe replied, pulling himself away from Vasquez’s assistance and returning to comm.
“So, Lieutenant,” Vasquez turned toward Ketchum. “See anything yet?” He was trying to flirt with her, or pal up, but she couldn’t imagine why until she realized that he was performing for Anderson, who had positioned himself to eavesdrop. She wanted to tell him not to take sides in a fight that wasn’t his to understand. She shook her head, as if confused by the question, and Vasquez withdrew.
She turned her attentions back to her screen and put in her other earpiece to listen. She couldn’t figure out why Wolfe wanted to check in with her; he was the comm officer. It was obviously just a comm link distortion of some kind. But sleep’s fog hung over her concentration, or patience. She had to repeat the audio over and over before it seemed less like a distortion and more like some kind of transmission.
And then, there it was.
An echo off the network? They had certainly placed enough satellites around Saturn’s orbit and moons for cartographic purposes. And echoes were known to occur near planets composed of heavy metals.
Were there Saturnians? She half smiled at the thought.
When she woke, she thought she must have slept for a long, long time as the berries were ready to bloom. She made her way back to the water, washed and drank, cleaned out the hide. Her scalp was healing. She would have a scar and no hair on that side of her head. But there was no time for vanity, she must find others, she thought. That’s what her Grandmother would do. Look for others. Bring them together. Refuse the invader’s lies. Take back their lands. Protect one another. But she was still so physically weak that another long walk into the unknown seemed impossible. She had to be content to wait for the right moment. So she set herself to the tasks of preparation, beginning with pounding stones into spear tips. She would need many.
She was named after her Grandmother Alànkw, Mimëntët Alànkw, as the two had become inseparable. The boys tried to tease her by calling her baby but she wouldn’t have any of it. One time she even knocked a couple of them to the ground to make the point. Now she wondered where those boys were, and where the girls were who giggled at her when she pounded them.
Just then she saw a Red Fox at the water, drinking. Then another. They seemed to be tired from their play, biting at each other’s noses in between gulps. “Have you seen any more like me?” she wanted to ask them. They shook their heads dry and looked at her for a long time before taking off upstream. She wanted to follow but returned to her tasks. But they had tricked her, hiding in the nearby woods to watch her.
That night, when Mimëntët Alànkw finally put her tasks down and was about to return to sleep, the Fire Serpent rose out of the water and came to her. Where the water and forest met was a powerful place, where spirit beings moved between worlds. But when you could see them move, it was not a good sign. It meant that something was out of sorts in this world, that something had to be put right. Usually that something was evil.
“I am sorry that the men tried to kill you,” Fire Serpent said remorsefully. “It is me that they are jealous of.” He spoke with such sadness that she started to cry. “I don’t understand. Why are they jealous of you? When it is us who they are killing?”
“They want my power. They think you control me—the world. They do not understand. They are stupid and greedy and jealous. All they want to do is destroy and take.”
Mimëntët Alànkw nodded and again tears swelled in her eyes. “They will not. We will not let them.” She spoke through her tears and Fire Serpent comforted her.
Fire Serpent gave Mimëntët Alànkw an ear of Corn and left Beaver with her. She planted the Corn next to the huckleberries, and gave some berries to Beaver, who rested near her. The others of the redwoods watched intently. When they realized that they had gathered all together in that place, to hear the words of Fire Serpent, they decided to hold council. “Who will look out for Mimëntët Alànkw?” “I have been,” said Turtle. “But she will need more of her own kind to complete the work she has begun.” Wolf, Deer, and Bear agreed. They would tell Squirrel and Sheep, who were off on their own. Bat refused to help; he could be so disagreeable.
Penn entered the bridge from his ready room. He had a commanding presence, of the old-school variety that heralded the laurels of service like a birthright. He looked about controls deliberately—making short nods of acknowledgement to everyone—but hurried on his way out when Anderson intercepted him.
“Captain, Level 3 checks are complete. Level 2 underway.”
“Acknowledged,” Penn nodded firmly and continued on his way. Anderson sulked off as if brushed aside, half expecting to be invited along to Penn’s meeting with the VIPs.
Ketchum was focused on her consoles, including a live cartography of the system, and a viewer filled with a detail of Saturn’s rings. Usually a mix of rock and ice, some the size of earth’s mountains, the rings now included material debris from the explosion. She zoomed in and around to focus, drawn in by the stunning synchronicity by which everything moved, and was caught off guard by the sight of frozen bodies in orbit with the rock and ice. She sat back into her chair.
Penn returned to the bridge. The freighter’s manifest had included three UCorp commissioners—Carlos Rodriguez and Veronica Puffin with R&D and Mavis Greeves with Labor. As everyone else on the bridge, they walked with the weight of sleep, turning instinctively towards the main viewer and Saturn, looking for the Scire-6.
But behind them, and not on the manifest, was Benjamin Jacobs from Security Forces. Ketchum tried not to react, as everyone else on the bridge, except Khaled who seemed to know. Curious. The SF investigation had concluded, so why was Jacobs aboard for what was, supposedly, a repair mission?
Anderson approached the entourage.
“I hope you slept well, Sirs,” Anderson said.
“Yes, yes. Boy does that sleep put you out,” Rodriguez patted his extended stomach as though it were his body’s compass.
“It was an unusually long sleep period,” Penn concurred, “I think we’re all feeling it.” All but Jacobs, who was then standing with Khaled at security.
Ketchum thought he—they—must have woken earlier. He and his team. To get ready, to run drills, for what? Did they know the Ktën were onboard?
“It should pass in a day or so, Sir,” Anderson said reassuringly.
“It won’t be soon enough for me,” Rodriguez pronounced, and walked on to join Jacobs and Khaled, who were then focused on the main viewer.
But not Greeves. Greeves stood off to the side and was twitching, hypnotically scratching her chin and neck. Penn took note and resumed his duty.
“The Scire-6,” Penn offered to the others, “should be visible to us in about twenty-five minutes. It’s just out of sight on the other of the rings, sector 30-E, near Mimas.”
Penn looked to the Ensign at helm, who zoomed in.
“And how much longer till we arrive, Captain?” Puffin asked.
“Approximately two hours.”
“Carlos, did you hear that?” She touched his arm. “Two hours!? That’s great.” Rodriguez nodded, flushed with the embarrassment of her demonstrations of familiarity.
“Well, if you will follow me,” Penn took them on an abbreviated tour of the bridge. Everyone nodded to one another cordially, playing to the formalities of Penn’s introductions as though no one had ever met before, disguising histories with unversed greetings. In her turn, Ketchum willingly cooperated, though Jacobs did away with the pretense and turned his back to her, a slight Penn noticed disapprovingly.
Before long Penn had Anderson send for Nivens to retrieve Greeves, whose neck was partially bleeding from her scratching. In the commotion of their exit, Penn pulled Ketchum aside, “What do you have running here, Lieutenant?” he asked, pointing to one of the monitors at her station. “I’m using the dimensional sequencing map to scan for clarity with a signal that was intercepted earlier,” she explained. “The program is looking to identify its point of origin. Wolfe asked for help.” Penn seemed satisfied and turned back to the commissioners to lead them to his ready room.
Wolfe approached Ketchum quietly in their exit, “What do you think?”
It suddenly occurred to Ketchum why the SF might be onboard. If there were—Saturnians?—UCorp would consider them competition for the H-55, and any other resource in the sector. Obviously if they sent the SF to broker the deal, they either knew more than they were saying or assumed more than they should be. Obviously they considered whatever was down there to be hostile, to be conquered. Aliens in the way of profits. Aliens in the way.
She pulled up the audio’s mapping on screen for Wolfe. “It’s definitely a language. But the source is coming from inside Saturn.”
“Inside? But that would mean…”
 Chitkwësi: Be still
 Pinaètët Màxkw: Little Bear
 Alànkw: Star
 Mimëntët Alànkw: Baby Star