Reprint Series

Né łe! by Darcie Little Badger

This month’s story is a reprint I picked from the wonderful Love Beyond Body, Space and Time anthology of Indigenous LGBT2S+ speculative fiction. I have been following Darcie Little Badger’s work since her first short story publications, and I also really enjoyed Né łe! with its themes of queer relationships and women in STEM, and that it also presented Indigenous people as heterogenous, with both differences and commonalities. In space. With dogs. Good reading! — Bogi.

***

Originally published in Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT and two-spirit sci-fi anthology, edited by Hope Nicholson. Bedside Press, 2016.

***

Enamored with promises of red Martian canyons and a hefty pay raise, I ignored the scary part about leaving Earth until I actually had to board a starship. There’s nothing too risky about interplanetary space travel. In fact, it’s rather mundane; passengers relax in stasis for nine months. I just hate speed. Won’t ride a roller coaster. Won’t bungee jump. Won’t even hop off a diving board.

No drop can outrace the ascent outta Earth.

Security wasn’t making things easier. The pre-boarding screener found my pills. “What’s this?” he asked, plucking a rattling tin from my jacket.

“Those? Acebenzine.”

He squinted, probably skimming a list of drug names on his ocular screen. “Sorry, how do you spell that?”

“A-c-e-b-e-n-zine. It’s for dogs. Often prescribed to reduce anxiety before routine checkups or grooming sessions.”

“Are you smuggling a toy poodle in your jacket, too?”

“Acebenzine is effective on humans. Trust me: I’m a doctor.”

He squinted again. “Passenger registration says you’re a veterinarian.”

“Yes. Animal doctor.”

“Okay. Dottie King, DVM, you’ll be unconscious during launch and won’t feel a thing.”

“Not necessarily. One in ten thousand people experience unintended intra-stasis awareness during the six-hour acclimation period after—”

“We can offer you human sedatives.” He dropped my tin in a contraband chute and handed me a mint-sized pill.

“Much obliged.” I swallowed the medicine and proceeded to my stasis pod. Tragically, it resembled a technophile coffin. An attendant secured my limbs, applied bio-monitor stickers, and snapped the lid shut, her face scowling through my porthole. It did not take long for the other passengers to settle in. The Starship Soto was first and foremost a cargo carrier. This trip, which carried thirty Earth emigrants and forty-one dogs to Mars, was probably more crowded with life-forms than all of its predecessors.

Not a tremendously comforting thought. Was the crew sufficiently trained? If something went wrong, would they know how to rescue thirty landborn civilians? More importantly, why wasn’t the sedative working?

“Everybody ready?” chirped a speaker near my ear. “Stasis initiation. Ten. Nine. Eight…”

I know what you’re thinking: it’s safer to visit Mars than the grocery store. However, midflight disasters, albeit rare, are a special breed of terrifying. If Starship Soto exploded between Earth and Mars, I’d go gentle into the interstellar vacuum, my body and mind slipping from stasis to death. Helpless. Thoughtless. At least, during a highway fender bender, there’s a chance to react, even if the only reaction is a passionately uttered “Sh—”

“Six.”

I tried to focus on a pleasant memory: our chickens, a lamb, a rooster crowing. The desert warm beneath my feet. Mother’s sweet tea. Father singing in the kitchen. Our collie herding sheep. Family surname—King—painted across a tin mailbox. A coyote, his muzzle wet and red. A needle and thread…

“Three.”

Wait. Mail. Damn!

“Two.”

I forgot to setup my forwarding address!

“One.”

Sh—

*

—ucks.

Stasis pod spiritualism ain’t what it used to be; at its height, SPS churches appeared in every major city, on- and off-Earth. Their leaders preached: the Sleep is sacred! Encounter long-dead relatives! Witness blinding white light, heaven and hell! Hear prophesies, threats, and undying voices! All praise the pod!

Of course, SP experiences are caused by altered brain activity during the stasis wake-up phase. Once scientists replicated the miraculous hallucinations with electrodes, SPS interest dropped. It was all over the news.

Despite that, I nearly praised the pod as I regained consciousness on Starship Soto. Through the porthole, I saw silhouettes—my parents?—standing against a brighter-than-sun light. Mom and Dad were born before nannite revolution, when itty-bitty wonderbots surged through our bodies to elongate telomeres, degrade cancers, repair DNA, and accelerate healing. In other words, my parents aged. Died.

The silhouettes waved; I tried to reach for them, but out-of-body hallucinations don’t come with hands. The light intensified, and its radiance drank their bodies.

Does it always take this long?

Ten to sixty minutes.

This is an emergency! Throw water on her face!

Horrible idea, Cora.

Look! She’s scowling!

Are her eyes open? Bother me when that happens.

A face peered through dimming light: brown-black hair in a tight bun. Black eyes under thick, serious-looking eyebrows. Mouth pursed with watching-a-pot-boil concentration. Skin a warm ochre brown, adult-aged: could be anywhere from thirty to one hundred years old. Either ghosts resembled starship pilots, or I wasn’t actually dead. “Are you awake?” she—Cora—asked.

“Working on it.” My voice cracked twice. I hadn’t felt so thirsty since the water crisis of ’09.

“She’s awake! Can I take her?”

My pod was open, my restraints unlatched. None of the other passengers had been roused from stasis; the only person there besides Cora was a peeved-looking man with a virtual reality headset around his neck. “Wait,” he said. “I’m checking vitals. Get her water and explain the situation.”

“Sorry,” Cora said, bounding to a water dispenser across the room. “Doctor Dottie King, we’re still five months away from Mars, and the dang puppy stasis pods malfunctioned, so we got forty-one dogs barking to high Pluto, and Pete—he’s the engineer—can’t get things working again. So—”

“Are the dogs okay?” I climbed out of the pod; Cora put a steadying hand on my arm and handed me a water bottle. I chugged the entire half liter.

“Probably,” she said, “but you should double check. And… well, we don’t know what to do! There are supplies in cargo—kibble cubes, beds, kennels, squeaky little toys—but this operation is one bad choice away from chaos.”

“Vitals check out,” the man said. “You’re clear to leave.”

I delicately removed Cora’s hand as we walked out the door. “What’s the staff situation?” I asked. “How many people can help?”

“Skeleton crew, Doc: just my copilot Lishana, Pete, and our stasis monitor, Vic’quell—you just met him.”

“Can we recruit other passengers? If I recall, there are several sleeping veterinarians and med techs on board.”

“Theoretically, but resources are tight—that includes space—and humans take priority.”

“So the dogs will suffer if too many people wake up?”

“Right! Speaking of suffering: liquids have to be recycled. How quickly can you potty train forty-one dogs?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Don’t worry. Pete and I will assist. Unfortunately, Vic can’t be distracted. Too much of a liability.”

“VR isn’t distracting?”

“You noticed, huh?” She threw up her shoulders; the movement was more passionate than a mere shrug. “Blame bureaucracy. No worries. I’ll do the work of two people!”

“I somehow believe you.”

We turned a corner; the passage terminated at a sealed door. A thin, densely freckled man leaned against its hand wheel. The fine creases around his mouth deepened with anxiety.

“Pete,” Cora said. “I told you to wait inside animal bay. What gives?”

“It’s too much,” he said. “Woman, the last five minutes have made me a cat person.”

He turned the wheel; as the door cracked, a flood of yaps and whines swept into the corridor. The egg-shaped doggy stasis pods had opened, exposing forty wiggling Chihuahuas and a blue-eyed husky, his irises like glacial ice. The husky keened; they’re a chatty breed, prone to howling, barking, and shrill vocalizations that mean everything from “pay attention to me” to “I said pay attention to me, damn it!”

“Move kennels in here,” I said. “Cleaning and caring will be a full-time job; remember that dogs like routines. Playtime can happen in shifts of twenty animals—”

“I’m going to unpack supplies from storage,” Pete said. “Good luck, Cora.”

“Don’t forget water dispensers!” I called after him. “Also, remember my medical supplies! Thanks! Hey, Pete? Can you hear me?”

From the corridor, he shouted, “Got it!”

“Cora?”

“Roger, Doc?”

“Who ordered the husky for a Martian settlement?”

“What’s wrong with huskies?”

“They’re an energetic breed.”

“I dunno who bought him, but they paid handsomely; he’s worth more than all forty chi-chis. With that money, I could purchase a house in the decent part of town.”

“What town?” I asked. Cora had an accent I couldn’t place; it was probably from off-Earth. Orbiting cities, with one foot in their founding nations and the other in the starry frontier, had a knack for cultivating unique phonologies.

“Any of them,” she said. “I’m not picky.”

“Right. Well, until we land, Blue Eyes will be your responsibility. Keep him close.”

“Doc, no! I’ll get attached and be really sad when we land.”

“Your choice: one big dog, or forty teeny ones.”

“Husky it is! What should I name him?”

“All mine will be Né łe,” I said. “Dog.”

“I prefer Conan. Here, boy.” She unstrapped Conan lowered him to the ground. With a shrill yawn-whine combo, he affectionately leaned against Cora’s legs.

“Suits him,” I said. “Time for routine checkups. Sick bay?”

“Right this way!”

I plucked a black Chihuahua from his pod and followed Cora; the metal floor clanged beneath her boots and clacked under Conan’s nails. In contrast, I moved silently, barefoot. Waffle-shaped ridges underfoot bit my skin. My soles had gone plush after years in compression socks and supportive clogs. I tread mindfully, afraid to stumble and traumatize the Chihuahua. He huddled against my chest, squinting at the motion-activated light strips on the walls.

“This is it,” Cora said. She opened a sliding door so quickly, it clanged. Sick bay had three examination tables and a tech resource center. Sealed cabinets along the wall contained equipment and medicines. With my portable kit, I’d make do. Heartbeats are heartbeats; you can use the same stethoscope on people and dogs. It is, however, more difficult to convince a dog to sit still.

“Let the marathon begin,” I said. When I carried the Chihuahua to an exam table, he kicked his legs, as if treading water in the air.

“I think he’s confused,” Cora said.

“Not unusual for his breed. Thermometer, please!”

Forty-one clean bills of health later, Cora, Conan, twenty dogs, and I relaxed in the observation deck. Its outer video wall projected more stars than I’d ever seen before: the view behind Starship Soto. Among them, Earth shone the faintest shade of blueish white. Born in landlocked Utah, I rarely visited the ocean. Beaches were too crowded, windy, and hot. However, from afar, I admired the radiant sea.

“Why Mars, Doctor?” Cora asked. She was doing sit-ups, despite Conan’s best efforts to eat her ponytail. I’d stopped counting her reps after three hundred and fifty. How many sit-ups could a human body tolerate, anyway? Maybe Cora had cybernetic abs. It was impossible to tell under her bulky white tracksuit.

“Eh?” I asked. “Why not?” I threw a monkey-shaped toy, and four Chihuahuas latched onto its squeaky limbs.

“Where I’m from, people play the lottery for a chance to live on au naturale Earth.”

“I didn’t live on natural anything. Houston is a towering concrete behemoth. Might as well be in an orbiter.”

“You could still travel, though. Visit parks. The Gulf.”

“Sure.”

“Mars is nine months away from all that.”

“It’s away from lots of things. I needed a change.”

“Personal issues?” She paused mid-sit, all her attention focused on me and the blanket of Chihuahuas warming my lap.

“Yeah,” I said. “Especially one named Addie.”

It’s never easy to end a ten-year relationship, but few things are more awkward than a breakup in virtual reality. The simulated bench Addie chose for our “we need to talk” moment overlooked a forest trail that shone like the Vegas Strip. Illuminated VR ads, each tailored for my career, sauntered back and forth in the guise of pedestrians wearing sandwich boards. One blinking sign caught my eye:

NOBODY KNOWS BARBODIES LIKE WE DO! PET-PRESERVER MAKES CALICO CLONES!

Clever pun.

“Sorry, Dottie,” Addie said. “This conversation can’t wait.” Four months earlier, her company—satellite city engineering—sent her to their swanky branch on Orbiter Lux. Ostensibly a temporary position. Sadly, she loved the off-world accommodations. Me? I didn’t care how many hydroponic gardens or ambient noise generators an orbiter contained; it was a scary chunk of metal. Meteoroid deflectors malfunctioned? Radiation shield weakened? Gravity failed? Baddie carried a bomb on board? Catastrophe!

“This is almost like reality,” I said. Addie’s VR avatar was taller and more symmetric than her physical self; I found it disconcerting. Granted, my avatar had a pair of ram horns and feathered wings.

“Did you remember to buy ad blockers?” she asked. Clearly, Addie couldn’t see the street performer twirling a sign that promised: NATURAL INGREDIENTS = HAPPIER DOGS! SHEPHARD KIBBLE DOES NOT USE GMOs OR TEST TUBE MEAT!

“Mmmhm.”

“It’s not easy to say this,” she continued. “You’re a wonderful woman, but …”

INTUITANKS COME WITH OPTIONAL FISH CAMS!

“… you’ve worked in every hellhole in North America, but draw the line at an orbiter? We have different priorities …”

LEARN PARAKEET PSYCHOLOGY.

“Goodbye, Dottie.”

Neon letters, halo bright, rose over Addie’s head. A VR man had lifted his sandwich board, desperate to share the message: MARS NEEDS VETERINARIANS! COMPETITIVE SALARIES, INCOMPARABLE ADVENTURE! APPLY TODAY!

Bittersweet memories—Addie sharing my cream soda, Addie strumming a lute, Addie bowling, Addie kissing, Addie, Addie, Addie!—were replaced with visions of the red frontier. I imagined visiting dome-encapsulated hostels that overlooked the empty Ophir Chasma. There’d be warm earth underfoot—not Earth-earth, but close enough. Could I manage the first animal clinic on Mars? Support a burgeoning pet population? First dogs and then cats and then potbellied pigs! Goats, bison, passenger pigeons: dense flocks migrating through engineered skies. I’d build a paradise, one better than the home I lost as a child.

“Goodbye, Darling,” I agreed.

Tactfully, I explained the breakup to Cora, “Addie and I had different goals in life. She wanted to live in Orbiter Lux, and I simply can’t live in Orbiter Lux. There’s no work for veterinarians! The only pets allowed are self-sustaining ecosystems: bacteria, GMO fish, and plants in sealed glass terrariums. We split amicably.”

“Relationships are tough,” Cora said, moving to a recliner beside me. The black Chihuahua, who’d been monopolizing its plush seat, relocated to her lap. “I once dated another pilot. Great chemistry, but we were too competitive. I called it off after my third speed violation.”

“That’s not good for my nerves.”

“They were solo missions, Doc! I’d never put a civilian at risk!”

“Just teasing.” I regarded the swathe of universe projected on the wall. “You were a lot of help today. Thank you.”

“Are you kidding? I’d pay to goof around with forty puppies. It’s awesome! Right, Doodles?” She poked the donut-shaped Chihuahua on her lap.

“You named him?”

“I named all of them.”

As time passed, the daily dog routine—playtime, feeding, kennel cleaning, training, playtime, feeding, bedtime—staved off cabin fever. Cora’s personality helped, too. She wasn’t like the other skeleton crew. Vic lived in VR, only emerging to eat or shower. Pete did help with most dog chores, but he rarely strung more than ten words together. In contrast, Cora chatted insistently, and I wondered how she would have survived the trip without my company.

On the ninth day of doggy daycare, I finally asked, “How often do you do this?”

“What?” she said. “Grooming?” Cora combed a long-haired Chihuahua, its wavy coat glistening under the tangle-proof brush.

“Interplanetary travel,” I clarified.

“This is my first trip. Don’t look so horrified. Lishana has nine flights under her belt. Plus, it’s all autopilot until landing, and I’m great at that. See, I normally fly shuttles between Earth and Diné Orbiter.”

“You’re Navajo?” I said. The Diné orbiter, a spool of residential and industry modules rotating around a zero-grav core, was sovereign Navajo territory, completely inhabited by Nation citizens or their guests. Among the first space colonies, it lacked the bells and whistles of newer models. “Sturdy enough,” Addie once said, “but nobody uses stacked models anymore. The gravity’s unreliable. Sometimes, it’s like walking on the moon, and other times, you’re fifty kilograms heavier than you should be.”

Cora unzipped her flight suit from neck to mid-chest; she wore a silver squash blossom necklace, its turquoise-embedded metal bright over her black tank top. “Yeah,” she said. “I never mentioned it?”

“Never. Are you on the lam?”

“Nothing that exciting.” She fluffed the Chihuahua’s cowlick and tied a pink bow around it. “I just wanted to know what a long haul feels like. The answer is: boring. Until this happened.”

“Lucky emergency.” Too lucky? I could accept the stasis pod failure. Dogs had never been transported to Mars before; new technology malfunctioned sometimes. But with five veterinarians on board, Cora chose me. I’m Lipan Apache, and though my tribe is markedly less centralized and powerful than the Navajo Nation, we have a lot in common. Matrilineal roots. Respect for wisdom and family. A history rife with suffering.

My expressive face betrayed me.

“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.

“It’s awfully convenient that you woke me up, considering all we have in common.”

“The lesbian thing? I had no idea, if that’s what you’re—”

“No! Our cultures.”

“Doc,” she said, “are you suggesting that I was motivated by a burning desire to pal around with another Native?”

“Were you?”

She squinted. “Let’s review your credentials. You have forty-seven years’ experience with small animal medicine. Volunteered in twenty-nine urban pounds. Patients and colleagues provided glowing recommendations. You’re thoroughly familiar with nannite biotech and ER techniques. There may be other vets on this ship, but you’re the most qualified. That’s why I chose you. Our repartee is just a perk.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Cora said. “When enough people look down on you, doubt takes root. It makes you question every accomplishment and blame success on luck or favors.” She zipped up the flight suit, hiding her squash blossom. I felt a flush of appreciation. A twinge of pain.

When she drew me into a quick hug, I felt her squash blossom press against my chest.

We passed evenings in the observation deck, betting our dessert rations over checkers. When Pete felt sociable, he projected movies on the wall and half-watched our game. Sometimes, even Vic joined us. There were minor setbacks. During week four, the thermal system malfunctioned, and temperatures dropped: 21 to 18 °C. I didn’t notice until the short-haired Chihuahuas began shivering and burrowing under their kennel blankies. Fortunately, there was an easy fix; we opened a crate of dog costumes—little tuxedos, dinosaur hoodies, superhero sweaters with handkerchief-sized capes—and they were the most fashionable dogs in space until Pete fixed the heat regulator.

After a few weeks, I forgot to worry.

Of course, that’s when a real crisis struck.

It happened during a jog around Starship Soto. The passenger-habitable area was shaped like a spinning ring; centrifugal force grounded us. The pilot’s cabin and several cargo carriers, all held steady within the gyroscope belly, were off-limits to anyone without zero-grav training.

“The simulated gravity here is just seventy percent Earth-strength,” Cora said, her voice steady as we lapped the ship. “I’ll be outta shape when I return home.”

“Huh. No wonder I can carry so many Chihuahuas at the same time.” I gulped a hungry breath, already winded after ten minutes. “Mars gravity is even weaker, right?”

“Sure is. You’ll feel like superwoman. By the way, will the doggy nannites protect them from bone loss?”

“They protect them from almost everything.” The nannites stopped bone degradation, cancer, tooth decay, and aging. There were no parasites on Mars. No puppies, either; all pets were sterile. That said, did Mars really need a superwoman veterinarian? It would be centuries before wildlife could survive outside the domes. I’d hoped to stake a claim on prime land, but since when did being first guarantee anything?

“No wonder the Mars dogs cost a fortune,” Cora said. “The ones on my orbiter rarely live past fifteen. It’s too expensive to engineer nannites for them all.”

“Orbiter Diné allows dogs?”

“One per family. That’s how I learned to tie a bow.” She jabbed a thumb at the five bow-bedecked Chihuahuas who scampered after us; Conan was ahead, leading the jog. He moved so quickly, I couldn’t see his feathered tail anymore. “What about you?” Cora asked, agilely leaping over a Chihuahua that veered in front of her path. “Obviously, you’re swimming in pets, but they belong to other people. Ever had your own?”

“Once,” I said. “On the family farm, we owned chickens, sheep, and a collie named Kirby. All lost after the urban relocation measure passed.” Cities were efficient; during the resource crises—no water, no food, no space—very few people could afford the country life.

“The U.S. government moved your family? You didn’t live on a rez?”

“My tribe never had one,” I said. “I’m descended from people who fought or fled the invasion. Isn’t it funny how ancient history still screws us over?”

“You don’t have to talk about the farm if it’s a sore spot.”

“I like remembering. Say, have I ever mentioned the… shoot! Look out!”

Rounding a bend in the corridor, we nearly stumbled over Conan. He lay on his side, body taut, as if his tail, legs, and head were stretched by invisible strings. “God!” Cora said. “What’s wrong? Help him, Dottie!” She dropped to her knees and cradled his head on her lap. His paws twitched, and he snapped at the air, frothing. I knew the symptoms well.

“It’s a seizure,” I said. “Don’t move.”

After a scramble down the corridor, I grabbed a diazepam injector from my emergency kit and returned, wheezing and fighting through twinges of runner’s cramp. As Conan twitched in Cora’s arms, I shot the medicine into his leg. His blue eyes turned to me; their dilated pupils resembled two frost-dusted pits.

“Why is this happening?” Cora asked.

“I don’t know.”

Once Conan stopped thrashing, we carried him to the medical bay. The Chihuahuas crowded our legs, squeak-yapping. “Oscar,” I said. “Rosie! Snowball! Doodlebug! Shoo! Go find Pete!” Only Doodlebug listened.

“They know that he’s dying!” Cora said, hugging Conan tenderly. “Dogs have a sixth sense!” She turned her head, hiding her tears from me.

“Nah. Chihuahuas are just pests. Put him on the table. He had a seizure; that’s not a death sentence. If it happens again, we’ll give him daily phenobarb. Easy treatment.”

“I thought all Mars dogs are healthy. Is it something I did?”

“Animals aren’t machines.” I checked Conan’s gums and listened to his heartbeat. His hips were aligned, his stomach felt right, and his eyes scrutinized my work, alert. “Life is complex in unpredictable ways, Cora. It changes and surprises.” I scratched Conan behind his ears, pleased to see his tail wag. “He’s healthy. Well. Aside from the possible epilepsy. Poor boy. Are you okay? Can I get you water?”

“No thanks. I need to visit the flight deck.”

“Right now?”

“His buyers must be informed.” She shook her head. “They won’t be happy, Dottie. Can you watch Conan until I get back?”

“Of course,” I said.

Pete and I crated the Chihuahuas—it was nearly bedtime, anyway—and I moved Conan to my closet-sized personal room for observation. Though I put his dog bed on the floor, he hopped onto my narrow bunk, curling in a furry donut at the foot. “Cora spoils you,” I said. His ears perked up. “What, you miss her already? It won’t be long.”

Actually, a knock on my door woke us five hours later. “It’s me!” Cora called. “Is Conan alive?”

“You can’t hear him barking?” I slipped a robe over my pajamas and opened the door. “What’s the verdict?”

Cora barely managed a half-shrug. She zombie shuffled into my room and slumped on the bed.

“Come in,” I said. “Make yourself at home.”

“Sorry. It’s bad. The buyers requested a different pup.”

I turned off the ambient cricket sounds that had been chirping through my intercom and sat between Cora and Conan. “That’s what I was worried about. For his price tag, they expect perfection.”

“He is perfect.” She grabbed my hand firmly. A shade darker than mine, it felt noon sun warm. “What’s going to happen?”

“He’ll find a new home,” I said, “with somebody who loves him. Like you.”

Her posture straightened as we basked in contemplative silence; Cora was probably planning his homecoming on Orbiter Diné. All the kilometers they’d jog together, all the toys he’d rip apart. When she spoke, however, the subject surprised me. “Before the seizure, you were going to tell me something. What?”

It took a moment to gather my memories. “I’m not spiritual. Don’t believe in gods, ghosts, or divine retribution. It’s hard enough to have faith in people. But …”

Her hand was still on mine, our fingers entwining. It took a moment, but I eventually recognized that not-quite-platonic intimacy wove our touch, and I did not want to pull away. In fact, I wanted more.

Usually, when I fell for somebody, I fell fast. Maybe that’s why I hate rollercoasters. Just five minutes after Addie introduced herself, I gave her my VR ID number and thought, “If she doesn’t call tonight, I’ll cry!” Cora was different. Her gravity pulled me gradually, gently. Unlike the darlings in my past, I grew fond of Cora without infatuation magnifying her positive qualities. Who knows why our relationship progressed so strangely. Maybe she was special. Perhaps the yapping, needy Chihuahuas stalled our romance. Either way, Cora’s warm hand felt nice.

Blushing, I continued, “…something special happened when I was a child. It makes me entertain notions like destiny.”

“What?” Cora asked. So told her my story.

I was eleven years old, home alone, when I heard shrill cluck-screams, the kind chickens make as they’re dying. I charged outside with my baseball bat. A coyote stood beside the coop—little coop, just enough for thirty birds—with a chicken in his mouth, a white silkie that I hand-raised from the egg. The coyote stared at me. I thought of owls: bad luck, owls. They also have yellow irises, like headlights bearing down on you, a warning or a threat.

Worried that he’d escape with Silkie, I lowered my bad and said. “Put. Her. Down.” Kirby always responded to a firm tone, yet I scarcely expected the coyote to listen.

Tricksters are unpredictable.

He opened his mouth, and Silkie fell onto hard-packed dirt with a cluck-shriek. Blood matted her downy feathers; something solid and ropey dangled from her belly. I screamed. Couldn’t help it. With a snort, the coyote licked his wet muzzle and trotted away.

I rushed Silkie to the kitchen and placed her in the sink. Mom sliced vegetables in the metal basin, so we kept it fastidiously clean. As if exhausted by the attack, Silkie quietly allowed me to part her wispy feathers and examine the injuries, four gashes. The most serious wound had freed a loop of intestine; gently, I tucked it back inside her body. What else could I do? My parents had no money for a veterinarian house call.

Silkie thrashed once. If she moved too quickly, her innards might fall out again. She needed stitches.

I found a needle and nylon beading thread in Mom’s clutter bin. We kept bacteria-kill spray under the sink; I used it to disinfect everything: my hands, the needle, the thread, even the blood-matted feathers. Silkie didn’t even cluck when I rolled her over and pinched her injury shut. “It’ll hurt a little,” I said. “Sorry.” I could feel her fluttering pulse under my fingers, her little body’s warmth. The needle reflected sunlight, a glint of silver light shooting from my fingertips. I worked quickly to spare us both anxiety. Five stitches closed the wound; just minutes later, Silkie was tottering around the kitchen, clucking and ruffling her wings

Three years later, when my parents told me that I could take just one chicken to Houston, I chose Silkie. She sat on my blanket-draped lap as we left the farm, our life—all the life we could bring with us, anyway—packed in one van and a trailer. The coyote stood alongside the dirt road, his headlight eyes trained on mine.

I waved goodbye.

“That’s why you’re a veterinarian,” Cora said. “The coyote.”

“He certainly opened my eyes.” I extricated my hand and grabbed a pillow, burying my face in the cotton-wrapped foam.

“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.

“I’m not sure about Mars anymore.”

“Why not? The domes are gorgeous.”

“Because I didn’t become a doctor to twiddle my thumbs. Those nannite-hearty Chihuahuas don’t need me like Silkie did. This was a mistake. Never make big decisions during emotional rebounds!”

“A mistake?” Cora asked. “Or—don’t laugh—destiny?”

I lowered the pillow. “How so?”

“Animals have it rough on Orbiter Diné. We always need help.”

“I’m not sure I belong there.”

She threw up her shoulders in the passionate manner I knew well. “We have three weeks until landing. Plenty of time for decisions.” Cora stood, trailed by Conan. “Goodnight, Dottie,” she said.

That night cycle, I dreamed about the red desert, but home did not comfort me. I ached for company.

For Cora.

Landing an interplanetary starship is a gradual process. Sixty hours before touchdown, the gravity generator slowed. Six hours before touchdown, Chihuahuas were bouncing around like they had invisible rocket boosters on their backs. “It may be time to strap everyone down,” Cora said, plucking Doodlebug from the air before he smacked into the wall. “We can use the stasis pod restraints.”

“I’ll sedate them, too,” I said. “Er. What about me?”

“Rare honor, Doc! Lishana invited you and Conan to the flight room during descent! Don’t worry. We land slow.”

“Unless the ship crashes.”

“Hey! None of that!”

We wrangled puppies left and right, securing them in open pods. I gave each Chihuahua a fond pat on the head. “Good luck,” I said. “You little Martians!”

From the intercom, a voice boomed, “Three hours. Report to landing stations.”

“That’s us,” Cora said. She hoisted Conan with one arm and helped me maneuver through Starship Soto at ten percent Earth gravity. As we passed the observation deck entrance, I paused to admire its wall. Mars, a canyon-cracked, crater-pocked ball, loomed on the projection screen. From our vantage point, there were no signs of life. No breathing green blankets over loamy continents, no white shimmer in waters thick with glinting phytoplankton.

Nothing like the view of Earth.

I made my decision.

“I want to be awake during the nine-month return trip,” I said, “in case Conan has another seizure.”

“And after that?” Cora asked. “Where will you go?”

“Wherever I’m needed. The orbiter sounds promising.”

As we kissed, the last trace of gravity slipped away, and my feet escaped the metal ground. I felt—I was—weightless, unbound by anything but the memories I carried and the tender warmth against my lips. Cora and I parted when the intercom insisted, “Report to landing stations.”

Hand in hand, we turned our backs on Mars.

***

Dr. Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist and writer. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple places, including Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time (Nicholson, ed.), Strange Horizons, The Dark, Mythic Delirium, Lightspeed (POC Destroy Fantasy), Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Cicada Magazine. Darcie’s debut comic, “Worst Bargain in Town,” was published in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. She also has comics in Relational Constellation and Deer Woman: An Anthology by Native Realities. She can be reached on Twitter at @ShiningComic.

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