Authors: Greg Keyes
Footsteps in the Sky
DEDICATED TO TRACEY ABLA
In the world below this one, the people were unhappy. There was much corruption, and two-hearts were everywhere. The elders met in the kivas, discussing where else they might live.
“We have heard footsteps in the sky,” one of them said. “Someone must be there. Perhaps we can live there.”
So they sent several birds up, but all failed to find the source of the footsteps. At last they made a bird of their own, out of clay, and they sent him up. This was the catbird.
Catbird found the hole in the sky and above it a grey, featureless land. He found great fires burning, and in the light and heat of these fires grew fields of corn, squash, and melons. Catbird found a stone house and a person sleeping. Catbird waited patiently until the person woke up. This person was like a skeleton; his eyes were sunken deep into their sockets, he had no hair. He wore four strands of turquoise and four strands of bone. His voice was like the bone, dry and harsh.
“Why are you here? What is your business?” the person asked.
“I have come,” said Catbird, “to find the person who makes the footsteps we hear in the sky.”
“Those belong to me, Masaw,” said the person. “Those footsteps are mine. Do you not fear me?”
“Ah, no,” the Catbird replied. “I have just recently been created. I have not learned yet to fear. But I come to ask if the people below can live here, with you. They wish to escape the evil that infests the lower world.”
Masaw swept his thin, skeletal hands around him. His voice was a grating whisper.
“You see what is here. A grey world, barely formed, with no light. I must build fires to grow my crops. Your people would have to work very hard to live here. But there is land and water. If the people below are willingâwilling to live in such a hard place, to work to make it differentâthen they are welcome to come.”
That is what the god Masaw told Catbird, and that is what Catbird told the people below.
âFrom the Hopi Origin Legend
There is mercy only in sleep. The years splinter on our titanium spines, the tiny evils of hydrogen atoms chew at us gleefully. Within, capricious quanta betray us, take our minds and memories into chaos.
Awake, we can feel this. Asleepâwe just wake up a little less. Stupider.
I felt my new stupidity as we fell towards the orange light. Already I could make out the inner system dross; gas giants useful only for fuel, the sparkling belt of hydrogen and water crystals we pulled out from them so long ago. I knew assorted spheres and chunks of atmosphereless slag spun lazily below as well, though they were still too small to see. Nor could I yet see the farm.
I remembered it though. Even if I didn'tâif entropy had robbed me of that, tooâI would have known it. The three of us have six farms to take care of, and they all look the same.
The three of us. If I was stupid, how were the others?
Not too well.
Odatatek was beyond rational thought. Her spine still carried autonomic messages, and siblinged to us, she still functioned. She could even get through fairly simple logic problems, but cognition was lost to her.
Would that it were beyond me.
Hatedotik could still think, but what she thought worried me. She conceived of herself as a simple mechanical piston, in-and-out, ceaseless. There were no questions left in her, only a scorching certitude.
I grieved for them both, and for myself. We were all mad.
And, mad, we went to do our job.
Deep insideâin a place where I fancy myself a living thingâI created a place of gaseous oxygen and liquid water and began growing a little brother. By the time we reached the farm, he would be adult.
And down we went.
Pulverized stone crunched beneath Pela's thick-soled boots as she wound her way up the steep, charcoal slope. She leaned into her footprints, intent on making every ounce of her fifty-four kilos somehow work for her, though physics and plain common sense insisted that leaning forward did not help one move up.
Then again, if she leaned back, she would tumble down 200 meters of basalt rasp. She continued to lean.
At the top, Pela took a grateful breath, felt the blood throbbing in her legs and arms. With a well-earned sigh, she gingerly sat down, rocking her butt back and forth in the dense dust at the bluff's edge until her seat was comfortable. She eased out her canteen and savored a single mouthful of distilled water, still cool from the morning, felt the grit in her teeth from the climb. Her gaze walked out on yellow morning light, over the lazy, yawning valley below.
The blue snake of the Palulukang River wound confidently through the belly of the land, as if he had done the work, carved through the layers of stone, opened a wide, fertile bottom from the highlands to the dark, distant sea. But the river was young. Stronger, harsher forces than water had shaped the land here, and water only sought downhill. Still, Palulukang looked like he belonged.
Not so the misty green stain, darkest near the river but nevertheless filling the entire valley. Not from up here, at least, where it could be seen for what it was; a tiny oasis of verdure in a desert of black and red stone and the dark blue moss that dug so ferociously at it. But one day â¦
One day, the whole Fifth World would grow green.
The evidence was around her. Already the tenacious taproot dandelions were fighting the native plants for supremacy, here near the edge. Born up by thermals, the tough seeds found welcome in the nearly sterile soil, pushing their deep, spear-like roots into the rock below, drawing sustenance from the depths and exhaling oxygen into the earth. These were now in bloom, hand-sized yellow flowers bourn on thick, meaty stalks bigger around than her thumb. When they died they would quickly rot, courtesy of the specialized bacteria that lived symbiotically within them. They would add to the meager fund of organic matter on the plateau until organisms with richer appetites could supplant them.
She noted absently that the fire clover she had sown last trip was making a good start as well.
Yes, today the valley, tomorrow the plateau. Her plateau. She would live to see grass and trees up here, if Masaw so willed.
Pela had mixed feelings about that. There was a reason she took these trips on foot. She loved to wander the outback, as austere and melancholy as it was. The black and red plain stretched level and far, blotched with the persistent cyan mosses, skirt trees, weirdness andâmost of allâpromise of mystery. Her people would kill one beauty to make another.
She shouldered her pack, stood, put her back to the civilized world. Today she would go to the black giants she could see on the horizon, probably camp there tonight. The ancient volcanic cores were still home to many of the more complex native plants, including whiskyberry. It would be good to find some whiskyberry.
And, maybe this time, some sign of the Kachina.
That thought always brought an odd mixture of awe, betrayal, and skepticism. As a little girl, the Kachina spirits had been very real to her; they danced into town during the ceremonies, brought her presents, punished her when she was bad. They watched from overhead, too, warned the People when a fierce wind or rain was nigh, when the volcanoes to the south were belching. She adored them and feared them, the colorful dancers, the stars in the sky that moved faster than the wheel of night.
She would never forget when she became a woman, and the truth stood naked before her. The fierce Whipping Kachinaâthe punisher who had made her burn with shame and fearâbereft of his horrific mask, he was her mother's brother. As were the others, all of them. Cousins, grandparentsâolder friends. Lies on two legs, and everyone older than her was involved.
The Kachina in the sky were lies, too. Made of metal and silicon, they were satellites that orbited the Fifth World unceasingly. But made by people, just like the masks.
Oh, it had been explained to her that these people and these machines were merely the conduits for the real Kachina, powerful and distant amongst the stars. But the feeling of betrayed wonder had ruined them for Pela. The more she learned, the more she doubted, and when she went down into Salt to go to school, she met lowlanders who didn't even pretend to believe in the powerful, beneficent spirits.
Father Sun was quickening the horizon gold and purple before Pela reached the black columns. Hurrying, lest she be caught without light, she scrambled up a way she knew, gaining elevation over the darkling plain. Before the blazing in the sky quieted she had her view, renewed her faith. Savored belief again, though it was a meal flavored with the ash of skepticism.
There, beyond the basalt titans, coming night filled a vast bowl with shadow. This crater had birthed the billion billion tons of ash and crushed rock that covered the plain, which even now choked the River during floods, fifty thousand years after her savage labor. A piece of the sky bigger than all of the mesa city had struck there, filled the heavens with dirt. And not just in this place; at school she had learned that there were sixty such impact craters on the planet's surface, and evidence was good that they had all been made simultaneously.
Pela unpacked her tent and began setting it up in the little cove she had used before. Her thick, hard hands worked quickly, surely, but her thoughts were on the stars.
There was other evidence. For five billion years, the Fifth World had been a place unfit for human life. The atmosphere had been an oven of carbon dioxide, the surface a layer cake of lava flows and metamorphic rock. Then the monsters had fallen from space. Not much laterâthe geologists said a thousand yearsâthere was oxygen and water. And life. Single celled at first, but within another thousand years a hundred species of plants and small animals to live in the newly-created soil.
The universe did not work so, on its own. For fifty thousand years someone had labored to make the Fifth World ready for the Hopitu-Shinumu, the Well-Behaved People.
Somewhere, beyond the masks, beyond the satellites, perhaps beyond the winking stars themselves, the Kachina lived. And some day they would return.
And so, she thought, truth nested within truth, revealed as a lie only until one knew more.
Shadow spilled from the bowl and fell in a swift sheet from the east. Pela set up her alcohol stove, for heat rather than to cook on. She was just considering whether to sleep or watch the stars when she remembered the whiskyberry bush that grew just beyond the jutting stone to her left. She flicked on her torch and walked over to find it.
Whiskyberries were always in bloom and they always had fruit. She smiled at the stubborn plant, its barrel-body, flowers and fruit protruding like pink and black knobs. She pulled a handful of the nodules and bit one open. The taste was sharp, smoky, and its fire ran up her nose before her tongue was even aware of it.
As she bit the second, the juice from the first quietly incandesced in her belly.
Better not to eat too many, she considered. But she loved whiskyÂberries. Other of the native plants produced purer alcohol, but they had no flavor.
Alcohol had been the main problem with the planet. Free oxygen was available, yes, but almost no nitrogen and alcohol fumes so thick that no mammal could live in it. The native animalsâor the worms that passed as animalsâmetabolized the alcohol. There had even been little Dragonfly things that sucked in fumes like ramjets as they whirred along. Pela had never seen most of these. They had died early in the terraforming process, eliminated by soldier viruses built from their own cells. But a fewâlike the plants that produced fuel for bikes, cars, hovercraft, and heatâwere saved. And a few that had more entertaining virtues.
Like whiskyberry. Pela sucked two more and smiled a silly smile up at the heavens. The stars remained pretty but assumed the peculiar flatness that came with intoxication.
Night painted her dark brush-strokes across the sky, and the flat stars brightened. Pela squinted once more, standing despite wobbly, uncooperative knees to see the landscape vanish. Her land, come to her from her mother and from her mother's mother. Everything she could see was her responsibility, her charge. It wasn't fertile and wet, like the river valley; no one envied her yet.
But they would envy her daughter, if she ever had one. Oh, yes, Pela would see to that. Despite her qualms, this desert would bloom with grain, run lousy with rabbit, deer, and coyote. Cornbrakes would drink the thin streams that stuttered down the slopes to the valley. Her daughter would have respect, not just as a member of the Sand clan, but as Pela's daughter.
If, of course, she ever had a daughter.
And so Pela did just what she had been avoiding. She thought about Tuve.
“Piss on you,” she muttered, and bit savagely into another whiskyÂberry. She knew she wasn't the nicest looking woman on the mesa. But she wasn't ugly. There were men who found her broad mouth and wide dark eyes sensuous. They told her so. And if her thick, strong body wasn't that of a young girl, it was that of a woman who would not breakâor even bendâin the throes of passion. Tuve knew that, first hand.
Maybe he was playing games with her. Tuve was a child that way. Maybe he wanted to see how much she wanted him.
Let him see. She could stay up here a long time before she cooled off. Long enough for him to realize that a little girl like Sia could not do much for him, not in the Fifth World.
She caught a flare of light in the heavens. A meteor? It was big. It flashed brighter, seemed to fairly explode, and vanished, leaving a magenta and blue tracer in her eyeballs. Pela caught her breath, her drunken heart pounding madly in her chest. Her thought had been a jolt of pure terror. Another world shaker, like the one that made the great craters. â¦ Her imagination painted the brilliant flash, the breath of wind that would engulf her like molten lead.
Silly drunk, she thought, and bit into another berry.
And so when the shadow blotted the stars, when four steel legs chuffed into the gravelly soil, Pela lay curled on her side, snoring faintly.
By the time the little brother was actually dead, I knew what had killed it. The atmospheric chemistry was wrong.
I felt remorse for dooming the little brother, though I had naturally grown him without much of a brain to spare him fear. He wasn't even needed; spectral and reactive analysis revealed almost immediately that the air was too rich in oxygen, to low in saturated alcohol vapor and carbon dioxide. The little brother starved, his enrichment gills fluttering in vain.
I assured myself that I couldn't have known; the atmospheric problems might have been very subtle, might have required an autopsy to understand. I could not have counted on the difficulty being of such a very coarse nature.
That wasn't my thought. I could tell because it was slightly blue-shifted. Also, as distance and time had decomposed us, each in our own way, we had become different in our communication styles. We were now more like three separate beings than parts of any whole. No, that thought belonged to my sister, Hatedotik.
And though I knew that Hatedotik was right, I had Etadotetak for the life forms down there.