The Queen of Mars walks at ease. She keeps her head bowed as if nodding to those that pass. Her shoes scuff the asphalt. At a dumpster, she raises the lid in hope, but it is empty. Further down, past the Venice sign, closer to the beach, she finds trash cans full of discarded food. Her hair, matted and grey, falls over her face as she reaches inside. Her fingers catch a bag of fries, then part of a burrito wrapped in paper. Straightening, she notices a smear of ketchup in her hair. The Queen of Mars strains it out with her fingers and wipes it on her jeans, then licks what remains from her thumb. The tang of it pleases her and she smiles. Her hands tremble.
On the red planet, the Queen of Mars trembles, her body quaking uncontrollably. Her breath rasping into her mask. A red stain is smeared across her pressure suit and it is not the planet’s ferrous dust. Nor is it ketchup. She quakes and she cries. And his body is so, so light she can gather it into her arms and stand.
The Queen of Mars stands at the top of the mound of dirt and smiles. She is small and young, but tanned. Her limbs coltish. The earthen pile is taller than her, taller than the boys around her. The boys below her. It crumbles as they climb.
—I’m the queen of the castle, she says. And the others charge the hill. She has the advantage of higher ground.
A woman gasps as she passes, and the Queen of Mars hears her whisper to her companion.
—Oh my god, was that that woman? The astronaut? The one from the Peregrine?
—Can't be. She's dead, isn't she? he says. She'd be, like, eighty by now...
They move out of range of her hearing. The Queen of Mars is surprised to be remembered. Most do not see her, now. And sometimes, when they do, she wonders if she imagined it.
We can see you, Peregrine. Telemetry looking good, squawks the radio.
—Looking good, says Rayda, his voice attenuating over the comms. Sexy!
She snorts. He’s below her as she performs repairs to the communications array. The spacewalk suits are nearly as bulky and white as they were for the Apollo astronauts a century ago. There isn’t anything for him to look at.
—They can hear you, you know, she says.
Roger that. We can hear you, chirps mission control.
She laughs so hard at this, she loses her grip and floats there, held by the tether until she can pull herself back. Together, they re-enter the Peregrine’s airlock.
When her helmet is off, he strains forward to kiss her, barely able to get close enough with the suit still on. Johnson’s face moons in through the small window, then eye-rolls, turns away. The comms are off now.
—Six months ago, you could barely stand me, she says.
—I still can't. But six months in this tin can? I’d have anyone.
His eyes gleam.
—You're so sweet. You always know what to say.
—When we get down there, I will make you Queen of Mars.
She looks at him for a moment, a smile playing about her lips.
—And you’ll be King? she asks.
—I am but a humble prince, he says.
—More of a duke, I think. Besides, I’m not sure you have the authority. What will StarBlue say? It's their mission.
—I don't care, says the boy, his face streaked with dirt. You can’t. You can’t be a queen.
—Well, I am, she says.
The boy below her examines the dirt on his arms, under his fingernails.
—That’s stupid. You’re not playing it right.
The Queen of Mars says nothing. The boy stares at her in defiance.
—Are you saying you think you played it right? That the mission was the right decision, after everything that happened?
The interviewer’s face, once welcoming, has gone hard. Her eyes a challenge. The Queen of Mars has seen that look before. Seen entire crowds with expressions like that. The ones that picketed StarBlue. Picketed her. Before the disaster and after.
Now, after all that she has lost, after who she has lost — even though StarBlue has paused its exploration programme, they still picket the events she attends. They still post angry messages to their insular chat groups. To her.
They are angry. They have lost, too. Lost livelihoods. Lost houses to flooding. Lost loved ones to hurricanes and storm-surges. The blue Earth going grey and muddy brown. The interviewer is just one more spear-point directing their anger toward her.
—I was an astronaut, she says. Not management. Not StarBlue.
—You were looking for Planet B, says the woman.
—No, says the Queen of Mars. Just looking. Just looking.
—Billions of dollars, says her sister, her hands waving, face pinched. Billions!
She is staring at the message on her laptop.
—StarBlue still has billions of dollars, and they’re cutting your benefits. You survived something no one ever should have survived, and they expect you to get by on this? Don't they even remember what you accomplished? You were a fucking hero.
Her sister slaps the screen, and the laptop rocks dangerously backward. The cat rises from its place, hops onto the table and sprawls across the keyboard as if to stabilise it.
—I was just a survivor. No one remembers a survivor.
She hates this conversation, but there is nowhere to go to escape it. The apartment is small. They tell each other it is big enough for the two of them. Big enough for two women in their sixties and a cat. Perhaps this is what everyone expects in the end — that women take up less and less space as they get older. Require less food. Less money. Less attention. Less. The Queen of Mars has learned to expect less of the world, as it expects less of her.
Her sister winces, touches the spot where it pains her. She is eating less, and the Queen of Mars worries. She worries that her sister is shrinking. Becoming smaller to give her more room. They have no other family, now. Few living friends — none with means. Only themselves, Outside the door, it is only indifferent crowds, the worsening climate, the dying birds and frogs and insects. The rising bills. The rising anger. The rising ocean.
The Queen of Mars rises from her bunk, Rayda still squeezed against the cold bulkhead, wrapped in sheets, grinning at her. His eyes are like stars. She feels aglow. Like something is swelling in her chest. Like she is the very expansion of the universe itself. An ever-widening possibility. It fills her and makes her nothing all at once. She looks at him and she feels this, and tries not to think about what it means.
Their courtship aboard the Peregrine — this shared space, this zero-g environment, with three other astronauts in close proximity — has been public, cramped, and difficult. But it does not matter because soon they will arrive. The red planet looms ever larger in the windows. Large enough for the five of them to stretch out. To put more than one-hundred-and-fifty metres between them. Soon they will have a habitat. A month to roam and study. An empty planet to themselves. The Kestrel launch-vehicle, even smaller than the Peregrine, is already waiting there to take them home. The Peregrine lander will be disassembled to help expand the habitat built by a previous mission.
She does not relish the idea of another seven months in space. But the promise of being on Earth with Rayda is a beacon. To go out without pressure suits. To breathe the air. To watch a movie in a theatre. To lie in a bed and let gravity pull them into its mattress. Eat a burrito on the beach.
The Queen of Mars swallows the leftover burrito but her throat is parched, and it goes down like sandpaper, sits heavily in her gut. She imagines her stomach a dry place. Dry as the red planet. Dry as Venice beach after the sea-wall went up. A beach without water. It’s the same in every coastal city, now — every place a copy of New Orleans hunkering down behind dykes.
Three men, still practically boys, walk together on the boardwalk, laughing. They are tanned, sauntering. All bravado. It seems familiar, but she is uncertain. Things get confusing sometimes. She turns toward the sea-wall, feels her feet sink into the remaining beach, the sand rising around her flip-flops. She wishes she could see the ocean. The men walk behind her.
The boys look at one another. Something passes between them, and they circle the mound of dirt. She waits for what is coming.
When it comes she is not ready for it. The doctors say there is nothing they can do. She had thought her sister would be back in a day or two. They'd called her a fighter. Said it so many times that she'd begun to believe it. In the earlier stages, the were treatments her sister could have tried. Successful treatments. But they couldn't afford them — not her, not her sister. And now there is nothing they can do. Nothing anyone can do. The fight is lost.
Then, her sister is gone, and the Queen of Mars is alone in the world. No one to gently tease her, calling her Your Majesty. No one take her phone away from her and speak into it, saying, The Queen of Mars no longer does interviews, and hang up, her face taut with annoyance. No one to protect her. No one for her to protect.
And in time, she finds it has all gone: the remaining money, her name on the lease, even the cat — which died some years before. And here she is, blinking into the piercing sun on an L.A. sidewalk, clutching a sports-bag full of clothes and toiletries. Searching her phone for a women's shelter that can give her a cot for the night.
The Queen of Mars is caught off guard. She is transfixed by the sight of the red planet, by its dry rock and sand, with more colours and shades than she'd imagined. It is an endless beach without water.
She stands far from the lander taking her first photos, the others unloading tools, rovers, equipment, food. The return rocket, the Kestrel, stands like a silver needle on its distant pad, almost a kilometre away. And she is there alone.
She had hoped they wouldn't pay attention. So few do. She is used to the invisibility, used to the world forgetting her. But not these men. They circle with intent. They surround her on the beach, laughing. They look at her. They do not see her, but they look at her.
The first boy up reaches as he gets to the top of the hill. But he is still too low. His reaching hands throw him off balance, send him flopping face-first at her feet. And as he struggles to stand in the shifting dirt, she falls to her hands and knees, places a palm against his head like a benediction, and shoves.
Without a shred of warning, the Peregrine lander explodes.
Billions of dollars, and it explodes. Billions of dollars and it is undone by some microscopic flaw. Some miscalculation. Some decimal point. Some high-energy particle. Some StarBlue bean-counter cutting back. No one ever finds out.
The blast is almost silent in the thin atmosphere, but it hits like a train.
Pain spears through her as the first man’s kick connects with her gut. She doubles over. The second kicks her legs out from under her.
The boy tumbles backward, arms reaching out into space.
The blast catches her from behind and lifts her in the low gravity, flinging her cartwheeling over the dust. Cargo, metal, supply containers go singing past. White-suited bodies thrown, buckled and torn.
Their shirtless bodies hunch over her, kicking again and again as she crumples to the beach.
The boy falls ever backward toward the slope of the mound.
She squeezes her eyes closed. The universe contracts.
And then everything is still again.
The three men, satisfied, have run off laughing.
The fallen boy begins to cry, his head bleeding. The others flee to tell their mothers.
And so the Queen of Mars rises.
She rises from the dirt. From the sand. From the red dust.
They are dead, her crew. All but her. Bodies shattered, suits ruptured, lungs gasping their last in the paltry air. Rayda in a broken heap. She folds him into her arms, her prince, her duke, gathers him toward herself as if she could trap his life in the cup of his body. She cannot feel his heat, cannot hear if he is gasping for breath, cannot kiss his bluing lips. But she feels those last twitches of life, those firing nerves, and the movements seem to spill into her. She begins to shiver, then quake — her body spasming with it. Her tears are too light in the low gravity, pooling in her lashes.
Blood spills from the torn nylon of Rayda's suit. It spills onto dust that has never seen blood. What will the red planet make of this, she wonders. What can it do but add red to red. Iron to iron?
The Earth? The Earth knows what to do with blood. Hers drips now from her lips and nose to the beach. She cannot see from one eye. She tests her limbs. She can move them, but it is painful. She gathers herself up. Takes a steadying breath.
Rayda’s body is so light in her arms, it seems empty. The Kestrel is a kilometre away, and she will walk the distance there and back over and over — a different body in her arms each time. Rayda goes last.
He is breathing, this boy, bloodied but breathing. And he winces as she scrambles down the mound to stand over him.
—I’m the Queen, she says. Say it.
He does. And she feels no better for it.
Queen? Queen? Do you read? squawks the radio. And she stares at it. They don’t know this name, this title. They can’t know. Rayda never told anyone. Not mission control.
But then it dawns. It is her name: Quinn. The man at mission control, the way he says it, an accent she cannot place. Quinn. Queen. Queen of Mars.
Quinn? Airman Quinn, are you there? Is the Kestrel prepped for crisis-launch?
She buckles-in the bodies of her silent crew.
—I’m here, she replies. Prepped for launch. Initialising sys-check. Ready to return.
But when she returns from the hospital, she has no one. Not even the cat. No one at StarBlue wants to know her, now. After the flurry of press and the endless inquiries, they didn’t want to be reminded of the grisly cargo she'd returned with. Of the red-brown stain on that white pressure suit that she wore for seven months. No one out there wants to be reminded of what happened. How future space missions lost all support, public and private. How the funding dropped out as the storms got worse. No one wants to be reminded of what is coming, or even how bad it is now.
—No one remembers we went to Mars, she says to no one.
Still, the Queen of Mars helps the boy up before she walks home. She has decided to become an astronaut.
The Queen of Mars wipes her bloodied face. She straightens, and carries herself with dignity to the sea-wall. There, she ascends the stairs, and slips down the other side. The government signs warn her to turn back. But the tide is low, and she can stand on the shore.
There it is. The ocean. Blue and hungry. The water washes her feet. She steps in deeper. Walks at ease.
The Queen of Mars lands on the red planet and waits for the lander door to open, the crew behind her like a retinue. As the hatch slides open, the red glow reflected from the regolith lights her face.
The water is up to her thighs now. She feels clean. New. The sun gleams.
Rayda takes her hand, but lets her descend the ramp ahead so that she will be the first. The first of their crew. The first woman on the red planet.
The ocean, like her memories, sparkles and blurs. Her stomach knots painfully. She is alive. The air is cold despite the suit’s heating coils. The water churns now around her belly. Her feet sink into the red dust. Her tangled hair floats on the water. She’s never seen anything so red and dry. Anything so wet and blue. The horizon is so large and so distant. It is so near and so red. She pushes further forward, moving toward one of those two horizons that are waiting for us all. ◼︎