THE FOURTH WORLD
by Evelyn Deshane
This was the happiest she’d ever been.
The sky was black, pinpricked by stars. The volatile O’Hara nebula licked back at her in a haze of purple and gold. She reached out her gloved hand in an attempt to touch, but she was too far away. The hollow echo of space was disrupted by the radio crackle in her suit. She waited, but no one from the base broadcasted anything to her. She was the only one on Jonquil’s surface, a nearly-barren planet filled with sickly looking yellow rocks. When Jenna’s niece had been born, the only time she was allowed to see her was when the infant’s skin glowed yellow like this. Jaundice. Meant her blood was too full of bilirubin, discolouring her skin and eyes. It was ugly, horrifying to see in the hospital room, under the already harsh lights. Jenna picked up a handful of the rocks on Jonquil’s surface, crumbling them inside her hand like dust. The colour was no longer ugly or sickly, but beautiful. These rocks could be smelted on a separate space station and used for battery packs. The research suggested it was a better alternative to what they were using for their radios and video transmissions. The university needed more samples so they could run tests. Jenna picked up another handful and added it to her sample bag to her side. Between each scoop, she looked at the O’Hara nebula. The stars. They bathed her in shimmering light, which she was sure could—
The radio crackled next to her. She dropped a handful of the rocks and cursed.
“Jenna. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Was in a zone, though. What do you need?”
“How many more until you fill the bag?” Brad Cooper, her sergeant, asked. “Cap says we gotta wrap this up.”
Jenna gazed wearily at her pouch. “Full. Nearly.”
“Good. Grab another couple handfuls from piss rock island then waddle back over to the ship. We gotta blast.”
Jenna sighed. “Yeah, sure. Ten minutes max.”
“Sure, see you then.” The radio crackled as Brad clicked a button. Breathy laughter followed, the button not disconnecting them. “So it’ll be at least twenty minutes. We better get some cards for entertainment.”
“What do you mean?” Selina, another PhD from the university, asked.
“Women,” Brad said, “they’re always late.”
Jenna furrowed her brows as she gripped the transfer pod’s railing extra hard. She wasn’t supposed to hear any of this. The radio had always been a struggle—battery life this far away from Earth became tricky, hence the need for new materials—but Brad was also careless. He was second in command after their captain and thought he knew everything. Most people on the space pod a couple metres away did. All these PhDs in astrophysics, Jenna shook her head. Everyone was handpicked from the best in their classes; not everyone was human, but aliens who showed a proficiency in the STEM field and human economics were selected. All of this prestige… and they still fucked up like teenage girls on phones. Jenna’s chest tightened. She didn’t want to hear the rest, but her mind decoded the words through the crackle of static.
“And blaming others for being late,” Jayden added. “What will it be this time? The rover?”
“Hey now,” Selina said. “Saying ‘women’ is too broad. I’m not like that.”
“Never mind that comparison,” Brad said. “S’not fair anyway. Jenna’s got different… let’s say space junk. So it takes her a moment to figure out how to get places, you know? She has to figure out how to maintain her forlorn masculinity, while still mastering the best and worst parts of womanhood.”
“Oh, please. Like you know anything.” Selina scoffed.
“I know lots. I have her file,” Brad said.
Jayden snickered. “And is that… thing still there?”
“How scientific of you,” Selina said. “But does she? I don’t know. She never changes or showers around me. And truthfully, I respect her privacy in that way.”
“Yet you still want to know if she has her space junk or not,” Brad said. “How charitable. Private to her face, but behind her back, well, you want to see what she has.”
“Well, I thought those files were sealed,” Selina asked. “Aren’t they? Gender stopped becoming important on Earth years ago.”
“Even for someone like her?” Jayden asked, skepticism evident in his voice. “Doesn’t seem right.”
“It isn’t. And technically, yeah, gender’s not asked anymore. But medical inventory is a thing,” Brad said. “And you remember when she burned her hand from getting too close to a blast? Well, there was something added to her file then, and I was…”
Jenna wasn’t sure how long to let the conversation continue. Brad was violating confidentiality, and at first she told herself she was only listening so she could later report him to the captain. But he—nor Selina, or Jayden—never actually said anything relevant. It was all speculation. When her pronouns became he/his and its, she tuned it out. She scooped up several more handfuls of Jonquil dust and added them to the overflowing bag. Several grains were stuck in her suit, she was sure of it, just like sand at the beach. Good, good. She wanted to be covered with it, as if it was armour to keep out their words.
She tapped the buttons on the communicator. “I’m done now, everyone. Bringing the space junk aboard.”
A gasp sounded on the other end of the transmission. Selina was the first to recover.
“Sorry for the delay,” she said. A few more buttons tapped. “Door’s open when you’re ready.”
Jenna didn’t say thanks. She glanced over her shoulder to the O’Hara nebula, the tendrils of stardust licking out at her. She reached her hand out, expecting nothing to return.
The showers on board the Hippomenes ship were hot or cold air blasters equipped with dry shampoo and a few other cleaning supplies that didn’t require water. Jenna slipped off her suit without attending the staff meeting Brad, Jayden, and Selina huddled around the screen for with Captain Audrey Paz. Jenna ran her fingers through her long dark brown hair, hair that had taken her seven years to painstakingly grow. Nothing ever seemed to grow in space; it hung there in suspended animation. Even when the gravity gauge was on, the hair never had body. People like Selina cut hers super-short and called it a day. Other women astronauts, especially other black ones, would keep their hair in tight corn rows for the longer missions.
But Jenna had worked hard for her hair and she liked to feel it on her shoulders. Even if it didn’t look like the magazines or pulp sci-fi covers she saw as a kid, it was still hers.
When she entered the common area, the computer screen was still on and the standby message from the university bounced on the screen. Everyone else was around the centre table, their rehydrated meals in front of them. The conversation stopped as soon as she entered the room.
Jenna grabbed some water her meals and facing the screen.
“So. I miss anything important?” Silence. Space echoed in Jenna’s mind. “Should I call back?”
“No, no,” Brad said. “There was nothing much we couldn’t already figure out. We’re sending the samples via messenger tomorrow, but we won’t be able to hear back until a day or so. Even when we send it express.”
“Makes sense,” Jenna said. “Where does that leave us? Jonquil, as pretty as it is, can’t support our life systems.”
“Well done, Dr. Gangon,” Brad said, a hint of venom in his voice. “Audrey’s sent paperwork for us to a feeder planet. Planet is perhaps a strong word. It’s more like a giant asteroid that’s becoming immobile due to space traffic, so it’s being pulled into a rotation and is on its way to becoming a planet.”
“An asteroid? And that’s somehow more hospitable?”
“There are a few communities set up there, in addition to the original inhabitants,” Jayden said. “It’s mostly a trading place, but they support life—our life included.”
“When they heard we were from the university, they wanted to give us the key to the city,” Selina said, giggling.
“Why’s that funny?” Jenna asked. Her peas and carrots tasted like the pallid shades of colours they’d been drained too. She was no longer hungry.
Selina shot a look to Brad. After a silent back and forth conversation, Selina spoke again. “Well, the inhabitants are an evolved form of life that descended from beetles. They’re a touch shorter than most humanoid bipeds, but are basically giant insects that walk on two legs like us. So they look a little weird. Audrey wanted us to be prepared. She even sent us some pictures of them to get us acquainted. They’re really funny looking. Do you want to see?”
“No, no. I think I’m already prepared,” Jenna said, barely hiding her smile. “Sounds like fun.”
The crew dispersed from the Hippomenes ship with such speed it reminded Jenna of mercury poured into liquid nitrogen. A sudden rush, only to disappear into vapour. Jenna was the last to leave, hanging back near the spare gas tanks sold by merchants and several other obvious pirate vessels.
As Jenna had read over her meal, Asteroid 7 was a no-where place in space, a feeder area, meaning that there could be no disputes. All were welcome, even if one ship was made out of a metal in dire need right now, and the pirate traders and scavengers were close by. Their fighting was void here. Only friendships could prevail.
The city was full of life. There were people like her and Selina, along with aliens, some of whom were like Audrey and Jayden with slick pink skin and humanoid features. There were short space dwarfs with bright blue hair, their gender undetermined and indiscriminate. Though Jenna wanted to talk to the dwarves, their small legs were too fast for her to keep up. Plant people, Treant Locus, hung out on one side of the dock, their roots tangled with the metal as if they’d stayed there for centuries. Deep cannels were carved out of the asteroid to make hovels, shelter, and other entertainment purposes. There were tall buildings, supply buildings with the universal symbol for water on them, and several other buildings Jenna could not decipher.
No matter where she looked, she could not see the beetle people.
Eventually, she wandered far enough into the planet’s ruddy surface to find a bar. Music spilled outside the doorway and seemed to explode into vibrant colours as she stepped inside. A grey-skinned alien with an oblong head served at the bar, along with a taller, human man with black skin and a toothy grin. She walked over and sat between the two of them.
“Hello,” the black man said. “What language?”
“English.” Jenna was disappointed when the black man disappeared and the grey-skin alien came over.
“I’m Ray. Please use he or neutral pronouns,” he said. “What can I get for you?”
“What drinks do you have that are sweet?”
Ray listed several kinds. He opened up two bottles to demonstrate. She picked the one that smelled like cherries. “Thank you. I’m Jenna. Her/she, by the way.”
The alien raised an appendage, as if he was saying no problem. He sat the drink in front of her. “Your insignia. The university. Are you the visitors we were expecting?”
“Seems like you get a lot of visitors.”
“We do. But we know you’re working on Jonquil. The batteries that we need. They’re our light source.”
Jenna nodded. Behind the large towers, she’d also seen the sun-mimics. Similar to solar power on Earth, these batteries took the light from wherever and used it to keep a not-planet like this going.
“I am from the university. I wrote the grant for the Jonquil project.”
“Good. Drink on the house. Within reason.” Ray’s eyes changed colour, as if the gesture was equivalent to a smile. Jenna raised her glass and thanked him again.
Men in blue suits—matching their blue skin—played music at the front of the bar. She had no idea what the lyrics meant, but she liked the sound. A bass guitar thrummed and reminded her of her heartbeat in space.
No matter where she looked in the bar, she still saw no beetle people. Disappointment tickled her skin like a bruise. She supposed she could find a hotel for the night and try again later. They were stuck here for at least a few more days. Jenna turned to Ray again, hoping he could give her advice on where to stay, but someone else plopped down next to her. He grinned when she caught his gaze and gestured to the music. A new band, full of what seemed to be the female versions of the blue creatures, started up.
“Sounds like punk,” the man said. His skin was tanned, his brown hair mussed up as if it had been in a helmet all day. His clothing bore no insignia of a university or corporation. The fabric seemed to be tightly woven cloth and a material she didn’t know. Older styles, maybe even hand sewn or purchased from relic markets.
“What do you think?”
“The band. They kinda sound like punk, right? No matter where you go, all sounds the same.”
Jenna gazed at the blue players. Sounds crashed together like a cacophony before the lead singer began. Her words seemed to strike chords Jenna had never heard before.
“I’m not sure what they are, but I like them.”
“And that’s punk. Not knowing what to call it, but definitely not boring.” The man flagged down the grey-skinned alien to order a drink, addressing him by name. He turned to Jenna. “What will you have?”
“Oh. The cherry one.”
“The cherry one,” he repeated to the alien. After a moment, their drinks plopped down on the table. Music trilled Jenna’s skin, sudden and excited.
“Davis,” he said.
“Jenna,” he repeated. “Cheers?”
They clinked glasses. They didn’t talk for the first three sips. Jenna was sure it was because he liked the song the band was playing and wanted them to finish. When the singer spoke in a low raspy voice and started up a slow song, he turned to Jenna again. “So where are you from? You speak English, but have a university insignia, so I’m guessing Earth.”
“Not quite, but more or less.”
He raised a brow. “You won’t get off that easy with me. Tell me.”
“Hydron,” she said. “It’s a blue planet a while from here. My parents were from Earth, though. They were immigrants who came to work the mines and then had me. I also worked the mines, until university, and now, I suppose I’m still kind of working the mines but there’s a lot more science involved.”
“Ever see Earth?”
“Nah. Doesn’t interest me. I’ve seen enough photos anyway.”
“So what does interest you?” he asked. “Minerals? You do seem to enjoy mining.”
She laughed. “I suppose it looks that way. But minerals have always been a convenience excuse for the stars, I guess. I like space. I’ll go anywhere, as long as I’m near it. I wanted to leave Hydron as soon as I was born, I’m pretty sure. Boring planet. But I had to have a reason.”
“Don’t’ we all? Leaving home is the first step, but we think we need to intellectualize it instead of doing it.” Davis sipped his drink, which looked to be some kind of whisky. “Sometimes leaving is good, but you also gotta have a home base. So don’t knock Hydron. I hear it can be nice in the summer.”
He shook his head. “Well, not yet.”
“So where are you from? Earth?”
“Yes and no. I’m from what my mother used to call the Fourth World.”
“And what does that mean?” Jenna pressed her drink to her lips, excitement running through her. She was like a metal fork used to tune the weather on Hydron after a large storm. Sand everywhere, mixed with wind and lightning. She wanted to check her reflection in the mirror to make sure she still looked good and she wasn’t dreaming. She wanted to see the blue in her eyes like the sand at home, next to her dark skin like space. She wanted to be sure this strange conversation with cherry on her lips was still happening.
“My parents were both human, but only my mother had been born on Earth,” Davis explained. “She met my father while travelling. He was a pilot, which was a lot of fun and super-romantic for her. He could literally take her away—so he did. They travelled the galaxy until, like my dad, I was born in a space ship. We’ve both spent the bulk of our lives learning to walk in make-shift gravity.”
“Huh,” Jenna said. “So that’s the Fourth World? Just space?”
“Sort of.” He grinned again like a mountain etched into marble. “The Fourth World is a place without a place. My mother’s distant relatives were nomads when they were on Earth, eventually settling where she was raised. But they have no origin place, not really. Just Earth, while my dad and I only have space. My mother wrote down where we were when I was born, but she wasn’t exact. When you’re travelling at light speed, how can you? So I can never find that exact coordinate again, in the exact same way. And I don’t really have a home. I just have the Fourth World.”
“Oh. Isn’t that sad?”
“Having no home? Not at all. It means I make it myself.”
Jenna glanced down into her drink, only to see her reflection rise up against the hickory red surface. She understood now, better than ever before. The reason she liked endless space was her body was never a home. It was something she had to work and build to love, but something that was never born the way she wanted it to be. That prospect used to fill her with dread, with a sickly feeling of her skin being too heavy and jaundiced.
But the yellow of jaundice could be beautiful. She knew that. It was for batteries that kept feeder areas like Asteroid 7 alive. Space was a place, even if it wasn’t a home exactly. The stars and the blackness of the sky fused her body and mind together. Without origins, but still real.
“I like that,” she finally said. “I think that’s really cool.”
Davis shrugged. “What can I say? My mom was also a poet.”
Jenna laughed. Davis took a couple heavy swallows of his whisky. The music on the stage died down and the band that replaced them was slower, methodical. Not punk, as Davis would say. Boring.
“Hey,” Davis said. “You want to get out of here? I know a really cool club.”
Jenna drank the last swallow in a hurry. “Of course.”
Davis led Jenna to a dry fountain in the middle of the city with an ornate sculpture of a historical figure she didn’t recognize. He was mounted high up on a platform that contained a small door which Davis opened without needing a key.
“Watch your head,” he warned. “The height gets better as we go.”
Jenna was halfway down the spinning stairs before she realized the statue at the centre acted as a pillar for the steps to circulate. The centre was cold to the touch and creaked as if it was hollow.
“Where does this go? Is this structure safe?”
“Don’t worry. These people know their architecture better than anyone else I’ve come across. You can trust them.”
“Can I trust you?” Jenna bit her lips as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Davis glanced back at her from over his shoulder. He grinned again, wild and manic. He didn’t look offended, but his brow had softened as if he was wounded.
“Do you want to trust me?”
“Yes,” Jenna said after a while.
“Good.” Davis extended his hand. She took it, and allowed him to lead her down the spinning staircase. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she realized they were coming up on even ground. The stairs fell away into a dirt pathway that soon turned to mud.
Not mud, Jenna corrected. The putrid smell hit her nose in a wave. Davis pulled her to the side and slipped some cash to another grey-skinned alien handing out masks. They looked like oxygen masks, the kind someone wore during surgery or scuba diving, except with a flower painted over the mouth piece.
“Here,” Davis said. “You’ll need this.”
“What is this place?” Jenna’s voice was muffled, but the smell was gone and replaced with lilacs. Davis’s mask was yellow, while hers was purple, and she wondered if he got a different flower.
“It’s a fighting ring,” Davis said. “A show, really. Come and watch and it will all make sense.”
He led her away from the piles of mud (not mud, not mud, she told herself, but couldn’t articulate what it really was for fear she’d lose her drinks and freeze-dried lunch) and into an area carved out of rock. Many other people were there, but she saw no other green and black uniforms of the university. Only more grey-skinned aliens, pink ones, space dwarfs, and a couple other workers from different docks.
The chatter of the crowd died away as soon as the stage lights shone. A man with a cage-like muzzle over his mouth stepped forward and introduced everyone. When a crackle sounded before his voice, Jenna realized he wore a universal translator.
“Welcome to the Ickva Con Ickca Celebratory Fight Night. In the native Asteroid 7 language, their word for celebration comes from the word to fight. We fight because we celebrate, we celebrate because we fight. Ickva con Ickca. Each stage of life is a fight, along with a party. So let’s us please welcome our first two contenders, natives of Asteroid 7, Silva and Danu.”
Everyone rose from their seats to cheer. The blue people in front of Jenna were so tall she couldn’t see the fighters until everyone sat down again. Then she gasped and smiled.
Six legs stuck out of the fighters’ bodies, extending from their abdomen and thorax. A million eyes, all centred together into two globes on their heads, focused on her and everyone else there. The alien beetle race. Finally.
Danu, the first beetle, wore a blue sash. Silva had green. A giant ball of not-mud lay in the centre of the ring. They both charged at it until their legs sunk into the surface. They pushed and they plodded, ricocheting back and forth in a complicated dance. Danu fell over. He got up again, and Silva fell over. Their black bodies became coated with more and more not-mud.
Jenna stared in awe.
“I can’t believe you took me here.” Jenna grasped at Davis’s side. “How did you find out about this place?”
“I travel enough and word gets around. They say Asteroid 7 is a shitty place.” Davis chuckled. “But the beetles revel in shit. They celebrate the entropy that comes from a life this far evolved. You have to appreciate the shit if you wanna grow flowers, you know? And all those other helpful maximums.”
“Like the cocoon and the butterfly? The beauty of metamorphosis?”
“Yeah, totally. All the same bullshit repackaged into a greeting telegram. Same ol’ shitty way of making the world seem a lot better than it really is. Metamorphosis is always hard, violent, and shitty. Like dung beetles fighting each other for bragging rights, trying to figure out who the King Shit is. It’s all the same battle, but at least these guys are more honest. You dig?”
“I do. And I like it.”
Davis slipped an arm around Jenna. She was caught off guard when Danu fell over, and Silva slid the ball right over his back. The announcer ran to the centre and counted.
“One, two… and Danu is out! First round done.”
More clapping sounded. Another beetle, this time wearing pink emblazoned with Sasha, stepped forward to fight Silva. The subsequent rounds were all the same tug of war battle over the ball of dung, but the crowd ate it up. Each time a new beetle entered the stage to push the ball of shit around, they were cheered on. Each time the other beetle was pinned, it was sent to the sidelines where a bunch of other hanger-ons wanted to get their autograph and talk to about life.
“Even the losers are winners,” Davis said. “Always covered in shit but willing to talk and get laid. I love this stuff. All this evolution, all this conquering of new planets, and this is all we do. Revel in shit and wanna get fucked.”
Jenna nodded along. The two beetles in the ring were new named Felix and Jester. Jester pinned Felix, and he won. Brown stained his orange belt. His eyes were so big as he caught Jenna’s gaze across the stage. His leg was held up by the announcer as he was declared final winner of the night.
“I think I like it here,” Jenna said. “I’m sad it’s over.”
“It’s only over for the beetles. Everyone else is about to start their own fun. But come with me. Before it gets too rowdy.”
Davis took Jenna’s hand and pulled her away from the crowd. Everyone there, alien or human or bug-like, ushered inside of the ring, eager to mimic what had been done. The roaring sound of the crowd, and of asteroid’s inside, echoed in Jenna’s ear as she and Davis took the stairs two by two. By the time they reached the centre of the city, the dry fountain wasn’t dry anymore. Not-mud spilled from the top of the statue’s head.
“Oh my God,” Jenna said. The off-white marble was now brown. It stayed within the confines of the fountain, but the smell spread. Putrid and absurd. “The crowd did this? From the ring?”
“More or less. Fight is a celebration, celebration is fight,” Davis repeated. “But we should move. It’s gonna be like Earth’s Marti Gras in a matter of minutes. Ickva Con Ickca .The carnival has started.”
Beetle and other races of creatures had already begun to gather by the fountain’s edge. More beetle people came out of hiding, from under rocks, and surrounded everything. Something big was about to happen, something magical. But Davis was also here, tugging her aside.
“Come on. I know a place that’s private. Then we can decide where we want to go.”
Davis’s private place was an alleyway between the bar and the water planet. He took off his mask and reached his hands behind Jenna’s to remove hers. This close, and without the proximity to the celebration, he smelled like lemons and daisies. Yellow things. The way Jenna was sure Jonquil smelled.
When he brought their lips together, she wasn’t surprised. Worried, a little, especially as his lips parted and their tongues touched, but she wanted it. She liked it. He slid a hand between her legs, and she brushed him aside.
“Wait. Just for a second.”
Davis did, raising his brows. His palm was a heavy presence on her thigh.
“I should tell you something. I’m—”
“It’s fine. I think I already know.”
Davis grinned, kissing her to prove his point. He hadn’t been lying. He touched her with the familiarity of home. And it was the happiest she’d ever been.
“Come with me,” she said. “I have a key to the city.”
Evelyn has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lackington’s. Their chapbook, Mythology, was released in 2015 with The Steel Chisel. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and currently studying for PhD at Waterloo University. Visit them at: evedeshane.wordpress.com