Originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2009
Carrie hadn’t packed, unwilling to jinx the funding decision by preparing for the expected result. Now, the packing went surprisingly fast. It’s much easier to fold up one’s life and go home, than it is to try something new.
“Funding cycles come and go,” her roommate Allison said.
Carrie set her framed pictures into the case on top of her neatly folded shirts. She laid her uniform on top to cushion them.
“NASA will come back,” Allison went on. “Manned exploration of space isn’t dead. They can’t do it all with robots.”
The bookshelves and drawers were now empty. Carrie hadn’t brought much with her. The greatest weight she’d be carrying away was in her heart.
Allison asked, “What now?”
Carrie zipped her suitcase. “I’m going home.”
“To Minnesota? That’s good. Take a break, visit your parents—”
“I meant, I’m going to my aunt’s house.”
Allison paused. “Didn’t your aunt die?”
“The house is there.”
“In the middle of the boonies. It’s probably falling apart.”
Carrie picked up her suitcase. “I want to see the sky.”
“There’s sky in California, kiddo. Why don’t you come home with me? My folks would be glad to put you up. I don’t want you brooding—”
“I’m not brooding.”
Allison raised her hands. “Fine. Go and see the Minnesota sky. But call me before you sink into a pool of depression.”
Carrie faced her roommate. Curly-haired, dusky-toned Allison, her skin smooth and her intelligence shining in her dark, compassionate eyes. She’s our best, Carrie thought. They had the best of us in their hands, and they’re just sending us away.
Allison seemed to read her thoughts. “They’ll change their minds. They have to.”
“That’s the trouble. They start and stop— but when will we actually go?”
“Houston isn’t the whole industry. We should try for JPL, before every other former candidate does the same thing.”
“I know. But first, I need to—”
“—see the sky. I heard.” Allison sighed. “Do what you have to. Good luck.”
But Carrie wasn’t going to Minnesota to see the sky. She was going to see the ground.
Children don’t tell. They cover things up.
Carrie was eight when she saw the spaceship. She had never doubted that it was a spaceship. Even today, the memory was as clear as if it had just happened:
Carrie, walking through the long grass behind her aunt’s house. Her pudgy toes naked against the brown soil that anchored the strong blades. The sudden break in the grass, the scrape in the mud, the tiny crater where the object had come to rest, half buried in the earth.
There was no metal; this wasn’t a human-style spaceship. But the tragedy was clear. The miniature occupants were unlike anything Carrie had ever seen, all writhing limbs and colors that, while emphatically different from the life forms on Earth, were clearly living creatures. But so tiny. The entire impact site was no larger than a basketball. The inhabitants were oddly shaped and naked, twisting within the shattered globe. The translucent fragments of the ship’s shell were scattered among the wreckage.
Not knowing what to do, Carrie crouched next to the depression, watching the tiny visitors move. She expected them to squeak, like kittens, but they made no noise. Cautiously, Carrie poked one of the clear shell fragments with a fingertip; it was moist and bent beneath her touch. She shivered and wiped her finger on the grass.
Her aunt’s house seemed a vast distance away. If her dad had been home, she might have told him. But her mom was yakking with her sister, and wouldn’t want to investigate something peculiar in the grass.
“You’d have done better to let it be,” she had scolded the time Carrie had brought home a baby rabbit, intending to feed it. And her mom had been right, because the rabbit had died within a day. If Carrie couldn’t save a baby rabbit, how could she save something so strange, that was already so hurt?
Distressed, Carrie held vigil over the small, broken forms. One by one, they stopped moving. Carrie stayed by them until it was dark, and her mom’s repeated calls drew her inside to a supper she couldn’t eat.
The next morning, Carrie quested through the grass to find the site. There was little left to see. The miniscule remains had melted into the ground—crew, spaceship, and all. The incident was so odd she might have dismissed the entire episode as a dream, had not every repeat visit presented the evidence of her failure in the form of a circle of barren earth. As the years passed, Carrie could never bring herself to mention it. Doubts about her sanity aside, she was ashamed over her cowardice in never even trying to help the strange beings.
When her aunt moved into a group home, Carrie bought the property with her parents’ help. Her mom was pleased that the farm wouldn’t be absorbed by some agricultural conglomerate, but Carrie never told her the real reason she had to have the land. The unmarked grave could not be pulverized into nonexistence; it was the least Carrie could do to honor the unacknowledged dead. Eventually she went into the astronaut program, because she knew that other beings were out there. But she imagined too well how such a belief would go over with the administration, so she never told anyone there, either.
That evening Carrie hugged herself as she walked out of the abandoned house towards the field. The stubby grass was brown and dry. All around her, the monotonous tilled fields boasted lumps of drought-resistant cabbage. Clouds hung heavily in the sky, grumbling and threatening rain that rarely came. The air was muggy, but the mosquitoes mercifully few. Perhaps they were dying off from lack of moisture, like everything else around here.
Carrie experienced the usual rush of panic when she thought that this time she had lost the crash site for good. Then, out of ground she was certain she had already trodden, sprang the familiar configuration: the barren scrape amid the grass, the slight pitch to the earth, the elliptical stain of the aged crash site. As always, no grass grew there. It had been almost twenty years, and still the ground was bare.
At the time of the tragedy, Carrie had done what any eight-year-old girl would have done: scattered soil over the melted remains and marked the spot with a stick. Adult Carrie knew she should have done so much more. She should have told her parents. Even if they couldn’t have saved the travelers, at least they would be a known part of our universe. No one would cut back on space exploration funding with something so important and real to investigate. But the evidence was long gone. What could a belated announcement accomplish now, except to dash her hopes of joining the space program forever? For she very much doubted NASA would take on astronauts who believed they’d seen little multicolored men.
Carrie stared at the vacant spot. A patch of earth was such an insufficient memorial to mark the end of so many dreams.
Standing among the brittle grasses, idly listening to the rumble of thunder, it suddenly struck her: why did the grass never grow back? There had been rain enough to nourish the scrubby plants underfoot. Even the roundish crater had started drifting down the slight incline over the years, more evidence of water flow. Yet the soil on the crash site never bore seed.
Carrie had specialized in engineering. For this question, she needed a biologist. She pulled out her phone and tapped the contact.
Allison answered on the second ring. “Okay, kiddo?”
Carrie gathered her courage. “What would keep grass from growing back over an old crash site?”
There was an extended pause. Carrie gathered that Allison was adjusting her thoughts from renewing her invitation to this unexpected topic. “What kind of crash?”
“A flying vehicle.”
“A… spaceship. If a spaceship crashed in my aunt’s backyard, why would grass never grow over the site in twenty years?”
The pause was longer this time. Carrie expected a challenge. Instead, Allison said, “That’s why you wanted to be an astronaut.”
Carrie sagged with relief. “Yes. I didn’t want to say anything before, but now that there’s no longer an astronaut program to get kicked out of…”
“Right.” Allison took a breath. “Okay. If a life form evolved elsewhere, there’s no reason why their chemical composition would be compatible with ours. DNA is basically an accident; our whole ecosystem owes its current shape to random mutation. Who knows what path natural selection might take somewhere else?”
“So, the foreign chemicals might somehow inhibit ours.”
“Possibly. I’d hate to speculate without conducting a proper analysis.”
Carrie swallowed. “Could you?”
“Well, not by myself. For something like this… I’d like to contact Dr. Allen. He’s spent a lot of time thinking through scenarios like this one—just in case.”
“And he’ll no doubt want to bring in his staff.”
“So word will get around pretty quickly.”
“I’m sorry, Carrie, but space aliens are news. See? I just said ‘space aliens’, and now everyone in the room is looking at me.”
“And when the news breaks, they’ll be looking at me.”
“If there’s something in this… Carrie, I hate to say it, but you’ll probably receive a lot of flak over not having reported the incident earlier.”
“If it really happened.” Carrie looked at the patch of ground, so insignificant in size. Today, it seemed smaller than ever. “All right. Call Dr. Allen. I’ll be standing by.”
“You got it. And don’t worry; we’ll keep it as quiet as we can, in case you are crazy.”
“So only the professionals in my chosen field will know to avoid me with a ten-foot pole.”
Carrie nodded. “I can live with that.”
“I knew you could. Listen, kiddo, I’m going to get rolling on this. Stay tuned.”
“Hey, we’re wingmates. Talk to you soon, bunkie.”
Carrie put the phone away. Her stomach roiled inside her like the clouds overhead. She had just risked her career and her reputation on a childish memory.
She studied the patch of earth. “But I owe you that much, don’t I?”
Lightning cracked. A few fat drops fell around her, smacking the earth like stones. She stayed where she was, the occasional raindrops pelting her hard enough to bruise. This was her metaphor: Carrie Sutcliffe, all wet.
The rain intensified until it was falling steadily, pushed about by gusts of wind. But over the crash site hovered a haze, as if something in the soil repelled moisture. Carrie narrowed her eyes against the downpour. Droplets danced above the barren ground, breaking into a low, misty dome. But the ground itself remained untouched.
Carrie stared. This was no dream. Whatever was happening now was real—as real as anything she could see with her own eyes. All her former doubts vanished. In one liberating instant, Carrie felt she could redeem her past mistake—and bring the stars again within her reach.
Carrie spread her arms, welcoming the storm. The rain lashed down.