Short Story - The Joyrider

           “What in the world is that?” astronaut Edie Parrish whispered to herself.
            What she saw wasn’t just improbable; it was impossible.  Nothing could survive on Mars’ inhospitable surface.  However, the impossible was unfolding before her eyes.  An elfin creature had emerged from behind a rock.  It now scampered about the lumbering rover with an air of delighted curiosity.
            Nothing in her 12 years of space exploration, indeed in her entire 39 years of life, had prepared Edie for this.  It had been another routine night of mapping the Mars terrain from the orbiting Russian space station.  Edie controlled the land rover using telepresence, the workhorse child of virtual reality.  She could see in all directions as if she were on the rover, which was not a proper rover in the modern sense.  Her particular vehicle, issued for her exclusive use as punishment she was sure, was an old American Lunar Rover. The ungainly cart, converted from its first use on the Apollo XV mission, resembled a prehistoric beast next to the latest innovations in rover technology.  NASA had handed Russia the rover as a ‘goodwill gift’; actually a bribe to get an American on the space station after the United States bailed out of what had been a joint project.
            Edie’s gloved hands, part of the telepresence program, linked to the rover’s robot arms.  She used the robot hands to operate the rover’s manual controls and to gather samples from the planet’s surface.  She could even feel the objects she grasped.  The weight and the shapes were as real as anything she might normally pick up.  Old technology aside, she preferred it over the voice-commanded rovers her Russian co-workers used.  They never got to feel the test objects their machines picked up, not even when the bits were sent up to the station.  The lab intercepted all the Martian samples, immediately putting them in quarantine for analysis and experimentation.  Edie felt sorry for the other rover operators, even a bit superior.  She’d always liked getting her hands dirty when it came to taking samples.  Feeling the rocks and soil in her virtual grasp was the next best thing.
            Edie loved her work because it was scientific and explainable.  What now climbed onto the rover was neither of those things.  If there ever existed a person ill-equipped to deal with the illogical, that person was Edie Parrish.
            The brown-skinned creature couldn’t have been more than two feet tall, with most of its height coming from its spindly legs.  Its flesh hung on its diminutive frame as if the skin was two sizes too large.  The naked, wide-eyed alien (Edie winced to use the term) ran nimbly upon the rover, its happy chattering resembling the staccato sound of a busy typewriter.  The voice-activated radio, an addition to the rover’s original  hardware toward the day humans themselves would roam across the Martial surface, picked up the creature’s -- speech? -- with a wash of static.  Edie could only watch dumbfounded as the alien began to play with the manual controls.  It twisted the radio’s volume control.  It tasted the battery power indicator with a chocolate-colored spatulate -- tongue?  Still, Edie didn’t come out of her shock until the alien swatted the rover’s speed setting.
            “Hey, don’t--” she spluttered as the rover lurched.  Instead of wobbling about on the rough terrain, the machine began to wildly bounce over the jutting rocks as it picked up velocity.  The alien shrieked with terror.  It flew from one side of the rover to the other until it managed to clutch and hug the steering rod.
            Back on the station, Edie also bounced, as if she didn’t sit securely in her chair in her very still cubicle.  Her gloves gave her the only feeling she had on Mars, but the telepresence helmet placed her sight nowhere but on the rover.
            The alien clung to the steering rod, its wide, flat feet kicking the rover’s floor wildly.  The frantic actions jerked the rod over to the left, and the rover veered in that direction.  Edie made a grab for the rod, but the front tire bounced over a small rock.  The alien was thrown to the right, pulling the steering rod with it away from Edie’s reaching fingers.  As the rover swung that way, the creature’s terrified shrieks ended.  Its large eyes grew larger still as it gazed at the rod in its grip.  The alien emitted a sound that reminded a nonplused Edie of triumphant laughter.  She didn’t have time to reflect on this though; a massive boulder appeared in the rover’s path.  Edie shrieked and thrust her hands forward in an instinctive warding-off gesture.  She saw the robot hands shoot out as if to push the boulder away.
            The rover swung away from the huge obstacle.  As it rounded the enormous rock, the alien jumped up and down, apparently excited.  The little imp was steering!
            They raced over the Martian landscape, the alien’s inexperienced maneuvering keeping the rover from disaster by the slightest of margins.
            Edie had to regain control.  Keeping the robot arms as steady as she could on the bounding vehicle, she reached for the alien.
            “Hey!” she cried, jerking her hand away.  She wasn’t hurt, just startled by the smart slap the alien had given the robot hand.
            The alien resumed its typewriter chatter, clinging to the rover with one claw and waving the other at the offending robot hands.  Edie wondered if she received a dressing down for her attempted grab.
            “Sorry, my little thief.  Disneyland is closed and your ride is over.”  With that, she grabbed the speed setting and the brake.  The rover shuddered to a halt.
            The alien’s tirade came to an end.  It gazed at the rover with an eerily humanlike look of surprise.  Edie made another attempt to catch it, but the tiny fiend moved too fast.  It squirted off the rover and out of reach.  It delivered another salvo of angry chatter and disappeared among the rocks. 
            “Where the hell did you go?”  Edie got the rover moving again, trundling it carefully over the rock-strewn landscape.  She roamed around the area for the next five minutes, trying to find some sign of the creature.  Unfortunately, she was in an area that was more rock than sand, so there weren’t even footprints to be found.  Search as she might, she didn’t catch sight of the little brown alien again.
            Swearing under her breath, Edie finally pulled off the telepresence helmet and gloves.  Her surroundings switched from the uncivilized rocks and crags of Mars to the structure and order of her tiny cubicle on the station.  Here, lines and symmetry were a sharp contrast to the natural chaos of the planet below.  Edie reached for the intercom but paused as her finger poised to wake Karl Lupsha, the commander of the space station.
            In this ordered environment, it was hard to believe what had just happened on the rover.  Had she really seen an alien take over her vehicle for what amounted to a joyride?
            “Life is not possible on Mars.  What I saw could not have been real,” Edie whispered to herself.
            However, her computer displayed the wild path her rover had mapped.  There was no denying the obvious deviation from Edie’s normally perfect mapping.
            “I’m not crazy, and I wasn’t dreaming.  I saw that thing!”  Edie slammed her helmet back on.  She looked about, then guided the rover in a slow circle around the area she’d last seen the creature.  Nothing but the unforgiving terrain stared back at her.  Then she conducted a minute search over the rover.  She found nothing out of the ordinary; no evidence that the alien had ever been on board.  Reluctantly, Edie removed her helmet once more and thought the situation over.
            Her position on the Russian space station was precarious at best.  After the United States Congress had pulled them out of the Mars venture, Russia had been obliged to continue on alone, the lone David to China’s Goliath space program.  To say relations between Russia and the U.S. had been strained was putting it lightly.
            Edie had trained faithfully at NASA for the chance to go to Mars.  Her work was what she lived for, the one thing she could count on.  She had agonized when it seemed she would lose her chance.  Only NASA’s desperate ‘peace offerings’, given only with the government’s reluctant approval, had secured Edie’s place as part of the initial skeleton crew aboard Russia’s space station.  She didn’t kid herself about Commander Lupsha’s grudging acceptance of the situation.  There had been no pointed fingers or accusations from her fellow crew members; indeed the Russians were polite.  Too polite, in fact.  Edie was kept at a distance.
            How would they respond if she claimed to have seen an alien on Mars?  Especially when there was no evidence of the bizarre creature.  Making such a claim would undoubtedly end her stay on the station.  It could end her entire career.
            Troubled, Edie slipped the helmet back on and went to work.  She drove the rover to the spot where she’d first encountered the alien.  She began mapping again, her head swiveling side to side, hoping for another glimpse of the little imp.  Her neck burned with fatigue, but her heart still thumped with the knowledge of her discovery.  If only she had proof!
            “You have failed your course,” a voice announced, guttural with its thick accent.
            Startled, Edie jerked the helmet off.  Looming over her, Karl Lupsha regarded her with puzzlement.
            Lupsha tapped the computer monitor with a thick finger.  The monitor showed the usual well-ordered mapping Edie had done, but there was also the erratic path of the alien’s drive.  It was this that the commander was curious about.
            “You have failed your course,” the burly Russian repeated.
            Edie realized what he was trying to say with his limited English.  “I saw something and rode over to look,” she answered.
            “You saw what?”
            Suddenly, suspicion reared.  The Russians didn’t want her on board their space station.  Could they have come up with an elaborate hoax to trick her?  If she started raving about aliens stealing rovers, it could very well give them the leverage they needed to have her taken off the project.  A trick was much more conceivable than an alien on Mars.  Edie didn’t believe Lupsha would pull such a stunt; he was too professional.  Too by the book.  A male version of herself, in fact.  But one of the others...
            Edie shrugged, deliberately casual.  “I’m not sure.  Probably just my imagination playing tricks with the shadows.”
            Lupsha looked confused, but only shrugged in turn.  “You go now.  End shift.”
            Edie knew Lupsha wasn’t intentionally curt, but if his English was bad, her Russian was positively abysmal.  Right now, she welcomed their inability to communicate well.  It kept Lupsha from asking too many questions.
            Edie felt weariness gnawing at her as she navigated the long corridor to her quarters.  The station was stark in its cold functionality, made up of sharp corners and angles.  On the outside, shuttle docks, cargo holds, and the crew’s quarters grew out of the main body of the station like the long arms and legs of a gawky teenager.
            Edie nodded to two cosmonauts just leaving the crew area to begin the morning shift.  It was with great relief that she stepped into her own room.
            Except for a framed picture on the bedside table, her personal quarters showed no evidence that anyone occupied it.  A bed, table, and chair made up all of her furnishings.  Edie firmly believed in having everything in its proper place.  Scattering bric-a-brac about for decoration was a waste of money, time, and space in her opinion.  The picture, however, she deemed a necessity.  As she tugged her boots off, she studied the old photograph with a wistful smile.
            Two girls grinned back at her.  The younger of the pair could only be described as plain.  Mouse brown hair was swept back into a tired-looking ponytail.  Her glasses perched on a too-large nose, and her smile showed the silver glint of braces.
            The older girl was a sparkling gem.  Chestnut hair fell in waves to her shoulders.  Her smile was a dazzling white between lips as red as strawberries.  Her nose was also generous, but rather than detracting from her looks, it lent her face character.  Full of laughter and life, she was not a girl who would be found sitting home on prom night.
            The picture of Edie and her older sister Bobbi had been taken when the girls were 11 and 16 years old.  It was only two months after the camera clicked this image that Bobbi had died.
            Edie placed her boots under the bed and spoke to the smiling visage of her sister.  “You would have loved the little guy I came across last night, Bobbi.  Except the two of you would have fought over who’d get to drive.”
            It didn’t take long for Edie to fall asleep, but her rest was disturbed by dreams of screeching tires, flying shards of glass, and terrified screams.  When she woke, it was a relief to find herself on the station.  She didn’t dream of the accident often.  The fresh pain it brought was always a surprise.  After so many years, she should be used to it.
            Edie had a light breakfast before going into the cartography lab.  She found herself alone in the room, staring up at the viewscreen.
            Against a backdrop of black space, Mars burned red-orange.  A white outline traced the mapped areas of the planet.  Tapping the keyboard, Edie changed the screen to show the area she had mapped the shift before.  The wild path jumped into view, curving into a jagged grin.
            Edie was suddenly furious.  She had been duped.  The proof mocked her, obscene next to the otherwise perfect symmetry of her mapping.  The practical joke that had been played on her had disrupted order and broken the rules.
            Rules were not made to be broken, especially in the name of frivolity.  That lesson had been well taught on the day Bobbi and laughingly tossed Edie the car keys and Edie had accepted the challenge.  Last night’s prank could have damaged the rover, perhaps beyond repair.  Such actions, whether in jest or an attempt to rid the station of its one American worker, was unconscionable.
            Edie fought down her anger.  It wouldn’t do to make accusations; she didn’t even know who to accuse.  If it turned out she had been tricked in an effort to expel her from the station, she’d have to tread very carefully indeed.
            As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to admit that the worst of the situation was the overwhelming disappointment that an alien life form had not been discovered after all.
            She returned to her quarters and brooded until her shift began.  As she trudged to her mapping cubicle, she found herself wondering if she wanted to remain on the space station after all.
            The hours passed.  Edie worked fast and efficiently.  At one point, she even thought she was coping quite well with business as usual.  She made it almost halfway through her shift before she gave in to the irrational hope that had plagued her since she’d put on her helmet and Mars’ rock-strewn surface came into view.
            “So much for rules and regulations,” she muttered to herself as she turned the rover about.  She headed for the spot where she’d first encountered the alien.  Edie reset the speed of her vehicle, knowing she was moving much too fast for the conditions.  It wouldn’t make a difference; no matter how fast she went, she’d still be behind schedule by the end of her shift.  That would make it two shifts in a row that her mapping was not up to code.
            But she had to try to find out what it was she’d seen.
            The rover bounded, sometimes leaving the ground as it hurtled across the uneven landscape.  At first Edie was terrified of the speed, but gradually it became exhilarating.  Dunes and boulders raced by.
            The rover skidded when she brought it to a halt.  She found herself breathless with adrenaline and anticipation as she looked about.
            Nothing moved.  Mars glared back at her, red and hostile as ever.  If the planet had possessed a middle finger, Edie was sure it would be giving it to her now.
            Well, she’d gone this far, she reasoned.  She might as well go all the way.
            Moving with deliberate slowness, Edie guided the rover along the wild path the alien had driven before.  As she passed the point where it had run away, Edie felt her small hope dwindle.
            She wanted to cry.  She didn’t allow herself the luxury.
            Instead, she piloted the vehicle back towards the point where she’d left off mapping.  She let the rover trundle surefooted at an approved speed.
            How could she have allowed her emotions to stampede her common sense?  She’d acted irresponsibly, even recklessly, and for what purpose?  Because she wanted to see an alien?
            That was it, she had to admit.  For once she wanted the illogical to exist.
            As if in response to Edie’s silent admission, she caught a furtive movement at the corner of her eye.  Her heart seemed to stop as she turned to look.
            The brown head peered over a medium-sized rock, its avid eyes watching the rover.
            Edie wanted to scream and cry and laugh all at once.  Her hands trembled as she brought the rover to a stop.
            They stared at each other across the rocky ground, neither moving.  Finally Edie held out a hand, palm up in invitation.
            The alien ducked down behind the rock, then came around it, hesitating before approaching the rover.   In contrast to its wild capering the night before, the creature’s movements were sinuous with caution.  It sidled up to the hand and studied it for a moment.  It flicked out its strange tongue to lick.
            Edie felt a feathery sensation on her fingers.  Then the alien stood by the hand, looking expectantly at the rover.
            Edie extended her index finger and gently traced a line over the creature’s round dome of a head.  A delighted grin stretched over her face.  This creature was no automaton or computer-generated image.  It was real!  Her head buzzed so loud, she thought it might explode into fireworks at any second.
            Best of all, she’d be able to catch the little critter.  Proof positive, something no one could debunk.  Hard, cold facts, erasing the fantastic.
            Her chest tightened a little as she rubbed the cooing creature’s head.  She swallowed as it leaned into her touch, its huge eyes half-lidded with pleasure.
            “Things are going to get a little scary for you, my friend, so let’s celebrate while we can,” Edie whispered.  She reached to reset the rover’s speed controls.  “What do you say to a last spin before I bring you up here to amaze our scientists?”
            Before the alien could react, she closed the stroking hand around it and deposited it on the rover.  When Edie disengaged the brake, the rover leapt to life.
            Immediately, the alien grabbed the steering rod and began its typewriter chatter.  It hopped excitedly from one leg to the other, and Edie laughed out loud.  Good.  She wanted it to have some fun while it was free to do so.
            The creature remembered its lessons well.  With deftness, it guided the rover to a stretch of less rocky ground.  They bounded alongside the Tithonia Catena, a chain of craters.
            “Go ahead and show me what you got, speed racer.”  The ghost of a long-ago voice spoke in Edie’s head.
            She could almost see Bobbi there beside her, laughing as they bounced over the rutted logging road, feeling much like the rocky plain of Mars.  It was the weekend, so no one would be working, right?  They had the isolated stretch of dirt all to themselves.  Bobbi, newly licensed, had brought a very envious Edie here to try out driving herself.  Encouraging the already serious and bookish younger sister to let loose and have some fun.  To live outside her comfort zone.  To revel in the magic carpet ride of daring the taboo.  Teasing her, calling her Mario Andretti despite Edie’s refusal to go over 20 miles an hour.   
            “Come on, Edie.  Where’s your sense of adventure?  Life isn’t worth living if you always color inside the lines.”
            Until a logging truck pulled out unexpectedly in front of their mom’s Chevy.  In a panic, Edie had stepped on the gas instead of the brakes, hurtling the car into the truck’s cab.
            Edie closed her eyes.  Stupid, stupid of her to play around.  To break the rules.  Like she was doing now.
            She sighed and opened her eyes again, looking at the harsh alien landscape and the funny little beast piloting the rover over the increasingly stony ground.
            The rover suddenly bounced on a rock, throwing the alien off balance.  Abruptly, the rover turned, making a hard left.  It hurtled up the gentle slope of a crater, sending them straight for the lip of what might be a miles-deep hole.  With a horrified gasp, Edie lunged for the brake.
            Just as she grasped it, the rover’s front wheels cleared the edge of the crater.  The vehicle teetered back and forth for a moment before tilting forward.  The deep chasm of the crater’s gaping maw yawned wide, prepared to swallow them.
            Edie reached back and slammed a robot hand into the hard soil, embedding the long fingers as deep as they would go.  Sensation vibrated up her arm.  The rover stopped tipping with a jerk. 
            Edie looked at the back end of the rover and caught her breath.  Only one of the rear tires remained on the crater’s outside edge.  If the robot arm gave way...
            A piercing whistle shrieked across the radio.  Edie turned her head to see the alien dangling off the side of the rover.  Its legs kicked over the waiting darkness of the deep crater.  As she watched, the alien’s grip slipped a little.  Its clawed hands were losing their hold.
            “I’ve got you,” she whispered, curling her free hand around the creature.  The alien clutched a finger, hugging the metal to its quivering body.
            Edie brought it up to the crater’s edge and boosted the alien to safety.  The brown body disappeared over the top.
            Edie reached back and stabbed the second hand into the ground above the crater.  Praying the arms wouldn’t snap against the rover’s weight, she pulled, slowly inching the vehicle back until both rear tires settled on the ground.  Carefully disengaging a hand, she shifted the rover into reverse and backed it onto the plain.  The undercarriage caught about midway on the raised lip, stopping the vehicle from gaining the ridge.  The front tires remained hovering over the crater’s edge, but the rover no longer teetered.  Edie buried the hand back in the earth for good measure.  She felt sure the vehicle would be safe until help arrived to pull it free.
            Static played on the radio, then the alien’s chatter broke through.  Edie felt the grim line of her mouth curve into a smile as the creature dashed up to the rover.  It hopped from one leg to the other, its speech a steady stream.  It darted to a robot hand, the fingers sunk deep in the dusty Martian soil.  It licked, then imitating Edie’s earlier greeting, it slowly traced a brown claw down the back of her hand.  Alien being or not, the trust it displayed was apparent.  Almost human.
            Edie realized with her hands keeping the rover secured, she couldn’t grab the alien.  She had no way to capture it as it caressed her hand with that whispery sensation.  It was impossible to bring the little imp’s play to an end.  No following the rules and regulations.  No presenting the scientific discovery of all time.
            She wasn’t allowed to color inside the lines this time.
            Watching the alien dance about the rover, Edie realized she had never felt so alive and happy.
            She spent a few minutes looking at the creature’s footprints left in the dust after it had darted away, disappearing among the rocks as if answering some call.  Finally, she took off her helmet and gloves.  She switched on the intercom.
            “Parrish, sir.  I think you’d better come in here.”

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