“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
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
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
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
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.
ahead and show me what you got, speed racer.” The ghost of a long-ago voice spoke in Edie’s
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
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
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
“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.”