By Sarena Ulibarri
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
I freefall, plummeting through an alien sky. Clouds obscure my vision. Tears and mucus smear across my helmet to murk it even more. I shut my eyes-such fickle and sensitive sensory organs-and imagine the equations of the forces acting on my body. I try to rearrange their values: my version of praying, I suppose. But the laws of physics will not bend just to save my life.
Ever since our ship left Earth, I've been freefalling along the gentle curves of spacetime, swimming weightless through the ship. That kind of freefall felt so different from the roughness of this atmosphere that pushes against me, the cruelty of this gravity well that pulls me down. We had meant to orbit, collect data, send probes down before maybe-maybe-sending ourselves down. But something plucked us out of orbit no sooner than we had entered it, like a great hand had reached up from the planet to swat us away. Now the ship is a mess of scattered debris, nothing but remnants of disaster.
I assume the explosion cast out the other four members of our crew as well. I refuse to think their names. They are bodies, as I am a body, casualties of yet another failed expedition to find out what radio signals and electromagnetic spectrums couldn't tell us about planets like this one. We reached for the stars; we reached too far. The rhyme echoes through my head to the rhythm of the rushing air.
My own name tugs at my consciousness, but that name is attached to a ghost floating on the edge of the atmosphere, watching my descent. If I am anything, I am Astra, a falling star. Part of a meteor shower, on display for whoever or whatever may be watching below.
Astra's body warms, flames.
I open my eyes and through the smear of my helmet see the white crest of an ocean wave. I force my limbs to curl into a fetal position, and prepare to enter the womb of a foreign sea.
When I awaken, I float on gentle waves, the ocean surface rising and falling in little bumps. Oxygen whistles out of the fissure in my cracked helmet. Because I'm still adjusting to the idea that I'm alive, and because we had anticipated an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, I take it off and breathe deep. I tread water and wave my helmet like a flag and scream for help. The words dissolve into meaningless syllables, unanswered.
Then, there's a sound, something other than the splash of my limbs, the wheeze of my breath. I quiet myself and listen. It vibrates through the air a few more times.
In the distance, a dog barks. A most improbable sound, but I'm sure of it.
I swim toward the barking, and there on the horizon, as if manifested just now, is a hill of green grass. Closer, a red barn comes into focus, then a scattering of wooden houses. I see the dog, a sturdy border collie, still barking. I see a hillside of fluffy sheep.
A mirage. This ocean wanderer has found her oasis shimmering in the heat of the horizon. I keep swimming toward it, wondering how long the illusion will last.
I step onto the grass.
The sound of human laughter and conversation joins the dog's barking. Instruments tuning and warming up. Men walk past and tip cowboy hats to me. I fling my helmet. It rolls along the grass and then comes to rest against the side of a barn.
I laugh. All those speculations about xeno-biology, all those experiments on bacteria's survival in space, and what I find here is nearly identical to the Texan farm where I grew up.
A boy, fourteen or so, dressed in overalls and a black cap runs out of the barn and grabs my arm. He looks familiar, like a distant cousin whose name I can't remember.
"We've been waiting for you, Astra," he says, tugging me toward the barn.
"You play, right?"
I look through the barn door; the opposite wall opens into a stage. A woman in denim and fringe adjusts a microphone. A man pats his guitar and peers out the door at us. The drummer, long-haired and lean, taps time on the snare drum. An empty chair waits, an acoustic guitar resting against it.
"'Course I do," I say, hearing my voice drop into childhood rhythms. "Thank y'all for waitin'."
I try to hurry toward the stage, but my bulky spacesuit hampers my speed.
We play for hours. We play songs I know, and songs I forgot I knew, and songs I didn't know I knew until the tunes spring flawlessly from my fingertips. People dance, their heads thrown back, heels kicking up the dust, foreheads glistening in the afternoon sun.
Here, so far from the spinning rock on which I was born, are the people I have always been waiting to meet, the most perfect rolling countryside, the ideal summer afternoon. It's like the home I knew as a child, far from the cold brick of the university and the sterile isolation of the ship and all its simulated predecessors where I spent so much of my adult life.
The drummer taps the rhythm to begin another song, but this time my chords are just out of reach, my strums each a half-beat behind. My band-mates glance at me, first with confusion, then with sympathy as I fall further and further behind. I stop. They keep going without me, and I rub my hand across the strings. For a moment, the whine of metal against skin is all I can hear. I still my hand, close my eyes. The song grows fainter. My ears feel muffled like after the rock concerts I used to sneak away to the city to see when I was a teenager. I open my eyes.
One of the dogs sits next to me, eyes sad and tail wagging, slowly, whapping against the cords on the stage floor. It's like he's telling me it's over, I can't stay any longer in this dream, or illusion, or heaven, or whatever this is. I reach out and scratch his ears. He whines.
I stand up. No one in the band gives me a second glance. I set my guitar on the chair and wander off stage, down onto the straw-covered ground, and out the back door.
My body itches beneath the spacesuit. The music fades as I meander down the slope until the grass gives way to sand. The ocean is there, the same one I had glimpsed barreling toward me as I plummeted from the sky. And yet, here I stand on an inexplicable beach, the music thumping on in the barn behind me.
I shuck off my suit and leave it in a crumple on the beach, walking toward the water in my shorts and tank top. Waves rush past me. Goosebumps rise on my skin with each new lap. When I'm far enough out, I swim, feeling the stretch of long-neglected muscles, the burn of underused lungs. I turn onto my back and float. I gaze up at the sky, so familiarly blue. Thin wisps of white cloud curl high in the atmosphere. With my ears submerged, I no longer hear the band, or the barking dogs. Just the hum of the ocean. I close my eyes.
Through the hum, someone calls my name. Astra. I am Astra, the falling star. The voice calls again, and the name morphs, no longer Astra, but that other name I had in that other life, before I fell through an alien sky. I keep my eyes closed, refuse to answer.
Then I'm tugged down, water filling my nose, shadows blocking sunlight, a rush replacing the water's gentle hum. I kick, fight, struggle to keep the water from overtaking my lungs. My head breaks the surface, and through bleary eyes I see the commander, Maria. She's the one trying to drown me.
No, she's trying to save me.
She talks too fast, her words lost in the rush of the water and the violence of my coughs. Water stretches to both horizons, no shoreline or gentle hillsides, no barn or band or dancers.
We should not be alive. The laws of physics should not have bent to spare our fragile bodies. And yet here we are.
"We have to get back to the capsule," she says, the words finally finding meaning in my head. There's violence in each of her movements, churning the already-churning ocean. "We have to do something!" she yells. Her voice strangles in desperation.
"Do we?" I say it, or think it, I'm not sure. The two seem indistinguishable at the moment.
I break away from her and try to float again, summoning calmness in the waters around me. She wants so desperately to get to the capsule, but there's nothing there worth struggling for. There will be no rescue.
She yanks me up again. In the distance, a dog barks. She stops yelling.
I lick the sea salt from my lips and force words through my raw throat. "What did you hear?"
She shakes her head. Then I hear it again. I slit my eyes open and look for the shoreline. I have a feeling that if we're patient, it will materialize again. Maria laughs, incredulous.
"A dog," she says. "I hear a dog."
I convince Maria to be silent and still. We tread water barely enough to keep ourselves afloat, and once the water steadies, the dog barks again and a shoreline appears.
We step onto the grass.
Maria asks me what I see. I tell her, and she confirms. The red barn where I played earlier is still there, but sidewalks and asphalt wind through the fields now too; tall buildings jut up in between the wooden houses. A sheep stands on an apartment stoop, chewing its cud. A couple of teenagers in chains and baggy jeans push a giant hay bale down the street. It picks up litter and grease as it rolls.
She's out of her suit, leaving wet footprints on the sidewalk. I wonder if I should go back into the ocean, let her have her communion with the city the way I did with the countryside. But she looks terrified, resistant. Her reaction makes no sense. Unless the cityscape is as hostile to her as my landscape was pleasant to me. If every street corner and window is familiar but unwelcome, pulled from memories of a childhood she doesn't care to revisit. She looks around.
"So we're dead," she says. "We died in the crash and this is some kind of jacked-up afterworld."
I ponder this. "I don't think so," I say. My head is cloudy; I'm drawn toward the barn again. I wander that direction and Maria follows.
"Shared hallucination, from some compound in the air. Or," she says, "aliens. Accessing our brain waves and projecting something we can understand."
"Maybe," I say. I'm tired of her questions. I gesture toward a woman walking by. "Ask them, not me." Maria watches the woman, mixed-race, early twenties in an ill-fitting business suit with massive leather purse. "Go on," I say. "She speaks English."
The woman passes by. Maria hesitates, then runs to catch up with her.
"Hey," Maria yells, "Excuse me, I need to ask you a question."
The woman stops, offers a pleasant smile.
"Who are you?" Maria asks.
The woman tilts her head quizzically. "Maria," she says.
If Maria is surprised by the name, she doesn't flinch. It's common enough, I suppose. "Where are we?"
The woman points at a street sign and starts to walk away.
Maria shakes her head, cuts in front of the woman to keep her from leaving. "No, this planet. What is this place?"
The building behind her stretches up like taffy, then droops slightly. The woman's eye slides down her cheek like dripping paint. "I don't know what you mean."
"What do you want from us?" The woman's mouth melts and dribbles. "Are you a single entity or a collective?" An arm breaks off, shatters on the ground.
"Stop!" I yell. Maria turns to me. The woman reforms and walks away. The building snaps back into place.
"I'm going back to the capsule," Maria says. "Maybe some of the data there will let me figure out what's happening."
She tugs my arm, but I pull away. There are no barns, or sheep, or rolling hillsides in the capsule.
"Come with me," she says.
"Nah," I drawl.
She punches me in the cheek. I stumble onto the stoop. The sheep looks up at me, still chewing.
"This isn't real."
"I know," I say. "But I'm staying." The sheep nuzzles the back of my head.
"Your reaction makes no sense."
I laugh, because I had thought the same of her. She throws her hands up and turns around.
She leaves. Back to the carcass of our former lives, to send nonsensical numbers to the anxious control station back home.
The buildings melt away as Maria wades into the ocean. The sidewalks turn to hard-packed dirt. My own personal planet, shaped just for me.
It wasn't perfect, my childhood. The farm was full of dead lambs and broken arms and frozen mornings. There was a time when I couldn't wait to leave it. I look around, expecting the countryside to darken from these memories, but it doesn't. People are dancing in the barn again.
I stay, I dance, but when I feel that pull that says it's time to leave, I refuse. I sit down right in the middle of the dance floor. People jostle around me, kick me, step over me, but I stay. The dog nudges my arm. Dancers shoot disgusted glares my way and leave.
The grass withers to brown. The barn catches fire, blazes like a meteor. I stay.
The ground begins to bow and sink around me. I stay. I am a star, stretching the fabric of spacetime, bending reality to my mass. I sink, I sink.
I am Astra, the falling star, and this is my crater.
I look up and see Maria standing on the rim. Water sloshes behind her.
"What happened to your world?" she asks.
"Don't know," I say. "Did you send the data? Did the sensors answer all your questions?"
She shakes her head. "Everything was fried by the time I got back."
"So, no answers." She says nothing, but I realize that there's only one answer I want to know. "What happened to the others? Our crew?"
"Don't know," she says. "It's just us."
I look down into my lap. My grief is suddenly as dense as a black hole, threatening to tear through my existence. Their names flood back into my mind, followed by the names of everyone I ever cared about back on Earth. I shut my eyes and my crater sinks even deeper. My grief morphs to fear and I resist opening my eyes, sure that they will all be there when I do, the faces belonging to all those names I invoked.
Finally, I look. The crater around me is empty. Maria still stands on the rim.
"Just us," she says again, and reaches down.
My crater has sunk too deep for me to reach her. She crouches, leaps, and the ground under me rises to meet her. My crater inverts, concave to convex. A mountain shoots into the sky and Maria and I slide along smooth slopes, straining for a handhold.
I land hard on a metal grate. Maria catches herself on the railing, dangling down. I swing her up to stand beside me and we look up at the new mountain.
It's not a mountain. It's a ship. Our ship, only whole, not the scatter of wreckage it was when I saw it last.
In front of us, a door slides open. The grating cuts my feet as we approach. Maria pushes ahead of me, flipping switches, lighting up screens. The engines rumble to life.
"It's another illusion," she shouts over the growing roar.
I touch the solid walls. As solid as the barn door, or the guitar I played.
"Or the planet reassembled it for us," I say. "From all the broken pieces."
Maybe it was never broken in the first place, I think, but do not say.
Maria frowns. She puts on a headset, and the chatter of Mission Control seeps out of the earphones. "Think we can fly an illusion?"
"What have we got to lose?" I say.
I half-expect her to punch me again, but she straps in and tells me to shut the door. The ship shudders. My teeth shake. Inertia slams me back into my seat. Maria throws a headset at me, yelling some directions I can't hear. In a moment, we'll hit the edge of the atmosphere. If the ship is not an illusion, I will be an astronaut again, I will be that name she calls me. But for now, I close my eyes, think of the countryside, feel the equations of the forces acting on my body, pushing me out toward space like a chunk of rock ejected into orbit after an impact.
I am Astra for just a little while longer.