“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.
He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”
Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.
I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.
Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.
But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.
For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.
But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”
His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.
“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”
“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.
“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”
“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”
“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”
“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”
I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.
Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.
“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”
“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”
“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.
“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”
“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.
“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”
“Must have been awful thirsty.”
“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”
“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.
A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.
“Ingo?” he asked.
I leaned forward.
“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”
As usual, Advent arrived two months later. And per our custom Heinz and I met in Klagenfurt to visit the Christkindlmarkt. The cold autumn was turning to frigid winter, and we huddled next to the kettle of roasting chestnuts. Cloves and aniseed filled the air, and Glühwein warmed our bellies.
“She’s still around,” I said.
Heinz drew a blank.
“You know, the spacewoman.”
“Ah yes, she.”
He was humoring me, I could tell, but I continued all the same. This time, he would see. “Her demands are still queer. Last week she wanted some hydrogen gas. She asked if I had a tap for that too, and was disappointed to learn that I didn’t. I told her something like that’s a little harder to come by.”
Heinz was listening, I suppose, though his attention had been divided between me and the young ladies who’d asked to share our standing table. They were buried in layers of wool, bare hands soaking up heat from ceramic mugs of Punsch as they chatted, noses tipped the shade of Zweigelt.
“She asked if I had helium, and I told her not much–a couple of cylinders in the welding barn, but that was it. She left for a few minutes, then came back, this time asking for methane too.”
“Yes, and now we were in business. I took her to the cellar and showed here the furnace.”
“What on Earth would she want with methane?” Heinz asked, suspiciously.
“To fill the bale wrappers.”
“To fill the bale wrappers?”
“Yes. Once I showed her the gas line, she asked for some ‘holders.’ I had no idea what she meant, until she puffed out her burqa like a sea squab.”
Heinz pulled a handful of change from his thick, Dachstein woolwear jacket and began adding it up. “How about a Bratwurst?”
I agreed, then followed as he swam against the throng. I raised my voice so that he could hear. “So I took her to the hay barn. You know, the one up in the birch grove.”
“I opened it up and showed her the big rubber sacks we use to wrap the hay to turn it to silage. She seemed content enough, but she wasn’t done yet. The next thing she wanted was a net.”
“Ketchup or mustard?”
“Both,” I replied. “Actually, two nets. When I told her I’m a farmer, not a fisherman, she just stared at me, waiting for a better answer. So, I thought of the stretchy nets we use to keep the cabbages from bouncing out of the lorry. She also asked for a scythe. ‘Only if,’ was all she said.”
I took a bite of the brat, and it was hot and crisp and delicious.
“So, you remember that guy Sepp?” Heinz asked while I chewed. “He’s still around.”
“I’m not surprised, there’s really nowhere else–”
“Took a job at the supermarket. Looks ridiculous in those tight red pants. He moved out, into his own flat. Started to speak some German for crying out loud.”
In Heinz’ book, Sepp’s efforts to integrate were neither praiseworthy nor welcome.
“He’s even been drinking Almdudler,” he complained.
“No, carbonated. Uppity little shit.”
Christmas came, and Christmas went, but the bitter winter lingered. And during one of its blizzards I began to wonder about Maria.
“Hallo?” Heinz said when he answered the phone.
“Heinz? It’s me.”
“Yes. Listen, I think I need some help.”
“Why are you whispering?”
I was all alone, so I didn’t know. We always whisper when we don’t want others to hear. “It’s Maria,” I said.
His silence registered another blow.
“You know, the spacewoman.”
“Yea, of course. What does she want now?”
A strong gust slammed the shutters against the window frames. I crept up to one and peered through a crack and saw her lantern flickering wildly in the distance. “She didn’t ask for anything new, but she’s been acting very strange.”
“She has, huh?”
“Yes. She spends most of her time out in the east forty, fiddling around with something.”
“She does, huh?”
“Yes. I think she might be building something. Some sort of … contraption. Even tonight, of all nights. It’s windy as hell.”
“I can hear.”
“I start to worry she’s up to no good.”
“Then call the cops, Ingo.” The wind howled again.
“What, so they can just take her away? No, I’m not ready to do that yet. It’s just a suspicion, a hunch, that’s all.”
“It is, huh?”
I could hear my brother hunting through his wine closet, turning over bottles to view their labels. I could hear the television in the background.
“I’d like you to come over, to see for yourself. If she worries you too, then we can go to the police together.”
“Aw Ingo, I don’t know. I’ve got some things on this end.”
“I see,” I said, before playing the silent card.
“You know, the vineyard and all.”
“But it’s the middle of winter.”
I waited him out some more.
“OK, OK. You see, the truth is, it’s Sepp. I think he might be up to no good.”
“He gets cheekier each day. He started working in the carpenter’s shop.”
“And, well, he doesn’t belong there.”
“He just doesn’t belong there, you know. And get this…”
“He started driving.”
“How dare he.”
“Yea, can you believe it?”
“And he’s been hanging out with the grandkids. Says he just wants to practice his German. I don’t know about that.”
“Because, Ingo, because. Needless to say, I got my eye on him. I’m just waiting for him to screw up. And he will. And when he does … it’s bye-bye Seppi.”
I waited for a few moments so the subject could change.
“Could you please stop by?”
He searched for another excuse, but none came to mind. “Aw hell, Ingo, you’re hopeless,” he said. “I’ll be there in the morning.”
The loud flapping drew my eyes skyward too, and there she was. Maria broke through the clouds beneath a giant net of deflating balloons, her red-white burqa waving like an Austrian flag behind a strong gale. She landed hard, but not too hard, and then she stood and looked in our direction.
Heinz looked at me, and I at him. Neither of us knew what to say, though for very different reasons. I turned and hurried to my guest, to see if she’d been injured. She hadn’t, at least not on the outside. But she made a horrible sound that could only be likened to weeping.
Heinz caught up to us, his nose getting a dose of the methane. He stood silently while I tried to console her.
Maria stammered between sobs. “The holders … they holded … thank you … much so.”
I looked into her dark eyes, but they were still lifeless and cold, black like engine oil. I felt an urge to embrace her.
“They took me up,” she continued. “The water and me, they took we up.” She wailed some more, and I laid a hand on her shoulder. I was shocked to find not flesh and bone but cold, hard metal.
Behind us, Heinz had caught up. “You’re damn strange,” he said, with typical grace. “Where’re you from?”
“Forget it Heinz, she won’t–”
“GJ 699,” she did.
Heinz didn’t flinch, but my head was spinning. This was a code, and it had a meaning. According to the Gliese Catalogue, my visitor was from Barnard’s Star.
Suddenly, a blazing bright orb appeared high above us. It accelerated southward and away and then, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Seconds later we heard the thunder, a loud and very strange thunder, which ceased just as fast as the flash had gone. It could have been my imagination, except that Heinz had heard and seen it too. He clucked like a man-sized chicken, and then shook his head lightly, eyes narrowing as disbelief spread to his innermost bits and pieces.
“It was them,” Maria explained. “It my family and the space boat. They go now. They now safe are. I can say now.”
“Say? What?” I asked.
“All,” she replied.
“We’re listening, aren’t we Ingo.” My brother was suddenly very interested. It really wasn’t like him.
I nodded, and Maria told us everything. About how she and her family had travelled from their world on a scouting expedition. About how they had orbited and studied Earth for years, and how their advanced cloaking system had allowed them to do so undetected. About the collision with the space debris, and the leak, and the venting of their hydrogen stores, and their critical need for fusion fuel for their return home.
“The water,” I said.
“Yes, the water. Why it is I come.”
She hadn’t been thirsty at all. Her robotic body required no hydration, nor nutrients whatsoever. But once she had a few liters of water, all she needed was a decent balloon, and the right timing, to get plenty of fusion fuel within range of her starship’s tractor beam.
“It worked, the cabbage net,” she said. “It holded the holders. But why not bigger your nets?”
I wasn’t sure how to reply.
“Why? If bigger your nets, I would be go too. I would be now with them.” She looked skyward, and Heinz and I did the same. “The methane is too like air. Too heavy is it. I must let go the water. It and helium go up, me and methane down come.”
This was Maria’s “only if,” and sadly, it had come to pass. She had come here for her family’s benefit, alone, a stranger to an alien place. And, when needed, she sacrificed herself.
“Christ,” Heinz exclaimed, visibly shaken, clearly searching for words. “I’m not saying I believe her, now, but just suppose it’s true, what she’s saying. Just suppose she’s not lying. Then it really is amazing, you know, that thing she just did.”
I might have seen a tiny droplet freezing in the corner of his eye.
“She must be exhausted,” he said, with oddly wavering voice. “Let’s take her in.”
We began the trudge back to the house, Heinz carrying the spacewoman in his arms like a robotic child. For some reason, I began to wonder what this might mean for Sepp. I turned to my big brother, and his Lodenhut and Dachstein woolwear jacket, and the red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf cinched up to his ears.
But I wasn’t brave enough to ask.
Marc Humphrey is the co-author of Idiot’s Guides: Quantum Physics and Idiot’s Guides: Physics. His fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, the J.J. Outré Review, and SPANK the CARP.