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CHLOE CLARK

Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Patterns of Orbit, the forthcoming Every Galaxy Is a Circle a more.




WERE THE SKY TO FALL WHERE WOULD YOU BE


When a piece of the Ariadne crashed into the parking lot of the Noah’s Ark Waterpark, it was early enough in the day and late enough in the tourist season that barely anyone was there. Leslie was the only one to see the mess of metal and fire hit the concrete, sending a crack across the ground, pieces of asphalt into the air. She was cutting through the waterpark parking lot to get towards the back of restaurant row, early as always for her shift at Turtle’s Pies. Seeing the shape coming through the blue of the early morning sky, she kept blinking her eyes, used to migraine floaters that would occasionally twirl past her vision. But the shape had gotten larger and closer. Her first and reasonable thought was that it must have been part of an airplane. Her next and irrational thought was that she should see if anyone needed help.

It was crumpled metal, soot encrusted, melted in parts. She had to keep telling herself, don’t touch it, don’t touch it. But still her hand reached out. She felt a push of heat emanating outwards and saw the edge of something orange and black, a single corner of something painted on. It took a moment for it to click. For her to know where she had seen it before. A basketball in place of a sun.


The Ariadne I mission was supposed to be triumphant. The mission that would prove travel to Mars possible. The Ariadne would utilize a midway station and then circle the planet before returning to Earth. Four astronauts aboard. No touchdown, but enough data to make dreams come true.

To showcase the idea of dreams, of the future, a talented high school artist’s mural was commissioned. They’d done a nationwide contest—mockups for the side of the rocket submitted with videos of each artist talking about their vision.

When Marquez and Avalon Harper were chosen, it was allowed because they were a brother and sister even though originally it was supposed to be one artist. They were seniors in a high school in Georgia. Their mural mockups showed a solar system filled with the rush of humanity—an earth reflected on a stainless steel sauté pan, being flipped into orbit, vinyl records as planetary rings, and the sun a glowing basketball. Throughout the solar system, rockets—giant ones looking like jets with people peeking out of little windows, and small ones like little cars filled with happy families. The title: We Are the Universe.  


Leslie grabbed her phone from her pocket, scrambled to find a news story, to confirm with her brain what she’d already confirmed with her eyes. One from ten minutes earlier: she hit play. A somber newscaster saying that ground control had lost all contact with the Ariadne, that it was dangerously out of control. The self-destruct hardwired into the rocket had been deployed. All crew believed lost.

The word believed, as if any other outcome were possible.

She sat on the ground, the arc of a basketball sun only a foot or so away from her. Don’t touch it.  

                                                            *

When Marquez heard the news he was at work, shoveling sizzling hot french fries into paper cups. It was morning, and somehow already busy.

“Dude. Dude,” assistant manager Rob said. Rob was two years older, a sophomore at the local college. He usually only talked with Marquez if it was to try to glean info about the local high school girls who came in. Information Marquez never supplied, though Rob didn’t seem to hold it against him.

“Big order coming in?” Marquez asked.

“No, dude, like look at the screen,” and he pointed to the screen that was always on, always showing sports or weird children’s cartoons depending on who was managing that day. Marquez looked up and the screen was filled with breaking news.

It took him a full minute to wrap his brain around what he was seeing. When they flashed a picture of the crew, his mind rewound to the moment he’d met them. They’d each shook his and Avalon’s hands, one by one. One astronaut, Annalie Wei, had said to him, “It’s better than the Sistine Chapel,” and he’d felt like she meant it. Like she’d meant it completely.

“Holy shit,” Marquez said too loud.

“Language, dude, this is a family estab,” Rob said.

But Marquez didn’t hear him, just saw fire in the sky.


The police arrived, but didn’t seem to know what exactly their job entailed in the specific situation. Deputy Thomas asked Leslie what she’d seen and typed it into his tablet.

“Uh huh, and were you, um, did you notice anything else unusual?”

Leslie stared at him. He was the older brother of one of her friends, Zach, and she’d never thought he was incompetent until that moment. “Other than the piece of metal falling through the sky?”

“Other than that.”

“No.”

“Were you following the mission?” he asked, letting himself return to being a human who had known Leslie since she was six years old.

She nodded.

“What a waste,” he said, looking at the cordoned-off debris. The yellow caution tape around it making it some weird art installation.

“I’m late for my shift, can I go?” she asked, trying not to look at the debris.

“Yeah, of course. This isn’t exactly a crime scene. I don’t think?”

She nodded at him and walked the rest of the way to Turtle’s.

She’d never been late before, so when she walked into the back, the owner, Cheryl, looked at her with sheer relief. “I thought you were dead.”

“Still kicking,” she said. She put on her apron, tying the strings with practiced smoothness. “I—saw. A piece of that rocket fell out of the sky.”

“What, hon?” Cheryl asked. A look of concern replacing the relief. “The spaceship on the news? I just saw that.”

“Yeah. It fell from the sky, landed in the Arking Lot.”

Cheryl shrugged. “Weird. I guess I’ve seen weirder. But you’re okay, sweetie? It didn’t hurt you?”

Leslie shook her head. “It never touched me.”


Avalon had always let everything slide off her back better than Marquez ever could. “We didn’t really know them, Quez. It’s sad, of course, it’s sad. But, people die every day. All around the world.”

But Marquez felt it like a punch to the chest, his breath knocked out even when he lay in bed that night and stared at his ceiling. He had shaken their hands, painted their coffin.

He couldn’t stop thinking about whoever had had to make the decision to initiate the self-destruct. Someone in mission control, calculating the risk, the chance of things righting themselves, someone who had to make the call to end four lives. How long did you wait?

That night, Leslie read interviews with the astronauts. They never gave much information, just talked about how excited they were. Had their families understood the risk? Had they really?

Her sister peeked into her room: “Can you imagine if they’d picked your mural?”

“I don’t think the mural is what matters, Kelsey.”

“But, like, that would’ve been wild.”

Leslie shrugged.

“Did it look scary?” Kelsey leaned against the doorframe.

“I didn’t really know what it was to be honest.”

“I’d’ve been scared, I think,” Kelsey said.

“I didn’t think it would crash into me.”

Kelsey shook her head. “No, like, if I was one of them. I’d’ve been so scared. Do you think they understood?”

“I don’t know,” Leslie said.

Her mural proposal had been of the rocket going into the night sky, but above it the night sky turned into the ocean. Full of life even in the depths. Anglerfish lighting the way, the hulkingly soft forms of goblin sharks. An octopus whose camouflage blended into the cosmos. She’d been a finalist, one of the top twenty, but she didn’t tell anyone. Just said she hadn’t gotten selected.

She had liked the one that won.


At the launch, before liftoff, when the countdown still had an hour to go, the four of them told jokes to ease their nerves. Annalie said, “what do you call someone who never goes to space?”

The others shook their heads, anticipating the badness of the punch line.

“Grasstronauts,” she said with a smile. All of them out there, moving about the Earth, never recognizing that they were exploring the universe too.


The piece of the Ariadne was shipped back to the space center. They’d have to run tests on everything, determine what was at fault. No one could explain how it had gotten so far off trajectory to end up in Wisconsin.

They boxed it up, closing in the edge of the sun.






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