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Hardening Off

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"That certainly is a hell of a thing."

"That it is," Martha agreed.

Something had crashed in their cornfield. Which was, among other things, a real waste of corn. The heat of its landing had cooked some of it, and so incongruous white puffs of popcorn sat on the ground around it. It might have been funny, if it hadn't been rather worrying.

It looked, if she didn't know any better, like a spaceship. Except that it couldn't have been. Surely not.

"Think it's Russian?" Jonathan asked.

"No," she said immediately. "You need to stop listening to talk radio." It gleamed far more than anything she'd ever seen come out of Eastern Europe, for one thing, utterly smooth and not a bolt or a rivet in sight. Like glass-covered iridescent chrome, complex geometric shapes drawn over it in matte.

"I don't listen to talk radio," he said, faintly offended.

"It ain't like it matters," she said, hands on her hips. "That's definitely not Russian."

"How about I go poke it with a stick, then, see if it explodes?" he suggested.

"You know damn well that's a terrible idea, and I don't know why you're asking when I know you're going to do it anyway." He kissed her cheek before stepping carefully down into the crater the thing had made, boots sliding in the earth. He hadn't actually brought a stick with him, so instead he prodded it with the sole of his boot. He looked back up at his wife. She shrugged. He shrugged back. Then he leaned closer to the thing, scratched his hair as he looked at it.

"This part here looks different," he said, and he reached out to put his hand on it. And immediately started seizing.

"Johnny!" She jumped down after him, her own boots faring no better than his, and she yanked him away so he was no longer in contact with it. Didn't know if it would work, but it looked a little like getting electrocuted. Same theory. They both wound up tipping backward as a result, landed right on their asses in the ground. "The hell with this," Martha said, pulling herself up while her husband still sat dazed. Her jeans were stained dark with soil. "I'm getting my shotgun, whatever's in there thinks it can just go around doing whatever the hell that was and it's got another thing coming."

There was a clicking sound, a sort of musical mechanical whirring, and it opened. They stared.

"Now, Marty," Jonathan said, "you know I hate trying to tell you what to do and all, but I think I'd rather you didn't shoot that."

She stepped closer to the ship, blinking. The contents remained the same. A baby. Very clearly a baby. A dark-haired little baby, wrapped up in a blanket gripped by chubby little baby arms.

"Well that just makes no goddamn sense, does it?" she said. "Why'd there be a baby in there?"

"Russians shot a dog into space, once," he offered.

"The Russians didn't shoot any damn babies into space, Johnny," she snapped. "Sure as hell didn't in a ship like this one, anyway."

The baby continued sleeping, unperturbed.

"But it can't be an alien," she said. "Can it? Why'd an alien look like a human baby?"

"Maybe it's like Princess Leia," Jonathan offered as he stood, trying and failing to brush dirt off himself.

"What?"

"You know, that Princess Leia. She was an alien, looked like a human lady."

Martha huffed. "Johnny, that was a movie."

"Yeah," he said, as if he did not see her point.

"That was a human woman, pretending to be an alien."

"A real alien, though."

"No. The aliens were made up, too. They were fake aliens who looked like humans."

Jonathan scratched his head. "Theory's still sound."

Martha rolled her eyes but gave up on arguing, tried to lean closer to better see the possible alien. It was definitely breathing. "Maybe it's a trap," she suggested.

"A baby trap?"

"That pun better have been an accident." She bit the ragged edge of her thumbnail, trying to think. "What if it just looks like a baby. Like some kinda Trojan Horse, full of spider eggs or smallpox or something."

"I don't think the Trojan Horse was full of spiders."

"Tch!" She smacked him in the shoulder with the back of her hand. "I know that, I meant conceptually it's the same."

"Now, how come when I say Princess Leia that's silly, but when you say horse full of spiders—"

"Because mine's one that actually happened at least once, Johnny, it ain't the same."

The possible-baby, possible-spider's-nest opened its eyes. It yawned a toothless yawn, blinked furiously, and then looked at them. Its eyes were blue. A very bright blue.

"I think you woke the horse baby, Marty." She smacked him again. "Don't go hitting people in front of it, you're going to set a bad example."

The baby let go of its blanket to try and reach for them with tiny hands. Martha recoiled.

"Well now what do we do?" she said more than asked, because she didn't really expect anyone to have any answers.

"Now, you know I'd normally never suggest this, but do you suppose we ought to call the cops?" Jonathan asked. "Special circumstances, and all."

The baby was still waving its hands at them.

"Aw, hell." She reached out, picked the baby up in a manner suggesting she thought it couldn't be too different from holding a cat. It was wearing some kind of a nightgown in black, and it made it look much more dire than seemed strictly necessary for an infant. "If it's got some kind of smallpox, it's too late for us anyway." She brought it closer to try and get a better look at its face, looking for some kind of visible indication that it was anything other than human. The baby set a clumsy hand on her forehead, not enough fine motor control to avoid basically just smacking her in the head. "Now, what in the hell'd you go and do that for?"

"That's not how you hold a baby," Jonathan chided. He took it from her, set it snugly in the crook of his arm. "You've gotta support its head, it doesn't know what it's doing yet." The baby smacked him in the cheek, because it was the only part it could reach, but Jonathan looked unperturbed.

Sometimes she forgot how many little sisters he used to have.

"I feel like they'd make a fake baby a bit nicer," she said. It still hadn't cried at all, showed no indication of being uncomfortable on what was theoretically an alien planet. She let her head get just too close enough that it hit her in the forehead again. "Now, you really gotta stop doing that, baby," she informed it, gently removing the little hand to try and give it back. The baby was not dissuaded, so she recoiled from it again.

"Don't try to reason with the baby, Marty. Even human babies don't listen to reason, this one doesn't even speak the language."

She groaned, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. "Human babies don't speak the language either," she pointed out.

"They sort of do." He smiled down at the baby, and after a moment it smiled back. "They hear you talking while they're cooking, get used to what things sound like." He looked back up at his wife. "So what do you want to do with it? Feds might offer a reward."

Martha bit her thumbnail again, staring at the alien. It really did look like a human. Feds'd probably have some way of testing it, figuring out whether it was all some weird hoax. But then what if it wasn't? What would they do with it, then? She wouldn't even trust the government with a human baby, let alone some starchild. Keep it in a cage or dissect it or run experiments on it.

And what if the parents came back for it? It would probably be better for everyone if they could show it had been treated right.

The baby was trying to stick its whole fist in its mouth.

So many things that could go wrong, here. But Martha wasn't a big believer in making people suffer for potential crimes. Even if the people in question came from space.

"We still got that hitch crane lying around somewhere?" she asked him.

"Pretty sure, yeah."

"Give me the baby and go get it, then," she said. "We need to hurry up and get this ship hidden somewhere."

"Are you going to hold it right this time?" he asked before making any motion to hand it over.

"Yes, I will hold the baby right. Honestly, Johnny." He looked dubious, but nonetheless gave her the infant, and she cradled it to her chest the way she was supposed to.

"Give me ten minutes, I'll be right back with the truck."

Tiny hands tugged at the neckline of her shirt. "Oh, I wouldn't get your hopes up on that front, baby," she informed it. "You'd better hope we've got something or other you can eat, though, or this is going to get real sad for the both of us." It made a sound like a deflating balloon. Martha had no frame of reference as to whether this was a normal sound for a baby to make. She looked to the way that her husband had left. "Alright, baby, if you're going to explode or something, you'd better do it quick before Johnny gets back. I get hurt and that's one thing, but he gets hurt and I'll find your planet just to haunt it."

It smacked her in the cheek. She sighed.

"You'd better not make me regret this."