For a time in middle school, I wanted to be an astronomer. Stars, planets, space—all held a fascination. My family’s home was in the country, away from the ambient light of nearby cities, and on a clear night the constellations loomed bright enough that I was tempted to reach out and grab them. Beyond Orion and his belt, you could see the impressions of thousands of stars behind the veil of our atmosphere, their faint light traveling to my eyes from long, long ago and far, far away. On the evenings I stood out in my front yard staring up, I liked the idea of feeling small, like there was something bigger out there than whatever adolescent problem I had dreamed up that week.
Of course, there are adults—a good 48 percent of those in the U.S., according to a recent poll by Huffington Post/YouGov—who think that there’s not only something out there in space, but a whole lot of someones observing us. In Evan West’s story “Alienated,” you’ll get to meet a few such believers, one of whom claims to have had an extraterrestrial encounter in sleepy Brownsburg. When West was writing the story, he said (with a wry smile) that he would have to hand in his journalistic credentials, now that he was covering aliens. But West’s story evolved past news of the weird; it became a study on the repercussions of belief.
For almost two decades back in the ’50s and ’60s, my grandfather worked in Air Force intelligence, and as he got older and the projects he worked on became unclassified, I guess, we heard stories we’d never heard before. Thank you, Sarah Palin—he really did watch Russia from a mountainside in Alaska. He had a pet bear in Korea. He tested the loyalty of new spies in South America. But there were some topics he refused to address. “What about Area 51,” I asked him, knowing he was stationed for a while in the southwestern U.S. “What about Roswell?” But he never answered. He would only raise his eyebrows, look to the skies, and shrug.
Those who carry on about flying saucers and abductions are often considered kooks (and let’s face it, some of them might be). Then you hear numbers like 8.8 billion—that’s how many stars, NASA announced last November, that are orbited by Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. The odds are great enough to make even a skeptic wonder.
Amanda Heckert is the editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly.
This article appeared in the March 2014 issue.