Commander Annie – Part 2

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023

[Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

“You want to come with me?” Annie asked. The tiny flower-eye winked at her.

Annie grabbed her backpack from the far side of the pile of sleeping bags, slung it over one shoulder, and went out the back door, carefully avoiding the entertainment room where Doris and Ryan were doing their puzzle.

Outside the air was crisp; a breeze had come up and blown the earlier heat away.  The stars looked bright.  Beaming.  Calling to her.

Annie found her spaceship, slanted out of true, smashing down the slightly damp grass.  Wet cardboard doesn’t have a lot of structural integrity.  Fortunately, Annie had reinforced the Checkerboard Ultrarocket’s hull with transparent strips of quantum static shielding.  It looked a lot like packing tape.  She kicked the boxy side of the hull, straightening the ship out, and climbed inside.  Without Captain Callie beside her, there was plenty of room for her backpack, which was very full, since she’d slipped her space helmet inside.  Of course.

Annie breathed more easily once the Checkerboard Ultrarocket’s hull had sealed around her, and the Earth was two whole wormhole jumps behind her.  Lightyears away on the other side of a different galaxy.  The galaxy she was in now wasn’t even a spiral.

In front of her, on the Checkerboard’s screen, Zorpa II rested against the backdrop of scattered stars like a honeydew melon floating on the ocean, miles from shore, in the middle of the night.  It’s always night in space.  And honeydew is the perfect midnight snack.  Commander Annie was ready to slice that honeydew open and eat the sweet, sticky fruit inside.

A voice crackled over the radio, this time Callie’s:  “Annie?  Are you on your Ultrarocket?  I can’t find you, and we’re going to…”

The radio went silent, and Annie wasn’t sure at first if the audio had cut out or if Callie had stopped talking.  She wondered if Callie was speaking through the smart transmitter hidden in Doris’ hydrangea bush or if she’d actually gotten out her own space helmet.  Probably the hydrangea.  Given how much she’d seemed to care about what those other girls thought of her, Callie was probably too embarrassed to show them the high-tech space helmet they’d built out of Ryan’s old football helmet.  Annie loved her own converted bicycle helmet, but she thought the caging on the front of Callie’s helmet was really cool and sometimes felt a little jealous that her parents didn’t have a neat old hand-me-down helmet for her to use.

“Look, I know you love exploring space,” Callie finally continued, “but Mckayla and Juno know how to summon a portal to a fae realm and…  It’s my birthday.  I want to go meet fairies instead of aliens for once.”  She paused for a long time again before asking, “Would you come?”

Annie was annoyed and bewildered that Callie would make it sound like they were off exploring alien planets together all the time when it had been months since they’d even seen each other.  But she did want to spend time with Callie.  She needed more information, as any scientist would.

Annie switched on her radio:  “What do you mean, summon a portal?  Like magic or something?”

“Yeah, magic,” Callie said, as if that were a real, reasonable response instead of a joke Annie had been making.  “That’s what we do with the rocket too, really.  I mean, you know that.”

“I do not!” Annie burst out.  She tried to regain an even tone of voice.  “Everything in the Checkerboard Ultrarocket was built using a solid foundation of scientific principles.”  Her voice thickened as she said, “None of this is magic.”  Commander Annie was disgusted that she even had to say that to her captain.

Callie’s voice sounded really small and far away as she said, “We made our rocket ship out of cardboard and packing tape that we found in your parents’ garage.  We even had to ask your mom to buy more tape when we ran out.”

Annie’s vision went fuzzy, black and red around the edges, and she slammed the radio control to off.  She couldn’t listen to this blasphemy.  If Callie had lost her vision, if she didn’t understand the importance of what they were doing…  Maybe Annie didn’t need her friend anymore.  Or any friends.  Maybe the Checkerboard Ultrarocket didn’t need a captain.  Maybe a commander was enough.

Annie took a deep breath and made up her mind.  It was time for her to land on Zorpa II.  With or without Captain Callie.  Apparently, and her eyes stung as she thought this, it would be without.

Annie dropped the Checkerboard Ultrarocket into a lower orbit, skimming across the atmosphere like a skipping stone about to fall into the depths of a lake.  The Ultrarocket plunged, nose first, through the atmosphere, and the pale green oceans grew until they filled the viewscreen.  Lines of narrow purple continents, built mostly from peninsulas and island chains, resolved within the seas of green.  Annie chose one of the larger continents, rocky and purple, stippled with snow-capped mountain peaks, and aimed for it.  As she flew deeper through the atmosphere, puffy clouds smeared across the viewscreen, thick and white like whipping cream.  Beneath the creamy whiteness, the purple mountain ranges cutting across the green oceans looked a little like a fudge ripple in mint ice cream.

Annie wondered if she kept thinking about food — whipping cream, fudge ripple ice cream, and honeydew melon — because she’d eaten so little of the bland pizza and boring cake.  Maybe she could find some edible plants while exploring this alien world.  She and Callie had had good luck with that before, on other worlds.  Of course, then, Annie had had Callie with her, and Callie knew a lot more about botany and vegetation than Annie did.  She liked reading books about plants; Annie preferred reading popular physics and quantum mechanics.  They both loved flipping through field guides together, looking at all the brilliantly colored pictures of different kinds of butterflies, birds, and other animals.

The Checkerboard Ultrarocket crashed into the forested cradle of a valley between two purple mountains, only a few miles from a coast along the edge of the pale green sea.  Leafy boughs scratched at the hull and branches snapped, dropping the rocket toward a forest floor, deeper beneath the jungle canopy than Annie had expected.  The inertial dampeners softened the blow, shielding Annie from harm and protecting the ship, but not enough.  She heard a resounding crack, and the lights inside her rocket shifted from bright, full power to dim, red, backup power.

Annie swore with the harshest word she knew — “Dangnabbiblast!”  Others might not have thought it was the bluest swear word out there, but they’d never been to the planet with those carnivorous sky dolphins, so they didn’t know its history.  Only Annie and Callie did.  There were so many things that only Annie and Callie knew… and if Callie was forgetting them, then only Annie knew them.  Those memories were half gone; would they completely disappear if Annie let go of them?

At any rate, Callie wasn’t here to hear Annie’s indiscretion, so she swore again.  That was kind of the point:  if Captain Callie had been here, she’d have warned her commander not to approach the planet from such a steep angle; she’d have insisted Commander Annie slow down and land more cautiously.

And now Annie had gotten herself into trouble, damaging her ship and proving how much she needed Callie, all as part of a stunt meant to prove to herself that she didn’t need Callie at all.

She needed to know how bad the damage was to her ship.  Annie twisted around and examined the control board behind her.  The controls themselves were fine, so she opened the panel, letting her see into the Ultrarocket’s engine — a quantum mechanical drive she’d built from old computer motherboards and a Roomba that wasn’t as broken as her mother had thought.  She stared in disbelief at the empty engine chamber; a gaping hole in the hull whistled with planetary breezes, and she could see right through to the waving branches of the red and yellow trees below.  No Roomba.  No engine.  The whole thing had dropped out, somewhere above this forest, and she’d have to find it before she could fix it.  But first, she’d have to climb down to the forest floor, since her ship had lodged itself above the ground in these thick branches.

Annie’s empty stomach knotted and twisted at the realization that she was stranded on an alien world, galaxies away from home, without anyone to help her.  Maybe…  Maybe going to a stupid fae realm and meeting dumb fairies wouldn’t have been so bad.  It certainly sounded safer.  She had no idea what kind of carnivorous aliens or toxic plants were on this world.  Her scans from high orbit had suggested there were quite a few deposits of organic chemicals that would be toxic to a human and also that the aliens here had a fairly advanced level of technology.  That could be good.  But it could also be very, very bad.  That was why Zorpa II had been labeled with a red triangle for danger.

Annie should have known better than to ignore that triangle.  She’d designed the system that labeled planets by difficulty herself, and it was sheer foolishness to ignore her own misgivings.

But now she would have to.  She was here.  She had better make the best of it.  Maybe…  Maybe it could even be fun.  Though right now, it just felt scary.  Annie pulled on her backpack, opened the cockpit door, and swung her legs out.  She felt the air on her legs, both chilly and warm at once.

The chill might be her fear more than the temperature of the air.  She was still breathing air recycled through the algae pack in her space helmet, but the scans she’d taken of this world suggested the air was perfectly breathable.  Regardless, the pressure of her helmet against her head made her feel safe, and if anyone tried to contact her through the relay transmitters back home, she’d be able to hear and answer them.  She decided to leave it on.

The branches cradling the Checkerboard Ultrarocket were about as thick around as Annie’s waist, and they connected to tree trunks too wide for her to reach all the way around them with her arms.  Fortunately, they were spaced conveniently enough that Annie could climb from one branch to the next without too much trouble.  The trees looked a little like pine trees, but their bark was bright green and their needles were red, orange, and yellow.  It was like an evergreen forest had grown jealous of their deciduous sisters’ beautiful autumn colors and had decided to suck all their greenness into their trunks in order to turn their needles into a fiery array of sunset shades.  Strange and beautiful.

Near the bottom of the tree, Annie snagged her sock on twig and had to shake her foot to pull it free.  She heard a tiny ping, relayed over her helmet’s speakers, and she felt an emptiness around her ankle where the friendship bracelet should be.  On top of her already twisted up stomach, she now felt a bleakness.  Looking down at the loamy, needle-covered ground below and the thick purple underbrush, she realized it could take forever to find a small, lost, silver chain down there.  She didn’t have time to waste looking for it.

Now Annie didn’t even have an emblem of Captain Callie with her.

To hell with Callie.  It was Callie’s fault that Annie was in this situation.

She dropped down the last couple of feet and landed on the springy ground.  The fallen sunset needles from the alien pine trees were such a thick layer, the ground almost felt like a trampoline, and Annie enjoyed the bouncy, buoyant feeling.  Tiny pink and white flowers on the purple underbrush winked at her as she walked by, twisting their daisy-like petals tightly into cones and then unwinding.  When she looked closer at the flowers, Annie saw that the winking quality of their motion was more than a coincidence:  each flower had a tiny eyeball in the middle of its petals, and the shrubbery was watching her.

Annie knelt down and stared at the purple bush in a cluster of its eyes.  The petals around them were pink and white, but the eyes themselves were silvered rainbows, like oil spills in a parking lot.  Annie blinked and the tiny eyes blinked back at her.  Then the blossoms turned away, bashfully, and Annie smiled at them.  She was starting to remember why she’d come here — the excitement and exhilaration of being the first human to set foot on a faraway world; the strange and wonderful things to discover.  She couldn’t believe that any fae realm was nearly as interesting as an actual alien planet.

Even so, Annie didn’t like that she was stuck here.  She wanted to visit aliens worlds.  Not be stranded on one forever.  Annie got a handheld scanner out of her backpack and scanned the area for signs of her lost Roomba.  She’d feel a lot better about exploring once the Checkerboard Ultrarocket was flightworthy.

“What…?” Annie muttered to herself.  The blinking light on her scanner that represented the lost Roomba was… moving.  There was also a condensed locus of organic material moving with it.  Some alien creature had captured her spaceship’s engine and was running away with it.  “Dagnabbiblast!” Annie swore again.  She took off running through the forest, each step bouncing off the springy, loamy ground, following the blinking light.  The purple shrubbery with its eyeballs brushed against her bare legs as she ran.  Her legs would be all scratched up from the purple fronds and twigs later, but for now, she needed to catch up to her AWOL Roomba.

Annie ran, breathing heavily inside her helmet; her huffing breaths started to make the small space inside the helmet’s force field feel hot and humid.  Strands of her hair stuck to her face, and she felt like she was trying to choke a wet wash cloth down her throat to breathe.  So she powered down the forcefield, letting the local air blast against her face in a sudden cool wind.  She left the helmet atop her head like a normal bicycle helmet, but now she could smell the heavily scented, fruity air.  The alien forest smelled like a field of blackberry bracken baked by the midsummer sun.

Annie broke out of the thick forest into a clearing.  Blue light washed over her, streaming down from a pale pink sky.  Before she could look around, Annie crashed into the ground:  her ankle caught in the underbrush, tripping her.

Annie tried to free her ankle, but the purple fronds twisted more tightly around her the more she moved her foot.  She scooted closer to the bush and examined the fronds, hoping to find a way to untangle herself without pulling out a pocket knife and cutting herself free.  She’d rather not damage one of the local plants, especially one with so many eyes.

The tiny eyes with their fluttering petals watched her, twisting on their stalks to look at her.  But some of them pointed away, toward the clearing, and blinked rapidly.  Annie followed the direction of their gaze and saw a structure in the clearing built from what looked like blocks of ice.

The structure stretched up into the pink sky like an ice castle; its surfaces gleamed and glinted under the blue light of the dwarf star shining in the sky.  The ice-like material was thick, much too thick to see through, but there were also thinner patches like windows.  And a door that slammed shut behind a greenish blur.  Had that been the creature carrying away her Roomba?

Annie scooted forward and grabbed her scanner from where she’d dropped it when the shrubbery tripped her.  She scanned the building:  there were dozens of life signs inside.

Her spaceship’s engine hadn’t been dragged away by some pre-sentient feral animal.  It had been captured by a member of an alien civilization.

Annie wished Callie were with her, yet again.  They’d never encountered an actual alien civilization before.  Aliens, yes.  Animals, plants, bizarre organics that weren’t easily classifiable.  Even a few sessile creatures that seemed an awful lot like mushrooms who’d broken free of their underground mycelial masses.

But no buildings.  No architecture.

Theoretically, Annie’s scanner had a language translator application.  She’d cobbled it together from various shareware code on the internet, but the only chance she’d had to test it was on Callie reading sentences from their French and Spanish homework aloud.  The program had done okay.  But then you’d expect it do better with human languages than with…  What?  Annie didn’t even know what these aliens looked like yet.  Were they canids?  Felinids?  Something so bizarre she wouldn’t be able to meaningfully compare it to an Earth species at all?

“I need to go look through those windows,” Annie whispered — either to herself or to the shrub holding her ankle.  She wasn’t sure which.

Regardless, the purple shrub responded to her whisper by untwisting its fronds from around her ankle.  The fern-like, magenta fronds stroked her ankle after letting go, like the shrub was petting her.  Then one of the daisy-like flowers extended towards her on its stalk, stretching and twisting as it stretched, until the blossom broke free from its stalk and floated like dandelion fluff toward her.  Annie cupped out her palms and let the flower — silver eye with pink petal lashes — land in her hands.

“You want to come with me?” Annie asked.

The tiny flower-eye winked at her.

Annie took the flower gently between the thumb and fingers of one hand.  “In my world, we say, ‘one for yes, two for no.'”  She held up one finger and then two with her other hand where the flower-eye could see them.  Even if it couldn’t understand her, there was no reason not to be polite.  “So I guess one blink means you want to come?”

This time the flower eye didn’t respond.  Annie tucked the flower eye carefully into one of the clips on her backpack’s shoulder strap.  From there, it could watch where they were going and see anything she saw.  And she could also keep an eye on it.  “If there’s anything wrong, just start blinking a lot, okay?”

The flower eye winked its petals at her once, slowly.

“Well, it’s nice to have a companion.”

Annie wondered if bringing Callie a branch of these flowers would show her how much she was missing, then maybe she’d come back to adventuring through space.  Flowers in a fae realm wouldn’t have eyes in them!  Although…  Annie had read some pretty gruesome fairy tales.  So, it was hard to be sure.

Maybe Annie would pick a bouquet of the flower eyes on her way back to the Checkerboard Ultrarocket once she’d rescued her kidnapped Roomba.  As long as the shrubbery didn’t seem to mind.

Annie crept across the clearing, through grass as orange as a sunset, up to the edge of the ice building, keeping herself lower than any of the windows.  She put a hand against the building, and the wall of ice was rougher to the touch than it looked.  And warm from soaking up the blue sunlight.  Clearly, the material wasn’t actually ice.  Perhaps a type of stone, something like granite or unpolished marble, but more translucent.  Perhaps a kind of quartz.  Seams in the wall showed it had been built from big blocks of the ice-like rock.

Annie sidled her way over to the nearest window and stood up just enough to peer through the bottom right corner.  Through the window, she saw a room, decorated with surprisingly familiar objects — a brightly colored, woven carpet on the floor; comfortable-looking, plush chairs; dark green end tables, possibly made from the wood of the trees with sunset-colored needles; some kind of lantern standing on a pole.  None of the objects were exactly like anything she’d seen on Earth, but she was surprised by how understandable most of them were.

Annie was strangely tempted to simply go knock on the big ice-stone door and then use the translator application on her scanner to tell whoever — or whatever — came to the door, “Hi, I’m stranded on your world, and I need the black disc-shaped machine that one of you found in the forest back in order to get to my home planet.  Thanks for understanding!”

As Annie considered the option, she saw three of the aliens come into the room from one of the internal doors.  They were long-necked with short torsos; bipeds with dark green fur in a mottled pattern, splotched with sunset shades.  Kind of like a leopard or giraffe, except clearly evolved to hide among the trees of the forest behind her.  The aliens’ faces had elongated muzzles, floppy ears, and knobby horns poking out of their foreheads.  They wore clothes that looked like they’d come from a Ren Faire.  Or maybe a high school production of Romeo and Juliet.

They looked like medieval green giraffes.  Annie was delighted and transfixed.  One of them, shorter than the others was clutching her Roomba to its chest with arms clad in velvety, puffy, ruby-red sleeves.  One of the taller ones abruptly pointed towards a far corner of the room — there was a stairwell in that corner — and the short one’s floppy ears drooped.  The short one stomped up the stairs, still clutching the Roomba, with its head hanging low on such a long neck.

The remaining two bipedal giraffes gestured wildly at each other with keratinous hoof-like hands.  They seemed angry.  Like Annie’s parents had been when she’d brought a garter snake in from the backyard.  Garter snakes are harmless.  Her parents hadn’t cared.  They’d wanted the snake out of their house.

Still, if these were angry parents, upset that their young one had brought weird tech into their house, Annie wished they’d reacted more like her parents had — and forced the young alien to take the Roomba back outside where they’d found it.  Where she’d lost it.

Continue on to Part 3

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