by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
The more Annie thought about knocking on that door, the more she pictured the total chaos that would ensue if one of the alien creature’s she’d met on her journeys had shown up on her own doorstep. Her parents would have freaked. They didn’t like a harmless little garter snake; if they met an actual alien from another planet, they’d call the police or beat it away with a rake. Something horrible.
Annie didn’t want something horrible done to her, so she needed to keep her mission on the down low until she was on surer footing. That meant sneaking into this stone building and stealing her Roomba back while staying undiscovered. Maybe on a future trip — with Callie — she could come back and learn more about this Zorpalian civilization. A first contact mission had to be exciting enough to lure Callie back into space. If it wasn’t, then… nothing would be.
Annie paused at that thought: nothing would be. Was that possible? Had Callie outgrown space travel entirely? Had it been nothing but a phase for her, like Annie’s mother kept implying?
Space travel wasn’t a phase for Annie. Space travel was life. Exploration of the unknown was the purpose of her existence, and that wouldn’t change as she got older. It was everything.
It was even more important than her friendship with Callie. If Captain Callie had moved on… retired… Then Commander Annie would have to learn to function on her missions alone. She would be a one-woman team. An individual dynamo.
Except, even thinking about it, she felt nauseous. She was such a fool.
The pink-petaled eye-flower clipped to Annie’s backpack strap winked, fluttering its petal lashes at her in an encouraging, friendly way. “You’re right,” Annie whispered. “We need to get moving.”
Annie pulled a pair of suction cup gloves from her backpack. She’d constructed them to function like the toes of geckos, and she’d used them to climb the giant silver maple tree in her backyard. She’d climbed so high that her father had panicked and started yelling at her to hold still while he called for help. She hadn’t listened. She’d known what she was doing and climbed back down perfectly safely. Though, she was glad she’d hidden the gecko gloves in her back pocket when she got to the ground, because based on how her father flipped out and grounded her to her room for the rest of the day, she was pretty sure he’d have confiscated the gloves if he’d known about them.
The point was: the gecko gloves were effective. Even on an ice-smooth surface like the translucent stones of this alien building, the gloves gripped the vertical plane firmly, and Annie safely ascended. One hand up, one foot a step higher, other hand, other foot, repeat, repeat, repeat. She climbed the shadowy side of the building, hoping that her own shadow wouldn’t be as obvious from inside with the shadows of the sunset-needled trees swaying over the icy surface. The translucent stone wasn’t exactly clear enough to see through — more like blocks of quartz than sheets of glass — but she could see moving patterns of light through the stone in places. Surely, the Zorpalians inside could see changes in the light patterns from outside too. Probably much better than she could see the light from inside, since the light outside was much brighter on this sunny blue day.
Sunny blue. The blue light of the sun didn’t burn against her skin the way that the yellow light of Earth’s sun did; it felt cool and soothing. She wondered how much that had to do with the difference in the spectrum of light waves hitting her versus human associations with the color blue. Oceans, rivers, cool, cool water. Not sunlight.
By the time Annie craned her neck around to look over her shoulder, down at the ground below, she was easily three stories high. And the quartz wall kept on rising into the sky. She’d passed another window, carefully skirting around it, and she could see another one a few feet above her. She decided to dare peeking into the building again.
From the bottom corner, Annie gazed through the thinner quartz — or whatever the material was — of the window. She saw an empty hallway; the walls were made from a similar quartz-like stone as the outer walls of the building, except with a pinkish, rose-quartz tinge. A carpet with paisley-like patterns ran along the floor, and there were doors with brightly colored panels on them. Each door had a differently colored panel, and each panel was indented with a lumpy, asymmetrical shape a little like a lopsided heart. As she stared at them, Annie realized the shapes were handprints. Hoofprints. They looked like the keratinous hoof-hands of the green-furred Zorpalians.
Were those panels locks? If those panels allowed individuals to access to the rooms behind them, Annie would need to find a way to break in. Her hands wouldn’t match those indentations. Although first, she needed to find a way into the building. She’d prefer not to begin her first contact with an alien civilization by damaging one of their buildings, but she also would have preferred it if they hadn’t stolen her spaceship’s engine.
She’d also have preferred it if Callie had come with her instead of traipsing off into some fairy land where she was probably dancing mindlessly in the arms of some stupid fairy prince while wearing an impractically long silken dress.
People don’t always get their preferences.
Annie kept a grip on the wall with one gecko-gloved hand and pulled her Swiss Army pocket knife out of her pocket with the other. Except it wasn’t a normal pocket knife. Obviously. She’d altered it, adding a diamond drill, quantum laser, and even a hypodermic injector that could help regenerate damaged skin — it wouldn’t save your life if you’d been stabbed in the heart by an angry shark-nosed trundle-beast on Gallutha VII. But if you cut your hand on one of the saw-edged leaves of the purple banana trees on the same world while trying to pick their savory fruit, then the hypodermic injector would erase the wound with ease, without even leaving a scar.
Of course, the shark-nosed trundle-beast might still stab you for stealing fruit from its purple banana tree. That’s where the quantum laser setting came in. Or maybe just the normal knife blade. Or better yet, a functioning spaceship and a quick flight out of there.
Annie flipped open the quantum laser on her pocket knife and carefully traced a round hole in the window — large enough for her to crawl through with smooth, smooth edges. The red laser beam sliced through the quartz-glass like a table knife through blue raspberry jello.
After putting her knife away in her pocket, Annie pulled out the sliced piece of quartz-glass from the rest of the window by gripping it with one of her gecko gloves. She released the glove’s grip and threw the inch-thick disc of quartz-glass into the forest like a frisbee. She couldn’t risk one of the Zorpalians finding it on the ground below before she’d finished her mission.
Awkwardly, Annie pulled off her backpack and forced it through the round hole ahead of her; then she crawled through after it. As she settled the backpack on her shoulders again, kneeling on the ornate paisley carpet, the eye-flower blinked its pink petals at her wildly, frantically. “What’s wrong, Eye-la?” Annie whispered, deciding on the spur of the moment that her tiny companion should have a name.
She looked down the hall, following Eye-la’s gaze, and saw a bulbous, blue, frog-like creature the size of a large dog curled up at the end of the carpet, sleeping and snoring in a patch of ice-blue sunlight. The creature had at least six legs, maybe eight, and its richly azure blue skin glistened as if it were wet. The creature coughed, harrumphed, and seemed to wake up, smacking its wide lips. Half of its body looked to be mouth. When it opened its bulging eyes, they were bright purple — all three of them — and stared down the hall directly at Annie.
Eye-la was blinking more and more frantically on the strap of Annie’s backpack, and Annie had to agree with the little flower: the blue frog-mouth looked dangerous. As the frog-mouth bounded down the hallway toward her, gallumphing and leaping, Annie made her own jump straight up the wall. She grabbed on with her gecko-gloves and climbed to the ceiling, feeling grateful for all the time she’d spent on the monkey bars at school, building up her arm strength.
Annie crouched sideways on the wall, crammed into the corner between wall and ceiling. The frog-mouth hopped and bounced on the ground below her. Its wide-open mouth looked large enough to swallow one of Annie’s legs up the knee. At least its gaping maw was toothless, pink and gummy on the inside, but that didn’t mean the creature wasn’t poisonous, or simply capable of dissolving flesh with its saliva.
Suddenly a yellow-spotted tongue shot upward from the creature’s mouth and hit the wall only an inch from Annie’s foot. She flinched. The slick tongue stuck to the wall for a moment before springing back down into the mouth where it lived.
Annie didn’t want to give the creature another chance to catch her with its tongue, but she couldn’t crawl very fast along the edge of the ceiling and had nowhere to escape. By the third try, the sticky tongue smacked onto her ankle, just above the sock on her bare skin. “Euyuck!” Annie cried, and she instinctively reached for her ankle, causing her to lose her grip on the wall. She toppled down and landed on the blue creature with an “Oof!”, tongue still slickly stuck on her ankle.
The tongue felt warm and gooey; the creature’s blue skin was surprisingly soft, like the skin of a sun-warmed apricot. Lightly fuzzy, firm, and bursting with life underneath. Annie’s ankle felt icky, but her flesh didn’t seem to be dissolving. Aside from having the air knocked out of her by the fall — a fall which had been cushioned by landing on the frog-mouth — Annie wasn’t in any pain.
The blue froggy creature, however, had taken the brunt of the fall and was bawling like a puppy who’d had its tail stepped on by Cruella DeVille. “Hey, there,” Annie said, patting the creature on its head… or back… The two kind of melded together. “Are you okay? Hush, hush, now, it’s okay.” She stroked its back, and the frog-mouth started to calm down, switching to a sad whimpering, more like a puppy who’d lost its chew toy.
“You’re just a big friendly alien dog, aren’t you?” Annie asked, trying to figure out how to scratch the creature behind its ears. It didn’t have any ears. That made it harder. She settled for scratching the place behind the bulge of its leftmost eye, and the creature seemed to like that and began kicking two of its back left legs rhythmically, slapping its big webbed feet on the ground in a funny, staccato beat.
Up close, Annie could finally get a clearer count on the legs — on each side, it had two strong hind legs, one front leg, and a nubby kind of half leg in the middle. Perhaps the nubby one was more of a vestigial wing than a leg. So, if she didn’t count the nubs, that meant six legs.
“I don’t suppose you know where your people put my spaceship engine?” Annie kept scratching the froggy creature behind its eye; the creature’s soft whimpers had morphed into a pleasant cooing that swelled the skin under its throat taut and transparent like a balloon.
Eye-la had started blinking impatiently at her, but Annie was having trouble stopping scratching the froggy creature when it so clearly enjoyed the attention. “Okay, I’m going to stop now,” she said, slowing the pace of her scratches and lifting her hand away from the soft blue skin. “Don’t start bawling again.” She brought a gecko-gloved finger to her lips and shushed the creature. “We don’t want anyone else to know I’m here,” she whispered.
Three purple eyes stared at her adoringly from the blue froggy face, and Annie found herself smiling and her heart melting. In the middle of all of the danger and frustration of this mission, she couldn’t help enjoying the momentary, fleeting bond she’d formed with this strange, funny, alien animal.
Annie patted the creature on its head, behind the triple bulge of eyes. “Good Froggy,” she said. Then she held her hand out, palm towards the creature. “Stay, stay here. I can’t have you following me.” She got up and backed away.
Froggy whimpered and whined, just like her own dog when she left for school in the mornings.
Behind the milky-quartz walls, Annie saw shadows moving, and she hoped the shadows didn’t see her. She was worrying about being found, noticing the slightest change in the patterns of light. Tuned into any tiny change in her environment.
The Zorpalians were simply living their lives, safe in their own home, with no reason to expect an alien intruder on their third floor. Annie’s parents were quite oblivious to the unknown and unexpected; hopefully Zorpalian parents were too.
Even so, Annie crept along the floor, keeping her profile low. She came to the first door — it had a ruby red panel with the hoof-shaped indentation. Annie tried pressing against the door, next to the panel, carefully avoiding touching the ruby rectangle. The door wouldn’t budge. She chewed her lower lip, considering her options. She had limited time before Doris noticed she was missing from Callie’s party. She couldn’t be as cautious as she should be. Besides, she could always make a run for the hole she’d left in the window. Or pull her laser knife out. She didn’t want to do that. She wanted to be friends with these aliens. Just, you know, after she got her Roomba back and consequently her independence.
Annie took a risk and pressed her hand into the hoof-shaped indentation, squeezing two fingers together to fit in one of the wider channels and leaving another one of the channels empty. Nothing happened. She pressed her other hand on top of the first one, using the second index finger to fill the empty channel. Her two hands pressed together were still a poor fit. A very poor fit. And nothing happened. She sighed.
Annie tapped on the door, estimating its thickness. She didn’t think she could cut through a wall of rock this thick with her quantum laser. Not effectively. Not when she wasn’t even sure which door she wanted to break into. She pulled out her scanner and tried to get a more precise reading to tell her where her Roomba was hidden in this quartz skyscraper. But the readings were scattered by the thick stone walls. She’d need to open the doors to get more precise readings. Catch 22. Annie shuddered. Her mother wanted her to read that book, but she hadn’t been able to get past the first few pages. No spaceships. No aliens. Just boring people in the more boring past. Still, her mother had lectured her on the concept behind the book enough that she knew what it meant. Annie knew a lot about so-called “classic” literature that way.
Annie went down the hallway, pressing against each door, hoping one of them would be unlocked. She was in luck. The door at the end of the hall with a dark sapphire panel was already cracked open, and it swung farther open easily when she pressed against it. Annie crept inside.
The room was small with a wide window that looked out on the forest. Dappled blue light spilled on the floor from the window, casting strange shadows from mobiles hanging down from the ceiling. The mobiles dangled shapes Annie didn’t recognize — possibly alien animals or vehicles? — from strings and wire. They bobbed about the ceiling, spinning slightly. The carpet on the floor was less ornate here than the paisley pattern in the hall — simple geometric shapes.
There was a table by the window, and in the far corner another piece of furniture made from the bright green wood of this world; it had interwoven, crisscrossing bars and came to the height of Annie’s waist. She approached the piece of furniture, slowly rising out of her crouch. When she was fully standing up, she looked over the edge of the crisscrossing bars and startled at the sight inside: a green giraffe baby, gently breathing, softly snoring through its muzzle, spindly legs splayed, with a blanket draped across its round belly. The baby Zorpalian was barely the size of Froggy, who Annie now felt snuffling at her feet, bumping its weird head against her bare leg.
“I told you to wait,” Annie whispered down to Froggy. “To stay.”
Froggy’s mouth — again, almost the size of its whole body — split into the widest grin Annie had ever seen, and its six-foot yellow-speckled tongue lolled onto the floor like a pile of pulled taffy.
The Zorpalian babe muttered and shifted in its sleep, but its eyes stayed closed. Annie lowered herself below the edge of its crib, so the baby wouldn’t see her if it awoke.
“I guess I found the nursery,” Annie told Eye-la and Froggy. “No Roomba though. I wonder if there’s anything useful in here…”
Annie scanned the room — both literally with her scanner and simply by looking it over. The scanner was useless. Her nose though… She smelled something rich and chocolatey that made her stomach gurgle. She approached the table by the window and discovered it was set out with a saucer and some spiky utensils. On the saucer was a wedge of something dark brown dripping with some kind of red sauce. It looked like chocolate cake with raspberry sauce. She scanned it, and so far as her scanner could tell, it wouldn’t be toxic to her. It was probably baby food. Zorpalian baby food. But dang, it smelled and looked so good.
Annie took up one of the spiky utensils — it didn’t fit her hand very well, but she managed to sort of hack off a bite-sized piece of the Zorpalian cake. She hesitated with the bite hovering by her open lips. She could almost taste the chocolatey goodness on her breath; she let her tongue touch it, and the summery flavor of raspberries, strawberries… mango? She couldn’t tell… It was fruity and delicious and exploding her taste buds. She couldn’t resist, and she wolfed down the bite.
Zorpalian baby food was a billion times better than the tasteless sugar bomb cake Callie had chosen for her birthday this year. It was rich and fudgey and amazing. Annie ate half of the wedge before she could stop herself, and her stomach felt so much better. She’d been starving, and now she felt sated.
Froggy bumped its head against her leg again, whimpering softly. Annie reached down and scratched it behind the eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I know that was for the baby, and you’re probably supposed to guard the baby. But I was hungry!”
Froggy seemed to forgive her the trespass, so long as she kept scratching the spot behind the bulge of its left-most eye.
“Okay, now I need to find a way to open the other doors.”
Annie looked the room over again. Her mind felt sharper now. There were shelves beside the door she entered, covered in strange objects. But they were probably toys. Not keys.
Next to the crib, there was a tiny version of the chairs she’d seen downstairs with a plush Zorpalian slumped on it. A doll. A green giraffe doll. A really nice one. Larger than the baby it belonged to. Annie came closer to the doll and held up one of its paws — the hoof-paw was shaped right anyway. “Sorry little one,” she whispered. “I need to borrow your doll.” It was a long shot, but she had to try it.
Annie dragged the doll into the hallway, said a silent prayer to whimsical nature of the universe, and pressed the doll’s paw into an emerald green key panel.
“Daggnabiblast!” Annie swore. She threw the doll angrily on the floor. Then she felt bad and took the doll back to the baby Zorpalian’s room and set it back on the chair, propped at a nice angle. It was the least she could do after eating half of the baby’s dinner.
Back in the hallway, Annie stared at the emerald green door panel, muttering to herself, completely flummoxed. Maybe she could short it out somehow? Maybe she should try to cut through the wall with her quantum laser?
Or maybe she should climb back out the window, ascend another level, and try again up higher?
As she muttered, Froggy butted its head against her leg. “Not now, Froggy,” Annie said. “I need to get through this door.”
Froggy gallumphed, a big swallowing sound, and then its yellow-speckled tongue shot out. A wad of taffy-like tongue stuck to the door panel, squishily filling in the hoof-like indentation. The door cracked open.
Annie’s eyes widened. “Good Froggy!” she whispered. She knelt down and gave Froggy a thorough scratching behind each of its three eyes in turn as a reward. “I guess it was a good idea to make friends with you.”
Froggy bounced loyally after Annie as she checked behind each door in the hallway. She was tempted to explore the rooms thoroughly — one of them was filled with technical equipment that could have been Zorpalian computers. How much could she learn from only a few minutes using them? Possibly so very much. Possibly nothing at all. She needed to find her Roomba first. Once her ship was repaired, she could always come back here again.
Continue on to Part 4…