by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
Annie resisted the temptation to explore the rooms more thoroughly and simply scanned each of them from their color-coded doors to see if her Roomba was inside. Though when she came to the topaz paneled room, it seemed to be a pantry of some sort, filled with objects that her scans suggested were edible. She grabbed a few handfuls of brightly colored blobs wrapped in some kind of foil paper. They looked like candy, and she stuffed them in her shorts pockets and the empty spaces in her backpack. She couldn’t turn down sustenance. She might need it later. At least, that’s what she told herself, but truly, after the deliciousness of the baby’s chocolate cake, she simply couldn’t resist stealing this alien candy.
The only door that gave Annie a positive signal on her scanner for the presence of Earth tech was one that lead to a staircase. Her Roomba was not on this floor. Apparently, she should have kept climbing before entering the building. Although, then she might not have befriended Froggy, and she’d be locked out of most of the rooms.
Annie ascended the stairs cautiously, constantly scanning for life signs ahead of her. The farther she got from the hole she’d cut into the window, the more nervous she felt.
Her escape route grew longer and longer; safety grew farther and farther away with each step up the stairs.
Still, she felt a little better after Froggy helped her open a door at the top of the stairwell, and she found herself in a new hallway, much like the one below. At least, in the hallway there was a window at each end, and she knew those could be cut open with her quantum laser. And there were doors. Six more of them, each with a gem-colored panel.
“Which should we try?” Annie asked Froggy.
The six-legged creature hopped its way down the hall, stopped in front of a door with an amethyst panel, and gallumphed. Then its tongue shot out, unlocking the door, but this time, Froggy hopped its way in without waiting for Annie. That was different. And different made her nervous.
Annie scanned the door before approaching it; her scanner picked up life signs inside. Also Earth tech. This was probably the room with her Roomba. But also the young Zorpalian who had found and stolen it from the forest.
Well, found. It wasn’t fair for Annie to call it stealing. The Roomba had fallen from her ship, ripped out by the grasping branches of the old growth forest she’d crashed into. The Zorpalian couldn’t have known she was looking for it, how valuable it was to her, or even that she was here at all.
But the Zorpalian would know soon. Unless she could find a way to steal the Roomba back without being noticed. Maybe the Zorpalian youth was asleep, like the Zorpalian baby had been. Maybe.
Annie wished she had finished designing the cloaking device she’d been working on — it was a literal cloak, but it bent light such that the person wearing it would become functionally invisible. Close enough for most purposes, anyway. Close enough to be better than nothing, which was what she had available to her right now.
Annie dug through her backpack, just to be sure, but there was nothing useful for this situation. All she had was the translation application on her scanner. And hope.
Eye-la blinked encouragingly at her as she settled the backpack on her shoulders. She held her scanner, set to translate, in one hand. The Swiss Army knife, surreptitiously, in the other. She approached the ajar door. She passed through the doorway, every muscle in her wiry body tensing. Annie grew keenly aware of her own body — the messy ponytail of blondish, brownish hair; the pale skin, pinkened by the blush of activity; two legs and two arms, all four of those limbs short and stocky compared to the Zorpalians she’d seen.
Annie saw the young Zorpalian, facing away from her, crouched on the floor and leaning over her Roomba. Froggy had curled up beside them. The Zorpalian’s pine green fur and sunset-shaded splotches on the back of their head and long neck looked short and prickly. The magenta robe they had been wearing was shed, draped over a piece of furniture that might be a bed. Instead, the young Zorpalian was now wearing simple underclothes that weren’t too different from a plain white T-shirt and cut-off jeans. Not too different from the NASA T-shirt and jean shorts Annie was wearing.
Annie hesitated. She felt the Swiss Army knife hidden in her right hand, an uncomfortable, unwanted lump. What was she doing? In all of her favorite movies and books, humans made first contact with aliens. Sometimes first contact was dangerous, but mostly it was confusing. Usually in the end, it went well. And when it didn’t? What went wrong was adults and their complicated politics with all of the fear they’d built up over a lifetime of fighting with each other. Or maybe just giant weapon-filled spaceships of war strafing the Earth from space.
First contact situations that went wrong were never like this — a kid alone in their room, fiddling with a lost Roomba, approached by another kid who happened to be from a far away planet. Annie was better than this. She stuffed the knife back in her pocket. Besides, she had a better idea. She almost wished she’d taken the time to see if she could access an info-dump of Zorpalian media on those computer-looking machines downstairs, but it was too late for that. She couldn’t be sure of getting back to that room without Froggy’s help, and the blue creature had abandoned her for stronger loyalties.
Regardless, there was a shelf on the far wall of this room with a bunch of brightly colored rectangles all lined up in a row. They looked like books. And books would do.
Annie took several steps backward, back out into the hall. There she quietly removed her backpack and reached down inside until she felt the dogeared edges of a slim paperback — The Little Prince, an old beaten up copy in French. It was one of her favorite books, and she knew the words so well in English that she could almost work her way through the book in French. But also, she’d used The Little Prince — in English, French, German, and Spanish — as training data for the translator application on her scanner.
More importantly, Annie couldn’t think of any object she’d rather be wielding as she approached a sentient alien lifeform from a civilization on another world.
Annie approached the doorway again and cleared her throat. She held the book up with one hand, and it fell open easily to her favorite page, one with an illustration of the titular prince standing on his own tiny homeworld.
The Zorpalian’s conical ears twitched, turned backward, and then flipped excitedly. The young creature swiveled their long neck around, until their face stared at Annie, even though their body was still crouched over the Roomba. Their dark eyes had long, charming lashes, but everything else about the Zorpalian’s face was oddly proportioned — they had thick green lips that contorted into a twisted, lopsided smile. Above the lips, their muzzle bulbed out into a wide nose with large, round nostrils before narrowing down into sallow cheeks the color of dying grass; emerald green knobby horns stuck out behind their conical ears at awkward angles.
Of all the aliens that Annie had encountered in her travels among the stars, this Zorpalian was the most uncanny — both the most alien, and also the most… familiar. Because the sparkle in those dark eyes bespoke language, knowledge, civilization. The possibility of communication and true connection.
Annie held up The Little Prince, splayed open, and she saw the Zorpalian’s nostrils flare as they breathed faster. She wanted to speak, but she knew the translator had nothing to work with yet. She needed to get the Zorpalian to talk to her before she’d be able to truly talk to them.
Annie stepped forward, slowly, trying to seem non-threatening, even though she was a totally foreign lifeform who had broken into this Zorpalian’s bedroom. Fortunately, Froggy chose that moment to bound toward her and butt its wide head against her leg while gruffly yodeling deep in its belly. A happy sound. A vote of confidence. The Zorpalian watched Froggy’s friendliness towards her closely.
“Yand, ata jorp!” the Zorpalian said, reaching out a hoofish hand on a long, skinny arm.
After a few more friendly head butts that nearly knocked Annie over, Froggy bounded back across the room to its rightful companion.
Annie turned her copy of The Little Prince halfway back toward herself, just enough so she could read the words in French. She translated them to English in her mind, reciting them half from memory, and began reading the page out loud.
The Zorpalian tilted their head, conical ears flipping about and nostrils flaring while they listened.
After about a page, Annie let the book fall closed, tucked it under her arm, and then pointed at the shelf on the Zorpalian’s wall. “Are those books?” she asked. “Can you read to me, too?” She knew the Zorpalian couldn’t understand her words, since the translator had nothing to go on yet, but she hoped they’d get the idea anyway. If she could get the Zorpalian reading aloud, that would be a dense source of words for the translator to build up a reservoir of data. Also, if she could get a visual scan, then her translator could start building up translation algorithms for written Zorpalian words as well as spoken ones.
The Zorpalian turned their head, gaze following the direction Annie was pointing. The fur along the back of their neck was denser, brushier, and had an orangish blush to its color. They the got up and pulled down one of the rectangles using a long arm. But the rectangle didn’t flip open like a book; instead the Zorpalian opened the top of it, like a box of cereal, and poured out a collection of tiny objects on the floor. A game? Annie wasn’t sure. But it wasn’t helpful for her translation project, no matter what it was. She held The Little Prince forward more urgently, keenly aware of the immense language barrier between them. And that didn’t even touch on the possible cultural barriers. She was in over her head. Out of her depth.
Knowing that she couldn’t communicate with the Zorpalian, she still started babbling, mostly to reassure herself and feel less alone at the sound of familiar words: “No, I need you to talk or read to me. I have a translator here–” She held the scanner out to the Zorpalian, and the young creature, who nearly a foot taller than Annie once standing, tilted their head to look at it. “–if you talk for long enough, or read — reading would be even better — then this scanner can start to translate my words into your language and your words into my language. We’ll be able to talk to each other. Communicate.”
The Zorpalian was staring at Annie intently with their dark eyes wide and nostrils narrowed into slits. But their conical ears had flipped back. Was that a sign of distress? Annie was certainly in distress. She glanced down at her Roomba, wondering if she could simply grab the large black disk and run.
The Zorpalian’s legs were longer than hers; and if Froggy were forced to pick a side… Well, Annie was pretty sure that six-foot-long yellow tongue could fly out, wrap around her ankle, and knock her down before she could get back to the stairs. Or cut a new hole through one of the windows on this level.
Annie frowned. The Zorpalian’s thick, nearly-prehensile lips were turned downward at the edges as well. Also a frown? “Dagnabbiblast,” Annie swore. “I don’t even know what your facial expressions mean.”
The Zorpalian hiccoughed. A sound that bubbled up their long throat and broke out of those prehensile lips like water splashing down from a waterfall.
Or was that a laugh?
Had the Zorpalian laughed when Annie swore?
She tried again. “Daggnibiblast?”
Nothing this time, but then her voice hadn’t been the same — she spoken tentatively, questioningly. When she’d sworn before, she’d sounded frustrated and angry.
The Zorpalian started speaking to Annie in a string of phonemes she couldn’t sort out at all. She held up the scanner, excited and hopeful. “That’s right! Keep talking,” she said.
The Zorpalian stopped. Of course. Annie had interrupted them.
“Daggnabiblast!” Annie swore again. “I’m terrible at this!”
The Zorpalian laughed again, an infectiously ridiculous sound, and held out a hand with thick, rough, keratinous fingers toward Annie’s copy of The Little Prince. She let the alien take it. Familiar book in unfamiliar hands. The Zorpalian flipped through the pages, stopping to point at the pictures with furry green fingers, tracing the simple line art with blunt nails and saying words Annie couldn’t understand.
A voice in the hall caused Annie to jump, and the Zorpalian’s ears stood up tall and alert. One of the adults was coming. The young Zorpalian shoved the paperback of The Little Prince back into Annie’s hands and then laid a rough hoof-hand on her shoulder. With curled fingers digging into her shoulder bone, the Zorpalian pulled Annie deeper into the room and guided her towards a nook filled with robes and hanging cloth, also piles of fabric on the floor. A poorly organized closet. Once Annie was inside, the Zorpalian pulled an accordion-like partition in front of her.
Annie tripped over a piece of discarded clothing, fell backwards, and ended up sitting awkwardly on one of the plushy piles. From the other side of the partition, she heard the young Zorpalian and the older one talking. She watched her scanner, seeing the data reserves fill with valuable linguistic information for the algorithms to sort through. Closer. Every word brought her closer to being able to understand them.
As the Zorpalians talked, the scanner — set to a silent mode — began outputting English text translations on its screen, along with percent likelihoods of its accuracy. The accuracy predictions were not high. And yet, the attempts at translation seemed reasonable — the older Zorpalian asked after the younger Zorpalian’s homework; the younger one said they needed to stay in their room working on it; the older one offered to bring dinner upstairs for them; and the young one said they were especially hungry and wanted a larger than usual dinner.
Annie’s stomach rumbled at the thought of her Zorpalian — friend? acquaintance? counterpart? — acquiring extra food in order to share with her. The baby’s food had been so good that her mouth watered at the idea of an actual Zorpalian dinner.
She hoped the translation wasn’t wrong; for all she knew, they’d actually been discussing feeding her to a giant version of their pet Froggy who lived in the basement and was always hungry.
How had Annie ended up here? Sitting on a pile of discarded theater robes in a messy closet. She’d set off to explore the universe, and instead, she was hiding in a small, dark room — she might as well be back in Callie’s living room, hiding from the other girls and Callie’s condescending parents.
She should have stayed home at Callie’s house and let Callie’s friends drag her off to their stupid fairie realm. Annie buried her face in her hands, but then she felt a tickle against her arm. When she looked down, she saw Eye-la — gray in the dim closet light — blinking at her, fluttering its petals. Annie smiled, remembering a little bit of why she was here. Exploration is the true magic.
The Zorpalian youth slid the partition back and offered a hoofish hand to help Annie up. When she came out, she smelled a rich, salty, cheesy smell. There was a plate piled high with squares of something that looked kind of like a cross between blondies and pizza on the Zorpalian’s bed. The Zorpalian offered Annie one of them. When she bit into it, the taste was savory, cheddary, and nutty — complex and satisfying; the texture was chewy and stringy, but in a pleasant way. Like string cheese, melting on the tongue.
“Oto yood cor?” the Zorpalian said.
When Annie looked down at her translator, the screen read, “Do you like it?”
Annie broke into a grin. She changed the settings on her translator, and she said, “Very much, thank you.” The translator spoke in a mellifluous voice that Annie had downloaded from the internet, pronouncing a series of phonemes that meant nothing to her. But they must have made sense to the Zorpalian, because their dark eyes widened and conical ears stood up perfectly tall.
“Your box can speak Zorplish!” The scanner relayed the Zorpalian’s words with a brief delay. “Who are you? Where did you come from? And why are you here?” While speaking, the Zorpalian took Annie’s scanner in their hoofish hands and held it close to their ears, as if trying to figure it out.
“My name’s Annie. I’m from…” She hesitated, knowing the translator application didn’t have enough information to handle abstract concepts well yet. She was surprised it was translating at all with the limited data it already had. Regardless, her choices were even more limited than the translator’s data well. She pointed up at the ceiling. “…another planet in another galaxy. I came here on a spaceship.” Now she pointed at the Roomba, forgotten on the floor. “My spaceship was damaged during the landing, and the engine fell out. I need it back.”
The Zorpalian took a step, not quite a full step, more of just shifting their weight, but the effect was to subtly place their body between Annie and the Roomba. “Space?” the Zorpalian asked. “Other worlds?” Their ears flipped excitedly, and their nostrils flared.
Standing this close, Annie thought the green fur on the Zorpalian’s face looked prickly, like the hair-like spines on some cactuses. “Yes,” Annie said. “You know about space? The universe is filled with galaxies, all of them full of other worlds.” Was it possible that the Zorpalian civilization didn’t even know that their planet was a sphere? Had she happened on the alien equivalent of flat-Earthers? The thought was horrifying to her, although there was no reason why it should be. Every civilization must take its own path to discovering the truths of the universe. There was no particular reason to believe that a pre-spacefaring race would know anything at all about the worlds in the sky beyond their own.
“I know about other worlds,” the Zorpalian said, still standing between Annie and her Roomba. “We see them with telescopes, but how do you get out of your planet’s gravity well?”
Each of them glanced at the Roomba on the floor.
Annie frowned. She didn’t like it when adults in her own world expected her to teach other kids about things she already knew. But she supposed this was different. There’d been no sign of satellites in Zorpa II’s orbit. She wouldn’t be explaining basic physics to someone who simply couldn’t be bothered to read a book; she’d be explaining it to someone from a world that hadn’t discovered it yet.
And so Annie sighed and accepted her role as tutor: she’d read enough popular physics books that she was able to describe the basics of the Oltion drive using a series of three cogent metaphors in only about five minutes. She’d done it before. Usually, other kids cut her off after staring blankly at her for only one minute, before she’d even fully explained the first metaphor.
The Zorpalian, however, listened intently, ears flicking occasionally. By the end, their stance had relaxed. They sat down on the bed beside the plate of gooey cheddary squares. They picked one up and chewed it pensively. “You can really build a spaceship that easily?”
Annie shrugged. “Yeah. If you have the right starting components.” After a possessive glance at her Roomba, Annie decided to stay talking to her new friend a little longer instead of grabbing her spaceship’s engine and running for it. She was impressed that the Zorpalian had actually listened to her whole speech. Even Callie tended to cut Annie off when she started talking physics. She sat down beside the Zorpalian on their bed and said, “What’s your name?”
“Ootel,” they answered. Then pointing at Froggy (who was curled up by the Roomba with its tongue lolling on the floor while it snored contentedly) they added, “That’s my Jorp, named Yand.”
“Yand,” Annie said. “I like that. I’ve been calling them Froggy, because they look like a creature on my own planet — frogs. Except, frogs only have four legs, and they’re much smaller. And green instead of blue. Usually.”
“Like me,” Ootel said. “Green.” They twisted their head around on their long neck to look at Annie. “You’re a funny color… all one color, no splotches.”
Annie and Ootel sat quietly beside each other for a while. Finally, Ootel broke the silence by saying, “I would like to visit your world.”
Annie’s heart jumped at the idea of bringing Ootel back to Earth with her to visit. She hadn’t made a new friend since she’d met Callie. She hadn’t thought she’d needed anyone but Callie. But today’s birthday party had proved she was wrong. “I’d love to bring you back to Earth with me,” Annie said, reaching one hand unconsciously up to touch the lower edge of her converted bicycle helmet. “But I don’t have another space helmet…” She thought about Callie’s awesome football helmet, probably discarded and ignored in the back of her closet right now. Useless. She wished she had it with her.
“Could we build one?” Ootel asked.
Annie frowned, thinking about how difficult it would be to find appropriate substitutes for each of the technological components she’d used. “No, I don’t think so,” Annie said. “Not before I have to leave. But… Maybe I could get one and come back.” Hey, if Callie wasn’t interested in using her helmet anymore, then maybe she wouldn’t mind letting Annie have it. Then Annie could wear the cool football helmet and lend out her own bicycle helmet to guests.
She could pick up guests on other worlds and take them around the galaxy for a spin. That was pretty cool. Maybe exploring space on her own wasn’t so bad.
“How soon?” Ootel asked.
Annie shrugged. “I don’t know. I have to fix my spaceship and get home first.”
“But you’ll come back?” Ootel handed Annie another gooey square, almost like a bribe or symbol of a promise.
Annie took it, and after savoring a cheesy bite (soooo much better than the greasy pizza Callie had chosen for dinner), she said, “I promise.”
Continue on to Part 5…