by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
“Can I show you something?” Ootel asked, standing up from the bed and stepping toward the closet. “I’ve been building something too… Not a spaceship, but I had hoped it would let me travel to other worlds.”
Ootel scooped a bunch of the clothing off of the floor of the closet and dumped it in the corner of their room; then they kicked a few of the remaining robes out with their hind hooves. Once the closet was clear enough for both of them inside, Annie followed them in. Ootel pushed aside the hanging clothes, and behind them, Annie saw the two of them reflected in an oval mirror. A green bipedal giraffe standing beside a human girl, both of them wearing simple, practical clothing. Annie smiled. She knew that Callie thought their space helmets looked goofy, but she loved how she looked in a bright red bicycle helmet. Space helmets are cool.
Ootel reached out to a panel beside the mirror, and when they touched it with their keratinous fingertips, the surface of the mirror bubbled and rippled. When the silver-blue liquid smoothed out again, their reflections had changed. Now Ootel was wearing their long, velvety, magenta robe, and Annie’s shirt had changed — the NASA logo looked the same, but the t-shirt itself was black instead of white. And her helmet was blue instead of red.
Annie looked down at her shirt. It was still white. She looked at Ootel, and the giraffe was still dressed in simple underclothes, the fancy robe discarded as before. Yet, when Annie turned her head, she saw out of the corner of her eye that the Annie in the mirror — the one in the black shirt and blue helmet — turned her head too.
“I don’t understand,” Annie said. “What is that?”
“A portal,” Ootel answered. “You told me how to escape the gravity well of your homeworld using classical physics; I’ve been trying to escape using quantum mechanics. This portal is a fold through hyperspace, connecting different parallel realities.”
Ootel touched the panel beside the oval portal again, and after more bubbling, the silvery surface showed an entirely different pair of children looking back at them: instead of a green-furred giraffe beside a smooth-skinned primate, the reflection showed an antlered biped with gold fur beside a scaly, pink, reptilian biped wearing a horned Viking helmet.
Annie laughed at the helmet. She had to admit that a Viking helmet had a lot of style as a choice for a base helmet to convert into a space helmet. Though she wondered about whether it was really a Viking helmet if it came from a world of bipedal reptiles. “I look like an albino dragon,” Annie said, more to herself than Ootel. She could hardly make sense of what was happening here. Only two minutes ago, she’d have sworn that the many universes theory was impossible to prove. Now she was, possibly, staring into one of those many other universes.
“I’ve adjusted the settings to show us a reality further away from our own than the first one.” Ootel said. “I’ve been trying to map out the branchings… But there are so many different branches, I can’t always find the same one over again.” Ootel held their hoofish hand next to the control panel, hesitating as if unsure whether to adjust the settings again. The antlered alien in the reflection held a similarly hoof-like hand in exactly the same way. The effect was eerie, dizzying. “I thought I could use a portal like this to travel into other worlds, but…” Ootel moved their hand, and the antlered alien moved theirs the same way. They reached toward each other; their hands touched at the surface.
Annie reached out too, but hesitated before touching the silvery surface. “May I?” she asked. “Is it safe?”
“Too safe,” Ootel answered in frustration, letting their hand fall back to their side.
Annie laid her palm flat against the surface of the portal; it felt wet or cold, like a breeze blowing against her palm. The albino dragon on the other side laid a talon-like hand against the portal in the same spot. Annie pushed against the surface of the portal, and she imagined she felt the roughness of the dragon’s scales. She tried moving her hand, but the talon followed her movements exactly. She couldn’t pass through the portal, because her way was blocked, but she felt an indescribable change deep inside her. If she weren’t an atheist, she’d have called it a spiritual connection with her alternate self.
“See what I mean?” Ootel asked.
“Even so…” Annie said, breathless. “This is fascinating.” The albino dragon’s mouth moved, like it was speaking too, but the sound didn’t cross over. Annie could sense the dragon’s emotions and intentions; she wished she could talk to it, or access its memories. That would be even more amazing than space travel.
“But useless.” Ootel sounded defeated. They’d probably tried communicating with their alternate selves already. Apparently, it hadn’t worked. Ootel stepped back, gesturing for Annie to approach the control panel. “Give it a try; see if you can find a world we can enter.”
“I’d love to,” Annie said, stepping forward. She fiddled with the buttons, and the portal’s surface bubbled again. “If it’s really quantum mechanics and parallel universes, we must be able to find ones without mirrors of ourselves blocking the way.”
“I haven’t yet.”
Annie flipped through a series of alternate realities — in one, they both had butterfly wings; in another, Annie was a pair of conjoined twins; she even found one where Callie, wearing her football helmet, stood beside her and Ootel. That one gave her a twinge. She was jealous of the Annie in that universe and wondered what had happened to make all Callie’s new math class friends go away. Maybe this Callie wasn’t in a summer math class. Maybe she and Alternate Annie had spent all summer exploring alien worlds.
In a hurry to make the sight of her deepest wish go away, Annie smashed the control pad with a flattened palm, pressing every button.
The silver-blue surface of the portal bubbled and fizzed like boiling water, much longer than it had before. When it finally settled down, Annie’s eyes widened in surprise and excitement. “I’ve done it!” she exclaimed. There was no mirror of herself standing in front of her. In fact, she had to tilt her head and narrow her eyes before she figured out what she was looking at.
The other side of the portal no longer looked out on a closet, but instead it looked upward, through the keys of a computer keyboard. Annie could see through the translucent shapes of the letters on them, backwards, because she was looking up from underneath. She saw hands and recognized them as her own, fingertips typing rapidly; her face above them was serious, focused, and much older. As old as her mother, maybe.
“What did you find?” Ootel asked. When they stepped forward, Ootel’s reflection appeared, ghostly and translucent, seemingly formed by swirling letters; a piece of badly drawn line art. But otherwise, they were still a bipedal alien giraffe. “What is this?”
“I don’t know…” Annie felt her hand drawn toward the silvery-blue surface, and when her fingertips touched the portal, each rhythmic tap of the fingertips on the other side jolted through her like a lightning bolt straight from an afterlife she didn’t believe in, forging a spiritual connection between herself and the alternate self a thousand times stronger than the one she’d felt with the albino dragon wearing a Viking helmet.
“THIS ISN’T REAL!” Annie screamed, falling backward, moving her hand to her mouth. She sucked on her fingertips as if they’d been burned; as if the jolts of lightning had been a snake bite, and she could suck the poison out. But she couldn’t shake the memory of the feelings she’d shared with her older self from an alternate timeline, a universe where she’d never forgiven Callie for growing up faster than her, where she’d grown into herself, isolated herself, and surrounded herself only with imaginary friends.
Tears streamed down Annie’s face, and she fumbled, reaching out to grasp Ootel’s hand. The blunt keratinous nails dug into her skin as she squeezed the Zorpalian’s hoof-hand tightly. “You’re real,” Annie said. “I can feel your hand. You’re real. That wasn’t real.”
“It’s real somewhere,” Ootel said.
“It’s not.” Annie shook her head. “It’s not, and it never will be.” She knew that wasn’t true. There was an alternate universe where she’d let her pride control her, and she’d grown up to be sad and alone, writing stories about aliens instead of actually meeting them. She wouldn’t let that happen here. “I need to go home,” Annie said. She would not be proud. She would not wait for Callie to change her mind; Annie would reach out to Callie and find a way to bridge their current differences.
Annie had a party in a fairy realm to attend.
Besides, how much less real could a fairy realm be than what she’d just seen? If Ootel could use quantum mechanics to look into alternate universes, then who was Annie to say that Callie’s summer math friends couldn’t open a portal to a fairy realm? Maybe magic was simply a different kind of science.
Annie picked up her Roomba and held it tightly against her chest. “You should keep working on the portal,” she said. “It’s amazing. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I think you’ll find a way to make it work, and when you do…” Annie grinned, even though there were still tears streaming down her face. She couldn’t shake the feeling of loneliness and isolation she’d absorbed from her older alternate self. “I want to come explore alternate universes with you.”
“Then you’ll be back?” Ootel shoved the piles of discarded clothes back into their closest, hiding the portal away in darkness again.
“I’ll be back,” Annie said. “I promise.” She hadn’t nearly explored this world as much as she meant to. This mission had only ever been a practice visit anyway. Annie collected her scanner from the bed where it had lain, continuing to broadcast translations for them. Then with difficulty, she jammed the Roomba into her backpack. She left the scanner clipped to her backpack’s shoulder strap, beside Eye-la who gazed at her impassively. “I guess I’m ready to go.”
“Can… Can I come see your spaceship?” Ootel scraped a hind hoof along the floor almost bashfully. “Maybe watch you fix it?”
“Of course!” Annie agreed, honestly relieved. She was a little afraid to be alone again after the shock of parallel universe loneliness. “In fact… Maybe you could help me get out of here? Without getting in trouble with your parents?”
“How did you get in?”
Annie was embarrassed to admit the true answer to that question, since it involved her vandalizing Ootel’s family home. But fortunately, Ootel laughed at the idea of her having cut a hole into one of their windows and insisted on looking at her Swiss Army knife with all of its technological modifications.
“So how do we get out of here?” Annie asked. “You know, ideally without having to scale the outside wall again.” Her arms were starting to feel sore from all the work they’d been doing on this adventure. And she didn’t think disguising her would work very well.
Ootel’s wide, expressive lips broke into a grin that transcended language. “We have a zip-line on the roof. Come on.” They grabbed Annie’s hand with a hoof and pulled her out of the bedroom, back towards the stairwell. Yand followed along, hopping like a giant frog. All three of them ran up the stairs as fast as they could, one flight after the next.
When they emerged on the roof, the blue light from Zorpa II’s sun shone more softly than earlier, much lower in the pink sky, tempered by clouds that were the shade of apricots and peaches. Annie breathed in the alien world’s air deeply, tasting all of the subtle, complicated scents — mint, pine, strawberry, and baking cookies. She loved it here. And from the roof of the ice castle that was Ootel’s family home, Annie could look out across the forest of pine trees with bright green trunks and brushy needles of russet and gold, like glowing fields of wheat a hundred meters high.
The roof was flat in the middle with turrets around the edges, just like a classic medieval castle from Europe, except made from translucent granite that nearly glowed in the blue light of the setting Zorpal sun. In the corner between two of the turrets, Ootel helped Annie into a structure that reminded Annie of the videos she’d seen of NASA’s spinning chair — the Multi-Axis Trainer.
Annie had to hold her backpack on her lap. Sitting in the chair, she felt like she’d shrunk down and was inside an atom, looking out from the nucleus at the orbiting paths of electrons. Ootel shoved the chair structure, and Annie shrieked with a mix of fear and joy as the whole thing zoomed down from the roof, crashed its way through the tree line, and tumbled down to the ground at a thrilling speed.
Annie unstrapped herself and rolled out of the chair structure onto the springy, trampoline-like forest floor. The chair structure withdrew, upward through the trees, on its zipline, and a minute later returned, crashing and tumbling, with Ootel inside, Yand’s bulbous blue body clutched in their furry green arms.
Annie led Ootel and Yand through the forest in companionable silence, bounding across the springy ground and following the readings on her scanner.
Between Yand’s dog-sized body and powerful double pair of hind legs, the jorp was practically flying. Annie could easily imagine Yand’s nubby half-limbs being the vestigial remnants of wings. She could picture Yand’s ancestors flying through the forest. Giant flying blue frogs. The image made Annie smile. Alien planets were the best.
As they got closer to the tree where the Checkerboard Ultrarocket had crashed, the fernlike magenta undergrowth got thicker. Annie noticed Ootel plucking bits of magenta vine and twisting them in their hoof hands. She was glad to see that Ootel wasn’t overly worried about injuring the shrubs. Annie was still concerned about having plucked Eye-la from the forest. True, she hadn’t actually picked the pink daisy-like flower, but she had taken it with her instead of letting it fall to needle-covered ground, its natural habitat. She wasn’t sure whether to think of Eye-la as an animal or a plant. On Earth, the plants didn’t have eyes, and she couldn’t seem to help anthropomorphizing anything with eyes.
“This is the tree,” Annie said. She’d been looking at her scanner, but when she turned her face upwards, she saw the cardboard figure of the Checkerboard Ultrarocket wedged awkwardly between the emerald green branches above. “I guess I need to climb back up there…”
“What’s this?” Ootel asked.
Annie started to point at her spaceship and explain how she’d crash landed, but then she saw what Ootel was holding in her hoof hand. Silver, shiny, a dangling chain glinting in the blue sunset light. It was Annie’s friendship anklet.
“I thought I’d lost that forever!” Annie exclaimed.
Ootel offered the shiny bauble to her and watched as Annie clasped it on her ankle again. She tucked it carefully under her sock.
“It’s a friendship token,” Annie explained. “From one of my friends back on Earth.” Her only friend. But Annie didn’t need to explain that to an alien she’d only met an hour ago. And yet, she found herself doing so anyway.
Ootel came forward and clasped both of Annie’s smooth-skinned hands with rough keratinous hooves. Hooves squeezed hands, and Annie fell silent, no longer feeling like she needed to explain. Ootel understood.
“I don’t have a lot of friends either,” Ootel said. “I’d like to be yours.”
When Ootel stepped away, Annie felt a grassy strand left behind in her hand. Ootel had woven the bits of plucked vine together into a magenta cord. It looked a lot like the kind of friendship bracelets that she remembered making in elementary school during recess.
Annie’s mind flashed over all of the things she had on her, in her backpack, and stashed away on the Checkerboard Ultrarocket. There was nothing she could give Ootel in return. Except for Callie’s friendship anklet, and Annie couldn’t give that away. “I have nothing for you…”
“Bring me something when you come back,” Ootel said. Then the lanky-limbed green giraffe easily scaled the giant tree, dislodged the cardboard spaceship, and helped guide it safely down to the ground. Climbing came much more easily to Ootel with their longer limbs than to Annie. At first Annie was surprised, since she kept thinking of Ootel as a green bipedal giraffe, but the alien’s deft, hurried movement up the tree reminded Annie more of a mountain goat.
While Ootel climbed, Annie affixed the magenta cord around her ankle, another token of friendship beside the silver chain from Callie, and tucked it safely inside her sock. It felt good there.
“Such a simple, lightweight vessel really works?” Ootel asked, hooves back on the ground.
“Just watch.” Annie pulled the Roomba out of her backpack, climbed inside the tiny cockpit of the Checkerboard Ultrarocket, and secured the wayward engine back in its place. She shoved her backpack into the space beside her feet, carefully adjusting Eye-la to keep the little daisy safe for the flight home. Then she turned on the force field in her space helmet, revved the Ultrarocket’s engine with an impressive mechanical screech, and turned on the ship’s hover circuits.
The Checkerboard Ultrarocket floated off of the forest floor like a bubble rising gently on the wind. A few feet above Ootel’s head, Annie tilted her vessel and looked out of the still-open door. With a lopsided grin, she shouted, “See? It works!”
Ootel was grinning too, and Yand was hopping all over the place, gallumphing and hiccoughing like a dog that doesn’t want one of its people to leave.
“I’ll be back soon!” Annie called out, but then she had to pull the door shut, sealing the cockpit. She had to get home.
As the Checkerboard Ultrarocket rose through the air, the blue sunset light filtering through the trees flickered brightly. Annie kept picturing how the rocket must look from the outside to Ootel watching, standing on the ground, rooted on one planet, never having traveled through the breadth and darkness and scattered diamond-light of space. Annie had felt like a child, impetuous and abandoned by her best friend, when she’d arrived on this world. Without a captain, she’d felt unfit to fly her spaceship to other worlds.
Above the tree line, Annie pushed down on the throttle, and the Checkerboard Ultrarocket zoomed off into the sky, flying towards the shining blue sunlight. The swaying forest below dwindled down to nothing but a golden crack in the surface of a pale green sphere. To Ootel standing among the trees, she’d look like a shooting star by now, lost above the branches of the trees.
Picturing herself through Ootel’s eyes, Annie felt brilliant and competent. A worthy commander of a spaceship she’d built herself. She wasn’t just Annie, a sad girl running away from a birthday party because she didn’t like the pizza her best friend had chosen and felt excluded by the other older kids.
She was Commander Annie, exploring the universe and making first contact with alien civilizations.
Continue on to Part 6…