Kenzie Wyatt crept toward the door of the small room where her twins were down for naps. She had turned off the motion sensor, so she could do exactly this: stand outside and listen. Teaching them to sleep in regular beds rather than cribs was going to be challenging.
She’d nearly reached the door when the slightly robotic voice of the starship’s A.I. asked, “I see the motion sensor is disabled. Would you like me to open this door, Mrs. Wyatt?”
“SHHH!!!” Kenzie squeezed her eyes shut and froze.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
“Just shut up, Andromeda!” she hissed.
So much for sneaking. Darned A.I.
From behind the door, she heard two little voices giggle hysterically and one said, “Shuh UP, Andomia!”
“Ugh!” Kenzie slapped her hands across her face. This is already going so well! ”Andromeda, open the door.”
“Opening!” said the A.I. brightly.
With a quiet hiss, the door parted in the middle. Kenzie stepped through, and immediately the twins froze, pretending to be asleep.
“Boys, what did mommy tell you?” she said sternly.
“Stay in our big boy beds,” Rion said, popping one eye open.
“And be quiet and go to sleep,” Rigel added.
“But I’m not tired!” Rion announced.
“That doesn’t change what mommy said,” Kenzie answered. She spread their blankets back over them and check the inflation of their pillows and mattresses to make sure they hadn’t been fiddling with the settings. “Let’s try again.” She headed back to the bedroom door and paused. “Oh, and boys, don’t say what mommy said.”
They giggled as the doors slid shut. Oh goody.
Kenzie moved to the other end of the sleeping quarters she shared with her husband before addressing the A.I. “Andromeda, please put the speaker near the boys’ quarters on mute and set the door to full manual.”
The A.I. answered through the speaker nearest her. “Muting door-speaker for Rigel and Orion Wyatt’s quarters. Setting door to: full manual control.”
“Thank you, Andromeda.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Wyatt. Would you like me to play some easy-listening music or order your favorite tea now that the young Wyatts are in bed?”
Kenzie laughed mirthlessly. “Oh, it’s not over yet. And when they are finally asleep, the first thing I’m doing is taking a lightning shower.”
The A.I. didn’t speak for a moment and Kenzie knew she’d said something puzzle it. Finally it said, “Scientifically speaking, lightning is not safe for humans to be in contact with. Certain races from the outer galaxies are said to be able to both give and receive high-voltage shocks without—”
“That’s not what I was referring to, Andromeda,” Kenzie sighed, clapping a hand to her forehead. “I meant lightning-fast, which is a figure of speech.”
“Understood, Mrs. Wyatt. I will catalogue that figure of speech as one of your common expressions.”
Kenzie listened hard for a moment, trying to decide if she had, indeed, heard noise from the twins’ room.
She crept to their door again, this time undisturbed by the overly-helpful Andromeda. Sure enough, there were giggles coming from behind the closed door, and the unmistakeable sound of air being let out of a pillow—slowly so it would sound like someone passing gas.
Sternly warning herself not to laugh despite the hilariously gross noise, Kenzie pressed a faintly glowing button to open the door.
* * *
An hour later, when the little stinkers were completely and soundly sleeping, Kenzie gathered up a new outfit and ran a detangler through her hair.
“Andromeda,” she said, “I’m going to take a shower. Please don’t let anyone other than me or Captain Wyatt access our quarters. Also, notify me if the twins wake up.”
“Setting door security to: Captain Wyatt or Kenzie Wyatt. Monitoring movement and sound in Rigel and Rion Wyatt’s quarters. Notification set. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Kenzie massaged her forehead. “You know, some of that music you mentioned earlier would be great while I’m showering.”
“Easy listening music coming right up,” Andromeda announced.
The music passed from one speaker to the next, tracking with Kenzie’s movements from the bedroom to the adjoining bathroom. Kenzie touched a panel on the wall next to the sparkling glass and metal shower. She selected a real water shower from the list of possible ways to get clean.
She enjoyed the feel of the water and the peaceful white noise created by it and the soft music.
Mostly it’s just awesome to feel clean.
She normally took time to shower while her husband, the captain of the USS Hospitality was around in the evenings. But lately, as the diplomatic vessel neared its destination, he’d been too busy for more than a briefly shared meal and a few hours of sleep. Everything needed the captain’s oversight right now.
Kenzie was proud of her husband, but she still missed him during these busy times. And spending long hours alone with the twins did sometimes make her feel a little stir-crazy.
“Speaking of stir-crazy…” she murmured. “It would be nice to get out today. I think I’ll jump over to see James briefly.” She didn’t make it to the ship’s command center often, but she’d try to squeeze in a quick visit today. Break up her routine.
She spoke, “Andromeda, turn off the water and turn on the drier, please.”
After a minute of warm air blowing from all directions, Kenzie dressed quickly and headed for the door to their living quarters. “Andromeda, retain previous security settings and continue monitoring the boys. You can notify me on my wrist comm if Rigel and Rion wake up before I’m back.”
She didn’t like to leave them alone, but under the watchful and scientifically precise eye of Andromeda, she decided being gone for just a short time would be safe. James would be surprised and glad to see her.
She stepped into a ring of lights at the end of the corridor and said, “Andromeda, take me to the command center, please.”
Blue light encapsulated her and when it dissolved a mere second later, she was in the command center.
She nearly greeted her husband and walked straight to him before she realized there was something going on. Several officers clustered near her husband’s chair where everyone stared up at a projection in the air before them.
From her position off to the side of the room, Kenzie couldn’t quite figure out who they were talking to. It wasn’t human, although it was humanoid. She assumed, based on the deep ringing voice, that it was male. His face was brown and wrinkled like a walnut shell and he had large bulbous eyes that made him look perpetually surprised. A single greenish antenna of some sort appeared to be coming from his head, although if it was part of him or merely an accessory, she couldn’t tell.
To her surprise, he was speaking English.
“How to for?” he asked.
Well, sort of speaking English.
James hadn’t noticed her since he was busy trying to converse with the strange creature, but she came a little closer to see and hear better.
“We still don’t understand what you mean,” James said. “Do you mean how do we make a NeutraBubble?”
It sounded like they were attempting to set up a meeting with this new race. The two ships must have randomly encountered one another. Since the USS Hospitality was a diplomatic vessel, they always took the opportunity to learn all they could about new or rarely-contacted races. The NeutraBubble was a transparent, bubble-like environment they could launch into the space between two ships. It was considered neutral ground for meeting another party.
She recognized the Chief Linguistics Officer nearby, no doubt to attempt interpretation if their contact should start to speak in another language. So far, the alien appeared to want to use their language. Unfortunately it wasn’t going well.
“No,” he said, blinking hard. “The NeutraBubble… how to for?”
Some of the officers in the command center shook their heads as if this communication mishap had been going on for a little while now. Something about the phrase struck Kenzie.
“How to for…” she murmured under her breath, drawing a little closer to the group. “Oh, James!” she stage-whispered to her husband, “I think he might mean ‘what’s it for’!”
He glanced over, looking surprised to find her there. He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Ask him if that’s what he means?” She mouthed the suggestion.
James nodded and then said, “Are you asking what it’s for?”
“Yes!” the alien answered decorously.
The officers nearest Kenzie sagged in relief. One whispered, “You have no idea how long we’ve been at this. The Voald are really big on honor, and they consider it a high level of respect to speak in their acquaintances’ native language. Trying to understand this phrase has been making things grow a little tense.”
A moment later, the discussion with the Voald complete, James came over to where Kenzie was standing. “Hi!”
“Hi,” she said. “I finally got the boys to sleep and was a little stir-crazy, so I thought I’d pop in.”
“Well, you came at just the right time!” he said, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. “We were at risk of deeply offending the Voald. Now, instead we’re joining them shortly in a NeutraBubble for their first diplomatic meeting with an Earth delegation. How did you know what he was saying?”
“I spend all day as a toddler-translator, James. I think I’ve actually heard exactly that phrase: ‘how to for.’“
James smirked into his hand. Glancing around at the others in the room he said under his breath, “So what you’re telling me is the Voald are honoring us by speaking with toddler-language skills?”
Giggling, Kenzie said, “Something like that. I just hope their social and relational skills are better than the twins’.”
James turned, all business again for a moment. “Mr. Jasper, please ready the usual diplomatic crew for the NeutroBubble meeting. We’re in close enough proximity to arrive via space walk. Ms. Garcia, please prepare to launch a Bubble.
“Now,” he turned back to Kenzie who had been admiring her husband’s captaining skills with what was probably a drippy look on her face. “What do you think about a spacewalk, beautiful and brilliant translator? Would your stir-crazy like that? Because your captain would!” He winked.
Kenzie’s mouth dropped open for a moment. He’s flirting with me in the Command Center! “You mean… you want me to come along and—”
“Yes,” James nodded. “If you’re willing. I have a feeling we might need some more toddler-translating skills. Get Vivian from Med-Center to watch the boys. She’s really good with them and they love playing with her.”
Kenzie nodded, her mind racing. “That’s a great idea! I would love to help, but won’t you have a linguist with you?”
James smiled slightly and whispered, “Yes, but none of them seem to have the experience you do.”
Kenzie felt herself blush. “All right, then, Captain Wyatt. I’ll do it!” she said. “One question: does this count as a date?”
“Would you like it to?”
In an hour’s time, she’d been to Med-Center and asked Vivian to keep an eye on the twins who would likely wake soon. She’d also had them check her vitals and clear her for a spacewalk. She’d been outfitted with a suit, a helmet, and the sleek jet pack needed to get from the ship to the Bubble just a short distance away.
Now, she stood clasping James’ arm as they and the rest of the diplomatic team stood waiting as the airlock depressurized. James double-checked the tether attaching her to the guideline that ran between the ship and the Bubble. “Don’t want you wandering off into space, ya know,” he drawled through the comm device in her ear.
The hatch at the end of the airlock slid open with a whir and the glittering darkness of space spread out before them. One after another, the team left the airlock, their small jet packs propelling them forward.
The Bubble floated silently between the two ships, a transparent sphere where every action taken by all parties could be clearly seen from either ship. An ethereally beautiful neutral ground.
“It looks just like a soap bubble our grandparents played with as kids, James! Remember the old pictures?”
“No kidding, only this one is oversized,” James said, his voice filling her helmet.
“Quite!” Kenzie agreed. “Can you imagine what the boys would think of this?”
James laughed. “They’d be pretty excited. They’d probably call it a ‘ball’.”
Kenzie smiled at the thought. She missed the little guys already. They were up from their naps and playing with Vivian by now.
As they arrived at the Bubble, they each entered through a circular opening that had appeared in the side of the soft surface. Kenzie eyed the material as she passed through the hatch, wondering what it was made of.
Inside, they spread out and watched as three Voald approached the bubble in a small, pencil-like craft. They disembarked at the opening on the opposite side of the NeutraBubble.
“They’re not wearing helmets?” Kenzie said in an undertone.
James shook his head slightly. “No, I guess not. Maybe they’re able to survive in a vacuum? Or maybe they have some sort of force field tech that acts as an invisible barrier. We don’t know a lot about them.” He gave her a reassuring smile and whispered, “Listen for translation glitches!” before stepping forward with their Chief Diplomat.
Kenzie watched as they exchanged greetings and introductions with the Voald. The leader of the other race introduced himself with a complicated name that involved a lot of guttural sounds and some clicks. Glancing at the Chief Linguistics Officer hovering near the front of the group, she saw him making notes on the comm screen integrated into the sleeve of his suit.
“But,” the Voald said in his deep, ringing bass, “I know that our words may be too hard for you. You may call me Bob.” He inclined his brown head regally, his green antenna floating slowly in the zero-gravity.
Kenzie guessed that nearly every human in the NeutraBubble was ferociously biting their tongue in order to keep from laughing. She certainly was. What an absurdly bland nickname this exotic alien had chosen for himself!
James also inclined his head and said, “Bob it is, then. Thank you for being considerate of our language differences.”
Bob’s round eyes blinked and his wrinkly face stretched into something very like a smile. “Of course, we are happy to accommodate your language. Perhaps next year after hearing our words more, you will be stronger for our language.”
There was a pause as the diplomatic delegation processed what Bob had just said. The three Marines in their party rested their hands on their laser guns and discretely spoke to one another on their private comm channel. Someone floating near Kenzie said under his breath, “What does he mean next year? Is he planning to take us back to their ship and keep us for a year or something?”
An officer near the back of the group said quietly, “Don’t speak like that. Remember we don’t always know what these guys are getting at right off the bat. Plus—” he motioned toward the Marines with slight nod of his head.
Cocking her head to the side, Kenzie pondered the strange phrase. Next year? Could he mean they planned to keep in close contact for a year? Or, as was also possible, that they planned to hold the delegation for a year?
What would a toddler say?
All at once she grinned. She knew what the Voald meant.
She stepped forward. James and the Chief Diplomat looked at her questioningly. She paused, unsure if she should explain to them what she was thinking or speak directly to the Voald to confirm. Realizing speaking about it in front of the alien might seem disrespectful, she opted to address him.
“Um, hello,” she said, trying to keep the shakiness out of her voice. “My name is Kenzie Wyatt. It’s a privilege to meet you.”
“And you, Kenzie Wyatt,” the Voald said. “What is your position on the U-S-S Hospitality?”
“I—I am actually the wife of Captain Wyatt. We have two sons I care for,” Kenzie stuttered, realizing there was no official-sounding position title for wife of the captain and mother of his excessively goofy twins.
“Great honor to you, Mother-of-the-Future,” the Voald said, bowing his head in respect.
Kenzie’s mouth dropped open and she looked around to see James beaming at her as the rest of the team appeared shocked by the Voald’s response.
She wasn’t sure what to say, but she managed a “thank you.” She paused a moment to gather her thoughts and then continued. “Sir, I was wondering why you say we will have heard your words more ‘next year’.”
The Voald blinked and then answered. “Because we do hope to maintain contact and perhaps trade with Humans from Earth between today and the future.”
“So you don’t mean a literal year, but rather a general time in the future.”
“Of course,” the Voald said. His face did the strange crinkle that was his version of a smile and he said, “I did not mean that this meeting would take 744 days—one revolution around our star. Some say meetings feel that long, but this one certainly doesn’t. We are very pleased to be at this meeting with every one of you.” He nodded pleasantly to their team. Everyone had relaxed measurably since his explanation, Kenzie noted.
She looked over at James who flashed her a grateful smile. He then addressed Bob, “We look forward to maintaining contact and beginning trade as you say. And we look forward to becoming more familiar with your language.”
“Yes,” Kenzie ventured to add, “I’m sure some of us will be strong for your language eventually.”
James raised a questioning eyebrow at her, but she knew he’d wait until later to ask her what that last part meant.
The rest of the discussion went smoothly, and plans were made for continuing contact with the Voald. James assured them that their planet and orbiting stations would be added to Earth trade maps and databases.
When it was over, both parties made their way back to their respective ships. As the diplomatic team returned to the airlock in the USS Hospitality, they watched as the cable tethering the NeutraBubble to their ship was released. The translucent orb was slowly drawn into a bay on the side of the Voald ship. James had offered it to them as a gift.
The airlock whirred shut and pressurized. When they were given the all-clear, the team removed their helmets and walked through another set of doors to the staging bay.
“So, explain the being ‘stronger for their language’ bit of that conversation,” James said to Kenzie as they walked. The rest of the team gathered closer to listen.
“Well, the twins use the word ‘stronger’ sometimes. When they do, it can mean anything from literally ‘having more strength’ to being older, taller, or knowing more than they do right now. For example, they tell me that when they get big they will be stronger to fly Spaceracers.”
“The little daredevils!” James chuckled. “I’m so glad you were able to come along. For a moment there it did seem like we were going to spend the next 365 days—or worse 744 days—as their pets or something.”
Everyone around them laughed, both amused and relieved that everything had turned out okay.
“Speaking of which— shall we go see the little daredevils?” James asked, taking Kenzie’s hand. “I’m sure they can handle things in the Command Center while I’m away for a short while.”
Kenzie smiled up at him happily. “That would be wonderful!”
When they reached their quarters, they could hear the excited shrieks and giggling of the twins, wide awake and fully rested. But oddly, the door didn’t open automatically for them.
“Andromeda,” James called to the ship’s AI, “Why isn’t the door on auto?”
“Captain Wyatt, sir!” the voice answered through a speaker above the door. “This door’s security settings were changed to: ‘Password Only’ by the user: Rigel Wyatt.”
Kenzie and her husband stared at each other for a moment. Shaking her head, Kenzie said, “Well then take it off ‘Password Only’.”
“And don’t let Rigel and Ryan change any more settings in the future,” James added. “How did we miss that setting?” he asked Kenzie in an undertone.
“They didn’t used to be able to talk… I didn’t even think of them having Andromeda reprogram stuff.”
“To remove this setting,” Andromeda said, “please state the current password.”
James rolled his eyes at the A.I.’s request. He pushed a button to the left of the door and said, “Vivian, what password did Rigel set for the door?”
Vivian’s voice came through the speaker. “I’m sorry about this, Captain Wyatt. The password he set is… um… ‘shut up.’ I couldn’t get them to stop saying it for some reason.”
Kenzie clapped a hand over her mouth. Mortification quickly gave way to laughter that she tried to smother so the twins wouldn’t hear. James staring at her, dumbfounded, only made her laugh harder. After a minute, she pulled herself together and, wiping her eyes, said, “Sorry. They overheard me say it to Andromeda earlier. She was less than helpful during naptime and I got frustrated. I told them not to repeat it, but… well…”
James snorted and smirked. “Oh boy. Well, here goes nothing. Andromeda, the password is… shut up.”
“Yes sir, unlocking the door. Also, I won’t bother you any more until you call me.”
Kenzie nearly protested that her husband hadn’t been telling the A.I. to be quiet, but instead braced herself for impact as two sturdy toddlers came barreling through the open doorway.
Perry Elisabeth Kirkpatrick lives in an undisclosed location outside of Phoenix where she and her husband chase their four little boys and a silly dog. They don’t chase their cat, however, because cats hate that. She is the author of “The Kitten Files” mysteries, “The Accidental Cases of Emily Abbott” spy series, and multiple short stories. In addition to her writing, Perry enjoys graphic design, playing a number of musical instruments, and watching movies that make her laugh. Find her books, newsletter, and free stories at perrykirkpatrick.com.