Five minutes before the unexpected passengers stepped through the airlock, Oracle, the ship's computer, wrote in her diary that her Lenny-poo was sulking in his room. The poor dear was overworked and underpaid; nobody appreciated how difficult it was to be in command of a space ship. All day, every day—the same routine. When he wasn't delivering medical supplies to the colony on Mars or carrying out secret orders from the government that Oracle informed him of only at the last minute, he had to tell his crew how to do their jobs. The little darlings could never seem to hold their instruments properly, and as for repairing the ship—well! If the computer didn't lend a hand, nothing would ever get done.
Oracle was worried about the boy's health, so she checked in his quarters—just to see how he was doing, of course.
Body temperature: 98.6 ºF. Well, that's all right.
Heart rate: 90 bpm. Oh dear.
Blood pressure: 140/99. Oh my!
Considering his health, he didn't look so bad.
Captain Leonard Stiffe of the space ship Delphi was undressing in front of his bathroom mirror, when he suddenly noticed that the ship's computer was conducting a medical scan of his body. He switched the recorder off, grabbed his clothes, and dodged out of sight. Still imprinted on the mirror was an image of a tall, thin, fifty-year-old brown-haired man caught in the act of taking his regulation gray pants off, staring out into the empty room with an expression of surprise on his face.
"That goddamned busybody of a computer! What's gotten into her today?" he grumbled as he stalked moodily along the steel gray corridor. A shower could wait; he had been planning to supervise the crew as they loaded supplies into the cargo hold.
He glared at a passing crewmember, who smiled nervously and ducked into the nearest side corridor.
Approaching airlock 51, he stopped, flabbergasted. Two redheaded teenagers, obviously lacking either uniforms or government-approved boarding passes, were stepping into the ship from Deep Blue Space Station, where the Delphi was docked. The round airlock sealed itself with a screech and an echoing thud, but not before the astonished captain spied an oddly familiar-looking middle-aged woman with untidy red hair waving cheerfully at him from the other side.
This sort of behavior was unacceptable. What were these children doing here?
"What are you children doing here? This is a restricted area." He fancied that his gaze was stern and authoritative.
One of the teenagers evidently didn't notice. "Hi," she chirped, shaking his hand enthusiastically, "my name is Mary Susan Christabel Gwenivere Smith, and this is my brother, Alex Rodesdötter." The boy nodded, a serious expression on his face. "Yes, I know we have different last names. You see, Alex changed his when he was three. I tried to explain about gender rules in the Swedish language, but he didn't seem to care. Between you and me, I think he secretly wants to be a girl." Stiffe suppressed a shudder and edged away from the boy. "But, at any rate, Mama always says that children should be allowed to make their own mistakes."
Her voice was as hard to ignore as her outfit, which was better left undescribed. At least she didn't appear to have designs upon him.
"Captain Leonard Stiffe," the captain said, extracting his hand from her grasp, "and you still haven't answered my question."
For a split second, silence reigned as the girl gazed at the metal deck plating, pouting in a mimicry of intense concentration.
"Oh, right, we're here because I've reached the Age of Adventure, and we want to go adventuring with you." She smiled perkily.
"What? Your mother permits you to go traipsing around the galaxy on other people's ships?"
"Yes, Mama seemed very anxious for us to go; wouldn't you agree, Alex?" The boy nodded solemnly. "Ordinarily, of course, fifteen-year-olds aren't supposed to go adventuring with their eighteen-year-old sisters, but Alex is precocious."
"This isn't a passenger ship," said Stiffe. "We're on a diplomatic mission to the planet 54QX97."
"That's exactly why we're coming with you. I can't think of a greater adventure than becoming the first human to make friends with aliens; they'll probably write about me in the history books. It'll also fit nicely into my autobiography—How Mary Sue Saved the Universe from Total Annihilation on Several Occasions. And I have a theory about alien languages I want to test. I happen to be an expert in linguistics, you know."
"This isn't a passenger ship."
"Oh, we're not passengers," said the annoying girl. "We've signed on as cook and dish washer."
"Our food supply is self-preparing, and our dishes are self-cleaning."
"Wow! Mama said space ships had all the latest stuff, but I had no idea you had self-cleaning dishes! Alex, we've got to bring some home with us."
Stiffe began to wish that he had taken that shower after all. "You're missing the point. We don't need you to do the dishes, and—who told you you could?"
The boy spoke. "Your first officer was very amenable once Mary Sue suggested sex as an incentive."
Stiffe was shocked.
"He's joking, Lenny," said the girl.
"Waite!" cried Stiffe.
"Wait for what?" asked the danger to civilization.
"Just a moment, captain," said a muffled voice. The blonde head of First Officer Vivian Waite emerged from a hole in the wall, and the rest of her tumbled out afterward as the ship lurched away from the airlock. The children fell in a heap on the floor. Stiffe was thrown against a wall. The deck groaned and screeched, sending chills up his spine, and he shuddered involuntarily.
The ship lurched again, and Waite found it necessary to fall into Stiffe's arms. She batted long lashes at him.
Stiffe hurriedly disentangled himself. "Waite, why did you disengage the ship from the station without my authoriz—"
"Hey, you ought to get wall-to-wall carpeting. This is like lying on a giant tuning fork," the girl piped up from the floor.
"She's right, sir," Waite said, earning a glare. "Sir, you did tell me to manage the whole affair so that you could take a shower."
Stiffe rubbed his forehead. "Oh, right, of course. But what about these 'dishwashers'?" he asked, gesturing at the interlopers.
Waite's cheeks turned red. "Well, we are short-staffed, you know. And your grandmother assured me—"
"Fine," he said, clenching his fists. "'Smith' and 'Rodesdötter,' you are now part of the crew. Act appropriately, if that's possible." Stiffe walked back to his room, nurturing undying hatred for Waite, Smith, Rodesdötter, and especially his grandmother.
Captain's Data Entry, date: X79.468a
I hate them all. Grandmother told Oracle to monitor my cholesterol intake again. After I take my shower, I will ask a technician to fix the computer's logic circuits.
Oracle's Diary, date: three kumquats.
Lenny worries me; he doesn't take care of himself. And today he was under so much stress that he yelled at those wonderful young folks who came aboard unexpectedly. It's been so long since this ship has seen any children.
Mary Sue is the cutest thing—dazzling red hair, sky-blue eyes, light freckles, lovely bone structure, and a sharp brain. Alex is the same, even though they're only half-siblings; anyone might mistake them for twins. They wear such nice clothes, too—a variety of colors and fabrics I didn't even know existed any more. Leather has been illegal since the government outlawed animals.
And they're both short, so I'm sure Granny Stiffe will like them.
The next morning, Stiffe walked with some difficulty to the dining hall—his dreams had been jarring and unrestful—and found the cavernous room empty. He retrieved a bowl, a spoon, and a package of self-cooking oatmeal from a cabinet in the kitchen area and repaired to a seat by the floor-to-ceiling window. Millions of white dots spread like dust across the utter blackness of the view before him—eighteen years in space, and the mess still bothered him. He chewed his oatmeal and reviewed his schedule for the day, sighing in monochromatic bliss.
A faint noise at the other end of the hall led him to the discovery that the room was not empty after all; a figure sat in a shadowy corner, writing continuously in a paper notebook. Stiffe became aware of two eyes of intense luminosity, but uncertain color, staring back at him, seeming almost to read his thoughts. It was Rodesdötter. As the captain approached him, he turned a page and started writing on the back side. The pages were covered with ink-black words. Stiffe felt a sudden kinship with this clearly browbeaten boy.
"Trying to hide from your sister?" he asked conspiratorially.
After a moment, the boy's pen paused, and he looked up and said gravely, "No, I'm writing a science fiction story. I was very excited when she invited me to come with her." His head bent over the paper again.
Stiffe decided that he didn't like this kid. "Isn't science fiction full of crazy predictions like robots with emotions and alien invaders blowing Mars to bits?"
Rodesdötter paused to twirl his pen around the fingers of his left hand. "Science fiction isn't about predictions at all; it's about looking at the real world from a different point of view. It's about telling stories in an original way."
"'Original,' indeed," Stiffe scoffed. "Nobody's written anything new since Shakespeare. There are a finite number of plots in the universe, and they've all been done to death." Rodesdötter, instead of paying rapt attention as he should have, was again writing feverishly in his notebook.
Annoyed, Stiffe read over the boy's shoulder:
For no apparent reason, Stiffe forgot his conversation with Rodesdötter and
For no apparent reason, Stiffe forgot his conversation with Rodesdötter and left the dining hall as quickly as possible. A few crewmembers were loitering in the corridor outside, playing hopscotch and conversing with the computer. The resultant noise was too much to bear for either the captain or a loose wall panel a few feet away. It clattered to the floor. "Don't you people have jobs?" he yelled, holding his hands over his ears. The people glanced at each other and silently replaced the wall panel.
Stiffe stomped down to the engine room; no doubt the engineers would be playing Parcheesi. However, when he arrived, out of breath, he found Mary Sue on the floor, happily dismantling the ship's translation device. Machine parts were strewn about, and at the center of the wreck sat the annoying redhead, training a hand-held electron probe on the green motherboard.
"Goode!" cried Stiffe.
"I know I am," said Mary Sue.
"No, not you!"
"Here I am, sir." Chief Engineer Samuel B. Goode appeared from behind the two-story gray bulk of the engine casing, a greasy rag held in his equally greasy hands. A distinctive aroma emanated from his uniform, and Stiffe fought the urge to hold his nose.
"Look at what Smith has done," he said through clenched teeth. "Did you allow this?"
"Well, sir, we've been having problems with the translator, and Mary Sue said she knew how to fix it, being a language expert and all." Goode wiped his left hand on the rag, then wiped the rag on his shirt.
Stiffe yanked the motherboard out of Mary Sue's grasp and brandished it in front of the engineer's face. "Does this look 'fixed' to you? Just because she speaks a couple languages doesn't mean she's qualified to meddle with computer hardware."
"A couple? I happen to speak fifteen languages." Mary Sue stood up.
Stiffe wasn't listening. "Goode, I want you to find a real technician to reassemble this translator; it is crucial to the success of the diplomatic mission to—"
Mary Sue interrupted. "I speak English, Spanish, French, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Mandarin, Hindi, Swahili, Latin, Greek—both modern and ancient—and Klingon. Of course, that last one is an invented language, and its only native speakers are the descendants of geeks."
"How can you speak a dead language like Russian?" asked Goode.
Stiffe grew stiffer. "Aliens don't speak Esperanto. You're endangering my—"
"Mama always says learning one language can help you learn any language. Although there was this one time she said she wished I hadn't learned any language at all—" Stiffe started banging his head against the wall. Goode intervened, wrapping muscular arms around Stiffe's chest to pull him away from the wall and inadvertently smearing grease all over the captain's shirt. Stiffe experienced a sudden, desperate urge to take a shower.
"Sam! Be good," Stiffe snarled.
"Yes, sir, that's my name, sir."
Stiffe decided to let it pass. "Your hands are dirty." He swayed, dizzy with revulsion, and Goode grabbed his hands to steady him.
"Your hands are dirty, too, sir," he murmured solicitously.
The captain jerked away. "That's because you touched them, you idiot. Incidentally, why are you covered in that unsanitary substance?"
Goode shrugged. "Well, sir, you told me the engine was slow, so I greased it up for you."
Stiffe glanced from the filthy engineer to the underage computer/language genius and went to examine the engine. Signaling to the other two with his left hand, he pointed with his right forefinger at the inscription engraved on the casing. "This is a hyper-ripple-screw-driver-X777GQYWZ. That oil only works on gasoline-powered automobiles, nimrod. The principles are entirely diff—"
"I could fix it," Mary Sue volunteered.
Stiffe found it difficult to control his temper. "No, you couldn't. If you want to be a productive member of the crew, go baby-sit my grandmother."
"Ah, Granny!" Mary Sue smiled mysteriously.
Stiffe stalked out of the engine room, hiked back to his own room, and—gosh darnit—if Oracle didn't have The Beatles cranked up full volume when he finally staggered through the door. That computer was getting nuttier by the hour. Sitting down at his desk, he instructed the computer to substitute Bach for The Beatles and sent off text messages to five qualified engine technicians who had mysteriously been assigned to the wrong jobs. He then turned on the hot water, placed a blanket over the mirror, and stepped under the showerhead.
Realizing that he was still wearing his uniform, he stepped out again.
Oracle's Diary, date: two melons past a banana peel.
My poor Lenny-poo's blood pressure was high again this morning, and he used so many curse words in his diary today that I was compelled to delete the entry. Someone else made me do it—honest.
I was just talking to Mary Sue, and she told me that her mama told her that Lenny was her father. The real reason for the trip apparently is to find out what he's up to and report all the details back to mama, who thinks he might be suffering from some sort of childhood trauma that causes him to distance himself from the women in his life. Lenny isn't supposed to know Mary Sue is his daughter until after we talk to the nice aliens on the planet circling Wolf 359.
There's something I'm supposed to tell him then, too, but I forget what it is.
Feeling presentable again, Stiffe was sitting in his office trying to ignore the recently added Hellenic décor and frantically searching through the files on his personal computer—a thin, yet durable screen and keyboard that could be folded up and stuffed into a pocket—when a technician walked in and put the translator on his desk.
He stared vacantly at the technician. One of his journal entries was missing!
"Sir, I've improved engine efficiency by a factor of three hundred; we should reach Wolf 359 tomorrow morning instead of next year. Also, this device is fixed, just like you wanted," said the woman, and winked suggestively.
"Huh?" said Stiffe.
"The translator?" She heaved an exasperated sigh and flipped a waist-length blonde braid behind her back.
Stiffe looked over the electronic gadget appraisingly. "You know, you're probably the only competent professional on the Delphi. What's your name again?"
"I don't have one, sir," she muttered, "and I didn't repair the translator; Mary Sue did." She walked out the door.
Immediately suspicious, Stiffe decided to test the device by reciting the preamble to the United States Constitution in the original Old English. But the text translation that the machine printed out was rather troubling:We the rich white dudes of Massachusetts, in order to drink tax-free tea with bigoted Siamese elephants, establish peanut butter and paternalistic sandwiches, cage the singing maple tree, provide for the common chowder, emote specific healthcare, and staple special benefits for our buddies...Stiffe decided to pay a visit to his granny—no, grandmother.
"I'm so glad to see you dressing properly; girls these days wear too many clothes. Of course, I get cold more easily than you young folks do, so I like to have my blankets. But! Skin needs to breathe." Stiffe's grandmother, dwarfed by her foot-powered rocking chair, smiled affectionately at the bane of humanity sitting on the floor.
"I agree," Mary Sue said, gazing with obvious adoration up at the ninety-nine-year-old woman in all her quilted glory.
Standing in the open doorway, Stiffe interrupted. "Smith, the translator is broken, thanks to you."
The redheaded menace twisted around to look at him. "No need to worry. Aliens all speak English anyway."
Stiffe restrained a violent impulse. "This isn't a science fiction story. You've probably been fiddling with Oracle, too."
"Lenny, don't be rude," the gray-haired woman scolded.
"Don't call me that! Is this why you came on board? To nag? Honestly, a woman at your age—"
"Is not so fragile that she can't bear space travel. We're well away from the Earth's gravitational field and all its unpleasant side effects," she continued, folding her arms over her sagging breasts. "Although, there does seem to be gravity here; I'm not sure how it got in. But, really, Lenny, I came to keep my eye on you. You're in more trouble than you know. And, yes, Mary Sue has been helping me reprogram the computer with a more obedient personality." Stiffe clenched his fists. "You should see a doctor about that blood pressure. Your father had a real bad heart condition." Stiffe left, his body rigid with frustration.
Recalling his long-unused Zen training, he retreated to the empty dining hall where he tried to clear his mind of matricidal thoughts by counting the stars. 1, 2, 3, 4—the ship's intercom clicked.
"Listen up, guys. I've been trading recipes with Granny Stiffe, and we've ended up with so much food that we need everyone on board to help eat it, so come on down to the dining hall."
Before Stiffe knew what was happening, he was surrounded by garish decorations and 150 crewmembers, all standing around chatting and eating pasta, garden salads, and apple pie. Mary Sue was the star of the show.
"I like what she's done with the place."
"And on such short notice, too."
"You've got to try the cheese dip. It's heavenly."
"This is the best tomato sauce I've ever tasted."
"Did you know the sauce was Mary Sue's own recipe?"
Stiffe decided to sit down.
Mary Sue sat down next to him and put what must have been intended as a reassuring hand upon his shoulder. "Lenny, it's time for me to tell my story. It seems to me that there's something lacking in your staff. Don't get me wrong; they're a wonderful group of people. But if this is a diplomatic mission, where's the ambassador? You're not exactly qualified. And why is the ship bristling with laser canons? I know you think they're for self-defense, but I've been talking to Oracle about it, and after I reprogrammed her she divulged some very interesting facts, most of which I knew already, of course; that's why I came on board. Now, it appears that the government has a rather undemocratic plan for—"
Stiffe grabbed her by the throat and reached blindly for a salad fork, his mind trapped in a red haze. Mary Sue kicked him and screamed. When his ears stopped ringing, he noticed that several of the crew had piled on top of him. Held to the floor, he yelled, "You pip-squeak. How could you possibly think your tomato sauce was better than mine? I've been cooking since before you were born. No human being could know as much about American cuisine as you know. You may have fooled everyone else, but I'm still in command, and I say—"
"Oh, no, you don't," Mary Sue cut in, standing over the dark-haired man who was flailing helplessly on the floor. Lenny burst into tears.
Of course, when the Delphi's crew landed on the planet the next day, they found that the aliens did indeed speak English. The aliens also wore colorful feathers stuck in beaded headbands encircling their bald craniums and looked very human, if you ignored the iridescent silver-green skin. After introductions were made all around, the friendly natives invited the crew to a large feast in celebration of their arrival; unlike humans, they actually liked strangers. They paid special attention to the drugged Lenny, feeding him turkey and yams, believing he was mentally retarded, but they gazed upon Alex Rodesdötter's sister as they would a moonlit goddess of that ancient religion.
Seated at one of the feast tables, Mary Sue tried the cranberry sauce before turning to Alex. "What an interesting culture—it seems familiar somehow." She took another spoonful of the sauce, her strong fingers lifting spoon to mouth in an elegant gesture he had always tried to imitate. "I'm so glad Papa ran away before I was born. But do you know what's going to happen to these poor saps once the next ship arrives? You know, with a computer and a captain who haven't been tampered with?"
Pausing in mid scribble, he smiled mysteriously. "Shh. That's another story."
"Speaking of, has our undercover operation given you any ideas?"
He shrugged and tossed his pen aside. "Nothing original."
"What did you expect?" asked Mary Sue.