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Authors: Pamela F. Service

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BOOK: Camp Alien
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What could have caused this? The patch of destruction was maybe thirty yards wide, and beyond it, the regular forest took up again. I was picking my way through the mess when suddenly the explanation was in front of me.

A hole had burned right through a tree trunk—a hole the shape of a star.

That's what Sorn had meant about environmental danger. Duthwi ate trees. They destroyed them. And I'd loosed a bunch of them on the world! If they spread and laid more eggs, think of the damage they'd do! Oh, well done, Agent Zack.

I spotted a little brook running through the blasted patch, half choked with splintered wood and pine needles. Listlessly I followed it down the hill until it ran into living forest again. Then I sat on a mossy rock and stared gloomily into the silvery water.

Time passed. Gradually I realized the light
and shadow on the stream had shifted. Ripples made one of the sunlit rocks look like it was moving. I stared. It
was
moving! It looked like a lumpy potato, and one of those lumps was throbbing.

Slowly I reached out and grabbed the thing. It was warm in my hands. I watched as parts bulged in and out and little cracks snaked over the surface. The whole thing shuddered, and bits of the surface fell off. Orange stuff underneath wiggled like jelly.

Suddenly it shook like a wet dog, and chunks of shell flew everywhere. An orange blob burst upward and splattered onto my cheek. It stuck.

“Mama!”

“I'm not your mama!” Was this thing talking to me? I didn't hear any sound, but the translator in my ear was tingling.

“Mama, Mama, Mama!”

I reached up and tried to pull the thing away. Its gooeyness was beginning to harden—into the shape of a star.

“Mama, Mama, Mama, where are others?”

“Wha … what … ” I stuttered. “What others? Oh. The other Duthwi?”

“Brothers and sisters. Miss them. Lonely.”

“I don't know where they are, but if you get off my cheek, I'll get you something to eat.”

Instantly the thing dropped into my hand, a little orange star about the size of my palm.

“Hungry!”

“Right.” I picked up a piece of tree bark and put it in the middle of the little star. Its points closed around the chip, and in seconds the bark was dust.

“More!”

I fumbled for a larger chunk of bark and laid it amid the wiggling orange arms. They snapped closed, and soon that piece was gone too.

“Sleep now.”

The star closed in a tight ball and stopped wiggling. Astonished, I stared at the little thing. It must think I'm its mother because it saw me before anything else. I decided I'd
better keep little Starry happy until I could find Vraj.

I put the little orange ball in my jacket's roomy pocket and added some shredded bark.

Picking up a few more chunks for backup, I hurried back to camp. Rest period was just ending. I slipped into the cabin as the others left, pulled my pack from under the bunk, and transferred the sleeping Duthwi inside. Then I stuffed all the bark I had into the pack, shoved it back, and hurried off to afternoon Nature Nuts.

It was now easier to avoid being latched onto by Opal, because after the play she'd become almost popular. So I had all the mental time I wanted to worry.

Before dinner, I checked on Starry. It was sleeping again after eating all the bark. I went outside to scrounge up some more, put that in the pack, and went off to dinner. My plan was to sneak out that night, taking the little Duthwi to the lone pine tree in hopes that Vraj would show up.

Of course, those plans did not work out.

Before going to bed, while the others were trooping to or from the latrine, I pulled out my pack. It was empty except for a star-shaped hole on one side. Frantically I looked under the bed. No Duthwi. But there was a star-shaped hole in the cabin's wooden wall. One hundred percent failure.

In agony, I lay in my bunk until my cabin-mates were finally asleep. Then I managed to sneak out. I half wanted to find Vraj at the tree and half dreaded it. But she wasn't there. I sat and waited. Shivering in the chilly air, I gloomily watched the stars. The sky across the lake was lit by a faint display of northern lights. Cool maybe, but I wasn't in the mood to be thrilled by nature. Even Opal's chatty presence would have been welcome. But I was totally alone, and the more alone I felt, the more I began to worry about Vraj.

Sure, she was a conceited grouch, but she was also a lone alien given a tough job on what to her must be a completely strange and
dangerous world. Besides, she was just a kid. Finally, though, even worry couldn't keep me awake. I slunk back to the cabin and into a restless sleep.

The next day, everyone at the camp seemed a little down. It was the last full day of camp that session, and even those kids who'd been homesick at first didn't want to leave now. An extra-big campfire was planned for that evening, but I wasn't in the mood for even thinking about fun.

In the afternoon, I trailed behind the others on our last nature hike. I didn't feel very chummy either. Suddenly something slammed into my head.

“Mama!”

“Starry!” I cried from the ground, where I was sprawled with a starfish thing plastered to my forehead. It seemed to have grown.

“Mama, found brothers and sisters. They trapped. Bad people trap them. Got to help!”

Its vocabulary had grown too. “OK, OK.
I'll help. But you've got to let loose. And don't fly off, you need to show me where to go.”

“OK, I stay. But hungry!”

It peeled itself off and walked down my face like a big, fleshy orange spider. Swinging my patched knapsack off my back, I stuck in some bark and twigs and urged the little Duthwi to crawl in. I'd just reshouldered my pack when Opal and Walt, the kid who'd given the talk about nighttime animals, came walking back down the trail.

“We just noticed you were missing,” Walt said. I was glad to see he'd gotten chummy with Opal.

“What's that big red mark on your forehead?” she asked.

“Oh. I ran into a branch. I have an awful headache. I think I'll go to the nurse.” I avoided actually looking at Opal. I knew that if she guessed this was a cover story, she'd want to go along. But with Gnairt involved, things could get dangerous. Anyway, this was
my
mess to clean up.

At the nurse's I complained of a migraine headache. My mom gets those, so I knew how to fake one. I said light hurt my eyes, and I saw lots of glowing wiggly lines. The nurse had me lie down in a dark room and said no one was to bother me for several hours.

Once she left, I reached into my pack. Most of the bark and twigs were gone, but the warm little star was still there.

“Go help others now?”

Before I could say anything, it had scrambled up my arm and under my shirt, settling onto my shoulder. It didn't really hurt, having the Duthwi stuck there, but it tingled like when my mother rubs smelly ointment on my chest when I get a cold.

“Right,” I said. “We're going to help now. But where are they trapped?”

“Other side. Big water.”

At the window, I pushed aside the curtains and looked out. This was the back of the nurse's building, facing the woods. Unlatching the window, I pushed it open. Then I spied some
crayons and paper on a table and scrawled a quick note, saying I felt better and had gone to join the other campers. That way no one would look for me for a while.

In the woods, I avoided paths, but when I reached the lake, I realized my clever planning had petered out.

Lake Takhamasak was not small. But somehow I had to get to the other side and rescue hungry little aliens from bigger nasty aliens who probably had terrible weapons. My only ally was a snotty alien dinosaur who I hadn't seen in days. The Gnairt might have even killed her by now.

No, this was not a fun summer, I said to myself as I started trudging along the shore.

Waves lapped gently against the sand as I marched along. I stepped over a groove left earlier by a canoe, then stopped. I could canoe across the lake!

I looked back along the shore. The camp's dock wasn't far. And I knew how to canoe. Sort of.

Keeping a wary eye out for counselors or campers, I trotted back. The canoes were pulled up on the sand and turned over. The first one I came to was wooden and looked heavy as a tank, but the next was light. I flipped it over and hauled it to the water.

“What doing?” The tingly voice filled my
mind. Starry must have been sleeping on my shoulder.

“I'm borrowing a boat so we can cross the lake.”

“Hurry. You so slow!”

“I'm going as fast as I can. I can't fly, you know.” I shoved the canoe half into the lake, then looked it over. “Can't canoe either. No paddle. I'll have to go look for one.”

“No time. I paddle!”

“Oh sure.” I'd just spied a broken paddle on the sand and decided to take it rather than risk anyone catching me in the boathouse.

My feet got soaked when I launched the boat, but soon it was gliding into the lake, screened from the camp by a rocky point of land. Sports Sprite Scott would have jeered to see me handling the canoe. I kept switching the stubby broken paddle back and forth to keep us in a slow, crazy zigzag.

“Too slow, Mama!”

Like an itchy whirlwind, Starry crawled out of my shirt and down my arm. It examined the
paddle, took a huge bite out of the blade, and then crawled along the side of the canoe to the back.

“Hey, don't eat the paddle! How am I supposed to make this boat move?”

“I paddle.”

And it did, sort of. Starry climbed down the boat's stern to the waterline, held on with two arms and began kicking with the others. Slowly we moved forward. It kicked faster and faster until we were shooting along like a paddle-wheel steamer. I remembered how earlier I'd been annoyed that I wasn't getting a chance to canoe at this camp. Be careful what you wish for!

My hair blowing back, I crouched low, held onto both sides, and watched the far shore come closer. Closer and closer.

We weren't slowing down! “Whoa! Stop paddling!” Starry did just in time to send the canoe scraping way up onto the beach.

Shakily, I climbed out. “Thanks. I'll walk now.”

“I fly. Hurry!”

Starry spun in the sand then shot into the air like a small orange helicopter. In moments it had disappeared over the trees. Some guide.

Leaving the pebbly beach, I walked through
tall grass, then into the trees, trying to catch a glimpse of orange. All I saw were dark pines and shafts of late afternoon sun.

Abruptly the trees stopped. I found myself standing at the top of a cliff looking down into a landscape as bare as the moon's. It was a wide, gray valley dotted with piles of gravel, rusty machinery, and a few small buildings. Surely even Duthwi couldn't make a place this bare. It was an old gravel quarry, I realized.

Just then, a small pine branch crashed down beside me. I looked up. My friend was snacking through a tree.

“Hey! I thought you were in a hurry.”

In a shower of sawdust, Starry landed on my head. “Paddling hard work. Need food. Hurry now. Follow me!”

BOOK: Camp Alien
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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