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Parallel Play

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Spaceman Spiff has survived a deadly hyperspace battle--only to crash-land on the Zorx homeworld! He queries the shipboard computer about conditions on the plant’s surface, and receives only silence in response. His trusty ship is in worse shape than he thought. He quickly puts on his breathing mask, grabs his tool case, and lets himself out the airlock, ignoring the stench of the methane volcanoes and the hypnotic buzz of the scorpion trees. He has mere minutes to repair his ship and take off again, before his old enemies discover--

“CALVIN!” Miss Wormwood grabbed Calvin’s geography book and slammed it down on the desk, revealing the disassembled plastic spaceship he'd hidden behind it. A piece of the spaceship skidded to the floor, and Calvin ducked to retrieve it, missing the way Miss Wormwood's face grew several shades purpler as he did. "For the fourth time, what is the capital of South Dakota?"

"Er . . ." Calvin's lips drew back in a nervous parody of an ingratiating smile, and he scooted his chair out of flying-spittle range. "Nova Zorxia?"

"Very funny," said Miss Wormwood. She swept the spaceship pieces off the desk and into her hand. "I'll be keeping these. Now, is there anyone else who can tell us . . ."

Marooned! His trusty ship taken as spoils of war by the Zorx Queen, Spaceman Spiff must battle his way through the hostile jungles of Nova Zorxia, without food, water, or adequate life support. Swinging from vine to vine, he hears a noise in the undergrowth. He draws his raygun and takes careful aim. He'll only get one shot.

"What are you playing?" Susie said, standing on the top rung of the ladder to the monkey bars and leaning precipitously backwards. "Can I play, too?"

Calvin swung himself to the top of the monkey bars and scowled down at her. "No. Girls don't know anything about space."

"This girl knows where Miss Wormwood keeps the key to her desk drawer—you know, the one she locks stuff up in." Susie leaned even further, holding on with just one hand. "But I guess you don't care about that."

"Okay, you can play," said Calvin with a long-suffering sigh.

"Yay!" Susie scrambled up and sat next to him, swinging her legs. "I want to be a space princess!"

"No!" Calvin scooted away, a horrified expression on his face. "That's dumb."

Susie rested her chin in her hands sadly. "Yeah, you're probably right. I'll just go play with Kylie instead. She's got the Purple Pegasus Squad."

"Fine. Fine!" Calvin threw up his hands in exasperation and almost toppled over. "You can be the Zorx Princess.”

“Awesome! C’mon, let’s go,” the loathsome Zorx Princess hisses, mandibles quivering.

Spaceman Spiff cautiously holsters his raygun and follows. He needs whatever allies he can get now. The politics of the Zorx hive are incomprehensible to him; probably he’s just being used as a pawn in power-games between the Princess and her brood-mother. And yet, there’s something almost tender in the glance from her triple-lidded eyes as she checks to make sure he’s behind him, in the way she sends a spray of acid shooting at the lizard monkey that flings itself howling out of the trees in their direction . . . almost as if she likes him.

Yuck!

He’s not sure if she intends to let him leave Nova Zorxia once he has his ship back. But he can’t worry about that now. One thing at a time. The entrance to the Zorx hive looms ahead, and Spiff hangs back, alert for guards, but the Zorx Princess never breaks her stride. When a member of the Zorx Royal Bodyguard, tall and glittering with sinister weaponry, approaches, she cooly sprays a puff of scent-recognition at him.

“Bathroom pass.”

The guard continues on his way. Spiff can’t believe it’s going to be this easy. And the next moment proves him right, as the guard turns back, saying, “Hey, wait, that isn’t--”

“Run!” Spiff shouts, suiting actions to words and pelting through the slippery, twisting, corridors of the Zorx Hive. He glances over his shoulder to make sure the Zorx Princess is following. One one hand, if the guard catches her, it might give Spiff the time he needs to escape--but on the other, if he doesn’t recover his spaceship, his escape will be brief indeed, and the princess may be his only hope of doing that.

In any case, he needn’t have worried. For a creature with no legs, she’s surprisingly fast.

Susie sprinted into the teachers’ lounge a second ahead of Calvin. They slammed the door behind them, met each others’ eyes, and collapsed into relieved laughter.

Mercury Zorx, space princess, looks at Spaceman Spiff with new respect. He was quick on his feet and with his wits while being chased by the Imperial Wardens. Maybe he’s more than just a bumbling sidekick to Panthera Tigris, the fascinating and tragic space were-tiger who’s won Mercury’s heart.

But then Spiff has to ruin it by opening his mouth.

“I should have known better than to follow a girl!” he shouts. “Look what you’ve done--you led us straight to the . . . the Royal Retiring Chamber.”

Mercury frantically hushes him. “Well, of course,” she hisses back. “Where else do you think the key to the . . . the Zorx Royal Treasury would be kept?”

“If we’re caught,” he says, “I’m going to say it was all your idea. Because it was.”

Coward! This is what Mercury gets for trying to help him. Refusing to dignify his feeble protests with an answer, she begins her perilous ascent to the secret niche where the key is hidden. She has it in her hand when the chair she’s standing on begins to teeter, then falls off the table with a crash.

Spiff runs to help her up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” says Mercury, “like you care.”

“I don’t,” says Spiff shortly. He’s blushing. It’s really kinda cute.

“Come on,” says Mercury. “Let’s go get your ship.”

The key clicked in the lock. The drawer sprang open. Calvin gathered up the pieces of his spaceship and fitted them back together.

There was a heavy step in the hall, and Miss Wormwood’s voice, finishing her conversation with another teacher.

“Run!” said Calvin.

“Wait!” said Susie. “Lock the drawer, and leave the key on the desk. She’ll think she forgot it.”

Calvin locked the drawer, and then, spaceship in one hand, ran for the window and pulled Susie up after him. They fell in a heap into the schoolyard just as the classroom door opened.

“Yes!” Spaceman Spiff crows, the controls of his trusty spaceship purring under his hands. “I’m out of here! See you never, suckers!” No creepy slug is going to make him her space concubine!

Calvin dashed off across the schoolyard, holding the spaceship above his head.

“Don’t let Miss Wormwood see you with that, idiot!” Susie called after him.

Mercury Zorx watches the ship disappear into the sky. She’s going to catch it from her family for this stunt, but she’s learning how to deal with that. The important thing is that Mercury’s evil-yet-kind-of-cute stepbrother won’t be able to use Panthera Tigris’ sidekick as a hostage anymore.

Spaceman Spiff is still an idiot, though.