In the darkness between stars, in that cold emptiness so vast that few could grasp it any way other than mathematically, something very small waited. It tumbled slowly, lazily even, as it had for longer than even those who might have known of its existence would care to remember, and likely would until over the millennia the occasional rare, random, and infinitesimal hits from stray atoms slowly and inexorably robbed it of its kinetic energy.
But as it happened, we live in an unlikely universe, and one day it simply stopped. Not completely. Had anyone actually been in a position to notice it, they would have said it seemed to be wavering, vibrating, not so much like a compass needle as a scent hound that had just picked up a trail. Just as suddenly as it had stopped, it began turning again, faster and faster, picking up speed as it fell (inasmuch as something could fall in the absence of a nearby gravitational source), leaving the hypothetical observer scrambling for the nearest physics textbook.
This was the worst summer. Calvin knew this to be a fact in much the same way that he knew that the sky was blue, that Susie Derkins was annoying and gross, and that Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs were part of a complete breakfast. Furthermore, not only was it the worst summer, but it was the worst summer in the entire history of summers, both past and future. He had a time machine. He'd checked.
It wouldn't have been so bad if Dad's stupid work hadn't been too cheap to spring for a third ticket, or if Mom had been swayed by his arguments that between his brains and Hobbes hunting skills they'd have been fine fending for themselves, but no, instead, she'd somehow talked Rosalyn into babysitting the whole two weeks they'd be away.
Two. Whole. Weeks.
The only thing that could have been worse would have been if he been stuck at Susie's (and don't think he hadn't heard Mom on the phone to her) but frankly some possibilities were just too horrifying to contemplate.
"You're in the zone of chores! If I catch you, you'll have to clean your room tomorrow."
Even the bright spot that was Rosalyn's willingness to engage in the noble sport of Calvinball didn't hold as much appeal as it should, not least because somewhere along the line she'd figured out how to win. And that traitor, that furry Benedict Arnold, Hobbes was helping her. There was no other way she could have known about the zone of chores!
Intent was on plotting revenge for that stripey turncoat, see if he got any tuna-fish sandwiches out of him these two weeks, Calvin failed to notice the rapidly approaching streak of fire, or to pay all that much attention to Rosalyn's yell of warning until it struck the ground at his feet, sending him tumbling as everything around him went green, then white, then black.
Calvin picked himself back up. His ears were ringing and his vision was kind of blurry, but he didn't think he'd hurt himself (when you went tobogganing off Dead Man's Point you learned to figure that much out pretty quick), besides the crater that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the backyard was much more interesting and he wanted, no, needed, a better look before Rosalyn could drag him inside to check. He could see something glinting in the dirt, it could be a meteorite, or better yet, a missile.
Given his luck, of course it was neither. Instead it was a stupid ring. Well maybe not stupid, it did look kind of cool, like it was made of some kind of green glass or plastic, but when he picked it up it felt like metal, which, okay, was really cool. Much cooler than that decoder ring he'd found in his Sugar Bombs that time. It didn't exactly take a six-year-old's lack of impulse control to immediately jump to the next logical step of actually putting the ring on, but it didn't exactly hurt the lack of thought process.
For the second time in about as many minutes, everything went green again, but a different kind of green, somehow cooler and warmer at the same time, almost like relaxing on a grassy hill with Hobbes on a sunny afternoon.
"Calvin?" He glanced up at the sound, to see Hobbes and Rosalyn looking down from the edge of the crater, concern clear in their faces. Or Hobbes face, at least, Rosalyn's was sort of weirdly blurry around the edges and only got more so as he squinted at her, until, like twisting a kaleidoscope, she snapped back into focus. Funny, Calvin had never noticed the fangs when she talked before, or the faint dappled gold fuzz covering her skin, or that her eyes were that particular shade of...red.
His mouth gaped open, working soundlessly, Rosalyn was an...an...Ilkaroi, native to the Kryth system... a faint voice supplied at the back of his mind, she was an alien, with fangs and claws and he was going to be lunch if he didn't get out of there right now!
Rhoz-Eilun of the Lleha covered her face with her palm, unable to even look at the rapidly disappearing green streak in the distance that marked Calvin's departure. The warm metal of her ring served merely as a reminder of how colossal a screw-up had just occurred. She was so demoted. So very demoted. So incredibly demoted that she'd be lucky if they didn't have her scrubbing the event horizons of black holes from now until the heat death of the universe.
She'd thought nothing could be worse than the time he'd sold the planet, but obviously the universe had only taken it as a challenge, and fun as it had been explaining that not only did Earth not have a 'Supreme Earthling Potentate' but also that six-year-olds humans couldn't enter into legally binding contracts regardless of how many leaves you'd given them, at least that time the paperwork had been her biggest worry.
"We're doomed," she moaned into her hand, flashing back to her first briefing with Artemisia, where the Ncathai had explained why exactly a juvenile human required babysitting by both a decorated veteran and a rising star of the corps. Phrases like 'interstellar incident in the making' tended to stick with you. Rhoz-Eilun briefly, very briefly, considered trying to keep this from her, but you didn't make retirement age in the corps without being 'properly' (that was to say completely and utterly) paranoid. Artemisia probably already knew. "We're all doomed."
Out of the uncovered corner of her eye she could see Hobbes shrugging. "Don't worry, I'm sure he'll be fine."
She dropped her hand to to stare incredulously at the tiger. "He has a ring," she said, very slowly. "Let me repeat, he has a weapon whose power is only limited by his imagination. Calvin."
Another shrug. "I said he'd be fine, nothing about the rest of us."
Her stare narrowed into a glare, tail twitching against the confinement of her jeans leg, and a growl rising in her throat as she did her best to remember that even when bound to their original manifester, sapient thoughtforms were still accorded their full rights and thus she couldn't rip Hobbes to fluffy shreds.
Still the intent of the growl must have carried as Hobbes paled under his fur and quickly offered up "I'm pretty sure I know where he went."
"Lemme go! Help! Alien! She's gonna eat me!" Not one person in Calvin's street gave them a second glance as Rhoz-Eilun finally made her way back up the drive, Calvin under one arm, Hobbes the other, various bits of debris still stuck in her hair and to her clothing. It wasn't like it was a particularly novel sight, just with a different soundtrack than usual.
"Quit yelling, Calvin," she growled, dropping Hobbes so he could open the door for her rather than risk letting go of Calvin to do it herself, although at least his ring was now safely off his finger and in her pocket. For now. "I still look human to them."
"I don't care about normalcy filters," Calvin replied, still at the top of his lungs. "I know the truth! I know you're an alien! From Ilkaro, the great moon of Tha-kryth. What kind of name is that for a planet anyway? It sounds like an alien sneeze!"
"Because the species that named their homeworld after mud can talk," Rhoz-Eilun muttered under her breath. "At least our astronomers called your planet something more poetic than HD 28185 b."
"I see that the knowledge base actually took," a familiar gravelly voice remarked. Rhoz-Eilun relaxed fractionally, Artemisia must have let herself in while she was chasing down Calvin. Unless you went for airtight construction, few Ncathai had trouble getting into places they wanted to be. If the species ever abandoned their ethics en masse, the price of theft insurance across the known systems would skyrocket. "I was worried about that."
Said relaxation was short lived however, as it turned out that Calvin was in fact capable of even louder volumes and more determined thrashing. "The Zorg Despot! I knew it! I'll never talk! Even if you eat me!"
Artemisia made a sound approximating a sigh as she extended a pseudopod, wrapping it around Calvin's ankle and dangling him upside down. "Even if my species could, you'd give me indigestion."
Calvin stilled, and light of Tha-kryth never fade, quietened. He looked at Rhoz-Eilun, confusion clear on his face.
"Artemisia's species are lithotrophs," she explained.
The look of confusion didn't go away.
"They eat rocks, which reminds me," Rhoz-Eilun retrieved a cloth-wrapped bundle from her backpack. "I liberated this from the university's geology department, the storage closet was covered in enough dust that I doubt anyone will miss it."
A mass of delicate tendrils descended upon the bundle, unwrapping it to reveal an irregular, pale gray crystal. "Brucite? You shouldn't have." Not that that was stopping Artemisia from working loose a smaller spar and drawing it into herself, as Calvin watched in fascination from his upside down vantage-point.
"I've got a question?" Apparently all the blood rushing to his head made Calvin more polite. "How'd an alien end up with a name like Wormwood?"
"I picked it when I decided to retire here." A plan which, as Rhoz-Eilun had heard many times, had lasted all of five and a half minutes of meeting Calvin. "Humans can't pronounce my true name."
"But Artemisia Wormwood? You'd think people would notice."
"No one has before," Artemisia said, then added in a grumble. "I'm shocked you did, given I doubt you could tell me the first thing about Elizabeth the First despite spending three weeks on Shakespeare."
"Of course I can," Calvin replied, indignant. "She had the wingspan of an albatross!"
Rhoz-Eilun resisted the urge to cover her face again. They were supposed to train him into a galactic peacekeeper. The universe was doomed.