Danny Price sat on a stump in the woods behind his house, chewing his fingernails. In two days school would start, and he still didn’t know anyone in Sutton. Who was he kidding? He didn’t know anyone in the whole state of Illinois except his parents, and they didn’t count.
“Wha—?” Danny sprang off the stump and faced his attacker. Before him stood the skinniest girl he’d ever seen. Her thick black hair was braided down her back, and Ping-Pong balls taped to wires stuck out of a headband in front. Her face was painted with red and green polka dots, and she held a flashlight in her hand like a laser rod. Beside her stood a huge dog.
“Did I scare you?” She looked hopeful.
“Well, maybe a little.”
She looked so pleased that Danny almost wished he’d said he’d been terrified.
“What’s your name?” asked the girl.
“Danny Price. We just moved here. What’s your name?”
“Today it’s Stella Andromeda. This is my trusty dog-droid, Sir Sirius. Tomorrow I’ll probably be somebody else, though. Maybe Florence Nightingale.”
“Oh, she was this wonderful nurse, and she—Hey, maybe you can be a wounded soldier, and I’ll cut off your leg!”
“I don’t know …”
“We can switch if you get bored.”
“Well … maybe.”
“OK. We’ll wait and see who you feel like being before we decide.” She frowned and said, “But if you just want to be yourself, I’ll probably just be me, and you don’t know my real name.” Stella Andromeda considered the problem for a moment. “Well,” she said at last, “I’ll just have to tell you. I’m Albergetta Simonetta Veronica Lynn Blankenberry.”
Danny counted. “You’re the only person I know who has five names.” He thought it was great, but Stella Andromeda didn’t seem to agree.
“Isn’t it awful?” she moaned. “If you have to, call me Al. But only when I’m being me, OK?”
“Good. But what’ll we do now? Do you want to explore the Dark Galaxy with Sir Sirius and me?”
“You’ll need an outer-space name.” Stella Andromeda looked the new space cadet over while Sir Sirius sniffed his toes.
“How about Star Avenger?”
Stella Andromeda frowned. “What do you think, Sir Sirius?” Sir Sirius licked the space cadet’s tennis shoes and barked.
Stella Andromeda grinned. “Welcome to the space rangers, Star Avenger.” She shook his hand, then put a finger to her lips.
“Do you hear that?”
The two space rangers and their trusty dog-droid trotted steadily through the astral forest. Actually Star Avenger kept getting caught in briars and tripping over tree roots. But his space friend assured him that all he needed was a little practice.
“I hear it now!” whispered Star Avenger. “It sounds like an alien war party.”
“Let’s sneak up and spy on them.”
The space rangers crept through the forest until they reached a ridge that sloped gently down to a thin creek and back up on the other side. Two younger kids—“They’re third graders,” whispered Stella Andromeda—stood with their backs to the rangers, while another crouched over something small and still. She poked it with a stick, and they all screamed with laughter.
“What do they have?” asked Star Avenger.
Stella Andromeda’s face had become very red. Her eyes were dark and stormy. “They’re teasing a ’possum. It looks dead, but that may be just an act.”
“What do you mean?”
“ ’Possums sometimes play dead so that their enemies will leave them alone. It doesn’t look like the act’s going to work, though.”
The kids seemed to be enjoying the game. The girl with the stick poked the ’possum again, while one of her friends tried to feed it some moss. They all laughed hysterically.
Now Star Avenger’s face was every bit as red as Stella Andromeda’s. His hands curled into fists.
“I can’t stand this,” he muttered. “We have to rescue it.”
Stella Andromeda nodded and pulled her laser rod from her pocket.
“Let’s go.” She began to run down the slope, whooping at the top of her lungs and slashing the flashlight around her. Star Avenger added his own war cry and leapt down the ridge after her, with Sir Sirius growling at his side.
Startled, the third graders looked up at them. One lost his balance and fell into the creek. He scrambled out and crawled up the ridge without even looking back. The girl with the stick threw it down and ran along the creek bank, screaming all the way. The remaining tormentor hesitated, then decided two space rangers were more than he could handle. He turned and raced after the girl.
Star Avenger chased the enemy until he heard Stella Andromeda call him back. When he returned, she was hunching over the ’possum. “Is it OK?” he asked, kneeling beside her.
“I think so. At least it’s breathing, and I can’t see any cuts on it. Let’s leave it alone and see what happens.”
They sat down on a fallen tree a few feet away. Sir Sirius lay at their feet.
“Cross your fingers,” whispered Stella Andromeda.
They waited a long time. Star Avenger got a cramp and had to stand up, and still the ’possum didn’t move. “What if it dies?” he whispered.
“We’ll give it a proper space burial.”
Finally the ’possum stirred. Sir Sirius’s ears pricked up, but Stella Andromeda grabbed his collar before he could move. For a long minute the small, beleaguered creature looked warily at the space rangers. Then it turned and sidled quickly up the ridge and into the woods.
“It’s gone home,” said Star Avenger.
Stella Andromeda nodded. “Which is where I should be going.”
“Stella Andromeda,” said Star Avenger as they turned for home, “I think that tomorrow I’ll be an Indian.”
“Great! Sir Sirius will be our trusty sidekick, Bear, and I’ll be Running Buffalo, and we can have a rain dance and a peace council. That is … if you want some company.”
“I’m counting on it!”