What’s this all about?
Walter Nutria, a teenage boy dedicated to sci-fi films, but definitely not dedicated to East Weston Northside High School! He’s been recurited to be a spaceship commander by . . .
Uxno, Snartmer, and Voo, aliens who look like pudgy middle-aged men in footie pajamas, and who are constantly at war with . . .
The Wotwots, rutabaga-shaped beatniks piloting the WSS Ferlinghetti, whose plans for galactic domination endanger the life of . . .
Yselle Meridian, also of East Weston, a cool, brainy girl who’s been renting videos on Walter’s card, and who tops off a cast of characters whose destinies are about to be changed forever by . . .
Space Mice from Galaxy Four!
Beatnik Rutabagas from Beyond the Stars is a chance to witness amazing battles, travel to strange and distant planets–and meet a giant talking thumb! Read this book now! You won’t regret it. Probably.
Winner of the Golden Duck / Eleanor Cameron Award for science fiction
Read the first two chapters!
It was a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in early April. Songbirds were chirping, deep green leaves were appearing on the trees of East Weston, and Walter Nutria was sitting on the couch in Yselle Meridian’s rec room, watching Invasion of the Saucer Men.
Walter and Yselle had been friends ever since a Halloween party in the fifth grade, when they had both dressed as Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. By the time they were freshmen in high school, they had watched hundreds of movies together. Mostly at Yselle’s house. Walter’s mother didn’t approve of Yselle. She hadn’t liked Yselle four years ago, when Yselle first visited Walter’s house, carrying a copy of 20 Million Miles to Earth in her Godzilla backpack. Mrs. Nutria liked Yselle even less now, with a punk haircut and tapes of Devil Girl from Mars and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Walter had never been able to figure out why.
On the screen, Gloria Castillo was in hysterics as the saucer men ran around in the underbrush.
“Her makeup is different than it was in Teenage Monster,” Yselle said. “Do you think she looks better here?”
Walter shrugged. “Yeah, probably.”
“Better than Lorna in Monster from Green Hell?”
“Very funny.” A while ago Walter had told Yselle how much he’d liked that movie, not because of the radioactive giant wasps but because of the actress Barbara Turner. Yselle still kidded him about it, and Walter never failed to get embarrassed. Walter pushed himself down into the couch cushions and watched the rest of the movie without looking at Yselle.
By the time the saucer men had been defeated, Yselle’s dad was ready to drive her to piano lessons, so Walter had to go home.
They waited on the porch as Yselle’s dad pulled the car around. “Will I see you in school tomorrow?” she asked.
“Probably not.” Although Walter was only a freshman at East Weston Northside High, he was already an expert at skipping class. His last two periods of the day were gym and choir, and he had learned quickly how to get out of both of them. Coach Flowers, the gym teacher, didn’t believe in taking attendance. His classes were always half-empty, but the coach never seemed to notice. In choir, the class was much too big for Miss Wizneuski to know everyone by sight, so as long as someone said “present” when Walter’s name was called, he was safe. Walter had made a deal with Timmy Arbogast to take care of this. Walter would answer “present” for Timmy in Study Hall, and Timmy would answer for Walter in Choir. That way, Timmy Arbogast got to take a mid-morning nap, and Walter’s afternoons were pretty much his to do with as he liked. He always hoped Yselle would duck out early with him, but it never happened. Her last class of the day was Latin, where the teacher was conscientious about accurate roll calls.
Tomorrow, Walter was especially eager to leave as soon as possible. The Eye Creatures and Zontar, the Thing from Venus were arriving at Honest Bob’s Video Palace, and he wanted to make sure he got them before anyone else.
Yselle got in the car. Walter waved goodbye and started walking. It was still early, and Walter didn’t feel like going home yet. Instead, he set off toward the center of town, which took him past the East Weston Northside High building.
Seeing the school started Walter thinking. In a lot of ways, the classes he skipped were easier to tolerate than the ones he stayed for. He began each day with Mrs. Baucomb, who taught history by reading straight from the textbook in a flat, drawn-out voice that never changed: “In… nineteen… twenty… Warren… G… Harding… was… elected…”
After that was English, then economics. They weren’t bad by themselves, but by the time Walter got there, his brain was so numb from sitting through history that he could never get himself to pay attention. Then he had study hall, and after that was the class he really hated: freshman biology with Mr. Murphy.
Mr. Murphy loved skinks. He had hundreds of the small, unhappy-looking lizards living in glass terrariums, and he often left the class sitting in silence while he checked on each one, making sure the skinks were content. Early in the year, Walter had learned that if you wanted a good grade in freshman biology, all your projects and reports had to have something to do with skinks. A good paper about penguins would get a C or a D, while a bad paper about ferns, if it happened to mention the North American web-footed skink, would get an A. At first this was annoying, since Mr. Murphy never seemed to care if the projects were any good or not. The only thing that mattered was whether they contained the magic word skink. Once Walter realized what was going on, it became like a kind of game, trying to fit information about skinks into projects on every conceivable subject. But the fun had faded fast. In his own way, Mr. Murphy and his skink mania was as bad as Mrs. Baucomb.
Now Walter copied his reports straight out of the encyclopedia, with random sentences about skinks tossed in, and tried to stay awake in class. He hadn’t gotten a bad grade in biology for months.
Stopping to tie his shoe, Walter thought about where to go now. His uncle, Horton Nutria, owned a pool hall in East Weston, but Walter didn’t go there very often. Walter’s parents (especially his dad, who was Horton’s brother) didn’t approve of Horton Nutria or the people who spent time in the pool hall, and they had ordered Walter to stay away. His parents were bent on keeping Walter away from “bad influences,” and were always forbidding him to do things or see people. Last year, Walter’s mother had read a newspaper article about a group of kids in Brockenborough who had put some dead bugs in candy wrappers and sold them to other kids as real candy. From then on, Walter’s mother had refused to let him buy candy of any kind, even from the store, saying “You never know, Walter, there could be something terrible in there. You never know.”
Walter thought this was unreasonable, but he had stopped trying to talk to his parents about it. Just like in school, he had learned that it was easier to give up than it was to try and change anything. Mr. Murphy would never hand out a good grade to a report with no skinks, and his parents would never let him spend time at his uncle’s pool hall. It didn’t make sense, but Walter couldn’t do anything about it.
Since the pool hall was off-limits, Walter decided to visit the Lonesome Skillet Cafe, a run-down diner in downtown East Weston. He could spend an hour in there, and then it would be time to head home for supper. Walter often spent his afternoons at the Lonesome Skillet. Joe, the owner, always asked why he wasn’t in school, but as long as Walter could come up with a creative excuse, Joe would let him stay.Yesterday he had told Joe that an anaconda from one of the biology classrooms had gotten loose and eaten three teachers before the school was evacuated. It was pretty lame, but it had been good enough for Joe to let him stay there all afternoon, drinking Joe’s experimental milk shakes and playing the antique arcade games that stood along the back wall.
Walter’s favorite was the mechanical baseball game. Its coin mechanism was broken, so he was able to play as long as he wanted on one nickel. Walter suspected that Joe would fix it if he knew, so he always pretended to add more coins whenever Joe was looking.
As Walter walked downhill toward the courthouse and the Masonic temple, the sky suddenly got darker, as if a fast-moving cloud had covered up the sun.
But there wasn’t any sun. It had been overcast all day.
What was going on? Walter turned around and looked up. There it was. Hovering just above the treetops was a flying saucer. It was as big as a house, shaped like a stainless-steel Frisbee with a big bulge in the middle. It spun rapidly, giving off a high whining sound that Walter could just barely hear.
As he stared up as it, a port opened on the underside of the flying saucer. A greenish light spilled out, and something began to emerge from the opening.
It was a segmented metal tube that writhed and twisted as it snaked its way down from the spaceship. On the end of the tube was a brown, lumpy thing. As it got closer to the ground, Walter saw that it was a giant baseball glove.
Walter stood rooted to the spot, bathed in the greenish light, as the tube and glove descended toward him and gently settled to the ground. The glove smelled like onion soup and old leather. Pinned in the middle of the glove was a note, written on yellow legal paper.
It read: “Our gripper device is broken. Please climb on. Thank you.”
This was without a doubt the strangest thing that had ever happened to Walter Nutria in his entire life. As he stared at the giant baseball glove, he was surprised to realize that he wasn’t acting like people usually did in the movies. He wasn’t panicking. He wasn’t running around screaming. He wasn’t wondering Why me? or What’s happening? Instead, he found himself thinking, It’s about time. Walter had been walking through boring day after boring day here in East Weston, and now, finally, something interesting had arrived.
He took a quick look up and down Mordant Boulevard to make sure no one was watching (no one was), and jumped aboard the alien baseball glove.
With a jerk like an old roller coaster getting into gear, the glove rose up again, carrying him toward the spaceship and the strange light. The closer Walter got, the brighter the light grew, until he had to cover his eyes against it.
The glove and its passenger disappeared into the flying saucer, and the port closed behind them. A few seconds later, with no more noise than the high whine, the spacecraft zoomed over East Weston and disappeared into the stratosphere.
When uncovered his eyes, Walter saw that he was standing in the middle of a darkened, circular room. Tiny colored lights were flashing on strange instruments, and he could barely make out shadowy figures in the gloom.
“Welcome,” said a voice. “We apologize for the indignity of your arrival, but the grip actuator on our retrieval glove was stolen by Space Mice from Galaxy Four. Would you care for some tea?”
Walter squinted into the darkness, trying to make out who was speaking. “What kind do you have?”
“We have Darjeeling and Prince of Wales. There are also muffins. We stopped at a Safeway before picking you up.”
“I’ll take Prince of Wales. With sugar. And a muffin.” Walter had skipped lunch that day, planning to blow his lunch money later at The Lonesome Skillet Cafe.Two of the dark shapes huddled together, and Walter heard bits of a whispered conversation. Finally, the voice spoke again: “We have banana-nut muffins and raisin muffins. Please choose one. We do not have whole-wheat. We apologize.”
“That’s okay. I’ll take banana. And why is it so dark in here?”
“Please forgive us, Walter Nutria,” the voice said. “We need your assistance desperately, but we are afraid that our appearance will be frightening to you. Therefore, we planned to keep the interior dark, so as not to be traumatizing.”
“And then you would turn up the lights later, once I’d gotten used to you?” Walter asked.
“What?” The voice sounded confused.
“When were you going to turn up the lights?”
“So you can see in the dark like this?”
There was a pause. “…No.”
“Maybe you’d better turn on the lights,” Walter suggested.
“But you may be horrified, and we cannot afford to have you turn against us.”
“It’ll be all right, I promise.”
“If you think it’s best.” The voice sighed. “But remember, Walter Nutria, we find your appearance three times as hideous as you may find ours.”
“Thank you,” said Walter.
The lights came on and Walter saw his alien associates for the first time.
Walter stumbled backwards. He had been expecting the worst, something purple and slimy with bloodshot bug eyes and a segmented exoskeleton. He had been expecting fangs dripping with venom and deadly ray-blaster pistols.
He had not been expecting this.
The aliens all looked like chubby middle-aged men. They wore identical red outfits that looked like too-tight pajamas with built-in feet, mittens, and hood. Their noses were big and lumpy, and they all needed a shave.
In short, the aliens, every one of them, looked exactly like his uncle, Horton Nutria.
One of them took a step toward him, holding out a large mug and a plate with a muffin on it.
“Your tea is ready,” it said.