STAR Academy excerpt aka “First One’s Free”

Friday, September 11th, 2009

For any foreign film producers or publishers who don’t yet have access to the hard copies, or anyone else who would like a sample, here’s a first taste in the form of Chapter 1. Feel free to leave comments. And if you’d like more details re. ordering, distribution, etc., click here for a link back to the Random House / Doubleday site for STAR Academy.

Chapter 1

Amanda Forsythe watched with a mixture of nervousness and excitement as the judges of the Downview Public School science fair examined her display. She had spent every evening of the past month putting together her exhibit. It had been exhausting, but worth it, she hoped. She knew that photonsail space travel was a difficult concept to convey to anyone who didn’t have a sound knowledge of interstellar flight and quantum physics. Still, she believed that her explanation was simple enough that even the judges– Mr. Murkly, the principal, and Mrs. Wheedlbum, her grade-six science teacher– could understand. And this was the moment of truth. Staff, pupils and parents packed the school gym, within which was an array of displays from the senior students, all competing to win the coveted annual science fair trophy. Amanda tried to read the expressions on the faces of Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum– every furrowed brow, every squint, every head scratch– wondering if they were favourably impressed.

Finally, Principal Murkly spoke: “Laser-powered interstellar travel. How . . . creative.”

He looked at Amanda’s diagram showing chains of planetary-based laser stations transmitting power beams out to a spacecraft equipped with photon sails. Principal Murkly cocked his head like a dog that was confused at hearing a human voice coming from someplace unexpected, like a refrigerator or a wastebasket.

“I’d be nervous travelling in a spaceship that people were firing laser beams at!” exclaimed Mrs. Wheedlbum.

“Yes,” added Principal Murkly. “You’d want to make sure that whoever was shooting the laser had good aim! Otherwise, kablooey!”

Amanda decided that she’d better help them out. “Actually, they’re not firing lasers at it, but to it, as a power source. NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts has done work on this already. So has the Russian Space Agency. With the research being undertaken, it’s possible that within two or three decades, photon-powered interstellar travel will–”

“Strange, I don’t remember reading about it in our new science textbooks,” interrupted Mrs. Wheedlbum, as though she hadn’t heard Amanda speaking at all.

“Well,” said Amanda politely, “that’s because our school textbooks deal with fairly basic science. Photon-sail interstellar travel is really cutting-edge.”

“Oh, I get it,” chuckled Principal Murkly. “You’re saying that the highly trained professionals who write our textbooks are not quite up to your level, is that it?”

He turned and winked at the audience. Taking their cue from him, the assembled students chuckled at Amanda. Many of the parents did too, in what they thought was an “isn’t she cute?” sort of way, which Amanda found even more irritating, because it was so condescending yet so utterly ignorant. Amanda felt her temper beginning to rise but let it go. She realized that new science concepts were often greeted with skepticism. People once thought that Earth was flat. And even after they were finally persuaded that Earth was a sphere, you could get burned at the stake for saying that it was not the centre of the universe. So Amanda told herself to be patient. She could turn this around. She just had to make the concept simple enough for them to grasp.

“This kind of science–”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Wheedlbum with a patronizing smile. “Unfortunately, the presentations for this fair are supposed to be about science fact, not science fiction.”

Mr. Murkly only partly suppressed a smirk. “Why do you need to go off into space in a device like this protein-sail space thingy of yours, anyway?” he asked.

Photon sail, Amanda thought to herself. “Photon, not protein,” she wanted to tell Principal Murkly. Amanda wanted to correct him so that he didn’t make her exhibit sound totally ridiculous. But she had observed that some adults responded badly to being corrected by kids, no matter how wrong the adult was. And after his reaction to her comment about their science textbooks, she knew that Murkly was one of that kind of adult. So instead, Amanda just answered his question as though “protein-sail space thingy” wasn’t a completely ludicrous description of the astonishingly advanced devices and concepts featured in her exhibit.

“The reason we need to build spaceships,” Amanda explained, “is that according to astronomers, the sun is gradually getting hotter due to nuclear fusion burning up the hydrogen in its core. As it runs out of hydrogen, it will begin burning the other element that makes up a significant portion of it: helium. Helium fusion creates much higher temperatures than hydrogen fusion. When the sun begins producing more heat, that will in turn cause Earth’s temperature to rise.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Principal Murkly. “Then we could stay right at home for the winter holidays, instead of having to fly south to get warm.” He mugged to the audience. “What do you say to that, everybody? Who wants to turn the school into a tropical resort?”

The children shouted their approval. Parents clapped appreciatively at his suggestion.

“It’s true that at first, the winters would be warm,” said Amanda, trying not to get flustered by Principal Murkly’s ridiculous prattle. “But eventually the sun will become so hot that it will boil away Earth’s oceans and rivers. Then the surface of the planet itself will become molten. It will no longer be able to sustain life of any kind. If you stayed at a resort on such a world,” said Amanda, fighting to conceal her annoyance, “the highlight of your vacation would entail being incinerated into a pile of ashes small enough to fit in a teaspoon– that is, until you were vaporized completely a few moments later.”

A hush fell over the hall. Many of the parents looked away from Amanda awkwardly, as if she had just shouted out something inappropriate in a crowded elevator. Others cleared their throats and shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“If we are to save our species and the other life forms on Earth,” added Amanda, “we will need to build spaceships and seek out alternative planets that can support us.”

“Gracious me,” said Mrs. Wheedlbum. “What a calamity! I’m surprised I haven’t heard about it on the television news. When is this terrible event, real or imaginary, supposed to happen?”

“According to all the science journals I’ve read,” Amanda responded, “as well as the nasa website, about nine hundred million years from now.”

“Nine hundred million years from now?!” brayed Principal Murkly. “Why on earth would you even care about what happens that far in the future? We’ll all be long gone by then.”

“We will be gone,” agreed Amanda, “but our descendants will have to deal with the problem. We can help them by beginning our research now.”

“Well,” continued Principal Murkly in a mock-reassuring tone, “I’m sure we can safely leave this problem to the geniuses of the future, eh? That means you, grade ones,” he said, smiling and pointing to the six-year-old children at the back of the gym. “Or maybe your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren.”

Everyone laughed. Except Amanda.

Then Principal Murkly leaned in close to Mrs. Wheedlbum’s ear and whispered so quietly that his voice could barely be heard beyond the third row: “Remind me later to have a chat with the school psychologist. I think this Forsythe kid might be a, you know, whack job.”

As he said “whack job,” Murkly pointed to his ear, nodded solemnly at Mrs. Wheedlbum, then crossed his eyes and made a clockwise motion with his index finger to emphasize the point.

“Forsythe’s a freak!” a boy’s voice called from somewhere in the gym.

“Weirdo!” cried out another. “No wonder you don’t have any friends!”

That set off a wave of giggles and snickers among the students. Parents shushed their children, then sat there in embarrassed silence. Amanda felt her face turning red. Her throat tightened. This wasn’t the way she had imagined the judges and audience responding to her project, for which she had read scores of research papers in the most respected scientific journals.

Amanda opened her mouth to protest. But before she could utter a sound, Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum had already turned away, clearly as skeptical of her project as if it were about the care and feeding of elves, or how to turn toenail clippings into precious metals.

“Now, what do we have here?” Principal Murkly asked enthusiastically as he sidled up to the next exhibit.

“Yes, this one looks very interesting,” added Mrs. Wheedlbum. “Tell us what it’s all about, young man.”

Behind the display table sat Stephen Chapman, a boy whose face was perpetually frozen into the expression of a surprised mole and whose soft, white body suggested a blanched sea slug. He enjoyed moving as little as possible, which was evidently the inspiration for his science fair project. Right now, Stephen was doing what he liked doing most: sitting in a chair, not moving any part of his body except his rubbery lips.

“My exhibit,” began Stephen, blinking into the gymnasium lights, “is about robots. Some day, robots will do everything for us. They will shop for us, dress us, prepare our meals and bring them to us. They will even pick out the ideal television programs for us to watch. We won’t ever have to get up off the sofa– well, except to go to the bathroom! Ha ha! And as robot technology advances, who knows, maybe we’ll find a way around that too!”

The students laughed along with him. Officially, the judges were supposed to frown on that sort of humour, but they couldn’t help grinning surreptitious little grins of approval.

“And now,” Stephen said, “I give you . . . the future!”

The room went dark for a moment, triggering an excited murmur among the students. Then a single spotlight faded up on a robot. Amanda noted that it was remarkably similar in size and shape to a discarded shop vacuum cleaner. With a whine of servo motors, it began to roll forward toward the judges, who looked vaguely apprehensive as it drew near to them. Just when it seemed that Murkly and Wheedlbum might spring out of its way, the robot abruptly stopped.

“Greetings! Fear not, I come in peace!” it announced.

Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum tittered in surprise, mightily impressed. The audience gasped in amazement. Amanda had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes as she watched the oversized metal canister with the crudely painted angular face and the vacuum-cleaner-hose arms that dangled uselessly at its sides.

“Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum, I presume!” said the robot.

The judges appeared dumbfounded.

“It even knows my name! Imagine that!” hooted Mrs. Wheedlbum.

Not finished yabbering, the robot announced that it was called “Yorgon,” and redundantly added that it was the future. Both staff and students giggled with delight at this technological marvel as it repeated Stephen’s list of jobs wherein it would replace humans, so that one day, nobody would apparently have to do anything anymore.

Except go to the bathroom on their sofa, thought Amanda.

She seemed to be the only one who noticed that connected to Yorgon’s backside was a cable leading out of the spotlight, into the dark, all the way to a remote-control box with a joystick that sat on Stephen’s lap, hidden by the display table. Amanda also seemed to be the only one who noticed that the words that came out of the small speaker that served as Yorgon’s “mouth” coincided with the offstage movements of Stephen’s blubbery lips, which he tried to conceal behind his fleshy fingers as he sat in the dark, speaking into a wireless microphone. Yorgon, realized Amanda, was not in any way an automaton capable of independent action. But that didn’t seem to matter to the awestruck judges or audience.

Concluding its tantalizing glimpse of things to come, Yorgon bid the audience goodbye, saying, “See you in the future!” His motors whined and he backed away into the shadows. The judges began to clap enthusiastically. Then the entire student body joined in with the kind of fervent applause usually reserved for announcements such as school cancellation due to a flood in the basement. Amanda shook her head in disgust. This was the science fair equivalent of a parlour trick, she thought. Yorgon was no more a vision of the future than was a clock radio or an electric coffee maker.

Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum then moved on to the final exhibit, a presentation by Lisa Crumpkin about genetic food engineering. Lisa Crumpkin had a tight-lipped, pinchfaced expression that made her look like she was always judging everyone else, which she was.

“Welcome to my science fair exhibit,” announced Lisa, “which deals with exciting new practical technologies that will change the way children eat, all over the world.”

When Lisa said the word “practical” her eyes darted just for a moment to Amanda’s project, and her pinched-faced expression became even pinchier. An instant later, before most people could even tell that Lisa had done that, she was smiling again and facing the judges, who rubbed their chins and necks approvingly as they listened.

“For example,” said Lisa, “some day, scientists will be able to genetically engineer chickens with four legs, so that everybody in a family can have a drumstick if they want one. And cows’ genes could be spliced with cocoa plants so that they’d give us chocolate milk. And to save on energy, pigs could be bred that would spontaneously combust, setting themselves on fire to create fully cooked bacon for us!”

The children spontaneously burst into applause. Lisa smiled and paused until their ovation had died down.

“Of course,” she added, “even with science, it will be impossible to feed everyone if mommies and daddies in Third World countries keep making so many babies so quickly. There simply isn’t enough bacon and chocolate to go around. They’d eat all theirs, then they’d eat all ours, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

That set off a buzz of concerned whispers throughout the gym as Amanda’s fellow students thought of all those people in the Third World reproducing like jackrabbits, their unwashed children gobbling up all the bacon and chocolate until there was none left for anybody and the entire treat-deprived planet starved to death. Carefully waiting until the implications had fully sunk in, Lisa continued.

“Luckily, I have a solution for that as well: to re-engineer the genes of all the unfortunate inhabitants of those regions. These less privileged peoples will have their DNA spliced with that of moose and worms. That way their bodies can digest the nutrients in non-traditional food sources, such as twigs and leaves and dirt, and they won’t need to eat things like chocolate and bacon or any of the other foods we like to eat. With my scientific vision of the future . . .” Lisa paused for dramatic effect, then her voice rose in volume and pitch to indicate a profound and compassionate conclusion: “ . . . no child anywhere in the world will ever have to go to bed hungry again!”

The crowd broke out in a thunderous round of applause. Mrs. Wheedlbum shed a little tear, to think that such a noble idea could spring from the mind of a mere child. The cheering and clapping grew louder as, on a large screen, Lisa projected a computer-modified photo she had made of several Third World children in this utopian future. They were down on all fours, wearing loincloths, happily grazing on grass, leaves and soil. To remind the audience that this nutritional miracle was all thanks to gene splicing, one of the children sported an impressive rack of antlers. Another had a segmented lower body like an earthworm and was popping up out of the ground, smiling through a mouthful of dirt. From the blissful expressions of the ruminat ing ragamuffins, it was clear there was not a single empty belly to be found amid the squalid huts of the backward village that Lisa had labelled with a primitive-sounding name that she had found in an atlas: “Toronto.”

When the rapturous ovation finally died down, Mrs. Wheedlbum wiped away her tear and declared that having now viewed all the science fair exhibits, it was time to select a winner. She and Principal Murkly huddled a moment and had an intense private discussion. Then Principal Murkly turned to face the crowd.

“This year,” he said, “we judges have an especially difficult decision to make, because the students of our school have created so many fascinating entries.”

“In fact,” added Mrs. Wheedlbum, “we have never had so many brilliant projects before.”

“But this year,” continued Principal Murkly, “two finalists have displayed such vision that Mrs. Wheedlbum and I have decided to declare a pair of winners.”

Amanda felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the judges, having had a chance to think about it for a few more minutes, now did understand her exhibit enough to at least give it shared recognition, if not an outright win.

“For scientific excellence,” announced Principal Murkly, “we declare Stephen Chapman and Lisa Crumpkin the winners, for ‘Robotic Servants’ and ‘Genetic Food Engineering.’”

As Principal Murkly looked out across the gym, smiling and leading the students in a cheer for the winners, his gaze momentarily fell on Amanda’s exhibit. He reflexively shook his head and giggled. Amanda felt her face getting hot and flushed as the full, maddening realization hit her: not only did the judges not comprehend or appreciate her exhibit, they actually thought it was laughable.

Meanwhile, the winners were revelling in the adulation. Stephen Chapman sopped up the recognition like a hippo wallowing in a particularly sloppy mud hole. Bowing from the chair in which he remained seated, he squinted at the adoring crowd, gave a little wave of acknowledgement, and soundlessly mouthed “Thank you” with his rubbery lips. Lisa Crumpkin then leapt into the spotlight. She clutched her hands together in a big fist of triumph above her head, did a victory jig and, caught up in the moment, blurted out, “Superiority!” Then she quickly retreated, looking slightly embarrassed by her outburst.

Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum shook the hands of each of the two winners.

Then Mrs. Wheedlbum, a big smile on her face, turned to the crowd.

“What a wonderful vision of science we have witnessed here today,” she announced to the assembled students. “Who knows, perhaps some day all of you children will be drinking chocolate milk straight from a cow and being taught by robots. Ha ha!”

Principal Murkly and Mrs. Wheedlbum had a good laugh at that.

“Shouldn’t be too hard to arrange,” Amanda said under her breath. “All we’d need is the chocolate milk.”

“Now, Amanda,” her father gently chided later, as they packed up her display, “don’t be a sore loser.”

“But it’s not fair,” Amanda protested. “My theory on photon-sail space travel is scientifically valid. The government is already researching it. The stupid principal and teacher just don’t understand it.”

“Would you like to go for an ice cream?” asked her mother.

“Sure,” Amanda shot back. “Maybe we can get some made by genetically modified frozen cows, served to us by a talking vacuum cleaner.”

A wounded, befuddled look came over her mother’s face. Science had never been Amanda’s mother’s strong card.

“Sorry,” Amanda quickly added.

She realized that although her parents didn’t understand her project any more than Wheedlbum or Murkly did, they were just trying to make her feel better.

“I’d like to go for ice cream!” trumpeted Daniel, Amanda’s little brother. “And some milk from a chocolate cow!”

At age nine, Daniel was two years younger than Amanda, and in grade four. He was more interested in sports, video games and Jackie Chan movies than in science. But because he also attended Downview Public School, he had been part of the audience too. Daniel didn’t understand one iota of his older sister’s science fair presentation. But Lisa Crumpkin’s idea of a limitless supply of pre-chocolatized milk was highly appealing to him.

“Why don’t you invent something useful like that?” Daniel asked Amanda. “Maybe then you’d make some friends.”

He posed both the question and his observation about her lack of social life in a genuine spirit of helpfulness, which, for Amanda, made it all the more galling.

Noticing the sarcastic grins and jeering whispers of Amanda’s classmates as they passed by her, Amanda’s mother attempted to say something comforting.

“Don’t worry, sweetie,” she began. “I’m sure if you just try to act normal and stop talking about laser beams and spaceships and the future, the teachers and the other kids will eventually forget all about your science fair project and will quit thinking you’re . . . you know . . . strange.”

Strange. Her mother’s words hit her like a brick. Amanda’s eyes began to sting. She averted her gaze from her mother’s sympathetic but utterly uncomprehending face and looked down at the floor. As she did, she noticed anew the top she had chosen to wear for her presentation. It was, she had thought earlier that morning, perfect for the science fair: a hip shade of purple, with a funky retro pattern of shooting stars and ringed planets on it. But now, as kids streamed out of the gym, smirking at her and shaking their heads as if she were the biggest space cadet in the known universe, Amanda felt that even her choice of clothing seemed to mock her and make her a lightning rod for derision.

Amanda’s father now took a turn at trying to be helpful.

“And speaking of the future,” he said, “it won’t be all that long till you’ll be going to junior high. We could send you to that school on the other side of town where nobody knows you, so you can have a fresh start. Then if you just keep your ideas to yourself and don’t let them know what you’re really thinking about, nobody will be able to make fun of you.”

“Maybe you could even make a friend or two,” added Amanda’s mother.

“That’s right,” said her father. “And a few years after that, when you’re in senior high, your teachers will be sophisticated enough to talk to you about, you know, um, real science– put you on the right track.”

Amanda was about to remind her father that what she did was real science when suddenly they were surprised by a voice from very close behind them.

“I wish that were the case, but I’m afraid it’s highly unlikely.”

Amanda and her family turned and were even more surprised when they saw the source of the voice: a tall, thin, rather birdlike woman of about sixty years of age, hovering nearby. She wore a long, double-breasted dress that looked as though it had been fashioned out of a white lab coat. It had padded shoulders and gold braid piping along the edges. Beside her, a second woman nodded in agreement. This woman was younger than the first woman, probably in her late forties, thought Amanda, but was equally unusual-looking. She wore a princess-cut skirt suit that was belted tightly at the waist, and that, like her companion’s outfit, had padded shoulders. Atop her head sat a pillbox hat, so called because it had a flat top and no brim. She had bright red lipstick, and above the rim of her cat-eye glasses, her eyebrows appeared to have been shaved off and imitation ones pencilled in for some unknown reason.

“I’m afraid I have to agree with my colleague,” said the woman with the pillbox hat and pencilled-in eyebrows. Turning to Amanda, she added, “Young lady, there’s as much chance of a high school teacher understanding your photon-sail interstellar travel project as there is of a monkey learning to fly a planeload of bananas to Tanganyika.”

Amanda was taken aback. Who were these people? Definitely not staff members. She had never seen them before at her school, not even during her science fair presentation. It was as if they had simply fallen out of the sky.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be eavesdropping,” said the older woman in the lab coat with the padded shoulders. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Gladys Oppenheimer, and this,” she said, gesturing toward the woman with the pencilled-in eyebrows, “is Professor Mildred Leitspied.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Amanda’s father. “I’m Jack Forsythe. This is my wife, Wendy, and our children, Amanda and Daniel.”

Mr. Forsythe was polite, but Amanda noted a faintly apprehensive look on her father’s face as he regarded the two women, both of whom had unusual, somewhat exaggerated facial features. Their noses were rather beaklike, and their eyes seemed slightly large. Amanda knew from looking at old books that their clothing and hairstyles were out of date, as if they were from the late 1940s or early 1950s. That is a little odd, thought Amanda to herself. But then, she reasoned, great minds of science rarely give a hoot about the fripperies of fashion. They’re too busy thinking big thoughts. Take Albert Einstein. Did he care if his sweaters were rumpled and it looked like something had built its nest in his hair? Clearly, he did not. Besides, Dr. Oppenheimer and Professor Leitspied had pleasant smiles and an animated sparkle in those largish eyes that suggested a lively intellect.

“So,” began Amanda’s father, “are you trying to tell me that all this sci-fi stuff our daughter was talking about might actually make some sense?”

“As a matter of fact,” responded Dr. Oppenheimer, “it was a masterful discourse. Amanda raised some excellent points in her comparisons of optimal photon-sail shapes for harnessing the momentum of light.”

“Absolutely!” added Professor Leitspied enthusiastically. “Traditional wisdom says that rectangles are best, but there are some strong arguments to be made for heligyro systems and hoop-supported circular sails, as your daughter pointed out.”

“Yes,” continued Oppenheimer. “The Russian Znamya project quite successfully demonstrated the potential of circular sail shapes.”

Amanda broke into an ear-to-ear grin. “You know about the Znamya project?”

“Why, of course,” said Oppenheimer, smiling affably. “I’m always very curious about any technology that might lead the people of this planet beyond the solar system some day.”

“Hmm,” said Amanda’s father. “Is human space exploration a hobby of yours?”

“A keen interest of mine, you might say,” responded Oppenheimer warmly.

Then she turned to Amanda. “I was impressed by your calculations as well. Your estimate of 9.00137 newtons of locomotive force per square kilometre of sail is bang on. And your conversion of that into an energy potential of 1.3 kilowatts energy per square metre of sail seems quite reasonable, given existing technologies. So all in all, your sail seems to be an extremely viable means of achieving interstellar travel– at least for sublight speeds, that is.”

“Thank you!” said Amanda happily. Her eyes lit up with pleasure at having found, for the first time in her life, other souls who actually understood what she was talking about and didn’t think she was a few atoms shy of a molecule.

“Indeed,” added Professor Leitspied, waving her long, thin hands enthusiastically in the air. “Why, I found myself yearning to zoom past the spiral arms of Messier 101 in one of your spaceships, just from hearing you describe it.”

Amanda’s father grinned. “Well, that’s nice. But actually, if you mean Mark Messier– the guy who won the Stanley Cup for the New York Rangers and the Edmonton Oilers– his number was 11, not 101. But you’re right about one thing: Messier could really skate. You’d need a spaceship to keep up to ‘The Moose,’ that’s for sure.”

“Dad!” said Amanda, mortified. “She’s not talking about the hockey player! She means Messier 101. It’s the Pinwheel Galaxy, 27 million light years away in the Ursa Major constellation!”

“It’s amazing what’s in that girl’s head,” said Amanda’s mother sheepishly, embarrassed by her daughter’s outburst. “My husband and I often wonder where she ever got that mind of hers!”

“Indeed you must,” said Dr. Oppenheimer with a polite nod. “Indeed you must.”

“You seem to know a thing or two about science,” said Amanda’s father. “Are you inspectors from the school board?”

The two women smiled courteously but were visibly amused by the suggestion, as if he had just asked them whether they were dog walkers or sumo wrestlers.

“No, we’re not associated with the school board,” replied Oppenheimer, “but we attend many science fairs on a professional basis to judge the entries.”

“Too bad that you weren’t the judges at my school,” commented Amanda, “because my principal and science teacher sure didn’t like my entry.”

“That’s because they can’t comprehend it,” said Oppenheimer. “It’s obvious that they have a very limited knowledge of celestial science and advanced physics. And to be frank, neither this school nor any educational institution in the city can properly nurture an intellect as fertile as yours. It’s like trying to grow an oak tree on the moon.”

Amanda was visibly dejected by that assessment.

“Great,” she said. “So now I can look forward to being laughed at all the time for my ideas.”

Her parents glanced awkwardly back and forth between each other, Amanda and the two women. They didn’t know what to say.

“Can we go for that ice cream now?” asked Daniel.

Dr. Oppenheimer broke the tension by apologizing again. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound glum. In fact, I’m here to offer encouragement. Because, fortunately, there are far bigger fish in the sea than this school and its science prize. My colleague and I are from the STAR Academy.”

“The STAR Academy?” asked Amanda’s father. “Never heard of it. But if it’s some kind of showbiz school, I’ll tell you right now, our Amanda is a lot of things, but an entertainer she is not.”

Oppenheimer smiled indulgently.

“I can categorically assure you that the Academy is not involved in entertainment industry training. I believe that there are more than enough institutions devoted to creating the tap dancers, jugglers and ventriloquists of the future as it is. Rather “STAR” stands for Superior Thinking and Advanced Research. It’s a brand-new school for intellectually ultra-gifted children, where the finest young minds on the planet today will be cultivated into the greatest scientists of tomorrow. I am the headmistress, and Professor Leitspied is our senior instructor.”

Professor Leitspied joined in. “We’ve been attending science fairs all over the planet, looking for the crème de la crème . . .the brilliant minds that too often are overlooked by the underfunded and under-imaginative traditional school systems.”

Headmistress Oppenheimer continued. “We are very impressed by your daughter’s work, and we think she would make an ideal candidate for the Academy.”

“You do?” asked Amanda, looking hopeful. “It would be so fantastic to study at a real science academy!”

Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe looked alarmed.

“Okay, now hang onto your horses just a minute,” said Amanda’s father to Oppenheimer. His voice was growing louder, tighter and higher. Amanda knew that was not a good sign.

“If you’re building up to a sales pitch for us sending Amanda to some expensive private school,” he continued, “you can save it for some other sucker. I’m in sales myself– eastern regional sales manager for the Achilles Bunion Remover Cream Corporation– so I’m wise to all the angles. And I pay a lot of taxes as it is to support the public education system. Too many taxes, if you ask me. And that’s quite enough, thank you very much.”

Amanda winced at her father’s tone, terrified that Oppenheimer and Leitspied would take offence, lose interest in her and withdraw their offer. But Headmistress Oppenheimer just smiled patiently at Jack Forsythe, as though she were about to explain a difficult counting problem to a toddler, or train an ape to communicate using sign language.

“Let me assure you,” she replied, “that Professor Leitspied and I are not in sales, and that the Academy does not seek funding from the parents of its students. Far from it.”

“Our goal,” added Professor Leitspied, arching her pencilled-on eyebrows for emphasis, “is to seek out the most intelligent children on the planet, regardless of their families’ financial circumstances.”

“You see,” continued Headmistress Oppenheimer, “the Academy is entirely funded by corporate sponsors and private philanthropists. No one can buy their way into this school. Tuition, books, lab fees and all living expenses are absolutely free to those who can pass its entrance test– which is approximately twice as difficult as that of any other school anywhere else on Earth.”

“Only a very tiny proportion of the population is capable of meeting that requirement,” added Professor Leitspied.
“Approximately one thirty-thousandth of one per cent.”

“But if you’re among that special group,” continued Oppenheimer, “even if you grew up eating mud and wearing antlers like the children in that ridiculous exhibit, you’d be welcomed in on a full scholarship.”

“How altruistic,” commented Amanda’s mother.

“Enlightened self-interest,” responded Headmistress Oppenheimer. “After all, the very future of the human race itself depends on the best and the brightest being able to make their contribution to its progress. Since the very first ancestors of Homo sapiens emerged from the trees of Africa millions of years ago, every generation has produced a small, select group of minds so extraordinary that they create the key advances that drive the entire species forward. Each generation of that elite forms a critical link in a chain. They are the ones who have found the solutions to every obstacle that humanity has faced. They are the ones who created tools and language, learned to make fire, discovered electricity, and developed mathematics, music, agriculture, medicine and, in the past century, space travel, allowing the species to extend its influence out into the cosmos. Just imagine the calamities that might befall the human race if for some reason it ever missed a link in that chain, and there was no new generation of brilliant young minds to find solutions to its most pressing problems.”

“What a terrible thought!” said Amanda’s mother.

“Precisely,” replied Oppenheimer. “Which is why we would very much like to have Amanda write our entrance exam. If she’s interested, that is.”

“Now let’s get this straight,” said Amanda’s father. “You say this Academy of yours doesn’t cost anything, and you pay for all your students’ expenses. All of them?”

Amanda winced.

“Yes,” replied Oppenheimer. “We even pay for the airfare to the Academy.”

“So you absolutely guarantee that there are no hidden expenses? It never costs the parents anything extra?” he asked.

“Not one red cent. Ever. I promise,” said Oppenheimer.

“Well,” responded Amanda’s father, “I guess there’s no harm in her writing the test– er, as long as there is no fee for writing it, that is.”

Oppenheimer shook her head. “No fee, hidden or otherwise.”

“Well . . .” said Amanda’s father, not certain what to say.

“Now, Amanda,” added her mother, “you would have to promise that if you were to write this test, and you did poorly on it, and it turned out that your ideas weren’t scientific, just, you know . . . kooky– that you wouldn’t be too upset.”

“I promise,” Amanda responded, stifling a groan.

“Then it’s settled,” said Oppenheimer, beaming.

Amanda felt almost dizzy with excitement.

“How soon can I write it?” she asked.

Oppenheimer bent down and gently put a hand on Amanda’s shoulder.

“I expect this has been a very tiring day for you,” she said, “and you’ll want to be at your best for writing the exam. How about tomorrow?”

Excerpted from STAR Academy by Edward Kay Copyright © 2009 by Edward Kay. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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