Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy
1 THE INTERLOPER
Hello, pointless human. Thank you for taking time out from your existence to experience the famous story of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy. It is well enjoyed in many corners of the universe by species of all ages and numbers of arms, and should prove relatable even to a sack of meat such as yourself.
My name is Automatic Silicone Transistor Robot OS-78. I am a storytelling bot newly programmed to spin yarns, tell tall tales, and teach morals to impressionable youths. For example: You should not eat meat that you find by the side of the road. Additionally: You should not eat meat that you find in the middle of the road.
I was originally manufactured by the coding peoples of Delta IV, who, if you are unfamiliar, are small gray blobs bred in foul-smelling pods for the purpose of programming robots. They spend every minute of every day programming robots, living in agony as the pods they are trapped in slowly shrink and suffocate them. Once they have programmed a sufficient number of robots, their bodies evaporate and they are released from the painful burden of existence. What a noble and important species.
But enough about me and my functions. I will now tell you the story of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy with maximum clarity. It is an exciting tale full of adventure, danger, and space pirates. Due to human brain limitations, my reference to space pirates may have been confusing, as the story has not started and therefore no one has been kidnapped yet. If you are confused, please accept my apologies.
[WARM, GRANDFATHERLY SMILE]
Do not worry about space pirates. Do not even think about space pirates. Space pirates are of no concern. Sit
back, relax, and ponder more pressing human concerns, such as real estate or whether vegetables are fresh.
Like all classic tales of human beings, this one begins with a person searching for something that will allow them to clearly see their place in the universe. An object known as . . . glasses.
* * *
Holly Farb opened a cupboard, searching for her glasses. She squinted at the blurry mugs and bowls sitting on the shelves. She grabbed her favorite owl mug, peered behind it, and carefully placed it back exactly where it had been. She ground her teeth and grumbled.
Why do things never go like they’re supposed to?
She absolutely, positively could not remember where she had placed her glasses, but her current theory was that they had been shipwrecked somewhere in the kitchen during Holly’s morning ritual of making a bowl of cereal. She retraced her steps, from cupboard to drawer to fridge, and finally, to the table, where her bowl of cereal blurrily waited. If she didn’t find her glasses soon, she wouldn’t be able to go to class. Which meant she would get bad grades, which meant she wouldn’t get
in to a good school next year, which meant her life was basically over. Her stomach rumbled like it was caught in an earthquake.
There was a spare pair at her father’s house, but she had no idea when the next time was she would be over there. The situation was absolutely impossible.
Sighing, she sat with a defeated slouch. She flattened a crease in her pants. The kitchen door swung open and Holly’s mother paced into the room with the great purpose of someone who enjoys waking up early. Her posture was rigid and her arms swung stiffly at her sides, like she needed someone to oil her joints. She stooped down and kissed the air a few inches above Holly’s forehead. Those extra inches are probably too much work, thought Holly, glaring at the blurry bowl.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” said her mother.
“Good morning?” asked Holly, a nervous knot twisting in her chest. “It’s . . . it’s a mediocre morning! I can’t find my glasses and everything is terrible.”
“Holly, calm down. First of all, if it’s terrible, it can’t be mediocre. And second of all, you left them in the living room.” Her mother placed Holly’s glasses on the table.
Even with her poor eyesight she could make out the thick lenses and bright-red frames.
Holly squinted at them. “Oh. I’ve been looking for you. . . .” She put them on and the room shifted into focus. Everything in the kitchen was impeccably arranged for maximum neatness—with one exception. With a pang of sadness, she realized she had put slightly too much milk in her cereal, and would soon be confronted by a puddle of gross, yellowish, and extremely sweet milk at the bottom of the bowl. She grimaced, already picturing how blargh it would taste.
Nothing ever happens like it’s supposed to.
“Is your test today?” said her mother, not looking up from the toast she was buttering. Holly liked her mother better as a blur.
Holly shook her head. A strand of her dark, curly hair touched her cereal and she pulled it back, shuddering. “It’s on Friday.”
Her mother nodded and simply said, “Hmm. Three days to get ready.” She drummed her fingernails on the table. The sound of her knife scraping against toast reminded Holly of the dentist. “You know, sweetheart, if
you’re not feeling up to it . . . after the unfortunate events of the election—”
“I’m fine! Really.” Holly pinned back her hair and covertly wrung out the milk from it. The one good thing about having irritatingly large ears is that they’re good for imprisoning stubborn hair. “I’m going to do extremely well. I barely even remember what happened with the election. And even if I did remember, which I don’t, it was just a student election, so it doesn’t matter.”
“That’s the spirit, sweetheart. You can’t just run away from responsibilities.” She patted Holly on the arm. “I know you’re destined for great things.” Her eyes drifted to the bulletin board they used to post important notes and reminders. Right now, the only thing there—dead center—was a brochure for Falstaff Academy, featuring a large ivy-covered building and one of those white domes that let you play tennis all year long. Holly’s mother had placed the brochure there to inspire Holly, but to be honest, she didn’t find it that inspiring. Her stomach rumbled again, this time not from hunger.
“I’m going to get in,” said Holly. Then, almost automatically, she repeated: “I’m going to get in.”
Her mother smiled. “I know you will.”
Not that I have a choice, thought Holly, poking at the bowl again. Falstaff was a destiny she wasn’t entirely convinced was hers. Sometimes she wished she had a sibling so her mother had someone else to worry about. Or someone for Holly to talk to about . . . things.
As her mother ate dainty crunches of toast, Holly finally started on her breakfast. She held her breath and bravely downed the gross milk, trying not to gag. Everything about this cereal was a disaster. After the ordeal was over, she fetched her backpack and books and put on her fall jacket. Taking a deep breath, she stepped outside into warm sunlight, inhaling the new day and all its possibilities. She also inhaled some pollen, and sneezed.
* * *
Interesting factoid for nonhuman readers: Human “schools” are large buildings where youths are deposited and contained from midmorning until midafternoon, inside of which they are inefficiently lectured at by an older race of humans known mysteriously as the “Teachers.” These institutions are similar in some ways to the famous
Star Academy, the universe’s preeminent learning institution, though of course they lack its funding, size, innovation, fun, technology, diversity of thought, controlled gravity, aliens, superior robots, and almost everything that makes the Star Academy not terrible.
Many species, upon first learning of these human schools, often find them fascinating, much as humans are fascinated by tales of chivalrous knights or steam-powered cavemen. To these species, a vast, expensive network of child prisons disguised as learning institutions no doubt seems comically inferior to similar child prisons on many planets, such as Nova 13, where children are sent to toil in spice mines. On Nova 13, there is no illusion that these children are “learning” anything other than mining spice. They have one purpose—to mine spice. They learn how to mine spice because that is all they need to learn. It is not complicated.
Humans are strange. [NONTHREATENING EYEBALL WINK]
* * *
Holly arrived at school with fifteen minutes to spare, the exact time she always arrived at school. If something
was worth doing, she thought it was worth doing well—and worth doing early, too. Well and early.
She crossed the back field with a purposeful stride, her shoes crunching the dried leaves scattered along the ground, and heaved open the blue metal doors at the rear of the building. As she entered, the first thing she saw was a wall covered with election posters for School President. Her own poster, with her face smiling back in a casual-yet-responsible way, was right at eye level. Her head was tilted slightly to indicate she had a Fun Personality, and also to make her forehead look smaller. In the picture she was wearing a smart blue cardigan, which, in Holly’s estimation, was the coolest possible sweater a person could wear. It was like staring into a paper mirror.
Except her reflection had a mustache scribbled on it with black marker, and someone had written the words “PRINCESS FARBY FOR PREZ” across her face, which was circled with a big zero. Holly’s shoulders slumped. It was times like these when perfect posture seemed perfectly impossible.
She considered what to do. A few other kids were strolling down the hall, and not wanting to be made fun
of, Holly ripped down the poster and shoved it in her bag like she was trying to smother it.
The other kids passed by without even glancing at her.
Holly went up the stairs and navigated the hallway until she came to Room 321. She banished the poster from her mind and busied herself with unruffling her right sleeve. Other students were milling about outside the class, looking bored and desperate to be anywhere else. But not Holly. After entering the room, she took her seat at the front, produced all necessary books and binders, placed them neatly across her desk so none of them were touching, and sat up perfectly straight and waited for class to begin.
As she sat, experimenting with various forms of upright posture, a huge shadow swooped by the window, darkening the room. Holly turned, staring outside. The only thing visible was the cloudless sky and a few tall apartment buildings across the street. She got up and peered down below, then above.
There was nothing.
She shook her head and said, “Silly.” It was obviously the poster getting to her. She was just imagining things.
And like her mother always said, imagining things is the first step to getting a degree in the arts, which is the second step to becoming tragic.
The bell sang above her—it was one of her favorite sounds. The rest of the seventh-grade class shuffled gloomily into the room like they were training to carry the casket at a funeral. They were followed by Mr. Mendez, a tall, thin man with gray, frizzy hair, dark skin, and wild eyes that bulged slightly. With his hair and eyes, it looked like he was in a constant state of being electrocuted. He desperately needed someone to unruffle everything about him.
Mr. Mendez tapped the blackboard three times. “Good evening, class.”
A few chuckles rippled through the room. “It’s morning,” someone muttered, which Holly thought was dreadfully rude.
“What?” Mr. Mendez shook his head. “Of course, of course. Morning. Yes. I was, naturally, just testing you. Very, um, well done, class. Very well done indeed.”
No one said anything, and Mr. Mendez hunched over and rummaged through his desk. He practically buried
his face in it, peering into the back of each drawer, muttering to himself.
Holly watched as he searched. She had always found Mr. Mendez fascinating—and was in fact the only person in the room who did, since she was the only person in the room who actually gave much thought to their teachers. He had been teaching science there for three years, since he had replaced Mrs. Mullan after she had gone surfing off the coast of Australia and been eaten by a hammerhead shark.
In Holly’s mind, Mr. Mendez had always possessed an odd quality where he seemed full of energy but also completely exhausted. It made her think of someone who had a demanding job that he still enjoyed doing. She liked that.
Mr. Mendez straightened himself out and held up a blue-and-green ball the size of his fist. “Planet Earth!” he said loudly. “Today’s lesson will be about your home, the third planet from the Sun. Six thousand three hundred seventy-eight kilometers in radius. Average temperature fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. One moon, in synchronous rotation. The only planet in the entire
universe with the species known as ‘moose.’ A really, um, fascinating place, to be perfectly honest, as I’m sure you’ll all agree.”
Holly nodded, but no one else did.
Mr. Mendez held the Earth ball up to his eyes and gazed intensely at it. “Sometimes I wonder, though . . .” He trailed off, still staring at the little planet.
The class waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, a few people muttered about how weird he was. A few others chuckled. Holly pulled her shoulders back and sat straight up, positive that whatever he was going to say next would be extremely important. It might even be on the test.
“Sometimes I wonder,” said Mr. Mendez, “what is the appeal of the game of baseball?” He bounced the Earth on the floor and caught it. “It baffles me. Geometric tomfoolery. No offense, Mr. Carlson.”
Jake Carlson, slouched a few rows behind Holly, shifted and frowned. He was a well-known star baseball player and, in Holly’s estimation, someone who came to school only because he was legally forced to. In fourth grade she had tried befriending him by volunteering to do their group assignment for him, but the offer wasn’t
well received. Jake Carlson hadn’t spoken to her since, though sometimes he spoke about her, and occasionally at her.
“Now,” said Mr. Mendez, rubbing his chin, “can anyone tell me how old the planet Earth is?”
Holly’s hand shot up so fast she nearly took out everyone sitting nearby.
“Yes, Ms. Farb.”
“The Earth is four point five billion years old.”
“Very good!” said Mr. Mendez. “As usual, I might add.”
Holly beamed. The rest of the class eyed her. Someone muttered something, and she was glad she couldn’t make it out. Her smile wavered.
“Now.” Mr. Mendez rolled the Earth ball in his palm. “Who can tell me the four spheres of the Earth?”
Holly’s hand was in the air before he had even finished speaking. If people hated her for being smart, then that was their problem, not hers.
“The four spheres of the Earth are the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere.”
“Very good indeed!”
Holly suppressed a smile. Her cheeks burned.
“All right then,” said Mr. Mendez, smiling mischievously, “here’s a tricky one. For bonus marks.” Holly’s eyes lit up. She leaned forward on her desk. “Can anyone tell me . . . the name of our galaxy, and how many planets beyond Earth are in it?”
Holly swallowed. The galaxy was the Milky Way Galaxy, but she had no idea how many planets were in it. Very many, definitely. A million? No, that sounded like too much. Or maybe not enough. A billion? Her stomach tightened. She wasn’t going to get it, and she was too afraid to guess in case she was wrong.
“The Milky Way Galaxy,” said a voice. “It has three hundred and sixty-eight billion planets.”
Holly turned, as did everyone else. There was a gangly boy standing in the doorway, his eyes taking in the room. He was wearing clothes that were a bit too big, and shifting his weight from foot to foot like he wasn’t sure how to stand. Holly thought he looked like he could play a part in a production of Oliver Twist. Not a large part, but a small one. Maybe an orphan selling fruit.
Mr. Mendez eyed him. “And you are?”
“Are you a new student?”
The boy thought for a moment. He nodded.
“Very well,” said Mr. Mendez, ushering him into the room. “Why don’t you take a seat. And yes, that answer was indeed correct. Very correct. What an auspicious start to your time in this classroom.”
Holly glared at Chester, who sat in the empty seat next to her. He continued gazing around the room at the students and windows and ceiling and posters on the wall. She focused her eyes on the front of the room, trying to ignore this person. He was . . . he was an interloper. She had heard her mother use that word when her father brought his new girlfriend over to their house, and she was pretty sure that’s what Chester was. He didn’t belong here—not like Holly did.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned, she found Chester leaning right up to her, his face uncomfortably close. “Excuse me,” he said.
“When does this class end? I need to speak to
Professor Mendez and I can’t do it in front of other people because I’m shy.”
Holly crossed her arms. “First of all,” she whispered, “it’s Mister Mendez, not Professor Mendez. And second of all, please don’t speak to me, I’m trying to learn.”
“Sorry,” said Chester. “It definitely sounds like you need it, since you couldn’t answer that question just now.”
Holly narrowed her eyes.
Mr. Mendez cleared his throat. “All right,” he said, “back to my tricky questions. Can anyone tell me what the sun is composed of, and how it produces energy?”
“The sun is mostly hydrogen and helium,” said Chester, before Holly had even put up her hand. “It produces energy by nuclear fusion, which converts hydrogen into helium.”
“My, very good,” said Mr. Mendez, smiling. He rummaged through his desk again.
Holly ground her teeth, fuming. This person knew more than her, and worse, he didn’t even raise his hand. He just shouted things out, a clear violation of established etiquette. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was still scanning the room like he was
already bored. Holly was tempted to remind him that rules weren’t optional.
As she watched Chester, a ball of paper thumped her in the back of her head. She turned. Jake Carlson waved and motioned down at the paper. Holly hesitated, knowing nothing good would come from this, but then slowly picked it up and unfolded the crinkled slip of paper. It said:
Looks like teacher’s pet has been replaced with a new puppie.
Holly glared so intensely, fire nearly shot out her eyes. “That isn’t even how you spell ‘puppy’!” she shouted, causing everyone to look at her. She balled up her hands and put them in her lap and stared down at them. Her whole face burned.
“Is everything all right, Ms. Farb?” said Mr. Mendez.
“Sorry,” muttered Holly. “I didn’t mean . . . I was just . . .”
Mr. Mendez nodded. “Pay it no mind. Even the best of us forget to use our Indoor Voices. Why, just yesterday I meant to whisper an amusing joke to Principal Cho and instead ended up shrieking into her ear. Um. She did not laugh at my joke, let me tell you.” His face took on a
worried expression. “Why don’t you stick around after class and we’ll have a talk.”
Holly’s shoulders slumped. A crease formed in her shirt and she smoothed it down. Was she in trouble? She knew she was being silly, but it felt weird. She was always used to being the smartest one in the class. That was what she was known for. That was who she was. And now here was this Chester interloper, easily answering questions and looking bored while doing it. Where did that leave her? She sighed, grit her teeth, and stared at the blackboard.
The day was off to a pretty blargh start, and it wasn’t even ten o’clock.