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Chapter 1: Starlight Academy

david leland foster looked thoughtfully through the high open safety grill that surrounded the spacious observation deck atop the Needle, the highest point of Starlight Academy. The prestigious Academy was the training facility of the renowned Starlight Enterprise. A light breeze ruffled the seventeen-year-old’s thick, dark red hair as he brooded atop the pinnacle of tempered steel and glass that rose from the reception complex to a height of fifteen stories. At five and a half feet tall, he was shorter than average but made up for his slight stature with a powerful build and fast reflexes.

Since 2100 Starlight Enterprise had been by far Earth’s largest lunar mining corporation with manufacturing plants on the Moon and a booming asteroid mining operation as well. SE designed and manufactured products such as mining equipment, fission and fusion reactors, spacecraft, robots, and basic building materials needed in the Jovian system and on Titan and Mercury. The SE brand was known throughout the Solar System as the best brand name for heavy equipment.

Now it was the third week of May 2151—a crisp late autumn day in the south Pacific with only a few light feathery clouds in a clear blue sky. Another academic year at the Academy had come to an end, and on the following day the graduation ceremonies would take place. A class of 2,720 would receive diplomas; a large number of graduates would be honored for various achievements. Top honor was the formal enrollment of new Starmen. Only the very best and finest graduates of Starlight Academy became Starmen. It was a high honor that came by invitation only.

The Starmen were Starlight Enterprise’s top explorers. SE outfitted them with ships, equipment, and support personnel, and dispatched them to discover and explore the corners of the Solar System, no matter how remote or hostile. Their assignments often carried a high level of risk, but were also where the greatest adventures could be had. Clothed in the coveted red uniform both in space and in port, the Starmen were respected, honored, and revered by all—and they were rare. Since the founding of Starlight Academy in 2103, only 209 people had ever become Starmen. By 2150, the Solar System held only 143 of them.

Several other graduates shared the top of the observation deck with David Foster, but all were silent, gazing meditatively out to sea. In all directions there was nothing to see but ocean, barely undulating in the near-perfect weather. Starlight Academy’s automatic stabilizers needed to make only minor adjustments on this day.

The Academy was an immense, self-contained floating city, located—for the present—250 miles west of Espiritu Santo Island in Vanuatu, the closest significant landmass. The facility was home to nearly 15,000 personnel—students, instructors, administrators, and maintenance workers with a variety of skills.

“Don’t worry, David,” said a friendly voice to the redheaded young man. He turned and smiled at another graduate who had joined her classmate at the grillwork. “You’re bound to be approved! Everyone knows it!”

David smiled wider, even disarmingly. “Thanks, Urooj,” he said. “But you never know until they call you in. My record is good,” his face clouded over slightly, “but there’s still…”

Urooj Qazilbash was an attractive young Pakistani woman with long, straight, black hair. She smiled back at David, her sparkling eyes filled with admiration and affection. She laid a hand on her friend’s arm and shook her head. “You’re record’s not just good—it’s amazing! You set three new standards in your residence here, and you have a quadruple A rating. How can they fail to commend you? You and Mark and Joe are the only three in the class with the qualifications for Starman!”

Starlight Academy rated its graduates in four categories: Leadership, Health, Character, and Academics. Ranking in each category was indicated by a system of letters and subletters. A score could appear as AbdCedBbeAec. The absence of subletters indicated accomplishment in every subfield in the category; master’s rating was A. The Starmen were drawn only from those few graduates who received a AAAA rating, always less than 1% of the graduating class.

“Thanks, Urooj,” David repeated warmly. But inside he wasn’t confident. Even those with a rating of AAAA were not guaranteed the invitation to be made Starmen. Out of a class of 2,384 graduates just a year ago, eight were rated four A, but only Kathryn Mullaney was made a Starman. In this class of 2151 there were twelve with a four A rating.

 

At that moment, in the inner offices of Commander Benton Epstein, deep in the heart of Starlight Academy, a tense discussion was going on about that very same David Foster. The council where it was decided who would be offered the rank of Starman had reached an impasse. Chaired by Richard Starlight, Chief Executive of Starlight Enterprise, the other members of the council were John Rwakatare, a stolid Tanzanian who was Richard’s top assistant; Commander Epstein; the six heads of departments at the Academy; and four experienced Starmen. On each candidate a vote was taken after discussion had been completed, but it was merely a recommendation; Richard Starlight made the final decision. Of the twelve with the highest rating, only three candidates were under serious consideration.

Approval came quickly for the Montanan Mark Samuel Seaton and Canadian Joseph Lindholm Taylor. Mark was a tremendously gifted engineer and Joe was one of the most skilled pilots in the history of the Academy. Doubts, however, were being raised about the suitability of conferring Starman’s rank on David Foster.

“His academic record is near flawless,” insisted Edna Stann, head of the planetary sciences department.

“No one doubts that,” rejoined Starman Crag Collins. “We don’t question his academic record, or his health or his character. That’s not the reason for my objection! We cannot entrust Starman’s red to anyone with David Foster’s inordinate fear of radiation! A Starman has to be a leader and completely trustworthy in all situations, and his ability to lead is compromised!”

“A Starman is going to encounter dangerous conditions frequently,” added Starman Laurel Barber. “A Starman must be able to react quickly and decisively.”

Dr. Stann’s jaw tightened briefly. “It’s not only his academic record that qualifies him. He’s been thoroughly tested at the Academy, including occasions of extreme stress! In every instance David reacted quickly and properly, seeming to analyze the challenge and meet it effectively with a speed that was phenomenal! He’s well respected by his peers and looked to for leadership. His abilities in this area come to him naturally, as if he were born to them! Why, the graduates themselves fully expect that he’ll be given the red!”

Starman Collins curled his lip slightly.

Richard Starlight raised a hand and the exchange came to a stop. Richard was the driving force behind Starlight Enterprise, the company his father, Thomas, had started many years earlier. He was an athletic 57 years old, with a full head of thick black hair that showed very little sign of gray.

“We cannot demand perfection in our Starmen, obviously. David has been well trained by his father. The exposure to deadly radiation that grounded Allen over twenty years ago was a tragedy, and it is evident that his frustration has been passed on to his son to some degree. This has created in him a determination to succeed that has made David the remarkable specimen of humanity that he is. He has been proven in every test that has been given to him. But he is a little too intense. The Starmen on this council are unconvinced about his suitability to serve as a Starman because, no matter what the training record, they know that aptitude and readiness and capability are proven in the field. Artificially devised tests, no matter how well designed, can only go so far in discerning the ability of anyone to handle an actual situation.” With his eyes, Richard silently asked the four Starmen if he had summed up their objections adequately. All four nodded.

“Then let me ask this: if David Foster were to be made a Starman and were assigned to be your partner on a hazardous assignment, would you feel confident in him?”

“No!” said Starman Collins rather sharply. Rather reluctantly, the other two Starmen shook their heads, but Starman Barber hesitated.

“Not completely,” she said at last, “but I’d be willing to take the risk.”

Richard exhaled deeply and stared across the table at nothing in particular.

“The vote, I take it, is eight in favor and four against?”

“I will abstain,” announced John Rwakatare.

“So will I,” said Starman Barber.

“Seven in favor, then, and three opposed? Very well,” said Richard. “Considering his history, potential, and to some extent his peer support, I think it would do more harm than good to deny or even delay the awarding of the Starman’s rank to David. However, the reservations expressed this afternoon will be taken seriously. I’ll start David Foster with projects where we can watch his progress. His first assignment will be the realtime transmission experiment that is taking place on Mars in July. It should be uneventful.”

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© 2011 by David Baumann, Jonathan Cooper, Mike Dodd. All rights reserved.