A Problematic Paradox
Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in this wild, warm-hearted, and hilarious sci-fi debut about a brainy young girl who is recruited for a very special boarding school.
"It's like Harry Potter, but with science instead of magic. Nikola is exactly the smart female protagonist that the sci-fi genre needs."--HelloGiggles
Nikola Kross has given up on living in harmony with classmates and exasperated teachers: she prefers dabbling in experimental chemistry to fitting in. But when her life is axially inverted by a gang of extraterrestrials who kidnap her dad and attempt to recruit her into their service, she discovers he's been keeping a world of secrets from her--including the school for geniuses where she's sent for refuge, a place where classes like Practical Quantum Mechanics are the norm and where students use wormholes to commute to class. For Nikola, the hard part isn't school, it's making friends, especially when the student body isn't (entirely) human. But the most puzzling paradox of all is Nikola herself, who has certain abilities that no one understands--abilities that put her whole school in greater danger than she could have imagined.
*"A glorious cacophony of wildly inventive gadgets, gags, and action." --Kirkus Reviews, starred review
*"An amazing and often hilarious world that feels like a blend of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter, but with futuristic inventions rather than magic." --School Library Connection, starred review
"Smart, energetic, and original.... Readers will willingly jump with Nikola into the nearest wormhole and next adventure." --School Library Journal
Excerpt from A Problematic Paradox
Miss Hiccup and the Beef Mailbox
As I sat beneath a cat poster in her tiny, sparse office, I wondered if Miss Hiccup’s real smile resembled the painted grimace she wore around students. No adult human can be that chipper all the time. Maybe it was the poster. She had one of those motivational posters, with a cat hanging from a branch and the caption hang in there! below it. I’ve always wondered if anyone was actually inspired by that kind of thing. Maybe Miss Hiccup was one of the fortunate few who gazed at that cat and thought, You know, if that cat can hang in there, so can I! It would explain a lot about why she and I didn’t exactly get along.
Miss Hiccup was pretty, in an institutional kind of way. She was a thin woman who wore pencil skirts and had long golden hair that was only a little dry and frazzled. I could relate—my hair always looked like I dried it with a high-voltage power line. Her face was not unkind. I could even imagine that she had a sense of humor hidden behind her big, fashionably nerdy glasses. Despite that, there were moments when I could swear there was an absolute, searing hatred of the entire world in those eyes.
It was my favorite thing about her.
My second-favorite thing about Miss Hiccup was the hiccuping. That was where I’d gotten my personal name for her. She had an actual legal name, but “Miss Hiccup” was more fitting and more fun because she seemed to have a permanent case of the hiccups that got worse when she was stressed, which was all the time, in my observation.
When Miss Hiccup cornered me on my way to the bus, she ruined the best part of my day. Instead of boarding the bus to freedom, I had to trudge back to the counseling office for a few minutes and then kill time till the late bus arrived to collect the stragglers, detention inmates, and band kids.
Miss Hiccup spent some time just sitting there, smiling and making eye contact. It’s the oldest trick in the book when you want someone to open up. Most people hate uncomfortable silences, so they tend to talk in order to fill them. I’m not most people.
A minute later, Miss Hiccup hiccuped, twitched, and said, “Is your backpack okay?”
Of course she wanted to talk about backpack-in-the-toilet incident #74. It was a new thing as far as she was concerned. The only reason she knew about it this time was because whoever had stolen it had really stomped it in good, and I wasn’t able to get it out on my own. The counseling office is directly across from the bathrooms, so I figured they could help, since I was a taxpayer and all.
I made a mental note to ask the gym teacher next time. He was good at overlooking that kind of thing.
“My backpack is fine,” I said. “I switched to a waterproof one a while ago, so it doesn’t even smell. It’s antimicrobial.”
“Smart thinking,” she said with a warm smile that was almost, but not quite, sympathetic. “I thought we could talk about fitting in . . .”
“Why don’t I start?” I offered.
“Do you have something you—hic!—you’d like to talk about, Nikola?” she said, sounding like she was in desperate need of a drink of water.
“No,” I said. “But you said you wanted to talk about fitting in. I feel like I should address that. I do have trouble fitting in, but I’m in a good place with it at the moment. Not a lot of angst going on here. Nothing to concern yourself with.”
This was mostly true. I’d been looking forward to attending West Blankford Middle School about as much as I was counting the days until my next trip to the dentist, and the fact that my classmates were as horrible as they had been the previous year wasn’t exactly a shock. I wasn’t having a blast, but I wasn’t disillusioned. Kids are usually mean to people who are different, and people don’t come any more different than me.
My name is Nikola Kross, and I’m a weirdo. A freak, if you prefer. I’m a peanut butter and sardine sandwich in a vending machine full of candy. I’m a twitching platypus curled up in the corner of a cardboard box of puppies. I’m off track. You should probably get used to that. Let’s back up a bit.
I’m a thirteen-year-old girl attending middle school in North Dakota. It’s not my looks that make me odd. Well, that’s not the main thing. I’m no taller or shorter, bigger or smaller than the median range for those characteristics. I have a nose that is a bit above the normal width and length, but not to the point where it becomes remarkable. I have a few freckles here and there, and my eyes are brown. I wear glasses with shatterproof lenses and an embedded digital display that I designed myself and is currently broken. My hair is very curly, long, brown, and a bit mane-like. It’s always a mess, but I don’t care enough to spend the time to tame it when that time could be better used sleeping in. That’s what I look like. Do me a favor and remember it, because I hate describing myself.
What makes me weird is that I’m a genius. Most people who say that are bragging and are about to pull out their Mensa card in an effort to impress you. I’m not bragging. I really am a certified genius, and it shouldn’t impress anyone. Talking about how smart you are is like boasting about how big the engine is in your car: you still have to obey the speed limit, and what really matters is where you drive to, not how much noise you can make on the way.
High intelligence runs in my family like a genetically transmitted disease. My dad is an amateur scientist (he prefers the term research hobbyist). He spends his days running our home particle accelerator, experimenting with exotic metamaterials, or just trying to remember where he left his shoes. Mom was an experimental poet, but she disappeared when I was a toddler. Dad says she’s dead now, or might as well be dead, since we’ve certainly seen the last of her. Sensitive guy, my dad.
In case I haven’t lost you completely, we’re also fabulously wealthy. Back in the midnineties, Dad patented some interesting semiconductor designs as well as those plastic hooks that stick to your wall without tearing up the paint. Those inventions, along with a few dozen more, fill the bank account monthly. If it helps, that doesn’t mean I ride in limousines drinking sparkling cider. As soon as the deposits clear, Dad blows all the money on home improvements. That might be nice, but our home is a big lab, so for us, a “home improvement” doesn’t mean a new hot tub; it means a new supercooled cloud chamber or a few upgrades on our personal supercomputer cluster.
To a degree, I blame my parents for my outcast status, and not just on a genetic level. Dad is distant and terminally distracted. Instead of toys, I got circuit boards and soldering irons for Christmas so I could make my own. When I was little and asked for a bedtime story, he’d narrate the schematics for a microwave oven before giving me a firm yet loving bedtime handshake. When I had trouble sleeping, he’d describe how people die from sleep deprivation. I like to imagine my mom might have been a bit more . . . parental, but if she and my dad fell for each other at some point, then I have to assume that she was every bit as eccentric. Some people just stink at being parents. It happens.
It’s not all their fault, though. I’ve made some bad decisions. If you want to make friends in school, it’s not a good idea to bring an untrained robotic panther to class without permission, or to program a drone helicopter to follow you around and shoot chocolate candy into your mouth, particularly if its aim stinks. You should also avoid testing experimental artificial food products on your classmates. Silicon polymer foam birthday cupcakes might be calorie-free and nontoxic, and taste wonderful, but if you give someone explosive diarrhea even one time, they tend to hold it against you.
I don’t entirely regret my bad decisions, but things weren’t easy for me at school. If someone sat down next to me at lunch, I first had to find out whether they’d lost a bet, or if they were planning some prank at my expense. This sometimes backfired: one time, I yelled at a girl because I was sure she was up to no good, but it turned out that the other seats were all taken, and she had to eat standing up. Still, she was rude to me the next week, so I don’t think I missed out on anything.
You need to know all that because that’s why Miss Hiccup was talking to me. I’m not fitting in. Big surprise.
“You see, honey . . . ,” Miss Hiccup said, dragging the last word out like she was talking to an injured poodle, “I know you put on a brave face, but I’ve heard from—hic!—from a lot of your teachers that some of the other children have taken to . . . um . . .”
“To being awful to me?” I suggested. “Salting my chocolate milk? Insulting my parentage? Addressing me with the most derivative and unimaginative—”
“Well,” she interrupted, “as a matter—hic!—as a matter of fact, yes.” She de-tented her fingers, reconsidered the decision, and re-tented them. “I thought it might be helpful for you and I to discuss some st—hic!—some strategies to help you mesh a little better with your peers. I think with a little effort on your part . . .”
She went on talking, but I knew where she was going, so there was no point in waiting through the hiccuping. “Why aren’t you talking to them?” I said. “They’re the ones being mean! Do you have any strategies you can discuss with my peers to help them stop behaving like the worst parts of Lord of the Flies?”
“It’s a book. I have a slightly waterlogged copy you could borrow, if you’re interested. It’s about some nice children who get stuck on an island and start behaving like American middle schoolers? I just mean that you might consider focusing your energies on the people who pick on kids who are different.”
“Welllll,” Miss Hiccup said, in a very noncommittal, guidance counselor–y kind of way. “That’s just about everyone in the school, and—hic!—we’re going to have better luck working on how you interact, rather than changing the tone of the entire school. There’s a seminar going on at the community college this week for kids who—hic!—who just need a little help learning how to show people what a great, interesting, fun person they can be! I thought we could—”
“That’s nice of you to say,” I said, “but I don’t understand: if everyone in the school is prejudiced against great, interesting, and fun people like me, and there’s nothing actually wrong with me, why is it easier if I do my best to be as wrong as the rest of them?”
“Well—hic!—I wouldn’t put it th—hic!—that way.”
I know I’m supposed to be respectful of adults, but I couldn’t help myself. “I would hope not. When you tell a person who is being bullied that it’s their own fault for being themselves, it’s important to say so in the nicest way possible. Right?”
“How many times have—hic!—you been in my office this year? Ten? Fif—hic!—teen? There are some—hic!—some simple changes you can make that will—hic!—make a real difference.”
I forced myself to smile pleasantly, as if she’d said something helpful. “If you don’t want me in here all the time, I suggest you stop dragging me in here all the time.”
She made a sad face and looked like she was about to interrupt, but I sensed an opportunity to power through and get out of there. “I really appreciate your advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’m going to go outside and wait for the late bus now. You can say that you tried your best but just couldn’t reach me. Have a nice year!” I got up and got out before she could stop hiccuping and call me back.
I wondered why she felt the need to talk to me about fitting in at all. I was actually starting to like a little salt and pepper in my chocolate milk. They’d been doing it my whole life. Did it bother me? Sure. But I wasn’t going to let it get me down, and I sure wasn’t going to turn myself into one of them. I like being me more than I dislike being an outcast.
I made a mental note to speak with my dad that evening about possibly skipping middle and high school altogether and going straight to college. I wouldn’t even need to apply. The first time our class took standardized tests, we got letters from the state asking why I wasn’t on an accelerated track. But Dad had nixed the idea on a dozen occasions already—something about developing my social skills in an appropriate environment. As if no one can develop social skills in college. He even told the school to stop letting me take the tests, I guess to keep me from getting any more bright ideas about it.
The middle school had a swing set on the edge of the playground, which was the best place to wait for the bus. It had a view of where the bus arrived, and was far enough from the stop that I would not need to talk with anyone.
But there was already a group of kids hanging around the swings when I arrived, with one big guy occupying my personal favorite seat. He was large, unusually so. Sometimes the guys from the football team hang around after practice with their pads still on. Maybe this one wanted a quick swing before putting on his street clothes.
I turned to leave but ran right into one of the loitering kids. He was solid—but soft somehow, like the walls of a padded room. I mumbled “Sorry” and went to move around him, but the rest of the apes had crowded around me. It was then that I noticed the gang hogging my swing set was, in fact, girls.
I use the term girls in the loosest sense of the word. Their leader, the one who had been sitting on the swing, had long, highlighter-yellow hair braided into pigtails and was wearing makeup like she’d broken into her mom’s stash for the first time. She looked at least as tall as my dad—about six feet—although it was hard to tell because she was close, and I was having problems understanding what was going on with her limbs. Her arms were much longer than they needed to be. They were so long I wondered if she could stop herself on the swings with her hands instead of her feet. Her legs were weirdly short, though. I don’t really remember what her face looked like. She was ugly—I remember that. Not ugly like the opposite of pretty, but ugly like . . . well, it’s hard to say. She was ugly in the same way that plane crashes and cancer are ugly, if that makes sense. I don’t remember any of their faces, actually. I just knew I’d never seen her or any of them at school before. Why had I even assumed they were students?
I said “Excuse me,” but they didn’t react. The three before me were decked out in long flowery skirts, chunky costume jewelry, and brightly colored hoodies, which they kept pulled over their heads, kind of like monks with tragically bad fashion sense. Being encircled by them was like standing at the bottom of a very unfriendly well.
Miss Giant Longarms, who wore a too-tight sequined guitar T-shirt above a denim miniskirt, finally broke the silence. “Hi, Nikola,” she said. Her excessively high and girlish voice didn’t match. It was like a tiny junior cheerleader talking to me from inside a mailbox made of beef. Rotten beef. The smell of bad meat hit me the moment she spoke, and it was all I could do to keep from retching. She was smiling broadly, I think. I distinctly remember teeth.
“Can I help you?” I said, cursing the lack of adult supervision on the playground that afternoon. Where was everyone?
“Yes!” she said cheerfully. “I’m sooooooo glad you asked! We love it when people want to help us, don’t we, girls?” Her friends nodded. The girl reached out to shake my hand. Her hand looked moist.
I recoiled, which is rude, but I really did not want to touch her. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“My name is Tabbabitha. And we, my dear,” she said as she spread her arms to include her friends, “are going to get you out of this place! You’re going to join our team. Isn’t that great, girls?”
“Yup,” said the first thing.
“Uh-huh,” said the second thing.
“Yah,” said the third thing.
“Yeeeeah,” I said, marking a narrow opening between the first and second thing I might be able to duck through. “Look, I think your team is great. Big fan, seriously. Whatever you guys are into, I think you’re the best in the world at it.”
I googled dealing with bullies once. It said to empathize with them, defuse situations with humor or distraction, and, if those fail, get help. Something told me none of those options was going to work. I got the instant impression Tabbabitha wasn’t the kind of girl who even understood jokes that didn’t involve someone getting hurt. I was pretty sure I would have problems summoning empathy for her, anyway. I decided for the immediate yet polite exit plan.
“Well, hey!” I said, looking at where my watch would be if I wore a watch. “It was great meeting you, Tabitha, but I should be getting—”
She smiled again, baring teeth that seemed better suited to taking down an antelope than making friends. “It’s Tabbabitha. You’re a lot like your daddy, you know. Very smart, and rather stupid at the same time. It’s irritating, trying to reason with people like you. You don’t listen. Most of you people are smart enough to take directions.”
I didn’t like the way she’d said “you people.” I didn’t like the rest of what she’d said, either. My fear was fading and I was starting to get mad again. “Look, I don’t know what your problem is,” I said, raising my voice in hopes it might bring an adult, or at least another student, “but I think you should leave me alone.”
“My friends and I have come to extend an offer,” she said. “We think you’re a bright girl. We’d like you to join us, help us work out a few simple . . . projects, and we promise to leave you and your father alone afterward. That’s all! Don’t you want to get out of this . . . town? Your dad must have oatmeal in his head living in a dustbin like this. It took us forever to find you, in fact.” She leaned unnervingly close. Things were getting creepy. A breeze whirled around us. A dry leaf shook in the air as it fell. “You’ll have fun. Trust me, you want to come with us. Let’s go.”
As she talked, I was hit with a wave of unease—kind of like the way you feel the day after you’ve gotten over the flu. Normally, the big, ugly moose of a girl could have shut my mouth with a glare, never mind the creepy way she was talking to me, and I actually agreed with her about West Blankford, but nobody insults my dad. That was over the line.
I leaned in through the eye-watering stench until we were only about an inch apart, and looked her straight in the . . . face? “Listen, Tabbabitha. I don’t know why you want my help. But you’re acting like a real creep, and I can’t help noticing that you smell like microwaved roadkill. I want nothing to do with you, and I’d like to leave now.”
Tabbabitha stepped back. “I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but I am impressed. You’re quite the little firecracker. Normally I take what I want, but it’s better if you offer your assistance willingly. Long story. I’m sure you’ll have a different perspective later. Talk soon!” She shouldered me aside as she shuffle-waddled off the playground.
Was she using her hands and feet to walk?
No. That would be weird.