I had already made a fool out of myself!
The next few moments were awkward to say the least. There were focused stares and hushed murmurs all around, but a few were even audacious enough to openly point and snigger. A pinstripe-suited capasa with a black and white tie and short-trimmed hair was the most brazen. His hands were covered in silver gauntlets that shone in the daylight. It didn’t help that he was in the queue to my left, almost beside me.
“You think he forgot to kiss his mummy goodbye Osrak?” He addressed a sturdy capasa to his right before resuming to leer at me. His comrade, outfitted in a creamy dress and wearing similar gauntlets, meanwhile, gave me a blank stare. If there were any emotions behind that plain look, they failed to register.
A hand on my shoulder diverted my attention from the duo, and I noticed Elmada’s towering presence converging towards my left and gently pushing me forward.
“Whatever’s got you in a bother, shake it off young Eyte. There’s no danger here.”
At that moment, my respect for the friendly giant grew tremendously. Overlooking my momentary lapse to save me embarrassment, he also positioned himself to conceal me from the pinstripe-suited capasa. Probably for the the first time in many, many years, I could truly say that I felt safe.
Taking a deep breath, I walked towards the dutiful mechas who, upon closer inspection, were very different from the war machines the hunters brought. There was no hint of rotating blades or razor-sharp spikes sticking out of the mechas, and they were also thinner and shorter in bulk. Their capasian form and life-like resemblance, however, was uncanny.
The capasa in front of me accepted the translucent file case from the mecha before proceeding ahead and and ascending onto the middle staircase inside the hall. Despite Elmada’s safety enclosure, I felt intimidated by the pair of mechanical eyes staring down at me now. For a moment, I almost thought they looked inquisitive.
Then I remembered I was standing in front of a machine.
“Welcome to the Academy. Your name, please,” the voice was far less mechanical than I had expected. In fact, it almost reminded me of Luton: Husky.
It felt weird conversing with a machine, but I answered anyway: “It’s Kral, Fenley,”, I added almost as an afterthought, seeing as how everyone here seemed fond of pronouncing names in entirety.
The mecha started playing with the translucent glass panel on the oak desk in front of it. Its eyes were moving from side to side, as if it was actually scanning the contents of the panel. Why not just interface with the panel directly? It was a machine after all!
“New entry, your age please,” the mecha asked.
I made a split-second decision: “21,” the truth. Elmada stirred, glanced at me for a moment too long, then averted his gaze.
“Kral, from the Fenley family, 21 years of age, Eyte classification,” the mecha repeated after swiping on top of the panel. “Are these details correct?”
“Wonderful. You will be marked for enrolment to the induction programme, subject to finance agreement and official approval,” the mecha continued. “Here is your welcome package. Please enter the hall.”
I looked inquisitively at Elmada while taking the file case presented by the mecha. “Finance agreement?” I asked.
“Everything will be explained inside,” and then I was nudged and directed ahead, entering the lobby of the hall.
Like the capasa before me, I took the middle staircase. The marble floor contrasted really well with the oak wall panelling which was radiating hues of soft orange due to the purposeful mounting of crescent-shaped candle-holders. My eyes darted from here to there, taking in the various frames decorated alongside the walls, none of which I could make out in their entirety. Hues of portraits showcasing dominating personae danced side by side with illustrations of vivid and otherworldly landscapes which seemed to display a strange composition of steam and alien technology. The most amazing aspect of all this was that the imagery in each frame adjusted as I walked on such that I was looking at the same images but from many different angles. Amidst this sea of changing scenery, the only constant thing was the sound of heeled boots tapping on the tiled floor and my amazement of the foreign inventions.
A few moments later, the staircase levelled out in front of 3 sets of ornate double doors, a steam-powered mecha standing guard at each entrance. The difference was almost astounding. Where the previous mecha was pristine, sleek and disturbingly life-like, the machine in front of me now was rugged: The joints between the different limbs more visible, the movements noticeably jerky and noisy. A puff of steam escaped from its ears and nostrils, and for a moment it seemed like it was getting ready to jolt and strike, but then it adjusted its balance, turned its head mechanically from side to side, and continued staring at nothing in particular. A few pointed spikes here and there and an array of exploding and poisonous projectiles was all it needed to enrol as a hunter war machine.
The condescending glare from the bold and bearded figure in the large eerie portrait at the top of the doors was further highlighted by the candle placed at its base. The effect was peculiar to say the least. It was the kind of ‘welcome’ poster I’d put in front of my bedroom. I tilted my head to the side and more of the figure emerged, showing a neat beard-line ending at the base of his thick and large ears. I was almost tempted to step to the side and see if I could take a peek at the back of his head.
“New entrants are seated at the front, just follow me,” Elmada instructed before squeezing past me. I followed hesitantly, promising myself that I would investigate this multi-dimensional portrait issue at my earliest convenience, and then entered a brightly lit expanse a moment later. The seating was arranged in an arc fashion with seats lowering a fraction after each row and a walking gap splitting the hall in two through the middle. There were perhaps 30 or so rows, and each was almost filled to the brink. A raised platform stood at the bottom-end of the hall, behind which there was another arc of seats, facing towards the platform. The occupants of those seats were, I assumed, faculty members or important personalities. Their atrociously decorated gowns probably gave them away.
We neared the last few rows, and Elmada gestured for me to join a row on my left which had some vacant seats. The atmosphere in these rows was noticeably different. The conversations were hushed and sparse, the glances more random, the hosts of the mass of bodies more fidgety.
“Take a seat, young Eyte,” Elmada gestured for me to sit as he turned to leave, causing me to panic.
“But… I have no idea what to do. And my friends?”
“Calm yourself, young Eyte. All will be explained shortly. Please seat yourself and you will surely find your friends soon enough,” he patted me on the shoulder before hurriedly continuing to descend the last few rows and making his way towards the seating behind the raised platform. I looked around nervously before sitting on the vacant seat closest to me. Glancing to my side, I saw a capasa looking back at me hesitantly, his arms folded over his chest and a small top hat sitting on his head. Two s’s were positioned vertically on the side of the hat such that the interpolation of the two letters formed an eye, an eye that was blinking, I soon realised! I wondered what kind of contraption that was, but I didn’t want to stare for too long lest I appeared rude, so I averted my gaze. He was tapping his feet on the floor and looking around at no one in particular.
Nervous, just like me.
The seating was padded and comfortable and the foamy backrest was genuinely relaxing. The leg space wasn’t as accommodating but I still managed to stretch my legs by guiding them through the small opening under the beige desk, taking care not to strike the chair in front of me from the underside. The desk-space was small, perhaps a feet in width at most. Looking around, I saw that many capasas had pulled a small glass display out in front of them which connected to their desks. Upon inspection of my own desk-space, I saw the tilted panel jutting from the desk, but I was at a loss for how to pull it out. No sooner had I placed my hands beside it, the panel slid up and then out noiselessly. A green crescent lying on its side flashed on the otherwise transparent screen, and I immediately recognised it as the same symbol that was painted on Elmada’s airporter. Whilst wondering how to operate the device, a vision of Kelia performing strange movements over the panels back at Medicon rolled across my eyes. I contemplate the idea for a moment, placing my hands around the panel as if it was the steering wheel of an airporter. Then common sense kicked in and I made the wiser decision for someone in my shoes: pretend to be occupied with other things.
I started surveying my surroundings again even though most of my concentration was still on the lit panel in front of me. The definite lack of capasis was apparent. The few that were present, or more specifically, those that I could make out, seemed to be the centre of attention. Capasas converged on them like moths to a fire, trying to outdo one another in conversation and flamboyance. It would be almost amusing to watch had it not been for the seed of doubt gnawing at me now. Do not let anyone get close to her. That’s what he had said. Yet these capasis seemed to enjoy the attention.
An animated capasi a few rows behind me was swiping at her panel leisurely while conversing with a group of capasas to her right and being flanked by another group to her left. Many of them were carrying their panels in their hands, and I wondered how they had dislodged the devices from their desks. Most of the interactions seemed to revolve around the panels, strangely, as they swiped back and forth on each other’s devices. I was at a loss about what exactly was going on, but even in my dazed state I could spot the slithery capasa to the immediate left of the capasi who was slowly worming his hands across her legs. The capasi flashed him a curious glance and he smiled back mischievously, his hand now well within a region where it shouldn’t be by any account. If the capasi was disturbed by this bold intrusion, it didn’t show in her behaviour as she resumed her animated conversation with the group on her right. I couldn’t decide how I felt about what I’d seen just then.
The excited crowd of bodies in the row ahead and to my right was gaining traction and it caught my attention. Light blue garments were the centre of the attention there as capasas tried to get closer to her, most of them with their panels in their hand. Moria?
Before I had a chance to investigate further, the hall was engulfed in darkness and the noise of conversation was reduced to a mere hush. Almost immediately after, the platform in the middle was highlighted with a beam of light as it rose a few inches, carrying a brightly robed capasa who seemed to radiate light. But that wasn’t what had gotten me in a pinch, it was something else entirely.
I knew him.