I was floating in the air!

Actually, it was the whole building that was afloat, and I struggled to make sense of it as I stood stupefied on the marble platform. A vast expanse lay before me as far as the eye could see, only interrupted intermittently by the sight of another floating cone-shaped structure. Some had spherical outlines, others more dome-shaped, yet others with no clear recognisable structure or form. Some were above and some below, and they seemed to cover the entirety like little ants crawling on a tree trunk.

Yet there was no smoke, so how were these powered if not by steam? How could anything provide anywhere near enough power to keep these gigantic monolithic structures afloat? But before delving on that matter, I still had to get around the idea of an entire building floating on thin air in the first place!

The landscape painted before me was unreal to say the least, and I took in more of it as I walked towards the outer barricade in utter bewilderment. Clutching the wooden fence tightly, I looked down and saw greenery everywhere. We were maybe 300 feet above, perhaps more, and yet the platform I stood on felt completely stable. No lurching, no yawing. Completely static, as if it was laid on plain ground.

Numerous carriageways dotted the perimeter of the landscape and smokeless airporters could be seen dashing to and from the various junctions. Back in Rumess, we only had a few carriageways and mostly just around the central hub, so airporters roamed much more freely. Here, though, the traffic control was much more precise and the traffic flow almost formal. I could almost imagine all the drivers clad in a suit and tie, knives in their right hand and forks in the left.

I jumped at the tap on my shoulder, and was amazed to see the formally dressed duo standing behind me. Both wore a dark greyish two piece suit with a white shirt and a black tie, almost exactly as I had been imagining earlier! The only notable embroidery was a white “C” lying on its side on the left breast pocket, resembling the crescent I had seen earlier inside the medical facility.

“Kral Fenley?” The shorter of the two inquired, whilst his taller and bulkier comrade played with his well-kept beard, all the while eyeing me quizzically.

“Aa… yes, but how do you know me?” I had never seen the duo before. As the taller of the two turned around to survey the surroundings methodologically, I noticed that his jacket was a fraction too small to cover his capa which was escaping from the bottom and glistening in the sunlight. He was at least a feet taller than his comrade, almost twice as wide, and solidly built. The one addressing me was only slightly taller and bulkier than I was, but I suspected he was a great deal older than he looked.

“My name is Keos Yach and this is Elmada Chess. He will be your escort to the Academy.”

So I was going to have a red carpet treatment after all. I contemplated my situation: I was in a foreign land, with people who were similar yet so different, and with technology that was beyond perplexing. My comrades were nowhere to be seen and I had nowhere else to go. Which left only one option really.

“Please follow me,” Elmada’s deep voice echoed behind him as he walked past me. I obeyed and started to follow Elmada whose pace was surprisingly fast considering his bulk. Looking behind, I noticed that Keos wasn’t accompanying us and had, instead, proceeded towards the sliding doors before disappearing inside the facility. Turning my attention back to my eloping escort, I began to analyse him, and that’s when I felt the force field emanating from him. It was nothing short of stifling, but it still fell short of the sort of pressure we had become accustomed to from some of the more terrifying hunters. Near them, I could hardly lift my finger.

“This way,” Elmada rounded the bend and continued walking around the facility with me hot on his trails. He wasn’t much of a talker it seemed, not that I minded. I needed to get a better feel of this place before opening my mouth and confusing myself further.

Various glass panels were fitted across the wall on the right and I realised that this was the outer side of the hallway I had crossed earlier. On my left was a huge curvature with airporters of all shapes and forms. A number of sidelong tunnels were lined across the parking field and occasionally an airporter would appear through one, before finding an empty spot and parking in the field. Elmada had branched into the very field, where I suspected an airporter awaited.

Sure enough, Elmada stopped in front of a white and green airporter a few lines down and opened the rear door, gesturing for me to get in. I complied, slightly eager to finally experience the first airporter ride of my life. The rotated green crescent on the outer panel hadn’t escaped my attention.

My mind was made up: I would check out the Academy, and if it wasn’t right for us, well then I’d round up Moria and Luton and we would flee. It wasn’t like we were prisoners here or anything, and we were more than capable of looking after ourselves.

Elmada had taken the front driver seat and sat squarely in the centre. So much for the theatrical view.

The engine came to life with a silent whizzing noise soon after and I looked around for any hint of steam or boilers.

As expected, none.

The airporter started to ascend slowly before moving sideways towards the enveloping tunnel which turned transparent after a few seconds, revealing the sky above me and the spiralling greenery beneath me. Soon, we were at the end of the tunnel and then we began to descend, my heart leaping up to my throat and a sinking feeling developing deep in my stomach. Clutching my knees tightly, I struggled to breathe. Thankfully, it only lasted for a few seconds as Elmada joined the carriageway and started following the traffic westwards. I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that Elmada didn’t notice my discomfort. How did people travel in these things? I would rather fly, as most did back in Rumess.

Peering through the side panels and the transparent roof occasionally, I marvelled at the number of airporters. It seemed like everyone in the city had one. The carriageways were marked with glowing beacons but again, they floated without a hint of steam or smoke. In fact, everywhere I looked, I couldn’t see any sign of steam-powered engines, yet the feats around me were impossible to achieve without such technology, and this puzzled me greatly.

“Welcome to the Academy,” Elmada said nonchalantly after a while, and I looked ahead, confused.

“Umm… thanks,” I replied.

“No, I meant here’s the Academy,” and at this, he shifted in his seat and pointed ahead at an expansive structure with multiple domes and outstretched towers. I wondered if the Academy was an alias for a prison, or worse, an Entim barracks! We were descending again, a lot slower this time, and I could make out a few animals here and there.

“How high up is the Academy?” Oops, I had wondered out aloud, and immediately felt like an idiot.

“150 feet above ground level. It’s one of the lowest Rimmtures, about 200 feet below the Medicon.”

Rimmtures – should I even bother asking? He had mentioned another name that I was more familiar with.

“Medicon?” Where had I heard that before? Elmada turned around and pointed behind me towards my former abode. “The medical facility you came from young Eyte, that was Medicon,” then he turned around and added further: “It’s part of the Academy, as are many other Rimmtures around here.”

Despite all my confusion, I couldn’t help but feel touched by the heavenly view that was unfolding before us. Rolling hills and streams of water flowed underneath and around the expansive Academy, bordered by cascading swathes of greenery. Various animals roamed the fields underneath us, seemingly undisturbed by the steady flow of traffic above them. I never imagined Nehibia would be like this, that it would resemble more of a countryside than an urban metropolis. The space freed up by the strange Rimmtures probably had a hand in this, no doubt. A flock of colourful birds flew above us noiselessly as we continued to descend steadily.

The Academy was straight ahead of us now, and its true size was becoming more evident with each passing second. It was huge.

“Sir… I was wondering if…”

“Call me Elmada, young Eyte, and please be at ease,” he spoke without looking back, so it didn’t help a great deal in putting me ‘at ease’. But I was emboldened by the opening nonetheless.

“Sorry. Elmada. I had been meaning to ask about my friends; they had left before I was discharged, and I’m not sure where they are right now.” I did have a suspicion as to their whereabouts, but it wouldn’t cost me anything to ask just in case.

“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know anything about that. I was only instructed to bring you to the Academy,” he answered while slowing down, aiming for one of the tunnels that lined the perimeter of the Academy, before adding further: “You are the last on my list, so your friends are probably inside the Academy already.”

I suspected as much, but it wasn’t enough to chase away that nagging feeling that something might have happened to them. The warning in the letter came to my mind, and I prayed that Moria and Luton were safe. I couldn’t do much else in my current state.

“Okay, thanks.”

I had many more questions, but I was interrupted with the sudden halt of our airporter. We were beside one of the transparent tunnels, and Elmada soon started to manoeuvre towards the opening before proceeding inside. The transparent opening of the tunnel came to a close after a few moments and darkness engulfed us momentarily. Soon after, we emerged from the other side into a large parking bay. The sealed airporter had muted much of the noise during our journey, but it failed to numb out the commotion now as Elmada steered towards an empty spot, before lowering the airporter and turning off the engine.

“And here we are. Please follow me, and I will escort you to the Ceremonial Hall now.” Elmada stepped outside and the doors on either side of me disappeared, cuing for my departure.

All around us there was a buzz of activity. Airporters were descending and ascending all around the perimeter as people came out of their transports, most of them dragging noticeable baggage behind them, some bidding farewell to their families before heading in a general direction. It wasn’t hard to spot the Ceremonial Hall.

“Please follow me,” Elmada had started walking briskly towards the large ornate double doors ahead of us in the distance, and I struggled to keep pace amidst the crowd of people which was getting thicker as we proceeded further. In my haste, I accidentally bumped against someone with a protruding mechanical eye and a flat-crowned top hat, causing them to drop a piece of luggage.

“Sorry,” I mouthed breathlessly without stopping to offer help, because Elmada was still pressing on and I didn’t want to get lost this early on. If my victim hurled a curse at me, I didn’t hear it.

My eyes kept darting from the pacing Elmada to the very out-of-place ornate doors that were getting larger as we approached them. Back in Rumess, they would have looked out-of-place as well, but for different reasons. Here though, where everything was ingrained with a kind of technology that I hardly understood, having two large wooden ornate doors that operated with some form of manual or mechanical intervention seemed odd. I had almost expected one of those transparent glass panels to greet us.

The crowd was very thick now as we came to the narrow bottleneck, so the apparent lack of pressure was all the more strange. If I wasn’t too busy trying to keep up with Elmada, I might have noticed it before. I could pick out numerous bulky capasians who could be nothing but Miradi, and yet I didn’t even feel a hint of pressure. Even Elmada’s presence had gone silent, quite strangely. When had that happened? More importantly, what was going on here?

Squeezing my way through, I caught up with Elmada as we stood outside the towering double doors, easily reaching to a height of 20 or so feet. Ahead of us, cordons had been used to split the crowd into numerous queues as people slowly trickled into the hall. I followed Elmada as we joined one of the queues near the centre, realising too late that a group of mechas stood right ahead of us, ready to strike.

“Nooo!”

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