“Your name, please,” the spectacled lady in front of the desk said rather loudly as she stared at me disapprovingly, bringing me out of my trance. Gallant was to my left, being quizzed similarly by a younger-looking capasa.
“Kral Fenley, ma’am,” I replied. Best to be polite when far, far away from home.
“Kral Fenley,” she said, staring at me from the top of her silver framed glasses. I wasn’t sure on whether it was a question or a statement. She stood perhaps an inch or so shorter than me, and her wrinkled face seemed to be twisted in a permanent scowl. Soon after, she brought her panel up to my face and aligned it in front of me. “Look at the camera, please,” she said flatly. I could tell she had done this many, many times over.
She removed the panel as swiftly as she had brought it up, and I wondered if any sort of picture had been taken at all. I had encountered such devices before in Rumess as well but they were not half as subtle as these. The ones back home emitted an excruciatingly sharp and loud sound when the picture was being taken, and, worst of all, a flash that would blind a person for half a minute afterwards. While the lingering shadow of homesickness accompanied me everywhere, I was quite relieved that my senses weren’t assaulted in such a crude manner.
“Your enrolment is now complete, Kral Fenley,” she said, before pointing at my file case that I had received from the mecha when entering. “If you already haven’t done so, please take out the cohort selection form from your welcome package and mark your preferred cohorts. You may only select one, and we will strive to place you in the most suitable faction,” she continued as I prowled through the contents of my file case. There were only two things inside: A panel similar to the one I’d seen inside the hall and a form, which I presumed to be the one she was referring to.
“After making your selection, please pass your form to one of the cohort heads in the exhibition behind me. A decision will be made by 11 o’clock and then you will be escorted to your dormitories,” she said in a matter of fact tone. I was surprised that there had been no mention of the one thing I’d been dreading so far.
“Ma’am, I was wondering about the finances,” I asked reluctantly. On the one hand, I cursed myself for asking. If it had been overlooked, then all the better. But equally I didn’t want any setbacks later on down the line.
“All in order,” she replied abruptly as she held my gaze, forcing me to be the one to look away and down.
“Who paid for me?” I asked again incredulously. Once again, she answered flatly without so much as blinking: “We don’t keep that sort of information. Suffice to say that your finances have been handled. Please proceed ahead,” she said a little more forcefully this time, her gaze turning to the line behind me. She addressed the following capasa before I had even started walking.
I nodded to no one in particular and proceeded, eager to meet up with Luton and Moria. I had lost them in the tide that had flowed out of the assembly hall and into this equally huge exhibition room. I made another entry in my imaginary list of to-investigate things: get to the bottom of the mystery sponsor. My mind raced to the letter I had woken up to in the Medicon. Why would anyone sponsor me? And would they have sponsored Luton and Moria as well?
“Kral. Kral,” a voice said behind me before I could dwell on the matter further. I turned around to see Gallant striding towards me, his top-hat wavering slightly as he forced his way past a duo engaged in conversation. For a moment, I could swear that his eyes honed in on the cross-eyed duo, almost as if staring them down. By the time he was beside me, the eyes became eerily still again.
“Kral!” It was a capasi’s voice this time, and one I recognised all too easily. My heart jumped in anticipation as I looked in the direction of the voice, seeing Luton trailing behind Moria as she closed the distance between us with haste. God, was I glad to see her again. Luton, I noticed, appeared as smug as ever. I wondered for a second if anything ever dampened his spirits, as, for as long as I had known him, he had always been unnervingly optimistic.
Moria was still drawing a handful of eyes as she approached me, but strangely it was Luton who was really chirping, as if the red carpets were being rolled out for him. Did he really believe they were all queuing up to witness his grace?
“Where did you run off to, mate?” Luton’s usual mischievous manner was announced by the unruly smirk on his face. “You could’ve gotten lost, Master Kral. Good thing I have sharp eyes, eh?” he said, his smirk expanding even further.
“Oh, give it a rest, Luton. I’m really tired,” Moria rebuked him, exasperated. “Just stop, please,” she pleaded with him, while glaring at him with an intensely annoyed look on her face at the same time.
“But it’s true, my Queen,” Luton whispered to Moria, even though I could clearly hear every word. “Just look at the way they’re staring at you. They could probably deflower you with their eyes! In fact, I’m sure they’re doing so right now… at least in their minds.” he said, his roguish grin still as strong as ever. Moria flinched, blushing furiously.
“Luton! Stop it!” She half-shrieked while trying to keep her voice down. I had never seen Moria as more than just a friend but there was no denying the way her rosy cheeks accentuated her features.
“What? It’s true! Just look at those love-stricken birds. Maybe I should uncover your little secret…” But before he could finish, Moria punched him in the side rather abruptly, winding Luton in the process. Gallant shifted his weight uncomfortably besides me.
“That’s enough Luton. Behave please, and stop making a scene for God’s sake!” I said through clenched teeth, all the more aware of the group of capasas eying Moria wolfishly. One of them whistled and made a remark when Moria struck Luton. Another was pointing his panel at us. Was he taking pictures?
“Alright, alright,” Luton said as he rubbed his stomach, slowly drawing up to his full form again. I doubt he’d been hit that hard.
“Looks like you’ve got a few pairs pinned on yourself, Master Kral,” Luton said while glancing at Gallant, and I started burning up in embarrassment. This was definitely not the type of first impression I wanted to give off to Gallant. I thought it best not to encourage our clown any further.
“Uh… Gallant, meet my friends: Luton the imbecile, and Moria,” I said quickly, hoping that Gallant had not caught Luton’s earlier remark.
“I prefer impaler, actually,” Luton butted in again, and I gave him my sternest look. That only served to make his wide smirk even wider.
“He… Hello, guys. Nice… to meet you both,” Gallant said rather awkwardly as he glanced from Luton to Moria, and then to his sides and back to me again. I noticed his other pair of eyes were still.
“Guys, this is Gallant,” I said in return. “He’s an Eyte like us and it’s his first year as well.” Luton nodded and Moria smiled kindly, causing Gallant to blink quite rapidly.
“Nice to meet you too, Gallant,” Moria smiled again, and it made me slightly uneasy. Was I being too overprotective? I had to. Despite being battle hardened from all of our adventures, she was still tender and fragile. Beautiful even, I had to admit. Her loose, draping robes covered her entirety, hiding her curves and concealing her features, yet it made her all the more exotic. That’s probably what made me feel uneasy, that she may be taken advantage of. This was Moria, and she was family. A family I would protect at any cost.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Gallant,” Luton said, placing special emphasis on the name. Suddenly he seemed serious, his gaze flickering to Gallant’s top-hat.
“Actually, Gallant, I was hoping you could teach us how to use these devices,” I interrupted quickly before Luton could create another scene, all the while pulling out the panel from my file case.
“Oh yes, that would be nice, please,” added in Moria, as she proceeded to pull her own device out. Luton, I noticed from the corner of my eye, was following suite.
“Oh, of course. I mean, the Strast family is known for its tech, after all,” Gallant said enthusiastically as he brandished his own panel. Then he paused, a look of uncertainty etched on his now perspiring face.
“Kral, where exactly are you guys from again?” he asked quietly. I looked between Luton and Moria, unsure of whether to reveal our identities or not. Would he think differently of us?
“Outer Lands,” said Luton matter-of-factly. “That’s why we hardly know anything about your technology,” he added calmly. Moria fidgeted with her fingers and I shifted my balance between my feet. I guess it was bound to come out sooner or later and I just hoped this revelation wouldn’t cause us any grief later on. I had to admit that it felt pretty good to get it out in the open, as if an invisible weight had been lifted.
“Skar! I knew there was something different about you Kral, but that was because of your clothes, they are not ordinary. Not many Nehibians would be able to afford something like this. But, you’re outlanders? Skar! Who would have guessed?” Gallant responded, amazed, but without going hysterical, which was a relief. We had always been taught that the people of the Outer Lands were subservient to those in Nehibia, and so naturally we grew up believing that the Nehibians were somehow superior to the rest of the capasians.
“Simply amazing! I’ve never met an outlander before,” Gallant continued enthusiastically. “Is it true that…” but Luton cut him off before Gallant could finish his question. ”Ah ah… questions later, answers first, eye man,” he butted in hastily as I flinched. Seriously, he could at least try to be civilised.
“You were going to tell us how to operate these panels,” Moria said. I was glad of her skilful avoidance of a possible feud.
“Of course,” Gallant responded, a look of regret on his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to intrude, you know. It’s just that.. it’s quite exciting, meeting someone from outside,” he added in and I gave him an empathetic half smile, hoping that he would just leave the subject be.
“So, yes… the panels. The basics first, I suppose?” he asked inquisitively, glancing from Moria to me. I noticed he was avoiding Luton’s gaze.
“Yes please, if you don’t mind,” Moria replied.
“Yes, of course. First things first: tap twice anywhere on the panel to power it on, like this,” he said as he tapped his panel, the screen lighting up. We followed suite. Three images appeared on the panel.
“I will tell you how to set a lock later on. See the first image that looks like a speech bubble? You can talk to other students using that. So if you touch that image now, you will see a list of everyone you can communicate with,” he finished.
I pressed the speech icon and saw an almost blank screen. “It says: ‘Friend list empty, shake to link up!’ ” muttered Moria, clearly confused.
“Ah yes, sorry. You need to link up first. So if everyone shakes their panels together from side to side at the same time, we should be able to see each other. Ready?” Gallant said. “Now.”
We shook our panels and a stream of pictures appeared on the panel. Luton, Moria, and Gallant.
“Kral, mate… you look possessed!” Luton said. I ignored him as usual. Moria seemed surprised. “That’s not how I really look like, is it?” she said, much to my amusement. Nobody said anything, though I saw Gallant glance at her.
“Now, just tap on the person you want to link with, and after you both accept, we can talk and message,” Gallant said.
“My panel showed a blue box with Gallant’s picture and the words: ‘Gallant wants to link with you. Accept or Reject?’ ” I tapped the green ‘Accept’ button. Then I did the same for Moria. I sent a request to Luton.
“To accept, or not to accept?” asked Luton, feeling quite witty judging from the look on his face. I met his expression with a blank one. Best not to encourage further stupidity. “Oh, alright then. If you insist,” he said, sniggering to himself.
“Great, now we’re all linked. We can call, message, and share notes and other material. Just tap on someone’s picture, and then you’ll see all the options,” said Gallant before my panel suddenly bleeped and a red light flickered in the top-right corner. Gallant’s portrait was flashing, so I tapped on it. “Hello,” it said. Then there was another bleep. This time, the message was from Moria.
“This is pretty awesome. How does it all work without steam? I can’t see any gears either,” Moria asked. It was a good question. There was too much strange technology here and I felt overwhelmed. None of us were strangers to tech, but this was so much more than what we had grown up with.
“Gears? Not since Rimmtech. We don’t really use steam either, and probably haven’t been doing so for the last 20 years or so,” said Gallant.
“What is Rimmtech?” I asked. Gallant looked at me incredulously.
“Don’t tell me there’s no Rimmtech in the Outer Lands?” Gallant looked between the three of us like we were playing a joke on him.
“Perhaps if his majesty would care to enlighten us remnants of an era long past?” chimed in Luton sarcastically, gesturing at Gallant.
“Wow… wow. I would never have thought,” Gallant said. “Okay, okay. Well, Rimmtech is Rimm-imbued tech, which is pretty much everything nowadays. But you probably don’t know what Rimm is in the first place, right?” he paused very briefly before answering himself. “Of course you don’t. No offense intended, I wasn’t making fun of you,” Gallant added quickly.
“It’s okay. Can you please us a little about this Rimm? Is it some variation of steam?” Moria asked.
“No, no, not at all. Rimm is.. well it’s magic, but not really magic, you know?”
No, not really, I thought to myself. If anything, his explanation opened up even more questions.
“Alright, though I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s… what’s the word, intelligent? Yes, something like that. It has a mind. No, that’s slightly wrong. Rimm can give life, sort of. Not life life, that’s ridiculous of course, but it can make something that has no life seem like it does. Not making much sense I guess?” he asked.
“Not really,” Moria chimed slowly, giving Gallant a half stare before looking confusedly at me. I was glad she was just as confused as me.
“I’m sorry, it’s quite hard to explain. Rimm just makes things ‘work’. It’s very hard to find, and a little drop is enough to power a mecha for weeks. It is pretty much in everything, or rather, in everything around here, including these panels.”
I recalled the pristine mechas at the registration desk. They were so life-like, unnaturally so. And then there was that fleeting feeling that bordered on hope, or despair, or something in between. Maybe that was my own sense of dread I’d been feeling then.
“So, let me get this straight, Gallant. These floating buildings…”
“Rimmtures,” Gallant added.
“Yes, these Rimm-tures. They’re powered by Rimm, right?”
“And so are the airporters outside?”
“And the mechas, the panels, the vanishing doors in Medicon, all of it is Rimm?”
“Rimmtech. Yes, all of it. Medicon is that Rimmture to the east, right?” Gallant asked. “I saw it on my way to here, I think.”
“I guess that would be it,” I said.
“This place just gets better and better, eh? Disappearing doors, steam-less craft, floating buildings, talking mechas… hey, your eyes are going crazy eye man,” Luton added, staring at Gallant in mild shock. He was right. Gallant’s extra pair of eyes were blinking furiously once again, and he was blushing.
“Sorry, I think we should go and choose our cohort before the time’s up,” he said nervously, and I couldn’t help but wonder again what exactly those eyes of his did.
“I’m guessing that’s Rimm as well?” Luton asked out of the blue, his gaze fixed on Gallant’s top-hat. Skar!
“Yes, yes indeed. The Strassty is a family heirloom. Quite unique, I dare say so,” Gallant chirped proudly, beaming a full set of white teeth.
“And what exactly do they do, these strass-eyes of yours?” Luton continued.
“Strassty. It allows me to see, of course,” Gallant replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Luton gave me a quizzical look and I shrugged.
“Can you elaborate a little please, Gallant?” I took the opportunity to spear-drive the conversation. It was dangerous to leave Luton at the helm for too long.
“Elaborate? Oh, I see. My apologies, my apologies. Basically, I can see pretty much all around me, all the time. You could say that I have an almost 360 degrees vision, no blind spots. See the old lady at the registration desk?” he asked while we looked at him dumbfoundedly.
“Yes..” said Moria, her voice edged with a touch of anxiety.
“She’s tending to a Capasa with a white dress and red criss-cross hatches. Behind him, there’s another spectacled capasa…”
“You can stop now, Gallant,” I interrupted him. This was freaky. Gallant was freaky.
“That is.. Very strange, Gallant. How does your brain process all of that?” Moria said.
“Oh, I have a Rimm chip implant embedded into my brain,” Gallant said and I glared at him numbly. What was it that Kelia had said back at Medicon? That everyone has bits of machines in them here? Good God. She wasn’t kidding!
“You have… a machine… in your head?” asked Moria, clearly at a loss for words. This was probably the first time she heard of it.
“Yes, what’s wrong with that?” asked Gallant.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” I quickly said. “We’re just not used to this. Any of it. It’s all new to us, you see. Please don’t be offended.” I explained.
“Of course, I don’t mind at all. Maybe we can resume after we’ve made our cohort selection?” It was more of a statement than a question, but I was glad for the change of subject.
“How exactly do we do that?” I asked again.
“Just tick your preference on the form and pass it to one of the heads, I think. That’s what the capasa told me, at least,” answered Gallant. I noticed his Strassty was going cross-eyed.
“I suppose the capasa dressed like a warrior is one of the heads?” I asked Gallant, pointing towards the chestnut haired capasa. He was muscular and tall, with a sword in his right hand and a bird perched on his left. It was an eagle.
“Yes, that’s the Eagle’s Reach’s head. The other two must be somewhere close as well,”
“So I guess you’re sticking with the Knights, then?” I asked him.
“Yes, my brother is there. And you?”
“Excuse me, but I’m not completely understanding this whole cohort thing. Kral?” said Moria, interrupting me.
Gallant cleared his throat before I could answer. “They’re factions that we have to join. Think of them as… dormitories? Yes. Each has a different focus, like science or technology or military, and so they have access to facilities and resources that align with their own focus. I heard there used to be five, though that changed a couple of years ago.”
Moria blinked, obviously trying to process all of that information. “I… see.” she said in a manner that made me think that she really didn’t. “Don’t worry, Moria. It’ll be OK, we’ll stick together,” I said, doing my best to disperse her confusion. Of course, I had an ulterior motive. I recalled the letter which suggested I should keep my friends close. They were, after all, my family.
“Not so sure about that, mate,” said Luton, his face being devoid of emotion for the first time all day. “If I know you well enough, and I think I do, you’ll be signing up with them eagles. On the other hand, yours truly doesn’t really see himself as an innovator,” he continued, punching his chest with his fist as he referred to himself.
“Let’s think about it calmly Luton. We still have some time to think about it, don’t we?” added Moria, clearly under pressure. I nodded meekly, though I was feeling quite annoyed by Luton’s iconic stubbornness. I looked again at the cohort recruitment paper, trying to gauge which cohort would fit me, or rather, us, best.
Before I could think on it any further, Gallant sneezed. “Apologies,” he added, clearly ashamed at interrupting the silence, before adding further to cover up the outburst: “I’m with the Knights, my brother is there.” he repeated, checking one of the boxes on his paper and then looking expectantly at me. To my horror, Luton did the same.
“Luton..” I started, eager to ensure we all chose the same cohort and stuck together. His chiseled face confronted me head-on with a smirk that was all too familiar, yet there was something else there this time and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“Don’t try, oh great visionary!” he declared in his usual sarcastic tone. “I’ve made up my mind, and I’m not going to change it. What are you so afraid of, anyways? We’re safe here, and it is a good opportunity to explore, and branch out,” he finished, smiling mischievously once again. His eyes were glinting, and I knew this to be a sign of sheer determination… or rather, stubbornness.
“He might be right, Kral,” said Moria. “We’ve been watching our every step for as long as I can remember. Maybe this is our chance to finally let our guard down?”
“Exactly.” added in Luton, his iconic half-smirk now gone. “I’ll be going with the Knights, if you must know. If you want to stalk our every step, dad, feel free to join me. Both of you.”
Moria’s gaze met mine, full of uncertainty. “Fine, have it your way Luton,” I said, resigned. I forced a smile to help lighten the mood, and then looked at Moria.
I had a choice to make.