The taxi dropped them off at a monorail station built into and jutting out over a sheer cliff face, dropping down to the beach some fifty feet below. The entire area – some several hundred feet square – was paved and surrounded by sleek metal railings. The building itself was a vision in black and red, the now-familiar Art Deco theme again making an appearance, and several shallow staircases and ramps lead up into the structure.
Inside, benches lined the outer edges of the area, and in the centre stood several automated ticket machines; the academy island was a popular destination for a variety of people on a variety of errands, and the small charge to use the monorail brought in some additional revenue. As new students at the academy, Isla and Anise had both received student passes for the monorail, neatly sidestepping the issue.
They swiped their passes over the reader on one of the metal turnstiles leading to the monorail, boarded the first of the two carriages, and settled down for a brief trip across the bay towards the distant campus island.
Brilliant white posts, each several metres across, studded the ocean at regular intervals, buried deep into the submarine floor. Suspended between each post, the monorail’s magnetic line swept passengers from one shore to the other some thirty feet above the water’s surface. As the train sped along, the backwash from its passing kicked up a white spray.
Looking out of the window, Isla gazed down at the frothy whiteness. “I’ve never been this close to the ocean before. It’s actually pretty scary.”
Anise rubbed her friend’s arm in a comforting fashion. “I’m terrified, if I’m honest.”
Isla turned and gave her a hug. “And yet we’re both fine spending forty hours in hyperspace.”
This made Anise giggle and relax a little. “Yeah, funny how that works. I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough, it’s just… this is so different to Mars. I’ve never even seen a real ocean before now!”
“I suppose it’s not much different to the pool at our old school? Just… you know, on a massively bigger scale?”
“I guess. I’ve heard the campus has pretty regular storms because of its location. Not sure how I’ll cope with that either.” A brief laugh escaped Anise’s lips, plainly containing precisely no humour at all.
“There were quite a few summer storms while I was in Britain. I almost wet myself the first time!” Isla laughed, her cheeks glowing red. “The noise is incredible, but there’s a physical force there, too. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Physical force?” Anise said. She played with her lightweight jacket’s pull cords, twiddling them in her fingers, her heart beating harder than usual.
“You know the feeling you get when a starliner takes off nearby? A sort of rumbling in your chest from how loud the engines are? It’s like that.”
“Damn, that’s awful… not sure I like the sound of that.”
Isla saw a perfect opportunity for an equally awful pun, but resisted the urge. “Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I just figured knowing in advance the sort of thing to expect might prepare you a bit.”
The monorail pulled into the station on the island, so Anise took a deep breath to settle her heart and smiled. “Thanks! I can always jump into your bed if it’s too much to handle, right?”
Isla blushed. “What are we, five?”
Narrowing her eyes theatrically, Anise’s lips curled up into an amused smile. “Don’t deny you like the idea, I can see it in your face as plain as day.”
“Well… I suppose it might be nice snuggling under the covers and talking right into the early hours. Rain and wind hammering on the windows outside…” Isla trailed off into silence, her eyes misting up.
“See? You do like the idea!”
“Oh all right, jeez. Come on, let’s go,” Isla said, tactfully changing subject and exiting the carriage.
They stepped out into an identical station built into a large outcropping of rock on the southern edge of the island. Making their way outside the building, a mildly salty sea scent greeted them as the Aidan equivalent of seagulls squawked overhead, looking for their next meal.
“How do you even get here if you don’t use the monorail?” Isla asked.
“See there?” Anise pointed down towards what appeared to be a tunnel exit at the foot of the hill. “That’s an underwater tunnel for hovercars, comes out on the mainland near the station. There’s also skybuses in the event of emergency or whatever.”
Picking up her suitcase and small rucksack, Isla slung the rucksack over her shoulder and stared at the sea. “You’d think cars that hover could just fly over the water.”
Anise gave a brief tut-tut, tugging her own luggage along in tired hands. “Hovercars don’t work over water, Isla. If you’d paid attention in science classes you’d know that.”
“You’re just full of knowledge, aren’t you?”
“Kinda.” Anise puffed her chest out for the second time that day.
“Well… full of something, knowledge is probably the most polite option,” Isla added, receiving a playful thump for her troubles. Massaging her arm back to life, she shrugged. “Personally, I’d rather spend my time outside playing tennis or taking a walk.”
“Always preferred exercising the muscles outside your head, didn’t you?” Anise said, happy to get some immediate revenge in. Isla dinged her in return.
A shocking pink academy hoverbus waited nearby, similar in general style to old twentieth-century minibuses. The two of them lugged their suitcases on-board, and the driver set off down a winding road leading to the foot of this gently sloping hill. The whole island was covered in a veritable sea of green; trees, bushes, hedges, all immaculately manicured and giving the landscape a lush and vivid appearance, interspersed with interesting-looking buildings and facilities.
The vehicle exited the soft gravel path from the hilltop monorail station, turning onto a road paved in a salmon pink stone; quarried in a neighbouring region, it was prized for the way it sparkled when polished to a pristine finish. Used for virtually all of the campus roads, it gave the impression of a network of sparkling pink veins crisscrossing the island.
Driving under a dense canopy of trees lining the road to either side, the vehicle exited back into the light and they received their first real look at the academy, situated on the northernmost side of the island.
The academy itself comprised five enormous domes in a star shape, almost blinding in their brilliance, pure white with black metal detailing. Each dome – similar to the domes on Mars, making both girls feel rather more at home after their brief existential crisis on the monorail – had a line of windows around the full circumference at both ground and first floor level. These were built into the superstructure a little way to provide shade, with balconies all round the upper floor.
Connecting the five buildings were covered paths leading between each dome and meeting at a large central fountain made of white stone. Each path was open to the sides with pointed metal roofs, but included shutters in case of severe weather; a relatively common occurrence on an island situated in the centre of a bay. Surrounding the fountain, a low circular wall, also white stone, and five wooden benches. The rest of the expanse between buildings and paths had a covering of soft grass.
Stopping outside the closest dome, the driver informed them he would take their luggage over to the dormitory, and that they should go and speak to the headmistress. They okayed him and jumped out.
“Shall we? Don’t want to keep the headmistress waiting!” Anise said.
“And who was it that suggested taking a walk when we arrived?”
“Aha, okay, you’ve got me there.”
“I wonder how they knew we’d be arriving? That hoverbus can’t have been waiting there on the off-chance we’d turn up, right?”
Anise pulled her monorail pass out and held it up. “We used the monorail, remember? The moment we swiped our cards over the turnstile reader they’d have known we were on our way.”
“Oh! Okay, that makes sense,” Isla said, nodding thoughtfully.
Unlike Anise, who loved science and technology a great deal, Isla tended more towards physical activities; sports, running, dancing. While Anise pored over books and study materials, Isla spent most of her time out and about. And now, here on a living, breathing world with a real atmosphere, she intended to make the most of it.
They walked up the path – again pink stone and sparkly – to the front entrance of the dome. Inside, they were greeted by a spacious foyer in the centre of which stood a kiosk of sorts. They wandered up to the young lady currently occupying it.
“Hi! We’ve just transferred in and are looking for the headmistress,” Anise said.
The lady at the information kiosk gave them a pristine smile that would look perfectly at home in a toothpaste commercial, and directed them up to the second floor. Two staircases wound up, one either side, to a viewing platform above the kiosk, so they made their way up one of these and from there directly ahead to a double door. A hallway beyond this took them through the centre of the building towards the rear.
“It’s a big building, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have thought idols were this popular!” Isla said as they came to a halt outside a set of two heavy mahogany-like doors.
“Earth’s still stuck in the dark ages of the twenty-first century, so I guess that’s a reasonable assumption if you don’t know any better,” Anise said. “Idols are super popular pretty much everywhere, though.”
“Aren’t there idol academies on Earth?”
“There are. Some really good ones, actually. Doesn’t change the fact that most idols trained there end up heading to other planets or space stations and things. There’s… something restrictive about Earth.”
“Feels like there’s a lot I still need to learn.”
“Don’t we all? Anyway, ready to meet the headmistress?”
“I think so.”
“Okay!” Anise raised her hand and knocked.