The next morning Isla awoke with a start, wondering where the hell she was. Remembering that she now lived on Aida, she relaxed and crawled out of bed. The next couple of days would consist largely of what might be called orientation; being shown around both the academy and campus island, learning where all the useful facilities were, meeting some of the other idols and teachers, and generally acclimating to life here.
This mostly went without issue – especially once the hyperlag effects faded a little – with Isla finally beginning to settle in and take stock of her new life. Anise, meanwhile, was already wholly comfortable spending time with Lisa, generally being a lot more lively than Isla had seen her in some years.
Early afternoon on their second day – the third since arriving – they were introduced to an interesting man known as Warlock Falconi. Anise explained to Isla on the way over to the academy buildings that this was simply his stage name as a retired idol; he kept the name and the character he had built around it, becoming both a producer and tutor at the academy after a long and successful career.
However, simply being told about Falconi couldn’t possibly have prepared Isla for actually encountering him. As they neared the academy domes, a commotion around the central fountain indicated something interesting was afoot. Lisa gave one of her amused chuckles and made a beeline over to the crowd of girls gathered there.
Beckoning the girls over, Lisa did her best to push through the crowd, at which point Isla got her first look at Warlock Falconi, The Fighting Falcon. Standing on one of the five benches around the fountain, he danced from one to another, juggled illusory balls of fire, tossed lightning bolts around the vicinity, and occasionally even produced a rabbit or dove from the top hat he wore, matching the black and white tuxedo. For a man of fifty, he could still move as though half that age.
During the entire performance he took sips from a glass of champagne he otherwise left perched on the fountain’s upper basin, constantly on the verge of tipping over and shattering on the ground, but never quite doing so. Isla wondered if he used some form of magic to hold it there.
“And that’s all she wrote, folks!” Falconi eventually said, rolling his top hat down an arm and bumping it back up to his head with an elbow. “I may or may not grace you with my presence here again. Tomorrow, next week, perhaps even last month! For the Fighting Falcon even has time as his ally!” Raising his glass in a toast, he downed the rest of the bubbling liquid and vanished the glass with a clap. “Cheers, ladies, I will see you soon!”
Jumping down from the bench, an unexpected pall of smoke swept up from seemingly nowhere, obscuring the fountain and clearing within seconds to reveal that Falconi had vanished without trace. Applause filled the air, then the assembled girls went their separate ways.
“I have no idea what I just witnessed, but it was awesome…” Isla said, glancing around as she attempted to figure out where the magical magician had gone.
“Old Falconi’s been around here for years, always entertaining the idols with his magic tricks. Sometimes puts on major stage shows, too,” Lisa said, clearly approving. As a showgirl herself, Falconi’s over the top acts were much to her liking.
Mira took Isla’s hand and tugged her in the direction of one of the four domes they had yet to explore, the one to the left of Dome 01 where they had met Amanda. Lisa followed with Anise, entering the building and making their way around one of the outer hallways leading around the ground floor’s circumference. Stopping outside a door, Mira knocked.
“Enter if you dare!” came a familiar voice from within.
Lisa opened the door and the girls spread out in the room thus revealed; dark, foreboding, with flags of various countries from several different worlds hanging from ancient bookcases along the left and right walls, and at the far end, a desk, behind which was a window with red velvet curtains, currently closed. And everywhere, across every possible surface, various props of the magician’s craft had been strewn, though with apparent care and attention; the room was a mess, but an intentional and organised one.
Behind the desk, an enormous leather chair swivelled fitfully back and forth, facing away so the girls couldn’t see the occupant. Spinning around, Falconi graced his guests with a smirk almost identical to Isla’s features after a particularly awful pun.
“Ah, greetings, my lovelies!” Falconi said, tugging his goatee beard between thumb and finger. The goatee as a style had faded into obscurity over a century previously, but Falconi had made it his mission to reintroduce into popular culture the beard he considered to be superior to all others. “What can the Fighting Falcon do for you today?”
“Just showing the new girls around, Falco!” Lisa said, pushing the two of them forward.
Lifting a hand, Falconi snapped his fingers and produced a flower; a single white Camellia Japonica for Anise, and a small Sea Bindweed, the stem wrapped around by some strands of Canary Grass, which he handed to Isla.
“A little gift for our newest girls. Welcome to the academy, and welcome to Aida!” Falconi said, standing and issuing a low bow, taking his top hat off and swishing it up in one hand in the approved manner. Standing, he winked. “Feel free to ask me anything! I may be old and decrepit, but don’t hold that against me, my experience is unrivalled and, indeed, unapparelled!”
Isla picked up on this. “Wouldn’t that mean you have no clothes on?”
Falconi let out a boisterous guffaw, collapsing back into his seat with an amused smile on his face. “Good! Very good! What’s your name, my lovely?”
“Eh? Oh! Isla. Isla Ainsworth.”
“And you?” Falconi switched to Anise.
“Anise Kendall, nice to meet you!” She bobbed her head in a deferential manner.
“Wonderful! Old Falconi here will enjoy seeing you grow into lovely idols,” Falconi said. “Nurturing the new seeds until they flower is a fitting way to retire, I feel.”
“Thanks!” Isla said. “Um, can I ask something?” Falconi indicated she was welcome, so she added, “Why are you called the Fighting Falcon?”
Falconi shifted position, his expression softening from the intense look they had seen more or less continually since his show at the fountain. “That’s the name of the character I played in an old show a couple of decades ago now, my lovely. I can’t blame you for not having seen it of course, ‘twas before your time.”
Anise emitted a smug ‘heh-heh!’, proudly puffing her chest out once again. “I’ve seen it. All eight seasons! Actually, that was the show that got me into idols, so I really need to thank you for that, Bianco. Without the Fighting Falcon I might not even be here now!”
Bringing his hand up to his lips, Falconi kissed and opened the fingers. “Magnifico! It’s been a long time since someone called me by my real name, my lovely. Grazie!”
“I’m a bit confused by your act, Falconi,” Isla said.
“Act? This is no mere act, my lovely! It is a way of life!” Falconi said, standing and moving around the desk, leaning back against it. “You’re new to the idol life, yes?” Isla indicated this was so. “Aaah, never seen a Character Idol before, hmm?”
He gave a brief explanation of the path known as Character Idol; creating a character – flamboyant, flashy, fun – these idols would stay in-character at all times, living their secondary life as though real. Some even went so far as to stay in-character during their private time, simply for authenticity’s sake.
Isla’s face had morphed into one of surprise, albeit with a healthy dose of interest. “There’s so much variety to idols!”
Falconi pointed at her. “Yes! Entire oceans of unique idols, which is why standing out is so important, my lovely. The path of Character Idol is a hard one to walk, takes much work and dedication, but if you can pull it off…” He left the sentence hanging, not really needing to complete it.
Stepping forward, Anise prodded her best friend’s shoulder. “Even something like taking your interest in tennis and focusing wholly on that has the potential to make you stand out.”
“Sì! Find your own niche, polish until it shines, and you’ll do well, my lovelies. Generalists exist, to be sure, but as people on Earth used to say, a Jack of all trades is master of none.” Falconi returned to his seat, flopping down and putting his feet up on the desk. “I hope old Falconi has been of some help, hmm?”
Loitering in the background, Lisa moved forward. “As always, Falco, thanks! Now, we should probably be off, got a few more people and places to see yet.”
“Yes, off you go. Falconi will be here if you need him! Pleasure meeting both of you. Arrivederci!” Falconi said.
They thanked him, Anise especially so, and headed back outside. The wonderful scent of freshly mown grass greeted them as they wandered back to the fountain and sat together on the lawns surrounding it.
Immediately, Anise entered an idolgasm, splitting her time between gasming and snapping pictures of the other three girls. “Actually getting to meet Bianco Falconi in person… aaah, this is the best day, thank you, Lisa!” Her slim camera emitted simulated click after simulated click as she photographed Lisa several dozen times.
“Don’t mention it. You get pretty excited over things like this, huh?” Lisa said, taking a few poses for her photographer.
Mira stifled a snigger. “I’d noticed that as well.”
“Yep! Idols are basically my life. Well… idols and cute girls.” Anise gave a discrete cough, avoiding direct eye contact with any of the three cute girls in her immediate vicinity.
“I understand that feeling perfectly, no worries,” Lisa added with a suspicious wink. “Anyway, that’s Falco out of the way. He’s been here longer than anyone now, so he’s kind of the first stop for all new idols to the academy. Next up, we should probably get you familiarised with the rest of the buildings and staff, huh?”
“Job board?” Mira suggested.
“Good plan,” Lisa said, chuckling. She led them into Dome 01 and towards the welcome kiosk. Here, she took them to the far left side of the dome.
Before them stood two white poles, between which hovered an orange holographic display showing rows and columns with the days of the current week in roughly five-inch blocks. Each block could be tapped to view information and book time in specific facilities, or with particular instructors and producers.
“This is the booking terminal, generally called the job board,” Lisa said, pointing to the holographic display. “It’s a good idea to be here early, slots fill pretty quickly. Or you can just use your phone. Technically you can cheat a bit and book slots at night, but the board only updates with cancellations and the like the next morning, so you might miss an opportunity if you do that.”
Anise appraised the terminal. “I’m guessing that’s on purpose?”
“What, only updating in the morning? Yeah, pretty much. It promotes competition because you need to physically come over to the board for the latest jobs. Being lazy is a great way to fail as an idol. My advice? Don’t be lazy.”
Laughing at Lisa’s casually delivered harsh advice, Anise tapped one of the squares, receiving a pleasant little judder in response via the haptic feedback system. “Oh, this looks interesting, an audition to become image girl for a retro-futuristic clothing brand.”
“You’re encouraged to try new things, especially this soon after arriving,” Lisa said. Stepping away, she looked Anise up and down. “The brand in question is Retrolution, they make heavy use of blue, black, and silver. And with your gorgeous hair colour… yeah, I think you’d be a perfect match, Anise.”
Mira floated about in the background, but shifted to the foreground to speak. “You’ll be up against fans and idols who will have researched thoroughly, but at the end of the day, the job will go to the one who most fits the image Retrolution are looking for. I agree with Lisa, you’d suit them perfectly, Anise.”
“Thanks, both of you! I like their outfits, but I can’t honestly say I’m an expert,” Anise said, striking a pose for her mentor’s inspection.
“As Mira said, so long as you look right for them, it won’t be a problem. But boning up on their brand and being able to demonstrate a knowledge of their product lines won’t hurt either. Remember my advice?”
“Don’t be lazy!”
“Exactly. Okay, so the auditions start in a couple of weeks. I think you know what we’re going to be doing for that period!”
Privately, Anise had some ideas for how she might enjoy spending that time. “I can’t wait!”
“Right, next…” Lisa murmured.
“Gym?” Mira said.
“Actually, that works out pretty well, we can head straight to Arco Iris from there.”
“They’re closed today, remember?” Mira informed her.
“Oh right, yeah. Well, there goes that idea.”
Isla raised a hand. “Arco Iris…?”
Heading outside, Lisa pointed over to the far eastern end of the island. “It’s a café and bar over there. I was going to introduce you to the girls who run the place, but I’d forgotten they’re shut today. Got the inspectors coming in.”
“That doesn’t sound good!” Isla said.
Lisa laughed and shook her head. “No, no! I don’t mean anything bad. Anywhere that serves food has to be inspected regularly to make sure they’re following the law and all that jazz. Today just happens to be that day.”
Isla relaxed. “Oh, that’s good, then.”
“Tell you what, how about we head into the city tonight? Lisa suggested as they continued their jaunt towards the track field and gym facilities.
“Sounds pleasant,” Mira said. “We haven’t been to Stardew in a while.”
“Stardew? That a bar?” Anise asked.
“Our favourite one, yes. Well… of the ones we’ve so far visited,” Mira said. “Wednesdays are fairly quiet, too, good time for a few drinks.”
Both the new girls agreed it would be nice to check out a local bar now they were mostly recovered from the trip here, so they arranged to head over to the mainland that evening. Continuing across the campus, they made their way around the academy domes and on towards the gym complex.
Lisa pointed at the gargantuan building situated between the domes and the aforementioned Arco Iris. “There’s a covered track field inside, probably of interest to Isla. Good if it happens to be raining.”
“I need to work on my stamina, yeah,” Isla said.
“You’ll find plenty of girls there early morning and evening. Most of them’ll be happy to keep you company if you need a partner,” Lisa added.
Isla made a mental note to draw up a practice schedule with Mira one day soon. “Thanks, Lisa. Might check it out in the morning, then.”
“There’s also an indoor pool, gym, even tennis courts and the like. We’ve got pretty much everything here.”
“Tennis courts?” Isla said, perking up.
Anise giggled. “I knew that’d get your attention.”
“You’re a sporty girl, right?” Lisa said to Isla.
“I am! Tennis mostly, but I like other racket sports as well,” Isla said, beaming.
“Not really my area, but there’s plenty of sports enthusiasts here. Lots of sweaty girls, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Lisa noted that Anise’s face had turned oddly waxen. “You okay, Anise?”
“Eh!? Oh, fine. Fine! Nothing wrong at all, nope.”
Filing this highly suspicious reaction away under ‘interesting’, Lisa dropped the subject. “Righto, shall we grab something to eat?”
This sounded like a fine idea, so they headed off to the dormitory to do just that, followed by exploring some more of the island…