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CHAPTER 4 Journey to the Firestone Academy

He led them both through the trees on the other side of the clearing. Thea, every now and again, caught sight of something gleaming in the sunlight and was wondering what it was when she suddenly stopped short. There was somebody sitting beneath one of the trees, leaning casually against it as he stared off into the distance, deep in thought. As if sensing their approach, he leapt to his feet with the smooth agility of a cat, and turned to meet them. After exchanging a brief greeting with Xenn, clapping him on the shoulders suggesting an easy camaraderie, he turned expectantly to face Thea and her grandfather who were waiting to be introduced. This is Rathedd, said Xenn with a grin, one of my oldest and most trusted friends. He is in charge of the Academys security. Watching as he and her grandfather shook hands, Thea gazed up at him with interest. He was tall, although not as tall as Xenn, but what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in powerfully packed solid muscle. He too, was bald and there were two rows of raised ridges running from the top of his brow to the base of his neck. His chiselled features, although stern, lit up in a welcoming smile making him look a lot more approachablealmost friendly in fact. Shaking hands with him shyly, Thea felt the power of his grip as his huge hand engulfed her own, but his eyes were soft and gentle. He was, she discovered, a man of few words. Pleasure, he said in short, clipped tones giving them both a brief nod. With the introductions out of the way, Rathedd led them quickly to the transport waiting to take them to the Academy. This was the object that had caught Theas eye earlier, and Xenn explained that the Tierrapod, as it was called, was part of the Academys own fleet of transportation vehicles. Metallic silver in colour, it was shaped like a gigantic bullet, with the main body being made from some kind of bright, sparkling metal, while the top and sides were glass. She looked at it curiously, wondering where the doors were, and even more importantly, how it was supposed to transport them anywhere with no wheels! As they approached, the glass top and sides suddenly vanished, causing Thea to back away nervously, but reassured by a smiling Xenn, she climbed in beside her grandfather at the back while Xenn and Rathedd got in the front. There was a control panel covered in a complicated assortment of coloured lights and strange symbols and markings, and once they were all seated comfortably, the glass suddenly reappeared encasing them inside. A moment later, a band of metal shot out from a slot in the sides of the vehicle, clamping them securely to their seats. Chuckling to himself at Theas gasp of amazement, Rathedd turned to face her. Ready? he asked, eyebrows raised. Not knowing what to expect, she nevertheless nodded silently and held her breath as the Tierrapod rose slowly into the air with a low hum, hovered for a moment, and then took off at top speed over the trees, throwing them all back against their seats. To say it was the most exciting ride of her life would have been an understatement. They soared across vast forests and lakes, climbed high over majestic mountains, and dipped low through winding valleys, dotted here and there with what looked like small towns and villages, and just when Thea thought it couldnt get any better, she felt the Tierrapod suddenly put on a burst of speed as they streaked towards a great body of water known as The Great Sea, and plunged straight in! Although the water slowed them down somewhat, they were still travelling at quite a pace, sending all sorts of sea-creatures swimming for their lives. Thea pressed her nose against the glass, marvelling at the sight of these alien life-forms, none of which she recognised. They were all different shapes, sizes and colours, some resembling fish, others just looking like something out ofwella science-fiction movie!

They headed deeper and deeper into the depths of the sea, eventually levelling off as the waters got darker and murkier, and the sea creatures got bigger and more cumbersome. Thea could just make out a huge, black shape looming ahead, which turned out to be a vast rock wall, but instead of slowing down or veering away from it, the Tierrapod suddenly lunged forward at breakneck speed. Terrified by the sight of the huge slab of rock rushing towards them, Thea gripped her grandfathers arm tightly and opened her mouth to scream, but seconds before the point of impact, a small opening appeared in the rock face, and the strangled cry died in her throat as they entered a pitch-black tunnel. The only light now, came from the strange luminosity of the Tierrapod, and it was an extremely eerie feeling, because there was no sound at all and no sign of any kind of life either. After what seemed like an age, during which Thea felt as if she had been suspended in time and space, the surrounding blackness began to soften and turn to grey, and to her relief, they finally emerged from the tunnel and headed straight up towards the surface. Up they went, zooming along at a fairly steep angle, and as they gathered speed, they shot out of the water and up into the air once more. As they rose high over the treetops, Thea could see that they were in some sort of lowlying valley with huge mountains surrounding them on every side. Eventually the craft began to slow down, and below them Thea could see more forests and lakes, and there, nestled somewhere in the centre, was the Academy. It was a great sprawling, circular complex of glass and metal buildings, which gleamed and shimmered in the noonday sun. Rathedd circled slowly, and then took the Tierrapod lower until they were just a few feet from the ground, and approached the landing area. Hovering for a second, they touched-down gently and the glass disappeared once again. The automatic seat-belts disengaged with a loud click and retracted back into their slots, and they all alighted from the vehicle. Thea and her grandfather looked in awe at the vast array of buildings. They were here. This was it! <><><> Entering the Academy grounds, they were met by a member of staff, who welcomed them with a broad smile. This is Trubidos, Xenn said introducing him to them both. He will take you on a tour of the facilities, and then bring you to my office afterwards. If you have any questions, he will be happy to answer them, so please feel free to ask him anything you like, and with a smile, he turned and disappeared into the main building with Rathedd, deep in conversation. Trubidos was about Theas height, with a round portly figure. Although he was quite old and wizened-looking, he seemed quite sprightly and appeared to glide across the floor rather than walk. What was making Thea stare, however was a small spiral-shaped black horn growing out of his chin, which matched the two larger ones on his head. He gave them both a beaming smile, and gestured that they should follow him. I trust you had a pleasant trip, he said as they fell into step beside him. Thea nodded enthusiastically, heart still pumping with excitement, while Titus simply snorted beneath his breath. He felt as though he had just been on one of those awful themepark rides he was always seeing advertised on telly. Hed had to spend pretty much the entire journey with his eyes closed, trying valiantly to hold onto the contents of his stomach! It seems to be a pretty roundabout way of getting here, he grumbled, wouldnt it have been easier to have one of thosethose portal things right here? It would have saved a hell of a lot of time, not to mention being a lot easier on my nerves! Trubidos nodded sympathetically, and explained that the location of the Academy was being kept secret for the time being, with only a few select members of staff knowing the route in and out. It had been established that there were what he mysteriously referred to as outside influences all of whom were eager to see the Programme fail rather than succeed, and so to prevent any interference the use of portals had been banned.

So you see, he finished earnestly, this means that the only way to get here is via the route you have just come. The site upon which the Academy has been built was specifically chosen for its huge impassable mountain range, so we are quite safe from any unauthorised visitors. Stepping through the doorway of one of the buildings to the right, they found themselves in a long glass corridor, one of several which were used to link up the different complexes. Staring in awe at the sheer vastness of the Academy, Thea wondered how she would ever find her way around. She hurried to catch up with her grandfather and Trubidos, who was in the process of explaining how the Academy worked. That section of the complex is separate from the rest, he said indicating a large building on the right into which Xenn and Rathedd had disappeared. It houses the staff accommodation and administrative offices, but of course, a certain number of staff have their quarters in each of the student accommodation wings in order to supervise them and be on hand in case there are any problems. Now over here we have the main building where all of the Chambers of Learning are located. Each chamber is large enough for twenty students but we currently have approximately ten per class. Lessons will be held he droned on and on. Thea stopped listening to his long and boring commentary, because her attention had been caught by the sight of two figures coming towards them. One of them was dressed in a robe, much the same as the one Xenn wore, but he was accompanied by somebody about Theas age who was one of the strangest looking creatures she had ever seen. He was just a little taller than she was with dark, leathery-looking skin. He had long black, unkempt hair, twisted here and there into several fat plaits, and thick shaggy eyebrows from beneath which glowed piercing tawny eyes. His large ears were pointed, as were his teeth, and he was dressed in a dark-coloured roughly woven shirt over black trousers, which were tucked into heavy black boots. He had the most sullen look on his face, and as he passed he turned his head and growled menacingly. It happened so quickly, that at first she thought she had imagined it, but as she watched them disappear around the corner, he looked back at her over his shoulder and bared his teeth. Or were they fangs she thought to herself with a shiver, hurrying after her grandfather. Who was that? she asked Trubidos, falling into step beside him. Ah! responded Trubidos, That would be Kuldarr from the planet Schledvorg. He is proving to be a rather difficult pupil, and sees this whole project as a waste of time, as do some of his people. Then why is he here? asked Thea curiously. The Schledvorgs are a rather aggressive race who have always shown a preference for physical force rather than brain-power to settle their differences. Kuldarr will benefit greatly from attending this Academy, and there are those among his people who agree. Kuldarr is here because it was the wish of the Head of their Chief Council, who are the current rulers of their people. But what about his parents? Didnt they have any say in the matter? asked Titus, appalled. But of course, replied Trubidos with a smile, The Head of the Council is Kuldarrs father! On their rapid tour of the Academy, they passed enormous doors with intriguing names such as, The Halls of Knowledge, The Communication Chambers, The Recreation Zone, and many more. Thea wished they had time to do more than just peep into most of these rooms. The grounds in which the buildings were set were also quite exotic and there was a sign pointing down one of the many winding paths, which read, The Gardens of Meditation and Tranquillity. I understand Xenn has given you an IMS, said Trubidos leading them inside the Communication Chambers. Titus, a little confused asked what he meant. A communication device? he elaborated. Titus nodded, and pulled the flat disc from his pocket as Trubidos proceeded to show him how it worked.

Okay, this particular IMS, or Interactive Messaging System has been programmed to send or receive messages only between the Academy and yourself, he explained, and all communications are transmitted from here. When you wish to contact Thea, you must place your left thumb in this depression so it can scan for your print, and then it will open and a green light will flash on, indicating that you can record your message. When you start recording, just speak as though you are talking directly to her. During the recording process, you will be scanned by the device, and once you have finished simply close it and it will switch itself off. Thea will be able to collect and send any messages during her free time. Thea looked with interest at several booths along one side of the room, and Trubidos explained that each booth ensured privacy while students were sending or receiving communications to family and friends. Thea was so fascinated that she was barely able to contain her excitement. She couldnt wait to try it out! He then led them across a large courtyard to a different wing of the complex, which was called The Halls of Residence. The curved buildings of the inner ring contained the students rooms, and were set out like the three thirds of a circle. Each third was seven stories high with the Year 1 students on the first level, and those in Year 7 at the top. The complex encircled a large courtyard and grassy area where the students could hang out and relax. This is the student accommodation belonging to Celestial House, he said, moving gracefully through the main door of one of the buildings, each room is currently being shared by two students. Now then, let me see. He took what looked like a small electronic keypad from the folds of his robe, and punched several buttons. Aha, here we are. Follow me please, he said leading them down a curved corridor. They passed several doors and then stopped in front of what turned out to be a lift. His quiet command of, First floor, Section Three, activated the lift, which Thea discovered moved not only up and down, but sideways along the corridor too. Stepping out after the smooth ride, they followed Trubidos until he finally stopped in front of one of the doors. Beside it was a small control panel set into the wall. Trubidos pressed several buttons in sequence, and the door slid open silently. When they entered the room, Thea could see that it was quite large, and furnished with two beds, which appeared to protrude from the wall like large shelves, a dressing table, two bedside tables and a couple of small desks. There was a doorway on the other side of the room, which led to the bathroom. It all looked very high-tech, with several panels containing all sorts of coloured buttons and switches set into the walls. This will be your room should you decide to stay with us, said Trubidos looking at Thea. What do you think? Thea looked around, about to answer, when the door to the bathroom slid open, and out came a beautiful young girl, obviously in a great hurry. She had long, fiery-red hair, which fell almost to her knees, and her features were definitely cat-like to say the least. There were two small pointed ears protruding through the hair on top of her head, and her enormous slanted green eyes blinked lazily as she took in the little group. She had a small nose, and a tiny rosebud of a mouth which when she spoke, revealed tiny sharp white teeth. The strangest thing about her however, was the long curling tail, red to match her hair, which appeared to have a life of its own. It trailed behind her for a second, before wrapping itself neatly around her tiny waist. Oh! she exclaimed startled, staring at Thea, I didnt realise I had visitors. Cant stop to chat Im afraid; the guys are waiting for me in the Common Room. See you later, and with a whisk of her long tail, and a lazy wink at Thea, she was gone. Well, said Trubidos, that was Annalije, your room-mate. Youll be able to meet her properly later. He was about to continue with the tour, when he noticed that Thea had a slightly puzzled look on her face, and he asked her what was wrong. Well, itsI meanI just find it a bit strange that all theumpeopleweve met so far are so similar to us. I mean, considering theyre all from different planets I was expecting them to lookwella bit more freakyyou know, three eyes, two headsthat kind of thing, she finished, her mind on the way aliens were usually portrayed in films at home.

Trubidos smiled at her confusion, and explained to her that life on all but the most primitive of planets, contained humanoid life-forms of one variety or another. There are so many factors involved, but basically it depends on which species becomes the dominant one. There are humanoids all over the Universe who are descended from reptilian species and several different types of animal and bird species. As they have all evolved, they have had to develop certain traits and characteristics to suit their planets environment, for example developing a hard skin for protection against the elements. The development of their brains also creates a need in them to progress and advance as a people. You are going to find that apart from outside appearances, you are not so different from anyone else at the Academy. Thea wondered briefly what sort of species Trubidos had evolved from, but said nothing. She would have liked to have chatted with Annalije for a while, but she had little time to dwell on it as Trubidos began to explain how most things at the Academy were computerized, and demonstrated how to operate the bath, shower and lights, as well as several other hidden devices. She was very impressed with everything, and kept glancing at her grandfather trying to determine what he was thinking, but apart from asking the occasional question he revealed very little. Now as youve seen, there are three different buildings housing the student accommodation. Apart from Celestial House, there is also Cosmic and Asteroid House. The first floors upwards contain the student rooms, while the ground floors comprise a large Common Room and one set of staff quarters. The Year 7 students have their own private Common Room on their floor. Incidentally, your Head of House will be Gordelle, the Philosophy teacher. Before long, Trubidos was hurrying them out of Celestial House, and they were on their way to Xenns office. When they arrived, they found him in conversation with the same person they had seen accompanying Kuldarr earlier. They hurriedly broke off their discussion as Thea and Titus approached, and Xenn made the introductions. Titus, Thea, I would like you to meet Mazir, one of the founding members of the Academy. I am afraid he has brought some disturbing news. Theas cheerful mood melted away and was replaced by a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She looked worriedly at her grandfather as he, a faint note of aggression in his voice, immediately demanded to know what was wrong. Xenn explained. It seems that we have had a last minute application for a place here, however we do not feel that this particular person is suitable, and have reason to believe that they, and their people are intent on seeing this project destroyed. Unfortunately, we operate an openenrolment policy, and since we have one place left, we will be unable to refuse them unless we can prove there are no more vacancies. He looked at Thea and Titus solemnly. Im afraid this means that unless you take the last place right now, we will have no choice but to offer it to the other applicant. Now just hold on a minute, interrupted Titus indignantly, are you trying to tell me that Thea has to decide here and now whether she wants to stay? Xenn nodded gravely in confirmation. Dont be so ridiculous! spluttered Titus, feeling cornered, you cant expect her to make up her mind just like that without even giving us a chance to discuss it! And what about her parents? Mazir spoke for the first time. I am afraid Theas presence here will have to be kept just between us for the time being. There are very few people on Earth who can be trusted with the knowledge of this venture, and until we are more confident of its success, we must ask you to remain silent. Granddad, Im on school holidays for the next six weeks, reminded Thea, tugging on his sleeve, and mum and dad think Im staying with you. You could tell Shirley thatI dont knowjust tell her I refused to stay with you, and Ive gone to a friends house for a couple of weeks or somethingor even that mum changed her mind and took me with her in the end.

Looking at the pleading expression on her face, it slowly dawned on Titus that from the moment he had agreed to come on this little expedition, the decision to let her stay had already been made. Thea however, was unaware of this, and waited anxiously for his answer. Feeling slightly intimidated by the penetrating gazes of both Xenn and Mazir, he eventually spoke. WellI guess wed better get home if youre going to be packed in time, he said gruffly, watching as Theas anxious expression change into one of relief. Delighted, she clenched one fist and punched the air with joy hissing, Yes! through her teeth, faltering only slightly when she was interrupted by the sound of Xenn clearing his throat as he prepared to speak again. I am afraid that too will not be possible, he said shaking his head, we have also received information that the same people trying to close this project down are, as we speak, working to collapse the portal we have been using between here and Earth. We only have a few minutes left to return you to your home. Thea will have to stay. There was an unnerving silence as Titus stared at Xenn as if he could not believe what he was hearing. Things were moving much too fast, and he found himself beginning to wish he had not allowed Thea to persuade him to come. In fact, he almost found himself wishing he had never met Xenn in the first place. He could see from the urgency in Xenns expression that there was no point in trying to debate the issue. He didnt like this! He didnt like it one bit! Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be back at home, sitting in his rocking chair, enjoying the peace and quiet of his own front room. He sighed, feeling weary and looked into his granddaughters eyes. You understand what theyre saying? he said portraying a calm he didnt feel. It means I have to go back without you. He hated the idea of abandoning her so far from home, but at the same time he yearned for the normality of the humdrum life he had known before her arrival. He knew he needed more time to think things through, but given the circumstances he decided that Thea had displayed enough maturity to allow her to make up her own mind without his interference. I totally understand, she replied quickly, please Granddad, I really, really, really want to stay, she insisted, thinking of Annalije to whom she had taken an instant liking. Titus said nothing more. He hugged her clumsily, marvelling at the change from the sulky, churlish child who had arrived at his house - was it only yesterday?-into this happy, confident young girl with the sparkle in her eyes. He reached into his pocket, and pulled something out pressing it into her hand gently. Here, he said abruptly, I guess this belongs to you now. Looking to see what it was, she saw that he had fitted a tiny hook to the firestone crystal and threaded it onto a fine-gold chain, which he had purchased earlier in the week, intending to give it to her as a gift after her stay with him. Thea was speechless. She fastened it around her neck quickly where it glinted and sparkled next to her gold T-shaped pendant. The gratitude was on her face and in her voice as she thanked him shyly, and then after a moments hesitation, threw her arms around him hugging him tightly. Titus smiled, realising with a pang that in spite of everything, he probably would miss her. You take care of yourself now, he instructed sombrely. He stood up and nodded at Xenn. Im still not a hundred per cent sure this is a good idea, but she wants to stay. So Im leaving her in your care, he said looking him squarely in the eye. Xenn nodded in acknowledgement, accepting the implied responsibility. Do not worry old friend. We will take good care of her. Come. We must hurry. Im afraid I too must remain here as the portal will collapse before I can return, and it may be several days before another can be set up. Titus gave Thea a final wave, and was ushered through the door by Rathedd who had come to take him back to the portal in the Tierrapod.

Thea looked at Xenn a little tremulously, knowing she had made the right decision, but feeling incredibly nervous all the same. He looked back at her with a smile, saying, go now with Trubidos, and wait with the others. Others? echoed Thea, as she followed Trubidos once more from the room. Yes, he replied as he waited for her to catch up with him, There is a meeting of the entire Academy scheduled to begin in the next few minutes. You will be able to meet some of your fellow students before classes start tomorrow. and he led her back down the long, glass corridor and across the complex to the main hall. <><><> When Titus got home, he suddenly felt very old and very tired. He was still uneasy about the speed with which everything had taken place, and more than a little concerned about the people who were said to be trying to close the project down. The journey back to the portal had passed in a blur and when Rathedd had activated the portal using a small hand-held device, Titus had suddenly been plagued with second thoughts. On the verge of opening his mouth to voice his concerns, Rathedd had shaken his head firmly saying the portal would collapse in ten seconds, and had literally pushed him, non-too gently, through. Before he knew it, Titus was back in his sitting room, blinking in surprise and by the time he had turned around, the portal had vanished. Sighing heavily, he sat down in his old rocking-chair, slowly coming to grips with the situation. Alone with his thoughts, the enormity of what he had done began to penetrate his mind, and he wished for the umpteenth time he had not been so hasty in agreeing to have Thea over for the summer.