ARTH, third planet from the Sun, in a remote and insignificant Solar System in a spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, one of an infinite number of clusters of mass and energy in a universe born 13,750 million years ago in a thunderous handclap known as the ‘Big Bang’. How many times previously had the whole universe exploded into being and then collapsed back on itself prior to the last Big Bang is anybody's guess……

Earth happens to orbit the Sun, not too close like the sun-scorched planets, Mercury and Venus, and neither too far like the frozen wastelands of Mars and beyond. Earth lay at just about the right distance — nicely positioned between the freezing point and boiling point of water — a temperature just perfect for carbon-based life, which began to evolve as single cells in the planet's oceans about 2,500 million years ago…..

It has been an incredibly long journey through to the present day since that first spark of life in the Precambrian. It is a game of chance and a journey still in progress, a journey still evolving towards finality…..

Countless habitable worlds in the cosmos besides our own follow similar evolutionary paths, but species survival is often a close call — it is a "make or break" all or nothing situation. Spiritual awareness and wise, intelligent mastery of the planet must overtake the species tendencies towards greed and self-interest, before these destroy the nascent process. Many an inhabited world has reached the same critical point of balance where Earth stands now poised. If the collective good of society is unable to check the rampant destruction of that society’s own sources of food, water and clean air, then it is a society doomed to failure. Complete global collapses are quite commonplace on worlds reaching this critical juncture. The situation can become so critical that the most insignificant person or event can trigger either success or failure…

On Earth, war, population growth and environmental abuse came close to terminating society as we know it by the mid-21st century. The early 22nd century heralded a triumph and the possibility for humankind to redeem itself and complete its process of spiritual growth (seff awareness). Vast sums of money once used for the buildup and administration of national military infrastructure were diverted into global capital works, including world heritage areas, schools, universities, hospitals and transport.

Today, nations and empires no longer exist, only local regions. Population is stable and prosperous. Races have blended and mixed, people are genetically strong and easily reach ‘four score and ten’ if not the full century.

Our present story opens on a small farm near a remote village located in an insignificant corner — it doesn't matter exactly where — of one of Earth's seven continents.

In this setting, there lived a typical farming family working on the land. The year was 2512…..

Chapter 1

RANCHESKA and her younger sister Leonora lived with their parents on a humble farm on the outskirts of a country village. Their broad-wooden-verandahed tin-roofed house was built on gently sloping land between the lower cultivations of the river flats and the grazing pastureland on the steeper slopes. Neat plowed furrows meandered their way around the contours with fields of sunflowers, soy beans, corn and other crops forming a patchwork quilt of brilliant greens, browns and gold. Lazy lines of pencil-straight pines and hedged narrow laneways bordered the fields in a picture-postcard-perfect country scene.

The nearest town, about a ten-minute drive away, lay nestled in the wider valley. Its’ tidy houses and cottages, white paling fences and smoking chimneys, hand-painted signs and letterboxes made from milk drums, ploughshares and other pieces of old farm machinery, were organized in a loose grid of streets laid out around a well-maintained leafy plaza.

The central plaza was the pride of the town, a second home where families could relax and socialize. The old folk of the town often enjoyed a lazy game of chess in the afternoon sun, whiling away the hours with their friends on the checker-board-topped stone tables. A whitewashed church and bell tower, facing the Plaza, was the tallest building in town. Its massive bolt-studded wooden doors were always open, and on hot summer days its’ cool spacious interior would beckon passersby off the street to sit and pray, or just contemplate life. In the evenings, the Plaza would come alive with couples strolling out into the fresh night air to sit on the park benches or visit the outdoor cafes and other shops. Sometimes a band would come to play under the rotunda in the centre of the fairy-lit gardens. Children, ran and shouted through the cross paths in small hunting packs chasing the ice cream vendor, while teenagers walking in groups of boys or girls — circled the Plaza in opposite directions, whistling, giggling and sending messages back and forth to one another - a nightly ritual that hadn't changed a bit in centuries. No matter how busy they were, most of the townsfolk would visit at least once or twice a week, if only for a while, to catch up on the village gossip.

Further out the tightly packed whitewashed houses of the town gave way to freestanding dwellings, and then still further out small acreage farms. It was on one of these farms that Francheska and Leonora had grown up and become accustomed to the routine of daily farm life. A life that has hardly changed since humans began domesticating animals and growing crops, and a life that will never change for as long as humans continue to live and toil on this green planet. Every morning the two sisters would get up, bring in the cows from the fields and milk them - a task to which they were well accustomed and which barely required them to break their continuous stream of games, laughter and interesting conversation as their hands went through the motions instinctively, automatically.

"Hey, I heard you got in trouble today Leonora?"Francheska threw a short rope around the cow’s hind legs, binding them together to stop her shuffling about against the milk bucket. Sitting on a small peg stool, Francheska worked her hands rhythmically up and down on the teats.

"Did not! And I refuse to answer any further questions!" Leonora knew exactly what Francheska was talking about, but chose not to discuss the subject. She was the ‘family scientist’, always playing with wires, switches and electric motors, or mixing coloured compounds together in little glass bottles for her chemistry experiments. Adding vinegar to bicarbonate of soda in a papier-mâché volcano to create an eruption of frothing liquid was one of her favourite tricks. But this morning’s disaster was the final straw, after she tried to make the lava more realistic by adding a whole bottle of her mother's red food dye.

"Yes you did!" Francheska insisted. “And you’re only supposed to use a few drops, not the whole bottle. It’ll probably take a week to get the stains off your hands and face, and even longer to get it off the back veranda.” Leonora's hair, which she wore in a ponytail, had a distinct pinkish tinge to it. It normally matched her large dark brown eyes which dominated her impish face. Today, like most of the time, it had mischief written all over it.

Trying to distract Francheska 's attention, Leonora folded around one of the cow’s treats and aimed a squirt of warm milk straight into Francheska 's eye."

"Hey, cut it out Leo" Francheska fired a stream right back, and the milk war was on.

Francheska was short, lightly built and nimble, and well adapted to her outdoor farm life. She usually tied her long golden brown hair in a plait to keep it out of the way as she went about her daily chores. She moved deftly out of the way of Leonora's foot as she tried to kick the peg stool out from under her bottom. Francheska turned and locked her green-hazel eyes intensely onto her little sister. "You'll have to try harder than that, Leo."

Next the children searched around the hens’ favourite roosting places collecting eggs in wicker baskets. After that, came the pigsty which needed to be hosed out and the floors scrubbed clean. On hot days each of the pigs got a refreshing spray down. This chore they did first thing every morning and again in the afternoon. Some days they would net fish in their dam and haul them flapping up on to the bank, and often into a frying pan only minutes later – if Leonora didn’t let them go free first. Around their house they grew bananas, coffee, sugar cane, cacao. Higher in the cooler hills they had potatoes, squashes and grapes. It was a solid, simple, dependable, traditional life that continued on in an endless familiar comforting daily rhythm, broken only by the fun and laughter of their childhood play.

There were some horses too, which they could saddle up and ride around wherever they liked, although mostly they couldn't be bothered with any gear and went bareback. The horses knew them well, and they them, their every move, strange quirk of custom and habit. And so with a single gesture, tiny tap or word, the horses would generally go where the children wanted without too much fuss or bother - all except Sparky that is. Sparky could hardly be described as beautiful. She was a willful brown mare which, coupled with her spoilt lifestyle, meant that she had developed quite an eccentric personality. Once out of the barn she would head straight for the broad low branches of the mulberry tree hoping to rid herself of unsuspecting riders. It was difficult to coax Sparky away her feed box and only then, after significant bribery with juicy apples or carrots. Even then she would only slowly plod away in the direction you wanted. There were a number of shady tracks around the farm dam, but no matter what the track she was on, Sparky always seemed to know the exact moment when it turned homeward. At that point she would begin to gallop, not slowing down until she reached the stables. All who knew what was happening, considered this the best part of the ride, but it could be quite alarming to visitors unaware of her eccentric habits.

The children grew as kids do. Their father was a geologist who was often away exploring for exotic ores or gem minerals, while their mother ran the farm. The produce from the fields was sufficient for their simple needs and they did not want for too much more. Their diet was basic and healthy with no added artificial preservatives and flavours. The kids were fit, strong and healthy.

Their homely farmhouse kitchen had a traditional country flavour to it. An ample cast iron wood stove and hot plate stood close to one wall. Pots and pans hung on hooks ready to use. Wooden cabinets with diamond-patterned glass panels in the doors held the plates, cups and other assorted crockery, while wicker baskets of all shapes and sizes and for all occasions, lined the cupboard tops. The large one with a flip lid was a particular favourite for weekend family picnics. A large checker-cloth-covered wooden table stood in the middle of the room and was the centre of all family activities. TV was expressly forbidden at family meal times which were considered sacred opportunities for catching up on news.

Francheska and Leonora attended the small, local primary school. They were generally well-behaved although, more often than not, they found their classwork rather easy. Leonora usually finished her assignments quickly, leaving her free to chatter noisily to the other students, and would often have to be brought back in line by Francheska or the teacher who sometimes found it difficult to deal with the twenty-something mixed-age children under her charge.

Although on first appearances 14-year-old Francheska and her 12-year-old sister Leonora, were normal children, certain gifts and abilities showed up early in their lives. Nobody can remember the first time they picked up a pen or a book as there was always too much doing at the farm to worry about that. Once they started school, they excelled in their sports and studies and later in all forms of regional examination. And it was because of those tests, and unbeknownst to them, they were about to receive a letter of invitation to join one of the world's finest educational institutions. This school, that was to change the course of their lives, was coincidentally located in the countryside near their town, although no one really knew very much about it. Its students came from all parts of the country and from all over the world, leaving it surrounded by an aura of mystery that matched the high walls and thick hedges that kept its buildings and extensive grounds hidden from casual view. Kingstown Free School's students boarded at the school, so there was usually little sign of activity, except around holiday time when the teachers and neatly-uniformed students could be seen milling around the school's main gates.

One day, an official looking letter bearing the Kingstown Free School crest arrived unexpectedly in the mailbox.

"What's this dad?" The children shouted, bringing the letter up to the house. He took the letter and carefully slit open the top of the envelope in a manner befitting the respect that such a beautifully-typed formal envelope often calls for. Inside was an equally impressive looking letter bearing the Kingston Free School official crest,

Dear Dr and Mrs Coenraads,

It gives us great pleasure to extend to your children, Francheska and Leonora, an offer of scholarship at Kingstown Free School as a result of their exceptional scores in the recent quotient examination conducted in each of the world's schools. Because of their abilities, and it is indeed a remarkable case to have two sisters in the one family receiving this offer, we would like to invite you and your children to attend a special open day in Kingstown Free School's Assembly Hall…

"Hmmm, that sounds interesting….” Dad murmured before continuing reading the letter,

It has long been recognized by Kingstown Free School that the exceptional calibre of graduating students is directly related to the effort put in to each of those students by the educational institution. The Kingston concept has been spreading throughout the world and, as such, every year more and more capable students are able to be accepted and prepared for some of the world's most important positions of duty and responsibility…

"Go on, dad, read the rest of the letter," the kids shouted clamoring eagerly around their parents.

If you choose to accept this offer of enrollment, all of the students expenses, including food and residential costs will be covered by the scholarship while boarding at the school……..

"Boarding?” A series of confused questions shot out. “Do you mean we’d have to sleep at that school? Does it say we’d have to stay there? Would we have to leave here? I don't know if I want to do that, dad.” Francheska praotested. “I'm happy here with my family, my group of friends and everybody else at my own school. I can walk there every day no problems…”

Their father looked down at the letter, deep in thought. He felt very proud, but knew would sorely miss his children, and both of them to boot, if they were to leave the local school and their home.

“Well, I'd miss you kids, but it would give your mum and I bit of peace and quiet around the house." He said, masking his true feelings. “Anyway you'd be home for holidays”.

"Look, we don't have to make up our minds right at this moment,” interjected Carly, their mother who had been listening quietly until now. “We’ve been invited to this special open day coming up the school. So let's go have a look and see what we think. There’s no harm in doing that is there? I don't know if too many of your other friends have had the chance to look inside those walls?"

"Yes, let's go have a look then,” Francheska capitulated. “It does sound rather exciting." "When is it? Does the letter say when it is? Please go on and read the part about the open day, Dad."

Kingston Free School’s Open Day will commence at 10:00 am sharp, commencing with an address by the Principal in the School’s Grand Assembly Hall and followed by a picnic luncheon in the grounds. Teachers will be there to greet you from 9:00 am onwards inside the school’s main gates.

Sincerely yours,
Professor N.L White

But boarding school? — Francheska’s mind was racing. She had seen enough movies about that kind of scenario — old boys, fagots, sororities, and fraternities. It was enough to scare anybody off. The thought of living in such a weird environment separated from the love and joy of family life frightened her. Exciting as it sounded, prestigious as Kingston was, Francheska was quite sure she just didn't want to have a bar of it.

Francheska didn't mention the letter to any of her school companions. Even though she was a well-liked girl, she never wanted to feel singled-out or different from her friends. And even Leonora kept unusually quiet about it all. But as the weeks wore on, the girls surprised even themselves as to how quietly excited they were becoming. They had sometimes wondered, as had most of the village folk driving past on various occasions, about what lay behind those mysterious school walls almost entirely hidden from view by tall hedges. All that could be seen behind the closed wrought iron gates was a tree lined avenue running slightly downhill into the school grounds. They had never given it much thought as they had never before been given an opportunity to go inside, but now they were wondering about it rather expectantly.