MR. CHIVERS arrived shortly after a quarter past nine, puffing and red-faced. (I later learnt that he cycled to school.) He hurried past me without saying anything, opened the door to his room, and stumbled to the window, where he stood staring down at the cement quad. Spotting someone, he slid open the window and roared, "Kevin O'Brien! Have you been kicked out of class already?"

"Wasn't my fault, sir," a young boy shouted back. "The top came off my pen in my bag, ruining my homework. Could have happened to anyone, sir. I don't think I should be kicked out for-"

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"Report to my office during your next free period, O'Brien!" Mr. Chivers interrupted. "I have a few floors for you to scrub."

"Aw, sir!"

Mr. Chivers slammed the window shut. "You!" he said, beckoning me in. "What are you here for?"

"I'm-"

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"You didn't break a window, did you?" he cut in. "Because if you did, there'll be hell and leather to pay!"

"I didn't break a window," I snapped. "I haven't had time to break anything. I've been stuck outside your door since eight, waiting. You re late!"

"Oh?" He sat down, surprised by my directness. "Sorry. A flat tyre. It's the little monster who lives two floors below. He..." Clearing his throat, he remembered who he was and adopted a scowl. "Never mind about me - who are you and why were you waiting?"

"My name's Darren Horston. I'm-"

"- the new boy!" he exclaimed. "Sorry - clean forgot you were coming." Getting up, he took my hand and pumped it. "I was away this weekend - orienteering - only got back last night. I jotted down a note and pinned it to the fridge on Friday, but I must have missed it this morning."

"No problem," I said, freeing my fingers from his sweaty hand. "You're here now. Better late than never."

He studied me curiously. "Is that how you addressed your previous headmaster?" he asked.

I remembered how I used to tremble when faced with the headmistress of my old school. "No," I chuckled.

"Good, because it's not how you'll address me either. I'm no tyrant, but I don't stand for backchat. Speak respectfully when you talk to me, and add a 'sir' at the end. Got that?"

I took a deep breath. "Yes." A pause. "Sir."

"Better," he grunted, then invited me to sit. Opening a drawer, he found a file and perused it in silence. "Good grades," he said after a couple of minutes, laying it aside. "If you can match those here, we won't complain."

"I'll do my best. Sir."

"That's all we ask." Mr. Chivers was studying my face, fascinated by my scars and burn-marks. "You've had a rough ride, haven't you?" he remarked. "Must be horrible to be trapped in a burning building."

"Yes, sir." That was in the report Mr. Blaws had shown me - according to the forms my 'father' submitted, I'd been badly burnt in a house fire when I was twelve.

"Still, all's well that ends well! You're alive and active, and anything else is a bonus." Standing, he put the file away, checked the front of his suit - there were traces of egg and toast crumbs on his tie and shirt, which he picked at - then made for the door, telling me to follow.

Mr. Chivers led me on a quick tour of the school, pointing out the computer rooms, assembly hall, gymnasium and the main classrooms. The school used to be a music academy, hence its name (Mahler was a famous composer), but had closed down twenty years earlier, before reopening as a regular school.

"We still place a lot of emphasis on musical excellence," Mr. Chivers told me as we checked out a large room with half a dozen pianos. "Do you play any instruments?"

"The flute," I said.

"A flautist! Superb! We haven't had a decent flautist since Siobhan Toner graduated three - or was it four? - years ago. We'll have to try you out, see what you're made of, eh?"

"Yes, sir," I replied weakly. I figured we were talking at cross purposes - he was referring to real flutes, whereas all I knew how to play was a tin-whistle - but I didn't know whether it was the time for me to point this out. In the end I kept my mouth shut and hoped he'd forget about my supposed flute-playing talents.

He told me each lesson lasted forty minutes. There was a ten-minute break at eleven o'clock; fifty minutes for lunch at ten past one; school finished at four. "Detention runs from four-thirty to six," he informed me, "but hopefully that won't concern you, eh?"

"I hope not, sir," I replied meekly.

The tour concluded back at his office, where he furnished me with my timetable. It was a frightening list - English, history, geography, science, maths, mechanical drawing, two modern languages, computer studies. A double dose of PE on Wednesdays. I had three free periods, one on Monday, one on Tuesday, one on Thursday. Mr. Chivers said these were for extra-curricular activities, such as music or extra languages, or they could be used as study classes.

He shook my hand again, wished me the best of luck and told me to call on him if I ran into difficulty. After warning me not to break any windows or give my teachers grief he showed me out into the corridor, where he left me. It was 9.40 A bell rang. Time for my first class of the day - geography.

The lesson went reasonably well. I'd spent the last six years poring over maps and keeping abreast of the War of the Scars, so I had a better idea of the shape of the world than most of my classmates. But I knew nothing about human geography - a lot of the lesson revolved around economies and culture, and how humans shaped their environments - and I was at a loss every time talk switched from mountain ranges and rivers to political systems and population statistics.

Even allowing for my limited knowledge of humans, geography was as easy a start as I could have wished for. The teacher was helpful, I was able to keep up with most of what was being discussed, and I thought I'd be able to catch up with the rest of the class within a few weeks.

Maths, which came next, was a different matter entirely. I knew after five minutes that I was in trouble. I'd covered only basic maths in school, and had forgotten most of the little I used to know. I could divide and multiply, but that was as far as my expertise stretched - which, I quickly discovered, wasn't nearly far enough.

"What do you mean, you've never done algebra?" my teacher, a fierce man by the name of Mr. Smarts, snapped. "Of course you have! Don't take me for a fool, lad. I know you're new, but don't think that means you can get away with murder. Open that book to page sixteen and do the first set of problems. I'll collect your work at the end of class and see where you stand."

Where I stood was outside in the cold, a hundred kilometres distant. I couldn't even read the problems on page sixteen, never mind solve them! I looked through the earlier pages and tried copying the examples set there, but I hadn't a clue what I was doing. When Mr. Smarts took my copy from me and said he'd check it during lunch and return it to me that afternoon in science - I had him for that as well - I was too downhearted to thank him for his promptness.

Break was no better. I spent the ten minutes wandering alone, being stared at by everyone in the yard. I tried making friends with some of the people I recognized from my first two classes, but they wanted nothing to do with me. I looked, smelt and acted weird, and there was something not right about me. The teachers hadn't sussed me out yet, but the kids had. They knew I didn't belong.

Even if my fellow students had tried making me feel welcome, I'd have struggled to adapt. I knew nothing of the films and TV shows they were discussing, or the rock stars or styles of music, or the books and comics. Their way of speaking was strange too - I couldn't understand a lot of their slang.

I had history after the break. That used to be one of my favourite subjects, but this syllabus was far more advanced than mine had been. The class was focusing on World War II, which was what I'd been studying during my last few months as a human. Back then I'd only had to learn the major events of the war, and the leaders of the various countries. But as a fifteen year old, who'd supposedly progressed through the system, I was expected to know the detailed ins and outs of battles, the names of generals, the wide-ranging social effects of the war, and so on.

I told my teacher I'd been concentrating on ancient history in my old school, and complimented myself on such a clever answer - but then she said there was a small class of ancient history students at Mahler's and she'd get me transferred first thing tomorrow.

Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi!

English next. I was dreading it. I could bluff my way through subjects like geography and history, by saying I'd been following a different syllabus. But how was I going to explain my shortcomings in English? I could pretend not to have read all the books and poems that the others had, but what would happen when my teacher asked what I'd read instead? I was doomed!

There was a free table close to the front of the class, where I had to sit. Our teacher was late - because of the size of the school, teachers and pupils often arrived slightly late for class. I spent a couple of minutes anxiously scanning the book of poetry I'd bought last Friday, desperately committing a few scraps of random poems to memory, in the hope that I could fob the teacher off with them.

The door to the classroom opened, the noise level dropped, and everyone stood up. "Sit down, sit down," the teacher said, making straight for her desk, where she laid her stack of books. Facing the class, she smiled and brushed her hair back. She was a young, pretty black woman. "I hear we've a new addition," she said, looking around the room for me. "Will you stand up please, so I can identify you?"

Standing, I raised a hand and smiled edgily. "Here," I said.

"Close to the front," she beamed. "A good sign. Now, I have your name and details written down somewhere. Just give me a minute and I'll..."

She was turning aside to look among her books and papers, when all of a sudden she stopped as though slapped, glanced sharply at me and took a step forward. Her face lit up and she exclaimed, "Darren Shan?"

"Um. Yes." I smiled nervously. I'd no idea who she was, and was scouring my memory banks - was she staying in the same hotel as me? - when something about the shape of her mouth and eyes jogged a switch inside my brain. Leaving my table, I took several steps towards her, until we were only a metre apart, then studied her face incredulously. "Debbie?" I gasped. "Debbie Hemlock?"

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