I couldn’t bring myself to create air holes as Tlalo suggested, though. I didn’t believe Shkinta would fail to notice a change like that to her own servitor. Instead I directed the staff to reprocess the CO2 I was exhaling back into oxygen.
To my immense relief, it worked. So long as I continued to consciously focus on turning exhaled CO2 back into oxygen, the air inside the hollow cavity remained breathable. I then turned my attention to illuminating the total darkness.
I solved this by opening the little door on my staff which normally conceals the vial of Vril. Its soothing golden light filled the cramped pocket I’d created inside the lumbering machine. Next, I directed the blank wall of the cavity in front of me to display what the servitor was seeing.
In this way I could monitor our whereabouts and judge the safest point at which to emerge from my odd little Trojan horse. What I didn’t anticipate was how profoundly jarring and uncomfortable it was to ride inside of a heavy metal object as it stomped around.
There was just nothing suitable to make a cushion out of. Nor was there room for a shock absorbing seat with springs or something of that nature, so I just endured it. Shkinta’s mother called out after her, and because I now held the staff, I could once again understand her.
“Don’t forget to hug your father for me.” Shkinta groaned, then headed out the door. Unlike most of the other doors I’d so far seen, it did not slide open or swing on hinges, but rather was an opening that appeared in the seemingly solid wall just long enough for Shkinta to pass through.
Step after butt-bruising step, I endured the metallic golem’s violent motion. At times it ceased, but I could still feel movement. I intuited it could hover in the same manner as those utility vehicles but only bothered to do so when Shkinta ran, as it otherwise could not keep up.
How I wished she would just run the whole way. When it occurred to me that I could have the staff dull my pain, it became altogether more bearable. But the more I spread myself thin with all of this, the more often I forgot the most important focus, keeping the air breathable.
What a mentally exhausting juggling act for the brain of a human. Probably a laughably easy afterthought if it were Shkinta in my place. At last the other children entered view, lined up outside the ascent compound at the base of the vertical train we would soon ride up to the black sun.
I wondered why not take a saucer. Restricted airspace? Something to do with the defenses? I could make out no saucers flying anywhere near to the black sun, and realized I never had before while out in the field either. All saucer traffic kept pretty close to the “ground”.
That led me to expect tight security, as the trains appeared to be the only sanctioned mode of travel to and from the black sun. I was not disappointed. The line passed, incrementally, through a series of gateways I suspected were scanners of some sort.
My breath caught in my throat when Shkinta was stopped. Two arns in form fitting black uniforms approached. They held forth their staffs. “The signal is coming from the servitor. A lot of families don’t bother to properly repair the matter reconfiguration core, they just stick a reprogrammed staff in there.”
The other shook his head. “So what’s the procedure?” The other then recognized Shkinta. “Oh, it’s you! I haven’t seen you for ages, little one! You’re so big and strong now!” She feigned appreciation as I recalled doing at her age, when adults would baby talk me.
“I’ll send you through this time, wouldn’t want to ruin the trip for you. But get that old hunk of junk looked at, there’s a reason they come with a replacement core. You should still have it someplace. Ask your father when you get home.”
She agreed, and was waved through the final gate. A few of the other children also had servitors, some which resembled Shkinta’s. Others were visibly different in their outer design. Why? It’s just solid metal all the way through, isn’t it? What would prevent Shkinta from reshaping hers to resemble the newest model?
The interior of the ascent compound was even more confusing. Arns and gy-eis in their black uniforms and caps floated in single file overhead, supervising servitors which were busy loading storage canisters onto the waiting train.
It resembled the interior of that building NASA uses to service rockets, being that it was so vertical. As it had to be, so that passengers could board each of the cars without moving the train itself. The cars were arranged like small multi story buildings.
All in all, a train might not be the most apt comparison. Something like a multi-car, high capacity elevator. Still outwardly streamlined like a train though, clinging closely to the tremendous vertical support it would soon begin to climb.
Arns and gy-eis dressed up somewhat like airline stewards and stewardesses walked up and down the line handing out ornately wrapped complimentary treats. It seemed strange given that surely every child had the ability to instantiate whatever they wanted.
I supposed it might add to the experience though, and the gesture would make them less cranky as they waited. I was just glad the servitor I huddled within finally had reason to stand still. I took the opportunity to have the staff heal my bruises.
Shkinta took one of the fancy morsels, unwrapped and smelled it, then discarded it in disgust. Somehow it vanished before it hit the floor. After riding a levitating panel up to the correct car, we boarded, and I discovered the interior of the elevator train was something like a hotel lobby.
Unnecessarily comfortable by my estimation, but then I was comparing it to public transit. Even by comparison with airliners though, it was excessively plush and well apportioned. The fabrics were all sorts of obnoxious clashing colors and patterns which presumably appealed to them.
Shkinta sank into one of the seats. She seemed tired, but happy. Excited to see her dad at work probably. The other children found seats around the edges of the cabin, and when those filled up, they took a narrow lift to floors above and below it where more seating awaited them.
One of those opaque, volumetric projections appeared. This time of a neatly uniformed nordic gy-ei welcoming everybody aboard, advising them to be on the lookout for local landmarks as the ascent began, that sort of thing.
She vanished. Then with a shudder and a lurch, the elevator train began to rise. Shkinta peered out the window, and I caught myself wishing that I could as well. Only when I began to feel woozy did I return my attention to the task at hand, first refreshing the air before scanning the cabin for anything like a map.
There was one on the wall to my right, but I couldn’t quite see it from this position. I couldn’t move without arousing Shkinta’s suspicion, the same reason I couldn’t just materialize an additional eye on the side of the servitor’s head facing that wall.
I left it alone and tried my best to calm my nerves, reasoning that I’d have more opportunities to ascertain the layout of the observation deck once we arrived. The ride was uneventful, Shkinta getting up from her seat to visit friends on the other floors now and again.
At one point a girl I didn’t recognize came to visit with Shkinta. “I heard you received correction from Reimic the other day.” Shkinta’s only reply was a sly smile. “I knew it!” the other girl squealed. “I wish Reimic would correct me.” Shkinta narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure you do.”
The light streaming in through the windows on final approach to the black sun was blindingly intense. Before it could become uncomfortably hot, some mechanism dimmed the windows progressively until black. Then shutters slid down, concealing them.
The entire vehicle once again shuddered as it decelerated to a stop. The children were laughing and talking excitedly amongst themselves now, and persisted until an adult entered the cabin. “Attention! You must now disembark in a quiet, orderly fashion. Any possessions left behind will be destroyed.” Now stiffly upright and wearing stern expressions, they scrupulously obeyed the uniformed arn’s command.
I’ve never seen children in Shkinta’s age group behaving so perfectly, but understood enough of their culture by now to make sense of it. I then wondered what accounted for the abrupt change in tone between the ascent compound and the observation deck. One thing that jumped out at me was that absolutely every adult here wore the standard plain black military uniform.
Stay Tuned for Part 47!