Thursday, 31 October 2013

Chapter 8. A Railway Journey, and a Friendly Squirrel

“Yes,” Michael said to me the next day. “There is a party of three Skobar currently on the ship. But none of them were on Perinent. And they are four segments down-axis from here. It is not a comfortable journey.”

“Were these individuals on Skobar while the project was in progress?” I asked. “Did they experience the effects on their home planet of what was being done on Perinent?”

“Yes,” said Michael.

“Then I think I can learn from them,” I said.

* * *

Opposite the hotel’s main elevator shafts, I had already seen a guarded door. Those who went through that door presented large, red tickets. Two days after my conversation with Michael, I found myself presenting such a ticket to the tall, rather birdlike, black-uniformed guard.

“Ah – four segments down and return,” he said. “You are going to segment 24?”

“I am going to the segment where there are Skobar,” I replied carefully. That seemed to satisfy the guard. “Please follow me,” he said.

He led me to a long, thin room – “A railway carriage,” I thought. With several areas, glassed off from each other, of seats – and what looked like toilet facilities – of many different shapes. The one he led me to had, on the outside, a large sign showing “//---” – the Galactic symbol for 24. (Galactics use the binary system for small whole numbers, since it is common to all species.)

This area had already an occupant, who looked like a chocolate-brown squirrel, with a body about a metre long, and a tail of similar length.

The guard drew aside the door. I entered, and found the atmosphere stale and farmyardy. The guard closed the door behind me, bowed and retreated. The squirrel smiled at me, then gave the Galactic informal greeting for strangers. “Well met, friend.”

“Well met,” I replied. “I am Neil of the Humans of Sol-3.”

“And I am Rrrela,” the squirrel replied. “I do not use a species name any more, only my individual name.”

It was my turn to make conversation, and I couldn’t think of much. “I wonder,” I asked eventually, “where you have come from?”

After a slight pause, the squirrel said, “From which segment, you mean? I have come from 16. I am going, like you, to 24. And what, pray, brings you on this journey?”

“I am going to learn what I can from the Skobar, a species who recently became Junior Galactics. I am trying to help my species follow in their path.”

“I wish you and your species success in your quest,” said Rrrela.

I chose a seat near Rrrela – it quickly fitted itself to my shape. It was not long before the train started moving. The motion was gently boring, in a tunnel, with always the feeling that we were going slightly downhill.

“Watch out when we enter the new segment!” said Rrrela suddenly.

A few moments later, the train was surrounded by brilliant light, and I saw that we were travelling slowly on a tiny thread high above the ground. The land below looked very inhospitable, and there was a slight greenish tinge to the atmosphere.

“This is Segment 21,” said Rrrela. “You could not survive in its atmosphere unaided. Too much chlorine.”

We lost altitude steadily, and eventually rolled underground and in to the station of Segment 21. Some passengers got off. I noticed, in particular, a pair of large, green, troll-like beings. A few others got on. No-one joined me and Rrrela in our Segment-24 enclosure.

There was a long wait in the station. “First,” explained Rrrela, “they have to vacuum clean the area for those who left at Segment 21. And they need to allocate, and to fill with the right atmospheres, sections for those going further down-axis. Only then can they let on the passengers for those segments, and only then can we go.”

I waited patiently, and talked with Rrrela about many things.

Three times this rigmarole was repeated. And then, I was in Segment 24. A brightly-coloured sheep – or so I thought – came to let us out of the compartment. Rrrela turned to me. “May all your doings bring you justice and happiness,” he said.

“And the same to you,” was all I could muster in return. Rrrela smiled.

The sheep led us to the exit. The atmosphere was still farmyardy, but it was less noticeable. The sheep took my ticket, said, “Ah! Seraphim accommodation. That is easy enough.” Then punched buttons on a machine, and said to me, “Wait here till a transport chair comes to take you to 66F255.”

“How do I know when and where my meeting with the Skobar is?” I asked myself a little forlornly. No-one had told me how I found my way to meet the Skobar. Maybe, I thought, this was an initiative test. Could it be that to come all this way, and to miss my meeting with the Skobar, would make me and the human race the laughing-stock of the Galaxy?

“Do not worry,” said Rrrela behind me, showing that he was a telepathic receiver, if not more. “There are Seraphim in this segment as well as in segment 20, and they know you are coming. Sleep without fear, and Ramael or Hazael will contact you when you are rested.”

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