// VEIL Initiative
Naira sat in the back corner of the room, trying to curl away in the faint shadows being cast by dim lights lining the ceiling. There was only a quiet hum, and the room bumped occasionally. It felt like an eternity that she waited there, hoping her sister would return, not realizing the cargo container she was trapped in had already taken her far away. Her dusty cheeks were streaked with dried tears. Soon she began counting the times it felt like the floor tilted left and right, forward and backward. But just as if she were counting sheep, eventually she drifted off and faded into sleep.
Naira opened her eyes. The crates had moved. She was now sitting forward, facing the big door that trapped her inside. The walls of the room were tilted, and the lights had turned a deep shade of red, illuminating the crease where the upper half of the enormous door had closed against the lower. It was lit in a way that scared Naira, like giant, sharp, jagged teeth.
Suddenly the wall behind her began to move, slowly pushing her forward. She clamped down with her feet and pushed back against the wall, trying to stop from sliding. Then the walls to the sides began tilting inward as well, like it was trying to force her towards the big mouth. A piercing light broke through between its teeth as the mouth began to open. Naira shielded her eyes as she was pushed closer and closer towards the mouth. And then a deafening, shrill scream of creaking metal filled her head as the mouth opened wide!
Naira screamed in terror, writhing around on the metal floor - then she felt a hand on her shoulder. She woke up with a start, and before seeing whose hand it was, she ran back away behind some crates, tears and sweat rushing down her face. She panted heavily, trying to catch her breath and remember where she was.
She looked around and saw that the room was now a faded grey, tinted by the familiar glow of daylight and long shadows. Even the air smelled fresh and new. Suddenly she was overwhelmed with hope and excitement - it was her sister! She'd found her! She was being rescued!
Naira quickly wiped her face and looked around the corner. The light from the outside was intense, and all she could see was a tall silhouette of a large person - a man. Naira pulled back and shrunk further behind some more crates. The figure stepped aside and began looking around. She peeked over the creates and as her eyes adjusted to the daylight, she could see his face - thin, and mysterious. He was quiet, glancing around, searching the shadows.
He spotted her, and stepped back into the light slowly so she could easily see him. His face softened. "Why, hello little one! What are you doing here?" he asked, stretching out a hand. "This is not a good place for you to be."
Naira had no place to go. She cowered in fear as he knelt down and beckoned her to him. She whimpered, "Please don't hurt me! I... I got lost, and no one came for me."
"Well," the man replied softly, "now I've found you instead." Seeing a tear drip from her eye, he continued, "Don't cry! Come with me, and I'll get you some tasty food and drinks, and a cozy bed for you to rest in."
Something about this man made her feel safe, like he really didn't want to hurt her, but help her. And the food and comfortable bed sounded very nice. She stood and stepped forward shyly. The man tilted his head, now seeing how unkempt she'd become, scratched and covered in dirt.
Naira put out her hand and the man took it. He led her outside the big room, into a large storage facility. There was no roof, but there were walls everywhere with spotlights scattered around. She looked back and saw the big doorway and the room from which she'd come. It was an enormous metal cargo hold, with markings and lines all over it.
Next to its doorway, a small glowing figure caught Naira's attention. It was that of an AI; green, with the appearance of a slender woman dressed in a flowing garb and a large sun hat. She looked very nice and friendly, and when the green lady waved at Naira, she smiled a little and waved back.
Naira had never seen an AI avatar up close. While her family wasn't poor, they weren't well-off either. She'd learned a little about AIs, about how rare and special they used to be in the military before the means for creating the really good ones, the Smart ones, was made available to the public. At home though, their AI 'Damon' wasn't of high enough grade to take on the form of an avatar. And even though he was like an uncle to her, she still spent most of her time with her sister.
Naira was led by the man into a building, and through a number of doors and hallways. Along the way she noticed a number of other small glowing people, each smiling and waving as she passed. He finally stopped in front of a closed door, and knelt down to look at her.
"You're very lucky," he told her. He pointed at the door, "This is a place for lost children just like you."
Naira hung her head lower as he opened the door. Inside, she saw other children running around, playing, and even drawing on the walls. She saw some more little glowing people, running about and playing with some of them as well. Naira sniffed, missing her sister, but a weak smile grew as she saw some of the children playing happily.
She looked at the man still kneeling beside her and asked "Are you going to help me find my family again?"
"Don't worry, we'll get you to your real home," he answered, "I promise."
Naira's smile grew a bit more, but then her stomach reminded her how hungry she was. "Can I have something to eat, please?"
The man chuckled, "Go and play with the others. You'll all be eating very soon."
Naira skipped off into the room and jumped as the door clanged shut behind her. None of the other children flinched though, they just kept playing. As she looked for something to do, she saw a spot against a wall where she could sit. Just then one of the glowing figures approached her - it was the green AI who waved to her as she left the cargo box. The ghostly figure was about half her height, and almost appeared to float as she approached gracefully.
"Hello, little one. What's your name?" the AI asked.
"My name's Naira," she answered. She admired her flowing green garb. It looked like it was blowing in the wind, but she couldn't feel any wind. "What's yours?" she asked.
"Like in the stars!" Naira exclaimed.
Andromeda giggled, "My, you're a smart one! I hope that we can be friends." Andromeda paused, then asked, "What's your favorite color?"
Naira thought a moment. "Well, I've kind of always liked blue," she said. And just as she said that, Andromeda's shimmering green hue faded to a deep sapphire blue.
"Wow! That's beautiful!" Naira reached out to touch her newly colored flowing garb, but her hand passed right through it, as if it wasn't there. Naira's smile faded. "You're... you're not real, are you?"
Andromeda took a step back and looked at Naira. "I'm as real as anyone else you see here. Just because you can't touch me doesn't mean I'm not real." Andromeda looked up. "Just like the stars."
Naira looked, but even though she only saw the grey ceiling of the room, she imagined the vast, endless sky much higher above, full of twinkling stars.
"Naira," Andromeda whispered, "I'll be your friend if you'll let me."
Naira crinkled her lips and looked down at the pendant that her sister had given her for her birthday, still hanging around her neck. On it, a depiction of the twins of the constellation Gemini, a reminder to Naira that she'd never be alone. "Okay," she answered.
Andromeda smiled, "Naira, you've made my day! Now, maybe you could go and say hi to some of those other children and make theirs too." She pointed at a spot by the wall where a few children were sitting. "It looks like they could use a friend too."
Naira looked at the wall where Andromeda pointed, where three doleful boys sat, each looking sad and keeping to themselves. She smiled at Andromeda, then went and sat next to them. "Hi, I'm Naira!" She asked happily.
"What did they tell you?" the biggest one questioned. He had scruffy black hair and a mean looking face.
"They're going to take me home!" Naira said excitedly. But the boy huffed and turned away. Naira didn't know what to say after that. She looked over him and was about say something to the other boys, but they got up and shuffled to another spot farther away from her. Andromeda watched from a distance and sighed.
Naira slumped and looked around, starting to feel the weight of everything that had happened to her today. She saw a corner of the room sectioned off with a partition, behind which were some cots set up for sleeping. She walked over, and was surprised to find Andromeda again, now hovering next to the headboard of one of the newly spread cots.
"Maybe you should take a short nap," she said. "It'll be time to eat soon, but you look like you could use a rest."
"Thanks, Andromeda. You're really kind, you know. I like you," Naira whispered as she hopped on to the bed.
"I like you too, Naira. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll see your family again soon."
Naira curled up into a sheet. She watched Andromeda as her eyes closed. This time, she dreamed soundly.
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