There were three acolytes before him. One of them was female, and Menar found himself unnerved by her presence. He continued to strip down to his baser clothes, and when he stood before them in nothing but loincloth and breeches, he felt the first strings of embarrassment cross his face.
One of the elder acolytes noticed his discomfort, and placed an earthly hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Rest easy, my son," he said, "for here, we are all sanctified in the light of Sun."
Menar nodded, his apprehension melting away under the reassurance. At a nod from the elder acolyte, the other male began wrapping a loose chemise about Menar's waist. When that was done, the female garbed him in a loose gray undershirt, and then both the man and the woman slipped a pale brown cloak about his entire form.
The ceremonial robes were far more comfortable than Menar expected. For some reason he expected them to be rough and constrictive, perhaps indicative of his worldly impressions. Perhaps the great Sun had chosen this moment to enlighten the young man, perhaps free him of those human concerns that he still held, all the more so that his ascendance would be complete.
"Let the faithful behold the vessel of Sun," the elder acolyte intoned.
Together, the male and the female assistants bowed.
"Let the great Sun welcome his chosen Menar," the elder acolyte declared, "he who was deemed worthy to ascend by the grand college of peers, he who has passed the trials of wind and fire and mind, and he who has been garbed of man and woman under the light of the serene chamber."
"May the great Sun grant us life forever," Menar said.
"And now the rite is complete," the elder acolyte smiled. "How do you feel?"
"I'm all right," Menar said.
"No thoughts of regret?"
Menar held his head even higher. "I am the chosen of Sun, Essar Illus," he said. "To hold regret now would be a sin against His will."
Illus gave the young man a wide smile. At first the elder acolyte looked as though he was going to say something else, but then something caused the priest's attention to wander. Illus glanced up in surprise, then held his head a little to one side, as though he was listening to a voice that only he could hear.
"Yes," Illus said, his tone grave. "Yes. Yes, I am aware. We shall come soon enough. All thanks to the benevolent Sun."
He turned back to Menar, his expression softening at the sight of the young man. "It is time," he said.
Together they walked, and the floor changed with the distance. First it was the smooth granite floors of the serene chamber, then the rough stone floors of the outer corridors. From there the stone only became darker and more polished, until they reached the beginnings of the metal halls, where their feet padded down steel panels and titanium bracings. Every now and then they would meet a fellow acolyte in these corridors, perhaps a seminarian or a servant, and they all bowed respectfully as the two men passed.
"Your predecessor weakens," Illus said, after a while.
"Yes," Menar said. He had been preparing for the news for quite some time.
Illus nodded. "It does not come as a surprise, for the faithful would not have appointed you otherwise. Solaris Viya has been displaying signs of inconsistency for a week now. We have had to endure occasional failures in sectors three, seven and eighteen as a result."
"I know the signs, noble Essar."
"Sun has seen to your training," Illus said. "Bless him for providing your presence in our time of need. I fear that if we had waited but a week longer, then we may have had worse matters in hand."
Above them, the lights flickered. Both the older and the younger man stopped, aware of the implications that now stared them sharply in the face.
"I do not think we have much time," Illus said.
"No," Menar said.
The elder acolyte turned away once again, listening hard at the voice that Menar could not hear. All Essars, Illus foremost among them, had been granted the means to communicate with both Sun and their fellows, that they would be able to monitor the signs and portents as they came. Menar knew that such a blessing manifested as a voice in the mind, something that only Illus was destined to hear, and thus a message that spared his involvement.
Illus glanced at the younger man, now standing calm upon the floor's translucent surface. "We are almost there," the elder acolyte said, his face shifting between emotions, his eyes remaining in a constant stream of sorrow.
With a pause, Illus finally turned back to Menar. The younger man nodded, as though knowing exactly what had just happened.
"May Sun grant us wings," Illus said.
Both men hurried down the metal corridor, their feet moving faster with each step.
They arrived in the inner sanctum just as the decision was being made. The great Vault stood before them, its metal expanse filling the whole of the chamber and extending as far as the eye could see. No one present would doubt that it was a testament to the might and omnipotence of the great Sun.
Two Essars stood in front of the lone opening to the great Vault. Before them were three more acolytes — Salhi, by the looks of their robes — two of whom were performing the Rite of the Unsealed Gate.
The Essars took notice as Menar and Illus entered the chamber. None of them moved, although the taller of the two merely intoned the ritual greeting: "Who is this that entreats entry into the house of Sun?"
Menar genuflected. "It is Menar," he said, "a humble servant."
"Enter, Menar," the taller Essar said, "and behold His works."
Menar could see the rest of the chamber now. At the back of the chamber, raised a good two stories above the floor, was a platform sixty feet wide and perhaps a hundred feet long. Even now it thronged with Essars, all of whom had likely heard the same news that Illus had accepted, and all of whom were now moving to watch the chamber of the Vault.
Below and to the left of the platform was an enormous window. Behind it labored men and women of the Salhus colors, amongst the tools and equipment that had been provided to them by the divine Sun. As with the Essars on the metal platform, these Salhi now watched the proceedings with their expressions of constant readiness. Now that the vessel of Sun stood before the opening of the great Vault, the transitory rites could proceed in earnest.
Menar watched as the door to the Vault gave an audible groaning sound, and at that point a collective sigh went up from the gathering of Essars. Menar glanced at Illus then, and realized that a single drop of sweat had emerged from the priest's forehead and was now running down his temples.
"For disturbing your vessel's slumber," the taller Essar intoned, "we beg your forgiveness, great Sun."
Illus's expression became distant again, and Menar could almost hear the voices speaking. The last vessel had to be removed from the Sun chamber beyond, he knew, and it was for this purpose that the Salhi had been trained and prepared... just as he was for his own role.
Above him, the lights flickered. A second sigh went up from the assembled Essars.
Illus placed one gentle hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Come," Illus said, and began to walk.
There was no ritual when they reached the door to the Vault. The two Essars there merely nodded their greetings, and he responded in kind. They both looked impossibly old under the light of ancient metal and rivets — even Illus seemed incapable of supporting his own weight. The three Salhi had long entered through the open door and into the sacred room beyond; Menar could see the dark opening before him, and could hear the indiscriminate sounds that issued from it.
Then there was a flicker of movement, and the first of the Salhi emerged into the open air of the inner sanctum.
The man (or woman, as it turned out) bore the front end of a simple stretcher, lined in silk and silver carvings of the holy symbols of Sun. Behind it, bearing the other end of that same stretcher, came the second Salhus custodian.
Lying on the stretcher was the emaciated figure of a woman, gaunt and aged with the passing of years. Her skin was slate-gray and shot through with hundreds of veins and wires, and her breaths became more and more shallow with each passing second. Menar flinched unconsciously; she was wearing the same ceremonial robes as he was, only tattered and stained with the inexorable weight of time.
At the sight of her, a song went up from the assembled Essars, and Menar recognized it as the Ritual of Transition, the gathering of voices that sounded throughout the caverns whenever a new vessel of Sun would take the place of a predecessor. Behind their window, the Salhi continued to watch impassively, even as the forlorn old woman finally drew her last breath.
There was a moment of silence. Menar could not remember when or where the chambers had been so quiet.
"Solaris Menar," the taller Essar finally said, his words echoing throughout the Vault.
"I am here, revered one," Menar answered.
"Our divine Sun desires a new vessel, one who shall bring light and life to our world. Solaris Viya has given her life to continue the great Sun's residence among us, as have countless others before her. Will you now accept this task for which you have been chosen, by the grace of the Life-giver and the audience of His faith?"
"Then enter the Sun chamber, Solaris Menar, and may He guide you for the rest of your days."
"May the great Sun grant us life forever," Menar said.
The Essars stood aside to let him past, and Menar slowly stepped into the Vault's darkened entrance. Illus remained beside him until the younger man had crossed the threshold; from there, the elder acolyte could only watch from beyond the doorway, even as the song of the gathered Essars swelled around them.
There, the third Salhus was waiting for him.
The inside of the Sun chamber smelled strange and musty, as though it had been sealed from the outside for many years. Before him lay banks upon banks of the metal equipment that resembled those of Salhi use, all switches and monitors and random colored lights. A chair sat among the jumble of metal components, and this one was also padded and fitted with all manner of items.
The Salhus bowed, and assisted Menar as he eased himself into the chair. At that moment, some of the nearby displays lighted up; Menar almost started at the strange reaction. The Salhus laid one hand on his shoulder, almost as Illus once did, in an effort to calm him down.
When Menar was comfortable, the Salhus strapped an odd-looking visor to Menar's head; numbers and codes began their readout displays almost immediately. One by one, Menar's hands and feet were fastened in place by stainless steel manacles; almost automatically, a number of wires snaked their way into predetermined openings and bloodlessly fastened themselves to his circulatory system.
Then the Salhus picked up a thick, coiled metal tube with a needle on its end, and shoved it through the back of the chair and directly into Menar's brain stem. The younger man's eyes opened, his pupils completely dilated, as the entirety of the life-support system was revealed to his consciousness.
Menar could see everything: the agriculture colonies, the filtration systems, the aquatic recycling vats that would supply clean water to his fellow inhabitants. He could see the turbine fusion generators, the sensory apparati, even slight twinges of the desolation aboveground. The only thing he could not see for his distraction was the lone Salhus custodian, who bowed once to the chosen vessel of Sun before exiting the chamber and sealing him inside.
Menar concentrated, lost in his newfound responsibilities. The great Sun had need of him now, and he was at the service of the divine.