ISLAND IN THE SAND
They all agreed on two things about the newfound rifles. They were too loud and shooting them hurt the shoulder, and sometimes the hand, of the person shooting them. Some sort of ear plugs would help with the sound, but there was little to be done about the mechanical reaction the guns caused. Aiming them was also a real problem. Only Jameson could figure out how to accurately sight and shoot using the scopes on the big rifles, or the hand sights on the smaller ones. The kids, in the little time they had to use the weapons, were incapable of doing more than pointing the things outward and pulling the triggers.
The move back through the tunnel, with Ninety-One whispering along on its rubber treads in front of them, was made without incident. Being armed with the loaded rifles had also added an element of security, in making just about any move with less fear and trepidation, at least for Star.
“How do we find the node,” Jameson asked.
“Well, first we have to figure out what a node looks like, and if there are more than one of them,” Star responded, wishing that she’d had Jordan describe in detail what they were looking for when they were in contact back at the elevator.
“Can Ninety-One still talk to Jordan from this far away, or was that because of the elevator?” Jameson asked, after a few more minutes.
“I don’t know,” Star replied, “I didn’t think to ask. It’s so hard to get used to machines that talk.”
The big familiar room opened before them. Star wondered just how long they’d been underground, as it seemed for weeks, but she knew it was considerably less. She approached Ninety-One, sitting next to the tracks, somehow knowing it was to stop and wait for further instructions.
“Can you speak to Jordan from here?” Star asked, standing before it, and feeling foolish.
“Your speech in intelligible,” Jordan rasped out of the little speaker hidden somewhere in the body of the robot, “but I’m not certain you can understand my words without some sort of voice enhancement you do not possess.”
Star was surprised. The voice was Jordan’s and although the sound was scratchy, the machine’s imperious arrogant words and tone were impossible to miss.
“We hear you fine,” Wren said, moving to Star’s side. “We need to ask some questions about this place.”
“I do not detect the voice vibrations of an administrator,” Jordan replied.
“You can accept her if I tell you it’s okay, I think, can’t I?” Star said, leaning forward, looking for the source of Jordan’s voice but not finding it.
“This is not unheard of, so I will acquiesce to your wishes administrator Star,” Ninety-One’s speaker squeaked out. “State your questions subject of the administrator.”
“I don’t think I like this Jordan, at all,” Wren quietly whispered to Star.
“Your like is noted,” Jordan said back.
“Okay, okay, so you have big ears,” Wren said, in frustration and a bit of embarrassment. “What does a node look like and how do we find the one that’s under Sly’s control?”
“The nodes are computer modules, all of which are recording as dormant in the area of the complex you are currently inhabiting,” Jordan replied. “Except for one, the one I am currently unable to communicate with.”
“What does a computer module look like?” Wren asked.
“Like the console in the operations center sphere,” Jordan responded.
“Oh, that’s fine, but there’s nothing in this giant railroad yard that looks like that,” Wren said, looking around.
“The nodes may have been covered for better longevity,” Jordan went on. “Look for something half as tall as the Jameson creature but curved and hard surfaced. The presentation may be shiny, although it will not be made of metal.”
“This is difficult,” Jameson piped in. “Are there no direct answers to anything?”
“Is that a question for consideration?” Jordan replied.
“No, just let it go for a minute,” Star instructed.
“Look around,” she ordered to everyone in the band, “but stay alert. Wherever Sly’s boys have gotten off to cannot be far away.”
“Where is the other band of humans?” Wren asked, never having moved from Ninety-One’s presence.
“My best guess,” Jordan replied, “is accessing one of the other armory locations.
“Oh great,” Jameson yelled, from further down one of the tracks.
“What’s in the armory they are in…your best guess, Jordan?” Wren asked, her little voice determined and filled with patience.
“The armory they have accessed is a special pyrotechnics location. Pyrotechnics are specifically site protected, however.”
“What are pyrotechnics, and how are they protected,” Wren asked, immediately.
“Pyrotechnics are things normally referred to as explosives; grenades and rockets,” Jordan answered. “Site protection is a system of securing each individual pyrotechnical item with unbreakable coded locks and fasteners.”
“Well, that’s something,” Star said, a small note of hope growing in her chest.
“Can they get the stuff in the armory?” Wren asked.
“Not so far,” Jordan replied. “I have full access to that information.”
“Good, let them try their little tiny hearts out,” Sol said, running in and out between the small cars nearby with Tal. “Is this a node?” Tal asked, stopping breathlessly to point at a vertical plastic tube about four feet high and looking to be about two feet in diameter from where Star stood.
“I have no optical capability through this inadequate robot’s equipment,” Jordan squeaked out. “Describe.”
Star gave Jordan as complete a description as she could and Jordan promptly indicated that Tal’s discover was, indeed, a node.
“How do we access this node?” Jameson asked, pushing against what was obviously an external casing that surrounded whatever was inside.
“It is not necessary at this time, unless you are not moving with speed, which you seem to be,” the machine said. “The active node will be warm. You must find the other nodes in this area and touch each one. The warm one will be emitting a higher temperature because it is using energy by being active.”
“Okay, let’s get at it,” Wren ordered. “Do you have a map of all the nodes?” she said, speaking directly at the front side of Ninety-One.
“Of course, but only back at the command center could you see a representation.”
“I understand,” Wren replied. “I meant, is there an order to the nodes, where they might be found because of the plan of their construction?”
“The nodes are organized as the spotted points radiation out from a hub. The hub is tied in to all the other nodes and serves as the main authority for the access of information or implementation to action.”
“Jeez,” Jameson said, “that things starting to hurt my head.
“Is the hub node likely to be the one you’ve lost control of?” Wren asked.
Star looked at the younger woman with surprise. Wren was little more than a small girl, no more educated than any of them and with less life experience than either she or Jameson.
Jordan didn’t answer the question.
“Jordan, you must answer the question,” Wren ordered.
“Once again, you are asking for a conclusion on my part. I do not have sufficient information any longer for this portion of the complex so I cannot state with any certainty that the hub node is the correct one for your descriptive purposes.
“For God’s sake, guess,” Star said to the invisible speaker.
“Affirmative,” Jordan’s voice stated, but more subdued in tone than it had before.
“Affirmative, what?” Star asked, shaking her head
Wren grasped Star’s forearm and looked up into the older woman’s eyes.
“He means that he thinks the hub is the node Sly controls, but he doesn’t want to guess.”
“Now, you’re going to tell me this machine thing we call Jordan has feelings?” Star said, less like a question and more like a statement.
“Feelings are a function of programming,” Jordan responded, as if he’d been asked another question.
“Can we just head for the hub?” Jameson asked.
“Jordan, is the hub computer likely to be in the very center, under the middle of the dome?” Wren asked.
“Affirmative,” Jordan said, again.
“Let’s go,” Star said, as the kids had all gathered in to listen to the exchange with Jordan, rather than run around any longer among the train cars and tracks.
They made their way along, with Ninety-One following silently just behind, as if it was part of their band, regardless of orders indicating or denying that fact.
The very center of the railroad complex was not difficult to find or reach. The great dome overhead was an unimpeachable guide. Jameson was the first to indicate that he thought he’d found the rebel node. He pointed at a plastic shell laying near a track with a small console sticking up out of the concrete surface nearby.
Star approached the front of the display. As with the larger one in the operations complex, the display lit up when she got close and an image rose up into the thin air in front of her.
“I am Star Black, administrator,” Star said to the display.
“You do not have authorization,” a deep male voice replied, coming out of the bottom of the console.
“How do I get authorization?” Star asked.
“You may only receive such authorization from the current administrator.”
Star turned to where Ninety-One stood, as if waiting.
“What do we do now?” she asked Jordan. “It is completely controlled by Sly. We can’t get in. Is there some trick I don't know?”
“There is no trick, Administrator Star Black,” Jordan replied. “Your opposition Sly has implemented a lock out like the one you instituted into the programing of my own authority structure. You cannot break it without his approval.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Jameson said. “We’ve come this far and risked a lot to find out we can do nothing?”
“Administrator Star Black, do you want me to answer the question?”
“Yes,” Star replied, shuddering. The communications with the machine were ever more complex and unsettling. She wondered if the current civilized cultures stayed clear from the old technology because of that, but there was no way to know. Almost all knowledge had been lost, along with the reasons for its loss.
“You must act to stop the information flow,” Jordan said. “You cannot access but you can deny access yourself.”
“Deny access?” Jameson asked, in exasperation. “Now what the hell is that?”
“You must shut the node down,” Jordan responded, almost instantly.
“How do we do that, Jordan, if we can’t even get it to communicate with us other than to tell us that it can’t communicate with us?”
“You have ordnance from the armory at your active service,” Jordan replied.
“The elevator speaker gave a good indication that the equipment you requisitioned was functional on the outside. The node is not protected by an operations center shell of stout metal compounds.”
“Holy cow,” Jameson said, unlimbering the big rifle he carried from behind his right shoulder. “He means for me to shoot it. One robot executing another for not obeying orders. Maybe they do have feelings.”
“The logic is simple,” Star said. I don't think it has anything to do with feelings. Jordan’s simply stating an obvious truth. The node is being used by Sly and his band. We can’t access it. To make sure it cannot cause us harm we must take it out.”
Jameson walked up to the node, and then backed off a good twenty feet. He didn’t have to tell any of the band to move back, as all had been listening to the conversations. Jameson brought the big rifle up, pointed it at the node and pulled the trigger. The sound was nearly overwhelming, reverberating around the dome and back, finally beginning to lessen after almost half a minute. Everyone held their ears except Jameson, who smiled grandly at the smoking wreckage of the node.
“Administrator my butt,” he said, slowly working the action of the rifle to put another round into the chamber.
“I think that’s it,” Star said, waving Jameson off, until she heard a series of crying screams in the distance.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, her knees going weak. “They’re back and we’ve got no place to go. They had to have heard the shot. We’ve got to get out of here somehow.”
“Follow me,” Ninety-One said. This time the deep voice did not sound tinny and it didn’t come from a small speaker.
“Is that you, Jordan,” Star blurted out.
“No, this is Ninety-One and you have to follow me immediately or your safety may be forfeit. I have a plan.” The robot moved off at near human running speed, in the opposite direction from that which the band had come into the rail complex.
“Oh great, a service robot has a plan,” Jameson whispered to Star. “Can this get any better?”
Star grabbed Tal and Sol by their hands and started to run after the robot. “I don’t have a plan so we’re going, unless you have one,” but she didn’t wait to hear what the boy might say. The band raced off behind the three following Ninety-One at a full run.