ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star awoke in complete darkness. Opening her eyes was exactly the same as keeping them closed. She felt the embers of a still warm fire nearby, but no light came from them. Star realized that when they had eaten jar after jar of the shelved supplies total fatigue had come over all of them.
She pawed around the floor close to her with her fingers until they ran across the remains of one of the torches. Carefully, she unwrapped cloth from the remaining dry pine needles. Making a small stack of them she took out her own flint piece and struck it against the steel of her flimsy belt buckle. Small pieces of needle glowed deep red before a flame appeared. With that small light, Star spotted the pile of label papers Tal and Sol had torn from nearby jars and bottles of water. She fed the blaze until light filled the room.
One after another of the children came awake. All moved to join her at the small fire, some reaching for more of the wonderfully nourishing fruits. Star was relieved that there were no complaints of stomach aches or other symptoms. It appeared that the food was edible. It might not have the nutrients necessary to sustain them over a long period of time, but it did provide sufficient energy.
“What now?” Wren asked. “We can’t keep this fire going very long. It’s already beginning to feel like the air’s old and stuffy.”
Star sighed to herself, quietly. The inventory would have to wait. Wren was correct in her assessment, as she had felt the same way about the air when she had first awakened. They had to have more air and that need took precedence over everything else.
One wall was covered in painted metal, but not quite all of it. It hadn’t been noticeable when they had fallen from the vent earlier, as it was of a color very close to that of the bare concrete walls nearby. Star moved close to the strange surface.
She noted that it was also the only wall without shelves stacked against it. When her face was inches away she saw that there was a very thin crack running vertically up and down the metal.
“Wren, I think this is a thick metal door of some sort. I don’t see any way to open it though, and we don’t know what might be on the other side.” She poked one dirty fingernail into the tight crack.
Tal and Sol joined her in exploring the surface of the metal panels, running their hands over the entire surface, trying to find anything at all to get a grip on.
“There are little doors,” Sol pointed out, sitting back on his heels. “Down here. Little doors in the big doors. Play doors,” the child went on.
“On my side too,” Tal chimed in. “A little door for you Sol, and a little door for me,” she said, laughing lightly over toward her small but very constant companion.
Star knelt down near Sol’s feet to examine the ‘small door,’ which was about the width of two spread hands, about the same as it was tall. She took out the clippers she’d saved and opened the sharp file end. It fitted into the tight crack along the side of one of the door-like panels. Twisting the clipper blade slowly, so as not to bend or break it, she worked gently until the panel began to give. Star twisted a little bit harder. The panel snapped open, swinging out on two concealed hinges and banging dully against the heavier metal of the door.
Star peered inside. A very solid looking lever was set deep inside the space behind the door. The lever was pushed almost to the back of the rectangular box-like area. Star moved to open the door on Tal’s side. It eventually snapped open just like the other, and inside she saw an identical lever in exactly the same angled position.
“I think that’s how the big doors open,” Star concluded in a whisper to herself, and then speaking the same words louder to all the kids in the room.
“Wren, you pull on Sol’s lever while I pull on this one,” she instructed, grabbing the lever awkwardly, inserting her forearms into the small space and gripping the lever with both hands. She looked over at Wren. Both of them knelt before their respective doors, looking at one another. Both of them planted their knees against the metal of the doors and prepared to pull on the levers with all their might.
“Sure we want to do this, Star?” Wren asked, before putting all of her energy into pulling on his lever.
She stared over into Star’s eyes and waited.
“Not much air left in here,” Star said, holding her head upward with closed eyes and inhaling deeply while listening at the same time for any noises the might come down through the table jammed up into the ceiling pipe.
“We’ve been lucky so far. Let’s hope we still are. Pull,” she ordered.
The levers didn’t take as much effort to pull through their short throw as either of them thought. Both Star and Wren pulled and then rocked backward as the levers turned all the way until the tops of their handles were almost out to the very edge of the openings. A linking series of mechanical movements seemed to resound throughout the room. The big doors slowly split down the center. The small crack almost too narrow to put a fingernail into became an opening larger than a balled fist. When it had grown to the width of a forearm the doors stopped moving.
Star peered into the ‘V’ shaped crack. She could see locking bars barely sticking out from the sides of the doors. The doors themselves were thick beyond belief. They were obviously thicker than any of the children’s or her bodies. Star pulled on the outside edge of one of the doors but nothing moved any further.
“Come on everyone. We have to pull this open,” she said.
All the kids surged forward and grabbed at the edges of both doors, except for Sol. She fit her small body right into the wedge of the opening and jammed herself as deep as she could. From there she pushed with both of her little arms. They pushed and pulled for minutes but nothing happened. Star called for a break, breathing the bad air they had left slowly in and out with a deep steady rhythm. The bad air was beginning to drain her strength, she knew. They didn’t have much time left.
“Altogether now,” she whispered into the silence, noting how the little fire was almost burned out.
They were losing their air and the light, and quite possibly their lives in a very short time.
“Okay,” she said, gritting her teeth and moving to a position in front of the opening that would give her the most advantage. “Here we go.”
She put each hand flat on one edge of each door, curled her fingers a bit and then began to pull outward with all the strength she had left.
Very slowly the doors opened, the smallest part of an inch at a time. Star and the children were buoyed by the tiny result and pulled all the harder. Over the course of only a few very long minutes, the doors slow opening increased to the point where there was room for one of the smallest of them to go through the space into the darkness beyond. Star noted that both doors were linked because they moved together or not at all. She’d never seen anything like them before. A shiver ran up and down her back. She’d been exposed to TWB materials all of her life, but nothing had been anything like the doors. They were obvious artifacts of a technology so far beyond that of the Collected Peoples that it was hard to imagine.
“Enormous,” Wren gushed, in wonder.
They all stared through the big crack between the doors. It was a black crack, and it did not lead to an outside that was experiencing nighttime. There was no freshness in the air. The opening through the doors led to another room, not that it mattered, Star thought but did not say.
The fire had gone out. There was no looking through the door’s opening anymore without light.
“We need torches again,” she said to the assemblage of children crowded around the opening. “Get the strips we used for climbing and wrap the paper tightly around them. Those won’t be very good torches but we should be able to see what’s on the other side.”
Without light and in the bad air it took the children some time to find the rags, untie the knots that held them and then get the flimsy torches burning.
Star turned to the doors, holding one of the poorly burning torches, immediately noting that Tal and Sol were no longer in the room with them.
“Tal, where are you?” she asked into the crack, her voice a demanding deep whisper. “Sol,” she hissed.
“We’re in here,” Tal yelled back from the other side. “You can’t see us but we can see you.”
The two six-year-olds laughed together in obvious glee.
Star breathed in and out deeply and then proceeded through the opening, working hard to ignore the pain it caused to squeeze between the lugs running up and down the doors. It was a very tight squeeze, but she got through. She wondered whether the doors had been able to open farther back when they’d been built, but she couldn’t hold the thought, and it didn’t matter. The sight in front of her was too grand to have any other thought occupy her mind.
She tried to scold Tal and Sol for their rashness in going through the opening first, but no words would form in her mouth. The small torch soon joined by those of Wren, and the other children coming through the crack behind her, illuminated some kind of great station. It was a rail station. There were trains on rails, with tunnels leading from the station in every direction. All the children stood in awe. They had heard of trains at the orphanage, and about the tracks that used to crisscross what was called the continent.
They all stood for many minutes, staring in awe at the greatest collection of TWB materials imaginable.
“I thought they’d be bigger,” Star said. “But they’re small like they were made for us, not adults,” she finished, the torch burning down near her fingers.
“I don’t know,” Wren answered her. “Maybe the teachers had never seen a train. Big or small the old trains ran on some kind of liquid that hasn’t been made in many years. These won’t ever move again if they ever did.”
“Not that it’d matter,” Star said, flatly. “The Collected People’s would never allow any of them to run if they could. It must have been wonderful. Where do you think the tunnels all go?”
Her torch finally burned down to the flesh of her fingers.
Tossing the burned-out husk onto the tracks in front of her, she scrounged around for something else to replace it. A pile of wood in a corner not far from the doors they’d come through caught her eye.
“Let’s light this wood, Wren,” she indicated to the girl still standing and staring, like all the children except Tal and Sol. Both of those kids had already climbed into one of the engines sitting on the closest track.
“There’s no way we’re going to burn up all the air in this place,” Star commented, as she transferred Wren’s torch to her hand.
The girl stared up at the ceiling high above.
“From the outside, this place looked like a big hill, covered with trees,” she said.
“Let’s hope that Sly and his band believes it’s just a hill,” Star replied, lowering her voice so the other kids couldn’t hear, “because if they find the end of one of those train tunnels we’re looking at then we have no place to go.”
“They won’t,” a deep voice from above their heads said.
Star froze, her eyes jerking upward and here gaze fastening on a stranger descending down upon them.
“And who might you be?” the deep voice asked.
The voice came from a full-grown man, Star noted. The other children were also deathly still as a possible new threat climbed down from a spidery ladder they hadn’t seen above their heads, barely visible, built into the concrete dome wall.
The man was not really a man at all, Star observed, once he was standing on the abutment none of them had moved from, with the exception of Tal and Sol who’d wisely disappeared from view and gone silent. Although a foot taller than Star, the boy was almost as young. His deep voice, however, made him sound like he was an older adult.
“You got the door open! How did you do that? I’ve been working on it for a year.” The boy stepped over to the crack they’d all squeezed through. Star noted the deep scratches and worn exterior of the steel door’s surface.
“You’d never get through those things with anything other than TWB explosives. The control levers are on the other side like people were meant to get in but not necessarily out.” Star talked to stall.
She didn’t know what to make of the boy-man who’d appeared from nowhere and now stood in front of her.
Who are you and what do you want,” she asked, her voice flat and defensive.
They faced one another. The man-sized boy looked from child to child.
“You can tell those little ones to come over if you want. They’re in that train over there,” he pointed after he was done speaking.
Star said nothing, feeling very uncomfortable. The boy was wearing wonderful looking clothing and real shoes, not the pasted together sandal things common to everyone at the orphanage. TWB clothes, she realized.
“What state do you belong to? Star asked. “What tribe? Who are your people that they let you wear that stuff? And where did you get it and what are you doing here?
She stopped talking when she realized that she was babbling one question after another without giving the stranger any time to answer.
“My name’s Jameson. Named after the whiskey,” he replied, not answering any of her questions.
Star stared at the boy blankly, not being able to think of anything to say. The other children waited without moving or talking either.
“You know, the Irish Whiskey?” he said to her, his tone indicating exasperation.
He shook his head after getting no reaction.
“Who are you people and what are you doing in my secret place?” he went on, spreading his arms to take them all in.
Tal and Sol climbed up from the tracks located a few feet below the concrete abutment the rest of them were standing on. Each gripped one of Star’s hands. They stared at the stranger intently.
“Cute kids,” Jameson observed, smiling at the two small children. Tal and Sol did not smile back.
“It’s okay, guys. This one looks harmless,” Star assured them, disengaging their hands in case she needed her own.
“Harmless? Harmless? I’m anything but harmless,” the boy stated, raising his voice in real protest. “I’ve got more stuff than you can imagine. I’ve got a real gun with real ammunition.”
Star literally took a step backward. The children collectively breathed inward all at once. Guns were among the most forbidden of all objects from the before times. Only religious leaders and certain designated members of some tribes were allowed to have them, and then only for the preservation of history purposes.
The bow and arrow was the only true throwing weapon used universally throughout the Collected Peoples.
The boy turned to push his body through the huge open doors they had all come through.
“Is there food in there? Food is what I don’t have. I know it’s in there,” he pulled on the two-door edges and the doors parted easily. The boy was very strong, Star noted. He called back through the opening, once he was inside. They could hear him pawing around in the dark, as the fire’s light from the train dome didn’t extend far into the storeroom. He returned with a jar of the fruit. It was one of the jars the six-year-olds had peeled the label off to feed their original fire.
“This is food. I just know it,” Jameson murmured, working to force the rusted screw cap.
Star walked over to him, eased the container from his hands, then leaned over and quickly tapped the bottom of the brittle plastic on the concrete. A round piece of it fell with a clink. She handed the fruit container back to the boy, upside down.
Jameson frowned at her, and then tipped the jar up and swiftly gulped down all of its contents.
“Oh gosh,” he intoned, neatly cleaning his mouth off with one wipe of his beautiful long sleeve shirt.
Star wanted to reach over and caress the material, but she restrained herself.
A loud clang sounded from way above their heads.
“What the hell?” Jameson asked, looking upward. “More of your group still out there?” he asked.
Star noted the boy’s lack of fear or real interest in the loud sound.
“No,” Star said, worry changing the tone of her voice. “They’re a different really a bad band. We came down the vent pipe to escape them. I think the little ones would already be dead if they’d caught us in the open.”
“They know we came down the pipe. If they get in we’re in real trouble.” She stared fearfully upward while she talked.
Tal and Sol had once more physically attached themselves to her lower body.