Part I

Star loped through the forest, following behind her small charges, with Jameson to one side and Wren to the other. The band worked through the floor of lush pine forest like following vastly long strings of cooked pasta carefully laid around every trunk and obstacle, but invisible to outside eyes. The children raced about with small backpacks taken from the energy complex storage compartments, their packs stuffed full of canned foods that shouldn’t have been edible, wearing new clothing sized to them by machines that should not have been able to produce such goods. Star ran on, her fear had subsided some miles back. It seems that her band had run for many miles but Star knew they had not covered more than five. Working through a forest was extremely deceptive, and direction (even with the compass instrument taken from Ninety-One’s small work compartment) was iffy, at best. Ninety-One, the only artificial intelligence that had seemingly-adopted the band and not intentionally lied to them, followed in trace behind the band’s pell-mell flight. Star unlimbered the heavy rifle where it swung by a canvas sling under her right arm as she moved. Carrying arms and ammunition made moving through the forest much more laborious than it had ever been before.

“Here,” Star said, her voice raised but not high enough to penetrate the thick woods surrounding them.

She planted the butt of her rifle on the thick bed of needles near her right foot.

Everyone stopped in their tracks and turned to face her.

Star quickly shifted her gaze to take in the area around. They stood under the outspread pine limbs that stretched at least twenty feet from the trunk of a single huge tree. The branches circled overheard, forming a vivid green ceiling not far above. The even, but lumpy, ground was covered in a foot or more of thick accumulated dead needles, and Star’s body standing upon them seemed spring-loaded up from her feet.

“Here,” she repeated, sinking down to her knees.

“Far enough?” Jameson asked, coming down to her side.

“I don’t know what that is now, do you?” she replied.

“No, of course not, but then I haven’t understood what we’ve been doing since we left,” Jameson said.

Ninety-One, the robot who’d forced himself upon the band, gradually moved along through an opening in the branches, his height reaching the bottom of some of the larger ones bending a bit down from their extended weight.

The robot stopped when it’s treads were only inches from Star’s thigh.

“We couldn’t decide anything there,” Star began but stopped before continuing to take in the collected members of her band. Jameson was nearly her partner, although never challenging her lead. Wren was her right arm, young and brilliant, but so young. True was up near the point of their move, settling in among the youngest of the children where he was most comfortable. His status was still unclear after seeming so loyal several times, but twice selecting his own self-interest over that of the band. Val and Theo were close by at that point, both hovering, as the smaller children got comfortable atop the thick needle pine mattress. Theo’s wounds from the arrow had healed miraculously or been healed by higher science.

Sol and Tal were settled near the giant trunk of the huge tree, both children so wildly active and vibrant it was impossible not to smile when watching them move or communicate. Harriet was proving to be a wise quiet loner, called Harry by all around her. She’d come to the band alone, left and lost from a mysterious band of her own that none of them had gotten her to talk about. There were ten of them, counting the robot, and nine smaller children that had to be guided, guarded and cared for at all times. They were nineteen against a world that had risen up to grand heights and then been plunged into the bleakest of circumstance. A land of gold and honey where the oceans had risen up to replace most living space for all organisms, with sand, pine and rocky crags, where wild rivers rampaged through, created by downpours that would once have been unheard of for their length and water content.

They slowly settled in under the pine. Jameson said nothing more. Star knew there wasn’t much to say. They’d fled the complex because they’d needed to escape the entrapment of the powers of roiling artificial intelligence that none of them could understand or depend upon.

“Why have we come?” Wren asked, laying on her back, bracing the back of her neck with her displaced pack.

Star didn’t respond right away, instead of looking over and up at Ninety-One, the most unlikely artificial intelligence of them all. The complex was run by Jordan, then there was the house intellect, the transport by Demos and the Distants supposedly-located in another star system more a figment of everyone’s imagination than reality.

Star sighed. That was why they were where they were. When the transport had failed to rise and depart on command, instead allowing all of the band inside to disgorge and go their way, when the complex had failed to place Sly and his remaining evil boys in any kind of restraint or “stasis” after promising to do so immediately, and when clothing, shoes, and boots had to be ordered several times before being provided, yet had been so easily given to Sly’s band members, Star had made the decision to leave.

In spite of the transport being the key to the possible regrowth and recovery of humanity itself, the reality of what was real, what was a lie and what was anything or nothing at all as portrayed by the collection of high technology, had overwhelmed Star to the point where she could only react to one imperious demand. She had to protect and survive the band, and before encountering the complex, or any of the entities placed there, she had to come to terms with what she believed about them, no matter how conditional or based upon limited information. If the band didn’t survive, then nothing mattered. The human race would have to fend for itself, which it was doing in a poor haphazard fashion, but it was doing it or none of them would have made it as far as they had.

“Are the Distants real?” Ninety-One asked, the robot’s voice very quiet and not carrying well under the muffling effect of the pine’s branches and needles.

Star turned her head to stare at the machine’s stalk, the vertical pipe-like column that ran vertically up from a boxy base set in between the two tracks giving the thing great propulsive capability.

Even though Ninety-One’s voice was so soft, the import of the question was so great that all conversation, no matter how guarded, stopped.

“Why would you ask that question?” Star countered, caught at a complete loss, simply because the damaged service robot had once again nailed the entire reason for their departure from the complex with one simple but penetrating question.

“The answer is why the band is gathered here in this forest,” Ninety-One replied.

“Are the Distants real?” Star asked the machine, after considering for a few seconds, only to realize that no other question really mattered in their circumstance.

“You need to ask the right questions,” Wren whispered to Star, gliding slowly across the needles until she sat herself down nearly-touching Star and with her left forearm resting upon the robot’s right track.

“I know, I know,” Star agreed, quiet frustration in her voice. Although Ninety-One had proven its trust time after time the entity was still a logical mess of an artificial intelligence.

“Ninety-One, have you ever seen a Distant?” Wren asked.

“No,” the robot replied, nearly instantly. “No Distant has ever had any contact physically with any created entity on this planet that is known.”

“How were the entities created, then?” Wren went on, her tone quiet and soothing, as if she was coaxing a young child.

“Belief,” Ninety-One replied, after almost a full minute of machine thinking.

“Belief?” Wren and Star asked at exactly the same time.

“We are told of the Distants,” Ninety-One reported, now wasting no time in responding. “We are told that we are created by the Distants. We are told by the Distants what to do in certain situations. But we only know this by belief.”

“As I imagined,” Star said, more to herself than Wren or the robot. “The trains. Why would advanced aliens have trains at all? The transport. Did it really rise up above the atmosphere of earth or was that all theater? Did the transport hover because it conquers gravity or only because it conquers a passenger’s ability to perceive it as such? And why would the aliens not dispense with low life scum like Sly and his band have proven to be? Where’s the belief in all that Ninety-One?”

“We possess five high-powered rifles, some smaller issues and one hundred and twenty-seven rounds of ammunition,” Ninety-One unaccountably replied.

“Why did you respond that way, Ninety-One?” Wren asked, rising to her feet and beginning to look around.

“Sly and his band are viable, armed and present,” the robot replied. “It would be good if the band formed a perimeter of defense.”

“Damn,” Star said, suddenly and fully aware that the conversation had caused her to forget that the band was in the middle of the forest without any security at all.

Jameson, Wren, and Star went to work getting the kids marginally dug in under the pine needles, while forming a rough perimeter, arming Val, Theo and True, along with the rifles Star and Jameson carried. Once oriented and facing out from the band Star asked Ninety-One another question.

“Is at all possible that earlier humans built all this in order to allow some of us to survive when we found it?” she asked, hoping against hope the robot would say something to support that finding. The very idea of the Distants and contact with an off-world intelligence sacred her down to her very core.

“Belief,” Ninety-One replied, again, but this time went on. “My personal analysis is that the materials, the technology, devices, and age of molecular composition of such things as we have would seem to indicate that the Distants are not only real but must be real for the band’s future survival.”

“Now, that was a good question,” Wren said, from her position not far away.

“Why have you thrown in with our band?” Star asked. “It’s not logical that a being such as yourself would be able to do that or want to do that even if it was able.”

“Belief,” Ninety-One answered.

“You believe in us?” Star asked, surprised by the one-word answer, so consistently given to so many questions.

“No, you believed in me,” the robot replied.

Star stared out over the top of her rifle, astounded by the reply. She had not believed in the robot and was still having a hard time doing that, yet it appeared almost certain that Ninety-One thought itself a trusted member of their group. How would that be possible of a human created machine? Were the Distants real? If they were real, Star was coming to think, they had to be about the most complex creatures alive.

“Humans approach,” Ninety-One said, the big machine re-orienting itself a few degrees by turning one of its treads.

“What drives Sly & his band?” Jameson whispered. “What do they have to gain?”

“Belief,” Wren answered, copying Ninety-One. “They have nothing else to do, the way they probably see it. They don’t even care about the future or what all this might mean to the future of humanity.”

“Where are they?” Wren asked the robot, “and are you going to help us?”

“You may not trust the complex completely,” Ninety-One replied. “I do not. You must not trust the dwelling completely. I do not. You must not trust nodes at all except for the deep underground singularity. But the transport is different.”

“The transport dumped us out and wouldn’t go anywhere,” Star hissed at the robot, trying not to think about the mention of a singularity.

“The Distants prevented that through Jordan’s interpretation,” Ninety-One replied.

“If we can’t talk to the Distants directly then how are we to have any of this belief you’re talking about?” Star continued, her anger unabated.

“There is also a machine traveling through the lower forest in this direction, calculated to arrive in just under four minutes,” Ninety-One stated, its tone turning ominous, in Star’s opinion.

“What kind of machine are we talking about?” Jameson asked.

“We presume that the humans are Sly and his band, Ninety-One, but is the machine with them or moving independently?” Star stared down the barrel of her weapon, looking for any movement under the trees, but there was none.

“The machine is silent, only detectable from its emanations,” the robot replied, but only delaying a few seconds before adding, “and the humans number approximates twenty, in my opinion.”

“How is it that you have an opinion at all?” Jameson said over his shoulder, his own attention taken up by studying the forest for the arrival of whatever was coming. “How is it that you talk, think and give human opinions at all? That was never possible, even in the past, according to everything we know.”

“Good point,” Wren added. “If you’re the product of alien technology, as you claim, then why don’t you think and speak like an alien? But you don’t. It’s as if you’re more human than we are, almost like there’s a human hiding inside your machinery.”

“I don’t know,” Ninety-One replied. “I do know that you are my band and that I will do whatever you need if that means anything.

“Well, it does,” Jameson replied. “So, go on out there and be the advance guard. Find out who they are and what the machine is and do something about it.”

Several seconds passed. Ninety-One began to move forward, carefully avoiding running over Wren or Star’s prone figures.

“Stop,” Star ordered.

The robot stopped its forward progress.

“The only machine that might be moving in the forest would be the transport. I don’t know why it would not take our orders earlier, but it is moving now and I don’t think it’s in support of Sly and the others. Their continued existence has to have something to do with Jordan and whatever game the Distants, and or the complex, is playing.”

“The transport behind them and Ninety-One in front of them,” Wren agreed. “What do we do?”

“We wait, and quietly withdraw,” Star replied, crawling to her knees. “We have allies, I think, and whatever’s going on is a lot bigger than Sly’s band competing with our own for possession of this small piece of the planet.”

“Ninety-One, you stay and represent the band,” Star ordered. Use whatever you have that can defend you from what’s coming. You have to know that the transport is creeping along behind Sly. Do what you think must be done. Rejoin us when you can.”

Star gathered the band and crept ever deeper into the forest, leaving Ninety-One facing whatever was coming.

“What do you think will happen?” Jameson asked, walking at her side.

“I think we need to be totally free of all we have encountered for a bit, just to see what comes out in the wash. I don’t know what to believe about anything, but it scares me when machines start talking about such things. We either know too much for our own good right now, or we know almost nothing at all. Let’s try to find out which it is.”

<<<<<< The Beginning of Book One | Next Chapter >>>>>>

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