ISLAND IN THE SAND
Book 2 Part II
Star stepped forward and stared down into the canyon bottom far below. The distance was such that it would never occur to any human to wonder about what a fall into it might cause in the way of bodily damage. A fall would be a one-way flight to instant painful oblivion.
The stone that lined both sides of the canyon was cracked and broken, with chips fallen away over the years to provide slight rises along the bottom creases of the vertical walls as she looked down. There had been no path to her current location. There had only been the soft floor of the nearly perfectly laid out pine forest to guide her along. The forest, when thought about, was as perfect as almost everything else was that was a part of, or surrounded the energy complex area.
Out before her stretched the bridge. The bridge Star had learned of only in passing. The bridge that had been there all along, but the seemingly limitless view was available only from the outer extremity of the dwelling’s back look out, and so had remained invisible, even though it was only another mile or so up the canyon. Star moved toward the open entrance and examined how the metal twined edifice was connected to the stone along the top of the canyon lip. After only a few seconds cursory examinations, there was no question that the structure had been attached to the top of the wall of the canyon for a very long time.
Star shrugged to herself. Another suspicion had been laid to rest. The bridge had not been created nearly instantly for her to cross. Immediate evidence of more activity controlled by the Distants was not there, which provided at least a momentary feeling of relief. But the bridge itself, and the extent of its downward curving and unsupported projection across the open air above the valley provided a rapid replacement of fear to overcome her foreboding.
Star breathed deeply in and out, looking at the faintly moving structure. The length of the narrow footbridge was daunting all by itself. The canyon was so wide that the downward swooping curve of the latticed footbridge disappeared into a point because of distance perspective. Star was certain its actual span was the same size all through its crossing from one side to the other.
She was alone. She was alone by choice. Only Ninety-One knew where she was and what she was attempting. The rest of the band, from Jameson all the way down to the smallest of the children would have appealed against her attempting the crossing, or insisted upon her not going alone. Ninety-One was too big and heavy to even consider the crossing, so there had been no request by the robot to accompany her. The robot had simply indicated that the crossing was unnecessary for the band’s short-term survival and therefore should not be conducted. The mystery that might be resolved by whatever Star found could only be of marginal importance compared to that. Star, however, keeping her own counsel, still was not totally buying into the Distants living and communicating from a distant star complex, and still not totally sold on the idea that any artificial intelligence, even one so proven and seemingly dedicated and loyal as Ninety-One, had the best interests of human survival as a basic program.
The transport had performed brilliantly in repulsing the latest attempt by Sly and his band to hurt or kill Star and her own kids, but Star would not yet trust it to transport her anywhere, particularly not somewhere that the entirety of the artificial intelligence entities, including Ninety-One didn’t want her to go. The phrase “underground singularity,” inadvertently mentioned by Ninety-One earlier in the day when under duress and speaking about something else, had not gotten by Star. The word singularity had bitten too deep and gone too far back. Her father had mentioned the word to her before his death. The word that was bandied about by early scientists trying to survive the world-wide catastrophe, as possibly the cause for the asteroid strike to occur without any warning. Star had listened to Jordan explain that the asteroid had been a deliberate act intended to destroy the Distants under an ocean base, but that was still just talking as far as she was concerned. She could not afford to believe the entity, not after the deliberate lies it had told, with the dwelling entity not far behind.
Ninety-One had pinpointed where the singularity was located and how it needed to be approached. The robot had not ruled out using the transport, but time after time, it had gone back to recommending that the crossing of the canyon be performed by using the footbridge as some sort of prerequisite to gaining entry underground on the other side. Star hadn’t quite believed the span would be where it was. but she was standing only a foot from one cable support. She reached out and touched the metal with her right hand, then instantly pulled it back in shock. It was like the metal had reached back to her.
Star stood and breathed in deeply. She reached out again, this time gripping the warm metal firmly, before letting the air of her lungs out fully when the metal didn’t react at all.
“I’ve been recorded somehow, I think,” she said out to the canyon air but knew she had no choice. She would have to walk across the frightfully thin metal path, holding onto the chest high rails for dear life.
Once she began, the journey became much easier. Star didn’t look outward or at the far canyon wall. She stared at the roughened metal tread down in front of her and put one foot in front of the other, sliding her hands over the cool, but not cold, metal. There was wind, but it wasn’t an interfering element. The metal footbridge also did not move much under her, as she thought it would. She counted to keep her mind off the height. Two thousand four hundred steps later she stepped onto the metal plate set down on the other side. Star had to stop and breathe in and out deeply.
“So far so good,” she finally said, although there was nobody there or insight.
The rock Star strode upon was cracked and fissured everywhere, making it difficult to navigate across without constantly staring down and watching where she placed her feet each and every time she put one of them forward and down. There were no structures, other than the end of the metal footbridge complex of cables and bars. If the singularity was underground, as it was stated to be by Ninety-One, the robot that never had been known to lie, it was well hidden from anyone trying to enter from above. Star didn’t have the benefit of unlimited time. The band was back in the forest and needed her. Jameson was capable, Wren was bright, and Val and Theo were as dependable as it was possible to be, but Star still worried. None of them understood the complexity of what the whole thing might be about, to the point where they looked at her as if there was possibly something wrong with her sanity. What were they doing out in the forest when the complex and dwelling offered near total protection from the elements, provided more comfortable sleeping places than existed anywhere else in their lives, as well as food and clothing in seemingly endless amounts?
Star worried and wondered herself if she was not being too suspicious, too paranoid or looking at the whole thing as more of a threat to her leadership position, rather than as the greater good for everyone else in the band. She walked carefully back to the footbridge and stepped a few feet out onto it. She was a bit higher there and could see farther across the nearly flat top portion of the canyon wall. Her eyes missed nothing, but there was nothing to see. She looked down into the canyon in frustration and disappointment. Her eyes searched for an answer to the mystery for almost a full half minute without Star’s brain understanding.
The lattice of metal work finally jumped out at her from under the footbridge. Star moved back to the metal structure securing the footbridge to the rock surface along the edge of the precipice. There was a barely imperceptible half-curved hole along one side. Star moved closer to the edge and looked down. There was a very short ladder leading directly into the wall. The ladder curved and then disappeared twenty or thirty feet down into a nearly invisible cleft.
Star used the same procedure to navigate the stairs that she’d used on the footbridge. There were forty-one stairs. They were harder to climb down because they were made of a nearly transparent lattice of crisscrossing metal rods.
She entered the cleft, moving sideways to fit through the narrow gap, after carefully counting her way down.
“Maybe it’s made for Distants,” she said out loud, but not hesitating to continue.
Forty-one more steps later and she stood in an alcove that extended out to be about the same size as an average bedroom in the dwelling. The narrow passage and the alcove had become lighted from above as she’d moved through them. At the end of the alcove, the only feature evident at all was located in the flat end wall.
Almost the whole wall was taken up by what gave every appearance of being an old bank vault. Star had only been in one leftover bank in her life. That bank had fallen into disuse prior to the asteroid strike. Her teacher had said that it was built before physical money was basically discontinued. The only clear memory of the visit had been the vault door, which had stood gaping open as if robbers had entered and taken everything.
Star approached until she was only a few feet away from the thing that had to weigh several tons.
The door clicked loudly, and then mechanical parts could be heard moving for fully half a minute.
And then there was silence.
The door cracked open a few inches.
Star pushed the heavy metal door fully open. Why it had clicked and then opened slightly at her approach she didn’t know. She had told no one exactly where she would be simply because there would have been no way to describe the elaborate trail she’d followed to be inside the underground chamber. Something, or someone, knew she was there and whatever person or entity knew had unlocked the door to allow her access.
The metal door was three times as wide as an ordinary door and about ten times as thick. There was no pushing it open, only a steady application of pressure could be used to make it move.
The room, or whatever she stepped to move into, was dark. Only the light seeping in from the corridor provided any light at all. She had not brought a flashlight or anything to create a light. She stood still and waited. For all she knew a great chasm might be open right in front of her. There was nothing that could be taken for granted in dealing with the forces she and her band had so far encountered since plunging down the hole, not unlike Alice plummeting down into Wonderland from the old fables.
Nothing happened. Star grew frustrated. She could not stay long. Her band was still encamped in the forest not far from the other end of the footbridge. They would not wait there forever. They would come for her and that she didn’t want. There was a tremendous risk in what she was doing and she knew it. She was looking in areas where she’d been told not to look by forces so powerful she could no longer even imagine how powerful they were. But her band could not go back to wandering through the forest like a small tribe of early American Indians. Sly was still out there, once again having snubbed his nose at killing or conquering them, and the natural forces of hunger, exposure and disease remained nearly as dangerous as Sly and his evil band.
“I can’t wait here forever,” Star said, out into the blackness.
The door suddenly closed, much quicker than she’d opened it. The sound of locking bars engaging was frightening, as Star found herself still standing, but now in total darkness. She blinked her eyes, but it made no difference. The darkness was so complete that she felt slight vertigo. It was difficult to tell what was up or down.
“I guess I can wait forever, if that’s your wish,” Star got out, her voice a bit shaky from the very idea that her words might prove to be true.
“That is true, but not accurate in this case,” a female voice said, the sound coming from seeming everywhere.
Star thought as fast as she could. All the artificial entities had spoken with male voices. She’d imagined the Distants, if they existed, to be males. She thought of herself, Wren, and the other females in her band as a lonely minority in a hard male-dominated world.
“Females are life,” the voice said. “Males participate in life.”
“I don’t have any idea about what to think of that,” Star answered warily, trying to come to terms about what this new entity was and why they were talking about what seemed to be vitally interesting nonsense.
“Females are life? Oh please, give me a break!” she whispered to herself, too quietly for anyone or anything to hear.
“It is presumed that you would require some light,” the entity said. Star wondered if she was as comfortable with a female voice as she was with Ninety-One’s decidedly male tone.
“Is this going to be one of those magic lamp things, where I get three wishes?” Star shot back, as the light came at her from everywhere.
“There are no wishes here,” the voice replied. “There are only logical conclusions based upon facts and direction.”
The light built to such an intensity that Star had to cover her eyes.
“You will adjust, as I drop the level of illumination in the areas near to where you wait.”
The voice was as good as its word. The light dropped to the point where Star could bring her hand down. She looked straight ahead and then began to stare. She was inside another chamber, like the chamber where the energy complex was located, but much larger. But that wasn’t what held her total attention. The chamber was occupied by a floating sphere. The sphere was the earth. The sphere was moving very slowly, imitating the earth’s rotation.
“I have used a viewing version of the planet based upon how humans have come to see up and down. The poles of the north and south are top and bottom.”
“I got it,” Star breathed, unable to take in more than a little bit of everything that was in front of her. The beauty of the planet was stunning, the colors vibrant and alive, almost as if the rotating orb before her was the real thing instead of some truly advanced representation, which it had to be.
“Where am I?” Star asked, finally able to begin thinking rationally again.
“Where I planned for you to be,” the voice replied.
“You? I happened to hear Ninety-One mention your existence and then forced him to give me directions to get here. I made him promise to tell no one else.”
“You have faith and confidence in this Ninety-One robot?” the voice asked.
“He’s the only one of you artificial intelligences who’s been straight with me. He’s now a member of my band, so yes, I trust him.
“Thank you,” the voice said.
“Thank you for what?” Star asked, surprised.
“The service robot was never damaged,” the voice said. “I’m Ninety-One.”
“Hello Star Black, administrator, and leader of our band,” Ninety-One said, in his own voice, although Star knew the real robot was back in the forest.