The thunder of horse hooves tearing up the forest floor dominated everything, as hundreds of them penetrated the perimeter separating the trees and beds of pine needles from the dry flat grasslands just beyond. Star wasn’t ready for the thundering cacophony and the drama of so many heavy animals, and their likely riders, storming forward, as yet unseen, toward her. She wondered at the wisdom of following Ninety-One’s advice, especially since she wasn’t quite certain the damaged robot was really a damaged robot anymore, or if he’d ever been that in the beginning.

Star stood with Jameson and Ninety-One. The other kids, plus Wren, and True,

Val and Theo had boarded the transport and been taken back to the dwelling. Wren had spoken through Ninety-One about the band’s safe return. Star could tell that Wren had been very relieved to be back in the house. The holes were repaired, like they’d never been punched through the walls, and all evidence of the damage caused by Sly and his band had been erased like it had never been there. The transport had neatly taken them into the garage and then sealed the house off from all entry. Or at least that’s what the dwelling entity assured Wren, as it had once assured Star before her.

Star breathed in and out deeply. The dwelling had lied before. Was it lying now? And where was Sly? He’d supposedly been anesthetized with the other members of his band by the transport, but was that the truth, and also, even if it was, then how long would it take for the anesthesia to wear off? Star clutched her rifle to her chest, standing in the same pose as Jameson next to her. They stood together just adjacent to a lift entrance that would almost instantly take them down to the energy complex, should it magically rise up they could jump in, and then instruct Jordan to take them down. The lift was not visible, as its top was covered by material that looked identical to the soft bed of pine needles all around them.

“We’ve got two rifles and Ninety-One, against thousands, and I don’t like those odds,” Star said to Jameson.

She knew the comment was unnecessary and it was revealing a bit of her own fear, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“Maybe we should just shoot the leader, get aboard the lift, and say the hell with it,” Jameson remarked.

“Leaders,” Star replied, exhaling loudly and then yawning. She knew the yawn wasn’t from tiredness. It was from fear. The forces they’d run from originally, after the disaster at the orphanage along the shore, were nothing to be minimized or underestimated. There were a lot of them, and their rules were strict about the possession or use of materials made by the ancients, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t use those same forbidden artifacts to control and hold their lands and people.

“Why are we staying here, waiting for them?” Jameson asked.

“There is no telling how much damage to the facilities that this type of force might be able to do,” Ninety-One replied. “The intent of these humans and their beasts might not be violent at all. It was considered and decided that we might be induced to inquire about that intent before any more serious action is taken.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jameson hissed back. “First, the beasts are called horses, and I’m sure they don’t have any intent at all. Second, what else but a violent intent would bring all the forces in from the western side of this land to come together and charge into this forest? And finally, you are risking nothing here. We are risking our lives. You’re a robot. You can’t be killed like us.”

“I am unaware of what level of intellect these horses might enjoy,” Ninety-One replied, ignoring the rest of what Jameson said.

Star laughed for a few seconds before commenting. “Jameson, as you pointed out, he’s not human. Human motivation has been absent from everything we’ve learned from, and about, these artificial intellects, or whatever they really may be.”

“Why can’t the transport just anesthetize all of them, as it did with Sly and his band,” Jameson shot back, frustration evident in his tone. “Then we can just sort among the bodies and decide what we might do. This waiting for an advancing force of thousands is a bad idea.”

“The humans would survive the vibrational adjustment to their being that the transport would apply,” Ninety-One responded. “The larger animals would not. Is it your intent to change the plan that the singularity designed?”

“We’re not killing the horses,” Star said, “and besides, I thought you were the singularity too.”

“What do you need me to be?” Ninety-One replied.

“Not this again,” Jameson stated, his tone one of near exasperation.

Suddenly, the sound of the approaching thunder of hooves stopped, and the forest grew eerily silent.

“Okay, what are they up to now, and how fast can that lift rise up, open and get us the hell out of here?” Jameson asked.

“Approximately seven-point-seven seconds,” Ninety-One replied.

“Enough,” Star hissed, her voice low. “Down,” she whispered, going first to her knees and then laying down flat, her rifle pointed in the direction the sounds had come from. Jameson joined her.

Soon, walking horses could be distinctly heard, close by and approaching. Out of the heavier forest and into the clearing before them, about fifty meters away, four horses with riders appeared. Star observed that none of them seemed to be armed with rifles.

“Oh my God,” Jameson said, clicking the safety off of his rifle.

“Sly,” Star whispered. “Ninety-One, I thought he was down and out with the others of his band.”

“You ordered them anesthetized, not terminated,” the robot replied. “The effect can be very short or not so short. Since the order was unclear, the transport made its own decision about that length of time.”

“Made its own decision,” Jameson repeated. “We’re going to be killed because of idiot robots making their own decisions! This is insane. Can I just shoot Sly, right now?”

“No, don’t shoot,” Star answered. “Thousands, remember the ‘thousands’ out there. You might shoot him, and we get away on the lift, but what then? They stay up here, occupy the forest and surround the dwelling? All they have to do is camp and wait? There’s no resolution in any of that, and we’re not going to live out our lives like trapped animals inside some zoo, no matter how well protected or fed.”

The four horsemen approached. Star observed that Sly wore some sort of black costume with a cape, looking every bit his evil self. He was younger than the other three, all older men in their forties or fifties she guessed. They wore heavier fur, which was odd because it wasn’t cold.   Star got to her feet, brushing herself off. She didn’t want to show fear of them or be at more of a height disadvantage than the horse already gave the approaching men. Jameson followed her lead.

“I’m called grandfather,” the eldest man said, stopping his horse about ten meters away.

His vocal tone was deep, demanding and so dramatic that Star wanted to obey him. She resisted.

“No,” Star replied, her voice flat and cold.

“No, what?” the man asked in surprise, his horse slowly turning back and forth under him.

Star waited. Obviously, the man was not a horseman, she observed, wondering what else he was or wasn’t.

“No, I won’t call you grandfather, and neither will anyone else here. Try using your given name.”

Sly laughed out loud, his own horse as poorly controlled as the man calling himself ‘grandfather.’

“I told you about her. She’ll negotiate you out of your horse if you’re not careful.”

“Ronald,” the man said, “Robert Ronald, and I’m in charge of this combined force.”

“Two first names,” Jameson whispered over to Star. “He has two first names. Nobody has two first names. Just let me shoot him.”

“Would you stop with the shooting people thing?” Star whispered back.

“Why are you here?” Star asked of the man, getting straight to the point, wishing it wouldn’t take almost eight seconds to get aboard the lift and escape if need be. Sly, and the men in front of her had an unpleasant aura surrounding them that she couldn’t pin down, but it made her uncomfortable.

“Why are you here?” Ronald replied, his horse still fidgeting.

Star again chose silence instead of a quick reply. Why she was there she knew should be evident, since she wasn’t being asked who she was and obviously, since none of the men had paid the least bit of attention to the existence of Ninety-One, they’d had plenty of preparation for the meeting from Sly.

“We came with a large force…” Ronald began, but Star cut him off.

“You have two thousand-four hundred and forty men beyond the edge of this forest, many on horses,” Star informed him. “Why are you here?”

“How can you know that?” Ronald blurted out, obviously shocked with what Star knew, in detail, about his force.

“I told you,” Sly said, and then laughing again.

“You’re carrying weapons of the ancients that are prohibited,” Ronald finally stated. “The punishment for both of you is death. But we’re willing to overlook that. The word coming back to us is that there is almost an unlimited amount of old food stores here that have somehow remained edible. Our crops have not gone well and hunting is limited further west.”

“You might do better at hunting if you changed your rules and allowed rifles,” Jameson said, caressing his own weapon lovingly.

“There are warehouses underground right here,” Sly said to Ronald. “We can get them if these weird robots will stand aside. They have strange powers to make us sleep or forget things though.”

“As you’ve proven, about the sleep and forgetting thing,” Ronald said, but his tone was contemplative, not attacking of Sly.

“Is it true?” Ronald asked Star.

Star looked over at Jameson and then leaned to whisper in his ear. “I’m stalling. I don’t know the answer when it comes to feeding tens or hundreds of thousands of people, because we haven’t gotten that far along yet.”

“Ask Ninety-One. I don’t know either.”

“I figured,” Star replied. “That’s the answer I came to, as well, but they might react to my talking to a robot and do something stupid.”

“I can shoot each and every one, starting with Sly, before they can get away,” the boy said, flicking his eyes at one man after another in front of him.

“The horses are wonderful,” Star replied, trying to smile slightly at the men in front of her. “Don’t hit the horses, if you have to shoot.”

“I must consult with this machine,” Star said to Ronald, waving at the big tracked robot next to her. “The machines down below control the food and its distribution.”

“Consult whoever you want, there are people starving back home,” Ronald replied, looking like he was growing more impatient by the moment.

Star knew that the three men, unlike Sly, were using almost superhuman control to overcome their prejudice about a woman talking to them as an equal, or greater, not to mention the presence of the verboten rifles; and then there was the issue of Ninety-One. Ninety-One spoke before Star asked her question.

“I can produce a nearly unlimited supply of the foods I have witnessed humans consuming, including the packaging and supply necessary, to care for the eating needs of the vastly huge populations where these beings appear to originate from.”

The robot’s words rebounded off the nearby trees, the robot’s voice was so loud, penetrating and clear, making it seem as if the robot had spoken to larger groups of humans before. Ninety-One had to know that it was talking to the collected group, which was once more impressive to Star.

“Why don’t we just take the machine,” one of the other men asked of Ronald, making no effort to hide what he was saying. “We have plenty of men and the horses to carry it. These humans can be executed in order to please the gods, and in punishment for breaking the laws of this land.”

“Ninety-One,” Star whispered while turning to walk the short distance to its side. “How long will it take to get the transport here and placed just behind us?”

“About three minutes,” the robot replied, its voice not muted and carrying strongly enough to reach the men before her.

“Get it here, now, as quickly as possible.”

With the men so close, and with Sly’s advanced knowledge of how much of the complex worked, Star didn’t feel comfortable enough having to risk full exposure for almost eight seconds in order to get away if it became necessary without the transport for backup. Having Ronald and his men see the transport and recognize its worth had suddenly become of less importance, considering what Sly had no doubt told them already than their surviving an attack where they were.

As if on command, the more distant horsemen, accompanied by men on foot, began bleeding out of the forest behind the four in front of Star.

“There’s no need for whatever sort of thing you are trying to do,” Ronald said, smiling the most artificial smile Star had ever seen.

“The robot’s a violation of the law, like the rifles and it must be destroyed,” the same man on Ronald’s flank said, waving at Ninety-One. “What an abomination!” he yelled loudly, trying to point at the robot but also work at controlling his mount.

In spite of Ronald’s words of moderation, the dramatic verbal attack of his henchman had an effect. The other man accompanying Ronald began nodding vigorously with him, and, it seemed to Star, that the speed of the approaching forces had increased, as well.

“The food, remember the food,” Sly said. “Don’t do anything to mess that up.

His words surprised Star. The evil leader and killer that she knew Sly to be was the single voice that appeared to be attempting to apply reason to an escalating violent situation.

“The food,” Star repeated, gauging the speed at which emotions were rising in front of her. “You need the food,” she repeated, no longer caring about providing anything in the way of supplies.

She was playing for time.

“I don’t think we have much choice here,” Ronald replied.

The transport dropped out of the sky. Unlike its former approaches, where it had eased down, and then slid along just above the grounds surface, the huge ovoid cylinder dropped straight down in silence, to rest not more than a few meters behind Star, Jameson, and Ninety-One.

All four horses reared back, as debris under the heavy craft blasted out in all directions, from the air pressure instantly exerted down upon it. While all four men in front of her fought for control of their horses, and the much larger forces across the clearing began running forward to support them, Star turned to Ninety-One again.

“The lift, now,” she ordered.

The transport moved a few meters back as a block of forest floor rose up in the air. The lift doors opened soundlessly, with the bright light of the interior shining out like a beacon. The effect did nothing to stabilize the situation in front of Star, however, as bedlam was setting in. The larger forces made it across the clearing and there seemed no stopping them.

“The lift Ninety-One, get on,” Star yelled, the approaching horses of the main force beginning to drown out all sound, as they galloped to close in.

The robot moved faster than either Star or Jameson, and quickly entered the lift. Jameson and Star made it inside less than two seconds later, just as the doors closed behind them.

The lift descended instantly, so quickly it threw both Jameson and Star straight into the air. Both of their rifles flew from their hands, and then slammed down on the floor as the lift suddenly stopped. The robot, Star, and Jameson fell, together somehow missing the weapons.

“Have the transport depart back to the dwelling, but make it a dramatic departure,” Star ordered, getting to her feet with difficulty, and taking her rifle up from the floor and pointing it in front of her, “and open the lift doors in whatever space we’ve come down to.”

“I’m not sure that they really intended to hurt us, but I’m not taking any chances,” Star said, as the doors opened and she looked out over the main chamber of the energy complex.

“I’m hit,” Ninety-One said from behind them.

Star turned to look back at the robot. A small spear stuck out of its main vertical stalk.

“I think you’re wrong about that hurting our thing,” Jameson observed.