ISLAND IN THE SAND
Book 2 Part VI
Star stood staring at the console. There was no question about what action she was going to take. That was dictated simply by the fact that the survival of the band had to be central to everything she did. Her mission was the band. Her life was the band, and that meant getting back to it as quickly as possible. What was happening with the tribes assembled above the underground complex wasn’t known, except Sly gave every appearance of being an important player in whatever they were up to. Whatever that was could not be seen as anything that included the comfortable survival of her band. Whatever Ninety-One might be waiting outside to impart to her was vital, had to be vital she knew, but it was also vital to attempt to maintain some kind of control she could over the complex. That meant dealing with Jordan, and accepting the obvious fact that the artificial intelligence had been given the very human ability to be duplicitous when it came to serving its own masters and mission.
“Jordan,” Star began, keeping her voice controlled, “I’ve got to know what’s going on with respect to Sly and the tribes gathering in the forest above.”
“I do not understand the question, Star Black. Please be more specific.”
“You revived Sly in time for him to meet up with the tribal leaders, but you did not warn me about either his revival or their appearance.”
“There was no specific time designated for inducing an unconscious state in either Sly or any of the other humans with him,” Jordan responded, the machine’s tone flat and without emotion. “The other humans, which you are no doubt referring to as ‘the tribes,’ arrived without prior announcement.”
Star did not miss the fact that Jordan did not say “without warning.”
Yet the sensory apparatus possessed by the complex had to be incredibly sensitive since it had detected her own band’s initial presence when it first appeared on the ground above.
“Okay, Jordan,” Star replied, her own voice as flat as the artificial intelligence’s, “I understand that you have your own agenda here. Is that agenda, whatever it is, somehow tied in with the singularity?”
Jordan did not respond to the question, instead remained silent.
Star waited the entity out. Minutes passed. Finally, Jordan spoke.
“Are we to proceed with the installations requested earlier?”
Star wanted to blurt out all kinds of things, like “who do you mean by ‘we,’” but she restrained herself. Obviously, the machine was not going to respond to inquiries about the singularity and any collusion that might exist. But, in spite of her mistrust of the singularity, Jordan and even the Distants, Star realized she had no other plan to execute in order to stop the tribes from digging in and somehow penetrating the outer protections of the complex and destroying it. The detonation of such a huge bomb would certainly transmit the idea that they faced a much more powerful force than a fugitive woman and some kids. Mistrust nearly overwhelmed her. She was making decisions about things that she had no understanding of or control over.
“Wait right here,” Star finally said, realizing a few seconds later how dumb that sounded. The complex, and Jordan as a part of it, weren’t going anywhere.
Star grabbed her rifle and motioned for Jameson to undo the hatch.
“I will await your instructions, Star Black, administrator.”
Once again, Star faltered a bit as she headed to the open hatch with Jameson. Prior to saying what he’d just said, the entity had regarded Star’s ‘instructions’ as orders, even if it had fought tooth and nail to interpret those orders to fit its own unknown agenda.
“Close the hatch,” Star said to Jameson, once they were outside. She knew Jordan had eyes and ears everywhere but she wanted as much secrecy as she could get in talking to Ninety-One.
The robot sat where they’d left it, a small gaping hole evident in its thick vertical stalk.
“What is it?” Star asked the robot, leaning across its right tread to get as close to its centrally located, but invisible, speaker.
“The locations of the supplies and explosives,” Ninety-One replied. “You must ask the locations where the supplies have already been laid down and where the explosives are being transported in.”
“What the hell do the locations have to do with anything?” Jameson asked.
Star stood up straight, her mind whirling.
“They mean everything,” she breathed out, her thoughts going back to the answer she’d been given when she’d casually asked about the possible intent the Distants might have interacting with the planet before and after the asteroid strike.
“The hatch,” Star said to Jameson, moving away from the robot to the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s going on?” Jameson asked, once again struggling to pull the heavy metal hatch open.
Star went through the opening, holding her weapon across her chest. She wasn’t sure what she should do with it, but she definitely felt a need to discharge a bullet into the center of the console. She breathed deep, upon arriving in front of it, carefully putting the rifle down on the deck next to her right foot. The complex was vital to the future of mankind if there was to be a future. It was so obvious to her, in finally thinking about it after all she and the band had been through, that the current crop of surviving humans wasn’t making it. Ignorance, division, and utter poverty were consuming everyone who’d managed to survive the diminishing generations since the big event.
If the Distants, existing as they very likely might, wanted them all dead, there was very little evidence to suggest she would be standing alive in front of the console, much less any other human being on the planet. Whatever was happening was not truly understandable from what she knew, and that was maddening. The more Star learned the more she felt she didn’t know. Was there a way through? Was there hope for humanity, or was some distance alien race toying with her and the rest of life on earth for its own entertainment? Were the machines a product of the former developments of a prior period where mankind had been so advanced as to have the results of its development so unbelievable? Were the Distants a product of the artificial intelligences since they’d spent so many years programming and reprogramming themselves?
“Please indicate to me, on this console, the locations of the food supply being provided and where the explosives are being placed nearby, and some scale to measure that placement by.” Star stared down at the top surface of the rectangular console.
The surface remained unlit and blank for a few seconds before an image appeared. Star leaned over and worked to interpret the details presented in the image before her. She moved the index finger of her right hand to trace the small distance between where an image of a knife and fork lay crossed and blinking to a short distance only a fingernail wide where a red-skull-and-crossbones was placed. There was no other red color on the display. Star took her fingernail and placed it at the bottom of the display, setting it atop a line with mile designations on it. Without saying anything further to Jordan she backed up, picked up her rifle and headed toward the hatch.
“What’d we find?” Jameson asked of her, but Star didn’t respond.
Upon reaching Ninety-One’s right tread again, she leaned over.
“One half mile, almost exactly, according to the scale that Jordan showed me on the display,” she said, looking at her fingernail as she spoke.
“The lethal blast radius of a five-kiloton device, conventional or nuclear, is approximately two miles from the ground zero detonation spot. Half the humans between one and two miles from the blast will die and other half be substantially damaged.
“And within that single mile?” Star asked, her voice tone sadder than angry.
“One hundred percent fatality rate from the over-pressure caused by the atmospheric compression.”
“What about the forest?” Star went on.
“One hundred percent,” Ninety-One replied.
“What do we do?” She finally said, her thoughts on the rifle re-strapped to her shoulder.
“Move the location of the blast to more than two miles away from where the tribes will be gathered and that will likely assure few fatalities. The forest should also survive such an overpressure quite adequately,” Ninety-One said. When Star didn’t immediately respond, he went on, “Order the blast to be smaller. Cancel it. Think of something else.”
“How do you know these things?” Star blurted out.
“My memory records are fairly vast about such details,” Ninety-One replied.
“No, I mean how do you know that I don’t want to kill them, hurt them or any of that? Those are human emotions. How can you understand what I am feeling and therefore what I might want to do?”
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” the robot said, “but I thought you’d ask it at some point. I accumulate all data that comes to my attention and then make decisions based upon what likely results might be most acceptable.”
“That’s not a satisfactory explanation,” Star answered, her voice rising uncontrollably. “It’s all like this. I can’t understand it and I don’t know what to do.”
“Change the location,” Ninety-One replied, ignoring her outburst.
Star didn’t reply, instead headed for the hatch once more, her rifle off her shoulder, wanting to shoot it at something, anything, but knowing deep in her heart that she could not take the chance of destroying Jordan, and thereby possibly the complex itself.
“Change the location of the blast,” she said tersely to the console, once she was again before it. “Change the location to just over two miles away from the location of the food.”
“Such a change will cause an additional two hours in delivery time before the plan you have designed can be initiated.”
“Do that,” Star ordered. “And do that right now, and then inform me why you placed the explosives so close to the food. The human fatalities would have been enormous and I do not understand how you could not have known that.”
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” Jordan responded.
Star stared at the console, once again bringing her rifle up. Only seconds before Ninety-One had spoken the exact same words, in response to a difficult question.
“What are you trying to tell me?” Star said, lowering her rifle and nearly collapsing to the floor.
Jameson rushed to her side, grabbed her around her waist and then held her close.
“Star, it’s okay,” he said soothingly. “You were out there once, up above, on the run with nothing and nowhere to go, with Sly and his terrible band after you. Now you are here, and the kids are clothed, fed, sheltered and in safety. This is so hard, I know, but it’s okay. You’ll figure it out.”
Star hugged the boy close. “What would I do without you?” she murmured, the dusky closeness of his chest and neck drawing her in, but also giving her strength.
She pulled back slightly, again standing on her own. She tried to gather her wits and work to figure out the complex problem of their survival. Was Ninety-One corrupted? Could Jordan hear everything they said no matter where Ninety-One was located? Was Ninety-One not just some small part of the whole artificial intelligence creature the singularity had alluded to? But how could she trust anything or anyone anymore? With that thought she pulled further back from Jameson, replaced the rifle on her shoulder, using the sling to hold it up. Star realized that she had to trust the members of her band, and that there were two kinds of members. Those that had come through the forest with her on their flight from the tribes and the sea, and those who’d come into the tribe after they’d made the first contact with the complex. True, Harriet, Ninety-One and even Jameson had come after. She walked through the hatch once again, trying to banish such thoughts from her mind. Without True, they would not have survived. Without Harry, they’d never have gotten into the dwelling where the rest of the band was sheltered now. Without Ninety-One they would not have had, nor have, any guide through the maze of the complex or any of the artificial intelligence entities. But, without Jameson, Star wasn’t sure she could go on. How had Jameson simply come to be there when they dropped down, almost literally through a rabbit hole, to end up where they were?
“Are you real?” she asked Jameson, without looking over at him, as they returned to Ninety-One’s side.
The boy didn’t answer, instead, he stopped and hugged her to him again. “Do I feel real?”
“Oh yes, yes,” Star breathed into his ear, hating the fact that the boy hadn’t simply said “yes,” instead of answering in such a way that it sounded a whole lot more like what the singularity or Ninety-One had said several times. She didn’t want the boy to be what she wanted him to be. She just wanted him to be Jameson all on his own. Was he that?
Star disengaged, hating to part from the boy’s wonderfully warm and comforting grasp.
“Close the hatch. We’ve got to get back to the dwelling as quickly as possible, before this whole thing goes up. How do we not kill the very people who seem to need to be killed in order for us to survive? How do we survive if we kill the only other people that there are?” She said the words to the open air of the complex,
Jameson having dutifully returned up the stairs to secure the hatch once more.