ISLAND IN THE SAND

Book II Part VII

No sooner had Jameson secured the hatch, then Star realized that she had not asked or advised Jordan about the exact timing under which the careful shock tactic they were planning would be implemented. With Ninety-One no longer able to directly communicate with Jordan, the transport, the dwelling, or even the singularity, there could be no mobile warning or advice when they moved. She climbed the stairs to stand just behind, Jameson as he again re-opened the hatch. She explained the communications problem and what dangers might arise from not being able to speak to the entities or get advice when they moved.

“The transport,” Jameson said, pushing the giant round door inward.

“What about it?” Star asked, brushing by the boy while entering the chamber.

“The transport communicates with them all, and it moves around,” Jameson replied.

“But it’s so big,” Star breathed, wondering why she said the words. What difference did it make how substantial the transport was? There were few places it couldn’t go, and it had demonstrated that capability time after time just in appearing just outside the space they were currently in. How had it gotten from the outside to deep down inside the energy chamber before, and then back out again, without any seeming effort?

“Jordan,” Star said to the console top. “What time is this all set to go off?”

“The food supply will be at the designated position in minutes,” the entity replied. “The explosives are almost all transported and placed to release their energy in an upward shaped fashion, instead of a more normal ground blast.”

Star listened, but was once again surprised at how easily the artificial intellect was able to not answer a question directly. The information imparted was so interesting and critical that it took almost all thought away from the question she’d asked.

“What time?” Star asked, not about to be swayed from her course.

“The forces in the forest will be alerted as soon as you indicate that is to be done,” Jordan said. “There is no way to truly approximate how long it will take for the humans to react and proceed to retrieve the supplies. Given the nature of our vibrational sensors and with some assistance from a high perspective, the explosive could be ignited at four p.m., give or take a few moments. It is possible that an adjustment might be made as more information flows in.”

“I want the transport here to take us back to the dwelling as quickly as you can arrange that,” Star ordered, her voice terse and hard. “And what were you going to do if I hadn’t come back to inquire about everything?”

“Some things just seem to work out the way they are supposed to,” Jordan replied.

Star wanted to laugh. She’d read years before at the orphanage about an expression that was used often in the pre-asteroid world. “Things always work out for the best.” That expression had passed into history with the destruction of seventy percent of the planet’s land mass area.

“You can still communicate with the dwelling, correct?” Star asked.

“That’s true, Star Black Administrator,” Jordan replied, without any of the normal delay that had developed between them in their communications with one another of late. “I’m not certain at all that I cannot still communicate with your service robot either. There appears nothing wrong, and I’ve run extensive scans of its hardware and software. There may be some deliberation at work here.”

The air wafted in and out of the chamber’s open hatch, and a faint whirring sound could be heard.

Star stepped around the console and looked out on the flat floor running beyond the complex moat. The transport hovered a few meters above the surface, obviously waiting. Star hated the way the entities did things. Jordan hadn’t bothered to inform her that the transport had arrived, or that that meant the explosives had to be in place, since they apparently had nothing else to carry them in,

“Notify the tribes, or Sly, or whomever you have communication with up there, that the food is available and where it is. The transport’s here, so I presume the explosives are properly placed as specified, and that you must have used invisible gremlins of some kind to do that backbreaking job so quickly.”

“The explosives are derived as a liquid composite from special aggregate and do not require robotic or physical assistance in the placement,” Jordan replied.

“Use four p.m. as a target time,” Star came back, “but I want to hear from you about the site; the tribes at the food location; Sly and more; before there’s any kind of detonation. The explosives will be detonated only upon my order, and I want that firmly understood right now.”

Star suddenly realized that the entities weren’t saying anything about any of it. Her fears came rushing back at her full force. Star backed up until she was next to Jameson, near the edge of the open hatch. They both held rifles, so she made no attempt to touch him. She needed to get to the dwelling to feel better about her own band.

Was everyone all in? Were True and Harry? Star knew that the only way she’d feel better was to either get more information, which wasn’t likely, or to divide the band into two parts, at least temporarily. There had to be some way to test the three who’d come along once the complex had been discovered, or four, if Ninety-One was to be counted. Star felt like a traitor for having feelings of distrust, but she also knew that everything was riding on such trust, including all of their lives and the lives a lot of humans up in the forest. They were all trusting Jordan with the use of five thousand tons of explosives, and Star had no doubt that the being’s reference to having fissionable and fusionable bombs at its disposal was absolutely true, as well.

“Lets’ go home,” Star whispered to the boy next to her. Together they turned to exit through the hatch. Star stopped briefly and looked back. Jordan hadn’t responded to her request to be the final authority on setting the charges off.

“Well?” She said, pointedly across the short distance to the console.

“Singularity does not believe the display will have the desired effect you seek; however, it is in keeping with the kind of sympathetic reaction the Distants will approve of post priori. We may proceed. I shall inform you of the readiness and perform a countdown when instructed by you and only by you.”

Star was as relieved by the answer as she could be. There was no way to make any decisions about the singularity, or even know what it really was, but at least all the artificial entities were acting as one to facilitate the violent demonstration. Hopefully ‘violent’ without being harmful. She didn’t like the phrase Jordan had used about proceeding, though, as if they had to have the permission of the singularity to do anything. Star walked over to Ninety-One when she reached the bottom of the stair while Jameson worked to close the hatch.

“We’re heading back to the dwelling right now, Ninety One,” she informed the robot, staring at its damage and feeling strangely sorry for it. “Jordan’s promised to allow me to give the order to blow the explosive dump we’ve built. I don’t know whether to trust that or not. There’s a lot of lives on the line here.”

“The entity you call Jordan is worthy of the trust on this issue. When living states are considered to be weighted and measured, then the entity is entirely trustworthy, as long as not making decisions about the rebuilding and reprogramming of service robots.”

Star was struck by the fact that the robot might be making some sort of joke about its own lack of humanity, or maybe it’s closeness to the conduct of being one of humanity. The depth of the strange industrial-looking machine was always surprising her.

“Jordan used the term sympathetic, but it didn’t sound right,” Star asked. “What am I missing?” What does sympathetic mean to the Distants?”

“Atomically entwined,” Ninety-One replied, almost instantly.

“What in hell does that mean?” Jameson asked.

Star was relieved that the boy said anything at all, although she knew she wasn’t being entirely rational about her feelings toward him. She did want him to be something, she knew in her heart, but she wanted to stand back and be able to be proud of whatever it was, and the thought of his failing to do that terrified her.

“That is hard to explain without using advanced physics as a foundation,” Ninety-One replied. “Basically, I think you can best understand if you were to consider placing your hand against one of my treads. If you met the right conditions, and the dynamics of atomic structure were applied, then your hand and my tread would be one."

“The more we learn about these Distants the less I’m liking them,” Jameson said.

Ninety-One quickly loaded into the rear cargo compartment of the transport, while Jameson and Star entered through the side hatch. They were airborne in seconds. As usual, neither Star nor Jameson bothered to take any of the seats that had become invisible with the full exposure of the outside somehow transmitted into them so that the ride felt like no ride at all. It felt like a glide through the air without the feeling of any passing air. There was no feeling of movement at all, except for a weird and strange feeling supplied by the visual experience. When the machine left the complex, the intricacy of their movement up through the structure was somehow obscured. The first time they’d traveled in and out of the complex Star had thought the course of their travel was just too quick to catch, but reality had slowly inserted itself into her thinking. The passage in and out of the structure was deliberately obscured, adding another layer of mystery and suspicion, although there was no place to go with either feeling.

The transport did its usual rapid descent without it interfering with their sense of balance, and in what seemed like seconds, they were inside the dwelling garage with the door sealed behind them.

The rest of her band was waiting to meet them, somehow alerted to the fact that she and Jameson were returning. Star checked her watch before going out to join them. The explosion was set to be ignited in minutes. That was if, and only if, Jordan followed orders when contacted and Star agreed to proceed.

Her first move was to assure that everyone was there and everyone was okay. Wren was their caretaker, authority figure and ‘mother,’ while Star was gone, and that was evident in how they all lined up behind her in the living room. There really were two natural groups, now that she was sensitive to it. Wren stood with the original orphanage group, while, True, and Harry stood closer to the front entrance. Ninety-One moved through the opening to the garage and stationed himself not far from that same entrance. Star wondered whether the groupings were somehow in response to how she was feeling.   Trust and the threat of betrayal had suddenly never been more important to her. Only Tal and Sol ignored the seemingly natural split in the band, and ran about all over, playing some game only they understood, but somehow involving Ninety-One, as they used the machine like normal kids would, climbing and playing on monkey bars.

“House, we’ve returned and I need to speak with Jordan at the complex operations center,” Star said into the air.

“There’s been a communications delay with respect to that capability,” the voice of the dwelling replied back, the sound coming from every direction even though there were no speakers anywhere evident in the structure.

Star had no time to take in the surprising message. The house shook roughly for a second or more, and then stopped. Star wasn’t thrown from her feet, but only mildly shaken as her legs and body adjusted automatically to the shifting under her.

“What was that?” she exclaimed.

“That was an energy wave,” the dwelling replied, before going on, “otherwise known as a shock wave, traveling six point five four kilometers per second in a direction that might be considered east of this location as its place of origin. The wave was generated on the surface.”

“Damn it,” Star said, her voice a hushed whisper.

A rolling echoing boom caused the house to shudder again, but not as sharply or foundationally. More echoes seemed to reverberate back and forth and up from the valley below for some seconds.

“Those vibrations were sound waves following the energy wave from the same location.

“Jordan blew the explosives on his own,” Star said, her voice bitter and filled with anger.

“I don’t know what to say,” Jameson replied, walking to her side and removing the rifle from her shoulder to stack with his own against the wall next to the entrance.

“Give me the location where the shock wave and sound came from,” Star asked, sitting down in one of the large chairs facing outward which provided her with a magnificent view of the valley below and the canyon face across the span of the valley.

“The energy wave was generated from a point nine point four kilometers east of this location,” the house replied.

“And how far are we from the energy complex?” Star went on.

“Seven kilometers, exactly, if measuring from the mean center of the large underground structure.”

“So, the explosion had to be just a bit further than two kilometers beyond that center,” Star breathed, her voice almost inaudible.

“That would appear exactly so,” the dwelling responded.

“The food supply had to be placed between the complex and the explosion,” Star went on.

“There’s not enough room for that,” Jameson noted, taking a position next to Star’s right shoulder, joining her in staring outward at the valley.

“How many?” Star said, her voice breaking over the last word. “What have I done?”