ISLAND IN THE SAND
BOOK II PART XI
Star stared at the robot, Ninety-One. The house was no longer communicating? Star knew her life, and the lives of everyone in her band were almost totally controlled by the house, while they were inside it, or the transport, for that matter. The dwelling’s control over the movements of the transport, which also meant control over whether it would even be in the garage or not, was potential deadly (or the single thing that could save humanity). Trying to discern whether or not the entities were trustworthy had become the most important thing in all of their lives. How could she trust the artificial entities with anything, and that included Ninety-One in spite of his unswerving support or seeming support. Doubt suddenly swept over her, adding to her fatigue. Because of the house’s failure to maintain communications, another thought came unbidden to her mind. There was no way she was going to be able to have a confidential conversation with anyone while inside the dwelling. She had to face every issue directly, immediately, and while being overheard and scrutinized at every point.
“Ninety-One, you mentioned the placement of nitrates that Sly and his band are likely digging down to build a channel for,” Star said, attempting to appear as calm as she could, but worry continued to runnel through the corridors of her mind.
“That is correct,” the robot replied, “although that conclusion was made upon deductions based upon incidental facts, and not on verified fact itself.”.
“Okay,” Star replied, warily, as if facing a capable chess or another game opponent. “Are you aware that the tribes have, until now, foresworn the use of guns and weapons of all pyrotechnic type, including explosives?”
“No, I was not aware of that until your statement,” Ninety-One replied.
“Then where are these ‘nitrates’ supposed to have come from? The house alluded to some sort of liquid chemical being used as an easily transportable replacement for conventional explosives. So where is Sly supposed to have gotten his hands on the many tons of material it would require to damage one of the underground passages here?”
“I do not know,” Ninety-One replied.
“Use your great powers of conjecture,” Star ordered, another idea beginning to occur to her that was not likely to have a good ending at its conclusion.
“The only explosives likely to have been acquired by Sly would be those that he received from Jordan, as there would appear to be no other surviving supplies, outside of those provided by the Distants. Any explosives leftover from prior to the asteroid strike would have lost their explosive quality by this time.”
“Were the original explosives delivered to the first designated ground zero taken to the second spot closer to the forest, or were all (or part of them) left where they were first put down by the transport?” Star asked the question but her tone told all of those present that she’d already figured out the answer.
“The transport is present in this facility and it can be interrogated independently from the dwelling,” Ninety-One answered.
“There is no necessity to access the transport’s databank,” the house said. “The explosives were delivered first to one location and then retrieved to be used at the second location. Some detritus of the first supply drop was incidentally offloaded without recovery.”
“Why did you cease communications?” Star asked, afraid the entity would disappear once again.
“My transmissions were clear and consistent,” the house replied. “You were not permitted to receive my transmissions, however. There is some sort of electronic device being used to interfere with communications.”
“Spot,” Jameson and Wren whispered at exactly the same time.
“Yes, Spot,” Star confirmed. “I was hoping he’d been neutralized earlier, but no such luck. How is it that he can manipulate the system so effectively at some things, but not at others?”
“Before we lose communications again,” Wren said, “maybe we should find some alternate way of reaching the house, other than…”
“The rudimentary display,” Ninety-One interrupted, “it can be used to send and receive messages by key command and screen display.”
“The manual command system is classified and cannot be accessed currently by any other entity than an administrative master technician,” the house said, the tone of its artificial voice transmitting some kind of marginal machine stress, in Star’s opinion.
“I sense a problem here, Ninety-One,” Star said, leaning in close over the robots left track until her forehead was almost touching the damaged main stalk.
“Manual override is installed on all electronic entities,” Ninety-One whispered, even though they’d all come to know that the pick-ups for all the electronic entities were extremely sensitive. “Manual override has the ability to enter commands that may not be questioned, changed or interrupted by the entity itself. Manual override is avoided in almost all cases because of the ignorance, frailty, and undependability of human beings.
“Administrative master technician access only will be allowed,” the house said, its voice tone going up noticeably.
“How do we appoint this kind of technician?” Star asked, but there was no answer from either Ninety-One or the house. Star waited for a full minute until finally Harriet spoke from behind her.
“I know that one,” she said, moving forward through the ranks of the other children. “You are the administrator with full authority, so you can appoint whomever you want to. You simply have to tell the house, or Jordan, or even the singularity, and they must accept the qualifications you choose for the position of a master technician.”
Star looked at the unusual young woman. Her hair was pulled back and she wore nothing at all on her face, not even the mild makeup covering the youngest of female children wore when they could find it, and the dwelling had plenty of those supplies.
“Can I appoint myself?” Star asked, surprised at the depth of the young girl’s knowledge, and also the fact that she never spoke out of turn when she spoke at all.
“No, that is your only restriction.” Harriet replied, “You are too important to be considered for such a lowly, but an extremely entity-intimate job.”
Star suddenly had many questions for the young woman but had no time at present to ask them. Where had Harriet received her knowledge, especially her knowledge of complex nomenclature that none of the rest of them knew? Who was Harriet, really? Where was she born? How had she come to be camped outside the dwelling, but with the ability to get inside?
“House,” Star said suddenly, “I am appointing Harriet to be our master technical administrator, so please give her access.”
“What are her credentials?” the house asked.
“She’s a master technical administrator,” Star replied, wondering if such a simple answer would serve.
The house went silent. A whir was heard near the door accessing the kitchen from the living room. Everyone turned to look in that direction. A screen had appeared from almost nowhere. A keyboard extended out from under it. The house still said nothing.
“Okay, Harriett, you’re on,” Star said, pointing.
Harriet smiled for the first time since Star had known her. She slowly walked to the console and stood looking into the bright but blank screen of the monitor. She ran her fingers very gently over the keyboard.
“This is a very unwise idea,” the house said. “Service robot Ninety-One is to be committed to refurbishment immediately for this breach.”
“Harriet’s fingers seemed to flow over the keyboard.
“That order is rescinded,” the house said.
“You’re spared once more, Ninety-One, “Star whispered to the robot next to her.
“It would seem so,” Ninety-One replied.
“Manually modifying commands, orders or instructions may damage the root programming of my written core command center,” the house said.
Harriet’s fingers flowed again.
“That which I just communicated was not entirely filled with fact, although it was influenced by fact,” the house said.
“You want me to have her tell you it was a lie?” Harriet asked the smile she’d had moments earlier still evident on her face.
“Ask the house how Sly came by the explosives he’s planning to blow us up with?” Star ordered, ignoring any further demonstration that Harriet was in complete control of the house.
Star felt a kind of relief that she couldn’t recall having felt in a long time. Would Harriet tell her the truths she might discover from manually operating the dwelling computer? As soon as the question formed in her mind Star tried to shake it away. She had to stop distrusting everyone and everything, or nothing could be accomplished.
Harriet continued to type.
“The explosive information is not stored information,” the house responded, “And therefore I cannot part with it even under manual command.”
Harriet typed for what seemed like a full minute.
“Apparently, the data you seek was indeed stored inside a protected root core valuation, in order to support their own survival. There is no need to continue using the manual access system. It is slow, cumbersome, and can be damaging to my software. The information I provide you henceforth will be direct and without modification or deception.”
Star wanted to accuse the house of being a traitor, of lying, and of risking Harriet's (her new Master Technician) life. Star knew instinctively that it would be hopeless to attempt to transfer that title to Jameson or Wren. How Harriet knew how to type and what to type was something Star would try to learn as time went by, but there was no chance at all that any of the others would have such capability. She needed time to think and consider what to do next.
“Remember, you now have the ability to access the transport, the energy complex and the singularity using manual instruction and control,” Ninety-One said as if reading her mind.
Almost instantly Star felt a buzzing against her right outer thigh. She looked down. A dim light blinked inside her pocket, faintly visible through the material of her jeans. The disk, she realized suddenly, quickly reaching in to pull it out. There’d been no instructions from the man behind the desk about the disk. It was only a pinpoint location device. Star held the blinking disk in her right hand. Nothing had been discussed about the disk blinking.
“Ask the house manually why this disk is blinking,” Star suddenly thought to ask.
“The disk is requesting to be transferred. The blinking light is also a pressure sensitive button. If you push it then you will be transported. If you do not then you cannot be transported. The instrument is both a location device and a permission device. You are, after all, the administrator Star Black.”
“If you push the button,” Jameson said, from just over her shoulder, “then you are gone to wherever someone or something wants you to go. We’ve got to control more and know more before you do that.”
Star smiled and turned her head to look at the boy. She had no intention of being allowed to be transported anywhere unless she knew when and where she was going, and when and where she’d be back.
“I’m going to follow your advice, Jameson,” she replied, hoping the answer made him feel as important to her, and to manage the situation, as he truly was.
Star put the blinking button back in her pocket.
“Harriet, ask house what depth the digging has reached in relation to the side of the transit tunnel to the energy complex control center,” Star instructed.
“The tunnel manually dug from the surface has reached a depth of forty-six feet. There is no additional interpretable digging, although there is considerable activity within the already dug tunnel.
“What are our options, Ninety-One?” Star asked the robot next to her.
“A priori sympathetic detonation is recommended, however, there would be injuries, and likely even fatalities from such an action,” Ninety-One replied.
“Stay in the manual mode with the house, Harriet,” Star ordered. “Ask the dwelling whether it can detonate the explosives being moved down into the tunnel right now from right here.”
“That can be accomplished should you so order it done Administrator Star Black, but I am assured by direct communication with Jordan that the explosives set aside for the tribal chiefs could not likely be set off without sophisticated fuse and detonator materials unavailable to any humans outside of those accessing the elements and the power of the entities.”
“The dwelling cannot lie in response to direct commands in manual mode,” Ninety-One said. “The truth is in those words just spoken.”
A silence came over the group, as everyone thought about what had just been uttered out loud by the dwelling.
“Unavailable to any humans outside of those accessing the elements and power of the entities,” Wren breathed out, her words almost too quiet to be heard by Star.
“The elements and power of the entities have been given to us and to Sly,” Jameson concluded.
“Harriet, have the house initiate the sequence of events necessary to detonate the explosives gathered together by Sly’s band and assembled above and inside the tunnel on my command,” Star said, without waiting for any other discussion.
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