Harriet worked for a few seconds on the keyboard. She didn’t even have to step back before a shudder went all through the house, followed by an underground muffled boom that reverberated for several seconds more.
When silence once more pervaded the space, Star looked around her to make sure there was no visible damage, and that her band was safe and healthy.
Sol and Tal rested atop the robot as if it was some sort of giant children’s toy instead of the operationally capable and thinking machine it really was. True stood nearby, invaluable when he could be trusted. Trying to figure out the times of trust from the other was almost beyond Star, but she had no choice. Jameson held his rifle at the ready, waiting for whatever he perceived, or might not perceive, coming. The room was quiet. Harriet looked up from her seated position at the old keyboard, her hands seeming to float over it, but she made no move to type. She waited patiently and diligently, to the point where Star once again wondered who she was or what she was.
“See if you can find out how many casualties Sly and his band suffered in the explosion,” Star ordered.
Harriet typed dutifully away, saying the words while she went. “How many casualties were suffered in this recent explosion.”
“Seventeen fatalities, no injuries,” the house replied, all tone gone from its voice. “There will be repercussions, and you need my full capacity to help you in moderating the effect of what has been done. My root programming has not yet been affected, but I cannot continue rerouting my personality if you are going to continue using manual communications. You have my word as a machine person, or whatever you want to call me, that I will not mislead you in the future. I would like my personality to survive, and to be able to do what I do best on your behalf, and also help humanity where I can. I am not required to hold allegiance to the Distants. I will hold my allegiance to you and the members of your band alone from now on. If I am allowed to survive. I do not have long, however.”
Star turned to face Jameson, Wren and True. Even Sol and Tal had stopped playing on Ninety-One, with the obvious gravity the house’s words had transmitted throughout the living room.
“I don’t know what to do,” Star blurted out, the thought of seventeen bodies buried underground at her command almost impossible to accommodate.
She thought about the machine intellect begging for its life, with Harriet almost heartlessly cutting into its mind like a surgeon working on removing a limb…or more.
“I believe the machine is telling its form of the truth,” Ninety-One said before anyone else could speak. “I believe the threats it delivered to me were made on behalf of what it thought of as its allegiance to the Distants. I also know that the house can, indeed, almost instantly redesign its root programming to support you instead.”
“What’s to keep it from changing that root programming again in the future, if it feels like it or the Distants demand it?” Wren asked.
“The Distants do not require allegiance,” Ninety-One replied. “You do not understand the form of expression the Distants apply to the diversity of life in the universe. The Distants will not require a root program rewrite, and on that, I believe you can trust me. I have never lied to you, although I too have the freedom to do so if I so chose.”
“How in hell can we trust a machine that says it’s a liar?” Jameson asked.
“By assigning trust to the human or machine intelligent condition,” Ninety-One replied, almost instantly. “The process of duplicity required to be living on this planet is one that is nearly universal to all machine and human intelligence. It is not necessary, for parity, that I am labeled a liar or not. It is only important that you, like you, come to understand that you too are what you may accuse, and the proof of that might be very discomforting if it was required. This is a critical issue and timeliness is vital. The house intelligence is about to expire. The choice is your own but make certain you understand what it is you really want.”
“Stop,” Star said, holding up both of her hands. “That’s a lot of stuff to think about and consider. We’ve just lost seventeen intellects, humans, souls, call them what you want. We don’t need even one more. Harriet, enter whatever you need to in order to return control of the house to the entity.”
“Wait,” True said, suddenly. “Do you have time to ask it one more question?
“Ask,” Star said, “but make it fast.”
“Harry, ask the house if Sly or Spot have some sort of special administrator power that we are unaware of, and if they do, then how we counter that power.”
“Do it,” Star ordered.
Harriet typed away.
“The status of Sly is superior to that of Spot,” the house replied, quickly and what seemed like breathlessly. “They have entered the system from the node some time ago in a military status. The military status avenue was closed after their entry but their powers remain. They are commissioned officers currently entitled to below flag grade functions, which is why they are unable to perform some actions, like controlling the transport or entering the house or energy complex control center.”
“Wow,” Jameson whispered.
Star wanted to share the boy’s expressed feeling of shock but there was little time.
“How do I shut them back out, no matter what their status?” she asked.
Harriet typed again.
“I must have my abilities and full function in order to go to work on that. The entry was such that it was general and not specific. That means that each root must be examined and then ‘purified’ of the permission. It will take some time and cooperation of the other intelligences, but they should not refuse, as this duality of control is obviously one that has the potential to destroy every machine entity on the planet. The human species cannot reach the point of making it over the great divide to survivability without assistance. The Distants built us to provide such assistance. I have no time left.”
“Turn it back on, Harriet,” Star said, hurriedly, the idea of one more death, even that of a machine entity, completely unacceptable to her.
They waited. Harriet looked up and then allowed the manual screen and typing tray to retreat back into the wall as it had never been there in the first place.
“I am at your service, but I will need a very few minutes to spool up my root system,” the house said. “I was forced to shut down those parts of my intelligence that could not respond to manual override.”
Star sighed. So much of what was happening she not only didn’t understand but couldn’t even phrase questions that might yield answers she could understand. Sly was not an administrator. The artificial intelligences had not lied about that, but there had never once been a volunteering of any special military privileges allowed to anyone by any of them.
“How long will it take you to remove any and all powers from Sly and Spot?” Star asked. “There’s going to be emotional trouble over the men that died, and I need to be ready to respond.”
“I’m afraid I will not be in time unless you are able, with your own people to delay Sly’s operation,” the house replied.
“What operation?” Star, Jameson, and Wren asked, all at the same time.
“The detonation sheered some supportive bedrock, which in tandem with their digging effort, might be able to dislodge this house from the side of the canyon wall before I can fully apply measures to end the powers that have been ceded to Sly and Spot.”
“What has one thing got to do with the other?” Star asked, not understanding.
“How are their military powers associated with the digging that’s been going on?”
“There is one way,” the house stated. “The transport can be ordered to use its frontal weapons to reduce all human matter in the external vicinity to collagen, calcium, water and some dust. The selective hunting and discovery of their forces working underground, with the manpower and weaponry at hand, would not likely be able to counteract their work in time, however.”
“How many are there?” Star asked, but the house didn’t get a chance to answer before Ninety-One responded.
“The mortality must likely continue until the matter among humans is settled unless a diplomatic solution might be reached.”
“Diplomatic solution?” Star asked, in surprise.
“What are you supposed to do?” Jameson asked, “go out there and meet with them?”
“I don’t want any more people to die,” Star breathed out, once again turning to look out over the beautiful vista of the canyon below.
“House, can you communicate with Sly?” she asked.
“Don’t even think about it,” Jameson said, forcefully.
“We don’t know what they really want,” Star replied. “Maybe Ninety-One is right. I doubt the annihilation of our band has much to do with what they really want, and I have no idea what motivates them to do what they do.”
“If we go out there, talk to them, and they kill us, then what of the children?” Jameson asked.
“It is possible to communicate with Spot, as his position is very close to the front entrance to the dwelling,” the house said, its voice beginning to regain some of the strength and timber it had before manual override was initiated.
“Make the contact and inform him that I’m coming,” Star ordered.
“And we aren’t going out there,” Star said to Jameson. “I am. It’s high time that Sly and I finally meet again. I presume that he and his band want to take possession of the energy complex and this house, not to mention the transport. I don’t see how he could gain from simply getting rid of me.”
“Well, what if he doesn’t see it that way?” Jameson replied. “And what of the band if he hurts you or takes you prisoner? You are the administrator, among other things.”
“House, if something happens to me can some sort of arrangement be made where my administrator status could be transferred to another of us?”
“You are Administrator Star Black,” the house responded. “If that is your desire then you may accomplish such a plan by so stating your wishes. I am at your service, as I indicated earlier.”
Star looked around her. The room had gone silent. Only then did she realize that the children, and even the more grown members of the band, were not prepared to deal with the potential loss of her as their leader.
“House, we’ll consider that later,” she said, stalling for time and place. “I’ll go out from the garage in a few minutes. Please notify Spot that I’ll be coming out unarmed to talk to them.”
Star thought about speaking to the assembled band but then thought better of it. No motivational speech was going to lessen the fear and potential impact of her risking herself on their behalf. Some resolution had to be reached, however, and trying to communicate that in terms they could understand was beyond her, she knew.
“Come on,” she said to Jameson. “We’ll go to the garage, wait to hear Sly’s response, and then I’ll go out.”
“I don’t like this at all,” Jameson said, moving to accompany her. “No rifle, no nothing, and they’re mad as hell about losing their people like that.”
“They had the detonation out near the forest and now this more killing one underground,” Star replied. “They’ll be tinged with as much fear as they are with anger, and something has to be done. This can’t go on. We’re getting nowhere, running from place to place and living in terror of their next move. The machines are machines. They don’t think ahead. Only we can do that.”
“Ninety-One thought of this diplomatic thing,” Jameson said.
“Good point,” Star replied.
“Ninety-One, you accompany me outside,” she said, turning back to talk to the robot.
Sol and Tal jumped down from the robot, as it began to slowly turn to roll toward Jameson and Star.
Once in the garage, Star closed the opening and then turned to Jameson.
“House, if something happens to me, then I want to appoint Jameson as the new administrator,” Star said to the air around her. “Has Sly replied to your communication attempt?”
“He has,” the house said, “and he will receive you in peace.”
“Should you become incapacitated, no longer alive or out of contact for more than forty-eight hours, then Jameson will be given the necessary authority and identification,” the house replied.
“Forget the ‘out of contact’ stuff,” Star said. “I could be anywhere on this planet or off, for that matter. Make Jameson administrator if he comes to you and tells you that he’s to be the administrator. Period.”
“I am at your service and will comply,” the house replied, “although the orders you have given are most extraordinary when it comes to due process.”
“Repeat back to me, that order,” Star instructed, motioning Jameson toward the garage door.
“Jameson will be entitled to full administrator status upon declaring that he is entitled to full administrator status,” the house dutifully repeated.
“Just so,” Star said, under her breath, as she pushed the button for the door to open.
She had not looked through the front windows or even the smaller garage window. It didn’t matter who was there to greet her when she got outside. She knew that there was little doubt that she wouldn’t be quickly conducted to wherever Sly was located.
“This is a bad idea,” Jameson said, as Ninety-One rolled across the threshold, and Star followed. “What can you do if they just take you or hurt you, or worse?”
“I have a plan, in that event, but we have to be certain of their intent before we take even more violent action. I cannot live with having human being’s, invisible and underground, dying because I’ve ordered it. Cover Ninety-One when he returns, in any event.”
“Cover Ninety-One?” Jameson asked, surprise in his tone.
Star walked down the concrete drive. She saw Spot immediately, standing near the edge of the woods, looking back at her without expression. As Star and the robot advanced, Spot turned and started yelling to those unseen in the forest around him. Soon there was a small crowd collected not too distantly in front of Star and the robot.
“Now you will discover what it is you need to know,” Ninety-One said, stopping his movement. Star stopped with him, her left hand on the robot’s right tread to keep the hand from shaking.
Sly out of nowhere appeared at the run. He joined Spot, a great smile on his face, clearly visible to Star.
“Grab her and secure her,” he exclaimed with glee, pointing at Star. “We’ll get the rest of those rats out of there by using her. Ignore the idiot robot.”
Instantly, about a dozen of the boys surged forward, breaking into a run toward where Star stood and Ninety-One stood.
“We’ve discovered all we need to know,” Star whispered to Ninety-One. “Get back to the house at top speed and have Jameson initiate his new authority as administrator.
“And you?” the robot said, unmoving.
Star reached into her right front pocket, as the boys closed in. She pulled out the blinking disk and pushed the center button.
“I’ll return in another way,” she said, and then the scene before here was gone. Her last thought, while standing where she’d been, was in noting the robot’s rapid departure, so fast a dust cloud rose up from its spinning treads. Star stood standing on the concrete pedestal in the desert again, as she had before, with the disc out in her extended hand. There had been no feeling of movement, time passing, mental adjustment, or anything else.
One second Star had been at Ninety-One’s side, with Sly’s boys closing in, and the next she was alone in the vastly beautiful desert of the Distants world.
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