ISLAND IN THE SAND
Book II Part XIII
The sand played out before her, and the mild wind ate away any moisture she’d carried through whatever device she’d traveled in, to the point where Star Black felt she might evaporate herself. The place she was in was inhospitable to human survival, but then she thought it very likely that it was meant that she should feel that way.
“You chose to come here,” a female voice intoned.
Star looked around her. There was nothing. No spaceship or large attractive alien being, not like before. There was only the endless small cliffs and dunes of a desert world.
“No, I chose to leave where I was,” Star said, out into the thin air. “I chose to be here, without knowing where here was. The button I have doesn’t designate where it is sending whoever pushes it.”
“Nevertheless,” the voice said, “the button is your very own.”
“Who are you?” Star asked, feeling naked to a world that appeared anything but gentle or pleasing.
“You have questions,” the voice replied. “We are here to answer your questions.”
“But you didn’t,” Star shot back, in frustration. “I just asked you who you were and you didn’t answer.”
“You know who we are, or you would not have pressed the button,” the voice replied. “I don’t feel it advantageous to you to answer questions you already know the answers to.”
Star stopped trying to vent her anger on the entity, or whatever it was, singular or plural. She breathed in and out deeply, taking in the wonderful beauty of the wild desert all around her. The air was dry but she’d never breathed anything purer.
“Why am I here?” she asked.
“Because you pushed the button,” the voice answered.
Star tried to think clearly. The entity was no different than the artificial intelligence machines it had left on earth, she realized. They would not help with questions asked but would do their best to provide answers to questions put to them.
“I’m worried about Ninety-One, the robot I left behind,” Star said, deciding to simply tell the truth until she could fully assemble her wits about her.
Star felt the air around her change. A violent, but very short-termed, wind blew past her. She turned her head. Ninety-One was at her side, no more than a body length from her.
“Ninety-One, you're here,” she said, in shock.
“I’m on the world of the Distants,” the robot replied, with a tone of awe in its voice. “I can’t believe it. Nobody and nothing comes to this place to my knowledge. It’s mythical. Not really real. But here we are.”
“Yes, you’re safe, or I think you’re safe,” Star said.
“I think those boys were going to dismember me piece by piece,” Ninety-One said. “I was afraid I’d have to self-destruct.”
“Self-destruct?” Star asked. “You have that capability? You can just blow up if you decide to?”
“Of course,” the robot replied. “All sentient entities can end their own existence. It’s part of being sentient.”
“Well,” Star said, delaying her answer while she thought for a few seconds.
“Most sentient entities can end their own existence, but don’t have a bomb built into them for that purpose.”
“Oh, it’s not a big bomb, though,” the robot said. “Just a small fusion device.”
“Fusion?” Star asked. “Isn’t that like the example explosion we used to show the tribes what we could do?”
“Yes, that would be correct,” the robot replied.
“How big is your device?” Star continued.
“About twice what you witnessed,” Ninety-One said, its voice very matter-of-fact.
“I have to think of intelligent questions to ask them,” Star said, getting away from the troubling subject of her main counselor having the capacity to be some sort of fusion bomb, it if so chose.
“What about asking them if they are going to help, and if they are, then what kind of help can we expect,” Ninety-One replied.
“We are already helping in so many evident and not-so-evident ways,” the voice replied, as it had been asked the question directly.
“Will you give me the power to stop the other humans from destroying everything?” Star said, into the empty sky. “Will you allow me full control over your artificial entities on earth to actually help humanity come back from the edge?”
“You have already been given the power, and you have our permission to exercise full control,” the voice replied.
“It would be wise of you to return to the place where you first encountered your ability to place yourself here in our presence. And it might behoove you to think deeply about how you want to use your power instead of simply meeting your needs on a minute by minute basis. You must use all the tools and the power you have been given. We are limited in using them directly on your behalf, and therefore will endeavor not to.”
“How long can I stay here with Ninety-One?” Star asked suddenly, knowing she was not done with the Distants, but not understanding how she could be expected to ask the right questions when she couldn’t even imagine the results the answers might yield.
“You may stay here as long as you like, but do not fail to understand that, given your limited understanding of how the universe works, time is passing at a higher rater on your world of origin than it is here. That is not so until you choose to leave and return there, then the escalation of time will become evident. You will not have traveled here until you return there and then your travel here will be matched to the speed of things occurring in your region of the universe.”
“Damn,” Star whispered to herself, checking her watch.
“How long have I been here?” she asked the invisible entity.
“Nineteen minutes, earth time, here,” the Distant responded.
“We’ve been gone an hour and a half already, back there,” Star said, not certain that Ninety-One was taking it all in.
“We need to return very soon,” the robot replied.
“It’s so peaceful here,” Star said, looking all around her. “Nothing bad happens here. The wind is wonderful and the sand so clean and pure.”
“This is probably not where we are, in reality,” Ninety-One replied. “I think this is where we are allowed to believe we are.”
“I can’t deal with that kind of thinking, Ninety-One,” Star said, her voice showing defeat and tired frustration. “We have to go home, and right now, don’t we?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s why we call it home,” the robot replied. “But I think you have to tell the Distants that this is what you want.”
“But I’ve gotten almost nothing from them in the way of answers,” Star complained.
“Answers to your questions are not what they do,” the robot replied. “They run a whole lot of the universe, as we know it, I think. They don't do that by providing answers to questions. They do it, most probably, by providing order, discipline, and accountability.”
“So, you think we mean next to nothing to them?” Star asked.
“No, I don’t think that,” the robot countered. “I think we mean everything to them. Have you any idea how much energy and attention it must have taken for them to bring you here, as well as myself, and then puzzle their way through questions that must appear to them to be totally without merit?”
“No, I don't get it, and I admit that,” Star said, wanting to hold her head in her hands but not wanting to show that kind of weakness.
“You have to play with these people, or whatever they are,” the robot said. “They are like game-playing humans from eons back before the catastrophe.
“So, what do we do now?” Star asked. “We have the medallion or coin thing. I could push it again, but where is it going to take us if I do, and will it include you?”
“I don’t know,” Ninety-One replied. “Maybe you could just talk to them like you’ve been doing here. They haven’t denied you anything yet, that I know of.”
Star sighed deeply. The frustration she felt, she knew was out of place. She was on a planet’s surface far from where it seemed that any human being had ever been, and she’d been able to bring along the trusted robot to be her companion. Her inability to ask questions that might yield valuable answers was a problem of her own, not the Distants, but accepting that was a lot harder than thinking about it as a concept. She also wondered, in reviewing her dialogue with Ninety-One, just how much the robot’s identity and presentation had changed. From a servile directional repair robot, the entity next to her had rapidly evolved into a personal advisory status creature to an extent that it was scary. And the familiarity that it now communicated between them was even scarier. Was Ninety-One an agent of the Distants or merely steadily changing under independent programming all of its own? Or something even more sinister?
Star wanted a hot bath and to wash her hair. When she’d had less at the orphanage before the ‘new life’ had begun, she’d been cleaner and a whole lot less worried. She’d had nothing, but mostly everything. Now she had everything…but mostly nothing and that the conclusion was beginning to bother her more than anything other than her constant, never-interrupted and never-ending drive to survive, for the good of the children and Star herself.
“We have to return to where we were, immediately,” Star spoke aloud into the seemingly empty but gorgeous wasteland around her.
“Use the device you were given,” the voice out of the air replied, “the device is yours and yours alone, but if you leave now you will still leave with many questions unanswered that may affect the outcome of events back where you intend to travel.”
“But I don’t know exactly what questions to ask,” Star yelled back, while her right hand slipped into her pocket to gently massage the button on the special medallion.
“That is as it must be,” the voice replied. “The true ultimate question you have not asked can be answered, however, although you will not likely be satisfied with our answer.”
Star’s shoulders slumped. Communicating with aliens, if that was what they truly were, was proving to be nearly impossible. The place she was in could not be some simulation unless such a simulation included strange little unknown insects in the sand at her feet, and even stranger unthinkable rings around heavenly bodies dimly visible in the sky, that were so strange as to appear beyond the ability of anyone or anything to even imagine them.
“Tell me,” Star whispered.
“The question is of whether everything is going to be alright, which you want to ask but either fear to ask or do not want to know the answer to, is answered as follows:
“You and your band of humans will almost certainly be alright, but the word “alright” is something only you can define. We are not of you. Your biology, the influence of your reproduction, your sense of required duplicity fundamental to all actions, including your survival; these things are foreign to our understanding, even from many of earth years of our study.”
Star thought for a moment, trying to get to the bottom of what the voice might truly mean.
“What do you think? Ninety-One,” she asked the robot.
“It would appear, from what I understand of what the Distants are saying, is that you must make your own way because they don’t really understand you, and they will support that way in the manner they support such things. It isn’t likely that either you or I would be standing here on this distant planet speaking to the air in front of us unless a considerable investment had already been decided upon, to be made in your favor. There may be much here that you are never going to understand, and I think the Distants are grudgingly admitting the same thing.”
“Has Sly been here too?” Star suddenly blurted out.
“No other human being has ever visited this particular place in the universe, depending upon how you define the word being,” the voice replied.
Star wanted to go on and on asking questions. Had Sly been anywhere to visit the Distants, other than where she and Ninety-One were? Was Sly someone who could be defined as a human being, or was he something different? She sighed, understanding that her questions could go on and on and on, bringing little or no real understanding to her situation or the ability to improve the chances for her, or the band’s, survival.
“We must return to the dwelling,” Star said, delaying a few seconds while she considered something else. “Can I return here to discuss things with you at any time? Star asked.
“Until such time as you may not,” the voice replied.
Starr breathed in deeply before pushing the button of the small medallion clutched in her pocket.
As before, the transfer was so instant as to be mentally shocking in a freezing sort of way. She could not move or even blink her eyes for a few seconds. She felt the robot next to her. In front of her the children and Jameson all stood at the structure’s front windows, looking outside, probably, she realized, to catch some view of her.
Jameson was the first to take note of their presence, as the arrival had been made in complete silence. He turned slightly, as if only suspicious of some presence. His expression, and then that of all the rest of the band as they too turned, made Starr smile deeply in relief, pulling her directly out of the seeming stasis the transfer had frozen her into. She had a place, and she’d been returned to it. She wanted to take the medallion out of her pocket and toss it away. Instead, she rubbed it slightly, making sure not to push the button again. She knew she could no more throw the medallion away, however, than she could abandon all those of her band who were rushing to hug and clutch her back into their open hearts and obviously relieved minds.