ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star crouched down, her knees bent to allow her to move instantly in whatever direction might be required. She held the big rifle, a cartridge carefully inserted and locked in the chamber and the little safety lever pulled back to allow it to fire.
The doors opened and Ninety-One surged forward so quickly it caught Star off guard, but it was immediately apparent there was no one else there. The pines bent against the gentle wind and the sun was high in the sky. Star blinked rapidly, trying to adjust to the new bright light, so different from the darkness and subdued light they’d had below and inside the lift. The lift doors stayed open.
Ninety-One easily moved about the concrete pad that served as an extended patio or flat open surface devoid of vegetation of any kind. Finally, the robot stopped, turned and then coasted back in near silence to where Star and her band stood, facing out, having naturally fallen into a defensive arc.
“I can detect no humans, administrator, or otherwise,” Ninety-One said, it’s voice sounding to Star as if the damaged machine was disappointed that it wasn’t going to get to run anyone over.
“Jordan, can you still hear me?” Star said, leaning forward and trying to aim her voice down to where she thought the special separate speaker was that Jordan normally spoke through.
“Yes, as long as this undependable instrument continues to function I will be able to send and receive verbal messages anywhere within about four hundred meters of the lift. The lift serves only as a repeater, in this case.”
It was more information than Star cared to know at the moment, but getting information out of either the main operations computer or Ninety-One had proven to be a very frustrating process. Unless the right question was asked, the machines often gave answers that seemed to make no sense.
“Why does your voice come to us over a separate speaker in the robot’s body?” Star asked, knowing she didn’t need the information, but terribly curious anyway.
“Ninety-One, and the other mobile support units like it, have no ability to control the speaker you are communicating through, as was the intent of the builders, although the master control unit also cannot control other aspects of the robot’s behavior or its direct communications.”
Star wanted to go on with many more questions, like, why had the original builders set things up that way, and who were the builders, anyway, but there was not time. The day was moving forward and some decisions had to be made about where they were going to spend the coming night, and how and when they were going to get back to the control center.
“Where are Sly and his band?” Star asked.
“No other human beings are currently registering on any of my optical or seismic monitors,” Jordan responded.
“Well, are they gathered at the node, killed off?” Star came back, wondering where they could have gone if they hadn’t stayed in the railroad station part of the complex.
“I cannot answer that question, as the node was damaged by your actions. That part of the complex is no longer accessible to my sensors, although I can send in another service robot like Ninety-One to make a further determination and potentially repair the damaged node.”
“I don’t want the node repaired yet,” Star quickly answered. “You can’t control that node, remember, or even know what that independent node is doing.”
“That’s a function of programming,” Jordan replied. “A service robot can insert a new motherboard and then reprogram without the administrator function so selected.”
“Not yet,” Star breathed out, hoping the control center machine understood. She had control of the entire complex back, but she knew it was only a tenuous hold. What other nodes existed that might be poached away by Sly’s newfound capability of making himself an administrator? There was no way to know how he was able to do that because Jordan didn’t seem to have that kind of information in his system if in fact Jordan could be described as a ‘he’ at all.
“What lies beyond the trees in front of us?” Star asked, changing the subject.
“I have no information about anything that is in what you call the ‘outside world.’ Trees are in my database, as are most references to botany or biology and the supporting data that goes with them. There are no trees inside the complex, however.”
Another useless answer, Star thought but said nothing.
“Ninety-One, can you travel a distance in and around these trees and see what’s out here while we decide what we’re going to do?”
“I cannot decide what you are going to do,” the robot answered in its own voice. “I am not programmed for that.”
“Go investigate what’s beyond those trees,” Star yelled at it, her anger at the machine’s strange logic overcoming her.
The big robot rolled backward immediately, reversed one track and turned to apparently leave the area. Before it moved, it spoke, however.
“At what time and place should I return to our band?” it asked.
“Our band?” Star asked aloud, without really meaning to.
“Give it an hour and then come back here,” she instructed, trying to overcome her momentary fear that the big powerful robot, with many unknown capabilities, might be looney to the point of doing violence or damage to them at some time. The robots were showing signs of possessing emotion. Star had no idea how that was possible, but it didn’t sound good if such emotions were directed the wrong way.
“I will comply with your orders, Star Black, administrator of this complex and leader of our band.” With that, the machine smoothly pulled away, mounted a rise using the sure grip of its rubber treads, and disappeared among the pines, branches closing over it and gently settling back to their former positions.
“Did that thing say ‘our band,’ or was that me?” Wren asked, from a few yards away, where she’d been trying to gather and contain the children into a small circle.
“Yes, it did, and I don’t know is the only answer I have about that,” Star replied, approaching True and Jameson. “We’ve got to figure this out and we don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “It’d be best if we could walk off a bit with Wren, but this is the wild blue yonder out here, and even with the rifles we now have, I don’t feel safe until we’ve got a better idea of what’s around us.”
Star walked to where the children were gathered with True and Jameson behind her. Once there she squatted down, waited for everyone to get settled and quiet before talking.
“We’ve got two choices, really,” she began, know that Tal and Sol might understand her but the little ones likely would not. “We can go back inside and work our way back to where the control center is, or we can stay out here, roughing it with insects, the dark, and some cold coming. We’ve got enough food and water to last awhile out here, but we don’t have heavy clothing or any protection other than the lift if it rains.”
“Are there monsters out here?” one of the very small children named Lucy asked.
“Sly and the monsters are inside,” Tal shot back, pointing behind him at the open lift doors.
“Then we want to stay out here,” several of the other children said without pause.
“They’re not monsters, they’re just bad boys,” Star countered.
“They’re monsters,” Jameson said, “They just look like boys.”
“True and Wren, what do you say?” Star asked, not being able to decide the issue for all of them. Neither solution was anything close to ideal. They had the guns if they went inside, just as they had them where they were. The inside offered many more amenities and possibly greater safety from having Jordan on their side, but the outdoors would probably be completely safe from Sly and his band of hoodlums.
Before Wren and True could reply, Ninety-One burst through the pines. Star looked at her watch. Only twenty-four minutes had passed. She’d told the machine to take an hour in looking around. Why was the robot back?
Ninety-One drove up to their group at such speed that all of them rose up and pressed their backs to the walls next to the open lift doors.
“I believe I have discovered the answer to our problems,” the machine said, coming to an abrupt stop only a few feet away.
“What problems?” Star asked, in surprise, wondering if the robot had gone completely around the bend and what to do if it had.
“Logically,” the robot intoned, “and I have spoken to the presence you call Jordan, the problem of remaining here in the outside world until solutions can be found to deal with the other band.”
“Logically?” Star asked, in utter surprise. “If we stay here it’s a problem of weather, clothing and even food.”
“Yes, logically,” the robot went on. “I have found a place beyond the trees, on the edge of the cliff approximately five hundred and fifty-five meters from this spot at eighty-eight degrees directional.”
“Jordan, what’s out there and what do we do?” Star asked, bending down, and hoping for a response.
“I remained unaware of your surroundings in the outside world until you sent Ninety-One to investigate. However, the transmitted image appears to be a lodge that was used for workers who assisted in the installation of the hard and software for the intelligence that rests inside this complex. There are plans in construction records, but it will take some time to properly sort and identify the particular structure, should you require that.”
“What image transmitted?” Star asked, mystified, “and yes, find the records.”
“Ninety-One will open a screen,” Jordan stated, although Star noted that Jordan did not order or tell the errant robot what to do.
A panel slid open on the front of the robot’s ‘chest.’ A video screen illuminated and then presented a single image.
“What the hell, where did that come from?” Jameson said, his voice denoting the shock he obviously felt at seeing a surprising image.
“What is it?” Wren asked although none of the band could get close enough to properly see because they were all busy jostling one another for a view of the small image.
“Back up,” Star yelled at all of them.
A silence fell, and they all gently eased back. Star leaned forward as if she was going to talk to Jordan. She studied the image. It was of a low building, made of rocks, assembled together with some sort of cement. There was an entrance with two large wooden poles holding up a smaller roof that stuck out from the long slanted one that paralleled a canyon edge that seemed to run right to the back side of the place.
“How big is it?” True asked.
“Twenty-four meters long,” Ninety-One said, “but I could not risk getting close enough to the edge of the cliff to measure the depth. According to my radar return, the canyon below is nine-hundred-ninety-four feet down in elevation.”
“Radar?” Jameson asked, his voice low. “You have radar? I’ve heard of radar. Invisible waves that can be used to measure objects at a distance. I wasn’t sure that radar was real.”
“This dome above my sensor pack is a radar dome,” Ninety-One replied as if it were describing a hat it wore or maybe a toupee.
“Was there any evidence of human habitation or presence?” Star asked, clutching her rifle closer. She’d been so intent on investigating that she’d forgotten about security completely.
“None that I noted or detected,” Ninety-One replied.
“The structure is nineteen meters deep, consists of eight rooms,” Jordan’s smaller voice came out of the lower speaker, “and was built with a deck that is suspended five meters out over the canyon. There appears to be one fireplace and all the other facets of construction that allow for long-term human habitation.”
“Ninety-One, did you observe any humans on your investigative travel or any evidence that any may have been present recently? Star asked.
“Nothing of that nature,” the robot replied. “Only what is on the screen.”
Star looked back at the screen. The photo had changed. In place of the building was an enlarged photo of a backpack. A human’s backpack.
“That’s an indication of human habitation, Ninety-One,” Star said, pointing needlessly at the small screen.
“The pack does indeed appear to be of human construct and use, but the age and condition of its fabric, according to my X-Ray sensor, would not allow for it to be considered recent.”
“X-Ray sensor,” Jameson exclaimed. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“Or worse and worse,” Wren said.
“What’s an X-Ray,” True asked, but nobody paid any attention to him or his question.
“Alright, we move out right now, in file behind Ninety-One,” Star ordered. “Jameson, you take the point and I’ll take the rear. Give True a smaller rifle and the right flank. Wren, you can handle the left. Stick close. Don’t spread out. If anything happens then everyone falls down and stays down until we figure it out.”
Nobody replied or said anything.
“Well, hop to it,” she said, her voice increasing in volume.
“How far is this place, Ninety-One,” she asked of the robot.
“At the normal human gait and speed, it is approximately nine minutes from this location or a distance in meters of three hundred and seventy.”
Star waited until the band and Ninety-One had formed up and were moving away before beginning to relax. It really did appear that the forest was empty of any threats that they might not be able to handle. She wondered about the pack and what might be in it and why it had been left, apparently long ago, by whoever had abandoned it. They would arrive at the building with thirty meters to spare if Jordan’s approximation of effective communication distance from the lift through the robot was accurate.
“Close the lift doors, Jordan,” she yelled over her shoulder.