ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star stopped what she was doing and stood still. After a few seconds, she began to get control of both her emotions and her breathing. It was ridiculous to get mad at machines, no matter how sentient they might seem. It was like getting mad at tripping over a stair, or a crack in the concrete that caused a fall.
“Where’s Ninety-One,” Star asked the machine.
“Ninety-One is outside where you left it when you came inside the operations center,” Jordan responded.
“What if they go after our robot?” Star said to Jameson.
The supplies, boxes and all the clutter they had brought from the lift littering the floor.The children went through it quickly, but methodically, searching for identifiable tidbits or snacks.
“Where is the thing?” Jameson replied, looking at the display but not seeing the machine.
“The robot, Ninety-One, is still sitting on the lift awaiting instructions,” Jordan replied.
The three boys outside the operations center struggled to move their device close to the edge of the moat. They began fiddling with controls on the side of it.
“I don’t like the look of this, Jordan,” Star indicated. “What are they doing and what can we do? Maybe they don’t need to get closer. Maybe they won’t touch the acid at all. Maybe they’ll be able to break right through the door.”
“The robot,” Wren mused. “The Robot. The Ninety-One thing. How fast does it move?”
“Thirty-nine kilometers per hour is Ninety-One’s top speed. However, the robot is undependable and may have other defects unknown to this central operations unit. It may be more or less limited in any area, including its capable velocity.”
“What are you thinking?” Star asked Wren.
“Run the robot at them. If it hits the torch thing then it may cause enough damage so they can’t use it.”
“What do you know about Sly’s boys, True?” Star asked, thinking about using the robot and the value of Wren’s suggestion.
“They’re bad boys,” True responded. “All three. If they get in here it will be pretty terrible, especially for me,”
“Go at them,” Jameson said, taking his automatic from his pocket. “It’s time. We can’t just let them keep pinning us down and then running. Eventually, they’ll get us, either in here or somewhere else. This is our facility now, and we need to act like it.”
“Send Ninety-One?” Star said.
“That robot is all we have out there unless Jordan here can think of something better,” Jameson replied, “Although it seems to me the console thing here is much better at reacting than acting.”
“Shall I instruct Ninety-One to move into a more aggressive position with respect to the device outside the control center?” Jordan asked.
“More aggressive,” Star whispered, more to herself than the machine.
“Yes,” she finally answered, wondering if Jordan was thinking along the same lines she was, “Do you think Ninety-One is substantial enough to push the device into the moat?”
“I am so instructing,” Jordan answered.
Star watched the boys climb atop the plasma torch, or whatever it was, and work to get the cover off of it. From an angle to one side Ninety-One entered the display, moving slowly but very purposefully toward the rear of the sled. The boys ignored it until Ninety-One came into contact with the rear of the device.
“What the hell?” she heard one of the boys scream, when the sled shuddered, and then began to move slowly forward with jolting fits, stops, and starts.
Star stared at the display and was mesmerized by the slowly evolving scene put up before her. The boys hung onto the top of the device instead of leaping off, they were having no idea about what might lay ahead in the moat, she knew. The sled made it all the way to the edge of the moat before tipping precariously and then falling in. It was too big to submerge completely but most of it went fully under the surface of the huge volume of acid.
The boys fell into the acid, as well, but not in silence. They surfaced and the screaming was so horrid that Star asked Jordan to mute the display, and finally turn it off, as the three boys painfully dissolved in front of them.
“What will happen to the plasma torch?” Star asked, having no doubt about what had happened to the unfortunate boys accompanying it.
“Some parts of it will dissolve over time, and some parts will not. There are other service robots still available and online that will be able to retrieve the parts for your examination or for discard to trash over time.
Star pulled back from the blank display, unwilling to have the video turned back on until she was sure there would be no more grim killing images left to even further disturb the children’s sleep or her own.
Star decided to go to work to form their band into two distinct groups. One group would serve as the core, remaining at the control center, monitoring outside progress or threats, while also observing and transmitting as much as possible, using Jordan and the ever more revealing secrets of the underground complex. The second group would serve as the flexible moving extension of that core, traveling out from the center to resupply, explore, reconnoiter and, when necessary, encounter or attack any threats.
“Wren, you and the kids will remain here,” Star instructed. “Jameson, True, Sol, Tal, and Ninety-One will go out with me. We’re going to somehow take on Sly’s band inside what’s apparently become their lair. we’ll need to be fast, properly armed and well informed. Our first mission has got to be to isolate or destroy Sly’s ability to use the rail yard node. Finding and using Jordan is perhaps the most important thing we’ll ever do in our life, and for the life of others outside. We can’t let that kind of power be taken over by evil.”
“When do we go?” Jameson asked.
“First thing in the morning,” Star answered.
“When is morning?” True added.
“That’s a good point,” Star said. “It’s always light inside this place unless we ask Jordan to make things dark.”
“Can it be like the outside?” Wren asked.
“Jordan, can you make the lighting inside the complex match that of the outside world?” Star inquired of the machine.
“Yes, this can be done throughout the tunnels and complex except in the train station area. Contact and control of that section have been lost for reasons unknown.”
“We know, though, and that’s all that’s really necessary,” True responded.
“Never forget that Jordan is a machine. Some things cannot be understood by machines,” Star added.
“The node is non-functional because of outside interference, I have concluded,” Jordan offered, joining the conversation. “Using probability theory, it is possible to conclude, with a high degree of certainty, that the outside interference is caused by members of the band taking up residence in the rail station itself. That band, which you have indicated is led by a male named Sly, would also, again with probable certainty, be the force of evil you describe, depending upon how evil is currently described in human social circumstance.”
“Wow,” Jameson whispered.
“So, does this mean Jordan is not really just a machine?” True asked of the assembled group.
“I don’t know,” Star said, her tone one of deep reflection. “I’ve never seen or heard of anything like Jordan. All the things we’ve found from the past have been things of wonder in some sort of way, but there’s never been anything like Jordan discovered anywhere.”
“Thank you,” Jordan stated.
“I think it thinks it is human,” True whispered to Star behind one cupped hand.
“Or maybe a little more than human,” Star whispered back, frowning. “What’s going on outside the control center, Jordan?” she asked of the machine.
“The human bodies have been completely rendered, by reacting with the acidic liquid currently occupying the moat,” Jordan responded. “Do you wish the moat to be cleared and replaced with more acid or some other liquid substance?”
“Is it likely that the torch is now non-functional?” Star asked.
“There is little question about my positive response. Forty-three percent of the mass has been dissolved, including the power source.”
“Flush and refill with pure water,” Star ordered, before going on. “Can you hear us when we whisper?” She asked, almost afraid to know the answer.
“There is no area within the control space in which human speech is protected,” Jordan said. “Out in the complex, there are many areas where I have no ability to input and analyze human vocal sounds and patterns. I can render into questionable understanding all sounds of human speech vibrations, no matter how slight they may seem to a human being.”
“Were you offended by Star saying you think you’re more than human?” True asked.
“I was built and programmed to be, what you might consider, more than human. That is a true and accurate statement. The offense would assume the willful emotional response to an intended verbal stimulus. I concluded no such intent. Do you wish for outside lighting conditions to be applied throughout the areas of the complex under my control until further notice?”
“Yes, except for in here,” Star answered, watching the display, as the light slowly died in the outside chamber. “It’s night out there. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” She stared at the display, wondering if she should add anything about what Jordan had said. Jordan had not indicated that he, or it, didn’t experience emotion. That omission bothered her but she couldn’t figure out exactly why it did. She stepped away without making any comment. Jordan was part of their survival, a very vital part. Understanding the machine was much less important than having it on their side.
Every member of the band, except for the injured boy, worked for hours to unpack, identify and unwrap the supplies Jameson’s group dragged down. They ate while they worked, occasionally exclaiming to the rest if something of real delight was found. Eventually, when everything remaining was stacked against the walls or under the many benches that comprised the middle area of the operation’s center, Star ordered the interior lights extinguished and they then slept through the artificial night.
“It’s first light outside,” Jordan stated flatly and loudly, bringing every older member of the band into immediate and full wakefulness. “It is assumed that this is the time represented by the ‘first thing’ comment you stated previously.”
“Okay,” Star responded, with irritation. “Next time you awaken humans could you use something like a musical tone? We don’t like to awaken in startled terror.”
“In the future, I will find something appropriate to what you instruct,” the machine replied.
The band ate together, although not with the nearly all-consuming abandon of the night before. Star assembled her outside strike team, ordered the plank extended out over the moat, and then opened the outside door.
“Any detectable threats out there, Jordan?” She asked, standing in the opening. Only Ninety-One sat waiting, occupying the space before her. There was nothing else moving or visible in the vast expanse of the chamber.
“Negative,” Jordan responded.
“Water,” Star began, “we need to fill any empty containers we have with fresh water. It may not always be possible to open the door and simply scoop it up. Test the water before filling. I don’t know how pure it might be after the moat was filled with so much acid.”
The band worked beside the moat for nearly an hour getting ready to break into two groups, one set up to be internally defensive and supportive, the other to prepare to aggressively move out and take action. Star gathered all of them together when preparations were complete. Only Ninety-One remained motionless, with no work assignments to perform or any needs to be met.
“We’re ready,” Star informed the band. “Let’s stay in communication as much as possible. There are communication points all over this complex and Jordan is our greatest ally and best weapon. Someone needs to stay by the console twenty-four hours a day until we return. Wren is in charge back here, and I will lead us out in the field. Ninety-One, you’re coming with us. Let’s go.”
The robot came to life and moved toward Star slowly, while the band broke into two parts.
“The same rules apply as before, Wren. Stay inside locked up until we get back.”
Star set out with the robot and her small team. In short order, they arrived near the base of the emergency rungs leading up the wall. Jordan sensed their arrival and activated the elevator and opened its doors. They all quickly boarded.
“Can this thing lift Ninety-One’s weight safely?” Star thought to ask, as the elevator doors closed without orders or instructions.
“Quite safely,” Jordan replied, not waiting for any buttons to be pushed or further instructions to be given.
The doors closed and the elevator began to rise.
Star removed her backpack and took out her small revolver. “Let’s do the same thing we did before. We don’t know what’s up there or waiting for us.’
Jameson removed the big automatic and checked its action. Star ordered Ninety-One to position itself, pointing outward, right in front of the double doors.
“When the doors open, Ninety-One, do not move until ordered,” Star instructed.
The elevator stopped, the top light on the switch panel turned green. The doors opened to blackness. Star realized she’d made a mistake by not having Jordan extinguish the elevator’s interior lights. Anyone outside would be able to observe the inside of the elevator without being visible himself. But it was too late.
“Move into the opening Ninety-One, we need to find a light switch,” she ordered the robot.
“Do you wish for my external lights to be turned on?” Ninety-One asked.
“External lights?” Jameson said. “What external lights?”
The darkness was gone as he finished asking his question. Light emanated from several slit openings located on all four sides of the roughly square robot. They stood in a chamber no more than ten times the area of the elevator. The only visible feature of interest was a great round wheel mounted on its far concrete wall.
“Jordan, can you hear me?” Star asked into the room’s emptiness.
“Yes,” the machine answered.
“Can you turn on the lights in here?” she inquired, looking around but finding nothing but the large steel wheel.
“No, the redoubt you are in is compromised,” Jordan replied from the elevator’s speaker. We can only communicate through the elevator’s audio system.”
“You said there were larger weapons somewhere here. We can’t see anything except this redoubt made of solid concrete and a single huge wheel. What does the wheel control?”
“The far wall is not a wall. It’s a door. The wheel operates a mechanism which allows the vault door to swing open to the outside. Behind the large wheel is a smaller wheel that controls a panel. The redoubt is a manually controlled space, although my sensors indicated it has been compromised at some time in the past.”
“Wow,” Jameson observed, feeling behind the larger wheel to discover the small one. “The people who built this place had strange minds. I don’t think we’ll ever learn everything about all of this.” He slowly and uncomfortably cranked the small wheel. It took several minutes of cranking before the wheel stopped moving.
“We cranked the little wheel Jordan, as far as it would go. Nothing happened.
“What’s supposed to happen?” Star asked.
“Turn to face the elevator doors,” Jordan instructed.
They all turned at once, except for Ninety-One. It remained in the exact center of the space radiating light from all of its openings.
An illuminated panel appeared, as if it out of nowhere, running from floor to ceiling, next to the elevator doors. A narrow opening was visible just to one side of the panel. The exposed opening was only the approximate thickness of a human adult’s body standing sideways.
“I can fit,” Tal exclaimed, running forward and almost instantly disappearing into the slice of blackness to the side of the panel. Sol followed before Star could think to say anything to stop him. She ran to the opening, intending to squeeze through and follow, but stopped when Tal spoke.
“We’ve found them. We think so, anyway. Here we come.”
“Found who, and coming where?” Star asked, stepping back from the narrow opening to stare into the blackness with a deep sense of apprehension.