ISLAND IN THE SAND
Sol and Tal emerged from the opening carrying what appeared to be long-barreled weapons. Each boy squeezed through the opening carrying one of the weapons vertically. The weapons were almost as long as the boys were tall.
“Rifles,” Jameson said, grasping Tal’s weapon by its plastic stock a few inches up from the trigger. “Telescopic sights and tubular magazines,” he went on, in a whisper almost too quiet to hear. “I wonder if it’s loaded?” he asked himself more than the others present, lost in his own world of awe and loving wonder over handling such a dangerous relic from the old world.
Star carefully pried the second weapon from Sol’s small hands. “These look lethal as hell.” She observed, holding it out and attempting to look down through the end of the barrel.
“Careful,” Jameson said, “we don’t know if they’re loaded,” His eyes and hands never left the rifle he was holding, however.
“It’s going to take some time to figure them out,” he observed, “the operation at the bolt end, at least I think it’s the bolt end, is a lot different than the handguns we have. Was there extra ammunition in there Tal?” he inquired of the child.
“There’s lots of stuff in there, but I didn’t look close enough to see much, and the light’s pretty dim,” Tal replied. “You can fit inside yourself if you squeeze. There’s not much room, but you should be okay.”
“I wonder why they made the space so narrow?” Jameson asked no one in particular, readying himself to slip into the narrow gap.
“The armory was built to avoid detection, not for convenience,” Jordan answered. “Humans were smaller not long ago, as well. Your own overly large size is well beyond that of normal for even the current era.”
“Thanks a lot,” Jameson said, sucking his stomach in.
“I’ll go in,” Star directed. “You stay out here. The last thing we need is for you to be stuck in the opening unable to get back out. All these operating doors on the mechanisms are old and undependable. What if the door closed on you?”
Star deftly slipped by Jameson and through the narrow slit of a door, as if she was smaller and thinner than she really was. Once inside, she found that the opening expanded somewhat, but not by much. The light from the outside room, shining dimly through the opening slit, was all that illuminated the walls and the objects stacked neatly within it. It was easy to see rifles hanging on pegs covering both near side walls of the room. The far narrow wall, at what must be the end of the room, was in darkness.
“Have Ninety-One move closer and shine it’s light so I can see all the way in,” Star said loudly over her shoulder. She gave the weaponry everywhere her full attention, once she got used to the claustrophobic feeling the small dark space gave her. She counted fifty rifles before Ninety-One’s illumination, penetrating the room from just outside the slit, filled the small space with bright light.
“There’s plenty of extra ammunition,” she yelled out to Jameson, before lowering her voice upon seeing that Tal and Sol had silently joined her. “It’s in these little boxes of different sizes,” she said to the kids. “I think we have to match the boxes up with the different kinds of rifles to find out what goes into each one. Star picked up one of the larger boxes, about the size of a short fat cribbage board. “300 Weatherby Magnum” was printed on the box in black letters against the gray cardboard backing. Stamped over the printing was a single phrase in red, obviously placed there later. It read; “CUSTOM LOADED EXPRESS ARMOR-PIERCING.” She passed several of the boxes to Tal and Sol, standing right behind her. From the wall she pulled down two more rifles, these much shorter and lighter than the bigger ones. Tal and Sol took those, as well. Guessing that the ammunition in the smaller boxes might be for the smaller rifles, Star grabbed a couple boxes, and then began working sideways to get out of the claustrophobic space. She wondered what she’d do if the door closed and it went dark inside the tight space. Just the thought of being trapped inside the space made her shiver right through to her center.
“Carbine,” Jameson stated, examining one of the smaller weapons. “Thirty Caliber,” it says on the barrel. Stock’s made of cracked wood. Must be really old. Wonder if it still works. It looks like the ammunition goes inside the boxes sticking out of the bottom, like the automatic’s magazine, but external.”
“The ammunition box says the same thing,” Star reported, reading the print stamped on the outside of one the boxes. “Maybe we should try these out right now before going anywhere. Maybe the guns are too old, or the ammunition decayed. Although it looks okay.”
“Good idea,” Jameson responded, eyeing True. He looked over at Star and recognized her expression. They had a decision to make. The rifles might change everything. In the right hands they might possibly allow for the complex to be completely controlled by Star’s band. In the wrong hands anything could happen. Were the guns too much of a ‘game changer’ to allow True to even possess one, much less shoot one.
“Let’s figure out how to load these and then ride the elevator and hope to open the vault door to the outside.” Star stopped to look at her watch, after speaking. “It should be early in the morning out there, like it is in here if Jordan made the changes like I asked earlier. We’ve been in the complex for a long time. We can try shooting some of these to see how they work.”
“It is the same relative time outside the complex as it is in here,” Jordan said, the machine’s voice sounding different as it was broadcast through Ninety-One’s speaker instead of from the more distant elevator.
The collected band sat under Ninety-One’s radiating lights and worked on the guns. The children cleaned and rubbed the guns with some old clothing they’d carried along in their packs.
Star and Jameson studied the cleaned weapons when the kids were done. It didn’t take long to figure out that the small rifles operated differently than the big one. The small ones had removable magazines that took many bullets while the big ones took the much larger bullets, but only a few of them. After an hour of carefully and a bit painfully loading the magazines and weapon chambers of the rifles Star felt they were ready to get aboard the elevator and ride up to the level Jordan had indicated the vault door to the outside was located on.
Upon their arrival, the elevator door opened into a small metal chamber. There was nothing in the chamber except a large round vault door on the opposing wall. The door had a wheel projecting out from its center that was almost as big as the giant steel door itself. Jameson slowly turned the big wheel.
That the wheel turned at all was a great relief to Star. As Jameson worked to open the vault door, Star handed a smaller rifle to each of the children. Only True was unarmed. He’d earned some trust, but she was still uncertain about his loyalty.
“Is there anything on the other side of the door, Jordan?” Star asked the machine, out of curiosity.
“I have no sensors in that area,” Jordan replied
The big wheel stopped turning. Jameson pushed against it. A great chunk of the wall began to swing outward and light cascaded through the ever-enlarging crack. The door swung out all the way. The room was fully illuminated, the yellow light from the outside overwhelming that of the sterile blue-white on the inside. With the new weapons they weren’t sure how to operate pointed outward, the band stared at the scene before them. Only Star and Jameson stood ready with their hand guns, which both knew worked. The redoubt had been constructed not far back from the edge of a cliff. The view across a pine forest valley was magnificent. They all stepped gently forward out of the structure.
“I wonder how far we are from where we came in?” Jameson asked. “I don’t recognize this at all.”
“Two-point-seven miles in distance and one thousand four hundred and fifty-four meters in elevation,” Jordan answered from the speaker in the still open elevator behind them.
The scene was stunning to all of them, but they still held their guns at the ready. They waited, smiling into the wind and scene before them, but there was no one there. The area behind the redoubt was relatively open, as pines rose up, but not in any dense carpet-like formation as in the valley below. Dried pine needles covered the ground around the trees, making the area appear as if it had been landscaped and weeded. There were no other plants living among the pines. Their sap-filled needles killed everything.
Jameson stepped out and sat on the ground, reaching up for Tal to hand him one of the large rifles. He placed it carefully on the bed of needles before him. He moved behind the rifle, and then brought the stock of the weapon to his shoulder. Everyone watched in silence, but only Starr thought to cover her ears. Moving the small lever on the side of the barrel backward and then forwards again, Jameson loaded a single round into the chamber. He aimed at a distant pine tree through the scope that ran along the top edge for half the barrel length.
The explosion at the end of the rifle’s barrel when he pulled the trigger, took all of them by surprise. It was huge and painfully loud. Jameson grunted in surprise, rolling back and away from the weapon.
“Wow,” he gasped out. “That really hurt. I wonder if I hit anything?” he said, rubbing his shoulder, as the top of the pine he’d shot at slowly broke off and hung down along the side of the rest of the tree.
“I guess you did,” Star answered, pointing.
Tal, Sol and the others rubbed their ears and heads, as did True.
“The big rifles are very loud,” Star stated, needlessly. “We need to put something in our ears before we shoot one again. Maybe the little rifles aren’t so bad.”
Tal and Sol lay down next to Jameson, holding the small rifles out over the ground like Jameson had.
Jameson looked up into Star’s eyes.
Star understood his unasked question. Were the children too young to be handling or shooting the rifles? She didn’t say anything, however, looking out over the beauty of the valley below, instead. She heard the bolts on both weapons slide home, chambering a first round into each.
“These are semi-automatic, I think,” Jameson said. “Like the .45 I have in my pocket. Every time you squeeze the trigger a bullet comes out,” he instructed. Now, rip up some rags and put the bits in your ears. The children and True all scrambled to obey the order.
When they were ready, and before Jameson could say anything else, Tal aimed downrange and pulled the trigger. Three quick shots rang out, one hitting the ground in front of the weapon’s muzzle and throwing up a great cloud of pine needles.
“Careful,” Jameson yelled, grabbing the barrel of Tal’s rifle. “You have to aim. I’ll show you how to use the sights on top. Don’t just shoot away.”
The three worked together, Tal and So taking turns with the smaller rifles until they had some idea of how they worked. True reloaded the extra magazines but did not fire.
He seemed to show no anger or disappointment at being left out of the shooting itself. It was already afternoon, and they had made several trips back into the armory for more ammunition, before Star felt they were ready.
“It’s wonderful to be back outside, but it’s inside, down there,” Star said, pointing toward the gaping redoubt door, “that our future lies. We have to take and hold that place and then do something with it.”
“Are we going to have to shoot Sly and those boys?” Tal asked.
“I don’t know,” Star answered. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll leave and we’ll get Jordan and Ninety-One to make sure they don’t get inside again. But we have to find them first before we can do anything.”
“We weren’t meant to live underground,” Jameson concluded, as they loaded everything up and headed back to the redoubt elevator. “I didn’t realize how much I missed being outside until we came here.”
“Before we can conquer the outside we have to conquer the inside, which means conquering ourselves,” Star replied, as they all stood in the door and watched sunset begin to cover the land with the bright yellow light shifting to red hue. Star gathered the band around her before getting on the elevator.
“We’re going down to the tunnel with the rungs and food storage area. We’re going to move from there straight back to the railroad station. Once there we’ve got to find the rail node in a hurry and either disable it or take it over. After that, what happens to Sly and his band is going to be up to Sly and his band.”
The all trundled through the elevator opening and instructed Jordan to take them back down to the tunnel where Ninety-One waited. “Jordan, see if Ninety-One can tell us if anyone is down there waiting for our arrival,” Star instructed.
“Ninety-One reports only one living entity near the elevator doors,” Jordan answered.
Star frowned, slowly taking in a great lungful of air. “Please have Ninety-One describe the entity,” she asked.
“The entity is one robot,” the machine replied. “Ninety-One.”
They all laughed as the elevator doors slowly closed and they headed downward to find Sly and deal with his band.