ISLAND IN THE SAND
The single heavy door opened all the way all on its own as if powered by some unseen force. There was no sound which surprised Star. How long since the doors to the house had been open, and if they hadn’t been opened for many many years then how was it that they could operate as if they were used every day. There was no evidence of the kind of hard harsh and penetrating light that flowed from most ceilings and the tops of the train tunnels inside the complex. Lights glowed on in front of Star as she moved into what could only be described as the recreation of life from the far past before the asteroid had changed everything in less than one rotation of the planet. Star stopped five feet inside the door, feeling a faint draft behind her but unable to turn and see what might have caused it. The scene opening before her was just too magnetically holding of all her attention. One light went on after another. Over-stuffed couches, chairs, side tables sat, perfectly laid out in a single large room covered in rugs so deeply piled that it was difficult to walk upon them. A fireplace ignited along the shorter wall of the room to Star’s left, while some sort of calming music she’d never heard anything like eased out of every part of the walls and ceiling. Two fans revolved slowly, looking like many-fingered digits of some macabre but beautiful flat-surfaced hands.
Star took it all in, letting her eyes flow over the interior and the through the glass windows, all of which she knew had been shuttered prior to their entry. The upper lip of the canyon wall across the deep divide in between was a thing of distant but nearly painful beauty, gray rocks veined with clear quartz with giant pines growing and flowing out into the empty air. Suddenly, her thoughts came rushing back inside. There was no noise at all behind her. Nothing. No children’s movements and sounds. She twisted around and stared at the rest of her band, all collected behind some clear barrier. Star ran to the glass wall and put her hands on it, pressing against the hands pushing toward her on the other side.
“House, what is this glass barrier?” she asked out loud, trying to keep her voice calm.
“The security barrier automatically closed behind your entry,” the voice reverberated, coming out of every surface around her. “You are the administrator and must be protected.”
“Those are my…” Star said, stopping suddenly to get her mind organized. She was dealing with a machine again and she’d learned that the machines did not think like humans, although they sometimes sounded like them. “They are my agents,” she went on. “Please remove the barrier and let them in.”
“As you order, administrator,” the house said, as the barrier silently moved aside, with Jamison and the rest piling in without delay or seeming fear of what they might find.
“What’s the glass barrier for, house?” Star asked, noting that Harry was the first one in and immediately ran to stand in front of the fireplace, dragging her backpack before tossing it aside, as if she’d arrived at home.
“There is no glass barrier,” the house replied. “The specifications of this fortified dwelling allow for advanced metallurgy use for ultimate preservation. The barrier is of advanced transparent metal. The metal is the fortifications primary defense, not the lower periodic table material represented by the shutters.”
“Wow,” Jamison said, pulling up next to Star. “It talks but it doesn’t say much. Do you suppose it’s somehow related to Jordon?”
“It is presumed that you are discussing my identity and existence, with reference to the entity historically and currently operating the nearby complex. You have named that entity Jordon and communication with that entity is possible from anywhere in the dwelling. I would prefer not to be assigned a name, but you are the administrator.”
“More nothing,” Jamison said, holding up one hand and cupping it in a futile attempt to keep the house from hearing.
“Information is life,” the house said, causing Jamison to shake his head and walk over to the center of the living room.
The children had rushed by, Wren trying to control them. The amount of grubby dirt emanating from the entire group had never been more apparent in contrast to the extreme cleanliness of their surroundings.
“Secure the dwelling, house,” Star ordered, dropping her own pack. “Could an outside force penetrate the invisible metal with a plasma torch?” she asked.
“The transparent metal is not invisible,” the house replied. “No plasma torch or another penetration tool would be effective in damaging it, although something of a thermonuclear detonation might break its structure down, marginally.”
“Marginally,” Jamison whispered, his tone giving away how impressed he was.
“What now?” Wren asked, standing in the middle of the clump the children had formed, Sol and Tal hanging on her arms. Only True and Harry stood at a slight distance from the rest.
Harry stared at True, the boy moving slightly back and forth from one foot to the other like he was adjusting to a moving ship’s deck in a mild sea.
“He’s with Sly,” Harry said as if to answer Wren’s question.
The ragamuffin child continued to stare at True, who turned his eyes to stare into the fire.
“He’s with them,” Harry said.
“I was with them, like you were,” True finally replied, hissing a warning across the few meters separating them, “now I’m with Star.”
“Okay,” Star intervened, “We’ve got bigger problems just now, like inspecting the rest of this house. Sly and his band can’t get in here without accessing the house entity and I’m the only administrator.”
“Have you searched him?” Harry asked, her small voice low but flat and as menacing as a little girl could be.
“For what?” Jamison asked his tone one of curiosity. “He’s been with us for some time and he’s been okay.”
“He’s called True for a reason, you know,” Harry said, but then stopped.
They all waited, but the little girl said nothing more as if expecting what she’d said would be enough.
“All right,” Star finally filled the silence, her voice showing her frustration.
“What is it he has?”
“Show her,” Harry said, pointing at True.
True didn’t move or look away from the little girl’s pointing finger.
“He’s been recording everything on a hidden machine he carries that Sly gave him, that Sly told us all about with him.”
Star’s mind took an instant backward leap, going back days to the time when True had been captured by them at the wall inside the control and energy generation chamber. The furtive move. The voice recorder.
“House, how may I speak to you without everyone else hearing?” Star asked, looking all around the room.
“Sub-vocalization, it is called,” the house replied. “Say the words you wish to help private but do not say them out loud, and assure that your lips are not watched. I will be able to interpret your vibrations and receive your requests and instructions.”
Star turned her back on the band, facing the clear metal of the door security system.
“Close the metal outside-door and change the entry code to all eights and only accept the instructions from Star Black herself, and that includes the control center complex entity or anyone or anything else.”
The outside door closed slowly and silently. Whatever the clear metal was made of didn’t let sound pass through it at all. Star realized that the silence was so complete that she could hear the breathing of all the members of her band behind her.
“Your orders have been implemented and acted upon,” the machine said. “What about the robot you left waiting near the front of the dwelling?”
“Damn,” Star breathe out. She’d forgotten about Ninety-One.
“Where can we put him?” She asked, this time speaking out loud, like the house, “and why aren’t you subvocalizing too?”
“Rethink the second question,” the house replied, Star detecting a faint sarcasm or levity in its tone. “The robot will fit inside one of the two vehicle conveyance spaces. I will open the door to the empty one and instruct the robot to enter on your orders.”
“Empty one?” Star asked, “what’s in the space that’s not empty?”
“A conveyance,” the house said.
Star was surprised the machine didn’t ask her to rethink that question too.
“How is it that this house and everything in it is so clean, so like it has been all along? How is that possible?”
“Thank you,” the house said. “The robotic attendants are state of the art for the time, as they were designed to become, and the condition of the dwelling awaits the return of those who left in an expectation that they would return.”
“They’re not coming back,” Star replied, emphatically. “They were killed in the asteroid strike. Nobody’s coming back from almost anywhere on the planet. Almost everyone was killed.”
“That is a correct analysis, Star Black, administrator, and my own calculations concur. The return of those who built the house and left their instructions will not be returning from this planet. The robot called Ninety-One is refusing to enter the open space without your input and it is vital that the space not be left open for security purposes.”
“Can I speak to Ninety-One through you?” Star asked, surprised that she hadn't inquired earlier.
“No, that robot is independent in communication, until such time as you perform the necessary instructions to make such communication congruent between us. You must go to the space and give verbal orders from there.”
“Where is 'the space'?” Star asked, not remembering any hidden shutters or entries big enough to allow the entry of the robot, much less one more than that.
“You must move through the house north, traveling parallel to the open crevasse to the east. You will come to another transparent metal door set into the wall. I will instruct you upon arrival.
“Everyone, start looking around,” Star said loudly to the frolicking group behind her. “We need to know about the inside of this place, but stick together.”
“Did that thing really say, “from this planet?” Jamison said, for just behind her.
“What are you talking about?” Star replied, walking toward a hallway not far from the edge of the stone fireplace. “We’ve got to get Ninety-One inside and some outer door closed. “House, are there any humans outside this dwelling right now?’
“I meant,” Jamison continued, his tone one of determination, “they left this place to go off planet, which means there are people somewhere else out there.”
Star stopped abruptly. “You’re right. That’s a big deal and we’ve got to talk about it but not right now. We’ve more important things to get done.”
“Won’t that always be the case?” Jamison responded as both resumed walking quickly down the lit corridor.
The transparent metal door slid aside as Star walked up to it, once again without any sound, although letting sound in from open space beyond. The sound was of a huge door opening. Star stuck her head through the open door and saw Ninety-One appear, as the vertical rising door reached its top extent and stopped.
“Ninety-One, will you please come inside here before we have company out there,” she yelled through the gaping wide opening.
The robot moved forward. “As you command, Star Black Administrator.”
Once it’s treads were still, with its full bulk rolled in as close to the clear metal door as possible, the robot spoke again. “I can communicate with your as long as this intervening door is open and I would prefer that. I remain uncertain about the intent and motivation of the entity governing the operation of this fortified position.”
“The inner doors are the ultimate defense against any entry by Sly’s band right now, so I’d prefer to close it,” Star replied, surprised by the robot’s evaluation of the house computer and its willingness to share that evaluation with her.
“You do not know that for a fact,” the robot replied. “And, furthermore, the edifice of a vertical door behind me is one twenty-five millimeters thick. The inner door may be closed rapidly in the event of a threatened breach.”
Star sighed, but her brain was in a heated turmoil. Might humans be coming back from another planet? The house was some sort of waiting fortress, impossibly maintained like so much more of what the previous advanced civilization had left behind. Ninety-One was acting more human than most humans she encountered. A metal existed that she could see through. Was True some sort of deep-placed spy? It was all too much to take in, and there seemed no time to explore any area of these gut-wrenching mysteries. The house might be the best thing to ever happen to Star and her band or it might be a death trap. She had to find out which it was and she had to do so quickly. Every decision she made seemed to be the right one when she made it but then everything fell apart a little later on.
“House, tell everyone in this dwelling to meet in the living room again in front of the fireplace,” she said to the air around her, “and turn off the fire, it’s too warm outside to have a fire inside.”
“The outside temperature is seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit,” the house responded, inexplicably. “The beings currently occupying the dwelling will be immediately alerted to your order.” With that, the house loudly proclaimed that there was a meeting called by Star Black Administrator to be held immediately in the main housing section of the upper story of the dwelling.
Star sighed again, at the difficulty in trying to deal with machine intelligence.
“You might inquire about the lower story of the dwelling, Star Black,” Ninety-One’s voice almost whispered through the sound system the house used to communicate.