ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star Black walked the short distance back to the living room where her band was once more gathering.
“What lower story of the dwelling?” she asked, more to herself than to Jameson who stood by her side.
“The lower story is not a story at all,” the house intoned. I must assume that the defective Ninety-One machine was referring to the extended unit set into the base of the canyon face. That would place it lower than the house, which is accurate, but it is a thousand meters down, connected only by a small express lift.”
“So, there’s something at the bottom of the canyon and there’s a way to get down to it,” Jameson said, with no doubt from his tone that he was eager to find out more, and immediately go exploring.
“That’s correct and accurate,” the house stated.
“So, where’s the lift and when can we go down?” Jameson replied.
“The lift is rising, but it’s of an old variety and will take some time to reach the dwelling.”
“Rising?” Star said, her voice piercing in tone, stopping all activity in the room.
“Why would it be rising?” she asked, before quickly following, “that means there’s somebody in it and you, house, indicated that there was no one outside in the dwelling’s vicinity.”
“There were no humans in the vicinity, as loosely defined when you pointedly used the word ‘outside’ in your question,” the house shot back, it’s tone almost one of faint or vague petulance.
“How could anyone get in the lift and use it if they aren’t an administrator?” she asked, realizing when she got the words out that the answer to that question was right there among them. So much was happening at once Star couldn’t figure out what to do first. They had members of Sly’s band, who had somehow gotten to the bottom of the canyon and were riding up to arrive at the dwelling at any moment, as a possible and vital life or death issue.
“The nodes and the lifts do not require the code to be provided by an administrator,” the house said. “Unlike accessing the main complex entity and myself, they only require a spoken or written code.”
“Give me the device,” Jameson said across the room to True, “and you better pray that we don't find any more on you when there’s time to search you.”
The boy slunk against the wall, standing with his back against the stone that extended out from the fireplace, which still exuded heat even though the flames were gone. He held out his open hand, palm up, with a small black electronic device laying upon it. The device had a short antenna sticking out of it.
“I don’t have anymore, that’s the last one,” he murmured in the silence, as everyone waited to see what was going to happen next.
“I didn't know who was going to win,” True said, his voice soft but faintly rebellious. “If Star won I knew it would be okay, but if Sly won then what was I to do, die with everyone else?”
Jameson stepped quickly forward and swept the device off True’s exposed palm. He threw it down and smashed it into bits with the butt of his rifle before anything could be said or other action taken. Once done, Jameson raised his rifle up to point at True.
“We’re out of time, Jameson,” Star said loudly, demanding the boy’s full attention. “Deal with True later. We’ve got to get to the top of the lift before it gets up here. Where are the lift doors, house?” Star yelled at the walls around her.
“You must proceed to the outer wall overlooking the canyon. The doors are located down the north-leading hallway you will find along that wall surface.”
“Do not open the lift doors, while we get to those doors, house, and stop the lift from arriving at the doors,” Star said, as she began to move toward the giant thick windows that overlooked the canyon below. The windows extended from the top of the wall down to only a few inches off the floor. Moving parallel to them and looking through the glass made her so uncomfortable that she had to step back a few feet to be able to walk without losing her balance.
“The lift cannot be stopped until it reaches the dwelling destination, but the clear metal security panel and the surface between the doors and the dwelling can be kept secured awaiting further orders from an administrator.”
“Damn it,” Star exclaimed, as she hurried up the hall, trying to figure out what was a wall and what might be tightly sealed doors set into or upon it.
“I’m the administrator, or am I no longer the only one?” she asked the house, “and where are the God blessed doors from where I am right now?”
“Slow your progress and I will assure that the wall reveals the panel behind it as you pass in seven-point-six seconds at your current pace.”
Star peered closely at the wall until she saw a giant rectangle of white light beam forth from one part of it. That portion of the wall had appeared just like the rest of the structure, and Star was once again stunned by this easy revelation of the high technology
The light dimmed and all of a sudden Star was staring down through a huge tunnel of curved glass, or what appeared to be glass. Beyond the thick glass walls, beyond the clear metal panel, the canyon was visible but distorted. Star put her ear against the panel. She heard rushing air. The lift was rising.
“Don’t open this panel, house,” Star repeated, bringing her rifle from her shoulder to hold it at the ready position with both hands. She checked the bolt to make sure that a round was in the chamber, before checking the safety to make sure it was off.
“As previously instructed, administrator Star Black,” the machine replied, Star once more picking up a very subtle tone she didn’t like.
Suddenly, the scene changed in front of her. There were boys standing right on the other side of the panel staring back at her. Bad looking boys with handguns. Star stared back at them as they began to beat the butts of their weapons against the transparent metal. Whatever the material was, Star realized, did not even pass noise through it. Although she could not hear them, the five boys made her fearful that they would somehow break through.
“Can you lower the lift again?” Star asked the house.
“Not without actions being taken from inside the lift capsule,” the house replied.
Wren moved to Star’s side, staring back at the angry young men through the clear panel.
“You’re asking the wrong questions,” Wren said to Star.
“House, can you lower the lift back to the bottom of the canyon in any way?” Wren asked.
“Upon the orders of the administrator Star Black the power to the lift capsule can be severed,” the house replied. “The capsule will return to the bottom of the cliff at extremely high speed. Once reaching a position twenty-two meters from the bottom surface emergency brakes will be applied to stop the lift and allow it to lower itself to the surface gently.”
“Order it,” Wren said to Star, her eyes never leaving the nasty expressions and violent struggles of the boys on the capsule surface.
“What will happen to them if they are stopped that fast?” Star asked, more to herself than to Wren, while she considered.
“Human material will survive such an event, although certain pressure and gravitational resistance issue may make condition conjectural,” the house said.
“Do it,” Wren said, her voice a hissed whisper.
“Sever the power to the lift, house,” Star commanded, uncomfortable with the order but seeing no other way out of their predicament.
The lift disappeared so quickly it was as if by magic.
“Potential impact is in sixteen point five seconds,” the house reported.
“Impact?” Star asked, surprised by the use of the word.
“Yes, the equipment is old, the emergency brakes may not engage.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Star said, in anguish, counting the seconds off inside her head, while trying not to hate the artificial intelligence they were trying to deal with.
“You did not inquire, Star Black Administrator, and the lift is now gently lowering to the surface,” the house said. “The brakes partially engaged. The lift cannot be used again until the brakes have been repaired, which may take a service robot some time to accomplish if it is possible.”
“Were human injuries were suffered in the fall?” Wren asked.
“It would give every appearance that that is the case, although there is no possible way to know since there is no contact with anyone in the capsule or close-by at the bottom.”
“Damn,” Jameson said. “They might be down there beaten to hell and we did it. Not that they didn’t deserve it. Must have been one hell of a ride down.”
“Their condition doesn’t matter if we can’t get down there,” Star said.
“We can’t use the lift to go to the bottom of the canyon?” she asked the house, not truly believing what she’d heard. Sly’s band could use things and then those same things were denied to Star and her group. How was that possible?
“Degradation over time is part of the process in physics called entropy, and some substances and creations from substances are not within the purview of the technology built into the complex or this dwelling.”
“You asked the wrong question again,” Wren whispered to Star.
“What the hell’s the right question? Ask it,” Star replied, in obvious frustration.
“How do we get down to the bottom of the canyon to see what happened if the lift is not functional?” Wren asked.
“I must evaluate the potential you have as current humans in this situation,” the machine said.
Star waited before the clear door, again stepping back a few feet because of the view down through the panel. She imagined another set of metal rungs running a thousand meters down onto the floor of the valley and another terrifying climb like they’d experienced in getting down to the energy complex days earlier. She couldn’t believe they were all waiting for an artificial intelligence to evaluate their capabilities before it would render an opinion or assistance.
“There is the conveyance,” the house finally said.
“That’s not going to work,” Star muttered, knowing that even if there was a ground vehicle that had been brought back to life or somehow preserved, none of them would be able to operate it.
“Is there another way, using whatever this dwelling has at hand, in order to get any of us to the bottom of the canyon?” Wren repeated.
“There is the conveyance, as I have already indicated, although it can be used to go to many other destinations of your choice, other than to the bottom of the canyon,” the house replied.
“Is there a road that goes down there?” Star asked, breaking in.
“Not to my current store of knowledge or active intelligence,” the house replied. “There were many roads at one time but all roads have fallen to overgrowth, wear, erosion and other natural phenomena.”
“How can the conveyance reach the bottom if it doesn't have a road to drive on?” Wren asked.
“By traveling through the atmosphere,” the house replied.
Nobody moved or said anything upon hearing what the house had said.
In Star’s memory, there weren’t even discussions about flying machines simply because no flying machines existed in the new world following the asteroid strike. No flying machines were rumored to exist because the penalty for owning, having or using one was death in every culture she had ever heard of.
“There’s no one here who can fly any kind of air machine,” Star finally said, not knowing what else to say to such an outlandish announcement.
“The conveyance is self-conducted,” the house stated flatly. “Humans enter, indicate the point of land or sea they wish the conveyance to conduct them to, and the air machine does the rest…under most circumstances.”
“What do you mean by ‘most circumstances’?” Wren asked.
“The conveyance has not been called upon to take flight in some time,” the house replied.
“Oh great,” Jameson whispered. “I already know what you’re going to say,” he said to Star. “You’re going to say we’re responsible for what happened to those completely evil young men and that we have a responsibility to go down there at the risk of our own lives to see if they need help.”
“Yes, you are correct, except they will have to wait,” Star said. “We must get centered in here before doing anything. The problem of True must be dealt with, and the children, including Harry, have got to get washed up and reasonable clothing found. There are the never-ending problems of food and water, and figuring out where everyone’s going to sleep.”
“There’s one big bedroom where I thought we’d sleep,” Jameson said to Star.
Star just stared at the boy while Wren made believe she hadn’t heard anything.
“I mean there are two beds…” Jameson followed, with his voice fading away.
“We want to see the conveyance,” Tal and Sol yelled running up to Star, Jameson, and Wren, leading the rest of the band.
“House, Tal yelled, laughing and jumping for joy when Star said it would be all right if they went and looked at the contraption, “how far can we go in the conveyance?”
“On planet or off planet?” the machine asked, with no hint in its tone that it was making any kind of joke.