ISLAND IN THE SAND

Chapter XXIII

Once again, the entire band, from Star, Wren, and Jameson, stopped to stand and stare at the walls of the house in silence.

“Did that thing just say the conveyance could fly off the planet? Jameson asked.

There was no answer to his question. Everyone had heard the house say the stunning words. Star breathed in and out deeply, trying to take in the enormity of how her own, and all the rest of their lives, had been so dramatically changed, and how it all somehow resembled the riding of a beast that was plummeting toward some unknown destination, going too fast to get off, and with no understanding of how to slow down or stop.

“Jameson,” Star said, loudly, moving back out of the hall and into the living room area. “Take True into a bedroom and search him thoroughly for anything else he might have. Wren, take Harry and the rest of the kids and get them showered. See what you can do to find them clothes, or at least some material to make some clothing out of.”

“What must be done with the humans you have left to fend for themselves at the control center?” the house asked.

Star felt herself involuntarily breath inward. The two. The two she’d forgotten. Val and Theo. Val, one of the band’s most valuable assets, and wounded Theo. Her head sagged a bit in remembrance of forgetting.

“House, I need to communicate with the command center identity,” she said, having wanted to proceed immediately to the conveyance, but being unable to ignore the fact that she still had members of the band out there she needed to look after.

“You must access the complex control center through Ninety-One, as you refer to the damaged service robot,” the house replied.

Why hadn’t Val and Theo reached out to her, Star wondered.

Jameson returned to the room, shaking his head as he entered. “True’s got nothing, except arguments about how being a traitor has its own rational good points.”

“He’s not a traitor,” Star replied, thinking about how much of a traitor the rest of them might be considered for completely forgetting about two of their more loyal members. “He’s trying to survive and he’s also right. God knows what might happen to us if we fall into Sly’s hands, but there’s no question how True would be treated unless he’d done something that made it allowable for him to live.”

“Well, you can think whatever you want,” Jameson said. “I still think he’s a low life traitor and I’m going to watch him like a hawk.”

As Jameson finished, True re-entered the room, while the kids got herded together by Wren to be scrubbed down.

“I still don’t understand how any of this works, like the food in the cans, and the rugs, and the wood on the walls,” Star said, looking all about her. “How could any of it last this long. Even the cloth, if they find towels and bedding and stuff for the kids. It doesn’t make any sense. How can robots keep that stuff from falling apart or make more when it does?”

“True,” Jameson ordered, in his gruffest voice. “You’re with me. Don’t leave my side unless I command it.”

“Yes, sir,” True responded, moving to stand so close to Jameson that Jameson moved a few inches away. “I will do as instructed. Just for the record, though, I think you’re going to win.”

“Oh gee, thanks,” Jameson intoned.

“Let’s get to the garage, or whatever the house calls those storage areas,” Star said. “I’ve got to talk to the control center now, and I’ve got to figure out the conveyance thing. How do you test a flying vehicle without getting inside it? Can we simply command it to fly around overhead and then return? What if it goes somewhere else and Sly’s band gets hold of it?”

There were no answers to Star’s questions and she knew it. She walked toward the security panel leading to where they’d left Ninety-One. She moved with speed and confidence, totally the opposite of how she felt inside. Jameson’s comment about sleeping in the same room with her had also bitten deep. What were his intentions? What were her own intentions, since she hadn’t been able to force herself to countermand him?

The clear security panel opened upon command. Star stepped through the opening. The robot was as they’d left it, except it was slowly moving a few inches in each direction at a steady metronomic rate.

“Ninety-One,” Star began, and then stopped because the robot had instantly stopped its movements when she spoke.

“This whole panel can slide fully to the side to allow me access to the dwelling,” Ninety-One said, it’s tone sounding almost like it was pouting. “The house thing knows that and could have allowed me to enter instead of sitting out here like some cast-off device. If things happen out here I have no way to help you inside.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll inform the house to let you in,” Star replied, wondering what the robot’s treads would do to the rugs and wood flooring covering the floors of the entire dwelling. Whatever damage the robot would do was going to be complained about, Star was certain. She considered reminding Ninety-One that he was a service robot and not one of her band but thought better of it.

“I need to address Jordan at the…” she started, but she got no farther.

“I was waiting,” the voice of Jordan said, over the lower speaker that made Ninety-One seem smaller and far away. “I presume that you have not made the attempt to communicate rather than that this unit we are communicating through failed to transmit the messages.”

Star considered for a few seconds. There was no point, she decided, in trying to clear up perceived differences between the artificial intelligence units.

“Why has Val not tried to reach me?” Star said, changing the subject.

“I must presume that the damaged robot did not transmit your messages,” Jordan continued as if it had not received an order.

Star waited, trying not to look over at the strange appearing conveyance visible across the expanse of the warehouse-sized garage.

“As you instructed earlier, Star Black Administrator, no one not authorized as an administrator may use the communications channels. Is that order being changed?”

Star felt like kicking herself. The entity was correct.

“Could you please have Val speak to me and record her as an administer right now.”

“Star?” a small female voice spoke from the center of the robot.

“Val!” Star responded, breathlessly. “What has happened? I’m so sorry we lost contact. How is Theo?”

“We’ve made it okay but we had to stay until Theo could walk. Jordan healed him, mostly.”

“Jordan, where is the other band?” Star asked, knowing she had to get as much information as possible before risking anyone or anything on trying to help the ones at the bottom of the lift.

“There are three groups, Star Black. Two are down by the side of that canyon but they cannot be surveilled from my position, or with any active sensors at my command. The third is emplaced outside not far from your location.”

“How is that possible?” Star said, more to herself than Jordan.

“Are you coming for us?” Val asked, her voice wavering slightly.

“Yes, but we have to learn more about what’s called a conveyance where we are now,” Star replied. “We’ve found a place of security, but getting you here and through the ring of Sly’s band is going to be interesting.”

“When?” Val said, in a tone that Star could tell was reaching panic level.

“Right away, I’m surveying the conveyance now,” Star said back, “and I’ll keep Ninety-One, the service robot you are talking through, close by.”

Star moved past Ninety-One and crossed the broad expanse of the garage with Jameson and True by her side. The machine sitting in the second bay was under a huge gray tarp. Jameson and True moved toward the deeper wall and grasped the material. Only after struggling for several minutes were they able to move the thick canvas-like material a few feet back from the thing’s leading edge.

Jameson ran his hands over the flat leading edge of the conveyance before pulling more canvas from its surface. “It’s a slot,” Jameson whispered, trying to stare into the slot itself.

Jameson and True pulled the rest of the canvas off, baring a vehicle that was about forty feet long, twenty feet wide and eight feet tall. The sharp-edged front end of the thing was in stark contrast to the bulbous remainder of the craft, the aft part of it nothing more than two wide form-fitting doors with inset handles. The entire surface was a dull white color. There were no windows or doors or any other openings except the half-inch thin slots along the craft’s leading edge.

“Does it work?” Star said out into the open space, but she got no answer.

“Does the conveyance work, House?” Star said, thinking of Wren in modifying her question.

“Unknown,” the house responded.

As soon as the words were spoken, however, a deep thrumming sound began to hum from the vehicle. The sound built to a rumbling distant shriek, even though the conveyance stood not five feet from Star’s right hand.

“The conveyance would seem to have sufficient power to operate,” the house said. “With your permission, I will open the outer door and see if the craft is operable.”

“I don’t want it going anywhere on its own,” Star said.

A side portion of the conveyance opened on the side nearest to Star. It opened like it was made of three or four huge hinged clamshells. One ‘shell’ swung around and down to form what might otherwise have been steps to the slightly higher inside.

“Do you wish to enter, Star Black Administrator?” the house asked, it’s tone stiffly formal.

“I’ll go,” True said. “If it crashes then you won’t lose anything. If I make it then maybe I can be accepted into the band.”

“Your mind doesn’t exactly work very good sometimes,” Star replied, but then started to think about the problem.

The band could not afford to lose her, or Jameson, or Wren. If could well afford to lose True, but he could not be depended upon to be loyal to anyone but himself.

“Okay, True will go up, Star said, watching Jameson grimace. “But House, I want him to have no power to do anything without my permission. Will I be able to talk to him in the craft at all times?”

“If the craft is ordered to a destination within the geographic range of normal modulated carrier waves. The satellites that once fed the communications stream are long inactive.”

“An experimental trip up in the air should only last a few minutes and the craft shouldn’t travel more than a few miles before returning,” Star instructed, not truly understanding what the house had said about communications. “I don’t want the craft to go so far in this flight that I won’t be able to order it back, as well as talk to True inside.”

“That is understood, Star Black. I will extend the flight up to one thousand meters above dwelling ground level, have it circle one kilometer in radius from the dwelling and then return to it as quickly as possible. Please instruct the occupant to board and become the occupant.”

“Okay,” Star said, breathing out in a way that resembled a sigh but wasn’t really. “True, get aboard and don’t touch anything or say anything to the machine unless I tell you. You answer me if I am able to talk to you while you are on the inside.”

“Ah, okay,” True said, stepping into the extended clamshell. He turned back to face Jameson and Star with a worried expression on his face. The machine closed up so quickly that it took them all by surprise.

“Can you hear me in there, True?” Star asked the walls around her with some trepidation.

“Yes, I am here,” True replied, his voice excited. “This is wonderful in here. I can see you as if there are no walls at all and I’m sitting in a chair like none I’ve ever seen or known before. This is wonderful. I hope it doesn’t crash.”

Star turned to Ninety-One, as the robot had rolled up to take True’s place nearby. “How long would it take for you to reach the top of the lift on the outside, Val, and can Theo make it after the arrow damage?”

“The time of transit on foot should be less than a few minutes, and the lift is particularly rapid in a transfer,” Jordan responded.

“Yes, Theo can do it, but where is Sly and his band?”

“He’s somewhere around the dwelling, but we’ve found safety inside, Val. And I think we have a way of getting you in here, without him seeing you if this thing works. Go to the lift leading to the outside. Follow Jordan’s directions. When you get to the top of the lift and the doors open, do not go out until I tell you. Jordan will let you close the doors and retreat if Sly’s boys are outside. I am going to try to send the conveyance to pick you up.”

“What’s the conveyance?” Val asked, but Star cut her off. “Just get into whatever’s there when the lift opens if anything’s there.”

“House, can you direct the conveyance to land near the lift leading down into the heart of the complex, pick up Val and Theo, and then return to the inside of this dwelling?”

“You will be exposed while the door is open for seven seconds, and then for ten more when the craft returns, if it returns,” the house replied, unaccountably not answering the direct question Star had put to it.

“Jameson, get your weapon at the ready because I think this is all going to happen pretty quickly,” Star ordered, bringing her rifle up to check it and then aim it at the big garage door.

Jameson took a position down on the floor, aiming his weapon toward the still closed door, as well.

The door didn’t rise, instead, it fell into the floor so rapidly that it was difficult to see. One second the door was sealed shut, and the next the open spaces of the outside were revealed in bright sunlight. Air rushed in as the conveyance bounced upward, springing up on large emergent black wheels and rolling backward out the door. There was no delay, and there was no sound from the flying machine. The thing was out the door and gone up into the air in seemingly no time at all. The door rose up to thunk into the sealing stop at the top of the wall.

“True?” Star finally thought to ask.

“Here, I’m here, really here, just now,” True responded, his voice sounding breathless with excitement. “You’re not going to believe this. Any of this. Oh, thank you for letting me go. I’ll be the best member of the band you’ve ever had if I can do this some more.”

“I guess it’s in the air,” Jameson said, rising to his feet and securing his weapon. “I didn’t see a thing outside the door, but then there wasn’t much time.”

“The conveyance is dropping,” the house said, no emotion in its tone.