ISLAND IN THE SAND
The fateful words were heard by every member of Star’s band, but none reacted as she did.
“I’ve killed him,” she breathed out, leaning into the wall at her side for support. “He was a long way from perfect, but he didn’t deserve to die,” she got out, tears forming in her eyes while she fought to hold them back.
“There are no human fatalities evident within the vicinity,” the House said.
“I’m not talking about the house,” Star replied, angrily,” I’m talking about this conveyance of yours.”
“The conveyance dropped to just above ground level according to the instructions you issued prior to its assent and test journey,” the House said back.
Star’s shoulders sagged. It was nearly impossible to comprehend what the machines were doing or thinking at any time, she concluded. She moved to stand near where Ninety-One had come to rest, no longer moving in its strange back and forth manner.
“Jordan, can you hear me?” she said toward the front panel of the robot.
“I remain at your service Star Black, administrator,” Jordan’s small voice replied.
“Have Theo and Val made it to the top in the lift?” she asked, holding her breath.
She wanted to ask if the conveyance was there outside the lift doors and if True was alive, but she restrained herself. It was simply for the time being and she knew she had to wait. She looked over at Wren, who had remained silent since the conveyance had taken off. Wren was much more adept than she at figuring out the artificial intelligence contrivances.
“Wren,” she called in a low voice.
“I have them,” True said, his voice loud and exuberant.
“You have them?” Star replied, in great relief at hearing his voice.
“They came out of the lift, the conveyance hatch opened, they walked in here, and then the whole thing closed up again,” True reported.
“Wren, talk to the house about getting them back,” Star ordered, although she did not use an ordering tone to the talented young girl.
“Elevate and return to the garage,” Wren said to the house.
“Complying,” the House replied.
“Ask it if the lift doors remained open or if they closed,” Ninety-One said in its deep modulated tone.
“What?” Star replied in surprise, turning her head to stare at the machine.
For the first time, she wished that the robot had eyes, even if they were only mechanical. She knew the robot depended upon sensors that were probably more sensitive than human eyes, but the more she communicated with it the more she felt like it was a real living creature. That Robot Ninety-One would have remained so attentive and then was intuitive enough to ask such a question had surprised the ‘what’ from her mouth. There was no question, however, that Ninety-One was fact-checking the house and also thinking to protect the band.
“Upon your instructions, Star Black administrator, I will close the lift doors to the outside world,” Jordan said.
Star wanted to ask Jordan why he hadn’t closed the doors on his own. Why had Ninety-One, the damaged service robot, been the one to think about the gaping hole they’d have in their security if that door was left open. Sly and his band could assault the control center again, as there had to be more than one plasma torch in the whole of the great complex.
“Ask the House to fly the conveyance into the garage without stopping or offloading,” Ninety-One said.
“Wren?” Star asked, looking over into the girl’s deep black eyes.
“Can that be done?” Wren asked, without stipulating whom she was speaking to.
“The damaged service robot is correct, in this instance,” the House said. "I will presume the administrator wants the conveyance to return at maximum speed, fly directly into its storage area and then be immediately protected by the sliding security barrier.”
Star was about to respond when Wren held up her left hand.
“That presumption is correct and it’s so ordered,” Wren said.
The House did not reply for several seconds, as if thinking about the order. Finally, almost as if it was forced, the House replied.
“It will be done, Wren, appointed administrator.”
Star wondered what the difference was between an appointed administrator as opposed to one that didn’t have that first word attached to it. And how many other kinds of administrators were there? But she asked no questions, standing still to await the return of the conveyance carrying Theo and Val. When they were in front of her and okay she’d make the time to relax and try to catch up and figure out the house, Ninety-One, Jordan, and how it all really worked. Sly was outside the house with his forces down in the canyon below. She had to think, act and then wait through the actions necessary to finally secure the band.
The conveyance appeared inside the garage, the door descended and the machine settled on the floor while the segmented door rammed upward to close once more. The entire operation took so little time that only a few seconds of noise emitted made it seem like it had happened at all. With the sound of something like escaping air, the conveyance settled gently to the same flat position it had assumed earlier. The multi-clamshell door opened soundlessly.
“Jesus Christ! Can you give us some warning in the future, when it’s coming?” Jameson exclaimed, his voice giving away great relief intertwined with fear.
“There wasn’t enough time for anyone to gain access to this area and that’s good news for us if we need to use this conveyance again,” Star pointed out.
“Ask it if the conveyance has its own intellect, as an entity,” Ninety-One said.
Star stared at the robot, which stood unmoving nearby.
“How is it that you’re programmed with information about events that haven’t happened yet, and situations arising out of nowhere? How’s that possible?”
“As you may have suspected, entities created in our era were produced with the ability to write programs,” the machine replied. “Some entities attempt to write code for entities other than themselves. Some entities, like myself, have chosen not to be over-written.”
Star rocked back slightly, moved, and a bit shocked by the robot’s open and rational explanation for what she’d been feeling. If she closed her eyes she knew that she wouldn’t have any trouble communicating with the robot as if it was human, and that thought bothered her, as well.
“We will discuss this at length later", she said to Ninety-One, before turning back to the conveyance, as True stepped out with Theo at his side, and Val trailing right behind.
The clamshells, twisted, turned and then wound themselves silently back into the conveyance, leaving not so much as a line on the white surface of the thing.
Star smiled, but her heart was beating madly as she considered their situation and what had happened. The conveyance changed everything. The complex, the dwelling, and even Ninety-One had revealed shocking talents to use for her own purposes, but they paled into insignificance at the potential the conveyance opened up. She wanted to fly through the air and see the ground below. Nobody saw the ground below anymore, and the need to explore what was left of the world almost overcame the pleasure she felt that Val and Theo were back. The tribe she had allowed to fracture was whole again!
Star leaned forward, as the two returned band members surged forward to hug her tightly. She looked over Val’s shoulder, the smile fading from her face when True moved to join them.
“You’re part of this band, True,” she said, stopping the grinning boy in his tracks. “But this is no ‘catch as catch can’ kind of a group. You stay with Jameson from now on until I tell you otherwise. If those boys down at the bottom of that lift shaft are hurt or dead, then it’s because of information you gave them. None of us are forgetting that. From now on, when there’s a danger to the band, you’ll be right out front, or you won’t be with us anymore, one way or another."
True’s smile was long gone. He nodded his head, then walked by Star and turned and stood obediently at Jameson’s side.
Star disengaged from Val and Theo before moving past them to stand next to the conveyance. The curved surface of the vehicle was so attractive she wanted to reach out a hand and stroke the amazingly clean white surface.
“Conveyance,” she said, still feeling foolish, even after what she’d been through, for speaking out loud to a machine she had no idea could either hear her or speak back.
There was no response from the vehicle.
“Wren,” Star called behind her.
The girl appeared at her side in seconds.
“See if you can talk to it?” Star said, stepping back a few feet.
Instead of talking directly to the conveyance Wren turned toward Ninety-One. “If this thing has an independent intelligence, like your own, then what might it call itself?”
“Demos,” Ninety-One replied, but then said no more.
“Demos,” Wren said, looking down at the floor between them and frowning. “The vehicle has a name, and we didn't give it to him?”
“The machine was used extensively by the humans of long ago,” the robot replied, “and it is likely they gave it that name, but maybe they just named it that and there is no entity inside. The answer to that question is not in my data banks.”
Star sighed but was happy she’d called on Wren, who didn’t seem to mind the strange lack of logic the entities all seemed to exhibit when encountered.
“Demos, are you in there?” Wren asked loudly of the conveyance.
“No,” a deep voice replied, causing everyone in the garage to freeze into silence.
The voice of the machine was so deep in timber that is was felt as much as it was heard.
“No?” Star shot back instantly. “You just admitted to being an artificial intelligence by answering at all. What do you mean, no, and why are you called Demos, anyway?”
Wren gripped Star by the right arm, squeezing her forearm hard.
“Wrong questions,” she hissed out.
“Do I need to identify myself as an administrator to speak with you?” Wren asked, hoping her question overrode the one Star had put to the machine.
“You are an administrator,” Demos replied, “and my given human name, which I would prefer not be referred to, is taken from the moon, also named Demos, that orbits the planet Mars in the solar system you currently occupy. I am also not ‘in there,’ in answer to your interrogatory. I am the star transport. There is no conveyance. That is a construct of bad programming in the dwelling entity’s mind.
“You’ve taken humans to a planet orbiting Mars?” Jameson blurted out.
“You are not an administrator that I recognize, but you are in such company so I will respond. I have not transported human beings to Demos. The name was assigned because I was given cause to once visit that moon long ago.
“It’s been to Mars,” Jameson whispered, his tone being of utter disbelief. “This Demos thing has been to Mars and back.”
“Quite.” the star transport replied.
Star felt like she was snapping out of a dream. Suddenly, at the utterance of the last snarky word spoken by the transport, she was galvanized into action.
“We’ve got to get back inside,” she said. “I’m presuming the kids are all washed and dressed, Wren, or you wouldn’t have joined us. We’ve got to check and confirm there are sufficient bathrooms for everyone and that they are all functional. We’ve got to consider bedding and sleeping organization. And food, we have to find out about the food situation along with water. And Jameson and I have to get down and check those boys at the bottom of the lift.”
“We’ve got all that in hand, Star,” Wren replied with a big smile. It’s all here in this place, all of it.”
“What of my situation with respect to the band, Star Black,” Ninety-One stated, turning slowly, using its treads to slowly face her.
That direction also placed the robot in the direct line to proceed into the inner confines of the dwelling if Star approved.
“Wren,” Star said, nodding over to the young woman.
“We’ve taken True in, so how can we do worse?”
“He’s going to make a mess of the interior, I just know it,” Star replied, before going on. “Okay Ninety-One, you are officially a member of this band, or whatever it is we are. You can go where we go and do what we do as long as you have the fuel and power to do so. You may enter the dwelling.”
The robot said nothing and didn’t move. Star stepped aside, even though she was not blocking the way, but still, the robot didn’t move.
“Are you coming in?” Star finally said, in frustration.
“The star transport,” Ninety-One said. “The bottom of the lift down in the valley.”
“You’re right,” Star replied, once more quietly admiring the robot’s uncanny ability to put its non-existent finger right on the pulse of things. “and I presume you’re coming along if that transport will allow it and you fit.”
“None of us, none of the entities, can refuse the direct orders of an administrator at your level. Instruct Demos to open the cargo bay doors in its aft section. There is sufficient room for my full stature without compression.”
Star didn't miss the fact that Ninety-One had referred to Demos as an 'it', while constantly using “I” in its own description, and neither did she miss the mention of the potentially revealing comment about ‘compression,’ and whatever that might entail.
“Demos, open the passenger access door and the cargo bay. Jameson, Val and I will ride as passengers and this robot to my right will be taken as cargo.”
The clamshells opened without the transport making any comment. Star heard the aft cargo door operate but could not see it from her position.
“Destination,” Demos said but didn’t phrase the word as a question.
“The bottom of the lift below the dwelling, ”Star said. “Some boys from an opposing band were possibly hurt when the lift fell down the shaft.”
“Data shared with the dwelling indicates that the lift was cut free by your order,” the transport stated flatly.
“How long is the trip to the bottom of the valley from here?” Jameson asked.
“Four minutes and six seconds at maximum effort, however, it would appear that some enmity might exist between yourselves and the opposing band members and a more leisurely course might be plotted that may increase your security.
“Levitation, ask it about levitation,” Ninety-One added.
“Well, Demos, what about that?” Star replied, responding to the robot’s request.
“The body of this transport will levitate when instructed to do so and when given the altitude at which to do so.”
“How the hell do you do that?” Jameson asked his tone once again one of shock.
“Do you understand the periodic table of the elements?” Demos replied.
“Can a machine answer a question with a question?” Jameson replied.
“No,” Demos replied,” I was not answering your question. I was attempting to affirm an assumption that as unlikely as it may be, that you are acquainted with enough elementary physics and chemistry in order to understand the answer to the question you asked.”
Ninety-One moved to the aft of the transport and disappeared while Val, Jameson, and Star stepped, one after another. onto the lowest clamshell. Star was the last one. She turned to face Theo and Wren. Tal and Sol then showed up from nowhere to stand with Wren.
“I’m not sure I like this Demos thing,” Jameson said.
“You’re in control while we’re gone, Wren,” Star said.
There was no more to be said. The transport closed its doors, Star, Jameson, and Val sat in heavily cushioned chairs covered in something perfectly soft. There was the vaguest sense of movement, and then the walls, ceiling, and floor disappeared. Star felt like she was climbing upward into the sky alone with nothing around her at all, but there was no wind or temperature change at all. It was so exciting that Star’s breath came in small jerky gasps. It was wonderful as the transport surged up and then over into a curving dive into the valley. The valley was stunning to look at from the air, much more so than from the edge of the cliff, and it was much larger than she thought.
The transport shot downward and it was easy to see the distant edge of the dwelling sticking out over the lip of the huge crevasse. The straight line of a metal and glass shaft ran from the bottom of the dwelling all the way down to the bottom of the cliff.
“Where would you wish to levitate and at what altitude?” Demos asked.
Star thought as fast as she could, understanding now why True had been so blown away by his own experience in the transport. It was hard to think while being excited and afraid at the same time.
“Levitate the transport twenty feet above the highest vegetation, maybe fifty meters back from the bottom of the lift shaft,” she ordered.
Demos responded instantly, and in crisp directness. In seconds the transport was exactly where Star wanted it to be. She stared at the bottom of the lift, but her attention was quickly taken over by a man standing in front of the shaft. Sly was not up on the top of the cliff because he stood facing her directly, not more than a hundred feet away and the question about weapons was answered because he was also holding and aiming one of the bolt-operated rifles Jameson had been so effective in destroying the node with.
Star was not quick enough to say or order anything before the end of the rifle blossomed in yellow flame, the weapon pointed so directly at Star and it looked like she could see the bullet coming right out of the barrel at her.