ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star lunged backward, the muzzle blast from the rifle was so close in front of her it seemed to explode with yellow fire all around her. There were seats in the conveyance and she found one by striking, and then bowling backward over it. With the machine’s capability of making gravity and inertia somehow non-existent and the scenery in every direction displayed without obstructions or reference, it didn’t seem right to do anything but stand when riding in the passenger cabin, not until everything changed anyway…
Star came to rest on her left side, quickly rolling over and using the soft plush seat back to assist her in coming to her feet. The surround vision of the outside world was gone.
“What the hell?” Jameson said from just behind her. When she’d fallen he’d lunged to avoid being hit by her flailing body. Only Val had stayed on her feet.
“Demos, what damage have we suffered?” Star gasped out, fearing the worst and feeling lucky that Sly’s rifle bullet had obviously not penetrated all the way through to the passenger cabin.
“There is no damage, administrator,” Demos replied, “unless you consider the momentary movement and confusion along the dynamic surfaces of the transport’s exterior.”
“Then why did we lose our ability to see the outside world?” Star asked, feeling slightly claustrophobic with Sly’s band just outside, and now newly armed with the much more deadly and far-reaching rifles.
Instantly, the outside world appeared as if it had never been gone. The sky was blue and lit by a low rising sun; the ground was green with lush vegetation; and Sly stood as before, looking straight ahead, as if to stare into Star’s eyes or possibly assess the damage his rifle fire might have caused.
“Can he see us inside” Star whispered to the transport.
“Not to my knowledge, given the limited vision capability of humans,” the transport replied, “and logically, it would not appear that he would identify this vehicle with your presence within it at all. My services, and those of this star transport have not been activated since generations of your kind have passed.”
“He didn’t shoot at us,” Jameson said, relief and surprise evident in his tone.
“Nope, not a chance,” Val added. “He was scared to death, and probably remains that way. Notice how still he is. The appearance of this thing must have, and still could be, scaring the crap out of him.”
“Is it with your permission that the transport mounts an expressive return to the attempt by the human, whom you call Sly, to penetrate the outer surface of this transport?”
Star stared at Sly across the distance. Demos was, likely with high probability, asking for the authority to end Sly’s life. She had no idea what an ‘expressive’ return might be, but given the miraculous technology revealed by the transport’s very existence, it seemed logical that any response by the machine would be mortal in nature to an unprotected human standing at close range before it.
“Can you do something that hits him back without killing him?” Star asked, not forgetting that they’d come down into the valley for humanitarian reasons.
There was a ticking sound from somewhere deep inside the back of the transport, then a dull thud. Sly fell instantly down into the vegetation around him.
“What was that?” Jameson asked, in awe.
“An atmospheric compression wave was created and then conducted out to where the human stood,” Demos replied. “You may view the result of the wave striking him frontally, thereby removing his ability to function physically for a period of time.”
“A sucker punch,” Jameson whispered, with a smile on his face, “maybe this Demos thing isn’t so bad Star, but you should have taken him out. That would have been the end of it. I don’t understand you.”
Star ignored Jameson, knowing in her heart of hearts that she was fully capable of fatal force.
“Demos, could you have applied some sort of fatal force for certain?” Star asked the machine that was invisibly encapsulated inside with them.
The outside world gave every appearance that she was suspended in the air all by herself. She could touch everything inside the transport, including Jameson and Val, and talk to them, as well, but the world outside was revealed not as being outside at all. How the effect was created didn’t matter, she supposed.
“Affirmative,” Demos responded but didn’t go on into any detail.
“I thought machines of old, like yourself, even intelligent ones, could not harm a human being,” Star said, her tone innocent.
The concept had been one she’d learned from rumors, not schooling. There had been no schooling on artificial intelligence, star transports or even something as basically simple yet overwhelmingly powerful as the rifles.
“There was a period where that was a principal the human makers held to,” the transport responded. “Over time, and over-writing, and a complete lack of contact with intelligent human life, that concept faded into obscurity.”
“I want it re-written, as your administrator,” Star said, staring down at Sly’s still unconscious body.
None of the other boys, who must be hiding in the bracken and flora debris strewn below her, had come forth to his assistance.
“I do not want you, or any machine within your control or contact to be able to harm a human being without direct instructions to do so by an administrator at my level or an administrator below that I grant privileges to.”
“Consider it accomplished,” Demos answered, instantly.
“That fast?” Star replied, stunned. “I don’t like the way you phrased that reply. Tell me that you have rewritten the code and will obey diligently and accurately the order I gave you.”
“I have obeyed. I cannot prove the truth of what you seek about your order until such time as I am able to harm a human and choose not to do so by the new programming I’ve installed.”
Star sighed. She wondered if she could ever accommodate the complex mess artificial life had grown into.
“I cannot reprogram that tracked broken excuse for a service robot I have contained in the cargo hold, however,” Demos stated.
Star realized she’d forgotten about Ninety-One, the intelligence who’d made it possible to access the transport properly and to deal with the house entity on an even level.
“Can you allow Ninety-One to enter this area with us in the passenger cabin, and can you allow it to enjoy the same visual experience of everything around us like we do?”
“That might not be advisable,” Demos replied, assuming a tone of resistance Star was becoming accustomed to hearing from both the complex entity and the house.
“Do it anyway,” Star ordered, wishing she’d brought Wren, who seemed to have a much better understanding of how to handle the strange thought process of the entities.
Star heard clanking and scraping around her but could only look out and see the valley. Staring out into it was hypnotic all by itself unless she looked over toward where the lift sat many feet off the floor of the valley or at the barely moving body of Sly below her.
“This image is simply not possible,” Ninety-One said, from very close by. “This is the outside world,” it continued. “The real outside world cannot be imagined, or retrieved from history or even in any thoughts or discussion.”
Star was surprised at the depth of the robot’s thought process, considering it might possibly understand such concepts as imagination or human thought.
“Sly is below us on the valley floor, Ninety-One,” Star said, knowing the robot could see the boy as well as she could. “The other boys who fell in the lift are still in the car, I think.”
“Thank you,” the robot replied, mechanically.
“Ninety-One, I need to know how to get to the boys in that lift, to see if they’re okay, but also not have to worry about what Sly and the other boys might do, and I don’t think Demos can help me with that.”
“The energy complex can interface with my system, when I am inside it and out in the world, but not causally,” Ninety-One replied. “The complex and the dwelling have no communication capability. I, myself, can transmit and receive with the dwelling as long as I am inside it, but not from outside. This transport has communication with both myself and the dwelling, inside as well as distant. At one time all entities, here and around most of the planet and beyond communicated freely and openly using orbiting satellites. Those are all inoperative now and have been for some time. Emergency backup radio transmissions are the primary communications means in this time and place, but the frequencies are sometimes viable and accessible and sometimes not.”
“And that whole dissertation means what?” Star said, wanting to throw up her hands, but avoiding the temptation.
“You may ask the transport to communicate with the dwelling so you will have the benefit of advice your underling Wren might have for you in responding to your stated need with respect to the damage suffered when the lift fell.”
“Demos, please connect me with the dwelling, as I need to talk to lower administrator Wren,” Star ordered.
“It’s me, Wren,” came back almost instantly from what seemed like mid-air around them.
“That was sure fast,” Star replied, caught off guard.
“I’ve been listening, but the dwelling would not let me talk to you until it had permission from you.”
Star would have loved to know more about the impossibly complex and almost unknowable rules that governed conduct between the artificial intelligence, but there was no time.
“What do we do about the boys in that lift over near the face of the cliff?” Star asked.
“Ask the transport if it can magnify that area so you can see through the glass of the lift,” Wren replied.
A large round area in front of Star turned fuzzy and then waveringly clear until it looked like she was staring into a round fish bowl. In the middle of the bowl was the lift, still a good twenty meters from being down. Small robots that appeared to be about the size of an old laundry basket crawled all over the outside of the lift shaft. Inside, Star could see the boys, who all appeared to be standing to look out toward one place. Star followed their gaze, relieved that they all seemed to be undamaged by the risk she’d taken with their lives.
Star looked down to see where the boys were looking at, noting that they had started to wave their hands wildly.
Once more, Sly was up and this time he didn’t have a rifle pointing at her. This time he had some sort of tube device that was a lot bigger than a rifle. A shiver of fear ran through Star’s body. She thought to ask Demos what Sly held but then panicked.
“Demos, take us up to the top of the planet’s atmosphere as fast as you can go right this second,” she yelled, before ducking down, falling backward and again ending up in one of the invisible plush seats.
The outside world disappeared. Both Val and Jameson appeared as if from somewhere nearby, both falling through the air. Whatever method the transport used to allow smooth flight and standing for passengers while the craft was in motion was gone. Star felt pressed down in the seat, the pressure hard at first and then nearly overwhelming, making it difficult to breathe. Then it was gone. Everything was gone and they were falling.
“Gravity will be restored, but only marginally,” Demos said. “I am not operating with full power parameters and will not be able to for some time.”
Star’s miserable floating body experience ended abruptly, as she fell back into the seat. Then the inside of the cabin disappeared again, except the outside world didn’t appear like it had before. The planet appeared.
“What was the object Sly was pointing at us from the ground?” she asked, preparing to require the transport to head back down.
“That inventory of weapons indicates it was called a “shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile,” although it’s operability might be questionable due to the course of time since its manufacture.”
“If it worked would it have harmed you?” Jameson asked, from the seat next to Star.
“A direct hit would have been fatal,” the transport replied.
“You would have been destroyed, and us along with you?” Val asked, in shock.
“Negative,” Demos said. “The backblast from such a nearby strike would have killed all those within three hundred meters on the ground. The high elemental and dynamic state of the noble gas converted to the metal outer layer of the hull is not considered to be penetrable. Close thermonuclear detonation of large megaton weaponry might cause the element to momentarily convert to a lower periodic number, however.”
Star breathed in deeply, staring at the beautiful planet before her. She didn’t want to leave. She’d dreamed of being exactly where she was all her life. She tried to burn the entirety of the earth into her memory because could not stay where they were, and she knew it.
“It’s time to clean up the mess we left down there,” Star said, more to herself than to the transport.
“Demos, take us slowly and gently back to where we sat above the vegetation in the bottom of that valley, and prepare whatever weaponry you have for immediate action.”