ISLAND IN THE SAND
The trip back down through the atmosphere of the earth was the most single satisfying experience of Star’s life. She sat in the chair she couldn’t see, next to Jameson and Val who were invisible too, and coasted downward at such a gentle pace that it seemed she was in some balloon slowly losing its gas, rather than an advanced star venturing machine (if Demos was to be believed). Wispy see-through layers of thin vapor became billowing clouds to be circulated through and then dropped down below. The oceans were so huge and blue that it seemed impossible that they had ever been smaller.
The green and brown ground came up toward her, steadily and seemingly more quickly, as the machine dropped lower. Star looked all about the area so she’d have a good idea of just where in the forest the complex was situated, and how the dwelling was positioned in relation to it. The canyon stretched so many miles in each direction from the dwelling, situated on the top edge of the cliff, that it almost appeared like it was a crack that might run across the entire continent.
Instead of curving down in a long circular pattern, as the machine had done when it departed from the dwelling to land earlier near the base of the lift, Demos guided the craft to drop directly down until it rested not more than a few meters from the bottom of the glass shaft the lift traveled up and down inside.
Star looked inside the glass at the bottom of the shaft where the lift inside it sat perfectly still, all the way down. There was no longer anybody inside it. She scanned the area for any sign of Sly and his shoulder-mounted pipe weapon, but there was no one there.
“It’s time to deal with him,” Star said, more to herself than to Jameson and Val.
The images of the earth from orbit came rushing back into her mind as she considered taking terminal action against Sly and the other members of his band. There had been so little land left, compared to maps and globes she’d seen that had survived the coming of the asteroid. How could it be that any of the few humans left were so dead set on killing one another, or at the very least enslaving members of their own kind, she wondered. The truth of that kind of behavior, from the very earliest memories she could dredge up from the bottom of her mind, was impossible to ignore, however. Coming out of the catastrophic disaster of the asteroid strike had not created a single mass of humans, or even groups of them intent on rebuilding what had been. Instead, humans had gathered together to reject the past and face the future despite being so poorly equipped that simply surviving the elements occupied almost the totality of every survivor’s time.
“All right, where the hell did Sly go?” Jameson said, from a place only a few feet behind Star.
“Ask the transport entity,” Ninety-One said, speaking for the first time since the craft had taken itself to near-orbit in only minutes.
Star had tons of questions for the transport, and even Ninety-One; things of vital importance like how the transport achieved such massive performance without the spewing of fuel or other burning material. But such questions all had to wait, she knew, but it was all so important for their survival beyond anything in the present. For the moment, immediate survival was all she could concentrate on.
Star looked back, as if she might see the robot inside the passenger compartment behind her, but Ninety-One remained as invisible as everything and everyone. How that manipulation of light was accomplished to allow for such conditions was another area that had to be explored in detail at some later date. One of her teachers had once whispered to her, “you cannot control something you do not understand.” But understanding almost anything of technical advancement had been stifled informally or prohibited in public outright.
“Demos, can you tell me where the humans outside are?” Star asked.
“What humans outside? Demos replied, “and please define outside?”
“I wish I had Wren here,” Star whispered in frustration.
“Ask the machine to illustrate the presence of any human being within five thousand meters of this location,” Ninety-One said, quietly, almost as if it was afraid Demos would hear.
“Illustrate?” Star asked, but then understood. The entire panorama around her changed to include small moving dots of white light. She knew instantly that the dots were being put there by Demos to indicate where the boys were.
“What are they doing up there?” Val asked, from further back in the passenger cabin.
Star stared. There were a dozen lights clustered together up near the very top of the cliff. Star shifted her gaze. The dwelling, the part that hung out over the canyon, was visible if she looked nearly straight up. The dwelling had white lights moving all over it, like the little service robots that had been running all over the lift when the boys had been trapped inside. Somehow, the transport was able to penetrate the walls and floors of the dwelling to allow the members of her band inside to be ‘illustrated’ before her. But her concern was drawn to the other lights.
“They’re in a line at the top of the wall,” Jameson pointed out.
“Another ladder,” Star whispered, a shiver of fear running through her. The lights were gaining the top. Sly had figured out that she might return but instead of waiting with his newfound giant pipe weapon he’d chosen to go after the rest of the band in the dwelling instead of her.
“He’s going to use that thing to try to get in,” Val said.
Star thought fast. How long did they have? Could the transport reach Sly and his boys in time to cause them substantial damage, a damage that remained a mystery in its effect? If Sly fired the thing at the outside wall of the dwelling would it penetrate or even cause worse damage? Were the clear security metal doors in the walls too? For some reason, Star didn’t think so, but even if she had, she couldn’t take the risk. There was the risk of her kids being hurt, but there was also the risk of the transport, the machine that might change all life on earth and beyond it, being terminally damaged, as well.
“Take us back to the dwelling as fast as you can,” Star ordered Demos.
The speed of their departure was so great that Star would have fallen again from vertigo if she had not already been seated. No one fell around her, although there was one huge crash behind them, so she presumed that Val and Jameson had seats too. Star didn’t count the seconds but would have guessed that less than sixty had passed before the garage door was falling quickly away in front of them. Entering the garage was a very brief opening for an enemy to attack and Star knew it, but the risk of the boys making it up the cliff face in time to breach one of the dwelling’s walls would not leave her mind.
The transport settled to the concrete floor and the door slid silently up behind it. Star clambered out, unsteady from not only the rapidity but the enormity of the flying experience. She’d been up to look down upon the earth and she knew the experience had changed something in her very core. There was no way she could go on without thinking about what she had seen and what she might do to rebuild the wounded planet and help others who might be similarly minded.
“I need to see True, right away,” Star said, starting to walk out of the garage into the dwelling before she stopped and turned back.
“Where’s Ninety-One,” she asked, speaking loudly toward where Demos sat.
“That entity was not returned to a secure area before the departure and might have, therefore, received some damage in transit.”
Star felt anger well up inside her. For all of the artificial intelligence’s true intellect, she could not get rid of the idea that many times all of them plotted to make like more difficult for humans instead of less difficult.
“Is Ninety-One damaged?” she asked, heading for the still open clamshell door, knowing getting the robot secured should have occurred to her before they pulled out from below.
But instead of entering the transport she stopped again and then turned again. The boys were the bigger threat and her attention had to remain on stopping or minimizing that threat.
“Get the robot out and inside of the dwelling, if it’s still functional,” Star said to Jameson. “Val, you’re with me, and bring Jameson’s rifle.” She rushed toward the opening leading into the dwelling, wondering how she’d so easily forgotten the vitally important rifle she’d left inside the machine.
When she reached the living room everyone was gathered, with Wren standing and facing her, as she came through the garage entrance. True sat nearby, among the circle of children who were waiting and silent.
“Sly’s band is gathering outside,” Star began. “They’ve climbed up from the canyon and they’ve got some big special weapon. I’m not sure whether it can penetrate the dwelling walls or not, so I want everyone except True, Jameson I to go out to the transport and climb inside. Demos claims the weapon cannot penetrate the exterior of the vehicle, so it’s the only really safe place for everyone to be. Wren, you have administrator authority and the transport will go any place you order it to go if the worst happens, so be careful.”
Wren and the children immediately headed for the garage. Ninety-One came through the opening and moved aside as soon as it was fully inside the living room. The big tracked vehicle moved around the kids slowly and carefully until it reached Star’s side.
“True, you stay,” Star ordered, as the boy approached her. “Sly’s band somehow still has access to parts of the complex. They’ve found rifles and even some larger bore weapon that nobody, except for Demos, knows anything about. How are they accessing the complex?”
“They have a savant.” True replied, his chest out as if he was proud of being able to contribute.
“A what?” Jameson and Star both said at the same time.
“One of the younger boys knows everything about how things work,” True responded. “Things like the electric and stuff. He’s gifted in that area but nobody knows where he got the knowledge or how. His name is Spot, like the dog in the kid’s books.”
“Great,” Star said, with a sigh. “We have to presume that they can break through some of the administrator codings, and we’ve no idea how far they can go with that.”
“True, go to the transport and have Wren ask it about the weapon,” Star ordered. “I should have done that before, damn it.”
True took off and ran through the opening to the garage.
“What do we do?” Jameson asked.
There was no need to answer his question, however, as a huge vibrating boom shot through the entire dwelling. The sound had come from the hallway leading to the lift doors. Star turned to Val and grabbed the rifle.
“Come on,” she yelled, unnecessarily, as she took off at a sprint for the hallway leading to the bedrooms located at the southern end of the dwelling.
“The structure has been breached,” the house said, its voice coming loudly from everywhere. “Do you command the emergency doors to be engaged and closed?”
Star ran. She had no idea about how to respond to the house. The location of emergency doors, or even their existence, had never come up, much less what that might mean for accessing any or all parts of the interior of the dwelling.
At the end of the hall, a single closed door could be seen. Star didn’t hesitate in opening it, before stepping to the side and bringing her rifle up. Jameson stood in the center of the opening, his rifle also up and ready to fire. The room was filled with dust.
“What do we do?” Jameson asked, easing into the room, with Star just behind him, both staring at a big hole in the wall.
“House, what can we do to prevent the humans who blew that hole in the wall from accessing the remainder of the house?” Star asked out into the dusty air around her.
“The emergency door for this room may be engaged, although the walls are not made of the special armored metal material. Hypothetically, the forces outside with the weaponry could move through one breached wall after another until they reached the main wall to the living room area. That wall is impenetrable to such weapons.”
“Oh great, we’ve got to give them half the house?” Jameson asked.
“Momentary safety is better than none at all,” Star replied, already retreating back through the door they’d entered until she ran right into Ninety-One, the robot’s body blocking almost the entirety of the hallway.
“Ask the dwelling to self-repair the wall. The dwelling has a huge number of serving robots in storage. It may be able to repair the outer wall as fast as the opposing forces can penetrate it, or until they run out of ammunition for their weapon. The dwelling’s service robots are almost without number in supply.”
Star looked up at the ceiling of the hall. “Is this true, House?” she asked. “How is it that you have so many service robots?”
“The answer to the damaged robot’s statement is unavailable. There is no way to predict how fast those attacking forces can fire their weaponry. The service robots are generated on demand from the energy center at command.”
“Well, do it,” Star commanded. “Start repairing any holes and then keep repairing.
“Ask it how it gets so many little service robots,” Ninety-One said, beginning to back slowly up the hall in the direction of the living room.
“Okay, how do you get so many, House?” Star asked in frustration at the seeming idiocy of the whole conversation under such dangerous circumstance.
“The service robots are manufactured in the energy complex east of here and are transported through the supply conduit,” the house replied.
“Supply conduit?” Jameson said, following Ninety-One and Star through the dusty hall toward the living room. “What damned supply conduit, and where does that come into the dwelling, and how big is it?”
“More good, or terrible news,” Star replied to the boy, as all three of them entered the living room area. “We’ve got to do what can be done right now.”
“Which is?” Jameson said.
“House, shut the emergency doors throughout the dwelling until I instruct further.”
“Yeah, that’s great Star,” Jameson murmured, “but what if the “conduit” comes in right under this room?”