ISLAND IN THE SAND
There was no place on earth. The remnants of humanity so decreed, each tribe following in suit, as the proposition in favor of admitting outsider children, no matter their age, fell into unanimous opposition. No orphan, wandering, or strange children of any sort would be allowed entry to any tribe. There wasn’t enough subsistence left for the surviving populations to enjoy even minimal comfort. Stray animals were to be hunted for flesh. Outsider adults were to be treated as animals, although their flesh was never to be consumed. Outsider children were to be shunned, although not slain, there would be no contact or communication allowed. The tribes concluded that such a rare general agreement was to be honored as a pivotal compact in bringing humanity closer to the civilization it enjoyed before “The Weeper” struck.
The tribes assembled only once per year in an attempt to establish trade rules, travel routes and resolve any conflicts that had not been taken care of with conflict. They called themselves states, in order to harken back to times when geographic areas were known by such titles. But there were no real states, and certainly no governing body to organize or establish order. The annual assembly always involved massive amounts of illegal alcohol consumption and violence. From old books, the word rendezvous had been brought forth, to more accurately name these assemblies, but had been shouted down by the more religiously strict of the ‘states.’
No discussion was ever allowed of the Kuiper Belt Objects, or of the huge dwarf asteroid that had nearly destroyed all human life on earth. ‘Marion’ it had been named, in the ‘That Was Before,” or more simply ‘TWB’ days. The Kuiper name for the asteroid belt had been co-opted into Weeper, then followed by “Marion will make you cry,” threats to children. This plain flat pancake of an asteroid, nearly a hundred miles in diameter, had reduced life on earth to a mere handful of the larger animal species. Plants had recovered from the mid-Pacific strike rather quickly, almost seeming to flourish from the clearing of competition. Smaller animals had been unaffected, except those, and anything else, that had been within the merest touch of the supersonic tsunami waves.
Wave series after wave series of seawater flung itself onto the continents at speeds nearing twice the speed of sound. The continents were reduced to islands in less than a week. The earth’s land surface went from nearly thirty percent down to ten percent. The surviving island of the Collected Peoples was the only one any of the tribal members knew anything of. Three hundred years had passed. The survivors were survivors more because of huge reproductive results than because of any recovery or maintenance of old technology. TWB technology had saved nothing and preserved little. Spots of it existed in abandoned canyons, clawed over ruins and underground caverns, but nobody searched or valued any of the relics. Belief systems had changed along with manual capabilities.
It was the in the Sand where the orphanage had been located. It was still there, built of rocks hauled overland by struggling bands of mal-nourished scrawny children wearing TWB materials found in their travels. Nobody cared what such children wore or possessed. They were doomed to cross over into dread blue seas before they became men.
Sand Island, a special rising hill comprised of a single huge stand of wind-whispering fir, had been the children’s home, but the State of Pine had had other plans. That state rendered pinewood for its resin. Sand Island had tempted them for many years and had remained remote and untouched only because of the long high tide covered peninsula that ran out to it. After many years of plundering the woods everywhere else, State of Pine warriors had simply moved in one summer day and tossed everyone out. Eleven protesting adults found themselves tied and thrown into the awful maw of the breaking sea. They were left bobbing around out there until they disappeared and were never seen again. The tumult of the ever-disturbed ocean consumed all it touched, as it had since the Weeper had struck.
There were no scientists, no geologists or botanists on the Collected People’s island. There was no one to explain why conditions following the great strike of Marion the Weeper had not caused the planet to become one of ice, or grow dark, or even heat up to miserable temperatures. And there was no one who could explain the sand. The entire island of the Collected People’s was surrounded by sand dunes and plains that stretched miles out to the roiling waters beyond. Beautiful white and cream-colored sand extended out for miles from the entire landmass, save for a very few spots where rocky crags dominated. There were no explanations for much of anything in the States of the Collected Peoples, except for different versions of how God oversaw and ruled everything, and how work was to be performed.
Above all the rules of belief and order, however, were the rules of mating and family. It was those rules that demanded that children of no known claiming adult could be admitted into a tribe. And the claimant had to be a male. Pregnant females expelled from any of the tribes for any infraction found themselves at Sea Island eventually, although they were never allowed to stay once they had given birth.
Cast from Sand Island, to wander aimlessly until death overcame them, were two small bands of children. They were of mixed ages, ranging from six up through sixteen and composed of nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. Each band was led by one child, which had taken days to occur in one group while happening instantly in the other.
Star Black led the smaller group. Eleven children. Six females, and five males. All fast, all thin and all hungry, all the time. Star was sixteen and the brightest child who’d ever come to the Sand island complex, or so the dead and drowned attendants had said, time after time. Star had been named when Antares, Red Giant of the Scorpio cluster, dominated the night sky. She wore a red bandana in recognition of that fact. She had also been the orphanage’s fastest and strongest child, out-performing and alienating all the other girls and even the older boys.
The second band selected its leader after many fights and finally a death. Solomon Chu, proudly bearing the nickname of “Sly,” had triumphed over a much faster and seemingly smarter boy. That boy had slept at the wrong time, however, and Sly had been able to replace his head with a large crushing rock. Twenty boys and three girls strong, Sly’s band moved across the tufted grass portions of the main sand berm leading down into the pounding sea. The band had been able to travel quickly through the pine forest and bracken, as any children under the age of twelve had been left behind.
The morning brought with it the relief of sleep for Star and her children. Star closed her eyes when she was huddled down next to Tal and Sol, after making sure the rest of the kids were okay. Sleep brought escape from a reality that seemed to hold out only a dull bleak survival as its sole reward.
Her eyes popped open only moments after they closed. Once Star oriented herself, however, she knew that the sun was too high for that to be true. She had slept for hours. Too many hours. Possibly, she thought, Sly and the other band might have given up the pursuit, although she knew it wasn’t likely. Neither group had any other goal, or place to go. The band behind them would be coming, and at a faster rate than they could hope to move. It had been impossible, traveling in near darkness, to be careful about leaving a trail, not that there was anyplace other than north they could logically have gone.
Star got everyone up and moving. It was a cool day, even though it was close to high noon. Weather, since the Weeper had struck, remained undependable. Seasons still came and went, but days of total reversal occurred here and there, at the most inconvenient of times.
“Where are we going today?” Tal asked, rising and walking about, wiping the sleep from his eyes with little grimy fists. Although he was only six years old the little boy gave every appearance of being as tough as shoe leather.
“Sol and I are ready. We’ll follow you anywhere. We’re your mannons,” he said, his shoulders squared back, and he tried to appear ready to meet the day head-on.
“Mannons,” Sol chimed in, running up to Tal and flipping around to stand at his side.
In counterpoint, to his serious wrinkled frown, a huge smile played across her freckled face.
“It’s minions, not mannons,” she corrected the boys.
Star looked at both of them and wondered why God had so blessed her and cursed her at the same time. Her love for the two wonderful children was equally as great as her fear for their very survival. And it was all up to her.
All the children wore threadbare muslin or cotton shirts and pants. When the Pine State had cast them out there had been no ability to claim any of their other things. They had no coats, packs or implements of any kind.
They moved out and continued due north for the remainder of the day. Star calculated that they would not make nightfall before being overtaken. She led their flight, leaving Wren, her oldest and most dependable boy, to cover the rear and help any stragglers. She wasn’t sure that was right. Should she simply direct the small band from the rear where her size and strength could be used to most effect or should she be at the front to pick the best direction and avoid pitfalls only her experience and age might recognize and be able to take advantage of or avoid? She knew she was better equipped for the role of following but there was no one else to lead. She’d grown older within the confines of Sand Island. It had been a lonely alienating way to gain life experience. What layout in the rest of the world she’d gotten mostly from the variety of teachers who’d circulated through the orphanage. Inside the institution, she’d felt life was lonely and harsh, but the reality of the world outside intimidated her even more in a different way.
She was never lonely anymore, but she was always terribly worried, and the harshness had caused her to sink down to a whole new level of existence.
Dusk was coming on when Star found the vent. If she hadn’t been looking for another giant pine to hide out in she’d never have found it. The metal vent rose up only a foot or so above the ground, right next to the trunk of a large fir. She knew it was metal by its smooth shape, not by its color, which was nearly the same as the faded brown of the dead needle beds it was thrust up among.
The children came up behind her. They all surrounded what Star informed them was a vent.
“How do you know it’s a vent?” Wren asked pushing a layer of fallen needles from the conical top of the uncommon artifact.
“I’m not sure, “Star replied, “but the cone is set over slots, and connected to that big pipe coming out of the ground. What else would it be?”
“If it’s a vent, then what’s down underneath the ground?” Wren asked, prying with no success on the overhanging cone.
“It’s screwed on,” he said, after a few moments of tugging away. “Three screws with those funny ‘X’ heads.”
“What have we got to loosen ‘em with?” Star asked everyone gathered.
An old fingernail clipper was passed to her. She reacted with surprise. The clipper was not something they’d been allowed to have in the orphanage, as it was TWB technology. She opened the clipper, and then put the sharper end to one of the screws. It loosened as she worked it. In minutes, the other children were using their fingers to work the cone loose.
Star stared down into blackness. The pipe was barely large enough to allow her to pass through, if she felt so inclined, which she did not. There was nothing to hold on to and no way to know how far down the thing extended.
Wren placed his hand over the opening and dropped a rock. Seconds later there was a quiet thunk from below.
“About ten or fifteen feet, I think,” Wren mused, staring into the blackness with her. “What do you want to do?” he asked, after a moment.
Star thought about the problem and then came to a decision.
“We’ll tear some of our clothes up to make a rope, lower Tal or Sol down there to see what’s there. We can start a small fire up here and drop a torch down if there’s a room or something.” Tal came forward immediately to volunteer, as soon as the words were out of Star’s mouth.
“That’ll be fun Starry,” he said with a big smile, his head tipped over the lip of the pipe. There wasn’t a bit of fear in him.
Wren used a flint and steel to ignite some of the dry needles, while the rest of the kids each tore a strip from the bottom of their shirts.
A long loud whistle penetrated through the forest around them. Star’s head went up, on alert. All the children stopped moving. They listened intently but there were no more sounds.
“They’re close,” she whispered to Wren. “We don’t have time to do anything.
“Make a couple of torches. Wrap the needles tightly in a cloth, to last, and drop them down the hole.” Star moved a couple of trees closer to the trail they’d made getting to the big pine. She saw movement much further away.
“Tie the cloth together and make a rope,” Star ordered.
Moving as silently and swiftly as she was capable, Star returned to the vent where the other children gathered around. She held one finger over her mouth to ensure their silence.
“We’re all going down,” she whispered, “give me the rope.”
Quickly she looped the thin, but the sturdy seeming rope of tied up rags under Tal’s arms. “It’s going to be terribly dark down there but we’re all coming right behind you. Don’t be afraid. Take the rope off and pull on it when you’re down.”
“It’s okay Starry,” the little boy said, with a big innocent smile. “It was dark at the home. I got used to it.”
Star’s heart went out to the little boy. He had complete trust in her and she had no idea of what she was really doing. She said nothing in reply, instead of lowering him quickly downward. When the rope went slack she waited until she felt a tug. Sol didn’t go down with such confidence, her eyes tearing. She made no sound, however, as she disappeared into the vent’s open maw.
Star heard noise from down at the main trail. Sly and the others were extremely close, if not almost on top of them.
“No time for the rope,” she whispered to the rest, dropping the material into the hole, “just slither down.”
She lit three torches Wren had made from his small fire. Once the small cylinders were burning, she extinguished the fire by stamping on it quietly and then scattering the smoking remains.
Star’s fears grew as the children went, one by one, into the hole. What if the pipe was a dead end? What if they were just stacking one atop another in a pipe that led nowhere? She was the last to enter, dropping the lit torches inside, as she stepped into the pipe opening, pressing against its rounded surfaces to hold her up. Star grabbed the conical top and pulled it back onto the pipe before she descended. There was no hope at all that Sly wouldn’t eventually figure out where they’d gone, she knew. They had left too many blatant clues behind, and an obvious trail to those clues. Her only hope was that she could buy her children a few minutes to figure out what to do. There’d been no cries of pain when she’d dropped the torches, and that gave her some hope.
The slide down through the pipe was much quicker than Star thought it would be. The reason for that caused a small cry of terror to be squeezed out of her. The pipe ended, and she was falling. Even before she hit bottom she was impressed with the fact that hers had been the only cry of fear she heard. The other children had remained silent.
Star didn’t impact on the concrete floor. ‘Bottom’ was the other children gathered below to break her fall. The three small torches illuminated the inside of a good-sized room, almost as large as the gathering room had been at the orphanage. Rusted metal racks lined the walls with several rows of them dividing the area into smaller spaces.
Her eyes were drawn to a stack of hewn timber. Ancient pieces of lumber lay against one open wall of the room. She ran to them without making any comment to the children surrounding her.
“Wren, we’ve got to block the opening if we can. They’ll come down when they figure out we’re here.” She pulled the end of one of the heavy pieces from the top of the stack.
All the children flew to her aid.
When rough splintered lengths of timber were vertically jammed to a triangular point under the hole, there was still a space of a foot or more between the opening of the vent pipe and the chunks of sturdy wood. Star studied their surroundings more intently. A round metal table stood nearby, stacked with some old boxes and smaller pieces of wood. She ran over and cleared the top of it.
“Get one of those racks emptied right now. We’ve got to be able to climb up and get the table under the hole,” she instructed, not trying to keep her voice down. She pictured Sly staring down into the dimly lit room, thinking about what to do.
Star climbed the empty rack, several of the children holding it up so she wouldn’t fall off. Wren moved the table and lifted.
“Tal and Sol, get some of those pieces of wood. We’ve got to brace this when we get it up there,” Star ordered.
Struggling, Star and Wren positioned the heavy table so it’s flat top was pressed against the bottom of the hole. Pushing up with one hand, Star reached down for one of the small thick pieces of wood. As she braced the table and inserted the wood between the beam and its bottom surface, a sharp clanging bang reverberated through their space.
“Their dropping rocks. Quick, more wood,” she gasped, putting as much pressure against the bottom of the table as she was able. The children holding the rack she was balanced on groaned, as Star moved to push upward as hard as she could.
She jammed wood chunk after wood chunk atop the timber and under the table until the last pieces had to be pounded into place with a thick glass jar one of the children handed up.
Heavy stones pounded down onto the metal tabletop.
“C’mon. We’ve got to get more timbers under this,” she said, jumping from the rack onto the hard, gray floor. The torches were dimming, she realized.
“Tal and Sol, we need some paper or something small to burn. We can have a small fire but not a big one or we’ll run out of air. I’ve got to see to get this done.”
One after another, four more timbers were hoisted up to join the first they had erected. Wood pieces were wedged in to hold the table to the bottom of the hole. The room brightened, as a small fire sprang up, off to one side. Exhausted, Star sat down on the floor near where Tal and Sol squatted; feeding paper labels they’d stripped from cans and jars into their little blaze.
“That’ll hold them,” she stated, contentedly, more to herself than the others sprawled around her. Absently, she examined the jar that’d been thrust into her hand for pounding. It wasn’t a glass jar at all. It was a plastic container from TWB days that looked exactly like thick glass but was in fact super hard plastic, and it was filled with a clear liquid.
The faded label read ‘Clear Blue Sea,’ with a big red check mark scrawled across it.
“Water,” Star breathed, breaking the seal on the container’s top. Ingesting anything from the TWB days was dangerous, they’d been taught from birth. Star ignored her education on the subject and drank half the bottle down.
Her body instantly seemed to come alive. The exhaustion she’d felt to the bottom of her being was instantly gone.
“Water, we’ve got water. Open those bottles and drink,” she instructed, pointing at a pile of scattered debris the children had cleared from the rack to allow her to seal them in, among which many of the plastic bottles lay.
“We’ll see what’s down here as long as we’ve still got light,” she went on, “we can’t burn a fire for very long in this closed space or we’ll die,” she said to all of them.
She didn’t add that they’d run out of air soon enough anyway unless there was another vent or opening to the outside.
No more sounds came from the table they’d jammed over the hole. Star knew the rocks piled up against the metal would prevent that, however. She knew, as well, that the other band would not just sit above them without trying to do something further to reach them. Examining the roof of the room was comforting, though. It was made of concrete. They would not soon be dug out of their redoubt, and nobody was going to come down through the vent again, not without considerable effort and tools they likely didn’t have.
Wren dumped another bottle into Star’s hands, as she examined their surroundings a little closer.
“Peaches, I think,” she indicated, pointing at the fruit pictured on the label.
“But can we eat them? What about our learning? Were the teachers wrong? Will we die if we eat from the bottles here? They’re many more.”
“I don’t know,” Star replied, “there’s only one way to find out.” She went to work, prying the rusted metal top from the container. Unable to free the cap she was finally forced to crack the plastic bottom out by tapping it against the floor.
Eating the sugary substance inside, whatever it was, since none of them had ever had forbidden fruit before, Star reflected on how, only moments before above, they’d had nothing and now, down inside the earth, they had water, food, and a safe place to stay, at least temporarily. Star literally gobbled the smooth syrupy fruit down. When she finished the third can she fell back, as if in faint, only realizing at the last second that she was falling unavoidably into sleep. Cares about the safety and welfare of the children drifted away as exhaustion overcame her. Inventory was the last thought she had before darkness overcame her. They needed to make an inventory.