Island In The Sand
Star stared at the complex design of the underground railroad and power station. She wondered if it was even more than that, but her imagination could barely take in what they’d found already, much less even more. There was one question she had to ask of vital importance before they could do anything else, and everything depended upon the answer and then the machine’s assistance. The children were still outside the dome, left unguarded and unprotected. She breathed in and out deeply and then decided not to frame what they needed in the form of anything but an order.
“Open the entrance we came in through,” she instructed in a clear firm tone.
“Please respond to former requests,” the machine replied, instantly.
There was a short silence while Star thought.
“Yes, and yes,” Jameson whispered from just behind Star’s left shoulder.
Star remembered. The one hundred percent question and the identity question the machine had asked only moments before. Neither question seemed to make much sense, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was either getting the kids inside the dome or getting the three of them back outside.
“Come online to one hundred percent power and establish my identity for future exclusive orders,” she said, pulling the exact words from her memory.
“Awaiting your authorization code,” the machine replied.
“Code?” Star said, at the same time as Jameson. “Shit,” she went on. “This isn’t going to work,” she whispered so quietly even Jameson couldn’t hear her.
“We’re never getting out of here.”
True moved forward. Gently he placed a metal disk about the size of a playing card on the console near Star’s right forearm. The think gray disk had a worn thin cable running through a hole drilled at one end as if the disk was designed to be worn like a necklace.
Star looked over into True’s eyes, her eyebrows raised in question.
“I hid it from you when I came down the wall. Solomon said it was useless but may be important. I found it back at the station among some old bones.”
Lets’ refer to Solomon as ‘Sly’ from now on”, Star whispered back to True.
Star brought the disk up close to her eyes. At one time, there had been some kind of image somehow imprinted onto the metal itself, but the image had faded over time. There was only one readable entry on the thing, and that was a twelve-digit number running up and down its length. It was barely legible.
Star read the numbers carefully aloud to herself.
“One, one, four, four, one, nine, nine, nine, three, one, one, five,” she read, very slowly.
“Authorization accepted,” the machine suddenly responded, as if she’d been speaking to it. “Your identity must be confirmed as administrator,” it went on, before falling once more into silence.
“Shit,” Star hissed, examining the metal disk True had given her.
She turned to Jameson. “I can’t read it.
This must have been someone’s identity tag, but it’s too old.
Jameson stuck his head forward and down, trying to decipher the faded mass of other data that was just under what was left of the image but not decipherable.
“Your identity for confirmation,” the machine asked, it’s voice cold and hard.
“I’m only Star Black,” Star yelled down at the console in frustration.
“Only Star Black is accepted, the machine answered. “Power is being brought up, lighting repaired, robots online at your authorization Only Star Black.”
“I’m Star Black, not only Star Black,” Star gaped out, in surprise and some doubt.
“Only Star Black is accepted exclusively unless Only Star Black modifies the authorization,” the machine said. “There is no entrance. Do you wish to refer to me by my name or as the machine you have been communicating with?”
Jameson gripped Star’s left elbow. “Leave the name thing alone for now. We’ve got bigger problems, don’t you think?”
Star eased her arm out of the boy’s grasp, but not unthankful for his interference. She had to think, for all of their sakes. The machine was a machine, and its understanding was very narrow and strangely analytical. She slumped her shoulders and relaxed before proceeding.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Jordan. Like the river,” the machine replied. “Like the shoes. Like the sports person. Like…”
“Stop, Jordan,” Star ordered crisply before the machine could continue.
She didn’t know any of what the thing was talking about except the river from history classes.
“Jordan it is,” she breathed out while trying to frame her next question carefully.
“What do you mean there is no entrance?” Star asked, her voice rising in spite of her enforced calmness. “We came through an entrance you opened and it closed once we were in here. That entrance. It was an entrance.”
“You are in error, Only Star Black” Jordan said in its overly flat voice. “You entered through the raised service hatch.
Star shoulder’s slumped, but a smile began to form on her lips. “Open the hatch, Jordan,” she instructed.
“It is presumed that you intend that the hatch needs to be raised,” Jordan replied, correcting her, but the sound of mechanical gearing operating immediately began behind them.
“Bring the kids, Jameson,” Star said, but the boy had already headed for the opening hatch.
When all the children were gathered together in one soaking mass inside the sphere, Star turned to them with a comforting smile.
“We’re going to stay right here, inside this big warm ball. “Sly” and his band can only get in if they come through the water. We’ll post a guard when the lights are on, and we’ll hear them if they try to get through when we turn them off.”
Tal raised one little arm, as if in class back at the orphanage. Star pointed at him.
“Can we close the door, and then open it to get out whenever we want?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s not called a door,” Star replied, “it’s called a hatch.” “There’s a machine in here that talks and his name is Jordan, so don’t be scared. I’ll ask him, or it. We have a lot of things to ask. Now all of you get out of your clothes and hang them over something to dry. Be careful. Most of the stuff inside is filled with all kinds of electricity and God only knows what else.”
“Jameson, True and Wren.” Star pointed toward the console as she talked. “I’m going to ask the
machine some more questions and see what else we can do or find out. Listen. Tell me if you think of something. It doesn’t seem to respond to whispers.”
“You think it’s best that we stay here and not get back outside?” Wren asked, looking around the not overly large room.
“Being outside without more support almost cost us our lives before,” Star answered. “In here I think we have a better chance of staying protected until we’re ready to venture out again.
Star walked up to the console, thinking about their situation. “Jordan, would you please close the hatch and also tell me if I will be able to open or close it at will.”
The sound of the hatch closing was heard by all of them even before Jordan answered.
“As you require,” Jordan stated in his flat voice. “You may order the opening or closing of the hatch from anywhere in the facility at any time. You may also set passwords and use voice recognition to make your requests, give your instructions, or access the facility.”
Star stood thinking for a moment in front of the console before speaking. “Accept the names and
voices of these two as administrators.”
Star motioned to Wren and Jameson. Jameson and Wren said their names, and then all of them waited. After a slight delay, Jordan indicated that their names and roles were accepted.
“True,” Star said, turning to the boy who’d fallen in with them. She fingered the metal disk he’d produced that had allowed her to take control of the entire facility. She wondered what to do. She could not trust the boy, but they also owed their newest tribal member quite a debt.
“I’m going to have Jordan open the hatch. I want you to run to the entrance of the tunnel and back. I’m sorry, but you can’t know about any more of this. You came from Solomon and them. You may still be with them. I don’t believe you are, but only time will tell.”
“I know,” True responded, moving to the part of the featureless wall where the hatch would open through.
The mechanism functioned at Star’s request. True ran through the opening and dived into the clear water-filled moat, bobbing through the flowing stream to climb up on the other side and ran off.
Star turned back to talk to Jordan, once the boy was gone.
“The password for all of us will be ‘tomorrow,’ if the voice recognition thing doesn’t work.”
“Understood and recorded, Only Star Black tomorrow, Wren tomorrow and Jameson tomorrow are accepted.”
The machine voice stopped talking as if awaiting more questions or instructions.
Star felt fatigue overcome her. She swayed but stayed on her feet. She needed water, food, and sleep, like the rest of the band. “Is the water in the moat drinkable?” she asked.
“There is no water in the moat,” Jordan replied.
“What are you talking about,” Star said, forcefully, looking through the open hatch to see the water still gently moving in reaction to True’s swim across it. “The moat’s filled with water. Can’t your sensors tell you that?”
“There is no water in the moat,” Jordan continued as if Star had not spoken.
Star stopped talking in order to think, before finally asking another question.
“What is in the moat?” she said.
“Perfluorocarbons are in the moat.”
Star sighed and then shook her head and tried to think like the machine thought before inquiring further. “What are perfluorocarbons and why do they look like water?”
“Perfluorocarbons are molecules,” the machine stated. “They look like water and act like water, but in fact, are not water. They contain twenty-five times more oxygen than water. They allow mammals to breathe them in and out while receiving sustenance when encountering the substance. It is written that the moat was intended to warn threats from crossing, not harm them. It is nearly impossible for a living being to drown in the moat.”
Star stood stunned. Water a human could breathe. It was unthinkable, but their problems of survival did not allow for immediate experimentation. “Can humans drink it safely?” she asked.
“Yes, it will energize humans who ingest it, but it will only provide a low fraction of the human’s need for water. The ration is approximately three to one.” The machine stopped speaking.
“Is there any water nearby?” she asked, not understanding the answer and not wanting to drink anything that looked like water but was not.
“No. But you may order the moat emptied and filled with distilled water if you so choose, as you are Only Star Black. There will be a danger to air-breathing mammals who might submerge themselves in the moat, if you order it filled with water, however.”
“Fill it with water as quickly as you can,” Star instructed.
“As instructed,” Jordan’s machine voice replied.
Star turned around as a great flushing sound was heard from through the door. It lasted for only seconds before another sound, like that of a tornado, replaced it. In another few seconds, there was silence.
“Water? The moat is empty of the other stuff and filled with water, in that space of time?” she asked.
“As you instructed,” the machine replied.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” Star asked, in amazement.
“The question cannot be answered as asked,” the machine said. “Restate the question.”
“Never mind,” Star answered, turning away from the console to tend to the children.
“Everyone go out and drink from the moat. We have to trust this thing because we’ve got nobody and nothing else to trust. Then come back in. I’ll turn off the lights and close the door if it will do that. If it won’t then we’ll have to take turns being on guard through our time of sleep.” Star checked her watch.
Outside on the surface of the planet, it was close to midnight. The band had had a very long day and her own exhaustion was mirrored on the faces and in the bodies of the children.
“Drink, eat and then we sleep.”
True came running back to the area across from the open door. Still swirling water coursed around the moat. “Can I come home?” he asked.
“I’m not sure it’s any kind of home for any or all of us, but you can come over. The water is drinkable now, or so the machine says.”
True knelt to drink, sticking his whole head into the water. He surfaced every few seconds and then dunked his head again.
“That is good water,” he remarked, before immersing himself fully and making his way over to the area in front of the door, and then shaking himself off before entering.
Star turned back to the console.
“Is there some reason we have to wade through the moat to get to the door? Is there some other way to cross without getting wet?” she asked Jordan.
The machine didn’t answer, but a low whine ran through the room, like when the hatch was opening or closing except it was quieter. Star stared at the display, but nothing changed. True called out to her, still wet but now standing just inside the hatch.
“There’s a platform or something in the water,” he said, pointing down.
Star walked to the door. A metal plank extended out from the hatch cross the water to the flat surface on the other side. It was wide and solid. Star gently ambled out over the water on the plank and then walked back.
“Amazing,” she breathed. “How am I ever going to figure out the right questions to ask this thing?”
“You seem to be doing pretty good,” True answered from nearby. “You might ask it to take in the plank, close the door and turn off all the lights in the complex. If Sly and those boys can’t use the light switches, then they’ll be stuck wherever they are until the lights go back on. Flashlights aren’t going to get them far if they even have them.”
Star went back inside and spoke to Jordan. The whine returned as the plank was withdrawn. The hatch swung inward and everything went into complete darkness. It was dark so black it scared Star.
“Can you turn on a little light in here?” she asked of the machine.
“Emergency lights are activated,” Jordan replied, as small lights around the base of the room lit up, making the place glow from the floor up.
Star located her pack, pulled out her sleeping mat and lay down. She felt Jameson lay right next to her. At first, she was a little fearful of his presence so close to her in the night, but as Tal, Wren and the rest of the children began to crowd closer and closer she relaxed and rapidly began to lose consciousness. She smiled to herself, experiencing a peace she had not known in a long time. They were all truly safe for the first time she could remember.