ISLAND IN THE SAND
The draw of the storage room was so magnetic and great that Star could not stop herself from surging forward, down the extended steps and into the near end of the giant cavern.
“Wren, go and get the kids,” Star ordered, the idea of having left in the care of a machine having bothered her since she’d done it.
“You and I’ll wait here,” she then said to Jameson
“What about just having Jordon tell the kids to come running,” Jameson replied, looking up and around as if he might see the machine somehow in the air or looking back at them from the ceiling.
“Jordon?” Star asked, wondering if she was being an idiot.
The machine had said it could hear and talk to them almost anywhere in the complex but the possibility just didn’t seem real.
“Administrator?” the machine said back, it’s voice strong but there seemed there was no actual source from which issued.
“When Wren arrives at the control facility, open the hatch and have everyone there all run to join us here, and guide them if they need that,” Star ordered, wondering if the machine would understand what guidance meant. “Close up and await further instructions.”
“It shall be done,” Jordon replied.
“He sounds like God,” whispered Jameson. “I’m sure glad he’s our friend and not the other way around.”
“I don’t think whatever he or it is knows the meaning of the word, but we have to work with what we’ve got,” Star replied, beginning to walk among the closer rows and examine item after item, noting that it all looked like it’d been manufactured only hours or days before their arrival.
Wren and True returned with the kids, all running and cavorting as if they were all on some grand adventure. They stopped when they entered the giant chamber and fell silent to gaze upon row after row, palette after stacked pallet, of unknown but promising cases of food and nourishment. The far walls, in each direction, came into view. The storage area held more supplies than seemed possible for anything less than one of the huge cities that had come in the time before the asteroid strike. Each pallet was neatly piled high with cans and packages held together in foot-thick layers by a milky plastic-like film.
Star shook her head as if surfacing from a trance.
“The security protocol. We’ve got to stay alert. Jameson, stand guard at the entrance. Sly and his cutthroats may come earlier than predicted. We’ve got to get as much of this transported to the elevator and to the sphere as we can before they arrive. Leave your pack and we’ll start filling and running back and forth.”
“The machine, Star,” Jameson said. “You’ve got to use the machine. Ask it whether Sly’s band is on the move. It should know if what it says is true.”
Star asked Jordon, thinking about the fact that she could still not accommodate in her mind that the machine could have any sentience at all.
“There is no movement currently detected,” Jordon responded, instantly.
True and the children began running around and between the columns of and rows of supplies, laughing as they cavorted.
“Jameson, you remain on guard,” Star said. “We’ll load our packs and begin making some trips back and forth to the sphere until we’ve got a decent supply. The control center is about the only place we know they can’t get at us.”
“I can carry more than all of you combined. Why can’t True stay on guard?” Jameson complained.
Star stopped to think for a moment. “You’re right about that. I can’t leave True in here with all of this because he’s still unproven. Not yet. Too much is at a stake. But I can watch instead of you. Get the rest and start the work. We don’t have time to unwrap most of this stuff now. Just get as much of it as you can.”
Star dropped her empty pack and moved past Jameson to the open doorway to wait and watch.
“Okay. We’ll get on it,” Jamisen replied.
Star moved through the opening and was about re-enter the tunnel when she heard the solid impact of an object striking the wall near her head, and then a loud explosion emanating from deeper down in the tunnel, and reverberating back, like the sound of sheet metal being repeatedly being struck by a hammer. Several arrows clattered and fell near her feet, as she jumped back from the opening.
“Too late,” Star yelled. “They’re here. We’re trapped,” Star ran for her pack, which carried her small revolver.
Jameson pulled his automatic and moved to stand by the other side of the opening. She yelled at everyone to get down and stay down.
“I thought you said there was no movement, Jordon, but they are here,” Star yelled up into the air from her protected position back from the edge of the door.
“There was no activity,” as I indicated”, Jordan uttered “You did not inquire as to the other group’s location.”
“They can’t get in here,” Jameson said, “not without getting shot. We have plenty of ammunition. We can hold them off forever,”
“We can’t stay on alert forever,” Star said, her tone one of resignation. “They have a whole band out there. It’s only a matter of time. The elevator’s open. They’ll get that and it won’t take them long to find the manual over-ride.”
“Security protocol alert. Threat level high,” Jordon’s voice echoed through the chamber behind them.
“You said they’d take an hour to get here,” Star yelled up in anger and frustration at the seemingly illogical machine.
True and the children were gathered behind her along the floor. They asked no questions.
“Humans are capable of considerable variations in speed, as they move across the ground going from place to place,” Jordon responded. “A factor of measurement less than adequate was used in the calculation, and an alert might have been in order.”
“No kidding,” Star spat out, shaking her head. “What can we do now? They’ve got us trapped in here. The elevators gaping open. We can’t stay in here forever.”
“Use the elevator,” Jordon responded.
“Aren’t you listening, or inputting, or whatever it is that you do?” Star asked. “We can’t get to the elevator from here. They are outside this opening with guns, or at least one gun, and they’ve pinned us down in here.
“Use the freight elevator,” Jordon said.
“What’s freight?” Jameson asked.
“The stuff all around us is freight,” Star said. “There’s another elevator? In here?” Star asked.
“The freight elevator is accessible from the far wall located directly opposite the opening you are standing in. It has four-point-nine times the carrying capacity of the personnel elevator you used to return to the emergency railhead where you are now.”
Jameson started to move but Star grabbed him by the arm. “No, we can’t leave the entrance unguarded and we can’t let them get to the other elevator.”
“Can you stop the security protocol other’s from using the manual over-ride on the personnel elevator?” Jameson asked, turning back to face the door.
“No,” Jordon answered, “but I can close the elevator door and seal it unless ordered to re-open it by the administrator.”
“Close the door,” Jameson and Star yelled at the same time.
“The door is sealed,” came back through the air a few seconds later. “Do you wish me to close and seal the door to the storage area you currently occupy?”
“Why didn’t I think of that,” Star said to herself, in surprise. “Yes, close and seal this door right now, but wait. We won’t be able to talk to you if you close the door, will we?”
“There is another communication’s node in the freight elevator if it is still functioning. If the node has failed, you may use the manual over-ride controls as before. The door to that elevator is now opening. Do you wish to complete the closure of the tunnel entrance?”
“Yes,” Star ordered.
The cover for the steps glided up from a hidden slot under the opening and then the close-fitting door leading into the tunnel levered itself from the back of the inside wall and silently pressed itself shut. The only sound was a soft air rush when the seal was complete.
“Let’s get to the freight elevator fast,” Star instructed the group.
“We’ve got plenty of time now,” Jameson argued.
“Not if they try lowering one of their band down to the rungs like they did before. We’ve got to get there first or we could lose control of everything when we come down with supplies,”
“How do you think of stuff like that? And so fast? Jameson inquired, taking off at a lope between two of the rows and heading toward the far wall.
Star, True and the children followed his lead.
A great dark rectangle became visible, as they closed the distance to the far wall of the storage area.
“That’s gotta be it,” Jameson pointed, as he ran.
The elevator gaped open without light. Even lacking full illumination, it was obviously much larger than the one at the end of the tunnel.
“Jordon?” Star inquired breathlessly, as she stopped just outside the opening.
“Standing by,” the machine’s voice replied clearly, from inside the elevator.
Star took a few minutes to catch her breath, before taking her pack off and relaxing. Her hands still shook from the adrenalin rush of being fired upon and in great danger at the tunnel door. She replaced the revolver back into the pack before speaking again.
“Jameson needs to go down in the elevator and stand guard at the bottom of the emergency ladder. The elevator needs to come back up here so we can load it with supplies and then get them over to the sphere. Can you help us do that?”
“The freight elevator does not go to the energy chamber,” Jordon responded.
“Where in hell does it go then?” Star shot back, unable to keep the shock and anger from her voice.
“To the crew quarters one level below the energy chamber. The elevator opens in the kitchen of that facility,” Pick answered. “To reach the energy chamber from there would require activation of the stair module leading up the interior of the operations area.
“Is nothing inside this place simple or logical?” Star asked, in exasperation.
The machine did not respond.
“All right. Activate this elevator and take Jameson to the crew quarters, whatever they are. Have the elevator return here. How long will that take?”
“Three minutes and two seconds at express capacity and calculating Jameson’s exit to only require six seconds when the conveyance is stopped at the kitchen level.
The interior of the elevator illuminated. “The elevator appears to be working at nominal levels for normal freight operations,” Jordon said.
“Okay then,” Star answered. “We can’t send you down Jameson. The food needs to get transported from the kitchen all the way to the sphere. You’re best equipped to do that. I’ll have to go and find my way through the crew headquarters to where the stairs might be located and then use them to enter the operation’s area and get back out to where the rungs come down inside the chamber. I hope we have enough time. At least we know for sure, no matter what Sly is up to, nobody is going to find the location of where this elevator goes anytime soon, especially since there’s no way they can know it exists.”
“They’ve been pretty clever so far,” Jameson replied, “but True, Wren and I, and the kids can drag as much food as we can haul. We can go back and forth with the other kids too, once we find our way and get set up.”
“Okay Jordon, I’m ready,” Star said, pulling her revolver from the pack and stepping aboard the elevator. “You can have my pack to fill with supplies,” she followed up, tossing the thing to Jameson as the doors closed. “Any security protocols down there at the bottom, Jordon?” She inquired.
“Not that my sensors can read,” the machine answered. “Doors closing,” it warned.
Once again Star was nearly airborne as the elevator accelerated down the shaft. She braced herself for what she now knew was coming. The elevator braked, but this time Star maintained her balance. Finally, the conveyance stopped fully, and the doors opened into a world of shiny metal.
Star peeked out, her pistol held in front of her. “Nothing here Jordon,” she whispered. “Can you let me talk to the others on top?”
“As indicated, Star,” Pick answered. “No, the only communications node is in this elevator. There is another node near the stairs leading up to the center. If the elevator is at the storage area, and your contacts are nearby, then communications will be enabled.”
Star stepped out of the elevator. The doors clicked shut behind her and she heard it shoot back up the shaft. She surveyed the foreign world around her. Everything except the floor and ceiling was made of gray shiny metal. The many tables, flat stoves and other machines too complicated to describe were neatly set all around as if waiting for some huge cooking staff to show up and begin using. She marveled as she ran her hand over the smoothness of a nearby table. There was no dust. Something cleaned everything on a regular basis, or the room was simply that well sealed and free of foreign debris.
She turned back to the elevator to make one last request of Jordon before proceeding on to find the stairs leading to the sphere located on the level above. Before she completed her turn she saw her own feet as they swept up into the air in front of her. She flew through the air and began a descent to the hard surface of the floor. Star tried to twist in the air in order to lessen the impact, and prepare to confront her attacker.