Island In The Sand
Star flipped in mid-air, brought her body around in a twist to land face down, her hands and knees ready to take the impact on the hard flooring. Her mind raced, but like a fast blinking strobe seemed to give her only brief shots of what was happening as she fell. She knew there was nothing anywhere near her before she landed, letting her right arm collapse so her body would roll and absorb as much energy as possible, the revolver falling and sliding across the floor. She sat up, facing the open elevator door, and then slithered the distance across the floor while pulling her weapon in toward her chest as she was doing so. She clutched it between both of her tightly clasped hands but could find nothing to aim at.
“What hit me?” she asked out into the open air above, and then started to climb shakily to her feet, still trying to quickly gaze around and see everything at once.
“Robot, Model number six-six-seven, issue ninety-one,” the machine replied, instantly. “It is a cleaning and repair robot. Somehow its programming must have been interrupted, as all the robots, under command, or exercising independent control, are prohibited from encountering human beings in any way unless ordered to do so by an administrator. Might you have instructed the robot to encounter you?”
Star could see no point in answering such an idiotic question. She shook her head in frustration, trying to bring her body back under full control. The machine was sometimes seemingly brilliant and then at other times as dumb as a box of rocks.
“Where is it?” Star asked, wondering how it had struck her and then disappeared so quickly, and also what Jordan meant by ‘unless ordered to do so’ in the activities of the robotic moving creature.
“And was there more than one?”
Trying to come down from the adrenalin surge and work out the mild bruises she’d suffered from the fall, Star slowly replaced the revolver back inside her pack. There appeared to be no immediate threat.
“The robot is doing its’ programmed work,” Jordan responded,
“Can you make it so the thing won’t hurt anybody again?” she asked.
“You do not appear to be hurt,” the machine responded. “I can rewrite the robot’s interaction code, yes. The robot, however, would have to be connected in order to accomplish that.”
“That would be good, I guess,” Star stated, before taking a few more seconds to think. “Can you adjust the robot so it’ll lead me to the base of the stairs?”
“The robot must be connected to effect changes to its programming,” Jordan replied.
“How can it be connected, since I can’t even see it?” Star said, her tone one of total frustration.
“You may call it,” Jordan replied. “It is semi-sentient, unlike my own identity. The robot should respond to your verbal use of its title, although this particular robot appears to have suffered some degradation over time.”
“You think?” Star said, before cupping her hands together and yelling. “Robot Six-six-seven, issue ninety-one, present yourself before me.”
“Like that,” she whispered and then waited.
“Like that,” Jordan repeated, toning its own volume down to match Star’s.
Star waited for more than a minute, dropping her hands to her sides while looking all about the cavernous kitchen. Suddenly, she heard an approaching whirring sound, very low in frequency. She recalled having heard the sound from just before she was struck. Instinctively, she put her back against a full-length flat metal panel, as what appeared to be a padded box came around a cabinet. The waist-level thing rolled up and stopped in front of her. The object appeared to be a padded box, knee-high, with four antenna or pipes sticking out of its upper surface. The antennae were covered in small tube-like cushions, as well. A glass globe sat in the middle of the flat top panel, emanating a blinking red light but no sound. The robot faced Star without moving, as if waiting.
“Well?” Star began, not being able to think of anything else to say.
“Ninety-one, present,” a tinny voice stated, coming from some hidden speaker mounted somewhere unseen on the outside of the thing.
“You ran over me a few minutes ago, right here,” she started, unable to stop herself. “You’re programmed to have no contact with humans unless ordered to do so by an administrator. I’m an administrator,” Star said, feeling like an idiot talking to a machine as if it was a thinking human being.
It was the same way she’d felt upon first talking to Jordan.
“There was no damage suffered to this unit,” the thing replied.
“What about me?” Star asked, pointedly.
“I accept that ‘Me’ is an administrator,” Ninety-one acknowledged. “I will accept instructions from Me. What is it that Me instructs?”
“Oh, really,” Star breathed out, tired to her core of trying to learn new things so rapidly without rest or respite of any kind. “Me instructs Unit Ninety-One to connect to Jordan for reprogramming,” Star ordered, not wanting to attempt getting her administrator name corrected, or trying to understand why the seemingly independent small cleaning or repair machine might be able to make decisions about who was and who wasn’t an administrator.
Ninety-one made no further sound, instead backing slightly and moving to the wall near the elevator’s still open door. One of its extending arms pushed into a hole in the wall. The machine stopped moving and the flashing light coming out of its glass orb went dark. Star waited, but nothing happened.
“Jordan, is it reprogrammed?” she asked.
“Yes, it will now lead you to the stairs, it is hoped that it will not encounter you again physically. It is hoped.”
“It is hoped? What in hell does that mean?” Star asked, as the cleaning robot disengaged from the wall and its glass orb began radiating a blinking light brighter than before.
“Issue Ninety-One is hardware corrupted and this defect cannot be corrected with programming. This unit needs to be reprocessed, but the reprocessing center has been unavailable for two years and six months….”
“All right!” Star exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “You can just get over it. We’re all damaged. Where have you been?” Star cut Jordan off. “Ninety-One, lead me to the base of the stairs that go up into the sphere’s operation’s center on the level above.”
“Central control has communicated that you were damaged by my movements earlier. Ninety-One can assist you in any repair of this damage that might be required,” the robot said, moving a few feet closer.
“No!” Star yelled, backing up to the metal panel once more. “Me is just fine. No cleanup. No repair. None. Nothing.”
“As you instruct,” the robot said. “Ninety-One will now proceed to the base of the stairwell leading to the level above and the levels below. At what speed is Me capable of traversing that distance?”
“Human walking speed,” Star answered, wondering what the machine’s understanding of humans was, or if it had been programmed by Jordan to be.
“Three-point-seven miles per hour, or two-point-eight meters per second. Ninety-One and Me are proceeding. That would be walking at a fast pace.” The robot moved past Star toward a distant door without further comment.
“I’ll communicate from the operations center, Jordan,” Star yelled back at the elevator. “Don’t let anyone but another administrator use the elevator,” she added, but the door slid shut without Jordan replying. The robot in front of her didn’t slow to wait, so Star had to run to catch up.
“How far is the stairwell?” She asked.
“We will arrive, traveling at this velocity, in seven minutes and twenty-five seconds,” Ninety-One answered.
“Do you ever answer a question as it was asked, or is that part of your defectiveness?” Star quizzed.
“Central has stated that there is damaged hardware somewhere inside my construct,” the robot responded. “Central is the authority. I was programmed to communicate with administrators, but my program has fallen into unplanned disarray. I have bridged this area with other programs that have similar kinds of rational logic linked to the strings of their presence. Such internal repair is allowing for this kind of rudimentary communication.”
“Why did that sound like an insult?” Star breathed out, but the robot simply continued to whir on its way silently, twisting and turning through halls, doors and around any large object encountered.
Star realized that, if she did end up at the correct stairwell, it would only be because of Jordan and the robot. The ‘crew quarters’ portion of the complex was a rabbit warren of passages and strangely appointed rooms.
“How in hell are Jameson, Wren, and the kids going to find their way through all this while carrying heavy loads?” she mused to herself as she walked.
The array of cubicles, set-ups for tools, and equipment stations seemed to go on forever.
The robot rolled on in front of her silently, it’s blinking light iridescent in the plain flat and gray surroundings. Star tried to make out what some of the machinery around her could possibly be used for but could decipher almost nothing just by looking at it.
“Does any of this stuff still work?” she asked Ninety-One.
“The equipment is almost entirely functional, with occasional failures noted in the repair and maintenance logs,” the machine replied.
“Are the lights always on down here, or did Jordan turn them on for me?” she inquired, not really curious but mildly afraid.
It was unsettling to be inside such a huge complex and see no evidence of any other living being. To be in such a place with no light would be frightening to the core.
“The lights are not lights. They are emanations radiating from a special alloy of elements. Do you wish me to list the elements?”
“No,” Star sighed. “I wouldn’t know any of them, I’m sure. Physics and chemistry aren’t sciences allowed to be taught in the schools anymore on the outside.”
Why she was talking to the machine about anything other than what was immediately needed from it didn’t make much sense to her, except that having a dialogue at all in the strangely lonely area she was proceeding through made the experience somehow less fearful and oppressive.
“What is outside?” Ninety-one unaccountably asked back.
“The real world. The surface of the planet where the sun is, and dirt, and people and the great oceans. This is an underground emergency facility of some sort, not the outside real world,” Star stopped talking.
There was no way a repair and maintenance robot was going to understand the existence of such a complex biological world located only a few feet above the facility, and for which it had never been programmed about.
“Outside, as you describe it, would appear to be a place in need of much repair and considerable maintenance,” Ninety-One answered, surprising Star. “It would be adequately functional for a robot like myself to visit and apply skills in such a place.”
Star wondered about a simple robot that seemed to be edging toward securing a more lucrative position in the outside world, but let the thought trail away as they reached the staircase. How could a robot call itself ‘me’ and ‘myself’ without understanding that the same word was not a proper name for an administrator, she wondered but said nothing.
“This set of stairs goes up and down,” Star remarked, peering down to see railings extending many floors below.
“What’s down there?” She pointed, but then went right on, “and none of this is secure. Anybody can go up and down the stairs?”
“The staircase is an unlimited access to all levels,” Ninety-One responded. The floor below this are….” it began but Star interrupted.
“There must be a door in the operations area, or I’d have seen an opening earlier. It must be secure up there. I’m going up. Can you climb stairs?”
“I have special appendages which can be deployed for such purpose. Those articulations have not been used or tested for a hundred and four planetary transits. I will remain here, awaiting instructions unless Me orders otherwise, and yes, there is a hatch to the control area.” The machine almost seemed to say the words with a tone of regret Star thought, but she said nothing.
Star left the robot, and rapidly ascended four levels of stairs, coming up on a dogged hatch that she presumed was the door Jordan had mentioned. Only upon reaching it did she remember to attempt communication.
“Jordan, you there?” she asked into the quiet still air around her.
“I am receiving your words,” Jordan answered. “The freight elevator has been entered with six hundred and seventy-four additional pounds of presumed supplies taken from the storage facility. It is proceeding downward to the crew quarter level you recently left. Do you want to be connected to the communications unit in that elevator first, or do you want to respond to a security protocol breach?”
“Open the door,” Star breathed in and out, her chest heaving with stress at the possible import of Jordan’s last words.
“I cannot open the door until physical releases have been operated on the inside surface,” the machine replied.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. What’s the nature of the security protocol breach?” she asked, wondering how to let Wren know she was on the other side of the door so the doors could be unlatched.
“Three of the opposition band personnel have reached the bottom of the chamber. They are proceeding toward what you call the sphere, carrying what appears to be some kind of heavy equipment and tools. The nature of the equipment and the tools remains unknown.”
Star turned to the rough studded door, turned her back, and fought to slow her racing mind down. Whatever Sly was up to had to involve hauling in stuff that might be able to penetrate the sphere’s surface. She had to get inside, and she had to so quickly.
“Alright Jordan, I want you to inform Wren and the others that I am on the outside of this door and instruct them on how to disengage the proper release mechanisms.” Star said the words slowly, wondering just how much time it would take for the boys to haul whatever they were hauling toward the sphere and get it set up to do whatever they were attempting to do. The inside of the sphere had to be only inches away, but it seemed like it was miles.
“Connect me to communicate with those on the freight elevator,” Star instructed, hearing the turning mechanical sounds of work being done on the other side of the hatch.
“Send Ninety-One back to guide Jameson, Wren and the kids to my present location, and tell me what’s going on inside and outside the sphere. I shouldn’t have to order you to communicate like this. Just tell me.”
Star knew her voice had reached the level of yelling, but no longer cared. The situation and the robots were driving her nearly insane.