ISLAND IN THE SAND
The trek through the whispering pines took more than an hour. Star made sure that they stopped along the way, every few yards, in order to reconnoiter and approach the building with extreme care. She couldn’t stop thinking about the pack just sitting there out front. Was it old or new? What could be in it, and why was it left in plain view. Had nobody been along who might have gone through it?
The robot led the way, carefully weaving its heavy bulk along the rubber treads, rocking and reeling over the uneven terrain, yet moving with an ease that surprised her. There was a clearing in front of the building. The clearing consisted of heavy gravel laid in a large semi-circle with a diameter as wide as the building itself. Star stopped the band and the robot again, to settle into the thickness of long dead pine needles and small seedlings of pines trying to find some light under the old giant branches of their parents.
“This is all wrong,” Jameson whispered, peering out from under the pine they huddled under together.
“Quiet,” Star hissed back. She just wanted to watch the place for a while to see if anything changed.
“There’s nothing growing in the gravel,” Jameson whispered, his face just inches from here left ear.
Star wrinkled her nose, but felt something move inside her. Jameson somehow smelled good, even though it had been days since they’d frolicked in the pool of water surrounding the control center deep inside the complex. The boy smelled fresh, like the pines and the passing air itself. She realized that, although the complex was vital to all their survival, the band was never intended to stay below ground. She also wondered if she wasn’t forcing the slow pace of their trek on purpose, just to be out in the open air again.
Star knew the building was old. Pre-strike. How it had managed to stay precariously mounted on the very edge of the cliff was beyond her understanding or belief. But Jordan, back at the control center had no reason to lie about such a basic observable fact.
“It’s gone,” Wren whispered from Star’s right side.
“What’s gone?” Star countered, frowning
“The pack that was there before isn’t there anymore.”
Star’s gaze focused down. How had she missed it? The pack was gone, as if it had never been there.
“Down,” she said, wanting them all to get lower into the sandy loam under the thick beds of old needles.
Star had positioned the robot so it could pull out from under a huge nearby pine and move into action if it was needed, while at the same time hiding its bulk as much as possible.
“How old was that photo or film or whatever you showed us, Ninety-One,” She asked, her eyes not blinking or leaving the small area where the pack had leaned up against the stone side of the home’s wall.
“That was taken in real time,’ the robot replied, its own tinny speaker somehow quieted like the rest of their conversations. “The time from taking the photo to the time of playing it in your presence was seventeen minutes and thirty-four seconds.”
The pack might have been old, Star mused to herself, but whomever owned it was probably not. They were not alone in the forest. Whomever was in the forest with them knew of their presence, more than likely, and had gone to ground upon their not too stealthy approach. Star had to presume that the person who’d taken the pack was from Sly’s band, and therefore an enemy. She pulled her rifle forward and rose to her feet at the ready,
“We’ve come this far, Jordan, and we need that house,” she said to the robot, no longer trying to keep her voice down. “Can you get us in?”
The house stood in front of them like a broad low mansion. The front was all metal shutters, the metal looking like the same nearly impenetrable stuff used to build the complex. There were marks all over it. Many people had been where they were now and it looked like none of them had gotten in.
“I don’t know,” Jordan replied. “An interrogatory sent has not been responded to. The house has a certain independence, like the node and all the service robots, most of the other robots are quite functional, unlike Ninety-One,” Jordan continued on, as if to disparage it.
Star moved down the berm of sandy loam and out from under the welcome waving pines. It was only a few yards to the edge of the gravel. It took no time to see that the gravel was laid upon a bed of metal, not too far down.
“Is that metal under there?” she said to Jameson.
“Digging,” Jameson replied, dropping to one knee and examining the fist-sized chunks of gravel. “They didn’t want anyone coming along and being able to dig under the foundations without a whole load of trouble. The metal’s probably thick and laid across solid stone. It’s not a house. It’s a fortress.”
“Good news and bad news,” True said, speaking for the first time since they’d been outside. “The good news is that we could sure use a fortress. The bad news is that we probably won’t have any more luck getting in than the previous people had.”
Star walked with that dark thought in her head. She’d already come to the same conclusion as True. But they had the rifles and the rifles could fire through some thickness of metal she calculated. Would they be powerful enough?
Ninety-One cruised out front at Star’s direction, but there nobody coming out from under cover that made their presence known. The front door wasn’t a door any more than the disguised windows were real windows. The twin doors were made of the same metal as the shutters, or whatever they were higher up on the wall.
“There’s not even a lock to shoot out,” Jameson observed.
Star’s idea of shooting their way in began to look like it wouldn’t work any better than the tools others had tried.
They all gathered to rest against the bottom of the wall. Star didn’t like it because of how exposed they were, but she didn’t want to divide them up to get better cover because the only one of them capable of providing that was Jameson. And she needed his brain to try to figure out how to get inside.
The children were restive. They had not been able to run and jump and do all the other things they loved to do because of the discipline necessary during the move from the lift. They started to run around, up and down the entire length of the house.
“Star Black, Star Black,” Sol and Tal yelled from around the edge of the house.
“Star Black, Administrator,” Jordan responded, as well.
Star turned toward the robot, since the children did not seem to have any distress in the tone of their voices.
“What is it?” she asked, standing in front of Ninety-One.
“Star Black, Administrator,” the deep voice said, again, but the sound wasn’t coming out of the robot’s speaker. Star flipped around. Somehow the voice was coming from the door.
The house had overheard the voices of the children and recognized her name, she realized. But how was that possible if what Jordan said was true? If there was no link with the house in their system then how did the house get the information that Star was an administrator?
“I am Star Black, Administrator, please open the door,” Star said, as clearly and plainly as she could, hoping that life would become that simple for just a moment or two. But it was not to be.
“Star Black, Administrator, please recite the code,” the door said.
Star stood staring at the door, wondering how the earlier highly technical people who’d come before the asteroid strike ever managed to put up with their machine counterparts. People were difficult enough, she rued to herself, but machines that would not do what they were instructed to do was somehow much worse. She could not stop herself from thinking that the machines secretly enjoyed stymying the plans of any human that stood before them.
“There’s somebody here,” the children yelled, as one.
Star brought up her rifle and headed for the down valley portion of the house at a full run.
Once there she stopped, her rifle pointed straight ahead, as she rounded the last part of the corner and stepped clear.
There was nothing to shoot at except a young girl, maybe a few years older than Tal and Sol. She was a ragamuffin of unwashed hair and grimy dirt. She held the pack in one hand, dragging it along behind her when she moved. She backed away from Star and the pointed rifle.
Star quickly pulled the weapon back and then slid it over her shoulder. There was no threat in the child.
“Are you part of Sly’s pack?
“What’s a pack?” the little girl replied.
“Sly, are you with him?” Star asked, patiently.
“Not anymore,” she said. “I went down in the hole like everyone else. I stayed with them down there, but I hate the dark and it’s so much nicer out here. My job was to write everything down and stuff, like where we were and what we were doing. Sly doesn’t write or read much, but sometimes he said we have to have written junk.”
“What’s your name?” Star asked, looking up briefly into the heavens, wondering just how many more children she was supposed to take in.
“They call me Harry, but Harriet is my real name,” the little girl said. “Is this your house?”
“No, it’s not,” Jameson replied, coming up behind Star. “I checked the tree line and there’s nothing,” he added, resting his rifle against the wall of the house but looking all around suspiciously. “We don’t have the code. Star’s the administrator but the house says it has to have a code of some sort. We don’t have it and neither does the main computer at the complex, or whatever is passing itself off as a main computer.
“If you get in, then can I come in too?” Harriet asked.
“Of course,” True answered the little girl before anybody else could say anything. “They took me in and I’m a much bigger risk than you, by far.”
“Then, I think I can help,” Harriet said, reaching to pull the worn falling apart pack around her slim body and up to her chest. She unfastened the knotted piece of old scarf that held the top on. “Maybe this will work,” she went on, pulling out a folded bit of dirty white paper. “I have everything written down on bits of paper because big paper intimidates Sly,” she went on, holding the paper out toward Star with one hand.
“What is it?” Star replied, not taking the folded paper, at first.
“It’s how they got into the train machine thing,” Harriet said, still holding the paper out, like she’d stand there all day if Star needed her to.
Star took the paper and unfolded it.
“It’s a code,” Harriet added. “It’s the one that other machine down there asked for. It was carved into the metal on the outside of the machine, like somebody could not remember it and had no paper or person to write it down like me.”
Starr looked at the paper. There were nine numbers, written with a small but beautifully crafted slant. She sighed. Could it be that simple, she wondered? Could anything in the post asteroid world be simple? She turned and walked all the way back to the double doors.
“Star Black, administrator,” the door said, letting Star know that it had more sensory capability, other than a hidden speaker.
“I’m Star Black,” Star said carefully, “and the code for opening the door is 991336345.”
There were seven distinct deep and heavy clicks. The door said nothing further. A slight crack, like the one they’d made in the storeroom doors so many days ago, appeared at the edge of the right-hand door. Star pushed the door open, but did not enter.
“House, how do you change the code for opening the door?” she asked, wanting to assure that nobody else was getting inside the fortress except her or a member of the band.
“You ask to have it changed,” the door said. “I am here for your convenience Star Black, Administrator.
“For right now just change the number to all sevens with one-two at the end.” Star said, before stepping across the threshold into another world.