Star could only stare at Sly, wondering how the boy had changed so much since she’d last seen him in the forest not so long ago. His appearance had gone from unkempt to neatly clean, except for the soot and debris that covered all the boys who’d been on the lift when the recoilless rifle had been fired. Sly’s clothing had gone from tattered cotton to worn, but relatively new material, its makeup remaining unknown, but their content identifiable as high quality. Only his facial expressions had not changed. His normal look remained that of a leering clown, with one eyebrow seemingly lifted in questioning permanence. He stood before her with both arms half-extended, as if Jameson and she were going to simply hand their weapons over, and then count on him to be anything but the murderous evil force he’d demonstrated time and again.

“That’s not going to happen,” Star said, her voice soft and low, her eyes adjusting back and forth from Sly’s chest to the slightly moving aim of the rifle’s barrel.

Sly’s right eyebrow dropped slightly, and his head turned a few degrees but his unblinking stare into her eyes remained flat and fixed.

Star waited, without going on, wondering why the artificial intelligences had gone to the trouble of outfitting Sly’s boys with clothing and arms while Star and her band had had to find everything for themselves, and still wore the tattered attire they’d coming into the complex with.

Sly’s hands slowly dropped to his sides.

“There was a contest going on and you lost,” Sly said, his eyes sweeping over the scene in front of him.

“You better do an inventory of yourself and the others in your band,” Star replied, waiting patiently to see where things were going to go. “Too bad you don’t have a mirror. You don’t look much like the winner of anything.”

“Why don’t we just shoot him?” Jameson asked, his eyes never leaving the boy in front of him. “Why don’t we just shoot them all?”

“Ninety-One?” Star said to the robot, silent and seemingly inert between them.

“You have been above the earth,” Ninety-One replied. “Only you and a few of your people have seen the earth as it is. No others. The decision of the Distants would appear to be pretty clear.”

“What is that thing talking about?” Sly said, the tone of his voice no longer calm and measured. “Above the earth? Nobody’s been above the earth. There’s no way to get up there and it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Above the earth,” he ended derisively.

“I don’t understand,” Star said to the robot, ignoring Sly’s comments.

“You have been allowed to see what’s here and now,” Ninety-One replied.

“You know. Only you know. There was a decision to be made regarding giving you that knowledge and power. The Distants do nothing by accident.”

“What power?” Star asked. “We are trapped inside this room and in the transport.”

“You control the transport and the entire complex,” Ninety-One said. “You may decide to shoot these boys or not. Power is only power if perceived, applied and modified through perspective.”

“Why are you talking to a service thing like that?” Sly asked.

“I’m trying to decide whether to shoot you now or wait until you do something worse than you already have,” Star replied.

Star noted that the other boys inside the lift were recovering and getting to their feet. She had to make a decision. She also knew nobody was going to make it for her.

“How many humans are left on the planet?” Star asked. She was surprised when Jordan, not Ninety-One responded.

“Nine million, nine hundred and eighty-seven,” Jordan said, “not including the relative accuracy involved in making decisions about the definition of the word ‘alive.’

History books used earlier in Star’s schooling had placed the earth’s population at nine or ten billion. Those numbers had been hard to believe, although there’d been no reference with respect to how many humans had survived the asteroid strike. There had been no way to calculate that number. Until now. Star had no reason at all to disbelieve what Jordan stated, although how such a figure had come to be, with such seeming accuracy, was beyond trying to figure out, at least for the moment. Star had seen the continent and more from up on high.

“Only ten million,” she breathed out, glancing over at Jameson, catching his own shocked look.

“We can’t shoot them,” Jameson said, his voice too low for anyone but the robot and Star to hear.

“Your conclusion is most logical, given the mathematics of rebuilding a social order,” Ninety-One said. “However, I do not believe that your logical conclusion, based upon how decimated the human population on this planet has become, is shared by these creatures in front of us.”

“You are a damaged repair robot and you may not make the determination you are attempting to come to,” Jordan said, the volume of the entity’s voice rising dramatically.

“Ninety-One agrees with me,” Jameson whispered over to Star. “Let’s shoot them. They’d shoot us, and have been trying to for some time.”

“It is not a matter for agreement,” Jordan responded, obviously able to hear and understand sounds no matter how low or disguised.

“We’re going to get aboard the lift and go back down,” Sly said, understanding Jameson’s intent and likely his own peril at the same time. “That thing’s right. No decisions have to be made here.”

Sly moved slowly as he talked, taking one slow step after another back onto the floor of the lift, where the other recovering members of his band were still trying to rise to their feet. Sly’s hands were extended outward with facing palms, while his expression had changed completely. Star watched him move, taking no action, wondering at the boy’s ability to transform himself right before her, from an evil authoritarian monster into a poor lost boy, and he’d performed the change in milliseconds.

“What do you want me to do?” Jameson asked his voice one of near total frustration.

Sly stood among his recovering band members, his expression going to one of analytical flatness as he stared into Star’s eyes.

“You know,” he breathed out softly, “this is going to come down to us against them. This is our planet and not theirs if they are who or what I think they are. Think about how that might happen.”

The lift doors closed without any buttons being depressed or instructions given. Star understood by the move that Jordan and the Distants had yet to make a final decision about which band was going to be favored over the other.

“They made the same choice you just did,” Star said, finally replying to Jameson’s questions.

“What choice?” he shot back.

“They didn’t do anything and neither did you.   You could have shot them all by yourself, without my participation or approval. They were helpless, with their main weapon laying on the floor of the lift. You made a choice. Jordan took them down in the lift without being instructed by Sly or me to do that. Jordan made a choice too.”

Star relaxed her hold on the rifle and brought it down to her side. Her arm and shoulder muscles hurt from the tension she’d held the weapon under.

“Sly’s got a point but I don’t know what to do about it,” she said to Jameson. “I can’t work with the kind of killer he is, and I can’t just accept that the Distants are a force for our survival and recovery as a people. The word ‘subjugation’ isn’t that hard to interpret, and I don’t agree that Jordan, or even Ninety-One, would have the kind of answer we got to that question right there, so quickly and smoothly delivered.”

“What do we do, Ninety-One?” Star asked the robot near her side.

“Find out where Sly and his band are,” the robot said. “Make sure they are not penetrating some other part of the complex since it does not appear that Jordan is going to directly intervene unless specific orders are issued.”

“I meant about the Distants,” Star replied, kicking herself, however, for not thinking about the fact that Sly was still very much a threat to everything going on, including the lives of everyone in her band.

“You are already trusting them if that is part of your question, Ninety-One said. “You would not be alive, eating, sleeping, and able to order almost anything you can imagine from the instruments of the Distants. The children are in the transport, which is a creation of the Distants. You are talking to me, and I am a creation of the Distants.”

“Yes, but what do we do?” Star said, raising her voice.

“You may do what you must do when reasonable requests and orders fail,” the robot replied, it’s voice lowering to a whisper.

“That is not authorized, damaged service robot number Ninety-One,” Jordan said.

Star looked at the robot, but there was no expression to read. She thought about what it had told her and then Jordan’s immediate protesting reply. What is it she could do if Jordan would not do what she instructed, even though it had often indicated that it must obey her orders as an administrator.

“Give me a hint,” Star said, leaning in so close to the robot’s center stalk that her lips almost touched its metal surface.

“Threat,” Ninety-One whispered back.

“Not authorized,” Jordan came in again, “and this allegation of violent intent must be reported to the Distants for their approval of your necessary and immediate dissolution and renewal.”

Star turned back to the console and stood before it. The word ‘threat’ would not leave her mind, but she also knew she didn’t understand what Ninety-One really meant. Jordan was threatening Ninety-One with ‘dissolution,’ a process obviously intended to put the service robot back under Jordan’s authority.

“Dissolution,” Star suddenly blurted out.

“You are requesting the definition of the word?” Jordan asked.

“No, not at all,” Star replied. “If you don’t follow my instructions to the letter as administrator of this complex then I am going to destroy this console as I did the node back in the railroad center.”

Star brought her rifle back up but did not point it directly at the console.

“I understand your frustration, particularly in light of the influence my damaged robot has had over you and your affairs,” Jordan replied.

Star thought she detected a very tiny note of fear in the entity’s tone, although why a machine, either the complex entity or Ninety-One, should fear “dissolution” was beyond her.

“Ninety-One is no longer to be referred to as your robot,” Star replied. “He’s his own robot and he’s also a full-fledged member of my band. I want whatever kind of representation in pictures you can put up here of Sly and his band. What they are doing and where they are. I want you to stop allowing them administrator access to anything in this complex, or the dwelling, or the transport. I want to see that now, and then I want to communicate with the Distants personally.”

“I will comply with all of your requests except for that last,” Jordan replied, this time its tone one of seeming contriteness, with a good dose of humble meekness thrown in. “You do not want me to comply with the last.”

“I am not making requests,” Star fired back, angrily. “I’m the administrator and I’ve given you orders.”

“Please consult with Ninety-One, your robot and band member,” Jordan stated, as a milky cloud formed over the console.

Star was taken aback mentally and then physically, as she backed away from the fogged over console top. Jordan was asking her to consult with the robot, the entity it had had nothing but negative things to comment about since their first encounter. The request jarred her to the core.

“Ninety-One?” Star asked, although her eyes did not leave the cloud that was fast becoming a detailed assembly of multi-dimensional moving images.

“Jordan is correct,” Ninety-One stated, flatly, and then went on, speaking like it was reading from some physics professor’s notebook. “You see and live in what you call the universe. Your travel through this universe is through time, which is another name for the incidence and direction of causality. Your life begins and ends, as you know it, through a process called entropy. None of that universe is the universe where the Distants reside. They live in a place, not time. They live through vibration not movement. Life itself for you is a determined process of living through causality in time. They exist in variables of place and vibration. The multiverse of all existence, according to the Distants, responds to the definitions of reality they have encountered and responded to. This is why they are not limited by the speed of anything. But they have other limitations and your communication might cause the Distants to modify the vibrations allowing for what you consider to be the universe.”

“You’re expecting that I understood what you just said?” Star replied, her mind whirling, once again not feeling like she could move forward, back or in any other direction.

“No, I expect that you will trust that I understand what I just said, and you will respond by not communicating directly with the Distants just yet.”

“Is that it?” Star came back, letting her breath out in a long sigh.

“No, that is not it,” Ninety-One replied, “you need to look at the console presentation in front of you and see where Sly and his band are right now.”

Star focused her eyes forward, and the clearing over the cloudy scene came into focus over the console. It sprang toward her like it was a living thing. A miniaturized Sly looked back over one shoulder as if he was starring directly into her eyes, and then placed the firing end of his recoilless rifle against the hull of the transport sitting out from the command center. The supposedly invulnerable transport with all the children in it.

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Image: Ian Somerhalder