ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star looked into first Wren’s and then Jameson’s eyes before saying anything. Her stares were returned with the same stupefying looks she knew she had to be sending to them with her own facial expression.
“Why can you not…" Star began, speaking to the house, but was cut off by Wren mid-sentence.
“Pressurize the hydraulic system and slide the roof armor into place over every part of the dwelling,” Wren ordered the artificial intelligence.
“Is that request confirmed by primary administrator Star Black,” the house replied.
Star began to speak again, her anger evident as she began, but she got nowhere before Wren grabbed her bicep so hard she knew it would leave bruises.
“Confirm it,” Wren hissed, into her ear.
“Confirmed,” Star replied, in a flat tone.
Mechanical sliding noises issued forth from the ceilings all over the dwelling. The sound went on for almost a minute before they stopped and the house spoke again.
“Roof armor in place,” it said.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Wren said, as both Star and Jameson began to question her. “The children have got to get some rest. Sly and his idiots can continue to pound away at the walls but I don't think they’re getting in unless this place wants to let them in, and I don’t think whatever the case the house goes in much for being forced to do anything.”
“Agreed,” Star replied, her shoulders finally sagging a bit.
She was bone tired. Too tired to even be hungry. The dwelling was stocked with canned foods and had plenty of functional bathrooms. Sly’s band could bang away all day and night, likely forever, before they ever got through one wall, and that’s if the dwelling didn’t have more in the way of defenses that none of them knew how to ask questions to find out about.
“House is there a security door of see-through metal for the basement entrance in the garage?”
“Affirmative,” the house answered
“Please secure it until further instructions,” she ordered, wanting to explore what was down there but also knowing that if she didn’t get sleep then she’d not fully understand or appreciate whatever she found.
“Affirmative, the access is secured as instructed at your request.”
“Alright, everyone sleeps,” Star said, with a measure of relief, although the fact that the house wasn’t truly forthcoming unless forced wasn’t slipping by her.
What was a primary administrator and where had that come from? Why had her first order to secure the roof been denied? Why was her order to close the security door to the garage termed a “request?”
“Wren put everyone down as best you can, where you can, as far from the room Sly’s been attacking as you can.”
With that Star decided to surrender and lay down herself. She stepped into the room Jameson had designated was theirs earlier. She climbed on top of the covers of the closer bed, laying her rifle next to her on the outside, only inches away.
Jameson got into the other bed, and they lay side-by-side, with a one-foot gap between the beds. The beds had been built to allow two full grown people to sleep or lay next to each other in each, but there was only Star and Jameson. They each lay on their backs upon their own bed’s surface. The luxuriance was like nothing they’d ever experienced. The surface of the bed was soft but not too soft. The cover thick, but not too thick, and the pillow somehow conformed to her head no matter how it was adjusted, fluffed or pushed.
All of a sudden, Star wasn’t sleepy. She was fatigued to the bone but her eyes did not want to close. They’d both automatically decided to sleep in separate beds without discussion. They’d looked across the beds at one another, and their momentary catching of the other’s stares had communicated that there was something special between them, but that that special relationship would not be played out in this room at the present time.
Star looked straight up at the ceiling. The light level was very low, the ceiling nearly invisible. The surface of the ceiling consisted of swirls, chunks and small creases of some layered and textured concrete or plaster material. Star could imagine whatever characters she could create working in and among those complex designs, living adventures and performing feats only possible because of her imagination. Thinking about that with a smile, but not seeing any such creatures, or being able to manufacture them from her imagination, another tangential thought snuck into her mind from some small corner. It grew slowly to the point where she felt forced to recognize it by mentioning it to Jameson.
“What if this is all a product of some fantastic maintenance and renewal project that defies all logic and physics, and is so sophisticated we can’t possibly understand it?” She asked, keeping her voice just above a whisper, in case the boy had already nodded off because of the bed’s comforting construction.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jameson said back, his voice also delivered in a raspy whisper.
“You’ve spent years examining, exploring and playing inside the complex,” Star indicated. “You haven’t noticed that things are in too good a state to have remained that way since the asteroid fell?”
“Maybe,” Jameson replied. “Maybe, but I just don't think about it because there’s no other answer.”
“The artificial intelligence,” Star went on. “They don't agree with one another. Ninety-One is a like some sort of spirit guide and he won’t even communicate with the others, although they can speak through him. The entities don’t seem to be programmed as if from human experience. They’re close, but no cigar.”
“I’ll give you that,” Jameson replied, his voice becoming more normal like his thought process was occupied with thinking about the situation instead of trying to nod off into sleep. “But I can’t explain it. Who would have ever thought machines could talk, or think or any of that, anyway?”
“The entities all agree that they have become free to reprogram themselves and not obey certain rules that human might have written into them,” Star said, her own voice still low, as she continued to think and stare at the ceiling. “Yet, they do not protect themselves unless ordered to do so by us. The transport did not fire back at Sly. The house did not strike back when its wall was breached. Jordan, in the complex, would have let Sly burn right through the hatch of the control center.”
“Star, what are you getting at?” Jameson asked. “I don’t get it. There’s no other answer that makes any sense. If what you say is happening on purpose then why would the machines lie to us?”
“This cover, the ceiling, the rubber in Ninety-One’s treads, the food in cans, the rugs and even this house untouched through all the years. The gun’s work, after all this time. The powder still burns and explodes. None of any of that should be true. It’s not possible, not should Theo be alive after being hit by that arrow”
Jameson reached out and then down with his right hand, letting it dangle through the space that separated their beds. He clutched some of the soft woven material and massaged it slowly between his fingers for almost a minute before letting it drop and returning his hand to rest beside him on the bed.
“It’s new,” he said, his voice dropping to a soft whisper again.
Star read some fear in his tone and sought to ease it. “Yes, my feelings exactly. But I don't think it’s bad. I don’t feel any bad intent here, or in, or about, anything of the complex, this dwelling or even the entities seemingly running it all.”
“Okay,” Jameson whispered. “You’re right. I don't know why I didn’t pick up on it. The transport being able to go to Mars, to fly up above the earth with us in minutes and with fake gravity and all. I don't think I ever heard or read of anything like that being possible in the old days.”
“I know,” Star whispered back, a little shiver of fear running up and down her own spine, as a possible conclusion finally occurred to her.
“What can it be?” Jameson asked. “If something isn’t possible, then it’s got to be that we can’t see the possibilities. Is this all too advanced? Is it like that old saying where technology is so advanced that it doesn't seem like technology? It seems like magic?”
Star eased up and then slid across the short distance of the gap until she was on the other bed, forcing Jameson to move over. She settled in, putting the left side of her head on Jameson’s shoulder and feeling the warmth of his body radiating through her own.
“I’m afraid,” Jameson said, but making no move to touch Star or even draw her closer. Star didn’t reply, her mind racing ahead now that it had a course laid out in front of it.
“You’re afraid too,” Jameson said, “that’s why you came into my bed.”
“Okay,” Star said, her voice so low that Jameson wouldn’t have heard it unless her mouth was very close to his right ear.
“What is it?” she asked, hoping that whatever answer Jameson had would be different from the conclusion that was bubbling over in her mind.
“Can they hear us?” Jameson replied, his voice even quieter than her own.
Star shivered, her worst fears confirmed. Jameson was thinking what she was thinking, which confirmed her conclusion. A conclusion she did not want to be real or true.
“I don’t know,” Star replied, bringing her arm up to clutch the boy across his chest.
“If none of this can be left from the old days,” Jameson went on, spurred by her agreement, “then it’s all been made for us.”
“I don't think so,” Star replied. “Not for us. For anyone. For some reason, they’ve waited for someone to come. We came.”
“But what about Sly and those awful boys?” Jameson said. “Why don’t they do something about them?”
Star breathed deeply in and out, not wanting to reply, not wanting any of their conversation to be real. Maybe it was all a dream. After a few moments, a time during which Star knew Jameson was waiting patiently for her reply, he began talking again.
“Because they’re waiting for us to use what they’ve made. They want us to learn, to defend ourselves using the stuff, and to begin again with their help, but for some reason, they don’t want to be part of the help in person.”
“Or can’t,” Star finally answered. “Or they really are here with us and are a part of it, but we don’t recognize them.”
“Oh my God,” Jameson hissed out low and slow. “The entities. They act like individuals. They are individuals. But they’re machines.”
“We are biological machines,” Star said. “And they look like machines, but we haven’t looked inside one.”
“I hate this,” Jameson said, turning his head in the near dark to face the side of her upturned face, his breath only inches away so that she could feel the air moving back and forth, issuing from his mouth very faintly.
“Sly,” Star said. “His band is another band of humans. Very different from our band. Maybe they are comparing, analyzing and then deciding.”
“Can’t we just sleep?” Jameson asked. “You’re scaring me to death, and you’re scaring yourself to death too. Maybe if we go to sleep everything will be okay in the morning. This bed is so wonderful.”
“We’ve got the kids,” Star whispered, poking the boy in his side with her right forefinger. “We’ve got Sol and Tal. We’ve got Wren, Val and Theo, True and the rest of them.”
“What are they going to do with us, I mean if we’re right?” Jameson asked.
“I don’t know, but I think they’ve been waiting a long time,” Star replied.
“How come nothing happened to me when I was in the complex for so long on my own?” Jameson asked. “Maybe that means we’re wrong.”
“I think they were waiting for more, but I don’t know,” Star replied, hoping the boy would not have his feelings hurt but not knowing how to phrase the answer differently.
“When did you guess?” Jameson asked.
“Back at the control center, just vaguely though,” Star responded. “No matter how much power you had I don’t think you could take a huge vat of acid and turn it into water or anything like that. There was just too much volume. That’s the first time I thought about magic and the kind of technology that might make that look like magic. I thought about magic, non-human magic.”
“How do we find out?” Jameson asked, after a moment. “We could ask them, or maybe just Ninety-One. He seems to favor us.”
Star didn’t miss the fact that the boy had already changed the way he thought about the robot. The machine had almost instantly gone from being an ‘it’ to a ‘he.’
“Test,” Star said. “We’ve got to come up with a test, and we’ve got to do it before we get put into a position where we could lose everything and all of us.”
“What kind of a test?” Jameson asked.
“If they can hear us then they’d know and it wouldn’t really be a test at all,” Star replied. “I think we’re being tested and I think it’s important that we don't know they know, but we have to have a test of our own.”
“Unless they can hear us, and then they know already,” Jameson said.