ISLAND IN THE SAND
The hatch to the tunnel closed slowly behind them. Star and Jameson stood side by side, rifles held out and down in front of their chests, ready to be brought into firing position if any threat appeared in front of them. But nothing appeared in front of them. The heavy see-through door at their backs, that didn’t look heavy at all, chinked shut with a slightly hollow and deep finality. Star glanced over her shoulder. There was no spinner mounted on the inside of the door. How could it be opened from inside the tunnel? But that was a possible worry for later, she realized, as she snapped her attention back to staring into the hypnotic round perfection of the slightly bending tunnel which seemed to disappear out into a distant dot of infinity.
She let her eyes stray around her. The tunnel surface wasn’t flat. The entire tube was rounded, with no hint of how supplies could be hauled, one way or the other. There were no tracks or overhead trolley slots. There were no lights. The only light bled out of the walls themselves. The light was faint and white, and the tunnel was moving. Star realized that while both she and Jameson had remained rooted to their spots, the tunnel had started moving.
How could the tube, penetrating the ground and strata deep down under the forest, be moving? But it was. Somehow it was moving away from them, but without moving at all. But no, she realized suddenly that she and Jameson were moving, not the tunnel at all. Star looked back over her shoulder again. The inside of the hatch was a good twenty meters behind them and neither she nor Jameson had seemingly moved one inch.
“We’re moving, aren’t we,” Jameson said, his voice softer than Star had ever heard it. “Should we sit or lay down?”
“I don’t think we have to do anything,” Star replied, understanding the boy’s fear and trepidation. When the ground moved it was because of an earthquake, and all humanity lived in fear of earthquakes and the tsunamis that followed. But this was different.
“How does it know?” Jameson asked, squatting down, although it wasn’t difficult to stay upright as their movement through the tunnel was imperceptibly smooth.
“Know what?” Star replied, not understanding what he was asking.
“How does it know what direction we want to go?”
Star was taken aback. She hadn’t thought about the question until he’d asked. Thinking about it, however, didn’t help. There was no answer she could come up with. Possibly, the house or Jordan was controlling the movement, or maybe the tube had some sort of sentient intelligence that hadn’t made its presence known.
“And this place, this tunnel, could hold all of us,” Jameson went on, looking all about the tunnel, although there was nothing but the soft white light coming through the smooth, but totally non-descript, walls to look at. “I’ll bet no weapon of Sly’s could penetrate these walls.”
“Good point,” Star replied, beginning to realize that no weapon of any sort could likely penetrate anything created and maintained by the aliens. Not without their expressed intent, anyway, if there really were such off-world creatures to consider. So far, her conclusions about that were based on not very well- founded logic, and talk. How was it possible that anything could cross such vast distances between the stars? Much had been forgotten by the survivors of the human race, but there was no question about the many light years that separated the earth from any other star system where a planet might be likely to be habitable.
Star and Jameson moved slowly toward the main complex, or so they hoped. There was no way to determine direction once they were being moved along through the tube. The slight twists and turns of the conveyance, visible only by looking toward the dot that seemed, but was not, to approach the end of the tunnel.
“I feel like we’re being swallowed by some monstrous snake,” Jameson said, from his squatting position. “How can the walls move, but they’re not really. Nothing’s moving except us, and we don’t seem to be moving at all. None of this is possible.”
Star felt the boy’s deep-rooted fear of the unknown. Her own feelings held some fear, but mostly she felt like she was entering into an arena where she knew almost nothing, and yet was going to have to make decisions for more than just her band, based upon almost nothing at all.
“I’m not afraid of failing,” she blurted down to the boy. “I’m afraid of not even knowing whether I’ve failed or not.”
“What do you mean?” Jameson replied, surprise in his tone.
“I don’t think the trip we’re making has much to do with Sly and his band, or what they are doing,” Star said. “I think we’re being called to some sort of negotiation like they've made up their mind about us, or something, and now we have to talk to them about the future.”
“But only Ninety-One, the one identifiably damaged service robot of them all, has helped us in much of anyway,” Jameson replied.
“Not true,” Star shot back, “define the word help. And I think Ninety-One’s job was to somehow help us to get us ready for this.”
“But what’s this?” Jameson asked, coming shakily to his feet.
“I don’t know,” Star replied, thinking as deeply as she could about the possible results that could be assembled to form an answer to Jameson’s question.
Their progress began to slow. Star wondered about the time. They had seemed to be moving at a slow sedate speed, but the trip should have gone on a lot longer if that was the case unless they weren’t arriving at the complex itself.
“Get ready,” she said to Jameson. “This may be a stop along the way, and that might not be good.”
Star and Jameson stood together, but nothing happened for several minutes.
“What the hell?” Jameson said, looking up and down the seemingly endless tube, but there was nothing special about anything.
“Star Black, administrator,” Jordan said, his voice coming from all over.
“You have chosen to re-enter the complex using a lower level freight movement passage and device,” the entity said.
“Yes, that is true,” Star said back. “I was unaware that you had voice communication capability with us in here.”
“I have re-worked communications substantially since our last meeting,” Jordan replied. “You may speak to the transport, or through it to your band, just as you now can with the dwelling at the cliff.”
“Everyone’s inside the transport except for us, and it’s inside the house, but we can talk to them? Star asked.
“The transport is on the way to the complex, which I believed would be your wish since the dwelling will be liquidating the remaining humans in that other band.”
“You believed would be my wish,” Star got out before anger almost overcame her ability to talk at all.
Once again, she fought for and got control of herself. There were bigger issues before them than an artificial intelligence changing orders or making them up out of its own stated, but not necessarily real, belief system.
“What about this liquidation thing. What does that mean?”
“According to your orders, the dwelling is preparing to anesthetize the other humans and then terminate their physical existence on this planet.”
“Stop, right there,” Star hissed out. “There will be no termination. There are few enough humans left on this planet after what your enemies pulled off with the asteroid. I don’t want them killed.”
“I will make your wishes immediately known,” Jordan replied, quickly.
“I don't wish it,” Star said, her voice as hard as she could make it. “I am ordering it. “I want them released if they’re being held. I don’t want them hurt. Let them go on their way. And, from now on, I want the truth from you and not your opinions, or beliefs, unless I ask for them.”
“If the boys are awakened and released then they may still pose a risk for your band, as there is no effective way to control their movements that I am allowed to apply.
Star didn’t snap back at Jordan. Once again, she was surprised. The entity had just informed her, in its way, that it was only ‘allowed’ to do certain things.
“The truth. I need the truth from you from now on,” she ordered, ignoring Jordan’s telling admission.
“The boys are awakened and released, as ordered, but there is no truth. There is only the inference of truth, the observed opinion of truth and finally, the results of truth to be arrived at after an event of fact.”
Jordan’s words shook Star to the core. It was one thing to think that the artificial intelligence or alien might be lying. It was another to have the entity state that there was no such thing as truth, that everything was made up of lies, which meant that no truth was going to be offered or presented at all. What could be done with beings of near-supreme power that did not deal with truth or defined facts?
“We’re stuck in the middle of this tube or tunnel,” Star finally answered, concluding that there was no point in discussing truth or fact with such an entity. “How do we get out? Where is the command center?”
Suddenly, Star and Jameson were moving again. The jolt forward almost threw both of them to the floor, or whatever moved under them.
Star stared at the tube in front of them, but the end wasn’t a distant disappearing point anymore. A hatch with a spinner on it, like had been on the outside of the one they’d come through, appeared, and got larger with great speed.
Star braced herself for a collision, while Jameson pressed himself into the floor.
They stopped moving.
Star stood before the heavy translucent metal door. The arrangement on the door was the same as before. She ran the fingers of her right hand over the small box under part of the ring. The box sprang open.
“The same code as before?” she asked, now understanding that the complex and the house were in full contact, and likely sharing all information.
“The code isn’t real,” Jordan replied. “It’s made up just for you in your current existence and location.”
“Whom would have thought,” Star murmured, pushing the number four on the pad three times, and then spinning the big wheel counterclockwise until the big hatch clicked loudly and sprang open a few millimeters. Star pulled gently on the spinner and eased the big hatch slowly open, wondering where it had come from so quickly and how the tunnel or tube really worked. In looking around, she realized for the first time that there was nothing at all about it that seemed in any way intended to give the appearance of it having been created by the humans who’d preceded her before the asteroid struck. Hope and disappointment came over her at the same instant. Hope that there might be a future, other than hardscrabble survival for the remainder of the human race, and disappointment that her feelings and analysis might well be correct in concluding that alien forces were at work that could not be predicted or depended upon, or even truly understood.
The hatch opened onto the surface of a lift that brought both of them back to the more humanly constructed world they’d encountered before riding through the tunnel.
The lift moved on its own once they were inside, the double doors closing with a faint hiss and the floor dropping effortlessly away, but only for a few seconds. They stopped, smoothly, but still with knee-bending force. The doors opened and the control room appeared before them, like before, like they’d never left it.
“Let’s do whatever it is we’re supposed to do,” Star whispered over to Jameson, letting go of the hand grip of her rifle with her left hand. She reached over and firmly squeezed the boy’s right forearm with her fingers. “You ready for this?”
“I don't know, only you and this creature Jordan seem to have any idea what ‘this’ might be.”
Star turned her head to look at Jameson. He didn’t meet her gaze, but a smile formed that ran from one side of his face to the other. She slowly let the pressure drop in her fingers, before grasping the stock of her rifle once again.
“Don’t get any ideas,” she said, staring straight ahead into the control room, as did Jameson.
“You need me,” Jameson replied, “that’s all I need to know. And my ideas are so many I don’t think I could even list them all.”
They stepped out of the lift at the same time.
Star moved straight to the rounded glass window that allowed her to look out across the moat to the entire expanse of the energy compound they’d climbed down into, seemingly so long ago. The transport sat alone on the hard surface of the complex floor like it was a large bird of prey, or some monster insect waiting patiently to be approached.
Star turned to face the back of the console. Although the lift doors that hadn’t been visible as lift doors earlier, were closed, Jameson stood angled toward them, prepared to aim his rifle or take aggressive action in case they re-opened without warning.
“We are here, all of us, which obviously was your intent,” Star said to the entity.
“Thank you,” Jordan replied.
Well?” Star said, after waiting through nearly a full minute of silence.
“Possibly, a dialogue at this time is premature,” Jordan said, making it sound like he was going to continue, but Star cut him off.
“I want Ninety-One in here for any dialogue with you, or your people, or whomever. So far, he’s the only one of you I trust at all.”
“I understand, but there will be a slight delay in bringing all entities together, which you did appear to give your approval to just a few minutes ago. While we wait you may summon anyone from the transport you feel might make you more comfortable. Ninety-One is independent of my control, except for communications, but it must be understood that something happened that caused the robot to go rogue.”
“It’s my understanding that your people came to subjugate this planet, but in the process, were all but destroyed, along with most of humanity and other animal and plant life on earth. I’m not sure why we’re waiting, or whom we are waiting for, or what is to be accomplished because subjugation isn’t going to be on this agenda.”
“That was unfortunate,” Jordan stated, “but no fault can be assigned to the "Distants"', as no state of war with any other culture or species was ever declared or even suspected. The word subjugation, when used unintentionally with other lesser species, is not intended to mean enslavement or anything like that. Part of the problem with Ninety-One’s damage is its misunderstanding and misuse of words and meanings, such as those that might be assigned to such.”
“Double talk, and who in hell are the “Distants"?” Jameson blurted out, speaking for the first time since they’d arrived in the control center.
“Those who reside in the distance,” Jordan replied, his tone reduced to a level where it seemed like he was speaking to someone of low intellect.
“The aliens,” Star said, speaking the word aloud for the first time.
Star turned to watch the hatch of the transport open. Wren, preceded by Ninety-One, came out and slowly moved toward the moat.
“Make sure the moat’s filled with something harmless,” Star stated, happy that Wren and Ninety-One were coming to support her. At the very least, it appeared that the safety of the band was not compromised in any way.
“Purified water is the liquid circulating in the moat, as you call it.”
“Who are we waiting for?” Jameson asked, bringing a questioning frown to Star’s forehead.
“If not the Distants, then who?” She repeated, wondering why she hadn’t asked the question.
“Why, the other humans, of course,” Jordan replied. “They’re coming through the tube this very minute so everything can be discussed and any problems resolved. It was at your command that the inferred decision was made since you ordered that they not be rendered.”
Star reacted, not even hear the last of what Jordan said. She raced around the console to the control room hatch and began to undo the dogs and to twist the big door open.
“Guard the damned lift doors, or whatever the hell they are,” she shouted at Jameson, finally able to complete the swinging of the hatch out and fully open. She saw Ninety-One and Wren coming toward the ramp, before turning and bringing up her rifle up to join Jameson in pointing it at the lift doors.
“We’ve got trouble coming,” she said over her shoulder, hearing the faint thrum of Ninety-One’s treads moving across the floor, “and it’s coming armed and fast.”