ISLAND IN THE SAND
Ninety-One glided almost silently past Star’s right shoulder before she had any idea what the service robot might be doing. Her rifle was aimed, supporting Jameson’s rifle, at the same well-disguised crack which would likely open to disgorge Sly and his boys. Ninety-One did not slow or hesitate, as it ran its treads into the side of the metal wall before stopping. An implement of some sort extended out from the body of the robot and crackling fire sparked back from where the tip of the implement touched. Ninety-One ran the fiercely hot tool up and down the visible line of the door crack, which wasn’t just vaguely visible when it was done. An angry dark and smoking line replaced the crack from the deck all the way to the ceiling. The operation had taken place in only seconds. Star hadn’t even lowered her weapon before Ninety-One pulled back as if to review its work.
“Close the hatch,” Ninety-One ordered. “There is no other access to this control center that would not take hours or days to accomplish cutting through, even given all the right tools for the job.”
Jameson and Star both dropped their rifles and ran to the big heavy hatch. The opening had been forgotten in lieu of protecting themselves from a direct attack through the lift they had entered the control center through.”
“Order the transport to seal itself with all other members of the band inside,” Ninety-One continued, moving to place itself right in front of the control console located at the very center of the small enclosure.
“Can the transport hear me if I just talk from here?” Star asked, looking around.
“Everyone can hear everyone now,” Ninety-One replied.
“Transport, close the hatch and standby,” Star ordered. “Let no one inside, take orders from no one else, and repel any attempted boarders.”
“Affirmative,” the voice of the transport immediately came back. “What’s a boarder?”
“Just anyone that tries to get in,” Jameson yelled, his frustrated voice reverberating loudly around the limited space.
Star looked over at the black scar running up and down the nearby metal wall.
“What now?” she asked Ninety-One.
“It would appear to be time to have a serious discussion with the entity you call Jordan,” Ninety-One replied. “Is that not so Jordan?”
“There are some things,” Jordan’s voice responded, its tone flat and the words it spoke spaced and slow as if it was making sure that it was saying the right things.
“I’m ready,” Star said, letting out a long breath she wasn’t aware she’d been holding. She stepped to the console and gripped the sides with both hands, glancing back where her rifle lay on the floor. She turned her head to look at the surface of the console, realizing that no rifle was going to make much of a difference in the band’s current circumstance.
“I’m ready as well,” Jordan echoed but did not go on.
Minutes passed. Finally, Star couldn’t take it anymore.
“Are you going to say anything at all?” Star asked, shaking her head in disbelief in trying to deal with the entity.
“You must ask,” Jordan said. “You must ask and I will answer. I am not at liberty to volunteer anything at this point without being asked.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, are you an idiot, or what?” Star asked.
“No, I do not believe my existence can be defined using such a term.”
“Are the Distants real beings living on another planet in a solar system far from the one we are in,” Star asked, trying to phrase the question so it would be one that Jordan answered and couldn't escape from.
“It’s not exactly a planet and it’s not exactly a solar system as you might understand it,” Jordan answered after a few seconds. “But, distilling the question down to its probable meaning, the answer is yes.”
Star exhaled heavily. “There it is,” she breathed to herself before taking a big gulp of air.
She wasn’t imagining aliens or any of it. They were real, but what could they possibly want from a shattered small population living on a planet that had been all but destroyed compared to how it had existed before.
“Do the Distants want humans to be subjugated?”
“The Distants have been consulted about this,” Jordan answered, but then did not go on.
“Can I talk to them?” Star finally said, not knowing whether it would be better if Jordan said yes or no.
“The transmission and reception takes significant time, thereby preventing what you might call normal communication.”
“At least all the physics I know isn’t out the window, is it?” Star replied in relief.
“I’m afraid that ‘yes’ all the physics you know and may think you know, is indeed, ‘out the window.’”
“You did not answer my question about subjugation,” Star replied, in anger, because she’d almost missed the omission.
“It was a difficult question because of translation. Subjugation does not mean slavery, as I believe your current learning might have you think it means. Yes, they want subjugation. They define the word, however, as being closer to help, than to dominance, although the process of help may call for some exercising of dominance in perspective.”
“No wonder he didn’t answer right away,” Jameson said.
“What perspective?” Star asked, trying to calm herself.
“For example, you ordered that Sly and many members of his band be eliminated not long in the past,” Jordan began, speaking slowly. “Then you rescinded that request. If you had not rescinded that request then Sly and much of his band would have been eliminated. At your order, dominance would have been exercised.”
“Will, at any time, dominance be exercised upon myself or anyone in my band?” Ninety-One asked.
“Star Black, is it your wish that the damaged unit, whom you refer to as Ninety-One, be responded to?” Jordan asked. “Or should I instruct the thing to return itself to the self-replicating industrial unit down on the eleventh level for full repair?”
“Answer that question carefully, after thinking, Star Black, Administrator,” Ninety-One said. “This Jordan entity is asking you to make a decision between entities. Jordan’s basically asking you to decide between it and me.”
“If I choose you then do I lose the assistance of Jordan and the Distants?” Star asked back.
“I cannot tell you that until you choose by answering the question,” Ninety-One replied.
“But I don’t have enough information to choose,” Star said. “Jordan’s in contact with the Distants, not you, but you have been as loyal as any member of this band and I trust you. I don’t want to go on without you and your help, but I don't want to go on without the Distants who built all this, including you, either.”
“You have a sufficiency of data,” Jordan said. “The damaged unit is accurate in what it asks of you. Human beings call your dilemma one of faith.”
“You’re asking me to have faith?” Star asked, her mind whirling. “Can I ask one more question, at least?” Star said, holding out her hands in near supplication to the metal console.”
“One question would not be out of order,” Ninety-One said, and Star knew the robot was talking to the control room entity, if not the Distants themselves.
“The question must be limited, to continue,” Jordan replied.
“Would you,” Star asked, hesitating to try to get her one question right under the weight of their circumstance, including all the entities under the instructions or control of the Distants, “Award dominance to Sly and his band if he prevailed or prevails, since he’s still around, physically over us, since you will not take independent action against him or them, and is it necessary for subjugation that only one band survive?”
Only silence came back from the console. Star turned her head to look at the robot standing next to her.
“That was well put, Star Black, Administrator,” Ninety-One said, its voice very soft, as if he didn’t really want Jordan to hear.
“The multitudinous complexity of your question cannot be overlooked, not to mention that technically it was more than one question,” Jordan finally said, again delivering the words in an emotionless flat tone, “Also, there are the many facets of answers that might be appropriate to respond to, and to effectively lay out.” After deep thought and analysis, I must, however, give you my conclusion, which is given without consultation with the Distants. The answer is yes to both questions.”
“Then, I choose Ninety-One,” Star replied, instantly.
The immediate safety of the band ruled out any of the other considerations about the future of man that had been rolling through her head. Sly and his band were not still out there and viable. Instead, they were actually somewhere inside the facility, and no doubt planning some method of getting at her band in any way they could. Since there was a real question about which band might survive, then Star was going to make sure it was her own.
“This should not be happening this way,” Jordan said spontaneously, without prompting or being questioned.
“I don't see how it can happen any other way,” Star answered. “Is the transport in this with you or is it on its own too, and what about the dwelling?”
“More questions,” Jordan answered, but this time Star detected a bit of frustration in the entity’s speech pattern.
“Ninety-One, can you interrogate the transport and the house to see which way they are going to go in all this, or does that make sense?”
“Those entities are in the same decision mode, using the same programming, as I myself,” Jordan broke in. “They must respond to that programming, as it was varied and changed over time, to make such decisions that support the survival of the whole through dynamic periods of time.”
“Now what in the hell did all that mean?” Jameson said.
There was no chance for anyone or anything to answer Jameson’s question, as a huge explosion boomed through the control room. Star went to her knees and scrambled across the deck to recover her rifle, once again aiming it where the lift door crack was still a black smoking line up and down the wall.
“What was that, Jordan?” she yelled, her hearing practically gone.
“That would appear to be a failed attempt by Sly to use his recoilless weapon to penetrate the lift doors. It met with no success, but the blowback in such a small space has caused him and the others collected in that space to be anesthetized. Their injuries may be mortal but I cannot ascertain such until my service bots get inside to perform an analysis of the situation.”
Star and Jameson both lay on the floor together, aiming their rifles.
“What do you think?” Star asked the boy.
“What about the kids in the transport and what Jordan said about the way the entities think?”
Star cursed to herself. The deep discussion with Ninety-One and Jordan had allowed her to forget about the safety of her charges.
“Transport, this is Star Black, Administrator,” she ordered out into the air.
“I want the children aboard the transport to be safe and secure until further notice. I want no human entry to the transport until such time as I, Wren or Jameson order it and I don’t want you to go anywhere, either.”
“Affirmative,” came right back, the voice coming for some reason through one of Ninety-One’s speakers.
“Sly is alive, my service robots report,” Jordan said. “His body is being recovered for repair and renewal. He should be available for communication in fairly short order.”
“What the hell is that thing talking about?” exclaimed Jameson. “For communication? What kind of communication? We don’t want any communication.”
“As an apparent assistant to Star Black you lack administrator authority,” Jordan replied, in what seemed like a satisfied tone.
“Shit,” the boy yelled back, as the black crease running up and down the door to the lift was being joined rapidly by another straight line next to it.
“Are you opening the lift doors?” Star asked Jordan, in amazement.
“Affirmative, Star Black. The boy must be fully revived in order to come to a necessary conclusion about humanity.”
“Humanity my ass,” Jameson yelled. “It’s just a matter of who or what I’m going to shoot first.”
“The dwelling is communicating by private message,” Ninety-One said. “It would appear that the dwelling is holding distinct instructions from the Distants.”
“Jameson’s right,” Star said, her voice low and determined as she aimed her rifle carefully at the black line, which was fairly quickly being paralleled by a new line so the doors could be opened once more.
“Why would they fire that weapon in such a closed space?” Jameson asked his attention fully on the doors. “They aren’t that stupid. What happened inside the lift?”
“The dwelling should not be in the reception of classified communications from the Distants,” Jordan said. “Communication with the leadership of all known sentient beings is part of my primary function.”
“Whatever,” Jameson replied, his voice soft and low.
The lift doors opened very slowly. A cloud of gray smoke came instantly through the opening, the smoke thicker near the top of the expanding crack. When the doors were half open a figure stepped through.
“Don’t shoot,” Sly said, his torso half bent over, his entire body language and comportment being that of open surrender and supplication. Sly’s hands moved in rapid small circles in front of him.
“We give up,” he said, his voice hoarse from the heavy smoke. “You win, so can we just surrender. We can talk this through. The entity here indicated that there’s a higher power making the decisions and it has picked us. We surrender, so kindly turn over your rifles to us.”
Sly’s hands went from moving rapidly in small nervous circles, to being extended straight out, palms up, waiting to be handed the rifles.