ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star stared at the three-dimensional image appearing atop the console and could not believe her eyes. All thoughts of aliens, Distants, artificial intelligence, and even the complex disappeared from her mind. She concentrated on the shifting images, which were so clear in the presentation that they seemed real themselves. She looked into Sly’s eyes as he continued to stare into her own, somehow able to know and concentrate on whatever was receiving and transmitting his image.
“Is he that dumb?” she whispered to Jameson, who was also giving the images in front of him his full attention.
“It’s not about that,” Jameson replied.
“What’s it about?” Star asked, but knowing in the back of her mind what it was really about.
“He’s not going to fire that thing against that metal again, not after what happened last time.”
“Yeah,” I know,” Star said, her tone one of utter resignation and anger. “He’s threatening, and waiting to see what we’re going to give him, or allow or whatever.”
“What are we going to do?” Jameson said, gesturing with one hand toward the display while holding his rifle with the other.
Star realized how much she appreciated the ‘we’ Jameson had used. She wasn’t alone anymore, or simply a caregiver for the children. She had Jameson, Wren, and True to assist her. And now she had to try to think clearly about what had to be done next.
“Jordan, what can the weapon achieve against the hull of the transport,” Star asked.
“The transport outer hull is, for all intents and purposes, invulnerable against physical assaults of all kinds,” Jordan replied. “It is constructed of an ever-changing metal material of an origin unknown to you and does not react ‘normally’ to external conditions that are ‘normal’ to this part of your universe.”
“What about those inside?” Jameson asked.
“Come on,” Star got out, ripping herself away from the display and heading for the down hatch. “There’s no telling what might happen to the kids inside that tin can or in some other part of that thing if it is damaged. Let’s take care of this problem once and for all.”
Star and Jameson both placed their rifles on the deck and went to work on the hatch. When it was open they picked up the rifles and raced through with Ninety-One right behind them.
Star was going to yell at Sly and the boys to stop what they were doing or get shot right then and there, but she didn’t get a chance. The robot moved faster than any of them had ever seen. It ran right at Sly, who was surrounded by a pack of the other. He only escaped by dropping to the deck and slipping under the transport. Some of the other boys were not so lucky. Ninety-One, without orders to attack, attacked. His treads ran right over four of the boys and the main part of his tubular metal body struck several more. He reversed for a few feet and then ran the boys over again until there was no movement. Only a few of the boys were able to run to the back of the transport and then disappear. Sly was nowhere to be seen. The transport hovered over the deck without any means of support visible.
“Demos, drop to the deck immediately,” Star ordered.
The transport fell, striking the deck with a huge ominous thud.
Star tried to look under it but there was no space at all between the large heavy vehicle and the surface. Star wondered if Sly had been crushed to death, but didn’t really care. His threat against the children had been flagrant and obvious. Half the recoilless rifle stuck out from under the transport, but the half underneath was crushed flat. Star knew that weapon would never be a factor in any confrontation by anyone in the future, and if Sly was under the vehicle then he would never be either.
“What about the kids?” Jameson asked, moving to the rear of the transport to try to see where the surviving boys had run off to.
“Inside is safest,” Star replied. “I don’t think Sly could really have done a damn thing but who knows. We’ve been lied to so many times by these entities.
Star stopped, to look over at Ninety-One. The robot sat unmoving after its attack, its treads unevenly still rolled over the bodies of three of the unluckier of the boys.
“Except for Ninety-One,” she said, more to the robot than Jameson. “He’s never lied.
“The transport remains invulnerable to human penetration,” Jordan said, out of nowhere, his voice coming from Ninety-One’s alternate invisible speaker.
“They were not concerned about invulnerability, but damage to the passengers inside,” Ninety-One replied. “And the passengers should be checked as the drop of the transport was unusually harsh.”
“There are only minor injuries reported by the passengers,” Jordan responded.
“Invulnerable,” repeated Ninety-One, in a tone that Star thought was laden with sarcasm.
“Where are the other boys and what’s the condition of any visible armament?” Star asked.
“They’ve run all the way back to the base of the ladder in the corner,” Jameson replied, but it’s too far to see any weapons. But straggling behind is guess who.”
“He’s still alive,” Star said, disappointment in her voice.
“Yes, and he’s going to regroup, no doubt,” Jameson replied.
“Open the transport hatch, Demos,” Star ordered.
The door did its distinctive but silent twisting and turning exercise. The hatch flipped over and became the platform for anyone coming down the small set of stairs extended to its center.
The children, let by True, came filing out. Nobody seemed injured, although Star noted that both Tal and Sol were rubbing different parts of their bodies.
Star checked each and every one personally before ordering all of them back inside under Wren’s leadership. She did not check the bodies of Sly’s band members laying under the unmoving treads of the robot.
“What do we do with those,” Jameson said, pointing at the bodies.
“Ninety-One?” Star asked, motioning toward True to not enter the transport.
True ran back toward her as she instructed the transport to seal itself back up and to rise to its former level. Demos took several seconds to close up and then rise silently into the air. Star watched, transfixed. Whatever held the heavy machine in the air unmoving was a clear demonstration of technology not likely to ever have belonged to the humans who’d gone before the asteroid strike.
Ninety-One used its very accurately operated pinchers, to move the bodies and then individually hauled each to the moat and dumped them in.
“Hydrochloric acid,” the robot said to the open air, although Star and Jameson both knew it was speaking to Jordan.
The moat began to roil and wash itself out as the water rapidly retreated and the acid replaced it.
“No water for a bit, I guess,” Jameson said.
“All right, Jordan, I’m coming back inside and we have to talk,” Star said, speaking toward Ninety-One. This cannot go on further.
“Understood,” Jordan said.
“Jordan does not understand,” Ninety-One stated, immediately.
“You are damaged and must stop reporting your opinion about anything,” Jordan replied.
“Enough,” Star yelled.
“True, you remain outside the hatch with my rifle and your eyes on Sly and what’s left of his band. Shoot if they approach and also let us know.”
Star moved toward the hatch, with Jameson at her side and Ninety-One following. She knew they could probably see Sly and the boys better with the console display and Jordan’s help, but she didn’t want True trapped inside with the kids any more than she wanted him inside the control complex. Even giving him a rifle was a gamble, but one she felt was calculable.
Star stood once more before the console, after the hatch was secured. The look of forlorn loneliness on True’s face did not escape her, and she felt terrible about not being able to trust the boy. However, her real concern was the safety of the kids and that meant she could not risk anything, even if True had to accommodate the fact that he was not trusted, at least not yet. His conduct had justified the treatment, although nothing he’d done had jeopardized anyone’s safety in the band. But it had been close. Too close to risk again, until things settled down.
“I want your full attention about your intentions, Jordan,” Star commanded, standing at attention before the console and waiting.
After a moment Jordan spoke. Star now knew that such delays were only there for one reason. The entity was communing with the Distants and finding out what to say or do. After almost a full minute Ninety-One finally spoke.
“The Distants have made a major decision in shifting the dynamics of how they intend to deal with this planet, the fauna and flora that inhabit and contain it, and also how they intend to effect the human condition.”
Star wondered why this message was coming through Ninety-One instead of Jordan. The ways of the artificial intelligences, and how they’d been set up by the Distants, presuming that that really was the case, was beyond comprehension. There was some thread of logic, and it often seemed right at the edge of her mind until one of the entities did something weird again that simply did not fit.
“Dynamics means changes,” Star reflected, her voice so low that Ninety-One didn’t pick up on it to question or clarify. “The part you said about effecting the human condition means a lot to me, but I don’t understand. What in the hell is that sentence supposed to mean. If they’re going to screw with humans, using their subjugation as a foundation, then there’s going to be hell to pay. We’re going to resist to the last man, woman and child.”
“That was my interpretation of what they tried to transmit,” Ninety-One replied. "You would have to feel the answer yourself in order to understand fully.”
“Feel, my aunt fanny,” Star said, her voce growing colder each time she spoke.
“I want to ‘feel’ the answer myself, not have it interpreted by you,” she went on. “How can that be arranged?”
“I am trying to tell you, and you may not want to get involved with feeling them at all,” Ninety-One replied with a steady solid tone in opposition to Star’s high emotion.
“Maybe I’ll just tell them to stick it,” Star said.
“No, that would not be wise,” Ninety-One came right back. “If the Distants became displeased they would simply change your vibrations to make you something less displeasing.”
“Oh, they’d change me,” Star laughed bitterly, “into what? A less doubtful, angry and spiteful person?”
“No, nothing like that,” Ninety-One replied. “They’d probably change you into something more inert, like maybe a rock.”
Star turned to stare at the machine.
“Robots don’t make jokes, do they?” she asked, the high emotion gone from her voice.
“Repeating what you might consider a joke is certainly possible,” Ninety-One said.
“What do they want of me,” Star asked, her whole body feeling like it was deflating.
“They want you to represent the human race and be engaged with them for the intent of that race surviving.”
“Me?” Star asked, in shock. “Me? Represent what’s left of the entire species?”
“I believe that’s a very solid interpretation of their feelings.
Star rocked back on her heels. She knew the robot was being deadly serious in relaying what was believed to be the message, but could it possibly be accurate.
The Distants had no reason to either trust her or calculate that she might have the kind of judgment it might take to make decisions for the entire species.
“What of Sly and his band?” Star asked, suddenly.
“What do you mean? I am only a service robot,” Ninety-One replied. I have little life experience in anything out side of what’s occurred inside this complex and at the dwelling. I can’t properly advise you on what is to be done.”
“Well, what can be done, then?” Star said. “What are my options, my alternatives. And how am I supposed to meet these Distants to figure it all out?”
“It would appear that you may do what it is you wish with Sly and the other boys, and that includes the rest of the human beings on this planet. What is it that you want to do with them? Do you want Sly and his band extinguished?
“You, and the other artificial entities keep using these strange terms. Extinguish. You mean dead, don’t you?”
“Technically, they might be returned to the ether from which they arose, their essence to be redistributed for any needs that the multiverse might have for them,” Ninety-One responded, after a moment.
“Dead,” Star repeated.
“I have stated my understanding,” Ninety-One replied, its tone lacking any emotion whatsoever.
“Your delays are because you are communicating with some other beings or entities, are they not?” Star asked.
“That would be an accurate statement, and in most circumstances true,” Ninety-One stated.
“So, you are feeling and being felt by the Distants?” Star continued.
“Also, accurate,” the robot said.
“I want to feel the Distants and have them feel me,” she followed.
“The Distants can neither feel nor be felt by humans,” Ninety-One replied.
“This is one of the wonders of your universe. The Distants have never encountered this before, therefore establishing what you refer to (in your existence) as power. That is why the others struck deep into the crust of your planet. It is presumed that they did so to prevent the Distants from resolving or understanding this problem.
“You are not permitted to reveal such intimate data,” Ninety-One and you are commanded to silence,” Jordan exclaimed.
“In that case,” Star said, ignoring the threat to Ninety-One. I want Sly and his remaining band members isolated and put into some sort of stasis where they will be unable to move or interfere with anything we might do.”
“I will see to it,” Jordan responded, surprising Star. “How many earth years do you want this stasis to last?”
“Years?” Star replied, surprised again. “How about a month?”
“I will see to it immediately,” Jordan replied.
“And I want to see and attempt to ‘feel’ the Distants myself, with Jameson along for the interview,” Star commanded.
“Depart the complex and enter the transport with your followers,” Jordan replied. You can also take the damaged device.”
“What are we going to do in there?” Star asked, a bit baffled.
“You will meet the Distants on Demos,” Jordan responded, Star detecting a tone of slight disappointment in his tone. “The transport will take you there. Your position as commander of all human relationship and activities is secure.”
Jameson went to work on reopening the hatch once more. When he was done, he moved back toward Star. Star felt more than heard Jameson approach to stand beside her. The outside of his right hand brushed against the outside of her left. Without thought, her hand automatically, seeming to have a life of its own, slipped into Jameson’s. She didn’t realize they were holding hands until they were. Star felt Jameson’s eyes staring at the left side of her face, but didn’t turn. She’d already realized something just before she’d slid into a fitful sleep state last night. There was no one else in her life. The planet only had a disappointing nine million humans left on it. On top of that, Jameson had never done anything but support her efforts, protect her and adopt the children as his own. Was she in love with him? The draw she felt was not nearly as consuming as the isolation she felt when he was not nearby or in danger. Slowly, ever so slowly, a smile began to appear across her face and her eyes lit up. Her hand clutched the boy’s more tightly. Life was all suddenly a bright and sparkly place. Knowing she had to respond to the current situation, Star, reoriented her mind back to figuring out what must be done for their survival, although she didn’t let go of Jameson’s hand.
“But what if I don’t want to be the commander of anything other than my band?” Star asked, feeling like she might have pushed the artificial entity and the Distants too far too fast.
“You have cast your fate upon the seas over which you have little or no control, Commander Star Black,” Jordan said, his tone having moved from disappointment to ominous. “You must now sail your small ship on those waters, trusting only whom you choose, but knowing you brought the voyage fully upon yourself.”
THE END OF BOOK ONE
ISLAND IN THE SAND