ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star’s eyes popped open and with a start, she sat up. Something had awakened her, but nothing she could identify by glancing in every direction around her. The band had hiked deep into the dark tunnel to avoid the bright light shining down into the energy chamber. Her watch told her it was barely five in the morning. She shook it to make sure the mechanical movement was wound sufficiently to allow the thing to work. Watches were plentiful, but only mechanical movements had survived into modern times. She awakened Jameson.
“Get everyone up and ready to go,” Star instructed. “We can’t proceed into the dead darkness ahead, but if we turn the tunnel lights on from this end then those long lights will reveal what tunnel we’re in back at the train station. That gang of cutthroats has to be headed there. We’re going back to examine the sphere. Maybe there’s some help there if we look close enough.”
Star carefully measured out a half portion of canned fruit to each member of the band, giving a full can to Jameson, because of his size.
“Where did you find this?” True asked. “It’s wonderful, and I’ve never heard of a pear before,” He finished his half can in seconds, sticking his fingers into it to get what leftover syrup he could find.
They hiked back to the sphere, making sure to check out the bottom of the ladder in case any of the other boys had tried a descent.
“They couldn’t have just tossed you down and expected you to grab a passing rung,” Star said, her tone low. She’d been thinking about the problem of True’s arrival since he’d come down the rungs. “That story won’t fly, True. What did they use for a rope, to get past the missing rungs?”
“Strips of shirts torn from the clothes in our packs,” True replied, ruefully. “They didn’t think the rag rope would hold, which is why they lowered me down. I’m the smallest. It was less likely I’d break the rope, and if I did no one would care very much.”
“I thought you weren’t going to lie to us anymore,” Star said, her voice hard.
“I forgot,” True answered, so low it was almost impossible to hear him.
The three confronted the sphere upon reaching it. The ‘moat’ around its base wasn’t really a moat at all. It was more of deep depression encircling it, with a shallow bit of water pooled at the bottom of its curve.
“I want everyone to look and feel all around, like we did when we found the food,” Star ordered.
“Every nook and cranny should be examined. Use your hands, your noses and anything else you can come up with. I don’t care how minor something might seem, I want to see it.”
Star slid down into the depression and then approached the sphere body itself. The thing was immense, probably rising up three hundred feet into the chamber, she guessed. She felt the coldness of it. Metal. Unidentifiable metal. There were no cracks, no bulges. There was nothing but smooth curving metal. She sighed. They could not go forward without great risk, and they couldn’t go back at all. The sphere was a mystery, quite possibly the last mystery any of them would encounter.
Tal and Sol appeared at Star’s side.
“Here,” Tal said, holding out a very small pick-like piece of white metal to Star.
“What is it?” Star whispered, quizzically, taking the small instrument in her hand. The forearm shape was formed in one piece, like a thick needle but with a flat cap on one end.
“We don’t know,” Sol replied. “You said you wanted to see anything at all. We found this on the floor right by the depression, but not in it. There are lots of little holes in the floor. This was stuck into one of them.”
“Holes. What holes?” Star asked. “I didn’t see any holes. Show me,” she said, moving up out of the curved depression.
The little ones led her to the lip of the moat on the outer rim. Star got on hands and knees to examine a row of small holes running one after another for about a yard in length. She counted twenty-one of them. “Which one was this in?” she asked, holding out the thick needle of metal.
“It was in the first hole there, where your finger is,” Tal responded. “Do you want us to keep looking?”
“No, go get True, Jameson and Wren. I need them right here right now.”
Star held the needle over the second hole but decided to wait until the others were there.
“What’ve you found?” Jameson asked her, trotting up before kneeling by her side.
Star ran her right index finger along the row of twenty-one holes. “This was in the first one, inserted. Tal and Sol found it. What do you think?”
“What do we have to lose? We can’t go back up the ladder. We can’t go through the tunnel in the dark. Stick the thing into the other holes and see what happens,” Jameson said.
Wren kneeled down by Star’s other side.
“Let me?” she asked, gently taking the needle from Star’s hand.
Wren inserted the needle into the second hole and they waited. Nothing happened. After a few moments, she removed the tool and moved on to the next small hole. They waited again. Tal and Sol watched, while the other children gathered around them, sensing that something important might be happening.
Wren pulled the needle from the ninth hole and inserted it into the tenth. Everything changed. The sphere came alive in sound. A low keening howl came from the huge device. Wren moved to pull the needle from the tenth hole, but Star’s hand pressed down on her own.
“No. We find out. Right now. Whatever this is, we need to know, and we have nowhere else to turn.”
Where no crack appeared and where no evidence of any opening was hinted at, a small part of the sphere, just inside the moat, opened like a quartered chunk of cheese. Water cascaded from unseen jets and openings to quickly shower the opening and fill the depression. Star’s band moved back away from the display as one.
“Water. We have lots of water,” Jameson yelled, bending down to try some with a cupped hand. “It’s great,” he announced, drinking down handful after handful.
“We’re going over,” Star stated, flatly. “Jameson, True and me. Wren, you watch the kids. Stay alert. I’ve given you my gun. Whatever happens, you protect the kids.”
Star took her revolver out and handed it to Wren.
“It’s not hard to shoot,” Jameson said, standing next to Wren. “You just point it and squeeze that thing there that’s called a trigger. You’ve got nine shots, but it’s not very powerful so you have to be close.”
Star waded into the moat and moved into the mildly swirling water. It was cool on her body and so seemingly clean. She moved through it, as the depth was never more than chest deep. Jameson and True followed her. They came to sit together in front of the small opening leading into the interior of the sphere, their clothing totally soaked but none of them complaining.
“We’ve got to go in,” Star said. “At least I do. I can’t make you go with me. Just wait here to see what happens. The opening may close, and I’ll never get out.”
“I’m going in, too,” Jameson said, rising to his feet.
“I’m with you,” True joined in. If I go in, do I still have to eat last?”
“We’re going inside this device,” Star stated, “probably about to die, and you want to discuss your eating rotation?”
Star shook her head in frustration. She waited a few seconds, but the Outlander boy did not reply.
“All right. You can eat with everyone else if you survive this. If we survive this.”
Star turned back to Wren. “You’ve got to care for the little ones until we return,” she said, gently.
The two looked at one another with meaning, but the question of whether Star and the others would ever return was not raised by either.
Wet, but feeling cool and clean, the three walked through the opening. It closed after them. Star jerked around and felt for anything that might re-open the mechanism, but there was nothing but a seamless wall where her fingers ran.
“Jesus,” she intoned, taking note of the steady, low and gloomy light.
The three of them, Star, Jameson and True, stared up and around. There was almost nothing above them or on the curved walls. A small console in front of them was mounted in front of another sphere. The sphere was tiny compared to the one they’d entered, but it was made of some substance that made it appear to be gold, the most precious substance known to any of them. Star moved to the console. Surface buttons with strange symbols and images covered the top of the single small panel. Some buttons had words printed on them.
“Fusion Reactor,” blinked in red from one of the internally lit switches.
“What’s fusion?” Star asked.
“Like nuclear but more powerful, I think,” Jameson answered.
Star pushed the only blinking and blank red button on the panel.
A great deep voice spoke, seeming to come from everywhere around them. “A fusion core decision must be made. Without proceeding to add pellets to the chain, this power source will shut down in four days, seven hours, six minutes and forty-two seconds.”
A second blank button began blinking, alternately yellow and then red.
“This is beginning to scare me, Jameson,” Star breathed out. “What do we do?”
“Push that button too,” True answered. “What have we got to lose?”
“Power will seamlessly transition and remain,” the deep machine voice intoned. The yellow and red buttoned turned to green. “Instructions?” the voice asked.
“Say lighting,” Jameson whispered into Star’s ear. Star repeated the word to the console.
“Talk back to it?” Star asked, her tone taking on a hint of wonder. “Lighting,” she finally said, tilting her head back, as if the voice was coming from someplace in the ceiling.
“The facility is controlled as follows. Please touch the screen to control any aspect of the lighting plan.”
“Screen,” Star said, but in a whisper to Jameson and True. “What’s a screen?”
“There, the glass in the center, I think,” True pointed at the middle of the console.
Star pushed the button and the console changed. An active image appeared over the top of it, looking like a window with diagrams printed on it, except Star could see through them.
Star stood frozen. The display in front of her so foreign that she wanted to get away from it, and recoil into some kind of recovery state. It was like the machine was a live entity. These machines were like the dead trains in the center of the facility. They did not talk, and they didn’t look like what she had seen on the screen. Ever.
“What do we do?” Star asked Jameson, without any idea of what she was dealing with. But it was the machine that answered.
“You are communicating with the control center of the fusion facility, which is currently operating at two-point-one percent capability on standby. It has been one hundred and forty-seven years, three months, seven days and two hours since the previous contact. What do you instruct?”
Star, True and Jameson stood together, neither of them having anything to say for over a minute.
“Talk to it,” Jameson said. “I don’t know what it understands but it seems like we might be able to control something here with its help.”
Star stared at the screen in the center of the console and then into the strange dancing display hovering over it.
“How many tunnels are there?” She asked.
“There are a hundred and fifty-five tunnels throughout the facility, not including entry, exit, and connecting spaces,” the voice answered.
“Can you turn the lights on in all the tunnels?” She followed up with.
“Yes,” the machine said, “but that will require raising power expenditure to two-point-two capacity.”
“Raise the capacity and turn on all the tunnel lights in the facility,” Star ordered.
“Both instructions have been accomplished,” the machine responded, instantly. “Two tunnels are not responding and will require maintenance,” the voice went on.
“Go check and make sure the tunnel we need isn’t one of those tunnels,” Star said to Jameson, but then stopped him before he could move. “The picture. The picture display shows all the lights in all the tunnels,” she pointed at the display, “you don’t have to go at all.”
A single blue light blinked in the center of the complexity of white lines seeming to run everywhere. A single white line ran out from the blue light to join with the many others. Two lines in different parts of the diagram blinked red.
“Never mind,” she said to the boy. “Our tunnel is okay, and this thing shows us where everything leads. Those boys will not be able to figure out where we are now. We need to find out as much as we can while we’re right here.
“To know more,” the machine intoned as if reading her mind instead of interpreting her words. “Do you wish the facility to come online with one hundred percent power, and do you wish to have your identity established for future exclusive orders?”
“Oh Jesus,” True said.
“How do we answer something like that?” Jameson followed.
“As True keeps saying, Star replied, “what have we got to lose?”