ISLAND IN THE SAND
The tunnel was like nothing Star had ever experienced before, not even close. None of the children had been exposed to anything like it either. When they stood before the black hole of the opening at the railhead, Jameson tripped a switch attached to one of the train tracks leading inside.
“Watch this,” Jameson commented, giving the only small warning for what was to come.
Slowly, a soft yellow light began to emanate down from two rows of glass bars. The bars ran smoothly along the top of the curved surface, spaced about an arm’s length apart as they traveled into the distance along the top of the tunnel. In only seconds the light went from a dim flickering yellow to a solid bright white.
The tunnel was so long and straight that the tracks seemed to disappear into a single small dot far in the distance.
“Nuclear, my Dad said,” Jameson indicated, quietly, pointing upward, as if that one word and his indication of direction said it all.
Without conscious thought or instructions, Star and all of the children began walking forward, as if attracted by some distant warmth, although there was no temperature differential that was detectable in any way.
“What’s nuclear mean?” Star asked Jameson.
“Don’t know,” the boy answered, walking behind the children and by her side. “Some power that’s always on. Dad never figured out how to turn the lights in the station on though, or how to get into the storage room, but whatever ‘nuclear’ is, it really works well.”
“The storeroom door was locked from the other side,” Star replied. “Nothing we know of could get through from the station side once it was locked. Maybe there’s a hidden keyhole or something like that, but I don’t think so.”
“Dad was pretty smart. He’d have figured it out if it was possible,” Jameson concluded, in agreement.
“It might be safer to follow one of those tunnels until we’re sure the other group is gone for good,” Star offered.
Jameson reached into the side pocket of his clean and finely cut jeans. He pulled out a black object that had a natural look of purposeful malevolence. Star recoiled slightly but held her ground.
“This is a Colt .45,” Jameson described, holding the weapon in his right hand while caressing it with his left.
“I shot it a few times. Lots of ammunition, but the sound is so great it hurt my ears. You just push this lever down and pull back on this other thing and it goes off. Hard to hit anything though, unless it’s real close.” Jamison clicked the safety on and off a few times, the sound echoing through the giant chamber until finally the sharp sound dimmed and then faded away.
“Can you put that back in your pocket?” Star asked. “We’ll all be better off going down a tunnel and then waiting for a while. I’m sure it’s even harder to hit something in the dark, even with that Colt thing, and you might hit the wrong target.”
Jameson replaced the small but heavy looking chunk of machinery back inside his pocket.
“Okay, but I want to be the leader. I’ll lead us down the tunnel. The one I choose. If you don’t want me as the leader then you can go yourself. I won’t stop you but you’ll get lost without me. I’d just have to come and find you, at some later time, or maybe some later date.”
Star looked intently at the young man before her, thinking about the kind of relief it would be not to be the leader anymore. But the boy was an unknown element brand new to their situation. She could not trust the safety and security of the children to someone they didn’t know. Someone who was much bigger than any of them and who possessed a gun. The boy was already determining the direction they were going and the only one of them who had any idea of what the vast facility might hold.
“Okay, you can be the leader,” she replied, thinking about the availability of rock pieces or wooden staves she might use to knock him out or assault him in his sleep if things turned the wrong way.
Everyone had to sleep at some point. It would be a pity to hurt someone who’d caused them no harm yet, but her role of leader allowed for little sympathy or outside trust when it came to the survival of the children
“You don’t mean it,” Jameson replied. “I can see it behind your big eyes. You think I might hurt you, or them.” He swept his right hand over and past the children gathered next to Star. “You’ll let me lead until some time when I’m unaware or asleep. Then that will be it for me.”
Star was stunned by the accuracy of his conclusions and then afraid for all of them. Jameson had a gun and they were defenseless before him. Somehow, her own expression had given her away and quite possibly endangered all of them. She knew of no way to fix the situation. Heartfelt entreaties would only drive the boy farther into a most justified paranoia. Star decided to stall for time if the prescient boy would let her.
“Why don’t we just go into one of the tunnels together,” she responded lightly, beaming out the most genuine smile she could manufacture.
More clanging, much louder than before, resonated down from the top of the dome.
“They’ve found the main hatch at the top of the structure,” Jameson said, pointing upward into the darkness. “The hatch is well sealed up at the top but they might weaken the metal enough to get through it they light fires on top of it and work it loose. It’s a long way down from there but they could use ropes.”
“We need to go,” Star said, clutching Tal and Sol close to her.
“We can’t go without a leader,” Jameson said, his voice low but non-threatening. We can’t just go together until that is decided. It just won’t work, not for me, anyway.”
Star looked into the boy’s strangely clear and unblinking eyes and could discern no ill-will or indications of violence or malevolence. She could not give in, however, and she knew it. To turn the children over to Jameson could result in death or even worse for all of them. She could think of no compromise. She could not fight the boy.
She was no match for him, even without his possession of the gun, and she knew it.
“So, what do we do?” Star asked, her eyes meeting his and just as unblinking.
The question was real and delivered, this time, straight from her heart without reservation.
The boy looked back at her. They stood face to face a few feet apart. A full minute went by. The noises from the top of the dome continued but neither of them paid any attention.
“You be the leader,” Jameson whispered, looking down for the first time. “You’ve been the leader for a while out there. I’ve never been a leader before. Other kids never really liked me enough to let me lead anything, not even a game, and this is no different. Do you want the gun?”
He reached into his pocket with his right hand.
Star was surprised. Surprised by the boy’s decision and also surprised by the sincerity and hurt she’d seen in his eyes. He was telling the truth. Once more he was not being chosen to lead. There was no time to explain life to Jamison or to fail to take him up on his offer, however. By surrendering his demand for leadership, the boy had stepped much closer to a place of full trust and care in Star’s mind. By offering to give up the gun he had almost instantly assured that he could become a member of their small band if that was something he truly wanted to be.
“You’re the one who knows how to use the gun. Do you have extra bullets?” Star inquired, her decision about trusting the boy made.
Jameson took a solid looking box out of another pocket and held it up. “Fifty more, but I’ve got more boxes hidden away.”
Tal and Sol disengaged from Star’s legs and walked over to the tall boy.
“Can we see the bullets?” they said, as one.
Jameson opened the lid of the container and tilted it toward them. Both kids cooed in appreciation, staring at the many shiny tips, all arranged in one boxed setting row upon row. They didn’t reach for the box, which Jamison closed and promptly replaced into his pocket.
“Let’s load up on food and water,” Star instructed the band.
“Plenty of old canvas packs back by the trains. I’ll show you,” Jameson said to the band at large.
Star was left with Wren to consider their coming move into the tunnel system, once again to move in a direction where there was no assurance of safety at the end.
“Do you think they’ll get in?” Wren asked when everyone else was out of hearing range.
“Depends,” Star answered. “It’s not like they have much else to do, and they’ll be thirsty and hungry too. I didn’t see any scattering animal life when we came through the last of the forest. Either they get inside here if they figure out there is an ‘inside here,’ or they have to go back to more productive hunting grounds. They’re not stupid though, so yes, I think they’ll eventually get in here.”
“Is Jameson going into the tunnel first, with his gun, or last, to make sure they don’t catch up to us?” Wren asked, turning her face upward to peer into the darkness, as the ceaseless sounds continued, and some particulate rained down from top of the dome.
“I hadn’t thought about where he should be,” Star said, finally replying to Wren’s question. “I think he needs to be in the back so we can run if there’s trouble, although I don’t think anybody’s getting through the thickness of the dome or that metal hatch at the top anytime soon. This place was built to keep people out, and however built it sure knew what they were doing.”
The band returned with Jameson in the lead. Each member of the ‘tribe’ was wearing a lumpy full backpack, including Tal and Sol. Jamison carried two by their straps for Wren and Star. All of them were laughing and smiling when they stopped in front of Star. Jameson set the two spare packs down.
“Jameson’s got a gift for you Star,” Tal gushed out.
Jameson knelt next to one of the extra packs and opened a zipper that ran across the side. Star leaned over and examined the open slice of material. She saw more black metal.
“This one’s different than mine,” Jameson said, his voice flat and analytical as he pulled another gun from up out of the zippered opening. “This one’s called a Ruger. It uses smaller bullets and it doesn’t shoot as fast as the Colt. Not so very loud, either. There’s a box of little bullets too.”
Without waiting for any comment, he replaced the Ruger back into the side of the pack and closed the zipper. Then he stood up, dragging the pack over so it rested next to the side of Star’s right leg.
Star stepped back. Guns were totally forbidden. To be caught with one was an automatic death sentence. She weighed the risk of what she might face in the outside world, before stepping forward to accept the pack and the ‘gift’ contained within it. The dangers they faced were unknown but potentially monumental in size. If she had a gun and she could get Jamison to teach her how to use it, she could protect the children without Jamison or anyone else. The outside world was outside and the risks were out there in it. The world Star and children had fallen into had no rules that were not driven by hunger, fear and the need to hide. The risk was acceptable.
“Thank you, Jameson,” she said with a meaningful smile. “I don’t know how to shoot it, but thank you.”
“Oh, I have a feeling you’ll catch on rather quickly,” Jameson replied.
Star strapped on the small but heavy pack, and then led them to the lighted tunnel entrance. Together they strode forward between the narrow tracks.
“Take the rear, Jamison, just in case,” Star ordered, wanting to say please but knowing that using such a word might be out of place for a leader to say under the circumstances.
The big boy nodded without saying a word and dropped back.
They began their journey, Star not really leading, as Tal and Sol refused to be held back and ran before them all. There was nothing to interrupt the seemingly endless line of the two tracks, or the walls and the continuous series of light bars that beckoned them on. Star marveled at the fact that not one light seemed to have burned out or gone dark in any way. They moved through a continuous tube, and after traveling several hours, only stopping to sit on the rails and eat, the experience was one of having traveled far but not really gone anywhere. Each end of the tunnel looked the same from where they were. A single small black dot was all that any of them could see in either direction. It took several more hours before the dot in front of them began to look larger than the one behind them. Jameson made sure they all took every piece of possible debris with them when they moved out.
“There are many tunnels,” he said, by way of explanation. “We can’t leave them anything that will tell them what tunnel we took.”
Star wondered vaguely if it was near the end of daylight hours out on the surface. She also knew that Jameson was right. So far, probably due to their nearly non-stop fast movement, none of the children had needed to go to the bathroom, but that couldn’t last.
They’d come many miles underground and it suddenly felt strange when the end of the tunnel began to grow exponentially larger in size in front of them. In minutes of watching the black opening grow much larger, they came to the end of the tracks. Some sort of loading and unloading dock was built low to the surface just beyond where the tracks ended. Beyond that construct was only darkness from out of which radiated a very low humming sound. It was the kind of sound that radiated up through the ground, like that of a lightning strike, but much softer and unending. The sound was obviously coming upward and expanding outward from the top of some hole.
“Stay back from the edge,” Jameson said, in warning. “There’s a big pit at the end of this tunnel. I was here with my Dad a long time ago,” the boy said.
Wren and Star stood just back and on each side of him to stare together into the darkness ahead.
“Maybe there’s a switch for a light, like the one you used to turn on the tunnel lights,” Star said.
The boy got down on his hands and knees and crept forward, feeling out of along to make certain that there was a solid surface in front of him.
“There’s nothing, although I found the edge. There was light when I was here with my Dad but I don’t know where it came from,” he concluded from just ahead of them.
He pulled back and then moved to each wall, in turn, exploring those surfaces as far up as his height would allow him to reach.
“Star,” Sol called out from behind them.
The rest of the band that stood assembled atop the low platform watching and waiting turned as one to the sound of the small child’s voice.
“Here. There’s a funny box.”
Jameson moved to join Sol on the platform, with Star and Wren right behind. A small white box, not much larger than the one Jamison carried in his pocket containing the bullets, sat fastened to the edge of the platform. It was closed with no opening visible, but a switch was painted on one side of it in red. No matter how Jamison wrestled with the box there seemed no way to open it.
“Like the door,” Tal squealed in happy enthusiasm, appearing at Sol’s side. “It must be a puzzle, like the big door.”
Star leaned down close to the box and examined it intently. There was a small holed in the middle of one end. “We need a piece of wire or something like it. Look around.”
The band searched until one boy emerged from under the platform on his belly.
“Got it,” he said, holding up a short length of rigid wire.
Star inserted the wire into the hole until it met resistance. She pushed hard and the box sprang open. The hinged seam was invisible under the curve of its bottom, hidden until the box was opened. A big switch was set into a panel just inside. Star flipped the switch and everything changed. They all turned back to the edge of the pit, as light flooded over them, many times more powerful than the thin light provided by the rail lights.
Even from the platform, many feet back from the edge, Star felt fear. They all moved slowly forward, staying well back from the edge, to stare down into a chamber at least a hundred times bigger than the station they’d left behind. Star knew that the bottom of the pit had to be more than a thousand feet below where they stood. At the very bottom, there was only one feature visible. A single round sphere sat in the center, its great size diminished by the hugeness of its surroundings. The deep steady hum they all felt and heard was coming from the sphere.
“Nuclear,” Jameson whispered.