ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star continued to move ever downward, feeling more secure with each order of “one step” she called down to the kids roped together below her. The rungs were made of smooth hard metal, but after so many hard grasps of their surface and constantly engaging and then disengaging the safety hook she’d designed, her skin was becoming raw. Here thighs hurt from the constant jostling resistance from the changing weights of the kids impacting against the wall and their bodies bouncing from rung to rung. There had been no further chunks of debris or arrows cascading down from the boys stationed along the sharp edge at the very top of the wall. Either they’d smartened up and decided to conserve their dwindling supply of arrows or they’d run out. Jameson’s idea to toss everything of size over the edge before they’d started the climb had no doubt saved their lives, and then he’d made another brilliant decision to pull out the rungs above them as they descended. The boy’s size was deceptive. He was experienced down in the underworld they’d fallen into, and he was also extremely bright. The only question that still remained unanswered was how far he might be trusted.
After what seemed to be many hours of constant movement Tal shouted out that he was standing on the floor of the facility. Star looked down and smiled. They’d made it somehow, and there was no way the evil force of rotten boys could follow them.
It took a quarter of an hour to get down, get the ropes unknotted and all the kids organized and ready to travel.
Tal was the first to notice activity at the top of the wall.
Once Star was certain that the boys up there could not access the rungs in the wall, she’d given thinking about whatever they might be up to no mind. It was important to get away from the wall with all of their supplies and packs intact. She looked up in response to the child’s alert.
Even with the distance between them Star could see what appeared to be a body dangling over the upper edge. She didn't get a chance to verbalize a question about what might be going on before the body fell.
“Oh, no,” Tal exclaimed.
The body didn’t fall far. Star brought up her right hand to focus her vision and shield out the brightness of the lights. She couldn’t quite believe what she thought she was seeing.
“Jameson?” she whispered.
“Yeah, he’s climbing down,” the boy responded, his voice sounding as shocked as her own.
“How in hell?” Star asked, frozen in place, watching the tiny figure work quickly to scurry more than climb down the rungs.
“They dropped him,” Jamisen concluded. “They dropped him and he had to catch the tenth rung down to stop his fall. Unbelievable that anyone could do that. If they all try that then there’ll be bodies splattered all over this floor soon. But he made it and now what do we do?”
“I didn’t expect that they’d have that much courage,” Jameson replied, staring upward at the slowly descending figure.
“And I didn’t expect that they’d be that stupid, but I should have,” Star replied. “We’ve got to get ready for him. I’m certain he intends to come down to acquire rope, or the missing rungs, and then return them up top.”
“We can’t move the kids too far away,” Jameson said, looking at the children all gathered together into one clump next to Star. “Anyone can be over behind that machine, so we don’t want to send them ahead alone.”
They waited. The boy up on the wall descended at three to four times the speed their tied together little band had made. In only a number of minutes he was nimbly approaching the floor.
Jameson moved to stand well to the left of the bottom rungs of the wall ladder. Star waited just to the right as the boy above them came down one rung at a time. He slowed his descent to a crawl, as his attention moved from the rungs to paying attention to everyone gathered below to receive him. Finally, when his right foot touched the floor, he whirled around and pressed his back into the white concrete wall, and reached for something concealed behind him in his belt.
Jameson had taken his Colt .45 automatic from his pocket and held it at his side, in expectation of the boy’s landing.
Without saying a word, Jameson brought the big pistol up and fired one round at the boy. The explosion was almost overpowering, and its ringing reverberated, echoing back, time after time, from the hard surfaces of the huge chamber until it finally died away. The boy stood frozen against the wall, clutching his right side with both hands, any thought of pulling something from his waist completely gone.
“You shot me,” he whimpered. “You’ve got guns. That’s against the rules. And my ears hurt.” His hands went up from his right side to his ears. Concrete chunks and rubble were falling away from a hole in the wall not more than a few inches from the boy’s side.
“You missed,” Star said, her own revolver held out in both hands before her.
“Should I try to hit him again?” Jameson asked, aiming the automatic with both hands before him.
“You missed him but hit the wall,” Star repeated. “I don’t see much point in shooting again. He’s not much of a specimen.”
“Hey, don’t shoot!” the boy yelled, taking his hands from his ringing ears and holding them both out with open palms extended.
“There’s not much else to be done with you,” Star replied, pointing her revolver. “We’ve got the children to consider. You and your band of killers can’t be allowed near them. There’s nobody who’d care or even know if we shot you to death on the spot.
“They haven’t killed anybody,” the boy said, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes, and his voice dropping off into broken sobs.
“Well, I seem to recall your leader commenting about crushing another boy’s head while he slept,” Star said, her tone going flat and cold.
“He was lying. Nobody got killed. We all went to sleep, but that other kid was gone in the morning. We never saw him again. I don’t think he liked us very much, even if he was supposed to be the leader.”
“What a shock,” Star replied, lowering her weapon. “And what about all the arrows and junk you threw down on us from up there?” Star said, pointing upward with her free hand. “If we hadn’t thrown all the big stuff down before your group made it to the edge it’s not likely that any of us would still be alive.”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, his voice pleading. “I’m just the one they kick around. They knew they couldn’t do much to you, but they like tormenting people. They torment me all the time. I don’t have any place else to go. I can’t survive alone. We’ve found a lot of kid’s bodies who’ve tried. They took me to the edge and then dropped me over. They said that if I lived then my job was to delay you. You had to notice that they didn’t care if I fell all the way or caught that one rung and managed to climb down.”
“Hell, he’s got a point there,” Jameson interjected. “That was pure insanity. Only your weight, or lack of it, saved you.”
“Delay us?” Star asked. “Delay us from what, or for what?” she went on. “And they all seemed to disappear after they dropped you
“They figured out that the whole place is filled with tunnels. There’s got to be another one, or even more, that lead into whatever this great cavern is. They said they were going back to wait,” the boy said, seeming to suddenly tire physically, pushing his back into the concrete wall, and then sliding down into a squatting position.
“Wait for what?” Jameson asked.
“They’re going to wait back at the station for you to turn on the lights in another tunnel since they figured out that the lights extend their full length. Then they can come down that tunnel and run right into you. They think that all the tunnels probably lead to the station we hiked out of. Plus, they’re hungry and they need food pretty badly. Me too.”
The boy pointed toward the sphere. “They think there’s a tunnel entrance in the back corner because from up there you can make out a little black spot. I don’t think they really want to hurt you though. They just want to have a bigger band to run around with.”
“Not bad thinking,” Jameson said, pushing his .45 back down into his trouser pocket. “But they shot steel tipped arrows down at us on the ladder. They could have killed any one or all of us. I still think the best idea might be to shoot you here and be done with it.”
“Please,” the boy begged, extending his hands out and dropping from a squat to sit flat on the hard floor, his legs splaying out in front of him. “I won’t do anything. I promise. I’ve never hurt anybody or anything in my life. I don’t hurt things, they hurt me.”
“I believe him,” Star said. “He’s pitiful. Let’s just leave him here.”
“My name’s True, like in truth, except they call me that because they say I never tell the truth. But I do. Please don’t leave me. I can’t go back up there, and besides, they’re not even there anymore. They’ll turn out the light in the tunnel when they get to the other end and I’m afraid of the dark. I won’t make it. I’ll just die down here or up there, either way.”
“We’ve little choice,” Star said, getting back into her backpack. ‘We’ve got the kids to think of, and we can’t take on any extra mouths or baggage. We’ve little enough to get by on and there’s no telling where we’ll find food again if we do.”
“You’re the leader,” Jameson said, moving to help the children get ready to move.
“No, don’t abandon me,” True said. “You can shoot me. I’m no good to anyone. I’ll never find my way out of here. I know it. Please shoot me. They left me for dead and they were right,” the boy said, dejection and defeat radiating out from him like waves of heat.
Star and Jameson tried to ignore him. They both turned and began leading the children toward the sphere located at the very center of the huge chamber.
True got up from his sitting position, wiped his cheeks with one tattered sleeve and then followed behind them.
“I’ve got nowhere to go,” he said to their departing backs. “They thought you’d kill me”. He broke into a run, passing both Jameson and Star. He stopped and turned to confront them.
“You’re the leaders,” he said, you can let me in. I’ll work, carry stuff, tell you any more secrets I might have, or do whatever you want. Please don’t leave me behind.”
“Jameson,” Star said, standing in front of the children and blocking their way. “I don't think we have any choice.”
“I’m not going to shoot him, Star, even if you are the leader. I just can’t do it. What do you want me to do, other than that?” Jameson approached True as he talked, his eyes going from Star to the boy and back.
“Okay, here’s the deal, True,” Star stated, with a mild sigh. “You take the lead. If something is going to happen then you get shot or blown up, or whatever, first. You carry the heaviest load. You talk to no one except Jameson or me. And you eat last. Do you want to be part of our band? You work your way in. I don’t trust you, and if I see you doing anything to hurt any of us I’ll shoot you myself.”
Star stared deep into True’s eyes when she was done talking.
“Okay,” the boy said. “I’ll do it. You won’t be sorry. Nobody ever gave me a real chance before. Thanks. I won’t fail you, or any of you,” the boy responded.
“No, this test is about you, so don’t fail you,” Star replied. “We’ll survive with or without you. You want to be part of us, then show us why we should accept you, or die trying.”
Star led Jameson and True to the small gathered group of the other children. “We’ll sleep at the entrance to that other tunnel if it’s there. There’s the issue about the light switch we can no longer risk turning on. Without light, travel through any of the tubes will be difficult and fraught with unknown danger, but we have little choice. There’s nothing in this chamber of any use to us.”
“Jameson, is what he said true?” Star said as she led the group toward the monstrous sphere that grew ever larger as they advanced. “Do all the tunnels end at the station?”
“Not all,” Jameson replied. “I’ve explored a lot of them, although there are so many I’ve never been through all of them. I’ve been here before, but I came down the ladder and went back up because there’s nothing here. There are tunnels that seem to connect one tunnel to another too, somehow, but I don’t remember where most of the connectors are. I never needed to know. You’re the first people to ever make it down here beside me that I know about.”
“Great,” Star said, with weariness in her voice. “We might have to traverse this tunnel all the way back to the station in complete darkness, only to arrive where that gang is camped. What’s our goal? We have to find another solution, but we all have to lie down soon. I can’t go on any further.”
They walked slowly around the base of the giant dome when they got to it. The metal that curved upward was radiating warmth, which seemed inviting, but Jameson said it might be dangerous just because it was warm. There was a moat filled with water surrounding the dome. They needed water but Star decided to move on, at least for the moment. Once they rounded the nuclear dome they all saw the tunnel entrance in the back corner together, and a cry of relief went up. They moved toward the dark square hole. Upon arrival Star quickly saw that the end of the tunnel was identical to the one they’d come out of up above.
“True, you sleep between Jameson and me on the floor out here,” She ordered. If you get up for any reason one of us will shoot you. Understand?”
“What if I have to relieve myself?” True asked.
“Do it now, up further inside the tunnel opening. Jameson can take you, or you go back to that moat around the sphere. I don’t care which,” Star ordered.
“We might need that water for drinking,” Wren said.
“Yes, you’re right Wren,” Star replied. “It’s the tunnel, then.
“It’s okay,” True said. “I don’t have to go. I just wondered. I’ll sleep right where you tell me to,”
Star moved to the bumper at the end of the rails and dropped her pack. She opened the single strap holding the top down, pulled out a small rolled up blanket and threw it down at True’s feet.
“Thanks,” True said, picking up the blanket with both hands.
“The surface is hard and cold but the air’s warm. Put the blanket underneath you. We may need you at your best tomorrow. It’s going to be a hard day, I just know it. Sleep well.”
“No one has given me anything to sleep on since I was a kid, before my parents died,” True replied. “Thanks, Star. I want to stay here with you. I’ll be good. You’ll see.”
“Yes, we’ll see,” she whispered, pulling out the other blanket she carried, and then lay next to the boy with Jameson settling in on the other side.
She’d hoped to keep True isolated and secure for the night, but as soon as they were down the children all began to move slowly across the floor until they were tucked in so tightly around her she could barely breathe. In spite of the day and her fears about the coming morning, the trusting presence of the children ushered her into sleep with a smile on her face.