ISLAND IN THE SAND
Star pulled the remains of the arrow shaft from Val’s wound gently, but steadily. There was little blood, which surprised her. The boy grimaced with pain but only after she used the alcohol and Kleenex to swab the area clean of congealed blood. She looked at the two wounds, which didn’t look that bad.
“Jordan, we don’t have anything clean to put on the wounds. What have you got?” she asked of the console.
“Nothing. There is no storage of hard goods except at certain selected areas of the complex. There are medical supplies in the food storage area at the emergency rail point, however, boiling water can be produced for purification purposes.”
“We don’t have any containers here. The Kleenex will have to do until they get back,” she concluded, wrapping Val with an old “T” shirt to hold the tissues over each wound.
“There is contact from Jameson,” Jordan stated. “The elevator communication system appears adequate. Do you wish to hear his words?”
“Yes, I wish to hear his words,” Star replied, trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, knowing that a machine was not likely to understand it, and still unnerved that she was actually talking to a machine and it was answering.
“The elevator isn’t working,” Jameson reported, his voice echoing from some unseen speaker. “The doors were open, and I can hear Jordan, but nothing else
Star stopped for a second, just as she was about to depart.
“Jordan, can you make food?” she asked. “Something humans can consume that will provide nutrition and energy?
“I don’t have the answer to that question,” the machine responded. “You must be more specific.”
Star tried to think of some question that might be more specific but couldn’t come up with anything. She grabbed her pack, exited the sphere and fell into a steady lope as she ran toward the base of the ladder they’d come down in what seemed like ages ago. Everything had changed because of what they’d found although how best to use the technology continued to elude them. It took almost fifteen minutes to cross the chamber floor. She could not help but marvel at the size of the place. How such an advanced civilization could have been so decimated by the asteroid strike amazed her. There had to be more to it, but what knowledge had survived had become so twisted and bent that it was almost impossible to reconstruct anything, and then there were the prohibited areas where questions could not even be asked, much less answered.
An open space in the wall appeared like a tiny dark square box against the enormity of the great white wall. Jameson and True stood outside the door while Tal and Sol cavorted about.
“It’s hopeless, “ Jameson said, “we’ve tried everything. The doors are open so there must be a power of some sort, but the elevator is dead. No light. Nothing except the ability to talk to Jordan.”
An arrow struck the metal-covered back of the elevator and clattered to the floor. Star stared at the arrow and was just turning to see where it might have come from when Jameson fired his .45 automatic.
Star peeked around the edge of the elevator door, shaking her head and trying to clear the ringing the blast of the gun had caused. She stared down at the unmoving body of a boy, laying full length across the railroad tracks, a bow cast not far from his side. A single ominous hole, edged with black and red, seemed to radiate out from the center of his bare chest. The boy’s large brown eyes were open and seemingly staring up at the ceiling of the tunnel, but she could tell right away that they saw nothing. The eyes did not blink, even though Star waited for several minutes, hoping they would. The lethal speed Jameson had reacted with, and then the evidence of the sudden death shocked her so badly, she could not speak.
“I think I killed him,” Jameson finally breathed into the silence, sticking his head out of the elevator to see if anyone else occupied the tunnel.
Seeing no one he slowly replaced the gun back into his large side pocket.
“I’ve never killed anyone before,” he went on, looking over to Star who was helping Tal and Sol get up and out of the elevator.
“I wish it hadn’t come to this,” Star got out, the children stepping out toward the tracks to stand next to the dead boy.
They both stared down in silence.
“This is horrible” Jameson exclaimed, his voice rising, as he followed Star and the children out of the elevator. “But this may be just the beginning. They’re trying to do something bad to us. I don’t know who they are, or what they really want, but they’ll hurt us all if they can. That much they’ve proven. I know it deep inside, but I didn’t want this to happen.”
Star examined the dead boy. “What do we do with him?” she asked, more to herself than Jameson.
“Ask the robot, or whatever that Jordan thing really is. He seems to know everything. Maybe he’s not a robot at all. Maybe there’s some guy inside that console or looking down from somewhere else,” Jameson replied, avoiding looking at the boy’s body.
Tal and Sol wandered further into the tube before Star yelled at them, fearing more traps like the crossbow they’d run into inside the other tunnel. With both kids safely in tow, she went back to the elevator.
“Jordan, we have a dead body,” she said. “A boy attacked us, and Jameson shot him. What do you advise we do with his body?”
“There is a disposal chute not far from the elevator. It’s a small door. Is the body that of a mammal of some size?” Jordan inquired.
“Human body,” Star responded. “One of the other band of humans somewhere back at the train station. They left him as a guard.”
“Proceed twenty-five meters into the tunnel from your current position,” Jordan instructed. “I will activate the chute door, so you will see it. A human body should not be a problem if the chute is still functioning. The entrance to the food storage area is another ten meters from that position on the opposing side of the tracks. I will activate that panel, as well.”
True, who usually remained very quiet and, in the background, finally exited the elevator and stood near the open doors, as the others inspected the dead boy’s body He held the boy’s fallen arrow in one hand.
“They put some sort of poison on the tip,” he noted, holding the arrow out toward Star. The tip was a brownish red, the metal obviously having been soaked in something. “This isn’t very good,” he concluded.
“Make sure the kids don’t get near it. Did he have any more of those?” Star asked.
“I’ll check,” True answered. “His name was Stone. He was mean and stupid, like the rest of them, except for Sly. He’s mean and smart.”
True walked past Jameson, who was gathering their packs together in preparation for entering the food storage area.
“He was a nasty one. You don’t have to feel bad. He would have killed any one of us, or all of us if Sly told him to.”
“I know,” Jameson said. “That helps, but it still feels weird to shoot someone and have them die right there in front of us. Thanks for the warning. I wasn’t sure we could trust you after the door thing. You’re all right though.” Jameson stuck out his right hand and True took it and smiled broadly.
“Thanks,” True said, leaning down to retrieve more of the poisoned arrows. “I never did fit in with Sly’s band, but there’s no food out there if you’re alone or don’t have a lot of others to forage. This place, though, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this. If there’s food here I never want to leave.”
“Oh, there’s food all right,” Jameson replied. “We’ve already had some of it, but it’s been down here for a long time. I wonder how good it is for us. The children ate a lot but got hungry real fast after. I don’t think that’s so great.”
“Let’s move him to the chute. I can see the door sticking out of the wall,” Star indicated, pointing down the tunnel.
True and Jameson moved to the body and hoisted it up between them. Slowly and carefully they dragged the dead boy to the opening in the wall. Tal and Sol stood by the chute holding the vertically mounted door open. The boy’s body fit into the opening. Jameson wasted no time, giving the body one last shove, and then quickly closing the door when it dropped away.
“Stone,” Jameson intoned. “Rest well, in spite of what you might have done. This is a hard place and time to live. Maybe it’s better where you’ve gone.”
True, Jameson and the children went back to the pile of packs and got ready to move across the tracks to where the food storage area was supposed to be.
Star preceded them, examining the far wall for any perceivable cracks or openings.
“I’m not finding anything. Jordan said it was somewhere here, but I don’t know.” Star walked slowly along the upward curving wall running her hands along its smooth white surface.
“Not a crack or anything at all,” she said, disappointment and frustration evident in her tone.
Tal and Sol ran back and forth, up and back from Star’s moving position, their own antics more like some game only they knew the rules to but never straying far from the rail foundations. Suddenly both children stopped together and began jumping up and down.
“It bounces back,” Sol yelled, laughing.
Star moved to the area of the floor Sol was playing on.
“Stop and get back. We’ve been looking on the wall for something like the chute door. There’s something here on the floor.” She ran her hands over the surface. “I feel the edges and I can make them out, but I can’t get in.”
Jameson brought out his knife and jammed it into one of the cracks. He got nowhere. “I’ll break the blade,” he concluded, withdrawing the instrument. “This is tough stuff, what do we do?”
“I’m going back to the elevator to talk to Jordan,” Star said, standing up and removing her large empty pack. “This thing has to have some sort of tricky mechanism to open it, like the first one we found. I wasn’t specific enough in my questioning.”
“You have a question, Star?” Jordan’s voice echoed, coming out of some nearby hidden speaker.
“You can hear us here?” Star asked, in amazement.
“Yes, I can communicate from over four thousand audible nodes and view three hundred and forty-four, although many more were operable earlier in the development of the complex.”
“You might have told us,” Star said, sighing loudly.
There was so much to learn about the complex and the machine that ran it, but they could only learn by asking questions and it was very difficult to think up questions that might help before they needed the answer.
“We’ve found a panel in the floor. Is that the entry to the food supply area?”
“Yes, it is. Operating the panel will release the wall tensioners and allow the door to open. There is a security protocol alert. Do you wish to hear it now?”
A shiver ran up and down Star’s spine. A security protocol alert could only be an indication that Sly’s band was back. The children were inside the operations center inside the sphere. If Sly’s band was surrounding the sphere again then they might have returned with some idea of how to break in.
“Yes, please proceed,” she said to Jordan, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It would take at least half an hour to get back to the sphere, even if they gave up on food resupply immediately.
“The human members of the group attending the sphere previously are proceeding toward your location using the tunnel you currently are occupying.”
Star was relieved but still concerned.
“We have guns. Don’t they ever sleep or eat? What do they expect to get by coming back here?” she asked Jordan in exasperation, not expecting a reply.
“They have been inside the food storage area where you entered the complex earlier. They have also discharged a firearm twice during the time they have been inside the train station.”
“They have guns?” Star asked, in shock. “Where did they get guns? And they’re coming? How long do we have before they get here?”
“They are predicted to arrive, at their current pace, in ninety-four minutes. An analysis of the sound data indicates the audible discharges of the firearm appear to have come from the same weapon. The type of firearm would appear to be of small caliber, the weapon itself of a handgun nature. The ballistic data is quite clear. The source of the weapon is undetermined at this time. There is no data on the storage of small caliber hand weapons maintained in the complex itself.” Jordan’s voice stopped as if cut off but in waiting for further requests or instructions.
Star turned to Jameson. “Where did you get our guns?” she asked.
“In the trains. I searched the trains. Some of them had cases filled with papers and other junk. Two of them had the guns and ammunition we have now,” he replied.
“Did you leave any guns back there, or were there more cases you didn’t search?” Star inquired.
“I took both guns. That’s all I had. I left some ammunition hidden there, but that’s all. I’m sure there were more cases. I didn’t break into all of them. It was too hard and time-consuming. I had to cut through the leather and some wood on each one. Almost all of them were locked.”
Star looked into the tunnel as if expecting to see Sly and his dangerous band of boys approaching, but there was nothing. An idea occurred to her as she analyzed what Jordan had informed them of in his last comment.
“Is there data available on the storage of large caliber weapons within the complex Jordan?”
“Yes,” the machine stated, without offering anything further.
“And where would these large caliber weapons be stored?” she asked.
“That information can only be revealed to an administrator in private,” Jordan replied, surprising her again. Jordan somehow understood a need for privacy and obviously also understood the reasons why that was needed.
“Is the inside of the closed elevator private enough?” she shot back, her impatience with the machine’s reticence becoming evident.
“Yes, that would serve the purpose,” Jordan said.
“How do we operate the panel, so we can get some food and medical supplies, and how do we know the food is really any good anymore?” Star asked. “The kids back at the sphere got hungry pretty quickly after eating the last stuff. Is there any energy or anything left in the food after being held this long in storage?”
“You operate the panel by pressing down firmly on the panel, holding the metal down at the center nearest the tracks until the temperature of your hand can be measured and the mechanism opened. The panel can also detect the prints of your hand, but as you have not registered with the system yet, I have disabled that function.”
“Haven’t registered with the system,” Star laughed out loud as she spoke the words. “Just maybe one would have to know one was required to register, and what registering means.”
“The food in this storage facility is intended for long-term care and usage. The food in the immediate facility you found upon entering the complex was not irradiated. There is no expiration date on the food in the storage room you are set upon entering, so there will be no degradation in quality, energy or health content.”
“Oh goody,” Star remarked, holding her hand in the place Jordan had indicted was the correct one. “Irradiated. Can it get any better than this, or is there more?”
A deep hum seemed to come out of the floor. Star grabbed her hand back and turned as the panel began to retreat under the railroad tracks and the wall behind her opened. A warm yellowish glow bathed all of them as they stood in awe. A short stairway led down into a chamber of wrapped and stacked objects so vast that the far wall could not be seen from where they stood.
“I guess it can get better,” Wren said, softly.