They ran after the Ninety-One robot, as it accelerated, taking the railroad track passages in bouncing leaps, correcting its’ treads for directional control upon each landing. They made no effort to control the noise of their flight, or the fact that they were all illuminated by the only light visible under the huge overhead dome. When the main hub node had been taken out by Jameson’s point-blank round impacting to great effect into its interior, the immediate effect had been the loss of all lighting.

“Where are we running to?” Star yelled at the back of the fast-moving machine, but there was no response that she could hear.

Not from Jordan through the robot’s speaker, and not from the deeper voice of the robot itself.

“Ninety-One, stop,” she commanded loudly.

The big but sinuously silent tracked machine stopped instantly, causing Star and Jameson to run right into the back of it. Star saw as she pulled back, a small box-like space fitted carefully in the rear of the robot.

“Quick, Jameson, collect the rifles and ammunition,” she said, unlimbering one of the bigger rifles from her own shoulder and placing it into the storage area.

“There’s no way we can run and maneuver with the kids carrying all this junk, and we, and they, don’t know how to shoot worth a damn,” she stated, turning to help collect the weaponry.

“What about Sly and his band of killers,” Jameson replied,

As if on command, the sound of the boy’s screams and yells as they picked up the trail, no doubt by spotting the faint and solitary illumination coming from Ninety-One’s small light.

Star loaded the guns into the back of the robot, counting each child, but not being able to identify most because of the dim light. They were twelve strong, but only she, Jameson and True were even close to maturity. Sly’s band of vicious boys not only outnumbered them, it consisted exclusively of boys as old or older than Jameson.

“Ninety-One, proceed,” Star said evenly to the back of the robot, hoping against hope it knew where it was going and that place was some protection against what would be coming after them.

Ninety-One took off once more, reaching a speed that the group could only match by running at top speed, jumping and dodging the small obstacles the robot seemed to bounce right over without effort. The run was a good quarter mile. As Star began to outdistance the rest near what she perceived to be the end, a blacker portion of the darkness ahead.

Suddenly the entire area ahead of the speeding robot was illuminated fully, as hidden lights located at the front of the robot came on.

“Don’t lose Ninety-One, we need those guns,” Jameson yelled from not far behind.

The robot slowed to a crawl, steering itself toward what appeared to be an opening corridor of pure shiny metal. Two doors slowly opened outward and the robot cruised through. Star followed. The robot continued on and turned right at a “T” corridor only a few meters ahead. It then disappeared down that corridor.

Star stopped to wait at the opening as the gates formed, fearing that they would close before the rest of the band got through. Jameson ran by her, and then stopped, leaning down to breath. One by one the rest of the band did the same, only the smaller children like Tal and Sol not seeming to be breathing that hard. Star gathered them, realizing that they tended to look at the escape as part of a game, like their laughing and giggling attitude while handling and shooting the rifles.

The gates slowly closed behind them. Star noted how flimsy their construction was. They were made of thin sheet metal and no doubt not intended to keep anyone out who was serious about getting in. They had not reached safety, only a short respite, hopefully on the way to some safety.

“Come on, we’ve got to follow Ninety-One,” she said, still breathing hard herself.

The corridor complex began to light up on its own, which gave Star hope.

“Jordan?” she asked, as she turned the corner to see Ninety-One stopped and fully turned around at the dead end the metal seemed to form. She ran and the others followed until they stood to the front and sides of the unmoving robot.

“Where are we?” Wren asked of the machine.

There was no answer. Star realized that the robot wasn’t accepting Wren as an administrator so she immediately repeated the question.

“Star administrator,” Ninety-One’s deep voice intoned, before pausing for seconds to go on. “You sought safety and I have brought you to safety.”

“Safety?” Star asked, not understanding.

She hadn’t asked the robot to take or lead them anyway when the lights had gone out.

The sound of metal shrieking rang down the uninsulated and uncovered metal walls. Sly’s band had arrived and Star knew they would make short work of the outer doors.

“The threat has reached the outer doors and those doors will soon be breached,” she said to the robot, as calmly as she could.

She wanted to surge forward and get the rifles but instead, she decided to wait a few seconds. The boys could be heard breaking through the doors, their cries of triumph like those of hyena closing in on an easy kill.

Ninety-One said nothing but two giant metal doors began to emerge from the walls to either side of their corridor-end space. In seconds the doors closed, without sound, the crack separating them barely visible on the metal surface.

“Safety,” Ninety-One intoned, shutting off all lights and seeming to come to rest.

“Safety, like hell,” Jameson said, his voice rising in tone. “We can’t leave this little metal prison without the doors opening right out into the face of Sly’s band of monsters.”

“Easy, Jameson,” Star said, trying to calm him and the kids who had to be reacting to the boy’s frustration and fear.  “So far, there’s always been a way. This place is logical in so many strange ways. We just have to keep learning the logic. Let’s get some rifles and aim them at the doors, in case they open unexpectedly. And then let’s have something to drink and eat.”

Her words acted as a calming tonic to the group. Packs came down to the floor to be gone through, while Wren and True moved to the back of the robot to retrieve some of the weapons.

“What if the robot has disappeared and taken our new-found weapons with it?” Jameson asked. “And what if those doors don’t open again. What then?”

Star removed her own pack without answering. Jameson’s questions were cold but calculating and accurate. She’d taken a chance on the robot but hadn’t realized the potential disaster of her decision until it was speeding off. The metal room might be a trap but that part wasn’t her fault. They had no choice. There was no place else in the unexplored darkness under the dome, and the only one of them who had any experience had remained notably silent. But there was nothing to be gained by attacking Jameson or holding him accountable. She was the leader and she instinctively knew that that was the part of leadership under fire.

A slight hammering sound could be heard coming from the closed-door part of the metal cage they were in.

“Great, they’re out there, and they’re spending all their time trying to figure out how to get in here,” Jameson said.

Star almost remarked about how unlikely it was that they might get inside, but then remembered the plasma torch they’d found out about and then laboriously transported all the way to the operations center. The thought reminded her of Jordan.

“Can we talk to Jordan in here?” she asked the room as much as the robot.

“There is no communication possible with the operations center inside this Faraday cage,” the robot replied.

“So, we are just stuck inside this closed room with the enemy outside, not able to call for help or even know if they’re still out there?” she asked, afraid to hear the robot’s answer with the children listening in.

“Control panel,” Ninety-One replied, saying no more.

“What control panel?” Star said, approaching close to the front of the robot, afraid of its pinching capable fingers even though she knew, as an administrator, she should have nothing to fear from the machine. She felt the hard exterior of the robot’s ‘body’ as closely as she could but there was nothing.

“The lift’s control panel,” Ninety-One said.

“We are not in the lift,” Star said, frustration coming through in her tone.

“There is no “the” lift,” Ninety-One corrected. “You are in lift number 174 and you, as an administrator, may access the control panel of that lift.

“What?” Star, Jameson, and Wren all said together.

The robot repeated what it has stated before, exactly.

“Okay, okay, let’s think this through,” Wren said when it was done.

“Ask it to open the access panel,” she finally said to Star.

Star asked Ninety-One to open the control panel.

“You must interrogate the lift,” the robot replied as if it was speaking to a toddler.

“Lift one-seventy-four,” Star said, angrily, “I am administrator Star Black and I am requesting that you open the access panel for operation.”

Star waited. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t recognized the enclosed space as a lift when they’d come in. What else could it be? She shook her head, listening as the taps of metal on metal against the outside of the door get louder. If Sly and his band broke in then they’d have to shoot as many of the boys as they could. Star wondered just how terrible that would be for the smaller children if they survived the onslaught.

“The lift has queried the main computer complex as to your request,” Jordan’s voice said out of an unseen overhead speaker.

“Get us out of here, Jordan,” Star said, her relief causing her shoulders to slump and fatigue to nearly overcome her.

The nearly invisible crack sealing the lift’s doors opened almost a full inch at the very second Star finished instructing Jordan. Some sort of sharp wedge jammed its way inches into the small space they all occupied.

“The lift may not be moved when the doors are open,” Jordan reported, and then needlessly added, “you must reseal the doors.”

“Oh great,” Star gushed out, her anger returned and directed at the crack in the door.

“Is that thing operational?” she said, turning to Jameson, who held his high-powered rifle in both hands before him.

Jameson nodded. “Yes, I believe it is,” he said, clicking a small lever next to the trigger. “Safety’s off and it’s ready to go, but there’s nobody to shoot.”

Star gently removed the rifle from his hands, being careful not to touch the trigger. She walked over to the doors, turned to face them, and then inserted the long steel rod of a barrel as far as it would go into the crack just over the protruding bar. She pulled the trigger without ceremony.

A great blast of noise filled the metal room, but the sound was not nearly as loud as it’d been on the outside when they’d tested the thing, or inside the dome when Jameson shot the node.

Star pulled the rifle back inside and turned quickly to Jameson. “One more time,” she intoned, pushing the rifle toward him.

Jameson racked another big caliber round into the chamber of the long gun and handed it back without saying anything.

Star leaned close to the door and yelled through the opening. “Is anybody out there?”

Once more she thrust the barrel of the weapon through the crack. Before she could fire, the bar forcing the doors open was pulled back. Star fired at that second, withdrawing the gun quickly but with twisting difficult as the doors slammed shut, cutting off a blood-curdling human scream.

“I guess I was wrong,” Jameson said, moving closer and taking the rifle from her hands. “There was somebody to shoot and it looks like you found him.”

“The lift is now operational,” Jordan reported. “Given what circumstances I can determine, it would appear that you should input a destination that is different than the one you occupy now.”

“Take us to the top,” Star ordered.

“The top of what?” Jordan inquired, the lift still not moving.

“Take us to the floor that has the outside world beyond the doors,” Star came back, her anger and frustration coming through.

The lift moved upward so fast several of the children went down to the floor, and all the remaining occupants except Ninety-One were forced to bend their knees. In seconds it stopped, causing everyone to rise slighting into the air, including the robot.

Ninety-One came down with a huge thud.

“God, that’s all we need, to have this thing plunge all the way down,” Star said, but Jordan didn’t reply.

“Do not open the doors until ordered,” Star instructed Jordan, wanting to ensure that they were properly armed to oppose or attack any force they might find on the outside. It took several minutes to get all the kids packs back onto their shoulders.

Star did not return their firearms, as she’d decided that the weapons were more of a danger to them than even Sly’s band until they could be properly instructed in how to use them.

Jameson watched closely, as did Wren, as they made preparations to open the doors.

“Do you think they’re old enough to learn yet?” Jameson asked.

Star didn’t answer the question. “Ninety-One, you are going out first. If anyone is out there then just roll right over them if they are not an administrator.”

“Ninety-One and all machines in this complex have hard-wired instructions that will not allow it or them to obey that order,” Jordan said.

“Ninety-One, the order stands, please acknowledge,” Star said, ignoring Jordan.

“I will comply,” the robot answered, surprising everyone inside the lift.

“Okay, open the doors Jordan,” Star said, smiling for the first time in days.

<<<<<< The Beginning | Next Chapter>>>>>>