Part XIV

 Star was leaning against the back door to the operations center, when it opened. Star fell backwards, but her flipping body never hit the floor, as many small hands caught her and brought her to a halt in mid-air. Star didn’t hesitate or thank her band of faithful orphans with murmured comments, as she recovered herself and finally stood before them.

Whatever heavy equipment the boys from Sly’s band were carrying toward the sphere consumed her immediate attention. She stood before the console. The display above the machine showed a view from the front opening of the operations center. The water filled moat was barely visible at the bottom. The crossing plank had been withdrawn, and the opening closed and locked. Star glanced over to make sure the hatch was manually dogged down from the inside. The sphere was a fortress, but she knew any fortress could be assaulted and broken into given enough time, and the proper equipment.

“Jordan, can you make the image bigger?” Star asked of the machine. “Is it possible to see the security threat a little better from where we are?”

The image magnified, as the high-quality lens system and digital manipulation of imaging responded to her request. The image slewed sideways and then magnified again so quickly that Star had to look away to avoid dizziness. The figures illustrated and focused upon in the display finally stopped moving. The image backed slightly away from what clearly seemed to be three young men pulling an amateurish looking wooden sled.

“What is that, on the sled?” Star breathed, as Wren stood next to her, peering intently at the strange thing being slowly dragged toward them across the floor of the chamber. The sled was a flat unwheeled slab of wood. The device mounted upon it looked like a large flashlight secured on top of a big storage box.

“The device appears to be a plasma torch, although the determination cannot be certain until a closer analysis can be made,” Jordan answered, surprising Star as she had not intended the question for the machine.

“What’s a plasma torch?” She asked the machine, since it had named the device, knowing that she didn’t really want to hear what the answer was likely to be. She knew what plasma was, something extremely hot and liquid, and she also knew what a torch was.

“It’s a cutting tool that operates by generating an extremely hot plasma that can be directed at any hard or soft surface. It is self-powered by a fuel engine inside the box-like structure, if the fuel has survived without losing its full energy output,” Jordan responded.

“Oh great,” Star whispered. “Can it cut through the door of this control center, if it works?” she asked.

“It has the capability to cut through any metal or mineral known to exist, although some minerals, as the material used to manufacture the shell of this operations center, are more difficult to penetrate than others. It would take several hours for a plasma torch, even one of that size, to cut through the door or the walls, although the heat it might transmit through the metal might become terminal for any humans located within the structure.”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Star said, pausing for a few seconds, “or flee back out through the upper door I came down through.”

“We can’t just keep running,” Wren replied.

“Yeah, I know,” Star answered, her voice low and level with a tone of resignation and determination. “Just how did they get hold of a plasma torch? How would they even know what a plasma torch was? This is insane? They don’t have anything like you to help them, Jordan, so how could they know about that thing and in such a short time?”

“Your logic, with respect to that problem, appears valid,” Jordan said. “There may be an explanation. The others, the security threat, might have accessed the railhead node.”

“Railhead node? What is a railhead node?” Star and Wren asked at the same time.

“The scheduling and operations of the trains are driven by an independent entity,” Jordan stated. “The node is a small access point located not far from the food storage area you entered the complex through. It would possess rudimentary data and knowledge of such things as construction, maintenance and the train function, as well as timing and scheduling.”

“Can you access this node and find out?” Star asked, watching the boys outside pull the sled ever closer to the sphere.

“The node has been compromised,” Jordan answered, almost instantly. “The node has been instructed to refuse entry. Access has been denied to any outside electronic entity, such as myself.”

“Outside electronic entity,” Star mused. “What about an administrator?” she said. “What about a human administrator?”

“Unknown, Star Black,” Jordan answered. “It is assumed that an administrator is simply that and would have access to any electronic entity connected in any way to this intelligence net, even if that entity has denied entry.”

“So, you were connected when we became administrators?” She went on.

“Yes, it would be accurate to so state,” Jordan responded.

“Great, another unknown,” Star groaned. “Another mess. We can’t stop them from bringing that plasma torch here. Jameson and True will never make it in time through that maze of a kitchen complex.  Does the torch have to be placed right next to the metal door or wall to work?”

“Yes, it can be millimeters away, but not many. The fuel should be too old to provide the necessary energy to power the device from much of any distance away,” Jordan added.

“We can’t take the chance,” Star concluded. “The moat. All we have is the moat to keep them back from accessing the metal shell of this place. What can we put in it that will make sure they don’t get too close?”

“Unknown at this time,” Jordan said.

” We need a list of all liquid substances you can put in the moat,” Wren asked, from Star’s side.

“The available liquids that can be immediately synthesized can be put on the display at your convenience,” Jordan replied. The display video, showing the boys moving their sled closer to the sphere, dragging their heavy load inexorably behind them, was overlaid with an almost never-ending scroll of see through words and phrases.

“Stop,” Star ordered. The display froze with the phrases in front of an unmoving photo of the boys, with the huge plasma torch on the sled behind them.

“Describe hydrochloric acid and what it does,” Star instructed the machine.

“Hydrochloric acid is a powerful reducing oxidation agent that is colorless, tasteless and without aroma until it combines with other organic or inorganic substances around it,” the machine recited.

“Perfect,” Star breathed. “How would it affect a human being or that plasma torch thing?” she asked Jordan.

“Thirty-eight percent industrial strength acid would dissolve normal thicknesses of human skin almost immediately, depending upon oil concentrations natural to the subjects. The plasma torch, excepting any parts made of plastic, glass or lead, or metal such as this facility is constructed of, would be reduced to the point of uselessness in seconds of exposure or immersion,” Jordan said.

“Remove the water from the moat and refill it with hydrochloric acid at the concentration you mentioned. Put out the plank, but keep the door locked securely,” Star ordered.

“You’re putting out the plank for them?” Wren asked. “Won’t that help them get closer?” she asked.

“Yes, it’ll do that alright. Let’s see what happens when those boys get here,” Star answered. “Do you have contact with Jameson yet?” she inquired of Jordan.

“Sounds consistent with arrival would appear to be coming from the bottom of the stairwell,” the machine answered.

“Jameson, can you hear me?” Star said, loudly and clearly into the console.

“We’re here,” Jameson’s voice came back, as if from a great distance. “Lots of stuff though. The stairs are pretty steep. It’s going to take a lot of trips to get the stuff up there.

“Can you provide any assistance in getting the supplies up to this area, Jordan?” Star asked.

“There is a lift near the stairs, but it opens to the outside of this center. Do you want me to activate it?”

“Jordan, calculate how long it will take the boys with the plasma torch to get within eyesight of us. How much time do we have to work before they get here?” Star inquired.

“Twenty-two minutes, depending upon their ability to move the sled and also to resolve distance with their limited eyesight,” the machine answered.

“Great,” Star said, and then raised her voice. “Jameson, get one load on the lift. It should open when Jordan orders it to open from up here. We’ll drag it all inside here before Sly’s guys arrive with the plasma torch.”

“Sly’s guys? Plasma torch? What are you talking about? What’s going on?” Jameson asked.

“When you get here,” Jordan replied.

“Open the lift, whatever the hell that is. What’s the difference between a lift and an elevator?” Star asked, wondering if it made any difference to know.

“A lift is not enclosed,” Jordan replied, “it is an external rising or falling surface upon which materials and beings can be assembled and moved vertically, but there is no support from the sides or the top. There are no sides or top,” Jordan replied.

“Where’s the elevator?” Jameson said, from the bottom of the stairs.

“It’s a lift, not an elevator,” Star replied. “Look for something not enclosed,” Star said back, thinking about what the machine had said. “Jordan, make the lift move a few feet above the floor,” she ordered, beginning to understand that the lift was simply a flat section of floor that went up and down. It would be impossible to see the small cracks giving away its location against the sheen and shimmer of the metal floor.

“Hey, stop,” Jameson yelled. “The floor is moving,” he finished.

“The lift is part of the floor itself, isn’t it,” Star said to Jordan.

“Yes, a portion of the floor rises and falls. It is a lift and not an elevator,” the machine replied, as if in satisfaction.

“Can Ninety-One, the robot, come up to help us?” Star asked Jordan.

“Yes, although Ninety-One is damaged, certified to be undependable, and has never traveled outside of the kitchen area. It would be unwise to enlist the services of this machine in your endeavors.”

“Great, you’ve just described this whole mess of an adventure. Ninety-One will fit right in. Please have it come up with the supplies and my people,” Star ordered.

Star could not believe how relieved and thrilled she was to see Jameson as he approached the operations center door.  After the door was opened, the children ran forward and cavorted around behind him, while True reached down to get some water from the moat.

“Stop,” Star screamed into the console. Jameson, the kids and True all froze in their positions. “It’s not water, in the moat. It’s hydrochloric acid. I’m not sure what it really does but Jordan said it dissolves human skin in a few seconds.”

True pulled his hand slowly back. All of them, on the outside, took a few steps back from the moat.

“We’ve got to move fast,” Star said, ordering Jordan to unlock the door while she undid the manual dogs securing the thick metal door in place. “Let’s get all the stuff from the lift inside as fast as we can,” she instructed. “Don’t fall off the plank, whatever you do. The acid looks like water but it’s not at all.”

It took almost twenty minutes to bring the many boxes of supplies into the operations center. Star stayed close to Jameson, drawn by the boy’s power and dogged determination to get the job done. It didn’t seem to matter what the job was, she realized, as much as it was in doing it fast and well. She felt hopelessly drawn to Jameson but didn’t know how to show it. It made her indescribably happy to just be at his side, carrying precariously balanced boxes across the narrow plank and then resting for a moment together.

“Security protocol alert,” Jordan intoned.

Star gathered the children and guided them all inside as the three members of Sly’s band, pulling the torch sled behind them, began to close on the sphere. The range of the machine, whether it would work or not, and the intent of the boys were all unknowns. Star and her band watched the display and waited, not knowing what the result of the coming conflict might be.

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