Chapter 63: Baking a cake

Steven exited the lab with Chrissy, both happy with their deed and the Professor’s reaction to his new and improved condition.  Chrissy purred lovingly as she hugged Steven’s arm tightly while they walked down the hallway.  She had offered for them to go cuddle in bed for a while, pleading that she’d need the short downtime with him to refresh herself and give her the energy to face the upsetting afternoon that the Council had planned for her  They both knew that there were a lot of things to tackle later in the day, some more concerning than others.  The General, in agreement with the Council, had decided it was time to take stronger measures to gain access to vital zones and components.  The Command Centre and the Central Chamber’s ‘Preparation Room’ were among the targeted areas.   The solution to the access was believed to have been discovered only last week in the African Facility when a group of American soldiers penetrated inside two days after satellite imaging revealed its location, twenty kilometres from where the Castaways reported it to be, a puzzle that the administration had yet to address.

The United Nations had managed to convince the DRC’s government of the need to occupy that area for a while in exchange for food and medical supplies, none of which reached the general population.  A team of experts spent a week there testing various compounds on the structure before determining the right blend of acids to melt the walls efficiently.  They also managed to retrieve two dozen pieces of recently-transferred Builders equipment from the bottom of the Station and post-blast ordnance residue compatible with plastic explosive use, which was added to the list of inconsistencies from the Castaways’ stories.

 

On the way to their room, Steven and Chrissy were interrupted by a system-wide call made to everyone, requesting the immediate evacuation of the entire Facility personnel to the surface.

Chrissy stopped in her tracks and pulled out her FastCom.  “I thought the evacuation was scheduled to begin after lunch.  That’s supposed to be three hours from now; what’s happening?” she voiced out over the general channel.

“Chrissy, this is Jack.  A specialist team from the Chemical Corps has been deployed to penetrate the Facility’s Central Chamber and several other locations.  It is imperative that all Facility personnel be evac’d as the team is currently preparing a corrosive agent to expedite entry.  There is no telling how potent the compound will be once it’s synthesized and used on the Central Chamber’s walls, and threat containment is one of our primary concerns.”

Obviously, flour, water, and eggs don’t make a cake before it’s mixed either.  “Jack, why didn’t they wait until the appointed time to mix it?”

“I have no idea,” Jack answered flatly.

Muting the microphone, she turned to Steven, with an incredulous stare.  “Why is Jack even on this?”

Steven gave her a shrug and simply shook his head, his face giving off the same look of disbelief.  Chrissy’s look changed to a frown and she put the FastCom closer to her mouth.

“Jack, I’m very tired and now you are making me confused.”

“Barbie, this is Fangs.  They want me to cut the power in twenty minutes.  I don’t know what the fucking hurry is about, but I’m just as pissed as you are.  Apparently, flipping the damn switch off is all I’m good for.  They sent soldiers here who are supposed to handle the switching-back-on part.”

“Why?  That makes no sense!  If something goes wrong there, the soldiers won’t be able to do anything,” Chrissy replied, now getting frustrated with all these last-minute changes more common with schoolyard games than advanced engineering.  “Fangs, you are in the bloody army, aren’t you?”

“Officially, yes, but they just told me that they can’t guarantee the seals around the underwater tunnel and the Facility outer shell.  That’s why the G.I. Joe’s are here with all their scuba gears and equipment.”

Exasperated, Chrissy cut the communications abruptly and put her FastCom back in her pocket.  She urged Steven to continue down the hallway with her but stopped several moments later as a thought struck her.  “Honey, you know that this tunnel is attached using negative vacuum pressure, which creates a very powerful suction.  The power generating the pressure is outside and even if the force field at the entrance was to fail, the place wouldn’t flood,” she said, pointing to the rubber surrounding the tunnel, which reminded Steven of the skirt used on hovercrafts.  “They are playing it way too safe and I have mentioned that out at the last meeting.”

“I know.  My guess is that they are planning something and don’t want any witnesses,” said Steven, who was deep in thought himself.

More often than not, Chrissy felt that he was seeing conspiracy where none existed, but not this time.  However, that did not tell her what was lurking behind the change of plans.  As they were joined by others exiting into the long underwater corridor, they had no choice but to follow the crowd leading them to the shore.

With over a hundred twenty people now working in the Facility, the barracks and surrounding grounds were fast becoming overcrowded.  A quick glance was all that Steven needed to realize that almost all the new security personnel seem to be omnipresent throughout the facility and on the ground, guarding the buildings and counting each employees as they exited.

In his office, the General was already briefing his men on the four targets they planned to hit as soon as the electricity was cut off.  Two representatives from the original U.S. Chem. Corps team that did the final sampling and testing in the Afro-Station were present in the briefing.  They were all professionals with years of experience in the field and made sure that all possible variables as well as the appropriate contingency measures have been identified.  Following the end of the briefing, the General and the rest of his staff left the Facility for the surface.

Dark Fangs, also seeing her staff leave, waited for the go-ahead signal to cut the power as she stood near the holographic interface that served as the control panel for the reactor.  As a backup in case she was refused access to do it, an archaeologist named Carlos, a heavyset Hispanic man with a level comparable to Eirik, stood by.

At the other four locations, everyone opened their construction lamps and put on their gas masks.  They remotely set their TALON drones, each bearing a container that housed the synthesized mixture, adjacent to the target walls and radioed in that they are in position and ready.  Carlos acknowledged the transmission and asked Fangs to press all five buttons in sequence.  As she did so, she noticed that the colour strip for each section dulled gradually.  It took more than thirty seconds for the glow of the reactor to completely dim out.  What had been the brightest room was now only lit by two battery-powered mounted lamps.

Instant darkness crept all around them and, even with their lamps on, the difference in light intensity made most of them feel that they had stepped from the midday sun to a poorly lit street at night.  Within minutes, two of the three men on each team entered the commands in their portable computers for their drones to lower the acid container and let it spill its clear viscous liquid on the walls they were ordered to breach.  As the substance made contact, it fizzled audibly as it started to eat through the surface of the walls, producing noxious white fumes in its wake.  The miasmic fog soon permeated the rooms, only to be stopped in part by the thick commercial blanket pressed against the door frames.  Every group knew that they would have to wait for gravity to do its job.  No one could enter any of the rooms.  The mixture was so corrosive that the fumes alone would eat through the ceramic fibre blankets within ten minutes.  With two minutes to spare, the specially designed vacuum system engaged and the white mist of death was sucked away.  Their instructions were to wait for ten minutes before removing the blankets.  They were supposed to send the same drones to survey the area, but they noted that the cameras mounted on them were completely inoperable in this environment.  After a quick consultation with their commanding officers, all teams stepped in.

Inside the room next to the Central Chamber’s “Preparation Room,”’ the fireteam designated to that area noticed that the once perfectly smooth rubbery floor was now a black carpet with the texture of oatmeal.  It was with the feeling of firemen entering the remnants of a burnt building that the three-man crew advanced toward the robot and its empty barrel of acid.  Most of the metal skin was melted or was still melting.  All the glass components on the drone were intact but frosted, as if they had been sandblasted.  It took two men to pull the robot away from the wall and reveal the newly-made hole.  As they aimed their lights on the opening, it was obvious that the hole was big enough for any of them to crawl inside.  The leader of that fireteam volunteered to take the point after carefully laying a new blanket on the floor.  He was careful not to hurt himself on the jagged edges.  The acid had also dug a pit in the floor in both rooms. Although the jagged depression on the floor is no more than ten centimetres deep, it didn’t pierce through the ceiling below.

As the leader of Team One stood in the Preparation Room, he rejoiced at the thought that his team had managed to access the most restricted area in the entire complex.  He took a second to glance at the watch he had synchronized at the end of the briefing:  Only ten minutes remained before Phase Two of the plan was to begin.

“Lima One reporting, General.  As predicted, the hole is good enough for us to get in; however, the crystalline glass on the display indicating the time compression is still completely intact.  I have removed the deposit on the screen and it wasn’t compromised.  We’ll have to use paint to simulate the frosting effect as planned.”

“Acknowledged, Lima One.  We are awaiting your signal to advance the King and Queen onboard.”

“Roger that; you can send them within ten Mikes as per our training runs, Sir.  Lima One, out.”

As the other two on his team monitored the conversation, they had already prepared the spray paint that would give the screen the appearance of frosted glass.  Heat would then quickly solidify the work.  Seconds before beginning the application, Lima One was thrilled to see that he could change the numbers on the display.  He reviewed everything carefully, and then began spraying.

Like he had practiced before, he completed the task within the time set, not paying attention to the chatter of the other teams.  He informed the General, who gave the order to begin Phase Three immediately.

Chrissy and Steven were biding their time near the shore along with dozens of other staff when Chrissy’s FastCom started to sound off.  “Chrissy, it’s Jack.  We need both your assistance now.  The power is about to be restored; we need to test some rooms that have remained powered during the test.  Steven needs to make his way to the reactor room.  Chrissy, we would like you to go to the Chamber for us.”

“What the hell is going on, Steven?” exclaimed Chrissy, her concerns and initial scepticism now distilling into unfettered anxiety.  “We have discussed all the procedures, the schedule, and everyone’s duties during the power-down phase, then the evacuation went way ahead of schedule, and now this?  What the hell!?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound random or like they are just improvising.  There seems to be a plan behind their actions,” he replied, looking at her contorted face.

“Chrissy, we need you now,” reiterated Jack.

“Hold on, okay!” Chrissy snapped back through the comm.

“All I can think about is that they may want us to engage in harming the Facility, but without our knowledge.”

“Shit, I didn’t think about it.  All they need is for us to press a button without being told why, like being handed a remote control to a bomb and asked to press it without knowing what it is for,” said Chrissy.

“Although I can’t see how that could work for them.  All the doors are gone; they have access to everything and without power, I don’t think they can be digitally integrated inside the Core, so—”

“Chrissy, we are on a schedule,” said Jack interrupting her through the FastCom, anger now evident in his voice.

“No my friend, we were, until someone threw the damn clock out the window,” replied Steven to Jack this time.

“Steven, for Christ’s sake, I’m only following orders!” said Jack.

“Isn’t that what Hermann Göring said at his trial in Nuremberg?” Steven rebutted, but just loud enough to be heard by Chrissy.

“Jack really changed since the new administration is in place,” observed Chrissy.

“The new responsibilities are going to his head.”

Chrissy sadly nodded in agreement and turned her attention back to her FastCom.  “Okay Jack, it seemed like we will have to play along.  What’s the new plan?”

“Steven needs to go to the reactor.  Apparently, neither Fangs nor Carlos can turn the power back on.  Chrissy, we need you at the Chamber.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be the reverse, dude?  She is the engineer, and what about Fangs and Carlos?  They’re—” However, Steven didn’t have the chance to finish his sentence as Robert, the General’s aide-de-camp, stepped politely between him and Chrissy.

“Mr. Mitchell, sorry to interrupt, but the General asked that you be a team player for once and report to the reactor immediately.”

Chrissy turned to look at the General standing by the barracks and talking on his FastCom.  “Let’s go, Steven.”  She grabbed his hand and made their way down the long corridor to the Facility. “Why did we bother to have a week of planning if they had no intentions to follow it?”

Steven didn’t answer.  He was back in full hacker mode and trying to make sense of things.  He never worked for anyone before and now he remembered why:  Stupid bosses who gave stupid orders and smart employees needing to follow them, even if they knew it was wrong.  That type of thing was not for him.  He was a hacker, a free thinker, not a sheep that needed to be shepherded.

“I don’t like this, Baby, something’s wrong here,” said Steven, his brain on overdrive and in save our asses mode as he took his FastCom from his pocket and placed it in his pants in front of him.

“It’s okay.  Sometimes, employees are not told everything to protect the secrecy of a project.  I’m thinking that they cut the power earlier for security reasons.  It’s like money transport companies not telling the time of their visit to protect them from being ambushed.”

Steven praised her for her comforting thoughts, but it didn’t take away his apprehension for what was happening.

At the base of the ramp, Jack was there with two soldiers standing in the Welcoming Hall, formerly known as the decompression chamber.  “Hello, guys,” said Jack, with a smile that was not returned by either of them.  “I’ll have to ask you to leave your FastCom here, something to do with an experiment they are running.”

Another surprise?  “Anyway, let’s just get this day over with, shall we?” said Chrissy, handing her FastCom to Jack.

Steven stepped forward, pushing Chrissy along but was stopped by the two guys in grey Taylor’s militia uniforms.  “Your communication device, Sir.”

“I don’t have it.  I left it top site,” Steven replied.

Chrissy’s face displayed a look of surprise, but the soldier didn’t pay attention and just placed his hands on Steven’s front pockets and glided his hand on his lower back before they were allowed to enter.

“How are we supposed to make our way there without power?” Steven asked.

“The elevators are functioning properly.  They have to, since there are no stairs anywhere in this place,” said Jack. “The corridors also have lighting, but not the rooms.”

The soldiers remained behind, as Jack escorted Steven and Chrissy to the elevator and handed them torch lights.

“Have you managed to make holes in all the walls YOU wanted?” asked Chrissy.

“It’s not what I wanted, but you have to understand our point of view.  We don’t owe anything to the Builders, whoever they were, or to this place.  It’s their rules and ideas, but when the rules make no sense, they have to be changed,” said Jack.

“More to the point, violated,” replied Steven.

“Well, you would know something about that, wouldn’t you?” snapped Jack.  “You spent your entire life thinking that the rules didn’t apply to you.”

Touché, thought Steven, knowing Jack was right.  But Jack’s statement did more damage than stunning him into silence.  The comment triggered a cascade of questions in his mind.  What if he had not been ‘high-level’, would he have tried, like Jack and the rest of the Council, to force his way in places he was not allowed, like he had his entire life as Jack so rightly pointed out?  Or would he have done what the Crown Prince did and patiently spent hours in the Training Room to increase his level?

It’s with absent-mindedness that he entered the elevator and exited with Chrissy and Jack at the Core Room floor.  Jack looked at Steven, thinking that he shouldn’t have gotten out and continued alone to the reactor area.  Steven didn’t pay attention to him and hugged Chrissy while murmuring in her ear to be extra careful and she gave him a swift kiss before she left with Jack.

As Chrissy stepped in the dimly lit room, she was both shocked and outraged by the condition of the floor and the melted walls.  It reminded her of some experiments she had conducted as a teenager, when she was melting plastics to make holes in them using a hot soldering iron tip.  The smell of the lingering acid was also adding to the memory.  The toxic quality to the air and strong chemicals were overwhelming, and she was handed a breathing mask.  Her eyes were a little watery and she didn’t feel secure in the Facility anymore.

“Ma’am, I have tried to press the lit purple button to be teleported inside the Chamber, but nothing happened.  We need you to try it,” said the team leader.

“You should bring the power back on first,” said Chrissy.

“Ma’am, we have orders to try the Chamber powered down first.  It will only take you a minute.”

“Lima One, this is power room team leader.  Mr. Mitchell was unable to open the power.”

“Acknowledged, stand by,” replied Lima One.  “Ma’am, as you just heard, we can’t.  However, you said in your report that the woman in that Chamber of yours restored the language translation thing.  Maybe she can help with the power, too.”

“Let me call Steven or go to the reactor to see what I can do, okay?” proposed Chrissy, her frustration for not having her FastCom slowly mounting within her.

“Ma’am, since you are already here, just try it while the power is off and then we can go to the reactor.”

Seeing that the fastest way was to get it over with, she entered the Preparation Room using the newly formed hole, helped by one of the soldier.  Shining her light on the screen, she let out a loud sigh and touched the glass with her fingers.  It felt like fine grain sandpaper.  There were some lights and blurred unreadable text being displayed, but she could read nothing.  It was powered on for sure, but that’s all she could tell.  She felt more frustrated than ever.  Without the ability to read the screen, they wouldn’t be able to change the temporal settings properly.  The thought unsettled her as she dreaded the possibility that the recent forced entry may have altered the settings.  She knew Steven had successfully changed it from the inside on the first time that they ventured in, but that provided her with nothing more than cold comfort as she had never tried it personally.

“Ma’am, just press it, ask for assistance, and get out.  We need to restore power as fast as possible.”

“If you had not screwed up the system in the first place—” said Chrissy, interrupting herself.

“Ma’am, we needed to try.”

What ye needed is move your arss and level up.  “Alright, I’m pressing it.”  She lifted her hand up to the touchscreen console but hesitated for a moment as she was about to activate the device.  She wanted to escape, to defy these men who sought to violate this priceless technological wonder with their greed and selfish intentions, but she knew that she was powerless against them.  She saw the team leader glowering coldly at her on the periphery of her vision, his arms crossed on his chest.  She shook her head in disgust and pressed the button.  Like countless times before, she vanished into the depth of the computer memory and reappeared in the room they had redecorated together, and proceeded to summon Sordana.

“Thanks for the call.  She bought it, she’s in.  We are done here,” said Lima One on the FastCom.

“Steven is being delayed outside.  You need the power back on?”

“Affirmative,” replied Lima One.  “Power up and evacuate.  We are remaining behind for Phase Four.”

“Acknowledged.  We are bringing him in now.”

Within minutes, all other teams had evacuated, leaving the disfigured rooms and holes in their wake.  Team One stayed as the power was restored.  Jack was politely asked to oversee that the equipment, and more importantly the evidence, were recycled using the replicators and the rest brought back on shore.

Everything around them returned to its usual brightness and they all sighed in relief, as most do when the power returned after a storm.  Lima One, still standing in the room, was the first to notice.  From one corner, he observed that the rubbery floor was rapidly returning to its smooth condition, as the wave of newly reformed rubber closed in from all around.  As it almost touched his feet, he jumped on a new patch of floor and looked about him as the hole they had just made sealed itself again, leaving no trace of what they had done.  He felt both amazed and stressed at the same time and reported it through the FastCom.  To his surprise, the General seemed to have guessed that it would happen, although he heard a little disappointment in the man’s voice.  All had been for nothing.  Almost.

When Steven arrived twenty minutes later, his first reaction was to smile.  He had seen similar repairs begin in the reactor room a few minutes earlier.

“All that for nothing, eh?” he said.  “Trust me, you just go and level up in the Training Room; it’s working much better.”

But Lima One didn’t reply.

“This is Johnson.  I’m on my way. I have tried to reach Steven but couldn’t.  Wait for me to arrive before you tell him.”

“Tell me what?”

“Sorry, Sir, but you heard the director, he will be here shortly.”

Steven contoured the soldier, dematerialized the door of the Preparation Chamber and motioned to walk in, but was grabbed by Lima One and another soldier.  He stopped moving, but the men’s grip didn’t relax.  “Why? Damn it, let me in!”

“Orders, Sir,” was all Lima One had to say.

Steven focused his eyes and looked at the screen two metres from him, his view slightly disrupted by the mist that protected the room.  Lima One also looked and was not surprised to see the glass he had painted returned to normal.  Steven shifted his body to get a better view and he finally saw it.

Occupant: 1
Current Time Dilation Ratio: 10,000: 1

Steven’s heart started racing, his brain working on overdrive as he tried to make sense of things.  In school, he had always been quick in math, but that was too complex to calculate in his mind until he remembered the chart Chrissy made for one of the meetings about the Core.  Ten thousand-to-one meant that for each minute inside, two years would pass for the rest of the world.  “It is by far the most effective way to survive an Ice Age,” she had explained.  Steven’s brain had understood and, to protect itself from the shock, it shut down.  His body quickly followed as he collapsed in a heap, his body only supported by the two soldiers still holding him.  A searing pain that got worse with each passing second erupted in his chest and his hands curled into fists.  He was unable to do anything except begging to be let go.

Johnson emerged from the elevator and saw him on the floor, still retained by the two soldiers now kneeling next to him.  Johnson could see tears form at the corners of his eyes as he gasped for air and started crying even louder, tears now streaming down his face.  Steven stayed like that for a while, as Johnson was updated with what had happened.  Johnson felt sadness for Steven.  Seeing that allowing Steven to enter the Core would mean losing them both, he ordered the guard to escort Steven to his quarters, after explaining to him that they would have time to find a solution later when he recovered.

Steven heard the words and knew he wasn’t in any shape to fight his way out of it and simply allowed the soldiers to take him away.