Ascent, Ch. 1
The first thing she saw was blurred shadows. As she blinked and opened her eyes some more, though, she began to discern more distinct shapes like squares and a door. When something zipped by her so fast as to leave a cool breeze, she jumped awake and saw at last where she was. Then it all started to come back to her.
She was standing on the platform of her stasis tube, which stood in the corner of a steely white room not far from a computer console. A quick scan around the room revealed a table that resembled a solid block of plastic with a pile of folded clothes on top and a pair of simple shoes by the base. The additional tables, the papers, and the doctors weren’t around this time, leaving the rest of the room empty. Up ahead, as she’d seen before, was the door. The entire room was swathed in a sterile light.
Noticing that she was undressed, she made her way over to the clothes, ignoring the cold sting of the smooth floor against her bare feet. The first piece she put on was a sleeveless white unitard with some writing on the front, over which she put on a just-as-white coat with buttons down the front. Even the shoes were white—whiter than her shoulder-length hair, in fact—but they fit comfortably and that was good enough. As for the coat, it was long enough that her fingertips barely touched the hem if she held her arms down straight.
Once settled into the outfit, she glanced back over to the stasis tube platform. Written across the bottom was the same thing as what was on her unitard: MIC-10.
That’s right. That’s my designation, she thought, the designation the doctors gave me.
Static crackled from somewhere nearby, causing her to jump. The momentary shock faded once she spied the computer console and realized the static was coming from there. She went straight to it and spotted the speaker embedded in a narrow strip at the place where the monitors met the desk. When she noticed the microphone, she leaned in and ventured with, “H-hello?”
“Oh, you’re awake! That’s great!” cried a voice from the other end. It sounded like it belonged to a young man. “Nice to see you, MIC-Ten. I’m still fiddling with the lock on the door, so just hang in there, okay? There should be some clothes lying around; you should put them on—”
“Uh…” She was surprised at how young she herself sounded but went on. “I already put the clothes on. If you had something to do with that, then thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Ten.” His laugh had a pleasant ring to it.
“So, who are you?”
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry. I am an automaton designated Em One Eleven. It’s written right on my shoulder.”
A couple of beeps went off somewhere on the other side of the door, after which it slid open to reveal a dimly lit hallway. A man in a knee-length blue lab coat and plain pants peeked through the doorway before rushing to meet Ten halfway. Once she had a good look at him, Ten could see nothing that revealed the man to be an automaton, but she spotted on his left shoulder the designation M1-11.
He bowed his head stiffly, but the smile on his face was wide and genuine. “It’s so nice to meet you finally! Now, do you think you can help me with something?” At this point, his face grew sheepish and he began to talk more quickly. “See, a bunch of critters started running around the labs, and I can’t stop them all by myself, Ten. Do you mind if I call you Ten?”
Isn’t that what you’ve been calling me already? she wondered, but all that emerged from her mouth was, “Er….”
“Okay, Ten, come with me. The first thing we need to do is retrieve Aye Nine. He’s somewhere further down this hallway.” And with that, M1-11 took her by the hand and rushed out of the room, turning right.
Ten stumbled at first from the sudden movement, but she adjusted to the automaton’s pace soon enough and kept up with him. They passed by several doors and didn’t stop until they reached the end of the hall. At that point, M1-11 turned to the door on the left and started to peck madly at the nearby control panel.
“El Seven and Sel Four are already holding off the critters,” he said. Afterwards, he slowed down somewhat to give a flat device with a screen on one face. “Here, hold that. I can’t do it with my hands tied.”
Above the screen was a small slit from where the sound emerged. The only words on the screen itself were Output Closed and Input Open. Under each of those words were buttons that said Switch. It took her a moment, but Ten eventually realized that what she was hearing were roars. Loud ones. From big creatures.
“Say, Em? These don’t sound like little critters,” Ten told him.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. They’re not little.” He laughed at that as the bottom of the control panel opened to reveal an open hole. Over that, he placed the palm of his left hand while his right continued to futz with the buttons above. “I never said they were little, did I? If I did, sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Now that she thought about it, Ten realized M1-11 had not, in fact, made any indication about the size of the critters. She had just assumed such from his use of the word critters, but if they were as big as she was beginning to picture—like, taller than the hallway they were in—then it would explain M1-11’s hurried behavior. Her gut feeling even suspected he was closer to the verge of outright panic than he was letting on, but she wondered if that was due to overanalyzing.
The thought flew from her quickly when she heard laughter from the speaker, laughter that was somehow both girlish and vicious. “Ooh, a big one. Let’s see how far your head goes!” Following soon after that were horrendous howls coming from the creatures being stabbed or cut—whichever it was—ending with a morbid sound Ten could only describe as a splatter crunch. The unknown girl burst out laughing, then cheered. “Hell yeah! Right across the room!”
Ten’s face contorted at this, and she wondered if it reflected the disgust and guarded curiosity she felt. She eyed M1-11 and asked, “Uh… who was that?”
“That was Sel Four,” he replied, his cheery tone unchanged. “She’s the jumpy one.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, then stared blankly at the communicator. “Jumpy. Right. Just what I was thinking of.” Crazy and violent seemed more accurate to her, but she decided not to argue the point.
“Sel Four!” an angry woman’s voice yelled from the speaker. “Quit fooling around and get your ass through the door already! Don’t make me close this on you!”
The girlish voice from before sounded nonchalant. “I’m working on it. Keep your clothes on; I got this.” She went on laughing even as additional screeches made it hard for Ten to hear her.
“That other woman,” said Ten. “Would that be… El Seven, was it?”
“Yup! She’s like a drill sergeant.”
“I think I can see that. So, um… how about the door?”
“Almost through,” he replied. A second later, he withdrew his hand and the door swished open. “There we go!”
Both of them rushed into the room, which turned out to have a mirrored but identical layout to the one Ten had awakened in. Sitting on the block table was a young man dressed similarly to M1-11 except with a shorter lab coat that had the sleeves torn off at the elbow. He was hunched over with his forehead resting on his folded hands, and not far from him was a stasis tube platform labeled I-9. If Ten had to identify herself and the other two with just colors, she would’ve been white; M1-11 would’ve been blue; and the unknown man would’ve been black, although his coat was more of a dark gray.
M1-11 approached the man and waved. “Hi there, Aye Nine! How are you?”
Nine lifted his head about an inch from his hands. “I want to kill these extra voices in my head.”
Oh, great, thought Ten, mentally slapping her own forehead. We’re forming one hell of a group, aren’t we?
“I’ll take that to mean you’re okay,” said the automaton, scratching the back of his head.
At which point Nine straightened and finally met their eyes with a dark blue gaze. “Yeah, actually, I’m fine. Sorry about that. So who’s the girl?”
“MIC-Ten. She’s quiet but really nice.”
“Just Ten is fine,” said the one in question, “and, er, hi.”
The man in black rose to his feet and approached her saying, “Then you can just call me Nine. Less work for the tongue.” When he walked up to shake her hand, she noticed his dark hair had a faint blue tint to it.
“And I am designated Em One Eleven. Nice to finally see you in person, Nine.” The automaton started on his way back out, gesturing for the other two to follow and taking back the communicator as he went. “Now let’s see what we can do to help El Seven and Sel Four!”
Ten and Nine stayed relatively close as the three of them ran to the other end of the hall. However, they were far enough from M1-11 that Nine turned to Ten and whispered, “Is that guy always like that? You know, neurotic?”
Ten smiled and gave him a subtle shrug. “I only just met him myself, and things seem kind of hectic, but I think that’s the case. Now what was that about voices in your head?”
“Oh. They give me a headache when I hear them, is all. It’s not too bad, though—most of the time.”
“I guess it could’ve been worse, then.” With that said, Ten looked forward and raised her voice to a normal speaking level. “So, do either of you know what’s going on? I know there’s a fight happening somewhere, but why? How did those, er, critters get loose?”
“That might take a while to explain,” said M1-11, “but I’ll give you the details later. Right now, we just have to seal off the lowest section of the labs. There was a huge outbreak, see? El Seven and Sel Four went to seal off that area, but I need to enter in the code for the force field to ensure nothing gets out.”
“And do you know where you can do that?”
“Yes, I do. I have a map of the whole facility programmed into me, so I know where most of the major computers are. Speaking of which, we need to go this way!” They’d come to a T intersection by then, and the automaton turned left with too much precision for a normal human. He lifted the communicator and tapped the screen before bringing it closer to his mouth. “El Seven, we’re almost there! How are you doing?”
“Doing as fine as can be with all these monsters running around,” came the woman’s voice, less angry this time but no less stern. “You find the people you were looking for?”
“I did! They’re with me now.”
“Great. Ah, Sel Four’s coming through the door now— There she is. Finally! All right, I’m shutting this thing. Get that force field up pronto!”
“Will do! When it goes up, meet us in Room Seven Five Eight on floor B Thirty-Two!” M1-11 tapped the screen on the communicator again and looked over his shoulder at Nine and Ten. “That’s the floor we’re on, by the way.”
“Good to know,” said Ten.
The longer they navigated the halls of the laboratory, the more Ten became aware of a peculiar oddity: no one else seemed to be around. The doctors she remembered seeing were nowhere in sight, and given the nature of the facility, she had always figured there would be plenty of them wandering about. Yet now, she didn’t see any doctors, much less the ones that frequently visited her in that room. That room, if she recalled right, was where she’d been born.
Actually, I think the doctors said I was created there. Not that it changes how they don’t seem to be here. Where are they? Where is anyone?
She caught sight of Nine taking glances here and there as they moved, so she guessed he must’ve been thinking along the same lines. The only thing that stopped her from inquiring further about the situation was that M1-11 had reached a set of double doors—the ones to Room 758, according to the sig—and punched few buttons on the nearby control panel. The doors slid open, and the automaton bolted through. Ten exchanged a look with Nine before they went in as well.
The room was wide with a high ceiling, and monitors hung from various tubes connected to the back wall. Unfortunately, several screens showed nothing but static. The main monitor was much larger than the rest and was set in the middle, and that was where Ten found M1-11 typing away along the central keyboard at insane speed. Two smaller monitors to the side showcased some wild activity.
Upon inspecting more closely, Ten had her first glimpse of the critters M1-11 had mentioned before. Her breath caught when she saw that those “critters” were wiry sacks of flesh and deformed limbs about half the height of the hallway, and behind them crawled their much larger cousins. Even if the hall appeared much wider and longer than the one she’d just run through, Ten couldn’t quite understand how all those monsters fit together. More pressing, though, was how fast they moved and how hard they struck despite their shapes. Their pounding on the metal walls and floor reverberated through the speakers. The door some of them were attacking bared a label that said B34-N.
Something else came back to her then—something about how the different parts of the lab were denoted—so she cast a glance over at M1-11. “B Thirty-Four N would mean… the north end of Basement Floor Thirty-Four, right?”
“Yeah,” replied the automaton. “They had to make that distinction so they could separate the live testing areas from the observatories.”
Ten turned her attention to the monitor immediately to her right and saw two women. The one who was hovering by the door had a headset atop her hair, which was tied back into a thick ponytail. She wore a catsuit, a holster on each leg, a belt around her waist, and another strap slung over her shoulder. The second woman was dressed in a unitard that had a short skirt attached, as well as a shirt that looked like it had been ripped below her bust. This one had her hair in two loose ponytails that hung behind her, and a slimmer headset adorned her head. She stood in front of the door flexing her hands, which were gloved in a glowing light that formed blades. The door was also emblazoned with the code B34-N.
Then I must be looking at El Seven and Sel Four, Ten deduced, further figuring that the latter was the one with the glowing hands.
M1-11 suddenly clapped his hands together and let out a cheer. “All right, that should do it! Move away from the door!”
Ten observed as the two women sprung from the door before it was engulfed by a light. A second later and the light vanished, leaving a veil of watery ripples in front of it. By then, the two women had left the screen’s view. The stern one’s voice then emerged from the speaker with one statement: “We’re on our way, Em.”
“Good. See you soon,” replied M1-11. He slumped forward, sighing but smiling, before straightening and taking hold of the wrists of Ten and Nine. “Okey-dokey, we have some time finally. Now, uh… I guess you can rest over there by those monitors behind you—where you were before, yeah—and just settle down.” Once they had moved as directed, M1-11 went on. “El Seven and Sel Four already know about the situation, so that just leaves you two. And believe me, it’s… a little complicated.”
“Then the sooner you get started, the sooner we can all be on the same page,” said Nine. With that, he gestured to the automaton as if to hand him something quickly, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Shoot.”
“Okay. So.” M1-11 typed a few things on the keyboard and brought up a virtual window up on the main monitor. The window displayed a map of a tall structure, one that went above and below a line labeled Ground Level. The upper and lower halves were forty-five floors each, and a red dot pulsed in a steady rhythm in the lower half. M1-11 pointed as if to trace the height of the entire structure. “Despite what this looks like, these are actually two different buildings. The lower half of this shows us the labs, which is where we are now.” He pointed to the red dot then. “Specifically, we are here.”
“Do these labs have a name? For that matter, do any of us have proper names?” asked Ten.
“To your second question, no. Since you were all involved in the experiments they used to conduct here, they only gave you designations. Even I don’t know the full purpose or extent of the experiments, though, but… let’s leave further questions on that alone for a while.
“To the first question, yes. This facility is known as Corona Laboratories, and it was built under the most ancient structure known in the world.” Upon saying this, M1-11 pointed to the upper half of the structure on the window. “Said structure is called GodStarTower. It’s the center of many myths, but about the only one that’s ever been confirmed is how it radiates with magical energy. That same energy has been keeping the labs functioning all this time.”
“And how long have the labs been functioning, exactly?”
“More than thirty years at least. That’s not the total number of years this place has existed, though.” M1-11 suddenly buried his face in his hands before eyeing Ten and then Nine with an apologetic look. “I need to be level with you two about something. According to my data logs, I was supposed to self-activate and look after the labs if they had gone unattended for five years. That happened right on schedule, but my internal clock bugged, and the only way I could fix it was by deleting it altogether. I kept the timer, but….”
“What you’re saying is,” said Ten, “you don’t know the exact length of time you’ve been active, how old this facility is, or how long we’ve ‘gone unattended.’”
M1-11 nodded and lowered his head. “That’s right.”
A sinking pit formed in her stomach as Ten bit her lip.
“It also sounds like you wouldn’t know why people stopped coming here,” Nine added.
“That’s right, too. I self-activated, and I saw no one else moving around in the facility. My automaton siblings were supposed to help out, but I’m the only one who awoke successfully. And then, er, a good chunk of them were destroyed when that part of the lab suddenly collapsed… so needless to say, I was the only one wandering the labs until recently.”
Ten exchanged a curious look with Nine before facing M1-11 again. “You have to keep maintaining a facility that’s falling apart?”
“That’s what I was programmed to do, but it’s not like there’s anyone here to enforce that,” said the automaton. “Frankly, I’m not sure it would be all that beneficial to stay here. The facility really is running down gradually. The power from GodStarTower can keep most of the machinery running, but the physical structures aren’t made of the stuff; nature’s going to take its course on this place eventually. That’s how all those critters got loose: the walls of their containment area wore too thin to be of any use.
“Since you two, El Seven, and Sel Four were among the few experiments who survived up until this point, I decided that the best thing to do was to let you out so we can all find a way out of here. So to answer your question just now, no, I’m not going to maintain a facility that’s falling apart.”
“Well… okay. I think that’s enough for now, thanks,” said Ten. “If we have more questions, we’ll ask you along the way.”
“Sounds good to me. Oh, don’t bother asking me right now about the history of the world or anything like that. That information isn’t in my database, but I believe it’s stored on one of the servers on the upper B floors. And according to this—” M1-11 pointed to the red dot again— “we have a long way to go.”
Indeed, they did. B32 was more than halfway below the forty-five floors of the labs, according to the map. Ten found herself hoping right then that M1-11 had more detailed maps of the labs on hand somewhere. They were going to need it but her especially because she couldn’t recall ever leaving that room in which she’d been created. In fact, she had a hunch that she really never did.
She was brought out of her thoughts when Nine began to speak. “Say, Em? How many other experiments like us were around back in the day?”
“Ah, well… that’s hard to say,” the automaton admitted. “They went through a lot of experiments—I’d say more than a few hundred, easily—but the vast majority of them ended in failure. Let me see what I can access from here.”
He turned around right away to start typing at the computer. Over the span of a few minutes, more virtual windows appeared. The first four contained headings that read L-7, SEL-4, I-9, and MIC-10, each with an accompanying picture. It was here where Ten noticed that L-7’s hair had a green tint to it while SEL-4’s looked more obviously blue than Nine’s. According to her own picture, Ten had brown eyes and white-blonde hair, and she looked barely older than sixteen. Somehow, though, the information written about each of them was sparse. The same held true for a few other profiles that popped up, such as those for LE-5, SG-4, CR-13, and AL-2, all of whom shared the status Dead. The only ones who didn’t were those in the group M1-11 had gathered so far and a redheaded boy, designated R-6, who looked as young as Ten.
“Who’s Are Six?” she asked.
M1-11 sucked in a breath, if such a maneuver were possible for an automaton. “He’s the dangerous one. More deadly than those critters Sel Four was ripping apart earlier, more deadly than all of us put together. The reason most of your would-be peers are dead? Him.” He shot a glance towards the doors, but nothing was there. “I hope to goodness he didn’t break out.”
“Me, neither. I remember that one. He was a real monster,” said Nine, shifting in his spot. “Anyway, can you bring up some more info on everyone? These profiles are almost completely blank.”
“I’m trying, but most of the information about you guys is locked down somewhere I can’t access.”
“Don’t you have pass codes to all the computers?”
“No, believe it or not. Yeah, I’m not sure why I was programmed to be a maintenance guy when they didn’t give me access to every part of the labs.”
“Maybe your siblings were supposed to help?” Ten guessed. “Considering the size of this facility, it would make sense to have at least one person watching every floor.”
“That would be the most logical reason,” said the automaton just before he stepped away from the keyboard shaking his head. “It looks like we’re going to have to do things the hard way, though—which is to say, I go along with you guys and I hack computers along the way.”
“Sounds like a plan,” replied the stern woman’s voice from beyond the doors.
Ten whipped her head in that direction to see L-7 standing in the middle of the doorway while SEL-4 stretched behind her. As the two entered the room, Ten could see the blood stains splattered on SEL-4’s clothes, but the blue-haired girl herself was smiling away. L-7’s pace looked much cleaner in comparison and walked with a much more even pace.
She glanced around the room and nodded to M1-11, then Ten, then Nine, before speaking again. “Well, well. Looks like the gang’s all here. Are the new ones caught up to speed now?”
“Mostly,” replied M1-11. “They know the basic situation and what we’re planning to do.”
“Good enough, then. Now how about you find Sel Four some new clothes? The scent of that blood’s going to be trouble if it stays.”
To which SEL-4 held up her hands and snorted. “Come on, it won’t be that bad.”
“Find her some new clothes,” L-7 insisted.
“Will do. I’ll be right back.” And with that, M1-11 took off.
It wasn’t long before SEL-4 let out a huff, but the smile never left her face. “I should probably go with him.” Then she was gone, too, following after the automaton.
After that, it was L-7’s turn to sigh, only hers was more clearly exasperated. “It’s going to be a long trip to the top.”
Ten couldn’t help but agree even if she never said so out loud. But as long as we stick together, she thought, we’ll find a way out. Right?