Ascent, Ch. 3
M1-11 slammed a button on the control panel, jerking the elevator to a halt. The doors swished open a split second later, and the group flew onto whatever floor they’d stopped on. Ten felt Nine’s arm on her back before following close behind her. No sooner had he stumbled out did the doors slam shut—
—and then an icy surge speared its way through the shaft, engulfing the entire elevator in an upward cascade. To Ten, the sound of the surge reminded her of metal sliding past metal mixed with electricity and wind. It was not only the force of the impact that caused her to tumble and flinch; the sheer volume of the sound and its piercing pitch also played a part.
The spectacle lasted only a few seconds, but Ten couldn’t uncurl herself until almost a half a minute afterwards. Nine stayed by her with one arm slung protectively over her shoulders; however, L-7, SEL-4, and M1-11 stood up much sooner brushing glass shards off of themselves. When Ten looked up, she saw L-7 shaking her head and bearing a face even more grim than usual. Her eyes turned back to the elevator then and finally understood.
The doors were trashed, dented from the other side by shards of metal. A few pieces poked through to their side. Beyond them lingered little more than traces of diamond dust. Somehow, the icy looking surge had burned the walls of the shaft. Being able to see the shaft through the ruined windows meant there was little or nothing left of the elevator itself. The sole piece of optimism Ten could scrape together was that the elevator shaft was remained in tact.
With her perpetual smirk now subdued, SEL-4 summed up the situation. “Well, there goes the easy way up.”
“No shit,” snapped L-7. “Nine, Ten, Sel Four, you three go scout around and look for any signs that something may have come up here. Em One Eleven, come with me. We need to plan out another route.”
The automaton replied with a quick salute. “Right-o. Lead on.”
The two of them went down the hall towards a corner that curved right. Ten stood up alongside Nine, and then they and SEL-4 traveled down the opposite way. The corner they came to curved left, and Ten wondered briefly if the floor—indeed, every floor—was shaped like a giant square. The thought left her, however, as she spotted an offshoot as soon as they had made the turn. Soon after, she learned from a mounted sign that they were on B22. Part of her wished they could’ve landed a few floors higher, but the progress was significant regardless.
I just wish I knew what could’ve caused that magic burst, she thought.
SEL-4 had just finished batting at the air in front of the offshoot before she gestured for Nine and Ten to join her. “So. That burst remind you of anyone?”
Ten raised an eyebrow at her. “No.”
By contrast, Nine let loose a grunt and clucked his tongue. “Kind of, now that you mention it. Why?”
“Because I remember some of those live tests they put us through,” said SEL-4. “You know, the ones where they had us fight him?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how we survived that last one.” Nine pointed to the side of his midsection before placing his hand there as though he were covering a wound. “I think the last thing I remember before we woke up now was Are Six kicking me right here and sending me into a wall.”
“He got me with a burst like that one we just saw. I guess the doctors must’ve sent us back to our rooms to recuperate before they hightailed it out of here.”
“For some reason, yeah….” Then her friend’s statement registered in full, and Ten’s thought process screeched to a halt. Confounded, she whipped her head back and forth between her two companions. “Hold on… you two fought Are Six before?”
“Oh, right; you’re the newbie.” SEL-4 breathed deep after the offhand remark, and her usual smirk faded into something more lazy or tired. “Yeah, we fought Are Six. The doctors wanted to test something, but I don’t know if it was us or him. I just know Are Six put up one hell of a fight.”
Nine patted Ten on the shoulder. “Count yourself lucky you never had to fight him—even more so if we can get out of facing him again.”
“Oh, good point.” And as the thought crossed her mind, Ten really hoped they could luck out.
SEL-4 stretched her arms up briefly, and then her smirk returned. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind fighting him again.”
“But you wouldn’t mind if you didn’t have to, right?”
At first, there was no response. Only after a few seconds did SEL-4 finally answer with, “What makes you say that?”
“Er, well… Everyone can see clearly that you love to fight, but only if it’s the critters. R-6 is anything but your average critter, though, so you’d rather avoid a fight with him as much as possible. But if you do, then you can pay him back for last time.” Not knowing how well her tone had come off, Ten quickly added, “No offense.”
Rather than scold or scream, however, SEL-4 crossed her arms over her chest and nodded slowly. “You know, you’re not that far off. Drawn-out fights aren’t something you want to get into. I know that. El Seven only nags me about it all the time.” Upon saying so, she laughed a little. “But I do love me a good fight, and it sucks when it ends too fast. Having lots of critters to kill meets in the middle. Are Six… yeah, you pretty much nailed my thoughts on that one. Realistically, we’ll need a lot of brain and brawn to take him down. How’d you figure all this out, anyway? Mind reading?”
“Not exactly. I’m not sure how to describe it. It just struck me that you didn’t seem as confident about fighting Are Six again. I can’t read minds like I read the books in the tablet, though.”
“So is it some kind of empathetic sense?” asked Nine. “A kind of psychic thing that lets you sense how other people feel?”
“Yeah, actually… it’s more like that,” said Ten. “Where’d you learn about it?”
“Sometimes, I’d hear the doctors talk about random things beyond what they wanted me to do for the test of the day or week. I thought a couple of them mentioned working with another subject who was supposed to have a great talent for magic and an enhanced empathetic sense. Did your doctors ever have you test that out?”
“Maybe… once or twice? I don’t quite remember everything they asked, but I know they had me tell at least once how a person felt deep inside. I told them what I thought, they jotted a few things down, and then they left. Most of the time when they came in, it was just to teach me how to focus my mind or study various subjects.”
“Huh. I wonder if they were talking about you, then.”
“It’s possible. Our rooms were in the same hallway.”
Nine suddenly turned to face her and held up his arm and fist as if to create the top of a cane with them. “Here. Hold your hand up like this.”
Ten proceeded to follow his example, after which Nine lightly bumped his fist into hers. Delighted, she bumped him back, not bothering at all to stop herself from grinning. “Where’d you learn this?”
“I saw two of the doctors do this once. They weren’t as cold as the others, but I never had a chance to talk to them before everyone upped and left.”
“However long ago that was,” SEL-4 chimed in, after which she pointed behind her to further down the hall. “Anyway, we were scouting?”
“Right,” said Nine, “and I could use a weapon.”
“And I need to find the time to learn some healing spells,” Ten reminded them. Upon realizing the full extent of what she’d just said, she bit her lip. I can read fast, all right, but will I be able to do so fast enough before the next huge fight comes to us?
SEL-4 popped her shoulders up and down, her smirk emerging once more ever so slightly. “Just read up on them along the way. Don’t worry; we won’t leave you too far behind.”
The trio took off after that. While on the move, Ten was quick to bring out the tablet and search The Book of Saints for anything that could hint at healing. It dawned on her in a brief second that she wasn’t sure if there were different degrees of healing spells and effectiveness, but she soon found her answer in a section called, “The Sacred Palm.” By having the hands channeling magic while keeping them just above a person’s wound, one could concentrate the innate spiritual energy in the person and that which was used for the spell in order to mend the damage.
It can’t heal every kind of wound, Ten thought as she read, but the spell can at least keep some of them from growing worse until better treatment can come. So this is more like an on-the-spot healing spell. Well, better than nothing. So what else do we have? This can’t be the only healing spell recorded in this thing.
And to her relief, it wasn’t. The more advanced spells were just more complicated. Needing to start somewhere, she settled on reading up on the Sacred Palm spell more thoroughly. Given the number of other spells and their longer instructions, the girl in white didn’t have much choice but to leave them for later.
She was in the middle of reading when Nine diverted them into a room. SEL-4 tapped a switch by the door, which caused the ceiling lights above them to light up. On every wall rested racks of weapons, most of which resembled sticks of varying lengths. This became less strange to Ten once she began to study the weapons more closely. All of them bared inscriptions on their hilts with one repeated line of instruction—that being, to utilize magic to make the best use of the weapon. Fascinating as that was, they had no means of carrying all the weapons in the room.
Nine yanked one staff from a rack on the wall opposite the door and twirled it around. Not a hint of hesitation or confusion marred the fluid, sweeping motions he made from one stance to the next, so Ten concluded that he knew what he was doing. He cast a cocky smile in her direction after his self-test, and she gave an approving nod in return.
SEL-4 followed with her own nod before jerking her head towards the door. “Now that you’re armed, let’s go outside and meet whatever’s come up here.”
Ten froze completely in body and mind. “Wait. What?”
“I thought I heard a critter or two running around up here. Figured I’d go check it out, and now that Nine has a weapon, I won’t have to go alone.”
“Do you think it might be Are Six?” If it were possible, Ten thought she might’ve gone even more white than she already was.
But SEL-4 laughed it off. “Nah. If it were Are Six, we all would’ve noticed, and you wouldn’t have been so glued to that tablet.”
“Hey, cut her some slack,” said Nine. “The sound was really quiet, and she’s trying to learn something that could save our asses down the line.”
“Wasn’t trying to be harsh.” She capped it off with a shrug and a gesture towards the door. “Let’s see what we got out there. If you’re not done reading, Ten, stay in here for the time being. We’ll be back.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” asked the girl in white despite her dread. “I only know one attack, but every little bit would probably help.”
“It’ll be fine. Just keep reading.”
When Nine and SEL-4 rushed out of the room, Ten couldn’t help but feel like she’d been discarded. Not wanting that to sit with her for long—in addition to knowing full well the importance of what she had to learn—she focused all her attention on the contents of the tablet. She studied the images of the Sacred Palm spell and read the instructions more carefully than when she’d been running through the hall. She’d just read through half of a list of injuries the Sacred Palm could heal when she heard loud clangs and sparks from further down the hall.
Oh, crap. Go help them; don’t be afraid; you’re not alone—
Without putting more thought into it, Ten veered right the moment she’d gone through the doorway and followed the sounds of combat. The hall eventually came to a four-way intersection, but a crackling flared to life somewhere ahead of her. Ten bolted in the direction while she prepped the light spell and then kept it close as though she were holding a ball. She paid little attention to the lack of working lights above or her fast-beating heart as she focused strictly on what was to come.
Yellow- and blue-tinted lights flashed, and as she approached, Ten could make out the silhouettes of Nine and SEL-4 darting and dancing around something or other. Whatever kind of critter it was, it was tall and bulbous. The staff Nine held glowed a bright blue from end to end, and the wispy aura of the magic resembled flames. The ball of light in Ten’s hand had a similar looking aura but was more transparent.
Don’t be afraid, repeated her inner voice. You’re not alone.
Once she saw Nine and SEL-4 jump away from the beast, Ten made an underhand throw to launch the ball of light forward with a high-pitched whistle. It soared fast straight into the critter’s gut and seemed to disappear; meanwhile, the monstrous creature wobbled and curled forward as sparks snaked out from where it was hit. Nine moved in next, using one end of the staff to smack the critter’s face up in time for SEL-4 to charge in, jump, and stab it in the face with one of her conjured blades. As it fell backwards, she rode with it and tumbled away.
The next few seconds came slow and quiet, but eventually, Ten began to notice more of her surroundings. For one, the critter they had just defeated was not the only body lying in the hall. For another, the various stains on the walls, floor, and ceiling had come from other critters whose remains were scattered about here and there. Finally, there was the smell of it all—a repugnant odor that tore into her nose as if a knife blade had done the deed instead.
Too bad I don’t know any spells that could kill this stench. And as the thought ran through her head, she lifted a part of her shirt to cover her nose and mouth.
Then Nine was by her side, slapping the center of her back and laughing. “Nice shot there, Ten!”
“Thanks,” she replied, after which they shared another fist bump.
SEL-4 emerged from behind the bulbous critter without her conjured blades and with a dance-like bounce to each step. “Game, set, and match. That was the last one, though. You came in a bit late to claim a kill.”
“I don’t mind,” said Ten. “It’s not like anyone’s keeping score.”
“I keep score. It’s my own score, but I keep one. I think that last one got me to twenty.”
Nine twirled the staff until it was resting on his shoulders, its glow gone. “Hah, yeah. I already lost track of mine.”
“Your scores are going to be the least of your concerns,” came a voice from behind them.
Ten recognized it instantly as L-7’s, and a simple turnaround allowed her to see the latter’s ever serious countenance. Behind her, M1-11 fiddled with some handheld device, but L-7 quickly diverted the attention back to herself by coming up closer to the others.
“You got that look on your face,” said SEL-4. “What’s the problem? Or did we already take care of it?” She punctuated her question by pointing to the critter corpses nearby.
“They were just one wave,” replied L-7. “Basically, we didn’t trap all of them down on B Thirty-Four N. The critters are probably scattered all over the labs.”
Nine gave a grim nod but then gave a snorted laugh. “Good thing they’re not hard to beat.”
“Maybe… but with critters coming up this far, Em One Eleven thinks Are Six might’ve broken out and caused that magic surge that took out the elevator.”
Struck frozen yet again, Ten exchanged looks with Nine and SEL-4 as she replayed their previous conversation in her head. The last out of the three looked the least concerned as usual, but she was more concerned than her disinterested face suggested.
“So it wasn’t just us who were thinking that,” said SEL-4.
L-7 gave her a nod. “I could say the same to you, but we’re still not sure if Are Six is really on the loose. Em’s radar detects movement only so many floors above and below us. Either way, we need to reach the main computer sooner rather than later.”
Another thought struck Ten hard enough that she could barely find her voice to speak. “You don’t suppose those critters got up here because they used the elevator shafts, do you?”
“Oh, they did. We had to kill one that had crawled up a shaft we passed on our way to you guys. I sent the elevator down to block them off, but it won’t hold them forever. Only closing off some floors entirely will do that. Then we can let the critters kill each other for a while.” With that said, L-7 turned to M1-11. “Any luck with the tracker?”
“Yeah,” replied the automaton. “The critters on B Thirty-Four N are still trapped, but I think some of them took each other out. I imagine most of the critters from the lower floors are either dead or still stuck down there, so our being on B Twenty-Two has put a good distance between them. I’d say the critters we encountered here must’ve already been on their way up before we sealed off B Thirty-Four N. Of course, a lot of floors from there down had critters, and not all of their doors were responding….”
“Okay. What about Are Six? Is he running around free? Was he the one who took out the elevator we were in?”
“He wasn’t locked on B Thirty-Four N. And like I told you earlier, this portable radar tracker doesn’t distinguish between the critters and other life forms, so…” M1-11 looked up at L-7 and the others, his face downcast. “I’d say we should assume the worst.”
“Should we block off any other ways up here?” asked Nine.
“That would be a good idea. Any kind of delay on their end means more time for us to reach B Three before one of them do,” said L-7, “or worse yet, Are Six. We don’t want them destroying anything that could help us.”
Ten sucked in a breath. “Like the main computer.”
“How are we going to reach it if the elevators aren’t safe?”
“Strictly speaking, nothing is one-hundred percent safe. But this place has plenty of stairs, so we’ll be taking a long way up. If we see elevators, we should use them to block the critters’ path until we can lock down those areas for good.”
“And Are Six?”
“Working on it.” L-7 then walked past everyone while waving for them to follow her.
The group stayed close together, passing by another elevator that L-7 sent down several floors. Ten didn’t quite catch how far it was set to go before they were on their way again and arrived at a stairwell. All the while, she peered around ever corner they passed by.
Just in case they weren’t alone.