Ascent, Ch. 4
From the looks of it, many of the stairwells were in such disrepair as to have broken already or were a step shy from doing so. M1-11 had scanned each one they’d come to thus far, and his assessments had hardly deviated from Yeah, this one’s broken or This is going to give the second someone steps on it. They already had to move across an entire floor to reach the next set of stairs that were in better shape, but even they weren’t holding up too well.
“Give them a couple more years,” said the automaton, “and the stairs won’t be too usable down this far. Let’s forget about the ones from B Thirty down!”
“I’m almost surprised they even installed stairs, what with the elevators in place,” Nine remarked. Not that the observation helped them any.
Even so, the time between all this was enough for Ten to calm down from her earlier fright and read up on another spell. It had a more formal name that was ten words long, but according to the info that came with it, it sounded like a stronger version of the Sacred Palm that also required more precision, focus, and time. All in all, it wasn’t a difficult adjustment as far as she could tell from just writing.
And while I’m thinking about easy adjustments, she thought, I think I’ll just call the spell Sacred Palm Plus. Or maybe Super Sacred Palm—just something that’s less than ten words. Less than five, even!
In the meantime, the group dropped off on B20. Something else had done so before they did, apparently, because they heard it the moment they shut the door behind them. Ten shook her head in disbelief and wondered, Just how many critters got out of the lower floors? From the sound of her groan, L-7 shared the sentiment, but she kept her pace and gestured for everyone to continue following her.
The whatever it was seemed to be scratching the walls. SEL-4 cupped one of her ears as the sound faded, and a sinister smile crossed her face. “Aw, it sounds like it’s running away.”
“Stay with the group,” said L-7. “Don’t charge ahead until we see that thing. Everyone, keep your eyes open.”
Hearing this, Ten slipped the tablet back into its pouch. SEL-4 moved up to join L-7 in the lead while M1-11 and Nine brought up the rear. They ran to a four-way intersection and turned left, where they heard more of that shuffling and scratching coming from. What greeted them was another T intersection. A shadow zipped by from right to left, after which L-7 and SEL-4 picked up the pace of their running. Ten and the others followed suit.
L-7 quickly outstripped them all; she was at the T in an instant. Once there, she yanked something from the strap over her shoulder and held it out in front of her. The object in her hand glowed briefly before several green-tinted pelts flew out of it. A piercing screech rang through the halls, which was about when the rest of the group caught up with L-7.
Unlike the last critter, this one had several legs that flailed like tendrils and yet clawed into every surface in the hall. The vaguely brown-colored beast had no eyes; rather, it had a gaping, rounded mouth ringed with teeth that were taking the brunt of the magic-generated pelts coming from L-7’s device. Her barrage was enough to keep it in place, but those monstrous, rubbery legs kept twitching in an effort to drag the body with them.
SEL-4 and Nine took point then, and the former smiled wide and laughed hard during the charge. The latter’s staff, meanwhile, ignited with that blue-tinted flame. Staff and magic blade both met the critter at the same time, sending blood, sparks, and screams through the hall. In the meantime, L-7 slowed her firing speed and took split-second delays to shoot the monster without hitting her teammates.
To supplement them, Ten formed a ball of light. She didn’t toss it right away, though, not when she didn’t have a clear opening or L-7’s crazy aiming skills. Thankfully, an opportunity came. Nine slapped the critter’s head down with a couple of whacks. Before it could rise, SEL-4 leapt on it and began cutting away at its extra legs until she disappeared behind it.
That was when Ten called out, “Nine, move!”
He did so without a moment’s pause, ducking to the left. Once he was out of the way, Ten loosed the light ball, which soared into whatever was left of the critter’s mouth. Its shriek died as the light brightened and pulsed through its body. With another few hits from Nine, SEL-4, and L-7, the critter finally convulsed as the ball burst apart inside of it. It didn’t move after that.
After everyone regrouped, M1-11 clapped his hands together in delight. “Great teamwork, everybody!”
For a few seconds, no one spoke. They just stared at the automaton. He looked to each of them in turn, smiling away—but then the collective frowns on their faces seemed to register and his smile faltered. Somewhat. If Ten had to sum up everyone’s thoughts in a simple phrase, she would use the words not impressed.
“What?” asked the automaton finally.
“Really?” said Nine. “You tell us, ‘Great teamwork’ after a fight where you didn’t do anything?”
A nervous laugh escaped M1-11 and he scratched the back of his head. “Well, er, I’m not exactly built for combat. I’m just a maintenance man, remember?”
“Is there anything you can do? And I mean besides keeping a map in your system or reading the handheld radar.”
“I know how to do healing, surgery, and bone setting. I can also generate protective barriers, but they won’t protect us from anything gaseous. Oh, and I can hack stuff—just not in the same way Sel Four does.”
To which the wild girl laughed and remarked, “I’m damn good at that, if I do say so myself.”
L-7 gripped Nine’s shoulder and looked right into his eyes. “We’re each doing our part. Now we need to find the next way up.”
“Right,” came the reply. “Sorry, Em.”
“It’s all good, my friend.” After saying so, M1-11 studied the radar for a bit. “It looks like we’re okay for now, barring the presence of another critter on this floor. The next set of stairs should be on the side opposite the ones we just used—you know, like the last couple of floors.”
L-7 nodded to that. “Okay. They shouldn’t be hard to find. The floors haven’t deviated much in their basic designs. Let’s get moving.”
They started on their way with Nine staying in the back. Ten took that chance to tug on M1-11’s sleeve and asked him, “You can heal?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m a maintenance man for both the facility and the people in it,” came the proud answer.
“That’s great! I just finished learning a few healing spells, but just in case more than one of us is hurt at the same time, I’ll have some help.”
“Yes! A thousand times yes! Having more than one way to heal is always helpful.”
“Em!” called L-7 suddenly. “Any clues about Are Six?”
“Not a-one. Any trail of destruction he leaves behind should be obvious, though.”
Ten swiveled her head back and forth between their leader and the automaton. “What signs are we looking for, exactly?”
It was L-7 who told her, “Ice. Lots of it. Either that or another one of those surges that took out that one elevator we used. We’ll also hear a certain kind of pounding on the walls if he’s on the move and really close—something like a fast triple beat.” To demonstrate, she turned to better face the girl in white and clapped her hands three times in quick succession.
That brought to Ten’s mind a rhythm like thuh-dah-dud, thuh-dah-dud. How such a rhythm would sound with something hitting the walls of the facility, she wasn’t sure—but she could certainly imagine it.
“If I remember right,” M1-11 added, “he had a magic aura that manifested on his back and resembled wings.”
“You are right,” confirmed L-7, “but how do you know that?”
“I studied some security footage a while ago when I was trying to figure out how much time had gone by since this place was abandoned. I didn’t find the answer I was looking for, but I did see footage from a live test you were all in. Bloody mess, that one. Crazy, too.”
SEL-4 shot him a look with narrowed eyes, but her smirk remained. “Is that a pun?”
Ten thought back on the profile picture she had seen of R-6. Again, the trait that struck her the most was how young he had looked. If anything, he appeared to be the same physical age as herself, whatever that was—far from the threat he’d been to the others, certainly. Then again, it wasn’t like she knew much of what had happened outside of her room.
Nonetheless, she had to know what more about the person who might be their opponent. “What made Are Six so deadly?”
“Take what Em said about how Are Six looked,” said L-7. “Now picture this guy being more wild than Sel Four in a fight. And he’s like that all the time.”
“All the time? But… how did he get like that?”
“No idea. For whatever reason, he was always berserk. The doctors never told us anything beyond what we had to do. Like defeat Are Six.”
The scoff out of SEL-4’s mouth was quite audible. “Yeah. That totally worked out, didn’t it?”
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Ten said. “Would it be right to assume the doctors locked him away somewhere?”
“Yeah, on B Forty. Let’s hope he’s still down there or that the critters are stalling him,” said M1-11.
But L-7 shook her head at that. “If he’s loose, they won’t stall him for long.”
She stopped then before turning left towards a door leading to the stairs. From there, the group burst into the stair area with a light that flickered somewhere above them. Nine held up his hands in that what the blasted hell way when he and everyone else saw that the stairs beyond the one set that went to the next floor were split in half and hanging like limp limbs. Ten couldn’t blame him for feeling exasperated; she and the others shared the sentiment—
—even M1-11. “This is why we need to get out of here. I’m not fixing all of these broken stairs!”
They delayed no longer than that and were soon on B19. Unfortunately, the stairs connecting that floor to any others were gone on both fronts, leaving them with little choice but to try one of the elevators. Seeing this, Ten had just one thought: You’ve got to be kidding me. She didn’t voice that, though and followed L-7 began to an elevator—one that was not in the same shafts as the ones they had already used as barriers.
Meanwhile, Nine jogged up to Ten and plopped a hand onto her small shoulder. “This is turning out to be a lot of fun, isn’t it?”
He was clearly much more exasperated than his tone suggested, but the girl in white opted not to point it out. Instead, she answered his statement with a shrug and lopsided smile. “Well, it’s been about as much fun as running from monsters big and small can be.”
The elevator they all slipped into was wider and more rectangular than the first one they tried, and it took the automaton a few minutes to hack through its security passwords. Ten imagined that it must’ve been used to transport big devices and the like way back when. M1-11’s explanation confirmed just that, but L-7 cut him off while he was in the middle of listing the different computers and even vehicles that had been brought in and out. “All confidential, of course,” he said about them.
They had ascended only two floors when, just like before, they heard loud clangs from somewhere below them. M1-11 stopped the elevator and shooed everyone out, and they practically jumped through the open doors at the same time. Ten even landed right on her stomach before scrambling away in a crawl and turning back. Once out, Nine punched the button to close the doors several times in rapid succession, but they slid shut ever so slowly.
At last, though, they did, and Ten let out a breath of relief. She shook her head to collect herself, then picked herself up from the cold floor. Nine was beside her in a few seconds, and they hurried to join their teammates. With a glance up at one wall of the spacious hallway, Ten saw a sign that indicated they were on B17.
Getting closer all the time, she thought.
About halfway down the hall, though, M1-11 called for them to stop. Ten moved around to get a better look at his face and saw that he was wide-eyed and completely fixed on the radar. She and the others gathered around him to see what he was watching—and she very nearly went stiff.
Several critters had managed to break onto B20. However, the icons indicating their presence blinked about three times each before disappearing entirely. One icon moved from right to left seemed to stay consistent until it was the only one left. Seeing that, Ten could feel not just her own skin prickling but also the dread seizing each member of the group.
The pounding they’d heard not seconds earlier suddenly sounded nearby before the floor blew apart right in front of the elevator. When Ten shot a look at the blast, she saw that icy surge from before, the same one that had destroyed the first elevator they had used. And when it was gone, she saw ice hanging from the ceiling low enough to almost touch the floor.
Nine spoke for the rest of them. “Oh… oh, shit.”
“Are Six,” Ten murmured. Though she tried to keep calm by breathing deep, her eyes stayed locked on the ice that had been left behind. Are Six is already coming up on us. He got out and we don’t know when. We can’t run away from him. Crap, crap, CRAP—
She finally broke out of her stupor when she heard SEL-4 ask, “Any plans, fearless leader?”
“I think so,” replied L-7. “Em One, what did you say was on B Sixteen before?”
“Uh—” The automaton perked his head up. “B Sixteen hosted one of the primary training rooms. It had a large open room for that purpose.”
“Okay. We’re not outrunning Are Six. At the rate he’s going, he might destroy something vital, something we’ll need to escape. We have to stop him before he does that.” She took off a round device from her shoulder strap—the same one she had used against the worm-like critter earlier—and started on her way down a nearby offshoot. “Em, lead everyone to that testing room on B Sixteen. I’m going to draw his attention and lure him there.”
“Wait, but… didn’t you guys lose last time?” asked Ten.
L-7 stopped short to answer her. “Yes, but we also lived. We’re also going to fight him on our terms. You can help us set a few traps in the testing room with that light ball you keep using. You can make more than one, can’t you?”
“I… I don’t see why I can’t—or why I couldn’t control all of them.”
“Right. Ask Em if you’re wondering where to put your spells. Em, do you think you can be a little creative with those barriers of yours?”
“I think so,” replied the automaton.
“Good, because we’re going to need you to help out when the fight comes.” With the orders given, L-7 began to move again. “All right. I’m going. Keep that communicator on; I’ll be contacting you all periodically.”
“Okay then. Good luck.” M1-11 capped off his statement with a salute.
Thereafter, the others split from L-7, who bolted fast enough to become a shadowy blur that vanished in seconds. SEL-4 took point about a step ahead of the automaton while Ten and Nine stayed a little further back. However, the girl in white tugged on M1-11’s sleeve as they moved.
“Is she really going to be okay?” she asked him.
“El Seven’s the superfast one, remember? If she approaches this right, she can use her specialty to make a quick getaway. There’s a reason she was one of the last ones who was knocked out during that test. So for now, let’s focus on our part.” While he spoke, the automaton slipped the communicator out of his pocket and checked it for just a second before putting it back.
“She’ll be fine,” assured SEL-4.
Despite this, Ten couldn’t help but look over her shoulder and wonder if they’d made the right choice. Are Six isn’t giving us much of one, granted, but still….
They reached the next set of stairs and went up to B16. The room they needed to reach wasn’t far from the stairs, thankfully, and M1-11 was quick to direct them there. He opened the doors with some quick hacking at the control panel before they all poured in. When he turned on the lights, Ten saw that the ceiling was high above them but still clearly visible. A ring of windows were situated well above their heads but didn’t meet the ceiling. Along the walls were several knobs and ropes that hung from various hooks. The few bars to the left and right that were suspended above the floor had rusted. Ten didn’t want to touch them for fear of breaking them.
At the sound of a few claps, she turned around to see M1-11 with his hands together.
“Okay,” he said. “Time to get started.”