Ascent, Ch. 5
With all the traps set in the spacious testing room, the group of four had little to do outside of waiting for L-7 to return. This turned out to be much harder to do than Ten had imagined it would be. Doing nothing but waiting, listening to her own heartbeat or the occasional sound from M1-11’s communicator, and anticipating the moment when L-7 and R-6 would suddenly burst into the room.
They come in, I start setting off the traps, thought Ten. They come in and bam! Traps go off. We’re all together; should be okay. We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Oh dear I hope we figure something out—
She drew in a deep breath and let it out, then did it again with the same rhythm. It was true they hadn’t had much time to think up any kind of elaborate plan, but losing her focus would only screw up their timing. She knew this—knew it—but repeating it to herself did little to actually calm her. Even the controlled breathing didn’t seem to be helping her much, not when her mind kept imagining what exactly R-6 would look like crashing into the room and everything that would happen after that.
Furthermore, would R-6 be their only opponent, or would critters be with him? Where else could the critters be hiding if they’d gone all over the facility? Would they have anything to stop the horde from reaching the upper floors, never mind R-6? Had they done enough to prepare for his coming or no? A chill ran through Ten so fast and yet so strongly, she visibly trembled.
Then a hand was on her shoulder, and she was back in the now and holding onto a few of the knobs on the wall. The hand belonged to Nine, who’d taken to staying beside her once she’d set up the traps. They were both situated at the top of the wall—a climbing wall, as M1-11 had put it—which stuck out from the actual wall of the room. The top of the climbing wall thus resembled a shelf, one that was wide enough for Nine to have placed his staff on it without risk of it rolling away. M1-11 and SEL-4 were on the climbing wall opposite the door, but they were far enough from Nine and Ten that the latter two couldn’t hear the former if they talked too softly. As for the communicator, it hadn’t crackled with anything other than static for quite a while now. The last time sound came through, L-7 had reported that she had the attention of R-6 and was coming their way.
Nine shook Ten’s shoulder a bit harder than before. “Hey. You all right?”
The girl in white shook her head. “I’m trying to be, but after everything you’ve all said about Are Six… I’m scared. Really scared.”
“We’ll be watching out for each other, so you don’t have to be too scared.” He gave her another assuring pat—but then he jerked his head away suddenly, squinting his eyes and grunting and even moving his hand from her shoulder to a nearby knob.
It was Ten’s turn to reach out to him, placing her hand on his. “Whoa, what is it? Another headache?”
“Yeah. Sharp one, but… it’s passing. Kind of. Augmenting the staff took off the strain. Thought it made the headaches go away. But I guess it’s not… a surefire way. Argh….” He rested his forehead against the wall, and when he next spoke, he seemed to do so to himself more than to anyone else. “Stupid voices. At least say something new.”
“What are they saying?”
Nine took a moment to breathe deep. “I keep hearing these two people, a guy and a girl. The guy says, ‘Do you think we’ll be all right? There’s so much at stake.’ Then the girl says, ‘We will. We’ve gone through so much together, we’re practically family. And because we’ve formed such strong ties, I know we will succeed.’ Then the guy makes some kind of grunt, like he’s saying yeah, and he tells her, ‘I believe you. As long as you’re leading us, I can believe it.’ And then they have a little debate over who’s the more deserving of the hero label, and… that’s about where they stop. They sound like good friends, at least, the guy and the girl. There’s just one really weird thing about them I noticed just now.”
“What is it?”
“They sound like us. As in, the guy’s voice sounds like mine… and the girl’s, like yours.”
“That’s… odd.” Her face furrowing, Ten tightened her hold over his hand and bit her lip. “We never had a conversation like that.”
“And I’ve been hearing their voices since before we started our escape here. Before that experiment with Are Six, even. So I know they’re not you and me. I couldn’t tell how they sounded at first because they used to be pretty quiet, but just now, they sounded like they were right next to me. But why do they sound like us?”
The static from the communicator spiked suddenly, resonating through the whole room and drawing Ten and Nine’s attention straight to it. The pounding of metal broke through the static then, and soon after came L-7’s voice: “I’m almost there. Get ready, all of you!”
“Copy that,” replied M1-11.
Ten’s eyes shot straight to the doors, heart beating fast enough to pulse in her ears. Any attempt to slow her breathing seemed to just stop it altogether—which was exactly what happened when she heard a series of beats. Metal beats, like thuh-dah-dud, thuh-dah-dud. And they grew louder each second.
That’s him…! The traps; remember your part, Ten—
The doors burst open, and a blurred shadow zipped right over to the opposite wall and moved up. The shadow slowed down on its ascent, revealing itself to be L-7. Not three seconds later did the walls around the doors become splintered steel as something—two things—swept into the room and flapped like wings. Moments after that, they latched onto the floor as the rusted beams landed with deafening clangs.
Something flew in afterwards, something small but glowing with a magic aura. Something shaped very much like a human. The figure landed on its hands and knees as the lights above flickered. Before they cut out completely, Ten spied red hair atop the figure’s head. Her mind identified him straight away as R-6 when, for just a split second, he turned his head up and she met his glowing red eyes.
In that instant, she felt what he felt—an instant that blocked out everything else. Which was when she realized—
He’s scared? Are Six is scared? Of us?
And then it was over, ending when SEL-4 sprang off the wall with her magic blades surging to life. “Rematch time, bitch!”
The things on R-6’s back resembled wings made of ice streams, and one from the front shot up to punch SEL-4 away. Green-tinted magic pelts began to shower the area around the redhead just as Nine landed on the floor, only for SEL-4 to run past him. The wing-like streams countered by blocking the pelts as if to swat them aside.
Just before he charged, Nine called out, “Ten! Start setting them off!”
The traps that’s right—
Tearing her eyes away from R-6, Ten looked instead to the various light balls she had planted near the ceiling high above. She had set up a total of twenty earlier and called down three of them to dive and swerve behind her target. R-6 leapt away before he was hit, sending the three light balls into the back wall and with himself using two parts of his wings to stay above the doorway. Luckily, the room stayed standing.
Even when R-6 dropped back down to the floor to engage SEL-4, Nine, and L-7, Ten kept her grip on the climbing wall and her focus on the opponent. No doubt about it, the redheaded boy was as wild as the others had described. The speed with which he lashed out at each of them, the way he moved and stood hunched over—all of his actions looked feral to the point where the girl in white doubted how much control he had over himself. However, she hadn’t been imagining things before: R-6 was terrified. Utterly so. And if he was so terrified, Ten really didn’t want to fight him.
But we don’t have a lot of other options, not as long as he’s going all berserker on us. Is there some way we can snap him out of it? She had no way of knowing, of course, and neither did she have the time to look up a spell that might do the trick. If I can just meet up with the others for a second, she thought, I could ask them to not kill him. I’ll need an opening first.
Of the seventeen light balls left above, Ten called down seven of them by dropping her free hand. By both picturing and making a swirling motion, she caused the light balls to form a ring around R-6 while he was still distracted by the others. Nine had just been knocked back but was spared being hit again when M1-11 landed next to him and held out his right hand. R-6’s wing slammed against the automaton’s barrier that now stood between them, blue sparks flashing at each impact point. L-7 moved to stand behind M1-11, dragging SEL-4 along with her. With all of them clear, Ten closed her hand and turned the light balls into beams that gathered at a point above them. She imagined the beams lowering down to pin R-6 to the floor, which was exactly what began to happen. It continued to do so even after she withdrew her hand in order to climb down the knobs.
That won’t hold him forever, she realized. However, it was a better delay than none at all. She opted to jump off once she was close enough to the floor, at which point she bolted over to her teammates. “Can we just knock him out?”
The look L-7 shot her was nothing short of smoldering. “Are you insane? Are Six is going to kill us!”
“But he’s scared—of us.”
L-7 scoffed, shaking her head. “Ten, I know he looks as young as you and everything, but he’s also a killer berserker! Where in the hell do you see ‘scared’ in something like that?”
“I feel it.” When she heard the magic from her light beams crackling loudly, Ten glanced over quickly to see R-6’s wings whipping at them wildly. In response, she reached out with both hands to keep the spell together, even when the effort began to send aches through her body. She didn’t even avert her eyes from the display as she continued to talk to the team leader. “I don’t think the berserk state is a part of him. He’s really scared out of his mind.”
“We can’t afford to go on gut feeling, Ten.”
“But she can feel things like that,” said SEL-4. “Read me pretty damn good a while ago. Some kind of enhanced empathy, right?”
“Yeah,” replied the girl in white.
“Not sure we can do anything about the berserk state, though. We may have to put him down to stop him for good.”
Ten bit her lower lip, focusing more magic into her trap. “I want to try and save him. He’s like us, isn’t he? He could come with us—”
“No offense,” said Nine, “but I think you might be asking too much.”
By then, holding the spell was like holding in a breath for too long; Ten just couldn’t maintain it anymore, not under R-6’s constant pressure, and the beams dissipated in an instant. It was all she could do to make sure the remaining light balls above remained where they were and in tact while she herself collapsed to her knees. One of the icy streams snapped straight and towards the entire group, shattering the automaton’s barrier and knocking him over—
—but then Nine was in front, bringing up his staff as it flashed a bright blue. The stream caught on the staff like a rope, and Nine struggled against its pull until he finally broke free of it. He stumbled at first, but then regained his balance in time to deflect more of R-6’s strikes. In the meantime, Ten crawled away, scrambled to her feet, and rushed to a corner of the room to catch her breath.
Nine and SEL-4 had become a flurry of attacks; streaks of blue and gold, respectively, clashed with the icy streams while R-6 seemed to move independently. He whipped up one arm as more magic pelts rained down on him from a wall-running L-7. Another stream helped deflect the pelts a second later. Meanwhile, R-6 began to spin around until he was kneeling down, head lowered, and fist touching the ground. Then in one quick motion, he unleashed a shout, his upper torso rising up—
—which caused a rush of wind to fly out in every direction away from him. Ten was shoved into the corner she’d run to and heard the sounds of her teammates also hitting the walls. Several small, cold bits cut through the sleeves and side of her shirt until the rush of wind died down. When she scanned her surroundings afterwards, she saw chunks of ice imbedded in scattered clumps all over the room.
It dawned on her afterwards that not a trace of magic was channeling through her anymore. Even so, she had to check and cast a glance upwards. To her dismay, the remaining light balls she had been maintaining were gone. It was like a few icy stalagmites had taken some of their places instead.
Crap not good what do we do now—
Telling herself to focus, her eyes found their way back to R-6. The redheaded boy had just staggered to his feet when Nine, also cut up in many places, charged him with the ignited staff flaring. R-6’s wings flew back, intercepting L-7, before matching Nine blow for blow with his aura-covered hands and arms. It wasn’t long before both of them had their hands on the staff.
Then the aura around R-6 intensified, and his grip tightened. Nine responded in kind, but he started too late. Just a second after he began, the staff splintered into pieces, after which he himself was hit in the gut and sent flying back next to Ten. Only after that did R-6’s aura regress back to its original state, the staff pieces falling by his feet.
The girl in white knelt down beside her fallen friend, raising her hands and channeling some magic for a healing spell. “Hold still for a second.”
To her surprise, though, Nine shook his head and gently pushed her hands away. “Not yet. I want to try something.”
“Just focus on the battle.”
Ten eyed him—feeling for but a second a boiling rage within him—and then nodded. “Okay.”
Next to approach R-6 was SEL-4 despite the blood running down the side of her head and couple of cuts in her right side. “You remember me, right? Come on. Bring it, kid!” Despite the confidence in her words, she didn’t smile the entire time and neither did she begin to when she ran towards R-6.
After a few seconds, L-7 sped by each stream that made up the wings until she approached a spot behind SEL-4. That was when she called, “Em One! Give me a stepping stone!”
The automaton threw one palm above him just as L-7 leapt off the wall. One of her feet landed on something between her and M1-11, causing sparks of blue to spray outward from the contact point. The display was gone the second L-7 jumped away straight towards R-6 firing all the while. His battle with SEL-4 interrupted, R-6 stumbled over as his aura grew brighter once again.
Something else grew brighter, though, something right next to Ten. When she turned to see what it was, she saw Nine glowing with the same bright blue aura he had used on his staff. Now, however, the glow made him look like he was aflame. So shocked was she to see this that Ten very nearly tripped over herself stepping backwards.
“Nine? What are you doing?” she asked.
He didn’t answer her with words. Instead, he eyed her and made a small, split-second sweeping motion as if he were throwing a ball. Seeing this, Ten knew what he wanted right away.
I just hope I can do this and not hurt Are Six too badly, she thought.
Without a pause in her motions, Ten flipped both of her hands and generated a light ball over each. She shoved both of them towards R-6, who didn’t see them coming due to facing off against both SEL-4 and L-7. The two light balls nailed him in each leg, but the aura seemed to protect him since the impact only made him slip. L-7 walloped him once, and another strike from SEL-4 brought him to the ground.
Except he didn’t stay down for long. R-6’s aura glowed brighter for a brief second and hit both women with another room-wide air blast. Being as close as they were, the two were blown into the iced-over doorway even though the blast was weaker than the last one.
Nine then bolted straight for R-6. He took a few steps before stomping the floor hard—hard enough to smash the steel tiles into crooked scrap or shattered heaps. In a moment of pure terror, Ten also felt the rest of the floor beneath shake. Her eyes, however, continued to follow Nine now that he had jumped into the air.
The disruption to the floor had apparently startled the redheaded boy as well because he focused only on what was below him, not above. He looked up only a second before Nine, burning brighter than before, landed on him and brought him down. A mix of blue fire and icy surges erupted from them, and the force of the impact started a chorus of snapping metal to sing from right below them all. The last of the sounds was the loudest of them all, at which point the bulk of the floor gave out from under the two combatants.
Ten watched wide-eyed as the hole Nine and R-6 had created grew larger by the second, the remaining floor tiles bending, moaning, and falling in rapid succession. Then she was falling towards the hole, where more distant-sounding breakage rang, and she found nothing to grab onto and stop herself from sliding.
No no NO I don’t want to die I DON’T WANT TO DIE—
Her frantic thoughts escaped her in a scream. Then an arm caught her—the automaton’s arm. Though she stopped screaming, her teammate’s presence did nothing to rid her of her fright.
“Hold on tight!” said M1-11.
Which Ten did without even thinking about it. M1-11 reached out with his free hand, and out of it appeared another of his barriers. Whether or not that would be enough to soften their landing, Ten could only guess. She held onto the automaton with everything she had; she saw blue and white and shadows but not her teammates; she watched floor after floor pass by—
—and then, in a flash, everything went dark.
NOTICE: Next week, this story will be taking a break, so expect something new–but no less random and short–to be here. Ascent will resume the week after. Hope you enjoy.