Ascent, Ch. 7
Between all the reading she did, Ten made the occasional check on the surveillance sphere she had made to see if any part of the network had spotted anything out of the ordinary. Nothing seemed to have changed, which was quite a relief, but she dared not break from her vigil.
She also took the occasional break to see how the others were doing. It was at the end of her first round of checks on her teammates when she noticed something about R-6 that she hadn’t seen before. Unlike the photo she’d seen of him on his profile image however long ago, a spot of white now rested in the front left side of his otherwise red hair. How did I miss this before? she wondered, but then recalled that she hadn’t looked at him too closely in the midst of all the moving around she’d done earlier. Strange as Ten found the white spot’s presence, it wasn’t like R-6’s condition suddenly took a turn for the worst, so she assumed nothing was wrong.
When she asked M1-11 about it, he gave the following answer: “It might be a side effect of him having all that magic channeling through him for so long. Extensive use of magic tends to leave physical marks, or so the reports say. That’s not nearly as bad as exhaustion—or, you know, concussions or lost limbs, or even—”
Ten grimaced and put her hands up to her shoulders. “Er, right. I get it.”
“Speaking of him, actually, what did your tablet of knowledge tell you about the berserk state? Is it permanent?”
“Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the spell’s effects can linger after the caster dies. No, in the sense that it’s possible to knock someone out of it by putting the person to sleep or knocking them out. Just as long as it leaves the afflicted unconscious for a while.”
“All right, so that’s a point in his favor—a few of them, actually.”
“Like I’ve been telling you.” Upon saying so, Ten stuck her tongue out at the automaton, who laughed it off in response. She then went on to add, “In any case, the difference seems to lie in whether you use the curse version or the, erm, normal one. The curse version is the worse of the two because it can persist without the caster being around. Normally, it would wear off after a few minutes.”
“And now we know how to fight it.”
“That’s right. Anyway, I’m sure Are Six will be okay when he wakes up.”
M1-11 nodded to that.
From there, several hours that passed without a change to anyone’s conditions. M1-11 was the one exception as he informed Ten of how much power had returned to him on occasion. In turn, she checked the surveillance sphere she’d made a few times and even let it hover in front of the automaton after a while to have him observe in her place. This gave Ten a chance to rest, and she did so by sitting next to M1-11 and facing the door. She never quite fell asleep; rather, she sat with her eyes closed while letting her thoughts run. Doing this allowed the aches in her body to fade without her losing the concentration she needed to maintain the Watchful Eye spell, small as it was.
Nonetheless, she felt like she’d been startled awake once she heard some movement over on her left. Ten whipped her head towards the direction of the sounds and saw L-7 about ready to open her eyes, so she rushed to the team leader in case she needed some assistance. By the time she was beside L-7, the latter had started to lift herself up from the bed.
Ten placed her hands on the leader’s shoulders before coming to a complete stop. “Whoa, there. Take it easy for now.”
“Right, right,” came the murmured reply. “What happened? Where are we?”
“A medical room on B Twenty-Four.”
“B Twenty-Four?” Though L-7’s tone had risen sharply upon hearing the news, she didn’t make any sudden movements; she just stiffened for a second or two before settling back. “I remember now. We fell… because of whatever Nine did. Shit, I didn’t know he could do that.”
“I didn’t, either. I was going to ask him about it once he woke up, but he’s still sleeping. So is Sel Four.” Ten gestured over to them, both of whom were to L-7’s left.
The team leader took one quick glance over to her fellows before turning back to the girl in white. “Nine packed enough power to send us down eight whole floors, but he hit Are Six before we all fell. What happened to Are Six? Is he dead?”
“Erm….” Ten’s voice caught in her throat, whipping her head towards M1-11 and thinking all the while, Crap what do I say what do I say. Her hesitation lasted just long enough that she didn’t even need to see L-7’s glare to feel it cutting into her.
“What happened to Are Six?”
Argh, just go with the truth. “He’s, er… he’s still alive.” Steeling herself, Ten pointed across the room. “We brought him over there, actually.”
L-7 slammed the bed with her fist, her green eyes burning. “You spared him?”
“I wanted to save him—”
But the team leader was already fixing her anger at the automaton. “Both of you spared him?”
“Er, try not to jostle around too much; you’re still recovering,” said M1-11. “Also, I can explain.”
“Then get cracking. Why didn’t you kill him?”
“Honestly, I did consider doing that before Ten woke up—and tried it—”
Ten shot him a look. “You did? Em!”
“—but I couldn’t do it.”
By this point, L-7 had slid off the bed and was storming over to him. “Yes, you could have. You could’ve just punched him in the throat or snapped his neck. Done.”
“I tried that and I couldn’t. As in, my circuitry said, ‘No, you’re not doing this’ and stopped me. One of my directives is to safeguard human life, and it looks like all of you count as such—including Are Six.”
“Aren’t you already ignoring one of your directives by trying to leave the labs with us? Why couldn’t you ignore this other one? Did you even try for more than two seconds?”
“I’m an automaton. I can process things faster than that.” Before L-7 could say more, M1-11 went on with, “The point is, I couldn’t actually kill any of you if I tried; my own systems would prevent me from taking lethal action. I also remembered that Ten said she wanted to save him during the fight, and she insisted on it after she woke up. That went along with that directive I can’t ignore, so… well, you know the rest.”
“You two are ridiculous.”
“On the bright side, she’s been doing research on the berserk state and has come up with some good news. Are Six might not actually be a threat anymore.”
Ten had joined them by that point and met L-7’s unrelenting gaze with one of her own. “It’s true. I’m sure we’re safe from him now.”
“And what makes you say so?” asked the team leader.
The girl in white thus reiterated what she had told M1-11 before about the berserk state. She even went so far as to bring up the relevant info on the tablet’s screen. “The book said the spell causes the eyes of the afflicted to glow a solid color, which we saw earlier. Furthermore, the curse’s magic would surround the afflicted like a spiral helix.”
“I didn’t see anything like that.”
“That’s because it’s not something we can see; the glowing eyes are the only outward sign that the berserk curse is active. Besides, Are Six isn’t channeling any magic of his own right now, and neither did I sense any of it surrounding him. Literally the only thing that could make him go berserk again is if one of us threw the curse on him.” Her explanation done, she turned off the tablet screen and put it away. “We—are—safe—from him.”
L-7 buried her face into one of her hands and sighed. When she looked up again, though, the anger in her eyes had settled back into her usual grimness. “Having his power against the critters would be useful… but we need to keep a close eye on him at all times to make sure he remains stable.”
“I told you, we’re—”
“And I heard you. I just don’t trust everything that’s in that tablet to be up-to-date. We’re in a giant laboratory, remember? The doctors here did nothing but tests, most of which were done to find and eliminate deficiencies. Whatever it was they did, they always seemed to know more than they let on to us. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the things they looked into was a way of making curses like the berserk state permanent no matter what.”
Ten bit her lower lip and averted her eyes. “So you won’t be one-hundred percent convinced until he wakes up, right?”
“Yeah. You’ve made a good argument, believe me. If Are Six wakes up and doesn’t go wild on us, then he can come with us. If he does, we’re putting him down, end of story. And if neither of you are going to kill him, I will.”
The girl in white hung her head, her silence complying in place of words. Better than nothing, she decided. Actually, it could’ve gone much worse….
No one spoke afterwards for some time. L-7 returned to her bed but stood by it instead of lying down again, leaving Ten and M1-11 by the large computer. The girl in white occasionally glanced over to where the team leader was, then to R-6, before seating herself on the floor. She studied the surveillance sphere and again saw nothing out of the ordinary. A few of them relayed some distant poundings, but they were infrequent and revealed no source.
“You know,” M1-11 said suddenly, “it’d be real helpful if the critters were staying away from here on purpose.”
Ten raised an eyebrow at him. “Why would they do that?”
“We made one hell of a commotion on our way down. Considering how widespread the critters are, some of them had to have been nearby at the time. They probably ran off when we came crashing down. Granted, I doubt they’ll stay away for too much longer, but hey—it works for us, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does.”
“By the way, I should be good to go in about thirty minutes.”
“That’s great! Goodness, how long has it been since you started recharging?”
“Going on eight hours now.”
Ten nodded. “Oh… thanks for helping with Are Six, even though I didn’t ask very much.”
“You’re not mad that I considered going against your wish?”
To that, she shrugged. “I don’t see the point in staying mad about it now.”
“I see. You know, I got to confess, Ten… I’m actually kind of glad my own programming keeps me from killing people. It just felt ugly even when I was considering it earlier. I knew it would be the most practical thing to do, but still….”
“The point is, you didn’t go through with it. So again… thanks.”
The automaton laughed in response—
—and no sooner did he do that, someone nearby gasped, followed by a series of quick, quiet pats. Ten shot to her feet and swiveled rightwards to see the source of the sounds. Right away, she saw that R-6 had awakened. He was now sitting up in the medical bed, the blue beams having stopped running. Wires still connected him to the nearby console, but at the moment, he was staring wide-eyed at nothing in particular. The magic aura he’d had around him during the battle didn’t reappear.
Though Ten met his gaze in the seconds that followed, she had felt his fear the moment he’d jolted awake. She didn’t hesitate then and approached him. Knowing L-7 was also on the way, Ten turned around and gestured for her to stay back for the time being. That didn’t stop R-6 from staring at L-7 with absolute dread.
Ten was right next to him when he looked at her again, giving her a perfect view of his red eyes. They weren’t glowing like they had been during the battle; it was just the colored part of his eyes that were red now. The clothes he wore looked like Nine’s except brown and even more torn up, especially the sleeves. The sight of this reminded Ten of the rips and tears in everyone else’s clothes including her own. She filed these details in the back of her mind, though, as she began to reach for the wires attached to him.
He recoiled from her immediately.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m just taking these off of you, okay? You’re all right now.”
If there had been buttons on his shirt before, they had long since fallen off and thus left the front open. Taking the wires off proved to be a simple endeavor thanks to that—except Ten only managed to take one off before R-6 yanked off the rest. He then tossed them away, and he flew right off the bed.
“Whoa, wait!” she cried.
Ten circled about and intercepted him, coming within a hair’s width of crashing straight into a charging L-7. Rather than strike him, the girl in white grabbed the redheaded boy around his torso, and the two of them fell to their knees beside the door. This didn’t keep him from trying to escape her, but she held on as if she were about to fall down another eight floors. Even when she could sense a hint of magic starting to flow through him, she held on.
L-7 called to her, “Ten, back off! I’ll stop him!”
“No! I’ll do it!” And upon saying so, Ten refocused completely on R-6 and softened her voice. “You’re okay now. Everything’s fine. No one’s going to hurt you. Shh….”
He didn’t seem to hear her, though, not with the yelps and occasional no that he called out, and neither with all the struggling he was doing. The commotion was such that SEL-4 and then Nine awoke, but L-7 told them to standby. Meanwhile, Ten could feel more than just R-6’s fear; she also felt his fatigue and concluded he must not have fully recovered yet, not quite. More than that—and more puzzling for her—was pain, but something about it seemed far off. Slowly, though, she began to deduce why.
“You were hurt?” she asked. Whether due to fatigue or because he heard her at last, R-6 began to settle down. Even the magic that had been flowing through him before receded to nothing. He didn’t look at her, but she went on anyway. “Something hurt you before, right? Before you met us?”
That was it—the distant pain was a memory. He may have been remembering several instances of such pain for all she knew. Whichever the case was, it happened before the big five-on-one battle they’d had earlier. And as the thought passed through her mind, she heard a somewhat raspy but quiet sound emerge from R-6’s mouth.
Then, finally, he spoke, his pace slow. “They… said… ‘Fight.’ I said… ‘No.’”
“’They?’ What to you mean?” When the answer came to her, Ten almost couldn’t say it. “Do you mean… the doctors?”
R-6 managed a weak nod. “They said… ‘You will fight.’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Fight more.’ I said, ‘No… no more.’ But they made me. I couldn’t stop….”
While he formed each word and phrase, he stopped pulling against her hold. His boyish voice grew more unsteady until his words were overtaken by a deep, shuddering breath. Ten pulled him into more of a hug than a grapple but loosened her hold, allowing their heads to come closer.
She listened to his breathing, waiting for it to even out before she talked to him again. “Are Six… it’s okay now. The doctors aren’t here anymore. I’m not sure why, but they aren’t. No one’s going to hurt you anymore. And no one’s going to make you fight when you don’t want to. All right?”
At first, R-6 betrayed no reaction. Ten could feel, though, that his fears were fading bit by bit. They didn’t disappear completely, but they did so enough for him to rest his head on her shoulder. All the while, she didn’t let go.
Nearby, she heard a few murmurs between her teammates, murmurs of surprise and curiosity. SEL-4 then stated flat-out, “Well, hot damn. How about that.”
Ten turned her head to where they were and caught L-7’s narrowed, studious eyes. The team leader then let out a breath and made a couple of nods. Nine’s face looked more grave than the others, but the girl in white felt no anger coming from him. What she did sense was confusion and suspicion.
But even that ebbed somewhat by the time Nine said anything. “The doctors did something to him that made him so crazy before, huh?”
“Seems like it,” said Ten.
“I wonder what they did exactly. And what did they do to him that they didn’t do to us?”
“That’s a very good question,” replied L-7, crossing her arms over her chest. “If we’re going to find out, we should go back to what we were doing and find the main computer of the labs. After that, we make way out of here.”
“Yes, that,” said M1-11. “As soon as I’m done recharging, we’ll start heading to B Three again. We’ve got quite a ways to go, all things considered.”
SEL-4 spoke next. “Oh, yeah. What happened while we were out?”
“You might as well come over here and sit down. I’ll explain everything.”
So while M1-11 brought Nine and SEL-4 up to speed, Ten remained with R-6. They pulled away from each other, at which point the girl in white watched the redhead wipe his eyes. She propped herself on her feet but didn’t yet rise, instead grasping his upper arm to get his attention. “Can you stand?”
He answered with a subtle nod, and after slinging an arm around her shoulders, Ten rose to her feet with him. When she let go, R-6 stayed balanced on his feet but remained close to her.
Close enough for her to hear him whisper, “Thank you.”
Ten slipped her hand under his wrist and gave him a bright smile. “You’re going to be fine.”