Ascent, Ch. 8
As soon as M1-11’s recharge cycle finished, he wasted no time in finding everyone a new set of clothes. The old sets everyone had were ripped up enough to warrant the change, so no one protested against decision. He gathered the new clothes in relatively short order in addition to a few other trinkets—namely, a new staff weapon—from a few different wall compartments in the back of the medical room.
The automaton gave Nine and Ten their new outfits first, and thus they were the quickest to change. The latter’s wasn’t much different from her first set save for the black lab shirt she now wore over her white unitard. Similarly, the former just finished fastening three buttons on the long, white shirt he put over his shoulders and rolled up the sleeves; meanwhile, his black undershirt matched his pants and shoes. He took the staff afterwards and let it lean against his shoulder.
While they waited for the others, Ten twiddled with a lock of her white hair in a vain effort to ignore the utter silence between them all. Soon, she turned to Nine. He’d been quite withdrawn since learning they had dropped eight floors to B24, looking at no one and only speaking when necessary. Ten didn’t need to ask. She grasped his arm and finally caught his eye.
“Still thinking about how we got to this floor?” she asked.
“Sort of.” Nine lowered his dark blue eyes for a moment, and when he looked up, he didn’t turn towards her. “I’m trying to think of what I did at the end there—what I did to send us down so far—and I don’t….” A sigh, then a shake of the head. “I can’t remember anything.”
“R-really? What do you remember?”
“Ah… I started channeling a lot of magic. You asked me something; don’t know what anymore… and I know I wanted to beat Are Six. But that’s it. The next thing I knew, I woke up in here.”
“That is… strange.”
By then, SEL-4 and R-6 were putting on sets of clothes that were identical in structure to their last, but some of the colors differed. For the former, she tied a blue shirt around her waist and let it fall over the attached skirt; for the latter, he took a dark red lab shirt, short brown boots, and gray pants. Only L-7 looked the same as before, dark green catsuit and all, except with two belts strapped around her upper torso instead of one. She was currently inspecting several communicators, quickly discarding some and more closely examining others.
Ten’s observation was interrupted when Nine suddenly asked, “You want to know something? I had a dream.”
She turned to face him more directly. “Oh, you did? What about?”
“I told you about those voices I hear in my head, right?”
“Well, I heard that conversation again between the guy and the girl. This time, I could see the girl crystal clear.” Upon saying so, Nine looked her in the eye. “She looked like you.”
Ten drew back ever so slightly. “Really? How?”
“I have no idea, but she looked like you except maybe a little older. I also think her hair was more blonde than white. That’s what it looked like, at least.”
“What about the guy? Did you see what he looked like?”
“No. I was seeing out of his eyes. I guess that’s why he always sounds like me. Anyway… the thing that gets me now is that there was a third person there. Someone who looked like Are Six.”
“That is… really strange. Did he say anything? You mentioned you only ever heard two voices.”
“He didn’t say anything, no. He just smiled and nodded after the girl-who-looks-like-you said her thing.” Nine turned away and grunted, then lowered his voice. “At least he seemed completely in control of himself, unlike someone else we know.”
Ten growled, crossing her arms over her chest. “Oh, come on; we went over this! Are Six is okay now; he’s not going to hurt anyone—”
“I know; I heard you the first time. I also know I feel funny having the guy I watched slaughter a half-dozen people at once running free with us. That’s why I’m going to keep a sharp eye on him—to make sure he doesn’t step out of line. Someone has to.”
“Do it,” a voice cut in then.
Ten and Nine both looked up to the latter’s right and saw R-6 standing by them, his head tilted down somewhat but his eyes facing away. It took her a moment to realize that he’d been the one who’d spoken, so unaccustomed as she was to hear him speak.
“Do it,” he repeated. “Watch me. So I don’t… go wild.”
Nine studied the redhead intently for a few seconds more before finally sighing, nodding, and straightening his posture. The white-haired girl remained quiet, instead offering their new teammate an assuring smile.
Not long after, SEL-4 came up to them and handed them each a communicator from the pile L-7 had inspected earlier. “These are the working ones. They should come in handy if we ever split up again. Their pouches should come in handy, too. Here you go.”
The pouches slipped easily onto the belts they had put on in the interim. Once everyone was set, L-7 had the team assemble around the surveillance sphere. Of all the images it displayed, it kept showing the room where they had landed most often; that one room appeared after every other image instead of appearing fifth in the usual sequence. Ten tilted her head to the side, puzzled over this new development.
After zipping up his blue jumpsuit, M1-11 leaned in closer to the sphere as if to try and spot a tiny detail. “It used to display the views from the other orbs for an equal amount of time. There must be some reason why it’s showing us this place more often than the others.”
Memory surged through Ten like an electric shock. “The instructions said the spell would warn us if something were amiss. I think this is it—the warning.” And once understanding clicked into place, she cocked an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “A warning siren would’ve been better, I’d say. Or a blinking light.”
“What threat are we looking at here?” asked SEL-4. “It’s showing us this huge banged up room, but I don’t see any critters in it.”
“Hmm….” L-7 leaned back on one foot. Her eyes stayed trained on the sphere as its view panned around to show a gaping hole before the image changed. “It doesn’t look like anything changed….”
The automaton let out a contemplative hmm. “No, it doesn’t. Lights used to flicker somewhere above, but they went out a couple hours ago. We’ll need to be careful on our way up in case there are any live wires hanging loose.” All of a sudden, though, he practically put his nose up against the sphere. “Hold on… something looks funny about those protrusions on the left side.”
Ten was quick to spot what he’d found, but even with squinting, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. “Are you sure those aren’t support beams that are just bent out of shape?”
As soon as she’d finished speaking, however, one of those “beams” moved. And not by sliding, but by curling. Though it didn’t move much, it did so enough for everyone to see.
SEL-4 spoke for everyone. “The hell is that?”
“I don’t know,” said L-7. “I don’t like it, either, but we need to find out what that is. Just in case.” With that, she led the way to the doors.
Ten rushed to catch up to her, pointing to the surveillance sphere. “Do you want me to keep this spell going?”
“For now, yeah—if you can. Keep it up until we figure out what that thing was.”
The group left the medical room with L-7 and SEL-4 taking point, Nine and M1-11 in the middle, and Ten and R-6 bringing up the rear. The white-haired girl put the surveillance sphere close by so she could watch out for anything that might intrude onto B24 from the other locations being viewed, but nothing turned up. Further ahead, the automaton directed everyone over to the ruined room. When they finally arrived, they saw that no new debris had fallen onto the floor since they’d landed; and just like a minute ago, the gaping hole above appeared unchanged.
Except, of course, for the thing that curled. It had just curled into a loop the moment they all looked up and spotted it, and then the whatever-it-was slipped away behind the edge of the hole. Ten directed her attention to the sphere she had made to look after the room and made a light push upwards, sending it to where the thing had been. When she had it in place, she looked into the core surveillance sphere beside her and waited for the images to flicker to the new view.
What she beheld then caused her breath to catch in her throat.
Something covered the floor, but it wasn’t the usual flat metal or linoleum. The substance looked more bumpy despite its thin width. In fact, unless Ten were mistaken, she could’ve sworn it looked like critter flesh, especially when it pulsed. She glanced at each of her teammates, who had since gathered in a circle around the sphere. Their faces alone expressed the same questioning disgust they all felt—everyone except SEL-4, rather.
“How cute. The floor above us is alive,” remarked the wild one. A smirk crossed her face for a split second before falling away.
The team leader jerked her head towards the automaton. “What do you make of this, Em One?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say at least one critter’s made a nest up there,” came the reply. “I couldn’t tell you which one was responsible. The experiments conducted in this facility were as numerous as they were varied, and that’s not getting into the ratio of successes versus failures.”
“And one of the things they developed was a nest-maker?” asked Nine. “That seems arbitrary… especially when you compare that to what we are. We were made to fight something. What good is a nest-making critter?”
“That is a very good question, but let’s worry about that later.” With that said, L-7 craned her neck to study the hole before turning back to the rest of the group. “Our most immediate concern is how we’re going to get up there to investigate further. Whatever it is, we can’t have it spread any more than it has.”
“The stairs are probably a bad idea,” ventured Ten. “I’ve been looking through the images since I made the network, and the stairs don’t look like they’re in good shape. They look rusted, actually… like the ones we skipped before.”
L-7 huffed and shook her head. “Figures. The simplest way is always out.”
“What about the elevators?” asked Nine. “Are Six isn’t a threat right now, so we don’t have to worry about him vaporizing them into smithereens.”
“Only one of them is gone because of him, true….”
R-6 scooted closer to Ten and murmured, “Sorry.”
The team leader broke from the others for a bit, taking the time to survey the room with her own eyes. She made frequent glances up and occasionally asked Ten to move the viewing sphere above to another part of the hole and say what she saw. Through this, the group could see that the fleshy floor extended in just one direction, and quite far at that. By contrast, every other spot around the hole’s edges remained clear aside from the damages that had been caused by the mass fall from before. The lack of light made it hard to discern much else even through the viewing sphere.
After surveying the area around the hole, L-7 returned to the others. “Ten, you and Em One didn’t see any critters scaling the elevator shafts while the rest of us were out cold, did you?”
In response, Ten shook her head. “Like I said before, nothing apparently changed during those eight hours. No critters came up through the elevator shafts or through the stair areas. If they spread around us, I’m not sure how they would’ve done it.”
“I figured the critters might’ve heard the noise and ran off scared,” added M1-11. “Now that I think about it, though, they could’ve found other places to travel through, like the vents… except the vents are small. The bigger critters wouldn’t be able to fit through those, and neither would any of us….”
SEL-4 let out a short laugh. “We could try jumping up through the hole.”
To which Nine glared at her. “Do any of us look like we could make a jump that high?”
“I brought us down, not up—and I don’t even know how I did it.”
“It’d still be pretty convenient if we could.”
It would, but I don’t know any spells that could fly us up there, thought Ten. Not long after that had crossed her mind, she spied R-6 taking a few moments to turn his head upwards. After, he looked forward and seemed to stare off into the distance. For the first time since he’d awakened in the medical room, his eyes looked bright.
“What is it?” she asked him.
He met her gaze briefly, then turned back to eye the hole. “I think… I can reach it. The hole.”
Ten studied him, reminding herself that he wasn’t much taller than her. “Might I ask how?”
The redhead looked at her and started his reply by pointing just behind one of his shoulders. “I have wings.”
In an instant, Ten realized what he meant. He did have wings before, which he had used to keep the rest of them at bay during the fight even though he had no real control over himself. They weren’t on him at present, of course; they had been generated by the magic he’d had running through him at the time. And now, he could act of his own free will.
“Hey, yeah… that’s right!” Ten clapped her hands together, elated. “Those wings of yours did stretch pretty far. We can use that!”
SEL-4 must’ve overheard them because she cut in then, her tone amused. “What, were you thinking of throwing us up there?”
R-6 shook his head. “No. Carry.”
“Actually… that would save us a lot of time,” said L-7. She brought a hand to her chin and remained quiet for a time. When she spoke again, only her eyes moved, darting to the side. “Ten, I’m going to have you stop that security orb spell you have going. I’ll have you cast it again once we’re on B Twenty-Three to help us scout; I just don’t want it cycling through different views while we do that.” Next, she pointed to a spot opposite from where they saw that thing curl and slink away earlier. “Are Six? I want you to head over there. Once you’re in place, bring out your wings.”
Ten was close enough to Nine to hear him say to R-6, “Think you can do that without going nuts on us?”
The redhead stopped in his tracks long enough to reply, “If I go wild… kill me.” Then he resumed his pace.
L-7 pulled off that round weapon she’d had before from one of the belts around her upper body. “I’ll watch him.”
Her inner voice growling, Ten put her hands on her hips. Are Six will be all right; we have nothing to worry about, was what she wanted to tell them, but at this point, she had a feeling the conversation would go nowhere and neither did they have the time for it. Thus, she kept quiet and discontinued the Watchful Eye spell. When she did that, she felt the flow of magic through her body fade instantly. Meanwhile, R-6 walked over to the spot where the team leader had directed him and stopped when told.
“You’ll be fine!” called Ten to R-6.
He didn’t look at her or give any obvious sign of having acknowledged the statement, but she paid that no mind. Instead, she watched him draw in a deep breath. He repeated the motion a second time, during which she felt magic channel through him. This time, however, she noticed something different from when he’d done so in the medical lab: He was channeling magic not from outside of himself but from within.
That’s different, she noted. It must be due to how he was made.
On his third inhale, R-6 lit up with that icy magical aura again, complete with his stream-like wings jutting out far enough behind him to almost touch the remains of the walls. They retracted into a shorter length not even a second later, but then the bottom-most parts of his wings pushed into the floor. From there, they launched him up high into the air—high enough for the upper parts of his wings to soar up and latch onto the sides of the hole. As each wing appeared to be split into three parts each, he was left with four of those hanging free, one of which he used to wave the others over.
More importantly, when he turned to face them, his eyes weren’t glowing.
As sure of a good sign as any, thought Ten. Not sure if that’s convinced the rest of them, but… argh, worry about that later.
She approached first and was surprised when she felt the texture of the wing streams. It tingled slightly under her fingertips, and despite its ice appearance, it didn’t feel cold. She didn’t even freeze as the wing wrapped itself around her torso and lifted her off the floor, at which point her only concern was not slipping out of R-6’s grasp. For the next few seconds, she was more or less floating with the wing stretching until she rose through the hole and touched down at last on B23. Once the wing stream let her go, Ten knelt down and crawled a short distance over to the edge.
She met the redhead’s eyes and was quick to smile wide. “Thanks.”
It was subtle and brief, but he returned the look before reaching down for the next person. Ten took the opportunity to stand and cast the Watchful Eye spell again, starting with the core sphere and feeling a hint of magic begin to surge through her once more. She split from it a second sphere that she sent towards the area with the fleshy floor, where it settled right on the border of the shadows.
M1-11 arrived next, then Nine, then SEL-4, and finally L-7. Only then did R-6 leap up to join them; his aura faded as he moved, and somehow, he landed with barely a sound on both feet and one hand. He joined them soon after, first passing by SEL-4.
“You wouldn’t happen to know how to fly with those wings, would you?” she asked. When he shook his head no, she shrugged it off. “Nuts. Oh, well.”
With all of them together again, they gathered around the surveillance sphere. The team leader glanced over at their next destination after a bit. “Even if we send the other orb further in, we won’t be able to see without a light. Ten, do you think you could make one of those light balls and send it in with the other one?”
“Sure.” Ten used her free hand to do just that, after which she had the ball of light move over to the viewing sphere. She had the former hover a bit above and ahead of the latter once she had them together. To keep the core surveillance sphere near enough so she wouldn’t need to turn her head to glance at it, she moved it a little ways in front of her and to her left. Once it was in place, she focused the majority of her attention on the light orb and the viewing sphere.
“It’s not too hard for you to be channeling two spells at once, is it?” Nine asked.
“Surprisingly, no,” Ten replied. “The light ball takes more energy to maintain, but altogether, both spells don’t need a lot of magic powering them.”
“According to the public info in your profile, your specialization is in channeling magic,” brought up M1-11. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you could cast and maintain the most different spells out of everyone in our little troupe.”
“That would depend on how much magical energy each spell needs altogether. I think even I have limits. I just don’t know what they are right now.”
After a few minutes, Ten used the core surveillance sphere to help her judge where to move the other two spheres next. Doing this allowed her to avoid some walls as she told them to turn around corners and such, but these maneuvers almost became afterthoughts in light of what she was gleaning from the viewing sphere. It was like a critter’s flesh had draped itself over the walls, floor, and even the ceiling somehow. What was more, giant veins were bulging out of some parts of the flesh covering. And yet at no point did she find anything resembling a possible source.
Then the viewing sphere picked up on a sound—a quiet, distant hiss.
Ten’s breath barely escaped her. What was that?
A pound echoed off of something metallic—then a dark shape swiped at the viewing sphere, and a magical shock jolted through Ten. It wasn’t strong enough to seriously hurt her, but it was enough to break her focus on both spells she’d been maintaining. The shock caused her to stumble back a step, right into R-6 and Nine.
The latter had a hand against the small of her back just as fast. “Whoa, what happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m good, just… startled,” answered Ten, calming herself. “Did anyone catch what it was that just took out the viewing sphere?”
It was SEL-4 who answered with, “A critter, that’s what. Couldn’t tell what type it was, but there’s probably a lot of them.” That cocky smirk of hers appeared on her face. “This is good, in a way. I’ve been itching for some exercise.”
“Then get ready,” said L-7. “We’re going in.”