Ascent, Ch. 9
If it were possible for Ten to become any more white than she was, she was sure she’d done so right then and there. “We’re going in? Already? Shouldn’t we scout some more?”
“One more check will do,” replied L-7, “but we’ll be heading in shortly.”
“I ran through a couple of training exercises like this before. They were infiltration simulations to see if I could focus on one objective and complete it as fast as possible.”
“The doctors had you run through a huge nest like this one?”
“Yeah, down on B Forty. The first time, I was with Sel Four. She fought off most of the critters while I went in to kill the queen.”
Ten tilted her head. “The queen?”
“Just a fancy way of saying the Hive’s Head Honcho,” SEL-4 replied. “That’s what I got out of it, at least.”
“We finished that simulation in about ten minutes,” said L-7. “That included the time it took us to scout and formulate a plan; we just didn’t have anyone who could make security orbs like you, Ten. When I was alone during the second run, I finished in under eight minutes.”
“Really?” asked Ten. “Even with your running speed?”
“The queen was in the heart of the nest, and we spent most of our time trying to find her. Killing her was a little easier.”
“Oh… okay. So what do we need to know for this one?”
“Same as the training exercises: Find the queen and kill her. You’ll know you’re getting close when you see thick veins leading into a chamber made out of the stuff. We’re talking about… maybe half the size of the medical room, and the queen will be in the center. We’ll be hounded by her brood spawns the entire way, so we need to stay sharp and be prepared for an attack at any moment. When the queen goes down, the rest of the critters in the nest will go with her.”
L-7 had Ten use another couple of surveillance spheres to check if the nest had spread to B22. They caught no evidence of the sort, though this didn’t rule out the possibility that the nest had bled onto the floor above. The white-haired girl stopped her spell, and then the group moved around the gap before them and walked towards the flesh-covered floor.
Ten created another light ball once they passed through a makeshift doorway made of veins and hanging tendrils. Each step they took thereafter sunk slightly into the growth, but not once did their weight break through it for them to touch the actual floor. When this occurred the first time, Ten grimaced in disgust. With a few more steps, though, the disgust had given way to renewed focus on the team’s mission.
SEL-4 was the first to break the silence. “So where are we heading first, Boss?”
“The security orb passed by another hole in the ceiling somewhere around the next corner,” replied the team leader. “It’s not nearly as large as the one we passed through, but it should be big enough for someone to slip through and see if the nest has spread to the floor above. And if it has, we’ll split up.”
Nine shot her a puzzled look. “Whoa, hold on. You sure about that?”
“I am. Recall that we can all defend ourselves in some way. Besides, splitting up will ensure that at least one of our groups will be able to find the queen no matter which floor she’s on and be close enough to kill her. Any critters that come after us won’t last long against even just one of us, never mind everyone. We’d be in trouble only if a huge group decided to gang up on us, and we have no way of determining how many are in the nest right now with the tools we have.”
“What about that radar thing Em had before? You know, the one he used to figure out Are Six was catching up to us?”
“That was destroyed when we crash landed on B Twenty-Four,” replied the automaton. He held up his hands, one spread flat with the palm up and the other curled into a fist, and had the latter drop into the former. “It slipped out of my pocket and shattered when it hit the floor. The medical room didn’t have any extras, either.”
“Oh. Well, that sucks.”
“We’ll make do. The narrow halls should help filter their numbers,” said L-7. “Sel Four? Nine? When we get to the hole, I want you two to watch our front and back.”
They moved forward, but just as they were about to turn the corner, a quiet growl trickled in from somewhere ahead of them. In the seconds that followed, a more distinct shape suddenly darted towards them like a flickering shadow. L-7 paused long enough to whip off her weapon and open fire. The green pelts brightened the hallway with their light in flashes, revealing parts of the incoming critter’s insect-like limbs before it fell back and went still.
L-7 made a quick gesture towards the hall they needed to reach. “Get moving!”
They did so with Nine taking the lead and SEL-4 staying at the rear, and before long, they had reached the hole. Ten created another light ball as she moved along with a new core surveillance sphere. She sent the former up through the hole, then split the latter and had the second viewing sphere follow suit; meanwhile, the originals of both remained hovering by the ceiling. With each magical sphere in place, Ten called to the team leader to inform her.
“All right,” came the reply amidst more shots going off and another critter dying. “What do you see?”
“I see more nest up on B Twenty-Two. Doesn’t look much different from what we’ve seen already.” Ten squinted a bit, having the spheres on the upper floor explore the immediate vicinity. “I don’t see any sign of the queen, but the nest definitely spread pretty far. Just not to the much bigger hole we left behind.”
L-7 rounded the corner by then but only turned to face the rest of the group after checking for another critter. None showed up, so she met up with them. “Okay, we’ll split here. Nine, Ten, and Are Six will go up. The rest of us will stay on this floor. Our objective is the same as discussed before.”
“Speaking of this floor…” M1-11’s head perked up suddenly. “It has a power regulation room that covers everything from here down to B Twenty-Nine. I can probably hack the system to futz with the power lines on this floor for a while. It’ll make it harder for the critters to find us if the hum of the magic currents is louder than normal.”
“What will that do to us?” asked Nine.
“Nothing—not with the minor tweak I’m going to make, and that’s going to affect this floor primarily. Given how widespread the hive is, the intensified current will probably spread to the part of the nest on B Twenty-Two… which may put some extra strain on the system.” After a moment’s thought, the automaton nodded to himself. “I’ll do the trick, but if it starts becoming a danger, I’ll stop it.”
L-7 made a grunt of acknowledgement. “Are Six, grab Nine and Ten and slip through that hole. Sel Four, you stay here and keep up the rear guard.”
“Sounds good to me,” said the wild one.
“We have the communicators if we need to talk more. For now, go!”
Their new course of action determined, R-6 brought out his wings again. He managed to do this on a smaller scale from before, but the wings still gouged a critter that had been coming up from behind him. The hole above was big enough for only one person to fit through at a time, so he first lifted Nine up through it, then Ten, before he followed them. Only after they had made their way up did they watch L-7, SEL-4, and M1-11 leave their view.
Nine drew in a deep breath and let it out. “All right, so… now that it’s just the three of us, we’ll each need to fight to make sure everyone gets through this.” He cast a knowing glance at R-6. “You don’t mind fighting the critters, do you?”
After a brief pause, the redhead replied with a shake of his head. “They’re not friends.”
“We’re looking for a bunch of giant veins leading into a space about half as big as the medical room,” Ten reminded them. “That should take us to the queen’s chamber.”
“Yup, got it.” Nine’s staff ignited in blue once more before pointing it in the same direction the others had gone on the floor below. “Let’s head this way. I’ll lead.”
They traveled forth and soon encountered another critter. One upward swipe of the burning staff sent it flying back before a light ball from Ten finished it off. When they turned right at the first T intersection, two critters sprang in from the other end. R-6 skewered them with one of his wings, their blood dissipating upon contact with the magical aura. He was quick to catch up with Nine and Ten afterwards, and his aura provided a decent amount of light for them to see what lay ahead.
Then I can focus more on our offense, thought the white-haired girl. The next light ball she made thus remained by her side instead of floating above them.
The realization brought up another curiosity, though. She reached into her side pouch to activate the communicator. Electric crackles greeted her at first before giving way to an oddly familiar splatter crunch, which was accompanied by SEL-4’s laughter.
“I do love me some slaughter,” said the wild one.
“Are you all okay?” asked Ten.
It was L-7 who answered, “We’re fine.”
“Are you sure? Can you see?”
“I came prepared. Extra weapons weren’t the only things I took from the medical room.”
“Plus, I’m guiding them,” M1-11 added. “Break left!”
“Oh, well, that’s good to know.”
“We’re almost to the security room,” the team leader cut in then. “Did you find any sign of the queen yet?”
“Same with us, but keep looking. When Em does his thing, you’ll hear a hum start going under the nest covering. Don’t worry about it and stay on course.”
“Okay. We’re on it!”
Ten’s group pressed on from there. Even with the communicator in her pouch, it popped with various static-ridden sounds—many of them violent, thanks to SEL-4—until the automaton said they had reached the security room. Ten could hear little else afterwards because of another critter charging at her and the others by leaping from wall to ceiling to floor. Thanks to a swift step and a jab forward from Nine, the critter wound up soaring right into the end of his weapon. He swung to his left to force its burning corpse off before the three of them ran by.
Soon after, something began to hum beneath the fleshy covering along the walls and ceiling. This caused the next three critters they found to dart around frantically and thus paid little attention to Ten’s group. In fact, her trio slipped on by without trouble even though the glows of R-6 and Nine’s auras remained bright. However, the critters didn’t stay back forever. When they charged, each of them fell to a member of the trio. Other critters that began a greater distance away from them didn’t bother attacking, distracted as they were by the hum.
A short while later, M1-11’s voice broke through the static of Ten’s communicator. “You all ought to find that queen soon. Even with this little tweak I made, the system’s starting to chug already. We may have underestimated the size of the nest…. Better we end this fast before we go down with it.”
“Roger that,” said L-7. “I’ll go on ahead. Sel Four, you stay with—”
“Both of you go. I’ll be fine here; I practically blend in with the machinery right now. And if nothing else, I can just generate a barrier around myself.”
“You sure about this?”
“Yeah. Anyway, I’ll see if I can make this less dangerous for us in the meantime. If I can’t, I’ll stop the whole thing. Either way, take advantage of the opportunity while you can.”
A grunt came from the team leader and then, “Sel Four, come with me.”
After which the wild one laughed. “All right. Hunting time!”
Ten took out the communicator long enough to tell them, “We heard everything. So, er… I guess we’ll meet you wherever the queen is.”
“Heh, yeah. See you there!”
When that transmission ended, Nine huffed and shook his head. “Great. Now we have an even bigger time crunch than before. So much for Em’s trick there. How the hell does that even work, anyway? Gah, whatever; as long as it does.” He turned to Ten and nodded. “So. As we were.”
“Right,” came the reply. Then she reached out to both her teammates, holding their arms at the elbow. “Stop channeling your powers for now. I’ll provide a light for us, and hopefully, that won’t draw too much undue attention to us while we search.”
“Hmm. Good point.” And with that, Nine dissipated the spell he had used on his staff.
R-6 was quick to follow suit and reverted to normal, after which Ten whipped up a light ball that she let hover above them. Sneaking by the more distracted critters was easier afterwards, though it didn’t keep them from fighting altogether, either. Even the sounds coming from Ten’s communicator didn’t provoke the critters much. A few rushed right by as though unaware of anything but the current running through the nest.
In time, they came across a part of the floor was thicker than the rest. The trio’s feet sunk in enough that they had no choice but to hobble forward. Luckily, no one lost their shoes. Once she had adjusted to their new pace, Ten noticed a change in the texture of the walls. Rather than resembling the once flat floor, it looked like it had been made out of giant veins. A thinner variety had hung suspended from the ceiling in several places they had passed already, but the ones right next to the group were far wider and thicker. They also pulsed. Where the veins led, Ten couldn’t tell. It was far too dark up ahead.
But when Nine spoke up, he sounded as breathless as she felt. “Oh, shit…!”
As soon as the word was out of his mouth, something moved in the shadows in front of them. Then Nine dropped suddenly and slid fast towards the dark. Ten dove for him and grabbed his staff, but even with the both of them holding on, it wasn’t enough to stop him from moving. Her focus on maintaining the light spell died completely when she felt herself flying and falling over an edge. A second later, the hall lit up due to R-6’s aura, and two of his three right-side wings stretched out to grab both her and the staff. His left-side wings then became the only thing that kept them from falling any farther.
I have to hold on, she told herself, no matter how strained her knuckles grew or how much it hurt to be almost completely upside down. If she didn’t, she’d lose her teammate—her friend. She spied Nine looking up at her, then over his shoulder at whatever was below. When she followed his gaze, she could make out the shapes of bulbs with limbs hanging from them, limbs that twitched. At least, they seemed to; much of what Ten was registering at that point was how stretched out she was between holding Nine and R-6 holding her. She hoped to goodness she’d just been seeing things.
Then Nine called to her, “Drop me!”
“No! No way! We have to… hold on…!” Ten shut her eyes, trying to muster more strength to better keep her grasp in tact.
“I have an idea; don’t worry! But you have to drop me!” When she still didn’t let go, he added, “Trust me!”
Already, she formed her own plan and gritted her teeth. “I’ll let go on three. Are Six, we let go and catch him on three!”
Nine gave her a nod before he started. “One…! Two…! Three!”
On that cue, Ten let go of the staff at last. At the same time, she felt herself fall while still in the grip of the redhead’s wing. Nine flew away from them in the meantime, but something flashed blue in the darkness—followed immediately by a piercing screech. Ten kept her eyes on the blue staff, the one indicator of where her teammate had gone, and pointed it out to R-6.
The two bottom-most portions of his wings jutted down towards the floor. The middle right-side wing held Ten and brought her closer to R-6 until he caught her in his arms; at the same time, the top two parts stretched out until they grabbed Nine. Seconds after that, they finally landed on the floor with the bottom-most wings absorbing the impact. R-6 wasted no time in pulling their friend back to rejoin them. By a stroke of luck, the staff had remained in Nine’s hands the whole time.
Above them, some of the bulbs Ten had spied earlier began to glow with an eerie, yellow light. A quick scan of the area revealed to her that they had dropped one floor and that the non-glowing bulbs did indeed have twitching limbs hanging from them. In the center of the display above was a fat red chrysalis flanked by thick tendrils, and from it hung a stalagmite that ended in a narrow point. From top to bottom, it would’ve stretched beyond the size of a standard floor of the lab easily; the narrow point already dipped below B22. It was still a ways above the trio, but it was closer to them than the upper floor was.
But what caused Ten to lock her eyes on it was movement. Not a few seconds later did something emerge from that narrow point. Something with limbs—no, arms. Something with thin, scraggy hair. Something with glowing white eyes that soon met Ten’s.
She could scarce get the words out of her mouth. “Wh… what is…? What is that thing?”
Except then she realized what she was looking at. The queen… Wait, that’s the queen? Oh… my… word….
A surge of the magic current snapped in the upper corner of the room not far below the hole that connected B23 and B22. The queen turned her head towards the sound, as did the trio, but no powerful surges entered the room. Neither did any additional critters. What emerged instead was the distinct crackle of static.
When Nine and R-6 looked to Ten, she shook her head and told them, “That’s not any of our communicators….”
“No… it’s not.” His eyes narrowing, Nine turned back to where the static was coming from.
That was when it began to fight with another sound—the voice of a middle-aged man. Despite this, a fairly clear message managed to break through. “This is the log of Doctor Julius Preston, Head of Corona Laboratories. Here—I have recorded… research and development projects… as my predecessors did —fore me. Today’s experiments involved Cele Two, abbreviated C-E Two… and her brood spawns—”
“Cele Two? Brood spawns…?” Ten looked again at the queen. “Is he talking about her?”
The queen bellowed a series of short screeches, all while flailing her limbs in motions both fluid and random.
“Thus far, Cele Two has proven—most efficient and capable of the queens. However, her brood spawns are little more resilient than Cele One’s. Despite these results, I believe she’ll be ready for official duty soon—”
Nine had frozen completely by then. “Official duty…?”
A few hisses rang throughout the chamber before a high-pitched shriek echoed. After that, a shadowed figure leapt to where the man’s voice was coming from, and something metallic burst apart amid a series of sparks. Silence dominated in the seconds that followed, but it didn’t last.
Ten had no time to register what she had just heard from the middle-aged man or lament that he’d been cut off. Her eyes were now settling on what was in front of her, and she could make out the shadows of many figures, all of them critters. Her own motions seemed slow to herself, but she spun as she scanned around the chamber before returning to her starting position. It only affirmed one thing for her.
This… is not good. At all. She bit her lip. We’re surrounded.