Ascent, Ch. 11
Nine’s head drooped for the second time. “Man, my head is killing me right now.”
Ten tightened her grip on his arm. “Oh, dear. That’s right; you used a lot of your power back there. Can you still walk, or do you want to lean on me for a bit?”
“I’ll live, but damn if it doesn’t hurt a lot. Thanks for asking, though.”
They hadn’t gone down three halls when they shared that exchange, and afterwards, the white-haired girl looked up at her staff-wielding friend. That was when she noticed something had changed. His relief from the group’s victory before was now dampened by a murkier feeling—something grim. No sign of it appeared on his face, but she could feel it. She was about to ask him what was wrong, but he moved first.
His initial question started simple enough. “Ten? Is your communicator on?”
She gave a nod and said, “Yeah. I haven’t turned it off.”
“Could you take it out? I want to ask Em something.”
Seeing as how Nine was still supporting both R-6 and her, Ten took out the communicator and raised it closer to him. “Here you go.”
He leaned towards it to lessen the gap and cleared his throat. “Say, Em One? Do you have any more info on that message you stumbled into earlier? The one by that doctor guy?”
“The one by Doctor Preston, yeah. It was just his report on the results of the experiment he conducted with Cele Two. He didn’t say much beyond what I told you before.”
“I thought I heard him say something about a Cele One.”
“He did. He said Cele Two performed much better than Cele One thanks to some modifications they made to the former. Unfortunately, he didn’t specify what they did exactly beyond just stating they made Cele Two’s body separate from her chrysalis. He also didn’t specify what standards he was using to deem Cele Two an improvement over Cele One.”
“So… we were really fighting Cele Two back there.”
Ten looked at Nine intently, tightening her hold. “Something wrong?”
“Not wrong, per sé. I was just thinking… we’re all designated with some letter-number combination. I’m Aye Nine, for instance. According to that report, there was more than one Cele… whatever her designation was.”
“Doctor Preston said Cele Two’s designation was abbreviated as C-E Two,” affirmed the automaton.
“And Cele One was probably called C-E One, right?”
“That would be a reasonable assumption, yes. More so because they were in the same series, it sounded like.”
“That’s not much different from our own… so do we all have longer designations than we thought? Like, does the I in mine stand for something? And two, how many of us were made? Were there eight other me’s before—well, me?”
Ten raised an eyebrow at that before the weight of the questions could start swirling in her gut. I’m MIC-Ten, she recalled. So if Nine’s thinking is accurate, there would’ve been a MIC-One, a MIC-Two, a MIC-Three… all the way up to MIC-Ten—me. Same with everyone else.
The automaton made a knowing ah through the soft static. “That would also be a reasonable assumption… but I don’t know if any other you’s are even around. I freed all of you specifically because you were the only ones confirmed alive. So was Are Six, of course, but… well, we know how that’s turned out.” A short and pleasant laugh, then a thoughtful grunt. “If you have other questions, though, I got to stress that I don’t know all the answers. For now, we should concentrate on your recovery instead.”
Nine narrowed his eyes before making a huff and a curt nod. “All right. But I want to find out more of what was going on in this facility. I want to know what we were made for—the real reasons.”
“Believe me, you’re not the only one who’s curious about that.”
“Same here,” said L-7. “We’re almost to your position now, Em One. When you see us in the doorway, come join us, and we’ll head back to the medical room.”
“Good, good. And once you’re all checked out and ready to go, we’ll start going up again. That’ll be great, won’t it? Oh, how close are you right now—”
As if to answer his question, L-7 was the first to pass by a doorway whose frame barely stuck out from the flesh-covered walls of the nest. When Ten broke off from Nine shortly after, she peeked in long enough to see the automaton staring at her and the team leader like they hadn’t met before.
Then he broke into a sheepish smile and laugh, scratching the back of his head. “Ah. There you are.”
L-7 let out a quiet sigh, but it sounded more amused than angry. “We are. How about that message?”
“I have it recorded in my databanks, so I can replay it in the medical room. Shall we be going?”
The smallest hint of a smirk perked up at the side of the team leader’s mouth. “Yes. Yes, we shall.”
From that point, she led the group back towards the giant hole they had come through before. R-6 carried them down two at a time from there despite how tired he was, but he continued to lean on Nine once they were all back on B24. By the time they were back in the medical room, Nine’s left eye was twitching from the throbbing in his head. Everyone except M1-11 seated themselves on the beds with all of them slumped in various ways, but soon, only L-7 remained sitting up.
The aches in her body weren’t too crippling, but Ten opted to lie down anyway and immediately began to feel better. If not for her black shirt, she would’ve blended in very well with all the white that covered the room, the beds, and even most of the equipment. M1-11 walked over and activated the bed’s healing field, but it didn’t prevent him from examining her further, asking questions about how she felt as he went.
After several minutes, he stepped back and wiped his forehead. “Looks like you just need to hang out here for a while. Rest up, stretch a bit afterwards, don’t cast any big spells right away, and you should be fine.”
Ten shifted her head a bit to the right, surprised. “That’s it? It’s not worse than that?”
“Nope. Not unless you’re experiencing a lot of lightheadedness when you sit up. Speaking of which, could you sit up for me?”
“That won’t disrupt the healing field over me, will it?”
“No. The device will keep running fine, and this check will be pretty quick anyhow. Definitely duck back under once we’re done, though.”
So Ten moved, feeling like she was going through a tingling veil as her head went above the healing field. As a brick of dizziness didn’t suddenly hit her the second she began rising, and neither did it creep up on her once she was sitting up, she concluded she was truly fine and told the automaton as such. When she laid herself back down on the bed, she couldn’t help but feel a little bewildered about the fact.
“Was I recovering before we even arrived here?” she asked.
“It’s possible you were made with some minor regenerative ability, but I don’t think that’s the case,” replied M1-11. “If I had to guess, I’d say it has more to do with your specialty. You were made to channel large amounts of magic at once, so your body is probably designed to recover from that kind of strain more quickly than normal. For reference, ‘normal’ equates to three to five hours. You should be completely fine in about one if I’m my estimates are correct—one and a half at most.”
Ten’s mouth dropped open. “Are you serious? That’s much faster than I thought it would take.”
“Real convenient, though, right? But I’d still recommend not pushing it once you feel ready to move about. Let your body remain normal for a half an hour before you start casting anything.” M1-11 then gestured somewhere behind him. “All right, I’m off to treat the others.”
He hadn’t taken two steps when L-7’s voice emerged from a couple beds down. “When you get the chance, Em, play that message by Doctor Preston.”
Ten couldn’t see anyone except Nine from where she was, so she kept her ears open to hear M1-11’s checkups on each of her friends. R-6 was a surprising degree of tired and strained, a direct effect from having channeled the bulk of his power while under the berserk state and also from the battle with Cele Two. Thankfully, the redhead wasn’t in any immediate danger.
M1-11 nonetheless cautioned him: “You were probably made to handle big energy flows like Ten was, but not for such long periods of time. At this rate, you’ll need several days of rest before the strain in your body recovers completely. Until then, use your power in smaller doses; don’t overdo it and go all out. This way, your body won’t suffer some irreparable damage.”
The automaton later determined that L-7’s hearing was indeed damaged, more so in her right ear than in her left, but at least her other injuries were manageable. According to him, “You may need a hearing aid.” SEL-4’s numerous cuts finally looked like they had taken a toll on her judging from how tired she sounded, but M1-11 deemed that none of her wounds had become infected despite how deep some were. Even so, she would need to spend the most time under the healing field to ensure all the wounds closed up.
Lastly, Nine’s headache was causing him more pain than any of his injuries, and M1-11 could provide only a small set of instructions. “Keep rubbing the temples for now. I’ll see if I can find you something to ease the pain, like a painkiller. If you overheard what I told Are Six, then I recommend you follow that advice, too. Channeling too much magic for too long can kill you, especially when you’re exhausted.”
“Okay, gotcha,” said Nine, “but before you go looking for painkillers, find out how to play that message first. I can deal with the headache for a while longer.”
“Are you sure about that?”
The answer came in the form of a curt but insistent yes, and L-7 gave a second go-ahead, so M1-11 bowed his head and walked over to the computer. He tapped several buttons on the keyboard and then pressed his left palm up against a console just barely within Ten’s line of sight. She propped herself up on her elbows to get a better view without leaving the warm and tingly healing field, at which point she observed the automaton’s work. His mutterings weren’t entirely clear to her, but she did pick up on a few things.
“All right, upload this here….” Another string of keyboard taps clacked away. “Grab this program here… open the file with this… and… there!”
The crackles in the speakers spiked briefly, but the volume quieted to a reasonable level a split second later. Ten marveled at how clear the recording sounded now that nothing was interfering with it, and she was vaguely aware of M1-11’s movements around the room while the message played.
“This is the log of Doctor Julius Preston, Head of Corona Laboratories. Herein I have recorded my reports on the research and development projects that go on in the labs as my predecessors did before me. Today’s experiments involved Cele Two, abbreviated C-E Two in the official documents, and her brood spawns. As noted, this is the third round of tests with the second queen test type.
“Thus far, Cele Two has proven herself to be the 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; preparing her for such will not require any modifications. Currently, she has been transferred to B Twenty-Two for storage until further notice.
“Regarding the other parameters, Cele Two’s power chrysalis is more resistant to damage from magic spells and physical weaponry than Cele One. Even explosives inflict minimal injuries upon the chrysalis, and Cele Two can protect herself by retreating inside of it. This is especially important because her body is no more frail or tough than the average human’s. Cele One lacked any means of protecting herself as she was one with her own chrysalis, and this left her extremely vulnerable in her final test.
“Creating the body of Cele Two as a mostly separate entity from the chrysalis has proven to be more beneficial than previously thought. For one, it’s less straining on the queen and her ability to control her brood spawns, thus increasing general efficiency. For another, it allows her to spread her nest over a wider range and retain maximum control. Most importantly, she has a means of defending herself, as explained earlier. In each of these parameters, Cele Two has surpassed Cele One in every respect.
“However, she is just as prone to try and grab an intruder with her arms as Cele One rather than retreat. She also won’t retreat if she’s looking for a mate. As with all queens, we must be cautious regarding how many mates we give her or we’ll lose control of the nest’s population.”
Ten could hear Nine growl at that. The former opted to stay quiet.
“If Cele Two is separated from her chrysalis, the nest will die and the brood spawns will cease to function, just like when Cele One was destroyed. Though Cele Two’s brood spawns will be sufficient as replaceable soldiers on the front lines, they will put up only an adequate defense against an attack from the Federation’s forces. Her egg chamber will most likely need additional protection from the Imperial Military to ensure her safety if she is to be deployed, but we can discuss the details with the commanders at a later time.
“That concludes today’s log. A transcript will be included with the official report, and a time table of the experiment’s events will be forwarded by Doctor Alba Cornwall, head of the Cele Project.”
The message stopped there, leaving Ten to ponder it all in silence. She had no doubt that the others were thinking about the message, too, but she wondered if they had some of the same questions that were now forming in her head. First off, what were the Celes being tested for exactly? Second, what did Doctor Preston mean by test type? Third, how did their group fit in with all of this? The questions wouldn’t stop coming, but she halted her thought process long enough to listen when she heard Nine’s voice.
“Wait. Was that it?” asked the staff wielder.
The automaton had long since returned to Nine by then and thus answered, “Yeah. That was the only message I found, too, sorry to say.”
“Really? Damn it.” A rough sigh seethed through his teeth. “So… what’s the Federation and the Imperial Military?”
“Hmm… ‘The Federation’ must be the Talosine Federation. The Imperial Military refers to the army of the Ranverdese Empire. My programming acknowledges the Empire as the country we live in.”
“Yeah. A country is a political division defined as—”
“I don’t care about that. Right now, I— This was all outside the labs, wasn’t it?”
“That talk of front lines, deployment, and militaries makes me wonder what was going on out there,” said L-7 from where she was.
The staff wielder made a knowing grunt. “My thinking exactly. Was there a war going on?”
“At the time the recording was made, probably,” said M1-11. “I was told things on a need-to-know basis, so I don’t know much of the world’s history beyond what the doctors and other personnel mentioned. But I do recall they brought up ‘the war’ quite a lot before I was put in standby mode.”
“Is that war still happening outside?”
Ten turned her head to where the automaton was and caught him looking to the side. He remained like that as he gave his answer. “I would say, ‘No.’ If the war were still happening, the labs would be staffed right now—and they haven’t been for a long, long time. When I auto-activated, all the staff members were gone already. I don’t know where they went.”
“You mentioned that not long after we met,” Ten pointed out.
She overheard SEL-4 making a grunt of her own. “So there was a big party happening outside, and now there’s a good chance we missed it?”
“We might have,” said M1-11.
“So what’s out there now?” asked Nine.
The automaton drummed his fingers against his upper leg. “I have no clue. I’ve never left the labs, just like the rest of you.”
The staff wielder’s uh-huh came out slowly. “There’s more I want to know about what was going on, but Em… did you have any plans once you got us all out of here?”
“I, er… I didn’t really give it much thought, to be honest. I figured we’d come up with something once we were out.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to walk out into the middle of a raging battlefield. We can’t leave until we find some hint of what’s going on outside.”
“That would be the best thing to do for our next course of action,” agreed L-7, “but we need to keep calm about this. And maybe along the way, we can figure out what the doctors were planning to do with us. They had designs for the Celes; they must’ve had some for us, too.”
Nine’s sigh was rough, almost guttural. “What was the war even for…?”
“I couldn’t say. Try not to think about it too hard for right now; it seems to be agitating your headache,” said M1-11. He moved a device with a rounded end across Nine’s forehead as he went on. “Once we reach the main computer on B Three, I’m sure we can find out all the information we’ll need.”
“Are you sure about that?” asked Ten. “We don’t even know how long it’s been since the doctors stopped coming. The information could be out of date.”
L-7 sounded undeterred, however. “It’ll provide us with a foundation of info to work with if nothing else. When we’re back in business, we’ll head to the main computer on B Three like we planned from the beginning. We can dissect the info once we have it.”
No one else replied, so their silence became their compliance. It didn’t take long for Ten to lose herself in her thoughts, trying to imagine among many other things what Doctor Preston could’ve looked like or what kind of person he’d been. Or what he’d done as head of the labs.
Eventually, she brought her hands up to look at them. Did he make all of us? Images from the battle with Cele Two flooded back into her mind, reminding her of how she had used enough magic to vaporize swaths of critters. We were made to fight. She had concluded such a while ago, but now, she was starting to see the reason why. Were we made to fight in the war? If that’s the case… why were we left behind?
At first, she wasn’t sure if the half dozen giant knots she felt forming in her gut was a trick of her own mind. Given everything they had just learned and the mountain of questions it spawned, it didn’t surprise her. With a scan around the room, however, she realized that it wasn’t all her own. They all shared the sentiment—and as intense as she felt it herself, someone else was feeling it even more so.
She just couldn’t tell who it was.