Ascent, Ch. 12
In time, everyone in the group recovered from their wounds. The new set of clothes they put on were identical to the last set—save for L-7’s hearing aid—so when they left the medical room, it appeared as though they had never infiltrated a nest of brood spawns. Since they also hadn’t seen any other kinds of critters, L-7 decided to give the elevators another chance and asked M1-11 to guide them to one. Unfortunately, most of the elevators were incapacitated in some fashion: one was decimated from having been attached to the wrecked wall in the room where they had crash landed before; another was missing its car altogether; and a third was jammed.
By the time they reached the last one, SEL-4 was quick to punch the button. “This one had better work.”
L-7 raised her hand to tell the wild one to cool it. “If it doesn’t, we’ll find another way. Are Six, how much strength does it take you to use your wings to, say, lift us up?”
“Not much,” replied R-6, though afterwards, he glanced briefly at the automaton. “But… Em said… no…?”
“I said don’t go all out,” M1-11 clarified. “Small doses, remember?”
The redhead seemed to perk up. “Then we’ll be okay.”
“Then we have something to fall back on if this elevator’s shot, too,” concluded the team leader.
Ten eyed the readout on the control panel and watched as the numbers changed every few seconds. It began at B44 before going to B43, then to B42, and so on. Currently, it had just ticked to B30 and very quickly beyond that. Then a hand fell on her shoulder, prompting the white-haired girl to jump somewhat and distracting her from the control panel’s numbers.
The hand belonged to M1-11, as it turned out, a bright expression on his face as usual. “Small doses for you and Nine, too. I know you’ve both recovered well enough, but still, be careful.”
“Then we better hope another huge nest doesn’t get in our way.” And with that said, Nine punched his palm.
Seconds later, something came into view within the glass windows, and Ten made a few small hops when she recognized the elevator. Yes! Something works smoothly for once!
The group managed to squeeze into the elevator with a minimum of fuss, though it was a tight fit with all six of them bunched together. Ten wound up standing almost right on top of the control panel, but she had enough room to tap the button labeled B3. The elevator began to rise without trouble, though Ten contained her excitement that time. She didn’t want to bump into Nine or R-6, who were squeezed behind and next to her, respectively, especially with the former’s staff up against her back.
Besides, I’d rather not test out our luck too much. Can never tell what’ll happen in this laboratory.
She spied SEL-4 glancing around before the latter pointed to the curled device wrapped around the team leader’s ear. “So… how’s that hearing aid working out for you?”
“Works like a charm,” said L-7. “It’s like my hearing’s good as new, except I can feel the device in my ear.”
“Cool.” The wild one shifted up against the wall with her arms up against her sides. “I’ll try not to complain too loudly about the cramped quarters in here. Wouldn’t want to bust your hearing again.”
“Yeah, please don’t do that. Ten’s healing magic can’t fix everything, and I’d rather not have everything sound muffled.”
Ten gripped some of her hair upon hearing that. She had tried earlier to heal the strains in R-6 and the damage in L-7’s ears, but she found the spells she learned to be only marginally helpful even while following the instructions in her tablet. Her healing spell also did nothing for Nine’s headache, which had to fade on its own afterwards. Even now that they were in the elevator, she didn’t know if the headache was completely gone from her friend. He hasn’t said anything about it, so maybe…? But even as close as they were, she couldn’t gauge clearly how her staff-wielding friend was feeling.
M1-11 jerked suddenly in response to L-7’s statement. “Oh, that reminds me….” He nudged Nine to get his attention. “Your specialty is in magical augmentation, but your body was strained in a similar fashion to Ten and Are Six.”
“What do you mean? That I was channeling magic like they do?”
“Yeah—which is funny because you seemed to always channel your spell through something else, like your staff. Under any other circumstance, that should’ve taken the strain off you.”
“It does, though. I just don’t think I ran the spell for as long as I did against all those brood spawn critter things. Maybe it doesn’t matter how I run it after a while? Well, don’t worry. I’ll try not to push it too far again.”
“Glad to hear it, but I’m still scratching my head over it.”
“Me, too.” Nine shuffled in place, slightly pushing Ten up against the control panel but not enough to make her press any buttons by accident. “Sorry. It’s just too cramped in here.”
“It’s okay,” said the white-haired girl.
“Way too cramped,” SEL-4 grumbled from the other side. “When we get out, I’m going to punch something. Just a head’s up.”
The team leader rolled her eyes. “Just try not to hit any of us, will you?”
The wild one replied with a laugh. “I’ll try.”
So when the elevator jammed at B17—Guess I spoke too soon earlier, thought Ten—SEL-4 walked over to the nearest empty wall and punched it. The wall buckled under the force of her magic-covered fist and broke through to the other side. The hole wasn’t large enough to collapse the rest of the wall around it, thankfully. But while SEL-4 donned her usual little smirk and returned her fist to normal, she was grumbling on the inside from what Ten could tell.
I don’t blame her. I’m grumbling, too. At least we’re back in some familiar territory. We haven’t been this far up in a long time.
By contrast, L-7 just began walking with the others following close by. “The stairs were this way, weren’t they?”
“Yes, they were.” Upon replying, M1-11 tapped his chin. “B Fifteen has an observatory that could look into the training rooms on B Sixteen, and the computer in there had some footage relating to that test that pitted most of you against Are Six.” He stopped short then. “Ooh, maybe it has another log from Doctor Preston! Except… I didn’t find any when I was sifting through files the first time.”
“There’s more than one training room on that floor? And what did you do to trigger that other log?”
“Yes, there is. A-a-and I’m still not quite sure… but maybe retracing the steps on how I did that can help me find any files that might be hidden on the computers—just without the power futzing, of course. Reaching the main computer on B Three is still our best option, though, because that one most definitely has access to everything.”
The team leader gave a slow nod to that. “When we reach B Fifteen, dig deep—and hopefully, you’re right.”
The white-haired girl gestured to everyone else in the group. “The test that involved all of you… You’re talking about the one that was rough for everyone, aren’t you?”
It was Nine’s turn to nod. “Yeah. Emphasis on the rough for everyone part. If that observatory really has info about the test, Ten, that should clear up the questions you have.”
“Let’s go find out, then.”
When they came upon the same set of stairs they had used before to reach B16, they spotted right away that the stairs had broken apart. The dangling pieces of rusted metal reminded Ten of the ceiling bulbs with legs in the queen’s chamber, though she tried to forget about the comparison about as soon as she made it. Off to the side, she could see Nine trying to do the same by whirling his staff a few times while looking at nothing in particular.
Slowly, SEL-4’s eyes scanned the structure of the stairs and the location of the doors above. “Yeah, I’m not jumping through that. How about you, El Seven?”
“Ha. No.” L-7 drummed her fingers against her thigh before she faced the redhead. “Are Six? We’re going to need your wings for this.”
“Okay,” came the redhead’s quiet reply.
He drew out his wings on quite a small scale this time, managing to do so without hitting anyone or destroying any part of the room. Once done, he didn’t move and instead took a deep breath. He gave the others an I’m okay gesture afterwards, then walked around some of the broken stairs and began to scale the wall with his wings. When he reached the door to B15, he opened it with his hands before having his wings reach down to pick up the rest of the group.
Soon enough, they were all on B15 at last. While everyone else scanned around, R-6’s aura vanished as he landed behind them, regained his balance, and rested his hands on his knees for a bit. M1-11 moved up next to him to check on his status and concluded, “Huh. You’re actually okay. Well, now we have an idea of what a small dose is. Think you can remember?”
The redhead nodded in response and straightened.
“He’ll remember,” said SEL-4, smirking, “especially since you keep reminding him about it every five minutes.” When she slapped the automaton on the shoulder, he just looked back at her with a sheepish smile.
The observatory wasn’t far off—just a turn right and another turn left away in the steel hall. The doors contained a small square window on each, and only their outline made them stand out from the rest of the white walls around them. M1-11 approached the nearby control panel and placed his left palm against it, reminding Ten of the time the two of them met Nine. Then the doors opened, bringing her back to the present.
M1-11 headed straight for the left-side computer while the rest of the group scattered around the room. The two sets of computer consoles were up against the wall with the windows, and both were split down the middle by a piece of wall that bisected the training rooms. A look through the windows on the left told Ten that she was staring right into the room where they had fought R-6 before. Seeing the edge of the hole the battle had made in the floor was evidence enough of that. From the looks of it, all but the corners had been obliterated. Straight across from where she was, she saw a small sign and squinted to see what the text said.
Eastside Training Room, her thoughts read. Ten’s eyes wandered to the hole again, and memories of Nine’s last attack in the battle with R-6 came back to her. Nine, what in the world did you do? She shook her head to get rid of that image of her staff-wielding friend engulfed in blue fire. He hadn’t actually been on fire, of course, but recalling the sight scared her nonetheless.
The sound of L-7’s voice helped with the forgetting part. “Nine, Sel Four, stay by the doors in case something comes by.”
SEL-4 bobbed her head up and down. “Right, right. Our wonderful track record.”
By then, M1-11 had booted up the computer in front of him and accessed its databanks. Part way through, he tilted his head to the side. “Damn. The screen still isn’t displaying a date and time. I thought only I had trouble with that….”
“So we still don’t have a frame of reference to work with?” asked Ten.
“No. This is… very strange. Well, let’s start with the footage.”
A light atop one of the five monitors came to life, and a projected image appeared above the console—right over the window, in fact. The image was a bit blurred from the bluish lighting, but Ten could still see shapes beginning to form. Eventually, she recognized the room as being identical to the one where they had fought R-6, save for the layout of the windows. When the image paused, she spotted some familiar faces in the crowd of seven. I see Nine, El Seven, and Sel Four… but who are those other four? All she could see was that the strangers consisted of three men and one woman. The lack of color made it hard to distinguish any other details.
M1-11 let out a grunt and then another not long after. “Man, if there’s a log in this computer, it’s really hard to find. How many layers of hidden files are there? Let’s try this….”
The minutes ticked by in relative quiet save for the occasional sigh and grunt. Ten found herself shifting in place, even going so far as to pace back and forth a bit near R-6, who was in the middle of the spacious room. Only L-7 remained almost completely still throughout.
Finally, though, the automaton let out a cheer. “There! Wow, I can’t believe it! I found another log! Only one, but still!”
He wasted little time in starting the message. When it began, it opened with the same introduction as Doctor Preston’s last log and went on from there.
“Today’s experiment was quite extensive. Not only were we examining the combat capabilities of a berserked hybrid, but also those of our other super soldier templates. I included among these soldiers Selydon Four and Lydia Seven, who performed brilliantly in the live tests that took place last week. The only losses we suffered then were a beta test queen and Cele One, but as I noted in my reports, we already have Cele Two to act as a superior successor to the latter.”
“So this was recorded after that last one,” Ten deduced. “But… Selydon Four? And Lydia Seven…?” With her curiosity rising, she turned around to see SEL-4 and L-7 and caught them giving each other questioning looks.
“Is that us?” murmured the latter. “Super soldier templates…?”
The message went on in the meantime. “One of our main subjects for today was Redimere Six, who is our most successful human-dragon hybrid to date. He was also our most dangerous subject as we—” Something in Doctor Preston’s voice faltered, but then it resumed with its original stoic tone. “We induced in him an enhanced berserk state last night. The results of today’s experiment were—” Again, he faltered; he sounded nervous. “For the most part, the results were successful. And terrifying.”
Something in R-6’s eyes darkened. “I hate him.”
Ten, meanwhile, spoke softly as she listened: “Redimere Six? Hybrids? What’s a dragon—”
“Our other subjects included Albrecht Two, Sergio Four, Leonard Five, Ivan Nine, and Crystal Thirteen. Of all those who participated, only Selydon Four, Lydia Seven, and Ivan Nine survived. The test took place in the westside training room on B Sixteen for convenience.”
Nine’s face flared with recognition. “Ivan Nine is… me…?”
M1-11 finally allowed footage from the test to play. Ten watched as the group of seven took ready stances, complete with L-7 giving some orders. A bright spot flew into the room next, taking the shape of stream-like wings and revealing their owner, R-6. The three strangers didn’t pay much attention to what L-7 was saying, and one of them fell not long after the test began. At the same time the footage was playing, Ten could hear Doctor Preston’s voice over the sounds of combat—and screaming.
“As with the beta test queen, Lydia Seven was quick to take charge of the situation. Though only Selydon Four listened to her at first, the others were quick to follow suit after Albrecht Two was killed twenty-eight seconds into the test. Leonard Five fell taking a hit for Sergio Four two minutes in. Sergio Four died three minutes, thirty-one seconds in.”
In the projection, one of R-6’s wings headed straight for the head of taller of the two unfamiliar men Ten saw. She looked away, but the dull crunching noise she heard stung as if she’d been hit by one of SEL-4’s punches. Next to her, R-6 also had his head turned away from the projection.
“Lydia Seven’s incredible speed allowed her to evade most of Redimere Six’s attacks. Selydon Four and Ivan Nine survived due to their own toughness and working with Lydia Seven’s strategies. There was also something else, but I believe it requires further study. I shall elaborate on this point soon.”
The sequence of images ended with a collision between Nine, SEL-4, and R-6 that resulted in a flash of light and all three of them on the ground, unmoving. Even while unconscious, R-6 seemed to emit a subtle light. Doctor Preston’s log went on without pause.
“The remaining subjects were knocked unconscious, but Redimere Six awoke when a crew went in to clean and repair the training room. The berserk state remained, and the crew barely had time to sedate him. However, this will not be enough to dispel the berserk state, not one this powerful. For that to happen, I estimate a much more severe blow or outright death will be necessary. The defensive properties of Redimere Six’s aura will make that especially difficult.
“We’re keeping him contained on B Thirty-Five S in a special stasis so that we may deploy him to the field as he is. He will recover from his injuries and physical strains there. I cannot stress enough how we must remain cautious at all times when dealing with berserked subjects.” Something in the doctor’s voice sounded sad when said his next words. “All told… Redimere Six and the enhanced berserk spell performed exactly as predicted. I believe we may finally have a solid counter to the Federation’s hybrids.”
“The Federation had people like Are Six, too?” asked Ten. No one answered, but she caught R-6 eyeing the computer with his head slightly tilted forward. She froze just as much from the smoldering look in his red eyes as from the anger rising in him. In response, she touched his arm, and the anger receded somewhat. Not once did his eyes turn away from the computer, though.
The footage began to repeat itself, so M1-11 turned off the projector as the log continued.
“About the point I skipped before… Ivan Nine was originally scheduled for four more tests, but I have reason to believe he’s ready for the front lines now. I noticed something about his magic output in this last test, however, and I would like to examine that first. And considering the ultimate purpose of his project, I would also like to wait until after we’ve tested Michaela Ten so that the two of them can be deployed together, as per the original intention. I believe this delay will allow us to make any further corrections to both subjects that may be needed.
“Currently, Ivan Nine is recovering and will be put in stasis afterwards. The same is true of Selydon Four and Lydia Seven, both of whom can be deployed when ready. Ideally, they should not be deployed too far ahead of Ivan Nine, but this isn’t a priority concern. I understand we need more troops. As for the subjects who fell, the staff in charge of their respective projects will have to take their designs back to the drawing board to improve the next iterations.” Doctor Preston went on to end his log in the same fashion as he had done with the last one they heard.
After, though, he took a breath and released a hollow laugh. “There’s some irony surrounding the ones who survived today’s test. Just as resilient as their namesakes, it seems—even Lydia the Martyr.” An exhausted sigh followed. “By the gods, what are we doing…?” Then a cough, and the voice was stoic once more—mostly. “Forgive me. This is not the place for my personal ruminations. I will have everything about today’s test delivered shortly. Good night.”
The log clicked, indicating that it was done playing. Ten met the eyes of each of her friends, seeing the many furrowed brows and feeling that knot in their guts as much as she was feeling her own. Even so, no one spoke. Not at first.
Then Ten approached M1-11, her mind still spinning with all the new info. “Doctor Preston mentioned a Michaela Ten. And my designation is— Was he talking about me?”
“Uh….” M1-11 turned his eyes up but not his head before looking at her. “The name Michaela starts with the same three letters that make up your designation, so it’s a definite possibility… but I’m not sure we can say that for fact just yet. Sergio Four shared the same number as Sel Four in his designation, but he wasn’t part of the same project. There are also other names that begin with M-I-C: Michelle, Micenna, Mickey—”
Ten held up her hands, sheepish. “You don’t have to recite them all.”
“I wasn’t going to. I just meant that your project was one of hundreds that were going on in the labs. He may have been referring to you, don’t get me wrong. But he could’ve been talking about someone else just as easily. That’s all I’m saying.”
“All right, so… about everything else,” said Nine. “Doctor Preston had us made to fight in a war, and the enemy had some powerful weapons on their hands.”
L-7 nodded to that. “Hybrids, like Are Six. Some mixture of human and something else. Made them almost sound like trump cards.”
“There was also something he made us for. Something for us specifically. He signaled me out for some reason, and he said we were ‘just as resilient’ as our namesakes. So, we were named after some people? Who, exactly?”
“No idea… though, he brought up someone named Lydia the Martyr. Unless my logic’s been damaged like my hearing, I’d say I was named after her.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t tell us who this martyr person was. It also doesn’t tell us why the doctors did anything here. Why and how—”
“Hey, guys?” SEL-4 said suddenly. “Hate to interrupt this whole thing, but we got company.”
“Fuck, are you serious?” L-7 marched to the doors. “What’s coming? More critters?”
“Doesn’t sound it. I just know it buzzes and it’s getting louder.”
“Well, only one way to find out what it is.”
Ten slapped her forehead at this, but she tempered her feelings on that as she followed the others out. When R-6 passed by her, she noticed he had calmed quite a bit from earlier and was now tense due to the new situation. She couldn’t read anything about anyone else before they left the room—but just the way Nine stormed out of the room caused something in the back of her neck to start tingling.
Combined with the knot in her gut, Ten felt completely lost and confused.