Ascent, Ch. 13
SEL-4 was at the head of the group by the time Ten left the observatory. Down the hall ahead of them came three shadows that flew in from around the corner—and just as the wild one had said earlier, the shadows did indeed make a distinct buzzing noise. When they came into view, Ten noticed they were black and round, adorned with a single green light and two antennae each. She couldn’t see anything that was keeping them afloat—but she stopped caring once they opened fire.
Nine rushed past Ten, raised his staff, and threw it hard and fast through the bolts of sparking light. It barely missed SEL-4’s ear as it soared passed, but she didn’t seem bothered by it as she brought out her magical blades. Blade and staff hit two different marks at the same time, turning the black flying machines into broken scrap heaps on the floor. A second swipe from SEL-4 eliminated the third machine.
M1-11 ran up beside Ten and stopped, a hand darting to his head. “Security drones? These things still work?”
The white-haired girl shot him a curious look. “What are you talking about?”
“I did a scan in one of the security rooms once. It said a lot of the drones and even more maintenance automatons like myself were either missing or broken or something else, but basically, they were all inactive. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed they would stay that way.”
“I guess not.”
While the automaton spoke, Ten heard another round of buzzing coming from both in front and behind them. L-7 had gone up further ahead to join SEL-4 and Nine, so the three of them were able to intercept the half dozen security drones that whipped around the corner. M1-11 was quick to generate a barrier to block incoming fire from the other half dozen drones that came from the opposite end of the hall.
Without a clear shot at what was coming towards L-7’s end, Ten sent two light balls at the drones approaching from the other way. R-6 had already drawn out his wings and taken down three by the time the light balls hit their marks, but even more drones flew in afterwards. The redhead struck each one that came by with small, focused jabs from his wings, giving Ten a chance to check on the others. Every single one of their blows went around the border of the automaton’s barrier.
Meanwhile, M1-11 pointed the palm of his free hand towards the front of the group, where the rest of them were. “El Seven, fall back a bit! I’m about to make another barrier over there!”
The team leader shot a look back at him before turning to SEL-4 and Nine. “Both of you, this way!”
“Ah, come on! These guys are nothing to us!” the wild one retorted. As if to prove her point, she brought down two more and weaved through the next storm of shots. Beside her, Nine had long since retrieved his staff and was slamming drones left and right with much force and no words.
L-7’s stern tone never changed, though. “You heard Em! Now move it!”
“Hey, we have to fight up close, and we can’t do that with a barrier in our way. Don’t worry so much; we can handle this, right, Nine?” When she received no response, SEL-4 shrugged. “Well, it’ll save Em some energy, won’t it?”
“Not really; I’m going to throw up a barrier anyway,” said the automaton. “You should back up a bit; it’ll be safer.”
“You can stay. I’m going to keep fighting.” And SEL-4 went on to do just that.
M1-11 said to the team leader then, “You can get behind the barrier, at least. Don’t worry; I’ll calibrate it to sync up with your pace so you can shoot through it—or you can shoot around it like what Ten and Are Six are doing.”
“Good enough,” replied L-7. She stepped back partially, and when M1-11’s barrier finally appeared, blue splashes of webbing appeared where the stray drone shots and metallic debris hit. L-7 took the chance to fire back, all while ensuring none of her hits landed on her teammates.
Even as Ten resumed helping R-6 take down the drones on the rear side, she managed to overhear SEL-4 laughing over the sounds of all the shooting and destruction that was happening. She also overheard Nine once he began to speak up at last.
“How can you laugh this much?” he asked.
To which she answered, “’Cause it’s a fun fight, that’s how. Why?”
“It’s—well—look, we learned a lot just now. Did it mean anything to you?”
“Huh? You mean from those logs? Never said it didn’t, but now doesn’t seem like the time to think about it. Something eating at you?”
Several drones went down before Nine answered her. “You never wondered why we’re here? Or why we were left behind?”
“Not really. Though clearly, we weren’t the only things left behind.” The sound of cracking metal and hissing sparks punctuated the wild one’s words.
L-7’s voice broke in at that point. “Nine, focus on taking down the drones. There can’t be so many that they’d keep coming forever. We can talk about Doctor Preston’s logs later.”
Ten kept quiet, but she knew exactly what the staff wielder was talking about. She’d asked herself the same questions, after all, and was afraid about what else they’d discover. Learning that there’d been a war at the time Doctor Preston was recording his logs had made her wonder what they’d find beyond the labs, and it made her realize she knew nothing else about the outside world apart from that. The fact that the labs had been abandoned for some time made her even more curious about the situation. How were they supposed to know if the war was still going on somewhere? How safe would they be when they left? If not for the attacking drones, she might’ve been curled up against the wall by now in a vain attempt to stop thinking about it all.
“None of you have wondered?” Nine went on. “El Seven? Em? Ten? You must’ve been asking questions just like I was!”
“We still have a lot more information to find,” said L-7. “Let’s not panic over what little we know right now.”
“I agree with El Seven,” replied the automaton. “I admit I never thought about it much. But right now, we still have more questions than answers and not a lot of info to work with.”
“I wondered,” Ten admitted, but she couldn’t say much more than that before she had to destroy more drones. Thus far, she felt no strains in her body resurfacing and thus kept her eyes and ears open. She dared not try the dual beam attack again, though. Not right then and there without much room to spare; not when the automaton was already doing some fancier work together with L-7.
In the midst of that, however, she could sense something murky coming from Nine. She didn’t know how to describe it beyond that, not even when she heard him ask, “You’re not afraid that this all might be pointless?”
SEL-4’s tone went flat. “Oh. That. Actually, yeah, I thought about that. For a little while, at least.”
“For a little while? Did you stop being afraid of it suddenly?”
“Not exactly. More like—” Another drone went down in the interim. “—I worried and then blanked on why. Then I thought, if we go out there and a war’s brewing, I’ll just ask who I should be fighting. Wouldn’t want to go after the wrong people, right?” Two more drones burst apart. “If we go out and it’s peaceful, I’ll wander around and ask what’s going on. Someone tries to use me for stupid shit—like what they were planning with Are Six—I walk away. Simple as that.”
“Huh. When did all that go through your head?”
“While we were listening to that log in the observatory. And a bit more just now. So like our fearless leader said, keep calm about this. An answer’s bound to come along—”
L-7 suddenly cried out, “Sel Four! Get down!”
The wild one followed suit immediately with a sprawl, after which three green pelts flew past where her head used to be. The incoming drones fell to pieces, though one of them remained largely in tact. Afterwards, SEL-4 sprang back to her feet to fight off the next batch along with Nine.
The numbers began to dwindle on Ten’s end, which allowed her to think on the wild one’s words. Though she knew SEL-4 wasn’t always so reflective, it didn’t lessen the logic behind what she’d said. With that simple clarity came a certain comfort, like finding sure footing after floating adrift for a time. Maybe I should follow her example, thought the white-haired girl. At least for now. Yeah, follow her example for now….
Since Nine remained quiet after that—and the murky feeling seemed to leave him—Ten assumed he had come to the same conclusion. In a similar way, the sounds of combat gradually dwindled as the swarm of security drones continued to meet magic in various forms or the end of the staff. When the rear of the group was finally clear for more than two seconds, the white-haired girl watched her staff-wielding friend take down the last of the drones. In so doing, she noticed finally that he hadn’t used any of his magic. Every swipe and whack had been done without a trace of the blue, fiery glow appearing anywhere, much less on the staff itself.
SEL-4 must’ve noticed as well because she told him, “Pretty good for a no-magic run.” She followed that with a playful nudge to his arm.
Nine replied with little more than a distant, “Yeah.”
Ten exchanged a look with R-6, specifically a smile of relief, and was glad to see the redhead didn’t seem too exhausted like herself. Meanwhile, the staff wielder was about to drive the butt of his weapon into the one drone that had remained largely in tact save for its light—
—until M1-11 called out, “Wait, wait, wait! Leave that one. If I tap into its databanks, I can figure out why they came after us.” He very quickly dipped down to scoop up the drone in question before heading back into the observatory.
The others followed suit, but before she went in, Ten made a quick scan of the floor on either side of the hall. Black scrap metal covered most of the floor where SEL-4 and Nine had been. Since Ten and R-6’s blows had broken the drones into tiny pieces, if not turned them into dust outright, the end of the hall they’d defended earlier seemed to glitter in an odd way with much tinier bits of metal. No matter in what direction she looked, it was quite clear they’d have to watch their step a bit once they had to walk either way. It didn’t look like a substantial obstacle, though, so Ten joined her friends soon after.
Inside the observatory, M1-11 had already occupied a place on the white floor to examine the security drone. He had managed to open it into two equal halves and was using a needle-type device from his left palm to poke some of the boxes and circuits inside the upper half. Ten approached and peered over the automaton’s shoulder to see the occasional spark appear at the end of the palm needle, but otherwise, she couldn’t quite tell what specific actions he was taking in his inspection.
Finally, though, she heard him say, “Huh. This is interesting.”
“What is?” she asked.
“According to the info I’m finding, these drones have been active for almost twelve hours, but only that. They were dormant before, stored on B Ten. And they were in the middle of scouting every floor from B Ten to B Twenty when they ran into us… at which point, as we saw, they swarmed. This wasn’t their first run through this floor.”
“Oh. What do you suppose woke them up?”
Ahead of M1-11, L-7 crouched down, her eyes thoughtful. “Twelve hours? I’m trying to think— Did they wake up because of us?”
Once he heard that, M1-11’s head jerked up. “Ooh… that might actually be true. It’s been about twelve hours since we fell.” He looked to R-6, then Nine. Everyone else did likewise.
Meanwhile, the redhead met the eyes of the others before his own widened with recognition. “Because of… me?”
“Not you specifically,” clarified the automaton, “but the fight itself. The fact that eight floors suffered some serious damage when we fell through them. The drones must’ve been alerted to that and went out to investigate.”
From her place against the wall next to the computers, SEL-4 crossed her arms over her chest. “How would they know we were the cause, though? Aren’t we as much a part of the labs as they are?”
“I don’t think they knew it was us specifically who caused the damage; they just assumed that and happened to be right. They’re programmed to attack anything they perceive as a threat. I guess they designated us as such when they saw some of us were armed.”
“Oh. Right. Nine’s staff and El Seven’s blasters.”
“We weren’t even trying to damage the lab specifically, but… yeah. Can’t blame the drones for doing what they were made to do.”
“So this is my fault,” said Nine. “These drones came after us because of what I did.”
“Don’t spend all your time blaming yourself,” L-7 told him. “What’s done is done. Besides, we destroyed all the drones. We just have to worry about another batch coming after us.”
“That might not happen,” said M1-11, “not unless there were more stored somewhere I couldn’t find for some reason.”
“Which wouldn’t surprise me. This lab seems to have a lot of leftover crap in it that can still work if we hit the wrong button. And that’s probably more likely to happen than not considering the state of the labs.”
The automaton actually laughed at that. “That’s true. I’m telling you, this place is going. It’s been a very slow, ongoing process, but yeah—eventually, the labs will fall apart. We need to secure a way out before then.”
“And maybe learn more about what the hell was going on,” Nine added.
Ten nodded to the last two points before she followed M1-11’s continued scans. It struck her as odd, then, that he’d keep going despite having deduced the answer he’d been searching for. Once she mentioned that, she asked him, “What are you looking for now?”
“I want to see what else I can find,” came the reply, “but the only thing I see is that these drones run specifically on lightning magic. In fact, it seems the formal name of their fuel source is earthly lightning magic.”
SEL-4 let out a grunt. “I didn’t think there were different kinds of magic.”
A part of Ten jumped a bit on the inside when she heard that. “Actually, there is. When I was looking for the Watchful Eye spell in my tablet, I saw a number of books that referred to other different kinds: air, water, light—a whole bunch. I guess the drones operate on a specific kind?”
“Looks that way.” Apparently finished with his scan, M1-11 retracted the needle into his palm. Something in his eye, though, remained puzzled. “It’s funny… my fuel source is just magic. Earthly magic, if we’re being formal. But I’m not sure that’s the same as earth-based magic.”
“I can check for you.”
And upon saying so, the white-haired girl fished out her tablet of spell books and skimmed for one of the titles she’d seen before—The Voice of the Plains, Volume I. Her quick skim of its contents seemed to talk about how one might shift thin portions of the ground for a given purpose or just to revitalize unhealthy grass and other plants. It occurred to her, then, that she had no idea what grass was. One of the black-and-white images she saw showed a person walking along a floor made of long strands that reached her calves, but that didn’t clarify much for her. According to the book, healthy grass was a vibrant green.
I wonder what that looks like? Or what it feels like? Once we’re outside, I guess I could try casting a few of these; the spells sound simple enough to— Catching the divergence of her own thoughts, Ten shook her head to refocus.
She went on to explain what she found out from the book to her friends but also told them, “I don’t think that quite answers the question. I mean, it sounds like there’s a specific distinction between this magic’s energy and the kind I use with the light balls, but….”
M1-11 shook his head, too. “That… doesn’t clarify anything, no. I know for a fact I’m not drawing from any energy specific to earth magic, for instance, so we still don’t know the difference between earth magic and earthly magic.”
“If there actually is one,” said SEL-4. “For all we know, the people who typed up those books used two different terms that meant the same thing. Weird complexities seem to be this lab’s signature style.”
“I’m not sure anyone from the labs made these books, actually.” Ten began to scroll through the other titles she saw listed then, spying a detail she’d noticed before but had seen no point in signaling out before. “The only thing the titles have in common are these numbers on the right-hand side, like C Eight-Zero-Three, C Seven-Seven-Six, C One Thousand— Heck, the one I was just looking at had the number C Six-Four-Five. And not all of them have the letter C in front of them….”
“Oh… oh, wait.” M1-11 shifted around and studied the tablet’s screen. On it, the numbers appeared as c. 803, c. 776, c. 1000, and c. 645. As he examined the numbers more closely, he raised a finger to drift over them while the rest of him went very still. “Actually, Ten… these are years. The C in each one of these stands for circa, which means approximate—meaning that these books were made in or around those years, given a small margin of error. The ones that don’t have the C means they were definitely written in those years.”
Ten gawked at the numbers again, feeling as though she’d lose her balance. “Really? Oh—didn’t you give us a year before? Something about our profiles…!”
With a snap of his fingers, the automaton’s face broke into a smile. “Yeah, yeah! I think your profiles stopped updating sometime during the year 3486. Which means the original versions of these books are probably long gone, given how ancient they’d be by now.”
“Well, that’s great,” said Nine. “What year is it now?”
“No idea. My internal clock bugged on me, remember? I can only keep track of hours and minutes now, and even that needs resetting whenever I have to time something new.”
“Wonderful,” came the deadpan response.
“This is all quite fascinating,” said L-7, rising to her feet, “but we need to keep moving. If you’ve found all you could from that security drone, Em, then we should go.”
“Right, right.” M1-11 set the drone down then and stood. “Sorry about that. Lead the way, El Seven.”
The group headed for the door, but Ten didn’t bother to put away the tablet. “I’ll keep searching for more about that earthly magic thing.”
“You do that. It might come in handy later,” said the team leader. “The rest of us will keep an eye out for anymore security drones or whatever else this lab wants to throw at us.”
With that, she asked the automaton where the next set of stairs were and took point. Nine took the rear guard, so before going on ahead, Ten met up with him and touched his arm.
“Are you going to be all right?” she asked.
He met her eyes. In the brief moment that followed, she could still sense that murky feeling from earlier, but then… it was like something hid it away, like a door shutting in front of her. Outwardly, though, Nine answered her question with a simple nod of his head. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.” After that, he tossed her half a smile before giving her a gentle push forward. “You have some research to do, don’t you, speed reader?”
“Erm, yeah. Yeah, I do.” Ten capped that off with a short giggle, but in truth, she was still very much concerned for her friend. However, he had just ensured that the conversation was over, so she went on to browse the contents of her tablet once again.
Her concern remained with her, though.