Ascent, Ch. 14
Somehow, none of the computers on B14 or even B13 contained any logs by Doctor Preston or by any other doctor that may have worked at the labs. M1-11 had found plenty of hidden files, but most of them contained information on prototype weapons and vehicle schematics. The brief peek Ten had taken made her aware of such things as tanks, cannons, shield projectors, bombs of varying size and effect, and more—all of it powered by magic in various forms. Apparently, having more complex machines use different types of magic for different functions allowed them to operate more efficiently, though Ten didn’t look long enough to learn how. Smaller machines like the security drones wouldn’t have needed to make any such distinction.
None of the information there or in the tablet clarified the difference between earth magic and earthly magic, however. Ten made a guess regardless: “It sounds like all the magic we’ve learned about can be filed under earthly magic, based on all our info.”
The automaton tapped his chin. “That would mean there’s another kind of magic out there besides the earthly kind, which we’ve all been using. I see no other reason why they would make the distinction.”
“We got by with just earthly magic so far. Why would we even need another kind?” She showed the tablet to M1-11 and pointed to a line in the book she was currently reading. “It says here that all magic is inherently spiritual. Do you think that might have something to do with the distinction?”
“If it does, I couldn’t tell you how it relates—and I doubt this book would be able to, either, considering how old it is. Year 980? Yow!”
They were marching down the halls of B10 when they shared that exchange. The steel walls and ceiling looked about the same as the rest of the lab’s floors with a few signs and the words written on them acting as the only point of differentiation. They procured a couple of new shirts in one locker room they passed, but only SEL-4 bothered with grabbing one. She and Nine weren’t particularly wounded despite weathering the blaster fire from the security drones, but their clothes each had their fair share of singes.
“The drones must’ve been defective. Why else would their aim be so bad?” asked the wild one.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” replied M1-11. “Maybe being inactive for so long really screwed them up. I wasn’t programmed to maintain them specifically, just some of the most vital functions of the labs.”
“Could be, but whatever. The point is, they’re gone and we’re still breathing.”
“I’m surprised they weren’t worried about having better security than that,” said Nine.
“I don’t blame you, but if nothing else, the security codes would’ve definitely slowed down the hackers.” The automaton spread out his hands as if throwing something into the air. “I’ve never seen so many encrypted, hidden files before I started searching for those logs. I can’t even use the same trick twice just to find them, different computers notwithstanding. So even if their more aggressive security measures failed, the door codes and the computers would’ve been an enormous obstacle by themselves.”
The next computer room they stopped in yielded no new information, either—not in terms of their particular projects or history, at least. What they found instead was a blueprint for a weapon called an arcane bomb, which was supposedly powered by all the different kinds of earthly magic. The image of the bomb’s blueprint appeared briefly on the screen they were looking at—and just as quickly came and went a wide-eyed look across the automaton’s face.
Having caught that, Ten peered at him and then the screen. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine, yes,” came the reply. “I just skimmed that one blueprint briefly, and… well, the arcane bombs sound like they could’ve been powerful weapons—assuming they were ever built, that is. The blueprint doesn’t tell me if they were, but it’s grouped under a folder labeled Experimental – In Development. I don’t know if a final version was never made.”
It was Nine who asked, “Do we want to know how powerful they were—er, could’ve been?”
“I could tell you, but it probably wouldn’t make any sense. Can you visualize an area of twenty-six thousand square kilometers?”
“Then I don’t think my answer is going to help. Just know that it’s a huge area for one weapon to affect.”
“Huh. Okay. Let’s hope they weren’t real.”
“Yes. Let’s. Moving on….”
Ten tried to visualize an area of the size described but kept blanking after picturing anything bigger than the largest rooms in the facility. Trying to imagine something she had never seen before—even in terms of destruction, which she knew from their battles—simply wasn’t clicking in her head no matter what she tried to use as a reference point. In the end, she put the thought aside thinking, I don’t think I want to picture destruction on a scale that huge when we’re closer than ever to leaving.
About a minute passed in silence before M1-11 jerked his head over to one side all of a sudden. “Huh? Oh… whoa.”
Ten jumped a bit in place, once more swiveling her head between the automaton and the computer screen. “Did you find another log by Doctor Preston?”
“No, but… I found a theory related to automatons,” came the reply, “which also delves into the nature of magic that you mentioned before.”
“Uh-huh. Automatons like myself are fueled by earthly magic, and it seems we’re able to draw from all the different kinds to ensure we can always pull in some magic to recharge when we need to. The theory suggests that, if an automaton is continuously active for a long enough period of time, the spiritual component inherent in magic could give rise to… a human-like personality.” He straightened, but he didn’t turn to face anyone. His eyes were wide open, however. “Dare I say it…? I think it’s true.”
Without a glance at everyone else, Ten sensed their surprise as well as her own. And here I thought all automatons were like him. Then again, he’s the only one I’ve ever seen….
L-7 finally spoke for the rest. “You always did seem oddly human. I remember seeing an automaton back when I had to perform all these tests for the doctors, and she… didn’t act like you, to put it simply. She was more robotic—no energy to her, no life. You, for some reason, always seemed more human.”
“So you told me when I woke you. You know, I never thought about it much, but… well, my memories do seem different from about twelve hours before I awakened you all until now than they did before then. Does that make sense?”
Ten nodded slowly. “I think so. But wait… you said your clock bugged on you after we first met. How long ago was that? Was that before or after you woke up the rest of us?”
“Before. I just don’t know how many hours before—not with the clock bugging on me. I’m aware of what happened after I self-activated thanks to my data logs, but they haven’t been time stamped since 3491.” M1-11 withdrew his hands from the computer, stepping back. “My memories didn’t start looking really vivid until twelve hours before— Wait, hold on. I said that already.”
“So, all that magic fueling you for so long finally made you human?” asked Nine.
“I wouldn’t say that. My body’s still mechanical, you see? But according to this theory, I may have developed my own soul.”
“Oh, my word,” The white-haired girl jumped in place, clapping her hands. “I had no idea magic could do that!”
“Me, neither!” M1-11 ran a hand over his head as if he’d just jumped away from something. “It doesn’t specify how much time of continuous activity I would’ve needed for this to happen, but… it has to be true. Wow, I… I actually have a soul. Never would’ve guessed. How long have I been active, then…?”
No one could answer him, not even the theory. However, for the first time since they defeated the queen, everyone in the group was sporting a smile. It was also the first instance Ten could recall where she and SEL-4 weren’t the only ones laughing as even Nine and L-7 of all people let out a bit of mirth. R-6 remained quiet, but Ten saw the small grin on his face. The bulk of her attention stayed with M1-11, however, who looked about ready to jump up and down like she had done just a few seconds ago.
L-7 spent the next few minutes getting everyone back on the move. Once they were, the only ones who really spoke were M1-11, L-7, and SEL-4. Ten spoke up on occasion to clarify where they were going to prevent herself from bumping into any walls while skimming through her tablet. Each time she switched between books, she tried to gain a better idea of how everyone was feeling. For the most part, everyone seemed relaxed—guarded, but relaxed. Still, though, she couldn’t gauge the full extent of Nine’s feelings beyond some nervousness from earlier, no doubt from that brief talk about the arcane bombs. Any questions on how he was doing ended with a simple yes or I’m fine, maybe a subtle smile, and little else.
That just makes me worry more, thought Ten. Some of the stuff I skimmed over said everyone has a kind of psychic sense like mine, and it’s very rare for someone to just be born with the ability to use it. But it’s also possible people can withdraw so much from others that this sense wouldn’t work on them. It’s not something they even realize they’re doing, either. Is that what you’ve done, Nine? Is that why I can’t read you anymore? Well, there’s always the old fashioned way of figuring something out. I just need a chance to actually ask him….
To their surprise—and relief—nothing else jumped out at them. No critters had crawled up this far, apparently, and no more security drones threw themselves at the group. Their trip from floor to floor went all the faster because M1-11 no longer tried to hack every single computer along the way, not when they were fast approaching their destination—and with it, all the information they could want. So they traveled straight to every set of stairs each time they arrived at a new floor, and on top of that, they skipped B8 and B5 entirely.
Eventually, they reached B3 at last. From an initial look around, nothing about the floor made it distinct from the others they passed save for one detail: the high ceiling. The halls and even the rooms were twice as tall as those from most of the lower floors. For the rooms in particular, the amount of extra space seemed excessive from Ten’s view. With the desks and chairs on the floor and the lights mounted on the walls, what was the point in having a high ceiling?
She asked M1-11 just that, and he answered her with, “Aesthetics is one reason. I mean, the rooms look nice and tidy, don’t they? It might be hard to clean the upper parts, but it’s also easier to find things. But on this floor, the reason for the high ceiling has everything to do with one particular room.”
Ten tossed him a curious look. “Which one?”
“This one right here: the main computer room.”
When he said those words, the automaton stopped walking in front of a control panel embedded in the wall next to a pair of doors framed with silver bars. The doors themselves, the only things on B3 so far that reached the ceiling, were a dark gray with triangular indentations and inactive lights at the seam. Ten had thought herself small compared to just her friends before, but she now felt downright tiny compared to the entrance to the computer room.
However, she also felt a sense of relief. We’re here. It’s taken forever, but we’re finally here.
M1-11 was quick to plant his left palm over part of the control panel, at which point he began hacking. A second after he began, though, he cocked his head to the side. “Goodness gracious, this is…!”
L-7 eyed him. “What’s the problem?”
“The security program made for this room is more complex than anything I’ve ever seen. I dare say most machines would lose their way going through all this code. Even the best hackers in the world probably wouldn’t know where to start! At least they’d be persistent… and I’m human enough to be the same way.”
“How long do you think you’ll be at this?”
“I’m not sure yet. Hang on.” M1-11 twisted his left hand ever so slightly while he continued to tap periodically on the panel’s buttons. Every now and then, his head would jerk a bit to the left or right, one eyebrow rising and falling or the other. After about a minute, he smiled. “Another difference between me and other machines is that I know about those super-hidden files and some of the coding used to hide them. I still can’t gauge how long I’ll be at this, though. You all might as well sit down or go on patrol in the meantime.”
“I think we will,” said L-7. “Things have been pretty quiet, but even so, let’s make sure we’re the only ones on this floor. Sel Four, come with me. The rest of you, guard Em. I’ll have my communicator on if you need anything.”
As the team leader was speaking, however, Ten glanced again at Nine, and her thoughts about him from earlier returned. She stepped in front of L-7, waving her hand a bit. “Actually, I’ll go on the patrol with Nine, if that’s okay.”
“Hmm? All right.” L-7 nudged the staff wielder. “Are you okay with this?”
His reply began with a sudden jolt that straightened his posture—and for once, he actually looked at the rest of them. “Hmm? Oh. Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Good. At least one of you should keep your communicator open. Let us know if you need backup of any kind.”
Adding to this, SEL-4 wrung an arm around R-6 and pulled him closer to her. “Em’s got more than enough protection with three of us here.”
“Come back soon,” said the redhead, eyeing the wild one with a nervous look.
“What? I’m not going to pick on you that much.”
He gave her a look, then turned to Ten. “Come back soon.”
The white-haired girl answered with a nod before she and Nine took off. Having deactivated her communicator since they had left the medical room on B24, she turned it back on before she walked around the nearest corner with her friend. However, she slipped the communicator into the same pouch as her tablet and closed the flap, then left her hands behind her clasped together.
Nine must’ve noticed what she had just done because he raised an eyebrow at her. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” replied Ten in a quiet voice. “There’s just something I’ve been meaning to ask you, and I thought it might be better to do that once we were away from the others.”
“Sounds serious. What did I do? Did I not back you up enough when we faced the queen?”
“No, you did plenty of that while we were fighting there. It’s just… I can usually sense how everyone’s feeling—in a broad sense, mind you—but for the last several hours, I haven’t been able to sense anything from you. It’s like something’s blocking me.”
Not once did he look at her as he spoke. “Huh. I… I wouldn’t know what’s up with that. You’d know your powers better than I do mine.”
“I’m not so sure, but… anyway. Is everything okay with you? Really?”
“Well… I’m in one piece. Can’t complain about that. But it’s true I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately. No major headaches, at least.”
“That’s a relief. And actually, I’ve been thinking a lot, too—though not quite so much ever since I began my last bit of research.” Ten let out a breath, then popped her shoulders up briefly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Nine gripped his staff tighter. Then he raised it a bit so one end wouldn’t risk scraping the floor before tightening his hold on it again. He lowered his head, his other hand finding a pocket to occupy. That was when Ten could sense some of his feelings at last; she felt that cluster of knots in her gut like they were hers alone.
“I don’t know where to begin,” he started, “so I guess I’ll start at the end: I’m afraid everything we’ve done won’t amount to anything.”
“You mentioned something like that before.” She could even hear his words echo in her head: “You’re not afraid that this all might be pointless?” Along those lines, however, she needed to know, “What makes you think that?”
The next sigh he released sounded both exhausted and annoyed. “Well, for one thing, we haven’t seen anyone but ourselves ever since Em freed us. Sure, there were critters and the queen, but they were all experiments like us, right? And all that talk about a war, and how we were supposed to be weapons they were going to use… it’s made me wonder if we’ll find anything once we leave. Sel Four sounded confident that there’d be something left, but… I don’t know. You’d think if there were, somebody would’ve found us by now.”
Like a critter creeping up an elevator shaft, those doubts Ten had pushed aside before began to well up inside her, constricting her chest. She even brought up one of her hands to rest over her heart and curled it into a fist. With a deep breath, though, the fears subsided. “Maybe they’re just too far away? Or maybe they couldn’t find the entrance to the labs?”
“We are underground, true….”
The two of them walked around another left corner. Laughter bubbled from the communicator, though it was muffled by the closed pouch. It occurred to Ten that the laughter had come from SEL-4—and that she was in the middle of teasing R-6—but the thought didn’t last long.
The staff wielder switched which hand held his weapon before he said more. “I was also thinking… what was that war about? In a fight, there’s always just us and the enemy. The critters were one thing, but the Federation had hybrids like Are Six, the log said. So wouldn’t our real enemies have been people like us? Was there even a right or wrong side in that war? And if so, which side were we on?”
“The labs are situated in the Empire,” said Ten, “but that doesn’t quite answer your question. How are we supposed to know that, anyway?”
“Em’s at the door to the main computer, so I guess we’ll find out everything soon. I just…” He nudged her lightly on the arm, after which their eyes met. “We’ve never been outside before, and Em just found out he has a soul. I want this whole trip to have been worth it, you know?”
“Honestly? I want that, too. I really do.” Ten tapped her pouch. “When you were wondering if there would be anything left for us to find, it made me think of some of the info I found out from looking through the tablet.”
“Weren’t you supposed to look up the difference between earth magic and earthly magic?”
“I was—and, well, I didn’t exactly figure that out. But I learned about other things, like grass, and how plants go through a cycle of blooming and wilting. The places where land meets water are called shorelines, and the water level rises and falls depending on the time of day or night. Also, sunlight isn’t just bright—it’s warm. Spirits are born from all these things, and in turn, spirits give us magic. That’s when I realized something.”
“I don’t know what any of that looks like. All I had to go on were illustrations in these old books, but they weren’t in color. Grass is supposed to be green and stretch out in all directions in the plains. If we leave, we might actually see that—like, really see it.” Without realizing it right away, the corners of her mouth turned up as her fingertips cycled through tapping each other. “And when I think about that, I actually get kind of excited.”
“You’re not afraid that we won’t find anything—not even all that stuff you just talked about?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It’s more like… I’m not just afraid, you know? I’m scared about what we might learn from the main computer, but I also really want to learn everything I can.”
“I could say the same.” When he said this, she could sense he really meant it, that he wasn’t afraid. Not as much as before, at least, though still more so than her. “I’m on the border of wanting to know and not wanting to. That about sums up what I’ve been feeling the whole time, I guess.” He nudged her, and again, their eyes met. This time, he was smiling—and nothing about it looked forced. “Glad I’m not the only one.”
Ten helped herself to another giggle. “Same here.”
At no point did her joys outweigh her fears or vice versa as she spoke those words. She believed what she’d said—or at least, she wanted to believe them. In all honesty, she wasn’t sure which of the two sentiments she was feeling or if it were a mix of both. What remained was anticipation, especially now that they were so close to the main computer. This mix of emotions grew more pronounced for her after she took out her communicator and reported her status and thoughts to the rest of the team. All told, her other feelings seemed to stave off the fear—not completely, but enough to let her smile.
She was in the middle of talking when she and Nine rounded their last left to return to the others. Ten thus opted to finish her thoughts once they were all together again. “Even if we don’t meet anyone new right away, I’m we’ll discover something out there.”
R-6 seemed to give the slightest hint of a shrug. “This place… I don’t like it. I want to leave.”
“We’ve come this far,” said L-7. “Might as well see this to the end.”
The last part got a quiet laugh out of SEL-4. “Like our fearless leader would allow us to do anything else at this point.”
“Ooh, ooh!” M1-11 jumped in place before flashing a smile at the others. “I think I’m close.”
“To what?” asked Ten.
“To figuring out this security code mess. I still need time, but… I think… I might be done sooner than I thought I would be.”
He described the entire thing in metaphor for ease of understanding, likening his hacking to traveling through hall after hall made of code, each one with at least a hundred different offshoots. Many of them led to dead ends. Several others were hidden either through the floors or ceiling—“unconventional places and routes,” as he’d put it—but all of them were just as complicated as the main branch of code. He was in one of the more obscure, hidden halls when he’d said he was close, and even then, he had many more to explore. The only indication that told him he was on the right track was anything that bared the initials of Doctor Preston, J. P., that followed a specific sequence of colors which blinked in a certain rhythm. His thoughts on the matter echoed everyone else’s: “I hope this doesn’t change a lot on me anytime soon.”
As things stood, however, the automaton needed quite a bit more time. L-7 and SEL-4 thus went off on another patrol. They made some thorough examinations of the elevator shafts and the stairs, confirming that they were alone on B3. Ten offered to make use of the Watchful Eye spell again, but SEL-4 declined because she liked moving around. Upon completing a third patrol and contemplating a fourth, the group was interrupted when M1-11 let out a huge sigh—as much as an automaton could mimic such an action, at least.
Beside him, the lights on the doors blinked to life. Puffs of air sounded from somewhere behind the doors—no, within them. Then, slowly, they parted, revealing a room lit in a dim red light beyond. As the doors continued to move, M1-11 stepped away from the control panel at last.
To all of this, he said just one thing. “Finally! We’re in.”
Ten brought a hand over her chest, and through the sounds of the sliding doors, she heard her own heart pounding. It only grew louder and beat faster as the red lights gave way to the lab’s usual white, illuminating the enormous room and everything in it. At that point, she could only gawk in awe of the sight before her.
Computers abounded from end to end, and most of them were tucked behind makeshift walls that came nowhere near close to touching the ceiling. Sitting in the middle of the room was a ring of computers surrounding a steel pillar topped by a cone, and several cables of varying sizes sprouted from the top of the cone feature. The cables stretched to the ceiling and spread out far enough to cover it completely, and even then, a few hung like the tendrils from Cele Two’s nest.
Ten pointed straight to the giant mechanical pillar and everything attached to it. “That thing there… That’s the main computer?”
M1-11 patted her on the shoulder. “Indeed, it is. All the info we could possibly need is at our fingertips, and so is a means of securing a way out. Hang in there, everyone! We’re almost out.”