Ascent, Ch. 16
“This is the personal log of Doctor Julius Preston. Current date: 15 Simha 3476. It’s officially been two whole years since the Federation declared war. At the rate we’re going, both our countries will be in a state of total war within the next year. Unbelievable. And we still don’t know how our ambassador died on Federation soil. Our sources say he was shot but also that the exact cause of death was unconfirmed. I guess we won’t find out now.
“The labs are still running strong, at least, even after seventy-two years. With God Star Tower right above us, we’ll have an infinite supply of energy to fuel the facility’s functions for years to come—well past my lifetime to be sure. Such is the benefit of having what amounts to a fountain of flowing magic over your head at all times. If we could isolate it properly, we’d even have access to pure divine magic. But that’s beyond us, even with all our advancements since the dawn of civilization.”
Ten felt one of her eyebrows rising. Divine magic…? Is that the other kind besides earthly magic?
“Neither does this extend quite as much to the physical architecture of the lab, unfortunately. A shipment of automatons should be coming in soon to help us with all the maintenance this place will require, though. The flow of work won’t be interrupted, so we should be able to start on this first round of weapons development soon as mandated by the Imperial Council. I guess we’ll be diving headfirst into this war with the Federation now.”
“Current date: 27 Aprico 3481. That was no technician—not a conventional one, anyway. He must’ve been given orders from the Council. Why else would he tell me, ‘We need all your attention on your development projects’ when all he was supposedly doing was a repair job? And those projects? We’ve been focused on them for seven years now! All the weapons development, the continued magic studies, the cloning—that’s all we’ve been doing! We didn’t need him to bug the clock function on almost all the computers. I barely had enough time to delete it before it could become something worse.
“I can only hope he didn’t somehow implant the same bug into the automatons. I can’t afford to have them go defective if we ever have to evacuate the labs. In any case, I’m the only one with any extensive access to the main computer thanks to my position… which means I’m also the only one in the labs now who can tell what the date is. This is ridiculous! How am I going to keep everyone’s schedules on track now? Bah, I’ll have to announce it over the intercom, think of other strategies… I need to do something to control the panic among the staff, though….
“That reminds me… I had a debate with Doctor Cornwall just yesterday about how advanced automatons have become in the last century. She pointed out to me that they’re fueled by all earthly magic—and thus, all the inherent spirituality that comes with it—so she asked me if I thought it possible for them to gain souls, and thus, free will. Granted, that’s not a new theory… but given the builds of the Em One models, I’m actually starting to think the chances are high, at least with them. No one knows how long that would take, however.
“Oh… but if it were true… what would happen should they gain free will while the labs are empty? They’re programmed to maintain the labs even if we all had to leave. If they developed their own souls, what would that say about them? About us? Will they want to continue obeying us or any directives we leave behind? Will we have duplicated the power of gods? Ack, why did this come to me now of all times?
“Damn it, and the inspector is already gone. Now I can’t interrogate him about just how far his work went. I already know the higher ups will deny involvement. They’ll probably won’t even acknowledge anything is wrong and go right into elaborating on this Operation ADVENT they’ve told me to prepare for.”
The log ended with an angry but tired sigh. Over the static, Ten heard M1-11’s utter surprise loud and clear. “That clock bug I deleted… someone might’ve planted that into me as some kind of mandate? Was it just to keep me from developing free will, or…? Wait, was I really that close to deactivating permanently?”
If that’s true, then we were also really close to not waking up when we did, thought the white-haired girl. We were already sleeping for eighty-five years. If that bug were as bad as Doctor Preston’s made it sound—and if Em succumbed to it—how much longer would we have slept for?
“Current date: 24 Simha 3482. I must state my thoughts plainly on Operation ADVENT: This whole thing is ridiculous. I understand the desire to end the war decisively; we’ve been fighting the Federation for eight years now. But still—to clone our most revered heroes? What are they thinking?
“I’ve gone over the plans involved with the operation several times now, and I still can’t fathom how this is going to work. We’re to create stand-ins, essentially, for Saint Michaela and Sir Ivan… and also Lydia the Martyr, Emperor Selydon, and Duke Redimere. Honestly, I doubt this will assure us victory as much as the Council would like to believe. These things take the best strategy, hardware, soldiers, and supplies. We cannot assume clones of our great heroes will bring them back to life, so our current generals and commanders aren’t going anywhere. I have no doubts that this will raise morale for our troops, but that will be possible only if the projects go well, and we’ll have no way of knowing that for a few years yet. Alas, it’s an Imperial Order. What else can I do but obey? At least they’re aware that this first step is going to take the most time. All things considered, they should’ve called this Experimental Set ADVENT instead.
“Given the time I’ll need for all this, I hope our armies are equipped to hold the fronts for a while longer. I say this because we’re reaching the limit of how far we can go with these artificial soldier generators. It may be time to make some new models… so I suppose Operation ADVENT will supplement them. Doctor Cornwall has already begun work on her Cele Project, and many of the other leading doctors have started on their super soldier experiments. I guess we’ll see how they all turn out. Everyone hasn’t been able to leave the labs in the past year anyway. More Imperial Orders. When did our Empress become so ruthless? At this rate, we’ll be no better than the Talosines! Except….”
A long, drawn-out sigh cut in, marred by static. “The Federation has always been more violent. Ranverda may be an empire, but we united our countries under peaceful negotiations. The Talosines practically devoured each other to create their Federation. However, now, I don’t see much point in calling them monsters. We’ve become plenty monstrous ourselves….”
“Current date: 16 Kanya 3482. Or was it the seventeenth today? I don’t know if it passed midnight. In any case, our troops have made landfall on Talosine soil. Our concealment magic managed to hide our main fleet long enough to make the assault successful. Reports have come in saying that we secured the port in a matter of hours. The news keeps giving those of us in the labs plenty of praise for our work on the advanced weapons we’ve been able to provide the soldiers.
“Even after all these years, I’m not sure how to feel about this. They’re basically saying, ‘Thank you for allowing us to kill our enemies more efficiently.’ I suppose I should be proud that everything worked out, but I just don’t feel it. Not that my feelings on the matter are important to those in charge…. I’ll have to hold onto the hope that we can end the war sooner rather than later, but I’ve been told to continue with Operation ADVENT as planned. What are they thinking? Well, just as long as no one authorizes the use of the arcane bombs. Goodness knows there are too many of those on both sides.
“In other news… I went to investigate today the claims people have been giving me about ghosts in the upper floors. I’ve determined that it’s nothing more than the memories of God Star Tower seeping through. They seem isolated to B1 and B2, nowhere else. That doesn’t surprise me. They’re the closest floors to the sanctuary of the gods, after all. Anyway, everyone was relieved to hear it was nothing to worry about.”
“Current date: 6 Taur 3483. Our storage cells on the B Forties are becoming too crowded. It may be time to start modifying the B Thirties so they can store more of the failed artificial soldiers from both the queens and the other super soldier projects. We’ll have to update security measures to accommodate the changes to ensure none of them escape. The Imperial Army can’t make use of the defective specimens, but we might be able to use them for testing our super soldiers. They may also come in handy for testing our Operation ADVENT specimens—assuming we can make some that won’t die on us in the middle of production. Maybe it’s a sign… a sign we’ll be forced to ignore, granted, but a sign nonetheless.”
A creaking sound popped up somewhere ahead. Ten looked up to see SEL-4 leaning back in her chair and causing the noise. Her hands drifted behind her head as she muttered, “Huh. So that’s where the critters came from. They’re the rejects.”
“So they are,” replied L-7. “I guess we did the ones we killed a favor.”
“Sounds like it.”
“Current date: 7 Veneris 3483. This is driving me insane. We just started on our sixth iteration of Lydia a week ago and I’m already seeing problems. This one won’t make it to the testing phase, either, so I’ve ordered the group to start on the seventh. Let’s hope this one makes it. What I wouldn’t give for a fraction of the Saint’s patience right now.
“Ah, it could be worse. Each of the three Selydon iterations so far made it through production only to die soon after leaving their stasis tubes. Selydon Three died in the middle of his first test of all places. I can’t believe that. I also can’t believe that, after three iterations, the group working on Project Emperor screwed up the gene splicing with Selydon Four and made her female. And yet somehow, we remembered to make her infertile as per standard cloning procedure. Our eyes must be growing more bleary by the year.
“Well, as long as she makes it through her creation alive, I’ll live with it. Of all the different projects under the Operation ADVENT umbrella, Project Emperor has so far seen the fewest screw-ups. I can’t say the same for Project Saint and Project Knight. How many iterations of each have we gone through now? I think we’re up to nine with Saint and eight with Knight. Even Project Draco hasn’t been as disastrous as those two.”
“Infertile?” The wild one looked at everyone with a curious expression.
“It means that you won’t be able to reproduce,” replied a solemn M1-11. “As in, make children? The same goes for everyone here, if I understood Doctor Preston correctly just now. Goodness… there was so much about this place I never knew about.”
Dead silence reigned until the next log started. Ten just felt lost, unsure what to make of the news.
“Current date: 1 Mesha 3484. Lydia Seven has been completed. She’ll begin her first round of tests within the week. If we’re lucky, Selydon Four will be completed soon as well, and we’ll gain an opportunity to test them together.
“Lydia Seven specializes in speed and precision in accordance with the over all plan of Operation ADVENT. The legends say Lydia the Martyr was a swift runner and also an unparalleled archer both on foot and on horseback. Lydia Seven was designed to take the strengths of her namesake to superhuman levels. We’ll have to wait until her tests go underway to confirm this, however.
“Selydon Four doesn’t have quite so much to go on. The legends note that Emperor Selydon was quite a weapons expert, but his talents lay in swordsmanship. Magic conjuration was the closest comparison we could make when designing each Selydon iteration. I suppose I’ll let the fourth one choose whichever magical weapon comes most naturally to her, assuming nothing goes wrong.
“Ivan Eight was stable but not yet complete, last I checked. The same goes for Michaela Nine. We may need to scrap Redimere Five due to complications with both the cloning process and the enhancement transfusion. If we’re having this much trouble with the latter procedure, I shudder to think what will happen once we conduct it with Michaela Nine and Ivan Eight.
“Everyone in Operation ADVENT has been given the standard super soldier enhancements in strength, agility, reflexes, and endurance without trouble. That’s about the only relief I’ve had since I started on all these projects. Now if only we could just finish them….”
“Current date: 8 Mesha 3484. Lydia’s first round of tests have been successful. Everything we had hoped to accomplish with her has been made. She’s very laconic in personality—and gruff—but we can work with this. I think. I have to admit, her general demeanor makes me wonder if she isn’t already thinking of ways to break away from us and escape.”
L-7 almost laughed at this. “I just didn’t like the doctors. Paranoid much, Preston?”
“For now, she’ll be returned to stasis and await the next round of tests. Since Cele One isn’t quite up to par with expectations, maybe I can convince Doctor Cornwall to let me use her project in an upcoming test….”
“Current date: 11 Mesha 3484. Selydon Four was completed a couple of days ago and has undergone her first three tests. I couldn’t emphasize this enough in my official report, but she is vicious. She seems to favor conjuring blades over her hands already and absolutely delights in battle. She also doesn’t listen to our instructions often and insists on finding her own violent solutions. This is… quite a far cry from the dignified demeanor said to be Emperor Selydon’s trademark. I can’t say I’m completely over this drastic difference in personality. Then again, I never knew the old emperor personally, and we weren’t trying to retrieve his soul for Operation ADVENT.”
To no one’s surprise, SEL-4 laughed out loud when the log finished.
“Current date: 18 Mithun 3484. So much for Michaela Nine and Ivan Eight. They both died during the magical transfusion process as I had feared they would. Meanwhile, Redimere Five developed a cancer somehow and… well, long story short, he’s dead. We’re going to have to desecrate the bodies of our heroes yet again. It’s surprising how much of them have stayed in tact so far, granted, but this is still a horrendous violation.” An exasperated groan, then a sigh. “Back to the drawing board on all three projects. I can’t tell if this is more irritating than listening to all those political debates or not.
“We brought Lydia Seven and Selydon Four out of stasis to pit them against the Cele prototype and Cele One recently. Despite Selydon Four’s difficult nature, she seemed to follow Lydia Seven’s orders soon enough.”
“That’s because her instructions weren’t stupid,” said the wild one.
“What a relief,” came the team leader’s deadpan response.
“Still, I worry that her rebellious streak may pose a problem. I suppose we’ll have to let the commanders know to give El Seven and Sel Four a general goal and let them work out the details. That may be the best way to have our objectives completed with minimal difficulty regarding their personalities. But that will have to wait until later.”
“Current date: 17 Variel 3485. Work, work, work. That’s all we’ve done for… what is it? Eleven years now? Wait, eleven…? How in the world have we been fighting such an extensive war for this long? No doubt the great seas have been an obstacle in helping us gain ground, but… ugh. I’m so tired now. So very, very tired. I hardly have time to sleep, never mind update this log.
“In any case, we’ve had to both repel invasions from the Federation as well as advance our own. For all intents and purposes, one of us should’ve won by now. We’ve already run several patches of land dry, both at home and in our island territories. We can’t seem to kick the Federation off our northwest coast, but at least they haven’t made significant progress. It’s their blasted hybrids; those soldiers are devastating. And to this day, I still don’t know what the Imperial Council plans to do with the soldiers we’re making for Operation ADVENT.
“Ah… I’m sorry. I can barely keep my eyes open. I just want to sleep.”
“Current date: 19 Risha 3485. Ivan Nine is complete. None of the reports or status charts indicate anything too out of the ordinary, but I still worry over his stability. After eight failures in a row with this soul transfer experiment, I have every right to be. At least the ninth is alive, his vital signs are stable, and he’s cooperative enough. I can’t help but feel this is too good to be true, though.
“I don’t know how many lines we’ve crossed, but I know we just went over a major one several times by just attempting to retrieve Sir Ivan’s soul for this. The man is long gone; he should be resting in peace. And why his soul in particular? He may have used the god’s power directly, but Saint Michaela was the great mage; Sir Ivan was just a swordsman. There were rumours stating he had retained the gods’ power, but I thought that was pure speculation. That’s probably the only reason, I suppose.
“In any case, we haven’t been able to confirm if the soul transfer really worked—and I actually hope it didn’t—but at least Ivan Nine is alive. He’ll be ready for testing shortly. Then we’ll see just how stable he really is.”
“Current date: 21 Risha 3485. Redimere Six is complete, and unlike the past five, he’s in stable condition. He looks very much like a young Duke Redimere. I wish we didn’t have to disturb the old duke’s body—or that of any of our heroes—but with the dragons long extinct, he was our one source of anything remotely dragon-like for the project that bears his name. And naturally, his hybrid nature has been duplicated as accurately as possible with Redimere Six. His first set of tests begin tomorrow.
“I… I couldn’t help but notice— He looks about the same age my son was when I last saw him, just sixteen years old. My son would be much older now, I imagine. They’d probably make great friends if they ever met. That… that will make next week… all the more difficult to live through. I must steel myself, though. That shouldn’t be hard. I’ve done it so often to cope, it’s become second nature. Even so… I must be ready to give the order.”
“Current date: 28 Risha 3485. The new year is upon us, and all I can think is… ‘How could we have been so cruel?’ Redimere Six… I can still hear his screams, how he pleaded with us not to go through with it. I can’t believe we forced that on him. I can’t believe I gave the order so… so easily! That the team obeyed so easily! How could we have been…?
“I know this means nothing to him right now, but I must say it: I’m so sorry, Are Six. This war has turned us into something worse than monsters, and we turned you into yet another tool for it. If this war ends anytime soon—if—then somehow, someway, I must start my atonement with you. Nothing I do will ever be enough, but… I won’t leave you like that.
“We… we developed that berserk spell specifically to ensure that he couldn’t be knocked out of it easily. We can develop a counter that will bring him out of it. I’ll work on it alone if I have to. Just… I have to do something to make it up to this child.
“If we could just end this war soon… if we could just end it now… our cloned subjects could live real lives. My peers could live real lives again. We could help build instead of destroy again. And it wouldn’t just be me out there, finding redemption; all my peers would as well. We can get there. At the very least, I have to believe it. We just have… to end… this war.”
Ten turned to R-6 as the log ended. The redhead didn’t quite meet her eyes. But unlike the last log that talked about him in the berserk state, he didn’t seem angry now. Not nearly as much. His general feelings seemed quite mixed, though.
The white-haired girl reached out to touch his arm. She recalled the other log about that live test as well as the words of her friend from back then: “I hate him.”
But when he spoke up this time, R-6 said instead, “He sounds like… he’s crying.”
Ten nodded, the knot in her chest tight. “He does. I think he really was.”
“Current date: 2 Dhanus 3486. I don’t remember feeling this awed and inspired since I was first assigned to oversee the labs. Saint Michaela… it really does feel like a part of you has come back to us. I still grant that Michaela Ten is her own person, but her resemblance to the Saint is uncanny. I… I hope we’re able to do the Saint some justice, at least. Bah, I may be asking—no, I am asking too much. We cloned her, after all, and we practically destroyed her body when we did. Is it wrong to ask for forgiveness about this…?
“Ah, no… I fear it is too late. After all the weapons we’ve made and all the soldiers we dumped into the lower floors… after that near-disastrous test with Redimere Six yesterday…. I could understand completely if we were too far gone to be forgiven. By either the Saint or the gods. I just hope our living specimens aren’t judged along with us. The last thing they need is to be brought down with us.”
“Current date: 9 Dhanus 3486. I think I finally figured it out. I can say for sure that we failed yet again to transfer Sir Ivan’s soul into the body of Ivan Nine; thus, the great knight of old has not been revived. However, despite the mistake we made during his creation, we may still be able to fool the Imperial Council into thinking we have.
“It started after Ivan Nine complained about hearing voices in his head. I had an assistant ask him what the voices said. To make a long story short, he recited a piece of conversation Saint Michaela wrote about in her journal—specifically, the talk she had with Sir Ivan just before their team infiltrated God Star Tower to face the hierophant. For a while, I didn’t think much of it. But that changed after I studied the footage of the huge test on New Year’s Day. Simply put, I think we accidentally gave him the means to siphon divine magic directly.
“His specialty was supposed to be in augmentation, and that is true. Our attempts to retrieve Sir Ivan’s soul from God Star Tower, however, must’ve put us on track for creating someone who could draw upon divine magic. At least during the test, he seemed to draw upon more of it than anyone else in recent memory who ever tried, more than eighty percent. Those who conducted the studies discovered only that God Star Tower’s memories of all that’s transpired in and around it are linked closely with the divine magic that radiates from there amidst all the earthly kinds.
“So if I’ve guessed correctly, Ivan Nine’s ability to hear some of the Tower’s memories is actually his connection to divine magic made manifest. No doubt he’ll be able to recreate the image of Sir Ivan wreathed in divine fire without the knight’s soul in his body. Hopefully, the Council won’t know the difference. And hopefully, this won’t come with any major drawbacks. Trifling with the power of gods has always been a risky endeavor….”
“For now, Ivan Nine is still recovering from the New Year’s Day test. He’ll switch right to regular stasis afterwards. All that’s left is to wait for deployment orders. The war has been at a stalemate for a few months now, so this may give us time to start developing strategies to make Operation ADVENT an actual military operation.”
When Ten looked behind her to see Nine’s reaction to the log, she saw his eyes focused completely on the monitor in front of him. However, whatever he was feeling about the whole thing remained unknown to her.
“Current date: 7 Sagitta 3486. This is it. We received orders to evacuate immediately. We’re to leave everything behind. If our gods hadn’t left us before, they must’ve done so by now. And I would understand completely. After all this… after how far we’ve run everything into the ground… why would any god care about us now? We must’ve lost their approval long ago.
“If Doctor Tyler’s calculations are correct, the arcane bombs will destroy and disrupt all in their blast radii and make those areas uninhabitable. Last I checked, we alone had well over a thousand armed and ready to go. Everyone fears that the Federation has even more, especially after the fall of the Westhand Peninsula. The footage alone of the aftermath… it’s unbelievable. The place is completely gone. Like it didn’t even exist.
“Operation ADVENT is officially delayed, but I see the writing on the wall. The Imperial Council has approved the use of our arsenal of arcane bombs. More than likely, the Council is going to forego using Operation ADVENT as our strike on the Federation capital and instead use an arcane bomb. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing a bigger push from the Talosines in the meantime.
“Everything is… it’s done. Nothing will be left. We’re all dead. Everything we’ve done—everything we wanted to do—it won’t happen. Both countries were trying to avoid reaching this point, and they blew it. We all blew it. Now the entire world will pay the price. And not just those of us in the present, but also everyone who could’ve been… everyone who fought in the past to secure the future we inhabit now….
“Damn the Council. Damn the Federation. Damn this war, this lab, our weapons, our tools, our magic—damn it all! What good have we done with any of it? All the evils we’ve committed in the name of ending this blasted war, and what did we do? We threw everything away! We’re even throwing away our own future, the very future we were trying to secure! We failed everyone—our ancestors, our peers, our neighbors… everyone.
“Despite everything, I don’t blame the gods. No. I blame my cowardice, which kept me silent; the Council and the Talosine Parliament, for prolonging the war; the people and their apathy, for not putting a check on their governments—
“Oh, what’s the point now? Even lashing out like this is meaningless. We’ll all be dead soon anyway. Figures. The only way we could achieve peace after twelve years of war was for us to wipe each other out to the last. And I have no doubt we’ll do that and more. It’s the only thing we’ve known how to do after so long. Maybe it’s all we ever knew, even back in the ancient days. I just know that, here and now, we have no hope.
“No oracle—no god—could have foreseen this end.”