Ascent, Ch. 17
The final log ended in static, and Ten didn’t know what to think. She forgot how. But when a thought came to her at last, it was brief: I was so stupid.
She had wanted to believe before that there would be something for them to find outside the labs. Dare she admit it, she did believe it. Now, though—now, she wondered if she had done so just to delude herself from the truth.
They had uncovered the clues as they’d gone up from floor to floor. She’d seen the weapons schematics, Cele Two before them, and even the critters before her. With the exception of M1-11, each person in Ten’s group were little more than weapons, too. They were just designed to embody images of old while being mere shadows of them. But the evidence was all there. Everything in the labs was made to either sustain the doctors who worked in them or to aid a major war effort. A war that had gone on for twelve years.
A war that likely destroyed all that had been outside.
She wasn’t surprised to hear some of her friends rising from their seats. Ten lifted her head only to see who had stood, and she caught sight of Nine storming straight for the doors to leave. L-7 and SEL-4 were also standing, but the former was the one who stared after him. The latter bared no smile—just a grim frown—before uttering, “Fuck” and left the room as well. A sinking pit was sitting in each of them, and it felt just as deep and hollow as in Ten herself.
When L-7 spoke, the usual harshness in her voice was gone. “Em? Can you keep track of where we go from the main computer?”
M1-11 peeked over his shoulder, downcast. “Yeah. Easily. They’re still on this floor.”
“Stay with it. Keep track of where we go. I’ll keep a closer eye on them. Call if it’s important.” And with that, the team leader left as well.
Ten watched them go. A bit later, M1-11 faced the computer screen but then swiveled in his seat, slumped over, and planted his elbows on his knees. His head remained down. Beside her, R-6 hadn’t moved. The white-haired girl tried to stand but stopped part way before letting herself fall back into the dusty chair.
We just had to look, didn’t we. Had to make sure of things. Had to learn things. It sounded like a good idea at the time… but what do we do now?
Nothing came to mind. Even so, she couldn’t keep still—not for long, at any rate. Her hands wandered back to the keyboard and square pad, idly fiddling with the interactive world map. From there, she was aware yet not aware of her own actions. She found a search function and typed in Westhand Peninsula, after which the world map focused on Ranverda. It zoomed in and highlighted a portion on the north end of the continent that contained an opening whose west-side part resembled curled fingers forming an old fashioned fan. The map singled out the segment farthest west.
They must not have recorded the time the peninsula was destroyed, Ten figured. No. They wouldn’t have had the time if they had to evacuate the labs right away.
Her idle clicking uncovered a function that allowed her to highlight an area of a certain size. Recalling the number of 26,000 square kilometers, Ten typed in the number and watched a yellow circle appear by the tip of the arrowhead on the screen. She then moved the circle to hover over any place with land as if she were setting down several circles side by side. It wasn’t long before she realized she could cover the whole continent easily with over a hundred circles—never mind the others—so she stopped herself.
Her vision grew misty as she pulled back from the computer. Something small rolled down her cheek, clearing her vision enough let her see the tear land on and disappear into her shirt. This repeated a few times, one tear dropping from one eye and then a second from the other with each blink both forced and not. The only time she raised her head was when she heard R-6 stand from his seat. He reached out to her but didn’t complete the motion. Neither did he walk away right then.
“Are you leaving, too?” asked M1-11 from where he was.
The redhead didn’t respond at first, but when he finally did, he did so with a shake of his head. “Where would I go?”
“Where can we go?” added Ten.
No one spoke up. However, it was the automaton who did after a moment’s silence. “I have no idea.” He let out a breath that might’ve been a laugh otherwise, but there was no energy behind it to count as such. “I can’t help but think… this is some cruel joke. I learn I have a genuine soul, making me the most human machine ever… just in time to feel despair.”
He shook his head. “It’s not your fault.”
His tone held no malice or anger—just sadness. He went to glance at the main computer screen before Ten lowered her head again. The more tears she shed, the harder it was to keep her breathing steady. Nonetheless, she prevented herself from sobbing too loudly. In the midst of that, she overheard R-6 starting to walk around the room. She reached for the keyboard on occasion, but each time, her hands fell into her lap. After a short while, she didn’t bother and instead let her hands wipe her eyes every so often. In time, she also began to wander around the room.
There’s no point in leaving. Not that there’s much point in staying, either, she realized. But it was something to do. Something other than staring at a world map. Something other than looking at a whole wide world she would never see.
Over and over, she wondered whether they would’ve been better off learning or not learning what they had. The former had led them to their current impasse. The latter could’ve very well led them to death, which they could’ve met under a number of circumstances. A cratered land? A vast but empty desert? A cloud of unbreathable air? A wall of water? Any one of those would kill them either immediately or over a long period of time. Certainly not anything they would’ve wanted to catch them by surprise.
Which means it was good that we looked up some info before charging out there—but what we found suggests there’s nothing, no one— Argh, I’m just going in circles. Recognizing this hit her all the more once she noticed she was making her own loops around the computer consoles. That brought her to the places where L-7 and SEL-4 had been, allowing her to see first a ponytailed woman wielding a bow and arrow who looked like the former, and then a man wearing a crown and an elaborate suit who looked quite similar to the latter. Lydia the Martyr and Emperor Selydon, respectively. Whatever that’s supposed to be worth now, thought Ten.
Shaking her head, she went on her way before stopping at another monitor—specifically, the one where Nine had been sitting before. He’d gone through lots of other info, as the plethora of open windows told her. The foremost one displayed an image of an old piece of art depicting a young man who resembled Nine surrounded by blue flames in such a way that he blended with it. Without knowing what else to do, Ten reached over to scroll down slightly until she saw the caption underneath the image: Sir Ivan’s blessing. That tipped her off to what moment was being depicted: That must be when he freed the trapped god.
A glimpse in Nine’s profile in another window stated that his augmentation spells would be best utilized through a weapon in order to minimize the risk of migraines. Further down, it reflected part of Doctor Preston’s log by stating the soul transfer had been a success. An obvious lie, all things considered. Then again, Ten was sure no one else had heard the doctor’s private logs besides her and her friends. If she recalled right also, he had wanted to fool his superiors about that anyway.
Even Doctor Preston was a tool, it occurred to her then. And all for what?
She wiped her eyes again before skimming more at what Nine had been reading if for no other reason than drown out her own sadness with written words. Unfortunately, the second foremost window contained a report on the arcane bombs. Ten almost clicked away from it but then spotted the words estimated fallout. Her eyes zipped around the text until they went over the whole sentence that contained those words: “The calculations have been consistent in predicting that the estimated fallout would last for 75-85 years.”
Seventy-five to eighty-five years? We’ve been in the labs for eighty-five years since everyone had to evacuate. Her own thoughts sunk in, and suddenly, her heart skipped a beat. That empty feeling within her stopped growing. Wait a minute. Wouldn’t that mean this fallout thing is over by now? Wait wait don’t jump to conclusions yet—
Ten shot a look over at the automaton. “Em? What’s fallout?”
He had since returned to that hunched over sitting position, so when she called to him, he had to lift his head again. “Fallout? That refers to the aftereffects of horrific explosions like… the damage caused by arcane bombs, for one. Why?”
She told him then of the sentence she had just read and added, “I was wondering just now if maybe… maybe we’re not as trapped as we think.”
M1-11 stared blankly at her. “I don’t know. I remember skimming through some of the schematics, and they said the arcane bombs’ unstable magical energy could alter the environment in damaging ways. The Empire alone had about a thousand; nothing indicates how many the Federation had. It was probably tough to gain that info while they were at war…. Anyway, between the two of them, they probably had enough firepower to destroy the world.”
“I know that, but— We’ve been here for eighty-five years since the first of the arcane bombs were launched, right? The calculations said the fallout would last for about seventy-five to eighty-five years.”
“Right, so you said.” Suddenly, he sat up straighter. “That is a good point. Either way, any lingering effects from the fallout would be either fading right now or are in the middle of doing so. And if the damage from the bombs had cut deep into the land, I imagine even the labs would’ve been torn to shreds. They’d definitely look a lot worse than they do right now, and that’s saying something.”
“We’re still here, though… and so is the whole facility,” Ten pointed out, receiving a nod as a reply.
From halfway across the room, R-6 asked, “So… we can leave?”
M1-11 shook his head at that, leaning forward again. “That’s just it. Fallout or no, there’s no guarantee we’ll find anything that could help us. While the logs were playing earlier, I sent out a call for help to see if anyone would respond. I received an error message every single time. If anyone’s left out there, I can’t confirm it.”
“There’s nothing that confirms everyone is gone, either.” Saying this caused that sinking pit in the white-haired girl to fill.
“Ten, listen.” The automaton turned in his chair to face her. “I know it’s easy to latch onto any kind of hope you can in this situation, but we need to be realistic here. There’s a very real chance that we might be the only people alive on the planet right now. Doctor Preston’s logs have more or less confirmed the power of the arcane bombs. Furthermore, getting hit with even a tiny fraction of fallout could have bad repercussions on everyone who isn’t me, and that’s only because I’m not made of organic tissue.”
“So… would that mean it’d be safe for you to check for us?”
He stammered a bit at first. “I could do that, but then I’d be leaving you all here. And I really don’t want to be alone out there.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t, either.”
“All traces of civilization are probably gone.”
“Probably gone. But not definitely.” Whatever the feeling it was that was filling her now, she knew she was keeping it in check. Her hands trembled nonetheless, wanting to hope but not too much.
M1-11 buried his face in his palm, sighing. “I don’t get it, Ten. How can you act like nothing’s wrong?”
“I’m not—not really. I heard you and the logs; I read the files; I know there’s probably a lot of nothing out there. But that’s just it—we don’t know that for certain anymore than we do that something might be left. Our latest info is eighty-five years old; the rest is older. The main computer can’t detect what’s outside right now, can it?” When the automaton shook his head, Ten concluded, “Then our only way of seeing what’s really out there is by opening the doors to the labs.”
“Even if there might still be some lingering fallout?”
She drew in a deep breath, heart beating faster, then nodded. “Yes. Even if that. We already kind of planned for it, didn’t we? What have we got to lose at this point?”
“Well, I for one don’t want to cut your lives short. I also don’t want to leave you all alone in here. All that said, the physical structure of the labs aren’t going to last forever. You saw the signs of its decay during our entire climb up here.”
“So we can’t stay here forever anyway. Eventually, we’ll have to leave.”
Ten walked away from the computer and met M1-11’s eyes. Then she found R-6 approaching and met his. Something of what she was feeling was also running through each of them; it was just more guarded. She couldn’t blame them. Of all the things she had learned about the outside world, one fact stood out to her at this moment: They had no idea what it was like presently. It sounded like it had been a chaotic world at one point in time, but what about now? Was anyone left? Were they truly alone? Nothing they had on hand could tell them one way or the other with one-hundred percent certainty.
“All we have are our own eyes and ears,” she said, speaking as much to her friends as to herself. “I know there’s more we can learn from the computers here, but we’d just learn more about things that probably don’t matter anymore because of the bombings. The only way we’re going to learn what’s outside right now is if we check for ourselves. We don’t have a lot to go on, no, but—”
“What have we got… to lose?” R-6 finished, prompting Ten to nod again while facing him.
M1-11, by contrast, kicked back in his chair with a sigh. He spun around once, and when he completed the movement, he was facing the white-haired girl once more. His face bared no hint of a frown, however. Actually, he seemed to bare a slight smile.
“No offense, Ten, but I think you’re crazy,” he said. “I also can’t think of a reason to not go through with your suggestion. You had a point earlier, you know? That I could scout ahead? I don’t have to go far. I can just ascertain whether or not it’s safe and then report back.”
“Exactly!” Ten clapped her hands together and hopped in place just a bit. “The labs aren’t going to last forever anyway, like you said. No one can tell us we can’t leave. No one can force us not to. We’re… we’re free to do that.” She heard R-6 murmur the word free, especially since he had moved closer to her while she was speaking.
But the automaton held up a hand to calm her. “That’s assuming we can leave safely. We might need to hunker down in here for a while longer. I’d have to calculate an estimate while I’m scouting.”
“Right, right,” she said. “How much longer do you think the labs will last?”
“If we contain the critters or kill them all, then I’d wager this place should last about another decade before we’d have to have this talk again.”
“Okay… okay.” She bobbed her head up and down, then bit her lip. “So I guess we’ll go find out. Won’t we?”
Her hands were still shaking. Only then did she admit to herself finally that anticipation had gripped her once more. What were the odds that they might find some survivors out there? She had no clue. The info suggested the odds were low, but how low? How low were they really? The more cautious voice at the back of her head reminded her not to be too hopeful, to prepare herself for the possibility that she and her friends really were the last people alive in the world. Even knowing this, Ten saw no reason to back down from leaving, from discovering, from learning. Not forever.
M1-11 made that hollow laugh again, except this time, it didn’t sound as empty as before. “You look like you’re about to jump through the ceiling. Please don’t do that; the labs are decaying enough as it is. Besides, we have to find the others.” He glanced at the nearby monitor for a second. “We have two people on B Four and another on B Five. They haven’t moved in the past half hour. Shall we go?”
“Huh? Oh, sure,” replied a breathless Ten.
This time, his laugh was more full even if it remained brief. “You can’t zone out on us at a time like this.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just— we’re free. Like, really free. Free to do what we want. All those tests? We don’t have to do them anymore. Operation ADVENT? We don’t have to be part of it.” She stopped herself short a moment as other realizations hit her. “I-I mean… I feel bad for Doctor Preston and everyone he worked with. Honestly, I feel bad for all the people who fought in that war, I guess. That it had to happen at all. But it’s over now, isn’t it? We’re free from even that. We don’t have to be soldiers now.” Without noticing right away, Ten stepped towards the automaton while pointing at him. “You don’t even need to maintain the labs anymore like your directive says. You were ignoring it already when you woke us up!”
The automaton visibly stiffened from this, his eyes wide. “You’re right. Wow. That never crossed my mind before.” His tone grew more distant with awe. “Even back then, I was making my own choices.”
“Heck, if you wanted to, you could call yourself something other than Em One Eleven. You wouldn’t need to be known by some designation made of letters and numbers.” Ten’s hand flew to her chest. “None of us would. Goodness, we could give ourselves actual names, be actual people…!” A flurry of names began to spin in her head just before she finished speaking.
But even through all those swirling thoughts, she heard M1-11 say, “Calm down, okay? You don’t want to get too excited.”
“I know that! Really, I do. I know we may have to stay here a while longer depending on what we discover out there. But that doesn’t guarantee we won’t find anything, or anyone. That also doesn’t mean we can’t give ourselves names now.”
She meant every word of it. The history of the world had certainly played a hand in their current situation, and they had to consider its effects going forward. But they weren’t bound by most of that past anymore. They weren’t obligated to fulfill their original mission somehow over eight decades after the fact. What mattered now was that, sooner or later, they would leave the labs. Not even the fallout from the arcane bombs could keep them inside the facility forever.
Upon thinking that, Ten marveled at how clear everything seemed—like the whole of her had been refreshed suddenly, allowing her to see things with rested eyes. And in this state of calmness, she told her friends, “If there’s even just the smallest chance that we might find other people are out there, we should take it.”
M1-11 rose from his seat finally and turned on his communicator. However, he smiled at Ten first. “We might as well get going. It’s better than sitting here thinking we’re all doomed and that we wasted our time.”
“Definitely,” she replied.
So the automaton went ahead and contacted L-7. While that was going on, R-6 stepped up beside Ten, eyeing her with a timid but curious look in his red eyes.
In return, she turned to face him. “Do you want to come with us? We’re all heading into unknown territory now.”
“I’m not… that scared,” said R-6. “Where you go… I’ll go. I want to leave. This place… too many bad memories.”
She reached out and gripped his shoulder. “I know. I never had to go through any tests myself, but it sounded hard for you and the others.”
“Yeah. But… enough.” He closed his eyes and let out a large breath. When he looked to her again, the timidity was gone along with the murkier feelings he’d had before. Only that guarded excitement remained. “What name did you choose?”
“Your name. Ten is just… a number. You said that—more or less. So… what’s your name? Michaela?”
Understanding, Ten pursed her lips and ran through her mental list. “Michaela Ten was just my designation; it was never an actual name. I did consider it just now… but honestly? I don’t think I’ll use the name Michaela.”
R-6 tilted his head a bit to his left. “No?”
“No. Saint Michaela was who she was; she lived her life, died a hero, and made her mark in history. She sounded like a great person and everything, but she’s gone now. Me? I was just made to look like her. I might even be as strong as her and just haven’t come anywhere close to matching her yet. But I’m not her. I’m not her anymore than you’re Duke Redimere. And we don’t have to be the people we were made to look like. So… no. I won’t call myself Michaela. Not exactly.”
“Then, what name will you use?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’d like it to be distinct from Michaela, at least. And simple.”
The redhead furrowed his brow. “What about… Kayla?”
Ten shook her head, still sifting through ideas. “No.”
“Hmm… no.” The white-haired girl suddenly perked up smiling as a name she thought of finally clicked with her. “You know what? I think I’ll go with Mina.”
R-6 nodded to that, but it was M1-11 who remarked, “Mina, huh? I like the sound of that. If I slip up and call you Ten again, though, will you be mad?”
“No. It’ll take some getting used to for everyone—even me—but try to remember.” To help with that, she let out a breath, held her head high, and gestured to herself. “Call me Mina.”