Ascent, Ch. 18
“El Seven and Sel Four are on B Four,” said the automaton. “That means Nine must be the one on B Five. Got that, Ten—er, Mina?”
The white-haired girl gave him a nod. “Heard you loud and clear, Em.”
If she were being honest with herself, Mina was also still adjusting to hearing others call her by her name instead of her designation. This had been about the third time M1-11 slipped up but also corrected himself, so she wasn’t going to be hard on him for it. They had something more important to worry about at the moment anyway.
The group hadn’t really explored B4 when they were traveling earlier, so Mina kept her eyes open for details. She felt as she did back when M1-11 had released her from her room, however many hours ago that had been; she took in everything with all her senses rested and fresh. The dulled grays of the walls and the brightness of the lights looked new; the sound of her moving feet along the floor sounded new; the rush of jogging down hall after hall felt new. So wrapped up was she in her elation that she almost missed the door they were supposed to open.
M1-11 opened it as Mina doubled back, after which the latter studied the room. L-7 was leaning against a desk by the steely wall while much of the rest of the chairs and tables had been pushed to the sides. SEL-4 occupied the middle, alternating from strikes and swipes to different ready stances until she noticed the door had opened. All but one of the ceiling lights were in tact, but the pieces from the broken one had had been swept away. Both women shot glances over at Mina, who entered the room beside M1-11 and R-6 behind them. The white-haired girl could feel the unease from her friends as though it were as tangible as the walls around them.
Once they were all together, the wild one stood straight and stretched. “So what’s gotten the lot of you all peppy? Last I checked, we heard a big piece of bad news. And what’s with this Mina business?”
“I’ll explain the second part later,” said the white-haired girl. “First off, that bad news is eighty-five years old.”
L-7 crossed her arms over her chest but stayed where she was. “What’s your point?”
“It means all our info is out of date.” Mina went on to state that the estimated time the fallout would last matched the number of years the labs had been abandoned, repeating much of the explanation she had given M1-11 and R-6 before. “That means it’s either perfectly safe to go out now, or it will be soon. The point is, we won’t be stuck here forever. So we came up with a plan: Em will scout ahead for us to determine how safe it is, and then we’ll go out and look for survivors.”
Upon hearing this, a sense of elation seemed to well up in SEL-4. It did so in L-7 as well, but it was more like a tiny spark in the midst of a void. Better than nothing, thought Mina, glad to know her friends were starting to feel better.
“Got to admit,” said the wild one, “that makes a hell of a lot of sense.”
“It does,” L-7 agreed, “but I wonder… can’t you just use that viewing sphere of yours to do the scouting?”
“I don’t think so. I can’t send it straight through objects, so we’d have to open the door to let it out… but then, we might as well go out there ourselves. Even if it could, it wouldn’t be able to tell us if the air is breathable.”
The automaton smiled then and patted his chest. “But my sensors can, and I can survive in areas the rest of you wouldn’t be able to. I’ll have that check done in no time flat.”
Mina ended her case with, “The labs are going anyway, so we’ll have to leave eventually. And if we can do it sooner, then why not?”
The team leader hadn’t yet looked up at them, her feelings somber. “Even if we determine that it’s safe to go outside, there’s no guarantee we’ll find anyone, much less anything that might be friendly. We have to be prepared to accept the worst case scenario.”
“I’m aware of that. We all are,” said Mina. “You don’t have to worry, though. We’re being careful about this, just like how you are normally.”
“That’s because otherwise, someone would go in without thinking first.” At this, L-7 shot a side glance at SEL-4.
The wild one held up her hands as her usual smirk popped back onto her face. “What? There’s nothing wrong with squeezing in a little fun while on the job.”
“So you said after our first test together.” The team leader rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “Only you would go from kicking things around frustrated to being all gung-ho about leaving in the span of a few minutes.”
“Would you prefer if I kept brooding in the corner like you?”
“I would prefer if you didn’t ignore the consequences so much.”
“I don’t ignore them. I just don’t let them stop me.” After saying so, SEL-4 marched over to stand right in front of L-7, hands on her hips. “And last I checked, fearless leader, you never actually let them stop you, either.”
Mina walked up to them, her gaze going from one woman to the other. “We have a good plan, El Seven. It’s going to be okay.”
“What she said. So? You coming or not?”
At this, L-7 finally looked at Mina. Her stern eyes were as stone cold as ever, yet underneath, she seemed to be drifting without aim. Unfortunately, the white-haired girl had a hard time really telling that for a brief moment. She’s withdrawn, like how Nine was before, she realized. Just not that withdrawn. She wants to believe we’ll be okay as much as the rest of us, but she doesn’t want to raise her hopes up too high.
Then, slowly, a somewhat stronger feeling returned to L-7. Something solid, like she had set down a staff to ground her in the middle of that inner emptiness. Only after that did she reply at last. “I still question just how ‘okay’ things really are. But you made your point. It’s logical. Besides, leaving you all after coming this far just doesn’t feel right. So I’ll go with you. I don’t want you getting in over your heads while I’m not looking.”
A wide grin flashed across SEL-4’s face, and she slapped L-7 on the shoulder. “That sounds more like the wonderful bitch I know.”
The team leader glared at her, but no real anger was behind it. Another eye roll later, and her tone went completely deadpan. “You warm my heart.”
“I try.” Her statement made, SEL-4 looked to everyone else. “So, we’re good there. Now, what’s with the Mina thing?”
R-6 answered by pointing to the white-haired girl. “That’s her name.”
The one in question laughed and nodded before going on to explain her reasons—namely, to better feel like an actual person rather than a mere clone. Upon hearing this, SEL-4 expressed interest in adopting one of her own, but she decided to put off on thinking of one until later. So the five of them left the room, during which Mina chanced a glance over at R-6 and M1-11. Between the three of them, they shared sheepish smiles but stayed quiet. Afterwards, the automaton ran up beside L-7 and told her of Nine’s last known location. In that regard, things seemed normal again.
However, it was clear to Mina that the team leader’s feelings didn’t change along the way. I can’t blame her. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what we’ll find, either. But we can’t just stop right now. If we do, we’ll never be certain about the outside world.
Upon taking the set of largely in tact stairs attached to B4, the group made their way down to B5. Something about the lights on B5 gave the steely walls and ceiling the slightest hint of blue. In the midst of trekking through the hall, Mina took out her communicator. “Nine? We know what to do next. Where are you right now?”
Faint static greeted her in response.
“Did you hear me?”
A check on the communicator’s screen indicated nothing amiss; her signal was going through as normal. Still, the faint static persisted. The only thing that broke it finally was the sound of a constant pounding. Its rhythm was steady enough that Mina concluded Nine wasn’t in any trouble, but neither did she hear him say anything. Instead, the pounding spiked in volume after a short while.
A knot formed in her gut, but she ignored it for a moment. “Nine? Are you okay?”
The communicator’s speaker suddenly exploded with a split-second mix of something breaking and static going wild. Dead silence followed. The white-haired girl froze in place, prompting the rest of the group to stop. Wh… what? Wait, what just happened?
So shocked was she at what she’d just heard that it took her ears a moment to register another sound. It was rhythmic like a heartbeat, except it wasn’t coming from her own body. It was coming from farther down the darkened hall now on her left. And it was metallic. Distant enough to be barely audible, but definitely there.
L-7 strode passed the others and towards the hall—and the sound. “This way.”
Slipping the communicator away, Mina ran up to stay about a step behind her. As they drew farther away from the lights and deeper into the shadows, the pounding grew louder. They weren’t too far in when Mina saw the need to generate a light ball, which she let hover above and somewhat ahead of the group. In time, they arrived at a door that L-7 was quick to open.
The light ball followed, illuminating the view inside the room. This helped out the room’s actual light fixture high above, which was flickering at random intervals. The room itself was wide, and scattered around were pieces of training equipment, benches, and even a couple of cots. All of them were broken in at least two parts. In the center of it all was Nine, hammering away at what might’ve been a bench at some point but was now in too many pieces for Mina to be sure. Somewhere in that mess lay the remains of his communicator.
She wasn’t quite sure how to describe how he felt exactly. It was like something within him simmered over a frail surface that covered a hollowed-out mass. As the rest of the group poured into the room and spread out, Mina took a step towards her friend. If he knew they had arrived, he made no indication of the fact. He just went on breaking the whatever-it-had-been further, muttering a tad more loudly—and harshly—with every sentence.
“’We’ve gone through so much together, we’re practically family,’ she said. ‘And because we’ve formed such strong ties, I know we will succeed,’ she said. ‘I believe you,’ the original me said.” Finally, Nine snapped the staff in half and threw down the pieces hard enough to make their clangs echo everywhere. “They were so stupid. They had no idea what would happen later. Damn, stupid voices….”
Mina sucked in a breath. The voices in his head. That’s right; he told me about this once: that exchange between Saint Michaela and Sir Ivan.
L-7 advanced a few steps, her voice once more taking her usual no-nonsense tone. “Nine, pull yourself together. We’re leaving.”
But he went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “Coming all the way up here—hell, even Em waking us up— It was all a waste of time. We should’ve stayed asleep.”
Despite her own nervousness, Mina moved up beside L-7. “We’re here now, though. And honestly? I don’t think it was a waste. We got to meet each other, and we became friends.”
Because his right side was facing her, Nine had to turn his head to look at her through the corner of his eye. “You heard the logs. People were horrible to each other. They locked who knows how many of their own in these labs just to make more weapons, us included. The world’s history goes back well over three thousand years, and they didn’t learn shit about what their wars could do to themselves—not until they were about to wipe themselves out. And they went ahead and did it anyway.”
“Those people lived eighty-five years ago. They’re probably all dead by now.”
“Yeah. Thanks to the arcane bombs.”
“We don’t know who might be left out there, and I doubt any potential survivors would be the same as the people who ran the old governments.”
“Come on, Ten. Twenty-six thousand square kilometers per arcane bomb. One thousand bombs in the Empire’s stock. An unknown number of them in the Federation. Doctor Preston said in his final log that they were launched at the end of a war that went on for over ten years. What the fuck do you think happened?”
“Nine, listen.” Mina gestured to everyone else in the group. “I talked about this with the others. I read that the fallout would last for about eighty-five years at most. The document was on your computer, so—”
He turned away from her. “I remember. I read it.”
“Then you know that we’ve spent just about that whole time in here. Eighty-five years, Nine. It’s probably safe to go out there by now, but Em’s going to scout ahead to make absolutely sure. And if it is safe, then we can leave and look for survivors.”
“That’s assuming those calculations are right. If they’re wrong, then the fallout effects will start to seep through the second you open that door.”
“We’ve planned for this. I told you: Em will head out first—”
“We can’t. We won’t. We’re better off living the rest of our days in here.” The steadiness of his breathing broke up, his shoulders rolling slightly in the process. “Except… then we’ll die.”
SEL-4 was completely sincere when she told him “Whoa, there. You need to relax.”
“How? After everything we’ve learned, how can any of us just relax?”
“Because there is a point,” added Mina. “It’s to find anyone else who might’ve survived the bombings like we did.”
At last, Nine faced them with clenched fists and teeth. His eyes were heavy like he hadn’t slept in ages. “Twenty-six thousand square kilometers of ruined, uninhabitable land. Multiplied a thousand times over. No one could’ve survived. It’ll be just a matter of time before we join them. So what difference does it make now? This whole trip was pointless.”
Just as he feared, recalled the white-haired girl. It was clear to her by then that he hadn’t been thinking of just one thing. He’d been thinking of everything—all that they’d gone through since waking up, and all that they’d learned on the way. Recognizing this tore at her. He sounds like how I did before I came up with our plan.
But she continued with her case. “I know you’re scared. To be honest, there probably aren’t a lot of people left out there, but we have no idea of knowing how many were lost and how many survived. Not in here. The information in the labs has helped us a lot, but now, we need to figure out the rest of the answers on our own. It’s the only way we’ll be sure now about what’s outside.”
“Yeah? And how do you know you won’t be wrong again?”
“How do you know we won’t be right instead?”
“We’re infertile, which means we can’t repopulate the world. That we’re the last ones. And when we’re gone—when—everything we’ve done will become moot. So even if we stay in here… what would be the point…?”
“We can work through this,” said M1-11. “Who knows? There might be something worth finding out there.”
“I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see it. We’ve learned too much already.”
“Hey, we’re all scared and nervous about this. It’s just, sooner or later, we’ll have to leave. The decay of the labs will force the issue.”
“So we’re doomed either way.” Nine shook his head, turning so his left side faced the others. Meanwhile, the simmering feeling flickered out. “There’s nothing for us now. There won’t be anything for us later. And then we’re going to die. Forgotten. Just like Doctor Preston. Just like the rest of humanity. Just like… everything else.”
His voice trailed off, and his head dipped down. The faintest of blue light appeared around him like an outline, which soon intensified until fire of the same color engulfed him. The light fixture above broke apart, leaving the white-haired girl’s spell as the sole light source.
Then Mina remembered, He did this before. Against Are Six. Suddenly, her breath stopped short. Divine magic. Divine fire—
M1-11 dashed by her quick, reaching out with one hand. “Nine, wait! Don’t use that on yourself! The strain on your body will—”
He was barely within arm’s reach of the former staff wielder when all of a sudden, a loud crunch of plastic and metal rang in the air, and the automaton stopped fast enough to double over. But he didn’t fall. Nine’s arm was holding him up.
Because it had gone right through his torso.