Ascent, Ch. 20
Why…? Why couldn’t I stop you? Why couldn’t I save you? We trusted each other before. Why not this time? If I had found you sooner… would you still be with us now?
The questions went through Mina’s head a few more times, but no answer came to her. Deep down, part of her knew none would ever come. Slowly realizing that did nothing to stem the flow of her tears, and she held onto Nine all the tighter.
She lost track of time. For how long, she didn’t know. Not when the only things in her world then were a lost friend and her own sobs. It was more likely that not a lot of time passed at all, but every second seemed to stretch on for far longer than normal. Mina just knew that two things eventually pulled her away from Nine: the sound of something landing in the room, and the voice of L-7 from the other end.
“Ten,” she said, her tone solemn. “We could use you over here.”
That’s right, the white-haired girl reminded herself. Aloud, she replied with, “Okay. I’m sorry.”
Still partly in a daze, she rose to her feet to see R-6 had returned, his aura dissipating. He must’ve climbed down from however far up he’d been thrown, and his unsteady movements suggested he’d tumbled to a spot beside SEL-4. Mina exchanged a look with L-7, who nodded to the wild one in order to indicate with whom the white-haired girl should start. From there, Mina worked with R-6 to roll the unconscious SEL-4 onto her back, an action that woke her up.
Her eyes immediately darted around. “What happened? Why’s it quiet?”
“It’s over,” replied L-7. “Nine is… he’s gone.”
“What…?” She gave one look of disbelief before letting her head fall back to the floor and clenching her eyes shut.
Through her own choked words, Mina managed to say, “I tried. I tried to heal him…!”
“I know you did,” said the team leader, clutching her side. “I watched you. The whole time I was down, I watched you call to him. You did everything you could.”
“It wasn’t enough.” When she began to sob anew, the white-haired girl nearly lost hold of her spell.
SEL-4 reached up and grabbed her arm. “Whoa, there. You got to concentrate on this, right?” A soft, halfhearted chortle bubbled out of her then. “Imagine that. Me, telling someone to concentrate. I sound like El Seven.”
“D-Don’t talk too much. Save your strength. You’re right, I… I need to do this.” Mina breathed deep a few times to get her bearings, then resumed healing.
After caring for the wild one’s cracked rips as well as she was able, Mina moved onto L-7. The team leader had been injured in a similar fashion but had also suffered a deep cut in her side. Soon, though, her wounds had closed as well. They could stand by then, and Mina’s arms felt limp and rubbery. She went to R-6 next anyway, but to her surprise, he raised a hand and shook his head.
“You’re tired,” he said, though his own fatigue was obvious. “I’ll be okay.”
“You sure?” she asked.
He nodded as he stood. “My aura kept me safe. Like when we fell.” Even so, his pace was slower and hampered by a limp.
He and Mina made their way over to where M1-11 was despite that. Once there, R-6 brought out his aura for the few seconds he needed to break apart the debris over the automaton’s leg. Mina then removed the pieces and helped him up. In his lower right side was a visible hole both in his shirt and his chassis where Nine had punched him, which allowed her to see the circuitry and metallic skeleton that made him an automaton. When he stood to walk, he also opted for a slower pace with one hand covering the hole in his body.
At Mina’s request, he examined Nine one more time and confirmed that the former staff wielder was indeed gone. He cited as the cause of death, “Heart failure, plus internal organ damage on… pretty much everything. Goodness, I had no idea channeling divine magic could deteriorate the human body like that. And in such a short amount of time. I’m sorry.” He shook his head, then reached out and closed Nine’s eyes.
For a while thereafter, no one moved. They stood around their fallen friend instead. When Mina broke into sobs again, R-6 reached out and squeezed her hand. No matter how many assurances she got saying she’d done everything possible, all she could think in response was, There was more I could’ve done, wasn’t there?
Even the team leader shared the sentiment, and the hollow feeling within her felt the same as it did in Mina. “He said he wanted some time to himself before he went to B Five. All things considered… I shouldn’t have let him go.” Her head dipped down and her fist clenched tightly. “I keep thinking I should’ve seen it coming, but I didn’t. Damn it….”
“It’s not your fault,” said the automaton. “I don’t think this is really anyone’s fault.”
As her own sentiments were the same as L-7’s, the white-haired girl buried her face in her hands. She was only about half aware that the redhead had pulled her closer so she could cry on his shoulder. They remained as such for the moments after while their friends stood in silence.
In time, L-7 fought through her ill feelings enough to give the word for them to start heading up again. It was M1-11 who told them to head to B2 as that held the maintenance room where many of his siblings’ remains were, and he needed their parts to repair himself. In addition, he mentioned a medical room existed on the same floor that contained stasis tubes like the ones that used to contain Mina and the others.
“It’ll complete the healing job you started on everyone,” the automaton suggested. “We can also bring Nine there. It won’t bring him back, but I figured it’d be better than leaving his body here.”
Mina nodded to that. “Yeah… it would. We should do that.”
Other than those few words, she said very little else on the way to B2. R-6 kicked off their climb by lifting everyone through the hole in the ceiling. The only other words spoken between anyone were a few bits and pieces shared between L-7 and M1-11 on which way to go. This led them to B2’s medical room, which looked very much like the one on B24, right down to all the white on the walls and floor. Once inside, the group worked together to place Nine in a stasis tube and thereafter put themselves on the medical beds to further their recovery. M1-11 went off to repair himself in the next room over, speaking through his communicator while he went about his work.
“If my estimates are right, you should all keep resting for another three hours,” he told them. “My self-repair job should take about that much time at most. Even with a third of the room gone, the repair machine will work well enough. Then when we’re all set, you should all take it easy for the next few days. No huge exertions on anyone’s part, got it?”
“Got it,” said L-7. “Let us know if you need help putting the pieces together for you. Also, when you’re ready to go outside… take us with you.”
“Huh? But what about the fallout effects? Aren’t you still worried about that?”
“Kind of. Mostly, I just want to get out of here. I think everyone else does, too. We’ve been in the labs long enough.”
SEL-4 let out a light sound that vaguely resembled a halfhearted laugh. “That’s a bit different from before, isn’t it? You know, back when you came with us just so we wouldn’t do something stupid?”
“Don’t worry. That part hasn’t changed,” said the team leader. “But after everything that’s happened, I don’t want to stay in here.”
“Huh. Good point.”
Mina had sat down on the bed closest to Nine earlier, and while she didn’t look at anyone during that exchange, she overheard every word. No one held any malice towards their fallen friend, from what she could tell. Mostly, they were all tired. L-7’s feelings were especially mixed, but underneath the swirling mass of anger and frustration was a sinking sadness that had stayed with her since the battle. It hadn’t left Mina, either.
Over and over again, she wondered what more she could’ve done to save Nine. Each time, she was left without any answers and came closer to accepting, sadly, that she would never know. So lost in thought was she that she didn’t notice right away when R-6, who had pushed up his bed next to hers earlier, had grabbed her hand again. She finally looked up into his red eyes when he moved to wipe away a tear from her face with one of his torn sleeves. Since she couldn’t find her voice, she gave a small smile as thanks. He seemed to understand and returned the look, then stayed by her side.
Whenever she felt her tears welling up, Mina took in deep breaths to keep herself calm. And though she had run through the thoughts beforehand, she let them run again. Nine… why did you do that?
In all honesty, she knew the answer to a degree. He’d been afraid, like herself. Afraid of what they would find out there. Afraid that they wouldn’t find anyone or anything. She understood that fear since even she had not let go of that altogether. How could she? The outside world was just as mysterious and unknown to her as it was to everyone else in the group, Nine included. Even so, she found herself stumped on one piece: “We have a good plan. Nine didn’t have to give up. Why…?”
A sad sigh from M1-11 broke through the communicator. “I don’t know. If there’s one thing having a soul has taught me, it’s that I don’t always understand the emotions I feel. I just feel them, they’re real, and… they can be intense. I couldn’t put into words how I’m feeling now, for example. And of course, I can’t speak for Nine.”
“Did I really do all I could’ve done for him?”
“Was there anything else? Once he started channeling all that magic through his body, he didn’t have a lot of time left to live. So we didn’t have a lot of time to help him. We couldn’t bank on him forcing us to fall eight floors again.” Another sigh. “This… isn’t really helping, is it? I mean, no magic in the world can send us back in time.”
“I know. Really, I do. I just wish I could’ve saved him.”
“That, I understand. I think that’s the best way to sum up how I feel, too.”
After a pause, the redhead suddenly asked, “We all have souls… right?”
“Yeah. All humans are born with one, last I checked; I’m the only fluke,” replied the automaton. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you think… souls live on… after we die? Is that true for Nine?”
The white-haired girl was sad she had no other answer except, “I don’t know. I hope so. It would mean he’s still with us somehow.” She looked to Nine, gripping the bed sheet. “I really do hope that’s true.”
SEL-4 dipped her hands behind her head. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d like to think that, if he were in his right mind and could talk to us now, he’d want us to go.”
Mina sucked in a silent breath. “That’s what he said.”
“Wait, he did?”
“No, I mean—that was his last word: ‘Go.’ Although… I think all he meant was for me to go heal you and El Seven. But still… he said that.”
“I guess that settles it, then.”
“It feels strange, though. We just lost him, and now we’re leaving him behind…?”
“What else would we do?” asked the team leader. “Especially if we were to keep him in that stasis tube.”
“I know,” replied Mina. We can’t carry him around with us everywhere. Not when the stasis tube only works in the labs.
L-7’s tone sounded much softer than normal when she spoke up again. “I overheard your talk with him there, Ten. Before he died. I can’t speak for him anymore than Em can, obviously, but I think he really did mean go in more than one sense. He just didn’t have the strength to say more.”
“So… he wouldn’t mind us leaving, then.”
“No. I don’t think he would.”
And as they finished talking there, Mina managed to calm herself. The pit in her gut didn’t leave her, but she did feel a bit better. Minute by every slow-passing minute, she accepted that Nine was no longer with them and that he never would be again. It was painful, and it took some more discussion between herself and her friends, but in time, it finally clicked. The pain lingered, but it didn’t tear at her insides nearly as much as it had done before.
What she began to wonder instead was if there were some way to make sure Nine’s body wouldn’t be lost when the labs gave way to time. Unfortunately, when she asked M1-11 about it, he didn’t have a quick answer. “The only thing I can think of is if we could move his stasis tube to GodStarTower itself,” he guessed. “The place has a reputation for being able to preserve things for… ever, I guess. And if that’s true, it’d be the best place to leave him. I just don’t know how we’d move him and keep the machine in tact.”
“Let’s see if we can at least breathe outside first,” said L-7. “We’ll worry about planning for a long trip once we confirm that.”
The automaton let out a breath. “Right.”
He finished with his repairs soon after that and rejoined them, at which point the recovered group stood to leave. Mina reminded herself, Just like he said: Go.
She didn’t leave right away, though. The first thing she did once she touched down on the floor was head over to Nine’s stasis tube. She looked at him for a long while, memorizing his features and recalling their talks from when they first met. Then she closed her eyes and breathed deep.
When she had finished that motion, she opened her eyes and gave him one more smile, even if he couldn’t see it. “No matter what happens, I’ll always remember.” Only after that did Mina finally leave the room.
Once they were all together, R-6 revealed that he had been thrown all the way to B1 earlier, so he lifted everyone up to the top floor of the labs through the hole in the ceiling. Unlike most of the other floors, every part of B1 was tinted dark blue as if the lights hadn’t been turned on. Rather than turn on the lights, Mina cast her light spell to guide them through the darker areas.
M1-11 directed everyone to a hall that became a tunnel whose floor slanted upwards. White lights adorned the sides of the path, which allowed them to see well enough that the white-haired girl discontinued her spell. The path led them to a door about as large as those belonging to the main computer room. This door, however, was round save for a straight horizontal edge where it met the floor. Like so many other doors before it, a control panel rested to its right.
“This is it,” said M1-11. “I’ll step out there first—not that it’ll make much of a difference at this point. Anyway, as soon as the door opens, I’ll jump out and start my scans.” After this, he gestured to the control panel. “So who wants to type in the code?”
Mina stepped up. “I will.”
She walked up to the panel and its various buttons. Beside her, M1-11 gave her some simple instructions. “Once you type in the code, the doors will open automatically. You ready?”
“And the rest of you?”
“Let’s get this over with,” L-7 added. Near her, SEL-4 and R-6 gave nods.
M1-11 gave one of his own. “All right, then. Mina, listen closely. The code is One Five Nine… Three Eight Zero Six.”
The white-haired girl nodded, repeating the numbers under her breath as she pressed the corresponding buttons. “One, Five, Nine… Three, Eight… Zero, Six.”
The narrow screen of the control panel displayed each number as she typed them. Once they were all in, a set of three lights below the screen lit up orange in sequence, much like the loading screen dots she’d seen before. After a short time, the three lights turned green at the same time, and a series of beeps sounded from the near-invisible speaker at the bottom.
Air burst around the door as several locks seemed to jut open in places where Mina couldn’t see. The chunk of metal that was the door pushed away from them slightly, prompting M1-11 to take a step back. It then slowly moved its way to the left. At the same time, a thin beam of light cut in so suddenly that R-6 jumped to the nearby wall. The thin beam widened the more the door moved leftwards, interrupted only when the door was open wide enough for the automaton to slip through. When it finally stopped, a yellow-tinted light covered much of the walkway and the surrounding walls.
The first thing Mina noticed amidst squinting from the brightness was that something felt warm. Another thing also came in. A breeze? Wait, is this an actual breeze? she wondered. Whatever it was, it was invisible, brushed by her skin, and didn’t seem dangerous. In fact, it felt gentle and cool.
Soon after that, she overheard M1-11 let out a vague chuckle. “Well, the good news is, you’ll all definitely survive out here. The bad news is… well, honestly, I’m not sure if what’s out here can be called ‘bad’ news.”
SEL-4 shook her head, her usual smirk returning at last. “One way to find out, right?”
Beside her, L-7 made a grunt of acknowledgement before both of them left. Mina and R-6 were quick to follow. And once outside—finally—the former stopped short after taking just one step.
Before her stretched a wide plain. Far in the distance and to her left was a cloud of dust that faded into the gray skies, but it didn’t move from its spot. Nothing of the sort was to her right—just a lot of flat ground. It took her a moment to see that much of the gray above her was from clouds, huge swaths of which stretched above and around but left a noticeable gap near the horizon. Through it, she could see a blue sky that seemed to lighten the higher it went. Near the bottom of the opening in the clouds rested something so bright, she couldn’t look at it directly without her eyes hurting. L-7, SEL-4, and M1-11 stood close by, gazing upon the same sight.
Is that the sun? Mina wondered. Yet even as she asked it, she realized that had to be the case.
Behind them all was a tall, stony hill. The door they had come through had a cover on its outside front that made it blend in with the hill—which, Mina soon noticed, was the base of a tall tower made of white-gray stone that also stretched into the sky. It didn’t take her long to deduce what it was. That must be God Star Tower. Its shape is the same as in the maps.
More than that, it was the one building in the vicinity that looked in tact. Everywhere else lay scattered lumps that appeared to be misshapen stone, and even those were but minor interruptions to the rest of the vast open plain. I guess that’s a testament to the power of the gods. My word….
She completed a full slow turn around, then crouched down without even realizing it. Once her knees were on the ground, though, she saw something light brown and grainy that was as widespread as the sky above. Is this dirt? Faintly, she thought she saw bits of stone poking through, too. And in between the bits of stone, she saw small shoots of green, some straight and others round. Her eyes widened as she began to identify the details. Is this…? This is grass. Once more, her vision misted over slightly. Oh, Nine… are you seeing this somehow?
A hand was on her back. Mina looked up once more to see R-6 beside her.
“Mina? Are you okay?” he asked.
“I-I’m fine,” she replied.
He lifted his hand and wiped her cheek with his thumb. “But you’re crying again.”
“Ah… sorry.” Mina rubbed a hand over her other cheek and felt her mouth form into a smile. “It’s just—it’s beautiful out here. Look at it all.”
R-6 did so with her, their eyes taking in every detail of the scene before them. After a minute or so, he smiled, nodding. “You’re right. It’s pretty.”
She reached over and they hugged each other, but she kept her eyes on the grass, the stone, the dirt, and the sky. She didn’t want to stop looking, either. Taking in the sights of the outside world let her face another reality, one that was pleasant and serene. One that touched her more deeply than she could describe.
One that drove home what they had managed to do at last.
“We did it. We’re finally out. We’re free.”