“I have a visual. She just reached floor 52. And I’ve regained control over floor 51.”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, it’s like the tension that hung in the air for the past few weeks is suddenly gone. All the researchers sitting around the conference table visibly relax. Hershey even sags in his chair, like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
But I have to admit that I didn’t exactly feel relieved for a while, there, either.
Why did I lose control of the Tower, all of a sudden?
No, rather, why did I lose control over floor 51?
Because the rest of the Tower was fine.
But as soon as we sent AW-A-74 in there, everything went black. It’s like floor 51 was completely cut off from my perception.
Since the girl was on floor 50, at the time, I couldn’t go there and head down the stairs to get a look at 51. I might’ve bumped into her. Neither could I go up from 52, since it’s just as impossible for me to go up the stairs as anyone else.
This is all very strange.
Ever since I took over the Planar Tower, nothing of the sort has ever happened. My control isn’t as perfect as Miroslav’s ever was, and probably never will be, but I’m not such an amateur that I would ever fail so badly.
I couldn’t even look at floor 51!
“Lord Wayland,” Hershey suddenly asks. “what about AW-A-74? Is he on floor 52, as well? Or is he still on 51? Did AK-A-13 pass him by?”
That would be another problem.
“He is still on floor 51,” I say in bland tone. “I’m bringing him in right now.”
I lock the coordinates and start the teleport.
A few seconds later, with a crack of displaced air, AW-A-74 appears before us.
His corpse, that is.
A few gasps escape from the gathered researchers. I do have to say that, while AW-A-74 was already quite ugly by any reasonable standards – an unavoidable consequence of his reptilian heritage – he can now confidently be upgraded to ‘hideous’, or maybe just ‘vile’.
He has clearly been dead for a few days, already. His corpse has started to decompose. His whole body is grotesquely bloated. His face is unrecognizable. His smell is revolting. And being left unattended next to a horde of hungry spiders keen on nibbling any piece of meat that gets in their sight hasn’t helped matters much. No maggots are feasting on the corpse, though – their absence is actually a bit jarring, like a conspicuous new brush stroke drawn across a painting you’re intimately familiar with.
I examine the body in more detail, then take a quick look at floor 52.
While I do, a researcher asks, “So the spiders killed him, eventually?”
“That’s understandable,” another answers. “His orders were to keep fighting until he was teleported out. Since we didn’t teleport him out, he kept fighting. Until he died.”
Hershey sighs. “At least, this proves the mental conditioning works perfectly. They can even disregard their lives if this is what it takes to complete our orders. There are a few issues with their adaptation to changing circumstances, but it’s a good result, I think.”
“Right, right. It’s not a complete loss. We can still get some data off this.”
“Do you think we should –”
“The spiders didn’t kill him,” I say once I’ve confirmed my guess, interrupting their discussion.
My voice isn’t any louder than anyone else’s, but I’ve laced a bit of my qi into the words to make them resonate within the minds of the researchers present here. A few wince at the strange sensation and all of them fall suddenly silent.
“A–Are you sure, Lord Wayland?” Hershey asks after a while. He’s the only one with the guts to hold a conversation with me, but even he looks pale. Large beads of sweat roll down his forehead.
“I am quite sure, yes.” I sit back more deeply into my chair, relaxed, as if all this doesn’t affect me in the least, and nod toward the corpse. “Chest wound, there. That didn’t come from a spider, but from a sharp tool, stabbing downward at an angle, through his back and out his chest. A javelin, or a spear.”
“Are you sure?” Hershey asks again. “There might be other expla–”
I quirk a displeased eyebrow at him, and that shuts him up. “There are residual ice crystals around the wound.”
Hershey’s face becomes even paler than before.
Everyone here knows what that means.
There is no ice on floor 51.
“His space ring is gone,” I continue. “I just checked. That ring is currently on AK-A-13’s finger.”
Now that I think about it, I noticed a pile of discarded equipment lying next to AW-A-74’s corpse. That would have accounted for most, if not all, of the stuff we stored inside the space ring. So what exactly did she keep with her?
The magic cores. Obviously. There would have been little need for them inside the tower, since it’s already full of demons to hunt for food, but during training exercises outside the institute, we figured AW-A-74 might find himself in need of such supplies if he ever went into a desert or something like that, so they were given to him for use in emergency, and we didn’t bother taking them out when we sent him to train on floor 51.
My gaze travels over AW-A-74’s corpse.
…His cloak. She took his cloak, too.
Why did she take the cloak?
This girl doesn’t care about modesty, and she cares even less about the cold.
So why did she take the cloak?
For a while, I’m lost in thought as I consider the question, but I just can’t make sense of it.
Did she just like the color…?
In any case, it’s definitive that AK-A-13 came into contact with AW-A-74.
She killed him.
She suddenly stumbled upon him, the first person she’s met after sixteen years of isolation, and killed him…
I know for a fact that AW-A-74 wouldn’t have provoked her in any way, because his standing orders are to remain unseen by anyone but the research teams. He’s already shown in previous training exercises that he’ll hide and avoid and even run away from people rather than confront them.
And she still killed him.
It’s certainly important data, but who knows how this might affect her later development?
And all because of our carelessness…
I raise my head and focus back on the researchers around me, but they don’t seem to have continued discussing the matter. Instead, they appear to be waiting for me.
And they look very scared.
Well, I suppose they’re all wondering who’s going to take the blame for this, praying it won’t be them.
I really want to sigh.
Show some backbone, people.
Or at least some brains. I’m not going to start slaughtering my staff at the first mistake. That would just be wasteful.
But, on the other hand, this atmosphere might be a good opportunity.
All of us need a good scolding, I think.
That kind of blunder simply must not happen a second time!
I teleport away the corpse of AW-A-74 and cycle the room’s air with a bit of wind magic, because it’s hard to concentrate with the stink of a rotting corpse clogging up your nostrils, then I clear my throat and start speaking in a grim, grave voice. “I remember a discussion we had, when we started observing AK-A-13, sixteen years ago. What we said was that the Taint affects the mind just as much as the body, and we should not let ourselves contaminate the results of the experiment by influencing the subject in any way. It is vital that we only take part in passive observation. I believe we were all in agreement on that point. Correct?”
Vague murmurs of assent come from the researchers. They all look deeply uncomfortable, like they’ve been forced to sit on a barrel of highly explosive material. A few of them even shiver at the sound of my voice.
“So, would anyone care to tell me why we suddenly decided to send AW-A-74 just one floor down from AK-A-13?” I ask.
I wait a while, but no answer comes forth.
I wasn’t expecting any.
“That,” I reply to myself, “is because, for sixteen years, everything went perfectly well. For sixteen years, this project saw greater progress than ever before. And we have grown complacent. We’ve started taking pointless risks. Which lead to this mistake. It’s the first, and it’ll be the last.”
I can see the researchers tense up.
This would be the moment when I select someone at random and execute him as an example. I would kill his family, too, to make the lesson perfectly clear for everyone else.
But that’s not very good employee management.
“You don’t need to be so afraid. I’m not going to blame you any more than I will myself. I can’t very well deny a measure of responsibility for this debacle, obviously. I’m the one who authorized it, after all. I’m the one who controls the Planar Tower. By necessity, I was the one who had to teleport AW-A-74 to floor 51. And I obviously knew that AK-A-13 was on floor 50, since I know everything that happens in the Tower. So why didn’t this raise any alarm bells?” I snap my fingers in the air a few times. “Because floor 51 is so vast, and the chances of the two of them meeting were very low? Or is it because I believed I could teleport him out of the tower anytime the situation demanded? No. I tell you, the only reason this insanity passed by me – by us – is because we have grown dangerously complacent.” I knock on the table. “And that stops right now.”
When I look around, the researchers all seem to have gotten the message loud and clear, so I stand up and start pacing next to the table.
“The simplest measure we can take is, of course, to forbid experiments or training exercises downward of AK-A-13,” I say, softening my voice a little. “That should already prevent the same sort of mistake from repeating itself. I’ll also go and check floor 51 myself, to try and find out what could have wrested control of the Tower away from me. Until we have a more precise idea on that issue, we won’t send anything inside the tower at all. As for the death of AW-A-74, it is a pity, but, as you all said earlier, it isn’t a complete loss. The simple fact that he managed to reach this point before dying is an encouraging sign. It’s still far from AK-A-13, but we’re getting closer. I think we can be hopeful for the results of the next few batches.”
“Should we change their compositions?” Hershey asks suddenly. “Batch AX is just about to reach completion, and AY has also already started cooking, so it’s too late for them, but batches AZ, BA, BB and BC are still in the planning stages. We still have some leeway on those.”
I stop pacing and stroke my chin in thought. “Hmm… What do you propose, exactly?”
Hershey stands up and says, “We should redistribute assets from groups B, C and D to group A. Especially group D… From AW-D-0 to AW-D-99, not a single subject managed to survive past five years old. 57% died before reaching three years old.”
Another researcher suddenly stands up, staring at Hershey maliciously. I remember he’s the one in charge of the experiments in group D. “Hershey, what on earth are you saying? It’s way too premature to discard my work. My subjects may not have the viability of group A but we’ve still managed to increase their lifespan by up to four years. I think that if we continue to –”
Hershey shakes his head and interrupts the other. “I’m not suggesting we completely abandon group D. But we cut the number of subjects in half and give them to group A. As for group B and C, we take 25 from each and give those to group A, too. That will bring the assets in group A to 200. I think that should have the best results. After all, our only two successes were part of group A of their respective batches.”
I almost want to laugh when I hear that.
Two successes? Really?
AW-A-74 aside, the little girl certainly qualifies as a success, yes.
But I wouldn’t say she is our success.
The two men in charge of groups B and C aren’t laughing, though. They both frown when they hear Hershey’s idea. Still, they don’t object. It seems they can judge their own merits objectively. As for the leader of group A, of course, he’s smiling from ear to ear at the recognition his work has received.
The face of the leader of group D grows red, but Hershey is the overall supervisor. The difference between the two is clear, both in status and ability.
When I see that the man is about to start speaking again, I wave my hand, a small burst of magic forcing both him and Hershey back into their chairs. The anger immediately disappears from the man’s face, and he turns to me, looking earnest and obedient. Everyone else does, as well – there is nothing quite like a demonstration that you can kill everyone in the room in a second to make yourself heard.
“Enough,” I say. “We’ll go with Hershey’s proposal. Coordinate with each other to redirect the assets to group A before starting the next batches of experiments. Ellison, I’ll leave AW-A-74’s autopsy up to your team.” I glance around the room. “Anyone else want to add something? All right, then, dismissed.”
The researchers quickly file out of the room, almost as if they’re running away.
Once I’m finally alone, I sigh and close my eyes, tiredly rubbing the bridge of my nose.
What’s with the pointless rivalries between the research groups? This is just counter-productive. I’ll need to take care of that quickly before it worsens.
In the meantime, there is quite a lot of work waiting for me. Finding out why I lost control of floor 51 would be the most pressing matter, I think, but I also need to find more godbeasts to use as fusion materials, find some good subjects to use as a base for the experiments, send my report to the family… And then there is that whole business of ruling an empire.
It’s all quite exhausting.
Fortunately, the advantages I’ll receive if this project succeeds are commensurate with the effort I’m putting into it, otherwise, I would walk away from this in a second.
I sigh again and open my eyes.
I suppose I should start from floor 50, and then go down to 51. Whatever cut off my control of the tower earlier might also interfere with my teleport – and a botched teleport very much isn’t something I want happening to me.
With an effort of magic, I arrive inside the planar tower, next to that strange obelisk that makes people fall unconscious whenever they touch it. Even I have no idea what this is supposed to be, but it’s mostly harmless, so I’ve left it alone. It’s not like I could remove it, even if I wanted to, anyway…
But today, the obelisk feels… different.
It takes me several seconds to realize where the difference lies.
And then it hits me, my eyebrows rising in surprise.
There is no longer any fluctuation of qi radiating off the obelisk. It’s like it died or something.
What happened to it?
It should have something to do with AK-A-13 – it would be too much of a coincidence, otherwise – but why didn’t I notice this before, either? I watched AK-A-13’s progress through floor 50, and I don’t remember her interacting with the obelisk in any way. She only circled around it, keeping her distance, and immediately left for floor 51.
…What on earth is going on, here?