TITLE: JUST A TOOL
CHAPTER 49: TRUTH, LIES,... CHAOS (ii)
I don't know why we have to be in the same room as Fletcher while we wait. It makes me vaguely uneasy, as if the nanobots might make us blow up at any moment or have some other malfunction that's equally spectacular. But I have a feeling that asking wouldn't help anybody, so I keep my misgivings to myself. The result is that we find ourselves hanging about the Craftsman's quarters, feeling awkward and out of place on my part if not Ayn's – he's decided to help Piqa mount a massive cleaning operation.
Fletcher, for all that he said he couldn't do, is more helpful than I expected. He shows Piqa and Ayn how to dry food to conserve weight, how to purify water so we won't need to carry so much, and in case we can't find free-flowing water, cobbles together a gadget for harvesting water from the environment. I watch them with only part of my attention, but after a while, something begins to bother me. To begin with, he talks almost exclusively to Piqa. Granted, he seems genuinely fond of Piqa, even though Piqa looks uneasy every time he makes physical contact with him.I don't blame Piqa – I'd likely be acting the same way if I were in his position. Still, the way Fletcher talks is starting to bother me. He only uses the singular 'you' and never once refers to either Ayn or me. It's as if Piqa is the only one who needs the food and water... or something more sinister.
"Hey Fletcher, how long do you think the supplies will last us?" I ask loudly, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. I say the last word with unnecessary force, which I suppose turns it into a challenge.
He stares at me for a few moments, but can't pretend that the question hasn't been addressed directly to him. And then he smiles, and tells me, "I'm not going with you."
The smile throws me off somewhat, but my suspicions have flared up like a Warhammer strike colouring the sky. It rolls out of me in my words and my voice. "What the damn frick do you mean you're not coming? Is this one of your User tricks?"
I'm not quite in an attacking stand, but I can see how Piqa and Ayn are poised to hold me back. Fletcher's smile widens, but at the same time droops at the corners. And then he does something that confounds all of us.
He takes off his shirt.
Fletcher doesn't say anything, just stands there displaying his body to us. Good thing it doesn't take too much staring for it to become clear why he's done that. On his chest, below his collarbone slightly to the right, there is a circular metal plate embedded in his flesh. At regular intervals, a small light slowly skims the edge of the plate.
A small "Oh…" of sympathy escapes Piqa, but Ayn and I say nothing. We know the craftsman well enough by now to expect an explanation without having to ask for it.
And sure enough, Fletcher starts talking. "The further I leave the Base," he says, hands behind his back, "the slower my heart beats." He is still smiling, but his words are coming out through clenched teeth. "And when I get far enough..."
He brings his hands forward and claps, startling all three of us. He breaks the dead silence that follows with a matter-of-fact "It stops."
I take a deep breath. I know the Users and their manipulative ways only too well. Something like this shouldn't come as such a shock. And yet there is a dull ache in my chest, as if in sympathy.
"Do all Users have this?" The question comes from Ayn. It has the ring of genuine interest. "Or just Craftsmen?"
Piqa tugs at his elbow, prompting him to mutter some kind of apologetic expression of sympathy. But Fletcher doesn't seem to be bothered by the question in any case.
He shrugs. "I don't know." His smile broadens even more until it looks like the bottom half of his face has split open. "And I don't care." The smile turns into a laugh. "Maybe only naughty people have it." He strides over and puts an arm around Ayn's shoulders, and while patting the plate with his free hand, says, "All I need to know is that I have it."
Ayn looks very uncomfortable being hugged all of a sudden, but still manages another question. "Can you remove it?"
I feel a rare moment of empathy with the craftsman – I feel like smacking Ayn across the head and asking him Do you think I'm wearing this for fun?
Luckily for Ayn, Fletcher is more forgiving of this thoughtless question. "Remove it?" He lets the stupid dolt go and crosses his arms, supporting his chin with one hand in an exaggerated 'thinking' posture for a while before continuing. "If by that you mean, can I knock myself out, stop my heart for a while and yank this pesky thing out, then the answer is simple: no."
I catch Piqa flinching at that. So does Fletcher, it seems, because his next words are unmistakably aimed at Piqa. "But if you'd like to try doing that, I'd let you."
The already pale Piqa goes even whiter, but he is saved from having to answer by a loud chime from Fletcher's instrument panel. The Craftsman is immediately captivated, summarily ignoring us. The moment of tension has passed just like that, but my thoughts have grown even heavier.
I'd always thought that the Tools were the only prisoners in the Base.
The cheerful announcement interrupts my dark thoughts. Fletcher is already at the door, keying in the code to let us out.
"The cure has taken," he tells us, practically pushing us out through the doorway. "You'll be fixed in no time at all!"
I feel like holding on to the doorframe to brace myself so I don't have to go yet. There are so many things more that I want to ask. But I tell myself to be patient, and step outside to the sound of Fletcher's parting words.
"Do come and visit when you're free."
While the cure 'incubates' as Fletcher puts it, we are free to put the other pieces of the plan together. Ayn works on our MUTT. He modifies it, using the excuse that he needs to protect his back to add a cover, and once that's done, secretly enlarging the interior so it'd fit a third person. It's a tight squeeze, but when the moment comes, all three of us will be in that space. Again, it is Fletcher who supplies the plans. I don't know what was so wonderful about them, but they were enough to impress Ayn into following them to the last bolt.
For his role in ensuring our means of transport and sustenance, I have to accept that Fletcher is useful—and if I am honest—very much more useful than me. All that I can do is to train, and to keep my ears sharp for any useful information. It isn't as hard as I'd thought it'd be. Everyone knows how the reset affects me. Perhaps it is because of this that I find most of the Battle Tools supportive, and—rather to my surprise, given my lack of sociability—even sympathetic. They avoid the subject of EffScores and not a single one mentions Bait, but they tell me whatever I want to know, even information that they aren't supposed to make public like schedules and codes.
I don't get to feel peacefully confident for very long. This period of calm is—as we'd known all along—a mere pause, nothing more than a moment for us to catch our breaths. Something happens that reminds us rudely of just how limited our choices are.
For all that the Users don't care what happens to Tools, it seems that they do take notice when we do something irregular… and our repeated visits to Fletcher definitely fall into that category of 'irregular'. And so this irregularity is duly dealt with.
It comes from Fletcher himself. "Whatever you have to say to me, you should say it now," he informs us, after first taking all the gadgets he'd been helping us with and literally dumping everything in a pile at our feet.
Surprisingly, Piqa is the first to understand what he is implying. "We've… been discovered?" He is calm, even if he's turned considerably paler.
Fletcher gives us his usual disinterested attitude. "Possibly." He shrugs. "Or I need to be reminded not to be naughty."
"Are we—are you in danger?" Ayn asks. I don't find the change of word strange – being in danger is the normal situation for us Tools.
"I'll be fine." We get one of those handwaves that we've grown used to by now. "But it seems I need to be 'rested' so I'm not allowed to see anyone for some time." He makes an exaggerated show of whispering, hiding his mouth with one hand. "I'm going against them right now to meet you this one last time."
"You can't come with us…" My statement makes Ayn move towards me with a silencing gesture. I speak louder instead. "You're absolutely sure of this?"
For once, the Craftsman doesn't shrug, or wave a hand, or smile without humour. He startles me by taking my hand instead. "Look for Horus," he tells me gravely, articulating the name slowly and carefully. "Horus will guide you."
I wait for him to explain who or what Horus is, but "This will help you find each other" is all that he says. I work it out for myself: Horus is a someone – someone who, difficult as it is to believe, is living out there.
He releases my hand and fishes something out of a pocket, which turns out to be three discs, each the size of a fingernail. Starting with me, he places the disks on our chests, at the point where the collarbones met the breastbone; the device sinks into our flesh with little more than a ticklish feeling. The skin is left unblemished, giving no sign that we've been tagged.
Piqa is last, and when Fletcher is done, he throws his arms around the Craftsman. He isn't tall enough for a shoulder-level hug and has to settle for the waist, but he's hugging Fletcher with all of his might. Fletcher isn't expecting that; I can see that from his expression. For one brief moment, he doesn't have his mask of nonchalance on. I look away, because to see the pain that twists his features is both unexpected and unsettling in equal degrees.
"Don't be afraid," he says, speaking softly like it's only for Piqa to hear, but I catch it nonetheless. "You will be as you should be."
I don't understand what he means, and neither—I suspect, looking at Piqa's expression—does Piqa, but I have no doubt that Fletcher means what he says. Ayn slips his hand into mine. I can tell that he's just as perturbed as I am.
He lets go of Fletcher at the sound of his name and we just stand there, all four of us, looking hard at each other. I'm not used to feeling this way, like there's something inside me that wants to erupt from me in a wave of emotions, and I don't like it at all.
Eventually, it is Fletcher who breaks the silence.
"I suppose this is as far as it goes," he says, extending a hand to Ayn and I. "I can do no more."
Ayn grips his hand hard, but all he says is "Thank you."
And then it is my turn, and I open my mouth to thank him as well, but instead I hear myself saying, "We'll come back for you, you hear?"
It comes as a surprise even to myself, but a moment later I realise that I actually do mean it. Fletcher may look like a User, but he's shown me more than enough evidence that he isn't one of them. Neither is he a Tool, but I can say without reservation that Fletcher is most definitely...
One of Us.
I can't explain it, but I sleep better now. It's as if I finally know what to do with myself. I don't feel like I used to, that I had to go on existing so that Piqa and Ayn could live. Fletcher's promise of freedom has nothing to give it substance, but somehow, even that possibility is enough. Now I feel that I have a reason to live and not just exist.
I've stopped being afraid. Whatever is out there, I'm ready to face it.