‘Assistant’s Tool’ Stratagem
Bombi’s fury had built for days, but she needed to control it. Now that she had it, now that she was free of the melancholy of her old life, she could hold onto it. It would still be there ten runs from now. It would still be there if they had the world record, so she hopped down and made a lunge for the assistant’s tool rather than the Win Stater.
She snatched it off the ground and fled to a corner of the room, sparing a moment once she was safe to examine it. The cylinder was covered in hexagonal metal tiles, each one etched with a pictogram. Beams of green light leaked out between the tiles. Suddenly she was aware of something gargantuan inside the cylinder, inside the palm of her hand. Her spirit felt the weight of ten trillion calculations pressing against it like a mountain of orderly paperwork encroaching on her humanity at a glacier’s pace.
“Inside… there’s…” she muttered.
“Everything! Chagrinn finished. “She’s got it; let’s move!” He hopped up, his scuffle with the woman apparently over. She popped up with a smile on her face, but Bombi could barely decipher it thanks to her deformity. The woman’s entire body was twisted like an old sock, her eyes on a slant and her lips lopsided. Her problems seemed many, but apparently Chagrinn wasn’t actually one of them.
“Twixit, grab the tool!” Hieron ordered as he pulled himself off the floor and stumbled in Bombi’s direction. The young runner guessed Twixit was the woman’s name, but she had no interest in taking orders. She, along with Chagrinn, came up behind Hieron and smacked him on the back of the head, sending him collapsing back to the ground. In a flash they were both by Bombi’s side. Chagrinn grabbed the assistant’s tool even as Bombi held it and told both of them to hold on tight. They instinctively grabbed his shoulders as he started a stuttering back-dash.
The trio encountered some resistance on the way out, a few swift Win Staters, but Chagrinn was far faster. Each time they found their path blocked he simply swiveled around and chose another. In no time at all they were out the front gates and racing out of town, into a lightly forested area. The rush of fresh air was an incredible relief from the stuffy tension of the barracks, but Bombi barely noticed it. Her mind still dwelt on the monolithic presence of the knowledge inside the assistant’s tool. It felt bigger than all of Shook and Cain.
When her speedy mentor was sure they weren’t being pursued he came to a stop and shook them off, stalking a few extra steps to examine the assistant’s tool on his own. He cackled and stroked it lightly with each of his fingers, one at a time.
“Hello,” Bombi said dumbly to Twixit, not out of kindness but out of the simple fact that Twixit was in front of her, taking up most of her vision. “I’m Bombi. We’re… I’m a speed runner.”
“I know what you are,” the young woman said. She sounded irritated, an effect exaggerated by the coils of her vocal cords. “I mean no offense, but I’m not interested. I made a deal with Chagrinn. I pretend to fight him, help get you and the tool away from the State, and then he frees me from this twisted agony.”
“And, in this instance, I am a man of my word,” Chagrinn said, turning around. There was a flash of green in his irises. He approached her, with the assistant’s tool held behind his back, circling the woman and examining her deformities closely. “You see Bombi, Sister Twixit here has been working with the Win State much of her life, working to stop us from achieving the world record.”
“So why are we helping her?” Bombi asked, trying to suppress a flash of anger. She’d missed her chance to slay Hieron and there was still a coiled serpent inside her itching to bury burning fangs into someone.
“We’re practical sorts Bombi, not vengeful. I was sneaking around in the barracks looking for the tool when I encountered her. After I probed the situation it became clear she was somewhat disillusioned with her organization’s philosophy.”
“It’s their fault I look like this,” Twixit added, fingers clawing at one of the folds on her face. “I was injured this way in pursuit of a speed runner, in the line of my duty. I was pulled into a nasty exploit that twisted me. Now every day, every moment, I feel the pain of it.”
“And the Win State refused to use any strats to help her,” Chagrinn said. “They cared not for her years of devotion. No, she was supposed to bear the world’s consequences. They’re only allowed to use the strats in direct opposition to us.”
“No world in which this pain exists is a just one,” Twixit said bitterly. She rubbed at her watery eyes. “You said the tool could end this?”
“Yes. Let me just take a look.” Chagrinn stared up into the sky, but his irises went green and darted back and forth. Bombi guessed he was searching the knowledge stored within the tool for the solution. “The assistant’s tool can break down the exact interaction of world and mistake that created your condition. It knows every number for every bolt of pain you’ve ever felt, but I imagine you’re not interested in its history.”
“No,” she answered.
“I appreciate your directness. Here is your compensation for your help.” With that he placed the flat palm of his empty hand against the quivering base of her neck. She gasped, a gasp she repeated several times and that grew with each iteration, her lungs untwisting and increasing in capacity. Her hands spun around and around on their wrists. She lifted each leg as it unfurled to keep from falling over. Her uniform straightened out and her eyes and mouth took their proper place, making her look much less like a flounder.
“It worked,” she said, the violin-string tension gone from her voice. She felt her abdomen and seemed overjoyed by its smoothness. She walked about experimentally, and then hopped and tumbled like a rabbit fresh from its winter burrow. “Thank you. I know you don’t want thanks, but you’re getting it anyway. I am not as cruel as the world; I do what I can to make sure people get what they deserve.”
“Yes and I hope you enjoy your happy little nothing life now that you’re free of the Win State,” Chagrinn said, his eyes back on the assistant’s tool. “Bombi and I have much work to do. Come Bombi.” He snapped his fingers and pointed to a shoulder. Bombi eyed Twixit for a moment, unable to decide if she should feel cheated by the cure she’d witnessed. Surely it was good for those in the Win State to suffer. Rather than say anything, she simply glared at the freshly ironed woman as she stepped over to the master runner. Twixit was too busy examining her body and grinning to notice.
Bombi grabbed his shoulder. He activated the stuttering back-dash once more, only this time they moved even faster. Already he’d used the tool to refine his technique, lowering air and reality resistance to his acrobatic tactics. Bombi closed her eyes and tried to keep her own stomach from twisting into a knot, but was surprised to find the ride much smoother than before; now it was like she rode on the back of a sea serpent snaking calmly through the surf.
The land flew by as streaks of wet paint. They passed through a green area, a red one characterized by a moment of intense heat, and a blue one with its own cold snap before slowing down in some foothills with bushes the size of trees and grass up to their waist. Bombi would’ve liked to linger, to feel the plump grass seeds tight in their casings between her fingertips, to hear them rustling in the breeze, but Chagrinn had not come to a stop.
They still moved swiftly enough to pass straight through a hidden door in the side of one of the hills. Only then did he settle on the small rug just inside the dim cozy space. Bombi let go and followed him further into the burrow.
The walls were dirt, but that didn’t stop whoever owned the space from driving nails into them and hanging things all over the place. There were many picture frames, inconsistent and tilted, but they did not hold portraits or landscapes. Instead they were mostly pencil drawings of various building layouts. Surrounding the rigid gray lines of the structures proper were long light swoops that wove their way in and out of the building regardless of walls. Bombi guessed they were exploits and that, wherever they were, a speed runner had spent much time there.
They passed a pantry. Bombi took a few steps back. Chagrinn strolled on, deeper into the home, but Bombi figured it was worth slowing down to take another look. To take a whiff. To take a taste. To take a meal. The pantry was full to bursting with dry goods, gourds, and jars, themselves full of rich foods Bombi had never been allowed to taste: sugared peaches, wheels of cheese with thick orange rinds, green and white pumpkins, baskets of their seeds dried and salted, smoked spotted fish skins, perfumed chewable cubes of wax, carrots still wearing their root tips and healthy coats of earth, and even blocks of dark chocolate.
The pantry was silent. Chagrinn was not calling her. She was not needed wherever he had taken the tool, and he hadn’t told her not to touch anything, so she helped herself, anger at the Win State dissolving as she descended into the happiness of a harvest mouse that had bored into a breadbox. She ripped a cheese wheel down the middle and scooped out its creamy inside. She spread it on salty crackers and topped them with fish skins.
Bombi ate and ate and ate until she achieved a fullness she had not known possible. Her upbringing had been so strict and so stingy that she’d rarely had more than a full apple or half a dessert tart in one sitting. The glut hit her stomach like a sack of potatoes dropping down her throat. She moaned, her cheeks flecked with dark chocolate chips, and sank to the ground. She lifted her shirt and examined her swollen stomach. This is what it is to have more than your fair share. It hurts, but I don’t even mind. I don’t mind because it’s all mine. Why would anyone ever have a child inside them when they can just fill that space with cheese?
“Bombi, where have you gone?” Chagrinn finally called after twenty minutes had passed. She’d nearly fallen into a nap, but his question got her to her feet. Two belches escaped her, both long, fat, and low like slugs as big as cream bags falling out of her mouth. She wiped them away on a hanging piece of cloth and wandered back out into the hall so she could follow the sounds of tinkering, of tiny hammers tapping away, past a sitting room, past a library, and into a workshop.
Up until that point everything in the burrow had seemed lovely and friendly, but the workshop ruined that with the three chairs set up around the workbench. They were made of thick dark wood and had metal shackles on the arms and legs with thick whitish chains hanging off the back. These were not chairs for guests, but prisoners. Chagrinn paced around the bench, tapping his temple with a tiny hammer. The assistant’s tool sat on the bench; Chagrinn had carefully removed a few pieces. Some of its metal hexagons were lined up next to it, which revealed the network of glowing green wires inside the cylinder.
“Are you done stuffing you face?” he asked, without contempt.
“Yes,” she answered plainly.
“Then have a seat.”
“I think I’ll stand,” she replied, eyeing the chairs warily. She would’ve liked to sit down, but the unease caused by the chains was only worsened by the strange items along the workshop’s walls; they looked like the sorts of things used to assemble the assistant’s tool in the first place: giant vices, crystal saw blades, weapon molds, and a host of other things less rusty than the more mundane decorations of the burrow.
“Oh, the chains,” he said when he realized the source of her apprehension. “Don’t worry. The owner won’t be back here any time soon by my calculations. He’s investigating routes over in ale country. Or maybe he’s just investigating the ale.”
“A speed runner lives here?”
“Speed runners don’t live anywhere. Nests are for commoners. This is his laboratory. He uncovered many great strats here by breaking down items on this bench. I thought it would be the perfect place for me to examine our new treasure. The more we know, the better we can utilize it.”
“He gave you permission to use his…workshop?” Bombi asked, finally drawing closer. She touched the chains and recoiled slightly, half expecting them to spring to life like vipers. She forced him to stop pacing around the bench by standing next to it, over the tool. He stopped on the opposite side and stared down into its wires with her.
“Don’t be ridiculous. He doesn’t even know that I know about this place. I found it in an attempt to merely cross through this mound and save a little time. I always put things back the way they were.” Bombi looked at him with wide eyes and mouth. “Don’t worry about the food. I can duplicate the items… as long as you didn’t eat every bit of one of the items.”
“I think… I think I left a scrap of everything,” she said, a slight smile at the corner of her lip, next to a smear of chocolate. I just smiled. I’m angrier than I’ve ever been and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Shook and Cain had a life planned for me, but they weren’t going to put anything in it. This is what I wasn’t allowed to have. I am a thief of emotions.
“Good. You wouldn’t want Quicky to know you disturbed his pantry.”
“That’s what the runner calls himself. He’s a burly, wrathful, merry, and gluttonous fellow. An odd combination. If he doesn’t understand how one of his treasures works he kidnaps the nearest expert on it, brings them here, chains them to these chairs, and forces them to help him break it down. We don’t need an expert because I don’t believe any experts on the assistant’s tool exist anymore. Its creator is long dead, the permanent sort of dead.”
He reached out with the tiny hammer and tapped the shell of the assistant’s tool. Bombi watched him do it a few more times. His fingers rapped on the wooden bench and he rubbed his closed lips. She realized he was idling, and not doing it very well.
“Perhaps you should grab a snack too,” she suggested. “It might help you think.”
“You need food to stay energized Bombi, not me,” he said with a false chuckle.
“Then what’s the matter? If you’re standing still there must be something the matter.”
“I admit I’m a bit embarrassed. Indecision has struck me… but I think I’ve just solved it. I’m going to slough it off and let it fall on you. You’ve been very good at making quick important decisions lately.”
“Of course. You made the decision to become a runner. You picked a material for your weapon source under significant aggro stress. You choked back your rage and snagged the tool for us rather than attacking that Win Stater. You’re fresh off those big decisions. I can’t recall the last time I made one.”
“Doesn’t taking me on as an apprentice count as one?”
“It would if you’d ever been part of my intentions in the first place. You showed up and made a nuisance of yourself, necessitating a solution. Here we have two clear choices, neither of them pressuring us at the moment.”
“What are the choices?”
“The assistant’s tool is a construct that holds knowledge, more knowledge than any human can hold. By holding it and putting in the correct taps on its panels you can access a small amount of that stored knowledge at any given time. You can know how to cross barriers, reduce drag, trick intelligences, manipulate energy, almost anything really…”
“So what’s the problem?” Bombi checked over her shoulder. There was no one there. For some reason she felt like she had eyes all over her in the workshop, despite the pantry being as peaceful as a nap in a cobweb hammock. Chagrinn check over his shoulder as well, unsettled by her nerves. This is the least sure I’ve ever seen him. No wonder he’s letting me make the decision. Fine by me. I’ve thrown my life away several times already. I don’t mind flinging us into the fire and seeing what burns.
“We can only access one reservoir of knowledge at a time,” he explained. “It limits us to one strat at a time. If, on the other hand, we were to disassemble the tool and drain its reservoirs directly into our minds, we could multitask. Multi-strat if you will.”
“But you said we can’t hold all its knowledge.”
“Correct. Much of it will overflow and either drain back into the tool or float off into the air, but what our minds do take will be permanent. We will be like demigods, able to ignore matter and time itself to certain degrees. It has the potential to cut our run into a fraction of using the tool the other way. We would absolutely be guaranteed the world record.”
“There must be some sort of consequence to such power…”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Chagrinn admitted. Then he licked his lips, as if the sentence had tasted foul. “There’s always the chance it could kill us. The assistant’s tool might even blow up if we simply attempt it. It’s a mystery. So what do you say Bombi? Which path are we taking to the world record?”
Bombi thought deeply. She tried to access the undercurrent of determination that had allowed her to make all her previous route decisions. It didn’t respond immediately. She thought perhaps it was made sluggish by the chocolate and cheese rubble left over from her binge. Then she realized that current was always sparked by something, something entirely separate from her old self. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.