“Was there anything in the manual that could help us defeat the masters?” I asked 288. He’d read it back to front so if there was anything in there that could help, he would know. And now that he had seen the light, maybe even tell me. Hallelujah!
The mention of the manual made the imps beady little eyes gleam. He looked up at me as I leaned over the partitioning wall and said, “The Book is the answer to all questions.”
He sounded like a newly baptised religious nut. Just what I needed, a Jehovah’s penis.
“That’s great but was there anything in the Book—” I thought it best to sound as reverential about his new bible as him “—that could help us against the masters?”
“No,” said 288. “The masters cannot be defeated.”
Well, not with that attitude they couldn’t.
“What if all the golems were to attack the masters? Could they win?”
“No,” said 288.
“There’s only nine of them,” I pointed out.
“All the war golems together wouldn’t be able to defeat one of the masters.”
“That can’t be right,” said Maurice. “They were knocking each other’s heads off out there. If they can do that, it means they can be hurt, doesn’t it?”
“The masters do not use their full abilities during the tournament,” said 288. “The mountain would fall down if they did.”
I wasn’t sure about this. Cheng hadn’t looked like he was holding back during his match, but perhaps he was an exception. If the rest of them had restricted their abilities in some way, it wasn’t in how hard they tried to rip each other’s limbs off.
“They must have some kind of weakness,” I insisted. “If they were infallible, you wouldn’t be able to even consider turning against them. What about the Prophecy Machine?” Cheng’s father had mentioned it earlier and it sounded important.
“Nothing,” said 288, which could have been taken as his usual reticence to say much except that he didn’t turn around and bend over.
“You’ve never heard the masters talk about it before?”
288 shook his head.
“If you want your freedom, you’ll need to help us, you do understand that, right? We can’t beat them head on, we need to find some kind of weakness. If they have one, you would know it what it was, wouldn’t you?”
Reading the manual had definitely changed him, but old habits died hard. He was still a slave to his upbringing. Thinking for himself wasn’t something that came naturally.
He became motionless, his face completely still. Either he was considering what I had just said, or possibly he was in standby mode. I was about ready to give him a kick up the arse when he snapped back into life.
“The only time they are vulnerable is during the welding. They gather in the throne room and exchange energies with the universe. Their bodies become mortal for a short time.”
How do you get asked about weaknesses and not mention this titbit of information?
“And how do they protect themselves while they’re like this?” I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t take precautions.
“They are guarded,” said 288.
“By whom?” I asked.
“By the war golems.”
Sometimes it takes a while for the answer to appear. Sometimes you have to find the right question. Sometimes you look everywhere for your glasses and they were on top of your head the whole time.
“What if instead of guarding them when they’re vulnerable, what if the golems chose that moment to attack them? Do you think they could win then?”
288 flinched. He seemed to be struggling with the suggestion I’d made. “That would be… wrong.”
“Yes,” I said, “it would go against what they had been made for, but that’s the price of freedom. You have to be prepared to do things you’ve never done before. Do you think they would?”
His little eyes began blinking furiously and there was the faint smell of burning. Wisps of smoke curled out from his ears.
“Is he broken?” asked Jenny, appearing next to me.
“You might have fried his logic circuits,” said Maurice, like he knew what he was talking about.
“He isn’t a robot,” I said, like I knew what I was talking about. Maybe he was. An advanced artificial life form that frequently broke down and needed a thump to start working again. Sounded about right. I’m pretty sure if Skynet ever gains self-awareness it’ll be because someone accidentally spilled coffee on it.
Yes,” said 288, suddenly coming back to life.
“Yes what?” I asked him.
“Yes, I think the war golems would be able to destroy the masters during the welding. The Book says control is a state of mind. The Book says to separate the link between master and servant requires all connections to be severed. If the Book says it, they will do it.”
He seemed very sure, which was good enough for me. In fact I hadn’t felt so positive in a long time.
“Okay, then. Sounds like a plan.”
“Wait,” said Mandy. She was looking over the dividing wall on the opposite side. “What about Cheng? He still has to fight the masters.” The idea of Cheng getting beaten to a pulp, limbs (of which he had many) being removed and other forms of general unpleasantness, obviously worried her. “How will he win without the device? We need to get it back.”
“He won’t win,” I said. “But he doesn’t have to. Even if he loses, the rest of the plan will be fine. We don’t need him to win, anymore.”
“But… but you said he could win. You promised.” She was getting quite worked up and distraught.
“Hey, calm down,” I said in a dismissive manner that probably riled her up more. Not intentionally, you understand. It’s just hard to stay patient with someone who can’t recognise a good idea when it’s right in front of them. “Cheng will be fine. They don’t kill each other, well, only the one in last place, and Cheng has already avoided that. He might get knocked about a bit, but he’ll heal up.”
“But he isn’t like them. He’s half-human.”
She had a point. “Yes, but he’s also half not-human. And that’s the half in charge right now. He’ll be fine.”
Did I know that? No. But it wasn’t something we could do much about right now, so I hoped I was right.
“That’s your idea of a plan?” said David who was next to Mandy. He sounded angry. “We stand back and let them—” he waved a hand towards the doorway “—take care of everything for us? How will that help us rescue Yuqi?”
“And Bao,” chimed in Phil, popping up next to David.
Honestly, it’s a wonder either of them had managed to survive the last sixteen years. And I was supposed to be the one riding my luck.
“I know it’d be great if we came up with some amazingly unlikely plan and then somehow managed to pull it off,” I said, “but this isn’t a movie. We don’t get to win because we’re being played by actors who have it written into their contracts. Life doesn’t work like that. You know how life works? Even if you pull off a million to one shot, someone will find a way to fuck you out of it. Put all your money on thirty-three black and win, tax man will bend you over the roulette table and rape you. You know who doesn’t pay tax. Inheritance McDaddysmoney. Earns a fortune doing nothing, keeps all of it, totally legal.”
There was a confused murmur among the others as they tried to figure out why I had suddenly gone all Socialist Worker.
“My point is that some people always get fucked and others never do. It’s the way the system is set up. You might have aspirations to cross over and join the anointed—it certainly happens sometimes—but I have no illusions on that score. I’m not one of them. You know who is? Cheng. He’ll make it through and maybe even take you with him,” I said looking at Mandy, “assuming you don’t annoy the fuck out of him.”
There was no nodding, no acceptance of what I was saying. Doubt was all I was seeing.
“You know those shows where people audition to be the next pop star? You know how in the first few episodes they showcase all the idiots who can’t even hold a note?”
“That’s mah favourite part,” said Flossie, clapping her hands rapidly. At least I’d won over one person, even if it was for a retarded reason.
“Yeah, well those people thought, Why not, I’ve got as much chance as anyone. It might be my big break. Well, that’s you lot. Yes, it would be great if you miraculously had the voice of an angel and never knew it, get to sing karaoke on TV, but you don’t.” I saw Flossie about to object. “I’m speaking metaphorically. Metaphorically, you’re all tone deaf and want to sing at the Albert Hall. You’re living in a fantasy world.”
I realised as I said it that you can’t really make that accusation when you actually are living in a fantasy world. Why couldn’t they just do what I said and complain later when we were all dead? I returned my attention to David and Phil. They were new to my leadership style so would be most likely to object. They needed to understand the situation.
“Cheng will help us once we get past this madness, and if he doesn’t, then we’re screwed and there’s not much we can do about it. But this is the plan and you will all do as you’re told or I’m going to tell 288 and his friends that there’s a problem and let them take care of it.”
I let the meaning of what I was threatening sink in.
“Because even though there is a good chance none of this works, it’s still the best chance we’ve got. And that doesn’t mean I think I’m some genius who knows what he’s doing. I’m not, and I don’t. But what I do know is no matter how bad plan this is, it’s still better than anything you fucking idiots could come up with.”
In case you hadn’ noticed, I was slightly irritated.
Everyone shifted uncomfortably but no one said anything. The atmosphere was awkward to say the least, but how else do you get people used to only thinking about themselves to see the bigger picture? This was clearly our best opportunity to get out of alive. It was also our only opportunity.
And Cheng not having to win wasn’t even the best part. Not only did we not have to hope Cheng could pull off some Hollywood ending, we didn’t have to fight the masters, either. The golems would take care of it.
So what if we didn’t win the tournament? So what if we sat back and let others do the fighting? That wasn’t a negative, that was brilliant. The samurai who never draws his sword is fucking cool.
All we had to do was stay alive until it was all over.
I looked back down at 288. “When will the final fight take place?”
“This evening,” he said.
“And after that, the welding ceremony or whatever it is, does it take place straight afterwards.”
“And what about all the people? What happens to them?”
288 looked up at me, his features a little drawn into his face. “People?”
“The humans, the ones out there. And us. What happens to the people?”
288 nodded. “You will be used as part of the welding.”
“Used? Used how?”
“You will be consumed.”
The other thing Cheng’s victory would have given us was a pass on the whole being ‘consumed’ thing. Without his protection, how would we avoid getting eaten by the masters?
So close, and yet…