The assembly hall for the council was a large circular room with seating for several hundred people at once. The room had filled with people now, conversing and discussing in pairs and groups. Beika was more than intimidated by the assembled people: elders among the programmers and scholars, many of their teachers, respected members of the government offices. Almost all were in programming tunics of colorful fine silks, scholar robes that fell to the knees, the uniforms of the highest brigade ranks, or capes of the defense committee. Beika looked down at her knitted programming tunic, her cotton blouse, and her most formal-looking trousers. She really should have dressed a little better for this occasion. Too late now. She glanced at Lan. He kept his head bowed.
At the center the council table was situated, a large oak table where the senior members of the defense committee already sat, a group of twenty people. Seven futuretell programmers, seven scholars, six officials from the army. Encircling this table was the seating for the audience and other members of the committees and the council.
Marceau led Beika and Lan to a row of seats on the floor of the assembly hall, a short distance from the council table. They could be seen by both the committee seated at the table, and the council members seated in the common area. She clenched and unclenched her fists placed on her lap, smoothed down her skirt over and over. Lan kept his head bowed deeply. Beika patted his lap.
A man with a futuretell tunic stood from among the council members. He pounded on a gavel, a sound that echoed through the assembly hall. “This council on regional security shall now commence.” The audience grew silent.
A wizened man with a long white beard, also wearing a futuretell tunic, stood from one end of the long table. ”This general council has been called, regarding a predicted attack in our near-immediate joint timeline. This council shall determine our preparedness for such an attack, and what must still be done to improve our readiness.”
“We call probationary member of the defense committee, futuretell programmer Marceau,” the moderator said.
Marceau gave her skirt one final brush as she stood, with confidence and bearing. She cleared her throat and waited for silence before proceeding. “Esteemed elders, please listen. Selatan is on the move. We stopped a troop at Tidur. They are simply regrouping. They will return.”
If there were any adults not listening when she started, they had all turned their attention to the futuretell programmer when she finished her statement. A terrible silence met the end of her words.
“Esteemed professors, scholars, officers, I thank you for this opportunity to address you all, concerning a matter that will once again disrupt the peace of our beloved Pendi. It is important that our information be relayed to you as soon and as accurately as possible, in order for the best preparations to be made.”
Marceau then proceeded to relate what happened to them, removing mention of the Selati they met, keeping everything else. Lan could not help but notice that in eliminating all mention of the Selati, Marceau attributed most of the observations and decisions to herself. Same old green hag, he mused, while keeping his head lowered. Beika looked to him and smiled knowingly.
“Esteemed elders,” she concluded, “they are coming sooner than we expect. They are taking a direct approach. We have to be ready for them.” She bowed to the assembly and sat down.
The mutterings and whispers began once more. They rose to mumblings and chatter.
“We’re not ready!”
“Reconstruction of the halls are not finished!”
“The infirmary! It is not ready!”
“Order, please, order!” the moderator pounded on the gavel. “We will give each committee a chance to report on our current status.”
The moderator first called the head of the construction committee, who gave a speech on the improvements done to important buildings and to the capital as a whole. It was quite a long speech with illustrations and demonstrations, one that Beika found rather boring.
The next speech was much more interesting to her. Her direct superior at the infirmary gave the report on the overall health situation of the capital. The infirmary still had to get more supplies, and generally supplies still had to be given to important points within the capital, but on the whole they were ready. New heal programmers had been situated at important points.
Various members of the defense committee were called to report on the situation in each district. New soldiers had been trained to replace those lost in the previous attack.
Marceau bravely stood and bowed to the assembly. White, gray and graying heads, two hundred at least, all turned to face her. She gulped and squeezed her skirt into her right hand, but remained standing. Once recognized she spoke.
“Esteemed members of the council, the committee has requested that I search for one who could provide the overall defense for the capital. The committee still regrets the loss of fire programmer Corespasa, the Crimson Master, to the last attack. I now present the apprentice to the master, fire programmer Melancho of northeast.”
Marceau gestured to him. Lan reluctantly and slowly stood. He bowed to the assembly, but said nothing. He raised his head, revealing the two parallel scars across his left cheek. Beika lowered her head and tried to hide her face. Previously it seemed to be assumed that Lan and Beika just accompanied Marceau, thus sitting beside her.
Outside of the training halls, few knew that Corespasa had apprenticed Melancho, or knew the younger fire programmer at all. It was not common knowledge outside the fire programming guild and training halls that Corespasa had died. Even fewer knew, within the fire programming guild and the defense committee, that Corespasa was killed by an assassin. Members at Marceau’s level did not know that; Marceau only found out when she read Lan’s memory jewel. It was information disgraceful to the defense committee, after all, and it was kept hidden as much as possible.
The whole assembly gasped and fell into confusion. Unfortunately for the three programmers, the elders behind them were all teachers from the basic and advance training halls. They heard it all.
“Melancho of northeast!”
“A skilled programmer, but unreliable.”
“Has difficulty deactivating major programs.”
“But, a very talented programmer!”
“One of the best in his class!”
“Corespasa chose him! He almost never takes apprentices!”
“But, the Override!”
“Who placed it?”
“Why did it need to be placed?”
“Can we rely on a programmer with the Override?”
“We should not!”
“We cannot let the fate of the whole capital rest on an unreliable programmer!”
Lan bowed his head. Beika could only watch Lan as he remained standing with his head lowered, partly hiding the scars on his cheek.
“Order, please!” The moderator’s voice rose above the noise, as he pounded once more with the gavel. The assembly slowly silenced.
One of the elder fire programmers in the assembly stood. He was of medium built and had a stern face. His tunic was a loose suit with baggy sleeves. “Apprentice, has your master taught you the Force Field before his demise? All program codes, all sequences?” he asked.
Lan raised his head to face him. “Yes, programmer Cielo.” The elder was a teacher in the advanced training halls, focusing on the fire programs.
“Are you able to complete it?”
He remained silent for many moments.
“Please answer us, apprentice. It is important to this committee. Are you able to complete the Force Field?”
Beika suddenly stood up. She spoke, and her voice echoed through the hall. “Yes, he can. He will. He will make that Force Field!”
“Shut up, Beika,” Lan muttered to her.
“I will not shut up!” Beika said. “My teachers, you know what Melancho can do! He can make that Force Field!”
Several programmers, mentors and teachers in the programming halls, nodded or gave assent. Others grumbled. More mentions of the Override were muttered by the assembled group.
“We thank you for the confidence in your friend,” fire programmer Cielo said, “but he must answer it himself, because it is he who will form the Force Field.”
Beika stayed standing. She faced Lan. “Tell them, Melancho!”
“I repeat the question,” fire programmer Cielo said. “Apprentice. Will you be able to complete the Force Field?”
Lan kept his head bowed for several more moments. Then he raised it and faced programmer Cielo. ”Give me a week, sir.”
Beika smiled. He did not say no. He asked for time to practice. Marceau, too, breathed a long sigh of relief.
“Granted, fire programmer Melancho,” Cielo said.
Another uproar from the assembly.
Cielo spoke again. “Members of the assembly, I am not suggesting that this be the only form of overall defense. But it cannot be denied that having the Force Field will be a welcome addition to our protection. It must be considered.”
The assembly whispered among themselves. They finally relented.
“The Force Field is hereby noted as secondary defense,” the moderator announced.
Lan got up and began to walk out of the assembly hall. Beika fumbled as she quickly stood up to follow.
“One moment, apprentice,” Cielo said, his voice audible to all.
Lan paused as another silence descended.
“The Override is not a sentence,” Cielo declared. “It is a second chance.”
Lan sighed and exited the assembly.
Beika and Marceau could not follow him out. They fielded the avalanche of questions. Beika faced the onslaught of questions from the infirmary heads with as much composure as she could muster, unsure if she was still giving them the right answers. Marceau was asked further specifics and details regarding her testimony. They were not dismissed as the assembled elders and the defense committee began to plan strategies and countermeasures.
The sun had set when the assembly dismissed. Beika and Marceau dragged their feet to the main entry steps, reeling and exhausted. They knew they were going to be questioned, but they did not expect so many questions and details.
The girls found Lan seated on the steps of the building, his head hidden by his arms as they were placed over his knees. In his left hand Lan held Beika’s memory jewel, as he lost himself in a music trance. Beika sat beside him, relieved to be finally sitting. She shook him gently, until he lifted his head.
“I should have said no,” he said.
“You have a week to practice now,” Beika patted his shoulder. “You can do it.”
“I said that so you would shut up. You and Marceau.”
“I will hold you to that week,” Marceau added. “You better have something to show by then.”
He sunk his head again in his arms.
“Can’t we at least go around now?” Beika sat down beside him. “You promised.”
“So more people can see what you did to me,” he muttered.
“There is nothing we can do about that anymore. What is done is done, you said.”
He sighed, but he raised his head. “You are really annoying.”
Someone coughed twice in front of them. Soji bowed to them and thrust forward a small basket.
It was Marceau who spoke for the three Pendika. She grabbed his arm. “Soji! What are you doing here!”
He spoke softly. “Gone very long. Got bored. Made cake. No worry, no-bake cake.” He opened the basket and showed them a cold peach-and-cream cake.
Beika was already smacking her lips. The dollops of cream were more than generous, the peach slices on top were large. “How did you…”
“Went to shop. Pointed. Peach, cream, crackers. Paid. Say thank you,” he grinned. He reached into the basket and took out a slice of the rectangular cake, giving it to Marceau over a slip of paper.
But Marceau glared at him, even as she accepted the cool cake slice. “You were supposed to stay put!” She finally sat down on the stone steps with cake in her hands.
“Eat now, angry later? Long day, have cake.” He gave another slice to Beika.
Marceau muttered between munches of cake, “I wish the rest of your people weren’t as stubborn. So we won’t have this coming battle.”
“I wish they’re as nice as you,” Beika said. She bit into her own slice of cake.
“I wish you’d all shut up and leave me alone,” Lan buried his head in his arms again.
It was the last moments of relative peace. Guilds discussed plans deep into the night. The government departments constructed evacuation strategies. The generals of the military held another council of war at the barracks. Soldiers filed into the streets, and took their places at the watchtowers.