Preparations in the capital began in earnest. Many people scrambled about. Soldiers were inspecting general property, other soldiers were moving cannons and other weapons in carts. Supplies for the infirmary arrived in other carts. Travel clouds passing directly above the capital was banned until further notice. All carriages in and out of the capital were inspected.
The futuretell division of the defense committee began investigations and inquiries into recent entrants. All Pendika and foreigners who passed through the inspection gates were questioned, both normally and in a trance state. All entrants within the last few weeks were also suspected and questioned. Claude headed this impromptu and temporary inquest.
“The enemy is aware of these techniques,” Marceau warned the guards at the gates, afterward pointing to the holding room where Soji was. “They have countermeasures. The fact that we got HIM past you is solid proof. Suspect any and all entrants.”
Marceau did not care too much that Claude was given an inquest. She held the records, the evidence for creating that group he led. Without her, Claude would not have that group. She relished her small victory.
She had worked deep into the night, transcribing the contents of the memory turquoise, creating a record of the interrogation, the trance codes noted, the erasing process. By morning it had spread to the head of the guards for the entrance gate, and the elders of the defense committee. Plain-clothes guards positioned around the central assembly area, besides the uniformed guards already positioned in key buildings. Selatan will not trick them again that way. It will not send another shadow assassin like Soji again. She swore, both for herself, and for that annoyance with the sandy hair.
The elders of the defense committee gave a general warning. An attack from Selatan was imminent. The exact moment was unsure, but it was certain. Everyone was to prepare.
Beika saw tents formed around the central assembly area and the main streets. The groups assigned to areas would have been designated by now. They would not need her. Other newly licensed heal programmers would take her place now.
Lan would be practicing that day, she guessed. At least she hoped so. He did not need her then.
She went to the holding rooms at the gates. A few inquiries told her that Marceau had left to make reports. Soji was in one holding room, retained under custody and observation.
He waved to her while in bed. “What is word for head spin around?” he asked.
” ‘Dizzy’?” she said as she sat beside him.
“Yes, that. Dizzy. Very.” He held his forehead. “Feel better, but very dizzy.”
“What did Marceau tell you?”
“Did what she could. Not sure if good. Rest well. Is all.”
“I guess there’s nothing to worry about, then,” Beika said.
“Still not getting that Force Field right, I’m afraid.” She frowned.
He frowned as well. “Master Beika?”
“Have bad feeling. Master Lan.”
“What? Did Marceau place futuretell codes on you?” she chuckled weakly.
“No. Just have bad feeling. You go where Master Lan is? This night?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Why?”
“Please, you go?”
“Alright, if you say so. I have to send him some sandwiches anyway,” Beika smiled.
Beika bought three sandwiches and headed back to the gates. The sun had gone down and stars began to appear in the sky. She had been gone too long, much too long.
The guards and soldiers headed toward the gate and the windows facing the gate, peering out of them. All of them had concerned looks. Some of them peeked out and then headed back to the government offices with orders.
Beika raised her license. “What is going on?” she asked the nearest guard heading to the gate.
“There’s smoke coming from the merchant path. There’s a fire in Diluar.”
“How big?” she asked.
“It’s not in the town!” someone clarified. “Just a little away from it. Near the fields!”
Beika paled. She ran out the gates.
“Wait, heal programmer! Wait!”
She stepped out the gate and saw it herself: a clear column of smoke steadily rising in the distance. Larger than a bonfire, not a conflagration, but large enough to be worth the concern. And the location…she had just been there a few days ago, running from a Selati.
She was too late. Making a travel cloud would delay her even more. She ran and ran. She blamed herself the whole way. She should not have left him alone. She should have stayed. She should have talked to him more, done more. If she lost him again, it would be her fault yet again, for not doing enough. She ran as fast as she could. She knew it was quite a distance on foot, but still she felt she ran for much too long.
Please, I ask He who controls all programs, make me get there in time.
Marceau arrived that evening at the front gates, hoping for a peaceful night. She found many people watching something through the gate windows. Many of these were soldiers either leaving for the night or soldiers just entering their shift. Visitors and entrants also watched.
“Alright, what did I just miss?” Marceau loudly inquired, hands on her hips.
“The heal programmer Beika was just here, she ran off to Diluar,” one guard explained.
“Why? What’s wrong in Diluar?”
Several of the guards gave a longer answer: they had seen a column of smoke rise from Diluar, one that did not look like a distress signal, a bonfire, or a field fire. Upon seeing it herself, heal programmer Beika ran off in a panic.
“Master Lan in trouble!” Soji called out from the holding room.
Marceau walked up to the holding room. “How?”
“That, I think, Marceau. That again!”
“Talk normally! What do you mean, that?”
“That!” He placed a hand over his heart, gestured falling over. “That!”
Marceau slammed a palm to her forehead, then ran her hand through her hair. “Stupid loner firespark…”
“Please, Marceau,” he begged, “I help. Please?”
Marceau stepped back. She could predict what he wanted to do, even without reading timelines. “Are you out of your mind? What if something happens out there!”
“But you said. Trance codes erased, yes? Nothing happen, yes? Please!”
“Why is it so important to you?” Marceau cringed.
“Is Master Beika! Is Master Lan!” he cried. “Please, Marceau di Pendi!”
“Look, I know you like helping,” she said, “but—”
“Please, Marceau. Am sorry for other day. Am sorry for things I not know. Please, I show am sorry. Please?”
She closed her eyes and read through timelines, Soji’s, Lan’s, Beika’s. What she saw, she did not like. The timelines for all three merged, and the firespark’s timeline flickered. The timelines branched, whether or not she allowed Soji to leave. She took a deep breath and fixed her hair.
She marched up to the guards. “Release the Selati! Now!”
That made the guards suddenly face her with open mouths.
“I know what I’m doing! Release him!”
“But…futuretell Marceau…” they weakly objected.
“I will be personally responsible for his actions,” she declared, and everyone heard her. “I’ll bring him back later. Hurry up and do as I say!”
“But, futuretell Claude…the committee…”
“I’ll be the one to face the defense committee, not you. Go and release him, now! Or I shall report you all for insubordination!”
The guards faced each other. They remained planted where they stood.
Marceau raised herself to her full height, shorter than all the guards, but imposing. “Do you want to lose our new Crimson Master? Follow all my orders now! No more objections!”
The guards saluted and obeyed. The head guard took the keys to the holding rooms.
A small travel cloud sped overhead and halted in front of Beika. Soji drove it. He was ungloved and wearing his programming sash on an arm. “Master Beika. Come.”
Her legs were ready to give way, but the column of smoke still rose. She jumped on. “I can’t believe they let you out,” she said as she panted.
“Marceau. Shouted. All say yes,” he said. “Hold on.”
Beika grabbed his shoulder but still was pushed back by the wind as Soji set the cloud speeding again. Her mind no longer thought straight. Her heart pounded so loudly she could no longer think.
He headed toward the column of smoke, toward the fire. Her heart sank as Soji quickly circled the field. It was the shack that was on fire, burning quickly and well. Lan was nowhere outside the shack or at the fields.
“Pugnale di ghiaccio.” Soji shot ice daggers at the area surrounding the shack, and at the roof, quickly diffusing the fire. He stopped the cloud, aimed his right hand, and shot at the ground around the shack, stopping the fires there. He brought the cloud down to the ground.
Shouting back her thanks, Beika ran and pulled open the wooden door.
As she found him inside, all she could do was scream. Melancho, no. No!
She found herself surrounded by warmth and arms tightly around her. She cried into the person’s shirt. “No, no, no. Not again. No.”
“Shhhh, Master Beika, shhhh.” Soji held her head. “Lifecode active. Can do something. Say what I do. Hurry.”
“Don’t make me think, Soji, don’t. Melancho, Melancho…”
“We go back?”
She did not know what to say, what to do. “Yes.”
“Can move him?”
“Maybe. I don’t know! I don’t know, Soji!”
“I think so. I don’t know! Just hurry!”
One part of her brain ran through the needed programs. Burn heal, advanced heal. Realign Cold Sleep deactivation. The other part just kept screaming over her practical mind. Lan, no, no, no! He was not moving, he was covered in soot, scars of wrongly deactivated lifecodes showed everywhere, he was barely breathing. No, no!
Soji quickly programmed for a travel cloud directly under Lan, lifted him up a few inches from the ground, still flat and with minimal movement. Soji slowly brought him out of the shack and into the moonlight. He took up Beika’s hand and held it, walking her up to the travel cloud. “Come, Master Beika. We go.”
Beika nodded wordlessly, not knowing where to keep her eyes, in front toward the capital, at Soji, or behind her at Lan. She applied Burn Heal and Advanced Heal on her friend, but the damage was great, and she could not concentrate well enough to maintain the encoding. She shifted to Basic Heal while her heart pounded hard.
Soji kept one arm on her shoulder. He sped the travel cloud back to the capital as quickly and safely as he could, only a few minutes away.
They were not stopped at the gates and quickly got in.
“Master Beika, where?”
“Where I go now?”
“Oh, OH!” Selati. A Selati who doesn’t know her capital. She relied on an enemy, the irony. “The infirmary. Go straight, past the fountain. Then turn right.”
He sped the travel cloud through the deserted main street, stopping smoothly in front of the infirmary.
The guards at the infirmary immediately pointed spears at him.
“Explain later,” he quickly said and pointed at the cloud. “Master Beika, Master Lan, help please, now! Please!”
“I know this person!” a heal programmer came out and intercepted. “He is answerable to futuretell Marceau! Bring the fire programmer inside!”
Beika could only stare as people brought her friend in on a gurney into the emergency section. She fell on her knees and cried again, watching as people she knew surrounded Lan, doing what she could not do herself.
She reached for the nearest person. She wrapped her arms around Soji and cried. “Why didn’t I listen to you? I’m going to lose him, now, lose him for good!”
“Shhh, Master Beika, shhh.” He patted her head again.
“I’m crying at the man who killed his master. I’m crying at the man who saved my friend twice. This isn’t fair. This is just stupid. This does not make sense.”
“Sorry, Master Beika. Sorry.” He embraced her back.
“What are you apologizing for? This is you, Soji. This is you. You saved my friend twice now. This just isn’t right. You shouldn’t be doing this for us.” She buried her head in his shirt. “I should be the one saving him, not you. I’m the Pendika. I’m his friend. Some friend I am.”
“You are friend. Other people, not reach end of Pendi for friend.
You did. Just made sure he still all right when someone come. You come. You are good friend.”
“Not a good enough friend, not good enough!” she cried again.
“Shh, Master Beika. He be fine soon. Just know.”
Beika continued to sob, as Soji held her. No more words were exchanged.
Someone from the emergency section came out. Her superior and Adso, the first one who came out. Beika rubbed the tears away with the back of her hand.
Kasper did not mince words. “Melancho tried to re-activate Cold Sleep. He inhaled a lot of smoke. His tunic is rather thick, so that kept him from having severe burns, but he has them everywhere. I’m sorry, Beika.”
She nodded that she understood. At least her self that was a heal programmer understood.
“He has no relatives that we know, and no master. We’re asking you what you want us to do. Or should I even ask?”
Beika knew what she wanted to say. “Please do everything to save him, Teacher, please.”
“We’ll do our best. We’ll also keep close surveillance.”
She bowed to them both. “Thank you.”
She sat on the ground and resumed the sobbing. “I don’t want him to die. I don’t.”
Soji put an arm around her shoulder. “He save your capital. Just know. Shhh, Master Beika. He be alright.”
Soji held Master Beika for a long time, an arm around her shoulder.
She watched the programmers as they placed heal programs, salves, and bandages on Master Lan. She muttered to herself the program codes the healers placed, as she saw them course through him, altering lifecodes. She murmured the names of the salves the assistants brought in. She cringed as the scars on Master Lan’s left cheek opened and brightened, as an older heal programmer placed a hand over his chest and activated other lifecodes. In between her words in the heal programmer jargon, she said Master Lan’s long name over and over.
Never did she remove his arm from her back. Several times she leaned on him and sobbed, repeating the long name with tears. He could only hold her quietly, but nothing else. He wished he could do more for her, but he did not know what to do.
The heal programmers slowly dispersed away from Master Lan, until two were left. One of them placed a hand over his chest again, made the scars on the cheek brighten again, then closed them until two healing wounds were left. The other healer placed a hand over Lan’s head. He grew limp.
The older heal programmer came up to them and spoke to Beika. “Adso applied Deep Sleep on him while he recuperates, but he is out of danger. We’re taking him to intensive care.”
Beika nodded blankly.
“He will live, Beika,” the healer said. “Thanks to you.” He gave Beika a final pat on the back before joining the other healers and assistants surrounding Lan.
Soji and Beika followed from a distance as the assistants wheeled off the gurney out of the emergency section, to a section of small rooms with clear panels. His arm was still around her back.
He was so still, so unmoving, so…wrapped, Master Lan, Soji contemplated. Soji was used to seeing Lan curled up under a blanket, but seeing him under white sheets with his head visible unnerved him. He had to remind himself that this was an unnatural sleep, but Lan was just asleep, not anything worse.
Beika freed herself from his arm at last. She faced him and hugged him. “Thank you, so much, so much.” She sniffed again. “I wouldn’t know what to do if you weren’t here. I wouldn’t know what I would do, if Lan…if Lan…”
“Shhh, Master Beika,” he said again, stroking her hair.
“I owe you, so much, Soji. I’ll help you with anything you need for staying here, just tell me. I owe you so much…”
“Is alright, Master Beika, owe nothing, hush, hush,” he said. “Master Lan need you. Go, go.”
Soji sat outside the room. He did not feel that it was right to be there. Beika was the friend, after all. He just helped out. He was satisfied, seeing Beika in a chair beside Lan, holding his hand.
He heard the solid clip-clop of good shoes on the floor. He looked up and saw Marceau di Pendi. The good shoes were dark leather around her heels. The silk skirt swayed as she walked up to him. The blouse revealed her shoulder. He smiled weakly.
She sat down beside him and placed her ponytail to one shoulder. “What happened?”
He tried his best to tell her, using his halting Pendika. She listened quietly and carefully.
It bothered him since it all happened. “Was me? All that?”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” Marceau shrugged.
“Maybe brother right? All just trance code?”
Marceau faced him, and wagged a finger at him as she enumerated. “Look, Soji. I can give you a list of all the codes I got out of you. I can give you a copy of the report I gave the defense committee. You can resurface my memory sapphire. I can do a few more things.”
“You have no trance codes for what you did at the border, when we met you. You have no trance codes for what you did tonight. Again, I have a list, I have a report. Read through them, if you want.”
“Only timelines and lifecodes.”
“Yes. Was you.”
He had chosen that, himself? He really did? He was not sure anymore which he decided, which was decided by others.
But he did remember going to that cave, seeing the rose-haired young man. He remembered meeting Beika and Marceau. He remembered what Beika did for her friend. He did remember the trip to the capital of Pendi. He remembered. He also remembered everything he did that evening, remembered it clearly. He remembered that he had chosen to do that, decided to follow after Beika. Marceau just allowed him to, but he had chosen that.
Marceau stood up and bowed to him. “Pendi thanks you for your efforts this evening. The defense committee especially thanks you.”
“Ah?” Anyone bowing to him was embarrassing.
She raised her head. “You have no idea how Beika is grateful.”
“I know Master Beika is friend…”
“Melancho being Beika’s friend is an understatement. He’s more like her brooding twin brother. You saved him for her. Twice.”
No wonder she cried so much, why it took such a long time to console her and to calm her. “Ah.”
“That was you. Not codes. Not orders. It was you.”
“Ah.” It was him. He chose for himself. As his own person. It was his choice. It was wonderful to know. He looked down at the floor. “Marceau?”
He pointed to his head.
She blushed and turned her back to him. “It was…it was…other futuretell programmers would have done it, too.”
“No. You only.”
“Stop saying silly things, you, you crazy Selati!” She fidgeted with her hair and her skirt.
He felt his cheeks warm up as well.
“Um…I do have to take you back tonight. That was just a special case,” Marceau said.
He nodded as he looked toward the room. Beika’s head dropped to the bed beside her hands. Her hands held Lan’s. She did not let go of him.
“Marceau? Master Lan?” he asked.
Marceau stretched out a hand to the room. “Manifest the timeline.” She closed her eyes for a moment and kept the hand out. When she opened her eyes, she nodded. “He’ll be fine.”
He sighed. “Is good.” Then he sighed again. “For you, for Pendi.”
“I thought you were siding with us now,” Marceau said.
“Sometimes, only sometimes. Wonder if make big mistake,” he said as he kept watching Lan. “Selatan, my home. Playmates…classmates…friends…” He left many of them back home. He chose to side with the enemy, which meant he was bound to see some of them beyond the walls of the Pendi capital in armor and shields.
“I understand,” Marceau kindly said. “Soji…if you want to back down, change your mind, I’ll understand. I’ll find a way to get you back to your region, no questions asked, no pressure attached, no trance or record codes.”
He shook his head. “No go back. Thank you, but no go back.”
“Why? May I know?”
He sighed. “They do again. Trance code. Or kill me.”
“I see,” she said.
“Still,” he frowned. “Friends…good food…home…”
“It’s alright to miss them, Soji. It’s alright,” she told him.
“Of course. It’s where you grew up after all. Don’t be sorry about remembering where you grew up.”
“Thank you.” He felt his cheeks turn red and warm again. “Marceau?”
“What now?” She frowned a bit.
“No regret. Meet them, meet you. No regret.” It was true. From the bottom of his heart, it was true. He would not take back anything that had happened to him since he met them. It gave him the courage to say what he said next. “Take down Selatan army. Make them pay what they do to me. Make them pay. No regret. Will help.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He grit his teeth and clenched his fists. “Make them understand. Should not fight. Take down army. Make them pay.”
“Save it for when we fight,” she said and patted his hand. “I have to take you back now. We can talk strategy on the way back.” She kept her hold on the hand and raised him to standing.
Soji followed her lead, his hand in hers.