Beika flew a travel cloud. It was a vehicle without wheels, constructed by encoding the program for a basic structure, then rapidly collecting water droplets that turned white and fluffy as they followed the altered aircodes. The travel cloud stayed on course by following the skycodes, as directed by the programmer.
The travel cloud she used at the moment was as long as she was tall plus two feet more, as wide as her armspan. Just enough space for herself, Marceau, and their satchels. Marceau sat beside her, a young lady of her same age, with green curly hair that fluttered in the afternoon breeze, with a frilly skirt she had difficulty pinning down over her lap. Beika wore loose, almost baggy trousers, and enjoyed the breeze.
Beika flew over the fields and forests of southeast Pendi. They were almost at the river Pembagi, thick by a few miles across, dividing Pendi, her nation, from Selatan, the one beyond the river. She kept the travel cloud moving in a straight line, carefully watching the flickering from the memory jade. Memories stored in jewels did not change over time, unlike memories stored in lifecodes that either faded or were reinterpreted.
He was a close friend, even if he did not think so. Her memory jade was filled with him, memories of walks around town, memories of days together listening to concerts in the music programming halls. By activating its search programs, it would seek out the person most prominent within the memory jade, if he were within range of skycodes and groundcodes. It would find only him. She was not stopping now. She would not let him go so easily.
Her hair, straight, black streaked with white, blew in the breeze. She raised her spectacles over her eyes. “It’s him. It has to be him.”
“You’re crazy, Beika,” the other programmer flicked her green hair off her shoulder. “Then again, you’ve always been a little crazy. You’re the only one who ever bothered about ‘Melan-cho’.”
“It’s ‘Melan-ko’, Marceau.”
“Melan-choo, Melan-chow…the same annoying loner firespark Melancho of northeast no one cares about.”
Beika rolled her eyes. But she had no intentions of giving up. Even at the borders of Pendi. She would even go to Selatan itself if she had to. But she was not giving up on him.
The two young programmers looked down from the travel cloud. One glanced from the woods below, to a flickering memory jade in her hand. The flickering was faint, yet unwavering.
“We’re at the border,” Marceau said, “The timelines say…”
Beika faced her. “I don’t care what the timelines say, Marceau. I have to find Melancho.”
“We haven’t found anyone like him. Give it up. We have other fire programmers. They will work something out. They will not need the Crimson Master’s apprentice.”
To Marceau, he was just the Crimson Master’s apprentice. Marceau was an assistant to the defense committee. If Beika managed to find the Crimson Master’s apprentice, the committee wanted to know. But Marceau had no high hopes. To Beika, he was Melancho. She needed to find him, because he was her friend.
The memory jade stopped flickering. It started to glow, faint yet consistent. Beika pointed down.
“There.” She began to steer the travel cloud lower, into the trees.
“How sure are you?” Marceau asked.
“I’m not very sure, but I have to try,” Beika turned her back to Marceau and lowered the travel cloud through the leaves and branches.
The travel cloud landed in front of a cave half hidden by vines and shrubs. Beika and Marceau alighted. The sound of birds flapping overhead, displaced earlier by the travel cloud, pierced the silence around the cave. The trees were thin and close together, and the grass at their feet was thin.
Beika looked again at her memory jade, which maintained a faint glow in her hand. She walked a short distance away from the cave. The glow from the memory jade became a flicker. She walked back toward the cave. The memory jade glowed once more.
Beika reached into her satchel and took out flint stones. She had to light fires normally. She grabbed the nearest branch and tried to light it.
“Wait just a minute! You’re really going in?” Marceau confirmed. “What if there’s a bear!”
“You can stay out here if you like,” Beika grinned at her.
“Of course I can stay out here!” Marceau tossed her ponytailed green hair. “I’m not…I’m not afraid of a bear! You’re just being crazy! You’re going to get into serious trouble if you enter that cave. It wasn’t my idea. I’ll tell the committee that. I’ll say it was all your fault, if something happens!”
“Suit yourself,” Beika shrugged. She took a deep breath. With a lighted branch in one hand and a glowing memory jade in the other, she stepped into the darkness.
But Marceau grabbed her left arm before Beika made another step. “I…I…I…I’m going with you.”
Beika figured that would happen. Still, it felt a little better to be entering a dark cave with someone, for it was a very dark cave. Even with the makeshift torch, she could not see beyond a few feet in front of her.
They made ten steps inside when something whizzed just behind them.
“Duck!” Beika said, diving to the ground, pulling Marceau down with her.
“Ow! My skirt! My sandals!” Marceau pouted.
Beika raised her makeshift torch to the cave walls. She saw an ice dagger glistening just beyond them, at the level of their heads.
A shadow appeared at the mouth of the cave. She turned over and pointed her torch toward the entrance. It illuminated the face of a young man wearing a sash on his forehead.
Selati. An ice programmer. They will be dead soon, Beika gulped.
Beika stood, one foot then the other. She opened the hand with the memory jewel, to show that she had no weapons. “Please don’t kill us, we were just following this memory jewel here, I might have business with something in this cave. We’re not here to get treasure or anything of that kind. We’ll just do what we need to do and get out. Please don’t kill us!”
The Selati remained standing at the entrance. He did not extend his hand to them. Instead he spoke rapidly in his language. Then he kneeled and bent to the ground.
“That’s right, Selati,” Marceau quipped and stepped forward, tossing her hair. “Know your place! Know our region is better than yours!”
“Marceau! He can still kill us, you know!” Beika reminded.
He remained bowed before them and pleaded. Beika could not understand any of the words, but none of them sounded angry. Rather, the words sounded anxious. About what, she could not tell.
Marceau rolled her eyes. “Why are you so scared? This is still Pendi territory, and the trespasser is that Selati!” She took out her committee badge. “You will tell us your business here, or you will be reported and arrested!”
The young man grew pale and started flapping his arms in panic. “No! No! No arrest! No arrest! Please! No go back Selatan! No go back!” he stammered.
The girls could not believe their ears. “Did you just speak in Pendika?” Beika asked.
The young man then said something Beika thought she understood. “Pendika. You and you.” He pointed to both girls. “Yes?”
Marceau walked up to the Selati, her committee badge in her left hand. “Identify yourself. Why are you here in this cave?”
“You not kill me?”
“Not unless you give us a reason to,” Marceau answered.
“Besides, we’re not the kind of programmers who can kill,” Beika added.
“You not kill me!” He placed a fisted hand over his heart and bowed with a deep sigh of relief. “Thank He who controls all, thank He!” He bobbed before them, bowing and bowing.
Beika shrugged, Marceau rolled her eyes.
The young man opened the hand over his chest and bowed one last time. “Me, Soji. I…ice program.”
He seemed calm enough, Beika thought. She bowed to him. “Beika of northwest. Heal programmer. She’s Marceau of the capital, futuretell.”
“Guarire…futuro,” the young man mulled over the terms. Then he pointed to Beika. “Heal! Heal program! Ah! Good! Good! Help! Please! Help!”
“Huh?” Beika said.
“You haven’t answered our question, ice programmer! State your purpose in Pendi!” Marceau said.
“That, my answer, that!” He scratched his head, flailed his hands in gestures, pointed deeper into the cave, gestured to them. “Ah…ah…Come, come. Help. Someone inside. Pendika. Help?”
Beika looked again at her flickering memory jade. “Did you just say, a Pendika is inside here?” She felt the sweat forming around her jade as she waited for his reply.
“Yes. Pendika inside. Sleep of death, we call.”
Beika grew pale. Cold Sleep. The Cold Sleep program.
Marceau stepped between Beika and the Selati. She glared at the young man. “You’ll kill us inside the cave where you can’t be heard.”
The young man looked well at Marceau. “Kill? No.” He frowned and sighed.
“We only have your word on that, Selati.”
“Marceau, stop.” Beika could feel all the color draining from her face. She felt ready to faint. Her heart pounded as she faced the young man again. “The…the Pendika inside, the Pendika inside is under Cold Sleep?”
He nodded once.
“A man? A woman? Young? Old?” She needed to know, to know quickly.
“Hair like roses. That color,” he replied without hesitation.
Beika dropped the memory jade. She blanched. She dropped to her knees. “Take me to him, please.”
The Selati stood up and approached her, offering a hand to her. “Follow.”
Beika looked at the hand offered to her, rough and calloused in some parts of the palm. The arm was covered inside the sleeve of a blue jacket.
“No trick,” the Selati said, “by He who controls all, no trick.” He proffered the hand again.
Between her fear of the stranger and her fear for her friend, her heart pounded more for the friend. She reached out for the stranger’s hand. The Selati grasped her hand and pulled her up to standing with a smile. She smiled back at him, in what she hoped was her friendliest stranger smile. He walked deeper into the cave, gesturing for her to follow. Beika walked behind him.
“Beika!” Marceau tugged at her tunic and held her back.
The heal programmer paused. “Manifest the timeline, if you’re so worried.”
Marceau closed her eyes for a moment. “The Selati leads you to a…a…” She trailed off as she cringed and clenched her teeth. She opened her eyes and fixed them on the heal programmer, both excited and concerned. “I confirm. It’s him.”
Beika returned Marceau’s stare.
The Selati waved his torch, a short distance away. “Here, here!” he called out.
Beika did not wait. She picked up the memory jade from the ground and marched toward the light.
She had been searching for him for so long. Within a week after she returned from her father’s funeral, she had left the capital to search for him. Sometimes she could still not believe her superiors just let her do that, to leave the infirmary, to go look for him. She had combed through the long Duaran merchant passage, but no one had seen him. She had travelled through the other merchant roads. In those routes, her memory jade did not even blink. The jade began to glow just a few days ago, when Marceau came to join her. Beika had been on an obscure wanderer path then, a path toward the river between Pendi and Selatan.
She started her search at the end of the planting season. It was now the end of the harvest, at least three months had now passed. The firestorm faded from memory. But not for her. She was finally at the end of her search, and now this stranger tells her that her friend is only a few steps away.
Was she ready to see him, no matter what she saw? She asked herself again. Was she ready? Probably not, she told herself. But she would see him.
The passage opened to a room-sized cavern, a good height overhead. The stranger brought the torch forward. The cavern brightened to show the dry rocky walls all around them. But Beika saw what was on the ground. A small dome of ice, somewhat longer than she was tall.
The Selati waved one hand over the ice dome as he said a few words in his language. The dome melted into the ground, and revealed what was inside. A person. A man. A young man. A young man with short rose-colored hair. Pale, lifeless, wearing a programmer tunic.
Beika placed her hand over her mouth to keep herself from either screaming or crying.