Falling into the Cold Sleep program was not a spiritual experience, or even a surreal one. Lan found out himself. It was like, well, falling asleep. Falling into a deep, dreamless, eternal sleep. Yes, that was the best way to describe it.
He was tired of running from his dreams and his thoughts. They always went back to that firestorm, always. He could not think of anything else. He did not want to see, feel, or know it. Not anymore. He found a place he was certain no one could find him, where no one could change what he decided to do.
She had done it too often. But not this time. He would just go to sleep, that was all. He would go sleep and never wake and never come back to make that mistake, that terrible mistake, ever again. People would not find him. People would forget him. It would be better that way.
He said the words. That was all there was to it. His eyes closed, his head grew heavy, his body became stiff, and he sunk deeper and deeper into heavy slumber, until he did not even feel or know that. He did not say goodbye to the world or to anyone. He did not leave any messages to anyone. They were not needed. He did not even say goodnight.
But then, he started to wake. His thoughts returned. His awareness of what was beyond his closed eyes returned. His heartbeats became steady. He began to take deeper breaths.
It felt like someone called out to him, from just beyond sleep, trying to wake him. It was gentle, yet persistent. He did not know how or why. Waking up was not supposed to be possible, not with that program. Maybe he encoded it wrong. Maybe he did not complete the process. But he had read that program and its encode sequence. He did it right. He was not supposed to be feeling like he was going to wake up soon. He could not stop it, whatever it was. He felt his hands and feet, his arms and legs. The heaviness in his head lifted. He heard noises just beyond him. He still felt so tired, even as his body began to loosen and to move. He did not want it, but he could not stop it.
He opened his eyes. Even in the dim light, he saw her. He figured as much. He did not have a lot of words in him to say. He was still drowsy, still wondering why he was even awake. He just knew she was the reason why. He pleaded, with what few words he could think of. He wanted to go back to sleep. He did not care what she thought about it. He wanted to sleep. So he said the words again. Cold Sleep Activate.
But she encoded for the Override. Two lines speared into his left cheek and drew blood. The rest of him trembled and shook as the new code penetrated his lifecodes. He winced and groaned and screamed. His lifecodes hurt. His left cheek hurt more than any ice dagger.
“I’m sorry, Melancho, I’m really sorry. I had no choice! I had no choice!” She said that, too, back then when that happened.
It hurt so much. It hurt all over. He felt himself drifting off again because of the pain. He could not take it any more. But what was the use of fighting it? He would wake up soon, whether he wanted to or not. The curse of the Override.
He would be forced to live now.
He felt himself lifting from the deep darkness once again. Slowly yet surely. He became aware again of being himself first of all, then of being in a deep darkness, then of lifting from that darkness. He became aware of his arms, his legs, his torso, how stiff they were, how painful they were. Something that happened earlier, that was why his limbs ached so much. He became aware of a surface just under him, hard and cold, and became aware of a soft warmth over him, a thin blanket.
He was waking. Damn her. Damn that Beika.
He felt the stinging of the scars on his left cheek. Two straight long cuts into his cheek. The Override. He was branded now. The scars would heal, but they would stay.
He was one of them now, branded as one who gave up on life, branded by the healers to prevent it from happening again. Known by his countrymen to have failed, to have quit. Many of those who were given the scars before him, took their lives again anyway, by other, more painful means. Heal programmers often did not think that far about people. They just wanted to save the life, no matter the consequences afterward. It was not their fault, it was just their training. Beika was no different.
He opened his eyes. He was in a cave. It looked rather comfortable inside, he remembered thinking then. The cavern was the size of a room, dry with smooth ground and smooth rock. A person could live in it, sleep in it.
He sat up, all his joints aching and creaking. The cave was dark, but he smelled the ashes of burnt wood nearby and heard gentle breathing beside him to his left. He formed a Flame Lantern with his left hand. He always could do that, without saying any words. Just a small ball of fire that floated on his palm. The cavern brightened with the flame.
Beside him was Beika. Her hair, raven black with streaks of white, spilled around her head and over her satchel that was her pillow. She was still in her favorite loose trousers and that brown tunic which always looked too large on her. She was thinner now, at least to him it looked that way. Her slumber was deep, she was so limp. Oh, right. No other heal programmers could help her regain lost strength.
Another girl curled up by the cavern wall, her curly green hair hiding some of her face. Marceau. Futuretell. She entered program training in the same year as they did, and everyone knew her, because they all found her annoying. There was no way she slept in a cave by choice. What she would want with him, he did not want to know.
He raised the lantern and saw another figure in the shadows. It was a young man with sandy hair and wearing a blue jacket, a person he had never seen before. One who wore a Selati programming sash on his forehead.
He looked at the girls and at the Selati, all asleep. Why didn’t either side watch the other? He did not know. He did not care. If he was killed, it did not matter. If he was captured, it did not matter either. If the Selati was the prisoner of the girls, that was their problem.
So much thinking, so much remembering. It was so tiring. Just sitting and thinking made him exhausted. Damn that Beika, he should not even be awake right now to think so much. He just wanted to sleep. He would do that, yes. Just sleep. He placed his head over an arm leaned on a knee, and drifted off.
The Override took away one program. It did not take away the tiredness, the desire to just not be. It did not take away his regret, his memories of that mistake. It did not bring back his master. It did not change anything. He just wanted to forget, to not feel. To sleep.
He heard the shuffling of feet just beyond him. Then he felt someone tapping his shoulder.
“Leave me alone, Beika…” he droned.
“Acqua?” The voice was chirpy. He looked up at the Selati kneeling beside him. The Selati had a small bottle in his hand. “Um…ah. Water?”
He buried his head in his arms again. “Get it over with. Kill me already. But let the girls go.”
“Name Soji,” the stranger placed a hand to his chest and bowed. “Master Melancho, yes? Water?”
He peered out over his arms. “What’s wrong with you? Do it. One ice dagger.”
The Selati shook his head.
Beika will not let him go into Cold Sleep again. Now the stranger does not want to take his life either. Why did people want him to live?
“Always knew. Always knew someone come find you, someone wake you,” the stranger smiled and said. “Will of He who controls all.” The water bottle was raised again.
Lan shook his head. He was still getting used to the fact that he was alive and capable of shaking his head at a queer Selati.
“Lan. Shorter. I’m no master. Please go away. I’m tired.”
Getting his mind to understand an enemy who did not want to kill him, it tired him well enough. He lay back on the cave’s hard ground, curled up under the blanket, and fell asleep again.
The next time Lan woke up, it was to the scent of soup. Wild mushrooms boiled with various herbs. Wild leeks too. It was hard to ignore.
He first saw Beika’s spectacles, peering over him. As he kept staring back at her spectacles, she heaved a huge sigh of relief. She lifted him off the cavern floor and gave him a tight hug. She said nothing — that was highly unusual for heal programmer Beika — and just kept a tight embrace. Her arms around his ribs kept him from breathing well. He almost choked. She let go when he began to gag and cough.
She resorted to shaking him by the shoulders. “I looked everywhere for you! You just up and left!”
“Keep it down, I’m trying to sleep!” Marceau’s domineering voice droned from near the wall.
“Who asked you to look for me?” he managed to say after the shaking.
“I had to find you, I just had to!” she said.
“Why?” he whimpered.
“Soup! Ready!” The Selati tended a small pot over a fire made with branches. He sipped the soup and smiled at them. “Buono. Is good. Come.”
“The Selati’s crazy,” Marceau droned. “Thinks he’s Pendika.” Then she sat up. “Oh. Loner firespark. Back to living, I see.”
She was still as annoying as ever, Lan noted.
Beika shrugged. “All I know is he saved your life.”
“Who asked him?” Lan sighed. “Who asked you?”
The stranger himself came to them with soup in a coconut husk bowl. “Maestro Lan? Soup?”
Lan took the bowl. He saw chopped wild mushrooms floating in the thick broth. If they were poisonous mushrooms, Beika could do nothing about that. He raised the bowl to his mouth and sipped, ready for death by wild mushroom.
Unfortunately for him, the mushrooms were edible and the soup was exquisite.
Assured, Beika and Marceau also accepted the bowls offered them. Beika slowly lowered the bowl of mushroom soup and stared at the stranger. “Wow. This is good.”
He bowed with a smile.
Marceau also stared at her cup of soup. “I’ve been to the most expensive restaurants in the capital, but this tops them all. You’re trained.”
His head bobbed up and down. He had a wide grin.
“So you’re a cook?” Beika asked.
“No…yes…not really. Help in kitchen,” he proudly said.
“No way that you’re a simple kitchen assistant,” Marceau sipped more of the soup. “No way.” She sipped and almost slurped.
“Um…chop vegetables, boil water, stir soup. Help in kitchen.” He shrugged.
“A professional kitchen, though.”
“Help in kitchen. In barracks. In army,” he explained.
The last word made the girls stand and step away from him. Both drew out daggers.
But the Selati removed his forehead sash and raised his gloved hands beside his head. “Not harm you, is promise. Please no harm me, please.”
Beika faced Lan for a moment, then lowered her small dagger.
The stranger kept his hands beside his head. “Was soldier, defense brigade, in army. Also help in kitchen.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re good with our language,” Marceau said, her dagger still in front of her.
“Oh.” He smiled. “Was runner, for mother. Cross river many times. Trade with Pendika at border…”
“Your family runs a black-market operation?” Marceau clarified.
He scratched his head and gave a sheepish grin. “Closed when mother died.”
Marceau slammed a palm onto her forehead. “A black-market runner, turned soldier, turned cook, turned refugee. It does not get any stranger than this.” But she lowered her dagger. “Since you were good enough to keep us alive and even feed us, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.”
The Selati bowed profusely and poured more soup into their bowls.
Lan listened to the exchange in silence, slowly finishing his soup. It was good to know that while the stranger was capable, he was harmless. But he did not care either way. The new warmth inside him made him drowsy.
“Back to the issue at hand. How long are we going to stay here?” Marceau asked. “I want to get to a decent inn and wash my hair!”
“We can leave if Melancho is at least strong enough to walk a bit,” Beika said.
”How long before that happens?”
Beika looked at Lan.
He stared back. “You’re the healer, what are you looking at me for?” Lan said.
“You’re the person, that’s why,” Beika said.
He did not want to go anywhere. He still felt too tired to go anywhere. And all of these people around him just made him feel more exhausted.
“I need an answer as soon as possible, Beika,” Marceau placed hands over her hips. “The committee needs to be informed. We need to return to the capital as soon as we can.”
Marceau faced Lan. “You’re the only one left who could make the Force Field, or have you forgotten?” she said, her long curled tresses swaying behind her. “The committee should be informed about defensive strategies available.”
So that was it. That was the reason he was pulled back. The Force Field. The defense shield around the capital. Only he could make the Force Field, but that was because his master was now dead, and he was the only apprentice.
He had ruined his last Force Field. He had caused a firestorm because of that failed Force Field. He had destroyed much of the capital because of it. He will not make the same mistake, ever again. Because he will not be there to make that mistake, ever again.
“No,” he said. “Go back where you came from.” He lowered his head.
“No, Beika. No.”
“I am NOT leaving here without you!”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Many other fire programmers existed. They did not need him. Beika did not need him. Marceau needed him as a thing to show to the committee. He was not needed. Unless Beika had a cure program for failure, things would stay the same. He lay again on the ground and faced the cavern wall. He turned his back on the girls and on the Selati. He was tired, so tired, he told himself. It was true, anyway. He was so tired. He was not what people thought he was, and he was tired of being that person others expected him to be.
He let himself sink again into the deep darkness, as far as he would be allowed to sink again, in the hopes that he would never have to rise, knowing that he would have to, hoping that it would not be for a long while, at least.
The Selati whistled a cheerful tune as he sat beside a bonfire. On a flat rock beside him, he chopped wild onions and herbs with a short knife. Water boiled inside a small clay pot over the fire. By the cave wall the Selati had a small pile of firewood and some wild carrots and leeks. He looked up for a moment at Marceau and Beika, bowing then smiling at them. He resumed chopping.
“Aren’t you the least bit scared that we’re with an insane Selati?” Marceau even pointed at the sandy-haired stranger stirring the soup, dropping the onions and herbs into the pot.
“I agree, he’s odd, but I don’t think he’s insane,” Beika said. “He doesn’t have enough of the signs of insanity or permanent trance.”
“NO, no trance, no trance!” Soji cried from his end of the cave.
“He stays in a cave, he doesn’t kill us, he knows our language, he keeps a Pendika alive, he COOKS!” Marceau counted the facts with her fingers. “Something is wrong with his head!”
“The fact that he’s wrong in the head has kept you alive, Marceau!” Beika replied.
“But still, he’s wrong in the head! It’s not like we just ask him, are you crazy?”
“NO, not crazy! Not crazy!” Soji said. He overturned his stone chopping board as he stood.
“All crazy people say that they’re not crazy!” Marceau threw up her hands.
“Not crazy!” he repeated.
Beika scowled at her. The green-haired girl had no heart. Rather, she did have a heart, but it concentrated on herself. Everyone else who was not her was an annoyance and an irritation. At the moment, she had three sources of irritation.
“Who knows what he could do to us!” Marceau finished.
“Stop,” Beika said. She stood up and walked to the soup pot. “Soji. You do know where you are, right? You do know what we are, yes?”
He nodded. “Pendika. You, you, you,” pointing to Beika, Marceau, and Melancho huddled asleep by the wall. “This, Pendi.” He pointed at the ground.
“You do know my country hates your country, yes?”
He sighed and nodded. They knew the story in their own ways. It was textbook history.
Beika continued. “Soji, I know you’re the enemy and all that. So, thank you for everything you’ve done so far for us. We don’t deserve this kindness. Thank you for taking care of my friend. But if you’re just feeling sorry for us, thanks but we can handle ourselves from here. If you think you’ll be good to us so you can get into Pendi through us…we can’t do that. They will arrest us at the gates if we bring in a Selati. No matter how nice you are, or how crazy you are, we can’t do that. We can promise that we won’t tell the army you are here.”
Soji stared at her.
“Sorry. I can say it again, slowly…”
“Wait.” Soji raised a hand. “You say thank you. You say you go away. You say I no go with you. Yes?”
“More or less,” Beika said.
He placed his hands to the back of his head. He untied his programmer sash and placed it on his lap. This disabled much of his programming, as Selatan trained programmers to concentrate programs from the brain, unlike Pendi that spread effectiveness of programs through tunics. “If like this? Still no?”
Marceau tsked, her arms crossed over her chest. “What’s stopping this guy from making an ice spear without his sash?”
Soji took out a pair of gloves from his pockets and wore them. He directed a hand at the wall. No ice daggers, no ice spears.
“He’s just putting on an act for us,” Marceau tossed her head.
“No, Marceau, can’t you see? He has restricted his programming. Very few programmers are like Melancho,” Beika said.
As all programs are those of He who controls all programs, manipulation of those programs have to be monitored and allowed. Changes in program codes, or placement of non-default programs, need verification, the reason for the “encode” command given. It is a rare programmer who does not need to encode to initiate a program, and rarer still is the programmer who does not need to say the program at all but can activate it. This designates a programmer so attune with the program codes he controls. Melancho was one of them.
Beika sat beside him, and asked kindly, “Why did you not kill Melancho? Why did you not interfere with the Cold Sleep?” Marceau remained standing and raised a hand over Soji’s head.
The Selati answered without hesitation. “Don’t know how. Thought people come. You come, yes?”
“Sincere, untranced,” Marceau said.
“Why are you at the border of Pendi?” Beika asked.
“Don’t want to be at Selatan. Is all.”
He looked into the soup for a long moment. “Cannot explain.”
“You will have to, Selati, if you want us to believe you,” Marceau said, still with eyes closed and hand in front of her.
Soji rubbed his head. “I quit brigada defenza, like army. Don’t know what now. Is all.”
Marceau projected her arm forward, and Soji’s eyes rolled upward. She stepped in and placed her hand over his head.
His eyes remained rolled up. Soji rose up with glassy eyes. He stood in place, raised a gloved hand, pointed it at Beika.
The memories crashed over Beika like heavy rocks. She felt like she was there again, in the worst day of her life. She could not help, could not throw anything at the enemy. She just screamed for Lan to get out of the way.
It was too much like that time, too much. Beika wanted to scream, she needed to scream. “Marceau! Stop it! Stop it!” She covered her head. “No! No!”
“Release!” Marceau took off her hand.
Soji lowered the hand and sat down again. He blinked for few moments and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, Master Beika. What you ask?”
Beika panted, her eyes shifting between Soji and Lan. “Don’t, don’t do that again, Marceau! Don’t! Please, don’t! Don’t do that to Soji again, swear it!”
“What? Do what?” He scratched his head at them.
Marceau too, trembled. She frowned at Beika. “He has to stay here. He’s too dangerous. Too dangerous to the capital.”
Beika caught her breath and frowned at Soji. She looked at her friend curled up and asleep, then back at Marceau. “Still, he saved Lan. We have to return the favor.”
“We can return the favor by letting him stay here and not reporting him to the committee.”
“Please,” he pleaded. “Not stay here anymore. Per favore. Clemenza.”
“Besides,” Beika thought aloud, “he’s safer near someone who could activate and deactivate trances, right, Marceau?”
Marceau crossed her hands over her chest. “I’ll think about it. You made us soup. I’ll think about it.” She stomped out of the cavern and out to the woods.
Beika watched Marceau leave while she tried to slow her pounding heart.
A hand touched her shoulder. It made her jump away. ”Sorry!” Soji withdrew. “What I do?”
She turned to look at him. His brows were knit together. “You honestly don’t know?” she asked.
He sighed. He watched her for a moment, with some concern. “Thing I not remember.” He shook his head. “Not again.”
Beika tried to calm her nerves by explaining what happened. She demonstrated what she saw Soji do. “If you did not have gloves on, I’m quite sure you would have released an ice dagger.”
Soji listened with a slack jaw. Then he lowered his head. “Sorry. Not happen again.”
It was settled, just like that. But Beika grew careful, cautious, around Soji. Soji kept his distance from the other three.
Lan ignored them.