Rowan looked around the central clearing: the deserted central fountain and all the streets that led to the road around it. It was larger than she had remembered it, maybe because there were no people and carriages scattered throughout.
The defense committee had fed Assistant Lan and let him sleep a bit more while a heal programmer corrected his lifecodes. He was under a sheet and over a cot in the tent Marceau emerged from earlier.
The assistant had unlocked her fire program codes. A warm hand over her head. A gentle warmth surging through her from the tips of her toes, to the ends of her hair. A power now in her precarious control. A smile. A nod. A request for more sleep. That was all.
Rowan walked slowly at first, unused to feeling so warm with so few movements. The fire programs felt ready to burn her from the inside at any moment, and only her calm kept it safe. That was a tough situation to be in. Rowan knew herself well enough in that respect: she was NOT calm. This new thing surging through her demanded that she be calm, that she remain calm. She could not promise it without losing her calm in the process. By all He controls, Rowan needed to charge, to run, to fight….not to keep still and keep calm! That was Lan, not her. Already she felt the fire programs this close to flaring out past her palms as she thought.
She tried to walk a little faster while keeping calm. She began to sweat, so early. She pitied the shirt she borrowed from Lan. She promised that she would launder it before giving it back. She needed to keep calm, to keep calm. So far it was working. She tried a short jog. Keep calm, keep calm. She ran around the central fountain. Keep calm, keep calm.
But she glanced to her side, saw Johann with his oboe. He smiled wistfully at her. She wanted to pounce on him and demand some solid answers to her many questions. Keep calm, keep calm! She felt the programs surge through her. Keep calm, damn it, keep calm! Damn it, Jo, why do you look so beat up all of a sudden. I haven’t punched you lately! Keep calm, Ro, keep yourself calm, damn it! She ran past him and kept her back to him.
She kept jogging, soaking the shirt through with sweat. She wanted to take it off right there, not caring who looked at her. She did not have much of a chest to show anyway. She hated how heavy the new fire programs made her feel, and she had not even used them yet.
Eloise had not talked to her well yet. She had not explained why Johann sneered bitterly at her, and what he meant that she could not get Rowan out of her head. Eloise silently walked around the central fountain, looking well at the emblem of each programming guild. She kept away from Johann, and Johann kept away from her, choosing to play wistful music programs as he sat by one part of the fountain, distant from both of them.
That, too, made the programs flare up in Rowan’s arms and legs. Everything was still wrong with everybody, and no one wanted to take the time to tell her anything. But she needed information before she could act. No one was giving her any.
She hated Jo, hated Eloise, hated Ren, hated Chie, hated Beika, hated the chief, hated Marceau, hated Assistant Lan, hated all of Pendi….hated herself.
She curled up into a ball and prepared herself to explode.
She waited for the blaze of flame.
She waited for the ball of fire.
She remained a ball of frustration.
She stayed a ball of annoyed boyish girl.
She took a deep breath. She uncurled.
She sat up and saw Lan, with bed hair and a hand over her head. “I kept THAT one locked,” he said.
Rowan stood. She bowed to the assistant. “Um, Lan, sir…”
“Are THEY alright?” he asked.
Rowan let out a sigh. “Yes, sir. They asked me to keep an eye on you.”
Lan patted Rowan’s shoulder slowly. “I’m sure you will. Let’s not keep the green hag waiting.”
Lan had told Eloise to look for small posts placed at regular intervals in a circular pattern, radiating outward, which had the fire guild’s emblem on the top. If broken, Eloise would restore it. Rowan was to join her, to see if the controllers would respond to her touch.
“So, I’ll just touch these things and make sure they glow?” Rowan asked.
Lan shook his head. “Make sure you feel the ground fire programs connect with your own fire programs. You’ll know it when it happens. Make sure the ground program passes through the controller correctly.”
Rowan sort-of understood. She nodded.
“Consider it your first practice in using the programs,” Lan said.
Rowan looked at her hands, and felt the new power coursing through her fingers. “I…um…no offense, sir, but can I try this somewhere where I can’t break anything?”
“There is no time.”
Lan approached the nearest controller post. He looked it over, then nodded. “Undamaged. Good.” To Eloise he pointed specific important elements of the controller: the need for a straight tube in the middle, indicators at the sides of an active fire program, unrestricted passage of ground programs horizontally and vertically. Eloise nodded at each point. “Do you think you can reconstruct this for the others? Could you make it look like this?”
“Yes, Assistant,” she quietly said.
Lan looked toward Rowan for a moment with a raised eyebrow. Rowan understood: the Eloise both of them knew would not have been in class at all to answer. Or if she were in class, she would have tossed her head, crossed her legs and arms, and stared the other way. Rowan shrugged.
Lan kept his eyes on Rowan. “Place your hand here,” and he pointed to the hole on top of the controller. “Connect your fire programs to the ground programs. Make sure you see a glowing inside the controller.”
Rowan placed a hand over the little post. She did not know what to do next, though. She kept the hand over the controller. She just knew that she wanted her programs to connect with the ground program, to make sure that the warmth in her hands matched with those from the ground.
Quite suddenly a burst of power reached her hand from the controller. She almost pulled it away had not Lan kept her hand in place. She watched as the controller glowed in the parts Lan specified.
“Did the programs match with yours?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Rowan said. “Not weak, and not too strong.”
“Good. That’s what you want with the other controllers. Check the ones around here until the programming halls. Do you think you can manage?” Lan asked both of them.
“I think so,” Rowan said. Eloise nodded.
“Alright. Work fast, but work well.”
Lan then headed toward the central fountain. He stood just behind the emblem of the fire programmers, facing northward. He planted one foot at the emblem, then stood firmly. He closed his eyes, not in asleep, but in concentration. He ignored everything around him, as his red hair calmly flickered.
Rowan took this as the signal to get to work. She formed a travel cloud for herself and Eloise, and sped toward the next controller, moving in a clockwise direction.
Rowan and Eloise worked quietly but efficiently. Eloise evaluated the controller, programmed to restructure the broken ones. Rowan would then place a hand and check for a good flow of ground fire programs. Satisfied, they would move on to the next.
In other quadrants of the capital farther from the central clearing, more seasoned fire programmers and metal programmers were doing the same work. Rowan watched as several flags were raised over towers, signaling their completion.
Finally, after an hour of circling the central clearing, they were almost at the point where they started. Rowan, exhausted but relieved, placed a hand at the last controller post.
A hand rested over Rowan’s. The hand was cooler than the metal of the controller post. It gave Rowan’s hand a gentle squeeze. Eloise had placed her own hand over it. She did not program; she just felt Rowan’s hand under her. Rowan felt the smoothness of the unworked palm glide over her rough, blistered and calloused hand.
When Rowan looked up toward Eloise, the girl kept her gaze toward the pavement. Yet she did not let go. The cotton dress billowed around her knees, hitting Rowan’s trousers. Strands of platinum hair stung Rowan’s face.
“Am I doing something wrong?” Rowan asked.
Eloise squeezed the hand tighter. Rowan felt the sweat form over her hand, as it trembled.
“I’m sorry,” Eloise said. “For everything.”
“It’s not me you have to apologize to,” Rowan said, as gently as she could. “It’s everyone else. Like Ren.”
The hand that held Rowan’s trembled even more.
“Why aren’t you mad at me. Why don’t you want to kill me. Why do you just stand there and let me hold your hand?” Eloise said then sniffled.
“You haven’t given me a reason to hate you,” Rowan said.
Eloise gripped the hand by the wrist. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Rowan watched as teardrops wet the pavement and listened to a long succession of sniffling. “Whatever it is, I forgive you, alright? I wish you’d stop being so weepy and just tell me.”
“I can’t….I can’t…” Eloise said.
“Listen, you don’t have to if you don’t feel like it,” Rowan told her. “Let’s just get this thing over with.” She placed her other hand over Eloise’s, and patted it.
Eloise looked up at her, disbelieving.
“Come on, let’s go tell Assistant Lan.” Rowan removed her hand from the controller, and held Eloise by the wrist.
Marceau, seeing them approach, walked up to Lan and stood behind him. She placed a hand near the back of his head. The glassy gaze returned.
“Is everything ready?” Lan asked.
“All quadrants are clear, all controllers have been fixed,” Marceau replied, maintaining the hand near the head. To the girls she said, “Stand back, stay close.”
Lan nodded. He kneeled and placed a hand over the fire guild emblem.
“Encode. Establish range.”
Rowan watched as fire program lines brightened, speeding away from the emblem and toward the controllers she had just checked.
Fire programs rose upward from the controllers, arching up in the sky, meeting with others overhead.
The program lines at the outer limits of the Pendi capital formed into a dome, enclosing them into a inverted, warm, glassy bowl.
“Lock the field. Authorization: Melancho of northeast, Crimson Master. Maintain until unlocked by this programmer only. Activate.”
Rowan watched with awe as the sky blurred beyond a solid yet fluid dome, pulsing with power yet firm. She squeezed Eloise’s hand as she watched, just glad to have a hand to hold while watching this spectacle.
But a quick glance down knocked her back to reality.
Lan was paler than any of the chief’s white dishtowels.
“Ground programs unstable. All…the programming…” he said. “Force Field…hold ground programs in place…but not long.” He panted. “Green hag, do something. Quickly. Force Field…will hold…two days only…then break. If…not…if not…”
Lan fell forward in a dead faint.