Lan remained unconscious and feverish as an hour passed, then two. Nothing Marceau or any of the heal programmers did could wake him. The elder fire programmers told her that he had over-exerted himself and would need time to regain strength.
“But I need to know what he was saying!” Marceau stomped. Her hair, tied in a bun at the back of her head, had loose springy coils all over. “His immediate timelines are too still! The thought he had going was cut!”
“Find his friend,” Cielo advised her.
“Beika is a traitor to the cause!” Marceau snapped. “She has gone to support the Selati!”
“Heal programmers are neutral, futuretell. Basic programming,” Cielo reminded.
Marceau tossed her head. She changed the subject. “The firespark said something about the ground programs being unstable. Do you know what he means?”
Cielo chuckled, but half-heartedly. “Ah, futuretell programmer. A first-rate one, but a futuretell all the same.” He suddenly frowned. “We element programmers depend on the ground programs for the strength of our own.”
“So, the riots…”
“All the activated offensive programs have caused instability in the ground programs,” Cielo said. “All the element programs have been compromised recently, including the Selati ice programs.”
“What could happen?” she asked.
“I could not be certain, since it was Melancho who controlled most of the ground fire programs, to make the Force Field. But if he is concerned, you better be.” Cielo cleared his throat. “I saw him when he last made the Force Field. He was unconscious for a day then weak for days afterward. He looks worse now. Find his friend. You need a high-level heal programmer.”
“But that healer—”
“Beika is better than you give her credit for,” Cielo said. “Remember who deactivated a Cold Sleep program from a book. Very few seasoned heal programmers could do that.”
One thing Marceau understood, though, was that all the unnecessary programming had to stop immediately. She summoned Johann.
The music programmer came at once. He no longer contemplated what he felt about being under another woman who used people without a second thought. Johann felt tired, inside and outside. He would always be someone’s lackey. He hated being a lackey. Yet he would always be one. He lowered his head to Marceau.
“I need you to send everyone to sleep,” she said.
“Everyone?” That was a lot of people, a lot more than there were at the music programming hall, spread over a wide range.
Marceau rubbed her chin and pulled back a few stray curls. “Well, maybe not everyone. Definitely not the defense committee and the soldiers, and the heal programmers in the infirmary.”
Johann sighed. Now she wanted him to drape a trance over a large area, over a wide populace, while being very specific about who he tranced. But who was he to complain about such a difficult task? He was a nobody, and a lackey.
Marceau raised a hand and paused it near his head. She closed her eyes. He let her read his concerns. “Too hard?” she asked gently.
“I’ll manage,” he replied with resignation. “But they’ll wake up tomorrow.”
“At least I’ve had the night to think,” Marceau said. “Do it by quadrants.”
Johann shrugged as he took up the oboe. He combed his long hair and pulled it back with a band. He put on his hat. It would be his greatest performance yet, for the capital of Pendi. No one would hear it, but at least they would hear it in their dreams.
He formed a travel cloud he could stand on and floated it above the lampposts. He steered away from the infirmary and headed toward the central clearing.
He put the oboe to his lips and began the haunting melody that would best place the Deep Sleep program on whoever heard it. He laced it with high shrill notes, notes that people used to steel instruments—such as heal programmers and defense committee members—would ignore and thus not respond to. It was part revision of a classic melody, part original composition. He would store this piece in his memory jewel later.
Citizens who strayed into the street snuggled onto the pavement where they stood. Those beside a wall leaned on it and soon were snoring.
He flew the travel cloud away from the central clearing and headed toward the academic quadrant. For once those who hated music would be forced to listen to him, forced to acknowledge what he could do.
Johann watched from above the height of the lampposts, as people lay down in beds, chairs, floors, streets and alleys. A few remained standing, though yawning: these were tower guards. He adjusted the melody to decrease the effect on them.
He floated street by street, block by block, quadrant to quadrant. He spent up to a quarter of an hour at each point, ensuring that everyone who should be asleep, was. He continued playing the haunting melody he half-composed. He never bored of it, even as the night wore on and the stars appeared blurred past the Force Field. He was playing his music, changing it to suit his whim and the immediate need of the moment, he was playing, he was in his element.
If only he were braver, he would have an immense power to control people. But he was a stupid coward, so he did not. Instead, he let others control him.
He returned to the defense committee building, where he started.
He found Rowan and Eloise seated at a lobby bench, their heads leaned on each other in sleep, their hands clasped together. Life was not fair at all, he decided.
At least he would have a little fun with the unfair-ness of life, for a while.
He raised the oboe again, and played the short melody that locked Rowan in a trance. The redhead acknowledged, by opening glassy eyes. He played another tune, low and wistful. Eloise lifted her head, and opened glassy eyes as well.
“Stand for me, my girls,” he quietly said.
The two dutifully stood.
Johann approached them. He made them face each other. He placed one hand on each girl’s waist, and another at each shoulder.
“Dance for me,” he ordered. “A waltz.”
He played the most popular waltz, the one the general public knew even without a music program education. Rowan and Eloise began to move, one-two-three one-two-three, keeping time with the music, moving bodies and legs in unison, their eyes blank and looking past each other.
“Oh, look at each other, I know you want to,” Johann sighed as he ordered. The two thus stared into each other’s eyes, though still empty.
It was hours past midnight then, but Johann kept playing a waltz for the two girls in his life, making them dance like puppets. He played for half an hour, as the girls twirled and stepped in time. Bitterly, he noted how well the two danced together, even in a trance program. He sighed at the girls he would never have.
“I wish you would kiss me, just for a while,” he blurted. He was tired, and despondent.
He did not realize he had been careless until the two turned toward him and approached.
Rowan, taller and more agile, reached him first. She tilted his chin and filled his mouth, closing her eyes as she held his face. He felt her chest and smelled the dried sweat as her breath filled him, as her tongue touched his. She was coffee latte and apple and chicken sandwich, toughness and sweetness. She let go.
Eloise, as was her usual way, wrapped her arms around his waist and twirled one leg around one of his own. He felt his groin harden as it aligned with hers, as her own mouth sucked the breath from his. His hands combed through her loose platinum tresses, as her chest squeezed his, firm and yet delicate. She was danger and vulnerability, intensity and fear. She too let go.
He got what he wanted, but not in the way he had wanted it. He had forced it on them. It was not fair.
“That’s enough, Ro, Ely.” He sniffled as he spoke. “Fix yourselves. Then go sleep.”
The young women smoothed down their clothes, then headed back to the bench where they were. Quickly they returned to deep slumber, as Johann released them both from the trance.
He wanted to take the travel cloud as high as he could take it, then jump from it, drop to the pavement, and end all this pain. He was ready to do it, right now. He just needed to get out of the building to do it.
But he turned around and found Marceau.
She spoke gently. “You did well, Johann. Go rest.”
He heaved such a long drawn-out breath that Marceau lifted a hand over his head.
“Encode: level 1. Sleep, Johann. You deserve it. You will not die here. You are just tired. You did no wrong. Rest. Sleep.”
He felt all the exhaustion and bitterness meet in an urgent need to shut down his body and mind. He obeyed the mild trance.
He woke up with the sunrise to another long and painful day.
Lan remained deathly pale, feverish, and unresponsive. His hair was a very pale red, his lips had no color left. He breathed well, but he looked more dead than asleep. The Force Field held, but its programmer was a wreck. The defense committee and the heal programmers did not know what to do beyond keeping him alive.
During the long slumber Marceau delivered orders allowing the defense committee to stop element programming for any reason. They would start to take effect as the morning came and Johann’s blanketing trance wore off.
Johann followed Marceau as she stomped out of the infirmary. He followed silently as she marched through the defense committee hallways.
First she headed to the lobby. There she approached two sleeping figures on a bench. Rowan snored with an open mouth, her head thrown back past the backrest. Eloise dozed with Rowan’s lap as a pillow. Johann sighed as he watched them.
Marceau nudged Rowan awake. “Get up, tomboy,” she said while shaking her. “I need you to do something.”
Rowan yawned generously as she rubbed her eyes. “Is it morning already, Lan, sir?”
“Wake up, Rowan! I need you to go find Beika and Soji.”
“But I just came from there…” Rowan raised her arms and stretched. “I’m having a very long day…”
“It’s a new long day,” Marceau said. Her voice suddenly softened. “Please. For the sake of Pendi.”
“You’re not Assistant Lan.” Rowan finally looked well at the green-haired young woman. “How is he?”
“Terrible, but I understand he’ll do with rest and that annoying healer. You need to find her.”