Points with NSFW language.
Rowan took Eloise with her as she headed back to Lan’s quarters for a quick shower and a change of clothes. The borrowed clothes were raggedy now and needed to be replaced, not just laundered. Marceau provided Eloise with the two-fashion-seasons-late dress she currently wore. The futuretell had a small wardrobe in the office, designed to be ready for anything.
Eloise still looked like a lost puppy, staring strangely and fearfully at everything, afraid of what may suddenly happen. Rowan still found it difficult to get used to this person. All her protective and defending instincts were active for the girl seated at the kitchen table…but protective and defending instincts tended to be raised against Eloise, not for her.
“How are you going to look for your boss?” Eloise quietly asked.
“I thought you knew where it was,” Rowan said, slipping on Lan’s gloves.
“I found myself there. I never left. I don’t know where it is.” Eloise sighed. “I think we came from the business quadrant, though. I don’t know any of the alleys we passed with Chie, though.”
“Found yourself there?”
“I got…knocked out. After…the music hall exploded.” She looked away. “I woke up and found myself surrounded by people talking in another language. That’s all.”
Rowan scratched her head. “We’ll just go overhead and find them. By the way…what were you supposed to tell me?”
But Eloise lowered her head and stared at the floor.
“You can stay here if you want,” Rowan offered. “I’ll come back for you later.”
“No, I’ll go with you,” Eloise said. “I’m not sure what will happen if I’m left alone.”
The overhead view with a travel cloud merely showed Rowan how tense the situation was. Soldiers of the defense committee plied the streets, accosting everyone and telling them something. Other soldiers mounted large signs stating ‘Strictly no element programming’.
Rowan looked up to the sky. The Force Field held well, but flickered in some points. She felt the warmth of the passive fire programs overhead. It was uneven. It reminded her of the task: find Peach-cake-ham-sandwich and bring her to Plain-black, as fast as she can.
A blast of energy broke the unsteady peace.
Smoke and debris rose from the edge of the business quadrant, where some richer Selati had residences. It might even have been the area where Chie’s house was.
Soldiers ran toward the blast site. Two more blasts were seen, each with another spray of dusty smoke and debris. Rowan had seen fire torches before, and these did not look like that. That could only mean: they were electric program blasts. Eloise watched the events below as she sat on the travel cloud. She cowered and covered her head and ears with her hands.
The Force Field flickered in several places after that blast. Rowan saw some sparks drop from the sky from the dome. Cracks formed in the dome, just above her.
As Rowan sped the travel cloud toward the spray of debris, she saw a small wall of ice rise from the pavement. Shards of ice sprayed in the direction opposing the electric blasts. A rapid exchange of strong element programs ensued.
“But…didn’t Marceau say…” Eloise weakly said.
“I know,” Rowan answered, “That’s why we’re going to stop them.”
“What?” Rowan said. “You’re Eloise of the capital, aren’t you?” She slapped her forehead when she saw Eloise’s truly frightened pale face. “Whatever. Let’s give Ren and the chief a piece of my mind.”
Rowan reached the scene below them as defense committee soldiers assembled from both sides of the street. “Stop this immediately!” one of the superiors said. “Or you will both be arrested!”
“I’ll stop when he falls!” Ren answered, sending another long blast. He gestured, and several young people behind him shot out water blasts. One came charging in, striking at the ice wall with a heavy metal club.
“Mara! Juno!” Rowan had to pull back Eloise as she tried to jump off the travel cloud, positioned higher than a two-storey building.
The other fighter had looked up and saw them. “Rowan! Eloise! Get out!” he shouted upward.
“Stop it, chief, now!” Rowan called downward. “Stop!”
She swooped the cloud down behind the ice wall, barely missing an electric blast toward them. Then she threw herself bodily on top of the sand-haired young man.
“Chief! Please listen to me,” she spoke, breathing heavily over his face. “All the element programs are unstable right now. This fight will only make the situation worse for everyone. You’ll make the Force Field break down faster.” She pointed upward at the sparks and flickers. “Assistant Lan is in a bad way— He badly needs Miss Beika, and all of the capital needs to stop fighting. Please stop.”
“Can’t stop.” Soji sat up, moving Rowan off him as gently as he could. “Not with Ren like that.” He rose to standing, and readied his programming arm again.
“Please, chief!” Rowan blocked the programming arm. “Not one more program, for Assistant Lan.”
A spray of ice spilled over them from the ice wall. The wall had been clubbed again, cracking in many places. Soji placed a hand to the ground and solidified the wall. “Sorry, no choice, Rowan.”
A cracked voice was heard from the other side of the wall. “Stop siding with the Selati, redhead!”
The said redhead had had enough. She created another cloud and passed to the dangerous side of the wall. She raised her gloved hands and made two fists. Before her stood a thin young man with silvery hair, his right arm outstretched, his right hand pointed like a pistol to her head.
“Ren! That Selati let you in! Gave you work!”
“Pity. That was just pity!” he declared.
The ice wall dissolved behind Rowan. But the group of Selati behind that wall had gone. Rowan only saw Soji, Chie, and Eloise.
Ren’s leery gaze trained on Eloise. “I don’t believe this.” He slapped his forehead. “After all the trouble we went through to get you away from her, now you stay by her side.”
“I don’t know what you mean, lame kid!” Rowan said.
“Hey, Ely!” He called out. “Did you mess with her brain? How did you make Rowan your lackey?”
But Eloise did not respond, she kept gazing sadly at Mara and Juno, and the other young people flanking Ren, all ready to strike.
“Stop the electric programs, now,” Rowan said. “You’ll wreck the capital.”
“I don’t care about the capital.” Ren did not lower his hand. “I don’t care about you, I don’t care about them, I don’t care about her.”
“You’ll lose your own programs if all the element programs break up,” she retorted.
“So does everyone else. We’re all even. I’ll have my fun while I can,” he declared.
He shot a Straight Blast.
Rowan ran toward him, swerving to avoid his electric attacks. But practicing stepping backward and forward with Soji had unfortunately given Ren some advantage. He moved back as she tried to swipe him, he moved forward as she avoided his strikes. He had enough electric programs and strength running through his limbs to keep him standing and moving.
Soji ran and circled them from behind. But Ren shot at him, hitting a shoulder. The Selati tumbled and rolled. Chie grabbed Eloise’s hand and tugged her away from the fight.
“Stand down, chief! Find Miss Beika! Go to the Crimson Master! Please, sir, hurry!” Rowan swiped again at Ren and hit empty air. “Give up, lame kid!”
“Not until you stop calling me that!” he shouted back, shooting and barely missing her arm.
Rowan heard a melody waft through the air around them. It was a music program familiar to her, coming from her younger days. She blocked out the melody from her mind, aware of its sound. She focused on the fight.
Ren looked around and began to shoot the straight blasts around him, blasting out the source of the sound. Debris and dust sprayed from roofs, pavement, and walls, sending soldiers and civilians running for cover. But Ren’s blasts lost their aim. His movements became clumsy.
Rowan took her advantage. She swooped in. She grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm as she pulled him down. He went to his knees, then to his face as Rowan pushed him down onto the pavement.
She expected him to resist, but he did not. He stopped moving. She peeked down, and found him as if asleep. She backed away, rather frightened at how completely Ren succumbed to…whatever just happened.
She heard a little tune, and a familiar voice, coming from a darkened alley. “Get up, Sereno of northwest. Place your hands over your head. Deactivate all offensive programs.”
Ren slowly rose to standing, placing his hands on his head. His eyes were open and glassy.
Johann looked at the girls with a wistful gaze as he approached. He patted the silver-haired boy’s head as he looked at him carefully. “I hate my life,” he said as he lowered the oboe. “This nobody from nowhere got more out of you than I ever did. It’s not fair.” He raised a hand. “I know, I know. It doesn’t match, ‘cause you were forced to it. Damn you, one of my oldest friends get more action out of you than I ever did. It’s not fair.”
Rowan gave Johann a cold stare, but Johann returned it with a firm gaze. This made her turn to Eloise. “What is he talking about, Eloise?”
The platinum-haired girl kept her mouth firmly shut.
“You didn’t tell her.” Johann chuckled. “I expected as much. But since you won’t, I will.” He raised the oboe, and lifted both his arms where Rowan could see them.
Johann spoke evenly, just loud enough for both of them to hear. “There was a time, just a few days ago, when I would do anything for Eloise of the capital. Even if I had to turn in my oldest friend. I wanted her to love me that much. So when she told me to place the trance programs on you, I encoded it. When she told me to stand back while she commanded you to undress, I stood back. When she told me to watch while she had you make love to her, I watched.”
Rowan turned to face the girl, as she paled. Eloise slunk to the ground, hiding her face with the folds of the dress over her knees, covering her ears with her hands.
Johann continued. “I watched as she made love to you, watched as you groaned, unable to stop yourself from feeling the pleasure, not knowing what was going on. But I did. I knew what I was looking at. I watched every excruciating minute of it, too. I wished that was me…but I knew right then. I’m just a useful toy to you, Eloise. Always was. Always will be. And you will always see anyone as a toy.”
Rowan did not know who to look at, the girl slunk into a little ball beside her, or the boy with the oboe, wearing a look of victorious defeat. She was too confused to even think, never mind knowing what to think.
Johann faced Eloise. “I guess the lame kid showed you good, huh? How it felt to be a toy, for a change. Oh, I saw it happen. I heard you scream. I heard him laughing. I saw the blood. I saw you begging for mercy, sounding like all the trainees like him who you forced to submit. But he was quite done when I saw you, and I was pulled away by the mob running in the other direction. I couldn’t do anything. And I am not sorry.”
Rowan gulped down the fluids filling her throat. “What did you say Ren did?”
“You have no sense of art, at all,” Johann said sourly. He walked forward. He stopped inches away from Rowan. He grabbed the front of Rowan’s shirt.“The lame kid found her behind the music hall. He beat her. Then he raped her. Shall I make it even simpler?”
Rowan felt his breath at every word. She blinked once, twice, four times. “And…and…Eloise…”
“She fucked you, you stupid redhead!” Johann screamed. He tightened the grip over her shirt and almost choked her. A few tears were squeezed out and trickled down his check. “She made me lay a trance so she can fuck you! She stole you away so she can fuck you. Have I made myself clear now! Did I finally reach that dumb redhaired brain!”
Rowan allowed him to shake her. Collecting whatever thoughts she had was impossible.
He removed his grip on the shirt, as Rowan caught her breath. “Permission to kill me, granted.” Johann smiled bitterly.
But Rowan had no fight left.
Johann smoothed down his hair and dusted off his shirt. “I won’t take it against you if you like her more than you ever liked me. I do want to say this before I go: I did it all for you, Eloise. It didn’t matter if you thought I was just another useful lackey. It didn’t matter. I loved you.” He went up to her and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I loved you. I did.”
He turned his back on them and marshalled the tranced boy forward. “Be good to Rowan. For me.”