Marceau sat at the head of a long meeting table, with dark rings under her eyes, barely covered with makeup. She had tied her hair up into a tight bun, with small springy curls escaping at the sides. Her blouse was crumpled, smoothened out as best she could, the aftermath of several meetings already completed just that morning. Claude, her brother and higher-ranked in the defense committee, sat beside her.
Eloise came in with Johann, but not together. Eloise kept her gaze lowered and away from Johann. Johann kept his hands in his trouser pockets as he slid into a chair beside Claude. Eloise sat in a chair far from the assembling group.
Chie appeared with her uncle. Soji removed his programming sash. He bowed with a wistful smile to Marceau.
Rowan rushed in, wearing another shirt and trousers borrowed from Lan’s closet. She slunk in beside Chie.
Ren was brought in by a guard. His hands were brought together at the wrist with cuffs and program diffusers. Between his hands he held a large rolled-up sheet of paper. He scowled at everyone as he was positioned between Claude and Johann. Marceau made the guard wait outside the door.
Everyone looked at everyone else, eyeing each other uneasily, warily, shamefully.
Marceau stood, and raised her right arm overhead. Claude stood and walked behind Soji. He placed a hand gently over the Selati’s head.
“I need to get to the bottom of this mess. It pains me to do this, but I have to,” Marceau said, keeping her hand raised. “Encode: Information trance. Activate.”
The assembled group lowered their heads as one.
Soji, whom Marceau had personally locked against trance programs, crossed his arms. “Is this needed?” he asked in Pendika.
“Claude will read your timelines, as he will read the others,” she replied. “I want them to be non-selective in giving me information.”
Soji shrugged and complied, lowering his head to Claude.
“Answer when you are addressed,” Marceau said to the others. “Let us begin with Johann.”
One by one, the futuretell programmer interrogated the assembled group, piecing together the story, weaving together the involvement of each.
After two hours of questioning and timeline-reading, Marceau raised her hand overhead once more. “Information trance, deactivate.”
Heads sank to the table or leaned backward onto the chairs. Marceau waited until all were awake enough to sit up and listen to her.
“I have a reached a conclusion about this whole situation,” she declared.
Heads leaned forward eagerly.
Marceau slammed her hands onto the table. The sound resonated through the room. “You have all been selfish, and stupid! And now the whole capital is suffering because of it!”
Some of them crossed their arms, but all sighed and bowed their heads.
“The whole capital is suffering, because of the stupidity of program trainees! How are we supposed to tell the whole capital that people are dead and injured because several program trainees were stupid! Because their elders had also been selfish and stupid!”
They sighed and frowned. They all looked at the program trainees. They sighed and frowned again. The trainees kept their heads lowered.
“But I’ve been selfish and stupid during these events, too, so we’re even,” Marceau said. She sat down at the head of the table. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a big problem on our hands. All the ground element programs are unstable. If this continues, element programming will weaken for everyone. Because we are the main reasons why we have this problem in the first place, we are the individuals who will start fixing it.”
“But who’s going to make sure everyone works together?” Rowan asked.
“The central government?” Johann said.
“No,” Claude said. “It has to be one person here, independent of the government or the defense committee. One person who can oversee all the movements.”
Everyone looked at each other uneasily for a long time. But Chie looked steadily toward the silver-haired boy. The boy returned the gaze with a smirk.
“Ren?” Rowan said.
Chie nodded. “You should have seen him back when…it all happened…” but she trailed off, then sighed, looking at Eloise.
“But the boy is…for lack of a better term, unstable!” Marceau replied.
Ren sighed and bowed his head.
Chie grinned. “Unstable, but highly organized.”
“Very orderly,” Soji added.
“Very unstable!” Rowan chimed.
Eloise remained silent and stared at the floor.
Marceau coughed and called for silence. “We’ll deal with that later. First we’ll need to ensure that the programmers are evenly distributed throughout the capital,” she said.
Ren raised his right hand. “I already have a draft for that, futuretell.”
“See?” Chie smiled. “Highly organized.”
“Please, Chie,” Ren said, bitterly. “Shut up.”
Chie gasped and grew silent with an open mouth. She slunk back into her seat beside her uncle.
Ren spread out his long sheet of paper, containing a detailed map of the capital. “The Crimson Master will be situated at the center. The same for the key members of each programming guild. As I am the only electric programmer, I’ll have to take a place at the element’s emblem.” He pointed at the large colored dots symmetrically filling the map. “The rest of the programmers will be situated as noted here. Red for fire programmers. Gray for metal. Blue for water. Green for futuretell. Yellow for defense committee. Clear circles are heal programmers.” He glanced at Soji for a moment. “Ice programmers have also been considered and distributed, shown in white.”
“And who told you to do this?” Marceau asked.
Ren looked at up at her, surprised. “Assistant Melancho did. I thought the order came from you.” He coughed and pointed back at the map. “Though, this is the distribution scheme. The matter of assigning people to each position is beyond me.”
“I can arrange that for the defense committee, and I will help contact the leaders of each guild,” Marceau said. “Soji?”
Chie remained dazed and staring at Ren, until Rowan nudged her. Then she translated what her uncle said. “Yes, he knows who to select among ourselves. But, you have to promise the safety of all Selati.”
“Done,” Marceau said.
“No,” Soji retorted. “Not so fast.” Soji then spoke in Selati, leaving intervals for Chie to translate: “Don’t forget: we have the Crimson Master with us, as well as one of the few heal programmers who could help him in an emergency.”
“He met you people of his own accord,” Marceau countered.
“All the same,” Chie translated, “it is in our power to detain him in our custody, if necessary.”
“You will take him hostage!” Marceau said.
“If Pendika hurt Selati,” Soji himself replied, his bearing serious. “If just one person hurt or treated unfairly, Maestro Rossa stay with us. Maestra Beika stay with us.” He raised his right hand, and wrapped his sash over his forearm. He placed the hand over his heart. “I know his weakness, futuretell. Do not forget.”
Marceau gulped, but nodded. “Understood. We will ensure safety for your people. Coordinate this with Sereno.” With a sigh of relief, the futuretell programmer then turned to the others. “What about the faculty of the programming halls?” Marceau asked.
“They’re ready and waiting for a signal from your superiors, Miss Marceau,” Eloise replied. “That’s what I was walking around the committee building about yesterday. The redhaired assistant gave me a list of names to find.”
“And the rest of the populace?”
“The assistant teacher talked to me about that,” Johann offered. “He asked about how to keep things organized, without trancing. I talked to my classmates and some of the teachers. If the lame kid could give us places where we could be heard well, we have a plan set. Some of the scholar trainees have also offered to help in crowd control. No trancing, I promise.”
“Give me a few minutes,” Ren told him, taking out a brown marker and looking over his map.
“I’ve been seeing you mope!” Marceau said. “When did this happen?”
“A little after you told me to get trance units,” Johann said nonchalantly. “He ran into me at the stairs.”
Marceau glared at all of them. “So, what you’re all telling me is: Melancho of northeast arranged most of this?”
Soji smiled. Ren shrugged. Johann scratched his head. Claude chuckled in appreciation.
“Kinda looks that way, yeah,” Rowan answered.
Marceau held her head and nursed the new ache there. “He does all this by over-exerting himself again, the stupid firespark.” She sighed. “Nonetheless.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I know a good plan when I see it. Let’s get it started.”