Rowan sped her travel cloud through the streets of the capital, with Beika seated behind her. It was not easy to speed through the area, though, with all the people moving to and fro, readying for the program correction sequence. Soldiers moved non-programmers to safe areas behind cords. Programmers walked back and forth, looking for friends or for known diffuser sites. Music programmers tuned their instruments, creating incoherent noise.
Rowan landed the travel cloud near the central fountain. Even then there was a crowd of defence committee representatives and soldiers surrounding the area. Rowan and Beika elbowed through the mess of people.
Marceau’s voice boomed above the noise, as programmers, civilians, and soldiers moved all around her. “Firespark! About time you showed up!”
Rowan wasted no time, and corrected her. “I’m Rowan, Miss Marceau.”
Marceau looked at Rowan from head to toe. “So, who’ll do it? You or the firespark?”
Rowan took a deep breath, gulped, then spoke. “Assis—Master Lan is in a rather bad way. I’ll be the one to do it.”
“It’s just as well. You’re sturdier. Get into position.”
Rowan looked around. Selati milled around the central fountain, talking rapidly in their musical language. None of them were familiar to her. “Where….where’s the chief, Miss Marceau?”
“Far from here,” Marceau answered quickly.
Rowan sighed deeply. “Oh.”
“Stop that, right now,” Marceau snapped. “If you don’t want to be dead, don’t test your timelines. The icebox knows you’ll be here. That should be enough for you.” She turned her back on Rowan and walked away, toward a large table holding the placement diagram.
Rowan looked at Beika, wanting a reason. The heal programmer patted her shoulder. “Just take it that Soji likes you that much. He doesn’t want to even accidentally hurt you.”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Today is not the best time to explain. Remind me to tell you later,” Beika said. She ran off to meet some friends in a makeshift tent. “I’ll be back!”
The music turned coherent, as festive melodies of a patriotic nature wafted from many points. The melodies came unitedly, blending into each other, as the music programmers created a pattern among themselves to follow.
Several music programmers passed near Marceau’s table. Rowan found her childhood friend among them.
“Jo!” She waved at him, then paused. “You look…silly.”
Johann wore the most colorful suit in the latest fashion, over a black shirt that contoured his chest and torso. His long hair was slicked back and fell in a straight even stream over the suit. His trousers were as dark as his hair. He wore that rather ostentatious belt with the a music note as a buckle. Black shoes completed the outfit. He laughed. “The girls seem to like it.”
“You’re saying I’m not a girl,” Rowan said.
“You just have different taste,” he said with another chuckle. “You won’t be Rowan otherwise.”
“Whatever. Just do your thing.” She gave him a firm pat on the back.
He coughed as he caught his breath. He stood up again, and faced her squarely. “Rowan. I’m sorry. For everything.” He reached over and hugged her. “I’m so, so sorry. There’s nothing I’ll ever say or do that will ever make up for it all…”
“We’ll talk about it sometime, not today. Today, we work for the capital. And we’ll always, always be friends.” She tiptoed, reached up and ruffled his long hair. Then she smiled and ran back toward her emblem.
She knocked over someone in her haste. Both of them fell to the ground. She quickly got up.
“Sorry! — Eloise?”
Eloise smiled as she also slowly stood, dusting off her skirt, peering over her dark leggings and boots. She sorted her curls toward her back. “The diffusers and emblems are all ready,” the metal program trainee said. She took up Rowan’s hand, and squeezed it. “Finally. A chance to right all this wrong I did.” She kissed her forehead.
“You don’t need to do it alone,” Rowan told her.
“You don’t need to do this at all. This is all my fault.”
“What is done is done, and we will all make it right. All of us.” Rowan gave her a shoulder pat.
A large carriage lumbered near the central fountain, as Eloise headed toward the other members of her guild. It stopped near Marceau’s tent.
Defence committee soldiers surrounded the carriage as it opened from the back. Two guards and a silver-haired young man emerged from it. Another guard also descended from the carriage, carrying a pair of forearm crutches. These were given to the young man.
Sereno frowned at all the staring people, as he swung up to Marceau’s tent, the guards keeping a short distance from him. His wrists still held the program diffusers. Rowan watched as Ren came up to the table, and looked intently at the schematic map above it. Marceau and Ren spoke rapidly, as both pointed to many parts of the map. Many nods were given. Pins were moved. More soldiers were deployed in some areas. The whole time Ren kept a frown and menacing eyes.
Finally he swung his crutches away from the tent, hobbling around the central fountain. He stopped a few meters away from Rowan.
“Hey, lame kid.”
Ren turned and faced her with a scowl.
“Are you sure you know what you’re going to do?” Rowan asked.
Ren’s frown deepened as he looked down at the emblem at his feet. “What makes you say that?” he asked.
“Um…I know you planned it out and all, based on Master Lan’s layout. But do you actually know how you’re going to do this program correcting thing?”
“I…um…” Ren kept staring at the emblem.
“I thought so.”
Rowan came up to him with an outstretched arm and an open palm. Her palm held a memory ruby linked to a memory diamond.
“The ruby is Assis…Master Lan’s. I was supposed to use it for today, for keeping the fire programs. But I’ve read through the memories and I think I know what to do now. Here. You can borrow it. Just put it around your neck and resurface the memories. You work with program lines, too, right?”
Ren stared at her palm, incredulous.
“Oh, stop thinking about whether you deserve the help or not, Ren!” Rowan said. “You look like you need it. You’re kinda his apprentice, too. He won’t get mad.”
Ren looked up at her. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine. And peach-cake…I mean, Miss Beika’s here for you, too.” Rowan took up his hand and placed the jewels inside it. “Go on and set up.”
Ren’s mouth remained slack as he strung the necklace and held the memory ruby. “Thank you.”
“Sure. Now don’t mess this up.” Rowan gave him a final pat. He fell forward from the weight. “Sorry!” She jogged away to her position, away from causing more damage.
Marceau’s voice rose up again. “Is everyone here?”
A cacophony of voices answered various replies, but most of them favorable.
“Where is Johann of southwest?” she asked aloud.
“Here, Miss Marceau.” Johann raised the hand carrying the oboe.
Johann made a small travel cloud and lifted above the tallest fountain stream. The small cloud trailed several long strips of colored paper, one for each emblem color of the element programs. He placed the oboe to his lips, and began to play one powerful note, like a delicate horn.
The note was repeated by another music programmer on another travel cloud, at the center of the military quadrant, another at the residential quadrant, at the business quadrant, at the residential quadrant. Silence descended on the populace.
Metal programmers raised flags where they stood near diffusers, all in the silver livery of their emblem. Eloise smiled from the diffuser where she stood, meters away from the central fountain. It was the signal that all the diffusers were stable and ready.
The long note changed into another one. The soldiers and guards of the defense committee positioned themselves at regular intervals. Some kept beside the groups of non-programmers they placed into certain areas. Others took their places near program diffusers and emblems. Key members of the defense raised flags as they ensured that everyone was in their designated position.
Johann played another long note. Futuretell programmers walked to their assigned places, guided by defense committee guards. This time the music programmers kept the melody of the guild playing while the futuretells moved. Marceau, overseeing the whole sequence, stayed where she stood.
Heal programmers moved next, as the music shifted to the familiar tunes of their guild song. Beika smiled as she placed herself behind Rowan’s emblem, a very short distance away from Ren’s.
The fire programmers were arranged next. Rowan took a deep breath as she stood behind the fire guild’s emblem. She smiled behind her at Beika, who patted her shoulder.
The water programmers positioned themselves beside the fire programmers. Rowan’s jaw dropped as one of her basic programming teachers stood beside her at the emblem.
A short melody was played. Sereno raised himself on his crutches, and bravely stood behind the electric program emblem.
Finally the music programmers played an unfamiliar tune. Rowan, though, recalled that Soji hummed that tune often at the coffee shop. She watched as a grey-haired Selati hobbled up beside her, to a neglected emblem of the ice programmers.
Johann ended the preparation stage with the same note he began. He raised a flag. Everyone was now in position.
Marceau raised her right hand. She closed her eyes, as she placed a hand over her heart.
“Encode. Synchronize. Activate.”
The futuretell programmers placed hands over hearts as they too closed their eyes. Silence was maintained for several moments, as they ensured that they had correct awareness of all the individual timelines.
Marceau kept her hand in place, as she opened her eyes. “Synchronization maintained. Proceed.”
Johann played again the music of the heal program guild. The healers assumed positions behind element programmers.
Beika planted her feet and stood behind Rowan. But Rowan turned and looked toward her. “Thanks, Miss peach-cake.” She thumbed toward Ren. He was pale, and leaned heavily on his crutches while he waited. He had a hand over his chest, clutching Master Lan’s memory ruby. His eyes were closed as he read through it. “But I think he needs you a lot more than I do.”
“Are you sure?” the heal programmer asked. “This is the preparation stage for the Force Field.”
Rowan nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
Beika looked at her from head to foot. “Alright. But I’ll quickly run over here if you need it.”
“Thanks.” Rowan watched as Beika ran into position behind Ren, immediately placing a Basic Heal on him.
The heal programmers gave their signal of readiness. Marceau raised her right hand again.
“The element programmers will now proceed.”
Johann smiled downward and grinned at Rowan. He played the childhood tune Rowan knew best. She smiled upward at him and nodded. He mixed the melody with that of the fire program guild, giving a signal to the rest.
Rowan placed her hand over the fire programming guild emblem. She watched as it glowed and warmed under her hand. She felt the fire programs in her body meet with those in the ground, as they united. She gave the commands: “Encode. Manifest program lines.”
She waited as the ground’s fire program lines glowed and became visible under the cobblestones and paths, coursing through diffusers and running past buildings. She felt strong power coursing through the program lines, as they connected with those maintained by Teacher Cielo and the other fire programmers.
“Lock the ground fire programs. Maintain manifest. Maintain the lock. Authorization: Rowan of southwest, through Crimson Master Melancho of northeast. Activate!”
The fire program lines remained and glowed. She sighed with relief. Nothing seemed to be out of place. Master Lan had indeed corrected all the fire program lines, exhausting himself in the process. She just had to do her part and keep them in place. She raised a hand and gave a thumbs-up for Johann and Marceau to see. But she could not remove her hand over the guild emblem yet. She had to wait for the other guilds, correcting changes to her program lines as the others coursed through them.
Johann played the melody of the water programmers. Rowan watched her teacher for water programs as he kneeled and programmed to manifest and correct the program lines. She had to concentrate on her programs though, making sure that they were maintained and that none of them were broken.
Johann played the Selati melody next. A heal programmer helped the Selati ice programmer to kneel and place the hand over the emblem. The old man spoke in his language, and Rowan watched as lines of ice coursed beside the water programs and near her own fire programs. She felt some of them nick past the fire programs. She had to release some more power to keep her programs in place and intact. She felt her power mingling with those of the other members of the guild. She was grateful.
Johann repeated the short melody that Sereno knew. The thin young man nodded. He bent down at the electric program emblem, with Beika keeping a hand at his head. “Encode. Manifest program lines.” His work would be harder, as he would be alone. It would be the equivalent of what Master Lan did, and besides having Beika to maintain the power, there would be no one else to help.
The electric program lines crackled as they coursed quickly through the ground, thrice the speed of the fire programs. Rowan had to bend down to keep her power at her own programs.
“Correct and re-align broken program lines. Make it so,” Ren encoded next.
He grit his teeth as the programs corrected, as he kept a firm grip on his program emblem. Rowan saw beads of sweat form over his forehead. Beika kept a hand over Ren’s shoulder, one that released heal programs in regular bursts. But the electric programs were swifter, and corrected themselves faster under Ren’s guidance.
Ren gave the final encode sequence: “Lock the electric programs. Maintain manifest. Maintain lock. Authorization: Sereno of northwest. Make it so.” The program lines glowed with a white hue and stayed.
Marceau nodded, watching the whole sequence. “Maintain the system!” she ordered.
Rowan understood. “Establish ground fire programs. Authorization: Rowan of southwest through Crimson Master Melancho of northeast. Activate.”
The water and ice programmers gave their similar encodes in turn.
Ren completed his own encode. “Establish ground electric programs. Authorization: Sereno of northwest. Activate.”
The fire programs stopped glowing as they dispersed into the ground. The water programs also stabilized and dispersed. The old Selati took a deep breath as the ice programs melted into the cobblestones. The electric programs dispersed with a crackle.
Ren gave the electric program emblem a final tap. “Well. That’s that.”
His eyes shut as he sighed deeply. He fainted and toppled beside the emblem.
“Ren!” Rowan removed her hand from her emblem and stood up hastily.
“Maintain your post, firebrand!” Marceau screeched in warning. “Not yet!”
Rowan rapidly replaced her hand over the emblem.
Marceau did not budge from her position. She checked on everyone else. She gave the order: “End synchronization. Activate.”
Johann played the melody of the futuretell guild.
As the synchronization was dispersed, he then shifted to the national anthem of Pendi. This would be the signal that the process was completed successfully. A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the capital.
Rowan bounded up to Beika, who had Ren’s head over her thighs as she placed Advanced Heal over him. Color had left his lips and cheeks. But he was breathing well. He still had one hand around Master Lan’s ruby.
“He’ll be fine,” Beika said, placing a hand over his hair. “A few days at the infirmary to rest is all he needs.”
“Oh. That’s good,” Rowan said.
She looked up at the sky. Her friend lay down over his travel cloud as he slowly lowered it to the ground. “I don’t want to play anything for a week!” he declared, laughing loudly.
Rowan felt her legs giving way. She fell to her hands and knees. She caught her breath. No wonder Assistant Lan crashed so badly after these things. This was the weakest she felt in her life.
Beika peered down beside her. “Rowan? Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yeah…I think. Just a dash of that thing you do, I guess.” Rowan panted. “Basic Heal, right? And a nap.”
“Just the Basic? I’m liking you already, future Crimson Master,” Beika said with a smile.
Rowan sighed with relief as she sat on the ground.
It was Beika who flew the travel cloud back to the infirmary, carrying Ren with them, saving Rowan’s remaining power. Rowan felt herself able to walk about, but every step also felt weak and deliberate. She really needed that nap eventually. But not before she had seen Assistant Lan— Master Lan.
Rowan watched as the travel cloud lifted, showing all the quadrants of the capital, and all its people milling around, congratulating each other, civilians and programmers alike. Music filled the streets. Food was being shared with Pendika and Selati. Several soldiers and police stayed to ensure the peace, but most began to move back to their places in the military quadrant. The basic and advanced programming halls in the academic sections were filled with trainee programmers and teachers, also celebrating the good outcome.
“BEIKA!” came a piercing cry below them.
Both immediately looked at the ground below. At the residential quadrant, they found Marceau’s green curly hair and Chie’s distinct Selati outfit, both kneeling over a yellow-haired man sprawled over the cobblestones.
“Chief!” Rowan almost jumped off the travel cloud, many feet above the air, had Beika not dived the cloud down quickly. The healer landed inches away from them and immediately readied her programming hand. He was white. He was not breathing.
Beika placed the hand over his chest and started System Scan. “Who made him help in the sequence! He’s not made for long surges!”
“I’m sorry, we don’t know!” Chie explained. “He just…was!”
“Beika…Beika…Beika…” was the only thing Marceau could manage to say, stammering beside him.
The healer took a deep breath, then swiftly swooped down over the Selati’s mouth, filling it.
“Rescue breaths, green hag!” The healer swooped down again. The Selati’s chest rose with the breath. “Timeline!”
Marceau kept staring blankly at her, palefaced. “I…I…I…”
“Is it cut? The timeline, Marceau!”
Marceau placed a trembling hand over her chest. “I…I…no! N-no.”
“Then we can do this.” Beika’s right hand glowed over his chest as she continued to give more breaths.
Rowan moved Beika gently aside, and took over the breaths, lowering her mouth over him in regular rhythm. Beika placed both hands over his chest and pressed down. She rapidly placed a succession of encodes, “Basic Heal. Advanced Heal. Power transfer. Activate!” Program lines coursed from the chest to the arms and legs. “Come on, Soj!” she begged. She pressed down over his chest again.
“All…all that work…I couldn’t help the one…the one foreigner…who matters…” Marceau’s trembling hand stayed in a fist over her heart.
“Will you calm down, green hag! He’s my friend, too! He’s not leaving us, not if I can help it!” Beika wiped the sweat off her forehead, then pressed down over his chest. “Come on, old friend. Come on! Advanced Heal. Power transfer. Activate!” Program lines glowed over him again, coursing from Beika to him.
The program lines merged and passed through his arms and legs. They dissolved into him. Rowan kept breathing into his mouth, watching his chest rise then fall with each breath. A pulsation of the programs appeared over his chest. “Good, Soj,” Beika said, still keeping a hand over his heart, now keeping an eye on his face. “Now breathe.”
But no breaths came.
Marceau began to lose hers. She pushed Rowan and Beika away. She took a deep breath.
With a singular movement she dived down, placed her mouth over his, and closed her eyes. Her hands stroked through his sandy hair as they held his head, keeping it in place as she kissed him, for several long moments.
Marceau released his lips. She kept her hand over his face for a moment longer.
She sighed, staring at his face, as she let go. She sighed again as she stood and moved away.
But they heard a gasp.
A cough, then two, then three. Then several deep gasps.
Both Beika and Rowan moved back, with sighs of relief.
He opened his eyes. He instinctively rolled over to his side and coughed a few more times while Rowan rubbed his back. Beika helped him to sit up, giving him a quick hug. Chie cried quietly at his feet.
Marceau gave him a fierce embrace. “How dare you scare us like that, Selati! How dare you. How dare you! I order you never to do that again! Never.”
Soji smiled, and leaned his head on her shoulder. “It is over, Marceau. It is done.”
“The hard work has just started, stupid icebox. The work of never letting this mistake happen again. We need you for it. We need you here.”
“Yes, Marceau.” He faintly embraced her back.