“Greetings! I’m Beika from northwest, and I sit in the second row in Rudi-Pro.” She stopped in front of him and smiled. Most people chuckled soon after this and introduced themselves in turn. This was the first time it did not work.
The program trainee she addressed sat on the grass beside a sapling and stared at the weeds at his feet. He had sturdy pants on, and dark leather shoes, which was probably why the grass did not bother him. His hair was colored like the evening roses. Her own salt-and-pepper hair was boring compared to his.
The young man sighed as he stood up. “Stay away from me.” He walked away, dragging his feet.
“Can’t I get your name, at least?” she called out.
“Not everything can be solved by a program.” the teacher said. Which was odd, because this one taught rudimentary programming: making sure that all the new trainees knew how to correctly activate any program, and how to deactivate any program.
All things and all life is controlled by programs. Programs kept the world in place, kept bodies intact, kept life going. Heal programmers controlled and manipulated lifecodes. Fire programmers controlled fire programs. There were many other types of programs, all controlling some aspect of life in the world. Everything IS because of programs.
So what did the teacher mean? She was a heal programmer, after all — at least, she was training to be one. How was she supposed to be helpful to others if not everything could be solved by encoding a program, correcting lifecodes, and healing someone?
Beika mulled over the question instead of watching the teacher demonstrate how to deactivate a simple attack program. She asked him about that statement after class.
“Take him, for instance,” Teacher Fauci gestured toward the window. He directed her attention to a young man with rose-colored hair, seated under a tree and staring at the grass. She knew that he was a classmate who sat at the back of the room, but nothing else. “There are no programs for his problem.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Beika asked.
“Why don’t you find out?” the teacher replied with a smile. “If you manage to solve it…I will let you pass the culminating examination, no questions asked.”
Beika’s eyes grew wide. Her grades were not particularly good in Rudi-Pro. There were rumors that Fauci gave a difficult culmi. “You promise, Teacher?”
Fauci placed his hands together and closed his eyes for a moment. They almost disappeared inside the billowing sleeves of his ocean-blue programming tunic. When he opened them again, he presented Beika with a very small memory ruby. “Present this to me at the culmis.”
Beika resurfaced the memories the teacher encoded into the memory ruby, and confirmed that it contained the conversation they just had. She pocketed the memory ruby and grinned at Fauci.
Find out what was wrong with a classmate, and deal with it. How hard could it be?
The basic training hall was a large and lengthwise stone-brick edifice that sprawled across two blocks, with an open area in the middle for programming practice and special occasions. Trainee programmers of all types first passed through basic training to learn the fundamentals of their skills, before being trained by their specific guilds at the advanced training halls. Generations of programmers had passed through its corridors and rushed through its grand staircase from one class to the next. Beika could point to a certain brick at the staircase that her father had effaced in his trainee days.
The rudimentary programming class was rather large, being one of the first all program trainees had. It was held in the largest lecture room in the basic training hall. It easily held more than a hundred students at a time. Roll call was thus a long, hastily-delivered process of snapped names that the trainees ignored after their names were noted. Beika was probably the only person paying attention that day to the whole roll call.
The last name read out in roll call was Melancho, of northeast. A musical name, although a rather sad musical name. She watched him at the back of the room. He sat at the corner and kept his eyes on his notes. He talked to no one and called to no one. No one approached him either.
Ah! She would start with that.
She marched up to the back of the room. She sat beside him. “Hello, Melancho. I’m Beika. From yesterday, remember? Maybe there’s something I can help you with?”
He did not even look at her, and kept his eye on his books. “Lan, please.”
She scratched her head. She needed to know him better, before she could be more helpful. “There’s this stall that sells wonderful flavored apples, want to have some with me after class?”
But he did not look up and did not answer.
“Did you hear, Beika?” her friend whispered. “A fire programmer went berserk in Diluar!”
“What do you mean?” she asked. ”
A house was burned to the ground, in seconds! People were inside!”
“Did they find out who?”
“Not yet. So scary, don’t you think? Diluar’s just beyond the gates. What if it happens here?”
Diluar was one of the towns beyond the walled area of the capital. Some of the trainees and citizens went home to it. A fire programmer living in Diluar most likely worked or studied in the capital, was probably in the capital right now. Who knew what would happen if the programmer was unable to control his fire programs while in the capital.
Beika looked up at the last row in her class, beyond the rows of trainees gossiping about the news. Melancho sat at his far corner, his head deeper than usual, the frown deeper than usual. When class finished, he immediately stood up and left.
None of her friends knew anything about Melancho either. He did not have friends or fellow trainees who came from northeast with him. Beika came with several other heal program trainees from northwest of Pendi.
She went to the basic programming hall’s library and read through the heal program books. Most of the words flew over her head; they were too complicated for her, a new program trainee still in the general subjects. She still had to master body parts and health conditions and other things. But the culminating examinations loomed closer by the day, and she had no time.
Maybe if she got some more information out of him, she would better know how to look through the program books. That was what she tried the next day.
She brought a strawberry-cream apple with her this time. She found him seated at that tree again, staring at the grass. She sat down beside him, and stared at the blades of grass as well. But there was nothing to see there, not even a line of ants or an interesting bug.
“I think the music programmers have practice today. Do you want to go watch them for a while?” That seemed less boring than looking at grass growing.
“Stay away from me,” he repeated.
“Just this one time?” She stood up and yanked at his sleeve. “If not music, something else?” She scratched her head again. Maybe he was the kind who liked talking about current events? “Hey, what do you think about the burning in Diluar?”
He suddenly turned his head to her. “Stay. Away.” He clenched his hands. “Now.”
She sighed but backed off.
He took a deep breath. Then he held his head as he looked again at the ground. She sighed as she felt the lump of flavored apple in her satchel.
Maybe there was a heal program to deal with anger? Or being a sullen classmate who stares at grass all the time?
She walked to the Great Library, the largest library in Pendi, that beautiful stone brick edifice to knowledge, hoping a book there would have answers. After all, it had the books no other library had, including rare books from the Bersa period, and secret books from Selatan.
She found a table by herself at the second floor. She looked through all the basic heal program books, then all the advanced heal program books. There were programs to calm irritable patients, and programs to help liven up sleepy patients, but nothing specific to her problem.
She came back to the tree just outside the basic programming hall, and watched him from a distance. As the sky turned dark orange, he stood and dragged his feet through the path. Beika followed, hiding behind stalls, corners, and trees, as Melancho walked through the main avenues of the capital. Other program trainees were also heading home, so Beika was ignored.
Melancho walked out the gate, toward the open road. He walked, alone, into the dark evening.
But did she want to pass rudimentary programming that much to follow him home?
The open road from the capital only had moonlight and starlight over it. Yet a warm glow appeared just in front of Melancho. That brightness flickered, which was good, because Beika did not have a lantern with her.
She really should have thought this through a little more, she sighed. She convinced herself that she was a brave program trainee. Unfortunately she was a brave heal programmer trainee, and heal programs were not really helpful during bandit attacks. She walked faster, nearer to him, but kept her steps as silent as she could. At least her knitted programming tunic was warm enough for the night air.
She stepped on a twig. He turned around and scowled at her. In his open palm, he held a small flame.
“What do you want?”
She gaped. Flame Lantern was an advanced fire program. He held it like it was a simple thing to do. He did not even need to encode.
“What do you want!” he repeated.
Beika stammered. “I…I…just…I wanted to find out…”
Melancho’s hand glowed brighter, the hand that held Flame Lantern. But the Flame Lantern brightened too much and burst. He paled and thrust his hand outward, away from them both. Fire Torch blasted from the hand, toward the nearest tree. It set the tree ablaze.
Soon only ashes and darkness was left. It was done in moments. Beika’s jaw dropped.
He turned his back on her. “S-s-stay away. Stay away from me.”
But that was a powerful blast. Surely it affected his hands. “Would…would it be alright if I took a look at your hands first?” She stepped up to him, nearer to where he stood.
“No…no, stay away,” he repeated. But he stopped walking. Melancho clenched his hands into fists, kept them close to his chest, and glared at her.
Beika sighed. It was not the best situation, but it would have to do. Now, how did that burn program go again? She positioned her hand before him and made her own hand glow. “Um…let me see…Encode…Burn Heal…Activate.”
She heard small crackling noises, and he suddenly howled in pain.
“Oh, no! Sorry! Wait, wait! Keep still!” She placed her hand in front of her again as he continued to scream. “Pain programs deactivate.” To her relief, he stopped shouting as several lifecodes for pain stopped. “Alright. Encode…Analgesia…Activate. Then…then…I must do something else…”
“Hurry up!” he said.
“Oh! I remember now! Encode, Cooling, Activate. Encode, Burn Heal, Activate. Reactivate pain programs once healing complete.”
Beika watched in the moonlight as, slowly and painlessly, Melancho’s hands returned to the color of his arm. The hands shook as he brought them forward and opened them. He looked at his palms, smooth and soft. She released a deep sigh of relief.
She surprised herself. She did learn something from Fauci. She grinned at him. “I’m sorry about that first one, but I’m glad I was helpful. Aren’t you?”
He said nothing. He turned from her and walked away under the moonlight.
“Did you hear?” her friend asked. “A large field fire happened last night! Diluar again!”
”Oh, no!” she shook her head. “Who did it?”
“No one knows yet, but we all hope the fire programmer is caught soon.”
Melancho was in his usual seat, reading his textbook. He kept his eyes hidden from the rest of the class.
This time even the teachers talked among themselves about the incident. The fire programmers from the advanced programming classes had all been asked. But they all knew nothing of the event before they were told. They all lived in communal houses. None of them had been to Diluar that night.
Beika watched as Melancho left. Hoping to talk to him, she immediately went to the favorite tree, the one visible from the lecture room window.
Melancho was not there.
She circled the basic programming hall, and did not find him. She ran around the advanced programming hall behind it, and did not find him. She crossed the avenue separating the scholar’s quadrant from the program guild quadrant, ran through the shopping street, shouting his name.
She paused to catch her breath at the candied-apple shop, and heard sinister laughter. They came from the blind alley beside it.
A group of tall and muscular trainees surrounded a smaller one. Several punched him in the face, others at the abdomen. The leader pulled at his hair and lifted him. “It was you, wasn’t it? You’re the one who did it!”
She wrinkled her brow and looked again. Someone fell to the ground. He had rose-colored hair. “Leave…me…alone…” he gasped.
But the trainees continued to punch him and smack him and kick him. Water program trainees sent waves to smack him. Metal programs were activated to make clubs.
“Hey! Let him go!” Beika ran and swung her book bag at the nearest person. The trainee just stepped away as she fell to the ground, book bag and all. She grabbed at her bag again. “I said, let him go!” Beika charged in again.
“You got no offensive programs, healer!” The trainees tripped her at the ankles. Her books spilled onto the alley.
The young men laughed and landed more punches and stabs at Melancho. He was bruised all over now. His left eye was swollen and purple.
In times like this, she hated being a heal programmer. But she had to do something! Never mind the culmi grade! Beika jumped up and whacked at them with her book bag, but she was thrown out. She ran back and whacked at them again. She was thrown again.
She was about to charge again, but she saw it. Melancho’s hands began to glow.
The glow increased and brightened. Program lines passed through his programming tunic and met at the glow at his hands. The glow shot a straight blast from his hand to the ground.
Program lines rapidly formed in circles on the ground around him. A circle of flame surrounded him and the trainees in an instant. Flares rose from that flame circle and shot up toward the trainees. Then the flares exploded in many terrifying pops and blasts.
The trainees dropped the rose-haired trainee and scattered, their clothes burning.
But the program lines did not disperse, disappear by themselves. The program lines scattered and brightened through the alley, out into the street. They brightened, swelled, then exploded. Flames surrounded Beika as she ran from the alley and into the main shopping street. She ducked under a table as the front of the apple shop burst into flame.
She saw Melancho run out of the alley, desperately following after the wayward program lines. But the bullying slowed him down, and the program lines scattered too fast. He arrived too late to stop the lines from blasting through the apple shop and part of the street.
His hands continued to glow, the program lines continued to spread.
The flame lines spread from the shop and darted away from the commercial area toward the programming halls. The lines crossed the avenue and sped toward the basic and advanced programming halls. The lines shot flames upward, spread the fire to the leaves of the trees.
Flame lines circled the basic programming hall then exploded. The basic programming hall caught fire. The fire reached the second floor of the basic programming hall, setting it ablaze. The program lines extended toward the advanced programming hall a short distance away. The trees beside the lanes separating them caught fire. All the grass burned as Melancho watched helplessly.
The program lines circled around Melancho. The trees exploded around him. He disappeared within the blaze.
Beika heard the panicked shouts around her from teachers and the water programmers. She ignored them all, as she charged into the blaze. “Lan!”
Running in a straight line, it did not take long to find him lying on the ground. She shook Melancho awake. “Lan! Can you hear me?”
He looked up at her, stunned. His hair blended with the fires.
“End the fire programs. You can still do it!” she shouted.
He panted. The eye that could still open was full of terror. “I? I can control this?” he stammered.
“That’s what Fauci taught us, wasn’t it?” she panted. “Just say ‘deactivate’, like he said.”
“I’m about to fail Rudi-Pro, and I know that!” she shouted. It was so hot, she could not concentrate. She forgot every lesson she knew. “Come on, Lan! I can’t give heal programs in a fire!”
“But if it does not work?”
“We’ll let Fauci worry about it, but try!”
He lowered one trembling hand to the ground. His voice shook as he spoke. “All fire programs. Deactivate.”
The glow to his hands stopped.
Two dispersion lines ran down his arm, and into the ground. It followed the flare lines and extinguished them. The blaze suddenly stopped and dissipated as sooty smoke. As quickly as they started, the flames dispersed, and the fires stopped. The hand dropped to his side.
The water programmers did the rest, dousing what was left of the blaze.
Beika took out her basic programming handbook, but it had been singed inside her satchel. She sighed as she placed her hand over his chest. “Encode…Basic Heal…Activate.” That was the only program she remembered at the moment. She needed a new handbook.
Lan remained on the grass, staring up at her, as he took several deep breaths. “I can’t control them, the flares. I can’t,” he mumbled as lifecodes were corrected and heal programs surged. “When they start, I can’t control them.”
“Is that why you told me to stay away?”
Was that all that was wrong with him? Was that all? Beika smiled. “That’s not a big problem! Oh, I’m so glad it’s not a big problem!”
“What?” His brows came together as color returned to his face.
“If you help me study for the culmis, I’ll help you practice deactivating your programs. Will that be alright?”
He remained silent for a long time, and just looked up at her. Then he whispered. “Maybe.”
She deactivated the basic heal program, and held his hand.
”Teacher Fauci, Melancho’s problem is mostly in this subject,” Beika said. “He just needs practice with deactivating.”
Fauci smiled at her but shook his head. “No, my dear. That was not it.”
Beika’s shoulders fell. She was going to take rudimentary programming again. She had to memorize all those definitions again. She really had to get another handbook.
Fauci watched her mope. Then he laughed heartily. “Oh, you pass my subject, dear Beika.”
They both looked out the window at the field. There were new bushes and saplings. In front of one sapling Lan sat and stared at the grass. He looked up for a moment and called out, “Hurry up!”
Teacher Fauci chuckled. He placed a hand on Beika’s shoulder. “No programs made that happen.”
Beika smiled and returned the memory ruby.
with gratitude for suggestions to Pao Chikiamco.