The Day Paper Proved Useful
Without a word, Arone rose to her feet, put her glass back on the table and headed for the corridor."You aren't seriously thinking of leaving, are you?" There was no smile in Celestro's voice. Arone turned around on her heels to be met with disbelief written all over his face.
"Oh, I very much am!" she said. "I agreed to this job on condition that I would not have to meet you. I should have known better. Is this your brilliant plan? Lure me out of the public eye and torture me here?"
"Arone, I didn't come here to see you, I promise."
"Well, I guess you just happened to be around at the time of my appointment with your Estate Manager! Does the manager even exist?" Arone crossed her arms on her chest and looked at him, her eyelashes fluttering vehemently.
"Those eyelashes do scare me." Celestro stepped back in a fake fear, but his eyes were sparkling with amusement.
"Enough. Have a good day, Mr. Rawotzki."
Arone turned to leave again, but Celestro stepped in her way.
"Please, don't go. I confess, I might have come here a bit earlier than I had to, but I'm not staying, I promise."
His pleading look made Arone hesitate, and she considered believing him, while he spoke.
"I may not have had to come here, but I just wanted to say hello, just this once. I haven't seen much of you these five years."
"Well, I've seen plenty of you, so if you don't mind, please leave and let me work or let me through."
Celestro stepped aside and tapped on the wall. Mini-bar slid out, and he poured himself a glass of brandy.
"The manager does exist, and she will be here in a short while, so I won't be spoiling your morning for long. I hoped to talk to you, though."
"There is nothing to talk about. We agreed it was over for good, you promised not to contact me."
"And I've been keeping my promise for 5 years."
"It's about Microsoft."
"You just can't let him be, can you?" She searched his face for any trace of enjoyment, but he was serious. "He's happy without knowing he had any connection to you or to your diabolic plan to destroy Ford."
"Well, we both know the plan wasn't all mine." Celestro sipped at his brandy.
"You put him up to it."
"And for a good reason. Ford's his father and last time I checked he still doesn't give a damn for his son, nor is he trying to look for him."
"Did you not hear what I just said? My husband's happy!"
"Husband?” Celestro’s face changed; he looked at Arone with a frown. “That's a fancy word, never heard you call him that before."
"Well, a lot has changed and I'd rather it stayed this way." Starting to feel suffocated, Arone took a step away from Celestro.
"I'm sorry, it can't. You have to undo what you did, or there will be consequences for Mike."
Arone opened her mouth to give another acid remark, but stopped as Celestro's last phrase sank in.
"What do you mean? What consequences?"
"Mike wasn't the first one to get the blocker in his head." Celestro took Arone by the shoulder and led her back to the sofa. As they sat down, he continued. "It's been practiced ever since the law of non-disclosure came out. Felons are shipped to Asia into a life-time exile, their memories are blocked and they start a new life. In fact, a couple of our former employees have been in Mongolia for over 5 years now, serving their sentence." Celestro leaned forward, his hands propped on his knees. "We've been getting reports about their state of health. Bio- and psycodata. The latest report was quite alarming. They started developing the symptoms of a brain damage."
"What?" Arone stood up, sat down again and started fiddling with the rim of her skirt.
"I had my labguys look into it. The damage starts with severe headaches, then loss of short-term memory and concentration, then insomnia and constant nausea, autistic behavior. If we wait for too long, even when the blocker is removed, the symptoms don't wear off. At a certain point, it's too late and the damage becomes permanent. One of our research subjects has collapsed three days ago. He's been taken to the laboratory."
"Oh, my God!" The reality of the situation washed over Arone like a cold shower.
"You filthy selfish bastard!" she yelled, beating him against his chest, while he was trying to get hold of her hands. "How could you do this to me? You promised it was for everyone's good, you promised it would solve all our problems! I did it because I trusted you, I actually cared about you! How could you? How could you!!"
Celestro finally got a grip of her wrists. "Look, I'm sorry I got you into this. I did want you to be with Mike, I know you love him and always will. And he's still my friend, even though he doesn't remember it. I can't compromise him by contacting him myself, that is why I tried to get in touch with you - to warn you that it's not too late yet. We can save Mike and our secret."
"Well." Arone pulled her hands away from him. "Now the secret doesn't really matter. I told him that we slept together."
"You did what?!" Celestro jumped to his feet and knocked his glass over. Brandy went all over the white hovertable and was absorbed in a second without leaving a trace.
"I didn't intend to, it just slipped out."
"How on earth do such things just slip out?" Celestro looked truly mad, and Arone felt more scared than angry.
"It was our anniversary, and we got into a fight about you. The blocker may have blocked this part of his memory, but his feelings are intact. He hates you, just doesn't know why. He got angry and started yelling at me, and I forgot he didn't know, and I mentioned it. But we are now over it. We tried really hard, and he's forgiven me. Finally. And there is no way I'm letting you mess this up."
"I'm trying to help him! We need this blocker removed now!" Celestro's usual commanding tone colored the phrase, but he quickly regained his temper and continued in a more composed manner. "While the symptoms are not there yet, we have to act."
Arone looked at him, suddenly calm.
"How amazing that you remembered your old friend exactly at the moment when Ford's future is at stake and you are stepping on his heels."
"Arone, I'm trying to help." That sounded like a warning, but Arone didn't waver.
"Out of pure altruism? Not really your strong point." Arone stood up slowly and started walking towards the opening. Something was wrong, she coudl feel it with her gut. At the opening Celestro caught up with her and touched her hair. She stopped dead in her tracks, as he breathed words into her neck from behind.
"You know I care about you, I always did. Did you see the cup? I kept it exactly where you had left it..." He let her hair stream through his fingers. "I missed your hair - ginger paradise... Do you remember I once wanted to breed a poinsettia with petals the color of your hair? I've missed you."
Arone didn't move and didn't speak. He came closer, and she could feel his chest against her back.
"Arone, I care about you...and Mike. He was my only friend...you were - and still are - the love of my life."
She turned around and faced him; she wanted him to see the disgust on her face.
"Whatever happened between us was a mistake," she said. "I still can’t believe I did it, and I will never be so stupid again. I never loved you, but I honestly thought you were our friend. You used him, and you used me. You don't care for anyone but yourself."
"I've been out of your lives for five years!" For a split second Celestro's voice revealed a note of desperation. "And I would have continued to be if I hadn't learnt that Mike was in danger. Just listen to me this once and you'll never have to see me again."
"I know your game when I see one. You know what? I don't believe a word you said and I will never let you give Micro his memories back. He'll be happy without knowing that he used to have a snake for a friend!"
Footsteps in the corridor interrupted their intense staring at each other - her look, full of resentment, and his - full of guilt. At the whooshing sound of the opening dispersing they turned their heads to see a smart looking man in his forties who was watching them with a confused expression of his face. Arone looked at Celestro again.
"Well, I suppose this is the manager. I'll explain the vision to him and leave the 3d-models here. My company will provide another onsite designer tomorrow."
"Arone..." Celestro whispered, almost begging.
"I wish I had never agreed to this job or a coffee royale in the greenhouse," she hissed, then marched towards the manager and shook his hand.
"Good morning, can we talk somewhere else?" she asked briskly.
"Sure," he said, not sure at all by the looks of him, but Celestro nodded slightly as the manager met his eyes for approval. Arone was shown across the room to the office.
"See you soon, Mrs. Stevenson," Celestro said, refilling his glass.
"I seriously doubt that," she answered and followed the manager out of the room.
As soon as the opening closed, Celestro activated his StayConnected earring.
"Hi, you were right, she didn't believe me," he said, clutching his forehead with the rosette of his perfect long fingers. "Her shrewdness is admirable...No, I can't wait for much longer..." With a sigh he listened to the voice transmitting through his head. "I know," he said after a while. "Anything you wanna tell me?..Maybe the fact, that she owned up to him about our little adventure in the flowers? I really hate it when you hide things from me!.." As the voice in the SC chattered back, Celestro threw his head back and rolled his eyes. "It has everything to do with me!..Yes, I want to know how it went, but this time make sure you tell me everything...Are you sure headaches will be triggered?..You used magnetic field? Clever. Didn't take you for a schemer...ha-ha, yes, I'll wait, but if she doesn't show up tomorrow I'll have to find a different way to unblock him, we're losing time...Okay, five years of hard work, I get it. ...Thank you, you've always been the best, Sakura. I'll keep you posted...Love you too."
Celestro switched off the SC and smiled to himself, then his eyes found a flower in the corner of the room. His smile melted away, as he stared at the lonely little poinsettia with ginger petal.
"Okay, guys, I hope you enjoyed your reading session, but I have big news!" announced Icon storming into the room and throwing an info-ball out of her SC bracelet at the big screen in the center of the room. The ball exploded with a loud ping and reassembled into a schedule. Everyone in the room opened their eyes and took out their i-contacts.
"WiFi reported this morning that the programming part is almost complete, that means we are to have simulation training and personal interview with Mr. Ford this week and then we are good to go."
She gave everyone a radiant smile that disappeared the moment she saw Microsoft with his eyes still closed.
"Microsoft!" she shrieked, almost knocking him off the hoverchair with the mere power of her voice.
Schrödinger tried to hide a smile as Microsoft struggled to sit up and rubbed his eyes, then, realizing he was still wearing his i-contacts, finally got them out of his eyes after a minute of fumbling and cursing.
"Have you slept through the lecture?" she said, and her powerful tone caught him off guard so he couldn't say anything but a bunch of incoherent interjections.
"Are you feeling well?" asked Matrix with his usual concern.
"Yes," Microsoft said quickly, as he regained the sense of reality. "I'm fine, I'm just...bored, that's all. No, seriously, Mat, do we have to know all this? I don't understand half of the words, let alone the concepts."
"Theory is essential," said WiFi, looking down as if she was talking to the table and pronouncing words at what seemed to be supersonic speed for a human speech to have. "Unless you know what implications the program has, your brain will be unprepared and you may act on impulse, which is a huge risk, since--"
"Hey," Microsoft stopped her with his raised hand. "I know you think you're explaining things, but you're really not. Am I the only fighter here? Okolloh, my friend, you're security, right? These things must be...how to put it...new for you, aren't they?"
The big black man smirked and answered leisurely, "Security knows more than you think, kid. I don't know 'bout you, but I've been payin' attention."
Microsoft sighed in exasperation. "Ugh, me against the world! Fine, I'm sorry, can we move on?"
"Good." Icon turned to Stallone. "Are we ready for the press-conference?"
"I've spoken to Mr.Ford half an hour ago, he's in with the speech writers now," said Stallone Rivers, sneaking a look at Matrix. "I've taken care of everything."
Matrix nodded approvingly as he caught her glance. She blushed.
"Well done, Rivers," Icon said, ignoring her embarrassment, then stretched her hand out, grabbed an invisible handle and pulled a digital filing cabinet drawer out of the screen. She picked a folder and pushed the drawer back in. With her fingers she stretched the folder out on the table, transforming it into a series of sections.
"So." She said. "You can see three stages of simulation. The system was developed by that dick Rawotzki, but you have to give him credit, it's actually brilliant."
Microsoft winced with a painful groan, everyone looked at him.
"I'm sorry, I must have woken up too abruptly," he said giving Icon an apologetic look, "Don't mind me, please, go on. What was it, ZP's tribute to our lovely mission? Aw!"
He took his head in his hands and remained still for a couple of seconds. Mat exchanged concerned looks with Icon, the rest were looking at Microsoft with surprise. Headaches weren't something that happened to people too often, unless they were intentionally ignoring personal care.
"Mike." Mat leaned forward. "Maybe it's been too much pressure on you, you'd better go home and have a good natural sleep. You told me you hadn't slept well last night, right?"
"What about all the 'essential theory'?" Microsoft hated sarcasm, but his head ached too much to hold it back.
"I'll fill you in later," said Mat. "Icon, help me see Mike out, please. A team member with migraines is not exactly the thing we want everyone to know about."
"Sure. Stallone, could you take it from here?"
"I got it," said Rivers.
As Microsoft's car flew out of the garage, Icon gave Matrix a serious and scared look. "That's exactly what we feared, Mat. What shall we do?"
"Don't panic, it might be a simple headache."
"I've got his final records today, there is a year-gap right before he started working for Ford, it's like he hadn't existed for a year."
"He stayed at home helping his wife with this huge design project on the mall, we know it. Arone's boss confirmed."
"Right, and you choose to believe anything connected to Rawotzki's bitch?" Icon shook her hands in disgust.
"It's just your wild guess." Matrix rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Her being at Rawotzki's house a couple of times doesn't mean they slept together. Please, stop jumping at conclusions. Besides, there is the evaluation program, you have to trust it."
Icon didn't look convinced, but decided to retreat. "Whatever, don't tell me I didn't say so, if this guy screws everything up."
Matrix rolled his eyes, but his voice was still quiet. "WiFi said he might be the only one who was close to the boy that night. He might be our only chance, so, please stop whining and let's try and trust him, convince him that he wants to do the job as much as we do, okay?" Finishing his argument, Matrix headed for the training room. Icon threw her arms in the air as a sign of defeat and followed him.
"Hey, you're home early." Arone kissed Microsoft, but one look at his face was enough for her to see that something wasn't right. "What is it?"
"Nothing." Exhaustion took over him, making it hard to speak. "I just have this terrible headache, must be the stress. I know I promised an evening together today, but I think I really need a little more sleep today. I'm sorry."
"You don't have to be. Have a rest, of course." Arone pressed down a lump in her throat.
He went to bed and in five minutes she could hear by his breathing that he was fast asleep, groaning from pangs of pain from time to time. Wiping tears off her cheeks, she opened his case and fished a piece of paper and a pen out of it. She didn't think she would ever have to use paper again, but she had to pass a message. As much as she liked technology, she thought paper was a truly brilliant idea, because no other source of communication was more secure. As Microsoft once said, "No one's tracking paper these days, hardly anyone remembers it exists."
She wrote a note, folded it carefully and slipped it through a posting portal beside her desk.
The next morning Causse Gantier flicked Rawotzki's office.
"Mr. Rawotzki, you've got mail."
Celestro smiled. "Get in here." As the old concierge teleported to the office and handed his master a slip of paper, Celestro's face radiated with self-content.
The note said: "What do I have to do?"