The Day Icon Waved a White FlagAs pain receded a little and turned to obtuse nagging, images in the oxygen room began to take their normal shape. Microsoft took a deep breath, happy to feel a temporary relief. He considered changing his opinion about relaxers - the tiny devils might look like a pair of ugly beetles sitting inside earplugs, but they seemed to work.
Microsoft glanced around - the nature app was on, the sun was setting, and the meadow emanated serene beauty. He narrowed his eyes trying to make out the flowers in the distance. They were no field flowers - big, with pointed creamy petals that looked like leaves...the name was on the tip of his tongue... Microsoft squeezed his head in his hands and groaned with a new fit of pain. He opened his eyes in a couple of seconds that felt like hours to find his partner kneeling before him.
"Arone...I didn't hear you come in." He sat up and froze. There was something unsettling in the way she glowed in the setting sun against the backdrop of the meadow.
Arone's heart sank, as he stared blankly at her. If it was a symptom of autism, it meant they were too late."What is it?" She touched him on the shoulder. He didn't answer, just stared at her, looking puzzled and scared at the same time.
"My love." She carefully moved her hand to his cheek and ran her fingers along his soft bristle.
"Poinsettias," he said.
"What?" Arone hoped she'd misheard him.
"The flowers on the meadow are called poinsettias."
She turned around - the meadow was strewn with white daisies. She turned back to Microsoft, now frightened herself.
"My love, those are daisies."
Mike narrowed his eyes, wrinkled his forehead, thinking hard.
"Of course, they are," he said, recognition widening his eyes. He closed them again and moaned wearily, then sank into Arone's arms. He talked quietly.
"What is happening to me? There are images in my head I can't understand, memories coming from nowhere. I feel like I have to do something, just don't know what exactly..."
"How's the pain?"
"Easier, a little, but I couldn't sleep."
"Let me change the relaxer mode."
"It's been working for hours, I don't think it can do me any more good." Microsoft took the relaxers out.
"I'll set it to the mildest level, just to help you rest, okay?"
Arone could see that Microsoft didn't have any strength to argue. He let her tinker with the plugs and put them back into his ears. In a couple of minutes he felt heavy in her hands, and she prayed he'd wake up soon.
"You were right to call me," said Sakura, entering the apartment.
Arone looked worried, tired, and was incessantly torturing the hem of her light-blue satin dress. "I'm not sure what's right and what's not any more." Sakura took her by the hand.
"Now," she said in her best ethereal voice. "Tell me again what we are to do."
"Micro has been unconscious in the oxygen room for half an hour now, I think the pain has ceased. Such a relief, really, and even more so, now that you are here. Thank you for coming, I know the matter is too personal for any professional to go into, but you came, and I really appreciate it."
The last words were almost incomprehensible, because Arone could hardly keep back the impending tears. Sakura gave her a compassionate smile and a squeeze on the hand as a sign of support. Arone blew up on her fluttering eyelashes and went on:
"Celestro said a psychologist would help him remember faster and less painfully. He also said Micro can't know about the blocker, but I'm tired of lying to my husband. I've been lying to him for 5 years, I don't want to anymore."
Sakura let go of Arone's hand and invited her to sit down on a silicon sofa, that was glowing blue at the wall. They sat down and digital fish flitted under them, forming a silver school and scattering again. Sakura admired the show for a while, then looked up at Arone and started to speak, tilting her head ever so subtly so that her perfectly straight and smooth hair wouldn't be disturbed.
"I've been your counselor all these five years, I understand you are tired and scared. I had hundreds of sessions with you both together and separately. I can justly say I probably know you better than you know each other, which is good, because this is the reason I have been able to help you. I also hope I've become your friend as well as your assistant So, I have to ask you to trust me when I say that once Microsoft learns what you did, he'll never be able to forgive you or trust you again, nor will he choose to stay together with you. The separation will hurt him more than it will you, Arone. I'm afraid for what he might do. I'm sorry to sound so harsh, but I tend to agree with Mr. Rawotzki that the blocker mustn't be mentioned. Whatever bad things the man did to your family in the past, I must say, you are very lucky to have him by your side right now."
Arone nodded as if they were her own ideas. Sakura knew exactly how far Arone would go to save her partnership and Microsoft himself.
"I understand now," Arone said, "but how will you explain everything to him? What if he remembers that I put the chip into his head? What if something goes wrong?"
Sakura smiled at Arone's innocent concern.
"I'm a senior psychiatrist, I can scientifically explain everything, from why his shirt is white to why the sun is bright. Besides, I was one of the experts carrying out the very first experiments with blockers, and restoring memory was exactly what we did. Erasing was never the purpose of Project Oblivion, we were trying to make sure that memory could be brought back as easily as it was taken away."
"You worked with the exiled?" Arone sounded shocked and impressed at the same time, but then a dark revelation clouded her face. "So, you knew about the headaches? And the brain damage?"
"No, I didn't. I left the project to work for the City and I was completely convinced blockers were safe. We did have concerns, but a two-year experiment proved the blocker caused no damage in the brain cells. I couldn't imagine it would take five years for the symptoms to come out."
"But if they are dangerous, why are there no reports?"
"I'm sure no one wants to cause panic, because the problem can surely be fixed. Believe me, if there are geniuses in this world - they are all working on this project. But again you are very lucky to be warned so soon. And Arone," Sakura leaned in. "Everything I just told you is, of course, confidential."
Sakura admired the unconditional honesty of Microsoft's wife, something she never had herself
"Now, let's see if he is awake."
"Can I be there when you talk?" Arone said, standing up.
"I'm afraid you can't. His thoughts need to be clear and reasonable in order to make sense, you'll only distract him."
Arone nodded and showed Sakura into the oxygen room, where Microsoft was still lying asleep on the floor.
Matrix sat in his small high-tech office, rubbing his forehead in circles with his index finger, which helped him think better. His i-contacts flickered, images scrolling down the surface screen. He took portions of them and sent them on the wall displays. His office looked like an inside of a computer brain - formulas on the right, videos on the left, schemes and 3D models behind him.
His SC had buzzed on his wrist several times before he realized someone was trying to get in touch. He shook his head and his i-contacts blinked off, plunging the walls and the surface screen into darkness. He sent the restless flicker on his SC sliding around the bracelet and said 'come in'.
Two young men in their twenties entered the office. They were a curious sight. One looked rather ruffled, but not grubby in spite of his messy blonde hair, the rolled up sleeves of his aubergine jacket that he was wearing over an old olive T-shirt, and light-blue jeans hanging loosely off his hips - all of which seemed very natural and suited the light, honest, almost puerile expression on his face. The other was his opposite in appearance - his short black hair thickly covered his head and stretched down his temples in short whiskers. His clothes were smart, classic and dark, they fitted him so perfectly that they seemed to be his second skin. His eyebrows were constantly frowned as if he doubted everything and everyone around him. His whole face was a picture of mistrust and discontent. The grumpy man was called Augustine Reynolds, head of the Engineering Department, the blonde one was his best friend and colleague IR Herschel who worked in the R&U.
When two hoverchairs had found their place under them, Matrix looked from one to the other. "Did you find anything?"
"I'm not sure it's relevant, but it's a connection," said IR. His voice was high, but soft and veiled. IR switched on his SC bracelet, which was bigger than the usual one and had a display on it. Matrix's surface screen blinked and a picture of a woman entering a house appeared on it.
"Who is this?" Matrix asked.
"Her name is Sakura Takano, she's a couple counselor, works with the Stevensons too. She was spotted going to Rawotzki's yesterday morning, Arone was already inside."
"And Rawotzki? Was he in?"
"Of course he was," grumbled Augustine. "The video of all street surveillance cameras within a mile around the mansion is erased every two minutes, I'm sure Rawotzki takes full advantage of this."
"Well, we can't know for sure. He was seen entering the ZP building just a few minutes before this." IR pointed at the picture of Sakura. "Unless there's a well-hidden teleportal we don't know of, I can't imagine how he could be home so fast."
Matrix sighed in contemplation and scrolled through the pictures.
"Why is it so important? What do we care about ZP? We've terrabytes of work," grumbles Augustine again.
"Old Hundred's special orders," said Matrix without taking his eyes off the pictures. "What do we know about her, besides the fact that she's counselling Mike?"
"Nothing." Matrix looked up at IR and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
IR made a helpless gesture. "She's a senior psychiatrist. All her files are in the UN, there is nothing we can get access to."
"Fine, she's just a psychiatrist, let's hope we have nothing to worry about."
Augustine snorted, and IR gave him an annoyed look, before turning back to Matrix. "I just don't understand why we are looking into Microsoft Stevenson. What about the evaluation program? You wrote it, Mat, don't you trust yourself?"
"I do, but you can never be too careful, right? Kern is coming, I sent him a message asking if there was a legal way to go around it, just in case something goes wrong."
"Go around what?" IR swept the pictures of the surface screen.
"The evaluation program. And the non-disclosure. Mike is my friend and I care for him. If push comes to click - he'll have to be off the team, and I want it to be as painless for him as possible."
"What's the point in getting Microsoft off the team, if he already knows everything?" said IR.
IR widened his eyes, gaping, and even Augustine raised his eyebrows in a mild surprise. Matrix felt obliged to explain.
"When the team was formed, I got special orders from Ford to check any connections of the team members to ZP. We found that Mike's partner Arone worked with Rawotzki on some project, Icon thought it was suspicious, so he isn't getting any personal updates until the situation is clear. All he knows is the general information given at our meetings."
"So, you want him kicked off the team?" asked Augustine.
"No. Personally, I've known him for 5 years and I have no reason not to trust him, but I can't ignore the fact that his partner started working in Rawotzki's mansion only two days after a teenager had got stuck in out teleporting tunnels. And then those sudden headaches... Ford wants to interview him before letting him in on our plan. And I need to see Schrödinger--"
At that moment Icon stormed into the office without flicking.
"We have a problem," she spat out, then noticed Herschel and Reynolds and greeted them with a brief nod.
Matrix rose from his chair. "Microsoft?"
"No, the conference." She sank down on a hover chair, trying to catch her breath. "The independent expert's been elected by the public poll."
Everyone in the room held their breathes.
"The independent expert at the conference is our beloved Celestro Rubik Rawotzki," she announced.
"How is it possible?" Matrix started pacing behind his desk. "Independent? How is he independent? For all it's worth, he's even more biased than Ford!"
Icon shook her head, but looked a little proud and glad, as she always did when her news had a strong effect on someone.
"So, what do we do?" asked IR, his eyes darting from one person to another.
"Well,I guess there's nothing we can do." Matrix sat back down, feeling absolutely helpless. "Just get ready for the conference, these 24 hours have to go as smoothly as possible, no surprises. We need the public support-- Kern!"
Schrödinger had appeared at the entrance, his finger on the SC.
"I was about to flick," he said entering.
"I heard you coming," said Mat. "We have only a couple of minutes, Rivers has just sent a reminder of a brief meeting before the conference. So, what can you say?"
Schrödinger came closer, carrying his heavy body rather lightly. "The evaluation program is very hard to question, and in order to prove it's made a mistake we need very substantial evidence."
Matrix exchaned looks with Icon, who skeptically watched Kern maneuver between IR and Augustine to get a hoverchair for himself. "So, there is a way?"
"Oh, there is always a way." The hoverchair gave out a hiss as it was pushed down under Kern's weight a good feet lower than the others. "But it's not the point. Can you imagine what it will do to the mission, if we eliminate one member of the team?"
"Save it?" said Icon with a scoff.
"Quite the opposite," grumbled Augustine, who seemed to have been thinking about the implications the whole time. "If a word gets out that one of the rescue team members is corrupted, and the evaluation program will look faulty, everything will shatter, because people will have to question everyone on the team, then Ford's management, and wonder if we are able to save the boy at all. Which we can, if we stop wasting time spying on our competitors. A winner has eyes on the prize, not on the rivals."
"My words exactly." Kern awarded everyone with his good-natured smile. "Exposing Microsoft, if there is anything to expose at all, will do no favor to ZP, but it'll do more damage to Ford than anyone else. There's just a random connection, no evidence at all. We are all under pressure, Ford is more so - no wonder he's suspecting everyone who even as much as looks in the direction of ZP. I can't see anything, but speculation and unnecessary panic here. And if you ask me, Microsoft seems like a good guy."
"Fair point," said Matrix, glancing at Icon.
"Seriously'?" she said, squinting at Kern as if he'd just told her that the earth was flat. "'Seems like a good guy' is your valid argument?" The room was silent. She faced Matrix, rolled her eyes, and pursed her whatever-you-say lips.
"Okay, then." Matrix drummed his fingers on the hovertable, then hit the surface once with his palms and stood up. "Let's go talk to the mob."