The Day before the Storm"How about these?" Gear spun digital shoes off the wall and onto the fitting platform and presented a new row of polished austerity brogues in hues ranging from cherry to sanguine.
"Oxblood," said Ford without looking at them. He sat at his desk, and his face glowed all shades of red as he listened intently to the voice of his daughter in his head. His SC bracelet glowed from under his sleeve. Gear, who was to his right, slid around shopping windows with all kinds of business clothes and shoes on the wall display, occasionally throwing them onto the fitting platform where they turned to 3D projections, hovering in the air above the black round patch of the platform that was fitted to the floor.
"No, it's not possible," said Ford firmly. "You know why! My company's future is at stake, I have to be here, and you want me to rush to the other end of the world to see a baby that is so small it won't even realize I'm there!"
Gear took the oxblood shoes and put them aside, then hesitated before speaking again.
"Mr. Ford," she whispered. He looked up in a slight surprise, as if he hadn't noticed her before. "Would you like me to come later?"
He stared up and down her turquoise suit that changed hues at different angles to light, and shook his head. She knew he hated the donning procedure, but he seemed happy to have a mild distraction from an obviously unpleasant talk.
"Just give me what you think is best," he whispered back. "I trust your choice."
"Please, don't start." His tone went harsh as he looked away. "I'm providing for all of you, and what do you do? You call my granddaughter ZeePee!"
Gear couldn't hear Ford's daughter speaking, but she could see his annoyed face and beads of sweat popping on his temples while he was listening.
As he caught her curious look, she smiled, blushing, and invited him to the fitting platform with a gesture. Ford stood up obediently and stepped onto the black patch. He stood straight and still while she was reprogramming his wardrobe watch.
"Let me worry for the reputation of my company. If I want to show I'm friends with Rawotzki, I will, but don't tell me how to do it. I don't want him anywhere near my family and now this name is a constant reminder!.. No, you listen to me--"
Gear finished the projects and gave the watch to Ford. He put it on his wrist a little clumsily, his irritation growing with every second, and clicked on "Morning". His grey suit changed to a two-button trim fit navy blue over a crisp snow-white shirt with a plain burgundy tie matching his oxblood brogues. Ford's face brightened up.
"Alright, alright, of course I want to see her. Send me her projections, and I promise I'll see if I can squeeze out time for a visit. Now I have to go, I have a 24-hour torture to prepare for."
Ford switched off his SC bracelet, and Gear started speaking again.
"This navy blue suit is perfect for the first part of the conference; it'll give people confidence in you and an impression of stability and control."
Ford looked at himself, and an expression of approval tugged at the corners of his eyes.
"Just one thing." His gaze glowed with nostalgia, reflected in the mirror wall. "I'd like a club collar."
"Rounded? Like in the picture?" Gear pointed at the black and white portrait of a man on the wall behind Ford.
"Yes. Henry Ford started this company from scratch hundreds of years ago, and it's still here. I'd like to be reminded of him when I'm out there."
Gear took Ford's wrist, feeling a light shiver in his hand, and started reprogramming the collar shape on his watch. "Are you scared, Mr. Ford?"
"I'd say... perturbed." Ford put his chin up to take a better look at the new collar on his shirt. He turned to Gear and smiled. "Perfect." Gear continued listing his wardrobe.
"Then there is sharkskin for the evening part, combined with a light-blue shirt, a federal blue tie and licorice shoes, and finally, milk-white for the night."
Ford was clearly enjoying each of his reflections in the mirror, smiling broader with every moment. He asked Gear to use club collar for each shirt and have the clothes tailored and ready in half an hour.
"What about my ring?" he asked when Gear was already leaving.
"It's been fitted with a nano-SC and is being perfected by the designers," she said. "Should be ready in no time."
While Ford was admiring his new looks, Adrian Verlander, Microsoft's colleague and friend, had finished the ring and was observing his work, checking for any flaws. But it was flawless! He was proud to accomplish his first SC without Mike, and it was a ring no less! The first ever SC-ring - and he was the designer. He wondered if it was going to be put into production branded 'A.V. designs'.
A firm female voice put Adrian out of his self-flattering reverie. "Adrian? Adrian Verlander?"
He looked up to see a tough blonde woman in her forties marching towards him in a rather unfeminine way across the office.
"That's me," he said, turning his hover-chair around.
He couldn't decide whether to consider her attractive or not. She wore a smart metallic self-adjusting dress that cleverly emphasized all the right curves of her body; her short hair opened a rather appealing long neck. Her eyes were soft and kind, but her countenance and posture made her look serious and a little intimidating. Adrian got off the chair and shook her hand while she introduced herself.
"Spectrum Faraday, I'm with the Technical Support." Her mouth softened into something that resembled a subtle smile. "I'm here for the ring."
She pointed at the ring with her eyes, and Adrian handed it to her with a bow. She raised it to get a better look, studied it for a couple of seconds while Adrian was nervously chewing on the inside of his lip, waiting for her verdict.
"Subtle," she said.
"Subtle," he repeated, without understanding what she meant.
"Very subtle imperfections," she went on as if to herself. "The upper shank should be a bit wider and flatter, the SC connector operates through veins and since they are not so close to the skin on the finger as on the wrist, the contact surface has to be larger, your under gallery is too archy. See?"
She put the ring before his eyes and pointed at the inside surface under the stone. Adrian felt his palm sweating; suddenly his would-be chef-d'oeuvre turned to a mere gewgaw.
Spectrum didn't seem to notice his confusion, too absorbed in her quest for imperfections.
"Here," she showed him the gem. "The girdle is uneven and one prong is shorter than the others. The setting's too high, gives away the trick inside, and--" Spectrum stopped suddenly, finally taking notice of the impression she was making on Adrian. How pathetic he must have looked, standing beside her, looking at the ring like a child at a broken toy, pouting, his arms hanging down. When he realized she wasn't speaking, he turned his eyes away with a start and mumbled that he agreed the ring wasn't perfect and he was ready to readjust it.
"Oh, no, there is no time for that now. And the ring is very good, you won't fool an expert but hardly anyone at the conference will notice anything I've just said. After all, there is a beauty in imperfection."
"Please, I don't need no consolation." Adrian sank his big muscly body into his hoverchair. "I know I'm not nearly as good at it as Mike. He always helps me out, I just wish he was back soon. He's with you on the team, right?"
"He is." Spectrum put the ring into her hidden front pocket.
"Do you know why he's M.I.A.?"
"He has a sleep-in."
"Wow, lucky bug!" said Adrian a little too loudly and hurried to eliminate the awkwardness. "I mean, is he okay?"
"He is." Spectrum was watching Adrian Verlander rather curiously. She continued talking clearly but a little cautiously, as if he was a deer she was afraid to scare away.
"Microsoft had headaches, the hundred's floor is rather stressful."
"I bet! As we say, I'd rather die before I hit hundred!" Adrian laughed rather heartily.
"What's going on up there anyway? I hear the press-con is on?"
"Yes, it starts at 4 a.m."
"Must be a crazy time for you, guys."
"There is a lot to do," admitted Spectrum. "I wouldn't want to be Rivers, the whole administration is on her."
"Rivers? Stallone Rivers? From the coordinating crew?"
"You know her?" Spectrum's cold tone started to make him uncomfortable.
"Yeah, she's just a neighbor. She's quite a chatbot, I must say. I think you'd do a much better job at organizing things."
"You think?" Spectrum's fingers moved dexterously around his nano-sphere.
"I'm sure, you're much more--" he stumbled wanting to say 'controlling', for some reason the word didn't sound good, and he couldn't understand why or what would be the right word to say. He definitely didn't want to goof things up at the first meeting with a woman he assumed he might like, but all the words on his mind sounded even worse: authoritative, bossy, despotic, tyrannical...he started to panic.
"I'm much more..." She raised her eyebrows waiting for him to finish the sentence.
"Much more...balanced," he said cautiously, watching her reaction - she frowned. "I mean composed." She pursed her lips in a strange way. "I mean professional, of course."
She laughed which he considered a score in his favor and relaxed.
"What are you in charge of?"
"Chit-chat." She sighed and her gaze drifted around the floor. "The whole team is going to take online calls, answer questions, select the most important ones to Ford to publish as the manifesto addendum afterwards."
"Is it a 24 this time?" Adrian got up and offered her the hoverchair.
"It always is with Top Techs." She ignored the chair. "I have to go. We have to get the team ready, set the spy displays, check the IVs."
"What are IVs for?"
"Well, Ford is going to be there for 24 hours with 3-minute breaks every 2 hours, so there is a portable IV nourishment system."
"Wow, I never heard it done before, that's very clever." Adrian smiled with genuine admiration.
"It's always done, Mr. Verlander, it's just inconspicuous."
"You can call me Ad," he said, about to ask her out. She seemed to read him just right and stepped away from the table.
"I really have to go now. It was nice to meet you, Adrian." She turned around and headed for the exit.
"What are you doing--" he started, but she looked back - all the softness was gone, there was a tall strong woman staring at him - and he flinched. "It was nice to meet you too."
She walked away, and Adrian felt like he'd just been under a cold shower. He tried flicking Mike, but nobody replied.
"Alright, buddy, sleep tight," he muttered, getting back to work.
Microsoft still lay on the floor near Sakura, who sat against the wall, her i-contacts twinkling in the dim light, making her look like a scary ghost. Arone peeped through the porthole, their eyes met and Sakura shook her head. Arone sighed with an incipient desperation, mimicked drinking a glass of something and pointed at Sakura who smiled and mouthed "no, thank you. I'm fine." Arone gave her a feeble smile back and went to the main room.
Waiting was torture. The hem of her dress had ceased to calm her down long ago. She sat down at Microsoft's desk and twisted a pencil between her fingers. The desk looked like a piece from a very old movie with papers piled on it, blueprints executed by hand and pencils of different colors lying around, but Arone was used to the sight and loved it. She loved Microsoft with all his perks, whatever he did - she loved him, even if she was mad at him, even if she hated him - she loved him still. Her love was like a solid backdrop against which all other feelings happened, and now, looking at his desk, touching his things she wondered how she could have allowed herself be seduced by another man.
Celestro was fiendishly attractive, but the feelings he evoked in her weren't even close to those she had for Microsoft. Arone closed her eyes and touched the cold surface of his desk with her forehead, trying to comprehend for the thousandth time what had happened to her. That evening at Celestro's house was like a vivid dream she couldn't get rid off - she could see every detail, she could smell every bit of the air, she could feel every touch... She felt sick.
Her SC buzzed bed-time, and she noticed there was a message from work. It said she had a day-off by request of the client who was appointed independent expert at Ford's press-conference. Arone pursed her lips - Celestro didn't have to give her a day-off, because Arone's job didn't depend on Celestro's presence at the mansion. She knew she had to be grateful, after all, she could spend the whole day with Microsoft, but some subconscious cranky voice was telling her that Celestro had done it all just for his own benefit: embarrassing Ford at the conference and finding an excuse for Arone to stay home and clean up the mess he'd made - he was always the kind of person who preferred to close two files with one click.
Arone threw one more look through the porthole - Microsoft was still asleep. She sighed heavily, overwhelmed by anticipation, anxiety and guilt, but clearly there was no better option for her than to go to bed.
About two hours later, when Arone had finally surrendered to an uneasy sleep, Microsoft opened his eyes.