The Day Everything Was PerfectMatrix entered after Arone had waved him to come in with a smile no less tentative than his steps. He halted halfway into the main room shifting from foot to foot.
"Please," said Arone showing him in with a nervous gesture. He moved towards the aquarium sofa, and as he sat down, a school of fish came to life inside it making him jump up with a start. Arone smiled and began to explain, but Matrix pulled himself together.
"I know, I've seen those. I just didn't expect. Today is a stressful day."
Arone invited him to sit down again, and as he felt that the rigid-looking material was actually quite soft and pleasant to sit on, she noticed a slight nod of appreciation from him. She joined him on the sofa and tried to smile off the embarrassment.
She wondered why they both felt uncomfortable: the uneasiness on her side was quite understandable - Matrix was one of Ford's employees after all and she had a lot to hide, but his behavior was inexplicably strange. She now remembered meeting him a couple of times at forums she had attended together with Microsoft, and he had seemed quite an outgoing guy to her. She supposed he was on edge because of the press-conference.
After a moment of awkward silence she said: "I'm sorry, I'm not sure you can talk to Microsoft today. He's been resting in the oxygen room since yesterday and I wouldn't like to disturb him."
"I hoped to see him." He fumbled with a black silicon box in his hands.
"Has something happened?"
He studied her, apparently deciding whether she was trustworthy enough to reveal the information, and showed her a ring.
"Wow, beautiful!" she exclaimed snatching the ring from him. Then, realizing it hadn't been a very polite gesture, hurried to apologize.
"I'm sorry, it's just so—"
"No, no, it's ok. I don't mind."
"Serendibite, is it?"
"You grok jewellery?"
"I've worked with the gem on several projects. First I thought it was hideous, but it grew on me. The polish is quite messy, though, on this one...oh, and it's cracked."
She raised the ring and held it up to have a better look at it.
"Yeah," said Matrix. "That's why I need Mike."
"Just some... technical difficulties."
Arone waited for him to continue but he didn't, so she gave him the ring back and stood up.
"Well, I'm very sorry I can't help you, maybe if you could—"
Arone and Matrix turned their heads as on cue to see Microsoft standing in the opening, his hair dishevelled, eyes wide and Sakura on his heels.
"What are you doing here?"
"I... well, uh...hey." Matrix stood up to shake his hand, his eyes trailing towards Sakura.
"This is Sakura Takano, our couple counselor, Matrix Eroglou - my colleague and best friend." Microsoft slapped Matrix on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. Sakura gave him her charming smile and shook Matrix's hand.They both looked like they have just come back from a holiday, not a painful memories restoration session.
"Mike, are you sure you—" began Arone gingerly, but Microsoft interrupted her in a rather glib manner.
"I've never felt better, don't worry!" He brushed his lips against her furrowed forehead and asked her to see Miss Takano out.
"So," said Microsoft after the women disappeared behind the opening and he made himself comfortable on the sofa beside Matrix. "You? Here?"
"Oh, that's what it's about!" said Microsoft noticing the ring in Matrix's hands. "I've just seen it in the broadcast on the Old Hundred. Adrian messed up?"
"Well, you know him, he tries really hard, sometimes too much." Mat gave out a nervous laugh.
"I see." Microsoft took the ring, examined it with wry smiles, rolling eyes and random scoffs and head shakes.
"Can you fix it in the next hour?"
"I can certainly try. You going back now?"
"Actually, I was thinking I could stay. I'd rather deliver the ring back myself, don't want to teleport it."
"I don't have this kind of equipment on me, Mat. If I do it here it'll take more than an hour, but at work it's a matter of minutes. I'll go with you."
"But I thought—"
"I'm fine!" Microsoft smiled at Matrix, who was staring at him with confusion and an incipient fear in his eyes. "Really, stop looking at me like I'm a handicap. It was a stupid headache. You're like Arone - she got so scared she called a psychiatrist, can you imagine? I got knackered trying to convince Takano I was okay, I thought I'd never get rid of her! Look, I've been at home for almost 24 hours, thank you very much, but that's enough holidays for me."
"Well, so much the better," said Matrix, still a little wary.
"Good, give me a sec."
Microsoft got up and left Matrix alone in the main room. Arone had been waiting for him to come out, and as he did, she opened her mouth to say something, but he just went past her without payng her any attention. He took a swift shower, changed, brushed his hair and headed for the main room, but Arone met him mid-way again. This time she didn't let him pass, and he had to look at her. His eyes didn't tell her anything, all she could read was annoyance and exhaustion.
"Are you angry with me?" she asked.
"No," he said, and before she could say anything else he kissed her on the lips. It was a long and passionate kiss that made Arone a little dizzy. He unhitched himself from her and walked towards the main room. He moved away so fast that a whiff of air brushed against her hair, taking the sweetness of his sudden affection with it. She followed him with her eyes and felt a pang of apprehension - he had a plan and didn't intend on telling her. He was angry.
Microsoft refused to teleport, so the two men went to the office in his LandHover. After a 10-minute silent journey the blue car maneuvered into the office garage.
"Is something wrong?" asked Microsoft, getting out of the car.
"What?" Matrix looked at him without really seeing him.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure."
Matrix wasn't his usual self and Microsoft knew better than to attribute it to the conference paranoia, but he didn't say anything else, figuring it was safer just to watch and analyze. At the tubes Microsoft turned to the stairs, he told Matrix to give him 5 minutes with the ring. Matrix nodded silently and vacuumed up to the conference floor.
Microsoft's working place was the usual mess, only now it was illuminated by numerous requests that were flashing vigorously on the margin panel of his table. He scrolled through them with a sigh: ads, more ads, car gadgets, hubs... "Man, people, I've been away for less than a day," he muttered to himself.
"Hey, champ! Did you skip the stairs marathon and teleported? I could swear you weren't here a minute ago!"
"Hey, Ad," said Microsoft standing up to greet his friend. Ad gave him a bear hug.
"Are you alright? I heard you got sick or something."
"Nah, just stress leave."
"Wow, I never took you for a drama queen."
"Give me a break." Microsoft nudged Adrian in the abs, who immediately put up his hands in a kung-fu-like defensive position, inhaling deeply as if before the biggest battle of his life.
"Bring it on, mortal," he whispered. Microsoft waved him away.
"Cut it, Ad, I'm really busy. I promised to fix this ring in five minutes."
"Oh." Adrian dropped his hands and slumped his shoulders at the sight of the familiar ring. "That's why you're here."
"Ad, this wasn't a bad job, it just fell down and cracked." The attempt to cheer Ad up didn't work. He miserably watched Microsoft put the ring into a laser adjustment box, scan through the measurements on the ring projection that popped up over the table, locate the inconsistencies, adjust the figures, click "impairment fix", and a perfectly elegant, polished and impeccably proportional ring slid out of the box.
"I'm a total schlub," said Adrian almost mournfully.
"No, you're not, you just have to practice more. Look, I've an idea, my assignment panel is clogged up, why don't you take the load off me today?"
"I'm not sure I-"
"Ad." Microsoft stood up and put his hand on Adrian's shoulder. "Don't lowball yourself on your abilities, just leave me the hubs, all the rest you can take."
Adrian's face lit up.
"Thanks, champ, this is really cool of you."
"Any time." Microsoft put the ring in its silicon box, then scribbled some figures on a slip of paper, folded it and put into his pocket. "Later," he shouted to Adrian heading out.
"Could you... there is... on your team there is this girl, Spectrum..."
"Could you... tell her I said hi?"
"Sure." Microsoft turned away, and his eyebrows shot up.
"Man, people," he muttered, "Have I been away for that long?"
"Where have you been?!" Icon almost screamed when Matrix appeared from the tube.
"Hey, easy, Mike's here and the ring will be fixed in a minute."
"You left two hours ago!"
"I got held up."
"Held up? Are you aware there is a life-critical press conference on?"
"Look, if you have a problem with the way I do things, do it yourself next time!" Martix marched to his spot passed a bewildered Icon.
"What is wrong with you?" She followed him with her eyes.
"Nothing!.. Nothing is wrong."
Matrix's essie buzzed and he checked a message from Mike: "I'm taking the ring to the o.h. Check the signal." Matrix looked at the network of emerald green communication lines - the signal was steady and clear, everything was perfect, as it had always been with Microsoft. Matrix rubbed his forehead until it turned red, closed his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath, looked up and announced: "Ford's essie is on, all ready in 7."
Having sent the message to Matrix, Microsoft checked the conference status - about 10 minutes till Ford's appearance.
He cursed under his breath and, throwing a rueful look in the direction of the stairs, stepped into the tube. Hardly a breath later, he tumbled out of the tube on the hundredth floor. He fell on all four, gulping for air.
"Doesn't look like all that stair sprinting makes you any fitter," he heard a familiar jingling voice. He turned to his right to find Gear standing beside him in a stunning white bodysuit showing off her perfect shapes, her hand outstretched. He took it, and she helped him get up.
"I honestly thought it would get easier the second time," he said.
"Third time's a charm?" She gave him an encouraging smile.
"I hope so. Gear, right?"
"I see you still can read, which means you're just fine."
Microsoft looked at the grey letters crawling across her chest on the right, the ticker showed her name, her position, time of the day and the temperature of the room.
"What do you think?" She pointed at the ticker. "Look, the material is fiber optic, you can even connect it to the SC and watch stuff on any part of my body."
"Amazing." Microsoft shook off the images of 'stuff' broadcast on 'different parts of her body'. "Is Mr. Ford in?"
"Ah, no, he's gone to the green room already."
"Right. The conference is on the 90th?"
"Sorry, I would talk more...I would definitely like to talk more about this great suit of yours, but I gotta run."
Gear gave him another dazzling smile.
"It's really, really nice," he shouted with his thumbs up before disappearing behind the opening to the staircase.
He had reached the green room a couple of minutes before Ford was on. The old man stood in the middle of the room with people hustling and fussing around him, checking his grey suit, the equipment - "perfecting the image", as they called it. Microsoft stopped at the entrance as if there was a transparent wall that didn't let him in. Ford turned his head and looked at Microsoft, who was standing there like a lost kid.
"Mr. Stevenson," said Ford with a nervous irritation. "What do you want?"
"I have your ring." Microsoft walked hastily towards Ford and took the box out of his pocket.
"Like it's not enough people in here," mumbled Ford in exasperation. "Don't you know you work for a teleporting company where you don't have to deliver things personally?"
"I...yes, of course, I just wondered if we could...if I could—"
"How about you could do you job right the first time? You've almost ruined my morning session. Enjoy your day, boy, because if this thing doesn't work," Ford put the ring on, "it may be your last here."
Microsoft straightened up and stepped back without a word, his abashed expression changing to stone-faced.
"What else can I do for you?" barked Ford.
"I'm sorry, I was just leaving."
He turned on his heels ready to go when the opening from the conference room dispersed and in came Celestro Rawotzki with his crew.
"Mr. Ford." He nodded to Evos Ford who ignored him completely and proceeded to the conference room. Celestro followed him with his eyes, loosened his scarf a little and turned to the exit where he faced Microsoft. The corners of Celestro's mouth went up as on cue, but the eyes didn't follow the friendly smile. Microsoft scoffed, thinking how ridiculous the smile tugs made someone look at an unexpected moment. Celestro halted, let go of the scarf, ran his hand along the rim of his jacket as if trying to smooth it out and before he could turn his eyes away Microsoft stretched out his hand towards him.
"I'm Microsoft Stevenson, I work here."
Celestro nodded, shook hands with Microsoft, still smiling unnaturally, but his eyes indicated a slight surprise as Microsoft let go of his hand.
Celestro went out of the green room refraining from looking back, his right hand squeezed into a fist. He could hardly wait getting to the portal and home, he could feel the little ball of paper literally burning the inside of his palm. When he was finally alone in his house, he opened his hand to find a note rolled into a nubble. He unfolded it - there were two rows of numbers, but it took him less than a couple of seconds to understand it. Microsoft sent him one single word: "Chat".
Celestro leaned back, the hoverchair catching him mid-way to the floor, and took a deep breath.
"Perfect," he said out loud and threw the paper into a cremating trash basket, where the note puffed, turned to ashes and was sucked into the bottom. Celestro rubbed his SC earring, which lit up at his touch. "Causse," he said. "Arrange everything for out honored guest...Yes, I mean exactly who you think I mean. Dredge up the archives, my friend, we'll go with the standard procedure. I'd like the guest in the mansion tomorrow. Thank you."
Celestro stretched out, put his hands on his nape, and a wry, this time natural smile curved his perfect lips.