The Morning Celestro was Admired
Although everyone was looking at the boy's mother, Mallory Okolloh could feel all eyes on him: Mat, Icon, Stallone, prompting experts - all were burning the walls from the other side with their astonished glances, he was sure, even Ford seemed to eye Okolloh reproachfully through the back of his head. The huge man shifted uneasily - the mother and the son must have different last names, they must have, because the other option would be - she had thimblerigged him to slip in unspotted. The mother had obviously been waiting for the right moment to go public, because the conference was the first time she'd stepped into the light.
After a moment of stupor the team noticed Ford circling the gem on his ring, Icon's SC buzzed and she beckoned IR, who started feverishly scrolling through files on the air display, then she signaled Matrix to put her through.
"The boy's name is Diod Medina. Recognize the mother, the name is..." Icon searched for IR with her eyes, he raised a finger without looking up and in a second threw a piece of data to her. "...Penrose Stewart," she read off her display.
"I'm so sorry, it took me a second to recognize you." Ford kept circling the gem. Icon's SC buzzed frantically.
"His essie's off!" she shouted.
Mat scanned the displays with frantic eyes. "Can't be, I'm still linked to it."
"I wouldn't hope you knew me, Mr. Ford," the woman said.
"Then there is something wrong with it! Rivers, we need to change the schedule. Penrose Stewart, Penrose Stewart...," Icon kept saying, articulating every letter.
"Mz. Rose Stewart, is it?" said Ford. Icon buried her face in her hands.
"It's Penrose, actually, like the mathematician." The woman squeezed her hands together and straightened up.
"You have to forgive an old man, I've become sentimental and remember flowers now rather than science," said Ford.
"44, no partner, Senior Manager at a delivery company GetsDone, delivers everything anywhere, from food to hovertrucks," pattered Icon and raised eyefuls of hope to the spy screen.
"I'm sure you do, Mr. Ford"
Ford let go of his ring. "Journalism is your second profession, Mz. Stewart?"
Icon sighed with relief.
"I can't just sit at home and do nothing, this is my part of investigation, and since my light's still green, am I allowed to ask another question?" A swift put-on smile touched Penrose's lips.
"You have every right to, Mz.Stewart." Ford replicated the smile on his own lips.
"Celestro Rawotzki agreed to move his section up," reported Rivers. "We can wrap up in 10."
Matrix lifted his thumb. "Putting you through."
Penrose squeezed her hands tighter. "Will you get my boy out alive?" This time her voice broke at the word "alive", and all her officialism evaporated, leaving a weary and scared mother before Ford.
"Diod is a strong young man," said Ford a little softer. "We'll do our best to get him out in one piece, I promise you."
Rivers watched a green flicker on her SC in stupor. "Rivers!" Matrix looked back to see what was wrong with the girl. "Rivers!"
She raised her terrified eyes at him. "Speak!" he snapped.
"Wrapping up, Mr.Ford," Rivers stuttered. "Rawotzki's section moved up, starts in 10 minutes."
"I promise you to see to it personally that Diod gets back safe and sound." Ford addressed everyone in the room. "Now the first part of the morning section is over. The independent expert will be with you in 10 minutes. Thank you."
Ford strode out of the room of confused journalists, Mallory followed.
When the team saw their CEO entering the backstage, everyone got up expecting an outbreak. Ford gave Mallory an impassive look - but Okolloh didn't need much to understand what to do, he left the room to make another check-up on the conference members. Then Ford diverted his fiery eyes to the team.
"When's the second part?" he asked.
"In four hours," whispered Rivers.
Ford turned on his heels and headed for the exit, but a few steps before the opening he halted and turned around. His heavy breath was the only sound audible in the room. He took the ring off his finger and dashed it against the floor. A sharp clink made everyone flinch.
"Fix the damn ring!"
As the opening closed behind Ford, everyone startled as if there was a door he had just slammed. No one said a word, just got back to work silently. Spectrum picked up the ring and examined it - the gem was scratched and there was another crack inside of it. She put the ring on Matrix' hovertable. He took the little thing mechanically and slipped it into his pocket.
"Icon, I'll need a fill-in in two hours," he said. Icon nodded.
After Ford's remark about his inexistent son Microsoft blinked the display off and was just staring at the white wall.
"You were right," he said after several minutes of silence. "It wasn't a good idea."
Sakura needed him to get back on track. She had a hunch that Celestro hadn't told her everything. As a phychiatrist she was used to trust a hunch. She was set on getting as much from Microsoft as she could. "You said you had a plan."
"We had a plan, yes."
"Did it have anything to do with Evos Ford?"
"I don't wanna talk about Ford."
"Alright, let's not talk about him. Were you able to execute the plan?"
"We were going to, but then something happened."
"You know what!"
She nodded in agreement. "I do, but I'd like to hear your version."
He let out an irritated sigh, but made an effort to remember. "I was waiting for Arone, she was supposed to be coming home soon and was running late. I think he flickered me... no, he couldn't, we never actually talked on the SC. How come we never used virtual communication?" Microsoft stared at the floor.
"How did you communicate?"
Microsoft raised his eyebrows and bit on his lips.
"I think we always used paper... yes, through the mail portal in the kitchen, he would send me a message, and every time he would leave me a different address to send my reply to. Weird..."
"Were you working for Ford at the time?.. I'm sorry, but it's relevant."
"Yeah... Lester had told me how to get the job..."
Sakura smiled to herself, but Microsoft didn't even notice how he changed Rawotzki into a friendly Lester so quickly. He told her about their meetings and how helpful Celestro had always been. He also told her how he'd enjoyed their correspondence and how they'd used ciphers to encode messages, and he had felt like a special agent.
"Weren't you overcautious?" Sakura asked.
"Just having fun. No one tracks paper these days, and if they had it'd have taken ages to decipher and then to understand the meaning of the message. He used a Russian doll principle, you know, code in a code." Microsoft got excited with every piece of memories that came back to him, telling Sakura almost proudly about their system of communication. She was amazed how elaborate it was: a message was encoded into a sentence using the less frequent letters of the alphabet, then encoded again using a code word and then again following an algorithm only they knew.
"That night, did he send you a message?"
"I got a package with a letter inside. He wanted to see me."
"To talk about what?"
"Doesn't matter." Microsoft pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them. "I got to his house, from the back as usual. There was this guy, Causse, he let me in and told me to go to the orchard."
"Causse told you to go to the orchard?" Sakura's astonishment must have been too manifested, because Microsoft looked at her with curiosity, and she hurried to compose herself.
"I mean, Causse must be the concierge, and he let you in?"
"Yes, he... he told me Rawotzki was working in his garden as usual... I went up and... son of a..." Microsoft fell silent, and flashed his eyes across the room, jerking his head nervously.
"Who was there, in the orchard?"
Microsoft looked at her dumbfounded, all his body showing how stupid he thought her question was.
"Microsoft, I need you to tell me what you saw in the orchard."
"I saw my friend betraying me."
"That's what you felt, betrayed by a friend?"
"I was angry."
"With myself. For being such a fool to have trusted him."
"Wasn't he the one who told you about your father? Tried to help?"
Microsoft didn't answer to that.
"Why do you blame him? Arone was there too."
"She was, yes, but--"
"Before you came to Mr. Rawotzki's, had she told you where she would be?"
"I thought she was at work."
"So, she lied to you, didn't she?"
"She did... Why are you doing this?"
"I just want you to tell me about your true feelings, true memories of your feelings. Do you blame Celestro Rawotzki for what happened?"
"I don't know."
"Did he try to contact you? Make amends?"
"I'm not sure--"
"Is it possible he did but you didn't know about it?"
"I think... Do you mean Arone--?"
He paused and stared somewhere past Sakura, she turned her head to the object of his interest and saw Arone peeping through the porthole and smiling guiltily. He watched her wave to him and mouth 'hello' and looked away. She waited for a while for him to look up again, but he didn't. Sakura shook her head at Arone almost imperceptibly, she nodded to show she'd understood and disappeared from the porthole. Sakura didn't talk for full 15 minutes after that, neither did Microsoft. Then, at last, he spoke.
"At least she owned up to it."
"For all I remember, she blurted out the truth during one of your fights." Sakura kept eye contact, she owned him.
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm not suggesting anything, just tell me what happened in the orchard."
"I came in, saw them at the back among those damn flowers."
"Lester turned back and looked at me, I hurried to get out, but he caught up with me, tried to stop me. He kept saying it was a mistake and he was sorry."
"Where was Arone?"
"I don't know, must've stayed behind. Guess she was too embarrassed to see me."
"She didn't come after you?"
"No." Microsoft sounded as unblinking as was his stare. "She didn't come home soon either. And in the morning, I guess, I already didn't remember anything. It's all very strange... I wasn't surprised to learn I was working for Ford. Can it happen? Can one remember one thing about the same period of time and forget all the rest?"
"Our brain is an amazing little world playing tricks on itself," said Sakura. "There is no one to blame, Microsoft, what happened is a reaction of the organism."
"So, I should treat the betrayal as a reaction of his organism?"
"Have you never made a mistake, Microsoft?"
"I've never stolen somebody else's wife."
"Well, Arone's still with you, isn't she? Celestro Rawotzki hasn't bothered you all this time, he made a mistake, and he stepped aside to let you live your life, didn't he? Isn't that something a friend would do?"
"What would you do if you were him? What would you want?"
"I would want the earth to swallow me whole."
"Maybe that's exactly what he wanted - to disappear from your life and to hurt you no more."
Microsoft seemed to be digesting the thought slowly. After a while he said, "I need to speak with him."
So do I, thought Sakura.
Arone woke up with a start as if someone had shoved her. A bright beam of light was pushing against the darkness of the room through the porthole. She got off the bed and walked cautiously towards the oxygen room. She could see Sakura and Microsoft sitting on the floor and talking vividly, suddenly Mike saw her and froze. She couldn't understand whether he was upset or angry with her, or just unemotionally registered her presence. She waved at him timidly, and he looked down. She searched for Sakura's eyes for support, but she just shook her head. Disappointed, Arone walked away from the door thinking it best to leave them to finish the session.
She went to the kitchen, ordered coffee that arrived almost instantly through the mail port, and switched on the TV menu on her SC. The press conference was the greatest buzz in the network, so she sat down at the table with her cup of coffee, clicked on the link, pulled the air display out and swung it to the opposite wall.
Celestro Rawotzki was sitting rather comfortably in a chair with two of his men behind him. He wore a curious russet suit made of a luxurious material that gave off an enchanting dull luster; there was nothing under the jacket. A bisque scarf hung loosely around his neck and rested on his bare chest. Arone noticed with an appreciation of a designer that the scarf had a penrose tiling pattern delicately woven into it in thin grey threads. Celestro looked at ease and spoke leisurely.
"...you see. I am not here because I chose to, I am here because I was chosen to be, because people trusted my outside perspective as a fellow professional of Mr. Evos Ford, my mentor and my guru.
"So, I'll be very honest with you. Mr. Ford mentioned that a knife maker couldn't be blamed for a crime committed by another person with that knife, and that is absolutely true. Every person is responsible for their own actions, but think about children. Children do all kinds of stupid things as every mother knows they would. She is surely not able to protect them from their inexperience, their mistakes or their lack of judgment, but she still does everything in her power to guard her child, to take care of it, because she has to serve her child and nurture it into a healthy and educated individual. It is her duty, as well as it is our duty as the leading service providers to serve people.
"Who are we but humble servants trying to make the world around us better? What right do we have to say that we are not responsible for what happens to our customers? I believe that if we can build something that sends people across the planet in a matter of femtoseconds, we are fully capable of providing absolute security for those who chose to trust us. I can assure you that's the truth and the guiding light of Zenith Perpetual. I learned that from Evos Ford, and I can only hope he hasn't forgotten his own lessons."
Arone was listening to Celestro with a quiet admiration when her SC buzzed; there was someone at the door. She wondered who could visit so early and clicked at the peephole cam. A tall man with dark hair and a smart look about his face stood outside the door.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"Hi." The man smiled shyly into the cam. "I'm here to see Mike, my name is Matrix Eroglou. This is urgent."
Arone put the trembling cup on the table, hesitated for a moment, took the cup again and drained it in three gulps. Then put the cup into the dish-washer and went to open the door, pulling frenziedly at the rim of her dress.