среда, 22 мая 2013 г.


Chapter XIV
The Night Everybody Talked

On her way home, Arone gave Mike two flickers which he didn't take. She sighed as she drove by a TR platform, onto which a moment later Matrix and Stallone teleported. They headed for 'DigiDiner' and the minute they entered it, Microsoft passed the restaurant in his hovercar ignoring his flickering SC.

He didn't go to Rawotzki's mansion, but flew around the office buildings and headed for the opposite side of the city - the Art Quarter. He passed some kooky buildings that seemed to grow out of the ground or hang upside down in the air. He drove smoothly through off-kilter streets, writhing and zigzagging among the weird buildings and monuments, fountains and art oases. 
He finally pulled over at a skin-art parlor in the shape of a tiny fortress with a huge dragon sticking his enormous head out through its gate and breathing fire. Mike parked his car at one of the magnet poles on the ground and entered into the dragon's mouth, a pleasantly warm wave of virtual fire swallowing him. 
Inside, the parlor looked like a dragon's stomach (at least, as the artists imagined it would look). Red walls striped with huge ribs joined over Mikes head in a glowing white solar plexus that sent soft lambent light in all directions. Every rib was an exit to a client room. In the middle there were tables with a few people who drank and ate quietly to a low beat of music that seemed to come from everywhere. The dragon's tail accomodated the counter. An old but very handsome man was on a bar hover chair in front of the counter. As he saw Mike entering, he widened his eyes and started applauding.
"Burn me whole and eat me ashes! Old bugger, I thought you were dead!" The man jumped off his hoverchair and shook Microsoft's outstretched hand, punching his shoulder with the other.
"Happy to see you again, Rafael," said Microsoft.
"Hey, Rembrandt," someone shouted to Rafael across the room. "Client in Rib 10."
"I can't. Give it to De Riz when he's done," Rafael shouted back and turned to Microsoft, examining him from head to foot. "I should be killin' you right now, you know that, bugger? Five bloody years - not even a flick! You lost your memory or what?"
Microsoft scoffed in spite of himself.
"It's complicated."
"It's better be, 'cuz you're gonna have to keep me bloody entertained while I drink my Inferno."
He waved a hoverchair over for Microsoft and scrolled the surface menu on the counter. Two red cocktails popped up out in front of them. Microsoft took a glass and the drink burst into flames for a second, then the flames subsided and turned into a thick glowing red lava that was icy cold and spicy.
"They call you Rembrandt now?" said Microsoft trying to change the topic.
"They call me all kinds of names. In fact, I could give you one. Which d'you like best - damn self-centered bludger or Adam Henry's bloody shitheel?"
"I'm fine with my own name, thank you very much, Raf."
"O'right, then. After all, I'm just a pestilent ol' fart, I wouldn't call on meself, if I was you!"
"Well, you didn't seem to look for me too hard either, for that matter."
"I ain't no girl, bugger. You didn't want to come visit, I damn sure ain't gonna go chasing you 'bout the city."
"It's not exactly that I didn't want to see you--"
"Spare my stomach muscles."
Mike couldn't help smiling. Rafael's favorite phrase stirred memories of the old days, though it was hard to understand at that point if Rafael meant 'don't make me laugh' or 'one more word and I'll be sick all over you'. The old man's wrinkled face was soft and magnetic, emitting kindness, which was why people found it hard to take offence of the inventive names he liked to give them.
"Anyway," he went on. "I never even knew you last name, or your essie UIN. All I knew is that you hung out with that piece of scum Rawotzki. When he showed his soddin' face here he asked me 'bout you, ya know. 'You seen him?' he asked me. 'Like hell,' I said. 'But right now I can see right through you, you slippery son of a bum,' I told him. 'And if you ever step your filthy foot into my parlour again, I'll take my laser and burn your promiscuous little danglings off!' I told him. He legged it like a shot wild boar, I'm tellin' ya." He chuckled and Mike smiled, realizing that he had missed Rafael more than he thought he had.
"When was it?" Microsoft asked.
"I guess 'bout a month after I last saw ya."
"Look, I'm really sorry I have disappeared for so long, but it wasn't my fault. There were circumstances."
"Nah-h, keep you long fancy words for your sweet lady. I'm pissed off, that's true, but I ain't your daddy, innit?"
"I wish you were..."
"Come again?"
"Nevermind. Look, I hate to ask you, but I need a favor."
Rafael frowned and looked away, draining his glass in one go.
"Did nothin' change? Tell me, did nothin' change at all?" Rafael studied the bottom of his empty glass.
"Everything changed."
"Why're you goin' to that gadget-stuffed eel then? That's what you want from me, innit? That's a favour you ask after what he did?"
Microsoft hated the thought of facing Rawotzki, but with everything he remembered now, there was no other option. Rawotzki was the only one he could talk to about Ford.
"It's the first time in five years I swear, I really have to see him--"
"My effin' goodness, boy, have life taught you nothin'?" Rafael put his glass on the counter with a loud bang. "He's still the same slug who banged your wife! Remember the last time you were here kissin' the cups, tipplin' your wits away? I'd told you what he was before and I told you that night - he's a sneaky-leaky little bastard."
"I don't trust him either." Microsoft was calm and sincere. "It's business now, I'm not going to see him as my friend, I need him and it's just business."
Rafael didn't look convinced; he spat on the floor, watched the white spot being absorbed into the surface, and got up.
"Just business, you say, eh? Fine, old bugger, that's your life. I've no right to try and save you from your own naffness."
Microsoft sighed inaudibly with relief.
"I owe you," he said.
"Oh, you owe me so much o'ready, I should of put you in irons, get a steel whip and have you haulin' rocks off my plantation."
"If you had a plantation." Microsoft grinned at him.
"Don't you worry, I'll come up with some hard labour for ya." Rafael grinned back and led Microsoft into Rib 7. It had been a long time since Microsoft had a tattoo, and he only had it to have an excuse to visit the parlor. This time the patch Rafael put on the right side of his neck was different.
"You updated technology?" he asked.
"You may say so." Rafael finished patching and took a step aside. "If you aren't back in 20 minutes, take it off yourself or it'll burn through."
"What will it be?" 
"I'll let you be surprised."
"Too many surprises this week for my taste...aw!" Microsoft winced groping the grained surface of the tattoo patch. "No anesthesia, are you kidding?"
Rafael smirked, opening the back exit.
"I'm still mad at ya, you little wheedler. Off you pop."
Microsoft rolled his eyes and went through the opening into a tunnel, rubbing the patch that started to burn harder. At the end of the tunnel stood a black car that looked like a little model of a submarine with no windows. This was a new type of cars called a hoverblimp. Hoverblimps were very convenient in the city because of the small size and they were best for long journeys due to the good wind shape. They were also perfect if you wanted to blend in. The side of it slid open, and Microsoft got in.

"I never liked those things," said Rivers looking at a black hoverblimp that whizzed past DigiDiner. Matrix followed her gaze and shrugged.
"Quite convenient I'd say. You could fly almost on the jet level in a hovership like this."
They fell back into the awkward silence they'd been trying to break through for 20 minutes. 
The terrace of the diner was beautiful, as was their glass table. DigiDiner looked like it was made of thin air that glowed softly now and then with different colors like aurora borealis. Everything was transparent - the furniture, the dishes, the ceiling and the floor, and it seemed that people inside were suspended in the air. 
"Mat," Stallone said, taking her eyes off the glowing walls. "You haven't been yourself lately. Is something wrong?"
"No, I'm fine," he lied avoiding her stare.
"I understand if you don't want to talk about it, after all, I'm not your close friend or...anyone close, but...I'd like to be."
Matrix turned his head towards the road watching the cars hovering to and fro.
"I'm worried about you," she went on. "Whatever's going on in your life, I'm happy to be at least a minor distraction."
He finally met her eyes. He struggled to hold back, but burnt inside to talk to her, or maybe, talk to anyone, just to get a load off his chest. She put her hand over his, he winced as if with pain, but didn't take the hand away for a while. Several silent moments later he freed his hand from under her delicate fingers, unblocked his SC display, slid some menus here and there until he felt a little pressure on his ears.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"I've put up a jammer, a magnetic dome around us that keeps sounds inside. It might be a little hard on the ears."
"I didn't know you could--"
"You can't. It's just...let's say I made a few developments on my essie." He lifted one side of his mouth. 
"Ok, but why--" He clasped her hands in his, and she froze.
"I'm about to tell you something...that I mustn't. Or shouldn't." He released her and leaned back rubbing his forehead and running his fingers through his hair as if about to tear it out.
"You don't have to be alone in this, Matrix. You can trust me, you--"
"When I was away for 2 hours during the conference," he began talking, so abruptly that she startled. "I was supposed to go to Microsoft to get the ring fixed, but I spent less than 10 minutes there. Before that I’d talked to Ford."
"S-s-so?" There was nothing bad about talking to Ford, or suspicious for that matter. However, Stallone leaned closer.
"He called me halfway, told me to teleport. I didn't recognize the coordinates, it was some office, I think, I don't know. We were alone, talking about the rescue mission."
"Is he worried about time-traveling? That we all may go be exiled for this?"
"There's more to it than just meddling with the law. The whole process is dangerous. I tried to talk sense into him. I told him we don't have this kind of technology to calculate the exact steps in order to prevent any changes to the future. They used to call it a butterfly's effect - anything we change in the past may affect the future in ways that can be even more perilous than leaving the things alone as they are."
"Yes, I heard about the effect, but do you really think it will go wrong?"
"I don't think, I know. You see, time-traveling is not exactly what you can study in a book, there are much more things to know. When I worked for the secret service, I've been through...a lot. I also learned a lot. Do you remember the dimension crisis, when the Anti-timetravel Law was enforced?"
"Eh, kinda. To be honest, I slept through my history lessons."
"Well," Matrix said. "Before the crisis, time-travel was considered the greatest invention of all times. Everyone was crazy about the idea. There were numerous attempts, but none of them successful until a genius from the Far East traveled secretly in time and recorded his experiment in the hope to become the richest man on earth. He managed to travel 4.1 millennia back in time. But then there was this volcano eruption."
"The Castle Rock volcano? I remember that."
"Well, it seems you didn't sleep through all history lessons, did you?"
She smiled. "The eruption didn't happen that long ago."
"Anyway, the volcano eruption was the direct result of the changes the time-travelling scientist had made back then. He might have just moved a rock, and the changed chain of events caused the volcano to erupt thousands of years later. The UN panicked; they exiled the man, engaged in tremendous propaganda of anti-time-travel. Then they put their heads together at a secret meeting of sorts and came up with this idea to make time-travel the highest international offense, but they kept the technology to themselves and continued researching it."
"But how are we supposed to proceed without the technology?"
"Well, that's where Ford's idea comes into play. He wants me to break into the secret service system and get the program to investigate the chain of events."
"Can you do that?"
"Unfortunately, I can. And he knows it. But that's not the point, like we're not in a mess enough already... Even if I get the program, it will take months to analyze the chain of events for the journey to go as we want without affecting anyone else. It's been almost a week since the boy got stuck in the tunnels - an enormous amount of time to calculate all the possibilities."
"But we don't have months--"
"That's exactly what he told me. And now he wants me to do something which I definitely can't do."
He buried his face in his palm.
"What do you have to do, Mat?" she asked.

The hoverblimp dived into the garage beneath the mansion, and when Microsoft stepped out, his heart sank. The smells, the walls, the baffled noise of the street overwhelmed him with familiarity. The driver was intending to show him in, but
Microsoft waved him off, saying, "Thanks, cap, I know the way."
He walked up the dimly lit corridors resisting the urge to touch them. He used to love this place, he knew that now. It used to be the place where he would spend time with the only friend he'd ever had, the only friend he could tell everything to, who was eager to sacrifice everything for him... who betrayed him. Causse was waiting for him behind the opening. 
"Hello, old friend, long time no see," Microsoft said to the old concierge. 
"Mr. Stevenson." The concierge bowed his head. 
Microsoft followed Causse feeling like he had an audience with a king who was about to knight him. He desperately wanted to turn back, forget all about it and imagine he had never remembered anything, but then Ford’s face loomed, menacing and ugly, at the back of his head, like a face of an orc. He dismissed the memory and entered the main room leaving Causse behind the wall. 
Nothing had changed there either - same white walls, red flowers growing out of everything imaginable and the sofa... Microsoft tightened up when his eyes found the sofa and the man sitting on it who was looking at him intently, completely void of emotions. Rawotzki was dazzling as usual in a cinder unbuttoned suit, shirtless, showing off his dark-skinned torso with some intrinsic symbols tattooed across his abs. He was still; only his shifting bare feet gave away his agitation. Celestro was the first to speak; his voice sounded low and hasty.
"How've you been?"
"Fine. You?" said Microsoft.
"Pretty lonely." Pause. "I'm so sorry." 
Something in the tone of Celestro's voice and the way he had breathed the words out told Microsoft that he'd wanted to say that since the unfortunate night. 
"Microsoft, I'm glad you're here...finally."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I just thought you would never want to see me again. It's been five years of silence, I've almost reconciled with the idea of losing my friend forever."
"Are you kidding me?"
Celestro raised an eyebrow, and a shadow of doubt flashed through Microsoft's mind.
"You seriously want me to believe you didn't know why I haven't showed up till now?"
Celestro raised both eyebrows, now looking curiously at Microsoft without saying a word.
"I don't believe it." Microsoft slumped on the sofa beside Celestro.
"Mike, I don't know what you want me to say. I mean I understand I screwed up big time, I--"
"And you hiring Arone at the exact moment when it all comes back to me is just a coincidence?"
"Yeah, that. Look, I'm really sorry, but she's the best designer in the whole country. It was her who came up with the idea of flowers growing out of furniture. I thought after five years I could... there's no one better, really. Also I hoped I could...maybe, see you. We never talked properly after--"
"So, you're telling me you had no idea I didn't remember anything?"
"Didn't remember what?"
"Yeah, man, you screwed up so big that I lost my memory for five years. How about that?"
"Do you mean…Do you mean it was all in vain - me, feeling guilty, avoiding you? And you didn't even have a clue all these years?"
"Aw, don't turn the tables on me. Besides, Arone blabbed about your little adventure in the garden, so I still had a reason to hate you, don't worry."
"So, you're saying, now you do remember everything?"
"I do, but please don't think that I've come as a friend. " Microsoft rubbed the patch that started to burn harder.
"I see our good friend Rafael gave you a warm welcome." Rawotzki squinted at the patch.
"From what he tells me, your welcome wasn't warm when you showed up at his parlour. He'd also probably kill you if you called him your friend to his face."
"Yeah, we had a... conversation."
"And quite an eloquent one, I hear. "
"I remember, he didn't mind taking my money."
"I should of guessed you paid for his silence."
"He said he'd say nothing out of respect for you. I guess you are his friend, right? Have you paid him too? Because after an eloquent tirade about respect and ties of amity, he still took my very generous offer."
"Look, I don't have time for blabber, the patch's really burning. I've come to make you a deal. But first I'd like to see them."
"Them who?"
"The papers, Ford's rejection."
"Just give them to me, will you? I have a right to have them, don't you think?"
Celestro got up, fastened the only button on his jacket. The jacket glowed red like real cinder. Celestro touched his ear SC, and a projection of his office appeared around him. He walked towards the safe, put the finger to it and made some movements as if he was drawing a Chinese character. The safe opened. He took out two plates, closed the safe, and slid the plates along the projection wall to what looked like a portal. In a second, music started playing from the real portal near the hearth. Celestro switched the projection off and opened the portal. Mike didn't have to look twice to know that they were exactly the documents he had seen five years before. 
The plates felt cold and rough. They were also transparent, and the dark silver letters were embedded into each of them. Microsoft traced his fingers across them, mouthing the words: “I, Evos Mondeo Ford, first being duly sworn...I am the natural father of the minor child, Microsoft Stevenson... hereby relinquish care, custody and control...my relinquishment is irrevocable, voluntary and is given freely in a clear mind...give my consent should there be a person willing to adopt...I further waive my right to make any enquires, see or contact this child, or to financially or emotionally participate in his life and development..."
Microsoft turned the plate over - the letters weren't visible on the back, there was only a half-transparent 3d holographic image of an eagle against the backdrop of the national flag. Thin red fiber threads were running down the back of the document - it was definitely real. The other plate was a duplicate of his birth certificate and it had the same sprawling signature in governmental ink color incorporated inside. Microsoft knew the signature very well. The plates were painfully real. 
There was a long pause. Finally, Microsoft looked up, not because he wanted to say something, but because a new visitor had stormed into the room through the opening, about two seconds later followed by Causse Gantier wearing a panicking expression on his face
"You have a lot of explaining to do, br--" the visitor yelled, but froze seeing Microsoft.
"Mr. Stevenson?"
"Miss Takano." Microsoft put the plates on the table before him and leaned back on the sofa. "Well, it gets more and more coincidentally interesting."

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