пятница, 28 июня 2013 г.


Chapter XX

The Day the Boy Got Disintegrated

When Microsoft entered the training room he could hardly recognize it. The refined high-tech working space had turned into a junkyard. There were tall metal cylinders standing in the corners, boxes and gadgets lying around, wires hanging everywhere. It had been a long time since Microsoft saw wires. They connected the cylinders to some strange containers floating in water-like liquid inside glass boxes. The containers gave off a bright fluorescent blue light. The familiar 'shower cabin' he'd spent hours in during the training sessions was there too. IR, Augustine and WiFi hovered to and fro among the cylinders like bees among flowers.
"Are we ready?" asked Matrix. He made his way towards the tube and flipped a hoverchair off the wall. He sat down, buckled up, and a display unfolded from his SC over his lap.
"All we need the last check," said IR and floated towards Microsoft. "Give me your wrist."
Microsoft stretched out his hand and IR slipped Microsoft's SC on it. The SC pulsated red.
Microsoft's arm started itching just above the SC. The skin where Celestro had inserted the jammer turned reddish. Microsoft pressed his wrist to his side, but IR was too occupied to notice.
"Done," said IR. "Now you need to get into the tube. Wi, fix him up, would you? I'll check the connection."
Microsoft stepped into the tube. His legs felt weak, the room blurred into fog around him. He hardly registered WiFi sticking sensors to him, but for some reason his mind started couning them. One to each temple, six along the hairline on his forehead, two on his neck - one to the left and right carotid arteries, two pairs on his chest and his nape. So many numbers, yet so few minutes to live. The clips tugged lightly on his skin making him aware of every one of them. WiFi examined him head to foot.
"That's it. Now, lean back and relax," she said.
"That's what she said," muttered Microsoft and bit his tongue. His last joke before he died, and he managed to make even that crappy. WiFi didn't seem to hear him speaking.
Microsoft leaned back against a soft and warm wall of the tube and the moment WiFi sealed the tube, air pressed him harder against the wall paralyzing him. In panic he started gasping for air, the clips on his body and the SC lit up green. Microsoft struggled to free himself when he heard Matrix's voice in his head.
"Mike, calm down and breathe. It's just air-pressure, it holds you and the sensors in place."
Microsoft took a deep breath and the load eased. He could breathe freely but still couldn't move or calm down.
"Mike, can you hear me?" there was Matrix's voice again.
"Yeah," he whispered hoarsely, then cleared his throat. "Yes, I hear you."
Mat looked around the room - WiFi, IR and Augustine put their thumbs up. The three of them looked a bit creepy hovering around the room like they did and scrolling through codes and schemes on the displays that enveloped each of them. Yet, Microsoft smiled.
"Good, now that we all hear each other, let's go through everything again. Augustine?"
"So." Augustine raised his dark eyes at Microsoft. "Once again. The most important thing for you is to concentrate on the anchor, because there'll be thousands of scenarios in your head. Find the one where Diod Medina drops the license when you bump into him and you say "Old Danny". Keep the words in mind and don't look too far ahead, it'll confuse you. Find this in your head and concentrate, you'll know what to do afterwards. There'll be 5 combinations of codes in your mind." 
Numbers and letters appeared in front of Microsoft in red. 
"Before pulling the actual stunt," continued Augustine, "Open the 5-dimension port on your SC, connect to the corporate network, the first combination is your password. Once you're in, go to license reprogramming, put in the rest four, increase sensibility and speed to maximum, you'll need less than a second of contact to reprogram the card."
"One more thing," said Matrix, Microsoft turned to him and realized he didn't remember a word Augustine had just said. "Microsoft, this is important. Diod mustn't remember anything that has to do with you. So, when you're done with license reprogramming, go to my personal slot, the password is the first code backwards, order a memory blocker, set the clock to 00:04:25:834." The numbers popped up before Microsoft's eyes again, now in acid green. "Teleport the blocker to your SC, then erase the recent action. You'll just have to put it to the boy's nape, it'll be inserted automatically."
"Okay." Microsoft felt suffocated again.
"Only your mind is set back in time, the body stays here. The algorithm of the actions will be transmitted into your head, all you'll have to do is concentrate. Don't worry, you'll remember all the codes and everything that's just been said, clear as day," said IR with a reassuring smile. "And we'll see you soon."
Matrix hovered towards the tube and put his hand against its wall. Microsoft wanted to put his hand against Mat's, but remembered that he couldn't move, so he just nodded.
"Good luck," mouthed Matrix, and as he pushed himself away from the tubes and there was the familiar crackle of the sensors, Microsoft was so close to the brink of a breakdown that his toes went numb.
"On three," he heard Matrix say.
"Um.." said Microsoft, licking his lips.
"Mat, I can't do th--" 
It was too late. 
A whirlpool of events sucked Microsoft in and he tried to catch his breath and concentrate. It wasn't like the training at all - there were thousands, maybe even millions of different scenario developments around him. 
"Old Danny, old Danny, old Danny..." he chanted in his head and there it was - the sequence of events he was looking for got marked red on his mind map like a route on a car HUD. A second later the chaos was gone, and he was standing on the street near a shopping port. The streets were empty, bluish-dark - the sun was just about to rise. He struggled to remember what he was doing there at this hour, but his mind refused to react.
"Old Danny, old Danny..." continued to play in his head. He turned to the shopping port and ordered a bottle of Jack Daniels. When the bottle popped out, he hid it in inside of his jacket and heard voices behind him. 
He looked around. Three teenage boys walked in his direction. He recognized Diod Medina right away - a blonde good-looking boy, taller than his friends, a charming wry smile, exactly like his vids showed. His two companions were short, but tough. One of them was very quiet. He didn't talk, just smiled. The other was hyper. He jumped around, ran ahead and walked backwards in front of them while talking loudly and waving his hands. Microsoft spotted his car and dived into it just in time to remain unnoticed.
"Shite, D! Is pure brilliant shite! Where'd you gank it?" One of the guys snatched something from Diod. Microsoft guessed they were the licenses.
"Shut it, herd! Keep your voice down, jee!" Diod stopped and spun around on his heels checking the area. Microsoft ducked. "Come on, the T/R's round the corner."
As the boys walked across the street, Microsoft unblocked his SC and got into the corporate system almost mechanically. He typed in 43 symbols of the password code without thinking.
"Wow, impressive!" he thought to himself. The next four combinations popped up in his head, but the figures and letters started mixing up. "F-fuck... which is it, now, four or six?.. h... no, capital 'H'... Concentrate!"
He closed his eyes letting the codes arrange themself in his head. 
"Got it!" He typed the codes in and closed the port on his SC. As he jumped out of the car, the boys were standing on the other side of the street at a shopping port with their backs towards him. 
Microsoft got into the corporate network again, found Matrix's personal slot and followed the instructions given to him in the training room. After a second a small transparent square of a wafer slid out of his SC.
"Weird." Microsoft examined the object that looked painfully familiar. 
It got strangely quiet. Microsoft looked up just in time to see the group of the teenagers disappear around the corner. He cursed and ran across the street after them. When he reached the corner he stopped and peeped around it. The boys were standing at the T/R and apparently discussed who would go first.
"Old Danny..." said Microsoft to himself. He took the Jack Daniels out of his pocket, downed it in a few gulps and threw it into the nearest trasherizer. As Microsoft was approaching them, he could make out what they were talking about.
"We must tag it! Tag it, D. I got a spray app, we laser our names right on!" The hyper guy slapped Diod on the back.
"You wanna get us rapped or shite? Jee, Teslo, don't you get it? Just shut it!" said Diod.
"You're missing it, 'migo! We're pioneers! We fucking fucked into the sys and we're gonna fucking teleport to Vegas, baby!"
"WE did nothing, I curb-traded it from a dude-knows-a-dude." Diod tapped himself against the chest.
"C-can I g-go first?" stuttered the third guy.
"No way! It's my B-day, 'migo! Move!" The hyper guy stepped onto the platform. "See ya on the other side, lamers!"
He disappeared into thin air.
"C-craze!" The stuttering guy stepped onto the platform in awe and vanished too.
"Fucktards." Diod spat aside and took out his license at the very moment when Microsoft approached and tripped over him as if by accident. The license slipped through Diod's fingers as he put his hands up to catch the falling man.
"Phew, narrow escape," said Microsoft, gaining his balance.
"Yuk, dude, you reek." Diod searched the pavement for the dropped lisence.
"Old Danny, you know," mumbled Microsoft. "Hardly keeps me on my feet. Looking for this?"
Microsoft picked the glistening card up with his right hand, keeping the transparent wafer between the fingers of his left one.
"Yeah," said Diod, his voice getting anxious.
"Sorry, I've messed it up..."
"It's fine, I--"
"I'll wipe it for you." Microsoft wiped the license against his SC several times, taking extra time to make sure the license would be properly reprogrammed. "Here."
Diod took the license carefully. Microsoft grabbed the boy by the nape with his left hand and breathed the hot whiskey odor right into his startled face.
"You're a nice fella, ain't you?"
"I g-guess." Diod widened his eyes, too shocked to move.
"Don't ever do this again till it's legal!" Microsoft said, and the moment he let Diod go, the boy jumped onto the platform and disappeared. "I wish you could remember that," Microsoft said with a sigh and rubbed his empty fingers together; the wafer was gone. The next moment everything went black and his legs gave way. Microsoft realized he was collapsing on the ground.
"This is it," was his last thought before he slipped into the swallowing darkness.

понедельник, 24 июня 2013 г.


Chapter XIX

The D-Day Continues

Microsoft strode along the hall away from Matrix's office. His knuckles were supposed to be sore from punching the wall. He had also splashed hot tea all over his hand when he hurled the metal mug against the wall display. He never thought the displays were breakable, but the mug cracked it and crushed a portion of it into tiny pieces that trickled to the floor like pixie dust. His hand was numb like his mind.
The decision to finish the mission had been tough but somehow obvious to him. He knew from the very moment Matrix mentioned the outcome what he needed to do. To think of Arone was excrutiating, so he concentrated on Ford and the plan. As he walked up the stairs, he considered several ways to reach Celestro, tell him to finish what they started no matter what, and the only possible option seemed to be a letter. 
He went down to the office. Adrian wasn't there, which was a relief. Microsoft sat down at his workplace, took a piece of paper and a pencil. He stared blankly at the yellowish sheet for several minutes, but his muscles refused to lift the pencil as if it weighed a ton. Microsoft closed his eyes, rubbed them till they hurt and took a deep breath, fighting off the overwhelming survival instinct. Fear crept under his skin, pricked his heart and pulled at his stomach. He balled his left hand into a fist and started writing.
"Raf, I promise this is the very last favor I ask. But it's important. The situation's fucked up, our mutual friend's gonna do something really terrible. Tell him I said to stop. Please, Raf, flick him and tell him whatever happens he shouldn't do what he's planning to do.

Microsoft read the message over again and added, "...I love you, man." 
He folded the message, wrapped it into a porting envelope and took another sheet of paper. 

When he finished the second message, he sealed it and went upstairs, by a couple of seconds missing Adrian who ran out of the tube and dashed towards the office hoping Microsoft had come back. 
In utter despair Adrian collapsed into his hoverarmchair, panting heavily. He opened the corporate network on his surface display to see if Spectrum was available anywhere. Her office still glowed red, which meant there was no one inside. A bunch of names Adrian heard from Microsoft were piled up in one office - Wireless Fitzgerald, IR Herschel and Augustine Reynolds. 
"Bastards," he whispered and was about to make a bolt for the door, but his legs failed him. "I'm gonna get you," he hissed through his teeth. "In a minute..."

After dropping the message to Rafael into a mail port on his way up, Microsoft reached the hundredth floor. Gear was splendid as always, but Microsoft thought she looked particularly beautiful at that moment. Her crimson clingy dress had more lustre, and her smile was exceptionally friendly and warm. 
"Hey, Gear. How's your day?" he said and waved at her.
"Going well, thank you, Microsoft. Are you alright?"
"Yeah. Fine." Microsoft peered at Ford's office.
"You're here to see Mr. Ford? He's not available at the moment, but--"
"No!.. No. I'm here to see you, actually."
Gear blushed.
"I mean I need a favor," Microsoft said. "It's... I really need you to do something for me, could you?"
"Anything," she said a little too quickly.
"I have a letter that I need you to give to Mr. Ford after the rescue mission's over."
"Letter? What--"
Microsoft took the letter out of his pocket and put it in front of her on the table.
"Oh...a real letter." She tapped her fingers on the sealed paper envelope as if it was something she'd never seen before.
"Gear, it is essential that you give it to him after everything's over."
"Sure...um...I have to admit, this is weird." Microsoft took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Please," he said, and wrinkles of concern flashed through her forehead.
"Are you sure you're fine?" she asked.
"I will be, if you do as I ask."
"Yes, sure. I'll give it to him."
"Thank you." After a second of hesitation Microsoft leaned forward and placed a light kiss on her lips, then left her gaping after him, as he headed for the stairs. 

On his way down he heard hasty footsteps; someone was running upstairs, stumbling on the way. Microsoft frowned and went faster. About 15 floors later a red and sweating Adrian almost bumped into him.
"What the-- Ad? What are you doing running up the stairs?"
Adrian could hardly speak in the attempt to catch his breath.
"I..eh.. the tubes... there were people... shit, Mike! It's you!" Adrian fell on his neck brushing the wet hair against Microsoft's cheek.
"Wow, careful. Ad...Ad, let me go." Microsoft freed himself out of the sticky web of Ad's arms and shook him by the shoulders. "Are you gonna tell me what's wrong or not?"
"What's wrong?" yelled Adrian. "They're gonna kill y--"
Microsoft pressed his hand against Adrian's mouth and pushed him against the wall.
"You don't know what you are talking about," whispered Microsoft. 
Adrian shook Microsoft's hand off and whispered back, "You bet I do. I heard them."
"You must've heard something wrong." 
"Geez, man, unclog your slots and just listen to what I'm saying. This rescue mission of yours--"
"Ad... Now you have to listen to me. I know."
"What? You know it's a suicide mission?"
"What are you gonna do? We have to tell someone. We have to report."
Microsoft looked back through the wall. A few people ran along the corridors; it was unlikely anyone could see them. He turned back to Adrian who was still babbling on about all the things they had to do.
"I'm sorry, bud," said Mircosoft.
"Sorry for wh--" Microsoft banged Adrian's head against the wall so hard that Adrian blacked out. 
"Shit... shit, shit, shit!" Microsoft looked around again, holding unconscious Adrian in his arms. He found himself surprised at his own agility and determination. He would imagine going to such extremes to save his life, not to lose it, but there was something inside him that kept moving him forward. Sudden confidence wiped every last doubt in him and  pushed him to the limit. He was doing the right thing; he was finally worth something. Microsoft lowered Adrian to the ground, took the SC off Andrian's wrist and found Matrix's UIN in the corporate database. 
"Eroglou," barked Matrix into Microsoft's head. 
"You slimy cravened chickenshit, that's who you are!" cried Icon on the background.
"Flattered to hear it from the Holy Mary herself!" said Matrix. "Yes! Who is it?"
"Mat, it's me."
"Mike?.. Who's essie is it?"
"We have a problem."
"I'm listening."
"It seems you aren't the only people in the company who knew." There was silence. "Mat? Are you there?"
"Yes. Where are you?" 
"Stairs. U-um... floor seventy five, or seventy six, maybe."
"Seventy nine. I see you. Who is this?"
"Shit, the cameras."
"How long have you been there?"
"About 5 minutes I guess."
"I'm killing the video and switching the surveillance off. Who's on the floor and what did you do to him?"
"That's Adrian Verlander, he works with me. I just... I just punched him. He's fine, he's just out for a while. He knows, Mat, and he's not happy about it."
"Okay. Listen to me. There's an old elevator shaft behind the wall, but it's hell of a deep, you'll have to carry him down to the first floor, I'll try to disperse an opening there and you can hide him till it's all over. I've blocked the entrances to the staircase, hurry."
"Got it." Microsoft lifted Adrian on one shoulder, and his knees buckled under the weight.
"You have to be in the training room in 5 minutes," Matrix said. "Flick me when you're down."

Matrix hung up and was met by another fit of outrage from Icon.
"Who are you? I have no idea who you are anymore." 
"Like you've just announced, Icon, I'm a fucking fugitive." Matrix opened the building's blueprint and the video of the staircase on his cracked display. Icon's jaw dropped when she saw Microsoft dragging a man's body downstairs.
"Is kidnapping people on your record too? Hacking government just wasn't enough, was it?"
"We're not kidnapping anyone. He'll be fine." Matrix moved the blueprint around and typed in the codes. A short green line lit up on Floor 1. He set a timer on and turned the display off. 
"We have to get back to the training room." 
"No way," said Icon. "There's no way we're doing this. I don't care what Microsoft decided, we have to find another way."
"Yeah, we do." Matrix came up to her, grabbed her wrist and put his SC to hers. Her device whizzed and went dead.
"I can't deal with you now, sorry," he said to Icon, while pushing Rivers out of the office through the dispersed opening. Before Icon realized what was going on, he whooshed the wall closed, locking her in. Rivers blinked, her face wearing a horrified expression. 
"Are you gonna be trouble too?" he asked wearily. She shook her head. "Good,"  he said and stared at her for another moment. She was beautiful. Things might have worked out between them, but it no longer matter. Matrix pulled her to himself and kissed her, feeling her body relax in his arms. When she opened her eyes, the shock was gone. "Stallone, I don't wanna go back to exile. I won't have another chance. They won't make the same mistake twice and I'll forget everything, this time forever. I'll be a zombee somewhere in Zimbabwa. Ford's given me a new name, a new face, a new life, I can't lose it all. No one has to know, do you understand? Microsoft's made up his mind and it's hard for me too, but I just... there's too much at stake. Would you please keep quiet? For me?"
"You are a fucking pussy, Matrix," said Stallone. "But so am I. I can't bear losing you." 
He squeezed her hand, and they hurried towards the tubes. 

Microsoft caught up with them at the entrance to the training room.
"Done?" asked Matrix.
"Yeah. Here's his essie. I guess you should have it, since I won't... you know."
Matrix took the SC and put it into his pocket. 
"Mike," he said quietly without looking at him. "Are you sure you wanna go through with it?"
"He's a kid, Mat, a kid with parents who love him and expect him to come out alive. Of course, I'm sure."
Matrix nodded. "Stallone, I think you should go and help Faraday and Schrödinger with the docs and feedback. There's still loads of work."
Stallone turned to Microsoft and hugged him, then rushed out of the room. 
The familiar wave of emotions came over Microsoft again. His body ached, but he braced himself. "Shall we?" he said.
"Wait..." Matrix hesitated. "Do you... Do you want to flick anyone? You know, say a few words before..."
"Mat, please, don't." 
Matrix nodded again and showed him into the training-room.

среда, 19 июня 2013 г.


Chapter XVIII
The D-Day

Light crept into the darkness, shunning it away, pushing it westwards. With every second the light got stronger, brighter, painted the city dark red and golden. Far away at the very brink of the world a gloomy thin line of storm was visible. It was the last day of the sunny week; the second sunny week in a row that had been requested by Ford Industries. Two weeks of rain were to follow, and the sun came across as trying too much on its last day of rule before a long pause. 
Ford Industries was the highest building in the district, so it would catch the morning light first, and that morning it was making use of the advantage to the full extent, standing gloriously golden and blinding the buildings below that still dozed in twilight.
Icon watched the city from the eightieth floor of Ford Industries, her hair pinned up with a silver stylus; random wisps of it fell down her neck. She took another sip of her coffee and, putting away the cup, lay down on the soft carpet of her office, propping her bare feet up on a hoverchair. 
The room wasn't big but had a spacious feel about it, because everything was pattern-less and subtly executed in pastel shades. Occasional rich colored objects were visible here and there like early flowers on a spring tree. A red multipad here, an acid-green mug there, lively photo frames on the walls that broadcast live news of all the major media companies in the country. 
Being popular in the media world, Icon had been the first to get the media boards as a present from each and every significant channel before it became the new fashion craze. Now the boards decorated her office and kept her up-to-date every morning.
That morning, though, Icon didn't seem to care about them. She lied on her back in a slick millefleurs dress, examining some pieces of text, pictures and street cam footage on her air display. She rewound and watched again Ford coming out of the building, Mat getting into a company's car in the middle of the street; Mat and Mike getting into the office building; Rivers and Mat sitting in a cafe, then she waved them all off and closed her eyes with a sigh.
Footsteps and muffled voices made her get to her feet. People started coming in to work. 
Icon took the stylus out of her hair, checked herself in the mirror and found Okoloh's UIN on her SC.
"Mallory, is she in yet?.. And Matrix?.. Flick me as soon as she's at the tubes."

The designing department was as busy as usual. Actually, everyone was busy as if nothing was happening in the company. Microsoft watched the people around him and couldn't help feeling bitter, because nobody seemed to care. 
Matrix had sent him a memo saying he wanted to see him for a briefing before the operation. Microsoft tried to remember when was the last time he felt so nauseatingly nervous and angry at the same time. Nothing came to mind. 
A message appeared on his table display and on hearing the slight buzz he grasped his wrist automatically only to remember that he'd given his SC to WiFi to install the new license algorithm. He slid open the message on his surface display. It was a reminder from Mat. 
Microsoft wondered what it was that Matrix needed to see him about so urgently, but somehow his thoughts drifted away to Arone. Before giving up the SC, he had wanted to call her, but couldn't bring himself to do it. In panic he had almost called Celestro, but thought better of it. Still, he saw those two faces everywhere, in every person and around every corner: Arone - scaring him, Celestro - soothing his angst. 
"Hey, Mikie-tykie!" 
A loud thump against his shoulder brought him back to the real world.
"Shit, Ad! Would you ever stop doing that?"
"Come on, man up! Big day today, eh?"
"Yeah, big day."
"Look what I have."
Adrian stuck his hand in his pocket and fished out a silver locket encrusted with pieces of stained glass.
"I made it myself, look." Adrian opened the locket. "I embedded an SC into one side and a digital photo frame into the other. How top is that?" 
Adrian's face brightened up with pride and satisfaction, as Microsoft gave the locket the nod of approval and pursed an appreciative lip.
"I was going to ask you a favor, man." Adrian handed the locket to him. "Could you possibly give it to her? I hope, she'll like it."
"Her who?"
"You gotta be shitting me."
"Who's Arone?"
"My wife, you met her a couple of times."
"Right. Red hair? Crazy eyelashes? Right."
"Why the hell would you make a locket for my wife?"
"Yeah, champ, ask yourself, why the hell would I?" 
Adrian crossed his hands on his chest and gave him a dead stare. Microsoft finally got the grasp of reality.
"Shit, not Arone... Spectrum Faraday. Of course." 

"I guessed, since you'll all be there anyway, you could you give it to Specs while you're at it, you know. From me."
Matrix's message popped up again, and it was enough for Microsoft to feel like his head was going to explode. He got up and put the locket back into Adrian's hand.
"Why don't you go up and do it yourself, Ad?"
"Me? Up there?"
"That's what I said."
"But what if--"
Microsoft squeezed his shoulder making Adrian wince, and said in the lowest voice he could master. "Adrian. Fuck off."

Adrian blinked several times watching Microsoft walk out of the office towards the stairs. Then he looked around to see if anybody was listening, and making sure nobody cared, headed for the tubes.
It took Adrian several minutes of deep breathing and shaking off his nervousness before he made himself get into the line to the tubes. He'd never been higher than 50 floors, and he had no idea where to find Spectrum. Technical support was on the 67th, but Spectrum was on that super-secret team. Hell knew where she was now.
"Hey, Rivers!" a low male voice said behind him. 
He turned around as on cue along with a young blonde woman who was standing right before him. A huge black security guard met his eyes, and Adrian hurried to look away. 
"McKelly asked to see you right now," said the guard to the girl.
"Uh..okay." Adrian could swear the girl went pale. Both names sounded familiar. Microsoft might have mentioned them a couple of times, so Adrian followed the girl called Rivers in the hope to find Spectrum. 
On the eightieth floor he got out of the tube and waited. Rivers walked along the circular corridor entered an office on the other side of it, opposite Adrian. He considered if it was polite to just knock and ask where he could find Spectrum Faraday and, deciding it was in order, marched along the corridor. 
When he reached the point from where he could see the tube doors opposite himself he looked around trying to figure which office Rivers had entered. He pricked up his ears and got closer to the wall. Behind a picture of a woman who he recognized as Icon McKelly from press-releases he heard muffled voices.
"McKelly. I knew it sounded familiar," he muttered to himself and put his ear to the wall.
"I can't believe you kept it to yourself all this time!" a woman shouted.
"I didn't think it was up to me to tell anyone, Icon," the girl's voice said.
"Microsoft is going to die there, do you realize that? Or are you as dumb as it gets?"
"What?" Adrian whispered and listened in.
"I tried to persuade him to tell Mike everything, I did!" Rivers was on the brink of a breakdown.
"Well, you didn't try enough, sweetie! I should've talked to him earlier, I should've known the moment he locked himself in, the moment you walked out of that room. But you're right, it's not up to you, or me to say anything. That's why we're going to Matrix right now and I swear we're not leaving his office till it's sorted out."
Footsteps approached the opening, and Adrian jumped away from the wall right in time to see it disperse and reveal Icon dragging weeping Rivers out of the office. They stormed towards the tubes without noticing him. He crouched against the huge glass wall, panting heavily as if after a long sprint. He sweated and twitched in a feeble attempt to understand what to do. The dialogue crumbled to pieces in his head and in spite of his feverish efforts to put it back together only one phrase throbbed in his temples: "Microsoft is going to die there".
"I have to tell Mike," he told himself finally and slid his SC on with shaking fingers. After several failed flickers, he gave in and jumped to his feet, turned around and pressed his nose against the glass wall scanning the floors up and down the cylinder of the building for any sign of him. People scurrying to and fro like ants made him dizzy. He wiped the sweat off his eyebrows and dashed for the stairs.

Arone woke up feeling as if she hadn't slept at all. She looked around, checked the main room, the kitchen, the bathrooms, her SC; no trace of Microsoft anywhere. She tried flickering him once again, but was met with the same annoying 'On stand-by. Leave a message'. 
 Sakura's words were still on her mind, so she decided to drive to Fords Industries. She put some fresh clothes on, got into the car, set her climate control to 'beauty mode' and reached the office building in no time looking brisk and pretty.
"My name is Arone Stevenson, my partner's the Senior Designer here," she told a digi-guard at the garage entrance. It got her retina scanned and let her in. 
The sight of the building on the inside took her breath away. She stopped in the middle of the hall and gazed up at the tubes going up into the sky along the walls of a hollow transparent cylinder building, she squinted looking up the hypaethral tower, amazed at the way the blue patch of sky above her was reflected in each and every wall. She could see people up to the last floor, walking along the circular corridors. It was almost a taller version of Pantheon she had read about in books on lost architecture. 
"Can I help you?" She turned to see a tall black man without a badge or a ticker.
"I'm sorry, you are..."
"Mallory Okoloh," the man said. "Head of Security."
"Mr. Okoloh." Arone stretched her hand out which he took and shook quite vigorously.  "I'm looking for my partner, Microsoft Stevenson."
"Unfortunately, you can't see him, Mrs. Stevenson."
"May I ask why not?"
"He's on the rescue team. No one outside the office is allowed to see any of the team members today."
"I'm his partner, I'm not from the outside."
"Can't help you, mam."
"I just want to tell him a few words, that's all. Can't he just come down for a minute and--"
"I'm very sorry, today's closed for visitations."
"Forgive me, but I'll have to escort you out."
"Escort me? I'm not a criminal to escort me anywhere!" 
Arone's eyelashes fluttered indignantly, and since Mallory Okoloh clearly had no intention to let her in or anywhere but out of the building, she added "I'll find my way, thank you" and walked towards the garage door. 
Bitterness mixed itself with apprehension inside of her. As she almost reached the garage entrance, a man ran out from nowhere and bumped into her almost keeling her over.
"I'm so sorry... so sorry," the man said panting and helped her to steady herself.
"Watch where you're going. You could've killed me!" Arone yanked her arm out of his grasp.
"I just...please, hold on a second. Arone...stop, please..."
She halted in her tracks at the sound of her name. The man bent over trying to catch his breath.
"Do I know you?" She examined him from head to foot trying to place him in her mind.
"I'm Adrian Verlander, I work with Mike." Adrian straightened himself up and wiped his face with his sleeve.
"Mike? You know where Mike is? I need to see him."
"Yeah...me too...kinda. But I have no idea where he is, and his essie's dead or something, so I saw you through the glass and the line at the tubes was too long. So... I ran down.  How does Mike do that every morning? It's exhausting." He took another deep breath.
"What happened?" Arone asked, fluttering her eyelashes at Adrian.
"Ah, well. I'm not sure myself, but I heard these team mates of his say that this mission or whatever was dangerous or something..." 
Adrian made no sense. He wobbled towards the wall. "I think I'm gonna sit down for a bit." He slid down to the floor.
"Adrian, please." Arone squatted down beside him and shook him to senses by the shoulder. "Help me out. What did you hear? I don't understand what you mean." 
Adrian looked around cautiously, leaned closer to her and said, still panting:
"They said...he's gonna die or... something."
Arone's legs gave way and she collapsed on the floor trying not to faint.
"We have to find Mike," said Adrian. "We have to tell'im."
Arone tried his SC again but the reply didn't change. She got up to her feet and helped Adrian up too.
"Listen," she said. "Are you listening?"
"I am, I am," he nodded.
"You go up and find him whatever it takes, okay?"
"Yes, find him. Got it."
"I'll call some people. It's all gonna be fine."
"Yeah, yeah. All's fine. I'm gonna find him."
Adrian meant to go back upstairs, but Arone grabbed him by the shirt.
"Use the tubes," she said.
"Yes. The tubes. Logical." 
He sprinted into the gall. She watched him elbow some people aside and bump into Mallory, then raising his hands apologetically, make it for the tubes. Arone tried the opening to the stairs but it required a pass, so she gave up and went to her car, got in and for a couple of seconds struggled to hold the impending tears back. When she finally pulled herself together, she drove out of the garage and outside Ford Industries surveillance radius. She parked on a random street and flickered Celestro.

Icon pushed Stallone into the tube and on getting out snatched her by the arm again and marched along the corridor. Stallone was half walking half jogging beside Icon and couldn't stop crying.
"For the luck of Mac, stop the boohoo!" Icon looked at her with disgust. "I would think you'd know better, Rivers, honestly."
"He... told me Ford... ha-has something on him," said Stallone through sobs.
Icon halted in her tracks almost yanking Stallone's shoulder out of the socket, and shook her head.
"D'you know what...what it is?" asked Stallone.
"Yes, I know what it is," Icon hissed into her face. "But do you think anything in the world could be a reason enough to play God?"
She continued walking along the corridor, holding Rivers by the right arm. As they reached Matrix's office, Icon flickered him on the SC several times and having got no feedback banged on the wall.
"Mister effying Eroglou, open up now, or I swear I'll chew my way in." Icon almost fell into the office as the opening dispersed under her fists.
"Who do you think you are?" She let go of Rivers and marched in. "What right do you have to play with people's lives?" 
She opened her mouth to say something else but the sight of a surprised Matrix and a frowning Microsoft watching her intensely stopped her. Icon swept her eyes over the room for a moment to analyze the situation. 
The office was a mess. The wall displays were cracked, there was broken glass on the floor, and Matrix's T-shirt was torn at the sleeve. Matrix looked past Icon at Rivers, who stood in the opening, shaking with tears.
"You told him," said Icon, getting back Matrix's attention.
"Did everybody know except me?" Microsoft gave Matrix a bitter look.
"I've just found out," said Icon. "She, however," she pointed at Rivers, "knew all along. No one else does, unless WiFi and her two chipmunks have figured it out already."
"No one's going to figure out anything, okay?" Matrix stood. "Let's just all calm down and talk."
"There's nothing to talk about," said Microsoft. "I know you've risked a lot telling me this, so thank you. As for you," he turned to Icon. "Keep your mouth shut. This is my decision and I intend to stick to it."
"What decision?" Rivers spoke in a hoarse voice. Microsoft didn't answer, just stared at Matrix.
"You've got to be kidding..." Icon waved her long fingers at them in a sign of protest.
"This is my life, remember?" Microsoft rubbed his knuckles. There was blood on them. "I get to play with it, no one else."
"It's just not right! You have to think about it!" said Icon.
"I have thought about it," Microsoft turned to go. "So shut up and mind your own business." He left the three of them in a macabre speculation.
"Sit down," said Matrix to the Icon and Stallone. "I'll explain everything."

"Hey, what do I owe this much attention this week?" Celestro sounded relaxed and playful.
Arone didn't feel like playing at all. In fact, she'd punch Celestro if he was standing before her. "Listen to me very carefully. You tell me honestly and you tell me now. What's going on?" 
"What do you mean?"
"Stop it! Stop screwing with my family, Lester, what is it you and--"
"Sh-sh-sh... Arone, do you realize you can't do this on the essie?"
"You do realize I don't give a shit?" She covered her mouth to hold back tears, but her guard was already down. "He's gonna die, Lester, he's gonna die there and I'm desperate. I'm in the dark and it's killing me, and...and..." Tears ran down her cheek in wild streams. She cried soundlessly, shaking all over.
"Hey, hey...Calm down. Arone? Please. Breathe and talk to me."
She gave out a sob and leaned back breathing deeply.
"Right now I can't tell you everything," said Celestro. "But I will, I promise. I'm gonna fix it. All will be fine. I have everything under control, nothing to worry about. Mike's gonna be fine, I give you my word. Do you believe me?..Arone, do you believe me?"
"Yes..." she whispered. "I want to very much."
"Nothing will happen to him. I won't let anything happen to him."
"Go to work, he'll call you when it's all over. I promise he will."

Celestro hung up and stretched himself leisurely. He stared at the ceiling thoughtfully clicking his tongue.
"How the hell did you find out?" he muttered to himself, then shouted out Causse's name. The concierge appeared at the opening.
"Is the oxygen room ready?"
"Yes, sir."
He waved him off, got up and headed upstairs for the oxygen room, humming a lively tune.

четверг, 13 июня 2013 г.


Chapter XVII
The Night Celestro Told the Truth

The familiar dragon loomed in the distance and Microsoft accelerated. Arone had left another dozen of messages he didn't want to check. After the memories had come to him in full and because he didn't only know, but could actually remember what had happened, a concrete protective wall appeared in his mind and in his heart. In spite of all his struggles the wall wouldn't go away. He asked himself if he loved Arone as he had before, but avoided the answer and dismissed the thoughts as soon as they would crawl out from behind the other things on his mind. 
He parked at the parlor, looked at his SC again and deleted the messages. He got out of the car and marched towards the entrance, readjusting his scarf.
"How's life, old bugger?" greeted him Rafael and peered at his neck. "What's with the scarf?"
"You may stop grinning now, Raf. I need it removed today."
"I admire your self-chastisement, my friend. I thought you had it removed as soon as you came home."
"But you said it was a three-day... son of a ..." Rafael was roaring with laughter.
"Okay, alright. Go on, then, make fun of me." Microsoft crossed his armed on his chest and leaned against the counter.
"Spare me your zoolander look," said Rafael, wiping off the tears. "Let's go, I'll wash it off." 
Rafael headed for Rib Seven followed by a bedaffled Microsoft.
"Wash? It could've been washed off? I'm telling you, Raf, if I didn't love you like I do, I'd kick your ass."
"If I didn't love you like I do, dick-neck, I'd make your pretty neon art permanent." Rafael entered the Rib.
The tattoo was removed in a matter of seconds, and when Rafael prepared another patch Microsoft raised his hand in protest. "No way! Uh-uh, not this time."
"So, what are we supposedly doin' in here, bugger? It's a tattoo parlor, not a love nest. Speakin' of which, why the hell are you not home with your pretty little mistress?"
"Have something to take care of."
"At that hour? That slum did get to you, didn't he. Waitin' for you outside in a fancy car, is he?"
"I appreciate your help, Raf, but some stuff is just none of your business."
Microsoft got up, grabbed his scarf and headed for the back exit.
"No wonder your woman stepped out on ya!"
Microsoft turned on his heels and lunged at Rafael pinning him to the wall with one hand and holding the other one up, about to strike. Rafael squeezed his eyes tight, ready to take the blow, but Microsoft lowered his shaking fist and grabbing Rafael by the collar bumped him into the wall again. "That was too far, Raf, that was just too far!"
He released him and was off to the familiar black hoverblimp waiting for him behind the parlor.

"All's ready, the connection is perfect." Rawotzki gave Mike his SC back. "It'll transmit all the data to me, and we'll have the evidence we need."
"What if they tell me to take it off?"
"They won't. You'll have to run the boy's license through your essie to reprogram it. I don't think they'll use another one, it's easier to just connect you to the computer and run the program, since yours is already personalized."
Microsoft's SC flickered.
"Something important?" asked Rawotzki sipping his whiskey.
"No." Microsoft deleted the unanswered message. Rawotzki's glance lingered a second too long on the ice balls in the glass, then he took a tiny black box out of his pocket.
"Please don't tell me you're gonna propose." 
The remark made Celestro smile. "Your sense of humor is back, I like it," he said. "But relax, it's not a ring." He opened the box, and first Microsoft thought it was empty, but then something inside it sparkled in the light.
"Give me your right hand."
Microsoft stretched his hand out to him. Celestro took a transparent square wafer out of the box, stuck it to Microsoft's arm a little below the wrist and pushed. The wafer went instantly under Microsoft's skin.
"What the hell?" Microsoft jerked his hand back, but it was too late. The wafer was already inside.
"Don't worry, it's just a jammer. It'll self-destroy right after the operation's over. It'll dissolve in your system and be out in a natural way." Celestro took his glass again and leaned back.
Microsoft touched the spot where the wafer was supposed to be with his thumb, but the wafer was so thin and flexible that he could hardly feel it. "What does it do?"
"In simple words, it works like an invisibility cloak - conceals any unidentified processes running along with the controlled ones through your SC. As soon as the operation's over and all the information has been successfully transmitted, the jammer will be gone. Perfectly safe, imperceptible and traceless."
Microsoft's SC flickered again, he rolled his eyes and switched it off. At the very moment Celestro's i-contacts sparkled. Microsoft was too late to react; Celestro had already touched his earring.
"Um...hey!" he said to the caller, widening his eyes at Microsoft, who had puffed out his cheeks and let the air out in exasperation. Celestro touched his SC-earring again and Arone's angry voice got through.
"Do you hear me? Let me talk to him! I know he's with you. Don't you dare lie to me and say he's not!"
Microsoft shook his head frantically.
"Why don't you flick him--" started Celestro
"You know damn well I did!" Arone's voice got louder.
Celestro looked at Microsoft quizzically, but he shook his head again.
"He...erm, went upstairs. But I'll tell him you flicked. Bye."
"Lester, if you--"
Celestro hung up. Microsoft stood, walked across the room to the window, peered into the darkness for a while, then said in a low voice.
"Can I crash here tonight?"
Celestro didn't answer, and Microsoft turned around to find him gaping, a glass of whiskey tipped to the side. Staying at Celestro's house wasn't a good idea, and Microsoft was about to reconsider, when Celestro recovered from shock.

"Sure." He put the glass back on the table, took it again and drank the amber liquid in gulps. "Take any room you want upstairs." 
Microsoft moved towards the opening.
"You wanna talk?" said Celestro after a pause.
"With you? About my wife? No, thanks."
"Why are you shutting her out? It can't be just the memories. You're afraid she'll talk you out of your plan, aren't you?"
Microsoft froze in the opening for a second, then walked on without turning around or saying a word.
"You are, aren't you," muttered Celestro to himself when the opening had closed. "And it's a good thing you don't talk."

"Lester, if you hang up on me, I swear I... Lester? Damn you both!" Arone pulled her SC off her hand and slammed it against the wall. Red light went on, then turned to green and went off again. The device self-recovered. 
After a minute of huffing and puffing, she picked it up and put it on again. Panic was getting more palpable inside her. She was excluded and could do nothing about it. 
On an impulse, she ran out of the apartment, locked the door and went to the garage. She got in her car, started it and shut it down again. She felt like crying, but tears wouldn't come. Her mind traveled over the recent events, then went back to five years before, but she still couldn't understand why Microsoft had chosen Celestro over her. What changed? What had she done? She got out of the car and went back home determined to wait for her husband.
In the middle of the night she gave up, realizing nobody was going to come.
She fumbled with her SC in hesitation, clicked on a contact and lied back with closed eyes, waiting for an answer. After a while she heard a soft euphonious 'Hello'.
"Sakura, it's me. Sorry to disturb you so late," she said.
"I'm happy to hear you. Are you alright?"
"No, I'm not."
"What's the matter?"
"Is it true you have a deal with Lester?"
Sakura spoke after a pause.
"Just work. I didn't want you to think too much of it, so I chose not to mention it."
"What does he want from you?"
"An upcoming business deal, that's all. But this is not the reason you're calling me, right?"
"What are you so sad about?"
"Micro hasn't spoken with me since your last session. And now he's stayed at Lester's for the night."
"Have you tried talking to him?"
"Yes, a million times. He just ignores me, makes up excuses. Last time he literally ran away from me."
"Are you worried he feels differently or are you angry he's not telling you about his plans?"
"Both. But it's not just me. Five years ago they were planning something, they didn't tell me what it was. And then Lester and I... well, you know. I couldn't ask Lester after what had happened between us, and Micro didn't remember anything. I just don't know what to think. It's like they've become best friends all over again, like everything's forgotten."
"Arone, listen. Whatever it is, it can't be good."
Arone, who was used to Sakura's tendency to take no sides and to judge no one, was a little taken aback by the sudden objectivity.
"Why do you think so?"
"I have a hunch. Just listen, Rawotzki is not an honest man, you shouldn't trust him. Find a way to talk to Microsoft."
"I don't know, go to his work in the morning. Just do it. But now go to bed and have a rest."
"What kind of a hunch? What do you know? Sakura?.. Damn it! Why's everyone hanging up on me today?"
Arone took her relaxers off the bed-side table, plugged them into her ears, turned them on to the limit and fell asleep immediately.

Microsoft couldn't sleep. He kept rewinding the next day over and over again in his head making sure everything was going to be perfect. The only thing that didn't work out in his imagination was his conversation with his father. He saw himself coming out of the training room, savior of the world, going straight to Ford's office and saying in a loud epic voice "You go down, papa." Or he could stand outside Ford Industries when the police would bring Ford out of the building and then throw "Hey, Dad" at him. Every time it was epic, heroic and unnatural. The most natural thing would be to talk to Arone and let himself be convinced to set things straight with Ford peacefully, but Microsoft couldn't imagine anything good coming out of it either. 
Knowing Ford for so many years, he knew there could only be one way the old man would react - offer Microsoft money and tell him to shut up. Nevertheless, there was so much he wanted to say to him. 
Microsoft propped himself up on his elbows and looked around. The room had been stripped for redecoration and there was hardly anything there - plain brown walls resembling wood, a built-in bar, the ceiling was one huge screen that glowed white almost imperceptibly. Mike got up and went to the bar: there were a couple of wine bottles and lots of whiskey. Microsoft wondered if he was in Celestro's bedroom. 
He closed the bar and went out of the room. It was quiet and dark in the corridor, so he switched on the light on his SC and went along towards the stairs. 
He loved the house, because it was a little old-fashioned and creative. He'd always wanted a house like that, but knew he could never afford it. Maybe after it's all over I'll get the insurance big enough to build one, he thought. 
As he reached the stairs, footsteps over his head startled him. A whiff of fine flower odor reached his nose; he knew exactly who was upstairs. Microsoft hesitated, ready to turn back and go to his room, but loneliness came over him with a new strength, making him long irresistibly for presence of another human being. 
He took a cautious step up, then another one and in no time he was already standing in the orchard, surrounded by red and white poinsettias and dark memories. The smell and the images overwhelmed him and he made a move to go back, but Celestro called him by name.
"I couldn't sleep," said Microsoft. Celestro rested in a white swing sofa outlined by moonlight and reminded Microsoft of an apparition. 
"Come, sit down," he said. 
Microsoft walked through the flowers careful not to touch any, which felt ridiculous, but he just couldn't help it. He joined Celestro on the sofa and looked up at the open sky. Them sitting like this on a sofa among flowers felt ridiculous too.
"Are you sure you weren't going to propose?" asked Microsoft, grinning at Celestro.
"What's the point, you're already taken." Celestro returned his grin with a wry smile.
"You didn't seem to mind five years ago." 
Mention of Arone and the affair rippled the even atmosphere of the night. Celestro rested his head on the sofa back.
"I did what I did. What's the point kicking about it?"
"Would you do it again?" The question resounded like a stone dropped in an empty church. They sat there for a while as if listening to the echo, and when the awkwardness turned to physical pain, Celestro spoke.
"She wouldn't do it again." 
He might as well slapped Microsoft right across the face, but there was comfort in that.  Arone made a mistake she wasn't going to repeat, and Celestro was in love. Microsoft knew Arone long enough to understand what it meant to be in love with her.
"I think," he said in a low tired voice. "That might actually be the first honest thing you've ever said. A bit evasive for my taste, but honest. I think I've just got sleepy." Microsoft stood up and staggered, exhaustion hitting his legs, he steadied himself by Celestro's shoulder and Celestro put his hand over his. 
"Here's another thing, honest and direct. I'm really sorry for everything that happened. You are my friend and I love you, and I want you to remember this. I'm sorry and I love you."
"And you're drunk." 
Microsoft freed his hand and squinted at the black sky that started to dissolve into grayish blue.
"It's dawning," he said half to himself.
"All's gonna be fine, Mike. I'll sort everything out. You're gonna be fine, I promise."
"Yeah... I'll grab some sleep, then. I only have a couple hours."
Microsoft walked towards the exit hearing Celestro thump against the sofa. He glanced around to find him lying on his back apparently already asleep, his jacket undone the tattooed torso painted silver by the moonlight. Microsoft scoffed at himself, because the sight was ridiculous, but in some inexplicable way it made him feel something he'd never expected he would at that place and at that time. He felt safe.