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.