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.
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."
"You gotta be shitting me."
"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?"
He waved him off, got up and headed upstairs for the oxygen room, humming a lively tune.