The Day Before"Did you willingly activate the algorithm that caused the death of Diod Medina?"
"Yes-- No! I wasn't aware of the consequences."
"Did you willingly activate it?"
"Nobody forced me, so... yes."
"Have you ever discussed the possibility of a lethal outcome for Diod Medina with Mr. Celestro Aurelius Ford, a.k.a. Mr. Celestro Rawotzki?"
"Have you or have you not?"
"Yes, as a joke."
"As a joke?"
"I didn't mean to say that. It's not that we were joking about him dying... what I mean to say is we haven't discussed it as a real possibility. Though, Mr. Rawotzki mentioned it as something that would have a grave impact on Ford Industries."
"Please, avoid commentaries and give a concise answer."
"No, we have not."
"Was anyone else aware of the plan you claim to have devised with Mr. Celestro Aurelius Ford, a.k.a. Mr. Celestro Rawotzki?"
"No, only me and him. What's up with the name string? Can't you make up your mind?"
"Do you have any grounds to believe your partner, Arone Stevenson, could draw conclusions from your actions or any evidence available to her that may have led to her being in any way familiar with any part of the aforementioned plan?"
"God, no!.. What?"
"Do you have--"
"Okay, okay, whatever you say, but my wife has nothing to do with it and she wasn't involved in any way."
Microsoft felt sick. His arm, that had completely healed, seemed to start throbbing with pain again. The interrogator might as well have been a digiofficer, his face hardly moved except for his mouth that produced monotonous trail of questions. After a while Microsoft doubted the sound came from his mouth and not from some recorder hidden inside of that robot of a man.
"How was Mr. Rafael Mozes van Rijn involved in the crime in question?"
"The evidence is clear that Mr. Rafael Mozes van Rijn has enabled your passage through the back door of his parlor on multiple occasions, each time on the night of you being taken to Mr. Celestro Rawotzki's mansion to a pre-arranged secret meeting with Mr. Celestro Aurelius Ford, a.k.a. Mr. Celestro Rawotzki. Do you deny it?"
"Is there a special school where you're trained to use as many words as you can squeeze into a sentence?"
The interrogator took his emotionless eyes off the display on his table, for the first time in two hours, and Microsoft felt as if he'd been spiked through the head by a red-hot arrow. He started sweating.
"Do you deny it?" the inquisitor repeated in the exact same tone.
The piercing eyes went back down to the display.
"Who else had a direct or indirect complicity in the crime in question?"
"You've already asked me that, haven't you?"
Another arrow flew through Microsoft's head, and he threw up his arms in defeat. After a two-hour interrogation he felt like a squeezed orange. After he had given his summarized version of the story, which had taken him under 10 minutes, he thought there was nothing more to tell, let alone to ask. But the interrogator seemed to have an infinite list of questions that were meant to torture witnesses and make them confess all the crimes they didn't commit.
"Answer the question," the interrogator said, his eyes fixating Microsoft in place.
"No one else was directly or indirectly involved."
"Do you plead guilty?"
"Guilty of what?" Microsoft decided that two can play the game, but he had underestimated the officer.
"Do you plead guilty of murder in the death of a 14-year-old boy Diod Medina?"
"No, if you put it that way."
"Yes or no."
"Do you plead guilty of abetting the commission of the said crime with a malicious intent?"
"Do you plead guilty of being complicit to the crime?"
"Do you plead guilty on conspiring against you employer..."
"...with the intention to expose the confidential information regarding your employer acting mala fide..."
"Oh, that's what we call murdering employees now - mala fide!"
"...and presenting illegally obtained evidence of a federal crime, which is teleportation back in time, committed by your employer?"
"Are you listening to yourself?"
"Do you or do you not?"
Microsoft felt an urge to hit the interrogator in his stone expressionless face, but he doubted it would bring any emotion to the fish eyes of the man. He gave up.
"You may go." That meant Microsoft could go back to the Federal Quarters where all the witnesses had been accommodated until the resolution of the case.
Microsoft unhitched himself from the hover chair and staggered out of the inquisition room, shaking his sleepy legs.
When he reached the room assigned to him, his lawyer, Lyonel Geragos, was already waiting for him. After a two-hour struggle with a human machine this pleasant and empathetic man was like a drink of water in the desert.
"Well, that wasn't so bad," Lyonel said, greeting Microsoft with an encouraging smile.
"Have you been watching the whole time?" Microsoft already felt sorry for Lyonel. He wouldn't wish his worst enemy to sit through those two hours of endless blabber.
"No, I'm not allowed to, but I got the report." Lyonel tapped on the SC, and Microsoft expected a display to pop up, but nothing happened. Instead, Lyonel indicated for him to sit down at the table opposite him and started talking while drawing squares and triangles in the air with his hands as he explained the situation.
"So, they've checked your blood and found the nano-chips of the memory blocker, they've also checked your SC, and your testimony proved to be correct here too, but only the part that an alien code had been installed on it. Celestro Rawotzki will be arrested within a few minutes, though, on suspicion of being your accomplice. Oh, and the date of the hearing is set for tomorrow."
Microsoft's stomach tightened, and he didn't know whether it was because he was disgusted even to hear the name, or because he felt guilty of betraying someone, even if it was the most monstrous creature he'd ever met. He wasn't a betrayer, he told himself, he was doing justice to the boy who had been deprived of a chance to grow up, to build a career, to have a family, and the man who was responsible for this was soon to get what he deserved. At least Microsoft hoped he would.
"Are you with me?"
Microsoft heard a click of fingers that startled him.
"Yes." He focused on Lyonel.
"Good. Anyway, there's no evidence to prove your ignorance of the whole matter. You and Rawotzki, you left almost no traces at all, which could be admirable under different circumstances. The attempt to block your memory and your heroic self-slashing could be interpreted either way: for one, you could have been trying to make it look like you're an innocent victim, or it could have been him trying to cover up something you know."
"I also doubt that Rawotzki will let you get away with it, once he learns that you're sound in mind and disposition and have just given testimony against him."
"I doubt that too. So... what do we do?"
"We dig." Lyonel made a sinking gesture with his hands put together which seemed to Microsoft as an indication of his own imminent fall.
"Rawotzki's sister not much help, most of the useful information she must have is confidential due to her position, so we can't use it," Lyonel continued.
"What sister?" Microsoft wondered if he had aftereffects of memory loss.
"Sakura Takano." Lyonel sounded surprised.
"Bitch," said Microsoft.
"I'm sorry. It must come as a shock for you, I know she'd been your consultant for almost seven years."
"Was she involved?"
"Not that I know of. Arone tells me Mz. Takano didn't have a clue of her brother's plans. Speaking of Arone. Normally, she wouldn't be able to be a witness because you're married, but we are very lucky...well, I say lucky, we are entitled to use her testimony, because our case went international. So--"
"No." Microsoft shook his head. "We don't. I don't want her mixed up in this."
"But she is an important witness of you as a person of good faith."
"Please, Lyonel, leave her out of this."
"You don't make my job easier, do you," said Lyonel with a sigh. "Well, then, let's hope Ford has at least some sense of conscience left."
Lyonel's SC flickered and he raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise.
"That was fast," he said. "Rawotzki's here."
Microsoft's heart dropped.
All Microsoft wanted was to run away screaming. He should have never cut out the memory blocker. An innocent boy had died because he was too blinded by his hatred for a fake father to see what was really going on. He was betrayed by someone he considered to be his friend, the same person who made a crack in his relationships with Arone, the crack that seemed irreparable. It was the same man who made him look like a murderer, and Microsoft was the one who had to prove the opposite, had to sit through countless interrogations, endure the pitiless sting of the press and the poignant lamentations of the grieving mother.
Celestro, on the other hand, appeared to be a victim of a terrible turn of events, accused only by Microsoft with no substantial evidence at hand. Celestro's name was mentioned nowhere, not even in Mike's letters to Ford or Rafael. He went cold and he must have looked really terrified, because Lyonel kept saying his name and having got no reaction started shaking him by the shoulders.
"Mike, do you feel unwell? Should I call the doctor?"
"I'm going to be exiled, ain't I?" He stared into space, and got a hard slap across his face, which made his cheek burn but did help to wake out of the comatose.
"Stop thinking like that," snapped Lyonel.
"But you don't have any evidence against him, it's just my words and they weigh nothing." Microsoft sounded like a whining toddler who's been refused a ride in a theme park, but he couldn't help it.
"We have your team, we have the Doodads shop where your SC had been reprogrammed, they agreed to testify that they had been paid to do it by ZP. We have Rafael, even without any substantial evidence he'll make Rawotzki look bad. The old man hates him so much he does it almost subconsciously. We finally, hopefully, have Ford, for whatever that's worth. There's a lot to go on. Enough to build on."
That didn't convince Microsoft, but he had no chance to say anything, because Lyonel's SC flickered again and made the normally contained lawyer roll his eyes and scowl.
"What else?" asked Microsoft.
"Mr. Rawotzki's just exercised his right to talk to one person apart from his attorney."
"Is there such a right? I've talked to more than one, I guess, and I'm almost a convicted murderer."
"You weren't the key suspect when you did. In case of an international offense there is a strict rule that a suspect isn't allowed to talk to anyone apart from the attorney to avoid compromising the investigation. A suspect has a right to see one person, though, but people usually ask to see a relative or a partner."
"Who did he asked to see?" Butterflies in Microsoft's stomach turned into huge ugly dung beetles, tossing and turning inside of him.
"He asked to see you." Lyonel's face darkened with thoughts.
"But this is not the right to see one person, this is a face-to-face, isn't it? I'm witnessing against him, so, it's logical he would like to confront me on this."
"No, he specifically asked to speak to you outside any trial proceedings. Your meeting will be recorded, of course, but we can't use any of your conversation with him as evidence in court."
"Then, I don't want to see him." Microsoft crossed his arms. "I can refuse, can't I?"
"Yes," said Lyonel, "But it would be most unwise to do so."
"What, it makes my situation worse than it already is?"
"That, and the fact that if you talk to him, we will be able to see what position he's taking, which can have a critical impact on our strategy of defense."
Microsoft covered his face with his hands, slid his fingers up the forehead and through his hair and rested them on his nape for a while shaking his head in a stubborn denial. He didn't want to see Celestro, let alone talk to him, but he knew he had to.
"Okay, let's get it over with." He stood and let a satisfied Lyonel usher him out.
Sakura, still boiling with rage, lay on the sofa glaring at her brother who was pacing in front of her and yelling at some employee of his on the SC.
"I don't care how much it may cost, just get me what they know... Why the hell was he in hospital?.. I'm not asking you to get into the tenth dimension, am I? It's people, they are easier to crack than a chestnut. Do whatever it takes!.. My goodness, I'm working with idiots!" Celestro collapsed on the sofa, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers.
"Aren't you too wound up for someone who's innocent?" said Sakura in a grave voice.
"Why are you even here?" He twisted to his left to give her an irritated look.
"I'm still your sister. Where am I supposed to be?"
"Comforting Arone or something, I don't know!"
"I'm not her favorite person at the moment, thanks to you," she snapped without even bothering to control her emotions.
"But you have to know something." There was a sudden hope in his voice. "You were interrogated, weren't you? You must have seen Arone or Mike?"
"For the hundredth time, Lester, the only person I saw was the soulless officer who let me go after five minutes because, as a senior psychiatrist, I'm not allowed to reveal information."
"Useless... you're useless." Celestro leaned back on the sofa with his eyes closed.
"And you're pathetic," she hissed.
"Yes! Did you dig up anything?" Celestro jumped onto his feet so abruptly, that Sakura had to grab the back of the sofa not to fall off it. It took her a moment to realize he was talking to someone from his company again. He started pacing while he was listening, then something he heard brought him up short, he went pale and turned his horrified face to Sakura.
"He cut it out?" he whispered.
"Cut what out? Who?" Sakura got off the sofa. Footsteps in the hall made them both turn their heads with a start. The next moment federal agents appeared in the opening with a warrant to arrest Celestro Rawotzki.
When he was led along a dim narrow corridor to the visitation room, Microsoft caught a glimpse of the outside. The Federal Quarters were little different from a prison, he supposed: everything inside the building was dull and plain, and there were shimmering electric bars visible on the windows. Through them he could see commercial buildings with little people hurrying back and forth along the hallways. It seemed he was in a different city and in a different time. The sky was wearing an unfamiliar grey veil across its face, drizzling tears down on the colorless roofs. It was the first day of the rainy week, Microsoft remembered, and it was strange to see the city in a gloom of the foul weather. Somehow, though, it felt right in the circumstances, more comforting than the sun could ever be.
A dark-green wall whooshed open before Microsoft, and he squinted away from the bright light coming from inside the room. After a moment, when his eyes adjusted, he saw Celestro sitting at a wooden table in the middle of the room. Not a hovertable, Microsoft noted with a surprise, a normal dark-brown table that had four legs rooted firmly in the floor. Celestro seemed relaxed, his hands lying openly in front of him. He was leaning against the back of his hoverchair in his usual nonchalant manner, but for a moment Microsoft could swear Celestro went stiff and his lips as he saw his opponent enter the room.
Microsoft sat down, a little reassured by this subtle sign of nervousness on Celesro's side. The opening closed up, and they were left alone in a brightly lit room, surrounded by nothing but pale walls that gave out obscure green sheen. They were surely concealing spy screens. Bright white sconces dotted the perimeter of the room like alligator spikes.
Microsoft stared at one of the sconces till his eyes started to hurt, then blinked away seeing everything through dazzling circles of light. Celestro kept examining him with his head tilted, like Microsoft was a curious museum piece.
"Is our time out yet?" said Microsoft after a while, squeezing his eyes shut to get rid of the remnants of the reflected fluorescence.
"I'm sorry you hurt your arm," said Celestro. Microsoft reflectively moved his hand to the spot on his arm where the wound had been.
"So you should be." He looked his used-to-be friend directly in the eye.
"I hope you understand why I had to do it."
"Which part, killing the boy or trying to make me forget? Or maybe screwing my wife or my life for that matter? Or maybe lying to me about your father being mine?"
"So, he told you," said Celestro without as much as a blink.
"I was stupid enough to write him a letter. I told him I forgave him for everything he'd done and I was sorry there was no time left for me to tell him that in person, because I was going to die, for his sake. But you knew that all along."
"I didn't know about the letter, but I should've guessed. Sentiment has always been your weakness."
"And hatred has been yours. Look where it got you now."
Celestro studies the table. "So far, it got me nowhere I can't get out of."
Microsoft's face twisted with disgust.
"You were denied by your father and still became anything one can ever wish to be. Tell me, how come this is a reason enough to kill an innocent child?"
"What happened to Diod Medina was a terrible accident."
"Don't try to play me, Celestro. I know you changed the algorithm and I hate myself for being so blind, because his blood is on my hands now too." Pain deep inside Microsoft felt like a tiny snowball, rolling and growing into an avalanche.
"You know nothing," said Celstro in the same calm voice. "Matrix Eroglou messed up the algorithm, probably, because he wanted to finally be free from Ford, or maybe he was just mad at his boss who held the poor genius on a leash like a dog. He was planning this whole operation for a long time, avoiding his colleagues, devising the whole operation on his own without as much as an explanation to his team members. Now he's gone, because he's guilty."
"What are you talking about?" Microsoft couldn't believe his ears. Celestro leaned forward on his elbows and there was a silent cry in his eyes.
"Think about it, Mike. He tricks you into sacrificing yourself, he has your SC all along, he could have done anything. He's smart enough to fool anyone, but not me. He set us up, and now you're stupidly playing right into his hands."
Microsoft watched Celestro with such dread that words failed him. He moved his lips but no sound would come out. He was aghast even more when he realized that what Celestro was saying made sense, except there was no way it could be true.
"Not a word," Microsoft whispered finally. "Not. Another. Word."
"We just wanted to expose a crime, a federal crime. Yes, I lied to you about your family ties, but a little lie means nothing if it helps expose a federal offense, right? As a good citizen it was my duty to prevent a terrible violation of the International Law, and I can only be sorry that I failed in my attempt to expose it before the incorrigible happened."
"What... how... I'm not..." Microsoft stumbled at every word.
"I knew you would blame yourself and tell Ford about your feelings. Then you would know he was not your father. That's why I put a memory blocker into your arm, to spare you and spare myself the unnecessary association with this criminal. But I deeply regret doing so, because you deserved to know the truth. Now I realize that." Celestro leaned forward closer to Mike. "We can get through this," he said under his breath. "We didn't do anything wrong."
"You, bastard." Microsoft leaned back. "One human sacrifice just wasn't enough to satisfy your divine appetite, was it? Now you want another innocent man to pay for your crimes. Matrix was a thousand times as good a person as you could ever be, even if you lay you life for it. Don't you dare say anything against him, do you hear me? Don't you dare!" Microsoft dug his nails into the wooden surface of the table without noticing. When he jerked his hands away from Celestro, there were tiny red threads of blood left where he had scratched the table. White with rage, he grasped the arm-rests of his hoverchair to keep himself from tearing Celestro apart on the spot.
"All I ever wanted is for her... and you to be happy." Celestro's voice cracked just a little.
"Well," Microsoft sneered. "You made a pretty crappy job of it, now, didn't you?"
"I don't blame you for hating me--"
"Blame me?" Microsoft couldn't sit quietly anymore. He shot up to his feet and put his hands on the table, now towering over it, his voice rising with every word he said. "The boy is dead. Dead. Do you realize that? He was fourteen, for Chrysler's sake, and you killed him! Now you're talking about me, about Arone, and happiness of all things? What kind of a monster are you?"
"There's more to life than you think." Every tiny line in Celestro's face went rigid.
"What do you know about life? You have no regard for human life, except your own!"
"I'm not a monster. Ford's a monster! He was ready to kill you to save the shitty company of his. He just reaped what he sowed."
"Are you insane or just pretending? It's not about him, or you, or me!" spat Microsoft into his face.
"You don't know what I've been through, Mike!" Celestro rose to his feet too and faced his opponent.Their foreheads were practically touching. "You don't know anything about me!"
"You right, I don't! But you wanna know what I see? I see a beast, a selfish inhuman creature who's ready to sacrifice anyone and anything to satisfy his own pride. And you know who I see? I see Ford oozing through you, through every word you say, through every move you make."
"I'm not like him," said Celestro in a wavering voice.
"In what way are you not?" Microsoft became suddenly quiet. He articulated every word, making sure to deliver every single letter. "He traded his son for a career, you traded the only friend you ever had for stupid revenge, you wiped your boots on me and my wife. He gave orders to kill a man, you executed a man with your bare hands. Now you're trying to put it on someone else, because you're too much of a coward to face the music that you had composed. You are both murderers. But you know the best part of it? He's better than you, because he had given you a chance and you blew it.
"You chose to be alone, and you'll die alone. You don't deserve to have a friend, or a sister, or a father. And it's your fault. All of it is your fault. I was your friend, Lester, and Arone was too. She maybe even loved you. But now she can't stand even to hear your name. I thought there had to be something good in you, something I was missing because I hated you so much."
Microsoft walked away from the table and squeezed his temples with his shaking hands. "You know, I've been thinking and thinking, trying to find anything to justify what you had done, anything at all. But arguments kept slipping through my fingers, because nothing can justify you. I thought, maybe, a puny bit of humanity, or conscience, or at least courage was left in you, somewhere deep in your heart, but I was wrong, because there is no heart, there can't be. Not in you."
Microsoft turned away and walked towards the wall. He stood there in silence, shivering for several seconds with his back to Celestro. Finally, the opening dispersed, and he dashed out of the room.
Celestro swallowed, his throat felt dry and rough. His legs gave way, and he sank onto the chair and didn't move until he was pushed up to his feet and led to his room.