T minus Twenty-one
CJ trotted easily down the middle-ring corridor of the center-level. The three surviving members of her team followed closely behind. As she passed a missile storage bay and a power substation she had a nagging feeling that she had seen this layout before.
Finally, in the distance, she could make out a half-cylindrical mound running across the corridor. She knew it was not merely a random obstacle. Rather, she was looking at part of a plasma beam tubea cylinder that flared slowly as it extended from the core to the hull of the ship. The full tube diameter was probably about eight feet, but only a four-foot wide section protruded through the floor.
When CJ saw the plasma tube, in that location, she knew where she was. She was in a Shiva II mockup. Like most of the training facilities, it was scaled down by a factor of ten; it had just as many combat robots as a real Shiva, but it didnt have the vast miles of distance to runso you could pack a full days campaign into a couple of hours. CJ and her teammates would get plenty of practice running in their exoskeletal armored frames on the racetracks before the fighting.
They hugged the inner wall as they ran. Then Morgans voice came through her earpiece: "CJ, hall middle."
CJ hopped to the center of the corridor even as she considered the consequences of running a Shiva II mockup. The good news was that there shouldnt be any advanced robots in the simulation. She had wondered why they hadnt encountered anything more challenging that a roboguard; now she knew.
She had sprinted barely three steps before she saw an intersection coming up. At the same time she saw why Morgan had moved her to the center. She could just make out the shoulder of a roboguard lurking around the corner.
She did not hesitate; she raced down the hall and swept around the corner, hitting the roboguard with the blunt end of her spike even as Morgan commanded, "CJ, freeze!"
The spike, a pole almost as long as CJ was tall, with a sharp tip and a hook at one end, struck the robot in the center of its breastplate. The machine took no damage. No surprise therethe breastplate was the machines thickest armor. But the force of her charge had knocked the machine back. It swayed on both legs and whirled all four arms in a desperate effort to regain its balance. CJ quickly flipped her staff and jammed the sharp tip beneath the plate. She thrust and levered, and the roboguard split apart with a shattering crack.
Unfortunately, the roboguard had not been alone. CJ already knew what Morgan was now telling her team: "Two minitanks, Mark II. Akira, sweep. Lars, decoy. Axel, ambush." Morgan said nothing to CJ. She guessed that Morgan had assumed she would be killed by the minitanks before he could even give her instructions.
But CJ was leaping in the air even as the closer minitank swung its blade. The minitank was fast, but CJ was faster. The blade missed her leg by a fraction of an inch as she tucked, spun, and landed behind the robots. She snapped the spike into its sheath on her armor frame while she unholstered her pellet pistol.
The robot that had swung at her was out of position and vulnerable, its back to her. CJ pointed the pistol at the floor behind the tank and pulled the trigger for a short burst. Three pellets hit the floor, ricocheted underneath the tank, and struck the robot in its unarmored belly. The minitanks four legs collapsed suddenly, its pair of arms waving in the air.
The other minitank had already turned on her, and its blade-arm hissed through the air as it rushed her. CJ jumped back, but this time she was not quite fast enough. The blade struck her frame. A real Shiva blade would have shattered the frame and removed her leg, but this was a trainer, not an enemy, and the frame responded to the strike by bending CJs leg at the knee. The frame locked her leg in this awkward position, simulating the loss.
The minitank swung for another strike, but Akira was already firing his pellet gun, and this minitank stopped as suddenly as its brother had moments earlier.
Morgan spoke, "Akira, lead. Double-time. Left wall."
CJ once more swapped her gun for her staff, but this time she used the staff as a crutch. She trailed behind. Her exertion started to take a toll; soon her lungs felt like bursting. She hobbled along faster.
Even with a one-tenth scale mockup the distance from the middle-ring to the ship core was four miles. Everyone had their suits set to carry only the weight of the frame to save powereveryone except CJ, who had to pump up the suit amplification, just to keep up. She watched the pressure gauges on her compressed air cylinders fall with alarming speed. A sinking suspicion took root that she would not make it. She, like all Angels before her, found herself wishing desperately that she could carry a real power pack and a full-sized fuel cell or two to drive electrical motors for the suit. But all the stealth technology in the world couldnt protect Argo from detection if the ship had even small chunks of ferrous metal on board. Electric motors were simply out of the question.
Finally the arch of the Gate came into view. Three minitanks and four roboguards patiently awaited their arrival.
"Lars, pellets, roboguards," Morgan said. Lars stepped to the center of the hall, lifted his pellet rifle, and started firing as CJ hopped passed him. Using the rifle against mere roboguards seemed profligate to CJ, but they only had to get past this one squad to win. MacBride undoubtedly knew what he was doing.
"Lars, cease fire. Catch up. Akira, sweep right. Axel, left. CJ, pellets as the tanks turn."
As MacBride predicted, one tank turned toward Akira and another toward Axel. The angle wasnt great, but CJ got a pellet into the belly of the one attacking Akira. Axels left arm snapped up in a locked position as the minitank got in a blow. Akira popped Axels assailant with pellet fire. And the third minitank swept its blade in a killing blow that CJ could not dodge.
But instead of catching CJ in the abdomen, the blade ran into Lars spike. The spike shattered, but Lars grabbed the robots arm and with brute strength lifted the thing bodily into the air. Its legs flicked out to kick Lars a crushing blow to the ribcage, but missed as Lars slammed it onto its back. CJ brought her spike down into the things guts. It lay silent.
"Axel, the acid."
Axel dug out his gear with his remaining hand and sprayed the edges of the door with the blue canister. Lars trotted up with the extra explosives, which Axel applied with precise care. For a minute they stood watching for more enemies. The acid did its job, and then the explosives did theirs. Lars put his shoulder to the door and it went down with hardly an argument. CJ hobbled through the Gate into the control room, pulled out the air-fuel bomb designed just for Shiva control rooms, and pulled the pin. "Ta daaa!" she warbled.
"Congratulations." Morgan rarely let his voice sound anything but level, but CJ thought she could hear a bit of satisfaction even from him.
Paolo sat down in the breakfast nook protruding from the kitchen. Actually, he considered the terms "breakfast" and "nook" a bit over the top. Was it really still breakfast if you sat down at the table at eleven a.m.? And could you really consider it a "nook" when it was a six-meter-wide room with a curve of glass constituting two of the walls? Well, his wife Sofia certainly considered it to be so.
The nook was on the second floor and the windows overlooked the Yucatan jungle. Sipping his hot chocolate, he reached for one of the pan dulces naranjas thoughtfully put out by Rosa as a breakfast appetizer and scanned the surroundings. It was a beautiful day, and in the distance, it was a beautiful view. As his gaze traveled back to the landscape just beneath him, however, a frown formed on his lean, sharp features.
A flurry of motion came up behind him. It could only mean one thing. Paolo held steady as the flurry kissed him on the cheek and said, " Hi, Daddy!"
Paolo looked up at his daughter, trying to keep his adoration from showing. "Princessa, you still say Daddy the same way you did when you were six years old."
The Princessa, known to people other than her father as Mercedes Ossa y Pirelli, slid into the seat to his left. "Of course I do. It makes you so . . . malleable." She gazed at him with limpid innocence.
Paolo laughed. The term "innocence" had very little in common with his twenty-one-year-old daughter, recently graduated from Stanford with a degree in arbitrage and a specialty in forecast specification.
"What were you frowning at when I came in?" she asked after she took a sip of her coffee.
He pointed down at the old driveway leading up to the house.
"Ah," she said, immediately understanding.
Their house had originally been built back at the turn of the millennium, when people traveled by road. The couple from whom they had bought the house had not kept the driveway up. Now the concrete was breaking apart as the philodendrons, driven by forces far beyond the powers of mere humans, slowly coerced their way back into their rightful habitat. In a couple of places Paolo could even see saplings taking root.
Mercedes continued, "Still, Im a bit surprised that it bothers you. Since when did you start caring about the landscaping?"
"Oh, dont get me wrong. It doesnt bother me in the slightest. But your mother . . ."
"Ohhh . . ." Mercedes understanding took on new depth.
"Indeed. Your mother is bound and determined to rip the whole thing out and replant it."
Mercedes nodded. "It will cost a fortune, wont it?"
Paolo threw up his hands. "You know how your mother does these things." He took a deep breath. "Shes already coming up with some truly remarkable and creative landscaping ideas. It will be," he choked for a moment, "a work of art far beyond anything heretofore wrought by Man. Or Woman."
Mercedes stared thoughtfully out the window, and bit into a sweet roll of her own as she pondered the implications. "You know, I think the driveway has a certain panache just the way it is. Dont you think it looks a lot like the ruins of the Castle of Kulkulan?" She turned her wide-eyed gaze upon her father once more. "Really, doesnt it have that same elegant, ancient look about it? Daddy, I think we need to preserve this monument for future generations."
Paolo looked out upon the crumbling concrete with new eyes. "I think youre absolutely right, Princessa. I think it would be a shocking blow to our national heritage to remove this historic monument." The left side of his mouth screwed up in a cockeyed smile. "Umm . . . you think your mother will buy it?"
"Not a chance."
They laughed together.
A high-intensity energy source flounced into the room. "Paolo!" his wife exclaimed, wrapping him in her arms and giving him a big kiss. She turned. "Mercedes!" she said, and repeated the performance with her daughter.
Paolo watched his wife with bemused affection. Even though they were now pretty deeply into their forties, Sofia was an attractive eyeful. Other men might consider her platinum-blond hair a bit too much, but for Paolo it simply made a striking and beautiful contrast to her smooth copper skin. Other people might consider her too thin, but her oft-frenetic pace kept her physically fit and her shape remained well-sculpted.
Sofia broke his reverie. "What were you two talking about when I came in?"
Mercedes looked over at Paolo with a raised eyebrow. Paolo answered reluctantly, "We were, ah, conferring about the driveway."
A clatter of plates announced the arrival of breakfast, carried in Rosas devoted arms.
"Excellent timing," Paolo told her. "Thank you."
"Sí, Señor Ossa," Rosa replied brightly as she distributed the plates. Paolo received his traditional poached egg, Mercedes received her traditional two, and Sofia had one egg over-easy, with just a pinch of cumin and a sprig of parsley.
Rosa departed, and Sofia muttered, "Ill have to tell that girl these eggs are somewhat overdone." She paused in her culinary examination and picked up the earlier conversation. "Anyway, the driveway just has to be cleaned up. I cant live with it any more the way it is." She looked her husband in the eye. "And it wont be very expensive, either. Besides, with Shiva coming, even if it does cost a little more than I expect, were covered."
Paolo felt a chill run the course of his spine. It made him a little queasy to make so much money from the Shivas. He didnt like having a reason to be happy about the arrival of a machine of pure, malevolent destruction. Was he just the twenty-first-century equivalent of the arms dealers of the twentieth century? Or did he have more in common with a pragmatic businessman who, having been given lemons, made lemonade? Surely he was the lemonade guybut at moments like this he had to wonder.
Paolo had grown up rich, and had been taught by his father to view his wealth as an obligation as much as a privilege. Hed studied economics, started a pair of very successful microlending operationsone in the depths of the Yucatan, one in the cities of Haiti. Then hed won the contract to distribute the EDA palmtops south of Mexico City, part of the Earth Defense WebEveryWhere effort to upgrade the quality of its work forcenamely, the whole human race.
None of this had been wildly profitable, though, and Sofias appetite for remarkable objects dart like this house had imbued him with a slowly rising panic about their finances. No one in his family had had so much wealth locked up in real estate since his great-grandfather.
The development of the forecasting marketsthe " castpoints" as people now called themin response to the Shivas, had changed this. Hed quickly found that forecasting was his destiny. Remarkably, it fulfilled both his desire to make a contribution to the world and his need to keep the bills paid. When Shiva came to town, the amount of money in the prizeboards and castpoints surged to astonishing levels, and no one made forecasts as wisely as he. So during the "Month of Shiva," as they called the twenty-odd-day period from the first Angel assault on Shiva to the second, their income always bulked up. The bad news, as his wifes comment just indicated, was that now Sofia assumed a big increase in their income, and compensated by expanding her spending plans.
Ah, well. The truth was that even Sofia could no longer really dent the familys financial position. She ruthlessly drained the household account down to empty, but that was mostly just interest on the business account. Paolo needed a lot of capital to work the castpoints, and he had it. Indeed, he had a rather staggering amount of capital, more than anyone, even himself, truly appreciated. So the work on the driveway was really of no consequence. Really. He shook himself, forcing himself to remember just how much difficulty even Sofia would face to really spend the family into debt, even with great creativity and insight.
Mercedes cleared her throat. "Whos that, Daddy?" She pointed out the window.
Paolo followed her hand. "Sofia, were you expecting anyone?"
Sofia did not look up from buttering a biscuit. "No, dearest. Why?"
"Because someone is landing." Paolo frowned out of the window as the dark blue car descended onto their landing pad.
Morgan watched the Angels as they watched the instant replays. Everyone sat quiet and still, totally focused on the screenexcept for CJ. Her hands danced to a tune of their own, and her whole body periodically writhed. Morgan finally realized that this motion was part of her concentration; she was playing out the actions of the people on the screen. CJ was so supercharged that the energy poured outlike a nuclear reactor driving its generators even when unneeded, just to avoid meltdown.
On the screen, CJ once again cut around the corner, clobbered the roboguard, and turned to the minitanks. Morgan paused the recording. "This was the first and only real surprise in the setup."
CJ muttered, "You mean the multiple robots, or do you mean minitanks on a Shiva II mockup? I did expect more bots round that corner. But," she confessed reluctantly, "I didnt expect minitanks."
Morgan bit back the cutting reply. Too obvious. Go straight to the point. "Never go around a corner without my directive. Unless of course its unavoidable."
CJ smiled wryly. "I guess I cant really plead it was unavoidable, can I?"
Morgan grunted. "We have to accomplish several goals in these easy training runs. We must work out our mutual understanding. You need to know what it means if nothing is being said, whether you should move with speed or caution. But I also have to learn your capabilities. Each of you has remarkable talents." He watched them as they sat just a bit more proudly. "Which just makes you typical."
He pointed a finger at CJ. "Truth be told, CJ Kinsman, you are incredibly fast." He frowned. "Impossibly fast. Since our recon triangles were all gone, that corner was a danger no matter what we did. Had I known your speed, I would have ordered you to take that corner."
"Im that good, huh?" CJ leered at him.
He glared back. "Id still expect you to get killed. But youd make hash out of the enemy position. And that close to the control center, Id accept the loss."
Solomon gave her gravelly African Gray parrot-chuckle and said, "No lose CJ." She whistled a few chords from the Godspell number, "Could We Start Again Please?"
Morgan gave the bird the same glare he had just turned to the Angel Leader. He turned back to the team. "Ive got to learn to use each of you to the fullest advantage, just as you must learn to react instantly to my commands." Since coming into the room, hed been holding a wired chunk of duodec explosive quietly in his lap. Now he tossed it to CJ. "Press the button," he ordered.
CJ stared at the duodec, looked back at Morgan, and asked, "Really?" Her thumb rose over the button.
Morgan frowned in dismay. "I can see we have a long way to go." He forced the frown from his face; he knew he frowned too much. He held out his hand, and CJ gingerly gave the bomb back to him.
They played out the rest of the tape. Only Roni escaped a battering discussion of his mistakes; as recon, Roni had performed a miracle by surviving for three-quarters of the distance.
"Not bad," Morgan summed up at the end, "but not great. You took the most effective weapons Earth Defense has devised. You faced a very old Shiva. We saw one little surprise: the minitanks near the end. Most of you handled that surprise well enough for a first try."
Morgan noticed that he was subconsciously avoiding CJs eyes, and he forced himself to look at her. She smiled back with that bright winning radiance that filled her, and he swore silently to himself.
Christ, it was hard enough sending guys like himself off on this mission. Why in hell did the next assault leader have to be a woman? And a remarkable one at that.
Thinking about her fate, seeing her die in his minds eye, he once again felt the manic impulse to get out of the room and never come back. He squeezed the arms of his wheelchair with all his might and did not move at allan act that took all of his formidable will to achieve.
She still smiled at him; he continued to consider her. Truly, she had no discipline. She did not respond to commands like Bill Whitaker. But when he got down to it, she was better than Pavel Solovyev had been when he arrived. And Solovyev had turned out pretty well. In fact, Solovyev had turned out to be great . . . but not great enough. Of course, that hadnt been Pavels fault. It had been Morgans.
Morgan could feel the tension gripping his back again as he walked again amongst the tombstones in his mind. The parrot on his shoulder could feel it too; Solomon started grooming him, a futile attempt to calm him down. Morgan spoke. "Live weapons practice commences at 0200."
Morgan rolled his chair into the corridor, wanting only to escape the pressure of his own emotions. Suddenly a shadow passed directly over his head. A gust of air announced the passing of a hurtling body, and CJ appeared before him, using the same trick she had used on the minitanks.
Morgan laughed. "Please remind me never to play poker with you."
CJ didnt understand. "Why not? Think Im good at hiding my thoughts?"
Morgan snorted. "Of course not. Youre an open book. The problem is, youd always pick up a straight flush." He waved his hand. "Oh, Id always know you had a straight flush just by looking at that smug expression on your face. But youd still win."
CJ looked away thoughtfully. "I guess thats okay when fighting Shiva. I mean, you cant really bluff it anyway, can you?"
"No," he said. "You can only beat them with a straight flush." Morgan skillfully snapped his wheelchair in a half circle to get around her.
Solomon chirped. "Pretty CJ," she said, and the first few notes of "The Girl from Ipanema" echoed down the hallway in their wake.
Morgan muttered, "Youre a damned impertinent bird."
He thought hed spoken to himself, but CJ heard it. She caught up easily. Laughing, she asked Solomon, "How long have you had this curmudgeon with you?"
Solomon waggled her head with pleasure. "Always. Mate of teacher."
Morgan explained. "My wife was an ornithologist. She followed up the work done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg." He added, "She also loved twentieth-century music, particularly the later half, if youre curious about Sols repertoire."
CJ continued to look puzzled as she asked him to tell her more about Irene Pepperberg.
"Pepperberg was the woman who first taught parrots to talk, really talk with semantic meaning. She lived somewhere in Nevada . . . no, Arizona, I think." He waved his hand. "It all took place before the Crash. Anyway, Elisabeth built on Pepperbergs ideas. She did some fairly amazing things with parrots." He glared at the preening gray form on his shoulder. "Not all of her experiments were successes."
CJ mouthed the name. "Elisabeth MacBride." Her mouth formed a large "O" of realization. "Dr. Elisabeth MacBride was your wife? I hadnt made the connection."
Morgan smiled. "In some circles she was more famous than I am."
CJ turned back to Solomon. "So what do you think of Carnack?" Carnack was the bird that had led a flight of parrots into Shiva IV to do recon, using an Argo dropped into Shivas dock during the primary battle in the asteroid belt. Carnack and his flock had mapped out the passages before Angel Ones assault. Carnack been very successful, too. Unfortunately, when Earth Defense had tried the same trick against Shiva V, a team of repair mechs had been waiting for them. The parrots hadnt even gotten out of the Alabaster Hall.
CJ gave a wolf whistle. "Carnack brave. Carnack crazy. Carnack hero." She flapped her wings enthusiastically. "Cute tailfeathers."
Morgan ground his teeth. The last thing he needed was his Angel Leader getting chummy with his dead wifes blasted bird. "Yes, Carnack was every bit as good as some of my Angel Leaders. And hes just as . . ." He trailed off, not really wanting to finish the sentence.
"Hes just as dead," CJ whispered.
Solomon replied. "All go sometime."
CJ answered, "Yeah, so we do."
Solomon rolled her head at the impossible upside down/sideways angle used to persuade a human to pet her. CJ instinctively understood, and started running a finger up and down Solomons neck. As CJ stroked the bird, she said, "Solomon, I was thinking of flying to Vegas to Ruths Chris for lunch. Steak and a chocolate malt. Would you like to come along and check it out?"
Morgan cleared his throat. "We have other business. Sol cant have chocolate anywayits poison for parrots. Although, I have considered giving her Oreos from time to time."
Sol bit him. "Business wait. Steak great!" She whistled "Walk Like an Egyptian."
CJ looked at Morgan triumphantly. "Well, Angel Controller, whaddya think?"
Morgan would have said no again, except that, for the first time, CJ had used his proper title. Perhaps it would be a good start.
Convinced that the unknown visitor had to be a friend making an unscheduled stop, Sofia swept down the stairway as a full-powered reception committee of one. Paolo, being slightly more paranoid, opened the wallscreen in the breakfast nook and alerted security to the surprise intrusion.
It was quite unusual for somebody to just cruise up to the house uninvited. They didnt advertise the location of their house, like some people on the Web, and Paolo strongly preferred a life of quiet anonymity. Hed made over a billion dollars off the castpoints. He didnt relish publicity as some people might. Ask anyone whod won a lottery how much they liked having ten new best friends pop out of the woodwork every day, all with great ideas on how to spend the winners money.
Paolo and Mercedes watched as Sofia strode across the courtyard to the landing pad. Mercedes poked her father in the ribs. "Ill bet hes from out of country, Daddy. Thats a rental car, or Im a blonde." She crossed her eyes, giving him her best goofy dingbat expression.
Paolo laughed. "No forecasts today, Princessa. Besides, I think youre right about the rental." The skycar was a plain vanilla model; he couldnt even tell who manufactured it. Toyota? Boeing? Ford? The answer lay outside his areas of expertise.
A pale but distinguished young man in a camels hair jacket, button-down Oxford-cloth shirt open at the neck, pressed khaki pants, and Docksiders stepped lightly from the car. He was only a little taller than Sofia, they could see as she greeted him.
Paolo clapped his hands. "What a delightfully elegant gentleman! Your new boyfriend?"
Mercedes hit his shoulder. "Dont be silly. Hes way too clean-cut for my taste."
"Too clean-cut! Would he be better if he rolled in the mud? Should I tell him this secret to winning your heart?"
Mercedes hit Paolo again, harder this time. "You know what I mean. Look how short his hair is. Hes a mamas boy."
"Princessa, you may say that to him, but I could not. Observe the muscles across his shoulders and back." As Sofia danced about him in her normal animated conversational style, they could see the fellow from every angle as he politely twisted and turned in a vain attempt to maintain eye contact with her.
Mercedes saw and understood. "Competition swimmer."
"Swimmer," Mercedes replied authoritatively. She should know; shed been a competition swimmer herself in high school.
Sofia led the visitor in another do-se-do beneath their watchful eyes.
"Cute butt," Mercedes conceded in a slight change of the conversation.
"What!? I am shocked, Princessa!"
Mercedes laughed. "Dont worry, Daddy, hes still not my type."
"Shame. He looks like a nice guy. Or perhaps I should say he looks like a decent chap, as theyd say in England, since Id guess thats his home." Paolo smiled slyly and looked at Mercedes out of the corner of his eye. "You havent started dating yet, have you?"
Mercedes held up both fists and uttered a guttural scream. "Father!" Her eyes filled with fire.
Paolo laughed. Theyd had a running joke that she wasnt allowed to date till she was twenty-five. His heart skipped a beat as he realized that even according to that outrageous timetable, she would soon be finding other men to replace him. He knew it was foolish, but the thought upset him nonetheless.
Paolo turned back to watch as Sofia gesticulated, communicating with her graceful hands as only Sofia could.
Mercedes spoke again. "Okay, if you wont take the first bet, let me try another one. I dont think the gentleman is going to get past Mom."
"Um. Youre wrong, but I dont want to take your money on that one, Princessa." Sofias movements from the beginning had had a defensive air to them. The stranger spoke againthe second time hed been able to get a word in edgewiseand Sofias arms stopped in mid-gesture. She burst into laughter.
Paolo raised his eye at his daughter. "Battle over. Stranger, One, and"
Mercedes interrupted sadly, "Mother, Zero."
Sofia and the visitor headed for the door. Paolo looked hard at the man. "He looks awfully familiar."
Mercedes nodded her head. "Yeah, he does. Ill remember who he is in moment." She paused. "Daddy?"
"How did you know hed get past Mom?"
Paolo raised his chin and sniffed the air. "Well, you know, thats why they call me the Predictor. "
His daughter hit him in the arm again; he had to admit, he seemed to be earning his beating today. "Daddy!" she said with conviction. "The Predictor is just a Web myth, like alligators in the sewers in New York City. You know that. Stop joking with me."
Paolo squeezed his daughters shoulders. "Ill never stop joking with you, Princessa."
Sofia entered the room and beckoned the visitor to follow her. "Paolo, Id like to present Reggie Oxenford."
Oxenford reached out his hand.
Paolos expression blanked even as he automatically accepted the handshake. "Oxenford," he muttered.
"The reporter," Mercedes said in the flat tone that told Paolo she, too, had immediately recognized the name. He didnt have to look to know that her face was now as deadpan as his own.
Oxenford looked back and forth at the two of them, eyes alert, knowing that he had at least two strikes against him already for some unfathomable reason. "Call me Reggie," he said as a start.
A cold pause followed his overture.
Paolo felt a measure of dismay, knowing that his daughter hated reporters solely because he himself had hated them. News peoplethe media elitehad been a terrible scourge during his childhood. But they had gradually lost power with the advent of bidirectional, reputation-endorsed public commentary via Web links shortly after the turn of the millennium. People who published on the Webespecially people who wanted the title of "reporter"had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Failure was brutally and swiftly punished with electronic tar and digital feathers. Despite a rocky start, honesty had taken over as the currency of the Weba devastating if subtle blow to manipulators of public opinion. Weakened by the Web, the media elite had died alongside their political bedfellows in the Crash.
So reporters really werent a bad thing anymore, and hadnt really been much of a scourge even when his daughter was born. But Paolo had instilled his prejudices into her and now, even though he himself had finally grown out of his distrust, his daughter had not.
Sofia was too astute not to notice the icicles hanging from the words of greeting, but she was in hostess-mode now and performed the rituals with the easy grace that rose above such problems. "Reggieas you can see, we were just eating. Would you care for something? A pan dulce, or scrambled eggs perhaps?"
Reggie shook his head. "Thank you, but I just ate." He held his head in mock dizziness. "Jet lag, you know. Ive been to three continents in three days. I fear my body clocks are a bit confused."
Sofia pursued him with typical tenacity. "Coffee, then?"
Reggie nodded. "Perhaps that would help."
Sofia departed, calling for Rosa.
Reggie stood very quietly, looking out the window. "You have a truly marvelous home here, if youll permit me to say so."
Paolo nodded. "I have to agree. Sofia is nothing if not gifted as a house buyer, renovator, and all-round decorator. The results of her efforts are invariably spectacular."
Mercedes chimed in. "You should have seen our last house. Smaller, but even more amazing."
Reggie smiled at her. "You must be Mercedes."
Mercedes gave him her most dazzling social smile, which looked to Paolo like the smile of a shark about to strike. "Thats me."
Sofia returned with coffee for Reggie. Paolo turned to the table and picked up his own hot chocolate. The liquid in the cup had turned cold, but it gave him something to do with his hands.
Everyone stood in silence for a moment, drinking, and watching and listening to the black-headed grosbeaks flitter outside. They were red birds with black heads and black on their wings who wintered in Mexico and sang beautifully. Sofia always had their favorite safflower seeds in an aboveground feeder, just to attract all that she could.
Reggie spoke in surprise. "What a remarkable song those birds are singing. I wouldnt have expected to hear them from inside. Are the birds really that loud? Or have you done something to this window? I can even hear the wind rustling the trees."
Sofia smiled proudly. "We have microphones scattered about outside, and the sounds of nature can be piped into any room."
Paolo nodded. "Yes, Mercedes and I were serious when we told you how creatively Sofia builds a home. This is just one of her brilliant touches."
Reggie sighed in admiration. "Magnificent. You are a very lucky man, Mr. Ossa y Santiago."
Paolo winced at the full use of his name. "Please call me Paolo. But let me say that you performed magnificently, pronouncing my name correctly. Ive never even heard an American say it right, and Id never have expected it from a Brit."
"Thank you," Reggie said humbly. "I try very hard not to botch peoples names. It quite ruins the interviews before they begin."
Mercedes stepped forward. "So youre here to interview Father?" she demanded.
Reggie slouched over slightly and opened his palms as if to beg forgiveness, or at least to show that he wasnt armed. "If he will permit it. And you too, of course." He gave her his most winning smile. His hazel eyes carried a challenge in them, but even so his smile did not look as predatory as Mercedes had.
The smile triggered a surprising reaction in Mercedes. Her mouth opened wide. "Olympics. Ten years ago. Gold medal breast stroke."
Surprise made Reggies smile sparkle. He clapped. "See? Im not just a reporter. Im a person, too." He folded his hands humbly. "But my story is not half as interesting as your fathers." He turned back to Paolo. "Sir, if you are the chap I think you are, I believe you have something of a story to tell. Am I correct?"
Paolos heart leaped in his throat. He was tempted to deny Reggies assertion, but his expression betrayed him. Hed often wondered if this day would come, if someone would finally figure out that the legend invented in foolish Web gossip actually fingered a real human being. He started to speak, but Mercedes, after a quick look at her father, mentioned in a voice full of sweetness edged with steel, "Before you start the interview, I think we should set up a contractual understanding of what you can say about what we tell you, dont you think?" Her smile grew even more charming now, but the sharklike quality had turned into a rapier-edged gleam in her dark brown eyes.
Reggie laughed in relief. He hadnt known quite what she had been going to say. "Of course. Actually, I insist." He pulled out his palmtop and held up the display. "I have a standard contract here. Of course, I expect that you will want to change it." He smiled at Mercedes. "And of course, there is no one better qualified to make modifications than you. Indeed, Id appreciate your help improving my standard contract."
Mercedes anger dissolved in astonishment, which she quickly covered with a frown of suspicion. Paolo fought to hide his surprise, but could not help a short laugh.
Sofia was the swiftest to recover. She beamed proudly. "So youve heard of my daughter," she said.
Reggie replied, keeping his grin and his gaze focused on Mercedes. "Of course I have. Unless theres more than one Mercedes Ossa y Pirelli, Salutatorian of her class at Stanford University, protégé of Mike Lacobie. I hear youve been tapped to write detailed specs for the forecasts on the Angel Two assault castpoint."
Paolo now turned his surprised eyes on his daughter. "Really?"
Mercedes blushed. "Well, yeah, actually, hes right."
Paolo huffed, "Were you going to keep this a secret from us?"
Mercedes winced. "It was going to be a surprise. I was going to tell you at dinner. Really!"
Paolo harumphed. Sofia shrieked, "Thats just wonderful!" She swept Mercedes into her arms and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
Mercedes glared at the reporter from her current location, trapped in the spine-tingling embrace of her energetic mother. "Thanks, Mom. Uh, could you let me breathe a little bit, please?"
Sofia released her daughter. "To think we needed to have Reggie Oxenford come here for us to find out. Goodness!"
Now it was Reggies turn to wince. He even blushedeasy to see in such a pale face. "Im really sorry. I had no idea . . ."
Mercedes sighed. "You had no way of knowing I hadnt told them yet." Her brow folded down like thunderclouds gathering round a tornado, despite the soothing words.
Paolo just shook his head. "Well, Reggie, you just broke a first-rate story. I guess that pretty well establishes your credentials. But Id still like to verify your identity the old-fashioned way." He raised an eyebrow at his daughter. "Even before we enter into a contract."
Reggie agreed immediately. "Of course. Truth be told, I dont even look enough like my Web photo to convince me that Im myself." He laughed. "I spent an entire day with a photographer getting a shot that made me look older, more mature. People dont think young newscasters are reliable, you know."
That was why, Paolo suddenly understood, he hadnt recognized Reggie right off. Hed seen Oxenfords picture on the Web, but the picture was intentionally unlike the man! How ironic. Both modern photography and modern plastic surgery made it easy and inexpensive to fool the eye. But modern encryption systems made electronic forgery virtually impossible. So it was easier to trick people with someone elses physical appearance than with their Web brand. Such a strange world. Of course, Paolos grandfather had said much the same thing in his time.
Paolo turned to the wallscreen. "Luis, please show us our email accounts."
Luis, the central computer server for the house, replied, "Okay." The images of four inboxes appeared on the wall, one for each member of the family.
Paolo continued, "Close Fernandos box." His sons email closed down.
All three boxes were currently empty. Reggie tapped on his palmtop, and seconds later, Luis spoke again. "Mercedes, you have new mail."
"Show me," Mercedes said.
A new piece of mail appeared; the subject line of the mail just read, "Proof." Paolo spoke. "Luis, could you show us the latest article by Reggie Oxenford?"
Reggie looked at him in mild surprise, and Paolo admitted grudgingly, "I have a subscription to your site."
An article about an "Unsung Hero," a woman in Kenya, appeared on the screen. Mercedes compared the author of the email to the author of the article. She nodded. "Its the same brand, all right."
Reggie raised an eyebrow. "Arent you going to read the mail I sent you? Theres more there than just my brand."
Mercedes eyed him suspiciously. "I suppose so. Luis, please show the whole message."
The message read, Mercedes, I am really sorry I spoiled your surprise. Please let me make it up to you. After you modify and approve the contract, of course. Attached was a separate document, endorsed by the reporter. The contract, no doubt.
Mercedes harumphed; Paolo chuckled.
"Okay, lets see it," Mercedes said.
Reggie and Paolo walked over to the window while Mercedes approached the wall to peer at the clauses of the document Reggie had sent her.
Sofia turned to the doorway. "Well, people, if you are settled, I have things to do." Paolo smiled and waved, and she was gone.
Reggie muttered to Paolo, "Your daughters pretty feisty, isnt she?"
Paolos smile broadened. "Yes, shed give Boadicea a run for her money." Reggie looked sharply at him, visibly surprised and pleased by his knowledge of the greatest virago in history.
The men waited patiently as Mercedes scrutinized the contract with meticulous care. At last she said, "Okay, Dad, it looks decent. He promises to publish the interview only under his Oxenford brand." Paolo nodded; the promise ensured that Reggie wouldnt sell or publish the interview on any of the lurid scam sheets on the Web.
Mercedes smiled wickedly, "Of course, he does have a little wiggle room here." She pulled a touchpen from her pocket and marked briefly on the wallscreen; the digital ink turned quickly into edited text.
Reggie joined her at the wall and examined her revision. "My, you are paranoid, arent you?" He tapped on his palmtop, endorsing the revised contract.
It was time to get to business. Paolo offered Reggie a chair. "Okay, now please tell me why you came here."
Reggie spread his arms wide. "Surely you know. I came here to find out the Secrets of the Predictor."
Mercedes stared at Reggie. "The Predictor? But thats a myth! A harebrained invention of the gossip mongers on the Web!"
Reggie raised an eyebrow at Paolo. "When were you going to tell her your little secret?"
Paolo held up his hands to block the puzzled look from his daughter as it turned into a lioness glare. "Um, Mercedes, did you make sure the contract guarantees hell keep my name and my brand out of this?"
Mercedes waved her hand to indicate it was not a problem, but continued to hold him with the full force of her gaze. "Father! Are you really the Predictor?"
Paolo writhed for her. "Not exactly. The Predictor really was invented by the nutcakes on the Web. But, ah, the hypothetical character they dreamed up does, uh, sort of have a lot of features in common with, uh, me."
"Why didnt you ever tell me?" she demanded.
Paolo said weakly, "Well, I was going to tell you at dinner. Really!"
This time it was Reggies turn to laugh.