The dirigible drifted lazily into the sun, casting a shadow on the diners in the beergarden at the foot of the building. Paolo looked up, noting the familiar "Greater Mexico Dirigible Line" logo on the side, with its trademarked starburst so similar to that of its parent company, Shinkuu. Several other lighter-than-air craft, all members of the same line, swung in their moorings nearby.
The dirigibles fascinated him, the most obvious change in the city since his departure. They were kept aloft with one of Shinkuu's miracles, a semi-rigid polymer spun in zero-gee vacuum to retain holes in its structure. The holes, unfilled by gas, lent a net buoyancy to the material in Earth's atmosphere. Mass-produced in orbit, it was inexpensive enough to make dirigible transport cheaper and safer than surface transport in Mexico's loose confederation of bankrupt, semi-autonomous states. Indeed, in the decade since their introduction the dirigibles had fundamentally changed the economy of the country, encouraging growth in land-locked, rural areas.
I had a part in that, he recalled. His designs and his sweat had helped Shinkuu build the orbital plants which had yielded its monopoly on vaculite. Why didn't he feel good about it? Perhaps it was because ultimately the technology served only to extend the influence of the corporation over the nation. That the central government of Mexico still existed at all was a tribute to the desire of the warlords and juntes to keep the corporations in check. They worked together only because they knew that, alone, they were helpless against the will of Shinkuu or its brethren. The advent of the dirigibles made many of those sub-states dependent on them for their survival, leaving them under the GMDL's sway and weakening that collective power. Paolo had helped make that happen.
But then, the warlords were no better. The balance of federal power was irrelevant to the lives of 90% of the citizens, as none of the players ever considered their interests.
Paolo looked at the skyline again, the line of buildings framed by the mountainous horizon beyond it. It was so different than Neo York's skyline, he reflected. There, the buildings seemed continuous, and were dominated by the enormous arcologies which rose out of them. Here the buildings were spread out in clusters, each group surrounding a different arcology. Mexico City had twice the population of the Big Apple, and was a major government center with influence extending well into Central America; many more corps had chosen this as a site from which to extend their power. The variation was endless, from Jinesi's mammoth dome of black glass to the interlinked steel towers of Harichem, some intangible quirk of corporate psychology always led them to some different architectural expression.
Which made the simplicity of Shinkuu's design all the more brutal. Paolo looked at the square, tiered pyramid rising above its own cluster of buildings. It was small as arcologies went, housing fewer than 150,000 people, and had only been finished after the doctor's departure for Jamaica. He mentally traced its history back from there, removing one tier at a time until it disappeared completely and became the smattering of buildings that had housed the corporation when an awe-struck six-year-old entered the company nursery.
The pyramid structure still disturbed Paolo. To some extent the design had been purely practical, allowing the company to make the different tiers semi-autonomous and incorporate new technologies that were being developed even as the structure was being built. But even the planners admitted they had squared off the edges in a way designed to evoke images of Mayan and Aztec structures. A tribute, Shinkuu stated publically, to the indigenous culture. But to Paolo it had always evoked the image of sacrifice, in which the beating heart of a child—an innocent, as the gods demanded—was torn from his chest to insure prosperity for the city.
The doctor finished his coffee and looked away. He had finished what he came to do, had his semi-permanent visa for the UNA. It was not difficult for a degreed professional to obtain one, simply a question of the right paperwork and the appropriate bribes to UNA officials. He could take the return flight to Neo York tonight, and save himself another night in the city.
And what was there to make him stay? He doubted he could gain entry to the Shinkuu complex, even if he wanted to, and it had never been much of a home to him regardless. The buildings that had housed the corporate nursery had long-since been destroyed. He had lost touch with his few remaining acquaintances in the city in the last few years, and had never been close enough to any of them to miss them. No, he did not belong to this place any more, if he ever had.
But...his eyes drifed away from the gleaming skyscrapers to a patch of dirty gray poverty. If he had really only wanted his visa, he could have taken care of it in any of a dozen other cities, or perhaps without leaving Neo York. But he had come here, and minutes after de-planing from the cramped, smelly airbus, had paused at a grimy airport terminal to make an inquiry of the city's database. No, he had to do one more thing before he left.
He had to know.
The hot, stagnant air hit him in a blast as he stepped out of the air-cooled cab and onto the garbage-strewn street. He nodded to the driver and the man drove off, the much-abused electric engine whining in protest. Paolo looked at the house before him.
It was better than most of those around it, he reflected. The plaster walls were in good repair and even showed evidence of recent painting, and the tiled roof was in fair shape. It was large enough for two rooms, and even sported a small lot attached to it, now cultivated as a vegetable garden. The doctor had no real knowledge of the housing situation in Mexico City, but he suspected one would have to move into a corporate project to improve on this specimen.
Still, he felt completely out of place in his expensive suit. It hadn't occurred to him to change out of his bribery attire into something more casual, and he wondered if the mistake were more than simple absent- mindedness. How did he want these people to see him? What did he want them to do, or say?
He set aside his confusion, and strode up to the door. There was a doorbell, he discovered, and he rang it, surprised at the electric chime.
A moment later a woman answered the door. She looked to be in her thirties, but it was hard to judge. Her hair was clean and well-coiffed in a simple style, and her face, though lined, showed none of the desperation or anger that characterized so many faces he had seen in the poverty of Neo York's Zero Zone. She wore cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, both stained from work in the garden.
"May I help you?" she asked.
Paolo waited a moment too long before responding, staring at the woman, wondering if he should know her. But nothing in her features sparked a memory, and he simply said, "I would like to see Consuela Zanabria."
The woman looked at him distrustfully. "And you are?" she asked.
He opened his mouth intending to give the name on his birth certificate, but instead heard himself say, "I am called Snakeye." Belatedly, he extended his hand.
She took it, wariness now firmly rooted in her gaze. "Maria Zanabria," she introduced herself. He had hoped her name might tell him something, and again he read her face, but found nothing besides obvious caution. "What did you wish to see her about?"
"I have some questions about her son," he replied.
Strangely, this seemed to reassure her. "Do you have a corporate ID?" she asked.
He tried not to show that he was taken aback by the question. "No," he answered, "I'm...an independent."
"Just a moment."
The woman disappeared back into the house, and returned a moment later. "Come in," she said. Paolo stepped inside, relieved to find the interior cooled by an electric fan. He followed her through the kitchen/common area into the backroom, a private bedroom.
An old woman sat beside a bed, long gray hair falling over the back of the chair in which she sat. A colorful children's book sat across her lap, and Paolo belatedly noticed the infant nestled among the blankets on the bed.
"Mother," Maria said. The old woman looked over, her face heavily lined and weathered but still showing signs of good health. At first she started in surprise at Paolo obvious cybernetic eyes, but then smiled apologetically.
"I am Consuela Zanabria," she said. She started to rise, but Paolo held up his hands to urge her to remain seated.
"Snakeye," he said, taking her hand.
Maria cocked her head at this, but said nothing. "Won't you have a seat, Mr. Snakeye?" the old woman asked, gesturing to a stool by the foot of the bed. "Would you care for a glass of lemonade?"
"Yes, thank you," said Paolo gratefully.
"Maria, if you would?" asked Consuela gently. The woman hesitated, clearly concerned by the thought of leaving Paolo alone with her mother and—Paolo assumed—her son. But a gently insistent smile from Consuela forced her to nod and move off to the other room.
"Now then," the old woman continued. "You wanted to ask about Raphael?"
Paolo nodded, wondering at his own dishonesty. But he couldn't bring himself to break the charade and tell her everything. Somehow that felt wrong.
"Raphael has always been a good boy," she said. "He has never had any trouble with the law, and has always been very responsible. Even when he was a child, he was careful with his toys." She smiled fondly at some memory. "Is that all you wanted to know?"
I'm doing a background check, the doctor decided. So that's what they were expecting. Inspiration struck. "Actually, I wanted to know more about the rest of his family," the doctor said. "I need to know if any of them could be...liabilities in his new position."
Maria returned, and handed Paolo a small glass of lemonade. It was cold; clearly, the family was not hurting for electrical power. But the doctor's attention was abruptly returned to Consuela as she stated with cold pride, "We have never had any trouble with the law. We are a very respectable family."
"I never meant to imply otherwise," he responded hastily, holding up his hand. "I simply have to make sure I have all the details. If I do not include them in my report, the company will be suspicious."
"Shinkuu has all of them," Maria replied firmly. There was a glint of suspicion in her eyes.
"Nevertheless," the doctor repeated firmly. "I need to hear them from you."
The old woman ignored the tension between them. "His older brother Carlos is a tele-operator with Shinkuu. He already lives in the arcology, with his family. All good people," she added. "His younger brother Ricardo is a dirigible pilot—he moved to Vera Cruz four years ago. His sister Maria you have met," she gestured. "She lives in the Shinkuu district. Her husband is an agent for a resort in Cancun." The old woman looked at him defiantly. "We are all respectable people."
"And their father?" asked Paolo.
The old woman tried to hide her reflexive flinch, and Maria simply stated, "Died last year of a heart attack."
"I'm sorry," the doctor apologized. He was surprised at how hard the news came to him. He could remember a man—a big man, with a booming voice and a wide smile. He had wanted to know if that man had been real, or built up on the remnants of a half-forgotten image. But Paolo realized something else had been left unsaid.
"You have another son," he prompted neutrally.
Maria's expression darkened, and the old woman looked away sadly. She hesitated a moment, then said. "I can tell you very little about him. He is a doctor, and a high-ranking corporate executive. But we...have not been in touch with him for years."
"I see," Paolo digested this, stone-faced. "You signed an educational contract for him at the age of six, correct?"
"Yes. He was bright, and deserved an education."
"Have you had any contact with him since then?"
He ignored the glare from Maria, focusing instead on the increasingly quiet voice of the old woman. "No," she replied. "The only information we received from the company was a notice two years ago that his educational contract was complete. But we knew he had finished his education years before—a friend found his name on a list of graduates from the University of Moscow. And we found his name on a list of employees at a place called Avatar Designs. We read that the company was bought by Mitsumi two years ago, and that was when we received notice about his contract. They must have noticed his contract was still technically active, and cancelled it then," she explained. The woman paused, then added wistfully, "We don't know where he is now. He hasn't contacted us."
Paolo didn't know what he gave away in his tone, but it prompted the old woman to continue. "I think he must be a very powerful man. I think he is doing something important, and is afraid coming from a poor family could be used against him. I've seen things like that on 'Riding the Storm.'"
"'Riding the Storm?'" asked the doctor.
"A soap opera." Maria explained tersely.
"He'll come see us, someday," Consuela said. "When it's safe. And then I will find out about all the wonders he's seen, the great things he's done."
"I understand," said Paolo, abruptly rising to leave. "I think I have all I need."
"I want to see him," Consuela continued. "Just to see what he looks like. All the other boys take after me, but Paolo had his father's eyes."
Maria suddenly stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on the woman's shoulder. The doctor fought for his voice. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Zanabria," he said, forcing an even tone. He felt a desperate need to escape, to be free of this place. "I'll let myself out."
He left them, noting Maria bending to put her arms around her mother as he moved into the other room, then out into the yard. He pulled out his cell phone and called a cab, hands shaking as he dialed. He used the automatic locator feature so he wouldn't have to speak, then simply stood in the lot, numb.
"Paolo," came the voice behind him.
He turned. Maria stood in the doorway, her earlier hostility replaced by apprehension and uncertainty. She stepped slowly down the path to meet him.
"When you came in, you were trying to remember me?" she asked. He nodded dumbly. "I am eight years younger than you are. We've never met."
"Well, it's good to meet you now," he said. Perhaps he meant it as humor or perhaps as warmth, but the words fell to the ground as heavily as lead. Long moments passed.
"I couldn't tell her," he said finally. "I don't know her. And..." he broke off.
"And the educational indenture amounts to slavery," Maria finished. "The rest of the family knows. There was a report on it by an independent news agency about fifteen years ago. But Dad—our father," she looked at him awkwardly, then continued. "Told us not to tell her."
The silence crept up on them again, and Maria said. "When the release from the educational indenture came, I thought you were dead."
"So did they," Paolo was uncertain what to say. But some hint of pride bubbled to the surface, and he added with a note of satisfaction, "But I outsmarted them. The way I always said I would."
Maria stared at him, eyes wide. "I'm sorry," she said, a catch in her voice. "For a moment there, you sounded so much like our father..."
There was a lump in Paolo's throat as well. "Do you need money?" he asked, searching for some way to change this moment from what it was. She shook her head.
"No, we are all well-cared for," she answered. "The money from your... indenture, our parents invested in education for the rest of us. We all went to Shinkuu trade schools, are all doing well."
A cab pulled up to the curb. Paolo noticed it distantly, then said, "I should go."
"No, please stay," Maria objected. "I want to, to know you. Stay," she repeated.
"And tell her what?" he said, looking back at the house. There was no answer to that. "I have to go," he repeated. "I will call you."
Maria nodded. "Please do."
They could have embraced then, but they were strangers, and there was nothing but awkward good-byes before Paolo slipped into the cab. He mumbled the name of his hotel to the driver and the car pulled away, slipping through the dirty streets.
Paolo was left to stare out the window at the distant edifice of Shinkuu, thinking on the nature of gods, and innocence.
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