"Mr Zorg was here to see you, sir", my secretary informed me.
Taking off my jacket, I frowned at the opposite wall. That early already? "What did he say when he didn't find me here?"
My secretary shrugged. "Nothing really, sir. He'll be back later."
"Come on", I said, walking past her into my office and tossing my jacket onto the desk carelessly. "He did say something, didn't he?"
"Well… yes, sir." She didn't look at me then, but at her toes instead.
"Tell me", I insisted.
"He called you a… a lazy bugger, sir."
"Oh, did he?" I wasn't truly surprised at that. "I've been at it all night, and he knows that. One ought to be allowed to get a few hours' sleep after that, for hell's sake, even if it means arriving at the office well past ten o'clock!"
"Yes, sir", my secretary said obediently.
"Don't you go agreeing with me!" I sat down and shoved a pile of papers away vigorously. No time for that now. "You ought to get some spirit, girl. If you think I'm a lazy bugger, just tell me."
I sighed. "You're so boring. Now listen, I'll have a look at my correspondence first, then I'd like not to be disturbed, except by Mr Zorg or my sister. In one hour and a half, I'd like to have the complete updated sales figures here on my desk. Understood?"
"Yes, sir", my secretary replied once more, and I wondered if her vocabulary really was so limited. She was good at her job, that was why I kept her, but she was just no good at small talk, and even worse at anything beyond. It couldn't just be put to my intimidating presence, since my sister was kind enough to frequently remind me that I had none. At least the woman had managed to stop blushing when she looked at me by now.
As soon as she had left my office and closed the door behind her, I buried my face in my hands and started rubbing my eyes forcefully. Damn, I was so tired! I might well fall asleep just as I sat. Damn, damn, damn. Lazy bugger! I could only snort at that – if I wasn't too tired for snorting. It had been half past six in the morning when I had left this place and finally headed home; the sky had been light for some time already. Giving in to exhaustion at last, I had not even bothered to take off my boots before casting myself down upon my bed. And when I had woken again after barely three hours, I had felt as if only a minute had passed since I had closed my eyes. But there had been no time for any more rest. I had hastily changed my shirt, shaved and splashed my face with a bit of cold water before I left my home, and here I was now, back again. Lazy bugger! He truly had no idea!
And then a memory returned to my consciousness which made a warm, glorious feeling of happiness and relief seep into my stomach. After many a short night, I had at last achieved my goal. The new ZF-1 model was ready to hit the market now.
My father would be so proud of me, I thought, smiling to myself. This one model was quite perfect. So light, compared to all the functions it possessed, so easy to take apart, and completely undetectable by radar! My father had been essential in the process of designing the ZA series and all the following models until the ZE, more than five years ago. Sadly, he had not lived to witness the success of his newest invention. This was where I had taken over from him, and I meant to continue his work just as he would have done. As I had left the office earlier this morning to get a few hours' rest, the final concepts had been on their way to the construction department. This afternoon, I would hold the final prototype in my hands.
This afternoon… it would be exactly fifteen years since the final ZA-1 prototype had found its way into my hands, a present from my father for my twentieth birthday. "Here, son", he had said, "take it, and use it well. And when your time comes, may you make things equally marvellous as this." I remembered how small it had seemed to me, just a little pistol, and how light, and how perfect in its smooth, slender shape and with its polished silver gleam – and how accurate and deadly when fired. Yes. Perfect. I had not parted with it ever since, not even when the ZD-4, only slightly larger, so very clearly surpassed it. There were so many fond memories I connected with it… like those summer days in Venice, fifteen years ago.
Raising my head and lowering my hands, I looked at the two pictures on my desk. One showed me and my family, my father smiling and with an arm around my mother's shoulders, my sister and me, children of twelve and ten, in front of them, laughing. On the other, three young people were standing on a beach, beneath a sky of brilliant sapphire blue. One, a grinning lad with a dishevelled pudding-basin haircut, was me, with an arm around my sister, slim and pretty and with wavy hair of dark blond. The last, a tall, coppery-skinned youth with handsome features, green eyes and a mane of golden curls, was the very same who had called me a lazy bugger this morning. The picture had been taken at Venice, on my twentieth birthday, almost fifteen years ago. The ZA-1 in my belt was clearly discernable if I looked closer.
We would be celebrating a grand jubilee today, and a very special one.
But until then, there were still a few things that needed seeing to. With a sigh, I picked up the two envelopes my secretary had deposited on my desk and slit them open with my pocket knife. One from a customer from halfway across the galaxy, asking for another delivery of ZE-8s, the other from my faithful consultant for finances, informing me of a new possible investment. After reading them through, I placed both of them on top of the pile of papers. I would see to that later.
Getting to my feet and stifling a yawn, I walked over to the far wall, where I tapped a panel briefly with my finger. Immediately it slid open, revealing a number of small keys. I typed in the correct code, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal a large ornate bathroom. Spartan furnishings were all very well, since they made you tough, but a bit of luxury always was a pleasant thing. I could be tough in other matters, but certainly not as far as a hot bath was concerned.
I stepped into the hidden room, and the wall closed again behind me, while the lights in the bathroom were automatically turned on. Once again I thought of my father gratefully. It had been him who had had this installed, as well as the bedroom accessible from here. When my father had had lots of work to do, he had sometimes slept here, at his office. I never did so, though I enjoyed a bath in here from time to time. Yet I occasionally took a pretty girl along to my father's magnificent four-poster bed.
I turned on the tabs and poured in some bubbly soap essence, then stripped off my clothes while watching how the bathtub was being filled up. Steam rose from it and began to cloud the room, dulling the high mirror at the opposite wall. Grinning contentedly, I prepared a pile of fluffy white towels beside the tub, then turned off the tabs and lowered myself into the hot water. What a blessing! I lay back and closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth, feeling that I had truly deserved it this time. The only thing to still improve it would be a girl to work all the tension out of my shoulders – or to climb in beside me, as there was room enough in the tub. My sister and I had almost been able to swim lengths in here when we were small.
I must have dozed off, for I suddenly jerked back into consciousness when a voice at my ear said: "Sleeping instead of working, are we?"
I automatically checked if I was decently covered – which was, with all the foam, easily the case – before I realized that it wasn't necessary because this could be only one person. "What did you have to wake me for?" I protested, with much effort but without success fighting a yawn. "Look, I know you're almost the boss around here, but for obvious reason this fails to impress me. So why don't you just leave me at it?"
"Because you can't spend the whole morning sleeping", my sister answered cruelly. "Other people are up since half past six."
"I only went home at bloody half past six", I groaned. "I spent the whole goddamn night here! And you know what your darling husband called me? A lazy bugger, just imagine!"
"Oh, I guess he did!" my sister snickered. "You usually give him reason enough." Then she very suddenly turned serious. "You don't mean you worked until half past six? You know you shouldn't! Mom always said that, remember? To Dad as well, mind that. And didn't I plainly tell you to go home at midnight at the very latest?"
"Your being a Zorg doesn't entitle you to talk to me in that patronizing way", I grumbled. "And why don't you congratulate me on finishing the job?"
"Oh. Did you really?" Now my sister sounded impressed, which gave me at least some satisfaction.
"Sure. You know what day it is today, don't you?"
"Of course. The first real ZA-1 was produced fifteen years ago."
"Exactly." I brushed a strand of hair out of my face. "I very much wanted get it done until today, you see."
"I never thought you would be done with it so soon. And neither did Marcus, by the way."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" I commented sarcastically. "It's always the same with you. You don't trust me to do anything right, and when I do it, no matter how often, you're always surprised."
My sister snorted. "Which in turn shouldn't surprise you, since one may find you lying in the bathtub instead of sitting at your desk on a regular base."
Now it was my turn to snort. "Call that regular?"
"Yes", my sister said coldly. "And you've been in here for some time, apparently. Your secretary said you told her you didn't want to be disturbed more than an hour ago."
This made me sit up straight on the spot, and my sister retreated hastily as the water slopped up high from my hurried motion and almost spilled over. "More than an hour ago? What's the time?"
"Half past eleven, almost."
Had I really slept that long? Damn! Or was my sister just making fun of me? No, I assumed, for my stomach gave a discreet rumble just then. It seemed to be lunch time for me. "I'm coming out", I informed her, and she passed me one of the fluffy towels, which I wrapped around myself like a cloak as I got to my feet. Climbing out of the tub, I hastily rubbed myself dry and started putting on my clothes again. I should have told my secretary to give me two hours with the sales figures, I thought regretfully, instead of only one and a half, so I could have remained where I was, lying in the warm, foamy water. But done was done, and anyway, I was going to find myself something to eat now.
"We ought to see Venice again", my sister said. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, absently watching the water gurgling out of it. Strands of wavy hair the colour of dark honey framed her face, hanging down past her shoulders in a kind of neat disarray. She was pretty, as I noticed once again. If she hadn't been my sister, I might well have taken her along to the four-poster bed in the next room. Her skin was just as light as mine, yet her eyes were brown. Which was peculiar, really; she was fair-haired and dark-eyed, whereas I, the blackhead, had bright blue eyes. My parents had always found it funny, even more so since the two of us quite resembled each other and had always used to spend most of our time together. The perfect team, they had used to say when we were teenagers, in the hope that it would stay that way for later on. And it had; my sister would back me up in every discussion and manoeuvre me out of trouble before I saw it coming at all – sometimes the latter not without grimly scolding me afterwards, just as if she were the one among us who was one and a half years older, not the other way round. There was no way of fooling my sister, which was really useful, but I was usually the first who felt it.
"Are you listening?" my sister inquired suspiciously. "Or are you already dozing off again?"
"Yeah, right", I assured her hastily, shrugging into my shirt, "I agree with you." And to make sure she knew I had been listening, I added: "One of these days, I'm going to buy a palace at Venice."
My sister laughed. "Dear brother, you've always been a hopeless show-off."
"You think I can't afford it? I mean, you can't be possibly doubting my intellect this time." This was the usual pattern of discussion, and my sister had the tendency to gain the upper hand in it pretty soon – despite the fact that I was the more eloquent one among the two of us.
"I'm doubting the way your greedy little mind works. You want to have this, and that, and everything, just according to your current fancies."
"All right, you can doubt me all you like", I sighed. Even when she was teasing me, like now, it was vain to argue by just disagreeing. There was a saying in the higher levels of the corporation: You don't disagree with Marie Elisa Zorg straight away, or else she is going to change your mind very quickly. "At least you can't doubt my work this time."
"We'll see", she answered tartly, then broke into giggles and jumped up from her seat to give me a hug, just as she had done when she was still a girl. "Silly brother!"
"You'd like a palace, though", I remarked, putting on the high leather boots I was so particularly fond of.
"Actually, yes. Preferably along the Canal Grande, and on the San Polo side, but with the bedrooms facing some quiet lane or channel, although not too narrow."
"So you have fancies, too", I stated. "No need to give me the rough side of your tongue, then."
"Sometimes it's necessary", she snickered, matching me quite perfectly in her mischievous expression – only that she would, under normal circumstances, never admit that she had a mischievous streak just as well.
"Right", I said, hanging the towel neatly over the rack where it was supposed to be before my sister could give me a disapproving scowl for letting things lie around, "I think we're done here."
My sister pressed a button well concealed among the room's décor, and the hidden door slid open, letting us pass through, followed by a thin cloud of vapour wafting out after us until the door slid shut again.
But we were not alone in the office. My secretary was standing in the door, her whole attitude signalling disapproval, suspiciously watching the curly-haired man sitting at my desk and going through my papers. When she saw me, she announced, quite unnecessarily: "Mr Zorg is here, sir."
The man looked up and grinned at me broadly. "Morning, boss", he said.