Monday, December 26, 2011

E/B:H -- Chapter Two

I can't say for certain, of course, that you've never taken a ride in a hopper. But I'm pretty sure you haven't. Not unless you're one of the miners they've been sending to Luna City on the moon lately, or unless you're extremely wealthy. Shit, I'm a network personality, and I make boatloads of cash, and I'd never been on one until that night. They're not inexpensive.

The fact that Jeremy must have paid for it himself -- Network wasn't going to cover it -- made me think he had a serious story. I made a mental note to throw some cash his way when we got back -- I know what he makes, and it's less than a quarter of my salary.

The hopper essentially looked like a big metal ball on three legs. A short, burly local handed us pressure suits. Mine was red. As we suited up, I finally thought to ask the obvious.

"So, where are we going?" I asked, hoping he wouldn't say "the moon." I mean, I trusted the guy, but come *on.*

"Mauna Kea," he said.

I had know idea what those words meant. Something Hawaiian. So at least we weren't leaving the atmosphere.

"And that is?"

"Observatory. Up in the mountains. Used to be a college thing. Funded by corporations now, I think. Anyway, an old buddy of mine works there. Got me the scent of something that..." he trailed off.

I simply nodded. I didn't know much about hoppers, but I knew they were mind-blowingly fast. We'd be back before we were missed. That was the hope, anyway.

I'd never taken a hopper ride before, but I knew the concept. The little ball would shoot up -- fast. Faster than any humans inside would be able to withstand without becoming a permanent part of the vehicle's floor. Exact speed? No clue. But the news report I'd seen on them mentioned that, without the hopper's safety system, occupants would be liquified.

The pressure suits were only a part of the system, and were mainly there to keep the riders... well, clean. We also got helmets. Once the helmets were on, the suits were air- and water-tight. Well, liquid-tight, anyway.

Then came the second safety feature. The entirety of the hopper -- the ball -- filled with a sort of... goo. It was a thick gel that took the shock of the acceleration. The passengers floated in the center of the ball, surrounded by this crud, as the hopper rocketed directly up.

We were alone. There was no pilot on board the hopper -- its course was pre-programmed into its computers. There was, however, an operator of sorts. One guy at the hopper's takeoff point monitored the flight via a link to the hopper's flight computers. In an emergency, he could...

OK, in an emergency, we were probably fucked. The most the operator could do was come up with a convincing story about our deaths. Our flight was too short to make any corrections -- it would be over in less than 30 seconds.

Jeremy and I were lowered into the gel. As we cleared the frame of the sphere's hatch, mechanical clamps grabbed our ankles and pulled us into position at the ball's center. The clamps let go, and I was floating in the center of the sphere. I tried to turn and look at Jeremy, but the clear gel was thick. Moving my head wasn't going to happen without more effort than I wanted to put in, so I did my best to relax my body for the flight.

There was no countdown, no red light turning on inside the sphere to let us know we were taking off. But there didn't need to be. We definitely knew it when it happened. Even with the gel, even with the pressure suits, I felt like I was being curb-stomped. By an elephant. With an overeating disorder.

I know the flight only took 30 seconds -- 28, really -- but it seemed much longer. I could swear I felt the heavy metal boots attached to my pressure suit touching the hard bottom deck of the sphere at one point. Just as the pressure started to get unbearable, though, it stopped in an instant. We had landed without so much as a tiny jolt. We floated in the sphere -- in the center, I noticed, so my boots probably hadn't reached the floor -- for a couple of minutes. I guessed we were there for about three minutes, maybe three and a half -- so 6 or 7 times longer than the actual flight had been.

Finally, the hatch at the top of the sphere slid open, and the clamps grabbed us around the ankles again and pushed us upwards. When we were halfway out of the hatch, Jeremy and I could pull ourselves out onto the ladders on either side. The clamps let go. There was no one outside to meet us, to help us out of our suits. I pulled off my helmet, first twisting to the left, then the right. The first thing I noticed after the seals unlocked and I pulled the helmet off was that it was cold outside. Really cold, actually.

"The fuck, Jeremy. I thought this was Hawaii," I grumbled as Jeremy took off his own helmet.

"It's the altitude," he told me. "More than 14,000 feet. Like, three miles up."

I nodded. That made sense, I guess. I'd been up in the Nevada mountains in summer. That time, I'd been able to see my breath, and I don't think those mountains were anywhere near this high. And I had another thought. "What about air?" I asked.

"Thinner up here. Don't try to run any marathons," he said, pulling off his gloves.

Well, shit. That was bad news. I'd taken another couple doses of speed on the flight over, which meant my heart rate was somewhere north of 130. Higher heart rate meant I needed to pull in more oxygen. It would be very easy for me to pass out up here. I'd have to be careful.

"Turn around so I can get you out of your suit," Jeremy said, holding up his now-ungloved hands.

"Thought you had a pal here. Why isn't he out here helping us?" I grumbled as I turned.

"He's working. This place only has a couple of employees these days. Back when it was government funded, huge staff. Now that it's basically a corporate tax writeoff, it's got a skeleton crew," he said.

And as you'll see in a few minutes, everyone's pretty busy."

Getting us both out of the suits took another ten or fifteen minutes. Upside of that, though, was that all of the goop stayed on the suits, and my clothes were still clean and pressed. Gotta look good. Apart from being a talker, it's one of the main parts of my job.

I checked the screen on my wrist as we headed to the observatory. Despite the darkening sky, the screen was dimming. I didn't remember the last time I'd eaten -- lunch in Dallas hadn't happened. As the screen used my body's electrical impulses for power, the dimness was a bit worrying.

Worrying, too, were my vital signs. My pulse was 138, and my blood pressure was 150 over 95. I was already feeling dizzy, a combination of malnutrition and amphetamines.

"Anything to eat up here? A snack bar or something?" I asked as I trudged after Jeremy through the observatory's front door.

"Shit, that was rude of me. Didn't even ask when you ate last. I was just so on about this story --"

"It's fine. I'm just a bit--"

"No, totally. I understand. I'll try to track you down something. The scientists live up here, so they must have food around."

That was good news. Food would help -- not as much as if I didn't have five doses of speed kicking around my bloodstream, but...

Even inside the observatory, no one came to meet us. Didn't seem to matter, though, as Jeremy seemed to know where he was going. Our route took us through what looked like a small kitchen. Though all of the lights were off, we could see a food machine blinking. I hated the food from these machines -- soy and tofu mechanically formed into foodlike shapes, sprayed with taste chemicals. Yech. But if I wanted to stay vertical, I couldn't afford to be picky.

I chose the least evil-looking option -- braised "beef" and rice. The food machine was old -- it rattled and bubbled -- but it produced a small, trapezoidal container with Chinese characters on it. There were some chopsticks and plastic forks in a small bin next to the machine. I learned to eat with chopsticks when I was two. I tried the faux-Chinese faux-food. It was authentically terrible, but I ate it as Jeremy and I continued through the huge complex.I didn't vomit, anyway. I'm counting that as a win.

Finally, we saw another human being. It was after I'd finished my sad "meal." We were walking, of all places, past a men's room. Just after we passed it, the door opened, and a big man in a black coat came out.

When I say big, I don't mean muscular; I mean fat. I couldn't help staring for a second -- you never see overweight people. Not these days. Especially when being trim, with the ubiquity of soy and tofu and the easy availability of metabo-boosters, is easy. Easier than letting yourself get heavy, anyway. I don't even know how one would go about gaining 50 or 60 extra pounds anymore.

"Tim," Jeremy said to the heavy man.

"Jeremy!" Tim said, his pudgy face breaking into a wide grin.

"Hi, I'm --" I started.

"Oh, I know. Watch you on Global all the time," Tim said. I didn't think it was possible, but his grin got wider. A bit scary. The big man looked like he was about to unhinge his jaw and swallow both Jeremy and me.

"Want to show Dane what you showed me?"

"Of course, of course," Tim said, his grin shrinking back to a usual size. He waved a massive hand in the air and started walking. Jeremy and I just followed him.

I was starting to feel a little less shaky, but Tim was walking fast, especially for a fat man. I dropped back a bit -- I figured if I could keep Jeremy and the big scientist in sight, I would be OK, and I was gasping for breath. At least my screen wasn't as dim anymore. That was definitely something.

"It's just through here," Tim called back, turning. He led us into a small room with screens covering three of the walls. The lights were off, but they really didn't need to be on. Even in suspend mode, the screens threw enough light to illuminate the room. Tim rolled up his sleeve and tapped his screen twice. The screens jumped to life, but the room got darker -- we were looking now at black screens with only pinpoints of background light.

"Think your screens are broken, boss," I said, leaning against the doorframe and trying like hell to calm my heart rate.

"No, they're functional. You're looking at a bit of space between Jupiter and Saturn. Lemme just..." Tim mumbled, tapping his screen.

The screen's image shifted, and that's when I first saw it. The... object. I couldn't say what it was, but I wasn't the only one.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I try not to ask those questions," Tim said, magnifying the image. It was massive, whatever it was. The shape was... well, not quite symmetrical, but not asymmetrical, either. I'd say it was roughly squareish, but it had odd angles. Protrusions. Ridges and valleys.

"Asteroid?" I asked.

"They don't think so," Jeremy said.

"We don't want to rush to --"

"Fine. No conclusions. But what do you think it is?" I asked, sighing. Scientists could certainly be fucking frustrating.

"Well, I can tell you what we've observed," Tim started carefully. "It's moving. Fast."

"It was near Neptune yesterday," Tim said.

"That doesn't seem that fast," I said.

"Trust me, it's faster than you think. It's gaining speed," Tim told us. "There's more. It's heading this way."

Well, yeah. I'd guessed that, otherwise they wouldn't have dragged my tired ass all the way up there.

"I can see that doesn't mean much to you. Let me restate -- it's coming for Earth. That means it's changed direction. More than once. It's had to make course corrections to keep headed towards us."

"You mean it's being... flown? Intelligently?" I said, blinking.

"Like I said, we don't like to make those kinds of conclusions..." Tim said, trailing off.

They couldn't make conclusions. But I could. And this was shaping up to be a much, much bigger story than some has-been cage fighter popping up to get a shit award.

* * *

When I got off the phone with Ryan, it would be an understatement to say I was shocked. Dumbstruck would be accurate.

"This is the same bullshit Jeremy told me the day before I sent you," Ryan had said, sighing heavily on the other end of the line. "It sounds just as weak and fictional as when he said it."

"I don't think you understand, Ryan. There are scientists here who --"

"Scientists," Ryan scoffed. "Right. If they were any kind of real scientists, they'd be working for Umbra or The Lungshan."

OK, so pure research under corporate grants didn't hold much weight with my boss. Good to know, I guess.

"They have data, Ryan. Real-time imagery of the object. It could be the first contact with alien life. Don't you think Global News needs to be there first?"

That shut him up for a minute. But only a minute.

"Look, they said this thing is moving pretty slowly, right?" he asked.

"Well, they said it was picking up speed."

"It's still at least two days before we have to worry about it. Do the Andrevich story. "We'll revisit this conversation after that."

Ryan didn't wait for an answer. He just terminated the connection. And I was...

Well, I was furious. There was no doubt of that. But more than anything, I was confused. This was a huge story. Gigantic, in fact. Why couldn't Ryan see that? Why was this Vladimir Andrevich story so important to him, but a potential alien ship was back-burnered?

In any event, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot I could do. Ryan wanted the Andrevich story, and that was what I'd have to give. It's not like I could just do the Object story on my own --Global News would never air it. And I couldn't even go to another Network. If the story was too hard-news for Global, then none of the other Networks would touch it for anything. Not in this country, anyway. Probably not even in Old Blighty, though I'd pretty much burned my bridges with Royal when I left four years ago. I was stuck.

Taking another ride down in the hopper wasn't something I was looking forward to -- it wouldn't be a powered flight, after all. It would more just be a straight gravity-drop until a couple of hundred feet before the landing site. Then, a controlled landing. But there was really no other way to get back to where I was supposed to be, where I guess I *had* to be, now. So we suited up again. A few minutes later, we were back on the ground, almost exactly in the same spot where we'd started. The burly local guy was back. He helped us out of our suits, and Jeremy drove me to the hotel where we would meet Andrevich and his people early in the morning.

"Have they landed yet?" I asked as we rolled down the long, slick highway into the center of Honolulu.

"Hang on. Let me check."

Jeremy let the car's computer take over the driving and tapped a few commands into his screen. After a second, he nodded to me.

"Looks like they landed 20 minutes ago. They should be... well, right behind us on this road," he told me.

"Staying in our hotel?"

"I think so, yes."

A plan was forming. Maybe I'd be able to do the story I wanted to do, after all.

"Kick up the speed. Make sure we get to the hotel before they do," I told Jeremy.


"Because, my friend... I have an idea." I said, grinning.

There's a skillset required for every job. For Andrevich's job, you had to be a big, mean motherfucker who could hit really hard. But there are those of us out there who aren't big, aren't fighters. My job has two requirements --that I look good and talk well. And thanks to those two skills, I've never had to fight anyone in my life.

Growing up, I got myself into plenty of trouble, sure. I don't think you've been a teenager unless you've pissed off most of the people you know. I got close to some fights a few times. But I never had to throw a punch. I could always smile or talk my way out of pretty much everything, which is why I became what I am.

So you'd think there was nothing Andrevich and me would have in common, right? Well, there's one skill in my set that helps. Even when dealing with a guy who could disassemble me without his fight tattoos even changing colors. It's a skill I'm proud of.

See, Andrevich was New Soviet, but New Soviets shared more similarities to their Russian neighbors than either wanted to admit. Apart from the common language and history, both Russians and New Soviets liked to drink. And I could hold a masterclass on drinking. So when I arranged to meet Andrevich in the hotel bar, I knew I had my work cut out for me -- but I knew my plan would work.

Monday, December 12, 2011

E/B:H -- Chapter One

You know what I've noticed? No matter where you go these days, you got some motherfucker telling you he was there. And it's always a guy, too, telling you that shit.

"You know," he'll say, thinking he's being all smooth and casual and shit. "You know, I'm one of the few people in the world who was actually there. On Day One."

It doesn't matter where you are, either. Could be at work, showing the new guy to a desk where he'll spend his day plugged into the system, doing monkey-easy tasks for years. Could be at a party for your Great-Grandma's 132nd. Someone will do it, even though we all know by now 99% of them are full of shit.

But, of course, you're going to believe me when I tell you that I *was* actually one of the people there on Day One. Why, you ask? Well, I can prove it, unlike everyone else. And most times, I don't even have to break out said proof. People know when they see me. Because while other guys point to a flesh-colored blob in the network feed and claim it was them, all I have to do is smile at you. Sometimes, I even introduce myself.

"Hi," I'll say. "Dane Phoenix, Global News Network."

Not my real name, of course. Phoenix is a stage name, but all the network reporters have them. Dane is what my mother named me, though, so call me that.

So, you know for a fact I was there. Most likely, you first heard about the events of Day One from me, or at least someone like me. I'll tell you the stuff they didn't show you on the network feed, the stuff they only told us in the media/entertainment complex. And I'm telling you that stuff now, because, seriously, what can it hurt at this point?

It doesn't start on Day One, of course. My involvement with the story starts a couple of days before -- Day Minus One, if you like. It was one of those days. Errand days. I had a lot of crap to take care of, not the least of which was re-registering my entertainment license. That meant a trip to Dallas.

I could have been driven there, of course. The Network would have been more than happy to hire me a vehicle and a driver. I mean, they kind of bend over backwards to do stuff for me -- I bring them ratings, after all, so they want to make sure I'm happy. Wouldn't do to have one of their most popular personalities jump ship, though, between you and me, that's something I wouldn't do. Global News is one of the few with any journalistic cred these days, though I could bitch about the pay if I wanted. But nah. Not me. My mother always told me not to rock the boat, and she was right. I was on top right *then*, but that didn't mean it would always be. I tried to be as easy as possible to work with, unlike some of my co-personalities... but I'll get to that later.

Anyway, Dallas. I decided to take the train, mainly because I was still nursing a hangover from the night before and could use the time to sleep. Network personalities always get the private cars on the train, so that meant two hours from my house in L.A. of undisturbed time.

Yeah, I know. No one actually *lives* in Los Angeles anymore, right? It's almost passé at this point, but I don't really care. I like the weather, and the old-school "we used to be the home of the entertainment industry" vibe. And Dallas is... well ... It's fucking Dallas, isn't it? Mega-City One. Too many damn laws in Texas. Too many people watching your every goddamn move.

I know. Coming from a network personality, that might almost seem funny. We all have the *hey, look at me!* disease, don't we? But the insane level of surveillance in Texas made me avoid it unless absolutely necessary -- usually once a year, like today.

So, the nap on the train didn't wipe out the hangover like I hoped it would. I might have dropped some perfectly legal amphetamines. OK, so I was pretty much flying on speed when I switched trains at Arlington for downtown Dallas. Judge if you want, I suppose. Pretend you don't take some Umbra Dynamics uppers after a rough night out. I only mention it because it becomes pertinent later.

Downtown Dallas is like time travel, man. There's this part of it called Dealey Plaza that they've kept as it was in the 1960s. When... something... happened. Can't remember what off the top of my head. But it's like walking through an old movie. Kinda cool. The train to downtown lets you off right at Dealey, and there's a pleasant five-block walk through Past-Ville to the FEC building. The FEC -- Federal Entertainment Commission-- used to be the FCC. They once regulated what we could do on Network, before I was born. Nowadays they had no regulatory power -- the Networks just paid them a yearly fee to license its personalities, like me.

Extortion, really, but the Network always paid my fee for me. All I had to do was show up, submit to a DNA scan, and sign a screen. Boom, done. But I had to do it in person, which sucked.

It took me all of five minutes to get that done, and it was almost noon. I was thinking of tracking down some lunch when the chime sounded in my ear.

A lot of the personalities have the implants. It's a simple operation in the middle ear, where their phones are implanted just above the jawline. I don't, at least not anymore. I used to, but retro is coming back in, so I had the implant taken out and replaced it with an old-school earpiece. It looked tight. Still, it was Network property, and it was always on. The chime meant it was Global News calling, and that I couldn't ignore it. I knew I had five seconds to clear my throat and get ready to start talking to whoever was on the other end.

It wasn't a person. It was one of the computers at Global News Headquarters, about a mile and a half from where I was standing in Downtown Dallas.

"Dane Phoenix," the computer's voice, deep and male, said. "You have a mandatory appointment at Global News Network Headquarters. Appointment date, 27 July 2098. Appointment time, 1315 Central. Please check in with Ryan Jackson, News Department Head. Confirm."

"Confirmed," I sighed. I'd hoped to get in and out of Dallas without having to go into the office, but they knew I was in town. Probably knew the second I stepped off the train. Fucking Texas.

I'd never met Ryan before, though he was my boss. He'd hired me. But he picked me up out of the London market, back when I'd been working for the Royal News Network. That was in, what, 2094. We interviewed entirely over video chat, and I moved to Los Angeles as soon as he gave me the job. I'd managed to avoid him so far. Him wanting to talk to me in person... well, I had no clue what that meant, but suffice it to say it was a highly irregular request.

I had just over an hour before the meeting, and the speed was starting to rob me of my appetite. I could have called for a lift. Again, the Network would only be too happy to send a driver to me. But it was a nice day, and I was suddenly bursting with energy. That was probably the speed, too. So I decided to leg it, and covered the mile and a half in just under ten minutes.

Yeah. I walk fast. Something odd I've noticed since moving here is that Americans walk painfully slowly. I grew up in Europe, though. Amsterdam, specifically. There, everyone walks like there's a shadow person tailing them, ready to pounce and attack at any second. Here, everyone walks like they've got nowhere in particular to be, even if it's patently obvious that they do. It's weird.

So, of course, I made it to the office early. Had to ask a receptionist -- tall, blond guy with impossible good looks -- where to go. He directed me to the 23rd floor, told me to check in with the receptionist there.

I suspect the Network is doing secret cloning. The guy behind the desk on the 23rd floor looked exactly like the one in the lobby, or so I thought. Could have been the speed again. It's safe and legal, and everything, but it can throw your brain a curve ball or six if you overuse it... which I really had lately.

Anyway, the clone pointed me to Ryan's office, down at the end of the hall, with instructions to have a seat outside. I didn't. Only because I didn't have a chance, though. The door was open, and Ryan was inside. Without a word, he waved me into the office.

"You're early. I like your initiative," he said. He was wearing workout clothes, black athletic pants and a black tank top. There was a cross-training machine in his office, I saw as I stepped inside and he closed the door behind me. He'd been working out. I could tell by the sweat he was still toweling off his brow. I didn't know people still really worked out, with machines and stuff. I take the pharmaceutical route, and so does everyone else I know. Not Ryan Jackson, apparently.

"Vladimir Andrevich," Ryan said. He sat behind his desk and tossed the towel onto the machine. "You know him?"

"Know *of* him," I said. "Everyone kind of does."

"Well, everyone over the age of 15. He's been off the grid for years."

"But not anymore?" I asked. I was sweating now, too. Damn speed.

"Apparently not. His press agent contacted the Network this morning."

Andrevich was a legend when I was a kid. Best cage fighter the world had ever seen. Nowadays, it was a rare thing to be considered a global celebrity, but Andrevich sure was.

"He returning to the cage?"

"No. But the IFAA is planning a ceremony to honor him, day after tomorrow. And he's attending."

Now, that was interesting. Andrevich had been undefeated until 2094, when he'd killed a man in the cage. Accidentally, he said. And though I already suspected the answer to this question, I asked anyway.

"And this has something to do with me?" I asked.

"We're sending you out on assignment. You meet with him tonight, interview him tomorrow, cover the ceremony after."

Yep. Pretty much what I thought.

"I don't cover sports, Ryan. Celebrity beat, hard news. Wouldn't someone like Jagger Cash --"

"Jagger Cash is an idiot," Ryan said, cutting me off. "And Andrevich's people said he specifically requested you. So that's the job."

And that was it. That was all he said to me. He looked at me, then at the office door. I'm not brilliant, but I got the hint. I stood up, managed a quick half-wave, and I left. The 23rd floor clone was waiting outside, and he motioned for me to follow him.

"Your flight leaves DFW in two hours," he said, heading for the elevator.

"Where am I going?"

"Hawaii. Honolulu," he said.

"Hear that used to be pretty nice."

"Parts of the island are. The part you're heading to might as well be Chicago," he said.

"Beautiful. Background info?"

"Already downloading to your screen," he said, nodding at the thin-film screen on my forearm. I checked, and there was, indeed, a progress bar just finishing up.

"Private flight?" I asked.

"Goes without saying."

"Good man. Hey, is the guy downstairs -- "

"My brother. Yeah."


"No, just born on the same day."

I smirked. I thought I saw Clone-23 smirk, as well, as the elevator doors closed and I descended quickly down into the lobby to see his brother. I was sure Clone-1 would have my ride to the airport ready, as well as the list of the crew I'd be working with. Locals, I'd guess. Hopefully, they weren't as bad as the last local crew I'd used -- the wardrobe person was shit. Shirts too small, pants too big. I'd had to go shopping myself with half an hour until I went live. Didn't want a repeat of that one -- not with a story this big.

* * *

Yeah, I know. You're saying, "What the hell, Dane? You said you were going to talk about Day One. This ain't that. This is some boring shit about Network politics, about how you rich people talk to each other."

Trust me. I'm getting there. All of this stuff is relevant, believe it or not, though you might not see the whole picture for a while yet. I know I sure didn't. But I know it must seem disjointed, especially because you never saw the interview with Vladimir Andrevich. You never got the chance. A bigger story -- Day One -- came up before you could. Remember where I was when I first reported on the incidents of that day?

That's right. Hawaii. You think you're starting to put it together now, and I suppose you are -- at least part of it, anyway. The full picture is something that didn't make much sense when I finally put it together. Hell, I'm not sure it makes much sense now.

Anyway, I did my research on the flight to Hawaii. It was only two and a half hours, but turns out I didn't need all the time. As I started reading the network-assembled dossier, stuff started coming back to me.

Like I said, Andrevich was a global celeb. Everyone was a fan, even me when I was younger. I never saw him fight in person, but he was all over the network for effing years.There were some interesting details in his file, though, stuff I didn't know before.

First, there was the matter of his hometown. I'd assumed Andrevich was from Russia, but that wasn't true. He was born in a small town in the New Soviet Republic, winter 2049. That couldn't have been an easy place to grow up. After the China War in the 20s, part of Russia had split off and gone communist. Again. The land they claimed was mostly crap wilderness in Siberia near the Chinese border, so Russia let them go. Well, eventually.

There were the requisite border skirmishes and saber-rattling, but even Russia knew the land was horrible, cold, and mostly useless. There wasn't much there in the way of natural resources, and the NSR quickly became a third-world country. Even China abandoned them. China ditched Communism in the 40s, but the NSR bullheadedly stuck with it. I'd never known anyone who grew up in that area. I just assumed most people didn't make it to adulthood alive.

He was the hero of his hometown, of course. His file showed that. There was a picture of the town square in New Odessa, one showing a depressing, brown sculpture of Andrevich in a fighting pose. It looked like a child had made it -- the fight tattoos on his arms looked like they'd been scratched into the metal with a knife. They were also inaccurate.

In any civilized society, such a statue would be 30 feet high and stunningly lifelike. Fuck accurate. The fight tattoos would stand out in electric blue, showing the fighter had taken no damage and was in top physical shape. There wouldn't even be a hint that they might be turning red -- that the fighter might be tiring or injured.

Not in New Odessa. Just looking at that one picture of the town square... well, let's say I could see how Vladimir Andrevich wanted to punch someone.

I closed Andrevich's file and checked the time on my screen. Still more than an hour to fly, and I was out of research material. I suppose I could have used the time to write a few interview questions, but I don't really do that anymore. Haven't for a few years. When I stopped overpreparing for interviews was when I got noticed, got a reputation as a guy worth talking to, so I got a bit lazy. Nowadays, I came up with one question -- the first one -- and built all of my subsequent questions on the subject's responses.

Like I said, it's lazy, but it also works. It got me out of a crap job at the bottom rung of the lowest-ranked Euro Network. The Royal News picked me up, and I haven't looked back since.

I was expecting someone from Andrevich's camp to meet me. When I landed, though, I knew the person waiting as I got off the plane. It was Jeremy Ford, one of Global News' best producers. I'd worked with Jeremy for years now, but he hadn't been on my crew list in Dallas a few hours ago.

"Jeremy," I said, smiling.

"Dane," he replied. No smile, and that was unusual. Jeremy was one of the most laid-back guys I'd ever met. Something was up.

"Andrevich's people back out on the interview?" I guessed.

"No, you're set to meet with them tomorrow morning. Flight delays. Some kind of storm at the airport in Munich."

Well, that was good. I would'ver hated to have come all this way for nothing.

"So what's up?" I asked. "You look... well, not happy."

"Something else. Could be big, could be nothing."

Man of few words. That, at least, was like Jeremy.


"Ryan wants you to stay on this. No side trips, no B story."

I knew Jeremy well. Better yet, I trusted his instincts -- he'd been the producer on the Atlantic Rail story, which had won me all sorts of awards.

"Well," I said, smiling, "We have time. What say we take a look anyway?"