Corvin Reed smiled as he escorted his dinner companion to her chair. She was a female Newman with long blonde hair, her figure petite but ripely curved. Undoubtedly, he reflected as he admired the way the short white dress highlighted that figure, the scientists who had designed the Newman genetic code had done some very exacting work on the females of that species. Perhaps the project directors had done so, so many centuries ago, at the behest of men like him.
"Is all this for us?" the girl asked, wide-eyed, as she stared at the feast laid out on dishes of glittering crystal.
"Of course, my darling." Corvin let his fleshy hand slide down along the girl's bare shoulder before taking his own seat. "An exquisite flower such as yourself deserves nothing but the best."
He reached for a decanter and poured her a glass of shimmering crimson wine.
"Vadira '03, brought with us from home," he said. The girl's lips formed an appropriate circle of astonishment.
"Why, Corvin, how could you ever arrange for all of this?" she asked, amazed. "I thought that food rationing was strictly enforced."
Corvin let out a hearty chuckle.
"My dear, I am the Director of Food Distribution here on Pioneer 2. One of the benefits of that position is that, should I want to provide a beautiful companion with a meal fitting to her stature I may do so, even if it should happen to technically violate certain ration point limitations." Power was often the ultimate aphrodisiac, and this particular young lady gave all the signs of being the type to be stunned and impressed by how easily he circumvented the law.
Everyone's wrong some of the time.
* * * * *
"Nol, just what do you call this?" bellowed Max Grant, the Director of InfoNet--and more importantly, Nol's boss at the government-run online news service. Nol, looking much more professional than she had in Corvin's apartment suite, shrugged.
She watched the broadcast image of the food management director bragging to her about how he'd stolen difficult-to-raise foods from the colony spaceship's stores.
"It looks like a pirate broadcast," she said. The low picture quality created by the need to evade government security systems gave it away.
"Displaying your footage!" Grant snapped. "The government ordered that story killed. With the explosion on Ragol, the government doesn't want the people's confidence undermined any further by suggestions of corruption!"
"Especially if the story is true, huh?"
She held up her hands.
"Hey, I know, we've had this argument before. I think it's a shame that guys like Corvin Reed can get away with crimes just because they're government officials. I didn't put this on the air, though. You can check my computer security logs. I deleted the file recording of Corvin's boasting right after you gave me the order. You can see that I never made a copy or sent the file to anyone from the moment I entered it into the system to the moment I sent it off to the electron afterlife."
That was the complete truth. She'd copied the file in her aerocar immediately after leaving Corvin's home and dropped the new data disk off with the pirate before returning to InfoNet's offices. Nol had had a feeling that the government would kill her story, so she'd taken steps to make sure the truth got out right from the start.
"Then how do you explain the pirate broadcast?" Grant challenged her.
"Maybe they hacked our system?" Nol suggested. "I mean, they can hack broadcast transmissions, so why not computers? If I were running a pirate station I'd ache to get a look at our files, just to see what the government wouldn't let InfoNet say." She paused, then added, "You know, Mr. Grant, those pirate stations wouldn't make a bad story. I bet the public would like to know who these people are and how they keep infiltrating their screens."
Grant sighed heavily. Nol felt for him; it had to be tough, trying to balance the needs of the public, who wanted news, with those of the government, who needed to control the dataflow for their own purposes.
"Nol, were you sent on this spaceship as punishment for my sins?"
"I love you too, boss." She gave Grant a cheery wave, then went back to her desk, logged out, and headed for the door.
Outside, she stopped and stared at the city. It never failed to amaze her, this giant collection of towering buildings with dozens of stories built in the heart of Pioneer 2. In it, refugees from a dying planet had lived and worked, loved and wept for two years as they made their way across the stars to Ragol, their soon-to-be new home. That such a thing could exist was a marvel of technology, a living testament to the power of living minds and their fierce determination to endure even against the most brutal odds.
Nol let out a deep breath. It was sad that the same people that created this miracle could also give rise to corruption, decadence, greed, and lies. Along with hope for a new future, Pioneer 2 also carried power-hungry bureaucrats and a thriving black market run by criminals. These were evils that could be fought with truth, though, which was why Nol had become a journalist. She didn't know how to fight with a gun or saber, but she knew how to use her mind and voice.
She walked over to her aerocar, got inside, and programmed the autodrive computer to fly her home. The sleek, finned vehicle rose smoothly into the air, linking up with Pioneer 2's air traffic grid, and started for her residence.
While the aerocar flew, Nol pulled out her Personal Data Link and hooked up to the BEE system to check her messages. One caught her eye: "For all the best in fancy footwear, call Mirton's Shoe Emporium at ZXAN-3694." Nol didn't really need shoes (though a nice pair of boots might not hurt), but she did recognize the code. She quickly typed the connection into her PDL.
"Hello? Mirton's Shoes?"
The face on the screen grinned at her.
"Hey, chill, babe. This line is pristine."
"Well, that's good. They're probably snooping me at Central, after you broke my story, Ravah."
Ravah smiled, showing perfect white teeth in his dark-skinned face.
"Hey, not to worry. Your logs will show you making a call to a perfectly ordinary shoe store, when in reality, you're jamming with the one and only Secret Ways, Pioneer 2's number-one champion of the free press. You still got a job with Censorship-R-Us, or you decided to come join me on the outside, babe?"
"I didn't get fired, if that's what you mean."
"Nol Rinale, you're one big fibber. You thought it was such a big deal, you wouldn't have given me the clip in the first place--but you did, 'cause you know those stuffed shirts would sit on it and the only way to get guys like Corvin Reed is to drag 'em into the light."
Nol grinned back at him.
"Okay, you're right. By the way, I've also got some fresh data you might take a look at."
"Already? Babe, you're not wasting any time."
"The truth waits for no Newman."
"That is so. I've got something for you, too, so come over if you can."
"I will. What do you have?"
"Black-market data, taken right from the government laboratory. I'll need your help to make something out of it."
"Sounds juicy!" Nol felt the butterflies in her stomach, a sure sign that something was in the air.
"It is. See you...around twenty-hundred hours?" Ravah asked.
"Sounds good to me. Bye!"
"Catch you around, babe."
The PDL screen returned to its default menu, and Nol was left to think. Government data sounded exciting, and lab data even more so. Given the nature of the Pioneer Project, it came as no surprise that the laboratory was one of the government's most important arms, and new projects were constantly in development. Scientists being people too, though, not every new invention was necessarily intended as a boon to society.
Those kind were all the more newsworthy.
* * * * *
Ravah Amauri lived in the roughest district of the city. Not a slum per se, Nol knew, but plenty of black marketeers operated nearby, making deals for weapons, equipment, chemicals, and information. It was exactly the kind of place that suited the underground journalist.
"Hey, Nol, good seeing you," he greeted her at the door. "Come on in." He offered her a beer, which she accepted. "So, you show me yours and I show you mine?"
"You can have mine free of charge."
She slid a datadisk from her purse and gave it to Ravah.
"What is this, anyway?" he wondered.
"Food distribution records. I took them when I got access to Corvin's home unit. It turns out that there's more missing food than just a steak or two. We're talking about enough to feed over a thousand people a day."
"A thousand--" Ravah's eyes lit for a second.
"Yeah, so I thought that either some black marketeer has his claws into the food system, or else..."
She paused. Ravah was staring off into space. That definitely wasn't like him. He should have been all over her with questions by this point, asking who, what, why. Nol figured that Ravah would have jumped in himself with the speculation that there were unregistered citizens aboard. She took a tug on her beer.
"Okay, Ravah, what's wrong?"
"It took you maybe three seconds, tops, to get distracted from this very hot information I've brought to you. Let me guess; you spent the past couple of hours going over that black market data you bought, and whatever it is, you can't get it out of your head?"
"Sorry, Nol. It's no excuse for zoning on you."
"Why don't you show me this data? That way, either you'll get the itch out of your system or you'll get me all hot for it too, so it won't matter. Besides, if it's so interesting that it's got you this into it, I want to see it too!"
Ravah nodded again.
"Okay, let's do it."
He got off the sofa, hauled a pile of dirty shirts out of a chair--couldn't guys ever figure out how to work a laundry pod?--and dragged the seat up next to the contoured chair that faced his computer system. With surprising gallantry, he dropped himself into the dirty-clothes chair and left the clean one for his guest. Nol crossed the room and sat down while Ravah switched from an online music broadcast to his data analysis function.
"I had to break some pretty hard security to get in," he explained as he took a disk case from his pocket. "It came encrypted, fresh from the lab." He took the disk out of its case and slotted it into the computer. The machine beeped and symbols started streaming across the screen.
"Well, compared to it, the security your InfoNet broadcasts use is like a wall made out of paper. This stuff is more like the triple-layered paraglass they make the city dome out of."
"I'm surprised you got in at all."
Ravah shook his head sadly.
"Oh, ye of little faith. There's one edge I've got with this, and it's time. When I'm hacking online, there's security searches going on, central government Net-cops looking for unauthorized uses. I've got to get in and beat your security not now but ten minutes ago. This data I can work on for hours, which means I can use some slow-but-sure decryption algorithms that just couldn't hack it--"
"--when it's showtime."
"So what did you find out?"
He tapped a key, and the images resolved themselves into understandable text. Nol's eyes skimmed across it rapidly.
"Secret investigations of Ragol?"
Seven years ago, the Pioneer 1 had arrived on Ragol, intent on determining whether it would be a suitable place for colonization. They had reported that it was, which in turn led to Pioneer 2's launch. Something had happened, though. Just as communications were being opened with the Central Dome on the surface, all contact was lost, even the long-range BEE network links. Rumors said there had been a huge explosion, but nothing certain was known, and the government had been adamant about InfoNet remaining silent. Needless to say, the fate of Pioneer 1 and its implications for Pioneer 2's population was the hot gossip issue and made itself felt in everyone's lives, like a low buzz of background anxiety that every so often broke out into the open.
"I thought that Principal Tyrell had the Hunter's Guild investigate the surface?" Nol said.
"He did. Apparently, though, there are other factions that are involved. Maybe they've got their own agendas..." Ravah mused. "Take a look here. It says that there was a military craft sent down to the surface under cover of being a pleasure boat."
"I wonder what they were looking for."
"I don't know. Maybe there was something going on with Pioneer 1 that they think was responsible for the incident. Maybe the government caused the explosion--or maybe there wasn't an explosion at all!"
"Sure. Maybe something else happened down there and the Council is lying to us until they can sort things out. A rebel coup, maybe--or some kind of native plague--or even sentient life on Ragol that doesn't want us there! It could be anything!"
Nol leaned forward, studying the data again.
"Ravah, this is all about investigations, not conspiracies. If you believe this data, the government doesn't know what happened down there, either."
"You can bet that they want to find out first, though. The military, the lab boys, everybody wants to know what's up and grab some kind of advantage. What they all agree on is that they don't want the public to know the truth. That might force them to stop their little games and actually solve the problems."
"I don't know. They might be just as confused as we are."
"Nol, come on. The expeditions must have learned something by now, but how much of that is released to the public? Zip!"
She nodded. Sometimes, the Newman journalist disagreed with her friend, thought he took his crusading too far. He had one point, though, that she agreed with wholeheartedly.
"You're right about that. The people deserve to know the truth. It's our lives that are on the line. We've gambled everything on the Pioneer Project and Ragol!" She tapped her fingernails against the beer bottle. "The question is, how can we do anything about it?"
"Do what journalists always do. Investigate, and get the story ourselves."
Nol leaned back in the padded chair.
"How can we do that, though? It's not like when I went after Corvin Reed. He was right here, but the answers to Pioneer 1 aren't. They're down on Ragol."
"Got it in one, babe. The answers are down there, so that's where I'm going to go."
"They've got a transporter set up for the Hunters, don't they? Step inside and poof! You're there."
Nol glanced at her friend. Ravah's enthusiasm was so obvious that she hated to bother him with unpleasant facts.
"The transporter is open to authorized personnel only, and it's guarded around the clock by the military. InfoNet journalists aren't even allowed to go up to the Guild's level because they don't want us snooping around the Hunters."
"That's harsh. I know a guy like me isn't exactly going to be authorized anytime soon."
"Well, neither am I."
They thought it over for several minutes before a solution came to Nol.
"The Hunter's Guild!" she exclaimed.
"You could hire a hunter to take you down to the surface of Ragol!"
Ravah looked oddly at her.
"Um, Nol, we are talking about the same Hunters that the government uses for their secret missions?"
She grinned broadly at him.
"I'm talking about the same Hunters who enjoy extraterritoriality within the Guild. The government has absolutely zero power to control what, if anything, the Hunters want to do."
"Come on, they're mercenaries; they'll sell us out."
"Why do you figure that?"
"It means too much to them to be able to take what jobs they want. They won't knuckle under to the government because they won't give up that right. And they can come and go freely to and from the surface."
Ravah looked at her with new respect.
"Nol Rinale, I think you're a genius."
"I know," she said with a teasing smile.
Their gleeful mood lasted for precisely two minutes and seventeen seconds. Then Ravah's computer began to let out a series of squealing beeps and the screen flashed red in what could only be some kind of alert.
"What's going on?" Nol exclaimed. Ravah was already at the keyboard, fingers pounding away.
"Virus!" he gasped. "Set to trigger of the decrypted data was viewed on an unauthorized unit for too long! My security's fighting it, but this is serious stuff."
"What's it doing?"
"Deleting the data! It's too fast, too powerful; I can't keep up. The government must have laced the disk with this virus in case it was stolen, to keep it away from people like me!" Nol watched anxiously as Ravah fought to salvage whatever data he could.
"No good!" he said, cursing under his breath, and then his face went pale.
"Oh, no," he whispered. "There's...there's a trace program as part of this virus..."
"It dials up the government online and tells them the physical location of this unit!"
He all but vaulted out of his chair and sprinted to the desk, where he ripped out papers by the handful from a drawer, tossing them aside in a shower of leaflets. Data disks clattered to the floor as he found what he was looking for.
Nol could hear the sirens of law enforcement vehicles drawing near as Ravah pulled out a lethal-looking handgun. He checked the magazine charge, then activated the photon driver. The sighting bar of green light phased into existence along the top of the gun.
"Ravah! You're not going to fight the military, are you?"
"No way! I'm going to run for it, with everything I can save." With his free hand he stuffed disks into his pockets. "If they get me cornered, though...well...I'm not going to go down without trying. If we roll over and play dead, we who fight for the truth, then the truth will die with us!"
He scowled and shook his head.
"Look, Nol, you'd better get out of here. They'll already have my name and image from the citizen database, but they don't know about you. If they don't catch you here with me, they won't even know you were involved, so get going!"
"Ravah...will you be okay?"
"Of course, babe," he said smoothly. Nol was impressed by his ability to lie so easily. "Now get out of here!"
She ran. Nol had no weapon, no fighting skills, and she was scared to death, but she still felt guilty over leaving. She went down, knowing that if they didn't catch her they would have nothing to tie her to Ravah, while he tore down the hall towards the back stairs.
Ravah had been right. In their single-minded pursuit of the pirated data and the rogue broadcaster, the military had ignored her completely. With very little effort, she remained unnoticed by the rifle-carrying uniformed troops. Her aerocar, which had been parked two blocks away, was gliding off when she saw the flashes of light--photon energy bullets--from the street below.
* * * * *
"The military police announced the capture of pirate broadcaster Ravah Amauri last evening," Nol read to the camera as the live broadcast went out over the online network. "He was arrested on charges of network hacking, possession of an illegally modified computer, dealing in black market data, and assault with a deadly weapon." No doubt the last came from the gunfight when they had arrested him.
"A police spokesman alleged that Ravah was responsible for a number of recent broadcasts which were illegally aired over the network." She glanced at the copy scrolling up on the prompter and swiftly edited it. Nol might have to report the government's claims, but that didn't mean she was going to adopt them on-air as her own.
"The government maintains that this individual possesses a grudge against lawful authority, and hacked into the InfoNet online broadcasts in order to plant stories which were intended to discredit the Council and impair the public's confidence in their leaders. The authorities urge all citizens not to listen to wild rumors but instead stay tuned to the official reports issued over InfoNet."
"Commercial in five, Nol," she heard over her earpiece.
"In our next segment, we'll explore the current situation on Ragol with Dr. Pelfrey of the Council laboratory. Don't miss it!"
"Okay, you're clear."
Nol sighed and stretched, then got down out of her chair. Had Grant made her report on Ravah's capture because he still suspected her of passing on data? Or had it only been a bitterly ironic coincidence? She didn't know, and it didn't really matter. Before going on air she'd received a BEE simple-mail message from the Hunter's Guild. It was terse and to the point: "Job accepted. Meet with Hunter at seventeen-thirty."
It might be tricky--the military wasn't likely to let a journalist up to the Guild level freely--but Nol knew she'd find a way. She was going down to Ragol, and she'd learn what had happened. Ravah was right; the truth had to be fought for.