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THE PRESS GANG
Before the war, things were different. Hell, back then, we were just making our daily living, doing our jobs, drawing our paychecks, and stabbing our fellow men and women in the back. We had no idea how bad things would get. We were fat and happy like maggots on a dead animal. There was enough sporadic violence rebellions and revolutions and balky colonial governments to keep the military going, but not enough to really threaten the lifestyles we had grown accustomed to. We were, in retrospect, fat and sassy.
And if a real war broke out, well, it was the military's worry. The marines' worry. Not ours.
THE LIBERTY MANIFESTO
The city sprawled beneath Mike's feet like an overturned bucket of jade cockroaches. From the dizzying height of Handy Anderson's office, he could almost see the horizon between the taller buildings. The city reached that far, forming a jagged, spiked tear along the edge of the world.
The city of Tarsonis, on the planet Tarsonis. The most important city on the most important planet of the Confederacy of Man. The city so great they named it twice. The city so large its suburbs had greater populations than some planets. A shining beacon of civilization, keeper of the memories of an Earth now lost to history, myth, and earlier generations.
A sleeping dragon. And Michael Liberty could not resist twisting its tail.
"Come back from the edge there, Mickey," said Anderson. The editor-in-chief was firmly ensconced at his desk, a desk as far away from the panoramic view as possible.
Michael Liberty liked to think there was a note of concern in his boss's voice.
"Don't worry," said Mike. "I'm not thinking of jumping." He suppressed a smile.
Mike and the rest of the newsroom knew that the editor-in-chief was acrophobic but could not bear to surrender his stratospheric office view. So on the rare occasions when Liberty was summoned into his boss's office, he always stood near the window. Most of the time he and the other drudges and news hacks worked way down on the fourth floor or in the broadcast booths in the building's basement.
"Jumping I'm not worried about," said Anderson. "Jumping I can handle. Jumping would solve a lot of my problems and give me a lead for tomorrow's edition. I'm more worried about some sniper taking you out from another building."
Liberty turned toward his boss. "Bloodstains that hard to get out of the carpet?"
"Part of it," said Anderson, smiling. "It's also a bitch to replace the glass."
Liberty look one last look at the traffic crawling far below and returned to the overstuffed chairs facing the desk. Anderson tried to be nonchalant, but Mike noted that the editor let out a long, slow breath as Mike moved away from the window.
Michael Liberty settled himself into one of Anderson's chairs. The chairs were designed to look like normal furniture, but they were stuffed so that they sank an extra inch or two when someone sat down. This made the balding editor-in- chief with his comically oversized eyebrows look more imposing. Mike knew the trick, was not impressed, and set his feet up on the desk.
"So what's the beef?" the reporter asked.
"Have a cigar, Mickey?" Anderson motioned with an open palm toward a teak humidor.
Mike hated being called Mickey. He touched his empty shirt pocket, where he normally stashed a pack of cigarettes. "I'm on the wagon. Trying to cut down."
"They're from beyond the Jaandaran embargo," said Anderson temptingly. "Rolled on the thighs of cinnamon-shaded maidens."
Mike held up both hands and smiled broadly. Everyone knew that Anderson was too cheap to get anything beyond the standard el ropos manufactured in some bootleg basement. But the smile was intended to reassure.
"What's the beef?" Mike repeated.
"You've really done it this time," said Anderson, sighing. "Your series on the construction kickbacks on the new Municipal Hall."
"Good stuff. The series should rattle a few cages."
"They've already been rattled," replied Anderson, his chin sinking down to touch his chest. This was known as the bearer-of-bad-news position. It was something that Anderson had learned at some management course but that made him look like a mating ledge-pigeon.
Crap, thought Mike. He's going to spike the series.
As if reading his thoughts, Anderson said, "Don't worry, we're going to run the rest of the series. It's solid reporting, well-documented, and best of all, it's true. But you have to know you've made a few people very uncomfortable."
Mike mentally ran through the series. It had been one of his better ones, a classic involving a petty offender who was caught in the wrong place (a public park) at the wrong time (way after midnight) with the wrong thing (mildly radioactive construction waste from the Municipal Hall project). Said offender was more than willing to pass on the name of the man who sent him on this late-night escapade. That individual was in turn willing to tell Mike about some other interesting matters involving the new hall, and so forth, until Mike had, instead of a single story, a whole series about a huge network of graft and corruption that the Universe Network News audience ate up with their collective spoons.
Mike mentally ran through the ward heelers, low-level thugs, and members of the Tarsonis City Council that he had skewered in print, discarding each in turn as a suspect. Any of those august individuals might want to take a shot at him, but such a threat wasn't enough to make Handy Anderson nervous.
The editor-in-chief saw Mike's blank expression and added, "You've made a few powerful, venerable people very uncomfortable."
Mike's left eyebrow rose. Anderson was talking about one of the ruling Families, the power behind the Confederacy for most of its existence, since those early days when the first colony ships (hell, prison ships) landed and/or crashed on various planets in the sector. Somewhere in his reporting, he had nailed somebody with pull, or perhaps somebody close enough to one of the Families to make the old venerables nervous.
Mike resolved to go back over his notes and see what kind of linkages he could make. Perhaps a distaff cousin to one of the Old Families, or a black sheep, or maybe even a direct kickback. God knew that the Old Families ran things from behind the scenes since the year naught. If he could nail one of them...
Mike wondered if he was visibly salivating at the prospect.
In the meantime Handy Anderson had risen from his seat and strolled around the side of his desk, perching on the corner nearest Mike. (Another move directly out of the management lectures, Mike realized. Hell, Anderson had assigned him to cover those lectures once.) "Mike, I want you to know you're on dangerous ground here."
Oh God, he called me Mike, thought Liberty. Next he'll be looking plaintively out the window as if lost in thought, wrestling with a momentous decision.
He said, "I'm used to dangerous ground, boss."
"I know, I know. I just worry about those around you. Your sources. Your friends. Your co-workers..."
"Not to mention my superiors."
"...all of whom would be heartbroken if something horrible happened to you."
"Particularly if they were standing nearby when it happened," added the reporter.
Anderson shrugged and stared plaintively out the full-length window. Mike realized that whatever Anderson was afraid of, it was worse than his fear of heights. And this was a man who, if office rumor was correct (and it was), kept a locked room in the subbasement that contained dirt on most of the celebrities and important citizens of the city.
The pause dragged beyond a moment into a minute. Finally Mike broke. He gave a polite cough and said, "So you have an idea how to handle this 'dangerous ground'?"
Handy Anderson nodded slowly. "I want to print the series. It's good work."
"But you don't want me anywhere in the immediate vicinity when the next part of that story hits the street."
"I'm thinking of your own safety, Mickey, it's..."
"Dangerous ground," finished Mike. "I heard. Here be dragons. Perhaps it would be time for an extended vacation? Maybe a cabin in the mountains?"
"I was thinking more of a special assignment."
Of course, thought Mike. That way I won't have the chance to figure out whose tail I've inadvertently twisted. And give those involved time to cover their tracks.
"Another part of the Universe News Network empire?" Mike said with a broad smile, at the same time wondering what godforsaken colony world he would be doing agricultural reports from.
"More of a roving reporter," teased Anderson.
"How roving?" Mike's smile suddenly became flinty and brittle. "Will I need shots for off-planet?"
"Better than getting shot for being on-planet. Sorry, bad joke. The answer is yes, I'm thinking definitely off-planet."
"Come on, spill. Which hellhole do you want to hide me in?"
"I was thinking of the Confederate Marines. As a military reporter, of course."
"It would be a temporary posting, of course," continued the editor.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Sort of 'our fighting men in space,' battling against the various forces of rebellion that threaten our great Confederacy. There are rumors that Arcturus Mengsk is rallying more support in the Fringe Worlds. Could turn really hot at any moment."
"The marines?" sputtered Mike. "The Confederate Marines are the biggest collection of criminals in the known universe, outside of the Tarsonis City Council."
"Mike, please. Everyone has some criminal blood in them. Hell, all the planets of the Confederacy were settled by exiled convicts."
"Yeah, but most people like to think we grew out of that. The marines still make that one of their basic recruiting requirements. Hell, do you know how many of them have been brain-panned?"
"Neurally Resocialized," corrected Anderson. "No more than fifty percent per unit these days, I understand. Less in some places. And the resocialization is more often done with noninvasive procedures. You probably won't notice."
"Yeah, and they pump them so full of stimpacks they'd kill their own grandpas on the right command."
"Exactly the sort of common misconception that your work can counter," said Anderson, both eyebrows raised in practiced sincerity.
"Look, most of the politicos I've met are naturally nuts. The marines are nuts and then they started messing with their heads. No. The marines are not an option."
"It'd make for some good stories. You'd probably get some good contacts."
"Reporters with experience with the military get perks," said the editor-in- chief. "You get a green tag on your file, and that carries weight with the more venerable families of Tarsonis. In some cases even forgiveness."
"Sorry. Not interested."
"I'll give you your own column."
A pause. Finally Mike said, "How big a column?"
"Full column-page print, or five minutes stand-up for the broadcast. Under your byline, of course."
"You file, I'll fill."
Another pause. "A raise with that?"
Anderson named a figure, and Mike nodded.
"That's impressive," he said.
"Not chump change," agreed the editor-in-chief.
"I'm a little old to be planet-hopping."
"There's no real danger. And if something does flare up, there's combat pay. Automatic."
"Fifty percent brain-panned?" Mike asked.
Another pause. Then Mike said, "Well, it sounds like a challenge."
"And you're just the man for a challenge."
"And it can't be worse than covering the Tarsonis City Council," Mike mused, feeling himself sliding down the slippery slope to acceptance.
"My thoughts exactly," his editor agreed.
"And if it would help the network..." Yep, Mike thought, he was on the edge, poised to pitch over into the void.
"You would be a shining light to us all," said Anderson. "A well-paid, shining light. Wave the flag a little, get some personal stories, ride around in a battlecruiser, play some cards. Don't worry about us back here at the office."
"Cushiest. I've got some pull, you know. Was an old green-tag myself. Three months' work, tops. A lifetime of rewards."
There was a final pause, a chasm as deep as the concrete canyon that yawned beyond the window.
"All right," said Mike, "I'll do it."
"Wonderful!" Anderson reached for the humidor, then caught himself and instead offered Mike his hand. "You won't regret it."
"Why do I feel that I already do?" Michael Liberty asked in a small voice as the editor's meaty, sweaty hand ensnared his own.
© 2007 Blizzard Entertainment