By Karla Fetrow
Previously: Young news reporter, Beverly Strom, has become the darling of the giant broadcasting company, G-Net, but popularity comes with a price. After an open invitation from Congressman Oyagek to come to Alaska, Beverly is yanked from her position of covering the Democratic Council, and in particular, the coverage of her own favorite spokesperson, Troyal Barker. She must now secure the confidence of a man she despises, and in the process, learn a few of Burbanks’ dirty little secrets.
Joshua Gotthardt was an immaculate man. His fingernails were clipped nearly to the quick, each one revealing a small, crescent moon, artfully painted silver. His hair was silvery, tinted at the sides and flowing away from the skull, fashionably long on top and short in back. He sat at a meta-board desk, the artificial grain blushing deep cherry. The latest in blended technology. His hands swept over the smooth surface appreciably. “Ms. Strom, do you value your job with KNAK news station?”
“Yes, sir. I was given my initiate post when I was eleven. I realize that without the opportunities presented, I would never have been anything more than a thirster.”
“You realize opportunities, then?”
She nodded, unsure of the correct response.
“And yet you passed up an opportunity to join Popular News. Do you have a problem with their presentation?”
“No. I felt… loyalty to Burbank.”
“I worry about you. Opportunity presents itself, yet you demur like a child afraid to leave its mother.”
“Burbank has been my mother and my father.”
“Yet you do know that there is a point where the child takes flight, stands on his own two feet? Isn’t it a little presumptuous of you to think we couldn’t spare you?”
“I didn’t think that at all. I was just reluctant to change locations.”
“You don’t like change.” He clasped his hands behind his head and frowned. “A diplomatic reporter must be willing to change to many locations. Did you enjoy your trip to Venezuela?”
“They have beautiful domes and a little more greenery, I think. Of course, they aren’t located so close to the barrens, either.”
“This is all you learned?”
Beverley hesitated. “I don’t think the Peruvians are very sympathetic with our cause. They say they are neutral, but they will not negotiate their water rates and turned down an appeal from China.”
“I’m taking you off the diplomatic team. Rawlings will take your place.”
“But I landed an interview with Barker. He’s the hottest topic in the netstream.”
“Your job isn’t to cover the hottest topics in the netsteam. It’s to create the hottest topics in the netstream. I’m making you an investigative reporter.”
“Sir, I’ve never received training in investigations.”
“You’re receiving it now. How much do you trust your cameraman?”
“Everest? He’s steady as a particle collector. I’d trust him with my life.”
“Maybe you’ll have to. I want your project to be top secret. You may tell your cameraman, but that’s it. And your cameraman must tell no one. Are we understood?”
She nodded again, biting her lip. She had been fired and hired in the space of a few seconds, to something new, something different, and her world was collapsing around her.
“Good. I want you to use every bit of the apparently unexercised wit you have about you to get close to the members of the Northern Alliance. I want you to woo them. I want you to attract their attention. I want you to have them eating out of your hands like you were the next best thing to goat’s milk.”
“But how can I do this if I’m not on the diplomatic team?”
He sighed deeply. “Beverley, Beverley, one doesn’t need to be on the diplomatic team to get close to a diplomat. Vandeweerd is staying at the Cascadia Inn. We’ve already registered you there. Room 302, just down the hall from his suite in 310. You’ll have adequate per diem for dining. You’ll be investigating a bombing at the Cloud H20, an axillary recreational unit of the Inn.” Gotthardt checked his com link. “Excellent timing. The bombing occurred ten minutes ago. Not a great deal of damage was done, but a vapor transformer and hydrolysis pump were stolen. The police have the area cordoned off now, and are not letting reporters through, but you are already a registered guest at the hotel. You’ll be able to move around freely. You’ll be able to talk to the witnesses that had just left the Cloud, which, conveniently includes Vandeweerd. Now, I know this is all very difficult for you, but think hard, Ms. Strom. You have been blessed with opportunities; numerous ones. You landed an interview with Barker, you were offered a position with Popular News, you received an invitation to Alaska.” A flash of anger suddenly darkened his eyes. “You do not turn down invitations to Alaska.” He allowed his anger to sink into her, and she shifted uncomfortably. “You have now been given an opportunity to recuperate your losses. Become an opportunist. Get close to the Alliance. Learn everything you can and report it back to us. Don’t fail us or your next assignment will be in the barrens.”
She was stunned. Her fingers flitted helplessly across her lap, and somehow found comfort in the sling pack draped over her knees. Here was her security; her Phillur tablets, her air screen, her gatebook, her scan. The things that separated her from thirsters. The things that kept her human. She heard his voice, as though far away, gentler now, almost fatherly. “You will find your new position allows you ample credit. You’ll be able to travel freely. Your passport has been upgraded to class B, envoy entitlement. Call this a promotion. Congratulations, Ms. Strum. Contact me when you have settled in.”
She got up to leave, then hesitated at the door. “Mr. Gotthardt, was there really a world wide flood?”
His face looked pensive for a moment; odd and withdrawn. “There was only if we report there was.”
Beverley debated over how much to tell Everest, and uncomfortably, how much he already knew. In the end, she chose not to tell him much at all; only that they had been promoted and assigned to opening up communications with the Alliance members. She did not tell him that their failure to do so would lose them their jobs or that the bombing they were investigating had been set up.
If he was suspicious, he said nothing about it, which in itself seemed a bit suspicious. They received only minor resistance from the security guards before being allowed to bring their recording equipment into the damaged recreational facility and the police detail was only too willing to talk. “See here,” said one, pointing to the hole in the wall that had been temporarily sealed with plexi spray and paste, “it was a home made bomb and designed to do minimal damage. Since the pool had just closed, we believe the objective was not terrorism, but theft. Two converters had also been loosened before the police arrived. Essentially, we caught them in the act. Unfortunately, however, they did successfully make off with the hydrolysis pump and a vapor transformer, very expensive pieces of equipment.”
“Who fired first, the police or the thirsters?” Asked Bev.
“If we had been given the chance to fire first, we would only have neutralized them, but they were firing with old fashioned expulsion rifles. We had no choice but to use deadly force against deadly force.”
The two thirsters were still laying on the ground, their bodies somehow less pitiful in death than they had been in life. They were just rags on bones, their expressions no longer haunting or accusing. They could no longer slip through the alleys like shadows or cry for a few drops of water.
The witnesses had not really seen anything. They had been close by at the time of the explosion, but Cloud H2O had already been locked, so the most they had gotten to see were some thirsters rushing from the premises and the arrival of the police. They had heard the shots, but had not witnessed the shoot out.
She had not really finished interviewing the witnesses when she noticed Vandeweerd losing interest in the scandal. He had started drifting away from the tight group of onlookers and heading back to the hotel lobby. Beckoning to Everest, she hurried to catch up with his step, calling to him by his formal address. “Congressman Vandeweerd, please. A few questions.” He turned, annoyance flickering over his face.
“Aren’t you off your beat? The convention doesn’t resume until tomorrow.”
“I’m not covering the convention. I’ve been pulled off the diplomatic team.” She wondered what kind of lie she could give him for cover. “I’m a ground pounder now, a free lancer.”
“I wouldn’t think the G-Net would be so willing to lose its prettiest reporter. Nor that an unemployed reporter could afford to live in this hotel.”
“Alright, the truth. G-Net hasn’t really fired me, but it has reassigned me to criminal investigations. I just want to ask you a few questions about the bombing. Did you see anything unusual before leaving Cloud H2O?”
“If you mean terrorists lurking in the corners, no. They did seem to be in a hurry to close up this evening, which I found a little odd. Generally, the employees like to linger a little while longer and enjoy some after hour steam benefits.”
“So the employees were in a hurry to close up. Do you think the employees may have been involved?”
“No. I think the employees were instructed to close on time. Cloud H2O has been running under budget and the company is trying to trim some fat.”
“And you know this because Cloud H2O contracts with Aqualung?”
“I know this from a practical view. Clientele has dropped enough that they don’t start their generators until fifteen minutes before opening for business in the morning. The water pool is six inches lower than normal. Several of their converters need replacing. They are operating at only sixty percent efficiency. If I was manager for Cloud H2O, that’s what I would do; insist that the premises close on schedule.”
“And the first time they close on schedule, the place gets bombed. You don’t find that peculiar, Congressman?”
He made a gesture as though to push away Everest’s camcorder, and she continued in a whisper, “Do you think it could be an insurance scam?”
He laughed. “It’s conspiracy theories you like is it, Ms….what is your name again? Ah, Strom. This is what I think. This is my official statement. Thirsters broke into the facility to steal as much water conversion equipment as they could seize. They knew the scheduled hours, and planned their attack accordingly. No conspiracy. No boogie man in the closet.”
Beverley spoke to her cameraman briefly and handed him her scan. She waited until he was out of site, then held up both hands to show they were empty. “No camcorder, no scan. You can hold my com link if you want. But I need some answers for myself.” She hesitated. The stern voice of Gotthardt streamed through her mind. Learn to be an opportunist. “Please Congressman Vandeweerd.”
“I can’t help you.”
“Yes, you can. You lived through the flood. You can tell me about it.”
“I’m not that old. I was only a child when it occurred. A young child. Besides, Iceland wasn’t affected that much.”
“Why wasn’t it?”
“We had known for many years that a flood was inevitable. Our country; the entire Arctic Rim; was once covered with a huge ice cap, much larger than it is today. Contrary to what you read in the history books, it didn’t melt slowly. It melted in huge chunks. It used to be much colder than Cascadia, and Cascadia used to be much warmer than it is now. The ice belt moved. Much of it melted into the ocean, causing the Great Flood, but a cold front traveled down the West Coast, beginning at the Northwest end of the Rockies, and ending in the Sierras, expanding glaciers and creating ice caps where none had existed before.”
Beverley scratched her ear. “That’s quite an incredible story, Congressman. I mean, the flood part; I get it. A lot of the old folks say there was a flood, so maybe it is true. But glaciers don’t just pick themselves up and move to a new home.”
“The cold, fresh water from the melting ice caps changed the ocean currents. In fifty years, the barrens will be covered with snow.”
“The barrens.” Beverley suppressed a smile, but still felt it quirk at her lips. The barrens were at least one hundred twenty degrees. Snow had a popsicle’s chance of surviving in hell. She glanced at her com link. “I should be turning in for the night. Will you escort me to my room?”
He looked surprised, but took her arm. “What floor are you on?”
“The third one.”
He said nothing, but raised his eyebrows. When they were in the elevator, he faced her squarely. “Are you trying to entrap me?”
“Congressman? I’m merely investigating a bombing, not your philosophy on life.”
“And you have a room on my floor. How long have you been there?”
“Several weeks. You can check the registry if you’d like.”
“Your allowance with G-Net must be rather high… for a crime reporter.”
“It was, when I was part of the diplomatic team. I’ll have to move to something cheaper unless…” She deliberately held off finishing her sentence until they had arrived at her door.
“Unless what?” He asked finally, grudgingly.
“I receive a per diem for travel as long as I’m in pursuit of a crime. If there is a skirmish war or piracy going on, well… wouldn’t that be considered a crime?”
She thought for a moment he was going to hit her, but his hand flattened against the side of the door close to her head. “Ms. Strom, are you capable of recognizing a crime? Do you know what one is? The dead thirsters you saw tonight, was a crime committed against them? Was it a crime when your Glitz friend, Axel Missouri, used fifteen units of Burbank reserves to host his swimming pool party? Water that could have served five hundred thirsters. Water that was thrashed and rolled around it, and then fed out to water his lawn. Wasn’t it a crime?”
She tried to think of something to say, and was relieved when the door opened from inside. “I thought I heard a noise,” said Everest cheerily. “Why Congressman Vandeweerd, what a surprise! I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything?”
“I was just leaving,” he answered gruffly.
“Congressman,” pleaded Beverley, putting her hand boldly on his arm. “You will think about my proposal, won’t you? I promise, I will try to be objective.”
“I’ll think about it.”
She watched him walk down the hallway, then turn and scowl at her before entering his suite. “What do you think?” Asked Everest casually.
“He’s suspicious of me.”
“I don’t blame him. I’m suspicious of you, too. I think you’ve got a crush on him.”
She shuddered. “I can’t stand him. He’s rude and he’s crazy.”
“I’m neither rude nor crazy, but you haven’t given me a tumble.”
“We practically grew up together. You’re the only family I have beside G-Net.”
She called Gotthardt and told him about her encounter with Vandeweerd, laughing over the extraordinary story of moving glaciers. “Now you understand what we’re up against,” Joshua Gotthardt replied. “The Alliance will make up anything to get you on their side. Has he taken you into his confidence yet?”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“Then win his trust.” The connection cut off abruptly, and Beverley Strom looked bleakly at her com link and then out the window, wondering how one learned to survive in the barrens.