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       The Story, p.1

           T. C. Weber
 
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The Story


  The Story

  T. C. Weber

  Copyright 2015 by T. C. Weber

  Cover and images by Kevin Patag (kowan.deviantart.com)

  All other book contents by T. C. Weber.

  Contact the author at [email protected]

  Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Thanks to Alicia Kelley, Eric Bakutis, Pamela Wood, Stacey Mednick, and James Buttinger for reading drafts and providing feedback, and the critique circle at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (www.bsfs.org).

  Table of Contents

  The Story

  Sleep State Interrupt (excerpt)

  Baltimore, Maryland

  The near future

  This story will save democracy. Waylee banged down the Enter key, sending her text and supporting data to the Baltimore Herald news editor. Instead of the standard mat with virtual keys, and incongruous with the big wraparound touch screen, her desk terminal had a bank of old-fashioned circular keys that moved levers, mimicking H. L. Mencken’s Corona.

  Neo-grindcore jackhammered her brain through the ear buds. Her colleagues thought she was crazy, but the keyboard was only a contributing factor. Someone - she didn’t know who - had noticed her mood swings weren’t quite normal, and consulted one of the Comnet’s virtual psychiatrists. The findings spread. Can’t keep secrets in a newsroom.

  She was fine this month, better than fine, riding a crest. And why not? Once people read how Congress and the president sold them out, they’d evict the bastards next election. Their replacements would end MediaCorp’s monopoly over the ’Net.

  Tremolo sixteenth notes and machine gun drumming transitioned to shredding arpeggios and sampled animal screeches. Growled lyrics followed. “Mindless sons, blinded daughters, march in step toward the slaughter…”

  Like everyone in the sprawling Herald newsroom, Waylee had her own office. Of course the walls were only four feet high and slapped together from fabric-covered panels dotted with thumbtacks. Hers dropped after seven to ten days and disappeared into some sort of interdimensional crevice.

  She didn’t usually come in during the day. The newsroom had a different vibe in prime time. Crowded, chaotic, full of energy. Phones and comlinks clamoring like mockingbirds in spring, each with their own jingle. The stench of scorched leftover coffee and clashing deodorants.

  One of her old songs streamed next, from the long-defunct Ten Dead Hipsters. ‘Plague of Rats,’ not one of their better efforts. “MusicGenie, skip.”

  Waylee cleared a space on her L-shaped formica desk and stretched her flexible, glossy black comlink as wide as it would go, well beyond wrist or pocket size. The handheld computer/videophone tied her into the global net, where most people spent half their waking hours. And unlike the office equipment, her comlink wasn’t infested with corporate spyware.

  “Submitted biggest story of the decade,” she messaged her followers. “Publication soon I hope.” She ran black-nailed fingers through her long mulberry hair and added a selfie. The camera autocorrected for the fluorescent overheads, displaying a sun-averse face with brown eyes, high cheekbones and cherry red lips. Rings adorned her ears, eyebrows, and nose. She was smiling.

  ‘Owned.’ The story title was a little too hacker-centric, and she wouldn’t insist on keeping it. She dictated a teaser to her followers, trying to speak quietly. Busy with their own work, her cube neighbors ignored her.

  “I can’t give you a link until the story’s edited and I’ve done some follow-up. But quick summary, it reveals Media Corporation’s secret deals with the government and how they gained control of everything we see and hear online. They spread money to the right people during the big Internet upgrade. Yes, the new system is a million times faster. It’s more efficient and secure. But MediaCorp was allowed sole ownership of the backbone and switches, a power which they immediately abused. All thanks to a free-market political system which will get even worse now.”

  New thrashcore, Green Wrench. “Directed for someone’s sadistic design, I put on a red shirt and know that I’ll die...”

  Her boyfriend had been a big help. Pel was in the inner circle of the Collective, a loose association of anonymous hackers able to pass a gauntlet of cryptic puzzles. His comrades wrote a custom rootkit, hid it in an app, and tricked a staffer of the House Communications and Technology chairman into installing it on his comlink. Once the staffer synced to his office computer, they owned the whole network. Waylee took over and copied the chairman’s emails and secret texts of the government’s agreements with MediaCorp. Illegal as hell, so she posted them on a password-protected darknet site from an “anonymous leaker.”

  Among the insiders, there was no distinction between the government’s interest and MediaCorp’s. No regulations considered that might inconvenience what was now the world’s biggest corporation.

  What to do now? She had too much energy to sit around and wait for feedback.

  A nooner would be nice. But Pel was working his IT day job at the Independent News Center and took it seriously. He took everything seriously.

  Her fingers drummed thrashcore beats on the desk. She had a lot more work to do. Her analyses could use confirmation, for starters. On the record quotes from officials, especially the culprits. She’d had no luck with phone calls or emails, but DC and New York were short train rides away, and the paper should cover her expenses.

  And people needed to know what was coming next. MediaCorp’s CEO, Bob Luxmore, was good buddies with President Rand, but they kept their conversations private. She had to learn what they were plotting.

  She slid the keyboard aside and pulled the wraparound touch screen close.

  Waylee had been working a while when a message box popped to the front of the screen.

  Dave Wilson: Please come into my office.

  The executive editor and senior vice president. Great Is Caesar. She’d sent her story to Frank Morris, assistant managing editor for news. He must have bumped it up the chain. Meaning he thought it was important.

  Waylee pulled out her ear buds and straightened her skirt. Management was almost all white males, and they had yet to take her seriously. Her outfit wouldn’t help. Surplus Dwarf Eats Hippo band T-shirt, short skirt over sheer leggings, metal-studded boots. It would take her forever to go home and change, though. Wait for the 35 bus, half an hour ride southwest to her neighborhood, five minute walk, half an hour to find something upscale and clean to wear, then reverse the process back.

  She yanked the black leather jacket off the back of her swivel chair and zipped it shut to hide the T-shirt. As for the rest, she’d compensate by acting professional.

  Waylee smiled at the better-dressed fashion reporter in the next cubicle and headed for the bathroom, where she brushed her colorful hair. It was easily tamed, but repeating the brush strokes calmed her, helped her focus.

  I’m not just amped. I’m nervous - why? She never felt nervous fronting the band. Nothing energized her more than screaming lyrics to a room full of sweaty kids.

  Obviously this was different - the stakes couldn’t be higher. And Caesar had never granted her an audience before.

  But he was human. Onward.

  Dave Wilson’s office was all the way at the other end of the floor.
Exit the maze of Entertainment & Life cubicles. Turn right at the Business section. Pass the News desks. There were plenty of empty cubicles there. She didn’t care which one they assigned her, they were all the same size. Waylee Freid, Investigative Reporter, her laminated sign would read.

  Mr. Wilson’s door was closed. She hadn’t been in his office since the orientation tour five years ago. She turned the knob and entered. Should I have knocked?

  The executive editor, receding gray hair, bags under eyes, periwinkle button-down shirt with maroon striped tie, sat unsmiling behind a great wooden L-desk piled with papers. Behind him, plaques and framed stories covered the walls. A big computer screen perched on the perpendicular section of the desk, facing the left wall.

  He wasn’t alone. Frank Morris, balding and weary-eyed, slouched in a red stuffed chair to the side. And the E & L editor, Jessica Collins, vanilla-haired and full-bodied, peered through her glasses from a plastic-padded table chair in front of the desk. An empty matching chair sat a few feet away.

  Caesar - Mr. Wilson - gestured toward the empty chair. “Ms. Freid. Have a seat.”

  Her story - she recognized the network diagram - was on his computer screen. But nobody looked happy. “Did you read the whole thing?”

  Caesar raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “Owned?”

  “Temporary title. Editors write the headlines anyway, I just focused on the content.”

  He gestured again. “You can sit, you know.”

  She did, scooting the chair forward until her knees touched the desk. “So what did you think?”

  “You wrote that MediaCorp bought off politicians?”

  “Well, yeah. The text links to the data. MediaCorp, their board members, and their foundations and PACs handed over a billion dollars to political candidates last cycle, mostly to the president and commerce committee members. Did you see how much the Communications and Technology chair got? You can see how I tracked the money—”

  He waved his hand. “I’m not disputing that. But that doesn’t prove any kind of quid pro quo.”

  Shit. Wilson had been in news since before Waylee was born. He couldn’t be that naïve. “Come on.”

  “That’s just one example of many where you leap beyond the facts.”

  “Well it’s an awful big coincidence then that these same politicians leaned on the FCC, exempted MediaCorp from antitrust laws, and rubber-stamped every one of their requests, including a prohibition on public competition. In fact, the document chain shows MediaCorp lobbyists drafted the regulations and enabling legislation almost word for word.”

  “Like you said, could be a coincidence. We print facts or we drown in libel suits.”

  Could she tweak the wording? Or was he too afraid of blowback to even consider her story?

  Frank straightened in his chair. “Correlation doesn’t equal causation.”

  “Oh please, that’s so tired. Why do you think the government kept all the negotiations secret? It’s because the public would tar and feather them for giving so much control to one company. But it’s not secret anymore. We’ve got agreements, memos, emails...”

  “Ms. Freid,” Wilson said, “where did you get these documents?”

  Another attack. She had to regain the initiative. This story was too important. “Did you read them?”

  “Frank looked at some of them.”

  Don’t they care MediaCorp owns the world, but we can reverse it? She gripped his desk. “Our so-called democratically elected leaders think, or pretend to think, that MediaCorp knows best, and the public would just get in the way of techno-utopia. As if letting a few wealthy insiders control all the world’s information is a utopia. It’s like the Gilded Age, only a million times worse.”

  Frank opened his mouth but she hadn’t finished. “MediaCorp,” she continued, “launched parallel campaigns all over the world—”

  Frank spoke over her. “Just answer the question. How’d you get the documents?”

  This felt like a police interrogation. She had to be careful. “Confidential source tipped me to an anonymous leak.”

  “Obtained legally?”

  She hesitated.

  Frank stared, like he was reading her mind. “Can you get this source to speak on record?”

  “I’ll find someone else to.”

  Wilson glanced at the others, then leaned toward her. “Did you ask permission to cover this story?”

  What? They were in the middle of a serious discussion, and now this?

  Frank smirked. Petty functionary clinging to Caesar’s cape. He probably prefaced her story before forwarding it, ‘She didn’t ask me for permission…’ Small-minded assholes, both of them.

  “I’ve never had to before,” she told Wilson.

  “That’s because you’re not in news,” he said. “In news, the editor decides what stories to cover. Time is money, and we don’t have much of it. How many hours did you spend on this?”

  She had to steer them back on the road. “I don’t know exactly. Look, can we get back to discussing the story?”

  Jessica spoke for the first time. “I hope this doesn’t mean you’ve been slacking on what you’re paid to do.”

  Waylee’s toes clenched the insoles of her boots. “I’ve been in nightlife for five fucking years now!” Oops. “Excuse the language. There are more important things to write about.”

  Jessica’s eyes widened. “Look, Waylee. Don’t sell your job short. We have to be relevant to young people, and they want to know what’s happening. They want to know what music to buy, what bands to go see. You’re perfect for that.”

  “My sister could work nightlife and she’s barely out of high school.”

  “Jesus Christ Almighty. I’m trying to defend you.”

  “Young people care about a lot more than music. I should know.” Waylee met Frank’s eyes, then Wilson’s. There must be some journalistic soul beneath the layers of mauvaise foi. “Look, about the story. You have to publish it. Everyone will notice. It’ll top trend until people take action.”

  Frank let out a huff. “Angling for a Pulitzer already?”

  Wilson lowered his eyebrows in attack mode. “Do you know what can happen to this paper’s reputation if we publish something controversial but wrong? Have you heard of the Dark Alliance fiasco?”

  Gary Webb’s series about CIA ties to the crack epidemic back in the 1980’s. She knew American history as well as anyone. “Fiasco? Is that what you call courageous journalism?”

  “It ruined Webb and it would have ruined the Mercury News if they hadn’t backed away.”

  “He wasn’t wrong that the CIA knowingly worked with drug dealers. They even admitted it.”

  Wilson stabbed a finger at the computer screen. “Where are the corroborating sources for your story, Ms. Freid? Who spoke out on record?”

  “Couldn’t get any officials to talk. Didn’t you see the ‘declined to comment’ references?”

  “You didn’t identify yourself as a Herald reporter, did you?”

  “Why wouldn’t I?”

  Wilson and Frank bonded eyes.

  She knew they’d want on the record corroboration. She’d do whatever it took to get it. “I have a lot of follow-up planned. Phone calls and emails are too easy to duck. I need to talk to people in person. I’ll get you whatever confirmation you need.”

  “Not out of my budget,” Frank said. “And don’t harass people as a Herald representative.”

  “Harass? What the fuck?”

  Wilson glanced at his computer screen. “And you told your social media followers about this story?”

  He’s not one of my followers. None of these blowtards are. “Who told you that?”

  He didn’t answer.

  How could I be so stupid? MediaCorp must have bots that scour the Comnet for anything that might affect them. “Let me guess,” she said. “MediaCorp snooped me, then their lawyers called our lawyers and they told you to kill the story.”

  Wilson gritte
d his teeth. “Yes, corporate legal called from Chicago. They want to look over your story, but I’d rather handle it here.”

  “Why can’t you just stick to a blog?” Frank said.

  Waylee leapt to her feet. “Fucking hell! Our government gave the plutocrats the power to tell us what to think and suppress any criticism. They’re doing it now. How can you not stand up to that and still call yourself a journalist?”

  Her persecutors stared. The words continued to pour. “What happened to the idea of a free press? And a free and open Internet, where everyone has a voice and everyone can be heard? Instead of just another control mechanism?”

  Wilson pointed at the empty chair. “Sit down, Ms. Freid.”

  She paced instead, trying not to kick the chair across the room. “Do you think journalism will even exist once MediaCorp takes over every outlet? It’ll be nothing but propagandists. And we can kiss the remnants of democracy goodbye.”

  Wilson pressed his lips together and averted his eyes.

  No! She stopped pacing. “MediaCorp is buying the paper, aren’t they? Buying our parent company. That’s why the lawyers moved so quick.”

  He returned her stare but didn’t answer. Jessica and Frank looked at him. Not in the loop?

  Her arms batted the air. “So all this talk about procedure - just excuses. You’re too chickenshit to offend your corporate masters. Fuck the truth. Job security’s all you care about.”

  Wilson snarled, nostrils flared like a bull. “How dare you!”

  Jessica stretched a hand toward her. “Waylee, please.”

  Frank shook his head. “We’re trying to be reasonable. You’ve basically written an opinion piece backed by material that I assume was obtained illegally.”

  The anger began to morph into helplessness. She hadn’t budged them one inch. “Anonymously.” The Collective hid her tracks pretty well, but could the government guess what happened anyway?

  “We can’t publish that,” Frank said.

  Not if MediaCorp was taking over the paper.

  Wilson still looked mad. “If we did, we’d be sued for libel. MediaCorp has a hundred lawyers for everyone in this building.”

  “An exaggeration.” But not by much. “My information is true. Check the metadata and email headers. There’s plenty of precedence for using anonymous sources. If you would just stand up—”

  Wilson smacked the top of his desk. A bully like her stepfather. Jessica winced and Frank edged away. “I’ve had enough of this! Look, I know you have this mental illness. I’ve tried to be patient—”

  “What the hell are you talking about?” He knows. That’s why no one will take me seriously. It’s not just cowardice or bootlicking. I never had a chance.

  “Forget it.”

  “I don’t know what you heard, but I’m perfectly functional.” That wasn’t really true - cyclothymia was halfway to bipolar - but it was manageable. “It’s none of your business anyway, and you know it.”

  Wilson threw up his hands and looked at Jessica. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to bring H.R.
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