I have kind of a love/hate relationship with journalism. I love real reporting, the kind that digs into a story of some significance. I hate the kind of reporting that pretends to be news but really just puts a public eye on a private train wreck. (Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, anyone?)
This week’s free fiction Thursday story features a far future journalist stuck doing fluff pieces when what he wants is a real story. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
Published by Thunder Valley Press
Copyright 2011 by Annie Reed
Dusty, windblown sand pelted Samuel in the face when he stepped off the shuttle.
Great. Just great. Welcome to Paradise. Another piece of shit town on a piece of shit planet at the edge of nowhere. The absolute perfect place for the latest in a long string of crappy assignments for a vid reporter who knew his star had risen about as far as it was ever going to go.
Samuel ducked his head and raised his gloved hands to protect his face. His travel gear protected his body from the worst of the scouring sand, but he hadn’t covered up his face before he stepped out of the shuttle in case someone from the outpost expected a little meet and greet. Over the years Samuel had discovered initial meetings worked best face to face. When he established a personal connection early on, his interviews had the comfortable feel of two old friends sitting down for a chat. Just the kind of vid shows his bosses wanted, and the kind of work that bored Samuel to death.
Only no one from Paradise had come out to meet the shuttle. Samuel moved fast to secure a breather mask over his nose and mouth and flip down his helmet’s clear plexi shield. The shield dimmed the glare from the system’s lone sun, hot and brilliant overhead even through the blowing sand. The oxygen system in his mask kicked in, and he breathed in air that tasted flat and vaguely metallic instead of like something had burnt to a crisp about a million years ago. Technically humans could tolerate the air on Paradise, but Samuel had no desire to breathe dust and sand and who knew what else. That nasty taste had to come from somewhere.
Part face guard, part heads-up display screen, the helmet’s shield kept the blowing sand out of Samuel’s eyes. Still, the dry air seemed to suck all the moisture right out of him. He wondered where the good citizens of Paradise hid their alcohol. Good way to get to know the locals, sharing a drink or two. Or ten. Samuel really needed a drink. The shuttle ride to the surface had been a bitch.
Samuel had a hard time seeing anything even with his shield’s visual enhancements. He caught sight of the ghostly outline of a low building, the distance difficult to judge in the storm. His heads-up display didn’t even try. When he tried to get a fix on the building, the display’s readout flashed double zeros.
A strong gust of wind buffeted Samuel, and he took a stutter step to the side to keep his balance. “Could have warned me,” he said.
The audio pickup in his mask transmitted Samuel’s voice to the pilot still safely inside the shuttle. The man’s responsive grunt sounded amused.
“Could have looked out the windows,” the pilot said. “You think all that fancy flying I did was for laughs? Turbulence, brother. On Paradise, the wind always blows. Or didn’t you read your prep?”
Samuel didn’t respond. He’d read just enough of the assignment folio his news syndicate had sent him to know he was supposed to dig up another human interest story about another group of hardy explorers in another star system on the edge of the Big Nothing.
Explorers. Right. Did anyone still believe that crap?
The pilot laughed. “What, you got nothing to say, hot shot? That’s why they pay me the big bucks, hauling your sorry, uninformed butt around the edge of the galaxy.” The shuttle’s engines revved up, cutting through the incessant hiss of windblown sand. “Have fun, brother.”
“Hey!” Samuel stumbled away from the shuttle even as he turned around to glare at it. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Places to be, money to earn. You’re on the next shuttle out, which means that as of exactly now, you’re not my problem.”
“What about my gear?”
“Offloaded while you checked that pretty face of yours.” The pilot didn’t sound amused now, only impatient. “Best get out of my way.”
The heat that flushed Samuel’s cheeks had nothing to do with the sand and sun beating at him. Twenty years as a vid reporter had conditioned him to check his appearance before he showed his face in public. The syndicate kept only beautiful people on the payroll. So far Samuel had managed to avoid the kind of facial reconstruction other reporters his age resorted to in order to keep their jobs. Sooner rather than later, he’d have to decide whether his dead end job was worth the trouble and expense of remaking himself into the syndicate’s vision of the ideal newsman.
Samuel made his way to the low building as the shuttle’s engines howled behind him and the shuttle lifted off.
It struck him then that he’d been left alone in a place so close to the edge of the Big Nothing he could almost see all that black emptiness separating the galaxy from its far flung neighbors. For a moment he had an unpleasant vision of being stranded on Paradise with only the wind and the constant hiss of blowing sand for company. No food, no water, no alcohol.
No people, and no hope of rescue.
Samuel tried to get a grip on his runaway imagination. Field reporters with his years of experience didn’t panic at being left on a strange planet. He forced himself to concentrate on grabbing the handle on the building’s lone pockmarked metal door. He’d never panicked before. He wasn’t about to start now.
Frontier outposts like Paradise had certain constants. Whether built on a floating platform in a swampy jungle, dug into the side of a craggy mountain, or like Paradise, dumped like so much forgotten trash in the middle of a windswept desert, the buildings were a mishmash of high tech equipment and primitive construction. The door to the low building was the old-fashioned, manual kind. The hinges squealed when Samuel shoved it open.
Immediately “Close Door Behind You” flashed on his face shield’s display. Compared to the bright sunlight outside, the inside of the building might as well have been a cave. All Samuel could see was the command to close the door.
At least the computer grid still worked here. The Paradise system had established a connection with the chip embedded in Samuel’s left temple just beneath his hairline. The same chip interfaced with his display screen and controlled the remote camera Samuel used to broadcast vid interviews. Chip implantation, one of the many costs of his career.
Samuel did as instructed and pushed the metal door shut behind him. He had to push hard on the door to shove it shut against the relentless force of the wind and the sand. Just before the lock clicked shut, the display on Samuel’s face shield winked out of existence.
He blinked and shook his head, one sharp little shake, and the display popped back on as if nothing had happened. He’d have to check the connections later. Sand had a way of working its way into everything, including sensitive equipment.
After the lock clicked into place, Samuel turned around, his eyes starting to adjust to the gloom. He half expected to find the building empty, but the place was jammed packed with the people of Paradise, all staring at him.
Not all of the people of Paradise, but a good many of them. Here was his missing welcoming committee. He’d wait inside too if he had to live in the middle of a perpetual sandstorm. So much for letting his imagination run away with him.
By Samuel’s rough count, nearly thirty people had crammed themselves into a building never meant to hold that many. He wondered how many more were scattered throughout the settlement, and if the number really mattered. He didn’t need to meet everyone. He only had to find a couple of people his viewers could connect with. A couple of explorers with just the right kind of heartwarming stories to make his bosses happy.
The news syndicate that employed Samuel liked its vid reporters to call planetary colonists “explorers.” It sounded romantic, or so the public relations gurus who masqueraded as programming directors liked to say. Samuel knew better. The news syndicate was a subsidiary of another, much larger corporate behemoth whose holdings included mining conglomerates, ship builders, and passenger and freight transportation companies. Samuel’s human interest stories about the people who established outposts on far flung planets were little more than fluff pieces intended to entice people to work for the very companies that owned Samuel’s news syndicate. Nice little incestuous business he worked for, but after twenty years in that business, Samuel was a realist. Everyone had a hidden — or not so hidden — agenda. As long as Samuel got his face on a vid news feed, he was good with that. He had his needs and his ego, just like everyone else.
No matter what Samuel called the citizens of Paradise, the people in the building looked like exactly what they were: miners. Their faces were as dry and dusty as their well-worn coveralls. Men and women alike wore their hair shorn close to their skulls. Their hands were rough with dirt, sand, and grease embedded beneath ragged nails. None of the women had any type of facial enhancements. On the edge of the Big Nothing, wrinkles, not surgically reconstructed beauty, were the norm.
One man standing near a counter at the back of the building wore a stabilizer on his forearm. Another man was missing his left index finger. Mining accidents, no doubt. Samuel couldn’t interview either of them. The maimed tended to discourage recruiting efforts.
The display inside Samuel’s face shield confirmed that the air inside the terminal was safe to breathe. Samuel pulled down his mask. Like the dusty air outside, the air inside the building smelled burnt and stale.
“Hi,” Samuel said to the group at large.
No one said anything back. Tough crowd.
# # #
Read the rest of the story here.