This is an amateur, non-commercial
story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the
holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is
derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders.
And so it goes.
a Max Headroom/Sarah Jane Smith tale
(a sequel to R-R-R-Rival Reporter)
by Jeff Morris
“In an area where survival is a daily war, the deaths of four people rarely come as a surprise. But when their bodies are found riddled with bullets used exclusively by several law enforcement agencies‑including the Metro police‑and the corpses cannot be identified, their deaths take on a greater, more ominous significance.”
The camera panned slowly across the crowd of dirty, ragged residents of the Fringes, their hard expressions illuminated by the angry yellow‑orange glow of the fires that dotted the area Nearby, a group of children were jumping rope and singing, blissfully oblivious to the tragedy that lay a few dozen yards away.
Now the shot drifted over to where two Bodybanks vans were being loaded with four long black plastic bags. “Who is killing the Fringers? And why? This is Sarah Jane Smith for Network 66, bringing you the news anytime, anywhere, as it happens. Over thirteen Fringers—or Blanks, as they’re also known—have been found murdered in the past three weeks, and the authorities are still unable—or unwilling—to solve the mystery of who is behind these senseless killings. The Fringers, meanwhile, are drawing their own conclusions.” The camera once again panned over those cold, hard expressions as she spoke.
The camera shot jittered slightly, then moved unerringly towards a balding, portly fellow wearing a grimy trench coat and an uneasy expression. “Detective Hatcher, you’re live on the Sarah Jane Smith Program. Would you be so kind as to answer a few questions?” The words were warm, almost pleasant, on the surface, but the underlying steel could not be missed. Glumly, the detective nodded and sighed in preparation for being grilled, but every so often, his eyes darted towards the silent, expectant crowd.
“Detective, I understand that a special type of bullet has been found in the bodies? A bullet designed specifically for the firearms used by the Metro police force, which wouldn’t work in most conventional weaponry?”
“Yes, Miss Smith, that’s right.” Hatcher fumbled in his pocket for his cigarettes. “But I might add that several military operations also use those guns—used strictly for enforcement, nothing else, and all allocations of armaments are carefully monitored.”
“I see.” The camera pulled back slightly, providing Hatcher with a background of silent watchers. “Have you any further comments regarding this tragedy?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” The detective gathered up his dignity and stared into the camera. “We have checked the movements of every member of our force over the last three weeks. None of them have been anywhere near the sites of the murders. As our unit has been given the responsibility of patrolling the Fringes, we have taken great pains to work with these people to make it a safer area to live in. We are horrified beyond measure at these senseless killings and would ask that anyone with any information contact us as soon as possible.”
“Thank you, Detective Hatcher. This is Sarah Jane Smith, live and direct for Network 66, bringing you the news anytime, any where, as it comes.” The glowing red light atop the camera flickered out; she took the bulky device off her shoulder and smiled tiredly at the detective, who was still rummaging through his pockets. “Nice speech, Mike.”
“Took me four tries to memorize it. I hate PR releases.” He finally located his pack of cigarettes and lit one up, then surveyed the desolate region around them. “Jesus, I hate coming out here.”
“I imagine these people don’t like it any more than you do.”
“That isn’t what I meant and you know it.” Hatcher took a draw from his smoke and shook his head. “Look at ‘em, Smith. Tensions are running high in the Fringes...”
“Can you blame them?” she asked quietly.
He shot her an exasperated look. “Do you really think the force would go out of its way to cause problems? Look, we didn’t ask to be stuck with the Fringes, but the Guard had had enough. But we accepted the responsibility and we’ve done a good job. We were starting to get some respect.” He stared up into the cloudy night. “Now...”
“Have you found anything yet?” Sarah asked.
“We’re running ID traces on the bullets, but someone’s been clever. The tags have been defaced. That takes someone with time, skill and knowledge. Someone is vying to stir up crap and make the force look ineffective.” He glanced over towards her. “Jesus,” he repeated. “These people want to lynch some cops, and Simon Peller wants to issue commendations to the guilty parties.”
“Peller,” Sarah snorted softly. “That little man. All he wants is a nice, neat orderly world around him where everything and everyone is accounted for, and he cannot bear to have the Blanks around, messing up his universe. The man’s a hate‑monger, nothing more.”
“A lot of people agree with him, Smith.” Hatcher took a draw from his cigarette. “They view the Fringers as little more than animals‑no big loss if they were to vanish overnight.” He shook his head tiredly. “Crazy world we live in, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” Sarah said distantly. Her eyes focused on a billboard standing on a nearby abandoned lot. “Hey, there’s another one of those ‘Haven’ building sites. They’ve been busy—that’s the fifth one I’ve seen in two weeks.”
“Really?” Hatcher glanced over to where Sarah was pointing. “Huh—never heard of them. Wonder what they’re all about? Maybe someone in the city’s decided to play guardian angel to the Fringers?”
“That’s rather optimistic of you, Mike,” Sarah smiled. “I’d never have thought it of you.”
“Yeah, well,” he shrugged. “Keep trying to kill it, but it won’t lie down, no matter how many times the worst‑case scenario comes true. Well, I’m outta here, Smith. Be careful, willya? I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. Watch your step when you come to the Fringes, okay?”
“I appreciate that. Mike, but I can take care of myself.” She smiled at him and waved goodbye. “Say hello to your girls for me.”
“Sure will.” He flicked the cigarette to the ground and stamped it out before walking away. Sarah waited until he was gone, then turned the camera around. “Well, Kev?”
“Nice program, Sarah,” came the voice of her controller. “But aren’t you getting a bit too chummy with Hatcher?”
“He’s doing the best he can with what he’s got. Antagonizing him like Carter does isn’t going to do any good.” She looked around abruptly. “By the way, did you check to see if 23 was here?”
“Yeah‑‑‑they sent Janie Crane.”
“Not Carter. Hmmm.” Sarah frowned thoughtfully. “Must not have been big enough for him.” She glanced into the sky. “Why don’t you send Mac for me, Kev? I’m done here.”
“Will do, S. J.” There was a quiet squawk as her link to Network 66 shut down. Sarah looked around the bleak landscape, lost in thought, when suddenly an explosion of light and color appeared on a nearby television set.
“AH! SARAH JANE SMITH, THE R‑R‑R‑ROVING REPORTER FOR SIX‑SIXTY‑SIX!”
She smiled at the computer‑generated apparition that floated on the screen. Sarah had come to know ‘Max Headroom’ fairly well over the past six months and took his ‘crush’ on her in stride. “Hullo, Max. Where have you been keeping yourself lately?”
“JUST‑JUST HANGING AROUND‑AROUND. YOU?”
“I’m fine.” She bit her lip and moved over to the set. “Max, I haven’t seen Edison around lately. Is everything all right?”
A sly look crossed Max’s face. “AH‑AH‑AH! D‑D‑DOES MM‑M‑MACYS T‑ TELL G‑GIMBELS?”
“I would never ask you to tell me what stories he’s working on,” she mildly scolded him. “But he hasn’t been on the air in over two weeks. I’m just a bit ... curious,” she said, hesitating on the last word.
“W‑W‑WELLLLLL ... SINCE YOU ASKED ... I‑I‑I’VE BEEN ASKED ... TO GIVE‑GIVE YOU A M‑MESSAGE!”
“You have?” Sarah asked, eyebrow arching; she could hear the Network 66 helicopter preparing to land nearby.
“YUPYUPYUP! COME TO THIS ADDRESS,” and he held up a note card with information that Sarah quickly scribbled down in her notebook, “AND WE’LL EXPLAIN L‑LATER!” The screen flicked out abruptly. Sarah stayed crouched next to the TV set for a moment or two, then rose to her feet and hurried over to the helicopter.
She never saw the young woman with a wild mane of dark hair who was struggling to get through the dispersing crowd, waving her arms wildly and calling Sarah’s name in vain.
* * * * *
After dropping her camera off at Network 66, Sarah went straight to the address Max had given her. It was in one of the slightly better sections of the city, still dingy but far more livable than most areas (including the one in which she lived). The doorbell brought an immediate response. “How do you do, Miss Smith?” asked a beautiful young woman with doe eyes and a soft British accent. “I’m Theora Jones—Edison’s controller. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you.” As she stepped inside, Sarah automatically looked around the room. Jones wasn’t alone; there were two others in the room with her: an older man, bald, somewhat portly, with a bushy black mustache, and a boy who couldn’t be more than fifteen, blinking owlishly back at her from behind a pair of battered spectacles. “Hullo,” she greeted them with polite reservation.
“The older gentleman is Murray‑he’s Edison’s producer. And also with us is Bryce Lynch, the head of Research and Development at 23.”
“Hi,” said Bryce, waving from his chair.
“AND DON’T F‑F‑F‑FORGET ABOUT MEEEEEE!” screamed Max from a television set in the corner.
Theora smiled. “Max, I believe, you’ve met.”
“Several times.” Sarah primly sat down on a battered sofa and nodded to her hosts. “All right. Max told me you wanted to see me, and I’m here. Now I’d like to know why.”
The smile faded from Theora’s lips. “Edison’s missing.”
“What?” Sarah gasped.
The slim young woman nodded. “He was working on the Fringer killings story two weeks ago. At one point he warned me that he was meeting some people who had some information, but they wouldn’t speak to him unless he cut the feed out. I let him do it, but tracked the unit’s movements via the Skycam. He stayed in one spot for about twenty minutes, then headed off again towards the city‑I can only assume that he’d forgotten to switch his camera back on.” She glanced over at Murray, who looked utterly wretched. “About ten minutes later, there was another fix, this one for three hours. We sent Janie Crane to check. She found nothing, not even his camera.”
“We’re using a cover story that he’s on an undercover assignment,” added Murray, who was standing by the window, periodically glancing out into the night. “Builds anticipation in his viewers, and scares the hell out of everyone that thinks he or she might be a target for the next show.”
“I’ve run security scans on every database in the city,” Bryce said. “No luck. Same goes for police stations, hospitals and Bodybanks. Edison isn’t anywhere that can be traced, so far as we can tell.”
“You’re guessing he’s somewhere in the Fringes, aren’t you?” asked Sarah.
“It was his last known location, and there has been a great deal of unrest there recently,” Theora nodded. “A major personality like Edison would bring a great deal of publicity ... or ransom.”
“I see,” Sarah said softly. “But what does this have to do with me?”
“You spend a great deal of time in the Fringes,” Theora replied. “You and Edison use a number of common contacts. You’re the best reporter we’ve seen in some time. You might hear things.” She glanced down at the floor briefly, then looked up at Sarah with a pleading expression. “All we’re asking is that if you do hear something ... anything at all...”
“Of course,” Sarah nodded. “I’d be more than happy to do that.”
“Thank you,” Theora said. “We’d appreciate it. You can route any messages through Max. He tends to follow you everywhere, you know.”
“So I’ve noticed.” Sarah rose to leave. “Well, I’d best be on my way before anyone sees us together. Mr. Grossberg will think I’m trying to sign on with Network 23.”
“OHHHHHHHH! R‑R‑RAP‑RAPTURE! OH B‑BLISS! TO HAVE SARAH‑ SARAH JANE SMITH AT T‑T‑TWENTY-THREE ALL THE TIME! B‑B‑B‑BE STILL MY HEART!” Max cried from his set.
“Perhaps someday. Max," Sarah smiled, patting the set affectionately. “I’ll be in touch,” she told the others before hurrying out the door.
* * * * *
A half‑hour later, Sarah opened the door to her apartment and wearily tossed her purse into a nearby chair. The room was dark except for the chromatic aura of the television set that was always on. Initially, Sarah found it impossible to concentrate on anything, even to go to sleep, with the constant chatter and natter of the thing; she'd finally thrown a heavy blanket over it to muffle the sound and smother the light.
Now, however, it was simply there, always at the fringe of her consciousness, but never intrusive unless she chose for it to be. Sarah wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. She fixed herself a glass of warm milk and changed into a nightgown, then sat in bed with the milk and some crackers and read a chapter or two from a book Kev had bought her for her birthday a while back.
Finally she felt relaxed enough to turn off the light, place the book on the nightstand, and snuggle down into bed for a good night’s sleep.
* * * * *
She was once again aboard the TARDIS, dressed in her ‘Andy Pandy’ coveralls and overburdened with the mementos she’d collected during her time with the Doctor. Standing in the doorway, she stared despondently at the being who had come to mean a great deal to her but who now refused to watch her leave. “Good‑bye, Doctor. Don’t forget me...”
Suddenly she was joined at the door by a more familiar face. “This is Edison Carter, live and direct for Network 23, and what I want to know is, how can this thing be bigger on the inside than it is on the outside?”
“It’s dimensional transcendence,” Sarah explained.
“Don’t talk to reporters,” the Doctor admonished her.
“Trying to stonewall me, Doctor?” Edison sneered. “What’s the real reason you’re kicking her off? Getting too close for comfort, perhaps? Realized how often you risk her neck? What’s the story here?”
“I have to go back to Gallifrey,” the Doctor replied.
And now Max Headroom appeared on the TARDIS viewer. “TH‑TH‑THAT’S THE F‑FACT, JACK!”
“The official story, anyway,” Edison said confidently. “So, Sarah Jane Smith, what are your plans now that the Doctor has given you the boot in the middle of nowhere?” He turned the camera on her.
“I ... I don’t really know,” she stammered, thrown off‑balance. She looked down and examined the shoe that had suddenly replaced all of her belongings.
“NO! NO! NO!” screamed Max. “YOU’RE S‑S‑SUPPOSED TO S‑SAY YOU’RE G‑G‑G‑GOING TO DISNEY WORLD! WORLD! WORLD!”
With a raspy cry, Sarah sat up in bed and gasped for breath. For a long time, she held her head in her hands, trying to regain her mental equilibrium. She glanced around the bedroom, forcing reality to assert itself again, and only when she felt sufficiently grounded once more did she lay her head back on the pillow and drift off to sleep.
* * * * *
The next morning, Sarah breezed into the bright, orderly confines of the Network 66 newsroom and headed over to where her controller sat waiting. “Hullo, Kev, what’s new?”
The lanky controller grinned and handed her the ritual first cup of tea. “Well, for openers, Tina buzzed this morning. You still willing to do an interview on ‘Adventuresses’?”
“No problem. Soon as I get time.”
“She can’t wait until you die, Sarah. Well, let me see what’s going on in the world.” As he typed on his keyboard, Sarah glanced up at the network monitor to see what was currently on. “Oh dear,” she sighed, making a face. “Simon Peller. What an effective way to give viewers indigestion.”
“He’s talking about the Fringe murders. I’ve been recording it for you-‑never know when you might need some ‘devil’s advocate’ type of footage and all.”
“Turn it up, Kev.” As he complied, Sarah listened to the words coming from Peller, a man with shifty eyes and a plastic smile that seemed glued to his features:
“...All I am saying is that the evidence is highly circumstantial here. We have no concrete proof that the police, indeed, any law enforcement agency, have been carrying on any sort of vendetta against the Fringers. These people are little better than animals, choosing to live outside our civilized society. And as we have witnessed several times in the past few years, the Fringers are not above using terrorist activities against the city. Who is to say that this is not part of some grandiose scheme on the part of the chief manipulators among the Fringers to incite their ignorant brethren against us, in order to one day gain the upper hand...”
“Turn it off,” Sarah ordered quietly. “I’ve seen more than enough.”
“Will do.” Peller vanished from the screen.
“My god,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “What an awful little man. How did he get as far as he did?”
“Through the support of people who think like he does,” Kev replied. “Not everyone sees the Fringers as you do, Sarah.”
“They are people, not animals, and they couldn’t care less about the city. All they want is to be left in peace.” With an effort, she switched her mind back into ‘reporter’ mode. “What did you find during last night’s digging, Kev?”
He called up the information on his screen. “Checked every manufacturer of that type of armament. No discrepancies of inventory, no lost or stolen goods‑nothing. Same with the police inventory reports. Looks like Hatcher was telling the truth for a change.”
“Mike always tells the truth‑when he’s able to.”
“Yeah, sure,” Kev snorted.
“We can discuss that bribery frame‑up another time.” A thought came to her. “Kev ... do you have any information on a group called Haven Incorporated?”
He accessed his database. “Not anything on hand. Why?”
“Do some digging. They’ve been putting up a number of signs around the Fringes lately, and I would very much like to know what they’re planning to do.” She grabbed her coat. “Tell Mac to warm up the chopper, will you?”
Kev sighed. “I take it you’re going back to the Fringes?”
“Of course, luv. If nothing else, I can get some Fringer feedback on Peller’s little hate manifesto. Ta!”
* * * * *
Darkness and firelight can hide a thousand faults, but daylight reveals everything. Sarah tramped through piles of crumpled food wrappings and other debris that caked the dirty streets of the Fringes as she searched for a familiar face. The blank, bleak starts of the filthy denizens of this no‑man’s‑land made her want to look away, but she forced herself to meet their eyes as she moved on.
The morning air was chill, accompanied by a breeze that made Sarah shiver and pull her coat even more tightly around her. The gray, overcast sky didn’t help her mood any, either. Feeling extremely self‑conscious in her warm, stylish clothing, Sarah was about to ask Kev to recall the chopper when she finally spotted one of the two people she’d been looking for. “Grace!”
A dark‑haired, dangerous‑looking woman looked up from her plate of food and nodded. “Whattya want?” Her ever‑present knife was currently burdened with a chunk of meat that Sarah really didn’t want to know the origin of.
Sarah smiled as pleasantly as she could. “Rik around?”
Grace belched and bit into her meat. “He’s making deliveries. Back soon.” She held the knife out. “Breakfast?”
“I’ve ... already eaten, but thanks all the same.” She sat down directly across from the other woman and set her camera down.
Grace glanced at the device and grinned. “Liked the show the other night.”
‘That was me, you know. Crowd shot, first row, fourth over.”
“Yup.” Grace gulped down a Zik‑Zak cola. “It’s a game we play. See who can get on your show and Carter’s the most. Boing was leading when he got killed.” She crunched the can with one hand and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “So, where’s Carter?”
“Good question,” Sarah said. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “He was last seen in the Fringes, working on a story. You see or hear anything?”
“Nah.” Another belch erupted from Grace’s mouth. “Haven’t heard a word‑we figured he was on vacation or something.”
“Well, if you do hear anything, I’d like to know.” Grace shrugged noncommittally. At that moment, a slender black man rode up on a bicycle with a rickshaw attached. “S. J.!” he grinned. “What’s up?”
“Hullo, Rik,” Sarah smiled back. “Know Reg’s whereabouts these days?”
“Hop on in,” he replied, pointing behind him. “Grace, back in awhile. Mind the store.”
“Always,” Grace nodded, picking at the grit under her fingernails with her knife.
Big Time TV was a mobile operation, never staying in any one place for any length of time. Much of the reason for this was due to its operator’s nature: Blank Reg had been on the run often enough before his computer records had been purged, and old habits died hard. Rik and Sarah found the battered pink van that was home to Big Time after searching for an hour or so.
Fang, the toothless guard dog, wagged his tall hopefully as Sarah approached the door, and she rewarded him with pats and sweet‑talk as Reg and his partner Dominique came outside. “Attaway, Fang,” Reg growled with a grin. “Lull her into a sense of false confidence, then go for the kill! “
Obediently, Fang jumped off the oil drum he’d been sitting on and rolled over, exposing his tummy to Sarah. “How’ve you been, Reg?” Sarah asked, giving Fang a good stomach‑scratch.
“Not as well as I’d like,” the grizzled Blank admitted. “Fringes are not a good place to be these days, luv. Lot of unrest circulating, after these killings. City folk need to watch their backs when the come slummin’. Hell, that’s why we moved Big Time out of the central area.”
“S. J.’s covered,” Rik said coolly from his cycle.
“I’ve noticed the mood’s darker,” Sarah said, glancing around uneasily. “By the way, Reg, have you heard anything about this Haven group?”
The old man rubbed his chin. “There’s been some suits here and there asking people who live on the border if they’d accept big money to leave that area—that might be them. It’s been rumored they’re some big outfit trying to expand city territory out to the Fringes. Other than that...” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, at the moment, that’s more than I’ve heard. By the way, I was wondering if you’d heard from Edison lately?”
“Edison?” Reg bit his lip and shook his head. “Naw, matter of fact, I was wondering the hell’s happened to him. Not like him to be off the air for so long. You beat him out in the ratings or something?”
“I’m trying. Reg ... how bad is it here?”
The Blank said nothing for a moment, staring instead at the grimy, dreary panorama around him. “I’m worried,” he said finally.
Sarah’s eyes widened, but she nodded in understanding before returning to the rickshaw and hopping in. She gave a cheery wave to Reg and Dom as Rik pulled away, but the smile faded the instant her back was to the odd couple.
A few minutes later a breathless young woman with dark hair came running up to the Big Time van and pounded on the door. Reg opened it just a crack and peered out. “Lycia? Kind of far from home, aren’t you?”
She nodded fiercely, struggling to catch her breath. “Smith? Is ... Sarah Jane Smith ... still here?”
The older man shook his head in sympathy. “You just missed her, luv. She went off with Rik.”
“Awwwww ... damn!”
Rik guided them through the Fringes, the roar of his cycle providing enough warning to people to get the hell out of his way. Sarah stared thoughtfully at the squalid surroundings and the wary, suspicious looks of people who stared back at her neatly dressed form. Two different worlds, sitting side by side, she thought to herself. And no way of every resolving the difference...
Suddenly, something going on in an alley caught her attention. “RIK!” she cried out. “STOP! NOW!”
Mystified, the black man obeyed. The instant the vehicle was moving, Sarah was, shifting her ever‑present camera into position and switching the unit on. “Control, I think we’ve got a live one!” she breathed into her mike as she moved into position.
“You’re coming in crystal‑clear,” Kev said into her receiving unit. “Let’s see what ... oh my God!”
What Kev was just now seeing was unbelievable: three Metro cops were beating two Fringers into bloody pulps. Despite the victims’ cries of surrender and pleas for pity, the blood‑spattered truncheons rose and fell with rhythmic precision. Sarah found herself unable to speak, unable to turn away as she watched, paralyzed with horror.
“Sarah, you’re on live,” Kev warned.
Arid suddenly, the Metro cops, whose backs were still to Sarah, moved away from the Fringers and drew their guns.
“Oh no...” moaned Sarah. “No...”
Four shots rang out.
The policemen turned and saw the reporter standing there, her camera’s on-air light shining bright red.
Sarah ran. Bullets screamed just past her as she leaped back into the rickshaw. Rik roared the cycle into full life and zoomed away just as the policemen emerged from the alley and opened fire. As Kev gave her instructions on where to meet the Network 66 helicopter, Sarah was amazed to find that she was trembling violently. After all she’d seen and done, she’d thought herself beyond the reaction.
And when she reached a shaking hand to her cheek and found it wet, that was no less surprising, either.
* * * * *
By the time Sarah made it back to the city, hell was breaking loose in the Fringes. Outraged, fed up and overwhelmed, the Fringers were going wild, smashing everything and everyone in their path as they made a slow beeline for the outskirts of the city. The Metro police, recognizing instantly dim the situation had gone beyond their ability to handle it, wasted no time in getting the Riot Guard activated and in place.
Instead of returning to 66, Sarah had insisted on being dropped off at the Twelfth Precinct, where Hatcher worked. She ignored the angry stares and assorted mutterings that were directed at her—after all, her report was what had triggered the riot in the first place, they reasoned‑and headed straight for Hatcher’s office. Two uniforms quickly blocked her way and waited expectantly. After a minute or two of impotent defiance, Sarah handed over her camera. The policemen took the unit and got out of her way.
She didn’t so much as even provide the polite formality of knocking on the door, simply marched in before he could react. Hatcher was on the phone. He glanced up, saw who was there and growled, “Get out.”
“Haven’t you done enough damage already?” he asked hotly. “Get your butt home, Smith, while you still can.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No, it’s a promise.” He leaned forward. “The Blanks are going nuts out there. Your little on‑the‑scene report was the last push that sent them over the edge. We’re going to have our hands full coping with that. It’s going to get pretty wild and very dangerous. Get home and stay there until it’s over.”
Sarah glared at him. “They didn’t have to confiscate my unit.”
He rose to his feet and leaned forward. “And what were you going to do, Smith? Demand a response to that report? What do you want me to say?” He sagged briefly, rubbing a hand over his weary features. “Look, Smith, I don’t know who those guys were, I swear on my mother’s grave. Metro had no one out in that area, and all our guys have been accounted for. Whoever they were, they weren’t Metro cops.”
“You’d have a rough time proving that,” Sarah retorted.
“Oh, I could show you the personnel reports,” he told her. “I could tell you all about the phone calls the precinct captains have made, accounting for every last Metro cop’s whereabouts. I could show you the transponder reports do clearly show no cop was anywhere near that scene at the time of the incident—but that wouldn’t make much difference now, would it? You could just as easily claim that the reports were fixed, that we were just trying to cover our butts to escape the fallout.
“And, assuming that you did believe us, think for a minute about how that would look on your program. It’d get twice as nasty, because people would believe you were trying to help us cover up the whole thing.”
“How do I know you’re not trying to cover it up?”
Hatcher fell back into his chair. “You don’t. You’d have to trust me on this, and having worked here for twenty‑odd years, I know better than to ask you to do that.” An officer, one of the two men who’d confiscated Sarah’s camera, appeared at the door, unit in tow. Hatcher glanced over at him for a moment, then nodded curtly. The cop handed the minicam back to Sarah without a word.
“Sarah? You okay? We lost you for a minute.” Kev’s voice was strained
“I’m fine, Kev. I’m talking to Hatcher. What’s up?”
“We’re bringing you in.”
“WHAT?” she gasped. “Kev, we’ve got a story in progress here...”
“Wrong,” he informed her, “we’ve got a riot in progress. Word’s come down from Upstairs to recall all reporters as soon as possible. The chopper’s waiting for you on the roof.”
“But Kev ... ”
“This one’s from Grossberg himself, Sarah. Sorry. Now get moving.” She looked at Hatcher, who looked tired and oddly vulnerable at the moment. He shook his head and nodded toward the ceiling. Angry, frustrated and off‑balance, Sarah finally slung the unit over her shoulder and stormed out the door.
* * * * *
Sarah had never quite gotten over the impression that entering the board room of Network 66 was akin to entering a gothic cathedral: the monumental arches that seemed to stretch heavenward, the intricate stained glass windows, and the generally hushed, funereal atmosphere of the chamber made her feel somber and unworthy to enter the sanctum‑which, no doubt, was exactly what Ned Grossberg, the chairman of the Network, had intended all along when he’d had the place redone.
Grossberg was sitting behind his desk, looking placid and almost as though he was expecting her. “Have a seat, Sarah,” he motioned across the desk
“I’ll stand, thank you,” she said coldly. “Mr. Grossberg, I am a reporter. There is a story out there, and I do not appreciate being pulled away from that under any circumstances...”
“It’s too hot right now,” Grossberg replied.
“Hot enough to get 66 top ratings,” she responded.
“We’ve got skycams on all through the city,” he assured her. “It’s being covered. But I don’t want my people risked, nor do any of the other networks. We’ve just finished a major conference on the situation, and all parties involved have agreed to call their people in until things have cooled off.”
“If Edison Carter were told to come in...” she began.
“He would come in,” Grossberg interrupted, “or lose his controller, his job, and possibly his life.” He leaned over his desk toward her. “I assume you’ve met Janie Crane? Network 23 reporter?”
“We’ve run into each other, yes.” Running into each other was a mild understatement: the two women had a running feud over getting to stories first.
“She was in the Fringes when the riot started. They beat her to a pulp.” Grossberg’s voice was oddly quiet. “Her chopper pilot managed to drive the crowds back long enough for someone to jump out and get her. She’s at City Hospital even as we speak. They don’t know if she’s going to recover.”
Sarah fell back in the oversized chair. “My god,” she breathed, realization finally sinking in.
“Do you think I like having to cover a story this way?” he asked. “But I will not have my people risk their lives, Sarah. No story‑no ratings—are that important.”
Sarah examined him closely. “This is Ned Grossberg I’m talking to?”
He smiled. “I know that sounded odd, coming from me. But you’re too valuable to risk, Sarah.”
“Look,” she pressed, “Hatcher says that the Metro police were not responsible for that killing. Kev went through their database and verified everything that was claimed. Now, assuming that the data wasn’t fixed to begin with...”
“Sarah.” Grossberg’s voice was quiet, his face hard as stone. “It’s done. Over. You’ve been pulled.”
“What if this is all a set‑up to cause a riot reaction?” she persisted, when Grossberg’s fist suddenly slammed against his desk. Startled, Sarah jumped backwards and shut up.
“It’s over, Sarah.” There was no hint of compromise in his voice.
“I believe it is, Mr. Grossberg. I quit.” She let her camera fall to the floor with a soft thump, then stormed out of the office without a single glance behind her.
Grossberg watched her go, then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Mister Park, I assume you have Miss Smith’s transponder frequency on?”
“Yessir, Mr. Grossberg,” came Kev’s voice over the hidden speakers.
“Keep an eye on her. Monitor her closely.”
“And be ready to get a comsat transmission started if she does find anything.” Grossberg opened his eyes and smiled contentedly to himself. “You’re far too valuable for me to risk, Sarah, but if you’re bound and determined to do it yourself, far be it from me not to take advantage of it...”
* * * * *
Sarah stormed out of the Network 66 building without so much as saying good‑ bye to her coworkers or packing what few personal items she’d left on the desk she never used. Furious, she stomped towards the public transportation kiosk to wait for a bus to take her home, only to find that, due to the riots, all routes were canceled until further notice.
Now despondence replaced anger. She flopped down on the concrete bench and sighed heavily. “It’s all a set‑up, I know it is!” she told herself. “But I can’t get anyone to believe me without proof, and all the proof’s in the Fringes, and I can’t get to the Fringes, and even I got to the Fringes, they’d probably kill me for looking like a city‑dweller...” She looked up to the late afternoon sky for inspiration. “What would he do in a situation like this?”
And then ... inspiration struck.
* * * * *
She kept her head down, stumbling through the masses of people that were pouring from the Fringes, armed with bats, pipes, table legs‑whatever they could find to serve as a weapon. Windows shattered, alarms wailed, and merchandise vanished from shop to shop as the riot progressed deeper into the city. Sarah hung close to alleys and doorways, letting the press of the crowd flow past test it carry her away in the wrong direction.
No one really gave her a second look, just as she’d hoped. With grimy, tattered clothing from Bodybanks and a great deal of street dirt, Sarah was to her eyes a typical Fringer, wandering the streets in search of food and shelter. And from the way things were going, that was precisely how the others saw her as well.
It didn’t take long to reach the Fringes, once she got past the initial crowds. It was almost eerie to walk along the deserted pathways, with only the occasional passerby to be seen. Sarah headed first to where she’d found Rik, but the black man and his bodyguard had sensibly moved on to safer havens. The odds were that Reg and Dom had done likewise with their van. She was on her own.
Not exactly. “Hey guys, check it out,” came a rough, menacing voice from behind.
Sarah whirled around to find three leather‑clad toughs eyeing her hungrily. They smelled almost as bad as they looked, and their intent was obvious.
“I bet you’re not so bad under those rags,” the one who’d spoken continued, licking his lips in anticipation.
It had been a long time since the Doctor had taught Sarah the basic moves of Venusian aikido, but her time in this strange world had given her plenty of opportunities to practice. She settled back into a standard defense posture and waited for them to make the first move.
“Oooh, a fighter,” the punk on the left cooed. “We’re in trouble now.”
“Yeah, we better do something about that,” said the third. Before Sarah could react, he grabbed a gun from his side holster and fired. Sarah squeaked as she felt something penetrate her skin, then a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her and she tumbled helplessly to the ground. She tried to cry out, but her tongue had somehow grown about six sizes too big, and her body was encased in lead. Trank dart, she realized woozily as the three attackers surrounded her.
“Oh yeah,” the first speaker chortled, as his foul breath cascaded down on her. “You’ll do just fine. First we have some fun, then we take what’s left to Bodybanks for the cash.”
“Works for me,” the second laughed. “Who’s first?”
“You tell me,” came a new voice. The punks whirled around, letting Sarah fall to the sidewalk. Blinking rapidly, she watched them close in on a young, dark‑haired woman with intense eyes. She dimly heard three shots, then the universe decided to close up early for the night.
* * * * *
Sarah opened her eyes some time later and found herself lying on an old, dingy mattress that smelled of mildew. Light streamed through grimy skylight windows that were interspersed between a network of girders. Grunting with effort, she slowly pushed herself up into a sitting position and looked around. A warehouse, from the look of things, once abandoned but no longer. Some distance away to her right was a huge bank of computer equipment; she could faintly hear someone typing at rapid speed.
“Miss Smith?” Sarah turned to find the young woman who’d rescued her from the punks standing beside the mattress. She offered Sarah a glass of water, which Sarah took. “Are you all right?” the stranger continued, her exotic features lined with concern. “That was a pretty good shot you took, and I had to more or less drag you here, so you might be feeling a little battered and all.”
“I’m feeling much better now, thank you.” She handed the empty glass to her benefactor. “And you are...?”
“Lycia. Blank Lycia.” She grinned and glanced just behind Sarah’s shoulder. “And the guy behind you is Bruno.” Sarah turned around and looked up the man who was standing there, regarding her with quiet interest.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Smith,” he said softly, offering her his hand. “I could ask for better circumstances, however.”
“Agreed,” Sarah said as she used the handshake to pull herself to her feet. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Bruno. Mr. Carter thinks very highly of you.”
“It’s mutual. How are you feeling?”
Sarah gave herself a quick once‑over. “I’ve been better, but I’ll survive. How long have I been unconscious?”
“About two hours. You haven’t missed much: the Fringers are still running amok in the outskirts of the city. Every restaurant, bakery and grocery store in that area has been wiped out, which may not be a bad thing.” A crooked grin crossed Bruno’s face. “It’s hard to riot on a full stomach. Perhaps that will lessen the casualties in the end.”
“What do you mean?” In reply, Bruno guided Sarah over to the computer banks and sat down before them. She glanced over at Lycia, who was reloading her stungun as she walked over to join them, then studied the information the Blank was producing on his panorama of screens. The rioters were indeed making slower headway into the city, but they were moving.
“And here, you see, is what’s waiting for them.” He pointed at a heavily armed contingent of Riot Squadders, standing in formation with guns at the ready. “It’s going to be a massacre, Miss Smith. We’ll be fortunate if anyone survives that.”
“My god!” Sarah shook her head and looked away. “This is all my fault,” she said, closing her eyes. “If only I hadn’t aired that killing... “
“You were meant to,” Bruno informed her. “That was all carefully staged for your benefit ... in order to incite the Fringers to riot.”
“But ... how? Why? Who?” Sarah sputtered.
Bruno looked up at Lycia and smiled. “Sound familiar?”
She grinned, her short black hair bouncing merrily. “You were right. She and Edison are two of a kind.”
“Edison? You’ve seen Edison?” Sarah asked eagerly. “Where is he?”
“We don’t know,” said Lycia, abruptly growing somber. “Bruno showed him what he’d uncovered two weeks ago, and that was the last we’ve seen of him.”
“But to answer your questions,” Bruno continued, “I think this,” he tapped the video shot of the Riot Squad, “tells you why. Someone wants the Fringers out of the way. As to why, once you find the who, the answer will probably be clear. How? You’ve probably been under surveillance. Every time you’ve come into the Fringes, you’ve been tracked. Lord knows it wasn’t difficult‑Lycia’s been trying to talk to you for some time now. When you showed up earlier today, we decided to bring you here and tell you what we told Edison. Hopefully, you can succeed where he failed.”
Sarah glanced down at her tattered disguise. “Didn’t fool anyone, hmm?”
Lycia patted her shoulder. “Wasn’t bad, but you don’t walk like a Fringer‑body language was all wrong. I was an actress a few years back, I tend to notice that sort of thing.” A quirky smile appeared on her lips.
Bruno returned his attention to his monitors. “Just out of curiosity, have you heard anything about a consortium called Haven Incorporated?”
“I’d seen the construction signs on the borders of the Fringes,” Sarah said, leaning over his shoulder for a better look at the monitor. “My controller was supposed to be compiling some information for me, but I was never able to hear any of it.”
“Well, here’s your chance.” Sales transactions scrolled down the screen, each with a common name in the ‘buyer’ column. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”
“Very much so,” Sarah agreed. “They’ve been very busy, haven’t they?”
“And guess who happens to be the guiding force behind Haven?” Bruno continued, now calling up the articles of incorporation for that company.
Sarah studied it carefully, gasping in surprise when one particular name showed up. “Simon Peller,” she nodded in sudden understanding. “It would figure.”
“He’s had it in for the Blanks for a long time, especially when we showed him up a year or two back,” Lycia sniffed. “And since we live in the Fringes, it gave him added incentive to drive us out.”
“You’ll note some of the financial backers of Haven include several corporations with a great deal of money and influence,” Bruno pointed out, “especially with the military.”
“Go on,” Sarah nodded as she studied the screen.
“We suspect that all of these killings have been part of a carefully orchestrated plot to get the Fringers to do something stupid and give Peller’s people an excuse to get rid of the Fringers once and for all.”
“And then Peller and Haven can get rid of the remainder through legal means and buy out the land that the Fringes sit on,” Sarah concluded. “Dear God ... that’s awful!” A thought came to her. “And you told Edison all this...”
“Yeah, he was royally pissed, too,” Lycia said.
“Went storming out the door. I’d wager he headed over to confront Peller,” Bruno said. “Not the brightest of moves, seeing as Peller ranks Carter on a par with the Blanks.”
‘This is terrible,” Sarah shook her head, then bit her lip as her mind composed a plan. “All right. Bruno, can you patch me in to Network 23? I’m going to need some assistance from that end.”
“Nothing simpler.” He typed out a few commands, and within minutes Theora’s tired, worried face appeared on the main screen.
“Hello?” she asked, peering forward. ‘This is a secure line, I’m afraid you’ll have to...Sarah?”
“Hullo, Miss Jones,” Sarah smiled.
And at that moment Theora’s image was abruptly replaced by a no‑less‑familiar visage. “S‑S‑S‑SARAHHHHH! S‑S‑SARAHHH! W‑W‑WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN‑ BEEN, LIGHT OF THE‑THE‑THE NETWORK 66 AIRWAVES‑WAVES?”
“Hullo, Max. I’ve been busy. Now will you let me talk to Theora?”
“I’m opening a secondary channel, Max,” Bruno said from beside her. “You can perch on that one if you’d like.” Max found this agreeable, so he popped over to the next screen and ceded the original to Theora.
“Sarah, where are you?” she asked worriedly. “All of the networks have recalled their field reporters‑it’s insanity out there! Have you any news about Edison?”
“I’m with Bruno in the Fringes. And I might have something on Edison, but I’ve got some other information that’s more important at the moment‑the true story behind the Fringer killings. It’s all tied together, I think.”
Murray suddenly appeared over Theora’s shoulder. “Nothing personal, Miss Smith, but I might remind you that you’re a reporter for Network 66."
“Not any longer,” she said curtly. “I resigned.”
“Murray considered this. “Oh.”
“OOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH B‑BOY!” Max exclaimed, “ED‑ED‑EDISON HAD BETTER GET BACK SOON! SOON! THE RIVAL REPORTER‑TER‑TER IS C‑C‑ COMING TO TWENTY‑THREE‑THREE!”
“I’m transferring everything we’ve got on Haven Incorporated over to you, Miss Jones,” Bruno announced. “I believe you’ll find it illuminating, to say the least.” While Theora and Murray studied the data, Sarah explained Carter’s connection to the story.
When everyone had finished, Murray rubbed his chin in contemplation. “Well,” he finally said, “this is all well and good, but we’re lacking the one thing we need: concrete evidence. This is all circumstantial.”
“What I wouldn’t give to confront Peller with this and watch him squirm,” Sarah muttered.
Murray looked up. “That’s a great idea!”
“What?” Sarah squeaked.
“Miss Smith, how would you like a job at Network 23 for the duration?” he continued. “And have Theora Jones as your controller, and some of the brightest minds in the business giving you the backup a star reporter like yourself deserves?”
“D‑D‑DON’T FORGET THE KEYS TO THE WASHROOM! ROOM!” Max reminded.
“Murray, I don’t know what to say...” Sarah hedged. “Besides, I’m out here in the Fringes without even a camera...”
“Not true,” Lycia announced. She set a battered Network 23 camera on the table. “Some of our contacts found it in an alley two weeks ago,” she added, switching it on, then picking it up and squinting through the sight. “You’re live and direct!”
“Dear God,” Theora breathed, looking stunned, “that’s Edison’s camera! I’m picking up the feed.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Murray said a bit too quickly. “We can sort that out later—right now, Miss Smith needs to make a decision.” He looked up and stared at her through the hookup. “What will it be, Miss Smith?”
She took a deep breath. “All right.” She sat down beside Bruno and leaned back. “Now then, the first thing to do is leave the Fringes. Lycia, would you mind escorting me?”
“Not at all,” the young woman grinned.
“Then we’re going to have to plan the assault on Peller’s building and make some contingency plans.”
As they talked back and forth, Max watched the discussion with growing interest. “AHHH!” he sighed. “I L‑L‑LOVE ITIT‑IT WHEN A PLAN COMES TOGETH‑ GETH‑GETHER!”
* * * * *
Simon Peller’s vacuous smile wavered not a bit when Sarah stormed through the doors of his office with a Network 23 camera in position on her shoulder, “This is Sarah Jane Smith, coming to you live and direct, and what I’d like to know is, what is Simon Peller’s connection with Haven Incorporated and their purchase of real estate along the edge of the Fringes and how does this tie in with the recent unrest amongst the Blanks?” She glared defiantly at Peller. “Well, Mr. Peller?”
“Miss Smith,” he nodded evenly at her. “Working the other side of the street now, I see? And may I say, you’re sounding more like Edison Carter every day. Though you need to work on the receding hairline.”
She smiled grimly. “Answer the question, Mr. Peller.”
“Very well. It has been my pleasure to assist the good people at Haven in their development of a new community project. In return, they have made me an investor in said project. There’s nothing sneaky or underhanded about it‑it’s all quite aboveground and on record, as I’m sure you’re aware. As for the rest of your question‑I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’ve gone on record several times regarding your antipathy towards the Blanks,” Sarah said. “Your recent history shows a continual pattern of harassment towards them. Considering that the list of investors in Haven includes several people prominent in military and civil defense companies, a suspicious person might believe that there was a conspiracy to incite the Blanks to riot. The resulting confrontation might leave thousands dead and the Fringes empty ... leaving all that prime real estate for Haven to purchase for next to nothing, and you with one less phobia to deal with.”
“As you say,” Peller smiled, “a suspicious, or dare I say paranoid, person might well see things that way. But,” he opened his hands up, palms heavenward, “the only problem with your theory is that it has no basis in fact. I regret that the Fringers see violence as their only alternative. But that is their problem, Miss Smith, not mine. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Sarah sighed and bit her lip. “Very well, Mr. Peller. For now, this is Sarah Jane Smith for Network 23. More on the story as it comes.” She cut the feed and heaved the camera off her shoulder. “This isn’t the end of it, Peller,” she said.
“On the contrary, my dear.” From out of nowhere two goons appeared on either side of her. One grabbed her camera and started smashing it into pieces against the floor, while the other held her securely by the wrists. Peller observed the attack with undisguised delight. “Andre, take our intrepid reporter downstairs and have her join her esteemed counterpart, will you? I’ve work to finish up here ... we can take care of this loose end later.” He watched for a minute or two more as his thugs dragged Sarah kicking and screaming out of the room, then shrugged to himself and returned his attention to his paperwork.
* * * * *
Sarah squealed as Andre sent her flying into a cramped, mildewed brick basement cell; she hit the wall with a thump that rattled her teeth, then tumbled to the filthy, damp floor. She recovered just in time to see the door slam shut. “Damn,” she breathed, wincing as she moved. “I am going to be so sore tomorrow!”
A soft moan from nearby captured her attention. She rose to her feet and hurried over to a grimy cot, upon which lay a familiar if somewhat battered face. “Edison?” she breathed.
He opened the eye that wasn’t swollen shut and tried to smile. “Sarah Jane Smith,” he wheezed. “May I say the Fringer look is definitely you?”
“You’re hardly the epitome of style yourself,” she retorted. Shaking her head, she set to work examining his injuries. “I see you’ve been busy helping Andre and his friend stay in shape. You’re a mess, Mr. Carter.”
“I make it a point to bleed on them whenever possible.”
Sarah glanced around in search of some water and rags. “You confronted Peller on the Haven story, I take it.”
“Tried to.” Carter took a breath and winced. “I was just about the leave the Fringes when his goons came out of an alley and jumped me.” Sarah dabbed at his injuries; he yelped as she hit a particularly tender area and groaned. “The son of a bitch just sat there smiling as they beat the crap out of me. I’ve been here ever since ... just how long have I been here, anyway?”
“About two weeks.”
“Time does fly when you’re having fun, doesn’t it?”
“Enough jokes. Save your strength, you’re going to need it when we escape.” Sarah went over to the cell door and smiled to herself as she studied it. “Very good, Mr. Peller. Simple deadbolt design‑no electronic devices that could be overridden by nosy controllers. My compliments.” She took off her shoe and extracted a metal lock pick from it. She smiled momentarily, lost in memory, and softly said, “Ah yes, the logical place,” then knelt down and set to work.
Edison slowly brought himself up to a seated position and watched with interest. “I didn’t know you were a specialist in lock‑breaking.”
“I’m not, though I did take some lessons from a real pro some time back. Please shush, Mr. Carter, this takes a great deal of concentration. Sarah gritted her teeth and carefully maneuvered the pick within the mechanism. Ten minutes later, the door swung open. “There. Now, let’s be off before Peller finds out, shall we?”
Wincing as he moved, Carter swung his legs off the pallet and stumbled over to the door. “You lead this dance, Miss Smith.”
“I’d be delighted, Mr. Carter.”
* * * * *
As they stumbled through the hallways in search of a secure elevator, Sarah turned to smile at him. “Just a bit further and we’re home free. Think you can make it?”
“Yeah,” Carter admitted. “Look, not to complain, but just why are you risking your neck for me? Won’t Grossberg pitch a fit? And another thing,” he added, glancing up at the ceiling, “just how the hell do you know your way round here so well?”
“I quit Network 66,” Sarah informed him as they reached a freight elevator. “As for the rest, Bruno helped me contact Theora and Murray, and they provided me with a floor plans of the building in case I got in trouble.” She pressed the ‘up’ arrow and sighed. “I must admit I was surprised to find you. I’d thought you to be dead.”
“That was part of their game plan,” Carter admitted. “They were going to dump my body in some alley and blame my death on the rioters. I take it that the Fringers are revolting?”
“Oh yes. And don’t you dare finish the joke.” Sarah helped him into the elevator and hit the button for the top floor. “Martinez is waiting nearby‑when he spots us, he’ll fly over and pick us up. We’ll have to take a flight of stairs to get there, but it should be clear. Theora has been jamming their alarm system ever since I arrived here.”
“My own controller,” Edison shook his head. “No loyalty anymore, I tell you.”
“She thinks a great deal of you.” Sarah looked at him. “A great deal.”
“She ought to. I make her life interesting.” A thought occurred to Carter, one that made him chuckle maliciously. “Oh, that would be a sight to see!”
Sarah’s gaze flickered over him. “What’s that?”
He smiled and gazed up at the ceiling. "The thought of kidnapping Peller and dumping him in front of the approaching rioters. Vigilante justice at its finest.”
To his surprise, Sarah didn’t laugh; instead a thoughtful expression crossed her face and her hand abruptly shot out and hit the button for Peller’s office suite. “Are you nuts?” Carter demanded. “He’s guarded! It’s too dangerous!”
“You can either go to the roof and wait or stay here and hold the elevator,” Sarah informed him. “I’ve got a plan.”
* * * * *
Peller was busy studying plans for a Haven office complex--the top floor of which was going to be his office and apartments‑-when his door shot open without warning. Andre and Germaine leaped from their chairs to accost the intruder, but before Peller’s horrified eyes they went flying in opposite directions and smashed into the walls on either side of the room. Sarah Jane Smith clapped her hands, then grabbed one of the guns that had fallen to the floor and pointed it at Peller. “Mr. Peller, if you’ll come with me.”
His right hand surreptitiously crept toward his silent alarm button, but a bullet slammed into his desk about two inches from his hand, sending splinters flying. I think not, Mr. Peller.”
Trembling, face filled with terror, Peller lurched to his feet and hurried over to where Sarah stood. “Hands high, Mr. Peller,” she requested politely, eyes cold as steel. He obeyed instantly.
Edison Carter was standing in the doorway, frank admiration in his gaze. “Not bad, Miss Smith,” he complimented her. “Judo? Karate?”
“Venusian aikido, actually.” She waved the gun towards the doorway. “If you’ll be so kind to lead the way, Mr. Peller, we have a little appointment with destiny.”
* * * * *
Martinez helped Carter into the front seat of the chopper; behind them sat Peller and Smith, who continued to hold the gun to Peller’s chest. “Where to, guys?” Martinez asked as the helicopter lifted skyward.
“Where are the rioters right now?” Sarah yelled.
“About a mile from the blockade.”
“That will do nicely!”
They landed in the center of the street, almost midway between the approaching rioters and the police. “Mr. Carter, will you grab the extra camera in back?” Sarah shouted over the din of the whirling helicopter blades.
“I take it you have a plan, Miss Smith?” he yelled back as he set the device on his shoulder and switched it on.
“I believe so. This way, Mr. Peller.” She nudged the terrified man with the gun, and together the odd‑looking trio marched forward, allowing Martinez to soar back into the sky. When Carter aimed the camera at her, however, Sarah shook her head. “Not at me. At them.” She pointed behind him, towards the approaching rioters.
“May I ask why?”
She smiled brightly. “Because everybody wants to be on television!”
Edison shrugged and activated the camera. “Control, prepare to go live on my signal.”
The audible gasp that came from the speaker was oddly pleasing. “Edison!” came Theora’s voice. “Oh my God... Murray, it’s Edison! Are you all right? Let me get a fix on you!”
“I’m fine, Control. A little the worse for wear, but still live and direct, emphasis on live.”
“All right,” said Murray, “let’s get a fix ... okay, give us your cue and we’ll switch over to you. Is Sarah Jane Smith with you?”
“Confirmed. Didn’t take you too long to woo her over, did it, Murray?”
“She came to us, mister.”
“Oh, sure, Murray. Tell me another one.”
Theora suddenly cut in. “Edison‑we’re receiving a message from Network 66. They’re demanding this be a joint 23‑66 feed, as one of their reporters is involved in the story!”
“What?” Sarah gasped. “You’re kidding!”
“Grossberg’s claiming he never accepted your resignation, and that if we allow you to go on the air for 23, he’s going to sue us for breach of contract and jam our transmission,” Murray said.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Edison sighed. “Murray, tell them it’s okay and let them share the feed! We don’t have time for this!” Even now they could hear the approach of the rioters as they drew nearer...
“I have to clear this with Mr. Cheviot...”
“Murray, just tell them we’ll let them share the feed!” Edison screamed. “Let Grossberg and Cheviot settle this afterwards, okay?”
“Well ... all right. Give them an ‘all clear’, Theora.”
Carter glanced over at Sarah, who shrugged.
“Mr. Grossberg never takes ‘no’ for an answer,” she said.
“Nice to know some things never change.” Carter muttered in reply.
“We’re set when you are, Edison.” Theora briefly crossed her fingers and returned them to her console. “We’re switching to you in five seconds... four... three... two... one... go!”
Sarah saw the first Fringers approaching, took a deep breath, and plunged into action: ‘This is Sarah Jane Smith, live and direct with Edison Carter, with a special report, brought to you by Networks 66 and 23. We’re standing here watching the approach of the Fringe rioters, and with us to supply live commentary is none other than Mr. Simon Peller. Mr. Peller, so good of you to join us today on this historic occasion.”
Peller squeaked in terror, his eyes bulging.
At that moment Martinez switched on the helicopter’s external speakers, so that Sarah’s voice now boomed throughout the block. “Mr. Peller, I was wondering if you might explain your connection to Haven Incorporated, the organization that has been buying a great deal of real estate that sits just adjacent to the border between the city and the Fringes? Haven has been planning a major undertaking in that region, have they not? A major resort/retreat for anyone with enough money, with privacy and safety guaranteed by placing the site outside the city limits ... in the Fringes, if I am correct.”
Peller gagged as he watched the crowd grow larger and closer. He could feel the heat of their anger as they swelled forward, only to stop as the unblinking eye of the camera on Edison Carter’s shoulder mesmerized them.
“That’s very interesting, Mr. Peller,” Sarah went on. “Now, as I understand it, Haven will need a great deal more land in order to make this visionary project come true‑‑‑and, of course, there’s all that land in the Fringes, and the people living there are poor, dirty and, worst of all, Blanks. I can see where their presence—their objections to having to pull up and go elsewhere just so Haven can build on their land‑‑‑might cause a great deal of problems. How is Haven coping with this, Mr. Peller?”
While there were shouts of anger from the back of the ever-growing mass of humanity, those in front remained frozen in place, listening raptly to the one‑sided conversation.
“I see! Several of Haven’s corporate sponsors are suppliers to the police and military‑uniforms, transportation, weaponry and could easily supply a small group of enforcers by producing goods over and above their stated inventory levels so that no discrepancies could be noticed. It would be rather easy then to set up a deception whereby the Fringers would believe they were being unfairly harassed by the Metro Police, slowly building up the anger and resentment until one particular incident‑which would be conveniently filmed by a reporter they knew was in the area‑would be the straw that broke the camel’s back!
“And then,” Sarah continued, “why, it’s only logical to assume that the Fringers would fight back—giving the Riot Squads every opportunity to legitimately wipe them out with their superior numbers and firepower! And then all that wonderful land would lie empty for the most part, and it wouldn’t take much effort to clear out the few remaining squatters—city dwellers wouldn’t object, after all the damage the Fringers would have done in their rioting. And Haven could pick up all that land for a song. Isn’t that right, Mr. Peller?”
The crowd had grown eerily silent. Carter continued to train the camera on them while Sarah kept talking to the apparently catatonic Simon Peller.
“And when Edison Carter found out about your little scheme and confronted you, you imprisoned him, planning to throw his body out amidst the rest of the dead rioters, and no one would ever suspect a thing. After all, reporters are known for getting caught in the middle of a story. Just one more regretful casualty of war, hmm, Mr. Peller?”
Peller squeaked and fainted to the ground.
Sarah turned to the crowd. “It’s over,” she shouted. “We were all being deceived. But it’s over. Go back home.”
The crowd murmured angrily among itself.
“There’s no point in this,” Sarah continued to shout. “If you continue, the Riot Squads will mow you down. You’ve made your point. Haven’s plot is exposed and ruined. Go back to the Fringes. It’s over.”
And slowly, but surely, the crowd dispersed, turning around and heading back to the firelight of the Fringes.
Sarah and Carter watched them go, standing side by side. “Nice story,” he commented softly to her. “Nice work.”
She smiled slightly. “Never underestimate the power of the media, Mr. Carter.”
* * * * *
“The trial of Simon Peller, if nothing else, shows us the delicious irony of letting the punishment fit the crime. The man who would have had untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Blanks executed in the name of his real estate scam will, for the first time in his life, tonight find himself without a past or present or belongings, save those which he can carry on his person. For Simon Peller’s name and history have been purged from every computer system in the city. Simon Peller is now himself a Blank.”
Edison Carter glanced up the stairs of the City Courts building; the crowds attending the trial had dispersed rather quickly after the verdict and sentencing, perhaps hurrying home to see what he and his media brethren would say in the wake of the shocking decision. Then he spotted Sarah Jane Smith standing by the doors, reciting her own litany into her camera for Network 66. Carter smiled to himself and returned his attention to his job: “Haven Incorporated has been hit with massive fines and charges for their role in the planned insurrection, forcing the company to declare bankruptcy and shut down their gilded dreams. The fallout from this conspiracy promises to keep both the courts and the media busy for some time to come.
“This is Edison Carter, live and direct for Network 23.” He shut the camera link down and set the unit on the ground with a soft grunt, just as Sarah came strolling down the steps. “Miss Smith,” he nodded.
She smiled back. “How are you feeling, Mr. Carter?”
“Much better—especially since hearing Peller’s verdict,” he said.
Sarah shivered. “You know, I find it hard to believe, but I actually pity the man,” she commented. “He won’t find any sympathy in the Fringes whatsoever‑he’s really got nowhere he can go for safety.”
“You’re a kinder, gentler soul than I.” Carter admitted ruefully. “Then again, you didn’t spend all that time in his hospitality suite.”
“Granted,” she conceded, then smiled again. “Mr. Carter, I would very much like to buy you dinner. What do you say?”
He considered her offer. “If I say yes, will you call me Edison?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “So long as it’s only during my off hours. Professionalism, you know. And you can call me Miss Smith.”
“Very funny,” he snorted. They were just about to head down the sidewalk when a loud, cacophonous caterwauling screamed from behind. As Carter turned, his eyes boggled as a large blue box slowly materialized from out of thin air. He turned to Sarah for confirmation ... and froze.
There was a distinct look of recognition on her face.
The wailing faded. Sarah glanced first at Carter, then at the box, then at the box, then back at him. “Edison, would you mind waiting just a moment?” she said, distracted. “There’s something I need to take care of. Watch my camera.” It fell from her hand and hit the ground with a hard thump, but she didn’t seem to care. Her attention was utterly focused on the blue box.
Carter watched as she tapped on the door, then slipped inside. Why, he couldn’t fathom, because the thing couldn’t possibly be all that big. One minute…two…three, four, five…ten minutes in all passed before Sarah emerged once more.
And a heartbeat later, the godawful symphony shrieked through the air…and the box faded from sight. Sarah strolled towards him with a casual air, not cone looking back behind her to see this bizarre vision.
“All taken care of,” she said brightly, picing up her camera.
“I…ah…don’t suppose you’d care to explain that,” he asked.
“Maybe someday,” she patted his arm. “But as for now…well, frankly, I’m starving. Let’s go!” Sarah took his arm and dragged him down the sidewalk, tolerating with good humor his repated glances toward where the odd vision had occurred.