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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 23, 2004 00:25 EDT



1st HAR Airborne base, just outside George Bernard Shaw City. George Bernard Shaw City: various media offices, both rich and poor.


    Major Conrad Fitzhugh, the intelligence officer who has been credited with the successful capture of the scorpiary adjacent to Sector Delta 355 has been placed under arrest. He has been accused of spying for the Magh'.

    Nobody looking at Parachute-Major Van Klomp's impassive face could have guessed at just how pleased he was to see this news article. The idiots. The brass obviously had no idea how the psychology of someone like Fitzy worked. On squirmers like themselves, this would have been an effective stitch-up. They'd have rolled over and died. Tried plea-bargains. Given in.


    This would make Fitz fight. Charging him with what he was prepared to accept he had done wrong would have been a lot wiser. It was a good thing they'd decided to draw, quarter, and crucify Conrad Fitzhugh instead. That, he assumed, was what this pack of nonsense was all about.



    "It's not that I don't want to oblige you, Talbot. It's just that you're costing us. Both money and market leadership."

    The rich mellow tones of John Carsey hid none of the fact that he was rich. He was not mellow.

    "HBC used to dominate the news broadcasting market," he continued harshly. "We had about 83% of the viewership. Since we stopped live coverage of the captured scorpiary, and events on the front—at your brother-in-law's request, mind you—we've lost market-share. A lot of market-share. Our ratings are on a one-way skid to nowhere. INB has just taken up the slack. My company's shareholders have called for an emergency meeting tomorrow morning. If I don't go back to covering what the public wants to see—right now, today—I am out of a job tomorrow. And even if I was in a position to tell our shareholders to sod off, it wouldn't help you at all. Because soon HBC would disappear. Our viewers are pulling the plug, and so will our advertisers. Unless you leverage INB, you're wasting your time and our money. You already have. And if you leverage INB, no doubt viewers would turn to Interweb. You've obviously muzzled the Allied Press' papers. Interweb and the Sun Group must be ready to kiss you. The public wants to know what's happening. They like the story of our troops winning, for a change. They like it a lot."

    Carsey sighed. "We're also being shredded over our reportage about Fitzhugh. We're getting a few hundred letters and calls a day. INB is giving them air-time. So are Interweb and the Sun Group. You've got protest growing out there."

    "Tabloid trash," snapped Cartup.

    "Tabloid trash, seeing their market share increase, Talbot," said Carsey grimly. He hung up the phone.



    So Talbot Cartup, one of the most powerful men on HAR, went around to see Lynne Stark, something he'd never imagined he'd ever be doing. Stark was one of those women whom Talbot Cartup truly detested. Lynne Stark was an upstart. She had, still, one solitary share in the HAR Colony. She'd battered her way up from apartments on Clarges Street, one step above the Vat tenements, to owning her own company.

    The INB offices were the sort of places he truly disliked also. They were too small, too crowded, with not one cent spent on decor or plushness. And, right now, they were frantic. Looking through the open door and into the next room, he could see an array of screens. Across one of those screens leapt live coverage of a bunch of Magh' warriors and three rats, playing tag with them. The rats were darting in and slashing at the deadly creatures in some vast red-walled cavern.

    Another screen had an interviewer talking to a wounded soldier. "...yeah. I was with Major Fitzhugh when we went in. Not more than ten yards from the great man himself." There was naked hero-worship in the soldier's voice.

    "Can I help you, sir?" asked a harried receptionist.

    "Talbot Cartup," he said, irritably. "I've come to see Ms. Stark."

    She shook her head at him. "Sorry. Lynne's not seeing anyone without appointments, Mr. Cartup. Things are too busy right now."

    Cartup examined her coldly, for a moment. The receptionist was a young woman, obviously a Vat, and just the right age to be serving in the army.

    "I said my name was Talbot Cartup, young lady. I'm the Security portfolio of the HAR Company. If you don't get her for me in ten seconds, I'll have the Special Branch track down your name and have your draft exemption canceled. Your name will be on the top of the conscription list by tomorrow morning. And I'll have this subversive dump raided."

    The young woman looked considerately at him. Then she pushed her chair back from the desk. Belatedly, Cartup realized it was a wheelchair.

    "Tell you what, Talbot Cartup, I'll save the Special Branch some trouble. My name is Janice Younna. You just get my name on that list. Please. Then I'll happily arrange you an interview, with Lynn or God in person, if you like. However, I will tell Lynn you are here. Let her decide whether she wants to talk to you or not."

    Three minutes later, the girl in the wheelchair came back. "Follow me, please," she said coolly. He walked along behind the wheelchair, with his bodyguards trailing, to an office in the back.

    The owner of INB sat at a tubular steel and glass desk, on a tubular steel chair. The steel was softer than the woman sitting on it. Talbot Cartup knew from her dossier that Lynne Stark was nearly his own age. But she was slim, unlined, and could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. Her hair was undressed, merely long, thick and dark. She wore steel rimmed glasses, too.

    "Talbot Cartup. And your goons. How nice. What brings you to Independent News Broadcasting?"

    Talbot Cartup gritted his teeth. "Stark, I need some co-operation from you. And I am going to get it. You can make it easy or hard for yourself."

    She raised her eyebrows at him. "What co-operation could the head of HAR's Internal Security require of me? And should I be calling my lawyers before I talk to you any further?"

    "I don't think you should, Stark. You want to play hardball with me, I'll play hardball right back. I want this live coverage of that piece on the front off your channel. I want this praise of Major Fitzhugh scrubbed. He had nothing to do with that attack. It was planned and coordinated by Lieutenant-General Cartup Kreutzler and his staff. I'm sure you've seen the article in the GBH Times. Fitzhugh is a traitor who took advantage of a long established secret project to try and cover his own treachery."

    She sat back in her chair. "I also saw the article in the Post tearing that press release to shreds. Most entertaining that while the General was supposed to be directing the most successful campaign of the war he was in fact in detention, having been arrested as drunk, disorderly and indecent."

    "That's a blatant lie! Those charges have been squa... dropped!"

    "Yes. A lot of people are asking questions about that," said Stark, dryly.

    He pushed himself forward, leaning over her desk. It was a good way of intimidating people. "Look, Stark. I'm not here to bandy words with you. Are you going to stop this reporting?"

    She didn't appear to even be slightly intimidated. "Let's imagine the answer was 'no.' What are you going to do about it?"

    "Shut you down." He thumped his meaty fist on the table. "By fair means or foul, Stark. See how well you can operate with only cripples for staff. The rest of them will be getting letters from the conscription board. And we'll be going into your finances, too. Let's see how well you can manage without advertising revenue."

    "Talbot Cartup, your attitude towards the handicapped doesn't sit too well with me, or the people of Harmony and Reason. And neither does your attitude to the freedom of the press." She stood up and glanced at a corner of the room. "Thank you for appearing live on our program, Talbot Cartup. And the answer is 'No.' INB will not be intimidated out of giving the people of HAR the coverage they want. And don't come back here without a warrant."



    "This media circus certainly hasn't been helped by your making an idiot of yourself on TV, Talbot," said General Cartup-Kreutzler. "Now you've got to keep your hands off."

    "It's the kind of dirty trick I'm not going to forget and forgive in a hurry," snapped Talbot. He did not need his idiot brother-in-law telling him he'd botched it. He was painfully aware of the fact.

    "She's put the brakes, temporarily, on direct action. I'll get my men to work on the indirect harassment. Bug their phones, slow their mail, break into their apartments and cars and see what we can find. We'll plant something if we need to. But we're still going to get at her advertisers. The new upstart money may stick to her, here and there, but I wield a lot of influence with shareholders in a lot of the larger traditional companies. IBN is pretty fragile, financially. And yes, HBC are going back to covering the sector, but I had a long and fruitful discussion with their editors. The public needs some kind of hero figure to lionize. So we agreed to have them shift attention to the Parachute Major who led his troops into the middle of the scorpiary. "

    "Van Klomp?" inquired the General.

    Talbot nodded. "I think that was the name, yes."

    "He's the man who got Lieutenant-Colonel Jeebol out of trouble, and I believe he arranged for the MPs to actually capture that son-of-bitch Fitzhugh."

    "Sounds like a good man," said Talbot, approvingly. "I think the army should make a fuss of him. Promotion. Medals. And then he can go back to doing display jumps at parades. Heaven knows how he got involved in the first place."

    "Fitzhugh called the paratroopers in," said General Cartup-Kreutzler. "I have no idea why. Probably just because the man's an idiot romantic. The paratroopers are purely a ceremonial unit. A volunteer unit. No conscripts. They've never been used in combat before, as they're mostly the sons of shareholders. Some of the first families have kids in that unit. It's glamorous, without being dangerous."

    Talbot Cartup leaned back in the very comfortable armchair, trying to keep from sneering openly. His brother-in-law was about as dense as a man could get and still be a basically functional adult.

    "For Chr— Um. That's the reason right there. Romanticism had nothing to do with it. Fitzhugh's an anarchist. Vicious. He called them in thinking they'd mostly be killed."

    Talbot rose to his feet. "I'll get my staff onto drafting the paperwork. And let Van Klomp have some conscripts, enough to make into a second unit that can actually do some fighting. If we're going to build up his reputation, we'll have to keep some paratroopers in the fighting."

    "That should do," agreed Cartup-Kreutzler. "Seeing as it looks as if we'll only get our hands on Fitzhugh when he comes out of the hospital. That means he'll be a facing General Court-Martial, which will be open to the public. But if we've built up another hero by then... The public's attention span isn't very long anyway."

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