Into The Dark Zone
a Roughnecks fanfic by Mr. Hook


“...once again, Human ‘know how’ and Skinnie ‘can do attitude’ have combined to make the planet Tophet a better and safer place to travel. For Fed-Net News, this has been a Robert Higgins report.”

Higgins shut off the camera before the microphone could register his grunt of disgust.

Life wasn’t fair. This didn’t come as shocking news to Pvt. Higgins, but life seemed determined to beat up on him specifically this week, as if it were making up for lost time. Higgins had been the first Fed-Net reporter on the scene when SICON Forces first encountered the Skinnies on the planet Tophet. It had been Higgins’ hand behind the camera when the very first face to face Skinnie encounter had been caught on tape. But as soon as the Skinnies had figured out that Higgins was carrying a camera that day, they shot it out of his hands with a blast of constrictor goo. And just like that, a grand historical moment caught on camera - exclusively by Robert Higgins - was gone forever. Now he had tons and tons of footage of the planet Tophet and its inhabitants, every streaming second of it permanently logged into the Fed-Net mainframe for anyone and everyone to retrieve, but now it was all Old News.

And he had top notch footage too! Skinnies wearing T’Phetti apparel with Terran brand name logos displayed prominently, Skinnies trying to scam a SICON quarantine officer into letting them sell native wildlife as pets, Xeno-Archaeologists trying to bribe a Skinnie sanitation manager into letting them rummage around in an abandoned garbage pit, Skinnies beating Fleet officers at chess, Harvard business grads trying to teach Skinnies how to play Monopoly, a highly decorated Skinnie soldier trying to buy up every single copy of “Hansons’ Greatest Hits” he could get his claws on.

He had hours and hours of tape showing how T’Phetti culture was coping (or not) with it’s relatively new status as a member of SICON. But so did every civilian Xeno-Anthropologist who had booked a flight to Tophet once the T’Phetti Bureau of Tourism had officially opened for business. Human civies could now be found in almost every nook and cranny of the planet’s Day side, and almost all of them had brought their cameras. Civie tourism had become such a predominant industry on Tophet, Higgins was even thinking about refocusing his report on how well Human and Skinnie civilians got along (or not), but wasn’t sure he’d be able to get it past the Fed-Net censors. The working title for his current assignment: “T’Phetti Industry: Then and Now” had been handed down to him from the higher-ups at Fed-Net News. He didn’t think they would let him suddenly change it to: “Terran Tourism: Will T’Phetti Culture Survive?” at the last minute.

The truth of the matter (if you can pardon the irony of the vernacular) was that he had been handed a “Human Interest” story. It wasn’t News, it was Filler. At best it would fetch two minutes at the end of tonight’s Fed-Net News broadcast. At worst it would get bumped for a weather update. No, wait, the worst case scenario was that it would be such a slow news day that they would broadcast all five minutes of the package Higgins had prepared for them but that everyone would change the channel after the first few seconds out of sheer boredom!

For the upteenth time, Higgins wondered why the Roughnecks couldn’t have been posted closer to the frontier. Everyone at SICON Intel seemed to think Rico’s Roughnecks were now the Bug-exterminating experts of the galaxy. More often than not the Roughnecks had been stuck on backwater planets moping up Bug scum. Maybe SICON thought they were doing Lt. Rico’s team a favor by giving them a well deserved break after saving the Earth and all. But everyone knew the real action was happening out in the uncharted territories where SICON was still attempting to discern the extent of the former Bug infestation. With the Bug Queen gone, sentient alien species which were once subservient to the Bugs’ telepathic dominion were crawling out of the woodwork to lick their wounds and regroup.

The kangaroo-like beings on Argolos 7, for instance, had been a thriving culture before the Bugs took over. The Argolites had carved out intricate dwellings for themselves in the stumps of gigantic trees which had fallen on their low-gravity world. But, like the Skinnies, they had never developed star flight on their own prior to the Bug invasion. More intriguing were the strange reports of unknown starcraft recently spotted in Quadrant 61. Ultrasound scans had indicated that the water logged craft were inhabited by some sort squid-like things, but no one knew where they were from or what their agenda was since no one had figured out how to establish communications yet.

The juiciest rumor floating around Fed-Net circles was that a race of cybernetically enhanced lizards (dubbed “Zillas”) had been discovered in Quadrant 74. Having gone into some sort of artificially induced hibernation to wait out the Bug occupation of their homeworld, the lizards were now amassing a huge fleet, determined to reclaim the off-world colonies they has lost to the Bugs for so long. Higgins highly doubted that last part about the amassing fleet, but his Fed-Net contacts in Quadrant 72 swore that the cybernetic hibernation bit was true.

Quadrant 74 was the sort of place you had to be if you were ever going to win the Albert Liverman Award for Excellence in Journalism! Higgins’ chances of ever meriting that sort of thing had gone down in flames the day his camera hit the floor in that T’Phetti throne room nearly four years ago. Agh! Life was so unfair!

Higgins’ hand wavered over the “send” button on his edit table. He had the deadline beat by several hours and could afford to postpone the agony of actually transmitting the package. He decided to check his email instead. Being a Fed-Net reporter did have its privileges, like having an email account which could be routed through the SICON interstellar satellite network, and Fed-Net even picked up the tab. SICON intranet systems were virtually useless to the average trooper since everyone knew that every single email was picked over by some Intel brain trust before it ever got delivered. But Higgins had a link to Fed-Net itself, and was therefore entitled to see a fair amount of raw data before the censors could get their hands on it.

After wiping fourteen junk mails (i.e. Fed-Net News announcements) from his inbox, Higgins managed to stop himself before he deleted this message:

SUBJECT: Wouldn’t you like to know...

...the inside scoop? Meet me outside your office at 2200. Transportation will be provided. Come alone, but bring your camera. If you are late, then your fate is just. Please purge this message after you have read it.
-A Friend

The part that really caught Higgins’ attention was the “tophet_br” tag in the Freenet sender line. His auto-trace program confirmed his assumption that the email account the message had been sent from had already been canceled. But the Tophet Branch tag told him that the message had to originate from somewhere on the planet Tophet. The message hadn’t been forwarded through the FedNet mainframe, it had been sent directly from the civie-based Freenet to his personal address. Who on Tophet knew his personal Fed-Net address besides his fellow squad mates? It would be a cold day in Hell before SICON published an email directory, not as long as Intel was in charge of intranet security anyway. Who could possibly have sent this message using a Freenet account?

The “tophet_br” tag wasn’t the only thing that had his curiosity aroused. The words, “inside scoop” seemed unusually anachronistic. It sounded like a term from way back when the news had been printed on paper. The phrase, “then your fate is just,” also sounded unnecessarily formal given the circumstances. Higgins could only assume that the reference to meeting outside his “office” meant just outside the Fed-Net Administration building. Higgins didn’t even have an editing kiosk reserved specifically for himself, that was a privilege only officers enjoyed. So who would refer to the Fed-Net center as Higgins’ office? Someone who knew that he would be seated at his editing board before he bothered to check his email, that’s who. Curious indeed.

It occurred to Pvt. Higgins this message might be a prank. It occurred to him that it might even be a trap set by someone who wished him harm or professional embarrassment. But the message had advised him to bring his camera, so what would have been the point of tying to hoodwink him if the camera was there to reveal the truth? It also occurred to Higgins that this might be a wild goose chase designed to distract him from his duties. It further occurred to him that if he didn’t report for roll call at 0600, he would be in deep, deep trouble.

But it also occurred to him that his instincts as a reporter were dead on and that he knew the scent of a good story when he smelled it.

Higgins purged the mysterious message from his database, pushed the send command to transmit his humiliating “T’Phetti Industry” story, and packed his camera. It was already past 2100 hours, so he only had about forty minutes to prepare for his little excursion into the unknown. If there was one thing he had learned as a Roughneck, it was that News happened regardless of whether your camera was rolling or not. The next Robert Higgins report he transmitted to Fed Net was going to be News. Even if it killed him.

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