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A short story by

Alex Irvine

Drenthe's eyes narrowed. He sipped his brandy. "What do you mean by 'interesting'?"

"Think of it as a formal exercise. Can you make a holo that seems to lionize the Warhound while actually pointing out its weaknesses? I've got some friends who would pay handsomely for that kind of project. But only if it was done by Drenthe."

"Your flattery is obvious," Drenthe said.

"That's fine. Tell you what," Eli said. "The credits aside, you know that AxO is a greedy, savage bunch of killers who are going to use this new Warhound to squash legitimate rebellions all over the sector."

"Or they might fight the zerg with it," Drenthe said.

"Keep telling yourself that. If the Warhounds ever deploy against the zerg, it'll only be if there are enough of them left after all of the anti-insurgent operations they'll be doing all over the sector. You haven't seen the unit. It's designed for close anti-vehicle and anti-armor work, with a little bit of anti-air capability. How useful is that against the zerg? Who the hell would design a unit to fight the zerg if it has to wade into the middle of them to be useful?"

Drenthe considered this. He was no tactician, and certainly knew nothing of military hardware manufacturing. Could Eli be so certain what these Warhound prototypes would do once they had gone through their full production cycle? Eli sounded persuasive, it was true. And the money was something to consider. But he had signed a contract.

Still, could he be held to a contract if his holovid would ultimately be used for purposes contrary to his understanding? Drenthe was not an ethicist, either. He was a maker of great holos, reduced to grubbing after money.

In effect, Drenthe realized, he was being asked to create a propaganda piece inside a propaganda piece, a holo that would say one thing while doing another. A propaganda documentary that fictionalized itself. At the moment he had this realization, he got interested. That was art. He was an artist.

Plus there was the matter of the credits. Double what Axiom had offered? And with no agent's commission? Visions of the first day's production on Heroes of the Periphery danced in Drenthe's head.

"I tell you what," he said, deliberately mimicking Eli's phrase. "Drenthe will do it."

What did he care about Axiom?

It was a game to Drenthe then, the game of putting together a holo that would satisfy both of his employers, and inside that, the thrill of being a part of an espionage plot! Already he was blocking out a new story in his head, his next project after Heroes of the Periphery. In it, a misunderstood holo director would find himself embroiled in corporate espionage, with the fates of entire systems at stake...

"Glad to hear it," Eli said. He produced a small machine and showed Drenthe a number on its screen. "Half now, half when you have the finished product."

Drenthe raised his glass. "Allow Drenthe to buy you a drink," he said.

* * *

They emerged into orbit around Bukari V shortly after Drenthe had found his way to his stateroom and fallen into a brandy-aided sleep, broken by visions of the holos he had yet to make. He awoke when the shipboard AI alerted all passengers that disembarkation was commencing, and that the last orbital hop to the surface of Bukari V would be departing in one hour. Drenthe made it, but only just. An hour after that, he was meeting Dario Cerulli, his handler and Axiom's chosen PR flack. Cerulli led Drenthe to his room within the vast manufacturing and executive complex AxO had built on Bukari V, a world with little to recommend it save enormous deposits of vespene and other raw materials.

"Allow me to show you around a little," Dario said when Drenthe had stashed his gear in his room. He led Drenthe on a boring and perfunctory tour of the complex. Drenthe wished he had a drink.

Things got slightly more interesting when they emerged from the complex into an arid and windy afternoon. The sun was heavy and red in the sky; one of Bukari V's four moons hung in front of it like a mole on the face of a god. Another moon was low and crescent on the eastern horizon. Drenthe disliked warm weather. He began to sweat.

"This is going to be the proving ground. Well, I mean, it is the proving ground, but this is going to be your main location," Dario said, waving his arm at a broad expanse of broken and rocky ground enclosed by heavy fences. "We'll also need shots of the production facilities, and we'll do some interviews with workers. I think we've selected a few who will fit the project well."

Already this person was rubbing Drenthe the wrong way. I decide what I shoot and who I speak to, he thought. Not a flack for an arms manufacturer. I am Drenthe.

But what he said was, "Yes."

"Great," Dario said. They walked along the edge of the proving ground. "I know you'll want to do a little scouting to figure out where to put your holocams. Soon as we... Oh, now this is a shame."

They had come to a slight rise in the terrain, with the vastness of the factory on their left and the proving ground to their right and behind them. Ahead was a collection of buildings that might, Drenthe supposed, be called a town. It was colorless and dingy, and along the road that traversed the half kilometer from it to the factory, several dozen people were shouting and waving signs. At the center of this group was a striking woman, long red hair catching the sun as she rallied the workers and called out the slogans that they all took up.

"What is this?" Drenthe asked. Unrest of any sort interested him. It made for compelling images.

"Those are the quarters for some of our workers. We won't need to go there. How about if we—" Dario broke off when four vehicles emerged from the factory complex and roared up to the demonstrating workers. Shortly after that, everything erupted into a riot. Drenthe saw uniformed AxO security using long electrified batons and sonic crowd-control devices. Ambulances appeared. The noise that reached them mostly consisted of screams and shouts. The woman managing the protesters was at the center of it, standing with her arms up and chanting something Drenthe couldn't make out.

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