Edison Carter squeezed through the narrow side door of the Big Time TV trailer. It seemed even more crowded than usual, and a rock video involving guitarists spinning around in what looked like mylar jackets blared from the screens mounted around the cramped space. Dominique was curled up, still dressed in what had once been a fairly nice suit but was now threadbare and rumpled, in a stuffed armchair in front of the control panel. Polyester fluff leaked from the edges of the arms, and the back was obscured by a pile of random electronics, some clearly burned out, others just covered with grime. Blank Reg was sprawled in the other chair, a plastic thing that had been a rolling office chair until the wheels had fallen off and it had been bolted to the floor. He held a nearly-empty beer bottle in one hand and a clipboard in the other.
"Evenin', Edison. Max said you were on your way. I'd tell you to pull up a chair, but we're fresh out - you could try a crate, though." He gestured with the bottle at a pile of boxes full of old videotapes.
The reporter shook his head. "I'll stand, thanks. Good to see you, Reg. So what's this Max has been telling us about snuff shots?"
Reg grimaced and handed the clipboard over. "The first one was about a week ago. Six days, I think; I'd ask Domme, her memory's better than mine, but I don't want to wake her up; she'd kill me, this is the first sleep she's had since the last one showed up. She thinks they're threats. Anyway, they've been showing up about one every couple of days. We're due for one tonight or tomorrow sometime."
"At about what time?" Edison looked at the three objects under the clip. They were photographs, but not the kind that people framed and hung on the wall; they were too thick for that, in a sort of paper frame of their own, thicker at the bottom.
"Between the last time I check the exterior antenna, which is usually 'round sunset, and the first time, which is whenever I get up in the morning. Which is usually noon, but these days I've been gettin' up closer to nineish." He pointed with the neck of the bottle again. "Those things have been disturbin' my sleep, too."
Carter swung up his video camera. "Mind if I record these?"
"Be my guest. You can take 'em if you want 'em; I'm none too fond of 'em and they creep her right out," Reg answered, jabbing a thumb at his partner.
Switching on the camera, Edison brought the viewfinder to his eye and examined each of the photos in turn. They were each fairly gruesome - a human corpse, stripped to a blood-stained skeleton, with the tattered remains of clothing scattered around. All were outside, generally next to a pile of refuse, or between two. "Any ideas where these were taken, Reg?"
"Out here in the Wastes, somewhere," the blank answered, waving one hand towards the trailer's sole unblocked window. "Given that no one's missed 'em, I imagine the victims are all blanks, too. Don't know any more than that. I didn't recognize any of the killing zones, but forgive me if I didn't look too close."
"No, I get it." Edison finished filming each of the photos; he unclipped them and slid them into an inside pocket of his jacket. "So what could cause that? Rats?" He handed the clipboard back.
"I hope not," shuddered Reg. "Out here, people keep en eye out for corpses - people who buy it from the heat or the cold, or their hearts just give out, or disease, or mugging; there's a lot of things that can get you out here - and call in the body banks if they're fresh enough. If they're not, they dump 'em for refuse collection, or burn 'em." He shook his head, an expression between disgust and amusement twisting his mouth. "The last thing you want, if you have to sleep out here, is the rats and roaches developing a taste for human flesh."
Edison tried not to flinch. "Good point."
Blank Reg pointed through a pile of barely-working TV sets. "The photos show up tucked under the flap for the gas cap. At least, all three of those did."
Nodding, Edison shouldered his camera. "Mind if I take a look?"
"Not a bit. I hope you don't mind if I stay here - someone's got to monitor our transmission." Reg punched a button on the ancient console, cross-fading from the music video that had been playing to another one that looked indistinguishable, except now the guitarists wore leather vests.
Edison unlatched the door and squeezed back through. He swung his camera back to his shoulder and re-activated his link. "Theora, did you get the audio on that?"
"Yes, Edison, we got it. Can you throw us the visual?" His controller's voice was low and soothing, which usually meant she was worried for his safety.
Carter grinned. "Transmitting. See if you can get anything on the photo format; they're thick, too. More like cardboard than photo paper. I'm going to go around to where Reg says he found them."
The gas flap was on the opposite side from the door, and about three feet off the ground. Edison scanned the dirt for tracks, and saw only one pair of footprints, probably Blank Reg's. "And here's where they were found."
"Why the petrol flap?" asked Theora, her voice crackling a bit this far from a network transmission antenna. "Wouldn't they be more obvious tucked under the wipers?"
"Or just in the door," agreed Edison. "So where do we go from here?"
Another voice, male and nasal, buzzed from the earpiece. "I don't think you'll have to go very far."
"Why's that, Bryce?" Edison hadn't realized the boy genius was listening in. He'd have to drop a word to Murray about letting him do that when he got back.
"Most forms of transportation out there are pretty noisy. If the person dropping off the photos was on a cycle or a scooter, Blank Domme would have heard them; she's paranoid like that."
"Unless she was asleep, or Reg had the music turned up," Edison objected. Bryce made a noncommittal noise. The reporter frowned and continued, "So you think they're on foot, and they've committed three murders within a couple of day's walking distance of Big Time? So why are they dropping off evidence?"
"They want to be caught," offered Theora. "They're looking for their ten seconds of fame."
"And I'm just the man to give it to them," Edison said, allowing himself just a speck of a grin. He climbed back on the scooter he'd ridden here, a nondescript little thing in metallic grey. He'd asked for red; Murray had vetoed it. "So which way from here?" Bryce and Theora started arguing in his ear about the most likely direction as he slung the camera across his back and revved the engine.
Getting the correct general direction hadn't been difficult; he'd interviewed six blank vagrants, and as soon as he'd shown the photos, they'd all started screeching and pointing. Two of them had been more coherent; the last one had been found just north of here, a couple of hours' walk from the Big Time TV trailer, and they were upset. Reg wasn't kidding about the locals being terrified of the local scavengers going man-eater.
One of them, a woman older than Edison but not so old she'd gone completely grey, had told him to look back where the old warehouse district had burned down, and then added, cryptically, to watch out for R.O.U.S.es. He'd asked her what those were, and she'd just laughed.
Bryce had found the answer with a data search. "Rodents of unusual size," he read off, "from a satire of fantasy novels. I guess giant rats were a cliche."
"So is she saying that I'm not looking for a human killer? That the rats got these guys?" Edison suppressed a shiver. "But then they'd just be torn to pieces, wouldn't they?"
"I don't know," Theora answered, "but you're about five minutes from the warehouses she mentioned. Edison, please be careful. The bodies don't show what the killer was armed with. If someone starts shooting at you, just get out of there."
"Keep an escape route planned for me, and I'll do my best." Edison put his head down and steered between the piles of rubbish that lined what was left of the streets. This part of the Wastes had been a suburb once, back when suburbs didn't have concrete-and-concertina-wire walls and double gates at all the entrances. Some of the burned-out remains of houses still had roofs and inhabitants; a dog tied to the corner of one of them barked at him as he passed.
He parked the bike and hid it behind a broken-open crate; it would be quieter to approach the remnants of the warehouse on foot. The alley he was in bore a suspicious resemblance to the background of one of the photos. He took it out and examined the little bit of the background that he could see. Not the same one, but definitely similar. He tucked the rectangle of film back in his pocket and shouldered his camera.
"I'm approaching from the southwest," he narrated for the viewer who would see this edited later. "There's no sign of life yet, not even the trash fires the blanks who live here use for warmth. I'm not -"
He was interrupted by a flash of brilliant light off to his left, followed by a mechanical whirring noise. Edison swung his head towards the light, then back as a torrent of hissing sounds erupted from his right. He nearly dropped the camera in shock.
An animal - no, a small pack of animals - was rushing towards him, mouths open, eyes gleaming gold in the dim light. He turned the camera at them, pointed the lens, tried to focus.
They were rushing him on two legs, not four -
And they were on him before he could get a clear shot. "Theora!" he shouted, kicking at the nearest one as it clawed at his chest. They came up to his waist, and they were fast. He kicked again, and connected; one hissed again and fell to the ground. Two more pressed at him on either side, their dark hides making them hard to see, and his right leg suddenly hurt. He tightened his grip on the camera and swung, connecting with something hard that crunched. More hissing, and a flurry of motion as they tried to flank him; he swung wild and spun, trying to keep any of them from getting behind him. Something clamped down on his arm.
"Edison!" a voice urged into his earpiece. "What's going on?"
"Gimme a minute!" he called, stomping down and feeling something snap. He was a few feet from a cinderblock wall; he shook himself and charged it, slamming two of the beasts between himself and the bricks. His arm exploded in pain. He backed up two steps and repeated the maneuver on the other side; the thing holding on to his leg let go. The hissing and scurrying backed away. He swung the camera again, less wildly, and connected with -
An arm, that was an arm, not a foreleg. There was another sharp hiss, and then the pack backed away. He had a brief impression of something cradling one arm against its hollow chest and glaring at him as it sank back into shadow.
Edison shouldered the camera again, aiming it at them. The pack broke, scattering and scrambling over the refuse. In just a matter of seconds, they were gone.
"Control, did you get that? Any of it?" Edison was breathing heavily. One arm and both legs were bleeding, but not too badly, he thought. He glanced down at his forearm; a neat semicircle of clean cuts oozed red. They hadn't hit an artery.
Theora and Murray both shouted something at once, and he couldn't make it out. Something moved off to the side of the alley - something short. Edison whipped back around.
A rectangle of white paper around a square of film shot out from a patch of shadow and spun to the ground. Edison picked it up. It was a photo of him, from the side, with - he counted - easily a dozen gleaming yellow eyes behind him.
"All right, come out of there. This is Edison Carter with Network 23," he barked at the shadow. As if in response, there was another blinding flash, but not aimed in his direction. The same whirring noise stirred the alley, and then there was silence.
A pair of hands, black as motor oil and three-fingered, held out a gadget into one of the pools of dim light. A still camera of some sort, although not one of any make Edison had ever seen; it was huge and bulky. Another of those paper frames protruded from its base, the film a blank grey-green. The hands set the camera on the ground, and then gestured at Carter.
Edison stepped forward, reaching towards the antique. A hiss came from the shadows, and the hands snatched the still camera back. The reporter stepped back against the wall, and waited.
The hands lowered the still camera again, then pointed at Edison, then at the ground.
"I think it wants you to lower your camera, too," offered Bryce through the earpiece.
"And let its pack-mates steal it? No, thanks." Edison huffed.
"It's probably too heavy for them to pick up easily," Bryce continued. "And it's not like it doesn't have a network tracer in it."
"Yeah, and then you'll be able to find the camera, but not me," the reporter pointed out.
The three-fingered hands spread in a gesture that might have been a shrug.
Edison scowled, then carefully lowered his camera to the ground, pointing the lens at the antique.
There was a flurry of motion in the shadows, and then a single figure stepped forward. It was a shade under a meter tall, and covered with black scales that barely reflected any light; it was almost as if the shadow itself had moved. A pair of gold eyes met Edison's.
"What is that thing?" Edison heard Theora's voice breathe, tinnily, from the earpiece on the ground.
It was bipedal, with long arms and a stooped back, and a tiny little head on a long neck. Its skull was roughly triangular, and tiny, sharp incisors peeked from its mouth. There were no visible ears. Its legs were oddly short and bowed, and there was a short tail. Claws gleamed at the ends of its fingers.
It bowed, arms crossed in front of it, head lowered almost to the ground. Then it pushed the antique camera towards Edison, jumped to the top of the crumbling cinderblocks in one leap, and fled in the opposite direction from the pack.
Edison charged forward and scooped both cameras up, one in each hand. He turned to chase it, but it was already gone. "Damn," he muttered, shoving his earpiece back in. "It got away."
"What was that?" Theora insisted again.
Edison shook his head. "I have no idea. It - Bryce, can things like that actually exist?"
"Only if they're the product of some very, very illegal lines of genetic research," Bryce answered, his voice lower and colder than Edison had ever heard it. "Bipedal lizards, but their limbs are shaped like monkeys'."
"They're warm-blooded, too. Almost hot to the touch. Did you get a good shot of any of them?" the reporter asked, already knowing the answer.
"Not of a whole creature. We have a pretty good shot of an arm, and some great footage of that last one's feet, and some blurry shots of them in motion," Murray answered. "Carter, you need to get out of there before they come back."
"I need a clear shot," Edison complained. "I can't come in with crappy footage like that, I'd - " He broke off as he turned the antique camera over in his free hand. The film rectangle that he'd assumed was spoiled was no longer a uniform greenish-gray; it showed the head and torso of one of the creatures, washed out by the flash but in good focus, its arms blurry at the sides of the shot.
"Edison?" Theora asked. He swung the video camera around and pointed it at the still photo.
"It took a shot of itself," Bryce pointed out, unnecessarily.
"But why?" Theora asked.
"You were right originally," Edison offered. "It wants them to be caught. It's the one that didn't attack me, either. Maybe it's scared of humans."
"You think they're intelligent?" Murray blurted.
Bryce heaved an irritated sigh. "Of course they're intelligent, Murray; this one can operate a camera, and we saw obvious sign language from it."
Edison turned the antique camera over. On the bottom was a sticker. Property of Arcturos Laboratories Inventory #0564379.
"I think we have a lead, Control. I'm coming back in; have a first aid kid waiting for me." Edison slipped the strap for the still camera over his head and slung the video camera across his back again, securing it. He tossed aside the half-a-crate, and peeled the scooter out of the alley, hot on a story that had just blown wide open.