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Investigative Journalism

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"I don't want to report on feature stories," Dana had told Cecil at her interview. "Like human interest or fashion." Her mother had said to dress nicely for goodness' sake, and had been all set to flat-iron Dana's natural hair straight, and stuff her feet into wobbly heels. Dana didn't do that. "I don't do that," she told Cecil.

He'd looked at her over his glasses, and she'd nearly squirmed, because of course she planned on working her way up, with a chipper attitude and finely-honed survival instincts, and of course she didn't mean to imply that there was anything wrong with the government-approved color pieces Cecil aired. Just the other day he'd broadcast live from the Ladies' Auxiliary Militia's new subterranean bunker, gushing over how well the munitions matched the décor. Dana had been wondering what Mrs Rogers down on the corner was busy working on the past few weeks. Cecil made it sound really cool, not to mention civic-minded.

But all Cecil said to Dana was, "You do realize you're applying to be a minion, right?" His voice was very dry, but there was warmth in his eyes.

"I can do minion," Dana said dutifully.

"Awesome," Cecil told her, and shook her hand. "You're hired, Intern Dana."

When she started work, she discovered no one trained the interns how to be reporters. Station Management was adamant about that; they issued dire pronouncements about not teaching the interns anything, ever. But Dana's hours were after her afternoon classes finished, and that meant her direct supervisor was Cecil.If she paid close attention to everything he didn't say, she learned a lot.

"Oh, sorry," Cecil apologized, when on her first day she tripped over his bag, which was practically in front of the door to the broadcasting booth. "I know it's unwieldly, but I hate leaving home without a few weeks' worth of food, a first-aid kit, a good book to read, spare ammunition, and a slingshot. Because as we all know life is unpredictable – you know." He gave her a very angular smile and added, "And spare batteries. I never feel comfortable without plenty of spare batteries at hand."

Dana had never heard anyone say unwieldly out loud before, and she told Cecil that.

His eyebrows went up in the middle; together with the smile, it made his face look weirdly diamond-shaped. "Coffee?" he asked plaintively, and Dana said Sure, boss to show she was listening, and she kept on listening and observing very closely for the next year and a half.

So when Dana found herself trapped in the Dog Park, she was better prepared than any of the other people. She had her backpack crammed full of survival gear, including two clean pairs of socks and a lightweight sleeping bag, and she had a healthy sense of investigative journalism to keep her spirits up.

She'd done an exposé back in February on the Girl Scouts' brainwashing of children with a dangerous and unscientific environmentalist agenda. Station Management had discovered girls were given pins with mountains on them, even though the troop leader had insisted the picture was just supposed to be of an unironed triangle. Dana volunteered to investigate, and she thought she'd done a good job. Even though the story had been edited down to just the most inflammatory soundbites when it aired, Dana remembered everything she'd learned while undercover at scout camp. The head counselor had explained how to make a solar cooker with tinfoil, in blatant contradiction of the City Council's recent announcement that the sun wasn't really hot, it just reflected the heat that came from phoenix eggs buried in the sand.

On her second day in the Dog Park, Dana got bored and built a solar cooker. She had a 50-yard roll of tin foil (in case she ever needed to make her own anti-radiation suit; she'd gotten directions off the internet) and one of the women trapped with her was a parcel delivery-person. Everyone else fell on the boxes, ripped them apart, and made off with the contents, but Dana only wanted the cardboard. The delivery woman said to help herself, she was going to be fired anyway so she didn't care.

Dana assembled her cooker and made up one of her packages of instant soup. It was steaming hot and delicious, and she made a note to retract some of the things she'd said about the Scout camp counselor. She hoped they hadn't been run out of town yet. She shared the soup with the delivery woman and interviewed her about who in Night Vale got parcels, and who didn't, and where the parcels came from. She even got a tip, about a mysterious transfer station way out in the desert.

"It doesn't exist," the woman told Dana, sucking on her plastic spork. "None of the wooden crates are there, and none of them are strangely warm to the touch or make an odd ticking sound. They definitely do not make an unearthly susurrus if you turn your back on them, as if they were gliding towards you in a malevolent way." The woman squinted pensively at the Dog Park's obsidian wall. "I like cardboard boxes. They don't do that," she added, and wiped away a tear.

Dana liked the delivery woman, and she was sorry when two hooded figures came for her the next day and took her inside the humming monolith. The woman had seemed happy to go – she'd waved cheerily at Dana over her shoulder – but she'd also seemed... apprehensive.

Dana felt apprehensive when she thought about the woman. She hoped she'd see her again. She also doubted she'd see her again.

Over the next few weeks Dana watched the other people in the Dog Park disappear quietly, one by one. She discovered after her emergency rations gave out that she didn't feel hungry or thirsty, and she was glad, because she thought starvation, like pain, was something she'd rather not have to feel. The hooded figures often approached people who were looking lost or caught up in despair, and offered them fragrant coffee in paper cups, or candy in bright plastic wrappers. Those people followed them into the monolith and never returned. Dana preferred to practice self-reliance. She became skilled at finding the spots where her phone got reception long enough to text her mother. She wrote that she was fine and happy, and asked her to toss stuff over the wall when she could, like conditioner and clean underwear and duct tape. She thought about asking for food, but she missed other stuff more.

If the hooded figures approached Dana, though, she wasn't sure she would refuse to go with them. They probably wouldn't even need to bribe her. After all, if she somehow managed to escape from them and get back to the town outside the walls, she'd have the scoop of the year – maybe the secret of the monolith or the purpose of the Dog Park. It would be bigger than her report on Mayor Winchell's announcement of her retirement. Station Management might give her a raise, or her very own show.

She tried to get interviews with as many people as she could before they disappeared. The work kept her busy, even though she was annoyed to discover that most people's life stories were features. All they cared about were trivial things, like their jobs and their families and the TV shows they were missing and how bad their hair looked. No one had answers for any of the big questions like Why are we here? and What's true?, and they backed away pretty quickly if the conversation drifted in that direction. Surprisingly, most people continued to deny the existence of the Dog Park, despite being in the Dog Park. Dana found it hard to relate to them.

The most interesting person Dana talked to was a man in a tan jacket who sometimes was there and sometimes not.

When Dana asked him, he shrugged and told her he was a salesman. "I sell flies," he said, and opened his deerskin briefcase to show her. The flies could do circus acts using miniature bicycles and trapezes, and did an adorable dance when the man in the tan jacket played Sur le Pont d'Avignon on a harmonica. "It's very easy to train them," he informed her. "You just need patience, consistency, and a plan. And sugar water. It's simply a matter of reprogramming their instincts. I once trained all my flies to walk open-eyed into a raging fire. It looked very impressive, but...." He shrugged. "It's hard to sell flies that have been incinerated. People prefer the ones that are, you know, lively."

Dana pulled out her phone. "Can I take a video to send to my mother?"

He blinked at her from behind the thick glasses that made his eyes look large and toad-like. "If it was up to me," he said, "I'd say sure. I like publicity. But the union has rules."

She was a little disappointed, but she asked about the union and what life was like as a traveling fly salesman. She also asked how he left the Dog Park, but whatever he told her was as unmemorable afterward as his face. Dana was embarrassed about forgetting; it was unprofessional of her, especially since whenever she saw the man in the tan jacket, he showed her his flies' latest tricks and gave her the local gossip, like about the tiny people under the bowling alley who tried to kill the scientist Cecil had a crush on.

"I was hoping they'd be less hostile and more inclined to buy trained flies," the man in the tan jacket said ruefully. "I mean, of course it's sad that a man is dead, but those tiny people are just the right size to ride flies. If they had tiny little saddles. Which I'm sure I could order from Headquarters. We try to take good care of our customers."

"So Cecil hasn't even asked this guy out yet?" Dana made a face. There was taking things slowly, and then there was glacial slowness, unless it was illegal to believe in glaciers again.

"I don't think he says everything on the radio," the man in the tan jacket said, but he sounded doubtful. "Erika told me – well, not to gossip, but apparently things are looking up for Cecil."

"Cool," Dana said.

That night, when it got dark, she settled into her sleeping bag with her back to the wall and a sharp knife under her cardboard pillow, and thought about Cecil, and feature stories, and truth, and journalism. In her head, all of these were pieces of the same picture, but she couldn't get them to dovetail together.

The first six months Dana worked at NVCR she got more and more disillusioned with Cecil for sticking to safe, Station Management-approved stories, when Dana or anyone else with their eyes open could see how things really were. The truth was out there, and it was horrible, vast, and dirty like a bloodstain baked on hot pavement.

But then Cecil was taken away by the Secret Police for the first time since Dana began her internship. When he came back a couple of days later he had a black eye and a broken molar, which made his voice sound weird for a few days. He didn't talk about what had happened, aside from expressing embarrassment at having been so unprofessional, but Dana had already gone over the recordings of his show and was fairly sure she knew what he'd said that had been objectionable. There was a very fine line between urging people not to do something – not even to think about it, because there was nothing to even think about – and actively encouraging - inciting - dangerous thoughts and actions.

The second time Cecil was questioned he had to call the station for someone to come pick him up because his leg was being kept overnight for observation. Dana won the interns' coin toss and drove out to the detainment facility on the edge of town, and on the way back to Cecil's place he told her a very amusing story about how he'd lost his original leg.

Dana didn't believe a word of what he said, but she knew him well enough to understand. His story was the opposite of an emotional truth – more of an emotional lie, the way her mother had assured her that Santa didn't know where they lived and wouldn't be breaking into their house to get her, or her teachers lectured about how important voting was, even though everyone knew the people who got elected for mayor or City Council were always just the last ones still sane, corporeal, and/or alive on election day. Cecil's prevarication made Dana feel warm inside, like he wasn't just her boss, like maybe they were friends, because he cared enough to try and keep the truth from harming her.

She had pulled her phone out and showed him the video her mother posted just that morning, the one of the kitten and the duckling playing with a tiny soccer ball.

Cecil had grinned so widely that Dana could have inspected his bridgework if she wasn't driving fast along a dark road at night, hurrying to get back before curfew made half the roads in town forbidden.

When Dana woke up, she knew what she had to do. There was a real news story here in the Dog Park, and she'd been ignoring it because features were seductive and attractive and funny and safe, and the truth was terrifying and likely to kill or mutilate her.

But she was the senior intern; practically a reporter. And that was because she wanted to learn the truth and speak the truth, and that didn't mean staying here for the rest of her life, or until the hooded figures came for her.

The weird thing about the inside of the Dog Park's featureless obsidian wall was that you couldn't look straight down it. Dana had tried in several ways, like by leaning against the wall and by standing on top of a couple of boxes. But some kind of optical illusion happened, and it was never possible to see more than a block's worth of wall at a time, as if the wall were somehow subtly curved or obscured. Dana was unnerved – no, creeped out – by the wall, and by the unsettling knowledge that the Dog Park was apparently much larger on the inside than on the outside. But a real investigative journalist wouldn't just be satisfied with stories about parcel delivery and fly sales – she'd get up on her feet and investigate until she had real answers to hard problems.

Dana packed her bag in the pale pre-dawn light. She had a lot less stuff now, but she supposed it didn't matter much, now that she didn't need to eat or drink. Her phone was her most important tool, and she was glad its batteries never died. Maybe when she got out she'd let Cecil's boyfriend the scientist study it to find out how it worked.

She didn't know how long she'd have to walk, but she was prepared in her heart. Every step she took would bring her closer to understanding how things really were. She was sure of that, so she shouldered her bag, turned her back on the familiar menace of the monolith, and started walking the length of the wall.