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A-to-Z Challenge — Letter A

April 1, 2015

Theme: Science Fiction

Day One: the letter A

A Thief Within
Astraeus Earth Force Station, 2115 A.D.

Commander Jeremy Rourke pulled up the filing case on his Kellion 2100 desk station computer. With a flick of his wrist, he sent images from the desktop to hover in the air above him. Charts, graphs, and reports glowed in the darkened room as he moved them around with the point of a finger. He studied them, removed some, added more and then finally closed the files. Astraeus was in serious trouble. The station was losing money, but Rourke couldn’t find the culprit. Every report showed an increase in activity, sales and acquisitions, but figures weren’t adding up. There was a thief or a network of thieves on his station and he was not going to rest until he found them.

“Dalia,” he said into the intercom, “tell Kerchev to get in here now!”

A buzz sounded over the intercom as a mild voice answered. “Right away, Commander.”

While he waited, Rourke walked over to the viewing window and looked out into the expanse of dark space. He began his intergalactic duties thirty years to the date as the Captain aboard the Achilles during the Makaan War. He could still recall every face of the men and women he lost to that nasty race of insect-like aliens. The Makaa trolled the galaxy in hive ships sucking whole planets dry of their resources. When they came to Earth the first time in 2080, Rourke was still a young officer in the 35th Battalion assigned to the Jupiter moon, Ganymede. He remembered the horror of watching Earth burn from their satellite feeds. He’d never felt so helpless, so useless. Only the newly developed Raython bombs, 5000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in the 20th Century, saved humanity, but the price, the horrible price that was paid left Earth and its inhabitants defenseless. Whole continents burned for months. All of the oil sucked up into those giant hive ships. Fifty percent of the natural minerals was also gone, as was over thirty percent of the planet’s water sources. Mining on Mars and Jupiter’s moons became paramount, consuming all of Earth’s attention. The leaders of the United Corporations of Earth — or Earth Gov as everyone called it these days — failed to foresee the Makaa’s return, but by 2085, they were ready to take the fight off planet and into the galaxy.

Rourke was thirty when they assigned him the Achilles. He’d earned his rank during minor skirmishes with a thieving race of aliens known as the Anok Matol, human-like beings with a fierce appetite for death and a strong warrior’s code. When the Makaa returned, the Anok Matol joined forces with Earth against them. Even with their help, the war lasted ten years. Ten long, bloody years. Rourke still had nightmares.

“Commander?”

Rourke turned away from the view to see Kerchev standing in the doorway of the command center. “You look like hell,” he said to the young officer.

“Sorry, sir. I haven’t slept for three days.” The officer entered the room and placed several computer binders on the desk. “I’ve been over everything, sir. Five times. It’s all in order, as far as I can tell.”

“Bloody hell!” Rourke cursed, sitting down in his chair and banging a fist on the desk. “Someone is fudging their books and I aim to find out who the bastard is!”

“Sir, if I may suggest…”

“You? You have a suggestion?”

“Yes… yes, sir. I do.”

Rourke ran his fingers through his grey hair and turned to look at Kerchev. “Very well. Perhaps you might have an idea that I have not thought yet. Continue, officer.”

Kerchev opened his computer, punched some keys and then turned the window towards Rourke. “As you can see here,” he began, pointing to a row of figures, “every department has entered their files into the database.”

“Yes, yes, I can see that!”

Kerchev cleared his throat. “But sir, I discovered that some of these files have encryptions on them not sanctioned by the government.”

Rourke looked at the files again and then back up at Kerchev, his face reddening. “But what does that mean?”

“Sir, I think these departments have hidden records within their files which may be their real bookkeeping.”

Suddenly, Rourke smiled. It was a trick as old as time itself: two books, two different figures and money lining the pockets of the thieves. “Which departments?”

Kerchev pointed to several departments on the screen. “Shipping and Receiving, Mechanics, and the Galley, sir.”

Could all three be hiding thefts? Rourke pondered the findings for a few moments and then stood up. “How long will it take your team to crack those encryptions?”

“We’ve been working on it, sir, since I discovered the encryptions earlier today,” Kerchev said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“But how long?” Rourke demanded.

“I don’t know, sir. I have my best coders working on it, but we’ve never dealt with these types of encryptions. It could take days, weeks even.”

“That is unacceptable!” Rourke pounded his fist on the table, then composed himself. “But I guess we have no choice in the matter. Give your team whatever resources they need. In the meantime, I will begin an investigation into those departments.”

“Yes, sir.” Kerchev replied as gathered his binders and then turned to leave.

“Kerchev,” Rourke began, “I want this kept confidential. Not one whisper to anyone outside your department. Do you understand?” Rourke extended his hand and continued, “Only you, me and Chief Davies are to know about the details of this investigation.”

Shaking Rourke’s hand, Kerchev nodded, “You have my word, sir.” Kerchev then saluted Rourke and left.

________________________________

As far as Kerchev’s team knew, they were testing new encryption software supposedly sent to them by the United Corporation of Earth for government approval. Kerchev kept the details to himself, overseeing all operations. He didn’t even confide in his Second in Command, Officer Angelo Martinez. He’d known Martinez since tech school and hated lying to him, but he had a promise to keep and there was no skirting around that.

Kerchev sat at his desk, his head cradled in one hand, his back hunched over, when he heard the door buzzer.

“Enter!” he said as he lifted his head and smoothed out his black hair.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you said to let you know if we discovered anything new,” Martinez said, standing by the door, a computer tablet in his hand.

“Yes, of course. Come in, Martinez.”

Martinez entered the office and made his way behind the desk until he was standing beside Kerchev’s chair.

“Here, sir,” Martinez said, positioning the tablet between the two men. “I discovered this line of code nestled inside a file.”

“If this were an actual bookkeeping file, Martinez, which department would access it?”

“Mechanics, sir.”

“And have you deciphered this code?”

“Yes, sir. It is an acquisition form for spare parts from Nezara Prime.”

“Nezara Prime? We haven’t dealt with them for over two years,” Kerchev said, thinking out loud. Realizing his mistake, he continued, “But then, I guess that is why the Government would test us about that. Right? Testing our knowledge of who we do or don’t deal with.”

Martinez nodded. “It would seem so, sir.”

“Very good, Martinez. Let me know if you catch any more of these anomalies in the test program.”

“Will do, sir.”

Kerchev waited until Martinez left the office and then switched on the intercom connected straight to Rourke’s office. Within seconds, Rourke answered.

“Yes?”

“Sir, the team has discovered an acquisition form embedded in the files.”

“Is that so unusual, Kerchev?”

“It is since it’s a form for spare parts from Nezara Prime, sir.”

“Great job, Kerchev! I will let Davies know.”

_______________________________________
Commander Rourke and Chief Davies strode into the Mechanic’s bunker on Black Sector 7. As far as they could tell, the space was cramped with machinery of every make and model available through Earth Gov sanctions. Rourke gave Davies the go-ahead to look around for anything not sanctioned as he went to Chief Engineer Brody’s office. He paused at the door, hesitating while Davies snooped around close by. As soon as Davies moved to a section blocked from view, Rourke rang the buzzer.

“Enter!” a husky voice bellowed from the intercom.

Once the door slid open, Rourke walked inside. Brody, a large man with wiry grey hair and dressed in a blue mechanic’s jumper, sat behind a grey metal desk, his feet propped up on it. As soon as he saw Rourke, he plopped his feet down and sat upright, startled.

As Brody stood up, he stammered, “Ss…sorry, sir. I was…sn’t expecting you today.”

“Sit, sit, Brody,” Rourke said, waving his hand towards Brody’s chair.

“Sure thing, sir,” Brody said, collapsing into the chair. “What can I do for you, Commander?”

Rourke sat down in the chair on his side of the desk. “Well Brody, I’ve come across some disturbing information and I’d like your take on it.”

“Sure thing, sir. Anything I can do.”

“You see, Brody, the Tech teams were running some maintenance scans on all computer files and well, they found some encrypted files in your folders. Do you happen to know anything about that?”

Rourke studied the old man carefully. He noticed beads of perspiration rising on the man’s forehead and a pulse in his neck quickened.

“Uh,” Brody started as he fidgeted in his seat. “No, sir. I don’t know anything about encrypting. Not really a techie kind of guy, sir.”

“I see. Anyone on your team good with computers?”

“The Earth Gov sent me some new high-tech equipment about six months ago, sir. I had to hire a couple of technical engineers to run it. Murphy and Adams, sir.”

“Six months, you say?”

“Yes, sir, about that long.”

Hastings, the Financial Chief, had noticed missing funds around four months ago. Rourke surmised that it could have taken Murphy or Adams, or both working together, that long to figure out a scheme. If they were buying cheap, defective spare parts from Nezara Prime then reselling them for the usual cost and pocketing the difference, that could explain the missing funds.

“Where are Murphy and Adams today?”

Brody clicked around on the computer until he pulled up the schedule. “Murphy is in Blue Sector 5 and Adams is in Yellow Sector 8. They should be taking a lunch break in fifteen minutes though.”

Rourke stood up. He leaned across the desk and tapped Brody on the shoulder. “Great. I will wait for them in the Galley. I really appreciate your help, Brody.”

Brody smiled wearily at the Commander and nodded. “Anything, sir. Anything.”

_____________________________________________________________
Fifteen minutes later, Rourke and Davies sat in the Galley drinking coffee while Davies monitored the security feed on his tablet. After a few moments, Davies nodded at Rourke as two men walked into the Galley, their ids popped up on the feed — Murphy, a tall red-haired man with a bushy beard and Adams, shorter, blond and clean-shaven. They waited until the men went through the service line and seated themselves at a table close by.

“Should we talk to them separately, sir?” Davies asked, taking a last sip of his coffee.

“No, I want to see how they react together. Might find out which one is guilty, or if it’s both of them.”

Rourke and Davies walked to the table and introduced themselves. The two men stood up as soon as Rourke said his name and title, but he gestured for them to sit back down.

“We just have a few technical questions for you guys,” Davies said, sitting down across from Murphy while Rourke sat down beside Adams.

“Sure, sirs,” Murphy said, looking over at Adams and then back at Davies.

“Our Tech team has been running some routine maintenance tests on all files in the system and they found some encrypted files in your department. We asked Brody, but he says he doesn’t know technical stuff. So we thought we would ask you guys, since you are techs and all,” Rourke smiled at the two men and then at Davies. “So do you guys know anything about these encryptions?”

Adams dropped his head and stared at his hands. Murphy shook his head and stammered, “N-no, sir.”

“Those files weren’t there six months ago, guys. One of you must know where they came from,” Davies said.

“I don’t know anything, sir. Honestly,” Murphy said, his eyes widening.

“No one else in that department knows computers. They are all nuts and bolts guys,” Rourke said as he stared at Adams. “What about you, Adams?”

Adams started to bolt, but Rourke put his hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. “Let’s have it, Adams!” Rourke shouted.

“If I tell you, sir, I could lose my job.”

“If you don’t tell us, you will lose your job and get thrown in the hole,” Davies retorted.

Adam frowned and sighed. “I made the encryptions, sir.”

“And do you know what you were encrypting, Adams?” Rourke asked.

“No, sir. Honest! I received an email with a file attached and a note telling me to encrypt it.”

“Who sent you the note?” Davies asked, leaning in close.

“I don’t know him, sir.”

“Was it Brody?”

“No, sir.”

Rourke slammed his fist across Adams’ forearm and shouted. “Who, Adams?”

“Sir, he threatened my family back on Earth. Says he has men there and they will kill them.”

“I want answers, Adams! We can protect your family,” Rourke reassured him.

“Someone named Kerchev, sir.” Adams whispered as he looked up at Rourke, then flinched as he saw the Commander’s face redden. “I swear I don’t know him, sir!”

“Son of a bitch, but I do!” Rourke yelled as he stood up and slammed the chair against the table.

(this story will continue in tomorrow’s challenge!)

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10 Comments
  1. Bookmarked. I shall read this!!

    • Awesome, May! Thank you! Let me know if you have an advice one this. It was the first LONG piece I’d ever written. I generally write poetry and short fiction.

  2. Reblogged this on Annette's place and commented:
    Introducing the writing of my blogs guest author Lori Carlson. Lori is now an author for my blog too and I am honored to have her. I love here writing style. Here is a fiction piece that she did for last year’s A to Z challenge. I will be posting more of her poetry too that I think you all will like. So, to read more of this story go visit her blog and look at April 2nd 2015 for the next installment of this story. Enjoy I know I am!

  3. Ooh. You got me hooked now…

  4. Hi there Lori – You’re quite a writer; very imaginative. The story will continue through Z? Thanks!

    • Hey Diane… thanks for the compliments. Yes, I hope to continue the story all the way to Z… keeping my fingers crossed that I can keep it going.

  5. Hey this is good! Interesting characters, a great setting and a developing plot. Glad to see also that we will still be punching keys on our computers in 100 years time! It took me the last hundred to get used to it! Excellent.

    • Thanks! I am hoping that I can run this story through the entire challenge and end it with a Z punch. Fingers crossed!

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