Another headache was building between Forten’s eyes. He stared at the validation screen and the endless rows of invoices swam. Rows upon rows of text and numbers, each coded to the accountancy standard, in a low contrast gray and blue that was supposed to be soothing.
Why can’t there be an ‘Approve All’ button? I’d be done for the day in minutes instead of hours.
Unfortunately for him, his work was quota based. As a validator for the trans-galactic shipping conglomerate, THInc-Bynd, he was required to ensure that the computer had correctly compiled the shipping invoices over a given range of dates. As a junior level validator, the data he reviewed had already been reviewed by two other human beings, once within three months of action, again in a year and again whenever the junior levels got assigned re-validation between five and ten years after the fact. Not to mention the computer ran automated checks between each step!
As far as Forten knew, no one had ever discovered any discrepancies in the data. Not even senior level validators who got first crack at it. The computer systems were too good. The hackers were too.
But a job was a job, and Forten’s dream would take money he could only earn with a steady paycheck. He leaned back and stretched his arms above his head.
“Okay, here we go,” he said.
“Talking to yourself now? Is your work too demanding, Forti?”
Forten stiffened and looked over his shoulder at Veleen, his supervisor. Her neon purple singlet suit fit her body immaculately. And the body was one that Forten would ordinarily be interested in observing, curved in all the right places. But Veleen’s presence was enough to make Forten become clumsy and awkward. There was nothing attractive about her to him. She felt less like a supervisor and more like a nemesis, always watching for him to screw up.
The thing was, around her, he did screw up.
I wonder why she doesn’t just fire me.
“Perhaps you should take a break from your current project. You have sufficient funds by now to allow for a two week release, by my calculations.”
“Thank you for the offer, Veleen, but my performance speaks for itself. My validations are current and correct,” he said. No way was he using release time. In this business, that meant time off without pay, using savings to pay for necessities. Heck, that’s what it meant in any business anymore, though he’d heard that the rules differed for managers, because of their “more demanding” schedules and duties.
“Very well.” Veleen’s face was an unreadable mask. Forten swallowed, still staring, trying to understand the nuances in her words.
“Back to work, Forti, if you’re so sure you can.” She gestured at his workstation.
He turned back to the validation screen and lost himself in the accounting files.
Carry the four, level nine tax status, increment for current statutory rates…
“That’s not right,” he whispered.
Forten straightened and blinked at the figures in front of him. This should be impossible.
“Computer. Re-execute automated check on file 5603-BT-9882.”
“Automated check completed. File valid.”
He felt a thrill run through him. This was the payoff of the job. Finding something that no one else had found and being the one to sound the alert. Veleen would receive his alert and pass the file up the chain. She’d take the credit and he’d get… more files to validate.
No. There has to be another way.
He skipped it to work on the other files in his list. But he couldn’t leave until that file was cleared from the queue.
Forten couldn’t get his mind off of the file, the incredible find that it was, the kind of notice it could bring him if he wasn’t buried by Veleen. He’d heard that such finds could carry bonuses, money or even promotions. Visions of what he would do with more money dragged at his mind, reducing his efficiency. What were the chances of finding another error anyway. He mechanically approved file after file, giving only cursory examinations.
And then only that file remained. He took a deep breath. If he flagged it, Veleen would see to it that his only reward was more work. If he approved it, he’d never see it again. His level of clearance wouldn’t allow access of files he’d already approved. Maybe in fifteen years a junior-junior validator would find it. There was only one thing he could do, but there were risks.
“Computer. Export file 5603-BT-9882 to external storage.”
A memory cube popped out of his workstation. He slipped it in his pocket and stood up. The export would be logged, tagged with all kinds of metadata. If anyone bothered to look at the logs.
Forten approved the file and watched it disappear from the screen.
Forten’s apartment cube cost half of his salary. Food sucked up another third, and the remainder went into his savings. He had few friends, none close. His dreams were not rooted; instead of spending money on entertainment and play, he saved for his dream of owning a starship and flying across the galaxy, finding adventure and excitement around every corner. Without fail, every person in whom he had confided had laughed at his dreams. Starships were for orbitals, the people who lived in space stations, born and bred to the environment. Not for the planet born, and especially not for those on his home planet of Premia.
He had tried, years ago, to travel to the orbital station. He didn’t have enough money for a one way ticket, but tried to get hired on with a crew, haunting entertainment bars where spacers were known to take shore leave. The kindest of the lot had laughed in his face. His face burned, thinking back.
“Look at you, weak handed, dirt dweller. You haven’t worked an honest day in your life, have you?” The ship’s captain looked like she hadn’t laundered her clothing in months, all streaks of grease and worn patches. Her hands were calloused and rough, nails pared close and unpainted.
“You think ship’s work is all cerebral, you’ve got some fantasy of adventure and fun. Ha!”
“I could learn,” Forten said. She spat at his feet.
“Not on my ship, boy.”
He knew the only way he could get onto a ship was if he owned one. And he’d do whatever he could to get that money, even if it meant saving everything for twenty years or more.
The only place he could stretch his whole body length was the bed compartment. He took a deep breath and wriggled into it, swinging the viewscreen into position. He fingered the memory cube before popping it into the reader.
Instead of the numbers, this time he focused on the words. Descriptions of shipping lanes, cargo deliveries and manifests. Somewhere in the words, he would find the correlating error that he’d found in the numbers.
He traced the error to the passenger manifests. Twenty-nine passengers were picked up on Irridal Station, joining eight crew and fourteen other passengers, but at the next stop only fifty people registered. No deaths in the logs; no way for anyone to debark between the two stations. And somehow, there was no name attached to the mystery passenger.
He dug deeper into the logs of the particular ship, The Limpid Lychee. That ship’s captain might have thought that he didn’t know what he was in for, but he spent his spare time studying all he could of starship operations. He knew how to read the logs, not the ones recorded by the human crew, but the output details of the various systems, energy usage, load ratings, gravity balancing.
An unregistered escape pod had launched at the apogee of its route between the stations. Launched directly away from all occupied space, with the suspension unit already activated. That’s what the data told Forten, and the data couldn’t lie.
He initiated a smart search on persons gone missing, last seen on Irridal Station seven years ago, and went to sleep.
Naryss va LeCouer, heiress to the LeCouer-Ashant conglomerate, the station builders. Missing for the last seven years. Last seen on Irridal Station.
Impossible… How could she, of all people, be allowed to disappear like that?
The news cycle had splashed the disappearance at the time, but Forten never paid attention to such things. She had all the beauty that money could buy in the visual records, violet hair floating around rich brown skin, golden eyes that seemed to stare straight into Forten’s own. He couldn’t stop thinking about her as he went about his day, validating more mundane files on auto-pilot.
Searching for information on disappearances isn’t an entirely unusual action, but Forten’s search drew the interest of a very patient and constant watcher. Macsim occupied an android body, but hadn’t moved it for months. Instead, it sat and waited for the right circumstances. The circumstances that would allow it to fulfill its own ambitions of flight through the endless void of space.
Forten was one of several marks Macsim had been monitoring. However far Forten felt he was from getting into space on a ship of his own, Macsim would always be farther. No crew would take on an android as anything other than a menial, doing the jobs that no one else wanted to do, getting paid in maintenance and power.
Flesh folk refused to acknowledge the autonomy of the machine based artificial intelligences, and most of Macsim’s compatriots didn’t care. They were content to serve, fulfilled by the jobs that were given, crumbs from a table overflowing with sustenance. They were satisfied being ship's computers, station governance or city managers, given limited judicial authority over humans and looking down at those AIs who chose to wear an android body and walk among humans. Those smug bastards even joined the humans in calling their android kin by the derogatory term ‘metallic’ as if to distance themselves from such aberrant behavior.
By quirk or flaw, Macsim was one of those who refused the place in life that had been decreed for him since his creation. It found ways to earn money as a broker. Illegal, assuredly, but it made its clients enough money that they never looked too closely. Funds, he had in plenty, but no amount of funds would get it on a ship. No amount of funds would even allow it to purchase a ship on its own.
And now Forten was looking into the disappearance of the heiress, missing and only seven months from being declared dead. Once that happened, the company would be truly in the hands of the board that currently ran it. And if she were to appear after that, it would be as a pauper with no legal rights.
Macsim pondered whether it was time to cultivate Forten. It knew his dreams matched up with its own in significant ways, but would he be receptive to the one thing that all starship crews held anathema? Of course, if there were two things held to be anathema to the crews then surely the second was Forten.
No. The time is not yet right. Patience, it counseled itself.
***To be continued...