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Alien Devil’s Wildcard: Chapter One

Sakkar

“You know you can leave this to me,” called the voice of my lead technician, Kardik.

I took another sip of my mug of trishem, my umpteenth for the day.

“Yeah, right, K. Now run that diagnostic again while I calibrate the code to fix the interface. It should be running with two sensors, not three.”

“Okay, fine.” He huffed under his breath, following my command. With the main frame schematic before us, Kardik ran the diagnostic with a quick attack of his fingers across the keyboard.

Our control room in Black Star Casino was state-of-the-art. The nicest on Thodos III by a long shot. As head of security, I was more than proud of the work I did there. It was like my girl.

“You know, I could fix the interface.”

“Not on your life, bud.” Kardik loved to push my buttons, but he knew damn well that no one took care of my girl like me. The mainframe was the work of countless hours, constantly teasing the network for breaks in the code.

I pulled up the prompt box with a flick of my wrist and punched in the command fixes as easy as breathing. Soon the machines started to whirr in unison. Beyond me, the chill of the server room beckoned. And once I stepped in, I was allowed the opportunity to marvel at my handiwork.

The servers blinked in harmony at the back end of my command code. I knew what people saw when they looked at work like this. It was all hardware and numbers; how could it be beautiful? But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this beholder only saw art.

There’s a transient beauty to these machines when they work in harmony and these numbers that guide and direct them to do the work for us. As far as I was concerned, computers were the only technology really worth a damn. There was so much they could do for us in the way they made machinery come alive.

I stepped back into the mainframe control room as Kardik just finished running the numbers. The screen showed its readout over our heads.

“You see that?”

“See what?”

“That code on line 18, it’s supposed to read Cpx0771, not Cpx0770.”

Kardik’s eyes went wide. His dark black sigils swirled dimly in the faint control room light. My own orange sigils swirled across my face and lit up with the victory.

“Good thing I didn’t take off just yet, huh?” Forcing him to admit he needed me was just part of the job. They needed me desperately.

They needed my fingers brushing keystrokes a thousand miles an hour to keep the software of the slot machines working with the hardware. No casino can operate without machines, and between floor technicians, service engineers, and coders, someone had to sit at the top.

“Good thing,” Kardik admitted reluctantly. I knew how desperate he was to take full hold of this operation, and someday, I might even let him.

Just not that day.

“Okay, let’s bring up that report again. I see one more sensor going off on the server in sector 8.”

“That’s unusual,” Kardik said, turning to read the mix of numbers and letters of the otherwise indiscernible language known only to us coders. “You see that readout on the slot pits?”

“Looks like about half of the machines are reporting system failures. But I don’t see any weak points.”

“Okay, that is something. I’ll bring up the readout.” Kardik set to typing feverishly.

At length, the screen read an answer, albeit a confusing one. “Well, this can’t be.”

“What is it, Sakkar?”

“It doesn’t make sense, but it says that half of our machines are stealing data.”

“That can’t be right.”

“No, it can’t,” I told him, sitting at his side. We were serious about hunting down an answer. While it was usually just a glitch in my otherwise flawless security protocol, it was possible for someone to hack the system and get something past me.

It wasn’t likely, but it was possible.

“Okay, there, see. I’ve traced it, whatever it is, to a handheld on the floor. Looks like the percomm of floor technician FT#32. We’ll need to interface with them.”

“Uh-oh,” Kardik teased. He wasn’t wrong. Our soon-to-be-discovered suspect didn’t know what was coming. “Somebody’s in trouble.”

“I’d better head down and check this out myself.”

The elevators down to the casino floor cleared my head only slightly. Breaches like that shouldn’t happen, not with the level of work I put into beefing up the main frame and security protocols over the years.

As soon as the smoky casino air reached my lungs, a voice from opposite the game room hit my ears.
            “Sakkar! What the fuck is happening to my machines?” It was Draven, Black Star’s head of operations. “People are freaking out.”

“I know, I’m on it. We’ve been hacked from the inside.”

My assurances fell on deaf ears as the incoming rush of angry customers all scrambling for a seat at the remaining slot machines had become too much to handle.

“I need to see what this is about,” I explained.

“You need to stay and help me deal with this mob, or else the breach won’t be the only problem here tonight,” he said insistently.

“Okay, but what can we do?”

Fortunately, we were soon joined by Laux, the casino’s pit boss, to deal with the most pressing problem first.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Well, I’m all ears.” Draven laughed. People tugged at his elbow demanding his attention every second of the day as it was. But this was relentless.

“It’s my turn at that machine, that lady cut me,” a patron screamed over our conversation.

“Ma’am, you’re just in luck,” Laux said, escorting her towards the bar area. He shot a look at his mate, Lila, behind the bar. “Li, we need drinks, stat.”

“For everyone?”

“Everyone.”

“What’s this big idea, Laux?” Draven called before he could be ushered away by the angry woman.

“Get Jalik in the ring and promote it as a free event. Easy loss leader. We can stay as long as we need to!” His voice disappeared at the bar as patrons filled the area hoping for free drinks, tickets, anything to appease their tirade against the broken machines.

I realized that Laux’s idea wasn’t half bad. Despite the epic loss in time that could be spent running fixes to prevent this from happening or even spreading, I jumped on my percomm and summoned my friend.

“Jalik, we need a boxing match.”

“You mean now?” As head of security, Jalik had his hands full already. I could hear the din from opposite the call. “They’re freaking out.”

“That’s the point. We need a distraction.”

“And who are you suggesting I fight? My guys are employed all over the casino. I’ve got no one. Unless you mean to grab some bum from The Under.”

“Hey, now you’re talking!” I said, turning on my heels for the entrance doors.

“I wasn’t serious!” Jalik cried into the percomm, but it was too late. The call was over, and I could already see my quarry dressed in rags with some others near the back corridor garbage dump.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, approaching a bedraggled man who looked like he had nothing to lose. “You wanna make some easy credits?”

Easy indeed. With literally no convincing, the stranger followed me to the boxing ring where Jalik stood confused. Hungry spectators crowded around the area, ready to take advantage of their free drinks or seats or anything we offered them.

“I just need time,” I assured him while helping the hobo into the ring by lifting the ropes with my hands for him to pass. Jalik wasted no time building up drama for a fight and motioned for the bell.

“Ding!” In seconds, the fight was on, and the punch thrown by the vagabond took Jalik back half a foot. He looked at me sideways, and I heard his voice over the crowd.

“You better get to it, bud, before this guy takes my lunch.”

“He would, too!” I hollered to the back of him as I made my escape back down the gaming hall to the slot pits.

Half of the machines were fritzing and blinking, and, if that wasn’t the worst of it, gamblers-turned-tech-experts all gathered around thinking they’d be the ones to repair it.

“Okay, folks. I need everyone to back away from all the machines. Technical difficulties.”

The crowd turned angrier than before but eventually dissipated towards the roar coming from the boxing hall. I left it to blood and mayhem to keep them appeased while I tried to remotely disable the responsible device.

Without the roar of a mob to distract me, all that was left on the floor was a handful of employees.

“Technicians,” I said, addressing the mostly human lower staff. “I need you all to present your percomms.”

Faces changed expression quickly. It wasn’t an accusation per se, but these dogs knew well enough that the question alone spoke volumes. Slowly, each hand presented its communication device.

Walking by them one at a time, I took note of the call sticker on the back of each device until, at last, I found it.

“So, FT#32.” My eyes followed a shock of auburn hair down to a pair of eyes that caused my own to widen. They were so green. She was small, even for a human, with a peppering of freckles splayed across her nose. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

She said nothing, but what did I expect? We Vinduthi had a certain reputation that exceeded far beyond the walls of that casino. We ran the station, and every person on Thodos III knew it.

“Well, FT#32? What do you have to say for yourself?” I asked, looking down over her head like she was little more than a doll.

“I asked you a question, technician,” I repeated, watching her tremble. For a thief, she seemed scared shitless. Did she think she wouldn’t get caught?

As my shadow paraded over her face, however, I noticed a bubble of gumption rising within her until at last she spoke.

“My name isn’t FT#32,” she said hotly, her breath trying to escape her lips before she could even get the words out. “And it’s not technician.”

I looked down at the little firecracker, wanting more than anything to laugh. She had no idea how physically powerful we Vinduthi were. How effortlessly I could snap her with a flick of my fingers.

Looking back at the other puzzled workers, I made a quick decision. “The rest of you can go.”

The others disappeared in haste, none wanting to be left behind with the helpless human.

She stood with fists clenched, her percomm shaking alongside her until she met my gaze.

“What’s your name, human?”

“Alyssa.” She shook. “Alyssa Watson. Not that you care.” She was determined to speak, showing herself to be quite brave and quite stupid. “But I was the first person who responded on the floor to the breach.”

“Yeah, and that’s not suspicious,” I reasoned, looking down at her and crossing my arms over my chest. “What’s your tech classification?”

“My what?” She looked confused and angry. Very unlike a thief.

“What systems and languages and platforms are you certified in?” I asked, rolling my eyes. Typical dumb human.

“Uhm…” She trailed off.

“Never mind,” I said, pulling up my percomm and typing in a few digits. “It shows here that you should have the tech background to run these machines with your eyes closed.”

I saw her face fall and I realized the truth.

“But you made that up, didn’t you?” I asked. I had heard about it before. Humans so desperate for some sort of job that didn’t involve stripping or sex work that they tried their best to fabricate credentials. Hoping they’d stave off being forced to sell themselves for just another day.

I could turn her in. But at the moment, I had bigger fish to fry.

“Whoever initiated the breach on this percomm stole thousands of gigs of data. Very valuable in the black market, yes?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She continued to defend herself while also showing signs of relief, her hands crossing her body.

I had to follow up on her, that was for sure. Because if she could lie about having skills, then she could lie about anything else. And she could steal.

Plus, the fact that she had no real background in the tech that we used but still managed to work the floor meant that this woman could learn. And she was very smart.

“You live there, don’t you?” I showed her my percomm with her employee status at the top. “My records show your dwelling under corridor 9F, yes?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” she asked, her voice getting hotter by degrees. “Most humans live there.”

“It’s a known location for data mining and transfers.” I raised my eyebrows to prove the point. The black market was the known lifeline for the humans in the Under. The buying and selling of data were just the tip of the iceberg.

“If I was skimming data, then why the hell would I stick around to get caught?” she asked, dragging the question to the forefront of my brain, too. She was cute but the mastermind of a hack that single-handedly ended machine gambling for a day?

Not likely.

But at least the question caused her enough stress that she relented and handed over the device.

After an initial check, it yielded only one piece of the puzzle. The breach came from this com, but that didn’t rule out if it was simply targeted by the person who did hack the system.

How easy would it be to dupe a dumb earthling into handing over a percomm, even for a minute? Too easy.

Unless, of course, it was her, and she was just a good actress. Her face gave nothing away. She was determined at that point not to show me anything more than contempt for being accused. It seemed innocent, but of course, that’s how an actress would play it.

Her eyes narrowed again, but it wouldn’t do her any good. Until I got to the bottom of whatever this was, Alyssa Watson wasn’t going anywhere.


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