Fractured Orbits Chapter 3
Fractured Orbits is book one in the Encoded Orbits Trilogy, It’s being released as a serial with chapters coming out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first ten chapters are free, before requiring a paid subscription.
Orin Akton wrung his hands together as he stood before the massive desk. The pounding behind his left eye suggested an impending migraine. He struggled to keep a grimace from his face as he stared at General Swa, the Coordinator of Information for the Protectorate’s military.
He hadn’t been invited to sit and knew better than to assume he could. The military facility within the hollowed-out asteroid of Rock 13-A5 was her domain, and she made sure no one forgot it. The gold trim on her indigo uniform glinted in the low light of her office, casting sinister reflections on her skin. He swallowed. Even though he’d been the head of the decryption department for almost a year, coming into his boss’ office still intimidated him.
“Dr. Oswiu’s analysis turned out to be correct.” Swa leaned back in her chair behind the desk.
Orin shifted his weight as her gaze fell on him. He said nothing.
“You might as well call it for what it is,” Dr. Greer said from his seat beside the wall of windows. He adjusted his jacket as he spoke as though he wanted everyone to notice the expensive garment. Orin wondered why Greer was in the room—or even on the Rock. Although he reported to Swa, Greer ran a top-secret research lab in a different system, a location so classified, Orin had no idea where it was.
Swa shifted her attention and scowled at Greer. “Remember, you’re only an observer here.”
“Dr. Veena Oswiu’s analysis won us the war,” Greer said, ignoring Swa’s warning. He leaned forward and focused on Orin. “I’m curious how she broke the code.”
“The messages were double encrypted. Veena used—”
Swa cut Orin off with a wave of her hand. “I don’t need the details.” She stood and walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that filled one entire wall of the oversized room. Outside, the shield gate aperture glinted under the system’s far-off sun. The shield gate sealed the entrance to the cavern, keeping them safe from intruders—like the bombers that struck his home on New Haven. A small aperture allowed in authorized shuttles. Bigger ships docked outside.
“Do you trust Dr. Oswiu’s analysis?” Swa’s gaze bore into him.
Orin took a moment to compose himself. Even though the circumstances behind bringing Veena into his department had been difficult on her, she remained the best codebreaker he’d ever worked with. His gut feeling was to trust her.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“She has given me reason for concern.” General Swa returned to her seat behind her oversized desk. She projected Veena’s file into the air between the two of them. He’d seen it before. Her past contained nothing shocking. She’d been an ordinary mathematician working at an ordinary university, married to a military officer with whom she had a daughter.
Orin shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I’ve been through her file.”
“Well, it seems you didn’t dig deep enough.” With her left hand, Swa swiped another page of information, replacing what was there. “Here’s her communication with her husband.”
The sight of Veena’s personal letters made Orin’s stomach roll. The fact Swa had them wasn’t right. “That should be private.”
“The Overwatch AIs check everything that passes to our troops on the front line.” She pursed her lips and stared at him with her dark eyes. “The two of them exchange ridiculously long love letters filled with cumbersome passages that leave me wanting to vomit.”
Orin shrugged. “Perhaps they’re just terrible poets.”
“Or perhaps they’re sending encrypted messages back and forth.”
He said nothing. Swa was probably right, but he still believed he could trust Veena. What couple wouldn’t want to ensure their conversations were private? It wasn’t a sign of anything nefarious.
“My people can’t break the code.” She frowned.
Orin shifted on his feet. Up until that moment, he’d thought his team contained the only codebreakers around.
Swa leaned back in her chair. “It seems your best code breaker also excels at cryptography.”
“That was her research focus at New Haven university.” Orin grimaced; he’d gone too far—Swa hated when anyone talked back at her.
A scowl spread across her face. “What information could she possibly be sending to her husband?”
Orin opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. What would she send? His mind raced as he tried to come up with what they might be sending that needed to be secret. Swa’s tapping of her fingernail on the desk surface brought him back to the moment.
“Both her record and her husband’s record are beyond repute. They’re an honourable pair.”
Swa raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
Orin swallowed. He’d fallen into her trap.
“She has an encrypted account on the DeepNet.”
“What?” That didn’t sound like the Veena he knew. The DeepNet was for illicit activities and wacko conspiracists. “That can’t be right.”
“She accessed it last night.” Swa leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. Her gaze continued to bore into Orin.
He took a deep breath. As intimidating as Swa was, she wasn’t all-powerful. He could steer the conversation back onto familiar ground.
“Veena walked me through how she decrypted the messages,” he said to turn the conversation back to the message contents. “Since her husband’s unit is at Candy Cane Lane, I believe she was highly motivated to ensure her decryption was correct.”
“Fine.” Swa leaned forward and scrolled through the message again. “But did she pass on all the information in the messages?”
“I want to know more about the ‘lab subjects’ referred to in the correspondence from Vortex View,” Greer cut in.
“Can you clarify what these ‘lab subjects’ are?” Orin asked. The tactical information in the messages had made sense, but the references to ‘lab subjects’ had seemed out of place—almost another level of encryption.
“That’s well above your pay grade.” Swa steepled her fingers together. “What Dr. Greer is asking is if all the information on these subjects was included in the report.”
“Yes,” Orin said. “I double-checked all of Veena’s work.”
Swa fixed her gaze on Greer. “Does that answer your question?” She raised an eyebrow as though daring the scientist to ask more.
“I expect there’ll be firsthand reports from the soldiers on Candy Cane Lane.” Greer stood and paced over to Orin but kept his gaze on Swa. “About that task…”
“I’m getting there,” she said, waving Greer back to the seat by the windows.
Greer clasped his hands behind his back and stayed where he was. Swa narrowed her eyes at him, then focused on Orin.
“Due to Veena’s DeepNet activity, I have no choice but to shut down all personal net access for your team until further notice.”
Orin pursed his lips. His people were going to hate that; they were already far away from their homes, for those whose homes still existed.
“Give them until the morning. With the news of victory, everyone is going to want to reach out to their loved ones.” Orin swallowed. Everyone except him. He didn’t have anyone to reach out to. The woman he loved more than anything was gone.
Swa cocked her head as she studied him. “At midnight, personal net access will be cut.”
“Thank you,” Orin said.
“You need to keep better tabs on your people,” Swa continued, oblivious to Orin’s pain.
“Now, to Dr. Greer’s task…” Swa stood and paced over to the windows. “We found some encoded data. I want Veena to work on decrypting it. I’ll need you to prioritize it over all her other work.”
“What kind of data?”
“It’s highly classified.”
Orin sighed. Declaring things classified seemed a common tactic Swa followed when more information would be useful. “I’ll advise Veena that a new assignment is coming her way.”
“Good.” She turned her attention to the view out the window. “You’re both dismissed.”
Without another word, Orin left the office, and Greer followed close behind.
“Akton,” Greer called, and Orin turned. The two of them were alone in the foyer outside Swa’s office. “I’ll send the files directly to Dr. Oswiu in the morning. I suspect victory celebrations will fill up everyone’s evening.”
“I’m sure she’ll be ready,” Orin said.
Greer paced forward. In the bright light, his meticulous attention to his own grooming and attire seemed out of place for a military scientist. “I hear she has a young daughter.”
“Yes.” Orin raised an eyebrow as he stared at the other man. “Many of the staff here have children with them. It does not impact their work.”
“Of course it doesn’t.” Greer moved closer than Orin was comfortable and leaned in, lowering his voice. “Now, have you met Veena’s girl? What did you notice about her?”
Orin took a step away. “I’ve seen her playing with the other kids in the barrack module. She’s just an ordinary kid.”
“Hmmm…” Greer turned and strode off down the corridor.Orin waited until Greer was out of sight, then headed the opposite way to the tram station.
On the tram back to his office, Orin sat alone in a row at the back of the car. A handful of staff officers boarded after him, but they clustered around the door, chatting in excited tones about the victory party to come. No one even glanced Orin’s way.
Picking up speed, the tram circled the command module—a place he could only go when invited. On the other side, Orin got the full view of the hollowed-out rock’s interior landscape. Nestled on the inside of an asteroid, Rock 13-A5 contained several well-separated facilities—some so secret, Orin had no idea what went on inside. Biometric codes controlled access everywhere except the barrack module, keeping everyone in their place. Even when he was exactly where he was supposed to be, the Overwatch AI still kept tabs.
Only the vertical farm that kept them fed stood out from the series of low grey modules. It was a multi-story structure set off to one side of the great cavern. Full-spectrum lights, too bright to look directly at, cascaded out of all the windows, casting a blue glow on the rock surrounding it.
Grateful for a few moments of solitude, he stared at the beacon of light from the vertical farm.
He’d been open about most of his background with his department, how he’d once been a shuttle pilot before he’d gone back for an advanced mathematics degree. How after that, he’d taken a post working for the Protectorate military at the Rock. But what he hadn’t said was that he also had had family on New Haven when the bombing began. Just his wife, Mary. She’d been in her studio behind their house when a bomb hit the roof. A crater now marked what had once been a warm and welcoming home. He wasn’t even left with a body to cremate. A lump formed in his throat as he thought about the last conversation he’d had with the woman he loved. They’d argued.
He took another deep breath and fought to keep his expression composed—he couldn’t afford to show his people too much emotion. Outside, the grey landscape mirrored his general internal state.
No one looked his way when he entered Blackview Hall Room B, the cryptology department he ran. His team remained focused on their consoles, decrypting the near-endless number of messages that came their way. News of the declaration of victory clearly hadn’t made its way here yet, and he couldn’t muster enough energy to tell his people the good news. Without making eye contact with anyone, he continued on toward his office.
At his door, he paused and glanced towards Veena’s cubicle. Her dark hair shadowed her face as she worked. She didn’t deserve the scrutiny Swa directed her way—four months after they’d seconded Veena to the job. There had to be more to the story, but he had no idea where to even start looking for the answer. Besides, his head was pounding.
He sighed and entered his office, closing the door behind him. The bottle of generic rum in his bottom desk drawer beckoned, promising a few hours of numbness.
continued in Chapter 4
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