Kingdom of Acatalec Sneak Peek

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Chapter One

Drone Pilot

How was it possible that all the local drones were with passengers already, or still returning from a drop off? It wasn’t. Any attempts at hailing one within the next five minutes would be near impossible, and the only reasonable explanation was… Jessi, the bane of my work life, thought it would be hilarious to make sure every drone nearby was redirected to other locations. Rushing out the door with a bagel hanging from my teeth, I had minutes before being late to work. I didn’t have those precious minutes to spare.

Typical.

It wasn’t like she wasn’t on the boss’s good side. Second best drone pilot in our sector, she always rubbed her customer ratings in my face every chance she got.

She wasn’t a complete monster.

I knew she’d only delay my request by the few minutes I needed to avoid being tardy. To keep her off my back I resorted to desperate measures, or risk losing my job, which wasn’t necessarily illegal, but it wasn’t not illegal either. Though, if Mr. Azel knew what I was doing, I’d probably have lost my job long before now.

And that was exactly what Jesse wanted to have happen.

Quickly, I tapped into my NeuralGo, which was second nature and as easy as blinking since I’d had mine installed at the time of my accident. Most don’t get theirs so early, considering brains weren’t fully matured until twenty-five, but I was a special case, and it was probably why it was so easy to use. Because my brain grew-up with it.

Pulling up my work’s designated drone airspace, D.D.A., I found the closest drone was only one minute away heading right past my home. The NeuralGo connected to my contacts through RedTech, and I haven’t needed the keyboard on an overlay display to enter data since I was sixteen. This was easier than deciding whether I should or shouldn’t eat the last cookie in the box. No one wants only one cookie later, so it’s better to let it mingle with its friends in my stomach.

Intercepting the destination, I plugged in the new coordinates. My contacts flashed red, letting me know the authorization protocols had triggered. Entering in my password, I logged in my credentials: Pilot officer class A. Link to on-route drone connected, and rerouting to my location.

Guilt made me cringe and to ease that little demon I made sure to setup the programming so that as soon as I was dropped off it would go back to its original pickup. Adding a few upgrades to their service, and a small credit as compensation for their extra wait time. Who would complain about that? They probably wouldn’t even notice the few minutes delay, with how glued most people were to their social media. Every time I ever went out, they all looked like zombies staring off into space, but really just surfing the linked up interface in their contacts.

The drone landed in front of my apartment building and the wind drafted through my hair. If it weren’t already messy, it would’ve been then. I would have had a slower descent for a normal passenger, but I was in a hurry, and there was no time to waste. Kelly, my best friend ever since I temporarily borrowed her family’s drone without permission, would probably be clucking her tongue at me right now in disappointment with how I left the house in what she would consider rags.

Tossing out of bed last minute did have its advantages. I smirked thinking about my best friend Kelly’s reaction if she saw me disheveled like this. I’ll let her act appalled later in our video chat, when I describe what I deigned appropriate to wear to work today. Wrinkles were my new best friend today. I’d have to tell Kelly she’d been replaced.

I didn’t wait for the ramp to assist me. Before the elevating hatch even finished lifting on the transport, I popped a wheelie, which was the first thing I tried to learn how to do when I was eight, and then used the handlebar assist to pull me and my extra weighted equipment into the drone. Rapid-fire pressing the close-door function as soon as I was in helped soothe my anxiety. I knew it did nothing to really speed it up, but it was something to occupy the seconds, so it wasn’t a complete waste. Letting my fingers pound out some nervous energy was the least I could do.

Once inside, I connected to the panel in front of me and bypassed the auto function pulling out my manual joysticks. Now these suckers were off market; I had to spend a diamond worth of credits on these, all in the spirit of illegally hacking commercial passenger drones for manual flight.

Not that the joysticks themselves were what controlled the drones. It was the chip inside that held manual function code and security breaches. The joysticks housing the chip just made it easier for the link in the NeuralGo to process my intentions, plus made the whole experience a little more tactile. I never understood why everything had to be so hands off these days, but in a pinch knowing I could do it without the joysticks was comforting, even if a little less enjoyable.

Lifted back in the air, I connected my overlay to my contacts with the current drone airfields, so I could track where I was in relation to other drones, and off we went. Bypassing the speed restrictions and maneuvering around other air traffic was no picnic, when traveling at these speeds. At least, for a normal person it would be terrifying.

For me, this was heaven, and it was over all too soon. Zipping up, through, around, and into the parking lot. In minutes I arrived at work, and the clock read: 7:58 a.m. My fastest time yet. I might actually clock in for work on time for once. I was really pushing my luck on having my pilot record outweigh my work ethic, but I did my job, and I’m pretty sure that’s what counted.

Pushing the door open to speed up its slow ascent, I yanked out my joysticks shoving them into the hidden compartment under the legs of my chair, that should never see the light of day unless I had a wish to see the inside of a jail cell and snapped the panel back into place.

Preprogrammed to go back to its original destination before I commandeered it, I didn’t have to worry about things as I turned off my speed restrictions on my chair to supercharge this baby out of the drone and through the automatic doors of this over-sized office tower. I took a moment to peek over my shoulder and confirmed that the transport was already lifting off and forgetting all about our short adventure together.

As I entered work, a green light flashed over me reading my authorizations to enter the building through my NeuralGo. Before I could even wheel up to my desk, the screeching voice of my prissy co-worker could be heard behind me, probably coming from the break room already.

“Are you ever on time?” Jessi groaned. “You know the rest of us have to pick up the slack when you’re late. Eight a.m. is when the drones are supposed to be active, not when you’re supposed to be at your desk. Here,” she waved her hand at my cube with disgust, and a notification popped up on my interface, “These are the results from your sector’s drone tests this morning… Or didn’t you remember that we had an update last night.”

“Thanks,” I said reluctantly. I supposed I should have been more grateful that she came in early to run the tests on my sector, but it was hard to even smile at her. This was honestly the nicest she had ever been to me.

“These should be good to go,” she said arrogantly. “Maybe next time you should come in earlier for software updates.” It was only a matter of time before that girl got me fired, but really who was I kidding. I would be the reason why I got fired. Being on time wasn’t my strong suit, but I was the best drone pilot in the business. My boss valued my skills more than my timeliness, and even Jessi knew that, though against her nature to admit it.

Most employees at Zeiten Drone Transportation had to be here earlier, but I tended to take advantage of the disability leeway that was given to me. Extra time to get to work didn’t seem to help me much. Sleeping in seemed like a better use of that time.

The green light on my monitor scanned me before my computer turned on. A notification popped up showing that the software updates had been downloaded just like Jessi said. I really should’ve come in earlier to do the testing before the drones were swapped out and live. But, thanks to Jessi, I didn’t have to. My computer then prompted me to confirm software testing was complete. I only had to think the word, cleared. My sectors drones were now live.

Jessi sauntered back to her seat, and I could see a clear gleam in her eyes. She smiled briefly before her eyes met mine and it turned into a scowl.

If it weren’t for me, she’d be considered the best drone pilot in this sector. Her resentment was clear on her face. It wasn’t her fault that her reaction times weren’t as fast as mine. She didn’t have the history I had. Maybe if she was forced to plug into the neural networking at a young age, she’d be well past where I was in terms of integrating with the software. My brain had more time to create more pathways, it was as simply as that, and one of the reasons why I was so highly ranked within the company without actually having a title to show for it.

I brought up the traffic on my interface. Drone airspace always reminded me of the old school arcade game Frogger. All the many little dots representing the drones leaping in and out and zooming across the screens.

Being a drone pilot was pretty boring for commercial passenger drones, but the true skill and fun was in manual operation. That’s when I truly felt alive behind the manual interfacing that linked you directly to the controls. Avoiding other drones, controlling the speed, and getting to your destination faster than any flight service could ever do. There were restrictions on how fast a drone could fly, because after a certain speed it’s hard to control the airspace. But not for me. Instinct took over, and that’s all that mattered. Those extra neural pathways made me feel like I was the drone. Like lifting a finger, chewing your food, or smiling.

It was all natural to me.

My screen lit up red.

One of the passenger drones was sending a distress signal. It was rare for there to be an issue on the job. This would be the most exciting my glorified observation appointment had been since I started working here five years ago.

Quickly, I manually entered the programming and discovered that the flight simulation that controlled the sensors did not download the new software appropriately. It wasn’t reading the location signals of the other drones in the airspace, and it already picked up a passenger. It would collide with another drone if it didn’t start communicating with the other drones in the sector.

But, more likely, it would collide with a building, because it’s on-flight location was malfunctioning, and other drones still had collision avoidance. This shouldn’t be happening, the new updates were only supposed to update valid air traffic locations, and any adjusted flight courses to different destinations. It was solely used to better the passenger’s experience and make the service faster. The only way this could have happened was if there was an error in the download of new information. Maybe even a loose bit of hardware, that should have been caught during the… test run this morning.

The test run done by Jessi before I arrived. She would have seen that there was an issue with this drone before I sent it out for pickups. She may have hated me, but did she hate me enough to put a passenger in danger? There was no way. This would get me more than fired. It would put the whole company at risk. Zeiten Drone Transportation had a spotless record, and one incident like this due to human error, would defeat the whole slogan that the company was built on—safety guaranteed. No other drone service had been able to provide this level of security, and I wasn’t about to ruin that reputation because of Jessi. I may have been ethically in the gray zone, but I had my pride.

Protocol would be to ground the flight and comp the passenger as another drone comes to finish the transport, but then the passenger would know there was a problem, and one review like that would be the end of my super boring, but well-paid career. I wouldn’t get another drone pilot job anywhere, not even in the private sector, why would they hire someone with a reputation for not double checking the test flights after a download.

I wouldn’t let her have the satisfaction.

Already mapping the flight course into my contact screen, I took a quick look around to make sure no one was paying any particular attention to me. They had their own screens to focus on, but it was still a risk. I pulled out my manual override joystick from the hidden compartment in my wheelchair’s seat. This would have been considered the best part of my day, to manually drive the drones on the clock, but the whole thrill of it was short lived considering the drone wasn’t empty, my cube mate Kline could see my illegal accessory at any moment, and I had to seamlessly transition to make sure it followed its path as if it were being automated.

“Good morning, this is Tyler from Zeiten Drone Transportation. I’d like to offer you the opportunity to earn a complimentary five-minute transport by filling out one of our surveys. Do you accept?” I tapped into the passenger’s microphone feed to distract them from my manual adjustment. It would be slight, barely noticeable, since all I was doing was making small adjustments to the straight away, before the turnoff up ahead.

“Continue,” the man’s voice said in approval. It was an odd response, but I was too busy maneuvering for upcoming drones, and the pathway ahead to think too much on it. I mean, most people would say something more along the lines of a typical sure, yes, no, or something.

I eased over to adjust for an incoming drone passing by with upgraded speed, giving them the right of way on the airspace. This was normally an automated process, with all the drones communicating with one another about their locations, but not this drone, and not today. That’s why the company had pilots on staff as puffed-up watch dogs, for the very, very rare occasion that we actually had to fly one ourselves. But that was rare, if at all, hence how depressingly boring and soul sucking being a pilot for a commercial passenger service was.

“Thank you. The survey will appear on your screen before the end of your trip, and the credits will show up on your account once completed. May the spirit of travel take you safely to your destination.” I tried to be pleasant enough, saying the mandatory closing phrase after any communication with a passenger. I exited the communication before I could even hear if the person had a response, it didn’t really matter, the likelihood of the person having said anything that required my involvement was too low of a probability to warrant keeping the line open, plus it’s our policy to not eavesdrop. Privacy and all, less I’m connected to their comms the less likely I’ll have to overhear anything I can’t unhear, like that time Passenger Handy accidentally pressed the pilot assistance button while indecently indisposed. I can never unhear those noises, and I’ll never be able to even hope to have that much fun in a passenger drone. Except maybe during a manual drone race. Those always did get me a little hot under the collar, but not quite the same way.

Lucky for me, the ride for the passenger was a fairly short one. Only five minutes, and at regular passenger speed, not upgraded which would have made my manual piloting a lot more obvious at those speeds. Finally, I put the drone on descent, and sent the survey to the drone.

The man decided to complete the survey, which was also not very common, since most people decided to say screw it and exit the drone immediately. I’d look at it later to see how much I’d fooled them into thinking I’m a perfect machine of transportation piloting safety, which would undoubtedly make this whole ordeal feel worth it. If anything, maybe I should be thanking Jessi for the impromptu opportunity to log some manual piloting hours.

Before exiting the drone, the passenger pressed the pilot communication button, also a rare occurrence.

“Thank you for completing the survey. Your credits will appear on your account shortly,” I informed him, because I couldn’t think of any other reason why the comm button would be initiated, since he’d already landed at his destination.

Speaking of destinations, I was too distracted with following the on-screen flight directions and drone location overlay on my contacts. The whole thing felt like an arcade game with higher stakes distracting me from noticing the final coordinates until it was flashing in front of my sight lines. In big green bold lettering: Zeiten Drone Transportation…

They were coming here. I’d just manually transported someone who worked here. Meaning that there was a higher probability that if they were a pilot like I was… then they could, if they were good at their job and paying attention, tell the difference between automated and manual. Though, I was hoping the short duration, and the distraction of the survey was enough to make sure the later didn’t happen.

I mean, most pilots weren’t really into manual operation like I was. They wanted the paycheck, and most of the time even in instances like this they could just push the code into the drone to have it descend and send another drone out. Their piloting education was mostly just a piece of paper that meant in a pinch they could, in theory, pilot a drone.

“Ms. Beryl, will you see me in my office?” The deep voice was all of a sudden much more recognizable now that I had time to think about it. I’d heard it often enough in company memos and quarterly video conferences.

It would be my luck that the one drone having issues would be my boss doing an impromptu screen check of the services and how his drones were performing. Such an overachiever, and much too sexy of a voice to have to listen to him firing me when he made it up the elevator.

“Of course, sir. I’ll just finish up this diagnostic screening and transfer my overlays.” I tried to sound all official, like nothing was wrong, because there was still a chance. Even if it was a small one, that maybe he was too preoccupied. That was a big maybe and, given his attention to detail, highly unlikely.

“No need. I’ve already finished transferring your data.”

Shit. That was not promising.

“Please head straight there. I won’t be long.” The calming chime noises of the door closing on the drone signaled the conversation was over. And just like he said, all of my drones in my sector blinked, disappearing from my overlay viewer.

Game over.

I was no longer the one in charge of monitoring them.

My heart skipped, and the pit of my stomach churned that quickly eaten bagel in my belly like a day-old burrito. Lucky for me I didn’t have to worry about keeping steady on my legs, I’m not sure they would have held me even if I had full use of them to begin with. The manual magnetized brake on my wheels clicked off, my NeuralGo seamlessly connecting.

Wheeling back and away from my desk, for me it was as simple as other people walking, but it didn’t change the stares people gave me as I passed. I could see Jessi peek out from her cube, and the way she smiled made my blood chill. If I didn’t suspect it already, that look confirmed it. She knew the testing had a drone with an invalid upload and made sure that I thought she’d already cleared the drones before I arrived.

I glared over my shoulder at her as the elevator came to greet me, and she merely shrugged as if to say, I’m not the one who didn’t check the report, I just ran it. And she was right, which made me even more infuriated. I shouldn’t have taken her word for anything. I should have scanned the report she gave me before initiating all the drones out for transport. I would have caught the error in the drone and sent it in for engineering to make sure everything was fine with the hardware. Even though she was a sneaking, conniving skank it was my fault that protocols weren’t followed, and it was also my choice not to immediately ground the drone. I didn’t have to like it though.

The doors closing behind me, I heard Jessi say, “It’s about time.”

Thank you for reading Chapter One of Kingdom of Acatalec! Want more?

— Stay tuned with the release of Kingdom of Acatalec for 2022 with The Wild Rose Press by signing up with my Newsletter if you haven’t already, plus get a free copy of Blood Crescent and start the Divine Series journey while you wait.

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