Case files of Rolkahr Dholztra, Kuzdrohna Department of Public Safety.
In a gray, functional holding cell, lit by a single LED bulb embedded in the ceiling, a detainee cowered under the penetrating glare of a police detective’s multifaceted eyes. Although Detective Dholztra’s distant evolutionary ancestors were tiny critters with many features in common with terrestrial insects, his internal and external organs were adapted to function on a much larger scale than any Earthly bug.
At nearly two meters, his imposing frame was taller than average. Plus, the sleek, black contours of his exoskeleton, articulated by orange bands across his gaster, gave him an air of fearless integrity. For when it came to police business, Dholztra was as dead serious as a lit match on a pool of gasoline.
“When did you first spot the biped?” asked the detective.
“Down an alley off Bak Reltoor,” said his detainee. “An ugly one, too.”
“All humans are ugly, Halfoorn” said Dholztra. “I need to know if this ugly human is the one we’re after.”
“Dunno, Detective.…” said Halfoorn.
Dholztra leaned over the stainless steel table separating then and cuffed his informant’s left compound eye.
“Hey! … no, really,” said Halfoorn. “Look I know I’ve steered you wrong a couple times, but this is real. Wow, that hurts. It was dark and the human was … can’t believe this … digging around in a ‘sinto chute.”
“Lucky it wasn’t flash time,” said Dholztra. “The reject could’ve lost an arm. Bad enough the poor bastards have only two.”
“What did we do to deserve them?” Halfoorn whined.
Dholztra glared at his raggedy informant. Out of shape and overweight, with a scar running all down his thorax, he had every tell of a typical dreznel addict. The detective watched as the frightened figure’s four hands trembled like a dingy vibrator bed in the Aldrinoor Hotel.
Dholztra handed him a handkerchief from the desk’s central drawer.
“Here,” he said, “pull yourself together. We have lots more ground to cover before I let you go.”
Dholztra knew why the humans were on his homeworld. Everybody knew, except this dunderhead, apparently. The humans on Nolatre were the pathetic descendants of a failed invasion force.
Twenty-five years ago, the pulpy demons had arrived in a fleet of sapphire-blue FTLs and tried to muscle in. They’d barely set their heavy, synth-leather boots on the ground before they started broadcasting the terms of surrender. But they hadn’t figured on Nolatrid patriotism and superior tech.
It wasn’t long before SWARM ground troops were wringing out human carcasses like bath towels on Wash Day. Soon the defeated human army had hustled off the planet in such a panic, it left a good fifty thousand of its own behind. They’d been hiding ever since: in sewer lines, abandoned warehouses, and even the shattered hulks of their battle cruisers, some of which still littered the outskirts of Kuzdrohna proper.
“Cowards,” Dholztra muttered. “Breed like wheelarcs, too.”
Some of the older humans were still tech-savvy. They’d hacked into munitions dumps, stolen the codes to food and machine replicators, the whole spectrum. And to think a decade ago, SWARM had offered them a peace settlement, in recognition that their ancestors’ crimes shouldn’t be visited on them.
As it turned out, the Nolatrids needn’t have bothered. The scavenging derelicts had ambushed the settlement talks, sliced the thorax of the Deputy Prime Minister with a rusty scythe and carved “Death to Sectoids” in crude characters across every square inch of the ceremonial Hall of Justice.
But enough. The detainee, Halfoorn, was supposed to have information about the location of one hot shot human street boss, known absurdly as “Big Brian.” A couple of Halfoorn’s associates had been caught, selling a crate of particle guns to the humans for a truckload of stolen luxury items.
Imagine, Dholztra thought, selling out the Homeworld for an upgraded scanner relay and some contraband sap wine.
The detective leaned forward and shoved his sharp proboscis menacingly close to his informant’s right eye facets.
“So, come on,” said Dholztra. “What makes you think this particular human knows anything about Big Brian?”
“First off, Detective, he was wearing that stripy armband,” said Halfoorn. “You know, the one with the white stars on it. But that’s not all. He also had a cyber patch stuck to his head.”
“That clinches it,” said Dholztra.
A few cycles back, Big Brian had raided the tech center at Dolrin-Bavar with a force of two-hundred operatives. Turns out they still had a couple of positron grenades from the invasion, which nobody wanted them to use. So they got away with mountains of chips, circuits, power cells, handhelds and other tech, including a cache of cortical interface devices.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Detective,” said Halfoorn, “I think maybe this one must have been kicked out of the clan. He was muttering about ‘being framed,’ whatever that means.”
“Look at you,” said Dholztra. “Did you actually understand that human gibberish, or was that just the dreznel talking?”
Halfoorn sat up straight in his chair and for the first time, looked as if he had an ounce of self-respect.
“Listen Dholztra, I used to be a Linguistics professor at Kuzdrohna Academy, until those bipedal thugs broke into my place, killed my sweet … my sweet wife and injected me with dreznel. Help me out and I could be a translator for you.”
The detective stared at his ruined informant and took a deep breath. Halfoorn’s hard luck story was easily the most original he’d heard in twenty years on the force. And yet Halfoorn was certainly dreary enough to be an academic. Trouble was, SWARM AI had figured out human-speak in about a day and a half. In fact Dholztra had a neural implant that gave him access to a couple hundred other languages as well. And to think Halfoorn had figured it out on his own. Yet, not only was the universe unfair, its unfairness was categorically irrelevant.
Dholztra shook his head. Regardless of Halfoorn’s woes, this interrogation was a waste of time. He needed names, streets and markets where Big Brian did business and where — rumor had it — he led a training center. It was hard to believe, but this scraggly remnant of a human army was probably gearing up for war.
He let Halfoorn go with the usual warnings. It was never wise to let informants think they were in the clear.
“Now. Am I gonna hear about you running dreznel this month?”
Halfoorn bowed his roughly lozenge-shaped head.
“No way, Detective,” he said. “I … I like the warehouse job you got me.”
“Do you know, when you lie, your mandibles clatter?” he said. “Just keep it clean.”
The harried street informant shuffled out, with his lower right limb dragging limp behind him.
“Better get that fixed,” said the detective. “Your word’s no good if I can’t believe you can get around.”
“You got the credits to pay for that?” asked Halfoorn. “The Academy Collective isn’t paying my way anymore, you know.”
Dholztra wrote a comlink down on a scrap of pale blue paper and handed it to the trembling informant.
“Call this doctor friend of mine and mention my name,” he said. “He doesn’t ask embarrassing questions. And while you’re at it, ask him to have a look at that eye. Somebody did a number on you.”
“Thanks,” said Halfoorn. “But I happen to know it was an accident.”
With that, he was gone. Dholztra walked out of the interrogation room and down the polished stone hallway that led to his hexagonal office. It was a typical Kuzdrohna City affair. Its rounded corners and arched ceiling gave off an air of solidity — enough to give its occupant every assurance that CityHive had his back at all times. Aside from a few official plaques, a standard data cylinder cabinet and some framed holograms of the city, supplied by the municipality, his workspace was largely unadorned.
Dholztra reached his dark, hardwood desk, plopped down in his red mesh swivel chair and propped his four feet on a soft, spongy hassock to his right. He leaned back and lit his ceramic pipe — a typical Nolatrid affair with a leafy motif carved around the bowl. Soon the cheery smell of travazde weed suffused the air.
Pensive, the detective cocked his head to one side. What, he wondered, was Big Brian’s next move?
“Makes no sense,” he muttered.
The humans had to know they couldn’t do more than be irritating. After all, it had been easy enough to bring them down when they were still a real army. Not to mention that they’d lost a fight they themselves had started. That ought to have had a deflating effect on their arrogance, but no. Of course, he realized, this younger generation had no idea of history. All they knew was the feeling they weren’t wanted, which they perpetuated with their own brutality.
Yet as right as the Nolatrids were to defend their homes against attacks from roving gangs of scruffy, ruthless humans, it was obvious that non-stop war would accomplish nothing but more of the same.
At least, it should have been obvious. Instead, in the last general election, candidates from all three parties had competed with each other to promise the most savage reprisals against the biped intruders.
So far, the most SWARM had been able to accomplish was the establishment of a “reconciliation program” that gave individual humans a chance to earn co-citizen status. Any alien who came forward voluntarily, underwent anger management training, stuck to the recommended PTSD therapeutic program, achieved a high minimum mastery of Nolatridese, and completed a hundred hours of community service, was given a Red Disk.
Humans authorized to wear a Red Disk could earn a living and get in line for public housing in a small “human” sector, apart from Kuzdrohna proper. There was even talk of setting up a school system for Red Disk children, but so far, the political opposition was too steep. Most Red Disk humans ran flower shops, or convenience stores. The few who were actually fluent in Nolatridese might also work as dispatchers, or field Customer Service calls. At that moment, barely a thousand humans had completed the program, which was always on the verge of getting cancelled by the conservative wing of the SWARM Forum.
What the politicians refused to see was how accurately they were shooting themselves in all four feet at once. For the tenth year in a row, Nolatre’s application to GalactiFed had been flatly denied. The reason? “The Human Question” still hadn’t been resolved. Across the settled universe, the major powers agreed that it fell to the Nolatrids, as the more mature party, to find a peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis.
Yet the current litter of political hacks didn’t care a crenzhol leaf for GalactiFed membership.
“Do we really want a bunch of globe-headed know-it-alls telling us how to run our world?” the noisiest and most obnoxious candidate had railed. “It’s time we put Nolatre first.”
Trouble was, “first” was destined to mean “last” in a few more years, if Nolatre were the only world in the entire sector that was shut out of trade, technology sharing, natural disaster relief … the list went on.
Enough antenna twirling, thought Dholztra .
He was, he realized, a township enforcer, not the Grahl-Patoan herself. Let the grand lady and her many ministers handle the big picture. He had a rogue human to haul in, one with a grudge, who could maybe be turned. At this point, the violence on the streets was still too small-scale for SWARM to care about, much less the Synod of Colonial Governors who monitored Nolatre’s colony worlds.
But, the detective was sure, the recent escalation was part of an emerging trend. While the humans were the biggest trouble makers, there were other dissident factions among his own species. Rumors that the humans were now being courted by fringe members of the Kaljinte party felt disturbingly plausible. All the more reason to act decisively, but discretely. A cry of police brutality by the fringe group wouldn’t go unnoticed. especially once the newsnets got hold of it.
You have to make a move, anyway, Dholztra scolded himself. He set his pipe down, stood up from his desk and crept out of his office. Ten minutes later, he was out on the street in an unmarked ground car, heading for the Bak Reltoor quarter.
It was as good a place as any to start. Where there was one shiftless human there were likely to be more. He’d thought of taking a robotic unit with him, but in that part of town a machine presence of any kind would have stuck out like boils on the backside of a pale yellow, Plactori swamp hog.
No, he’d decided, at this point, he’d learn more from direct observation than an android’s abstract sensor array. He needed to get a feel for the culture of Bak Ratoor, not merely its measurements. The better, in any case, to watch undetected for whomever was harboring a lone human, an outlier from an outcast population.
Dholztra took care to park his ground car on a side street, though the distinction between side street and main drag was fairly academic in that part of town. Before he’d set out, he’d taken the precaution of activating the car’s chameleon circuits, so it would blend in with the wild assortment of rust buckets already lined up against the crumbling curbs.
Almost as an afterthought, the seasoned detective threw up a signal-canceling field around himself and his devices. Not only did he want to avoid detection by the humans, there was the delicate matter that his incursion into Bak Reltoor was not exactly an authorized investigation.
He wasted no time getting out on the street and set out to look for any one of the large, leaf-green municipal trash bins that might attract a desperate human. With the small handheld he’d brought along, he could call up a list of each bin in the quarter along with their ‘sinto schedules. It was reasonable to think a scavenger would avoid any unit about to disintegrate its contents — and that narrowed his search parameters. The closest plausible unit was three blocks to the east and one block north, so he headed out in that direction.
As it happened, he’d only walked a block and a half away from his ground car when he caught sight of a mustard yellow Belanthrese transmat capsule fading into view. When it had fully materialized, in front of a small smoke shop, a lone Belanthrese stepped out, with his slimy, amphibian skin encased in a pearly white encounter suit. Hovering to one side of him was a dull metallic crate about two meters by three maters that Dholztra assumed was resting on a set of gravity modulators.
A moment later, a pair of scraggly humans slipped out of the alleyway to the right of the ship, each one holding a crude lase pistol which, by the look of it, had a fifty-fifty chance of actually firing. One of the bipeds, Dholztra noticed, had a cyber implant, like the one Halfoorn had mentioned. Both were dressed in makeshift outfits, patched together from discarded industrial packing material, dark green garbage bags and what looked like remnants of human military uniforms. Not for the first time, Dholztra was grateful that his exoskeleton obviated the need for clothing. The thought of being encased in cloth at all times made his thorax tighten.
The detective ducked back behind a large red delivery vehicle about a meter to his left and waited to see what happened next. From that distance, the stench of ammonia gas that vented out of the Belanthrese suit was just this side of tolerable. The humans, he noticed, had covered their stubby noses with scraps of cloth but still kept back from the frog-like Belanthrese. There was a brief exchange of encoded niceties before the amphibian tapped a keypad on the left wristband of its encounter suit and sent the crate floating over to the humans.
“It’s everything you asked for,” said the Belanthrese. “Do what you’re told and there will be more. Cross us and we won’t even bother to tip off the Nolatrids. We’ll melt you down ourselves.”
“Cut out the tough talk, Phiboid,” said the older of the two humans. “If you could pull off what you’re planning without us, you wouldn’t have come here. We’ll handle it.”
“Brian the Big will hear of your insubordination,” said the Belanthrese.
“Yeah?” said the human. “He knows what he can kiss of he doesn’t like it. Now get outta here before somebody smells you.”
The Belanthrese made an unrecognizable hand gesture, recalled his transmat capsule with another tap on his left wristband, and departed.
“Shoulda shot him,” said the human with the implant. “Now he saw us.” The second, taller human, cuffed him on the back of the head.
“Idiot,” he said. “You want to get us all wiped out? Imogen, too?”
A piercing siren sounded, most likely from a drone patrol that had picked up the transmat capsule’s energy signature. The two humans scurried back down the alleyway they’d emerged from. Soon after, a squat hovering device floated into view, only a few meters from Dholztra’s position. From the look of its matte green finish and superior maneuverability. this was a late-model design.
Pretty high-tech for this neighborhood, he thought. What is it after?
The savvy detective held his breath and hoped his signal-canceling tech was still up to date enough to fool the drone’s sensors — not to mention the AI that monitored it. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the airborne device issued its report, which he picked up immediately on his handheld:
DATA SHADOW DETECTED. NO KNOWN
SOURCE. ANALYSIS PENDING.
Dholztra shrugged. Establishing the identity of a specific device from a data shadow was like picking out a lost credit tile from the sewer system. Still, the fact that the ghost had appeared at all, gave him pause. He obviously hadn’t received the latest upgrades. Worse, he couldn’t look into it without having to reveal how he happened to notice his device wasn’t state of the art.
“Let it ride,” he muttered.
Meanwhile, it was more than a little imperative for him to exit Bak Reltoor before nightfall, when the crazies came out. With his antennas tuned to the slightest sound, he made a brisk walk back to his car — and found an empty space where it should have been.
His heart raced for a full thirty seconds, until he remembered a simple fact. Late-model drone sirens had a tendency to cause chameleon circuits to flip over into full light-canceling mode. Dholztra kicked his right front leg into the area where his left-rear tire should have been and received a satisfyingly solid jolt.
A couple of command codes later, his car was visible again and, with it, a hand-scrawled note that was tucked under the windshield wiper:
Death to nosy bug boys
The detective grabbed the scrap of paper, slid into his car and fed the note into the portable scanner embedded in the dashboard. The results were intriguing. A phrase in his own language scrawled by a human, even though, to the unaided eye, you’d think the hand writing was Nolatrid. All the way back to the station, Dholztra tried to put the last few hours into perspective.
Regarding the note, he’d always figured it was a question of time before more humans picked up his language on their own. Nobody had ever said the bipeds were stupid — just unreasonably belligerent, territorial. squalidly racist and rabidly patriotic, even after their own homeworld had left them to rot. What they also were, he realized, was positively brilliant at making things worse for themselves.
Trouble was, now that the Belanthrese were involved, the humans might soon be on the verge of making things worse for the Nolatrids, too. And that was the tipping point for Dholztra’s dilemma. He now had evidence of high-level, interplanetary intrigue, but no way to share it without one of two undesirable consequences.
If he simply issued a report up the chain of command, he’d make every senior officer in the Corps who wasn’t aware of it, feel like a sap. It was the best way to get an early retirement plan shoved down his throat, with a public ceremony and a medal to tie up his career in a no-longer-fit-for-active-duty insurance clause.
By the same token, if he appealed directly to SWARM, he’d face libel charges from the Belanthrese embassy and a guarantee of jail time, followed by dishonorable discharge with no pension.
But was keeping silent an option?
Protnoak would have known what to do, he told himself.
But she’d been gone for years now, even though it stung like yesterday. A cell disintegration disease, directly related to her research into dark matter propulsion systems, had ultimately pulverized her. In theory, she still existed — just spread out over a couple hundred thousand parsecs of space-time.
Now when he needed it most, her flawlessly logical, effortlessly ethical mind was lost to him. He was reduced to imagining what she’d say, a game he’d never liked when she was alive.
“Go ahead,” she’d demand with a tight smile, whenever they argued. “Guess what I’m going to say.”
More often than not he was dead wrong. She’d surprise him with a fresh line of thought, so original and so obviously right it was impossible to understand why no one had laid it out before. But just maybe, Dholztra had learned a little something in the eight years they were together.
She’d want me to try, he thought.
So with his tubular heart in his mouth, he opened his secure comlink and dialed up Commissioner Olithcraz. He had no idea what to expect. Olithcraz had demonstrated superior intelligence, even insight, on several occasions. Yet he was often as hard to read as a paragraph of ancient scripture from Tholindahar Province, way up high in the mountains of the western hemisphere.
Dholztra made contact and was greeted, as usual, by a deep intimidating voice on the other end of the line.
“Olithcraz here,” said the voice. “Make this quick, Detective. I’m meeting with the Mayor in 01 rotations and she’s ready to burst about the human problem.”
“Yes Sir,” said Dholztra. “Have you heard credible reports of a Belanthrese presence on the homeworld?”
“Credible?” said Olithcraz. “Strange choice of words. Nolatre is open to all of our political allies.”
“But Commissioner, what if I told you my informants have sited a Belanthrese presence in Bak Reltoor?”
“Better clarify that, Detective,” said Olithcraz. “Belanthrese with valid visas can go anywhere they like — except for restricted government facilities, of course,”
“Yes Sir,” said Dholztra. “But, I’m referring to a Belanthrese agent delivering contraband to the humans in a sealed cargo container,” said Dholztra.
“Like I said,” said Olithcraz, “I have a meeting with the mayor. If you have an actual case file, submit it, and I’ll take a look. Sounds like all you’ve got is a fishing expedition with a couple of your street sources. Now really, Rolkahr. You’ve been around long enough to know a lot of holgenarx sounds pretty convincing over a couple too many bottles of sap wine. I’d be careful of too much fraternization if I were you. Anyway, until I see something solid, the Belanthrese are as pure as the waters of Hilian-Drotar, you got me?”
“Yes Commissioner,” said the detective. But the line was already dead, and that meant the die was cast. Either he went ahead undercover or he forgot the whole thing. The latter option was tempting. Between losing Protnoak, and being passed over for Chief Inspector for the third and last time, the fire in his belly to do good for the city, let alone the homeworld, was dying down a little more each year.
Stuck in a blue mood, Dholztra could have sat there half the night. But his buzzing comlink had other ideas. So did the silky voice on the other end of the line.
“Hey Rolkahr,” said the voice. “I miss you. Did your bad office AI forget my number again?”
The detective’s internal temperature rose a full five degrees as he struggled to keep his voice nonchalant.
“Treldraah, larva-doll” he said, “What’s keeping you up so late?”
“Thinking about you, is all,” said Treldraah. “You coming over tomorrow like we planned?”
By the time Dholztra hung up a good fifteen minutes later, he was even more convinced that his crusading days were over. Maybe it was time to take the prudent path, to stick to his desk duties and the letter of the law. After all, he wouldn’t be the first poor slob to set his expectations too high and get disappointed. Maybe a vacation, or just a couple days of “sick leave,” with Treldraah would help put things in perspective. It wasn’t like he was getting any….
A titanic explosion, only blocks from his office, jarred him all the way out of pitying nostalgia and hurtled him back to the here and now.
(To be continued: Read Episode Two here)
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, which was published in October by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Image from Brenkee; design by Steven S. Drachman.