Case Files of Rolkahr Dholztra, Kuzdrohna Department of Public Safety:
Bak Reltoor at night was a cityscape of eerie quiet, against which suspicious or downright disturbing sounds broke at close range. While Dholztra’s two particle guns could give him plenty of cover, a single shot would change his shadow into a crime scene. In that violent instant, he’d trade the cover of darkness for a flashbulb’s nosy glare.
But there was still more reason for caution. Because a Nolatrid’s hard exoskeleton obviated the need for clothing, Dholztra’s guns were out in the open; they rested in holsters strapped to two of his four legs. For all he knew, the sight of his pistols might tempt a bored loner to use him for target practice. It only made sense to put them into light-canceling mode. While the Handbook didn’t expressly forbid it, Dholztra doubted the Department would approve. The phrase “concealed weapon” was liable to have an ominous ring, if word of his investigation reached the newsnets. Yet he had to hope the Department would also disapprove of a singed detective with a gaster full of ionized plasma.
“Have to play it smart,” he whispered. He slipped out of his car, locked in its chameleon settings and sealed it noiselessly with the handheld that doubled as a comlink, which he’d strapped to his second right arm. His first thought was to find Halfoorn, even though, as his most obvious move, this left him more open to ambush. But what choice did he have? From this point forward, Dholztra realized, his every move was based on a gamble: that he was worth more alive than dead to the terrorists. He didn’t like the odds.
The only saving grace was the warren of interlocking side streets and narrow alleys that snaked through this part of town. There were hundreds of different ways to sneak into Halfoorn’s favorite haunts. With his eye facets trained on points in all directions, and his antennae cocked to pick up the slightest sign of trouble, Dholztra set off with the studied nonchalance of a seasoned professional. Along the way, he was confronted, not for the first time, with the failings of Nolatrid society.
At its foundations, of course, Nolatre was more equitable than many Class-4 civilizations. But in the years since the humans’ failed invasion, Dholztra’s homeworld had slipped into a convenient amnesia about the less fortunate. Sadly, the poverty of the abandoned humans had created an indelible association, in the mind of many citizens, between the words “poor” and “alien.”
As a consequence, this shadowy neighborhood, already in decline when Dholztra was born, was sinking faster and faster into a morass of shattered souls and the deadly habits that comforted them. One of these souls was Halfoorn himself. Was the story Dholztra’s chief informant told about his past the truth, or simply a by-product of his dreznel addiction? Either way, he had to admit that Halfoorn was cut from different cloth than the average inhabitant of Bak Reltoor.
Regardless, when the wary detective finally found the reddish-brown Nolatrid at the back of “The Laughing Beetle” — slumped over a bowl of ghaldrazo stew — he couldn’t stop his tubular heart from fluttering. Could Halfoorn be … was he…?
A rough voice called out to Dholztra’s left.
“Hey!” said the voice. “You know that slouch? Maybe you feel like paying his tab before I chuck him out in the street?”
Tempted as he was to flash his detective badge, just to watch that gruff bartender squirm, Dholztra held his tongue and settled Halfoorn’s tab in cash. After casting a stealthy, analytical glance around the bar, he returned to his informant’s table to assess his condition. It took a couple of tries, but Dholztra managed to rouse Halfoorn with the sound of his own name.
“Dholztra,” said the bleary-eyed diner. “What took you so long? Thought maybe the Belanthrese….”
“How about you tell me outside?” said the detective. “Looks like they need your table in here.”
The last thing Dholztra wanted was a lot of loud talk about the unfolding crisis right out in public. With a little prodding, Halfoorn found his legs and managed to shamble out into the dank air with the detective at his side.
“There was … something … I wanted … tell you,” he said.
“About the Red Disk you sent me?” asked Dholztra.
Halfoorn looked up at him, his antennae drooping.
“Oh, Rolkahr … it was pathetic, what those … Belanthrese lizards did to her. Never saw so much human blood. You know something? They bleed a lot.”
Dholztra could see Halfoorn was on the verge of passing out again, so he talked fast.
“Where’d they take her?” he asked.
“Who, the lizards?” asked Halfoorn. “Nowhere. Couple of HCBI agents muscled in at the last minute and they scattered. Looked like the agents were gonna take her to a hospital in Humantown. Hey, can I just go to sleep now? My facets are killing me.”
Dholztra sighed, and helped the poor bedraggled addict over to the nearest stoop. Fortunately, it was plenty broad and deep enough for a bed. Dholztra figured the high steps were carved out of marble at least a century ago, when Bak Reltoor had been, incredibly, home to bankers, doctors and rising politicians.
“Hospital,” he whispered. Though he was desperate to find Imogen, entering Humantown in the wee hours of the morning would attract unwanted attention. Besides, he’d so far accomplished precisely nothing — and time was running out. To judge by the voice on his office phone, the City of Kuzdrohna was about to become the epicenter of a major political uprising.
If only he could get a lead on how the rogue Belanthrese and the traitorous faction that had infested SWARM were working together. Hard as it was to stop that train now, it would be even harder when the engine was going full steam. But, Dholztra realized, there was another angle to consider. Sooner or later, he was sure, a double cross was coming.
If Nolatre was the prize, no way either party would be satisfied with only a half share. And when those odds played out, the lid would blow off world government for good. Trouble was, the corruption ran so deep, he might dig down for miles without finding its rotting core.
The Commissioner’s in on it, too, the detective reminded himself.
Come to think of it, that probably meant Olithcraz’ cronies on the Kuzdrohna City Council were looking the other way at his lavish budget requests. That might explain the explosives and the lase canon array. But with expenditures that big, Mayor Guldraath would have to be clued in, either as a co-conspirator or a blackmail victim.
Dholztra set off in the direction of CityHive, in the hope that, this late at night, he might catch the tail end of a scheming transaction. Maybe just seeing who went in or out of the Mayor’s office would yield some clue to the conspirators’ next move. He was grasping at straws and he knew it, but there were times when straws were all a detective had.
But before he’d walked more than a meter, a nagging thought made him pull out his comlink. In the midst of this tension, the sound of Treldraah’s voice on the other end was like a drink of cold water on a hot summer day.
“Rolkahr?” she mumbled. “What time is it?”
“Listen, larva,” said Dholztra. “I don’t have much time. But do me a favor, would you? Go visit your sister in Romnexia for a few weeks.”
“What is it, Honey?” said Treldraah. “You in some kinda trouble?”
“There’s gonna be trouble for everybody soon,” said the detective. “And I need to know you’re not in the middle of it. Just get on the next airbus. Don’t even pack. I’ll send you some credits as soon as I can.”
“Don’t worry about me, you big lug,” said Treldraah. “I’ll be fine. Just don’t let anybody cut up that beautiful proboscis of yours.”
Dholztra had wanted to say more, but she closed contact and, of course, it was for the best. As it was, he had to hope the call had been too short for some wise acre to track with a homing device. Be that as it may, it was time to head out.
To keep a low profile, he left his car in its parking spot and took the subrail west and south one mile from Bak Reltoor to CityHive. The train, as usual this late, was mostly empty. All the easier to spot the odd-looking Nolatrid huddled over an expensive metadigital tablet. Was it the flickering yellow light in the car or did this particular citizen have a genetically altered exoskeleton? Either way, Dholztra’s practiced eye noticed something strange about this character — not least, the furious way he entered string after string of commands into his tablet.
Like a programmer, Dholztra reflected. Or an android.
Either way, if he had to guess, it was likely that a suspect in a situation as unusual as city-wide terror just might be ever-so-slightly unusual himself. Immediately, a memory of an argument he’d had early on, with Protnoak, his late wife, popped into his head.
“Oh, so only unusual Nolatrids commit crimes, is that right?” she’d demanded. “I have an extra stripe on my thorax….”
“You know I love that stripe, larva,” he’d said stupidly.
“I’m not talking about your pervy little fetish right now, Rolkahr!” she’d screamed. “The point is whether my stripe makes me a suspect in your case. What? Am I a good kind of ‘different’? Well, I’m so glad I made it into your club!”
They didn’t speak for days after that. Dholztra knew how pointless it was to build an argument about principles out of dry, pragmatic facts. But what Protnoak never grasped was that facts were all a detective had, to move a case forward. Some facts were dead ends, but every one of them had to be pursued for its potential value. And the fact was, this particular subrail passenger had “trouble” written all over him.
“Bad time to visit Kuzdrohna, isn’t it?” he asked. “Course, when you save up your credits all year for a vacation….”
The odd-looking figure looked up from his tablet.
“Not a tourist,” he said. “Not a patsy, either.”
“Relax pal,” said Dholztra. “Just making conversation. I’ll let you get back to your programming. Though, I have to say, I’m surprised an advanced model like you needs an external device.”
“Not an android either, OK?” said the stranger. “Craters, a guy gets half his body blown off fighting those disgusting bipeds, then he has to spend the rest of his life looking like a freaking machine. Finally pulled myself together to get some part-time coding work. Don’t need to be mocked for it, do I?”
“You were in the war?” asked Dholztra. “I thought all the survivors got great pensions.”
“Sure,” said the former soldier. “It’s so great I have to give three-quarters of it back to SWARM to cover my medical expenses. All this hardware has to be cleaned out and fine-tuned every quarter. So unless I want to eat in a soup kitchen every night, I gotta work.”
Dholztra shifted his weight in his seat. Either this guy was a great actor, or he’d just found a lead on a major government kickback scandal. Trouble was, until the HCBI got its hands around the nascent terrorist movement, no one was liable to care about a lone veteran’s complaints.
“That’s … that’s rough,” he said.
“Yeah? Think so?” said the war veteran. “A bunch of us have got together to let SWARM know they can’t get away with it. You could join up yourself. It’s the real deal. We’re even getting help from Belanthra, but you didn’t hear that from me.”
“Why would the lizards care about you?” asked Dholztra. “No offense, but Nolatre’s not really they’re problem.”
The subrail slowed down for the next stop.
“Know what?” said the stranger. “The way my body hurts in the morning, I don’t care who helps me. SWARM’S so cheap, I can’t get the replacement part I need for another half-cycle. Gotta make do with painkillers that make me lose my lunch most days.”
The doors of the train car whooshed open and the stranger shuffled to the exit.
“Gralkidret Park in two days,” he said. “Show up for the afternoon rally and one of us will find you.”
Stunned, the detective watched as the car doors slammed shut and the subrail continued on.
What are they up to? he asked himself.
Suddenly, the scope of off-world involvement with Nolatre had expanded exponentially in his mind. Belanthra, it seemed, was using every available means to tear his homeworld apart. First, they’d roped in disgruntled humans and now, the disgruntled veterans who’d defeated them. Wherever this led, Nolatre society was taking a hit it might never recover from.
And by the sound of it, the process had started some time ago. Until that night, Dholztra had never heard of a kickback scheme in the Veterans Association like the one the stranger had described. Someone, whether off-worlder or Nolatrid, had started a lucrative racket right under society’s proboscis — and there was no telling how far it went.
Objectively, Belanthra’s determination to destabilize and, perhaps, subjugate Nolatre made no sense. The two worlds and their colonies had been cooperating for the past five centuries on favorable terms.
There had been little poverty, near full employment, universal health care and, with the exception of the humans on Dholztra’s homeworld, a full range of civil liberties for all. And that was not to mention the limitless horizon of space-time that every star-faring culture had access to. By now, as Dholztra was not alone in thinking, the historical forces that had produced thousands of years of conquest and domination by countless civilizations, really should have waned.
Something has made the madness return, he thought. And in that moment, he realized, there’d be no Law Enforcement solution to the evolving terrorist crisis until the source of that madness was uncovered.
After a gradual, trudging slowdown, the subrail reached the CityHive station and came to a clattering stop. Dholztra made a casual exit, partly for effect, in case someone was watching, but also to help himself stay calm. With so much at stake and so many bad actors at large, psychic tension was his worst enemy. Besides, he realized, he’d come alone to observe, not to be a one-insect strike force. All he was after were leads.
He strode up a flight of gently sloping stairs to the street and left the subrail’s aggressively cheerful ambience behind. Out on the broad sidewalks of the CityHive complex, its spacious layout had a calculated, calming effect on all but the most sociopathic visitor. It was almost impossible not to feel safe here, amidst gracefully proportioned buildings that, for all their architectural efficiency, nevertheless conveyed a mood of benevolent authority.
Yet tonight, Dholztra knew, he couldn’t afford to be lulled into complacency. His city, let alone his homeworld, was decidedly not in good hands. He shut his eyes tight and resolved to stay on mission. That meant finding a covert vantage point from which to observe the Mayoral mansion without being detected.
The most obvious cover was a series of boulders that were excavated when contractors dug out the mansion’s foundation over five hundred years ago. If he hid behind them, he’d have a ringside seat to the spectacle of government corruption he hoped to unmask.
Yet, crouching down there, he figured, was the surest way to be found. The boulders would likely be monitored by CityHive security 24/7. Instead, he’d have to rely on electronic surveillance, by tapping into the fleet of microdrones the Department maintained in every sector of the city, including the Mayor’s residence. For an experienced operative like Dholztra, it was nothing to pull up the data feed from that fleet on his handheld. So without so much as a furtive glance, the detective slouched down onto an inconspicuous park bench and tapped in the programming codes needed to access the drone feed.
Looks quiet, he thought.
Had he come all this way for nothing? Every instinct in his exoskeleton told him “no.” The Commissional Olithcraz was involved so was the Mayor. It was just a question of time before … There! Leaving the mansion by a service exit was a Belanthrese agent, stuffed tight into an ill-fitting dark grey encounter suit. At the threshold was Mayor Guldraath himself, waving the Belanthrese agent on, with the bland familiarity of a family member at a holiday meal. Seconds later, the agent summoned a transmat pod and was gone.
”Worse than I thought,” the detective muttered.
Of all the players on the field so far, Dholztra found these off-worlders the most puzzling. What had changed? Why rock the boat at all, and why now?
So engrossed in surveillance, Dholztra was too late in noticing the fetching night crawler who had just set her svelte body down on his park bench and wasted no time scooting over to his side.
“Kinda late to be out in the park, Mister,” she cooed. “Let me guess, you got a thing for a late-night rendezvous? Or is it a wicked architectural jones you just can’t shake?”
“Maybe I just like the night air,” said Dholztra. “But what are you doing, trolling this beat. It’s as dead as the morgue. Aren’t you better off in the theatre district?”
The female slapped him hard across the mandibles.
“Think you can talk to me like that?” she said. “Think again, Detective. Forgive me for trying to show you a good time. But, OK, if you don’t want to play it smart, let me introduce you to my manager.”
All at once, Dholztra’s attempt to see the big picture was obscured by the explosion of a noxious smoke bomb, no more than a meter away, to his left. Instinctively, Dholztra stood, spun away from the smoke — only to smack straight into the armored chest of a Belanthrese street fighter.
Stunned, he backed off and tried to reach for his pistols, until he felt his four arms pinned behind him with the easy strength of a Department of Safety robotic unit. A familiar voice rang out from the robot’s sound system.
“Can’t take a hint, can you, Rolkahr?” it said.
Dholztra’s voice snarled..
“Olithcraz, you traitor,” he said. “What’s the matter? Did a crate fall on your head or were you born this way?”
“Pretty righteous talk, from a pathetic little puppet,” said Olithcraz. “Bet you sing yourself to sleep with the homeworld anthem, don’t you?”
“Don’t even want to think about what you sleep with,” said Dholztra. “Tell me, how do you keep a Belanthrese pilot happy in his encounter suit?”
The detective‘s only reply was a rifle butt to the back of his head that knocked him out cold. When he woke up, he had every reason to wish the blow had killed him. Aside from the sharp pain in his tangled antennae, the nagging pinch at his wrists and ankles told him he was chained down to a hospital bed.
“Lumpy mattress,” he muttered.
“Didn’t think you’d ever wake up,” said a female human voice to his right.
Dholztra trained his blurry vision on a young woman in a khaki jumpsuit, who was lounging in a black padded chair.
“Imogen?” he asked.
“Oh God, it’s true,” said the woman. “You bug boys can’t tell one human from the other. Don’t worry, your little collaborator girlfriend is in way too deep to be out on her own.”
“Who … are you, then?” asked the detective.
“Nobody to you, Shell Head,” said the woman. “Sit tight. The doctor will see you now.”
Dholztra watched as the human stood up and clicked her heels out of the room. His head pounding, his limbs trembling, he nevertheless resolved to listen closely to his captor’s words. If there was one thing he’d learned, it was that crooks loved to crow about their Master Plan. Didn’t matter if they were kingpins of a crime syndicate or a two-quark con-artist with a phony charity.
The scratched-up door to his dingy room swung open and Dholztra had his visitor pegged, from the moment his plump frame lumbered into the room. The only hard part was listening to his oily voice.
“Rolkahr, my comrade,” said Olithcraz. You look exhausted. That’s on me. I’m afraid I inspire a bit too much devotion in my operatives.”
“Until somebody makes them a better offer,” said Dholztra. “What I don’t get is what the Belanthrese offered you.”
Though the Commissioner chuckled, his dull red eye-facets flashed with grim determination.
“You think I’m working for the lizards?” he asked. “Now I know my boys banged up your head too hard. The Belanthrese are working for us. At least the smart ones are.”
“Us?” asked the detective. “Now, isn’t that cute? You started your own club. Let me guess: you’ve already earned all the merit badges.”
Olithcraz smacked him hard across the proboscis.
“You’ll find out,” he said. “Meantime, watch your tone. The only reason I’m keeping you alive is to bait that fool Increalaar. Once the HCBI is under our control, the planet is ours. And that’s just the beginning.”
“Tell me something, Commissioner,” said Dholztra. “Do you really think the Interstellar Council will let you get away with this?”
“What do I care?” snapped Olithcraz. “Where were those data dribblers when the humans attacked? They wouldn’t send one ship to back us up. And now they dare say the humans are our problem. Let me tell you something. By the time we’re finished with our little genome-remapping project, the humans are going to be everybody’s problem.”
“I’d tell you you’re crazy,” said Dholztra, “but that would be an insult to every nut-job in the universe.”
The Commissioner’s antennae twitched.
“Very funny,” he said. “It’s too bad. We could use a smart guy like you. But you’re stuck in the pupal stage like everyone else in SWARM who won’t listen.”
The Commissioner spun around and yelled into his comlink, as he hustled out of Dholztra’s room.
“Get me Director Increalaar of the HCBI on the line,” he said. “It’s time we filed our missing person’s report.”
The vibrations caused by the slamming door sent sharp shocks of pain up and down Dholztra’s exoplated body. In his weakened condition, the exertion of the past few minutes had been too great. His face-to-face encounter with an insidious evil opened a chasm of fear he might easily have tumbled into — had his aching mind not slid down deep into unconsciousness.
(To be continued – Read Episode 4 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.
Design by Steven S. Drachman, from an original image from BeFunky.