Excerpt from “The Dragon’s Nest”

The Dragon’s Nest

A Sharlokh and Dr. Watt-ZENN mystery

It is hard to dream in murder.  More apt to say, nightmare in murder.

But, I get off track, as I often do in these cases.  Let me explain.

It was raining.  I overslept.   But, it wasn’t a real concern.  Work had been slow of late.  When I don’t have enough busy work to distract my processors, the downtime tends to lead to neural snarls.  I had taken to watching dramas throughout the night to distract and busy myself as I could not sleep well–because when I was in this state my twisted mind would provide all-night rerun war thrillers.  Traumatic stress exhaustion was costly.  So, I was up until daylight, but then the morning dragged.  At some point I obviously dozed off.  Now awake, yet still groggy, I put on tea, showered, and dressed.  Took my time browsing the news.  It was one of those lazy, rainy days in the pre-monsoon season, where the weather was still pleasant and the soft shuch of rain made everything hazy and calm.  I suppose in retrospect it was a calm before the storm.

I rubbed some oils across the half-bald skin, half-chrome plate of my head.  The human-ZENN interface tended to itch and flake if I didn’t.  I grabbed my hat and took a carriage to the office.  I worked in an odd partnership with Sharlokh, a private detective of some note on Carnon.  This big planet, spinning in a sprawling seventeen-world system tucked away in the Imran Cluster on the edge of Humanspace, was home now.  Or where I hid.  But this cluster lay officially beyond the reach of foreign empires and human states, beyond their politics in general and wars in specific, which was just the way I liked it.

I called Sharlokh to let him know I was on my way.  His deep, reptilian voice burred in my ear.  The subsonics of his species always messed with the speaker in my earlobe.

“You are late, doctor.  I am on my way out.  We have a case.”

A new case?  The ZENN triggered and my mind instantly sharpened. 

Sharlokh’s thickly accented voice continued, “I need a partner who is actually available when the work arrives.  I can always find another AI.  You can wait for me at the office until I return.”

Sharlokh was a bit gruff.  I am not sure if it was a Koror trait or just him.  But, I was used to it.  All of his species lack human emotions.  Coldly reptilian, as critics put it.  Besides, I had known quite a few human bastards from my years in the Galactic War.  Often the very ones I was stitching back together would curse me out the worst.  According to some of them, the medics were the worst, because we weren’t frontline fodder. We got to sit back in the hospital ships and salvage the damaged in complete safety.  Of course, they never realized that all of us “soft” medics were also the ones that had to go to the front unarmed and extract the wounded in the middle of firefights in order to get them back to the safety of the hospital ships. And occasionally, like me, you got blown to hell and became one of the wounded soldiers.  Whatever. You grew a thick skin in the Planetines.  I knew my worth.

I parried Sharlokh with, “You won’t find one like me.  There are very few ZENN-cyborg doctors and fewer still who would put up with a former enemy.  You might say I’m one of a kind.  I’m on my way already.  I will pick you up and we’ll go direct.  Be out front.”

He grunted on disconnect.

I looked out the window at the trees lining the sidewalks.  Green leaves glistened everywhere and trunks passed by like pickets.  It had been raining all night.  Water flowed through the plastcrete streets like a river.  Vanceville was a city near the equator on the curled, green continent of Marakata.  It’s meandering streets and warrens of buildings sprawled down out of the Ageddon foothills and across the rain-soaked delta of the Robeson River.  It lined the shore of Ochama Bay, a quiet nook of the broader Madhyamara Sea.  Vanceville was home to hundreds of millions, but still managed to pull off the atmosphere of a sleepy little seaside village.  Temperate weather.  Quiet people.  This was exactly why I chose to live here.

The carriage arrived minutes later at our office.  Sharlokh stood like a tree on the sidewalk.  He was two and a quarter meters of gaunt, brown, lizard.  Except that they were tailless, his race resembled nothing more than bipedal crocodiles.  The Koror were one of the most formidable races in the galaxy.  They were once our fiercest enemy, but if there had been a silver lining to the horrors of the universe on fire, it had been when the Humans and Koror finally became allies.  Our union had driven back the Ashvani tide and probably, realistically, saved Humanity from extinction.  At least it saved our civilization from complete ruin and ended the nightmare of the Galactic War.

“Admit passenger,” I ordered.  The carriage door opened with a hiss, water cascading down the curve of the door.

Sharlokh entered and sat facing me.

The carriage door sealed.  “Destination?” the carriage AI asked.

I raised an eyebrow and stared into his impassive red eyes.  I would say he was grinning back at me, but Koror always displayed a snout full of sharp teeth.

He provided an address that was on the waterfront, in the dockyards.  I instantly looked up the address.  I whistled.  The address was on the edge of the Koror Sector.  “Now we know why they called you in for an opinion.”

“Perhaps.”  There was a long pause, then he shocked me with, “I can tell by the haggardness of your face that you have had a rough night.  I presume the usual.  If you do not feel up to working on a case today–”

“No, I’m fine,” I interrupted.  I know he was attempting a pleasantry, but he actually dislikes laziness, illness, complaints, or anything else he construes as signs of weakness.  Even though my injuries and experiences in the War granted me all the legitimate excuses in the world, I tried to never show a weakness around Sharlokh.  Koror did not appreciate weaknesses.  I was his partner, albeit junior, and acted as the human half of the detective agency.  Though I began as a helper– more of an assistant, secretary, and recorder of his cases– I had more than earned my keep and proved my worth. Though he had been a Koror military policeman in the Galactic War and had far more experience in this field than I, he still needed a diplomatic go-between for human society.  Besides, the ZENN implant granted me a literal computer-like efficiency in recording, accessing, and processing data.  I am a cyborg.  I used to really hate this metal, AI-powered replacement for the half of my body that the Ashvani blew off, but I have acclimated.  The Zygopleural Encephalopathic Neural Net embedded in my skull caused me headaches–literally and figuratively–but it also gave me fantastic abilities.

“Very well.  Detective Alden contacted me.  A human was found last night.  Annahilge Lim.  Female.  Approximately twenty-six years old.  Apparent suicide.”

“If Alden called, it isn’t a suicide.”

“Correct.  There are discrepancies.”