Chapter 4: A Cold, Quiet and Lonely Type of Folk

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Z’H’AR
The Lonely World
Boron Sector
27f-11-2337

The planet Z’h’ar turned out to be halfway across the galaxy from Station 34-Alpha. Of course it was; this was the sort of luck I was having nowadays. While I’d heard of it, I didn’t know much about it, being that it didn’t impact much on my day-to-day life. Being the responsible employee that I was, I spent the journey reading up on my destination.

Z’h’ar was populated by two intelligent species, but to group both into one category was kinda disingenuous.

One species, the Iyr, were an advanced species, key members of the GMU, and known particularly for their head-to-toe mechsuits. These suits were installed with a number of programmes giving the user new abilities. They might provide extra strength, night vision, in-built assistants – you name it, they had it. Of course, not every Iyr would have every function included in their suit – such abilities were expensive – and typically only owned programmes relevant to their employment. Most notably of all – or so the guidepage would have you believe – nobody outside of their race had ever seen the face of an Iyr.

The other supposedly intelligent species, the Arellians, were little more than barbarians – the equivalent of Terrans over two thousand years ago. A desert-dwelling people, they tend to keep to themselves, farm the land, and were barely even aware of the existence of people from other planets. As such, little was known about their species.

I stared at the planet as we approached, wondering to myself how on earth I was going to solve this likely unsolvable case, on this planet I had never before visited. It was, if nothing else, a long shot.

I suppose I could go work in a bar somewhere. I’d always fancied doing something like that. Maybe I’d be happier there, anyway. No travelling involved, of course, but at least I could count on regular tips. Let’s face it, that would be more than this job ever gave me.

We touched down and I was greeted by a rather cold customs official. There were none of the smiles of home, only a long stare up and down, and a look that seemed to say “what on Z’h’ar are you doing here?” …but it was hard to tell exactly what expression they were pulling from under that helmet.

‘I see you left this part of the form blank,’ the border guard said, pointing at the visa application. ‘Referring to where you will be staying on your visit?’

‘Ah, yes,’ I replied. ‘It was kinda a last minute thing, so I don’t have anywhere yet, but I’ll be staying at a hotel in town, I guess.’

‘I can’t let you through until you have somewhere to stay.’

‘But I-’

‘I can’t let you through until you have somewhere to stay,’ the guard repeated, their tone exactly the same as the first time around.

I shook my head in exasperation, tapped in ‘Z’h’ar hotels’ on my console, and booked the first one that came up. It took a whole five seconds to do. Maybe I could have found a better price if I had browsed for a little while, but I was too petty to pass up on an opportunity to be passive-aggressive.

‘There,’ I replied, showing the guard the confirmation page, ‘Ut’r’a hostel, Central Stronghold.’

The guard nodded, waved me through, and shouted, ‘Next!’ to the queue behind me.

I passed through security and summoned a shuttle from my console. Before I could jump in it, a larger Iyr pushed in front of me, chucking their luggage into the back.

‘Hey, that one’s mine!’ I called out to the Iyr.

The only response I was given was a mildly irritated grunt. They closed the door, and I was forced to summon another. That was a whole thirty seconds of my time wasted already. Not that half a minute was going to make the difference between me finding this girl and not.

After checking in to the hotel (and, of course, spending a good quarter of an hour simply lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling), I headed out to the target’s last known location. There was no time like the present – especially when my job was on the line.

My best chances, really, were in the target returning home by herself. That’s if home was where she actually wanted to be, and this wasn’t just another runaway situation. But it seemed unlikely – she was old enough now that she would have soon been making her own way through life anyway. Maybe she was just caught up somewhere – a party, a brothel perhaps? Although, looking around at the stern, armour-plated Iyr, I couldn’t imagine that either parties or brothels were in particularly heavy supply around here.

No. If I found her, it would be down to my own abilities as an investigator, rather than dumb luck. Perhaps this was why Saotchun was so keen on using this case as a test.

I looked around at the city I found myself in. The central stronghold, operating as the capital here on Z’h’ar, was a desolate place, even for a desert planet. High walls surrounded the vertical city, guard towers posted around every gate. In the city itself, everything was about function; there was no art, no music, only blank screens posted on every street corner. This wasn’t a planet that I would be returning to for a holiday.

The local Iyr kept to themselves, heads facing down, walking with purpose as though they all had somewhere that they desperately wanted to be.

Outside the city, as far as I could tell, was no better. On the plus side, there were none of these charmless Iyr about. On the other hand, they had to deal with a lack of air conditioning, which I didn’t myself fancy in this heat.

I thought it was supposed to be winter here? What do they do in their summers? Melt?

The target, Melonaitopila (which was supposedly a short name for an Itagurinatipilazutinafian), had, by all accounts, last been spotted at a local U’kka shop. The store, while indeed serving U’kka, seemed to in fact specialise in Guran kebabs – a rather grandiose term for what turned to be simply a rodent cooked on a stick. When it came to my turn to order, I stuck to drinks only.

‘Say…,’ I started, ‘Have you seen this woman, recently, by any chance?’

I showed the store owner a picture of the target on my console’s holodisplay. The Iyr shook his head.

‘Not seen her.’

‘Are you sure?’ I prompted. ‘She was here, about a week ago?’

‘In this store?’

‘Yes. In this store.’

‘I have not seen her,’ the Iyr repeated.

I thanked them for their (lack of) help, and sat down to drink my U’kka. When the shift changed, I asked the new Iyr behind the counter the same questions, and received the same result.

This wasn’t a great start, and it wasn’t as though I had a massive number of leads I could follow. I repeated the experiment outside the store, but found that Iyr were unwilling to stop for a stranger from another world. Even when I stood their way, many would ignore me, and the few who did stop were less than helpful. The local Iyr would have me believe that nobody had seen this woman.

I’d landed fairly late, and so the day soon turned to night. Not wanting to be standing around in a strange street after dark, I decided to abandon my post, regroup, and try again tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, a new route of investigation would occur to me by then.

As I headed in search of somewhere to drink (real drink, not any more U’kka, unless I wanted my bowels to resent me), the screens posted around the city all suddenly blinked into action.

A symbol appeared, glowing in blue on the screens, one that I could have sworn that I recognised from somewhere. An equilateral triangle, with a kind of zig-zag hanging out the bottom. This must have been a character in the Iyr’s own language – one that nobody outside their own race was able to understand, even with universal translators. The Iyr really were a private people.

Around me, all the Iyr had stopped to stare at their nearest screen, and were transfixed by it. The symbol, then, was replaced, by an image of an Iyr, sitting, facing the screen. He spoke in the common tongue for a few minutes, during which time, everyone else remained still, silent, fascinated by what they were being told. I listened in; little of it was of interest to me, covering only topics like the local economy, updates on the negotiations with the GMU, and the weather.

Surprise, surprise – it’s hot again.

And then, just like that, it ended – the blue shape being shown again, upside down this time, on the screens. The nearby Iyr took this as their cue to continue with their days. I shook my head in bemusement at the whole situation, and I, too, carried on.

I found a bar open just outside the Iyr capital’s Central Command building. It was an impressive structure, almost perfectly cubic but for the doors and windows. Stretching across the whole of the front face, two symbols were painted in a brilliantly-white tone, presumably meaning “Central Command” in the local language. I took one last look at this monument to government, and entered the bar.

The Iyr’s ambivalence towards the arts meant that their interiors were minimalist, functional. A smooth, concrete bar stood tall along one side of the room, sharp, square corners matching the style of the Central Command building. I assumed this similar motif was unintentional rather than designed – I couldn’t yet imagine an Iyr with that much creativity. Next to the bar itself, a number of (largely empty) bar stools hovered, facing away from the square tables behind them. It was at one of these stools which I sat.

With no bar staff currently in sight, I took a moment to look around at the other customers. A group of Iyr sat, having a quiet, civilised conversation at one of the tables. A young Pritan trained his eye on the Lonely Galaxy’s guide to Z’h’ar, and accidentally spilt his green drink down his “I heart Z’h’ar” t-shirt. In the corner, another Iyr sat alone, his helmet marked with a red stripe.

I pulled my console from my pocket, with the intention of looking up the meaning of this red stripe, when the bartender suddenly appeared.

‘What would you like?’

‘You mean, to drink? Or just, like, generally?’

‘To drink,’ the Iyr replied, and I could only assume that there was a stern expression under that helmet.

What a humourless bunch.

‘Whisky,’ I replied. I wasn’t risking the local stuff, not after that spit-roasted rat I’d seen earlier.

‘Terran or Rykan?’

‘The real stuff,’ I answered. ‘Spelled with an H.’

The barman (or barwoman – it was impossible to tell from under these mechsuits) poured a glass, and I timidly took my first sip. Recognising that it really was the good stuff, I downed the rest of the rather small portion.

The Iyr bartender, still standing and looking at me, poured me another, and asked.

‘I shall leave the bottle, shall I?’

I shrugged – and the Iyr correctly construed that response as a “yes”. I topped up my glass, filling it to the brim, rather than having barely a splash, as suggested by the bartender’s serving.

As I sipped quietly, allowing the warm liquid to run down my throat, I pondered everything that had happened over the past few days.

This job, potentially my last, hadn’t gotten off to a good start. I had no real leads, a population of locals entirely dedicated to being unhelpful, and the heat was almost unbearable. No wonder this case had been the bottom of the pile, the last to be picked.

Trying to distract myself from the inevitability of me failing to complete this job, I pulled out Leya’s journal and skimmed through it again. It was a waste of time, without knowing how she’d encrypted it, I wasn’t going to be able to understand it. Looking through it now, it seemed as though there were sections, each cipher using different character sets. It didn’t seem like she had encrypted the whole thing at once, but maybe every now and then, when she had the chance? I put the journal away again in a huff; I felt destined to fail with that, too.

I spent another hour and a half or so in wistful contemplation; remembering the days of old, and pondering the route I had in front of me.

Only when I realised that my mood was turning sour, did I look around the room once again; it was time for some company. I didn’t fancy wasting my time on any more of the humourless locals – neither the quiet group nor the lone customers with the red markings – and so I fixed my eyes on the Pritan.

Soon, he caught me looking at him, and quickly, embarrassed, shifted his gaze to focus back on his book. I could tell, now, that he was staring at the page, reading the same passages over and over, distracted by me gazing at him. It didn’t seem like he was going to take the hint that he should come over.

I sighed, collected my glass and the bottle, and walked over to his table. The Pritan continued to pretend that he was transfixed by his book.

If you like that guidebook so much, why don’t you just… step outside and actually experience the planet you’re reading about.

I resisted the urge to open with this suggestion, and instead sat opposite him, continuing to look over in his direction. I was conscious, already, that the alcohol was starting to go to my head. I wasn’t usually like this; it must have been the heat.

‘Good book?’ I asked.

‘Yeah… yeah, it’s good,’ the Pritan replied, barely glancing up at me.

‘Want some of this?’ I offered, pointing at the bottle of whisky. ‘It’s good.’

As if to reinforce the point, I downed another glass.

The Pritan shook his head.

‘So, how comes you’re here? On holiday?’

Sensing that he wasn’t going to be rid of me any time soon, the Pritan put down his book and diverted his attention to me.

‘I’m… I’m, err,’ he began, stuttering over his words. ‘I’m just travelling the sector. I just finished studying and… and my dad, he said he’d pay for me to see some of the galaxy.’

‘Ah, I get it. He thought it’d put some hairs on your chest?’

The Pritan, in addition to looking nervous, now looked confused as well. He glanced down at his own, hairless chest. ‘Well… I don’t know about that. But he thought it would be good for me, if that’s what you mean.’

‘And you’ve seen a lot, sitting in bars, reading guidebooks?’ I asked, hoping the smile on my face would be enough for the Pritan to understand that I was just poking fun at him.

‘I’ve been out, too!’ he replied. ‘It’s just… Z’h’ar’s a bit of a lonely place, isn’t it?’

‘Tell me about it. That’s the reason I chose you to come over and bother, rather than this lot.’ I nodded my head in the direction of the group of Iyr, who were currently sitting in silence, sporadically sipping from their glasses.

‘Oh. I see,’ the Pritan responded, and then, when I didn’t carry the conversation any further, asked, ‘So… so why are you here?’

I looked around the room. Nobody seemed to be listening; the group were talking amongst themselves, the lone Iyr was staring into space.

To hell with it, who’s gonna care anyway?

‘Here for work. Looking for someone. Diplomat’s daughter. From Itagurinatipilazutinafi.’

‘Good pronunciation.’

‘Thanks.’

‘So, she’s missing?’

I shrugged. ‘Seems that way. Chances are I’m wasting my time looking for her. The people here… haven’t exactly been helpful. Don’t suppose you’ve seen her?’

I showed my new friend an image on my console’s holodisplay. He shook his head.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I guess that was a longshot.’

I raised my glass took another gulp.

The Pritan, loosening up a little now, leaned in close. ‘What about that guy? You asked him?’ He pointed to the lone drinker in the corner.

‘What, I wouldn’t ask him cos he looks so scary?’

The Pritan pulled a face which suggested that he thought that was exactly the reason that I wouldn’t have asked him. ‘Tell you what, if you do it, I’ll pay for a quart of that bottle you’re drinking.’

‘Make it half.’

‘No,’ he responded.

‘OK. A quarter it is.’

How could I refuse such a generous offer?

I stood from the table, set my eyes on the Iyr in the corner, and began walking over to him. Catching myself on the edge of one of the tables, and mumbling, ‘Ouch,’ to myself was enough to draw the lone drinker’s attention. He stared me down as I approached.

‘Hi, how-re you?’ I asked, slurring my words a little, but surely not enough that anybody would notice.

The Iyr remained silent, still, and stared at me.

‘I like your… your red bit… up there,’ I continued, pointing at the stripe on the Iyr’s helmet.

Still I got no response. Despite this, I carried on talking.

‘So, anyway, I was looking for this-’

‘Leave,’ the Iyr interrupted.

‘What? Why?’

‘You ask of things that concern only the council.’

‘Concern the…,’ I began to ask. ‘What you on about?’

‘The…,’ the lonely Iyr started… and then fell silent. For a few moments there was only the vacant stare of the mechsuit’s eyes, the inhabitant apparently taking a moment to think about their response.

‘No,’ the Iyr started up again. ‘Leave. No more questions.’

I turned to look over to my new friend, accidentally stepping on the Iyr’s foot in the process. They grunted a noise of irritation, but didn’t wince, so I acted as though it hadn’t happened.

My friend shrugged, and I shrugged back at him in response. Not wanting to shout across the bar, I mimed in his direction the action of taking a sip of drink. He nodded; he would indeed pay for the promised amount of whisky.

I walked back towards him, meaning to skirt around the quiet group of Iyr, but accidentally collided with one as they stood up. Their drink was knocked from their hand, spilling as the glass dropped to the table, a clunk echoing around the bar.

For a moment there was only silence, and then the Iyr whose drink I had spilled raised their arms at me, throwing a punch in my direction. I tried to dodge it, the blow softened as it only barely caught my arm.

So these Iyr aren’t so dull after all!

‘Bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?’ I asked, as I struck my foot forward to sweep my assailant’s leg. ‘All I did was-’

The Iyr dodged my attempt to floor them. Now even further enraged, they struck me in the side of the head, dizzying me, and sent me tumbling to the ground. They stood over me, broadening their shoulders as though trying to intimidate me..

Through their legs, I saw the Iyr in the corner stand up, and begin marching towards us. When they, too, noticed this, the rest of the Iyr scattered in fear.

‘No more!’ the lonely Iyr called out as they strode. ‘I will have no more of you in here! Nobody casts doubts upon the Iyr!’

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