Read The Domino Pattern Online

Authors: Timothy Zahn

Tags: #Fiction, #SciFi, #Quadrail

The Domino Pattern (22 page)

BOOK: The Domino Pattern
4.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

It was going to be highly interesting to find out what exactly they’d seen.

What they’d seen, it turned out, was exactly nothing.

“That’s impossible,” I growled, glaring at Bayta from my seat at her computer desk as she sat stiffly on the edge of her bed. “You left them there. You ordered them to watch. How can they not have seen something?”

“I don’t know,” Bayta said. Her voice was as stiff as her posture. “They just froze up, somehow.”

“How does a Spider freeze up?” I asked.

“I don’t
,” Bayta repeated tartly. “Something happened to them. Something I’ve never heard of happening before.”

I stared at her… and then my fatigue-numbed brain finally got it. Bayta hadn’t gone all stiff and angry because she was mad

She wasn’t angry. She was scared.

“Okay,” I said, forcing the frustration out of my voice. This was no time for emotion of any sort. “Let’s start at the beginning. When did this blank spot happen?”

“As near as we can tell, just under two hours ago,” Bayta said, her voice still stiff but sounding marginally calmer now that I was no longer yelling at her. “About the same time
Emikai says someone cut him free of his bonds.”

“And it knocked out both Spiders so that they didn’t see anything?”

“It didn’t exactly knock them out,” Bayta said hesitantly, frowning out into space as if looking for the right words. “It was more like they had been looking somewhere else and… is ‘spaced out’ a correct English term?”

“It is indeed,” I assured her. “Did they notice anything unusual happening just before or during this brain freeze?”

“How could they notice anything
the brain freeze?” Bayta asked patiently. “They were incapacitated.”

“I know
were,” I said. “But they’re telepathically linked to the rest of the Spiders, and I assume no one else was affected.”

“No, no one else was affected,” Bayta said, shaking her head. “But the two twitters were somehow disconnected from the rest of the Spiders during that time.”

“And no one noticed that?”

She shrugged. “The Spiders aren’t a group mind,” she reminded me. “They’re not connected that tightly.”

I grimaced. And even if someone
noticed, they probably wouldn’t have done anything. That wasn’t the way Spiders did things. “Well, it’s certainly not the first dead end we’ve hit in this case,” I said. “At least we’ve proved now that
Emikai isn’t our killer.”

“Have we?” Bayta countered. “Couldn’t this have just been an elaborate plan on his part to deflect suspicion away from him?”

“Hardly,” I said. “The whole story about being ordered to kill me implies that his midnight visitor thought he would be willing to do the dastardly deed, which implies a relationship of some sort with said midnight visitor. That actually puts him closer to the center of this mess than he would have been if he’d just stayed put like a good little prisoner. It’s more likely that the real killer was hoping this would muddy the waters by throwing some of the suspicion onto Emikai.”

“Or hoped
kill you,” Bayta said quietly.

“There is that,” I conceded. “Fortunately, he couldn’t be present to either encourage or assist. He had to be up here pulling Vevri’s strings.”

“Yes,” Bayta said, her voice chilling a bit. “Let’s talk about
Vevri, shall we?”

I took a deep breath. For a while I’d considered keeping my deal with the Modhri private, knowing that Bayta probably wouldn’t take the news very well. But down deep, I’d known all along I couldn’t do that. Bayta was my ally and my friend, and it would be neither safe nor fair for me to cut her out of something this important.

Besides, I could still see the quiet pain that had flooded into her eyes when she’d learned I’d held out on her about the Chahwyn’s new defender-class Spiders. I wasn’t about to go through that twice in one trip.

So as she sat still and silent on her bed, I told her all about it.

I was prepared for her to be stunned, or aghast, or outraged. I wasn’t prepared for her to be quietly unreadable. “So there
a mind segment aboard,” she said when I’d finished. “I’d always thought there probably was.”

“It seemed a reasonable deal to make,” I said, still trying to figure out what was going on behind that emotionless face. “This may be our only chance of getting fresh information on this case.”

“And you’d rather work with the Modhri than let a killer escape punishment?”

“This isn’t an ordinary killer, Bayta,” I reminded her. “He’s figured out how to commit quiet, subtle murder on a Quadrail. Not just beat someone to death with his bare hands, which we’ve seen before, but real, genuine, untraceable murder.” I waved a hand. “Not to mention that he’s also got a technique for freezing or otherwise incapacitating Spiders. You think the Chahwyn will want him getting away with all that?”

“It doesn’t really matter what the Chahwyn wants, does it?” she countered. “You’ve already made the decision.” She eyed me. “But there’s a possibility you haven’t mentioned. What if it was the Modhri himself who was responsible for what happened with
Emikai and the twitters?”

“And, what, he committed all the murders, too?” I asked. “Two of the victims being his own walkers? Why would he do that?”

“To get us killed,” Bayta said quietly. “To get
killed. Maybe the reason he volunteered to help us was to set you up for a thought virus that would make sure you went back to the baggage car after he freed

I grimaced. There was some sense in that theory, I had to admit. More sense than I liked. Especially when you tossed in Bayta’s speculation earlier in the trip that the Modhri might slowly be going crazy. “If that’s the case, his reaction tomorrow when I turn up alive ought to be interesting,” I said. “His explanation for what happened tonight ought to be interesting, too.”

Bayta seemed to draw back. “You’re not going to go
with this whole thing, are you?”

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” I said. “No matter who’s behind the murders, the Modhri or someone else, the fact remains that
has figured out a way to get poison aboard a Quadrail. If it wasn’t the Modhri, he may be able to help us figure out how it was done. If it
the Modhri, he might let something slip while he’s pretending to assist us. Either way, I have to play it out.”

Bayta’s throat worked. “I suppose you’re right,” she said reluctantly. “You won’t do anything more until morning, though, will you?”

I thought about pointing out that, technically, it
morning. But she didn’t seem in the mood for that sort of whimsy. “No,” I promised. “No matter who comes scratching on my door.”

“And we’ll be going together?”

I winced. She hadn’t added
this time
to her question, but I could hear it anyway. “Of course,” I assured her.

“All right.” She took a deep breath. “Then we should probably get some sleep now.”

Apparently, the conversation was over. “Agreed,” I said, standing up and stepping past the folded-up divider into my own compartment. “I’ll see you in the morning.” I reached for the divider control.

“Maybe you should leave it partly open tonight,” she said.

So that we could be better able to protect each other? Or so that I would have a harder time running off somewhere without her again?

Or had this whole thing so spooked her that she just wanted the sense of a little company close at hand?

“Sure,” I said. Touching the control, I let the divider close to about half a meter, then tapped the control again to stop it. “Pleasant dreams,” I called through the opening.

“Good night, Frank,” she called back.

Chapter Seventeen

I woke up seven hours later, still tired, and with an aching throat where Emikai had delivered his object lesson. The elusive thought that had been nagging at my brain after my first midnight conversation with the Modhri still eluded me, but on the plus side the possibility that our new ally was trying to kill me was looking considerably less likely here in the light of day.

“I don’t think the Modhri is the killer,” I told Bayta over breakfast. “If he’d wanted me dead, he could have done it when he took me out after all the Fillies started coming down with digestive trouble. As you yourself pointed out, he had Witherspoon’s medical bag right there, with hypos and any number of potential overdoses to choose from.”

“Except that he wouldn’t have had a built-in perpetrator to take the blame, the way he would have if
Emikai had killed you,” Bayta pointed out.

“Right, but why would he care?” I countered. “It would have cost him at most one more walker, whichever one he picked to take the fall. After killing off two other walkers, that hardly seems like a consideration.”

“Perhaps,” Bayta said. She still didn’t seem convinced, but with her professional mask back up I couldn’t tell what she was thinking or feeling. “Are we starting with him, then?”

“Actually, I was thinking we’d start with Dr. Aronobal,” I said. “She’s had plenty of time now to wonder where her pal Emikai’s gotten to. Worried people often blurt out things they would keep to themselves if they were calmer.”

“That seems reasonable.” She took a final bite of her breakfast, her other hand reaching under the table. “Here—you should probably carry this.”

I reached under the table, and she pressed the
into my hand. “Thanks,” I said, slipping it into my pocket. “And thanks for the assist last night, too, when Emikai was making a run for it. You were right on top of things.”

She nodded, thanks or simple acknowledgment, I couldn’t tell which. “You ready?” she asked.

I sighed to myself. This was going to be a very long day. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We left the dining car and headed once again on the long walk toward the rear of the train. As usual,
Muzzfor nodded politely as we passed the apparently eternal card game he had going with his two contract-team companions, while the other two Fillies, also as usual, ignored us completely. I looked around at the other passengers as we walked through that car, wondering which of them was Prapp, the Tra’ho government oathling the Modhri had named last night as being the third of his walkers. Both Tra’ho’seej in evidence, unfortunately, had the distinctive oathling half-shaved heads and flowing topcuts, which I’d counted on identifying him with. Neither Tra’ho gave us a significant look as we passed, either, which was the other way I might have recognized him.

Qiddicoj was similarly preoccupied with other matters as we passed him three cars later. Apparently, the Modhri was keeping to himself this morning. Maybe he was ashamed of his unwitting part in the murder attempt against me last night.

Maybe he was just sulking because it hadn’t worked.

Aronobal’s seat was in the first third-class coach. We reached her car, to find the doctor herself was nowhere to be seen. She was probably farther back in the train, in the dining car having breakfast, or possibly sneaking back to our makeshift brig for a hurried conference with
Emikai. That would be the most interesting possibility of all. Passing her seat, we continued on.

We were just entering Emikai’s assigned car, two back from Aronobal’s, when I began to notice a change in the atmosphere around us.

At first it was nothing I could put my finger on. The passengers seemed quieter than they’d been in either first or second, but not quiet in the sense of peace or comfort. This was the quiet of fresh tension simmering beneath the surface.

Behind Emikai’s car was the third-class dining car. Bayta and I took a quick look inside, confirmed that Aronobal wasn’t there, and kept going toward the entertainment car.

As we did so, I could feel the quiet tension continuing to grow. More and more, the passengers’ eyes turned toward us as we came into sight, and continued to follow us as we passed.

And the expressions on their faces were running the unpleasant gamut from neutral to suspicious to downright hostile.

Bayta noticed it, too. “Something’s not right here,” she murmured as we passed through the shower car.

“And whatever it is, we seem to be getting the blame for it,” I murmured back. “Is anything happening with Emikai?”

“The twitters say he hasn’t had any visitors since you left, and that he’s still secured,” she said. “The conductors aren’t reporting anything odd with the rest of the train, either.”

“So it apparently is just us,” I concluded.

“Do you think we should turn back?”

It was a tempting idea. But we had a job to do, and somehow I doubted the passengers were going to get any less hostile as the day wore on. “Let’s at least go as far as the entertainment car,” I said. “If we haven’t located Aronobal by then, we’ll backtrack and wait for her at her seat.”

Actually, I wasn’t expecting we’d have to go that far back. Just behind the shower car was Terese German’s car, and if Emikai, Aronobal, and Terese were in cahoots, there was a fair chance we’d find the latter two members of the troika in urgent consultation together.

For once, I was right. As we exited the vestibule into the car, I saw a small group of passengers gathered around Terese’s row, their heads hunched forward the way people do when having intense, semi-private conversations. Two of the group were Halkas, one was a Juri, and the fourth was Dr. Aronobal.

“There she is,” Bayta said.

“I see her,” I said, the back of my neck starting to tingle. The conversationalists had turned to face us, and their expressions weren’t even bothering with the neutral or suspicious areas of today’s third-class mood scale. All four were deeply into the hostile end of the spectrum, and every cubic centimeter of that hostility was aimed at Bayta and me. “Maybe you ought to hang back a bit while I go talk to them,” I said quietly.

Bayta reached over and got a grip on my left arm. “No,” she said in a voice that left no room for argument.

“Stay a step behind me, then,” I told her, gently disengaging her grip. “You might want to fire up the
, just in case.”

I started forward again, the
in my pocket tingling as Bayta activated it. “Good afternoon,” I said, nodding to the group as I got within polite conversational range. “Dr. Aronobal, I wonder if I might have a few minutes of your time.”

To my surprise, Terese bounded up from her seat, planting herself squarely between me and the rest of them. “What do you want her for?” she demanded, her face dark with emotion.

“I just want to ask her a few questions,” I said soothingly.

“And then, what, make
disappear, too?” Terese shot back.

I took another look at the group standing silently behind her. “What in the world are you talking about?”

“She speaks of
Emikai,” Aronobal said grimly. “He’s disappeared, and no one can find him.” She drew herself up. “We’ve heard reports that you were the one responsible.”

“Reports,” I said, letting my tone go flat. “You mean rumors.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought you’d say,” Terese said scornfully.

“You protest too glibly,” the Juri agreed in a precise, clipped voice. “Rumors always have a basis in fact, a touchpoint with reality. The reality here is that
indeed vanished.”

I really wanted to ask him how he could possibly know that, given that he and his fellow worriers were all confined back here in third class while their buddy Emikai had a pass that let him roam the entire train at will. But I kept my mouth shut. Those who didn’t already know that almost certainly wouldn’t believe it anyway. “Maybe he’s taking a long shower,” I suggested instead. “Maybe the Spiders asked him up to first or second for some kind of consultation.”

“Oh, right,” Terese bit out. “Far as
can see, the only people consulting with the Spiders are you two.”

“Let us also not forget that
-Master Strinni’s final act was to form his hands into the sign-language symbols of your initials,” Aronobal added.

forgotten about that, actually, and I made a mental note to hit up the Modhri later and find out what the hell he’d thought he was doing with that.

Assuming there
a later. Most of the nearby passengers were listening intently to the conversation, and their expressions reminded me of sharks at feeding time. They were scared, they were frustrated, and, worse, after nearly four weeks on the road they were bored. If there was no justice in me getting my ears pounded, there might at least be some entertainment.

I came to a sudden decision. Aronobal wasn’t going to talk now anyway, not surrounded by indignant supporters who clearly thought I was out to add her to some phantom body count. There would be plenty of other opportunities to hit her up about her relationship with Emikai before we reached Venidra Carvo. “I get the feeling you really don’t want to talk right now,” I said, taking a casual step backward. “Fine. We’ll do this later.”

“Don’t let him go!” Terese snapped. “If he gets away, we’ll never find out what he did with

She started toward me, and to my surprise I saw she had tears in her eyes. Either she was choking with rage or she really did feel something for the supposedly vanished Emikai. “I didn’t do anything with
Emikai,” I insisted.

But it was too late. Behind her, one of the two Halkas—the bigger one, naturally—shouldered her aside and strode toward me, the glow of righteous indignation in his eyes.

“Move it,” I murmured to Bayta, crowding backwards against her as I dipped my hand into my pocket. Unfortunately, while the
gave me the power to drop the Halka where he stood, I couldn’t use it, at least not openly. Kennrick already knew I had brought a supposedly forbidden weapon aboard, and
Emikai probably suspected it, and the last thing I wanted was for the rest of the train to find out, too.

But if I couldn’t use the
openly, maybe I could use it

The Halka was still lumbering forward as I pulled my hand out of my pocket, the
in position around my knuckles. The second Halka had fallen into step behind the first, with Terese now third in line. “Take it easy,” I said soothingly as I keyed the
for its lowest unconsciousness setting. “I don’t want any trouble here. Neither do you.”

The two Halkas merely picked up their pace a little. Knowing Halkas, I’d expected that. I continued to back up, keeping my hands moving in little circles to prevent anyone from getting a clear look at the
. The lead Halka got to within grabbing distance and reached out a large hand toward my neck.

And I slammed my right fist into his gut.

It wasn’t all that hard a slam, actually. In fact, the punch was over ninety percent pure noise, with as little genuine impact as I could get away with while still making it sound real. There didn’t have to be any impact, because an instant before my fist hit his torso I thumbed the
’s firing button.

The weapon worked with its usual gratifying speed, instantly sending the Halka off to dreamland. As his knees started to buckle beneath him I brought my left hand up and made a show of chopping him at the base of the neck. After that, my only job was to get out of his way as he collapsed with an impressive thud onto the floor.

The second Halka came to an abrupt halt. So did the various mutterings and twitterings that had been going on among the onlookers. Our entire end of the car, in fact, went deathly quiet.

And from behind me I heard Bayta give a short, strangled gasp.

I spun around,
ready, both hands coming up into combat position. But it was only Kennrick, his hands on Bayta’s shoulders as he moved her sideways out of his way. “What the hell are you doing back here?” he demanded, his voice taut, his eyes flicking to the line of potential attackers still facing me. “Come on—we’ve got to get out of here before you get lynched.”

I was opening my mouth to tell him that we had every intention of doing exactly that when the second Halka made his move.

Unfortunately for him, the same relative silence that had allowed me to hear Kennrick’s non-assault on Bayta also enabled me to hear him coming with his more genuine attack. I spun back around, evaded his pile-driver punch, and dropped him to the floor with a second
shot and some more martial-arts window dressing.

And then Kennrick’s hand was on my shoulder, pulling me backward toward the vestibule. “Come
,” he repeated urgently. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

I took one last look at Terese’s stricken, disbelieving, anguished expression, and got the hell out of there.

We reached the next car and Kennrick slipped around past me, putting himself behind Bayta and me and between us and any potential follow-up trouble that Aronobal and Terese might choose to send in our direction. But no one came bursting through the vestibule in hot pursuit. The three of us retraced our steps back through third class, and again I could feel the eyes of the passengers on my back as we hurried forward. Fortunately, none of them did anything but look, and a few minutes later we made our escape from third class into second.

“Whew,” Kennrick puffed as we slowed our pace back to a normal walk. The passengers here, I noted, seemed to have no interest whatsoever in us. “That was way too close.”

“Close to
, I’m not sure,” I said, eyeing him over my shoulder. “What was all that about, anyway?”

“What, they didn’t tell you?” he asked. “There’s a rumor racing through third that you killed
Emikai during the night.”

BOOK: The Domino Pattern
4.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Londoners by Margaret Pemberton
Snow's Lament by S.E. Babin
A Daughter's Story by Tara Taylor Quinn
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet No. 26 by Gavin J. Grant, Kelly Link
Among Women Only by Cesare Pavese
Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira