Authors: Timothy Zahn
Tags: #Fiction, #SciFi, #Quadrail
But he wasn’t on the bed. He was on the curve couch, which would start retracting into the divider the instant I touched the control. There was no way in hell he could possibly miss that.
The Modhri must have sensed my sudden turmoil. “What is it?” he murmured.
“I need to open the divider without him noticing,” I said grimly. “
I need him in front of the gap where I can see him, not way off to the side the way he is now.”
“I see,” the Modhri said calmly. “Do you still have the bypass mimic you took from
“Uh…” I floundered, caught off balance by the sudden change in subject. “Yes, I’ve got it. Why?”
“Give it to me,” the Modhri said, holding out his hand.
I stared at him. What in the world was he up to? “It doesn’t work on Spider locks,” I said.
“I don’t need it to,” the Modhri said, his hand still outstretched. “You wish the Human Kennrick in front of the opening. I will make that happen.”
Trusting the Modhri
, the words whispered through my mind. But time was running out, and I didn’t have anything better to suggest. Digging the flat gray box out of my pocket, I handed it over.
“Thank you,” the Modhri said, fingering it thoughtfully. “Stay quiet, and stand well clear.” He looked at the defender. “You, too,” he added.
The defender seemed to think it over. Then, with obvious reluctance, he stepped all the way back to the compartment door. I took advantage of the moment to climb off the curve couch and press myself against its end, a meter from the wall where the divider would be opening.
The Modhri waited until we were set, then stepped over to the divider control. “Stand ready,” he told me, and touched the control.
The divider started sliding open. It had barely cleared the wall when I heard an explosive curse from the other side of the widening gap. “What the—?
“Not Compton,” the Modhri called hastily through to him. “I am
Qiddicoj. I have come to make you a bargain.”
“What the—how did you get in there?” Kennrick snarled, and I could hear the subtle shift in the sound of his voice as he moved away from the collapsing curve couch.
“With this,” the Modhri said, poking the corner of the bypass mimic through the still-opening divider. I tensed, but almost before I could start to wonder if he’d forgotten about Bayta he touched the control again, stopping the divider at just the right position. “It’s a duplicate of the locksmith’s bypass mimic Compton took from
Emikai. I offer it to you as part of a—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Kennrick demanded. “The damn thing doesn’t work on Spider locks. Compton said
“Compton was wrong,” the Modhri countered, wiggling the mimic as if to emphasize his words. “I bought this spare from
Emikai, who showed me its secret. I offer it to you now in exchange for
secret of bringing death aboard the Quadrail.”
Abruptly, he snatched the mimic out of the gap, and I caught a glimpse of Kennrick’s fingertips as he grabbed for the device. “Give it here,” Kennrick snarled.
“Not until you swear to the bargain,” the Modhri said firmly. “With this you can move to a different room, where the Spider attacking you cannot—”
And right in the middle of a sentence, he collapsed abruptly into a heap on the floor, the mimic clattering against the deck as it fell from suddenly nerveless fingers.
“Nice try, Compton,” Kennrick called from the other side of the divider. “You really think I’m that stupid?”
I pressed harder against the divider, gesturing to Sarge to likewise keep silent and motionless. Kennrick had obviously used the
on Qiddicoj… but with Bayta still unconscious, I knew for a fact the
hadn’t worked. Qiddicoj was faking, lying supposedly unconscious with the perfect bait lying millimeters from his hand.
“I know you’re in there, Compton,” Kennrick bit out, raising his voice over the scraping sound of the defender outside his window. “Come out right now, or I’m going to start cutting off your girlfriend’s fingers.”
I clenched my teeth, my eyes riveted on the mimic. Because it
the perfect bait, and Kennrick had to know that. If he could get it to work on Spider locks, then every compartment in these two cars would be open to him. He could move himself and his hostage back and forth between rooms, resetting his traps and strangle lines, keeping himself clear of whatever the defenders tried to do to pin him down or root him out.
“You hear me, Compton?” Kennrick called again. “Show yourself.
Only the Modhri had forgotten one crucial detail. The rigged vestibule had been sealed by means of a purely mechanical pressure lock, with nothing that a key or bypass mimic could do anything about. If Kennrick paused long enough to wonder how Qiddicoj had gotten through that, this whole house of cards would collapse.
“Compton?” Kennrick called. The light coming through the gap shifted subtly, and I had the sense that he was now pressing his eye against the opening, trying to see as much of the room as he could. “Compton? Last chance before I start cutting her.”
I took a careful breath. He was going for it, I realized with cautiously rekindled hope. He was still calling for me, but he was no longer sure I was really here. Either he hadn’t thought about the vestibule question, or he didn’t realize the pressure lock couldn’t be triggered remotely, or he was desperate enough to take the risk.
I gathered my feet under me, ready to push off the partially collapsed curve couch the minute he made his move. I would have only one shot at this…
And then, without warning, Kennrick’s left hand darted through the gap and grabbed the mimic.
I shoved off the couch toward him, knowing even as I did so I would be too late.
But as Kennrick had mistakenly written the Modhri out of his calculations, so had I. Even as Kennrick’s fingers closed around the mimic, Qiddicoj’s limp hand came suddenly to life, darting up to lock itself around Kennrick’s wrist.
Kennrick gave a startled curse, twisting his arm against Qiddicoj’s thumb to try to break the grip. Qiddicoj held on gamely, but Kennrick was stronger and had better leverage, and half a second later he was free.
But a half second was all I needed. I reached them as Kennrick started to pull the mimic back through the gap, locking my own fingers around the man’s wrist with all the strength adrenaline-flooded muscles could manage.
Kennrick yelped in pain as I yanked his arm hard toward me, slamming his shoulder against the edge of the divider, his face contorted with rage as he glared through the gap at me. “I knew it,” he spat. “Clever, Compton. Now go to hell!” Lifting his right arm over his head, he pointed the
at me and jammed his thumb against the trigger.
“Sorry, Kennrick,” I gritted. “Afraid you’re out of bullets.”
His face twisted even more viciously as he thumbed the
again. “So now what?” he retorted as he lowered his arm. “You still can’t come in here without killing her. What are you going to do, stand there holding my wrist all the way to Venidra Carvo?”
“No,” I said as I reached with my left hand around to the small of my back. The worst rule-breaking of all, I reflected, a request which Sarge had nearly vetoed even with both Bayta and me pleading my case. “I’m going to dispense justice.”
And with that, I brought my Beretta around to the front, the weapon that had been in a lockbox beneath the train until I’d talked Sarge into sending his partner to retrieve it. Pressing it against Kennrick’s side beneath the arm I was holding, I pulled the trigger.
The blast was deafening in the enclosed space. For a second Kennrick just stared at me, his eyes wide and disbelieving. Then his legs collapsed, and he fell to the floor, landing with his torso twisted awkwardly against the wall as I continued to grip his wrist.
“It is over?” Sarge asked.
I took a deep breath and let go of Kennrick’s arm. It dropped limply to his side, the impact sending a small ripple through the blood already spreading through the carpet.
Find the murderer
, Givvrac had appealed to me with his last breath.
And kill him
Sometimes people did indeed get what they wished for.
“Yes, it’s over,” I told Sarge quietly, gazing at the eyes now staring their residual astonishment at the compartment’s ceiling. “Tell the mites to get busy—I want them through the ceiling as soon as possible, and never mind the mess. And you can tell the other defender he can come back inside.”
I leaned forward and peered through the gap. Bayta was lying on the floor, her breathing slow and even, the loops of now useless strangling wire glittering around her neck. As I gazed at her, the scraping from the window stopped, replaced by a sort of mice-in-the-wall sound as the mites set to work on the ceiling.
Beneath my feet, I felt Qiddicoj stir. “May I?” the Modhri asked.
“Sorry,” I apologized, stepping clear and offering my hand.
He ignored it, getting to his feet without assistance. “A straightforward yet effective plan,” he commented, peering through the gap at Kennrick’s body. “My congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Much as I hate to say this, I owe you.”
“You know the repayment I desire,” he said, his voice hardening as he gazed into my eyes. “The method of death used by the Human Kennrick must never be allowed to become public.”
“It won’t,” I promised. “And now that we know how it was done, we should be able to tweak the Spiders’ sensors to keep it from happening again.”
“Good.” Qiddicoj’s long Filly face twitched in a wry smile. “After all, I hope someday to rule the galaxy. I can’t achieve that goal if the Quadrail system is destroyed.”
I felt my stomach tighten. “No, of course not,” I agreed. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t wish you luck with that.”
He inclined his head to me. “Then with your permission I’ll return to my fellow passengers.” He smiled again. “
Qiddicoj will be chagrined to discover that he slept through these momentous events.”
Vevri, no doubt,” I agreed. “I presume he’s on his way back, too?”
“Yes,” Qiddicoj confirmed. “Farewell, Compton. I will most likely not speak to you again.”
“Likewise,” I said.
I watched as he crossed to the door and disappeared out into the corridor. “There will be repercussions from this,” Sarge warned.
“There are repercussions from every action,” I said. With the excitement over, I was suddenly very tired. “That’s the way of things.”
Sarge seemed to digest that. “I will take your weapon now.”
I’d almost forgotten the Beretta still hanging loosely in my grip. “Yes, of course,” I said, putting on the safety and handing it over. “Back to the lockbox, I presume?”
“Immediately,” he said, taking the weapon with one leg and folding it up beneath his metal sphere. Tapping his way to the door, he left the compartment.
I turned again to the opening. Yes, there would be repercussions. Possibly very serious ones.
But we would deal with them as they arose. Right now, all I cared about was that Bayta was alive.
With one last look at Kennrick’s frozen eyes, I settled down to listen to the mites working overhead, and to watch Bayta sleep.
It took the mites three hours of banging, pounding, and unfastening to clear a corner of the ceiling enough for them to squeeze through. Bayta was awake for most of that time, and I spent a good deal of it bringing her up to speed on what had happened, as well as how the devil’s bargain I’d made had worked out.
Even here at the payoff, I could tell she still wasn’t happy about the deal. But at least she had the grace to simply thank me for my efforts, and to not argue any further about my methods.
Once the mites were through, the rest was easy. They traced all of the wires that Kennrick had laid out, confirmed that all but the obvious ones were dummies, carefully cut the ones that weren’t, and Bayta was finally free.
We left the two defenders in the compartment with Kennrick’s body and headed back through the deserted compartment car to announce that the crisis was over and that everyone could start heading back to their compartments. “I was only off by an hour,” I commented to Bayta as we passed the jammed vestibule door that Sarge had wrecked. It wasn’t going to stay wrecked long; a half-dozen mites were already working on it. “I said things would be back to normal in six hours, and it only took us seven.”
“And you probably could have let them back while the mites were working on the ceiling,” Bayta pointed out.
“I didn’t want to risk any of them getting a look at Kennrick’s body as it was dragged out dripping blood,” I said. “Aside from the gruesomeness of the whole thing, I didn’t want them wondering what I’d used to open up that size hole in his chest. You’ll let me know when they’ve got him to the tender, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “A shame it had to end this way. We might have learned more about Mr. Hardin’s plan if we’d been able to question him.”
I shook my head. “Kennrick would have been trained to hold out against all the more popular forms of interrogation,” I said. “In retrospect, I’m guessing now that he
part of DuNoeva’s team, that spy Westali was after when we raided Shotoko Associates eleven years ago. In fact, he was probably the one who killed those Westali agents guarding the east door. How he hooked up with Hardin I can only guess.”
“I imagine a man with Mr. Hardin’s resources has many interesting contacts.” Bayta paused. “Thank you for not arguing over the reader, by the way.”
“You mean not arguing more than I did?”
“If you want to put it that way.”
“No problem,” I assured her, fudging the truth just a little. I’d really, really wanted a chance to go through Kennrick’s reader before the defenders took it away. Larry Hardin wasn’t the type to load all his oranges in one crate—the fact that he’d apparently had Kennrick already prepped and ready to take over my slot the minute I’d resigned from his payroll showed that much. I doubted this was the only plan he had in the works for taking over the Quadrail, and I wanted to see if Kennrick had taken any notes on possible future shenanigans.
But the defenders had been adamant about taking the reader and Kennrick together as a package, and I’d had enough fighting for one day. “So the plan is to load Kennrick aboard the tender, then take it back to the rear of the train and load in the other four bodies?” I asked.
Bayta nodded. “Officially, they’ll be removing the bodies for direct transportation to their families. Along the way, though, they’ll stop at a siding and take some tissue samples and readings.”
“Sounds good,” I said. Between the Spiders’ readings, the samples Emikai and I had run though my analyzer the previous evening, and the data in Kennrick’s reader, the Spiders and Chahwyn ought to have everything they needed to plug this new loophole in their security net.
We passed through the vestibule at the end of the third compartment car and entered the first coach car, the one I’d cleared out as my operations base.
Only it wasn’t completely cleared out anymore.
Vevri, and Tra’ho Government Oathling Prapp, the three Modhran walkers, were standing silently a half-dozen steps in front of us, obviously waiting for us to make our appearance. Just behind them stood
Muzzfor, the contract-team Filly who had been Kennrick’s staunchest supporter and apologist. “It’s over?” Muzzfor asked as Bayta and I stepped into the car. “He’s dead?”
“Yes, he’s dead,” I confirmed, taking another, closer look at the walkers. All three were standing unnaturally stiff, their eyes looking odd in a way I’d never seen in a walker before.
And there was something else: a faint, high-pitched dog-whistle sound hovering right on the edge of my hearing. I glanced at Bayta, noting the sudden uncertainty and pain-edged tension in her face. Apparently, she could hear the sound too, possibly better even than I could.
“So then you know,” Muzzfor said.
“I know lots of things,” I said, frowning. Muzzfor’s eyes were hard and cold, and I saw now that the oversized, genetically engineered throat tucked beneath his long Filly face seemed to be rapidly quivering. “Anything in particular you had in mind?”
“No matter,” he said calmly. “If not now, soon enough.” Without any word or signal that I could see, Prapp detached himself from the group and walked toward us. His eyes still looked odd, but as he approached I could see that there was a strangely bitter edge to his expression. “Forgive me,” he said as he stepped up to us, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the other two walkers saying the same words in unison.
And then, abruptly, Prapp swung his arm at the shoulder, slapping his hand with vicious strength against the side of Bayta’s head.
It was so unexpected that she never even had time to gasp as the blow sent her spinning to the floor. I had no time to do more than gape before Prapp turned his attack on me, his arms windmilling like a threshing machine gone berserk.
Reflexively, I gave ground, backing across the room as I blocked and deflected and dodged his blows, trying to get my brain on line. Treachery from the Modhri was nothing new, but treachery
? It made no sense.
Fortunately for me, Prapp was untrained and unskilled in hand-to-hand combat. Now that I was ready for him, I was able to deflect or block most of his punches and kicks with ease, and the few that made it through were weak and ineffective. Another minute to let him wear out his reserves, I estimated, and I should be able to take him down.
But I wasn’t going to get that minute. The other two walkers were moving in now, swinging wide in opposite directions to flank me. I shifted direction toward Vevri, hoping that after I took down Prapp I could similarly deal one-on-one with the Juri before Qiddicoj could reach me.
For a few seconds it looked like it was going to work. Then, over Prapp’s gasping and my own somewhat less strained breathing I sensed the strange ultrasonic sound change pitch and intensity. A moment later Qiddicoj suddenly increased his pace toward me while Vevri slowed his, with the obvious mutual goal of reaching me simultaneously.
I changed direction again, ducking around behind a pair of chairs and then suddenly jumping up on one of them and kicking at Prapp’s head. The blow I landed was only glancing, but it was enough to send him staggering backward out of the fight.
Just in time. I was hopping off the chair again when Vevri and Qiddicoj caught up with me.
Neither of them was any better trained than Prapp. But both were just as determined, and at two-to-one odds I found myself at a dangerous disadvantage. I kept backing and turning, using every bit of cover and blockage available, trying to work my way toward the end of the car where I could escape into the vestibule. At least there they could only come at me one at a time.
And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the front vestibule door open. I backed a quarter circle, trying to bring the door into my direct view without having to take my eyes off my opponents. If this was another walker whom the Modhri had conveniently failed to mention, I was going to be in serious trouble.
It wasn’t another walker. It was Sarge.
For the first couple of seconds no one seemed to notice his arrival. Then, abruptly, Vevri and Qiddicoj abandoned their attack on me. Turning, staggering with muscle fatigue and gasping for breath, they charged full-tilt toward the defender.
I’d seen defender Spiders in action, and Sarge should have counterattacked like a runaway freight. But to my surprise, he didn’t. In fact, for those first crucial seconds he stood there, staring like a rookie at his first crime scene. By the time he stirred and lifted his three nearest legs into a sort of combat stance, it was too late. Vevri and Qiddicoj hit him like a matched pair of heat-seeking missiles, slamming into his remaining four legs and staggering him backward. Breathing hard, I shoved off the chair I had been pressed against and headed over to give him a hand.
And was suddenly shoved three meters to my left as Muzzfor slammed into my right side.
I hit the floor in a tangled mess, astonishment and exhaustion conspiring to throw off my usual hit-and-roll reflexes. I tried to get my legs under me, but before I could do so Muzzfor flung himself on top of me, nearly breaking my rib cage in the process.
And as I fought for breath, his hands closed firmly around my neck. “Foolish Human,” he said, his voice abruptly deep and resonant and no longer even recognizable as Filiaelian. It made for an eerie contrast with the high-pitched background hum that seemed to be rattling even louder against the base of my skull. “I tried to avoid this,” he continued. “I tried to turn you against Emikai, the Modhri—anyone except the Human Kennrick. But you would not be dissuaded.” His grip tightened around my throat. “So now do you pay the cost of your cleverness.”
My vision was starting to waver. But what most people didn’t know, and Muzzfor almost certainly didn’t, was that even with my breath cut off there was enough residual oxygen already in my muscle fibers for one good, solid, last-ditch punch.
And with his quivering, oversized throat hanging right over my face, there was only one logical target. Releasing my grip on his wrists, I curled my hands into fists and jabbed upward as hard as I could.
I had expected it to be like hitting a tube of slightly undercooked mostaccioli. To my dismay, it was more like slamming my fists into well-insulated plastic pipe. Whatever the Filly genetic engineers had done to Muzzfor’s throat, they’d put some heavy-duty musculature around it.
And with that, my last reserve was gone. My hands dropped back to Muzzfor’s wrists, but I had no strength left to try to tear them away from my throat. I couldn’t hear the high-pitched whine anymore, and in the distance the clatter of bodies against metal as Vevri and Qiddicoj beat themselves against Sarge likewise faded into the roar of blood rushing in my ears. Muzzfor’s face was an expressionless mask, the sort of face Bayta often wore. My thoughts drifted toward Bayta, wondering if Muzzfor and the others would leave her alive or if whatever I’d done to trigger the Modhri’s wrath would bring her the same sentence of death.
And then, without warning, something shot into view around Muzzfor’s arms and barreled full-tilt into the Filly’s side, hurling him off me and ripping his hands away from my throat. Gripping my neck, gasping in great lungfuls of air, I rolled onto my side.
I found myself faced with an incredible sight. Prapp was straddling a prone Muzzfor, pounding his fists against the Filly’s head and torso with the same determination he’d used in his earlier attack against me.
But even as I lay there trying to figure out what the hell was happening, Muzzfor seemed to get either his composure or his wind back. One hand slammed against Prapp’s throat, snapping his head forward like the clapper of a bell. Prapp went limp, and with a surge of legs and arms Muzzfor sent the Tra’ho sailing helplessly to slam into the floor three meters away. An instant later Muzzfor was back on his feet, his cold, soulless eyes turning back to his unfinished business with me—
Just as Vevri and Qiddicoj slammed into him in a perfectly coordinated high/low double tackle.
Muzzfor gave a bellow as he hit the floor again, a deep, furious ululation that momentarily froze me where I knelt.
If Vevri and Qiddicoj were affected by the roar, it didn’t show. They were all over their target, punching and clawing at him with an almost mindless fury.
I still didn’t know what the hell was going on. All I knew was that Muzzfor had tried to kill me, the Modhri was no longer on his side, and I was damned if I was going to sit out the rest of this fight.
But even as I got to my feet, Vevri abruptly gave out a choked-off scream and rolled off the downed Filly. As I staggered forward Qiddicoj gave a similar scream and also fell backward, clutching at his stomach. He curled into a fetal position around himself, but not before I saw the blood spreading out across his clothing.
And then Muzzfor was on his feet again, his fingers dripping two different shades of red. He turned toward me, and as he did so his hands curved themselves into raptor talons. Something else the genetic engineers had no doubt graced him with.
For a moment we locked eyes. Then, lifting the talons to point at my stomach, he stalked toward me.
“At least tell me why you want me dead,” I croaked, taking an angled step backward. He continued toward me, and I matched him step for step, walking us around in a slow circle that was taking me back toward the rear of the car. I was still breathing heavily; with luck, he would assume I was just trying to buy time. “What did I ever do to you?
me, damn it. What did I ever do to you?”
Muzzfor didn’t answer, but just kept coming. I continued to back away, not daring to look behind me and see if I was about to back into a chair or some other obstacle. The Filly was getting closer, and I imagined I could see a fresh surge of bloodlust in those empty, empty eyes.
He was still coming when two of Sarge’s legs stabbed like twin spears into his back.
For a moment Muzzfor just stood there, his gaze on the bloodied metal legs poking out of his chest, a disbelieving expression on his face. Very much the way Kennrick had reacted to his own unexpected defeat and death, a small, detached part of my mind noted. Then, without a sound, the Filly’s eyes closed, and he sagged against the Spider legs still holding him mostly upright.