Authors: Timothy Zahn
Tags: #Fiction, #SciFi, #Quadrail
“Without tests I can’t be certain,” Dr. Witherspoon said as he straightened up. “But in my opinion, he died from the same poison that killed Master Colix.”
I looked down at the dispensary’s treatment table, where the late Master Bofiv now lay side by side with the late Master Colix. It was a cozy fit. “Great,” I said. “We’ve got a pattern going.”
“God help us all,” Kennrick muttered. “What are we talking about, Doc, some kind of plague?” He looked pointedly over at the server Spider again standing unobtrusive vigil on the other side of the dispensary. “Something new the Spiders’ fancy sensor net let slip through?”
“If it is, it would have to be something both new and very slippery,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve seen lists of what those sensors catch. Nothing harmful gets through, I assure you.”
“Then it has to be something they ate,” Kennrick concluded. “If it’s not airborne, that’s all that’s left.”
I looked at Tririn. who was standing against the wall beside the Filly doctor. His skin wasn’t mottled like the late Master Bofiv’s, but it definitely looked paler than it had earlier.
Small wonder. Two of his companions had now bitten the dust, companions who had probably been eating the same food and had definitely been breathing the same air he had over the past two weeks. In his place, I’d have been pretty nervous, too.
“There was nothing dangerous in the food,” the server said in his flat Spider voice.
Every head in the room turned at that one. Servers were usually quiet, unassuming little Spiders, with a normal conversational range that was limited to asking a dining car patron what he wanted for lunch or telling a barfly that, sadly, the train was completely out of Jack Daniel’s. To have one of them volunteer information, especially information like this, was unheard of.
Kennrick recovered his voice first. “So
say,” he countered. “I’d want some actual proof of that.”
“What about something one of the group brought aboard?” I asked. “Some foodstuff that maybe wasn’t packaged properly and went bad?”
“I suppose that’s possible,” Witherspoon said. “Bacteria-generated toxins can certainly be nasty enough. But it’s hard to imagine Master Colix or Master Bofiv eating something that was obviously tainted.”
“Which makes it all the more urgent that we get an analysis of the victims’ blood and tissue,” I said. “Until we know which poison was responsible, there’s no way to backtrack it and figure out where it came from.”
“And how do you intend to do that?” Kennrick demanded. “
-Master Strinni has already said no autopsies.”
-Master Strinni said no autopsy on Master Colix,” I corrected. “He hasn’t said anything about Master Bofiv.”
“And why would he—?” Kennrick broke off. “You’re right,” he said, sudden interest in his voice. “Master Bofiv wasn’t on the same Path
-Master Strinni is.”
“Which means he might be willing to let us work on Master Bofiv,” I said.
“It’s worth a try,” Kennrick agreed. “Go ahead. We’ll wait here.”
“You’re the one who knows him,” I reminded him.
“You’re the one who knows how to wake him up,” he countered .
“I’ve already had to do this twice,” I said.
“Once,” Kennrick corrected. “You didn’t actually wake up Master Bofiv.”
“What is the
with you two?” Witherspoon snapped “There are people lying
“And I don’t want to be the one to break that news to a business associate,” Kennrick said coolly. “It was Compton’s idea. He can do it.”
Witherspoon rumbled something under his breath. “Oh, for—never mind.
He stripped off his examination gloves, tossing them onto the dispensary counter. With a final glare at me, he strode toward the doorway.
He’d made it halfway there when the obvious problem belatedly caught up with him. “Only I can’t, can I?” he growled with frustration and embarrassment. “
-Master Strinni is in first class.”
“I think that in this case the conductors will be willing to pass you through,” I said.
“You will be permitted,” the server confirmed. “A conductor will meet you in the rearmost first-class car and accompany you to
-Master Strinni’s seat.”
“Thank you.” Witherspoon said. He got two more steps, then once again hesitated. “Perhaps, Master Tririn, you would accompany me?” he asked, turning to the remaining Shorshian.
Tririn looked at Kennrick, then back at Witherspoon. [Very well,] he said. He murmured something to Aronobal that I couldn’t catch; then he and Witherspoon left the room and headed forward.
That left Kennrick, Aronobal, Bayta, and me. Plus the Spider, of course. “Well, that went well,” I commented.
“He’ll learn,” Kennrick said cynically, his gaze lingering on the empty doorway. “Dr. Witherspoon, I mean. Everyone thinks dealing with Shorshians is a walk down the escalator. But he’ll learn.”
He looked at Aronobal. “But I don’t have to tell
that, do I?” he went on. “The Filiaelian Assembly has been dealing with them for at least six hundred years now.”
“I have never had trouble with the Shorshic people,” Aronobal said diplomatically.
“Then you’re the exception,” Kennrick said. “Half my job seems to consist of smoothing those waters.” He turned back to me. “So what now? We wait until they get back?”
“Unless you want to risk Strinni’s wrath by starting before the opening bell,” I said.
He grimaced. “No, thanks.” He started to say something else, but instead gave a wide yawn. “Hell with this. I’ll be in my compartment if you need me.”
“On your way, you might consider briefing the Filiaelians in your party about the situation,” I suggested as he headed for the door.
“Forget it,” he said. “You think waking up Shorshians with this kind of news is a bad idea, you should try it with Filiaelians.” His lip twitched and he looked back at Aronobal. “At least with
-rank Filiaelians,” he amended.
Aronobal inclined her head but said nothing. Kennrick held his pose for a moment, probably trying to think of some other way to apologize further without looking like either a boor or an idiot, then gave up and looked back at me instead. “Call me if you learn anything.”
With that, he escaped into the corridor. I drifted to the doorway, arriving just in time to see the vestibule door leading into the next car close behind him.
“He is not very diplomatic.” Aronobal said darkly. “I am surprised that someone chose him to manage dealings with more civilized beings.”
The insult had clearly been directed at Kennrick, but I found myself wincing a little anyway. Things that smudged one Human had a tendency to smudge all of us. “He may be better when he’s not woken up in the middle of the night to deal with multiple deaths,” I suggested.
Aronobal gazed down her long face at me, her nose blaze darkening a little. “A well-trained manager should know how to deal with even the unexpected.”
“Maybe he’s not as well-trained as we all might like,” I said, turning to Bayta. “The server said there wasn’t anything in the Shorshians’ food. How sure is he of that?”
“Very sure,” Bayta said firmly. “The packaging was intact, and there’s nothing in the ingredients of any of the Shorshic-Style foods aboard that could be a problem.”
“Unless there was some unexpected contamination during the cooking or packaging process,” I said. “Maybe we should check that out. If the Spiders don’t mind, that is.”
From the expression on Bayta’s face, it was clear that the Spiders did, in fact, mind. But she knew better than to have this discussion in front of a stranger. “We can certainly ask.” she said instead. “The third-class dining car is four cars back.”
I nodded and looked at Aronobal. “Keep an eye on Masters Colix and Bofiv, will you?”
“I will,” she said. “You will let me know if you find anything?”
“You’ll be the first,” I promised.
We headed out, turning in the direction of the third-class dining room. I glanced at Bayta’s profile as we walked, noting the stiffness in her expression. “If it helps,” I said quietly, “I don’t actually think this was caused by any negligence on the Spiders’ part.”
“Neither do I,” Bayta said, her voice as stiff as her face.
“But we still have to check it out,” I continued. “If for no other reason than to clear them of any responsibility.”
“That’s not the point,” Bayta said. “The Spiders don’t want passengers getting into their sections of the train.” She sent me a furtive glance. “Not even you.”
“I guess you’ll just have to go to bat for me on this one,” I said.
She gave a soft snort. “I
go to bat for you, Frank,” she said. “More often than you know.”
I studied her profile again, noting the smooth line of her nose, the curve of her cheekbones, and the softness of her skin. That was all most people saw when they looked at her, and while it made for a pleasant enough treat for the eyes, it also effectively hid all the solid stuff below the surface, the character strengths the casual tourist never saw. Intelligence, determination, loyalty, courage—they were all in there, ready to come boiling out whenever they were needed.
And she was right. She’d put her butt on the line for me time and time again. And those were only the times I knew about. “You’re right,” I acknowledged. “Let’s do it this way. I’II wait outside while you go in and look at the facility. I can tell you what to look for, and walk you through anything that needs follow-up.”
I could tell she was tempted. It would make life simpler, and give her one fewer telepathic battles to fight. “What would I have to do?” she asked.
I shrugged. “No way to know for sure until we get there. But probably nothing complicated.”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “I don’t think we can risk it.” she said with a sigh. “You’re the expert. You really need to look for yourself.”
“You sure?” I asked. “I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a Quadrail for four more weeks with a whole trainful of Spiders mad at us.”
She gave me a wry look, and as she did so some of the tension in her face went away. “Since when do you care what other people think?”
“Oh, I don’t care about
,” I said. “I was worried about
“Well, don’t,” she said. “I can take care of myself.” She nodded ahead. “Come on—the server’s expecting us.”
The third-class dining room was deserted when Bayta and I arrived, with only a single server Spider standing a lonely vigil behind the counter along the rooms back wall. The counter, in turn, was separated from the area behind him by a slat curtain.
“The door’s over here,” Bayta said, leading the way toward the side of the serving counter. As we approached, a concealed panel popped open in front of us. I nodded my thanks to the Spider, got the usual lack of reaction in return, and followed Bayta through the doorway.
One of the perennial topics of conversation aboard Quad-rails was exactly how the Spiders managed to prepare so many meals for so many travelers. Now, standing in the food preparation room, I finally had an answer to that question.
It was a definite letdown. The prep room was lined with shelves loaded to the gills with flat white boxes covered with Spider dot codes. “Prepackaged meals,” I identified them.
“Of course,” Bayta said, her tone making me feel a little ridiculous. “You didn’t really think we had full gourmet kitchens on each train, did you?”
“There were rumors,” I said, looking around. Along with the food storage shelves, there were other racks containing bottles of water and other liquid refreshments, plus a dozen cook stations that included microwaves, flash-heaters, and re-hydrators. Tucked away in one of the back corners was a closed trapdoor with what looked like a wide conveyor belt set vertically against the wall. “For bringing in fresh stock from the storage car?” I asked, pointing at it.
“Yes,” Bayta said. “It connects to a conveyor system that runs beneath the cars. We only have those on cross-galactic trains, of course.”
I looked back at the food shelves. “I guess we might as well start with the obvious. Which ones are the Shorshic meals?”
“There,” Bayta said, pointing to the third stack from the left. “Do you want a list of the meals Master Colix had in the past day? Dr. Aronobal got it from Master Bofiv and Master Tririn earlier while you were speaking with
“Did Colix eat the same thing every day?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.” Bayta said.
“Then I can get the menu later.” Stepping over to the Shorshic rack, I picked up the top box.
It was heavier than I’d expected, which probably meant it contained a complete meal instead of appetizers or desserts or something lighter. The box itself was made of a thin but sturdy plastic, sealed with a quick-release strip. Experimentally, I pulled the strip open a couple of centimeters and then tried to reseal it.
It didn’t reseal. I tried it again, just to be sure, then tried lifting the corner of the lid, hoping to get a look at the food inside.
But there was a wide flap in the way, and pulling on the corner merely gained me another couple of centimeters of open strip. “I presume the Spiders would have noticed if one of the meals had shown up unsealed?”
“Of course,” Bayta said. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
“No need,” I said, looking closely at the box in search of punctures or small tears. “What happens to the boxes once the food’s been served? Do they get flattened and stored somewhere for reuse?”
“No, they go directly into the recycling system,” she said. “The fibers are designed to serve as a catalyst for some of the waste breakdown.”
“When you say directly, you mean…?”
“I mean directly,” she said, frowning. “Yesterday’s packages are already gone. What do you mean,
? I thought you wanted to check the food for contamination.”
“I do.” I confirmed. “Or rather, I did. But it’s clear now that if the food was tampered with, it didn’t happen at the kitchen where these things were cooked and packaged. It happened right here aboard the train.” I grimaced. “And it happened on purpose.”
Her eyes went wide. “Are you saying they were
“I don’t see any way around it,” I said. “One death might be an accident. But not two. Not like this.”
“But Dr. Witherspoon said Shorshians are especially susceptible to poisoning.”
“Exactly my point,” I said. “Even small amounts of poisons typically generate obvious symptoms in that species. If Colix and Bofiv had ingested the stuff gradually, over the past few days, the symptoms would have shown up long ago. The only conclusion is that they were both nailed with large, lethal doses, all at once. That kind of dosage doesn’t usually happen by accident.”
For another few seconds Bayta remained silent. But I could see the shock fading from her face as she realized I was making sense. “All right,” she said slowly. “But why would anyone want to kill them?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” I conceded. “Actually, it’s worse than that. We don’t even know yet that they were specifically targeted.”
Her eyes did the widening thing again. “You mean the killings might have been random?”
“Or the killer was aiming at someone else and missed,” I said. “But one thing at a time. The easiest method for delivering poison is by food or drink, since everybody eats and nine out of ten people don’t pay that much attention to their food while they’re eating it.”
“Yes,” Bayta said thoughtfully. “Shorshic meals usually include a common dipping dish, don’t they?”
“That’s what the cultural profiles say,” I confirmed. “Which would certainly make surreptitious tampering easier. The downside is that the poisoner pretty much has to be in the same group as the victim—a stranger leaning in so he can sprinkle fairy dust into a dipping dish in the middle of the table would be a little obvious.”
“But if the poisoner was also a Shorshian, wouldn’t he run the risk of being poisoned himself?” Bayta asked.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Which is one of several intriguing questions about this whole thing. Namely, were both Colix and Bofiv murdered by a third party? Or could Bofiv have murdered Colix and then gotten caught in his own backfire?”
“Or vice versa?” Bayta suggested. “Master Colix murdering Master Bofiv?”
“Possibly,” I agreed. “Colix would have to be a particularly incompetent killer for that scenario to work, but I’ve known my share of inept criminals. Still, it’s more likely that the killer was someone else at their table.”
Bayta’s eyes went distant for a moment as she communed silently with the Spiders. “The servers don’t have that information.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “We’ll corner Tririn later and ask him for yesterday’s guest list.”
Bayta was silent a moment. “Do you think the Modhri might be involved in all this?”
“That’s definitely my default reflex these days,” I said. “But we need some kind of motive before we start trying to pin this on the Modhri or anyone else.” I cocked an eyebrow. “Why? Is your spider-sense tingling?”
She frowned. “My what?”
“Skip it,” I said, making a mental note to add those dit rec adventures to the list of cultural classics I’d been showing her. “Can you think of some reason why he might want to kill a couple of Shorshians?”
“Not really,” she said. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. Trying to get into his mind, to understand what he wants.”
“I thought he wanted to take over the galaxy.”
“Yes, but to what end?” she asked. “The Shonkla-raa certainly had a purpose—they wanted him to infiltrate the rebel forces and destroy them from within. But he doesn’t have that purpose anymore. He doesn’t have
“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully. “To me, taking over the galaxy sounds like a pretty solid reason for living.”
“You know what I mean,” Bayta said. “The Modhri isn’t conquering so that he can institute political or economic changes, or even just so he can loot his victims.”
“Okay, so he’s unfocused,” I said. “So what?”
Bayta shook her head. “I keep thinking that he’s like a weapon that’s been left on a shelf,” she said pensively. “A sword, maybe. He can fall off. and he can do a lot of damage on his way down, but he’s still just flailing about without serving a genuine purpose. That has to be frustrating and frightening both.”
“So you’re thinking he might throw up his hands and quit in disgust?” I suggested dryly.
“I’m wondering if he might go insane.”
Something with a lot of cold feet skittered down my spine. “Oh. now
a cheerful thought.” I muttered.
“I’m sorry,” Bayta apologized. “I probably shouldn’t even have brought it up. I just… it’s been bothering me lately.”
“No need to apologize.” I assured her. Privately, I thought the whole idea a bit far-fetched—from what I’d seen of the Modhri, he didn’t strike me as the neurotic type. But I also knew better than to dismiss anything Bayta said without at least considering it. “It’s definitely worth thinking about. Only not right now. Any word from
Bayta’s eyes went distant. “He’s just given Dr. Witherspoon permission to take blood and tissue samples from Master Bofiv.”
“Good,” I said, setting the meal box back on its stack. “Let’s go make sure he does it right.”
“All right.” Bayta hesitated. “
-Master Strinni has also insisted that Master Colix’s body be removed for storage.”
“Removed for storage where?”
“He asked that it be put in one of the baggage cars,” Bayta said. “The Spiders are taking it back there now.”
“Where are they going to put it?” I asked. “They can’t just leave it lying around the aisles. More importantly, how are they going to seal it away from the rest of the train? It’s still four weeks to Venidra Carvo, and things are going to get pretty ripe back there if they don’t do something.”
“They’re constructing an isolation tank where they can store the body,” she said. “They’re also looking into whether they can use the same preservation techniques they use for food.”
I tried to visualize the Spiders freeze-drying Colix’s body, but I’d had enough disturbing images for one night. “Did Strinni say why he wanted Colix’s body moved?”
“Only that he wanted the body to be as much at rest as possible.”
More likely he didn’t want Witherspoon’s scalpel slipping during Bofiv’s autopsy and cutting into his fellow Pathmate by accident. “Whatever,” I said. “Come on. let’s go.”