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The Domino Pattern
By Timothy Zahn, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
Space, as some twentieth-century philosopher succinctly put it, is big. Really big. So big that even a single medium-sized galaxy, such as our own Milky Way, has plenty of room to be pretty damn huge all by itself.
So huge that even at a Quadrail train's incredible speed of a light-year per minute, if you followed the curve of the spiral arms it would take well over three months to get from one end of the galaxy's populated regions to the other.
Three months is a long time for business moguls of the Twelve Empires, who can make or lose millions in a single day. It's even longer for the galaxy's politicians, who can gain or lose a lot more than that, including both their careers and their skins.
Thus it was that, a few hundred years ago, when the Spiders and their secretive Chahwyn masters began building their multiple light-years of Tube across the voids of interstellar space, they looked for a way to shorten the cross-galaxy trip.
And they found one.
In theory, the super-express lines weren't any different from the rest of the Spiders' vast interstellar travel network. Inside each Tube were several sets of the Spiders' signature four-rail tracks on which all Quadrail trains ran. Down the geometric center of the Tube ran the Coreline, a brightly coruscating inner cylinder that was the actual driving force behind the light-year-per-minute speeds the trains could make, though that fact was a closely guarded secret.
In practice, though, there was something especially impressive, and especially disturbing, about the super-express system. A typical Quadrail train made frequent stops as it journeyed among the stars, rolling into station after station to drop one set of passengers and pick up the next. Even the express trains, which blew straight through the smaller stations without stopping, still gave their passengers those brief views of new scenery, new places, and new people.
That wasn't the case with the super-express lines. There were no stations at all between the Jurian Homshil system and the Shorshian system of Venidra Carvo, some sixty-two thousand light-years away on the other side of the galaxy. That meant nothing to break the visual monotony of gray, Corelinelit Tube wall for six long weeks, nothing to show that you and your fellow passengers weren't in fact the only people left in the universe.
And if trouble of any sort broke out, there would literally be no place for anyone to run.
All this flicked with unpleasant clarity through my mind as the Quadrail super-express train left the maintenance area at the far end of Homshil Station and rolled toward our platform. It was a long train, at fifty cars nearly twice the length of a normal Quadrail. From the data chip I'd read I knew that roughly a quarter of those cars were devoted to baggage and cargo, supplementing the usual cargo trains that traveled this route. There were also extra food-storage cars, entertainment and exercise cars for all three travel classes, and other cars devoted entirely to shower and laundry facilities.
In many ways, in fact, the whole thing was less like a normal Quadrail train than it was a long, segmented ocean cruise liner.
A cruise liner in which we were about to be stuck for six long weeks.
"It'll be all right," Bayta said quietly.
I looked at the young woman beside me. Her dark brown hair glinted in the Coreline's coruscating light show, and her equally dark eyes were steady on my face. Bayta had been my constant companion, fellow soldier, and friend for the many months since I'd been coopted into this quiet little war of ours. "Of course it will," I agreed, keeping my voice light. "Why, do I look worried or something?"
One of her eyebrows twitched. "Six weeks locked inside a Quadrail?" she countered pointedly.
I looked back at the incoming train, suppressing a grimace. I knew I didn't look worried — I had better control of my face than that. But Bayta had been with me long enough to be able to read beneath the surface.
"We don't have to do this," she went on quietly. "There are regular express trains that travel mostly through the inhabited regions. We could just stick to those."
"And double the transit time?" I shook my head. "No. Six weeks is bad enough as it is."
She didn't reply. But then, she didn't have to. I'd been with her long enough to know how to read her, too, and I knew we were thinking the same unpleasant thoughts.
Because our enemy in this war, the group mind that called himself the Modhri, also liked to ride the Quadrail. He also typically targeted the galaxy's rich and powerful, which meant there was likely to be a Modhran mind segment in the first-class section of the train we were about to board.
And the Modhri very much wanted both Bayta and me dead.
I couldn't really blame him. The Modhri was, bottom line, nothing more or less than a sentient weapon, designed a millennium and a half ago to be the ultimate infiltrator/spy/saboteur/fifth- columnist by a slaver race called the Shonkla-raa, who had been in absolute control of the galaxy and its sentient inhabitants for nearly a thousand years.
Though at the time of the Modhri's creation, they hadn't been much in control of anything. In fact, they had been fighting for their survival against a carefully crafted rebellion being carried out by an alliance of their slaves.
Unfortunately for the Shonkla-raa, the revolt had ended in their destruction before the Modhri could be deployed. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the Modhri hadn't simply died off. He'd lived on, waiting patiently until the Halkas had stumbled on his homeworld a couple of hundred years ago and found the exotic coral in which lurked the polyps that comprised his physical structure.
Decorative coral being what it is, and economics being what it is, the Halkas had ended up selling, trading, and otherwise distributing the damn stuff across the whole galaxy. Unfortunately, one touch of unprotected skin against that coral was enough to pick up a few polyp hooks, which eventually grew into full polyps and then a polyp colony, settling in at the base of the victim's brain. Once there, the new Modhran mind segment could watch and listen through his new walker's senses, whispering suggestions to guide the person's actions in order to benefit whatever the Modhri's goals were at a given moment. Should the mood strike him, the Modhri could also take complete control of his unwitting host's body, blacking out the host's own consciousness and leaving him only a puzzling memory gap when it was all over.
The Modhri's ultimate goal was to fill the galaxy with himself, which meant filling the galaxy with walkers. And up to now, he'd been doing pretty well for himself.
Or he had until the Spiders had tumbled to his existence. There'd been some false starts and some false assumptions, on both sides, as to exactly what was going on. But that had all been sorted out, and as of right now we all pretty much knew where we stood.
On paper, at least, where we stood was pretty depressing. On one side were the Modhran coral outposts, thousands of them, and his coopted walker allies, thousands if not millions of them. On the other side were the Spiders and the Chahwyn, species which were both constitutionally incapable of actual fighting, plus a handful of individuals who didn't have any such psychological shortcomings.
Two of that handful were Bayta and me.
The odds were frankly ridiculous. But despite that, Bayta and I and our allies had done remarkably well. Our latest trick, pulling a young Human girl named Rebekah and her wild-card cargo out from under the Modhri's collective nose on the Human colony world of New Tigris, had been one of our greatest successes, and had no doubt irritated the Modhri no end.
Wherein lay the problem. There would be a Modhran mind segment on our train — that was pretty much guaranteed. And once Bayta and I stepped aboard that train there would be nowhere we could go for the next six weeks. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and my Beretta 5mm pistol buried away in a lockbox somewhere underneath the train.
And six weeks was more than enough time for the Modhri, should he be so inclined, to plan and carry out a couple of murders. Such as, say, those of Bayta and me.
The train was nearly to the platform now, and I took a moment to look up and down the line of our fellow passengers. One would expect that a super-express heading toward Filiaelian and Shorshic territory would mostly draw Filiaelians and Shorshians, and indeed those two species comprised nearly half our passenger list. But there were quite a few other species represented, as well: bulldog-faced Halkas, iguana-like Juriani with hawk beaks and clawed fingers, a few pear-shaped Cimmaheem, and even a couple of groups of delicately featured Tra'ho'seej.
More surprisingly, there were quite a few Humans, as well. I spotted at least three groups of four or five each, plus several couples and a healthy scattering of unattached individuals. Either something particularly interesting was about to happen at the far end of the galaxy, or else the Filly and Shorshic tourist bureaus were running some kind of tourism special.
Most of the Humans were down the line to our left in the second-and third-class sections of the platform. But there was at least one other besides Bayta and me waiting here for the first-class cars. He was middle-aged, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair, standing with his back to us as he conferred quietly with a group of four Fillies. Some top-level business executive, I concluded from the cut of his suit, or possibly an academic on a sabbatical exchange program.
There was the screech of multiple sets of brakes, and the train rolled to a stop. Directly in front of us was the middle of the three first-class compartment cars, the one in which Bayta and I had booked our usual double room. All along the train the doors irised open, and a line of seven-legged conductor Spiders stepped onto the platform, settling into their standard Buckingham Palace guard stances.
[All aboard Trans-Galactic Quadrail 1077 to Venidra Carvo of the Shorshic Congregate,] they announced in Juric, as always using the local language. For the rest of us, a multilanguage holodisplay with the same information floated above the train. [Departure in thirty-three minutes.]
This was it. Squaring my shoulders, reminding myself that so far we'd been able to handle anything the Modhri threw at us, I started toward the door.
And stopped short as the back of a hand suddenly pressed imperiously against my right shoulder. "Excuse us," a voice said tartly. "Coming through. Excuse us, please."
I turned to look. The owner of the hand was the middle-aged Human I'd seen talking to the four Fillies. Along with his salt-and-pepper hair, I saw now that he had a slightly bushy mustache, cut in the style currently in vogue among middle-level corporate drones. He was about my height, running a little to fat beneath his traveling suit. Confidence and authority and calm arrogance wrapped around him like a rain cloak.
His eyes flicked to me, sized me up and dismissed me in that single glance, and moved on. The pressure of the back of his hand vanished as he passed me by, still warning the rest of our fellow passengers to give him room as he ushered his four Fillies toward the door.
A few meters down from me, one of the waiting Juriani muttered something about decorum and proper procedure. But no one else seemed inclined to raise any objections. In fact, I spotted several of the passengers moving aside of their own accord.
The deference didn't surprise me. Depending on who was doing the counting, the Filiaelian Assembly was either the biggest or second-biggest of the Twelve Empires, with an overall power, prestige, and influence to match. Individual Fillies, in my admittedly limited experience, didn't pull rank all that often. But when they did, you could bet that everyone else in the vicinity was ready, willing, and eager to cut them the necessary slack.
But it wasn't Filiaelian prestige or influence that was suddenly sending shivers up my back, but the fact that the Modhri's shock front for our most recent operation against him had been a group of these self-same Fillies.
I looked at Bayta, noting the tightness around her eyes as she watched the procession. Granted, all Fillies looked somewhat alike, as did all Bellidos and all Halkas and all Humans. And I certainly had no reason at the moment to suspect that this group had anything whatsoever to do with the Modhri.
On the other hand, up until a few weeks ago we'd been under the impression that the Modhri hadn't penetrated Filly society at all. Our main purpose for this trip, in fact, was to take a run out to the Ilat Dumar Covrey system, where those six Modhran-controlled Fillies had come from, to see if we could find out what was going on out there.
The first of the four Fillies reached the door; and just as he started aboard, I saw their Human escort's shoulders twitch. He paused there, gesturing the rest of the group forward.
And as he did so, he casually turned back around for another look at me.
He held the look no more than half a second before turning back to his charges. But it was more than enough. He had recognized me, and the recognition hadn't been friendly.
Problem was, I didn't recognize him.
"Interesting," Bayta murmured.
I looked at her, wondering if she'd caught the man's reaction. But her eyes were on the four Fillies. "You think they're associated with our friends?" I asked, keeping my voice low. No telling which of the other passengers waiting their turn to board might be Modhran walkers.
"I don't know," Bayta said. "I was just noticing that none of the other Filiaelians seemed to mind letting those four push their way aboard first."
I looked around. Focused first on the Fillies, and then on their Human associate, I'd completely missed the audience's reaction to the little drama.
Bayta was right. All six of the other Fillies waiting to board our car were silently standing by, with no hint of impatience or annoyance on their long, horse-like faces. That probably implied the other four Fillies were even more upper-crust than the rest of us, though what the clues to that status were I didn't know.
What I did know was that the Modhri worked especially hard to get into the Twelve Empires' upper-upper crusts.
The four Fillies disappeared into the train, their luggage obediently rolling through the door behind them, followed by the Human and his three bags. Only then did the rest of the waiting Fillies make an orderly surge for the door.
I hung back, partly out of respect, mostly so I could watch the order in which the Fillies sorted themselves out. But as with the first four, the pecking-order cues they were using were too subtle for me to figure out.
When we ran out of Fillies, I let the waiting Shorshians, Halkas, and Juriani board. Then, with our section of the platform finally empty, I nudged Bayta ahead of me and we headed in.
I'd rather expected our double compartment to be different from those on standard Quadrail trains: a bit larger, or at the very least a bit more plush. But it looked very much the same as every other first-class compartment we'd traveled in over the past months. The luggage rack above the bed was longer, and there was an extra underbed drawer, both clearly put there with the assumption that passengers here would be traveling with larger wardrobes. But aside from that, the layout was the same. Super-express trains might include a plethora of extra cars, but the basic passenger accommodations had largely been left alone.
But there was something about the compartment that seemed subtly different. I took a couple of turns around the small room, studying the bed, the lounge chair and swivel computer, the curve couch, and the half-bath as I tried to figure it out.
And then it hit me. The compartment smelled fresher. Fresher, cleaner, and somehow more sprightly.
Excerpted from The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2009 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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