Sunniva nodded and lead the way to the stairway, heading for the second level. “I should hope we won’t, but thank you.”
The second level was a similar leisure space to the alcoves below, but more open, with several tables in the center for games, drinks or conversation, and a variety of arm chairs arranged next to side tables with elegant brass gas lamps for reading; books were available on a variety of subjects in book cases along the car’s sides. Nowhere were any other passengers in evidence.
“I don’t suppose you know how many passengers there were on the train? I believe the number was quite small for a trip of this length on a train of this size.”
She considered for a moment. “It never occurred to me to count heads, I’m afraid. I know there was ... the elderly couple. And a somewhat ragged young man, rather cute otherwise, though with the unfortunate habit of staring a bit too long.” She quirked a smile to herself. “I thought there were at least four others when we boarded the train. Three men and a woman. I haven’t seen the woman or one of the men—I think they’re together—since then, however.” She frowned.
“As to the last two men, was one of them not in the lounge downstairs earlier? I am almost certain there were more of us in that compartment than just the two of us, the raggedy young man and the elderly couple.”
“Yes, I think you’re right. There was someone else, though for the life of me I can’t recall who.” They finished walking the length of the lounge, finding it was indeed empty.
“Nothing, and nobody. Next car, I suppose.” Archerd looked at the first-level door to the car crossing with a touch of apprehension.
“Yes ... though I wish we had a clearer notion of what’s going on.”
“I know. Or what they — or he — is after. But without more information we can’t guess at that, and we’re not likely to get more information just standing around.”
She eyed him just a touch askance. “For all we know it could be YOU they’re looking for. Or your devices.”
His mouth gaped and he was about to protest, but ... “I ... have to concede the possibility. Of the devices, any way. I’m of no importance.”
“You give yourself too little credit; you created the devices. Anyone who values them will value you all the more.”
“At any rate, this is no time to stand around speculating while someone who’s clearly no stranger to murder is lurking about.” He eyed the door a moment longer, braced himself, and pushed through, Sunniva close behind.
The door to the next car stuck a bit; at first Archerd thought it must have been locked, but a quick, close look revealed that there was a touch of ice forming in the door frame gap. His breath already freezing practically solid and teeth chattering, he backed up several steps and ran at the door, jamming down hard on the handle as he slammed into it. It burst inward, knocking a chair into a table and setting a vase of flowers crashing to the floor where the vase shattered.
Sunniva rushed into the room as well, and Archerd closed the door after her. “That’s your idea of being cautious in the presence of murderers?”
He scowled; he wasn’t sure where all of this sudden hostility was coming from, but they didn’t have time for it. They also lacked time for him to respond to it in kind. At least one thing was going in their favor; they were in the sleeping car. There was only the one needed to accommodate the small number of passengers, so it was also the last car. They would find whoever was responsible for this, and—
A fist flew out of the nearest sleeping cabin, catching him on the jaw. His head rang even before it snapped aside to crash against the oppose wall of the narrow passageway down the car’s center. A dark shape rushed out into the hall, tackling him to the ground.
Archerd recovered quickly; though he was certainly no trained warrior, he WAS the son of the Huntress of Dolesham. His mother had ensured her boy could take care of himself, and even with head ringing he was able to lock an arm around his attacker’s neck and start squeezing hard.
The body went limp on top of him; Archerd struggled out from under the man, whom he now recognized as the elegantly dressed gentleman from the lounge car earlier. Sunniva was standing over them, a small pistol smoking in her hand.
“You’re welcome, Archerd.” Her voice was a touch wary.
“You said we were unarmed.”
“And you never answered my question.”
He frowned. “Question? What — oh.”
“Yes. Are you with the Conclave? But there’s no need to answer now.” She lowered the pistol, slipping it back into a pocket. Her vivid green eyes were dark, troubled. “You clearly aren’t. And what’s more, I know that he is.”
She bent over him, careful not to trail the edge of her skirts in the small pool of blood gathering on the floor. Pushing him over onto his back, she took a pin from his lapel; a hemisphere, bisected with a stylized lightning bolt, in the middle of 3 overlapping narrow ovals forming a perfect 6-pointed star. The symbol of the Conclave. She pulled aside the lapel of her cream-colored jacket to reveal an identical pin on the emerald blouse beneath.
“And you ...”
“Yes. I suppose I’ve thrown in my lot with you now, for the time being at least, so I hope it’s a good lot.”
“Why would the Conclave do this? What could they possibly gain by sabotaging a train and killing the passengers? Do you really think they’re after me?”
She sighed and looked at him; her eyes were clouded with uncertainty. “I don’t know. I’ve only been with them for a year, and frankly I’m very junior. They don’t exactly let me in to the grand strategic meetings; I only just graduated last year after all. But nothing else makes sense, it has to be you. If they were after the train’s cargo, why stay here? The only explanation is you have something they want.”
“And what of you? Shouldn’t you be helping them? I’m a threat to you somehow. I hold knowledge that it seems the Conclave is willing even to kill to keep out of the hands of outsiders.”
She wrung her hands and stepped back a little; her face twisted with indecision. “I know, I should. But ... how can I now, after seeing this? After doing this? What are we? What are ... they?” Her hands were shaking badly; the twin Conclave pins dropped to the floor with twin clicks.
“You know if you side with me and word ever gets back to them, you’ll be outcast for life.” He looked down at his assailant. “And I’m guessing they’ll do their best to ensure that that’s not a long time.”
“I know.” Her voice steadied, and while her hands didn’t stop shaking, they were calmer. He guessed with a sudden pang that she at least among the Conclave probably didn’t make a habit of assassination, and she’d just killed a man. “We have to check the rest of these rooms. There’s still one more. If he’s still in here somewhere, he must know we’re here too.”
They stuck close together, Sunniva with her pistol reloaded and ready. It was a small thing, holding only a single shot, but it was the only real weapon they had.
They were halfway through the first floor when they found the unkempt young man. The Conclave agents had found him first, however, asleep in his bed, and he was now long beyond their assistance. There was little they could do but carry on.
They checked room after room, being extra cautious when they came to their own rooms, but there was nothing, nobody else. Archerd’s room had been thoroughly searched, his bags emptied across the bed. Changes of clothes, a heavy winter coat, sundry components of common types, and a notebook, laying open on the bed, several pages torn out. Sunniva’s room was untouched.
“You were right, of course you were right. And now they know what I’ve been working on.”
“Do they have all of your notes on these devices?”
“No ... that book I keep on my person. But they have enough to work out the rest themselves. The principle remains the same as in any larger unit, the key is in miniaturizing the ... well, there’ll be time for that later.”
She nodded and swept her eyes along the hall thoughtfully. “If he’s not here, he must have left before we arrived. They’ve already been through all the passenger cars.” She sighed. “But there’s another possibility. We’re assuming they both remained with the passenger cars, but what if the other hasn’t been here? What if he stayed with the freight car and engine?”
“But if they are after me, why would he do that? Surely he can’t have thought I’d be wandering over the cargo cars.”
“No ... No, but they’ve taken the time and effort to kill all of the passengers. I still cannot imagine why they’ve felt that to be necessary, unless it’s to cover up what they planned to do to you. In that case, simply separating the train wouldn’t be enough. There will be at least 3 other people with the engine who would have noticed the disconnection all too quickly, and then they’d have to investigate.”
Archerd nodded. “So then we must take a risk. We will try to reach the train’s engine and warn the engineer and his men. But first I suggest we recover our winter coats; I’m not eager to freeze again.”
They stayed together, Sunniva keeping the pistol at the ready just in case they were mistaken and the second Conclave agent was double-checking the passenger cars after failing to find them on the first sweep. When both were as warmly dressed as they could manage, they made their way forward to the front of the lounge car; there was no sign of the other agent.
There was also no sign of any letup in the weather. If anything it was worse; the sun was lower in the sky, the shadows a bit deeper, the snow thicker and piled much higher on the ground.
“Ready?” Archerd had to shout to be heard over the wind. Sunniva nodded; Archerd had a sudden thought. He fumbled around the pocket of his heavy overcoat and pulled his communicator device out. He pointed to it; she looked confused for a moment, but then her eyes flashed understanding and she drew the one he’d given her out as well.
It was awkward in the heavy winter gloves they wore, but he taught her the controls. Each held one device up to their ears; she yelled, “Can you hear me?”
The volume was a bit low, but her voice was clear as if she were talking directly into his ear. He adjusted the volume up a little , then thumbed the transmit switch. “Yes, I can hear you perfectly!”
“This is a marvel!” She shouted. “This will change the way people communicate forever! It works at any range?”
“Yes, just like the larger versions! Are you ready?”
They set out into the white gloom; it was hard to believe barely an hour had passed, but it got dark fast in the mountains and the sun had apparently slipped behind a peak.
“We’ll have to follow the tracks, we won’t be able to see for much longer!”
“Not that we can see all that much now!”
They made their way past the dining car and onto the tracks. Archerd was intensely grateful for the heavy clothing. Even with their protection, the bitter wind was starting to slowly work its way inward, but the effort of slogging through the rapidly accumulating snow kept them warm enough for the time being.
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 3 - Day 18
Continue to NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 3 - Day 18