Benny is invited to the planet Tempest, a
world with a poisonous atmosphere and turbulent weather patterns, as a
guest of the amateur archaeological society. After delivering her lecture
she attends a reception at the home of businessman Nathan Costermann, where
he shows her the prize of his art collection -- the Drell Imnulate, which
he intends to auction off in the polar city of Thule due to pressure from
the followers of Drell. The next day, Benny boards the Polar Express,
a monorail which will take her to the spaceport at Thule, and is surprised
to be greeted by Costermann; for security reasons, he'd decided not to
publicise his trip, and had booked passage under a false name. The Imnulate
is being transported in a MaxSec case with a time lock; although it is
still possible to touch the Imnulate, anyone who does so has their vital
statistics recorded, and any attempt to remove the Imnulate from the case
triggers an instant security clampdown. Nevertheless, the next morning
Benny is woken with a severe hangover due to a commotion in the corridor
outside, and learns that someone has gassed Costermann, stabbed his bodyguard
Tralbet with a letter opener and stolen the Imnulate...
One of the passengers, Gerv Ferlane, identifies himself
as an agent from the insurance company, sent to provide extra security
without Costermann's knowledge. Ferlane arrests passenger Jordan Tyne,
a known con man whom he'd spotted some time earlier and who booked passage
under a false name; Tyne tries to flee but is brought down by the helpful
passenger Wilver. Under questioning, Tyne admits that he has a reason to
dislike Costermann; years ago, he cheated Costermann at poker, and Costermann
sent Tralbet to rough him up and take back his money. Someone sent Tyne
an anonymous tip about the Imnulate being moved, and he admits to boarding
the monorail with the intention of stealing it -- but insists that someone
else beat him to it. Ferlane is skeptical, but Benny comes to believe Tyne.
The monorail's medical officer confirms that Benny was
too drunk on the night in question to have committed the crime, and Benny
agrees to help in the investigation. The train's security cameras have
recorded two strange shadows on the night in question, one of a head shaped
unlike any of the alien passengers on the train, and one of a snake-like
form reaching up to the ceiling and then retracting again. To make matters
worse, the Proctor at Sirocco Flats is delayed in the wilderness, and the
train must continue on without him. All passengers departing at Sirocco
Flats are searched and questioned, and news of the murder is leaked to
the press -- soon becoming the most publicised story on the planet.
Benny and Ferlane interview the passengers in the first
class compartments. Wilver is a polite non-human here to evaluate Tempest's
suitability as a vacation spot for other non-human races. Merch is a salesman
here on business, and the Versons are an elderly retired couple; neither
has any connection to Costermann although he did let them see the Imnulate,
showing it off for one last time before selling it. Montague Klemp is rumoured
to be Tempest's biggest crime kingpin, but Benny and Ferlane have to agree
that he wouldn't be so foolish as to steal the Imnulate while he's on the
same train. But two other passengers have reason to hate Costermann; Dell
Lankril blames Costermann for reneging on his promise to underwrite a loan
his family needs to keep their business afloat, and Lucas Sommers blames
Costermann for seducing his wife away from him, and then abandoning her
once he'd had his fill of her.
Costermann claims that he turned down Lankril's request
after looking over his business proposals, and that Lankril had foolishly
assumed too much in advance. Also, Lucas Sommers smothered his wife for
years, and she fled from him the first chance she got and became self-destructively
hedonistic in response. Costermann doesn't seem to have any other enemies
on the train, although the connection may be less direct than it seems;
some years back one of Costermann's companies was accused of selling faulty
medical equipment, and the company manager took his own life to avoid scandal.
Tralbet had been accepting regular payments to a private bank account for
some time; perhaps he was being bribed to betray Costermann, and the thief
chose to silence him, choosing the nearby letter opener to make it appear
as though the murder was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But Benny and Ferlane
are still no closer to a solution by the evening -- and during the night,
the salesman Merch is beaten to death in his compartment and his laptop
computer's memory core is stolen.
News of Merch's murder provokes a near-riot on the train,
but Benny and Ferlane are able to calm down the panicking passengers. But
they aren't able to prevent word from reaching the outside world, and when
the train reaches Roaring Cavern rioting townspeople refuse to let anyone
get off the train unless they're immediately arrested. Local law enforcement
is too busy holding back the rioters to board the train and relieve Benny
or Ferlane, and the monorail is forced to continue on its journey without
letting anyone disembark. Fortunately, the Equatorial Express is
on its way to meet its sister monorail with a team of investigators. Meanwhile,
the medical officer performs an autopsy and Merch and finds lens implants
in his eyes; the monorail engineer, Yorland, informs the others that Merch
had reported interference on his communicator the other day; and Ferlane
learns that Merch used to work for a famous gem dealer, but was dismissed
under a cloud when some gems mysteriously vanished while in his care.
Meanwhile, a skystation technician named Owen Rosen has
been approached by a mysterious man named Smith, who offers to tear up
Rosen's gambling debts if he plants a certain device on the skystation
-- and to call them all in at once if he refuses. Having planted the device,
Rosen eventually comes to suspect that Smith is in some way involved in
the incidents he's seeing reported on the news, and decides to contact
him and blackmail him for more money, threatening to reveal the existence
of the device if Smith refuses. Smith sends the money as requested -- and
Rosen discovers too late that the credit chips, all forgeries, have been
coated with contact poison...
The monorail is forced to stop so the crew can clear a
landslide away from the line, and some of the passengers volunteer to help.
Ferlane eventually emerges as well, telling Benny that he's sent for more
information in order to follow up a hunch. But someone has sabotaged Ferlane's
breathing unit, and when he passes out Benny fractures her arm saving him
from falling over a cliff. A plastic cast is sprayed over Benny's arm,
to be dissolved later once the bones have set; but Ferlane has fallen into
a coma and can't be woken. Word then reaches the monorail that the Equatorial
Express has suffered an accident -- which proves to have been no accident.
Someone has deliberately blown out its drive unit to prevent help from
reaching the Polar Express, and Benny must solve the mystery alone.
Benny, reviewing the security corridor tapes, identifies
the snake-like shadow as an arm planting a line tap in the corridor communications
unit, just out of camera range -- obviously so someone could eavesdrop
on the progress of the investigation after the crime was committed. The
tap is located, but is found to have burned out. The other shadow is eventually
identified as that of Lucas Sommers' daughter Clarris, who was wearing
head curlers and was on her way to Dell Lankril's suite. After what happened
to his wife Sommers has become overprotective of his daughter and disapproves
of her relationship with Lankril, but as Sommers had taken a sleeping draught
on the night in question Clarris was able to slip out of their quarters
to see Lankril.
The Versons report that their room has been searched,
and Benny, trying to work out why, deduces correctly that they are followers
of Drell. They admit that this is so but deny any involvement with the
crimes; they abhor the use of violence and were simply sent to keep an
eye on the Imnulate to ensure no harm came to it before the auction. However,
they must warn the others that there is a radical offshoot of their religion
-- the Kedd-Drell -- who believe they must spread the word of Drell by
any means necessary. If the Kedd recover the Imnulate first, it will be
seen as confirmation of their beliefs, and it may trigger a jihad.
The train is brought to a stop again, by a tree blocking
the line -- but then a second tree falls and blocks their retreat, and
Smith and his men emerge from hiding to take the Polar Express hostage.
Smith contacts the train's crew, and, recognizing Benny the moment she
speaks to him, tells her that he's aware of the theft of the Imnulate.
Nevertheless, he still requires that the Imnulate be handed over to him
-- otherwise he will kill everyone on board the train. Unwilling to risk
their lives to the goodwill of a double murderer, the passengers prepare
to fight for their lives, while Benny makes a private deal with Tyne. Just
as Smith's deadline expires Tyne rushes into the first-class dining car
with the Imnulate, which he claims he found hidden in Costermann's suite.
Wilver now reveals himself to be working for Smith, and he seizes the Imnulate
and takes it out of the train -- at which point Benny and Tyne admit that
the Imnulate they handed over was a fake to draw Wilver out of hiding.
Since Smith had recognised Benny as one of the investigators right away,
although her identity hadn't been publicised in the news reports, Benny
had realized he must have an agent aboard the train reporting to him.
Smith orders his men to attack the train, but the people
have had time to prepare -- and the people of Tempest are pioneers in a
hostile landscape, who are now fighting for their families' lives. During
the fierce battle which follows Costermann, who'd made his start in life
as a chemist, makes a bomb which Benny uses to blow up the tree blocking
the track. The train gets underway again, but Smith pursues it in an experimental
ship capable of piloting through even Tempest's turbulent atmosphere. Smith
deactivates the proximity safeguards in order to ram the Express
and derail it, but the train's crew slow down and fire flares at Smith's
ship. The pilot instinctively pulls back, but overcompensates -- and since
the proximity safeguards have been deactivated he flies straight into the
canyon wall, destroying the ship and killing all aboard.
The survivors on the Polar Express deal with the
aftermath of the battle, and Tyne identifies one of the dead, a young woman,
as his partner Lil, whom he'd been trying to keep out of things when his
scheme went wrong. Lankril has saved Lucas and Clarris Sommers' life, and
Sommers has reluctantly given his blessing to their relationship. News
reaches the Express of Rosen's death on the skystation, and Benny
realizes that he must have planted a relay which enabled Wilver to transmit
his reports to Smith without using the Express' communications unit.
Although they can't be sure, it seems that Smith must have been working
for the Kedd-Drell. The monorail is only hours now from Thule, and Benny
is still no closer to solving the original mystery; until a chance comment
from a little girl that the stars in the clear polar sky look like diamonds
sparks a certain train of thought...
Benny gathers the suspects in the dining car to go through
her reasoning. Someone leaked information to the Drell about Costermann's
intention to move the Imnulate, and that could have been anybody; but someone
also sent an anonymous tip to Tyne. Only Tyne, Tralbet, and Costermann
knew of their relationship, and as the killer can't be Tralbet, it must
be Costermann himself. Benny suspects that Costermann was more deeply involved
in the medical supplies scandal than has been revealed, and that the manager
who supposedly took his own life in fact had it taken from him. Tralbet
must have been involved, and Costermann was paying him off to keep him
silent. The real Imnulate never left Costermann's house; he distracted
the MaxSec personnel at a vital moment and substituted a fake made out
of the same material used for Benny's arm cast. After killing Tralbet,
he dissolved the "Imnulate" out of its case, and the security clampdown
wasn't activated since the case didn't recognize the chemical goo as the
Imnulate it was programmed to protect. Merch must have realized the truth
when he saw the fake Imnulate, thanks to his gem dealing background and
the lens implants in his eyes, and attempted to blackmail Costermann. Costermann
used the line tap to generate interference on Merch's communicator, burning
it out in the process, thus preventing him from getting out word of his
discovery before Costermann could kill him.
All the pieces of Benny's theory fit into place, and when
she looks into Costermann's eyes she knows she's right. But he admits nothing,
she has no proof, and he has very good lawyers. As he prepares to return
to his cabin, however, Tyne attacks him, realizing that he's going to get
away with his crime and blaming him for the circumstances that led to Lil's
death. As they fight they fall against a panel damaged during the battle
with Smith's men, and although Benny manages to rescue Tyne, Costermann
falls out of the train to his death in the poisonous arctic atmosphere.
His companies subsequently disassociate themselves from his name, fearing
scandal. As Benny departs Tempest, the new hiding place of the Drell Imnulate
is yet to be found; once again it has vanished into legend.
Source: Cameron Dixon