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EXCERPT: Night Train to Rigel, by Timothy Zahn

After hopping aboard a galactic train, former agent Frank Compton receives the assignment of a lifetime—saving humanity from a deadly war.

night train to rigel
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Night Train to Rigel

By Timothy Zahn

“There are many mysterious places in this galaxy,” he said. “One of them, which the Spiders have dubbed the Oracle, sits a short distance from a siding similar to this one. Occasionally, Spiders passing through the area see visions of future events.” He gestured at the Spider standing over him. “Five weeks ago, this Spider saw the future destruction of a Filiaelian transfer station.”

I sat up a little straighter in my chair. Filly transfer stations were among the biggest and best-protected in the galaxy. “How sure are you that it was a Filly station?”

“Very sure,” Hermod said, his voice darkening. “Because there were the remains of two gutted Sorfali-class warships drifting alongside it.”

I threw a look at the Spider. “Your friend’s been hallucinating,” I said flatly. “Filly soldiers are genetically programmed against rebellion or civil war.”

“I never said it was a civil war,” Hermod countered, his voice going even darker. “The attack came from somewhere outside the system.”

I looked over at The Girl’s expressionless face. If this was a joke, no one was laughing. “Now you’re the one hallucinating,” I told Hermod. “You can’t smuggle weaponry through the Tube. Certainly nothing that could take out a Sorfali. You know that better than I do.”

“It seems impossible to the Spiders, as well,” Hermod agreed. “Nevertheless, that is what he saw. And since the Oracle’s past visions have subsequently proven valid, the Spiders have no choice but to assume this one may, too.” His eyes locked onto mine. “I trust you don’t need me to spell out the implications.”

“No,” I said, and I meant it. There were twelve empires spanning the galaxy, or at least twelve species-groups the Spiders officially recognized as empires. A few of them, like the five worlds of our pathetic little Terran Confederation, weren’t worthy of the name; others, like the Filiaelian Assembly and Shorshic Domain, were the genuine article, consisting of thousands of star systems spread across vast reaches of space. Historically, at least on Earth, powerful empires seldom bumped into each other without eventually going to war, and from what we knew of alien psychology there was no reason to assume anyone out there would react any differently if they had a choice.

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Only in this case, they didn’t. The only way to cross interstellar distances was via Quadrail, and there was simply no way to stuff a war machine into a group of Quadrail cars. The only exception was interstellar governments, who under very special and very strict transport conditions were allowed to ship the components of planetary defenses through to their own colonies.

Which meant that anyone who wanted to make war against his neighbor would find himself facing as much military nastiness as the intended victim had felt inclined to set up. In a Quadrail-run galaxy, defense was king.

But if someone had figured out how to take out not only a transfer station but a couple of warships along with it, cozy peacefulness and stability were about to come to a violent end. “Was there anything else in this vision?” I asked. “Any idea which of the Fillies’ stations it was, or who might have been involved?”

“Neither,” Hermod said. “But he did see that the Filiaelian warships carried both the insignia of the current dynasty and the one scheduled to come to power in four months. We can therefore assume the attack will take place sometime during the transitional period.”

Four months. This just got better and better. “That’s not much time.”

“No, it’s not,” Hermod agreed. “The Spiders will, of course, give you all the assistance they can, including unlimited use of the Quadrail system.”

I felt my eyes narrow slightly. “Including access to places like this?” I asked casually, gesturing around me.

“Yes, if you need them,” he said, frowning a bit. “Though I can’t think why you would need that.”

“You never know,” I said, my heartbeat starting to pick up a little. Suddenly this was becoming more than just interesting. “How exactly do I get all this unlimited access? Pass key? Secret handshake?”

“You begin with this,” he said, nodding to The Girl. Right on cue, she dug a small folder out of her belt pouch and handed it to me. It was the same sort of folder I’d taken off the dead kid in Manhattan, except that instead of being made of cheap plastic this one was a high-end variety of brushed leather.

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And instead of the copper-edged ticket of a third-class Quadrail seat, this one held the diamond-dust-edged tag of a first-class, unlimited-use pass, something I’d never seen before except in brochures. “Nice,” I said. “How long is it good for?”

“As long as you need it,” Hermod said. “Assuming, of course, that you take the job. Will you?”

I angled the ticket toward the light for a better view, my brain spinning with the possibilities. If they were on to me and this whole thing was a trick, then whatever answer I gave him wouldn’t matter in the slightest. Whatever I did or said, I was already sunk.

But if they weren’t on to me and this offer was legit, then I was being offered a gift on a platinum platter.

Of course, if I took the job I’d also be morally obligated to put some actual effort into it. Four months wasn’t a lot of time to figure out who was planning to start an impossible interstellar war and find a way to stop it.

Still, this was way too intriguing to pass up. And despite the old saying to the contrary, it was surely possible for a man to serve two masters. “Sure, why not?” I said, tucking the folder into my inner jacket pocket. “I’m in.”

“Excellent.” Again, Hermod gestured to The Girl. “This is Bayta. She’ll be accompanying you.”

I looked at her, found her looking back at me with her usual lack of expression. “Thanks, but I work alone,” I told him.

“You may need information or assistance from the Spiders along the way,” Hermod said. “Only a few of them can communicate with humans in anything more than a handful of rote phrases.”

“And, what, Bayta speaks their language?”

“Let’s just say she knows their secret handshake,” Hermod said with a faint smile.

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I suppressed a grimace. I didn’t want company on this trip, particularly company who might have come off a mannequin assembly line. Still, I should have expected that the Spiders would insist on assigning me a watchdog. “Fine,” I said. “Whatever.”

“One other thing,” Hermod said. “The messenger who delivered your ticket was supposed to accompany you here. Did he happen to mention why he had chosen not to do so?”

I hesitated, but there didn’t seem to be any point in lying. “I’m afraid choice had very little to do with it,” I said. “He died at my feet.”

Bayta inhaled sharply, and the whole room suddenly went very still. “What happened?” Hermod asked.

“He was shot,” I said. “Multiple times, actually. Someone was very serious about getting rid of him.”

“Did you see what happened?”

“All I know is that he was already bleeding when I found him,” I said, choosing my words carefully. If they already knew about me, mentioning the New Pallas Towers wouldn’t be telling them anything new. But if they didn’t know, I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to point them that direction. “Considering the shape he was in, I’m surprised he made it as far as he did.”

“He knew the importance of his mission,” Hermod said soberly. “Do you know what kind of weapon he was shot with?”

“Snoozer and thudwumper rounds,” I told him. “Fortunately, they didn’t need to escalate to shredders.”

“Human ordnance, then?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” I said. “Terra Station’s very particular about keeping alien weaponry out of the system.”

“Except at the various nonhuman embassies on Earth and Mars,” Bayta said. Her face, which had gone rigid at my announcement of the kid’s death, was back to an expressionless mask. “I understand embassy guards are permitted to carry and use equipment that would otherwise be interdicted.”

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“True,” I said. “Which means using one to commit a murder would be about as clever as leaving a sheet of the ambassador’s personal stationery pinned to the body. As I say, the choice of weapon doesn’t tell us anything. Forensics might have had better luck if they got around to putting him through the sifter.”

“Why wouldn’t they have?” Hermod asked, frowning. “He was a murder victim.”

“He was also a man with no ID, credit tags, or apartment key,” I said. “Dit rec mysteries notwithstanding, in the real world we’ll be lucky if they even stored away his ashes after the cremation.”

Hermod sighed. “I see. Well … thank you, Mr. Compton. And good luck.”

Neither Bayta nor I spoke again until we were settled into the Quadrail car, me in my original seat, her in the one behind me. “I presume you aren’t planning to gas me for this leg of the trip?” I asked, swiveling around to look at her as we started moving.

A flicker of surprise touched her eyes. “You knew about that?”

“It was pretty obvious,” I said. “I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you or Hermod that all you had to do was ask me in for a chat?”

“We needed to keep the conversation a secret,” she said. “A conductor came in shortly after we left Terra and told the rest of the passengers that there was extra space in the main third-class area two cars up and that as a result they’d all been upgraded. We needed you asleep so he’d have an excuse to leave you behind until later.”

“Again, you could have just asked me.”

“It was thought it would look more realistic if you didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “That was why the ticket was made out to Yandro, too.”

“That part certainly caught my attention,” I said sourly. “I take it we’re not actually going there, then?”

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“Not unless you want to. At any rate, the bags the Spider took from you at Terra Station are waiting in the front car in a first-class compartment that’s been reserved for us. We can move up there as soon as we’re back with the train.”

Not just a first-class ticket, but a compartment, as well. They were definitely rolling out the red runner here. “Nice,” I commented. “Any chance of similar accommodations if and when we change trains?”

“Of course,” she said, as if it were obvious. “There’ll be an empty compartment kept available for our use on all Quadrail trains in our vicinity for the next four months.”

“Even better,” I said. “Okay, first things first. Do you have a map of the Quadrail system? A complete map, I mean, one that shows these sidings and any other hidden goodies?”

“I don’t know what you mean by goodies,” she said as she selected a data chip from her belt pouch. “And you’ll need to use my reader,” she added, pulling it out and plugging in the chip. “The data is masked on normal readers.”

“Good idea,” I said, taking the reader from her. “What’s your last name, by the way?”

“I don’t have one,” she said, adjusting herself in her seat. “We’ll be rejoining the train in about an hour. If you have any questions, please wake me.”

She closed her eyes, and for a moment I studied that nondescript face of hers. She’d be watching every move I made from now on, I knew, ready to whistle up the nearest Spider at the first wrong step.

I turned back around to face forward. I still didn’t know if the Spiders were on to me or not. But if they were, they were certainly giving me plenty of rope with which to hang myself. It would be a shame to let that much good rope go to waste.

Settling back into my seat, I got to work.

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