PUBLICATION DATE: SEPTEMBER 15, 2005
t’s December 20th, 2084 and ex-Westali government operative Frank Compton’s good evening just took a left turn, ending up at the corner of trouble and strife. Compton is not where he’s supposed to be, and the young man who just addressed him is just as out of place as he. The youth manages to pass to Frank a train ticket, and instructions before he slides into a pile at the side of the road, leaking from several well placed holes.
With that detective noir nod, Night Train to Rigel is off and running, along interstellar rails as Frank takes the ticket and heads to the closet station.
Comption’s destination is Yandro, the colonized system that allowed the Terrian federation to have access to the phenomenal Spider-run interstellar rail system. The colony itself is a boondoggle, perpetrated for the sole purpose of securing a home system station, costing the tax payers trillions of dollars. It is also why Frank was booted unceremoniously out of Westali in the first place. He blew the whistle.
Frank is a fantastic narrator, and the reader learns bits and pieces of his past, even as his actions reveal more of his character than his words ever do.
When he’s hijacked out of his third class “steerage” seat and introduced to those who had gone to the trouble of finding him and giving him a ticket, the plot begins to accelerate. The alien race known as the Spiders are worried. An oracle has predicted a military attack against one of the twelve empires that use the Rail, an attack which should be impossible due to the strict rules that govern the Rail use. The Spiders want to hire Frank, an adroit observer and analyst, to find out who it is threatening the galaxy’s thousand years of peace. He agrees to their terms and sets off with his reluctantly acquired partner, Bayta.
Bayta can communicate telepathically with the Spiders who keep the light-year running trains smoothly moving from one destination to the next, and through this gift can get resources Frank needs delivered to them. Frank quickly realizes she’s also there to make certain that he keeps to his appointed task.
He has another one that he doesn’t detail to the reader, but it’s one he admits he’s taken on just prior to the Spider contact finding him. This begins Zahn’s masterful spinning of wheels within wheels.
Characters in the story have several different layers; their admitted layer, what the reader is told that they are, and then what the reader is shown that they are. Like any good espionage tale allies and enemies are not clearly defined at first.
A drunk alien pair fumbling at Franks’ compartment door might be drunks who lost their way. They also might be enemy agents, working on locating the Spiders operative on the train.
When these aliens end up in custody for theft, Frank uses his ex-Westali credentials to have a moment alone with them. Seconds later, they are dead, and he is the only suspect. The jaws of a trap snap shut around him, bringing his plans to a screeching halt. Dead bodies have a way of infringing on travel plans.
A timely intervention by one of his former alien colleagues and hey-presto the trap’s jaws release him. At the same time, another helpful train traveler points them towards the planet Modhri I.
Bayta begins to drag her feet as they approach frozen sea world, and only with great reluctance joins him on planet. She makes him promise, vehemently, that whatever happens he will not touch the Modhr I coral but denies any knowledge of what waits for them on Modhri I.
When a mysterious group begins attacking the coral beds, and aliens who are not normally allies rush to defend it, Frank’s fears are confirmed. He’s not facing a single species bent on universal conquest, but a highly motivated consciousness able to infiltrate every race and culture at the highest level, and bend them to his will.
Night Train to Rigel should be on every reader’s list. Part spy story, part hard science-fiction tale, and part thriller, Zahn has crafted a tale like no other.