Chapter 1 From the Stars’ End sector of the Filiaelian Assembly to the Darmisfar colony worlds of the Bellidosh Estates-General, the one thing everyone in the galaxy agrees on is that the best thing about traveling between the stars via Quadrail is the food. The Spiders who operate the vast system of trains and Tubes and stations have made a point of seeking out the very best recipes and cuisine from each of the twelve star-spanning civilizations and making them available for their passengers’ enjoyment. It’s like visiting the Alien Quarter of any of a thousand cities, only you get to travel while you do it.
Even in the second/third-class dining cars the food was delicious, intriguing, and eclectic. Here, in first class, where it was now my privilege to ride, it was all that and more.
And I was ready. More than ready. I’d suffered through a wearying twenty-day round-trip torchcruiser voyage across the Yandro system, living on ship’s rations the whole time, followed by the much shorter fourteen-hour Quadrail ride from Yandro to Terra Station, most of which I’d spent sleeping. Now, with a sizzling plate of artistically arranged Shorshic pili tentacles in front of me, I was finally going to get a decent meal.
“Mr. Frank Compton?”
I sighed. And the other thing everyone in the galaxy agrees on is that one of the greatest frustrations of Quadrail travel is some overly jovial fellow passenger interrupting you in the middle of your meal.
Reluctantly, I looked up. The man standing over me was Human, in his fifties, with blue eyes and white-streaked brown hair. As befit his first-class Quadrail passenger status, he was dressedin a quiet but expensive traveling suit that had been tailored within a millimeter of its life. Also as befit the average first-class passenger, he had the steady gaze and solid manner of someone used to having his every word listened to and obeyed.
And his expression was anything but jovial. The man was worried. Seriously worried.
“Yes, I’m Compton,” I confirmed. “And you?”
“My name’s Smith,” he said. His voice carried a slight central EuroUnion accent. “I wonder if I might have a moment of your time.”
I glanced across the table at the dark-haired young woman seated there. Bayta had been my sort-of-informal partner for the past several months, ever since I’d gotten myself involved in this strange twilight war between the Spiders and the group mind known as the Modhri. She was looking up at Smith, her face showing her usual wariness of strangers but nothing that might indicate she knew anything more ominous about the man. “Fine, but only a moment,” I told Smith. “As you can see, we’ve just started dinner.”
“My apologies for that,” Smith said. Pulling over a chair from the unoccupied table beside us, he sat down. “To put it bluntly, I’m on my way into a situation that might require a man of your abilities and experience. I thought I might be able to persuade you to join me.”
“What specific abilities and experience are you referring to?” I asked.
He smiled. “Come now, Mr. Compton, let’s not be modest. Your record of service in Western Alliance Intelligence speaks for itself.”
“You might possibly have missed the last page of that record,” I suggested. “The page where Westali summarily booted me out.”
Smith snorted in a genteel sort of way. “For your very proper attempt to alert the world to the Yandro colonization boondoggle,” he said. “Personally, I consider that a point in your favor.”
“Nice to see someone appreciates it,” I said. “Unfortunately, as to your job, I’m afraid I’m otherwise engaged at the moment.”
“This would take very little of your time,” he assured me. “I’m on my way to Bellis to negotiate the purchase of a small but very valuable item.”
I felt my ears prick up. As it happened, Bayta and I were also on our way to Bellis, the capital world of the Bellidosh Estates-General. “What sort of item?”
“A piece of artwork,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say anything more right now. I assure you, though, the transaction will be completely legal.”
“I’d certainly hope so,” I said. “And my part in this transaction would be . . . ?”
“I merely want someone competent and trustworthy at my side,” Smith said.
I nodded toward his fancy suit jacket. “It seems to me a man of your means should be able to hire carloads of extremely competent people.”
His lip twitched. “The competency part isn’t the trick,” he said. “And you come highly recommended.”
“Really,” I said, intrigued in spite of myself. There were very few people out there these days who would recommend me for any job higher than that of chief sewage handler. “May I ask by whom?”
He considered, then shrugged. “I suppose it’s not really a secret. Deputy UN Director Biret Losutu.”
I looked again at Bayta, saw my own surprise reflected in her eyes. “Interesting,” I said.
“Isn’t it?” Smith agreed. “Especially since I would have expected your part in the Yandro affair to have earned you a certain degree of hostility from him. You must be very special for his opinion to have turned around that completely.”
He had that right, anyway. My whistle-blowing on the Yandro affair three years ago had made me an enemy in Losutu’s eyes. A few months ago, when we’d next met, that status had eroded to the point where I merely qualified as an irritant.
But that was before Losutu himself had been dragged into this quiet war.
The fact that Smith had dropped Losutu’s name made this a shade more intriguing. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing whether or not he was telling the truth about Losutu having recommended me to him.
Even if he was, there was the whole question of whether I was willing to trust either of them. “You and Director Losutu are very kind,” I said. “But as I said, I’m otherwise engaged.” I picked up my fork, trusting Smith would take the hint.
He didn’t. “Mr. Compton, let me put my cards on the table,” he said, making no move to get up. “I postponed my trip to Bellis in hopes of linking up with you. In fact, I ended up staying on Terra Station for an extra six hours waiting for you to get back from wherever it was you were.”
I eyed him closely, the hairs at the back of my neck doing a gentle tingle. I had in fact been almost exactly six hours off my original timetable in returning to Terra Station, a timetable Losutu was very much aware of. That part, at least, checked out.
Problem was, Losutu wasn’t the only one who would have known the timing on that mission. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” I said.
“Oh, I wasn’t blaming you,” Smith hastened to assure me. “I was simply pointing out that the delay made the whole thing a bit more awkward. Especially since Losutu wouldn’t tell me where you were coming in from, but only when you were expected back. That meant I had to keep an eye on every incoming train.”
“You’re lucky you found me at all,” I said. If, of course, it had been luck.
“Yes, indeed.” He nodded to Bayta. “I’d just spotted you and your lovely companion and was on my way to talk to you when you got up and headed to the platform for this train. I was barely able to get a reservation in time to make it aboard myself.”
“You’re obviously a very lucky man,” I commented.
“In my experience, luck comes to those who don’t rely on it,” he said. “The point is that I want your help.” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “And as you suggested earlier, money’s no object.”
There it was: the end point I’d been waiting for. Eventually, if you waited long enough, it always came down to money. “I’m sure it’s not,” I said. “But as I said, we’re busy.”
For a moment he studied my face. “May I at least ask you to think it over?” he said. “Feel free to drop by my compartment if you’d like more details.” He glanced around. “With more privacy, I can be a bit more open.”
“We’ll see,” I said noncommittally.
“Please do,” he said, finally standing up. “Compartment eleven. Drop in anytime.”
With another nod at Bayta, he returned his chair to the other table and made his way through the room to the corridor bordering the dining area. Turning left, he disappeared toward the first-class car in front of us and the compartment car beyond that. “His compartment’s right across from yours,” I commented to Bayta, finally slicing off a piece of pili. “Handy.”
“I wonder if that’s a coincidence,” she said, scooping up a bite of her own meal. “What do you think?”
“About Smith? Or about Smith’s offer?”
I shrugged. “He personally is probably legit. His little transaction is more doubtful. Either way, it’s kind of irrelevant.”
“Why?” she countered. “If it is a genuine offer, it might be a good cover for us.”
I took another bite, mulling it over. She had a point. The Modhri homeland had been destroyed, but the Modhri himself was unfortunately still very much alive.
It was, without a doubt, the most bizarre enemy anyone had ever faced. The Modhri was technically a single entity, a group mind composed of the telepathically linked polyps that lived in the decorative and highly prized Modhran coral. He’d been created as a last-ditch weapon of the Shonkla-raa, a vicious race of conquerors, during the last stages of a revolt that had wiped them out sixteen hundred years ago.
Unfortunately, the Shonkla-raa’s little fifth column weapon hadn’t died with them. The Modhri had remained dormant for centuries, until the coral had been rediscovered and the Modhri inadvertently unleashed on the galaxy. Before the Spiders and their secretive Chahwyn masters had finally tumbled to his existence, he’d gotten his claws firmly planted in the power centers of most of the Twelve Empires served by the Quadrail system.
The presence of an aggressive group mind hidden in clumps of coral would have been bad enough. What made the whole thing infinitely worse was that the polyps could also invade and live inside living beings: Humans and Bellidos and Juriani and pretty much everyone else in the galaxy. A polyp hook could move in with just a scratch of the coral and reproduce enough polyps inside their host to create a new Modhri mind segment.
In some ways it was like the terrorist wars of the early century. Only worse, because the newly created walker was completely unaware of the fact that he or she had been co-opted into the Modhri’s quiet war of conquest. Most of the time the colony lay quiet, occasionally making subtle mental suggestions that the host would usually obey and afterward find a reason to rationalize away.
But that was under normal circumstances. Under more urgent need, the Modhri mind segment could take complete control of his host, overriding the resident mind and turning the body into a sort of life-sized marionette. The host would have no memory of that period, but would merely end up with a strange blacked-out chunk of his or her day.
Even then, if the Modhri was clever, he could avoid suspicion. A short blackout could be rationalized in any number of ways, especially if the walker was accustomed to drinking intoxicants. Since most of the rich and influential who were the Modhri’s targets of choice had learned social drinking at an early age, it was an easy and obvious explanation for the Modhri to push.
If that wasn’t bad enough, each walker mind segment could also telepathically link up with the segments of other nearby walkers, or with outposts of the coral itself, creating a larger, smarter, more dangerous mind. A given Modhri mind segment was never static, but continually added pieces and information to itself as new walkers came into telepathic range and losing pieces as old ones moved away off the edge of its consciousness. The result was a fluid, ever-changing opponent that was as hard to pin down as a drop of mercury.
Fortunately, even slippery enemies weren’t infallible. One of our few allies in this war, a rogue Belldic commando squad leader named Korak Fayr, had taken upon himself the goal of ridding his own worlds of Modhran influence. To that end, he’d spent the last few months moving around the Bellidosh Estates-General, destroying every coral outpost he could get his hands on.
The Modhri had spent those same months trying his damnedest to find Fayr and throw a rope around him. Making Fayr’s job all the more difficult was the fact that the high monetary value of the coral meant that even owners and police who weren’t carrying Modhran colonies under their skins were trying to nail him to the wall.
Fayr was the sort who enjoyed a challenge. Still, I doubted he would turn down any reasonable offer of assistance, which was why Bayta and I were on our way to Bellis to offer him some.
Which brought me back to Bayta’s question. The Modhri was undoubtedly still looking for us, and might have a few walkers hanging around the transfer station where Quadrail passengers bound for the Bellis inner system went through customs. If Mr. Smith’s mysterious errand could provide Bayta and me with a legitimate reason to enter Belldic space, it might be worth a few days of our time to accommodate him.
The problem was the other side of coin . . . because if Smith himself was a Modhran walker, then no matter how legitimate he might think his offer, going with him would probably walk us straight into a trap.
Up to now the Modhri hadn’t shown himself to be a particularly vengeful sort. But that was before we’d destroyed his homeland. I wasn’t eager to find out what his new attitude toward us might be. “Forget it,” I told Bayta. “Not worth the risk.”
“We’re not interested,” I said firmly, cutting off another bite.
“Maybe we aren’t,” Bayta said, a little crossly. “But someone else is.”
I knew better than to abruptly stop what I was doing and spin around. “Where?” I asked, putting the pili into my mouth.
Her eyes flicked over my shoulder, then returned to her own plate. “There are two of them: a man and a woman,” she said. “The man’s about your age, the woman about the same age as Mr. Smith.”
“How’s their meal going?”
“I think they’re almost finished,” she said. “But the man was definitely watching your conversation with Mr. Smith.”
And watching was pretty much all he could do at that distance. The acoustics in Quadrail dining and bar cars were designed to make eavesdropping from more than about a meter away effectively impossible. “Let me know when they get ready to leave,” I said.
I got three more bites of pili and had tried the accompanying cornleaf mash when Bayta murmured her warning. I looked down into my lap, pretending to adjust my napkin, and was gazing at the floor as they walked past.
Their shoes were the first items up for consideration. The woman’s were very much upper class, while the man’s were nice but nothing special. I let my eyes move upward as the two of them continued by, giving each article of clothing the same quick analysis, then checked out the backs of their heads and their hairstyles.
There was no doubt about it. The woman belonged here among the stratospheric wealthy of the galaxy. The man was just as definitely traveling first class on someone else’s budget.
And then, as they reached the corridor, the man turned and looked at me.
It was a short, expressionless glance. But it was enough. “Well, well,” I murmured as the two of them turned right toward the first-class car behind the dining car.
“You know him?” Bayta asked.
“No, but I know his type,” I said. “He’s someone’s Intelligence agent. Probably Westali or the EuroUnion Security Service—he doesn’t look Asian or African enough for any of their groups.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“The same thing I used to do way too much of,” I said. “He’s playing escort. The lady’s probably some ranking politician who decided her status demanded she get an official government guard dog to hold her hand out here in the big, scary universe.”
Bayta pondered that for another two bites. “So why was he watching us?” she asked.
It was the same question I’d been asking myself ever since Bayta mentioned them. That backward glance all by itself had been way too interested for a man who was supposed to be busy watching his client’s back.
There were, in fact, only a limited number of reasons I could think of why he might be that interested in me. Unfortunately, most of those reasons involved the Modhri.
“Maybe he just recognized me from somewhere,” I said, picking the least threatening of the possibilities. “I was in that same business, after all.”
“I don’t know,” Bayta said slowly. “He seemed interested in Mr. Smith, too.”
“Maybe Mr. Smith’s completely legal secret artwork transaction isn’t as secret as he thinks,” I said. “Either way, our best bet is to keep a low profile the rest of the way to Bellis and hope all of them forget about us.”
“It’s only twenty-five hours to Bellis,” Bayta pointed out.
“Then they’ll have to forget real fast.”
We finished our meal in silence against the steady clacking of the train’s wheels on the tracks beneath us as we traveled along at a steady hundred kilometers an hour. Or a light-year per minute, however one preferred to think about it. When we were finished, we headed back to our double compartment.
We reached the car to find Smith’s door was closed. I half expected him to jump out into the corridor as we passed and try his sales pitch on me again, but the door stayed shut. Either he’d gone to bed, or else he’d given up on me. Either suited me fine.
I ushered Bayta into her compartment and then continued on to my own. I hung my jacket on the clothes rack for a quick cleaning, then settled down on the bed with my reader and the complete guidebook to Bellis I’d picked up at Terra Station before Bayta and I had left. As Humans we were going to look out of place enough among all those chipmunk-faced Bellidos. There was no point in looking like tourists, too.
I’d been reading for an hour, and was just thinking about taking a quick shower and getting ready for bed, when a piercing scream from the corridor knifed through the wall.
Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved.