Timothy Zahn builds a fun and engaging science-fiction universe in ‘Night Train to Rigel’

March 21, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 19, 2018

Timothy Zahn’s 2005 novel Night Train to Rigel is a fast-moving thriller set in a galaxy on the verge of war.

The tale, which is the first volume of a five-book series, is narrated by one Frank Compton. A former spy who used to work for the future equivalent of NATO, Compton is more or less between jobs when a bullet-riddled courier hands him a ticket to ride the Quadrail, a transit system that connects star systems around the galaxy.

Compton’s slain recruiter turns out to be an agent of the Spiders, the mysterious mechanical creatures that control the Quadrail. They’re concerned that a malevolent faction may have found a way to circumvent the hyperdimensional railway’s restrictions against transporting weapons. If true, such a development would trigger major bloodshed between the handful of alien empires who control most of the galaxy.

Although Compton prefers to work alone, his new employers insist he travel with Bayta, a young woman with a telepathic link to the Spiders. Together, they zip from one end of the galaxy to another, unraveling a deadly conspiracy involving multiple species.

In this passage, Compton and Bayta are being interrogated by some unfriendly officials when they experience an interruption:

[A]s one of the soldiers reached for the fasteners at her collar, the conference door slid open behind them.

Both soldiers spun around, hands dropping automatically to their weapons. But it was only a Cimma in a bright orange vac suit, his faceplate darkened as if he’d just come in from outside but his pear shape unmistakable as he waddled into the room. He saw us and came to an abrupt halt. “Does this be the ski instruction group?” he asked tentatively, his gravelly voice through his helmet sounding like it was coming from a deep pit.

“You have the wrong room,” PrifKlas said tartly.

Keeping my upper body motionless, I gathered my feet beneath me. One did not turn down a gift from heaven, and with the Cimma’s appearance my odds had suddenly improved. The two soldiers now had their backs to me, and the others had at least part of their attention distracted toward the end of the room.

It was time to make my move.

The two soldiers were the obvious targets. But with Applegate and most of the table between us, I knew I’d never reach them in time.

But Mahf was another story. He was sitting directly across from me, his status guns gleaming in their shoulder holsters. If I could get across the table fast enough, I might be able to grab one of those guns before he could react. Getting a grip on the edge of the table, I eased my weight off the chair, preparing to kick it backward out of my way.

“My apologies,” the Cimma said, bowing low and stretching his arms out as if preparing to bless us. I caught a glimpse of a pair of slender orange tubes fastened to the undersides of each of his forearms —

And with a double snap like the breaking of small branches, a pair of projectiles shot out to catch the two Halkan soldiers squarely in their torsos.

They staggered back into the table, clutching at their chests and fumbling for their guns. A quarter second later their legs folded beneath them, dropping them onto the floor, even as the major seated beside Bayta caught a round of his own and collapsed onto the table. Across from me, Mahf snarled a curse, shoving his chair violently backward and throwing himself after it as he grabbed for his guns. But the Cimma was already tracking his movement, and again the wrist guns snapped, turning the dive into a crumple and sending his guns skittering uselessly away across the floor.

PrifKlas and the Peer, older and more cultured and far less accustomed to sudden and violent action, didn’t even make it out of their chairs.

Which left just Bayta, Applegate, and me. “Easy,” I cautioned, holding my cuffed hands up for the Cimma’s inspection. “We may be on the same side here.”

Zahn creates an involving universe and an exciting plot. None of the characters are particularly vivid, but Night Train to Rigel was a heck of a fun read. Although I’m not all that inclined to read book series, I very well may revisit Zahn’s Quadrail universe.

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