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Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel

The first book in the Quadrail series

For Pastor Rick House—who has helped keep me on the rails

ONE:

He was leaning against the side of an autocab by the curb as I walked through the door and atmosphere curtain of the New Pallas Towers into the chilly Manhattan night air. He was short and thin, with no facial hair, and wore a dark brown overcoat with a lighter brown shirt and slacks beneath it. Probably no more than seventeen or eighteen years old, I estimated, me sort of person you wouldn’t normally give a second look to if you passed him on the walkway.

Which was why I gave him a very careful second look as I headed down the imported Belldic marble steps toward street level. I had no doubt there were plenty of nondescript people wandering the streets of New York this December evening, but their proper place was the nondescript parts of the city, not here in the habitats of the rich and powerful. There was already one person out of his proper social position in this neighborhood—me—and it would be unreasonable to expect two such exceptions at the same place at the same time.

He watched me silently from beneath droopy eyelids, his arms folded across his chest, his hands hidden from view. A beggar or mugger should be moving toward me at this point, I knew, while an honest citizen would be politely stepping out of my way. This character was doing neither. I found myself studying those folded arms, wondering what he might have in his hands and wishing mightily that Western Alliance Intelligence hadn’t revoked my carry permit when they’d cashiered me fourteen months earlier.

I was within three steps of the kid when he finally stirred, his half-lidded eyes opening, his forehead creasing in concentration. “Frank Compton,” he said in a gravelly voice.

It had been a statement, not a question. “That’s right,” I confirmed. “Do I know you?”

A half smile touched his lips as he unfolded his arms. I tensed, but both hands were empty. His left hand dropped limply to his side; his right floundered a bit and then found its way into his overcoat’s side pocket.

It was still there as he slid almost leisurely off the side of the autocab and crumpled into a heap on the sidewalk, his eyes staring unseeingly into the night sky.

And with the streetlights now shining more directly on him, I could see that his coat was wet in half a dozen places.

I dropped to a crouch beside the body and looked around. A kid with this many holes in him couldn’t have traveled very far, and whoever had done this to him might be waiting to add a second trophy to the evening’s hit list. But there were no loitering pedestrians or suspicious parked vehicles that I could see. Trying not to think about rooftop assassins with hypersonic rifles and electronic targeting systems, I turned my attention to the kid himself.

Three of the bloodstains were over the pinprick-sized holes of snoozer loads, the kind used by police and private security services when they want to stop someone without using deadly force. The remaining wounds were the much larger caliber of thudwumpers, the next tier of seriousness in the modern urban hunter’s arsenal.

The tier beyond that would have been military-class shredders. I was just as glad the attacker hadn’t made it to that level.

Carefully, I reached past his limp hand into his overcoat pocket and poked around. There was nothing there but a thin plastic folder of the sort used for carrying credit tags or cash sticks. I pulled it out, angled it toward the marquee light from the New Pallas behind me, and flipped it open.

There was a single item inside: a shimmery copper-edged ticket for a seat on Trans-Galactic Quadrail Number 339216, due to depart Terra Station at 7:55 P.M. on December 27, 2084, seven days away. The travel designation was third class, the seat listed was number twenty-two in car fifteen.

The destination was the Rigel star system and the Earth colony of Yandro.

Yandro, the fourth and final colony in the United Nations Directorate’s grand scheme to turn humanity into a true interstellar species and bring us into social equality with the eleven genuine empires stretching across the galaxy. Yandro, a planet that had been a complete and utter drain on Sol’s resources ever since the first colonists had set out ten years ago with the kind of media whoop usually reserved for pop culture stars.

Yandro, the reason I’d been kicked out of Western Alliance Intelligence in the first place.

I looked at the dead face still pointed skyward. I have a pretty good memory for faces, but this one still wasn’t ringing any bells. Shifting my attention back to the ticket, I skipped down to the passenger information section at the bottom.

And found myself looking at a digitized photo of myself.

I stared at it, the back of my neck starting to tingle. The photo was mine, the name and ID number printed below it were mine, and if the thumbprint wasn’t mine it was a damn close copy.

Long experience had taught me that it wasn’t a good idea to be caught in the vicinity of a dead body, especially one as freshly dead as this. I took a minute anyway to go through the kid’s other pockets.

It was a waste of a perfectly good minute. He had no ID, no credit tags, no handkerchief, no pocketknife, no unpaid bills, no letters from home. Besides the ticket folder, all he had was a single cash stick with a hundred ninety dollars left on it.

From behind me came the sound of chattering voices, and I turned to see a party of four impeccably dressed young people emerging from the New Pallas for a night on the town. Casually, I stood up and stepped past the crumpled figure, heading down the street as quickly as I could without looking obvious about it. The movers and shakers who lived in this part of the city did occasionally have to deal with the distasteful business of death, but it was always done in the most genteel and civilized manner, which meant they had genteel and civilized thugs on the payroll to do it for them. I doubted that any of me theater-bound party tripping lightly down the steps had ever even seen a dead body before, and they were likely to make a serious commotion when they finally spotted him. I intended to be well on my way to elsewhere when that happened.

I’d made it to the end of the block, and had turned the corner, when something made me pause and look back.

There was a figure standing in front of the body. A slim, nondescript figure, his shoulders hunched and his head forward, clearly leaning over for a close look at the dearly departed. With the distance and the restless shadows thrown by the streetlights, I couldn’t make out his face. But his body language wasn’t that of someone horribly shocked or panicked. Apparently, dead bodies weren’t anything new to him.

And as I watched, he straightened up and turned to look in my direction.

With a supreme act of will, I forced my feet not to break into a full-fledged sprint, but to continue with my original brisk stroll. The man made no move toward me, but merely watched until I’d moved out of sight around the side of the corner building.

I walked two more blocks, just to be on the safe side. Then, as the wail of sirens began to burn through the night, I flagged down an autocab.

“Good evening,” the computerized voice said as I climbed in. “Destination, please?”

I looked at the folder still gripped in my hand. Seven days until me train listed on the ticket. Slightly less than a seven-day flight from Earth to the Quadrail station sitting in the outer solar system near Jupiter’s orbit. If I was going to catch that train, I was going to have to leave right now.

Awkward, and very spur-of-the-moment. But in some ways, it could actually work out to my advantage. I’d been planning on taking the Quadrail out into the galaxy sometime in the next couple of weeks anyway, buying my ticket with the brand-new credit tag in my pocket. This way, I could at least begin the trip on someone else’s dollar.

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