In this noir thriller set on the interstellar Quadrail, former government agent Frank Compton can't catch a break. After a successful mission against the Modhri, the coral polyp-based group mind that is attempting to take over the galaxy, Frank arrives at his New York apartment. A young woman is waiting for him, pointing a gun at his face. She tells him that someone on New Tigris is holding her ten-year-old sister. Compton takes her gun and orders her out, only to be rousted out of bed and accused of her brutal murder.
After Frank's ally Bruce McMicking posts his bail, Frank travels to New Tigris with his assistant, Bayta, and locates the sister, who is part of a key resistance group that is fighting the Modhri throughout the galaxy. Compton must get the girl to a hidden refuge planet via the Quadrail to ensure the continued efforts of the resistance. But can he do it before the Modhri gets to her first?
Compelling characters, hard-boiled sleuthing, and non-stop action make this a hard SF thriller that will grab the reader and not let go until the last page.
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TIMOTHY ZAHN is the Hugo award winning author of more than thirty SF novels, including the Dragonback series, as well as Night Train to Rigel, The Third Lynx, Blackcollar: The Judas Solution and the Dragonback sextet. He has also written the all-time bestselling Star Wars™ spinoff novel, Heir to the Empire, and other Star Wars™ novels, including the recent Allegiance. He lives in coastal Oregon.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHAPTER ONE :The first thing I noticed when I opened my apartment door was the woman standing there. She was young, late teens or early twenties, her clothing a conservative dark gray, her hair strikingly blonde. She was slender, nearly gaunt in fact, and her face, while pretty enough, was drawn and taut. The glitter of a silver necklace peeked out from her open collar, with a matching twinkle from a ring on her right- hand ring finger. All that I noticed peripherally, though. My main attention was on the gun she was pointing at me. "Easy," I cautioned, my eyes flicking once around the room in case I'd somehow arrived at the wrong apartment door and my key had somehow managed to open it anyway. But it was my furniture, all right: old and mismatched, with a thin layer of dust marking the fact that I hadn't spent a lot of time here in the past year. "Let's not do anything we'll both regret." "Come in," she ordered. Her voice was cold, a really good match for her face. Briefly, I considered trying to outrun her reflexes by ducking back outside into the hallway and making a dash for the stairs. But the self-rolling carrybags that had followed me from the elevator were still behind me, and I probably couldn't get out without tripping over them. Besides, even if I could outrun her reflexes, I couldn't outrun a 5mm thudwumper round from her gun. Possibly my gun, actually. It was hard to tell one gun from another when all you could see was the view down the barrel, but that could very well be the Glock I kept holstered under the tea table she was standing beside. She was still waiting. I took a couple of steps forward, bringing myself and my obedient luggage fully inside the room. Just to prove I knew the routine, I reached behind me and pushed the door closed. "Now what?" I asked. "First tell me who you are," she said. "I'm Frank Compton," I said. "I live here." "Prove it." Prove it so that she would put away the gun? Or prove it to confirm that I was the guy she'd come here to shoot? I glanced around the room again, looking for some clue as to what was going on. It was only then that I noticed that the layer of dust that should have been covering everything was not, in fact, actually there. I took a third, longer, look, this time spotting the fact that the stack of magazines and unanswered mail on the tea table had been subtly shifted since my last brief time at home. Which suggested that the woman facing me hadn't simply nipped in five minutes ahead of me, hoping I'd show up and play skeet for her. She had, in fact, moved in. "What, you've been here this long and haven't looked through my photo albums?" I asked, focusing on the woman again. Her lips compressed briefly. "No, I have," she conceded. "Mr. Compton, I need your help." I shook my head. "I never discuss business when there's a gun pointed at me." Slowly, she lowered the weapon. It was my Glock, all right. "My name's Lorelei Beach," she said. "My sister's in trouble." "Sorry to hear that," I said. "What does that have to do with me?" "She's trapped on New Tigris," she said. "I need your help to get her out." "How do you get trapped on New Tigris?" I asked, walking over to the couch and sitting down. My carrybags followed, rolling to a halt by the corner of the tea table. "I mean she can't get out," she said with a flash of impatience. "There are some bad people trying to find her, and they're watching the spaceport." And New Tigris had only one spaceport, or at least only one place where torchships were legal to land. "She owe them money?" I asked. "Of course not," Lorelei said, a bit stiffly. "Then why do they want her?" "They want to hurt her." "So call the cops," I said. "How about putting that gun down before someone gets hurt?" "The police can't help us," she said, some desperation creeping into her voice. The gun stayed where it was, hanging loosely at her side. "You're the only one who can." "I'm flattered," I said. "I also don't believe it." "It's the truth," she insisted. "Why else would I have waited for you this way?" "Free rent?" I suggested. Her cheeks reddened a little. "It was the only place I felt safe." "Especially since most New York hotels don't stock guns for their guests?" She lifted the Glock as if she'd only just remembered she was holding it. "They're after me, too," she said in a low voice. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "Feel free to call the cops on your way out." "If they catch me out there, they'll kill me," she said. "Oh, come on, Ms. Beach," I growled. "Really. You think I haven't heard that one before? It's the last card everyone tries when they want to con someone into doing something." "I'm not trying to con you into anything," she insisted. "Could have fooled me," I said. "There's an emergency women's shelter right down the block. Feel free to go there and tell them your troubles. Maybe they'll put you up for the night. Maybe they'll even talk to the cops for you." "The shelter can't help me," she said. "Neither can the police." "You won't know until you try, will you?" She took a deep breath. "She should still be in the Zumurrud District of Imani City," she said. "She'll wait for you to contact her. Her name's-" "Ms. Beach, I already told you I'm not interested," I interrupted, standing up again. "Furthermore, it's been a long day and I'm very tired." "Her name's Rebekah," she went on, the words coming out in a rush like a countdown sprinter trying to beat the clock. "She's ten years old, blonde-" "Ms. Beach, do I need to call the cops?" Her throat tightened. "No," she said, finally moving toward the door. "Would you at least think about it?" "Sorry, but I'm otherwise employed at the moment," I said. "You wouldn't believe how complicated my life is these days." Her lips twitched. "Actually, I would," she said. "Good night, Mr. Compton. If you change your mind-" "Good night, Ms. Beach," I said. "Just leave the gun on the side table by the door." She hesitated. Then, turning her back on me, she set the Glock carefully onto the table. She turned back, her eyes searching my face, made as if to say something else, then nodded silently and left. For a long time I just sat there, too tired even to get up and double- lock the door. I'd been run through the wringer over the past few weeks, getting chased across half the Twelve Empires by the remnants of the Modhri group mind that wanted to take over the galaxy and everyone in it. This most recent skirmish, over an obscure set of Nemuti sculptures, had ended more or less all right, though I was starting to realize that victories against the Modhri were seldom really clear- cut. Still, one could only do what one could do. Especially given the somewhat pathetic state of our side of this undeclared war. About all that stood between the Modhri and his dream of galactic conquest were the seven- legged Spiders who controlled the Quadrail system linking the galaxy's inhabited worlds. Assisting the Spiders from the shadows were the remnants of the Chahwyn, a secretive race who had genetically engineered the Spiders into existence in the first place over a thousand years ago. The rest of the opposition consisted of a few stray individuals like me who had wandered or blundered onto the battlefield. And neither the Spiders nor the Chahwyn could fight. My half- glazed eyes drifted to the Glock on the table, and I felt a belated twinge of conscience. I actually could have let her take the weapon-I also had a backup Heckler- Koch 5mm hidden beneath my bed. And if the young lady was really in danger . . . Impatiently, I shook the guilt away. If she was in danger, she needed to call the cops. That was what they were there for. Collecting together my last waning bits of energy, I got up and double- locked the door. I turned to the table and reached for the Glock. And paused. Sitting on the table alongside the gun, nestled between its frame and trigger guard, was the ring she'd been wearing. I picked it up and took a closer look. It was a silver band, with no stones or other additions. The design was simple, but had a certain elegance to it. It was also clearly handmade. And the fact that she'd left it behind probably meant she intended to return. Wonderful. Dropping the ring in my pocket, I returned the Glock to its hidden holster beneath the tea table. Then, leaving my carrybags where they were, I staggered off to bed. Ten hours of sleep, and I might finally feel Human again. I didn't get ten hours of sleep. I got exactly four hours before the sound of my door chime dragged me awake again. I pried my eyes open and focused on the bedside clock. Three- fifteen in the morning. Even teenage clubbers had called it a night by now. The chime came again. Fumbling for my robe, I worked into it with one hand while reaching under my bed for the Heckler- Koch with the other. There were very few people who paid social visits at three in the morning, and most of the ones who would be interested in my door weren't the type I wanted to meet unarmed. The Heckler- Koch's holster was empty. Apparently, I hadn't sent Lorelei into the wilds of New York unarmed after all. The door chimed again. Padding my way silently to the front room, I retrieved the Glock from beneath the tea table and stepped to the side of the door. "Who is it?" I called. "Frank Compton?" a voice called back. "Who is it?" I repeated. "Police, sir," he called back. "Would you open up, please?" I keyed the viewer. There were two men in uniform out there, all right, one of them pressing an authentic- looking NYPD ID against the plate. Dropping the Glock into my robe pocket, I keyed open the door. "I'm Officer Bagler, sir," the cop said, holding up a reader as he compared my face to the picture on my official government record. "Would you get dressed, please? We need you to come with us." "What's the problem?" I asked, not moving. "There's been a disturbance, sir," he said in that official give- nothing- away voice I'd often used myself during my years with Western Alliance Intelligence. "Detective Kylowski needs to see you." "Then Detective Kylowski can come here," I said. "Please don't make me insist, sir," Bagler said. His eyes flicked to my sagging pocket. "Just leave the weapon here, of course." "Can you at least give me a hint?" I asked. He sighed silently. "A handgun registered to you has been involved in a murder, sir," he said. "Now, will you please get dressed?" They took me to West Seventy- fifth Street and the familiar blazing lights and yellow tape of a crime scene. A dozen more cops were already on the scene, the uniformed ones guarding the perimeter and directing traffic, the plainclothes contingent milling around in the cold November air, collecting evidence or scanning for clues. In the center of the stage were the guests of honor: one male, one female. Their torsos were covered by preservation cloths, but I had no trouble recognizing the dark gray clothing the woman was wearing. Lorelei had said she was in danger. I'd been too tired to care. A middle- aged man with receding hair and a serious seven- o'clock shadow stepped in front of me. "Compton?" he asked. I pulled my eyes away from Lorelei's body. "Yes," I said. "Detective Kylowski," he identified himself, holding out an ID badge. "Sorry to drag you down here at this time of night." Sure he was. "What happened?" "I was hoping you could tell me," he said. "Neither vic has any ID, and we haven't been able to track them down." "The woman came to my apartment to night," I told him, deciding to skip over the fact that she'd already been there when I'd arrived. "She said she was in trouble and asked for help." "And you said . . . ?" "I told her to call the cops or try the women's shelter and sent her on her way." "After giving her one of your guns?" "I didn't give her anything," I said. "Obviously, she helped herself." "Without you noticing?" "I was very tired," I said. "I still am." "Uh- huh," he said, looking closely at me. "And you're sure this is the same woman?" "I recognize her clothing," I told him. "I doubt there are two women dressed that way who've had access to my apartment lately." "Don't you think you should at least take a look at her face?" he persisted, gesturing me toward the bodies. "It'll only take a minute." "If you insist," I said, frowning as I walked over with him. Usually homicide cops weren't so eager to foist the details of their gory little world on people. "This might shock you a little," he warned as he crouched down, his fingers getting a grip on the edge of the preservation cloth, his eyes locked unblinkingly on my face. "Thanks for the warning," I growled. Did he think the sight of a couple of dead bodies was going to shock an ex-Westali agent? "Go ahead." He flipped over the cloth. And I nearly lost my dinner. Lorelei's face above and in front of her ear was blood- spattered but mostly intact. Her head and neck below the ear, in contrast, were effectively gone, shattered into a mess of blood and shattered bone and pulp. I twisted my face away from the sight, keeping my stomach under control by sheer force of will. I was still standing there, staring at a storm- sewer grating, when Kylowski took my arm and steered me away. "You all right?" he asked. "How do you think I am?" I managed between clenched teeth. Turning my face away from him, I smiled hard, an old trick I'd learned for suppressing the gag reflex. "I understand," he said. "Come on-have a seat over here." I let him sit me down on the curb. "I don't suppose you have any idea why anyone would want to do something like that," he went on, sitting down beside me. I shook my head. My stomach was starting to recover, but my brain was still reeling with the shock of the mutilation. "Looks like a ritual murder." "Yeah, that was my first thought, too," Kylowski said. "Trouble is, we don't have any of the other usual trappings. No robes, no weird jewelry or tattoos, no strangled chickens. Not to mention that they were killed and mutilated he...
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