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Literature / Quadrail Series

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A series of five books by Timothy Zahn. They can be described as noir-esque thrillers and murder mysteries set in the classic setting of a long train journey...only it's IN SPACE!! But that would be to dismiss them as X Meets Y, and with typical Zahn inventiveness, they transcend that pigeonhole.

The stories are set in the 2080s. Thirty years before, human space probes discovered a mysterious conduit light-years in length, just outside the orbit of Jupiter: this turns out to be a part of the Quadrail network, the only means of faster-than-light travel known in the galaxy. It's a literal set of rail tracks with a train on them, and no-one except the tactiturn Spiders who run the network know how it works. Several races have used the Quadrail to found colonies and build empires, and humanity has joined them as the youngest. The only catch is that no weapons are allowed on the Quadrail, and thus the Spiders prevent interstellar war.

The main character is Frank Compton, a former agent for Westali (Western Alliance Intelligence) dismissed from his former job and eventually employed by the Spiders instead, assisted by Emotionless Girl Bayta. The first novel, Night Train to Rigel, covers Compton's early employment and his discovery of the secrets of the Quadrail and the real reason the Spiders need him, while the others continue the setting and their covert war against the shadowy enemy of the Spiders while dropping a few more revelations.

Books in the series:

  • Night Train to Rigel
  • The Third Lynx
  • Odd Girl Out
  • The Domino Pattern
  • Judgment at Proteus

Contains examples of:
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Frank in The Third Lynx
  • Achilles' Heel: The Shonkla-raa made sure their servants would obey them. Having been created by Shonkla-raa, the Modhri and the Chahwyn (and by extension, the Spiders) become mind controlled after being exposed to a certain sound frequency.
  • Actual Pacifist: The Spiders and the Chahwyn are incapable of violence. They are trying to overcome this by the third book. By the ending of the fourth, we finally get confirmation that the new class of Spiders, which had up to now limited themselves to shoving people around, are in fact very capable of actively killing other living beings.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Compton's ethnic background isn't mentioned in the books, but the covers for some reason always represent him as this—particularly odd as Bayta doesn't have a consistent look from one to the next.
    • The covers are just silly; the second book's cover has a very blonde Bayta on the cover, and a few pages into it she's described as "dark haired", although the cover might be depicting Penny Auslander, who is blonde.
  • Ambiguous Robots: The Spiders. Their limbs and outside casings are certainly robotic.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Modhri has been around for over a thousand years, although he didn't become active until the past two hundred.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The Thread, which enables Quadrail travel.
  • Artificial Gravity: Shorshic-style vectored force thrusters, and the magic that keeps people grounded inside Tube stations and Quadrail trains.
  • BFG: Lynx + Hawk + Viper in The Third Lynx.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: It's not cheap, but if you can pay, you can travel to anywhere the Quadrail has service. Basically, this means you can visit the entire known galaxy.
  • The Cavalry: Fayr and McMicking often pull this.
  • The Chessmaster: Korak Fayr is a rare example who is also a front-line badass soldier.
  • Continuity Cavalcade: The second half of Judgement at Proteus brings back many characters, concepts and locations from earlier books for the finale.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Larry Hardin.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Applies to all Eyes, Morse in particular.
  • Emotionless Girl: Bayta. She warms up over the course of the series, particularly towards Frank, and by the end of the last book they are a couple.
  • Empire with a Dark Secret: The Chahwyn are actually responsible for creating both the Modhri and the Shonkla-raa.
  • Enemy Mine: The Modhri and Frank team up in The Domino Pattern and Judgement at Proteus.
  • Explosive Decompression: Averted. Apparently enough atmosphere has seeped out of Tube stations into the connecting tunnels so that you'll survive outside of a Quadrail train without a spacesuit. You'll still need to bring your own supply of oxygen, though.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Especially scary because even best friends and close family can be turned once infected by the Modhri. Frank gets his new job largely because, until Bayta comes along, he works alone.
    • Happens to Rastra and Applegate.
    • The Saarix-5 is originally for Bayta, in case this happens.
  • Heel–Face Turn/Heel–Race Turn: By the Modhri, of all people, in the final book.
  • Helium Speech: Used to foil the Shonkla-raa's command tone in Judgement at Proteus. Possibly inspired by a similar incident from the Doctor Who episode "The Robots of Death".
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Modhri sacrifices an entire mind-segment to release Compton's forces from Shonkla-raa control near the end of Judgment at Proteus.
  • Hive Mind: The Modhri
  • Humans Are Special: Initially averted. The reason why the Spiders chose a human to work for them was because, as the youngest and latest race to join galactic civilisation, the Modhri had had less time to infiltrate them.
    • In the last book we find out that humans are special - they lack the capacity for telepathy which exists in all other species, and which the Shonkla-raa use to control people.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Bayta, raised by (and a symbiont with) a race of Actual Pacifists, kills a couple hundred people in Judgement at Proteus. Frank tries to convince her of this. She's less than fully convinced.
  • Improvised Weapon: Given that there are heavy restrictions on bringing weapons on the Quadrail, Westali did a study on what could be turned into viable weapons on board. Bellidos Intelligence did them one better. Also, Frank turns someone's poor vintage Harley-Davidson into a mini-arsenal in Odd Girl Out. Lastly, there's Kennrick in the fourth book.
  • Intelligent Gerbil: A mild example, some alien races are described in terms of Earth animals (though this might just be how the human viewpoint character sees them). For example, Bellidos have chipmunk-like faces, Juriani parrot-like beaks, Shorshians dolphin-like snouts, and the Filliaelians horse-like faces - in an Incredibly Lame Pun, humans nickname them "Fillies".
  • Jedi Mind Trick: Thought viruses, and how the Modhri controls Eyes without turning them into Arms. Also, Rebekah and the Melding have a particularly potent form of this ability.
  • Master of Disguise: McMicking
  • Meaningful Name Bayta
    • Also the Lynx, Hawk, and Viper statues in The Third Lynx.
  • No-Paper Future: Paper money seems to have vanished in favor of "cash sticks" which you plug into payment machines.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Deputy UN Director Biret Losutu. In a common theme of Zahn's books (for another example, see Borsk Fey'lya from The Thrawn Trilogy), Losutu is NOT infected by the Mohdri—he really is just that unpleasant and obstructive on his own—and it's actually his apparently more pleasant ally Colonel Applegate who's a Modhran walker.
  • Paranoia Fuel: In-universe.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The Chahwyn and the Spiders have been genetically modified to be unable to commit violence, even in self defense. The Defenders are developed to compensate for this weakness. Subverted in the last book, when we discover that the Chahwyn are responsible for creating the Shonkla-raa in the first place.
  • Planet of Hats: New Tigris seems to be inhabited solely by people from the Middle East. Justified in that it's a recent colony with a small population.
  • Portmanteau: Frank Compton formerly worked for Westali, which is short for "Western Alliance Intelligence".
  • Puny Earthlings: Mostly averted; only a few races are physically bigger and tougher than humans, and as a former intelligence officer Compton knows various tricks exploiting Bizarre Alien Biology to help him fight them.
  • La Résistance
  • Sequel Hook: All the books end with the main plotline still left unresolved, but the fourth really ups the ante - almost making it look as if the whole series so far is merely an introduction.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Used and then subverted in The Domino PatternThe Reveal shows that the main plot of the book turns out to have nothing to do with the wider Modhri conspiracy arc, yet an apparently minor series of characters and events set up the epic finale in the next book.
  • Shapeshifting: The Chahwyn
  • Shoe Phone: Frank has a bleeding edge sensor and analyzer built into his reader as well as a listening device detector embedded in his watch.
  • Shout-Out: The opening paragraphs of The Domino Pattern reference the quote "Space is big. Really big" and cites it as the words of "a twentieth-century philosopher".
  • Something Only They Would Say: Near the end of the first book, Frank works out that Applegate is a Modhran walker because he used the exact same words to describe the coral that Frank had said to another walker, which could only be explained by the Hive Mind.
  • Telepathy: How the Modhri, the Chahwyn, and the Spiders communicate.
  • Thriller on the Express: Well, duh. The fourth book especially; the first three stories happen on trains and outside, but the fourth happens entirely during a single long trip.
  • Twist Ending: And beginning, and is a Timothy Zahn work, after all.
  • The Watson: Bayta. She also is captured and threatened in every book.