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Judgment at Proteus (Quadrail #5)by Timothy Zahn
The Filiaelian facing me was a bit bigger than most of those of his species, a couple of centimeters taller than I was and about ten kilos heavier. There was a sheen of sweat on his long, horse-like face, and the dark eyes boring out at me had a deadly earnest expression to them.
The expression, and the face, shook briefly as the hand gripping my throat slammed my head and back hard against the display window of my first-class Quadrail compartment.
From my right came a muffled gasp, and my eyes flicked in that direction. Bayta, my companion and partner in this quiet war Id joined nearly two years ago, was standing across the room watching us, her eyes wide, one hand gripping the edge of the partially open divider that separated the halves of our double compartment.
I shifted my attention back to the long Filly face bare centimeters from my own. Logra Emikai had once been a cop, genetically engineered for loyalty to the rulers of his species. He had probably also been engineered for strength, agility, and God only knew what else.
The hand around my throat tightened a little. “Well, Mr. Compton?” he asked softly.
His other hand was wrapped around my right biceps, effectively putting that arm out of action. But I still had my left. Nodding my head forward, pressing my chin hard against the top of his hand, I cocked my left arm at my hip and drove a short jab into his upper arm just above the elbow.
Abruptly, the pressure on my throat went slack. I grabbed Emikais half-paralyzed hand, twisted it hard at the wrist, and swiveled on my left foot to bend the arm over, forcing him to bow forward at the waist. “Well, Logra Emikai?” I countered.
“Better,” Emikai said approvingly. “Much better.”
“Thanks,” I said, letting go of his hand. “I take it I hit the nerve junction properly that time?”
“Indeed,” he confirmed as he straightened up, massaging his right upper arm where Id hit it and shaking his right hand where my chin had pressed into another sensitive spot. “But you should free your right arm from my left before attempting to turn me over. Otherwise I might pull you over with me.”
“Yes, but it might also give you enough time to get your balance back,” I pointed out. “Anyway, if this had been a real fight, Id have followed up with a kick to your torso.” I snapped a short kick to the area around his heart, stopping my foot a couple of centimeters short of his body. “Right about there.”
“Yes, that would put a normal opponent into the dust,” Emikai agreed. “But bear in mind that a professional fighter might have had his heart sac strengthened against such attacks.”
I grimaced. He was right, of course. A Filly pro might boast a strengthened heart sac, some extra bone in his fists, and enhanced brow ridges to protect his eyes, and might even have gone to the effort to have his more vulnerable nerve junctions surgically moved to entirely different locations. With the Filiaelian passion for genetic manipulation, a Filly with sufficient money and patience could remake himself into almost anything he or his doctor could imagine.
Which was precisely why we were in this mess to begin with.
I turned to Bayta. “How did it look?” I asked.
“Painful,” she said, her eyes smoldering as she looked at Emikai. In her opinion—which she hadnt been at all shy about sharing with me over the past few days—our sparring sessions were way more realistic than they needed to be. Certainly more realistic than she liked.
“Pure illusion,” I assured her. Actually, my various bruises and strained muscles were in full agreement with her. But once upon a time Id been a Western Alliance Intelligence agent, and Emikai and I both knew that the only way to learn hand-to-hand combat techniques was by actually practicing them. “Do we have time for one more?” I asked her.
“I dont think so,” she said, a little too quickly.
“How long do we have?” I asked.
Her lip twitched. She really did hate these sessions. “Forty-five minutes.”
“So plenty of time.” I turned back to Emikai. “I want you to try the throat lock you put me in back on the super-express train.” I turned my back on him. “I think Ive come up with a counter.”
His right arm snaked around my neck, his left arm linking with it, his left hand pushing my head forward against the forearm already pressed against my throat. His left foot slapped lightly against the back of my left knee, just hard enough to break my balance and send me to my knees on the floor. He followed me down, maintaining his grip, leaning forward and half over my shoulder.
That was how it had worked the last time hed pulled this move on me. This time, I had something new to bring to the table. My knees had barely hit the floor when I threw myself forward, pulling Emikai off balance and tumbling over on top of me. As my chest hit the floor I rolled onto my left side, bringing my right elbow up into a shark-fin angle.
And as he belatedly let go of my neck in an effort to break his fall, his torso slammed onto my extended elbow.
In a real fight I would have kept the elbow extended, letting its impact send a shock wave through his heart sac and hopefully ending the fight right there. In this case, since Emikai wasnt an actual enemy and I furthermore didnt want to lug his twitching carcass all the way back to third class, I let my arm fold back down again, with the result that instead of bouncing off my elbow in agony he merely landed full length on top of me.
Fortunately, his extended arms took most of his weight, with the result that we both merely oofed in unison instead of having the air knocked out of us. “Impressive,” he said, rolling off and standing up again. “Aside from the obvious difficulty that if it succeeds youll be trapped beneath your opponent.”
“True,” I agreed, getting to my feet and massaging my throat where hed been gripping it. Maybe Bayta was right about Emikai being a bit on the enthusiastic side. “Given that the alternative is to be comfortable but dead, it seems worthwhile.”
“A definite point.” He paused, tilting his head thoughtfully to the side. “Since we speak of death, what do you intend to tell the director and santras of Proteus Station about Asantra Muzzfor? They will want answers.” He eyed me closely. “More complete answers, I hope, than those you have given to me.”
“What an odd question,” I said, hiding my mild surprise. It had been over four weeks since Muzzfor died his violent death aboard the super-express Quadrail traveling from the other end of the galaxy, and nearly two weeks since Emikai and I had begun these occasional sparring sessions. Not once in all that time had the Filly asked me for details on exactly how Muzzfor had died.
Now, with our train forty minutes from journeys end, he was suddenly bringing up the subject? “I intend to tell them the truth, of course.”
“Good,” he said as he retrieved his tunic from where hed laid it on my bed. “The director and santras would not take well to being lied to. By you, or by anyone else they choose to question.”
“That anyone else being you?”
“I am a former enforcement officer, and was aboard the train where Asantra Muzzfor died,” he said. “That makes me a logical person to question.”
“Only since you didnt actually witness the event, most of what you can tell them will be hearsay,” I reminded him.
“That, plus my trained assessment of the other persons involved.”
I inclined my head to him. “Hence, the exercise sessions?”
His cream-colored nose blaze didnt lighten or darken, the usual Filly indicators of sudden emotional change. Emikai already knew or suspected that I knew or suspected his reason for suggesting these little playdates. “Yes,” he said without apology or embarrassment.
“And what do you intend to tell them?”
For a moment he eyed me in silence. “You have purpose about you, Mr. Compton,” he said. “But I do not yet know what that purpose is. You have honor about you, as well, but I do not yet know to which person or ideals that honor attaches.” His eyes took on a sudden intensity. “And you have knowledge, but I do not believe you intend to give that knowledge to the director and santras.”
“An intriguing analysis,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual. Damned if he hadnt hit it squarely on the head. “But I do intend to tell them the truth.”
“I will look forward to hearing it,” he said, finishing with his tunic and wrapping his belt and belt bag in place. “I go to prepare the others for departure. Until then, farewell.”
“Farewell,” I said. He stepped to the door, tapped the release, and disappeared into the corridor.
I crossed to the door and locked it behind him. “You arent really going to tell them the truth, are you?” Bayta asked.
“Of course not,” I said. “Come on, lets finish packing.”
* * *
Our train pulled into the Ilat Dumar Covrey station exactly on time, which was the way things always worked with the Quadrail system. The Spiders, creatures encased in metal globes carried around on seven spindly legs, kept the trains running perfectly as they facilitated the transfer of passengers, cargo, and information across the galaxy with a calm and understated efficiency.
And as Bayta and I headed across the platform, making our way past Fillies, Shorshians, and assorted other non-Humans, I thought about truth.
It was something everyone wanted, or at least said they did. Emikai wanted it, the director and santras aboard Proteus Station wanted it, and most of the people we were passing here in the station probably thought they wanted it, too.
But did they?
Did they really want to know about the Modhri, the group mind that had started out based in exotic Modhran coral and was now also embedded in thousands, perhaps even millions, of unsuspecting beings? Did they want to know that any of their friends might have a Modhran polyp colony inside him or her, linked telepathically to all the other nearby colonies and coral outposts to form a group-mind segment? Did they want to know that that same friends words or actions might actually be inspired by subtle suggestions whispered to him or her by that mind segment?
Did they want to know that the Modhri was determined to take over the galaxy by turning more and more people into his walkers? Especially the people who were his current walkers closest friends and associates?
Probably not. Most Humans hated hearing bad news or uncomfortable truths, and I doubted any of the non-Human species of the Twelve Empires were much better at it than we were. They wouldnt really want to know that the Modhri was nothing less than a sentient weapon, created by a group of master-race types called the Shonkla-raa, who had finally been defeated and destroyed sixteen hundred years ago by a coalition of their conquered peoples.
That was the truth Bayta and I had been living with for the past couple of years as we, the Spiders, and the Chahwyn, who controlled the Spiders from their hidden world of Viccai, fought a quiet war against the Modhris plans for galactic conquest. And considering how outnumbered we were, that truth had been bad enough.
Four weeks ago, as Bayta and I traveled aboard the super-express from the Human end of the galaxy, the truth had suddenly gotten a whole lot worse.
Because the Shonkla-raa hadnt been their own individual species, as the Chahwyn had thought, but merely a genetic variant of the Filiaelians. Someone had apparently figured that out, and had also figured out how to re-create that variant.
And that same someone was currently working on his very own master-race breeding program.
The late Asantra Muzzfor had been the first of that group that Bayta and I had tangled with, and it had been purely by the grace of God and some unexpected help that wed survived the encounter. It was from papers Muzzfor had left behind that wed learned the center of this new Shonkla-raa operation was somewhere inside Proteus Station, a huge beehive of Filiaelian genetic manipulation and a shining example of Filiaelian diplomatic glory and finesse.
The place Bayta and I were currently headed for.
Emikai was waiting near the shuttle bays with the other two members of our party when Bayta and I joined them. “About time,” Terese German growled as we came up. “What did you do, stop off for a drink?”
I eyed her, a dozen possible sarcastic rejoinders flashing through my mind. Terese was a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Human girl—Id never pinned down her actual age—of the type I usually thought of as a mystery wrapped up inside an enigma wrapped up inside of herself. In this particular case, there was also an outer layer of imported porcupine skin, with the extra-long-quill option. About all I really knew about her was that shed been assaulted on Earth, that she was pregnant as a result of that attack, and that Muzzfor had pulled some backstage strings to get her aboard the Quadrail and out here to the Filiaelian Assembly.
The why of it all, though, still eluded us. I couldnt wait to get hold of the hidden nuggets of truth in that one. “Our apologies,” I said.
She sniffed. “Are we finally ready, then?”
Once again, I resisted the urge to say something sarcastic, and merely gestured toward the shuttle hatchway behind her. She spun on her heel and stalked away, her two small carrybags rolling along behind her. Taking a long step, Emikai settled into place beside her as a good protector should.
“You must forgive her,” a soft voice said from my side.
I turned to look at the speaker. Dr. Aronobal was an older Filly, with a graying brown blaze along her long nose and an air of fatigue about her that had grown more pronounced in the two weeks since wed left the super-express and started wending our way across Shorshian territory into Filiaelian space. “She has been under increasing stress these past few days.”
“Im sorry to hear that,” I said, studying the good doctor closely. Tired she might be, but her eyes were clear enough, and I had no doubt that her mind was, too. I didnt know what her role was in this little drama, but I had a feeling it wouldnt be wise to underestimate her. “Any particular reason why?”
“Perhaps merely the additional tension of reaching the journeys end,” Aronobal said. “Or perhaps the uncertainty of her future.”
“Surely it must be the former,” I protested mildly. “Now that were here, Im sure your colleagues will take good care of her.”
“My colleagues?” Aronobal shook her head. “You misunderstand, Mr. Compton. The doctors and genetic surgeons of Kuzyatru Station are not my colleagues. Logra Emikai and I merely agreed to assist them by looking after Ms. German on her journey here.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. And if I believed that, I thought cynically, she undoubtedly had some prime Gobi cropland to sell me. “In that case, wed better make sure she doesnt lose us.”
I took Baytas arm and headed off after the girl, studying the station around us as we walked, my eyes and mind alert for the slow-moving loiterers or casual conversational clumps that might indicate a Modhran mind segment on sentry duty.
If wed taken this trip a few months ago I might not have bothered. The Chahwyn, whod been studying the Modhri a lot longer than I had, had assured me that the Filiaelian Assembly was the only one of the Twelve Empires that the Modhri hadnt yet penetrated. The reasoning had seemed solid enough at the time: with the widespread Filly obsession for genetic experimentation, it was hard to see how a group of relatively huge coral polyps could slip through the laser-grid pre-testing required in all genetic restructuring procedures without being spotted. And since the Modhris best hope for victory was to remain below everyones radar as long as possible, it followed that he would avoid Fillies, especially the rich upper-class Fillies who would normally be his prime target.
Unfortunately, that comforting logic had gone out the window three months ago on the Human colony world of New Tigris. There, Bayta and I had tangled with no fewer than six santra-class Filly walkers whom the Modhri had clearly had no qualms about taking over. Backtracking those Fillies and finding out what the Modhri was up to out here had been the original reason for our trip to Ilat Dumar Covrey, before Muzzfor and his unexpected revelation had even come up.
And given that we now knew there were Shonkla-raa at Proteus as well, it followed immediately that they would have someone keeping a close watch on the local Quadrail station.
Only as far as I could tell, they didnt. None of the hurrying passengers gave us more than the quick glance one would normally expect between perfect strangers, none of the people poring over schedules or maps looked up as we passed, and there were no head jerks or widened eyes of recognition as the Modhri spotted his two most notorious enemies.
Maybe hed simply learned how to better hide his presence and reactions from me. That was one of the group minds nastiest strengths: as one mind segment got within range of another, the two blended together to form a new, bigger segment, with automatic sharing of experience and memories. That meant that, unless I was able to completely wipe out a given mind segment, anything I did or said would eventually end up as part of the shared memory of every other mind segment in the galaxy. Any trick that worked against him would only work once, and every mind segment knew my face, at least within the limitations of cross-species recognition capabilities.
The other possibility was that the Shonkla-raa and Modhri felt so secure at Proteus that they didnt even care whether or not Bayta and I showed up.
Like every other shuttle hatchway in the Quadrail system, those at Ilat Dumar Covrey were set into the station floor and rimmed with glowing lights indicating whether or not there was a vehicle ready to carry passengers to the transfer station, where torchliners and torchferries waited to transport them elsewhere in the system. Only one of the hatchways in this part of the station was still lit, the one Terese and Emikai were currently heading for. Maybe shed been right about Bayta and me being a little slow.
Unlike the Tube and stations, which were under Spider control, shuttle design and organization were the province of the species that owned that particular solar system. Id never been aboard a Filly shuttle before, and I watched with interest as, halfway down the stairway, Terese got her hand and luggage tagged by a laser scanner, which then lit up a holodisplay in English instructing her to put the bags on the conveyor to her left just below the station floor. She did so, and as the luggage disappeared into a wide slot set into the upper part of the shuttle she finished her trip down the stairs. Emikai followed, getting the same tagging and holodisplay, except that this time the instructions were in Fili instead of English.
“Picking up on the passengers DNA,” Bayta murmured from beside me. “Probably marking the luggage with a code based on that.”
I nodded. It made sense, considering the Fillies obsession with genetics. It was certainly more convenient than handing out claim tickets, the way the Spiders did for their secure under-train lockboxes.
Briefly, I wondered if the scanner would spot the fact that Bayta was actually a blend of Human and Chahwyn, then put the thought out of my mind. Surely the Chahwyn Elders who had created her had been smart enough to keep the non-Human elements deep below the surface.
Sure enough, the scanner gave no indication that it had noticed anything unusual. Bayta went through the procedure, followed by Aronobal, followed by me. There was plenty of room in the shuttle, I saw as I reached the deck, and we took three of the four empty seats right in front. Terese and Emikai, I noted, were already seated farther back. We strapped in, and I waited for the hatchway to seal so that we could get under way.
Only it didnt seal. It remained fully open, the muffled sounds of the station drifting down to us. “Hello?” I murmured.
“Theres one more passenger still on his way,” Bayta murmured back, her eyes distant as she did some of her silent telepathic communication with the Spiders.
And Terese thought Bayta and I had been slow. “What is he, crippled?” I growled.
“Actually, yes,” Bayta said, her forehead suddenly wrinkled in concentration.
I looked at the opening. “Trouble?” I asked, lowering my voice.
And then, abruptly, Bayta caught her breath.
“What is it?” I murmured, slipping my hand into my pocket and getting a grip on my kwi. Like Bayta herself, the brass-knuckle-shaped weapon was a nearly one-of-a-kind item, this one a relic from the Shonkla-raa war. Once telepathically activated by Bayta or a Spider, it was capable of inflicting three levels of pain or unconsciousness.
Only Bayta wasnt activating it. The kwi was just sitting in my grip, showing no sign of its usual start-up tingle. “Come on, girl, look alive,” I muttered.
“No, its all right,” she said. But her voice was as tight as her face. “Its not that kind of problem.”
I was opening my mouth to ask what kind of problem it was when a shadow fell across the floor and a support chair appeared in the hatchway, descending into the shuttle in the grip of a couple of big drudge Spiders. Seated in the chair was a pale, frail-looking Nemut with an off-center hunch in one of his angled shoulder muscles, slightly watery eyes, and a noticeable distortion in his truncated-cone mouth.
I felt my jaw drop. This wasnt just some random cripple. This was Minnario, one of the first-class passengers on our ill-fated super-express train. “Minnario?” I called.
He didnt respond, but as his chair reached the shuttle deck and he started it swiveling around to face forward I saw a flashing light on the small display fastened to the chairs control box. Minnario was deaf, I remembered now, with the display programmed to transcribe the speech around him. Apparently, it was also keyed to take special note if someone called his name. He continued to turn, bringing his chair around again to face the rest of the passengers, his eyes scanning the crowd for familiar faces. “Here,” I said, lifting my hand chest high. “Frank Compton. We met aboard the super-express from Homshil.”
He peered at me, then looked down at his displays transcription, and I saw sudden recognition in his face. [Mr. Compton,] he croaked, his Nemuspee marred by a slight lisp. [Its good to see you again. You no longer chase murderers, I trust?]
I felt a tightening in my stomach as the implications of Minnarios presence suddenly flooded in on me. “Not right now,” I said carefully. “Tell me, what are you doing here? I thought you were on your way to a clinic for treatment.”
[The most extraordinary thing has happened,] he said, his distorted mouth flattening in a distorted Nemuti smile. [I was traveling to Morak Trov Lemanab when I received a message that the genetic surgeons at Vibrant Station had accepted me for treatment.]
“Vibrant—? Oh, right,” I said. The place officially known as Kuzyatru Station actually had thirty different names, one for each of the Twelve Empires official languages. Vibrant was the Nemuspee version, just as Proteus was its name in English. “Congratulations. I understand theyre the best in the Assembly. It was very wise of you to apply there.”
[Ah! Therein lies the irony,] he said as he swiveled his chair around and maneuvered it into a set of clamps along the wall in front of us. [Knowing how few cases Vibrant Station takes, I didnt apply there.]
“Really,” I said. “And, what, the director picked your name out of a hat?”
[I dont actually know who decided to offer me treatment,] he said as the clamps locked securely around his chair. [The message carried no name, but merely Vibrants contract logo.] He swiveled half around, another lopsided smile on his face. [A gift from the heavens, indeed.]
I looked at Bayta, saw the tightness around her mouth. “Indeed,” I murmured.
Only I doubted it was the heavens that had supplied the crippled Nemut with this sudden largesse. This gift had come from much lower down, from the general vicinity of hell.
Sometime during our last two weeks of travel, word of Asantra Muzzfors death had made it to Proteus … and someone there wasnt buying my story that hed died in the violent climax of the series of murders that had taken place aboard our super-express. That same person had apparently decided to hedge his bets by bringing in another witness to those events.
Or maybe even more than one. For all I knew, the whole first-class section of that train could be on their way to Proteus right now.
And that could be a problem. A big problem. I knew exactly where Emikai, Aronobal, and Terese had been at the time of Muzzfors death. Bayta and I had worked it out down to the quarter second and the square meter, confirming that none of them could have seen or heard anything that might contradict my version of those events.
But I had no idea where Minnario had been. It had never even occurred to me to track his movements. And with the Spiders who had served on that train now fifteen thousand light-years behind us there was no way I was going to do it now.
I didnt know if Minnario knew anything. But it looked like someone on Proteus thought he might.
And if he did, the carefully crafted story Id worked out was suddenly not looking so good.
The hatchway overhead closed, and there was a slight shudder as the clamps holding us to the station floor disengaged. A moment later the shuttles drive kicked in, angling us away from the Tube and bringing us around toward the transfer station a hundred kilometers away. “Frank?” Bayta asked, just loudly enough for me to hear over the engine noise.
I reached over and patted her hand. “Dont worry,” I told her. “Im on it.”
After all, we still had the shuttle ride, the usual customs procedures at the transfer station, and then a three-hour torchferry journey to Proteus itself. Surely in all that time I could come up with a new story that would cover anything Minnario might be able to tell them.
Id better get started.
* * *
Kuzyatru Station, according to all the brochures and encyclopedia entries, was the diplomatic jewel of the Filiaelian Assembly, a high-visibility meeting area for conferences and interstellar meetings as well as a top-rated medical and genetic research facility. It was an odd combination, in my opinion, but it apparently worked well enough for the Fillies. Certainly the photos and holos of the place showed theyd considered it worth dousing with bucketfuls of money.
It wasnt until our torchferry was on its final approach that I realized just how inadequate those holos and descriptions really were.
For starters, the place was huge. It was roughly disk-shaped, with a rounded top and bottom, the whole thing ten kilometers across and ranging in thickness from a kilometer at the edge to three at the center. I was a little vague on my high-school geometry, but I was pretty sure that gave it at least twice the volume of a typical Quadrail station.
That was impressive enough. Even more so was the fact that a Quadrail station was mostly empty space, whereas Proteuss living areas were sliced into three-meter-high decks. That gave the place the carrying capacity of a small nation.
But more even than its size was its sheer grandeur. I had assumed that the huge historical panoramas decorating the areas around each of the thirty-three main edge-line docking stations were simple hull paintings. In fact, they were intricate mosaics, built of five-centimeter-thick tiles no doubt designed to be resistant to micro-meteor damage. The running lights that interstellar law required on every spacegoing vessel or station had here been tweaked into a laser light show that as near as I could tell never repeated itself once during the half hour it was visible from my torchferry window.
And if that hadnt been enough to set it apart from the rest of the galaxys space habitats, Proteus wasnt just orbiting its sun, but was actually holding itself in constant, stationary position relative to the equally stationary Quadrail station by a massive, brute-force application of Shorshic vectored force thrusters. That meant that, instead of tracing out a long orbital path that might put it anywhere from two hours to four weeks away from the Tube, it was always going to be a convenient three-hour flight for new arrivals to the system.
It was, in short, a huge, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing stack of metal and plastic and ceramic.
And as I listened to the murmured oohs and aahs of our fellow passengers I felt my heart sink.
Because my plan had been to march into the station, loudly announce the arrival of Terese German, and watch for interested parties from the Shonkla-raa to pop out of the wainscoting. Now I realized that wasnt going to work. Whichever docking station we ended up getting routed to, there was every chance that I would be so far away from the Shonkla-raa that they might not even hear the news that Terese was aboard until long after Reception had thanked me for my service and courteously ushered Bayta and me onto the next outgoing torchferry. Even if I could find some excuse for us to stay aboard, we could wander a facility this size for months without ever finding Muzzfors fellow conspirators. Especially since those conspirators probably didnt want to be found.
“Frank?” Bayta murmured.
“I know, I know,” I murmured back. “Ill figure out something.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, frowning. “I was going to ask why wed changed course.”
I frowned in turn. Id been so caught up with thinking about Proteus and the future of my plans I hadnt even noticed the change in the torchferrys insertion angle.
But Bayta was right. Whereas wed been heading for one of the docking stations in the upper twenties—probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight—we had now come around and were heading instead into the mid-teens.
Had someone aboard the station belatedly spotted Tereses name on the passenger list and rerouted us accordingly? If so, and if that someone was connected with the Shonkla-raa, Plan A might work after all.
Not surprisingly, the Proteus docking procedure was different from that at every other space habitat Id ever visited. Instead of simply sidling up beside the station so that our hatchways lined up, we nosed directly into a huge docking bay, complete with clamps and restraints and a collar that looked like it could adjust to anything from our torchferry all the way up to a full-blown torchliner. Personally, I would have simply made a group of docking bays of different sizes, but once again Proteuss designers had decided to go for the more flamboyant approach.
In some solar systems new arrivals had to go through customs twice, once on the transfer station and a second time at their final destinations. Fortunately, the Fillies had dispensed with that nonsense. Outside the wide doors leading out of the docking bay was a long line of desks that served merely as luggage-distribution points. A reader at the door scanned the marks that the passengers had been tagged with at the Quadrail shuttle, and holodisplays then directed each person to the proper pickup desk. Bayta and I were routed to a desk midway down the line, while Emikai, Terese, and Aronobal headed to one a few places farther over.
I maneuvered us through the crowd to our desk and smiled at the female Filly seated there. From the hovering presence of a much older male Filly behind her, I guessed this was probably her first day on the job and he was there to vet her performance. “I greet you,” I said, offering my hand to the reader to confirm my identity. “You have a very efficient—”
“Mr. Frank Compton?” the older Filly interrupted as he strode up to the desk.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “My bags are those two over—”
“I am Chinzro Hchchu, assistant director of Kuzyatru Station,” he interrupted, raising his hand like the Pope delivering a blessing. In response, three tall Fillies wearing gray and black jumpsuits, who had been loitering behind the row of desks to either side of us, started forward.
“Is there a problem?” I asked carefully, watching the approaching Fillies out of the corner of my eye. In my pocket, I could feel the kwi tingling as Bayta activated it.
“A very serious problem,” Hchchu said sternly. “You are under arrest.” He paused dramatically. “For murder.”
Copyright © 2012 by Timothy Zahn
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