Judgement at Proteus
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Tom Dougherty Associates/Tor Books
“The climactic novel of the star-spanning Quadrail space opera!” (blurb) In the first four Quadrail novels (Night Train to Rigel, 2005; The Third Lynx, 2007; Odd Girl Out, 2008, and The Domino Pattern, 2010), galaxy-traveler-by-alien-superscientific-railroad hero Frank Compton (conveniently a top human secret agent) and his mysterious woman companion, Bayta, have unmasked a plot by the extraterrestrial Modhri group mind to take over the bodies of all the “peoples” of the galaxy, including the humans of Earth and its space colonies. There is much hugger-mugger in the style of the 1930s Orient Express spy thrillers, skillfully updated into the far future. (Does a galactic railroad train sound ridiculous to you? Zahn pulls off enough pseudo-technological legerdemain to make it seem plausible.)
But in the climax of The Domino Pattern, Compton learns that he and everyone else during their almost-two-years secret war have been deceived! The real villains are the believed-long-extinct Shonkla-raa, who have been secretly manipulating the strongest races (species?) of the galaxy to kill each other off – and they have been successful enough that the hidden Shonkla-raa armies are about to pour forth and complete their conquest.
In Judgment at Proteus, the fifth and final Quadrail novel, Compton and Bayta are closing in on the Modhri at the headquarters of the horselike Filiaelians at the Proteus super-space-station. (Other non-Humans of the Twelve Empires galactic government are the Shorshians, the Nemut, the Homshil, the Halkans, the Jurskala, the Bellidos, and the Tra’ho. The Humans are the newest and most junior of the Twelve Empires.) Compton has not decided yet what to do about the revelation about the Shonkla-raa.
The second paragraph of the opening page is: “The [Filiaelian’s] 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.” (p. 9) Judgment at Proteus begins with a bang and never slows down. The reader who is beginning at this point will be plunged into a trainload of a few Humans and many exotic aliens. “‘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 [a bipedal horselike alien] 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.” (pgs. 11-12)
In addition to all the aliens, there is the colorful but vague tech of the Quadrail itself. “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.
“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 their same friend’s words or actions might actually be inspired by subtle suggestions whispered to him or her by that mind segment?” (p. 13)
At Proteus, the Shonkla-raa strike first by trying to eliminate Compton by framing him for murder. Multiple murders. Compton and Bayta are surrounded by rival horselike Filiaelian police, and civilian friends who have come to know them during their Quadrail travels and do not believe that Compton could be a murderer, including a volunteer defense attorney. The secret-agent action is augmented by courtroom drama. More than one, since Compton is no sooner temporarily freed on one charge then he is framed for another murder – and after being found innocent of one murder, being assigned as a detective to investigate it. This leads to one-on-one martial-arts duels against deadly Shonkla-raa assassins. Compton believes that the police are innocent pawns, while some of the friendly aliens are disguised Shonkla-raa agents; but which?
Eventually, the Shonkla-raa seem so unstoppable that the Modhri reveal themselves/itself and, on the old theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, propose a Human-Modhri teamup against them. Compton is forced to agree, playing for time to figure out how to outwit and defeat both of the would-be galactic conquerors.
“I keyed the driving thrusters, and the desk took off like a carved wooden bat out of hell. It shot across the room and with a thunderous crash slammed into the door, bending and then shattering the panel as it was itself bent and shattered. Thumbing off the Beretta’s safety, I charged.”
For those who like shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em up, smash ‘em up, blast ‘em to atoms space opera, Judgment at Proteus by Hugo-winning Timothy Zahn, who has written plenty of authorized Star Wars novels, can’t be beaten.