An alien-conspiracy yarn, wherein faster-than-light travel takes place via a sort of interstellar Amtrak, from the author of Manta’s Gift (2002).
Two centuries from now, Earth is the junior member of a galactic community whose alien-machine Spiders own and operate the Quadrail transportation system. Frank Compton, late of Western Alliance Intelligence (booted out for complaining about the billions wasted in developing the useless planet Yandro) receives a Quadrail ticket—ironically, to Yandro—from an unknown agent who promptly dies of severe wounds. Once aboard the Quadrail system, Frank meets the attractive but cold Bayta, a human Spider agent who engages him to investigate a possible threat against the galaxy in general and the Quadrail system in particular. Bayta clearly knows more than she’s telling, but then Frank has his own unrevealed agenda too. While in Jurian space, Frank and Bayta are attacked by Halkas and learn of a conspiracy centered on the ice-covered moon Modhra, where they encounter renegade Bellido commandos, apparently eco-terrorists intent on destroying the Modhran coral beds. Oddly, Bayta warns Frank not to touch the coral, while others urge the opposite. It emerges that the coral is intelligent; its polyps can invade bodies through cuts and scratches and influence the behavior of their hosts. Worse still, big coral colonies produce thought viruses that infect victims without bodily contact. The Bellidos are actually good guys whose government, like the Halkas, has been subverted by the megalomaniacal coral.
Convoluted and inventive without being especially plausible; with a dead-in-the-water romance and lack of real edge, Zahn once again fails to transcend his YA tendencies.