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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
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Cobra Outlaw - eARC


  COBRA OUTLAW – eARC

  Cobra Rebellion Book Two

  Timothy Zahn

  Advance Reader Copy

  Unproofed

  BAEN BOOKS by TIMOTHY ZAHN

  Blackcollar: The Judas Solution

  Blackcollar (contains The Blackcollar and Blackcollar: The Backlash Mission)

  The Cobra Trilogy (contains Cobra, Cobra Strike, and Cobra Bargain)

  THE COBRA WAR TRILOGY

  Cobra Alliance

  Cobra Guardian

  Cobra Gamble

  THE COBRA REBELLION

  Cobra Slave

  Cobra Outlaw

  COBRA OUTLAW

  This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Zahn

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

  A Baen Books Original

  Baen Publishing Enterprises

  P.O. Box 1403

  Riverdale, NY 10471

  www.baen.com

  ISBN: 978-1-4767-8034-4

  Cover art by Dave Seeley

  Cover art model by John Douglass

  First printing, February 2015

  Distributed by Simon & Schuster

  1230 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10020

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  t/k

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Printed in the United States of America

  Eletronic Version by Baen Books

  www.baen.com

  CHAPTER ONE

  It had been a long day, and a very long night, and the last thing Lorne Moreau Broom had expected to be doing at this hour was watching the sun rise over DeVegas province.

  But as he’d long ago learned, life didn’t always work out the way you expected.

  It was a beautiful sunrise, too. Even seen through weary, half-lidded eyes. Often the early-morning sky in this part of Aventine’s expansion region was obscured by low layers of stratus clouds or lingering banks of nighttime fog. But today there were only a few high wisps of red and pink cirrus to catch the growing light. It was as if the sun itself was curious to see the extent of the devastation that DeVegas province had absorbed in a single day.

  A single, horrible, unbelievable day.

  A private factory commandeered by a colonel of the Dominion of Man and his Marines. Three Cobras dead in a battle deliberately instigated by that same colonel. The rest of the province’s Cobras effectively enslaved under threat of instant death.

  And Lorne’s father Paul spirited away for a terrible and utterly pointless interrogation that could lead to his death.

  But the sunrise was beautiful.

  Lorne rubbed at his eyes, his thoughts skidding like a bug on ice. Just because his brain refused sleep, he thought bitterly, didn’t mean it was actually functional.

  But it had better get functional. He had better get functional. And fast.

  He gave the rising sun one last look. Then, mindful of the possibility that even a thick sheet of falling water might not completely shield him from the Dominion’s infrared detectors, he backed away and slipped into one of the narrow crevices that scarred the rock behind Braided Falls.

  The mayor of Bitter Creek, Mary McDougal, had described the open area behind the falls as little more than an extra-deep indentation in the rock. Badj Werle, one of Lorne’s fellow Cobras, had over the years occasionally mentioned a small cave he and other teens had found back in the day.

  Maybe Badj had been hedging the truth. Maybe McDougal truly thought that was all that was here.

  Or maybe during the month that Aventine had been under Troft occupation the DeVegas Cobras had turned a teenagers’ private hangout into a full-blown hidden fortress.

  Lorne’s mother Jin was still asleep on the cot he’d set up for her earlier from a stack tucked away in a side chamber. But it was a restless sleep, Lorne saw as he keyed in his optical enhancers’ infrared setting. Her shoulders and legs were moving beneath the blankets, and as he also keyed in his telescopics he could see that her lips and throat were twitching as well. Another nightmare, probably, like the one that had accompanied the moaning and muttering that had startled Lorne awake half an hour ago.

  Still, even nightmare-wracked sleep qualified as sleep. If she didn’t twitch herself awake, he decided, it would be best to let her be. Keying back the telescopics but leaving the infrareds on, he headed quietly toward the small kitchenette setup at the back of the cave.

  Not quietly enough. He’d gone barely five meters when Jin abruptly jerked and sat bolt upright, her eyes wide, her hands curled into fingertip laser firing positions.

  “It’s okay, Mom,” Lorne said quickly. “It’s okay.”

  For a few seconds she held the pose, her eyes tracking around the cave, her brain apparently still struggling to extricate itself from her latest nightmare. Her face cleared, then tightened again as the real-life memories rolled over the fading dream images. Her hands opened, and her upper body sagged with weariness. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

  “It’s okay,” Lorne said again. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something?”

  “No,” Jin said. “Thank you.” She ran her hands briefly through her hair. “Did I wake you?”

  “Not a problem,” Lorne said. “I wanted to get up and check the perimeter anyway.”

  She exhaled a tired sigh. “Check the perimeter. It sounds so military.”

  “I suppose,” Lorne said. In fact, that hadn’t even occurred to him until she said it. Had he really been under military rule long enough for him to become accustomed to that way of thinking and talking? Apparently so. “I’m afraid military procedure is the order of the day right now.”

  “I know,” Jin said. “But it shouldn’t be. Not now. Not here.” She looked toward the front wall of the cave. “Why is this happening, Lorne? We’re five useless worlds in the middle of nowhere. What can the Dominion possibly want that’s worth this much trouble?”

  “I wish I knew,” Lorne said. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. And then we’ll find a way out of it.”

  “Maybe,” she murmured. “But not before…” She left the sentence unfinished.

  Lorne felt his stomach tighten. Not before Commodore Santores and Captain Lij Tulu used their damned MindsEye brain sifter on his father. “Dad’ll be all right,” he said as soothingly as he could. “Santores said the thing was safe as long as they didn’t rush the procedure.”

  “I know what he said,” Jin countered. “You think he wouldn’t lie through his teeth to get what he wanted?”

  Lorne scowled. Of course Santores would lie. The Dominion wanted to find Qasama. Wanted it desperately. Santores would say whatever he thought necessary to get him the planet’s location. “I know,” he said. “But remember that Santores still has to work with Chintawa, and Chintawa’s so far tried to keep our family on the ground and out of Dominion hands.”

  “He was trying up until yesterday,” Jin pointed out grimly. “Who knows what he’s thinking and doing today?”

  “I don’t think he’d abandon us just because of some tricked-out fake riot,” Lorne said. “But you’re right. We need to know what’s going on if we’re going to come up with a plan.”

  “How?” Jin asked. “We can’t use comms or radios. If we want to talk to anyone, we’ll have to go there in person.”

  “Going downriver into Archway worked last night,” Lorne reminded her. “We might be able to get away with it again.”

  “I wouldn’t count on it,” Jin warned. “Colonel Reivaro may be an arrogant bastard, b
ut he’s not stupid. If he hasn’t already figured out the back door you used, he will soon.”

  “Probably,” Lorne conceded. “We’ll just have to find another way to—”

  “Company,” Jin interrupted, throwing off her blankets and jabbing a finger toward the small display at the front of the cave.

  “On it,” Lorne said, keying in his telescopics again as he jogged across the uneven floor.

  The telescopics were a waste of time, he quickly discovered. The display was really nothing more than an extra-large peephole, a handful of fiber-optic lines that had been worked through a small gap in the wall. Enlarging the low-resolution image did nothing to genuinely enhance it.

  Not there were was much to see regardless. The other end of the optics were pointed through the only real gap in the flowing water, a spot about six meters down from the top where jutting rock formations funneled and twisted the water to either side, creating the downstream interweaving that had given the falls their name. A meter and a half below the gap was a narrow ledge running behind the water that had lured daring teenagers throughout the years, and which now offered access to the hidden cave.

  But while the gap might provide a view downriver, the flowing whitewater on either side of it severely restricted that view. About all anyone could see from the ledge—or from inside via the optics—was the river itself plus five to ten meters of bank on either side.

  Which meant that all Lorne could really see was that an aircar had come into view and was settling to the ground near one of the eddy pools thirty meters downriver from the base of the falls.

  He leaned close to the image, trying to sort through the visual confusion created by the shifting pattern of light and shadow thrown by the rising sun. As near as he could tell, the vehicle was a typical Aventinian two-seater. The door opened and a figure climbed out, then reached back in and retrieved a small bag, a stool, and a long, slender pole. He set the stool on the ground beside the eddy pool, sat down, and flicked the pole toward the water.

  “I think it’s Jake Sedgley,” Lorne said, turning to face his mother.. “He flies out here twice a week to fish. He’s loud and opinionated, but mostly harmless.”

  “Opinionated enough not to have any friends?” Jin asked as she again pointed to the display.

  Lorne turned back. Sure enough, another aircar had appeared, this one arrowing out of the sky like an avenging hawk straight toward Sedgley.

  And this aircar was definitely not Aventinian.

  “Watch him,” Lorne ordered, hurrying across to the cave entrance. There was a large, wedge-shaped block of stone that had been standing just inside the cave when Lorne arrived yesterday, sized and shaped to fit snugly into the tunnel and disguise it as just another of the cliff face’s many shallow crevices. He got a grip on the plug and eased it into position, hearing the faint whine as his servos took the stone’s two-hundred-plus-kilogram weight. He made sure the plug completely filled the gap, then headed back toward his mother. “What’s happening?” he called softly.

  “We’ve got two men talking to your fisherman,” Jin said. “Their faces are covered, but I think they’re Dominion Marines.”

  “Oh, they’re Marines, all right,” Lorne said sourly as he came up beside her. The burgundy-black outfits were highly distinctive, as were the close-fitting helmets both men were wearing. “Interesting that they’re wearing their helmets in broad daylight. I assumed that was mostly for night-vision capability.”

  “Maybe your midnight visit rattled Reivaro more than you thought,” Jin suggested. “Does Sedgley always gesture that wildly?”

  “He does tend to get expressive when he’s making a point,” Lorne said, frowning. She was right, though. The man’s arms and hands were doing an awful lot of waving. Even for Sedgley.

  “He seems pretty worked up,” Jin murmured. “I wonder if he knows we’re here.”

  “No idea,” Lorne said. “Mayor McDougal said the Cobras used this cave during the Troft occupation, but I don’t know how many civilians were involved with them.”

  With a particularly expressive flourish Sedgley plopped himself back down onto his stool. Pulling a knife from a belt sheath, he jammed the tip into the ground beside him. Then, with a final glare at the two Marines standing over him, he returned his attention to his fishing.

  Lorne frowned. “Did you see that?”

  “See what?” his mother asked. “Looks like they’re leaving.”

  The Marines were leaving, all right, walking behind Sedgley and heading for their aircar. “I meant what Sedgley did with his knife,” Lorne said, watching the Marines closely for any signs of last-minute trouble. “People don’t stick their knives into the ground like that around here. Not a good knife, anyway. Definitely not right beside a river. Too many stones just under the dirt.”

  “So he was making a point,” Jin said slowly. “But was that point to them, or to us?”

  “Good question,” Lorne agreed as he watched the Marines’ aircar head into the sky. “Assuming it was to us, what could it mean?”

  “Go to ground, maybe?” Jin suggested. “Or stay gone to ground?”

  “Or stab them right where they live,” Lorne countered. “That’s the problem. It could mean pretty much—”

  “Wait a second,” Jin said. “What’s he doing now?”

  Lorne frowned at the display. Sedgley had pulled the knife from the ground and wiped the dirt off against his leg. He looked in the direction the Marines had gone, balancing the knife on his finger and idly seesawing it back and forth. The movement slowed to a halt, the knife tip ending up pointing downward at an angle.

  Pointing directly at the spot where his fishing line disappeared into the water.

  Sedgley held the pose a couple of seconds, then began seesawing the knife again. He paused one more time, the knife again pointing at the fishing line. Then he flipped the knife back over and returned it to its sheath. Readjusting himself on his stool, he threw one more look at the sky and settled back to his fishing.

  “He wants you in the river,” Jin murmured.

  “So it would seem,” Lorne agreed. “Keep an eye on him while I get the scuba gear.”

  The climb down the cliff behind Braided Falls was as tricky as it had been the night before, even given the advantage of doing it in broad daylight this time instead of in total midnight darkness. The water in the river, once he reached it, was also every bit as cold as he’d expected.

  But it was worth it when he finally worked his way to the eddy pool where Sedgley’s baited hook was drifting in the low current and saw the small plastic sphere attached to the lead sinker.

  He thought about opening the sphere right there and checking out the contents, on the off chance that the message required him to make direct contact with the fisherman. But as much as he hated the thought of having to turn around and make this underwater trek again, he was even less interested in taking the risk that whoever was at the other end of this particular communications had neglected to make his communiqué waterproof.

  And so he carefully detached the sphere from the sinker, gave two gentle tugs on the line to let Sedgley know the package had been picked up, and headed back upstream.

  Without his Cobra servos, he would never have made it against the current or up the cliff. Even with them he felt like an overheated aircar by the time he finally dragged himself through the crevice and into the cave.

  “What happened?” his mother asked as she maneuvered the stone plug back into place.

  “You were right,” Lorne said, pulling the ball from inside his scuba suit and lobbing it over to her. “Can you figure out how to get it open? I need to get a towel.”

  Jin was sitting on the edge of her cot, peering at an unfolded piece of paper, when he rejoined her, dressed in dry clothes and only shivering a little. “What does it say?” he asked.

  “I don’t know,” she said, handing him the paper. “You tell me.”

  Frowning, Lorne read the message. It was very
short.

  Croaker’s, one hour after Anvil-rise. Kicker.

  “I’d like to hope it was more understandable before those drops of water got to it,” Jin said.

  “I don’t think the water did much one way or the other,” Lorne said, frowning a little more. “Okay. Kicker is easy. That’s Brandeis Pierce, one of the Cobras.”

  “You know him?”

  “A little,” Lorne said. “Not as well as I do Badj or Dill. He’s only been in DeVegas a few months, and most of that time he’s been stationed at Smith’s Forge. I don’t know why they chose him for the contact.”

  “Maybe because you don’t know him well,” Jin suggested. “Reivaro may be keeping a close eye on the people you’re closest to.”

  “I suppose that makes sense,” Lorne conceded. “Croakers, I’m guessing, is a spot along the Pashington River near the Deuel Center where the spring frogs drive us all crazy.”

  “You sure?” Jin asked. “That apostrophe makes it look more like a business or bar or something.”

  “Which I’m sure was deliberate,” Lorne said. “The Crogers are a huge family over in Willaway. If Reivaro intercepted the note and assumed a hasty misspelling, he could search forever without finding which Crogers it was talking about.”

  “Okay,” Jin said, still sounding doubtful. “Far-fetched, but I played sillier word games when I was young. Which leads us to Anvil-rise. I assume he’s talking about the constellation?”

  “That’s certainly the obvious reference,” Lorne said, gazing at the note. “This time of year, it hits the horizon about three in the morning. Question is, was obvious what Kicker was going for?”

  “You know of some other anvil in Archway or the Deuel Center?” Jin asked. “Especially an anvil that gets raised from an underground storage compartment or something?”

 

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