Cobra outlaw earc, p.10
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.10

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Kjoic’s radiator membranes fluttered. [The journey, it cannot be undertaken at night?]

  [Night predators, they also journey through the forest,] Merrick said.

  [The reasoning, it is valid,] Kjoic said. [The journey, we will wait until morning to begin it.]

  Merrick bowed his head. So he’d at least bought them a few hours. Though what they would do with that extra time he couldn’t guess. [The order, I obey it,] he said.

  [An order, I have not given one,] Kjoic said mildly. [Your words, they thus mean little.]

  Merrick clenched his teeth. Who in hell was this guy? [Respect, the words are marks of it,] he explained. [The words, required of all slaves they are.]

  [The words, they still mean little,] Kjoic said, sounding a little cross. [Your village, what is its name?]

  Merrick froze. What was he supposed to say now? [My village—]

  [Svipall, our village is named,] Anya voice interrupted.

  Merrick looked behind him. Anya had returned, a bag of meal bars and a large bottle of water in her hands. [A full day, the journey will require it,] she added as she walked over to him.

  [The journey, we will begin it in the morning,] Kjoic said, taking the bag and bottle. [The meal, I will eat it. A protective barrier against night predators, you will construct one.]

  [The order, we obey it,] Anya said, bowing.

  Apparently, Kjoic had no problem with a proper slave response to a proper order. That, or he was too hungry to split hairs. He was digging into the meal bar bag as Merrick and Anya left the compartment.

  Merrick waited until they were two corridors away before speaking. “Nice timing,” he murmured. “I had no idea what to tell him. Is Svipall a real village, or was that just to stall him off until we can ditch him?”

  “It is real,” Anya said grimly. “It is a village south of Bragi, the home of Ville Dreamsinger.”

  “Oh,” Merrick said, nodding. Ville was a slave who’d been sold to one of the other Troft demesnes, and who’d been recalled when the Drim’hco’plai decided to bring them all back to Muninn. Ville had traveled from the slave ship’s landing site with Anya and Merrick and the rest of the Gangari group. “Is that a problem? I seem to remember your villagers being reasonably civil toward him when we arrived.”

  “The feelings between Gangari and Bragi aren’t the difficulty,” Anya said. “The difficulty is that when I left the masters had a small presence in Svipall. It may be that they still do.”

  Merrick winced. “Great.”

  “I am sorry,” Anya said. “The presence was not large, and I had forgotten about it until after I spoke.”

  “Yeah,” Merrick muttered. “Well…we’ve got a day to figure out something.”

  “And a night,” Anya said pointedly.

  “And a night,” Merrick agreed. In fact, the simplest approach might very well be to wait until Kjoic was asleep and then slip away. Whatever predators might be wandering through the Muninn darkness would be a damn sight easier to deal with than having a Troft as a traveling companion.

  In the meantime, Kjoic had ordered them to secure the wrecked aft part of the ship against those predators. For the moment, at least, Merrick needed to a good, obedient little slave.

  There was no possible way to block or otherwise secure the gaping hole in the outer hull. It was too large for anything Merrick had seen during their passage through the ship, and removing interior walls or furniture to fill in the empty space would be impossible to do without revealing Merrick’s Cobra weaponry and strength. Fortunately, the cracks in the inner wall, while numerous, were much easier to close. It took an hour of scrounging and another hour to figure out how to wedge everything in place, but in the end they managed to close off every opening they could find that would admit anything larger than a mouse.

  Kjoic arrived on the scene just as they were finishing work on the last crack. He’d changed his clothing, Merrick noticed, and added a wide belt with a set of small tools attached. After a couple of hours with a water bottle the alien’s skin already looked a little more filled out. He must have been seriously dehydrated. [Excellence, the work has it,] the Troft declared.

  [Your approval, we are grateful for it,] Anya said, bowing.

  [Predators, we are safe from them.] Kjoic paused. [Safety, we nearly have it.]

  Merrick frowned. Nearly?

  As if in answer to the unspoken question, the Troft stepped to the opening Merrick and Anya had used earlier, into which Merrick had wedged a pair of bunks from the ship’s crew quarters. [This opening, predators may yet force their way through it,] he continued, pulling a small tool from one of the pouches on his belt. He slid a switch, and abruptly the corridor lit up with the acrid blue fire of a cutting torch. A few quick touches to the spots where the bunk frame pressed against the blackened frame— [Security, we now have it,] Kjoic said with satisfaction as he closed down the torch. [Entrance, predators may now not achieve it.]

  Merrick suppressed a grimace. Predators would have a job getting in, all right. Unfortunately, he and Anya would now have an equally tricky job getting out.

  [The night, we approach it,] Kjoic said, holding a finger briefly near the cutting end of the torch and then putting the tool away. [Food, I have had it. Food, now you may now also have it.]

  Anya bowed. [Gratitude, we offer it.]

  [The galley, it is forward,] Kjoic said, gesturing. [Food, you may take whatever of it you wish. Your work, I will stay here and examine it more closely.]

  Once again, Merrick made sure to wait until they were out of earshot before speaking. “Well, that tears it,” he growled.

  “You can no longer open the path?” Anya murmured.

  “Oh, I can open it just fine,” Merrick told her sourly. “The problem will be cutting the welds without leaving evidence that could come back to haunt us. Especially since he knows what he’s doing when it comes to welding. There’s a good chance he’ll recognize the difference between a flame weld like he did and a laser cut like I would do.”

  “They are that different?”

  “They are to someone who knows what to look for,” Merrick said. “Did you notice how he put his finger near the torch head before he put it away? Experienced welders do that to make sure it’s cool enough to not damage the pouch. My Great-Uncle Corwin taught me that one—he fiddles a lot with metals and ceramics, and ruined a couple of perfectly good torch holders before a professional welder clued him in.”

  Merrick jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “More to the point, Kjoic didn’t look at the torch as he did it. The move was pure habit.”

  Anya was silent for another few steps. “What then is your new plan?”

  “Same as the old one: getting out of here while he sleeps,” Merrick said. “I just don’t know anymore how we’re going to do it.”

  Anya touched his arm. “You’ll think of a way.”

  “Sure,” Merrick said, wishing he felt that confident. “In the meantime, we’ve been ordered to eat. That’s the first Troft order I’ve heard yet that I’m in full agreement with.”

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  It was odd, Paul thought, how darkness of heart, lightness of head, dimness of vision, and silence of hearing could all exist in such harmony together. Perhaps someday he would write a paper on the subject.

  Though the vision wasn’t really all dimness. There were flashes of light, probably one every minute or two. He wasn’t sure about that—his nanocomputer’s clock circuit didn’t seem to be working properly at the moment.

  Occasionally, the flashes gave way to more complete visions: memories mostly, though usually they went by so quickly that he couldn’t figure out what they were memories of. But mostly it was just light, like there was a viewscreen just a degree or two out of his line of sight that was playing one of those memories.

  The silence wasn’t all silent, either. There were voices muttering or rumbling in the background, counting out numbers or letters, occasionally making some comment that he coul
dn’t understand. Sometimes he thought about keying his audio enhancers, but usually those moments of real conversation were so short that by the time he’d made up his mind to listen in it was too late.

  But at least the voices proved he wasn’t alone. That was good, because it certainly felt alone.

  The darkness of heart he couldn’t quite figure out. Something must be wrong, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.

  “Captain,” a distant voice said.

  Paul frowned inside himself. That was a voice he recognized, though he couldn’t place it. But the Captain part—that had to be Captain Lij Tulu. That particular name had cropped up many times throughout the dimness and darkness.

  “Commodore,” a second voice—Lij Tulu’s?—said. Unlike the usual voices hovering at the edges of Paul’s hearing, there was some actual emotion in Lij Tulu’s. Surprise, maybe. Would surprise be the right reaction for hearing Commodore speak to him?

  “I’m sorry, sir—I wasn’t informed you were aboard,” Lij Tulu continued.

  “That’s because I specifically left orders that my arrival not be reported to you,” Commodore said.

  “Indeed,” Lij Tulu said. A new emotion had overtaken the surprise, and Paul took a moment to try to puzzle it out. Annoyance? Resentment?

  Fear?

  “Continuity is important to the MindsEye process,” Commodore said. “I didn’t want you to interrupt your work for a formal welcome.”

  “I see,” Lij Tulu said. Some of the emotion was gone, Paul noticed.

  But only some of it. Whether it was annoyance, resentment, or fear, there was still an echo of it lurking in his voice.

  Belatedly, Paul realized that he should have keyed up his audios. But following quickly on that thought came the realization that he was already hearing the conversation just fine. Apparently, Commodore wasn’t bothering to keep his voice down the way the others usually did.

  “I wish you’d called first, though,” Lij Tulu continued. He wasn’t keeping his voice down, either. “I could have saved you the trip across. I’m afraid we haven’t yet located the proper memories. But it’s still early in the process. I’m sure we’ll locate them eventually.”

  “Hopefully before Captain Moreau brings back the coordinates himself?”

  “I don’t believe for a minute this Ukuthi character really means to give him that information,” Lij Tulu said stiffly. “Trust me, Commodore—I’ll have it long before any Troft gives it up.”

  “And Cobra Broom is handling it well?”

  “His vitals are well within acceptable range,” Lij Tulu said. “He should come through without damage.”

  “Good,” Commodore said. “And the memories you have found?”

  “We’re stockpiling them, as per standard procedure,” Lij Tulu said. “If there’s nothing else, Commodore, we’re quite busy here.”

  “As a matter of fact, Captain, there is something else we need to discuss,” Commodore said. “Can he hear us?”

  “No, sir. The only way into his auditory center is via the MindsEye path, and we closed that down right after his final briefing and instructions.”

  That was interesting, Paul thought. Did that mean his audio enhancers didn’t, in fact, feed into his brain’s hearing center? He’d always assumed that it did, but Lij Tulu seemed to be contradicting that.

  “Why, does this concern his family?” Lij Tulu continued.

  “It could,” Commodore said, his tone going grim. “The Falcon’s returned from Caelian. It seems that the Squire has disappeared.”

  “Disappeared? You mean left the planet?”

  “That’s the most likely explanation,” Commodore said. “Except that the Caelians won’t talk about it. Everyone Commander Ferrero could get hold of insisted he talk to someone else. It was like a damn Roselle circle down there.”

  “What about Governor Uy?”

  “Allegedly unavailable,” Commodore said. “Supposedly still recovering from the injuries he sustained during the Troft invasion.”

  “If that’s not just an excuse, it follows that he can’t have gotten very far,” Lij Tulu pointed out. “Where and how extensively did Ferrero search?”

  “He didn’t,” Commodore said. “He stayed in low orbit the entire time.”

  “He didn’t land?” Lij Tulu demanded, sounding scandalized. “How exactly did he plan to do his job without getting his boots dirty?”

  “He decided to exercise the better part of valor,” Commodore said. “Because the Squire might have left, it might have been moved…or it might have been destroyed.”

  There was a sound that Paul tentatively concluded was a derisive snort. “I hardly think that could be the case.”

  “You may have to retrain your thought processes,” Commodore said, his voice hardening. “Ferrero thinks he spotted signs of heavy laser scoring on the landing field ground south of Stronghold.”

  “He thinks he spotted laser scoring? A first-year midshipman can identify that kind of damage.”

  “Not on Caelian he can’t,” Commodore said. “The damn flora grows so fast that it could mat over a full-bore battleground within a couple of days. I’ve got my tactical people looking over his recordings, but I’m not optimistic they’ll be able to pull anything solid.”

  “It still doesn’t make any sense,” Lij Tulu said. “Aventine hasn’t got weapons capable of taking out the Squire. And if they don’t, Caelian damn well doesn’t.”

  “That assumes that the Cobra Worlds’ listed assets are in a one-to-one correspondence with their real assets,” Commodore pointed out. “We don’t really know what Caelian’s got. Especially not after having taken down a couple of Troft warships. It’s possible they were able to salvage and restore some of the weaponry.”

  “Or maybe Troft weaponry got there via a more direct route,” Lij Tulu said.

  “That possibility hadn’t escaped me,” Commodore agreed. “Captain Moreau’s interaction with that Balin’ekha’spmi commander—Ukuthi—shows that at least one Troft demesne is poking around the edges of all this. If one, why not two or three?”

  “Or it could all be coming from just Ukuthi,” Lij Tulu pointed out. “He already seems the type to play the ends against each other. Playing Moreau for a fool while stirring the Caelian pot would fit right in with that kind of duplicity.”

  “Which is why I’m not sending the Falcon back there,” Commodore said. “If and when we meet the Caelians again, we’ll be going in with the Algonquin or the Megalith. Just in case the Trofts are indeed on the playing field.”

  “I agree, sir,” Lij Tulu said. “Just give the word—we’re on ninety-minute standby.”

  “Easy, Captain,” Commodore said. “I said if and when. We’re not going to rush this. We’re certainly not going to Caelian until you finish your examination of Cobra Broom. No, I think we can afford to let Uy sit in silence a few more days. Give him time to think about the consequences of whatever it is he’s doing.”

  “Hopefully, he won’t take advantage of the lull to prepare more heavy weapons,” Lij Tulu warned. “Assuming he actually has any, of course.”

  “I’m certain he’ll be making all the preparations he can,” Commodore said. “But all that will accomplish will be to make the psychological slap that much harder when we sweep those defenses away.”

  “Yes, sir.” To Paul’s mind, Lij Tulu didn’t sound completely convinced. But it was possible his ears were playing tricks on him. Or whatever it was—ears or something else—that was picking up this conversation.

  “Meanwhile, the Hermes is on its way to rendezvous with the Dorian,” Commodore continued. “We’ll see if Ukuthi’s coordinates are worth anything. If not, he and the Balin demesne may need a psychological slap of their own.”

  “The Algonquin stands ready for that, as well, sir.” Lij Tulu paused. “If I may ask a question, Commodore?”

  “Certainly.”

  “Why exactly did you come across to see me, sir? This could al
l have been handled via comm.”

  “Up to now, yes, it could have,” Commodore agreed. “We now get to two points that couldn’t. Two points, Captain, which you’re to keep strictly to yourself for the present. Point one: if we haven’t located Qasama within the next thirty days, I intend to revert to the original plan.”

  “To use Aventine as bait?”

  “Not quite,” Commodore said. “Instead of Aventine, we’ll be setting the dummy base on Caelian.”

  There was a soft hissing noise. “I don’t think Governor Uy will think much of that idea.”

  “I’m certain he won’t,” Commodore agreed. “And if he reacts as badly as I’m expecting…well, let’s just hope he’s willing to see reason. Your engineers are already slated to create the necessary installations. I came here to tell you that, with Colonel Reivaro tied up with the Aventinian Cobras, it’ll be your Marines who’ll be tasked with suppressing any Caelian opposition.”

  “After more talking, I presume?”

  “Not this time,” Commodore said grimly. “The thirty days I’m allowing for the Qasama discovery represents all of the time the plan authorizes for diplomacy and persuasion. All of it. If we use up those days and come up empty, the next visit to Caelian will be the start of the building process.”

  “Understood, sir,” Lij Tulu said. “Though I presume it can’t look that way?”

  “Correct,” Commodore said. “Your Marines will need to create the same sort of situation Santores engineered in Archway. Whatever ultimately happens out here, we’ll need to be able to present the Dome with unequivocal proof that we acted in strict accordance with Dominion law.”

  “Don’t worry, sir,” Lij Tulu said. “I know how to handle it.”

  “Good,” Commodore said. “Then to my final point. I promised Governor-general Chintawa that I would protect Cobra Broom as best I could against any MindsEye side effects. With the Dorian gone, the timeline ticking down, and Caelian having suddenly become a giant question mark, I can no longer afford to keep that promise. Whatever you need to do in order to dig out Broom’s memories…” He left the sentence unfinished.

 
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