Cobra outlaw earc, p.12
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.12

           Timothy Zahn
 

  But she also remembered that on a purely practical level the difference wasn’t all that significant. In fact, the disparity really just boiled down to the difference between miniscule and ridiculously miniscule. Neither of them had any serious expertise or experience with things that go boom, and both were promising candidates for accidental self-mutilation.

  Which meant that the main reason Lorne had taken this task upon himself was that he’d gotten to the Cobras’ stash of explosives first. And had then flatly forbidden his mother to interfere.

  Jin should have argued the point. She could do so now, in fact. Lorne was younger, smarter, and far more capable than she was of taking this fight back to the Dominion. If she blew her hands off, it wouldn’t be nearly as devastating to the people of the Cobra Worlds as it would be if he did.

  Besides, she had so much less to live for.

  She turned back to the fiber-optic display. Stop that, she ordered herself. Paul would be all right. He’d defeated way stations’ worth of spine leopards during his tour of duty in Aventine’s expansion regions. He’d made it through a war and back. He’d survived getting half his leg blown away. Whatever evil the Dominion had built into their MindsEye machine, he would get through that, too.

  “Any sign of our new lords and masters?” Lorne asked.

  “The Dominion?” Jin asked. “Not yet.” There was a sudden dark movement at the top of the display— “Wait a second,” she corrected. “We’ve got another incoming.”

  “Figures,” Lorne muttered, coming up beside her. Jin felt a small flicker of relief—at least while he was here watching Sedgley settling down to fish he couldn’t also be back there juggling blasting caps. “I just hope he and Matavuli have been clever. Getting caught with a note on him would not be a good thing.”

  “Even a coded note,” Jin agreed, frowning. There was something about this whole thing tickling at the back of her mind…

  “And there they go,” Lorne said as the newly arrived aircar settled to the riverbank beside Sedgley’s vehicle. Two uniformed Marines got out and crossed to where Sedgley was sitting on his stool. “And there he goes,” he added as Sedgley jabbed the end of his pole between the stool’s legs and supports and stood up, facing the incoming Marines with his fists on his hips. “I’d give a month’s salary to listen in on this one.”

  “He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t get hauled away to detention,” Jin said.

  Lorne shrugged. “There’s that.”

  But if the Marines had come to arrest Sedgley, they were taking their time about it. For nearly half a minute they just stood there, watching Sedgley’s increasingly animated gesturing without any visible reaction. Even without their helmets the vagueness of the display would have made it impossible to tell whether they were responding to any of Sedgley’s diatribe or merely listening to it.

  And then, all at once, one of the Marines stepped past Sedgley and picked up the pole.

  Sedgley made a grab for it. The other Marine was ready for the move and caught his arm as he turned, hauling him back out of range. Sedgley tried pulling away, but the Marine deftly transferred his grip to a wrist lock. After that, Sedgley had no option but to just stand there, clearly seething but unable to do anything without getting his wrist broken.

  The first Marine looked carefully over the pole, then began slowly reeling in the line, studying every centimeter as it slid into the spool. The hook and sinker came out of the water and were reeled in, and the Marine shifted his grip on the pole and took them carefully in hand. Jin held her breath…

  And with a contemptuous gesture, he thrust the pole back into Sedgley’s hand. The second Marine released the fisherman’s other arm, and together the Marines returned to their aircar. A moment later it lifted and headed south, toward Archway.

  Lorne huffed out a breath. “Well,” he said. “That went better than I was expecting. Keep an eye out while I go get the scuba gear.”

  “Wait a minute,” Jin said, frowning again as she watched the aircar fade away into the distance.

  “No, it’s okay,” Lorne said over his shoulder as he headed across the cave. “They checked his pole and line, but not his stool, tackle box, or creel. I’m betting the message is in one of those.”

  “That’s not what I meant,” Jin said, trying to think. Thinking was much easier since the Qasamans cut that tumor out of her head. But there was something here that still eluded her.

  And then, suddenly, she had it. “The Dominion aircar,” she said. “It didn’t come from the same direction it did the last time.”

  Lorne turned back, frowning. “Maybe it was on patrol,” he said slowly.

  “Or maybe there was another reason.”

  “Okay, let’s think it through,” Lorne said. “What direction did it come from?”

  “Basically, from straight above us,” Jin told him, replaying the memory. “Like it had been following the river.”

  “Maybe like it had been lying in wait for him?” Lorne asked, coming back to her side. “There are lots of trees about half a klick upstream of the falls. Plenty of room for an aircar to hunker down out of sight.” He shook his head. “No, wait, that doesn’t make sense. If they wanted to watch him, all they’d have to do is go to high altitude—Marine aircars are bound to have higher ceilings than our civilian versions. They could just hover and watch.”

  “So they weren’t just watching,” Jin said slowly. “Could they have been up there dropping someone off?”

  For a moment Lorne was silent. Then, he took a deep breath. “Oh, hell,” he murmured.

  Jin’s throat tightened as the full implications of her suggestion seemed to slam into her. If the Marines had dropped off a commando team to hit the cave— “That doesn’t mean they’ve found us,” she said quickly. “Not necessarily. It could be a duck blind sort of thing.”

  “A what?”

  “Something I read a long time ago,” Jin said. “If birds see a person go into a duck blind, they’ll be nervous. But if two people go in, then one leaves, they relax, thinking they’re alone again.”

  “So Reivaro sends an aircar and a couple of Marines to poke Sedgley with a stick,” Lorne said slowly. “Figuring that we’re someplace where we can see the confrontation. While we’re busy watching Sedgley, someone else gets into position to watch and see if we contact him after the aircar leaves.”

  “That’s what I’m thinking,” Jin said. “So what do we do?”

  Lorne gazed thoughtfully at the display. “Well, obviously, I can’t go out until we’re sure it’s clear,” he said. “I was just thinking…there’s really no cover right up at the edge of the falls. Nothing that would hide a couple of Marines, anyway. You could put them under a camouflage blanket, I suppose, but getting into position without being spotted would be tricky.”

  “Unless they thought we’d be so busy watching Sedgley that we wouldn’t notice them.”

  “I’d like to think Reivaro has more respect for us by now than that,” Lorne said. “But if you really want to watch Sedgley without coming out into the open, your best bet is right there.” He gestured toward the display. “The ledge.”

  “Assuming they know it’s there.”

  “Easy enough to map the cliff face through the water,” Lorne pointed out. “The aircar that came by two days ago probably had the equipment to do that.”

  Jin thought it over. On one level, it was insane. On another, it was not only likely but practically inevitable. “How would they get there? I haven’t seen what the terrain looks like up top. Can the cliff even be climbed?”

  “There are one or two of places where it can be done,” Lorne said. “It’s easier starting from the bottom than from the top, though neither is exactly a stroll on the terrace. The top-down approach is the trickiest—we lose one or two daredevil kids a year out here that way. But getting to the ledge from either direction gives Reivaro the same problem as just planting someone on top: the approaches are mostly outside the water and way too visible.” He
rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But what he could do is have an aircar drop the watchers into the river somewhere upstream and have them work their way underwater to the falls.”

  “Securely anchored, I assume?”

  “Very securely anchored,” Lorne confirmed grimly. “The river runs a lot faster above the falls before it widens out down below. It’d probably wind up being a sort of sideways rappelling maneuver.”

  Jin felt her stomach tighten. “And once they got to the ledge, the only place they could see through the water…?”

  “Would be right here,” Lorne finished for her, again pointing at the display. “Right in front of the fibers.”

  There was a moment of silence. “Well, at least we’ll know when they get here,” Jin said. “I hope they keep their eyes outward. How visible are the other ends of the optics?”

  “Hopefully, not very,” Lorne said. “I didn’t really look all that closely.”

  “Nothing we can do about it now, I suppose.”

  “Nope,” Lorne agreed. “If we can’t get out to go for a swim, we can’t go out to fiddle with camouflage, either. Looks like there’s nothing we can do until we figure out whether we’re being duck-blinded or giving Reivaro more credit for cleverness than he deserves.”

  “I suppose,” Jin said. “By the way, just for the record, I don’t know if the bird thing is actually true.”

  “Doesn’t matter—the principle’s still valid,” Lorne said. “Anyway, I kind of like the term duck-blinded. We should use it more in conversation.”

  He hunched his shoulders once, then turned and headed toward the rear of the cave. “Guess I’ll get back to work,” he said. “Keep an eye out, will you? Let me know when they show up.”

  They showed up exactly twelve minutes and forty-three seconds later: two shadows that passed across the display, one of them disappearing for another fifty-two seconds as the man apparently continued on to the far end of the ledge and then rejoined his companion. The shadows settled down on opposite sides of the gap, a slice of their shoulders and arms just visible at the edges of the display.

  “Well, that tears it,” Lorne growled as he stood beside Jin, arms folded across his chest. “Damn. I was supposed to meet Pierce tonight at Smith’s Forge.”

  “That’s pretty far from here, isn’t it?” Jin asked, trying to visualize the map of the area. She probably knew more about the expansion regions than most Capitalians, given that her son was stationed here. But there were a lot of details and distances, not to mention a fair number of small towns, that were still a bit hazy in her mind.

  “About fifty kilometers,” Lorne said. “Not too bad. I could run it if I had to.”

  “A bit obvious if they’re watching from aircars.”

  “Which is why running would be a last resort,” Lorne agreed. “Plan A was to go downstream in the scuba gear, then head cross-country to Matavuli’s ranch and borrow one of his cars or bikes. He usually has a vehicle or two stashed in one of the storage barns near the Pashington River near where we met two nights ago.”

  Jin gazed past the two newcomers at the fisherman down the river. “I wonder if Sedgley’s brought new instructions.”

  “I was wondering that, too,” Lorne said sourly. “But whether he did or didn’t, there’s nothing I can do until they give up and leave.”

  “Which probably won’t be until Sedgley leaves,” Jin murmured, her thoughts suddenly racing in an unpleasant direction. She hadn’t had a really good look at the area behind the falls after Lorne’s rescue of her from Archway three nights ago. But what she had seen, if she was remembering it correctly, was that there was a slight curve to the cliff face at the height of the ledge, plus a couple of stone outcroppings that blocked the view from one side of the falls to the other.

  Which meant that if Lorne was careful, he might be able to pull out the plug that sealed the cave’s entrance, slip down the side of the cliff, and get into the river without the two watchers spotting him.

  If he was careful. If he was feeling desperate or reckless.

  And if Reivaro hadn’t sent more Marines than just the two they could see flanking the display.

  She looked sideways at her son. Lorne was gazing at the display, a hard look on his face. He was serious about all this, she knew. Serious enough that he might decide to be desperate and reckless.

  There was a good chance he’d already thought of that angle. If he hadn’t, the last thing Jin wanted to do was suggest it to him.

  “Sedgley won’t be fishing all day,” she pointed out. “Once he’s gone, you should have enough time to find any note he’s left and still make it to your meeting.”

  “Unless, as you say, the meeting’s been changed,” Lorne said. “Besides, if I were those Marines, I’d stick around long after Sedgley himself takes off on the chance that one of us will would come out of hiding to look for a message. No, one way or other, I figure the meeting’s pretty much off.”

  “Maybe that’s a good thing,” Jin said. “If Reivaro’s suspicious enough to be watching Pierce, maybe watching him do nothing tonight will convince him that he’s not worth the effort and manpower to tail.”

  “Maybe,” Lorne said. But he didn’t sound convinced.

  “Besides, you can use the extra time to work on your bombs,” Jin added. “Maybe now you can go a little slower and more carefully.”

  “They’re just smoke and concussion grenades,” Lorne reminded her. “I’m not looking to escalate this any farther than it already is.”

  “Concussion grenades that can take out a combat-suited Dominion Marine?” Jin asked mildly.

  “Of course,” Lorne said, starting to sound irritated. “Not much point to them if they can’t—”

  “Grenades that you’re working on in your shirt sleeves?” she continued. “In proximity to your aged, feeble mother, who’s also in her shirt sleeves?”

  “You’re not that feeble,” Lorne said. But the irritation vanished as he saw her point. “Fine. I’ll be extra careful.”

  “Thank you,” Jin said. The two watchers, she noted, still shifted occasionally in their places, but otherwise seemed to be settling in for the long haul. “Just try to relax,” she added. “I know it’s hard, but there’s really nothing you can do.”

  “Not for now,” Lorne said. “But sooner or later they’ll have to leave.” He huffed out a breath. “I’ll be back there—” he gave her a lopsided smile “—working slowly and carefully. Let me know the instant anything changes.”

  #

  Barrington was at Castenello’s station, listening to the tac officer run through the various contingency plans, when the two Troft warships arrived at the flicker mine net.

  Fortunately, they didn’t seem to have noticed the Dorian, skulking along in stealth mode nine million kilometers away.

  Unfortunately, they also didn’t seem to have come just to see the sights.

  “The pattern of shuttle dispersement would indicate they’re extending the net,” Commander Garrett told the senior officers Barrington had hastily summoned to the conference room. “From the directions they’re taking the new generators, it looks like they’re adding segments in all four directions.”

  “If there was any doubt they’re gearing up for some big-game hunting, I think we can safely put those doubts to rest,” Barrington said grimly. “Have we been able to glean anything about their capabilities?”

  “Not really, sir,” Castenello said. “They’re too far out for us to get anything meaningful from the passives. However, from their sizes and acceleration profiles—plus the number of small craft they obviously have on board—they appear comparable to the larger ships of the Drim’hco’plai task force we tangled with over the Hoibe’ryi’sarai homeworld four days ago.”

  “In fact,” Garrett interjected, “it’s entirely possible they’re the exact same ships.”

  Barrington suppressed a grimace. Those Drim’hco’plai ships had been half as big as the Dorian, and nearly as well armed. An
d there were two of them here, plus whatever firepower the original spider ships had aboard.

  Back at the Hoibe’ryi’sarai homeworld, for whatever reason, the Drim’hco’plai ships had withdrawn after that first brief engagement, apparently unwilling to make a toe-to-toe fight of it. Whether they would be operating under the same orders or restraint out here was anyone’s guess.

  Worse, there was no guarantee that these two were it. Out here in deep space, far from any planetary masses, hyperspace was smooth and easily navigable, and microjumps were both safe and common. As the Dorian could do a quick jump and be in the midst of the net region within seconds, so too could any other Troft warships lurking in the area. Moreover, as long as the incoming ship avoided hitting the net itself, it could jump out just as quickly and easily. Battles in deep space tended to become free-for-alls, with every bit of chaos and risk that the term implied.

  “The point here, Captain,” Castenello said into Barrington’s thoughts, “is that we’re seriously overmatched. We need to think about our exit strategy.”

  “What about the Hermes?” Kusari spoke up. “You think we’re outmatched, what happens to them if they come charging in and hit the net?”

  “If we leave, they won’t have a chance,” Filho added the obvious.

  “You think they’ll have much more of a chance if we stay?” Castenello countered. “I don’t.” He looked at Barrington. “I know it sounds harsh, Captain. But such are the realities of war. The Dorian is vital to our mission. The Hermes is, ultimately, expendable.”

  Garrett stirred in his seat. “You’re assuming Commodore Santores will indeed send Hermes back to rendezvous with us,” he said. “But as I recall, there were suggestions on the table that he might instead send the Algonquin or even come himself with the Megalith. If he does either, they would be as outmatched as we would be on our own.” He gestured. “But if it was the Algonquin and the Dorian together…?”

  “The Commodore isn’t going to send another cruiser,” Castenello scoffed. “Not when he has no idea what kind of game Ukuthi is playing.”

  “Actually, that’s exactly what he might do,” Kusari murmured. “He wasn’t promoted to flag rank just because he could smile nicely at appropriations meetings.”

 
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