Cobra outlaw earc, p.14
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.14

           Timothy Zahn
 

  And then, almost at the last second, Kjoic finally shifted his aim and fired a long burst down each gullet.

  The jormungand on Qasama had never given Merrick a chance at a clear shot down its throat. This pair were either too eager or too inexperienced for such caution, and it cost them their lives. They jerked violently as the laser fire burned through their guts, one creature dropping dead on the spot, the other managing to crawl another half meter before likewise succumbing.

  [Strange creatures, these are they,] Kjoic said, his radiator membranes fluttering like crazy with reaction. [Such dangers—]

  [Escape, we must make it,] Anya cut him off, her voice trembling. [Safety, we much reach it.]

  Merrick frowned. But the jormungands were dead.

  And then, abruptly, it hit him like a punch in the gut. Yes, these jormungands were dead. These two small, eager, inexperienced jormungands.

  And where there were babies—

  He was opening his mouth to second Anya’s urgent plea when the full-sized jormungand burst from between two of the distant trees and charged toward them.

  There was no time for warnings. No time for running. Back in the Qasaman arena, on relatively flat ground and open terrain, Merrick had been easily able to move fast enough to stay ahead of the giant snake. Here, on the jormungand’s home territory, faced with a forest’s worth of bushes, grasses, and tangled vines, he and the others didn’t have a hope in hell of outrunning it.

  And he’d already discovered that even the full force of his Cobra weaponry could barely make a dent against the full-grown version of these nightmares.

  Which left only one chance.

  [The trees, we must climb them,] he snapped, dropping his thorn maces and grabbing Anya’s and Kjoic’s arms. A quick glance over his shoulder spotted two likely trees a few meters apart; half urging and half dragging, he pulled the other two backwards toward them. Kjoic resisted the pull for about a second before he apparently realized that his laser was going to be of no use, then caught up with Merrick’s pace, holstering the weapon as they ran.

  The jormungand had closed to about twenty meters by the time they reached the trees. [Up!] Merrick ordered, for once not bothering with proper cattertalk grammar as he grabbed Kjoic around his torso and shoved him up into the lower branches of the nearest tree. [Climb!]

  Kjoic needed no further urging, scrambling up the branches as fast as he could. Merrick caught Anya around her waist, a small part of his mind crossing its fingers that Kjoic was too busy with his own escape to notice anything else, and threw her three meters straight up into the branches of the other tree. Half a second and a quick leap later, he was up there beside her.

  Even at that, he nearly didn’t make it. He was halfway to his target branch when the jormungand’s front end rose from the grass and its teeth snapped together bare centimeters below his feet.

  Merrick wasn’t sure how much farther up the snake could reach. He had no intention of finding out the hard way. Urging Anya on ahead of him, he kept climbing.

  The jormungand snapped once more at them—reaching nearly another meter higher up the tree, Merrick noted with a shiver—and then subsided. It slithered over to Kjoic’s tree, apparently decided the Troft was too high to waste a lunge on, and settled back to the ground.

  To wait.

  “What do we do?” Anya asked tautly.

  Merrick gazed down at the jormungand. Its head was swaying back and forth as it gazed upward first at Kjoic, then at Anya and Merrick, then back at Kjoic. It was making no attempt to leave, nor was it showing any signs that it would be doing so in the near future.

  “Merrick? What do we do?”

  “I don’t know,” Merrick admitted, staring down at the jormungand. Back on Qasama, he’d won his first jormungand fight through luck and a healthy application of high explosives. Here, that option wasn’t available, and even with Kjoic’s laser tossed into the mix there was no way they could take the thing down. Not without an even larger slice of luck than he’d had the last time. Certainly not without revealing his true identity.

  So what was left?

  Without the others to slow him down, Merrick could probably outrun or outmaneuver the creature, and possibly lure it away. But it had a very settled look about it, and there was a fair chance it would ignore one escaping quarry in favor of maintaining its siege on two other potential meals.

  Alternatively, sometimes animals could be driven away with sufficient injury or pain, as the party had done with the other predators they’d encountered during their journey. But even in Merrick’s limited experience, jormungands seemed either too stupid or too arrogant to know when they were going to lose. Possibly because that rarely happened.

  Which left him only one other maneuver to try.

  He craned his neck to look around the bole of the tree he and Anya were clinging to. Kjoic’s arms were visible, wrapped securely around his own tree’s trunk, but his head and torso were hidden from view. “I’m going to try something,” Merrick murmured to Anya. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Cover for me if Kjoic asks a question, okay?”

  “What if he asks a question that he wishes you to answer?”

  “Tell him I climbed higher hoping to find something,” Merrick said, craning his neck to look upward. The tree was tall enough, he decided, to make that story believable. “You can say I’m looking for an insect nest, something like hornets, whose venom I can use to drive the jormungand away. You know the local plants and animals—make up whatever sounds reasonable.”

  “I will try.” She squeezed his arm. “Be careful.”

  “You, too.” Balancing on a pair of branches, he turned his back to the tree, put a targeting lock on the next big tree over to give his nanocomputer the distance, and jumped.

  The nanocomputer did its usual magic, arcing him to a precise landing on the two branches he’d been aiming for. He worked his way around the trunk, targeted the next tree over, and jumped again. He moved one more tree away, then froze in place, keying in his infrareds and audios. Hopefully, somewhere nearby would be what he was looking for.

  There it was, two more trees over: the infrared signatures of eight fafirs, a kind of hairy mix-up of wolf and ape that Merrick and Anya and their group had tangled with their first day on Muninn. The predators were clinging to various low branches, either resting from a kill or waiting for something killable to wander by.

  Raising his hands, Merrick target-locked three of them and fired his lasers.

  The dead fafirs hit the ground. Merrick did likewise, dropping into a crouch and letting his knee servos absorb the impact. Keeping a wary eye on the rest of the pack overhead, he collected the carcasses and headed back toward Anya and Kjoic.

  The jormungand was right where Merrick had left it, lying midway between the two trees, alternating its attention between them. Merrick moved to just within its view and then dropped two of the three corpses he was carrying onto the ground.

  The dull double thud got the snake’s attention. It turned its head toward Merrick, and for a few seconds they locked eyes. Then, making sure he was ready to jump any direction necessary, Merrick heaved the remaining carcass toward the jormungand, landing it about five meters in front of the snake.

  The jormungand looked down at the fafir, then back up at Merrick, then at the fafir again. Then, moving warily, it slithered forward. Still watching Merrick, it snapped its mouth open and closed, devouring the fafir in two massive bites.

  Merrick waited until the snake was again looking at him. Then, he picked up the other two fafirs and started backing slowly away. The jormungand responded by moving toward him, but slower than its earlier attack speed. Merrick matched the pace, and after about ten steps dropped the second fafir. He backed up another five steps and stopped.

  Again, the jormungand came to a halt at the fresh kill, eyeing Merrick as if wondering what this new game was. Merrick waited, and after another moment the snake once again accepted the proffered meal, this time taking t
hree bites to devour it. Merrick again began backing up, and after a few more steps threw a quick look over his shoulder toward the fafirs’ tree.

  Most of the remaining predators had fled after his attack, but two were still crouched on their branches, both eyeing Merrick and the approaching jormungand. Merrick target-locked them, then turned back to the jormungand.

  It was still coming toward him, but once again had slowed its pace, as if deliberately matching Merrick’s. Merrick continued backing up until he was only seven or eight meters from the tree. Then, raising his arm over his head, he aimed his little finger behind him and fired his fingertip laser three times.

  His arm moved as he fired, his nanocomputer using the target lock, kinesthetic memory, and his servos to adjust the aim. A moment later, there was a muffled double thud as the fafirs fell to the ground. Merrick dropped his final carcass on the ground and continued backing up toward the tree. He watched the jormungand eat the fafir, then leaped upward into the tree.

  As he made his way back toward the spot where Anya and Kjoic were waiting, he got a glimpse through the branches as the jormungand settled down and started eating the last two fafirs.

  Anya was peering anxiously in Merrick’s direction as he made the final leap back to her side. “The jormungand is gone,” she murmured. “What did you do?”

  “I gave it a choice,” Merrick murmured back. “The chance to trade an easy meal for an even easier one.” He looked around the bole of the tree. [The danger, it is momentarily past,] he called. [Our journey, we must continue it at once. Climb down, you must do it.]

  [Climb down, I will attempt it,] Kjoic said.

  Merrick frowned. The Troft’s voice had gone oddly tense. [A problem, is there one?] he asked.

  [A problem there is none,] Kjoic said, still in that strained voice. There was a rustle of leaves— [Descent, I am making it.]

  Merrick looked at Anya. “Any ideas?”

  She shook her head. “I saw two small flashes of light a few minutes after you left.”

  “He fired his laser?”

  “I believe so,” Anya said. “But I do not know what the shots were for.”

  “I guess we’ll find out,” Merrick said. Kjoic, he noted was making good progress toward the ground. “Come on.”

  Kjoic was leaning against the tree trunk, his radiator membranes fluttering, when Merrick and Anya reached him. [A small accident, there has been one,] the Troft conceded now. He looked down. [Careless, I have been it.]

  Merrick winced. Just below Kjoic’s right knee was a long, angry red welt, with a second welt above the ankle. From the placement and alignment, it was clear that the Troft had burned both sections of his back-jointed leg with a single near-miss shot. [The accident, how did it happen?] he asked.

  [An animal, it approached me,] Kjoic said. His voice still sounded pained, but now a layer of embarrassed disgust had been added to the mix. [Two shots, I fired them at it. The animal, I missed it.]

  But he hadn’t missed his own leg. Maybe he wasn’t as accustomed to laser weapons as Merrick had thought. [Walking, can you do it?]

  [Walking, it will be difficult,] Kjoic said. [But walking, I will do it.]

  [The distance, it will not be great,] Anya assured him. [The shelter, we must soon begin building it.]

  [Distance from the large snake, I request much of it,] Kjoic said.

  [Agreement, you have it,] Merrick said. [Anya, she will lead us.]

  [Assistance, you will provide it,] Kjoic said, beckoning to Merrick. [Support, you will give it to me.]

  [The order, I obey it,] Merrick said, stepping to his side.

  Even with Merrick’s help, it was slow going. Kjoic’s injury apparently went deeper than its outward appearance indicated, giving him a pronounced limp and weakness in the leg. Several times along the way Merrick was tempted to simply pick up the Troft and carry him, which would have made the trip both easier and faster.

  But while Trofts weren’t massive creatures, they weren’t exactly lightweights, either. Carrying Kjoic for more than a couple of minutes at a time would risk exposing Merrick’s secret.

  Fortunately, Anya found a good site for their shelter after only twenty minutes. Leaving Kjoic in the center of a small hollow, she and Merrick raided a nearby stand of the familiar fuzzy bamboo-like spikes for the necessary building material. Kjoic was skittish the whole time, insisting that one of them stay within his view in case he needed to be protected from more predators.

  Fortunately, no such threats materialized. Unfortunately, the resulting slow-down in the collection process meant it was already full dark before the shelter was finished. Kjoic had eaten his evening meal bar while the others were working, and by the time Anya fastened the final spike in place the Troft was fast asleep.

  And Merrick and Anya finally had a chance for a private talk.

  “But it is dangerous,” Anya insisted. “More dangerous than it even was before.”

  “Then we’ll just have to be more careful,” Merrick told her, sending a quick look at the shelter a dozen meters away. Kjoic looked to be fast asleep, but he could presumably wake at any moment and Merrick didn’t want him wondering why his new slaves had left the shelter go off whispering between themselves. “We make sure we don’t get into a situation where he has to climb or run.”

  “I do not know the behavior of your world’s predators,” Anya said stiffly. “But ours are not always thoughtful enough to give warning of their attacks.”

  “Sure they do,” Merrick said, fighting hard not to snap at her. The long day and jormungand encounter had taken their toll, and he was tired and grouchy. “You smelled the jormungand as we were getting close, didn’t you? There you go.”

  “Do you expect me to smell all the animals?” she growled back. Clearly, the day had been hard on her, too.

  “No, you just focus on sniffing out jormungands and getting us to Svipall,” Merrick said. “I’ll keep track of everything else.”

  “And once we arrive?” she demanded. “Have you a story that will gain us entry? Or have you new faces for us to wear that will fool the masters searching for us?”

  “Let’s just concentrate on getting to Svipall in one piece, okay?” Merrick said. “We’ll figure out the rest once we get there.”

  “Merrick Moreau—”

  “And don’t forget, we’re a party of three now,” Merrick said, cutting off whatever objection she’d been about to raise. “They’re looking for two renegade humans, not an injured Troft and his personal slaves. Especially not an injured Troft who’s also trying not to draw attention to himself.”

  “Until he learns the fate of the rest of the crew,” Anya reminded him. “Once he does, he will very much be demanding attention.”

  “And with luck, we’ll be gone long before then,” Merrick soothed. “We just have to make sure to pull our information from whatever files Kjoic is able to access before he pulls his.”

  Anya exhaled a long, shuddering sigh. “And then what, Merrick Moreau? Even if we are successful, then what? We are here; Commander Ukuthi is not. How do we get the information to him?”

  “I don’t know,” Merrick admitted. “If Ukuthi had been able to send a whole team like he’d wanted…look, all I can say that if whatever the Drims are doing is hurting your people, I’ll do whatever I can to stop it. Okay?”

  “We are slaves,” she said stiffly. “That is by definition a hurtful thing.”

  “Yeah, I suppose,” Merrick conceded. “Like I said, I’ll do what I can. Next question: with Kjoic’s leg the way it is, can we still reach Svipall tomorrow?”

  “That will depend on whether the master can keep to a good speed and not tire too quickly,” Anya said. “If he can, I believe we can reach the village by nightfall.” She paused. “And then,” she added, “as you said, it will be time for you to figure out the rest.”

  “Thanks, I got that,” Merrick said sourly. “And speaking of rest, we’d better get some. I’ll take the spot by the door, j
ust in case; you’ll have to crawl over Kjoic. Try not to wake him up. First light, I assume?”

  “First light,” Anya confirmed. “You will wake us?”

  Merrick nodded, keying in his nanocomputer’s alarm. “Sleep well, Anya.”

  “Yes.” She hesitated. “You too, Merrick Hopekeeper.”

  Merrick felt his stomach tighten. Hopekeeper. It was the Muninn-style name she’d given him a few days ago when first introducing him to the rest of their party. At the time, he’d thought the title rather grand and decidedly complimentary.

  Now, with everything that had happened since then, the name seemed merely ironic and mocking.

  Ten minutes later, they were settled down for what remained of the night: two slaves, and an injured master who was as much on the run as they were. The perfect end, Merrick decided, to the perfect day.

  Still, there was always tomorrow. And tomorrow would surely be better.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  Sedgley fished for about four hours before packing up his gear and turning his aircar back toward Archway. Lorne had hoped the Marines lurking behind the falls would linger no more than another hour and then do likewise.

  Instead, they stayed perched on the ledge for the entire day, into the evening, and—as best as Lorne could tell—through the entire night. If they did take a few hours off, they were certainly back in position before sunrise the next day.

  “This is ridiculous,” Lorne fumed to his mother as he checked the display for the umpteenth time. “Reivaro’s got to have better things for these clowns to do than sitting on a ledge watching water run downhill.”

  “Could it be someone else?” Jin suggested. “Not Marines, but maybe some locals the Dominion hired to play neighborhood watch?”

  “And who were willing to rappel sideways down the falls and sit on a ledge for a day?” Lorne countered. “I don’t know anyone who hates the Cobras and loves the Dominion that much.”

  “Then if not someone, how about something?” Jin offered. “Remotes or robot sentries?”

 
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