Cobra outlaw earc, p.15
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.15

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “I haven’t seen the Marines using anything like that,” Lorne said. “Besides, remotes are risky—too many ways to confuse them or hijack their control or data signals.”

  “Then Reivaro must be convinced we’re somewhere in the area,” Jin said.

  “Sure seems that way,” Lorne agreed. “The question is what we do about it. If I go out there and take them out, he’ll know for sure where we are.”

  “Assuming you can take them out.”

  “There’s that,” Lorne conceded. He’d successfully taken out a pair of Dominion Marines once before, but that had required a specific location and careful setup, neither of which he had here. “But if we just sit here, they win by default.”

  “True, but if Reivaro doesn’t know about this place, we also don’t want to risk exposing it,” Jin said firmly. “It’s too good a base, and not just for us.”

  “Agreed,” Lorne said. “On top of which, it’s not really our secret to give away.” He scratched his cheek thoughtfully. “So our best approach would probably be to get out of here without them seeing us, set up a camp or temporary base somewhere within view of Sedgley’s fishing hole, and let Reivaro find that one. Once he does, and after he figures he’s driven us away, he should move his search elsewhere.”

  “Sounds like a good plan,” Jin agreed. “Any idea how we do that?”

  “Not a clue.”

  For a moment they eyed each other in silence. “So what now?” Jin asked at last.

  “Well…” Lorne’s eyes flicked over her shoulder. “I suppose I could make a few more bombs.”

  Jin’s eyes narrowed, just enough to plainly show what she thought of that idea. “I thought you finished the ones you needed last night.”

  “I did,” Lorne said. “But there’s plenty of material, and it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do. Call me if anything happens.” He headed toward the rear of the cave—

  “Hold it,” Jin said. “They’re on the move.”

  Lorne turned back around. One of the two shadows that had been bracketing the display was gone. The other was in motion, moving across the view and also disappearing. “Well, that’s new,” he commented. “Have you ever seen them both move at the same time?”

  “Not while I was watching,” Jin said. “One might leave for a few minutes, but the other would always stay until he got back. You suppose Sedgley’s on his way?”

  “Could be,” Lorne said, checking his clock circuit. “He doesn’t go fishing every day. Though when he does, he’s usually earlier than this.”

  “Well, something’s got them riled up,” Jin said. “The way they were moving didn’t look like they were just finding new places to sit. You suppose more Cobras might have decided to come here?”

  “I hope not,” Lorne said. “If those collars have locators—and Reivaro would be a fool not to have included some way to keep track of them—then they’ll blow the hideout right there.” He muttered a curse under his breath. “I wish whoever designed this display had given it some swivel capability. It would be awfully nice to know what was going on down below.”

  “Maybe there’s another way,” Jin said, looking at the stone blocking the entrance. “If we took out a few of the optical fibers and then pulled the block back a couple of centimeters, could we thread the fibers through the gap far enough to take a look?”

  Lorne huffed out a breath. “Risky,” he warned. “If our friends didn’t leave but just moved over, we’re likely to poke one in the back of the neck.”

  “I know,” Jin said. “But the alternative is to wait until something happens right in front of us.”

  “Assuming it’s something we can also figure out,” Lorne conceded. “So far we’re not doing so good on that one. Okay, but we can leave the peephole alone—I saw a spare fiber cable in one of the cabinets. Keep an eye on things while I go find a stiff wire or something to fasten it to.”

  He found the fiber cable right where he remembered seeing it. A bit more searching got him an eyepiece and a two-meter telescoping probe. He cobbled it all together, making sure to work in a right-angle bend at the front end of the cable, and took the whole thing back to the front of the cave.

  His mother was standing beside the plug, her ear pressed against the stone wall. “Anything?” Lorne asked.

  “Nothing I can positively identify,” Jin said. “The waterfall’s just too noisy. But I did seem to hear a voice a couple of minutes ago.”

  “But not since then?”

  “No,” Jin said. “Which doesn’t prove a thing, of course. How do you want to do this?”

  “I’ll move the stone; you slip the probe through and take a look,” Lorne said.

  “You sure you wouldn’t rather see what’s out there?”

  “If the coast is clear I can take my turn then,” Lorne said. “If not, I want to be ready to get the stone back in place the second you reel in the probe.” And, he didn’t add, if the Marines were laying a trap for them out there, he wanted to be in position to shove his mother out of their line of fire and do whatever damage he could before they took him down.

  “Okay,” Jin said, turning the probe over in her hands and getting a feel for it. If she’d figured out the unspoken part of Lorne’s plan, she didn’t say anything about it. “Ready.”

  Lorne nodded and got a grip on the plug’s handholds. Taking its weight with his servos, he eased it up and backwards. Jin was ready, easing the probe forward through the gap as soon as it was big enough. Lorne froze, holding the stone in midair, the roar of the waterfall turning to thunder as he notched up his audios. Even with all the noise, there was a chance the Marines would give some forewarning as they moved in for the kill…

  “Lorne, you said teens like to climb up the side of the waterfall?” Jin asked.

  Lorne frowned. What in the Worlds was she bringing that up for? “The crazier ones, yes,” he said. “Why?”

  “Because we’ve got a new batch of them,” she said, moving her eye away from the cable. “Take a look.”

  Still frowning, Lorne set down the rock and took the cable from her. A quick look to both sides confirmed that the Marines or whoever had been there had indeed withdrawn from view. Rotating the angled end of the probe again, he looked downward.

  His mother was right. Two ground cars were parked at the foot of the falls, just outside the major spray zone, and a half dozen teens were gathered around them gesturing and, presumably, cheering wildly as three of their number climbed the cliff. Already the leader had covered a quarter of the distance between the ground and the ledge, and the other two weren’t more than a couple of meters behind him.

  And Lorne suddenly had his chance.

  “Here,” he said, thrusting the probe and cable back into his mother’s hands. “I need to get suited up.”

  “What if they see you?” Jin called after him as he sprinted toward the scuba storage cabinet.

  “If I’m fast enough, they won’t,” Lorne called back as he stripped off his jacket and tunic. “Pack me some grenades, will you?”

  He was suited up in three minutes flat. Loading his clothing into a waterproof bag, he returned to the door. “How are they doing?” he asked as he rejoined his mother.

  “The leader’s almost to the ledge,” she said, pulling in the probe and taking hold of the stone’s handgrips. “I’m still not seeing signs of the Marines.”

  “Not surprised,” Lorne said, checking the mouthpiece on his air tank. “They can’t afford to let anyone see them up here—the minute they do, this particular catbird seat is useless to them. They’re probably hanging on their lines just above the lip of the falls, under cover of water and hoping like hell their anchors hold.”

  “I hope so,” Jin said, her face and voice tense. “Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve already missed your rendezvous—there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to connect with Pierce now.”

  “Not going to try,” Lorne told her. “Got a new plan. No time to explain, but don’t
wait up. Where are my grenades?”

  “Here.” His mother gestured to a backpack at her feet. “I gave you five concussions and three smoke—that’s all I could fit in.”

  “Great—thanks,” Lorne said. “Seal up behind me, will you?”

  “I will.” She paused, and Lorne could tell that she desperately wanted to talk about whatever his new plan was. But she also knew the window of opportunity was brief, and that there was no time. “Be careful.”

  “You, too, Mom.”

  A few seconds later he was on the ledge, getting his mouthpiece in place as he felt the stone plug being pushed into position at his back. He turned around, crouching down to get a grip on the edge where he could lower himself down the cliff face.

  And as he did so, the lead teen burst triumphantly into view, grinning broadly as he shook the water from his hair.

  Lorne froze. If the boy didn’t pause to rest on the ledge, but instead continued on upward, he might still get out of this unobserved. The teen paused, one foot on the ledge, rubbing his palm vigorously on his thigh as if erasing an itch. His eyes were directed upward, toward the rest of his climb. The rubbing hand came to a halt—

  And to Lorne’s astonishment, the fingers curled briefly into a fist with the thumb sticking rigidly out along his leg.

  The teen held the pose for no more than half a second. Then, still without looking toward Lorne, he continued his upward climb, disappearing into the mist.

  Lorne didn’t hesitate. He found his foothold and started down his considerably more treacherous route. Clearly, the teen had known Lorne and his mother were hiding here, and had apparently also known or at least suspected that there were watchers who needed to be chased away.

  But there was no guarantee that the rest of the teens were also in on it. The faster Lorne made himself scarce, the better.

  Five minutes later, he lowered himself into the churning water. Settling to the very bottom, he started his leisurely drift downriver.

  Once again, he spent the whole trip wondering if the Dominion might have come up with a way to pick out his heat signature from the cold, flowing background. Once again, it appeared that they hadn’t. A particularly distinct set of smoothed stones marked his destination; climbing out under the protection of a small copse of thorn trees, he shucked off his scuba suit and changed into his spare clothing. He strapped on his backpack, gave the area a careful scan, and headed out.

  Matavuli’s ranch was one of the largest in the province, covering an area of nearly twenty square kilometers. There was a strip about two kilometers wide between the river and the edge of his land, but this particular section of it was heavily forested and Lorne made it across without any signs he’d been detected.

  The ranch’s northeast vehicle garage was about a hundred meters in from the perimeter fence. Here, with no convenient tree cover available, Lorne took the entire distance in a dead run. He reached the garage, pulled open the door, and slipped inside.

  There he paused, keying his opticals and audios to check for trouble or unexpected company. From the direction of a feed truck to his left came the sound of cloth on skin—

  “About time,” a voice boomed.

  Hastily, Lorne dialed back his audios. “Sorry,” he said as Matavuli straightened up from the truck’s open engine compartment.

  “Sorry don’t feed the bulldog,” Matavuli growled. “You have any idea how many times I’ve torn down and rebuilt this engine since you missed your meeting with Pierce? No, of course you don’t. What happen, you get pinned down?”

  “Basically,” Lorne said as he crossed to the truck and peered into the engine compartment. It was half disassembled, all right. “Reivaro apparently decided Sedgley couldn’t possibly be as innocent or curmudgeonly as he looked and posted a couple of watchers.”

  “Right on your front porch, I assume,” Matavuli said, nodding. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I figured. Nick got ‘em chased away all right?”

  “Nick? Oh—the climber,” Lorne said. “Yes, they disappeared back up the falls. At least, I assume that’s where they went. So you’re the one who sent them?”

  Matavuli grimaced. “Not so much sent as allowed to go,” he said sourly. “Nick’s been wanting to try that climb ever since he saw one of his more damn-fool classmates do it last year.”

  “Well, for whatever it’s worth, he was doing fine when I left,” Lorne offered, finally understanding why the teen had looked only vaguely familiar. With most of his Cobra duties centered around Archway and the areas to the north, he hadn’t actually seen any of Matavuli’s children in years. Nick, the eldest, had obviously done a lot of sprouting during that time.

  “Yeah, and skydivers whose chutes fail are fine at the halfway point, too,” Matavuli countered. “I’ll be happy when he’s back here. Not before. Oh, and the others in the group don’t know why they’re there, so I hope you didn’t show yourself to them.”

  “I didn’t,” Lorne said. “But I definitely did need Nick’s help. Thanks for letting him go.”

  “Yeah, you’re welcome,” Matavuli said. “So what do you need? Besides one of these.” He waved at the garage’s collection of vehicles.

  “For starters, information,” Lorne said. “Specifically, what exactly is happening in Archway?”

  “Don’t really know,” Matavuli said. “Seems quiet at the moment. Though with the Dominion sitting on all the communication streams they could have dismantled the whole downtown and shipped it to Caelian and we wouldn’t know it.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh wait—yes, there was something. Yates Fabrications has shut down. Just temporarily, they say, but of course they would say that.”

  “Sabotage?”

  “Or else hammering out all those armor plates wrecked the machines,” Matavuli said. “Just like Yates said it would.”

  “Yes,” Lorne murmured, frowning. “So they really are making armor? I assumed that was just Reivaro’s excuse for taking over the place and goading us into a confrontation.”

  “No, they’re really doing it,” Matavuli. “Or so I assume. Don’t forget everything I hear from Archway these days is at least third-hand, so take it with as much salt as you want.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind,” Lorne said. “Do any of these third-hand reports mention how closely Reivaro is watching people coming in and out of the city?”

  “No, but even if you get in you’re not going to get very far,” Matavuli warned. “They’ve got your face, you know, from the official records.”

  “I figured they would,” Lorne said. “I was mostly interested in whether or not they’ve set up identity checkpoints at the gates.”

  “I’m sure they’d like to,” Matavuli said. “Right now I doubt Reivaro’s got the manpower.” He gestured at Lorne’s face. “But there are plenty of Marines wandering around. All it’ll take is one of them spotting you.”

  “That’s why I’m going to hunt up a patch of poison gorse on my way in,” Lorne said, wondering distantly if he really ought to be telling Matavuli all this. True, Werle and de Portola had vouched for the man, and Lorne had heard from other sources that Matavuli and his family had been staunch supporters of the resistance effort during the Troft occupation. Still, just because the Trofts had never gotten anything out of him didn’t mean the Dominion wouldn’t.

  Matavuli gave a low whistle. “Nasty stuff,” he said. “Face and hands?”

  “Probably just face,” Lorne said. “It should leave enough red puffiness to confuse their facial-recognition algorithms.”

  “I hope so, for your sake,” Matavuli said dryly. “A prison cell’s bad enough without your skin trying to itch its way off your body.”

  “And I won’t exactly be looking for trouble, either,” Lorne said. “Even in Archway I imagine Reivaro’s men are spread pretty thin.”

  “Should be,” Matavuli agreed. “Though with Yates’s plant shut down he might have shifted some guards from there to the gates.”

  “I wouldn’t if I were him,”
Lorne said. “If it is just a temporary stoppage he won’t want to risk more permanent sabotage while they’re not paying attention. Either way, I’ll just have to risk it. Okay if I borrow one of your bikes?”

  “Sure, if you can hotwire it,” Matavuli said. “I don’t want Reivaro coming after me for giving it to you.”

  “Good point,” Lorne agreed, wincing. He hadn’t thought of that angle. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that.”

  “Kids,” Matavuli said reproachfully. “Fine; I’ll show you.” He looked around and pointed to a beat-up Road Racer motorbike that had seen quite a few better days. “Come on—the Racer will be the easiest. So you’re heading to Archway? I thought you and Pierce were going to wait for your uncle.”

  “I figured I’d wait someplace where I might be useful,” Lorne said as he wove his way through the garage to the Racer, resisting the urge to point out that Cobras usually didn’t need to borrow vehicles without the owner’s permission. “But thanks for the reminder. Did Uncle Corwin think he could do it?”

  “He said no promises, but that he’d enjoy the challenge,” Matavuli said as he collected his tools. “Personally, I think it’s a hell of a long shot.”

  “Long shots are all we’ve got right now,” Lorne said. “Speaking of which, I also need to find a place for a little target practice. Any suggestions?”

  “I thought you Cobras already came with all that targeting stuff.”

  “This is a little different,” Lorne told him. “I need to learn how to throw bombs with some semblance of accuracy.”

  “Fun,” Matavuli said with a grunt as he came up to Lorne’s side. “That what’s in the backpack?”

  “Don’t worry—they’re safe enough,” Lorne assured him. “The problem is that throwing things isn’t part of the standard Cobra repertoire.”

  “You mean like walking a tightrope?”

  Lorne frowned at him. “Are you saying we do have target throwing ability?”

  “Not saying you do; not saying you don’t.” Matavuli gestured toward Lorne’s head with a screwdriver. “But that programming’s a hundred years old, right? Who knows what might be in there that everyone’s forgotten?”

 
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