Cobra outlaw earc, p.17
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.17

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “They’re valuable to me, too,” Reivaro growled. “What do you want?”

  “You can start by unplugging my father from your mind-sifting machine and letting him go,” Lorne said. “After that, you can lift martial law, get those damn dog collars off our Cobras, and negotiate with our people for what you want instead of demanding it like a collection of petty tyrants.”

  “And then go home and fight our war by ourselves, I suppose?” Reivaro asked, heavily sarcastic.

  “That would be nice,” Lorne agreed.

  “No, that would be stupid,” Reivaro said. “And not just on our part. Or do you really think that the only Troft demesnes who might not like having humans on Assemblage borders are the ones you and Qasama have already defeated?”

  “Probably not,” Lorne conceded. “But we have a few allies of our own out here. Anyone who comes after us will need to add that into their calculations.”

  Reivaro snorted. “You mean the allies who sat by and watched while you were invaded?” he countered pointedly. “The ones who made sure you were winning before they so much as lifted a finger?”

  Unfortunately, the man had a point. “We’ve proved ourselves now,” Lorne said. “They’ll be with us from the start next time.”

  “You don’t even believe that yourself,” Reivaro scoffed. “The way Troft demesne-lords shift partners and alliances, you can’t even keep track of them, let alone build anything solid on them. Like it or not, Broom, we’re all we’ve got out here. You, the Dominion, and Qasama. Humanity.”

  Ahead, the Archway skyline had appeared on the horizon. “Then we should learn to work together like allies instead of playing conqueror and slaves, shouldn’t we?”

  “We’re at war, Broom,” Reivaro said. “The way you survive a war is by letting the people who know what they’re doing give the orders. You may think a couple of weeks fighting a Troft occupation gives you credentials in that area. It doesn’t.”

  “Maybe not,” Lorne pointed out, thinking furiously. His original plan—actually, his original plan plus its five variants—had long since gone by the wayside. Now, he was riding a spine leopard with no obvious way to get off. “On the other hand, you don’t know how things are done at this end of the Troft Assemblage. It could be very different from how they work at your end.”

  “Possibly,” Reivaro conceded. “But in my experience, and in the experience of the Dominion of Man, Trofts are Trofts. They play by certain rules, and if you don’t know how to play their version of the game you’re in for a lot of hurt.”

  “We’ve already been there,” Lorne said. Sneaking into Archway was out. So was trying to fly somewhere else; if Reivaro didn’t already have a tracer and three more aircars on him, the man was way too incompetent to hold his job.

  Which left only one option. If he couldn’t sneak into the city, he would just have to bull his way in.

  “Oh, please,” Reivaro said contemptuously. “You don’t even know your own history. Your great-grandfather, Jonny Moreau, personally went through a thousand times more hell during the first Troft invasion than everyone on the Cobra Worlds combined. If all you can do is spout platitudes and stupidity, you might as well shut your mouth and stop embarrassing yourself.”

  “That’s okay—I was done anyway,” Lorne said. “Just remember when you start handing out reprisals that I left these two alive and well. As I also did with the last two you sent after me.”

  “You skated right to the edge then, and I’m guessing you probably did here, too,” Reivaro said. “You remember in turn that luck like that doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, you’re going to slip up and kill someone…and when you do, the charges against you won’t just be assault and sedition. They’ll be straight-up murder.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind,” Lorne said. “But don’t try to count these two on my score if you shoot me down.”

  It was as good an exit line as any, he decided. Glancing around the control panel, he found the radio switch and shut it off.

  Hopefully, the Marines would continue to hold back for awhile, at least until Reivaro decided there was no other way to stop him. In the meantime…

  In the meantime, a look at the ground below indicated that the wind was coming from the northwest. Turning the wheel, Lorne sent the aircar in a lazy arc, circling the distant city until he could turn back toward it with the wind directly at his back.

  Halfway through the maneuver, he spotted two more Dominion aircars, one pacing him from above, the other from behind. Hopefully, they had orders to hang back until and unless the hijacker did something that might constitute a threat or an attempt to escape.

  Hopefully, by the time Lorne put his new plan into motion, it would be too late for them to stop him.

  With Aventine’s expansion regions still so sparsely populated, there was no reason in theory for Archway or any other city to build itself to any significant height. In practice, though, the continued threat of spine leopards throughout the territory meant that towns of any serious size had to be fenced or walled for protection. Given that fact, economic and political realities often meant it was easier to build upward inside a town wall than to try to persuade the local government to spend the money to remake and extend the wall.

  So while much of Archway was still relatively flat, two or three stories at the most, there were four clumps of taller buildings, one near the center, the others nestled up to the fence, where the buildings rose to six, seven, or eight stories.

  One of the clusters, the southwest group, was close enough to Lorne’s apartment that he was quite familiar with it. More importantly, he knew one of the buildings intimately, not just the businesses housed there but also the internal layout of two of its floors. Information he would bet strongly Colonel Reivaro and his Marines didn’t have.

  Still, knowledge was one thing. Using that knowledge successfully was something else entirely.

  The city loomed dead ahead. Lorne eased back on both his altitude and his speed, aiming for the six-story building in the center of the southwest cluster. Just beyond it along his approach angle was another six-story building, the two separated by a relatively narrow street.

  It was a perfect spot for a wall-bounce, the Cobra method for getting from the top of a building to street level in a hurry. Briefly, he wondered if Reivaro knew about the trick, then put it out of his mind. Whether the colonel knew about it or not, the twist Lorne was planning would hopefully throw him off the scent enough for Lorne to make his escape.

  Almost there. Lorne dropped the aircar’s altitude a little more, leveling off about two meters higher than his target building’s roof. The autopilot control…there it was. A final tweak of the aircar’s vector, and he keyed in the autopilot. Opening his backpack, he pulled out one of the smoke grenades and set its timer for one second. He put the grenade in his lap, then he sealed the pack again and slipped his arms into the straps.

  Almost as an afterthought, he dug out the Marine laser epaulets from his coat and dropped them onto the floor. Reivaro would certainly bump up his hoped-for charges if Lorne was caught with them, and anyway the things might have built-in trackers.

  The building swept toward him. Taking hold of the door release with one hand and the grenade with the other, he started his mental countdown.

  And as the aircar passed the center of the roof he popped the door and leaped out, his legs pumping frantically as he fell. He hit the roof, stumbling for a fraction of a second before his legs synched with his forward momentum. Pushing his servos even harder, he put on a burst of speed and charged toward the edge of the roof. Above him, his borrowed aircar continued on across the city; a quick look over his shoulder showed that the other two Marine aircars had abandoned their distant pursuit and were moving in for the kill or capture.

  Lorne turned his attention forward, twitching a target lock onto the building across the street. Ten steps to go. He waited until he’d covered three of them, then triggered his smoke grenade and dropped it besi
de him. Two more steps, and he heard the muffled chuff as the grenade went off, releasing a thick stream of smoke.

  And as he reached the edge of the roof and jumped, the wind-borne cloud enveloped him, blocking him from view of the Marines flying overhead.

  His feet hit the wall of the other building about half a story down, his knees bending to absorb the impact, his nanocomputer waiting until his head and torso had rotated a few degrees downward before straightening his knees and sending him flipping back toward the wall of the building he’d just taken off from. Normally, the programmed technique would send him bouncing back and forth between the buildings, slowing his speed of descent with each impact, until it finally landed him on the ground at a speed his knees and servos could handle without injury.

  But that wasn’t how today’s script was going to play. Today, if Lorne had positioned himself and his leap correctly, his second impact wouldn’t be against a solid wall, but in the center of a large, floor-to-ceiling conference room window.

  He had indeed done it right. As he shoved off the first impact and started his midair flip he saw his target window behind and beneath him. A quick burst of fingertip-laser fire around the rim to soften the metal frame—

  With a thud, he hit the window feet-first, breaking it loose from its frame and knocking it inward. The shatter-resistant glass bounced against some obstruction, nearly catapulting him back out again, and his nanocomputer again had to take over to reestablish his balance and bring him to a crouching halt on the angled plate. Carefully, still in his crouch, he turned around.

  And froze.

  He’d miscalculated. The window he’d thought was an import company’s often-empty conference room had, instead, dropped him into the company’s main office.

  And it was anything but empty. Five men and six women were seated at their desks or else frozen in mid-step, staring at the intruder in wide-eyed silence. Two of the men were doing their staring partially through the window now propped lopsidedly against the edges of their desks.

  They still hadn’t moved as Lorne straightened from his crouch, his heart thudding, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Hello,” he said into the silence. “Sorry about this.”

  And then, someone murmured the magic word.

  “Broom.”

  Lorne swallowed, his mind flooding with bitter memories of Capitalia in the first few hours of the Troft occupation. During that period of chaos and fear, the aliens had demanded that the city’s Cobras and governmental officials be turned over to them, and the majority of the citizens had been only too willing to comply.

  That attitude and utter lack of resistance had been in marked contrast with the stories Lorne had heard about DeVegas province’s fight against the invaders. Lorne had taken those stories to heart, assuming that the people here would stand with equal solidarity against the Dominion’s current efforts at intimidation.

  But now, as he stared into the faces surrounding him, he belatedly realized something that hadn’t occurred to him before.

  Archway wasn’t composed of ranchers like Matavuli, or the foresters and farmers of small towns like Bitter Creek. Archway was a city—smaller than Capitalia, but just as urban. And while the outer protective fence was a constant reminder of the threats lurking out there, most of the city’s inhabitants had probably never even seen a spine leopard, let alone had to rely on a Cobra for protection against them.

  These men and women had no reason to stick their necks out for a man on the run. In fact, they had every reason in the Worlds not to.

  And then, a smallish man in shirtsleeves and loosened jacket collar and a complete lack of hair leveled a finger at Lorne. “Get off the window,” he ordered briskly. “Come on, get off.”

  Lorne took a pair or steps to the side, stepping off the glass and onto the floor. It still wasn’t too late to make a run for it, he knew. If he could persuade them to hold off calling it in for at least a couple of minutes. “My name—”

  “We know who you are,” the bald man cut him off. “Fred, Ambrose—get that window propped back up. Tommy, Jake—shove one of those desks over to hold it up. You—Broom—get over here.”

  Lorne had to quickly dodge out of the way as the other four men broke their own paralysis and hurried to the window and one of the nearby desks. “Come on, Broom, shake a leg,” the bald man ordered. He grabbed a briefcase from beside one of the nearby desks, opened it, and dumped the contents onto the desktop. “They saw you with that backpack, right?”

  “Probably,” Lorne said, completely confused now.

  “Whatever’s in there goes in here,” the man ordered, pointing at the empty briefcase. “Fred, you’re about his size. Can he borrow your coat?”

  “He can have it,” one of the men moving the window said over his shoulder, grunting as he and the other man levered the window back up against the opening. “Georgette’s been at me to get a new one anyway.”

  “Thanks,” the bald man said, heading for a coat rack in the corner. “Ladies, get your coats and bags, if you please. As soon as they’re done with the window, we’re all going for a walk.”

  By the time Lorne had the bombs transferred to the briefcase the bald man was back with a brown mid-length coat. “Try this on,” he said. “I’m Gary, by the way.”

  “Lorne,” Lorne said automatically. “Look, I appreciate all you’re doing, but you have to understand that Colonel Reivaro isn’t going to be happy with you helping me.”

  “Colonel Reivaro can take a flying leap at himself,” Gary said tartly, taking Lorne’s empty backpack and tossing it under the desk. “Anyway, you’re too late. We’ve already discussed this latest invasion and decided we’re not going to cooperate with it any more than we did the last one. Ladies? Come on, Fred—you’re holding up the group. You ready, Broom?”

  “Yes,” Lorne said, slipping on the coat. It was a shade too big, but he doubted anyone but a tailor would notice. “Where are we walking to?”

  “Jonquil’s,” Gary said. “That’s a bar down the block. Kath, go get the elevator, will you? You got a place to stay, Broom?”

  “Actually, I was thinking about my own apartment,” Lorne said. “The Dominion’s bound to have already gone through everything, and I doubt they’d expect me to show up there again.”

  “Maybe,” Gary said doubtfully. “Just make sure you check it out first. Hate to go to all this effort just to watch you get snatched again before midnight. Okay; let’s go.”

  “Yes,” Lorne murmured as they all trooped out of the office and to the elevator standing open down the hall. “Speaking of effort…I’m sorry, but I have to ask.”

  “Have to ask what? Why?” Gary started ticking off fingers. “One: you’re one of us. Two: Reivaro and his uniformed goons aren’t. Three—” He flashed Lorne a dark look. “One of you Cobras saved my sister’s youngest son from a spiny two years ago when the idiot decided climbing the Smith’s Forge fence would be a good way to challenge authority and silly adult rules. The spiny was no more than five meters out when the Cobra nailed it.” He hissed out a sigh. “His name was Jankos.”

  Lorne felt his stomach tighten. Jankos had been one of the three Cobras who’d been gunned down by Reivaro’s Marines in front of Yates Fabrications six days ago. “Yeah,” he said heavily.

  “We all have stories like that,” Gary continued. “Everyone in DeVegas does. So this is for Jankos, and the others, and Archway.” The corner of his lip twitched in a small smile. “Oh, and a little of it’s for you.”

  “I’ll take everything I can get at this point,” Lorne said as they all crowded together into the elevator. “Thank you. All of you.”

  “Save your thanks until we see if this works,” someone advised dryly.

  “That’s okay,” someone else said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll at least all get to be cellmates together.”

  To Lorne’s mild surprise, not to mention probably everyone else’s, it worked.

  The smoke from his grenade had dissipat
ed by the time the group hit the street, the new clarity permitting a good view of the half dozen Dominion aircars circling the area like angry vultures. The group had made it half a block when the first ground vehicles roared up and skidded to a halt.

  Only they skidded to a halt five blocks away.

  “Ha,” Gary said with grim humor. “Looks like Reivaro outsmarted himself this time. They figure you hit the ground running and are trying to contain you.”

  Lorne smiled tightly. “In one of the most densely-populated parts of Archway.”

  “Yes, indeed,” Gary agreed. “Nicely done.”

  “Thanks,” Lorne said. Not that he’d considered that aspect when he threw this whole thing together, of course. All he’d really cared about was having a pair of buildings tall enough and close enough together to do a wall-bounce.

  But of course, in Archway tall buildings necessarily meant high population density. If Lorne couldn’t take direct credit for this one, he could probably allow his subconscious the honor.

  “Happy hunting,” Gary said, throwing a mock salute at the distant Marines. “Here we are.”

  “Wait a second,” Lorne said, slowing down. He hadn’t recognized Jonquil’s name when Gary said it earlier. But now that he saw where they were going— “This might not be a good idea. I’ve been here a few times, usually with other Cobras. They might recognize me.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” Gary said. “Quill’s a good friend—he’ll cover for us. That’s why we’re here instead of somewhere else.”

  “See, we were all out of the office when you came bounding through the window,” Kath explained. “You propped that window back up, not us.”

  “We were as surprised as anyone when we got back and found our office like that,” Fred added blandly. “Which’ll be in, what, about an hour?”

  “Maybe an hour and a half,” Gary said judiciously. “We’ve got a lot of brainstorming to do about that new Balin proposal, and it’s cheap-drinks hour. An hour and a half be enough?”

 
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