Cobra outlaw earc, p.19
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.19

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Barrington nodded. “Helm, as soon as we’ve delivered our first broadside, set course for a zero-zero with the Hermes and rotate to retrieval position. How fast can you recalibrate the drive?”

  “The book says twelve minutes, Sir,” the helm said. “Commander Kusari thinks we can do it in ten.”

  “Tell him he’s got nine,” Barrington said. The countdown timer hit zero—

  In an almost-felt blink of an eye, the Dorian jumped into hyperspace, crossed the nine point three million kilometers, and slammed into the flicker net, bouncing out again into space-normal.

  Right into a full-blaze firefight.

  Barrington had used the half-minute time lag to his advantage. But that sort of information delay was a two-edged sword. Apparently, sometime in the past forty seconds the Troft warships had changed their mind about taking the Hermes and its crew intact.

  And the courier ship was fighting for its life.

  “Laser broadsides: fire,” Barrington snapped. There was the distant rumble of sequentially cascading capacitors as the lasers spat energy at the swarming spider ships. “Pluto cones: fire. Enemy damage?”

  “Significant damage to Three and Four,” Garrett reported. “Five is moving to put the Hermes between itself and us.”

  Though scrambling like a maniac to get out of the Dorian’s line of fire wasn’t stopping it from continuing its attack on the Hermes, Barrington noted. “Missiles: fire,” he ordered. “Then signal the Hermes to prepare for pickup.” He shifted his attention to the two incoming warships—

  Just as the entire ship shuddered beneath him.

  Someone out there had scored a direct hit.

  “Damage report!” Barrington snapped, his eyes flicking over the tactical display as he searched for the source of the attack. The three spider ships were disabled or out of firing position. The two Troft warships were still just barely in laser range, and there was no indication that either had fired a missile.

  “Debris,” Garrett snapped back. “We were rammed—looks like there was a fourth spider ship.”

  Barrington swore under his breath. With the limited sensor capabilities created by their distance and the net itself, there had always been the risk that they would miss something vital before they jumped in.

  But to have come so close that the ship was effectively inside the Dorian’s point-defense system was something he could never have anticipated. “Get us to the Hermes,” he ordered. “And get the drive back on line.”

  “That may be a problem, Sir,” Garrett warned tautly. “The epicenter of the collision was at Twenty-One Gamma.”

  Barrington felt his breath catch in his throat. Starboard-aft, right over Reactor Two.

  Where Commander Kusari was currently recalibrating the drive.

  Twitching his eye, he tapped into the damage-control data stream.

  It was worse than he’d expected. Fifteen men were down, though so far there were no deaths being reported. The impact had thrown Reactor Two into auto-scram, and it was in the process of running a self-check as it worked its way back up. Another three minutes, the computer estimated, and it would once again be at full power.

  Under normal conditions, the Dorian could run perfectly well with only one operating reactor. Unfortunately, these were not normal conditions; and with a pair of Troft warships closing in on them, this was not a good time to be down to sixty percent of laser power.

  They still had one ace in the hole. But just one, and it was risky, and Barrington had no intention of using it unless he absolutely had to. “Time to zero-zero?” he called.

  “Three minutes twenty,” Garrett said. “Troft warships—”

  There was a slight shudder as some of the Dorian’s outer hull boiled off. “—have reached laser range,” Garrett continued. “Hits on Four Epsilon and Eight Delta.”

  “Full laser volley on Two,” Barrington ordered. “Follow with Pluto cones and missiles to both warships. ECM?”

  “ECM reads active,” Garrett said. “We won’t know effectiveness until they start throwing missiles.”

  And if the evidence from the Hoibie homeworld confrontation was any indication, the ECM would be only partially effective. “Status on drive recalibration?”

  Garrett didn’t answer. “Commander?” Barrington demanded, turning to look at the other.

  To find that his First Officer’s face had gone pale. “Sir, Commander Kusari is down,” he said, his voice under rigid control. “A ruptured hydraulic pipe. The pressure…both his legs, sir.”

  Barrington cursed, tapping into the data stream and keying for sickbay. Dr. Lancaster ought to have at least a preliminary report on Kusari’s condition by now.

  Only he didn’t. Because Kusari was apparently not in sickbay. Frowning, Barrington did a search.

  And felt his mouth drop open. Kusari was still in Reactor Two, overseeing the recalibration.

  Garrett must have caught that fact the same time Barrington did. “Sir, Commander Kusari—”

  “Yes, I know,” Barrington cut him off. The med data stream now showed that Kusari had ordered temporary sheathing for his burned legs, plus injections of pain killers and stimulants, and was stretched out on a gurney at his station hammering at his board. Determined to get the Dorian out of here or else to die at his post.

  Possibly to do both.

  Barrington checked the timer. Four minutes to recalibration, if Kusari’s original estimate was still valid. Six minutes if they had to go with the book’s.

  And with two enemy warships roaring into battle, those extra two minutes could mean the difference between survival and obliteration.

  “Pluto cones away,” Castenello reported. “Missiles targeted and ready.”

  With an effort, Barrington returned back to the tactical. Kusari was one of his senior officers, and after Garrett was probably his most loyal supporter amid the politics that always seemed to be a subtext to the Dorian’s officer contingent’s interactions.

  But the engineering officer’s fate was out of his hands. The Dorian’s wasn’t. “Stand by missiles,” Barrington ordered, watching as the Pluto cones burst into their high-speed shrapnel loads. From Two came a burst of point-defense laser fire that flickered among the shrapnel, vaporizing the shrapnel— “Missiles: fire.”

  The missiles shot from their tubes and accelerated toward the Troft ships, their vectors partially obscured by the light show from the Pluto cone shrapnel and also cloaked by their own ECM. Barrington watched their trails, mentally crossing his fingers—

  “Incoming!” Filho snapped.

  Barrington wrenched his eyes from his own missiles’ traces and looked to the Dorian’s flank. Yet another spider ship had slipped into attack range, its approach ironically masked by the debris of one of the attackers the Dorian had shattered. The tactical was marking five incoming missile traces, probably the spider ship’s entire load.

  The point defenses were blazing away, throwing shrapnel, laser bursts, and ECM confusion at the attackers. But it was likely already too late. One of the missiles detonated…two…three…the last two were nearly past the defenses’ effective range—

  And abruptly, both missiles exploded.

  It took Barrington a second to realize what had happened. Then, feeling a tight grin creasing his cheeks, he punched the radio control. “Thanks for the assist, Hermes,” he said. “What’s your status?”

  “Not good,” Lieutenant Commander Vothra’s tense voice came back. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t give a decent showing of ourselves. Our missiles are gone, but we’ve still got one-quarter power for the lasers. Targeting’s gone, too—we’ll need to stayed tied into your sensors if we’re going to do any good.”

  Barrington nodded. He’d wondered how they’d managed that double-tap. Apparently, Castenello had done a quick sensor-link, which had not only given the Hermes the targeting control Vothra needed, but had also given the Dorian’s own fire control a wider parallax spacing.

  Under some circumstanc
es, Barrington would have been more than happy to utilize the tactical officer’s link and the Hermes’s remaining firepower. But today wasn’t about victory, but survival. For all of them. “Belay that,” he told Vothra. “We’re coming up on a zero-zero; prepare to dock.”

  “Sir, with all due respect, you need us out here,” Vothra said. “I appreciate the rescue, but it’s not going to mean much if the Dorian gets hammered to pieces in the process.”

  “I have no intention of losing the Dorian,” Barrington assured him. “And I’m only losing the Hermes if its commander is pig-headed enough to stay in the open while we jump. Prepare to dock, Commander—that’s an order.”

  “Yes, Sir,” Vothra said. “Rotating into position. We’ll be ready by the time you get here.”

  Barrington checked the timer. Thirty seconds to retrieval; another minute at least after that for recalibration.

  And meantime, the Dorian was still being hammered by Troft lasers, its outer skin being systematically boiled off.

  He frowned, focusing on the damage schematic. The enemy warships were taking the Dorian’s hull off, piece by piece, section by section, not starting at the sensor clusters like normal enemy tactics but simply starting at a convenient spot and burning the hull down to its inner skin.

  They didn’t want the Dorian intact. But they apparently didn’t want it totally obliterated, either.

  So what the hell did they want? Did they seriously think they could take it with the core intact?

  He was startled out of his reverie by yet another dull thud from the depths of his ship.

  But this thud was familiar, even comforting.

  “The Hermes is secured,” Garrett confirmed. “Casualties being transferred aboard.”

  Barrington scowled. Vothra hadn’t mentioned casualties, but of course there must have been some. The Hermes could hardly have been hammered that hard without someone aboard getting hurt or dead.

  But again, all of that was out of his hands. He glanced at the timer—one to three minutes remaining until they could escape—and then focused on the tactical. A double barrage might keep the Trofts back long enough, but expending that level of firepower would all but drain the Dorian’s missile supply. That would bode ill for future combat.

  Still, dying with missiles still in their tubes made even less sense. He opened his mouth to give the order—

  “Recalibration complete,” Garrett snapped. “Jumping—”

  Abruptly, the CoNCH external displays went dark.

  The Dorian had escaped.

  Barrington checked the timer, then looked at Garrett. “I’ll be damned,” he said.

  Garrett shrugged, his face sagging visibly with relief and draining tension. “Well, you did tell him you wanted it done in nine,” he reminded Barrington.

  “So I did,” Barrington agreed, tapping into the data stream. Sickbay was filling up with casualties, he saw, some from the Hermes, most from the Dorian.

  And now finally, the check-in list included Commander Kusari.

  “You have CoNCH,” he told Garrett, unstrapping and standing up. “Get us back on Ukuthi’s course. As much speed as we can handle.”

  “Yes, sir,” Garrett said. “Sickbay?”

  Barrington nodded. “Sickbay.”

  #

  Dr. Lancaster had always been a thin, almost gaunt man. Today, Barrington noted, his gaunt face looked almost skeletal.

  “I’m sorry, Captain,” he said in a low voice. “There’s nothing I can do for him. Not here; not in the time I have. Both legs will have to be amputated.”

  Barrington looked past the doctor’s shoulder toward the open door of the recovery room. There were nineteen other men in there along with Commander Kusari, with thirty-eight others either currently undergoing emergency surgery or in the intensive-care ward.

  Fifty-eight injured, many of them badly. Ten others already dead.

  More on the way.

  Including one of the Dorian’s senior officers.

  Barrington had seen men die before, many times. Sometimes they’d died because of orders Barrington himself had given; sometimes because of orders other men had given; sometimes simply through the ill fortunes of war.

  But this one was different. It felt different. The Trofts’ tactics hadn’t fallen into any of their usual patterns. They’d been up to something.

  But what? What had they hoped to gain by grinding the Dorian down instead of simply blasting it to atoms? They had to know that there would be no military secrets to be looted—there were whole systems aboard designed to do nothing but vaporize every cubic millimeter of high-tech equipment well before any boarding party could get through the hatches.

  So why had the Trofts risked so much, and been willing to absorb so much damage of their own? Was a dead Dominion warship hulk worth that much to them? Were they hoping to find exotic materials or study the interior layout so as to better focus future attacks?

  But a carefully surgical destruction of the Dorian would have provided the same opportunity. Especially since taking the ship apart would have the extra advantage of not leaving anyone alive able to shoot back.

  Were they hoping to bag a ship’s worth of prisoners? Again, useless. Critical information was carefully doled out and compartmentalized so that the officers and crew of a given warship knew nothing beyond their own orders. Certainly nothing that would enable an interrogator to glean vital bits and pieces of Asgard’s overall campaign strategy. Besides, enough prisoners had been taken in this war that they were typically repatriated after a few weeks. Neither side wanted to feed and house the other’s soldiers any longer than they had to, and both apparently had political interests in getting their own people home.

  Barrington had long since accepted the unpleasant fact that some of the men under his command would die. That was the way of warfare.

  But he had never accepted the idea that they should die for nothing. At the very least, they shouldn’t die without someone knowing what the enemy had hoped to gain from their deaths.

  Somewhere, there was an answer, and come hell or high water, Barrington was going to find it. That was not negotiable.

  And speaking of non-negotiables… “How long can you hold off the amputation?” he asked Lancaster.

  The doctor’s eyebrows rose up his wrinkled forehead. “Excuse me?”

  “It’s a simple question,” Barrington growled. “How long before you have to amputate?”

  Lancaster’s mouth set itself in a firm line. “I know what you’re thinking, Captain,” he said, his tone a mix of compassion and firmness. “But I’m afraid it won’t work. A proper stem-cell regeneration will take far too long. The damage is too great, and it’s starting to spill into his lower abdomen. Even at its most accelerated, a safe and proper regeneration would require at least—”

  “Yes, I know—four weeks,” Barrington interrupted. “My question is whether you can keep him safely on support another two or three days.”

  The compressed line of Lancaster’s mouth opened a bit as his eyes did the same. “Three days?” he echoed. “Captain, I can’t possibly do a regeneration in that time.”

  “No, you can’t,” Barrington agreed. “But I know someone who can.”

  Lancaster shook his head. “Sir, with all due respect—”

  “Data stream,” Barrington again interrupted, pointing at the doctor’s eye. “Cobra Paul Broom.”

  Reluctantly, Lancaster twitched his eye. Barrington watched as he read, noting how the doctor’s frown deepened midway through. “Well?”

  “I don’t believe it,” Lancaster said flatly. “Either the treatment and recovery time were grossly underestimated, or else the initial damage was grossly overestimated. There’s no known medical way this report could be true.”

  “And if that turns out to be the case, you can go ahead and amputate,” Barrington said. “But not now. Not yet. If there’s even a chance of saving his legs, I want him to have it.”

  Lancaster hissed out a
sigh. “I can hold off the operation for another few days. But there’s a risk that he’ll end up dying. I accept the order, but be advised that I intend to put on the record that I take this course of action under protest.”

  “So noted,” Barrington said. “Now, I believe you have other patients to attend to.”

  He turned and started down the corridor. “And if the Qasamans refuse to help?” Lancaster called after him.

  “They won’t,” Barrington said.

  And they wouldn’t, he promised himself darkly as he headed back toward CoNCH. One way or the other, the Qasamans would heal Kusari, along with anyone else Lancaster and his top-of-the-line Dominion medical expertise couldn’t help. The Qasamans would help.

  Or they would be sorry. Very, very sorry.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  Kjoic had spent the night fitfully, the pain from his injured leg making him toss and turn and often waking him completely. The sudden movement within the cramped space of their shelter usually also startled Merrick awake, and he often lay that way for many minutes after Kjoic had once again fallen into his restless slumber.

  Merrick had never done well with interrupted sleep cycles, and he knew he would pay for it in grogginess the next morning. But at least he was spared the frustration of the Troft demanding that his slave do something about his discomfort. Each time he woke, Kjoic merely shifted into a more comfortable position, or at least a less uncomfortable one, and settled down again.

  Which was all to the best, because Merrick hadn’t the foggiest idea how to relieve a Troft’s pain anyway.

  Through it all, Anya slept soundly. Or at least pretended to.

  The grogginess Merrick had predicted was indeed fogging his brain by the time the eastern horizon began to brighten. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He must have gotten more rest during those nighttime cat naps than he’d realized.

  Hopefully, it would be enough. The Muninn forest, with all its uncooperative flora and deadly fauna, was unlikely to go easy on him just because he was sleepy.

  The day’s march quickly turned into a copy of the previous afternoon’s trek, except that it lasted all day instead of for only half an hour. Still, Kjoic showed some improvement. The previous afternoon, he’d been unable to limp unaided for more than a couple of minutes at a time before he needed to lean on Merrick’s arm. Now, in contrast, he was able to push himself for ten or even fifteen minutes at a stretch, though by the end of that time he was staggering and his radiator membranes were stretched out as far as they would go. Usually Merrick would then help him for another five minutes, after which the party would need to take a short rest.

 
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