Cobra outlaw earc, p.2
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.2

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “Nothing that I—wait a second,” Lorne interrupted himself as a sudden bizarre thought occurred to him. “Did you ever hear of a show called Anne Villager?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “It’s a paranormal psychological thriller drama mishmash,” Lorne said. “Locally produced in Archway. So cheesy that no one admits to watching it, but pretty much everyone does. Anyway, there’s a line in the opening about Anne’s murder, and how she rose for vengeance at the stroke of midnight.”

  “And…?”

  “Don’t you see?” Lorne said, starting to feel foolish for even bringing it up. “Anne—Vil—rising?”

  For a long, painful moment his mother was silent. Then, she tilted her head thoughtfully. “And you say no one admits to watching it?”

  “No one older than twelve, anyway,” Lorne said. “What do you think?”

  Jin gave a little shrug. “I think it’s worth trying. As you said, we can’t just sit here wondering what’s happening out there. So an hour after midnight?”

  “Right,” Lorne said, trying to stifle his own misgivings. Leaving the cave would be a risk, all right. A big one. But it had to be tried.

  Besides, even if the Marines caught him, he was sure that he hadn’t seen enough of Warrior’s navigational readings on the trip to Qasama for them to pull the planet’s location from his mind. He was almost positive.

  “For now we should get some rest,” Jin broke into his thoughts. “And probably some food.”

  “Right.” Lorne looked around the cave. “And we might want to straighten up a little, too. I’d hate for any new allies we pick up to think we keep a messy hideout.”

  CHAPTER TWO

  “I understand your concerns, Colonel Reivaro,” Governor-General Chintawa said, his voice heavy with the seriousness of the situation, and—Paul Broom suspected—more than a little fatigue. Sunrise, in Paul’s opinion, was way too early for this sort of confrontation, and from the circles under Chintawa’s eyes it looked like he was of much the same mind. “But you also have to understand ours,” Chintawa continued. “Incidents involving the Broom family always seem to create repercussions far beyond the family’s political, economic, or social standing.”

  Reivaro snorted. “Please,” he said contemptuously. “Let’s dispense with the dramatics, shall we?”

  Paul had seldom felt less like smiling than he did right now. Even so, he felt a bitter-edged smile tweak at his lips. After the deliberately choreographed slaughter at Archway that had led to Paul’s arrest, Reivaro was the last person who should be complaining about dramatics.

  Still, he could understand the colonel’s frustration. From the moment the Marines had ushered Paul into their aircar it had been clear that Reivaro had expected them to escort him to Capitalia, transfer him to a Dominion landing shuttle, and take him directly to the orbiting warship Algonquin, where Captain Lij Tulu was no doubt eagerly waiting to put their new prisoner under the MindsEye brain sifter.

  Only it hadn’t worked out that way. The party had reached the Dome only to discover that Governor-General Chintawa had ordered the Dominion landing shuttles locked down, with Cobra guards on hand to ensure the order was obeyed.

  There’d been some brief and heated discussions, along with some unsubtle reminders about what Marine combat-suit firepower could do to Cobras. But it was clear that neither side wanted a repeat of the Archway confrontation, and so Paul had instead been put into one of the Dome’s holding cells—under Cobra and Dominion guard—while the whole thing was sorted out.

  Apparently, Chintawa wasn’t ready to give him up. At least, not without a fight.

  Now, with the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, the two sides had apparently finished their preliminary sparring and were ready to go head-to-head with their respective big guns.

  It was an impressive lineup. On Reivaro’s side were Commodore Santores and Captain Lij Tulu, seated at one end of the long assembly table, both officers looking far more alert and well-rested than anyone had any business looking at this hour. On Chintawa’s side were Eion Yates, DeVegas province’s premier industrialist and one of its major economic and political powerhouses, along with Cobra Commandant Yoshio Ishikuma, the commander of Paul’s son Lorne’s district. The thick red insignia neckband visible above Ishikuma’s collar was a heart-rending reminder of yesterday’s slaughter and its aftermath.

  Seated beside Ishikuma, to Paul’s mild surprise—

  “Dramatics aren’t the issue here, Colonel,” Nissa Gendreves spoke up, her voice coldly professional. Like the two senior Dominion officers, she looked far more awake than she ought to. “The issue is that your charge against Cobra Broom is completely bogus. Our charge isn’t.”

  For a moment Reivaro seemed taken aback. Apparently, he’d expected more polite sparring or at least a thicker layer of diplomacy.

  But he recovered quickly. “And you know this from your vast experience with both political and criminal matters?” he inquired, just as frostily.

  He had a point. Barely three months ago Gendreves had been a lowly intern, one of the governor-general’s assistants, with no more power, knowledge, or experience than anyone else in a similar position. But the Troft invasion, along with having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, had abruptly catapulted her into a position power and visibility.

  She’d taken that unexpected power seriously. So seriously that when Paul and Jin talked Governor Uy of Caelian into sending the prototype Cobra factory code-named Isis to Qasama instead of keeping it on Caelian she’d charged the whole bunch of them with treason.

  Given the unarguable success of Uy’s decision in ending the brief war with the invading Trofts, the whole issue should have quietly faded away. Unfortunately, there was a sizeable faction of the Cobra Worlds’ governors and syndics who had never liked having Cobras around, and the war had done nothing to change their minds. They’d seized on Gendreves and her crusade against the Brooms, using her as a lever with which to push their own agenda.

  Clearly, the last thing any of that group wanted was for Paul to be whisked up to one of the Dominion ships where he would no longer be a visible symbol for their cause. Just as clearly, none of them was interested in standing publicly against Santores and the Dominion. Hence, they’d tossed Gendreves to the wolves.

  Or more likely, Paul thought cynically, they’d simply encouraged her to volunteer.

  Still, maybe they were smarter than he gave them credit for. Even Chintawa was showing signs of intimidation in the presence of his high-ranking visitors. Gendreves wasn’t. Maybe she was here for the simple reason that she really was the right person for the job. “I know it from a careful reading of Cobra Worlds law and my own observations,” she countered.

  “Of course,” Reivaro said. “Unfortunately for you, the law you’ve been reading is obsolete. Dominion law takes precedence.” He raised his eyebrows. “And by Dominion law Cobra Broom’s actions on Caelian do not constitute treason.”

  Gendreves gave a little snort. “With all due respect, Colonel, that’s ridiculous. Cobra Broom gave highly secret technology to—”

  “Secret technology that’s a century old,” Reivaro interrupted. “No, Ms. Gendreves. Cobra Broom’s alleged treason all those weeks ago is moot. What we’re dealing with now is his involvement in yesterday’s near-riot in Archway.”

  “There wasn’t any near-riot,” Yates spoke up. “Since we’re talking about law and observations. I was there. I saw it. Furthermore, what did happen was instigated by your own men.”

  “My men reacted to an overt threat that arose from the legal and proper performance of their duties,” Reivaro countered. “It’s unarguable that Cobra Broom was heavily involved in that incident. What’s less clear is his involvement in other, more covert actions.”

  “If you’re referring to the damage to my plant,” Yates said bitterly, “that one’s also roosting squarely on your porch railing. I warned your people—my techs warned your people—”

&
nbsp; “We’ll get to acts of sabotage later,” Reivaro cut him off. “I’m referring to the sudden departure of Cobra Broom’s daughter Jody from Aventine five days ago.” He sent a dark look at Paul. “And the fact that she has now disappeared.”

  With an effort, Paul kept his face expressionless. Jody wasn’t exactly missing—she’d simply slipped off Aventine and gone to the Hoibie homeworld in an attempt to stay out of Santores’s hands.

  Or at least that was what Santores had told Jin. Was the Dominion suddenly changing its story?

  “Cobra Broom?” Reivaro prompted.

  Paul held his gaze a moment, then let his eyes sweep across the table. Gendreves, looking hard and determined. Yates, looking impatient. Chintawa, looking tense and unhappy. Santores—

  Santores, looking at everyone except Paul. Looking very intently.

  And abruptly, Paul understood. This farce of a hearing wasn’t about him at all. Something Jody had done had stirred up the Dominion hornets’ nest, and Santores had staged this confrontation in hopes of finding out whether Chintawa and Ishikuma—and possibly Paul himself—were also involved. “Whatever Jody did, she did on her own,” he said. “Neither the governor-general or anyone else outside our family knew anything about it. Or, I dare say, knows anything about it now.”

  Santores shifted his gaze to Paul, and for a moment the two men locked eyes. Then, Santores inclined his head. “So it would seem,” he said. “In that case, I see no point in continuing.”

  “Unless you’d like to tell us what my daughter has done to annoy you,” Paul offered. “I’m sure everyone here would be interested in hearing about it.”

  “Perhaps later,” Santores said. “Governor-General Chintawa, I hereby exercise my right and duty under the Dominion of Man Statutes of Martial Law to take custody of Cobra Paul Broom.”

  “You have no such authority,” Gendreves insisted before Chintawa could respond. “No declaration of martial law has been made.”

  “You’re mistaken, Ms. Gendreves,” Santores said. “Colonel Reivaro declared that state in Archway in response to the incident.”

  “An incident he himself provoked.”

  “In the performance of his duties.”

  Gendreves took a deep breath. “Commodore Santores—”

  “Please,” Paul said. “You can see his mind is made up. Do we really want a second Archway?”

  Gendreves threw a furious glare at him. “No one asked you—”

  “Enough,” Chintawa said.

  Gendreves sputtered into silence. Chintawa eyed Paul for a moment, then looked at the Cobras standing guard at the door. His eyes flicked almost unwillingly to Ishikuma and the loyalty collar around the commandant’s neck. “Cobra Broom is correct,” he said. “None of us wants that.”

  Gendreves opened her mouth to speak. Chintawa gave her another look, and she closed it again.

  “Thank you, Governor-general.” Santores gestured to the Marines behind Paul. “Take him to my landing shuttle.”

  One of the Marines took Paul’s arm. Paul shrugged off the other’s hand and remained seated. “I’d like some assurance that you’ll tell me about my daughter on the way.”

  The Marine grabbed Paul’s arm again, this time in a much tighter grip. Santores made a small gesture, and he reluctantly released his hold. “I’ll tell you what I know,” the commodore said. “I’m afraid it isn’t much.” He inclined his head microscopically. “My word on that.”

  “Thank you.” Paul stood up. “Governor-general; Commandant Ishikuma; Mr. Yates.” Deliberately, he forced himself to look at Gendreves. “Ms. Gendreves.”

  Ten minutes later, the Dominion shuttle lifted from the Dome’s private landing terrace and headed into the sky. Two minutes after that, Santores stepped into the small, windowless compartment where Paul and his guards had been crammed, dismissed the Marines, and sat down facing his prisoner. “I appreciate you not making a fuss back there in the Dome,” the commodore said. “Though of course I know why you did it.”

  “Do you?”

  “You didn’t want Chintawa or Gendreves forcing me to put all of Aventine under martial law,” Santores said. “Which is fine. I don’t want that, either.” He smiled faintly. “Despite what you may think, we’re all on the same side here.”

  “I’d like to believe that,” Paul said. “Tell me about Jody.”

  “As I said, we don’t know very much,” Santores said, settling back into his seat. “One of the Dorian’s courier ships arrived at Aventine earlier this morning. Aboard was a report from Captain Moreau that he’d arrived at the Hoibe’ryi’sarai homeworld, only to discover that your daughter hadn’t yet arrived. Neither had the Troft merchant ship we assume ghosted her off Aventine. Needless to say, this caused him some concern.” He cocked his head. “Unless, of course, that world was never her intended destination.”

  “Hoibie,” Paul said.

  Santores frowned. “What?”

  “It’s Hoibie, not Hoibe’ryi’sarai,” Paul told him. “Using the full demesne name makes you sound like a tourist.”

  “Ah,” Santores said. “You seem remarkably unconcerned about the fate of your daughter.”

  Paul shrugged as casually as he could. “Jody went through a war,” he reminded Santores. “She can take care of herself.”

  “Especially if her destination was actually Caelian?”

  “What makes you think she’s on Caelian?”

  “No, no, that’s not how this works,” Santores admonished him. “You’re the prisoner. You don’t ask the questions. You answer them.”

  “My mistake,” Paul said, forcing down a knot of sudden anger. Jin had warned him that Santores liked to poke at his opponents, hoping to make them angry enough to forget to think. “What makes you think she’s on Caelian?”

  “Various reasons,” Santores said. “Not the least of which is that she has friends there.”

  “Quite a few of them, in fact,” Paul agreed. “What have they done now?”

  “What makes you think they’ve done anything?” Santores countered.

  “You said various reasons,” Paul reminded him. “Various implies more than one.”

  Santores studied him a moment, then gave a little shrug. “I suppose at this point there’s no harm in telling you. One of Captain Lij Tulu’s officers, Commander Tamu, took the courier ship Squire to Caelian four days ago for the purpose of putting Governor Uy under arrest.” He smiled faintly. “A bone I intended to throw to Ms. Gendreves in hopes of getting her to forget about you and your family.”

  “And something unpleasant happened?”

  “We don’t know,” Santores said. “Commander Tamu should have returned two days ago. As of this morning, he hadn’t.”

  “Which means something unpleasant did indeed happen,” Paul said. “Not exactly a surprise. Did you really expect to just waltz into Stronghold, pack Uy aboard a Dominion ship, and fly away free and clear?”

  “Commander Tamu was fully prepared for trouble.”

  “Obviously not as prepared as he thought.”

  “I doubt that,” Santores said grimly. “Don’t forget Archway.”

  Paul ground his teeth together. “None of us will ever forget Archway,” he said darkly. “So you think Jody is involved in Tamu’s disappearance?”

  “That’s one possibility,” Santores said. “We’ll find out soon enough.” His lips compressed briefly. “One way or the other.”

  Paul braced himself. “The MindsEye?”

  “Yes,” Santores said, eyeing Paul closely. “It’s a bit ironic that our original goal for your interrogation may soon turn out to be unnecessary. The Dorian’s courier also brought information that Captain Moreau had made contact with a Commander Ukuthi from the Balin’ekha’spmi—” He smiled. “Excuse me. From the Balin demesne. Ukuthi has given Captain Moreau what he claims are Qasama’s coordinates.”

  Paul felt his eyes widen. After all his family had gone through to keep Qasama’s location hidden; and now some T
roft had just given that secret away?

  Which would mean that all of this—Jody’s hasty departure, Lorne’s stalling, the Archway massacre—had been for nothing.

  He forced the thought away. There was nothing that direction except anger and despair. “Congratulations,” he said. “So now all you want is to dredge out whatever information I’ve got on Jody?”

  “Not at all,” Santores assured him. “And don’t despair for your Qasaman friends yet.”

  “Meaning?”

  “Meaning I don’t believe this Troft and his alleged information,” Santores said. “Neither does Captain Moreau. He thinks the coordinates may be a midway point where Ukuthi will issue a new course and probably make fresh conditions.”

  “Or it’s a trap,” Paul murmured.

  “I see fighting a war has given you a touch of warrior’s paranoia,” Santores said grimly. “Not necessarily a bad thing.”

  “Unless it so colors your outlook that it makes life meaningless.”

  “Part of the price warriors have chosen to pay,” Santores countered, his voice going hard. “For decades you Cobras have fancied yourselves soldiers without ever having to face the true cost of that role. It’s time that you learned about reality.”

  Paul’s mind flashed back to the hell he and his family had just been through. “That’s not fair,” he said stiffly.

  The lines in Santores’s face softened, just a bit. “For some of you, perhaps,” he said grudgingly. “Not for all. Certainly not for the Cobras in Capitalia.”

  “They were ordered not to fight.”

  “Those in DeVegas province and elsewhere in the Cobra Worlds disobeyed that order,” Santores pointed out. “The ones in Capitalia could have, too.” He waved a hand. “But that’s not the point. The point is that we still need Qasama, and I’m not expecting Captain Moreau to get it from this Ukuthi character.”

  “Hence, me?”

  “Hence, you,” Santores confirmed. “One way or the other, we are going to get Qasama’s location. If you have any as-yet unspoken information, this would be a good time to speak it.”

 
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