Cobra outlaw earc, p.20
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.20

           Timothy Zahn

  When they weren’t walking, limping, or staggering, they seemed to be constantly facing off against predators. During the morning alone they had five run-ins; two against groups of fafirs, three against solitary hunters of a species Merrick didn’t recognize. Fortunately, between Anya’s acute sense of smell and Merrick’s enhanced vision and hearing they spotted each of the threats with enough time to prepare, and all the attacks were driven off more or less easily. Kjoic only had to use his laser twice, and even then the shots probably weren’t necessary.

  But the stress and occasional sudden maneuvering of combat took their own toll on the Troft’s stamina. Gradually, his periods of unassisted walking became shorter, until by midafternoon he was back to the two- and three-minute stints he’d exhibited the previous day.

  It was an hour before sunset when he finally gave up.

  [The journey, I cannot continue it,] he said as he sank awkwardly onto a section of dead log. [The pain, it is too severe.]

  [The village, it is not far,] Anya said as she and Merrick sat down near him. [Assistance, we may offer it to you.]

  [The journey, I cannot continue it,] the Troft repeated, his radiator membranes fluttering with pain and fatigue. [A shelter for the night, you will build it.] He gave Merrick a sudden, sharp look. [An alternative, one occurs to me. A transport, can the village provide it?]

  Out of the corner of his eye, Merrick saw Anya’s eyes widen. [A transport, I do not know if the village has one,] he said cautiously. [The forest, the villagers do not lightly enter it.]

  [The forest, they will enter it for a master,] Kjoic said with ominous certainty. [The village, you will go to it now.]

  Merrick stared. Was the Troft actually suggesting—? [Your safety, we cannot sacrifice it,] he protested. [The master, we may not abandon him.]

  [The master, you will not abandon him,] Kjoic growled. [The village, alone you will travel to it. The female, she will remain with the master.]

  A shiver ran up Merrick’s back. It was an opportunity he’d wished for a hundred times in the past two days: the chance for total freedom of action. Assuming he could find the village, he would be able to check things out without having to worry about giving away his capabilities to their new master.

  But if the price of that freedom was to leave Anya alone with the Troft and the dangers of the Muninn night… [The forest, it is dangerous,] he pointed out the obvious. [The danger, it would be all around you. The risk, it would be great.]

  [The risk, it would be small,] Kjoic disagreed. [The female, I have seen her battle.] He patted the laser at his side. [My weapon, I also have it.]

  [Your words, I hear them,] Merrick said, carefully not pointing out that Kjoic had already shot himself once with that weapon. [But the dangers—]

  [My words, you will obey them,] Kjoic cut him off. [The order, it is given. The village, you will travel to it.] He lifted his hand from his laser and pointed a finger at Anya. [A shelter, you will build one.]

  Merrick frowned. If the Troft was expecting Merrick to bring back transport before nightfall, what need was there for a shelter?

  [Caution, we must exercise it,] Kjoic said, as if anticipating Merrick’s unspoken question. [Other preparations, we must make them. A transport, the village may not be able to provide one until morning.]

  Merrick looked at Anya. She didn’t look especially happy at the thought of spending the night alone with the Troft. But she clearly recognized the realities of a decision made and an order given.

  As did Merrick. The patterns and habits of being a slave, he noted uneasily, were all too easy to slip into. [The order, we obey it, Master Kjoic,] he said. He levered himself up off the ground, remembering to make it look like his muscles were as tired and sore as they should be after a strenuous day. [This place, I will return to it soon.]

  [A safe journey, may you have it,] Kjoic said.

  [Your concern, I thank you for it] Merrick looked again at Anya. [The materials for the shelter, may I help collect them before I leave?]

  Kjoic squinted toward the sunlight filtering through the western trees. [The materials, you may collect some of them,] he said. [Your journey, it must begin soon.]

  [The journey, it will begin soon,] Merrick promised. He raised his eyebrows. “I think we just passed a patch?” he said in Anglic, pointing toward a spot just off their path and about twenty meters back.

  “Yes,” Anya confirmed. “There will be more than enough there.” She bowed to Kjoic. [The materials, we will bring them.]

  The patch of bamboo spikes was right where Merrick remembered it, and was indeed as extensive as Anya had suggested. There would be more than enough for the shelter she would be building. “Any trick to getting to Svipall?” he murmured as they began collecting the spikes.

  “No,” she murmured back. “You must continue to the east until you reach a rapid-flowing river, perhaps six meters across. Follow it until you reach the village. The distance should only be three more kilometers. The village is on the northern bank of the river, with no need for you to cross it.”

  “Sounds good.” Merrick peered off to the west. “Could we make it by dark if we start now?” he asked. “It’s not particularly smart to split up this way.”

  “We could make it, yes,” Anya said. “But not with the master. Not with his injury.” She touched Merrick’s arm. “Do not worry about me. As the master says, I know how to fight.”

  “As long as he doesn’t accidently shoot you,” Merrick muttered under his breath.

  “The order has been given,” she reminded him. “The order must be obeyed.”

  “I suppose,” Merrick conceded. “Anything else I should know about Svipall?”

  “I have never visited it,” she admitted. “All I know is that it still exists, for I saw it when we were atop the mountain.”

  “Ah,” Merrick said, wincing at the ridiculousness of his question. Of course she didn’t know anything about Svipall, having been off-world for the past twelve years. Even if she’d visited the place before then, any memories she’d had would be long out of date by now. “Sorry—stupid question.”

  “Do not say that!” Anya snapped.

  Merrick twitched back from the unexpected intensity. “Don’t say what?”

  “That you are stupid,” she bit out. “You will not say such things about yourself. Ever.”

  “All right, all right,” Merrick said, frowning. Where had that one come from? “I’ll be back as soon as I can. With or without transport.”

  “You’re not going to ask them for help, are you?” Anya asked, eyeing him closely. Her anger had disappeared from the surface, but he could sense it still simmering just out of sight. “You’re a stranger, you still don’t speak with the correct accent—”

  “And I’m on the run,” Merrick said patiently. “Yes, I know. And no, I’m not going to ask. If I find something that’ll serve as transport, I’ll just borrow it. Good enough?”

  Her expression said that it most definitely wasn’t good enough. But she merely sighed and nodded. “Be safe,” she said.

  “I will.” Merrick hesitated, then gently touched her cheek. “You, too.”

  Ten minutes later, having gleaned enough spikes for Anya to build a two-man shelter, Merrick headed off alone into the forest.

  Without Kjoic’s injured leg to hold him back, he made good time. After the first few minutes he settled into a travel pattern that consisted of half a minute of loping run, a brief pause to look and listen for danger, then another half minute of running.

  Thirty minutes later he reached the river Anya had told him about and changed course to follow it. From that point on, mindful of how predators tended to gather around sources of water, especially at sunrise and sunset, he added more frequent stop-and-listen pauses to his routine.

  As it turned out, Anya had underestimated the distance to Svipall by several kilometers. Even at Merrick’s enhanced pace, the sky was starting to darken when he finally arrived. He approached the village
slowly and carefully, keeping to the trees, trying to get a feel for the place.

  In some ways, it reminded him of Anya’s home village of Gangari. The two settlements were about the same size, a kilometer or so across, and both were surrounded by open fields where the forest had been cut back and the land cultivated. The modest buildings with their peaked roofs and decorative carvings would have fit right in with Gangari’s design, and the inhabitants he glimpsed between the buildings wore similar clothing, with the color palette running the same gamut of bright to muted.

  But there were two major differences between the two villages. One of them was the large, gray, warehouse-like building pressed against Svipall’s northern border, the side opposite from the river. The other was the three-meter-tall chain-link fence that completely surrounded the village, cutting it off from the cultivated area.

  Merrick hadn’t spent much time in Gangari, but he’d spotted a few storage areas in passing. The gray building didn’t look like any of them. It was two stories tall, windowless, with no carvings or artistic features that he could see. One hundred percent utilitarian, and a brooding utilitarian on top of it.

  The fence was similarly plain and functional, except that it was an odd sort of functionality. Merrick had tangled with several of Muninn’s predators, and most of them had some version of claws or talons. A chain-link fence, certainly one with the loose mesh this one exhibited, would be only a minor obstacle for any clawed creature with even the most rudimentary climbing skills.

  But the mesh was tight enough to be difficult for human fingers, and it would be impossible for human feet.

  Which led to the intriguing conclusion that the fence wasn’t there to keep the predators out but to keep the villagers in.

  Activating his telescopics, adding in some light-amplification to compensate for the waning daylight, he began to systematically scan the village.

  Unfortunately, from where he stood there wasn’t much to see. There was a three- or four-meter-wide area between the fence and the nearest of the enclosed houses, but no one seemed to be using that area as a walkway. Probably never did, actually, if the undisturbed grass along the fence was any indication. Elsewhere in the village he could see people walking back and forth, but his glimpses were too brief for him to see anything about their expressions that might help him gauge their moods. If he ever made it back to Aventine, he told himself firmly, he would campaign for the next generation of Cobra opticals to be equipped with image-capture capabilities.

  He shifted his attention back and forth between the gaps, frowning. There were plenty of bright-colored outfits over there, but so far he’d seen no sign of the copper-trimmed black clothing that the referees at Gangari’s version of the Games had been wearing. Did that mean Svipall didn’t go in for bloody combat among their children? Or were the referees just elsewhere in the village at the moment, out of Merrick’s sight? Another pair of figures swept into view past one of the houses—

  Merrick stiffened. The two figures striding across his view were combat-clad Trofts.

  There weren’t just two of them, either. the first pair was followed by a second, then a third, then a fourth. Eight warriors, marching in military formation through a human village.

  Marching in the direction of the big gray building.

  Merrick watched them go, following their progression through the gaps until the angles of the houses cut them off from his sight. There hadn’t been much to see except that they’d maintained their pace, apparently not stopping for anything or anyone.

  And if they weren’t going to the gray building, they were going somewhere very close to it.

  There hadn’t been any serious Troft presence in Gangari, at least none that Merrick had spotted. The two aliens who’d dropped in via aircar had seemed almost casual about their visit, at least until Merrick and Anya showed up.

  Could he and Anya be the reason the soldiers were in Svipall? Merrick hadn’t spotted any sign of pursuit in the past couple of days, but it was certainly possible that someone had realized the fugitives would have to come out of the forest sometime, and had decided to focus the recapture effort on the towns and villages.

  But that wouldn’t explain the gray building.

  Merrick chewed at his lip. Clearly, he’d gotten about all he was going to get from out here. If he wanted to know what was going on in Svipall, he was going to have to go in.

  He lowered his eyes to the field stretched outside the fence. Gangari had a similar field surrounding it, mostly planted with the bersark plant that was the source of the bersarkis drug used in the Games. This field, too, was made up of the same plants.

  But the Gangari field had also included a pathway composed of slightly different plants, some variant that looked like bersark but didn’t carry the same dangerous poison. It was reasonable to assume that the residents of Svipall had done the same.

  More importantly from Merrick’s point of view, the two plants looked different under infrared. Activating that part of his opticals, hoping that the trick would still work in the rapidly fading light, he peered at the field.

  The good news was that the field was indeed composed of both plants. The bad news was that if a path had ever existed, it was long gone. All that remained were scattered patches of the safe plant, with the connections between them overgrown by the bersark.

  Merrick smiled tightly. Whether by design or accident, the neglect of the pathway had pretty much eliminated any chance that someone could enter the village from this direction. That meant the Trofts had no need to guard against any such intruders.

  Unless the intruder happened to be a Cobra.

  The first safe patch four meters away and a meter square. Merrick made it easily, landing dead center. The next was both farther and smaller, five meters inward and half the size of the first. He made that one as well. Slowly, carefully, he zigzagged his way across the field until he ended up in one final safe zone barely a meter from the fence.

  Given the inherent dangers of a bersark field, it was unlikely that anyone in Svipall would make a break for it in this direction, from which it followed that the Trofts probably hadn’t bothered equipping the fence with either sensors or dangerous levels of current. Just the same, Merrick took a couple of extra minutes to study the mesh before concluding that it was in fact safe. Waiting until there was a break in the traffic beyond the row of houses, he made one final jump, rolling over the top of the fence and landing on the strip of grass beyond.

  Again he waited, crouched low, his audios at full power as he listened tensely for any sign that his entrance had been spotted. Again, nothing. Taking a deep breath, noting the same exotic mixture of cooking aromas he remembered from Gangari, he straightened up and slipped along the side of the nearest house. He waited near the front until his audios indicated that there was no one walking nearby, and with only a little trepidation stepped past into the main part of the village.

  Like Gangari, Svipall’s houses were small but neat, with carvings and other decorative features on their walls and the edges of their roofs. They were packed fairly tightly together, with the limited open land around them mostly being used for food gardens. He wondered briefly why the passage he’d just walked through wasn’t likewise being utilized, and it was only as he looked back that he realized with some embarrassment that he’d just walked carelessly through a triple row of what looked to be some kind of root vegetable.

  Hopefully, he hadn’t damaged any of the plants. If he had, it was too late now.

  He peered down the narrow and meandering street that wound between the gardens. Between the houses to his left, he could see a bit of the distant gray building. None of the Trofts that had passed by this spot earlier were visible.

  Still, that was the direction they’d gone. If he was going to find out what they were up to, he’d better get after them.

  “An evening of hope to you.”

  Startled, Merrick turned. An old woman was sitting on a small porch attached to the hous
e to his right, working silently on a piece of cloth with some kind of knitting needles. “And to you,” he replied, hoping that was the proper response. It wasn’t a greeting he’d heard anyone on Muninn use before.

  Apparently, it wasn’t. “What hope do I need?” the woman asked, peering oddly at him through the gathering gloom. “You’re the one young enough to be taken.” Her eyes narrowed. “What am I saying? You’ve already been brought in for the Games, haven’t you?”

  Merrick winced. Great—she’d pegged him as a stranger. Just great. “I was brought in, yes,” he improvised. “As to hope, all people need that, do they not?”

  She made a strange sort of grunting noise in the back of her throat. “Hope is no longer with us,” she said with a sigh. “Death and madness will continue until none but the masters remain to tally.”

  Merrick felt a shiver run up his back. There was a futility in her voice that he’d never heard in Anya or even the other slaves on their transport ship. It was as if the woman had completely given up.

  Maybe she had. Anya had been a slave for Commander Ukuthi, who had apparently treated her well enough that he’d trusted her to go on this mission with him. The other slaves on the transport had likewise been with foreign masters. Maybe a lifetime on Muninn had simply beaten this woman down to the point where there was nothing left but to wait for death.

  Or maybe it was something about Svipall specifically. Something the Trofts were doing here.

  Something involving that gray building.

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