Cobra outlaw earc, p.22
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.22

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Still, from hints her parents had dropped before the trouble with the Dominion kicked in, she’d figured it had started out somewhere on the property of her mom’s old friend and comrade-in-arms, Daulo Sammon.

  She also had no doubt that Omnathi had moved it the second the last Troft ship left orbit. Something that immensely powerful would hardly be left even nominally in the hands of a single Qasaman family. Especially a village family that wasn’t in any way connected to the more dominant city power structure.

  It was therefore something of a shock when, after landing the Squire outside Azras, Omnathi directed her and the others into a waiting convoy of trucks and passenger vans and sent them trundling off into the forest.

  It was an even bigger shock when they drove through the gate at the village of Milika. By the time the convoy came to a halt outside the Sammon family mine, she had already used up her quota of surprise for one day.

  With Rashida, Smitty, and Kemp playing escort, she got into the waiting elevator car. The operator did something complicated with a group of levers and controls set into the car’s wall, and with a shuddering clank they headed down the rough-edged shaft.

  “I do so enjoy first-class travel,” Jody murmured. The car gave a sudden jerk, throwing her off balance. She grabbed for the wall and got Kemp’s hand instead.

  “Easy,” he said soothingly, his strong hand and arm holding firm against the lurching of the car.

  His strong, servo-enhanced, arm, Jody remembered with a twinge of something that felt strangely like squeamishness. It was the same artificial strength she herself would have soon.

  She glared at the bumpy wall passing by the small, wire-netted windows of the car. Stop that, she scolded herself. She’d already been through this angst trip once. Or maybe twice—emotional battles weren’t something she typically kept track of. The point was that the decision had been made, seconded, and voted on, and she was going to do it.

  Because if she didn’t, Merrick might die. That was what she needed to focus on. Her brother was out there somewhere, and she was never going to be able to challenge the Trofts who’d taken him away without the edge that Isis could give her.

  “And don’t worry about this thing,” Kemp added. He was still holding her hand, Jody noted, even though she was fully back on balance again. Not that she was complaining. “The car, I mean. It’s sturdier than it feels.”

  The car lurched again, even more violently. “Could have fooled me,” Jody said.

  “Exactly,” Smitty said. “It’s classic wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing camouflage.”

  “You look as harmless as possible in order to keep the bad guys from realizing there’s something important or valuable down here,” Kemp said.

  “Yes, I know how the wolf thing works,” Jody said, feeling her teeth trying to clatter together as the car picked up a new vibration. “Kind of defeats the purpose if we fall to our deaths, though.”

  “Not a chance,” Smitty assured her. “This kind of window dressing is always very calculated.” He nodded toward the elevator operator, who still hadn’t said a single word to any of them. “Odds are that a small variation in that lever combination he threw at the beginning will just take us to one of the mining levels and no further. A place like this is perfect for hiding stuff.” He gestured to the operator. “Am I right?”

  The Qasaman gave him a long, cool look. Then, still without saying a word, he returned his attention to the controls.

  “Not all on Qasama appreciate what you’ve done for us,” Rashida murmured.

  “That’s okay,” Smitty said. “A lot of people on Aventine don’t appreciate us, either.”

  “They’ll come around, Rashida,” Kemp assured her. “There’s a lot of history your people have to work through, and a lot of stuff our people have to live down. But we’ll make it.”

  “Yet we may never be truly friends,” Rashida warned.

  “That’s okay, too,” Smitty said. “All we really need right now is to not be enemies.”

  “He’s right,” Kemp said. “And sometimes nations and worlds become friends because a few individuals take that first step.”

  “Hear, hear,” Smitty said. He smiled at Rashida.

  And an instant later lost the smile, and his balance, as the car abruptly jolted to a stop. Silently, the operator opened the door and pointed down the tunnel ahead of them.

  “Thank you,” Jody said. She didn’t wait for a response, which was just as well.

  The tunnel looked exactly like some of the similar ones they’d passed on the way down: dimly lit, slightly meandering, with rough walls, ceiling, and floor. With Kemp in the lead, the four of them worked their way along the passage. Smitty, Jody noted with some bemusement, had fallen back behind Rashida in rearguard position.

  Even here, safe on Qasama, the habits and reflexes of life on Caelian were never far below the surface.

  Isis had been set up just around a sharp turn in the corridor, fifty meters from the elevator, behind a false wall that had been patterned to look like the rest of the tunnel. Dr. Glas Croi, the Aventinian robotics genius who’d been Isis’s prime developer, was waiting there, along with a handful of Qasaman techs. An air of expectation seemed to hover have settled over the whole group. “Ms. Broom,” Croi said, offering his hand. “It’s an honor to meet yet another distinguished member of the Broom-Moreau family.”

  “Thank you,” Jody said, a twinge of guilt poking at her. Compared to the successes of pretty much everyone else in her family, her small successes hardly even registered. “I trust everything’s ready?”

  “It is.” Croi cocked an eyebrow. “Are you?”

  “I am,” Jody said.

  And to her mild surprise, she meant it. Not just on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional one. She was ready, willing, even cautiously eager to become a Cobra. Like her father, her brothers, and her mother before her.

  They’d all taken this step, accepted the responsibility and consequences, and gone on to do great things. There was no way she was going to let them down.

  “Good,” Croi said, an odd hint of reluctance in his tone somewhat belying the cheerfulness of the word itself. Possibly it was the fact that Jody was a woman, and only the second of her gender to undergo the Cobra surgery. A fair percentage of the Cobra World authorities, and probably an even higher percentage of the Qasamans, probably believed it was utter foolishness to waste one of Isis’s few remaining sets of Cobra equipment on a female.

  Jody’s mother had proved them wrong. Jody was determined to do likewise.

  “Good luck,” Kemp said, taking her hand. The touch lingered a second or two longer than it probably needed to. Still, it was comforting and encouraging, and Jody would never turn down an honest expression of either. “Our smiling faces will be the first thing you see when you come out of it,” he added. “Take care.”

  Thirty minutes later, she was strapped down on an elaborately contoured table, facing a complex array of lasers, scalpels, 3D printers, lamination machines, and three or four devices whose purpose she couldn’t even guess at. “Last chance,” Croi said, a bit gruffly. “Once we put you under and start the procedure, there’s no going back.”

  “I understand,” Jody said, forcing her voice to remain steady. She didn’t care much for surgery, and even with the procedure fully automated this whole thing promised to be a nightmare. “Let’s get on with it.”

  “Right,” Croi said. “Pleasant dreams.”

  And as the world and the shiny equipment faded into blackness, Jody’s last thought was a bittersweet farewell to the life that she had now really and truly left behind.

  #

  “Cobra Broom? Cobra Broom? Answer me, damn it.”

  Slowly, resentfully, Paul clawed his way up from the quiet darkness. What in the Worlds was all the shouting about?

  “This is Captain Lij Tulu,” the voice said. It seemed a little louder this time. “I need you to lift your arm. Lift your right arm. Now.”

&
nbsp; Paul smiled to himself. Lift his arm, indeed. Didn’t Lij Tulu remember that his arms were strapped down? He certainly should remember—he’d been there when the techs had done it.

  “Open your eyes, Cobra Broom,” a different voice put in. Unlike Lij Tulu’s voice, which sounded angry, this one sounded worried. Very worried.

  The darkness was continuing to brighten, and as all the random pieces of thought and memory began to come together Paul permitted himself another private smile. So the MindsEye had failed. They’d dug straight through his skull and back again, and had come up dry. Either he’d managed to keep Qasama’s coordinates a secret or, more likely, those numbers had never been inside his brain to begin with.

  No wonder they were all angry and worried. Commodore Santores wanted those numbers, and Lij Tulu had promised to get them. Lij Tulu and the whole team were in hot water now.

  And if what Paul had seen at Archway was any indication of Dominion ruthlessness, he wouldn’t want to be in Lij Tulu’s boots right now.

  “Open your eyes. Please.”

  Finally—a please. A small effort at civility, to be sure. But as Paul had discovered with his own children, even small efforts were worth rewarding.

  He opened his eyes.

  To his surprise, he wasn’t strapped to the MindsEye chair anymore. Instead, he was on a partially reclined table, apparently somewhere in the main sickbay complex. All the straps that had been holding him to the chair were gone, too.

  Facing him were two men: Lij Tulu, and an older, white-haired man Paul couldn’t remember seeing before. “About time,” Lij Tulu growled. “Now lift your damn arm.”

  For a brief second Paul thought about lifting his arm, targeting Lij Tulu’s left cheek, and giving a quick slash with his fingertip laser that would leave the captain a nice scar to remember him by.

  But that would be unprofessional. Worse, it would be the sort of vicious payback that Colonel Reivaro might do. It seemed wrong, somehow, that the Dominion’s backwoods descendants here on Aventine should be more civilized than the mother worlds, but such was clearly the case.

  Lij Tulu hadn’t said please. But again as with children, the adults often had to lead by example. Obediently, he lifted his right arm.

  Only he didn’t. He lifted, or tried to lift, but the arm didn’t move.

  And he’d already seen that there were no straps. No straps, no weights, no one sitting on it. The arm simply refused to move.

  He looked down at the arm, the last bits of blackness evaporating in the explosive burst of adrenaline that surged into his bloodstream. What had they done to him? What in God’s name had they done?

  “You can do it,” the white-haired man said, his voice taut. “Come on. Use your muscles. Just your muscles.”

  Paul stared at him. Just his muscles? But he hadn’t had to use just his muscles for years. Not since the Cobra servos had been implanted there.

  And then, with another jolt of adrenaline, he got it.

  “What did you do?” he croaked. His mouth and throat were dry, his voice that of a stranger.

  A voice he also hadn’t heard in quite this way since the activation of his audios. Like listening to a recording of your voice for the first time, he thought mechanically, without the added bone conduction that added a layer to the perceived sound that a recorder didn’t get. Only this time, the difference was in the opposite direction.

  His servos didn’t work. His audios didn’t work. And the only connection between those systems was—

  “You bastards,” he breathed. “What did you do to my nanocomputer?”

  The white-haired man winced. Lij Tulu’s face was a mask. “It seems to have shut down,” the captain said, his voice under rigid control. “We don’t know yet if it’s permanent, or whether it’s doing some kind of reboot.”

  “We were hoping you could tell us,” White Hair put in.

  “How should I know?” Paul shot back. “I’m not a tech. “What if it’s gone completely? What then?”

  “In that case, I assume you’ll have to learn how to live like a normal human being,” Lij Tulu said. “Don’t worry—billions of us manage it every day.”

  Paul could have strangled him. He could have leaped from the table, wrapped his hands around the man’s throat, and choked the casual cruelty out of him.

  Only he couldn’t.

  Lij Tulu was wrong. Paul could never be a normal human being. Not anymore. It wasn’t just a matter of using his muscles—he and every other Cobra did that every day. The problem was that, without the nanocomputer compensating for the weight of the bone laminae and the natural resistance of the servos by echoing his muscles’ every move, Paul might was well be wearing a suit of medieval Earth armor. A suit, moreover, whose joints had started to rust.

  “Can’t you do anything?” White Hair asked.

  Paul looked down at his arm. The muscles were still there. All he had to do was use them. Setting his teeth, he concentrated.

  It was, indeed, exactly as if the arm was encased in armor. The limb came up slowly, hesitantly, as if the muscle memory was as confused by all this as Paul’s brain was. He tried moving the elbow, the wrist, and the fingers, reflexively listening for the faint whine of the servos.

  But there was no whine, and the joints all moved with the same sluggishness.

  Sluggishness, and a hint of pain. The arthritis that had plagued every Cobra since the very beginning was starting to present, and the stress created by the non-working servos could only make it worse.

  “There you go,” Lij Tulu said. “See? You can do it. A little practice, and you’ll be up and running triathlons before you know it.”

  “I’ll be sure to invite you to the race,” Paul said. “I’d like to speak with Commodore Santores.”

  “Yes,” Lij Tulu murmured, and for the first time a hint of uncertainty flicked across his face. “Unfortunately, the Commodore is very busy right now.”

  “It’s a busy time for all of us,” Paul bit out. “I’d like to see him.”

  Lij Tulu shook his head. “Not possible.”

  Paul hesitated. But at this point, he really had little to lose. “Not even if I’m ready to give him Qasama’s coordinates?”

  For a brief instant, Lij Tulu’s eyes went wide. But only for an instant. “Really,” he said, smiling thinly. “Magic numbers that threats, appeals to patriotism, and even the MindsEye itself were unable to pry out of your brain. And now you’re ready to give them to us?”

  “Not us,” Paul corrected him. “Commodore Santores. And only him.”

  “Again, why now?”

  “Because the situation’s changed,” Paul said. He lifted his arm again. “I’m sure the Commodore would want to know the details.”

  “What makes you think he doesn’t?”

  “Your expression,” Paul said. He looked at White Hair. “Your accomplice’s expression. The fact that Commodore Santores explicitly promised that no harm would come to me.”

  Lij Tulu’s lip twitched. “Sometimes promises made in good faith prove impossible to keep,” he said. “Especially in time of war.”

  “I’ll be sure to remember that,” Paul said. “Especially the war part.”

  Lij Tulu’s eyes narrowed. “He’s all yours, Doctor,” he said, gesturing to White Hair. “See what you can do with him.” He inclined his head to Paul. “Cobra Broom.”

  Turning, he strode from the room. To Paul, even his back looked worried.

  “We’ll make it better,” Doctor White Hair promised. Unlike Lij Tulu, he didn’t even try to hide his anxiety. “I promise—” He broke off, wincing, as the irony of his word belatedly registered.

  “Promises, Doctor,” Paul reminded him quietly. “Promises in time of war.”

  The doctor shivered. “Yes,” he murmured. “Time of war.”

  #

  “We are met at this table,” Commander Castenello said, his words and tone the painfully formal pattern required by the present situation, “to make petitio
n to Captain Barrington Moreau, commander of the Dominion of Man War Cruiser Dorian, for his data, his reasoning, and his thoughts in regards to the military action initiated on 15 March 2507, Ship’s Date, at fifteen-twenty-two hours, Ship’s Time. In accordance with Standing Regulation Sixty-Two, Subsection Four, this Enquiry Board has been convened at the proper time and place.”

  Barrington suppressed a grimace. The proper time and place? Try the minimum time and place. Sixty-Two specified that this kind of internal inquisition had to wait until at least twenty-four hours after the ship had disengaged from the enemy and status reduced below BatPrep Two.

  And so they all sat here together, the Dorian’s senior officers, listening to Castenello run the specified phrasing, waiting to see what the captain’s response would be.

  Exactly twenty-four hours and ten minutes after their escape from the Troft net.

  He looked around the table, listening to Castenello’s droning with half an ear as he studied his officers’ faces, wondering who the tactical officer’s two secret allies were. Sixty-Two required that a minimum of three officers sign off on an Enquiry Board, officers whose names would remain secret from the captain himself. That meant that at least two of the eight men facing him were as concerned about his handling of the Trofts as Castenello was.

  But which two? Commander Garrett was out of the reckoning; the first officer was Barrington’s strongest ally. Lieutenant Kusari, still in his induced coma in sickbay, was also out. Lieutenant Commander Filho was a possibility—he certainly had ambition, and there was a school of thought in Asgard that the fast track to promotion was the discrediting of the officers higher up the chain of command. But given Filho’s sterling performance with the Dorian’s weapons during the encounter he might hesitate to tarnish the incident by bringing his captain’s decisions into question.

 
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