Cobra outlaw earc, p.24
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.24

           Timothy Zahn
 

  And after that he would call engineering and try to beg, borrow, or steal a little more speed out of the Dorian’s engines.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Three days.

  That was how long Jin had been stuck in this stupid cave. Three days.

  Three freaking days.

  She glowered at the outside display, feeling helpless, useless, and frustrated. During the Troft invasion of Qasama, it had sometimes seemed like people never stopped or even slowed down, even for a minute. Everyone seemed to have a dozen tasks, with only enough time to accomplish half of them. Jin had often been run ragged, with barely enough time to eat or sleep.

  Given the choice between that and this forced idleness, she would take being run ragged any day.

  The most frustrating part was that she really shouldn’t be in this situation. By every stretch of military logic, she should have been freed from the torture long ago. There was no reason why Reivaro’s watchers should still be lurking outside her door, peering through the waterfall at Sedgley as he sat yet again on his stool for another day’s worth of fishing. Nothing had happened here in the past two days, not since the daredevil climbers had gone up the edge of the waterfall, giving Lorne the chance to slip out. Since then, no one had approached Sedgley, not even any more of the Marines who had arrived that first day to question and otherwise harass the man. Surely even Reivaro could see that it was a waste of effort to keep two of his troops out here when they could instead be terrorizing the citizens of Archway or something.

  Especially given how boring a subject Sedgley really was. Once he settled down with his line in the water and his rear on his stool, he usually stayed pretty well put, recasting his line now and then but otherwise hardly moving.

  The edges of the shadowy figures on the ledge also seldom moved, Jin had also noted. It was like some sort of bizarre long-distance staring contest.

  All of which simply added to Jin’s own boredom. Motionless Sedgley; motionless Marines; nearly motionless landscape. In fact, aside from the river itself, the only thing out there that was moving was a car coming down the narrow road that paralleled the river.

  Jin frowned. Not an aircar, but an ordinary ground vehicle, the kind the majority of Aventine’s citizens owned.

  Yet every time the Dominion had dropped by for a visit, the Marines had invariably arrived in an aircar.

  Her first thought was that it was someone from one of the large farms or ranches to the northwest who for one reason or another didn’t want to use the main road a few kilometers east. But the driver didn’t seem to be in any real hurry to get wherever he was going.

  And then, as the vehicle came alongside Sedgley, it coasted to a halt. There was another short pause, and a man stepped out. He walked over to Sedgley, who seemed to be ignoring him completely, and seemed to begin talking.

  Jin frowned a little harder, wishing for the hundredth time the fiber optics could give better definition. The newcomer’s face was still maddeningly vague, but there was something strangely familiar about him. Something about his height and hair color and the way he walked. His jacket, too, seemed like something she’d seen before.

  And then, abruptly, it all clicked together.

  That was Uncle Corwin out there.

  Jin’s first, horrified reaction was to wonder why in the Worlds he had come here to the cave. Her second, equally horrified reaction was to realize that his presence here was practically inevitable. Lorne had sent Matavuli to talk to him, and Matavuli would naturally have told him where his niece and her son had gone to ground. Assuming Lorne had been able to contact Matavuli when he escaped from the cave two days ago, he would certainly have warned the rancher about the Dominion watchers. But there would have been no reason for Corwin to check in with Matavuli before he himself left Capitalia.

  In fact, with the Dominion in position to monitor all of the province’s communications, there was every reason for the two of them not to try to make contact.

  Matavuli might have tried to send people to watch the roads for Corwin’s approach. But the group would have had to be small—the more people who knew Corwin was coming, the bigger the chance that the news would leak. Besides which, given the direction Corwin had approached from, it looked like he’d deliberately avoided getting anywhere near Matavuli’s ranch. Again, the kind of caution that under normal circumstances would have been perfectly reasonable.

  And Jin now had a decision to make.

  Up to now, she’d been working under the hope that the Dominion only suspected that she and Lorne were based somewhere in the neighborhood. Once the watchers behind the waterfall tagged Corwin, that hope would be gone.

  And once Reivaro knew for certain that there was a base here, he would surely bring in whatever troops and resources he needed to find the cave.

  Jin couldn’t let that happen. The cave was the one secure place they had, the best rallying point she and Lorne could ever have for organizing serious opposition against the Dominion’s aggression.

  And the only one who had any chance at all of stopping that was Jin herself.

  It might already be too late, she knew as she sprinted toward the rear of the cave. The watchers might already have identified Corwin, and if they had they might already have called in that information. Still, there was a fair chance the watchers wouldn’t want to put sensitive news like that on radios or comms, even if they were pretty sure none of the Aventinians could tap into such transmissions. They might at least wait until after the two men by the river finished their chat and Corwin was on the move again.

  The rest of the grenades Lorne had built were still lined up on the work table. Scooping up two of the concussion types, Jin returned to the front of the cave. Corwin and Sedgley were still where she’d left them, with Sedgley still squatting on his stool and Corwin still standing behind him, both of them gazing out at the river.

  She stepped to the door plug, tucked the grenades under her arms and got a grip on the handholds. The two watchers were still more or less flanking the display, which put them about five meters to the left of the cave entrance. For a second she considered trying to target-lock them via the display, decided that the round-the-corner toss she would need to pull off would probably overstrain the nanocomputer’s extrapolation ability. This one she would have to do entirely on her own.

  She pulled out the plug, working hard to minimize any stone-on-stone grating, and set it aside. Getting the grenades in hand, she armed them, counted down four of the five-second timers—

  Leaning out into the swirling mist behind the waterfall, she lobbed the grenades toward the watchers and ducked back inside.

  The blasts were loud. Much louder than she’d expected, especially given the mass of stone between her and them. She waited five seconds, then slipped through the opening and sidled carefully along the ledge. If the watchers were wearing Dominion combat suits, they might be at least partially conscious, and she needed to be ready for any trouble they might still be able to create.

  To her relief, the grenades seemed to have done their job. As Jin came around the bend in the rock she saw both Marines slumped motionless at the ends of tether lines disappearing up into the rushing water. Their heads were still mostly upright, which worried her until she realized that it was probably the neck pieces of their helmets that was keeping their heads from sagging. Rather like abandoned marionettes, she thought as she edged toward them. The blast from the grenades had left only minor marks on their combat suits, which eased her fear that Lorne might have been overenthusiastic in the amount of explosive he’d used when building the weapons.

  Of course, now came the task of figuring out what to do with her new prisoners. Matavuli might know somewhere she might be able to stash them—from what Lorne had said the rancher knew everything about this part of the province. She would have to find a way to get a message to him.

  But first she would have to figure out a way to keep the Marines unconscious until they could be more permanently tuck
ed away. Unfortunately, her generation of Cobra gear hadn’t included Lorne’s and Merrick’s stunners, which meant she would probably have to go with some sort of drug-based sedation.

  Still no movement. She moved closer to the hanging men and peered through their helmet faceplates.

  And felt her breath freeze in her throat.

  Not like abandoned marionettes, as she’d thought a moment ago. Not like at all.

  They were marionettes.

  The two Dominion Marines who had kept her trapped in that damn cave for three days straight were nothing more than dummies.

  She was staring at the blank manikin faces when a motion through the water caught the edge of her eye. She spun around, bringing up her hands into laser-firing position.

  But it was only Sedgley’s aircar, hovering outside the falls at her level. Through the water-misted windshield she could see Sedgley and Corwin gazing tensely at her.

  She swallowed a useless curse. What could she tell them?

  But she had to tell them something, and fast. There might still be a chance of salvaging something from this, but the window of opportunity was already closing. Motioning them back to the river bank, she made her way along the ledge to the edge of the waterfall.

  The climbers two days ago had taken over an hour to work their way up the cliff and nearly that long to get back down again. Jin, with Cobra servos and strengthened bones, did it in four quick jumps.

  Sedgley and Corwin were standing outside the aircar when she joined them. “What the hell was that?” Sedgley growled, jabbing a finger up at the waterfall. “Is that what you Cobras call keeping a low profile?”

  “Are you hurt?” Corwin added before she could answer.

  “No, I’m not hurt,” Jin said. “And it’s called exigent circumstances,” she added to Sedgley. “I saw Uncle Corwin arrive, and knew that if the Dominion spotted him they’d jump to exactly the right conclusion.”

  “So you popped a couple of grenades up their rears,” Sedgley bit out. “Right. It’s not like they haven’t figured it out now or anything.”

  “Oh, they’ve figured it out, all right,” Jin told him grimly. “Those watchers up there aren’t watching anything. They’re nothing but dummies.”

  The two men’s eyes widened in unison. “They’re what?” Sedgley demanded.

  “You heard me,” Jin said. “Which means Reivaro has known about the cave all along. Or at least long enough.”

  “You mean you let them just dangle a couple of bags of—” Sedgley swallowed the word. “And you never figured it out until now?”

  “They were probably real at the start,” Corwin said, his eyes steady on Jin. “A couple of Marines dropped in, moved around enough to be convincing, and then somewhere along the line were swapped out for the replicas.”

  “So they know about the cave,” Sedgley said bitterly. “And they know about you and your son. And they know about me. Terrific. So basically they know everything.”

  “Except maybe that we know that they know,” Jin said. “And they may not know about—” She raised her eyebrows at Corwin, got the faintest hint of a confirming nod in return.

  “Know what?” Sedgley asked, looking back and forth between them. “No, never mind. I probably don’t want to know. So what now?”

  Jin stared up at the waterfall. The Dominion had known about the cave. Not surprising, in retrospect, given the advanced sensor technology they undoubtedly had to work with.

  Which meant that their strategy hadn’t been to track and capture the fugitive Cobras as she and Lorne had thought. It had been merely to pin them down and keep them neutralized.

  Only they weren’t neutralized. She was out, and Lorne was out.

  Reivaro would know she was out soon enough. The big question was, did he also know Lorne had gotten clear? “Do you know if Lorne made it to Archway?” she asked Sedgley.

  The other snorted. “Oh, he made it, all right. Dropped out of a Marine aircar onto one of the buildings and disappeared. The Marines spent the rest of the day looking for him.”

  “But they didn’t find him?”

  “Not as far as I know. Of course,” he added, “they don’t exactly consult with us on things like that.”

  “I don’t suppose they do,” Jin agreed. “Okay, then. If Lorne’s in Archway, I should be there, too.”

  “Yeah, good luck with that,” Sedgley said. “Reivaro’s got the place pretty solidly locked down.”

  “Lorne got in,” Jin pointed out. “I can, too.”

  “How?” Corwin asked.

  “My problem, not yours,” Jin said. “Your job—” she jabbed a finger at Corwin “—is to go to Smith’s Forge and meet a Cobra named Kicker at a place called Whistling Waller’s.” She shifted the pointing finger to Sedgley. “And you—”

  “Whoa, whoa,” Corwin protested. “Slow down. Matavuli just said for me to deliver the item to you and you’d send it down the line.”

  “I know,” Jin said. “But you’re going to have to do that for me. Whatever Lorne’s got planned, he can’t do it alone. I need to get in there and help him.”

  “But I don’t even know where this Whistling Waller’s place is.”

  “I do,” Sedgley said. He hissed out an exasperated sigh. “Hell. I suppose I can’t get in any deeper with Reivaro than I already am. I’ll take you there. Unless you had something else in mind?” he added to Jin.

  “No, actually, I was going to suggest you show him the way.” Jin gestured to Corwin. “And you’d better make it the whole package, too, not just the samples. We’re going to have to move faster than I thought. I presume you have the whole package?”

  “It’s available, but it’ll take a few hours to get it.” Corwin looked at Sedgley. “Will that be a problem?”

  “Not sure what you’d do about it if it was,” Sedgley said sourly. “Doesn’t matter—I think Pierce is on edge patrol until about six tomorrow evening anyway. Give him an hour to finish his reports and get changed, and he should be available around seven. We’ll hang out somewhere safe and hit Whistling Waller’s then.”

  “You have a place that qualifies as safe?” Corwin asked.

  “I know a couple of spots,” Sedgley said. “Question is, whose car do we take?”

  “You’ll take Uncle Corwin’s,” Jin said. “I’ll take yours, if you don’t mind. You’ve been going back and forth from Archway for a couple of days now—if they’re scanning tags but not bothering to look too closely inside the vehicles they’ve already checked out, I may be able to slip in before they realize you’re not the one driving.”

  “Don’t know as I’d bank on that,” Sedgley said doubtfully. “But I guess that’s as good a place to start as any.”

  “Just be ready to run,” Corwin warned. His mouth tightened. “Note I didn’t say be ready to fight.”

  “Don’t worry, I know what I’m up against,” Jin assured him grimly.

  “Okay.” Corwin nodded toward the cave. “Do you need to get anything before you go?”

  Jin felt her jaw tighten. Yes, there were things up there she could use. Lots of things. Changes of clothing, emergency rations, maybe a few more grenades.

  But if the Dominion was on to her…

  “Yes, but no,” she told him. “It would be embarrassing to get caught with my arms full of supplies. Let’s just go.”

  “Okay.” Corwin stepped close for a quick hug. “Be careful,” he murmured into her hair.

  “You, too,” she murmured back.

  Ninety seconds later she was in the air, heading toward Archway. The days she’d seen Sedgley fly in he’d always seemed to travel at a leisurely pace, the speed of a man who wasn’t in a hurry and knew the fish would be there whenever he arrived. She tried to match that style, knowing full well that it probably wouldn’t help her much.

  Still, if there was one thing she’d learned from fighting the Trofts on Qasama, it was that the side with the superior firepower and intel often fell into the self-built trap of cas
ual complacency. If Reivaro thought he was fully on top of things, she and Lorne might still have a chance of surprising him.

  And if Sedgley was secretly working for Reivaro? Well, she had that one covered, too.

  Because despite what she’d just told them, she had no intention of going anywhere near Archway. That was Reivaro’s stronghold, and as such was probably the best-protected place in the province. If Lorne had really penetrated it without Reivaro catching him, it had almost certainly been a fluke of cleverness and surprise, and it was unlikely that Jin would find a way to duplicate that success.

  It tore at her heart to leave her son all alone in enemy territory. But the cold battle logic she’d learned under fire on Qasama told her that for now the most important goal was to make sure Corwin succeeded in his own mission.

  So instead of going Archway, she would go to ground for the night and then, tomorrow, would head to Smith’s Forge. Not to Whistling Waller’s, of course—there was every chance that, having learned the secret of the Braided Falls cave, Reivaro even now was tracking her or otherwise had her under surveillance.

  But she could get close to Waller’s. Somewhere else in town, somewhere far enough away to divert Dominion attention from the bar but close enough that she could get there to help if Sedgley betrayed them.

  And while she did all that, she could only hope that Lorne was still alive and free. And that he wasn’t about to do anything that would change that status.

  #

  It was strange, Lorne thought as he ambled down the Archway street, not having a chin.

  Not that the chin was gone, of course. Far from it. As far as the outside world was concerned, in fact, he actually had more chin than ever. More chin, a bit more nose, a little extra dangle on his earlobes, and noticeably wider cheeks.

  But the fact that he couldn’t feel the breeze on his real chin, nose, or earlobes made it feel like they weren’t there.

  All of it courtesy of James Hobwell’s chief make-up artist, Jennie Sider, and the magic of modern cinematic prosthetics.

  Oddly enough, after doing all that work on his face, Jennie had completely skipped over the chance to make any changes to his hair color. Lorne’s assumption, after years of watching dramas and thrillers, was that the first thing any fugitive did was dye his or her hair, usually making it darker but occasionally going full blond. He’d mentioned that to Jennie, who had quite reasonably pointed out that facial-recognition programs like the ones Reivaro’s Marines were probably using wouldn’t pay even passing attention to hair color.

 
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