Cobra outlaw earc, p.27
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.27

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Holding his breath, Barrington began to count out the five seconds. From across CoNCH, he could feel Castenello’s eyes on him. If Omnathi refused…

  “Your request is not a light one,” Omnathi said. “We do not accept strangers easily on Qasama. Nor do we offer resources which are in short supply and desperately needed by our own people.”

  Barrington sent a hooded look at Castenello. The Tactical Officer had predicted this answer, and had strongly suggested that the next step up the ladder would be to threaten the Qasamans with the Dorian’s massive firepower.

  Which Barrington had no intention of doing. Aside from everything else, threatening a people who’d just thrown off a massive Troft occupation force was just plain ludicrous.

  “But your name intrigues me,” Omnathi continued. “Tell me, are you related to Jasmine Moreau, known to many as Jin?”

  Barrington blinked. And yet, in retrospect, he should have expected this. Commodore Santores had once commented on how often the Moreaus had somehow found themselves at the flashpoint of significant historical events, and nowhere had that been more true than on Qasama. “Yes, I am,” he told Omnathi. “My grandfather was brother to Jasmine Moreau’s grandfather.”

  “Indeed,” Omnathi said. “In that event, Captain Moreau, we would consider it an honor to treat your wounded.”

  “Thank you,” Barrington said, relief washing through him. “I offer my personal thanks, as well as the gratitude of the Dominion of Man.”

  “As I say, it will be an honor,” Omnathi said. “I will alert my Surgical Master. I trust he may contact your subordinates on this frequency to work out the details?”

  “Of course,” Barrington said, motioning to Garrett. “Chief Medical Officer will await your Surgical Master’s call.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Garrett nod and begin speaking softly on the comm. “Once again, I offer my deepest gratitude.”

  “Your gratitude has already been accepted,” Omnathi said, a bit dryly. “There is no need to add more, certainly not until the requested healing has taken place. Understand that I cannot promise any such healing will be successful until we’ve examined the patients.”

  “Of course,” Barrington assured him. “As I said, these are cases where our own methods have proved inadequate. Where you are unable to save a life, that life was already forfeit.”

  “We will do all in our power for those lives,” Omnathi said. “I must go now, Captain, and see to the necessary preparations. I look forward to speaking further with you in the near future.”

  “As do I,” Barrington said. “Until then, farewell.” He keyed off. “Commander?” he asked.

  “Doctor Lancaster has begun prepping the patients,” Garrett reported. “They should be ready for transport by the time we reach orbit. He’s also tied into the frequency Shahni Omnathi was using and will be ready to talk to the Qasamans whenever they get their liaison in place.”

  “Good.” Barrington checked the time. Over an hour yet to orbit.

  Still, he’d gotten the injured men this far. It would be the height of unfairness on the part of the universe to allow them to survive all this way only to die on the trip down in a landing shuttle.

  No, they’d make it all right. They’d arrive safely, and the Qasamans would heal them.

  And the Dominion would express its gratitude by setting up their world for destruction.

  “Begin prep on the landing shuttles,” he ordered. “I want them ready to fly, with the injured aboard, the minute we make orbit.”

  He looked over at Castenello, gazing at the man’s stiff back. “And begin prepping the Iris for flight,” he added. “Commodore Santores will want to know that we’ve located Qasama.”

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  Corwin had assumed Whistling Waller’s would be something quiet and dignified. A genteel sort of bar or lounge, like those he’d visited way too often during his time as a Governor in Capitalia.

  It wasn’t. The place, to put it crudely, was a dive.

  The wooden bar was chipped and stained. The table Sedgley had insisted on steering them to was equally battered and badly in need of another coat of paint. The clientele was about as distant from the well-dressed policy-makers in the Capitalia bars as it was possible to get: rough, loud men and women who had put in a hard day’s work and were determined to get as much enjoyment out of their limited time and money as they could.

  Still, having slept overnight in his clothes and skipped his morning’s shave—Sedgley’s suggestion on that one—Corwin had to admit that he fit right in.

  Maybe that was the point. Maybe Lorne and Matavuli had anticipated the inevitable scruffiness associated in being on the run, and had chosen Waller’s to match. Or maybe the point was that the Dominion would assume members of the Moreau and Broom families would be above places like this, and not bother to watch them.

  Corwin hoped that one of those, at least, was indeed the point.

  Sedgley had gone to the bar to get their third round of beers—the mugs were as stained as the furniture, and the beer was obviously an acquired taste—when Corwin heard a soft voice from behind him. “Don’t turn around.”

  Corwin started to jerk, moved quickly to throttle the reaction, and got away with just a small twitch. “Kicker?” he murmured.

  “Yes,” the voice murmured back. “You have the stuff?”

  “It’s a suitcase in the trunk of my car. License number—”

  “I know which one it is,” Kicker interrupted. “We saw you come in. Is Jasmine Broom with you?”

  Corwin shook his head fractionally. “No, she went to Archway to help Lorne.”

  There was a short silence. “Did she, now,” Kicker said. “Interesting.”

  Corwin frowned. “Why is that interesting?”

  “Never mind,” Kicker said. “Any trick to getting the things in place?”

  “I don’t know,” Corwin said, his mind still on his niece. Did Kicker know something about Jin that he didn’t? “Each one comes in two pieces that fit together underneath—”

  “Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Kicker interrupted again. “Sit tight—we’ll get the stuff and go. Your car got a code or a clicker?”

  “Both,” Corwin said, thinking fast. Talking quietly with the man at the next table wasn’t likely to draw unwanted attention. Handing over the clicker for a car, though, definitely would. “The code will probably be easier—six-one-one-five-eight-three. You want me to come with you and give it a test?”

  “No, we got it,” Kicker said.

  “You sure?” Corwin persisted. “I only had a description to work from, and—”

  He broke off as a muffled and distant crashing sound momentarily silenced all conversation in the bar. “What was that?” he asked.

  There was no answer. He hesitated, then turned around to see why Kicker had gone quiet.

  The table behind him was unoccupied. Kicker wasn’t there.

  What was there, all the way across the room by the door, was a curved panel set in the wall.

  Corwin turned back around…and only now did he finally notice the similar panel behind the bar in line with the table Sedgley had chosen for them.

  A cleverly disguised parabolic sound reflector.

  Whistling Waller’s wasn’t just a name. It was, in fact, a description.

  He started as Sedgley came up from the side and set his mug on the table in front of him. “You two have a good chat?” he asked.

  “I assume so,” Corwin said. “It was over pretty fast. Any idea what that noise was a minute ago?”

  Sedgley grunted as he took a swallow. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice muffled by the mug. “But odds are it was your niece.”

  #

  Jin arrived at Smith’s Forge just after six, an hour before Sedgley had estimated that he, Corwin, and Kicker Pierce would be able to rendezvous at the bar. She would have preferred getting there earlier, but wasn’t sure she could wander around aimlessly longer than that without drawing attention
.

  As it turned out, even a single hour of anonymity proved to be overoptimistic. She had barely parked the aircar and entered one of the shopping areas when she became aware that she was being watched.

  Though not aggressively so, or even very obviously. The watchers—there always seemed to be two at a time—never got in her way, never got in her face, never even approached her. They were just there, hovering at the edge of her vision, trying to stay just beyond the corner of her eye. More than once the only time she was able to spot them at all was by using her vision enhancements on window reflections to give her a glimpse of who was behind her.

  She puzzled at it for the first few minutes, wondering why they didn’t just move in on her. They were in civilian clothing, so her first thought was that perhaps they were Dominion Marines trying to fit in among the locals. Her second thought was more sobering: that they were instead regular civilians whom Reivaro had persuaded to spy for him. Either way, they could be keeping their distance simply because no one who wasn’t wearing a Marine combat suit wanted to tangle with a Cobra.

  They were ten minutes into the silent game when she suddenly realized what they were really up to.

  They already had her pegged. What they wanted was a list of her allies, either people she’d come to Smith’s Forge to contact or people she was there to recruit. They wanted to know who else might be ready to fight back against Dominion martial law.

  And once she realized that, her response was obvious.

  She didn’t dare approach any of the actual citizens, of course—the Dominion would snatch them up and have them under interrogation within the hour. But what she could do was pretend to leave messages, make vague hand signals to unseen persons, or gaze out into space as if someone was sending signals to her.

  She spent the next three-quarters of an hour doing just that. For awhile it actually became almost fun, with her gazing into nowhere and watching the reflections of the watchers trying to figure out what she was looking at. She moved back and forth through the shopping district, going into many of the smaller stores to browse and joining the rest of the shoppers walking along the brightly-lit pedestrian alleyways. One of the buildings was of particular interest: an abandoned wooden structure at the edge of the main district that had probably been some kind of showroom, its windows fogged by dirt, its sagging roof supported by slender and stress-bowed interior columns. It was slated for demolition and replacement some time in the future—there was an official-looking notice on the door—but for the moment it looked like it would be the ideal spot for a clandestine meeting. Jin took full advantage of that impression, passing by the building three times and pausing to peer through various of its windows twice.

  The watchers were pretending not to recognize her, of course. What struck her as odd was that none of the ordinary citizens she passed seemed to recognize her, either. At first she put it down to her dirty and rumpled appearance, the result of spending the night wedged up in the branches of a tall tree outside town. But after a couple of wide-eyed children were abruptly shushed and redirected by their parents she realized that those who did recognize her were also pretending very hard that they didn’t.

  She hoped that was because they were on her side and were trying to keep her secret intact. More likely, though, they simply didn’t want to get involved with her, either for or against.

  She’d been playing slow-motion fox to the Dominion’s hounds for nearly an hour when the hounds finally made a move of their own.

  Her first hint was when she noticed that the set of watchers at the edge of her vision to her right had suddenly grown from two to four, with a similar grouping appearing off to her left. Unlike the previous shadows, these were dressed in bulkier outfits, with long coats and barrel-like chests.

  Which strongly implied that these new watchers weren’t just citizens or civilian-dressed Dominion folk. These were fully-armed, fully-armored Marines, and after watching her in vain for an hour they were ready to take her down.

  And so, mindful of the meeting between Kicker and Corwin that was hopefully going on across town, the meeting she’d come here to distract attention from, Jin jumped to the top of the nearest building, leaped across the street straight over the heads of the closest group of Marines, and headed off across the rooftops at a dead run.

  It was one thing to catch an opponent flat-footed. It was something quite different to catch him unprepared. Unfortunately, while the Dominion might be the first, it was definitely not the second. Jin had only made it to her second roof when three aircars blazed into view overhead, two of them dropping down to flank her at eye-level, the other swooping ahead in front of her with the apparent goal of forcing her to stop.

  Which she did, but only long enough to duck under the aircar to her left and angle off toward that edge of her current rooftop.

  She had jumped the street to the next building and had taken a few running steps across it by the time the aircars regrouped and caught up with her. This time, they crowded significantly closer and lower, nearly brushing her elbows and flying low enough that even a champion limbo dancer wouldn’t be able to get beneath them.

  So, naturally, this time she went up and over, choosing the one to her right, leaping over the vehicle in a pole-vaulter’s horizontal roll.

  The pilot was quick on the uptake, popping the aircar upward as she flew over him in an attempt to knock her off of her ballistic arc. But the vehicle’s inertia made the maneuver a shade too slow, and she escaped with just a slight nudge to her stomach. Again, she headed toward the edge of the roof; again, the aircars changed course and reformed their box around her.

  If they kept this up, she knew, sooner or later they would get her. The buildings in this part of town were all one- and two-story structures, low enough for the drivers and pedestrians below to watch the dramatic chase, too low for a proper wall-bounce maneuver. Of course, at this height a simple jump was all she needed to get her safely down to street level, but there was also no chance of her pursuers losing track of her in the process.

  Besides, the last thing she wanted to do was try to mix with the people below. If and when the Marines decided there was no longer any point in trying to take her alive, she didn’t want innocent civilians caught at the end of a laser barrage.

  Fortunately, she still had one move up her sleeve. Just across the street to her right was the abandoned showroom she’d already passed several times before. The one building in the area she knew that she could force the aircars into without damaging useful real estate or risking injury to anyone inside.

  The aircars were catching on to her tricks now, and it took some fancy footwork on Jin’s part to get away from them the crucial third time. But she made it, and a moment later she was headed straight for the showroom. As the aircars once again reformed, she leaned into her run, putting on a burst of speed that left her pursuers momentarily in her wake. She could hear them revving, adding speed of their own, as she reached the edge of the building and jumped.

  Only this time the plan wasn’t to simply land on the roof. As she reached the top of her arc, she swung her left leg in a tight circle in front of her, using her antiarmor laser to cut a hole in the dilapidated roofing material and the wood beneath it. She finished the hole just as her arc brought her to that spot, and as the plug fell away and dropped into the building she dropped in right behind it. Her nanocomputer took over, waggling her arms to readjust the position of her legs into landing position for the extra distance involved in a two-floor drop. She watched the floor coming up at her, her audios cocked for the sound of one or more of the pursuing aircars slamming into the showroom’s side.

  The hoped-for crash hadn’t come by the time she hit the floor. Her knees bent to take the impact, her feet bobbling slightly on some of the debris scattered across the floor before she finalized her balance. She straightened up, looking around.

  And froze. Facing her a dozen meters away was a semicircle of five combat-suited Marines.

&nbs
p; For a frozen moment no one moved. Jin’s eyes flicked across the blank faceplates, her mind as frozen as the tableau. How could they possibly have known she would be coming in here?

  The Marine in the center—a sergeant, she noted distantly—stirred. “You people are so stupid,” he said, his voice sounding mechanical and inhuman through his helmet’s speaker. “Did you really think we hadn’t noticed your interest in this place?”

  Jin took a deep breath. Stall, she reminded herself. Keep their focus here on me. “Of course you noticed,” she told him. “That was the whole idea.”

  “Really,” the sergeant said, and Jin could imagine a sardonic smile behind the faceplate. “You wanted us to anticipate you would come in here trying to escape?” Deliberately, he turned his head to either side, waving a hand that took in the entirety of the empty building. “Yes, I can see all the allies you had waiting for your counterattack.”

  “You’re right, I don’t have any allies in here,” Jin agreed. “But you should remember that, kilo for kilo, there are a lot more of us on Aventine than there are of you.”

  “Ah—frontier wit and wisdom,” the sergeant said. “Goes well on tombstones. Unfortunately for you, it’s not true. For all the show you made over the past hour of pretending to contact fellow malcontents, we have yet to see evidence that you actually talked or sent messages to anyone.”

 
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