Cobra outlaw earc, p.28
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.28

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “Maybe you just saw what you wanted to see.” There was a sound from above her, and Jin looked up to see one of the aircars that had been pursuing her float lazily over the hole she’d made.

  And with her eyes turned upward, she put a quick targeting lock on the centers of each of the four stress-bowed pillars holding up the roof.

  “No, I don’t think so,” the sergeant said. “I think you knew we were on to you. I also think that the real reason you’re here is to be a diversion.”

  Jin’s heart froze. If they’d already taken Corwin and Kicker—

  “Really was a waste of time,” the sergeant continued. “We’ve got more than enough men to keep an eye on you and your son.”

  The hard band that had wrapped around Jin’s chest eased a little. Did that mean they weren’t on to Corwin and Kicker? “I wouldn’t underestimate Lorne if I were you,” she said, her eyes dropping from the Marine’s faceplate to the deadly epaulets on his shoulders. The little computers operating those lasers were supposed to only go automatic when they sensed an imminent attack. Theoretically, what she was about to do didn’t fit that algorithm.

  But the Marines could also trigger the lasers manually. The crucial question was whether she could make her move before they had time to react.

  There was, unfortunately, only one way to find out.

  “I wouldn’t underestimate us if I were you,” the sergeant retorted. “You little dirtwater worlds are all alike—”

  Spinning around, Jin turned her back on them and took two quick steps, as if she was trying to make a run for it. On the third step, she threw herself forward at the floor, twisting around in midair to land on her back, her arms and legs flailing as if she’d tripped over something and the fall was an accident.

  And as her legs swung upward, moving far out of line with any of the Marines and their counterattack sensors, she triggered her antiarmor laser.

  Her nanocomputer took over, lining up her left leg on one of the pillars, firing a bolt into the sagging material, then shifting to the next, firing, and shifting to the next, the whole procedure taking barely half a second. With a multiple splintering snap the pillars shattered and the air filled with a grinding roar as the roof disintegrated and tumbled toward the humans gathered below.

  The Marines were caught flat-footed, with nowhere to go and nothing they could do except drop into low crouches and brace themselves against the avalanche of debris tumbling toward them. Jin, with no helmet or combat suit, couldn’t afford to ride it out.

  But lying flat on the floor, she had an option the Marines didn’t. Quickly bending her left knee upwards, pulling the foot close in toward her body, she fired one final laser shot straight down into the floor, blasting a hole through the tile and wood. Then, bracing her heel on the edge of the hole, she threw power to her servos and convulsively straightened out the knee, sending herself sliding on her back toward the wall behind her.

  It almost worked. The wall she had aimed at remained standing, at least at the bottom, and she only bumped her head a little as she slammed into it. But the roof was in worse shape than she’d thought, and when it went, it all went. Even as she skidded to a tooth-jarring halt at the wall a broken section of roof support beam slammed down on her amid a choking cloud of splinters and dust.

  Fortunately, the beam landed across her legs, where they could bruise her skin but not threaten any vital organs. Squeezing her eyes shut against the dust, she keyed her opticals, using the enhanced vision to guide her fingertip lasers as she sliced the beam into manageable pieces. Pushing the last piece away, she started to struggle upward—

  And jerked in surprise as a pair of hands grabbed her upper arms and hauled her the rest of the way to her feet. “You all right?” a voice wheezed in her ear.

  With a supreme effort Jin stifled the reflexive twist-spin-and-fire maneuver she’d been about to execute. The Dominion wouldn’t bother to ask how she was. “I’m fine,” she said, starting a more reasonable turn. The gripping hands released her, and she finished the turn to find herself looking at an unshaven young man, the red ring of one of the Dominion’s so-called insignia neckbands peeking out from his collar. “Are you all right?” she asked, frowning at his pinched face.

  “It’s just the dust,” he said. “Nice move, by the way.”

  “Thanks,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. Through the mass of swirling dust the five Marines were barely visible, lying unmoving amid the debris. They looked dead, but a quick shift to infrared confirmed they were still giving off normal human heat signatures.

  “Don’t worry, they should be okay,” the Cobra assured her darkly. “Not that they deserve it. Not after what they did at Archway.”

  “Were you there?” Jin asked, turning back to him. “Did you see what happened?”

  “No, but I heard all about it afterward.”

  “So did I,” Jin said. “My point is that neither of us knows whether or not any of these Marines were involved. If they weren’t, they don’t deserve to die.” She gave a little shrug. “Maybe the ones who were involved don’t, either. That’s for a court to decide.”

  “If we ever get them that far.”

  “We will,” Jin said. “And when we do, we need to make sure we’re the ones holding the high moral ground. That means that keeping killing to a minimum.”

  “Yeah, you tell them that,” the Cobra growled, his eyes flashing hatred toward the unconscious Marines. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

  He turned and headed down the street at a brisk walk. The pedestrians and cars, Jin noted as she hurried to catch up, had magically vanished from the area. “My aircar’s the other direction,” she told him.

  “You mean the aircar they already know about?” the Cobra said pointedly. “Lucky for you, we’ve got another one set up. Brand new—well, brand-new used, anyway—registered to a local woman who looks a lot like you. I’ll take you to it, and then you get the hell out of town. In here.”

  He turned and walked into an open shop door. Jin glanced back at the demolished building as she followed, catching a glimpse of the three Dominion aircars burning belatedly back toward the scene. Apparently, whoever was in charge of air support and the herding of the rogue Cobra Jasmine Moreau had decided his job was finished and headed for home.

  His meeting with Colonel Reivaro later tonight, she guessed, would not be a pleasant one.

  The car they’d gotten her was an older model, without any bells or whistles, and looked like it was on its last legs. But the engine ran smoothly, the interior was clean, and the face on the registration tag did indeed look like a slightly older version of Jin herself.

  Perfect.

  “You got somewhere to go?” her guide asked as he opened the garage door for her. “Not that I want to know,” he added hastily. “The less I know the better.”

  “I’ve got a couple of options,” Jin assured him. “Thanks again.”

  “No problem.” He fixed her with a stern look. “You just watch yourself, okay? You and your son are sort of like heroes to everyone out here. Reivaro’s going to want to slap you down and fast.”

  “I’ll be careful,” Jin said. “And don’t worry. If this works out like we’re hoping, the Dominion will soon have a lot more headaches than just Lorne and me.”

  The Cobra grunted. “We can hope. Good luck.”

  A minute later Jin was driving down the streets of Smith’s Forge, blending in with the rest of the town’s vehicular traffic. Ten minutes after that, she had passed through one of the gates in the outer fence and was on the main road to Archway.

  Yes, there were several options in front of her. But there was only one that she wanted to take.

  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the one she knew she had to take.

  Archway was where her son was, and where he was in danger. She desperately wanted to go to him, to offer her help with whatever scheme he had planned.

  But the minute she set foot there the Dominion would be on to
her. Probably even before she arrived—Reivaro was surely smart enough to know that his center of power was her most likely destination and have his men waiting.

  And even if she somehow managed to find Lorne without bringing the Marines down on him, how much could she realistically help? Her whole body was aching from the workout she’d just put it through, and with her arthritis and anemia it would take more than a few hours for the pain and weakness to go away. About all she could do for Lorne was to get in his way and slow him down.

  So Archway was out. Lorne was out.

  But there was one other place she might try. A place where Reivaro might not expect her to go. The place where this whole thing had started.

  Capitalia.

  That was where Commodore Santores came when he wanted to meet with Chintawa and the rest of the Cobra Worlds leaders. That was where new Dominion edicts and orders were distributed from.

  And that was where Paul would be brought if and when Santores and the MindsEye were finished with him. When that happened, Jin intended to be waiting for him.

  And he’d better be alive and well. Because if he wasn’t, they would be sorry. Very sorry.

  #

  The Dorian’s injured had been transported down to Qasama, along with the cadre of medics and support staff Dr. Lancaster had sent to assist, and against all reasonable odds every one of the casualties had survived the transfer. The Qasaman doctors and surgeons had begun their work, and Omnathi had contacted Barrington to say that he’d been assured that none of the injuries were beyond their skill. Barrington had thanked him and, three hours after the official end of his watch, he’d finally turned CoNCH over to Filho and retired to his cabin for some long overdue sleep.

  He’d sent his aide, Lieutenant Cottros Meekan, to get a sandwich from the officers’ mess when a specially flagged preliminary report came in.

  Five minutes later, Barrington was back in CoNCH.

  “We didn’t spot it right away,” Filho said, gesturing to the sensor records he’d pulled up. “It was only when we got down to a detailed analysis that I noticed it. Even then, as you can see, our first orbital pass wasn’t quite on the right angle to get a good view.”

  “We get anything on subsequent passes?” Barrington asked.

  “No, sir,” Filho said, bringing up another image alongside the first. “By the time we came back around, it was completely concealed. But that one picture, plus the neutrino emission profile, gives us an eighty-five-percent probability that that is indeed the Squire.”

  Barrington felt his hands curl into fists at his sides. The Squire. One of the Algonquin’s courier ships, the one Santores had sent to Caelian to bring back Governor Uy.

  And which, according to the reports the Hermes had brought to him from Aventine, was overdue on its return. At the time the Hermes headed out to return to the Dorian, in fact, no one knew what was causing the delay.

  Apparently, the delay was being caused by the Squire no longer being in Cobra Worlds space.

  Only how in the name of hell was it here?

  Barrington’s original multi-band broadcast to Qasama on the Dorian’s arrival had hit all the Dominion’s usual frequencies. If Lieutenant Commander Tamu was alive, well, and in command of his ship he should have heard the hail and responded.

  But the other likely scenario—that the Squire had somehow been captured—was absurd. How could anyone on Caelian, with even fewer weapon and resources to draw on than the central government on Aventine, have taken down a Dominion of Man courier ship? Subterfuge? Incompetence? Treachery?

  Treason?

  “I had to put it on the data stream,” Filho said into Barrington’s thoughts. “But I figured no one would really notice it for a least a few more hours.”

  Barrington nodded. Which was why the weapons officer had flagged it for his captain and not for any of the other officers. He’d wanted to give Barrington some time to draw his conclusions and come up with proposed responses before Castenello got hold of the news.

  It was a nice and slightly improper gesture. Only in this case, it was probably wasted.

  Because Barrington hadn’t the foggiest idea what to do.

  Had the Squire come here willingly? In that case, why hadn’t Tamu signaled him when the Dorian first arrived? Had the courier been brought here against Tamu’s will? Seizing a Dominion ship was technically an act of war, and Barrington had no doubt that Castenello would see it precisely that way and demand that a military response be launched.

  Only what action could Barrington bring with over a hundred of his men currently in Qasaman hands? Even if the Qasamans themselves were too civilized to make war on injured men, the very fact that the men were on the ground made them effectively enemy hostages.

  “Captain?”

  Barrington turned around. Meekan was standing a few paces behind him, the sandwich container Barrington had sent him for hanging loosely and probably forgotten in his hand. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

  “My apologies for the impertinence, sir,” Meekan said, his eyes on the images. “I was just wondering if the Squire might have run into the same sort of trouble we did on the way here. In that case, perhaps there was no response from Commander Tamu or his men because they’re also undergoing medical treatment.”

  “Then why didn’t Omnathi tell us that when we first contacted him?” Filho countered.

  “Possibly because I never asked,” Barrington said, stroking a finger absently across his lip. The Squire couldn’t have hit the same net the Hermes had, not starting from Caelian. But there was no reason their attackers couldn’t have set up a second net on that vector. If the net had included only spider ships and no main-line warships, the courier could conceivably have emerged from the encounter damaged but able to make it to Qasama. If Commander Tamu had obtained the coordinates from Uy or someone else on Caelian, he might well have opted to keep going rather than turn back to Aventine.

  In which case, what Filho had spotted down there might have been merely the Qasamans in the process of putting the Squire in repair dock, with no deliberate attempt to hide the courier from the Dorian’s view.

  It was possible. It was also damned unlikely.

  But again, even if the Qasamans were pulling a fast one, and he could prove it, what were his options?

  “We need more information,” he said, tapping briefly into the data stream and confirming that Filho had only uploaded the raw data of the neutrino emissions, not the suggestion that the source of the neutrino emissions might be a Dominion spacecraft. “I want full scans of the planet, concentrating on the area where these emissions are coming from. Until we have at least a ninety-percent ID, you’re to hold off on any conclusions as to the nature of the source.”

  “Understood, sir,” Filho said, a bit uncertainly. “Let me remind the captain that it wouldn’t take much effort for anyone else to reach the same conclusion I did.”

  “But only if they notice it,” Barrington pointed out. “With all the other Qasaman information in the data stream, there’s a good chance no one will, at least for a few more days.” He shrugged. “If they do, I’ll deal with it then.”

  “Yes, sir,” Filho said, clearly still not happy. Still, the man had been in the service long enough to know how this sort of thing worked. Maybe he was merely surprised at the fact that Barrington, who usually shunned such games, had suddenly decided to set foot in that arena. “One other thing, sir. I’ve been looking at some of the weapons-lock data from the last engagement, and something odd caught my eye. None of the enemy vessels, neither the spiders nor the bigger warships, had any identification markings.”

  Barrington frowned. “That has to be wrong,” he said. “Troft ships always carry ID markings.”

  “I know,” Filho said. “But these didn’t.”

  Barrington looked across at the main display. Troft warships had displayed IDs in every battle the Dominion had fought against them. Troft merchant ships displayed IDs; some of them proudly, others grudgingly, but
they always had them. Even Troft ships on missions that could be politically embarrassing or inflammatory—such as the attack against Commander Ukuthi at the Hoibie home world—displayed IDs.

  Only these hadn’t.

  Why hadn’t they?

  “I’m thinking maybe this is the secret Commander Castenello is sitting on,” Filho continued. “His claim that we learned nothing more by entering the battle than we would have if we’d kept our distance.”

  “Very likely,” Barrington agreed. “What Castenello perhaps fails to realize is that sometimes the lack of information is as valuable as any actual information could have been. Regardless, this is an intriguing development.”

  “Agreed, sir,” Filho said. “Any orders?”

  “Keep at it,” Barrington said. “See what else you can glean.” He turned to Meekan. “And while he’s trawling for data,” he added, “I want you, Lieutenant, to go down to Qasama with the next medical supply transport. Commander Kusari is sedated and undergoing surgery right now, but as soon as wakes up I want you there to have him look at this neutrino profile. He should be able to tell us if the profile shows engine damage and, if so, what kind of damage it might be.”

  “Yes, sir,” Meekan said, his eyes flicking to Filho. “Ah…there are other men aboard who could tell you that, sir.”

  “A few, yes,” Barrington agreed. “But Kusari came up through the ranks on courier-size engines. There are only two or three others aboard with his same level of experience.”

  A brief, almost imperceptible glance of understanding flickered between Filho and Meekan. Others might know as much as Kusari, but they were all lower-ranking and couldn’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut. “Understood, Captain,” Meekan said. Unlike Filho, there was no uncertainty in his voice. “With your permission, I’ll return to my quarters and get a shore kit.” He looked down at his hand, as if suddenly noticing the sandwich. “Shall I leave your sandwich in your cabin?”

  “No, I’ll take it now,” Barrington said, looking back at the display. “I think I’ll stay here a little longer.”

 
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