Cobra outlaw earc, p.29
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.29

           Timothy Zahn
 

  He nodded toward the display. “I’m thinking that if the IDs were scraped off or painted over, there’s a chance we might be able to pull up at least a partial marking. Commander?”

  “Could be, sir,” Filho said. “Let’s give it a try.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  They could, Paul thought more than once during the journey, have at least given him the dignity of allowing him to walk.

  But Captain Lij Tulu was in a hurry, and Paul moved all too slowly these days. And in Lij Tulu’s defense, even Paul had to admit that the Dominion warships were big.

  And so he submitted to the indignity of being wheeled on a medical gurney from the Algonquin’s sickbay the lifts, to the hangar bay, into a landing shuttle, across to the Megalith’s bay, and onto a reverse course that he expected would end him up in the Megalith’s own sickbay.

  Only it didn’t. Instead of the warship’s sickbay, they ended up on its bridge.

  It was a huge place, far bigger than Paul expected, though in hindsight he realized that he should have known that a ship this big would have a bridge of commensurate size. The place was a full two decks high, with control balconies encircling holographic displays, a bewildering multitude of flat monitors and read-out panels on the bulkheads, the whole area crammed with uniformed men and buzzing with the hum of quiet conversation.

  On the upper level, on a balcony overlooking the men and stations of the deck below, Commodore Santores was waiting for them.

  “Captain,” the commodore said gravely, nodding to Lij Tulu as the tech maneuvered Paul’s gurney through the floor’s outer areas and brought him to a halt at the command station. “Cobra Broom,” he added, shifting his gaze down to Paul. “My apologies for disturbing your recovery. But a situation has arisen in which I find myself in need of your assistance.”

  For a moment Paul considered reminding him that it was the damn MindsEye and Santores himself who had made his recovery necessary in the first place. But there was nothing to gain with recriminations, especially when everyone present already knew about them. “I’m listening,” he said instead.

  “Nine days ago one of my courier ships, the Squire, failed to return from a mission to Caelian,” Santores said. “When Governor Uy refused to shed any light on its disappearance, I ordered a complete grid-scan to be made of the planet. The ships tasked with that mission have now returned, bringing with them the information that the Squire is no longer on Caelian. At least, not in its original form.”

  “What makes you think the Caelians had anything to do with it?” Paul asked. “Maybe the ship had an accident en route.”

  “Oh, the Caelians are involved, all right,” Santores said in a voice that sent a shiver up Paul’s back. “And I want to know exactly how. Since courtesy has gained us nothing, I intend to move the conversation to the next level.”

  “That level being?”

  “I’m taking the Megalith to Caelian,” Santores said. “I will ask Governor Uy—once again, politely—what he’s done with the Squire. If he continues his refusal to answer, there will be consequences. Military consequences.”

  Paul looked into Santores’s eyes, another shiver running through him. At that moment, gazing into those eyes, he had no doubt whatsoever that the commodore meant it. “You said you needed my help,” he said, forcing his voice to stay calm.

  “You’re coming with me,” Santores said. “As a friend of Governor Uy, your job will be to make sure he understands fully that I mean what I say.”

  “If he doesn’t believe me?”

  Santores smiled, a humorless, dark curve of the lips. “You had better hope that he does,” he said. “For his sake. And for the sake of his world.”

  For a moment the only sound was the murmur of background conversation. Then Santores raised his eyes to Lij Tulu. “Captain, I’m leaving you in command of Aventine,” he said. “Keep the work going, especially the transport armor-plating project. We need those ships ready for war as soon as possible.”

  “Yes, sir,” Lij Tulu said. “I assume the work has top priority?”

  “Absolutely,” Santores confirmed. “And keep a close eye outward. If any Trofts enter the system, I want to know who they are and what they want.”

  “If they refuse to cooperate?”

  Santores looked down at Paul. “I’m tired of not being cooperated with,” he said quietly.

  “Understood,” Lij Tulu said grimly. “I’ll make sure they do.”

  “Good.” Santores looked across the bridge. “Return to your ship, Captain. The Megalith will be leaving orbit in two hours.”

  #

  It was another two days’ worth of dreams and dizziness before Merrick finally and truly woke up.

  This time, along with being thirsty, he was famished.

  Though maybe the hunger was just a result of the delectable aromas from the covered dishes on the small table beside his bed. Beside the table, Anya sat quietly in a chair, her eyes closed in thought or meditation or sleep. “Hello,” Merrick croaked. His voice sounded just as raspy as it had been two days ago, he noted, but at least there was no longer any fringe of craziness about it.

  Anya’s eyes opened. “Hello,” she said, studying his face. “How do you feel?”

  “In my right mind, finally,” Merrick said. “I hope you haven’t been sitting here this whole time.”

  She shook her head. “An hour only. I brought food for when you woke up.”

  “You knew when that would be?”

  “We know the effects of bersark poisoning very well,” she said gravely. “Though you were slower than most to awaken.”

  Merrick glanced around. There was no one else in the room. “Off-world biochemistry, probably,” he murmured, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “That smells good. I hope you brought some water, too.”

  “I did,” she said, reaching down and producing a bottle that had been sitting on the floor beside her chair. “We’ve already eaten. This is all for you, if you want it.”

  It was just as well that Merrick wasn’t being asked to share. Over the next quarter hour he proceeded to demolish the entire meat casserole, vegetable mix, and bread that Anya had brought, as well as drinking the entire bottle of water. Apparently, it hadn’t just been the aroma.

  And while he ate, Anya brought him up to date on what had happened over the past six days.

  “We were brought here after midnight on the night you left us,” she said. “I was afraid Ludolf Treetapper would kill Master Kjoic—”

  “You mean your father?” Merrick asked around a mouthful of warm lamb or mutton or something sheepy-tasting. “Ludolf Treetapper, your father?”

  Her lip twitched. “My father,” she agreed reluctantly. “He told me that you had said not to kill Master Kjoic, so he tried to get him to leave. But he refused, stating that you were also his slave and he would not abandon his property to sickness.”

  “Interesting point of view,” Merrick commented. “Like I said, he must be new to the slave business.”

  “Perhaps,” Anya said. “Ludolf has a base near here, but he could of course not take a master there. He thus persuaded Alexis Woolmaster to allow us to use her home and ranch.”

  “Your father tells me Kjoic considers them to also be his slaves now,” Merrick said, frowning. Ranch? He’d been under the impression they were still in the forest. What kind of livestock could Alexis be keeping out here? “Has Ludolf been able to explain otherwise?”

  “He hasn’t tried.” Anya’s throat worked. “Ludolf wishes to see what the masters are doing in the building at the edge of Svipall. When he learned that Master Kjoic also wants to see inside, he concluded that might be his best chance of gaining access.”

  “Which is more or less what I’ve been assuming,” Merrick said grimly. “Only I realize now that it’s not going to be that easy. Kjoic’s looking for records on whoever might have killed the crew of his crashed ship, which means he’s not going to just waltz in there and ask to see their fil
es. Not when the murderer could be standing right there. Especially not with a crowd of slaves in tow.”

  “I don’t believe Ludolf planned to be so obvious,” Anya said, a little crossly. “I believe he plans to enter the building late at night, when there will be fewer of the masters inside and on guard.”

  “What makes him think that the place quiets down at night?”

  “He has observed vehicles arriving at sunrise and leaving at dusk,” Anya said. “They land beyond the fence in the village and go through large doors into the building.”

  “And what makes him think they’re carrying masters and not just supplies?”

  “Because—” Anya broke off. “They were of a style that carry passengers,” she continued more slowly. “But that doesn’t say there were passengers aboard, does it?”

  “Not really,” Merrick said. “I might also point out that that kind of building is usually for manufacturing, at least the ones I’ve seen have been. In that case, the aircars might be bringing in raw materials in the morning and taking out finished product at night.”

  “And not masters at all?”

  “There might also be some turnover of staff involved,” Merrick conceded. “Though if there are passengers, they might also be of the non-master sort. The Games seem to be a pretty big deal in Svipall—maybe those are new contestants they’re flying in.”

  “They do not hold the Games every day,” Anya said, her forehead creased in thought. “Only once in each six. But why would they put a manufacturing plant by a simple Muninn village? Would it not be better in Runatyr or one of the other large cities?”

  “There must be some resource nearby they needed,” Merrick said, checking his nanocomputer’s clock. If there had been a Games session the night he ran into the bersark patch… “That, or they want to keep it quiet and out of the spotlight. You said the Games were held every six days?”

  “Yes,” Anya said. “There was one the night you were poisoned, and another tonight.”

  “Well, then, there’s our chance,” Merrick said, spooning up his final mouthful of casserole. “I go to Svipall tonight, and while everyone’s distracted by the Games I sneak into the building and see what they’re up to.”

  He expected Anya to light up with the straightforward cleverness of the idea. Instead, he got a complete stone face. “What?” he growled. “You don’t like it?”

  “You tried that plan once already,” she reminded him. “You were nearly killed.”

  “I made a mistake,” Merrick said. “I won’t make it again.”

  “And if you make another?”

  “Then I’ll take another six days to recover and be right on time to try it again.”

  Her stone face went a little stonier. “That is not funny.”

  Merrick winced. “Sorry. The point is that this is our best shot. I can sneak in, see what they’re doing, and get back out again. And if I’m really lucky, along the way I may spot a safe way to get Master Kjoic and your father in later on.”

  And if you are captured?”

  “I won’t be,” Merrick said. He peered into the empty casserole dish, decided regretfully that there wasn’t anything more he could get out of it, and set it back on the table. “Come on, let’s talk to your father.” He stood up and took her arm.

  To his surprise, she pulled back from his grip. “You go,” she said. “I must return the dishes, and help clean them.”

  “You’re kidding,” Merrick said, frowning at her as he keyed on his infrareds. Her facial blood flow indicated tension. A lot of tension. “Come on, that can wait. I want your advice on whatever plan we come up with.”

  “I thought you already had a plan.”

  “I do,” Merrick said. “But Ludolf may have modifications to suggest.”

  “It’s your plan,” Anya said. “You may simply tell him that.”

  On in other words, she didn’t really want to face her father?

  Merrick sighed. But he couldn’t say he was all that surprised. Whatever had happened between Anya and her parents over the past six days, reconciliation apparently hadn’t been part of it. “Fine,” he said, letting his hand drop from her arm. “I’ll see you later.”

  He found Ludolf sitting on a bench by the west wall of the house, gazing out at probably fifty sheep grazing on the grassy plants carpeting the floor between the trees. “Anya had said this was Alexis’s ranch,” Merrick commented as he came over and stood beside the older man. “I assumed she was mistaken, or using a different meaning of the word.”

  “Where else did you think Alexis Tucker obtained her wool from?” Ludolf countered.

  “I suppose,” Merrick conceded, noting again Ludolf’s use of Alexis’s older and less distinguished name. Clearly, the man hadn’t done any polishing of his diplomatic skills over the past couple of days. “So what keeps the forest predators from walking in and eating them? I don’t see any fences anywhere.”

  “You’ve already seen one example of the fence she uses,” Ludolf said. “Bordering Alexis Tucker’s land is a thin strip of bersark. Most animals have learned to leave such areas strictly alone.”

  “Can’t say I disagree with them,” Merrick said, shivering at the memory. “What about the fafirs? They should be able to just go over the bersark patches.”

  “They can,” Ludolf said. “But sheep are one of the few herbivores that can ingest bersark without being affected by it, but also do not completely break it down. That leaves a slight scent of the poison on their breath, which fafirs and other tree-hunting animals recognize and avoid.”

  “Nice,” Merrick said. “If you could find a way to get the stuff on your own breath without killing yourselves, you’d never have to worry about forest travel again..”

  “Perhaps.” Ludolf peered up at him. “I assume you are finally recovered from your own poisoning?”

  “I am,” Merrick said. “And I have an idea.”

  Ludolf favored him with a sort of half smile. “Tell me,” he invited.

  Merrick had expected Ludolf to balk at the thought of sending an unknown, untrained, untested spy into the Troft compound. To his surprise, the man loved it.

  “An excellent plan,” Ludolf said after Merrick had laid it out for him. “Do you intend to enter the village the same way you did the last time?”

  “Basically,” Merrick said, a sobering thought suddenly occurring to him. He’d assumed Ludolf had pressed him earlier about his capabilities because Anya had given him a few hints, if not told him outright. Now, belatedly, he wondered if it had in fact been that Ludolf had been in the woods the whole time, with a front-row view of Merrick’s strength-enhanced entrance and exit from Svipall.

  Maybe he could find out. “I’ll need to find a replacement vaulting pole, though,” he said, keying his infrareds and focusing on Ludolf’s face. “I lost my other one on the way out of Svipall.”

  Ludolf’s facial blood flow didn’t change. “You had no such assist when we saw you leave the village,” he said. “Nor did you need one.”

  “That’s because I had bersark pounding through my muscles on the way out,” Merrick reminded him. “I won’t have that enhanced strength this time around.”

  He held his breath, mentally crossing his fingers. If Ludolf had seen him enter Svipall and knew that was a lie…

  But again, there was no change in the older man’s infrared pattern. Apparently, Ludolf and his team had only caught Merrick’s exit, not his entrance. “I can find you a pole,” he promised. “What else will you need from us?”

  “Nothing,” Merrick said. “No—on second thought, I need you to make sure Master Kjoic doesn’t know I’ve recovered.”

  “Indeed,” Ludolf said, nodding. “He’s already made it clear that as soon as you are well he means to press on with his journey. I will keep him occupied and unaware.” His lip twisted. “It’s an odd feeling, being slaves again. But this time, at least, we know there’s an end in sight.”

  “Ah,” Merrick said. “I gather yo
u’ve been out here in the forest ever since your failed revolt twelve years ago?”

  Ludolf’s face hardened. “The revolt did not fail, Merrick Hopekeeper,” he said stiffly. “What failed was merely a single battle of that revolt. We will throw off the masters’ oppression and regain our freedom.”

  “I hope so,” Merrick said. “Let me go get myself cleaned up and maybe find some fresh clothing. Is there an official starting time for the Games?”

  “The masters usually wait until after sundown,” Ludolf said. “It will be safest to enter after that.”

  Merrick wrinkled his nose. Probably true…except that he needed at least enough light in the sky to use his infrared trick for finding the safe path through the bersark. “I think I’d like to get in a little before that,” he said. “I want to look over the area before the crowd begins to gather.”

  Ludolf frowned, but shrugged. “If you think that would be best,” he said, standing up. “I’ll tell Alexis Tucker to furnish you with new clothing, and prepare a guide to escort you to Svipall.”

  Merrick frowned. He’d assumed that with a mission this important Ludolf would want to be there to watch. “You’re not leading me yourself?”

  “Master Kjoic has become accustomed to his chief slave being available at all times.” Ludolf placed a hand on his chest. “For now, I am that slave. As we’ve already agreed, we do not wish him wondering why the routine has suddenly changed.”

  “True,” Merrick said, focusing again on the other’s face. “So you’re going to just hang around here playing slave while I go into Svipall?”

  “Were you not listening?” Ludolf growled. “I am Master Kjoic’s chief slave. I must remain here to serve him.”

  “Right,” Merrick murmured. It was perfectly reasonable, of course.

  So why was Ludolf’s facial blood flow indicating sudden stress?

  “Come,” Ludolf said, gesturing to the door. “I’ll take you to where you can clean up.” He smiled faintly. “I suspect you may also wish another meal soon. While you eat, and while Alexis Tucker prepares your new clothing, I can tell you what I know about Svipall’s people, buildings, and terrain.”

 
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