Cobra outlaw earc, p.3
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.3

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “You already have everything I know.”

  “Perhaps. We’ll soon find out.”

  With a conscious effort, Paul relaxed his muscles. “It seems to me that if you’re going to dig into my brain, the least I deserve is a little information,” he said, keeping his voice calm. “Specifically, what exactly do you need Qasama for? Granted, they’re outstanding warriors, but the kind of space battle you’re obviously trained for is well outside their area of expertise.”

  “True,” Santores said. “I’m afraid that for the moment their significance will have to remain a secret.”

  “I see,” Paul said. But people talked, he knew, and sometimes people chatted to each other about matters outsiders weren’t meant to hear.

  And Cobras had enhanced hearing.

  Would he be able to eavesdrop on the conversations around him during the MindsEye treatment? He had no idea.

  But he was going to find out.

  “Fine,” he said. “Can you at least tell me what you’re planning to do about Captain Moreau?”

  “First, we’re refueling the Hermes and sending it to the Dorian’s coordinates,” Santores said. “If we’re lucky, they’ll find the Dorian alive and well. If we’re even luckier, they’ll also find Qasama there.”

  “If not?”

  “Then we’ll see what is there and weigh our options.” Santores’s lips compressed. “One other thing you should consider. If Ukuthi is playing games with us, I don’t doubt he’s also willing and able to play games with the Qasamans. If that’s the case, any delay in getting the planet’s location may very well facilitate their destruction.”

  “Maybe,” Paul said, determined not to be lulled by the man’s apparent sincerity any more than he had been by the earlier verbal elbowing. “Let me point out in return that the Balins already had a run at the Qasamans, and lost badly. I can’t see them being eager for a rematch.”

  “Unless someone new is in charge,” Santores pointed out. “Demesne-lord changes happen, probably more often than you realize. Regardless, I trust you see now that this whole thing has moved well beyond the struggles and defiance of a single Aventinian family. The faster you recognize that we need to work together, the better our chances of living through this.”

  “Or you could leave my family alone and focus on all these other more important matters.”

  “Trust me, we’re capable of doing both at the same time,” Santores assured him. “Just as Colonel Reivaro is capable of getting our new armor factories retooled and operating at the same time he’s setting up a network of informants among the DeVegas civilians. Once that network is in place, it should allow him to easily neutralize any further operations your wife and son might be planning.”

  A shiver ran up Paul’s back. “You’d have done better to try asking for cooperation before demanding it.”

  “We did ask,” Santores snapped. “The result was your daughter running away, your wife sabotaging a vital industrial facility, and your son attacking two Marines.”

  Abruptly, he stood up. “We’re through with asking, Cobra Broom,” he said. “The Dominion of Man is at war. Now, so are you. It’s time for you to decide whose side you’re on.”

  “Because you won’t be asking about that, either?”

  “No, we won’t be asking,” Santores said softly. “But we will be watching. Very, very closely.”

  CHAPTER THREE

  Most of the officers and crewers Captain Barrington Moreau had worked with during his career in the Dominion Fleet had been true professionals, the sort of men who could maintain their calm and proficiency through the hell and death of combat. Ironically, perhaps, for many of these men it was the hours of safety and relative inactivity leading up to a battle that were harder than the battle itself. Tension, sleeplessness, and frayed nerves grated across individual psyches and interpersonal relationships, and Barrington had lost track of the number of arguments and brawls he’d had to avoid, live through, or break up over the years.

  It was an emotional strain that Barrington himself was thankfully unaffected by. An hour or two before combat, perhaps, his mind and adrenal glands would start their pre-battle ramp-up, but until then he had no trouble putting the uncertainties and stress out of his mind.

  The Dorian was two days out from the Hoibie homeworld, with four more projected until they reached Commander Ukuthi’s coordinates, and Barrington was soundly and peacefully asleep, when he received the urgent summons to the ship’s Command Nexus/Coordination Hub.

  He tapped into the data stream while he dressed, and was up to speed by the time he reached CoNCH.

  Up to speed on what, though, was still not entirely clear.

  The ship’s first officer, Commander Ling Garrett, was standing beside the command chair on CoNCH’s upper level when Barrington arrived. “Status?” Barrington asked as he sat down.

  “We’re doing our third pass through the data,” Garrett said. “Probability is up to eighty-seven percent that we clipped the edge of a flicker-mine net.”

  Barrington scowled as he twitched his eye, bringing up the result of the latest data scrub on his corneal projector. Flicker nets were the Troft weapon of choice for bringing ships out of hyperspace: fields of low-level but carefully tuned energy ripples that could stretch up to two million kilometers on an edge and could yank a ship out of hyperspace and scramble its drive sequencing. Until the drive was recalibrated, the victim would be trapped in space-normal, potentially easy prey for the spider ships that typically patrolled such nets.

  “It could have been a spontaneous decalibration,” Garrett said into his musings. “That does still happen.”

  “Not usually to three of the rotators at the same time,” Barrington pointed out. “Do we know which Trofts live around here?”

  “According to Chintawa’s maps, this whole region is unclaimed territory,” Garrett said. “That’s presumably why Ukuthi sent us this along this route in the first place.”

  “Presumably,” Barrington echoed the caveat, twitching his eyelid again to access the navigational section of the data stream. Despite his suspicions about Ukuthi’s intentions and motivations, he’d given orders to stay on the Troft’s course, and the readout indicated that the Dorian had indeed maintained that heading.

  Which meant that if the flicker net had been set as a trap, the perpetrators had made a pretty sloppy job of it. Misaligning it so badly that the Dorian merely clipped the edge did nothing but alert them to the net’s presence without even slowing their progress.

  Unless the Dorian wasn’t their target.

  “Course check,” he called toward the helm. “Vector from Aventine to Ukuthi’s coordinates. Does it pass through the flicker net region?”

  “Checking, Captain,” the helmsman said. “Tentatively confirmed, sir.”

  “Tentatively?” Barrington echoed.

  “We don’t actually know how the net is laid out,” Garrett pointed out. “That impact could have been against any of the edges.”

  He was right, of course. And the net’s positioning would make all the difference as to whether or not a ship coming from the Cobra Worlds capital would be captured, inconvenienced, or missed completely.

  But the fact that the projected course came anywhere near the net was both telling and ominous. “Let’s find out which, then, shall we?” he said. “Helm: bring us around one-eighty. Make break-out thirty light-seconds this side of our contact with the net. Full stealth mode.”

  “Break-out thirty light-seconds from net, aye,” the helmsman acknowledged. “Stealth mode, aye.”

  Garrett cleared his throat. “A comment, Commander?” Barrington asked quietly.

  “It’s occurred to me, sir, that if we stay here long enough to map out the net we’re going to be late to our rendezvous,” Garrett pointed out. “If the net has nothing to do with us, Ukuthi may decide we’re not coming and leave. If that happens, and if the coordinates he gave us aren’t Qasama, this whole exercise will have been for nothing
.”

  “True enough,” Barrington said. “And I completely agree. This net almost certainly has nothing to do with us.”

  Garrett frowned. “But then—?”

  “But I think it has everything to do with the rest of the task force,” Barrington continued. “Specifically, with whomever Commodore Santores decides to send to Ukuthi’s rendezvous to meet us.”

  “If he sends anyone at all.”

  “Oh, he’ll send someone,” Barrington said grimly. “Even if it’s just the Hermes with fresh orders. On the other hand, if he suspects we’re walking into a trap he could send the Algonquin to back us up, or even decide to come himself with the Megalith. If he does either, whoever’s pulling the strings on this will have succeeded in completely splitting up the task force.”

  “One each at Aventine, the net, and with Ukuthi,” Garrett said, frowning a little harder. “Does that make Ukuthi—? No. He wouldn’t be involved, would he?”

  “Not with that particular trap,” Barrington said. “If he was, he would have given us a course that didn’t take us anywhere near the net.” He pursed his lips. “Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have schemes of his own in progress.”

  “Or we may be misreading this one,” Garrett said, nodding toward the helm display. He snorted gently. “Though it could be highly entertaining to see what would happen if Commodore Santores is suspicious enough to bring the Megalith and the Algonquin.”

  “Indeed,” Barrington agreed, smiling tightly. “And if snagging two war cruisers would amuse them, think how much more their little faces would light up if they got three.”

  “So we’re staying?”

  “One thing at a time,” Barrington said. “Let’s map the net first, and figure out where we go from there.”

  “Yes, sir,” Garrett said. He didn’t sound happy with the decision, but he knew better than to continue arguing once his commander had made up his mind. “With your permission, I’d like to go to the sensor nexus and supervise the data collection.”

  “Good idea,” Barrington said. “When the mapping is complete, report to the conference room.”

  “Yes, sir.” Garrett hesitated. “Thank you, sir.”

  Barrington nodded acknowledgement. “Dismissed.”

  He watched Garrett stride across CoNCH, a sour taste in his mouth. Thank you, sir. Not thanks for Barrington’s reading of the situation, or his tactical logic, or even for allowing Garrett to supervise the net mapping. Thank you, sir, for planning a meeting with the rest of the senior officers, lest they and their patrons someday bring accusations that the captain and first officer had kept the rest of the command structure out of the data stream on such a critical decision.

  It was insane, of course. The captain of a Dominion warship was supposed to have absolute authority over his vessel and crew, with no obligation to the rest of his officers except to listen to their suggestions and thoughts, and accept any such suggestions only when he chose to do so.

  Officially, that was how it still worked. But such theory was no longer aligned with reality. The slow but steady rise of patrons and supporters over the years had created an equally slow but steady rise in the influence of politics into the upper levels of the military. Politics, not skill, now dominated the highest levels of military decision-making. Not just on Asgard, but even aboard ships of the line.

  And it was a state of affairs that Barrington couldn’t ignore. His own patron was reasonably powerful, but Barrington had no interest in matching him against the combined weight of the Dorian’s second, third, and tactical officers’ patrons. Especially since his patron would be standing alone in any such contest, given Garrett’s own lack of any patron at all.

  Garrett.

  It was a puzzle that Barrington had often wondered about during the long months of the task force’s journey to the Cobra Worlds. There were still plenty of officers who’d risen through the ranks on pure merit, without anyone in the Dome or elsewhere outside the Fleet greasing the wheels for them. But in Barrington’s experiences most such men were considerably older than Garrett, or considerably lower in rank. Certainly he’d never met anyone Garrett’s age who was first officer of a war cruiser. Whatever the man’s accomplishments had been before his assignment to the Dorian and this mission, they must have been spectacular.

  Someday, Barrington told himself firmly, he would have to find a way to get a look at Garrett’s full record. Not the truncated and suspiciously edited summary that had been in the Dorian’s personnel records when Barrington was given command a month before this long journey began, but the full version. Until then, he would just have to trust that Asgard knew what they were doing.

  In the meantime…

  He scowled at the displays. In the meantime, someone out there was playing games. Time to figure out what that game was, and who exactly was playing it.

  #

  Engineering Officer Kusari was intrigued by the development. Weapons Officer Filho was suspicious, but equally intrigued.

  Tactical Officer Castenello was not only not intrigued, but openly contemptuous.

  “With all due respect, Captain, this is ridiculous,” he said, twitching his eyelid to close down the sensor report Garrett had loaded into the data stream. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that this flicker net has anything to do with us. Or with Aventine or Qasama, for that matter.”

  “It’s on the vector between Aventine and the coordinates Ukuthi gave us for Qasama,” Kusari pointed out.

  “Which means nothing at all,” Castenello said scornfully. “Unless we were somehow able to confirm those coordinates while I was off-watch?”

  Filho stirred. “Your tone borders on the unacceptable,” he rumbled.

  “My tone is precisely gauged to my words,” Castenello countered. “Did you even read the report? Eight spider ships, none of them bigger than scout class—they couldn’t even take the Hermes, let alone the Megalith or Algonquin. If this is a trap for one of our ships, it’s an incredibly inept one.”

  “Then what’s your reading?” Garrett asked.

  “They’re pirates,” Castenello said flatly. “Pure and simple. They’re sitting on the Aventine-to-wherever vector in hopes of snagging a Troft merchant ship. That’s the only thing that makes sense.” He paused just a fraction of a second. “Sir.”

  Barrington felt the tension level in the room jump another couple of levels. None of Dorian’s senior officers particularly liked Castenello—actually, Barrington doubted anyone aboard really liked the man. But Castenello had a powerful patron, a senior member of the Dominion Central Committee itself, and the tactical officer had long since concluded that he could be as grating and unpleasant to the universe around him as he wanted. Provided he did his job with reasonable competency, no one in the Fleet could touch him.

  But that didn’t mean the man’s blind spots shouldn’t be pointed out to him. And Barrington was still the Dorian’s captain. “Interesting theory,” he said. “May I point out in turn that, just as we don’t know Ukuthi’s coordinates are Qasama, we also don’t know that those eight spider ships are the only forces guarding the net. That’s merely the number we can see from this distance.”

  “Exactly,” Garrett seconded. “Who’s to say some Troft warship isn’t running the same stealth mode we are?”

  “Possibly near or behind one of the net generators,” Filho agreed. “There’s not a lot we can see through the energy glare.”

  “Or someone could be lurking out here like we are,” Kusari said. “If he sticks to low power mode we’d never spot him without bringing up our active sensors.”

  “And why would a hypothetical warship bother stealthing or lurking?” Castenello countered. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. As far as any lurking warship knows, the only ships that could possibly spot it would already be trapped in the net. Why waste energy with stealth mode when there’s no reason to do so?”

  He turned to Barrington. “My recommendation, Captain, is that we get back to
the task of locating Qasama and completing the mission that Asgard and the Dome gave us. Time and lives are on the line, and the longer we sit here waiting for nothing to happen, the more of both are going to be lost.” He looked around the table. “Or are there other recommendations?”

  A small ripple of discomfort ran around the table. And on the surface, at least, even Barrington had to admit that Castenello’s recommendation made sense. The visible Troft ships were small, compact things, and even a courier ship like Hermes had the firepower to hold them off until it could recalibrate its drive and escape. If the net instead caught one of the Dominion war cruisers, the resulting battle would be over within minutes.

  But there was still something about this whole thing that was nagging at him. And Barrington had long since learned to trust his gut instincts. “Ukuthi didn’t strike me as the type that panics easily,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll cut and run if we’re a day or two late.”

  “And if he does?” Castenello demanded. “Captain, we need Qasama.”

  “No; we want Qasama,” Barrington corrected him. “We don’t need it. Don’t forget that we didn’t even know Qasama existed until we arrived and started going through Aventine’s records. If we can’t find them, we can still go back to the Dome’s original plan.”

  “My patron was never in favor of that plan,” Castenello warned. “Nor were many others. Deliberately setting up the Cobra Worlds to lure in the Trofts is more cold-blooded even than normal Dome politics.”

  “And doing it to the Qasamans instead is better?” Barrington asked.

  “Of course it’s better,” Castenello said contemptuously. “We sent out the Cobra Worlds colonists. The Qasamans got wherever they got on their own. The Aventinians are our people. The Qasamans aren’t.”

  “They’re still human,” Garrett murmured.

  “It’s us versus them,” Castenello retorted. “At its heart, that’s really what politics is all about.” He gestured to Barrington. “The point is that if you have the chance to switch the bait from Aventine to Qasama, but don’t make that switch, the Dome will not be happy.”

 
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