Cobra outlaw earc, p.30
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.30

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “It all sounds very good,” Merrick agreed. “Especially the eating part. Lead on.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  The darkness slowly faded, slowly enough that Jody didn’t even notice anything had changed until the light was already pressing against her eyelids.

  She’d expected to feel lousy. Tired and sore, or maybe just plain sore. But she felt neither. As far as she could tell without moving or opening her eyes, she was just fine.

  There had to be a catch somewhere.

  Carefully, suspiciously, she opened her eyes.

  To find herself lying flat on her back, the faces of Kemp and Smitty looming over her.

  So it had worked. Isis had functioned like it was supposed to, and Jody was now a Cobra. And her friends had come to be with her at her awakening, just as Kemp had said they would.

  Only their faces weren’t the smiling ones she’d been promised when she last closed her eyes. The two men were talking quietly together, their expressions grim.

  She felt her breath catch in her throat. Had something gone wrong?

  The twitch in her breathing had evidently been louder than she’d realized. The conversation broke off in mid-murmur and both men looked down at her. “Well, hi there, sleepyhead,” Kemp said, his face finally breaking out in a smile. A relieved smile, Jody noted with some relief of her own. Maybe she wasn’t in trouble after all.

  Smitty was smiling, too. But his smile was token and mechanical. “How are you feeling?” he asked, his voice as perfunctory as his smile.

  “Pretty good,” Jody said. “No pain, which I understand is always a plus after surgery.”

  “This was Qasaman surgery,” Kemp reminded her. “I’m told it’s a bit more pleasant than the Cobra Worlds variety.”

  “Good to hear,” Jody said. “So what’s wrong?”

  “Nothing to do with you,” Kemp assured her. “The doctor says your procedure went fine, and you’ll be ready to start your training tomorrow.”

  “They’ve got a good crew picked out for you,” Smitty added. “Ghofl Khatir will be heading it—”

  “Yeah, thanks, I’m looking forward to it,” Jody interrupted. “Now quit stalling and tell me what’s wrong. Is it Rashida?” she added, suddenly noticing the other woman’s absence. “Has something happened to her?”

  “No, she’s fine,” Smitty said. “Omnathi sent her to Sollas right after you went under Isis and she hasn’t gotten back yet.”

  “Is she in trouble?” Jody asked. She’d always had a feeling that Omnathi had never been truly happy with the tasks Rashida had been forced into during the Troft invasion. In a lot of ways, she knew, Qasaman women were second-class citizens, and Omnathi was as old-school as they came.

  “Not that I know of,” Smitty said. “Omnathi wanted her to report to the rest of the Shahni about Caelian, the Trofts, and Aventine. She knew as much as anyone except possibly Omnathi, and he was too busy to go.”

  “Ah,” Jody said. Though of course that was what Omnathi had told them. Unfortunately, Omnathi wasn’t exactly known for telling the whole truth when the whole truth didn’t suit him. If he thought Rashida was getting too cozy with the Caelians—especially Smitty—he might have magically found a job that got her away from them for a few days. “Have you heard from her since she left?”

  Smitty shook his head. “We haven’t talked, but she sent a couple of messages. I gather they’re keeping her pretty busy.”

  “So I’m fine, and Rashida’s fine,” Jody said. “You going to make me play Twenty Questions, or are you going to tell me what the problem is?”

  Kemp and Smitty exchanged looks. “The problem,” Kemp said, looking reluctantly back down at her, “is that we’ve got some unexpected company. Three days ago, out of the blue, the Dominion of Man War Cruiser Dorian came to call.”

  Jody felt her chest tighten. “The Dominion’s here? They’ve found us?”

  “Well, they’ve found Qasama, anyway,” Kemp said sourly. “The Dorian’s up in orbit as we speak, with about a hundred men in hospitals in Azras and Parma. Apparently, they stopped off for a battle on the way here.”

  “How lovely for them,” Jody murmured, a bitter taste in her mouth. After all she and her family had gone through to protect Qasama from the Dominion, and here they were anyway. “What do they want?”

  “As far as I know, all they’ve asked for is medical aid,” Kemp said. “Omnathi said yes, and as I say they sent down a bunch of badly wounded men and another bunch of support personnel.”

  “You think that was a pretext to sneak in some spies?” Jody asked.

  “I suppose that’s possible,” Smitty said. “Though I can’t see what they could learn at ground level that they can’t learn from orbit.”

  “Not necessarily, given that the Trofts found a few surprises when they got down here,” Kemp pointed out. “But the big problem isn’t the Dorian. It’s the Squire.”

  The last bit of fog vanished from Jody’s brain. “Oh, no,” she murmured.

  “Oh, yes,” Kemp said grimly. “We don’t know if they spotted it, but I know Omnathi didn’t get it completely concealed until after their first orbital pass.”

  “Have they asked about it?”

  “Not that I know of,” Kemp said. “Unfortunately, no questions either means they didn’t spot it, which we’re all hoping, or they did spot it and are being privately suspicious about how it got here.”

  “What’s Omnathi planning to do about it?”

  Again, Kemp and Smitty exchanged looks. “I don’t know,” Kemp said. “But apparently his first move is to get you out of here.”

  Jody felt her eyes widen. “Excuse me?”

  “Because in case you’d forgotten,” Kemp said, ignoring the question, “the Dorian is commanded by one Captain Barrington Moreau, kinsman to one Jody Moreau Broom. Omnathi doesn’t think letting Captain Moreau find you here with his missing courier ship would be a good idea.”

  “Well, he’s wrong,” Jody said flatly. “In fact, he’s a hundred eighty degrees wrong. I’m probably the only person on Qasama who can talk to Captain Moreau about this.”

  “And tell him what?” Kemp countered. “That we stole the Squire, killing a couple of crewmen along the way, and brought it here for the Qasamans to examine?”

  “We tell him the truth,” Jody said. “We have to. Sooner or later, he’s going to find out, and it’ll be a lot better if we come clean before he digs out all the pieces himself.”

  “I see you grew up with the same kind of father I did,” Kemp said with a hint of dark humor. “You always got off with less punishment if you told him you broke the window before he found out on his own.”

  “But there’s no guarantee he’s like our fathers,” Smitty said. “Anyway, it’s not our decision to make.”

  “Maybe it should be,” Jody said. “We’re the Dominion’s long-lost children. The Qasamans aren’t. Well, you know, technically they are, but we’re the ones the Dominion specifically sent out here. They’re bound to go easier on us than they will on the Qasamans.”

  “I’m not arguing,” Kemp said. “I’m just saying that we’re out of the loop on this one.”

  “Are we?” Lifting her head, Jody peered down her body. Everything looked fine, plus there were no straps or restraints holding her to the bed. Time to give these new Cobra implants a test drive. “You have any idea where Omnathi’s communicating with the Dorian from?” she asked, putting her palms on the sides of the bed and pushing herself carefully into a sitting position.

  “Whoa,” Kemp said, putting his hands gently but firmly on her shoulders. “You’re not going anywhere. Not until you’ve had a preliminary run-through. Try it and you’ll probably fall flat on your face.”

  “Okay,” Jody said, taking his hands and pushing them away. Her arms felt oddly light, her movements strong and fluid and easy. Briefly, she was tempted to try a little strength experiment, just to see what would happen, but decided against it “Go ahead.”

 
; “Go ahead what?” Kemp asked, frowning.

  “Go ahead and give me the run-through,” she said, swiveling her legs off the bed onto the floor.

  “We can’t—easy,” Kemp interrupted himself, this time taking her upper arm as she started to stand up. “Keep it slow. Let the servos take the load.”

  “Got it,” she said, easing herself up. The movement definitely felt different, she noted, rather like trying to move in a lower gravity field. “Is there any trick to walking?”

  “All sorts of them,” Kemp assured her said, his hand still on her arm. “Just take it slow and easy. Once around the room, and then you sit down again. Okay?”

  “Once around if I trip or fall down; twice around if I don’t,” Jody bargained.

  Kemp rolled his eyes. “Half around if you fall down.”

  “And then we do some strength training,” Jody added.

  “Jody, we can’t do this,” Smitty insisted. “There’s a whole six-day regimen involved in teaching new Cobras how to use their gear.”

  “This is Qasama,” Jody reminded him. “They have shorter timetables.”

  “That is the Qasaman timetable,” Smitty said patiently. “You’re just going to have to take a deep breath and accept that this will take some time.”

  Jody clenched her hand. Unclenched it quickly as the sheer strength behind the grip dug her fingernails painfully against the skin of her palm. Smitty was right, of course. These things took time.

  Only she didn’t have time. Certainly not six days’ worth. The minute Captain Moreau found out about the Squire— “You didn’t answer my question about Omnathi’s transmitter.”

  “I have no idea where it is,” Kemp said.

  “And even if we found it, they’re not likely to let us in,” Smitty added.

  “Then we try the back door,” Jody said. “You said they’ve got wounded in the Azras hospitals?”

  “Wait a second, hold on,” Kemp protested. “What are you going to do, crash the party?”

  “Why not?” Jody said, taking a careful step. It felt a lot like walking in the powered Djinn combat suits she and Rashida had used on Caelian. “They must have a way of communicating with their ship.”

  “They aren’t going to let you talk to the captain,” Smitty warned. “And Omnathi isn’t going to let you talk to them.”

  “Sure,” Jody said. “Actually, I wasn’t planning to ask either of them.”

  Out of the corner of her eye, Jody saw the two Cobras again exchange glances. “Yeah, we kind of figured that,” Kemp said. “But you still need to take the time to learn about your new equipment.”

  “Agreed,” Jody said. “You’ve got six hours.”

  She’d expected at least a little widening of the eyes in response. She got nothing. Apparently, both of them knew her well enough to have already figured out where she was going. “That’s not enough,” Kemp warned.

  “It was enough during the invasion,” Jody said. “I heard the Djinn could be trained that fast.”

  “That’s because they were already used to using the combat suits.”

  “So am I,” Jody countered. “Doesn’t matter anyway. We’ve got to get to Captain Moreau before he calls Omnathi on the Squire mess. Six hours is what you’ve got.”

  Kemp made a face. “Okay, fine,” he said. “Six hours of training, and then we’ll run you through some exercises. You get through them without damaging anything or anybody, and we’ll declare you competent enough for your latest crazy scheme. If not, you go back to real training and Omnathi has to handle the Dominion on his own. Deal?”

  Jody took a deep breath. “Deal,” she said. “I expect the Qasamans have a training room or two down here. Let’s go find one.”

  #

  Ludolf had said that he would be assigning a team to guide Merrick back to Svipall. In fact, the “team” ended up consisting of a single person: Hanna Herbseeker, Ludolf’s female companion the night Merrick was poisoned.

  Anya’s mother.

  There was little conversation during the walk from Alexis’s ranch to Svipall’s western edge. Hanna seemed preoccupied and not inclined to talk, while Merrick concentrated on watching for predators, remembering their route, and working on what he was going to do once he was inside the village.

  It was nearly sundown, and the sun had disappeared behind the tall forest trees behind them, when they reached the edge of the bersark field.

  “There,” Hanna said, pointing through the last line of trees toward the well-remembered chain-link fence. “Do you think you can get across safely this time?”

  “I’ll be fine,” Merrick said, suppressing a flicker of irritation at the implied insult. “Go ahead and leave if you need to,” he added. “I imagine your husband has a busy night ahead of him, with all he’s got planned.”

  Hanna shook her head. “I can stay,” she murmured. “He won’t need my help.”

  Merrick felt his throat tighten. So Ludolf did have something in the works tonight besides just playing slave for Kjoic’s benefit. “Are you sure?” he probed carefully. “From what I was hearing he sounded like he was going to need all the warm bodies he could get.”

  Hanna gave a little snort. “You underestimate his strength,” she said. “Or you overestimate the scope of his plan. Tonight’s beginning will be small.”

  “What about Anya?” Merrick pressed. Could Ludolf be planning to take his daughter on this unknown mission instead of his wife?

  “She understands,” Hanna said with a tired-sounding sigh. “She has always understood.”

  “Understood what?”

  “Her proper role.” Hanna pointed again. “You’d best go. Good luck.”

  “Right,” Merrick said, getting a grip on the bamboo-like vaulting pole Ludolf had given him. There was something going on here, something he was pretty sure he didn’t like, and he was definitely going to track it down as soon as he was back at Alexis’s. But right now he needed to get into Svipall, and he needed to get going before the fading light robbed him of the ability to see the safe patches of ground. “Stay back, please. If they spot me, I don’t want them spotting you, too.”

  He passed through the last line of trees and paused at the edge of the field, activating his infrareds. The last time he’d done this, all he’d needed were a series of safe patches that were big enough and close enough for him to jump between. This time, he needed all of that plus a set of smaller patches where he could plant the end of his vaulting pole.

  It proved easier than he’d expected. The last time through, he’d been focusing on the larger patches and had therefore ignored anything smaller than a quarter of a square meter. Now that he was looking at all of it, he saw that there were dozens of small spots where the pole would work just fine.

  Aside from a few times goofing around with his brother and sister when they were children, he’d never done any real pole-vaulting. Fortunately, he wasn’t going to need any such skills here. All he needed to do was look like he was using the pole, while he simply used his leg servos to jump as usual. As long as he made sure to keep the end of the pole planted in the dirt, Hanna shouldn’t suspect a thing.

  Once again, he made sure to wait until the gaps between the nearest houses on the other side of the fence were clear before setting off. With the extra complication of dealing with the pole, the trip took a bit longer than the last time. The question of what to do with the pole solved itself as he neared the village and spotted a long strip of safe plants along his side of the fence. Midway through his final vault, he gave the end of the pole a sideways push, and as he cleared the fence he watched the pole land in the plant clumps, disappearing from view beneath the leaves.

  As he had the last time, he spent the first few seconds crouched motionlessly on the ground inside the fence, listening for any sign that his unorthodox entry had been noticed. Once again, it looked like he was in the clear. Now all he had to do was stay out of sight until the villagers began gathering for the Games and hope he could sli
p in among them without anyone calling him out as a stranger.

  First, though, a little long-distance study of the Troft building seemed in order.

  Ludolf’s briefing on the village had naturally not been laid out with an eye toward Cobra strengths and observational capabilities. But the hand-made maps and other raw data had been detailed enough for Merrick to make his own assessments. His best shot, he’d concluded, was the town meeting hall a bit west of the village’s center. While the building itself was only two stories tall, it had a pair of corner bell spires that ran another five meters upward. More importantly, the spires had enough room inside for him to climb invisibly right to the top.

  Getting his bearings, adding a little light-amp enhancement to compensate for the darkening sky, he headed in.

  The streets seemed largely deserted. There were only a few people visible, most of them apparently in a hurry, all of them far enough away that Merrick didn’t have to worry about being spotted. Possibly all the rest of the people were indoors, eating or doing whatever preparations they needed for the impending mass gathering. Mindful of the old woman he’d bumped into the last time, he made sure his path would keep him clear of her house. She’d already pegged him as a stranger, and he didn’t want her getting another look at him and wondering why he was still around.

  He’d changed streets, and could see the twin bell spires over the distant rooftops, when he heard the sound of footsteps coming up behind him.

  He’d already set his own stride to match the brisk and slightly nervous pace he’d observed from Svipall’s other pedestrians. Now, he picked up that speed a little more, trying not to make it look like he was attempting to get away.

  The other footsteps sped up to compensate. They weren’t old woman’s footsteps, either, Merrick noted with a sinking feeling. Someone else had spotted him, and whether or not that someone had realized he was a stranger, he was clearly trying for a closer look.

  Merrick glanced around, keeping his head movements to a minimum. As far as he could tell, he and his pursuer were alone. He might as well deal with this now. Making sure his stunner was ready, he jerked to a halt and spun around.

 
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