Cobra outlaw earc, p.31
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.31

           Timothy Zahn
 

  To find himself facing probably the last person he’d expected.

  “I was right,” Dyre Woodsplitter growled, coming to a halt two paces away. “It is you.”

  “It’s me, all right,” Merrick said, his mind freezing as he stared at the other man’s face. Dyre Woodsplitter, the man who’d bullied him and otherwise given him a rough time aboard the slave transport that had brought them all to Muninn. Dyre Woodsplitter, who had traveled with their group across the forest to Anya’s village of Gangari. Dyre Woodsplitter, whom he and Anya had left in that village when they ran away.

  Dyre Woodsplitter, who Anya had identified as her betrothed.

  “You were a fool to come to Svipall,” Dyre growled. “Why are you here?”

  “I could ask you the same question,” Merrick countered. First Leif, Katla, and Gina Streamjumper; and now Dyre Woodcutter, too. Had the Trofts airlifted in the whole damn village?

  “I had little choice,” Dyre said bitterly. “All those who have seen your face and Anya’s have been brought here.”

  “Ah,” Merrick said, his stomach tightening as it belatedly made sense. Somewhere in the back of his mind he’d assumed the Trofts kept close track of their slaves, with profiles and photos of everyone on file. Apparently, that wasn’t the case.

  And of course, even if it had been, Merrick wouldn’t be in the system and any photo they’d had of Anya would be twelve years out of date. The Trofts could have taken new photos of all the returning slaves, but they clearly hadn’t bothered to do so.

  “The masters knew you would come to Svipall,” Dyre continued. “They’ve promised safety and reward to whoever finds you.”

  “And so you have,” Merrick said, keying his infrareds. Dyre was a big man, but he was well within range of Merrick’s stunner. If necessary, Merrick could drop him before he could even finish taking a breath to shout with.

  The problem was that the stunner was a flash of low-power arcthrower current, and while the resulting flash and thundercrack were small they weren’t negligible. Silencing Dyre wouldn’t do much good if Merrick woke up the entire neighborhood in the process. “So now what?” he asked. “You going to cash in on that reward?”

  Dyre’s eyes were steady on him. “If it were only you, I would already have called to the masters,” he said. “But Anya is my betrothed. I will not willingly bring harm to her.”

  Merrick felt his forehead wrinkle. “Anya’s not here,” he pointed out.

  “That’s of no matter,” Dyre said. “I don’t know how or why, but her fate is somehow tied to yours. Your destruction will also bring suffering to her. To protect her I thus must also save you.” The big man took a big breath. “So be it. What do you wish from me?”

  On one level, Merrick reflected, Dyre’s cooperative attitude was completely unexpected. On another level, it made perfect sense.

  More importantly, the infrared analysis of Dyre’s face was coming down on the perfect-sense side of the equation. “I need more information on the masters’ building,” he said. “I’m thinking I should be able to get a good view from one of the bell spires.”

  Dyre snorted. “You’ll see nothing of any use from such a distance. If you wish to see it from close, even from the inside, you must volunteer for the Games.”

  Merrick felt his mouth drop open. “You’re not serious.”

  “Anya said you’d been trained in your master’s version of the Games,” Dyre said, looking Merrick up and down. “Did she lie about that?” His lip twisted. “As she lied about your inability to speak?”

  Merrick winced. As with Kjoic, surprise at the unexpected company had shocked him out of the role he was supposed to be playing. “I was the one who asked her to lie about that,” he said, an obscure impulse pushing him to take the responsibility onto himself instead of admitting that the mute act had been Anya’s idea. “I was afraid my accent would draw attention.”

  “Perhaps,” Dyre said. “You didn’t answer my question.”

  “If you mean the Games, yes, I was trained,” Merrick said. Being thrown into an arena with a jormungand and a few razorarms sort of counted as training, he supposed.

  “Then why do you fear them?”

  “I don’t,” Merrick said. “I’m simply thinking that walking into the masters’ stronghold might not be the smartest thing I could do today.”

  “If they knew your face, you would already be in their hands,” Dyre said impatiently. “But if you prefer to climb the a bell spire, I would not dream of stopping you.”

  “Okay, okay, relax,” Merrick said. He was right, of course. And again, if he wanted to betray Merrick he could have already done that. “How do I get in there?”

  “You walk to the entrance and tell the master that you wish to volunteer,” Dyre said with exaggerated patience. “And you need to do so now. The hour is already drawing near.”

  Merrick chewed the inside of his cheek. It was risky. Damn risky.

  But if he could pull it off, it would be worth it. After all, there was no safer way of infiltrating an enemy stronghold than to be invited in. “All right, you’re on,” he said. “Is there any special trick to getting in? Any particular words or phrasing I have to use?”

  Dyre rolled his eyes. “I see now why you thought it wise to remain silent. Of course there are words.” He huffed out a breath. “The only way this will work is if we go together.”

  He huffed again. “Follow me.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  He turned and strode off toward the Troft building. Merrick hurried after him, his mind spinning, trying to figure out how to diplomatically tell Dyre to back off, that he didn’t need his help.

  But all the excuses and soothing diplomacy in the universe couldn’t alter one very important fact. Namely, that Merrick did need Dyre’s help.

  He shook his head, feeling the heavy hand of irony. He’d undertaken this whole mission, in large part, because of Anya. Because looking into her eyes he’d realized that she and her people needed his help. Now, Dyre was risking his own life and freedom to help a fugitive for the same woman.

  Either he and Dyre were both fools of the highest order, or there was something about Anya that both men recognized was worth fighting over. An old saying whispered through Merrick’s mind: For her price is above rubies…

  The side of the gray building facing into the village had two doors: a large, hangar-sized folding door, and a smaller, person-sized door, the latter flanked by two armed Trofts. Stretching out in front of the doors was the open area where Merrick had seen the villagers gathering six nights ago. With the area currently unoccupied, he could see that a twenty-meter-diameter circle had been marked off in the center of the field. That, presumably, was the combat ground. A meter back from the circle and spaced evenly around it were the four pole-mounted floodlights he’d also seen the last time.

  The poles were fairly thin, and as they started across the field Merrick keyed his telescopics for closer study. If the poles were made of metal, and if the current going to the floodlights was on the same circuit, a quick burn-and-weld with his fingertip lasers might be able to short out all four of the lights at the same time.

  But the poles were just wood. Still, the power lines to the lights were visible, running down along the sides and disappearing underground. It would now take four laser shots, but he could shut down the lights if the evening degenerated into last resorts. Hopefully, it wouldn’t.

  The entrance procedure wasn’t nearly as big a deal as Dyre had made it sound. Merrick and Dyre merely walked up to the guards, gave their names—which, for Merrick, was the name Nicolai Hidetanner—and Dyre told them they wished to participate in the Games. The Trofts checked with someone via comm, then opened the door and passed them through.

  It was something Merrick could easily have done on his own. Still, he had to admit there was a sense of safety in numbers, even if that number was only two.

  He had nurtured a small hope that the building might turn out to be a sin
gle large room, and that by simply stepping through the door he could see everything that was going on inside. The Trofts, of course, hadn’t been that stupid or careless. The room he and Dyre stepped into was long and narrow, with the front section set up like a waiting room and the rear section looking like a compact hospital diagnostic center. The bench seats in front held six more young men, talking quietly among themselves as they eyed the newcomers. In the rear section, four hospital beds were nestled in the middle of a collection of sensor, monitor, and drug-dispensing equipment. A pair of Trofts in medical smocks looked up from their work as Merrick and Dyre entered, and one of them picked up a shallow, rectangular dish and started toward the newcomers.

  “Bersarkis?” Merrick murmured, nodding toward the dish.

  “Bersarkis and more,” Dyre murmured back. “The Games in Svipall are a test. The potions the masters use are…not pleasant.”

  “Really,” Merrick said, hearing his heartbeat speeding up. Dyre hadn’t mentioned anything about the Trofts pumping strange chemicals into their slaves’ bodies.

  In which case, maybe this wasn’t about anything nearly so noble as protecting Anya by protecting Merrick. Maybe Dyre’s plan was to maneuver Merrick into a medical test program in hopes of taking him out of the picture completely.

  If which case, he was in for a surprise. In the far wall, half hidden by the hospital setup, was another door, unguarded and not particularly sturdy-looking. At the first sign of a hypo, Merrick decided, he would stun everyone in the room with a sonic blast and make for that door. With luck, he could find out what was happening in the rest of the building and get out before they realized what they had on their hands.

  Of course, once the Trofts knew there was a Cobra loose on their world Merrick’s life on the run would instantly a lot harder. But he would deal with that problem when he got there.

  The Troft made it through the crush of medical equipment and started across the waiting room. Merrick braced himself…

  Dyre took a step forward, pulled up his sleeves and extended his arms with his palms up. The Troft stopped in front of him and pressed four small tan-colored patches onto the inside of his right forearm, spacing them along the arm from wrist to elbow. A larger, dark-red patch went onto Dyre’s left forearm. [These patches, use them at need,] the alien said, pointing to the row on Dyre’s right arm. He pointed to the red patch. [This patch, use it only when ordered.]

  Dyre bowed. [The order, I obey it.]

  Taking the cue, Merrick had already pushed up his sleeves and held out his arms. The Troft gave him a similar set of patches, repeated the same instructions, then returned to the medical area.

  Merrick looked down at his arms. The patches were cold, and the adhesive on them made his skin itch. From the top they seemed to be simple pieces of plastic, but now that they were in place he could feel a hard nub in the center of each one pressing into his arms. “What did he mean, at need?” he murmured to Dyre.

  “These are bersarkis,” Dyre said, wiggling his right arm slightly. “When you need extra strength you squeeze the center or give it a sharp slap to drive the drug into your blood.”

  “Ah,” Merrick said, a shiver running through him. After his experience with the bersark patch outside Svipall, he had zero interest in dealing with anything even remotely connected to the plant.

  Fortunately, he wouldn’t have to. Any extra strength he needed tonight would come from his servos, not some marginally refined poison. “What’s the other one?”

  “The people of Svipall call it simply Red Patch,” Dyre said grimly. “No one knows what it is. But you heard the master. When you are ordered, you must inject it into your arm.”

  “Got it,” Merrick said, carefully pushing his sleeves back down over the patches, wondering if there was some way he could surreptitiously remove them now that they were out of sight.

  At the very least he should try to get rid of the Red Patch. Bersarkis was bad enough; the idea of putting an unknown chemical from a Troft lab into his body was several orders of magnitude worse.

  The problem was that, without knowing what Red Patch did, he had no idea how to fake its effects. He would just have to hope that he wasn’t the first one into the Games and could watch whoever went first and try to read from their reactions what the drug was supposed to do.

  “You.”

  Merrick looked up. The six men sitting on the benches were staring at him and Dyre. Their expressions weren’t exactly encouraging. “Yes?” Merrick said cautiously.

  “You’re not from Svipall,” one of the men declared. “Where are you from?”

  “I grew up in a village on the far side of Runatyr,” Merrick said. “But I was taken by the masters when still a teen, and haven’t been home in many years.”

  “Where were you taken?” one of the other men asked.

  “To another world,” Merrick said. “The masters there spoke differently than I did, as did their slaves. I had to learn how to speak all over again.”

  A third man snorted. “You had best prepare for a third learning.”

  “Yes,” the first man said dryly. “You sound like a swaddling.”

  Merrick hunched his shoulders. “Yes,” he said, putting some embarrassment into his tone. “I am aware.”

  One of the others murmured something to his neighbor, and they both laughed.

  And with that, to Merrick’s relief, they seemed to lose interest in him. Dyre brushed past and went to an empty spot at the end of the left-hand bench. Taking the cue, Merrick walked over and sat down beside him. “Okay, so you don’t know what Red is,” he murmured. “Do you have any idea what it does? Does it make the person stronger, or faster, or what?”

  Dyre hunched his shoulders slightly. “I don’t know. We’ll have to learn together.”

  Merrick winced. Terrific.

  He had run up the level on his audios, trying to see if there was anything he could deduce about the rest of the building from its background noises, when he heard the sound of approaching grav lifts. Apparently, someone elsewhere on the planet had once again sent observers to the Svipall Games.

  Five minutes after the aircar’s arrival, the two Troft guards came in and ordered the eight men outside.

  And naturally, since Merrick desperately wanted to go second or third, the Trofts picked him to go first.

  His opponent was the man who’d first challenged him in the waiting room and asked where he was from. Merrick had expected some last-minute instructions, but the two of them were merely called out from the group and pointed toward the open corridor leading through the silent crowd toward the brightly-lit combat circle.

  “They said your name was Nicolai Hidetanner?” the other man said quietly as they walked side by side toward the circle.

  “Yes,” Merrick said. “And you are Emil Grainplanter?”

  “Yes,” Emil said, his voice tight. “I know Svipall is not your village. But our safety depends on how you perform tonight. For our sake, do whatever is necessary to please the masters.”

  “I understand,” Merrick said, wishing he did. “You, too.”

  “I will,” Emil said. “Have you seen these Games before?”

  Merrick shook his head. “Not the ones here, no.”

  “When we reach the circle, you go right and I go left,” Emil said. “We stand beneath the lights on either side, facing each other. Stand still until given the order.” He touched his right arm. “Do not use your bersarkis until then.”

  Or until never. “Got it,” Merrick said aloud. “Good luck.”

  Emil threw him an odd look. “Thank you,” he said, his voice as odd as his expression. “May we both live to see the dawn. If not, may death come quickly.”

  Before Merrick could come up with a reply to that they reached the circle and headed their separate directions. He reached the light, stopped, and turned.

  The quiet crowd seemed to grow a little quieter. With the light shining straight down on him Merrick didn’t dare break his stan
ce to look up at the aircar overhead, but from the sound he guessed it was about thirty meters up and ten behind him. Too far away for his fingertip lasers, but certainly within range of his antiarmor.

  Whether he could actually take it down, of course, would depend on how heavily it was armored. Again, hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.

  [The Games, they now begin,] an amplified Troft voice called across the area. [The combat, you may begin it.]

  Across the circle, Emil straightened up, slapped at his right forearm, and charged.

  The sheer quickness of it took Merrick completely by surprise. Fortunately, the circle was big enough that he had time to recover and move away from the edge of the crowd before Emil could close the gap. He made a show of slapping at his own arm, making sure his fingers missed all the patches, and braced himself for Emil’s attack.

  According to Anya, bersarkis was highly efficient at giving its user extra strength and suppressing pain and anything else that might interfere with combat. But the drug apparently did nothing for a fighter’s combat tactics. Emil didn’t pause to throw a kick or punch, but simply ran full-tilt into Merrick, slamming his right shoulder into Merrick’s rib cage and bowling him over.

  Or rather, trying to bowl him over. Even as Merrick started to fall backwards his servos took over, twisting his torso to the left and simultaneously jabbing his right palm against his attacker’s left shoulder. The move sent Emil flying harmlessly to the side, his momentum carrying him on for another few steps as he fought frantically to keep from falling on his face. Merrick, for his part, got away with just a quick sideways skip before his servos got his own feet back underneath him.

  He turned to face Emil as the other struggled his way back to balance, and for a moment the two men faced each other. Merrick had expected to find rage or at least chagrin on Emil’s face, but the other simply looked back at him, his expression blank.

  Hunching his shoulders, he once again charged.

  This time Merrick was better prepared and was able to dodge aside as the other rushed past. But Emil was better prepared, too. Instead of simply rushing helplessly past Merrick after his clean miss, he braked to a halt, spun around, and threw a hard punch squarely into Merrick’s side.

 
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