Cobra outlaw earc, p.32
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.32

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Once again Merrick’s servos reacted with inhuman speed, throwing him in the direction opposite to the incoming punch so that when Emil’s fist actually connected it was with far less force that it would otherwise have been. The remaining impact, powerful though it was, was easily absorbed by Merrick’s ceramic-laminated bones.

  Fortunately, that wasn’t what the crowd and the Trofts would have seen. Even if someone had been quick-eyed enough to notice the start of Merrick movement, the universal assumption would be that his short arc through the air was due to the strength of Emil’s punch.

  Still, Merrick was going to have a good-sized bruise where the fist had connected. Worse, sooner or later the man was likely to land a punch somewhere in Merrick’s lower torso, an area that wasn’t protected by any of his unbreakable bones. At that point, even with his programmed reflexes, Merrick would be at risk of serious organ damage.

  The last thing he wanted to do was hurt any of these people. But getting himself killed or maimed wasn’t part of the plan, either.

  Time to end this thing.

  Emil was charging again as Merrick recovered his balance and turned back to the fight. This time, instead of dodging, he braced himself; and as Emil got within range, he threw a hard punch of his own into Emil’s lower ribs.

  The impact jolted Emil to a halt, his eyes going wide as an agonized explosion of air burst from his mouth. Merrick took a step back, waiting for the man to crumple to the ground.

  Only he didn’t. Apparently, bersarkis didn’t just control pain, but also gave extra endurance. For a few seconds Emil just stood there, rocking back and forth on his heels. Then, shaking himself like a wet dog, he focused again on Merrick. His lips curled back in a death’s-head smile, and his left hand slapped the sleeve of his right arm. He shook himself again as his second jolt of bersarkis flowed into his bloodstream. Then, bunching his hands into fists, he once again leaped to the attack.

  And now the fight began in earnest.

  Merrick had always liked weapon- and martial arts-type movies, holding a special admiration for the high-speed, carefully choreographed fight sequences that were a staple of such dramas. Now, for the first time in his life, he felt as if he had been dropped into the middle of one of those battles.

  Except that this one wasn’t choreographed. This one was real.

  Emil fought like a madman, throwing punches, kicks, and sometimes his entire body at Merrick, with apparently little thought for tactics and no thought at all for self-preservation. Merrick fended him off as best he could, trying to figure out how to take him down without inflicting permanent damage.

  Still, sooner or later, the bersarkis in Emil’s bloodstream had to run out, and at that point the man would hopefully keel over from either accumulated injuries or sheer fatigue. Merrick just had to hold him off until that happened, and the fight would be over.

  He had just deflected the latest punch, and delivered an open-palm jab to Emil’s shoulder blade, when the amplified Troft voice gave the order Merrick had been dreading. [The red patch, you will use it now.]

  Emil staggered back a few steps, breathing heavily. He glanced at the hovering aircar, then behind him at the Troft building, then finally turned back at Merrick. His throat worked, and with clear reluctance he brought up his left arm and slapped his right palm against it. His back spasmed, jerking him straight up like a puppet on a shortened chain, then sagged him into a sort of standing limpness.

  Watching him closely, wondering if the man was about to have a stroke or heart attack, Merrick tapped his own left forearm and mimicked Emil’s reaction as best he could. So far all Red Patch seemed to be doing was calming Emil down. Was it a sort of anti-bersarkis?

  [Your opponent, you will kill him now.]

  Merrick felt his mouth drop open. What the hell?

  Emil shook his head sadly. “I am sorry,” he said.

  And charged.

  Merrick had thought the other man had been fighting all-out before. He’d been wrong. He’d thought Emil had been more or less a mindless animal before. He’d been wrong.

  He’d thought he’d been fighting for his life before. Now, suddenly, he was.

  It was like battling an invulnerable razorarm, or trying to stop a runaway car with his bare hands. Emil had become a wild man, flailing at Merrick with every single-minded brain cell and every gram of strength. Thirty seconds into the clash, Merrick knew that there was no way he could keep himself unharmed long enough to survive. Not unless he obeyed the Troft’s order and killed Emil first.

  Unless…

  It would be a terrible risk. But it was the only other choice he had. The only chance for both of them.

  Getting his bearings, trusting in his nanocomputer to block or dodge Emil’s attacks, Merrick began to back slowly toward one of the wooden floodlight poles. This was going to take timing and luck, and both required that he first maneuver himself and Emil into precisely the right spot.

  Fortunately, Emil no longer had any brainpower left to wonder if he was being maneuvered. He simply continued to advance, swinging his fists and feet and head, trying to find an opening for the death blow he’d been ordered by his masters to deliver. Merrick eased them backward until they were only two meters from the pole. A quick glance behind him while dodging a punch confirmed that the spectators in the area had moved elsewhere, leaving him an open path to the pole.

  Now, all he had to do was wait for Emil to throw the right kind of punch.

  It came three attacks later: a straight-in, right-hand punch toward Merrick’s chest. As the fist lanced toward him, Merrick pushed off with his leading foot, falling back from the incoming blow as he’d done so many times in the past few minutes. The fist slammed into his sternum, adding a jolt of extra momentum to Merrick’s movement.

  Only this time, instead of simply continuing backward, Merrick gave a final shove off the ground, adding a twist to turn him a hundred eighty degrees over. As he slammed chest-first into the wooden pole, his left hand caught the back of the pole at his stomach, his right hand caught the front of the pole at his throat—

  And with a pull-shove from his arm servos, he snapped the pole in two.

  His momentum faltered slightly with the impact. Giving a last pull on the lower part of the poll with his left hand, he threw himself across the broken part as it toppled toward the ground.

  There was no time for him to see whether or not the pole was going to hit any of the crowd back there, nor was there anything he could do about it if it was. The move had been quick enough and subtle enough that all anyone should have seen was Emil hitting him so hard that his impact with the pole had been hard enough to break it.

  And even with bersarkis flowing through his blood, there was no way a human being should be able to survive such a blow and the accompanying damage to heart and lungs. Rolling limply off the downed pole, Merrick flipped over one final time and landed on his face in the dirt.

  Dead.

  At least, that was what he hoped they would all think. Lying motionlessly, keeping his breaths small, slow, and shallow, he waited tensely. If Emil wasn’t fooled, or if he interpreted his order to mean tearing his opponent’s head off to be sure, then Merrick would have no choice but to kill him.

  And then, to his relief, the amplified voice again filled the silence. [The Game, it has ended,] the Troft said. [The body, carry it to the analysis area. The survivor, he will accompany it.]

  There was a stirring from the crowd, and Merrick felt strong hands close around his arms and legs and lift him gently from the ground. Other arms slid beneath his legs and back, and he felt himself being carried across the ground to the Troft building. Beside him, he could hear heavy, gasping breaths: Emil, no doubt, with the stress and agony of the battle finally starting to catch up with him.

  Hopefully, they would be taken to different areas of the building for analysis. Even more hopefully, the “corpse” would be taken past the outer room, where Merrick would have a chance of seeing more of th
e Trofts’ operation.

  [Dyre Woodsplitter and Mihlje Dawnhunter, you will enter the circle.]

  Merrick suppressed a grimace. No time to mourn the dead, not even a moment of respectful silence. Death and agony were slave things, not something the masters needed to concern themselves with. The masters had work to do and important studies to make.

  And above all, the show must go on.

  This time it would be Dyre with his life and health on the line for the Trofts’ amusement and edification. Merrick could only hope, for his sake, that they wouldn’t make this one another battle to the death.

  Though if they did, and if Dyre lost, the whole complication of Anya already having a betrothed would pretty much disappear.

  Merrick felt his face warm with shame. There was absolutely no call for him to even think that way. There was nothing between him and Anya. Not at all. And when looked at through the cold light of logic, he knew there couldn’t be. Their backgrounds, their cultures, their homes—the two of them were just too different. They worked well enough as comrades-in-arms, but there could never be anything more. Never.

  The bersarkis had been injected, and the battle in the circle was in progress by the time Merrick’s handlers maneuvered him through the door into the preparation room. [That bed, put him on it,] one of the medical Trofts ordered. [That bed, Emil Grainplanter will lie on it.]

  [The order, I obey it,] Emil wheezed.

  Keeping his eyes closed, Merrick keyed his opticals. Emil was trudging through the medical equipment toward the indicated bed, looking like death hunting for a place to happen. Still, he looked like he would survive.

  In the meantime, Merrick had problems of his own. The minute the Trofts hooked him up to any sensors his lack of actual death would come instantly to light. His choices were either to let that happen and pretend he’d simply been knocked unconscious with no deliberate fakery involved, or else to make his move for the rear door before they could get that far.

  From the half open door came the voice of the Troft Gamemaster, ordering Dyre and the other man to use their Red Patches. The people carrying Merrick laid him gently on the examination bed and began to file back through the equipment maze toward the door and the field beyond.

  “Masters!” Dyre’s voice came faintly across the breeze. “The man who was killed—he wasn’t Nicolai Hidetanner. He was Merrick Hopekeeper. He was the slave you’ve been looking for!”

  And with that, Merrick’s choices had suddenly boiled down to exactly one.

  He shoved himself up off the bed, rolling his legs over the side and hitting the floor running. Someone behind him screamed as the dead man came back to life—

  And then he hit the inner door with his shoulder, bouncing it violently open, and charged into the main part of the Troft building.

  It was, for the most part, the single large room that he’d originally guessed it might be. The large open floor of the lower level was flanked by rows of office-type doors, the upper area edged with catwalks where armored guards kept watch. The main floor was filled with lab tables, glass-and-steel equipment, and all the vents, burners, filter systems, separators, and analyzers of a modern chemical lab.

  And like the catwalks above, the main floor was teaming with Trofts.

  There was information to be had in here, Merrick knew. Massive, vitally important stacks of information. The kind of data that he and Ludolf had both hoped to find here. The kind of information that Commander Ukuthi had sent Merrick here to find in the first place.

  But there was no way Merrick could gather any of it. Not here and now. There were too many Trofts, too many lasers, and not nearly enough time. Right now, his first and only priority was to get out without getting himself killed for real.

  And yet, almost paradoxically, this was the first situation he’d encountered since his arrival on Muninn that was in any way familiar.

  Because part of his Cobra training had been dedicated to scenarios dealing with enemy-held buildings and landscapes. Typically the goal of those exercises had been to defeat and neutralize, not simply escape. But the basic principles were the same.

  And in the next fifteen seconds, Merrick used all of them.

  He ran. Full speed, as fast and as hard as his servos and bruised, aching muscles could take him. Not just on the floor, where he had to dodge tables and astonished Trofts, but up onto the tables, over and sometimes through testing equipment, back to the floor, back onto the tables, whichever route let him move the fastest.

  He was halfway across the room before the first laser shots started raining down on him from the armed Trofts on the catwalks. But the shots were few, cautious, and inaccurate, as the guards apparently hesitated to risk damaging fragile and expensive equipment. One or two of the techs on the floor seemed inclined to play hero, moving to cut off the intruder’s path. Merrick didn’t even bother running them over, but simply dodged around or over them.

  Anywhere else in the Troft Assemblage, he suspected, his speed and power would have instantly damned him as a Cobra. But here on Muninn, the Trofts’ own schemes had worked against them. With Merrick’s body assumed to be full of bersarkis, nothing short of firing his lasers or sonics would reveal him for what he really was.

  The door at the far end, like the one he’d entered the test area through, was heavy and clearly armored. But such doors were designed to keep intruders out, not to seal occupants in, especially in a chemical lab where a simple dropped beaker could have lethal effects for anyone in the vicinity. Merrick’s shoulder against the door popped it open with barely any resistance—

  And then he was out, legs pumping even harder as he ran through the cool night air across the uneven ground. A glance over his shoulder showed the Troft aircar was still hovering over the Games area, frozen in midair by the confusion and chaos of Merrick’s escape.

  A glimpse was all he got before he reached the edge of the forest and plunged in, keying his light-amps as even the dim starlight was cut off by the leafy canopy.

  The chaos wouldn’t last long, he knew. Another few minutes at the most, and the hunt would be on in earnest. Especially with Dyre’s betrayal to spur them on.

  Merrick had trusted the man with his life. This was how that trust had been treated.

  Anya probably wouldn’t believe it. She would probably accuse Merrick of lying, or of misinterpreting whatever Dyre had said. Even if she believed him, she would probably make excuses for her betrothed.

  Merrick couldn’t make her believe what had happened back there. But he would damn well make sure she knew about it. For her safety, as well as his.

  And for no other reason, he told himself firmly. No other reason at all.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  Archway, Lorne thought with grim satisfaction as he gazed across the city, was coming to come to a boil.

  And that was good. Because Reivaro, the Marines, the Dominion of Man itself needed to know that the Cobra Worlds were not to be trifled with, or the wishes of its citizens ignored.

  Governor Chintawa had tried diplomacy and civility, only to be ignored. If violence was the only thing the Dominion understood, then violence was what they were going to get.

  And if Lorne was the only Cobra in DeVegas still able to deliver such messages, he was more than willing to take on the job.

  He smiled. And when, he wondered, had he started thinking to himself in history-book-style quotes? Maybe that kind of mindset came with the territory.

  Territory that was turning out to be a full-time occupation. His first attack had been just four days ago, when he’d hit Dominion Marines’ headquarters, knocked over a pair of guards with a concussion grenade, and littered Colonel Reivaro’s office with shards of glass. Reivaro hadn’t been there at the time, but the message had been abundantly clear.

  Two days ago Lorne had struck again, slipping into a section of the city the Marines were busy searching and wrecking one of their aircars. That had gotten him a lot of media exposure, plus a fifteen-minute, te
eth-clenched broadcast statement from Reivaro that had included a warning about what would happen to anyone caught in the act of sabotage.

  But those attacks, visible though they’d been, had been merely pinpricks. They’d been designed to get Reivaro too mad to think straight, and to get the Marines jumping at their own shadows. It was time now for Lorne to give Reivaro a solid gut-punch.

  In this case, Yates Fabrications.

  The factory was a good half-kilometer from the rooftop where Lorne was currently crouched, surrounded by a swath of open parkland and a couple of dozen Dominion Marines. Matavuli had said the place had shut down, but apparently Reivaro had gotten it up and running again.

  Lorne’s mother Jin had successfully sabotaged the plant once. Now, it was Lorne’s turn.

  He keyed up his telescopics another notch, studying the guard pattern. The number of men on duty over there had steadily decreased as Lorne’s raids elsewhere in the city had forced Reivaro to redistribute his forces. If Lorne was lucky, there might be a gap where he could slip through without being spotted. Once he was inside—

  “There you are,” an all-too familiar voice came from behind him.

  Lorne felt his whole body go rigid. Reivaro?

  “Don’t,” Reivaro continued, his voice casual. “Whatever you’re thinking about trying, just don’t. All possible avenues of escape are covered, and trying to make a fight of it will just get you killed.”

  Lorne took a deep breath. The man might be bluffing. “I suppose I can’t complain,” he said, keeping his voice light. “I had a good run.”

  Reivaro snorted. “Hardly. Stand up and turn around. Slowly.”

  Bracing himself, Lorne obeyed.

  Reivaro wasn’t bluffing. He was standing in the center of the roof, twenty meters away, a dozen combat-suited Marines spread out at his sides.

 
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