Cobra outlaw earc, p.4
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.4

           Timothy Zahn
 

  “The Dominion is either in the middle of a war, or on the brink of one,” Barrington said. “The Dome isn’t supposed to be happy.”

  “Don’t be flippant, Captain,” Castenello said stiffly. “I’m simply pointing out that we have obligations.”

  “I agree,” Barrington agreed. “And one of the foremost of those obligations is to protect the other members of our task force. If this trap is meant for one of our ships, we need to stand ready to give aid.”

  “Fine,” Castenello said. “If we want to assist the task force, let’s just destroy the net and move on. Even if the Trofts have the necessary equipment at hand it would take them several days to rebuild it. If, more likely, they have to go back to one of their other worlds for replacement parts, they’d be out of the picture for weeks.”

  Kusari stirred in his seat. “Except that destroying or driving them away now will lose us the chance to see exactly who they are. And whether the net was aimed at us or is simply some pirate’s merchant trap.”

  “And how do you suggest we distinguish between those options?” Castenello asked with strained patience. “A marauder spider ship looks pretty much the same as a military one.”

  “We’ll know from their reaction when the Hermes starts firing back,” Barrington told him. “A pirate isn’t going to stick around for a real fight. A military force will.”

  “And the volume of fire Hermes sends back at the spiders should also draw out whoever they’ve got lurking in the glare,” Kusari added.

  “Exactly,” Barrington said.

  Castenello looked back and forth between them. “I’d argue the point further, Captain, but it’s clear you’ve made up your mind,” he growled. “With your permission, I’ll return to my station and start drawing up combat contingencies.”

  “An excellent idea,” Barrington said. “And with that, we’re finished here.”

  Garrett nodded and stood up. “Gentlemen: you’re dismissed to your posts,” he said in the proper formal tone.

  The others stood in turn and filed out. Garrett nodded a silent farewell to Barrington and started to follow.

  “A word, Commander,” Barrington called after him.

  Garrett stopped a meter from the door, allowing it to close in front of him. “Yes, sir?” he asked, turning back around.

  “Your take on the situation?” Barrington invited.

  “Militarily? Or politically?”

  “Either. Both.”

  Garrett gave a microscopic shrug. “It largely depends on what happens over the next few days. If it turns out the net was set for one of our ships, and our presence is the difference between victory and defeat, you’ll be a big enough hero that not even Castenello’s patron will be able to touch you.” He pursed his lips. “Conversely, if he’s right and the trap is just some pirates hoping to snag a merchant—and if we delay here long enough to miss out on Ukuthi’s offer—he’ll hang you out to dry. I doubt even Asgard and your patron together will be able to save you.”

  Barrington nodded. That had been his assessment, as well. “It’s still the right thing to do.”

  “I agree, sir.” Garrett hesitated. “For whatever it’s worth, Captain, I don’t think Commander Castenello’s arguments are entirely based on tactical considerations. I think he’s deliberately setting you up for a fall.”

  “Interesting thought,” Barrington said. He’d already figured out that one, too. “Though if I were you I’d keep it to myself. It’s a political minefield out there, and all you’re wearing are carpet slippers.”

  “Indeed,” Garrett said with a faint smile. “I really need to invest in some armored wading boots.”

  “I’ve often found them to be handy,” Barrington agreed. “Still, I imagine there’s a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that you’ve made it to your current position on your own, without the conniving or smoothing of hidden political forces.”

  Garrett shrugged again. “I’m told those forces aren’t all that hidden if you know where to look.”

  “And can stomach what you see,” Barrington told him. “War’s an ugly enough business without injecting politics into it. Especially since in politics the flowing blood is mostly invisible. It can be a bit creepy.”

  “I’ll remember that, sir,” Garrett said. “If that’s all, Captain, I’m still on duty in CoNCH.”

  “Dismissed, Commander,” Barrington said. “No, wait. On second thought, I think I’d rather you go assist Commander Castenello with his tactical work. I’ll take the rest of your watch.”

  Garrett’s forehead furrowed slightly. But his nod was firm enough. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Anything in particular you want me to keep an eye on?”

  “Keep an eye on?” Barrington repeated, allowing some puzzlement into his voice. “You’re not there to keep an eye on anything, Commander. You’re merely to assist with the work, and to make sure all possible scenarios have been considered and prepared for.”

  “Understood, sir,” Garrett said. With another farewell nod, he turned and left the room.

  Not entirely based on tactical considerations. Barrington snorted under his breath. “You think, Commander?” he murmured into the silence.

  But that was all right. Castenello might dream about taking down a Dominion ship’s captain as a prize for his patron, but he was likely to find such prey harder to swallow than he realized. Barrington might not especially like political games, but he did know how to play them.

  In the meantime, there was a puzzle here to be solved. And he and the Dorian were going to solve it.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Merrick Moreau had been a Troft slave for only a little over three weeks. Most of that time had been spent aboard the transport that had brought him and Anya Winghunter from Qasama to Muninn, which had meant he hadn’t had to do any genuine slave-type labor. Still, even without the work, and with only that brief exposure, he’d easily come to the obvious fact that being a slave was a terrible thing.

  What hadn’t been so obvious, and which Merrick had only learned over the past few hours, was that being an ex-slave was nearly as bad.

  Of course, maybe that conclusion only applied to self-freed slaves. Officially freed slaves might be given food and water for the road, or at least a polite word of dismissal.

  Officially freed slaves certainly wouldn’t have their former masters scouring the deep Muninn forest in search of them.

  The Trofts were definitely out there. Merrick knew it as he gazed out into the starlit gloom of the night. His trick with the crashed hang glider hadn’t fooled them. They knew he was still alive, and they were going to get him back. Alive, or otherwise.

  But if they were nearby, they were keeping quiet about it. Merrick’s enhanced hearing was alive with strange noises, but there was nothing he could identify with Trofts or Troft vehicles. His enhanced vision, both infrared and telescopic, showed nothing but small- to medium-sized animals and birds going busily about their lives.

  There were larger predators in the forest, Merrick knew, creatures of muscle, claws, and teeth that even Cobra weapons and programmed reflexes would be hard-pressed to deal with. Luckily, like the Trofts, so far they seemed to be keeping their distance.

  There was a rustling in the leaves to his left. Reflexively, Merrick tensed, his hands curling into fingertip-laser firing positions.

  But it was just Anya, shifting position in her sleep.

  Merrick exhaled a silent sigh. Not that she was supposed to be asleep. Not now. Certainly not here. She was supposed to be leading them to a secret hideout where she’d said they would find her parents, who’d allegedly been hiding out ever since their failed revolt against Muninn’s Troft overlords.

  But he and Anya had stopped to rest, and Anya had fallen asleep, and Merrick had decided that a ten-minute nap couldn’t hurt anything.

  Especially since this whole scenario was still flying a whole forest of red flags in the back of his mind.

  The idea of a hidden refuge and possible alli
es was certainly an alluring one. It was exactly what he and Anya needed if they were to catch their breath, regroup, and figure out their next step. They’d been sent here by Commander Ukuthi of the Balin’ekha’spmi demesne in hopes of finding out what the Trofts of the Drim’hco’plai demesne were up to in their private slave preserve. But so far the two humans hadn’t made much progress.

  The problem was that the abortive revolt her parents were supposedly on the run from had happened twelve years ago. Twelve years. Merrick couldn’t figure out why Anya assumed the hideout even existed anymore, let alone that anyone was still using it.

  In fact, the more Merrick thought about it, the more dangerously ridiculous the assumption became. If he’d been in charge of that long-ago revolt, he would have instantly abandoned any known shelter the minute the Trofts quashed the rebellion. After all, a victor’s first step in that situation was usually to root out any surviving pockets of resistance, and part of that rooting would be to drag the location of every bolt-hole from the survivors. If the Trofts knew about Anya’s refuge, even if that knowledge was over a decade old, simply strolling into it would not be a smart thing to do.

  Yet Anya, who seemed clear-headed enough in other areas, seemed to have missed that piece of logic completely. More than that, she seemed convinced that her parents would still be waiting when they arrived.

  Could it be simply a matter of her wanting her parents to be there? She’d implied that they’d run off after the revolt failed, leaving their twelve-year-old daughter and the other villagers holding the bag. She’d also admitted that she still harbored some not unreasonable resentment over the fact that she’d ended up as a slave under Commander Ukuthi’s control.

  But even the hottest angers tended to cool with time. After twelve years maybe Anya was ready to offer her parents the chance to mend fences.

  Or else she was looking for them in order to exact some sort of revenge. Merrick had known Anya barely a month, and he couldn’t begin to guess all of what was going on behind those clear blue eyes.

  He needed time to think, and he really hadn’t had any. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to let Anya sleep as long as she wanted and in the process buy himself a little more time to ponder.

  And to maybe to come up with a Plan B if and when Anya’s Plan A didn’t pan out.

  There was a quiet rustling in the undergrowth to Merrick’s right. Carefully, he turned his head to look.

  This particular animal hadn’t yet shown up on his brief tour of Muninn’s wildlife. But it was a good meter and a half long, it had the short neck, wide jaws, and long teeth of a predator, and it was moving stealthily in their direction.

  If it had been broad daylight, Merrick would simply have fired a double burst from his fingertip lasers into the creature’s half-open mouth and been done with it. Unfortunately, with Troft aircars presumably still flitting around up there, a flash of even muted artificial light would be dangerous.

  Something a little more subtle was called for. Watching the animal’s infrared signature closely, Merrick fired off a short burst from his sonic.

  The IR pattern changed, and for a couple of seconds the creature seemed to stagger. Then the pattern returned to its original form, the animal regained its balance, and with only a brief hesitation it resumed its stalking approach.

  Merrick grimaced. Unfortunately, that was the more or less what he’d expected to happen. Cobras had two sets of implanted sonics: one designed to shatter glass and other resonant breakables, as well as interfering with listening devices; the other tuned to stun or disorient Trofts. The former would be of no use against an animal, and he’d now confirmed that the latter wasn’t hitting any of the predator’s vulnerable frequencies.

  Merrick’s gear also included a current-based stunner, which would almost certainly put the predator down for the count. Unfortunately, the stunner worked off Merrick’s arcthrower, which would flash even more brightly than the fingertip lasers.

  All of which, even more unfortunately, only left Merrick one option.

  Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out the control bar he’d taken from his hang glider and got a grip on one end. The animal paused, as if evaluating this new move on the part of its prey, then continued inching forward. Merrick waited until it was just within reach, then leaned over and tapped the tip of the bar lightly against the top of its snout.

  The animal snorted, twitching against what its brain probably registered as an annoying insect. Merrick tapped it again, and this time the predator snapped its head up and grabbed the end of the rod.

  And with the animal’s jaws partially open, Merrick swiveled around on his hip, pressed his left heel against the gap between the upper and lower teeth, and fired his antiarmor laser down its throat.

  He’d been concerned that, even with the blast mostly contained, enough of the light might leak out to create a danger. Fortunately, the sharply back-angled teeth had put his heel well inside the jawline when he fired, and the only visible flicker was off the tongue and roof of the mouth. The creature collapsed and lay still.

  “Is it dead?”

  Merrick looked over at Anya. She hadn’t moved, but her eyes were open. The variegated IR pattern of her face was still changing—clearly, she hadn’t been awake very long. “If it isn’t, it will be soon,” he said. “How are you doing?”

  “Well enough,” she said, reaching up and briefly rubbing her eyes. She lowered her hands, and Merrick saw that her IR image had again changed with the newly altered blood flow. “Why did you let me sleep?”

  “You seemed to need it,” Merrick told her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone conk out so soundly lying on leaves and half-buried roots. Though after sleeping on a mat on the Sollas subcity concrete, I suppose even tree roots are an improvement.”

  “As you say, I was tired.” She hunched her shoulders and pulled herself up into a sitting position. “Shall we go?”

  “In a minute,” Merrick said. “I need to ask you a couple of things first.”

  “Questions can until we’re safely in the refuge.”

  “The questions are about the refuge,” Merrick told her.

  Her IR pattern changed subtly. “Ask, then.”

  “Let’s start with your parents,” Merrick suggested. “Tell me about their rebellion twelve years ago.”

  Another shift in the pattern. “What do you want to know?”

  “What exactly happened?” Merrick asked. “I assume they didn’t just pick up rocks and charge into battle.”

  “They did use rocks, where it was appropriate,” Anya said, a little stiffly. “Not held, but catapulted. They also used arrows, blowgun darts, and weapons dropped by winghunters upon the masters’ positions.” The IR pattern changed again. “But in the end, it all came to nothing.”

  Not surprising, if they were attacking laser-armed Trofts with bows and arrows. Sometimes, Merrick mused, there was a fine line between raw courage and ill-considered stupidity. “What kind of weapons did the winghunters drop?” he asked. “Homemade explosives? More arrows?”

  “The winghunters dropped powder of freshly-harvested bersark,” Anya said. “It was hoped it would confuse or otherwise disable them.”

  Merrick winced. Unprocessed bersark, he’d been told, was a highly poisonous substance. Chemical warfare at its finest. “And if the bersark didn’t get them, crazed kilerands would?” he suggested.

  “That was another hope,” Anya said, nodding. “Though kilerands normally eat bersark accidentally, when it’s mixed in with their other foods. There was no promise that they would eat the powder that was dropped.”

  “Though even if they did, you’d still need the Trofts to make loud noises,” Merrick pointed out. “That’s what draws them, right? Loud noises?”

  “There was no fear of that,” Anya said bitterly. “The masters continually make loud noises. They shout when they want us to work. They shout when they want us to cower.” Her throat worked. “They shout when they want us to di
e.”

  “I gather the bersark approach didn’t work any better than the rest of it?”

  Anya shook her head. “It was my parents’ best hope. The masters had spent much of their rule in their own areas, isolated from the forest villages, and the rebels hoped they hadn’t learned the nature of all our plants and animals. But they knew bersark well enough to know how to avoid it or counteract its effects.”

  “So the rebellion failed,” Merrick said. “And your parents fled to this hideout? The one we’re currently headed for?”

  “Yes,” Anya said. “It was secure, unknown to the masters.”

  “Was,” Merrick said, leaning heavily on the word. “That’s the operative word here. Was. What makes you think the Trofts didn’t have every local bolt-hole and hiding place identified and raided two hours after the last rebel surrendered?”

  The blood flow in Anya’s face again changed. “I don’t understand.”

  “They would have interrogated their prisoners, Anya,” Merrick said patiently. Was she really that naïve? “I know your people are brave, but a good interrogator can—”

  “There were no prisoners,” Anya said. “The masters killed them all.”

  Merrick frowned. “What are you talking about? There are always prisoners.”

  “Not here,” Anya said, her face suddenly blazing with heat. “Not us. We do not surrender.”

  Merrick stared at her, a sudden chill running through him. He’d read about warrior cultures, mostly on Earth but some on other Dominion worlds, where surrender in battle was simply not an option. But neither the Cobra Worlds nor the Qasamans had any such military conviction.

  It seemed unbelievable. Still, maybe he’d already seen a hint of that philosophy in action. Yesterday, high up on the cliff, Anya had been prepared to sacrifice her life to keep Merrick’s secret from the Trofts. Maybe that readiness to die had been part of her culture, a part he’d never even suspected.

  And as the new reality sank in, the conversation in Gangari on the previous day suddenly took on new meaning. [The dark memory of years past, you still have it?] one of the Trofts had asked.

 
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