Cobra outlaw earc, p.5
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.5

           Timothy Zahn
 

  [The dark memory, we still have it,] the man Anya had named as Henson Hillclimber had answered.

  At the time, Merrick had assumed the alien and the human had been talking about the same thing. Now, he realized they hadn’t.

  The Troft’s dark memory had been the insurrection itself. Henson’s dark memory had been the shame of Anya’s parents surviving the rebellion instead of dying with the other fighters.

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand,” Merrick said in a low voice. “So they’ve been hiding out here all these years?”

  “I don’t know what they’ve been doing,” Anya said, a little stiffly. “Whether hiding or continuing the fight. But if they’re still alive, they’ll be here. There’s nowhere else for them to go.”

  “Ah,” Merrick said. It seemed a rather dogmatic statement, given that they were sitting in the middle of hundreds of square kilometers of forest. But there was clearly a lot he still didn’t know about Muninn and its people, and he didn’t feel like arguing from ignorance twice in the same conversation. “Just the same, it might be better if I went ahead and checked things out.”

  Anya gave a short, rather hollow laugh. “And you think you can find it without my help? A hidden sanctuary which the masters have undoubtedly searched for years to discover?”

  “I thought you said they didn’t know it was out here.”

  “They know there was a rebellion,” Anya said. “They will surely be on the watch for future trouble.”

  And the forest was the obvious place for disaffected elements to meet and plan, away from prying eyes. The Trofts would have to be blind and stupid to miss that one. “All the more reason for me to go first,” Merrick said. “Make sure there aren’t any hidden watchers or search equipment.”

  “We go together,” Anya said firmly. She shot a furtive look at the predator Merrick had killed and pushed herself to her feet. “Stay close, and be as quiet as you can.”

  Ten minutes later, they were there.

  Though it took Merrick another minute to realize that. The clump of rock nestled among the bushes and matted grass looked no different than a hundred similar rocks they’d already passed on their nighttime trek. It was only when Anya turned to him and raised her eyebrows questioningly that he realized she was waiting for the threat assessment he’d promised.

  Slowly, carefully, he gave the area a visual sweep. There were several animals within range of his infrareds, but none of them seemed interested in the two humans who’d strayed into their territory. There was no hint of any Troft presence, either by sight or by sound. Either the aliens were still concentrating on the river ravine where Anya had dumped Merrick’s hang glider or else they’d left their aircars back at base and were conducting their search on foot.

  Abruptly, Anya clutched his arm. “Over there,” she whispered urgently. “In the reedgrass.”

  “It’s okay,” Merrick soothed. “It’s just a razorarm. Like the one we saw our first day on Muninn.”

  “I remember,” Anya said tensely. “I also remember the battles you had with the same creatures in the Games on Qasama.”

  “Those were from a different group,” Merrick reminded her. “They hadn’t seen humans before and didn’t know we were dangerous enough to avoid. This bunch has, and they do.”

  “That’s an assumption,” Anya shot back. “And a dangerous one. Why would the masters bring predators who avoid humans in order to discourage us from traveling through the forest?”

  “We don’t know that’s why they brought them,” Merrick countered. “We were just guessing.”

  “It was your own idea.”

  “And I was just guessing,” Merrick said, starting to feel a little annoyed. How many times did he have to foul up before Anya gave up this belief that he always knew what he was doing? Especially here on Muninn? “I might easily have been wrong, or only partially right. Besides, there’s also that wrecked Troft ship to consider. If the razorarm came from that, there’s no telling where they were originally headed, or for what purpose.”

  “Perhaps,” Anya said reluctantly, still staring in the razorarm’s direction. “We must still be cautious.”

  “We are,” Merrick assured her. “You can’t see it in the darkness, but the razorarm’s spines are still tucked against its forelegs, and it’s standing straight up instead of crouching to spring. It knows we’re here, but it’s making no attempt to even get any closer, much less try for a snack. How does this door work?”

  “You must lift the stone,” Anya said. She didn’t sound totally convinced, but she sounded marginally less nervous. “Normally it would require two or three men with bersarkis patches for extra strength to lift. But you should be able to move it alone.”

  “Probably,” Merrick said, wincing. Yesterday, in Gangari, he’d been treated to a demonstration of what the refined poison bersarkis could do to people. It hadn’t been pretty. “I thought it was only good for healing and driving teenagers into killing rages.”

  “It can also give added strength,” Anya said. If she was offended by his reference to the Game testing yesterday, she gave no sign. “Its precise properties depend on the specific refining process used.”

  “Handy,” Merrick said with a grunt. “Any way to tell which particular formulation is which? Color, texture, odor, an ingredients label—anything?”

  “There are chemical tests,” Anya said. “I know of no other way to distinguish one from another without trying it.” She risked a look away from the razorarm. “But you have abilities far beyond ours. Perhaps you will be able to tell one from another simply by looking.”

  “We see if we get a chance to find out,” Merrick said, heading through the last line of trees to the boulder.

  Confident words and analysis aside, he made sure to watch the razorarm as he walked.

  But the predator did nothing but back up a couple of silent steps in response to Merrick’s approach. It had a healthy respect for humans, all right. “Any special place I need to grab this thing?” he asked over his shoulder.

  “There are knobs that are slightly smoother than the rest of the stone,” she said. “Those are what the men usually use.”

  “Got it,” Merrick said, nodding as he spotted the handholds. Crouching down, he locked his fingers around the two most convenient ones and eased back and up.

  The boulder was heavy enough, and he could see why it normally took three juiced-up Muninnites to handle it. But it wasn’t nearly as heavy as it ought to have been, which implied that someone had hollowed out part of it. He lifted it high above the surrounding grass, mindful of the clues that oddly damaged plant life could offer to searchers, and set it down on a thick mat of leaves that had collected beside a dead tree.

  Beneath the boulder, as advertised, was a wood-lined shaft leading downward. Leaning gingerly forward, he peered into it.

  The shaft went straight down about eight meters, with a ladder connected to the side to facilitate movement up and down. At the bottom it appeared to connect to horizontal tunnels or wide spots heading off in opposite directions. It was a bit difficult to tell from above, but Merrick’s rangefinder put the size of the tunnels as a bit shorter than average human height, and not much wider. His infrareds showed no indication that there was any life bigger than a mole down there.

  Still, the vital areas could be hidden behind baffles or heat sinks. The only way to find out would be to go down and take a look.

  And it was for damn sure that he, a total stranger to anyone who might be down there, wasn’t going to be first in line.

  He straightened up and gestured Anya forward. “Here we are,” he said. “After you.”

  The hideout consisted of two rooms, one at the end of each of the two short horizontal tunnels he’d seen from above. Both rooms were deserted.

  “But they were here,” Anya insisted plaintively as she walked back and forth between the two rooms, her feet slapping softly on the dirt floor, her voice echoing slightly from the rough-cut wooden boa
rds forming the roof and partial wall shoring. “They were.”

  “It’s been twelve years,” Merrick reminded her, peering into one of the three bins against the wall of one of the rooms. The bin had been completely emptied, without any scraps or crumbs to indicate what might have stored there. “There are any number of reasons why they might have left.”

  “But…” Anya trailed off.

  “If it’s any consolation, it doesn’t look like the Trofts got them,” Merrick said, waving at the bins and the similarly empty shelves along one wall. “At least, not here. They wouldn’t have bothered cleaning out everything. Or replacing the boulder up top, for that matter.”

  Anya didn’t reply. Her gaze continued to move around the room, then past the vertical shaft to the other one, as if she thought that if she kept at it long enough her parents would eventually appear.

  “Is there anywhere else you can think of that they might have gone?” Merrick asked into the silence. “One of the villages, maybe? Not Gangari, of course, but one of the others?”

  “No,” Anya said. She took a deep breath, her head and shoulders bowed slightly, her gaze on the floor in front of her. “Not to one of the villages. Not anywhere.”

  So much for that line of questioning. The absence of any life here seemed to have thrown Anya for a complete loop. “Okay,” Merrick said after another moment of uncomfortable silence. “So we’re all alone in this. That’s fine—we were alone before we got here, and we did okay. Any thoughts as to what we should do now?”

  Anya took another deep breath. “No,” she said simply. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” Merrick assured her, trying to think. His Cobra training had included a unit on wilderness survival, and the Qasamans had given him some abbreviated instruction on infiltration, combat tactics, and evading enemy surveillance. In and among all of that, he ought to be able to come up with a plan.

  Except that his brain was too exhausted to focus. But that was okay. Sleep could also be a plan. “First thing we need is rest,” he told Anya. “The floor looks even less comfortable than the ground up top, but down here we won’t have to worry about Trofts and predators. We’ll crash for a few hours, then reassess the situation when our minds are clearer.”

  “We cannot stay here,” Anya said. “There is no food. Or supplies, or weapons.”

  “That’s why we’re only going to stay long enough for some sleep,” Merrick said, frowning as he looked around. There was no food, all right. But there were also no bunks, air supply or filtration gear, or bathroom facilities.

  This wasn’t any kind of hidden rebel headquarters, at least not the kind Anya had implied. It was no more than a way station, a quick bolthole for emergencies.

  Had Anya known that from the start, and deliberately misled him? Or had she herself misunderstood?

  Or had someone specifically and deliberately lied to her?

  In which case, this might be a trap.

  Merrick tensed, but a second later relaxed again. They’d been in the cavern for at least three minutes, and had been in the vicinity of the entrance for two or three more. If it was a trap, it should have been sprung long ago.

  “If you wish sleep, then we shall sleep,” Anya said, her voice dull with fatigue and a black disappointment. “It makes little difference to me.”

  “Come on, don’t be that way,” Merrick chided. “Anyway, just the fact you’re talking like that is a classic sign of fatigue. Tell you what: you see if there are any sections of the floor that are—I don’t know; maybe a little less hard than the rest. I’ll go grab enough leaves to at least make a couple of half-decent pillows. I’ll also put the rock back over the entrance in case the Trofts wander this direction.”

  “All right.” Anya hesitated. “I’m sorry, Merrick Moreau. I’ve failed us.”

  “Oh, come on—we’ve hardly even started,” Merrick said. “And don’t forget, we wouldn’t have gotten even this far if you hadn’t taught me how to hang glide and then dropped my glider into the ravine. Under the circumstances, I think we’re doing just fine. Some sleep, and then we’ll figure out our next step. I’ll get the leaves and be right back.”

  He headed up the ladder, feeling a grim set to his jaw. In fact, he’d already figured out what their next move would be. The wrecked Troft ship, the one whose crash site they’d spotted from the mountain, wasn’t more than a few hours’ journey away. He’d planned to visit it sometime anyway, first to confirm that it was the source of the stray razorarms they’d run into, and second to see if there were any clues as to what had caused the crash.

  But for the moment that plan was going to remain his secret. He didn’t think Anya was playing games with him, but with their lives firmly on the betting table he had no intention of taking unnecessary chances. Once they’d rested and the sun had risen and warmed the forest enough to make them harder to spot on Troft infrareds, would be soon enough to share it with her.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  They were just one day out from Caelian, with four more to go until they reached Qasama.

  And to Jody Moreau Broom’s surprise and annoyance, she discovered she was getting cold feet.

  It was discomfiting. It was also embarrassing, shameful, and annoying. She’d prepped her original proposal carefully, and delivered it to Moffren Omnathi with just the right mixture of passion and cold logic. Omnathi had listened gravely to her arguments, as a Shahni of Qasama should, and had then declared himself convinced. Jody Moreau Broom, daughter of Cobras, would be granted the privilege of becoming a Cobra herself.

  Jody had convinced him. She’d also convinced herself. Now, less than a day after her triumph, she was wondering if she’d really and truly thought this through.

  And she was three-quarters convinced that she hadn’t. It was no light thing, after all, to become a Cobra.

  To become a Cobra. To step willingly into the hideously complex Isis machine hidden somewhere on Qasama. To lie still while the computerized lasers, transorptors, and laminators implanted sonics, servos, layered bone-strengtheners, weapons, audio and visual enhancers, and a pre-programmed reflex nanocomputer into her body.

  To let herself be turned into a machine of war.

  She’d thought it was what she wanted to do. She knew it was something she needed to do. Her brother Merrick was lost in the vastness of the Troft Assemblage, snatched and taken somewhere unknown for purposes equally unknown. Jody’s mother, father, and other brother Lorne were back on Aventine, trapped under the unblinking gaze of Commodore Rubo Santores and the three-ship Dominion Fleet task force that had appeared over Aventine, unexpected and unwanted, less than two weeks ago. If the Dominion’s heavy-handed attempt to arrest Caelian’s Governor Uy was at all representative of Santores’s intentions toward the Cobra Worlds as a whole, Jody’s family would have their hands full back home. She was the only one of the family with any hope of following up the tenuous lead that might or might not lead to her missing brother.

  And the only chance she had against Trofts, the Dominion, and whatever else was out there was the secret edge she would have as a Cobra.

  It was logical, reasonable, and practically inevitable. Jody’s mother Jin had been the first female Cobra in Aventinian history. It was only right and proper that her daughter should be the second.

  So why did the very thought of it make Jody shudder with what felt disconcertingly like claustrophobia?

  Was it the fear of the procedure itself? Unlikely. She’d had a couple of casual conversations with Ghushtre, an Ifrit-ranked Qasaman Cobra and one of the four Cobras who’d accompanied Omnathi to Caelian, and Ghushtre had indicated that the operation was uncomfortable but largely painless.

  Was it concern that she wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of power? Again, unlikely. She’d spent some time during the war wearing one of the Qasaman Djinn combat suits, and while their capabilities were slightly different from Cobra equipment she’d adapted easily enough to its use.

  The drugs,
then? Normal Cobra training on Aventine took weeks. The Qasamans, digging into their pharmacopeia of mental-enhancement drugs, had been able to cut that learning curve down to seven days. Any chemical that could wield such power over human biochemistry carried equally potent risks, but the Qasamans had a long history with such things and she was confident that those risks would be cut to the barest possible minimum.

  Was it the fact that her life would be cut short? Not necessarily in combat, but because of the anemia, arthritis, and other side effects that a hundred years of Cobra fine-tuning had been unable to eliminate? That was certainly a sobering prospect, but at twenty-one years of age the thought of living only another fifty or sixty carried more intellectual significance than it did emotional weight.

  It was as she puzzled her way down the list for the umpteenth time that the answer finally came.

  It was the fact that, once she underwent the procedure, she could never, ever go back. Cobra gear, once implanted, was there to stay until the day she died.

  Jody had always been the sort who liked to keep her options open. She could still remember the time her grandmother had quoted an old saying to her—as you’ve made your bed, so shall you lie in it—and thinking airily to herself that if she didn’t like the way she’d made her bed, she’d just make it again.

  Later, as she’d grown older, she’d realized the proverb was a warning that there were some decisions and actions that simply couldn’t be undone. She’d accepted that in principle, but had nevertheless clung to the belief that such decisions were rare, and that a sufficiently clever person could avoid them completely.

  Except that no amount of cleverness could sidestep this one. Once she entered the Isis machine, she could never go back. Ever.

  And that wasn’t just scary. That was terrifying.

  “You okay?”

  Jody jerked a little, twisting toward the voice. Somehow, while she’d been cogitating, Kemp had slipped unnoticed into the small lounge and stretched out on one of the couches. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to sneak up on people?” Jody growled.

 
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