Cobra outlaw earc, p.6
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.6

           Timothy Zahn

  “Nope,” Kemp said blandly. “Sneaking up on things is a time-honored tradition on Caelian.”

  “Lest they sneak up on you?”

  “Something like that,” Kemp said. “Besides, this one hardly counted. The way you were staring a hole through that wall, a screech tiger could probably have sneaked up on you. Mulling over the secrets of life, were we?”

  “Something like that,” Jody said, studying the man’s face. Kemp—she still wasn’t sure whether that was his first or his last name—had grown up on Caelian, a world whose hellish ecology had forced both the Cobras and non-Cobra colonists to achieve levels of human endurance and ingenuity that Jody wouldn’t have thought possible even a year ago.

  But that endurance came with a price. Even here, aboard a nice, safe Dominion courier ship like the Squire, Kemp’s face carried the same alertness and wariness that she’d seen back on the planet.

  She had never seen him truly relax. She wasn’t even sure he could relax. “When did you decide you wanted to be a Cobra?” she asked abruptly.

  His eyebrows raised slightly. “You seem to think I had a choice.”

  “I’m serious.”

  “So am I,” he said. “You’ve been on Caelian. You know what it’s like. We need as many Cobras as we can get, and not everyone is up to the job. Those who are—” He shrugged. “It’s pretty much assumed that we’ll step up.”

  “And now?” Jody asked.

  “And now what?”

  “Now that the Qasaman combat suits might be able to keep the citizens safe without you,” she said. “What happens once they’ve got enough for everyone? Are going to be out of a job?”

  “Trust me—we’re not going away anytime soon,” Kemp assured her. “Those suits may keep off the spores and solve that part of the problem, and if they can do keep it up long-term that’ll be great. But there are still a hell of a lot of predators prowling around, and we may or may not be able to train the civilians to deal with those.” He snorted. “Plus we now have the Dominion in the mix. If they seriously think they’re going to come in and take over, they face a very rude awakening.”

  “I hope so,” Jody said, wincing. She’d seen only a little of what Dominion Marine combat suits could do, but that taste had been enough to show that in a straight-up fight the Cobras were going to be dangerously outgunned.

  Which wasn’t really a surprise. Cobra gear had been designed a hundred years ago to allow soldiers to infiltrate Troft-held human worlds, which meant it had to strike a balance between power and undetectability. The Marines’ equipment, in contrast, had no need for stealth and could pack in as much death as the designers wanted.

  Still, firepower alone wasn’t always the deciding factor. Jody had seen a pair of Qasaman Cobras take on those Marines and win. If the Dominion came to Caelian in force, she had no doubt that the Cobras would give a solid account of themselves. “Speaking of Marines, any word from the two inside the gunbays?” she asked.

  “Not since this morning,” Kemp said. “They’re still refusing to come out until Shahni Omnathi guarantees to grant them full prisoner-of-war status.”

  “Yes, I heard about that,” Jody said, grimacing. The request had sounded innocuous enough to her until Ghushtre pointed out that granting such status could be tantamount to accepting the notion that a state of war existed between Qasama and the Dominion. Since the Dominion hadn’t declared war, that would imply that the Qasamans had done so. Omnathi had no intention of letting his world be maneuvered into that position, and Jody didn’t blame him a bit.

  Though at this point such semantic nuances might already be moot. Back on Caelian, during the joint Caelian-Qasaman assault on the Squire, Governor Uy’s makeshift gunboat had taken out some of the Marines with the help of Qasaman Djinn targeting capabilities. Uy and Omnathi were probably taking the position that the killings came under the heading of defensive action, since the Marines had been firing on the Qasamans and Caelians at the time.

  On the other hand, since Jody and two of the Qasamans had been caught and imprisoned while trying to infiltrate a Dominion military vessel, it could be argued that the rescue mission was indeed military in nature. On the other other hand, since the Cobra Worlds were theoretically part of the Dominion, Jody wasn’t sure Lieutenant Commander Tamu had had the authority to detain them inside his ship in the first place without a warrant or at least just cause.

  It was already a tangled mess, and that didn’t even begin to address the political ramifications of the incident. Jody wished the diplomats luck with that one. “So we’re just going to leave them in there?”

  “Unless you’ve got a magic can opener that’ll get us through the door without getting shot at,” Kemp said.

  “What about Ghushtre’s idea about pumping sleep gas in through the ventilation port?”

  “Two problems,” Kemp said. “One, even with them asleep we’d still have to cut through the doors and that armor’s damn thick, every bit as thick as what’s around the CoNCH control room. Two, they do have weapons in there, or at least so claims the one who’s still talking to us. They might also have booby-trapped the doors.”

  Jody swallowed. “Oh.”

  “Exactly,” Kemp said. “So for the moment, everyone’s more or less agreed that we’ll just let them run through whatever food and water they have in there and let them come out on their own after—”

  He broke off, his face and body stiffening. Before Jody could ask what was wrong, he launched himself from the couch, hit the door jamb with the heel of his left hand to change direction and disappeared at full sprint down the corridor.

  Jody had barely made it out of her own chair when a sudden voice split the silence. “Alert! All Cobras to the portside gunbay.”

  Jody mouthed a silent curse, then concentrated her full attention on her running.

  Apparently, the Marine in the portside gunbay had found his own magic can opener.

  Two Cobras were waiting just around a bend in the corridor from the gunbay when Jody arrived: Kemp and Nisti, one of the four Qasaman Cobras. Kemp glanced at Jody as she came into view, waved a warning hand for her to keep back. She nodded as she trotted up beside him. “Any idea what’s going on?” she whispered.

  “Everyone stay back,” a tense voice called from around the bend. “You hear me? Your Cobra’s down, and I’ve got a hostage.”

  “Please,” a strangled, pleading voice added. “Please—do as he says.”

  The voice was so stressed that it took another second for Jody to realize it was Rashida Vil.

  And that sudden realization sent a chill through her. Rashida was one of the Qasamans, originally brought along as a pilot and translator, before being forced by the Troft invasion to become a warrior as well. The young woman had risen to the challenge, showing strength and determination that Rashida herself probably hadn’t realized she had. If she was this frightened, the danger must be worse than Jody had guessed.

  “Just calm down,” Kemp called back. “There’s no need for anyone else to be hurt.”

  “But he’s blind,” Rashida wailed. “The Marine threw some sort of device—”

  “Shut it,” the Marine cut her off.

  “Shut it yourself,” Smitty’s strained voice snarled. “What the hell was that? What did you throw at me?”

  “Oh, stop whining,” the Marine said contemptuously. “It was just a flash grenade. Your eyes will be fine in a few hours. I just want to talk.”

  “You could have talked from inside,” Kemp called around the bend. “Or you and I could go talk in the lounge. I’m sure that would be more comfortable.”

  “This’ll do for now,” the Marine said. “But I would like to get all of you together. Especially Shahni Omnathi.”

  “And why do you think he would have any interest in talking to you?”

  “Maybe he doesn’t,” the Marine said. “But this woman here is pretty scared, and I can’t let her go until I’ve said my piece to the Shahni.”

Let’s start with me,” Kemp suggested. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll decide whether it’s worth bothering His Excellency about.” He shot Jody a look. “For the sake of the woman, of course.”

  And accompanying the look was a smile. A grim smile, but a smile nonetheless.

  Jody frowned. Smitty was blinded, Rashida was a hostage, and the Marine was loose on the ship. What in the Worlds did Kemp have to smile about?

  And then, belatedly, she got it.

  Because Smitty wasn’t blinded. The grenade may have dazzled his eyes, but Cobra optical enhancements were totally independent systems, their sensors implanted in the skin around the eye sockets. Clearly, Smitty’s overacting was for the Marine’s benefit, playing his supposed helplessness for all it was worth in hopes of convincing his opponent that the only threats were waiting around the corridor instead of lying right at his feet.

  And with that, Rashida’s terror-stricken voice also snapped into perspective. Picking up on Smitty’s cue, she was playing the helpless, terrified female hostage who couldn’t possibly be a threat.

  “Sorry, but what I have to say is for Qasaman ears,” the Marine said. “Commodore Santores has a proposal to present the Qasamans. That’s why Commander Tamu wanted Shahni Omnathi to come to Aventine, so that he and the Commodore could discuss the matter directly.”

  “I thought Tamu came to Caelian to bring Governor Uy to the Dome so they could put him on charge for treason.”

  “I don’t know any of those details,” the Marine said. His tone was one of casual dismissal, as if the incident had simply been a misunderstanding instead of a violent clash that had ended in multiple deaths. “All I know is that there was a lot of discussion among the officers on the way here about how we could get in contact with Qasama. When Commander Tamu found out Shahni Omnathi was here, naturally he jumped at the chance to invite him to Aventine.”

  “I remember it being more a demand than a request,” Kemp said grimly.

  “Yeah, Tamu can be a jerk sometimes,” the Marine said. “But that’s not the point. Commodore Santores isn’t here, which means it falls to me to make his pitch.”

  “Like I said, go ahead,” Kemp said. “But you start by talking to me. No, strike that—you start by letting your hostages go.”

  The Marine snorted. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly trust your word. Not after what you did during a supposedly peaceful prisoner exchange.”

  “Our people shouldn’t have been prisoners in the first place,” Nisti put in harshly.

  “They came aboard with malicious intent,” the Marine countered. “Would you have just let men like that wander freely around your territory?”

  “As our guest said, we’ve distanced ourselves from the point,” Omnathi’s voice came from the corridor on the far side of the standoff. Hopefully, he was standing out of range in the mirror-image corridor curve to where Jody and Kemp were currently skulking. “You say you have a proposal. Speak. I will listen.”

  “Thank you for your willingness, Shahni Omnathi,” the Marine said. “Here’s the basics. Commodore Santores wants to arrange an alliance between the Dominion and Qasama. To that end…”

  He continued on; and as he did so, Jody stepped closer to Kemp. “Kemp?”

  “Don’t worry, Kazi’s watching the other gunbay,” he murmured. “If this is a diversion, the guy in there won’t get very far.”

  Jody frowned at the curve of the corridor, listening with half an ear to the Marine’s speech. Something was wrong here. “Has he tried anything?”

  Kemp shook his head. “I haven’t heard any noise. Trust me, there would be noise.”

  Jody clenched her teeth. There would be noise, all right. Noise, violence, and probably some death, too.

  Yet none of that had happened. And if diversion wasn’t the purpose of this standoff, what was? “Why was Rashida here?” she asked. “Isn’t she supposed to be in CoNCH?”

  “No, she’s on a half-hour check schedule,” Kemp said. “She was probably just keeping Smitty company. She does that a lot when he’s on watch duty.”

  “So if the Marine has a view onto the corridor he’d know that,” Jody said, trying to think. Given that practically everyone else aboard was either a Djinni or a Cobra, it certainly made sense for him to grab Rashida. “But if this isn’t a diversion—”

  “Oh, hell,” Kemp said, very quietly.

  Jody tensed. Had he heard something from the other side of the ship, some noise that her normal human hearing hadn’t picked up? “What is it?” she whispered.

  “Rashida and Smitty,” Kemp said. “Our primary and secondary pilots. He’s got both of them.”

  “It gains him nothing,” Nisti said. “Ifrit Ghushtre and Shahni Omnathi have also made themselves proficient in the vessel’s operation. And he will certainly not be permitted to come within firing range of either of them.”

  “Maybe he doesn’t have to,” Jody said slowly, staring at the curve of the corridor. If Rashida and Smitty were in the corridor, and Omnathi was at the far side listening to the Marine’s pitch… “Where’s Ifrit Ghushtre? Is he with Shahni Omnathi?”

  “Yes.” Nisti did a sudden double-take. “Son of a snake.”

  “Exactly,” Jody said, her stomach tightening. “There’s no one in CoNCH who knows what any of the controls and readouts mean.”

  “But how does that gain him anything?” Kemp asked, sounding bewildered. “We’re watching CoNCH. Neither Marine can get in.”

  “Maybe they don’t have to,” Jody said, pulling up a mental image of the Squire’s layout. “Did anyone ever find an auxiliary control room? A mini-CoNCH, or something like that?”

  “No,” Kemp said. “Maybe a ship this small doesn’t have one.”

  “Or maybe those backups are in the gunbays,” Jody said.

  “The gunbays?” Kemp’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding.”

  “Why not?” Jody said. “They’re secure and well-armored, and they’re far enough from the main CoNCH that a hit on one of them might leave the other one intact.”

  “Yes, but—” Kemp waved a helpless hand. “People shoot at gunbays. Don’t they?”

  “Probably,” Jody said. “But the only way this makes any sense is if the other Marine is doing something in his bay while this one is holding our attention here.”

  “I agree with you, Cobra Kemp, that the notion borders on the ridiculous,” Nisti said grimly. “I also agree with Jody Moreau that the possibility cannot be ignored.”

  Kemp glared at the corridor wall. “So what do we do?”

  Jody tuned back into the Marine’s monologue. He’d left the subject of treaties and was speaking about the wonders of the Dominion of Man and the privileges of being part of it. “We need to end this,” she said. “I’m guessing Smitty and Rashida have worked out a plan to take him down and are waiting for an opening.”

  “Only they don’t know we’re running a time limit,” Kemp said.

  “They must be alerted,” Nisti agreed. “Is there a code you can use to signal them?”

  “Nothing that wouldn’t be ambiguous and confusing,” Kemp said, his forehead wrinkling. “We’d do better for one of us to circle around to where Shahni Omnathi and Ghushtre are and tell one of them to head back to CoNCH and find out what’s going on.”

  “They will not leave,” Kaza said grimly. “Shahni Omnathi, because his sudden departure from the conversation would alert the soldier that we were aware of his deception. Ifrit Ghushtre, because his task is to protect His Excellency. He will not leave without him.”

  “Even for something like this?” Kemp pressed. “Even if we can guarantee the Shahni’s safety?”

  “He will not leave,” Kazi repeated.

  “Wait a second,” Jody said as a new thought suddenly struck her. “We don’t need either of them to leave if we can get Rashida out of there.”

  Kemp shook his head. “The Marine isn’t going to give up his hostage.”

  “No,” Jody agreed. “Not
unless he can trade up to something better.”

  Kemp’s eyes widened. “Out of the question.”

  “We have no choice,” Jody said flatly. “I’m practically the only person aboard who he wouldn’t see as a threat. Especially since I’m a woman and we’ve seen that the Dominion doesn’t think much of women. If I pitch it as one emotional female trying to protect an even more emotional female, he may go for it.”

  “No,” Kemp insisted. “Aside from anything else, your mother will kill me if she ever finds out I let you do it.”

  “If you don’t let me go she may never have the chance,” Jody shot back. “The other Marine could be setting a self destruct right now. Or overloading the drive, or who knows what.”

  “She’s right,” Nisti said. His voice was tight, but there was an edge of respect mixed into his tone. “Do not fear, Kemp. She is a Moreau. She will win through.”

  Kemp bared his teeth, then gave a reluctant nod. “You’ve just arrived, and I’m too slow to stop you from going in there. Got it?”

  Jody nodded, feeling her pulse pounding at the base of her neck as she took a few silent steps backward. It was the only way, but that didn’t mean she had to like it. Bracing her feet against the deck, she flexed her shoulders once to relax them and then launched herself toward the corridor curve.

  Kemp hit his cue perfectly. “Jody, keep back—Jody, stop!” he said, raising his voice as she raced past him.

  “Rashida?” she called, ignoring Kemp’s order and dodging his token attempt to grab her arm as she ran around the curve into the gunbay area.

  The scene was pretty much as she’d envisioned it. The Marine was standing beside the gunbay door, his back to the wall, his legs spread out in a solid shoulder-width stance. Rashida stood in front of him, her back to him, her body pinned against his chest by his left forearm across her throat. Smitty was on his knees across the corridor from them, his fingers pressed to his eyes, his face screwed up in pain at his blindness. The Marine’s right hand was tucked away behind Rashida’s back where Jody couldn’t see whether he had a weapon there or not.

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