Cobra outlaw earc, p.8
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       Cobra Outlaw - eARC, p.8

           Timothy Zahn

  And then, as Lorne tried to pierce the gloom around the other man, Matavuli lifted a hand and beckoned.

  Lorne wrinkled his nose as he glanced at the river. Nice night for a swim, he thought sourly. On the surface, it was hardly an outlandish request—after all, he’d sneaked into Archway last night via the Caluma River, and then sneaked his mother out the same way. And just this morning he’d gone for a similar dip in order to retrieve Kicker’s message.

  But that had all taken place in the Caluma River, which was well-traveled, well-monitored, and relatively free of predators. This was the Pashington, which meandered through the sparsely-populated ranching areas of DeVegas province and was none of the three.

  Still, if it was the only way, it was the only way. Getting up into a crouch, Lorne started to slip off his jacket—

  And dropped instantly back to the ground, one leg collapsing beneath him to angle him into a sideways dive as his nanocomputer took over his servo network, triggering a pre-programmed evasive maneuver. Something big was coming over the river in a fast, shallow arc, heading straight toward him.

  He was two meters from where he’d started, rolling up into a defensive crouch with fingertip lasers ready, when the object hit the riverbank halfway up the slope with a muffled thud. Lorne peered at it, automatically holding his breath in case it was some sort of gas bomb.

  It wasn’t a bomb, or any other kind of weapon. It was, instead, the grabber hook off a vehicle-mounted winch. Even as his brain caught up with that identification there was a stuttering whoosh as the attached cable splashed into the river water.

  He was still trying to figure out what was going on when the cable rose a few centimeters from the water, clearly being pulled from the other end, and dragged the grabber across the ground until it hooked on the curve of a thick tree root poking up among the reeds. A final tug locked the grabber firmly into the root, and the cable stiffened as it was pulled taut.

  And as Lorne peered across the river again he saw Matavuli gesture him to cross.

  “You’ve got to be kidding,” Lorne muttered, looking at the cable. He looked back at Matavuli, who was now pointing to the taut cable with one hand and tapping the back of his own head with the other.

  Was he suggesting…?

  Ridiculous. The Cobra gear had been designed for combat, with the pre-programmed reflexes necessary for combat survival. The techs who’d put it all together surely hadn’t bothered with crazy daredevil’s tightrope-walking capability.

  But Matavuli was still jabbing his finger at the cable and pointing to the general area on his head where Cobra nanocomputers were located. And the option, apparently, was a midnight swim.

  The laser fire to the north was still going on, but it had slowed markedly from its earlier volume. If that was Kicker’s diversion, it seemed to be coming to a halt. If Lorne was going to do this, he needed to do it now.

  Clenching his teeth, wondering distantly just what kind of nasties might be lurking under the rippling river surface, he rose to his feet, stepped onto the cable, and started walking.

  And to his astonishment, kept right on going.

  Lorne had long since become used to having his nanocomputer take command of his body at moments of danger, and he also knew a whole list of techniques for setting it up to execute specific maneuvers. Even so, everything he’d ever done had been a variant of some technique or group of techniques he’d been taught back at the academy. To discover that his equipment still had secrets he’d never suspected was more than a little disconcerting.

  But this was definitely real. Lorne and his brother Merrick had tried the tightrope thing a few times when they were children, and Lorne had never made it more than two steps before flailing his way to a helpless tumble from the line, which had fortunately been set only thirty centimeters above the ground. Now, though, he was striding almost casually across the river, his outstretched arms waggling up and down of their own accord as his nanocomputer guided his steps and his balance.

  Thirty seconds later, he was across.

  Somewhere during Lorne’s journey Matavuli had disappeared, backing away into the brush. But Lorne didn’t need him to show the way. Dropping back into a crouch on the soft ground of the bank, he followed the cable through the reeds and bushes.

  At the end of the line, as expected, he found Brandeis “Kicker” Pierce with the cable now lying loose on the ground in front of him. Also in front of him were a pair of deep indentations where he’d dug his heels into the ground while he belayed the line.

  Wrapped around his throat was the red neckband that Colonel Reivaro had ordered placed on all the DeVegas Cobras.

  “Broom,” Pierce murmured, throwing a quick look at the sky. “I see you got our message. Any problems getting here?”

  “None that I noticed,” Lorne said, frowning. There was a slight tingling at his ears, the sound created by the Cobra microphone-blocking sonic. “And if Reivaro tracked me he really should have sprung his trap by now.” He nodded toward the neckband. “Do those things transmit, too?”

  “We don’t know,” Pierce said. “But better safe than sorry. Especially given what happens when we displease our new masters.”

  Lorne winced. From the quick run-down he’d received from Yates during the rescue of his mother he knew there was a small explosive charge in each of the neckbands. Nothing too big; but then, it didn’t take much force to shatter someone’s windpipe or shred a nearby artery or vein. “Yes, I heard,” he said. “What can I do?”

  “I don’t know,” Pierce countered. “What can you do? Not about this,” he added, wagging a finger at the neckband. “Digger’s already looked at it, and he can’t figure out how to get the damn things off. Not without blowing the occupant’s head off, anyway.”

  “Let’s not be too hasty,” Lorne said, moving closer and keying a bit more power to his light-amps. The neckbands definitely seemed foolproof: no obvious latches or fasteners, no surface features that might give a clue as to the mechanism beneath the outer layer, no mottling or other hints showing up on infrared.

  Still, there might be a side-door trick Reivaro hadn’t thought of. “How much room is there between your neck and the collar?” he asked.

  Experimentally, Pierce slipped a finger behind the neckband. “A centimeter,” he said. “Maybe one and a half. But there’s nothing back there that’ll help—Digger’s already looked.”

  “That’s okay,” Lorne assured him, looking around. “Is Matavuli still here?”

  “He’s gone back to the car,” Pierce said, nodding up the slope of the bank. “Filling out a report on the river water quality, in case someone in a uniform wanders by and asks. You need him back here?”

  “No, you can deliver the message for me,” Lorne said. “Here’s what I need for him to do.”

  Pierce listened in silence as Lorne laid out the plan. “Going to be tricky,” he warned when Lorne had finished. “Matavuli’s got no real reason to go to Capitalia, and if Reivaro’s got any brains he’ll be watching for odd travel moves.”

  “Not a problem,” Lorne assured him. “As one of the biggest ranchers in the province, Matavuli has to be concerned about the disruption in Cobra patrols that Reivaro’s restrictions are likely to cause. There have been disruptions, haven’t there?”

  “Oh, believe it, baby,” Pierce assured him. “Between the guards he’s slapped on Yates Fabrications—did you hear they’d gotten it up and running again?”

  “No, I hadn’t,” Lorne said. He’d hoped his mother’s sabotage would slow down Reivaro’s plan for at least a few days. Clearly, Santores was serious about putting Aventine’s industry base under his control. “What are they making?”

  “Some kind of armor plate, just like Reivaro said,” Pierce said. “Heavy stuff, too, a lot heavier than the fabricators are used to. No telling how long they’ll hold up before this wrecks them. Yates’s spitting nails—Reivaro’s had to confine him to his house.”

  “With more Cobras siphoned off
for guard duty, no doubt.”

  “Well, he’s sure not going to waste his Marines on that,” Pierce said. “They’re all busy watching his headquarters and his hindquarters. If you didn’t accomplish anything else with that raid last night, you at least put the fear of God into him.”

  “Good,” Lorne said. “The more effort he puts into watching his own back, the less he’ll have for watching everything else’s. You think Matavuli will be willing to go?”

  “If I can convince him he can make the trip plausible,” Pierce said. “Reivaro spent a lot of today ramping up the threats and warnings. Yates’s factory was just the first—they’ve already confiscated a couple of homes and at least one ranch for operational bases and troop quartering. Matavuli’s got a family and a crew of ranch hands to support, and the Troft invasion pushed him pretty close to the line. He can’t afford to take another hit.”

  “He should be fine, provided he goes to the Dome first,” Lorne said. “The other trip can be slipped in afterward, with an equally reasonable rationale. There won’t be anything suspicious for Reivaro or anyone else to point to.”

  “Assuming Reivaro needs anything more than his own fevered imagination,” Pierce growled. “But this sounds like our best shot. Assuming it works, how and when do I contact you?”

  Lorne pursed his lips. One day for travel each direction, just to be on the safe side, plus another three or four for the necessary work… “You still stationed at Smith’s Forge?”

  “Officially, yes, but Reivaro’s signed me for a couple of shifts a week on Archway patrol,” Pierce said. “Don’t know if that’ll hold up, but for now that’s my schedule.”

  “Where are you supposed to be the day after tomorrow?”

  “That’ll be one of my Smith’s Forge shifts,” Pierce said. “How about Whistling Waller’s Tavern? It’s at the south end of town, right up against the fence.”

  “I’ve heard of it,” Lorne said. “Hopefully, Matavuli will be able to get you a preliminary report before we meet.”

  “Unless Reivaro decides to shift everyone and everything around again,” Pierce said acidly. “He’s like a sociopathic kid with a new set of toy soldiers.”

  “Yes, that sounds like him,” Lorne said carefully, a bit taken aback by the anger simmering beneath Pierce’s professional calm.

  And belatedly, it occurred to him that while he and his mother had been holed up in the cave all day, resting and thinking, Pierce and the other Cobras had been facing Reivaro and his Marines, taking and obeying orders, with the collars wrapped around their necks a constant reminder that they were a single infraction away from instant death.

  Lorne might be on the run, but in many ways he had it easier than anyone else in the province.

  “So that’s it?” Pierce asked.

  “That’s it,” Lorne confirmed. “I take it I head back the same way I came?”

  “Unless you’d rather swim it this time.” Pierce shook his head. “I can’t believe there’s still stuff tucked away in the nanocomputer that we didn’t know about. They might at least have mentioned the wire-walking thing to us.”

  “That assumes they knew about it themselves,” Lorne pointed out. “Who’s to say they did?”

  Pierce grunted. “Which begs the question of what else might be in there nobody knows about. But never mind that now.” Reaching down, he picked up the cable and then set his heels back in the impressions in the ground. “Be sure to unhook the grabber and toss it back once you’re over. Those things don’t come cheap, and Matavuli will skin me alive if I lose it.”

  “Understood,” Lorne said. “Good luck.”

  “Thanks,” Pierce said. “Watch yourself, okay? You and your mother.”

  Lorne winced. Safe in their cave, while the others faced death. “I will,” he said.

  “I mean it,” Pierce said, a sudden new intensity in his voice. “We’ve been hit hard, and we’re riding low in the water. We’ll come back; but right now, what we need is a symbol of defiance. You and your mother are that symbol.” He smiled humorlessly. “It doesn’t hurt that you’re both legends, either. So stay hidden. And stay free.”

  They would indeed stay free, Lorne promised silently as he retraced his steps across the slender cable to the other side of the river. But they wouldn’t stay hidden. Not by a long shot.

  So Colonel Reivaro didn’t like rogue Cobras showing up in his headquarters and threatening him? Good. Lorne didn’t like what the Marines were doing to his town and province, either. That made them even.

  Reivaro seemed to think fear was a good way to dominate the people of Aventine. Time to see how well he liked it when the push came from the other direction.


  Merrick had set his nanocomputer clock circuit to wake him after five hours. But the stress of the day, plus the hard floor of the hideout, made sleep elusive and unrestful. Four and a half hours after he and Anya had settled down, after already having been awake for a good half hour, he finally gave up.

  Anya took the short night in stride. She also seemed to have accepted that her failure to lead them someplace useful wasn’t really her fault. Or if she hadn’t, at least she made no further apologies or self-deprecating comments about it.

  The sky to the east had begun turning to blue, Merrick saw as he lifted the boulder and climbed back into the cool, fresh air, though the sun had yet to rise high enough to be visible over the mountains. He made a quick check for Trofts predators, and finding neither he and Anya headed off once again into the forest.

  As he had the night before, Merrick made sure to watch and listen carefully for roving patrols. Once again, the aliens were conspicuous by their absence. Either they were still way the hell off elsewhere in the forest, far enough that their aircars weren’t audible, or else they’d concluded he really was dead and all gone back to their bases.

  Merrick wished he could believe that. It would make life so much easier if he and Anya could move around more or less freely.

  Unfortunately, he didn’t believe it for a minute. He’d taken down a Troft aircar with one of his fingertip lasers, and even though he’d tried to make it look like the shot had come from his hang glider’s control bar instead there was no way around the fact that advanced weapons weren’t something Muninn’s human slaves should have access to. Even if the Trofts believed he was dead, they would certainly keep up the search until they had at least recovered his body.

  Maybe they weren’t patrolling the skies nearby because they were concentrating all their recovery efforts on the distant ravine. But no matter how impenetrable the area’s vegetation, sooner or later they would realize he hadn’t died there and would expand the search. When that happened, Merrick knew, he’d better have a plan ready.

  The crash site that Merrick and Anya had seen two nights earlier from halfway up the mountain behind Anya’s village hadn’t been very revealing. It had been little more than a burned-edge gash through the trees, with the doomed vehicle itself out of sight. About all Merrick had been able to glean from the view was that it had been a large aircraft or small spacecraft, and further deduction had suggested it had been one of the freighters bringing in razorarms from Qasama. Why the Trofts wanted razorarms here, particularly razorarms that had learned that humans weren’t to be messed with, was still a mystery.

  The crash was several days old, and Merrick wasn’t sure what exactly he thought he might find there. But he needed some answers, and he and Anya needed someplace to go. The crash site seemed like a reasonable place to start.

  Merrick usually had a pretty good sense of direction. But navigating the Muninn forest proved trickier than he’d expected, with the terrain and occasional impassable clumps of trees and bushes forcing him to veer off course or sometimes turning him around completely. Fortunately, Anya had a better feel for the forest than he did and was always able to get them back on track.

  Still, between the travel and the ever-present need for vigilance, progress was slow. The distance to
the crash site was less than fifteen kilometers, but it wasn’t until early afternoon that they finally arrived.

  At first glance, the ship looked to be in surprisingly good shape. It was about a hundred meters long, a fairly typical size for a Troft medium freighter. The style, too, was familiar: Merrick had seen other such ships hunting for razorarms back on Qasama. He and Anya had happened to arrive near the bow, and aside from some serious dents and cracks where the ship had plowed through the trees it looked mostly undamaged.

  But that first look was deceptive. As they worked their way across the scorched ground alongside the wreck Merrick saw that the aft hull plates were blackened with heat stress, and there were considerably more cracks in the sides than even at the bow.

  Anya spotted that, too. “Why is the back part more damaged than the front?” she murmured.

  “I don’t know,” Merrick said. “Let’s take a look.”

  The scorched ground and burned grass turned out to be much easier to traverse than the main part of the forest had been, though the ashes sometimes hid shards of broken tree or jutting roots that could trip up an unwary traveler. As they worked their way aft, Merrick began to pick up the stench of burned plastic, hydraulic and coolant fluids, and a dozen other odors that he couldn’t identify. Whatever had happened back there, it had clearly left a serious mess behind.

  It wasn’t until they reached the rear of the ship that they found out just how big a mess it was.

  “By the heavens and the land beneath,” Anya murmured, her voice nearly unrecognizable.

  “Yeah,” Merrick agreed grimly, staring at the gaping, ragged-edged hole in the ship’s starboard stern. Beyond the hole, the compartment’s blackened walls were bent and cracked.

  “What kind of weapon could have done such damage?” Anya asked, peering into the opening.

  “Oh, there are plenty that could do that,” Merrick said grimly. “I saw some of them on Qasama. But I don’t think it was an attack. See how the edges of the hole angle outward? That implies the explosion came from inside, not outside.”

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