Authors: Timothy Zahn
Book 1: Cobra Slave-eARC
Advanced Reader Copy
Baen Books by Timothy Zahn
Blackcollar: The Judas Solution
Blackcollar (contains The Blackcollar and Blackcollar: The Backlash Mission)
The Cobra Trilogy
(contains: Cobra; Cobra Strike and Cobra Bargain)
The Cobra War Trilogy
The Cobra Rebellion
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Timothy Zahn
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN 13: 978-1-4516-3899-8
Cover art by Dave Seeley
First printing, June 2013
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: t/k
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
There was no reason, Captain Barrington Jame Moreau thought moodily as he gazed out the twist-glass canopy of the Dominion of Man War Cruiser Dorian’s flying bridge, for a spaceship to even have a flying bridge. None at all.
There’d been a reason once, he knew, hundreds of years ago. Flying bridges had been created for ocean-going vessels to provide the pilot with a three-quarter-view visibility when coming in to dock.
But visibility and visual docking procedures had long since become irrelevant. Spacecraft had a wide array of active and passive sensor systems, and docking was handled by radar, laser-burst, and computerized transponders, without any need for human involvement. On top of that, a vehicle designed for the vacuum of space obviously couldn’t have anything that was actually open. Especially not a warship.
And yet, in defiance of all apparent logic, the Dorian did indeed have a flying bridge. It wasn’t much, little more than a five-meter-long half dome nestled snugly against the upper side above the main hull and just in front of the rising bulk of the Number Three-Twenty-Six water storage tank. It even had its own piloting console, a helm repeater that the Dorian’s records showed had been checked out during the warship’s shakedown cruise fifteen years ago and never used again. The flying bridge was still manned during battle stations, but it was never used.
So why, his fellow midshipmen back at the academy had asked, was it still here?
Barrington snorted under his breath as he gazed out at the planet turning lazily below. For that matter, why and how were Aventine and the rest of the so-called Cobra Worlds still here?
By all rights, they shouldn’t be. It had been a hundred years since these colonies had been founded out in the middle of nowhere, a long and weary three-months’ journey from the Dominion through the very center of the Troft Assemblage. It had been nearly seventy-five years since that safe-passage corridor had been forcibly closed, leaving the colonists to struggle on alone. The general consensus of the Dorian’s officers throughout the voyage had been that the colonies must surely have died off by now, and that the mission they’d been sent on was so much wasted time and effort.
Yet, here they were, strong and vibrant and even reasonably populous. And not only had they survived seven decades of being cut off from the rest of humanity, but they’d apparently even made it through their own brief war against the Trofts.
Barrington scowled. He’d seen some of Aventine, and he’d seen a lot of the capital city of Capitalia, and he’d read a great deal about the Troft incursions into Silvern and Adirondack back in the Dominion of Man a century ago. Cobra Worlds Governor-General Michaelo Chintawa claimed that Aventine had been invaded, but in Barrington’s view the virtual lack of damage to their cities made that claim suspicious. The fuzziness of Chintawa’s testimony, and that of the other governmental and patroller officials, didn’t help their credibility any.
Still, something had happened here. And if it hadn’t been dramatic in Capitalia, it had more than made up for that elsewhere. There were places in Aventine’s so-called expansion regions that had taken more serious damage, and the courier ship that had visited Palatine had reported similar evidence of brief occupation.
On Caelian, the world no one seemed to like to talk about, there was not only serious damage to the human settlements, but the wreckage of no fewer than three Troft warships. Whether or not the incident had been an actual war, it had clearly been more than just a heavily armed trade dispute. Some group of Trofts had moved on the Cobra Worlds, and those same Trofts had been kicked right back off again.
The question was who exactly had done the kicking. The even more crucial question was whether that situation could be recreated.
Had the Cobra Worlds’ saviors been some other group of Trofts? There was testimony and evidence that at least two Troft demesnes had been here peaceably since the invaders pulled out. If there was some Troft infighting going on, and if that rivalry could be encouraged, the Dominion’s mission would be a whole lot easier.
Or had it been the mysterious people who called themselves the Qasamans? Chintawa and the other Aventinian leaders disliked talking about Qasama even more than they disliked talking about Caelian, and all the records the techs had been able to find were vague and thirty years out of date. But the testimony of the Cobra Paul Broom and his family indicated that the Qasamans had overcome even worse Troft oppression than the Cobra Worlds themselves had. If they could be found, they might prove useful allies.
Or had the key to victory been the Cobras?
Barrington’s comm toned with his first officer’s ident. Double-twitching his left eyelid, Barrington brought up the projector in his cornea.
The hazy image of Commander Ling Garrett appeared. “Captain, a Troft ship has just entered the system,” Garrett said, his voice stiff with the formality he always reserved for the times when someone on the Megalith was listening in. “Our sector. He identifies himself as a merchant from the Hoibe’ryi’sarai demesne with a cargo of food and musical equipment.”
“Musical equipment?” Barrington echoed, frowning.
“So he says,” Garrett said. “He’s given us the names of his buyers in Capitalia, Rosecliff, and Pindar. We’re attempting to make contact with them.”
Barrington peered out at the blaze of stars stretched out behind Aventine and the three Dominion ships. Musical equipment? “Is he armed?”
“Meteor point-defense lasers only,” Garrett said. “We’ve got them tagged, just in case. Team Seven is prepped and loaded if you want a closer look at his cargo holds.”
“Hold, but keep them prepped,” Barrington told him. “Keep trying the buyers. I’ll be right down.”
The Command Nexus/Coordination Hub was six decks below the flying bridge, sealed behind multiple layers of steel, twist-carfibe, and compressed neutcap. Barrington’s aide, Lieutenant Cottros Meekan, was waiting by the elevator when the doors opened. “Captain in CoNCH,” he called formally, stiffening to full attention as Barrington stepped out onto the upper level of the complex’s two decks. Apparently, whoever on the Megalith was eavesdropping on the Dorian’s CoNCH had the visual going, too.
“As you were,” Barrington called, striding past Meekan and heading for the command chair. Garrett was currently seated there, his eyes on the forward status displays; without even looking up, he stood and stepped aside just in time for Barrington to take his place.
“Status?” Barrington asked, permitting himself a small, cold smile as he settled himself in the chair. If whoever was watching from the Megalith was hoping to find some breach in procedure or protocol that the Dorian’s officers or crew could be disciplined for, he was going to have a long wait. Barrington had been trained in the fine art of politics by the very best, and he’d been playing the game for a long, long time.
“No response yet from Rosecliff or Pindar, but we’ve reached the Capitalia buyers,” Garrett reported. “All four confirm that they’re awaiting shipments, and they’ve sent us copies of their invoice orders.” He pointed to one of the displays. “They match the relevant sections of the merchant’s inventory list.”
“So they do,” Barrington agreed, running his eye briefly down the items and numbers and then focusing on the musical equipment section. There wasn’t a single word on that particular list that he recognized. “Did you ask the music buyer what his shipment consisted of?”
“He said they were performance instruments,” Garrett said. “Wind class, mainly—he called them copper-zincs.”
“What’s wrong with standard Dominion performance instruments?” Barrington asked.
Garrett’s shoulders hunched microscopically. “I don’t know, sir. I didn’t ask.”
Barrington looked back at the displays, half inclined to get on the radio to the buyer and ask the question himself. But it really wasn’t the kind of detail a Dominion ship captain should personally get involved with.
Meekan might have sensed his indecision. “May I remind the Captain that the next set of hearings are scheduled to begin in ninety minutes,” he murmured.
Barrington felt his lip twist. Yes—Cobra Lorne Broom’s final day of testimony. And it wouldn’t do for the Dorian’s captain to arrive at the hearings after Commodore Santores made his appearance. “Is my launch prepped?”
“Prepped and awaiting your orders.”
“Have the pilot begin the final checklist,” Barrington said, standing up and stepping away from the chair. “Commander, you have CoNCH.”
“Yes, sir,” Garrett said, sitting down again. “Do you want Team Seven to check out the Troft’s cargo?”
Barrington looked over at the long-range display and the Troft spacecraft centered there. In theory, any Troft action or presence posed a potential threat. Certainly many of the Dorian’s officers and crewers believed that. So did the majority of the military leaders on Asgard and their political masters in the Dome.
But Asgard and the Dome were a long ways away, and the situation here on the far side of the Travis Assemblage appeared to be very different from the one at the Dominion’s borders.
And if the Trofts out here really did fight among themselves… “Secure Team Seven and let the merchant pass,” he told Garrett. “But keep its lasers tagged.”
“Yes, sir,” Garrett said.
“And alert Colonel Reivaro to their approach,” he added as he headed toward the elevator. “Suggest to him that he might want a couple of his men standing by at the spaceport when those copper-zincs are unloaded.”
A minute later he was back in the elevator car, glowering at the universe as he headed for the tender bay. Over the past five days he and the other investigators had had to wade through more evasion and self-serving doublespeak than he’d heard in a long, long time. Most of that fog was coming from Aventine’s government officials and patroller chiefs, all of whom seemed to have something to hide about their roles in the recent Troft invasion.
But at least today there should be little or none of that. The Broom family---Paul, Jasmine, and Lorne—seemed far more forthright and honest about what the Cobras and the leaders had done during the invasion.
Or, in some cases, what they hadn’t done.
Barrington turned his eyes upward. Back at the academy, the prevailing theory had been that flying bridges were simply vestiges of days gone by, places that served no purpose but were a fond memory of the distant past. From the bits of conversation he’d overheard, it appeared that most of his officers were ready to put Aventine’s Cobras into the same category.
But unlike his fellows, Barrington hadn’t simply accepted the common wisdom on flying bridges. He’d hunted down their history and reasoning, digging until he uncovered the cold-edged logic behind their existence.
He had every intention of doing the same with the Cobras.
For nearly a century, the Cobras had been the Cobra Worlds’ primary defenders, policemen, and hunters. At one time or another, they’d also been political powers, political liabilities, and political pawns. Their prestige had fluctuated from decade to decade, from region to region, and from social class to social class. Those who depended most on Cobra protection, whether in Aventine’s expansion regions or on the ecological hell world of Caelian, tended to be their strongest supporters. Those who lived in the relative safety of the big cities, particularly those who paid the lion’s share of the taxes, were usually the loudest in their clamoring for a better, cheaper way.
But even the Cobras’ detractors conceded that they were the visible symbol of the five Cobra Worlds. As such, their dress uniforms were the finest that successive generations of designers and lovers of pomp and ceremony had been able to create.
Next to the military uniforms of the Dominion of Man, those dress uniforms looked positively shabby.