Cobra strike, p.1
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       Cobra Strike, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
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Cobra Strike

  Timothy Zahn - Cobra 02 - Cobra Strike

  Chapter 1

  The whine of Troft thrusters drifted in through the window on the late-summer breezes, jarring Jonny Moreau awake. For one heart-wrenching moment he was back in the midst of theAdirondack war; but as he tipped his recliner back to vertical the abrupt stab of pain in elbows and knees snapped him back to the present. For a minute he just sat there, gazing out the window at the Capitalia skyline and trying to bring his brain and body back on-line. Then, reaching carefully to his desk, he jabbed at the intercom button on his phone. "Yes, Governor?" Theron Yutu said.

  Jonny leaned back in his chair again, snagging a bottle of pain pills from the desktop as he did so. "Is Corwin back from the Council meeting yet?"

  The image jumped to another desk and Jonny's 27-year-old son. "Haven't gone yet,

  Dad," he said. "The meeting's still an hour away."

  "Oh?" Jonny squinted at his watch. He'd have sworn the meeting was scheduled for two... sure enough, it was just a few minutes past one. "Felt like I'd slept longer," he muttered. "Well. You all set to go?"

  "Pretty much, unless there's something new you want me to bring up. Hang on-I'll come in there and we can talk."

  The screen went blank. Flexing his elbows experimentally, Jonny eyed the pain pills. Later, he decided firmly. His arthritis would ease some as he started moving around again, and the drugs invariably left his brain fuzzier than he liked.

  The door opened and Corwin Jame Moreau strode into the room, the inevitable comboard tucked under his arm. The boy-the man, Jonny reminded himself-had taken to the world of politics with a zest the older Moreau had never been able to generate. More and more Corwin reminded Jonny of his own brother Jame, working up through the ranks of the Dominion of Man's highest political power. Fourteen years ago Jame had been a trusted aide to a member of the Central Committee itself. What was he now, Jonny often wondered-aide, designated successor, a

  Committ‚ himself?

  Jonny would never know. It was one of the few results of the Troft Corridor closing that he was still able to wholeheartedly regret.

  Setting his comboard on a corner of Jonny's desk, Corwin pulled up a chair.

  "Okay, let's see. The main points you wanted me to present were the exclusivity clause of the new trade agreement with the Hoibe'ryi'sarai-" the Troft demesne-name flowed smoothly from Corwin's tongue-"the need for more Cobras to be shifted to spine leopard duty in the outer districts, and the whole question of whetherCaelian is really worth hanging onto."

  Jonny nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt for once again skipping the Council duties a governor emeritus was supposed to perform or at least put up with.

  "Lean on the latter two especially-I don't know how the spine leopards figure out their numbers are down, but their breeding rate sure shows that they know somehow. Make sure even the densest syndics understand that we can't take on a full-scale spine leopard resurgence and also make any headway onCaelian without lowering the standards at the Cobra factory." A frown flickered across Corwin's face. "Speaking of the academy...." He stopped, looking uncomfortable.

  Jonny closed his eyes briefly. "Justin. Right?"

  "Well... yes. Mom wanted me to try and get you to change your mind about using your Council veto on his application."

  "To what end?" Jonny sighed. "Justin is smart, exceptionally stable emotionally, adaptable, and with a strong desire to serve his world this way. You'll forgive a father's pride, I trust."

  "I know all that-"

  "More to the point," Jonny interrupted, "he's 22 years old and has been wanting to be a Cobra since he was 16. A period, you'll notice, in which he's had ample opportunity to mull over exactly what a few decades of Cobra gear does to a man." He raised his hands slightly as if offering his body for inspection. "If that hasn't dampened his resolve-and the tests show it hasn't-then I'm not about to veto his admission. He's exactly the kind of man we need in the Cobras."

  Corwin waved a hand in a gesture of defeat. "I almost wish I could argue with you, for Mom's sake. But I'm afraid I have to agree."

  Jonny looked out the window. "Your mother's had a lot of this kind of pain in her life. I wish I knew how to make it up to her."

  For a long moment the room was silent. Then Corwin stirred, reaching for his comboard. "Spine leopards and Caelian it is, then," he said, standing up. "You going to be here or the therapy room when the meeting's over?"

  Jonny looked back at his eldest son, grimacing. "You had to bring that up, didn't you? Oh, all right; I'll go make the torturers happy. What's left of me will be back here by the time you're through."

  Corwin nodded. "Okay. But be nice to them-they're just trying to do their jobs."

  "Sure. See you later." Jonny waited until the other had closed the door behind him and then snorted. "Their jobs, indeed," he muttered under his breath. "Bunch of experimentalists poking around with human white-rats." All in hope that they could come up with a therapy that would someday be able to help the rising generations of Cobras.

  One of whom was going to be his own son.

  Sighing, Jonny gripped the arms of his chair and got carefully to his feet. He would get outside to his car on his own, and without his pills, even if it killed him. The old man, as he was fond of saying, wasn't helpless yet.

  Even with traffic in the Cobra Worlds' capital as dense as it was these days, it would be only a ten-minute drive to the Dominion Building for the Council meeting. Corwin nevertheless gathered together his magcards and other paraphernalia as quickly as possible, hoping to get there early enough for some cloakroom soundboarding with the other Council members. His father had left for his therapy session, and Corwin was about ready to leave himself, when his mother came in.

  "Hello, Theron," she smiled at Yutu. "Corwin, is your father still here?"

  "He just left." Corwin felt his muscles tense in anticipation of the confrontation he knew was ahead. "He'll be coming back after his physical therapy."

  "What did he say?"

  Corwin consciously unclenched his jaw. "Sorry, Mom. He's not going to block it."

  The age lines framing her features seemed to deepen. "You'll be casting the vote," she said, her meaning clear.

  "Let me restate it, then: We are not going to block it."

  "So that's it, is it?" she said coldly. "You're just going to let them condemn your brother to-"

  "Mother." Corwin stood up, gesturing to his chair. "Sit down, will you."

  She hesitated, then complied. Corwin pulled up a guest chair to face her, noting peripherally that Yutu had apparently just discovered something that needed to be done in Jonny's office. Sitting down, Corwin took a moment to look-really look-at his mother.

  Chrys Moreau had been beautiful when she was younger, he knew from old pictures and tapes, and even with the assorted physical changes of middle age she was still strikingly attractive. But there were other changes, not all of them explained by simple maturation of viewpoint or even a response to her husband's long illness. She seemed to smile less these days, and to move with the restricted motions of one deathly afraid of knocking something over. This business with Justin was part of it, that much Corwin knew... but there was more, and so far he hadn't found the right words to open up that section of his mother's thoughts.

  Nor was this time going to be any different. "If you're going to give me the old arguments why Justin should be a Cobra, please don't bother," Chrys began. "I know them all, I still don't have any logical counters for them, and I'll even admit that if he weren't my son I'd probably agree with them. But he is my son, and irrational as it may seem, I don't think it fair that I should lose him to the Cobras, too."

  Corwin let her finish, though her words represented no new ground either. "Have you asked J
oshua to talk with him?" he asked.

  Chrys shook her head minutely. "He won't. You should know that better than anyone else."

  Despite the seriousness of the moment Corwin felt a brief smile touch his lips at the memories evoked. Five years older than the twins, he had nevertheless been successfully ganged up on more times than he cared to remember. Their unshakable loyalty to each other even in the face of parental punishments had made for equally unshakable alibis. "Than I'm afraid it's out of our hands," he told his mother gently. "Legally-not to mention ethically-Justin has a perfect right to choose his life's work. Besides, the political fallout of such a nepotistic veto would be awfully messy to clean up."

  "Politics." Chrys turned her head to stare out the window. "I'd hoped your father would be finished with it when he retired from the governorship. I should have realized they wouldn't let him escape that easily."

  "We need his wisdom and experience, Mom." Corwin glanced at his watch. "And speaking of that, I'm afraid I'm going to have to go give the Council its monthly dose now."

  A shadow briefly crossed Chrys's face, but she nodded and stood up. "I understand. Will you be coming by for dinner tonight? The twins have said they'll be able to make it."

  And it would be the last time until Justin's Cobra training was over that they'd all have a chance to be together. "Sure," Corwin said, walking her toward the door. "I'll be talking to Dad after the meeting, so I'll just come with him when we're finished."

  "All right. Around six?"

  "Fine. See you then."

  He walked her to her car and watched as she drove off. Then, with a sigh, he went to his own car and headed for the Dominion Building. Why, he wondered, did the internal problems of his own family always seem more insurmountable than those facing three entire worlds? Probably, he thought flippantly, because there isn't anything the Council can do anymore to surprise me.

  He would afterward recall that thought and its unfortunate timing... and wince.

  Chapter 2

  The Council of Syndics-its official title-had in the early days of the colony been just that: a grouping somewhat low-key of the planet's syndics and governor-general which met at irregular intervals to discuss any problems and map out the general direction they hoped the colony would grow in. As the population increased and beachheads were established on two other worlds, the

  Council grew in both size and political weight, following the basic pattern of the distant Dominion of Man. But unlike the Dominion, this outpost of humanity numbered nearly three thousand Cobras among its half-million people. The resulting inevitable diffusion of political power had had a definite impact on the Council's makeup. The rank of governor had been added between the syndic and governor-general levels, blunting the pinnacle of power just a bit; and at all levels of government the Cobras with their double vote were well represented.

  Corwin didn't really question the political philosophy which had produced this modification of Dominion structure; but from a purely utilitarian point of view he often found the sheer size of the 75-member Council unwieldy.

  Today, though, at least for the first hour, things went smoothly. Most of the discussion-including the points Corwin raised-focused on older issues which had already had the initial polemics thoroughly wrung out of them. A handful were officially given resolution, the rest returned to the members for more analysis, consideration, or simple foot-dragging; and as the agenda wound down it began to look as if the meeting might actually let out early And then Governor-General

  Brom Stiggur dropped a pocket planet-wrecker into the room.

  It began with an old issue. "You'll remember the report of two years ago," he said, looking around the room, "in which the Farsearch team concluded that, aside from our three present worlds, no planets exist within at least a

  20-light-year radius of Aventine that we could expand to in the future. It was agreed at the time that our current state of population and development hardly required an immediate resolution of this long-term problem."

  Corwin sat a bit straighter in his seat, sensing similar reactions around him.

  Stiggur's words were neutral enough, but something explosive seemed to be hiding beneath the carefully controlled inflections of his voice.

  "However," the other continued, "in the past few days something new has come to light, something which I felt should be presented immediately to this body, before even any follow-up studies were initiated." Glancing at the Cobra guard standing by the door, Stiggur nodded. The man nodded in turn and opened the panel... and a single Troft walked in.

  A faint murmur of surprise rippled its way around the room, and Corwin felt himself tense involuntarily as the alien made its way to Stiggur's side. The

  Trofts had been the Worlds' trading partner for nearly 14 years now, but Corwin still remembered vividly the undercurrent of fear that he'd grown up with. Most of the Council had even stronger memories than that: the Troft occupation of the

  Dominion worlds Silvern and Adirondack had occurred only 43 years ago, ultimately becoming the impetus for the original Cobra project. It was no accident that most of the people who now dealt physically with the Troft traders were in their early twenties. Only the younger Aventinians could face the aliens without wincing.

  The Troft paused at the edge of the table, waiting as the Council members dug out translator-link earphones and inserted them. One or two of the younger syndics didn't bother, and Corwin felt a flicker of jealousy as he adjusted his own earphone to low volume. He'd taken the same number of courses in catertalk as they had, but it was obvious that foreign language comprehension wasn't even close to being his forte.

  "Men and women of the Cobra Worlds Council," the earphone murmured to him. "I am

  Speaker One of the Tlos'khin'fahi demesne of the Troft Assemblage." The alien's high-pitched catertalk continued for a second beyond the translation; both races had early on decided that the first three parasyllables of Troft demesne titles were more than adequate for human use, and that a literal transcription of the aliens' proper names was a waste of effort. "The Tlos'khin'fahi demesne-lord has sent your own demesne-lord's request for data to the other parts of the

  Assemblage and the result has been a triad offer from the Pua'lanek'zia and

  Baliu'ckha'spmi demesnes."

  Corwin grimaced. He'd never liked deals involving two or more Troft demesnes, both because of the delicate political balance the Worlds often had to strike and because the humans never heard much about the Troft-Troft arm of such bargains. That arm had to exist-the individual demesnes seldom if ever gave anything away to each other.

  The same line of thought appeared to have tracked its way elsewhere through the room. "You speak of a triad, instead of a quad offer," Governor Dylan Fairleigh spoke up. "What part does the Tlos'khin'fahi demesne expect to play?"

  "My demense-lord chooses the role of catalyst," was the prompt reply. "No fee will be forthcoming for our role." The Troft fingered something on his abdomen sash and Corwin's display lit up with a map showing the near half of the Troft

  Assemblage. Off on one edge three stars began blinking red. "The Cobra Worlds," the alien unnecessarily identified them. A quarter of the way around the bulge a single star, also outside Troft territory, flashed green. "The world named

  Qasama by its natives. They are described by the Baliu'ckha'spmi demesne-lord as an alien race of great potential danger to the Assemblage. Here-" a vague-edged sphere appeared at the near side of the flashing green star-"somewhere, is a tight cluster of five worlds capable of supporting human life. The Pua'lanek'zia demesne-lord will give you their location and an Assemblage pledge of human possession if your Cobras will undertake to eliminate the threat of Qasama. I will await your decision."

  The Troft turned and left... and only slowly did Corwin realize he was holding his breath. Five brand-new worlds... for the price of becoming mercenaries.

  He wondered if the Troft had any idea of the size snakepit he'd just opened.

>   If the alien didn't, the Council certainly did. For the better part of a minute the room was silent as an isolation tank as each member apparently tried to track through the tangle of implications. Finally, Stiggur cleared his throat.

  "While we of course have no intention of replying to this offer today, or even to fully discuss its relative merits, I would nevertheless appreciate hearing whatever initial reactions you might have."

  "I, for one, would like a little more information before we listen to any hard-wired-reflex comments," Governor Lizabet Telek said. Her perennially gravelly voice gave no clue to her own reaction. "Something about these new aliens would be nice for starters-bio specs, tech level, specifics of their alleged threat; that sort of thing."

  Stiggur shook his head. "Speaker One either doesn't have any more data or won't give it away free-I've already pressed him on that. I suspect the former, personally; there's no particular need for the Tlos demesne to buy what would be little more than abstract knowledge to them. Same goes for information on these five alleged worlds the Pua demesne's offering, before anyone asks."


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