Cobra strike, p.11
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       Cobra Strike, p.11

           Timothy Zahn
 

  They cannot simply have forgotten the basics of electromagnetic waves or unified government."

  "Oh? Then how do you explain the village walls?"

  "How do you explain the cities' lack of them?" Telek shook her head irritably.

  "We can't assume the villages are primitive and fight among themselves and at the same time say the cities are advanced and don't."

  "We can if there's no communication between city and village," Nnamdi said doggedly. "Or if the villagers are a different species altogether. I notice neither Moff nor Kimmeron has mentioned the villages at all."

  Pyre caught Telek's eye. "It might be good to clear up that point."

  She sighed. "Oh, all right." Picking up the translator-link mike, she dictated a short message to the contact team. Pyre switched his attention back to the displays and waited for Cerenkov to raise the subject with Moff.

  The wait wasn't long. The car was approaching one of the narrower cross streets, and as they reached the corner Joshua's implanted cameras showed the street was lined on both sides by permanent-looking booths, each displaying the seller's goods on a waist-high ledge beneath an open window. Dozens of people were already milling about, inspecting the merchandise or engaged in animated conversation with the sellers. "This is the main marketplace for this part of

  Sollas," Moff said as the car pulled up behind others parked along the wide avenue. "There are eight others like it elsewhere in the city."

  "Seems an inefficient way of marketing," Rynstadt commented as they left the car and walked toward the bazaar. "Not to mention uncomfortable in the winter or on rainy days."

  "The street can be sealed in bad weather," Moff said, pointing upwards. Joshua looked, and Pyre saw that at the third-floor level on the flanking buildings were two long roof sections, folded drawbridge-fashion against the walls. "As to inefficiency, we prefer to think of it as an expression of individual liberty and freedom. Lack of those qualities was the reason our ancestors came here originally. You've not said why your ancestors left the rule of the dynasties."

  "Oh, hell," Telek growled, grabbing for the microphone. "Keep it non-political,

  Yuri," she instructed him. "Sense of adventure or something."

  "We went to Aventine for various reasons," Cerenkov told the Qasaman. "The desire for adventure or to see a new world, dissatisfaction with our lives-that sort of thing."

  "Not political pressure?"

  "Perhaps some came for that reason, but if so I'm not aware of it," Cerenkov answered cautiously.

  "Tell that to the First Cobras," Pyre murmured.

  "Quiet," Telek shushed him.

  The contact team and its Qasaman escort was walking among the other shoppers now. A mojo on one of the buyers squawked, causing Rynstadt to jerk to the side.

  Pyre jumped in sympathetic response; he'd almost stopped noticing the ubiquitous damn birds. "Are all your goods from Sollas and the immediate area?" Cerenkov asked Moff as they passed a stand featuring neatly packaged loaves of bread.

  "No, our commerce extends to the other cities and villages as well," the other told him. "Most of the fresh fruit and meat comes from the villages east of here."

  "Ah," Cerenkov nodded, and continued walking.

  "Satisfied?" Christopher asked Nnamdi.

  The other glowered back. "Still doesn't prove the villagers are human," he pointed out stiffly. "Or are on an equal plane with the cities-"

  "Almo?"

  Pyre turned to the couch where Justin was lying. "What is it?"

  "I... hear something... low rumble... from Joshua." The boy stopped, strain evident on his face as he fought to split enough of his attention from Joshua's sensors to speak. "Getting closer... I think."

  Christopher was already at the controls, trying to find the sound Justin's Cobra enhancers had already gleaned form Joshua's signal. "Captain, we may have aircraft approaching," Pyre snapped toward the intercom.

  "I'm on it," F'ahl replied calmly. "No sign of anything yet."

  An instant later Pyre nearly went through the lounge's ceiling as a bellow erupted from the display speakers. "Yolp!" Christopher exclaimed, grabbing the volume control he'd just turned up. The roar subsided to a hooting sound... and as he looked at the screen, Pyre saw the Qasamans had abandoned their shopping and were beginning to move toward the wide avenues at each end of the bazaar.

  "What's going on?" Cerenkov asked Moff as the escort, too, joined the general flow. A second set of rumbles added to the first, and Pyre got a glimpse of cars being hurriedly moved off the avenue, presumably to the narrower cross streets.

  "A bololin herd has entered Sollas," Moff told Cerenkov briefly. "Stay back-you're not armed."

  Telek grabbed the mike. "Never mind that. Joshua-move up at least close enough to see what's going on. Decker, better go with him."

  The two men began to move in Moff's wake. None of the Qasamans seemed particularly disturbed by whatever was about to happen... but as Pyre looked closer, he realized the same wasn't true of the mojos. Every bird in sight was fluffing its feathers, half opening its wings, and generally showing signs of agitation.

  The rumble was clearly audible now as Joshua and York squeezed their way to the third rank of watchers. "Clear," a voice came faintly over Joshua's sensors, and someone off to the right in the front row drew his pistol, holding it muzzle upward in a ready position. A dozen more calls and the entire front row had followed suit. Across the avenue. Pyre could just see that another group of people waited in the street there, weapons similarly drawn. "Crossfire situation, Decker," he called toward the mike Telek was still holding, drowning out whatever instructions she was giving the team. "Watch for trouble with that."

  The rumble became a roar... and the animals appeared.

  To Pyre it was instantly obvious why the Qasamans considered it worthwhile to walk around armed. The fact that there was an entire herd of beasts stampeding through their city was bad enough; but even one of these would have been cause for serious alarm. Each a good two meters long, the bololins were heavily muscled, with sets of hooves that looked as if they could break rock by running impact alone. A pair of wicked-looking horns sprouted from the massive heads, and running down the back was a dorsal strip of thirty-centimeter quills that even an Aventinian spine leopard would have been proud to possess. There were at least a hundred of the creatures in sight already, running shoulder to shoulder and head to tail, with more pouring in behind them... and as Pyre tensed in automatic combat reaction, the Qasamans opened fire.

  Christopher spat something startled sounding, and even Pyre-who'd had an idea what to expect-jerked at the sound. The Dominion had given up simple explosive firearms long ago in favor of lasers and more sophisticated rocket cartridges, but such progress had apparently passed Qasama by. The guns ahead of Joshua roared like miniature grenades going off... and some of the bololins in the herd abruptly faltered and fell.

  Pyre happened to be looking directly at one of the quadrupeds as it was hit; and he was thus the first one in the lounge to see the tan-colored bird that shot upward from the carcass.

  It was at least half again as large as a mojo, that quick glance showed him as the bird arrowed off the screen, but seemed built along the same predacious lines. Its hiding place, as near as he could tell, had been the bololin's dorsal quill forest... an instant later Joshua reacted and the view shifted upward, and

  Pyre saw more of the birds already in the air, presumably having similarly deserted dying bololins.

  Closing rapidly on them was a flock of mojos.

  "They're crazy," Christopher said, barely audible over the gunfire. "Those birds are bigger than they are-"

  "And they seem to be predators, too," Telek growled. "Something's wrong here-predators don't usually pick on other predators. Joshua!-keep tracking the birds."

  The display steadied, and Pyre watched in morbid fascination as a mojo came in from above and behind one of the larger birds, swooping down with talons ready.

 
; It hit-got a grip-and for half a dozen heartbeats it clung there in piggyback position. The larger bird twisted violently, to no avail, leveled out once more-

  And the mojo spread its wings and dropped off and back. Making no attempt to pursue, it turned in a lazy circle and headed back to the crowd of Qasamans.

  "What the blooming hell?" Telek muttered.

  Pyre couldn't have put it better himself.

  Joshua's gaze returned to the street now. The herd was out of sight, and through the settling dust about twenty carcasses were visible, mangled to various degrees. One of the Qasamans-Moff, Pyre saw-stepped out into the avenue and looked carefully in both directions. Holstering his pistol, he stepped back; and as if on signal, the other guns likewise vanished and the crowds began to break up.

  Telek squeezed the mike hard. "Yuri-everybody-find out everything you can about what just happened. Especially the thing with the birds."

  Silently, Pyre seconded the order. Though he doubted the contact team really needed that prompting.

  Joshua certainly hadn't needed Telek to state the obvious-bursting with curiosity, he could barely wait until Moff had pushed his way through the dispersing crowd to fire off his first question. "How did those animals get into the city so easily?" he asked.

  Moff frowned, throwing a glance at York as well. "I told you to stay back."

  "Sorry. What were those-bololins, you called them?-what were they doing here?"

  Cerenkov and Rynstadt had joined the group now, as had most of Moff's associates. "The bololins migrate periodically," he said, almost reluctantly. "A herd like that always forms for a run, and you'll agree something like that would be almost impossible to stop. So we've built the city to pass them through with as little damage as possible."

  York glanced at the carcasses in the avenue. "As little damage to you, anyway."

  "Crews will be along momentarily to take them to a processing area," Moff said.

  "Both meat and hides will be saved."

  "You'd do better to split a few off from the herd and stop them before you shoot," York persisted. "Letting them get trampled like that doesn't do hide or meat any good."

  "What was all that with the mojos and those other birds?" Joshua asked as Moff started to reply. "Do mojos hunt like that even when they don't intend to eat?"

  "To-? Oh, I see." Moff reached up to stroke his mojo's throat. "Tarbines aren't a food animal. Mojos seek them for reproduction. Cerenkov," he said, turning away from Joshua, "we will need to cut short our visit to the marketplace if we intend to reach the art gallery during the time it will be cleared for us. If you wish, we can return here another time."

  "All right." Cerenkov sent a long look toward the bololin carcasses as Moff steered them down the avenue to the cross street where their car had been moved.

  "Does this sort of thing happen very often?"

  "Occasionally. Perhaps more often in the next few days-there is a major migration underway. But there's no need for concern. The probability you will be near the affected streets is small, and even if you are the rooftop alarms always give adequate warning. Come now; we must hurry."

  Conversation ceased. As they walked, Joshua nudged York and slowed his pace a bit. York matched his speed; and as Moff and the others pulled a few paces ahead, Joshua reached up to put his thumb over the microphone on his translator pendant. "You've lived on a lot of worlds," he murmured to the other. "You ever seen a male and female of the same species that look that different?"

  York shrugged minutely, his hand similarly on his translator. "I've seen or heard of some that are even more mismatched than that... but I've never heard of a mating that looks that much like an out-and-out attack. Almost like-well, hell, I'll say it: like a rape."

  Joshua felt a shiver run up his back. "It did, didn't it? The mojos were hitting them like condorines swooping down on rabbits."

  "And the tarbines were trying like crazy to get away. Something really weird's happening here, Joshua."

  Ahead, Moff glanced back. Casually, Joshua dropped his arm back to his side and increased his speed, York doing the same beside him. They'd have to find some private way to clue Cerenkov in on this and get him to start probing, Joshua knew, already trying to figure out a way to do that. He hoped the other's silver tongue would be up to the challenge... because if the mojo's mating behavior was evidence of some significant biological principle here, it could be vital to root such information out.

  And it was sure as hell that the support team, stuck inside the Dewdrop, wouldn't be able to do anything in that direction.

  "No," Telek shook her head. "Absolutely not. It's insane."

  "It's not insane," Pyre retorted. "It's feasible, practical, and there's no other way to get hard data." He glanced at the displayed map of Sollas and the red mass that was the computer's estimate of the bololin herd's position. "And we've got maybe fifteen minutes to take advantage of that herd."

  "You'll be outside-alone-in unknown and presumably hostile country," Telek growled, ticking off fingers with quick, almost vicious motions. "You'll have limited communication with us and none at all with the locals, should you stumble on any. And you probably wouldn't have a chance of sneaking back in unnoticed-which means that if you got hurt you'd be forcing me to choose between your life and anything further for the mission."

  "And if I don't go you may never find out why male mojos rape their females,"

  Pyre said quietly. "Not to mention why the tarbines ride bololins. Or for that matter, why the bololins are so hard to keep out of cities."

  Telek looked at Christopher and Nnamdi. "Well?" she demanded. "Say something, you two. Tell him he's crazy."

  The two scientists exchanged glances and Christopher shrugged uncomfortably.

  "Governor, we're here to learn everything we can about this place," he said, his eyes not meeting either Telek's or Pyre's. "I agree it's dangerous... but Almo's right about the bololins probably not getting this close again."

  "And he is a Cobra," Nnamdi put in.

  "A Cobra." Telek almost spat the word. "And so he's invulnerable to accidents and snake bites?" She dropped her eyes to the city display.

  For a moment there was silence. "We have survival packs already made up," Pyre said quietly. "One would suffice for a week; I can take two. There are laser comm setups I could use to keep in touch from the woods without the Qasamans catching on. I've seen biological field analyzers being used; I'm sure I can set one up for you or even run it a little myself if necessary. And I could take a couple of small freeze boxes if you wanted a whole tarbine to study later."

  She shook her head, eyes still on the screen. "You're Cobra team leader. Do what you like."

  Which was not exactly enthusiastic support, but Pyre would have to take what he could get. The bololins were barely minutes away. "Michael, Dorjay-two survival packs and laser comm to the port cargo hatch; stat," he said into the intercom.

  The two Cobras acknowledged and Pyre left the lounge at a fast jog, heading for his stateroom for a quick change into more suitable clothing. There was a boxed bio field analyzer down in the cargo hold; he could grab it on his way out. The hatch itself, facing away from the city, should let him out into the ship's shadow unseen. At that point he would just have to hope the bololins were indeed running deliberately along magnetic field lines... and that the runways were as dusty as they looked.

  He was in the cargo hold three minutes later. A minute after that, laden like a pack cart, he was crouching outside, hugging the Dewdrop's hull as he moved toward the bow. The rumble of the bololins was audible without his enhancers now, and a quick glance under the Dewdrop's nose showed they were indeed on the projected path, one that would take the herd's flank within fifty meters of the ship. Behind the first few ranks the dust was already beginning to obscure the city beyond, and it was getting thicker. Taking a deep breath, Pyre gave the edge of the forest a quick scan and got ready to run.

  The leading edge of the herd thundered by. Pyre let t
he next few ranks pass as well; and then he was off, running bent over to present as low a profile as possible. Equipment banging against back and thighs with each step, he traced a curved path that ended with him pacing the snuffling herd barely a meter from its flank.

  It was instantly obvious the nearest bololins didn't care for his presence. One or two veered at him as they ran, horns hooking toward his side; but even without his programmed reflexes he was more maneuverable than the massive beasts and evaded them without trouble. More troublesome-and unexpected-were the two-meter-long whiplash tails no one had noticed. If the first such blow hadn't landed across his backpack it would undoubtedly have left a painful welt or even torn muscle. As it was, his nanocomputer had to take over servo control briefly to restore his balance.

 
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