Cobra strike, p.15
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       Cobra Strike, p.15

           Timothy Zahn
 

  "It's intelligent." Jonny didn't realize until he'd said the words just how strongly he was starting to believe them. "It recognizes we're tool-makers and aliens and is being properly cautious. Or is waiting for us to communicate."

  "How?"

  "Well... maybe I should go over to it."

  Chrys's grip on his arm was surprisingly strong. "You think that'd be safe?"

  "I am a Cobra-remember?" he growled with tension of his own. Contact with the unknown... his old combat training came surging back. Rule One: Have a backup.

  Carefully, keeping the movements fluid, he pulled his field phone from his belt.

  "Dr. Hanford?" he said, naming the only zoologist he knew to be close by, the only one he remembered seeing near the ship when Chrys came up a few minutes ago.

  "Hanford."

  "Jonny Moreau. I'm at the southeast part of the perimeter. Get over here, quietly. And bring any Cobras nearby with you."

  "Got it."

  Jonny replaced the phone and waited. The bird waited too, but seemed to be getting a little restless. Though perhaps that was his imagination.

  Hanford arrived a couple of minutes later, running with an awkward-looking waddle that made for a fair compromise between speed and stealth. Banyon and a

  Cobra named Porris were with him. "What is it?" the zoologist stage-whispered, coming to a stop at Jonny's side.

  Jonny nodded toward the bird. "Tell me what you make of that."

  "You mean the bushes-?"

  "No, the bird there," Chrys said, pointing it out.

  "The-? Ah." Hanford got his own binoculars out. "Ah. Yes, we've seen others of the species. Always at a distance, though-I don't think anyone's ever gotten this close to one before."

  "They're rather skittish, then?" Jonny prompted. "Normally, that is?"

  "Um," Hanford grunted thoughtfully. "Yes. He does seem unusually brave, doesn't he?"

  "Maybe he's staying put because he's afraid of us," Banyon said.

  "If he's afraid then he should take off," Hanford shook his head.

  "No, sir. We're too close to him for that." Banyon pointed. "The instant he leaves that bush he'll be silhouetted against the sky-and he'll be in motion.

  Either one would be more than enough for most predators. He's in lousy position where he is, but it's the best option he's got."

  "Except that he's a bird and we're obviously not," Hanford said. "Once he's aloft he shouldn't have anything to fear from us."

  "Unless," Jonny suggested quietly, "he understands what weapons are."

  There was a short silence. "No," Hanford said at last. "No, I can't believe that. Look at that cranium size, for starters-there's just not enough room in there for a massive brain."

  "Size isn't all-important-" Porris began.

  "But cell number is," Hanford shot back. "And Tactan cell sizes and biochemistry are close enough to ours to make the comparison valid. No, he's not a sentient lifeform-he's just frozen with fear and doesn't realize he can escape any time he wants to."

  " 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,' " Chrys murmured.

  "Yes, well, he's missed his chance now," Hanford said briskly. "Porris, you know where the flash nets are stored?" He half-turned toward the Menssana-

  And the bird shot off its perch.

  Chrys gasped with the suddenness of it, as beside her Banyon reflexively snapped his hands into firing position. "Hold it!" Jonny barked to him. "Let it go."

  "What?" Hanford yelped. "Shoot it, man-shoot it!"

  But Banyon lowered his hands.

  The bird went. Not straight up into the sky, as Jonny would have thought most likely, but horizontally along the tops of the bushes. And... zigzagging.

  Zigzagging like....

  It disappeared beyond a gentle rise and Jonny turned to find Banyon's eyes on him. "Evasive maneuvers," the other almost whispered.

  "Why didn't you shoot it?" Hanford barked, gripping Jonny's arm, his other hand clenched into a frustrated fist. "I gave you Cobras a direct order-"

  "Doctor," Jonny interjected, "the bird didn't move until you suggested we try and capture it."

  "I don't care. You should-" Hanford stopped abruptly as it suddenly seemed to penetrate. "You mean-? No. No. I don't believe it. How could it have known what we were saying? It couldn't have."

  "Of course not." Banyon's voice was dark. "But it knew it had to leave; and it took a low, evasive route when it did. The sort of pattern you'd use against enemy fire."

  "And it waited until you, Doctor, had your back turned," Chrys added, shuddering. "The one who gave the capture order. Jonny... this sounds too much to be coincidence."

  "Maybe they've seen tool-makers before," Jonny said slowly. "Maybe the Trofts landed when they were surveying the area. That way they could know about weapons."

  "They could all be part of a hive mind, perhaps," Porris suggested suddenly.

  "Each individual wouldn't have to be independently intelligent that way."

  "The hive mind theory's been in disrepute for twenty years," Hanford said. But he didn't sound all that confident. "And anyway, that doesn't explain how they knew our language well enough to realize I was sending you for a flash net."

  Abruptly, Jonny realized he was still staring at the spot where the bird had vanished. He looked around quickly; but no vast clouds of attacking birds were sweeping down from the sky, as he'd half expected. Only occasional and far-distant specks marred the red-tinged blue. Still... "I think it might be a good idea to get everything packed up early," he said to the others. "Be ready to leave at a moment's notice if... it becomes necessary."

  Hanford looked as if he would object, seemed to think better of it, and turned to Banyon instead. "Would it be possible to get a couple of Cobras to come on a hunting run with me? I want one of those birds-alive if possible, but I'm no longer that fussy."

  "I'll see what I can do," Banyon said grimly. "I think finding out more about them would be an excellent idea."

  In the end, Captain Shepherd accepted all the recommendations put before him.

  The quick-lift preparations were made, the perimeter Cobra guard was doubled, and the scientists shifted into an almost frantic high speed. Two separate hunting parties failed to make so much as visual contact with any of the mysterious birds. The facts, the speculations, and the rumors circulated widely... and the Menssana lifted a full twelve hours ahead of schedule. For once, there were no complaints.

  Chapter 15

  They spent a great deal of time wandering around the Huriseem marketplace-more time, York thought, than they'd spent at any other single place during their entire Qasaman tour-and he breathed a private sigh of relief when the end was finally in sight. The presence of so many mojos virtually eye to eye with him was something he found particularly unnerving, and Moff's continued absence wasn't helping a bit. He wondered how Mayor Ingliss would explain the latter, something he would have no choice but to do as soon as they left the marketplace mob. Alone with their escort, the team would have to "notice" that Moff was missing, and Ingliss would then have to spin some story.

  York didn't want to hear it. It would be a packet of lies; worse yet, a packet of obvious lies. Moff's exit had been too smooth, the timing of it too well chosen, to have been accidental. Clearly, the team hadn't been intended to miss him at all. York's gut instincts told him that having to admit Moff had been away would be almost as bad in the Qasaman's minds as actually telling where and why he'd gone. The more York saw of the Qasamans-the more he listened to Moff's evasive answers to their questions, the more he saw of what they were and were not being shown through all of that the descriptions overcautious and suspicious were gradually giving way to the word paranoid. Whether their history had given them a right to be that way was irrelevant; what mattered at the moment was that

  York had seen paranoid minds at work before, and he knew how they worked. The simple fact of Moff's absence gave him not a single byte of useful information, but the Qasamans might not recognize
that. They were just as likely to assume that their entire plot-or plan, or scheme, or damn surprise party, for all he knew-had been totally compromised, and that they would have to spring things prematurely.

  York didn't want that. If Moff were planning something-anything-it would be safer for all involved if it went off smoothly and on schedule. Damn it, Moff, get back here, he thought furiously into the air. Get back here and keep your illusion that you're in control.

  So engrossed was he in watching surreptitiously for Moff that he completely missed whatever it was that started the fight.

  His first rude notice, in fact, was a sudden grip on his shoulder by one of

  Moff's assistants, hauling him up short at the very edge of a ring of people that had formed just past the marketplace boundary. The open area so encircled was perhaps twenty meters wide; inside, barely five meters apart, two men without mojos faced each other. Their expressions were just short of murderous.

  "What's going on?" York asked the Qasaman still holding his arm.

  It was Ingliss, two people down the circle, who answered. "A duel," he said.

  "Insult has been made; challenge offered and accepted."

  York's mouth went dry as his eyes found first the opponents' belted pistols and then the two hundred or more people gathered to watch. Surely they wouldn't start shooting here-

  A man with a blue-and-silver headband appeared halfway around the circle and stepped to the two men. From a large shoulder pouch he took a thirty-centimeter rattan-like stick and a set of two small balls connected together by fifty centimeters of milky-white cord. Handing the stick and balls to one of the combatants, he went to the other man and gave him a second set from the bag. He stepped back to the edge of the circle, raised his right hand, and then brought it down in a chopping motion-

  And the combatant to York's right, who'd been swinging the balls lazily over his head by their cord, abruptly hurled them at his opponent.

  Hurled them well, too, with power and accuracy. But the other was ready. Holding his stick vertically in front of him, he deftly caught the spinning projectile on it, letting the balls wrap themselves up. An instant later his own set of balls were whirling back toward the first man, who similarly caught them on his stick. A momentary pause for each to disentangle his opponent's captured weapon and they were ready to begin again.

  "What's going on?" York whispered again.

  "A duel, as I said," Ingliss murmured back. "Each man takes turns casting his curse ball bola at the other until both weapons have been lost to the crowd or one opponent has conceded. The curse balls will leave impressive bruises, but seldom do more physical damage."

  "Lost to the crowd?"

  "If a throw goes wide or is otherwise not caught, the observers will not return it. Two such misses, clearly, and the duel must end."

  "What keeps one of them from charging his opponent between throws and beating his brains out?"

  "The same thing that keeps them from using their guns," Ingliss replied calmly.

  "Their mojos-there and there." He pointed to two of the spectators, each of whom had an extra bird on his shoulder.

  York frowned. "You mean they guard against all attacks, even unarmed ones? I thought they only reacted to the drawing of guns."

  "Oh, of course they can't defend against all attacks," the mayor shrugged. "You could hit me now, suddenly, before my mojo could stop you. Though it would keep you from continuing the attack." He nodded to the duelists, now beginning to show sweat sheens from their efforts. "But they are so obviously fighting that their mojos will keep them apart."

  "I see." York thought about the implications of that for the Cobras, should they eventually need to go into action. Would the mojos recognize them as the source of the lethal laser flashes in a battle? There was no way to know. "At least," he commented out loud, "that explains why no one's tried to come up with a gun or weapon the mojos wouldn't recognize as such. You'd get one free shot at your target, but that's about all."

  "You Aventinians seem to think a great deal in terms of interpersonal conflict,"

  Ingliss said in a voice that seemed oddly tight. "Your planet must be a frightening one to live on. Perhaps if you had mojos of your own.... At any rate, you're correct about alternative weapons. In the early days of mojo domestication many people tried making them, with the result you've already deduced."

  "Uh-huh," York nodded and settled down to watch.

  It seemed to take a long time, but in actual fact the duel was over in just a few minutes, York couldn't tell offhand what it solved; but as the crowd closed in on the fighters, separating them as secondary masses of seemingly happy well-wishers and friends formed around each, he decided that they all considered it to have been worthwhile. Maybe Nnamdi could sort out the sociology and psychology of it aboard ship; for York, it was a low-priority worry indeed.

  Glancing around through the dispersing crowd, he located the islands of stability that were the rest of the contact team, Mayor Ingliss and the escorts-

  And Moff.

  York blinked, trying hard to keep any hint of surprise or chagrin out of his face. Despite his best efforts, the Qasaman had slipped back into the group unnoticed, just as he'd left it. It suddenly made the duel's timing suspicious... and if the duel was a fake it automatically raised the importance of Moff's secret errand; raised it uncomfortably high. Throwing together such a diversion required either a lot of people ready on a moment's notice, or else a smaller group capable of fooling the locals as well as the Aventinian visitors.

  Either one implied a great deal of effort and-perhaps-a fair amount of advance planning.

  Were the Qasamans on to them? And if so, for how long?

  "I'm sorry you had to see that," Moff said as the team and escort drew back together. "It's a form of aggression we've been unable to eliminate completely."

  "It seems pretty mild compared to some I've seen," Cerenkov assured him. Neither he nor the others showed any reaction to Moff's reappearance, and York quietly let out the breath he'd been holding.

  "It's still more than a truly civilized society should have," Moff said stiffly.

  "Our strength of will should be turned outward, toward the conquering of this world."

  "And beyond?" Rynstadt murmured.

  Moff looked at him, an intense look on his face. "The stars are mankind's future," he said. "We won't always be confined to this one world."

  "Mankind will never be confined again," Cerenkov agreed solemnly. "Tell me, does this sort of duel happen very often? The whoever it was with the headband seemed to be right on top of things."

  "Each village and city has one or more judges, depending on its population,"

  Moff said. "They have many other duties besides overseeing duels. But come-we have a great many more places to visit here. Mayor Ingliss has yet to show you the local government center, and we should also have time to see a typical residential neighborhood before the krisjaw hunters return. At that point we'll be able to visit the farming areas."

  Cerenkov smiled. "Point taken, Moff-we do have a busy schedule. Please, lead on."

  They turned a corner and headed for the cars Ingliss's people had driven around the marketplace area for them, and York decided to be cautiously optimistic.

  Sticking to the tour at this point meant Moff believed his absence hadn't been noticed. Which meant whatever the Qasamans had planned would be going off on their original schedule.

  Abruptly, he was aware of the gentle pressure of the calculator watch on his wrist, and of the similar feel of the star sapphire on his hand. Together with his pen, they were the sections of his palm-mate... a weapon neither the

  Qasamans nor the mojos had ever seen before. One free shot, the words echoed in his brain. One free shot before the mojos can stop me. I'd damn well better make that shot count.

  It happened as they were driving back toward Sollas that evening, and their first warning was the sudden burst of static that replaced the hum of the


  Dewdrop's radio link. At the front of the bus Moff stood up, steadying himself with his left hand. In his right hand was his pistol.

  "You are under confinement," a voice boomed from the man sitting beside him-or, rather, from the phone-sized box in the Qasaman's hand. "You are suspected of spying on the people of Qasama. You will make no aggressive move until the final destination is reached. If you disobey your ship will be destroyed."

  "What?" Cerenkov barked, his voice a blend of shock, bewilderment, and outrage.

  "What's all this about?"

  But there was no sound from his translator pendant and the words fell on effectively deaf ears. "Moff-" Cerenkov began, half rising.

 
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