Cobra strike, p.17
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       Cobra Strike, p.17

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Moving deeper into the forest, he headed south, hoping the Qasamans hadn't lined the whole damned forest with soldiers. If they had, he might have to climb a tree to contact the ship, after all. But their exaggerated caution hadn't carried them to quite that length. A hundred meters from his laser's hiding place the silent cordon line ended; Pyre went another fifty and then pushed his way cautiously to the edge. A convenient bush allowed him to get a clear shot at the Dewdrop's nose without exposing himself to direct view of the airfield control tower. Flat on his stomach, he set up the laser as quickly as he could and aimed it toward where he thought the bow sensor cluster was located.

  Crossing his fingers, he flipped it on. "Pyre here," he murmured into the mike.

  "Come in; anyone." There was no response. He waited a few seconds, then shifted his aim fractionally and tried again. Still nothing. My God-have they somehow taken everyone out already? He searched the hull for signs of damage. Gas, perhaps, or sonics that could have penetrated without harming the ship itself?

  The taste of fear starting to well up into his throat, he again adjusted his aim-

  "-in, Almo; are you there? Almo?"

  Pyre's body sagged with relief. "I'm here, Governor. Phew. I thought something had happened to all of you."

  "Yeah, well, it's about to," Telek said grimly. "Somehow they've tumbled to the fact that we're a spy mission, and it's probably a tossup as to whether they try and board us or take the safer way out and just blow us up."

  "Any word from the contact team?" Pyre asked, forcing his voice to remain steady.

  "Moff still has them on the bus, and so far they seem okay. They're being taken somewhere besides Sollas, though, probably the next city down. We were hoping you'd have a chance of intercepting them before they got too far away, assuming we could contact you in time."

  "And?"

  Telek hesitated. "Well... we estimate the bus will be passing the main road heading south from Sollas in ten or fifteen minutes. But that's twenty-plus kilometers from us-"

  "How many Qasamans aboard?" he cut her off harshly.

  "The usual six-man escort," she told him. "Plus their mojos. But even if you could get there in time I don't know how you'd get them out safely."

  "I'll find a way. Just don't lift until I get back here with them... or until it's clear I'm not going to make it back at all."

  He broke the connection without waiting to hear her reply and began crawling backwards from his concealing bush toward the protection of the forest, leaving the comm laser deployed for possible future use. Twenty kilometers in ten minutes. Hopeless even if he'd had clean ground to run on instead of a forest... but maybe the Qasamans would outsmart themselves on this one. Six guards in an ordinary bus was a fairly loose setup, even with the mojos and against four unarmed prisoners. In their place Pyre would transfer the Aventinians to a safer vehicle at the first opportunity... and to his way of thinking the crossroads to the south would be the ideal spot for such a switch.

  And if his guess proved correct the whole party would be there for a few extra minutes. Long enough, perhaps, for Pyre to get there too.

  At which point he'd have to face not only the busload of Qasamans but also whatever troops they'd assembled for the transfer. But there was nothing he could do about that. It was time for Almo Pyre, Cobra, to become what his implanted equipment had always intended him to be. Not a hunter, spy, nor even a killer of Aventinian spine leopards.

  But a warrior.

  Setting off at the fastest run the forest permitted, he headed south. It was all up to him now.

  It was all up to him now.

  York took a quiet breath, using his Marine biofeedback techniques to relax his muscles and nerves and to prepare him for action. To the right and slightly ahead he could see the buildings of Sollas silhouetted against the darkening sky, and if he remembered the aerial maps correctly they were now about as close to the city as this road got. It was time to make his attempt... and to find out just how deadly these mojos were.

  His pen and ring were already resting casually in his left hand. Easing his calculator-watch off his left wrist, he fit the pen through its band, making sure the contacts were wedged solidly together. The ring slid onto the pen's clip to its own slot, and the palm-mate was ready. The arming sequence was three keystrokes on the calculator.

  Wrapping the watchband into position around his right palm, he raised his hand over the back of the seat in front of him. Moff had given up his guard duty to one of the others a few kilometers back, but the Qasaman's attention was on

  Rynstadt and Joshua at the moment. I get one free shot, York reminded himself distantly; and bringing the pen to bear on the guard, he squeezed the trigger.

  The Qasaman jerked as the tiny dart buried itself deep in his cheek, his gun swinging wildly in reflexive search for a target. Reflexive but useless; already his eyes were beginning to glaze as the potent mix of neurotoxins took effect.

  York shifted his aim to the mojo on the dying man's shoulder and a second dart found its target... but as he brought the palm-mate to bear on Moff's mojo all hell broke loose.

  They were smart all right, those birds. The dead Qasaman hadn't even fallen to the floor before the remaining five mojos were in the air, sweeping toward him like silver-blue Furies. He got off two more shots, but neither connected-and then they were on him, talons digging into his face and gun arm and slamming him hard into the seat. Through the haze of agony he could dimly hear screams from

  Rynstadt and the incomprehensible shouts of the Qasamans. Mojo wings slapped at his eyes, blinding him, but he didn't need his sight to know that his right forearm was being flayed, his right hand torn by beaks and talons as the mojos fought single-mindedly to get the palm-mate away from him. But it was wrapped firmly around his open hand, caught there though the will to hold it had long since vanished. His arm was on fire-wave after wave of agony screaming into his brain-and then suddenly the birds were gone, fluttering away to squawk at him from seat backs and Qasaman shoulders, and he saw what they'd done to his arm-

  And the emotional shock combined with the physical shock... and Decker York, who had seen men injured and killed on five other worlds, dropped like a stone into the temporary sanctuary of unconsciousness.

  His last thought before the blackness took him was that he would never wake up.

  "Oh, my God," Christopher whispered. "My God."

  Telek bit hard into the knuckles of her right hand, curled into an impotent fist at her mouth. York's arm.... She willed her eyes to turn away, but they were as tightly frozen to the scene as Joshua's own eyes were. Like a violent, haphazard dissection of York's arm-except that York was still alive. For now.

  Beside her, Nnamdi gagged and fled the room. She hardly noticed.

  It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a few seconds before Rynstadt was at York's side, a small can of seal-spray from his landing kit clutched in his shaking hand. He sprayed it on York's arm, sloppily and with an amateur's lack of uniformity; but by the time the can hissed itself dry Cerenkov had broken his own paralysis and moved in with a fresh can. Together they managed to seal off the worst of the blood flow.

  Through it all Joshua never budged. Terrified out of his mind, Telek thought.

  What a thing for a kid to see!

  "Governor?" F'ahl's voice from the intercom made her jump. "Will he live?"

  She hesitated. With the blood loss stopped and the seal-spray's anti-shock factors supporting York's system... but she knew better than to give even herself false hope. "Not a chance," she told F'ahl quietly. "He needs the

  Dewdrop's medical facilities within an hour or less."

  "Almo-"

  "Might be able to get him here in time. But he won't. If he tries he'll just get himself killed, too." The words burned in her mouth, but she knew they were true. With the Qasamans and their birds jarred out of any overconfidence they might have had. Pyre wouldn't get within ten meters of the bus. But he would try anyway....<
br />
  And now there was no other choice. "Captain, prepare the Dewdrop for lift," she said, her eyes straying at last from the display, only to stop on Justin lying in his couch. His fists, too, were clenched, but if he recognized she had just condemned his brother to death he didn't show it. "We'll try to take out as much of the tower and forest weaponry before we go and hope the ship can absorb whatever we don't destroy."

  "Understood, Governor."

  Telek turned to the lounge doorway, where Winward and Link were standing, their faces pale and grim. "We won't be able to get it all from here," she told them quietly.

  "Already figured that out," Winward grunted. "When do you want us to head out?"

  The pre-launch sequence would take at least ten minutes. "About fifteen minutes," she said.

  Winward nodded. "We'll get geared up." Together the two Cobras turned and left.

  "Full survival packs," Telek called after them.

  "Sure," the reply drifted back along the corridor.

  But she wasn't fooling anyone, and they all knew it. Even if the two Cobras lived through the coming battle, there was virtually no chance the Dewdrop would be able to come back and pick them up. Assuming the Dewdrop survived its own gauntlet.

  Well, they'd find out about that in half an hour or less. Until then-Until then, there'd be enough time to watch Pyre die in his rescue attempt.

  Because it was her duty to do so, Telek turned her attention back to the displays. But the taste of defeat was bitter in her throat, and she felt very, very old.

  Chapter 17

  Joshua's heart was a painful thundering in his throat, his eyes blurred by tears of fear and sympathetic pain. Hidden from sight by the white crust of the seal-spray, York's terrible arm injuries were burned into Joshua's memory as if the vision would be there forever. Oh, God, Decker, he mouthed. Decker!

  And he'd done nothing to help. Not during York's escape attempt nor even afterwards. Rynstadt and Cerenkov had jumped in with their medical kits; but

  Joshua, terrified of the Qasamans and mojos, hadn't twitched a muscle to assist them. If it'd been up to him, York would've quietly bled to death.

  People expect great things from us. He felt like a child. A cowardly child.

  "We've got to get him back to the ship," Cerenkov murmured, raising a blood-stained arm to wipe at his cheek. "He's going to need transfusions and God only knows what else."

  Rynstadt muttered something in response, too low for Joshua to hear. Lifting his gaze finally from the carnage, Joshua looked up toward the front of the bus to see Moff watching them, his gun braced and ready on the nearest seat back. The bus had sped up, Joshua noted mechanically, and ahead in the gloom he could see a cluster of dim lights. An unwalled village or crossroads checkpoint? Joshua guessed the latter. A half dozen vehicles were faintly visible, as was a small shed-like building.

  And milling among them a lot of Qasamans.

  The bus came to a halt among the cluster of vehicles. It had barely stopped before a burly Qasaman had the door open and had bounded inside. He exchanged a half-dozen rapid-fire sentences with Moff, then looked at the Aventinians.

  "Bachuts!" he snapped, hand jabbing emphatically toward the door.

  "Yuri?" Rynstadt murmured.

  "Of course," Cerenkov said bitterly. "What choice do we have?"

  Leaving York propped up against the seat, they stepped past the newcomer and out the door. Joshua followed, his stomach a churning cauldron of painful emotions.

  Four more heavily armed men were waiting in a semicircle around the bus door.

  With them was a wizened old man with stooped shoulders and the last remnants of white hair plastered down over his balding head. But his eyes were bright-disturbingly bright-and it was he who addressed the three prisoners. "You are accused of spying on the world Qasama," he said, his words heavily accented but clear enough. "Your companion York is also accused of killing a Qasaman and a mojo. Any further attempts at violence will be punished by immediate death.

  You will now come with your escort to a place for questions."

  "What about our friend?" Cerenkov nodded back toward the bus. "He needs medical attention immediately if he's to live."

  The old man spoke to the apparent leader of the new escort, was answered in biting tones. "He will be treated here," the old man told Cerenkov. "If he dies, that is merely his just punishment for his crime. You will come now."

  Joshua took a deep breath. "No," he said firmly. "Our friend will be taken back to our ship. Now. Otherwise we will all die without answering a single question."

  The old man translated, and the escort leader's brow darkened as he spat a reply. "You are not in a position to make any demands," the old man said.

  "You are wrong," Joshua said as calmly as his tongue could manage, the vision of

  York's flaying superimposed on the scene around him. If his bluff was called... and even as he slowly raised his left fist he knew he was indeed a coward. The thought of such a fate made his stomach violently ill... but this had to be tried. "This device on my wrist is a self-destruct-a one-man bomb," he told the old man. "If I unclench my fist without turning it off I will be blown to dust.

  Along with all of you. I will give you the device only when I have personally escorted Decker into our ship."

  A long, brittle silence followed the translation. "You continue to think us fools," the leader said at last through the old man. "You enter the ship and you will not return."

  Joshua shook his head minutely. "No. I will return."

  The leader spat; but before he could speak again Moff stepped to his side and whispered into his ear. The leader frowned at him for a moment; then, pursing his lips, he gave a brisk nod and spoke to one of his men. The other disappeared into the darkness, and Moff turned to the old man, again speaking too quietly for Joshua to hear. The other nodded. "Moff has agreed to your request, as a gesture of goodwill, on one condition: you will wear an explosive device around your neck until you emerge from the ship. Should you remain inside for more than three minutes it will be allowed to explode."

  Joshua's throat tightened involuntarily, and for a handful of heartbeats thoughts of betrayal and treachery swirled like a dark liquid through the cautious hope rising in his brain. Surely there were simpler ways of killing him if the Qasamans so chose... but if they wanted to make sure the Dewdrop never lifted again, there would be no easier way to penetrate the outer hull. But that might lose them the secret of the stardrive-but they might not care-but if he didn't take the risk York was dead-but why would they have any interest in a good-faith gesture when they held all the cards-

  He focused at last on Cerenkov and Rynstadt, who were watching him in turn.

  "What do I do?" he whispered from amid the turmoil.

  Cerenkov shrugged fractionally. "It's your life that's at stake. You'll have to use your own best judgment."

  His life... except that it wasn't, Joshua suddenly realized. Together, the three of them had no chance at all of being rescued... but Cerenkov and Rynstadt plus

  Justin might just be able to break the odds.

  It was all of their lives at stake here. Corwin's plan-the reason the Moreaus were here at all-and the whole thing was in Joshua's trembling hands. "All right," he said to the old man. "It's a deal."

  The old man translated; and the leader began to give orders.

  The next few minutes went quickly. Cerenkov and Rynstadt were taken to another, obviously armored, bus and were driven off into the darkness along their original southwest road. York, still unconscious, was transferred by hand stretcher to a second armored vehicle. Joshua, Moff, and the translator joined him. As they rumbled northward toward Sollas and the Dewdrop one of the escort carefully fitted Joshua with his explosive collar.

  It was a simple device, consisting of two squat cylinders at the sides of his neck fastened together by a soft but tough-feeling plastic band about three centimeters wide and a couple of millimeters thick. It seemed to make breathin
g difficult... but perhaps that was just his imagination. Licking his lips frequently, he tried not to swallow too often and forced his mind to concentrate instead on York's condition and chances.

  All too soon, they had arrived.

  The bus coasted to a halt some fifty or sixty meters from the Dewdrop's main hatch. Two Qasamans unloaded a rolling table and placed York's stretcher on top of it, returning then to the vehicle. Moff motioned Joshua to stand and held a small box up to each of the cylinders around the Aventinian's neck. Joshua heard two faint clicks; felt, rather than heard, the faint vibration from within.

 
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