Cobra strike, p.18
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       Cobra Strike, p.18

           Timothy Zahn

  "Three minutes only-remember," Moff said in passable Anglic, looking the younger man in the eye.

  Joshua licked his lips and nodded. "I'll be back."

  The trip to the ship seemed to take a lifetime, torn as he was between the need for haste and the opposite need to give York as smooth a ride as possible. He settled for a slow jog, praying fervently that someone would be watching and be ready to pop the hatch for him... and that he could explain all of this fast enough... and that they'd be able to switch the collar in the time allotted....

  He was two steps from the hatch when it opened, one of F'ahl's crewers stepping out to grip the front stretcher handles. Seconds later they were inside, with

  Christopher, Winward, and Link waiting for them in the ready room.

  "Sit down," Christopher snapped tightly as someone took Joshua's half of the stretcher.

  Joshua's knees needed no urging, dropping him like a lump of clay into the indicated chair. "This thing on my neck-"

  "Is a bomb," Christopher finished for him. Already the other was tracing the strap with a small sensor, his forehead shiny with perspiration. "We know-they weren't able to jam your signal. Now sit tight and we'll see if we can get the damn thing off without triggering it."

  Joshua gritted his teeth and fell silent; and as he did so Justin entered the room, clad only in his underwear. For a moment the twins gazed at each other... and the expression on Justin's face sent half the weight resting on Joshua's shoulders spinning away into oblivion. They weren't in the clear yet-not by a long shot-but there was a satisfaction in Justin's eyes that said Joshua had done his job well, had made the decisions that gave them all a chance.

  Justin was proud of him... and, ultimately, that was what really mattered.

  The moment passed; and, kneeling before his brother, Justin began to remove

  Joshua's boots. Joshua unfastened his own belt and slid off his pants, and he was beginning to work on his tunic when Christopher gave a little snort. "All right, here it is. Let's see... bypass here and here. Dorjay?"

  Joshua felt something cool slide between the collar and his neck. "Hold still,"

  Link muttered from behind him. There was the soft crackle of heat-stressed plastic... and suddenly the pressure on his throat eased, and Winward lifted the broken ring over his head. "Out of the chair," Link said tersely. "Justin?"

  Joshua's place was taken by his brother, and the collar lowered carefully around

  Justin's neck. "Time?" Christopher asked as the Cobras eased the two broken ends back together and began the ticklish job of reconnecting them.

  "Ninety seconds," F'ahl's voice came over the room intercom. "Plenty of time."

  "Sure," Link growled under his breath. "Come down here and say that. Easy,


  Joshua got his tunic and watch off and waited, heart thudding full blast again as he watched Christopher and the Cobras work. If they weren't able to do it in time-

  "Okay," Christopher announced suddenly. "Looks good. Here go the bypasses...."

  The wires came off, and the cylinders remained solid. Cautiously, Justin stood up and reached for Joshua's tunic, and by the time Christopher had eased the protective ring out from under the collar he was nearly dressed. "I don't know where Yuri and Marck were taken," Joshua told him as he fastened on the other's watch.

  "I know that," Justin nodded. "I was you, remember."

  "Yeah. I just meant-be careful, okay?"

  Justin gave him a tight smile. "I'll be fine, Joshua-don't worry about me. The

  Moreau luck goes with me."

  He slipped out the hatch, and Joshua collapsed back into the chair as the shock of all that had happened finally caught up with him and his legs turned to rubber. The Moreau luck. Great. Just great. And the worst part of it was that

  Justin really believed in his imaginary immunity. Believed in it, acted on it... and while Joshua sat idly by in the Dewdrop's relative safety, his brother's superstition could easily get him killed.

  "Damn them," he hissed at the universe in general-at Moff and the Qasamans; the

  Cobra Worlds' Council, who'd sent them; even his own brother Corwin, whose idea this had ultimately been. "Damn all of them."

  A hand fell on his shoulder. Looking up through eyes suddenly tear-blurred, he saw Link standing over him. "Come on," the Cobra said. "Captain F'ahl and

  Governor Telek are going to want to hear your analysis of the situation out there."

  Sure they are, Joshua thought bitterly. The sole value such a report could have would be to keep his mind too busy to dwell on Justin. But he merely nodded and got to his feet. He was too tired to argue... and, actually, some distraction might not be a bad idea right now.

  He took a moment to stop by his stateroom first and get dressed, letting Link go on ahead without him. York was nowhere in sight when he finally reached the lounge, but Telek allayed his worst fears before he was able to voice them.

  "Decker's stable, at least for now," she said, glancing up at him before returning her gaze to the outside monitor display. "Monitors and I.V.s are all hooked up; he'll be all right until we can figure out what to do about his arm."

  Translation: where exactly it'll need to be amputated. Swallowing the thought,

  Joshua stepped behind Telek and looked over her shoulder. Moff and Justin were just getting back into the armored bus. The explosive collar, he noted with marginal easing of tension, had been removed, as had the "self-destruct" watch with which he'd bluffed the Qasamans. "What's he supposed to do now?" he asked

  Telek. "I mean, you did give him some sort of plan to follow, didn't you?"

  "As much of a plan as we could come up with," Winward grunted from another display. "We're assuming he'll be taken to wherever they've got Yuri and Marck.

  Once he's inside-well, we're hoping Almo will have followed the other two when they headed south. With Cobras inside and outside, they should be able to break out of wherever the Qasamans put them."

  "Almo was going to follow us?"

  "He was going to try. If he didn't get down to the crossroads in time-" Winward shrugged fractionally. "We'll hope he'll follow the road and try to catch up.

  It's the only logical thing for him to do."

  Follow the road... except that he wouldn't know Moff would be bringing a second vehicle up from behind. Joshua shivered at the vision of Pyre caught, alone, between two carloads of armed Qasamans and mojos. And with the radios still jammed there was no way to alert him to the potential pincer closing on him.

  Telek leaned back in her seat, exhaling a hissing sigh. "Well, that's it, gentlemen," she said. "We've done everything we can for the moment for Yuri and

  Marck. Next job, then, is to figure out how to deactivate the defenses around the Dewdrop so that they've got a ship to come back to. Let's get busy on that one, shall we?"

  The armored bus sped past Pyre's place of concealment. Though the windows were small and dark his enhanced vision enabled him to identify two of its occupants:

  Moff, and the same driver who'd earlier taken the vehicle toward Sollas with

  Joshua and an apparently injured Decker York aboard. It was back now, following the same road Cerenkov and Rynstadt had taken a half hour or so ago. And the major question of the hour: who exactly was in there?

  Pyre rubbed a hand across his forehead, smearing the sweat and dirt there as he tried to think. York, Joshua, and Moff head toward Sollas; Moff, at least, heads away shortly thereafter. Had they decided to split up the contact team, with

  Cerenkov and Rynstadt stashed away down south while York and Joshua were hidden in Sollas? Possible; but given the lengths the Qasamans had gone to to keep their prisoners as far away as possible from the Dewdrop it didn't seem likely.

  Had they taken York to the nearest hospital to treat what had looked to be one double hell of an arm injury? But then why take Joshua along?

  The sounds of the bus were fading away down the road. If he was going to follow
it, he had to make that decision fast.

  When he'd first dashed off through the forest on this crazy rescue attempt the question hadn't even been a debatable one. But since then he'd had time to think it all through... and though it wrenched his soul to admit it, he knew he'd gotten his priorities scrambled.

  The contact team was, at least from a purely military standpoint, expendable.

  The Dewdrop, with all the data they'd collected about Qasama, was not. The

  Dewdrop had to be freed... and three-quarters of her Cobra fighting force was still trapped inside.

  To the southwest, the sounds of the bus had vanished into the forest. Notching his optical sensors up against the darkness. Pyre began circling cautiously around the vehicles and men that still straddled the crossroads. He could stay within the relative cover of the forest for a few kilometers, but long before he got to the airfield area he would have to move into the city proper if he wanted any chance of approaching the Qasamans' tower defenses undetected. The contact team had spent little time on the streets of Sollas at night-and none of it near the edges of the city. Pyre had no idea what sort of crowd level he'd have to get through once he left the forest. If he could steal some Qasaman clothing... but he couldn't speak word one of their language; and he would at any rate be instantly conspicuous by his lack of a mojo companion.

  The crossroads, he judged, were far enough behind him now to risk a little noise. Senses alert for forest predators as well as wandering Qasamans, he broke into a brisk jog. Whatever he came up with, the inspiration had better come fast. In five minutes, ten at the most, Sollas was going to play host to its first Cobra.

  Chapter 18

  Joshua's implanted sensors were reputed to be the best the Cobra Worlds had available; but sitting in a bouncing vehicle across from a man he'd seen almost constantly for a week, Justin recognized with an unpleasant shock just how limited his piggybacked experience of Qasama had really been. The texture of the seat where his hands rested on it-the odd paving of the road as transmitted by the bus's vibration-above all the tangy and exotic scents filling the air around him-it was as if he'd stepped into a painting and found that the world it depicted was real.

  And the whole effect made him nervous. He was supposed to be an undetectable substitute for his brother, and instead was feeling like the new kid on the block. All he needed now was for Moff to pick up that something was off-color here and bury him a hundred kilometers from Cerenkov and Rynstadt while the

  Qasamans figured out what was going on.

  When your defense stinks, attack. "I must say, Moff," he remarked, "that you people are nothing short of astonishing at learning new languages. How long have you been able to speak Anglic?"

  Moff's eyes flicked to the old man two seats down, who let loose with a stream of Qasaman. Moff replied in kind, and the translator turned back to Justin. "We will ask the questions today," he said. "It will be your position to answer them."

  Justin snorted. "Come on, Moff-it's hardly a secret anymore. Not with your friend here speaking as well as I do. And you said something to me yourself, right after you switched on the little insurance policy you had around my neck.

  So come on-how did all of you learn it so fast?"

  He kept a surreptitious eye on the old man as he spoke, watching for hesitations with words or grammar. But if the other had any trouble, it wasn't obvious. Moff eyed Justin for a moment after the translator finished, then said something in a thoughtful tone that the Cobra didn't care for even before he heard the old man's version: "You seem to have regained some of your courage. What did those aboard your ship say to strengthen you so?"

  "They reminded me of what your planetary superiors will say when they're informed how you have threatened a peaceful diplomatic mission," Justin shot back.

  "Oh?" Moff said through the translator. "Perhaps. We shall soon see if that, too, is one of your lies. By the time we have reached Purma, or perhaps even before."

  "I resent the implication I would lie to you."

  "Resent it if you wish. But the cylinders you wore into your ship will show the truth of the matter."

  Justin felt his mouth go dry. "What do you mean?" he asked, hoping his sudden horrible suspicion was wrong.

  It wasn't. "The cylinders contained cameras and sound recording devices," the translator said. "We hoped to get a first approximation of the situation and number of personnel aboard."

  And smack dab in the middle of the tape would be that free and unexpected bonus, the Moreau twin switch. And when they saw that-"A fat lot of good it'll do you," he snorted, putting as much scorn into his voice as he could scrape together.

  "We told no lies about our ship or people. What are you expecting-hundreds of armored soldiers squeezed into that little thing?"

  Moff waited for the translation and then shrugged. Apparently really doesn't understand Anglic, Justin decided as the two Qasamans held a brief discussion.

  Just learned that one phrase to emphasize the three-minute limit, probably. And we fell for it like primitives. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  "We shall see what is there," the old man said. "Perhaps it will help us decide what should be done with all of you."

  I'll just bet it will, Justin thought, but remained silent. Moff settled back in his seat, indicating the conversation was over for the moment... and Justin tried to get his brain on-line.

  All right. First off, the spy cameras probably weren't transmitting a live picture from the Dewdrop-the Qasamans would've had to open up part of their radio jamming, and an action of that sort might have been detected. So Moff and company didn't yet know about the Moreau switch, an ignorance they would keep until those back in Sollas found out themselves and were able to blow the whistle. The jamming meant Justin was safe enough while the bus was still on the road. If he made his move before they reached the next city-Purma, had Moff called it?-he'd take them totally by surprise...

  And would then have to search the whole city for Cerenkov and Rynstadt.

  Justin grimaced. He could afford not knowing where the others were being kept, but only if Pyre had followed their bus instead of waiting for Justin's. There was no way of knowing which option the other Cobra had taken, and Justin didn't dare gamble on it. He would just have to let them take him to the other prisoners, hope he could take out all the additional guards and mojos that would undoubtedly be present-And pray the bus didn't stop outside of town at a checkpoint with long-range communications capability.

  Damn. If they did that then all bets were instantly off. Moff was being pretty casual about his prisoner, but that was surely based on a week's worth of observation of Joshua's character and reactions. If he found out he had someone else he was bound to react with a tighter leash... and there were ways to render even a Cobra helpless.

  Through the window ahead the bus's headlights showed nothing but road and flanking forest. No city lights yet... Carefully, methodically, Justin activated his multiple-targeting lock and sequentially locked onto all the mojos in the vehicle. Just in case.

  Easing back into his seat, he watched the road ahead and kept his hands well clear of any possible obstructions. And tried to relax.

  "What do you suppose is keeping them?" Rynstadt asked quietly from the lightweight table in the middle of their cell.

  Standing at the barred window, Cerenkov automatically glanced at his bare wrist, dropping it back to his side with an embarrassed snort. All jewelry had been taken from them immediately after they left the Sollas crossroads-fallout, obviously, from York's gun and Joshua's "self-destruct" bluff. For Cerenkov, not knowing the time could be a major annoyance at the best of times; under the present circumstances, it was an excruciating form of subtle torture. "It may not mean anything yet," he told Rynstadt. "We haven't been here all that long ourselves, and if transferring Decker to the ship took longer than expected Moff and Joshua may still not be overdue."

  "And if-" Rynstadt let the sentence die. "Yeah, maybe you're right," he said instead. "Moff
would undoubtedly want to be here before they start this silly questioning."

  Cerenkov nodded, feeling frustration welling up within him at having to stifle the thoughts clearly uppermost in both their minds. Such as whether York had really been allowed back into the Dewdrop... and whether it would be Joshua or

  Justin who would soon be joining them in their cell. But after the old man at the crossroads Cerenkov had no intention of assuming none of the guards lined up against the cell wall understood Anglic.

  And so he kept his thoughts and speculations to himself. But time was dragging on... and as the minutes slowly added up he began to feel as if he and Rynstadt were standing on a sheet of rapidly thawing ice. If Justin had been forced to take premature action, that would also explain the delay... and it would leave the two of them in a dead-end position here.

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